A Pagan City Tango: Chris & Cosey Live In New York

As Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti return to New York after decades away, Albert Freeman writes that they arrive at just the right time to coincide with the city's hard techno renaissance. Photo from NY by Kat Lees

The appearance of an iconic group in a major metropolis after over two decades absence is always sure to cause a stir, but there is something especially appropriate in seeing the return of Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti to New York in 2014 given the musical climate that has taken over the city’s underground in the past few years. Of course they haven’t quite been completely absent, given the well-received and sold out Throbbing Gristle shows in 2009, also coincidentally spread out across three nights and including an extra, last minute booking. However, TG were always a quite different animal than the duo, and equally importantly, 2014 NYC has changed very visibly from the city of 2009, as much in terms of appearance and demographics as in the musical threads that have slowly crept forward to grip the resurgent dance scene of the city. 

In 2009, New York was just emerging from a long slumber in terms of any sort of dance music activity visible from outside its borders. It was the year such figures as Levon Vincent, Jus-Ed, and Fred P. at last gained some kind of recognition in the underground after years of hard work, but the traction at that early stage was still very limited. Punters looking for some kind of action in techno, house, or a small dubstep community had to look deep into the city’s underground for satisfaction, and for fans of industrial or EBM, the scene was even more sparse. The most obvious activity was probably late-period spin offs of the DFA-fueled wave of rock-influenced disco, which continued to exert influence for a couple of years while increasingly losing its New Wave influences. 

Flash forward to 2014 and the situation is conspicuously different. The cynical might point to the EDM craze sweeping the States, but the truth of the matter runs quite a bit deeper. A general revival in house music, historically a genre that New York made strong contributions to, has taken hold strongly in the city, with the number of events nightly increasing several fold over a short time and a number of new venues catering specifically to the sound opening in recent months. The bar scene has become even busier, with 4/4 seemingly blaring from every open doorway and a healthy number of nights catering to specific tastes, be it techno, house, industrial, bass music, disco and others. Helped on by the strength of the L.I.E.S. label, more esoteric sounds have even been seen filtering into bigger clubs, and a climate of musical crossover in the underground has fueled an upsurge in creativity.

It is into this context that Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti and their their originally divisive, pop-leaning music make their entrance. While critically the scene in New York may still be lagging compared to Europe, with less modern industrial music and hard techno, increasingly these sounds are getting air time in places where more curious listeners congregate. Meanwhile, Carter Tutti’s prescient music has also made its own evolution to come closer to the modern club music it so heavily influenced, in the interim becoming fuller, heavier, and more industrial, which parallels the contemporary drift in dance music. In short, the timing is fortuitous.

The series kicks off at temporary performance dome at MoMA’s PS1 contemporary gallery, an always-odd space often put to unusual uses by the museum. As a venue for concerts, its strange dome-shape, circular floor, and often-anemic sound system make it a bit hit or miss, and the gallery crowd that often drifts through the performances at various interest levels can lend a dissolute atmosphere at times. Fortunately and not entirely surprisingly, the sound has been improved for the performance of the 2012 X-TG Desertshore project. The concert starts off relatively linear, with tracks closely matching their appearance on the album, including mixed-in vocal appearances. Seated on stage with minimal visible gear, Carter and Tutti at first seem be delivering the expected. However, the appearance of Tutti’s live instruments creates an increasing improvisatory feel, and Carter responds with rumbling textures that quickly overtake the album’s relatively understated aesthetic. By the end they’re in full roar and the crowd appear awed as distorted images of Peter Christopherson rise into the projections behind the performers. For a show in a venue that often sees more polite music played to less engaged audiences, the difference is palpable, and it is overall a stirring interpretation of a still-striking album. 

Promising to be a quite different experience is the following weekend’s club revival concert of the classic material from the Chris & Cosey albums of the 1980s. Curiously enough, it is slated for the early 7PM time slot at Santos Party House, a formerly well-reputed club for music with a world class sound system whose bookings have sadly declined in quality since 2009. Unsurprisingly, this is a sold out show and, as Santos isn’t the biggest venue, it means that the crowd are crammed shoulder to shoulder with little room to move in the odd geometry of the main room. The club has always suffered from a seeming lack of intimacy, and true to this ambiance, Carter and Tutti seem somewhat distant onstage. While the interpretations of the songs performed in most cases are not particularly close to the album or single versions, the improvisatory feel that made the X-TG show so striking is subdued in favor of more concise, shorter songs in a more traditional set form.

Announced only the previous Thursday and evidently the result of on-the-ground scouting work, the final Sunday performance is set for Radio Bushwick, a highly professional, medium sized, and nearly-new venue in the Brooklyn neighborhood that has become quite an art colony in the past five or 10 years.There’s inevitable hand-wringing over gentrification, but in a city regrettably short on venues, Radio Bushwick is a welcome addition, and the simple, dark room with its high ceilings and low stage makes a perfect contrast to the previous evening. 

It’s quite clear upon entering that of any, this is the night to have punted for. This is by far the youngest and freshest crowd of the three, which lends a different energy to the night, accentuated by the more intimate surroundings. The choice of venue is a wise one – again projections rise on the long wall behind them, but with minimal separation on a very low stage, they feed off of the audience’s energy. In spite of many overlaps in the set list, it feels conspicuously different and the songs more elongated and fluid, more improvised, and more in tune with the crowd, who dance in front of the band as Cosey Fanni Tutti makes what is by far the most energetic and commanding performance of the three nights on her guitar, cornet, and vocals. Following a two-song encore identical to the previous night’s coda, they thank the audience and the lights in the black room slowly rise on a lingering, transported audience. 

If reunion gigs as a general rule can be divisive, it’s thrilling to hear the collective buzz of approval over this trio of performances. Surely a combination of location and timing contributed to all of this, but Chris & Cosey have lost none of the magic that made them so vital from the beginning, and with Christopherson now gone and the duo at odds with Genesis P. Orridge, their continuing creativity is all that much more vital. I’m not counting on seeing their return too soon – a Carter Tutti Void show here in New York would be thrilling – but, just like the Throbbing Gristle gigs of 2009, at the very least I can count on these nights to remain fresh in my mind for a few years to come. 

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today