George East’s Top 10 Gigs of 2015

by George_East on January 10, 2016

Sufjan Stevens liveSo my top 10 tracks of 2015 have been posted (and having played the Spotify playlist of them a few times, I’m pretty pleased with the list I can tell you – cracking stuff), my (definitive) top 50 albums of the year are still to come. But now it is time for my top 10 gigs of the year.

2015 was a cracking year for gigs. I saw loads of live music and much of it was absolutely top notch, including another great couple of days at Field Day at the beginning of June with Jackie South, Bobby West and others.

I want to start, though, with my three biggest live music disappointments of the year:

In third place is War on Drugs at Brixton Academy. For a band who should translate so well live – all of those epic guitar soundscapes on their albums, they were surprisingly flat. So flat that I didn’t even stay for the encore (a rare thing indeed).   The second most disappointing gig of the year was Richard Hawley at the Roundhouse.   Last time I saw Hawley back in 2012 at Brixton Academy, he played a passionate and angry set which was my fourth best gig of that year – this time he just seemed resentful and narky – a real shame.

But the most disappointing gig of the year by a distance was Morrissey at Hammersmith Apollo. Outrageously priced tickets (about £75 with booking fees – more than Dylan) and a 90 minute performance which felt completely phoned in. What added to the sense that it was all bit of a con job was there wasn’t even any support, just a projection onto a screen of some of Morrissey’s favourite film clips of other musicians.   If it hadn’t been for the partial redemption of the single song encore, a rip roaring version of The Queen Is Dead, this would have been up there as one of my worst gigs of all time.   To quote that famous Greil Marcus’ Rolling Stone review of Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait album, what is this shit.

In the last three years I have given a special mention to the Weirdest Gig of the Year. This year’s award goes to Belle and Sebastian at the Methodist Central Hall. As this was the Methodists’ headquarters they were more than a little bit sniffy about alcohol. Although unlike the Palma Violets at The Coronet in 2013, this was not a dry gig, the restrictions on alcohol were ridiculous. On arrival you had to queue up with your ticket to be given your allocation of 2 drinks vouchers each, the drinks could not, of course, be taken into the venue itself.   Inside the gig itself green jacketed security blokes of a certain age made a valiant attempt to prevent audience members joining the band on stage after Stuart Murdoch had invited everyone to do so.

Finally before we get to the top 10 and for the first time ever these are my numbers 11-20 (yes it was that good a year): 11. The bucket list filling experience of finally seeing Bob Dylan at the Royal Albert Hall, complete with Tangled Up In Blue and Blowin’ In The Wind; 12: one of the greatest female singer songwriters currently around, Sharon Van Etten at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire; 13: Patti Smith’s storming run through of Horses and more at Field Day; 14: new noise maestros Viet Cong supported by blues call and shout revivalists Algiers at The Scala; 15: FFS at The Forum complete with seeing This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us performed live – maybe my single favourite live song moment of the year; 16: Father John Misty at Shepherd’s Bush Empire – superb live performance marred slightly by an overly devotional crowd; 17: New Order at Brixton Academy, including a guest slot from La Roux and the return of Gillian; 18: Josh T Pearson and Richard Dawson at St John at Hackney church; 19: Sleaford Mods (supported by Steve Ignorant, formerly of Crass) at The Forum – second time of seeing marginally negatively impacted by seated tickets (it’s a long story); 20: Laura Marling at the Forum – superb set by England’s Joni Mitchell supported by perhaps the worst support band I’ve had the misfortune of seeing in a good many year (can’t remember their name, fortunately) – laughably terrible. Even then I feel I’m missing a bunch of other great shows! What a year.

So anyway, the top 10 gigs of the year for 2015 were:

1Sufjan Stevens – the Royal Festival Hall

Rather extraordinarily given my general view of such things for the fourth year in a row my favorite gig of the year was seated (after Kate Bush in 2014, Daniel Johnston in 2013 and Dexy’s in 2012). I hadn’t seen Sujan Stevens before, he rarely plays and when he does I’ve always missed him. September though saw him playing a couple of nights at the Royal Festival Hall before headlining the End of the Road Festival.

Stevens didn’t particularly interact with the audience until about half way through the set when he remarked: ‘it is good to be in a room with so many living breathing people’, an understandable feeling perhaps when the material is so bound up with death.

Indeed it was the devastating sadness of his 2015 album Carrie and Lowell that formed the overwhelming bulk of the set, but in place of the simplicity of the songs on the album, Stevens introduced an electronica element reminiscent of his experimental 2008 album, The Age of Adz.

This shouldn’t have worked given the beautifully bleak personal material on the album, which tells of the death of Stevens’ estranged mother of cancer.   Yet it somehow enhanced the songs and gave them an almost joyous quality – songs of loss were transformed, in part at least, into songs of celebration. With guest backing vocals from the great Dawn Landes throughout the set and a guest appearance by Nico Muhly, the overall effect was draw dropping.

