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PiL, Reading Sub89

PiLIt’s always a good thing to get out of your musical comfort zone. PiL playing a gig at Reading’s Sub89 provided an opportunity to see the post-punk legends featuring the artist formerly known as Johnny Rotten in action. A few clips from their 2013 Glastonbury set, and a hilariously funny new single were enough to suggest they were worth seeing.

They opened with that single, with sweary lyrics about broken toilets and having to get the plumber in. If you only know John Lydon (as he now calls himself) from the days when he was Johnny Rotten, PiL are a very different beast. Instead of three-chord primal rock’n'roll it’s dub-reggae tinged bass riffs and intricate guitar textures. Lu Edmonds with his overgrown beard and slightly disturbing stare is what Rasputin might have looked like had he been a rock musician, swapping between guitar and electric bağlama, sometimes making some very Robert Fripp-like sounds. The amazingly tight rhythm section provided the foundation of the music giving Edmonds the space to weave textures and colours around the grooves.

As for Lydon himself, the standard refrain that he can’t sing was never really accurate. He does have a highly unconventional and individual vocal style, and you can still hear the influence of Peter Hammill in the way he uses his voice as much as a lead instrument than as a vehicle for the lyrics. He’s still got a definite rock star charisma, and his voice is still in remarkably good shape compared with some of his peers. His atonal howling could be compelling, though you often found yourself listening as much to the infectious bass grooves or the inventive guitar lines.

“Death Disco” was a particular highlight, with Lu Edmonds alternately riffing and repeating the motif from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”, which in combination with the circular bassline came over like a muscular version of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall”. The main set ended with a dark and theatrical polemic against religion, culminating in the repeated chant of “Turn Up The Bass”, which was indeed turned up to levels where you felt the low frequencies in your guts rather than your ears. After all that, the more conventional pop of the encores, ending in “Rise” was just a coda to the evening.

Even for someone who normally listens to metal and progressive rock, this was a great gig. Lydon has still got it, is currently on great form, and the other three musicians form a very tight and inventive band. And if you stop and think about it, the combination of a guitarist who sometimes sound like Robert Fripp and a singer whose major influence is Peter Hammill is actually a bit Prog.

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Fish – Reading Sub89

Fish at Sub89 in Reading

Fish has had something of a troubled year gig-wise. First he was forced to postpone the whole of his May UK tour due to the combination of guitarist Robin Boult’s severe case of chicken pox, and a new keyboard player not working out in rehearsals. Then the singers’ nightmare, a bout of viral laryngitis, took out a big chunk of his extensive European tour including the entire French leg. At one point it looked as though his December UK dates, rescheduled from May, might be in doubt. But good reports from the early dates suggested things were back on track.

It’s a long time since Fish came to Reading; the appearance at Sub89 was an additional date, not part of the postponed May tour. His current touring band now includes It Bites’ John Beck on keys alongside Robin Boult and the long-serving rhythm section of Steve Vantsis and Gavin Griffiths.

They began with the lengthy and brooding “Perfume River”, the opening track from last year’s “Feast of Consequences”, building from Floydian keyboard washes and rippling guitar to a hard-rocking conclusion. Next came the more straightforward singer/songwriter-style rocker of the title track. The travails of Fish’s love life continued as the theme of the early part of the set, for next came a couple of songs from his bitterest break-up album, 2007′s 13th Star, the second of them introduced with a lengthy monologue about the way his story of his string of failed relationships left a therapist in tears.

But the centrepiece of the set was the five-song “High Wood Suite”, the very moving concept piece about the Third Battle of Arras in First World War in which both his grandfathers fought. In last year’s tour to promote the album they’d played the highlights, omitting the poignant closing song “The Leaving”. This time they performed the suite in its entirety, and it gains far more power when played in full. It says something that in a venue that’s often notorious for background chatter, you could have heard a pin drop during “The Leaving”.

After that tour-de-force it was crowd-pleasers from much earlier in his career; the rock workout of “Big Wedge” from his first post-Marillion solo album “Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors”, followed by the title track itself, introduced with a lengthy rant about the Scottish independence referendum and a call to political action, and sung from the middle of the crowd rather than from the stage. A crowd singalong of the Marillion hit “Heart of Lothian” closed the main set.

