Sometimes starting at the end is the best way to describe an unbelievably perfect gig. Here, we begin with the final song; the band’s ‘hit’, as it were. And while it wasn’t the night’s curtain call, as there were two more numbers including a Spartan cover of Canadian combo Mattress’ Eldorado, this was Dirty Beaches’ moment.
When Alex Zhang Hungtai performed Lord Knows Best, a reverent audience quieted and a man almost broke down on stage, crooning religious and emotional allegiance over a sampled Francoise Hardy melody. It’s often quoted that certain artists feel their songs, but Hungtai’s songs just seem to hurt him. At moments through the track, he could barely raise the microphone to his lips, screaming defiant pledges of commitment to the lover in his dreams. But this was no quivering simp – he’s a man’s man – and a handsome one at that. In an age of effete, almost sexless hipster acts, he oozes lust and machismo. Maybe it’s the quiff or the fancy suit, but Hungtai may just be the rock star we are crying out for in these trying times. The classic butch male touchstones all in place; Sinatra, Gainsbourg, Alan Vega, Roy Orbison, Elvis – this was a rousing sermon in full swing.
Ably supported by a new addition to the group, beret-sporting saxophonist Francesco Di Gallo, Hungtai’s ‘ow’s and yelps outshone the late Michael Jackson, swaying, punching and wooing the adoring crowd. The only sad spot was his declining to play True Blue, despite teasing the crowd with the main harmony. And had he performed that number, this would have cemented the artist into legendary status.
The support acts were an interesting mix. First up was fellow Night People records trio Bomber Jackets, who were a touch Human League, a dash of The Fall, and a pinch of Young Marble Giants. Then there was Ela Orleans. Fresh from her recent vinyl collaboration with Dirty Beaches, she performed a highly skilled scuzzout take on the Sonny & Cher classic, The Beat Goes On, that somewhat outshone her own intelligent electronic balladry.
On record, across numerous vinyl, CD and cassette releases, the majority of tracks by Dirty Beaches have shown a swaying, almost hypnotic lo-fi ambience. But onstage he’s nothing more than a panther of the Tav Falco variety – a ferocious lover railing at a world that’s done him wrong. Every aspect of his consciousness seems to channel the archaic or lost, from family snapshots on his album covers, to his scratchy analogue recordings and his referentially naive song titles; Sweet Sixteen, True Blue, Shangri La, Horses, In Dreams. Yet this seems to be a sort of music that is anchored in the internet age, unable to feasibly exist at any other stage in time. Channelling the entire discourse of 21st century pop culture into one thirty minute set, this was the sound of the distant past, a pessimistic future and an angry now.