The Garage, Highbury
I’m a relative latecomer to the mighty Cardiacs – in fact it was through this very site that I was lead to reconsider the band I only previously knew from the knockabout video for ‘Tarred and Feathered’ and gradually became obsessed with their unruly, unhinged and hugely entertaining take on Art Rock – basically a supercharged, absurdist hybrid of XTC, King Crimson and Madness. Alas this was too late to see them live because, as is well documented, front man Tim Smith suffered a stroke & heart attack in 2008 which left his mind entirely intact but physically severely debilitated and unable to speak or walk due to a rare and complex condition. However, interest in the band continues to grow, and indeed there’s been a successful crowd funding campaign this year to raise money for Tim’s rehabilitation. Meanwhile. it’s becoming a bit of annual thing for some of the bands that sprung up around Cardiacs orbit to have a festive shindig in celebration of the music. It’s a bit close to Xmas to be heading down to the big smoke but I can’t miss this one.
It’s a an early start (first band 6.45pm), and as we file in the first person I spot is – woh! – only the good Doctor Tim Smith himself. One of the results of the fundraising is that it’s helped with the logistics of enabling Tim to attend events like this, so it’s heartwarming to see he’s able to get to in amongst it again.
First band on is Zoff, led by former Cardiac Christian ‘Bic’ Hayes – Bic was also a member of Levitation with the great Terry Bickers of House of Love who is also joining the band tonight. There’s a fella at the front with a massive, teetering tower of analogue synths rig that would put Tangerine Dream to shame and appear to be held in place with some climbing ropes. This is excellent stuff, huge droning synths, trouser flapping bass drops and thunderous krautrock riffs – albeit not slipping into the obvious Neu! chka-chka thing but more like bands such as Can actually were, which was more varied, exotic and fruity than the reductive ‘Krautock’ tag implies. Snapped up their LP from the merch stand.
Next up is Knifeworld featuring former Cardiac, Kavus Torabi. Kavus also partners on DJ duties with Steve ‘Snooker Loopy’ Davis who is also in attendance to do a DJ set. I’ve not heard the band before and they’re magnificent. The music is in keeping with Cardiacs but also owes a lot to that mind bogglingly weird strain of late 70s/early 80s (Aventies) art rock Soft Machine/This Heat/Henry Cow/Art Bears/Hatfield & the North/National Health and sure enough he has a horn/bassoon section and wonky time signatures to match. Kavus makes for an excellent frontman, and with his shock of hair looks exactly like Syd Barrett when the on-stage cameras project him onto the back screen with psychedelic filters. The approach they take makes this quite complex and elaborate music loads of fun – which is exactly what Cardiacs were doing. More expense at the merch stand!
Spratleys Japs are next – originally a collaboration between Tim Smith and Jo Spratley and other (possibly fictional) band members who released one LP in 1999 . Alas Jo’s been struck down with something wintry and nasty which means her voice is all but gone – which would be troublesome for most singers but a serious problem when you have the vocal leaps and complexities of Tim Smith’s music to navigate – nevertheless she gives it her best shot and some diehards down the front help out on backing vocals and the crowd give her endless goodwill and she manages to complete the full set, drawn from the one LP ‘Pony’ and new material which is on a super limited single sold at the gig (another visit to the merch stand!). Powerful stuff
For the finale, members of the previous bands file back on for a 30 min set of Cardiacs material, including poor Jo Sprately who is resigned to finishing off her vocal chords off for the rest of Xmas – and joined by another Cardiac – Jon Poole. It’s by no means the obvious stuff they play (of course) but it’s an absolute joy to hear Arnald, To Go Off and Things – and two tracks from the incredible ‘Sing to God’ LP – Flap Off Your Beak – and finally an astonishingly powerful take on ‘Dirty Boy’ – for this they are joined by former Oceansize singer Mike Vennart who brings fresh energy and rock action that it needs. It’s absolutely stunning – this is the track that really sold me on the Cardiacs so to hear it played live with some of the original musicians, in the presence of Tim Smith is something I never thought would happen.
Seemed to have travelled from all over, and a lot of them seemed to know each other.
It made me think..
It would be possible to have a full set of Cardiacs material played by the various band members although perhaps more out of respect to Tim and the fact that the band is officially ‘on hiatus’ it’s perhaps more fitting to have a night like this, largely drawn from music which draws inspiration from the source rather than recreating it.