I've seen Hollywood's Ariel Pink and his Haunted Graffiti once before so I had an inkling as to what to expect from him as a live performer. In 2010 I was there in Manchester to see Ariel promote Before Today, and his off the wall individualism was apparent throughout. If you've heard his music, this won't come as much of a surprise. According to my friends, Ariel cried a lot during the Manchester gig, which could either have been genuine or a complete hoax. I don't remember much of it because I was lost in drink. Apparently he also had a meltdown at Coachella 2011, refusing to sing the words to any of the songs. Those kinds of scenarios are the hallmarks of Ariel Pink concerts, sparking debate amongst music fans as to whether it's all the antics of a bizarre performance artist or he legitimately as kooky as he acts.
The Liverpool venue made an instant and great impression on me. It was reminiscent of a mad Victorian carnival, or a dark, slightly sinister funhouse. The combination of this circus-like building and the whole pantomime element seemed perfect for the theatrical nature of Ariel's live performances. The scene was set for a great evening.
Ariel's on/off girlfriend Geneva Jacuzzi opened the gig in a way that left us in no doubt that the surreal would be pretty much the norm throughout. The oddball singer was dressed in a strange mix of gothic/new romantic outfits, complete with spooky facepaint (Halloween was a week earlier), top hat and, even crazier, bullets strapped to her body. Jacuzzi half-mimed, half-sang over a backing track of her own music, and put on a creepy dance show for the growing audience, before she moved to one of the balconies behind the stage and trashed fairy lights and other tacky decorations. The short set was an intriguing and sensual experience, but its main impact was in the shock factor and its strangeness so inevitably it got old rather quickly.
Before Ariel's grand entrance, a projector came on 10 feet above the stage. The frontman made good use of a concealed video camera to project images of himself as did his thing. And we certainly didn't have to wait as Ariel threw himself into the slightly ridiculous but highly infectious 'Symphony of The Nymph', which has become something of a hipster anthem for the man and his band. Ariel crooned over the song's drum machine and song sample whilst the rest of the band entered and began to play into the set. The projector was a nice idea, and Pink made good use of it, contorting his face and playing the madman in front of the camera, which Jacuzzi operated from time to time. The whole scene reminded me of a scene from 'The Dark Knight', when Heath Ledger's Joker laughs maniacally into a camcorder. Both Joker and Pink, it seems, present themselves as a little insane.
The band then powered rather hastily into 'Is This The Best Spot?', another cut from their latest album Mature Themes. With its zany lyrics and fast, urgent beat, it was a great song to perform second, making sure the audience was locked in, demanding their attention. Album opener 'Kinski Assassin' was next, which is one of my favourites from Pink's 2012 offerings. It also allowed the singer to show that he does actually have a melodic voice, though much of the time he taunts the listener with cartoon character voices and generally fooling around. After this cluster of introductory songs, Ariel came down to the stage and the band kicked into 'Mature Themes', one of his deeper creations which shows us a poignant, reflective Pink exemplified in the lyrics "I wish I was taller than 5"4... 35 years of my life spent computing it all." This song, along with the next ('Only in My Dreams', with a guitar riff that bears an uncanny resemblance to 'There She Goes' by The La's) definitely show a more mature, honest Pink. The swirling guitar in 'Mature Themes' is irresistible but both of the songs are similar in that they never stray too far from the mainstream, making them two of Ariel's most accessible songs. So for a new-to-casual Pink fan, they are perfect live ammunition.
The band then went on to play 'Farewell American Primitive' before a couple of songs from the archives, including 'Crusades', 'Among Dreams' and one of my personal favourites, 'She's My Girl' (from the amazingly lo-fi album Lover Boy). The latter was a real treat, with its camp, trashy lyrics and 60's B-movie feel. Tim Koh's bass playing was superb throughout, really displaying his funky but understated style. He was also kind enough to hand me a setlist at the end of the gig.
Ariel returned to the back of the stage to once again flirt outrageously with Jacuzzi and her camera whilst the band kicked into 'Fright Night' and then the magnificent, GENIUS Before Today cut 'Menopause Man'. I was ecstatic that they played this as it does strange things to me whenever I hear it; with its unique bassline and fucked up, gender-bending lyrics ("rape me, castrate me, make me gay"). Ariel was really able to show off his incredible vocal range thanks to the high-pitched, falsetto wail of the chorus. The last song in the set was the Mature Themes closer 'Nostradamus & Me', a voyage into the depths of the ocean with its washed out, rise-and-fall bass pattern that genuinely gives you the feeling you're in a dream-like place, deep below the ocean. It was a song to play at the end thanks to its mellow, trippy sound and druggy, aquatic feel. This lasted some time, around 12-15 minutes, before the band left the stage only to return for a fitting encore of the massive, retro treat that is 'Round & Round'. The whole crowd sang each and every word together and everything felt just right as the song came to its euphoric close.
A man of few words (certainly on this occasion, though this isn't always the case), Ariel thanked the audience and then ran off like an over-excited puppy only to do… well, who knows what. Shoot heroin? Have crazy, freaky sex with his girlfriend? Eat schnitzel? None of this can be answered, but if you appreciate the crazy little rock'n'roller from Beverly Hills as much as I do, stay tuned, because I can't see the madness of Ariel Pink ending anytime soon...