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Live at Leeds has 24 venues, each with an average of 12 slots during the day. If my maths is correct, and assuming one has a Star Trek-style transporting machine which enables instant travel between one venue and the next, that means there are 24 ^ 12, or 36,500,000,000,000,000 different ways to schedule one’s day. Clearly a task that even the most musically-informed maths whiz would find a challenge. Thankfully, the lovely people at DIY had come up with such a tasteful and diverse lineup for their Brudenell Social Club residency, that such venue-hopping became almost entirely unnecessary.
TGTF’s day began with a very pleasant walk in beaming sunshine to the Faversham on the edge of the Leeds University campus, in a quest to kick everything off with a native Leeds band. Marsicans have got riffs and jangles and lovely Yorkshire-accented vocals, hooks you could hang a greatcoat on, all mixed together to generate the musical equivalent of an enormous grin on a summer’s day. They’ve got a single out, ‘Terrapin’, which is generously available for free, which is matched in jollity only by their previous release ‘Chivalry’, whose enormous singalong chorus is, if anything, an even more diligent earworm.
The walk from the Faversham to the Brudenell Social Club is a stage-setting experience in itself. The settled sandstone calmness of campus life gives way to tired yet still noble multi-storey brick terraces. Many residents sit on their front porches, smoking whilst taking in the sun. A 19th-century school has been demolished, leaving only rubble and temporary fencing as a bleak reminder of its proud history. Perhaps it’s the wrought-iron shutters across front doors and windows, or the scattering of dog-eared independent supermarkets, minicab firms and backstreet garages, which all conspire to create a distinctive atmosphere of, if not menace necessarily, then lives lived in complete indifference to the shiny artifice of Leeds’ city centre, lives in which concerns about protecting oneself from crime, or of how to pay the electricity bill, take higher precedence than another new shopping centre, or indeed the niceties of contemporary independent music.
Those few souls living in Burley or Woodhouse who are indeed partial to decent live music every night of the week are fortunate, because that is precisely what the Brudenell provides. The place is as aesthetically unattractive as venues get: architecturally lumpen, with a circular auditorium which does nothing for the acoustics. The interior bears the hallmarks of many an enthusiastic amateur DIYer. How appropriate for today’s residency. The PA in the main room is deafening – always bring ear plugs. But there’s no doubt that it’s also a deeply funky place, imbued with a century’s history of bacchanalia, repurposed as a live venue despite its physical shortcomings with more respect than any number of cookie-cutter chain pubs have for their former banking halls.
Ten minutes is all that TGTF gets of Bearfoot Beware, and it’s enough to determine that this self-confessed mathy three-piece can do tunes, funk, and boot-stamping riffs in equal measure and to an equally high standard. Imagine if Red Hot Chili Peppers were still good and decided to mix their loose funk with complex, bordering on atonal, guitar work, replete with diminished fifths, and theme their songs equally unconventionally. ‘My Love is a Seagull’ is a prime example: there’s two or three intense guitar themes, a bizarre hula drum interlude with all manner of swirling guitar effects; the final minute of instrumental call-and-response has bassist Ric Vowden bouncing and throwing shapes – as do, if they have any soul at all, the audience.
The biggest crowd of the afternoon is drawn for Parisian trio We Were Evergreen (pictured at top). And theirs is the trickiest set to describe. Imagine Manet’s A Bar At The Folie Bergère, then further imagine the late-19th century beat combo which might supply the background music: at once providing beautiful harmonies, a touch of twee sweetness, yet bathing in a decadent groove that is both inspired by and further encourages their city in its bohemian, bourgeois excess. Then bring those minstrels into the present day, equip them with looping pedals, synths, and a ukulele, and you are getting close to We Were Evergreen’s sound.
