Once upon a time, whilst looking after his teenage daughter at Reading Festival, my uncle Roger was told to “go home” because he was “too old” to be there. His age wasn’t his fault but Sum 41 and age 41 didn’t add up in the eyes of one particular young lady that afternoon.
Today, when I listen to Indoor Pets, I simultaneously feel like both the uncle and the teenage girl.
I first saw these scallywags as ‘Get Inuit’, supporting The Big Moon a couple of years ago at Ramsgate Music Hall. After a name change and a deal with Wichita, their first album is set for release next month. One song I particularly remember from seeing them live is ‘Pro Procrastinator’:
Yes, the video is tongue in cheek, just a bit of fun, and all that; but it doesn’t take a genius to figure that this is a band that are most likely going to reverberate with teenyboppers and drunk uni students. At best it may soundtrack Made In Chelsea; and when that’s the best, it’s usually a sign for miserable old bastards like me to steer well clear.
It’s not just “I’m wasting my life”, it’s “I love being strange, … where are all the other freaks?”, it’s “I’ll never get that ‘Hi’”. But those hooks… they’re just too good to resist. I’m the dieting chubster; they’re the bacon sandwich. I’m the married man; they’re the new receptionist at work. I’m Homer Simpson; they’re the forbidden donut.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt old when liking new music before. That feels like an odd concept. So often when I hear bands that remind me of those I listened to as a teenager – in this case: The Cribs, Ash, Weezer, etc. – I write them off as copycats or poor impressions of the same old shtick, but it’s a credit to the quality of Indoor Pets that their music appeals to me and seems to offer something a little different.
A trend of upbeat choruses and edgier Cribs-esque middle 8s are somewhat formulaic, but it’s a clever mix. You can definitely see how they will grow up alongside their burgeoning fan base over the coming years. It’s not gonna be wanking dinosaurs forever.
I’m intrigued to hear how consistent their debut album Be Content will manage to be. I’ve pre-ordered the album, but I avoided the ticket bundles. At 30, I wonder if an Indoor Pets gig would already see me creeping towards my first ‘uncle Roger treatment’. And that’s not an attractive-sounding sentence in any sense…
So, my problem with Indoor Pets is ultimately me. I can blame them for writing great songs but it’s more my apparent fear of being chastised by a pissed-up sixteen-year-old girl in a field in Berkshire that categorises them as much as a guilty pleasure as just another band I’m in to. While I’m nowhere near old enough to be frontman Jamie Glass’ dad – even by today’s standards – I’m already old enough to be jealous of the amount of hair he has, and I’m disgustingly jealous of his ability to write dem hooks doeee. (cn I be young still pls?).
One.Three.Nine. is a three-stage review that captures initial reactions and more considered standpoints by writing after more and more listens.
It’s a word we’ve heard a lot over the last few years. In the time Foals have been away from our airwaves, ‘exit’ (with its various hard; soft; deal or no deal; red, white and blue; Br- prefix) has rarely left them. Bored to tears with a lack of progress? Disappointingly, on first listen, that statement feels as relevant to ‘Exits’ as it does Brexit.
An effect-soaked lead guitar riff over a mid-tempo groove is all too reminiscent of Foals’ previous work, yet instead of being accompanied by frontman Yannis Philippakis’ trademark howl, we hear vocal delivered with the same amount of urgency that Britain have shown in negotiating. It feels a long way from when ‘Inhaler’ or ‘What Went Down’ led album campaigns in years gone by.
He’s going on about dreams a lot, but ‘Exits’ is more of a Lee from ‘The Office’ dream than a Martin Luther King one. The biggest issue is that despite being almost six minutes in length, there is so little melodic development. The catchiest and most interesting part has already occurred within 34 seconds.
While the intro grows on you, with robotic trade-offs between bass and guitar, the song slowly builds without ever reaching a peak. In fact, the chorus is actually boring. Instrumental and vocal layers coupled with expansive drum sounds give the impression of vastness, but it’s the aural equivalent of chicken fillet inserts.
