Live Music + Gig Reviews

The Vanity Set @ On The Rocks

18 September 2003

Jim Sclavunos isn’t really built for Kingsland Road’s dance bar On The Rocks – from the tiny stage he can reach up and support the ceiling with a hand, and from the floor – where he spends quite a bit of the short set – he can twitch the pint-sized mirror ball into casting shards of light.

More often seen in larger settings such as Brixton Academy, as percussionist for Nick Cave‘s Bad Seeds, tonight he takes front of stage for a band of New York oddities that make up The Vanity Set.

But it’s certainly worth slumming it for an all-too-short performance that’s part noir cabaret, part fairground with a slice of commedia dell’arte and altogether captivating in its weirdness.

When did you last see a tuba in a band? The Vanity Set has one, and both sight and sound are delightful. There’s a lady violinist called, I believe, Meredith (the sound wasn’t all it should have been so I missed most of the introductions) who also appeared to be playing an invisible melotron… a guitarist who looked slightly undead and rather disappointingly normal drummer and keyboards player to complete the ensemble.

Between them they produce a fabulously spooky sound as a perfect backdrop for Sclavunos’ splendidly eccentric persona that seems to combine puppet-master, mad scientist and cabaret host from the Weimar republic.

He’s physically rather similar to Nick Cave – tall and gangly, nattily suited and given to strange contortions on stage – but where Cave is brooding Sclavunos is gleeful, acting out the songs with exaggerated facial expressions like a melodramatic star of the silent screen.

And the songs themselves are a riot of disjointed rhythms, eerie sounds – and lovely bass notes from the tuba – and subversive lyrics (just as well he didn’t act out all of them). Highlights are The World Keeps Turning – a jangling fairground gone wild; Little Stabs of Happiness (title track of the new album) and a splendid, over the top version of the Bee Gees’ I Started A Joke. More, please.

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The Vanity Set @ On The Rocks