In the land of the upside-down gigs, this one was king. And when it comes to musical royalty, the former Galaxie 500 and Kramer cohorts Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang, as Damon & Naomi, know a thing or two about ruling. So when they anointed Judah & The Maccabees as their final tune of their Cafe OTO set, it seemed to conquer all before it, mixing Krukowski’s elastic-mouthed melodies with his rich acoustic guitar strumming, reinforced by Yang’s world-weary harmonies and stripped-down organ riffs. The song was the high point of their set, the gig and the night.
“I wrote the song doing a fit of Jewish identification,” Krukowski says. “Strangely, the guys from Ghost (the Japanese supergroup with whom the duo has played for years) really like this song.” He laughs, before pointing to his left. “She’s Jewish and she’s never even been to a Bar Mitzvah,” as Yang giggles away. “I went to all of my 13-year-old friends Bar Mitzvahs,” Krukowski exclaims dutifully. “But this requires whisky,” Krukowski says as he retreats to the amp, administers and returns to the mic to declare: “I’m a man. That’s a Bar Mitzvah joke.”
If the long-serving duo needed to reaffirm their majestic pop sovereignty, they set about it in the right place. But it was a shame that the fireworks ended early and that they didn’t command the headline slot that they clearly deserved. Instead, they parted ways, only to see Krukowski clamber behind the drum set as the Cambridge-born, Glasgow-based singer/guitarist Richard Youngs appeared behind the microphone. And here’s where the empire fell.
Despite cranking out the generally fascinating Amplified Host disc on Jagjaguwar in 2011, the duo seemed to be heavier on the Youngs with just a side order of the Krukowski. From centre stage, Youngs and his acoustic guitar, shrieking harmonica and repetitive pseudo-shamanistic singing forced their way into leading the songs while Krukowski was content to tinker, potter and bang about on the drums in a disjointed way. And one note on those drums: it quickly became clear that Krukowski doesn’t like to keep time like a traditional drummer and the mere need for a metronomic hi-hat pulse sounded slushy and weak. But his adventures around the kit with thin, bright-sounding sticks and sub-divided time signatures would have surely got the nod of the Cafe OTO’s house drumlord Eddie Prevost. Unfortunately, it left a huge vacuum for Youngs to fill. And fill he did. Occasionally with some deft lyrical play or an intriguing run on the guitar – but mainly with a load of overblown harmonica and songs that went nowhere.
The low point of the gig arrived shortly after that. It was the moment when the hazy warmth and joy of the Damon & Naomi show clashed with the nihilistic and repetitive headliner. Coats were sought, glasses emptied, door exited. And the chap who wished he could leave near the sound desk and didn’t was left to heckle during an absolutely endless rendition of a song with the lyrics “another sleepless night” featuring over and over again like a bad dream. The heckler started to make snoring noises. We laughed. The show on stage continued without taking the cue. “Another sleepless night…” Yes, we know how you feel. But it was too late. We were trapped with the shrieking siren of Youngs’ harmonica and Krukowski’s pitter-pattering rain-like drums.
Which made it all the more confusing that just 30 minutes before that particular nightmare began, Damon & Naomi effortlessly transported the sell-out crowd to a mystical rite of passage ceremony in America where a normal lad looks deep within himself to understand his gender, identity and role in his family’s religious cultural upbringing and comes out with a charming and warming tale of self-discovery.