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Is it just me or was Kendal Calling 2013‘s Saturday on the main stage “Lad’s day”? The Twang, The D.O.T., even Ash seemed to bring the inner Manc out in everybody. At least Dutch Uncles were there to bring a bit of thinking man’s rock to the party. Is it just me or do Dutch Uncles get better with every viewing? Duncan Wallis (shown below) is a frontman perfectly at ease with himself, proudly showing off his pristine, angular moves, particularly on ‘Flexxin’’, where the famous moves from the video are reproduced even more lucidly onstage. The band display a limber structure within which they explore their compositions, with a confidence only a group who have toured together for countless months can display. And they seem to have avoided becoming bored with each other or their songs, as have the audience.
The D.O.T. came widely anticipated. A joint venture between Mike Skinner, ex of The Streets, and Rob Harvey, ex of Leeds rockers The Music, promises to bring some urban smarts to indie music, to replace guitars with electronics, but still within a knowing framework that appeals to both indie kids and hip-hop heads. In reality, it all falls a bit flat. Certainly there’s nothing here to compete with the intensity of the previous night’s Public Enemy onslaught, but conversely it would be more exciting with a bit of live instrumentation. Harvey strums a guitar every now and again, but they fail to excite the crowd at all; Skinner’s deadpan sneering doesn’t help, an attitude which apparently carries through to his DJ set later in the evening. There are occasional glimpses of the urban tenderness of The Streets, but glimpses is all they are. There’s potential here, but they need to have a bit of a rethink on how to engage anyone other than diehard fans of both The Music and The Streets at the same time. How many of those can there be?
The most surprising thing about The Twang is that they’re actually still going, given a steady decline in album sales over the past decade, let alone how they’ve managed to bag a decent main stage slot at a big festival. Well, the answer’s in the laddism. They appear to have two singers, plenty of guitars and energy, and some singalong bits – who am I to argue that what they actually need is class and talent?
Tim Wheeler (pictured at top) from Ash is lacking in neither class or talent – it takes class to maintain a brand for 20 years, whilst keeping people interested and even devoted to its music; it takes talent to continue to wield a Gibson Flying V with the sort of aplomb which would make a 12-year-old boy say, “that’s cool”. Both of which are achieved within a few bars of Ash’s set commencing. Moreover, they command the rain: it pours down at the first note of their set, and would continue for 12 hours. Clearly God is a fan. Nobody has really taken Ash’s place: as survivors of the tail end of Britpop, their offer is clearly still relevant today, and not just by way of nostalgia. Their songs are evocative of teenage yearning, of big guitars, and simple, overriding emotions still capable of commanding a big festival stage. Carry on, sir.
Sweet Baboo’s delicate, witty, poignant Welsh ditties bring us back to the Calling Out tent. Such assertively sweet music from such an unassuming chap is quite the contrast. By the time the set climaxes, the horn section is parping as if Steve Cropper were in the crowd, taking notes. Which, in a spiritual way, he was. To be followed swiftly by Sons and Lovers (shown below), who tread that fine line between cliche and true excellence. In the cold light of day, their Mumford-esque sound is their downfall: inevitable thumping floor toms, incessant quiet-loud-quiet-loud arrangements, and hopelessly romantic themes do them no favours, but on this day in history, Sons and Lovers provide set worthy of headliners. Such are the complex vagaries of live music.
London Grammar remain to be assessed another day – their autumn tour should set the record straight as to whether they are simply xx wannabes, or whether they have something truly original to offer. Now… it hardly needs stating that there’s more to music festivals than stroking one’s chin at bands. So Saturday night was as good a time as any to relinquish any thought of sobriety, any notion of “reviewing”, and simply have a bit of a party. A date had been made for 10 pm to watch a delightful bunch of ladies called the Hooping Harlots perform a spectacular LED hula-hoop display, with the added bonus that they let any old punter (e.g., me) practice their dubious hula skills with some of their less precious hoops. Even though I can keep it up indefinitely (that’s what she said!) I can’t do anything more exciting than that; the talented Harlots, however, can do the lot – spinning around the wrist, neck, and unbelievably, the shoulder, and swapping between them all with a fluid ease that defies description. Add to that the LED light show within the hoops, and it’s a spectacle guaranteed to scramble already delicate festival minds.
The whole thing took place at the well-named Tipple Taxi, a London cab converted into a bijou drinking den, one of many micro-venues scattered around the site, making an evening stumble around the place into a voyage of one exciting discovery after another – from the Chai Wallah’s tent rising from the horizontal for a bit of a boogie finale, to the lucky dip of sounds that is Riot Jazz. The climax of any good Saturday night at Kendal has to be the Glow Dance Tent, however.
