Can it really be eight years since The xx picked up the top prize at the Mercury Awards? Seems like only yesterday, and even though they’ve released two albums since then and are seasoned veterans of the music industry, I still find that I worry about them, just a little. Partly it’s because their photos often make them look sort of vulnerable, but mostly it’s because their music sounds so personal and revealing. They seem to put much more of themselves on the line than other bands.
Maybe I’m wrong, but as I head for my first ever live encounter with the band, at Nottingham on Saturday 4th March, I find that I’m just slightly nervous about how their sound will translate to a packed arena (and from the crowds making their way through the streets in the direction of the Arena, it was pretty clear that it will indeed by packed out).
It’s not the size of the venue, so much as the presence of all these other people. I would gladly sit at the back of the arena and just let the sound wash over me, that’s what The xx songs are for, but sharing these intimate moments with thousands of others seems a bit too public. I don’t even do selfies. And I listen to The xx when everybody else has gone out. They’re not for sharing.
It’s the band’s first U.K. gig in four years and they sound pleased to be back, endearing themselves to the locals by referencing one of their early gigs at The Bodega (pause for cheering).
Since the last time they were round these parts, Jamie Smith, a.k.a. Jamie xx, has arguably become the best known of the trio, following the success of his 2015 solo album In Colour, with its array of complex beats and samples and subtly shifting melodies, and his parallel career as a producer and DJ. Here he’s positioned on a riser at the back of the stage, more or less invisible to much of the crowd (and to camera persons in the pit), but when he’s due an extended solo, an ingenious mirrored ceiling tilts into position so that we can see him scurrying between drums, keyboards, timpani, decks and electronics. It’s a fascinating view and a little bit like one of those overhead shots of maze tests done on small animals, giving the show an air of scientific enquiry, which it rather suits.
Vital to the group dynamic Smith may be, but The xx still look and sound like a trio of friends and it’s still Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim who take most of the responsibility for delivery. They work so well together, both instrumentally and vocally, that they are capable of changing the mood of a moment by the very subtlest of inflections, achieving a mesmerizing symbiosis.
There’s some smoke and lighting effects, and the aforementioned mirror, but precious few of the other tropes of the modern arena show. No elaborate posturing, no silly dances. Sim does the occasional mid riff spin, but he looks quite sheepish afterwards as if he feels like he’s let himself down a bit. There’s no cinematic back projection, no descent into the crowd, no bringing people onto the stage, and definitely no huge bouncing balls that drop from the ceiling, such as occurred last time I was at this venue, for Elbow.
This is grown-up music played rather seriously for an audience of grown-ups, and while there is plenty of dancing on the tiers, at the back where I’m standing it’s mostly people listening intently with their heads cocked slightly to one side and a toe tapping gently in time.
Songs from new album I See You predominate in the set list, but their first album xx is not far behind, and old and new material mesh together to create a unified whole with only the subtlest of tweaks to the arrangements. But then again subtlety always was The xx’s strong suit.
There are constant changes of pace and emotional colour so that the audience’s interest never wavers. Brave For You arrives fragile and delicate but develops into a piece of noise-rock that has the temporary seating vibrating in time to the bass line, and it’s followed by Infinity, whose stillness is profound, the whip cracks slicing their way across the arena like the theme music for an unmade British western. The repeated five note riff that introduces Violent Noise is mesmerizing, and having opened the show with Say Something Loving, they close the main set with a cover of Smith’s Loud Places before returning for On Hold, Intro and Angel, neatly combining the best tracks from each of their albums into ten minutes of achingly pretty encore, and proving that I needn’t have worried about them really.
Before any gig a little bit of research is called for. Read some interviews and reviews. Do some back catalogue trawling. Sometimes it’s a chore. Sometimes it’s bewildering and baffling. Sometimes it’s painful.
With the Fun Lovin’ Criminals, it’s a case of, “Wow, these guys are great. How come I don’t listen to them more?”
Maybe it’s because I’ve come to associate frontman Huey Morgan with panel shows and 6Music. Maybe I was a late adopter of the whole urban R&B thing. Either way, visiting the FLC back catalogue is an eye opener and a real pleasure. Their fusion of rock, hip-hop and urban jazz still seems very contemporary.
All of which means that when I arrive at the Engine Shed in Lincoln on Thursday, February 16th, my expectations for the night are high and they go even higher when I find out that the support are The Urban Voodoo Machine, who have been at the top of my must see list for a long time. I have read and edited so many reviews of the Machine over the past few years, all of them glowing, that I find I’m slightly afraid that they have to be a bit of a let down. Can any band be that good?
