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This Is Not This Heat (live at Café OTO)

13 February 2016

This Is Not This Heat live at Cafe OTO February 2016I suppose it would be prudent to start off with something of a disclaimer – it’s going to be very difficult to get much critical distance from this evening. Like no other gig I can think of, I was nervous when I thought I wouldn’t be able to go, nervous when I found out I could go, and nervous about trying to write any kind of review. The weight/wait of expectation is almost too much to bear.

Summoned from the nightosphere, where the slumbering spirit form of This Heat now dwells, the band that definitely isn’t This Heat has been reanimated by Charleses Bullen and Hayward to play again, performing two concerts in honour of its very first. For on 13 February 1976, a blastocyst version of the band — then still known as The Friendly Rifles — had played a gig at The Three Horseshoes pub in Hampstead. With scarcely two songs, one of which was largely on tape, the fledgling band nevertheless took the bit between the teeth, hit the boards and played to an audience of around thirty people.

Planning a measure of theatricality for their début performance, the original intention had been for Hayward to take to the stage first, solemnly ringing a bell, a tocsin that would soon call forth Bullen and recently-joined musical “barbarian”, Gareth Williams. In the event, Hayward’s co-conspirators mischievously delayed their entrance for some fifteen minutes, leaving Hayward to spend a lonely quarter of an hour out front, tolling away on his bell and listening to the strains of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” drift up from the jukebox downstairs.

From such a relatively unprepossessing start, however, the band would, over the next six years, blaze a trail so intense that when it finally ended at a gig at London’s King’s College shortly after the Falklands War in 1982, it would leave their name justifiable in the frame for one being one of the most important and innovative British bands of all time. Such was their greatness that one can remove the word ‘British’ from that sentence, and its remains true.This Is Not This Heat live at Cafe OTO February 2016

Although their demise was criminally under-lamented at the time1, the three and half decades that have since passed have seen the world start to catch up with the flaming meteorite that was This Heat, and their critical standing is now almost as stellar as their oeuvre. The two nights at Café OTO, for example, were rumoured to have sold out in less than a day.

And so, with the performance of that very oeuvre, there is a lot to live up to.

Last night, walking back from seeing The Residents at the Hackney Empire – itself a truly superb show by any standards – I passed the end of Ashwin Street and, for a moment, was tempted to sneak up to OTO and stand with my nose pressed against the glass, feasting on any aural crumbs falling from the table. But no, I decided instead to pass by, revelling in having just seen San Francisco’s finest flowers once more, and leaving the surprise fully intact for the next day. In this digital and connected world, chances to engage in delayed gratifications are becoming ever scarcer, so one must take such opportunities where one can. It builds character, I’m told.This Is Not This Heat live at Cafe OTO February 2016

The following evening I join the queue around an hour early, prepared to dig in and Ranulph Fiennes-like to suffer the cold and drizzle in exchange for a prime position near the front – short-term pain for long-term gain is my strategy. The queue, however, turns out to be far from the grim endurance test it might have been, the fans talking animatedly to each other, the phrase “I can’t believe this is happening” ringing out resoundingly from every conversation. I myself am soon in conversation with Marcel and Thomas, good men both, who have come all the way over from Münster in Germany especially for the show. Despite having to leave the show and immediately head back to Stanstead airport for a nightmare red-eye flight, Marcel nevertheless puts their imminent suffering into clear perspective with the simple statement – “It’s the best band of all time. We had to come.” And there really is no arguing with that.

Grabbing a spot at the front, the three of us settle in, toast the collective health, and soak up the swelling atmosphere of excitement and anticipation. With a packed audience (this is the fullest I have ever seen OTO, the crowd layered in even more densely than at an Arkestra show), so many musicians on stage that they outnumber the original headcount of the band three-to-one and a truly jaw-dropping amount of equipment, there is scarcely a millimetre of space available anywhere. It’s like being locked into a broom-cupboard with Harry Roy and his Orchestra, all of Einstürzende Neubauten’s touring kit and a large heater with its broken knob stuck on ‘Full’.