If, as the Fourth of July has it, ‘we are all going to die’, the live versions of the songs from the album were imbued with a sense that at least the life lived was worth remembering.

An encore concluding with Chicago from his other masterpiece Come On Feel The Illinoise rounded a couple of hours of perfect music off.

2. Sleaford Mods – Koko

When I came out of this gig with Jackie South back in early June I was absolutely certain it would be my gig of the year.   It was the most energetic and angry gig I had been to in decades. My immediate reaction as I came out was to pretty much tell everyone I knew to go see the Sleafords as soon as they could because they were the real thing.

That the Sleaford Mods are the most energetic band around at the moment and the most devastatingly brilliant live performers is so unlikely given what they consist of. Andrew Fearns who writes the electronic backing music comes onto stage places his lap top on a box presses play at the beginning of each song and then bobs about a little bit with a can of lager in his hand like a bloke of a certain age at the edge of the dance floor at a disco in a working men’s club. Meanwhile Jason Williamson delivers his mostly spelentic rants over the top.

Yet with Williamson standing in profile to the audience, the veins in his neck almost visibly bursting and with his seemingly Ian Curtis-like involuntary hand movements, the overall effect is the most compelling act out there. Live the rants suddenly make sense – it is not just a really angry guy swearing, it is tight as is possible to be, the repetition, the rhythms of the language, the first and third person observation, the East Midlands accent, the simplicity of the backing music and yes the performance, all come together perfectly. The material was a good mix of stuff from Austerity Dogs and Divide and Exit, with a smattering of new songs that would appear later in the year on Key Markets.

With support from punk postman, Vic Goddard and the Subway Sect, from whom we managed to catch a couple of songs, this was a superb gig, and maybe the last opportunity to see the Sleafords in a venue the size of which is made for them.

3. Ezra Furman and The Boy-Friends – Shepherd’s Bush Empire

It has been a huge year for Ezra Furman. Although darling of Marc Riley’s Radio 6 show over the last couple of years, Ezra Furman was still playing the tiny Lexington on Pentonville Road (essentially a room above a pub) as recently as May of last year.

Yet the release of the superb Perpetual Motion People with its amazing use of the most unlikely music references, in particular doo wop and its extraordinary pop hooks, together with what seemed like a whole bundle of confidence that came with writing deeply personal songs about his sexuality and depression, saw Furman transform himself into one of the best live acts around. He still seemed a bit bemused by what had happened as he took to the stage in a red and black dress with pearls, and said: ‘this is weird. What happened here? Two thousand people?’.

The set was an absolute barnstormer with his vocals sometimes plaintive and sometimes screaming. The Boy Friends played a perfect accompaniment to him with sax parts that made me want to dance, when I wasn’t smiling too much to notice that I wasn’t.   Even the doo wop stuff, which could mess up big time live, worked perfectly.   He even broke the curfew by 10 minutes – it seemed that even the jobsworthy ridigity of British licensing laws could not help but want the set to go on forever.

4. Kurt Vile and The Violators – Electric Ballroom

The first thing to say about this gig, is what the fuck is Kurt Vile doing playing a venue as small as the Electric Ballroom.   Last time he played he was, after all, selling out the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Anyway whatever the reason, it provided a superb opportunity to experience, in my view, the greatest old fashioned guitar rock act of the moment, in a small venue.

As I’ve written before the curtain hair and the Evan Dando-like drugged out slacker sound of his vocals can give the impression that Vile is barely trying. It is an impression he clearly likes to toy with given the choice of entrance song, The Happy Mondays’ Wrote For Luck. That impression could not be more wrong. The Violators are an extraordinarily tight outfit live and Kurt is a superb vocalist.   And Pretty Pimpin’ live sounded even more amazing than it does kicking off his album, I B’lieve I’m Going Down.

5. Ride, Field Day

Field Day followed up 2014’s Sunday headline debut (which saw the Pixies’ headlining) with another nostalgia reunion, Oxford’s Ride.   With their layered guitars, swirling melodies, and 2 vocal harmonies over the top of most songs, they were indie darlings of the pre-Britpop era. And they were superb live back in the day.

But there was a big question mark in my mind, and that of Bobby West and Jackie South who accompanied me, as to whether Mark Gardner and crew could pull it off after all this time, or whether it would just sound dated. We were wrong to doubt, in a wonderful 90 minute set as the sun went down they sensibly eschewed the later rather sub-standard albums, focusing on the genius of their debut Nowhere and the early singles that established their name.

About four songs in they played a version of Seagull that was so overwhelming that the band seemed to know they’d struggle to top it, and there was even an ironic, ‘thank you, good night’. At that moment you knew you were witnessing something special. The euphoria of Vapor Trail towards the end of the set seguing into the wonderful Drive Blind almost matched it.

