Friday, November 29, 2013

Layers - It Feels Like Christmas Now does doesn't it? Come Sunday we'll all be tucking in to that little chocolate behind the first advent calendar and panic buying stuffing by the crate load. Ahhhhhh...glorious...don't you just love Christmas eh? Here's another homegrown Christmas anthem for you courtesy of the lovely Layers. It snuck out last year true Christmas single's just been re-released. Play it to your gran on Christmas day after she's OD'd on 'egg nog'...that'll wake the old dear up. Ho ho ho!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Rudi The Red Nosed Reindeer

Heck, it's nearly December so let's start popping up some suitably festive musical fare eh? 

November 15th marked the 45th anniversary of the Birmingham recording company Big Bear Records, now probably the longest-established independent recording company in the UK. Forty five years ago to the day, the first ever Big Bear 45 was released, and the same recording kicks off their series of Revived Forty Fives from the Big Bear Archives.

Here’s the back story from the label itself...

“November 15th 1968 saw the release of the first Big Bear single and not without a whiff of controversy and a touch of skulduggery.

Back then, Big Bear managed Rock Steady Ska band The Locomotive who were flying high with their “Rudi’s In Love” hit on EMI Parlophone. The crucial follow-up was under discussion and band manager Jim Simpson believed that the next single should follow on in similar vein to the dance floor hit, and had already produced a zany Ska 45 version of “Rudi the Red Nosed Reindeer” in readiness.

The suits at EMI were unamused and had other ideas. Hoping to pick up on the emerging Progressive Music trend, they opted instead for the moody “Mr Armageddon”, which inevitably alienated the band’s new-found Ska audience.

Simpson, finding himself with a now-redundant 45 on his hands, did the obvious thing - he set up a record label. Island Records supremo Chris Blackwell offered distribution, and Big Bear Records came into being.
The next hurdle was the band’s name.

Simpson had signed The Locomotive to EMI as a band, so the “Rudi the Red Nosed Reindeer” single was released as by The Steam Shovel, a thinly disguised Locomotive. It clocked up a decent 7000 sales that first Christmas, enjoying several subsequent Christmas re-releases, reaching a total of around 18,000 units.

But it didn’t end there.

Simpson had commissioned the Big Bear logo, which he liked, but wondered if it reminded him of Walt Disney’s Baloo the Bear. Unfortunately, the multi-national Walt Disney company thought similarly [i.e. it was identical] and sent their lawyers into action. Suitably chastened, the Bear was re-invented, Walt was appeased, and Big Bear Records were in business with a logo that has served until today.”

Monday, November 25, 2013

Summer Camp / Fryars @ Hare and Hounds, Sunday 24th November 2013

Having recently moved into the Hare and Hounds permanently (got myself a sweet little spot just beneath the bar in the back more nightmare journeys on the bus of the damned - aka the Number 11 - for me) tonight’s gig was just a mere stumble away.

First up Fryars (formerly known as frYars) who I first heard back in the day (2007 or so) via an intriguingly oddball track called Chocolate (look it up if you can find the original, it’s rather great). In the intervening years he’s clearly smoothed out some of the oddness in favour of a more conventional and, let’s face it, commercial sound. Can’t blame him for that, fellow has to eat. Ancient readers may be aware of singer / songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan who was pretty massive in the 70s. Well, at times Fryars has a similar feel this evening albeit it with a dash of electronica here and there. 

Opening with the sleepy On Your Own pretty much the whole set’s a lesson in classy and atmospheric MOR, the fruits of several years’ labour which should be properly unveiled in an album sometime in 2014. In between songs Fryars (aka Ben Garrett) revealed he has a pretty good sense of humour too, jokily mentioning that he’d only sold one of his t-shirts so far and, as a result, musing that the unit cost is currently £158. Whether anyone bought one at this price after the show is still unconfirmed. Unlikely, especially as it fails to mention the band’s name anywhere. After the pretty chilled out feel the last track, Cool Like Me lifted the pace considerably. It’s been used on a TV show apparently, probably in a scene featuring a teenage girl gyrating in a nightclub somewhere. It’s that kind of tune. Personally I miss the more experimental off the wall feel of his earlier stuff but you can see the newer material going down a storm.

