As important as the onset of an Alex and the Ramps residency is, it’s fair to say that the venue is as much on show as the band tonight. This is the first gig to be held here since the pub/restaurant/venue opened quietly in late August, and given the layout, quality of the PA and people behind it, it’s safe to say there’ll be plenty more.
First up though, is the showcasing of the newest addition to the headline act, drummer Pascal Barbare. Recent replacement of longtime Ramp Jon Thjia, he pedals his own brand of indie rock weirdness with his band Pascal Barbare & Teeth. Which is ironic, as teeth is what this music could use. Loose harmonies coast on swelling and lulling anthemic indie rock, laden with ‘la la la’s and noodling Gretsches. It’s innocuous enough, but with the talent present, and several moments where the careful use of dynamics and control of textures come together, it seems better will come. Judging by the quality of Barbare’s solo work, the potential is definitely there.
Witch Hats too, play a relatively subdued set, possibly due to their recent single launch, described as ‘loud as fuck’ by the band. Playing most of new album Pleasure Syndrome, the songs are oddly mid-tempo and lyrics almost discernible. Now into their sixth year, a cynical intelligence seems to have subsumed the biting humour and bludgeoning danger that came with a Witch Hats show; it's as if they've thought before acting for the first time. Musically tighter than ever before, the band are still able to shift the tone of a song in a moment, that they choose not to is slightly frustrating and probably makes more sense on record. Ash Buscombe’s bass sound has an intensity that even Albini would leave alone, and it punches fiercely against the dour garage rock. The lack of stinging malevolence, once bottled, set alight and flung into the face of a Pony 2AM crowd, is a difficult thing to replace. Songs like Sessa still channel it, but it seems something else is on their minds now. Perhaps the venue is too shiny and a messy warehouse party would bring it back.
For anyone who hasn’t seen Aleks and the Ramps for more than a few months, matching expectations with their new lineup is initially disorienting. With 2/5ths of the band replaced since their phenomenal Midnight Believer album, and the role of each member so vital to the output, it’s a tough move they’ve had to make. Fortunately, the quality of songwriting is maintaining its upward trajectory and it is this, as well as Aleks' and Extreme Wheeze’s guitar theatrics, Flying Diamonds’ banter, new member Whistling Nancy’s random anecdotes and the sheer talent present that wins over the sizeable and curiously heavily-bearded crowd.
“So, what do you think of the Phoenix?” asks Aleks, three songs in. “It's a pretty nice place, I got some yummy food, it's got a good vibe,” he says to murmurs of concurrence. Their set is loaded with new material and songs In the Snow for the Time Being, Pray Tell and Crocodile all manage the astonishing job of not being flattened by the brilliance of earlier singles Antique Limb and Bummer (‘a song about doing a brief stint in jail for ordering a Taser online and not realizing you couldn’t bring them into the country’). The audience, a mixture of the curious, the local and friends, respond warmly and react with glee to the dual guitar-behind-the-head solos and the band’s propensity for ending a song suddenly. It’s rare to see a band manage such a shift in members and still deliver such a cohesive and exciting set. Tonight’s show, along with the forthcoming album provides another reason to get happy about the forthcoming summer.