Although the verse becomes surprisingly addictive over time, I have come to detest the lethargic drum fill which leads into the chorus in a particularly uninspiring fashion (1:20). It is emblematic of a general lack of conviction; something which Foals have always had in spades in the past.
So, while the solid but unspectacular ‘Exits’ boasts the kind of groove that would allow it function well as an album opener (which I imagine it may well be), it doesn’t feel like a particularly great single. It’s a safe choice that will allow Foals to be welcomed back, securing album and tour pre-sales; but if a new band released this, they’d get relatively little airplay.
I’m sure ‘Exits’ will reach double figures on my play count at some point but, much like Brexit itself, I’m not exactly excited about it.
Journalist Suzanne Moore said, “it’s easier to write about something you hate than something you love”. She’s probably right. We can spend hours in the pub detailing why Bob from accounts is a prick, with an alphabetised mental list of his wrongdoings, shortcomings and fashion faux pas, yet Becky on reception is just “alright”, really. Although writing criticism by its very nature implies perceived authority, it’s much easier to not come across as self-important when you’re not telling people how objectively brilliant something is.
The fact is that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, and there’s a big difference between recommending a TV show or restaurant to a friend and waxing lyrical about something to the entire, incredibly diverse world. What I’m saying is subjective beliefs are absolutely fine but preaching the good word of Weezer to you is not necessarily my business. So, I can only apologise if I come across as some kind of musical Jehovah’s Witness, singing the hymn ‘Say It Ain’t So’ in to your intercom at a particularly unholy hour of your morning lie-in. You were expecting a package, but you got ‘90s geek rock.
I was deep in a YouTube rabbit hole. We’ve all been there… Accidentally spending our Tuesday evenings watching ‘try not to laugh’ compilations, a WWF bout from 1996, clips of Dale’s Supermarket Sweep, or whatever else the internet gods deliver us. But on this occasion, I stumbled upon a 23-year-old VHS upload of the American group Weezer performing ‘Say It Ain’t So’ on the Late Show with David Letterman.
As my ears pricked up and my pixelated eyes began to focus, I became transfixed. It reminded me of how I felt when I first heard ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, and that’s a pretty big deal. Losing my Nirvana virginity triggered a chain of events that made music my hobby, my career, my life; leaving indelible marks on both my musical perceptions and taste. Considering the stature of both songs it may seem like a disproportionate comparison, but both had the same effect on me: I thought it was great, I wondered how I’d not heard it sooner, I wanted to hear it again and again, and I wanted to share it with friends.
Through social media, I did exactly that. Those people all thought it was… well, fine. Fine. Only fine?! It’s great! I mean, I do have the ability to look objectively and understand that it is a technically imperfect performance of a bog-standard rock song, but what the hell is objective about taste? Throughout the last month I’ve watched it around fifty times. Are they the idiots, or am I?
Regardless of subjectivity, I really want to try and explain what it is that sets it apart in my mind from other songs by Weezer and by countless other ‘90s rock groups. It might not make you like it, it may make you think me a moron, but it may also make you consider the reasons you have your own tastes.
To me, this is an authentic performance. It is an original composition. Every band member appears to have an emotional investment in their playing of the song. On national TV, they barely have a hairstyle between them – that is to say nothing seems manufactured or contrived – and therefore I believe what they’re doing and saying.
Of course, authenticity is entirely unquantifiable. Whether you identify with lyrical content, artist image, the geographical origins of the artist, or anything else; your perception of authenticity will in some way reflect your life experience, upbringing and previous musical taste. One comment on the video accuses Weezer of being “a group of social outcast nerds/geeks who started listening to nirvana then learned how to play instruments”. It’s a claim which is all too easy to make about countless rock bands in a post-Cobain America, but it’s one which could just as easily refer to me and my friends as teenagers in Britain. If Weezer did relate to Nirvana like I did, that may explain why I like their musical approach as well…
Musically, there’s a clear Nirvana comparison to be made through the quiet verse / loud chorus template of the ‘Say It Ain’t So’ sound. Kurt Cobain would stamp on a Boss DS-1 distortion pedal to make that change in dynamics and timbre, although there’s an even simpler approach from Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo who just uses his guitar’s volume knob to control the change. In a world of pedalboards and gizmos, this minimalist approach keeps one crunchy tone throughout, leaving the listener focused on the quality of the songwriting and not the variety of the sounds on display. There is a simplicity to the bones of the song too; its four-chord hook never bothered by a doubled chorus or cheesy key change overkill.
