It’s a bitterly cold night in Bethnal Green, the kind where your breath seems as if it will freeze the second it leaves your mouth. Inside the basement venue of the inconspicuous Sebright Arms, the cool temperature is still noticeable with the hard stone walls and floors having thoroughly absorbed winter’s chill. But, despite this, plenty have braved the cold tonight to attend what will be Luluc’s only UK show in their own name, having just come off an intense transatlantic tour supporting J Mascis. Perhaps it its testament to the Australian folk duo’s striking support slots or to the quiet beauty of their sophomore LP Passerby, released last year on Sub Pop, that tickets for the show sold out in advance and the room is soon crammed from wall-to-wall.
The hirsute opening quartet, centred around songwriter John Joseph Brill, soon plug in and lay into their wistful brand of alternative rock. Lying somewhere between Frightened Rabbit’s bleeding heart narratives and Wild Beasts’s expansive soundscapes, Brill’s inebriated torch songs roll on ponderous grooves and atmospheric effects noodling from the lead guitarist. A regular of Communion sessions, Brill’s large stature and confident baritone croon belies a bashful manner. Expressing gratitude for the slot, he wonders aloud whether his pronunciation of Luluc is correct (Luh-luck? LUH-look?) and asks the audience, only for it to become quickly apparent that no-one here knows quite how to say the headliner’s name either (turns out it’s Loo-LUKE). Pronunciation quandaries aside, the audience’s enthusiastic applause for yearning ballads such as Muscle and Bone ensure that Brill’s debut EP Pieces will have a warm reception when it emerges in February.
After a brief break between sets, abuzz with conversation, unassuming duo Luluc take to the stage without a word and start playing. Voices quickly hush as Zoë Randell’s resonant vocals and fingerpicked acoustic fill the intimate space. Beneath her long blonde hair she seems nervous, eyes constantly roving the crowd as she sways and sings, or perhaps she is trying to make eye contact with as many people as possible. It makes sense, since although these songs (mostly from Passerby) are not showy, they carry an emotional resonance which demands close attention as they slowly unfold. Meanwhile, cohort Steve Hassett, who looks like a tall, young Cat Stevens, fills the spaces in-between with whirling electric guitar and bass embellishments, providing anchoring points for Randell’s songs to float over.
The sun-dappled melodies and hopeful optimism of Winter Is Passing help thaw the cold outside, filling the room with Randell and Hassett’s honeyed vocal harmonies, which sound impossibly more sonorous than on record. For the most part though, there is something very Neil Young-ish in the plaintive chords and breezy, regret-tinged tone of their songs. As Randell softly sings “I can’t help but wonder, do you ever think of me?” on Reverie On Norfolk Street and hums languorously on Small Window, you get a palpable sense of nostalgia. Of being here and now, but wanting to be elsewhere instead, as Luluc convey memories that are both sweet and painful at the same time.
In between songs though they are humble and affable, frequently thanking the audience for the overwhelming turnout and for John Joseph Brill for opening (“How do you say that guy’s name?” Hassett jokingly quips). They relate stories from the J Mascis tour, on receiving pedals and setlist advice from the Dinosaur Jr. frontman and brushing shoulders with his grunge veteran friends at the Seattle show (none of which Randell recognised). Hassett is even allowed to break out a few rock riffs before being playfully scolded by Randell.
Making occasional use of prerecorded drum beats and samples they adapt the studio collages of Passerby producer Aaron Dessner (The National) to the live setting, stripping down Tangled Heart from the album version to a dual electric confessional. It swells and builds in intensity as it goes, until Hassett is weaving a furious electric maelstrom behind Zoë’s skipping vocals. They never override one another however, and the restrained pace and yearning vocals of Star sees them finish the main set in perfect harmony, before being called back with effusive whoops and applause for a prompt encore.
The evening draws to a close with Passerby highlight Gold On The Leaves, a song Randell confesses is about where she grew up, but takes on a dreamy universal quality tonight. “And though I like to roam far / Sometimes I long to be where I’m from” she sings, offering a fitting farewell before the pair fly back to Australia the following day. And as Hassett’s warm harmonies join on, “the shimmering heat, / The bold hot sun” it feels, if only for a moment, that winter has passed here.
Review by: James MacKinnon
Sebright Arms, London – 21 January 2015