The answer is that they can. Imagine Tom Waits at his wildest fronting Gogol Bordello with elements of the punkest mariachi ensemble and New Orleans marching band thrown into the mix, and you’ll have something approaching their sound, but it’s not just their sound that matters. I’m a bit suspicious of costume bands. I calculate that the fancy dress is usually a cover for some sort of musical deficiency. Over the years it’s been a pretty good rule of thumb but in the case of the UVM it doesn’t apply. Decked out in red and black, with a priest on stand up bass, a zombie on drums, a sequined moll on saxophone and cymbals and a carefully choreographed off kilter madness throughout, the band change positions and instruments and styles while delivering as good a set of up tempo gypsy stomp as you’ll hear in a very long time. Fantastic stuff.
The Crims open up with the sly Fun Lovin’ Criminals (what else?) and within a few bars the audience are moving in time to the music. There’s even some singing along going on near me, which is pretty impressive, because it’s not an easy song.
From then on it’s classic after classic with the band on great form, Morgan displaying some smart guitar chops, Frank Benbini on drums holding everything together, which is a big responsibility in a funk hip hop band without a bass player (mostly), and ‘Fast’ Brian Leiser on an impressive range of instruments including horns, keyboards, decks, and swanee whistle. His versatility means that the band can play in a wide range of styles from the classic funk soul of Love Unlimited to rock and jazz as required and when he gets that bass out they really rock the joint.
The set is a real crowd pleaser, heavy on the late 90s favourites from Come Find Yourself and 100% Colombian with a couple from later albums like Classic Fantastic in the mix for good measure. Scooby Snacks gets a huge roar and comes in considerably heavier than I remember it, Korean Bodega is superbly wild, and in between the tunes Morgan takes the opportunity to indulge in plenty of banter with the band, the audience in general, and a woman in the front row in a check shirt in particular.
The main set finishes with a lounge bar All The Time In the World before an encore of We, The Three, Up On The Hill and Big Night Out.
Usually on the way home I start my research for my next gig via the iPlayer, but tonight I just leave the Criminals on shuffle.
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.
It’s only a couple of years Jess Clemmons and her Bandits got together (having met while she was supporting them on tour under their alternative identity, The Overtones), and in that time they’ve had a hit album on the country charts (the excellent Here We Go Again, now available in a new deluxe edition), wowed Sir Terry Wogan (Sir Tel on Louder Than War – that’s another one off the bucket list), while playing live on his show and established a reputation as one of the most exciting live acts on the circuit. The chance to catch up with them at Hull Fruit is too good to pass up and word has clearly got round because when we arrive, plenty early enough for the supports the place is already buzzing.
Support comes from Hull four piece The Mighty And The Moon, whose country tinged songs recall Damien Rice with a hint of Tom Waits gravel. I particularly like Port In A Storm with its lovely, old fashioned slouchy waltz time but there are lots of other great songs in their set and they have a new album on the way soon.
Tour support are Luke & Mel are a duo from Cumbria and either Yorkshire or Lancashire (depending who’s asking) but they sound like they just stepped down off the stage at the Grand Old Opry. Highlights of their set include their cover of Little Big Town’s Little White Church and their new single, Bad Habit, which has that authentic Southern rock twang, calling to mind Miranda Lambert.
And so to Jess And The Bandits who get a huge cheer when they take the stage. Although Jess herself may have forgotten (until reminded by the fact checkers at the front), they played a storming set at the Cottingham Festival last year and I think half the crowd from that gig are here tonight. Texas born Jessica Clemmons is a force of nature, never still for a moment, dancing and striking poses, by turns confidential or coquettish, always charming, always commanding the room. At one point there is some chatter at the bar and she lets the culprits know that she’s not happy. It must have been something important because the rest of us can’t take our eyes off her.
Her set is a mixture of roadhouse country, torch songs and blues and she delivers in spades on every song with a style that’s a bit pop, a bit rock, a lot of blues and one hundred percent country. As well as the amazing voice she’s a terrific songwriter and songs like Kiss You Now and Love Like That establish a high standard for the rest of the night but the first really heart stopping moment is a cover of Lee Brice’s I Don’t Dance. Performed as a duet with keyboard player Steven Reid Williams, it’s completely lovely and displays perfectly the breathtaking liquid clarity of her voice.
