Palma Violets are the greatest live band I’ve ever seen. I’m not backing down from that.
By Adam Ellsworth.
For a few weeks now, I’ve been telling anyone who would listen that Palma Violets are the greatest live band of all time.
I’ve finally calmed down enough that I can take a step back and say that this probably isn’t actually true. At the very least, the Who circa 1970 might have something to say about it.
But Palma Violets are the greatest live band I’ve ever seen. I’m not backing down from that. I caught their set at Weekend One of Coachella, and they were a revelation. If anything, they were even better earlier this month at Brighton Music Hall, but having seen them already, I knew what to expect so the “Wow!” factor was no longer there. Still, it is a testament to their energy and just plain brilliance as live performers that I didn’t leave saying, “Ho hum, same thing I saw at Coachella.”
I’ll get more into the band as a live act later, but I bring it up at the top to make a point about their fantastic debut album 180, which was released in March.
The first few times I listened to 180, I kept thinking, “This is really great, but I feel like there’s another gear here they’re not reaching. Like something’s missing.” Once I saw the band at Coachella, I understood that what was “missing” from 180 was a stage and an audience. Palma Violets are simply best appreciated live. That said, once you have appreciated them live, 180 no longer feels like it’s lacking anything. You just take the energy you felt at the concert and transfer it to your personal listening experience with the album. Having done this myself, I can now say that 180 is one of my very favorite albums of 2013 so far.
None of this is to suggest that you can’t enjoy 180 on its own merits. It really is a very good album, filled with superb songs. When you consider that it’s the band’s debut and that no member of Palma Violets is older than 20, it becomes even more impressive.
“Best of Friends” and “Step Up for the Cool Cats” serve as both the best introductions to the band, and the first two songs on 180. “Best of Friends” is three and a half minutes of guitar rock with a big chorus and bellowed vocals, so it’s no surprise that it was the album’s first single. “Step Up for the Cool Cats” slows things down a bit and highlights the keyboards you might have missed on the first song.
Bass player Chilli Jesson takes lead vocals on “Best of Friends,” while guitarist Sam Fryer sings “Step Up for the Cool Cats,” and this dual front man attack has led many in the band’s native England to compare Palma Violets to the Libertines. On the surface, it’s a comparison that works. Both bands are/were bent on making a loud racquet, and both bands are/were signed to Rough Trade Records. But after that, the resemblance ends. The Libertines, at their most brilliant, were a very noisy but very poetic pop band. They wrote lines like “There’s fewer more distressing sights than that/Of an Englishman in a baseball cap,” and they wrote pop songs like “Don’t Look Back Into the Sun.” They may have looked like boho drug addicts (and at least one of them actually was a boho drug addict), but they were also poetic pop rock craftsmen. Messy craftsmen at times, but craftsmen none the less.
Palma Violets write lyrics like, “Oh Tom, the human race/He always wins the race/In outer space,” and songs like “Johnny Bagga’ Donuts.” They aren’t pop craftsmen. In fact, oftentimes the whole concept of verse-chorus-verse seems lost on them. But was it a pop craftsman that wrote “Louie, Louie”? Who needs craftsmanship when you can make a really great noise?
And Palma Violets do make a really great noise. There’s nothing “dumb” or “unintelligent” about their songs, their lyrics, or their energy. Maybe someday they’ll write songs with a little more sheen, and if they do, they’ll probably still be brilliant, just in a different way. But for now, it’s the rough diamonds on 180 that I like best.
“Rattlesnake Highway” name checks Joe Strummer as it speeds down the fictional roadway of the title, while “Tom the Drum” . . . well, I have no idea what that song is about. I just know that when I play it in the car, my arms spend way too much time flailing around and not nearly enough time on the wheel.
My absolute favorite on the album though is “14.” It wasn’t until I took the time to look at the lyric sheet that I realized there are only nine words in the entire song, and one of them is “Oh.” I’d just been so happy singing-along with it that I never noticed I was singing the same words over and over again.
If Palma Violets were just guitar, bass, and drums, they’d still work, but it’s Pete Mayhew’s keyboards that give the songs a little something extra. “All the Garden Birds” and “Last of the Summer Wine” (both of which Mayhew co-wrote with Fryer) are showcases for his playing, while “Johnny Bagga’ Donuts” is a nice example of a song that doesn’t “need” keyboards, but Mayhew’s playing compliments it so wonderfully that it’s hard to imagine him not being there.
The song that brings all the strands of the band’s sound together is “We Found Love,” which is also their latest single. Like most of the rough diamonds on the album, it completely discards the classic “verse-chorus-verse” rock song formula. It instead utilizes the lesser known “verse-chorus-breakdown-chorus-bridge/solo-outro that has nothing to do with the rest of the song” formula. It shouldn’t work, but of course it does, and it’s even catchier than “Best of Friends” and “Step Up for the Cool Cats.”
So how about Palma Violets live?
Well, take the songs from above and goose them up about 10 notches.