3. It’s Better Than the Studio Version
My obsession is as much about the performance as the song itself. I don’t watch, for example, this performance from last year and get even 1% of the same feeling. Features of the Letterman performance, such as drum fills and lead guitar parts, had been slightly developed since the recording of the studio version of the track. On top of this, the whole performance features a slightly quicker tempo and a satisfying, rawer guitar sound. Whether those changes were due to dissatisfaction with the studio version, or simply that they better reflected Weezer at that time, particularly Cuomo delivers his parts with more confidence and conviction. I therefore consider this Letterman performance to be the definitive version of ‘Say It Ain’t So’.
4. The Guitar Solo
This live version features one of my favourite guitar solos of all time. It’s not some virtuosic, faux-epic Guns ‘n’ Roses bullshit (thank God), but those bends wail, they’re emotional. The melody sits perfectly against the backing and, unlike on the overly clinical solo found on the studio version, the heavy vibrato technique which leaves other strings rattling through the engrossed Cuomo’s amp (3.05) perfectly encapsulates the vibrancy and the grit of this performance. The way Cuomo uses the same technique to let the final note hang in to the last chorus is even better, strangling every last breath out of his guitar’s neck.
5. The Chorus
Despite the heavier rock sounds of the guitars, ‘Say It Ain’t So’ unashamedly boasts a chorus just as catchy as pop songs with far greater reputations. Both Rivers and rhythm guitarist Brian Bell play and sing identical parts. No harmonies. No lead guitar parts to distract or complicate. It’s a team effort to deliver one simple idea as a straight down-the-line onslaught.
6. Mr. Matt Sharp
When watching the Letterman performance, it’s particularly hard to ignore bassist Matt Sharp, whose bad timing in the chorus would get him fired if he was standing still. However, his variety of leaps and poses, and the strumming techniques he attacks his bass with more than make up for this, enhancing the visual performance of the group no end. Despite his attention grabbing, he doesn’t come across as a cocky rock star; his moves are excitable but awkward. Plus, the way Sharp extends the word bubbling (0.50) is a perfect indicator of how he doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously. While I’ve got a lot of time for the Radioheads of this world, it’s nice to hear something which has an outlet in humour alongside the serious subject matter found in the lyrics.
7. The Eyes
The other members may not match Sharp’s performance level physically, but they match his dedication. With frontman Cuomo, who was actually recovering from surgery and unable to walk without the aid of a cane (which you can even see hanging off of his mic stand), the performance is in the eyes. Take, for example, the possessed look he gives when he “wrestles with Jimmy” (0.48) or the moment of realisation that he is “drowning in the flood” (2.48), his eyes seeing the light after having kept them shut for the majority of the bridge.
When he does open his eyes, breaking his own spell, his voice breaks. It’s the least noticeable of three times this happens (the most noticeable undoubtedly at the beginning of the final chorus), but I even love the mistakes. Why? Well, it’s unashamedly subjective, but as an unexceptional vocalist myself who has made similar mistakes on stage, it’s nice to see that an imperfect performance can (or at least could in the 90s) still be given a platform to reach millions of people. Throughout popular music history, many bands have been branded around their frontmen. It’s arguably just an unavoidable component of celebrity culture, but Weezer come across very much as a ‘band’s band’, on stage because of group ability rather than individualistic talent.
The ‘realness’ of live performance comes from the potential of human error, and the level of performance above the studio version comes from human development. There is an appropriately youthful mix of both vigour and naivety in this performance that perfectly suits Weezer’s anxious ‘geek rock’. 1995 seemed to be the perfect time for ‘Say It Ain’t So’.
