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gig reviews - 2011


 

Amplifier + Mojo Fury
9.12.11 - Islington O2 Academy

This was my first visit to the Islington Academy here in London, and an early showing thanks to the wonderland that is Propaganda that would follow the show. My pockets grumbled as I parted with too much money for my plastic pint, knowing full well a mass of sweaty students would be getting the same drink for under half the price in a few hours. But irrelevance! Hark, it’s time for a rock show, huzzah!

Before the main spectacle got underway there was just the one support band in the form of Mojo Fury - a Northern Irish quartet who seem to have come a long way since I was first introduced to them a little over a year ago. In comparison to those shows, supporting the now disbanded Oceansize, the band were now oozing exuberance. Their album had been out for a fair while and they had an arsenal of tunes up their sleeves to get the party started.

They opened with an instrumental track, that exemplified the set to come; ballsy offbeat riffs, a thumping bass tone, solid drums and synth. Indeed the first four tracks of the set were not taking from the debut album - but did include the fabulous ‘Grounds’ and the new ‘el’, the former of which darkly creeps out of a gentle quivering guitar lick and explodes into a big chorus. The other remaining new track was led by a keyboard melody through the verses and that, coupled with semi-rap vocals made the whole thing sound infinitely more Hilltop Hoods than Mojo Fury - but it wasn’t half bad regardless. But then, we returned to common ground with a scattering of album tracks. Firstly, ‘The Mann’ - and a messy intro soon finds its way to a gutsy rock track with the beat of an indie track but the grimy edge of industrial rock. This was followed by ‘Deep Fish Tank’, with all its disjointed wonderment, and then ‘We Should Just Run Away’ which despite lacking the choral backing vocals still wound up a great success. Approaching the end of the set, the applause was aplenty from a crowd who had clearly been impressed by this new young group - whose on-stage confidence contrasted strongly with the shy quartet I’d seen a year or so ago. They ended with another new track, which had something oddly punk-pop-ballady My Chemical Romance about it, possibly the weakest of the set, but still struggled to take the shine off of what had been an incredible performance.

Next up, and indeed the headlining act of this evening; Amplifier. The Manchester modern-proggers were back after many years away, following last years release of ‘The Octopus’, the self-recorded self-funded double album - an impressive feat by any means. But what tracks would they play? With a double album which averages around eight minutes a song and just an hour and a half to play, what would we be treated to? The band arrived on stage dressed in black shirts and black ties with a small white octopus symbol near the top. There’s something cool about a band uniform, isn’t there? A sense of order. A sense of, “we know what we’re doing, prepare yourselves.” Joining the Amplifier trio on guitars and backing vocals was Steve Durose, of previous Oceansize fame.

Sel Balamir took centre stage ready to open the set, gripping his guitar in an almost harpoon-like fashion - beginning with ‘Forever and More’, the final track from the latest album. The initial sound was a little disheartening; the guitar sound was thin and lifeless, the vocals were muffled, and the hectic drum intro wasn’t helping in any way shape or form. However, as soon as the bass dropped and everything fell into place, I was immersed. The contrast of sound was phenomenal - the deep rumbling, slightly flangey riffs that resonated so beautifully and the faint vocal harmonising. Quite something. This was followed by my favourite Amplifier track of all, ‘Motorhead’ from the debut album, and a couple more new tracks: ‘The Wave’ and ‘Interglacial Spell.

This was a band with years of experience under their belt, and the three or four years putting this album together was evident in their playing - one of the tightest live bands I have ever seen. You wouldn’t catch the front-of-stage musicians peering back to the drummer to see when he was going to smash the end or start of a section, they would just know. Two guitars picking intricate riffs simultaneously perfectly in time. That is professionalism you’d be hard pushed to beat. Steve Durose was very much included on stage as a fourth member of the band as opposed to widdling away in the wings as it were, and this was a Durose I hadn’t seen before. Grinning inanely, slowly wiggling away to the big riffs that, at the end of the day are oozing groove.

Following ‘Strange Seas of Thought’ from the second album were more new tracks; ‘The Octopus’, ‘White Horses at Sea/Utopian Daydream’, ‘Golden Ratio’, ‘Interstellar’ and ‘Sick Rose.’

“We never say London is the best night of the tour because, well, it never is. But this is the best night of the tour.”

There was no light show, but there didn’t need to be. Everyone in that room was just absorbing the fantastic sound and masterful musicianship. A generally older crowd, but one to be expected of a group labeled as modern progressive rock.

The set ended with ‘UFOs’ from the self-titled album, and the encore featured solely ‘Airbourne’ from the same release. An ending for the fans, and an ending that prompted a rupture of applause from an audience who gawped open mouthed and tried to piece together exactly what had happened in the past couple of hours.

Thom Curtis


Standard Fare + Nat Johnson & The Figureheads + Sport of Kings
18.11.11 - The Wilmington Arms, London

We arrived at the Wilmington Arms just as Sport of Kings kicked off their set; a delightful little venue with a mere 100 capacity in east central London. Opening with Free Jazz, a personal favourite from the charming new Logic House EP, Sport of Kings immersed the room in 21st Century yacht-rock. It was an interesting choice of opener as, it really stands out as being the best track on the EP. Regardless, the sound was fantastically similar to the record itself – smoother than Kate Moss's nether-regions although undoubtedly tighter. The tiny stage featured no less than seven musicians – singer/songwriter/guitarist Richard Kelly and a posse of keys, bass, drum, saxophone, trombone and trumpet. Now, I may have got this wrong, but I've a sneaky suspicion the other six members were session musicians and not part of the original line up. The recession is hitting everyone hard, allowing only one member to make the flight over from America! Not only did the other six look different to those featured in their new video (which is rather good), they were all studying sheet music throughout the set. But as I say, I could be wrong. Jet lag was apparently to blame for the lack of rapport, although a demure approach to crowd interaction is expected of such a genre. The remainder of the EP was included in the set; 1964, Preface and Some Histories, as well as one or two extra tunes – all in all an extremely pleasant repertoire of laid back catchy tracks that will get your head groove-a-bobbing whilst you're off cruising on your luxury yacht. The soothing vocals of Kelly coupled with the warm brass tones really does leave you struggling not to be seduced completely, and if that's what the group sound like when sleep deprivation is at play then, wow, a fully functional band would... well, I don't know what my ears would do.

Next up was Nat Johnson & The Figureheads – headed by a lass of previous Monkey Swallows the Universe fame. This was however, just a selection of the new group's material from their début album. Truth be told, the album itself hadn't really won me over but there was something significantly more gripping about its live presentation. There was just that added splash of balls that seemed to give the songs a great deal more direction. There's certainly talent there though, Nat Johnson (who had a slightly LaVigne look about her, facially) has a capable voice although not particularly powerful – but for someone as slight as her, I'd probably have been quite scared if she had some window-smashing pipes on her. All in all, pleasant indie rock that certainly is only improved in a live setting. Not bad at all.


And finally, the headline act, drumming up support ahead of their forthcoming album release: it's Standard Fare. And if the 2010 album The Noyelle Beat is anything to go by, it's going to be a cracker. It's an absolute winner, heartfelt indie at its very best, and we were lucky enough to be drowned in its beauty tonight. Vocals are shared between a male guitarist (with a great guitar tone!) and a female bassist. The band are completed with the drummer – and there's something extra impressive about a mere three members smashing out some fabulous tunes. Musically, it's gripping and rhythmically insurmountable, perfectly simple and straight-forward; a beautiful bedroom indie composition with the punchy finish of a Jack Penate hit. Lyrically, it's brutally honest and easy to relate to, and quite impossible not to sing along to. All these qualities are exemplified by the quite fantastic Philadelphia and the astounding Fifteen; both of which were included in the (reasonably short) set. The room were gripped, everyone present having their own private boogie and I for one was well and truly won over by this every-so-special trio. A perfect end to a rather enjoyable evening.

