This was not a normal gig. Upon gaining free entry to Shoreditch Town Hall, Menlo Park audience members proceeded through a dimly-lit passageway illuminated by small stuffed animals encircled by tiny fairy lights. At the far end of the corridor, beneath a giant marble staircase, stood a large bear glaring at those who passed. One then climbed the stairs, and entered into what must have once been the main council chamber.
All around the erected catwalk stage were red-lit tables, where strange people in funny little costumes hosted things like arm-wrestling competitions, and you could have your photo taken with a giant stuffed bear, amongst other curiosities. Amongst this scene from Mos Eisley were to be found food, beer and vodka and cranberry, all of it free.
In the centre of the room was a small roped-in ring, in which a string quintet, much like the famed Gogmagogs, were prancing about to the strains of – aah – Barber‘s Adagio, et al. The smartly-dressed, foppily-haired male lead violin had a penchant for leaping out at people and playing at them, a habit that more than once caused cranberry juice to be spilled. The quintet were not amplified, so hearing them over the din was an effort in places, but for classical musicians they put on a very fine visual act.
After some time they were replaced by a boxing match, hosted by a remarkable little chap in early 1900s dress, ringing a bell on a stand and doing his best to be comedic. The resulting three-round draw was followed by a magician with the cheesiest grin imaginable who turned smoke into doves and doves into quite the fattest bunny ever known. The floppy-eared creature (that would be the bunny) sniffed its way through a soundtrack of John Barry and The Propellerheads, bless.
You might think with such an inventive build-up that the headline act, Menlo Park (not to be confused with the place in California of the same name), would prove to be a disappointment. What followed was, in fact, the gig of the year.
When the band appeared – all 15 of them, including fiddle, the aforementioned string quintet, accordian, a lead guitarist who looked like someone’s laundry bag and a lead singer (more on him later) – the songs and the visuals were nothing short of fantastic. One of many highlights was a rendition of Jacko‘s Billy Jean.
Imagine such a song being performed in a town hall, all civic grandeur save for the stuffed animals, fake snow and random fire eaters strutting their stuff on the balcony. Then imagine the person singing it. This nameless wonder was quite simply an American-accented fusion of Johnny Rotten and Frank Spencer, wearing no less than three costumes during the set, sporting hair that looked like it needed to be raked rather than combed. At one point he donned a sequinned jacket and became a human glitter ball, using superb lighting to create the effect. He was all neurotic poses, Jarvis-esque gangliness and presence, but with eyes that reminded one of Ethan Hawke, if on a very bad hair day. Not content with theatre effects, costume changes, being wheeled around on a chair by a duetting lady under a spectacularly large hat and contorting into every human posture possible, his finale involved flying (literally – on bungee ropes) off the town hall’s balcony and then floating above our heads.
Oh yes, and the songs… well, when the fiddler wasn’t enjoying an interlude of smashing up his fiddle, these were a good range of ballads, punchy feet-stamping cattle shed numbers and the most excellent melding of country and alternative. A new sound as well as a visual benchmark for other bands to aspire to.
It is difficult to find anything about Menlo Park anywhere on the Web – indeed no-one even seemed to know which label they are signed to – but their new self-titled debut album is out now. With a debut like this you only hope they don’t burn out too soon – but Menlo Park are spectacular. Miss them at your peril – this is the sort of gig people will tell their children about.