Wednesday 5 December 2012

Bitter sweet

Ben Folds Five absolutely slayed Brixton Academy. I can state this with complete authority, since I went along without knowing very much about them. (My friend and fellow pianist Hannah invited me along, knowing I'd be listening as forensically as possible to Folds's playing.) I wonder if many other folk in the venue could barely remember what any of their early stuff even sounded like, and only had a couple of plays of the new 'reunion' record in their mental armoury. I suspect not, since everyone around me was gradually progressing through several stages of hysterical euphoria, and I was minded to join them.

I knew this was a 'big thing' - the old line-up reuniting - but only at the gig did I realise how big. Trios are always interesting because each musician is that bit more 'exposed'. The other trio that came to mind while I watched this lot were the Police. (Understand: I LOVE the Police - no anti-Sting ointment here.) When the Police did their reunion tour they decided to play live as a trio - which transformed a lot of the songs. Compare and contrast: the comeback gig I saw before that - Roxy Music - was also splendid, but took the opposite approach: use a band of about 12 people and bring the actual records to life. What became clear from the way the Police did it was that they were a band of three leaders: all vital, all special.

The same is true of BF5. Yes, it's Ben's band and he makes a riotous, righteous noise on the piano (how he can somehow take Elton John, Jerry Lee Lewis and Thelonious Monk and put them in a blender, and THEN sing at the same time - I'll never know). But Robert Sledge plays bass like he was possessed by Hendrix or similar, soloing like a maniac and cutting through Folds's piano in routinely scene-stealing fashion. Darren Jessee is one of those drummers who can use the most modest of kits and still play with feeling and colour - no mean feat when the noise made by the other two regularly forced him into juggernaut mode. Add to that the obvious chemistry between the three - taking humour, spontaneity and improvisation into near-Crowded-House levels at points (Folds clambering over the piano one minute, singing a song about his last Brixton concert the next) and you have a truly heady mix.

'Heady' is a nice way of leading into something else I really want to talk about - the support band, Bitter Ruin. Perhaps other music nerds will share with me in understanding the pleasure of stumbling across something for the first time that you realise might take a serious, proper hold on you. This was one of those bands.

Bitter Ruin are a duo - Georgia Train and Ben Richards - although they were accompanied by a cellist for some of their songs. With a fraction of the amplification enjoyed by the headliners, they took the Academy by the scruff of the neck and didn't let go. Playing a kind of cabaret/Americana, Richards picked out intricate guitar lines while Train sang like the last diva standing - idiosyncratic and fearless. Every song seemed to leave her drained only for the power to return in seconds. Immediately, it was impressive how they weren't intimidated by the size of the place - they had finely tuned their dynamics so that, after knocking us sideways with an almost operatic opening, they started to introduce more hush and harmony, making us come to them - forcing us to listen attentively and get involved.

I hope they were pleased with how their support slot went. The applause grew louder with every song. Train in particular has the knack of addressing the audience as if we already love her band, and in my case, after a song or two, she was quite right. (Check out the video below. Be warned: it contains a Bad Word or two. And you should definitely head to their website, which is packed with lots of great music and photography.)

I loved the entire gig from start to finish. But it was Bitter Ruin's t-shirt and CD I went home with, a brand new discovery in my pocket. (Thanks to Hannah for organising - and great to see Dave and Carolyn too!)

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