Thoma Curtis


Digitalism
4.11.11 - The Cockpit

Having turned into something of a Cockpit regular this month, I wasn’t really expecting things to get going until at least 9pm, so wandering in at around half 8 seemed like a good idea. . . German ultra-punctuality over-ruled this though and we at first thought that there was a surprisingly talented support act. We soon realised that the pretty lights and deep beats belonged to Digitalism themselves and felt betrayed by our own tardiness, but not to be defeated, we set to work at once…

The crowd had already turned some initial feet tapping into that slow, swaying pre-dance movement, as the drummer was making full use of his kick drum and the beardy Ismail Tüfekçi (on keyboard) rocked away with enthusiasm. Two screens flashed up the familiar cubist heart-shape in bright colours and a mini city-scape of lighting towers blinked along the stage edge. The Cockpit space was disappointedly open though; the city streets outside being empty beforehand. People presumably had packed out the parks and other outdoor places to watch a different sort of lighting display, with less rhythmic explosions of sound. A bouncy guitar strum signalled the start of ‘I want I want’ with Jens (Moelle’s) vocals causing divergent opinions again. I enthused to my literary assistant that I was pleased to hear such a strong voice, and he replied that Jens’ tonality would make Liam Gallagher wince.

Perhaps there had been other latecomers, or maybe it was the rolling bass going through them, but the crowd was definitely less sparse and more lively now. Looking around, it seemed that half of them were hyper trendy teens, and the rest were aging refugees from the Nu-Rave/Electroclash era. Already we were losing any definition between tracks as Jens busily tweaked and slid from one into another, mixing between uplifting house crescendos and hard techno beats. Eventually it was time for everyone’s hands in the air as the delicate ‘Two Hearts’ opening broke through.

The crowd didn’t need any help by now, and the band were clearly enjoying themselves, following on by treating us all to some legendary cowbell action. Hard industrial noises broke through next and screeched into ‘Reeperbahn’, which to me sounds like someone from the Prodigy finally grew up. A handful seemed to be a little frightened of the Aryan Keith Flint and wandered off but only to miss ‘Idealistic’, which was heralded in by some big hand clapping from crowd and band alike.

Not stopping for breath, the big beats pushed on with drums and synths reminding me of New Order, through into Zdarlight’s compressed snares and spiralling electro. Jens shouted to the crowd about having the biggest party ever in Leeds, which couldn’t have put more smiles on faces than us beating Man U again. Trancey undertones then led us into a big bass build up and ‘Stratosphere’, which got folk throwing a few shapes for the fun of it, before rising electro took us relentlessly to ‘Circles’ and left us shouting ‘LEEDS LEEDS LEEDS’ in the dark…

My literary assistant claims to have spotted some people protesting by sitting on the floor at this point: everyone was certainly concerned that this was it for the night. Appearing to take pity on us, the band reappeared punching the air to play ‘Blitz’ and appropriately enough for the jumping crowd, ‘Pogo’. By now, I felt like I’d had a work-out and Jens was also busy unsticking his T-shirt before he bowed out, leaving a slightly bewildered but happy crowd behind.

Ok, so they’re not as stunningly scary as the Prodigy, or as French polished as Justice, but they have enough bass and electro beats to make you move, sufficient vocals to uplift you, and an industrial repetition that will wear you out. Their strange mixture of followers echoes their inbetweener style of music, and although it might be quite raw at points, I like their almost back-to basics approach. I’m not sure if people know what to expect from Digitalism, but I do think that you need warning that you might enjoy it a little more than you might think.

Reviewed by Amy Chadfield with assistance from Dr Chris Martin (and no, he bears no relation to Coldplay or boots before you ask)


The Icarus Line
15.10.11 - Brainwash Festival, Brudenell Social Club, Leeds

I liked The Icarus Line from the moment I heard about them. That's right. I mean that. They always sounded cool. They had the gang thing, with their Red & Black Attack; Their singer always looked like he was four days into some kind of bender and their (now elsewhere) guitar player wanted to fight you while playing music you liked.

Why wouldn't that be great?

Thank goodness they sounded like they said they did!

Another thing I always liked about them was their “unless you are the Rolling Stones, you load your own gear.” approach to music. Especially as tonight it leads to Joey Cardamone setting up his microphone and effects pedals, turning around, walking off stage, the band coming on and then Joey returning, but with his shirt off.

After a pretty lengthy time away and an almost complete line-up change, I was still stoked to get to see them. I wasn't that apprehensive because I'd already heard the new record and it sounded, in the best way, like they always have: angry, quick and all from the hips.

Saturday's brainwash line-up was mostly math-rock, do you make The Icarus Line headline after that? Is that the crowd they deserve? No, It isn't. On Saturday, they played the wrong room. The Icarus line are a band with a bona fide frontman. A band with songs that make you want to go very very fast. They are a rock and roll band. They were the first time I heard them and they still are.

I thoroughly enjoyed their set of fast rock and roll, from the start, to the cover of The Flaming Groovies' Slow Death, to the very end.

They were raucous and deserved more of the same from the crowd. That they didn't get it was a shame, and not their fault.

After the show, Joey Cardamone was kind enough to answer some questions. He is different to how I remember, only in as much that this time he was sober. I enjoyed him correcting me, that The Eagles of Death Metal opened for The Icarus Line. That is who I wanted to see. Someone protective of their band.

I spoke to Joey Cardamone about how things had changed since they were last touring and releasing records. His response was that they were still able to make their way, and they were incredibly happy about that, but they (or perhaps he) knew that while they were mostly the same, some things were different. They weren't trying to make perfect Rock and Roll and also BE Rock and Roll. They were just trying to make perfect Rock and Roll.

I didn't mind that answer.

I was told that it's great to still live a life on the road, that for him, it's a fulfilling existence. When he isn't on the road that's just life and stopping being poor and other things. (though he was quick to point out that parts of off-road life are good too.)

I was left with the sort of quote I wanted.

Joey Cardamone “I'm just an animal.”

I like Rock and Roll.

Their touring cycle is now over, you can't go and see The Icarus Line for a while. But when you can, you definitely should.

Christopher Carney


This Frontier Needs Heroes + Manclub Babywoman + Zachary Cale
1.9.11 - The Windmill, Brixton

Brixton's Windmill has that strange claustrophobic feeling: brushing alongside the bar to get to the stage, if you stop for a moment perhaps you breath in some of the sweat and toil which must have forged part of its history … it's not a bad setting for folk music in its purest form, a place of musical graft. No problem fighting my way through the bar tonight, a pity for the artists present who deserve fuller support. I must admit my friends and I were attracted to the gig by the promise of Cate Le Bon. The Welsh freakfolk-psychedelic songstress, who was advertized along with New York-based artists Zachary Cale and This Frontier Needs Heroes along with British duo Mancub Babywoman, unfortunately had to pull out due to illness.

