When spring arrives in these parts, it is not long before a regular sight emerges in earnest – that of our local bricklayer. He always operates alone, working methodically in solitude to rebuild degraded walls and restore damaged facades. And to watch someone who really knows their craft, work their way through a project over a sustained period, is strangely satisfying – the meticulous rhythm of the skilled craftsperson, the desire to do a job well for the sake of doing it well.
And it is this same pleasure that I have always derived from watching bands set up and work through their sound checks. If I’m entirely honest, the nature of this enjoyment has evolved over time. In the early days, it was very much more the pleasure of anticipation. As you eagerly awaited the show, a riff would emerge that would form part of the ensuing set and electrify the atmosphere – teasing and tantalising the crowd with what was still to come. That said, my favourite instance of such pent-up anticipation overflowing was when the mighty Trial played a truly ferocious show at The Borderline back in 2011 and the first stage divers were soaring through the air long before the classical intro to Reflections had even completed.
Now while anticipation clearly still plays a part, other elements figure. It is a moment of respite between sets and offers the chance to watch as bands limber up in their own specific ways for what is to follow, the literal calm before the storm. It is fair to say each band has their own dynamic at play – from those who operate with metronomic precision to those who look like they have never seen a guitar cable before, from those halfway through a European trek to those playing their first show in months. Not that I have ever been able to build a convincing correlation between these approaches and what follows on stage.
Now it is possible that the enjoyment stems from my own musical mediocrity, but I think it comes rather more from those same dynamics afforded by watching any craftsperson at work (don’t even get me started on cricket bat makers…). The two keenest pleasures though are derived from the rhythm section. Drummers always look like they would be just as happy battering through a solo set without the unnecessary extravagance of bandmates, while you actually get to hear the bassist and to form a sense of just how good many of them are, as their work is all too often largely subsumed under the mix once proceedings get underway in earnest. Catching Es, who are guitar-less, at The Windmill the other evening was a reminder of the infectious power of the bass when it is allowed to punch through properly.
However, if I had to name my favourite soundcheck of recent times (and I acknowledge that this is a somewhat niche category!), it would definitely be awarded to Mastermind from when I saw them playing with Spy at The Black Heart last year. Now for those of you who have not yet heard Mastermind’s debut LP, The Masters’ Orders, they deal in robust metallic-leaning hardcore that takes some gratifyingly unexpected turns. Meat-and-potatoes hardcore can at times feel like a pejorative term. But, of course, the real question is whether the execution elevates these base ingredients to something genuinely memorable?
Now Mastermind’s certainly does, and it was as the band set up that evening that an intriguing insight emerged. One of the guitarists and the drummer erupted into what was essentially an impromptu jamming session that gave fuller expression to the fluid jazz-infused interplay that permeates aspects of the LP, more fully realising that sense of Madball meet The Messthetics. Now often such colouring gains power from being used sparingly. But, as I watched that unconscious explosion, you couldn’t help but wonder what could happen if such strictures were removed and those appetites were fully unleashed.
And that in essence is the joy of watching the craftsperson in action – when the performative takes second place to the actual, and unguarded moments fashion unexpected flourishes to the necessary disciplines of process and repetition.