February 13, 2004

Live Report: Super Furry Animals, Theater of Living Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 2/12/04

The Kinks became my favorite band from the British invasion while I wrote my master’s thesis about urban redevelopment and growth in Philadelphia. It was about this time that I discovered Preservation Act. Ray Davies confounded attempt to dramatize the demolition of his working class neighborhood and replace it in the name of “improvement.” While I hammered out the importance of use value over and against market imperatives and exchange value, Davies supplied ample inspiration in albums like The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society and Muswell Hillbillies. It was deft combination of local politics, musical variety, and fantastic melodies and lyrics that intrigued me by provoking consideration not only of the songwriting itself, but the viewpoints expressed in terms of sentimental politics, such as the significance of sharing teatime with one’s grandmother ranking high among them. And to write such albums without resorting to sectarian cant gives them a lasting importance without disturbing their pop tone and mood.

Super Furry Animals are for me the combination of Ray Davies and Emma Goldman; theirs is a revolution where dance steps into the fore, while humanistic, small-“d” democratic politics remain central to their movement. For me, Super Furry Animals are for all intents and purposes the Kinks in terms of their variety and position in the new British Invasion. They aren’t the most popular British band, leaving that to Radiohead, nor are they the second most popular since Coldplay and Blur fight for that distinction. Meanwhile, SFA remain the upstarts in the wings, writing smoldering riffs with sublimity six albums into their career.

Two nights ago they played a nearly sold out ClearChannel venue. It was a strange mixture of curious suburbanites with a sprinkling of veteran fans and those in-the-know. Shortly after the lights went dark, the projections began. For those of you who haven’t yet seen SFA, it’s the projections that complete the musical experience, rounding out the performances with psychedelic images of hope, love, and political subversion. As they came onstage, as horse hooves clopped around the venue accompanied by whinnying and snorting. Birds chirped. The first strains of "Slow Life" sounded. Lead singer Gruff Rhys was in top form and the sound was uncharacteristically good for a TLA show; although the sound compressed on the more aggressive guitar numbers, it was expansive on the more delicate ones, with good separation for all the instruments onstage, as well as the various clicks and loops generated by the Powerbook. They raced through the setlist and covered much of Phantom Power, as well as past favorites. The stage banter was intermittent, but Rhys hit some good notes: when asked who he thought would win an international soccer competition in which Wales was featured, he responded “We think the human race will win.” It wasn’t the answer the fan expected, but I was knocked over that a band would make a statement so incongruous with the times-hope in human nature to overcome international competitions of all sorts.

Don’t get me wrong though. This was above all else a rock concert and probably the most straightforward and objectively entertaining show I’ve seen in some time. SFA played "Rings Around the World," "Golden Retriever" and "Do or Die" back to back to back. I lost my cell phone during that stretch; it pogo-ed out of my coat pocket. The middle third of the show comprised their slower, elegiac numbers like "Liberty Belle," "Run Christian Run" and, as a surprise, "Fragile Happiness." They then took the crowd down to the contemplative depths of "Piccolo Snare" before returning to the upbeat "Juxtaposed (With U)" and "Hermann Luvs Pauline." The juxtapositions got stranger however, when an ode to a beloved cartoon character Callimero followed political rager "Out of Control." It's one of my favorite songs-it articulates the anger I have for the current Anglo-American Realpolitik and translates it into a fist-pumping anthem. The visuals featured rare footage from the Anglo-American incursions throughout the Mid-East: tracer bullets dotting the night sky; air-to-air targeting system shots; and the recorded histories of smart bombs as they destroy their targets.

The show culminated in two political projections: the first coming during an electronic interlude. The phrase “All governments are liars and murderers” looped and cut while a self-satisfied George W. Bush and a smug Tony Blair addressed the media. It takes considerable bravery to incorporate such polemics into the so-called American counterculture; over thirty years have passed since Coca-Cola first taught the world to sing in perfect harmony, and indie rock audiences have politics as conservative as the rest of the country. Finally, V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky rallied the troops during "The Man Don’t Give a Fuck." They briefly left the stage, returned wearing their trademark Yeti costumes and finished the set as guitar monsters. My left ear is still ringing.

--JT Ramsay

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