Max Tundra, Rarely Seen Above Ground @ Whitechapel Art Gallery
Max Tundra, Rarely Seen Above Ground.
Whitechapel Art Gallery. 26oct07.
I guess the precedent of Rarely Seen Above Ground’s stage set-up is those arena shows where Elvis’ old band knock out the cobwebbed chops, while the spectral King phones it in from the big screen. Well, almost, if instead you had the band on screen, and Elvis on the stage, with Elvis singing from behind a drum set, and with a David Byrne kinda cadence. That’d be the precedent. Well, no, you’d also need the band on screen to be decked out not in faded crushed velvet or weary leather, but in fur-lined playground hoods, and in noir-ish yet psychedelic black and white, and you’d have to suspect that all of them were Elvis, filmed from a variety of angles.
Thinking about it now, I’ve painted a bit of a nightmarish vision there, so let’s take the sideburns and jumpsuits out of it, and just place in an unassuming Kilkenny sticksman in t-shirt and jeans. The hoods remain the same. That, you might think is the hook of Rarely Seen Above Ground, a.k.a. Jeremy Hickey, the fact that rather than just sing and crash away to a backing tape, he has a projection of the ‘band’ (as ‘twere) going throughout. Not just a half-arsed four-bodies-in-silhouette black and white image either. Instead, it’s done like a music video, albeit a particularly enigmatic one, with cuts, angles, swoops and production effects.
However, it is ultimately the distraction to the main event, and that is Hickey himself to the left of the screen, with his dexterous, inventive, gleeful drumming, and the strangled soul of his voice. It is a kind of distant, hollow vibrato that appears as though to be coming through the walls from two rooms over, but yet at the same time sharp and arresting.
Max Tundra is also a man who flies solo. However, while he might equally be described as a ‘one-man-band’, rather than surround himself with 2-D clones, he cocoons himself within a variety of synths, samplers, toys and an old faithful, but sporadically used, guitar. In an hour long set, he croons like Ben Folds given to brash but cheeky electronica, fires out a re-appropriated cover-version or two, before following the expected show-closer, a version of ‘So Long Farewell’, with an eleven-minute epic that tinkers with the notion of a climax-focused build.
Max Tundra’s music allows for miles of smiles, but he faces competition in that respect from three young teens who stagger to the front of the tightly packed Gallery space encircling Tundra’s musical fort to engage in frenzied skitz-dancing, occasionally pawing at each others faces like fairground grabber-arms sliding off the ear of a poorly stitched Winnie the Pooh. They carry wisdom on their young shoulders for there is no better way I can think of to get the most from a Max Tundra show.
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