Which is where it should, and does, become a little hazy. There are photographs – oh, what photographs. The essence of the sublime confusion of a properly executed night in the company of dance music is expressed therein. Please take a look. Musically, Krafty Kutz expressed their unsurpassed UK hip hop beats and flow, assisted by A Skillz. Needless to say there was dubstep bass all over the house, the constant battle between vocal lines, sub bass, and 8-bit melodies proving too much to bear for some. Check out the Dirtyphonics remix of Pounding for more information, and to experience the enormous bass which sets the level for a Krafty Kutz experience. The level reaches even higher with the introduction of the mentalist blend of wound-up beats, vocals, and samples that comprises ‘Happiness’. Spotify it out.
Suffice to say by the time Maribou State took over at 2 AM, the tent was in great need of a bit of glitchy, soulful techno to rest weary limbs. But even then, the subtle electronica coalesced into an irresistible hole of bouncing heads and knowing looks as the next hour passed in a haze of exhaustion. We were to stagger, spent and silent, to a wreck of flooded, ransacked tents… but that’s a story for another day.
If one was to hold a competition to find the most picturesque view in festivaldom, what would be on the shortlist? Certainly the legendary vista of the entire site from Glastonbury’s stone circle. Perhaps the imposing aspect from underneath Primavera’s vast concrete solar monolith across the Mediterranean sea. Equally as impressive, in a considerably more natural way, is the view just past the entrance barriers into Kendal Calling. The grassy site stretches out down a gentle slope, pocked with multicoloured canvas. Billowy cumulonimbus hang in a vast sky graduated between royal and baby blue, whilst on the horizon sit the imposing peaks of the Lake District. Just into the distance, tantalisingly obscured by trees, can be seen the tents and stages of the arena itself.
The geographical fortune of Kendal Calling doesn’t stop there. Being located roughly equidistant between the conurbations of Manchester, Glasgow, and Newcastle upon Tyne contributes to a heady melting pot of accents from three cultures that, let’s be honest, aren’t renowned for being shy of a bit of a party. And Kendal seems to specifically for their requirements: there’s guitar music aplenty, sometimes with a distinctly ‘laddish’ slant, and non-stop dance music until 3 AM for those so inclined towards a bit of an uplifting boogie. Which, as it turned out, for one night only, was me.
The rest of my time at Kendal mostly was spent at the Calling Out stage, a modestly-sized tent featuring less well-known and more up-and-coming acts than the household names hosted on the main stage. The very first act of the festival were Concrete Knives (pictured above), given a cruelly short 30 minutes in which to get across their funky Gallic guitar-pop. They rattle through several from debut ‘Be Your Own King’, Morgane Colas apparently floating in a self-induced trance when singing. They’re a rare treat, funky, cerebral and humorous all at the same time, and I can’t wait to see them do a full headline set (5/5). Champs have a lovely, summery take on the songwriter duo; something like ‘My Spirit Is Broken’ is just the sort of keening, sweetly-harmonied ditty that you want to hear emanating from a warm afternoon tent (3/5).
Waylayers turn up the tempo somewhat. Theirs is the sound of guitar songwriting meeting Balearic beats and synths as on the anthemic ‘S.O.S.’, which is dancefloor-worthy even without needing a remix. Harry Lee has enormous physical presence, dominating both the stage and the little keyboard from which he generates any number of uplifting synth lines. His vocals are often the spit of Diagrams’ Sam Genders, while the music treads a similar path to other practitioners of the dance crossover genre such as Friendly Fires; the fact that ‘Fires’ was produced by Ewan Pearson of TGTF former faves Delphic is surely no coincidence. Are they still unsigned? Surely not for long (4/5).
“I washed my hair for you / I shaved my legs for you too” – the first couplet of ‘Next To You’ neatly summarises Misty Miller’s brand of guitar-based feminism, and the enormous blues riff which explodes seconds later indicates how serious she is about it. This is properly dirty garage rock, as simple as it gets: two, maybe three chords, drums bashed as hard as possible, and as generous a dose of swagger from the eponymous young frontwoman as one could reasonably hope for. Nothing particularly complicated here, but a generous dose of attitude and a nice loud electric guitar go a long way, and considering Misty is still only 19 years old, this is a particularly impressive performance (4/5).
Clean Bandit (pictured at top) are an unusual proposition, with their uneasy blend of dance music overlaid with a variety of classical stringed instruments and some MCing – effectively an updated version of the Dads’ car stereo favourite ‘Hooked On Classics’. A couple of minutes into this year’s ‘Mozart’s House’ single, the beats stop completely and the strings play a few bars solo, before the inevitable four-to-the-floor kick drum reappears, and it all goes hands-in-the-air again. The MC mines the depth of cliché in his classical music references – staccato, pizzicato, they’re all there, sticking out like four crotchets in a bar of waltz. One can’t help but think that fans of neither genre are served well – do dance heads really want strings all over their music? And it’s a rare kind of classical music fan that thinks, “what this string quartet recital really needs is a nice 909 bassline!” Nevertheless, there is some virtue here – the twin female vocalists give good show, the whole thing could act as a decent, risk-free primer to the charms of dance music for débutantes, and overall it’s all pretty good fun – if you don’t mind a bit of cheese in your mid-afternoon sandwich (2/5).
