Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Live Review - Harvey Milk / Oxbow / Take A Worm For A Walk Week

Harvey Milk / Oxbow / Take A Worm For A Walk Week
Stereo, Glasgow
13 July 2008

Words: John Mackie

Sunday night in a cellar with hissy plumbing and a pillar in the middle of the floor. Take A Worm For A Walk Week are 4 westenders ("I was born a stone’s throw from The Captain’s Rest" etc) who left me feeling not a whole hell of a lot. Maybe it’s cause they wear matching spandex leotard things. Maybe it’s the feeling I could be watching ANY band who have set foot in the LOCAL west coast "noisecore", and heavy leaning variants thereof, arena since the late ‘90s. They don’t go into full pelt near enough for my liking and tend to exist in a limbo where they haul back the "paste" and the speed to self consciously shoehorn in a mathy (I guess I’m showing my age and lack of recent engagement in life. Nobody uses that type of terminology any more. We have evolved, you know... aye…) "bob and weave" here and there. Stabs of unwelcome confusion enter the tunes and I find myself wanting them to just put their fucking backs into it rather than continue to try to out think me. That’s not to say that, at least on first listen, they don’t emit a skittishness and disquietude which seems mostly unadulterated by contrivance and their sense of a momentum rush is appealing when they allow themselves the indulgence of letting in the rock.

The musical similarities with tonight’s openers Desalvo (who thankfully I missed, given my previous brushes with their brand of Burntisland Youth Theatre am-dram and lumpy, grumpy, pishy "noise") are clear. Again the culprit is mostly the misplaced humour (see later), though Take A Worm... are obviously a superior act. In short hand terms they favour the jumpy to the elephantine. Take A Worm…’s "presentation" is not reliant on butcher’s aprons or the extremity of your opinions on how shocking you find public appearances from a fat man’s blubber. Sadly their appeal does seem to rise or flounder on how entertaining you find the sight of students leaping around in Rollerball priapic-bulge leotards. I lost all focus when I felt the pain of realisation that the floppy haired vocalist had worked too hard on the sourcing of his onstage banter. I detected the hand of something akin to "exclusive to you" excerpts from thae wonderful worlds of Meatwad and (Erwin) "McSweeney’s" and "Wonder Showzen" and "Adult Swim" or whatever it’s called, as if prior to tonight he had consulted his pals on just where to trawl those archives of alternative Americana which those folk with shoulder crossover "record bags" all love so much. "Well, maybe after song 7 I’ll give them a burst of series one episode 7". I guess he’s spent some time thinking of how such infra dig quotes will sound coming from a man dressed as one of Hesketh Racing’s pit crew. I’m a perma-peeved soul these days. I appreciate folk who play music and don’t give you any shite along with it. Sadly in my fickle mind I now can’t hear any quality in Take A Worm...'s sound. I can't even remember how they sound. All I can recall is one very smug young git in fancy dress trying to impress his pals with some quotes. Maybe I’m being too harsh.

In this worn frame of mind I come upon Oxbow. They are a band I’ve been vaguely aware of since almost the dawn of my time being aware of music and I feel aggrieved now that I never took the time to explore their sound and look on them as being anything more than what I thought to be - "noisy generic hardcore with a muscular semi naked black frontman". Lazy perceptions, though of course only the first bit is wrong. I saw the pictures of an animated grunty Eugene Robinson in full flow and presumed he was espousing the punker "heavier than thou ethos". I guess that ER’s onstage persona is concerned with the challenging of said perceptions or of (racial/sexual) identities or at least the rules of stage craft.

It starts with the sight of Eugene, the aforementioned "muscular, soon to be semi-naked, black man" sharp suited and booted throwing a mic stand into the crowd, yelping randomly, casting off a distinct air of foreboding and cutting many a multi-hued shape. The band rumble and squeeze out dense blocks of sound which break into jerky rhythms and build to cacophony and back in moments of brooding and tenderness one minute and then emptiness and reflection next. They have a great sense of control, of how to build and release and there’s a "restless stranger"-ness to it which I find hugely enjoyable.

Different soundscapes are explored on a whim throughout. Howling blues, folk inflections, the momentum of hardcore, sheer glorious angularity, the precision riffage of the Scratch Acid-types, the old school beats of "the type of band" one used to see in my "glory days" of US noise, the uncertainty of life and the assault and "abrasive textures" of The Swans. It all seems to come from an avant-garde sensibility. The feeling you get when you realise that it’s up to you to create your own tone and identity and rules. The liberation of performance and the search for something, man. These things are all there in Oxbow and I feel an undoubted buzz and shiver from watching them. I found that there was a visceral thrill to be gained when you looked and there was Eugene, rambling and riffing, twisting and projecting, with the falsetto kicking in just as you expect him to unleash a scream and then vice versa, removing a garment after every song until by the end he was leaping around in a pair of boxers, a leather waistcoat and a pair of white socks. For a second I think, maybe it’s all vaudeville and no "depth"?! Then I think, look, would I know depth when I saw it? What is depth anyway? It is awkward at times to gauge the tone of Robinson’s performance (he also seems to have been taking his clothes off on stage/doing a similar show for the whole of Oxbow’s 20 year career), including as it does frequent bouts of "willy adjustment" and fondling.

