The unquestionable highlight was the Pet Shop Boys last night at the Hordern. I haven't been to the Hordern since my teens, but it's still more or less as I remember it - and since I was there with an absolute fanatic, I turned up at seven to get a place centre front, just behind the barrier. Now this, gentle reader, is something I don't usually do at gigs, because if there's one thing that makes me unable to concentrate on watching a band it's fear for my physical safety - but Pet Shop Boys didn't seem like it'd be that kind of environment, and it wasn't (now if only I could do something about all the people with cameras - whatever happened to good old fashioned memory?). They certainly know how to put on a show, complete with dancers, backup singers featuring the formidable diva Sylvia Mason-James, and even a giant dancing top hat to, ahem, top it all off. The thing the Pet Shop Boys do so well, and which few other bands manage, is the transition between the sublime and the ridiculous, between deep, heartfelt emotion, detached irony, self-reflexive as well as non-overtly-political satire, and silly hats.
Chris maintains his detached stance (despite a rather gorgeous yellow fluorescent hoodie - and I never though I'd call something fluorescent yellow gorgeous) behind the keyboards, while Neil, who gives off just the nicest vibe - you'd love to have high tea with him - is a still, anchoring presence, with a raised eyebrow and a half-smile, in the midst of the performance. The visuals also add a great deal to the work - I'm With Stupid, for example, which is not a favourite of mine, gains a new dimension with British and US flags splashed across a giant screen. And I got Flamboyant, my current favourite PSB track, which I'd been hoping for. But the absolute highlight was an understated, moving version of Rent.
The other solo shows I've been to, Jarvis Cocker and the Pixies, were both more mixed. Jarvis's new work is to my mind rather banal and forgettable - and seeing him live didn't do much to change my opinion on that score. On the other hand, it's Jarvis - you almost wish that he'd just abandon the music and do standup. His stylised dance moves have suffered not the slightest with age - and neither has his banter. Perhaps the most amusing moment was his interrogation as to the nature of Ipswich in Australia - which in one of his songs is used as an exemplar of a place you really, really wouldn't want to go (I don't think he quite realised the aptness of that in the Australian context...) Or, on the other hand, it could've been his interrogation of the pair of undies that was thrown on stage. And, dash it all, he's just so incredibly cute. Despite the musical blandness, I didn't for a moment regret going to the show (I would've liked some Pulp material, and could've done without the Springsteen cover - but I understand why he wouldn't want to play that, and cover-wise you can't win 'em all...)
If Jarvis was a larger-than-life personality but muscially bland, the Pixies were the obverse. Though the sound at the Big Top left a great deal to be desired, it was great to hear them - I was particularly excited that they opened with In Heaven, a cover of a song on the Eraserhead soundtrack, and I got the song I'd been hanging out for, Nimrod's Son, along with the majority of their other well-known work (although they've apparently disowned Bam Thwok, which I think is a shame, as I've decided that is actually a good song). But there just didn't seem to be much else happening - except for the dowdy Kim, who was a chain-smoking sweetheart, they simply stood on stage and played, which is something I don't like in a performance - and at times seemed fairly unrehearsed, as in the chaotic La La Love You. So, again, I wasn't sorry I'd gone - it's the Pixies, after all - but it did leave something to be desired.
And, finally, the V Festival, at which I saw all of the above and, well, the only other band I payed any attention to were Nouvelle Vague (even though they'd mistreated me by doing only a secret sideshow - but I hear they're coming back soon). Despite the utter inappropriateness of the venue for their loungey bossa nova covers of seventies and eighties alternative classics, they were a joy to watch, with their oh-so-French charm and a singer who was rather cute in that classically European, au naturelle way. The only thing I would've wished for is that they would've done some of the lesser known songs, which are my favourites of theirs - Sorry For Laughing, say, or Making Plans For Nigel - rather than a run through of the best-known songs they cover (Too Drunk To Fuck, Love Will Tear Us Apart, etc).
I haven't been to a festival for years, and though V had somewhat of an amateur-hour feel (you could tell that it's the first time it's been put on), it had a fairly laid back atmosphere - at least if, like me, you weren't drinking (the bar queues stretched halfway across the festival). But it reminded me why I dislike festivals - drunken yobbos in particular - and also of the way in which, for all my faults, I was raised with a communitarian consciousness. Doesn't the girl sitting on her boyfriend's shoulders ever think for a second that her pleasure is thirty other people's displeasure?
That aside, though, it was a fun and relaxed afternoon. Pet Shop Boys were spectacular, though I was glad I was going to the solo gig, as their set was essentially a best of; the Pixies (I only caught the end of their set) seemed to have it a lot more together, and with a lot better sound quality (which is saying something, given that it was outdoors); and Jarvis was, if anything, cuter than in his solo show, noting for example that Australian 'gobstoppers' wouldn't stop anything, except maybe a dog's arse - if it was cold enough...
So I now have, oh, two hours or so to breathe before I head out tonight to continue my unwonted live musical odyssey - not to mention what might be the last time I do the closing set at Ascension for some time... I was thinking of doing a 'greatest hits' of my closing sets, running through deathrock, oldschool industrial, and, of course, my signature eighties... but since I won't be drinking, don't expect Mickey or Belinda Carlisle. You've been warned that you don't need to be warned...