Neon Neon – review

Village Underground, London

"Wear something red," instructs the ticket email. "Bring your favourite book, with a message written inside, to give away to a fellow comrade." Neon Neon's recent electro-pop album, Praxis Makes Perfect, hangs suspended between two unlikely poles: the power of literature and the milieu of postwar communism. It's a catchier spot than you might think – certainly, tonight their track Mid Century Modern Nightmare is revealed as possibly the most nagging ditty ever to contemplate an independent island state on Sardinia.

On the first of their three sold-out shows at London's Village Underground, the Welsh-Californian duo – Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals and electronic producer Boom Bip – and their live band are joined by actors from the National Theatre of Wales in a live, three-dimensional, album-length pop "video" in which the story of this intriguing album's subject – maverick Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli – is told in the round.

The Manic Street Preachers – Wales's go-to band for insurrectionist blether – have nothing on this. The high stage is made up of some Brobdingnagian shelving, on whose higher levels hardback books shudder when the rhythm section gets animated. Ancient Olivetti typewriters provide some of the percussion, as do Anglepoise lamps (the company is a sponsor). There's a dance routine involving Mao's Little Red Book. Another movement piece seems to imply torture by the CIA.

It was not always like this. The duo began with a concept album, 2008's Stainless Style, about a figure of hubristic maximalism, car designer John DeLorean, whose tale was told in sleek, 80s synth-form. DeLorean was larger than life; so was Feltrinelli. But the comparisons end there. Feltrinelli may have been born into a wealthy family, founding a publishing company, still extant today, involved in a great many works of world literature: Mao's Little Red Book, The Leopard by Lampedusa; most famously, Feltrinelli smuggled the manuscript of Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago out of Russia. But this son of privilege was a lifelong leftwinger; the kind of contrarian figure thrown up often in Italy (see also Gabriele D'Annunzio, Beppe Grillo).

You can see why Rhys found his story operatic. Feltrinelli's communist sympathies were sorely tested by Soviet opposition to Zhivago, and during the 60s and 70s he became a freelance internationalist mover and shaker, friendly with Fidel (with whom he played basketball) and Che (whom he tried to rescue from the CIA in Bolivia). In his darkest hour, the publisher is thought to have funded extremist groups responsible for terrorist acts during the Italian "years of lead" in which leftist splinter groups, neo-fascists, the Italian state and the CIA duked it out with Italian lives as their pawns.

It all makes for a deeply unconventional and rewarding gig. Neon Neon air most of the tracks from the Praxis album, interspersed with scenes from Feltrinelli's life, told through dialogue and projections, megaphone blasts and ersatz "bombs". It's immersive: you have to shift when the scenery does.

During the expository Doctor Zhivago, the audience are given the manuscript and told to hide it from the cold war-era Soviets who roam the crowd. "PASS IT ON," urges Rhys from the stage, via a placard straight out of Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues. (The Soviet goons' sense of menace is, perhaps, compromised slightly by decadent bourgeois hairstyles.) Hoops With Fidel finds the band essaying salsa rhythms, with a pretty corny "Fidel" chomping a smokeless cigar.

Coming to the event cold, Praxis might be little more than an opportunity to hear this cult band's aerated synth-pop while surrounded by vintage commie kitsch. But a surprising number of people do wear red and exchange books: I bring one about mafia women (another very Italian contradiction), and receive an illustrated introduction to Wagner in exchange.

There's a joyous encore of Stainless Style's stickiest moments – the enduring I Told Her on Alderaan and I Lust U – and a feeling that, with a bigger budget (say, one from the Manchester international festival) Praxis would be spreading the fun of maverick mid-20th-century Marxism to a much wider public. As it is, this band's nuanced grasp of the absurd slips a little at the end when the message becomes more partisan, with Occupy-style placards that say: "We are the 99%".

But nobody much minds. Instead people take turns having their picture taken with the one that says: "Stop going on the Daily Mail website, you know you do it, STOP IT."


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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