Countdown: 2013: Gigs

After last year’s exhausting run of gigs, 2013 was even crazier. I saw 66 days of gigs – seeing nearly 160 live sets in the process, in three countries, six different cities and and including three festivals. What was interesting, though, was that maybe I hit saturation point this year. While there were a handful of truly extraordinary shows, there were quite a lot of shows that were just ok, and then quite a few more – particularly support acts – that really weren’t up to much at all. But the one thing that was easy? The best of the lot, which was decided on the spot, back in January…

Countdown: 2013

26-Nov: Disappointments
03-Dec: Best Compilations and Reissues
10-Dec: Best Tracks
17-Dec: Best Albums
24-Dec: Best Gigs

Every gig this year, ranked

click here

Countdown: Gigs

2012: Laibach
2010: Neurosis
2009: Spiritualized
2008: Amanda Palmer
2007: The Young Gods
2006: not recorded
2005: not recorded
2004: not recorded

Anyway: my fiancee set me a challenge this time around – rank *all* of the live bands that I saw this year. I’m writing about the top few, but on the right here is the ranking of the lot (click on the link).

2014 is already off to a flyer, too – with tickets already obtained for about ten shows, more in the pipeline, and potentially four festivals? It’s going to be another busy year…

Live at O2 Academy, Islington

I have to admit that I went to this gig with some trepidation – reports from previous London shows over the years suggested a surly, unhappy band going through the motions and little more. I needn’t have worried, as it turned out – this was the exact opposite, a near-celebrationary atmosphere, a great song selection, and a revitalised band that got the crowd onside early on (opening with the blow-the-doors-off blast of Welcome To The Fold helped, that’s for sure) and never let them go. An unexpectedly great return, this…

Number_19The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing
Live at Nambucca, Holloway

I can’t think of a time where I’ve left a gig with a refrain celebrating Isambard Kingdom Brunel as an earworm, but then, I also can’t think of a gig where one of the support acts would be Phill Jupitus doing poetry. Actually, there was a lot about this show that was new to me, including much of the headline band’s material.

This was one of those shows I attended after the sheer weight of word-of-mouth recommendations that I received – that and already being familiar with Andrew O’Neill’s own standup work – and I wasn’t disappointed. While being lumped in with the Steampunk “scene”, TMTWNBBFN are more a punk band that just happen to sing about Victorian life, politics, engineers and heroes, really. Oh, and the odd Lovecraftian reference. They are hilariously funny, have hooks catchier than many Victorian diseases, and you really should go and see them live before they too vanish into the sea at Margate in the grip of Cthulhu…

Number_18The Pain Machinery
Live at Electrowerkz, Islington

I’ve been banging on about the brilliance of TPM’s hard-hitting, aggressive EBM for a while now, but this was my first opportunity to see them live. As it happened, this wasn’t a perfect show – the usual oh-so-ropey-sound at Electrowerkz did for that – but there was enough here to see exactly why TPM are so highly regarded. There were the punchy beats, and the snarled, dripping-with-fury vocals, not to mention kick-ass tunes. For the younger members of the audience (of which there were a refreshing number), this was a lesson in live EBM.

Number_17American Head Charge
Live at The Garage, Highbury

A band who I’m frankly amazed survived this long – even with a hiatus and having one member die along the way – came roaring back in 2013 with a live show that brought back fond memories of the time I saw them support Rammstein in 2002. Ok, so it wasn’t quite as insane (back then, it looked like the band were more likely to start a riot onstage than complete their set), but being down the front was an exhilarating experience as the band blasted into their back catalogue from the off, and while playing a set that any AHC fan would appreciate, made it clear that they were enjoying it just as much as we were. Nice to see some bands still actually fucking enjoy what they do…

Live at The Lexington, Islington

By no means the first reunited band I saw in 2013 (and certainly not the last, either), but this was one of the more heartwarming shows of the year. A clearly nervous Sarah Blackwood – the venue was heaving, and long sold-out – was reassured by the crowd and gradually relaxed to deliver a set that covered the band’s whole history, even including, as I recall, at least one new song. Pick of the night, though, came from an unexpected source – the opening cover of the New Wave classic I’m in Love With A German Film Star that, stripped away to it’s core was miles better than the original. It kinda summed up what I loved of Dubstar – a fragile beauty that toyed with pop stylings and somehow produced something quite unique.

