Sure, the Coral are just a few yards in front of me, but they’re not really here. They’re in a happier place and time: a city more Willy Wonka than terrorist target, and an age more flights of fancy than economic queasiness and war-addled, post-postmodern malaise. The gaggle of boys who are convulsing about the stage are infected with the germ of head-over-heels, eyes-wide-shut, loving-every-minute, gravitationally subversive, geeked-out, rambunctious, don’t-stop-‘til-ya-get-enough fun. And, oh yeah—whatever they’ve got, it’s contagious.
Of course, these lads from Holylake, Liverpool, England have good reason to be so adrenalized. At the moment, the Coral are indie rock’s equivalent of Homecoming Queen—the most popular, most likely to succeed, driving the coolest car, making the varsity team, and scoring valedictorian to boot. But, unlike high school, the Coral are tops for reasons that have nothing to do with small minds, small ponds, or a subjective pecking order. Plain and simple, the Coral will blow you away. There’s nothing juvenile about it.
3 Mar 2003: Bowery Ballroom New York
This is in part why getting a glimpse of the band, at long last, is a bit of a shock. Standing before the crowd at Bowery that night, the Coral appear to have barely completed their teens. Bassist Paul Duffy, all long hair and flannel shirt, looks as if he stepped out of a casting call for Singles. Lead singer James Skelly is his dramatic foil—a clean cut, baby-faced, cardigan-ed goody-two-shoes type, the kind who might blush during impolite conversation. The rest of them, spanning the spectrum between upstanding schoolboy and neo-Mod, are exceptionally fresh—and the composite of this is a far leap from the gritty style from which rock and roll generally oozes. Which, for all intents and purposes, matters little anyway. After all, the Coral call to mind Captain Beefheart and Can—bands who tried to turn the rock and roll paradigm on its head—as well as the Happy Mondays and early Charlatans, pioneers of a sometimes uncouth, but always light-hearted playfulness.
But beyond this mischievous and youthful veneer, the Coral are tight, mature musicians who an astonishingly flawless show. The night begins with “Spanish Man”, the opening track off their eponymous release. James Skelly, wielding maracas, gets a wild—I mean, really wild—look in his eyes as they kick into high gear, the song’s jangly, cosmos-meets-cowboy vibe mesmerizing the audience like a powerful drug. Whatever’s going on up there is both spooky and magical—oversized voices booming from bodies seemingly too small to contain them, too many instruments and players and yet, far more sound emerging than one would expect. The Coral are absolutely in control of their chaos.
Next up is “Bad Man”, a rockabilly freakout that is over by the time you get a grip on its multiple directions. In addition to the wealth of musical nods, the Coral’s onstage styles are from across the musical map—Duffy will do a Jimmy Page, guitarist Bill Ryder-Jones an Eddie Van Halen, James Skelly doing whatever he damn well pleases. Ian Skelly, laboring animatedly behind his kit, is one of the most emotive drummers I have ever laid eyes on since The Muppet Show‘s Animal. And they never let up on the intensity, either musically or physically. “Skeleton Key”, a number off their debut and a previously released single, is a cacophony of maniacal laughter, bestial growls and Iron Maiden-esque guitar turmoil. Perhaps the best word to describe it is scary. And incredible.
It becomes obvious over the course of the show that they do, to a degree, have a formula: to do the utterly unexpected. The Western-influenced dirge of “Calendar and Clocks” breaks into a comical farce. Lee Southall, the demure rhythm guitarist who hangs back, will sing the most screeching number of the night (“Follow the Sun”). They’ll play a polka with a bojangle, a flurry of metal peppered with winks and nods. And their most straightforward song, “Dreaming of You”, follows course when you think it will wander, proving that the Coral can also write a catchy, danceable, radio-friendly pop song.
Despite all these throwbacks to the past and projection of otherworldly futures, the Coral have something definitive to tell us about the present. And that message is: enjoy. In the world we’re living in now, where so much is depressingly somber, music—without posturing and pretense, without attitude and avarice—can be a true haven of bliss. The Coral, live or recorded, are a portal into that jubilant realm. They may not seem to be here, but personally, I’d rather be there with them.