Category Archives: Publications

Camden Rocks Festival 2018 – review

Funny things festivals. Are they about the music or the event? Or the food? Or the whole kit and kaboodle rolled into one. Not just rhetorical questions because they affect everything that happens on festival day. What should a good reviewer be looking for? In the first place there are the multiple stages to cover, bands that overlap and however carefully you lay a plan to maximise your time in the pit as soon as one band runs ten minutes over their allotted time it’s all gone out the window. Two stages is just about manageable. Three or four stages and you have to miss big chunks of the programme. Camden Rocks has twenty two stages to choose from, ranging from the classic rock and roll halls like Dingwalls and Koko to pubs and cafes.

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What makes Camden even trickier than any old 22 stage festival is that it’s not just about the music, or the event – it’s about Camden itself, the canal and the market and the Asculepeian snakes (they escaped from London Zoo and colonised the canal area years ago and every time I’m in the area I go looking for them but I’ve never seen one yet) and the Roundhouse (even if it’s not a festival venue it still dominates the Chalk Farm end of the festival area), and the pubs and the fancy dress punks who ply their trade on the bridge.

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Then there are the psychedelic shop fronts, the locks and canal boats and of course the street art, both official and unofficial. There’s even a witless Banksy or two. If you stand still too long in Camden there’s a good chance someone will paint over you and standing is frequently the only option you have because unless you’re eating at a restaurant or a cafe there is almost nowhere to sit. By late afternoon my poor old dogs are barking a treat.

Camden lays claim to being the music capital of the UK and it’s hard to argue. Manchester and Liverpool have had their moments but everybody and everyone has passed through Camden at some point. Just look at some of those 22 venues a little closer.

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There’s Koko, at Mornington Crescent, the southern extremity of the festival, founded in the 1870s by Ellen Terry, home to Charlie Chaplin and others and, having become a music venue in the late 1940s, the base from which the BBC broadcast the Stones in the 60s. As The Music Machine in the 70s it was the North London Punk Central, site of legendary gigs by The Pistols and The Clash and in the 80s it changed its name again, becoming The Camden Palace, spiritual home of the New Romantics and the venue for Madonna’s UK debut.

Or The Dublin Castle on Parkway where Amy Winehouse pulled pints, Madness began their careers and The Killers and the Arctic Monkeys made their first impact on the London scene and Dingwalls, legendary home of punk that has seen the almost everyone who’s anyone performing there – from Paul McCartney to The Clash (who shot the cover photo for their first album on the nearby stairs in Camden Market).

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And the list goes on. Plus of course there’s the market, home to a much visited statue of Saint Amy as Wilma Flintstone and more great street food than you can shake a stick at and even if it has all got a bit corporate there’s still enough craft and gimcrackery around to make it fun.

In the event the festival runs with military precision, with each band getting half an hour and then half an hour for clearing up and getting the next lot on – which means that at any given moment there are eleven gigs happening so hard choices have to be made. The early afternoon features plenty of up and coming bands and I catch some excellent indy sets at The Good Mixer with Elsewhere, The Fiddler’s Elbow with Lighthouse and at Dingwalls Canalside with Saint Jean who remind me a little of early REM, which in my house is considered to be no band thing.

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Down in the Dingwalls souterrain the Soap Girls, dressed only in some graffiti, a guitar, a feather boa and a butterfly head dress (each) are keeping the crowds happy with their mix of abrasive banter and catchy, riff driven grunge. They’re on their way to my home town later this month and I’m hoping to catch their full set at The Yardbirds.

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On the subject of the Yardbirds I end up parked next to a large blue van containing Hands Off Gretel who I last saw at that august venue. Described by no less a wordsmith than Ged Babey on Louder Than War as a technicolour grunge, angst-rocker, sex-punk death-rock, emo-pop band from South Yorkshire, and I can’t do better than that, although I think their geographic diversity may have increased following some recent line up changes. They’ve been championed by no less an authority than Paul Cook and have been supporting the newly renovated Professionals.

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I catch Hands Off Gretel’s set and also Rews, whose brand of infectiously hooky high energy alt rock is new to me (and I’ll be keeping an eye open for them if they brave to cold of the north any time soon), beneath the massed surf boards at Fest, which is packed out for both and stop into The Monarch for Alvarez Kings, who conjure up some of the best South yorkshire indie you’ll hear in a long time. They’re off on an extended US tour soon, which is just reward for their excellence and a work ethic which has seen them become a growing force on both sides of the Atlantic.

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The prize for the most photogenic band of the day goes to Flavour Nurse at The Monarch who combine classic glam with psych and alt rock to create a potent mix that serves, as they say on their website, as musical medicine for a diseased world. In the absence of clinically accepted double blind trials I’m going to go with the fact that they sound great, a perfect blend of 70s glam and contemporary indie with just the right balance between archness and irony. Whatever you call what they do it’s exciting and wonderful and it is a tribute to their metabolisms that they are able to put on a show that belongs after midnight at eleven in the morning. They’re from Watford by the way, but we won’t hold that against them and they’re definitely ones to watch.
Highlight of the day is a close run thing between This Year’s Ghost who blast out a deeply reverberative set of fierce grunge at The Camden Assembly that has the whole building buzzing. Think Alter Bridge and Pearl Jam with a touch of The Deftones thrown in for good measure making for some seriously nasty in your faceness.

