George East’s Top Ten Gigs of 2013

by George_East on December 31, 2013

Daniel Johnston liveIt is that time of the year again.  A time for reflection on the year just gone and more importantly a time for lists.  Lots of lists.  First up is my favourite  live music experiences of 2013.   It was a truly magnificent year for live music, I think, possibly the best I have had since my early 20s.   Loads of great gigs and loads of firsts.  Reducing the list to a top 10 has been painfully difficult but for you dear reader I have done so.  Needs must and all that.

First the firsts.  2013 was the year I saw for the first time legendary greats  Willie Nelson, Jimmy Cliff, Irma Thomas, Taj Mahal, Del McCoury and, er, Fleetwood Mac (and that was just at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in April).  There were also first time live experiences of Patti Smith, Neil Young with Crazy Horse (I’d seen Shakey 4 times before but never with his greatest band), the Black Keys and Heaven 17 (I kid you not).

There were a couple of festivals in the mix (both the only way I can do them these days, without camping) and one outdoor mega-gig.  In April there was the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival, which has the genius set up of ending the music at sun down (about 7pm) allowing the festival goers to experience the delights of the Big Easy until the early hours every night.   Marvellous.   And then at the end of the May was the non-stag stag do experience of the hipster-tastic Field Day in Victoria Park just down the road from where I live – a genuinely lovely festival – as some time commentor Multiplex remarked on the day, it was full of wankers but a different kind of wanker from your usual music festival.

The outdoor mega-gig was The Stone Roses in Finsbury Park which I accidentally ended up seeing on my own (Jackie had a ticket, but was otherwise engaged, Mrs East left early as she was not feeling well).   The Roses were surprisingly excellent (I had my reservations given just how dreadful Ian Brown can be) but they don’t make my top 10, not least because the crowd were absolutely dreadful, lots of lagered up blokes of a certain age – aggressive and frankly repellant.

Biggest disappointment of the year I think was Everything Everything at Field Day.  They are the kind of band that I am unlikely to play at home very often but who should have been perfect for a festival – exuberant, joyous and singalong.  They were instead dull, anonymous and talkoverable.

Now to weirdest gig of the year – a category introduced last year as a result of the truly bizarre experience that year of seeing Lynyrd Skynyrd (or what remains of them) at Shepherd’s Bush Empire with Jackie.    This year the award goes to the Palma Violets at the Elephant & Castle Coronet.  The Palma Violets played an impromptu second set at Field Day (we missed all but one chord of their first set) and were energy incarnate.  As a result three of us went to see them play earlier this month at their homecoming gig at a converted cinema in South London.   When we arrived the queues stretched along the whole of one side of the pink monstrosity that is the Elephant & Castle shopping centre and crawled along.  It was difficult to understand why it was moving so slowly.  When we finally got to the front of the queue we were asked for photo ID, which perhaps was the reason for the queue moving so slowly.  However, when I said I didn’t have any, the woman on the door waved me through anyway.   When we got inside the venue was full of kids.  The average age of the audience couldn’t have been much more than 16 and looked more like a One Direction crowd than a bunch of indie kids.  To top it all no alcohol was being served.    The band were once again their energetic self but the whole thing seemed weirdly choreographed – a song which involved one of the band’s entourage shouting at everyone to sit down just for everyone to get up again when the song started.   A kind of game of chicken with individual members of the audience daring to enter big circular spaces that would open up in the middle of the mosh pit.    I still have no idea what that was all about or why on earth the band would think that early teens are a great demographic to target.

Finally some honourable mentions to great gigs/live performances that didn’t quite make the cut:  Phoenix and Irma Thomas at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival,  Neil Young & Crazy Horse at the Birmingham NEC Arena, Steve Earle at the Royal Festival Hall, Darren Hayman’s August Occupation show at the Vortex, Daughter at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, Heaven 17/Scritti Politti at Koko, Kurt Vile and the Palma Violets at Field Day, and Billy Bragg at the Royal Festival Hall.

So to the list:


1.    Daniel Johnston – The Barbican

Daniel Johnston’s Barbican show in June to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the release of his Hi, How Are You? Album was just one of the most extraordinary live performances by anyone I have seen.  Ever. Jaw to the floor stuff.

I didn’t really have any clear expectations of seeing Daniel Johnston live.  His backstory is, of course, extraordinary.  Giving homemade cassettes of his songs out to strangers around Austin leading to a local cult following.  His severe schizophrenia and bipolar disorder resulting in many periods confined to psychiatric hospitals – including for a prolonged period of time when, convinced that his father was possessed by the devil, he tried to take over the controls of the plane his father was flying.  Getting broader recognition after Kurt Cobain wore a Daniel Johnston tee-shirt on Top of The Pops. 

