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The Necks at the Bishopsgate Institute

Phil Barnes By

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The Necks
Bishopsgate Institute
London
March 21, 2014

The Necks live are a different beast to their studio incarnation. In the studio the mixing desk becomes almost a fourth member of the band with, using the recent Open album as an example, contributions being faded in and out or panned across the stereo image to enhance and fine tune the soundscape. Live, however, you get the full visceral experience unmitigated by clever production and, in a beautiful space such as the Bishopsgate Institute, the perfect way to lose yourself in the music.

The Necks played two sets here in the genteel setting of the Institute —a much needed humanising pocket of art-house cool in the financial district of the City of London. The acoustics were good, allowing the contributions of the individuals to always be clearly discernible without losing the critical effect created by the blend of the sounds in combination. A clear benefit of the Necks live experience is that spatial dimension of being able to switch your view between the musicians as they react to each other, and here too the venue sight lines were good. While the Necks eschew any suggestion of showbusiness or pandering to the audience, there is something intrinsically visually interesting in the intensity of musicians so completely immersed in their music that they do not even make eye contact throughout the performance.

Set up in a line, like Sly and the Family Stone, the Necks feel like a democracy of equals in service of the music. The performances I had heard before had placed pianist, Chris Abrahams, very much to the fore—his interchanges with Lloyd Swanton on bass being central to those pieces. While each made their own significant and distinctive contributions here, it was percussionist Tony Buck who stood out, particularly in the second set. Drummer barely seems an adequate description of his contribution—augmenting his standard sticks with handbells, brushes, a child's toy (possibly) and something that looked remarkably like a 1980s 'soap on a rope,' albeit one made out of wood and emitting an occasional fearsome death rattle! Buck was often a blur of movement and received an especially appreciative acknowledgement from the crowd at the close.

Overall though there is so much to hear in the many layers of this music that there is a danger of simply reflecting back one's own preferences in trying to describe it. At the risk of self- revelation then, the first set reminded me at times of the early Velvet Underground, at times of the light from the dark stars of those wonderful mid-80s 4AD records (Dead Can Dance, Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil), yet there were also militaristic drum patterns and echoes of beautiful solo jazz piano too. Perhaps we should just leave it that the sound was quintessentially the Necks, standing on the shoulders of past giants to create something uniquely their own.

While it felt as if the audience reaction to the second set was marginally stronger, both sets were in truth wonderful, if markedly different. The second set started slower taking its initial impetus from Lloyd Swanton's jazzy bass figure, the tension from the interlocking contributions building to a crisis around the 25 minute mark that the band worked through in the second half of the piece. No- one left early and there was a very real sense of the audience allowing themselves to be lifted away by the music, following the Necks wherever they decided to take us. This trust between performer and audience is particularly rare and especially at London gigs where the 'go on, impress me' attitude of some crowds can intimidate even established artists. The Necks however were very much in front of a sympathetic, committed, crowd and they duly delivered.

Music like this needs to be heard and, on this evidence, heard live where the extra possibility of the unexpected that live improvisation offers pushed these great musicians that little bit further. Add a great venue, a sympathetic crowd and, really, what's not to like?

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