She follows up with audience favourites My Name Is Trouble and Nitty Gritty, a rallying cry for everyone everywhere who isn’t a size eight. In the chorus she sounds just a little like Alanis Morissette, (which is considered a good thing in our house), and the song, which has made her the country music Meghan Trainor, deserves to be a huge hit. I feel positively guilty for not dancing with everyone else, but I resist the temptation.
There are also some terrific covers including Bonnie Raitt’s Love Sneaking Up, (which she nails absolutely, leaving no room to doubt her blues credentials), The Dixie Chicks Some Days You Gotta Dance and an extraordinary reworking of Jimmy Webb’s Wichita Linesman, a song she played to considerable effect on the Wogan show, the first time many of us became aware of her work. It’s a brave thing to take on a beloved standard that’s so associated with another artist, but she makes it all her own, with a reading that concentrates on the love song elements of the lyric but also brings out the existentialism of the original.
Highlights? Well they all are really. There’s not a dud in the show, but Stop Me, a great piece of power pop that wouldn’t be out of place on a Disney soundtrack is an album track that I didn’t appreciate fully until I heard it at this show and What If, on which her voice rises from breathless whisper to full on country diva goddess in a matter of a few bars, is a revelation too. Kiss You Now is another that lights the place up, as does Wanted Man, with Clemmons clearly revelling in the chance to let her bad girl run free for a while. Her solo single, Single Tonight, is a similar vein, and it’s a great piece of Shania Twainish sexy country blues. I’m going to name every song on the set list soon. They’re all great.
So there you go – classic country with blues and pop sensibility to spare. I think I’m supposed to find fault with something, it’s traditional, but I’m not going to and if you see that they’re anywhere near you soon make sure you go see them.
The Albert Hall. But not that Albert Hall. This one is in Manchester and it’s a small miracle of Late Victorian gothic baroque. It was closed up and forgotten about for thirty years until being reopened in 2011. It’s a huge pit of a place, with a superb three quarter balcony and just dilapidated enough to feel like you’re in touch with history. Getting to the toilets involves a huge trek through a subterranean maze, in corridors lined with those creamy ceramic tiles that have a curved profile in the corners. It’s like changing tube lines. The stage is bow fronted with a large overhang at the front which makes navigating the pit pretty tricky but fortunately the edge is marked out in white tape like in Tomb Raider.
First up is Canadian singer songwriter Andy Shauf who plays a deliberately restrained set to an already packed house on a stage drenched in blood red light, which suits his mixture of wistful fragments of poetry and disarmingly humdrum accidental murder ballads and while his live performance lacks some of the counter intuitive jazz embellishment that make his album The Bearer Of Bad News such a riveting listen, it’s still clear that Shauf is someone to watch for the future. Which doesn’t necessarily mean the distant future because his new album, The Party, arrives on May 20th.
Restrained is not an adjective you could use about The Lumineers. Their set is part hootenanny, part singalong, part revivalist prayer meeting and all a big come as you are party at someone’s very large house. It’s relaxed and joyful and sharp as a nail and the band are clearly having a great time. They’re helped by their relationship with their audience which has the kind of warmth that you expect at gigs by people who have been around a lot longer than The Lumineers. They seem to have engender the same kind of affection that you expect at a Springsteen gig, it’s almost tangible. I don’t think I’ve ever been at a show where all of the audience knew all of the words to all of the songs before. The singalong starts right from the opening Sleep On The Floor and keeps going until the end of the show, only going quiet when the house lights go on so the band can conduct an acapella audience version of Ain’t Nobody’s Problem. Suddenly everybody gets self conscious. That’s audiences for you.
Usually at this point I’d pick some highlights, but tonight it’s all good. Hey Ho arrives earlier than expected, as do Cleopatra, Classy Girls and Ophelia and with other bands you might expect so many big songs so early to lead to problems later on but it doesn’t. The Lumineers have enough quality material to keep things running just nicely and the band are flexible enough to change formats to keep things interesting throughout. Wesley Schultz is ever present, his voice as honey toned and emotional live as it is on the band’s studio work, complemented by the colours added by Jeremiah Fraites’ percussion and Neyla Pekarek’s cello.
After the show people are singing Hey Ho in the street and if this performance is anything to go by I’d expect The Lumineer’s next visit to Manchester to bring them to The Arena, just up the road and I shall be able to tell people that I saw them when they were still playing interesting and slightly dilapidated Victorian chapels. I shall be a bit smug.
