Live Music + Gig Reviews

White Denim + The Death Set @ Barfly, London

4 April 2008

White Denim came to London this week on the back of a mini-tsunami of hype. Based in Austin, Texas, the three-piece could hardly fail to be noticed at that city’s industry lash-up SXSW, and they duly were.

Whoever sent them to play London the following week has some management nous about them; and by booking them for three consecutive nights in different venues, they ensured maximum exposure.

Playing a frenetic set that straddled funk and punk and dangled its sweaty bits somewhere overhead, White Denim had the crowd on side from the unannounced off with showmanship, chemistry and an obvious delight in playing music together. Better still, none of them actually wore white denim.

Bassist and occasional vocalist Steve Terebeki, replete with round jam-jar glasses and rosy red cheeks, missed his calling as a cartoon superhero’s sidekick. Looking 12 years old if he was a day, he grinned cheerily at his bandmates and the audience throughout. Singer and guitarist James Petralli’s luxuriant mane and emphatic delivery, by contrast, pitched him somewhere between Jesus Christ and Reverend And The Makers‘ Jon McClure.

Fuzzy-faced drummer Josh Block, the least predictable of the three and surely a splicing of the genes of Richard Dreyfuss and Bez, gurned goonily at the audience as he periodically leapt off his stool, finding a stance between the world’s most bashed-up cymbal and his microphone stand, which he knocked over at least twice.

The songs never had time to outlast their welcome. Fast and frantic, they centre on Block’s astonishingly complex and constantly changing rhythms and time signatures, with bass and wah-heavy guitar taking their energy from the whirl of drumsticks centre stage. Closer to Blues Explosion in sound than many of their jangly, guitar-led peers, it’s the drumming that marks out White Denim as something out of the ordinary. With barely space to breathe between tracks, they took the evening by the scruff of the neck and made it jump up and down.

White Denim’s music, like that of fellow hipsters Black Lips, has a timeless feel about it. Yet for all that, ultimately they’re a guy with a drumkit, another guy with a bass and a singer who plays guitar. Hardly revolutionary, but they underline that basic rock set-up, combined with oodles of expendable energy, is still all that’s needed to get a party started.

In a bill that opened with intrumentalists and new Warp signings from Australia Pivot, most of whose set we sadly missed, Camden was spoiled tonight. But after the sweaty thumping of White Denim it seemed fitting that spazzy-thrashy-screamcore three-piece The Death Set should play out, taking to the stage some time after 1am. Signed to Ninja Tune’s Counter Records offshoot (also responsible for bubblegum party freak Pop Levi), these Baltimore-based boys, tonight including a drummer, could hardly be accused of giving less than their all.

They’re really a four-piece; backing tracks seemed to make up much of what we heard, with drum machines and pre-recorded sounds of indeterminate origin. No matter though, because getting chav chic down to a tee, their MC/screamer Johnny Siera, who sported a fake Burberry-type tartan baseball cap under a hoodie, was hanging from a lighting gantry, then shimmying on an amp stack. If you’ve seen the Barfly, which is basically a tarted up shoebox, you’ll appreciate the physical coordination required to achieve such a feat and avoid injury.

Also screaming into a microphone but at the front of the stage, recently recruited guitarist/screamer Peter O’Connell shared a predeliction for tidied face fuzz with two thirds of White Denim. Lungs and sinews strained Intermission’s inimitable refrain “MOTHERFUCKING DEATH SET” as though his life depended on it. Maybe it did.

Their music is wild, abrasive but rarely without scream-along melodies in amongst it all, and the songs impact at less than two minutes. Audience reaction ranged from a girl dancing dementedly to a bemused tall chap sticking his fingers in his ears and taking several paces backwards as Siera bounded into the audience and screamed for all his wardrobe was worth.

The Death Set are not for everyone. Frankly, they’re not for anyone who doesn’t like tuning in to a good scream. But, as their set ended just 20 minutes after it had begun, they proved the ideal end to a fun Friday night in a blacked out shoebox above a boozer in NW1.

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