Reviews

What the fuck just happened? (Fat White Family, Live at The Shacklewell Arms, June 7th 2014)

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The Shacklewell Arms have a certain precedent for engineering deliberately overcrowded, ultra tense live events (the first-come-first-served Eighties Matchbox gig, A Place To Bury Strangers etc) and, considering The Fat White Family’s recent pole vault into the public eye, this looked set to be no exception. The venue was jam packed from several hours before the 23:00 door time, the tension increasing unbearably as the opening hour got pushed back further and further. As midnight approached, the staff didn’t so much open the doors as simply relent to the crush of human bodies clogging up the entrance hall. They didn’t even bother to stamp hands, they simply shouted across the crowd that once they were in they stayed in, and if they left someone else would be let in in their place.

After an appropriate amount of stewing time, the support act Crowes took the stage. Musically, I’ve got nothing against these guys. I enjoyed their set start to finish. It was a bit like watching Public Image Ltd. with a Velvet Underground backing track, instead of the iconic disco/dub rhythm section. The combination worked very well and the songs were well structured, arranged and performed but, reflecting on it later, I couldn’t help the feeling that it was overtly contrived and unintentionally cynical. Every sonic element was hand picked from all the coolest, most on-trend go-to musical reference points of 2014 and not once did they artistically stick their neck out, so to speak. In hindsight it felt like they were taking more influence from their magazine subscriptions than their record collections.

I did love the way the singer began the performance with a glazed over expression of crazed contempt, but quickly broke the spell (and the 4th wall) by diving into the audience, repeatedly, until they finally got the message and let him do a bit of surfing (The first time he tried it it was depressingly reminiscent of the Jack Black belly flop in the opening scene of school of rock). Excellent performances from instrumental sections as well, reflecting the enthusiasm of the large and receptive audience. In conclusion, great band, good songs, but a little soured by an underlying artistic shallowness. Still, I wouldn’t shy away from watching them again.

I knew the Fat Whites show was going to be something other from before they even showed their faces. In the tradition of many rising stars of Great British rock and roll, they had some bike gang types acting as security and crew (and probably filling another unspoken role as well). Despite the escort, their still seemed to be some confusion as to whether the whole band were present and coherent (they had played at Field Day Festival only a few hours before). They eventually came out to spend an extended period of time line checking and (de)tuning up which, under normal circumstances, might have been a bit of a kill joy. Not so tonight, the band were as uptight, tense and intoxicated as their audience and the near farcical efforts to get all their channels online began to act as a sort of pre-gig foreplay with the crowd.

And suddenly the Hammond Organ blares into the life (the final dodgy interlink being fixed) and the band declare it’s time to start. Launching straight into a suitably trance-like rendition of Auto-Neutron with backing vocals locked down tight and bizarre guitar lines weaving eerily around the hypnotic rhythm section. Then, straight into Is It Raining In Your Mouth? and things start looking increasingly mental in the venue – the tightly packed audience getting more and more aggressive throughout.

The appearance of Garden Of The Numb brought a tide of relief to the inhabitants of the sweat pit that used to be The Shacklewell Arms. For me, this was probably the musical highlight of the set – with lots of embellishment and dynamics on top of the original arrangement. It started out stripped back to just a voice and guitar, with a spoken introduction in a real old school blues pastiche, bringing layers of instrumentation and increasing intensity as the song built.

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Sorry about the grainy phone picture, there wasn’t much time for pissing around with cameras.

It was after this crescendo that things started to disintegrate.  The whole band were obviously teetering on the edge of coherency (potentially conciousness) but it was the bassist that gave way first. Eyes rolling into the back of his head, what started off looking like an act quickly turned into total degeneration. As their manager ploughs through seething mass in the room to pull himself onto the edge of the stage and slap some life back into the bass player, the whole band begin to musically crumble. To be fair, this was almost as great to watch as when they were holding it together – it was  joyous experience to see something actually HAPPEN on a stage, rather than just a well choreographed imitation of rock and roll clichés. Playing out right before our eyes was the kind of scene familiar in punk legend, but generally absent from the here and now reality of alternative, left field music.

The bass player finally slung his instrument back on and the band started to pull the set back together (much to the obvious relief of the put-upon manager). There were still plenty more big numbers to play. We hadn’t yet heard Cream Of The Young or the new single Touch The Leather, and expectation (and condensation) was still heavy in the air.

Sadly, it was not to be.  With more of a whimper than a bang the entire backline power went out. The band instantly started raging against the venue for cutting them off, which seems a strange conclusion to jump to since all the mics were still live and it was just stage power that went down. If the venue were cutting the show, it seems more likely they’d bring the mics down first, rather than physically flicking the power fuses to the stage. I deeply suspect that the two whole bottles of beer that the organist had poured directly onto the power points had a lot more to do with the tripped fuses than some spiteful venue fat cat.

Despite the disappointment of having a unique rock and roll spectacle cut short, I was still with left with the feeling that I’d just seen one of the best and, possibly, one of the most important gigs of 2014.

The Fat White Family have a strong , anarcho-leftwing, political face. This, combined with their bizarre, abrasive yet entrancing sound has served to make them a group which captures the Zeitgeist of London right now. They seem vital, unstoppable and aggressively contemporary, despite many clear and obvious roots influences. Whatever point it is that they’re trying to make, I hope that the shambolic, junkie persona they’ve created for themselves doesn’t ultimately undermine it. Then again, maybe total self annihilation IS the point, and the politics are those of nihilism rather than intellectualised anti capitalism. I’d really like Fat White Family to be the saviours of the rock and roll rebellion. Take back what the world of fashion and cultural industry stole from us, but I think they’re rather more likely become martyrs to the cause. Glorious and grotesque, but martyrs none the less.

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