There were 7 support acts (fans of Johnston effectively paying tribute to him) who each did two cover  of his songs.  The support acts would have been enough to make it a great gig in its own right:  Jeffrey Lewis, Norman Blake from Teenage Fanclub, Willy Mason, Emmy The Great, Glen Hansard, The Wave Pictures and Tom Fleming from Wild Beasts.

Then on shambled Daniel, with Jeffrey Lewis and his band providing backing.  And I mean shambled, with a stained sweatshirt barely covering his belly, a cheap pair of slacks and slippers, he looked like he’d come straight from a hospital ward.   Shaking violently because of his anti-psychotic medication throughout set, it was a wonder that he made it through one song let alone the short set he played.   The songs were beautiful, unbearably intense, sometimes funny and always unashamedly honest. His voice was full, raw untutored, like nothing else. Heartbreaking numbers about love and rejection juxtaposed with childlike songs about things like cartoon characters such as Casper The Friendly Ghost.  There was an honesty and lack of self-consciousness in the performance that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before.

Then after half an hour and a one song encore with all the guests he was gone.    I left with my gig going companion almost speechless at what we had witnessed, as we went to the pub to discuss the gig over a beer or several.


2.    Patti Smith – Shepherd’s Bush Empire

Of all of my big name first time live experiences this year, Patti Smith was the one that had the biggest impact.  A girlishly giggling Patti gave a wonderfully nuts performance and was clearly having a ball throughout.

The set, spanning Smith’s 40 year career but focused heavily on Patti’s peak mid-late 70’s back catalogue, also had a fantastic mid-section where she vacated the stage and let long-time collaborator Lenny Kaye with a medley of songs from the legendary Nuggets album anthology of garage rock that he curated (including the astounding Psychotic Reaction).   There was also a cracking version by Patti of Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues.

The main set ended with a segue of Land into Gloria which was probably my favourite single live music moment of the year.  The Rock N Roll Nigger encore rounded the evening off appropriately – fully rocked out brilliance.  Not bad for a 67 year old.


3.    The Reflektors – The Roundhouse

I don’t normally even bother trying to get tickets for ‘secret gigs when they are announced.  It always involves endless pressing of the f5 button or being on permanent hold, only for certain disappointment.  So when it became known that Arcade Fire were going to do two shows at the Roundhouse in November as The Reflektors (the band name they adopt on the inner sleeve of their new album, Reflektor)  I almost didn’t bother.  But waiting for a delivery I found myself at home and thought I may as well.  After only a couple of f5 pressings, I got through and managed to get a couple of tickets.

The Roundhouse is probably my favourite venue in London and there really aren’t going to be much chances to see a band the size of Arcade Fire in venue of its size again.  Added to this, the band announced that there was a dress code for the gig – formal attire or fancy dress. This was initially said to be compulsory but the requirement was relaxed in the day or so before the gig.  I have never before been to a gig in black tie.  The queue to get in was huge as entrance was by photo id and confirmation email to prevent any touting of tickets.

Don Letts provided a fabulous reggae DJ set in support and by the time Arcade Fire came on there was a huge sense of expectation.   Going straight into the magnificent Reflektor the set was focused heavily on the discoed up tunes on the new album, with nothing from Neon Bible and only one song from each of Funeral and The Suburbs.   This worked as it made the set far more upbeat than it would have been if the more alienated sounds of their earlier albums had been woven in.   An unexpected but absolutely sterling cover of The Clash’s I’m So Bored With The USA with Win Butler in a giant papier mache head was played to a slightly bemused crowd who had  largely clearly never heard of it.  Butler dedicated it to Don Letts.


4.    Wu-Tang Clan – Brixton Academy

What better first gig as a married man could there be to celebrate my return home after my 3 week honeymoon in Costa Rica, than seeing the Wu-Tang Clan for the first time with Mrs East.

The Clan coming on one at a time played a barnstorming set to an ecstatic Brixton crowd, the most energetic audience this side of The Pogues Christmas crowd.    A touching tribute to Ol’ Dirty Bastard,  plenty of stuff from their debut album, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) – one of the greatest albums ever recorded, and a spectacular display of old skool scratching, left a very happy Mr and Mrs East chanting ‘wu wu wu’ with the rest of the Clan fans as we left for the wet and windy walk up to Stockwell tube from the Academy.


5.    Django Django – Field Day Festival, Victoria Park

 7 of us went to the Field Day festival in Victoria Park in May.  The weather was good, the beer was plentiful and the food and the toilet queues were not as bad as they usually are.  It was relaxed and we even had, courtesy of Bobby West, a round of ice creams at the end.   It was a lovely day and I’d like to thank Ray, Jackie and Bobby for joining me.

The highlight for me of the festival was seeing a superb Django Django headline the second stage in a packed marquee.  A band who look anonymous came across as huge, as the electronic anthems of their brilliant eponymous album rocked the crowd.   The changing graphic smiley face display behind the band was reminiscent of Kraftwerk, who are undoubtedly a big influence on the Djangos, but for an hour or so they made the festival their own.   In case you are wondering – Animal Collective headlined the main stage.  Those who saw them don’t know what they missed.

