Thursday, 10 May 2018

1,083, 1,085 FRANK TURNER AND THE SLEEPING SOULS, Arkells, The Homeless Gospel Choir, Bristol O2 and Oxford O2 Academies, Friday 27th April and Saturday 5th May 2018

A couple of gigs that pretty much elevated Frank Turner And The Sleeping Souls to the ranks of the Very Special Indeed, confirming his and their places as the best songwriter and “live” band the UK has to offer right now, and bumping up towards the very best of this current age.

It seemingly wouldn’t be Frank without somewhat of a ticket-mare at the moment, though, but for once, it worked out well for us, resulting in this (almost) double-header dose of Frank! When the O2 Academy level tour was announced, in advance and support of forthcoming album “Be More Kind”, I, as ever, was determined to be in on the pre-sale, buying some merch and an advance copy of the album from his own website to secure a pre-sale code. That, plus my O2 subscriber pre-sale, should sort me out for my preferred Bristol date, or so I thought… When the Wednesday pre-sale started, I was “on it” as usual from minute one, but despite using both artist and O2 portals I was getting nowhere; half a very frustrating hour later, and with “pre-sale sold out” signs appearing across the board, I reluctantly gave up on Bristol, bagging a couple (they’d only sell me 2! Bah!) of tickets for the Oxford gig instead. Shortly after, the “pre-sale sold out” signs went up for Bristol anyway, so I reluctantly faced the inevitability of pitching in on the general sale. Bollocks!

However, I then checked a day later, just to see what time the Bristol general sale was actually due to start on the designated Friday; the website however took me directly to the O2 pre-sale page and I bought 4 tickets, easy as pie! Happy with that! Thus it was that Rach and I set off with an eager Logan in tow (and Kasey on a hastily-arranged sleepover), down to Bristol for Frank Part 1… Got there at 7, and, also as pre-arranged, the medical team met us and showed us through to the First Aid Room for Logan’s Diabetes requirements, then to the VIP accessibility seating area, where a couple of seats awaited Rach and Logan. Not me this time, I was with the riff-raff on the floor! Hung out with some of said “riff-raff”, namely my old mate Olly and his delightful lady Caz, whilst main support Arkells were on. Sporting a loud-shirted vocalist who resembled Luke from “Modern Family” and had the voluble and quirky oddball stage presence of Indoor Pets’ Jamie, they entertained with some upbeat crisp powerpop; “People’s Champ” recalling 80’s funksters Hipsway, “My Heart’s Always Yours” the arena sweep of 80’s Springsteen, and final number “Leather Jacket” almost Posies-like in its’ powerpop bounce. Props too for a Frank like “love thy neighbour” attitude, and for their story about visiting the Arkells Brewery in Swindon earlier in the day!

I was joined by a late-running Matt between bands, keeping our usual spot as this sell-out crowd made for a very busy dancefloor! The lights smashed to black at an early 8.10, The Sleeping Souls bounding onstage and kicking into the pounding opening beat of newie “1933”… Frank took the stage last, to a huge ovation, guitar already firmly bolted on, spitting venom and righteous fury from the outset. And my hopes that the new material might be holding up a mirror to the desperate state of the Tory/ Trump/ Brexit-poisoned clusterfuck that is Planet Earth 2018 and saying, “what the holy fuck is going on?” were met immediately, “1933” being a huge rallying cry against all these “shower of bastards” and the hook, “don’t go mistaking your house burning down for the dawn” another incisive motto for our troubled times. Wow, what a start!

Incredibly, it got better… “Get Better” (!) kept the momentum before the usual Frank welcome, this time to, “Show 2,160! Are you with me??” and the huge fairground hook of “The Next Storm”. A few technical difficulties early doors then threatened to derail proceedings, Frank irritatedly swapping guitars a number of times before one worked, but channelling his frustration into a venomous version of Plain Sailing Weather”, venting his annoyance by stomping on his singing platforms. A funkier newie, “Make America Great Again” was preceded by Frank calling out “the failed actor with the orange spray tan,” then “I Am Disappeared” was a brilliant early highlight, this poignant wallow through the heartache of everyday life fast becoming my favourite FT song, and one of my favourite songs, period.

“God’s got something against me – I’ve had a chest infection – but I’m back on form!” announced Frank, and he wasn’t just whistling Dixie… following the dark, dramatic and almost hardcore chorus rant of “One Foot Before The Other”, Frank promised to delve back to album 2, rolling out an unexpected “Imperfect Tense”, one he and the band allegedly hadn’t played for 8 years and had been practising, but which they totally nailed. “Opening Act Of Spring” cleared the mood, a delicate, pastoral delight with an audience participation chorus, and Frank made reference to having played “Long Live The Queen” at the Thekla 10 years ago before an understated and tender version, which then led to a solo interlude kicking off with a beautiful new ballad, “There She Is” (“people tell me they play my songs at weddings… not sure which ones, as they’re all sad!” Frank commented by way of justification for this one) and rounding off with a lusty singalong for “The Ballad Of Me And My Friends”. If we are indeed all going to hell, as this one suggests, we’re in good company…!

