September 9, 2003

Bielefeld Forum
September 10, 2003


So, the first Radio Birdman show ever in Germany. Solingen seems like a smallish town (I say "seems" - I didn't have much time to do any exploring), and as I walked to the venue, it didn't look too much; a nice friendly looking bar with a small enclosed courtyard to one side. However, once you were inside there was a long corridor going back and down from the bar, and then, wow, a pretty damn big room, I'd guess 30 metres wide by 20 or so deep, with a big stage, and thankfully a bar along one side of the room.

I arrived early, since I didn't have an advance ticket, and so got to wander round, alternating between the auditorium and the front bar (which also served some fine snacks). Definitely a cool vibe to the place; the front bar was playing late '60s Nuggets-style stuff, while down in the venue they seemed to have a copy of the "Do The Pop!" compilation playing; there seemed to be plenty of people there who knew all those old favourites like "Sun God", "I'm Stranded", "Savage" etc, which augured well in my mind.

Support band were The Dirtshakes, a local combo; indeed, I believe their bassist was the promoter for the gig or something (which is a good way of making sure you get a gig!). Mind you, these were no mere opportunists, but big fans, judging by the large Birdman tattoo on the lead guitarist's right bicep. A four piece - two guitars, bass and drums unit - they struck me as a Ramones-ier version of The D4, which is Damn Fine by me. I thought some of their songs lacked a bit of focus, but they gave it their all, including a spirited cover of The Buzzcocks' "What Do I Get", before finishing with a lively and impressive cover of "When The Birdmen Fly". Great touch, guys.

As 10.30 approached, the PA music switched into Herr Hendrix's "Are You Experienced?" (a fitting intro tape for the tour, I feel), and the band slipped onto the stage. By now the room was pretty full, although not unpleasantly crowded. Indeed, although there were several hundred people here (difficult to tell with no elevated position to count from, but I'd say over 400), there was no jostling or crowding or other unpleasantness - lebensraum in action, as it were. Anyway, the band ripped through "Do The Pop!", "Smith & Wesson Blues" and "Burn My Eye", and we were away!

They powered through "Non Stop Girls" and "I-94" with all their usual fire, before dropping the pace (but not the passion) for the smouldering majesty of "Love Kills". Back to full throttle for "Alone In The Endzone", and then Ron launched into that great intro for "Descent Into The Maelstrom", and boy was this a highlight for me. The power and the intensity was breathtaking, blistering even; power enough to pull them out of a black hole, let alone a maelstrom!

The crowd were definitely having a real fun time of it and there was no let up with "What Gives?" and "Hangin' On", before the band launched into a great pairing of "455SD" and "Dark Surprise", the former dissolving into a spacey and atmospheric feedback passage, before launching into the latter. "Dark Surprise" is fast becoming a huge favourite of mine. Hmm, spacey feedback passage to connect songs; it's a relatively brief bridge, so I won't accuse them of listening to too much Grateful Dead, but there's definitely an air of psychedelia about some of their playing.

"Crying Sun" maintained the momentum, before "Murder City Nights" just went right out there to another place, screaming, stomping and wailing with concentrated malevolence. At this point I should say that the sound in the room was excellent, and that it's a pleasure to hear Pip's keyboards throughout the show; my one reservation about the shows I saw last year was that Pip was often lost in the mix then - but not now.

"Anglo Girl Desire" followed, and when Deniz and Chris were soloing together I was struck by the fact that I hadn't heard something so melodically attuned and musically dense from two guitars since I saw Wishbone Ash, but that this had a whole raging, thundering tsunami behind them, something that the Ash never had (nor to be fair to them, probably ever tried for). The set ended with a rapturously-received "Aloha Steve And Danno", before the band retired for a few minutes breather. Then they were back to treat us to "Man With Golden Helmet", "Waiting For The Man" and an awesome "New Race".

Another brief retreat from the stage was met with volleys of applause and whistling, and they were back again for a trio of excellently executed covers: "Cold Turkey", "Transmaniacon MC" and "You're Gonna Miss Me". And then about 90 minutes after they'd started, they were gone. Damn was that good.

