What a year in live music 2012 has been; from the Stone Roses‘ triumphant Heaton Park shows, to our new favourites like Savages, Friends and Marika Hackman, compiling a list of musicOMH’s live highlights has been a tough task. Our writers have been to festivals, showcases, stadiums, concert halls and basements, checking out brand new bands and legendary artists. Here’s a look back at the year on the stage.
The year got off to quite a slow start, but by the end of January, we were packing the gigs in and scribbling about a huge variety of bands, from Laura Viers to DJ Food and Sengalese supergroup Orchestra Baobab. One of our favourites was A Winged Victory For The Sullen @ Cecil Sharp House, London which saw Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Wiltzie put on a breathtaking show. “As the crowd filters out, back into the cold of the winter evening, many still seem entranced by what they’ve just seen and heard. As well they might, given the stunning rendition of an already breathtaking piece of work. Any concerns about how well it would transfer live have been well and truly banished, and their vision of making a truly great late night record has been conclusively realised,” said Gareth Ware.
Elsewhere, musicOMH favourite M83 wowed us in Brighton at the start of what would turn out to be a huge year for the band, which would later see them play at Brixton Academy. Christian Cottingham said: “[The audience are] lost as they are in their own responses, from those waving arms and tight-locked eyes to their shuffling, uncertain steps. Heck, one person even has a lighter held aloft, shivering, not from any draft so much as the wall of bass and the shifting force of a packed and airless room that, like the unnamed protagonist in the gig’s opening sample, doesn’t need the real world.”
M83 @ Concorde 2, Brighton
Back in London Bonnie “Prince” Billy impressed with an east end show that dipped into his back catalogue and stamped his authority onto some liberated songs of yore. “Wolfroy Goes To Town’s bleak minimalism works surprisingly well in the opulent surroundings of Hackney Empire. Liberally sprinkled over the older songs, it reimagines them in its image. Nowhere is this more true than during the encore, where Oldham and the gang offer up The Merciless And Great, from 2010’s The Wonder Show Of The World, and long-time live favourite Pack Up Your Sorrows, a song such veritable performers as Joan Baez and Johnny Cash have previously tried to make their own. Neither would have sounded out of place on his latest studio offering,” said Jenni Cole.
Bonnie Prince Billy @ Hackney Empire, London
In February we saw an early outing from Brooklyn band Friends, who we described as ‘pop perfection’. “Friends’ ferociously charismatic lead singer is the embodiment of all that is wonderful and good about the bleeding edge of pop. She’s Blondie without the masochism; she’s ESG on speed,” said Hannah Forbes Black.
Friends @ XOYO, London
Later that month we went to see Field Music @ KCLSU, London, at the start of a year that looked set to finally honour Sunderland’s Brewis brothers. They might not have won the Mercury, but their album Plumb again sealed their place in our hearts. “The vocal prowess of Field Music, so often overlooked, is showcased during the a capella How Many More Times; a gorgeously constructed, short blast of harmonies. Elsewhere, Who’ll Pay The Bills is a Brewis lyrical masterclass, full of kitchen sink musings… Things are brought to an abrupt end; it’s Friday night, we’re in a students’ union, there’s a club to get on with – and as we’re shuffling out, the restless beat of Just Like Everyone Else still rolling through our ears, you can’t help thinking… that band ought to be massive,” said Helen Clarke.
Another band plugging a new album at the start of 2012 was Portico Quartet, whose self-titled third record we loved. And we weren’t alone – later in the year they upgraded to the Roundhouse. As Steven Johnson said, “Not bad for a band that once passed time by busking on London’s Southbank.”
Portico Quartet @ York Hall, London
In March we went global, to see Kylie Minogue down under, and it was full of the kitsch retro fun you’d expect – nay demand – from a Kylie show. Michael Wilton said: “Clutching a nylon scarf from her 1990 tour (I dont think theres a single natural fibre in this gorgeous piece of memorabilia), Kylie closed her show at 1am with the joyous rave anthem Enjoy Yourself. As the audience was bombed with glitter, Kylie bounced back off stage, and 25 years later, shes still clearly enjoying herself.”
Kylie Minogue @ Luna Park, Sydney
Back in drizzly London, Andy Baber enjoyed Wu Lyf @ Heaven, London, saying: “It’s incredibly rare for a band to sound better live than they do on record, but then Wu Lyf aren’t any ordinary band. Wu Lyf are a band of extremes. They are uncomfortable with giving much away, but at the same time, their music is so emotionally raw. It’s this contradiction that makes them so very special. And whether they like it or not, music needs them.”