OK, here we go.This Is Not This Heat live at Cafe OTO February 2016

Before the band that certainly isn’t This Heat, each Charles has a short solo slot in which to perform. Charles Hayward is first and, despite being the drumming equivalent of a hydrogen bomb detention, this section of his evening sees him slither in-between the crowd and take a place behind the gleaming black grand piano in the corner. With a beautiful playing style underlining his mournful vocals, Hayward runs through a half dozen songs new and old. There is something reminiscent of John Cale in his set, with the sweetness of the music counterpointed by the astringency of the lyrics, something encapsulated perfectly on the haunting “I’ve Been Watching You”.

Introducing “Safe as Houses”, Hayward comments that it is “about the Eighties, since we seem to be back there again”, the subtle political commentary that was shot through This Heat kicking up against the same pricks all these years later. The Spaghetti Western style “Rattlesnake” takes place “somewhere in the desert, with a couple of cactuses and Lee Van Cleef on the horizon”, Hayward multi-tasking with some minor woodwind like a portable Ennio Morricone. It’s a lovely and very affecting way to begin the evening, a whisper to start, one that showcases the more delicate side of Hayward’s playing.

This Is Not This Heat live at Cafe OTO February 2016Next up comes Charles Bullen, his bosky greying beard and small black beret an unlikely collision of Lord of The Rings and Tooting Popular Front revolutionary chic, the magnificent and enigmatic guitar maestro a Marxist Gandalf. Musically, Bullen’s manifesto this evening comes in two parts: a prelude of Tibetan singing bowls and talking drum, before a centre piece of looped guitar and hammer dulcimer. From where I am sitting, I become utterly transfixed by the small wooden hammers bouncing off the strings with such speed they resemble nothing more than a hummingbird circling a flower. I could happily listen to another hour of this.

Indeed, if the evening ended now, I would still have more than enough to go home a happy man. It is a gentle reminder, too, that This Heat were always incorporating elements of “World Music” (sorry) years before it had a name, that their interests and their taproots went deep, deep into the musical a soil, that they were never just a band but always an evolving and Protean musical entity. Their love and knowledge of music was profound, from the heavenly clang of gamelan to the Irish melodies of The Bothy Band, and their approach and their instrumentation were always a synthesis of the globe’s many styles.

This Is Not This Heat live at Cafe OTO February 2016There follows a small measure of reorganisation, no mean feat in a space where even the bacteria are jostling for elbow room, and Thomas and I have to pull our arms in even tighter to make way for the tuba player cramming himself and his portly brass instrument into the gap. Over Thomas’ shoulder, the legendary Chris Cutler is preparing his percussion instruments. With an expanded guest ensemble including the likes of the aforementioned Cutler, Daniel O’Sullivan (Guapo and SunnO))))2, the breath-taking Alex Ward and the neighbourhood’s very own Thurston Moore, there are more master-instrumentalists aboard here than a Weather Report group holiday on a Saga cruise ship.

In all the general milling about, it takes a while to become aware of the sound rising slowly in the background. Once it reaches audible level, the audience responds, becoming instantly silent, as the unmistakable treble pitch of “Testcard” rises up to enfold us. Then it’s straight into the bulldozer roar of “Horizontal Hold”, so fierce that I fear the neck of the bass guitar might splinter at any moment. And, for a band that definitively aren’t This Heat, it sounds amazingly like This Heat; the power, the fury, the subtlety, the acidity, they are all there, as forceful and potent as when they were wrapped carefully up and put into (cold) storage back in 1982. Between every song it’s so quiet you could hear a pin drop. The air practically crackles with electricity.This is the audience for This Is Not This Heat live at Cafe OTO February 2016“Paper Hats” erupts in its razor-sharp guitar riff, the droning, scathing lyrics – uniquely by the late Gareth Williams – like a mantra of seething discontent. “S.P.Q.R.” fairly roars out of the amplifiers, its straight roads and empire paranoia as fresh, and sadly relevant, as on a yesterday of long ago. Forged in the searing, turbulent fire of late Seventies and early Eighties Britain, as with contemporaries such as Gang of Four or The Pop Group, This Heat were a deeply political band. Theirs, though, was attack that was a little more oblique and, perhaps, at some historical distance, was all the stronger for it.

