Last night I finally managed to fulfil one of my long-held ambitions (no, not that one): I got to see The Necks playing live in concert. I had seen Lloyd Swanton and Chris Abrahams' previous band, The Benders, a couple of times in Melbourne many years ago, and have also seen Swanton's other band, the catholics, twice. I own almost every Necks CD, which must amount by now to almost 24 hours of music. And yet, through circumstances as diverse as inability to obtain tickets, being interstate, and being too sick to go, I have always missed their infrequent appearances in this town.
Given that my previous encounters with Swanton and Abrahams were all in smoke-filled hotel lounges, it felt initally a little incongruous to be sitting in a theatre looking down on them. But as things panned out, this concert-hall-like setting was entirely apt for the kind of music they performed, which was perhaps closer to modern classical composition (albeit totally improvised) than to jazz. You couldn't tap your foot to it, but you could sway back and forth if, like me, movement is essential to your listening experience.
The first surprise (only because I had never considered it) was how long they waited, in still silence, before anybody started playing. My friend said he thought they were doing John Cage's "4'33"" and was tempted to call out "plagiarists!". That would have been quite funny, but I'm glad he didn't do it. The second surprise was that Abrahams sits with his back to the other two.
The two pieces played, each lasting close to an hour, were quite similar. It was Tony Buck's night: he created all kinds of percussive sounds using all manner of objects, including quite a bit of metal on metal. He worked hard, producing rising and falling waves of intensity early on in the first piece, which then fed through to the second piece as well.
Abrahams meanwhile pulled huge, sweeping washes of sound from the piano, including at one point in the second piece balling his left hand into a fist and intermittently striking the low notes. (This was entirely appropriate to the mood that had been created, which was a bit like the part of "Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow" where she is on the ship, particularly when it docks at that platform or oil rig or whatever it was; the room was full of all kinds of creaks, groans, clanking, and generally unsettling sounds.) Occasionally he would hit upon a melody, usually only for a fleeting moment, but some of those moments were so unexpected and so gorgeous that I could only smile. At one point he was playing a four-chord descending sequence that wouldn't have sounded out of place on a Portishead record. Elsewhere he caused the piano to generate what sounded like early-1970s computer music.
Swanton's acoustic bass was what gave structure to everything else that was going on. Occasionally it fell into the mud of the acoustics, but in the absence of any fixed rhythmic structure, he was essential in at least providing a bit of a road map.
The highlight of the night, for me, was the last 15 minutes or so of the first piece, when for a while the volume and intensity increased. You could feel the three of them breaking their own shackles. It was up to Swanton, then, to bring the piece in to land by way of something like a slowed-down take on The Stooges' "Now I Wanna Be Your Dog".
Having seen it first-hand, I still don't know how they do what they do. Maybe they don't, either. But I guess they have done it so many times now that it just happens. How so much can be teased out of an arbitrary starting point (in the first piece, a slow one-two-one sequence of bass notes; in the second, a simple piano melody) is a beautiful mystery.