George East’s Top Ten Gigs of 2014

by George_East on January 1, 2015

kate bushAh, end of the year list time (albums to follow, films at the end of February to coincide with Oscar weekend as is traditional).   Marvelous.   At the half way point of the year I was far from sure that I would be able to compile a top ten list of gigs by the end of the year. Becoming a father at the end of April necessarily severely limited the opportunity to go out and see bands (or do anything much else) as much as I have in previous years.   I only saw two gigs in the first five months and so it looked like a top 5 might even be somewhat ambitious.

In fact the last few months of the year have provided the opportunity to go to see some great gigs. When Field Day (my only festival of the year) at the beginning of June is added in, there was actually quite a bit to choose from when I was going back over my live music experiences of the year.

Before I get to the top 10, as is traditional a couple of other mentions first. Biggest Disappointment of the year for me was Temples at Field Day. It was not that they were bad, they were in fact perfectly ok. It was more that they ought to have been so much better. They have the haircuts, the cheekbones, the guitar chops and the songs. Yet live they were anonymous.   To be fair to them they were probably not helped by a mid-afternoon slot in bright day light.

The weirdest gig of the year award goes to launch gig for Papernut Cambridge’s excellent debut There Is No Underground album which was held in a disused tube carriage (still fully fitted with seats) at the Pumphouse Museum in Walthamstow, complete with the train doors being closed at the beginning of the gig, so that if you wanted to leave you could only do so through the drivers door at the end.

Honourable mentions go to: The Felice Brothers at the Forum (the poor turnout resulted in a slightly flat atmosphere meaning it did not make my top 10), Darren Hayman’s January Occupation show at the Vortex, Wild Beasts at Brixton Academy and at Field Day – Courtney Barnett (if the set had been a full set it would have been in my top five) and Drenge.

So here we go.

1. Kate Bush – Hammersmith Apollo

The gigs that no one thought would ever happen – almost unlikely and as hotly anticipated as a Smiths’ reunion would be.  Wow, it’s unbelievable as the music press collectively exclaimed.  After an interval of an extraordinary 35 years the notoriously stage shy Kate Bush returned to a triumphant run of 22 nights at Hammersmith Apollo (the venue of her final show back in 1979 when it was still the Hammersmith Odeon).

The shows, entitled Before The Dawn, were more musical theatre than a traditional gig being centered around   two song suites: The Ninth Wave (the second side of 1985’s The Hounds of Love) and the second record from her 2005 comeback album, Aerial. These song suites (separated by an old fashioned interval) were bookended by a half dozen or so songs at the beginning and a single song encore at the end.

Kate did not pander to her fans by playing a nostalgia set. There was nothing at all from the first four albums (no Wuthering Heights, no Babushka, no Wow), though material from her fifth, the great Hounds of Love did feature heavily (including a superb crowd pleasing encore of Cloudbusting).   The second song suite, A Sky of Honey (from Aerial) is probably the most obtuse music she has ever recorded (being a CD long single track).

There was something a little AmDram about some of the acting in the musical suites and the television that moved backwards and forwards with the waves in The Ninth Wave shipwreck sequence felt like the kind of thing that would be in a Morecambe and Wise sketch in back in the 1970s for a cheap laugh.

Yet somehow it all worked together wonderfully. And Kate herself was a delight – she seemed to be enjoying herself immensely and appeared genuinely grateful that she still had an appreciative audience after all those decades.


2. Sun Kil Moon – St John at Hackney Church

Last time I saw notorious miserablist, Mark Kozalek, a few years ago at the Union Chapel, it was just him and a guitar. I enjoyed it but Mrs East hated it so much she read a paper rather demonstrably in the second pew at the Union Chapel (what is it about him and church gigs).

This time though as Sun Kil Moon, with a full band and chock full of material from his superb, Benji album (and nothing in the set list before 2012) it was like seeing a different artist. Kozalek stomped backwards and forwards across the stage singing the songs about death and dying that litter his new album and between songs continuing his war on The War on Drugs (2014’s greatest and funniest rock fued), including an encore of War On Drugs Can Suck My Cock (a surprisingly good song).

Kozalek is superbly self-aware, recognising that there ‘isn’t a lot joy’ in his songs, and inviting a volunteer from the audience to duet with him on Sonny and Cher’s I Got You Babe (this being Hackney the woman who was chosen was a thousand times better than anything you are likely to see on the X-Factor). As a December gig he also chucked in a couple of Christmas numbers, including a great version of A Littler Drummer Boy (though sadly nothing from his new Mark Kozalek Sings Christmas Carols album – perhaps the years oddest idea for an album).

After a set that lasted 2 and a half hours and an encore of Benji opener Carissa the gig came to an end because the 11pm curfew had been reached, with Kozalek clearly very keen to keep playing.