I may not have convinced you that this is a great performance, but I do better understand why I think it is. Clearly, the grunge ideologies from the conception of my musical interests have stuck hard. I hope that as an old dog I’ve learnt some new tricks since 2001, but it’s clear that I also have to recognise that the leopard in me hasn’t changed its spots. To be honest, I should probably be more worried about the number of animals in my psyche than why I like a bit of music.
Anyway… must stop writing. I’ve got things to watch.
I once was given a gift with a poem about a character called ‘Rock Pig’. It read:
Rock Pig don’t like disco
Rock Pig don’t like dance
Rock Pig don’t like ambient
Rock Pig don’t like trance
Rock Pig don’t like R&B
Rock Pig don’t like soul
Rock Pig just likes heavy duty
Bad-Ass ROCK ‘N’ ROLL
To finally put music out under your own name can be a turning point for an artist, a way of making a huge statement, a chance to signal a change of direction, an opportunity to finally release something you felt you couldn’t with any other musician or in any other project up to that point in their life. But what ‘Play’ does is show us exactly what we already know Dave Grohl is about – Bad-Ass ROCK ‘N’ ROLL.
Describing himself as “a kid in a candy store”, Grohl plays an array of musical instruments (well, strings and percussion) to produce a 23-minute instrumental opus. Having seen Foo Fighters produce an acoustic record on double album In Your Honor and even tour that set-up through Skin & Bones, I doubt we’ll ever see their famous frontman do ‘that famous frontman thing’ and truly go it alone. This may be the closest he ever gets…
Despite this, when ‘Play’’s first big riff kicks in, I would have believed anybody who told me that it was a new Foo Fighters song. Full of power, the sudden and synchronised start/stop technique and gradually bending guitar strings have been utilised by them many times before. As the track develops, however, there’s one give away… Despite Foo’s drummer Taylor Hawkins being a hugely respected and talented musician, Grohl is an inimitable animal on the drums; with virtuosic fills and an almost signature sound, it’s great to hear him behind the kit again, where he first made his name.
In fact, there is definitely a little homage to his famous drum intro from ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ at 15:40. That was the first moment that most of the world heard the sound of Dave Grohl on any instrument, at a time when he probably did still feel like a kid. Grohl is clearly aware that that song is a large part of the reason he is paid to ‘Play’ today.
‘Play’ is described as, “Celebrating the rewards and challenges of dedicating one’s life to playing and mastering a musical instrument”; and when you hit play, seven Dave Grohls walk in to a studio to record the track (I bet Grohl’s ex-bandmate Josh Homme wishes he’d thought of that, considering the Queens of The Stone Age band members timeline). When considered alongside his multiple BBC documentaries and supergroup appearances, most musicians in his position would be perceived as arrogant or worse, but he’s still thought of as “the nicest guy in rock”.
Cynics may not believe his humble claim that, “I didn’t know if I could pull [‘Play’] off”, but to me it feels believable. ‘Play’ is accompanied by a video about young people learning instruments and a list of organisations where we can sign up to learn. The key thing here is that unlike the Bonos and Geldofs of this world, he’s not preaching to us about anything apart from music. The kid who still just wants to play. Oh, and he’s also not been done for tax evasion. That always helps.
Despite the undeniable quality of the piece, there are musical limitations. Without lyrics to give a different focus or context on the piece, the quiet/loud/quiet formula Grohl has been perfecting ever since his Nirvana days is particularly blatant, growing slightly weary over 23 minutes. Although a nice touch for the video, changing drum kits and guitars during takes makes those quiet ‘in-between’ sections feel slightly more forced than usual.
That repetitive process of big riff > sudden stop > quiet riff > build back up > repeat, and the fact that ‘Play’ ends on a hugely extended E minor chord (E is the lowest note a guitar in standard tuning can play) is of no surprise and is hugely typical of his, and indeed most rock music. This is quite simply, a very long rock song. But then, so is ‘Freebird’, so is ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, and so is ‘Hey Jude’. While it’s effect won’t be as long-lasting, it’s still damn good at points.