Number_15Six By Seven
Live at The Lexington, Islington

After having not seen the band live for around ten years, I caught the newly re-formed band three times in 2013, and they got better and better with each show, culminating in this triumphant (and very busy indeed) show at The Lexington – one of the most civilised locations in North London to see a gig. Like their other gigs this year, they concentrated for the main set on playing the entirety of their (great) new album Love and Peace and Sympathy, and having had months of honing it, this show had it sounding better than ever. The encore, though, made this set rise above the others – another take on So Close was fine, but a searing Eat Junk Become Junk was a reminder of why we loved the band in the first place.

Number_14Leonard Cohen
Live at The O2 Arena, North Greenwich

I don’t often get to see a bona-fide “legend” these days – I’m not too interested in seeing many of them, although Prince has remained on my bucket list for well over twenty years, saying that – so this was a rare opportunity to do so. All told, it was an epic (nearly three hour!) trip through forty years of the great man’s career, full of great songs, smart humour and a dedication to the cause of music that many younger artists could do with watching and learning.

Live at Electric Ballroom, Camden

Despite my long-time love of Black Metal, I’ve – perhaps surprisingly – never seen too many Black Metal bands live. But then, maybe, that’s because this is one genre I generally prefer to listen to in the comfort of my own home – and this gig was one that started me reappraising this view. Why? Because they were fantastic. They played pretty much a set of entirely their strongest material (Sworn To The Dark and Reaping Death in particularly were absolutely scorching live), they had an impressive, fire-heavy stage presence, not to mention somehow carrying across the feeling of malevolence that permeates every second of their albums. I was kinda glad to see or smell no blood, mind…

Number_12Click Click
Live at Infest Festival, Bradford

By far the best of the bands at Infest 2013 – a weekend that saw a number of solid performances, a couple of disappointments but little else in the way of musical standouts, although the festival is returning in 2014 after all – was this band, originally active in the eighties, and then the late-nineties, with this time around being their third period active. Just two onstage – an enigmatic vocalist and a drummer with some highly unusually treated percussion – and a whole lot of restrained fury, narcotic-fuelled nightmare lyrics and fantastic, industrial tunes made for an enthralling set that easily was better than everything else at the festival.

Number_11Girls Against Boys
Live at Electric Ballroom, Camden

Of all the returns to the live arena in 2013, I think the return of GVSB was by far the most unexpected – new material dropped out of nowhere in the summer (the first for over ten years), quickly followed by European shows, although it took until early December until they finally played London. The wait was worth it, though. An hour or so allotted, as a support to Superchunk, and GVSB rolled back the years with a set based around their heyday (in years, 1991-1996, broadly, or in album terms, Venus Lux through to House of GVSB), and even the new material fitted right in. Part nostalgia trip, part old-band-teaching-younger-fans-a-thing-or-two, this was a fantastic hour. Whether they are back longer-term is another question…

Number_10Amanda Palmer
Live at Fox & Cutlass, Dalston

Kickstarter has done many wonderful things – particularly in terms of enabling artists to look beyond the traditional sources of funding for albums and tours – and while it hasn’t worked for everyone, Amanda Palmer raised a quite astonishing amount of money for her latest album proper. I was one of the many funders, and along with my now financée, we clubbed together with forty-eight others for one of the house parties (it didn’t come cheap). Eighteen months after funding, a date was finally nailed down, and off we went to a quiet corner of Dalston, in a deeply strange basement venue, for one of the odder gigs I’ve attended.

The thing was, prior to this gig, I was questioning my love of Amanda Palmer’s music. Theatre Is Evil wasn’t quite as great as I’d hoped – indeed, it was grossly overblown, frankly, and wasn’t anywhere near as good as her previous material – but this gig reaffirmed my faith in her. There was no band, just Amanda and a backing vocal of fifty, for the most part, old songs, new songs, borrowed songs (i.e. covers), and a lot of chat with the crowd. And you know what? It was fucking marvellous, and was the kind of gig never to be repeated.

Number_09The Breeders
Live at The Forum, Kentish Town

Yes, another gig where the whole point is nostalgia. Yes, it’s not great in the long run – if all we support is nostalgia, there isn’t a lot of hope for the future of music, frankly, and indeed I try my best to support as much new music as possible – but there are times where I’ll put my misgivings aside and join the scrum, and this was one of those times. I’ve been into The Breeders – and more especially their earlier material – for over twenty years now, and this was the first time I’d seen them live.