There’s a touch of Röyksopp in the way Michael Liot’s gentle delivery combines with the electronic beats and toy-like synth melodies, and in the rhythms that gently build to a danceable crescendo. But the songs don’t descend into by-numbers euphoricism: there’s solid songwriting chops on display. ‘False Start’ has a rock-solid chorus, complex, almost obscurantist lyrics, and a surfeit of beeps and bleeps to keep the most ardent electronica fan happy. Their debut album ‘Towards’ was essentially released at this gig – it’s officially out on the Monday hence but copies are on sale here – on the evidence of this performance it’s shaping up to be one of 2014’s essential purchases.
Coasts breeze onstage in a whirlwind of white denim, Doc Martens and wild-eyed charisma. In case one was in any doubt, they’ve brought a palm tree to reinforce their self-confessed trop-pop credentials. But that’s only half the story. With their big melodies and shape-throwing frontman they’re bidding for the affections of Hollyoaks viewers, The 1975 devotees, and any girl who cares to wear denim hotpants in the spring. Musically there’s nothing new about the sound – Fenech-Soler have been doing this Balearic-indie for years – but fair play for trying to breathe new life into this dance-related genre, even if it means that despite five members they still rely heavily on backing tracks to reinforce the dancefloor-friendly beats, one of which inevitably goes catastrophically wrong mid-song.
‘Rush of Blood’ relies on familiar saccharine tropes – “you took the beat in my heart / the words in my mouth / kept me out of the dark / you put the taste on my tongue / the life in my soul / give me air for my lungs”. Smitten, isn’t he? Their live performance reflects these motifs, the drama dialled up to 11 from beginning to end. The faux-sincere intensity does, frankly, wear a little thin after a while, with little in the way of dynamics to maintain interest across the whole set. Much like a takeaway burger, one’s hunger is quickly satiated by the carefully-engineered sensory button-pushing, but when it’s over all that’s left is a guilty, greasy aftertaste.
If Coasts are the class jocks, then Jarbird are the shy, retiring, bookish geeks quietly planning world domination from their perfectly-ordered desks right at the front of the class. In utter contrast to what’s gone before, they deliver fragile four-part harmonies and delicate instrumentation – live electronic drums vie with synth and the most skeletal of Stratocaster work – to create something quite unique and of a compelling, delicate beauty. Recent single ‘More Bad Celebrity Poetry’ evokes a deep sense of yearning melancholy, whilst somehow still remaining optimistic and uplifting – an impressive feat of composition. Clearly still a young band, they have an endearing humility to their presentation that comes as a refreshing change to those who clearly yearn for nothing less than to make themselves enormous in the music business. Jarbird, precisely because they let the music speak for itself, deserve to do very well indeed.
Stay tuned for part 2 of Martin’s riveting account of Live at Leeds 2014.
Live at Leeds is one of the most intense examples of one of the most intense of gig-going events: the one-dayer. Leeds boasts more than its fair share of fine venues, and Live at Leeds brings them together under one banner for 12 hours of fine new music. Your brave correspondent has attempted to listen to every one of the over 200 artists on offer – and failed. Therefore here’s a list of what stands out as a possible way to negotiate the myriad of combinations.
The Brudenell Social Club has a strong offer all day. We Were Evergreen (3 pm) trade in Parisian twee-pop blended with indie tunes: a fine, summery start. And after that, because the Brudenell has two stages, it’s one band after the other, every half hour. No time to even visit the bar. Dive In are from Glastonbury and offer chiming melodies and a voice uncannily similar to Brian Molko, if he was full of happy pills. Coasts have the nerve to call their latest single ‘A Rush Of Blood’ – and although there is a touch of Coldplay in some of their soaring choruses, they’re unlikely to be confused with the London behemoth: there’s a nice discordant solo in ‘Stay’, and ‘Wallow’ is almost like Bastille with big guitars. A mixed bag then, but certainly one worth assessing live.
Jarbird bring some admirably minimalist electronica overlaid with a lot of twisted, vocodered singing. And with a song called ‘More Bad Celebrity Poetry’ betraying a humourous cynicism, what’s not to like? Happyness, despite being from London, bring sunshine-on-a-string Americana – ‘It’s on You’ properly chugs like the Lemonheads, chock full of classic melodies and a college-rock slacker sensibility; ‘Montreal Rock Band Somewhere’ is a slow-burner, with a lazy bassline sketching out a groove and slurred vocals about drawing letters on one’s person. As you do. Woman’s Hour are a bit like a cross between Wild Beasts and The xx – which gives them a lot to live up to. They sound capable of it. With their debut album coming in July, now is a great time to check them out.
