Space Rockin’

Last Sunday Steen and I piled into the Hippymobile and trucked up to Kings Heath to see space rock veterans Ozric Tentacles. It was a pre-birthday treat for Steen, who also loves the Ozrics – in fact the last time I’d seen them was with Steen, in a tiny club named Wetlands in New York in 1999. I have very fond memories of that gig – a guy named Adam Perkowsky (who we knew from the Freaks mailing list) met up with us before the gig, and introduced us to some other Freaks regulars before beer was consumed (or at least what passes for it in New York) and we spent a great evening with the Ozrics, who were on fine form, and their support band, the Star People. In fact Steen and I both remember the gig almost as fondly for the Star People as for the Ozrics, since they were great fun. Their whole schtick was that they pretended to be aliens who had studied life on Earth through the filter of the Rat Pack and Vegas culture: they were all in tuxes and formal dinner attire, performed space rock in a heavily Rat Pack influenced lounge style, and mixed and served cocktails (complete with cocktail glasses and paper umbrellas) to the audience from the stage. Alas, it seems they are no more – I’ve been trying to track down copies of their two or three full-length albums ever since, to no avail. But I digress.

We made it to Kings Heath in record time, parked up, met up with fellow gig-goers Ann & Tony and wandered off in search of a good curry (as is our wont). Sure enough, we located a top notch curry emporium just down the road from the venue (an impressive looking pub named the Hare & Hounds) and spent a thoroughly enjoyable 90 minutes or so catching up and consuming excellent Indian cuisine – in fact, if you’re ever in Kings Heath and find yourself in need of an excellent curry, you would not be putting a foot wrong if you sought out Sylhet Spice Cuisine on York Road, marched in and requested a menu. Just saying.

Duly replete, it was off to the Hare & Hounds in readiness for the gig. Given the vast exterior of the pub, it was a surprise to see just how cramped the interior was, but by now we were in full-on Ozrics appreciation mode and weren’t much concerned with our surroundings. I have to give the Hare & Hounds credit, actually: the stage was high enough that I didn’t have any trouble seeing anything, despite being over halfway back, and the sound was loud and crystal clear with no distortion, which is just how you want it to be. Fruit Salad Lights – who have been working with the Ozrics pretty much since their inception in the 80s – were on hand to do the lighting and came up with the goods as ever. In fact I think it was possibly the best presentation I’ve ever seen Fruit Salad come up with, which is no faint praise.

There were two support bands: The Tantrics were up first, and although they started out quite well in their slightly cheesy way (their vocalist kept repeating the same few tried-and-tested and ever-so-slightly self-conscious Rock Frontman Gestures), the game was soon up. They are clearly Hawkwind obsessed, and whilst that’s not a capital crime in my eyes (I love me some Hawkwind), it got faintly ridiculous that by three tracks in, they had ripped off wholesale the riff from Hawkwind’s Brainstorm. They struck me as the sort of band I’d have killed to have been in when I was in the Sixth Form, but were so devoid of originality and so in thrall to their three-chord playing that their appeal soon wilted. I do have to make special mention of their bassist, though, who manfully wielded his bass under a mass of exceedingly long dreadlocks (we’re talking head-to-floor length here) that threatened to get tangled up in his bass strings at one point. Fair play to you, guv’nor.

Next up were ex-Ozrics frontman “Jumpin'” Jon Egan’s band, Champignon. I had no real idea what to expect from Champignon, other than that they had a strong world music influence, and I have to admit I was blown away. They played a short 4 or 5 song set, and the band consisted merely of Jon and a percussionist (another ex-Ozrics alumni). It was superb, though: everything from gentle ambient washes overlayed with flute, to an acoustic raga inspired number to a barnstorming finale of a techno-inspired Zubzub track (Zubzub being another of the myriad Ozrics offshoots), which inspired one of the loudest cheers of the evening. It doesn’t appear that Champignon have actually recorded anything yet – at least Google hasn’t turned up anything – but I will most definitely be keeping an eye on these guys, they were something special.

It was around this point that the audience really began to get on our tits. OK, it was a pub gig at the end of the day and none of us were realistically expecting a rapt audience, but the amount of noise during the quiet bits of Champignon’s set was really annoying at times. The crowd had started out respectful, as Champignon opened with the ambient flute-adorned number I mentioned, but when that was over the chatter began in earnest and didn’t let up, even though most of the rest of Champignon’s set was just as mellow. It didn’t help that some complete dickhead and his mate parked themselves right in front of us after pushing through from behind – they were taller than any of us, so our view was curtailed straight away. Insult was then added to injury as they proceeded to yell at each other over the music about a number of things entirely unrelated to the gig, followed by a moment of absolute surreality that had us all giggling with helpless rage: the guy rang someone on his phone(!). “Hey, I’m at a gig! What? Sorry, I can’t hear you – the audience is too loud!” I mean, really. He then pushed past us to get to the rear of the venue where he could take the call in peace, returning a few minutes later to hand the phone to his mate, who then followed suit. Happily, once Champignon’s set was over, they went to the bar, and we immediately moved forward en masse so as to ensure that they couldn’t get in front of us again.