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Second contenders are Beatsteaks who, despite having possibly the worst band name ever manage to feature punk and rock and soul and some distinctly 70s cheese pop and frequently do it all at the same time as well as exhibiting considerable football skills and a happy knack for front row bothering.

When it comes to the final choice of the day – Twin Atlantic and Maximo Park at Koko, Sikth at Underworld, British Sea Power somewhere else I go for Public Image at the Electric Ballroom and possibly the only disappointment of the day. Not because they’re not excellent, John is on great form, trilling and chirping his way through his set, but because only ten togs get into the pit so the day ends with some disappointing photos.

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Next year Camden Rocks becomes a two dayer and I for one will be putting in an application for what is definitely establishing itself as one of the best events of the year.

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The Vive Le Rock Awards 2018

It’s Wednesday, March 28th and the great and good of the classic era of punk and new wave gather for a night of celebration at the inaugural Vive Le Rock Awards. The O2 Islington is the place – a 1980s brown brick purpose built venue at the back of a shopping centre just to the north of The Angel. (That’s one of the blue ones on the first quarter if the Monopoly board if you’re a traditionalist like me. None of them new fangled localist boards in my house). Tonight there are 300 carefully invited guests and 200 paying punters and the squeeze is on for an evening filled with the sound of working class people getting uppitty, celebrating the old times and getting royally smashed.

It’s one of those nights that makes you pause for a moment for a ponder about the state of the music magazine industry. Looking along the shelves in your local newsagents is not always a pretty sight these days. It’s a case of turning up with your cash and hoping your favourite read is still on the go. Seems like a big name crashes every couple of months or merges to pursue economies of scale or goes 51% up for sale.

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It’s the internet wot dun it of course. The print market is tough, we know that but there’s still a thriving market for niche titles that do just what they say on the tin and among those Vive Le Rock is one of the market leaders.

Founded in 2010 by the good people at Big Cheese and having recently reached its fiftieth issue, Vive is the go to publication for British fans of rebel music, whether from the past or the present day. From Gene Vincent to The Ramones, Motorhead and The Pistols to The Gaslight Anthem or White Lies or Rancid. If it used to get up your grandma’s nose back in the day or if it pisses off your kids now then it’s probably grist to the Vive Le Rock mill.

The design and content of the mag pay homage to the days of the classic fanzine so that despite all the corporate necessities that go with publishing in the twenty first century it still manages to be an outsider magazine for outsiders.

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The main business of the evening is of course the distribution of awards but there’s some fine music as well and after a welcome and a little bit of history from editor Eugene Butcher we kick off with the house band for the night, who go by the soubriquet of The Vive Le Rockers’ but in fact they are most of The Urban Voodoo Machine which is about as good as a house band gets. They fall in perfectly behind each of the solo performers in turn, a masterclass in musical adaptability.

If you’re going to spend an evening celebrating classic British punk then you can’t start off better than a set from living legend T.V. Smith, formerly of The Adverts and nowadays in serious danger of acquiring national treasure status. The current issue of Vive Le Rock has an excellent feature on the music of 1978 and Gary Gilmore’s Eyes and One Chord Wonders, both from that year, still pack a punch.

He’s followed by Master of Ceremonies Ginger Wildheart with a set that includes two from  his newest long player, Ghost In The Tanglewood, to whit Daylight Hotel and Golden Tears and a favourite of mine, Toxins And Tea from 2015’s Year Of The Fanclub.

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The awards themselves are shared among some of the biggest names in punk and roots music with Kirk Brandon picking up the Pioneer Award on behalf of The Cure, Best New Band going to London Oi favourites Booze & Glory and the Roots Award going to The Selecter.

Best Film is presented by Brix Smith-Start and goes to the team from Buttz films, creators of Rebellion, Gary Crowley gets best re-issue and AC/DC drummer Chris Slade picks up the Rock In Peace Award which commemorates Malcolm Young. Perennial favourite street punks Cock Sparrer are best live act.

Album Of The Year, presented by Shakin’ Stevens, goes to The Professionals for What In The World. It’s my first visit with Paul Cook’s gang since Tom Spencer replaced Steve Jones on guitar and they sound just as driven and gloriously rough at the edges as they did at their late 70s prime. Going, Going, Gone – a tribute to messrs Lemmy and Bowie, is a new track that’s definitely worth checking out and although I haven’t got What In The World Yet, on this evidence it’s definitely near the top of the list.

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Best International Performer goes to Michael Monroe of Hanoi Rocks, who manages to overcome his natural shyness to pick up the trofe from Steve Diggle of The Stranglers. He later takes the stage for two songs with the house band during which he manages to climb over most of the stage equipment and perform some remarkable feats of balance on the mojos.

Charlie Harper is up next to get the King Rocker/Icon Award from Captain Sensible and he delivers a couple of songs including CID, as full of raucous energy as you could wish.and then it’s over to England legend Stuart Pearce to present the Band Of The Year Award to The Damned. And it’s up to them to close things down with a set that includes New Rose, Jet Boy Jet Girl and even a brief Wot.

