You may have witnessed two strange happenings on returning from Ex Hex on Tuesday night. Firstly, you may have found yourself in a travesty of an Anglo Saxon Great Hall inside the bomb x-rayed skeleton of a church. You may have seen some Amish-looking people playing ‘Yellow Submarine’ on lutes and fiddles. You may well have sucked your tongue so hard it felt like a cabbage leaf before exiting as soon as it was polite to do so.
At times like this, bands seem like autumn leaves: they are so many and so wet you’re bound to slip on your arse and dislocate a hip. But Tuesday was Ex Hex and they were playing Thekla. Thekla is sadly underused as a live venue, more frequently hosting cheap student club nights. It’s also small and narrow and you’re likely to lose the ability to hear extreme frequencies, but IT IS A BOAT. This, Mary Timony rightly believes, cannot be stressed enough.
Besides Mary’s enthusiasm for the nautical, Betsy’s high kicks and the enormous sense of fun all three band members transmit to the audience, this gig scores impressively on the Big Jeff Scale. Jeff is a Bristol phenomenon of which your town may have an equivalent. Nightly, you’ll find him right against a stage, in the middle, treating every band with the respect most people reserve for headliners. If there’s music playing, he’s dancing. The scale is this: if you attend a gig lively enough for a very tall dancing man with lots of curly hair to become lost in the crowd, it’s close to a 10. Ex Hex achieve around a 3, which is highly impressive for a small gig on a damp Tuesday. However, we remain more an audience than a crowd, which doesn’t do justice to the performance. The best moment is the realisation that they aren’t front-loading the set: every song is brilliant.
Reading about music when growing up, power pop seemed like the perfect genre. Its outlines have blurred enough to include New Wave, pop punk and even Britpop, but really it’s a plain-clothed American cousin of glam: early-1970s pop fans reacting against album bands by writing catchy singles. In theory, it should be great. Aside from Big Star, the reality is often dull men straining to attain the knack. Ex Hex are everything it should be, with added reference to The Cars and the odd hint of Modern Lovers. They’re the kind of band who can make a Tuesday into a Friday. They can banish the post-summer depression and they stick around to chat afterwards.
They also have a great rapport with touring partners Jacuzzi Boys, of whose set each new song is like the key change in a power ballad, reaching closer to the heavens. Singer Gabriel’s guitar conducts strobing firebolts, converting every energy flash into a fuzzy, shouty yet somehow insouciant hook.
In every 1990s US teen drama, there’s always at least one scene when the main characters go to see a godawful band in the only club in town. Skeleton Frames are the band they wish they were watching. They start the second song with the spoken query “why is everybody staring at me?”, making the people loitering in an arc around the stage look uncomfortably at their shoes. What better way to reflect back the expectant mood hanging over an opening set?
Oh, the second strange occurrence? Leaning on the wall where Castle Park meets Bristol Bridge, a bespectacled man held his phone flat in his palms. He spewed a thin mercury stream from his mouth to the screen. Maybe in about ten years it’ll be him playing in the church. We can only hope he was recording!