Five Gigs In Five Nights: X-Press 2, The Fratellis and Killa Kela at The Roundhouse, London
The London Roundhouse is a London legend – especially given that it closed back in the early 1980s and ceased functioning fully quite a while before even that. Even those of us already in our early 40s can only envy those who attended back in its Sixties heyday when headliners like Pink Floyd, The Doors and Jimi Hendrix were the norm – and again when The Ramones came to make their British debut and effectively kick off the UK punk rock scene, on July 4 1976.
After languishing abandoned at the norrth end of a thriving if often tawdry Camden Town scene for over two decades, The Roundhouse finally received a £30 million reconstruction face lift and opened again for performances this summer. Last Friday, September 29, it celebrated this relaunch with a semi-private opening party, featuring live music and DJs from across the spectrum of the British scene.
I arrived in tow with two old school friends around the 9.30pm mark, when the event had already been in full swing for three hours. Onstage was Killa Kela and his Spit Kingdom crew, a properly enthusiastic and genuinely upbeat UK hip-hop collective that included MC Trip, very much in the Mike Skinner school of cockney rhyming rap; soul singer Rookwood; keyboard player Spider J; DJ Skeletric; and Killa Kella himself, a man whose skills as a “multivocalist” transcend the usual hip-hop beat box and instead extend to successfully impersonating entire instrumental tracks, vocals and solos – to the point that I was looking around to see who had joined him onstage, so complete was his group sound. Offering selections from their album Elocution (which includes the ominously titled ‘Rave of The Future’), the collective joined forces for a finale of ‘You’re All I Need To Get By,’ not the most obvious of hip-hop classics, but well served by its gradual increase in tempo and velocity from Motown ballad to drum and bass workout.
For all the talent on stage, we were more taken by the sheer size and stature of the Roundhouse itself, having never, in all our collective years as Londoners, stepped foot inside its hallowed ground. The main circular room itself is simply vast, with giant beams working their way up the roof to the pinnacle of this biggest of big tops. A balcony runs a ring around the dancefloor, providing another layer of great sightlines. Cafes and bars are dotted around the complex, serving £3 hummous wraps and ‘Good Red Wine’ among other food and drink, and there are studios, exhibition rooms and smaller performance spaces behind almost every door. We got a special thrill out of sitting at the ground floor café watching the hubbub of Friday night Camden Town streetlife through the plate glass windows…
…Such a thrill that we barely remembered to make it back upstairs for Glasgow power trio The Fratellis, who had a fanatical audience in the front rows treating them with total adulation. In normal circumstances, I’d have paid far closer attention, but I admit to being somewhat distracted by several preceding hours of pleasant drinks and friendship. I couldn’t help thinking of the long-term influence of The Strokes and the sudden and complete effect on the British music scene of The Kooks. (To which, an aside: What is so special about The Kooks?) As with their three singles, which use a consistent artwork that itself falls back on decades of tradition, it was gleefully anthemic, unabashedly hands-in-the-air rock’n’roll and the kids, as they say, loved it.
Unaware of the night’s exact line-up, it had to be brought to my attention that the DJs now on the decks were the same members of Bloc Party whose name was indeed being flashed across the big screens. The rock band as DJ is a lazy concept that means a hell of a lot more on paper than it does on the decks, where even the best keyboard players or drummers struggle to understand beat-mixing and cross-fading, and while there was nothing amiss about Bloc Party’s selection, I was more taken by the video DJs on the bill who mixed precise visuals so perfectly with the music that I wondered how they were pulling it off in real time.
The problem with these gala events, which always look so glamorous on paper, is that they often turn in too many different musical directions for comfort. The hip-hop crowd was clearly spent after Killa Kela, and the joyfully drunken indie crowd were done after The Fratellis and the Bloc Party DJ set. This left only some faithful hardcore commercial dance music fans for X-Press 2, who were celebrating not only the reopening of The Roundhouse but the release of their new album Makeshift Feelgood. The trio, fronted – if that’s the right word – by remix/DJ legend Ashley Beedle, flanked by fellow dance music icons Rocky and Diesel, perform atop of giant screens a la Chemical Brothers, Kraftwerk and Daft Punk, but while they’ve got a few hits behind them – the most memorable being their last album’s collaboration with David Byrne, ‘Lazy’ – they fall short both in similar visual direction and aural impact compared to these aforementioned peers. Beedle’s polite song introductions seem totally at odds with his pedestal positioning and the group’s booming sound. There’s no questioning their production skills, dancefloor appeal or choice of vocal collaborators (Rob Harvey from The Music joined them for Makeshift Feelgood‘s excellent lead-off single ‘Kill 100’ ), but taken out of what I assume would be their usual domain – as headliners in a packed nightclub – and placed in the absolutely cavernous Roundhouse at the end of a long and not entirely focused night, they struggled to maintain audience interest. Presumably, they’ve been around long enough and through enough similar scenarios not to take it personally.
It was, by now, thoroughly late even for London, and the streets of Camden were choked with drunken revelers busy being ejected from late night pubs and clubs and thrown at the mercy of fast food stands, the occasional vacant taxi and the misery of the London night buses. I heard one tall teenager swearing at his mother for tracking him down on his cell phone, promising something along the lines of “you’ll know I’m safe when you find me sleeping on in the morning.” For our part, it was a case of jumping the first night bus that was headed south across the river, and enduring its bumpy one-hour journey until it deposited us at Clapham Common where, fortunately, a black taxi was pulling up right behind to bring us the last few miles into West Norwood. London’s never an easy city to negotiate or navigate, but nights like this at least serve to remind why it remains one of the world’s great entertainment capital. Coming weeks see The Roundhouse play host to The Zutons, Imogen Heap, Feeder and others. As word spreads of the venue’s comeback to glory, expect it to become the venue of choice for every major band that desires a vast dancefloor, great sightlines, perfect acoustics – and a large dollop of history thrown into the mix.