Wild Mercury Sound

Howlin Rain, Damon & Naomi, Sunburned Hand Of The Man live!

John Mulvey

There is a man in a flat cap standing in the middle of the stage, looking pensively at some large twigs while his bandmates work up ten minutes of bleary musique concrete. Eventually he picks up a bass and the six of them lumber into a passage of magisterial, martial psych. It mutates into waterlogged beatnik blues, then a kind of splenetic krautpunk. One of the guitarists, incidentally, now has a cardboard box on his head. There’s a mannequin’s head on top of the box. After a while, he conscientiously ties a scarf round its neck.

This, of course, is Sunburned Hand Of The Man, beginning an exceptional Sunday night of psychedelic music at the Scala. I wish it hadn’t been at the Scala, mind, since these three bands – notably terrific as they are – are nowhere near big enough to fill this place, and consequently the crackling energy which they generate gets a bit lost in here.

Not that this seems to concern the bands overly much. Sunburned are on driven, extremely focused form tonight. Unlike the recent “Fire Escape” album, the heavy-booted funk is generally left on the shelf, in favour of an unusually rocking set. It’s probably because I’ve been playing their records so much of late, but parts of it remind me rather of the Flower Travelling Band; that ceremonial, intricate sort of blues-rock, blessed with a patterned formality that’s very different from their characteristic wacked-out improv. The pagan performance art is still there, though, and the set ends with the ritual waving of some branches draped in lights.

Damon And Naomi, up next, are a gentler pleasure; sometimes, in fact, their sketchy little songs can veer a little too close to indie tweeness for my taste. At their best, though, they conjure up an ineffably fragile brand of psych, beautifully augmented by Bhob Rainey on textural soprano sax and the very great Japanese guitarist Michio Kurihara, whose work – notably with Ghost – I’ve banged on about plenty in the past.

Kurihara is an incredibly discreet virtuoso, and he hovers at the back of the stage adding phased, impressionistic depth to Damon And Naomi’s filigree compositions. It’s significant, though, that the strongest piece they play is only half theirs: “Araca Azul/The Earth Is Blue” is part-cover of a fine old Caetano Veloso song, part nuanced response to it.

No such delicacies from Howlin Rain, finally making their British debut after we’ve droned on about them in Uncut for the best part of two years. If you’ve managed to avoid all my hype thus far, they’re the latest project of Santa Cruz’ Ethan Miller, now taking precedence since he wound up the activities of Comets On Fire at this same venue a few months back.

For anyone put off by the tempestuous psych roar of Comets, Howlin Rain might be a more accessible proposition; the cacophonous Echoplex which underpinned most Comets music has been parked, and in its place the Southern rock classicism which first surfaced on Comets’ mighty “Avatar” is now way in focus. Miller is now flanked by a guitarist who dutifully locks into twin harmony leads (unlike the raging genius of old foil Ben Chasny, who’s crazy in the front row here, incidentally), and by a keyboardist who looks, appositely, a bit like Keith Godchaux.

I’ve been sat on their wonderful second album, “Magnificent Fiend”, for months now, and the latest rumour is that they’ve been signed by Rick Rubin, who may think he’s got his hands on the new Black Crowes. He hasn’t: perhaps mercifully, Miller is much too wayward and ragged a performer to choogle quite so slickly. He’s a compelling frontman, though, bawling his way around his own serpentine melodies, constantly leading his band on spluttering new trajectories, punctuating everything with ecstatic, eruptive solos.

Anyway, Howlin Rain played a load of great songs whose titles I still don’t know, though in the unlikely event “Magnificent Fiend” ever actually gets released, Tracks Two and Three were great, and I was mildly gutted that they didn’t play the Allmans/gospel/Yes rave-up about God and thunder and stuff that is Track Four. Great night, still. Anyone else make it down?


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