The Tiger Lillies, Warwick Arts Centre, May 15 only.
Inspired by the time the band spent in Prague in the 90s, an era of debauchery in the wake of the Velvet Revolution, The Tiger Lillies latest work The Devil’s Fairground is a collection of songs inspired by the interesting characters, artists, and hedonists who populated the underbelly of a city in which tourists were a rarity.
Provocative and irreverent, themes of sin, substance abuse, and excess inform the majority of the songs, as singer/songwriter Martyn Jacques showcases his unique ability of finding beauty in the macabre and making poetry out of the unusual. Nowhere is this quality better displayed than on Destruction, a bassy meander about drink, suicide, and a golem who always “…beats you to a pulp”, and on King of the Gutter, which waltzes through the tale of a double-amputee, reflecting on a life of alcoholism and excess from his “wheelchair throne”.
Rousing sing-along Drugs is a tongue-in-cheek inclusion touching on the pitfalls of drug-abuse, while final track Is That All There Is? (a dark cover of the 1969 song by Peggy Lee), is an appropriate conclusion.
There are also moments of beauty, and harsher historical realities. Gothic ballad Free, about a man imprisoned under the Soviet Union for his political beliefs, is a standout, while Dead Soul’s Day is an eerie sinner’s lament.
The Tiger Lillies seem happy to let their music do the talking for them; the stripped back performance relies little on lighting or effects, and the trio maintain a disconnect from the audience which lends an ethereal feel to proceedings, in keeping with the band’s billing as Brechtian punk avant-gardists.
The musicianship throughout is extraordinary, as Jacques, Jonas Golland, and Adrian Stout use an array of instruments such as a custom ukulele, theremin, and signing saw to produce a range of a weird and wonderful sounds, their performance on each instrument flawless, and Jacques’ piercing falsetto a combination of haunting and beautiful, which he occasionally breaks with a harsher, stabbing delivery.
This band has something unique in their refusal to be defined by any single genre, combining elements of opera and symphony with Berlin cabaret, and balancing the anarchic and peculiar with the moments of deep sadness and beauty.