Most openers for the Pennyblackmusic nights at the Half Moon Herne Hill venue in South London have tended to be low-key acts based around only a few members. Not this time. NOW (yes, their moniker is spelt all-caps) have as many members as some of the other acts combined, and turn out to be one of the revelation of the nights. Drummer Graham Dunning’s unconventional, angular rhythms pull the band in all sorts of directions, and while the band’s off-kilter marriage of Krautrock and lo-fi might have been explored elsewhere with everyone from the Chap to early Stereolab, NOW manage to mould it in their own idiosyncratic sound. They’re also a joy to watch, with multi-instrumentalist Fanny Bissa jumping around the stage, and singer/guitarist Justin Paton letting rip with some fantastically abandoned rhythm guitar near the end of one song. The band’s handclaps and a cappella finale is a brilliant ending to a mesmerising set too.
Bromide’s more stripped-down trio approach belies some lovely indie-pop songs, particularly 'Hat to the Ride' off their new album 'Some Electric Sometime', though it’s a shame that they don’t play that album’s stand-out track, 'Small Rewards'. Bromide play the kind of unfashionable guitar pop that brings to mind the Only Ones (singer Simon Berridge’s voice even sounds like Peter Perrett’s drawl on 'Another Girl Another Planet') and literary British singer-songwriters such as Lloyd Cole and Robyn Hitchcock. Aware that they are something of an unknown quantity, frontman Simon Berridge quips at one point, “We’ve got CDs at the back that you can look at while filing out.”
One band that does sell plenty of merchandise is Rotifer, also a trio but with a heavier set of riffs. Austrian-born, Canterbury-dwelling Robert Rotifer may look like an accountant when he wears his glasses, but on stage he cranks out some thrilling sparks of guitar, flanked by Television Personalities’ Mike Stone on bass. With former Death In Vegas guitar Ian Button eschewing his instrument for the drum stool, their mod-influenced 60's rock lets rip throughout a substantial set, drawing an enthralled crowd.
In contrast, the headliners Willard Grant Conspiracy are a stripped-down experience, with frontman Robert Fisher electing to play solo. The last time Fisher played a Pennyblackmusic night here, he was flanked by virtuoso viola player David Michael Curry (though on record the WGC have numbered up to eight members at some points in the band’s history). This time round, he has bought along a multimedia film of sorts, whose technical problems during soundcheck were only solved during the last minute. Bathed in a sole red light at the right hand of stage and playing against a backdrop of a white sheet, the huge film projector next to him facing a room in near darkness, his set is an extraordinarily intense experience.
The movie’s images of vast Californian desert vistas, where Fisher currently lives, together with lines of apocalyptic poetry, make for compelling viewing as Fisher sings in his deep powerful baritone simple, Deep South-influenced songs of drinking, death, longing and despair, while fingerpicking slow, careful acoustic guitar lines. An austere experience, then, though not one without humour: at one point words flash up on the screen about his desire to “take a shit” on congressmen, or some such. Ouch. It’s a welcome relief if nothing else during an utterly beautiful but harrowing set, the spellbound audience reduced to hushed concentration.