James Chance/Melt Yourself Down At Illuminations Festival

Art & Culture

A hint of trepidation always blights expectations, when the prospect of encountering venerated figures becomes a reality. There’s always the chance that time and circumstance have colluded, contributing to an erosion of vitality; the inevitable wane after the incandescence of the artists heyday. Such an onset feels more than usually pertinent when considering James (Siegfried) Chance and his return to the UK. For an artist who often seemed engaged in seizures of sound and performance I couldn’t help feeling a creeping sense of doubt.

For many of those not old or lucky enough to experience his music live (including yours truly) the only afforded interaction has been through the now customary channels– cyclical reissues, youtube videos, and whatever assorted literature and fragments obtainable through no wave documentarians and obsessives. There’s more than a little mystique about the man then, especially when the aesthetic he cultivated and the music he continues to make still commands such a forebodingly cultish and formidable aura. The mugshot on the back of No New York sticks in the mind as a notable encapsulation of his stance and sound; an unburnished rendition of Chet Baker if he became a scowling black-eyed young offender hooked on speed and fistfights. For his major presence in the annals of no wave – a scene often defined by its dissenting attitude – the notion of a comeback might be thought of as uncharacteristic and incongruous with that earlier air of epochal recalcitrance.

But any reservations concerning the potentiality of loss of bite and fire were abruptly extinguished as he took to the stage relatively early in the night, backed by Pete Wareham’s troupe; Melt Yourself Down. Something about his dress and demeanour reminded me of that first line in ‘For The Love of Ivy’ by The Gun Club; ‘you look just like an Elvis from hell’; perversely zoot-suited and quiffed as he was. A faintly discernible bolo tie gave him a secondary edge as a Texas oil baron (of sorts) As if to accent his attire and signal his intent, he then launched into ‘Dressed To Kill’, the first salvo on his debut LP with The Contortions (which this year marks its 35th anniversary)

Earlier in the day I’d come across a brief segment of the NTS show he made an appearance on, in which he detailed a progression from primitiveness to sophistication in terms of his vocals. Though that may have been somewhat accurate over the course of this performance, they still possessed an abundance of irascible bile. The infamously inflammatory shrieks immortalised on past favourite ‘I Can’t Stand Myself’ didn’t seem something that was likely to be emulated, instead there was a sense of slight refinement; an approach more conducive to stamina. It was less punkish bawling, more rancorously rhythmic; consistent with his love for jazz, soul and funk. That’s not to say that anything was being held back, just maintained, at a high level of paroxysm.

In more chaotically intense moments in the past, he always sounded as if nails were filling his throat and what came out was his attempt to unsuccessfully hawk them up. There was the same brittle, throat-torn quality existent here, though there was more of an element of wisecrack showmanship about them; sophisticated, with more charm, but still like the tones of a toxic James Brown. They rung around a packed out but curiously muted Village Underground. Such a response from the crowd seemed strangely docile, especially when the notoriety of Chance’s career-defining, early shows are taken into account (crowd confrontation and subsequent fights were common) Despite the initially lukewarm reception, Chance began to shift, breaking into ‘Almost Black’, a disco-inflected standout made under another of his more celebrated pseudonyms; James White & The Blacks. His moves resembled those of a man wrestling with an unattainable, arousing itch in his pants, a priapic twitch and thrust. By the conclusion of his second song, it was clear that whatever he possessed back in the day, he still had it. The band that backed him allowed him room to exact such an impression, with their translation of Chance’s earlier collaborators (The Contortions and The Blacks mostly) seamless, tight and without fault; a basis from which Chance could spring forth abrasive rasps and smoother splinters of contagious funk.  Often he would suffix the conclusion of each song with a banshee-like bebop sputter, as if toasting their efforts, albeit in a preferred mode of exhibitionistic virtuosity.

Later, the indebtedness to American black music became all the more evident as he covered Gil Scott Heron’s ‘Home is Where The Hatred Is’. Unlike the original, the register wasn’t deep and velvety, nor as reflectively blues-orientated. There was more of a virulent coil at the end of each note, more evocative of a disgusted, crotchety street preacher than anything else. James Brown’s ‘King Heroin’, a frequent hallmark in Chance’s material – both live and recorded – also received treatment. Similarly with Chance’s departure from Gil, his characterisation of ‘the white horse of heroin’ and its ‘ride to hell’ was more vividly personified in Chance’s snarling address than Brown’s original effort, perhaps on account of Chance’s own personal troubles with the drug. There was a bitter conviction in the utterances.

