Rotifer, John Howard and Mel Mayr - Servant Jazz Quarters, London, 26/11/2014
published: 8 /
In the second of two showcases from record label and collective Gare du Nord, Ben Howarth at the Servant Jazz Quarters in London enjoys sets from indie trio Rotifer, rediscovered 70's singer-songwriter John Howard and Austrian singer-songwriter Mel Mayr who was playing her first British gig
Tonight was the second of two Gare du Nord 'showcases' in consecutive nights – though only Rotifer has released music on the Gare du Nord label. The two other acts had both flown in specially for the occasion, John Howard from his home in Spain and Mel Mayr from Austria.
Mel Mayr kicked off proceedings, performing solo accompanied by only an electric guitar. These brooding songs were compelling without being overtly tuneful (Sharon Van Etten seeming the obvious, slightly lazy comparison).
It was then a pleasant surprise when she was joined by her backing band – half comprised of her 'regulars' who had joined her on the flight from Austria, and then augmented by the guesting Robert Rotifer and Ian Button, who ended up taking turns with all three of tonight's acts. The duelling guitars and fuller sound only enhanced the intensity of Mayr's performances. There were hints of PJ Harvey's 'Stories from the City...' blended with post-punk and 60’s pop. Her first live show in the UK will hopefully not be her last.
Next up came John Howard. The audience were already well primed by Mayr telling them she had cried during his soundcheck. He took the stage alone, and – just as he had done in the same venue almost exactly a year earlier – had the audience spellbound from the off. He is, to put it simply, an old pro. His piano playing is unflashy, yet still exquisite. His vocals perfectly on pitch. His stage manner a perfect blend of self-deprecation and (merited) self confidence. You wouldn't know this was his first show in twelve months – he acts like he does it every night.
Assuming that most of the audience would either have been at last year's show, or at least heard the live recording of it released a little later, Howard largely performed a new set. Stand-outs included a beautiful version of 'Over the Moon' and the closing 'Star Through My Window', an unusually intense performance, even by Howard's standards. But there was also room for 'Goodbye Suzie', the radio hit that never was from the mid 1970s and 'Believe Me Richard', the lead track from his 2013 album 'Storeys', which comes to life when performed with his band of Robert Rotifer, Andy Lewis and Ian Button, who give it a Rolling Stone kick and Beatles harmonies.
If I could have changed one thing, it would have been nice to hear a few more songs from his new album, 'Hello My Name Is', released a few weeks before the show. It's possibly the best of his career. Oh well, there is always next year!
That would have been plenty of great music to leave us feeling like we'd got our eight quid's worth. But no, taking the stage almost as soon as Howard had left it was Rotifer (strictly speaking, as two of the three members were in Howard's band as well, they never really left the stage, but...)
Anyone who saw Rotifer steal the show when they opened Pennyblackmusic's own fifteenth anniversary show will know that they have become an astonishingly proficient live band. Influenced by Wilko Johnson and the Wave Pictures, Rotifer allows his songs to stretch out, with semi-improvised instrumental passages and uninhibited guitar solos.
Unfortunately, with a slightly curtailed set due to the need to let everyone get home on a work night, there wasn't as much room for the solos tonight as there had been back ten in the Lexington. But, nevertheless, this was still a great performance. Songs from the politically charged masterpiece 'The Cavalry Never Showed Up' were mixed with earlier cuts from 'The Hosting Couple', the early classic 'Now That I'm Here' and a new song that bodes well for whatever comes next from the band.
I can't pretend to be a 'critic' when it comes to Rotifer. I like these songs as much as any I've heard from any other band in the past decade, and it was a pleasure to see them performed live.
It is time for two things to happen – firstly, Rotifer deserve to see their ambitious songwriting, critical acclaim and BBC 6Music airplay translated into a much bigger fan base and secondly, Rotifer should grant themselves a proper, ninety-minute set, for which they have ample material. But, until then, tonight's set delivered everything we could ask for.