So with some disappointment and trepidation we approached the stage and were greeted with the sobering guitar atmospherics of folk troubadour Zachary Cale. It felt slightly subdued at first until I realized it's that 'pin drop' sound when an artist genuinely has an audience under his spell. Cale goes through the motions of introducing himself, a singer-songwriter from Brooklyn, New York, but shuffles about uncomfortably and it's clear that for this guy his music does most of the talking. He takes his cue from the open tuning of guitarists like John Fahey and Bert Jansch who often played about with atmospherics to augment their folk and blues tunes. Something of the craftsman about Zachary Cale then, songs performed with that nasally voice characteristic of people like Tom Petty and Dylan, but backed with beautiful steel-strung guitar sonics. Folk music has that strange ability to shock and surprise ... I was truly gobsmacked! I've often wondered what it must have been like to see Dylan in Greenwich village in that iconic moment, or a Woodie Guthrie or Hank Williams concert, something to savour like that? Cale's set featured many of the songs on his latest album Noise Of Welcome, including the memorable 'Blake's Way' and equally beautiful 'Day For Night', shades of Dylan's Blood On The Tracks/'Tangled Up In Blue' period, but also the excellent 'Eye For An Eye' from 2008 album Walking Papers. Cale crops up in his homeland working with many local artists and the latest record is a collaboration with a number of these. It shows a great maturity in a singer-songwriter of such lean years, but recollection of the music on this night was as a series of passing moods. The closest comparison you could make to an artist like Cale is Kurt Vile, but that doesn't really do justice to the former, more of a nuts-and-bolts folk artist. Would he have plugged his guitar in with Dylan, I wonder? Hard to imagine, and I forgot to ask him later in the bar ...

Mancub Babywoman could be mistaken for a novelty boy-girl duo from Manchester, which probably wasn't helped by some of the comically clumsy elements onstage, as the band struggled to find their tempo. I've never seen Sheffield's Slow Club, but imagine they look pretty similar, a guy picking his guitar with with musical partner providing Emmylou-type accompaniment, often with just a backing vocal or simple drum. But I found myself enjoying the band's set. The guitar on opener 'A Little Too Much' does sound ... a little too much like the classic Fleetwood Mac 'Never Going Back Again', but the band crack on with some neat tunes like 'Baby Don't Wait', with it's odd ghostlike harmonies in the middle where we get an odd infusion of psychedelia before heading back into safer territory. 'Jumbling Tower' is even more confessional, pace is slow, you're not even sure if they'll get to the end of it. In the end, I found it was over all too quickly :)

This Frontier Needs Heroes are a deceptively good folk duo from Brooklyn, New York. Let's say straight off they're brother and sister Brad and Jessica Lauretti, but put that to one side as it attracts unwanted attention, nobody needs to apologize for not being the White Stripes etc. They're actually something like Neil Young's American Stars'N'Bars, not corporate America but the 'other' American Dream, with Easy Rider and Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris scraping together a buck or two, writing about life, love … loss, simple but important things, before we step out onto that lonely highway again, land of the free!

It's not bad either, Brad's got a rare emotion in his voice, elements of Neil Young could always make a grown man cry, and Laura brings a steady musical partnership so there's the makings of a great band here, but they seemed a bit awkward on stage at The Windmill, possibly full of warm-up gig nerves? I found the banter a bit strange and strained as they no doubt tried to settle down. Rock'n'roll often thrives on sordidness, so it maybe a bit awkward for a brother and sister duo, but there are enough good songs on their latest self-funded album The Future to keep the audience interested. 'Space Baby' is a real gem:

Space Baby … send them off to Jupiter all by themselves

There's nothing left on earth to do
We polluted all our kisses too
Miles of piles lie there wasted
There's no one to take care of you
So we send them off to a little ...
The stars ain't that sugary

Space Baby … send them off to Jupiter all by themselves

I got tired of yelling
So the people just blew up instead
They got tired of living, now they're dead
They took the last space shuttle
Don't forget your bottle
Sorry we didn't do better

Space Baby … send them off to Jupiter all by themselves

It'll probably take you twenty years
How about just one last ...
Hopefully you will hear our warnings
Good luck read a book to pass the time
You want to know where we went wrong
So you can sing a different song

There are some Everly Brother harmonies, a mix of spacey ballads and some Alt. Country uptempo numbers. 'Key West' and 'Calamity Jane', both from the album, are at the country end of their oeuvre, and were standouts in the show tonight. Later on, brother and sister were joined by full-on band, but it did feel rather like a warm-up for something bigger ... the next day they were off to the 'End Of The Road' festival in Dorset. Possibly there's a concept here with touring legs. It's hardly 2 guys on a mission, but with such a crazy mixed-up kind of world, there's probably never been a better time for a couple of free-spirited Americans trapsing around recession-hit Europe with their own homegrown music, mending a few fences here and there. This Frontier truly does need heroes!

Matthew Haddrill


Anita Wardell
18.8.11 - Pizza Express, Dean Street, London

"I gotta right to sing the blues
I gotta right to feel low down
I gotta right t' hang around down around the river
A certain gal in this ol' town
Keeps draggin' my poor heart around
All I see for me is misery"
(by Harold Arlen & Ted Koehler)

Pizza Express on Dean Street (aka The Jazz Club Soho) is no ordinary pizza parlour. Just a stone's throw from the legendary Ronnie Scott's, over the years this club has also featured some of the best of jazz, both 'old' and 'new'; a young Amy Winehouse, for example, and more recently, the excellent Rokia Traore. Tonight's singer Anita Wardell can take her rightful place among the panthion, with a foot in both camps it seems.

As the saying goes, if you laid all the songs with ‘blues’ in the title end-to-end, you’re hardly likely to reach a conclusion ... ‘Kinda Blue’, the latest album by jazz and scat singing virtuoso Wardell, doesn’t look very inspiring on paper, but every song tells its own story and sonically it's a collection of blues and jazz nuggets! Anita hails from Adelaide but is now based in London, and on the strength of tonight's performance, South Australia's loss is definitely England's gain! She starts the evening off in relatively upbeat mood, with the Vicki Silvers standard ‘Learning The Blues’ and follows it with a string of classics whisked off the latest album. It's not like she's short of a song or 2, in less than 10 years, Wardell has put together a repertoire of material consisting of no less than 6 CDs, along with many other collections and guest appearances with different artists. Ms Wardell is a hive of musical activity, but hey, tonight it's the blues! There's Rogers and Hart’s ‘Little Girl Blue’, a little more sanguine, but when the mood switches to Bobby Troup and Leah Worth’s timeless epic ‘The Meaning Of The Blues’, and it's hard not to shed a tear, actually more like cry me a river time ... Luckily we have time to reflect, with ‘Parker’s Mood’ raising the tempo again, bebop and swing, dusting us off and delivering us to a different place by the interval.

So a rich slice of jazz on show in the first half of the evening, giving Wardell the chance to show off the impressive vocal range which made her 2006 BBC Jazz Awards winner, and the stellar band of musicians who accompany her, known as The AW Quartet, including her current musical collaborator Robin Aspland on piano, are given the chance to stretch their musical legs a bit. She closed the first half of the evening with an excquisite latin jazz number, which I couldn't catch the title of (nor the composer), apologies ... you know who you are?!

The second half was more low key and free form. More scat, more vocalese (basically, scat with made up words) and a whole lot more swing! Was it the Django Reindhart classic 'Limehouse Blues' where singer and band just go utterly crazy, very different from the version everyone knows from The Singing Detective, a rollicking good time had by all? Although most of Wardell's songs are well known jazz and blues standards, the second half gives the band chance to open up and improvize, and later on pay their respects to some of the singer's own arrangements, which she delivers with aplomb and general modesty, emphasizing the band's role in their interpretation.