3. John Grant & The Northern Sinfonia – Royal Festival Hall

I’ve seen the great John Grant on his own with a piano, with a small traditional rock band and with an electronica set up over recent years since the release of his astonishing solo debut, The Queen of Denmark in 2010. I hadn’t though until this year seen him play with a full orchestra.   It is no surprise that the big dramatic songs of his first album worked superbly with this set up, Grant’s full baritone voice being enhanced by orchestral backing. What was perhaps more of a surprise is the electronic work from Pale Green Ghosts (my album of 2013)  also worked wonderfully, in particular the title track which was one of the highlights of the set.

There were a smattering of new songs thrown in which suggest that Grant’s third album (whenever it arrives) will also be something to savour.

4. Pixies – Field Day

Nostalgia gig of the year was the headliners’ of the second day of Field Day, the triumphant return (or second return) of the Pixies. They were sans Kim Deal, which provoked some debate in advance as to whether a Deal-less Pixies were the Pixies at all. All doubts were dispelled though in a tight hour and a half set focused heavily on the seminal first four albums, with a smattering of tracks from this year’s Indie Cindy thrown in. There was no Gigantic (despite a female bassist in place of the female bassist who replaced Kim Deal) but nothing else omitted from the set from a fan’s perspective.

Black Francis looked fatter and balder but otherwise pretty much the same as he was back in the day – still one of the great rock front men with his mad screams and babbling Spanish bits. Joey Santiago had morphed from the boyish guitarist he was back in the day to an extra from Breaking Bad and Dave Lovering looked like an accountant, but the sound they created was immense, retaining the energy of the band at their peak.

The whole crowd joining in on a scream along of ‘then God is seven’ on This Monkey’s Gone To Heaven was maybe the my most joyous gig moment of the year.

Walking away from the gig Bobby West, Jackie South and I reflected on the fact that they really are one of the all time great guitar bands and how it is odd how no one else has really tried to ape their style. Yet as Bobby West commented, maybe no one really could, as it would just sound like second rate (probably parody) Pixies, such is the unique blend of their music.

5, Sturgill Simpson – Dingwalls

Kentucky country singer songwriter Sturgill Simpson played a barnstorming set at Dingwalls focused heavily on his new album Metamodern Sounds In Country Music.   His 70 minute evocation of the best of the golden age of outlaw country worked brilliantly in a small and sweaty venue.   How I imagine it would have been  seeing Waylon back in the day.

The music was raw and direct and Simpson demonstrated that he has what it takes to be a country great.   Simpson is one to catch while he is still relatively small, I suspect.

6. Manic Street Preachers – The Roundhouse

The Manic Street Preachers’ December gig at the Roundhouse to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Manics’ last album with Richey Edwards, The Holy Bible was more a celebration of Richey’s legacy than a wake.   The set was divided into two halves, the whole of The Holy Bible as a three piece (with a space on the right of the stage where Richey would have been) followed by a greatest hits second half with an enlarged band. It was a clear reminder of how the Manics are (and have been over two decades and more) one of the great British bands.   Nicky Wire was on fine and coruscating form, saying that the band new that they were onto something with The Holy Bible when ‘those cunts at the Mercury Music Prize ignored it’.

They have a confident anthemic grandiosity live but retain all of the passion that their background and politics have given them throughout their career. There is no sense (like say the Arctics) of a band losing touch with its roots and thereby losing its way.

A cover (well the first verse) of Last Christmas provided a brilliant segue into an encore of A Design For Life. And you can’t ask for a better play out than that.

7. Bill Callahan – Royal Festival Hall

February saw Bill Callahan’s British date in support of his wonderful Dream River album (my second favourite of 2013). The superb set heavily focused on the new album and 2011’s Apocalypse had a couple of old Smog tunes in it, including the peerless Dress Sexy At My Funeral, enough on its own to get the gig into my top 10.

8. Bonnie Prince Billy – St John At Hackney Church

 The ever reliable Will Oldham returned to London (and to Hackney) for a show to promote his superb new album, Singer’s Grave – A Sea of Tongues. With a band including the great Matt Sweeney the set had a country feel to it (in contrast to the more folky sounds of recent performances).  Lovely venue and the live version of Quail and Dumplings was so good you could practically smell it cooking on a Kentucky stove.

9. Metronomy – Field Day

 Saturday’s headliners at Field Day, Metronomy showed they knew how to put in a festival headlining show. In matching white suits and choreographed moves it should have been ridiculous but instead was a joyous feel good  end to a lovely summer’s day of music and beer.

10. Papernut Cambridge – Walthamstow Pumphouse Museum

An audience of 30 or so, a disused tube carriage in a temporarily closed museum that resembled a building site as the band played a launch show for their album, There’s No Underground. A gig on a tube train with songs about how tubes don’t go to the suburbs.

Papernut Cambridge are the new band of Ian Button, formerly of Thrashing Doves and Death In Vegas Cambridge and appeared to be having a ball throughout, complete with a very funny anecdote about how Margaret Thatcher saying she liked a Thrashing Doves’ song was the death knell to their career.

There was great support from Darren Hayman and it was my baby daughter’s first gig (at 4 months’ old)! Superb stuff.

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