Underground 53

23-02-08

Thanks so much to the bands, the HK Cable TV crew, the soundguys & The Cavern, to our wonderful doorman Cliff, to Yan our photog & most of all to YOU the audience who ignored the rain to come and get your ears tickled by some of the most interesting bands in Hong Kong. Looking forward to the next Underground show!
Now over to our reviewer Isobel.
love Chris B xx

Underground 53 was the coolest gig with four talented bands offering quite different music styles. In fact, the night could have been viewed as some kind of education in Music History. Influences ranged from 19th century folk ballads, 50’s blues and jazz, 60’s psychedelia, 70’s guitar rock, 80’s punk and 90’s grunge – woah!- all referenced in one great big 2008 postmodern indie fusion of everything cool ever!
I remember when R.E.M. played Hong Kong in 2005 and at the end of the show Michael Stipe announced, “We’d like to thank the support band…but there wasn’t one!” Not only was that not all that funny – and I love the guy and his band’s contribution to the alternative music scene – but it was a bit of a wanky thing to say. The inescapable conclusion was that there wasn’t a band good enough in Hong Kong to play support for such a big international (yes, indie but now, according to Iggy Pop, ‘too fucking prissy’ ) band. Well, Mr Stipe and HK concert organizers, you’re wrong. Some of the bands at the Underground 53 gig, together with super-musicians we’ve seen at previous Underground gigs, such as Audio Traffic and Innisfallen, could have masterfully taken on the job and added another dimension of their own to the experience. There are good bands a plenty here and maybe if you can’t see them at uncomfortable AsiaWorld Expo Arena or inside the corporate dullsville halls of the Convention Centre, then we should leave that scene be and remove ourselves to the Underground…to where it’s really at!
Isobel S. Saunders

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Pick Pak Zhai

Set List:
1. 尋醉 / Get Drunk
2. 禍從口出 / Out of the Mouth
3. 不耐煩 / Impatient
4. 偷得浮生 / Take a Break
5. 冬泳 / Winter Swim
6. 大人物 / Famous People
7. 沒有他 / Without Him (English translations by the band)
Get Drunk had great rocking rhythms supported by some great bass guitar work and very funky, crunchy sounds coming out of the lead guitar. Although in danger of sounding crass and tacky because, after all, THIS is about the MUSIC as we ALL know, I’m going to say it anyway. Lead singer Fiona (and her vocals, of course), in her stripy, figure hugging dress and oozing almost a Deborah Harry-bow-wow-Wow! factor hit you as much as the band’s music. What a sexpot! If I ever thought of ‘jumping the fence’ and becoming a lesbot it would be for this woman.
Ok, being sensible now, this band also has a very versatile guitarist who produces with the one guitar everything from throw-your-body-up-and-down dance rhythms and hum-along clear supporting melodies to wild, searingly loud riffs and tingling forays into a higher zone only he and his guitar understand. The next three songs demonstrated this dude’s versatility. Out of the Mouth was marked by a strong, jumping rhythm guitar sound, Impatient showed well-played lead guitar melodies (complemented by some very thoughtful, interesting lyrics and vocal delivery, beautifully reminiscent of Everything But the Girl). And Take a Break opened with a great rock lead intro and then alternated with some waka-waka guitar sounds as well as well-executed lead riffs. The drumming and the bass on this one were nothing short of brilliant – a really tight, together, amazing sound.

Winter Swim came across as a 60’s/ early 70’s psychedelic trance type of thing. (It was real way out then, but now in the 21st century the sound is probably associated with elevator muzak by many.) Very smooth, relaxing vibes that even had your bones turning to liquid, massaged even further by the hallucinatory, soft echoey doo-wah-doo floating just above the instruments. Together with the club’s coloured spotlights moving across the walls and floor (think Elvis’ clip Suspicious Minds) I really was a child of the revolution on dope in some Carnaby Street hippy lounge in 1969. (What happened to the revolution? How come we’re all conforming and consuming now?)

The band’s final two songs set about blasting to kingdom come the chilled-out mood they worked so masterfully to create. Loud, fast drumming, jumping lead guitar rhythms and lyrics delivered crisp and fast in Famous People jarred your brain out of being pleasantly stalled at the traffic lights back to top gear at the Formula-1 track. Without Him had loud, pulsing rhythms punctuated with that rockabilly-blues boo-boom-boom-boom sound of descending notes plucked down the scale, not on a double bass but sounding so.

