Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Wire at the Phoenix Arts Centre, Exeter

And Exeter on the 30th

Wire played at the Phoenix Arts Centre last week, their first visit to Exeter since 1979. They were supported by Talk Normal, a female guitar and drums duo from Brooklyn with the immaculate new/No wave stage names (at least I am presuming they’re assumed) Sarah Register and Andrya Ambryo. Ambryo plays circular, roiling rhythms on her spartan drumkit, her tubthumping stuttering into off-kilter patterns as it incorporates pauses, hopsteps and added beats. Sometimes she stands up to beat the drums, bringing to mind the steady pounding of Moe Tucker with the Velvet Undergroung (if this is any longer a cool comparison to make after her recent born again Tea Party outburst) or a more frenzied version of Mimi Sparhawk from Low. Her drumming gives the music a tribal feel, a ritualistic air furthered by her occasional sharing of shouted call and response vocals, directed upwards to the pendant mic, and the semi-darkness in which they were shrouded for the whole set, relieved only by low and baleful red lighting. Register played her guitar as a white noise generator, turning up the distortion and reverb to produce a more or less constant wave of sound which flooded around the propulsive drum patterns. She intoned rather than sang over the top, vocals curt and unmelodic. They finished with style by turning the background interval music back on whilst the feedback was still dying down, and immediately set about packing their equipment away, dissipating the low-lit performance mystique which they had built up. It was only a show, after all.

Wire wandered on with little ceremony and got down to business straight away, with no time wasted on introductions. They were a trio tonight, with Bruce Gilbert having called it a day, possibly for good. This left Colin Newman, Graham Lewis and Robert Gotobed, although is should be added that they were joined on this tour by Matt Simms. He looked like he’d arrived from a different musical world, another band, another era. Hunched in ecstatic absorption over his guitar, his long hair covering his face, he’d have seemed equally at home crunching out riffs and launching into heavy solos in a stoner rock band. But he filled out the sound to good effect and remained self-effacingly in the shadows at the side of the stage. The regular Wire trio remained bracingly efficient and chary of rock gestures, keeping communication to a minimum and swiftly progressing from one number to the next. Bass player Graham Lewis, a fashion school graduate from a while back, sported a fetching Scottish Glengarry cap in recognition of St Andrews day. Colin Newman looked bookish and studious in his spectacles, referring to what looked like a notebook on a small lectern at the end of each song. At the end of the show, he lifted it up and it became evident to me, as it probably had to everyone else from the very beginning, that it was a compact piece of digital wizardry, the flicking over of pages really the closing and opening of programmes or adjustment of settings. Robert Gotobed looked ascetically gaunt as ever, wearing a vest top in anticipation of the sustained athletic task of keeping up his concise, driving rhythms with unflagging precision.

Wire have self-consciously subjected themselves to many transformations over their stop-start history, with the result that you never know quite what you’re likely to hear at one of their concerts. They combine the cerebral and the visceral, producing music of the head and the gut. They also occasionally produce music of the heart, although their songs are generally too lateral, inquisitive and playful to be openly emotional. There will always be many, both young and old, yearning of a blast of the early, angular punk, a nostalgia which is antithetical to Wire’s progressive ethos. The refusal to retread old ground is what has kept them together, despite several hiatuses. When they reached the end of one particular road, they went their separate ways, meeting up again when they’d found a new route worth exploring. The original and retro punks get a fair sampling of what they’re here for tonight, however, resulting in an outbreak of pogoing at the front of the hall. The likes of Pink Flag are still startling in their stripped down brevity. They say what they have to say and then stop, without indulging in unnecessary repetition. The abrupt end of some songs can still bring you up short, though. Drill, from their second phase in the 80s, is a song which is elastic in its timing. It relentlessly pounds towards an endlessly and tantalisingly delayed resolution, reaching towards the conclusion of a verse before an anticipated chorus which never arrives. On this night, it didn’t stretch out into one of the lengthier excursions; this was a medium-sized Drill, just long enough to exert its pummelling effect of stunned hypnosis. You either give in to it or it drives you to distraction. The former is the preferable choice.

Red Barked Tree
It was the more melodic and even poppy side of Wire which came to the fore on this occasion, however. I sense that this is the mood which prevails on their recent album Red Barked Tree, although I confess I’ve yet to hear it. Newman’s tuneful ear and pleasantly light vocal style were much in evidence as he became the de facto frontman. He sported an attractive sky blue guitar whose pastel colour seemed to suit this more open, less aggressive aspect of their music. It also pointed to the importance which visual and graphic style has always played in Wire’s art (and art is an apposite word to bandy about when talking of the group). The guitar sound was also light, lent an airy jangle by whatever technology was being used to shape it. The likes of Map Ref 41°N 93°W and Outdoor Miner sound like the more adventurous end of early 80s pop, exploratory (as Map Ref’s cartographic title suggests) without being afraid of lyricism. The lyrics are also allusive, playful, revelling in the sound of words and sentences, and sometimes plain good fun. Having said that, the sound balance, or possibly just the nature of my hearing, meant that I couldn’t make out many of the words on this night. Lewis took the vocal lead on a couple of songs, his deeper baritone, with its echoes of John Foxx, goth scowlers and even Phil Oakey contrasting nicely with Newman’s lighter tones.

Newman replaced his blue guitar with an oval-bodied white model, familiar from Pink Flag days and photos, for a few numbers, which betokened a shift to a more raucous sound. He became a little more animated towards the end, and both he and Lewis put aside their distanced stance to exchange a few words with the audience, evincing a genuine sense that they were having a good time. They played the rock game sufficiently to come back for two encores. The raw fierceness of the Send LP was reserved until the end, with 99.9 (I think) exploding into a splintered roar, its dying feedback squall sculpted into howling electronic noise, sending us all out with ringing ears – the music reverberating beyond the venue, fading away sometime in the night, in dreams.

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