Over at the Barbican, Nico Muhly and friends debunked some myths about modern-classical, leading Steven Johnson to claim: “It was hard to leave the Barbican without thinking that the show set a new benchmark against which all contemporary-crossover-folk-classical concerts should be judged. Musically it was ambitious, far-reaching and flawlessly executed.”
Nico Muhly, Owen Pallett, Britten Sinfonia and guests @ Barbican, London
April started with a surprising show from the usually rather predictable Futureheads, who ditched their 100mph punk-pop in favour of a stripped back show in celebration of their a capella album, Rant. Full of auld songs from their hometown of Sunderland, it included a reworking of Summer Is Iccumen In amongst others. As Helen Clarke put it: “They end with Hounds Of Love and bundle off stage delightedly slapping each other’s back. They feel like a band who, after four albums of so-so indie, have finally found themselves. It’s a remarkable transformation. It’d be a difficult and brave decision for them to make another a cappella album, but whether it’s a one-off or not, it feels like we’ve just witnessed the highlight of their career.”
The Futureheads @ Union Chapel, London
Elsewhere, Low made themselves at home at the Royal Festival Hall. Jenni Cole told us: “Low are a sea of contradictions: minimalist one moment, drenched in feedback the next; harmonising vocals with skill far beyond that of most rock bands over guitars and percussion that owe a debt to the grunge cousins they’ve grown up with on Sub Pop. They’re hard to categorise (and hate the slowcore label most often tied around their neck) but have carved out a niche that makes the slightly knowing, holier-than-thou (with good reason) RFH their ideal home.”
Low @ Royal Festival Hall, London
Up in Edinburgh, and ahead of reuniting with Blur in Hyde Park, Graham Coxon showed off new album A+E, leaving Martyn Young in a spin: “Coxon now has such a staggering amount of excellent melodic punk songs at his disposal that what once was his signature song can easily be tossed out three songs from the end. Instead, the gig ends on a languid, lilting note with a track from his last album the rather more sedate The Spinning Top. It is a surprising but supremely effective curveball to close with the gentle, whimsical psychedelic of Tripping Over. Coxon’s gorgeous guitar washed over the crowd and, despite his flagging voice, the gig is very much a triumph. The latest in a long line of successes in a landmark year for one of our greatest guitarists.”
Graham Coxon @ Liquid Rooms, Edinburgh
In May we fell in love with Savages, whose debut album we’ve got high hopes for in 2013. As Tim Lee put it: “It’s the intensity that does it. The intensity that separates Savages from the charlatans. The fakers. The liars. The cheaters. It’s the intensity which makes them something else. The intensity that leaves you shaken, leaves you turned over like a mattress in a burglary.”
Savages @ Shacklewell Arms, London
We also went ga-ga for Grimes, whose chaotic ball of sounds left us happilly confused: “While her voice is the obvious distinguishing factor, there’s a real oddness to her music. Songs will start glitchy and fidgety. Then a section of car-alarming, old skool rave will zing past, pausing briefly to throw a neon fingerless-glove clad shape. Then the beats will morph into some thing reminiscent of some modern R&B staple. Then it sounds like 1980s vintage Madonna.”
Grimes @ XOYO, London // Grimes: in photos
In June, Nicki Minaj fever was at its peak, so we braved the pink neon…everything…to see her play a (relatively) intimate show at Hammersmith Apollo. Chris Saunders said: “Nicki thanks the crowd and her fans, or at least the small number that made it into the Apollo tonight. Later, about 15 minutes after coming off stage, she’ll tweet that the “show in London tonite was another #moment4life”. The vast majority of her fans lucky enough to see her at the Apollo will no doubt agree, but there are surely bigger, bolder and more polished shows ahead for her if she continues on the path to pop superstardom.”
Nicki Minaj @ Hammersmith Apollo, London
Bright Light Bright Light‘s Make Me Believe In Hope was one of our favourite albums of June. We called it a “lesson in pristine pop”, and Rod Thomas didn’t let us down at CAMP Basement, or at any of the other events we caught him at during the year as his reputation burgeoned; the album would eventually end up in our Top 20 Albums Of 2012 list.
