Live: Wooden Shjips, The Heads, Freebutt Brighton

I’m typing this with my ears still ringing and my head still cloudy from last night’s show: the penultimate date of the psychedelic package tour of the year, a double header of west country gonzo stalwarts The Heads and hotly-tipped (some say hyped) San Francisco drone brothers Wooden Shjips, on their first full-length outing across the UK. The Shjips in particular have excited and divided opinion with a string of extremely limited vinyl singles and a debut album at the end of 2007 that drew on such perhaps now over-familiar influences as The Velvets, The Doors, Spacemen 3, Krautrock, The Stooges, Hawkwind and The Thirteenth Floor Elevators, but crucially to those of us who were converted (and many weren’t), managed to make the combination sound fresh, edgy, unexpected and sinister all over again.

Moved to the Freebutt after the mysterious and sudden closure of the Brighton Barfly a couple of months ago, the show was surprisingly not a sellout, but felt packed enough as temperatures rose with the volume levels and the Butt went into its usual summer impersonation of one of those sealed windowless sweatboxes used for punishment purposes in old prisoner of war camps. Whatever other improvements the Joiners have made since they took over and renovated the venue, air conditioning ain’t one of them.

The bands weren’t exempt from this torture and The Heads in particular seemed to be suffering from the heat. After a strong start the Bristol quartet seemed to wilt somewhat in the middle of their set, drummer Wayne slowly losing the will to live and their loose and heavy, murky space rock jams becoming somewhat turgid and directionless in places as a result. Having said that, when they did pull it all together The Heads tonight were thrilling, a Frankenstein’s Monster of Stooges/Mudhoney raunch and Loop/Hawkwind noise ragas, wrapped in a tattered black leather jacket and strapped to a hotwired Norton rocketing up the A46 to oblivion.

Keepers of the psych-rock flame since the early nineties, The Heads have mostly existed well below the critical radar, releasing their own records and, due to the need to maintain day jobs, rarely venturing far from their Bristolian heartland. Nevertheless they’ve built up a deserved cult following, remain hugely under-rated and will one day receive due recogntion when the history of the contemporary underground scene is truly written. Though I have several of their albums, this was the first time I’ve seen them live and they didn’t disappoint. But at times, during the less riveting passages, I yearned for a shamanic frontman in the Iggy mould; Simon’s vocals (you couldn’t call it singing) are an afterthought and, live, an unwelcome distraction even from the real business at hand. That business is a sonic bludgeoning of mind and body into grateful human lentil-mush, and when they achieve it The Heads scrape nirvana, as when against all odds their set rose to a sublime, shuddering and triumphant climax, the band locked into a series of descending churning riffs that each time bottomed out into a subconscious pit of clamouring freakish insect life before rising up to the heavens to do it all again. Finally, the foursome transcended their human frailty to serve the cruel, demanding god of their groove, and it was good. 

If The Heads set out to level the walls of Jericho and slice open the top of your heads with great solid slabs of unbroken guitar blast, then Wooden Shjips in contrast put the boogie back into space rock. Though hardly undemanding it’s an altogether mellower, more subtly rhythmic groove, drawing in parts on the motorik pulse of Neu! or Harmonia, but more so on the funk-derived rhythm guitar of the Velvet Underground, the gospel-tinged inner shimmer of Spacemen 3 or The Doors’ decadent roadhouse blues. In fact, one could make a case that in some degree Wooden Shjips are at least acknowledging the black music roots of what has become an overwhelmingly caucasian genre of experimental noise-drone music, Jason Pierce’s endless references back to gospel and blues tradition excepted.

Another amusing contrast between Wooden Shjips and The Heads is how comparatively healthy the Californian combo look. The Heads’ grey English pallor befits Brit rock veterans no doubt used to a diet of greasy chips and speed-cut acid, Ginsters’ pasties and cheap lager, Whereas Wooden Shjips in their hand-stitched moccasins look young and alert on San Francisco organic wholefood diets, warm sunshine and the finest pure grass joints. This comes over in the music, too: where The Heads are seeking merciful, brain-blitzed oblivion, Wooden Shjips seek to open up, to become more alive and awake to the world around us, behind the lazy facade of consensual reality. There’s a darkness in their songs, certainly, particularly in the echoed-to-indecipherability vocals of cultishly-bearded guitarist and band leader Ripley Johnson, but there’s an optimism too, a Kerouac-like sense that it’s in the mystery and the shadows that the diamond truly shines.   

The mantra of interlocking guitar and organ is constantly broken up by chattering maracas, and bassist Dusty Jermier’s trumpet solo towards the end is a highlight. I’ve got a tape somewhere with Miles Davis on one side and The MC5 on the other, and for a moment it was like I was listening to that tape but I could hear the 5 with Miles pushing through. Tonight was like that; a recognition that the droning one chord OM contains multitudes, that the obsessive worship of feedback and repetitive guitar noise can be inclusive and innovative still, and that rather than approaching a dead end, psychedelic rock in the 21st Century can still open up to the entire universe.

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One Response to “Live: Wooden Shjips, The Heads, Freebutt Brighton”

  1. Dave Says:

    Shame about the wilting(re the Heads) i know the band had travelled from tilburg that day a long journey! I got to see them in Tilburg and they were amazing Shjips were good as well very krauty crossed with a bit of loop and maybe early stereolab with the swirly keys.

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