Some of ‘Play’’s best bits come from the rare moments where the music sounds slightly less like Foo Fighters, such as at 6.15 where acoustic guitar and percussion take the lead, or at 19:10 where the power chords are given a break and we’re treated to Jeff Buckley-esque picking and delicious chord changes. These are the moments where ‘Play’ starts to sound less like a well-packaged compilation of unused Foo Fighters riffs and more like something which stands firmly on its own two feet.
Simultaneously, the biggest success and the biggest disappointment of ‘Play’, in a musical sense, is that if you’re a Dave Grohl fan, you’ll be a ‘Play’ fan; if you’re not, you won’t be. It would be fascinating to see Grohl push himself and take a step outside of the rock genre, rather than finding countless acts, instruments and formulas to re-package the same ideas. However, it doesn’t seem as if he is going to risk alienating a fan base or tarnishing a legacy which feels like it gets stronger by the day. Perhaps the main reason for that is because Dave Grohl don’t like disco, Dave Grohl don’t like dance. Dave Grohl don’t like ambient, Dave Grohl don’t like trance. Dave Grohl don’t like R&B, Dave Grohl don’t like soul. Dave Grohl just likes heavy-duty, bad ass Rock ‘n’ Roll.
I met with legendary guitarist Gary Lucas on his recent UK tour to discuss the subject of his show: his mammoth career, from Beefheart to Buckley and beyond…
Who can blame Gary Lucas for looking backwards? This is a man who spent the ‘80s in Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, the ‘90s mentoring and writing with Jeff Buckley, and every other spare minute of his life working with the likes of Nick Cave, Nona Hendryx, and Chris Cornell.
The self-confessed “gypsy soul” tells me “wanderlust” brings him on tour, but it feels as if Lucas is also on a mission: to right some wrongs, to tell some stories which challenge some common perceptions – Beefheart? Maniac! Buckley? Angel! – and he’s also looking out for his own reputation, staking his claim as one of the finest guitar players in the world:
“There are other artists and avant guitarists – I won’t name any names – who are beloved figures by these critics, no matter what they do, and believe me, I’m not impressed by much of what they do. I could play rings around most of these people!”
Describing himself as a “true British rock head” in his college years, Lucas admired Peter Green and Syd Barrett, also listening to prog acts such as Traffic and Family. But it was Captain Beefheart’s third album, Trout Mask Replica, which grabbed Lucas in a huge way, providing him with both a focus and a change of direction musically. Describing a 1971 Beefheart concert in New York as “the best show I’d ever seen in my life”, Lucas told friends, “if I ever do anything in music, I wanna play with this guy”. An ambitious plan for an unheard-of guitar player, who at the time was “writing stupid drivel” as a copywriter for Columbia, Epic and CBS Records:
“Well, some of them became famous ad lines, like ’The Clash: The only group that matters’! And I believed it, for a moment… until then I joined Beefheart and I thought, ‘wait a second, we’re the only group!’”
Despite forging a friendship with Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) after interviewing him later that year, it would be five years before Lucas finally revealed his abilities:
“I didn’t tell him I played [at first], ‘cause at that point I was, like, a Jeff Beck disciple. What they were doing with guitars was so radically different to me; I had to really study it and I didn’t want to approach him until I felt I could master it.”
With Van Vliet in-between bands and supporting Frank Zappa on a 1976 tour, Lucas took his opportunity. Meeting him after a New York show, Beefheart was suitably impressed to invite Lucas to enjoy years in his Magic Band, both performing live and appearing on his final studio albums Doc at the Radar Station and Ice Cream for Crow. Patience, ambition and hard work prevailed for Lucas; though in reality, the hard work was just about beginning…
In the evening’s show, Lucas spoke of Van Vliet’s “impossible demands”, such as translating a 10-finger piano piece on to his 6-string guitar. The Beefheart advice? “Well, you’d better find another four!” I asked Lucas how he coped with making the transition from fan to band member for such an innovative but infamously volatile character:
“I had a fan’s enthusiasm, as did everybody in that era. He got in people who were fans who were enthusiastic and ready to put up with his bullshit. Nobody had to live in a house with him, unlike the Trout Mask band. He could be tyrannical, [but] you could get away to recover and recharge your batteries. So, I put up with a lot of shit. He could be abusive. I was younger, so I allowed myself to put up with stuff, but today I never would. But I don’t want to go in to it, because I loved the guy and I learned a lot. He was so wise and really profoundly funny and zen. … I mean, I never met anybody, anybody like him in brain power and then sheer creative energy. He could be really magical, a wonderful companion and mentor.”
