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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

Concert Review by Nick Morgan
Red Lanterns

The Astoria, London
February 17th 2007

It’s Chinese New Year. The streets of London’s Chinatown are crammed with people, shoulder to shoulder. A sea of flame-red paper lanterns hangs over our heads, slowly moving in the breeze like gentle waves. Cartoon-fat chefs, tunics white with comedy hats, are standing at street side stalls making won-tons.

Every other person is either trying to sell you a folding paper dragon, or has just bought one themselves. And every restaurant has queues of impatient people falling out into the street, none of whom had apparently thought that anyone else might have had the brainwave of going to Soho to eat Chinese chow on this particular day. We’re tucked away safely in our regular haunt with our chirpy cockney Chinese waiter to boot. “Where you going later, film, theatre?” he asks, as he delivers some delicious slices of sea-bass with prawn won-tons. “Concert. Jarvis Cocker”. “Ahhh, Jarvis!” he grins, turning from our table with a perfect impersonation of Mr Cocker’s now infamous bum-wiggling at the 1996 Brit Awards. You see Serge, love him or hate him, everyone knows Jarvis.
Actually Jarvis has undergone a bit of rehabilitation (if he ever needed one), mainly as a result of last year’s triumphant eponymous ‘comeback’ album, and of course a handful of outstanding live performances. He was nominated for ‘Best Male Artist’ at this year’s Brits, an award that was taken by someone (apparently) called James Morrison, but this might have been a joke. And he’s also up for ‘Best Solo Artist’ award in the NME annual gong-giving. That’s why he’s playing at the Astoria tonight, as part of a series of sponsored ‘Awards shows’. And if you’re surprised Serge, that we’re back to see Jarvis so soon, then let me explain. Firstly we had an unfulfilled obligation to take a guest who wasn’t able to make December’s Roundhouse gig, and secondly since that night I’ve been asking myself if Jarvis could really have been as good as I thought – a second viewing, it seemed, was a useful check on my waning critical faculties. Jarvis NME
We’ve pushed ourselves through the crowds to the Pickle Factory. It’s only about seven o’clock but the Factory goes GAYE on Saturdays so we’ll be back on the streets by ten at the latest. Inside it’s busy and getting busier, and having barely recovered from the bashing around we got downstairs when Jamie T was playing we head for the balcony. It’s packed too, but it’s a nice crowd, in good humour which only increases as the night wears on. To our right with a gang of friends is support artist Bat for Lashes (actually she’s called Natasha Khan and lives in Dave Broom’s Brighton). We arrived in time to see her perform debut single ‘Prescilla’ which would go under the positive heading of ‘intriguing’. In front are a furtive group of half a dozen or so – as it happens they’re blowing up red balloons, of which more later.
It’s a slightly sized-down band that takes the stage. There’s no Richard Hawley – his place on guitars and an array of pedals is taken by Leo Abrahams who really impresses – particularly when he’s given his head on ‘Disney Time’. I see that he lists Marc Ribot as one of his principle influences, and it’s not hard to see why. Also, unlike the Roundhouse gig, there are no rigs of tubular bells, glockenspiels and so forth – and wisely in their absence the charmingly delicate ‘Baby’s coming home’ doesn’t make the set list. Instead it’s a very rocking affair – kicking off with a threatening ‘Fat children’ (if ever there was a song for the moment in the UK then this is it), dedicated to “everyone in South London”, the scene, if you haven’t caught up with the news from old Blighty, of a spate of gang killings involving teenagers over the past ten days or so. As the band play the opening chords Jarvis walks to the front of the stage and stands hands on hips, almost defying the audience with a questioning stare before he karate-kicks his way into the lyrics “last night I had a little altercation – they wobbled menacingly beneath the yellow street light” while as big a group of photographers as I’ve seen for a long time rush to get a shot of the media’s favourite thinking pop-star.
Then it’s a run-through of the album material, plus ‘new’ songs - the masturbatory ‘One man show’ and ‘Big stuff’. And of course there are the trademark Jarvian bons mots, the conversational jousting with fans (“the Daily Telegraph described me as the Judi Dench of Indie Rock – is that good?”), and the Proustian musings (“this song’s about … well I dunno really”). Sweets are exchanged with the audience, a photograph is signed. Actually he has the crowd eating out of his hand – so that when he decides to deliver a few words about the anti-Trident badge he’s wearing (“I mean I’m sorry, I don’t want to give you a boring speech or anything”) the audience hears him out and then bursts into tumultuous applause. This almost matches the rapturous reception for each of the songs of which it should be noted 'From Auschwitz to Ipswich” (which begins with what I can only conclude is a headline from the Daily Mail – “They want our way of life”), 'Big Julie', 'Disney time' and set closer ‘Black magic’ were outstanding. The simple lighting is exceptional. And I haven’t forgotten the inflatables, which are still being blown up and hidden away by a group of enthusiasts who pulled the same trick at Koko in November. They appeared, possibly ninety-nine or more, cascading from the balcony at the start of the brooding ‘I will kill again’. “That’s possibly the most inappropriate use of red balloons I can think of” said Cocker.
Jarvis Ballon
Jarvis Cocker and a balloon
What is it about Jarvis? It’s almost as if he’s the slightly eccentric and non-conformist uncle that everyone wishes they had, with a twinkle in the eye that means you never quite know if he’s serious, and an ability to maintain a look of surprised innocence when provoking outrage and mayhem. He certainly seems to be in tune with the zeitgeist of this Astoria crowd – who sing along with more than gusto to encore ‘Cunts are still ruling the world’. And then the finale – “you know we’re here in the Astoria, well sometimes I like to think of it as the Ozztoria” – an unlikely cover of Black Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’. Critical faculties in place and working fine, like a well oiled machine. Slightly different from the Roundhouse, but just as good. You need to judge for yourself – buy the album, but try and get to see him – he’s heading for Australia and the USA, and no doubt some more UK gigs as well. Black Magic - yeah, yeah, yeah! - Nick Morgan (concert photographs by Kate)

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