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Live Review: Matthew Dear
, December 5, 2010, Sneaky Pete’s – Edinburgh, UK

You know that feeling you get when you enter a venue and you suddenly get excited about the evening ahead for no reason other than seeing the setup on stage? That exact feeling hit me when I was the pretty much the first person to enter Sneaky Pete’s on Sunday evening. The stage was brimming with gear – keyboards, effects pedals, drum set, bass and electric guitar – so much so that the support act were forced to put their three laptops on the floor in front of the stage. Anyone else seeing this might have suddenly got excited at the prospect of a support act pulling a Dan Deacon but being vaguely familiar with support act Brothers Grimm (at least in a live setting), I knew the crowd wouldn’t be treated to such things.

It was kind of cool to have them right in front of you and the curious part of me liked being able to sneak a peek of their MacBook screens to see how their vicious music was constructed. Like I’ve said before, at their best Brothers Grimm recall a version of Fuck Buttons that seem primarily intent on making you nod your head while being weirded out at the same time. And they started off with their best material, dropping beats amongst heavy hazes of distortion. One thing I have to credit to either the band or the venue tonight was that the sound was loud. Like seriously loud. Louder than I’ve ever know this venue to be. And it is likely to be credited to the three huge speakers stacked on top of each other at each side of the stage. When the bass drums kicked in it felt like I was literally being kicked in the stomach.

It’s kind of a cool sensation but it quickly wears you down, especially when Brothers Grimm threw in some ferocious loops of feedback on top of it. The music they make sort of sounds like it’s from the future, made by machines with only the faintest hint of a human touch in the way of a some seriously reverberated wordless harmonies drifting along the lower spectrum of the sound thunderstorm. In essence I suppose the music matches the name in being grim at points, even morose in its relentlessness. With noise tearing through me I kind of didn’t mind a small group of slightly intoxicated people who moved and stood right in front of my view of the band and between me and the speakers. And I especially didn’t mind when the top speaker fell off and hit two people of the head, saving me from such dangerous excitement. I don’t know if it’s because they knocked into it or because the sheer force of the music vibrated it off but personally I’d like to think the latter. One of the members of the band came out from behind his laptop to see if they were okay but they just sort of stood there, flailing about in uncertainty. One guy held his head while a girl looked dazed, shocked and offended. I wasn’t sure what to look at myself – two thirds of the band who kept playing, locked into their laptop gazes, or the unsure bustling of the group who had a speaker come between them. The group seemed to rush out and Brothers Grimm finished their set. Now I didn’t really have anything to look at.

With the speaker incident behind me and the anticipation building (if the support act could make a speaker fall, who knows what Matthew Dear could be capable of?!), I took up the perhaps what is considered the best spot: centre stage in the front row. And when Dear arrived on stage he seemed to tower above me with a strange presence. Clean shaven, wearing a trendy casual tux, leather trousers and boots and gelled hair that screamed a sleekness that every man wanted, he looked like some guy with a serious intent. But as soon as the music started he turned into this excited maestro, lost in his music as he moved about erratically. With a live band the songs from Black City took on a different form. From hazy and unsure noise that sounded like the band tuning up “Honey” emerged murkily with a trumpet filling any blank space. In fact it seemed to fill space on a lot of songs. It kind of amazed me how much it just fell into place in Dear’s music. Just when you’re ready to make a hyperbolic statement like “nothing could enhance this album”, Dear goes and brings in the brass.

With just three bandmates accompanying him on stage (trumpeter/keyboard player, drummer, bass player), there was a limit to the amount of sound they could produce at one time. But instead of missing out vital parts of songs Dear kept a pre-set backing track playing throughout the set. If the music ever strayed off from its original form too much, there was always a consistent core via the laptop.

Despite playing to this pre-set schedule, the whole set had a great feeling of spontaneity and freshness about it. Dark and broody tracks from Black City were still dark and broody but they were infused with an energy that made me more inclined than ever to dance to the music. It was interesting to see what tracks Dear could re-create satisfyingly in a live setting and he delivered consistently. “Little People (Black City)” was there in all its extended glory which never let up for one moment, infusing the spacey synths with the trumpet; “You Put A Smell On Me” admittedly wasn’t as vicious as on record but the looseness it had here made it fit much more comfortably between the surrounding set. Surprisingly “I Can’t Feel” didn’t get played which is odd as I would have thought it would have forced itself onto the setlist just for its naked and funky bass line.

That said though, as much a great sound as they did manage to produce, the band, with a laptop, were always going to be limited. It’s no secret that Dear’s voice is manipulated quite heavily and often on his records, and as much reverb as he adds to it in a live setting, it doesn’t deliver quite the same result. When a track like “Slowdance” came about, this became obvious as the numerous voices playing about on record were reduced to just Dear and two of his bandmates. But I soon realised that this point is irrelevant and should be left for those people who want an artist to perform their songs note for note in a live setting. Despite live instrumentation present on Black City, it still felt like a primarily solitary affair and it’s kind of hard to give the idea of solitude when you’ve playing with three other guys. With a live band the songs are almost something new or at least the same thing approached in a different way. After the concert I left feeling like I hadn’t just heard the songs from Dear’s back catalogue but instead something completely new that deserved a release in itself.

When infused with the best and most vibrant kind of energy, the four men on stage kind of reminded me of a greatly loved house band that everyone comes to see often. Sure, Dear’s voice is a little limited but the passion in itself was an effect that he’ll always carry with him. For the encore Dear began playing alone with a backwards strummed guitar and a hazy loop of faint voices. Surprisingly “Innh Dahh” came into view, as settling as ever, giving off a new kind of solitude that was promising and optimistic instead of dreary and brooding. Once he brought the track to a stop his band came back into the picture and they started playing what sounded like a great jam session, free of any backing track or constraint. This city was theirs for the taking.

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