If I was organising a party and I wanted to make it a really good party I’d get Andy Frasco & The UN round to play a few tunes. I’m not sure that they’d all fit in my living room, (alongside core members Andrew Frasco (lead vocals & keys), Shawn Eckels (guitar & vocals), Ernie Chang (sax), Andee Avila (drums) and Supaman (bass), they have a large and eclectic rotating membership) but I’d put a few in the kitchen maybe and a couple on the stairs and people could just dance round them.
That’s what they are really, a fabulous band for dancing round.
Frasco’s style is a mixture of dirty blues and retro funk and soul, all given a modern makeover with plenty of horn thrown in. That’s an essential part of the mix. It’s almost impossible to imagine Andy Frasco and the UN without horn. Their music is all about happiness, sex, good times, sex, love, and being a free spirit. And horn.
And if at this point I’m giving you the impression that this album is the product of a one track mind, well let’s settle on two track. Because there’s a lot of great music in there as well. And music and lasciviousness have a long and honourable shared history. Frasco’s music is fun music. And who doesn’t like fun? Frasco calls it an adrenalin shot of pure escapism.
“We want people to be happy,” is his musical mission statement. “To smile at their faults, love life for what it is, and follow the beat of their own drum. We’re just trying to throw a party and get people to turn off their phones, leave their stress and complications at the door, live in the moment and just celebrate life for a few hours. If by the end of the night I see 90 per cent of the room laughing and smiling, then I know I did my job.”
It’s also music that reconnects with that era before rock and soul split apart, when musicians of all races could share a stage without anyone even commenting. Frasco cites Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gaye, Buddy Guy, The Band, Samantha Fish and Houndmouth as blues players who inspire him and while it’s an unusual list, it’s a good one. This week of all weeks maybe we should add Prince and Beyonce in there too, people who can transcend artistic and cultural barriers as if they weren’t there, making music that speaks to everyone.
The band have spent the past few years living in vans and playing 250+ shows a year and according to Frasco this is the first of their CDs to really capture their unique live style. (Which is not to say that the others are bad by any means – check out 2007’s Half A Man for confirmation).
Album opener, Tie You Up, kicks off with a burst of deeply funky, loping bass that can’t help reminding you of Amy Winehouse (maybe she should be in that list too) and it’s almost a surprise when Frasco’s vocal kicks in rather than hers, but he’s got that same sly, knowing vocal thing going on, and the track builds into a great little rocker as does the second track You’re The Kind Of Crazy That I Like, a tribute to the manifold joys of being involved with mad women.
The scene once set the album keeps up a breakneck pace with tracks that range from 1970s slap bass funk on Doin’ It, evocations of Motown’s golden age on the snappily titled Blame It On the Pussy (seewhat they did there?), the Zutonesque (neologism alert) Good Ride, a madcap blues stomp on the superb Mature As Fuck, some whistling reggae on Here’s To Letting You Down and even a smutty Hawaiian torch ballad called Let’s Get Down To Business.
It’s certainly an album that lets the band show their versatility and there isn’t a track on there that would make you even think about skipping it. A fine thing for keeping in the CD player in the car, although probably not child friendly enough for the school run – parental advisory and all that you know.
Gray Matterz (Make Zee Records)
Available April 22nd 2016
To many of us she’s best known as the edgy half of Shakepear’s Sister but Marcella Detroit has a enjoyed a distinguished career, working with the likes of Eric Clapton and Elton John and producing a series of fine soul/pop albums since the break up of the bardic sorority, including 1996’s Feeler which is my favourite of her works under the Detroit moniker.
She has also had success as a blues singer with the Marcy Levy Band (that’s her birth name) and been a star of reality TV. She’s a fine guitarist who is clearly happy in many genres but it’s the extraordinary quality of her voice, strong yet fragile, soaring but always threatening to break with emotion that marks her out as something really special and she’s at her best when she allows herself the freedom to really lean into the vocal and showcase her remarkable range and power.
Detroit’s new album is Gray Matterz and it’s a step back from the blues towards classic 80’s style synth pop, recorded by Detroit in her home studio and featuring the lady herself on vocals, computers and real instruments too, and remixed by Paul Drew of DWB Music. In a nutshell it’s electro dance music with proper songs and it’s an album which, given the current resurgence in interest in 80s music and if it gets enough traction, could easily generate some buzz on the retro club scene.
