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Three Songs No Flash

Hmm Hmm Hmm: Yeah Yeah Yeahs Vs JSBX, Live At ATP
Julian Marszalek , May 8th, 2013 06:07

Julian Marszalek heads to All Tomorrow's Parties' I'll Be Your Mirror, and finds that curators Yeah Yeah Yeahs rather let the side down. Photo thanks to Katja Ogrin.

To enter the cavernous environs of North London's one-time television and broadcasting centre Alexandra Palace is to be instantly reminded of the venue's aural shortcomings. With its high ceiling, wide auditorium and brick walls, sound can't help but reverberate harshly around the space, creating the kind of din that instantly transports you to the production lines of the factories that once dotted the land in vast numbers. Many are the bands whose best intentions have been thwarted by this acoustically unforgiving venue.

If anything characterises today's one-day event, curated with love and care by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, it's struggle: the struggle against the challenges the venue presents, while knobs are twiddled with urgency at the mixing desk; the struggle to dominate the line-up, and the struggle against sub-standard material and internal band dynamics.

Curiously, the booming noise of the venue's Great Hall works hugely in The Black Lips' favour. At their recorded best, these self-professed "professional amateurs" resemble the kind of nightmarish trip wherein your head is stuck in a constantly flushing toilet, while the brain dissolves the ego and time and space become redundant and meaningless concepts. Of course, one suspects that all concepts outside of three chords have little meaning for The Black Lips - and that, as far as these Atlantan reprobates are concerned, is no bad thing. But right here, right now, the shot-through acoustics of the venue succeed in replicating the delightfully hellish joys of their 2009 album, 200 Million Thousand. Indeed, the further you stand away from the stage the more unholy – and yet perversely enjoyable – their racket becomes. Wander closer and those fuzzed-up and overdriven riffs become that much clearer, but slightly less satisfying.

Thankfully they've elected to rein in their more disgusting and puerile traits such as spitting in each others' mouths and, as they power their way through 'Bad Kids' and 'Katrina', it's difficult not to think of those grainy clips on YouTube of bands like The Thirteenth Floor Elevators, where you end up thinking 'this is great, but what would it sound it like to be there then?' And the answer is, like this: a buzzing, echoing screengrab of psychedelic insanity that seems to stretch time into infinity, whilst in actuality all taking place within 180 seconds or less. It's a victory of sorts, and one that suits their snot-nosed and contrary nature.

Over at the Panorama Room, Jah Shaka's late running set of bowel-loosening and seismic, righteous vibes is enhanced by a PA that doesn't have to struggle against the elements. As former Bad Seed Mick Harvey and his new cohorts load their gear onto the stage, this set is already a vast and welcome contrast to what's just gone in the Great Hall. Such is the popularity of Jah Shaka's selections that even the security at the door – ever mindful of the increasing numbers drawn to the glorious selections filling the room – allow themselves a skank and a knowing smile.

Sadly, given the nature of the conflicting schedules between the two main stages, the Quietus' bouncing feet move with no small amount of regret to the Great Hall in time for the return of The Locust. The last time our paths crossed, The Locust were supporting Yeah Yeah Yeahs at The Forum. Then it was a joy to watch, but for all the wrong reasons. Few are the bands that can piss off an audience as royally as this lot, and the steady stream of beer thrown in their direction was more entertaining than the compressed noise they were offering. However, with beer nudging the £5 mark here, the chances of comparable fun are limited.

Not that The Locust give a fuck one way or the other. Dressed in masks and tight lycra outfits – probably to avoid a kicking if recognised – they power through their hardcore detonations with all the abandon of a drunk navigating a demolition derby as one song crashes into another before smashing its way out of the venue and rolling down the hill into north London. They could well be playing the same song over and over, with a different running time every time it's aired, but their ongoing onslaught has the same effect as an advancing death squad as slowly, but surely, the audience numbers begin to diminish.

No such worries for Jon Spencer Blues Explosion who steal the show from under the curators' noses with a high-octane performance that not only proves to be the undisputed highlight of the day, but also some kind of career high-water mark. This a band that don't so much appear on stage as, well, explode and you'd be hard pushed to realise (or care) that last year's Meat & Bone was their first collection of new material in eight years. Bathed in red and blue light, lending them an infernal demeanour, the Blues Explosion blast straight out of the traps with a reading of 'Soul Typecast' that's so damn funky that a gas mask might be in order, were it not for the fact that feet and hips are moving of their own accord.

