Saturday, 16 May 2009

The Last Night of the Fair

(Regular readers of this column, and all the members of the Agnieszka’s Shoes Facebook group, will know I’m always talking about The Boxer Rebellion, currently the most exciting band in the UK. Nathan, Todd, Adam, and Piers are everything the ethos of Agnieszka’s Shoes stands for: perseverance, ingenuity, success achieved outside of – even despite of – the mainstream industry, and a product of the very highest quality. Yesterday at the Joiners in Southampton they gave a historic gig. I’m reviewing the gig for this week’s column as a tribute to them, and an inspiration to all the writers out there I’ve been encouraging to go out and do something in 2009 to make it happen.)


Sitting in the Master Fryer on St Mary’s Road, throwing a badly skewered sausage across the table, I had a sickening sense of déjà vu. We’d been to see The Boxer Rebellion play three times since I first read about their label-less success on iTunes in a metro article this January. Twice we’d seen them play to sell-out venues in London, but on the only other occasion we’d seen them outside the capital, when they played The Bullingdon in Oxford, they’d done their awesome best to rouse a criminally three-quarter empty venue. Even as the doors opened and a girl in the coolest platform boots ticked our name of an empty-looking list and admitted us along with one other bored-looking middle-aged bloke, it looked like we were in for the same.


The doorman struggled to find something to keep the micro-crowd happy on the giant plasma screen in the bar as the sound checks finished (he eventually settled for a QVC session selling crap-cut topaz rings). Which was when we got the first hint of what was to come. At first I thought they’d put Morrissey on the radio, until I realised the venue was so small we could only be hearing the first support, Red Drapes. Things were looking up.

“The last chance to see them play intimate venues,” the listings magazine we were flicking through said whilst a pissed bloke hectored the under-employed doorman “Who are they? Are they any good? Nine quid, that’s a bit steep.” That’s why we were there. On Saturday TBR were performing their first festival of the summer, Brighton’s Great Escape. By the time the leaves begin to turn and the evenings draw in, they’ll be off into the stratosphere. This was the last chance to stand a few inches from Nathan’s feet and read the set list taped to the floor as they went.


Red Drapes finally started half an hour late, after a long stint of piped Kate Bush. By then there was a half decent crowd, even if most of them looked like the support’s parents and classmates. The drummer (a ten years and a thousand pints or so younger lookalike of TBR’s Piers) clambered onto the stage and off they went with Reflections, eerily reminiscent of Morrissey’s masterpiece The Last Night of the Fair, which only added to the whole Twelfth Night feel. It was a marvellously apposite start to an evening that had a deliroius feel of the kind of heady excitement that only a certain pervading melancholia can bring on. I'm delighted to see Red Drapes have now started tweeting. Things are starting to grow for them, and long may it continue. This is a polished young act, and the Smiths-like sound they have off so well is something I can never hear too much of.


Once they’d sorted out a couple of the technical issues that dogged the whole evening (“it’s a shit keyboard,” said Nathan, defusing the situation with his trademark “lovely apple pie, Mrs Jones” smile when the sound went tits-up after We Have This Place Surrounded), Kaputt launched into their frantic set, with frontwoman Silke screaming “I want to fade away” in a way that sounded bizarrely like Lenny Kravitz had walked into the Scotch video tape advert from the 80s. In a way they were the unlucky odd ones out of the night’s trio of bands – Red Drapes had clearly dragooned everyone including the postman’s niece’s dog, and everyone else (like the guy next to us who – like us – had driven miles to see them, and was a veteran of their knockout Scala and Dingwalls gigs) had come to see TBR. Which was a shame, because Kaputt are really rather good. Their punky two tonish sound and minimalist lyrics had a real energy to it, a bit like a hard core version of The Slits at times, and when Silke shouted “Do they dance in Southampton on a Friday night? Well come on then!” you really felt a bit sorry for them, like you did after the show when TBR were signing the only-available-on-tour CDs of Union and Red Drapes were hugging their mates, whilst Kaputt sat in the corner with a quiet pint.


By the time the stage was set up for TBR and the sound guy had finished trying to get any sound at all from the “shit keyboard” with his penlight and screwdriver, the place was packed. It was nothing like the cold Sunday night at The Bullingdon. It was clear that in the two months since then, something had changed. For good (“Hello, Wembley,” shouted Nathan at one point, with only a hint of irony). Adam and Nathan made what’s now a highly practised and highly polished entrance to Piers’ and Todd’s drums on Flashing Red Light Means Go (long gone are the nerves and fumbles and “oh my God”s we’d witnessed in February when the sell-out Dingwalls crowd had overawed them).


Throughout what followed there were all kinds of little signs of the way things are changing for The Boxer Rebellion. For the first time at one of their gigs, whenever I looked across the room I could see people singing along. Their songs are beginning to enter the collective psyche, beginning to become anthems, sounds you could imagine filling arenas. By the time the band reached All you do is Talk, the whole crowd was screaming back “you don’t seem to listen.” Then there was the encore after Silent Movie. In an intimate venue like Joiners you can’t go backstage and wait for the cries of “more!” to reach a frenzy so much as hover at the side looking a bit embarrassed, shrug you shoulders and skulk back. “That was fucking lame,” mumbled Nathan into the mic with a laugh and yet another disarming smile, delighting in a moment of complicity with the crowd. Their act no longer really belongs somewhere like this. This was a massive gig in a tiny venue, and the rush and the shame of it made for a mesmerising cocktail.

One of the great things about seeing TBR is that they always have a drink and a chat with the fans after the show, and when they’re outside London they sell their own merch, sharpies at the ready as they rip the plastic wrap from the CDs and pass them down the line for signing. They always have time to speak to everyone, but that’s something you can only do when your crowds are a certain size, so while things are only getting started for them, there was a sense in which it felt like saying goodbye.


Today The Boxer Rebellion will be playing The Great Escape in Brighton, the first of a busy festival schedule that will surely put an end to the days of taking every gig they can get their hands on. When my wife told Todd we’d come down from Oxford, he asked if we’d come for The Great Escape. “No,” she said. “We came just to see you guys.” “Hard core,” he replied in his deep Ozzie drawl. “Drive carefully,” he said as we left. Back at you, guys. This is the point when the ride gets really bumpy.


(On Tuesday I’ll be looking at what we as writers can learn from the example of bands like the Boxer Rebellion. Hint: it involves prodigious talent, originality, persistence, large amounts of very hard work, and never forgetting what you’re doing it for.)


See you all over at The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes

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