Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Into the Rowdy Bowels of Hell

Concert Howling Bells @ Òran Mór, Mon 19 Sep

Having left the hallowed Victorian recesses of Edinburghshire—leaving behind a cloud of desperate Morningside housewives, their bellies plump with cake and their hearts sick with love—I sallied forth to the hip concrete dosshouse of Mother Glasgow to start anew. My new residence in fishing distance of Dowanhill—where rampant housebound nannies crave hourly intercourse with lanky former students—I was free to resume the philandering and copious cake consumption as befit my past life.

I had grown attached to those Earl Grey afternoons: running my left hand through a shrub of pubic hair, cramming a Waitrose fancy into my mouth with the right. Waiting for spouses to return to add fire to our lovemaking—sometimes bringing in strangers to assist with light duties (keeping the testicles well sated with saliva, holding inhalers to the ladies’ mouths so their heart rates didn’t rise while rutting). I had come to cherish those moments. To me, Edinburgh will forever be the quivering want of a waiting vagina and a slice of shortbread perched temptingly over a saucer.


Now, I crave moments that charge the nerve-endings. I want sensations that tingle the testes. Live music has much to offer on both counts. Stood before four passionate artists, each sweating out ultramundane sounds, feeling the pure rush of Great Art riding deep within one’s bones. Sadly, this is not the live music experience at Oran Mor: a converted church turned restaurant and nightclub. What follows is a personal account of one evening: these are thoughts from an abnormal mind. Let me make it clear.

I belong to a certain group of people. As teenagers we devoured music obsessively, listing and compiling and acquiring new sounds at a fantastic rate, often at financial and personal costs. In our bedrooms at night, we cosied up to sounds that belonged to us, to us alone. Our discoveries never tainted by the world of criticism. What mattered was our instinctual kinaesthetic responses to what went in our ears and up to our brains. If a deaf one-legged man wailing through a soup can pricked our skin and wet our cheeks: this was the only thing that mattered. Music was our soul and our saviour.

Then the world came along and muscled into our cellars. Those sounds we loved were shared by dozens, thousands, millions of ears: some ears on the heads of wankers! Was it possible that the people we hated so much—i.e. everyone else—also shared our passion for early eighties skronk? For dreamy avant-pop with violins and harmonies? The saddest day for the music fan is learning that the Belle & Sebastian B-side he loves is also loved by his mortal enemy. The man who will one day cut him down.

And so, last night, at a simple Monday night concert, I felt the liars and fakers seep into my private sound-world, colliding in a rush of rage, dismay and misanthropy. It is my assertion that live gigs in underground venues are the enemy of pure musical pleasure. Not to mention repulsive reminders of the transience of friendships and our failure to truly connect with other human beings in our short dismal lives. A brisk walk up the street from my digs, picking up my companion on the way, led me to the luminous front of Oran Mor. We were round the back. At the not-so-luminous end.

Our evening began in the queue. Oran Mor has an awkward staircase that twirls around as it descends, with a little space at the bottom for a long-ish line to develop. So our waiting begins halfway up the steps, where I get a chance to assess the lifeforms inside: students. All students. All of them: students. I feel faintly sick already.

Then a little incident kicks off in the entrance hallwaya space so anorexic Kate Moss can barely squeeze throughwhen I approach Father Dougal McGuire at the door about our free entry status. He directs us to a secret booth on the left-side wall, forcing us to cut back through the six people already blagging at the box and the queue behind. In a brief attempt at politeness, clearing space for paying punters, I park midway at the box queue: a gesture Dougal interprets as a dozy coup on the queue, informing us: “If you guys could go to the back of the queue. That’s how a queue usually works.”

Already a little red-faced about having my free ticket status announced to the line, this remark turns me into a vengeful wasp, eager for a nice ginger beard to sting. I open my mouth to release my comeback to this witless Guardian of the Door. As I cut to the back of the box queue—standing half out the door again, confusing new queuers as to our in-or-out status, forcing us to squeeze ourselves back in the door when the box line moves up an inch—I mutter something about the ‘patronising lecture,’ audible enough for the line to hear and think me a basic nutter. We get our stubs.

There’s no time to brood on the moment: into the cavern we go. Stepping into a live show is always like reliving the best bits of World War Two. For the seasoned music pro, ears adapt to the onslaught, but for a bookish Burgher used to diddling spinsters, the transition from cake to quake is harder to make. We find half a couch and perch upon it, surveying the scene. Clearly, we are not Oran Mor's more usual more usual clientele.

I observe.

And so. Deep within its lava-lamp depths we go, into a room crawling with Freemans catalogue models—from the stick-thin unshaved males to the gaggling fashionistas—forced to seek refuge in upholstery while a tumult of drums and violins seize our senses in a sexy way. It occurs to me how primitive, how Middle Earth the nightclub environment seems to be. Around us, the young stand entranced by strange tribal drums, like pixies gathering around a freshly slain baboon. In this environment, I become an information wrangler. If I say one thing out of line, I am ripe for sacrificial slaughter.

