LIVE: Arab Strap, Iona Zajac – Edinburgh International Festival, Leith Theater – 19/8/22

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I’ve been going to gigs for…well, several decades, and it’s always felt like a courtesy to try to nab the starring role. Iona Zajac (formerly of Glasgow duo Avocet) recently released their first EP Find her in the grass on Rod Jones of idlewildthe Post Electric Artists label. Appearing solo on stage and accompanying herself on guitar, she has a beautifully smoky voice and a brilliantly original writing style. There are a number of great songs she plays – highlights for me include the acoustics’Summer‘and the restrained but angry closer’Dilute‘ to look back on your adolescence. Also fantastic are ‘red corn poppies‘ which evolved from a poem about an understocked grocery store where all the food had rotted and its version of an old Scottish folk song from 1592 -‘The Auchindoun fire.’ My policy of catching the supporting act paid off, and it was warmly received by the audience.

Arab strap first appeared in 1996 with their amazing debut single ‘The first big weekend.’ Originally from the central city of Falkirk, singer Aidan Moffat and guitarist Malcolm Middleton was like nothing before and hardly anything since. They released six albums over the next ten years, before going their separate ways in 2006. After reforming in 2016, they released their first album in sixteen years last year, As the days get dark. It ranks among the best stuff they’ve ever recorded. When they released that first single, a limited edition of 700 copies, they couldn’t have imagined that they would end up performing at the Edinburgh International Festival, literally with their name in lights behind them.

The drum machine beats kick in – and that’s them, with guitarist, bass and drums backing it up. They rip the album opener ‘The turning of our bones.’ One of many dark songs about sex, the opener could have been seen as a response to criticism with its opening lines ‘I do not care about the past/our glory days gone by‘ but being Aidan Moffat, the next verse isn’t entirely surprising ‘All I care about right now / is that little mole inside your thigh.’ The crowd is delighted. It’s not always easy to hear the voices (nothing to do with the band or the sound engineer but people who won’t stop talking) but Moffat is a wonderful storyteller. This is combined with their sound, a mix of indie, post-rock, electronica and much more. They don’t talk much to the crowd at first – after a few songs Moffat asks us’Alright, yeah? gruff, in typical Scottish style (I’ve lived here for over two decades. Trust me, I know.) The new stuff sounds absolutely fantastic live, and we don’t get a lot of old songs in the first set . ‘We will make reminders later”, Moffat tells a punter. After all, who needs too much when there are songs like the immigration commentary ‘Fable of the urban fox‘; proof that it was not always about relationships, alcohol and drugs, but also about compassion. In their own way of course. As can be the case with these things, I had forgotten how great it was’new birds‘ is.

Unsurprisingly, the biggest cheer of the night is for ‘Weekend.’ The first verse is spoken, then the gap after ‘we went to the Arches…’ is teased and it’s fantastic. You feel a lot of viewers are transported to that time in 1996.

The three-song encore deals with older material. A fantastic three-song set where we get the anti-‘Weekend‘ ‘I would have liked me very much last night‘about the worst hangover Moffat ever had, the fear of death from sex ‘Three packs‘ and ending with a stripped ‘The Timid Withdraw.’ It’s quite strange to hear an audience singing with a line like ‘You know I’m still moaning/but you’re kicking up my serotonin but then Arab Strap was never like the other bands.

Don’t be afraid of reforms.

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