After the funky newie “Blackout”, Frank called for a circle pit for the frantic, Pogues-ish “Out Of Breath” before a titanic “Photosynthesis”, punctuated by a crowdsurf from Frank (Logan bolting to the front of his viewing area to check where Frank had disappeared to!), then a totally on-point address about treating others with respect and dignity, rounded off a set which had initially threatened to succumb to techy issues, but was pulled back from the brink by Frank’s sheer chutzpah and star quality. Four splendidly chosen encores followed; rousing singalongs to “Prufrock” and “I Still Believe” preceding the manic punk dash of “Four Simple Words”, with a slow-burn and melancholy version of “Polaroid Picture” then ending the night perfectly. I’d pitched up at the front by this time, so grabbed an easy set-list before meeting the fam, bidding farewells to Matt and hitting the road home, eulogising about Frank Part 1!

So, Frank Part 2 came 8 days later, and given Oxford’s increasing reputation for awful parking combined with a 6pm door time, Logan and I set off at 4 for a sunny Saturday dash down the A420. Unfortunately, our early departure availed us nought, as our usual Tescos car park was already utterly rammed with an unmoving queue to get in, all street parking was equally overflowing or not available yet, so we eventually parked up in the last spot at St. Clements Street car park, a good 20 minutes walk from the venue, a clear 45 minutes after arriving! So much for getting there early to get Logan a good viewing spot on the barriers, or so I thought… luckily, after joining the queue at 10 to 6 and hitting the venue shortly thereafter, some kind folks down the front, stage right, found a Logan-sized front barrier spot between them. Thanks people!

Chatted with our gig companions as the place rapidly filled up, before opener The Homeless Gospel Choir joined us at 7. Actually one bloke, a voluble bundle of nervous energy in a loud shirt, who introduced himself as, “Derek Zanetti, 35 years old, 5 feet 8, from Pittsburgh – home of the motherfucking polio vaccine… you’re welcome!”, we’d missed his Bristol set as we were settling Logan into his VIP seats and first aid room. Damn shame, as this was a funny, inclusive and thoroughly entertaining set – practically every splendid, Bragg-esque number being introduced with, “this is a protest song,” lots of Craig Finn-like off-mic chatter embellishing his witty lyrics, and no little between-song humour (“you think you’re going to a punk show but you end up in a cult with a face tattoo – amirite????” and, “I’m playing a gig in Grimsby tomorrow – I said I wanted to play a show where no-one’s ever been before!” being 2 of my favourites). Barking mad, but brilliant stuff. Derek was then joined onstage by Arkells for his last number, Arkells taking over thereafter for their own set. And they were no less impressive again; opener “Knocking At The Door” was a ringing, Gaslight Anthem blue-collar rocker, and the subsequent “Private School” saw a punter joining them onstage to play guitar, after pledging that she knew the D, G and E Minor chords! “Peoples Champ” was again a funky singalong chant with an acerbic dismissal of Trump (“I’m looking for the people’s champ… it ain’t you, Mr. President!”), and elsewhere there were chunky, Waltham/ Weezer-esque beats and powerpop riffs aplenty embellishing another pretty decent Arkells set.

By now it was total sardine city behind us – somehow Logan managed to squeeze through to the loo to wash his hands prior to his evening Diabetes injection, but when I tried to make the same journey I couldn’t get past the edge of the bar! Tough it out time then, methinks… tonight’s witching hour was 8.40, as a medieval acapella backing track heralded The Sleeping Souls’ entrance, Frank again bounding onstage, already guitarred up, ready to both rock and lead his devoted congregation in song. Again “1933” was a blistering opener, raising the roof from note one with indignant protest fury, follow-up “Get Better” maintaining both pace and skyscraping choral power.

“Everybody having a nice time?” asked Frank, then remarking, “actually, “nice” is the least of our ambitions for tonight…” before guitarist Ben chimed in with, “perfect!” A lofty goal indeed, but Frank and The Sleeping Souls tonight delivered possibly as perfect a set as I’d seen them play. Much like The Hold Steady, Frank’s lyrics, personality and performance inspire communality and inclusiveness, blurring the distinction between audience and performer, Frank almost operating as conductor for mass singalongs for much of tonight. A massive plug for the new album, released the previous day (“yesterday was a special day… it was Star Wars Day! No, not really, my seventh album came out yesterday… I normally don’t have anything against Zac Efron (star of “The Greatest Showman”, the soundtrack of which is the current incumbent of Number One in the Album Charts), but this week would be a good week to buy it [and get it to number one]… not for me, but for my mum!”) preceded a poignant rendition of the title track, after which Frank teased the crowd with, “we’re not just playing new songs…” before anther brilliant reading of “I Am Disappeared”. “The Road” was a massive campfire singalong, illustrating the communal vibe, and tonight’s slightly rejigged set featured an ace “Reasons Not To Be An Idiot”, Logan revelling in the “invisible llama” line (the outline of a llama also being projected onto the large TV screens onstage!). Frank’s solo interlude then featured newie “21st Century Survival Blues”, preceded by a lengthy explanation of the subject matter, and an excellent “Balthazar Impresario”, before “Blackout” saw Frank dive into the pit in front of us and shake Logan’s hand, much to my son’s delight. Again, “Photosynthesis” and Frank’s mid-song sermon of respect (during which the cramped front rows nonetheless sat down together – well, those of us without dodgy knees, anyway!) ended the set, the subsequent 4-song encore this time featuring another newie, the plaintive “Don’t Worry” before a pounding “Four Simple Words” and stripped-back “Polaroid Picture” ended a quite superb near 2-hour set.