“The roles were reversed”, says Lucas, when in the early nineties he became mentor to a young Los Angeles-based musician who would become his most famous collaborator:
“This young whippersnapper comes up to me and he’s vibing, and he’s rolling and popping his eyes. He looked electric, he was about to jump out of his skin. And I said, ‘you must be Jeff Buckley’.”
Buckley was already a fan of Lucas’ work with Captain Beefheart, but the duo would bond over a mutual love of The Smiths, The Doors and Led Zeppelin, having been paired up to perform at a tribute concert for Jeff’s late father, folk-rock troubadour, Tim Buckley. Lucas vividly remembers their first rehearsal: “My jaw literally dropped when I heard this unearthly voice emanate, and he finished, and I said, ‘Jeff, you’re amazing. You’re a fucking star.’”
That initial work with Buckley was the first of many times that Lucas would mentor young musicians. Today, he gives talks and masterclasses to music students all over the world: “I always say, ‘go for it, if this is what’s in your heart, hit it as hard as you can and do it while you’re young.’” But Lucas didn’t always practice what he preaches today:
“That was in my heart, but I was scared, you know, until I turned about 38. For me to even attempt to write a song… I just was so self-deprecating. Anybody could write a song better than me!”
When Lucas did begin to write songs, he secured a deal with a vocalist for what was planned to be a “big project” at Columbia. In the meantime, they allowed him to release his debut album, a solo guitar collection titled Skeleton at The Feast, with an indie label. Yet, despite receiving positive reviews for his solo effort, when A&R staff changed, Columbia decided to drop the whole project:
“I was like, ‘What?! How can you do that? We have a signed contract!’ and he said, and I never will forget this: ‘You can’t afford to sue us’. Hard knocks in the music business. I was upset but then I called Jeff and he was in LA living with his Mum and he said, ‘I’ll be your singer’. So then I had to get busy and write some music.”
After mailing Buckley a cassette – which included tracks titled ‘Rise Up To Be’ and ‘And You Will’ – Lucas told the Ramsgate crowd, “he called me and said, ‘They’re beautiful, I’m coming to New York.’”
Renamed ‘Grace’ and ‘Mojo Pin’ by Buckley, Lucas’ compositions would later open Buckley’s only studio album, Grace. Released, ironically, by Columbia, the album has gone on to sell over two million copies and is now widely considered one of the greatest debut albums of all time. Despite the long-lasting success of their shared work, Lucas holds feelings of resentment and injustice surrounding both relationship and reputation:
TS: “With ‘Mojo Pin’ and ‘Grace’ opening the album, obviously Buckley and Columbia saw them as lynchpin songs…”
GL: “Somebody did. I mean, listen, I’m honoured. Somebody knew. I think when they signed him they just signed him because he was overwhelming on stage and he had this big fanbase coming to see him in that little club [Sin-é in Manhattan’s East Village]. All these A&R guys and record company presidents, Clive Davis, driving up in limos to check him out. But then when they signed him they looked at it really closely and said, ‘he’s doing all covers’! ‘Well didn’t he write those songs with Gary Lucas?’, that I paid for the demos. ‘Well, they’re pretty good.’ ‘OK, let’s get Gary in.’ So he called after a hiatus of a year where he had fucked me off.”
GL: “Oh, yeah. I wasn’t gonna chase after him… I don’t wanna trash Jeff either, it’s just, like, we had a moment of a year that was really close and writing together and I thought we were on the same page and then secretly I found out he was planning his own solo deal which is what he wanted all along. Fair enough, but … we’d demoed up ‘Grace’ and ‘Mojo Pin’ which I’d finished writing after I got a commitment from him, and it was great. At the session for the demos I said, ‘this music is gonna shake the world, it’s really fucking profoundly great’. I felt like I had the atom bomb in my pocket, to leave that session with the DAT… the rough mixes.”