Turn Up The Volume On The Positive may not be the catchiest title ever but with its rapped verses and vocoded chorus, (and electronic hand claps – everbody say yay for electronic hndclaps), it could be a real dance floor filler. Home, an a uptempo tribute to domesticity is another dancer as is Not Just A Number which has the irresisible beat of an piece of early SAW HiNRG.
Lighthouse, a song about depression and being there for people, is the track which gives Detroit’s voice it’s best workout, and What’s The Time In Tokyo is another which gives her the opportunity to show how good she sounds. According to interviews Detroit herself is of the opinion that her voice has improved and got stronger over the last several years, and on this showing no-one is going to argue.
The first single from the album is Drag Queen – which has already proved to be a club favourite, so here it is ….
Sewer Rats have been making quite a name for themselves lately. They’ve signed for Fluffer Records, played some well reviewed shows at the Shacklewell and other cool venues and now comes the release of their new EP Moneymaker. They’ve already had a London launch party but this is the local version at The Matrix in Grimsby, just down the road from their home town of Immingham.
There’s a great undercard including local favourites Ruby And The Knights, the unboxably vitreous See You In Tijuana, Darma and Cult Mentality and by the time Sewer Rats arrive the crowd is well stoked and up for the main event and they’re not dissapointed because Sewer Rats deliver a set of the dirtiest, heaviest, most psyched out stonerism that you’ve heard in a long time, songs that start slow and uncoil themselves with deliberate menace, loaded with feedback, searing guitar riffs, huge drums and basslines that set the room vibrating.
Luke Morris’s vocals are just about the rawest I’ve ever heard. Imagine the love child of Lemmy from Motorhead and a grizzly bear, kept in the dark for years, fed on broken glass and Scotch Bonnets and that particularly horrible cheap kebab meat that smells like sewage. Stub a few cigarettes out on it. Kick it occasionally. Give it a microphone and tell it to sing. It’s pure Ming.
The show that features considerable levels of raw energy and male torso. Granted it’s warm in The Matrix but there’s clearly something about Sewer Rats that’s best appreciated shirtless. They certainly have an impressive gallery of tatts to show off and their ink photographs rather well, especially since they are a band incapable of staying still for more than thirty seconds at a time. Luke Morris on guitar prowls his end of the stage like he’s looking for a gap in the fence while Iain Morrison spends most of the show getting stuck right in to an extremely boisterous hungry hippos kind of pit, crouched low over his bass, fending off incoming traffic or else climbing up the speaker stack to perch grinning while it threatens to topple down. Dean Robbins on drums is inevitably less peregrine but he looks like he’d be up and bouncing off people and walls given half a chance.
Sometimes words seem a bit small. This one of those times. The Sewer Rats sound like something being born, growing and crawling out of a primeval swamp, developing limbs and vocal chords, and of course acquiring guitars and drum kit along the way. They are very loud, but that doesn’t tell you much and they play with a sweat drenched frenzy that makes them gleam in the stage lights and rapidly infects everyone in the room. I spend most of the set hiding behind the speakers (except when they’re being used as a climbing wall), because I’m a coward and because I can’t afford to replace my cameras but when they finish I feel like I’ve been punched in the face with a music clad fist.
The new EP Moneymaker, whose entry into the world we are here to celebrate is an equally invigorating thing – five tracks of bile and blues, menace and caress, guaranteed to annoy the neighbours, damage the foundations of your house and make your eyeballs bleed. My favourite track is Devil’s Blues which has them paying homage to their heroes in Sabbath and Zeppelin but every cut is worth a listen – this is definitely a band that’s going places fast.
At the end of the show the band are mobbed by the assembled company and it’s pretty clear that they are now officially world famous in Grimsby. Just the rest of the planet to go then and that shouldn’t be too hard.
When I roll in at home with the remains of my chips and half a can of Vimto I’m just in time to catch the last half of The Meat Loaf Story on some channel I’ve never heard of before. Talk about serendipity. I switch on just as our hero, suffering one of his periodic outbreaks of bankruptcy, is laid across his bed with his two children, Vegetable Roll and Nut Cutlet.
“The trouble is,” he says to the adorable golden haired moppet angels, “nobody likes Daddy’s music.”
“I do” replies Nut Cutlet. “It’s loud.”
