So, I’ve been thinking about performance lately. Specifically I feel the indie circuit too often misses out on the theatricality and mystique that sometimes goes hand in hand with music. Don’t get me wrong I like going to see music for music’s sake, and I prefer to watch musicians without pretensions – it’s never good seeing unsigned acts who are pumped up with self-importance and acting like total cocks. But sometimes, you hanker for a bit more from a band than stylish haircuts and disaffected indie stances.And it seems I’m not alone.
It was refreshing to find myself at a gig at the Note on Saturday that fit squarely into the resurgent fringe genre they’re calling nu masque. Four acts whose power of performance relies at least in part on the creation of a persona that acts both as a wall and a window that alternately separates the audience from the performers and allows a carefully controlled glimpse into the world of their music.
Take Metal Petal, for example. The first band on the bill took the ‘mask’ element literally. Wild eyes staring out from moulded plastic and troglodytic stomping around combined with their engrossingly uncomfortable sonic output, all mutters and shouts and deep reverb, to create an experience akin to exploratory caving. In the stark, stuttering lamplight of a single strobe, guitars jangled and thrashed and echoed off the walls, keyboards washed in and out like black surf, and drum breaks promising order and pattern led you down dangerous blind alleys, only to pitch you up at the feet of a quartet of deeply unsettling glam morlocks. It wasn’t until well into their performance that I was surprised on realising that I knew three of the musicians, and I thought, “Now, that’s nu masque. Right there.”
Switch that on it’s head. Swap devils for an angel, and you have Miss Leggy Pee. A clever lipsynching act that entertains in spades. The antedote to the previous act’s dark madness, her sharp comedic interpretations of Peggy Lee’s greatest lightened the atmosphere with a sassy smile and sparkle-lashed wink. Not to mention her unconventional use of puppets. This is variety, this is burlesque. Bowie and Kemp and Bowery, and all the original maskcore pioneers would have approved.
You’ve been reading my blog long enough, you must be aware of Scunner and the Glasgow Glambangers by now. These are two acts who have been taking nu masque with their sugar puffs for years. It’s in the essence of what they do. The Glambangers describe themselves as “Gender bending glitter revivalists” and that’s them to a tee, from the thump of their glam-infused drumbox to the stomp of singer Paxton’s knee-high boots. The blurring of gender lines was a pillar of the old maskcore manifesto, and the Glambangers bring that home with a performance that is impossible to ignore.
And Scunner. The puppeteer and the engineer, along with their occasional friends. Paul Puppet arrived on the red-lit stage looking a bit like a publicity-shy Freddy Krueger, the space between the collar of his black shirt and the brim of his black fedora filled with a Burtonesque stocking mask of orange and black stripes. This striking effect was enhanced when he launched into album favourite, Zebra Grove, a dehumanised, angular halloween scarecrow bringing a menacing edge to the song. It was almost a relief when the mask was dispensed with a couple of numbers later, to reveal Puppet’s traditional make-up of comparatively friendly zig-zags and spangles.
An evening of characters then, each of them – the Petals, Leggy, Paxton and Puppet – creating a face to embellish their sounds, to challenge and engage the audience.
I liked it. A lot.
Spin forward a few nights. I’m still mulling over the nu masque thing, but the last place on earth I expected to encounter it was Andy Miller’s acoustic night at Tchai Ovna. Andy’s a technically astonishing guitar player who regularly fills the tea shop with eerie and shiveringly beautiful mellow sounds, but on stage he’s just himself. A very nice bloke playing a guitar. His guest for the evening, on the other hand, was a whole different kettle of bananas. Google ‘Uni And Her Ukelele’ and you’ll see what I mean. This utterly charming lady from San Franciso came on in a whirl of glitter and frills. You couldn’t take your eyes of her, the little body flicks that punctuated her playing, her expressive face, wide eyed and with a mouth that sang smiles. First impression was: ‘yeah, nu masque is global already’, but as her set progressed, and from talking to her afterwards, I began to suspect that this is no mask for Uni – she is actually as effervescently kooky off stage as on.
And it brings me back full circle to what it is you want from a performer. Yeah, sometimes you want more than music. You want spectacle, something weird, something wonderful to watch that complements, enhances the experience. A bit of stagecraft and performance is just the ticket. Unless you’re lucky enough to be watching one of those naturally unique people. People like Uni And Her Ukelele. But they’re special.