Playing all of Last Splash – an album that was far more diverse and interesting than lead single Cannonball ever suggested – was an utter joy, particularly as the reunited lineup appeared to be enjoying it as much of most of the crowd were, but the big surprise came when the encore turned out to be all of their debut Pod! In other words, everything I’d ever have wanted to hear from the band in one night, with the possible exception of Safari, but I really couldn’t complain after this…

Number_08Front Line Assembly/Haujobb
Live at The Garage, Highbury

Something of a triumphant year generally for FLA (riding on the back of last year’s Airmech and now Echogenetic – the album of 2013, amongst many other accolades – their best material in years), their return to electronics without the assistance of guitars had us wondering how the gigs were going to go. The answer? Just as heavy and hard-hitting as ever, but without the guitars (for the most part), it meant an interesting choice of material, including some old tracks not played live by the band in about seventeen years or more. Overall, though, this was the band connecting with their past while looking forward in jaw-dropping style.

Support Haujobb were also brilliant, too (for me the iVardensphere set that night wasn’t as good – they work much better in my opinion with the full tribal-percussive attack onstage), with a short-ish set spanning their entire history and revealing a live sound rather rawer than the ultra-produced, ultra-clean sound on record, and all the better for it here.

Live at Resistanz Festival, Sheffield

If I’d been a betting man, I would have put fairly safe money on it not being Neuroticfish stealing the show at Resistanz this year. To mine and many others surprise, though, it was them that did – an hour of emotional, memory-laden synthpop that utterly raised the roof…and served two useful functions, too. One was to remind how many great songs this band had, and the other was to herald the return of FuturePop (or whatever we want to call it this time) which looks set to accelerate in 2014. Neuroticfish’s contribution to the latter was an EP of three new songs, all of which were aired and all were near flawless. As I noted at the time, each of us had our own song from the set that caused us to shed a tear or two in what they invoked, but for the rest of the time we were all smiles as we realised just how brilliant what we were witnessing was.

Number_06Bitter Ruin
Live at a Private House, Plumstead

Over the past few years, since being introduced to Bitter Ruin thanks to supporting Amanda Palmer, I’ve seen the band a lot (around ten times, we think). But none of the shows we’d seen previously, or since, quite matched the unusual nature and wonderful feel of this. So, in the interests of full disclosure, like the previously mentioned Amanda Palmer show, this was the result of Kickstarter funding. It was rather different in feel to the AFP “houseparty” that followed a few weeks later, too – held at a house in South-East London, it was a truly friendly event, with lots of socialising, food and booze prior to the actual performance, which was enlivened by a game of “pin the tail on the setlist” to pick songs, requests and some fascinating Q&A between songs. Not your average gig, needless to say, but well worth the journey, the time, and the money.

Number_05Godspeed You! Black Emperor / Pharmakon
Live at O2 Academy, Brixton

Yeah, so I saw GY!BE last year, and they were brilliant then – and for the most part, we got the same set here, but everything in this was better. A towering Mladic rocked harder, the sheer intensity ratcheting up higher and higher before finally grinding to a halt in seeming exhaustion. Behemoth got a bit of an edit – so only about thirty-five minutes this time – but all of it was capped off by a glorious airing of The Sad Mafioso, the pummelling, rhythmic heart of first album F#A# [infinity], something in all honesty I never thought I’d hear live, ever.

Also notable was the choice of support – bristling NYC noise artist Pharmakon, who in channelling both Whitehouse and Jarboe at the same time in her music and performance apparently left much of the audience rooted to the spot in terror (I suspect something of that volume and power was not quite what they were expecting supporting GY!BE!). Her performance included singing words directly into the eyes of the front row, which must have been an unsettling experience for those involved (this is not happy music, that’s for sure), but from a bit further back this was an exhilarating, fascinating performance that comes highly recommended…if you like viciously aggressive, loud industrial noise.