So there you go. I’m not going to take notes at gigs anymore. I’m just going to submit the first thing I hear on telly when I get home. Sorted.
Sewer Rats. I like them. You will too. They’re loud.
Just to be absolutely clear, the Ribble Valley is a real place. I did not make it up. It is not where the forebears of Officer Dibble lived before they crossed the Atlantic to constabulary glory. It’s north of Manchester and south of Scotland, with steep slopes on either side and wide pastures dotted with sheep and old fashioned looking black and white cows like the ones that lived on the toy farm you had when you were a child. It’s one of those places where you drive through it and think – “I should live here.” And it’s just about the perfect place to hold a music festival.
They’re having a traffic festival on the M62 and the fringe event is all the way up the M66 and A56. It’s a hundred and fifty miles from my house to Beat-Herder and it takes me four hours. I spend the last hour in a traffic jam behind a churlish looking llama. It peers disdainfully at me from the back of its horse box, chewing languidly and weighing up whether or not I am worth the effort of expectoration. It has a way of looking at me as if it had a second pair of eyes situated right up the back of its nostrils. I gaze back, trying not to look intimidated. ‘This is mental,’ I think. ‘I am in my car in a hard staring competition with a camelid. Beat-Herder will have to go it some to be madder than this …’
But Beat-Herder is madder than a hard staring llama, much, much madder.
It’s the tenth anniversary of what started out as a rave in the woods for a few friends and all twelve thousand tickets are sold out in advance, which is not so surprising because Beat-Herder has acquired a reputation for being one of the best weekends in the festival calendar, a place where you’re always sure to see and hear something new. Impressive stuff considering that they resolutely refuse to accept corporate sponsorship and take pride in staying small but perfectly put together. As you drive up it looks as though it fills the whole valley for miles on either side, but that’s because they steer clear of that thing where the festival is just a big field ringed with tents. The site is laid out with considerable cunning, making the most of the natural contours and forestry to maximize the view of the main stage, and to hide other parts until you go seeking them out, so it’s constantly full of surprises.
There are so many stages and arenas that it’s hard to keep track. At the end of three days I still haven’t found them all. Where are the Scandinavian swimming pool and the underground bar? Maybe I’ll find out next time. There’s a Working Men’s Club with red velvet snug furniture, a doughnut shaped earth ring with huge slabs of ironstone forming henges at the entrance, a corrugated iron eastern fort guarded by a huge dog of foh and with walls surmounted by fire jets so fierce that I spend thirty minutes taking pictures and came away with half a beard. In the woods there’s a stage surrounded with light boxes that project moving patterns onto tree trunks, buildings and dancers. There’s also a manor house, with a stage in its colonnaded entrance that played host to two really rather creepy pole dancing automata. They have all the moves but I will admit to liking my Stepford Wives with a little more meat on them.
The list could go on forever so I’ll be quick. There’s a funfair, a reggae tent, a comedy venue, a place called the Perfumed Garden that is probably neither but I never get there, a church with decks in the pulpit, a tattoo shop, a garage with cars for dancing on, a western bar, a teleport between two sylvan phone boxes (which I suspected was really a tunnel but I am too fat to investigate further), a funfair and more street food vendors than you can shake an authentic Tibetan goats meat curry at. Did I mention the funfair? I like funfairs.
You have to take a wander at night to appreciate the place in it full glory. The forest is hung with illuminated globes, strange waxy colour patterns rotate across the manor, the trees are lit with pulsating circles and squares of light and shadow, the fortress glows like a huge fire pit. It’s a bizarre and magical experience, like falling down the rabbit hole and coming out in a world filled with people whose controls are set permanently to “dance and have good time”. It wouldn’t be entirely surprising to find a team of anthropologists hiding in the trees doing some observational research, or David Attenborough leading a camera crew softly through the undergrowth. It makes an hour spent eye to nostril with a llama seem like the most natural thing in the world.
There’s plenty of fancy dress of course. The theme for the year is the letter E, which might be asking for trouble, but there are lots of elephants, Egyptians, elderly people and even a six person emergency ambulance whose attempts to enter an already packed out circle pit provide one of the most bizarre spectacles of the weekend. There are also a lot of people who either haven’t got the E message or who can’t spell. As I walk past a man wearing black plastic overcoat a woman accosts him and asks loudly, “Why are you here in that attire?” “It’s not a tyre,” he replies, “It’s a rain mac.”
