It feels like times have changed. The last gig in Hangzhou where these two artists performed on the same bill they were in a very nice but hard to find bar on a small stage. For a city as large as this, with such a rich cultural heritage, to be so lacking in spaces devoted solely to music has long been a travesty. But the tide seems to be turning. In Loopy, most importantly, the city has a venue which can host artists that are less well known – so important for grass roots music to flourish. This room is a perfect size. Get a really good turnout and it’ll feel packed out. Get a more modest sprinkling of punters and it still won’t feel empty.
First up is William Gray, or ‘Jump For Neon’. The new moniker signals a different performance style. Whilst Gray has been doing the rounds for a while with an acoustic guitar and playing a range of material from his back catalogue that suits this dynamic, tonight he’s attempting something more ambitious and experimental. He begins by plucking reverb laced electric guitar chords which are then looped. On top of this he layers a lead pattern and a bass line before activating the wah pedal. Next come the samples. The instrumental ends with some Frank Zappa audio where Zappa suggests the audience maybe have nothing better to do tonight, which is then left to ring out with a delay effect added. A fun opener! Using the same set-up, a new song is now played using another finger-picked electric guitar line which is occasionally looped so a lead part can be added. In addition some kind of electronic sound makes an occasional appearance courtesy of the sampler. This could easily be more of a straightforward acoustic song so it’s interesting how the artist has made it change shape into something more progressive sounding.
Next the acoustic guitar does make an appearance and in fact remains for a large chunk of the set. However, synth drones are added as background noise with the sampler intermittently reintroduced to provide beats which are put through different filters and even reversed. Loopy benefits from having a really great projector which beams trippy images onto the huge back wall and adds to the vibe of the set. Despite this all being new material, Gray is essentially playing the same singer-songwriter fare people will know him for but as ‘Jump For Neon’ his songs mutate into interesting new shapes and it’s great he’s found a workable means of doing this as it’s stimulating for performer and audience alike, and adds a new string to his bow. Hopefully this will also open up doors to playing music nights or support slots for promoters who are wanting something other than an acoustic performer, as this new electronic veneer might mean he appeals to different kinds of audiences.
Moving back to the electric guitar Gray plays a song that will appear, we believe, on his first release as Jump For Neon, which will in fact have more of a full band sound. This track ‘Stop’ hinges around a more straightforward beat than some of the other material showcased tonight with an appealing guitar part that’s drenched in some kind of space age sounding fx, for want of a better description. It’s a belter of a pop song with simple but effective lyrics which could apply to anything from music to a relationship to life itself, ‘It’s got to stop but I don’t want it to/How do I stop what we’re always going through?’ Last up we’re back to a similar approach to the intro, but this time of course, it’s the outro. Again it’s an instrumental with looped, layered parts and again we have amusing samples, notably, George Martin‘s voice asserting, with a recording, you can make it up as you go along which you can’t possibly do live. Well actually you can these days George. Amusing stuff.
It’s not long before JFN is back onstage again as he’s part of John Carroll’s three-piece for the evening. The trio set about playing the ‘Aviation’ album from start to finish. Right from the off, starting with ‘Gravedigger‘, they sound tight and well rehearsed when often it can take a band some time to settle into a groove. Bassist Ray Davies is locked tightly in unison with John Carroll’s guitar strumming whilst William Gray provides decorative trills on the keyboard. With a modestly sized but enthusiastic audience won over, they launch into ‘Horseless‘. In some ways I prefer the live version of this song to the album version. The rawness seems to suit the song well and the addition of different players breathes a new kind of life into it. It’s difficult to argue the same for ‘Anonymous Proxy‘ as the drumming on the recording is superb as are the female backing vocals. That said this is a valiant effort and kind of remarkable in the sense only three players are pulling such a challenging song together, in Gray’s case playing keyboard and guitar at the same time.
‘Warring State’ arguably misses drums too, to tie it all together, with Gray just playing lead guitar for this one and perhaps a tiny bit too far forward in the mix. That said, it’s an impressive rendition and there’s nothing wrong with the individual performances. ‘Ambushed From All Sides’ keeps the momentum going. Again, very tight and a real nugget of pop perfection. Slight bone of contention, great organ line but, again, I’d like it a little further back in the mix. Sometimes less is more. ‘Migrant Bird’ provides the welcome contrast needed at this point with Davies and Gray adding the necessary delicate touches. Wonderful. If we were more emotional or sensitive beings there wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house. At this point it is worth mentioning just how much the animated backdrops add to the visual aspects of the performance. Good to see Carroll upping his game in this way as his talents as an animator are a real strength and can be put to effective use.
‘Thin Air’ wakes up the audience with its catchy melody and rip-roaring guitar shredding whilst, again, this trio are extremely tight when it comes to the riffing on ‘If You Know How’ and also the challenging instrumentation of ‘Great White Shark’ which is arguably a standout moment, particularly as Carroll describes at length the interesting background to the song, connected to his decision to actually adopt a shark. True story! In addition to the album’s closer ‘Snare Traps’ we are also treated to three Carroll golden oldies from the back catalogue. It is striking what a muscular and versatile performer John Carroll is and how much playing alongside competent musicians really boosts his live capabilities. In Ray Davies he appears to have found the perfect bass player for his live output. The future looks promising. Add a drummer and China’s music world’s his oyster sauce – as with that missing link found surely festivals await? It’s also notable that with such an array of impressive new material this artist immediately has a new lease of life and a lot more wriggle room when it comes to picking songs for different occasions. In addition, by deviating massively from the album that preceded it and doing this so successfully, Carroll can be confident there are different directions open to him across the alternative/indie/folk/pop spectrum.
All in all a triumphant night for Medic Independent Records and Loopy. Great sounds. Good presentation. Fantastic venue and a friendly audience. Here’s hoping there’s more of this in the pipeline.
Medic Independent Records – www.lllmediclll.com