British anti-folk appears to be beating a peculiar path of its own these days, in much the same manner that sixties psychedelia varied enormously on both continents. Many of the bands are injecting the blueprint with their own strands of music hall mayhem, council estate punk or C86 shambling. As a result, at best the hybrid either sounds like everything and nothing you've ever heard before (Misty's Big Adventure) or, at worst, like Jimmy Pursey out of Sham 69 after a full frontal lobotomy and six cans of Special Brew. Before he learnt how to play the guitar.
There was little of the latter in evidence last night, thank God, and plenty of examples of the former. To start with, Spinmaster Plantpot did his usual inspired acapella ranting. As per usual, it appears to divide the audience hugely between the amused and the irritated, but there's something endlessly endearing and enjoyable about his performances. On the less developed "work" he does admittedly sound akin to an African Grey Parrot going utterly beserk, but even so it's still a parrot you'd take home with you and look after if you were under the suspicion that it was being housed by a negligent owner. And a lot of the regulars on the London Performance Poetry circuit could learn a thing or two about engaging an audience from the man (and from parrots, in the absolute worst cases).
Paul Hawkins is another little treasure. Onstage his face resembles that of a 19th Century portrait painting of a mad jester - his eyes even scan the audience from side to side to complete the effect. Musically, it's manic, hypnotic and demented, his final song droning like an acoustic krautrock ditty until its stuttering conclusion.
The Bobby McGees are an altogether more absurd proposition. Taking to stage wearing mime face paint, they look like throwbacks to a house band from a 1967 underground cabaret. In terms of noise, though, it's not unlike listening to a C86 band doing impressions of the snappiest work of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band whilst being fronted by an irate Scottie dog, barking out the vocals in a commanding fashion. That's a good noise live, and incredibly entertaining, but I'd be interested to hear what they sound like on my stereo at home.
Sergeant Buzfuz has been written about on this journal so many times before now that I'm almost at a loss to know what to add. Suffice to say, though, that one of the worst aspects of much of British anti-folk is the idle tendency towards lyrical sloganeering as opposed to story-telling or making an overall coherent point. Joe Murphy is one of the few performers on the circuit who, to my mind, weaves fantastic tales without falling back on cheap gags or gimmickery. In the last few years the band have gone on to write wonderful bitter-sweet folk ballads that sound great in intimate venues. They might not attract as much attention as other performers tonight - a throng of irritating audience members have their back to him and are chatting throughout the early part of the set - but they deserve to.
Milk Kan, on the other hand, could seemingly click their fingers and everyone would come running these days. How much the attention Chris Moyles has been lavishing them with has to do with this I've no idea, but the upstairs of the Barfly is rammed with ardent fans. On CD, Milk Kan have only ever sounded "quite good" to me so far, but live they're fantastic. One of the few bands who actually sound far better if they're drunk, tonight they cling on to their mic stands, invite friends (including a jubilant Spinmaster Plantpot, who is celebrating his birthday) on stage to dance around and sing along, and miraculously achieve the near impossible by making the audience feel a part of it all. It's a fine line between self-indulgence and creating an atmosphere, and Milk Kan walk it successfully, something surprisingly few bands can manage to do. The good time vibes cross down from the stage to the furthest wall of the upstairs sweat-pit.
My friend Jon describes their noise as being "like early Fall if they'd been forcibly injected with jellied eels", and it's true to say there's a very strong bar room cockney feel to their work, but in this environment it neither feels irritating nor contrived. I'll be back to watch them again for sure. For tonight, they're the ultimate good-time band.