Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Air Guitar (or, A Tale of Two Gigs)

In a moment, I'm going to tell you all about a rather excellent album called Air Guitar by a rather excellent band called Sat. Nite Duets. First, though, I'd like to share a story from several Octobers ago.

Some of you will already know that, when I'm not blogging about other people's music, I sometimes make my own under the name Shiny Tiger. I post the occasional track on SoundCloud and play the occasional gig in Cardiff - it's never going to be a career, but it's fun to indulge my rock star fantasies every so often without having to commit to attending regular band practices or actively trying to market myself.

One of my favourite Shiny Tiger gigs ever took place on Halloween night in 2013. The venue was Gwdihw, a lovely little space on the edge of the city centre; I was singing and banging the drums, and my sometime bandmates Sion and Drew were backing me up on guitar and bass respectively.

That Halloween gig was a fantastic time: all my friends were there, in costume, along with a whole bunch of other strangers who were probably there to see the other bands but nonetheless arrived early enough to fill out the room for our set. The sound was great, we all played pretty well, and Sion and Drew poured fake blood over me in the middle of one of the songs. It was sharp contrast to the show I'd played one night earlier.

On the 30th of October, 2013, I played a short set to an almost empty room at a venue on the other side of central Cardiff. I was flying solo that night - I couldn't be bothered mobilising the band for two after-work gigs in one week, so I decided to go it alone, just me and my electric guitar. The act I was opening for disappeared after completing his soundcheck, so my audience that evening consisted of just four people: the sound guy, the guy on the bar, the guy who was on after me, and his friend.

So you can understand why, when I listened to Air Guitar for the first time and opening track Attached to the Lamp came rollicking out of my headphones, this verse in particular really resonated with me:

"Maybe we could go back to Cleveland
And play for the sound guy and the other band
And the opening act got picked up by his dad
It'll happen before, it'll happen again"

Above all else, Air Guitar is an album about being in a band, and it draws its nervous, insistent energy from the knowledge that playing to a hall full of people tonight doesn't guarantee that you won't be giving a private performance for the person behind the mixing desk tomorrow.

There's a fine line between the big time and a big fat nothin', and Sat. Nite Duets know  it. But instead of playing it safe, Air Guitar embraces this precariousness with both arms, funnelling it into a tight, colourful set of songs and a sound that's constantly darting from one side of the line to the other.

And so we end up with songs like Annie's X and Sober June - bombastic, arena-sized songs - nestled alongside leaner, rawer cuts like St Yuppie, Manny D, and the aforementioned Attached to the Lamp. One minute you're listening to a soarin' chorus or a smokin' guitar solo...

...the next, you're listening to Two Birds (a gentle strum on the windowsill) or Country Worm (a goofy, haphazard hoedown). 

Here's the thing, though: whether Sat. Nite Duets are living the rock 'n' roll high life or playing to empty rooms, they never lose sight of the other side of that line. The stripped-back Two Birds dreams so hard of a big orchestral backing that it gradually becomes audible; conversely, Annie's X sounds like the big-budget work of a band who've hit the big time, but its lyrics are still preoccupied with "a washed-up cowboy singing in a slutty bar". The 'you' in Manny D gets to play to twenty thousand people at a festival in Spain, but lest the throngs and the corporate sponsors go to your head, you're kept humble as you skip offstage with a reminder that they "didn't know your hits, much less your name".

So that's Sat. Nite Duets: one foot in the big time, one foot in the wilderness. One part Halloween party wondergig to one part dead-end support slot. Listening to the two halves push and pull each other makes for a compelling and infectious experience indeed.

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