The Raw & The Kooked @ Little Havana: A Review
The morning after the show, as I was waking up from slumber, I-Lann asked me, “So how was the gig last night?” and the only word that came to me was, “Pleasant.”
It was a pleasant show indeed. Not rocking, sweaty, head-banging frenzy and balls-out euphoria. It was pleasant. It felt like one of the more relaxed Unclogged shows we used to have moons ago, where there was no tension in air, people amiable and genuinely supportive while the bands played their sets unhurried and totally at ease. It’s a show for grown-ups I guess. More thoughts than pose, and it all boiled down to good music done with much love.
Earlier during the day, I went to Little Havana after lunch nearby. It was about 4 PM and the show’s organiser (Couple’s Aidil) with sound equipment supplier (Mokhtar) were taking stock of the space upstairs, filling the stage with amps and minor additions to the drum set. I met the venue’s proprietor Philippe and his Chinese wife. Both nice people, very eager to help out and make the best of what they can offer. I wondered loudly why I haven’t seen them before. My house is about 5 minutes walk up the hill and I’ve been living in this area for more than eight years, yet this is the first time we met.
According to Phillipe he was the one running that cozy wine club on Lorong Mesui back in the late 90s. The wood-panelled space later turned into No Black Tie in 1999, when Phillipe was forced to leave due to a steep hike in the rental. He didn’t move far though. He started Little Havana, which is just a few blocks away.
I’ve been to Little Havana before. I can’t remember what for now, so it must be something really trivial. Anyway, about a year ago there were two metal gigs held there. One day I was walking up the hill going back home when a few death metallers with spiked up armbands and dressed in all black shouted at me. They were distant friends of mine, from the days of Central Market and they just had a nice headbanging season upstairs.
The metal shows didn’t last long though. According to Phillipe, they can’t continue hosting such ruthless heaviness. “The police might just turned up just because of their looks,” he said. “Anyway, my customers complained. Understandably, they can’t stand that sort of noise much.”
The Raw & The Kooked was light years away from a metal show and that fits nicely with the ambience of the Cuban-themed drinking hole. That night I saw Phillipe beaming at the number of the crowd and the music played. He was happy with the turn up, and also of the very polite kids in attendance. I was happy to see and experience a new band I’ve heard of but never had the chance to see.
It was The Deserters, a five-piece rock band rooted in a mixture of literate indie bands such as Australia’s The Church, the recent clearasil pop of Ted Leo & The Pharmacies and of course, a knowing wink towards Mercury Rev. The band’s stance reminded of early to mid-90s Singaporean indie combos, the ones who played well and blessed with confidence, fully aware of what they were doing and of what they wanted to do.
Alang of MUZE was playing drums and it was a bit weird trying to fit his usually explosive style with The Deserters brand of measured rock, but he did well. The singer also played guitar and he looked like a nerdy fella who has been away in his own world reading tonnes of books, coming back upon the stage to share what he learned with us.
Later on I found out that the keyboardist, hunched on the right side of the stage and kept a low profile facing the wall was Jit Woei. Yes, it’s that guy who used to be with The Beads back in the mid-90s. Jit used to be quite a flashy and fresh-faced indie rocker, readymade for nice glossy photo-ops in some glossy magazines, now he looked like a wiry mature young man who’s finally done with the old pose but still intent on making good music.
A few months ago I heard Jit and Murali (of the pioneering late 90s electronica duo Disco Mafia) have started a rehearsal studio and production house somewhere in KL. I guess this is where The Deserters comes from, a bunch of young guns with a couple of seasoned veterans in its armoury. Surely one of the rare exciting new bands to look out for.
Next up was Couple. I missed their last show here at Lil’ Havana a week ago when they appeared as a last minute replacement to Lucy In The Loo on the A Night To Remember do on the 7th. If you’ve read my comment on that gig you’ll know that it’s actually a “night to remember” indeed, but not because it was good though.
Anyway, Couple at The Raw & The Kooked was quite different from the Couple I saw last (which I can’t seem to remember when now). They have Ihsan (Custom Daisy) on drums and Hana (Lucy in the Loo) on the other guitar. Vocalist, guitarist and mainman Aidil also sang way better than the days when I used to host Couple on Unclogged shows. Somehow the man has his grip on the notes pretty well nowadays; wobbly here and there still but not cringe-worthy either.
His guitar playing, especially at the solos reminded me of myself; very rudimentary, so much so that after every line done on the frets, an applause is apt for the amount of Herculean concentration exerted. I loved it. After all, this is punk rock for the sissies; who cares about “virtuosity” and skills anyway!
Couple played a few new songs apparently recorded in Jakarta a few weeks ago. None of them stuck to my mind at the moment but I remember excellent harmonised vocal parts, which worked really well with Hana layering Aidil’s McCartney-ish verses. The thing which I really like about Couple is the 3-minute pop tunes. They are a band who knows when to keep it short, snappy and fun. Too many bands like to keep on repeating the same thing and lost the plot of a good pop song. Remember the Motown rule; go over 3-minutes and that’s not a pop song anymore!
