Thursday 2nd August, 2018
August is a very quiet month for gigs, trawling through listings to find something to go to I found this gig. I was both intrigued and scared by the prospect of Jonathan Bree but my nerves were reassured as soon as I found out Jeff was going. It is always a good gig when he is there. If nothing else, I can relax and be more myself, knowing there is someone else there who will let themselves go and enjoy the music to its fullest. The reassurance of knowing you won’t be alone at the front giving it some always helps.
Rough Trade’s live room isn’t exactly huge. I’ve only been in it once before, for Gaz Coombes’ album launch (which feels like it was ages ago but was only a few months back). The stage is small and low and there weren’t more than 100 people there tonight.
Support was from local band Poisonous Birds who were loud, interesting and hip. I liked the song they introduced as “this one is a rock song” and one that I think is called Little Puzzle. The rock one was exactly that, dirty great drums and wailing guitar. Some of the other tracks jarred, aspects of the music were quite experimental and I wish they’d let things flow a bit more, for when they did, they were good. Overall worth checking out though.
Jonathan Bree, along with a bassist, drummer and 2 dancers climbed gingerly onto the stage. They had to, they were all wearing white, full face, lycra masks and wigs. Costumed as if it were 1913, the dancers in white knickerbockers and bonnets, and the band in a pallet of grey high waisted and high necked garb. Even the microphones had a retro feel (it is possible they were made of wood). I wasn’t sure it was sci-fi or costume party. Definite Doctor Who villain vibes. My immediate thoughts were “I hope they can breathe, don’t fall off the stage, can keep that white outfit clean” followed by “I’ve not taken anywhere near enough drugs in my life for this to make sense.” I was worried, if I’ I’m honest.
There was no talking, only singing. It was more performance art than a gig. It was creepy yet alluring. Not being able to see the faces forced you into listening more intently and interpreting the movements as a way to anchor yourself in the songs. The songs were very good indeed. For all the show, it was Jonathan’s deep voice and inventive music that kept me entertained. Drum work that was understated and changed rhythm patterns, held up by sparse yet perfectly placed bass and electronics with occasional choir like backing vocals and strings (ably demonstrated by the dancers using lacrosse rackets). It held exactly the right tension between commercial pop and creative electroncia. Sort of like a more poppy, synthy Nick Cave. With interpretive dance. In masks.
Once I stopped worrying about if they could breathe and them falling over I relaxed and got into it. I was moving and dancing, getting carried off on a strange cloud of music. Yes it was weird. Yes it was creative. Yes it was theatrical. But I liked it an awful lot. The masks were odd. They are supposed to be. They jar. That along with the lack of talking made it hard to feel warm towards the band, but it also focussed you in on the sounds. Sometimes we reveal the deepest and most truthful things from behind masks.
Jonathan Bree is a creative and talented musician, clearly. Why he isn’t more widely known I do not know. He was every bit as good as most of the output on BBC6 Music (better in fact). I would be very happy to see him again. With or without the masks. It was one of the strangest concepts for a gig I’ve come across and if the music hadn’t have been so damn fine it wouldn’t have worked. It did, though, and I’ve stretched the outer limits of my sonic comfort zone a little more.