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Posted: November 16th, 2005, by Chris S

I didn’t get to see Bob Dylan. There seemed to be about 20 gigs on in Nottingham on one night and even though I tried to lay plans to get into the fortress that is the Ice Arena, Bob doesn’t do guest lists for anybody apparently – let alone me pretending to be someone I am not in order to sneak in.
Next door to the Ice Arena is Bunkers Hill where Yelp Of Sords is playing. When the Dylan crowd begins pouring out of the Ice Arena at 9.30 I can only assume that he’s either reinvented himself again so comprehensively as to drive away his fan base, or that he wants to get packed up in time to pop in and see the Bunkers gig. It is unfortunately neither.
The bar downstairs at Bunkers is rammed with Dylan fans. There are a lot of folks who enjoy the mythology of music as much as the music itself. When you ask them what their favourite album is they quote reviews back at you. So it’s hardly surprising that someone who self mythologizes and invents as much as Dylan has such a huge fan base. Or that their interest in the words and opinions of others means they assume that the rest of the world is just as interested in theirs. So the bar is rammed with failed music journalists shouting their personal reviews of the show at no one in particular.
“A good bar band spoiled by a guy on the side of the stage playing out of tune piano and mumbling” was one. “I had to stop him (points at friend) from leaving” was another. A work colleague told me it was “bizarre”.
It seems quite apt to me that Dylan is in town as, in terms of truly popular culture, he was the first person to really actively seek to undercut an audience’s expectations or to drag an audience to where he wanted them to be – regardless of whether or not they wanted to be dragged. His electric conversion sounds positively pleasant to us these days but back then it was viewed as nothing short of total war by the folk crowd that hung on his every word (nowadays he seems to divide crowds in equal measure for different reasons).
Audience comfort level is something that’s at the forefront of my mind when watching Yelp Of Sords, the solo guise of Dan who previously played in Brighton’s Cat On Form. I don’t think any of COF would object to me saying that their sound was related closely to old school (mainly American) emo. YOS stretches this even further into territory so cathartic and stripped that it raises all kinds of questions as to exactly what the purpose of the music is in a live setting and I all I can conclude is that either Dan wants us to feel as awkward as he presumably does or he hasn’t considered the audience in the first place.
We’re all happy and comfortable to hear a person pour their heart out onstage: what used to be considered to be ’emo’ is pretty much mainstream pop these days and even the more extreme examples of the genre (Moss Icon, Indian Summer, Navio Forge) are relatively palatable due to the osmosis of that ‘twinkly-guitar-with-loud-bits’ style into mainstream chart music. But strip it down to a man with an acoustic guitar screaming his guts out and contorting in his chair and you have to concede that YOS at least proves there are ways of making ’emo’ music that are still too uncomfortable for most folks to handle.
Melbourne, Australia’s Justice Yeldham has a similar effect on his crowd. Yeldham’s live performance consists of grinding his face into a sheet of mic’d up plate glass. It is hideous for a variety of reasons.
One is that the transparency of the glass means you get to view his face all squished up against the other side of the glass like a kid on a special bus wiping his nose down the window as you overtake them on the motorway. Another reason is the sound really is quite nasty. The resonant properties of the glass means as he yells onto/into it and then pulls and squeezes at the sheet, the pitch of his voice wildly varies and wavers and this in turn is run through some truly ugly processing that makes it sound like a Dalek in it’s death throes.
I also have a real aversion to Savlon antiseptic cream too so I was pretty freaked out just 15 seconds after he took to the stage at Cabaret and elaborately squeezed half of a family sized tube of the stuff into his mouth in preparation for his performance.
Quite often, involving objects that have their own subtext in a live performance is gimmicky to the extreme. What I mean is that it could be considered fairly wild to play a guitar with, say, a baby’s head. It would be less wild to play it with a cauliflower. The wildness comes from the object being a signifier of other things – not from the sound created, as the sonic properties of both objects are pretty similar. I could be wrong but it seems to me that maybe Yeldham made a decision to use glass for sonic reasons first and foremost and that the finale of smashing his already bloody face through it is some sort of logical conclusion to his work in the field. I mean this in comparison to deciding outright that itwould be wild to smash glass on your face regardless of what it sounded like – purely for shock effect.
Because after all, we’re in the realm of sonics here right? This is a ‘gig’ even if it’s a strange one. Jonny, who promoted the night, said he was disappointed that more people didn’t turn out and it made me think about what Justice Yeldham’s set really was. It is sonic exploration and improvisation but it also performance art and the performance art has a definite, pre-determined conclusion (that he will smash his face through the glass – I guess the only undetermined part is when it will happen). I guess Yeldham sees what he does in the non-gimmicky category. Otherwise,why mic it up at all? Why not just smash the glass over your face?
Someone I work with said something interesting when they asked me what I did last night and I told them about this gig. They seemed very unsurprised by what I recounted and just said
“Oh, right. Like the Jim Rose Circus?*”
And I thought, well, yes it was – ultimately.
And the weird thing is if you just advertise it as
– I reckon the turn out would be colossal. But is that what the guy wants? But even those there (who have an interest in free noise and avant garde music) were there for the pay off – the spectacle of watching this guy injure himself. The gore. How is that different to watching a man pump his own stomach or stick pins in himself?
I guess for him the physical part of things is a partly cathartic process, like performing his songs is for Dan in Yelp Of Sords. It seems with Yelp Of Sords that Dan wants to let out some primal scream style energy release. In fact he says as much when describing the reasons for one song (strangely the one song where he sang conventionally) as being connected to expressing the death of a loved one in a pure release of energy.
So even though they’re unconnected and on different bills if you look at it, Yelp Of Sords and Justice Yeldham have a lot in common – as an audience member at least. In terms of challenging an audience and provoking a reaction I found it fascinating that Yelp Of Sords was harder to watch and deal with than a man bleeding from his face and screaming. And what’s even more fascinating is that, because he plays guitar and sings, Yelp Of Sords is the ‘conventional act’ whereas Yeldham is the ‘left field’ act. But in actual fact the sonic aspect of Yeldham’s performance is more considered and crucial than that of Yelp Of Sords (because it’s what stops Yeldham being purely a freak show) and in turn the cathartic release that you’d think would make up Yeldhams show in it’s entirety is harder hitting from Yelp Of Sords.


And even weirder is that whereas Dan and Justice managed to confuse a handful of people with their art, Dylan seemed to piss off several thousand people without injuring himself, or even trying. Seems if challenging your audience is the most important thing then the originator is still the king.

“I don’t get it. Is this a happy ending or a sad ending?”
“It’s an ending”

* Touring freak show from the early 90s featuring Mr Lifto, The Human Pin Cushion and the legendary Bile Beer.

Chris S

Chris lives for the rock and can often be seen stumbling drunkenly on (and off) stages far and wide. Other hobbies include wearing jumpers, arsing about with Photoshop and trying to beat the world record for the number of offensive comments made in any 24 hour period. He has been married twice but his heart really belongs to his guitars. All 436 of them.


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