The encores were an intense “Incubus” featuring some impressive guitar work from Robin Boult, who doesn’t get many chances to play a big solo in this setlist, before the show ended with another crowd singalong, the drinking song “The Company”.

Fish was on superb form, with no trace of his earlier voice problems. It’s true that he doesn’t have anything like the vocal power and range of his younger days, sometimes meaning older songs need to be played in a different key. But his stage presence and force of personality is enough to carry the show. With Marillion themselves also on tour at the same time it’s interesting to compare the two; Fish’s band, looser but more energetic, are far more rock’n'roll, and have a quite different feel even when playing Marillion material.

The setlist made a great contrast with that of his last UK tour in 2013. Although the highlights from “Feast of Consequences” featured heavily both times, the rest of the set was completely different, without a single song in common. Like his former bandmates Marillion, and unlike far too many other 70s/80s veterans, there are no standards which you can expect to hear tour after tour. Nobody seemed to care that “Kayleigh” wasn’t played.

With Fish giving indications that this may well be his final tour of club venues on this sort of scale, it’s a case of “see him while you can”. He’s still got it, and still puts on one hell of a show.

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The Temperance Movement, Reading Sub89

The Temperance Movement at Reading Sub89

The Temperance Movement have generated quite a bit of a buzz of late with their take on classic British blues-rock. Several people have stated they were one of the best performances of the weekend at this year’s Cambridge Rock Festival. They’ve been compared with The Rolling Stones and The Black Crowes. That buzz attracted one of the most varied audiences I’ve seen for a long time, grey-haired old rockers mixing with a great many students and all ages in-between in the queue before the show.

Opening act was solo singer-songwriter Samuel Taylor, with songs about drunks on buses with titles like “Today is the tomorrow you were promised yesterday”. He was competent if a little generic, and it left you wondering what the songs would sound like with a full band with lead guitar instead of harmonica. The one song that stood out was the only number in a minor key, and I’d have liked to have heard more like that.

Special guests The Graveltones were a revelation. They’re a duo of guitarist and vocalist Jimmy O and drummer Mikey Sorbello. With a blues-influenced guitar sound they’re always going to draw comparisons with The White Stripes. But from the moment bearded drummer Mikey Sorbello opened the set with a furious assault on the kit it was obvious they’re a very different beast. They make an awful lot of noise for duo. As well as playing some raw and dirty guitar Jimmy O is a great old school rock’n'roll vocalist and makes a compelling frontman. Mikey Sorbello’s drums are as much a lead instrument as they are a rhythm section, and he fills enough space that there’s no hole in the sound when Jimmy plays a solo. The whole thing crackled with rock’n'roll energy, and I think we’ll be hearing a lot more from these guys in the future.

As for the main act, they did not disappoint, with a powerful and entertaining performance that for once really did live up to all that hype. This is a band where the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Phil Campbell isn’t the archetypal 70s hairy-chested frontman, but he seems to have a very strong appeal to the ladies. The twin guitars emphasise their late 60s/early 70s vibe, understated bluesy soloing rather than pyrotechnic shredding, with sparing but effective use of slide guitar. The tight rhythm section provided some strong and sometimes funky grooves. The whole band did impressive vocal harmonies to complement Phil Campbell’s gravel-voiced lead. Their gutsy sound strikes just the right balance between rawness and polish.

The only bit that didn’t quite work was the unplugged number, completely acoustic with the PA turned off; probably great for those down the front, but it just didn’t carry to the back of the room. One the plus side, that was the only moment where the legion of chatterers actually shut up for a couple of minutes; sadly this was one of the worst shows for gig talkers I have experienced in a long time.

It’s true that The Temperance Movement aren’t doing anything spectacularly new, and indeed it’s difficult to imagine a young band in the mid-70s playing a style of music from a generation before they were born. But the songwriting and performance is strong enough that none of that really matters. Their self-titled début album has gained a lot of critical plaudits, but good as it is, it still doesn’t capture the energy and power of the band on stage. This is a band who really need to be seen live to appreciate them fully.

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