So two local bands did their job well, and it’s the time for the overseas guests to take upon the stage. First up, the Norwegian indie band Beezewax. There were four of them, all lanky dudes. The two guys which really made my time during their set were the men who made up the rhythm section; the drummer who flailed and thwacked like a much better looking Ringo Starr and the bassist who hurled his skinny self into the music with much style.
The other two were guitarists, one of them sang while the other stroked a keyboard whenever needed. As a whole, the band was exquisitely tight as a well-rehearsed band would, energetic but with the limbs loose. I love the way they took over the proceedings by asking the kids to stand up and come up close to the stage. It charged up the atmosphere a wee bit, with some young ones shaking themselves ever so politely.
I have to say that despite all that qualities, I find the songs a wee bit too polished and over shiny for me. It’s good power-poppy stuff but there’s this weird lack of edge to it. A bit too washed out for my taste. Too much soap in the mix, just like the Click Five primed for the MTV teenyboppers.
No one can fault the sound and how it was played though. Singer-songwriter Sherry (who was in the crowd with his wife and 4-year old daughter) quipped that they “sound so different from the local bands.” I agree, it was as if suddenly a soundman from the heavens came down and effortlessly made the best of the bare necessities on the stage. A sure sign of a band who knows exactly how to squeeze out what it wants from the amps, a skill which is still dangerously elusive locally.
As The Beezewax go through their last notes, I thought the enthusiastic audience would ask for an encore. Alas it didn’t happen. Nobody yelled for another song. I find that pretty weird and I thought the band seemed rather disappointed but they did really well, and was pretty much appreciated by all.
When The Posies’ Ken Stringfellow (with a bandaged elbow) went up on stage, I didn’t have a clue of what he’s gonna do. All I heard of his stuff was on the more famous albums by his band. Jay Free Love told me that he made quite an impression on the kids at his Ipoh appearance last Monday. He even got much support from the normal drinking geezers and also a kiss from one of the GROs at the Ipoh club!
When I said that it was “pleasant”, this is the main part of it. Mr. Stringfellow really knows how to work the crowd. He’s a seasoned veteran and it’s showed. The first thing he did was to ask the crowd to go and stand closer to him. After the first song with him and his guitar, he decided to do away with the microphone, saying “do you like scientific experiments?”
The experiment was him playing his electric guitar and singing without a mike. And he did it well, in a way forcing the audience to hush up and really listen to his voice. So there he was standing in the crowd (look at the picture lah), projecting his voice as best he can. I find that charming. It’s all about intimacy and concentration. But I have to say that I preferred he used the mike instead, I mean the audience was really listening anyway, there’s no need to have me straining my ears to catch the verses.
He then moved to a simple keyboard, sat near it and asked the kids to sit and sit all around him. It’s like a campfire get-together, only the fire was his thoughts and his songs. This time he used the mike, enabling me to relax my eardrum and listen to what the man had to offer.
His songs are all poignant stuff, of love and longings and also one standout moment for me when he dished out a bit of his ridicule and horror of Dumb Prez Bush Jr. and his hawks. It was a song called “Don’t Die”, written for his 20-year old son who is at the age ripe for the US Army and their threats of conscription.
“I worry for my son and I worry for kids your age,” he said. The first verse goes “Butterfly you blew it, the bullet made you officially artificial, destiny has met the dove, the passing drained off their blood, when did we smile? I can’t remember but it must have been quite awhile”.
Right after the show, me, Jay and his friends went for supper at the mamak nearby. One of them expressed his astonishment at the political nuances inherent in the works by Mr. Stringfellow and his generation of indie-rockers. I offered my understanding that these people came from the roots of punk rock, where awareness of the times and its political surroundings was a crucial bite to the whole scene.
The truth is any sensitive soul, especially of the artistic fabric, would not be able to ignore the war-mongering ways of the present American governance. It’s not the punk rock really, it’s the human values we all share.
The problem, at least for me, here in Malaysia is the apolitical nature of the scene. Local indie-rockers would always keep all sort of political commentaries away from the music. Avoided like a plague, it seems. I find it odd. For me it’s the “lets close one eye” syndrome. I thought musicians are sensitive people, those who would speak up of whatever it is that bothering them. I guess all that strive we read everyday in the papers don’t really touch the local kids enough for them to say something substantial. Even in the so-called “political” punk rock scene, it seems more like a cursory adherence to “traditions” instead of real feel and concern.
Anyway, Ken Stringfellow was not all bile and anger though. In fact it was but only a flash of vehemence, but it is genuine. I felt it, more than all those anti-war songs by the d-beat bands around us. Singing songs about love and its tribulations to an audience sitting and listening intently around you is really an oblique way to address all the hate around us, and Mr. Stringfellow knew it well.
All in, it was a true “night to remember” and my hats off to all at the gig for being such a welcoming audience, and of course, I reserve a big hug to Mr, Stringfellow (who I didn’t managed to meet proper, apart from the point he gave me an ashtray to keep my rollies’ ashes). May the roads rise up to the man.