From smooth electropop to guitars – both Creases and Primitive Parts supply lo-fi riffing and retro rock ‘n’ roll beats. Primitive Parts clearly have one or two Graham Coxon records in their collection. Onwards: I can’t stop playing ‘Hiroshima’, a fine example of orchestral pop from Norway’s Highasakite. Ingrid Helene Håvik’s vocals are stunning, framed beautifully by the delicate instrumentation.
The 8 pm hour provides a dilemma – whether to make the 10-minute walk to The Packhorse to catch TGTF favourites The Orielles; perhaps a taxi ride to the Belgrave Music Hall to see the suave chamber delights of New York’s San Fermin, coming over all Tindersticks and Hem; or to stay at the Brudenell for an increasingly noisy night, kicking off with Montreal’s hard-riffing duo Solids. Indeed, the picture of where to be and what to hear becomes increasingly distant and hazy as the night draws in. Several hotly-tipped acts will have already been missed: Courtney Barnett, Flyte, Arthur Beatrice, and the headliners are either heavy-ish (Pulled Apart By Horses, Catfish And The Bottlemen (pictured at top), The Hold Steady), or poppy-ish (Clean Bandit, King Charles). Leeds’ very own I Like Trains set up a homecoming gig at Leeds Town Hall, celebrating 10 years in the biz.
In short, there’s something for everyone, and nobody can see everything, so it’s probably best to go with the flow and not worry too much about it. Or just spend all day at the Brudenell. See you there…
Night Engine were one of 2013’s one to watch, with a spectacular show at Liverpool Sound City, and for those that were there, an equally successful one the following week at The Great Escape. They released a three singles on limited coloured vinyl, each of which duly went on to sell on the secondary market for some stratospheric prices. Foundations duly laid, Night Engine have similarly ambitious plans for 2014, with an album release slated for the autumn, preceded by the single ‘All I Got’.
It almost goes without saying by now that Night Engine channel Fashion-era Bowie – a comparison primarily due to the remarkable vocal talents of Phil McDonnell: all camp authoritarianism and demonstrative vibrato. The band deliver slick, dark funk, with a hint of Strokes haughty garage rock, topped with the electronica of early Depeche Mode. On ‘All I Got’ McDonnell is apparently bemoaning the high expectations of a, shall we say, ‘acquaintance’. There’s talk of one night in leather, caged animals and flared nostrils. Oo-er missus. The band maintain a sleazy groove through the crooned middle eight; come the chorus they let it all hang out in a thunder of fizzy guitar and overdriven bass.
Night Engine truly deserve the plaudits they’ve gathered since their inception a couple of years ago. Theirs is arch yet danceable, disco-retro cool, with the whole Bowie factor adding to the novelty. If this single is anything to go by, the album should be one of 2014’s finest moments.
‘All I Got’, Night Engine’s next single, is out on the 2nd of June. ‘Wound Up Tight’, their debut album, is slated for a release in the autumn.
If there ever was a band defined by their frontman, The Crookes is it. George Waite, for it is he to whom one’s eyes cannot help but constantly be drawn, wields a hoiked-up bass, throwing it into all sorts of shapes whilst emoting into the microphone for all he’s worth. In the face of such competition, the rest of the band make up no more or less a competent background noise while Waite embarks on his various whimsical tales of romance with song titles lifted from Allan Ginsberg. It’s all unashamedly straightforward – there’s little in the way of artifice, in the music at least. The Libertines are a clear reference point, in the jangly arpeggios, keen-as-mustard drumming, and sweetly melodic vocal lines. That’s where the comparisons end, however, as there’s the sense that The Crookes would never think of veering anywhere near Pete Doherty levels of debauchery. They’re too nice and polite for that. At least in public anyway.
