Esben and the Witch + Embers

The Führer Bunker, Salford, 9 February 2013

SwaysRecords: Alice and Faustus 09/02/13

The Bunker is under siege. As night slips its black hood over the condemned city, a long queue of middle-aged music fans steadily fills the short front corridor, stretching out into the street where two shifty touts are selling tickets for £60 each: a healthy 1000% mark up on their face value. Tonight’s guests are well-dressed, well-fed and way out of their comfort zone. Wrapped up in their branded fleeces and scarves, they look like they’ve got lost on the way to the Debenhams sale. The poor guy on the door does his best to apologise for the delay but the bourgeoisie are getting restless. Why are they still waiting in a gloomy concrete tunnel, when the internet said that the event would begin at 8pm? Why aren’t they experiencing things like entertainment or pleasure? They don’t understand. This isn’t part of the deal they made with life. Part of me wants to explain that this place is called the Führer Bunker for a reason: the stained walls, iron gates and dimly-lit halls seem to echo the architectonics of mass extermination. They should be thankful that nobody’s handing out soap and asking them to undress. Instead, my companion and his idiotic, hat-wearing hipster friends are selling them warm cans of lager and cider out of multipacks from the cash and carry: a slightly feeble gesture that seems to lie somewhere in-between hospitality and out and out extortion. The SWAYS salesmen shuttle back and forth, getting berated for not having any premium brands, clearly out of their depth with these consumers.

Something is rotten in the state of Salford. Heaven will direct us.

I’ve not been myself of late. I feel distracted, not quite with it. Whenever I see friends, they say things like, ‘I almost ran you over yesterday.’ Of course, it’s about a girl. It always is. And this particular one has got under my skin. I don’t really feel like being here, but at least it’s a chance to escape the psychosomatic dragnet of bitterness and regret and forget about things for a while, so I resolve to throw myself into a night that’s bursting at the seams after weeks of anticipation that’s for the most part been fuelled by the meteoric rise to prominence of opening band Embers. Before Christmas they posted videos of two songs, ‘Hollow Cage’ and ‘Part of the Echoes’, performed live at Gorton Monastery. It was impressive stuff and ever since the internet has been awash with blogs and websites talking about Embers. And members of Embers talking about Embers and their members. It’s been difficult to look at a computer screen without stumbling across one of these delicate flowers telling the world how ‘overwhelmed’ they are by the public response, just in case you were unsure quite how well they were doing.

Their prolonged Gwyneth Paltrow moment has steadily come to focus on tonight’s gig, which many of us had assumed was going to be headlined by Brighton’s Esben and the Witch. Apparently not. This is Embers’ show and the truth is we could have another Hillsborough on our hands, with one of them even worrying about crowd members collapsing in the inevitable crush, warning them to take care and look after each other ahead of their trip to the shitty away ground that is the Bunker. Like their fans, Embers have clearly never been here before. If they had, they’d have realised that of the numerous likely causes of death — machete gangs, rock wool fire, gas leaks — being physically crushed isn’t one of them. The stage is, after all, a wooden cage that you could just step into if things got a bit tight. There’s no perimeter fencing.

But who’s laughing here? Because it transpires that the vast majority of the crowd that’s slowly filtering into the main Exhibition Room really is here for Embers, not Esben and the Witch. Give them a chance, I think. Pull yourself together. After all, they’re nice guys. The only reason I follow all the online hyperbole is because I’m friends with them — or at least I was, before I slipped this nasty dagger into their unsuspecting backs, this essay on pain and transference.

I first met their guitarist at a gig that changed my life forever, when M O N E Y played their ‘comeback’ show at Salford’s Sacred Trinity church and I rediscovered how music can transfigure the human soul. I described our meeting in my review: he was the one who staggered into the toilets singing ‘God Gave Rock ‘n’ Roll to You’. The next time I met him was when Now Wave put on Alt-J, M O N E Y, G R E A T W A V E S and PINS in a disused office block as part of the FutureEverything festival. He was splayed on the tiled floor in a drunken heap next to a plastic yellow sign that carried the warning, ‘Caution: Slippery Surface’. How could you fail to love such a guy?