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What have I missed? A great piece of rock and roll from the legend that is Shakin Stevens, Stuart Pearce leading a chorus of Sensible’s a wanker when the cherry bereted one and his bandmates fail to appear to pick up the best band award, an encounter with the luminous choppers of Spizz of Spizzenergi and there are plenty more moments and it’ll have to be enough just to say that it was a great night and if they do it again next year I’d like to be on the list please.

 

The Damned: O2 Apollo, Leeds – live review

As I made my way from the car park to the Academy for the show the night air was filled with rain and the sound of bells. Ringing in the damned.

The original goth punks were rumoured to be on good form, with a new album in the works, a single getting plenty of attention and the return of Paul Gray on bass and there was a long queue waiting to get out of the drizzle.

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First up one of the best surprises I’ve had in a long time. Usually before I set out for a show I check to see who the support are but on this occasion I forgot, so it’s a real pleasure to find that it’s no less a personal hero than Slim Jim Phantom, Stray Cats drummer and rockabilly guru playing some of the rawest rock and roll you ever heard. The other two places in the trio are a movable feast, (I believe Captain Sensible and Dave Vanian sometimes appear), but on this particular night the top class sidemen are James Walbourne and Nick Wilkinson, whose day jobs are as guitarist and bass player respectively for The Pretenders.

Their set takes in classics spanning the history of rock and roll from Carl Perkins’ Matchbox and The Womack’s It’s All Over Now to a terrific That’s Alright Mama that sets off at a slouching amble before bursting suddenly into a run and reminding us all just what it was that made rock and roll great in the first place. They tie things up with the Cats very own contribution to the rock and roll classic song book – Rock This Town.

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And so on to the main event and the Academy was pretty much full for The Damned who open with All Messed Up, Lively Arts and Silly Kids Games, representative of a set that’s heavily weighted towards the band’s glory days from the late 70s until the early 80s.

There’s a great British tradition of looking for the clay in the feet of our musical heroes and as such I feel like I ought to say at this point that The Damned weren’t a shadow of their former selves. We don’t have Johnny Hallydays in England.

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In fact The Academy crowd is treated to a great show with the band on excellent form, having a fine old time and revelling in the sheer joy of making some very loud music in company of several thousand like minded individuals. What more could you ask?

Front and centre Dave Vanian is bathed in Hollywood light as he struts his stuff with his retro mic and long black coat, while over to stage left The Captain finds himself a little pool of purplish darkness in which to hop and bop and twist, leaning over his guitar like a tangled marionette and offering occasional pithy comments. Paul Gray dances almost non stop and even Monty manages to escape his decks for a few brief moments of electrifying dad dancing during New Rose.

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Highlights include an anthemic Stealer Of Dreams, a raucous Elouise and the new single Standing On The Edge Of Tomorrow, featuring some ringing guitar riffs but what was most noticeable was how adeptly the band switches styles, one moment full on punk, next moment Vanian is transformed into a Neil Diamond style crooner. At one point he’s a fire and brimstone Old Testament prophet conducting a chorus of Woah ah Ohs on Devil In Disguise, next he seems to be channelling the spirit of The Housemartins.

The show closes with a mixture of old and new including Generals, Evil Spirits, (again the forthcoming album sounding like a good thing) and the classic Smash It Up before the band responds to the appeals of the assembled company by returning for a final cover of the Elton Motello classic Jet Boy, Jet Girl.

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Interview: Jess Clemmons

 
Jess Clemmons first came to the attention of British music fans a couple of years ago with the release of Here We Go Again, her debut album with The Bandits and one of the most exciting country rock albums we’ve heard in recent years. Many of the people who now count themselves fans first heard of her when her version of “Wichita Lineman” was played by DJ Terry Wogan, who afterwards declared it to have been even better than the Glen Campbell original. Praise indeed.

Since then she’s been a regular visitor to the U.K., touring all over the country and winning a large following. Last year her second album, Smoke and Mirrors was released. It was selected as one of the highlights of 2017 by Country Magazine and the lead single “Sister” received extensive airplay from the BBC.

She’s back on tour in the U.K. in February, kicking off at Fruit in Hull on February 6th and if you’re a fan of top notch country music then we’d highly recommend a trip to the north bank to catch the show. We got to talk to Clemmons about music, marriage and the perspicacity of small dogs, and we started by asking about the distinctive change of sound on the material on the new album.

idp: Let me start by congratulating you on Smoke And Mirrors. I’ve been listening to it for a couple of weeks now and it’s an excellent thing. It has a distinctly different sound to Here We Go Again. A little less country rock, a little more pop and gospel. Was this a deliberate decision or did it just happen, like a natural progression?

Jess Clemons: It was absolutely deliberate. The last thing that we ever want to do is to try to recreate something we’ve already done. There’s a kind of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix” it trap and some performers and bands fall right into it. It’s easier but it also means that you don’t grow as an artist and you don’t give the audience something new. Making a big change to your sound involves taking a chance and that’s why we spent a whole year working on the songs for the new album to try to get the best of both worlds – still recognizably the established Jess And The Bandits sound but with plenty of the new in there as well.

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idp: Did it feel like a risk?

