A documentary on Rowland S Howard,
Savages and HTRK Live
British Film Institute, London
And that is where we can perhaps start to pull the thing apart, as that legacy was manifest in the headlining performance from a very in-form Savages. There is something extremely primal and female about them – they are both contained and unconstrained in equal measure. Decked out in their traditional all black, with just one lick of red (singer Jehnny Beth’s shoes), playing against a deep blood red curtain in front of the BFI’s main screen, they look like an installation representing female sexuality. This is a venue that probably better matches Savages’ art rock pretentions than many a bigger space.
They were mesmerising to watch, like all great bands, each member fabulous, and together making something greater than the parts. Given the band is clearly driven by queen bee lead singer Beth, whose presence dominates the space, perhaps surprisingly if there is any weak link to their armour it is her voice – it has a growling, soaring quality reminiscent of an early Patti Smith, but without the depth and range. It is a voice that feels like it might go to 8 rather than 11 and just might be the difference between Savages being a great band and a legendary one. But then again, there is a nagging feeling that it might just seem that way as she clearly doesn’t want to let go. Surrender is not a word in Savages’ vocabulary, but if she loosened her grip enough to let rip then some of the perfection might be lost but in its place something truly spectacular might result.
Still though they are awesome. Some have called them ‘over controlling’ but that is to miss the point. This is art rock at its best and thus the self curation of the band rather than a more standard ‘here I am naked’ approach of a straight up guitar rock band is appropriate. They are as much ‘an act’ as ‘a band’.
This desire to be orchestrators shows up – thankfully – when at the end of the first song Jehnny moves to the front of the stage, squats down and gestures to the five middle aged men who broke ranks with the otherwise seat-bound audience and started to dance ‘up the front’. Exactly what she said remains a mystery but the result is they all sit down, seemingly content. Again you could call this controlling, but in reality it is good management. There is something rather unseemly about having to watch the backs of five lumpen middle aged men bump and grind in front a band of young, attractive women – something of the grubby peep show about it and not in an ironic, glossy, Warholeque way, but in a way that makes your skin creep. It was the event’s one ‘awkward moment’ and was handled with such deftness that it didn’t become an issue.
Perhaps in keeping with Savages self-management the whole set works, there are no stand-outs, just a seamless showcase of their best songs, each building on the last, the thumping bass and angry drumming of Ayse Hassan and Fay Milton slowly seeping into your soul, synchronising your heartbeat and breathing, so the edgy, soaring guitar and vocals could work their magic. The more they play the more the audience is transfixed. This is a band on the way from cult success to something bigger, a transformation that will either see them become more mainstream or implode. Catch them now if you can for they are a band at a perfect point in their development: beautiful and professional, but still with the sweet flesh of something young and not fully mature.