We’d had some friendly stewarding during the set – the crew supervisor escorting Logan through the sardine squeeze to the loo, bringing him back through backstage, as even he couldn’t find a way through the crush! – and this continued afterwards, another steward organising guitarist Ben’s set-list for Logan, even before the encores had concluded! Mindful of the 20+ minute hike back to the car, we then set off pretty promptly, Logan buzzing about tonight’s show, before an entertaining drive home chatting about roadkill and ankylosauri (!) got us home a shade before midnight.

A couple of brilliant gigs then, Oxford shading it for me, despite the parking-mare and crazy sardine-like conditions. Either way, this was confirmation that Frank Turner, for me, is just about the best the UK has to offer right now. Very Special Indeed, no doubt; budge up, The Hold Steady and Nada Surf, you’ve now got some Frank-shaped company on the Top Table of Rock!

1,084 FAMILIARS, Swindon The Castle, Friday 4th May 2018

Sandwiched in between two Frank Turner gigs, I’m happy to squeeze this one in… a return to “live” gigging for Cirencester’s Best Kept Secret, the deliciously doomy keyboard-led moody post-punk rock of Familiars. Led by “professional attention seeker” Steve Skinley, they’d been absent from my Gig Dance Card since the 2016 Swindon Shuffle (back in gig 996), quite possibly due to Steve’s other entertainment commitments. This short-notice gig was therefore an opportunity to make up for lost time!

I’d tried to get my Shuffle companions, Messrs. May and Carter, out for this one, but work commitments precluded either of them attending. It was therefore a solo run up the hill for me, after Rach brought Logan back from his swim session, parking up reasonably easily and wandering round to The Castle for 8.45, finding it disappointingly deserted. Cirencester’s best kept secret, indeed… “known only to one,” as the (early) Human League put it…! Found the boys in the beer garden and caught up, chatting with drummer Giles about The National (I’d seen him in passing in the lobby at the end of their Apollo gig last September (gig 1,055)), which prompted some entertaining circular chat about other post-punk bands and influences. Always happy to talk rock’n’roll with this lively and knowledgeable bunch of chaps, but time moved on and they had to earn their crust tonight…

The place was still pretty much tumbleweed city come showtime, and I was indeed the only one sat in the back room as the boys kicked off their set at 9.15. But of course, nothing ever happens in Swindon, does it? The boys took the sparse attendance in good humour, however, Giles joking beforehand that they should have brought Franklin the Labrador along from the Cirencester Golden Cross (my erstwhile gig buddy for their set there, gig 948), and the band nonetheless applying themselves to their set with determination and gusto. Opener “Red Forest” set the tone for the majority of the material in the set, with a mournful, elegiac keyboard-led opening, building up as the other instruments layered in, to a strident, hooky chorus and dissonant crescendo, whilst retaining that dark and gloomy atmosphere. The dramatic “In Silver”, next up, was more of a tub-thumping post-punk flag waver (shades of Comsat Angels and embryonic U2, perhaps?), and “Battlestations” featured some dramatic and urgent slashing guitar riffery from guitarist Ricky, underpinned all the while by some “Shadowplay” Joy Division-esque bass from James and stripped back, militaristic drum patterns from Giles. All this provided a suitable platform for Steve’s excellent vocals, his resonant and dark baritone really taking flight for the choruses and building crescendos. And for once the sound was kind to them here; The Castle sound mix can occasionally be a bit iffy (and hasn’t always served Familiars well…), but whilst a Raze*Rebuild can power through poor sound with an avalanche of tumbling rock riffery, Familiars require a more nuanced and balanced sound, which was thankfully in evidence tonight.

“We like sad songs, sad and loud… like a bad blouse!” quipped Steve before “Half Life”’s racier gallop, Steve then referring to “Tickertape” as, “a 2 chord wonder – that’s one chord less than punk, folks!” A new number, “Dynamite”, initially started uncharacteristically happily, with an almost late Summer evening vibe, before morphing into a “London Calling” style march, and the “Killian’s Red”-like circular piano pattern of “Ballyhoo” provided the launchpad for said song to really take flight. “Last one – then we can get drinking!” announced Steve before usual set closer “Bottleneck” ended the set on a more upbeat note, the small handful of punters who’d eventually taken notice from the backroom and bar applauding their efforts, and justifiably so.

