Friday, November 21, 2008

Shelf Life UK tour report

It might be three months overdue, but better late than never, I suppose.

At the end of August this year, Shelf Life undertook their first ever live dates outside of Japan, with a mini UK tour. The band played The Prince Albert in Brighton and The Good Ship in Kilburn, London.

Above is a short film made by members of the Peace Not War collective, featuring interviews with the band plus footage from the London show. The film is in Japanese and English, and appears without subtitles.

With me already in the UK, the boys arrived from Tokyo on the Monday with a small entourage in tow. Staying in London while I was working up in Scarborough, they managed to squeeze in some UK rock sightseeing and played impromptu shows in Hyde Park and on the banks of the Thames while they were there.

On the Thursday morning, we all met up at Brighton station, for the first time since January. It was a happy reunion and the visitors were notably impressed with Brighton's laid-back hippy vibe.

While wives, kids and other guests took in Brighton's sights, the band headed off to a rehearsal studio to get in shape for the evening show. They had been practising hard back in Tokyo and the set had evolved a little to include more of a Japanese twist on some of the material, with a little taiko drumming here and elements of traditional Okinawan folk there, all mixed in with our rock 'n' roll.

The Prince Albert's live space is a cosy, sweaty room above the main pub and right near the station. It is also the same place that I played my first show with Headland, ten years earlier, so was a bit of a homecoming show for me in more ways than one.

Once enough audience members had filtered in, proceedings could kick off. Viper Suzas hit the stage first, a loose, hard rocking two-piece used to turning up the noise and bantering with their home crowd. Featuring just guitar and drums, their slack but pounding riffs got the night off to a lively start.

Shelf Life followed. I'd managed to get a few familiar faces to come down and show themselves so it wasn't a completely cold crowd, but nobody had seen us before. Brighton audiences, overfed on a dearth of live music in the city, can be notoriously tough to please at the best of times, meaning we had to work extra hard.

This doesn't tend to present a problem at our shows though as we're a very lively band ourselves, plus were wearing matching Japanese costumes and bandanas to add an extra gimmick. To engage with an audience, I think it's very important to stand out from other bands. We threw all we could at Brighton and won the crowd over pretty swiftly.

I'd expected that it might feel a little strange to be performing back in the same place I'd played so long ago, but it wasn't. The band has played together a lot and have developed a good onstage rapport by now. Brighton, then, was just another Shelf Life show.

As usual, we invited the crowd and members of the other acts to join us on the stage for the chorus of 'Endgame'. This proved to be quite a hit and we filled the stage (The Albert having a fairly small one).

The Hornblower Brothers went on after us and topped the bill. A lighter, almost whimsical, folky sound, with a rich sense of humour running through their songs, they were a big hit with the crowd - many of whom had come to see them anyway.

Inspired by 'Endgame', at the end of their set they also invited the audience to join them. The rest of Shelf Life had gone to catch their last train back to London by then, but as I was staying in Brighton that night, could hang on until there was no more hanging on to be done and took to the stage one last time.

Brighton ended up as a very successful start to the tour.

The next day (the second and final date) was London. I'd never played in London before so was pleased to have the opportunity. Although it was a lot of work finding a venue and convincing them to put a band with no British fanbase on, I managed to get us a show in the capital.

Before we could make it up to Kilburn, there was only one place a band forged in a bar called Rubber Soul could go to grab that obligatory souvenir photo. We met up at a Kensington tube station and all trooped off to St. John's Wood to grab our own 'Abbey Road' moment.

I'd visited it once before, nine years previously, and had tried to get a picture of myself crossing the infamous pedestrian crossing outside The Beatles recording studio, but somehow the picture never came out. It's not quite the same with one person either.

Abbey Road being Abbey Road, and seeing as it was a warm sunny day in August, the place was absolutely packed with people from all over the world trying to do the same thing as us. A simple photo of four guys walking across a road in North London should be pretty straightforward. In the end, it must have taken us an hour and a half to finally capture the shot we wanted!

Picture taken, we made our way to the venue. It was a bigger space than the previous night, which was fun for playing but more of a challenge to fill. The Good Ship also has a projector and a blank back wall, so I brought along some DVDs as video backdrops.

Kyoko Rathmell opened the night with a solo acoustic set of Smiths-inspired numbers. Our inclusion on the bill seemed to have triggered off a Japanese flavour for much of the bill, she having Japanese roots.

With two of the original acts having pulled out, I chipped in with some help on filling the bill back up again. Vinyl Gypsy is an artist from New York that I'd gotten to know pretty well through the internet, from the work I did with Peace Not War Japan.

Funnily enough, we'd never actually met, despite her having been in Tokyo at the same time as me once before. As luck would have it, she was actually doing a few dates in Europe at the time and happened to be in London, so ended up being added to the bill.

The music on her MySpace page doesn't give much away, so as well as never having met before, I'd not really heard any representative music either, and was looking forward to hearing what she sounded like.

With a live drummer and herself on laptop and vocals, the set kicked off with ambient atmospherics and some rich, promising lines through the mic. Unfortunately, some inexplicable bug in the system caused her loops to cut out and Mac to die. I've still yet to hear what she sounds like, but if I'm ever in NY and she's got a show on, I'll definitely head down to check out the rest of the sound.

With head down in jobhunting mode for most of the summer and living in a place where singing practise is not too easy, I'd not had as much chance to get my chops in shape in time for the shows. The day before in Brighton, we'd rehearsed for four hours and then played a show (followed up just a little partying afterwards).

When I woke up the day of the London gig, I had almost no voice to speak with, let alone sing with. I sucked singers' lozenges, drank hot lemon and honey at the venue and tried not speaking, in order to keep my throat in as good a condition as I could by the time the show came around.

With little choice, I took to the stage with almost no voice - something I'd never had to do before. We kicked off with the first song, a lively rocker at the best of times, and I could barely produce a sound. On top of that, the space was bigger and audience more spread out than the previous night, so the whole thing could have died quite easily.

I threw as much energy into the performance as I could, no matter whether I could be heard or not. Despite the circumstances, we just about managed to pull it off and even got some people dancing down the front. I'm sure it helped too that we had a video montage of movie samples playing behind us too, making it feel like a bit more of a 'show'.

When it came to 'Endgame' however, it was much harder than in Brighton to get people on the stage with us. A couple of the artists on the bill did venture on and luckily so did some old friends of mine who'd come down for the night.

From the feedback I got afterwards, it seemed like I'd managed to get away with it - to my great surprise.

On next, The Electric Red Drive were a Japanese three-piece based in London and with a good rock sound. Joan & The Shindig Addicts topped the bill, and although I didn't get to see much of their set, they sounded great, seemed to bring the house to its feet and had some strong poppy material.

Tour over, we all trooped off on the Tube to our respective hotels and bid our farewells to each other. As for where and when (if, even) Shelf Life will play together again, I have absolutely no idea.

It does remain an interesting experiment in keeping a band going from opposite sides of the world, albeit sporadically. Perhaps online collaborations over some new material will be the next move.

In time, I'll also put together a short doc on the tour and pop it up on YouTube. Given that this report has taken me three months to get the time to write up, it may take some time!

Brighton 8/10
London 6/10


idleformat said...

nice one man - was good to catch up with you & see the rest of the band in Brighton back in August. loving that Abbey Rd pic btw!

Globalism said...

Cheers mate - good to see you too (for at least a little longer than at the wedding).

Glad you liked the Abbey Road pic. Man, that took a long time to get right!