Owen Pallett, blatantly not in Cardiff

Do any of us belong here tonight, in this former banking hall, drinking beer underneath chandeliers and chariot frescos? Amongst the great columns and parquet flooring people crane their necks around this undeniably beautiful building, and the second gig held at Portland House since its reopening as Cardiff’s swankiest new venue (the first was Lee Scratch Perry in April; he probably thought he was playing his front room). More gawking occurs for Scriber‘s solo set of ghostly blues, of guitar and vocals slow and skeletal. Some bones are barer than others: one song is a capella and reverb alone, others feature a stark foot-thumped percussion effect. There are spooky thrills here, unevenly distributed for sure but touching raw nerves at least half the time.

Similarly divided times with King Of Cats, in that turning around during their set shows 50% of the crowd standing arms-crossed, looking like confused chumps. Guessing Max Levy’s music generally gets pegged as ‘divisive’, possibly due to Levy’s cracked and piercing vocals, but tonight it’s a frigging triumph, a splurge of joy inside the psychic forcefield of having all your mates around you, making a fucking racket. Aided in this current incarnation by members of Playlounge, Joanna Gruesome and Trust Fund, as well as Roxy and Camille of misandrist power trio Towel, there’s a kind of damaged youth club vibe to it all: instruments and people get swapped and disappear, shonky keyboard and failing drum machine fade in and out, random screaming comes from nowhere. It all swirls around Levy, in big hair and short legs, and his songs that are touching, weird and brilliant. After this, you want to grab every odd-looking stranger by the lapels and yell “Look! This! Here’s a friend. Here’s another. Now form a band.”

Word from the dressing room is that Owen Pallett spends a lot of time doing press ups before gigs. Squaring this with OP’s music, as Final Fantasy or under his own name, could take some mental contortions but makes sense really: underpinning the sweeps of violin and falsetto vocals is a kind of steely self-confidence, a willingness to dive into knotty lyrical terrain, and a pretty diabolical sense of humour too (during a mini Q&A session there’s a joke involving Cardiff’s famous first million pound cheque which is very funny if you know your local promoter history). That violin won’t maniacally saw itself anyway, and in a muscular and fairly long set, heavy on his most recent album, last year’s ‘In Conflict’, the thrills are hefty as well as ticklish: aided by extra musicians on guitar and drums, ‘The Riverbed’ charges on its repeated, burrowing strings riff, all sparks and melodrama; ‘The Secret Seven’ is luminous and pulsing, breaking into a sunshine fist pump of a chorus. A cover of John Cale’s ‘Paris 1919′, tossed out almost as an afterthought, is probably just rubbing it in. As he multitasks looped and layered violin scree with drinking a big glass of white wine, this grand old place filled with music wild and free, it feels like a freak victory, a bank heist by the weirdos, and the perfect knee-trembler of a goodbye if this is to be Pallett’s final touring show. Top drawer.

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