by Rowan Gavin

Sometimes you go to a gig not quite knowing what to expect. I found out I would be covering The Neutrinos’ recent double-set Norwich Arts Centre show for the Norwich Radical at relatively short notice, and decided on a whim to perpetuate my ignorance of the band’s work until I could hear it live. What I discovered, one December Saturday evening in that beautiful converted church hall, was all the more delightful for my lack of expectation – in fact, I’m not sure that any amount of pre-listening could have quite prepared me for the experience of this show.

Some bands bring more to the stage than just their songs. In this case, the Neutrinos brought a large leather sofa, which set the tone for the evening: comfortable, yet innocuous. Sat square and steadfast in front of Jeron Gundersen’s drums, between the synth-laden stations of bassist Jon Baker and guitarist Mark Howe, and illuminated from above by a selection of household light-fittings, the sofa provided a frame for the band’s performance. In particular it acted as an anchor for warm and witty singer Karen Reilly, who returned to perch on its arms or recline across its cushions at various points between and during songs.

The show came ahead of a double release due early this year, with each of the band’s two sets composed primarily of music from each of those upcoming releases. The first half of the evening was titled ‘Ordinary Things’, after an archival compilation of quieter tracks that The Neutrinos have played over the years at iterations of Klanghaus – a partnership project with artist Sal Pittman consisting of visual and sound installations designed for specific buildings and small audiences. This was followed by ‘Noise Please’, a much louder and livelier set featuring tracks from the upcoming new album of the same name, as well as elements of the recent ‘Darkroom’ show the band performed at COP26.

The word ‘intimate’ is a tad overused in music writing, often just acting as shorthand for ‘in a small venue’, but in this case I think it is appropriate. Fittingly, given the decor, the opening songs felt homely: soft and smooth in their sound, and somehow a little familiar. But as I began to tune into Reilly’s lyrics, things started to feel a little uncanny, a touch unsettling. Real intimacy is both comforting and exposing, and in the songs from ‘Ordinary Things’ The Neutrinos recognise and respect that truth. The title track, and its immediate precursor ‘Small Animals’, particularly brought this home to me, highlighting the inherent strangeness of the creatures and objects of our day-to-day lives, revealing that which is familiar as in its nature disconcerting, challenging, unknowable. It is a fascinating set of songs, sharing a clear interest in the metaphysical without over-intellectualising – worthy of further study, I think, when the record releases.

Real intimacy is both comforting and exposing, and in the songs from ‘Ordinary Things’ The Neutrinos recognise and respect that truth.

After a quick break, the second set started off strong with ‘Gills & Buoys’, the most energetic song about sea level rise I’ve ever heard. Transformed from a suave songstress in a black dress to a jumpsuited wild thing dual-wielding tambourines, Reilly really took over the stage during ‘Noise Please’ with her excitable presence, her exceptional vocals continuing to give weight to even the most frenetic tracks. There was, I started to realise, a politics to this set of songs; one consisting in allusion and observation for the most part, but substantial all the same, with ideas of a better world running deep through the words and sounds. Towards the end, things started to get more surreal – especially in ‘Brothers In Milk’, for which Howe took over vocal duties with an entrancing, debatably ironic, vaguely disturbing take on the unity of humankind. Throughout, the band provided a wildly genre-ambiguous variety of beats and melodies, which were nonetheless consistently danceable.

The Neutrinos are a home-grown Norwich band, and there was a real sense of community at the show. Sometimes I felt like the only person in the crowd who didn’t know the band personally, as in-jokes and friendly heckles rang out from different corners of the room. At one point Reilly directly addressed a friend to acknowledge his birthday, and dedicate a song to him that heavily featured his favourite instrument: the almighty cowbell. The audience, the band and the music came together to create a thoroughly enjoyable experience – the friend I went with and I have already had conversations about trying to see them again in the new year.

Earlier in the evening, Reilly and Howe had entertained us with a short skit involving two rotary-dial phones, and just before the last song Howe’s phone rang again. I was expecting no more than a quick callback; instead Howe launched into a minutes-long simulated phone call, commenting (between pauses for the imaginary responses) on his own wellbeing and that of the band; on the audience’s attitudes; on what has been, as he repeatedly said, ‘a tough year’. I found myself unexpectedly moved. If this was a gig firmly rooted in space, in Norwich and the community around the band, then it was also one firmly rooted in time: in December of 2021, a time of uncertainty, of fatigue, of laughing and dancing through the pain as best we can.

In one last contrary hurrah, the band’s closing number ‘No Christmas’ simultaneously undermined and underscored that heartfelt message. On its face, the track is a power metal banger that simply expresses a distaste for Christmas music, but the choice to end on it was clearly a knowing one, given the uncertainty about potential Covid restrictions during the festive season. In the days following the show, both myself and my companion would have family plans disrupted by the virus. But as The Neutrinos made musical fun of the difficult denouement to a tough year, we danced and danced, with comfort and uncertainty in our hearts.

What else could we do?

Read more about The Neutrinos in Ananya Wilson-Bhattacharya’s interview with Karen Reilly.

All images via neutrinos.co.uk

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