Just 24 hours ago, I stumbled down Pentonville Road in dwindling sunshine; today, the streets about Kings Cross are spattered with a grim drizzle. Though irrespective of the downturn in the weather, the self-professed, suited and booted DruMachine hammers away, sticks flying in the sheeting mist. It’s therefore testament to the brute force of the irrefutably inimitable John McEntire that, even though this most adept of percussionists does exactly what it says if not on the tin, then on his drenched kick drum he is only the second best of the two seen rhythmically expressing themselves on the night.
Nonetheless The Sea and Cake are an all-round treat – a delicacy of a rare order. The slack Chicago avant-garde ensemble will enjoy twenty years of on/ off existence next year, and yet tonight somewhat lamentably serves as something of a test as to whether cult status can indeed keep the modern-day artist alive in a sparsely attended Scala. With only a couple hundred present and tickets at fifteen quid a pop, perhaps not and the four-piece are still assembling their own gear even after all those years, and no fewer than ten full-length records.
Though it’s punctiliously done, and so idiosyncratic are the ingredients hurled into the mix that surely few could do what McEntire, Sam Prekop and Archer Prewitt tonight get up to. There is no Eric Claridge this evening – he’s otherwise engaged, enraged or indisposed – though they truck on unperturbed as they’ve now done for decades. Theirs is a blue-collar, head down approach which they opt to adopt right from the off, not least as Prekop has taken to reading his every lyric off a heap of handmade cue cards strewn about his leather blacks. To a degree, he needn’t have bothered for the sound is murky to the extent it renders each word all but entirely unintelligible, though Prekop’s dawdling vocal has always been that bit imprecise anyway – perfectly so, perhaps as it shuffles between stagnant Malkmus slur (A Mere; Parasol) and a flighty, boyish slight (On and On). If nothing else, with his gaze transfixed downwards there’s ample distraction from a front row of nothing but perpetually fidgety photographers. And as has again always been the case, The Sea and Cake aren’t the sort to pose flamboyantly in the convex apertures of glaring cameras.
Thus if there’s a slackness vocally, then the music from which Prekop’s ambiguous musings on life and love hang is estimably taut – not least as they’ve a stand-in bassist in tow for this particular jaunt. Though he too is rather proficient, what with it being Tortoise’s Doug McCombs and his nimble fingers swank about his four strings with the elegance of a Chinese adolescent on a tightrope. And it’s a bluish tattoo of an F-clef etched into his left wrist that catches the attention: for doodled across his ulnar and radial arteries, it appears evocative of the intimate affinity the band’s every ingredient shares with the music itself – that this is their lifeblood. It’s this which keeps them alive artistically; not that cult status aforesaid. And odd though it may be, they transfuse that same zeal into their audience, though somehow do so without uttering more than only sporadic splurges of blurb. So vibrant, and vividly considered is their lifework that it becomes almost contagiously involving – the effervescent freshness of Weekend and Pacific; or that stark dichotomy between softened and scratchy guitars made successful by the Pixies prior to The Sea and Cake first coming to prominence which courses throughout Jack The Ball; or the instrumental afro inflexions of Crossing Line. Each one is rattled through with an utmost dexterity; an unerring efficiency, so as to make it that bit disheartening that the place isn’t that bit more bulging. For while sometime cohorts Broken Social Scene seemingly only strengthen their collected relevance yearly, The Sea and Cake have somehow crumbled if not into irrelevance, then into disregard.
And as they tumble loveably through their most noirish off last year’s Runner LP, New Patterns, it subjectively becomes somewhat problematic. Where is the world, and what has it come to for there to be so few here congregated? As McEntire clatters his cymbals as though shattering crockery during a piercing rendition of The Argument – his eyes sheened with the fiendish glint of a blade newly unsheathed from the cutlery drawer – his is a look of concentration which may be (maybe mis)interpreted as one of disdain. Though they’re that little bit unbalanced tonight, not least due to the absence of Claridge as the three original members cluster together during those more loose bits of Leeora, or An Echo In. McEntire’s drums are off-centre and slightly askew, whilst Prekop is positioned stage-right to allow for the fluid instrumental narratives frothed forth from Prewitt’s guitar to form their creative fulcrum. They’re not exactly defying convention with subversion and panache here, though they’re scratching closer to those qualities than most – and that for a band in a somewhat more developed stage of the human condition. It was Prekop’s weathered skin to have scrawled the childlike introspection tossed across the floor after all, and despite the adeptness their unrivalled combined experience brings, it is offset by a quite unmistakably youthful exuberance.
We’re all getting on, and I’d be lying were I to say that I weren’t that bit relieved to see news of a ten o’clock curfew though ultimately, it’s McEntire’s electrifying presence beyond the static figures before him that keeps us tuned in for the duration. And deriving a primary inspiration from the complexities of jazz, experimental fusion and post-rock – genres dying hard to varying degrees – his are vintage techniques attuned to an invigoratingly contemporary form of expression. It’s in with the old in his case as he puts a couple c’s back in accomplished, though at that same time he’s plugged into an iPod always tucked away at the back. No less eminent, he lacks that prominence afforded him in Tortoise and though they go that bit beyond ten – just as they’ve so often gone above and beyond before – with this ginuwine DruMachine McEntire anchoring the evening, they delectably win over we, the handful, all over again.