Whether or not it’s the fact that Morecambe’s The Heartbreaks are treating Kendal Calling as something of a homecoming gig, what with them being just a quick trip up the M6 away from home, there’s something in the demeanour of Matthew Whitehouse and co. that demonstrates that they’re not just making up the numbers here. They would end up playing three times in the same day, including an acoustic set, but the Calling Out stage set was as good as any place to catch them. Clearly steeped in the aesthetic of the swinging ’60s, in many ways The Heartbreaks are keeping alive the straight pop of the pre-grunge ’90s, with a sweet, upbeat songs about girls. There’s a clear Smiths influence, which is no surprise given the band’s enthusiasm for them, but they come across as far more joyous than the Mancunian miserabilists. If you’re in the market for slice after slice of optimistic guitar pop, The Heartbreaks are who you should be listening to (5/5).
A few minutes in the company of Willy Moon soon assuages any doubts that his underwhelming Liverpool Sound City performance was anything other than representative of the usual standard of his work. His set consists of vignettes of self-aggrandising cliché; he himself is an obsequious musical magpie that steals the shiniest but most worthless musical baubles. For example, a compilation of lyrics from recent album ‘Here’s Willy Moon’ tell their own story:
“ain’t coming back no more / yeah yeah / how you like me now / one, two, three, four / I got what you need / got a strange affliction deep in my soul / I wanna be your man / when I was young my mama said / I put a spell on you”
Make no mistake, the first time these musical ideas were invented, they worked, because they were new and exciting. But to simply rehash them and sell them on as one’s own work, isn’t just plagiarism, it’s insulting the intelligence of one’s audience. Moon has an obvious talent for performance, but a desperate hole where there should be some decent, meaty bits of song – pretty much all of which are under 3 minutes long, and some are under 2. Usually brevity in music is to be applauded, as long as what is presented is an original idea, concisely expressed. In Moon’s case, his are underdeveloped foeti of songs, birthed at too young an age, dressed up in the glitter of production to disguise their weakness (1/5).
Public Enemy, on the other hand, have a lot to say, perhaps quite a lot more than can be easily understood on first listen by a white Yorkshireman. The show is highly theatrical, with Flava Flav making an appearance ages after things have got going; in fact it was three songs in, because the photographers were preparing to leave after the customary three songs, only to be called back by Flav because he hadn’t had enough of the limelight – the first time in my experience that an artist has called for more photographic exposure rather than less. And certainly the first time that terms have been overruled directly from onstage. Flav makes an impassioned tribute to the unfortunate black American teenager Trayvon Martin, to whom he dedicates his continuing to wear the clock around his neck. There’s entourage scattered around the stage, seemingly just standing there most of the time, but overall it’s a pretty highly-charged affair, set amongst what it could be said is a fairly inoffensive, apolitical bill. And there’s nowt wrong with that (4/5).
Sunday is always chill-out day at Deer Shed, and the lineup today bears this out, with spoken word replacing the second stage, and less guitars all round. Indeed, more than once was the opinion mooted that Sunday’s main stage trifecta of AlascA (Amsterdam-based multi-instrumental folk), Moulettes (whose violin, cello and bassoon overlaid with a female duet take the string-based ensemble to places never before suspected possible) and the genteel lilting of Fifer King Creosote neatly summarises the ideal vision of Deer Shed’s musical programming. But in parallel were two world-class multimedia performances in the Big Top tent. Despite a gulf in musical styles, Public Service Broadcasting and The Unthanks (presenting ‘Songs From the Shipyards’) are thematic bedfellows, both utilising the emotional power of historical events to both inspire the music itself and take part in directly it via audio samples and video clips.
I’ve already reviewed Public Service Broadcasting at a recent headline show – suffice to say that the reception at Deer Shed was no less rapturous than that in Newcastle. People just lap them up. What does become apparent on a second reading is the subtle differences in each performance – it’s easy to assume that given the sequenced and sampled nature of the songs, that they sit within a rigid framework. However, on careful examination, it’s clear that Wilgoose and Wrigglesworth are delivering a genuine performance, with all the natural variation that implies. Even more impressive, then, that they can manage such a note-perfect performance every time. The only slight slip-up this time around was the demise of a snare drum skin, and even that mishap was an opportunity for more merriment from the now-famous sampled voice. “Silly boy!”
