Sins and tricks combined Skinny Machines, live in concert There’s been quite a hullabaloo whipping up around Skinny Machines, this last year or so. Beloved by fans in their adopted south London heartland, word has also spread much further afield after a couple of months, care of their trusty transit, winning over hearts and minds in western Europe. Tonight finds them settling into the pan-UK leg of the same tour. Their speciality is innovative, four-minute musical sketches with more twists, turns and textural changes than seems decent or proper. These mini-epics Skinny Machines imbue with crunching guitars leavened with a lightness of touch, a pop ear for melody, shadowy lyrics (elusive, but repaying careful study) and flawless musicianship, all coated with a healthy dose of piratical indie swagger. Not easy to pigeon-hole, but easy to see why their growing fan-base (who, on the night, were also followers of Kings of Leon, Foo Fighters, Arctic Monkeys and Noah & the Whale) are so devoted. Patrolling the stage in Guildford, live favourite “Steady Eddie” already successfully under the belt, a punk-like thrash from guitar maestro Rikki Glover heralds the arrival of “The Piper”. Lead vocalist Jay Marsh, despite battling ill-health, leads with his cheekbones and guides us through this equivocal tale of the boy with the poison kiss. From there it’s straight into a newer song, “In the Doghouse”, where, after some churning riffing and a snarling solo from Glover, a slow, bluesy passage led by bass-player Mike Woodhouse comes to the fore. A single thump on the drums then introduces the title track from their debut (and excellent) CD, “Wrong Side of the River”, a dark account of disorientation and displacement set in the murky locales which populate the Skinny oeuvre. Behind the drum kit Dan Roth, in trademark waistcoat and bowler hat, attempts to batter his way into the cellar as Glover unleashes an angry solo with a hint of Tourette’s about it. It’s all going very well indeed. Another new song follows – audience sing-along “Stop that Girl”, driven onwards and upwards by the Roth-Woodhouse rhythm section, now welded at the hip following the two months on the road. A showcase too for the band’s vocal prowess. Lead singer Marsh is possessed of a vocal sweep of somewhere around three octaves and a pureness of tone and a clarity of diction rarely encountered in alt/indie rock. His really high notes are designed, so it would seem, to make girls cry and
bats fly into one another. In a certain light it’s quite other-worldly to behold, as if he is acting as an emissary, passing on the pronouncements of some higher spectral force. And the others are no vocal slouches either, Glover contributing some involved harmonies on the next song, “Cradle”, which after a slow arpeggio-based intro and a climb up to a gut-wrenching solo ends serenely to the refrain of Marsh’s unaccompanied voice. Tonight, we are seeing the band in their preferred, all-guns-blazing, fourpiece electric guise. They are, however, when the occasion or the neighbourhood by-laws demand, equally capable of playing, for example, as an acoustic duo, and two days later will see them playing in London as a semi-acoustic four-piece. Marsh (who plays rhythm guitar on most songs) switches to acoustic for the London set, opening it alone with the cautionary yarn that is “Superhappy”. With Glover’s guitar glued to its most mellifluous pick-up setting, even for his solos, this semiacoustic formulation is a fascinating way to experience the band. It is remarkable to hear the four songs also performed in Guildford presented so differently from just two days before. “Cradle” in particular benefits from having its soul laid bare (and from Marsh’s aching vocal) and the whole format allows the slinked-up bass work of the bobbing and weaving Woodhouse to come shining through. Back in all electric mode in Guildford, the end of the evening is approaching. Glover punches out the snappy arpeggios underpinning the CD’s opener, “Laid Out Cold”, Marsh lets loose a soaring vocal and the intricate interplay between his rhythm guitar and Woodhouse’s bass has the latter beaming like a Smiley. A synchronised drum-guitar finish (the Skinnies have a way with interesting endings) brings the set to a triumphant close. As the crowd (roughly half male, half female) wanders back to the station there is a calm in the air punctuated only by the sound of a discombobulated bat flying repeatedly and dejectedly into a kerb stone. Ladies and gentlemen, Skinny Machines have left the building - and an indelible impression on all those lucky enough to bear witness to the night’s proceedings.