CAM AVERY, BEN WITT & JAMES GATES @ THE BIRD, SUNDAY APRIL 28
I’ve been thinking about what to write in this opening sentence for a few minutes now; I’ve tried a few different ideas, rearranged the words a bit, frowned at the punctuation, and decided I’ll use the last bit of the sentence to tell you one thing: I’m not very spontaneous.
Look, sometimes I am, but I tell you what, more often than not I’ll prolong every decision like it’s a pivotal move in a game of competitive chess. This evening, for example, I equivocated for maybe ten minutes over whether to get the pre-spiced can of pinto beans, or to get the neutral beans and spice them myself when I got home (spoiler alert: I got both). Being a person who writes about music plays well into this mode of over-thinking, because you don’t just go to a show: you think about what shows are on that you could maybe write something about, then you make a shortlist, then you choose one and go and then a couple of nights later you spend several hours analyzing the whole thing and typing it up between cups of black coffee and so on.
But see, here’s the thing: there’s one place that often threatens my happily unspontaneous approach to gig-faring, a place so darn welcoming and pleasant and accessible that it melts me, turning my pre-meditating web of bones and muscles into a sort of happy fluid in a me-shaped containter. That place is THE BIRD and I reckon you probably know what I mean; it’s as comfortable as a Finnish spa bath, yet as riveting as a Swedish crime novel. It just sucks you in.
So I’d been sitting at Ezra Pound, which they’ve just adorned with a lavish array of plants, not that I often go to Ezra Pound. I don’t know why I don’t. Too many unfamiliar trendy men with beards, caps and sneakers perhaps. Nothing against them but I can only deal with about one per cubic metre. Anyway, it’s 5 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon and the cap density is well under control. I try a rice beer with Bruce Lee on the label. I’m a sucker for novel beers. You can always convince me to try the novel beer. I have friends who have semi-monogamous relationships with specific pale ales and so on. I wish I could do that. I’m far too capricious. I think it’s FOMO, you know, “fear of missing out,” because that rice beer might just be the best thing you ever let trickle down your gullet.
But it’s not FOMO that sees me veer around the corner and walk straight into The Bird. It’s a whim, I suppose, and the knowledge that the gentlemen performing tonight are reliably superb musicians, plus the allure of The Bird, which is this weekend celebrating its third birthday. Yes, it feels good. The light forms dim amber rivulets among dark wood, worn bricks and scattered human movement. JAMES GATES, aka SLUMS (not sure if he’s still using this pseudonym) plays now. It’s fragile, sinewy, reverb-sodden stuff with plenty of spiraling eastern inflections like you might hear in James’ duo, Wolves at the Door. I wouldn’t call it ‘dynamic,’ it all kind of simmers, hanging like a mist, through which emerge visions of lovers and dreams and ghosts and spiders.
A golden ale slides into my hand, before BEN WITT slides onto the stage. Ben Witt, as you may know, is a central member of THE CHEMIST and he also plays with HAMJAM and sometimes RABBIT ISLAND but never before have I seen him on his own. No matter what he’s doing, no-matter how hard he tries to humbly conceal it, his immense talent is always the proverbial elephant in the room. When he’s on his own, predictably, this talent has nowhere to hide, and so you end up being slapped in the face by Mr. Witt’s daunting prowess. This is not to say it’s show-offy; on the contrary, these songs are rustic and bluesy, inventive but certainly not ostentatious. Nevertheless, Witt’s guitar playing is undeniably incredibly. One moment he’s conjuring simultaneous bass lines and crunch-chords, peppered with passing blue notes and expressive bends and lurches. Next he’s stepped on the fuzz pedal and is screeching around the neck and head in an abstract cacophonous way that brings to mind Tom Morello’s noise-guitar freakouts but more evocative and painterly, without the stadium affectations.
Most tunes here conform to a kind of smoky, faintly jazzy, late-night-blues aesthetic which I could compare to Tom Waits but I fear that’d be lazy. In any case, it’s a sound Witt is nobly committed to, though he does mix it up a little, most notably with a melodic pop ballad with the refrain “Babe, we’ve got love on our side,” which, believe it or not, manages to sidestep being cheesy and sounds genuinely beautiful. He rounds it all out with a wild harmonica-and-voice jam, the room clapping along, one Witt-foot stamping. As you may be beginning to suspect, I rather enjoyed Ben Witt’s set this evening.
Cam Avery is standing next to me and he leans down and tells me how much he hates following Ben Witt at gigs. So would I, truth be told. Cam says there’s an unspoken – nay, spoken – rivalry between them. “One time, Ben just said: I’ve got something special tonight, and I said, you bastard, you’re going to do something good aren’t you. And then he came out and made these unbelievable noises and played a vacuum cleaner and shaved himself on stage.”
Well yes, that does sound rather amazing. But it’s no secret that Mr. Witt is an admirer of Mr. Avery’s talents too. Heck, everyone here just loves everyone else, I reckon; but it’s not hard to see why CAM AVERY might attract the admiration – indeed, envy – of fellow musicians when he rises to play his set. Cam strikes up a golden ratio of technical skill, rough-around-the-edgesness and nonchalance, so that the tricky bits seem effortless, and the imperfect bits seem to be just right. His voice is better than his guitar playing, certainly, and plenty of would-be shaky chords are rescued from the jaws of uncertainly by cunning and brilliant vocal zig-zaggings. As a whole, the set’s pretty hard to fault. Once again, what we’re hearing is one man’s take on sandpapery, masculine, left-of-centre blues. In amongst it, there’s a good cover of Father John Misty’s “Only Son of the Ladiesman” and a grand finale in the form of The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” which elicits yet more crowd participation. Cam salutes The Bird, and proposes a future event whereupon he will perform the whole Top Gun soundtrack. That I’d pay to see.
So now you know how it happens. Some are born spontaneous, some achieve spontaneity, some have spontaneity thrust upon them by a venue and a lineup that’s just too darn lovely too turn down. Bird, happy Third. I suspect you’ll be around for a while yet, and I suspect I’ll keep getting sucked into your orbit… and not minding one bit.