The Triffids and Friends – Islington Assembly Hall, London – Friday 21st October, 2016
For the uninitiated, the Triffids, originally from Perth, Australia, played their last show in the early 1990s (although they never officially split). However the band’s principal singer/songwriter David McComb passed away at the tragically early age of 38 in February 1999 ending any prospect of a full blown reunion.
At the instigation of pedal steel player Graham Lee, the surviving Triffids have periodically reassembled since 2006 with guest singers to pay tribute to their former bandleader and his songs. Last weekend’s London show was part of their third trip to the northern hemisphere in that time.
It’s been nearly 10 years since I saw the first Triffids reunion show in Hasselt. In between that show and now there was the huge disappointment of the ash cloud which prevented us from seeing the 2010 Hasselt show. So going to this show in London (by land, obviously) was a no brainer especially since the short run of European shows was to coincide with the 30th anniversary of ‘Born Sandy Devotional’ – one of the finest albums of all-time. OK, I’ll qualify that with an IMHO (but I’m right on this one).
The obvious fact about a show like this is that the venture will stand or fall on the singers. There’s a tightrope that each vocalist has to walk – backed by the original band they have to deliver a version that both respects the original (and won’t deviate much from what the audience expects) yet they still need to put their own stamp on the songs to avoid coming over like a copyist.
(Most of) the guests for this tour got the chance to warm up as part of the opening act which mainly comprised David McComb songs. Toby Martin of Youth Group opened the show with trio of solo acoustic numbers and that was followed by JP Shilo and some post-rock guitar. He was then joined by Rob Snarski for two song one of which, ‘This One Eats Souls’, was simply stunning and up there with the evening’s highlights from the main set. Simon Breed then followed with two of his own songs, one of which referenced Dave.
Regrettably there was a bit of restlessness in the audience and a lot of chatter during this short set but thankfully that had dissipated by the time the full band took to the stage.
The main set was entirely based on the Triffids recorded career and was delivered by possibly the best set of singers that the band have assembled so far.
Rob Snarksi was the stand-out performer on the ‘It’s Raining Pleasure’ DVD and he was entrusted with a fair chunk of the set. He’s got a gentler voice than Dave McComb but he can certainly muster power when he needs to.
Perhaps the revelation of the night was the demonstrative Simon Breed whose acoustic songs earlier on only hinted at what he could do with the Triffids songs. As impressive as ‘Chickenkiller’ and ‘Lonely Stretch’ were, his ‘Stolen Property’ was exceptional, pitching his performance to match the drama created by the band perfectly.
JP Shilo spent most of the evening backing the band on guitar, violin and xylophone but he was also given the harder edged songs to sing. Certainly for the more powerful stuff such as ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ it was possible to think you were actually listening to Dave.
‘Personal Things’ by The Triffids with JP Shilo from AB Anciennes Belgique, Brussels on 23/10/2016
Toby Martin handled a couple of the lighter and poppier songs that Graham might have sung at the initial shows –whilst Graham himself only sang the opening ‘Too Hot To Move’.
Jill Birt had her share in the spotlight too with ‘Raining Pleasure’ and ‘Good Fortune Rose’ added to her brace of BSD songs. But the version of LP closer ‘Tender Is The Night’, with drummer Alsy MacDonald moving forward to duet with Jill on was rather special.
Finally there was the unique spectacle of the Triffids as “boy band” as Graham, Simon, Toby and Rob took turns to deliver verses of a particularly affecting ‘Fairytale Love’ to close the main set.
Looking back on the show the ‘Born Sandy Devotional’ section was just stunning – I was pretty much lost in the music throughout with a far higher than normal count of ‘hairs standing on the back of my neck’ moments. But it was impressive how the augmented band, including JP Shilo and Chris Abrahams on piano, was able to recreate the expansive sound of the original album.
The remainder of the set ranged over the band’s back catalogue with all but one of their albums featured (‘In The Pines’ was the exception). Inevitably there was a slight feeling that the non-BSD material was given less attention than it deserved but stand-outs included Toby’s ‘A Trick of the Light’, Rob’s ‘Hell of a Summer’ and Jill’s ‘Raining Pleasure’.
The encore consisted of two contrasting numbers – JP was back centre stage for a crushing ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ whilst Rob Snarski brought the show to its end with the only song to substantially depart from the original arrangement. A stark ‘Bury Me Deep In Love’ was delivered by only Rob, Marty’s bass, Graham’s pedal steel and Chris’s piano and, being honest, it’s probably my favourite version of the song.
There was no doubt it was an emotional show, even if it wasn’t quite as loaded as that first show in Hasselt nine years ago, but a poignancy was unquestionably lent not just by the circumstances but also by photographs of the young band and Dave in particular which played at the back of the stage.
Whilst the Triffids are sadly a band with only a past, that past is worthy of continued celebration in this fashion as often as they’re able to.
I don’t doubt that I’ve failed to do justice to the show here but you can get a good idea of what it was like as the Brussels performance on the tour was filmed in its entirety and is available on YouTube:
- Too Hot To Move (GL)
- The Seabirds (RS)
- Estuary Bed (RS)
- Chicken Killer (SB)
- Lonely Stretch (SB)
- Tarrilup Bridge (JB)
- Wide Open Road (RS)
- Life of Crime (RS)
- Personal Things (JPS)
- Stolen Property (SB)
- Tender Is The Night (JB)
- Beautiful Waste (TM)
- A Trick of the Light (TM)
- Hell of a Summer (RS)
- Red Pony (RS)
- Raining Pleasure (JB)
- Good Fortune Rose (JB)
- Unmade Love (JPS)
- Fairytale Love (GL/SB/TM/RS)
- Bright Lights, Big City (JPS)
- Bury Me Deep In Love (RS)
JB – Jill Birt, GL – Graham Lee, SB – Simon Breed, TM – Toby Martin, JPS – JP Shilo, RS – Rob Snarksi
‘Born Sandy Devotional’ is available on remastered CD and vinyl from Domino Records.