“Is everybody in?” the band’s hype man/merchandiser Harry Violent asked from the stage before introducing the band to the Brighton Music Hall crowd. “The ceremony is about to begin.”
Yes, a Doors reference, delivered straight, then followed with a smirk. Much appreciated by the audience: yes, he really is the band’s “merchandiser.” (He sold me a t-shirt and everything.)
Looking out and seeing a few people still milling around in the back, Harry took charge:
“Does anybody remember the guy who was standing outside the room at the Last Supper? No? Exactly. That’s my point.”
A bit of Tony Wilson in Harry. I hope he tours with the band forever.
With that, the band was introduced, Harry jumped into the crowd to fire up the pit, and the set kicked off with “Johnny Bagga’ Donuts,” all vigor, shouting, and keyboards.
The pit really got going during “Tom the Drum,” though I stayed on the outskirts. I’m too old for that crap.
For those of you reading “the pit” and assuming blood, fistfights, and broken limbs, I should say that’s not really accurate. At a Violets show at least, it’s far more good natured than that—pushing but no shoving, intensity but no violence. Harry leads the throng and then occasionally slips out to dance with a crowd member (female of course) and sing the lyrics into her ear. (This earned a “Careful, Harry,” from a smiling Chilli during the Brighton Music Hall show.)
There’s nothing wrong with a good mosh now and then, though I do wish people would realize that it’s also okay to dance at a rock show. I mean, I’m not any good at it but even I can bop along and tap my foot to the beat. And as evident from above, even Harry leaves the pit from time to time for some dancing. You don’t always have to be crashing into somebody to enjoy Palma Violets.
The band played nearly all of 180 during their set, leaving out only “Three Stars,” a perfectly nice ditty but probably not best suited to a live setting.
The one member of the band who hasn’t been mentioned at all yet in this review is drummer Will Doyle, which is a shame as he’s a monster. Live, he attacks the kit. Not a wild man like Keith Moon, more a beast like John Bonham. He isn’t nearly as big as Bonzo was, but he’s a thumper. There’s a lot of chaos, both onstage and off, at a Palma Violets gig, but Doyle keeps the whole thing humming. Doyle is so steady that he’s easy to overlook, but ultimately he’s too brutal to totally ignore.
“Monday night. Look at how many of you there are,” Chilli said to the crowd after “Chicken Dippers” and before “Best of Friends.” “Music lovers. Fucking brilliant.”
It was a good crowd. Certainly no need to call the fire marshal, but more than respectable for a young band that is still finding its audience in the U.S.
After “Step Up for the Cool Cats,” Chilli announced that it was his birthday, leading to the obligatory singing of “Happy Birthday” for him. Because of the special occasion, he asked that everybody put their hands up in the air and start wiggling their fingers to start “Last of the Summer Wine.” Even when it’s not Chilli’s birthday he makes this request. At Coachella, it was a surreal moment, as the sun was just starting to set over the distant mountains and the rays were streaming through everybody’s digits. At Brighton Music Hall, it wasn’t as magical, but it was still fun, and it got everybody ready for the moment at the end of the song when Chilli handed his bass to a member of the audience for safe keeping, and then jumped into the outstretched arms of the people in the front row to crowd surf away from, and then back to, the stage.
The main set ended with “We Found Love” (with Harry naturally finding a blonde in the crowd to whisper the lyric “I’m gonna find myself a lady friend, and stick by her until the end” to) and “14.” After a few minutes of the audience chanting “One more song,” the band re-appeared, and with Harry Violent himself sharing lead vocals and Pete Mayhew away from his keyboard and dancing around the stage, they played “Invasion of the Tribbles,” a song that’s older than they are (hell, it’s even older than I am). While it’s a cover (the original was by The Hot Nasties), it could certainly pass for a Palma Violets original because it’s nothing but three and a half minutes of guitars, gibberish, and fun.
To close the night, the band performed “Brand New Song,” the “hidden” track that follows “14” on 180. It’s just vocals, guitar, and drums, giving first Chilli, then Pete, the opportunity to jump into the pit and mosh along with the crowd while Sam sang and Will bashed away. Near the end of the song, Sam, along with his guitar, jumped into the crowd as well, while Chilli, back onstage, screamed “RADIO! RADIO! RADIO!” into the mic (the “brand new song” in “Brand New Song” is “radio friendly” you see).
“You guys were great,” Chilli said to the crowd as Sam untangled himself and headed back to the stage. “We’re Palma Violets,” he added, as if nobody knew, and then threw down the mic, producing a loud bang. The whole thing took less than an hour. Probably for the best because they only have so many songs. They do cover “California Sun” as the b-side of “We Found Love.” That would have been cool to hear, but you should always leave people wanting more. Palma Violets certainly succeed in that regard.
Palma Violets played:
“Johnny Bagga’ Donuts”
“All the Garden Birds”
“Tom the Drum”
“Best of Friends”
“Step Up for the Cool Cats”
“Happy Birthday” (to Chilli)
“Last of the Summer Wine”
“We Found Love”
“Invasion of the Tribbles”
“Brand New Song”