The new material does add some welcome maturity to their sound. Respite from jolly guitar japes is provided by ‘Howl’: a downtempo affair, admirably considered and reflective, with a nice big chorus that relies on emotional depth for its impact, rather than just up tempo guitar strumming. Also off the new album is ‘Outsiders’. We’re back to the romance theme again – they appear to sing of little else – but they are still displaying a maturity as befits a band promoting their third album. The lyrical content is artfully bookish, peppered with literary references and generally treading the well-worn path of contemporary realism, romantic yearning and the odd bit of existential despair.
Oops – my eyes have wandered from Waite for a second. A brief loss of attention. I’ve missed a moment, never to be brought back. Must keep watching, listening.
Could the band really be just a vehicle for his charisma? What if there was only him? As if sensing the same question, Waite dismisses the band – they’re “tired” – and addresses the crowd with just his voice and a battered Telecaster for company. ‘The I Love You Bridge’ is the highlight of the set – an unadorned paean to the power of a vocal melody and a handful of roughly-strummed electric guitar chords. Waite has the crowd in his hands, everyone knows it, and all are perfectly comfortable with the situation.
Which somewhat calls into question the need for three supporting players. Yes, drums are essential, as is a bit of electric guitar to fill in the treble range that the bass can’t reach. But are two guitarists really necessary? Apparently, Daniel Hopewell is responsible for a great deal of the lyrical content, for which he should be commended; but onstage, newly paunchy, sullen, mute, with his rhythm guitar turned down to the point of near audibility, one wonders how the sound would open out with just the one midrange instrument. Certainly Waite’s personality is the central celestial body, generating the charismatic field by which the others orbit – where’s the difference between two moons or three?
Harsh words, perhaps, and as a founder member and lyricist, clearly Hopewell’s position is secure. But the feeling remains that perhaps the band isn’t quite delivering the musical potential to do true justice to the intricate, erudite lyrics, that both guitarists are reading from the same crib sheet rather than playing disparate yet complementary parts. A subtle point, perhaps, that should take nothing away from the great ride that The Crookes have taken us on tonight. They’ve got some great tunes, of which the new ones are the best, a world-class frontman, and give enjoyable show. And one final word – the dedication of some of their fans is quite remarkable. One enthusiastic chap had already seen them in Leeds the day before this gig, and was planning to see tomorrow’s too. He could barely contain his delight in wangling the signed set list. Any band capable of such loyalty must be doing quite a lot of things very right indeed.
View Martin’s entire set of high-res photos from the Crookes’ set in Newcastle here.
Courtney Barnett’s debut ‘A Sea of Split Peas’ has been available from House Anxiety records since last November, but it’s this summer that sees her properly making a mark on the opposite side of the world from her native Melbourne. TGTF tipped Barnett as one of the artists playing all three urban festivals around the May Day bank holiday and picked out the 5-minute epic of ‘Anonymous Club’ as “showcasing Barnett’s ability to turn down the tempo and bring out a more circumspect, even sombre, mood, all led by her gently vulnerable voice.”
Said track has recently been treated to an accompanying video by Melburnian illustrator Celeste Potter. A monochrome, lo-fi, and subtly disturbing animation which evokes the restless dream of a child who’s read The Gruffalo too close to bedtime, both visuals and song inhabit a dreamworld of resigned despair – tears feature heavily. This is Barnett’s most downtempo, introspective work – elsewhere on ‘A Sea of Split Peas’, the tempo rises and humour is used to great effect, so this piece shouldn’t be taken as representative of her output as a whole. Nevertheless, a beautiful piece of art of which both Barnett and Potter should be duly proud.
It’s summer 2011 – the Summertyne Americana Festival at the Sage, Gateshead. David Macias, the then president of the Americana Music Association, is due to make a presentation that addresses the thorny issue of: what is Americana? Those of us keener on actually watching some music in the beery sunshine rather than talking about it indoors, missed the official conclusion. But surely the answer then, and ever since, is: rather a broad church of American rock, blues, and gospel-based music, overlaid with a tang of country. Banjos feature prominently. But why stop there? Why can’t an album of grunge-tinged rock, featuring tracks which could fit straight into the great contemporary American rock songbook, qualify? Because if it could, what Afghan Whigs have delivered with ‘Do to the Beast’ would fit right in.
