"I would hate British Sea Power to become the cuddly face of eccentric rock, beloved of fuckers like Jeremy Vine or Vanessa Feltz."
Letter from Sheffield
British Sea Power/Field Music - Sheffield Plug 27/05/06
Maybe I am spoiled rotten in Holland with venues as outstandingly beautiful as The Patronaat, Vera and the Paradiso, but I just don't like English concert venues any more. The ones I end up in all seem so badly designed, resembling underground car parks or gutted bingo halls rather than places where one can enjoy live music... And pray, what is all this bloody nonsense with crash barriers and bouncers? Has Britain become a country that no longer trusts its young citizens to behave? Talk about paranoid. Or are bands deified to such an extent in Blighty that to come too close to them would leave us emotionally incapable of rational action? Whatever, its stupid and wrong and only inhibits the true meaning of live performance, that of interaction between band and crowd.
Still, if one act can surmount the appalling drabness, the idiot regulations and slapdash anonymity of their surroundings it is British Sea Power. And with that in mind, I had proceeded to don a fresh vintage paisley tie, and drink as much pale ale as I could in the time allowed, sauntering at will through some of the many outstanding traditional* taverns that Sheffield has to offer.
(*as in the sense of not fucked up-gutted out-dandified/full of lumpen leisure wear types/serving extra cold Guiness/playing Keane/having deals on wine/serving healthy foods with salads/named republica or viavia)
But we all had to wait as Field Music were on first. Maybe the full weight of the pale ale and bitter hit me, but I am at pains to remember a single thing about their set. There were people on the stage; that much is true. These people (three lads) also played instruments and sang, etc etc, all the things a band traditionally does. And nothing else registered. I had the same problem with them when they played Amsterdam, it didn't quite click with me and I was left wondering where the last half hour had gone. All rather like those instructional telly programmes on The Victorians or the Life of a Frog you'd watch in class at school. All very nice and entertaining, but not a solid fact garnered. Sorry.
Once Field Music had exited the stage, the Sea Power vibe began to grow. Eclectic, eccentric music was played on the P.A. system. And, as per usual, underlings tied branches to mike stands. In fact, so many branches adorned the mike stands and so profuse was the foliage upon them, the thought dawned on me that I could have flown across a sea just to witness three singing larches. Still, all quibbles were torn asunder when the band entered and pounded out a screeching, scathing Apologies to Insect Life followed by the left-right combination of Remember Me & Favours in the Beetroot Fields, which left everyone breathless and sweaty down the front. Mr. Yan seemed particularly in the mood for entertaining us, chuntering on in that otherworldly manner of his, the strange kid at the back of the class now in complete charge of proceedings.
It did seem that Sea Power had something to prove. Something had obviously clicked in their collective psyche, as they embarked on a very un-standard set with instrument and singer swapping galore. To be appallingly vogue-ish and use a football reference, the band - and consequently the live set - is in a period of transition. This meant that at times the pace varied oddly, with a reflective moment following bruisingly loud ones; making it impossible for them to build on the mood of what had gone previously. Maybe because if the chopping and changing, the (personal) highlights were even more noticeable. Spirit of Saint Louis was as angry as I have ever heard it, a white-hot slab of metal being relentlessly pounded into shape by the band. As for Fear of Drowning, the shudder of the drum roll at the beginning was intense, insistent, electrifying. New live favourite No Red Indian sounded like an ethereal, autistic warning from people long dead and buried, whilst Scottish Wildlife Experience morphed into a fabulous low-grade Dick Dale number, Hamilton's lop-sided, shamanistic yelping bringing menace and purposeful to the track.
Consequently, by the end of the gig, a vibe quite unlike a standard concert show was conjured up. And, since you ask, I think this is a very, very good thing for it brings us to concentrate on what Sea Power are very good at, creating the mood through their music alone, without resorting to any of the standard and well-worn attempts of regular showmanship. The band doesn't hold truck with that shit, just as much as they don't care to be labelled cuddly eccentrics by the music press. They are too psychotic and otherworldly for that.
One more paragraph of relative sanity is needed to deal with the new material before we can indulge in some purple prose. As I've said, the set is in a period of transition, mainly because British Sea Power seem to want to use the live set as a test bed for the new material they've written. And let me tell you categorically that this new stuff blows their older material clean out of the water. So much so that I thought at times I was watching two bands, two separate entities. Maybe this brings to mind Banquo or Banquo's ghost, Can with Damo or Can with Michael Mooney. Or Neighbours with Harold as opposed to Neighbours with Sharlene. Take your pick.
So affecting were the new songs, tracks I normally love hearing live were rendered ineffectual by comparison. Indeed, any track that followed next to a new song notably suffered. Oily Stage (normally so impressive live) sounded dull as ditch water next to the absolutely incredible A Trip Out. The beauty of Mary made How Will I Ever Find My Way Home sound like George fucking Formby. Who needs George when you could have the Television jamming with Neu!?
And that was not all, for we had the concert's ending to consider.
So, by way of an introduction to Pelican, a little history.
British Sea Power have always been known for their rousing finales. However, things (if I may say so) had been getting like The Last Night of The Proms with the usual Lately/Rock In A finish, however magnificent that can be. And I would hate British Sea Power to become the cuddly face of eccentric rock, beloved of fuckers like Jeremy Vine or Vanessa Feltz. I don't want them re-branded by the meeja mogadons as ironic and naughty like Kenneth Williams; I don't want them accepted, and back-slapped like Morrissey. No. I want them to be utterly incomprehensible, a shambolic glory, a right fucking mess. An annoyance; a belch emitted whilst reading the obituaries on the radio. A bite to the fetlock, an unedifying smell.
When Lately started I thought, "ah well, here we go", and adopted a world weary air, only for my smugness to be wheeled off in a white coat as that particular song was curtailed and a new behemoth entered in it's place. Whatever Pelican is about isn't really relevant; suffice to say it bulldozed the preceding set in an act of mindless vandalism. It was epic; an ever changing, delirious collage of clashing sound and key changes; as a pop-eyed Mr Dawson and I hastily agreed, it was pitched somewhere between Faust at their most rock and roll and PiL at their most wanton. With the unveiling of Pelican British Sea Power ascended to the topper most podium of contemporary guitar rock, and turned to piss on their competitors. Utterly, wantonly out of this world.
And that was just the music. Guitarist Mr Noble's neat and inoffensive demeanour is pushed aside to reveal a mad, sprinting, lolloping, psychotically gurning Mr Punch figure; rabidly assaulting his band-mates with a foam guitar, jumping on bouncers, running away from bouncers, picking his band mates up, eating leaves... Yan decides to swim majestically through the crowd adopting heroic poses (slightly offset by the startling sight of him half eating the microphone), whereas Hamilton decides that there is nothing that can bring as much fun in this world as jumping up and down or putting his head through Noble's legs. I shudder to think how their mother put them to bed as children. Wood contents himself with battering the fuck out of his drum kit.
After what seemed like 5 years or 15 seconds, it was all over. Delirious, we encamped to a warehouse and drank illicit gin in celebration of the abstract.
Words: Richard Foster.
Pictures:Mariska van den Hoven.
The following night in Nottingham, by all accounts, was insane. Here as a kind of dumb-show, are images from that night, and images that are clearly impossible to write about, save to note that it portrays an almost Bosch-esque vision made flesh. My thanks to Adam Hare for this glimpse into the unreal.