My only quibble with these 'jazz-meisters' would be that if you're gonna name an album (and evening!) 'Kinda Blue', you can't really miss out Miles! Where was he, I didn't hear anything by Miles Davis?! I went with the idea that the evening was going to be a tribute to Miles ... then became enthralled by all the other music on show. So a lesson in the blues then, from a singer who's technically a cut above the rest, and even if the wine going to my head wasn't as good as the pizza, Pizza Express on Dean Street has delivered some tasty jazz again!

Matthew Haddrill


Trembling Bells + Pengilly’s + Trumpets of Death
30.8.11 - Brudenell Social Club, Leeds

After having unexpectedly caught Trembling Bells live in March this year, when they supported the Unthanks at the Howard Assembly Rooms in Leeds, music from all three of their fine albums has formed a large part of the soundtrack to my summer, to the extent that another chance to catch them live was one of three very compelling reasons to travel all the way to the idyllic, Doune the Rabbit Hole festival held outside Sterling in Scotland, in early June.

The other two reasons to spend three days camped by a salmon river north of the border, were an opportunity to see Mike Heron, from the legendary and incomparable Incredible String Band, and a deep desire to hear the lyrical poetry and astounding guitar playing of Alasdair Roberts, but those are two other, and wholly different stories.

All of which is a rather long winded way of saying that this is not an unbiased review. Aging fan boy that I am, I was hovering with my beautiful lady outside the doors of the Brudenell, clutching ticket numbers 1 & 2, while all three of the evening’s bands were still running through their sound-checks. Which in the end proved fortuitous, because I managed to catch snatches of lyrics, sea-shanties and murder ballads, from some of the numbers performed again later by Trumpets of Death, which I didn’t manage to make out over the dark cacophony of their proper set, and so I had at least a sense of the content of some of their songs.

Leeds based Trumpets of Death had also played the Doune festival, but despite strong recommendations from various people we hadn’t managed to catch more than impressive snatches of their racket, drifting over the warm summer air, very late, while lying befuddled in our tent, so I was eager to hear them perform, as it were, for the first time.

The trio, Ben Wetherill, (on guitar, keyboards and lead vocals), Karl D'Silva, (bass and saxophone), and Laura Wetherill, (synthesiser and occasional bass), had, for me, resonances of bands like Coil and Current 93 I’d followed from the mid-eighties, shades of Faust, art-rock, maybe David Bowie from the ‘Low’ and ‘Heroes’ albums, but that’s not to say that they sounded in any way derivative, especially given I knew, from the sound-check, that their songs were rooted, albeit obliquely, in the English folk tradition. Dark folk indeed. Catch them again when they play a couple more dates at the Brudenell in late September and October.

I didn’t quite know what to make of the six piece, Pengilly’s, also Leeds based, who came across, especially in stark contrast to the moody drones and raucous textures of the Trumpet’s, like a group of musically promiscuous and incredibly proficient, eclectic, enthusiastic puppies, their lead singer almost breathless with excitement as he introduced each song. I suspect that, jaded old man that I am, they were just way to cute for me.

Trembling Bells are an extremely difficult band to pigeonhole. While clearly wearing some of their wide range of influences on their sleeves; folk, psychedelia, renaissance music, garage, there is a uniqueness to their sound that is, for me, simply breathtaking when they hit their stride. Coupled with the poetic, lyrical complexity of Alex’s song writing, it seems an act of silliness to say they sound like anyone else. Forget the limited and lazy, folk-rock comparisons trotted out repeatedly by the broadsheets, that’s only a small part of the story.

Opening with just Alex Neilson, (founder member, drummer, vocalist and songwriter), and Lavinia Blackwell, (vocals, arrangements, guitar and keyboards), delivering a suburb rendition of the acapella, ‘Seven Years A Teardrop’ from the band’s first album, with Simon Shaw, (bass and backing vocals) and Mike Hastings, (lead guitar, harmonica and backing vocals) joining them on stage for a stunning version of the title track from the same album ‘Carbeth’. After that, overcome with excitement and forgetting to note down song titles, my recollection of the running order becomes a little sketchy.

With a set that drew heavily on their third and last, album, ‘The Constant Pageant’, but with many of the songs sounding heavier, more honed by taking them on the road, this is a band at the peak of their powers, not afraid to take chances, and with some of the numbers sounding, if anything, even better than the recorded versions.

Mike Hastings has matured into something of a ‘guitar hero’, his playing sparse and emotive, more feel than flash, the perfect complement to Lavinia’s unique, soaring and powerful voice, and underpinning everything, Simon’s heroic, thunder and Alex’s truly remarkable percussion.

Being originally a Leeds lad born and bred, now based in Glasgow, Alex had various generations of Neilson family members in attendance amongst the sparse audience and at one point dedicated a superb cover of ‘Duchess’, a Scott Walker song, to his no doubt proud Mother. The other cover of the evening was a song by Robin Gibb, and while I didn’t manage to catch the title, not being that familiar with the Bee Gees oeuvre, it sounded fine nonetheless. The band also showcased a stunning new number, destined for their soon to be recorded fourth album. May it bring them the larger audiences they surely, truly deserve, along with enough fame and riches to save them all from the necessity of taking day jobs in these unkind times.

My abiding memory of the evening is of the band half way through a full pelt version of the cacophonous and hallucinatory, ‘Otley Rock Oracle’, with Lavinia ululating wildly, as if channelling ‘Angel Blake’, (a character played by Linda Hayden in the, movie, ‘Blood On Satan’s Claw’ from the seriously, politically incorrect 1970’s) with the whole band playing like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Another acappella encore, from Alex and Lavinia, followed by a final number by the whole band in perfect form, reminds me that it’s possible to sing like angels but, as they say, the devil still has all the best tunes. As a recent convert, I am happy to proselytise – so, go out and buy all three albums, and catch them next time they come around. Trembling Bells are simply one of the best bands on the planet.

Bill Howe


Thee Faction
13.8.11 - Blow Up, London

The Blow Up Club is a little frayed around the edges these days. DJ Paul Tunkin is still ringing in the changes with his legendary club nights, although he’s had to down-size from The Laurel Tree in Camden, a club graced by the likes of Suede, Pulp and Elastica and other luminaries of 90s Britpop back in the day, to a modest weekly residency at The Alley Cat, on Denmark Street in Charing Cross, extending into the wee small hours. An intimate sort of Tin Pan Alley venue, actually close to where the Stones recorded their legendary first album in 1964 at Regent Sounds Studios, Blow Up epitomizes British pop culture of the last 40 years: rise-fall-rise again … and then who knows? The Alley Cat still invites us to enter the world inspired by ‘swinging sixties’ London, Antonioni's first feature and David Hemmings snapping Sara Miles, and then legging it through London's nightclubs to bump into the likes of 60s luminaries Yardbirds and The Who along the way, all adding to the ‘cinema verite’ of the era.

‘Nostalgia’ socialism band Thee Faction advised everybody on their website to enjoy their evening in this engaging part of town, then drop in for a 10.30pm start to their set, before Tunkin invites everyone to dance the night away. Right, so fight your way through all the general hubbub of Charing Cross Road at that time of night, and then fight back your skepticism for a band extolling the virtues of good old-fashioned Marxism-Leninism! All their pre-gig publicity pointed to a night of heavy politics, so I thought perhaps the place would be awash with political agitation, people selling Socialist Worker or skinheads picketing the place, just like in the 80s with Thatcher and the Miners? My fears were unfounded, the band took to the stage and launched blisteringly into the first of their R&B numbers. I think it was opener ‘366’, from their promising album Up The Workers! The pace hardly let up for the next hour or so.

