Wooden Shjips - Central Station, Wrexham
It's a mark of slovenliness of the first order, turning up to a gig without having given the band more than a cursory listen. I'd been aware of Wooden Shjips and if truth be told, unfairly prejudged them on the basis of a notion that they're the sort of band that'll play to barefoot hippies in a field, and are therefore clearly not my sort of people. Just as well then that I got over myself and went to give them a damn good listening to. This was the UK leg of an extensive European odyssey for the San Franciscans, a Wednesday night in Wrexham, squeezed between two dates in Manchester. For a dreary, drizzly night in North East Wales, an area sometimes more given to staying at home in front of the television, the turn-out was exemplary.
The venue crowded up good and early for opening post-poppers The Uninvited, local heroes well worthy of the affection in which they are clearly held. It was a three band line-up, group number two being Advert, Londoners best described as a contemporary take on unreconstructed punk, New York leather jacket style. They surely take credit for best lyric of the night in the form of "my dad's a fucking alcoholic ..."
Wooden Shjips have been around for five or six years or so. Their recorded output is hard to measure. Three 'proper' albums but so many singles and EP's that they've also found need to put out two compilations of otherwise hard to find recordings.
From the moment they got on stage, they impressed, with a heart-racing immediate build up to something more akin to a blissed-out fuzzy plateau than any sort of climax. Clearly ones to keep the foreplay going to extended lengths then, rather than go for any cheap thrills. They commanded attention, although in fairness, they were pretty much playing to the converted, punters having staked out front spots from an early moment tonight. Even so, the crowd were notably into the atmosphere, many with eyes closed and synchronised head bobbing all the way back to the desk. Up front, they were dancing like ravers in a forest.
Comparisons abound for this band, so I'll make one of my own. The most obvious, enhanced by their woozy psyched playing bathed in the swirling lights of a full set-length projector show, is to a Barrett-era Floyd. It was easy to imagine the computer imagery replaced by oil slides of yore. I wasn't alone in my opinion, one of my gig mates leant across to opine that it was 'just like 1969'. The Hammond tones coming from the keys were cheesy in the best possible taste. They were rockier than that though; distorted buzz guitar coming through powerfully to put things into over-drive.
As someone else said on the night, it felt restrained and held in, as if they were using a lot of skill to keep the playing simple. I would dearly like to give you the blow-by-blow on the tracks, but can't. To make up for my ignorance, I had in tow the aforementioned gig mate, who is a big aficionado of the band, a completist in their recorded output, and even he could not identify individual tracks for me. An essential aspect of Wooden Shjips is the comparative lack of vocals as a distinct feature. Yes there were words to some of the songs, but what Ripley Johnson sings into the mic is sparse, and when it's there at all, muted and buried in the mix. It wasn't just a live soundmix thing, this is how they always are, and seems to indicate a band that are more about building atmosphere and emotion than providing a narrative. There was an overheard comment in the gents loo, "Oh no, they're doing another. I'm gonna miss it" said a lad in there. "It'll be the same as the last one. With a slightly different beat", said another. I'm not sure it's entirely a negative thing, more that it leads the audience to lose themselves in the spaciest kind of saturated drone.
All of which leads me to some sort of summing up. I'll admit that I zoned out for a moment or two, but I honestly don't know whether it was due to time going slow, or the deliberate effects of the band. And despite being lost in space, I came out feeling that I had just been involved in something really rather fantastical.