Dot writes: this is partly a diary post and partly a blatantly partisan* gig review. Should anyone be reading because of an interest in The Basics, you might want to skip the bit about me at the start. Those who read for our diary posts (hi Mum, Mairi, Helen, Laura!) may want to skip the part where I try to recall the set list. The people who come to this blog for what Ken has to say about Anatoly Boukreev or beer – perhaps you would enjoy thinking about mountaineering ethics/dry-hopping even more if you listened to some top quality Australian rock’n’roll at the same time. Just a suggestion.
*In the sense that I was predisposed to like it, not that this post is written from the perspective of civilian insurgents.
I realise this blog gives the impression that recently I’ve been doing nothing but listen to The Basics and Gotye. This is not the case: I have also been listening to the John Butler Trio, The Tea Party (Canadian band, not right-wing loons), Tjintu Desert Band, Missy Higgins, Tash Parker, Laura Jansen, from our pre-existing collection Midnight Oil and the Warumpi Band, and, in a preliminary way on YouTube/Soundcloud, Machine Translations, Spender and Mike Dawes. (Some of these aren’t even Australian.) And I’ve been feeding the children, and trying to write a chapter about the Old English Boethius. The only bonus of Ken living away during the week is that I get to choose all the records.
However, I have indeed been listening a lot to The Basics and Gotye. Regular readers may recall (or not) that back in May I learnt The Basics were going to play a gig in London on 23rd July, but of course I couldn’t go to it. How could I, given it was on a Wednesday and I’d be the only adult in the house? I liked the band enough that, had they been playing in Dublin, I’d have certainly bought tickets, arranged a babysitter, and browbeaten some friends to come too, though it’s been years since I went to a gig of any kind: it’s never been one of the things Ken and I did together – it was more a feature of my relationship with my previous boyfriend – and then when we had children going out immediately became much more pricey and complicated. Going to London and being away overnight really seemed a bit much. But I mentioned it to Ken and he said, bless him, that he wouldn’t mind taking a day off to be in Dublin. So then I bought three tickets, asked my friends Patrick and Charlotte, who live in St Albans, if they’d put me up and come to the gig with me (they said yes on both counts), and booked my flights. Something that had seemed obviously out of the case fell into place really neatly, and didn’t even turn out especially expensive.
On Wednesday morning I flew out. I spent the afternoon productively in the British Library so I didn’t feel I was skipping too much work. I dropped my things with Patrick, came back into London with him meeting Charlotte on the way, and had a very pleasant meze with them in a Turkish restaurant in Dalston that I’ll always remember as Cafe Evil (actually Cafe Evin, I think). Then we went to the gig and it was great. And then on Thursday I was extremely girly and saw the exhibition of wedding dresses in the V & A before flying back to pick up the boys after creche. It was a thoroughly enjoyable trip.
About the actual gig
In another example of the way things fell beautifully into place, it turned out that Patrick knew exactly where the Shacklewell Arms was because he regularly attends meetings for a charity he volunteers with in a school just across the road. He’d never been in, though, and it looked a bit shabby and scuzzy from the outside. On the inside it was still a bit shabby and scuzzy, but it served craft ale and Pimms (not in the same glass) and had a minuscule beer garden out the back. The venue itself, a room labelled ‘Dance Hall’, wasn’t massively bigger than the bar. I’ve never seen such a fantastic band in such a tiny place. I guess people just haven’t heard of them.
The support act were some nice little boys – alright, some nice young men, but they were awfully sweet and young and I think biologically at least I am old enough to be their mum, sob – called Lovepark. I had checked them out a bit beforehand and been only mildly interested, but in performance I warmed to them. The singer sounded rather like Morrissey and several of their songs made use of a choppy kind of style with all the instruments, drums, two guitars and bass, playing the same syncopated rhythm spaced with silences. The guitar tone was clear and sort of early-eighties; they had a post-punk vibe to my mind, though I daresay someone with wider musical knowledge would be able to think of a better way to pinpoint them. They didn’t speak much apart from the singer intermittently announcing “we’re Lovepark”; about the third time he did this it started to make me giggle. Their drummer is called Aramis.
After Lovepark had finished and disentangled their little sample-playing wotsit (technical term) from the drum kit there was a pause, during which we edged forward, knowing that it was about to get more crowded and that there is always a person taller than yourself (if you’re my height) who comes and stands exactly in your sightline. After a bit Wally quietly wandered on stage and started tinkering with the drum kit. At this point it occurred to me that, quite nearby and behaving perfectly normally, was a man I’d seen all-but-naked on the internet. This produced a sensation of extreme oddness, but it passed. There was a bit more tinkering and setting things up and hanging around conferring on the part of the band, all in unobtrusive-private-citizen mode. Then Wally came back on, sat down behind the drums, looked right at us all with an enormous happy smile and said – well, something appropriate to the occasion; I wasn’t taking shorthand notes. Hello or words to that effect. And they got started.
One thing that really struck me about The Basics, especially (perhaps unfairly) in contrast to Lovepark (who are perhaps more out-there when they are headlining), was that they are fabulous at talking to an audience. If they have a front man it’s Kris (the bassist), but really the whole band is the front man. They engage with each other in a way that projects this extremely strong, confident, friendly personality; they show us that they like each other, love playing music, and are including the audience in the fun they are having. They were too big for the tiny stage. In fact, they were physically too big for it: Wally had to do a sort of limbo dance under his microphone stand to wriggle in behind the drums, and I was vaguely worried that Kris, who is pretty tall, would crack his head on something, maybe a light.
