Band of Skulls
It has been a while I wanted to see Band of Skulls live. Driven by a rumour read somewhere and attracted by live tracks listened on youtube in the early days, they seemed to check all the boxes a band need to have to suit my taste.
Guitar based, blues influences, lo-fi garage, three members, not too many instruments on the line up. Back to basic… basically.
They are from Southampton, England, which you can argue is not really the Mississippi delta, or the Hills County, but in the globalized world I always hope music can permeate into the ethereal waves of internet more than through geography and the old ordinary travelling.
Then it came the album, the outtake Friends included in the Twilight movie Soundtrack, the more pop-infused side of the band. Polished ballads that alternate with the rougher tracks confused me a bit.
I ordered the CD, Baby Darling Doll Face Honey, which curiously was posted from the USA, the country they dream in every note of their music.
Despite there are undoubtedly brilliant songs, the sound is cleaned up, the CD bends towards a music that is catchier, more radio friendly, less visceral, direct, aggressive of what I expected.
You can blame the production or the need to pay the bills. Having something that broadcast on MTV2 is of help.
Or you can blame the old romantic story that “to have the blues” is a state of mind and not something you can reach with hard work.
The album starts with three killer tracks. Light of The Morning is a wonderful Black-Keys-ish song, with soul and blues balanced in the right proportions. Death By Diamonds and Pearls is instead a beautiful White-Stripe-ish guitar songs which starts and stop and restarts with the voice looking for the highs and the timber of Jack White to the nice guitar solo, a rarety nowadays, appearing right when it has to appear creating the right apex. The drumming is more Keith Moon confusion than Meg pauses, which is a good thing.
I Know What I Am still is a nice duet with the catchiest riff of the lot, but starts to reveal the radio-friendliness that becomes insipid with several listenings.
Unfortunately, or understandably, the LP doesn’t hold at these levels throughout the 11 tracks.
The slow ballads in the middle don’t keep the pace, the bands is at his best when it’s energetic, Fires and Honest are not my favourite songs and Patterns despite arrives to bring back its load of vigor borrows too much from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to sound original, not counting that lyrics written in a numbered list tend to be tedious.
To an intransigent ear as mine I needed the definite proof whether Band Of Skulls could be another of my favourite bands. I know only one way to get that proved: move my arse and head to the first available gig.
With Baby Darling Face Honey on rotation on my iPod I got on another train to London; tube to Totthenam Court Road; walk onto windy Oxford Street to get to the legendary 100 Club.
In the darkness of the place, the packed sweaty space, the beer soaked smell of the air were the perfectly uncomfortable situation for such a rough, dirty blues, lo-fi guuitar show.
The three comes on stage to play their only album and the impression I get from the start is that they are there doing a very professional service. They are good, they play their songs, but there is a lack of personality. That difference that make a band stand out. They remind everyone from the Black Keys to the Kills, from the White Stripes to Led Zeppelin but without bringing on stage anything more than the music and some very good songs.
The arrival of the Dead Weather on the panorama just when they were to get big must have not been of help.
Blood is a blast, I Know What I Am keep no one standing, the slow ballads cause some yawnings but there is nothing wrong about their performance, not at least about half of their set, what doesn’t click is the attitude better the lack of attitude.
They look a bit posed, unnatural, a well done job more than passion. Russel Marsden the guitarist is clearly the leader and the most talented one, Emma Richardson the very tall bass player helps the guitar honestly without doing much more than supporting the harmonies.
Matt Hayword, the drummer, is the one that has the key to make the sound big and the group sounding much better. A very needed element, when the band shifts to its pop side, caught into sugary, easy listening songs which can be perfect for a blockbuster soundtrack but instantly bring the credibility of the band to a low, Matt live comes to add that groove to the beat.
The guys are very young, it is up to them to decide if they want to be dirty and bluesy or shiny and poppy. The next album will tell.
The two things rarely manage to merge in rock music, and bands as the White Stripes appear once every three decades.
There’s no sign of Jack White genius in Band of Skulls but the guys are good and can become very good if hollywood cheques don’t become too attractive.
It is legendary but the 100 Club in 100, Oxford Street has never been my favourite London venue, not for photographing a gig, not for the wide stall with the columns in the middle, not for the way their security deal with photographers.
Playing live music for almost 70 years is probably one of the longest living venues in London.
The reason of its legendary status lies back to the 70s when the International Punk Festival in September 1976 lined up Sex Pistols, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Clash, Buzzcocks and The Damned.
There is not much more to say such a line-up in 1976 decreed that punk was born and rock was going to change forever.
Today the venue hosts several kind of music, often with a oldies goldies (Chuck Berry), roots (Heavy Trash), edge of American music and it is still strong with surprise gigs of huge band playing intimate places as the Stones did twice in the eighties.
The hall is wider than deeper, and so is the stage. The stage is very low and anytime I have been there there was no pit so plan to get there early and struggle with the first row fans for a place. There is no space in front of the drummer so it happens that the drum kit in the centre splits the band in two. Members are either sides of the drumkit and group pics are pretty much impossible. Unless you like ultra-wide images better you concentrate on a medium long telephoto and shoot from the (accessible) side of the stage.
There is a huge “100” on the backstage wall that can be used to frame some nice shots to locate the band in the club even if can become intrusive when it is unavoidable.
Band of Skulls lighting was basically non existent as you can see from these pics, but the lighting of a show is not up to the venue but up to the band. Any venue can be lit up as you see every time a gig ends and lights are switched on.
Policy is very strict. 3 songs no flash with an aggressive security man threatening to kick you out of the venue if you miss the deadline.
My personal experience at least, at the end of the third songs of a pretty unknown support group I was shooting, someone arrived grabbing me from the camera in a quite violent way pushing me away.
I tried to explain that is not always easy to concentrate on counting songs of a band while I am working and he could have asked in a kinder way to stop without physically forcing me. He got even more aggressive, telling me that I would be out of the venue if I didn’t shut up.
All of this obviously while tenths of people were taking 14mp shots with flash and HD video on their equipments not being hassled by anyone.
I think it has arrived the day someone explain to the security that for the sake of the band publicity it is better to treat credited photographers kindly, we divulgate our images in official sites, and concentrate on stopping illegal recording which spread horrible images and inaudible audio tracks all over the net.
Not sure they’ll ever understand, for sure I’m not going to shoot the 100 Club again. It’s plenty of better places for live music in London with nice people managing them.