Unfortunately, as far as the audience was concerned, this set the pattern for much of the evening. This is a topic that comes up again and again when you’re talking to people about live music. Some bloody-minded types mistake wishing for a respectful audience to be requesting a sea of motionless, silent statues, but that is missing the point completely. It’s perfectly possible to thoroughly enjoy a gig without pissing people off, but also without standing there like a mannequin. Speaking for myself, all I ask of my fellow audience members is that they are there to enjoy the music. I honestly don’t mind if people sing along, jump up and down, dance, crowd surf, cheer until they are hoarse, play inflatable guitars… you name it. But if they are disrespectful to the band, or to the music being played, or to other audience members, then my patience rapidly evaporates. If there’s a quiet bit, I don’t want to hear ‘fan’s’ shouted conversations about Eastenders or what they bought in Tescos rather than the music I paid to come and enjoy. I don’t expect people to be standing in the gig taking phone calls. I don’t expect to be shoved out of the way by some drunken numbskull as if I’m a curtain. I don’t expect my wife to be groped when she doesn’t immediately stand aside for some mentally-unbalanced gooner who fancies his chances at pushing through a line of people as if they’re not there. I don’t expect to be threatened if I make so bold as to politely ask someone if they can keep it down or refrain from repeatedly spilling their drinks on me. And I definitely don’t expect to be told “Well, yer can move, can’t yer?” if some numpty insists on any of the above and I have the temerity to call them on it.

This is a discussion which seems to crop up again and again: not just about gigs, either, but something as seemingly straightforward and innocent as a trip to the cinema. Rustling crisp packets are the very least of it these days: you’ve just as likely to experience outbreaks of singing, fist fights, people browsing the web on an iPad or cheerfully talking to their mum on their phones about their weekly shop lately, it seems. Small wonder people get steamed about such disrespect, especially as the prices of cinema tickets and concert tickets continue to spiral almost out of control. When you’re forking out the best part of £50, £100 or even more for a single gig ticket, of course you’re going to want to enjoy what you’ve paid for without being constantly hassled or distracted by some passing village idiot. If you’re not there to be swept up by the music or event you’ve paid to see, why pay the fee and then behave like a twat? If you don’t care, why go along? All I can conclude is that some people clearly have money to burn. Either that, or the “it’s uncool to care” attitude that so pervaded British culture in the mid-to-late 90s has become so endemic that no-one wants to be seen to be enthusiastic about anything, which is an idea so horrific as to leave me practically nauseated. When did it become a crime to admit that you really enjoy something? Since when did everything you enjoy have to be so worthy and soul-suckingly ‘worthy’ and considered? Why are so many of us still hostages to this attitude that it’s not good to be enthusiastic about anything?

Its not like there aren’t people who care about such things. The best gigs are the ones where the audience is completely wrapped up in what the band are doing – and it doesn’t really matter how the audience are reacting, so long as they are ‘captured’ by the performance. I’ve seen crowds so rapt that they are practically speechless and you can hear a pin drop whilst the band are playing, only for the audience to tear the roof off between songs. Likewise, I’ve seen gigs where the audience has been boisterous, noisy and frankly in need of sedatives – and those have been amazing too. Where things break down are situations where members of the audience just doesn’t seem to care about the band, and allow a sense of self-entitlement to disengage the filter that stops them behaving just how they want to, resulting in an uncaring and unsympathetic attitude to their fellow audience members and the performers.

I’ve moaned before about the price of gig tickets for some bands, or the flaws of specific venues… but I tell you now, I’d be more than happy to swallow everything I’ve ever said on those scores if, when I bought a ticket to see someone, I could be sure that my gig experience wouldn’t proceed to be ruined by some fuckwit badly in need of a labotomy. If you’re reading this and can’t see anything wrong with the behaviour I’ve described above, please, do me a favour and never go to a live show ever again. Just in case I happen to be going to a show that you intended to go to.

Anyway, all ranting and audience shortcomings aside, the Ozrics put on an absolute blinder. Since it’d been over 10 years since the last time I saw them, there was an almost entirely different line-up to experience and I have to say they sounded just as good as they ever did. It’s quite a family affair now, with Ed (chief Ozric) on guitars and synths, his wife Brandi on bass, Ed’s son on keyboards and a new recruit in the drum stool. Everyone did themselves and the band proud – I was especially impressed by the drummer, who played so fast and hard that even long-standing Ozrics drummers Merv and Rad started to look a bit restrained. I was wondering how well they’d interact with the audience after Jon Egan’s departure, but Brandi has become the ‘face’ of the band to a large extent and her typically chilled West-Coast outlook on life and the band’s music made for an engaging change. Not that there was a lot of chat – the Ozrics always tend to hit the stage running and just go for it – but what interaction there was felt friendly and relaxed. The set was great, too: they opted for a 50/50 split between new stuff and familiar fan favourites, so there was always the sense that something amazing and familiar was just around the corner. Not that there was anything amiss with the new stuff – indeed their latest album Paper Monkeys is a firm Ozrics favourite already, and the live renditions of some of the material were nothing less than stellar (an appropriate term for the space-obsessed Ozrics). Two hours of psychedelic lighting and truly astounding playing later, we were all drained, and even the annoying chatter had wilted in the face of a truly astonishing performance of fan favourite Eternal Wheel.

Leaving the venue, we had all been annoyed by the chatter and rudeness of some gig attendees, but we all agreed that that certainly wouldn’t stop us going to see the Ozrics or indeed rule out a return to the Hare & Hounds (which is, after all, barely 40 minutes from Hippy Towers and dead easy to get to). I’ve certainly been listening to a great deal of Ozric-y goodness since the gig, and it’s really lit a fire under me to go and see them again, preferably sooner rather than later. If you like a bit of quality instrumental rock, go and see them if you get the chance – now they’re based in the US (as opposed to their roots in the West Country!) us UK-based types don’t get to see them as often as we used to, so it’s a real treat when we do. And if you don’t already own it, check out their latest album, the excellent Paper Monkeys. It’s first class ear candy of the best kind, and you pick it up from Amazon for about £7 at the moment. That’s a serious bargain by any sensible definition :-).

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