For the uninitiated, Thee Faction play a mix of blues, rock and R&B, with a call to return to the ‘good old days’ of left-wing politics, when left was left and right was right and we all knew about it! Something like you'd expect Dr Feelgood to sound like if they'd ever met Karl Marx. The sound in the club is quite battering and intense, the place is relatively small and the stage barely fit for the 6 or so musicians so they have to line up in a military-like formation. But they’ve judged it about right, the place needs the intensity that the band give it. They have a pair of ‘non-sexist’ dancers but you have to move really forward to see them properly, limbs flying everywhere in the crowd, with flashing lights and various bits of communist regalia projected behind the band, a lot of red I seem to remember ... I’m not sure how seriously we’re meant to take it all but, politics aside, when you settle back and enjoy the music, you notice songs like ‘Ready?’ and ‘Deft Left’ from the album are just quality pub rock, and ‘Customer’ although it’s so clichéd you could wash your face in it, has a real energy and drive. The place calms down as Kassandra Krossing, the band’s backing singer and keyboard player, promises that communism will surely work this time if we give it a chance (the song ‘Only’), backed by the night’s guest player, actually Ivan “Chuck” Chandler, Dusty Springfield's keyboard player and 'musicologist'. Thee Faction play like they mean it, which is a bit worrying, but they could certainly give bands 20 years their junior a run for their money. Let’s cut to the chase here: these guys have all been round the block (a few times!), so their strength is really in their playing. They’re a cracking live band and I can see their logic: if you want somebody to believe the unbelievable, it’s better to sound like Dr Feelgood than the Gang Of Four. And anyway it was nice of Billy Brentford, singer with the band, to buy me and my friend a drink just before the show, a real gent you are sir … erm, sorry, I mean comrade!

The Guardian said Thee Faction were taking the government down one song at a time, but it’s hard to see much evidence of that on the strength of tonight’s show. The place was barely half-full which was disappointing, to say the least, for such a good live band. Let’s hope word gets around, I guess the left needs to dream a bit more … maybe tone down the politics guys, ‘cos it can be a bit scary! But where next for London, Blow Up or blow out? Thee Faction’s nostalgia politics may be serious, or it may be a joke, but it leaves me wondering where we are all heading …?

Matthew Haddrill


Laetitia Sadier + Alan Lacroix + Alex Monk
3.8.11 - Cafe Oto, Dalston, London

Cafe Oto is on the trail of the esoteric and avant-garde again, with 3 London-based artists who seem to have little in common except perhaps bonds of friendship and a need to get their creative output heard at the present time.
First up, musician and producer, Alex Monk, creater of ambient spaces and moods. An artist like Monk is always likely to stretch to the limit the ‘vocabulary’ of the hapless reviewer. He draws on all sorts of influences, from the medieval music of Hildegard of Bingen as reflected in many current day freak-folk artists like Tara Burke aka Fursaxa, but also the ambient sounds of people like Eno, synthrock and loops that were so prevalent in the German Progressive Rock movement of the 70s ('Krautrock'), and the classical motifs, chanting and drones of people like Moondog and Laurie Anderson. I don’t know what he eats for breakfast!? Monk released his second full-length album earlier this year The Safety Machine which is currently available on vinyl and digital format and can be purchased from his website: http://alexandermonk.com/

The live set featured a lot of the music from this album, which created some very special atmospheres around the café. Monk will often put drums and vocals on loops and keep feeding sounds over the top. There's a synthesizer which creates a dark ‘gothic’ organ sound, but then he'll throw in a bit of guitar which lightens things up a little. A song like 'Masks Survive' starts out like freak-folk and could easily be early Pink Floyd, but then it whoops and hollers with strange chants and echo effects, stops off briefly as a light pastoral symphony before returning with chanting and bells which take it up another sonic notch or two (and no hallucinogenic drugs were consumed on the premises!). Hard to identify the pieces individually, as I need a greater knowledge of the album, but 'Cabiria' and 'Light Separation' were also there gleaming and bright. The set ebbed and flowed thoughout, but occasionally hiccuped as the artist struggled with all the effects pedals, quite ambitious to pull off a sound like this in front of an audience. Might be worth adding a visual element to enhance the rich sonics for future performances, and bring in some extra musicians to ease the guy's load, Mike Oldfield never had this sort of problem!

Next up, the crystalline guitar sounds of Alan Lacroix, probably more for the experimental purist than the casual observer, presenting his latest work Cycle No. 1, a set of 24 pieces for the 12-string guitar. Lacroix takes his cue from the open tuning of guitarists like John McLaughlin, John Fahey and Bert Jansch in the 60s and 70s, and more recently probably inspired by James Blackshaw's experiments with Indian ragas. It’s that “early morning sunrise with coffee” feeling (ever been camping before?), the 12 string guitar always brings rich sweeps of colour and texture, creating some beautiful ambient moods. However, one wonders if it rather fell on deaf ears even among Cafe Oto's appreciative audience? A live event, particularly one late evening, alcohol being consumed, hearts and minds (and feet!) becoming restless for the main act, hard to keep people's attention under these circumstances … Lacroix also played the set of instrumentals without any talk, so my attention rather wandered and I went outside to grab some air. Magically, the music followed me into the cool evening and I got a true glimpse of 'ambience'! You can hear parts of Lacroix's work Cycle No. 1 on his MySpace page, and hear his style of playing to good effect on a recent collaboration with former Sneaker Pimps singer Kelli Ali on her version of 'All The Pretty Little Horses':
http://www.myspace.com/alanlacroix
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Ynqbc7Vb0Y

And so we come on to the final stage of the evening, with what seems to mark a new chapter in Stereolab singer Laetitia Sadier's career. Fair to say that she's had her share of sadness and tragedy in recent years, with the death of bandmate Mary Hansen in 2002 a huge blow, and one which Stereolab never fully recovered from, and the inevitable hiatus since 2009 has no doubt left a creative vacuum to fill. Sadier’s response has always been to busy herself with collaborative work: her side project Monade deserved more recognition, and 2010 solo album The Trip showcases some neat new songs which she recorded with elements of Monade, but also with Rebecca Gates, April March and the sublime Richard Swift. She clearly still has the creative itch, and is searching for the right vehicle again for her music, although tonight's set at Cafe Oto is very much a solo performance, a sort of 'confessional' with just singer and guitar.

Sadier concentrates mainly on the material from her album, with acoustic renditions of US psych-folk duo Wendy & Bonnie's 'By The Sea' (“my hit”, she quipped!) and 'The Million Year Trip' both highlights. The latter is actually a song dedicated to the memory of her sister who committed suicide just before the recording of the record. There are also some bits of new material and lyrics which she adds to the set, but the mood is quite relaxed and low-key, she knows her audience well and they love her. Incidentally, there's quite a lot to admire in this artist's tenacity, and the solo performances are an interesting foil to those who found Sadier's hypnotic vocals occasionally a bit insipid and robotic (always at odds with the message behind the Stereolab songs, often very ‘warm’ and emotional).

I did wonder about the wisdom of playing songs in French to a largely English audience. Sadier has always sung in both languages and recorded songs in each, but the lyrics seem to be taking on a growing importance in her oeuvre, so how to cross over and make sure your audience stays with you? Translation is a tricky thing to negotiate, perhaps they could project up English translations (and vice versa in France). She may lose a part of her audience if they are monoglots like me!

