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Live Report: The Fall

Coney Island High, New York, March 31, 1998

Not long ago, Fall frontman Mark E. Smith was awarded the
Godlike Genius Award for Services to Music by the British music
weekly New Musical Express. So what does a musical genius
look like? Judging from Smith’s appearance when he finally took the
stage on the second night of the Fall’s current eight-night U.S.
tour (their first in four years) musical geniuses have freshly
blackened eyes, sallow faces with mouths permanently sucking
cigarettes and may or may not be drunk. In short, Smith looked like
shite. But music isn’t a beauty contest, and like Iggy Pop at the
height of his drugged-out period, or any other artist who’s been
willing to push himself almost over the edge and report back to us
what the view is like, Smith has earned the right to look like
crap.

In the States to promote their latest of more than 20 albums,
Levitate (which is to be released here April 7 on Artful
records), the Fall, as is their wont, stuck mainly to new material.
Just pleased to be seeing Smith in the flesh, the rowdy crowd of
die-hard fans didn’t seem to mind. It helps, too, that the group’s
current lineup (according to one Internet “bandmemberography” this
is the 23rd incarnation of the Fall since late 1976) is one of its
strongest.

Affixing a ready-made tag to any of the Fall’s music is nearly
impossible, but a pattern did emerge. Longtime bassist Steve Hanley
(he first joined the band in 1979) and drummer Karl Burns held down
a shambling, danceable beat while guitarist Tommy Crooks cranked
out dirty power chord riffs. Texture was provided by keyboard
player/programmer Julia Nagle, who threw in a jungle breakbeat on a
new, appropriately-titled number called “Jungle Rock” and elsewhere
added synth washes. On top of it all, the inimitable Smith muttered
his usual caustic tales of dread in his trademark slurred rap.

Seeing them live it’s easy to see why the Fall have remained one
of the most consistently vital acts in rock in the last twenty-five
years. Sporadic commercial success has meant that Smith can
concentrate on making experimental music, and his ear for new
sounds (he was an early proponent of today’s electronic music) plus
his uniquely intenseengagement with the world ensure that his art
will always have an audience. Whatever he does, it’s interesting.
How many other rock musicians can you say that about?

Famous for berating both his band and his audience while playing
live, this show went offwithout a hitch (the previous night’s
audience, however, was treated to an impromptu10-minute break just
a few songs into the set). The absence of bizarre, embarassing
orawkward moments made sure the focus stayed on the music, which
Mark E. Smith will nodoubt be concocting for 22 more genius-filled
years.

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