Live Music Week – Volcano Choir

Side-project or super group? 

“A supergroup is a music group whose members are already successful as solo artists or as part of other groups”

“In popular music, a side project is a project undertaken by one or more persons already known for their involvement in another band”

Well that clears up just about nothing about Volcano Choir wouldn’t you say? Thanks Wikipedia!

Super-groups like Crosby, Stills, Nash (& Young), Buffalo Springfield and The Byrds ruled the world briefly, but seem to have gone out of fashion. Side-projects have always existed and generally been awful, though the likes of Gorillaz & The Postal Service have shown it can be done.

Whatever you think of the super-group/side-project/vanity project there’s one thing I always think about it, wouldn’t we rather have more music by the people we love to listen to? If you loved or loathed Graham Coxon’s “The Sky is Too High” doesn’t take away his work with Blur, Bob Dylan’s impact isn’t dulled by The Travelling Willburys and you can never have too much Jack White in your life!

So here’s to Cream, Them Crooked Vultures and yes even Box Car Racer! Long may people take some time off and produce something different on the side!

VOLCANO CHOIR, LIVE @ THE BARBICAN CENTRE

The Barbican Centre is an incredibly odd venue, seemingly no matter who’s playing or who’s in the crowd there’s a hushed revery to the audience, a cough or sneeze sounds like a bomb going off. At one point during Volcano Choir’s set a man behind me mutters “yes” to himself as an intro begins, so many people hear this that a wave of laughter breaks out. You wouldn’t get that reaction at Brixton Academy say?

The quietness can be an enemy as much as a friend. Walking out onto stage as a support band to a silent auditorium must be the sort of thing you dream of, but the reality is quite intimidating, a feeling that doesn’t seem lost on support band Woman’s Hour. I’ve come across Woman’s Hour previously when they supported my own band, and certainly they’ve improved since then, the fact they’re playing a venue this size at all is testament to that. They seem nervous at first a fact not hidden by a complete lack of interaction with the audience, that said this isn’t the sort of music you’d expect to be made by a stand-up comic. Minimal beats and slow rhythms behind singer Fiona Jane’s dominant vocal, this sort of thing is very popular right now! They’re looking to build on the success of bands like The XX and Daughter and they’re slickly produced and largely competent enough to do so, but is it just me who thinks there’s an awful lot of people sounding like Portishead at the minute? A cover of Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” doesn’t add an awful lot to the original, and they feel like a band growing in the public eye. There’s enough in there own tracks to do away with the covers, and when for one track they drop to simple pulsing heartbeat of a drum and Fiona’s singing “if I call you I will you call you by your name” they’re genuinely beautiful. More tracks like this and they’ve got as good a chance as anyone of breaking through into the mainstream.

Volcano Choir enter to the pulsing organ opening from “Tideways” that greets new album “Repave”. It’s almost as beautiful as the recorded version, which is still probably the most exciting start to an album i’ve heard all year. As the rest of the band join keyboardist come sound-manipulator Thomas Wincek on stage what strikes is just what an odd looking bunch they are, you’d never put these 6 musicians together, and it’s just that oddity that makes them stand out.

They’re a difficult band to describe as they flip from one style to another so quickly, but if you can imagine The Band with vocoders you wont be far off, and there’s certainly a collective feel going on. While many would put this down as a simple side-project of Justin Vernon’s that would be unfair on the rest of the band, guitarist Chris Rosenau in particular seems to be a driving creative force. His fantastic guitar playing every bit as impressive as his over enthusiastic stage banter. He’s the most American sounding man you’re likely to come across but he’s utterly charming with it. He even gives Wincek a kiss on the cheek at the end of a particularly sparkling version of Alaskans.

The set’s largely made up of music off Volcano Choir’s two albums to date, and the numbers from latest Repave are particularly stunning. Slower numbers like Keel with it’s stunning vocal and highly affected almost spanish guitar and Alaskans which features some acoustic guitar playing straight out of the Bert Jansch school are met with a beautiful hushed revery and they’re stunning. The audience are praised for the quiet atmosphere on these tracks and implored “to do the exact opposite” for the more upbeat numbers Byegone and the mass sing-along which is Acetate and they do. It’s a fantastically balanced set, that shows how much creativity the band have put to record even in two relatively short albums.

On Keel Vernon sings “just stop bloody loving me” suggesting perhaps that he’s not as big a fan of the success of Bon Iver as he’d expected, and certainly it’s an unexpected success. Is there a less likely rock-star anywhere in the world? Receding hair-line, cammo shirt and frankly terrible dance moves don’t fit into that ethos, they are however wonderfully charming, and he certainly comes across like a very likeable chap and maybe it’s that that’s made so many take him to their hearts. If anyone in the crowd had come to see Bon Iver they are finally treated to one of his numbers at the end of the set, but the deliberately obtuse cut & paste vocals of “Woods” all vocoder and loop pedal treated probably weren’t quite what they were after! That said it’s a stunning version of the track and it slots beautifully into a set of Volcano Choir’s music, and on this evidence there’s more than enough in this band to stop Vernon even thinking about Bon Iver for a while. 

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