Photos: Alex Rawson
Without a guitar to busy them, he tasks his hands, rather bizarrely, with signing the lyrics. Picture a halfway house between Eminem and ‘The Wheels On The Bus’ and you should get some idea.
A near-capacity crowd awaits, technically speaking, a supergroup. Though it would be intriguing to see how many are fans of Collections of Colonies of Bees, the band from which five sixths of Volcano Choir originally came. The audience could be forgiven for not knowing the words to their fifteen year back catalogue but only because there are none. Volcano Choir’s experimental side, clearly displayed on 2009’s avant-garde and under-bought debut, ‘Unmap’, comes from these guys. Unsurprisingly, CoCoBees’ instrumental post-rock has not yet yielded bountiful riches and life-altering fame.
This makes for a potentially awkward match with their vocalist, whose grammy grabbing, million record selling day job means that tonight’s show is billed ‘Volcano Choir (feat. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver)’. The thick, multi-instrumental lustre of Vernon’s second Bon Iver album is all over Volcano Choir’s new one, Repave, which has achieved significant airtime on BBC 6Music since its release in September.
The two records differ hugely, like an unreleased first draft followed by a polished, bound and retail-ready final edition. One suspects the set will lean heavily toward the latter. Still, it will be interesting to see where on the spectrum between the two their live act sits.
The stage is adorned with battered netting, strikingly similar to that used on the last Bon Iver tour, with enough left over to dress a kind of lectern or pulpit behind which Vernon stands. Without a guitar to busy them, he tasks his hands, rather bizarrely, with signing the lyrics. Picture a halfway house between Eminem and “The wheels on the bus go round and round” and you should get some idea.
But, according to Justin Vernon, Justin Vernon isn’t the leader of this band. No, that falls to guitarist Chris Rosenau, a most curious man. All big, dark clothing and greasy, greying hair, he looks more daggy-dad than experimental post-rocker. “Oh wow! This is just bananas! You guys are bananas!” he grins innnocently, betraying the fact that Volcano Choir, for all their experience, have not yet notched up 20 gigs.
This is their first ever in the UK and some of the songs are a nip and a tuck away from their optimal arrangement. Repave standout, ‘Acetate’, suffers from a lack of group confidence in its multi-vocal, shoutalong crescendo. Rarely is a live version tamer than the original.
But there is much cause for celebration, not just because it is Chris Rosenau’s birthday (for which he gets a cake, a full crowd singalong and a kiss from Bon Iver – not too shabby), not just because most of the tracks from Repave work splendidly – the rousing ‘Byegone’ and ambient ‘Alaskans’ in particular – but because Volcano Choir succeed most when they stretch themselves furthest.
The main set ends with ‘Still’, a wall of sound built around seven minutes of falsetto’d refrain. This piece of music has seen multiple incarnations, one for Bon Iver as ‘Woods’, but also on Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as ‘Lost In The World’, and tonight Vernon hopes it “will fuck your brains up”. I wouldn’t go that far, but it was a full-blooded marvel, rolling over itself again and again, snowballing into a giant, wonderful mess. Going toe-to-toe with and outdoing Kanye and Bon Iver proves Volcano Choir’s potential. But if they want to be an authentic supergroup, and not just Vernon’s side project, the experimentation and the messiness of ‘Still’ is key.
They include two new songs in tonight’s set. On your first date in a new country, with two albums to play, one barely two months old – that is a purposeful statement.
Check out the amazing ‘Byegone’ here: