King Creosote, The Barbican, London, 22nd January 2017

On a stage dominated by the Astronaut meets Appleman album cover graphic there is a rag tag band of musicians sporting a variety of Space Age looks – well maybe a ramshackle retro-SF space age look is nearer the mark. So there are silvery wigs the like of which haven’t been seen since Space 1999, and more silver jackets than have been gathered into a single place since the BBC stopped spray painting leather biker jackets to provide the Cybermen with their costumes. NASA t-shirts are the order of the day, and the King himself is resplendent in what appears to be a star adorned chef’s jacket as if to visually ask the question “What am I going to, musically, cook up today?”. They open with the album’s first, and longest, track You Just Want, a hypnotic blend of guitar, keyboards and layers of repeated “ah-ha-ah-ha-ah-ha” backing a desperate plea to be the friend with limited benefits – “When you just want someone to lie there and be used as a slave – can I be him?” is weighed in the balance against “When you need someone to cry on in the depths of despair – I shall be elsewhere”. It could be the elegiac distillation of the theme of the album – man as disappointing life companion. It’s insistent and attention grabbing – and morbidly depressing – as acoustic instruments meld with tinkling crystal notes of electronica. That’s some opening number.

Kenny Anderson writes, plays and sings songs of such seriousness – even when wrapped up in dry humour – that his between song persona of a chirpy, happy chap is somewhat disconcerting: not that one would want him to be as miserable and unlucky in love as he is in song. To prove that isn’t the case there are moments of off stage dancing, recalling an earlier life as a ceilidh band member, and also a very poor attempt at hide and seek before the encore that amusingly lapses almost into slapstick. And the song introductions are uniformly jocular with double entendres thrown in before Love Life – a pure folk-pop song which unconvincingly attempts to play down the importance of amorous pursuits: “a love life, a love life…it’s only your love life” chimes the chorus, but the truth is quite other “with the sound of her voice crackling in my ears / and all my chemicals cry out with desire”. You can’t fight biology. Faux Call replays You Just Want but now at a funeral pace – the recognition of a singular uselessness “I’m so sorry I let you down again / this was my call now I’m stalling the pretence of being just friends / I wish I was better at helping you through all this / I wish I could call have a good cry hold you again”. It’s a beautiful, achingly beautiful, melancholic song.

Melin Wynt sees the better accordion player in the band – Mairearad Green – put down her hefty box of noise to wield her “secret weapon” – a lighter noise generator in the form of bagpipes. Melin Wynt is, on the surface, a song about power generating windmills in the landscape – so the wind driven thing makes perfect sense. In actuality there’s as much tempestuous relationship as windmills in Melin Wynt as Kenny Anderson sings “Don’t be the one to slam the door / For I won’t let you back in / With my track record / Jaws will hit the floor / But all that has to change”. It’s a song with a huge sound – any song with bagpipes tends to have a huge sound – but it’s hard to think of a better use of them in a rock song. It pounds with drumming, it lilts with piano, it keens with violin. In anyone else’s set this would be a highlight – here it’s a highlight amongst highlights. King Creosote acknowledges its magnificent with “that’s my favourite, that’s the evening over”. It isn’t of course – there’s still time for the rest of the album. Surface is a perfect blend of electronica and pounding drums – again stabbed through with bagpipes – encapsulating all that is truly great about this band. The encore sees a spot for guest vocalist Lone Pigeon, accompanied by a return to the stage of two of the opening band to add extra vocals – making the stage presence somewhere around a dozen. Everything is brought down to a quiet closer though with Carry On Dancing, a bleak portent of death and despair – dancing through life “to a cold grave – that’s as still as it gets”. Fortunately there’s a railing against the inevitability of the final six foot down resting place with a final flourish and return to the upbeat with Mairearad Green’s sparkling Star of Hope – a rollicking end to an emotional roller-coaster of an evening.
The evening’s openers – Modern Studies – also deserve a mention. They’re an intense and downbeat folk ensemble focused around Emily Scott and her harmonium. She also doubles up on keyboards a little and is the main singer in the four piece. With drums, cello and various guitar and bass added by the rest of the band they have a rare and distinctive sound. There’s something of a Trembling Bells vibe about then, or maybe The Lords of Thyme. Singing several songs off last year’s album Great to Swell there’s a lot of emphasis on water and watery issues – the sea, rivers, the water washing down drains and the rain that makes it. Maybe it’s a Glasgow thing. Whatever the reason it does make for riveting songs – Everybody’s Saying is a wonderfully desolate thing as Scott sings “Everybody’s dragging you down…my darling….Everybody’s saying the same thing….my sweet” before heading off at what seems a peculiar and disconnected tangent “I get struck from the start with strangeness of feeling / when I look at art don’t care for the feeling”. It repeats, and builds, and becomes hypnotic as more voices chime in before returning to the quiet of the opening couplets. Modern Studies are quite arty – but quite traditional at the same time. And they nod their heads in interesting directions – closing out their set with a sumptuous setting of Bert Jansch’s Tell me what is true love.

Modern Studies Set List

Black Street
Father is a craftsman
Today’s regrets
Divebombing
Bottlegreen
Sleep
Everybody’s Saying
Ten White Horses
Tell me what is true love
King Creosote Set List

You just want
Wake Up to This
Love life
Betelgeuse
Faux call
Peter Rabbit
Melin Wynt
Surface
…Lengths
Carry On Dancing
Star of Hope

Author: Jonathan Aird

Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan's music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That's not much to ask, is it?

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