JC: Well there were certainly lots of times when I was in panic mode because much of this was so different from anything we’d done before but that was mostly before I’d really started living with these songs, sharing them with friends and colleagues. Gradually it came to feel less strange. I would take the old album and choose a song to play at random, and then I’d play one of the new ones and I came to realize that there was a coherence between the songs – a big similarity in the body of work, which is exactly what you want. I wanted to find a way to tie all the songs together because when you’re in a club playing live you don’t want it to sound like you’re performing songs that don’t belong together. So I’m really glad that I went with my gut and that my management team supported me and I decided to take a risk and go for it.

idp: There’s a lot of gospel influence on the album. Is that something that you grew up with? You seem to drop into the groove very easily.

JC: I did grow up singing in the choir and the gospel feel as always been a part of me. It used to hurt that whenever I would get a solo in church I was always given the gospel part and I used to say, “I want to sing the pretty little songs,” but soon I decided that I’d embrace it. When I decided to use the gospel sound on the new album it felt really good because I felt I was getting back touch with the gospel tradition within myself that I had not made use of for a long time. It was like I was going back to my roots and to being a little girl again.

idp: There’s an extensive list of writers who contributed to the album, many of them working with you as co-writers. Do you enjoy collaboration?

JC: I love it and I got to work with some fantastic writers on Smoke and Mirrors. Femke Weidema, who co-wrote “Sister”, is actually the producer of the album and it’s great to work with a producer who is also a songwriter because you can see a song go from it’s very beginnings to being almost complete in just a few hours. Having her as a producer with such gave me such an advantage. And there’s Emily Shackleton as well. She wrote “Every Little Thing”, which was a big hit for Carly Pearce and she’s fantastic to work with.

idp: So you work in Nashville but you live in Houston?

JC: I’m in Houston now and I think I have been here for longer than I’ve ever been but I’ve taken full advantage of the downtime including getting married. I’m Mrs Peavey now. I’m getting used to that but it still feels a bit weird writing it down. I’ll get used to that soon.

idp: I understand that your dog told you that he was the right one.

JC: Unfortunately my puppy died a couple of months ago but he was always very protective about who was around me. He was just a little dog but he was one of those little dogs who think they’re very big dogs. But when Chris was around he would just cuddle right up and I thought that if I hadn’t already figured out that he was the one then maybe I should just pay attention to the dog.

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idp: I think you were also hit by hurricane Harvey.

JC: Oh yes that was precisely why we had to postpone the U.K. tour last year. It was scheduled and I had been in the U.K. for a month getting ready and everything was all set and then I got the word that my parents home and been severely affected. It was the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed especially from thousands of miles away. I spoke to my mum and she said, “Do what you have to do,” but I could have hear the pain in her voice so I asked, “Do you want me to come home?” and she just burst into tears and said “Yes.” I said, “Right I’m going home, people will understand.” She’s okay now. She’s back in the house and it’s coming together slowly. They don’t have a kitchen yet but they do have a bedroom and a bathroom.

idp: You also issued an old fashioned Christmas CD which has lots of U.K. country performers on it and a song by Gary Quinn. What do you think of the current U.K. country scene?

JC: I’m a big fan. I’ve been touring the U.K. since 2016 and I’ve seen the country scene develop so fast. I love the way a lot of U.K. country artists are using their own heritage to make authentic British country music. It’s not just a question of copying the U.S. music anymore.

idp: Are we expecting a mixture of new material and old when the tour comes round?

JC: Absolutely. It’s good to be starting in Hull because Fruit is an excellent venue and we’re hoping for a good crowd. I’ll try and put in the songs that people really love plus some from the new album and hopefully people will have had time to get to learn some of them and sing along.

idp: I’m sure they will. Have a great tour and we’ll look forward to seeing you in Hull.

The Flaming Lips: Zebedee’s Yard, Hull – live review

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Zebedee’s Yard , Hull
25th May 2017

Hull’s newest music venue is Zebedee’s Yard, close to the quayside. a car park by day, hemmed in by the backs of Victorian warehouses and office buildings. It might sound unglamorous but in practice it works just great, and while it’s probably destined to be a one summer only thing for the City of Culture celebrations it would be nice if it could continue to be used for the future because the city needs an pop up venue like this.

It certainly makes a great and slightly disorientating backdrop for The Flaming Lips,a band for whom great and slightly disorientating are the rule rather than the exception and they give us a show that certainly makes it into my top ten ever, an explosion of music, colour and joy whose psychedelia is only enhanced by the venue’s anachronistic red brick bowl.

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Everybody’s favourite young fogeys, Public Service Broadcasting, are the main support, equipped with tech and traditional instruments in equal measure and dressed as if they knew the yard’s buildings when they were young.

It’s the first time I’ve seen them live and I’ll admit to sometimes harbouring grave suspicions about bands that play computers on stage. I’ve vented them in QRO reviews on occasion, so I’m ashamed to admit that I have relatively low expectations of PSB. In my defence I’ll just say that it takes about fifteen seconds to realise that they aren’t what I’m expecting at all. No crouching over the decks gesticulating like they’re communicating in some sort of sign language for the constipated. No dancing on tables. None of the shouting “Come on Hull make some fucking noise” which usually passes for literacy for players of the Apple Mac and related instruments.

