On the far side of the railway tracks, overlooking the 19th century warehouses and yards of King's Cross Goods depot, just beyond the outer limits of the relentless redevelopment that is steadily turning this area of London into a kind of Manhattan-by-the-gasworks, there stands what could be the last non-corporate pub in London. The Cross Kings (do you see what they did there?) is artistically scruffy and amiably independent. It's full of books and games and on any night of the week you'll find the place well patronised by an interesting cross-section of corporate refusenik drinkers.
Tonight, you'll also find an interesting cross-section of corporate refusenik bands: artists who, in one way or another, follow the ideas in their heads anywhere they take them, and to hell with the conventions of the music biz. Maybe that's why tonight's event is called Club Hell. Let's cross the river Styx - or at least shuffle past the bloke taking cash on the entrance to the back bar - and see what delights the artistic netherworld can supply.
With a name like Dead Horse For Sale, this one could go either way. There are two members of the band - neither of whom, as far as I can see, is dead, or a horse, or even for sale. A gent in scruffy black coaxes plangent blues runs from a guitar, and sings songs that sound like they were found, covered with interesting mould cultures, down the back of Tom Waits' fridge.
Meanwhile, his bride (she's wearing a wedding dress - she's someone's bride) holds up books. That's her principal role in the band: she holds up books while wearing a wedding dress. A textbook on sexual deviance, 'The Doors Of Perception' by Aldous Huxley, a slim volume of Ted Hughes poems, the Haynes workshop mnanual for the Morris Marina (only kidding about that last one, but then again I wouldn't put it past them). And, on one occasion, she shows us a dead fish in a jar. From this, you might infer that we are a long, long way from anything even remotely resembling normal rock 'n' roll. And yet, it works. Dead Horse For Sale are a surreal combination of minimalist blues and a show and tell session, and against the odds it makes for a strangely compelling performance.
Tonight's flyer gives the impression that Colt will be the final band of the night, but as if to wrong-foot us even before they've started, here they are now. Or, at least, here's Jared Hawkes, crouched over technology, the music gradually building like a wary cat slowly making its way into the centre of a room. But there's no sign of Andrea Kerr, Colt's vocalist...until, from somewhere behind the old upright piano that lurks impassively at the side of the stage, she emerges, all wig and sequins, like the long lost sister of Ziggy Stardust. It's a startling appearance - in fact, I suspect at least a few people in the adudience don't even realise that this is Colt, so utterly different does Andrea look in her glam-rock persona.
But there's no mistaking the insistent lope of the music, as it sidles under the skin of the unwary listener. The click and scuffle of the laptop glitches, the glide and thrum of the basslines, somewhere between a slink and a stalk...that could only be Colt. As if to inject a further note of showbiz glamour (another very Colt-ish trait: this is a band that ties the twin threads of art and glam together like shoelaces) there are more costumes, more wigs. Andrea vanishes behind the piano again, and re-emerges in a flowing dress, like she's recently escaped from the court of Louis Quatorze, and a red bobbed wig, like she's recently emerged from the Wag Club on New Romantic night.
Next, she's a twenties flapper in black and glitter. Quite apart from the visual impact of the costume changes themselves, it's fascinating to note that even in the interludes between costumes - when Andrea is making a quick change behind the piano - the music keeps rolling forward like treacle oozing over a carving knife, and the audience keeps staring, as if mesmerised, at the empty stage.
'Black Rabbits' is a highlight, an other-worldly hit. It's an unsettling croon, a song which manages to be a ballad and anthemic at the same time. When the set eventually draws to a close, Andrea leaves the stage for the last time as the music continues, then slowly fades. It's never actually clear exactly when the performance is over. The audience keeps staring into space - almost as if Colt have put everyone into a dream-like state. When the DJ cranks up his tunes it's quite a rude awakening, and not for the first time I'm left to reflect that Colt are brilliantly weird and really rather wonderful.
In minimalism, there is maximalism. Now there's an epigram if ever there was one. And here comes [D-66] (apparently the brackets are essential: don't ask me how you're supposed to pronounce them) to prove just that. [D-66] is a one-man blues orchestra: guitar, vocals, tambourine, and an assortment of home-made percussion devices made out of tea trays and other paraphernalia. He sits amid his bits and pieces, Bollywood movie trailers looping on a screen behind him, and it all seems a long, long way from the Mississippi delta or the foothills of the Appalachians.
But for all the incongruity of the set-up, [D-66] makes a very convincing bluesman, stomping and wailing through a set of songs as if calling the devil down to the crossroads. A random audience member even produces a harmonica and tries to start up an impromptu jam, until premptorily waved offstage by [D-66], who's clearly keen to guard his performance space against all invaders. A cover of that fine old loony workout, 'She Said' - best known these days in the Cramps' version, but originally by the manic one-man blues band Hasil Adkins - wraps things up in suitably manic fashion, and drops a pretty big clue to the place [D-66] is coming from. A new Hasil Adkins for the twenty-first century? Could be we've got one.
There's something about the name Hot Gothic which suggests someone's not being entirely serious here. The band turn out to be an electro duo of the Pet Shop Boys/Soft Cell variety, and if that seems like a rather glib instant comparison - well, it fits. Two clean-cut, dapper gents: a set of songs that mix insistent pop hooks with a hint of suburban sleaze. The comparison almost makes itself. Playing for laughs to an audience that almost entirely comprises their mates (the club crowd, unfamiliar with this band, has largely dispersed to the front bar) the Hot Gothic boys seem to be having fun as they steer an erratic course from one technical hiccup to the next, exchanging quips and catcalls with their friends all the while. There's probably the makings of a decent band in there somewhere, but after a while the feeling that we're gatecrashers at a private party thrown by two electro-pranksters overwhelms any merits the music might have. Best call it a night, I reckon. Still, three out of four ain't bad. Who knew Hell could be so cool?
For more photos from this gig, find the bands by name here.