Sadly the world’s littered with underrated bands. In the days when such things existed they ended up in the bargain bins of records shops whilst lesser groups sold by the bucket load. If anything it’s even worse these days. Pretty much anyone can record entire albums in their bedrooms right now, resulting in some brilliant and not so brilliant stuff coming out of the unlikeliest places. Since 2009 Summer Camp (husband and wife Jeremy Warmsley and Elizabeth Sankey) have been producing some absolutely classic slices of pop perfection that should’ve been huge. For some reason the kind of success that they deserve has, so far, eluded them giving anyone clued up enough the chance to hear arguably one of alt pop’s finest in relatively modest surroundings. Summer Camp shows are a treat for the eyes as well as the ears though. Clearly they’re huge movie buffs as every song is accompanied by a series of carefully selected film clips – everything from Gene Kelly dance numbers to Footloose (movie anoraks will have a ball) – projected on to the back of the stage. It’s a simple idea but I dread to think how long it all took. Probably as long as it took to craft the 16 or so pop gems that formed the set. As you’d expect new album Summer Camp provided the bulk of the songs, adding a little extra disco gloss to the sound first unveiled on their debut Welcome To Condale. Sankey (resplendent in a rather fetching pair of silver block heel shoes) and Warmsley (tweed jacket...button hanging on for grim life) were accompanied tonight by two thirds of post rockers's a long standing arrangement but still a curious gig for them I guess. What’s the best song to start the show with? How about a track called The End? Genius. 

It really is genius too, the kind of clever disco dusted pop that relaunched sexy Kylie back in her golden hot pants days (in fact can't you just hear her singing this?). Next up, Down, from the debut album, an anthem for anyone who’s...well...feeling a bit down. It’s anything but downbeat though, with Sankey defiantly belting out “This is my life” whilst Warmsley provides the comforting refrains. Capping off a trio of Camp classics comes Fresh, first single off the new album. Is this the best song they’ve done so far? Heck yes. If Busby Berkeley hooked up with Chic this would be the soundtrack. Lush strings, funky basslines, lyrics dripping with romance and Sankey at her seductively theatrical best...find me a better, classier pop record this year if you can.

I Got You brings a bit of an oriental flavour to proceedings with Sankey and Warmsley exchanging adorable little glances at each other during the “For always, forever you and me” bits. Awwww bless ‘em. It’s a wonderfully intimate little moment, sweet without being saccharine...not an easy thing to achieve in these deeply cynical times. Keep Falling is as instantly catchy as anything you’re likely to hear, a glorious song that, were he still with us and making movies, John Hughes would surely snap it up for one of his soundtracks. And so it continues, one glorious track after another culminating in the delicious coupling of bitter break up anthem Better Off Without You and perhaps it’s polar opposite (musically and subject wise) the sublime Two Chords.

With a soundtrack currently in production for a documentary called Beyond Clueless there’ll be plenty more new Summer Camp material pretty soon, but the world really needs to wake up and smell whatever hot beverage takes their fancy right now. Summer Camp are a glorious reboot of pop’s golden ages (the 60s and 80s) and if you miss out on them while they’re this great, trust me, your regret will be more than ‘in-tents’.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Untitled Musical Project / Youth Man / Tales @ The Sunflower Lounge, 23rd November 2013

It’s been quite the week for noisy cult Birmingham based bands to reform for a ‘one off’ gig. Last Saturday witnessed the second coming of Distophia during the rather excellent All Years Leaving festival and tonight was the turn of much loved shouty, screamy, punky trio Untitled Musical Project to deafen the nation’s young...and not so young...once more.

First up though Tales. You had to feel for ‘em. The trouble with relying on technology for at least some of your sound is that it can...and will...decide not to play ball every once in a while. Tonight was one of those times and despite using a Mac...which always work...ahem...the band spent an increasingly desperate 10 minutes or so rebooting, unplugging and cursing the damn thing. Fortunately the bloody contraption eventually began to do what it was supposed to do, sort of, and the band got on with what they were supposed to do. They’re actually an interesting proposition, imagine White Denim going math rock and you’ll have a fair idea of some of their tracks. 

Such was the drummer’s ferocity that he broke several drumsticks before the set was over, presumably taking out some of his IT related frustration on something that wouldn’t cost a grand or two to replace. “Next time you see us we’re going to be four piece...get rid of the technology” he mused, possibly only half jokingly. “Anyone want to buy a Mac?” Relax, shit happens. It’s what you do afterwards that counts and, for the record, they turned what could’ve been a disaster into something of a triumph. A worthy addition to Brum’s burgeoning music scene.

