When ‘Driving Down To L.A.’ appeared last year as the first taster of Ezra Furman‘s new record Transangelic Exodus, it sent a broad hint that Furman had travelled in a new, less commercial direction, and so it proved when the album itself appeared. It’s a far less immediate listen than Furman’s previous work, and it would be interesting to see how it translated into the live arena.
Before the audience gets a chance to judge for themselves, though, musician/artist Beth Jeans Houghton brings her band Du Blonde onto the stage of the beautiful Colston Hall venue and runs through a set that, though it occasionally appears somewhat ragged on the surface, is full of charm and a good fit for an Ezra Furman audience. Houghton is an engaging frontperson and complements the band’s driving guitar pop, somewhere between No Doubt and Hole, with her original observations on life, such as “Someone bought me a coffee machine, but it was not there for me emotionally”. Well, quite!
Then it’s time for Ezra and his band, who these days go by the name of The Visions. Personnel-wise, The Visions actually are Furman’s previous backing band The Boyfriends, but in case anyone is keeping count, a different band altogether to The Harpoons, who backed him on his first four records. It’s 2013’s album Day Of The Dog which provides the opening to the show, with the gentle ‘Cherry Lane’ being a less-than-obvious opener and followed closely by a fast and furious ‘I Wanna Destroy Myself’, which brings those who haven’t seen Furman before up to speed: there is a palpable energy and intensity in Ezra Furman gigs that is almost punk in its approach.
The first taste of Transangelic Exodus comes with the fabulously-named ‘Maraschino-Red Dress $8.99 At Goodwill’, which is described as being a song “about femininity, misery and picking out clothing”. Furman has a strong stage presence and prowls the stage throughout the night, whether with or without a guitar, never less that 100% in the moment.
A song from arguably Furman’s commercial breakthrough album, Perpetual Motion People comes next; ‘Haunted Head’ introduced as being “about mundane living, getting up early and cooking breakfast”. All this in front of an impressive stage set comprising a round screen which starts as a clock face spelling out Transangelic Exodus but transforms into a blank canvas throughout the evening to project whatever Furman feels is appropriate. In fact, it turns out that Beth Jeans Houghton is responsible for the highly original design when Furman mentions this at the same time as commending her band.
Former hit (well, sort of) ‘My Zero’ sounds like a smash and is gleefully received by the devoted audience who hang on Furman’s every word throughout, his frequent chats between tracks a trademark of his shows. ‘Driving Down To L.A.’, when it comes, is one of those songs that suddenly makes absolute sense and clicks in the live arena, as do the other tracks from the new album. Furman is brave enough to include eleven of Transangelic Exodus‘s thirteen tracks in the set and it’s telling that this artistic risk has taken him into bigger, rather than smaller, venues.
It’s a special kind of artist who can have a wonky, woozy song called ‘Suck The Blood From My Wound’ transform into a crowd-pleasing anthem, and also leave out ‘hits’ like ‘Lousy Connection’ and ‘Hark! To The Music’ and not have anyone in the audience question it. “Our band got weirder since we were last here, thanks for sticking with us”, says Furman before ‘God Lifts Up The Lowly’, this after tearing through a brilliant version of Kate Bush‘s ‘Hounds Of Love’ which could show The Futureheads a thing or two.
Before the catchiest of the new crop, ‘Love You So Bad’, Furman guarantees the audience that it is a three chord song. “No fourth chord is gonna turn up”, is the tongue in cheek promise. ‘Tip Of A Match’ from Perpetual Motion People is the closer, but a full-voiced audience coax Furman back for a superb encore of ‘Teddy I’m Ready’ from the excellent 2016 E.P. Big Fugitve Life (dedicated to “soul singer Ted Hawkins”), a 100mph ‘And Maybe God Is a Train’ and the wonderful ‘Restless Year’.
While Ezra Furman is putting this much heart, soul and energy into his work, he truly is one of those artists that people won’t ever want to miss when he is in town.