Pick Pak Zhai are highly versatile, out-of-this-world talented musicians with their own very interesting style and a varied choice of material. The audience was enraptured from start to finish. They are so listenable and watchable people were annoyed and showed something akin to withdrawal symptoms when they had to leave the stage. The only minor criticism I have, which can’t be taken too seriously is that the vocals sounded a little ‘pretty’ and little too non-descript-commercial-pop at times, but that could just be me… and my life’s preoccupation to seek out and worship the weird and the wonderful.
Isobel S. Saunders

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The Ember

Set List:
1. In This Hole
2. Thursday – Autobiography of a Nation
3. No One
4. Forgive

The Ember……were really hot! (Snerk!Giggle! Ok, lame joke.)

Yeay! This is closer to the weird and the wonderful that a great indie alternative sound is all about. The Ember have a punk grunge approach with screamed vocals and screaming lead guitar. In This Hole saw the pocket-sized lead singer howl and shout while the lead guitarist provided some seriously scary-sounding ‘demon possessed’ backing vocals. This good display of angst continued with Thursday – Autobiography of a Nation accompanied by some great guitar. They sound like a well-established indie band with a full grasp on their identity and sound – and an attitude to match. They are very genuine – they mean what they do.

Death-defying screams kicked off the hardcore punk No One as the tiny lead singer’s voice box let rip. Like Chester Bennington, she’ll need major vocal cord surgery in a few years. Some great bass and lead guitar manoeuvres with amazing drums displayed here as the band alternated the tempo, creating some quieter lulls in the song only to dynamite you away with its loud antithesis. The song was well-written and a lot of work must have gone into creating the sections and bridges. The lead guitarist’s zombie voice was used to great effect again.

The lead singer lost her tough act at the beginning of Forgive and for some unknown reason her eyes started dribbling and leaking though she said she wasn’t crying. But then everything seemed a bit strange… the guitar sounded like a piano and the drums and bass sounded slower, contained and measured. It was all a bit Beatles-esqe. Then the lead singer became normal again and started screaming the vocals in a fine return to punk form.

It was only a short set, but one that really rocked. The Ember have a great indie sound…and some obviously in-demand musicians as the bass player was also in Gray@Dreams5 at a recent UG gig.
Isobel S. Saunders

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Bone Table


Set List:

1. Bullet-proof Black Sedan
2. Giant Electric Flying Insect
3. Takamatsu Joe
4. Like A Man
5. You’re Wrong, You’re Wrong
6. Taxi to Wanchai
7. Get Moving On
8. Sugar Baby
9. Sorry

If I was considering becoming a female homosexual from the Isle of Lesbos for the first band I quickly clambered back over the fence for the strong male presence emanating from this band (No offense to the sole female member. I saw you, too.) Clad in western cowboy shirts, holding beautiful Gretsch and Rickenbacker guitars and surrounded by a stylish group of followers, the musicians immediately signalled themselves as twisted sticks of dark, sexy genius. (BTW, it’s worth checking the Internet for the bands associated with Rickenbacker guitars- The Beatles, the Byrds, the Rolling Stones, The Who, Steppenwolf, Tom Petty, The Church, REM, The Jam, The Smiths, etc- and Gretsch guitars- Eddie Cochrane, Elvis, Chet Atkins, George Harrison, The Velvet Underground, The Stray Cats, AC/DC, The Living End, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, The White Stripes, U2, The Cult, the Raconteurs etc.)

If Bone Table were a film, they wouldn’t just be a classic Western. They’d be a hybrid mixed of genres underpinned by black satire. Like a Coen Brothers film, the surface looks deceptive, just a bunch of cowboys and cowgirls, clean and simple country folk doing an honest, Christian days’ work. Then they play. Primal forces, counterculture philosophies and black humour see them evolve into dark, blasphemous fiends. The binary opposites of the Western film genre are at play – good vs evil, wild vs civilized, the community vs the lone outsider, violent men vs castrating women – but so too are the grotesque elements of the horror movie, comic farce and the weird truth of the avant-garde. Translating this to music, I have my theory about just how come Bone Table make music they way they do. (*It starts with a UFO crashing in the Arizona Desert some decades ago. Three life forms emerge and take on human forms, 3 men and 1 woman.*) The rest is hidden deep in their songs. You just have to know how to read them…