Bright Light Bright Light: in photos
Over at the Barbican, Jaja Jazzist and Britten Sinfonia wooed us with heady layers of sounds that carved the landscape of the collectives’ homeland. “The opening half in particular sounded like a musical representation of the geography and landscape of Scandinavia, the pristine strings acting like some kind of sonic mirror to the natural beauty of the region. As it progressed the band assumed a more prominent role, laying foundations that were subtly promoted and expanded over the rest of the piece via harp, vibraphone, electric guitars, saxophone, keyboards and brushed percussion. Eventually it fell to Horntveth to usher the piece out quietly on acoustic guitar, before the coda revealed the inner framework of the piece in beautiful, spectral style,” said Steven Johnson.
Jaga Jazzist and Britten Sinfonia @ Barbican, London
July was hugely busy, with festival galore – from Indietracks to The Cambridge Folk Festival. But the summer of 2012 will undoubtedly be remembered for another outdoor event – the Stone Roses gigs in Heaton Park. We joined the 225,000 fans who saw them during their three-night stint for a greatest hits set that earned them a full five stars. Steven Johnson said: “We may still be unsure on how the story will ultimately end but for three nights The Stone Roses gave their fans what for years has been longed for. Their elevated place in guitar music and Manchester culture has never really been in doubt, but these shows served as an emphatic reminder of their brilliance and the special, unique regard in which they are held.”
The Stone Roses @ Heaton Park, Manchester
Madonna‘s big outdoor show received a rather more muted response. The Queen of Pop’s return was much anticipated, but with tickets costing up to a whopping 137, poor sound and a half-hearted performance from Madge, we were left more than a little disappointed. As Michael Hubbard put it: “There’ll always be an appetite for big-budget blockbuster tours, but increasingly the people who can afford to pay Madonna the sort of ticket prices she expects as her due will want far more focus on the music, the setlist and the sound – and on whether they can see her – than on whether she can still bend and flex like a woman half her age, or whether she’ll ‘controversially’ expose a buttock or two.”
Madonna @ Hyde Park, London
For the price of a ticket to see Madonna, you could have bought 10 tickets to see TOY at Heaven, and still had some change for beer. Tim Lee did just that and said: “A droning, throbbing, unshakable psychedelic groove. Here, perhaps a lot more so than festival or supporting sets, they have the space and the time to allow those grooves to be fully formed…Tonight the judgement of how long each wig-out should last is near perfect. But, to sound a note of caution, they probably need to ensure temperance is not a dirty word. Too much swirling around the same place and the hold could get broken. Replaced by a general groove wariness. Fascination doesn’t last. Let’s face it, we’re like two-year olds. That TOY better keep surprising us, or we’ll just wander off and play with the box. At the moment though, we’re hooked.”
TOY @ Heaven, London
The big outdoor gigs just kept coming, and in August we traipsed back to Hyde Park to see the Olympic closing ceremony concert, with the likes of Blur, The Specials and New Order. Even amongst these musical greats, we couldn’t fail to get wrapped up in the emotion of the previous few weeks: “In between bands, giant screens beamed back the final action of the Olympics followed by the start of the closing ceremony, with replays of Mo Farah’s success the previous night receiving the same level of enthusiasm as if it were live. This energy set the tone for the entirety of Blur’s marathon set right from the off, as the band rolled straight into Girls And Boys swiftly followed by London Loves. ‘This is London Loves and we love London!’ declared Damon Albarn, sending the crowd into a patriotic and proud frenzy.”
Blur @ Hyde Park, London
Legends on a smaller scale, the 100 Club played host to an unusual four-band line-up, Paul Weller, Spiritualized, Japandroids and 2:54. Highlights came in the shape of the Modfather’s newer tracks – as Tim Lee put it: “It isn’t often the new trumps the old, particularly with someone who’s been around as long as Weller. Plus, let’s face it, he could spend the rest of his days playing Jam covers and dad-rock, britpop posturing to throngs of doting patrons with a finely tuned sense of nostalgia. But he isn’t and the fact he isn’t should be heralded. This was a performance from a man with surprises left to spring.”
Paul Weller + Spritualized + Japandroids + 2:54 @ 100 Club, London
One of the year’s weirdest gigs has to be William Basinski: The Disintegration Loops with the London Contemporary Orchestra @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, which saw the avant-garde composer work his way through his mammoth four-volume album recorded in 2001. Thomas May said: “Whilst this performance might have been in danger of coming off as little more than a curio, laden with cunning artifice yet lacking in any real raison d’tre, the apparent care and lightness of touch with which this project was approached resulted in a considerable success.”
