Live Music + Gig Reviews

The Cesarians @ Water Rats, London

7 February 2008

Picture it. Michael Nyman scores a burlesque opera that, like all the best operas, ends in blood, gore and guts. Nick Cave takes on the leading role but insists on the presence of a piano playing courtesan he met in Paris in the 19th century. He’ll murder her later.

Unfortunately she already has a trombone-wielding dominatrix in her life and must return to dye her hair two-tone (black and blonde), else the bald drummer’s axe murderer tendencies may win out to the cost of all. The opening night’s in Kings Cross and you’re invited. Bring a friend.

The Cesarians’ music, part Weimar cabaret floorshow and part anarcho-rock, encourages macabre flights of fancy. Maybe they are a flight of fancy. How else to explain the near 10 minutes of performance art from front man Charlie Finke that unexpectedly plays before their set?

Backed by a spooky soundtrack he begins made up as some kind of schizoid forest gnome before turning his back to reveal he’s been possessed by an evil, cackling witch, who screams abuse vaguely concerning Britney Spears and sundry other abominations of the modern age. It’s as bizarre as some first year theatre studies shows, and quite a lot funnier: “Suck the ambrosia of the gods!” hollers the witch. Most of the audience stare and wonder what the hell they’re watching.

Finke, self-styled “conceiver of the Cesarian principal,” leaves to remove his make-up, alas leaving a gap before the set proper. But when he and the rest of the band return, they launch into dramatic recent single Flesh Is Grass, rousing the bemused audience immediately from their mumblings. It opens with a plinky-plonky Nymanesque suggestion of scary events about to take place before bursting out into an exuberant rage of a thing.

There are hints of a variety of European music traditions here, from classical through to klezma, and not a hint of anything American – no blues scales, no guitars. At times they’re ridiculous, Finke especially, but they revel in it. Not all their material is as memorable as Flesh Is Grass either, but the set’s tempo and arrangements are varied enough to hold and stoke interest.

Throughout the set, Suzi Stampella on trombone and cropped blonde Alison Beckett on clarinet spark off each other, reined in by sometime Luke Haines collaborator Justine Armitage’s impressive displays on electric piano. Through it all, Finke flails across the stage like he’s supped a few too many fizzy drinks, occasionally parping through a trumpet. Unlike the rest of the band, his appearance doesn’t fit the carefully considered fantasy of rock’n’roll Europe 70 years ago. His tidy haircut and medallion-draped shirt make him resemble a sales rep abroad rather more than a wild preacher of the Nick Cave school. But he’s an undeniably charismatic and confident presence anyway.

They make a fabulous racket for a band devoid of guitars. In Woman, Stampella blasts her trombone like she’s in John Barry‘s orchestra while Finke roars his disapproval about women and their worldly ways.

Like The Divine Comedy being mugged by The Birthday Party in British Sea Power‘s props cupboard, The Cesarians are so creatively different to anything else around just now that they deserve your patronage next time they roll into town.

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The Cesarians @ Water Rats, London