The question now is whether PJ Harvey, who is set to headline Sunday at Field Day 2016, is going to match the last couple of Sunday headliners. Be there to find out.

6John Grant – Rough Trade East

John Grant played a free album launch gig for his excellent third album, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, at the Rough Trade East shop. The only requirement was that you bought the album (which I was going to buy anyway) and queued up to get one of the 150 tickets available when the shop opened on the morning of the gig at 8am. So an early start was called for, but about as good a reason as can be imagined.

Grant played half a dozen tracks from the new album, including wonderful versions of Down Here, You and Him and Disappointing, before finishing the set with The Queen of Denmark and an encore of GMF.   He was warm and engaging and in such a small venue his huge voice utterly dominated.

To think that next time he plays London it is the Royal Albert Hall next June. This was a tiny stage in a shop with 150 people! Read and weep.

7. The Jesus and Mary Chain – The Roundhouse

The last time I saw the Jesus and Mary Chain was in 1990 at Brixton Academy. The first time I saw the Jesus and Mary Chain was in 1985 at Portsmouth Guildhall, on the Psychocandy tour. This gig was part of a 30th anniversary tour for that groundbreaking album, that blended Phil Spector girl group melodies with sculpted feedback.   The gig was full of oldsters swapping stories of Jesus and Mary Chain gigs from back in the day – ‘when I saw them in 1984 they played 1 song for 20 minutes and that was it’. That kind of thing.

It was another gig that could have gone horribly wrong. The band played two sets with an interval, the second being the play through of the album.   Prior to the band coming on an old public information film about Scottish new town East Kilbride played.

But from the moment the band came on with a storming rendition of April Skies you knew you were in for a treat. Jim Reid even still looked the part (which is more than could be said for William). The final part of the first set was the feedback drenched first single, Upside Down, the perfect set up for Psychocandy itself.

The music has stood up amazingly well and there are still few bands who can make an impact like this live. In A Hole sounded as raw as I remember it being as an impressionable 15 year old. And there are surely few better starts to an album than that single floor tom drum on Just Like Honey.

8. Courtney Barnett – Electric Ballroom

Although I had seen Courtney Barnett at Field Day in 2014, she only played a short mid-afternoon set. This was the first time I had seen her properly (an experience later repeated in the year in another great gig at The Forum). Supported by a superb guitar band called Spring Kings (watch out for them in 2016 – you heard it hear first), Courtney was delightful live, as funny and engaging between songs as the songs themselves can be.  Showing that she is at the moment possibly the best female rock act around.

The main set ended with the superb trio of Avant Gardner, History Eraser and Pedestrian At Best – three of her greatest songs, but perhaps the final encore was what stuck most in my mind as I left – a great cover of the Breeders’ Cannonball.

9. Julia Holter – Brighton Kommedia

In a miniscule venue attached to a cinema in Brighton, LA avant-gardist Julia Holter stood at the front of a tiny stage with her keyboard, surrounded by a group of superb musicians more than capable of keeping up with her odd time signatures and musical digressions.

Her wonderful album, Have You In My Wilderness, is one of those albums which sounds like it may not translate very well live. Arriving in the middle of the first song, it was immediately clear that any fears of this were misplaced. The blend of jazz, pop, soul and icy electronica blended perfectly. A heckle of ‘Roxy Music’ hit the nail on the head – the Roxy Music of the first album with Brian Eno, is an obvious reference point, once someone points it out.

An hour long set and no encore gave plenty to talk about. Catch her live before she is huge.

10. Wire – The Lexington

There were three big bucket list moments live for me in 2015. Bob Dylan and Wilko Johnson were the other two. But the best of the three for me was about as far removed from Dylan at the Royal Albert Hall as could be imagined in venue terms.

Art-punk legends, Wire returned to promote their excellent new eponymous album with a five night residency at the Lexington. For blokes well into their sixties they played an uncompromising set, with the drone-y repetitive guitars that they are famous for prominent and loud.

As has been their policy since their late 1980s reformation none of they played none of the classic material from their peerless first three albums, but the new material stands on its own and a ear splitting version of Drill was one of my musical highlights of the year.

So what will 2016 bring?

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ray_North January 10, 2016 at 8:22 pm

Is Sufjan your favourite gig of the year, or is Wire your favourite gig of the year? (sadly, neither act got as far as Wrexham)
I am appalled to say that the only gigs I got to last year were Blur in llandudno, which was really excellent, and Take That (or at least four blokes purporting to be Take That), at my local – which was sooo bad, I had a thoroughly enjoyable night – booze helped.

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George_East January 10, 2016 at 8:41 pm

Sufjan. Unlike albums the list is in order not reverse order (just because for some reason that’s how I’ve always done it).

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