And there’s music, of course. Where do we start? Perhaps by saying that what I know about dance music could be engraved in large letters along the side of a perforated eardrum. So don’t expect anything clever here, and I’m not going to attempt any kind of judgement on anybody’s DJing or MCing skills. Suffice it to say that almost every venue that I visit has some thumpingly huge beat filled music banging out, the iron of the fortress rattles like a proverbial door in a storm and the earth circle is packed so tight with moving bodies that it seems that the crowd has actually blended into a single rhythmic organism. Sometimes the bass is so heavy the whole field seemed to be shaking (yeah, I know, I sound like your granny) …, and it imparts a curiously reverberative sensation to the seats of the backstage portaloos, which could possibly catch on, like those clockwork motel beds you see in films.
It seems only right that Beat-Herder should have a unique stage and of course it has indeed, being equipped with a large herbaceous border at the front of the apron that adds a whole new level of complexity to shooting music photos, because it is necessary to stalk views of the stage between fronds of lupin and loosestrife while the autofocus on the camera goes into meltdown as it switches between the performer and the intervening foliage. There’s also a smoke machine right at the front that blows huge casts of fog right across the pit, rendering the action all but invisible most of the time. Its like shooting stills for a jungle warfare documentary and it’s noticeable how quickly many of the photographers just give up on visiting the main stage, which is a shame because there are some great performances there, as we can hear and intermittently see.
There’s so much going on it’s almost impossible to catch whole sets, but I make sure I see Martha Reeves & The Vandellas’ because, well, because it’s Martha Reeves & The Vandellas. What more reason could you want? She’s still got plenty of vocal power and bucket loads of charisma and she really knows how to play and audience. “I am a mature woman,” she announces, “And I am not leaving this stage until I am good and ready.” Whether anyone is really trying to get her off stage, and why they might have been doing so, remains a mystery, but whatever the background it’s pretty clear that the lady is not going anywhere until she decides to. Her set is full of hits from the golden age when rock and soul were two sides of the same coin – Jimmy Mack, Live Wire, Nowhere To Run and of course Dancing In the Street. Back catalogues don’t get much better than that.
There’s plenty of variety on the main stage with Leeds based trip hop outfit Nightmares On Wax showing that they can really do it live on the Friday night prior to a storming set from Basement Jaxx, whose career spanning set includes material from their latest dancing robot inspired offering Junto, although it’s old favourites like closer Bingo Bango that really get the crowd dancing. Saturday night sees an uproarious show from The Levellers and a fine music and light display from Leftfield, but the main stage highlight of the weekend is Saturday night’s closing set from The Parov Stelar Band, all the way from upper Austria. Stelar is usually credited with inventing the electro-swing genre and it’s pretty clear that he is thoroughly steeped in in the jazz and swing music of the 1920s and ‘30s, which he combines with electro beats and effects to astonishing effect. My personal favourite, Booty Swing, arrives early but it’s a great performance throughout. Elsewhere there were pictures of people dancing while dressed as Scrabble tiles to be taken, but I was happy just sit down and enjoy.
Add in some great dub punk from Dub Pistols, disco house from Crazy P, wry northerness from the Lancashire Hotpots and soulful funk pop from Grinny Grandad and you should have the idea that there’s something for everyone and all of it very good. Away from the main stage my highlights are Mr Wilson’s Second Liners, who combine Dixieland musical stylings and Sergeant Pepper tailoring with all your favourite club classics, Dream Themes whose high kicking, arm punching stadium rock set is comprised entirely of TV theme tunes including Star Trek and The Good Life, and my favourite band of the weekend, the punky, folky, rockish Faux Foxes. Definitely one to watch out for.
So there you go. If you missed it you missed a weekend of inspired madness and you should try and get there next year when the woods and fields of the Ribble Valley will once again echo to the sound of people staying up well past their bedtimes to enjoy great music in some of the strangest and wildest venues you’ll ever see. You’ve got fifty one weeks to try and figure out what big surprises are in store. My guess is a guanaco.
The Quo roll into town and Sheffield takes a break from the snooker to welcome the legendary (and of course mighty) rockers who played the second night of their 2015 Aquostic Tour to a packed house at the City Hall on Tuesday.
Status Quo go acoustic? It seems like an odd premise but the album of the same name, featuring twenty one acoustic covers of Quo classics performed in chronological order reached number 5 in the UK charts in 2013, their highest chart position since 1996’s 30th Anniversary album and a concert from The Roundhouse was broadcast on the Beeb and issued as a live album. Empty seats are few and far between. So even if the idea of acoustic Quo seems a little odd to me there’s no doubt the fans are on side already.