‘Songs From The Shipyards’ is a collection of songs, mostly covers, chosen to accompany a compilation of short films curated by Richard Fenwick, telling the story of the past century of British shipbuilding, with a particular focus on the Swan Hunter yard at Wallsend in North Tyneside. Arranged chronologically, each section has a title (“Taking on Men”, “Big Steamers”, “The Strikes”), and most have an accompanying song of the same name, although some sections retain the narrative soundtrack of the source film. The visuals are deeply compelling in themselves: the immense physical presence and forthright majesty of a newly-built ship towering over rows of humble Tyneside terraces is unforgettable; the very enormity and power of heavy engineering writ large on a cinema screen is a thrill in itself. But The Unthanks’ poignant performance heightens the mood and deepens the emotional response – over the course of the hour the 100-year history of modern British shipbuilding is laid bare, from the early glory days to its slow, painful decline.
The Unthanks have an otherworldly knack of taking a song about what on the face of it might appear a dry or unglamorous subject, and by their powers of delivery elevate it to as glorious a height as is possible in music, comparable in emotional impact with midnight Mass at Westminster Cathedral, or the Berliner Philharmoniker delivering the final bars of Ravel’s Bolero. In other words, the definitive performance of a piece, by which all others must be judged. In a nice plug for Deer Shed, Mark Radcliffe had already tweaked the expectation skywards in demonstrating what The Unthanks are capable of by playing ‘King Of Rome’ in its full 7-minute glory on his 6music show just a few days before, a song which begs the question: if grown men can be brought to tears by a song about a single pigeon, how much more impactful can a 1-hour cycle about events which involved thousands of people be?
The performance is intended to be taken as a whole, but one can pick out moments of particular note: local singer-songwriter Jez Lowe’s ‘Black Trade’ enumerates trades long forgotten: boilersmiths, platemen, riggers, coppersmiths; skills which used to be commonly found within shipbuilding communities, giving each specialist a sense of pride and place – now, if they exist at all, it is only in tiny pockets of endeavour, a loss which, like so much described here, has had a profound effect on the very fabric of society. ‘Big Steamers’ takes Rudyard Kipling’s peerless words, profoundly evocative in their sense of time and place, and frames them in a delicately unsettling call-and-response arrangement:
Then I’ll build a new lighthouse for all you big steamers
With plenty wise pilots to pilot you through
Oh the channel’s as bright as a ballroom already
And pilots are thicker than pilchards at Looe
all accompanied by Adrian McNally’s grand piano which gathers in portent as the song reaches its uncomfortable denouement. A true highlight in a figurative sea of excellence.
This year marks 110 years since the zenith of Wallsend shipbuilding – the birth of Cunard’s pioneering ocean liner RMS Mauretania, a ship who not only held the Transatlantic speed record for an impressive 22 years, but played a significant part in the success of the Great War effort as a troop-, and latterly hospital-ship. Indeed, the grandeur and optimism of Tyneside shipbuilding truly belongs to the pre-WWII period. By 1966 the government’s Geddes Committee found that British prices for tankers and bulk carriers were uncompetitive, and the industry was rife with inefficiency and industrial disputes. Governments of all stripes tried various means of artificial support: Conservative Edward Heath included support for shipyards in his ultimately futile package of generous Keynesian giveaways in 1972, none of which were enough to give the economy any more than a brief respite from its downward slide, or indeed save his own political fortunes. Even if the shipyards had been in tip-top condition, the further deterioration in the British economy under the watch of the wafer-thin Labour government of Heath-Callaghan, culminating in 1978’s “Winter of Discontent” and the three-day-week, would have been enough to discourage even the most enthusiastic customer of Tyneside shipbuilding from placing an order.
In a move guaranteed to bring even more disruption to an already unstable industry, Labour’s 1977’s Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Act brought swathes of Britain’s heavy manufacturing under forced public ownership, a move too rich even for champagne socialist Alfred Robens, ex-chairman of the National Coal Board, who previously oversaw a more than 50% reduction in Britain’s coal mining workforce. Quite why the government at the time thought they could run shipbuilding better than the private owners is unclear. What is apparent is that all they touched turned to rust: in just five years of public ownership half of Britain’s shipyards had shut, and a mess of recrimination festered over compensation for the forced takeovers. After building over 100 warships, including HMS Illustrious in 1978, and HMS Ark Royal in 1981, Wallsend’s shipbuilding came to an ignominious end in 2006 with the half-finished RFA Lyme Bay being towed to Govan for completion after delays and cost overruns. To date no further ships have been laid at Wallsend, and it is unlikely any more will.
