Writing objective criticism is always tricky. Never more so than when describing a first experience of something long-awaited. So when I say that I’d wanted to see Neil Hagerty play live since around 1999, you will understand how difficult it is for me to be anything but effusive in my praise. When you’ve waited nearly half your life for a single evening, impartiality seems impossible. And disappointment almost guaranteed. Fortunately, the concert lived up to my expectations. So everything you read below is entirely objective fact.
In the days leading up to Neil Hagerty’s performance in London, I went half-mad trying to anticipate the concerts form. In my desperation, I sent Mr. Hagerty a tweet begging for a hint. No answer. Which was perfectly understandable. But despite this, I remained desperate for a clue – some hint of which version of the former Royal Trux guitarist we’d see. Eventually I settled on the single clue he’d given us: he was billed as Neil Michael Hagerty. Not ‘The Howling Hex’, his Fall-like rotating door of a band in which the only permanent member is the band leader himself. So I took this scrap of evidence and extrapolated that perhaps this could indicate a more melodic, poppy performance – much of the material released under this nomenclature is of a more traditional rock and roll style, much less experimental than the material released with the band.
So when Hagerty stepped forward with his guitar and introduced himself and his two stage partners with a muttered ‘We’re the Howling Hex’, I smiled to myself and prepared myself for what must be the truest version of Neil Hagerty currently available: that of the repetition, the rolling rhythm and the emphasis which is the Howling Hex: a band which creates some of the most exciting rock’n’roll in the 21st century.
The concert was split into two sets with a 20 minute break between them. The sets were practically identical in the sense that they consisted of the same 8 or 9 songs in the same order, but entirely different due to the use of different guitar pedal settings and, in the second set, a more refined and professional-sounding delivery. Almost as if the band was responding to potential audience diffidence caused by the first set. Almost as if he were saying, “don’t worry, guys: I’m not a complete idiot”.
The tracks were picked from a range of the Howling Hex’s albums and most of my favorites were there. Hammer and Bluebird led the way, and we had Pair Backup Mess With and Lord Gloves (my current preference for guitar music: the cricket theme is an added bonus), among others. Hagerty focused on single lines from each track, adding to the mantra-like feel of the concert – the rolling rhythm, gradually evolving guitar parts and repeated chants in a dulled, offhand tone.
The band itself consists of Hagerty on guitar and bass (played on the same instrument through some sort of octave pickup, I guess); Eric van Leuven on drums and percussion, delivering the New Border Sound’s trademark fairground-like, Mexican-influenced rhythms; and Daniel Blumberg of Yuck as a sort of anti-hype man who spent 90% of the concert sat in a bar chair, sketching in a notebook, only to get up somewhat reluctantly to add his 2c for the chorus of each song.
The overall effect was of an immensely willful and individual viewpoint on what rock’n’roll means in the 21st century. In turn energetic and meandering, vague and clean… a perfect synthesis of the genre’s inherent need for order and destruction. Would it have been possible for me to dislike this curious “I’m going to perform two identical sets that sound completely different” rolling maelstrom of a gig I’d been anticipating for so long? Well, yes. A few years back, I saw RTX (now Black Bananas) play and felt much less of a connection with the best of what Royal Trux always meant to me. Neil Michael Hagerty was on point: uncompromising and thus delivering beyond even my feverish expectations. I recommend you catch him next time you get the chance.