Review: Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight (Ovalhouse)

”This Is How We Die” author Christopher Brett Bailey returns with a concert ‘sprinkled with words’

Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight
Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight
© The Other Richard

Let’s just say this now: this was a gig, and this is a gig review. It’s a shift in form that Christopher Brett Bailey – whose last show, the acclaimed This Is How We Die, concluded with noisy guitars – set out in a photocopied handout given to the audience, with earplugs. "While assembling this show its weighting changed from a fiction wrapped in a concert to a concert sprinkled with words. What can I say? The fake stuff didn’t taste good in my mouth anymore and the band got too good for me to tell em to shut up." It’s as good a summary as any – and he’s right. The band are very good.

Initially, the sprinkling of words seems less so, Bailey’s voice drawling as hot white lights blast into our eyes. The repeated promise "this is a hell dream" will be atmospherically realised as we’re taken on a hallucinatory journey of dark intensity – but his initial vocal sketches of adrenaline-junkies hurtling towards death sounds like straight-up Beat-poet pastiche. At lines like "the best of us were dead or dying," you can’t help think of "Howl".

Then the music kicks in. It’s warm, reverb heavy, Bailey and his fellow band members – Alicia Jane Turner on the violin and George Percy on the guitar – building dense walls and ambient washes of sound. Think of the post-rock layered instrumental heaviness of Mogwai or Godspeed You! Black Emperor. It’s also loud – although anyone who’s been to a concert since about 1967 probably won’t feel the need for those earplugs.

They stand in front of three "piano corpses": boards where taken apart pianos’ strings are re-assembled, and amplified. They’re played with beaters like some kind of giant, electronic dulcimer, delivering a twanging, nasal string sound; it’s intricate and absolutely mesmerising, keeping a driving pulse too – for a while it sounds like they’re about to burst into LCD Soundsystem’s "All My Friends".

There is a conscious performative element to all this; as a gig, it’s a carefully constructed one. It’s a shame that, on press night, a technical fault meant proceedings were interrupted (this show now has an interval, Bailey quipped). But we returned to a dazzling, disorienting chiaroscuro light show of red and green, playing tricks on your eyes like a grown-up, trippy version of those old holographic glasses, as guitars roared and chugged. Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight is a total, immersive sensory experience; behind me, a girl laments that she’s not taken any ketamine, a comment one rarely hears in the stalls…

Then Bailey’s words also return, a stream in the dark that this time takes hold, grips, even if it’s narratively slippy and fragmentary. There seems to be a plane crash ("brace, brace", he intones with dripped irony), journeys of the dead through an afterlife, a consideration of what suicide is and why someone might be drawn to it. "You’ve got no idea what it was like to walk to the fridge in their shoes, let alone a mile. Now who’s selfish?"

Bailey’s notes say the piece came out of a difficult year, with too much death, and Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight can be interpreted as a fevered response to that: a burning-up roar, but also an attempt to understand, to inhabit, the desire to obliterate the self.

Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight runs at Ovalhouse until 11 October.