Richard Fenwick’s selection of news footage touches on the industrial disputes that inevitably rose during the industry’s slow but steady decline. We see picket lines, dire warnings of the potential consequences of strikes and workers’ opposition to modernisation; most poignant is a section which shows unedited soundbites from the workers themselves. They are clearly being prompted, given lines which on paper sound optimistic, but their unconvincing delivery tells a very different story. Margaret Thatcher even pops up as the pantomime villain, but in truth no government could have stopped the rot: even if Thatcher had been minded to prop up the industry with subsidy, European rules forbade it. Not a restriction that the Far Eastern shipyards suffered, and one which highlights Britain’s uneasy subjugation under the European parliament which continues to this day.
Even though on the surface this is a story about Tyneside and its people, the same arc of proud rise followed by slow, bitter collapse can be traced through the majority of once-great British industry. Given Britain was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, single-handedly inventing modern industrial practice, it is a particularly cruel irony that those skills that she taught the world should be used to destroy their practice in their seat of invention. The consequent loss of employment and income has done untold harm to countless regional communities, a great many of which now linger in a curious netherworld of state-sponsored vacuity from which it is next to impossible to escape.
Wallsend itself survives as a community, but only just. The once-proud shipbuilding workforce has either retired early, or moved on to take lower-skilled and lower-paid employment elsewhere. Many ex-labourers are resigned to a lifetime of benefits and poor health, having no useful skills outside shipbuilding and being too old to retrain. Diabetes is rife; the local discount bulk snack-food shop does a roaring trade, dishing out refined sugars and saturated fat to a population either too ill-informed to know better, or too bitterly resigned to care. Many school-leavers face a dismal prospect of menial work or call-centre purgatory – the skilled apprenticeships provided by the shipyards are sorely missed.
Thusly, ‘Songs From the Shipyards’ is an important piece of living history: a fine tribute to a once-proud industry and the people that served it. Never again will their like be seen again; the world has moved on, and it is the responsibility of everyone to move with it. The region is lucky to have such a vigorous history, and such fine musicians to remind us of it. Not only remembered, but celebrated.
As is the Deer Shed way, no sooner had such cerebral thoughts coalesced, they were rudely set aside in favour of constructing a novel yet vaguely functional monotonal wind instrument from an enormous pile of plastic plumbing pipes. Earlier I had shared in the wonder of an 18-month-old boy watching a vintage tractor drive a machine which crushed large stones into smaller ones. Rather a highlight of the weekend, both for him and me. The soft play area was very popular, to say nothing of home-made elastic-band-propelled buggies, and a tree made out of plastic piping with CDs for leaves. A number of mysterious machines made an appearance throughout the weekend, best described through the power of photography, but particularly notable was the bench upon which two humanoid robots sat perfectly still – until an unsuspecting human sat between them, at which point their heads turned towards you in a gently unsettling manner. For the older kids there was soldering practice, Raspberry Pi programming, actual robotics, and a brilliant Scrapheap Challenge.
As we ambled away from the site to begin the journey home to the comforting strains of King Creosote, it was time for reflection on how Deer Shed 2013 had treated us. There were some hiccups – the bar was too small and ran out of several beers, the campsite shop was deeply underwhelming, and it did actually rain a bit on Sunday morning. But everything else was as pretty close to perfect as a family-friendly festival gets. 2013 might be the year that Deer Shed comes of age – the biggest crowd, some site jiggery-pokery, but they didn’t lose the essential friendliness, and even cosiness, that defines the event. Well done to all the organisers, and the numerous volunteers who worked all weekend to things running as we were all having a great time. Early bird tickets for 2014 go on sale in September for what will undoubtedly be a bargainacious price – snap them up and I’ll see you there!
Saturday at Deer Shed Festival 2013 dawns bright and sunny again, and the search for sustenance before the day gets properly going commences. Now, on that topic, a word about Thomas the Baker. The esteemed purveyor of sweetmeats was on target for being absent this year, for reasons unknown. But at the last minute, their attendance was announced, to the delight of those of us who consider a cheese straw and a sausage roll to be a delicious and satisfying snack. And Thomas does the best in the business. But the real highlight of their range is quite the definitive Yorkshire curd tart, the reference for all other boulangers to aspire to. The place wouldn’t have been the same without them, so as a personal favour, please can Thomas and Deer Shed never part? Thanks.