The acoustic album is an established part of the modern music business, right up there with the full album live performance and the special collector’s edition CD in a tin stuffed with imitation tickets and loads of outtakes that didn’t make the cut because they weren’t good enough. To some bands it might seem like an opportunity to cut costs and save some cash but Status Quo don’t do things that way. Apart from the five band members there is a six piece string section, two backing singers, and bass player John Edward’s son Freddie, (who has a considerable and vocal following among the Quo faithful). I think that’s everybody but there may be one or two more I missed.
Acoustic reversioning is nothing new of course, you only have to look at the enduring success of MTV’s Unplugged sessions to realise that. I honestly thought it had died off in the late 90s (we only have free to air TV in our house) but it’s still going strong apparently, with Miley Cyrus the latest victim. Despite some remarkable performances, (Nirvana and Clapton being among the most obvious) there’s always something unedifying about the format however, an unspoken assumption that the performers in question need to stop hiding behind all that noise and play acoustically in order to prove their worth as musicians. With more than fifty years as a band Quo don’t appear to be in need of that kind of validation.
So if they’re not saving money and not seeking artistic credibility just what are Status Quo doing playing acoustically? The answer would appear to be that they are having a good time, sitting in a row, playing some favourite songs and cracking a few jokes. And why not?
First up are Terry and Gerry, Louder Than War’s favourite 80’s cow punk skiffle band complete with long black coats, shoestring ties, a washboard with one of those bits on it that sounds like the death rattle of your favourite clockwork railway engine and a ton of great little songs. Little being the operative word. Terry And Gerry seem to think that the phrase “three minute pop song” represents some kind of extreme upper limit on duration. I shoot the shortest three songs worth of pictures in history.
They’re masters of the art of creative anachronism, starting out in the early 80s (which wasn’t a skiffle boom period), appearing on The Tube and doing several Peel sessions back in the day when peel favourite was just a preparatory instruction in the post Grand National barbecue cookbook. Having been on hiatus for several years they reformed for a 2014 Peel celebration tour. They are bursting with energy and enthusiasm, apparently overwhelmed with their reception and the fact that people haven’t left by the end of their set, and seemingly on the verge of going into a full on Gwyneth Paltrow between songs.
Their exuberance certainly strikes a chord with the audience and by the end of their set contains lashings of community singing, organised waving (some of it bimanual) and some great tunes, among them Kennedy Says, which features benedictions from a place in the sky above the White House and a posthumous pardon for the whole Bay Of Pigs thing, Clothes Shop, a hymn to the loneliness of sartorial elegance and teenage individualism.
I will confess that this was the first time I’d heard Terry and Gerry but it won’t be the last – great stuff.
Status Quo take to the stage in 5-2-6-2 formation with the flat forward line of guitar and bass, the big guys in the centre, backing singers in midfield, and the strings on the left of the defence. The songs adapt well to the new instrumentation and they the size and quality of the band mean that no two numbers sound the same, so there’s no danger of the set getting stale. Paper Plane is embellished with zydeco accordion, Rock’n’Roll is a delicate memento to the band’s heyday, Caroline is an up tempo stomp.
Of course the hits go down a storm and in this new format they sound thoroughly refreshed. Rocking All Over The World has a barrelhouse piano that transforms it into pure Rockney, Down, Down is up tempo concertina driven skiffle and Caroline has an streetwise boogie that belongs to the heyday of pub rock. It’s the less well known songs that benefit most from their new clothes however. (That of course means songs that are less well known to me – I suspect I’m the only person present who doesn’t know all the words to everything). My favourites are Rain, which fairly chugs along with a steam engine percussion and some hobo harmonica, and Don’t Drive My Car, possibly a riposte to The Beatles free and easy attitude to key sharing, with the rhythm picked out by the strings, some great backing vocals and guitar and a sort of Cossack soul vibe going on.
If there’s any fault to be found it probably lies with the choice of venue. With the best will in the world this is music for dancing to, (not by me I hasten to add, but by others), not for staying in your seat and listening to quietly but the stewards are polite but firm, there is no stage rush and people who get up and block the view are politely asked to replant themselves. Hats off to the brave few that just ignore them – it’s a fine show but the dancers are the ones who enjoy it most.