Cougar, Three Trapped Tigers, Instruments

Tom Blackburn 17/11/2007

With each passing gig, I notice that facial hair seems to be the 'indie' thing these days. Although I personally prefer to rock the half-hearted designer stubble look, sure enough at the Luminaire the lads are displaying an impressive array of beards and 'taches, from the Frank Zappa goatee to the ginger-tosspot-from-The-Hoosiers handlebar.

Disappointingly free of facial hair are youthful London quartet Instruments. Unashamedly influenced by the Kinsella brothers, they play an energetic but tight set of sumptuously melodic, mostly instrumental emo. Drummer Matt Hill is relentless, a furious whirlwind flailing apparently wildly around his kit but somehow always precise - by the end of the set he's sweating like Judy Finnigan in the booze aisle at Waitrose.

Although there's a hint of nervousness in the band's between-song demeanour, the sprawling “American Football or American Football?”, an established live favourite, demonstrates that they have serious chops, whilst “Bright Eyes Make for Good Dogs” packs definite pop suss behind its chiming guitars and dubby, bright bassline.

The band's set seems to go down well with the sizeable crowd who have gathered, all the more encouraging since they're opening a gig fairly early on a particularly wet and gloomy Sunday night. Improving with every set, Instruments have bags of potential as well as instant melodies and are definitely ones to watch.

Following Instruments were instrumental trio Three Trapped Tigers. Beavering away behind a mountain of keyboards, guitars and laptops, their set takes a little while to build up a head of steam but when they get going, their glitchy jazz-rock is engagingly melodramatic and tense. Apparently adapting to the loss of one of their number, the band's live performance is a bit tentative but they are clearly an accomplished musical unit and perhaps tonight is simply a bit of an off-night. They're still decent, but you get the impression they weren't quite on top form.

It's up to headliners Cougar, then, to round off the night's proceedings, which they do in classy fashion. Amazingly, the band are without a label, but with performances of tonight's calibre this wrong will surely be righted in the near future.

Their set is culled from 2005's excellent Law LP, Cougar's melancholic “emergency rock” (their term, not mine) sounds like Campfire Headphase-era Boards of Canada if they ditched the keyboards completely, with shades of Tortoise, Four Tet's folkier moments and perhaps even a hint of Nick Drake.

Dan Venne and Aaron Sleator's guitar work, so central to the band's sound, is hypnotic, crafting simple yet dreamlike soundscapes on tracks like “Pulse Conditioner” and the excellent “Lifetime Ranger”. The live setting seems to energise the band more than their recorded output suggests, and tonight's set is focused and sharp.

Cougar might not be much of a visual spectacle but their music is so intricately arranged it takes a well-drilled beast to do it justice live and the band simply don't put a foot wrong. Their music has a surprisingly approachable, jam-like quality despite the band's undoubted precision, reflecting the undeniable passion of the band themselves - evidenced in their commitment to touring thousands of miles away from their native Wisconsin although unsigned.

If I had one of the aforementioned Frank Zappa facial hair arrangements, I would most definitely stroke it in approval. But Cougar are a long way from Jazz Club smugness; their music is approachable, engrossing and warm. Which is actually quite handy when you're steeling yourself to head out into the mid-November chill.