Skinny Machines: Live in London at the Half Moon, Putney (DVD) The stage is a black desert sky. A bleak instrumental theme, a hesitant twitching heartbeat draped in questioning chords, drifts across the audience. It‟s eerie; very eerie – Sergio Leone and Quentin Tarantino in equal measure. Out of the darkness the band enters stage left. Vocalist Jay Marsh walks into the spotlight, ducks under his guitar strap and fixes his congregation with a hypnotic stare. Bringing them to order with some assured crooning, he nods his head supportively as if telling a bedtime story. Matters seem to be in check. Or do they? In just five lines of clarion-clear vocals Marsh has addressed drugs, over-reaching, obsession and ill-founded relationships: any peace, one feels, is about to be shattered. And how: another verse with full band ratchets up the tension until, as the pressure cooker starts to spit, Marsh suddenly comes over all psychopath, snarling horribly before grabbing his guitar round the oesophagus and making it wail like a banshee. Another Skinny Machines gig has hit the ground running. To their devoted fan-base this will not have come as a surprise. Alt/ indie masters of the multi-faceted four minute musical snap-shot, Skinny Machines have been selling-out concerts across the British Isles and mainland Europe for a couple of years now and, for many fans, the visit to London‟s legendary Half Moon to record this live DVD will have seemed a long time coming. On stage, opener Muzzle Me concluding with a full-on, guitars-aloft thrash, drummer Dan Roth launches straight into the title track of the first CD, Wrong Side of the River. Step forward guitarist Rikki Glover to lead the charge with some impressive choppy riffing and an angry beast of a solo. Pausing briefly to introduce next in line The Piper as a “jumping song”, Marsh proceeds to pogo frenetically as Glover lets his bouncing mane take the strain. Bass-player Mike Woodhouse comes to the fore, muscling in with a lovely sliding note and rounding the song off with a rumble of sternum-shaking proportions reminiscent of some heavy military ordnance starting up in the basement. The walls of the Half Moon start to sweat and, arms to the Heavens, the crowd are loving every second. Next up, Steady Eddie, a crowd-pleaser if ever there were. A curious yarn, too, ostensibly about a difficult sea crossing, a disengaged waiter
and a challenging fish course but managing along the way to explore life, love, death, demons and Hell – remarkable, really, but this is the sort of fare that Marsh, the band‟s resident lyricist, likes to serve up. Glover again stands out on Steady Eddie with some big-hearted funkedup rhythm vamping and a handy way with his backing vocals. Then it‟s festival fave Cradle, which starts off with Roth and Glover cunningly playing in different rhythms and part-way through features a prerecorded cello, presumably a nod towards the soon-to-be-released recorded version of the song. Glover has switched from Les Paul to Fender Stratocaster for Cradle and once more hits the heights with a take-no-prisoners solo. Woodhouse‟s lovely pomp-a-pomp bass glistens and sparkles and, by the time Cradle concludes to the sound of Marsh‟s unaccompanied vocal, for those present the evening has clearly turned from just another gig into an event of some considerable moment. For Steady Eddie and most of Cradle, and as he will do for a couple of later songs, Marsh had dispensed with his guitar, allowing him free rein to demonstrate to the full his finely-honed front-man creds. Be-quiffed and guy-linered, he‟s an old school, quintessential front-man through and through, blessed with a three-octave crystal voice which puts him way ahead of the competition. And he‟s a consummate communicator too. On stage he inhabits his (very literary) lyrics, seemingly taking up residence in the slices of life which he lays before us. Sometimes this sees him cast as story-teller, sometimes as orator or confidante, sometimes teacher or doe-eyed little boy lost. Other times, he‟s a very effective “Oi, you lookin‟ at my bird?” pugilist verging on serial killer – it would be most unwise to spill his pint at these times. His prowess is perhaps never better illustrated on the night than in Interpol, where we see him testing the boundaries between reasonable dating practices and unacceptably animalistic behaviour. Guitar-wise he‟s not just making up the numbers either, the perfectly-delivered singer-unfriendly guitar part to Wrong Side of the River and the damped early section of Superhappy being particularly effective on this DVD. Back on stage, it‟s time for a “wow” moment as unadulterated beauty steps up to the plate. The glissando-rich guitar doodle which will evolve into the main theme of next song One Step at a Time is both heartstopping and exquisite. These moments are, perhaps, what live concerts are all about and the momentum is maintained by the looselimbed romping of Interpol, featuring some innovative drum work from Roth and a nimble twelve bar passage in the middle with a gracefulness that only comes around about once in a century. A stunning piece of work.