Congrats and some more rock’n’roll chat before I headed off, mindful of tomorrow night’s Frank gig, but still taking a diversion to Mr. Cod before heading home. A great shame that Familiars played to such a sparse crowd; they deserve better, but that didn’t stop them delivering another fine performance. Well done boys, and see you again soon, I hope!

Monday, 23 April 2018

1082 NADA SURF, Bristol Fleece, Friday 20th April 2018

Having seen “live” favourites, New York’s Nada Surf, a couple of times in the last 2 years (a superlative Electric Ballroom show in support of most recent album “You Know Who You Are” in 2016, followed by their headline slot on the ACLU Benefit show in a chilly Boston last March) I knew that they were in rare form, even by their own stratospherically high standards. So when I heard they were touring the 15th Anniversary of their “breakthrough” 2002 album “Let Go”, I could but hope there would be at least one such show this side of the pond, even if it were London again (where Nada Surf UK shows had been pretty much confined to, over the last 3 or 4 album tour cycles). So a Friday night gig at the eminently accessible (even with the wanky new Bristol City Centre road layout…!) Bristol Fleece? Hell yeah!

Pounced on tix immediately when they went on sale, and, having researched the format of these shows (2 sets, no support; “Let Go” in its entirety for set 1 and a second, hour-long set of other stuff to follow) Rach and I headed off early, taking the now-customary and thankfully very quiet back route to the Fleece and nearly taking out Nada Surf frontman Matthew Caws as he crossed the road in front of us! Luckily, he seemed not to notice... that would’ve been a gig fail of epic proportions! Parked up, grabbed a spot down the front and chatted away the time to ‘da Surf's prompt arrival at 7.45, Matthew immediately strumming the acoustic opener “Blizzard Of 77” for the hushed crowd to communally sing along.

Whilst “Let Go” might not be my favourite Nada Surf album (still a big fan of their sophomore effort “The Proximity Effect”, and actually, aren’t their last 2 utter corkers as well!?), I confess it marked a sea change in their output, the moment when their initially overtly tortured and angry strumalong US college-pop influenced oeuvre became less frantic, fractured and angsty, developing into a more varied, irresistibly melodic and harmonic and (dare I say) “mature” sound. So whilst rockers like the Cheap Trick-referencing “Way You Wear Your Head”, the breathless and tumbling “Happy Kid” and gloriously soaring and hooky “No Quick Fix” still sparkled with youthful amphetamine pace and vim, the likes of the austere and frankly lovely “Blonde On Blonde”, the eerie, hypnotic circular riff of the red spotlight back-lit “Killian's Red” and melancholic wallow of “Paper Boats” (featuring a lyrical snippet of The Bunnymen's “Ocean Rain” from Matthew in its’ building denouement) demonstrated that greater depth, providing light and shade to the set. Also, quite apart from their almost telepathic musical understanding, all 3 Surf dudes were good form too, Matt recounting, “we were here [at The Fleece] once before and then we opened for The Vines [in Bristol]... Academy, that's right...!”, dreadlocked monolith bassist Daniel suggesting it felt a bit weird to celebrate the 15th Anniversary of their 3rd album (“maybe we’ll play the 3rd Anniversary of our 15th!”), and elastic-limbed drummer Ira, on hearing a “good work!” shout from some wag down the front (OK, it was me...!) following his energetic, propulsive breaks during “Happy Kid”, replied dryly, “thanks Mum!”

The first set flew by, an object lesson in precision and musicianship. The boys then took a bow and a brief recess, and Rach and I chatted with Julian, a fellow Surf devotee with whom I’d rubbed shoulders on the barriers at that Electric Ballroom show. Quickly the band took the stage again, the second set proving to be a run-through of old favourites and some lesser-played curveballs for good measure. Kicking off with the rousing clarion call of “Imaginary Friends”, through the terrific, off- kilter stomp of “Teenage Dreams” and the squalling drama of oldie “Firecracker”, this was a set for the connoisseur, brilliantly delivered, with Matthew keeping lengthy eye contact with the front rows throughout, again making us all feel each song was a personal gift. Some more so than others, indeed; one enthusiastic fellow punter interrupted one of Matthew’s intros, and was immediately rewarded with an impromptu (and almost slightly embarrassed!) rendition of the throwaway but funny “Meow Meow Lullaby”!

Oldie “Stalemate” featured a couple of reverential verses of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and an unexpected “Amateur” was an introspective yet strident highlight; however set closer “See These Bones” even topped that, the hushed opening building to a circular and absorbing climax hook, building like steam to its conclusion. A pretty damn near perfect end to the set, although final encore “Blankest Year” with its flippant “fuck it” party hook and 2 false finishes sent us home in an upbeat party mood.

