Saturday, October 20, 2012

CP company - Keane, live in Paris:

Picture: Keane/Facebook
Let's face it, as rock music instruments go, the piano just isn't sexy.

Sorry if you were put through hell as a child to achieve your Grade 6 piano certificate, but it really is just a piece of noisy furniture.

No attempt to make it more interesting has ever worked. Chris Martin dawbing his Sunday school upright in right-on graffiti didn't do it either.

And, as for bone-domed Jan Hammer, poncing about on TV with a keyboard strapped to him like a guitar while performing the Miami Vice theme, this was about as far removed "rock god" as it is possible to be.

The guitar, on the other hand, is rock and roll itself; for its leading practitioners, it's an appendage, an extension and in some cases the distinction of themselves. BB King's vibrato is the most recognisable guitar technique in guitar history, and I would wager that most people would identify Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, David Gilmour and U2’s The Edge simply from a snippet of their guitar sound.

Keane, however have quite stubbornly ignored all of this. At the elegant but cavernous L'Olympia in Paris on Wednesday night, the only appearance of a guitar was the red Telecaster singer Tom Chaplin strummed along to Neon River, off their latest album Strangeland.

From the outset of their career, Keane have built their entire musical proposition around the piano of principal songwriter and keyboard player Tim Rice-Oxley, and one piano in particular. And here, forgive me a brief diversion into the realms of trivia. For, I strongly suspect, there is another band, who also started out in the somewhat blue-blooded environs of southern England, to thank for the Keane signature sound.

Banks of keyboards. Ho and, indeed, ho.
In the middle of their transformation from progressive rock giants to American FM, Genesis made an album called Duke. Marking the acquisition of a more pop-rock sensibility than their former extensive forays into the ethereal, Duke - released in 1980 also marked the abandonment by keyboard player Tony Banks of the grand pianos, Moogs synths, Mellotrons and Hammond organs that had marked their territory and, essentially, defined prog rock in the 1970s.

On an album of notably shorter, poppier songs, Banks made liberal use of the Yamaha CP70 electric piano. You may not know or even care about the CP70. But it became one of the most important tools of the trade in the 1980s, it's distinctive "tinkly" sound turning up everywhere (think Alive & Kicking by Simple Minds or Peter Gabriel's In Your Eyes).

With this change of tone, Genesis started noticing women at their concerts. And hit singles. Their albums sold in the millions, and then in the multi-millions, the result of adopting bright, breezy English pop-rock. Rice-Oxley was clearly listening. Because the CP70 has been Rice-Oxley's - and, therefore, Keane's - principal instrument and defining sound.

Traces of Duke-era Genesis DNA can be found throughout their earlier albums, including Hopes & Fears, widely hailed as one of the best debut albums by a British band in decades and containing the likes of Somewhere Only We Know and Bedshaped.

Picture: Keane/Facebook
Live, Keane are a pleasant anomaly. The somewhat gauche, public schoolboyish intensity that characterised their public emergence when Hopes & Fears took off in 2004 is still there.

The lanky Rice-Oxley is hunched over his CP70, stabbing away at its keys like Lucy's brother Schroeder in the Peanuts cartoons. "Cherubic" (contractually-obliged description) vocalist Tom Chaplin is still a mixture of polite choirboy and energetic rocker. Drummer Richard Hughes just gets on with drumming without superfluous percussive pyrotechnics, and bass player Jesse Quin does what most bass players do - keep pace at the back and try not to draw too much attention to themselves.

Keane are still in a hard to define area of rock. Or pop. Or pop-rock. Warming the audience up with Bruce Springsteen's Dancing In the Dark unfortunately conditioned the expectation. Springsteen has, on occasion, veered away from his trademark time card-punchin' denim-clad rock'n'prole with songs like that. With Keane you sometimes wish they veer away from songs like that and grow a pair. I mean that kindly.

They could rockout, but I suspect they don't because their audience just adores the rock-pop/pop-rock they stick to. Their live show isn't a great deal more raucous than their album work, but whereas their albums make perfectly pleasant living room listening, their relatively sparse, drums-bass-piano-vocals structure fills out the space of a venue as spacious as L'Olympia.

Neither anthemic Coldplay pomp nor vacuous Euro clapalong pop, Keane more than satisfied the enthusiastic French audience with a string of energetic renderings of You Are YoungMeet Me In The Morning, and Is it Any Wonder, the latter building around its circuitous rhythm, with Chaplin adopting that theatrical semi-lunge into the mic stand of his, giving him the appearance of a slightly fey-looking Damon Albarn from a distance.

Picture: Keane/Facebook
At various moments of the evening Chaplin declared Keane's love for France, which was inevitably rewarded enthusiastically by the partisan crowd, which included a set of parents with toddler in toe. You can interpret this either as a sign of Keane's unthreatening nature, or an apparent dearth of babysitters in the Paris area. She seemed to enjoy herself, nevertheless.

It's unlikely that you'll find Keane stretching into extended live versions of their hits. The likes of Everybody's Changing, This Is The Last Time, Bedshaped and Somewhere Only We Know lasted the length of the album version, albeit with passionate audience participation. Some bands, when they stick resolutely to recreating their album versions, do so with sterility.

Keane could easily just phone in their hits - and with a set of some 16 songs, you realise just how much they've produced in the 15 years since their formation, but live they put heart and soul into every note. And yet you still get the feeling that this is a band that is just getting going. Coldplay, the band to which Keane probably get compared to more than most, came together just a year before, and yet have already given us the impression that they've outlasted their welcome. On this evidence, Keane have got plenty left in the tank.

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