Then it‟s time for up-coming single Stop That Girl, featuring a marvellously extravagant entrance from Woodhouse, intriguing lyrics and some prodigious riff chomping from Glover. Note, however, that, whilst the Skinnies may give the impression of being just a four-piece, don‟t tell that to the fans. The audience seems to yell along throughout the set and in Stop That Girl Marsh is left looking genuinely startled as the Skinny choir begins a crowd-singalong completely unbidden by him. And startled he might well be, no recorded version of this song having yet been released. In the encore, the choir will at times virtually commandeer the vocal duties on Superhappy, dealing effortlessly with the complex lyrics and awkward themes of this tawdry tale of mid-life crises, fears of ageing and quick-fix chemical assistance. In tune, too. All power to them. The main set continuing, Marsh bobs and weaves like a middle-weight as Glover pounds out the intro riff to Doghouse, an everyday story of laddish behaviour and its repercussions. No gig is complete, of course, without some random exuberant hollering from someone in the band and, yep, right on cue Glover delivers, whooping it up for us, right arm skywards. He‟s enjoying it just like we are and so he should be – it‟s going great. His masterly solo in Doghouse (and his even better outro, delivered with the guitar in the vertical) must have left him a happy man. And then, all too soon, the main set closes with an all guns blazing Laid Out Cold which winds up with an extended drum-guitar rat-a-tat led by the twinkling Roth. Resplendent in natty bowler hat, Roth, behind the drums, has been frankly flawless throughout, also offering a nice line in backing vocals and cheeky grins to camera. He is, arguably, the star of the evening and with him plus the dancing bass of the swinging, swaying Woodhouse the Skinnies need look no further for one of the very best rhythm sections on the block. A quick side-bar here about the production of the DVD. Sound and visuals are both first-rate, the camera work excellent and the editing quick-fire enough to capture the pace of the action but not, thankfully, so manic as to induce dizzy spells. The gig was also much enhanced by the wonderfully evocative light-show, from the Batman searchlights of The Piper to the white shroud which marked the end of Wrong Side of the River and the blue-black night of Laid Out Cold. Top marks all round to the techies. After some enthusiastic encouragement from the Skinny choir it‟s encore-time and Marsh returns to the stage alone, looking like a
bewildered silent movie star as the acclaim from the crowd hits him between the eyes. He re-engages with End Stage, a lament to a decayed relationship which he delivers with a numb resignation that gradually transmutes into a bitter, indignant anger which luckily his longsuffering guitar is there to bear the brunt of - unnerving and absolutely spell-binding. Then it‟s Superhappy, kicked off solo by Marsh until the rest of the band saunter back on stage, lifting the crowd to fever pitch just as Marsh hits diva pitch. From there, there‟s just time for the fullthrottle, neo-prog riff-festing of Like David and Marsh pogoes his way through to the final whistle, signalled by a glorious thud-and-blunder finish. And then, sadly, it‟s time to roll the credits. Literally. The re-playing of the introductory instrumental theme at this point is a delight, giving the whole piece a cinematic feel and somehow a sense of genuine joy. I have to say, I loved this DVD. There aren‟t many bands who reaffirm your faith in the whole rock n roll thing but Skinny Machines do just that. “Thanks, guys, for sharing some history with us,” declares Glover at the end, and he‟s probably right. Catch Skinny Machines now, „cause next time you might have to traipse all the way to the O2 Arena just to watch them on a far-away screen. And, while you‟re at it, find yourself a copy of the DVD, too.