A brief School of Seven Bells roundup

Aly of School of Seven Bells

Occasioned by their really wonderful show the other night at the Detroit Bar. It’s the third time I’ve seen them in a year and a half and each time has been great as well as engagingly different. In this case it was partially because Claudia Deheza couldn’t make the performance — I gather she was ill — but Aly did the solo turn more than well.

My OC Weekly feature article revolved around my interview with Ben Curtis while my latest Foxy Digitalis piece is a bit of a review of the show, talking about both them and the excellent openers Active Child.

All that and I admit to being a bit tickled when Ben noted between songs at one point that they had performed at Detroit before (and quite the show that was), saying how great it was, then pausing and wondering if it was that great. I said something like “Yes it was!” and he looked over, paused a second, stepped up to the mike again and went “Ned?” What can I say.

Ben of School of Seven Bells

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School of Seven Bells — worth the hype

School of Seven Bells

Bluntly put but true. I came to School of Seven Bells fairly cold in terms of their collective background — and you wouldn’t believe how many people were shocked to hear that I had never heard any Secret Machines before (hey, I knew the name, I was just busy with other things!) — and what I heard of their recorded work was enjoyable and a grower, but didn’t immediately make me go “OMG greatest thing ever!” as so many other people did.

I’d heard enough reports about their live show, though, to know that catching them with Black Moth Super Rainbow (a good act, not the end of the world for me but the new album’s nice) when they played the Detroit Bar was kinda key. So it proved — to my slight surprise I ended up perched onstage a bit while the show started off well about halfway through it all turned spectacularly wonderful. All three members bring something different to the stage and the sheer monstrous blast of the music — electronic rigor/feedback explosion/keening harmony — was breathtaking and enveloping. Very much put me in mind of usual suspects — Chapterhouse’s Loop fetish, Curve’s similar tech/guitar combination, MBV of course — but with their own particular stamp. So yeah, catch ’em.

Opening guy James Yuill turned out to be a pretty good act himself — ignore the ‘folktronica’ label, yeah he uses acoustic guitar and a live electronic setup but he has his own thing going and I wasn’t surprised to learn he’s remixed Patrick Wolf. Photo sets for both here and here and here’s some sample shots from both:

James Yuill

James Yuill

James Yuill

School of Seven Bells

School of Seven Bells

School of Seven Bells

Stereolab at the Detroit Bar in Costa Mesa

No, it’s not much of a picture. Had I been closer, a different story (and there were a lot of fellow iPhone users taking advantage of that fact).

But last night was indeed another return visit by Stereolab — return visit because for the past few years they have regularly stopped by the Detroit Bar whenever they tour America. The booking for the place is done by Chris Fahy, a former tour manager of theirs, and they actually were the headline act when the venue opened years ago now, so I like to think of them as the ‘flagship’ band. They’ve gotten to know the place and the area well enough now that I was not at all surprised at the fact that when my friends and I met for dinner at Taco Mesa down the road, all of the band minus Laetitia Sadier were there having dinner as well, along with Atlas Sound.

While it’s my fourth time seeing them at the Detroit it’s my eighth time seeing them overall, stretching back to 1993 and their first tour in America as co-headliners with Unrest. If you had told me then that I’d be seeing them plenty of times over the years I might have been surprised — Stereolab have never been in my immediate all-time-favorites group in my head, but instead are just one of those good, dare I say ‘reliable’ bands. This isn’t to knock them, rather to point out that they keep on keeping on with a general work ethic and persistence that is quite admirable. For a group that made a big splash with a slew of stated initial goals — the excavation and reworking of a wide variety of ‘lost’ sounds and styles, a continuing lyrical focus on political and social issues through the lens of a modern, evolving Marxism — it’s actually very refreshing to see that they kept at it, having inspired any number of bands along the way and continuing to rework the basic combinations of their sound into differing results.

I say this well aware of some common criticisms of the group — that if you’ve heard one album you’ve heard them all (overstated but not without a kernel of truth) being the most regular. I still haven’t heard the new album Chemical Chords yet myself, so I came in ready for new stuff as it happened and otherwise wondering what they would play again. As it turned out, this was easily one of the peppiest sets I’ve ever seen from them — having worked through the crushing grief of Mary Hanson’s accidental death in London some years back, and restructured the group’s dynamic in performance accordingly, they seem to be on a new, comfortable high now. The core trio of Tim Gane, Laetitia Sadier and Andy Ramsay are well matched by the newer three members (newer being contextual — pretty sure one of the keyboardists has been with them now for about six years, and I really need to recheck their names!), the new songs split nicely between the immediately energetic and the gently reflective, and the various oldies were delivered with aplomb. Meantime, there was plenty of humor on stage, quick jokes being cracked, poses being struck and a general sense that they were comfortable with a venue they’ve enjoyed from the start and a crowd always happy to welcome them back.

As per usual I expected — and got — a slew of tracks from the album that really made their name, Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements, the 1993 effort that the band don’t like as a recorded artifact but which was their big American introduction via Elektra and which hot-wired a slew of imaginations from the moment of release. (Melodramatic on my part? I really think this to be the case — read Douglas Wolk‘s essay on the album in Marooned sometime if you haven’t.) They didn’t dominate the set by any means but they were the ones that got everyone going the most among the older tracks, and I always think of the band wanting to prove a point with their performances from them, to show how they would prefer to have them heard.

The real surprise was the final song of the encore — “Jenny Ondioline,” a song I honestly thought I was never going to hear them play again. When they played that first time in 1993 it was part of their massive sounding but admittedly monochromatic set, and while it’s gone down as one of their key tracks since — I refer to Douglas’s essay again for a better appreciation of it — in its full twenty minute form I thought it wasn’t going to get an airing anytime soon. But lo and behold, Tim launched into that dramatic guitar opening, my eyebrows shot up and the cheers from others were loud and long. A fantastic performance and a fine way to wrap things up.

Two brief concluding thoughts — Laetitia, as you can kinda tell from my photo I guess, is and remains one of the most flat-out stellar looking people in music. Natural elegance, perfect genetics, an apparent inability to seem like she’s aging at all, call it what you will. But last night I was reminded again just how much women love her — every time I’ve seen them there’s been at least one or two very, very loud expressions of love and/or lust from someone female in the audience, and this was no exception. There was a moment where a feedback problem was giving the band grief, and at one point between songs Laetitia stepped to the mike and asked the sound guy, “Mark, what do you think is causing the feedback?” Before Mark could reply, a woman two or three people over from me shouted out “Because you’re so FUCKING HOT!” Mass cheers at this, smiles from the band and a gentle one from Laetitia herself.

Second, I should say that Atlas Sound’s opening set was a treat — I’ve seen some good openers for Stereolab over time and this ranked up there — and after the show my friends Keith, Johana and I noticed him sitting outside having a smoke and I chatted with him briefly. Friendly guy! Hope the rest of the tour goes well!