Houdini Dax, Telfords Warehouse, Chester - Saturday 18th June 2011
I really should have eaten something. Damn my weak constitution, bad time management and insatiable thirst for a well-poured stout! I got a little tipsy and pink-eyed at this gig. I mention this, not out of gormless braggadocio, but because moderate inebriation has made some of the details elusive. The whole night has a fuzzy, nebulous quality to it. Which is a shame because this will prove to be one of those gigs I'd most like to remember in my dotage, when these Dax boys are headlining the O2 Glastonbury Music Mall for the eighth time.
I put Coldplay on in this same venue in 1998. Maybe '99. See? Time and a Guinness tide lap inexorably at my memory's shore. All I remember of Coldplay was that they were keen to watch the cricket with our sound engineer (Mo Plume). When Mclusky came and scared the post-work spritzers out of the hooves of a herd of suits from financial services, that's all I remember about the gig. It's as if my brain filters out all of the truly exceptional moments in favour of peripheral flam.
Houdini Dax first energised my airwaves in January 2009. At the time they were barely scraping sixth form. But it was obvious that - even then - they had 'it'. Not the 'It' that Para Tara What's-Her-Face had: i.e. privilege. But 'it', small 'i', the secret, indefinable, impossible to synthesise quality that separates moribund triers from effortless, gilded, supersonic swans of potential genius. On their first demo, the overwhelming majority of bands sound like drunk elephants trying to ice skate. Houdini Dax are the poncey kid at the rink who can skate backwards on one tippy toe whilst all of his peers tumble over two feet from the gate, splattering luminous Slush Puppy all up their faces.
Following that début, I invited the band to record a session for my show. They ended up being led astray (sonically) by that manic bogeyman, the Jack Nicholson of former drummers for 60ft Dolls turned sound engineers, Mr Carl Bevan. I never - ever - want to know what happened to them during their lost day in his studio. They entered as boys and left as men. Men with a strange dance to their eyeballs and an odd buzzing in their earholes.
It didn't do them any lasting harm. The EP that followed - on the fledgling (at the time) See Monkey Do Monkey record label - was more assured than a psychopathic tightrope walker. Bands as young as this are not supposed to play so well, be this cute, have this high a ratio of thrilling execution to exuberant imagination.
They blessed us with their easy charm, anti-depressant melodies and prodigious talent at this year's Radio Wales Music Day. In 15 too-short minutes they charmed the entire audience with their beautifully tailored pockets filled with TUNES and drew a smile across my editor's face that stands, for me, as the enduring image of the day. And they have just released a début album that will have anyone over the age of 25 weeping into their joyless cornflakes. It's disarmingly good. It's not perfect, but it's closer than most: a boggle-eyed tumble through three musical brains that have absorbed all of the grafted guile of early Beatles, Supergrass and the lysergic otherness of Syd's Pink Floyd.
It's a crackerjack of an album. Fizzing, colourful, a fun-packed thrill ride that proves there is exciting chemistry yet to be had out of fearless youth, strings, skins and a well-thumbed record collection. There are a couple of bona fide, killer songs: Robin You Lie, O.L.L. and Fizzy Moon. What the remainder lack in memorable hooks or distinguished songwriting, they make up for in enthusiasm and gusto. Sometimes a band can get that intoxicated by the racket they're making that they forget to take the songs with them. And Houdini Dax are a little guilty of that, but this is nitpicking with a microscopic comb. As a début album, it's within grappling distance of SFA's Fuzzy Logic or the 60ft Dolls' Big Three.
It's live that they make most sense. The broad smiles, unaffected stagecraft and luminous enthusiasm all amplify the best qualities of their songs: all super retro cool, jigging with their instruments (bass), being the mod Buddy Holly (guitar) and the most magnetic drummer in Christendom. Like Supergrass or the Furries (again) there's something indefinable about the band, some heady, uncontrived charisma that just makes you like them the moment they get on stage. You could imagine them all living together in a Help! style terrace, getting up to endearingly slight mischief. But there is more to Houdini Dax than Monkees wannabees, and an awful lot more than Britpop revivalism. Britpop was - for the most part - a celebration of self-limited mediocrity and laddishness. Sparks of intelligence were frowned upon unless you happened to do it in an Oxfam suit, festooned in droll irony.
Houdini Dax are all about sparks.
So, they're a blast. But some of their hinges are over tight. Now that they have this most impressive musical foundation in place that means they can play almost anything that has gone before, I'd like to see them loosen the screws, crank themselves up, and jettison themselves upwards on a completely new trajectory.
And I'll make sure I'm there to coo at it. Soberly.