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Live review: Woods at Bush Hall

Photo by Tim Ferguson

Woods @ Bush Hall, 13/03/2011

Bush Hall is a strange place for indie rock gigs. Its plush carpets, elegant chandeliers and tasteful lighting are a startling change from the usual London circuit of darkened basements and the upstairs rooms of pubs. But that’s OK, because Woods don’t really play indie rock, and Bush Hall suited them suprisingly well. Walking in there feels like travelling back in time to an era when bands used to play concerts rather than gigs, when someone like Bob Dylan on his first electric tour could take his confrontational show to the Royal Albert Hall. In fact, the whole gig felt musically and atmospherically like we’d been transplanted back about 40 years (with the exception of the 95% check-shirted crowd). All three of the bands playing are steeped in musical tradition, managing to escape their influences to more or less exciting effect.

For the two support bands, The Doozer (shit name) and Spectrals (better name), everybody stayed sitting down around the sides of the room. That might seem a bit dispiriting for the bands, but The Doozer played the gig sitting down anyway (also in the slightly bizarre combination of smart shirt/v-neck jumper and tracksuit bottoms). Idiosyncratically English-sounding folk rock, with just electric guitar and bass, they were inoffensive enough, but equally there’s nothing particularly interesting either: the overall effect was of a band who’ve listened to a few too many Steeleye Span records and don’t really have the songs to do much interesting of their own at the moment. I wasn’t really sure why they’d be touring with Woods, but it was made clearer later when the bassist reappeared to play drums with the headliners on a few songs.

I saw Spectrals a couple of weeks ago supporting the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, when they were pretty much ruined by awful sound (they seem to be the current go-to support band for touring mid-level American indie bands). This time they were much better, and their woozy, deeply 60s-influenced pop songs came across well. They combine classic song structures with warped-tape guitars and reverbed-out vocals, which a lot of bands are doing at the moment, but I get the feeling it’s not quite there yet song-wise. They’re still a young band though, and I wonder if pretty soon they might start to really write great songs to go with the arrangements, which are good. Apparently Louis Jones, who pretty much is the band on record, just finished self-recording an album, and the songs he played from it sounded interesting, so I’ll reserve judgement until I hear that.

I suppose in a way that’s what Woods do too, combining songs which could have been written in the first summer of psychedelia with tape effects and home recording. But the way they pull it off is much more fully realised, creating a whole aesthetic with their cover art and self-run record label as well as with the music. There’s also the fact that Jeremy Earl, guitarist and songwriter, can really sing, a high keening falsetto which sounds like no-one in modern music as much as it does Richard Manuel of The Band. In fact, The Band as of about 1967 is the comparison that really leaps to mind with Woods in their more song-based phases: the frantic, brittle guitar solos on latest album highlight (and one of the best songs of the gig) ‘Blood Dries Darker’ could easily have been played by Robbie Robertson, and the overlapping harmony vocals work together like Manuel’s with Rick Danko. The whole way they approach performing live, too, feels like a basement jam session: instruments are swapped, people come onstage to play a few songs before leaving, arrangements are worked out on the fly (I’m pretty sure from the way he was talking to the guitarist that the drummer had never played the encore song before). But they manage to pull it off with such stylistic coherence that it never gets self-indulgent.

More so than either of the other bands playing (which I guess is what you want from headliners) Woods manage to actually engage with musical tradition, and add their own spin to the classic sounds they borrow. A lot of that’s due to tape operator G Lucas Crane, who fleshed out the sparse arrangements with subtle loops and harmony vocals, getting his fuzzy, tinny vocal tone by singing through one ear of the pair of headphones which he wears over his face like a mask. Only a couple of times the noise really made itself felt, invading the songs and twisting them out of shape, but it didn’t need to. Mostly this gig was Woods in pastoral acoustic mode, concentrating the crowd’s attention on Earl’s guitar and voice. Live, stripped of some of the sound collages and tape hiss which colour their records, they sounded more open and sunny, which favoured the more poppy end of their songs (‘Suffering Season’, also from the most recent album At Echo Lake, was another highlight). It’s a shame to miss some of the darker and more mysterious elements of the sound (although they did play the long psych jam ‘September with Pete’), but it worked well live.

Walking out of the venue at the end into the cold streets of Shepherd’s Bush felt slightly strange, like being pulled back into the present from the timeless and comfortable cocoon Woods create. But for that hour, you could forget you were in London in March and get lost in their atmospherics. And isn’t that enough from a pop band?

Edwin Shaw

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