Their complex weaving of live music and samples is completely thrilling and even if I’m not dancing, (which puts me very much in the minority), I am completely mesmerised. No good asking me about the first few songs because I’m busy with cameras but I spend the rest of the set getting my head round their sound, which takes some time.

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It’s not until The Other Side, which deploys samples from the Apollo 8 mission, that I start to pick the threads from the complexity sufficiently to understand what’s going on. It’s a great track with the tension rising throughout,like a hundred heartbeats woven into one until it reaches a massive crescendo.

Favourite tracks are hard to call because it still all felt very new but Everest, which closes the set, is incredible and when Public Service Broadcasting leave the stage I have a new favourite band.

And then we’re all set for the main event. As a prequel nets filled with huge balloons are manoeuvred into the gangway at the side of the stage but so bijou is Zebedee’s Yard the crew are unable to get them past the scaffold structure. After several minutes of effort, filled with the sound of popping rubber, they give up and the balloons are distributed to the crowd by way of a human chain. It’s an impressive piece of work.

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It’s my first live encounter with The Flaming Lips, a band whose shows have achieved legendary status. The previous night they were at Glastonbury, closing things up on the Park Stage. Tonight it’s a car park in Hull. It might seem like a bit of a come down but you have to remember that this year Hull is the official UK city of real, proper culture, and Glastonbury is, as ever, the home of middle class beardy weirdy wannabe culture.

It’s difficult to know how to approach a Flaming Lips review. If you’ve seen them before you won’t need a description. If you haven’t then you probably won’t believe me.

The balloons having been pretty much eliminated by the end of Race For The Prize, Wayne Coyne, dressed in crimson velvet, is joined on stage by several large inflatable manga characters for a glorious Yoshimi. For the first time ever I miss loads of shots because I am too busy singing along. When There Should Be Unicorns trots in Coyne rides a ten foot luminous equine monocerous into the crowd. It’s a dangerous thing to attempt and the only safety gear with which he is equipped are some inflatable rainbow wings and a pair of fluffy green crocodile feet. If it all sounds a bit predictable then all I can do is promise you that it’s great. The unicorn completes a full circuit of Zebedee’s Yard and Coyne dismounts.

After that it all gets a bit weird.

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The hamster ball comes out for a strangely poignant Space Oddity and there’s a giant rainbow, more confetti cannons than you can shake a stick at, and a large inflatable Fuck Yeah Hull sign which has a much more pleasing symmetry than the previous night’s bottom heavy Fuck Yeah Glastonbury.

What’s most important though is that at no point in the whole bizarre process does the quality of the performance ever slip below fantastic. There may be a lot of nonsense in the air but it isn’t allowed to compromise the music.

The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song is a huge singalong and Coyne seems pleasantly surprised at how many people are able to join in with verses as well as chorus. The show winds up with a storming She Don’t Use Jelly and a tender and lovely Beatles tinged Do You Realize, which has the crowd singing as they leave.

Alter Bridge, Volbeat, Gojira: Leeds arena – live review

Who is the best vocalist currently working in rock music? We could argue that one all day. It’s the kind of debate music fans love and of course we’d never get a definitive answer. But we can be pretty sure that if it came to a vote then Myles Kennedy of Alter Bridge, a man who was twice considered for Led Zeppelin duties and doubles up as vocalist for Slash’s touring band, The Conspirators, would be near the top of the poll.

It can’t be very often that the pre-eminence of Kennedy’s vocals is given a run for its money but at the Leeds Arena on Friday, December 2nd, we’re treated to a magnificent display of power and technique from not just one but two vocal greats, with Kennedy’s crown coming in for some serious pressure from Michael Poulsen, lead vocalist of Danish rockabilly metal outfit Volbeat.

It’s a 6.30 start and I’ve no chance of making it for hard rockin’ kiwis Like A Storm (subsequent YouTubeing indicated that I missed out, and I’ll be keeping an eye open for them in future) but I manage to catch the second half of a superlative set from Gojira. The Frenchmen certainly know how to put on a show and many critics tip them for superstardom. On this showing that sounds perfectly reasonable and they certainly know how to whip a crowd into frenzy – the ferocity of their performance being matched on the night only by a particularly terrifying circle pit.

Volbeat wear their influences on their sleeves. They reference Johnny Cash early on at the opening of Sad Man’s Tongue and later welcome Barney Greenaway of Napalm Death for a rousing Evelyn. As you’d expect the set is dominated by tracks from their most recent album, 2016’s Seal The Deal & Let’s Boogie (there can’t be many better ways to start a set than The Devil’s Bleeding Crown), but the highlights come when they rifle through the back catalogue a little for a captivating Lola Montez and Still Counting, for which they bring about half the audience on stage to sing backing vocals. Poulsen’s vocals are riveting throughout, particularly on the inspirational Let It Burn, for which phones and lighters (remember them?) are out in force.

