Thursday, September 27, 2007

M Smith's Fear of Audience

You don't need to be a long-term Fall fan to know that any concert headed by Mark E Smith is as likely to explode in recrimination and argument as run smooth as clockwork.

Buy Totales Turns or Seminal Live (actually, scrub that - buy Totales Turns because Seminal Live is shockingly bad even by the standards of the Fall's often contractually obligated back catalogue). Put on a random track. It's an evens chance you'll hear MES shouting 'stop, stop - this is shit" rather than the expected sound of a professional band effortlessly going through their live paces.

So it's not like we shouldn't have been prepared for Von Sudenfed, earlier on this week at the Liquid Rooms here in Edinburgh.

Granted, the support band was truly awful (I'll spare their blushes and not name them, mainly because I have no idea what they were called), but that's par for virtually every gig I've ever been to. Doesn't mean the main act is going to be equally inept.

At around about nine, two of the Von Sudenfed collective wandered on stage, took their places behind a massive set of decks and speakers and began pumping out a bass line that made my heart shudder like jelly in a balloon. I think the track they were playing was 'Fledermaus Can't Get Enough' but if I'm being honest any sound these two made was just a backing track for Mark E's ranting lyrics in my mind. And there was no sign of him even five minutes into the first track - just the two DJ types (who looked suspiciously like Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller in Starsky and Hutch) dancing groovily behind their big machines.

At that point Smith walked on and it was easy to believe that this was showmanship, as he barked out something largely incomprehensible and headed to the far side of the stage, where he turned his back on the crowd in traditional Fall fashion.

Except he clearly didn't know the words (not a major problem since he was reading them off a handful of sheets of A4) and was pretty obviously half-jaked (not necessarily a problem - he's no Sinatra at the best of times and a bit of whisky-related lubrication might be no bad thing).

What was a problem though was that after singing half the song reasonably competently he appeared to start reading the lyrics to another song by mistake, then sauntered back across the stage and disappeared into the wings.

'Off for a fag," I said, but if so it was a long one since he didn't re-appear for about ten minutes, and even then only lasted another five before wandering off again. His voice was heard from offstage during 'Flooded' (much more strongly than had been the case when we could see him, leading to a slight suspicion that the DJs were playing a pre-recorded tape loop of the vocals) and he did come back on stage for the encore, but otherwise it was pretty poor, really.

The DJs battled on throughout, playing a handful of the songs from the album, but I didn't hear either of my personal favourites, 'German Fear of Osterriech', and 'The Rhinohead'.

The last two gigs I saw at the Liquid Rooms were Arthur Lee and Television - two acts well past their prime, but both capable, as they demonstrated, of a genuinely high quality live act. Mark E Smith on the other hand - a man who once routinely stopped the Fall mid-track if he thought the live playing wasn't up to scratch - was a shambling liability, contemptuous of the audience in a way you wouldn't have seen ten years ago.

There's a great track on the album called 'Family Feud' in which Smith repeatedly sings the tongue-in-cheek refrain "I am the great M E S". For all his faults as a performer, he's no less a lyricist than he ever was, and he will have been aware of irony of the other way to read the line - on this form Smith as a performer really is a mess.


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Blogger Mark Clapham said...

I'm always slightly unnerved by how tight and professionally even the most minor bands play live these days. Good to see someone flying the flag for old school shambolic rock incompetence.


12:36 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

You'd have enjoyed the support band then, because were a treat in that respec. Shoudl have guessed they were going to be wacky rather than good when we saw the line-up - two bass players, a drummer and a keyboard player, plus whiny Breeders-style vocalist kicking her legs out like a young Claire Grogan.

Which is where the resemblance ends as she apologised at the start of pretty much every song for the fact the equipment kept breaking down,the hugely tall female bassist pretty obviously couldn't really play and every song seemed to have the same tune, wnot helped byt he fact the vocalist was miles down in the mix.

It was like watching the world's only X-Factor Failures tribute band...

1:02 pm  
Blogger alienvoord said...

You just caught him on an off day. Don't say MES is on the decline!

Frankly, when I saw Mouse on Mars years ago I was disappointed. They didn't sound anything like recognizable. But then I saw them perform with Stereolab and it was pretty good.

I'm looking forward to reading MES's autobiography, "Renegade," and also "Perverted by Language," the collection of short stories inspired by Fall songs.

1:55 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

I'd like to think I caught him on a bad day, but from looking for reviews of other VS gigs, this seems to be only slightly more extreme behaviour than usual.

That said, I knew it could be chaotic and between Tromatic Relexxions and Fall Heads Must Roll (and I believe the album after FHMR, although I've yet to hear it), the actual music MES is recording is the best for years.

Smith crooning 'Bill is Dead' style on 'The Rhinohead' and snarling in German on 'German fear of Ostereich' takes me back twenty years :)

2:05 pm  

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