Spending Valentine’s Day with Sarah Records – London, 100 Club – 14th February 2020

I had to be in my sixth London year to finally go through the door of the mythical 100 Club on Oxford Street, home of so many legendary concerts throughout the years and in particular during the gold punk and post-punk era of the late 70’s and early 80’s. I must confess I would not have attended this gig without an excellent initiative from C & JB, by far the most passionate music people in the Nice, France area!

Jetstream Pony

Sarah Records was a Bristol, England label, specialised in pop and power-pop indie bands. I remember at the time that their popularity and level of coolness were subjects to the trends of the times. The UK music press in particular, namely Melody Maker and NME, always had a love/hate relationship with this label and their bands, which were basically guilty of being too sensitive in a music scene which one should remember was still very much male-oriented at the time and sometimes close to being sexist. Anyway, these debates are far behind us now. Before disappearing, NME even declared in 2015 that Sarah Records were the 2nd best indie label of all times, just behind 4AD. Sarah Records also did not survive in the Britpop environment of the mid 90’s and called it quits in 1995.

St. Christopher

I would lie to say I am that familiar with Sarah Records, although I bought at the time in 1990 their references #24 and 25, i.e. both 7″ singles of the excellent The Field MiceThe Autumn Store, parts one & two“. So I was quite excited to attend this nice mini-festival to discover bands and the least I can say is that we were rewarded. Very good start first with Jetstream Pony, a very nice melodic band from Brighton. We then had a very solid performance from St. Christopher, another English band from York, although they were a bit struggling at times with the sound. No such worries for The Orchids, who were the headliners and one of the most emblematic bands of the label. Originally from Glasgow, Scotland, their music offers a great balance of indie rock sensitivity and sense of melody. No real reason why this band had not been popular but I am not sure this was really their number one goal in life. Eternal youth is not something you measure by the whiteness of one’s hair and that night at the 100 Club, The Orchids were as good as in their prime days.

My ‘women in rock’ mini festival: Sleater Kinney (London Brixton Academy – 26th February 2020) & Big Thief (London Eventim Apollo – 27th February 2020)

I know the title of this post may not be the best I have ever found as indeed I would not write I saw two great gigs in a row by ‘men’ bands; it would sound stupid… Anyway, these were two great concerts although I clearly remember having doubt at the time in going out so much, that it was not serious to attend so many gigs and so on. Retrospectively, that was actually probably one the best decisions I took!

First in line were the great Sleater Kinney, lead by two amazing performers and singers: Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein. This is funny because I remember mentioning to this blog’s NY correspondent recently that, no, Carrie Brownstein’s real job was not to be the main actress of the hilarious series ‘Portlandia‘ but to be one of the most creative musical forces of the last twenty years. All their albums are great and they evolved from a typical post-punk riot girl band to one of the treasures of American rock. They disbanded after 2005’s absolute classic “The Woods” but did a very welcome come back in 2015 with the excellent “No Cities To Love“. I never had the opportunity to catch them live so being finally able to do so was met with excitement but also a bit of worries, following the departure of drummer Janet Weiss, who was so key in their sound. The set was probably a bit different from their previous tour…but gosh, what an energy and determination they had that night. Their new drummer really adapted well and the setlist was a perfect balance of all their career. Read The Guardian 4-star review of this concert.

After a good shower, a bit of work and a couple of beers, I was ready to catch Big Thief on stage at the great Eventim Apollo. I remember not having been really convinced by their first concert at End of the Road Festival in 2018 but I did not know the band that well at the time. On top of it, they released two amazing records last year, “Two Hands” being my #7 best record of 2019.

The band would be a good one with a regular singer but Adrianne Lenker is really the driving force and what makes them so singular. This is even clearer on stage; she is the one giving the tempo and I sometimes felt attending a jazz concert, especially when the musicians look at their leader, trying to decipher what will happen next and giving their best. Big Thief’s music could be described as American indie rock and I found that night a few similarities with my beloved The National or even Neil Young sometimes. I also really enjoyed the nakedness of the stage; always good when musicians play close one to another, social distancing hopefully being something temporary…A band to discover at any cost…and another review from the Guardian to read!

Supergrass – London, Alexandra Palace – 6th March 2020

For another episode of our sci-fi series about a world where musicians used to play on stage in front of thousands of people, let us go back in time to a very ancient period of five weeks ago (!) to review the comeback tour of one of the best British bands of all times.

