Twenty five years ago in a parallel universe Bruce Springsteen was locked in a cupboard in Dayton Ohio for forty days and forty nights. Deprived of sunlight, beer and burgers he emerged sporting a straggly beard, a thousand yard stare and a new sense of purpose. Changing his name to Dave Doughman he formed the band Swearing at Motorists and signed to Secretly Canadian.
After many, many changes of line-up the band resolved itself into a two piece featuring Dave on guitar and Joseph Siwinski on drums. Some years later Dave found himself lured to Berlin, seduced by fatherhood and the uncanny acoustics he encountered whilst busking on the U-Bahn (the L.P that resulted, Exile on Gipsstrasse 2006, is available in all good record shops).
It is via this circuitous route that he came to be here tonight with his battered Fender telecaster at West Germany, a former clinic in former West Berlin, hiding behind speakers stacked precariously on a crate of Becks.
Stamping on a pedal to elicit short bursts of feedback to summon stragglers from the bar, the first couple of numbers are brief to the point of being abrupt. He is then joined by Joe Dilworth, standing in on drums, for the old favorite Northern Line and everything is kicked up a notch or three.
Hammering out chords on his guitar with spastic intensity Doughman leaps about the tiny stage pausing to deliver low key observations of a life lived in the slow lane. Reverb drenched B-movie clich�s of too much wine, too many woman and not enough song.
Whilst it is perhaps hardly revelatory to discover that guitar rhymes with bar (a lot) at his best the lyrics display a fierce sympathy and identification with his downbeat subject matter – signals are heard on a lost highway, a bartender swears that her life resembles a Townes Van Sandt song and Doughman wonders which one.
Despite the simplicity of the format the music that Swearing at Motorists makes on occasion rivals the White Stripes in its intensity (indeed Dave has challenged Jack and Meg to a musical duel, an offer they have yet to accept). Shaky organ samples betray an affection for the sounds of the British Invasion suggesting Dave’s tastes are more eclectic than a number of artists that shelter under the catch-all banner of Americana.
At this point I have to confess that having spent long years in rehab due to a particularly embarrassing Nick Cave addiction (I was almost cured following Blixa’s departure but then along came Grinderman and now I wake up every morning with shaking hands again) I am approaching the second part of this review with some trepidation.
Tonight’s headline act are The Devastations, a fourpiece from Australia now residing in Berlin, comprising Conrad Standish, vocals and bass, Tom Carlyon, guitar and vocals, Hugo Cran, drums and Andrea Lee on keyboards. Tonight is the first night of their European tour and they are fresh from the studio working on their third, as yet untitled, album to be released on Beggars Banquet later this year.
The Devastations have garnered plaudits from the likes of Karen O or Rowland S Howard (who admires there use of silence) not to mention Dorfdisco’s talented and beautiful photographer adores them and they have supported the Dirty Three, Einsturzende Neubauten and Tindersticks, however the similarity of their sound to the latter band, as well as Old Nick himself, as well as their penchant for silk shirts, makes it hard to shake the impression that this band is anything more than a rather fine Bad Seed’s tribute act. Hell these Sad Beads (with the exception of the keyboardist) are even sporting a variety of freshly grown and rather dodgy moustaches.
I guess that these days you would be hard pressed to see the original tapeworm that ate Elvis performing in a venue this intimate and with a backdrop of Kottbusser Tor rooftops and a crowd that clearly knew all of the words to ‘The night I couldn’t stop crying’ it would be churlish not to concede that inconsolable male self-pity and narcissism can produce a heartbreaking tune.
Standish & Co have an assured stage presence, a little arrogant, a little sexy, just the way good rock and roll should be but too many of the songs seem to follow the same formula – of waking bruised after a hard nights drinking, fucking or playing scrabble and wondering what it all means.
‘One day we will wake up wrapped in tender arms and the veins on dead leaves will spell our names’, croons Standish as he struts about the stage and I am almost, almost, a believer. Unfortunately the track from which this lyric is taken is so close to Into my Arms and his assertion that, ‘There is no setting sun’ doesn’t really bear comparison in terms of ambition to Cave’s “I don’t believe in an interventionist God.”
The nature of authenticity is a subject which remains well beyond the scope of this writer’s remit and it must be admitted that Nick Cave himself is also a bit of an old ham (or total fake) seeing as how the Louisiana swamp from which he has dragged much of his lyrical imagery over the years is hardly a place he’s entitled to call home. At their best seeing Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds can resemble seeing Frank Sinatra with the Cramps as a backing band (hardly in itself an authentic thing) The best I can say of The Devastations is that if you close your eyes you could imagine yourself to be in the presence of this city’s favorite adopted son but unfortunately for them the firstborn ain’t dead yet.