Blood Relatives continue the Scottish flavour which continues throughout the weekend. They are a very young four-piece from Glasgow trading in summery, jangly tunes, who wouldn’t be out of place on Edwyn Collins’ Postcard Records. Along with deep-fried pizza and brutalist council estates, it’s the sort of thing that Glasgow churns out seemingly without effort. First and only single ‘Dead Hip’ sums up their sound – all chiming guitars, intertwining vocals and clever wordplay. Lovely to listen to, and the perfect way to ease into a long day of music, but perhaps their chip-off-the-old-block stylings mean they need a few more releases before they can stand apart from the immense back catalogue that their part of the world carries. (3.5/5)
Moving from Scotland’s west to its east coast, the four young lads that make up Bwani Junction bat away various technical problems to deliver an energetic, good-humoured set of funky guitar pop with chiming, trebly, afrobeat-inspired guitar overlay. Latest single ‘Papa Candy’ actually gets pretty heavy in places, whilst maintaining a surreal edge (“The milkman is evil,” anyone?) There’s a hint of ‘London Calling’-era Clash in their mashup of styles – the backbone of punk is ever-present, the world music influences keep things fresh, but their essence lies in observational songwriting in the vein of Arctic Monkeys. A great find. (4/5)
Spring Offensive are no stranger to these pages; we reviewed them just over a year ago when they were touring single ‘Worry Fill My Heart’. Back then they seemed destined to be the next big band to come out of Oxford. Today… is it my imagination or have they perhaps lost a bit of their sheen? The WWII threads have been all but abandoned; today there’s less of a sense of genuine menace and portent that they are capable of at their best. Losing a superb bass player into the ravenous clutches of Gaz Coombes can’t have helped matters. Although it may all be down to the incongruity of it being a sunny afternoon at a family festival, a point acknowledged when they launch into ‘The River’, a particularly maudlin affair with the chorus “I suggest you slide into the river / like the rat that you are”. Hello children, everywhere. Nobody else does a sense of modern despair like Spring Offensive, as they evoke grey clock-watching employees and care-worn lovers with ease on ‘52 Miles’. All told, Spring Offensive not quite firing on all cylinders is still of a level of quality that many bands would envy. (4/5)
Zervas and Pepper are a Welsh singer-songwriter duo – you may have heard their latest single ‘Jerome’ being promoted by Lauren Laverne on her 6music show just the previous day. An atmospheric slice of country rock straight outta the 1970s, ‘Jerome’ is named after the eponymous Arizona town, a place which neatly summarises the music’s windswept desolation. The obvious reference point for the combination of acoustic and electric guitars, and the mid-tempo vibe is Neil Young’s ‘After the Gold Rush’ period; there’s a touch of psychedelia in the spacey reverbs and multi-layered backing vocals that previously Young had the exclusive rights to – not anymore! What’s most impressive is how genuine the sound of giant-sky Americana being conjured actually is, considering the protagonists aren’t from round those parts. ‘Somewhere In The City’ is a brilliant primer as to the power of Z&P – a beautiful acoustic guitar intro, those fantastically widescreen vocals throughout, and even a flute solo all add up to a beautifully atmospheric piece as good as anything released in the 1970s by proper Americans in big cowboy hats. (4/5)
To Kill a King’s Ralph Pellymounter proudly strides onstage wearing a Brudenell Social Club t-shirt – a badge of honour that obliquely declares the band’s city of origin, and also pays homage to the cult music venue nestled in terraced Leeds suburbia which continues to play an important role in the development and support of local bands. In which category To Kill a King are the latest, and perhaps one of the best. In Pellymounter, they have a deeply charismatic, if unusually-bearded frontman, whose infectious smile and direct eye-contact enchants the audience from the very beginning.
Musically, TKAK are from the stable of Noah and the Whale (close your eyes and it could be Charlie Fink on vocals), and (whisper it) Mumford and Sons, but dispense with the cod-folk stylings of the latter in favour of a far more contemporary approach. The majority of debut album ‘Cannibals With Cutlery’ is played: something like ‘Funeral’ (perhaps a nod of gratitude to Arcade Fire there?) has the radio-friendly sheen of melody and climax of the aforementioned megabands, but still manages to carry a reasonably complex message; ‘Besides She Said’ manages to be romantic without ever resorting to saccharine sweetness. If everyone who owned a Mumford’s CD replaced it with something by To Kill a King, the world would be a better place. (4/5)
I’ve discussed the importance of The House of Love elsewhere on this site (read the retrospective here), so I won’t go into too much detail here. Suffice to say that Guy Chadwick looks older than one would expect, and could do with a decent manicure. Terry Bickers has lost nothing of his legendary guitar skill, and could pass for a close relative of Bernard Butler both in looks and playing style. Perhaps it’s simply the power of familiarity, but the old songs sound stronger and in a way fresher than the post-reformation material. Time hasn’t dulled the power of an anthemic ‘Shine On’, and ‘Beatles and Stones’ works brilliantly live. Much as with Edwyn Collins, I suspect a neutral listener may not appreciate the portent of it all, but in its proper context, any performance by The House Of Love is special. (4/5)