Waiting around by the front of the stage after the gig, I met Steve, who'd seen the band in London in '78, and had then been so impressed with the show he'd booked up for the German dates. Ron came out and chatted briefly, and then Steve and I retired to the front bar. Looking at Steve's pictures from '78, we were suddenly joined again by the good Mr Keeley, and then about 20 minutes later by Deniz. Well, we sat and chatted and drank, and heaven help me if it wasn't gone 3am. before we left the bar. It was a great gig, and a hell of a capper to talk to such friendly and open people; none of that rock star ego bullshit. Just seemingly ordinary folks playing extraordinary music like their lives depended on it. (And the fact that they're far from ordinary people, and that their lives most definitely don't depend on a Birdman tour makes it even more extraordinary).
1/2 - The Dirtshakes

3/4 - Radio Birdman

And so to Bielefeld, a couple of rain-swept train hours from Solingen. It rained all bloody day in Bielefeld, and by the time I got to the gig, I was absolutely soaked.

The venue was a strange set-up, a big square room that was presumably some sort of industrial unit previously. The stage is in one corner, the bar in the other, but it's a funny set-up. The stage is in the top right of the square, slightly at an angle, but predominantly facing down the right hand half of the square, so those in the top left of the square don't have a great view. The bar is in the bottom left of the square, but that bottom corner of the square is separated from the rest of the room by partition walls. Having sourced a ticket earlier in the day, I arrived a little later, by which time there's probably about a hundred people in the club, the biggest group of whom are clustered around a TV showing the Germany-Scotland football game which was on that night; good thinking by the venue (shame they couldn't have done anything about the bloody monsoon).

Opening attraction, a little late, are the Hydromatics, a four-piece (twin guitar) unit, featuring Detroit legend Scott Morgan on guitar and vocals. Turns out they'd driven that day from Amsterdam, and with the rain and delays from traffic accidents on the main roads, they'd only just made it. They turned in a sterling set of high energy, rock'n'roll with a twist of soul in that Detroit way. My enjoyment of their set was only marred by having a succession of German people standing in front of me who insisted in having shouted conversations with each other during the performance. Just as one lot left, another lot arrived; it was uncanny.

I particularly enjoyed "RIP Rock'n'nRoll" and "Dangerous", and then for a finale, yes, marvellously, the Klondike Tek collective arrived on stage with guitars, and we were treated to six and a half minutes of "City Slang". It was wild, it was noisy (hell, you've got four guitars there), you had to love it, you had to be there (or at least be a better wordsmith than me to describe it).

Well, follow that. Don't let it be said that the Birdmen shirk a challenge! The set was essentially the same as the previous night ("Do The Pop", "S & W Blues", "Burn My Eye", "I-94", "Non Stop Girls", "Love Kills", "Alone In The Endzone", "Descent Into The Maelstrom", "What Gives?", "Hangin' On", "455 SD" -> "Dark Surprise", "Cryin' Sun", "Murder City Nights", "Anglo Girl Desire", "Aloha Steve And Danno") but they never play things exactly the same do they? There were a few glitches with the PA (and I gather with the monitors), and I thought that Rob's voice was a little hoarse in places (hopefully the day off before Oslo will help), but generally they turned in another excellent performance.

This was a lively crowd, and maybe that spurred the guys on. Maybe I was just tired from the night before, but I thought there were a couple of slightly flat spots early on. And yeah there was a flubbed note somewhere, and one of the endings sounded a bit strange, but if I wanted to hear perfect versions I'd stay home and listen to the albums. The power and passion still shone through, and it was still a hell of a lot better than pretty much any other band I've ever seen, and probably a lot of the rest of the crowd too, gathering by their reaction. Maybe this band are like those grand cru French wines; lay 'em down for 25 years, and then when you come back to them they just keep getting better.

Anyway, there was a bit of a change with the encores tonight, although not as much as the guy who shouted for "Don't Look Back" was expecting! ("Good call, but we didn't rehearse that for this tour," replied Rob, before Deniz quipped "Don't look Back? - that's a shot in the dark!"). And so Deniz dedicated Man With Golden Helmet to the "greatly misunderstood artist" Leni Riefenstahl who's just died. "Route 66" followed, and then "New Race" (with Rob chucking in a couple of lines from Chuck Berry's "Let It Rock").

A brief break from the stage, and the band are back again, to round out the night with Jim Dickson's rumbling bass intro taking us into an intense and desperate "Cold Turkey" (with a Stooges' "Down On The Street" lyrical tease from Rob). A rip-roaring "Breaks My Heart" followed, and then the dependable insanity that is the rollercoaster called "You're Gonna Miss Me". Never a truer word.

Steve and I hung around for a drink or two after the show and ended up chatting with Ron and Rob for quite a while, and all the time there were people coming up to say how much they'd enjoyed the show and thanking the guys for coming over. It's been happening all tour apparently, and it's gratifying (and hopefully promising) to see. And despite the fact that I had to get up at 6am the next morning, it was still gone 2am before we hauled out of there.

- The Hydromatics

- Radio Birdman