In their first career, Cincinnati’s Afghan Whigs were active for 15 years from 1986, releasing six albums on a number of independent and major labels, notably Sub Pop, home to grunge contemporaries Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney. But despite fraternal connections, The Afghan Whigs have always shown influences more left-field than most of their contemporaries, with an evident enthusiasm for classic soul (cf 1992’s album of soul and R ‘n’ B covers ‘Uptown Avondale’), utilising avant-garde mutations of classic songwriting technique.
In contrast to the 16 years we’ve waited for a new release from The Afghan Whigs, now the record has arrived, it wastes no time in getting down to business. ‘Do to the Beast’ opens with ‘Parked Outside’, a swaggering, uncompromising, riff-laden dirge heavy with fuzzed guitars and Greg Dulli’s guttural roar. It’s the sound of grunge, made contemporary for 2014, by men who survived it the first time around. ‘Matamoros’ mixes an electronica-inspired insistent groove, a darkly intense chorus and some strings more Moroccan than Mexican. ‘It Kills’ reveals a delicate underbelly to the band’s sound – “It kills to watch you love another” a self-explanatory confessional matched in tenderness by the understated arrangement and Dulli’s cracked baritone. ‘Algiers’ (video below) is a great American road song, all passionately-strummed acoustic guitar and mid-tempo angst. The sort of thing that Cherry Ghost can knock off in their sleep, but no less evocative for that. ‘Lost in the Woods’ converts a maudlin intro into a unashamedly chart-bothering melodic chorus, one which could easily have come from the pen of soul-era Detroit song-factory luminaries, if they arranged for electric guitar. A curiously schizophrenic arrangement, and one which mirrors the personality of the record as a whole.
The second half kicks off with ‘The Lottery’, a riffy, noisy thing, similar to their very earliest work. More interesting is what follows. ‘Can Rova’ is a great example of where Afghan Whigs differ from their contemporaries – the ability to execute a delicate ballad of tender beauty. This is rock in name only, the Americana label writ large – there’s even some banjo. And then there’s the final duplet. ‘I Am Fire’ is a world-weary dirge arranged for handclaps and despairing vocal. And as triumphant endings go, ‘These Sticks’ is itself a triumph. Attempting the seemingly impossible task of weaving all the disparate threads of the album into one coherent whole, it succeeds. The electric guitars are back, the drums are real, there’s a horn section for good measure.
Don’t ask about the lyrical content. Dulli is famed for his hard-hitting autobiographical style, and there’s no reason to think that ‘Do to the Beast’ disappoints in that regard. There’s simply not enough time or room in a review to properly plumb the depths of his psyche, to do justice to the self-loathing and corruption bubbling within. Suffice to say, the title itself is enough of an indication of what to expect – presumably a corrupted reference to the ancient ethic of reciprocity: “Do unto the Beast as you would have the Beast do unto you.” It could take several years of therapy to unravel what he’s on about here, and that’s just the album title. Approach with caution.
So there we have it. This is the sound of band that have no time for creative boundaries – if it sounds good, it’s in, genre be damned. So there’s the heavy guitar riffs as expected, mixed in with widescreen road songs, acoustic interludes, all given coherence by Dulli’s distinctive voice, at times reminiscent of Billy Corgan and even Rod Stewart. It’s a remarkable achievement for a band that have been away for a decade and a half – to seamlessly carry on where they left off. And ‘Do to the Beast’, in both its sound and its content, is as good as anything Afghan Whigs have ever recorded. Old fans will be delighted, and there’s doubtless a whole new generation just waiting to be inculcated as to the ways of Dulli. Poor dears.
The Afghan Whigs’ newest album ‘Do to the Beast’, the American band’s first in 16 years, is out now on Sub Pop.