Well, I say “home”, but not before a signed set-list and quick chat with the predictably besieged Matthew at the merch stand (who, laudably, announced at the end that he’d be there afterward to sign stuff, and went straight there from the stage). Offered congrats to this most affable of men on his recent new arrival, before achily heading off for a nonetheless early 11 pm return home, reflecting on the night’s events. This was a stellar performance by a band who, for me, currently have very few peers both “live” and on record (indeed, across the aggregate, perhaps only The Hold Steady, who of course are a far more raw and visceral proposition, the ragged flipside to Nada Surf’s melodic precision). Simply tremendous stuff from a very special band, and a real celebration of “Let Go”. Even my high expectations were exceeded!

Monday, 16 April 2018

1,081 THE VACCINES, Dream Wife, Whenyoung, London Alexandra Palace, Saturday 14th April 2018

The Vaccines again, barely a month after the last showing! However, quite the contrast between tonight and the last time out for this band of rogueish indie rock pilferers; this one is the big showpiece of their current “Combat Sports” album tour cycle, a homecoming gig at the prestigious Alexandra Palace, a palatial (no shit, Sherlock!) hilltop arena-sized venue in North London. Uber-fan Rach had booked this months in advance, the date not only happily falling on a weekend (believe me, getting here on weekdays is North Circular purgatory!), but on her birthday weekend, no less. Happy birthday Rachel!

Worryingly, Spurs had an early evening game at Wembley which threatened to delay our arrival; however, after dropping the kids off at Grandma’s for a sleepover, the birthday girl and I set off assisted by her handy phone map app. This picked us out a route which took us along the M25, M1 then through some posh residential areas, avoiding getting sideswiped by a lorry but pitching us up in the leafy car park at the bottom of the hill after a 2 hour run. Parking free - yay! Steep walk up to the venue - boo! Into this ornate glass-roofed (and unforgivingly concrete-floored – glad I brought my kneestraps!) auditorium to get our bearings, before an unexpected opening act, primary colour-suited Irish trio Whenyoung, on at an early 7.15. They impressed me at least with some spritely girly indiepop; opener “Blank Walls” appropriated the ascending riff from The Julie Dolphin’s “Birthday”, and follow-up “Heaven On Earth”’s sugary pop recalled Altered Images, particularly in the vocalist’s yelping yodelly intonations. We agreed that the cover of The Cranberries’ finest moment “Dreams” was a little too much on the nose, but I could forgive them that, as a subsequent “Pretty Pure” (introduced by the gabbling vocalist as their new single, probably the only thing she said for their entire set that I understood!) was a toughened-up Alvvays-like C86 strumalong. All in all, a very decent start.

Much was expected of main support Dream Wife, having come recommended by 3 gents whose musical opinions I respect highly. Well sorry, Messrs. Gurney, Fenton and Langsbury, but they were terrible; all misplaced swagger and attitude, with not a hint of a tune within miles of their amateurish, garage sleazoid set. An odd looking bunch too, with one guitarist copying Grayson Perry’s hairdo, and the cheerleader singer very clearly was her own biggest fan. Sorry girls (and token bloke drummer) but you’re all image over substance, and currently you make Elastica look professional; stop rummaging through Ex Hex’s dustbin and write some songs with tunes in!

We’d given Dream Wife up as a bad job after a couple of numbers and were gratified to discover that what they lacked in tunes, they made up for in brevity, their set clocking in at barely 20 minutes! So we were able to re-enter the by-now packed and seethingly excited auditorium, getting a spot level with the mixing desk, with a pocket of air and a good view. An impatient wait was rewarded at 9.20 with the lights smashing to black, then illuminating the iridescent curtain backdrop as The Vaccines bounded on to the strains of Abba’s “Waterloo”, lustily sung back by this young crowd. The side screens kicked into life as Justin Young led his rabble into the sneering upbeat riffery of opener “Nightclub”, then the dig dumb Ramones-like “Wrecking Bar” and a strutting, pucky and rather splendid actually “Teenage Icon” really got the crowd going.

For all their flaws and still-obvious antecedents, The Vaccines are nonetheless a very fine “live” band indeed, their strength lying in channelling and amplifying the enthusiasm of their audience into one communal mass, their simple, knockabout upbeat songs becoming hooky anthems, resonating around this huge hall as the frenzied crowd devotedly echoed them back. “You know what's coming,” Justin teased as the single note opening to the 50’s soda bar doo-wop of “Wetsuit” turned into a communal chant, then newie “Out On The Street” impressed with a bouncy beat and a helium hook, challenging Justin’s vocals, and “Melody Calling” recalled The Smiths with a melancholy and undulating guitar hook.

