LIVE: ESG @ Jazz Cafe, Camden, 01.03.19

It may be ESG’s last UK tour, but the iconic DIY act are going out with a bang…

ESG are possibly the most famous band you’ve never heard of. They’ve been sampled by a list of artists too long to name – including TLC and Miles Davis – and yet they’ve stayed resolutely under the mainstream radar, instead inspiring a generation of female DIY musicians to play by their own rules.

And now, the all-female band, who started making music in the South Bronx in the early ’70s, are on their last ever UK tour. UK fans might remember that this was also what they said of their 2015 tour, so maybe don’t lose hope yet… For the penultimate show, they played Camden’s Jazz Café, with support from Leeds-based funk band Galaxians.

Maybe this really is the last tour, but it doesn’t feel like a sad farewell. The band’s inimitable, sparse mash-up of funk, punk and dance can be unnerving when you’re listening through headphones, but played live, it’s a definite party. Even ‘U.F.O’, whose surreal riff has been sampled by Nine Inch Nails amongst others, is given an upbeat makeover. It can be hard to get a room full of stoic London hipsters dancing, but ESG pull it off easily.

ESG have always been hard to pin down – they’ve been described as everything from proto-hip-hop, to post-punk, to dance – but you get the sense tonight that at the heart of their joyful style is a disregard for categorisation. They’re not interested in being a band who are easy to write about, they’re interested in getting you dancing (whilst perhaps unsettling you slightly at the same time).

The band never found mainstream success – not least because their record label, 99 Records, went bankrupt in the mid-eighties. Since then, they’ve been resolutely DIY. It’s perhaps slightly galling, then, that the artists who sample them, with or without clearance, have often gone on to find greater fame and fortune (though generally lesser critical acclaim). There’s an extra level of irritation in finding that tracks using ESG samples aren’t always ones they’d like to be associated with – as front woman Renee commented in an interview back in 2002, these have included “Really negative, woman-beating type of songs. I’ve been in situations with domestic violence, so I don’t appreciate any song glorifying domestic violence using my music. Go get your own damn music!

They might not be headlining Glastonbury, but they’ve done something arguably greater: they’ve paved the way for female DIY musicians who won’t colour inside the lines. Unconstrained by genre or the pressures of major label involvement, they’re free to enjoy the party.

Frances Salter
@goodcanarymusic

FIVE FAVOURITES: FRIEDBERG

Alt-indie outfit FRIEDBERG – The brainchild of Austrian singer-songwriter Anna Friedberg – came together as a result of frustration at the wider industry and being in the right place at the right time. Originally discovered by Lenny Kravitz, Anna spent much of her time as a songwriter travelling between Europe and America, gaining influence from the spaces she was surrounded by – particularly the Joshua Tree National Park in the Californian desert.

Inspired by her time writing and recording in the wilderness, Anna moved to London where she teamed up with a group of musicians – Emily Linden, Eilidh McKellar and Cheryl Pinero. In the summer of 2018, the girls began playing a handful of secret shows which then led to a singles deal with London indie label LGM Records (Goldheart Assembly, Amaroun) and Free Trade Agency (The National, The War On Drugs). Thus, FRIEDBERG was born. The band have just shared their debut single ‘Boom’ and will be releasing more new music in the near future.

We asked Anna, Cheryl and Eilidh to name their “Five Favourites” – five artists or albums that have influenced their songwriting techniques. Check out their choices below, and make sure you listen to ‘Boom’ at the end of this post!

1. ESG – ESG
The hottest band and album in the world (still). I still cannot believe I discovered ESG and their ’91 album only a few years ago. What have I done all my life before I knew ESG?! To me, they are coolness personified and much more than that: So groovy and hooky and minimalistic, just everything I love combined on one record. What I found most inspiring is the incredibly unique drumming. I really have never heard a tastier, more special way of drumming. I could endlessly just listen to that record. It just never gets old, probably even fresher every year. (Anna)

2. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I sit and think, and sometimes I just sit
It was probably the best time in my life: 2015, driving through California, into the desert of Joshua Tree, windows rolled down and singing along to Courtney Barnett’s debut album. It was at that time when I also started to write the music for our new album and Courtney was just like the gentlest and freshest breeze carrying me on that special journey. I just cannot express how much I love her lyrics. Her stream-of-consiousness style, the way she tells her stories is simply sublime. So smart and beautifully written, that you just cannot escape. Not to forget her super laid-back vocals and phenomenal guitar playing. (Anna)

PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project
I almost cannot listen to that album without seeing PJ Harvey in my mind’s eye performing those songs at the Primavera Festival in Barcelona a few years ago. Whenever I listen to that record I’m back there, standing in the middle of thousands of people, by the sea, totally overwhelmed by her jaw dropping performance and presence. Polly’s haunting live-show is to blame, why this became one of my favourite albums of the past years. (Anna)

Warpaint – The Fool
I’ve listened to this record probably a million times since it came out. It has such an uncompromised sound to me, because each individual song shows so many facets, with such effortless dynamic. I love the raw, dreamy and deep feel to their music. What an amazing band! (Cheryl)

Radiohead – Ok Computer
I first discovered this album when I was about 13, but truly came to love it when I was 17 when I performed the whole entirety of the album at university. ‘Karma Police’ and ‘Let Down’ are my two favourite tracks. Thom Yorke’s vocals are trippy and haunting. Listen to it while walking in the rain (Eilidh)

Photo Credit: Max Parovsky

Kate Crudgington
@KCBobCut