Sunday, 10 June 2007

Two Big Bands, Two Small Venues

It was quite a week in the Glasgow music scene. This week two of the biggest bands to come out of Scotland in the past decade both went back to their roots by playing small shows in Glasgow. It’s rare for musical artists when they hit the big time to go back to playing in the small venues that they had to play in earlier in their careers when they were just starting out, but this week two of them did just that.

The first show on Monday was Franz Ferdinand in the Grand Ole Opry, a band I’d never seen live, at a venue I had never been to before. On the next night Snow Patrol played in the tiny, but great, King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, this is a band I’ve seen a couple of times live, once before they made it big, and once after, truth be told I wasn’t that impressed either time. So with that in mind I decided to pay to see Franz Ferdinand while a friend won tickets for the XFM Scotland Radio Snow Patrol session.

The successes of Franz Ferdinand and Snow Patrol came from entirely different paths. The former are a relatively new band, though lead singer Alex Kapranos and drummer Paul Thomson have been pillars of Glasgow's music scene for years. Both studied at the Glasgow School Of Art and started playing in a band for fun.

Franz were a band much whispered about the Glasgow music scene but for some reason I’d never taken the time to see them, then seemingly out of nowhere their debut album came out and little more than six months later Franz Ferdinand had become a household name.

Their music was fun - albeit of the arty, intelligent kind – but it was by no means certain that their music would make it mainstream. This was a band very much in touch with their Art School roots, they designed their own costumes, album cover even down to the font used, and wrote their own songs. Many of which have all the ingredients to sound pretentious when you know the background to them, one song was inspired by a cult Russian novel that the majority of their fans have never heard of, nevermind read, it shouldn’t really work but somehow when those guitars start strumming it does.

Snow Patrol, on the other hand, took their time. The band members may all hail from Northern Ireland but they all went to university in Glasgow and it was here for almost a decade, first under the guise of Polar Bear, and latterly as Snow Patrol that they learned their trade. They had mild success in the 1990s,when they were the Glasgow scene's perennial underachievers. By the time they released Final Straw, they were ready to call it a day if things didn't work out - there was a real desperation in that title but desperate men sometimes take the most rewarding risks. Final Straw's plangent ballads and chugging rockers propelled the band to sales of millions. Their follow-up, last year's Open Your Eyes, was even more successful - no album sold more copies in Britain last year.

Personally speaking, whenever I’ve seen Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody take to the stage I’ve not been impressed by his ability to command it and work the audience like a lead singer should. At the beginning of his career I put it down to the fact that most of the songs weren’t very well known, or that good to be honest, but I was expecting more after Final Straw came out, especially with songs such as Run, Chocolate, and How To be Dead making the radio airwaves as frequently as they did but somehow although it was a great studio album made for playing on the radio the performance I seen live that same year didn’t really translate on the night to a good gig. In contrast people who had seen Franz Ferdinand the same year as their debut album came out commented on how great they were at commanding the stage.

The venues, and the atmosphere at each of the gigs this week, speaks to the differences between the two bands. Franz continue to go their own way, by picking an unorthodox setting (a venue beloved of Glasgow's Hank Williams obsessives) and selling it out by hushed word-of-mouth alone, they turning the entire thing into a cowboy-ish singalong. (Kapranos even sported a natty cattle-rustler's checked handkerchief to go with his black shirt.) Snow Patrol's audience, on the other hand, are radio competition winners - die-hard fans, to be sure, but required to engage with the world of corporate sponsorship to attend. Not that I could hear Colin complaining. After all, seeing Snow Patrol in King Tut's once involved a tumbleweed-strewn dancefloor and weathering tuneful but derivative and noisy indie rock. Now it involved seeing one of the biggest bands in the world in a venue where he could see the whites of Gary Lightbody's eyes.

Musically, too, the bands are polar opposites. Franz Ferdinand specialise in high-octane burners such as Michael, with which they opened. New song Favourite Lie, like the four others they premiered on Monday, was markedly heavier on the keyboards than their previous stuff, but no less energetic - it finished with a rabid blast of Italo-house piano and a furious, pounding rhythm. Snow Patrol, meanwhile, stuck closer to the mainstream. Their biggest hits - all of which delivered with smiling gusto - are camera-phones-aloft ballads, made to be sung by fields full of thousands of fans. Their music is artfully crafted, for sure, but Snow Patrol don't do art quite in the it-should-be-so-pretentious Franz Ferdinand manner. I wasn’t there myself but I did get to hear some of the songs on the radio the next day and from what I heard it was clear that Lightbody has finally found the key that enables him to command the audience. Although that might have been down to the fact that the audience were made of radio listeners who have been subjected to the songs for the past three or four years, certainly when the band played an older favourite Post Punk Progression much of the audience that had been up to that point playing the game and singing along to more recent hits Run (dedicated to Biffy Clyro) and Spitting Games, suddenly stopped doing so. But you can’t blame the audience for that, Post Punk Progression was from an time before Snow Patrol made it onto radio playlists.

In the Grand Ole Opry Franz Ferdinand managed similar devotion from the audience. On Monday I must have been in touch with my feminine side because I found myself aggressively tapping my feet to the guitar strumming hits of their first album, an album once described by Alex Kapranos as music for women to dance to, but if that’s so I’m not too bothered, I certainly wasn’t the only one having fun. Even when they played songs such as Shopping For Blood – an acid tale of modern, conspicuous consumption - and sounding like a band of outsiders, snarling as Western civilisation declines they still were able to make the song fun for its audience. There's a genuinely menacing streak in that song's glam-rock stomp, that contrasts nicely with the adrenaline-fuelled ecstasy of Take Me Out, during which the crowd sang that deadly riff over and over again.

These two bands are as different in approach and end result as you're likely to get when talking about million-selling artists, but they're the defining facets of Scottish music: the arty and the commercial, the louche and the hard-working. In their wake have come bands and artists who fall on both sides of the divide, and the fact there is room for these upstarts in the mainstream is a product of their success. And never mind that Snow Patrol are all Northern Irish, or that only one member of Franz Ferdinand is a bona-fide Scot - they're both bands steeped in Glasgow, in Scotland, and belong there as much as apple pie has a place in the good ole U S of A.


just a girl said...

You should think about shopping yourself out in your slow months as a reviewer. Seriously.

Scotsman said...

Hah! Thanks but somehow I don't think so. I don't mind reviewing something I enjoyed but I sure as hell wouldn't want to be a critic. I find critics who give bad reviews of something that they are unable to do themselves frustrating.

Just a Girl said...

I agree about the critiquing.

But you could still freelance as a reviewer. Maybe it's just that I like music a lot as well and can't seem to get much past "I went to a show. It was good/bad" but you were writing about stuff you are interested in. As well I think it is because you talked about audience/artist connection and that is 3/4 of a concert right there.

Scotsman said...

I seem to remember from a past post of yours (I would link to it but I can't remember how and i'm too lazy to find out) that you were able to do a similar review so maybe I could say the same about you. For me though once it became work I don't think it would be so enjoyable. Although if I ever do get the fuji S5 I might have to use some concert images to enable me to buy extra lenses etc but then you have to get permission and that might be too much bother.

Just a Girl said...

Thanks but I vote YOU!

Pictures are always good. Do you have to sneak in camera's? Or just the SLR's? And since they are public persona's are their images not fair game?

I haven't done anything about it but I've found out that if you set up a photography business in Canada almost everything becomes a write off. Since it is considered art the gov't cannot demand you make a certain income and basically you just need to print up cards and hand them out.