In my head, I cannot resist the delicious feeling that any sense of spectacle which might have been produced by Take A Worm... wearing "blatantly "cock-hugging uniforms has now been made wholly irrelevant by the nature, as well as the basic abundance, of Eugene’s act, some of which is undeniably vaudeville. This is performance art goddamnit. I have thought long and heard since this gig of whether I should be sceptical of someone who performs and who puts on a "show" and of whether it is wrong to enjoy something so much primarily because of the up front IMPACT of it. Did Eugene’s act make me challenge myself, whatever that means? Well I guess it did. Next to me, a group of Desalvo and Take A Walk...'s WAGs appeared to become genuinely excited by the sight of a well-endowed man pawing himself. Their reaction was of the "Are you feeling hysterical?" "No, he’s feeling mine" variety. Of course for a while in my attempts to "unfold the cranium" I tried to claim that I responded to it in a manner full of probity and intellectual challenge but of course I didn't! I enjoyed the absurdity, the madness, the moments of high camp and for once I enjoyed the attempts to drive through the murk and the mundane and find, as my beloved Werner Herzog would call it, "an ecstatic truth". The feeling which Oxbow left me with of, for once, feeling as I if I was attuned to an ability to look outwards as well as always, always inwards was priceless. To use a cliché popular amongst "you, the living", for once in my life, I went with the flow and I loved this hour of my life with Oxbow.

And after all that came Harvey Milk. Aye, I’m afraid I feel drawn to crass terminology and description. Quite frankly I found them to be …entertaining… but to say that for me they paled in comparison with the massively multi-dimensional Oxbow would be to imply a level of understatement which is clearly beneath me. I guess in the internal climate I was in at the time any band would have seemed severely meat and potatoes after the full smorgasbord presented by Oxbow. HM fully confirmed what I think of them from the records. The pulsing riffage is great and warm and cocoon like, the volume is massive and tantalisingly close to being fully enveloping. "I only wanted the spark, I only wanted your hearts…I only wanted the high, wasn’t much more to my life." Yes. What I wanted was to wade in the volume and the noise and the jest and zest of distortion and bludgeon, something I do dearly love. I do, but I wanted a surprise or two to go with it.

The setlist might well have been written thus -

"1. Slow, lumber-y one lasting for 12 minutes."

"2. Slow, heavier one with a lot of messing about in the middle."

It was just so uniform, so straight. I struggled to see where it was going or what impact it could make on me. I do appreciate the effect of power and repetition and drone but there was something missing on the evidence of tonight’s show which I couldn’t really put my finger on. Maybe it was the intense distraction provided by all the messing about/"indistinct" bits? These have festooned their recordings from the year dot. I just can’t find much appeal in the act of interrupting a passage of pleasing, heavy guitar with some shouting in a silly voice and/or an inexplicable gap in the tune to accommodate "humour". I suspect these additions may be evidence of HM’s own avant-garde/experimental roots and leanings (see above) but for me they present a significant barrier to enjoyment gleaned from HM. At the least, I would class these interludes as "wearing" and as "longeurs" which make me want to tell them to "shut up and play yer guitars", a request which I don’t feel is anything to be ashamed about despite the fact that I am probably from the demographic who you might stereotypically "expect" to offer such advice.

At worst, however, these interludes come across as oddly gloaty and perverse and inexplicable. I guess I’m being too harsh again. The persona of this band of course is not one of smug Take A Worm... young bucks. They do of course have legendary status and first semi-released material in the early 1890’s. Quite simply, they have a pleasing look to them, generous of girth and follicle and are clearly in love with primordial guitar. Their persona’s are warm and it looks like they’re all enjoying it.

I feel mean for fixating on one aspect but the final straw came when a hugely pleasing grinder, one which had more musical ululations and deviations than some in the set, descended into a full take on "Jerusalem" - aye that one, Quentin Blake, or whatever he’s called, God nutter AND handy at drawing the BFG with a red crayola - hollered by the wonderfully named Creston Spiers to a cacophony of comments along the lines of "Fuck Oaf Ya English Bastard" from the knowledgeable, ever-shouty Glasgow crowd. I believe this tune in reality is called "Anvil Will Fall" but whatever its title, it just can’t, all told, be seen as a highlight of any band’s oeuvre. They get away with it because of their affability and the fact that there doesn’t appear to be any wankery motives in doing it. Maybe they’re simply having a blast, and enjoying the response it produces from "typical Weedgies". Look there’s nothing wrong in all this (rewind to what I wrote aboot freedom and avant-garde above). Sadly, it ultimately "challenges" me to an extent where I become confused and leave the building. I can't see the point to it and feel frustrated in how often they deviate from what I find enjoyable in them. Ach, I’m sure the joke’s on me. Well, it is. I think by accident I just found the overall theme of tonight.

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