Who you’re put on a bill with always says a lot about how that client perceives you (unless they’re the sort of shoestring booker that just sticks a load of bands on the same night without regard to coherence and pays them peanuts countedaccording to who the audience say they’ve come to see when they’re interrogated on the door). It’s perhaps even more revealing when you are yourselves playing a support slot, which (a little unusual for us lately) we were both times – who are you seen as a good warm up for? Who will the vibe you set up be right, or at least non-contradicto ry, with?
The people behind these gigs definitely see us as located somewhere around the Balkan beat / gypsy punk genre, it appears. We may not use any horns or accordion, sing in Romanian or any other central European tongue or feature any really extended instrumental dance-tune sections let alone entire numbers, but this is a genre that fiddle, minor keys, speeding up and choppy offbeats (despite the name, Balkan beat has involved an element of ska fusion from the word go) gets us attached to intermittently by those that aren’t interested in the goth, steampunk or pirate scenes. Perhaps it’s really just about what sort of dancing you inspire.
And most of those things were common to the bands, in many ways startlingly similar, we supported the two nights. Friday’s Discount Orchestra made no claim to anywhere other than South London in fairness, sang only originals in English as far as I noticed, and insisted upon ‘folk’ as part of the label (though I wasn’t hearing much British trad in their set). But klezmerish fiddle check, accordion check, horns check (tenor sax, trombone, some clarinet when their female singer wasn’t singing funnily enough), and most of the style points listed above. Especially the instrumentals.
Saturday’s Destroyers were much closer again to the hard core of the genre. Still a fair few English originals in evidence, but genuine European trad material too (late set featured singalong chorus claiming to be from Romania: words ‘la la la la lein’ and repeat with varying numbers of la’s). Adding two gypsy jazz guitarists to the mix (one of the unusual features of the Discount Orchestra was dispensing with guitar altogether – with bass, drums and a good accordionist the absence wasn’t felt) plus the usual fiddle-accordion pairing and an epic wind lineup of (take a deep breath) two trumpets, trombone, euphonium, flute and clarinet made a total of 12 players on stage. Vocals appeared to be shared between whoever could reach a mike, with most lead duties done by fiddle, accordion or one of the trumpets. The effect, though, was very much the same as the rather smaller band, except for some Prohibition-era jazz trumpet rasping in places and entertaining but utterly decontextualised reggae romp ‘Vortex Cannon’ (you’d be amazed how many words rhyme with ‘vortex’ if you don’t care that much about how much sense the result makes).
Very much fun, danceable live acts – and that is a label that I often put on the Spectacula – but I couldn’t help wondering if this was entirely a match, or just that the management wanted to hire us for both and we fit well enough. Witty referential lyrics and punkish audience-engagement antics play a much larger role in our identity, and serpentine klezmer-gypsy melodies or punchy riffs over two-chord loops a much smaller one. In fairness I think you have to have a lot of energy to enjoy a Balkan beat set, and our offstage behaviour (not our performances!) was decidedly marked by two rounds of staggeringly frustrating London transport failures, affecting all of us on at least one trip there. Maybe if the roads had been averagely clear and the trains run on time, I would be writing a slightly less guarded article about having a whale of a time bouncing around to bands a little like mine only with massive horn sections and more time off from the vocalist …
This was a three-gig weekend for me. Tune in tomorrow (if I have the time and energy to write – if not, whenever I do) for reflections on something completely different on Sunday!