Harvey Milk / Mugstar / Bastard Of The Skies @ The Roadhouse, Manchester, 24/05/12
What with the stifling heat hitting the mid to high twenties in the last few days, merry England has succumbed to the usual communal outdoor alcohol bingeing that characterises its rowdy peasantry. Manchester city centre was particularly snide with dead-eyed beer and dope casualties staggering diagonally across filthy pavements and shouting instantly forgotten hostilities at passers-by (let me not forget the plain bizarre too – a little old black guy cycling down Portland Street on a bike fitted with a huge boom box over the handle bars, blasting out fine Jamaican dub). Hilarious – like a latter day Hogarth snap shot of the hoi polloi wallowing in base pleasure and licentious instinct – it provided a suitably zany backdrop to a suitably zany band (who have just delivered the sublime new album “A Small Turn Of Human Kindness”) who certainly appreciate the oft-surreal absurdities of real life. I am of course referring to the headliners – three clever funny men from the Deep South of America who have baffled and delighted listeners in equal turn since their inception in the early nineties. More of them later.
I arrived in the moist black bowels of T’Roadhouse right on the final chord from Bastard Of The Skies. Therefore a detailed review of their presumably well received set will not be forthcoming. What I can report is that last chord sounded so fulsome and soaked with unrestrained aggression and intent that I’m sure that this Lancashire four piece maimed and slaughtered the tiny hot audience. I’ve seen them a few times before so it’s safe to say that their churning and rhythmic post-sludge-rock garnered much favour from the assembled connoisseurs.
The same tiny hot audience were unequivocally wooed by 35-odd minutes of superb space rock from Liverpool’s Mugstar. Indeed these four pan-dimensional troubadours should rightfully have courted the Roadburn masses by now. Ploughing a searing cosmic furrow that broadly reminded me of early Hawkwind, particularly the bad trip groove of ‘You Shouldn’t Do That’, blended with a choice selection of German progressive rock (notably Amon Duul II plus smatterings of Kraftwerk’s icy keyboard sound), Mugstar wove a many layered Persian carpet of hypno-rock that showed off their pedigree as possibly one of Britain’s finest exponents of psychedelia, for want of a better genre term. Shall we just say music that is designed to appeal to ‘the inner voyager’? I particularly loved the moment when the singer lost control of the upright keyboard for only a split second and nearly pushed it right over, hitting a discordant note in the process which just happened to fit in superbly with the driving miasma of sound. The bassist wore a broad giggle grin for the rest of the gig.
Harvey Milk are a genius band. They manage to play around with heavy noise and ‘classic’ rock and the avant garde with such aplomb and style that few can touch them. Humour and intelligence shoots through their back catalogue like a fatal injection of pure amphetamine. Their stage presence is so easy and assured that instantly I felt I was in the company of witty old friends – right from the off Creston Spiers told the crowd to back off from the front of the stage because they were “weirding” him out. The response to his deadpan and laconic plea were delighted guffaws of laughter, to which the band responded by blowing our eardrums out with phenomenally tectonic slabs of guitar, bass and drums. Oh, and that voice too. Creston’s rich Beefheart-ian/Tom Waits-ian/Cohen-esque deep-fried syrup-ladled 20-a-day blues howl. It stops you dead in your tracks with its yearning throaty beauty. “I Do Not Know How To Live My Life” (what a title), taken from the “The Singles” album, heralded the stingingly beautiful and gut-strangling emotional start of 70 live minutes of Harvey Milk at their cruellest and loudest.
The skewed and warped greatest hits package that followed was delicious. Strident and hard rockin’ classics off “The Pleaser”, including my favourite track “Lay My Head Down” (which was preceded by a short story about the band going to see John Bonham’s grave the previous day), rubbed bruised heads with the crunching and joyous Melvins-tastic groove of “Motown” amongst other weird treasures from “Life…The Best Game in Town” and finished on a massively grand, bloated and insane “The Anvil Will Fall” from their crazed debut album. Besides the excellent banter from Spiers and the comically gifted bassist Stephen Tanner plus the almost throwaway musical talent exemplified by all three players, what I really like about HM in a live situation is their perversely suicidal attitude towards fulfilling conventional listener expectation. They blasted out pumped-up anthem stompers like “What I Want” and “Misery” off the rock fans fave album “The Pleaser” (which is of course very pleasing in a big bombastic American way) and then, as I’ve stated, for their finale they launched into the bewildering sonic collage that is “The Anvil Will Fall”, which includes the bizarre bit (cue Kyle as he presses the play button next to his drum kit) where Creston sings over the soaring notes of a patriotically rousing and popular English hymn (“Thaxted”, written in the 1920s by Gustav Holst) for far too long. That far too long is of course calculated to frustrate, to confound and most importantly to annoy the narrow-minded. The huge crashing waves of mordant sludge that followed also went on for what seemed like hours. I found it quite funny that sections of the audience looked a little deflated by the brooding oppression of this last anti-climactic number. So with one hand HM give us a kind of easy listening rock experience and with the other hand they present a grandly pretentious and overblown art gesture. Why not? Who wants a band that just knocks out one of the two – HM do both and much more besides – all delivered at deafening volume and with lashings of dry and miserable self-deprecation.
The boozy-drug-fuelled mania on the outside of the venue continued inside the venue with a man called John (who wisely proclaimed in a loud slur that Harvey Milk were “the best fucking band in the world”) who went nuts down the front on his own, punching the air and gurning wildly, and stage diving high into the air and landing face down then instantly springing up again. He did this twice, although the second attempt wasn’t even a full stage dive, but he did manage to land on his head again. As the cocaine wore off towards the end he disappeared and then reappeared in the wings with a red and white face that looked like it had broken in several places. His genial mate bizarrely announced to the audience that John was going home in a taxi or an ambulance. And that, my friends, is ‘the Harvey Milk effect’ – they cajole, they woo, they stimulate, they please, but ultimately they will destroy your head.
Scribed by: Adam Stone
Photos by: Lee Edwards