Who in their kinkiest garage-band wet dream would have thought that the gig of the month would be Jeff Beck? As in “Hi Ho Silver Lining”? The guy who, along with Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, made guitar music exciting for about five years, and then very, very boring for a long time.
But before he became a tiresome old sod who talked a lot of twaddle and collected very expensive cars, Beck was in the Yardbirds, and as such qualifies as a proto-Monster of Rock. So, for his retrospective at the Royal Festival Hall last month, he will be forgiven for wearing a black sleeveless undershirt and playing a white Strat. Especially after a certain Motown twosome strode out on stage.
“I’m Jack, and this is my big sister, Meg, and we are the White Stripes. It’s a great honor for us to be asked to fill the shoes of the Yardbirds.”
Joined by Jack Lawrence from the Greenhornes, the new Detroit Yardbirds backed Beck for both nights of his residency with “Train Kept A-Rollin’,” “Heart Full Of Soul” and other songs that kept the audience out past Beck’s grandchildren’s bedtimes.
The Von Bondies
I’ve seen the Von Bondies four times this summer; to be honest, they’re looking a teensy bit tired. And so it’s a testament to them as a band, the collective sweat and passion that they have invested, that they are so good. They have worked their asses off in Europe; no one could blame them for phoning in a performance at the end of a long summer of touring.
Which they resolutely refuse to do.
After you’ve seen a band a few times over a few months, you start to know the layout of sets, where the emotional turns are, what’s going to happen next. I’m getting familiar with the Von Bondies at this point, but instead of feeling like I’m watching reruns of “Gilligan’s Island,” the show unfolds with fresh impact. There are parts of their show that could easily be reduced to shtick if it weren’t for the clarity of intention and the sheer joy of playing. Every time I watch the Von Bondies, I get the feeling that they’re in on a secret that they aren’t telling, but it makes them smile, makes their eyes sparkle when they play. And, goddamn it, that’s what being in a rock band should feel like. A big heart-thumping, adrenaline-pulsing secret that you shout at the rest of the world.
Massive stage invasion ensues, first from Dolph and Phil Datsun (from the Datsuns), then from everybody else at the end of the evening. Even Matt Datsun is thumping on drums with his cane. Jack and Meg White, guys in Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and half of sweaty London watch the steam from our bodies as we finally step outside.
Dressy Bessy, Jeffrey Lewis, the Beachwood Sparks
The Spitz, London
My little pop combo supported New York’s Jeffrey Lewis earlier this year, and ever since then, we have been making plans for me to ‘guest’ during one of his London gigs, bringing in some sonic MSG, because I’m that kind of gal. Note: Plan is a four-letter word. File next to love and rent. Full of intentions, but the outcome is anybody’s guess. With Jeff and me, I’m usually out of town or doing a gig myself, except for the one time when I was stranded outside of London with a broken rotor arm on a 1970 Triumph Vitesse that I had bought just six hours ago in Manchester.
This time, we’d played phone tag, but since he doesn’t have a mobile and I lost my telepathy in the war, we didn’t get to talk before the show. Hence the choice of singing saw as instrument du jour: It doesn’t need a flight case, it doesn’t need an amp, you can carry it in one hand and leave it behind the bar.
We get to the Spitz in time to catch Dressy Bessy. Absolutely charming fuzzed-up pop. They look like a gaggle of student English teachers in floppy fringe and sweaters, but they make wonderfully simple, arch and knowing sing-along pop.
Jeffrey Lewis is really hard to explain. Here’s a guy, probably 22 or so, but he looks like a mischievous child. At first, I got the impression that he was shy, but whatever reservations he may (or may not) feel when introduced as an individual melt away before an audience. Jeffrey’s primary shining talent is that he is an effortless communicator, empathy incarnate. I don’t know how he does it, I don’t know what he’s doing, how it works. I never spot the man behind the green curtain, because there isn’t one, there’s just him. And you get to know him through his stories, which he sings to you, in a boyish voice that sounds like playground gravel baptized in beer.
So the adolescently titled “Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song” evolves into a story about a walk, a cute girl, a shared Leonard Cohen fixation, a love affair that blooms in a nanosecond and is lost by the end of the block, when she goes off with her friends because you lose the ability to say, “Do you want to meet again for coffee, maybe, sometime?” in any known language. It’s a beautiful story, full of sweet detail, funny and self-deprecating by turns. And as he’s singing this song about a girl who doesn’t know songs are sung about her, he throws in “someone, somewhere could be singing songs about you.” Yes, you. You, looking at this page. In Jeffrey Lewis-land, we all possess the awesome ability to inspire. And that is why this guy is a treasure.
The Beachwood Sparks come onstage and I am transported. I am 7. I have just moved to Long Beach with my mother, and she is playing The Notorious Byrd Brothers on a Sears stereo in a sunny room. Specifically, Side A, Track 5, “Wasn’t Born To Follow.” Which is a blueprint for the Beachwood Sparks, but as manifestos go, they simply do not come any better. It was so lovely, I can’t begin to translate the feeling into English. The ghosts of Graham Parsons, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Eagles (when they were good) are at the bar, smiling down upon the small stage. Four-part harmonies, lap steel, a style of sweet guitar playing that I thought had been lost. And it was all so effortless, so graceful. I’m at a loss for words, but I wanted to cry, it just felt so good.
When I finally got to talk to Lewis, the saw had spent the evening in the cloakroom. Jeffrey, if you’re reading this, I’m so sorry. Next time, I promise.
Camden Underworld, London
I finally figured out what it is that makes New Zealand’s the Datsuns so fucking cool. I mean, aside from the sexy exuberance and the sheer rock beast joy of it all. The Datsuns are too young to remember either the beard-stroking seriousness or questionable live-to-party ethic that used to be a mandatory part of any hard-rockin’ band’s DNA. In the old days, if you sold your soul to the devil in exchange for some decent songs and a riff that wouldn’t stop, you needed to pledge allegiance to one or the other.
Thank Christ nobody told the Datsuns. They can rock out like Robin Trower without the stale whiff of deliberately dumbass misogyny that used to emanate from guitars plugged into Marshalls and played by boys with long hair. Goddamn, it was good. So much energy, just teetering on the edge of parody, but always staying on the right side, the balance weighted by hearts in the right place.
I swear, I have never seen so many Led Zeppelin/Black Sabbath/AC-DC T-shirts in my life, especially on good-looking people born after 1975. The Von Bondies, the White Stripes and BRMC were all present, pint glasses saluting the young antipodean heroes. Carrie and Marcie Von Bondie provide the particularly rocking backups to the new single, “In Love,” which should chart this week. Christian Datsun walks out onto upturned palms of the audience like a longhaired prophet, and Matt jumps on his drum kit, repeatedly, until it is no longer. Unfortunately, the drum kit fought back. Matt will spend the rest of the evening with his leg in an ice bucket as record-company weasels, press and rock chums suck up the remains of the rider in the adrenaline afterglow.
Rock ’n’ roll is the new rock ’n’ roll. It’s about fucking time.
Shireen Liane is an American living in London. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org