“Did you miss us? 6 years is a long time in rock’n’roll!” enquired Justin before the chunky 80’s radio rock of newie “Your Love Is My Favourite Band”, then, “Post Break Up Sex” was introduced with, “[this is] one from the vaults – if you don’t know the words you’re in the wrong room!” “Norgaard” and “Surfing In The Sky” made for a galloping mid-set double as the band hurtled through proceedings with some pace, and the very Buddy Holly rockabilly drumbeat of “I Always Knew” finally led into their finest moment, the hurtling intro and feelgood hook of “If You Wanna”. Glitter confetti appropriately fired off as the glitter stomp of set closer “I Can’t Quit” rounded off a whip-crack hour set, which seemed to me a little short for an arena-level headlining set, but I couldn’t deny the boys had packed it full or energy, hooks and effort.

We were looking for a flyer so Rach was happy to head off midway through final encore number “All In White” at half ten, before a fairly easy egress and inky M4 hurtle saw us home for 12.30. A thoroughly fun evening out with The Vaccines, still hardly the world’s most original band for me, but increasingly good value “live” and, most importantly, the birthday girl had a ball!

Sunday, 15 April 2018

1,080 THE WONDER STUFF, Bristol O2 Academy, Thursday 12th April 2018

The Wonder Stuff have, of late, been surreptitiously sneaking up my list of “must see whenever nearby” bands, thanks to a celebratory 30th Anniversary showing a couple of years back at this very venue (gig 981) and a couple of perfectly judged and utterly storming performances at November’s “Shiiine On” festivals the last couple of years (indeed, snatching “Band Of The Weekend” honours for me in 2016, from under the noses of a resurgent Shed Seven). This, then, was a no-brainer, to catch them on their “With Love From Stourbridge” tour, co-headlining with contemporaries and former supports Neds Atomic Dustbin. I wasn’t fussed about The Neds, but this “Ned’s Wonder” double-header was sufficient to tempt both The Big Man and Matt C along, so, with the notable exception of my lady wife (baking her babysitting tokens for a couple of things on the immediate horizon), our “Shiiine On” crew was reunited for this one too!

Pre-gig communications with the splendid Mr. Russ Hunt, facebook friend and Stuffies guitar tech extraordinaire, provided a heads-up that Bristol was The Stuffies’ turn to open, so, forewarned, Rich picked me up a little earlier and we hurtled down the M4, hitting Cabot Circus traffic but parking on Trenchard Level 10 and hitting the venue just after half seven. Got our usual stage left spot, a little closer to the stage than usual, the dancefloor being surprisingly sparse this close to showtime. This early start’s going to catch some folk out… Matt joined us and time ticked past the Stuffies’ planned 8 pm start, the lights finally crashing to black after the onstage Russ gave the ubiquitous torch flash signal about 10 past. A grinning Miles led the troops onstage to a cartoon backing track, blood red light eerily yet appropriately bathing the stage for groovy yet moody opener “Red Berry Joy Town”. The slashing verse riffery of my favourite Stuffies number, On The Ropes”, was next up, at which point I jumped into an eager yet well-natured moshpit – mainly older blokes like me!

The sound was brilliantly balanced and pindrop perfect tonight, and as per recent form, the Stuffies nailed it tonight, doing it complete justice. The boys (and girl) were again on fire, this line-up continuing to confirm my belief that they’re the best “live” iteration of this venerable yet increasingly beloved band. Newie “Don’t You Ever”, next up, underlined this, The Stuffies’ usual catchy, flippant and fiddle-augmented (again by the striking virtuoso Erica Nockalls) insistent guitar pop being underpinned with a darkly dramatic opening and verse, and backbeat hook, before an ebullient Miles greeted the folks on the balcony, remarking, “I used to have some witty lines for people on balconies – most likely nicked off John Lennon!” Perhaps due to their late start, The Stuffies were also in no mood to hang around, pelting through their set with impressive pace, firing off earworm hook after earworm hook into this knowledgeable and enthusiastic crowd, to sing back with equal gusto. “I fucking love that song!” announced Miles after the tumbling drumbeat-led “Can’t Shape Up”; a plug for the “Neds Wonder” commemorative beer (brewed especially for the tour) preceded the fiddle-dominated interlude of “Mission Drive” and “Circlesquare”; and there was a nice touch before the ubiquitous yet warmly received and infectiously jolly “Size Of A Cow” with Miles commenting that his Uncle Bill (a former member of 70’s rock legends Wizzard and The Move) was to accompany the band on keyboards during said number – from behind the curtain (“in true Wizard Of Oz style…!”).

An acoustic duet of “Room 512” was touchingly delivered and provided some respite from the increasing crush in my front-centre spot (“there aren’t enough defibrillators to go around if we keep this pace up,” quipped Miles), before they were back on it with a brilliantly building “Here Comes Everyone”. “Radio Ass Kiss” and “Disco King” was a brilliant late-set double, at which point the big bloke next to me inadvertently knocked my glasses off, prompting me to call on my goalie reflexes to catch them on my chest (!) before extricating a hand to grab them. One surge later, and I was on the barriers for set closer “Give Give Give Me More More More”, staying there throughout a thrillingly ragged and discordant encore “Ten Trenches Deep” (tonight’s exception, sounding all over the place, yet rock’n’roll as all get out – a great way to finish!). I had cause again to thank my goalie reflexes as Miles scrunched his list up and hurled it in my general direction, and I managed a swift left hand grab as the band left the stage to a deserved ovation.

