Here’s a question: what’s your pre-gig ritual? How do you get in the mood? Personally, I try to avoid listening to any act I’m going to see for a few days before a gig. You see, I’m the sort that likes to let a record really burrow under the skin, where you know every hiccup, every drum fill and every bit of feedback and exactly when they should occur. Yet I remain aware that going into a gig expecting a perfect facsimile of the product of many slavish hours spent in the studio is unfair on anyone. Nobody should ever want to be that guy irritably pointing out when a solo isn’t played exactly note-perfect. Live performance should always be a different experience to just pressing play. Still, my method of abstinence, specifically trying to select the right pre-gig soundtrack, has caused some unfortunate mishaps. For example, I once made the mistake of putting on Kiss’ ‘Alive’ album on the lengthy train ride to a gig. Needless to say, Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly didn’t strike me as particularly lively that night. Preparing for tonight’s Cate Le Bon gig in Birmingham posed a similar conundrum.
Having made her name on a string of guest appearances on fellow Welsh artists’ releases including Manic Street Preachers’ ‘Rewind the Film’ and both Neon Neon LPs, Cate Le Bon is now rightfully enchanting listeners on her own, having made one of last year’s finest guitar records with her third solo outing ‘Mug Museum’. Despite being attributed with lots of fashionable influences (the most common being justifiably comparing its serpentine guitar licks to Television), I simply can’t think of another modern songwriter that does what Le Bon does. Her songs are at once complex and simple, direct yet oblique, cerebral yet visceral; ‘Mug Museum’ is an articulate, emotive record where inspiration is drawn equally from the head and the hips. With that in mind and faced with no alternative, I travelled to the gig in silence not knowing or wanting to know what to expect. After tonight I can say this: Cate Le Bon knows how to set the mood.
Before the band took to the stage amidst a sea of artificial fog and disco lights, over an eerie backing track reminiscent of the music in ‘Close Encounters…’ when the alien mothership arrives, a voice (in Welsh first of course) welcomed us to the Mug Museum and politely asked that no photos or video were taken of the show. It’s almost sickeningly kitsch but it works. It’s also a neat way of addressing one of performers’ and live music fans’ biggest bugbears. Le Bon and co. then got straight into ‘No God’ without saying a word, the five musicians easing effortlessly into the tune’s Bowie-esque funky strut. Most of the set was culled from ‘Mug Museum’ and it was immediately noticeable from this first song that freed from the recorded versions’ fuzzy amplifiers and reverb artifice, the songs feel the benefit of being able to breathe and become much groovier as a result.
Terrific renditions of ‘Are You With Me Now?’ and ‘I Can’t Help You’ were early crowd pleasers with perfect harmonies and duelling guitars. In fact, the band played faultlessly for the entire set, Le Bon’s brilliant guitar playing the right mixture of immaculate leads and lizard-brain soloing. Vocally, the Nico comparisons have never washed with me. To me Nico was always more a symbol than a singer, a walking, talking exhibit of the kind of insouciant, ephemeral cool that The Velvet Underground were all about. Not to mention Teutonic and just a little bit tone-deaf. Le Bon’s is a charismatic singer whose strength is in her delivery not her range, like Cat Power how she feels shows not in the notes she hits but the cracks in her voice between them like on the painfully earnest ‘The Man I Wanted’ and the arguable centrepiece and highlight of tonight’s set, ‘Mirror Me’.
The crowd stood still and silent for this utterly beguiling torch song, elegantly pared back to just organ, guitar and unintrusive percussion, sounding like the witch of the Valleys in Stevie Nicks’ Rhiannon covering Patti Smith. The Morricone twang of the album version’s middle eight was given a significant kick up the arse by an electrifying buzz saw effect out of St. Vincent’s repertoire. An absolute sucker for some proggy ‘70s organ, if they’d have gone into ‘Siberian Khatru’, I’d have been in heaven. Luckily for everyone else present, the band segued into a manic take on ‘Sisters’, with chaotic Sonic Youth solos and strong influence from The Stranglers on the keyboards.
The final song of the night was ‘Fold the Cloth’ from 2012’s ‘Cyrk’, the gentle Californian lull of which feels largely indebted to Pavement’s ‘Range Life’. I had learned before the encore it was a fan favourite from overhearing the punter behind me impudently telling his companion: “Hold on, she hasn’t played ‘Fold the Cloth’ yet!” Fans, eh? In truth, it seemed somewhat anaemic next to the superior ‘Mug Museum’ material but couldn’t take the shine off a great set. In a just world, Le Bon would already be packing out venues much larger than the Hare & Hounds. If she continues the way she’s going, it won’t be long before she will be.