The best music is usually that which confounds expectations and revels in stunning the listener. Cian Nugent clearly knows this well, because live he does just that. Nugent is mostly lumped in with the new wave of modern folk (see also: Ryley Walker, Jessica Pratt, et al). Although there’s some truth to that, Nugent’s set tonight instead puts him in the direct lineage of forward-looking, adventurous avant-rock bands, like The Velvet Underground and even MC5.
Lyrically his songs are often introspective and poetic rather than raucous; but musically his set is utterly electric, both literally and metaphorically. Although live he is not always heavy – indeed, many of his songs do sit most comfortably in the world of folk-rock – there’s dynamism in the group’s performance that lends the set a certain intensity.
Tonight’s show is entirely based on tracks from Nugent’s superb 2016 album ‘Night Fiction’. That record was one of my personal favourite albums of the year; it was subtle, nuanced and deep – a record that rewards repeat listening. Played live, those songs inevitably lose some of the scrupulous detail; but a sense of vivid energy is gained. It’s not that the songs are fundamentally changed much from the album versions, so much as hearing them live gives the songs a new sense of gravitas.
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A 20 minute version of ‘Year Of The Snake’ is definitely the highlight tonight. More so than anywhere else in the band’s 50 minute set, Nugent evokes a long list of deeply original avant-rock bands. The Velvets certainly being one touchstone, but even Hawkwind comes to mind when hearing the song’s repetitive, locked-in groove. It’s utterly exhilarating and the sheer vitality of the track makes it feel like the raw essence of what makes live music so good.
Although Nugent and his band do often evoke a set of older, more experimental influences, they often also bring to mind the live work of fellow guitar-master Ryley Walker. Live, Walker and his band can extend even the smallest moment of a song into an inspired, powerful whirlwind of improvisational glee. Nugent, likewise, has moments of subtle, almost jazzy spontaneity in his music. Moments where the song itself is lost and instead the band play simply for the sake of playing; there is no goal, no song to serve, simply a time to become lost in the sound.
It’s these moments as much as anything that make Nugent’s set a joy; his songs may be excellent, but it’s the moments in between the songs – when the band is in the throws of improvisation – that are the most exhilarating. Those with an open mind to free-form, flowing sound owe it to themselves to hear Cian Nugent live – his records certainly give a very good idea of his tendency toward jamming (especially 2013’s ‘Born With The Caul’) but such an expansive sound is most definitely best experienced live.