Dufus & Jeffrey Lewis @ Brixton Windmill, Sun 15th May 2005
Blenheim Gardens is an ordinary residential street, but there’s a windmill at the end of it. This is not a sight regularly associated with London concert-going. But this place is as far from central London as you can get – at least, the farthest stop on the Victoria line, and a good 10-15 minute walk beyond that – and the disused landmark lends its name to the Windmill venue, a mecca for underground music. Seemingly a former community centre, the venue exudes a down-to-earth charm in keeping with tonight’s acts. It’s dimly-lit and very sweaty.
“Antifolk”, the long-standing scene from the music bars of New York, prizes feeling over professionalism, and having a laugh over convention. The Antifolk aesthetic allows bands to make a career out of sounding amateur, their lo-fi murk held up as a beacon of honesty. Sometimes, this can just be an excuse for a bad sound. But it brings together musicians with little in common, beyond their distaste for commercial tradition, and lets them go on package tours far from their breeding ground.
First up, Sleepy Ed Hicks delivers a fair set of quiet pastiche, with a banjo-led, extended and localised ‘California Girls’ the highlight, and provides a gentle warm-up. The night really belongs to Jeffrey Lewis: obscure singer-songwriter, comic-creator, and mop-topped child of nearly thirty years. Originally picked up by Rough Trade and the Peel show for his everyday Leonard Cohen take-off, ‘The Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song’, he’s since released two scrapbook-style albums, and tonight attracts a packed crowd happy to hear some new songs on his acoustic guitar.
Jeff’s lyrics are always worth listening to. Though sometimes he can be twee - he wants to be friends with foxes, for example, and that’s actual foxes, not girls – he’s a fine observer of all those small details so important to the bigger picture. When moving house, he contemplates the angle from which he views his old street: a view he won’t see again, because it’s not his own doorway anymore; and he can leave the dusting to his landlady. Another time, he reassures his girlfriend when she’s freaked out by an octopus. Given this attentiveness, maybe it’s to be expected that he’s also a bit of a worrier. His girlfriend tells him where to go. In another anxiety attack, he asks, “why do I get nothing done, but am always too busy?” His songs are empathetic, but also wryly critical, sung with a sensitive chuckle.
He’s not a brilliant singer or guitarist, and some of his rhymes are rather lame, but the funny lines carry thoughts beyond his croaky voice. The sturdy philosophy would be as convincing if sung by a popular vocalist: Paul McCartney, say, could sing one of his ditties, but wouldn’t sing ‘…Oral Sex Song’ with Jeff’s nod to the fact this joke is pretty old now. And few could get away with performing a half-finished cartoon history of Communism, with only the aid of one bassline and two giant sketchbooks.
To broaden the musical palette, Jeff sets up a drum pattern, which doesn't work - the keyboard breaks down halfway through the song (it doesn't quite seem to work with the song, anyway). This being an Antifolk gig, mistakes don't matter too much, and the set bodes well for the next album - especially if the sound continues to expand in the right places. Tonight, he also runs through a couple of covers, with help from a makeshift band: ‘Complications’, by 60s garage band The Monks, and ‘Moby Octopad’ by Yo La Tengo. This psychedelic shuffle is played with an obvious love for the original, and reminds me of one of Jeff’s strips in which, after leaving a comics convention, he bumped into the YLT singer and babbled at him for a while. Other comics of his own include stories about men who wrestle cars, and a bloke with a pair of legs growing out of his head. Jeff Lewis is an ordinary guy with a big imagination, and the guts to go out there and express these innermost thoughts: an honest fantasist and winning 'loser'.
Closing proceedings, Dufus have a diminished audience, and while I do enjoy them very much, I’m not sure I’d wear a T-shirt with the name on it. The band fill the tiny stage with a line-up of vocalist, guitar, bass, drums, and mad scientist. This man at the back pushes lots of buttons to make strange squealing sounds, and spends the rest of the set continually wrapping himself up in blankets. However, the focus of Dufus is one Seth Quankmeyer-Faergoalzia, a crazed and erratic creative-type, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, wrapping his hands around the microphone like it's a snake trying to escape. His impressive wailing leads the band, apparently on a mission to confuse. “You fall down, get up and get down,” the yodeller commands. This deconstructed, stream-of-consciousness pop takes in styles from Bob Dylan to Sonic Youth. Seth’s meandering vocal would prove wearing without the powerful sound behind him, and without him the music would be hard to concentrate on; but together, it’s quite a captivating performance. The finale, ‘Fire’ simulates hysteria: panicked shouts abound and the blankets are thrown all over the place.
Meanwhile, ‘Wee Ma Moo’ (their track from the ‘Antifolk’ compilation, and therefore “dedicated to the guys from Rough Trade, if they’re still here”) is possibly the silliest name ever given to a song full of sensible advice: a person should never compromise themselves for the sake of having their heart broken. Naturally, an Antifolk musician would always stay true to themselves, through being so different to anything else.
After Dufus have finished, and encouraged by the merchandise table, I babble at Jeff for a while and recommend the comic exhibition I visited beforehand. I leave a happy geek.