Like the three musketeers, Supergrass are a band whose members are Gaz Coombes on voice and guitar, Mick Quinn on bass and Danny Goffey on drums but also Gaz’s brother Rob Coombes on piano and synths. Originally from Oxford, they appeared in the mid-90’s and were (wrongly) associated with the Brit Pop movement. One has to remember that any British band in these times which could write a tune was labelled as such… They were actually something very much on their own, with a few obvious influences here and there (Buzzcocks, The Kinks,…) but no more than any other band.

After releasing six great records from 1995 to 2008 and indeed progressively losing popularity amongst the general public, they sort of vanished without officially disbanding. Gaz and Danny kept on collaborating together on a few projects but overall the band looked like they were over. One must recognise also that Gaz Coombes aged gracefully, releasing beautiful records, with a specific mention to 2018’s “World’s Strongest Man“, our record of the year.

The news that they were back for a short European tour was therefore probably one of the best music news of last year and I must say I did not wait too long to buy my ticket for one of the London shows. Held in the legendary “Ally Pally” theatre, the gig was one of the best I had seen in recent times, either by the astonishing quality of the songs (they played the ‘hits’!), the excellent engineering of the sound or the voice of Gaz Coombes. It is very true to say that one can really feel a gang mentality in this band ‘a la U2‘ (i.e. if one were to miss, that would not be Supergrass) but they also very much rely on the great leadership of their singer. Not sure if they will tour again so in the meantime I would recommend their recent “The Strange Ones 1994-2008” compilation or to watch the video I took of one of their greatest songs “Mansize Rooster

The Hold Steady – London – Bush Hall – 8th March 2020

I had almost abandoned a systematic review of the gigs I attended but I guess reviewing them now is a way of living again a period of time when things were more straightforward. 8th of March is not that a long time ago and I remember having doubts about the notion of social distancing in such a tiny place…

Anyway, taking these considerations aside, being in a position to watch The Hold Steady in such a small venue was almost an honor. Although almost completely unknown in Continental Europe, they are quite famous in the UK…although nothing compared to the popularity they have in the USA, where they play in arenas on a regular basis. Originally from Minneapolis, the band enjoyed their first success when they relocated to Brooklyn. They have released seven excellent studio albums since the mid 00’s but the key game changer record in their career is definitely 2006’s “Boys and Girls in America“. Those following the series “Billions” are probably familiar with this band as they appear in an important episode of season 3.

Their music is pretty simple and straight to the point but with a beautiful sense of sensitivity brought by their leader Craig Finn. It has been said again and again in all reviews mentioning The Hold Steady that he looks more like an accountant than a rock’n’roll beast but who cares really? The way he performed that night in their third London concert of the week was everything one would look for when going to see live music: attention and communication with the audience, great sense of leadership and camaraderie with band members and also a very strong voice. If you like Bruce Springsteen or so-called blue-collar American music, this band is for you. If you want to spend a hell of a night, catch them live. I took the following video of their classic “Chips Ahoy!” which I hope gives a good flavor of how crazy that evening was.

‘Waiting for the end of the world’ – Elvis Costello & The Imposters – 13th March 2020 – London, Eventim Apollo

…that was an easy one but actually they did not play that particular song (from 1977’s ‘My Aim Is True‘ album). So, remember a time when one could go to gigs, have a couple of beers and enjoy live musics? This is a review of an event that occurred around two weeks ago but it really felt like from another age… I was actually waiting for this gig to be cancelled but it looks it was one of the last which took place in London. Always a difficult choice to do but I considered that because the venue did not break any government rules, there was no real reason not to go.

So, yes, the concert was a bit…special to say the least… This concert was sold out for a long time but around ten percent of the seats were empty. Elvis Costello really played the game and gave us a tremendous performance but one could feel he was very much overwhelmed by what was going on in the UK and in the world, having also in mind the serious health issues he had two years ago. That was actually the last date of the tour and he posted a very moving message on his Facebook account two days later.

But let’s focus on the music and the performance, shall we? I had high expectations from this gig as to me, although his works in the fields of jazz or classical music are not without interest, Elvis Costello really excels when he plays good ol’ fashioned rock music. I would also add he is at his best when playing with his old compadres Pete Thomas on drums and Steve Nieve on the piano, the other ‘new’ member of The Imposters being the excellent Davey Faragher on bass. That night’s performance was one of the best I have seen from the great man. The way they played old and new classics was close to the bone and could have been the work of under 20’s youngsters. I also could not emphasize how much the inclusion of American soul backing singers Kitten Kuroi and Briana Lee was a good idea as very often it gave a different feel to the songs (…and it also brought a welcome female touch in this men’s environment). If you are not convinced, catch the setlist on this link and read the review of The Guardian.