Cowards w/ Indus Traps – Deaf Institute, Manchester – 15/04/17

The danger with going to see two debut gigs on the same evening at a venue which, when you last attended it, featured not only your favourite band but one you think might be just about the best on the planet right now, both technically and presentationally – and which you watched from exactly the same vantage point in the gallery – is that your performers du jour might pale into insignificance by comparison. It is to Cowards and Indus Traps’ eternal credit that neither did anything of the sort.

Cowards took to the stage of the tastefully lit venue to deliver a short set that belied the fact they’d only performed publicly once before and one that put to rest any suspicion that they are only a recording band (although they did confirm to me later that finding the time to perform live isn’t easy and that they don’t know just now when the next show will be; such is the life of today’s multi-tasking musician).

It was instantly evident that they’d gained confidence since their previous test-run show last July, even if they hadn’t lacked it then. Playing all but one of the nine songs on their debut album Teeth, which had been released the day before (I’m not sure why Dickens was omitted, they didn’t come close to breaching the curfew), vocalist/guitarist Mike Charles, who is chief spokesperson, quickly won over the audience, surprisingly acknowledging in his first sentence that Indus Traps had “taught them something about stagecraft.”

I say ‘surprisingly’ because as good as Indus Traps were, Cowards played like a seasoned bunch of live performance pros from the off. Supported by a tight and inventive drummer in Grant Tildsley they’re an active bunch, the stage taking the appearance at times of a musical gymnasium.

Without the backing of brass musicians and the various techniques they’d used on the album some of the songs sounded quite different, though the first three – played in album order – were virtual replicas. I’m sticking with my previously voiced opinion that their slower, more melodic stuff represents their best work to date. I understand that ‘Blackout’ almost didn’t make it, that Mike Charles isn’t all that keen on the album version and that it was hastily re-written 24 hours before the show and practiced once. Indeed, before the first notes were played he even turned and asked his colleagues “how does it start?” and I’m not sure he was joking,

It turned out to be the second best song of the evening. The best was the closer, Open Letter, which evolved into a jam at the end. Just for a moment I was put in mind of Arcade Fire’s set-closing version of In the Backseat at Amsterdam’s Paradiso in 2005 during which the band, after paying homage at the wake of Regine Chassagne’s deceased mother, slowly departed the stage one by one leaving Jeremy Gara to play the final definitive snare drum note. (Check out that mesmerising musical theatre performance on YouTube if you get a spare 10 minutes). Cowards didn’t quite do the same but left keyboardist Esther Maylor to play out the last few notes, leaving the crowd hungry for more. I can’t offer a better analogy – or recommendation – than that.

My only concerns on the night were: (1) the sudden and unconvincing ending of several songs as if they weren’t sure how to conclude them. There’s nothing wrong with the big barnstorming finale and some tracks merit it. (2) The most popular song amongst hardcore fans was a cover, the dance track Toka’s Miracle. Cowards is neither a covers band nor a dance band and that one should clearly be the fans’ favourite might just set off an alarm bell somewhere, or at least initiate a de-briefing.

When it’s your debut show, having your support act performing theirs as well could be a blessing or a curse.  As it happened, Indus Traps complemented Cowards perfectly. The Massive Attack and Bonobo-inspired Indus Traps is a collaboration between respective south and north Londoners Lou Barnell (the ‘Holographic Goddess of Chaos and Destroyer of Worlds’) and ‘acclaimed High Wizard of Electro Dub’ Dirty Freud, a DJ, composer, re-mixer, and producer.

Neither ‘Broken Spectral Garage’ nor ‘Glittery Dub’ would be my musical genre of choice for a quiet night in, listening to the gramophone but they put a new spin on it with some clever little songs which embraced growing up in 1990s London, just doing what you want to do, and (their first of the evening), about how we take too many photographs (on the intriguing basis that they take away a little of your soul each time). I guess they won’t have bought any shares in Snapchat.

That opening song is titled Blonde and Bare, while others were named Restraint of Beasts and A Time for Villains, which seem more appropriate to 1970’s prog. There was even an unscheduled collaborative work with a member of The Prodigy thrown in at the end with the blessing of Cowards, who seemed to be enjoying the show.

Actually Blonde & Bare is a pretty good description of how Indus Traps come across on stage. While Dirty Freud works his socks off in the engine room it is Wonder Woman Lou Barnell who catches and keeps your attention. Tall, rangy, lithe, chatty (and blonde) and with a good voice, she could probably front just about any band and reminded me in an arcane way of the Ting Tings’ Katie White, but let’s not go there. She has an athletic, quite exotic stage routine, delivering her songs in various contorted positions, which at one point included one-handed press-ups.

So athletic in fact that she didn’t need to fake the heavy breathing required on second song Restraint of Beasts; the energy expended on Blonde and Bare ensured it came naturally.

© D J Bentley, 2017

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