Alter Bridge arrive quietly, sneaking onto the stage in the dark and launching into The Writing On the Wall. Their schtick throughout is to play down the grandstanding and showmanship in favour of being four ordinary guys playing some music. That’s not to say they don’t play a great show – they assuredly do – but it does mean that they put their energies into the performance, not into playing ‘Look at me, I’m famous,’ and they’re all the better for it. A little bit of modesty can be very endearing at times. With Kennedy on vocal and guitar duties he can’t roam the stage like some do, so he has to make up for some visual riffs in favour of musical ones – he’s a pretty good guitarist too, although he did seem happy to be released from instrumental duties and to interact with the front rows on Metalingus.

Alter Bridge are anthem rockers at heart and they have a knack for coming up with great melodies that give Kennedy something to really lean into. On songs like Ghost of Days Gone By and Farther Than the Sun Kennedy gives it that unique blend of passion and controlled power that made him famous back in the Mayfield Four days, but it’s on Blackbird that he really shows just what it is that makes him the best in the world with an extraordinary blend of power and emotion, accentuated by Mark Tremonti’s guitar work. On Waters Rising Tremonti takes the vocal duties while there‘s a moving solo acoustic performance from Kennedy for Watch Over You. Among the many highlights were a hard driving Addicted To Pain and the anthemic Rise Today, which closed the show and sent the fans home happy.

On this showing Alter Bridge are definitely shaping to be one of the major arena rock bands of the next few years with Volbeat not far behind and you should definitely catch both of them if you get the chance.

Art Brut: New Adelphi, Hull – live review

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Art Brut
The New Adelphi, Hull
29th September 2013

Classic rock band Art Brut barnstorm their visit Hull’s New Adelphi.

My first time at the New Adelphi in Hull. I’d been told it was tiny but it’s much smaller than that, one of those proper little rock and roll venues the are disappearing fast. It’s basically an end terrace with the downstairs rooms knocked into one, bright blue and pink walls, a mural at the back of the stage and an array of lights hanging from the ceiling that look like they were made out of catering jam tins.

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There are concrete beams in the roof, one of which passes directly above the front of the stage, causing lead singer and extreme ironist in chief Eddie Argos to raise a hand to ascertain its location at the start of each song before essaying one of his trademark pogos. As a six foot fourer who has had to wear a stupid looking collar on three occasions as a result of low ceilings I worry for him.

Openers on the night are local guitar and drum duo The Glass Delusion whose set is made up of great, fast, loud one minute songs about literature, the importance of not being buried alive and their disdain for tribute acts. Great fun and I’m nominating them for a special award as the band who sound least like their web material when you hear them live. Following on are La Bete Blooms, usually a five piece, tonight playing as a four, harmonic post punk tinged with some delicate pop sensibility. It’s a great bill put together by Screaming Tarts who bring a lot of good music over to the east coast where god knows we need it.

Having arrived at the gig knowing that I liked Art Brut what takes me by surprise when they arrive on stage is how much I like them. They manage to go from being an amusing band that I rather like and approve of to being one of my favourites in the space of the set. I think this is because I’d mostly though of them up to now as ironists. I hadn’t really appreciated what a good noise they make and what a barnstorming over the top show performance we were in for.

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On CD the band are almost subdued, mostly present to service the lyric but live they are tight, wild, disciplined and raucous, not by turns but all at the same time which is a tough combination to pull off. Proceedings are inevitably dominated by front man Eddie Argos, who delivers his lines with the accompaniment of an impressive repertoire theatrical gurning and gesticulation.

All the favourites are there – including Formed A Band, Emily Kane and My Little Brother but best song of the night is the newest Arizona Bay, a nod in the direction of Bill Hicks which has a great deranged swagger to it. The spoken interludes and commentaries which last only a few seconds on CD become extended monologues lasting several minutes in some cases. During Modern Art he steps down from the stage and out into the crowd, having everyone sit or crouch down while he leans over them and exuberantly narrates the story of his visit to the Van Gogh Museum like a particularly enthusiastic nursery teacher trying to whip some enthusiasm into story time.

The irony is still a big part of the show of course – not just the straightforward stuff either but a special kind of multilayered reflexive irony which has always been present in their work -‘This is my real singing voice, I’m not being ironic’ Argos declaims on Formed A Band.

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During his Modern Art soliloquy he explains to the audience that he has lost the thread of the story and has improvised himself into a corner he doesn’t know how to get out of, only to admit a few moments later when the laugh has been won that in fact he knows exactly where he is headed because the impression of spontaneity is of course an artifice and the same monologue, including this bit, can be found word for word on the CDs available (at remarkably good prices) on the table to our left.

Most importantly the band look like they’re having a great time. Argos points out that they have two new members on board and he takes great delight in confounding them by departing from the set list for what appear to be unrehearsed songs. ‘Play one the drummer knows’ someone shouts from the back during a moment of confusion. Argos enjoys it too and repeats it in case anyone missed out. It’s my favourite heckle at a gig in ages and all the more enjoyable because of the sneaking suspicion that maybe nobody shouted it at all and Argos just made it up and it’s part of the regular show.

~

Art Brut can be found at their website and at their Facebook, Twitter and MySpace pages.

La Bete Blooms are on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.

The Glass Delusion are at their website and at their Facebook and BandCamp pages.

