Monday 10 April 2023

Recent gigs: Weyes Blood, Underworld and The King & I (?)

 One blog post, three contrasting nights out in the fair city of Bristol.

Night One: Weyes Blood at SWX ( 09/02/23 )

Night Two: Underworld at the Marble Factory ( 19/03/23 )

Night Three: The King & I at the Bristol Hippodrome ( 31/03/23 )

I'd first heard Natalie Mering aka Weyes Blood on one of those Best Of Year compilation CDs from either Mojo or Uncut magazine at the end of 2022. The song was It's Not Just Me, It's Everybody  -  a smoothly beautiful, queasy-listening song with a very '70s vibe and some strange undercurrents. When I heard Mering's In Holy Flux Tour was coming to Brizzle I immediately asked my good friend Tom if he'd be interested and he ( even more immediately ) snapped up a couple of tickets. Leaves fell from the trees, pages were ripped from calendars etc. and February rolled round, like it usually does, often soon after January. Tom picked me up and we headed off for an apparently uneventful trip to Bristol. I say "apparently" because he found out later that he'd fallen foul of Bristol's new Clean Air Zone and had to pay a whopping fine. Oops!
We found a handy parking spot, just near the site of the late, lamented Bristol Bierkeller, and joined the throng inside SWX. The support act was country / folk singer Sam Burton who specialises in an early-'70s-style, Laurel Canyon throwback sound, reminiscent of the likes of James Taylor or Al Stewart. He went down well with the audience but I found his songs a bit dull and his vocals monotonous. By contrast, Burton's co-vocalist / harmony vocalist, Lady Apple Tree ( aka Haylie Hostetter ) stepped up to sing her own single Didn't Want To Have To Do It and completely overshadowed him. One to watch.

 And then it was headliner time. Weyes Blood came out onto the stage with Natalie Mering looking positively angelic in a long white dress. The first song was the aforementioned It's Not Just Me, It's Everybody which seems, like much of her And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow album, to be about the pandemic or more precisely the post-pandemic experience. When Natalie sings, in her beautiful voice, we can all relate to the mixed-up emotions in this song: "Living in the wake of overwhelming changes / We've all become strangers / Even to ourselves"

And, what a voice! Her vocals have a deep, rich, mellifluous timbre and are perfectly enunciated. I did wonder if Mering could pull off the smooth sound and loooong notes of the first song but she did that perfectly and continued to do so for the rest of the set. The band, too, were excellent, hitting a very laid back FM radio/AOR groove which seemed appropriate on the day we heard the king of easy-listening, Mr. Burt Bacharach, had departed for that glitzy supper club in the sky.
More wonderful, baroque pop followed with Children Of The Empire and Something To Believe before a set highlight of the beatific God Turn Me Into A Flower ( Tom's favourite ) stunned us all with its ethereal otherworldliness. 

Alongside all this high-falutin' musical loveliness, Natalie Mering was also frank and funny in her repartee with the audience. Like most artists I've seen since the winding down of the pandemic, she talked about her happiness to be back out performing again and wittily acknowledged that she knows she talks in a goofy manner on stage and then plays melancholic, strange songs. Of course, that's fine with us. I've described her style as "Karen Carpenter singing a David Lynch movie" and I'll stand by that. After more fantastic songs massaged our ears  -  The Worst Is Done ( more pandemic comedown blues ), the almost-mainstream pop of Grapevine, and the crowd-pleasing Andromeda, Mering finished the set with the haunting Hearts Aglow... with her heart literally aglow:

Okay, it was some kind of prosthetic heart underneath her dress and my photo doesn't really do it justice, but it was a beautiful effect and was a perfect touch for a collection of songs so full of heart.
After a couple of encore songs she was gone like a spectre in the night but we all knew we'd just witnessed something very special.

Five weeks later, I was back in Bristol again, this time in a very different venue for a very different type of gig. I'm often guilty of hearing that a particular band is touring but not being quick enough in getting tickets. Not in this case. Once I'd heard legendary dance duo Underworld were playing the first night of their tour in good old Brizzle, I was straight on the case and snapped up two tickets. I'd wanted to see Underworld for years but they tend to mostly play festivals so I hadn't caught them before. The venue, The Marble Factory, was new to me so I was interested to give it a go.