TS: “Is it ever difficult to let go of songs? To put it out under his name…”
GL: “Well, if you look at the writing credits, the publishing… But, you’re right, it irks me that there are many fans of Jeff Buckley who have no idea who I am. They didn’t play it up, my participation, they kind of buried it. Whether that was Jeff, or the label, or both of them, I don’t know, but I found it a bit hurtful. But still, you know, monetarily I did fine. I mean, as fine as you can with the ways things are in the music biz these days. These royalty streams don’t amount to a hill of beans.”
TS: “Did those songs feel significant at the time?”
GL: “To me? I knew how good they were! Jeff did too, but Jeff didn’t wanna act enthusiastic, because… he was very cagey, I mean, you know, to act really enthusiastic would acknowledge my value and the relationship, and he had got a lawyer manager who was actively courting and being by courted by Columbia, the same label that kicked me to the kerb. … Yeah it was bitter, when that blew up, the circumstances were atrocious.”
Despite those circumstances, Lucas still describes Buckley as “probably the best I’ve ever collaborated with”. Witnessing Lucas perform their collaborations live is the closest experience you’ll get to hearing Jeff Buckley live ever again. Verses of phenomenal finger-picking, incredible dynamic control, blistering and frenzied strumming sequences… it’s no wonder that, despite their period of estrangement, Buckley even enlisted Lucas to play guitar on Grace; it’s liner notes crediting him with ‘Magical Guitarness’. When Lucas plays the main riff from ‘Grace’, he plays with a passion that still exudes that magic.
Outside of the two main themes of the night, which also sees an unbelievable rendition of his solo Beefheart great, ‘Evening Bell’, there’s a whole lotta ‘beyond’… Having released over thirty albums in his own name, a packed Ramsgate Music Hall is treated to solo renditions of his work with Gods and Monsters and with Peter Hammill. Plus, despite that huge discography, Lucas shows that he is overarchingly a music lover by including a range of covers, including Duke Ellington’s ‘Fleurette Africaine’ and the theme song from the 1962 film ‘Walk On The Wild Side’.
“I like to try and astonish people with the guitar and take them on trips”, says Lucas. Using his loop pedal to produce a raucous yet rhythmic cacophony of sound, he often achieves this. Switching between his classic electric 1966 Fender Stratocaster and his 1942 Gibson J-45 acoustic, Lucas creates frenzied soundscapes which whirl around your head as quick as his fingers on the fretboard.
At other times, he takes a more understated approach, using just vocals and solo acoustic guitar to lull in his audience. One fairly unique feature of Lucas’ guitar playing actually comes from his right hand, telling me he “worked really hard as a finger-picking guitarist to be able to achieve orchestral effect” whilst at college. This is typical of a man who has always taken his craft incredibly seriously:
“I’ve never missed a show, I’ve always shown up on time, you know… I’m proud of my track record, man. No-one’s ever came and said, ‘you suck, I want my money back’ ever, so I give a lot, I give more than a hundred percent every time I play.”
Although Lucas describes his “An Evening With…” show as “a good way to encapsulate a lot of information about my career”, he certainly isn’t done yet… As well as working on “a record of Mandarin versions of ‘Grace’, Dylan and other Western pop song classics” with vocalist Feifei Yang, he has also been collaborating with Mexican art-rockers Rojo Marfil. “Nobody has an exclusive on my services, they couldn’t pay me enough!”, says Lucas. “People should get it while they can while I’m still here. I think I’ve got a lot to offer. I’m approachable, it’s not like I’ve gone in to self-imposed obscurity, I think that’s all bullshit.”
It’s little surprise to find Lucas, who also identifies Joanna Newsom and electronic dance group Brazilian Girls as modern artists he respects, collaborating with such diverse musicians. He judges that rock music “was played out a long a time ago”, and his professional status also seems to have led Lucas to seek new paths to musical escape:
“I hate to say it, but this is what I’ve found… When I was an amateur musician, I could consume tons of music, I was a voracious consumer. Once I had to do this for a living, suddenly, the whole anxiety kicked up. Like, I’d go and see some music and I’d be like ‘what does this have to do with what I do?’ … I’d fidget, I’d be a little restless, unless it was something so great it just knocked me out, but that hasn’t happened in a long time. … I need silence a lot.”
