LIVE: James Chance and Die Contortions @ Soup Kitchen, Manchester

WORDS BY: PATRICK PRESTON

It’s quite the ‘chance’ encounter – best to get that out of the way early – to have the no wave legend and jazz-punk curmudgeon on these shores, let alone in the stark basement of the Northern Quarter’s Soup Kitchen. Many of tonight’s gig-goers, themselves possibly survivors from the scene’s experimental ‘80s heyday, seem aware of the bill’s implausibility, as well as highly discerning – so particular is Chance and his Contortions’ smoky jazz-bar vibe that it calls for a support act that’s similarly fully-realised, which on this occasion is found in Glaswegian six-piece KAPUTT. Featuring sharp saxophone and two intertwining percussionists, it’s an intriguing set-up, which suddenly jerks into life with blocky beats and a tangle of summery guitars.

A wiry, besuited front man holds the crowd’s sway with nonsensical barking, propping up demented instrumentals with a vintage swagger; his coarse, repeated vocal stabs play off the anxious-sounding melodies, and pleasurably interlock with the skittery dual percussion. Pleasingly, the song Highlight lives up to its name, leaving tonight’s most gratifying impression with its wobbly bass line, jumpy cowbell and frantically-traded vocal parts (“Highlight”/”HIGHLIGHT!”). Long before the group’s set ends, the audience act as visibly enraptured as their wildly hopping saxophonist, finding a shared joyousness in the bouncy, yet deeply cerebral grooves.

Soon enough, the crowd’s eagerness becomes palpable, with masses huddling to the front of the stage to catch a glimpse of Chance’s diminutive, scowling figure. Suddenly, the world-weary Contortions are finger-snapped into a rigid post-punk beat, which supports Chance’s own strangled lounge-singer yelps, and instantly showcases the group’s skilfully layered percussion, elastic-sounding bass and a mesmerising guitar talent. Following this is the menacing, yet measured Gil Scott-Heron cover Home is Where the Hatred Is, which leads with Chance’s deftly slinking saxophone, and builds over a strutting bass foundation; at his signal, the shrill instrumentation slowly fades to just a passage of muted percussion, heightening the existing tension and forcing the crowd’s focus onto his eerie, confrontational lyrics, before slicing through the atmosphere with razor-like sax parts. The set then swerves into dissonant organ jamming – a genuine vintage Hammond, as I’m reliably informed by my companion – before settling at the darkened crawl of the provocatively-named Sax Maniac, whose relatively thin structure carefully reinforces its unsettling nature.

Chance masterfully controls his band’s flow throughout wildly expansive and more restrained sections, sometimes multiple times in the same song, yanking it back with a snarling ‘c’mon fellas.’ It’s at the point of lovelorn ballad The Days of Wine and Roses – which plays off the guitarist’s busy, effortless chords with the mournful leading sax – that my friend most feels like he’s walked into an episode of Twin Peaks, and with good reason; the song’s vintage instrumentation and tender crooning truly encapsulates the mood of an intangible bygone era, and its dedication to Chance’s wife Judy, who ‘sadly couldn’t be here tonight’, only adds to its emotive charm. Further pushing this energy is a smouldering Sinatra cover of That’s Life, which abandons all of its original triumphant melody for a disaffected and dissonant post-punk interpretation.

A broken guitar string threatens to halt the night’s simmering tension, but stands no chance against Chance’s signature track (and most well-known ‘hit’) Contort Yourself, which harks back to his explosive no wave bandleader days – its paranoid, jerky grooves elicit the greatest amount of recognition and movement from the audience, who exude a relief that the night ends with a bang, rather than a whimper.

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