Before that more measured few minutes could fade into silence and due applause, Chance counted off and led the band into ‘Contort Yourself’, and that was pretty much that, victory assured; the transfixing acme of Chance’s work bursting with all of its iconic, dissonant vigour and brawling discotheque infiltration. The execution was balanced between the four to the four tempo of August Darnell’s remix and the originals less structured, apoplectic hyperactivity. Here, Chance’s convulsions reached fever pitch and the crowd showed more of a willingness to mirror his energy, as any would, given the sheer tumult.

But before this climactic highpoint there were more unsuspecting, inspired moments. ‘Jaded’, as featured on No New York, was a divergent fix of noir terror and back-alley prowl with all the gravitas of utter dissolution. Considering what now characterises the surrounding area – rampant consumerism, corporate dominance and skyrocketing rents – it felt like a relevant skewering of the backdrop, at least in its sound; one which felt authentically revealing in its doomy dirge. I couldn’t help feeling slightly restored and encouraged on the way home as I cast a disdainful eye at that pop-up circus that now casts Shoreditch High Street station under a cloud of odious idiocy and meaningless, faddy commodification. The darkly spellbinding echoes of the song functioned as commiseration somehow. Chance, on the other hand, dedicated the track to DNA’s drummer, Ikue Mori; a touching if unconventionally dour tribute.

Eventually that led into the final triumphs of which ‘Contort Yourself’ was one. Baileys in hand and modern ‘big band’ in tow, Chance then took leave of the stage having conveyed a sense of his ever intact, unbridled persona.

That left Melt Yourself Down who, impressively enough, were to take to the stage not long after their supporting role in Chance’s set. There was an omen, good in some ways, bad in others, that arised during Anthony Chalmers DJ set in between the two acts. Throbbing Gristle ‘Hot On The Heels of Love’ oozed its way out of the speakers; its distinctive proto-techno drive and promiscuous whispers the best kind of galvanising encouragement. But the crowd response was nonchalant, more like the repose of a theatre interval; less encouraging. Doubts starting to creep back in.

Before long, MYD took to the stage, with Kushal Gaya now undertaking vocals after playing guitar under Chance. On paper, everything read right. Inspired by a drunken night playing Ali Hassan Kuban’s ‘Habibi’ , Pete Wareham formed the project (named after a James Chance LP) for the express purposes of creating the same kind of joyous revelry as heard on that record. Their debut LP sounded convincingly flavoured by an interest in North African and Latin forms, with electronic flourish and a distinctly freewheeling ‘punk’ idea of unrestrained execution, if at times it treaded into chaos which felt slightly overcooked. There was every indication that the record would translate better to a live setting.

Whilst the energy and musicianship they showed couldn’t be doubted in any way – with Gaya especially, doing his utmost to riotously berate the crowd into a frenzy – the actual sound of all those identified influences descended quickly into bombast and caricature. Instead of bringing together the qualities of their inspirations and assembling something appealing out of it, their sound seemed to congeal into an irritating and tediously frenetic sprawl. Choruses felt goon-like and gimmicky, more Gogol Bordello than Mulatu Astatke, which was surprising considering Tom Skinner (the drummer) and his involvement in Astatke’s band. I felt like I’d walked into some novelty gypsy tent at Latitude, it really did start to grate to that degree, with a gaudy jostling of brass and cringe-worthy chants heightening the uncomfortable taste of something novelty. And contrary to Chance, who during his set, often ‘took it down’ (literally voicing this request in many instances) MYD tended towards the same intensity, with little contrast or perspective, thereby becoming more and more of an alienating experience.

There was little dispute in the crowd though, this time they danced, whereas I shuffled to the side, deliberating the notion that I’d lost my touch. The shuffle gathered pace and I slinked out the exit, confirming my inability to wrestle a balanced view out of my own distaste. I just contented myself with the memory of Chance’s performance, which was more than enough compensation.

In just over an hour, he quashed any doubts I or others may have had. Gone are the mythologised days when he would dramatically rebuke those too stiff or superior to dance, now he seems admirably preoccupied with his own wild motion. The execution has changed but the root fractiousness remains; matured definitely, in every sense, but still as jaggedly fitful and elemental as ever. Just don’t talk about what happened afterwards.