It’s fair to say that Darwin Deez is hardly a household name, so perhaps an odd choice for headliner. But if there were any doubts as to his ability to carry a top billing, a few blasts of virtuoso guitar work instantly dispel them. Deez specialises in funky, jazz-inflected ditties with witty, observational lyrics and regular forays into complex fretwork. Comparisons with Prince are to a certain extent valid: they both share an ability to conjure a potent blend of funk, soul and rock, even if Deez doesn’t quite aspire to the vast artifice that is ‘Purple ‘Rain’ live. Neither does he carry the massive ego: everything is deported in a humble manner, even when at his highest level of fret-shredding. An ambitious choice of headliner for a Yorkshire family festival, but an inspired one – in his 90 minutes, Deez really does turn in a wide-ranging performance; yes, heavy on the guitar but also carrying a full-on party vibe, which gets the crowd all worked up for… (4/5)
DJ Smoove is the production brain who, along with John Turrell, make up the creative heart of Tyneside funketeers Smoove and Turrell. After their live set earlier on in the day, Smoove is back for a two-hour DJ set of old-school tunes, to keep the crowd (mostly dads who have escaped the family tent for a bit of out-of-hours boogieing) going into the small hours. And thanks be to the God of DJing, because Smoove brings to the party those increasingly rare accessories – a pair of turntables and several circular black plastic discs commonly known as records, which I believe are still used occasionally by those who learned their DJing trade before the advent of CDs and the various digital shenanigans commonly seen on a DJ’s desk. Smoove totes a couple of decks and a mixer, nary a Macbook in sight, and his set is all the better for it. His set ranges through soul, funk and house, blended with beatmixing and proper vinyl scratching that’s simply world-class. He may not be a household name, but DJ Smoove is a class act on the decks. (5/5)
Right in the middle of his Saturday night headline set at Deer Shed Festival 2013, Darwin Deez brought his band to the front of the stage, and all four men lined up in silence. Then a metronomic electro beat kicked in, and they began to move. Initially, just an arm would go up in response to a recorded note. Then each dancer took on a musical motif as his own, limbs locked in time with the music, until they were a blur of moving body parts, aligned in rhythm but diverse in motion, as if the internal workings of a wristwatch. It spiralled from there: in pairs, each couple chiding the other – using nothing but the power of dance – to even higher levels of highly-skilled yet light-hearted boogie-banter. It was a moment that summed up the entire ethos of Deer Shed Festival: do something fun; do it well; do it with the unselfconscious devotion of a child. And if it involves putting a cardboard box on one’s head and pretending to be a robot, so much the better.
Rewind a day or so, and the famously clement Deer Shed weather made putting up a tent both a pleasure and a chore – baking hot sunshine is perfect when the work of tent-erection is over, cold beer in hand, but slightly less enjoyable whilst in the process of whacking tent pegs into baked-hard ground. Still, it beats rain in any form, and Deer Shed still has a 100% record for no significant rain at any of the four events so far, a record which leaves many festivals blushing with envy. The site itself was significantly rearranged this year, cleverly making use of Baldersby Park’s natural bowl-shaped amphitheatre, although this sadly leaves the eponymous Shed outside the arena, looking very much unloved and forlorn. Perhaps it could be brought into use for… ooh, I don’t know… housing deer for the weekend?
No sooner was the tent upstanding then it was time for music. First up was Gaz Coombes, late of Supergrass, and what a superb opening gambit he turned out to be. His recent work, as chronicled in long-player ‘Here Comes the Bombs’, was very much in evidence, as expected, as was heartbreaking recent single ‘One Of These Days’. Songs such as the sub-3-minute stomper ‘Whore’, and the more circumspect, spacey almost-prog of ‘Universal Cinema’, were rapturously received by a crowd who appeared initially not to know quite what to expect.
What they got was a spectacular performance from a well-drilled and vastly experienced practitioner of alternative guitar-pop. A lady or two might have swooned at the sight of his impressively-sideburned visage. Imagine the delight of the crowd when treated to an acoustic interlude of a couple of Supergrass numbers, including the divine ‘Moving’, which excels when given a stripped back treatment. Then imagine that delight transforming into headbanging ecstasy when the very last song turns out to be the storming ‘Richard III’ from Supergrass’ sophomore release. Not a brow was left unsweaty. (5/5)
By chance, a member of our entourage is acquainted with a good friend of Edwyn Collins, and from him has learned how devastating the double cerebral haemorrhage and subsequent complications Collins suffered in 2005 actually were. Thusly, we’re under no illusions about how impressive it is that he’s here at all. Which makes reviewing his performance a little tricky. Collins himself isn’t overly mobile, his right side clearly considerably weakened. He sits on an amplifier throughout and plays no instrument. He has an odd way of speaking – in short, sharp facts rather than conversational sentences. His speech is slurred. Yet here he is, confidently headlining. It cannot be overestimated how significant an achievement that is, and a tribute to Collins’ efforts of rehabilitation. Such sentiment is largely irrelevant, however, in the context of musical criticism. And whilst on the surface this could be a difficult listen – a bald reading of some relatively obscure songs from a man who slurs his words and is liberal in his approach to perfect pitch – anyone with even a casual familiarity with his work will appreciate the resonance of this performance as a whole.
