The Great Escape, Brighton, UK – Day Three
A final day dominated by Sufjan Stevens‘ astonishing concert at the Dome, but with time to take in some new bands first at Canadian Blast’s stage at the Komedia.
First up were Said The Whale with some roots-inflected indie. A confident and amiable bunch, with clever arrangements of some bouncy, poppy, but not – for me anyway – particularly memorable songs.
Then came Woodhands – who were anything but anonymous. Weird is the adjective. Seriously so, but weirdly compulsive. They’re a keyboard/drum duo from Montreal, but the manic Dan Werb is rather more than your average keyboard player. He has a rack of three keyboards and synths by his side, a huge flightcase full of electronic widgets behind him and one of those Roland guitar-like keyboards slung round his neck. And he sings. And comes up with some of the most exuberant between-song chat I’ve ever come across. Then partner in crime Paul Banwatt explained that there’d normally be a lot more going on except Dan’s looper was broken…
It was as if some nerdy lovechild of Keith Emerson – sadly no knives holding down keys yet, but it could still come – and Todd Rundgren (in his Utopia pomp) was taking his first solo holiday, and had chosen Ibiza in the nineties. ‘Brighton – you’re the shit!’ Dan squealed memorably at one point. ‘Congratulations for living here,’ then adding, with classic Canadian even-handedness, ‘and for visiting.’
It all left Hey Rosetta! looking tediously normal, but things were fine when they started playing. I only caught a couple of songs but the Newfoundland six-piece quickly played up a storm, deploying cello and fiddle to good effect.
And so on to Sufjan Stevens, in a very different league. One of the most spectacular shows I’ve ever seen, with an ten-piece band (two drummers, two keyboards, two trombones, guitar, bass, two singers), amazing back-projected films, UV-responsive colours on everyone’s clothes, movement, dancing, costume changes, ticker tape and balloons descending at the end of the marathon performance… wow and wow.
He opened by revisiting Seven Swans in silver wings and encored, gorgeously, with ‘Chicago’ from Illinois but the set in between was essentially drawn from his current album The Age of Adz and last summer’s All Delighted People ‘EP’ (it’s actually a vinyl double album). And the material is undeniably an issue. Possibly the finest lyricist of his generation isn’t particularly interested in writing lyrics at the moment and wants to get away from the style he developed so brilliantly in the first half of the last decade. Fair enough – but he doesn’t seem entirely comfortable about where he’s at himself, giving lengthy, defensive, explanations of what he’s currently about to a warm and sympathetic Dome audience.
Yesterday’s Guardian gave him a four star review and that feels right to me – he’s a five star artist giving his all but not quite hitting the sweet spot of his creativity. It’s going to be really interesting to see what happens next – Sufjan Stevens does not do dull. It may be that the current patch will turn out to be his equivalent of Neil Young’s Trans and Re-ac-tor in the eighties – interesting and well-realised experiments made in troubled times, but somewhat off the main track. Anyway, wherever he’s heading next, I’m staying along for the ride.
(originally posted at http://edenontheline.co.uk/journal/2011/5/15/the-great-escape-day-three.html)