Live review from Mellow Yellow

1) Summer Wind
2) NMT
3) Turkish
4) Life
5) Maze
6) Black Pepper

Pity the reviewer who had to rate Cow Head’s performance. Not because the local instrumental quartet failed to deliver at The Hub – but because there was so much going on that it was a challenge to unpick the band’s influences and work out what made the show so special.

Opener Summer Wind was a midnight stroll through Rio, with Latin rhythm guitar and softly-patted cajon. Second track NMT (“No Musical Talent”? Pah!) ramped up the energy with metallic scratching and rapid, almost Celtic picking that recalled the duality and dynamism of Rodrigo y Gabriela. Electro-acoustic guitarist Ryan Wan showed considerable skill, which suggested he had studied the music of Joaquin Rodriguez. However, his guitar was so loud in the mix that it was very audible if he accidentally muted a note while his fingers flew over the frets. Meanwhile, his fellow guitarist Simon Choi used harmonics and phaser distortion to great effect, taking the song into psychedelic territory over Wai-leung Wu’s tango bassline, which gave the track a traditional tether.

It was time to play “guess the tune” on third song, Turkish. The group took Mozart’s instantly-recognisable Rondo Alla Turca and gave it a fiery mariachi-esque makeover. The performance was pure revelry, with some particularly jaw-dropping fretwork from the flamboyant Wan. With his lovingly-picked strings, Wu took the spotlight for Life, which took on a Stairway to Heaven meandering rock ballad vibe.

Maze began with rapid, flamenco strumming from Choi, before he was joined by Wan on a gondola of mandolin-style tremolo. The song blossomed into a toe-tapping bossa nova number, with stomping cajon, rumba bass and high fretwork from the duelling guitars. Percussionist Ying-chung Wong led a mass click-along as the bass tension heightened, the tempo slowed and the Pink Panther practically slunk out of the speakers. But this was a momentary diversion before the band burst back into Spanish rhythms to end the dramatic song.

Final song Black Pepper incorporated a strong riff over sultry bass and windswept guitar flourishes. The closer took on a prog feel as the tempo and the direction took a turn for the classical. Wan drew upon his classical influences as the two guitar players worked soaring melodies and jangling chords alongside Wong’s joyful shouts, hand-clapping and a bass bobbing with snake-hipped rhythm

With so many genres and flavours blended into the mix, Cow Head’s set could have been a dizzying mess. Instead, four charismatic and extremely competent musicians gave a theatrical and infectiously fun performance that was both thrilling and energising to witness.
– El Jay

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