So a lot of warmth in the performances of all the artists tonight and a responsive 'home' audience. Laetitia Sadier has clearly developed and established herself as an artist in her own right, and 'Gentlewoman' of the world (as she put it!), it’s just a question of where to go from here? The sky is probably the limit, but I bet most of the audience were wondering when she'll be back with a band …

“I lost someone precious
In the depth of my lining
At the heart of my loss
My little sister's voice
Forever muted, inaudible, inert

She went on a million year trip
And left everything behind
Her skin, her hairs
She has a long way to travel

So I will open my heart
And let the pain run along
As there is no point in holding on

Precious little sister I open my heart
Pour out the painful laughter
Which can only help to heal
And help me to fly you away

To take off the worlds
We've lost days
Here I hope you will find solace
That you needed

Forever, there's so many
Dear little sister
I let you go, take the pain with you
And throw it in a [Incomprehensible”

(‘The Million Year Trip’ by Laetitia Sadier, from The Trip)


Thomas White, Nick Hudson & Tandy Hard
30.7.11 - Studio Ping Pong, Brighton

Great music springs from wanderlust, one thinks of George Harrison’s spiritual journey in India in the 60s and 70s which infused the Beatles later recordings, and indeed Harrison’s solo opus All Things Must Pass in 1970. Thomas White’s latest solo project Yalla is more modest in scale than its predecessor 2010's Maximalist, but a recent trip to Egypt has spawned a nice breezy collection of lo-fi recordings made with just a travel guitar, which explore that sense of ‘otherness’ which comes from being somewhere different:

“Took a trip out to see a friend
Don't even know if I'll be back again
The sun beats down on desert climes
And fallen leaves

Took a trip out to god knows where
Don't even know when I'll be back again
I miss Brighton town cold leaden brown
All the fallen leaves

Took a trip out to see a friend
Don't even know if I'll
The sun beats down on desert ground
And fallen leaves”

('All The Fallen Leaves' by Thomas White, from Yalla)

The music for Yalla must have flooded out of White's subconscious, so the artist best known for his work with Electric Soft Parade quickly posted it up on YouTube with dreamlike images, prior to its official release, and has been playing a series of low-key concerts around his home town of Brighton to promote the work. Artists like this have many musical ‘sides’ to explore, and after all the hurly burly of the Electric Soft Parade, which often sounded like a history lesson in British pop of the last 40 years, it's nice to see Thomas and his brother Alex re-shaping their careers with the help of the locally vibrant Brighton music scene. And local is where I found Thomas White last Saturday night, performing the latest of his 'Yalla' concerts, this time in so-called 'Club Ping Pong', a friend's home recording studio in downtown Hove. The set was acoustic, just 2 guitars and an entourage of friends singing as a choir, all decked out in colourful tunics, evocative of some sort of Arab mafraj or bustling suq. It was a nice evening, but with all the eastern promise, the music on show tonight was really something akin to the folk of Crosby, Stills and Nash's classic first 2 albums, or Simon & Garfunkel and George Harrison. It's a bit of a musical trek from ESP, but a nice diversion … and he shared the bill with two other very promising local artists.

First up was Tandy Hard (Andrew 'Wills' Willis) who has an ear for melody, but more crucially an Edwyn Collins'/Orange Juice-like drollness and slightly sardonic narrative … or is it straight back to 'Jesus' and 'Pale Blue Eyes', from the Velvet Underground's eponymous 1969 album? You don't get tired of music when there's a basic honesty behind it. Nick Hudson has an almost overpowering musical presence, which he keeps under wraps as he goes through his repertoire of pyschedelia, folk and wonderful orchestrations … with just a guitar! He's clearly the modern-day troubadour, with songs heading off in different directions but all coming back to central themes: love, loss and cruelty, or “falling from different heights” as the singer put it! Hard not to feel you're in the presence of something great and wonderful, worthy of further inspection, the most obvious reference-point probably being Scott Walker. Ears around the room pricked up, even when he stalled with some of the songs. 'My Antique Dead', 'Nocturne' and 'Idiot Song' all have a special resonance, apologies that I can't do justice to the music in this paltry review.

Thomas White and his band played the whole of Yalla right through without stopping for applause, a useful lesson in reclaiming the album in times of cherry-picking the best toons. 'All The Fallen Leaves' kicks the set off, its simple honesty draws a veil over some of the cliches: when we're a long way from home we miss it most! 'I'll See Her Again' sounds eerily familiar, maybe something of the first CSN studio album, with that haunting picture of the building which was demolished soon after? There are travelogue reflections on “The delicious chaos of Cairo”, but oddly the music sounds more like 'Mrs Robinson' and Simon & Garfunkel set to images of the Egyptian capital. ‘Ocean Green’ is an album (and live) highlight for me, along with 'King Of The Kingdom', both with the kind of open tuning which gives the guitar that rich 'sunrise' crystalline tone. Put that with some Beach Boy harmonies provided by White's band of singers and a Monkees pop sensibility, by the time we reach fade-out track 'The English Sargasso', Yalla has injected a little bit of sunshine back into our lives … when I mentioned to a journalist outside the venue that I thought the it was all a bit hippie, I got a volley of abuse, but for music 'hippie' isn't insulting, my friend!

“Gave me just what I want and I don't want it now, I just don't want it now
Put me in a box and told me find a way out
I just can't figure how when all I need is in the trees
So why do you lie in the street? The world is spinning
How's lying in the street gonna help, I'm just waiting for my house to go by
And on we go inexorable
Everybody is hungry for something each hungry for food, I'm hungry for freedom
From all the ties that bind the life to the little guy and the king of the kingdom”

What's the story about Electric Soft Parade? Well, happily the 'adventure' continues, the brothers White are in the studio with the band and adding the finishing touches to new material which should appear early next year. We can expect more songs like those on excellent recent release A Quick One ep, but to be sure Thomas White will continue to explore his other 'sides' musically … and in music, the good tends to float to the surface, like his sunblessed Yalla.

Matthew Haddrill


Kath Bloom
26.7.11 - Café Oto, Dalston, London

Kath Bloom is rumoured to have learned the blues by reading the headstones in her local cemetery, the sort of mythology that often passes for folklore, but certainly something to admire about an artist who lives out every moment of their art, Bloom has ‘bottled’ the blues for us over the years with moments of aching beauty and tenderness. Inspired by a whole generation of artists in the 60s and 70s, you can hear qualities of Joplin, Mitchell, Baez, Emmylou in the Connecticut singer’s voice, but her collaborations with avant-garde guitarist Loren Mazzacane Connors in the 80s added another crucial element in the mix and ‘fragile’ blues was born. Kath Bloom can silence a room with that rare stand-alone quality that artists possess when they are struggling through a moment and baring their souls completely:

“When you smile set me free
When you’re happy be happy as you can be
When it’s dark keep your road
When life ends you’re come into this home
It takes your smile it makes you pain
It gives you night it gives you too much day
Then you’ll know how far to go
You can’t be sure when your love
Up in the stars my tree
Then you’ll know that nothing fits …”

(‘When You Smile’ by Kath Bloom & Loren Mazzacane Connors, from 1981-1984 )

She is perhaps best known for the inclusion of the song ‘Come Here’ in Richard Linklater’s 1995 film ‘Before Sunrise’, the bit where Judie Delpy and Ethan Hawke swoon over each other, and yet there are still more chapters to write in this artist’s story: her collaboration in 1999 with guitarist Peter Friedman Come Here: The Florida Years marked another high watermark in the career, and last year saw a beautiful tribute by the likes of Devendra Banhart, Bill Callahan and Mark Kozelek, with the compilation Loving Takes This Course. To get an idea of what lies behind the living legend which is Kath Bloom, have a look at this link:
http://thisrecording.com/today/tag/kath-bloom

Bloom is currently touring with musicians Levi Strom and Jim Reynolds, from California, with a series of dates at select venues around the UK, and whether you call it roots or old-time, folk or blues, there’s something rather sacred and timeless about the music on show. Nice then to be greeted by the warmth of these sounds on entering intimate venue Café Oto in Dalston, on Tuesday 26th July 2011. Reynolds has a deep boom in his dulcet tones and twangs his guitar like a goodun, Strom’s folk is a bit more edgy with vocals cracked and interesting (‘Unbroken’ will induce tears wherever it’s played!). All at once, you get the feeling the music they’re playing has been around for centuries. Kath joined them on harmonica for their rendition of ‘Oak Tree’ before we took an interval.

