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Los Campesinos, Girls, Smith Westerns at Webster Hall August 4th, 2009: Rusty

The best moment during a concert this year was Los Campesinos last song “You’ll Need Those Fingers For Crossing”. It had been a great night any way and on the cramped stage the band had been falling all over themselves while killing (and I mean killing) on one song after another but the last song was a crowning achievement. “Fingers” is not a fave Los Camp song but lead singer Gareth had the audience in the palm of his hand anyway and they followed him here and the song itself, the last song of the last night of the tour, had all the hallmarks of a malevolent benediction “Sucking the last words from the back of your throat, so perfect so bitter we laugh then we choke”

The so perfect so bitter is where Gareth (all the lead musicians share the Campesinos last name, just like the Ramones), polysyllabic, emotionally devastated, too clever by hard lyric with a punk art pop blast works from. A great place to be in a live setting and especially when they are on their game which they were six months ago. But last night at the Webster Hall “Fingers” is the fourth song and it isn’t there. The band, who are far from just a back up band, are in back up mode and Gareth is gasping for breath and unwilling to get the song the passionate vocal it demands. The very next song he is taking hits on an inhaler (albuteral?) . It’s the second night of the tour and between needing to get air into his lungs and the band’s rustiness it aint happenning.

Opening band, the very young Smith Westerns were pretty good tonal rock with a lead guitarist who looks like a teenage Ira Kaplan. Girls is a trickier question. The lead singer starts off looking like “Where’s Waldo” and ends up looking like a flock of seagulls and the band has a clutch of great, i do mean great, songs that they haven’t quite figured out how to present -it suggest they should record an album and have audiencess find them that way first so we aren’t trying to figure out the songs when the excitement level isn’t enough to hold our attention. At first the band are simply a drag with the occasional jam no harm no foul but after awhile a rapport begins to build between band and audience and I would feel a lot more positive about “Girls” if the lead singer hadn’t ended the night alone with an acoustic guitar being totally ignored. Bad move and he should drop it.

Guitarist Ollie announces near the end of the set how happy he is to be getting New York out of the way early because it looms so large on the tour. Well, it should but this is Los Camp’s third visit this year and I don’t think the big boys will be out tonight and he should be relieved because for every time the band get it right they miss it twice. The “You! Me! Dancing!” -a big fan favorite, is perfunctory and iffy, “We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed” is underplayed and “MIserabelia” is so bad it is confounding -nobody seems to want to lose control and all the band members crowd surfing in the world isn’t changing it. Meanwhile an earlier song “It Started With A Mixx” is a fresh, brash blast of pop and “Sweet Dreams, Sweet Cheeks” with Gareth and Aleks (who is leaving the band after this tour to go back to school according to their website!) singing together was better than the recorded version and oddly moving, a shared moment that reminds you how big a presence Aleks was at first when Gareth and Aleks were playing the male-female argument in songs. More importantly, a new song -maybe called “Panic In Bed”- was really good.

Sometimes it is lost how insularly British a band Los Campesinos are. Whenever a group are all sharing the same name -and this is a septet as well, they are saying loudly, we are family: you can’t enter here, it’s about us. And when the lyric of song is so widely literate and wordy it is closing up as well. It’s the bitter, sweet dichotomy of a song they didn’t play “It’s Never That Easy Though, Is It?”. Here is the lyric:

“This one time I kissed a girl for class war.
I pulled her hips in close
And held my left fist high above her pale right clavicle
She said, “oh tell me darling, do you think we have a future?
“”Well maybe, kind of, pretty sure we’ve two between us”
Bring over pictures of your dead pets and relatives
And we’ll just say it’s over if I don’t shed any tears

I’m calling you again on your telephone
And all I ever get is another stupid ringing tone
He’s gonna get drunk and call you at four in the morning(I know!)
He’s gonna get drunk and call you at four in the morning

As if I walked into the room to see my ex-girlfriend
(Who by the way, I’m still in love with)
Sucking the face of some pretty boy with my favorite band’s most popular song
In the background
Is it wrong that I can’t decide which bothers me most?
In the forefront
Of my mind it’s the thought not of you underneath,
but me coming out looking worse”

This is gifted lyric writing, he has you on the “class war” line and keeps you on the “favorite band” -it doesn’t have the stench of misogyny (though it might have the collegiate question mark of misanthropy) what it has is the unquestionable cleverness of language and it is the rule over Los camp’s two EPs and two albums.

And it doesn’t excuse Gareth’s inability to push himself last night. Have you ever been on a date where you know the girl really likes you but for some reason you can’t get yourself to make a move and by the end of the night you don’t even try to kiss her. She goes away thinking you’re a waste of time. And, while not to that degree, they definitely made out with us at the end of the night, that’s what Los Campesinos did to their fans last night. The audience were dying to let loose, dying to to embrace em and rave em and go berserk, but the band couldn’t sustain the energy, they didn’t make the move on us. We wanted to be taken to bed and they took us to a corner and French kissed us.

So many naff ideas here, starting with Girls as the opening act. Titus Andronicus are such a powerhouse live act, Los camp had to come up with the goods or get blown off stage last tour. Girls are no competition. The band were rusty the way a baseball coming off the DL is rusty: they were concentrating too hard and they were missing and missing and missing.

I am making this sound worse than it was but even so I expect great bands to play great concerts. I have been calling Los Campesinos the best band in the world based upon an unequaled string of recordings and a stunning set that had the Bowery Ballroom on its knees. The recordings are still there, the set not so much.

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