Arab Strap are one of those bands whose music i just adore, so, despite my intense dislike for the trip home, i headed to Athens to see them.
The opener was Athens band Japancakes. They are a standard sort of droning post-rock fare, only they seem to want to cover EVERYTHING with pedal steel guitar. Now, this is not my favorite instrument in the world, but i think that it can make an interesting accent to a song (see: Red House Painters and their correct use of the instrument), but Japancakes use it in everything. They'll have a nice song going that was beautifully built out of intertwined guitars, bass, cello, and keyboards all backed by amazing drumming, and then suddenly "WHINE! TWAAAAANG!" Pedal steel guitar over everything.
Now, in all fairness to Japancakes i think that perhaps the pedal steel was a bit over-mixed this night. I noticed that between songs the drummer would get the sound guy's attention and then point at the pedal steel with one stick while drastically gesturing downward with the other one. However, the sound board was never able to lower the instrument enough for the drummer's taste. Or mine for that matter.
Now the drummer -- he is worth mentioning. Not only was he providing some amazing drumming, but he also seemed to be the ringleader of the whole Japancakes phenomenon. He was back there beating the tar out of his drumset (what it did to offend him i may never know!), and the other instruments would be meandering (or twanging in the case of the pedal steel guitar) in their own little worlds, and the insistent drum beats would tie it all together. Out of the drumming comes the unity of a Japancakes song.
So i end up having mixed feelings about the Japancakes set -- i liked it, but i want them to seriously downplay the pedal steel. Oh well.
Up next were Arab Strap. They played to a half filled 40 Watt, which is quite respectable.
They opened up with what Tracers calls "one of their disco tunes". You know -- sampled four on the floor beats unstead of their usual drumming. (I dunno why some songs have drum machine and others don't. During the drum machine numbers the drummer kind of stood there, dancing and sipping his drink. Wierd. I say, put that boy to work!)
For this tour Arab Strap were a 5 piece. I think. There was a guy sitting in the back who might have been playing keyboards sometimes, or he might have been the guitar tech, or he might have been there to open beers for the band. I dunno exactly what he did.... Otherwise Arab Strap are guitar, bass, drums, and voice.
The music that they made was sublime. Melodies soared, vocalist Aidan Moffat slurred words, drums thumped lightly, bass lines plodded. And then the music would swell up into the heavens -- sheer beauty in three chords and 4/4 time, with lyrics talking about how his woman left him.
The music was exquisite. Some of the finest live music i have ever heard. Even better than their recorded stuff. In fact, the songs off of The Red Thread, their latest (and, i feel, weakest) album sounded amazing.
There is real power in their music. When the guitars are swirling and Aidan is singing his songs of loneliness and despair such emotions are purged, however briefly, from my soul. I am freed through his suffering. (Gosh, if i were a Christian that might sound blasphemous!) That sounds like a lot to say about a band, but they really really pack a lot of emotion into their live shows.
However, there is a downside -- they are a bunch of boys on tour. What i mean is that their between-song banter is all about "fookin'" and "drinkin'". They sounded like a bunch of (Scottish) frat boys up there on stage talking about the latest party at The Frat House. Now, i was shocked and surprised by this behavior -- i expected them to be more, well, mature. Less like a bunch of teenage guys. In retrospect i should have expected them to be like they were -- it is perfectly in keeping with the lyrics on their albums.
I think the British would call their behavior "bloke-ish". Certain female companions of mine remarked that they were a bunch of "guys" and were acting like assholes. "I bet," i said to one of them, "that they tell each other fart jokes on the tour bus."
Now, this is not really a slam on Arab Strap -- their behavior was perfectly in keeping with a bunch of guys travelling around, playing music, and drinking beer. I am honestly amazed that more artists don't use between song banter to talk about who they want to "fook". Why is that? Because such behavior is offensive to women? (In all honestly, women are usually a minority at Indie Rock shows, and this was even more evident at Arab Strap than it usually is....)
So i dunno. I was shocked by the banter, but then they would play and the music was so beautiful that i would forget everything else.
I guess my verdict is this -- go see them with an open mind. If you are not bothered by their juvenile attitudes, they are an amazingly talented band.