The café was quite full but the atmosphere remained low-key and intimate, and when Bloom finally came bounding on for the second half of the programme, she played a handful of songs solo before being re-joined by Strom and Reynolds. Interesting to watch this waif-like singer thread her music through the evening, warbling voice and guitar, struggling to hold it all together … but you quickly realize this is all part of the show, the struggling life force holding the audience under her spell, and yes, she ‘bottled’ that moment for us again. It was a night of lazy journalism and I’ll admit more than a drop of the local brew had been imbibed … but a very enjoyable one at that!

Strangely, when her bandmates did eventually join her, the night had moved on and felt a bit out of joint. Attempts to jolly things along didn’t seem to work as well, Kath’s presence on stage is very subtle, the guys would do well to hang back a bit. So, really an evening of two halves, the booming timelessness of classic folk followed by some of the most fragile blues you’re likely to hear this side of the Mississippi Delta. As they played out with a relatively upbeat encore, ‘Not Through With This Yet’, from Kath's latest album Thin Thin Line, a thought struck me about the whole thing: you strip away music until you have the whole punk aesthetic there in your hands, all heart and aching humanity! And when an invite to ‘hang’ with Kath was politely refused, my friends wanted to check a punk band down in Camden Town … Bravo legend Kath!

“Stay awake go out to a job I don't like
I come home turn the TV on face a long night
You know this life it takes about all it can get
'till you feel my heart ache
I'm not through with this yet
I'm not through I'm not through I'm not through with this yet

Or face trauma or sickness and eternity
someone bring me a witness, tell me how it will be
you know my fear takes about all it can get
till the real story breaks
I'm not through with this yet
I'm not through I'm not through I'm not through with this yet

Hold your head up hold your head up
You've been set up
Look to nature it's greater
Then your despair find your stealth there

Pack your bags come with a snap into the dream
Get your boat and we'll go down a long lovely stream
Dumps us into the ocean we don't know where we go
You're not through you're not through you're not through with this yet”

(‘I’m Not Through With This Yet’ by Kath Bloom, from Thin Thin Line)

Strom and Bloom can be heard on a live recording they made at the Henry Miller Library, in Big Sur, California, last January:
http://blog.henrymiller.org/2011/02/oh-what-a-night-levi-strom-kath-bloom-and-melissa-underwood-at-the-hmml-13111/

(CD’s available at gigs, or from Vow Records, PO Box 82, Big Sur, CA 93920)

Matthew Haddrill


Folk & Dagger
19.7.11 - Zigfrid Von Underbelly, Hoxton Square, City of London

“All music is folk music. I ain't never heard a horse sing a song.” Louis Armstrong

Horses obviously excluded, Tuesday nights is 'Folk & Dagger' at Zigfrid Von Underbelly in Hoxton Square: “5 fine and unusual songwriters and bands musically make waves - clunky, dense, intricate, warm, slicey, jazz-fringed, complex, true, absurd stories and oh so easy on the ear....winning!” Americana and British folk rub shoulders for a night of live music from a roster of singer-songwriters well ahead of their years and supported ably by their respective bands. A variety of styles that could loosely fit under the 'folk' banner, and strong single-minded individuals determined to see their music through.

Unfortunately, Louise & The Pins, who toured recently with Laura Marling, were involved in a car crash earlier this week, and while thankfully the band are fine, they were shaken up by the experience so decided to pull out of the gig, no doubt to concentrate on their appearance at the Cambridge Folk Festival later this month. A sad omission, but it didn't seem to phase the rest of the bands or spoil the evening. My own omission was to miss the first artist Will Robert, 7.30pm on a rainy London evening was always going to be pushing it for me, sorry!

So we'll kick off with Jamie Thorne & The Mystery Pacific, a powerful set of mostly blues and gospel numbers, but nice to hear Jamie also playing unaccompanied, like on 'Simple Man's Blues', which has some nice finger-picking and the singer crooning away in that classic raw folk idiom. He won't be the first (nor the last!) to be compared to Bob Dylan, as he cuts a serious figure on stage and the songs often seem driven by the lyrics, a young Donovan type maybe, but I somehow doubt the audience shared my opinion, enjoying the band rocking out alt-country-style for most of the set. They ended with classy driving southern blues, I couldn't catch the title of the song but a nice touch of slide guitar and it only really needed a gospel choir and we'd be transported off somewhere to the deep south rather than Hoxton, London.

While Thorne and band are cut from the same cloth as new-folkers Mumford & Sons and Noah & The Whale, the three unassuming figures taking to the stage next took the evening in a slightly different direction. Seated and surrounding themselves with a vast array of instruments to provide some nice homespun bluesy folk, Jenny & Stuff (sorry, not a great name but persevere please!) is a musical collective featuring songwriter Jenny Hall, supported (on this night, at least!) by harpist Bella Chipperfield and her brother Joe on a variety of other stringed instruments. All three musicians textured each song, to create an immediacy and warmth set to Hall's voice, which reminded me a little of American fragile folk singer Kath Bloom. 'Tonight' is a beautiful song with the sort of timeless quality and eery familiarity that drives a lot of folk music, and the personal honesty reflected in songs like 'Believe' (“Do you believe in life after love?”) will always have the power to go darker and deeper! I guess with this sort of stuff you either like crying into your beer or you don't … personally, I do!

The last band of the evening, while technically the best, didn't quite seem to 'fit' the bill. Mark Hole is a precociously talented singer-songwriter, and delivers his songs on the keyboard with an 'epic' sort of quality and Freddie Mercury opera-singer vocal. The music he and his band delivered was more like cabaret rock really, and while the guy's also a talented wordsmith, as songs like 'Dirty Base' and 'My Friend' demonstrate, he struggled to find his audience at the Underbelly. At times desperate to be taken seriously in a steadily emptying venue half-filled with drunkenness, it was a case of more dagger than folk, unfortunately! Every dog has its day, but this one belonged to Jamie Thorne and the unassuming folk peddlers from Bishop Stortford. Golly, this sounds like 'Battle Of The Bands', which it was never meant to … next week's Tuesday evening's entertainment at the Underbelly also features 4 interesting young artists, if the rain's giving you the blues go and exorcise them at the 'Folk & Dagger' on 26th July. You can find details on the website: http://www.underbellyhoxton.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=frontpage&Itemid=1

Will Robert: http://www.myspace.com/willrobertmusic
Jamie Thorne & The Mystery Pacific: http://www.myspace.com/jamiethornmusic
Jenny & Stuff: http://flavors.me/jennyhall#b53/soundcloud
Mark Hole: http://www.markhole.com/Mark_Hole/Intro.html

Matthew Haddrill


Billy Bragg
3.6.11 - Bath Pavilion

Ever since 'Betwen The Wars' provided him with as big a platform as any mid 80s agit-folkist could want, Billy Bragg and his music have travelled the circuit of benefit gigs and festival appearances, some of them less and others more outwardly political. A quarter century on from the TOTP appearance that firmly cemented his position as our most prominent leftist singer songwriter, Billy Bragg walks onstage with a two hour long act that has been honed to near perfection over the decades and none of his audience, regardless of their own views or voting preferences, are going to walk out feeling either short changed or disappointed.