6.    Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – Hammersmith Apollo

It’s been 5 years since I last saw Nick Cave.   Everytime you see him he plays a role.  The only question is what role will he play this time.

The look last time was western villain mustache, long hair and three quarter length leopard print jacket.  Live he channeled Little Richard – crazed standing playing of an upright piano.

This time same venue, same band (minus long term Bad Seed Mick Harvey, who left the band in 2009) but the look was all black, open necked shirt and clean shaven.  This time he was channeling Vegas era Elvis Presley, spending most of his time standing on the barrier at edge of the stage letting fans touch him and his sweat ridden shirt, occasionally singing one of his deeply fucked up songs directly to delighted female fans at the front – including an extraordinary version of one of the most fucked up of all, Stagger Lee from Murder Ballads.

Cave was, as ever, superb and the 2 hour set covered all bases, from early blues scream outs like Tupelo and From Her To Eternity via the romance of West Country Girl and Into My Arms to the beautiful crooner sounds of the current album Push The Sky Away.    The Bad Seeds and Warren Ellis on fiddle and mandolin, in particular, provided brilliant support for Cave’s theatrics throughout.


7.    John Grant – Shepherd’s Bush Empire

May saw John Grant bring his Pale Green Ghosts tour to London.  I wasn’t sure whether the electronic sounds of his new album would translate live as well as more traditionally arranged songs on his first album, The Queen of Denmark.    I had first seen Grant live supporting Midlake in 2010 and saw him again in 2011 at Shepherd’s Bush.  Both times he had been absolutely brilliant – one of the greatest current live acts around.  Would it work with electronic sounds potentially competing with that huge baritone voice of his.

It took about 30 seconds of his first song, You Don’t Have To to know that any fears I had were completely misplaced.  Grant with his new Icelandic backing band played an emotionally intense and musically extraordinary set, consisting of the entirety of the new album, as well as a sprinkling of songs from The Queen of Denmark, the breathtaking title track from which ended the main set.  GMF, It Doesn’t Matter To Him and the encore renditions of Where Dreams Go To Die and Caramel were only highlights from an all but flawless performance.


8.    The Pogues – Brixton Academy

My final gig of the year.  It could have been a car crash.  It has been 20 odd years since I’ve seen The Pogues in their proper form and then, at the end of the initial Shane McGowan era they were an unholy shambles.  McGowan and the rest seeking to cash in with their annual Christmas shows for sacks full of cash might have equally gone badly wrong.

Jackie South and I went right down the front, the audience looked mostly our age or older.   ‘I don’t think it will be too moshy’  I said as the band came on, followed by Shane slowly ambling his way to the microphone as if he had shat himself.    Then Sick Bed of Cuchulainn started and the whole venue went batshit mental.  McGowan only managed a few songs at a time before shambling off, sometimes apparently needing the guidance of Spider Stacey, very much in band leadership mode, to tell him whether it was his song or not.

The whole of Rum Sodomy and the Lash and most of the other highlights of the Pogues back catalogue later, and ending the  encore with fabulous Fairytale of New York and Fiesta later, I feel like I’ve lost about 2 stone from jumping up and down, I am hoarse from singing along, and I have a tee-shirt soaked through with sweat and spilt Guinness that I am in real danger of freezing to death in the windy walk up to the tube station.

A happy Christmas indeed.


9.    Okkervil River – Islington Assembly Halls

 I had wanted to see Texan band Okkervil River since I first fell in love with their 2008 album, The Stand Ins.   I finally got round to seeing them in November touring their excellent new concept album The Silver Gymnasium.  The album which provides a panoramic introduction to the New England town that Okkervil River’s leading man and song writer, Will Sheff, grew up in.  The mid-80s setting was reflected in the music played over the PA before the band came on.  They came on to Laura Brannigan’s Self Control which was kind of fabulous (a song I had never thought would be reclaimed by the hipsters, but what do I know).

The friend who I was with, who didn’t know their stuff at all and had come along to check them out, remarked that Okkervil River were like Bruce Springsteen crossed with Pulp, which is spot on.  There was also something distinctly Jarvis-like in Sheff’s stage act.   It was a great performance, so great that my friend bought the band’s entire back catalogue on his phone from Amazon during the gig.  See them.


10. Kurt Vile and The Violators – Shepherd’s Bush Empire

After seeing him for the first time at Field Day in May, Philly’s current favourite son (Kurt Vile has just been voted Philadelphia’s man of the year) came to Shepherd’s Bush Empire a couple of weeks back.

His hair like curtains across his eyes and his new take on the slacker guitar rock (a la J Mascis and Evan Dando) with his own psychedelic twist made for a great understated live performance.   The sometimes wry and observational lyrics being given an extra dimension live from the superb playing of the Violators and Kurt’s laid back style.

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