Hannah Lou Clark, Bill Baird – The Lexington, London, UK (28th March 2017)

American Bill Baird brings his expert musicianship and innovative compositions to the UK only rarely, and here he is supported by local girl Hannah Lou Clark, who tours later this spring. The venue fills slowly, but never reaches capacity, making for a low-key but entertaining, enriching and enlightening evening .

Hannah Lou Clark has her full band with her — younger sister Charlotte Clark on bass, Ellie Jones on guitar and Liam Toon on drums. The transition to the psych-tinged “in deep water” in opener ‘Matilda’ proves an early electrifying moment. Jones noodles on her guitar while the younger Clark hides in the shadows. As on her new EP, ‘Matilda’ is followed by ‘Don’t Sweat It’, which starts with HLC on reverb-rich guitar accompanied by her loyal vintage drum machine. It’s a great moment when the band comes in to underline the lyrics “champagne takes the edge off me”.

Hannah Lou Clark’s red manicured nails work the strings of her skilfully detuned guitar as she sings that she hopes she can “kick the habit” in the warped and discordant ‘Cowboy Joe’, a track from last year’s ‘It’s Your Love’ EP that psyches out loudly and satisfyingly. The gently waltzing ‘We’re Rich’, from the new EP, starts quietly but builds, with Toon using mallets for percussion. After finding her plectrum, Hannah Lou Clark and her trusty drum machine start ‘It’s Your Love’, which the band develops into a poppy and grungy number, with spiky guitar. Toon doesn’t hold back on the drums while Hannah Lou Clark herself is shouting the chorus one moment and singing like an angel the next. ‘Silent Type’, her first solo single, is tight, full of guitar reverb and lyrically intriguing (“I still kiss you when your mouth is broken”) and she ends with ‘Grief Underneath’ from the latest EP, which veers from country & western to shoegaze and indie. 

Hannah Lou Clark promises plenty of loud surprises at her headline concerts later this month, but here she is a great warm-up act for the shaggy Bill Baird. The US west coaster effectively plays a few sets sets, starting as a singer-songwriter, performing as singer with a backing band and, finally and best, letting rip as the bass-playing lead singer in a band. He and his California experimental music college mates meet to record and play live, but dwell on separate sides of the country. They learned about modular synthesisers but prefer rock ’n’ roll. Break-up song ‘We’ll Meet Again Someday or We Won’t’ opens the set, as if about the way his musicians come together now and then. Baird stresses the “t” of “won’t”, playing with diction, and goes on to ‘As The Sun Will Rise This Dream Recedes’ — almost spoken word in its delivery.

The band join him for backing duties on ‘Quicksilver Slip’, the guitarist creating a sound like steel guitar without the instrument, while Baird produces a relaxed, rounded delivery of word after flowing word. Lead guitar is deliberate and skilful on ‘Telephones’, which Baird ends with a country & western flourish on his own guitar. On ‘Bourgeois Blues’, as a cassette tape plays the drum track, the guy on drums moves over to second guitar, while Baird — on acoustic guitar — sings about waking up “in a water bed that’s filled with imported Perrier”. The lyrics are satirical, political and funny.

The first sign that he’s not just a singer-songwriter-guitarist comes on ‘Walking In A Straight Line’ when he holds up the cassette player that’s laying down percussion — moving a microphone closer to one of its speakers to boost the bass effect as he bops around like an older Mac DeMarco

From the seventh number, ‘Diamond Studded Casket’, Baird has the bass and his previously seated bass player moves to the vacated drum stool, where he syncopates and sings backing vocals for the rest of the night. From now on, the whole feeling of the set changes. Baird adopts a different singing voice, the guitarist uses pedals for effects and the second guitarist adds depth. To match the punky pop shredding on guitars, Baird shows phenomenal finger work on his Rickenbacker bass. 

Alright, let’s party,” he says before the band put their heads down to play ‘Your Dark Sunglasses Won’t Make You Lou Reed’. The rest of the night is fast, sweaty, alternative rock in the vein of The Velvet Underground or The Modern Lovers. On ‘You’re Someone Else’ he even sings like Lou Reed, and stresses the “s” just as he stressed the “t” on the opener. There’s great interplay on ‘Wino Strut’ and ‘Graveyard Dog’ as Baird’s mellow vocals float over the thrashing guitars, syncopated beat and his own finger-defying bass prowess. By the time the band plays a short and sweet ‘Waiting My Whole Life’ there’s a lot of head nodding, foot tapping and knee bending in the room. Baird ends with two songs that recall, respectively, Jonathan Richman and The Stooges: ‘World Gone Deaf’, in which he sings “deaf/what?/deaf/WHAT?”, and ‘Captain Brain’, which seems to be veering into prog rock but then gets faster and faster to end the show with a blitz.

Picture credits: Ian Bourne.