Unfortunately, it soon becomes apparent that tonight isn’t destined to end in this kind of gloury. It just isn’t happening for them. Beset by technical problems apparently caused by Esben and the Witch turning up late and conducting a rather starry and protracted sound-check — clearly no-one had told them who was really headlining this sold out Now Wave show — which left them with little time to prepare, Embers fail to reach the heights of Gorton monastery or previous live performances where they’ve filled venues with their epic, cinematic post-rock. Tetchiness and barely-veiled aggravation emanate from the band. They never relax into their set or really engage with the crowd, instead moaning about the sound and scratching their heads inside what really does turn out to be a hollow cage. I get the sense that their time will come when they do their own show in their own space on their own terms. This is not that moment. With mournful violins now prominent in the mix, backed by a bit of discordant wailing and punctuated by some burly drum rolls, this reminds me too much of the ex-girlfriend’s whinging so I decide to go outside and smoke cigarettes with the rest of the misanthropes.

There are only two of them: clearly indifference to Embers represents a minority opinion. One is my friend Alice — a very special musician in the making — and she’s with someone in a Gram Parsons t-shirt and leather jacket who I’m pretty sure introduces himself as Faustus. He reminds me of Vincent Gallo in Buffalo 66. Drunkenly, I enthuse about the opening sequence in which Gallo gets out of jail needing a piss and meets Christina Ricci at her dance class: it’s one of my favourite scenes in the history of cinema.

Dr Faustus hasn’t enjoyed Embers either. I don’t know what darker matters worm away at his soul, but he describes them as ‘a blank sheet of A4’ and draws comparisons with Elbow, a band whom he regards as unfit for human consumption: ‘Greggs is a massive institution. It doesn’t mean that it’s good.’ The next time I meet him, it will be as he leaves the SWAYS-curated night at Fuel early, accusing opening band B L O O M of giving him bad vibes. I feel like I’ve found a brother in adversity.

It upsets me that there’s no music going on inside that’s more for them, for us. Standing out here is like crying in your bedroom at your own birthday party while the more popular boys, who secretly bully you, kiss the girls and eat all your cake. Now older and wiser, drinking wine out the bottle and smoking cigarettes on the street instead, we pour forth the vitriol that’s the only succour for those of us who find ourselves to be permanent outsiders in the disappointing party that is life. Fuxk the Bunker. ‘There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn’ (Camus). That place was starting to feel too much like somewhere we belonged. That sort of feeling never lasts. We should’ve learned that by now. I’m reminded of that Woody Allen line in Annie Hall, where Alvy Singer paraphrases Groucho Marx: ‘I’d never join a club that would allow a person like me to become a member.’

Things don’t improve much with Esben and the Witch. It’s just nowhere near the classic Bunker performances of M O N E Y, G R E A T W A V E S and Savages. Back then my skin tingled but tonight it crawls. I try to shake myself out of it, reminding myself that on those nights I felt that nothing better was happening anywhere in the world at that specific moment in time, that I was truly living in an earthly paradise. Perhaps my expectations for these shows have been set unfeasibly high. Surely there will be other nights when I’ll feel myself touched like that once again, our flying souls united in ecstasy? Maybe I haven’t been entirely forsaken …

Dr Faustus leaves with Alice, complaining that Esben and the Witch have drained him of his life force. Half-heartedly trying to chat up a solitary girl on the edge of the pack, I get hushed by a well-heeled member of the Debenhams gang. She gives me a look of utter disgust and that’s the final straw. I’ve had enough of this shit. Now’s the time for me to leave too, time to find some place where I can scream and shout and drink until I drop, safe in the knowledge that the rest is silence, my dear; you’ll have an eternity of that soon enough.

Image © Natalie Curtis at www.16apr79.com.

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