I begin to pull facts about the young and their medieval entertainment rituals. I aim to inhabit their skin tonight: to understand their devotion to these ear-searing rhythms and sounds, where they discipline themselves to stand upright for four hours, sweating in a cavern while spending their entire week’s wages on drinks and merchandise. To understand a method of unwinding which—by anyone else’s standards—would be a form of torture. I fear for my sanity during this exercise, and retreat.

As I survey the space—the dark purple walls and artificial rock moulds, like a velvet hankie dressed up as a bile duct—behind the student bodies sit my brethren, the Soul Seekers of Sound. A close-knit collective devoted to the pursuit of pure euphonic pleasure, our one rule is we never commune, no matter how lonely we become. Music is our one true friend and the only sense we deign to entertain. We observe this rule blindly.

Among the seekers at this venue, a middle-aged woman on crutches, her face a mosaic of unhappiness, bopping her head in time to the sexy fuzz of Aerials Up: four women who travelled from the bog peats of Kilmucridge to make their fortune in the caves of Glasgow. An obese couple stare at me as I sit on the sofa, leaning into a dim red lamp in my stripy blue seawear (a stance of deliberate untrendiness to set myself apart as a true Seeker of Sound), writing this review as I wait for the Howling Bells to emerge from beneath the stage, having tunnelled through from Australia’s wettest outback. Who are these blank hunters of rare aural truth? Perhaps they seek my words as nourishment, as a means of comprehending the dark life of the information wrangler.

My attention turns to the swamp of cardboard humans: the couples, so many couples. Before me sits a black-haired woman in a zebra crossing: arsecrack exposed to us appreciative sofa-dwellers, adding erotic stimulation to our cache of pleasures.* The nightclub, as a place to meet new people and pierce the hellish loneliness of meals-for-one and B&W movies, is absolutely useless. Those who venture solo into this cave with a view to meeting and laughing and living will go and stand on their own, and go home and cry and want to die. Sweating in their thick woollen articles, lost in the blancmange of paired-up twats, closed off from all romcom encounters. Such is life.

Cold Specks are up next. They emerge to a single whoop (not me) and launch straight into a slow, unremarkable number, every inch Howling Bells-lite. Their music lends itself to a more intimate setting and Oran Mor is not such a setting: not unless a sea of loud pointless gabble is your idea of intimacy. Their set is doomed from the start, but these are the horrors bands face when peddling their beauty to those with no respect for the remotely beautiful. Fact. Their next tune fares better: a slowly rising ballad with a glistening and wide chorus, like soaring across the Australian plain on a very large glider. My companion remarks, knowingly, how the intro to another resembles popular childhood number ‘Three Blind Mice.’ I tell her I’ll put that in the review.

More notably, halfway into their set, an old man limps across the floor, scoots around the technician and disappears behind the bar. Suddenly this band have magic powers: their nimble hands can conjure up geriatrics from the base elements of sound! I make sure to get a CD afterwards. Their sixth song has a lovely drone guitar and hits a transcendent note, a moving little showcase of guitar and violin.

Anyway. There is, at some point in this tale, a Howling Bells review. I think we’ve reached it.

Howling Bells emerge: three men and the Boudicca vamp of eyepleaser Juanita Stein. Opener ‘Charlatan’ commences with a cool tingle guitar and growling bass, its verses laying down a little rock bravado, its choruses keeping it country and simple. Earlier single ‘Blessed Night’ sets heads bopping and torsos leaning back and forth (the Scots equivalent of dancing) with another bluesy series of slick and cool verses. At this point I spot an old friend in the crowd and we begin an awkward shouting catch-up. I talk about the Howling Bells formula: creative time signatures, neat grooves and slick vocals that fill out the verses, and choruses that blast out a powerful disappointment of mainstream indie. The old friend nods, remembering how difficult it is to talk to me, noise or not.

Highlights include the sultry ‘Setting Sun’ which again proves more delightful in the verses. ‘Gold Suns, White Guns’ boasts a dreamy solo and spacey percussion from some geezer in the darkness. Lowlights are the samey ‘Sioux’ and ‘Ballad For Bleeding Hearts,’ which doesn’t quite hit the romantic highs it needs to. Stein is in another world during the performance and the band-crowd rapport is quite stiff, giving the group a more businesslike flavour. ‘Wilderness’ closes the set pleasantly, with Stein stroking her guitar, unsure if she should be playing or not. All the boys go home dreaming and all the girls go home dreamy. All in all, a mixed night out.


* This woman I will see, from the front, the next day on Dumbarton Road, parlaying shopping back to her home. She’s still wearing the zebra crossing and as I pass by, I have the childish notion to mutter ‘lovely arsecrack.’ I disabuse myself of this notion and walk on.

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