Wind them up and watch them go.
In the time since electro swing had its brief moment in the halogen strip lighting, it seems to have come up with its own takes on each of the forms of electronic music to follow it: Skrillexian dubstep, Martin Garrix-style big room and Flume-esque future bass, each infused with horn fills and tom-tom thumping drum breaks. I suppose that oughtn’t be surprising, given that the central identity of electro swing has never been music as much as it has been an aesthetic, a collection of references to times gone by, a patchwork of pastiche. This is most evident when you consider that electro swing doesn’t really swing at all, despite delighting in the musical idioms of the big band. This is almost a feature rather than a fault—swinging in the traditional sense is very difficult when the drums must conform to the strictures of quantisation, those digital gridlines generated by the drum machines central to club music.
So, Caravan Palace, one of the genre’s most successful progenitors, live at the Brixton academy. And, to their credit, they are reasonably ‘live’—six musicians on stage, plus a dancer. Each of the performers is more of a human-mannequin hybrid, matching the band’s subtly dystopian take on the glitz and glamour of the ballroom. All-singing, all-dancing on the outside, cold and lifeless on the inside, like mechanised performers at a cyberpunk fairground house-of-horrors.
They’re fronted by a porcelain singer in ruffled shoulders and black vinyl pantaloons who bounds about the stage exhorting the crowd to jump up and down. Then the men, who are tricky to tell apart in their uniform of short-sleeved hipster button-ups with geometric patterns and skinny jeans. There’s a bassist, who switches between a good old-fashioned bass guitar, a good old-fashioned Moog bass synth, and a good old-fashioned double bass—oh, except for the fact that it’s electric and is therefore basically just a pole with four strings, acoustic resonation having been entirely dispensed with. (There’s probably a laboured metaphor to be made there somewhere, but let’s move on.) There’s a keyboard-person, who plays piano and synths, plus, from time-to-time, a vibraphone. Then the two horn players—trombone and saxophone. The former mostly thrusts the slider in time to the beat while blaring out derivative horn lines, while the former goes from baritone to alto to soprano and back again to cover both the up-high-noodling and the down-low-phattening needs of the band. There’s a guitarist, too, although naturally, being the guitarist, he doesn’t wear the uniform. He does, however, seem to be responsible for triggering the samples not replicable by instruments, and uses a vintage-looking microphone hooked up to a vocoder to complete the cyberpunk vibe with some robotic croaking. Last but not least there’s the dancer, who wears a little black pork pie hat and springs occasionally into action like some sort of jack-in-the-box auditioning for a slot in a talent-show dance troupe.
None of that is to say that they can’t play—in fact, they’re pretty tight, and the solos that are shared out between them are taken well enough (highlights being those taken on the two ‘phones, saxo- and vibra-). Pleasant too are the dixie-style interludes with overlapping solos, and the dancer has a remarkable talent for curling and uncurling various limbs in time to the music while creating a hypnotic amalgam of swing dance plus popping and locking. The singer holds the whole affair together, high-fiving and fist-bumping band members while good-naturedly teasing the audience about being shy, in that way that the French like to mock the reserved Brit. She even does some sax-playing of her own in a rare drum-less section with pretty interlocking horn lines.
Shallow and a bit vapid though they may have been, ultimately the show was about entertainment, and the crowd were certainly entertained. The simple but highly effective light show and punchy, focused tones enable the infectious enthusiasm to take hold, and everyone ended up dancing. Caravan Palace take a whole lot of unlikely ingredients and make fun with them.