Are Youth Man the hardest working band in Birmingham right now? Could be. I’ve seen them three or four times myself in the past few months...but they seem to be playing pretty much every week somewhere or other. In fact I half expect them to pop up and start playing in my bathroom one night. This is a good thing by the way. Generally speaking the more you play the better you get (yes I know...duh uh) and the more people get to hear you. It’s pretty simple really. That’s probably one of the reasons why da Man got played on Radio One this week too...they’re putting in the hours. It shows too. Each gig they’re just that bit better than before. Tonight was another typically spiky, fast, loud attack on the senses with lead singer Kaila jerking and screaming all over the stage like a woman possessed while bassist Adam provided some impressively nimble riffs and drummer Marcus beat the holy crap out of the drums. It’s a groin moisteningly impressive sight and sound, from the frenetic opening number of Heavy Rain through to the more reflective and soulful Wide Awake (rapidly becoming one of my favourite Youth Man tracks). 

Maintaining the theme of the night Kaila managed to bust a D string on her guitar giving Adam and Marcus the chance to jam whilst she swapped over to a replacement. Hell, even this bit was great. 

Kieren, lead screamer of Untitled Music Project, seems like such a nice boy when you’re chatting to him. The kind of lad you’d happily take home to mother. Up there on the stage however...oh boy...that’s a different matter. He’s more like the dude your mother warned you about, a wide eyed raging soothsayer on a mission to blow a ragged hole through your eardrums. Blazing through their greatest misses it was pretty much like they’d never been away and a reminder, if one were needed, of just how great they were/are. Take Beards and Drugs for instance, two and a half minutes of menacing indie punk perfection that builds to the kind of splenetic climax that normally precedes a successful exorcism. Imagine a mash up between the Beastie Boys and Dead Kennedy’’s a bit like that. Only better. If two and a half minutes is too long for you how about A Popular Music Composition which does its business and clears out a full minute quicker leaving your neck ever so slightly detached from the rest of your body. It was fast. It was frantic. It was, quite frankly, fantastic. Ending the set with cracking versions of perhaps the two songs that got them closest to a hit, Why Isn’t Paul McCartney Dead Yet? and The People vs Michael Miller left you with the nagging feeling that, despite protests to the contrary, this is one project (Untitled or otherwise) that’s still not quite finished yet...

Friday, November 22, 2013

Drakelow – Amber

Drakelow release their rather lovely new single Amber on December 9th, adding a little scuzzy distorted bass and meaty drumming to their more folk tinged sound. It’s a great mix, building to an emotionally stirring chorus sung with suitable yearning by the band’s lead singer and songwriter Matt Pinfield. Speaking of mixes the whole thing was mastered by Alan Douches in Noo Yoik who’s twiddled the knobs (as it were) for everyone from Sufjan Stevens to Motorhead (now there's a collaboration I'd like to hear). Cool. 

Amber is out on 7 inch vinyl ('s the future) and CD on Grandflat Recordings and will be available from the band’s website...and no doubt the band themselves...I’m sure they’ll always have a copy or two on the shops, in the bath...that kind of thing.  

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Miss Halliwell – Fresh from the Holy Spring / Gusting Guests

What will the neighbours think? Any minute now I’m expecting a knock on the door from the boys in blue “Hello sir, we have reason to believe you’re experimenting with mind altering substances...” I’m not. Well not this time at least. Nope, the sound seeping through the walls, between the cracks and into the ears of anyone within the immediate vicinity comes from Miss Halliwell’s brand new double album...which manages to be both uncompromising and challenging but still somehow often quite accessible in a way that few bands could even begin to pull off.

I had the genuine pleasure of spending a few hours in legendary Bearwood boozer The Bear with Miles himself a week or two ago and he’s every bit as ‘real’ as he comes across in both his music and writing. For a couple of hours we chewed the fat and drank the ale, discussing, well, pretty much everything under the sun really. The one thing that the afternoon left me with is this dude’s passion for what he does. That’s not to diss anyone else in a band, far from it. Anyone who pitches up to entertain an often apathetic public deserves respect. But Miles has that kind of commitment that leads some artists to lop off an ear, self immolate or nail their bollocks to a footpath (seriously, someone did this in Russia recently...saves Putin doing it for them I guess but even so...ouch). Perhaps age has mellowed him ever so slightly, he admitted as much, but then again if you read his latest blog posting (and I heartily recommend that you do) the righteous venom’s still flowing like blood from severed artery. It came out in our conversation too, not bitterness (he ain’t one for sitting around sticking pins in voodoo dolls) but more a determination to keep on keeping on, with or without the acclaim that the band deserves. There’s a part of him that likes it this way, so much easier to be true to yourself when a relatively modest number of people are listening. Quite what an impact landing a number 1 album would have on the band I can’t imagine...but bugger me, wouldn’t it be great to find out?

