The Pharmacy, Anna Calvi, Düd
Mike Hughes 05/10/2010
Tonight was going to be a tale of three halves. Openers Düd, then Anna Calvi, about to go out on tour with Grinderman, and finally American visitors The Pharmacy.
The scene of the action was the White Heat club night at Madame JoJo's in London's Soho. It's a rehabilitated strip club turned into an excellent music venue, and quite probably the only club in in this part of town where I could get my camera out without expecting trouble from those nice security 'gentlemen'. Speaking of which, you can often gauge the vibe of a place by the peeps working security. These were gents indeed, tough enough to be competent but friendly with it, jokingly demanding that I take their photos and get their good side. The guest list on the door was a mile long, always a good indication of artist buzz.
The club has a tiny stage but is tiered round with an upper deck like an amphitheatre. I was reading someone else's notes on the place and they were raving about its suitability for the shorter-in-stature music fan. First time there for me, and it gets my vote.
The openers were Düd,who performed for their faithful few, notable by long hair, moustaches and leather jackets. They were competent and enjoyable. The funny moment for me was their ever so 'umble mumble of "thanks for watching that. We are called Düd, thanks, thanks", which contrasted with their bass heavy speed thrash punk. They threw themselves into it, enough to finish with broken strings trailing from machine heads like a clothes line in a storm.
The club breathed out and in again. As it breathed out, the leather jackets were flushed from the bottom of this tiny amphitheatre, and on the in-stroke it refilled with a new audience of bright young things. I've already said the stage was tiny and as I loitered, I was goggle-eyed at the sheer amount of equipment that got loaded on for the Anna Calvi set. Anna's square metre was clear enough, there was a conventional drum kit behind, but they somehow crammed a table stage left which had on it more percussion, a squeeze harmonium, shakers, bells, and enough electronics underneath to merit its own little maintenance light under the tablecloth.
By the time Anna came on the place was packed, although there was a curious respectful space in front of the stage. As I say, these were smart young things, perhaps not used to mosh pit tendencies.
Anna's band tore straight into an instrumental. I was really taken aback, seeing as from what I've heard I was expecting something between jazzy and sophisticated pop. This girl can really play guitar, rolling out the rock licks like Todd Rundgren in a previous era. The incongruity was maximised by the way Ms. Calvi was smartly dressed in tailored trousers and a nice blouse, as though she had just popped out of a city board meeting; she had to be the most niftily turned out person in the room. That guitar ability / city slicker thing put me somewhat in mind of St Vincent but there the comparisons end, beyond the fact that they are both women. We got beyond the instrumental and into the more familiar territory of the songs, particularly my personal favourite, the ever so strongly written 'Blackout'. This song is one huge whooping rollercoaster of a vocal which combines with some minor key soul tug to glorious effect. Some normality of expected perception returned. We then got to new single 'Jezebel', the old Edith Piaf standard. I've got to say its jazzy cabaret leanings don't do it for me as much as the other material, although it was an impressive treatment. During this number, I became convinced that on stage Anna does actually shine like one of those 40s or 50s European stars. She really delivers with power and presence. I was quite surprised when just on my right, a couple of those people with the intense look of 'really committed fans' broke out into a bit of proper swing dancing in the self-imposed sterile area in front of the stage.
Tonight was acknowledged to be a dry run for Anna's Grinderman support slot starting next week, so the set of seven songs plus instrumental opener, taking around 40 minutes, was about right. They're going to be playing to some big audiences, who will be waiting for a certain Mr Cave, but you know what? I think they've got the chutzpah to do it.
During the break I had a chat with multi-instrumentalist Mally Harpaz (the one with all that kit) while they were getting the mass of gear back of the stage. In my oafish way I asked if they had a set list I could get a sneaky photo of, and she very graciously offered to jot it down in my little notebook. Therefore with some authority I can tell you that they played:
'No More Words'
'I'll Be Your Man'
'Love Won't Be Leaving'
The club did its breathing out and in again thing. The bright young things were replaced with about half as many people, now in New York Dolls and Misfits T-shirts.
The Pharmacy are from Washington State. It was solid checked shirt material, punkish rock with an occasional bluesy feel courtesy of the keys. They told us it was their second night in London, that they had tried to play in a cafe somewhere last night, but had been shut down early due to being "too punk". For me, I would have to say that although the music was exciting enough, it had nothing really to make it stand out. What did make it worthwhile was their huge sense of good time. During their last number, not quite an encore, more ' let's squeeze one more in', keyboard player Stefan Rubicz started hefting his frankly massive Roland, slinging it around the stage. He then returned it to its folding stand, and somewhat implausibly climbed up to 'surf' on top of it. This being as stable as an ironing board, after a few moments it all collapsed in a heap. The band rocked out to a close and left the stage, leaving only drummer Brendhan Bowers who thrashed away for a bit longer before doing a sideways roll through his kit and onto the stage. This was a giggle in itself as he then got stuck like an upturned beetle in the legs of that same keyboard stand, before dragging himself along his belly to the side stage curtains and out of sight. He disappeared leaving a trashed scene and the stage manager to come and switch off the buzzing amps.
All in all it was a good night. There was a sweaty rock 'n' roll fun at the end, but the highlight and revelation was Anna Calvi. I was obviously not alone in that opinion, as evidenced by the vast influx of audience for her set, who then mostly disappeared again just as quickly at the end, giving the night the chopped up feel of three separate gigs inexpertly glued together. If you are going to Grinderman in Europe get there early and see Anna Calvi.