Live review: Neon Neon, H Hawkline at Oran Mor, 11/9/13

9729011247_8bfe81038fTonight Òran Mór plays host to a number of artists from one of the Celtic world’s great musical hubs: Cardiff.

H Hawkline holds the attention of the still multiplying audience with a low-key set that has the effect of being florid without being quaint.

A difficult trick to pull off but one that he manages well, a great advert for Welsh music.

Neon Neon are the main event, however, and do not disappoint.

Five years since their debut, Stainless Style, they returned earlier this year with Praxis Makes Perfect, a sonic bio of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, a man who, like previous subject John DeLorean, lived a life riven by all-too-human failings.

The set opens with the album’s title track, an ethereal piece that sets the scene for greater exploration of the man’s enigmatic life.

Behind the band, which featured Cate Le Bon, is a projected display of ephemera from Feltrinelli’s life.

National Theatre Wales worked with Neon Neon earlier this year on a project to striking visual ends.

Next is ‘Mid Century Modern Nightmare’, a quicker electro-pop song that spells out Feltrinelli’s claim to fame-his founding the Gruppa di Azione Partigianna, a radical left wing group active in Italy’s ‘Years of Lead’.

Between songs Gruff Rhys expands, in his amiably drôle Carmarthenshire tones, on details of the man’s life.

Feltrinelli was born into a distinctly bourgeois family whose wealth was afforded them by God’s provision of forests and their own initiative, which compelled them to crush the proletarian spirit of their employees in the name of commercial gain.

“When I was young I didn’t know my left from right/my parents kept me prisoner from love//then I saw the workers’ plight/came to me in Pieces, building up a thesis/Rome wasn’t built over night” (‘Dr Zhivago’)

In his adult years Feltrinelli’s time was divided between publishing, radical leftist activism, and indulgence in the vapidly materialistic pleasures, which only well-financed capitalism can provide.

He went to the Soviet Union to smuggle Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago out, he went to Cuba to secure the rights to Castro’s memoirs, he went to Bolivia to source the now world-renowned image of Che Guevara, he copy wrote it for himself.

It would be easy to have an examination of such a life descend into vacuity-laden admonishments of Feltrinelli’s failings as a socialist, or purile schadenfreude of the same.

Neon Neon avoid every opportunity for cliché in front of a crowd whose Marxism is akin to the monarchism of cinema goers currently heading to Diana-inextricably a part of them but eliciting incredulity at the prospect of examining it.

Giangiacomo became, as Rhys put it: “a sort of communist Alan Sugar”.

This, like virtually everything he say tonight, including using the cue cards beckoning various audience responses, is knowledgeable but unpretentious.

The album’s tone is perkier than the live show, and there is the distinct impression that the band empathises with Feltrinelli’s very human frailty, without becoming morose in the process.

There are similarities between Feltrinelli and DeLorean, both had a very public vision undercut by an equally public lack of conviction, conviction necessary for success in a life lived outside of the mainstream (DMC was never a major manufacturer, the GAP never was the predominant force in the ‘Years of Lead’).

Feltrinelli smuggled Doctor Zhivago from the USSR, a novel which pales into insignificance in comparison with Solzhenitsyn’s acidly illuminating portrayals of life there.

His sequestering of the image of Guevara can only be seen as an affront to the sensibilities of anyone with even the vaguest left-leaning inclinations.

The GAP did not achieve the notoriety of the Red Brigades.

By almost any measure the years between 1969 and 1981 were leaden but not gilded for Feltrinelli, at least in a political sense.
It is this sort of well informed but unselfconscious theatre that Neon Neon do inimitably well.

If they’re open to suggestions for future material I recommend Hugh MacDiarmid: the Scots poet whose communism rendered him persona non grata with nationalists, and vice-versa.

Another man whose vision was as complex as it was, apparently, unrealised.

more photos

Words: Simon Jones
Photos: Gordon Ballantyne

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