Nizlopi: Bringing it all back home

Although Nizlopi have had a No 1 single, that hasn't stopped them playing gigs in the homes of fans. But could the folk hip-hop duo please Rhoda Koenig, her friends and two highly critical dogs?
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The Independent Culture

I had never thought of my home as a venue for a pop concert. It is not large, and has been made much smaller by an infill of several hundred paintings, sculptures, bibelots, and inessential items of furniture, mostly fragile. When a friend stopped by with a foreign visitor, on their way to the British Museum, the tourist looked round and said, "Why go museum? More things here."

However, the PR woman for Nizlopi assures me, "They are very well behaved," so I invite an audience, of whom I hope I can say the same, and forge ahead. This will be something of a change from Nizlopi's previous engagement - the Shepherd's Bush Empire - but the duo have been playing "gigs in digs" for some time, enjoying the acoustics and the intimacy. Their music is described as "folk hip-hop," which, as I discover when I play their CD, seems to mean gentle, rather charming songs about families and lovers rather than commercials for rape, drugs, and gang violence. Their influences include Otis Redding, Ian Dury, Björk, Destiny's Child, Tom Waits, jazz, funk, gurde, ska, and bluegrass. I have heard of some of these.

Nizlopi (the last name of a girl they both liked) are Luke Concannon, 27, who is tall and clean cut, and John Parker, 28 ("I'm the restraining influence"), who has longer, wispy hair and spectacles. The two, who grew up in Leamington Spa, met on the school bus when they were thirteen, and have been making some kind of music ever since. Luke writes the bittersweet lyrics and vocal melodies, sings, and plays guitar; John coaxes more complicated music out of Catherine, his double bass.

Luke and John's success has arisen from the word of many mouths echoing through cyberspace. Their debut album, Half These Songs are About You, was released on their own FDM (Folk 'n' Deadly Music) label, financed by Luke's parents. The album notes include many expressions of gratitude to their friends and relatives - "for fending off the inevitable groupies," for food, for "constant abuse and secret admiration," and for playing the Uilleann pipes. "JCB" - which reached Number One the week before Christmas last year before being knocked off the top slot by X Factor's Shayne Ward - became popular through the internet with the help of a cute cartoon video. It shows the small boy who narrates it riding with his father in a JCB through the pages of a school notebook, past other drivers and a friendly dinosaur. A new single, "Girls," has just been released, and has a cute video of its own - John and Luke, in fur hats, go camping in a tent pitched in a living room.

Gigs in Digs is John and Luke's way of matching their music to its traditional milieu. "For most of human history, folk music would have been played at home," says Luke. "It's only in our post-industrial society it seems strange. We think artists should be responsible for their own careers instead of signing a deal and handing their lives over to someone who's probably more interested in money than art."

The day of the show, I figure I had better prep the pugs I look after two days a week, Polly and her daughter, Minnie. Their owner has told me they keenly appreciate some kinds of music, so I try them on Dvorak, Duke Ellington, Jimmy Durante, Gluck, Puccini, and the score of House of Flowers. Nothing breaks their impersonation of two pugs waiting for a bus. I put on Nizlopi. They leave the room.

The rest of the day is spent moving furniture against the wall, preparing nutritious food (musicians, I know, expend a great deal of energy), and arranging floor cushions, hoping that at least some of my contemporaries, once down, will be able to get back up. The pugs are troubled - pugs hate change - and cling to each other, with lots of "What's got into her?" looks.

Luke and John, very sweet and friendly, arrive. Their very pretty groupies, one of them Luke's girlfriend, are respectable-looking and well-mannered. The boys unpack half a dozen bottles of water, unwrap the instruments from protective cases like Japanese sleeping bags, and start connecting cables and warming up. I am nervous at their proximity to the mantel ornaments, but, when John gets going, I see that he has allowed himself several inches of clearance. The pugs are wary, but not hostile.

The guests trickle in. They are the youngest I could muster, including two university students, but are still, I expect, a good deal older than the boys' usual audiences. When Luke encourages them to dance if they feel like it, and "shake the thing your mother gave you," the non-students look as if they are trying to remember what that was.