The telepathy between guitarists Jon Spencer and Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simmins is a wonder to behold. It's a beautiful chaos that they create, a form of harnessed madness that's screwed down into a watertight package. Cherry picking their finest moments, they tease and taunt with a snippet from 'Bellbottoms', before turning the dial sharply to the left and arriving at the stuttering and spluttering push and pull of 'Bottle Baby' and a punishing 'Sweat', among others, before arriving back to seamlessly finish off 'Bellbottoms' some 15 minutes later. The effect is not unlike watching a band DJing, through its own back catalogue, albeit using instruments instead of two turntables and microphone.

It's fitting also that they turn their attentions to Beastie Boys' 'She's On It', which segues into Link Wray's salacious 'Jack The Ripper' before heading back to the former frat-rappers once again. Bauer bumps and grinds as he elicits one guitar salvo after another, while Spencer variously falls to his knees, keeps the low end down and lets rip with a volley of Theremin squeals and shrieks as he maintains his demon preacher persona throughout. A masterclass in rock & roll from the first white-hot note to the last, this is a white-knuckle, nerve-tingling and check-yer-pants example of what a live performance should be about.

Mick Harvey's set of Serge Gainsbourg covers in the Panorama Room is in stark contrast to the lunacy in the Great Hall. Informal in its presentation, there is nonetheless a great joy seeing Harvey back on stage. Though the presentations of Gallic classics 'Harley Davidson' and 'Bonnie & Clyde' are somewhat looser than we'd expect from the erstwhile Bad Seed, there's enough self-deprecating humour and bonhomie from the sharply-dressed Harvey to endear him to the small room

Back in the Great Hall there's much love and anticipation for Karen Orzolek & co. Indeed, as she takes the stage resplendent in a silver and pink two-piece suit, the cheers that greet her, guitarist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase are the loudest received by any band of the day. She cuts a mesmerising and idiosyncratic figure, and one that truly deserves her iconic status. Part fashion icon, part cultural figure, all rock star, Karen O is the kind of frontwoman you dream about but could never create. This is a performer that exudes the charisma and bravado lesser musicians of either gender hope to emulate but can never execute.

Like current album Mosquito, Yeah Yeah Yeahs elect to open to their set with 'Sacrilege', and it's not long before Karen O is dancing and strutting her way across the stage. She's a compelling presence as she holds poses, knocks her knees together with all the abandon of a demented flapper but, much like the new album, proceedings soon head south after the initially joyful and jarring blast. There's something here that doesn't feel right, as if another and crucial element is missing from the band. And that crucial element seems to be a lack of chemistry. Orzolek and Zinner barely acknowledge each other's presence on stage, while Chase seems far too pre-occupied with the click tracks and rhythms coming through his headphones. This isn't a case of three band members (and the occasional hired hand) working together - it feels like three musicians working on their own component parts in their own clearly marked areas.

Part of the problem is the new material itself. Having lived with Mosquito for enough time for the album to reveal itself, it's difficult to shake the feeling that Yeah Yeah Yeahs have painted themselves into a corner, as they try to work out where to go next: should they head back to the garage, the dancefloor, or somewhere else? As evidenced by tonight's contributions – 'Under The Earth', 'Subway' and Despair' – the suspicion lingers that much of Mosquito has been written to punctuate rather than enhance the older material when taken on the road. Consequently, the performance sags far more than it should, and more established songs such as 'Zero' – which takes way too long before kicking in thanks to a costume change of, uh, a jacket – feel slight instead of celebratory. Closer 'Date With The Night' is suitably explosive, but by this point it's too little, too late.

Back in the Panorama Room, the disappointment of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' set is soothed by one-time Foetus mainman J.G. Thirlwell, who is spooking and beguiling a growing crowd with his Manorexia project. Augmented by a string quartet, piano player and percussionist, this compelling collection of contemporary classical expression proves a perfect full stop to day a that's witnessed accidental victories, triumphs and head-shaking disappointment.