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Thursday, 26 March 2015

THROWBACK THURSDAY: The Wildhearts, Cardiacs, Deckard - London Astoria - 8th December 2004

I wrote this review for a now long-defunct music and movie review site. This was the only gig that I got into for free as press, and the only VIP pass I've ever had. I got there early and interviewed Deckard backstage (tragically that interview appears to have been lost to the digital ether) and then went to the show. 

Out of respect to my 25 year old self, I present this review un-edited or polished. Consider it a postcard from the past.

Enjoy.

This is a story of irritations and setbacks, and a tale of triumph over adversity. In the teeth of some moderately serious idiocy, we, the gig going public, were treated to a fantastic display of vibrant British rock by some of its finest proponents.

The idiocy begins with the gig taking place on a Wednesday - Wednesday night at The Astoria, for heavens sake? - and is compounded by the fact that, for reasons best known to the venue controllers, the band start times are moved forwards at the last minute. Which means that, with doors opening at 7, DECKARD take the stage a mere 20 minutes later, with the predictable result that less than half the audience has even turned up yet. It’d be a shabby way to treat any support band, but when you’re dealing with musicians with the ability, stage presence, talent and professionalism of Deckard, it borders on the criminal.

They take it totally in their stride, naturally, because they ARE bloody professionals, and they let rip with opener ‘Conversation’ as though they were playing a sold out home gig in a stadium. Which, frankly, with song writing this good, they should be. Conversation is a superb tale of the heart pounding moment of first contact with someone you’re attracted to, and it’s delivered with serious gusto. Lead singer Chris Gordon has a superb range, and hits the highs with real confidence and power. It’s a treat, and when they segue straight into the punky, angry ‘She’s In Pain’ (lead track from the second Baby Chaos Album ‘Love Your Self-Abuse’), it’s a really thrilling moment. The song is dispatched with real energy, and when it closes, the audience responds warmly and vocally.

‘What Reason’ follows, a gentler, more reflective song, that nonetheless builds really impressively (with a midsection that has faint echoes of Queens ‘Under Pressure’). The band’s impressive dynamic range, on both this and the next track ‘When Picking Fights’ is somehow even more exciting in the live arena, and some of these chorus rushes really leave you feeling transported. Again, the vocal delivery is passionate, and everyone looks really into it - Grant McFarland (guitars) nods and sways, and Bobby Dunn (bass) looks like he’s fighting off some particularly aggressive swarms of insects with only limited success. Their tightness as a unit is also undeniable, and they manage to make it look, if not totally effortless, then certainly a total blast.

Midway, through ‘To Your Soul’ (a standout track from the excellent ‘Dreams of Dynamite and Divinity’ album) it strikes me that Chris reminds me of Thom York without all that obnoxious pretension, and as the song builds again to the falsetto chorus conclusion and then pounds on into the mid section, you find yourself pondering just how much longer a band this gifted and strong can possibly remain largely unnoticed. As if to underline the point, they launch into ‘Sperm’, a gloriously angsty pop-punk blast of total genius that just leaves me breathless. I find myself worrying that someone might do themselves an injury with the passion they bring to playing this. Two things really impress: one is that they can play a song they first wrote 10 years ago with such obvious joy, and secondly, just how little the song has aged. New Found Glory would sell their souls to be able to write something with this much heart, guts, and menace, and they still wouldn’t be able to make it sound this good. A 3 minute masterpiece. This performance also provides the missing link between the two incarnations, and by the time set closer ‘We’re Aching’ has blown us away, there is no Baby Chaos, and Deckard. There is only Deckard, a fantastic, livewire, superbly passionate and dangerously skilful band. It is utterly unthinkable that they will remain in relative obscurity for much longer - my firm advice is to get on board now. You will not regret it.
15 out of 10

After a short break, the Astoria crowd is visited by CARDIACS, and things get mighty strange. In fact, they get f**king mental. Cardiacs have managed to provide a unique challenge for this reviewer: These guys are so very far off the map, I suspect them of inhabiting a parallel universe, where the rules of music as we understand them have been distorted almost beyond recognition. Consequently, I have almost no frame of reference for what they do, making it kind of hard to describe.
In appearance, they look weirdly formal - they all wear suits and ties, and have burgundy sashes over their shoulders. They are all shaven headed except for one guitarist, who has a mop of dark hair that might charitably be referred to as unkempt, and who resembles Tim Burton. Which seems appropriate, because the music starts to resemble the soundtrack to a movie of his that was wisely abandoned before filming commenced. It’s - here’s that word again - MENTAL.. For instance, they do a song that seems to change key every 4 bars or so, cycling through at least 4 keys. Every single time, without fail, that the listener manages to tune in on either a riff, or a rhythm, they change it. Every single time. This has to be deliberate, and what it means it that you spend the entire gig feeling like you’re having the rug pulled out from under you. Also, the sheer number of different musical styles that any one song bounces through makes listening an oddly exhausting experience, because your attention is constantly being assaulted by some new, jarring change. The vocalist (and I assume lyricist) has a stylistic approach that put me in mind of what might happen if Suggs from Madness was force-fed PCP for several months while locked in a pitch black room. Whereas most of the rest of the musical world might view Frank Zappa as a unique visionary, these guys seem to have taken his existence as a personal challenge to be even weirder and less accessible. And boy, do they go at it with gusto!