Given that they recorded their debut album (Die Son! Die!) live at a couple of incendiary shows back in 2009 and then made a movie about the whole thing perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Miss Halliwell’s follow up is an ambitious double. Okay not exactly as the second disc bears Miles’ name alone but still, feel the weight my friends. Reviewing this album was always going to be a challenge. Actually at times it feels more like the album’s reviewing you, especially on disc one. In opening number Gentlears (the sound of Zappa humping Miles E. Smith in an asylum) Captain Miles rallies his troops before launching into a nutzoid rant against pretty much everyone and everything. Bonus points for the Brian Clough referencing lyric by the way. Even more bonus points for the fact that it’s not an idle boast. As Miles himself admits Rulerfueller’s as close to a single as Miss Halliwell is likely to get but don’t expect to hear it as ringtone any time soon...unless the world pulls its head out of its backside for a change “Can’t we find a reason why we need a kick up the arse?” challenges Miles. 

See what I mean? Far too few bands ask questions of their listeners these days, arguably at a time in our culture when we all need a kick up the arse more than ever. The album's title track Fresh From The Holy Spring is literally the sound of a man taking opposed to the...piss. Genius. I guess if so many artists can get away with releasing crap Miles and co are entitled to go (number) one better. Other highlights? The whole damn thing frankly but the tub thumping drum and guitar madness of Squeamish Knight deserves an honourable mention as does the discordantly surreal Ponytail Quest. "Honour Miss Halliwell" indeed. 

Disc two, entitled Gusting Guests, is a little more of solo project albeit it featuring a number of Miss Halliwell regulars. Stripping back a little (well, okay, quite a lot in places) of the gloss of disc one and replacing it with a more lo fi / experimental feel it’s a dazzlingly varied mix of stuff, from the scuzzy post punk feel of Perfidious Unholy to the electronic Speak and Spell meltdown of The Art Of Shutting Up though to the ambient chill out of Pity About The Ditty...and that’s just the first three tracks. Some of the material’s what you’d call ‘challenging’ and possibly not for those of a nervous disposition, Juggle World in particular may well bring about complete mental collapse in those on the edge, but if you want easy listening my friends then this ain’t the place for you.

Trust me on this one, there’s more creativity, passion and inspired lunacy in 30 seconds of either disc than many bands manage in entire careers. I don’t expect everyone to grasp my love for this band and/or the dude behind them but if your ears are ready for something genuinely different...and how often does that come along these days...then Fresh from the Holy Spring is the answer to your prayers. Amen and Halliwellujah!

The official album launch is this Sunday, 7pm, 24th November at the Sunday Xpress, Adam & Eve, Digbeth...AND IT'S RUDDY FREE! Miss Halliwell will also be playing at the Hare & Hounds on 19th December. Ho Ho Go. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The big Big Bear Reunion...the hunt is on!

This is fun. Way back in 1980 legendary Birmingham based record label Big Bear (helmed by Jim Simpson, the dude who discovered and signed Black Sabbath) recorded an album featuring some of the City's best bands.

Now, to celebrate the label's 45 anniversary they want to invite all of the artists in this photo to a reunion bash and party at Asylum 2 on Thursday 28th November. Do you know...or indeed...are you one them? Email if you've got any leads.

THIS WEEK! Untitled Musical Project and Summer Camp...not both on the same bill...although that would be cool eh?

Amongst the typically rather spiffing gigs being put on by the lovely Birmingham Promoters this week are too particularly special ones. On Saturday – co-promoted by the equally lovely It’s Just Noise – local indie punk legends Untitled Musical Project reunite for their first gig in ages at the Sunflower Lounge. 

Expect the very least. Maybe even a little blood. Support comes from current Hearing Aid favourites Youth Man. Boom.

Then on Sunday, if your ears haven’t been blown clean off your heads, Summer Camp (with support from Fryars too!) pitch up at my new home, the Hare and Hounds. Yes, I’m moving in. I’ve decided. They won’t mind. I can sleep under the bar or something. You know what? If scientists had spent 20 years in a lab trying to create pop perfection I doubt they’d come up with anything as great as the Camp. A joint venture between indie wonderkid Jeremy Warmsley and his missus Elizabeth Sankey they take influences from arguably two of pop’s golden ages, the 60s and the 80s to produce...well...stuff like this...