Kris was keen to tell us that he wasn’t in great form; they’d been burning the candle at both ends, mixing their new album and doing other stuff, and he was horribly tired. However, this didn’t stop him singing and playing with gusto and also offering his bandmates useful advice. For example, after a song (possibly The Lucky Country? – like I said, I didn’t take notes) with an exceptionally vigorous drum part:
Wally: I’d forgotten that was so hard. I need to go to the gym for three weeks before playing that.
Kris: Well, you’ve been cycling everywhere. Why don’t you play it with your legs?
There was also some discussion of Tim (guitarist) getting bits wrong (not that I could tell).
Kris: What key exactly were you playing that in, Tim?
Tim: There are so many good keys, I couldn’t decide.
This is their style – chatty, informal, drawing attention to the bumps, which is something you can afford to do if you still actually sound really good. They didn’t have a set list as such, though Tim had a bit of paper he periodically consulted which may have been a list of suggestions; instead they conferred apparently via telepathy (i.e. off-mic) (can you mic telepathy?), and also invited requests. They played my request, indeed, once somebody louder also shouted for it. This was Better; Kris said that Wally didn’t like to sing it any more, “because he gets all emotional behind the drum kit”, but Wally sang it, though he did hit a very high note slightly earlier than I was expecting in the wordless section at the end, and then thought better of it and came back down a fourth, finishing up lower than he does on the live album. I think it was a fourth. As I said, this is reconstruction from memory.
What they played, as far as I can recall: they opened with their most recent single, So Hard For You. There was plenty of material from Stand Out/Fit In: Better, Hey There, Just Hold On, Three Cool Cats, Have Love Will Travel, Rattle My Chain. I love Rattle My Chain, for several reasons: it has a stonking riff, it’s one of their most rock tunes, and the lyrics are feisty (message: bloody hell, you’re annoying), but at the same time it betrays the mindset of nicely-brought-up people. “It’s so hard for me to be polite to you” – I can’t imagine Axl Rose worrying about that. Back to the list: only one song from Keep Your Friends Close, the most hard-rocking one, No. 1 Cause of Death Among Youth Today. Yeah Yeah (in which Kris and Tim did a little dance) and Second Best (which has a fab drum opening). Someone requested Wait For You; Kris said they hadn’t played it for years, but it came together fine with its jaunty chromatic guitar riff. Hey Rain, with just Tim playing a minimal guitar part to accompany the three-part harmony singing. Another cover was Besame Mucho, which appeared in medley with something else, I don’t recall what, as did Can’t Get No Satisfaction. They played three tracks from the forthcoming album. First of the three was The Lucky Country, an angry song about Australia (“Tony’s going to buy you a brand new car”). To Think of You, a quiet and melancholy little love song sung by Kris, had two false starts, first because Wally wasn’t quite happy with his drumming in some way – he’d not brought his brushes and had decided to play with his hands – and the second time because Kris got the giggles. The only song of the evening that I hadn’t heard before was announced by Tim as Curious Andrew. The other two looked slightly bemused and we gathered that it was actually called Coward Heart or something of that sort. The verse had Wally and Kris singing in close harmony and I liked it.
I came to the gig already loving the band’s songs and prepared to enjoy myself, but I was still struck by how good they are. They have so much to draw on: a large repertoire of both cover versions and tight, catchy, classic-sounding original material; three extremely talented instrumentalists; gorgeous vocal harmonies; three lead singers, one decent, one excellent and one amazing. Tim only sang two leads but plenty of bands don’t have a singer better than Tim, and he is just right both for the dry, humorous quality he brings to Hey Rain and the show-off, rather forced rock vocal of Have Love, Will Travel. For Tim music seems to be a language he likes to make jokes in; he was having a lot of fun with the effects pedal in his guitar solos. Kris has a strong voice for his more upbeat numbers and a lovely melancholy edge for the contemplative ones. And Wally can sing anything,** but I particularly enjoy the way Basics songs give him the scope to let rip and also to develop a really full tone in his midrange, as the Gotye material often doesn’t. And damn but he works hard. It’s not as though he comes up with minimal drum parts to leave him more energy for singing.
At one point in the gig, noting that the audience was between him and the door, Kris remarked that they’d have to hide behind a pillar until we all left, and in fact this is pretty much what they did, since once the performance was over they wormed behind the screen of arches that bisected the stage and started unplugging things. I took this opportunity to suppress my middle-class horror of bothering people and ask Tim, who was still at the front, if he would autograph my copy of Stand Out/Fit In, and he very nicely passed it back to Wally and Kris as well. So I am now the proud owner (hooray for cardboard CD sleeves, by the way) of an album signed by Tim Heath, Squiggle and Squiggle. I went away very happy. Mostly because of the music rather than the squiggles, but they’re a bonus, aren’t they?
Just to show it’s not just me: Patrick hadn’t checked out the band before coming to the gig, but he said afterwards that he could tell why I would travel from another country to see them.
**Except probably opera, thrash metal and the bass parts in Russian Orthodox chant.