all words: William Alberque
all photos: Julia Benton
It was an odd night at the Cat, with the Dig starting strong and ending weak, while Glasvegas started weak and ended impossibly strong.
Glasvegas emerged in 2006-7 with a clutch of self-published singles and more self-belief than any band deserved to have. They proceeded to get signed to Columbia and conquer all of Britain (and, oddly, Sweden) with stunning speed, reaching second position in the UK album charts with their self-titled debut in September 2008. I got to see them later that month, opening their US debut concert for Echo and the Bunnymen at Radio City Music Hall, playing a stunning set that had many an aging goth stroking their goatees in wonderment at the opening act.
I saw them again at Rock n Roll Hotel in October 2008, headlining this time, and was stunned to see every male UK expat from the ages of 21-50 pack into the Hotel to sing every note of every song with their arms and scarves held aloft like a section of football fans singing to their favorite team. Madness.
Back in the UK, what followed for Glasvegas ended up being the same old rock and roll story. The band released a beautiful (if indulgent) Christmas album and embarked on massive tours, with tons of groupies and all the attendant chemical intoxicants. Bigger and bigger crowds, larger festivals – and It all came to a head when the increasingly erratic lead singer – James Allan – took a near-fatal overdose of cocaine and horse tranquilizer at the 2009 Coachella Festival (the hoary old “nervous exhaustion” excuse finally clarified in the NME).
Allan then decamped to Los Angeles, cleaned himself up, changed from wearing all black to wearing all white, and recorded the second album, the bizarrely-titled EUPHORIC///HEARTBREAK\\\ (it’s supposed to represent a rising and breaking wave, y’see), This time around, the album just scraped the top ten, and the first single, the engaging if overwhelming “Euphoria, Take My Hand,” just scraped into the top…126. There’s no discernable drop-off in musical quality on the record, though the personal nature of the songs seems far removed. It greatly interested me to see how the Black Cat would welcome them on a balmy Tuesday night. The short answer = not very well at all.
The crowd was stunningly thin – of the 35-odd shows I’ve seen this year so far, this was the sparsest I’ve seen so far. When New York City’s the Dig take the stage, there’s maybe fifty in the room. Arnold whispers that only 200 tickets sold, which I know from experience is not enough to fill the Backstage, attributing the empty room to summer break. But, hey, this is Glasvegas, who sold out RnR, and still sell out dates across the UK. WTF?
Actually, I didn’t see the Dig take the set – I came in a few songs in (at the urging of Marshall Thompson via his Facebook page), and I’m struck at their rather competent post-punk style. It’s not especially distinctive – think The Boxer Rebellion’s big sound with some of Chapel Club’s contemplative moments mixed in – but pleasant. Not as loud as it should be – I’m shocked at how well I can hear conversations halfway across the room – but loud isn’t always good (e.g., Mogwai), and quiet isn’t always bad (e.g., Low. Actually, I hate Low. Never mind).
The Dig’s drummer (James Alegre) is energetic, but isn’t pounding out rolling tom rhythms – mostly snare and cymbals. The vocals of singer/guitarist Dave Baldwin are odd – sounding a bit like Clinic’s Ade Blackburn – while co-singer/bassist Emile Mosseri has more of a pop voice. Together, they have a fascinating range that is engaging – though, again, I can’t recall a single melody. They’re playing Red Palace again in June, and I might have checked them out, but the final song – Arnold and I were debating what it sounded like – Rush? Billy Squire? Foreigner’s “Dirty White Boy”? Eddie Money? Regardless, it was a jarringly frat-rock, classic rock-inflected and squalid (and overly-long) end to the set, shaking me from my pleasing revelry and leaving me wishing they’d stopped with the previous post-punk stormer. Ah well – I should have heeded the interview references to Led Zeppelin.
Anyway. My lingering hopes that the place would continue to fill up were dashed completely by the time (after an incredibly long and drawn out interregnum) Glasvegas took the stage. This place is empty.
They start with a sample of a woman speaking French with keyboards over the top before breaking into “The World Is Yours.” I’m struck that they replaced their previous drummer with a short Swede (Janna Lofgren) who plays standing up and is beating the shit out of her kit. It’s kind of thrilling, as James grasps for the Ian McCulloch award for loopiest lead singer. Their vocal stylings are broadly similar (and James is an avowed EATB worshiper), and the light-up microphone cord has me alarmed and intrigued. The guitars are huge, trying to match the drums, though they never do, throughout the set. The vocals and drums dominate, with the guitars providing a mere backdrop to the drama center front and back.
Of course, James is still wearing the trademark sunglasses, and as the band launch into an overwhelming rendition of new album stormer “You,” I am quite taken. It’s an intriguing combination of the Bunnymen’s epic yearnings and shoegaze, and I like it – but I can’t help but feel that the personal trauma and honest self-reflection of the first album has been replaced with Bono-esque bombast.
“It’s My Own Cheating Heart that Makes Me Cry” from the debut follows, inspiring a sing-along which sees James diving into the crowd, but it’s still not the waves-of-euphoric-fans-with-hands-aloft experience of the RnR show or the festival circuit. The sentiment is there, but the audience is not – a knot of devotees up front, curious onlookers in the middle, and no one, but no one in the back third. They launch into a cover-sounding version of “Shine Like Stars” (um, “stars are stars and the shine so hard”? You wish) followed by – well, not sure what the fourth one is, but the fifth one is “Whatever Hurts You Through the Night.”
So far, I am not quite sold. They’re not bad, but the novelty of the extraordinary energy of Löfgren’s drums has worn off, and, shorn of a huge adoring crowd, and disconnected from any sort of discernable human emotion (except…embiggedness?), they start to sound just a bit naff. I’m shocked to type these words, but dare I say that they’re off their boil, past their sell-by date, even? This saddens me greatly, and I don’t recognize the next song at all (is it a cover? Has to be). “Euphoria” comes next, and the thundering drums, live, transform it into a massively uplifting, winning tune. The end of the song is a near-train wreck, with the band members jarringly going off into different time signatures before just pulling it together at the close. Something is wrong up there and only getting worse.
The band pushed bravely on into “Geraldine,” again improved immeasurably by Löfgren’s insistent pounding of the kit. James loses it at this point, going off in an extended diatribe against someone up front who’s talking. “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you” he repeats, after a bit, before heading into “Ice Cream Van.” There are actually lighters aloft in the crowd at this one – I can’t believe the cliché, even as I see it – but not for long. “Go Square Go,” one of the earliest Glasvegas tracks, gets the crowd jumping, and the band remain true to the thrashing spirit of the original.
The encore begins with “Flowers and Football Tops,” and it’s just about all I need. The energy at this point is good, but I start to think James has lost the plot, and fear another embarrassing blow-up with the crowd. I pay my tab and leave, disappointed that for me, 2008 remains the high-water mark for this intriguing band. I may have forgone a chance to hear “Daddy’s Gone,” but frankly, I don’t really want to at this point. Instead, I hope James works through whatever he’s working through and gets back to being human, connecting with his audience. Another McCulloch, we can use. Another Bono is as welcome as a third, hairy nipple on a man’s back.