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Savages + Crime & The City Solution

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London – 26th October 2012

We thought it was the District line, but it must have been a rabbit hole. And we really shouldn’t have paid heed to that little bottle labelled ‘Drink Me’. But if we hadn’t, Friday night wouldn’t have been one of the most surreal experiences of our lives.

Firstly the venue. The Queen Elizabeth Hall in the Southbank Centre? For a gig? Never mind the cavernous foyer where a folk band were playing and the silver haired sat drinking tea ... but there were ice cream outlets, lines of decadent armchairs and the smartest toilets I’ve ever seen ... hell, there was even a stairlift down the short flight of steps to the hall which lay right next door to the Purcell Room where something far more classical was obviously in play. Inside the large auditorium, all wood floored and walled, the plush leather seats rose to the heavens and the bouncers were immaculately suited and polite. We were in row four, about twelve feet from the low stage, and feeling as out of place and time as we had ever experienced in our lives.

Thank God, then, for Savages who bring the only sanity to the evening. Huddling together on the enormous stage as if disturbed by the same emotions, they are quickly into their stride with ‘City’s Full’ and proceed to unleash yet another ferocious set, underlining why they are currently the best deal in town. If we had ever tried to piece together a perfect band in our minds, it wouldn’t have been far removed from this. Head to toe in black, barring Jehnny Beth’s red shoes, for a brief half-hour Savages are incandescent, burning their way into the consciousness of all those present. Stripping away conventions and decoration, and whipped by white light, there really is something primal about their approach and the inner turmoil they create as they lay you emotionally bare is almost cathartic.

And how we love Ayse Hassan. Not since Stuart Morrow turned the world on its head with his phenomenal bass playing in the early days of New Model Army has a member of the four-string brigade been so important to a band’s sound. Instrument slung low, she hogs the front of the stage far more than Jehnny, making full use of the band’s lack of a traditional lead guitarist to drive the music ever onwards, at the forefront of the charge, radiating confidence and strength. And part of that belief stems from the assurance of the muscle behind her. Fay Milton focuses on each drum like it was a personal affront, and she is at constant war with her cymbal, holding it round the throat with one hand while she beats the living crap out of it with the other. It’s fearsome stuff, all embraced by Jehnny who performs her rag doll dance as she sings and twitches her head to instigate yet another assault. And in the shadows stands Gemma Thompson, insidious, apart from it all. She is not a leader but an agitator. As her bandmates throw out another punch, she laces it with razor blades, and cuts you to the heart. The six strings that drew blood, filling the night with banshee screams and thrashing salvos of crushing noise. This is powerful stuff.

And of course, there is little communication - why stop for a chat when you’re in the middle of a battle? Just one aside from Jehnny, “Thank you, Are you comfortable?” It’s a great call. It feels so wrong to be sitting down while Savages ignite the world around you. It’s difficult not to lose your grip and hurl yourself round the room. Have they ever played a gig before to a seated audience? The one huge advantage is that the view of the band in action is fabulous, but it certainly adds to the sense of surrealism that takes on a whole new perspective when Crime eventually arrive stage left.

While Savages work hard on shaping their image, the eight members of Crime lollop on to stage looking like they had been randomly hauled out of Cane Hill. For those expecting some sort of gothic revival, there is hardly any black in sight and certainly no attempt to create an impression. Indeed, we have bushy moustaches, spectacles, alpine hats, terrible haircuts and every colour of clothing under the sun. There are no strobing lights for these boys, just a series of red and yellow bulbs lighting the way while artist Danielle de Picciotto projects images from her own work on to a massive backdrop. As they get underway with ‘The Bride Ship’, it really appears as a theatre of the absurd. Alexander Hacke leaps about like a lunatic, while second guitarist David Eugene Edwards with his pointy American boots flickers across the stage like a poisonous snake on a spring. Red haired and clothed violinist Bronwyn Adams is every bit as manic as Hacke, while Matthew Smith on the keyboards and Jim White on drums both look like the mad scientist off the telly. And while Troy Gregory on bass roams around in jeans (and more pointy boots), Simon Bonney emerges in an immaculate fawn suit, with light tan shoes.

No lie, it’s bewildering and as this collection of vagrants clump around the stage you begin to wonder what the hell it was you had to drink outside the venue. To add to the confusion, the vocal mike distorts for the first couple of numbers and Bonney appears to be following the lyrics from A3 encapsulated sheets at his feet. But then, slowly, everything begins to fall into place. The problems with the vocals are sorted for the third track, a pretty decent new number, before the band open up with ‘I Have The Gun’, with de Picciotto projecting an image of a man’s face with a rabbit on his head. It’s clear the only way forward is to embrace the madness. Drink. Was. Good.

Crime play a selection from all eras of the band’s history including excellent versions of early tracks ‘Rose Blue’ and ‘Six Bells Chime’, with ‘On Every Train’ and ‘Steal To The Sea’ representing Shine and ‘The Dolphins and The Sharks’ and ‘The Last Dictator’ featured from Paradise Discotheque. And it is clear the band are living what they are playing; there is a total belief and focus in the music and as Hacke hits the floor thrashing at his guitar, Adams leaps around the stage sawing at her strings, Gregory thumps his bass into oblivion and Edwards is lost in ecstasy amid a welter of noise and chaos, Bonney grooves across the stage in dinky steps as if he was performing the hits of Andrew Gold, waving an arm out here and there at imaginary beats, and even doing the push-push as he returns his microphone. It’s further insanity but we’re sure this makes him a god. In fact, we know it does.

And he certainly sings like one. With two guitars, keyboards, bass, drums and violin attempting to drown him out, Bonney’s voice is still the most powerful instrument on the stage, cutting through everything with calm assurance and reasoned clarity. Two encores follow including a breath-stopping version of Shine’s ‘All Must Be Love’ before the band conclude with a new number, a ‘cautionary tale’ concerning armageddon in your town. It’s a stormer. Edwards is in orbit and Gregory nearly explodes while Hacke wanders backwards and forwards neatly disposing of and reclaiming his instrument for no apparent reason. Bonney just shuffles like a god.

Lights up and nobody moves. Half the audience are just staring in disbelief. The other half are smiling. We don’t want to go; it would mean leaving this lovely hall with its lovely seats and losing the lovely feeling that our minds have been detached from our bodies. And that we will never see the like again. More drinks please.


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Photo: Richard Harris

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