Awesome eh?

Tickets for Untitled Musical Project here and Summer Camp there!

Monday, November 18, 2013

All Years Leaving Day Two ft Victories At Sea / Best Friends / Wide Eyed / His Clancyness / Sky Larkin / Distophia / Yuck – Saturday November 16th

Having barely recovered from the twisting, jerking vision that was Dutch Uncles’ lead singer Duncan Wallis in full flow (seriously, that dude makes a wheat field in a hurricane look static) and with a modest Orchard Pig Cider hangover just about in check it was onto day two with Victories At Sea playing a rare late afternoon set. Serving up a super cool alternative 80s indie vibe J P White and co should really be playing arenas by now, seriously. Tracks like Stay Positive and Dive are the kind of bouncing up and down tearily hugging yer mate anthems that bands like The Killers have...well...made a killing out of. Adding old skool synths to walls of layered guitar and White’s haunted man vocals the band drew a huge whoop of appreciation from the swelling crowd at the end of their set and, to be honest, if they’d been headliners rather than openers I don’t reckon anyone would’ve minded. A clear case of Victories at Tea...

Sheffield’s Best Friends may have started off by busting their kick drum pedal (how rock ‘n’ roll eh...breaking your kit before you start...not even The Who managed  that) but their take on scuzzed up surf pop (think a northern England version of The Drums) soon made amends. 

Bonus points to the bassist who remained resolutely hidden behind a curtain of dirty blonde hair throughout the entire set somehow managing not to bump into anything or fall off the stage. Check out recent single Nosebleeds (one of the tracks of the night) for the very best of Best Friends.   

Wide Eyed have come on leaps and bounds over the past few months with their goth tinged rock sound recalling a mash up of My Bloody Valentine at their less extreme with bands like The Mission and The Cult. They’re a band of few words so don’t expect any knock knock jokes but their ability to (wanky muso alert!) craft atmospheric guitar soundscapes is growing and given a few more months you can see this becoming a particularly potent mix. The last track of their set hit an especially pleasing motorik groove which might hint at their future direction.

Let’s just pause for a moment and appreciate how many fucking great bands there are in Birmingham right now. This festival alone dished up Hoopla Blue, Boat To Row, Victories At Sea and Wide Eyed but it’s perfectly possible to add another couple of dozen to this list without any great effort. If you’re going to spunk £20 or £30 going to see Arctic Monkeys (there’s a band on the slide now in my humble opinion) do yourself a favour and spend a similar amount on going to 5 or 6 ‘local’ bands as well. Trust me, this is a bit of a golden age for music in Birmingham, let’s all make the most of it eh?

Anyway, lecture over. From further afield (Canada via Italy in fact) His Clanceyness, possibly the most tattooed band of the weekend (the female keyboard player was especially well inked). There’s a hint of Tindersticks to some of their more low key songs albeit with an added 50s style guitar twang. Jonathon Clancy’s vocals have attracted comparisons to the late great Lou Reed, not a bad place to start – there’s certainly a laid back slightly monotone edge there – but happily his range is wider with a vaguely country-ish feel on tracks like Machines. Pick of the bunch this evening was Summer Majestic though, with its Satisfaction (by the Stones) referencing guitar riff and “Tch tch tch tch” backing vocals instantly winning the band a fair number of new included.  

Can it really be 8 years since the first Sky Larkin release? Jeez, where does the time go? Happily Katie and co don’t show any signs of running out of steam. In fact she and the band were on tip top form this evening, chatting away in between playing a mix of crowd pleasing favourites (step forward Matador and Fossil, I) and new songs including this year’s Loom and forthcoming single Newsworthy (out 9th December in fact), both typically fine pieces of jangly indiepop. 

Nice to hear a shout out to Johnny Foreigner too (they’d have been a great addition to this bill).