I should mention at this point that they are breathtakingly tight together - the songs are constantly changing,, stopping, violently shifting tempos and styles, some times apparently at random (the second song in the set is constantly either slowing down or speeding up throughout, creating a feeling I can only describe as aural sea sickness), but of course it never is random, and pulling off music this complex is only possible with serious skill and cohesion. Cardiacs have both in spades, and they really seemed to buzz off watching the consternation and confusion amongst the Wildhearts’ fans (Ginger, who loves them, must have been pissing himself backstage). This confusion is only compounded by the fact that there is a sizable Cardiac contingent in the crowd, who follow every mind-melting twist and jaw-dropping flurry with a downright eerie level of attention. None of the confusion is abated by the one monologue from the singer (which followed the only song of the set that one might loosely term ‘normal’ and which featured a guitar solo section that gave me goosebumps). Instead of a moment of clarity, we are told solemnly about bones, and how his bones kept him awake last night by talking to him. Then into more musical insanity.

To say reaction was mixed is an understatement - Bill Hicks once spoke of people ‘looking like a dog being shown a card trick’ which probably describes me for most of the show, and I wasn’t alone - and I wouldn’t like to predict how the rest of the tour is going to go. But I have to admit to being utterly transfixed for the whole show, and came away impressed enough to buy a CD, if utterly baffled. I give them between 3 and 9 out of 10, depending on your own capacity for bare assed lunacy, but they score several thousand out of ten for originality.
Ginger in a recent interview referred to THE WILDHEARTS as the cockroaches of rock (“they just can’t kill us.”), and this whole tour seems to be made up of survivors. Deckard first toured with The Wildhearts 10 years ago as Baby Chaos, and Cardiacs have been going since 1989, all three bands having been through a great deal in those years, and if that fact that none have experienced the massive commercial success they clearly deserve could cause one to question the existence of natural justice, the fact that they are all still able to turn up and kick ass on a Wednesday night in London is surely testament to a certain amount of grit and never-say-die attitude. Which is handy, because, as ever with The Wildhearts, nothing seems capable of going 100% smoothly.

Things start off well enough, as the band attack ‘Loveshit’ with gusto, and the Astoria predictably erupts. Ginger is simply one of the best song writers in the business, with his uniquely dark-but-humorous lyrical approach and amazing ability to marry riff and melody, and as the set rolls on, you realise just how many fantastic songs these guys have produced over the years (second track ‘Red Light/Green Light’ providing a superb example). And they play with such spirit! The energy on the stage really seems to match the heat and insanity of the pit, and it’s a pleasure to see a band so tuned into their audience. Newer song ‘Top Of The World’ bounces along well with the older material, killing off any suggestions that The Wildhearts have become their own tribute band, and Vanilla Radio then completes the burial, to an enthusiastic crowd response. It sadly also marks the first appearance of a guitar tech on stage, a sight with becomes more common as the gig rolls on, to Ginger’s obvious frustration.

After a frankly sublime, ‘Nina Nitro’, Ginger talks to the crowd for the first time tonight. Explaining that time is tight and that the band is just going to keep playing without encores ‘until they pull the plug halfway through a song or something’ (!) he goes on to announce that the set-list for tonight was picked by fans voting for what they wanted to hear through the website (‘So if you don’t like it, blame yourselves!’). This produces a large cheer, which builds to a roar as the intro to ‘Sick of Drugs’ rings out, and we’re off again. ‘I Wanna Go Where The People Go’ and the epic ‘Schitzophonic’ kick off magnificently, building to ’Everlone’, which even in a night of uniform brilliance managed to excel. Unfortunately, after enduring some ‘friendly fire’ in the form of half full beer cans flung at the stage that proves too annoying to endure in silence, when the song ends we are treated to a withering tirade from Ginger of the subject of wasting beer (‘Have you not seen how much they charge for it, fer f**ks sake?!? Well, next time, don’t bloody turn up - you’ll not be missed!’). On paper, it looks a little petulant, but Ginger, is, well ,Ginger, and instead of boos his remarks draw warm laughter and a roar of approval. Having gotten that off his chest, we’re treated to a real blast from the past in the form of ‘Weekend’. How this song can possibly sound as fresh as it does is simply beyond me, but the crowd laps it up, and even being laughed at by Ginger for sounding like a Bon Jovi audience doesn’t stop us singing along full throated. Glorious.

Following ‘So into You‘, we‘re admonished to go and buy Deckard’s album from the merchandising stand (in a moment of rare understatement Ginger refers to it as ‘F**king brilliant‘), and we’re also asked how we liked Cardiacs, which produces the funniest moment of the night, as various crowd members cheer, boo, and yell ‘They were MENTAL!!!’. The Theme tune from Cheers provokes further gratuitous audience participation.

After the song, a minor disaster strikes: both guitars need attention, but, as Ginger ruefully explains ‘the label is so tight we’ve only got one guitar tech!’. Given Ginger’s reputation for volatility, it’s a nervous moment, but he clearly decided to settle for an impassioned rant of the subject of professionalism and ‘rock on a budget’. It’s a further tribute to his charisma and the goodwill of the crowd that this came off like a stand-up routine rather than a petulant whinge, and we sympathetically filled the temporary gap with a rousing rendition of ‘Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me’. The band gradually joined in as instruments were returned to them, and what could have become an ugly scene instead became a magic live experience.

Suitably cheered, they close the set out with a flurry of newer material, before closing with an insanely brilliant, majestic rendition of ‘Caprice’. Then with little fanfare, the band leaves the stage, the lights come up, AC/DC pour out of the PA Speakers, and the inevitable boos of disappointment roll out from the crowd before we all shuffle out to queue for several hours for our coats. But no-one is grumpy, and the buzz in the queue is massive. Everyone is chatting about the gig, sharing favourite moments, trying to commit it all to memory. For The Wildhearts, it was just another typically averagely brilliant performance - just another Saturday night. Except, of course, they pulled it off on a Wednesday. This short tour boasts an outstanding bill, and a real showcase of awesome, outstanding British talent. I implore you to get your asses out there and see these shows. You owe it to yourselves.

Wildhearts - 11 out of 10. Overall gig score: 30/10.


Magic.