Bullet-proof Black Sedan was loud, growled and mean. Supported by some brilliant noises from drums and bass, Rob on vocals scared the hell out of me, but I loved it. (*The aliens must have met Jim Morrison on drugs in the Arizona desert, together with some of the Beat poets and Hunter S. Thompson on Highway 63.*)

Giant Electric Flying Insect had an ominous a narrative as the title suggests. Moving from the mundane of ‘his baby last Saturday night’ to an alien creature ‘from another world’ (*a topic they would have intimate knowledge of*), complete with weird wah-wah pedal effect for the supernatural connection, the dark ones weaved and spun out their unique musical tapestry. A bizarre blues punk mix I choose to express somewhat simply because it’s hard to find words for complex things – interesting , dark, unexpected, good.

A change of singer for Takamatsu Joe saw Adrian both execute the song confidently as well as confess to executing some guy with a knife. The genre borrows from one of those country western and blues narratives where passion or revenge results in a killing which will haunt the perpetrator forever. This was overlaid again with Bone Table’s contemporary weird genius touch.

Like A Man returned to Rob’s growling, dark vocals and music that is a sublime mix of a zillion different musical influences – the counterculture 60’s rock feel with 70’s pop narratives (the tragic story variety where someone ends up dead in a river or the guy/ gal who spurned their one true lover is now very lonely. Nick Cave did a brilliant piss-take of this with Where the Wild Roses Grow and ended up killing Kylie Minogue – yeay, Nick!). The vibes also were very 80’s punk (think The Clash) and revivalist 80’s and 90’s blues/ rockabilly/ new wave. Ominous, snarling.

You’re Wrong, You’re Wrong saw Adrian sing about some woman breaking his heart, slamming the door and walking out on him. A silly, bitter song about revenge that skipped along as a lighter country and western/blues number. You saw every CIA agent in the audience look concerned when Adrian threatened to bring down the airliner carrying the bad girlfriend. (*All evidence here indicates the four aliens must have hitched a ride to Nashville and Memphis and met Elvis.*)

No hint of country music next. A punk-inspired loud, rude and funny Taxi Take Me to Wanchai, perhaps based on the dumb T-shirts you see. The drum guy, James bashed out the rhythms and delivered a barrage of words, while the guitars belted out the punk-inspired chords. (*By now a few songs clearly demonstrate the Bone Table extra-terrestrials went to New York, saw the Velvet Underground and then watched punk emerge in New York and London.*)

Rob’s vocals were heard again on the fast, weird Get Moving On. Tight bass playing and drums, jakka-jakka rhythms and an early 80’s U.S. punk feel. Indie dreams are made of this type of brilliant musicianship. BTW, this guy even looks a bit like John Turturro in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Sugar Baby was introduced as ‘an American folk song’ and featured a brilliant rock country guitar sound. The dark history of the Appalachian folk ballads full of murder, incest, rape and other dirty dealings came to mind. I didn’t catch the lyrics but it felt like a story of bad stuff going down. A steady, tribal build in the drums and bass leading to some primeval screaming also told me so.

Their final song of the set Sorry saw Adrian having problems with ‘his baby’ again and dealing with it with some loud, fast, carthartic punk rock. I reckon it fixes everything, too. (*The four space people watched New Wave kick in, together with the country/ blues and rockabilly revival in the 80’s. Not too sure what 90’s influences they vacuumed in so I’ll skip over that and then they morphed organically into a band in Hong Kong, whereupon all the sounds held inside just oozed out of their atoms in a big combined goo. This is a true story carefully researched.*)

Bone Table’s music is simultaneously blasphemous and genuine; decadent and simple; traditional and rebellious; mystic and rude; philosophical and childish; beautiful and disturbing. Vicious streaks in this band’s lyrics masquerade behind a sweet melody or what you thought was a known, safe music genre. They catch you off-guard and you try to recover without showing it . Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds used to do this, except Bone Table is missing that homoerotic dimension of the Cave persona. Well, it is Hong Kong. That stuff’s illegal here. OK, shouldn’t have said homoerotic..now I’m thinking of Fiona from Pick Pak Zhai again…
Isobel S. Saunders

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Helter Skelter

Set List:
1. Funk Ass Jam
2. Ten Past Ten
3. Say you Say Love
4. Delusions
5. I Don’t Wanna Have To Lose You
6. Hey
7. Honest with You

With all the heady sexiness in the air, Helter Skelter was the right band to carry it further. They mixed up blues and funk influences with U.S-style guitar rock and perhaps smidgens of psychedelic rock. There must be a shortage of bass players in Hong Kong as Koya from Very Ape made yet another welcome appearance. (He starred in Transnoodle’s set last Underground.) A band just doesn’t seem right now unless this dude’s in it.

