What’s to be done when a venue so significantly detracts from a live experience? When, even as a 6’4″ bloke I can barely see what is happening on stage? When the sound is soupy yet you know that the quality of the assembled musicians deserves better? When people are crammed into a given space and the chatter overwhelms the music?
Turn on your heels and walk out? Write off the 50 quid that you’ve invested in the evening?
It had been a long time coming for Stereolab and me. I’d bought the odd record in the 90s but had never been fully won over. I wanted to love them as the streaming era has given me access to their music and allowed me to enjoy the records that I couldn’t afford to buy twenty-five years ago.
A week after the gig, I’m still struggling to convey a positive sense of the occasion because of all of this extraneous stuff. The band are on the way back after a ten-year hiatus. They have started a well-curated reissue campaign of their back catalogue. They skilfully recreated their unique blend of French chanson, German krautrock, British electronic pop. They had enough space between them to improvise and stretch out. It should be all positive. But all of that negative stuff just gets in the way.
It might have been different at a Barbican or a Royal Festival Hall with decent sight lines, good sound and a respectful audience that weren’t crammed in like sardines in a can. But the Empire was so wrong on so many levels that I’m struggling to get beyond the shoving and the constant annoyance at chatter whilst standing on tiptoes to get a glimpse of the top third of whichever band member I was looking at (and that’s me who is almost two metres tall). The sound was soupy with Laetitia Sadiers’ vocals swamped in mid-range. The bass was nowhere to be heard with only the drums sounding crisp.
Support Vanishing Twin faired no better. They’re the flavour of the month at Rough Trade with their debut record The Age of Immunology one of the June Albums of the Month. They very clearly are influenced by Stereolab with a greater focus on jazzy improv rather than the foot to the floor Motorik beat. Singer Cathy Lucas had the most incredible floppy hat but unfortunately, her vocals went the same way as Sadiers, evaporating into the ether. The sound did the rhythm section no favours with bass player Susumu Mukai absent from the mix.
I’d see both bands again at a different place but that may well be it for me and the Shepherds Bush Empire. It’s a shame but shelling out the best part of £50 on an evening so unsatisfying isn’t something to be repeated.
The next gig review will be more positive – I promise.