Follow that, Neds! Well, for me, they had no chance, so after catching my breath and chatting with Rich and Matt during a frantic changeover, I left the venue at 10 as the Neds’ entrance music started up. Off on a Russ hunt, as it were…! I ran into him in the staging area to the left of the venue, promising to meet up shortly in The Hatchet pub opposite once he’d finished packing up. However, for some inexplicable reason, said pub finished serving stupidly early, so after waiting there awhile, I returned to the staging area where Russ had returned to after being denied admission to The Hatchet (!), for a quick chat with the man and his lovely wife Deb. Nice to see him again!

Bade farewell at the end of the distant rumble that was all I heard (or wanted to hear, really!) of The Neds’ set, to meet up with the boys outside. Matt hit the road, but Rich wanted to try for a few words with Graham Crabb of Pop Will Eat Itself, tonight’s between-band DJ. Deb was still outside and arranged that for us, so Rich enjoyed a chat with one of his musical heroes, who, despite my not liking his band much either, I found to be an open, gregarious and thoroughly nice bloke. An equally swift hurtle home still saw us back at a late 12.30 after a thoroughly splendid evening. Excellent stuff from The Wonder Stuff – once again!

1,079 MARTYRIALS, Kid Calico and the Astral Ponies, Swindon The Victoria, Friday 6th April 2018

As if I hadn’t already felt suitably gutted for missing Swindon’s finest, Raze*Rebuild’s gig at The Castle last week due to a family weekend in Butlins, further salt was rubbed into that wound by the late addition of Bristol’s Martyrials to that bill. I’d been looking out for local Martyrials gigs, since they swept all before them at the “12 Bands Of Christmas” event last December (gig 1,066) with an utterly batshit mental swirling maelstrom of crazy, reinventing “Walk Like An Egyptian” and “Take On Me” with their own bubbling cauldron recipe of madness. So, when I noticed they were also on the undercard of a local gig the following weekend, I headed up the hill on a chilly Friday evening, with plans to hopefully catch their set then pop round to see the headlining Shudders at the Castle. Ah, the best laid plans of mice and men…

Hit the venue at 8.45 fully expecting to see the openers in full swing, only to find a deserted back room venue and news that the openers were due on after 9. Bah! Got a drink and took a spot down the front, being joined by Andy Fenton and his mates, before Kid Calico And The Astral Ponies (for, t’was they) kicked off tonight’s proceedings just after 9. A grouping of local scene veterans, they eased in with some laid-back 60’s harmonic Byrdsian pop with late period Teenage Fanclub inflections, second number “Death Of A Salesman” proving a little more upbeat and featuring some Ray Manzarek-like frantic and fractured organ licks from the excellent Jon Buckett, also of Gaz Brookfield’s band The Company Of Thieves. Unfortunately, they lost me thereafter, the set drifting into a more music-hall and trad country vibe, with occasional early 70’s soft rock thrown in (I’d probably say Steely Dan if I knew more of their stuff), all very accomplished and melodic, but bland and anodyne to my ears. Their closer resembled Procol Harem doing “Norwegian Wood”, and I left honestly most impressed by the vocalist’s splendidly lurid retro tank top!

Martyrials vocalist Sammy, black-clad with a wizard’s long black psychedelic-patterned cloak and sporting the type of lionesque mane Ben Bentley of Sweet Jesus (remember them?) would have been proud of, had been prowling the venue looking every inch the maverick rock superstar in waiting. He then set up onstage with his pair of cohorts, finally standing there as the clock ticked to 10 pm, distractedly fiddling with his phone. “Oh, shall we begin? Sorry, just texting my mum… oh, she’s here!” Then straight into the taut, speedy, organ-propelled mania of “Parachute” and we were away, descending into the maelstrom (can I use that word twice in one gig review? Hell yeah!) of baroque, crazed druggy pop that is Martyrials’ oeuvre.

Difficult to pigeonhole into one genre (and perhaps that’s entirely the point!), Martyrials’ music is a true melting pot of styles and sounds; the angry, clipped and embittered delivery of the Sex Pistols and their embryonic anarchic punk ilk merged with the amphetamine-fast helium Goth of early Placebo, overlaid with swathes of harsh Krautrock sheet metallic synth and an unhealthy dose of the acid-fried theatrical psychedelic rock of The Doors. An incredible amount of oddness to pack into a voice and organ, bass and drum trio, that. And “live”, Sammy is the true star, a Lizard King for our times, pounding holy shit out of his battered keyboards when not otherwise occupied confronting and challenging the audience; “what a beautiful crowd; make some fucking noise!” and, “thanks for keeping up so far, there’s more of it to come, don’t you fucking worry!” being two such barbed epithets.

