British Sea Power Down Under - Part 1

"…it won't be all crash-bang will it?"

Australia is big. Yeah, I know you know that, but until you've been there it's hard to imagine just how big. Those who live there know only too well - especially music fans. Here in northern Europe, if your favourite band isn't playing your town you go and see them in another town, another country even: two hours out of Manchester by train takes you to London and another three or four to Paris or Brussels. But what if you live in Brisbane? The cities look quite close down the eastern coast - but even Sydney is a 14 hour trek or a couple of hours on a plane. One fan has opted for the latter and when we meet her in the foyer of Sydney University's Manning Bar we've rarely seen anyone so excited about a gig - her first chance to see her long-time favourite band in the flesh.

Because that's the other thing about Australia: sure, there's live music to be had every night in the cities' bars; the listings for the Lansdowne Hotel where the evening began are packed with local acts and cover bands (lively and quite brilliant country act Cash Only - can you guess whose songs they do? - are the best start to an evening's entertainment anyone could wish for; alt-rockers Battery Kids who conclude our night - many hours later - are as good as the European and American purveyors of such who sell records by the truckload) - but if you want to see bands from other continents here, there's basically only one month to see them in; February.

It's the tail end of the Australian summer - festival season, where just as in Europe a music fan can spend a few consecutive weekends watching live music in the open air whist eating fried snacks (although the weather's a little better here - and so, as we'll later discover, are the fried snacks). And when bands come over to play the festivals, they'll often stick a few tour dates in the weeks in between. In Perth we meet a music fan, UK born and bred, where he was able - as we tend to take for granted - to catch a decent "name" gig at least every couple of weeks throughout the year. Perth is a different story. Back in the 80s, watching from afar, Perth's Triffids never seemed part of the whole Australian guitar bands scene, and arguably "made it" in the UK (on the indie circuit at least) before they had much recognition back home; and then you realise that travelling from Perth to Sydney is much the same distance, in northern hemisphere terms, as travelling overland from Moscow to London. Perth's isolation even from the rest of the country leaves it doubly starved of touring bands for eleven months of the year; in February the calendar's so stuffed our expat fan can't even afford to go to all the great gigs he'd like to.

 

This is partly down to Perth International Arts Festival. Now in its 57th year, the oldest international arts festival in Australia features around a thousand performances and events across three weeks: there's drama, literature, comedy, dance, visual arts and music of every possible specification from opera to traditional indigenous sounds, jazz to metal - and on a hot Wednesday night in a temporary open-air venue backing onto the Swan River, British Sea Power playing their first ever gig Down Under.

It's not exactly sardine-packed down the front, a lot of those present are hanging back or sat in the seats, although here's a small clutch of excited fans crowding the centre - and the first song BSP perform on Australian soil is "A Wooden Horse". A treat for fans (our expat almost explodes with excitement) as opposed to a more general rabble-rouser, but that's BSP all over: they do what they like and common sense doesn't always come into it. The majority watching the band for the first time are probably wondering why the hell Yan has the word "SHITHOUSE" written on the back of his suit-jacket in green sticky tape - and frankly so are we, not that you'd be likely to get a sensible response if you asked. An upbeat salvo of Apologies to Insect Life, Lights Out for Darker Skies and Remember Me gives the front crew something to jump around to; the rest probably aren't going to whatever happens. Still, the band look excited just to be here and there's plenty of jumping on each other, launching of foliage and general high spirits as they play through a set heavy on Do You Like Rock Music material along with a run-out for one of the new songs they've been previewing recently - Zeus scuttles along with a Smiths-ish beat before shifting (via a guitar break that briefly threatens to turn into Fleetwood Mac's The Chain but thankfully doesn't) into a different gear entirely. Rumours that the band have been at the prog and Krautrock as they prepare to unveil their fifth album sometime this summer would seem not entirely unfounded. The set ends with a typical boisterous Carrion into Spirit of St Louis and an old-style Lately/Rock in A encore in which the potted plants around the stage are uprooted and hurled into the crowd; Noble, Phil and Hamilton attempt some rather precarious crowd-surfing and some older guy ends up draped in Phil's floral garland and Noble's guitar. Aside from the obviously delighted little gang in the middle we think the crowd enjoyed it but it's kind of hard to tell, we suspect some of them were a little taken aback by the finale. It's not often you end a gig covered in compost.

As, indeed, were the festival staff. Minutes after the band have left the stage their possibly long-suffering manager's joined us at the bar, "escaping the shouting": it seems that the potted plants, of which one's been whipped off home by a couple of our ex-pat's mates whilst I'm still trying to brush its remains out of my after-sun cream, were not in fact theirs to abuse. Oh well. Tomorrow night's headliners are Warp Records' first Aussie signing Pivot (such a shame they weren't earlier in the week) and I can't see them being that bothered by a reduction in houseplant levels.
 