Troubador, historian, comedian, actual politician - Bragg gleefully ticks all of these boxes and then does exactly what he wants to do. He talks at least as much as he sings, but doesn't reminisce about his time in the army, his travels with Andy Kershaw, or the night he bought John Peel a curry. He does give turn in some lively renditions of Woody Guthrie songs, complete with background info on how Woody wrote 'Stromboli', and delves into his considerable back catalogue of songs with genuine enthusiasm. His guitar playing is sharp and resonant, and Bragg in person really does look and sound a lot like Paul Weller, with a flat top instead of a mod trim. Woody Guthrie spent much of his life with his hand down the front of his trousers, I now know. There's a streak of pub comedy in Bragg's material that all the political correctness in London's left circles will never quite remove, and a more ideologically mixed crowd than that he might find at a Trafalgar Square end-of-demo performance chortles appreciatvely.

As for the songs, the best known ones that is, Bragg's matey persona and a significant number of what's almost his personal fan club turn 'The Milkman Of Human Kindness' into a rousing singalong. Over twenty years since it was first heard, 'Sexuality' still needs a bit of a brass neck to carry it off with credibility, and Bragg has lost none of his ability to make the awkward sound easy, or of his mock-naieve charm. Billy explains himself as an of-his-generation Clash fan (it's practically a members drinking club, he says) and reminisces about attending his first Hyde Park anti racism demo. He also has a lot to say about the politics of his native Dagenham, and I didn't catch the title of a very clever and funny song about a wealthy banker fleeing to Dubai that ends with 'and we've all bought the bastard his ticket'. Bragg's voice cracks during a strident 'Levi Stubbs Tears' and he laughs it off, pausing only to jibe at Mick Hucknall as he does so. It's easily my own favourite of his songs and its chords set my teeth on edge just as they did when I first heard it. 'Power In A Union' is the most obviously political song of the night, and it's given a rousing treatment that, while it's appparent that the interpretation of the word 'union' is open to question, has a few clenched fists pointing at the ceiling. And finally, 'A New England' is far from the folksy ballad it was when first recorded, and Bragg dedicates the song to Kirsty MacColl and cranks up the distortion in tribute to his own declared guitar heroes, AC/DC.

Billy Bragg is something of a unique figure in our music. Since his first recordings he's trod a narrow path that has proven a tightrope for many of his contemporaries, and emerged still smiling and with his music hall instincts completely intact, able to win over even the most cynical of his audience and continue to inspire nostalgic admiration from all those other greying patrons of The Strummer Arms. It's just a pity that TOTP is no longer with us, Billy Bragg would probably make it back onto that stage today.

JG


PS I Love You at The Cockpit
6.5.11 - The Cockpit, Leeds

It might have been a portent. The feeling you have when you suddenly wake up after a little nap. The sweaty disorientation. Puzzling where you are and what you were about to do. This lassitude not only hit me when I awoke from my irritating nap, but the irritation remained when I found myself in The Cockpit. In the upstairs room I found myself observing a remarkable thing. The third support band Sonny and the Sunsets performed such a wonderfully anachronistic crossover of rock, beat and Americana. Still being dazed, songs like “Death Cream” made day-dreaming about this gig taking place in a hay barn in the American countryside. Did I actually wake up in Leeds? The Californians abducted me to a sound hardly be heard outside of the room. The cheering thirty people crowd must have felt similar. Sonny and the Sunsets’ beat ‘n’ roll was as anachronistic as irritating in a city like Leeds.

More irritating, even frustrating, was PS I Love You’s performance. The people surely enjoyed Sonny and the Sunsets more than they did PSILY, only ten people stayed to listen to their post-rock. Songs like “Facelove” and “Get Over” come along very powerful on record, but the small venue of Cockpit 3 just could not provide the sound for the complexity of the songs. The songs degenerated to bland noises, the good ideas of the rough post-rock as well as the angrily depressive howling of singer Paul Saulnier did not come through. The result was a very dry wallow of sound in which the fine nuances of the Canadians only remained as sere florets.

Wolfgang Günther


Sound of Guns+ The View
10.4.11 - The Cockpit, Leeds

I prepared to join in the canon about the death of indie-rock. We all know how the story goes, legions of young guitar bands copying 70s post-punk, 80s new wave or 90s britpop, not being able to create something new and exciting, caught in the rat-race of an uninspired music industry. The audience being confronted with the repetition of the same game all over again. And please guys, get out of your skinny jeans, come on, they are not comfortable but childish; and Topshop can make enough money without you lads.

Then I entered the Cockpit. And was surprised. Sound of Guns was only supposed to be the support group, but the club was already nearly packed with a cheerful crowd. And not many of them wore exaggerated skinnies. The sound was brilliant, and the show was bursting with energy. I was a little sceptical when I listened to their recorded songs, they all seemed to be too well produced indie-rock standard. The live show, however, proved something different. I was very pleased to see that “Architects”, which is really not my favourite, was presented with a powerful verse. The chorus, however, still is one of dullest I’ve heard, but at least was better presented live. I was afraid the more pompous influences of Echo and the Bunnymen would turn the live sound into boring pathos, but the live account was far from that. The songs went down powerfully and the band surely was enjoying the music they were playing. “Alcatraz” had a blasting drive and made the audience feel like the Liverpudlians were the main act. Singer Andrew Metcalfe also played a role in the active atmosphere with his powerful passion in his voice and performance. Although band and audience behaved like this was already the main act, there was more to come.

Sound of Guns made room for The View, welcomed by the audience with a “the view are on fire” choral. You had to look carefully not to mix up the singer Kyle Falconer with the Sound of Guns’ frontman, the semblance of the hair and the timbre were astonishing. The new single “Grace” was well received among the revellers, followed by “Wasted Little DJs” which put a fat smirk on my face, reminding me of the time when I was nineteen. “Wasteland”, “Skag Trendy” and “Superstar Tradesman” were more classics to come up, producing fierce cheering, dancing and crowd-surfing just cooling down for “Typical Time”. Latest for “Same Jeans” everyone in the crowd was either jumping around or cheerfully dancing. Good to see they saved some energy from the acoustic gig at Jumbo Records the afternoon before; bassist Kieren Webster was still proudly wearing his Jumbo Records t-shirt; surprisingly for me, he didn’t get enough applause for this! Talking about Jumbo, one more nice surprise was their record-store-day single, the The Tweeds cover “I Need That Record” that just fitted perfectly to their sound and in the whole jolly show.
Sadly they did not play any encore. However, The View and Sound of Guns put on two blasts of shows, which was pleasant enough; but you know, decency demands...

One thing the night surely has proven for the hyper critical critics, indie-rock is not dead at all, it’s just taking breathing space to recover from last years, and from this gig. Though still, I hope for the new guitar wave the skinnies won’t get any skinnier. Come on lads...

Wolfgang Günther