Tuesday 31 August 2010

Circus vs Cabaret?

The Cross Kings, ancestral home of The Furbelows' own night, the Cirque de Crème Anglaise, suddenly closed down last month, leaving me scrabbling to find a new venue for the two shows I had already booked—not easy when you’re asking for a specific Friday night in the not-too-distant future. I was extremely lucky to have recently fallen in with Ed Saperia, who runs the Salon d’Été club on Duke Street, and Ed was happy to host the Cirque for the 20th August show I had already programmed.

Now, the Cross Kings was always ideal—more so than I realised until I’d lost it (cliché, I know, but there is truth in many of them). Where else could tweedy fops comfortably rub shoulders with pierced crusties? Within its cluttered, homely rooms it had a relaxed bohemian vibe that perfectly suited the light-hearted, untrendy thing we were trying to do, the spirit of a party rather than a nightclub. Many of us shall miss it.

The Salon is a bit of a different proposition. It has a wonderfully central location, along one side of Selfridges, a stone’s throw from Bond Street tube. And once you get past the dark, nameless frontage you suddenly find yourself in an unexpected tropical paradise. The room used to be a church, given away by the tall, distinctive windows at the front. The DJ booth used to be the organ loft, though the organ pipes at the back of the stage are fake—built by the Furbelows' own front man Alex, as it happens. The high vaulted ceiling is actually glazed, and with this in mind Ed and his team filled the place with tall palm trees, hanging baskets of ivy and a living canopy of vines overhead. A machine constantly squirts out mist, partly for the benefit of the plants but also because it creates cool light effects. There is even one huge spotlight (dubbed the “sun”, I noted on the lighting control computer screen) which shines through the mist and the vines in spectacular rays.

From the beginning the idea was to create a much classier environment than the rich-but-tacky Eurotrash club L’Equipe Anglaise downstairs. They wanted an old-fashioned supper club to attract a sophisticated crowd with a vintage dress sense. (In fact the day after the Cirque I also held the New Sheridan Club summer party at the same venue and Luke, another of the men behind the Salon, told me, as he surveyed the party, that this was precisely how they had always envisioned the venue working.)

Now, the Cirque likes a bit of cabaret in the mix. But unlike the swathe of retro burlesque nights, the idea for us is a mixture of cabaret vamp and theatricality with the humorous, lunatic fringe of experimental pop/rock music. Whereas the Salon’s usual musical fare is aimed at creating a recognisably period style, we’re not trying to create something recognisable at all (sometimes not even recognisably music). Moreover, it can get a bit noisy.

To cut to the chase, I think we got away with it. The Salon’s walk-in crowd were doubtless not expecting anything quite like it, but we started gently enough with the wonderful No Cars—the only band so far to play the Cirque more than once. Normally a three-piece they had recently lost another drummer (allegedly she was sacked because she got a boyfriend, but you can never believe anything that lead singer Haruna says on stage). So they had reworked their material for a two-piece, with Haruna and Sachi taking it in turns to bang the drums as well as their usual guitar, bass and vocal chores. I particularly liked Sachi’s bell-laden anklets with which she could tap out the rhythm in a way that was musically surprisingly effective.

As usual the band illustrated their songs with inept cartoons displayed on a music stand. But this time we were also treated to a silent figure in a blank white mask who stood at the back of the stage and swayed to every song, waving a racoon glove puppet on one hand. On the song about tuna, he also produced some cut-out tuna fish on sticks.

The inter-song banter is a key part of any No Cars gig—Haruna plays up the Japanese naïf image, usually claiming to have flown over from Tokyo for that gig and alleging that the band met at school, on a farm or while working as geishas. This time she also insisted that they thought the gig was in North Korea but had been misinformed. Noting that the supper club crowd were getting on with their meals, she offered, “Oh, I see that everyone is eating. I hope we don’t make you puke.”

Next up were the Furbelows. We enjoyed ourselves and I think it went well enough, doubtless dividing the room. I am told that we were rather loud—during soundcheck I saw one waitress jamming her fingers in her ears while a two-piece band were on, so who knows what they made of us. But I did get some positive comments afterwards so I think it was fine, even if, in his stalking and flapping about the stage Alex managed to kick out Neil’s guitar cable—twice.

The Lovely Eggs are a husband-and-wife duo, he playing drums she thrashing guitar and both singing. I love their stuff, sort of playground philosophy set to nursery rhyme melodies; it combines the deceptive (and actually quite profound) simplicity of Talking Heads with tunes that might not be out of place in a football chant but which therefore stick in your head. I can’t understand why they are not bigger. For their song about an olive, Holly came down into the audience and stood on a chair: one of the drunk Japanese party at the table took the opportunity to look up her skirt. Not sure if that means they liked the act or not.

Final act of the night was The Henry Road, a full-on psychedelic rock act. Here, I have to admit, I think we lost the audience. Perhaps at the Cross Kings this would have been just the way to end the evening but for the supper club crowd this was just too Rock, with neither the intimacy or quirkiness of No Cars and The Lovely Eggs.

Ah well, we live and learn, and I am so glad that I got to do a Cirque at this amazing space—not least because it is closing down in a week’s time. I’m told that Selfridges have bought the whole block to develop it. Mind you, there was always a suggestion that the Salon was a “pop-up” club, there just for the summer (there’s a clue in the name), so perhaps some people, at least, always knew it would come to an end now. In any case, it was a noble venture and I sincerely hope the owners bring the same idea alive somewhere else.

Now, where am I going to hold the show I’ve got programmed for 12th November..?

(Thanks to Nick Morgan for the photos)

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