Oxbow + Casual Nun + Wart Biter @ Oslo, Hackney

Date: 7th August 2018
Review by: Beandog

Tonight marks my first visit to Hackney Central’s Oslo venue.

Essentially, it is a 350 capacity room situated above a fashionable bar and restaurant. Once inside the main building, guests can be seen chatting casually at tables, doormen will call you “sir” and underneath the comfortably set lighting, bar staff will charge you almost six quid for a small can of craft beer.

So strong is my association of rock & roll with grubby venues and sticky floors, my first thought is that I’ve come to the wrong place. However, I’m reassured by the sight of a few people milling around in vintage, alternative t-shirts, and once I’ve followed the doorman’s polite instruction to talk to “his colleague” at the desk and been ushered upstairs into the dark venue, I can see a stage adorned with a couple of drum kits, amps and various other bits of equipment and it all starts to feels a bit more familiar.

A quick scan of an upcoming events poster reveals that Oslo has a diverse line up of live entertainment. It seems fitting then, that tonight it plays host to Oxbow – an alternative, noise rock band who have, for thirty years, incorporated a plethora of influences into their base sound of guitar, bass and drums. Guitarist/composer Niko Wenner has often drawn modern-classical and jazz sounds into Oxbow’s music, while vocalist Eugene S. Robinson maintains an unpredictable delivery which can veer from the intimidating and incomprehensible to the sweetest, most vulnerable extreme…

“Extreme” is a theme that is alluded to and pre-empted by this evening’s two support bands.

The first of which – Wart Biter – features just three musicians trading off on what seems to be a loosely sketched, instrumental arrangement over which baritone saxophone player Colin Webster and synths-man Mat Pod build a crescendo of ever-intensifying soundscapes. There is as much rhythm coming from the pulse of various synth delays as there is from drummer Tom Fug, who alternates between a gentle embellishment and the full roar of his intense, percussive hammering. It’s a masterclass in free form composition that allows the listener the luxury of minimal structure and the opportunity to interpret the sounds in whatever way their mind takes them.

The superbly named Casual Nun follow the opening set with their own psychedelic trance of punk encrusted, post-krautrock noise. Using shared personnel from Wart Biter via the trippy synth section, Casual Nun play to an enthusiastic crowd who seem largely familiar with, or perhaps quickly enraptured by, the intensity of the band’s fuzzed-out, violent meditation.

What has transpired up to this point is a triumphant pairing of sets that raises the energy levels in the room before passing the baton on to this evening’s main attraction. In the moments before they formally take the stage, Niko Wenner and bass player Dan Adams can be seen near their respective corners of the stage checking cable connections, testing everything is working and tuning up in the final moments before their performance. Niko’s efficient, roadie-esque presence at the edge of the stage is at odds with the regard he is held in by a gentleman standing next to me, who seems perplexed at the sight of his hero caught up in his mundane preparations. The fan turns to his friend and explains how Oxbow are his absolute favourite band ever before turning back to soak up the experience of being just a few feet away from his own superstar.

Moments later, the band are ready and their set begins. Eugene is still nowhere to be seen. That is, until he emerges from the darkness behind the drum kit; immaculately presented in a three piece suit but looking slightly baffled (one would assume, deliberately) as if he had been sleeping in the crevice behind the amps, only to be woken by the noise of the crowd and beckoned by the band’s introduction to The Geometry Of Business.

It’s a slow, measured creak that suits Eugene’s befuddled awakening as his murmurs veer into a full bellow; the drums find their anchor and take us to the end of the track and into an offering from the band’s newest album…

Letter of Note and Host both come from Oxbow’s 2017 album, Thin Black Duke. As the performance entails, and true to expectations, what begins with the singer removing his jacket and tie, continues with the removal of his shirt and trousers until by the end of these tracks he is performing in just his underwear as he awkwardly (but without missing a cue) places his rather spiffing, shiny black shoes back onto his feet.

At close range, the sight of occasional boxer, Eugene S. Robinson – hulking and tattooed – howling and crooning at us, wearing nothing but his jockey shorts and a pair of evening shoes, carries an air of menace and madness you would usually associate with someone you might cross the street to avoid. Bearing in mind we are in Hackney, that is saying a lot.
However, set against the impeccably jarring arrangements of songs such as Cat and Mouse from King of the Jews, the drama of it all seems perfectly placed and Oxbow’s enduring appeal is obvious.

Pausing on King of the Jews, Wart Biter’s Colin Webster is invited back onstage. This time, alongside another reedsman – the highly regarded, improvisational/experimental master, Tim Hodgkinson. Together they take us through the jaw dropping centre-piece of the set, Bomb – which brings together all of the elements that make Oxbow a unique and innovative band. All of the musicians look pleased and proud to be sharing the stage for this moment and the crowd seem completely caught up in the privilege too.

Cold & Well Lit Room brings us back up to the band’s current release which continues with A Gentleman’s Gentleman. Both feel more traditional in their arrangement, but no less essential.

Sunday is the final song of the main set. Prior to this, Eugene apologises for the lack of merchandise on offer, acknowledging that this is the final date of a brief run through Europe and what remains is all that is left over. He also makes reference to the reality that this time tomorrow he will be back at his desk, dutifully bound to his day job.

There is something contained in this realisation that makes the final moments of the set all the more crucial. The idea of Robinson tamed by the task of turning up to work gives an additional layer of value to these performances and reminds me how important it is to have an outlet. A window through which to let the madness in or out, whether that be through performance or spectatorship: it’s a very necessary vent among the commitments of our day to day.

With that in mind, I can appreciate the brief encore as a final glimpse through that window for now. Sticking with the Let Me Be A Woman album, Robinson sounds laid-bare on a powerful rendition of 1000. Backed by waves of crashing, tumbling music from the rest of the band and looking completely immersed in this final moment, it makes for a suitably substantial climax to what has been an excellent performance.

When it is all over and as Eugene gathers his discarded clothes, the band seem genuinely humbled by the final applause they are given. They bid a sincere farewell and we all disperse into the night – One by one, we are clicked out of the venue and wished well by the polite doorman.