Do you ever have one of those moments where you really have no idea what you're doing here, wherever "here" may be? The previous night, just before a packed-out gig on the pretty familiar turf of Camden Barfly, we asked I Like Trains singer Dave Martin how on earth they had ended up with a one-off gig in Bucharest, Romania. "They offered to pay for us to go so we said yes", he shrugged. Fair enough. For an unsigned band (even one with an established fanbase and two albums out) it's an offer not to be refused, although they still have no idea what to expect. The old "will there be anybody there?" concern that prickles at any band taking on a new and unknown territory is magnified several times when it's a country of which you have zero prior experience. The venue website seems to have been promoting it hard, though: we might not understand every word of "pasiunea pentru post-rock-ul intunecat si atmosferic" but it's clear the promoters know what they're dealing with; they've actually used an up-to-date picture (several venues' flyers from the band's recent UK tour included a member who left about three years ago) and they obviously know their "post-rock-ul intunecat si atmosferic" quite well, too; God Is An Astronaut visit next month. And yeah, Facebook event attendances are generally to be taken with a pinch of salt but if even a third of the hundred names show up they won't be playing to an empty hall... the entry fee of RON40 worries me a little though - that's about a tenner, more than they generally charge back home, and this in a country where beer's £1.50 a pint and moreover the very popular homegrown band's album launch gig the following night is just RON15 in. We'll see.
Two unexpected challenges await your non-Romanian-speaking correspondent on entering this apparent haven of alternative sounds: where is the actual gig, and how do we secure admission? Control Club, you see, is less a venue and more a great underground bunker (actually come to think of it, this wouldn't be the first time we'd been to a gig in the former communist bloc, in a venue whose pre-1989 purpose was still apparent and did not involve amplified music...) that seems to grow more rooms every time you turn a corner. And, as we deduce after a spot of people-watching, to gain entry to the gig area, which comprises the venue, a separate bar and a sort of lounge bit with sofas, you have to buy a wristband off a really scary bloke. There's already a decent crowd in and I lament my phrase-book's omission of the essential question "could you please tell me the artist and title of this song?" on several occasions as the DJ slips some excellent quality "Eastern European language" shoegaze and electropop in between more familiar sounds (the first time I've heard British Sea Power's "Living Is So Easy" played in a club anywhere, BSP-watchers!). Perhaps such a tailored international phrase-book could be a forthcoming Incendiary project? You know: "what time is the first band on?" "how many supports are there" "are there any other good gigs in town this weekend?"... Anyway, I digress...
Locally based support Traum are OK. In fact for a band playing their first gig they'd be very much more than OK, were it not for the fact that they have existed as a studio entity for five years, had some success with recorded work, and got extensive form playing in other bands which go (or went) by the far more interesting names of Dekadens and Hotel Fetish. So their polished tightness isn't as impressive as it would be, and we're left with the music. They're ideal support band material really, kind of everyman-alternative: a bit post-punk, a bit grunge, a bit what Americans like to call college-rock. Their lyrics are as bewildering as non-native speakers' attempts to be poetic in English often are - “a samurai in a union jack tank top” sounds like a particularly bad experience on hallucinogens - but the last song that ends with a serious rock-out and the singer yelling "You better drive! You better drive!" shows they've certainly got some fuel in their rockets. Maybe they just need to get out of that studio-sheen mindset a bit more (something I've definitely seen back home with bands coming to live performance quite late in their existence) and grow a few more rough edges.
They're very well received - and once again there's a momentary shudder, had people actually come to see them? The intro tape kicks in, and although we have by now managed to get closer to the front (by the time-honoured British tradition which maybe hasn't caught on here yet, of making a bog and bar trip as soon as the support announces their last song - and don't even ask how we knew that was what he'd said, we just did) the place has filled nicely behind us. There's almost as many people here as there were in Camden last night, and the band look delighted as they walk out of the wings and see the scene. It's at that moment we just know this is going to be one of those classic gigs.
Last time Incendiary reviewed ILT, back in November at Paradiso, they had not long released their self- and pledge-funded second album He Who Saw the Deep and whilst initial interest had delighted them, the future was unwritten. In January they set off on a month-long tour crossing most of north-western Europe finishing with a week around Britain, and what we observed (various Incendiary scribes attended gigs in Belgium, Holland, Austria and several English cities) was all that hard work paying off. They couldn't order in merchandise fast enough as it flew off the stall every night, and at the final date in York in February there was a genuine sense of pride amongst regular ILT-watchers at what they had achieved. Last night in London picked up where that left off, and tonight it continues: it seems they have quite a fanbase here in Romania and whilst pretty much every song in this astonishing, career-spanning set is well received the biggest cheers are for the last single A Father's Son.
They'd started quietly, with Sirens and Rook House For Bobby, and already the crowd was rapt. The sound in this place is excellent and the band playing the best they ever have, so it's not until Voice Of Reason that we realise people are singing along. They are magnificent tonight; interspersing their dark and mildly menacing soundtrack with friendly asides to the audience - and it's hard not to feel the weight of their apocalytic predictions for our species when in between last night's show and tonight's the Japanese earthquake and tsunami has reminded us all of the fragility of humanity, even if the extent of the horror is yet to fully unfold. But back to the music, and tonight A Father's Son is just outstanding: the missing link between The Chameleons and British Sea Power, the greatest guitar bands of two centuries. Their other two most sublime moments, Terra Nova and Sea of Regrets follow soon after and at this point I Like Trains sound like the best band in the world. The crowd certainly agrees, and whilst the band are - pleasingly - not arrogant enough to presume they will get an encore nor write one into the set list, there is no doubt that tonight they're coming back. Control Club has been good to them and is rewarded with Stainless Steel - which only comes out on special occasions - and a great spiralling Spencer Perceval.
Afterwards, the merchandise is flying again, which may partly be due to the fact that as ever the band are behind the table within seconds of leaving the stage and happy to chat to as many fans as they can. The scene repeating as it has across the continent this year: another triumph for the happiest, friendliest miserable men of rock.
For more of Cath's musings on Bucharest and some of the other local music unearthed over the weekend, look here: