Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Onion Club – ‘American Apocalypse Now!’ at Hospitalfield Arts, Arbroath, 27th January


In the week that Mark E. Smith died, we ventured out for (I think) our third winter Onion Club show of recent years, at the best venue they play, a sort of mini-castle with a chandelier and a huge oil painting (or at least its frame) visible through a first storey window, and rooms with curved walls which snuggle together to make a courtyard. The room where they play, on the ground floor, has a low ceiling and tastefully lit stone walls. I imagine they probably live there all the time, playing non-stop, and every so often have the public around to see how they’re getting along. Which era they’ve reached, what spin they’re putting on things. As previously reported, their touchstone era is the 1920s, and they interpret songs from other times and places as though all times and places were the Weimar Republic. I am reaching the end of my historical tether here, but a quick search throws up:
Like few others, the names Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht are synonymous with the radical politics and cultural innovation of the Weimar Republic. Most famously with their hit Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), but also with numerous other collaborative pieces, the duo represented everything that the Nazi regime declared its enemy. The Jewish Weill and the Marxist Brecht were thus some of the earliest and most obvious targets of Nazi cultural oppression. (From holocaustmusic.ort.org).
In taking on the State Of America And How It’s Going To Kill Us All Before Trump’s First Term Is Up, via a cabaret show, The Onion Club are connecting with a powerful moment of twentieth century history. When the public got to choose between glitter and gold, and chose the wrong one. Clearly the public has not learned a damn thing, in the intervening years.

Opening with a mournful, shattered take on Rufus Wainwright’s ‘Going to a Town’ (‘I’m so tired of you, America’ the dominant refrain), they embarked upon a more sombre apocalypse than might have been expected. Much of the tone of the show, though there were plenty of fun moments, was quietly regretful, the big surprise for me how beautiful they made Radiohead’s ‘Lucky’: I’m not a fan, but it was great, funereal, lost, delicate as dew. And, as, S. pointed out, ‘pull me out of the aircrash’ works as a retrospective 9/11 reference. I’m also not a fan of Depeche Mode or The Doors, but wonders were done with ‘Personal Jesus’ and ‘The End’, for the first of which Pauline became a hectoring preacher, here’s a bit of her intro:
The bad news is you are all damned to eternal hellfire and perpetual torment on account of making diabolical deals with the devil who is walking among us on this earth, who is among us this very evening in the so-called hallowed halls of the arts, which as we know is a breeding ground for lefties, liberals, lesbians and pinko faggots [delighted yelps from the audience here]. The good news is, ah can save you. […] You just need to form an orderly line and get your CREDIT CARDS READY, ALRIGHT!
Stephen pared back his piano playing to thumped notes, and added some extra bass fizz with the Microkorg at his elbow. The preacher bluesed it up for all the cash he could charm or scare out of his congregation. Meanwhile ‘The End’ was a plink plonky vamp with a chilling interlude in which New York was glimpsed, after the bomb. No, wait, after the Martians’ death rays. Of course.

As well as the Microkorg, there was another synth stage left, just past the angel wings, used for helicopter noises after ‘Crack of Doom’ and in the run up to ‘Lucky’. This was quite a radical departure for a group that is usually hard line piano, singing and dressing up. That, and the fact that none of the songs in the set (as far as I could tell) pre-dated the 1960s felt like a shift of approach: facing up to a more modern world, perhaps. After the heavy stuff, and the religious stuff (‘God is in the House’ and ‘God’s Away on Business’ remained from previous sets) Pauline donned an American flag and a big gold star for Randy Newman’s ‘Political Science’, its jokey tone horribly close to the actual political discourse of Trump:
We give them money, but are they grateful?
No, they’re spiteful and they’re hateful
They don’t respect us, so let’s surprise them
Let’s drop the big one and pulverise them
What followed as an encore was anything but jokey: John Grant’s ‘Glacier’, a stately and defiant unravelling of the order of things (specifically, the straight, theocratic order of things), a plea not to blindly follow, to trust your own convictions. The personal a rejection of the political (at least, as politics is now). The image of the glacier as pain, ‘carving out deep valleys / And creating spectacular landscapes’ is beautiful. I didn’t know it, clearly I need to listen to more John Grant. In a prolonged instrumental section at the end, Pauline handed out some felt pens for people to write on her arms and back with, bringing the audience in directly at the end of a vulnerable song. I guess this was a counter to its individualism: once the ‘fuckers’ of the lyric have been rejected, it’s important to rebuild too. After the rejection, or after the apocalypse.

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Appendix

Links accumulated writing this review: The Tiger Lillies – ‘Crack of Doom’, Kurt Weill bio, Laurie Anderson – ‘O Superman’, Allen Ginsberg – ‘America’, Father John Misty – ‘When the God of Love Returns There’ll be Hell to Pay’ (lyrics), ‘Pirate Jenny’, Randy Newman – ‘Political Science’ (lyrics), John Grant – ‘Glacier’ (lyrics), ‘Glacier’ (Guardian piece & video).

Misgivings: Is it fair to pile on the links to Weimar when there were no songs from that period, and their sound has moved on? Probably not. But also, in the opposite direction:



Goodnight, Mark E.

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