British Sea Power brings branches, birds, and beats

By Irene Gallego

In 2002, Rolling Stone magazine had this to say about British Sea Power’s performance at the Reading Festival: “All of them have crazy acid-fried stares, the bass player is wearing tree branches on his head and one deliriously psychedelic tune concludes with singer Yan beating on the drum-kit with a large stuffed owl. British Sea Power rule.” I was not so sure about the acid last Thursday at the Logan Square Auditorium, but everything else is more or less true. If there is need to delve into specifics then it should be said that it was guitarist Noble who wore the tree branches (down his back, like a samurai in a Kurosawa film), and that the stuffed owl had been replaced by a tiny, wind-up nightingale that was summarily kicked into the audience once it had chirped a few notes into the microphone. But still, there were birds and tree branches (freshly cut, still glistening with water from the rain that had fallen a few hours earlier) dotting the stage, and there enough psychedelic tunes were played to make the unusual decor seem perfectly acceptable.

British Sea Power is a quintet based in Brighton, England. Brothers Yan and Hamilton (“from a different father and a different mother”), who play, respectively, guitar and bass and split vocal duties, along with drummer Wood, guitarist Noble, and keyboardist Eamon—none of these five lads are keen on revealing their full names—have been together as a band for a handful of years and are currently touring the U.S. to promote their second album, Open Season, which is said to be more accessible than their debut offering, The Decline Of British Sea Power (clever, aren’t they?). On Thursday night the merch table had coasters free for the taking with the words “Try listening while drinking beer, wine or cider. The music will be immediately improved and other people will seem interesting,” printed on the back.

After opening sets from Scotland Yard Gospel Choir (who were neither from Scotland Yard, nor a gospel choir, but still rather good) and Feist (a girl with a guitar act, fairly reminiscent of PJ Harvey, and with an attitude that lived up to her moniker), British Sea Power came onstage, presumably having left their customary WWI regalia back at home, and launched into “It Ended On An Oily Stage.” While neither Open Season nor The Decline of British Sea Power can be precisely described as mellow, singer-guitarist Yan’s voice is soft, and, in some in cases, arguably soothing. Not so live. Whereas before the concert I was hoping boredom would not set in after a few songs (because admittedly I am not BSP’s biggest fan, and was going to the show partially to make sure the rumors of birds and branches were true), during their set I found myself wondering how many hours it would take for the ringing in my ears to fade to a tolerable level.

After the opening song the band revisited older tunes, including first single “Remember Me” and the fantastic “Apologies to Insect Life.” During the latter, Eamon traded his keyboard in for a marching drum and a yellow construction worker helmet, and was then kicked into the audience by Yan, weaving his way around the crowd only to reappear at the other side of the stage at the end of the song, ready to return to his customary role. The next few songs were culled mostly from their debut album and Hamilton exchanged microphone and instrument with brother Yan for “Leaving Here” and “Blackout.” Yan returned to lead vocals in time for current single “Please Stand Up” (reportedly banned from MTV not for the use of any swear words but for the phrase “wetter and wetter”), with “North Hanging Rock” following in its wake. The two songs are apparently a medley of sorts, meant to be performed one after the other, and it was this combination that made clear the differences between British Sea Power live and in-studio. Soft, delicate and light pieces on the album, they were almost unrecognizable on stage.

Live, British Sea Power exude a crazed frenzy that you would never guess from simply listening to their music. “Fear of Drowning,” “Childhood Memories,” “Carrion,” and “Oh Larsen B” hinted at this, but it all really culminated with 14-minute set closer “Lately,” which saw, amongst other things, Noble nearly giving the security staff a collective aneurism as he climbed the amps and attempted to hang from the light fixtures, content in the end to put his head through one of the drums; Yan stage-diving (after kicking off his shoes); band members jumping on top of each other; and those ubiquitous tree branches being remorselessly smashed against microphone stands left and right and flung into the audience—all of this under the watchful gaze of a plastic peregrine falcon comfortably perched atop one of the amps.

As you may guess, there was no encore. The stage probably wouldn’t have survived it.