Live Music + Gig Reviews

The Sonics + Wire @ Royal Festival Hall, London

18 June 2011

The penultimate gig in Ray Davies‘s Meltdown Festival at the Royal Festival Hall continued in its retro vein, this time with a transatlantic flavour. The Sonics, pioneers of ’60s US garage rock, and Wire, British post-punk experimenters, have of course both had much more influence than their modest record sales would suggest. Both also showed that they can still make a big impact live.

First up was Wire, whose first three art-punk albums in the late ’70s influenced the likes of R.E.M., Blur and My Bloody Valentine. Though the band has broken up and re-formed several times (with guitarist Bruce Gilbert leaving a few years ago), they have never stopped exploring new musical directions. Their 12th studio album, Red Barked Tree, released back in January, is their most lyrical to date and feels almost like a summary of the varied elements of their previous music.

Not surprisingly, their 70-minute set leaned heavily on the new material – six songs – as well as forays into different phases of the back catalogue. The controlled vitriol of Please Take, the spaced-out dreaminess of Adapt and relentless, machine-like aggression of Smash came across strongly, while the biggest cheer was raised for the revolutionary title track of their debut album Pink Flag, played as the last encore, ending in an extended feedback frenzy. Colin Newman’s spiky delivery contrasted nicely with Graham Lewis’s more mellow style, as they alternated lead vocals, while Robert Grey’s industrial drumming and touring guitarist Matt Simms’s distorted effects helped create an atmospheric soundscape without the use of synthesizers.

Ray Davies came on stage to introduce The Sonics, recalling meeting the band when they toured with The Kinks on their first trip to the States about 45 years ago: “They were up there before we bought our first car.” The Sonics imploded after producing three albums of unparalleled raw energy in the mid-’60s before reuniting in 2007. Apart from founding the Seattle rock-music scene, they also had a major influence on punk, grunge, and bands such as The Stooges, The White Stripes and The Flaming Lips.

Their EP 8, released late last year, features four new songs – their first for over 40 years – which are disgracefully wild for a bunch of sexagenarians. But of course the capacity audience wanted to hear the golden oldies, which the band duly delivered, still sounding astonishingly fresh. There were full-blooded accounts of original songs Psycho, Strychnine and The Witch from their classic 1965 first album Here Are The Sonics, as well as covers of The Kingsmen‘s Louie Louie and Little Richard‘s Keep-A Knockin’ and Lucille.

Although the rhythm section has been replaced, the original singer/keyboardist Jerry Roslie, punchy guitarist Larry Parypa and raucous saxophone/harmonica player still lead from the front. These days the more restrained Roslie shares singing duties with new bassist Freddie Dennis, who screams and hollers like he did when he was a young man. It seems The Sonics’ mojo is still working overtime judging by the way people were dancing at the front of the stage and in the aisles of the normally staid Royal Festival Hall.

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The Sonics + Wire @ Royal Festival Hall, London