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Wooden Shjips – Scala, London 10/12/13

16 December 2013, 12:33 | Written by Joe Daniels

Wooden Shjips are something of a relic. They make unashamedly repetitive, droney, psychedelic music – the sort that hasn’t been popular since the late 70s. Comparisons abound with Suicide and the Velvet Underground, though such comparisons are a touch bogus: this band of beardy San Franciscans (via Portland, Oregon) seem to be doing something a little more textural with their guitars.

Opening with “Black Smoke Rise”, the stand-out track from 2011’s West, the audience is immediately pummelled by the band’s trademark fuzzing guitars and rambunctiously simple snare hits. What’s so arresting is how little they deviate from the formula – heavy songs are always played heavily and it’s enough to send the sold-out London’s Scala pogoing around like they are 15 again.

Live, the earthier, groovy tunes of “Back to Land” metamorphose into the same chugging riff-laden mosh-a-longs of their back catalogue, with the title track shrugging of its (admittedly reserved) subtlety in favour of a more direct ear-drum pounding approach.

West – their best received record to date – is given due credence with a pugnacious performance of “Crossing” which adheres to the received wisdom that playing a song faster and louder can only improve it. “Home” is another standout given a particularly thumping outing tonight.

At the forefront of the sonic behemoth is Ripley Johnson, the hirsute talisman. When singing, he drawls laconically, but when he breaks ranks to hammer out a solo, a ferocity is unleashed. On record, one can be forgiven for doubting the technical musicianship of Wooden Shjips, but live, the intricate noodling and pedal wizardry of the frontman alone is enough to quell such naysaying. That said, when he occasionally breaks the fourth wall to address the audience, his voice is layered through so many reverb effects that it is rendered virtually inaudible.

The fanbase too is a sight to behold. It’s beardy, it’s middle-aged, and it’s damned near beautiful. In fact, it looks exactly the same as the band. The queue for the merch stand is as long as the queue at the bar: this is music for people who buy the poster after the show.

The astronautic projections on the screen behind do little to dispel the perception that this is predominantly a band for stoners, but it’d feel like shortchange if one of the best psychedelic bands around played in the dark.

After a particularly unhinged encore escalates and crescendos, with obligatory intermittent squawks from Ripley’s Gibson SG, which has the audience bopping around for the last time, the band shuffle off stage and the audience out of Scala’s doors. Both safe in the knowledge that the intoxicating affects of psychedelica are alive and well when Wooden Shjips are in town.

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