28 February 2009

The Big Gig

NME Big Gig
O2 Arena
26 February 2009

[Pic: NME]

Last night four acts performed a showcase for the NME Big Gig 2009, filling the O2 Arena with twenty thousand-odd pale-faced indie fans and a veritable convention of Edward Scissorhands-haired Robert Smith impersonators. These plentiful Smiths were in attendance for headliners The Cure, who had played the day before at the Brixton Academy to celebrate their NME Godlike Genius award.

First up, the strikingly catchy London guitar band White Lies played a quality set with an ability that showed why they are hotly tipped for greater laurels. I would've described their sound as 'Joy Division meets Interpol', except that was exactly the same description used in the first article I found about them. Their debut album definitely looks like one to investigate.

Following them, Toronto electronic group Crystal Castles performed an odd, largely impenetrable six-song set. Opening with a barrage of white noise like a warehouse full of car alarms, the band proceeded with admittedly catchy techno beats occasionally punctuated with the shrill, shrieking vocals of singer Alice Glass. A kohl-eyed indie waif with a cute black bob and the dress sense of a Gothic St Trinian's sixth-former, Glass pranced about the stage, flinging her limbs hither and thither, but it was unclear whether her discordant yelping was meant to be in tune or not. This proved not to be a problem, because the audience could seldom hear her at all due to 'microphone problems'. I had thought it a possibility that the sound tech had turned her microphone off to spare the audience. To be fair the group's founder Ethan Kath did point out that they were unused to big stadium gigs:

It was very, very strange experience. You know, we're a band that aimed to play basement parties. So to put that basement party band on a stage in front of 18,000 Cure fans was a strange and surreal experience.

After a brief interval Glasgow's Franz Ferdinand again demonstrated their deft command of live performances with a 12-song set studded with hits from their first two albums as well as a few from their new album Tonight: Franz Ferdinand. Highlights included the extended opener, The Dark Of The Matinee, the storming up-tempo raver Michael (surely the best man-on-man disco rocker since John, I'm Only Dancing) and the pounding closer This Fire, which saw the whole band bashing frenetically at the drumkit.

Finally, it was time for The Cure themselves. Robert Smith ambled on to a genuinely affectionate response from the admittedly partisan crowd. Smith had told the NME that he had chosen to perform a set that highlighted different parts of The Cure's career, after the hit-laden approach at the Academy the night before. So it was six songs in before a fairweather fan like me recognised a song (i.e. a track from their Greatest Hits). But when it came along the stalking, moody rendition of A Forest was a welcome surprise. Then it was back into the beautifully performed but (to me) obscure album tracks - one for each of The Cure's umpteen albums. There was a brief pop boost with the back to back performance of In Between Days and Just Like Heaven, but by then I'd decided to leave at 11 o'clock, before the encore. Yes, I admit it, heretical though it may be to say it - The Cure bored me into submission. I guess they saw the O2 gig as a chance to put on a show for dedicated fans.

Aside from the music, one aspect of stadium gigs that has become increasingly prevalent with the onset of cheap tech wizardry has been the profusion of glowing camera and mobile phone screens bathing the auditorium with their eerie glow. This is fine at a distance, and even kind of likeable given the alternative is the smoker-encouraging waving of cigarette lighters. But it seems to be that a substantial proportion of the crowd at modern concerts in the UK will spend most of the gig photographing or videoing the gig rather than actually watching it. I can understand the desire to take a picture or two as a memento, and maybe video a particular favourite song. But this is a constant flurry of camerawork, which means that sightlines in the dark auditorium are constantly obscured by beaming screens held aloft. Certainly the Spanish guy sitting next to me was taking pictures and videos with his camera and Blackberry throughout the entire gig, and during The Cure's set he was attempting to video the whole performance, often getting in my way. Bad form, that!
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