He never stays out of the limelight for long, and fresh from the Olympics closing ceremony, Damon Albarn boarded the Africa Express – a train transporting musicians from around the world up and down the country. We caught them when the train pulled into Kings Cross. Chris White said: “Perhaps almost inevitably the brainchild of that perennial polymath and Africa aficionado Damon Albarn, the objective of the project was for likeminded performers to spread the joy integral to the continent’s music to communities across Britain, ranging from local schools and factories to large concert arenas.After a rollercoaster week on the rails, the party came to a close at London’s recently opened Granary Square. With no fixed line up or running order and very limited rehearsal time, it always ran the risk of being something of a hit and miss affair, and so it proved to be. Lasting five hours and with musicians coming and going with bewildering frequency, Africa Express’s biggest problem was a sprawling lack of focus, but what worked did so rather magically.”
Africa Express @ Granary Square, London
Down the road at the Roundhouse, Muse put on a typically overblown, dramatic show, in much smaller surrounds than they’re used to these days, as part of the iTunes Festival, which took over the venue for the whole of September. “If you can’t enjoy yourself at a Muse gig, then you’re probably dead. Live, the endless debates around brostep and dubstep, about if it’s tongue-in-cheek or not, of whether they believe the conspiracy theories or just want to distract you from their love of Queen, all just melts away in the blast of the grin-inducing showiness of it all.This wasn’t even Muse in their normal habitat. For them, 5000 people in a shed formerly used to turn trains counts as low-key,” said Tim Lee.
Muse @ Roundhouse, London
At the other end of the ladder, newcomer Marika Hackman impressed in a Dalston basement. A couple of dozen people were there for her single launch, including Helen Clarke, who said: “Shunning the full-bodied vocals of folk-leaning voices like Florence Welch and the whispy, purred sound of Laura Marling, Hackman looks to Nico for inspiration. A unsmiling, haunted voice devoid of emotion, it plucks at the heartstrings for that very reason.Her eight-song set is melancholic and soothing, letting her gentle vocal do the work. From the rolling strings of Plans to the song she refers to as her ‘more upbeat song’, On Borrowed Time, she merges an old fashioned ambiance with her unusual voice to give folk a thoroughly modern make over.”
Marika Hackman @ Servant Jazz Quarters, London
Jon Spencer Blues Explosion also made a trip to Dalston, playing to a sweaty, packed Birthdays. Valerio Berdini snapped some of our favourite pictures of the year.
Jon Spencer Blues Explosion: in photos
Never one to do things by the book, Chilly Gonzales didn’t disappoint when he performed in October. Jamil Ahmad said: “To say Gonzales’ approach to the whole event was unorthodox would be an understatement. Whilst the warmth and voice the orchestra generated as it complemented Gonzales’ compositions was obvious, you could see the look of both puzzlement and merriment written across conductor Jules Buckley and the rest of BBCSO’s faces as Gonzales slapped away at the piano, flicking notes like a DJ whilst dropping jokes about his Jewishness, World War II, Wagner and Mitt Romney. Who else would attempt to make an orchestra combine Queen, Michael Jackson, Britney Spears and the Knight Rider theme into a concerto? Or crowd surf down Barbican hall three times?”
Chilly Gonzales @ Barbican, London
One of our favourite albums of the year was Lonerism by Tame Impala, and it was brought to life during their show at Brixton Academy. Jack Davies was suitably impressed: “Tame Impala arrive onstage amidst a sudden flurry of psychedelic imagery, and immediately launch into Lonerism’s opening track Be Above It. It is a statement of intent; the band is focused and tight, weaving layers of percussive energy, shimmering synths and crashing guitars around Parker’s light and dreamlike vocals. Their sense of confidence is immediate and what follows over the next hour is a loving paean to the Tame Impala gods – Marc Bolan, John Lennon and Kevin Smith.
Tame Impala @ Brixton Academy, London
At a rather smaller show, one half of Cat’s Eyes, Rachel Zeffira, debuted her solo material with a spine-tingling fragility. Tim Lee was there: “She played for a little under an hour, giving us a a taste of the new, some glimpses of the past (a couple of Cat’s Eyes songs) and a celestial cover of My Bloody Valentine (To Here Knows When). Of the new songs, Front Door is dripping in elegant longing, Zeffira’s crystalline voice enhanced by cello and her stone-washed denim clad choir. Given her background as a soprano it isn’t surprising to find her voice has such technical proficiency. But what’s unexpected is the way it warmly bounces of gables and walls, filling the room with fragile personality.”