The set ranges widely over Collins’ long career – the white funk of his Orange Juice period still sounds fresh in ‘What Presence?’, time hasn’t dulled ‘Gorgeous George’’s edge, but it’s the new, post-illness material that’s most impressive. We get a smattering from 2010’s superb Losing Sleep LP, including the Northern Soul-influenced title track and the touchingly romantic ‘In Your Eyes’. But the best bits come from this year’s ‘Understated’. If Collins’ voice is damaged, his ear for a tune is still factory-fresh. There’s a strong autobiographical thread running through his newest songs: ‘31 Years’ and ‘Understated’ are barely-concealed musings on his past, his achievements, and what the future might hold, all bound together with expert songcraft. Bad health may have robbed Collins of his ability to play his cherished guitars, but it has thankfully left his musical brain intact. A performance for connoisseurs, but what it lacked in accessibility it made up for in depth. (4/5)
A particular highlight of last year was Darius Battiwalla’s piano accompaniment to the eerie ‘Nosferatu’. This year, Darius was back with 1925’s ‘The Phantom of the Opera’. ‘Phantom’ tells the story of Erik, a hideously deformed figure who lives deep in the bowels of an opera house, falls in love with a leading lady, and proceeds to terrorise all those who would stand in his way. A disturbing portrait of manic depression, it contains some genuinely chilling scenes, notably the casual way Erik dispenses with his first underground caller.
The production is astonishing even when viewed with a jaded modern eye – the subterranean lair is a romantic gothic masterpiece, and the restrictions of black and white film are used to its advantage when portraying the inky blackness of water, and by the use of tints to reinforce the emotional context of a scene. Battiwalla’s playing is an absolute joy, so expertly reflecting the on-screen action, one could close one’s eyes and imagine how the story was developing. Beautiful melodic vignettes of disparate theme, pitch and tempo flow together to create a seamless soundtrack, all the more impressive for being played without sheet music. Cinema doesn’t get any better than this. (5/5)
Head on over to Martin’s Flickr for high-res versions of his photos taken at this year’s Deer Shed Festival.
Update: as of 26/11/2013, they’re now called The Orielles.
Every so often one comes across a band that so perfectly defies expectation – and, occasionally, reason – that they deserve to be written about just for that. The Oreoh!s are just such an act. Comprising sisters Esme and Sid Hand-Halford on bass and drums, respectively, and Henry Wade on guitar, this Halifax-based three-piece are notable for being the youngest in age I have ever seen on the professional circuit: we’re talking between 15 and 17 years of age here, folks. Not even old enough for a refreshing post-gig lager. Which in itself isn’t a special talent – after all, we were all young once – but what’s more intriguing is that they’re actually a really good band. My thoughts on their appearance at Liverpool Sound City are already out there, but after the buzz of that weekend had died down I had the opportunity to sit down and have a listen to their independently-recorded EP ‘Sunny Daze and Sleepless Nights’. [Our copy was handed to me personally by the band themselves at Brink cafe on the third day of Sound City 2013. Eat your heart out, Lammo, with your Bloc Party demo at the Franz Ferdinand gig outside the toilets at the ICA. - Ed.]
Slightly dodgy puns aside, this recording really shows the depth of ability that these three West Yorkshire youngsters display. ‘Truth Be Told’ (stream above) is the opener – after the riffing builds into a decent garage-band groove, the beautiful crystal-clear voice of Esme is introduced, at once powerful and delicate, with a fine knack for a catchy melody. The lyrics advise, “do it all before you get old”, a surprisingly mature sentiment considering the singer’s tender years. ‘Deduce’ (video at the end of this post) is the standout track, and one that rollicks along at a fine pace, with a massive serving of fizzy guitars, tinny drums, and Esme’s lovely vocal. This could genuinely be an underground garage-rock classic – slightly lo-fi, incredibly catchy chorus that comes round exactly the correct number of times, deceptively basic yet heartfelt musicianship. A real triumph. And just to show they can do downtempo as well as up, ‘Midnight In Paris’ is a delicate ballad based around squeezebox rather than guitar, and again that surprisingly mature sentiment is clear to hear.
The Oreoh!s have been a pleasure to discover. All four songs on this EP are great and show incredible potential. It’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating here – if they’re this good this young, how good will they be in a few years’ time? Let’s hope that they’ve got the staying power to properly realise their potential.
The Oreoh!s’ EP ‘Sunny Daze and Sleepless Nights’ is available from the band’s own merch store.