It’s taken me a while to love Beak. Being a huge Portishead fan, I’d really wanted to like them. So I’d listened to their earlier albums but couldn’t really get into them. I remember hearing one particular track that just sounded like an old school dial up modem.
Last summer when the third album came out, I heard them play an amazing session on Marc Riley’s show and all of a sudden I was hooked. I’ve probably listened to that CD more than any other over the last 6 months.
But before we get to them let me tell you about Usé, one of the most unusual support acts I’ve seen in 30+ years of gig-going.
I was right at the very front as we waited for the support act to come on so I got a good look at the set up. A minimal drum kit and lots of cymbals at the very front of the stage. That’s promising. It’s not going to be yer standard run-of-the-mill guitar band or even worse some bloke with just an acoustic guitar. A battered looking electric guitar laid horizontally on a keyboard stand. Curiouser and curiouser.
Then Usé enters the arena, presses something on his laptop to get some weird beats and discordant noise going, walks purposefully up to the front of the stage, hits the guitar strings with the drumsticks a couple of times before sitting down on the stage. Why’s he sitting down? To take off his trousers of course. Didn’t see that coming did you?
This naturally begs the question if he needed to take his trousers off right at the very start, why didn’t he take them off before he got onstage? I guess the only logical answer to that is because the removal of the trousers must be part of the show. And what a show it is.
Now sporting a grubby pair of thermal long johns and a Disney t-shirt, our hero proceeds to knock 7 shades of shit out of the drumkit. Blimey, he’s a really good drummer. There’s a lot of drone and a lot of repetitive beats and it all sounds pretty fantastic. We’re a very long way from the acceptable background music for dinner parties that the first Portishead album briefly became in the mid 90s. There’s singing going on here too. I think it might be French but we can’t really hear any of it above the general glorious racket of it all.
Then about 4 songs in, an old-fashioned slow chanson style number starts up. The t-shirt is removed but wait a minute, what’s going on here? He’s getting down from the stage to walk around amongst us lucky few down the front. This could be interesting.
Next he’s affectionately tousling the hair of people in the crowd. He’s hitting himself hard in the chest with the mike. He’s drooling saliva onto his own nipple and then rubbing it in suggestively. He seems quite intense. People aren’t quite sure whether to laugh or slowly back away.
Any relief the audience might have felt when he eventually went back up on the stage was short-lived because he then put his hand inside the long johns and wobbled his cock about until its semi-tumescent state was all too unpleasantly obvious through the flimsy material.
Then he mimed wanking off the mike cord and aggressively fellated the mike. He’s still singing the croony number by the way.
All of this reminded me of seeing The Cramps as a teenager. I was right down the front and I talked how equally exhilarating and terrifying this was way back on podcast number 8. Parts of Usé’s act echoed Lux Interior’s. As an audience you weren’t quite sure if he wanted to fuck you or kill you. Possilbly both and not necessarily in that order!
Full marks to Usé for the vigorous performance of that croony one but it has to be said that the actual song was crap. Thankfully he soon got back to shouting incomprehensibly and whacking the fuck out of the drums and the guitar with the drumsticks.
But not just with the drumsticks, oh no. He’s taken Roger Daltrey’s trick of swinging the mike around in a big loop to the next level. As it swung downwards he bashed the cymbals with it. In time as well! Your move Roger.
Next thing you know there was a song that sounded like Front 242 remixing the Inspector Gadget theme. Another one with a weird lop-sided beat-skipping time signature (that was my favourite! check it out in the video below) Then he was kicking and stamping on the guitar until suddenly Jacko’s “Billie Jean” started playing and our hero strutted proudly off the stage. In his underwear.
Later during their set, Beak joked that taking “the maddest fucking Frenchman we could find” out on tour was their response to Brexit. He may well be a few baguettes short of a boulangerie but there’s no doubt that anyone who saw Usé is not going to forget it. A committed performance from a performer who should possibly be committed.
Beak kicked off their set with the same 2 tracks that start the most recent album. First the proggy instrumental “The Brazilian” followed by the Neu!-like “Brean Down.” As they finished that, drummer Geoff Barrow joked with the crowd that they “can all fuck off now we’ve played the hit.”
Throughout the gig both Barrow and bassist Billy Fuller were very funny and self-deprecating between the songs which was an unexpected bonus. I particularly enjoyed Fuller asking if there were any Man United fans in and then taunting them about Bristol City beating them in the League Cup last season. Also Barrow’s comment about the number of bald men in tonight’s audience: “It looks like a boiled egg convention out there!”
But really it was all about the music. Around half of the songs were from the new album. The relentless triplet bassline of the aptly named “RSI” was fantastic. But my favourite song of the evening was “When We Fall.” This starts softly with beautiful dual vocal and a repetitive guitar figure. Imagine if Robert Wyatt and Nick Drake harmonised together. But then the end section where the drums kick in, the synth starts playing this alternating pattern and the song takes off into another realm like Stereolab mixed with Love’s “Forever Changes”
They thanked the crowd for their reaction after that song finished and said usually that song doesn’t go down well at all which was quite surprising.
Barrow then told us he really didn’t want to play the next song “Broken Window” because he said it sounds like “test card music.” OK so maybe it does contain a few Jarre-fuls of retro keyboard sounds but I like them. And anyway the melodic bass riff is irresistible and reminds me of the “Get Carter” theme music.
They finished up with another instrumental “Blagdon Lake” whose tom-tom dominated rhythm and ominous repetition harked back The Cure’s “Pornography” and Stephen Morris’ brilliant drumming in Joy Division and early New Order. Very appropriate seeing as I walked down Tony Wilson Way to get to the car park after the gig.
You can and should buy Beak’s music from their Bandcamp page.
Also try and catch them on one of these upcoming tour dates.
Here’s a Spotify playlist of what they played.
- Live Review: Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks @ Gorilla, January 2014
- Lots more of our gig reviews here here and here.
- Podcast number 86: Chorizo’s Best of 2018 (includes Beak)