Helter Skelter’s first song Funk Ass Jam was pretty much just that, a funk ass jam. A cruisey feel of rhythm and blues and some southern soul. Helter Skelter’s lead singer had been delayed, probably finishing up at happy hour down the pub, so the band started without him. The keyboardist took on the honours for a couple of songs after advising the audience to drink more before Ten Past Ten so we wouldn’t miss not having a lover. So we drank. Now that’s the blues – depression and sadness shared. A woeful lament about being alone at nights followed in the vein of Jimmy Reed’s Cry Before I Go. These are skilful musicians who know their stuff and can create the classic feel of the blues – only the mouth harp was missing – with some tongue-in-cheek lyrics to keep you amused. From really early blues artists like Bessie Smith to later John Lee Hooker and blues-rock revivalists in the 80’s-90’s and now (the Black Crowes, etc), there always seemed that touch of wry humour and self-deprecation in the lyrics. Adds balance to the drama, I guess.

Helter Skelter themselves seemed to be having a great time up on stage. I’m not educated enough to comment on the blues styles and traditions this band draws upon so you’d have to ask them about Mississippi Delta blues, Memphis blues, Chicago blues, electric blues, Swamp blues, California blues and Texas rock blues. I expect they’re a bit of everything.

The 4-piece became a 5-piece when the tardy guitarist/ singer Vince arrived offering the formal apology of ‘Yeah, I fucked up.’ Say You Say Love was a beautiful blues-rock mix with a ‘70’s-80’s purist U.S. Mid-West heartland, or even Californian, guitar rock vibe about it. There’s definitely no ‘red-neck’ conservative stuff mixed up in there- just the feel of now-mythic America, wide spaces, fun and free.

With another guitar added, the overall sound on Delusions was not only denser but altogether different in style. Vocals were fast and half-shouted, lyrics a bit offbeat and the sound definitely alternative but managing still to have rock elements.

I Don’t Wanna Have To Lose You was a beautiful song. Keyboardist Adrian’s more melodic vocal delivery suited the sincerity of the lyrics and the sound had a southern rock feel with exhilarating blues rock guitar work.

Lots of good ol’ fashioned rock ‘Yeah! Yeah! Yeahs’ on Hey and three loud guitars made you want to get on a Harley and ride forever through beautiful badlands, stopping at truckstops for beer, of course. I think the spirit of Steppenwolf biker music but mixed with sweeter, cooler, smarter Tom Petty and the Chili Peppers’ quieter moments. (Though, if you did attempt to find this kind of free America today, cops would probably pull you over, Tazer you and shoot you in the stomach.)

Set closer Honest With You was a return to a purer blues rock sound and featured some mean keyboard playing. This is when the audience really started jumpin’ and jivin’- with twirls n’ all. Now, y’all come back real soon now. Caleb, stop messin’ with them hogs, y’hear?

Helter Skelter’s music is excellent stuff. It seems they have very carefully selected their influences from everything cool about alternative rock, which all started with the blues. They have created their own eclectic new music that is all theirs, but the ghosts of past blues and rock artists and the echoes of their great times haunt this place too. It’s both comforting to have reminders of these great traditions, alive and celebrated in bands like Helter Skelter, but heartwrenching to think of the real history that’s slipped away forever. BTW, why is this band named after a Beatles’ song?

Not two minutes after Helter Skelter left the stage, the UG’s usual suspects and diehard followers seemed in a rush to get the fuck out of The Cavern before the venues’ Saturday night cover band hit the stage with their Beyonce, Christina and Robbie renditions. As one erudite chap said, “I don’t even want to hear the originals, let alone covers of them.” And especially not after being spoilt by the likes of Pick Pak Zhai, The Ember, Bone Table and Helter Skelter. There’s just no comparison.
Isobel S. Saunders

Above photos © Copyright 2008 by Yan
Poster by Sheli

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