Chain and the Gang and Sacred Paws, CCA, Glasgow, 27th November / Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat, R.M. Hubbert and Gordon Legge, DCA, Dundee, 28th November
Upstairs at the DCA, in from the cold to a gallery emptied of art and filled with red plastic chairs, like a school assembly. Art and music don’t mix, right? Art and pop don’t mix, neither can survive the other’s glare — of hauteur, of hatred. But before pop could get going in this art place (much more pure art than the CCA, if pure art is white walls and precious captions), there was some reading to be done, and it was as though whoever put the evening together had dredged Scotland for an intonation more dour than Aidan Moffat’s. I was too impatient to follow the story he was reading, but Gordon Legge had the crowd stupefied with his resigned monotone, at a higher pitch that Moffat’s, and slightly scuffed. This was presence too, hypnotic as exhaustion, and few left, so maybe the others were listening. But it struck me as too pure art in attitude.
Ian Svenonius jumped, and kept shrieking something akin to Iggy’s ‘Shake!’, which it gradually dawned on me must be ‘Chain!’ He jumped four, five feet, it seemed, kicking outwards and somehow missing the front teeth of the front row. He and Katie had most of the P.A.’s volume — you could hear the band, but this was a vocal performance, and a largely improvised one at that. Svenonius can go off piste whenever the mood takes him, and he riffed, because of the CCA, on the subject of contemporary art, dispensing advice such as, don’t make any art in the first two decades of a century, and work in stone, because nothing else — especially not live performance — will last. But as well as art there is having a good time to consider, he conceded. He jumped into the audience a few times so he could sing directly at people, at least one of whom cracked up at the deadpan stare. Katie didn’t do that, but her zombie jitterbug demeanour was hyperactive enough, and made me think of Edinburgh School for the Deaf. Each casually held their microphone backwards without looking when the guitarist or the bassist (who chewed a toothpick the whole time) was required for backing vocal duties. It was slick-ish but also chaotic, a dizzying, exhilarating performance.
R.M. Hubbert gave a more static performance but a more moving one. His guitar playing was incredible, relaxed but virtuosic, and included on several songs a rhythm tapped intricately on the instrument’s body whilst he played at least two other parts on the strings. It wasn’t an ostentatious kind of virtuosity, it was sounds lost inside themselves, with a warmth and a succour that contrasted with the prettiness of Alasdair MacLean’s equally proficient playing with Amor de Dias the other week. Hubbert’s between-song chat was candid and self-deprecating, the opposite of Svenonius’ hilarious and invigorating posturing. He talked about the death of his parents, and a twenty-year struggle with depression. He recommended therapy, but said he prefers playing gigs. ‘In therapy you sit there and talk for an hour, the therapist doesn’t say much. You pay him and you leave.’ Gigs fulfil the same function, with the money flowing the other way, ‘which works better for me.’ This sounds joyless and self-absorbed, but it didn’t come across that way, it’s hard to say why. It was partly the music, but that wasn’t the whole story. One song was about his ex’s father, who died whilst he was away on tour, and he plays the song so that he can remember him for a few minutes each day. A lovely man, we were told, but modest. ‘Me telling you all about him... he would have fucking hated it’ said Hubbert, a glint in his eye.
But we’re straying from pop and art now. So this might be the time to flit back to the CCA and mention Stephen Pastel’s ‘guerrilla film screening’ in a side room before the bands played on Tuesday. The idea was to show the episode of This Is Our Music (the MTV show) about él records impresario Mike Alway, on the basis that Ian Svenonius once made a record under his direction, playing the Alway-created character David Candy. Interviewed by Stephen after the twenty-odd minute screening, Ian recalled how he had fallen under Alway’s spell to the extent that he agreed to come to London for a month to make a record for him, with Alway supplying the concept, the look and the musicians. When they met, Alway told him that ‘The musicians aren’t quite ready yet’, and they remained not ready for some time. Come the last few days before Svenonius’ return flight to America, he finally told him, ‘The musicians are ready, you’re going to have to go to Bristol.’ In Bristol the musicians, él regulars, said ‘Don’t tell Mike, but we haven’t prepared any music.’ So they knocked the record out in a day or two, and Ian caught his return flight. He re-recorded some of the material later on, but Mike said ‘No, it’s perfect.’ ‘I don’t think he understood that other people knew who I was,’ speculated Ian, of this makeover in Alway’s 1968 mould. In the film Alway admitted to a fascination with the ’60s but denied that the records he puts out are retro. ‘Because... Who would want to buy them?’ he argued, winningly.
Sacred Paws seemed totally at odds with Alway’s high concept, hands off approach. A duo, drums and guitar, Eilidh out of Monorail and Rachel out of London, which sounds impractical, but it works. Rachel’s guitar sounded like Four Brothers, like early Orange Juice. Harder, but that sort of rapid melodic meander. She said she’d hurt herself dancing to — what was it, George Michael? — and that she normally danced more on stage. She still danced quite a bit. Hair skewed immaculately to one side and wearing no shoes, she had presence too. Once the two of them started to play two different songs, and came to a stop after a few seconds. Eilidh started talking, but Rachel banged out some open non-chords to drown her out. ‘You were about to apologise,’ she said, accusingly. One song near the end of their set gelled so suddenly and so beautifully out of its shifting rhythms that I was transported to the bit which does that in New Order’s ‘Perfect Kiss’. Not a bad first impression.
Are Bill and Aidan pop? Didn’t they put out a cover of Bananarama’s ‘Cruel Summer’? And isn’t the CD decorated, bereft of text, with a fearsome photo of the sun, filling the small disc? So yes and no. Chris was reassured at the sight of the trumpet player, stage right, who looked, as he put it, like an ‘equable Rasputin’. This was Robert Henderson, he explained, from the Bill Wells Trio. That time at the Tron Theatre... ‘Oh my God’ I exclaimed, remembering the most beautiful half hour of music I suspect either of us has ever heard. ‘Exactly. Robert Henderson just makes things better.’ And he did. His muted trumpet sidled its way around Bill’s spare chords like fog on film, giving Aidan a platform a mile high and three miles around. And he rose to this occasion, which is what makes the collaboration a success, I think. The first time I heard them together (minus Henderson) I thought he did a decent job but diminished Bill’s music. I’ve come around since then, and I enjoyed the set a lot, including Aidan’s predatory persona (particularly in ‘Man of the Cloth’, where he dresses up as a vicar at a Hallowe’en party). Such grounded, linear stories as Aidan tells can seem too well defined, their sharp edges bound to puncture... the fog. But you can’t puncture fog. And it can be heightened by the sense that behind it there lurks a hidden danger.