There has always been something paradoxical about Tom Vek, something quietly contrary. Coming out of nowhere with his first album We Have Sound in 2005, his uncompromising and assuredly wry style set him apart and found him adorning the pages of every self-respecting music publication. But who was this confident, word-weary auteur? A read of the actual features within said pages revealed that he was but a fresh-faced whippersnapper of an art student; his funked-out brand of garage rock had literally been created start-to-finish in his parents’ garage in suburban London.
Then, just when you thought you’d got the measure of the sly old (young) fox, he disappeared from view, but his debut album lived on in my – and many other fans’ – headphones. (There is still no better soundtrack to a commute through an urban environment – pick any song, the stripped metallic tang and archly poetic lyrical slant transform a perfunctory trudge through a busy tube station into a nimble swagger through a film set in your head; yes, perhaps you’re on your way to a meeting, but then again maybe you’re off to seduce a rock star or shoot up MI5 HQ). 2011 brought a surprise follow-up, in Leisure Seizure, the title a reassuring hint that his glee in wordplay remained intact, and the songs within confirming an “if it ain’t broke…” mentality. Hype renewed, this year’s Luck did not quite live up to the charm of previous efforts but certain tracks squarely hit the spot.
I had never managed to catch him live at any point during a decade of fandom, so his show at the Haunt was both a genuinely intriguing prospect and one loaded with anticipation. A deep, robotic voice intoning “How Am I Meant To Know?” wrenched the audience’s attention stagewards, heralding the arrival of Vek: pale blue shirt buttoned up, hair slick, glasses geeky, skin pale, banter nil. It occurred to me it is quite an achievement to be recognisable for being the most anonymous looking frontman in the business. An avatar. Harmonising with with the cavernous robot howl, he launched into the song and we were off, the newie going down well but not yet quite igniting the spark. Clearly still enjoying his older material as much as his fans do, though, he dropped in an early hit early on, and ‘C-C (You Set The Fire In Me)’ inspired ripples of excitement throughout the venue. His following announcement that “the next one is a new one” may have been met with an embarrassingly complete silence, but the thunderous, chugging guitar and lean, repetitive idealistic lyrics of ‘Let’s Pray’ proved to be a standout moment.
Until about a third of the way through the set, the lack of showmanship, of interaction with the audience, did leave the venue a little cold, with each track having to rebuild the frisson lost in the void between tunes. But during a very well considered run that played out like a Greatest Hits collection, a critical mass of energy and goodwill eventually built up, from which there was no going back. The intensity of live performance – with just two backup musicians on drums and assorted tech, synth, guitar and bass bringing to life the truly entertaining plethora of noises in Vek’s productions – really elevated some of the less special of the new album tracks into monstrously good tunes; ‘Pushing Your Luck’ is a case in point, the last few bars morphing into the famed Salt ‘n’ Pepa ‘Push It’ riff for an enjoyable, if gimmicky, twist accompanied by a wry grin from Vek that epitomised his reason for being there – he enjoys it. He may not still be messing about in his garage but you got the sense that when he closed his eyes that was where he went.
It was notable that on the songs where he switched to playing bass – mainly first album tracks – a noticeably funkier groove took hold (crystallising perhaps the difference between the earlier and later material: the playful, sidelong shimmy has morphed into a purposeful 4/4 stomp), and the shimmering grit of ‘Nothing But Green Lights’, ‘A little Word In Your Ear’ and ‘I Ain’t Saying My Goodbyes’ held up just as well as hoped, with added gusto from the thumping live drums. ‘Aroused’, the easy standout from album two, saved the day after a particularly lengthy and awkward silence, its grinding bassline not so much hitting as pulverising the spot and getting the crowd jostling animatedly. The full pop sound of ‘A Chore’, from the same album, was also clearly a favourite for many. The title track of the second LP stomped along in aloof fashion but out of nowhere gratifyingly started to rock out pretty hard, and ‘Trying To Do Better’ ratcheted up into a dance rock beast of LCD soundsystem proportions.
‘The Girl You Wouldn’t Leave For Any Other Girl’ probably should not work as a song, but it did, one of a few gentler moments in the show and a reminder of Vek’s casually potent wordsmithery as he repeated the title line over and over, strumming solo on the guitar and loosely crooning, exploring arguably more of his voice than at any other point in the gig. Undercooked, some would say, but this tune had the air of a chance jam that did not need any more refining.
Towards the end of an admirably long (85 minute) set, the cowbell-laden ‘You’ll Stay’ escalated into a properly special live show moment, amped up far above and beyond the intensity of the recorded version into a sweaty, four to the floor dancefloor moment and all the better for it. The oddball, smirking fun of ‘Sherman (Animals In The Jungle)’ may not have been the classic tune that many shouted for as the show closer (incidentally, that was “On The Road”) but it was a fitting end to the night as Vek bounded around the stage, half Superman and half Clark Kent, half singing and half speaking, half smiling and half laughing, half baffled by and half just straight-up appreciative of the fact that there are enough people here to enable him to get away with doing this lark for a living.