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Concert Review by Nick Morgan

The Bloomsbury Ballroom
Bloomsbury, London
August 11th 2008

This is our first visit to the Bloomsbury Ballroom. It’s one of Vince Power’s joints, housed in the basement of Victoria House, a recently-refurbished 1930s office building, originally built for the Liverpool Victoria Friendly Society, which had begun life in the 1840s to help low-paid workers save for their funerals – it’s still the UK’s largest friendly society offering a range of financial services to its members.

Quite why they needed a ballroom isn’t clear (maybe it was for morally-uplifting lectures about funeral management) but when the building was redeveloped a few years ago VPMG leased the space and employed designer Shaun Clarkson, who’s worked on many of their venues (including the ghastly Pigalle), to give it the full Art Deco treatment. Actually it feels a bit more like a school assembly hall with twiddly bits on the radiators than an Art Deco triumph of the sort claimed by VPMG. But either way it’s not the décor that the folks in the bar are gasping at – open-mouthed with astonishment – but rather the exorbitant prices being charged for soft drinks and water, which is what this relatively sober Monday night crowd are mostly going for. They’re largely students, apart from the older, greyer and heavier blokes scattered around the audience who are all, strangely, scribbling into little black notebooks.
Cold War Kids
That’s probably because we’re here to see California’s Cold War Kids, whose second album is just about ready for release, so it’s a sneak preview of this new material (played, it has to be said, with uncompromising gusto) along with some old favourites from their debut album, 2006’s Robbers and Cowards. The Kids (mostly in their mid-twenties) have been going for about four years, and having toured almost without respite in the run-up to Robbers and Cowards had built a considerable fan base, amplified by a virtual blog-fuelled buzz. However it all went a bit wrong for them when one album reviewer ‘outed’ the band as covert Christians, subversively injecting religious messages into their songs, provoking something of an ill-informed backlash. The fact that three members of the band attended the same Catholic college may well account for a heavy use of religious imagery and language in some of their songs, but aside from that it’s hard to see why they might be any more closet-proselytisers than say Nick Cave, who’s not short of the odd biblical metaphor himself. What I would say is that for young men (albeit not Kids) their songs are surprisingly intense, mature and not a tad on the gloomy side.
And if you might think they’re difficult to listen to on disc, then that’s nothing compared with the live performance, which is one of the most disrupted and disruptive that I’ve seen for a long time. Although musically quite different it even puts the Gang of Four to shame – and is none the less compelling for that, in fact quite the reverse. Singer Nathan Willett’s voice is probably best described as “agonised” – seemingly a pleasantly twangy transatlantic rock voice, he pushes it to the edge with a wailing falsetto – like the characters in the songs, full of self-doubt and uncertainty. Cold War Kids
When he goes to the piano it’s more often to crash out some discordant notes than to pick out a melody, most of which are almost subverted by his wayward keyboards and the guitar of Jonnie Russell. He’s got a fantastic rich booming sound – no doubt in part deriving from the DeArmond pickups on his Harmony guitar (I can’t be sure but it looks like a Rocket) – but his playing is jerky, almost out of time. Which is how he moves, although it’s not as distracting as bassist Matt Maust, who roams the stage with spastic motions, careering at will into both Russell and Willett. It’s quite a performance, dense, very intense, very powerful and very impactful.
So if I knew their work better I might be able to tell you what they played off the new album, Loyalty to Loyalty, which is released any day soon. But I don’t, and they certainly weren’t helping by giving out song titles. Not enough time for that. But they did play more than half the stuff from Robbers and Cowards, perhaps a bit more poppy than the newer material, but sufficient for me to buy the album. And I’ll certainly get Loyalty when it’s released. So should you. - Nick Morgan (concert photographs by Kate)
The Cold War Kids' MySpace page

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