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LIVE REPORT: James Chance/Melt Yourself Down
Sean Kitching , November 20th, 2014 16:00

Sean Kitching witnesses James Chance's long awaited return to London, alongside London-based jazz group Melt Yourself Down. Photo by Alan Bolger

It's been over four years since the New York based no wave legend James Chance has played in London. Since his resurrection from semi-obscurity in 2003, I've seen him strut those unhinged funked-up marionette dance moves on stages in Long Beach California, Camber Sands and in London numerous times, backed by different bands, including the original Contortions, and his excellent French touring group Les Contortions. This is only the second time that Chance has been backed by Melt Yourself Down, an occurrence that was surely inevitable, given the fact that Pete Wareham chose to name his world/jazz supergroup after an obscure James Chance track to be found on his 1983 album released under the name of 'The Flaming Demonics' as well as a hard to find Japanese release on Selfish Records from 1986.

As the band launch into opening track 'Designed To Kill,' the twinned beats of Tom Skinner on drums and Satin Singh on percussion; the booming bass of Ruth Goller and irresistible combination of Pete Wareham and Shabaka Hutchings on tenor saxophones; and spidery, spacey guitar from Kushal Gaya, all give this group a no contest edge over previous times I've seen Chance perform. I mean no disrespect to the musicians in Chance's other bands, but everyone here is amazing in their own right and ultimately, his music benefits massively from the bigger band treatment. The crowd too, no doubt drawn by the MYD connection, are one of the largest and most responsive I've seen in attendance at his concerts for some time, and there are plenty of young people (not just old JC fans like myself) dancing with crazed abandon. The prize for kicking out lunatic moves, however, has to go to the man himself. Resplendent in white tuxedo and gravity defying pompadour style quiff, Chance is 100% the old-school entertainer, giving it everything he's got, strutting stop motion style across the stage like a self-winding automaton, slapping himself in the face and running up and down on the spot during 'Almost Black'.

Hutchings' and Wareham's circuitous, interlocking sax lines sound mighty indeed on 'Incorrigible', from Chance's new album of the same name, but it's when Chance himself joins the fray that the fireworks really start to go off. The saxophone may appear a relatively simple instrument, but truly original players always find a sound completely their own. There's no mistaking Peter Brotzmann, Joe McPhee or Colin Stetson for anyone else. Although, as he's admitted himself, there's a touch of Marshall Allen's mercurial alto in Chance's playing, his tone is still wonderfully unique. Occupying mainly the highest registers of the instrument, piercing but pure and controlled despite its flirtations with chaos, as Hutchings said to me after the gig: "Like it's almost on the verge of breaking, but it never does."

'The Splurge' (also from the most recent album), introduces an unstoppably kinetic rumble of bass, drums and percussion over Chance's anarchic keyboard, whole handfuls of keys pressed down with his palms, Sun Ra style. Old number 'Jaded' gets dedicated to Nancy Arlen, drummer of Mars, one of the of the original no wave bands, into which Chance inserts verses from James Brown's 'It's A Man's Man's World' and Jimmy Van Heusen's 'Call Me Irresponsible.' It's electric when the three saxes take flight again, Chance's high alto soaring above the murky moodiness of the rest of the song. Inspired by the Three Mile Island nuclear accident that occurred in 1979, and driven by Goller's undulating bass and Singh's voodoo-funk conga beats, 'Melt Yourself Down' is another high point in the set. 'Hell on Earth' similarly takes hold of the hips and elicits sympathetic autonomic response in all but the most rigid of audience members with its Grandmaster Flash inspired bass line. James Brown's 'King Heroin' - surely the ultimate and official junkie's lament -  starts and builds slowly, becoming immensely moving.

I've no doubt that for some, Chance's voice is an acquired taste, but its scratchy, well lived-in quality is perfect for this material. There can be little doubt that Chance knows what he's talking about when he sings, adjusting the words a little for his audience, "Be you English, Irish, Scots or Welsh/I can make the most virile of men forget their sex/So now, no, my man, you must (you know) do your best/To keep up your habit until your arrest". Gil Scott-Heron's 'Home Is Where the Hatred Is' also receives the Chance treatment, making it far more bracing affair than the smooth original, but also retaining its powerfully downbeat sentiment. A slightly comedic moment during final track 'Contort Yourself', when Chance puts the microphone in the bell of his sax, only to elicit a massive squeal of feedback before thinking better of it, only adds to the fun and sense of irreverence.     Although I'm much more of a James Chance fan than a Melt Yourself Down aficionado, I've been aware of their music since their inception and attended an early gig at the Shacklewell Arms. Tonight you really have to hand it to them though, within minutes of the band coming on, the crowd are going quite literally berserk, dancing with arms aloft from the front of the stage all the way to the back of the venue. Whereas the beats to Chance's music are undeniably infectious, MYD's rhythms tip all the way over into the realm of the truly delirious. I've also seen Shabaka Hutchings' band Sons Of Kemet receiving a rapturous reception from a predominantly young audience, but in all honesty I've never seen a crowd respond like this to saxophone propelled music. This is driven in part by Kushal Gaya's wildly charismatic stage antics, whirling like a dervish, throwing bottle after bottle of cold water over the heads of the overheated crowd, exhorting them to dance from on top of a speaker stack at the side of the stage.

Whilst there's no doubting Gaya's enormously enthusiastic abilities as a frontman, there are times when his voice falls a little flat, leaving me wondering how amazing the band would be if there was a little more variation in the vocal range, if they could be joined for instance by an occasional guest vocalist of the stature of someone like Khaira Arby, the "nightingale of Mali". The band run through four new tracks from their forthcoming second album - 'Shiva,' 'Another Weapon', 'Dot To Dot' and 'Aqsaq'. For me though, 'Fix My Life' and 'Camel' are the unassailable high points of the set, the latter seeing them rejoined by the diminutive form of James Chance, whose wailing north African horn sound fits in perfectly. The band return for the encore with another Chance track, the classic 'Throw Me Away', before finishing with another two numbers from their debut album. At one point, a figure can be seen diving from the stage into the seething crowd. He looks familiar and then I realise it's the promoter, Glenn Max, getting down right in the centre of it all. All things told, this was a wonderful, exhausting, sweaty evening of the kind all too rarely seen at rock gigs, much less anything with certified jazz overtones.