The following night it's the other side of British Sea Power, the side which most certainly wouldn't throw someone else's plants at people and the one where their own fans can be in the minority in the audience: a cinema performance of Man Of Aran. The Astor is a beautiful art deco cinema just north of the city centre, and for everyone who looks like an indie kid walking through the doors (we clock a lad in a Mogwai shirt, and guess he'll be happy) there are four who very much don't. The lady seated next to me, in bobbly cardigan and neatly set grey hair, asks what the music will be like: "it won't be all crash-bang will it?" Remembering the last time we saw this show, again in a film festival environment in Jersey, and the tutting and covering ears and walking out that ensued during the rather noisy and atonal Spearing The Sunfish section, I warn her there might be a few loud bits but mostly it's quite gentle with lots of cello and stuff. She seems reassured, and I'm hoping not wrongly so.

And then the lights dim, and we try and pretend not to notice the film's slightly out of focus and the band - performing, as they tend to with this, facing the screen, (do they struggle with monitors, or is this a deliberate attempt to focus attention on the music more than the performers? Who knows?), are obscuring the subtitles slightly - but soon these minor concerns are forgotten as the majestic ambient-to-full-on sweeps of strings and cymbal rushes blend with the grainy landscapes. It seems a shame that the programme on our seats depicts only the four original members, as it's multi-instrumentalist Phil who seems to be the focal point in this venture whilst Abi's viola takes the lead for large parts of it. What might be incredible is the way this band, used to playing it fast and loose, now perform the piece as an orchestra would a symphony; I say might be because seven years or more after they first caught my attention I really wouldn't consider there to be a great deal they couldn't do if they wanted to. And that's not to say it's always the same - it isn't; possibly mindful of that Jersey audience Spearing The Sunfish stays clear of an all-out white-noise attack here, opting instead for a Mogwai-ish layered intensity.

It works. As the end credits roll the standing ovation applause goes on for a long time, and I turn with some trepidation to cardigan lady; enjoy that? "Oh it was wonderful" she smiles "and that lovely boy on drums, I could just take him home with me..."

It's something of a relief, then, to see Woody alive and well the following night in Melbourne. We flew out of Perth at 9am on what we believe to be Friday, although it's that mid-trip time where the days of the week become meaningless and the whole time zone thing is somewhat unclear. We had not long left Perth when the dusty gold beneath us gave way to the deep blood red of iron country, and as we touch down to refuel and exchange passengers with connecting flights it glows around us. The local paper, the Kalgoorlie Miner, is delivered on board: the usual small-town fare of a local cheque fraud scam, baby photo contest and adverts for sheds is interspersed with a telling insight into this still active mining town. Not just the full page of mining and oil stocks, but the two columns of the personal ads page reserved for "Amanda, 21, busty, friendly, good service, massage $60" and her ilk...

Melbourne itself, another couple of hours' flight away, reminds us of New York, its super-high-rise skyline approaching as the bus heads for Southern Cross Station - and then the tortuous gridlock into which our yellow cab pulls out. But then it is Friday evening rush hour. Yep, we've "lost" another three hours. We think we're on GMT+11 now but we're far from certain. And out Travelodge hasn't been built yet. By the time we find our replacement accommodation it's too late to pay a visit to the "Neighbours" Tour & Sightseeing office next door, (surely a good thing, ed) and it takes some unravelling of the incomprehensible metro system before we reach Richmond. The main drag has that "cool place to go out" vibe of Manchester's Northern Quarter or Camden, and the posters covering The Corner Hotel reveal it as a popular stop for pretty much any decent indie band who can afford to get themselves to Australia - at last, a normal gig, with supports and everything... although oddly they play not on the main stage, curtained off ready for the headliners, but on a little platform in the corner.

First on it is one Nick Huggins, who does kind of lo-fi poetic ambling folk with a guitar, some effects and a subtly used looper. His near-whispered words meanwhile are wistful small town thoughts about wasted days and the way people don't look at each other at the local swimming pool. Cultural references aside he seems quite un-Australian; during one particularly delicate tune two blokes accost him: "we fackin' love you!" and he just smiles shyly and carries on. Next, Seagull are in fact three blokes, of which one has a young Brian Eno island-and-dangly-bits haircut and an accordion, another a guitar, and the third an initially rather Thom Yorke-ish voice and a floor tom with a very wonky leg. As the set progresses they shift away from the sort of folky thing into more indie-pop territory but are rarely more than very mildly diverting.
 

British Sea Power kick off with a more traditional opening attack of Lights Out, Apologies and Remember Me but find themselves struggling against technical difficulties that see their guitar tech crawling around onstage for what seems like much of the set - at one point Yan finds himself reciting a self-penned limerick about Paul Hogan while things are fixed. Not that this bothers the decent sized crowd - it serves to remember that British Sea Power on a (slightly) off night are still a cut above the vast majority of bands. Oddly it's Canvey Island that really gets the crowd moving as it builds to its climax, after which it's a "business as usual" performance complete with Noble finding something improbable to climb up.