Rachel Zeffira @ St Andrews Church, London
After a decade-long hiatus, Godspeed You! Black Emperor‘s return was a rather rushed one; a surprise announcement of a new album, just two weeks before it hit the shelves, and then an equally hastily arranged series of gigs a couple of weeks after that, we were curious to say the least. Sadly, it seems good things do come to an end, as Daniel Paton said: “After an absence of 10 years, Godspeed ought to be returning with a refreshing burst of brutality and vigour but there are some nagging doubts about this recapitulation. Perhaps it is simply that familiarity breeds contempt – but with little discernible development in their sound and approach, their music has begun to sound formulaic in its meticulously constructed drama. There now seems to be little room for improvisation or spontaneity in their pre-determined calamity.”
Godspeed You! Black Emperor @ Forum, London
One man who’s been waiting even longer to be heard again is Rodriguez, who sold out the Royal Festival Hall, following the moving documentary Waiting For Sugarman, which charted his bizarre career. He won Darren Lee over, who said: “An old urban myth about Rodriguez stated that he died after setting himself on fire during a particularly difficult gig. Watching him perform it’s difficult to envision any Rodriguez gig going badly, let alone to the point of self-immolation. As it happens there were standing ovations aplenty, a lot of love from the crowd and the only naked flames near the Royal Festival Hall would be those of the smokers congregating outside at the end of the set.”Rodriguez @ Royal Festival Hall, London
On a similarly warm note, Sweden’s First Aid Kit celebrated the close of their biggest year yet, which saw their album The Lion’s Roar earn them a place in many end of year polls. Helen Clarke said: “As the crowd files out onto a rainy Shepherd’s Bush Green, it’s almost a shock to be confronted by a dark, drizzly roundabout, rather than the vrisp, bright snowy picture First Aid Kit painted. But the songs linger for longer – tonight felt like something of a victory parade; a perfectly constructed set that charted their rise from purveyors of delicious folk harmonies to something altogether more forceful.”
First Aid Kit @ Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London
Swans @ Koko, London was a more raucuous affair. Tim Lee said: “Whether it’s the lurching, industrial clank of Coward, the church bell and country tinged Avatar, or the set closing The Apostate, the care and finesse which goes into the waves of sound that crash down upon you leaves you feeling euphoric. Giddy. So yes, Swans will play for two and a half hours. What they don’t tell you is it will feel like 15 minutes.”
As 2012 came to a close, the gigs just kept coming.Pulp made an emotional return home to Sheffield. John Murphy was there, noting: “After concerts in London, Isle Of Wight, and seemingly every festival in Europe, a South Yorkshire date remained frustratingly absent. Then, in July of this year, came the announcement that everyone in and around the Steel City had been waiting for. For the first time in over a decade, since the ‘farewell’ gig at Rotherham’s Magna Centre, the mis-shapes, mistakes and misfits were coming home.”
Pulp @ Sheffield Arena, Sheffield
Ben Folds Five also made a return, 13 years after their last album. They debuted new record The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind but for Christopher Monk it was a glorious slice of nostalgia: “Ben Folds Five were always much more than just a vehicle for their titular singer. Above all else, they rock: Sledge’s fuzz bass lends Underground an almost glam rock-like stomp, while set closer One Angry Dwarf And Two Hundred Solemn Faces hurtles forward with the barely-contained anarchy of the best punk rock. A treat.”
Ben Folds Five @ Brixton Academy, London
Stars Of The Lid were only away for four years, but with gigs like this it seemed longer, reckoned Colm McAuliffe: “Stars Of The Lid may channel the likes of La Monte Young and Phill Niblock in their vanishing point approach to drone but the duo almost exist in a vacuum of their own making. The all-consuming emotion on display at St Johns Church exists in such a communion between placid quietude and epic amplitude that it becomes impossible to hear one without the other, hard as you may try.”
Stars Of The Lid @ St John-at-Hackney, London
Matthew Dear‘s Beams came in at Number 3 in our Top 100 Albums Of 2012, and he didn’t disappoint at Fabric. Said Ben Hogwood: “Some of the mid tempo songs chug along with a motoric precision, but with Dear’s vocals are living and breathing machines, the finely crafted bass lines – of which a certain Peter Hook would be proud – the chrome plating on the outside. The lyrics and their delivery are like the blackest of coffee, the darkest of chocolate – highly concentrated but, in their own way, strangely uplifting.”
Matthew Dear @ Fabric, London
And with that, the year is at an end. We hope you’ve enjoyed our coverage of live music in London and beyond during 2012, and we’ll see you again next year.
Listen to our podcast review of 2012 here.