As performances go Distophia’s had to be the most widely anticipated by the local crowd. Having split in 2006 (seemingly only reforming as a one off for this festival) their story is a salutary lesson on the evils of the music hiss etc. They were poised to have possibly their breakthrough record released then, at the very last minute, their label scrapped it in favour of pushing fading (or maybe that’s faded by now) indie rockers Hard Fi. This is a great shame as Distophia were clearly much loved by their fans (a fair number of whom were here tonight) and, as I recall, highly rated by other local bands too. Amid plenty of witty banter (predictably Hard Fi featured heavily) and a wonderfully self deprecating sense of humour about the whole situation they found themselves in, their set was a long awaited celebration of what might have been, a glorious two fingers up to the fickle music biz and a chance for their fans to mosh themselves into next week. Even removing the element of sympathy that comes with getting so royally screwed it was a hugely entertaining set and tracks like Robert Redford and Joanne still easily stand up against the kind of alt rock anthems that broke big in the 90s. 

If you want to hear what all the fuss was about they’re apparently putting the long delayed album up online as a free (“Because we don’t give a fuck!”) download shortly. Who knows, maybe the story won’t end with this gig but if it does, heck, what a great way to finally go out.

That just left Yuck to wrap things up and they did so in fine style kicking off with arguably their best song to date, Middle Sea. They’re an interesting looking bunch, lead singer Max Bloom positioned himself stage left leaving the centre spot for the effortlessly cool bassist Mariko Doi to occupy whilst on drums the generously ‘fro’d up Jonny Rogoff provided the beat. There’s an unmistakeable Pavement feel to some of their livelier stuff whilst other tracks like tonight’s dreamy Rebirth hint at more of a shoegazey vibe gently lulled the crowd into a sonic reverie.

As inaugural festival’s go This Is Tmrw pulled a blinder, cool bands, a great venue, a decent dickhead free crowd, excellent sound (big up the sound guys, Greg on the Saturday...not sure who handled Friday’s EDIT: It was Dan Sprigg...cheers Swanny!) and the kind of event that Birmingham should be screaming about. I’ll certainly be ‘leaving’ a space in my calendar for next year’s. 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

All Years Leaving Day One ft Dutch Uncles / Frankie and the Heartstrings / Boat To Row / Kins / Hoopla Blue – Friday November 15th

Any serious gig goer or music fan in Birmingham will recognise that This Is Tmrw, the good folk behind this inaugural two day festival, know their onions (musically speaking at least...who knows, they might indeed be experts on onions too...I’ll have to find out). So whether you’d heard of all or indeed none of the dozen bands on offer this weekend you could be pretty sure that there wouldn’t be any duffers.

Openers local boys Hoopla Blue had the honour of being the very first band to play the very first All Years Leaving...which will probably qualify them for a blue plaque or something one day. There’s a touch of doomed romanticism to them with the lead vocalist having a similar mournful quality to Japan’s David Sylvian or perhaps even a slightly more upbeat Morrissey (imagine that). Musically the discordant shards of guitar add an uneasy but intriguing feel to some of their tracks, whilst others hit an almost Vampire Weekend-ish groove. It’s an interesting mix though, perhaps best crystallised so far on Holy Ghost, a post punk meets C86 anthem for proto Goths.

Next up Brighton’s Kins. Think Radiohead with a slightly sunnier vibe (appropriately enough the lead singer’s from the comparatively tropical land of Oz). Textural guitars and vocals combine to create a bit of a trippy feel, enhanced by the band’s slightly spaced out style of performing...never seen a keyboard played on the floor before. Even the lead singer ended up on his back during the dreamy post coital drift of The Love Potion.

Boat to Row continue to develop, putting on arguably one of their best performances to date. Perhaps it was the prospect of the more upbeat bands still to come but there was a bit of an extra kick to their playing tonight that switched their already bewitching old school acoustic folk up a gear. Lead oarsman Michael King has a crisp, clean but gentle vocal which combined with his increasingly intricate guitar playing and the rest of the band adding their own deft touches transformed the Hare and Hounds into a bucolic wonderland. Leaving the stage for their last number the entire band decamped into the crowd, playing as nature intended. Unplugged that is, not nude. Truly beautiful stuff.

“Alreet!” You’ve got to love Sunderland’s Frankie and the Heartstrings, not only for their bouncy brand of indie rock (imagine a Postcard Records version of Maximo Park) but also for recently opening their very own record shop in response to the distinct lack of outlets for their new album in their hometown. Apparently four of the band work there pretty much full time now too, probably a smart move given that their latest album sadly failed to trouble the charts. It’s a real shame as pretty much every one of the tracks they played tonight is engineered to get you up and dancing like a loon with songs like That Girl, That Scene having a similar spark of pop genius as The Undertones at their very best. 