One listener, however, takes him at his word. As the guitar and the double bass begin to vibrate, Minnie rushes to the centre of the floor and throws herself about in a frenzy. Polly remains on the sofa but nods vigorously, pointing her ears forward and back and thrusting her tongue in and out. The other guests respond less physically but with distinct pleasure to "Start Beginning," and with even more to "Alive Again". "Write your stories," exhorts Luke, "your chest is burstin' with 'em. Let it go now, 'cause the world is thirsty for them."

"You can tell that boy is Irish," says my friend Sullivan. "He can really sing."

To his expressive light baritone, Luke adds a number of gestures: cupping one ear, thrusting his knees forward, and twisting his head at dramatic angles. I am not sure all of this is necessary, but his beseeching manner of addressing female listeners directly is, I can see, well received. John, though slapping and cuffing Catherine a bit, is a more serene presence, drawing from her a complex pattern of yearning sounds that weave around the vocal. When Luke sings, "Love bites just like a mad Alsatian", Catherine produces the voice of a displeased cat. John also provides percussion with the beatbox technique, making robust, resonant noises by inflating his cheeks and pushing his lips in and out. Luke, working hard, downs bottle after bottle of water.

The home concert is turning out to be much more enjoyable than I had dared hope. Luke's lyrics - sometimes drowned by the music on the record - are perfectly clear and give the listeners much to chew on. I had worried that the closeness might be embarrassing - that guests only a couple of feet from Luke and John might feel constrained to wear looks of rapt appreciation, but these seem to be occurring naturally. My own favourite is "Love Rage On", a bouncy number with a Latin sound and exuberant lyrics ("It's so original! Not in your pigeonhole!")

By the time we get to the fourth of their 10 numbers, everyone is deeply into Nizlopi, even if the predominantly English reserve gets in the way of participation. "This is a leaving song," Luke explains. "Your girlfriend leaves you, her sister wants to kill you, and her dad and everything. Everybody's completely miserable. But by the end of the song everybody's singing in harmony. From all of the manure that's been created by this misery, something will grow." To support this idea, he wants us to chorus, "It's the ground that will be replanted upon," but, when only a few ghost voices pipe up, he doesn't insist.

The pugs are sitting still now, but utterly rapt and hyperventilating. "They are playing their part well," says Luke. "We asked them before the show to breathe hard, and, as you can see..." The poignant new release, "Girls" ("some days sweet like honey, some days tart like Marmite"), with a backing that recalls a gently flowing stream, gets a warm response. Luke describes it as "a love letter written on the back of an envelope".

"We released this song just before Christmas, and it went mental," says Luke proudly, introducing the next number. The students, already fans of the JCB song, grin knowingly. "I'm Luke, I'm five, and my dad's Bruce Lee," Luke begins, "Driving round in his JCB." Despite the jaunty traffic sounds in the background (Luke and his dad are holding up everyone on the bypass), this is a poignant memory of innocence and a youthful illusion of invulnerability. When little Luke desperately wishes the vehicle could turn into a Tyrannosaurus Rex and annihilate the school bullies, I sense the empathy in the room.

For the last number, Luke urges his listeners to stand and dance. They shyly do the first, but no more. This may have something to do with my being unable to stop myself adding, "Carefully." There is no restraint, however, in the applause that signals everyone's sincere appreciation of this homespun hip-hop. The comments could have been scripted by the musicians themselves: "Engaging" and "refreshing" are heard a lot, and one guest says, "This is a wonderful alternative to the blandness of the commercial culture." My Polish friend says, "This reminds me of - who do I mean? It's a name like Charlie Chaplin." We finally arrive at "Janis Joplin." An enthusiastic old person says, "They're a bit like Van Morrison - but I like them better." One guest, enchanted by the pugs' reaction, announces her intention of smuggling her own small dog into concerts - "but she's rather old now, so I think I'll start with Bach." I pass round imitation champagne, and we drink a toast to Nizlopi - all but John, who is running a marathon for charity the next day.

There is a brisk trade in Nizlopi albums, and then the boys join their new admirers for meat, two veg, and ice cream. But this concert is itself a warm-up for the night-long jamboree that Luke and John have planned for their own friends. They pack up, hampered slightly by the pugs' unwillingness to let them go. Minnie has welded herself to John's trouser leg, a cuff of shiny black fur. He gently detaches her and gives her and Polly a goodbye pat. As befits a pug of mature years, Polly is philosophical. Minnie, however, is bereft.