Bill Callahan: Dream River – album review

Bill Callahan: Dream River (Drag City)
CD/LP/DL
Available now

Dream River, the new album from Bill Callahan, the artist formerly known as Smog, is a fascinating patchwork of whispers of joy, intimations of mortality and rumours of trouble scattered through eight spare, wistful, meditative songs that sometimes sound more like notes for future works read into a voice recorder than completed compositions. idp listens to a fine new work from one of the best song writers in the world today.

All the songs on Dream River are delivered in Callahan’s wise young uncle baritone, conversational almost, seldom straying close to anything that would usually be considered singing. Daniel Durchholz famously described Tom Wait’s voice as sounding “like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.” Bill Callahan‘s voice doesn’t sound as thoroughly abused as Waits’ but it does sound as though it’s been polished nicely and then forgotten about and left in the garden for a few nights.

Although it’s not as upbeat and musically liberated as some of its predecessors the album features some nice splashes of violin, accordion, flute and guitar, (sometimes evoking memories of Mitchell and Pastorius) but they’re just for colour; this is very much a solo vocal album with incidental music. The songs are often fragmentary and opaque and at times it feels almost like listening in on private thoughts spoken accidentally aloud. When applied to song writing the adjective ‘personal’ is often code for ‘not the artist’s best work’ but these are songs where the personal nature of the lyric is what raises them above the mundane and into the realm of the exceptional. It’s tempting to label them poetry but that’s too glib. The truth is that these are songs – just very complex and subtle songs that take a lot of teasing apart.

The whole album is heavy with a restrained emotion (restraint is one of the things Callahan excels at) that sounds at first like guilt or grief but gradually reveals itself to be passion. Despite the veneer of calm these are deeply carnal songs.

“All I really want to do is make love to you

In the fertile dirt with a careless mind”

…. he sings on Spring which feels like the centre piece of the album. Spring is not a good time of the year – Callahan is with Elliott on this one – breeding lilacs and looking like death warmed over.

So constantly present is carnality, or the promise of carnality, or the recollection of carnality this may well be Callahan’s refractory period album. A large measure of transient tristesse colours the lyrics – these are not songs of the sadness of a man who cannot find anyone to love, rather they are the songs of a man who having found a transcendent other is consumed with the fear of their loss or of his own failure to match up. One sometimes hears of suicides who take their lives because they are so happy they cannot bear the thought that anything might change. This album is probably how they feel. It can be hard work always seeing the skull beneath the skin.

On Javelin Unlanding he says of a sleeping lover –

“You looked so peaceful you scared me.

Don’t die just yet

And leave me alone on this journey.”

And Ride My Arrow opens with the straightforward – “I don’t ever want to die.”

These are the songs of a man who knows that happiness is not permanent, that good things come to an end, loves or lovers die, Summer turns to Autumn. In The Summer Painter a hurricane descends suddenly on a coastal town, marking the end of an idyll. Callahan is frequently an acute observer of the natural world and here he summons what is probably the album’s best line –

“The rain ripped the lips of the mouth of the bay.”

Certain motifs recur throughout. The weather, wind especially, silence, alcohol served in bars, travel. Flying is ever present. It’s a frequent subject for Callahan, but on this album it’s not just birds that fly. On Small Plane a pilot muses on his own good fortune to be flying home with his sleeping wife beside him, navigating without instruments and following the course of the river. Later, on Ride My Arrow an eagle uses the same river as it’s own map, while beavers build dams and seagulls fly.

It’s an album that repays frequent listening to get the best from the layers of imagery and the stories it has to tell. Album opener The Sing could easily be mistaken for a generic drinking song, narrated by an intermittently conscious hotel bar customer –

“The only words I’ve said today are beer and thank you.

Beer.

Thank you.

Beer.

Thank you.”

And yet the speaker feels that he is somehow “Giving praise in a quiet way” as a storm brews outside and the wind arrives back to ‘ping’ the fabric of the building. No explanation of the drinker’s decision to drink themselves in to oblivion other than a cryptic

“Mortal joy can be that way.”

The songs are so effortless it is easy to overlook the subtlety of their construction. There can’t be many rhyme patterns that have never been used before in popular song but the following is probably unique –

“The silence returns, high as scaffolding,

Until the wind comes back looking for something to ping,

All we’re looking for is a body. Or the way to make one sing.”

And that’s about the size of it. How to make a body sing. It’s tempting to think that perhaps on the evidence of this album Callahan spends too much time thinking about the answer and not enough taking practical steps to find it. Introspection like this is seldom the path to the careless mind.

But he does know how dangerous the search can be and he knows that even when one has found something truly beautiful that does not mean that one has reached the end of one’s journey or the end of the pain that beauty can bring. Human vulnerability is never far from his thoughts – described poignantly in Javelin Unlanding which dwells on the quiet moments in the night when his lover is asleep and they are “laying all twisted together and exposed like roots on a river bank. Bam bam bam! The earth off its axis.”

In Winter Road a truck driver meditates on the beauty and danger of the snow covered highway –

“Oh I have learned when things are beautiful

To just keep on, just keep on

The blinding lights of the kingdom can make you weep

When things are beautiful, just keep on.”

It’s probably good advice.