Despite working with a huge range of musicians, Lucas wrote in his 2013 book, Touched by Grace; “I fear that my tombstone might well end up reading: RIP Gary Lucas–ex-Captain Beefheart and Jeff Buckley guitarist”. Working with two such iconic frontmen has undoubtedly provided a basis for a rich career, but it has also proved a shadow. Lucas has amassed enough experience as a working guitarist to both appreciate and contextualize all of the positives and pitfalls of operating at the highest level, and he is clearly still enjoying every minute:
“I’m just gonna keep making records and tour as much as possible till the ripe old age where I can’t do it anymore. But I hope it’s a long way off because I like doing it, believe me, in my advanced stage. It’s fun still for me, and it really turns me on to play to people and get a good vibe back.”
A White Stripe, a Raconteur, a quarter of The Dead Weather, and a name in his own right; we’ve spent twenty years watching little Jackie White grow up… and he’s still a child at heart.
His songs are full of childhood experience, but it isn’t a childhood which is looked back on with disdain or embarrassment; in fact, it’s not being contextualised at all. It is childhood from the perspective of the child; the point where your first love wasn’t a spotty, awkward impression of love, but the purest and most energised thing you’d ever felt. Jack White has embodied that feeling throughout his career and he does it better than anybody else.
His three intimate and sweaty nights at the Hammersmith Apollo – as opposed to, say, one night at the O2 – signals that he also puts his fan’s experience before his own diary. Not convinced? Well how about the fact that the photo at the top of this blog was the only one I got all night. The whole crowd were forced to surrender devices at the door, to be placed in Yondr cases. Aside from spending the following twenty minutes realising how often I move my right hand to my pocket for no real reason, I have to say I didn’t really miss my phone… Turns out I can remember an experience without those customary, pixelated reminders.
No longer playing in a two-piece (ensemble – he didn’t get naked), White directs a supporting cast of five from his central position. On top of this, he has a range of guitars on-stage (often switched mid-song), an extra piano and an extra drum-kit, just in case he feels like changing it up even more. A guitar issue during ‘Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground’? No bother. How about an impromptu and revitalised piano version instead? On ‘My Doorbell’, White doubles up on drums, with both synth players adding further percussion to the bass and piano accompaniment, providing an undeniable groove for one of the evening’s standout performances.
At one point, I saw a guy filming a video or two on something he had snuck in. I really hoped the show would stop and we’d all superciliously chant “Judas!” from our new-found, old-fashioned standpoint but, alas, no such luck…
This is a different Jack White to the one I saw in San Francisco four years ago. I’m glad to see he’s jacked in the fiddle, and despite any worries I had about some of the new sounds on 2018’s Boarding House Reach, even the opinion-splitting ‘Ice Station Zebra’ sounded gargantuan live. Imagine everything with overdrive and shouted an octave higher and you’ll be much nearer to the truth. I’d love to share a video, but the fucker took my phone. (Just kidding, here’s a version from March.)
Songs like ‘We’re Going To Be Friends’ (“Look at all the bugs we found. Safely walk to school without a sound.”) sit comfortably alongside 2018’s ‘Corporation’ (“I’m thinking about starting a corporation, who’s with me?!”). As well as including rarer cuts such as ‘Do’ (a tour debut), White gives the crowd the hits from all of his projects: ‘Steady As She Goes’, ‘I Cut Like A Buffalo’, and… of course… ‘Seven Nation Army’.
Closing the night, White encourages the crowd to chant the riff like we’re at the World Cup. Strangling every last breath from his guitar’s neck during the solo and accentuating key vocal lines with his signature shriek, there’s no sign of Cobain-esque resentment or rejection of the track’s adoration. He doesn’t have to take rock ‘n’ roll too seriously; that childlike enthusiasm which first endeared him to fans twenty years ago is still within him.