After reviewing Drifters/ Love is the Devil, the latest output by the elusive one-man outfit Dirty Beaches (real name Alex Zhang Hungtai), I was truly absorbed by the idea of what this highly talented and visionary musician had to offer in the live arena. So armed with a parka to protect against the overcast skies and British Summer temperatures; I made my way to the Soup Kitchen in the Northern Quarter of Manchester. The venue is invitingly cosy, not too small, but having an air of relaxation about it that is refreshing to see. The top level foreshadowed with what’s to come with the muted noise of bands going about their sound checks.
Descending the stairs, I arrived to find another one man outfit, Trap Door, in mid set. With a ray of light blinking from his telecaster, a person of lesser presence would have looked slightly out of place sporting only a guitar and a Mac on a stage no larger than a decent-sized living room. Yet the lad projects an air of composure that, twinned with his masterfully produced ambient tracks, has the room well and truly captivated. In a faint blue light he delivers eloquently composed guitar riffs that pierce the tracks smoothly, creating a strange combination of liquid guitar and trip-hop like beats. Get him on sound cloud at ‘soundcloud.com/trap_door’ definitely one to watch for the future.
An eerie red light descends upon the room seemingly out of nowhere as Dirty Beaches two-strong backing band take to the stage first, both dressed exclusively in black. Tribal drums and ascending synths create a moody backdrop as the man himself takes to the stage, again predominantly in black, but also sporting a shirt that is both brash yet understated in equal parts, much like his music. The noise comes to a crescendo which fades into Belgrade, with Hungtai seemingly creating movement space on the diminutive stage from thin air. The room has filled to create a throbbing yet static crowd of approximately 60 people, all engulfed by the spectacle that is being played out on the stage.
As the never-ending journey of synth sound and hypnotic guitar and drum lines continues to wind into the evening, Hungtai becomes more and more animated. The deepening red lighting creates a sense that this is a gig at the end of the world, and Beaches’ mournful crooning punctuated with sudden animalistic screams throughout Au Revoir Mon Visage gives a sense of Jonny Cash warning of a 1984 style dystopian future. His face one of complete composure, Hungtai’s live presence is reminiscent of a cross between the late Ian Curtis and David Byrne. It’s clear that this man and his band are well versed in live performance and it wouldn’t matter if this gig was a sell-out night at Wembley or a private gig in front of six people- the atmosphere is retained. This is a strange contradiction as there is very little crowd interaction from the band; but then when the music and atmosphere created by it is this good, does there need to be?
A 45 minute set didn’t seem to do this spectacle justice in the end, I’m pretty sure the whole crowd as well as me would’ve been more than happy to share the experience of this captivating songwriter live for triple that amount of time. Yet as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end, and end they did. With a quick ‘thank you’ and a heart-warming hug with his main synth player, Hungtai creeps away from the stage just as quickly and efficiently as he came onto it, disappearing into the bowels of the artist area of the venue; fuelled by rapturous applause and cheering from appreciative fans.
However it may be wrong to call both myself and these people fans of his music; because you can’t help escaping the feeling that you are a part his music in the live arena. Dirty Beaches both as a musician and as a live performer projects this strange welcoming yet cold presence that allows you to exist within his bubble for a while, but the problem being that you never want to come out of it, you want to delve deeper. But despite this, it’s time to leave. It’s raining…
Review by Jake Breeze