Sarah and I found our way to one of the less well-known areas of Bristol which seems to be a wasteland of demolished factories and warehouses waiting to be renovated. On the plus side it meant there was free on-street parking but, give it a couple of years, and I'm sure gentrification will mean plebs like us won't be welcome. The Marble Factory itself is a very cool venue, a huge industrial slab of concrete and brick, formerly a skate-park ( very Bristol! ) but now an events space which hosts the club, Motion. It has a capacity of 1600 people and it was easily at capacity on that Sunday evening. I mean, it was rammed. You probably couldn't get a glow-stick between the bodies of the ravers down the front. Sarah and I wormed our way into the edge of the crowd and then Rick Smith and Karl Hyde came on stage to the burbling synth pulse of new song Gene Pool. Well, I assume they came on stage: we couldn't actually see them or really much of anything but the rapturous response from the crowd clued us in that something was indeed happening. As an opening number its spacey, hypnotic groove was a great start to the set, reminding me of The Chemical Brothers circa Surrender, with a hint of a melody from the Bunnymen's The Cutter occasionally surfacing.

From there on, the boys were off and running with a hugely welcome airing for the evergreen Juanita, which I'd been subjecting Sarah to on the drive down the M5. This was actually Juanita 2022, a slightly tweaked version of the original which had recently been released as two separate mixes, showing Underworld never rest on their laurels. In fact, nobody could rest that night as they pumped out one dancefloor banger after another. A monumental Mmm... Skyscraper, I Love You was followed by another new track, Denver Luna, a four-to-the-floor, ravetastic future classic, which had everyone bouncing.
We'd climbed up onto the balcony by this point where we had a slightly better view, even though Karl Hyde was still mostly obscured, as he spent a lot of time dancing behind Smith and his decks. The sound though was fantastic as we were in line with the PA and the music cut through the dry ice like a knife.
Actually, the dry ice and packed conditions were a bit too much for Sarah who ducked outside for a while after another couple of songs. I stayed inside but kept going out to check on her. It's often difficult at gigs when she feels overwhelmed by it all, especially when seeing bands she doesn't know too well. I found myself at the back of the hall by the mixing desks and actually got a half decent view by hanging off a rail (!) and somehow managed to groove along to a piledriving King Of Snake and the one!two! punch of Rez / Cowgirl. ( "Everything! Everything!" ) Sarah had luckily come back in at this point and was in time for the set-closing Born Slippy NUXX which was epic! It had been a cracking gig but I'd like to see them again and actually see them.

Our next trip to Bristol was last weekend when we went to the beautiful Hippodrome to see a performance of The King And I. ( Yes, this show was really for Sarah, but I was happy to go along. ) The 1956 movie version, starring the immortal pairing of Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr, is one of Sarah's all-time favourite films, so this new production starring Helen George ( of Call The Midwife fame ) had a lot to live up to. After a drive down to Bristol in some torrential downpours we got to the Hippodrome and climbed up the mountainous stairs to the upper circle. The view was pretty good, considering how high up we were, but the bench seats were torturous. I've got a dodgy back at the moment ( the old, reoccurring lower back pain ) and this wasn't the best thing for it really. Oh, well!

The show itself was very good: the performances, costumes, sets and music were all excellent, as we'd expect from any show at the Hippodrome. Sarah loved it and was over the moon that it hadn't been a let down after her high expectations. To be honest, this kind of show isn't really my thing and I certainly don't have the attachment to the story that Sarah has, but I definitely enjoyed it, and was impressed with Helen George ( who has a fantastic singing voice ) and Darren Lee ( the King of Siam ) who exuded all the charm, authority and charisma the role demands. After the show we went for a late night pizza then headed back to our hotel. We were staying in the Marriott Royal which is a sumptuous Victorian hotel and was a lovely place to hang out in. After checking out the next morning we had a day in Bristol and, luckily, the weather was kinder to us. A good day. Here's Sarah, outside the hotel:

I just need to start booking more gigs now :-)


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