Monday, November 9, 2009

Alasdair MacLean at Joe's Pub - 10/29/09

I'd assumed from the billing that this would be a solo gig, but MacLean was backed for most of his set by members of the Ladybug Transistor. They drifted on and off stage, but the full compliment was MacLean on Rickenbacker (6-string) plus trumpet, cello, and piano. The accompaniment was perfectly understated, creating an atmosphere but leaving the focus almost entirely on MacLean's guitar and voice. The set consisted mostly of the oldest and newest Clientele material, with several songs from Suburban Light (and related early EPs and singles) and Bonfires on the Heath.

I've written about the Clientele before and have seen them several times now, but I still have the capacity to be surprised at the music's effect on me. I didn't realize I was looking for this music until I discovered it, but once I did its existence seemed somehow inevitable (this must be a common feeling among Clientele fans). Alasdair MacLean's songs often contain images and create moods that seem so familiar and universal that it's hard to believe that no one else has exploited them, or at least not in the same way or with the same precision. Alongside lyrical commonplaces (autumn, a dreary weekend afternoon, rain), MacLean frequently places images drawn from his own handcrafted line of English, haunted-tree psychedelia. The blend of these strands, in varying proportions, along with the band's flexible but always recognizable sound, is what makes up the Clientele world, a parallel, only slightly offset reality where it's always raining in the London suburbs.

"Saturday", requested incessantly until MacLean finally played it (and also a highlight of the Clientele's previous NYC appearance), is remarkable in its complete and detailed evocation of a very particular mood, which it produces through an impossible-to-quantify combination of deceptively simple, common elements (does a lyric have to risk triteness in order to be really moving?). The feeling I get when these elements magically/alchemically react in a piece of music is what I'm chasing when I flip through used record bins or search online for new bands. It's a relatively rare thing, but the alchemy was happening at this show, with both new and old songs.


I only had time to listen to the new Bonfires On The Heath once before the show, but have since given it a few more listens. I'm not ready to say exactly how it stacks up against previous Clientele albums, some of which are easily among my favorite music of the last ten years, but I'm at least certain that it belongs on the same shelf. Neither a "back-to-basics" album (which I suppose would mean a return to the crude-but-effective recording techniques of the early singles) nor a move in a new direction (as the previous two were, if only modestly), Bonfires might be a good model for a mid-level band making a record in the midst of a recession and a slow-motion music industry meltdown. Made with an actual producer in an actual studio, it seems like the band (augmented only slightly with extra players) went in prepared and banged out a set of songs efficiently and without any undue fuss or frills. The result is a great sounding, cohesive record that makes the most of the band's strengths and relies on subtle touches rather than surprising, grand gestures.

Mel Draisey's Hammond organ does what a Hammond does so well if used with restraint, adds a warm retro/nostalgic feeling that oozes into the gaps left by the other instruments. At certain moments I was even vaguely reminded of Rick Wright. James Hornsey's bass might never have sounded better than it does on Bonfires. Hornsey is indie rock's most tasteful and underrated bassist (those two things are probably not unrelated). Americans may have to wait a while to hear the new songs performed by these players, though. In typical self-deprecating style, MacLean pointed out that the Clientele would be touring America in support of the new album about four months after its release here.


While the majority of the Joe's Pub crowd (packed into the small, multilevel space, all in close proximity to the stage) was enthusiastically respectful, bordering on worshipful, I was sitting next to a group of English ladies who decided about halfway through the set to have a loud, long conversation (lasting through at least 3 or 4 songs, on topics such as the amenities at their hotel, which tourist sites they were going to visit the next day, and what club they were going to after the show) that only abated when my concertgoing companion asked them (more politely than I would've been capable of) to keep it down.

It's a well known fact that the Clientele have received more respect in America than in their home country, but it was strange to see the "prophet in his home town" dynamic being played out in a New York City audience, with people actually traveling from England and buying tickets in order to ignore the music. I have no doubt that Americans remain the world leaders in talking loudly at quiet shows, as evidenced by more than one Clientele show I've been to, but it's good to see our trans-Atlantic friends making a good effort to keep up. Well played, loud mouth English ladies. For one night, you schooled us on our home court.

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