Number_04My Bloody Valentine
Live at Apollo, Hammersmith

The legend of MBV gigs has long persisted, and indeed somehow been enhanced since their return to live performance in the last decade. Their spring 2013 tour was the first time I’d managed to obtain a ticket, and I’m happy to confirm that their formidable live power (and volume) is not exaggerated. The torrent of guitars played through countless pedals and effects swirls around your brain like a raging storm, but crucially the sound is so well balanced that the beauty and fragility at the heart of many of their songs is not lost. The new songs fitted in well – cut from the same chaotic cloth, of course – and indeed at points bettered some of the old favourites (particularly the closing Wonder 2, which sounds even more outrageously good live). There were, though, two moments that stick in the mind. One, of course, was the scorched earth noise at the heart of the extended You Made Me Realise – without question the loudest part of a gig I’ve ever heard in my life, and the only moment at a show I’ve ever experienced where I feared my (professional grade) earplugs were not going to be up to the job – so effortlessly controlled that the snap back into the song itself, just where they left it, was utterly seamless; the second was the seven minutes of sultry, pounding joy that is Soon. Not sure I’ll repeat the experience, but this was ninety minutes of noisy brilliance.

Number_03Teeth of the Sea
Live at The Lexington, Islington

I first discovered TotS thanks to a friend proclaiming that they were the best live band of the moment. It took a while to see them – I missed out on three sold-out shows before I finally got a ticket for their autumn show at The Lexington – and I have this feeling I actually chose wisely. Mainly as that gig happened to co-incide with the day that their awesome new album MASTER (#2 in the albums of the year 2013) was released, and a fair proportion of the set was dominated by material from it. Live, though, the songs took on a new dimension, performed by a band of four that seemed to do the work of at least eight, with a confidence and tightness that was simply jaw-dropping. Their star – and reputation – just keeps on rising, on the evidence of this, and the new album, it was not hard at all to see why.

Number_02The Knife
Live at The Roundhouse, Camden

With grateful thanks to my friend Zara for offering me a last-minute ticket to the show (I’d otherwise have missed out), this is absolutely one show I’d have been kicking myself for missing had I not gone. Like their sprawling album Shaking The Habitual that these shows were part of the promotion for, this was not an easy and accessible gig, and indeed it divided the audience considerably in the aftermath.

But then, what did we expect? The Knife have always been a group challenging perceptions, with fairly drastic changes of style and sound between albums, and here they chose to take things one step further by blurring the lines between live performance and performance art. Initially it was difficult to tell what (if anything) was being played live, and later it dawned on us that it was difficult to work out who the members of The Knife themselves were (the on-stage personnel additionally saw about eight, nine or more from the Sorkklubben “dance” group perform with them) behind the masks and costumes that were frequently changed.

In a cavernous space like the Roundhouse, it worked well – a brilliantly balanced sound meant nothing was lost, even if some of the more experimental moments of the new album might have lost the crowd a bit. There was barely a nod to their past, either, save for one moment from their debut (Got 2 Let U) that pierced the darkness of the new in a glorious ray of sunshine, while the closing Silent Shout was completely transformed into a euphoric rave monster that then was faded perfectly into a DJ set to close out the night.

I commented on my FB feed that night that (to paraphrase one of the greatest moments of the new album) “without The Knife my life would be boring”. It’s a view that still stands.

Live at K20 Grabbehalle, Düsseldorf

2013 started so well gig-wise that there wasn’t possibly another one that was going to touch this. And so it proved – perhaps everything else just seemed a bit of a disappointment after seeing two hours of electronic perfection like this. We took a chance with heading to Germany to see one of the electronic pioneers’ first shows in their home city in over twenty years – we’d have missed out on tickets for the Tate Modern shows, as it turned out in the chaos that ensued there – and despite some travel nightmares (it was the heaviest snow of the winter that week, which stuffed our trains through Brussels and Koln to the point that we only got to our hotel in ‘dorf with two hours to spare before the gig!) I’m so glad we made the effort.

Everything about it was perfect. I got to see my favourite album in it’s entirety (Die Mensch Maschine), and a second set covering everything else I’d ever want to hear, all within two hours. Billed as a 3D show, that didn’t let us down either, with visuals in eye-popping 3D as well as effective surround sound (used most spectactularly on Tour de France and Trans-Europ Express), but more broadly there was a general sense of the pioneers of electronic and dance music – in that their work is the direct root of pretty much everything that followed – updating their offering to reach a new generation, and also simply to remind just how damned awesome their music still is.

In short, this was one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. Two hours of utter perfection, and thinking of moments from the gig since still give me the chills.

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