In the week when they quite spectacularly rubbish their debut album in these very pages, it’s perhaps no surprise that The Beta Band appear keen to keep as low a profile as is possible for four men standing on a stage. In fact, they resemble ghosts at their own feast, dwarfed by back-projected images, and with what few lights there are trained strategically onto their matching anoraks’ luminous green strips. The monastic baritones of Steve Mason fill this cavernous venue with the doomily meditative ‘It’s Not Too Beautiful’ – which, what with its sampled orchestral tumult, feels an ominous choice for an entrance.
Pointed, too. When dealing in the currency of pop, getting your retaliation in early makes a lot of sense. So if the Betas are indeed slightly appalled at the confused messages sent out by their first full-length musical statement, then this is the time and place to make amends. The silly clothes are confined to Beta warm-up man Old Jock Radio, purveyor of surrealist cabaret and hammer of foolhardy hecklers. The stage, though crammed with the reams of technical hardware required to transpose their records’ elaborate chaos into real-time, is conspicuously free of decorative fripperies.
Most significant of all is the musical tone: while their album begins with – and is somewhat overshadowed by – the unfettered silliness of ‘The Beta Band Rap’, the sombre thrust of tonight’s opener is reinforced by ‘Dr Baker’. Though restyled into an uptempo motorik two-step, it remains a profoundly haunting thing, the ultimate rebuttal to anyone who believes this lot represent the zenith of no-aspirational dereliction, the ultimate confusion of arse with art.
Admittedly, it is followed by ‘Round The Bend’, a larksome spree into which is segued a burst of ‘Doing The Lambeth Walk’, yet only an emotional retard argues that smiles-on-faces are incompatible with the soul’s chillier climes. What’s so amazing about The Beta Band now is how their restless spark for action is never abused or indulged, but both maintained and channelled through a full set – the memory of their chaotic debut gig, all five songs and 45 minutes of it, is just that.
To what extent this coherence is a suppression of baser instincts is hard to gauge. Maybe the gurning tomfoolery of the visuals sates the Betas‘ Goonish tendencies, or it could be that the sheer concentrated effort required to make sense of these aural gridlocks leaves little room for horseplay: far beefier than its rather abject recorded version, ‘Dance O’er The Border’ still benefits from the presence of a pyjama-clad human beatbox called Fergus. While not exactly wooden, these are hardly natural performers.
But when they hit the breathless, pulsating groove of ‘Broken Up A Ding Dong’, or ‘The Hard One’‘s inversion of a Bonnie Tyler song fer Chrissakes, has Wolves gasping, or especially when ‘She’s The One’ lacerates the senses into a loving pulp, the brittle heart of The Beta Band seems suddenly unassailable. After mumbling incoherently throughout the performance, Steve dedicates the latter to his girlfriend – “because she is,” he says, simply.
The last laugh may yet be theirs.