[The Mail On Sunday, 2002]
The Astoria, London
IF YOU want to know why music press sales have plunged in recent years - admittedly, that's a big “if” - then look no further than the run of shows staged by the last remaining music weekly, the NME. These gigs feature many of the biggest names on the current British rock scene. And that's exactly the problem. Why would people shell out to learn about this drab clutch of miseries? For the most part, they don't.
The rip-roaring optimism and joie de vivre which Oasis brought back to rock in the early Nineties were effectively nullified a few years later by the great success and even greater influence of Radiohead. Tonight, for instance, features four acts united by one principle: that life is bleak and hurtful, and you should grab whatever scant consolation you can. As a spur to art, this axiom is as good as any and better than most. But when every guitar-wielding soul in Christendom chimes in, it can start to wear you down, however good the music.
And the music itself is variable, to put it kindly. Look at Remy Zero. Just don't listen to them. Merely looking is quite fun, because the singer has modelled himself on REM's Michael Stipe with the kind of comical exactitude brought by thousands of fat cabaret turns to their worship of Elvis. Once this Alabama five-piece start playing, they all too effectively impress upon you the notion that life is pain. The thought that this unedifying and self-regarding racket is no more dismal than that produced by countless similar bands makes it worse, somehow.
Still, it helps me appreciate the virtues of Starsailor. Starsailor wear everything on their sleeves - their hearts; their debt to fellow northerners The Verve; their reverence for Tim Buckley, the rawly emotional singer-songwriter from whose 1970 album they unwisely borrowed their name. It gives them a great deal to live up to.
Starsailor make a walloping great noise which at times feels like a solemn, adolescent fuss about very little; less a storm in a teacup than a typhoon in a thimble. But they can also play simply, movingly and well. Their only real failing is callowness, and it's one they'll grow out of.
When, as James Walsh does, you sing every word and every note as if it might be your last, those had better be choice words and notes. Often they're not; but on Lullaby, Good Souls and Alcoholic, they assuredly are. Three excellent songs is three more than most bands will ever write, and you trust that Starsailor have plenty more in them.
Walsh reappears for a guest spot during Ryan Adams' set, which also features cello, violin, and far too much fannying about. Adams is getting to the stage where you don't have to explain that there's no “B” in front of his name. The ex-Whiskeytown frontman has rightly been hailed as an outstanding talent, a shining hope of the flourishing Alt.country movement. More prolific than consistent, at his best he produces superb, affecting music. His two solo albums, Heartbreaker and Gold, are overlong but stuffed with treasures.
Adams, bandless, opens with his pocket rockabilly classic To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High). This is no night for an acoustic show. The audience is divided between yammerers and shushers, plus the occasional drunk Scots heckler. Adams, who clearly shares the generally high opinion of his gifts, is prickly and indignant. He has studied the Bob Dylan 1965 Touring Manual very closely indeed, and wastes precious time with self-satisfied rants, jokes and false starts.
There are plenty of us who would dearly like to hear him sing, but he finishes only a handful of numbers. Some, such as the new World War 24, are distinctly sub-par. “It's not great,” he says, “but it'll do”, as if we should be grateful even for his cast-offs. Most, including Oh My Sweet Carolina, The Fools We Are As Men, a cover of Hank Williams' Lovesick Blues and a gorgeous, yet-to-be-titled piano ballad, are all you could hope for.
When I say that Travis are boring, I don't mean to damn them. I can think of some rather fine boring bands; Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles, The Blue Nile. Like these, Travis are boring in a pleasant and strangely restful way. Or: They also have two marvellous tunes: Driftwood, and Sing, which takes a banjo, usually the musical equivalent of comedy false teeth, and turns it melancholy.
Travis have always seemed a bit baffled by their good fortune. I'm sure they're not the only ones. But there's no mystery. Whereas the American Ryan Adams is sharp-suited and at least part-way as charismatic as he thinks he is, Travis are true British everymen - scruffy, diffident, wistful. The fans recognise their own. To a rapturous reception, Travis arrive, they do the Travis thing, then they go away. That could be one of their lyrics, come to think of it. Have this one on me, boys.
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