“Sleep”, sung tonight by Merlin Nova, is a beautiful lullaby, though as always with (the band that most definitely aren’t) This Heat, its message of restful bliss is worryingly subverted by its inherent double entendre. It is the reassuring voice of the parent settling down their child, or the voice of political authority lulling its listeners into woozy, docile compliance? The Charleses (Charlesii?) briefly engage in a burst of crosstalk, remembering their Hampstead show, and taking time to pay tribute to the missing Gareth Williams with love and respect, his Banquo’s ghost nevertheless smiling somewhere just off stage.

This Is Not This Heat live at Cafe OTO February 2016

By halfway through the set the gems are coming so thick and fast that each one practically needs a half-hour intermission of its own afterwards just to allow us to digest properly the full magnitude of what we have all heard: “Twilight Furniture” dances lightly across the ice, (personal favourite) “Makeshift Swahili” rumbles towards us as menacing as a drunk with a broken bottle in his hand (Hayward’s opening vocal salvo is as savage a piece of sung lyric as was ever committed to vinyl) and “The Fall of Saigon”, that battle-hardened veteran of the first ever show, makes each member of the audience lurch along in time like so many George A Romero zombies. I smile reflexively when I hear one of my favourite lyrics sung aloud, “I know all about cats and their heavy vibes… She was very hip, ambassador’s wife…”

A special mention must be made of Chris Cutler, sadly too often hidden from view behind a speaker stack. From my vantage point, though, I have a clear sightline to the great man, and a high point comes when he attacks a small block of polystyrene with a violin bow – the frequencies are just incredible. Hang your expensive digital gear, this is old-skool improv played by an absolute master of the genre, like seeing Titian bosh up a canvas in front of your very eyes, simple household items made to perform as high art.

The stunning “24 Track Loop” draws a huge cheer from the audience, its proto-techno machinery cranked into life and given a treatment so funky that it threatens to become Miles Davis’ “On the Corner” at any moment. After a short burst of varispeed comes the evening’s finale, that joyful ode to strength and power, “Health and Efficiency”. It draws an enormous cheer from the audience who, to a (wo)man, sense that this is This Is Not This Heat signing off for the evening.

This Is Not This Heat live at Cafe OTO February 2016

The applause seems to last almost as long as the set, despite many bolting for the door as soon as the show has ended through sheer desperation to cool down and get some oxygen into their lungs. Remarkably, the collective participants of the band that unquestionably isn’t This Heat manage to squeeze themselves into a line, and Charles H leads them in a triple bow to acknowledge the faithful and revel (deservedly) in some of the adulation that was denied to them so many years ago. Charles B thanks everyone assembled and explains that the band know that many people had travelled a long way for the show – Marcel and Thomas, for example, having clocked in an impressive 650km from Münster. Thomas shows an admirable refusal to be complacent, however, reckoning that statistically there must be at least one person in the room who has come here from south-east Asia3 or Japan. Good call, I say.

It’s a filthy night outside, cold, dark and wet, but we all spill out on the pavement singing a song about the sunshine, dedicated to the sunshine. They absolutely weren’t This Heat, but they were brighter than a thousand suns.

-David Solomons-

1 When a review of their final show appeared in Melody Maker on 19 June, the estimable Lynden Barber, stated in no uncertain terms that “TRAGICALLY snubbed by both press and public in this country, This Heat may have played their final gig.”

2 Count those brackets – no funny business there…

3 Saigon, hopefully.

* Following on from the success of the Café OTO gigs, This Is Not This Heat will also appear at Stewart Lee‘s ATP from 15-17 April  and at The Barbican in London on 17 June 2016.

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