~

Bill Callahan can be found at his record company’s website. He doesn’t use Facebook or Twittle. He just makes great music. This makes a refreshing change.

Joe Bonomassa: Manchester Arena – live review

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Joe Bonomassa
Manchester Arena
21st September 2013

Manchester turned out in force for Joe Bonamassa at the Arena and he repaid them with a dazzling display of guitar virtuosity which drew on a wide range of influences from across the range of blues styles, with an emphasis on music influenced by the classic British rock blues revivalists of the 1970’s.

The Arena was set up as an all seater and the show had very much the atmosphere of a recital. While several thousand people looked on in awestruck admiration at the outrageous bravura, nobody stood up and danced, despite the fact that up on stage Bonamassa was laying down some fine grooves. While it was a pleasure to sit and listen to a man on the top of his game putting a wide range of impressive looking guitars through their paces it would have been nice to see just a little bumping and grinding on the floor. Blues is the devil’s music after all, somebody should have let him in.

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Dressed conservatively in blue suit and shades Bonamassa is not a flamboyant presence on the stage. He rocked gently while playing, occasionally leaned back or paced the stage and although there were tricks and displays of virtuosity enough for several shows there was very little of that aimless noodling at the bottom of the finger board which characterises the solos of many rock guitarists intent on showcasing their skills. Bonamassa has a real commitment to the music – the song comes first and everything follows from that.

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Acting as his own opener he began with half a dozen acoustic blues numbers, either solo or with members of the band, including a dazzling cover of John Martyn’s Jelly Roll and a lovely version Athens to Athens with Tal Bergman on bongos and Derek Sherinian on upright piano that set the standard for the rest of the evening, which was to be electric in every sense of the word.

It was, of course, the promise of the electric set that drew the crowd and Bonamassa didn’t disappoint, opening with a blistering Dust Bowl followed by Story Of A Quarryman. During the course of this set there were many changes of guitar and style; Driving Towards daylight opened with the stage drenched in blue light and Bonamassa playing atmospheric licks that echoed round the arena before the band joined and the song uncoiled into a howl of anguish, Slow Train was a full power Led Zeppelin style rocker played very loud indeed while on Midnight Blues, a cover of the Gary Moore number, Bonamassa evoked not only the spirit of Moore himself but of that other British guitar legend Peter Green. Elsewhere there were touches reminiscent of the Altman brothers, Jeff Beck and Don Henley and show closer The Ballad Of John Henry was embellished with some fine flamenco.

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Bonamassa was generous with the spotlight on stage. Both Bergman and Sherinian got spots for extended solos, Sherinian summoning up the spirit of prog with his swirling organ motifs. The band was completed by bass maestro Carmine Rojas. Bonamassa also gave up the spotlight for young guitarist Eilidh McKellar who showed that there are young blues guitarists in the UK who could be snapping at the master’s heels in a few years time.

After nearly two and a half hours the show closed with crowd favourites Sloe Gin and John Henry – a fitting close to a fine display of virtuoso playing. Rumour has it that Bonomassa’s next album is going to have a lot more emphasis on blues and less on rock and that will make for an interesting listen but tonight’s show left the crowd happy and there are few people in the world today who can play guitar the way Joe Bonomassa can. Fantastic.

Joe Bonamassa can be found at his website and on Facebook, Twitter and MySpace.

China Rats: Don’t Play With Fire – ep review

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China Rats: Don’t Play With Fire (Once Upon A Time)
CD/DL
Available September 30th 2013

Brash, cocky, likeable and loud, China Rats have taken the festival circuit by storm and now they have a new ep out and it’s well worth a listen.

With gigs at Leeds and Reading (and Bingley where I had the good fortune to hear them and where the nice pictures below were taken), a trip to SXSW and a surprise headline spot at Benicassim, Leeds based China Rats have had a good year and this new EP seems likely to cement their position as one of the best up and coming bands in the country. Although it’s only 5 songs long the rats manage to pack in a wide range of styles that show a wide range of influences as you’d expect from a band who have been compared to The Enemy, The Vaccines and The Arctic Monkeys to name but a few.

China Rats aren’t big on subtlety and this isn’t music for discussing politely or for debating meanings – this is big, riffy, noise pop with great hooks, made to be turned up really loud to annoy the neighbours, kicking off with N.O.M.O.N.E.Y., which has already received some mainstream radio airplay – a proper little rocker about just the things proper little rockers should be about – girls, being skint, girls, dancing and girls. It’s a big sound, fast and noisey and a bit Undertonesish and echoey as the bottom of a very big bucket – but the distortion suits the song so no problems there.

Deadbeat is full of Ramones style energy, Get Loose sound a bit like an early Kinks song and is an all together poppier proposition that could easily be an indie disco favourite. Reeperbahn opens the sound up until it resembles classic 60’s psych rock, great harmonies and I’ve not heard a tambourine that high in the mix for a long time and winding things up is Green Tears, whose vocal harmonies come straight from the Beatles but with a big ringing fuzz guitar solo laid over the top and drums that threaten to come out of the speakers at you.

Great fun.

China Rats can be found at their website and at their Facebook, Twitter and SoundCloud pages. Images from their set at Bingley 2013 are in the gallery below and further images from that set can be found here.