They’re great fun to watch too, bands with banter always are and if this pop business fails to work out I reckon they should all move into stand up comedy. In between songs the lead singer even attempted to pierce the guitarist’s nipple with a staple gun at one point. Comedy gold.

Last up for day one, and possibly one of the most underrated bands in the that world...right now, Dutch Uncles. Kicking off with Bellio their unique mix of math rock rhythms coupled with lead singer Duncan Wallis’ falsetto vocals (more than a touch of Sparks’ Russ Mael in there) are the best combination since Mr Strawberry met Miss Cream. In other words freakin’ delicious. 

Why wasn’t Fester number 1 eh? Criminal. Hang your heads in shame record buying public. How many other tracks based around a xylophone make you want to dance your ass off? Exactly. Speaking of dancing Duncan in full flow is a truly wondrous thing. It’s like someone had wired the dude to the mains and flicked a switch as he twitches and jerks around seemingly possessed by the music itself. From the driving funk prog of Cadenza to the string embellished Flexxin’ this was a lesson in just how great pop can be, clever, sophisticated sounds that appeal as much to the mind (you could devote an entire dissertation to the band’s lyrics) as they do to the booty. Ending the set with a divine cover of Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm I unwisely attempted some Duncan dancing myself and narrowly avoided dislocating my hips. Heck, it was worth it though. 

PS: For the first day of a brand new festival things went remarkably smoothly. What was also nice to hear was how well all of the bands had been treated by the promoters too. Several of them mentioned this both onstage and off. Good work This Is Tmrw peeps.   

All Years Leaving continues today (November 16th) with headliners Yuck!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Har Mar Superstar / Lizzo / Racing @ The Hare and Hounds, Thursday 14th November 2013

I can remember the first time I saw Har Mar Superstar like it was yesterday. A small, balding, chunky bloke with a wispy moustache wandered onto the stage. Few people paid much attention to him, perhaps presuming that he was a roadie or something. But he plugged in a mini disc player (yes, it was THAT long ago), took off his coat revealing a red jumpsuit and cape and then hit the play button. Suddenly this unassuming bloke was transformed into a strutting, spinning sexy lothario. Okay, so when he got naked (well almost, just the underpants remained) one or two blokes in the audience looked distinctly uncomfortable but it remains one of the most surprising and memorable performances I’ve ever seen. Fast forward a decade or so and would our second date be just as special?

First up this evening though Racing, who resolutely refused to get naked throughout their set. In fact lead singer James and keyboardist Alex (nice ‘tache there my friend) were even wearing shirts and ties. 

The smartness extends to their tunes too, from the laid back grooves of opening number Summer Rain (think a hipper Style Council) and Quicksand through to the more booty shaking jams like Delirious (I think that’s what it’s called...I was too busy shaking my booty). One of the best new bands to come out of Birmingham this year.

Next, and currently getting a bit of airplay on 6 Music as well as just being included in Time Magazine’s 14 Musical Acts To Watch in 2014 (they’re going to be buggered when they get to 2099 eh?) Lizzo, all the way from Detroit (via current home Minneapolis). In the video to her latest track Batches and Cookies her and a friend smear butter all over the chest of some lucky dude. 

He wasn’t here this evening...probably slipped out somewhere...ahem...and sadly the dairy products remained in the fridge for later but Lizzo still managed to grease up the crowd with some particularly groin grabbing jams. She’s all woman and she ain’t afraid to use what the good Lord gave her if you get my drift. I was particularly transfixed by her buttocks, each of which seemed to have a life of its own. That’s not me being a perv by the way, tonight was a fine demonstration of the fine art of twerking and it would be frankly ungentlemanly to ignore Happily it wasn’t a case of all twerk and no play. Like Missy Elliot’s younger sis Lizzo knows her way round a rap. She’s a natural party starter too, whipping up the crowd in between tracks and getting an unusually enthusiastic response to the old call and response routine. Her secret weapon might well be her ‘proper’ voice though, something that she occasionally switched to in between raps. It’s a powerful yet soulful thang, providing a neat ying to the rap yang. On top of set highlight, a neatly choreographed and sassy Batches and Cookies, the more brooding banger Lizzie Borden and stuttering anthem to ‘grrrl’ power W.E.R.K. were particularly strong tonight. When the hype starts to build (and it will), believe it. Trust me, Lizzo’s the bizzo.      

Time then for the man himself. He’s not changed much. The ