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22nd July 2006 @ 12 Bar, London

Phil Shoenfelt, Pavel Cingl & Max Decharne

Phil Shoenfelt’s in town paying tribute to a friend. Following last night’s memorial gig for Nikki Sudden, a musician he had worked with extensively over the years, he’s lined up a slot at the 12 Bar in Soho – his first London solo concert since the mid-90s.

Here is a man who doesn’t need London. He abandoned England some years ago, relocating to the Czech Republic, a country synonymous with the dark bohemianism that permeates his songs. His schedule in Eastern Europe leaves him little time to pander to the corporate bigwigs who run the British market, where artistic control is a privilege and not a right. What would they make of him anyway? Shoenfelt spent ten years of his life with a needle in his arm, living in squats in New York and London, a history revisited in his award-winning novel, Junkie Love, and each of his songs is a harrowing reflection of that time. His lyrics are soul-searching confessionals, portraits of life in the underworld conjuring ghosts and demons not only from his past, but from that of the listener. It’s deep, sometimes harsh, yet always beautiful.

The venue is hot and sticky, people packed from wall to wall, but sweat is a small price to pay for the pleasures that await. Tonight, Shoenfelt performs with drummer Max Decharne and Southern Cross violinist Pavel Cingl. It’s a simple line-up, but with Decharne never having played with either musician before, there’s plenty of room for error. No false starts, no missed beats, the pressure that’s on simply drives him to perfection, and most are none the wiser to his debut.

The crowd is mesmerised by Shoenfelt’s voice, following his every word. He doesn’t fall into the trap where having a violinist means violin on every song. ‘Charlotte’s Room’ and ‘Damage’ are examples of this, guitar intensive rock songs with classic radio-friendly progressions. Cingl finds ways to distort the sound so much that, even when there is a violin, you don’t always realise it’s there - ‘Angel Street’ being one such offering. Songs which feature more traditional violin, such as ‘Dead Flowers for Alice’ and ‘Darkest Hour’ have a somewhat Celtic feel to them, but it’s a sound borne more from traditional Czech folk than any Irish influence. Other tracks of note on the set include ‘Saviour’s Day’ and ‘The Gambler’, both of which Shoenfelt delivers with a spellbinding intensity, both of which can be found on his compilation album, ‘Deep Horizon’.

It would be easy to pin a goth-rock tag to this music and leave it to hang with the likes of the Nephilim and Cave, but that isn’t what it’s about. There’s classical layers and effects so haunting that, try as you might, no label would stick. It would be easy to write him off as pretentious, to forget he’s lived out every word, but his banter is light and amusing, far removed from how his lyrics may have you perceive him. Shoenfelt’s just some guy who went there, and through some miracle, came back to tell the tale. Tonight he weaved his magic and held us captive whilst he did just that.

 

 


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