“Aachen” was a dark, sinister and tempo-changing beast which also saw Sammy briefly wrap a Union flag around his face (!), then more smack-talking (“anyone from Swindon? What a bunch of wankers! Mind you, I’m from Swindon and I’m a wanker too…”) preceded “Serotonin”’s glittery stomp. Finally, Sammy, by now shirtless, led his charges through a breathless “Are You Having Fun?”, the young crowd responding with a whirling maelstrom (that word again!) of slam dancing bodies to the finale’s cascading tumble of drums and staccato vocal hook. Barking mad, batshit crazy and thoroughly entertaining!

CD purchase and a quick chat with Sammy, before I dashed around to The Castle, arriving in time to catch the last number and a half from The Shudders. So much for my plans! Caught up apologetically with Tim and co and enjoyed a chat with a passing “Paj” before wearily heading off for a midnight home arrival. At least the key part of my plan worked out, and I’ll be delving into Martyrials’ mad world more often!

Friday, 23 March 2018

1078 THE VACCINES, Marlborough Thirty8 Café, Thursday 22nd March 2018

A proper family outing, this, then…  my dear lady wife Rachel, a massive Vaccines fan thanks to their evident classic 50’s rock’n’roll influences (albeit filtered through a new millennial indie rock sensibility), had already booked us tix for their forthcoming Alexandra Palace gig next month; however another, earlier opportunity arose to catch them, this time at considerably closer quarters, at Marlborough’s excellent Sound Knowledge record shop, where they were booked to do an in-store performance and signing session promoting their forthcoming, 4th, album “Combat Sports”. A phone call to the shop revealed a purchase of said album was necessary to secure entry, so I simply treated this as the price of admission and organised entry for the whole family. Rach is, as mentioned, a massive fan, I’ve been warming to them over time and have always enjoyed them “live”, and Logan and Kasey were both intrigued by some Vaccines numbers on rotation on the car stereo, both in particular singing happily along to oldie “If You Wanna”…

We picked up our “Vaccinated” wristbands the previous Saturday, after an abortive earlier trip, so had a drive down to this old Market Town after tea, parking up in the middle of the High Street for 6.30. The event, being held in Sound Knowledge’s neighbouring café Thirty8 (downstairs this time) was already rammed, so we got drinks in the upstairs bar before taking a spot outside the venue, next to the outside speakers and in neck-craning view of the side of the stage. Even this patch of earth however got fairly crowded as The Vaccines squeezed through to kick off their short set, and Rach took Kasey back to a less crowded spot as the opening bars of newie “Nightclub” proved too noisy for her! Logan and I stayed in, however, as The Vaccines powered through this impressive, spiky opener, plunging headlong thereafter into another, similarly swift and whip-smart newie “Surfing In The Sky”. Breathless stuff!

This was actually as good as I’d seen The Vaccines; however short, this was a performance of impressive purpose, and I found myself musing how their NME-hyped ascent up the ladder of rock’n’roll fame, a dozen rungs at a time, to Academy level headliners in the blink of an eye had actually robbed us of the opportunity to see how they performed in a small venue, where stages are cramped and festooned with wires and equipment, and you can see the whites of the baying crowds eyes. A shame indeed, as on tonight’s evidence they’d have been fucking great in, say, The Joiners or The Thekla back in the day, for this was a committed and razor-sharp performance, thrilling and dynamic, with vocalist Justin Young, who had been developing nicely into an arena-level mass-communicator of some note, proving even more impressive in these cosy confines, throwing shapes with a commanding strut and swagger.

And I’m pleased to report that I was very impressed with all 4 new numbers on display this evening; whereas swathes of their previous output had seemed so much like a hotch-potch of their influences (Ramones-like big fun dumb punk rock, naïve C86 jangle, and that ever-present Buddy Holly-esque 50’s soda bar doo-wop), tonight’s newies sounded, well, like The Vaccines. At last. Well done boys, it’s only taken you 4 albums (Ha! Well, for me, anyway…!)…

Logan sneaked into a spot by the side of the stage early doors, then a steward ushered him around to a spot stage right at the front, whereupon I spotted my mate Stuart Gould down the front, Logan squeezing through to join Stu at this vantage spot. So for the inevitable “If You Wanna” my lad was front center, bellowing the words back to Justin, a point not lost on the frontman. Another fine newie, the Summery “whoo-ooh-oh” catchiness of “I Can’t Quit” ended a splendid vignette, a serious appetite whetter for Ally Pally!

Rach and Kasey had danced at the side, then bagged early queue spots for the signing session upstairs in Sound Knowledge itself. So after a short wait (during which I chatted annoyingly loudly (allegedly!) with various friends, including James, Laura, Rich Carter and Stuart “Langers” and family) we all met and got pics and signed stuff with an affable band, Justin taking it in good humour when Logan (referencing Frank Turner) asked him, “are you the last great romantic poet?” A fun evening rounded off and we got the kids back home for a slightly later bedtime. Fine stuff from The Vaccines, and nice to see them in front of a couple of hundred folks; there’ll be 12,000 in at Ally Pally…!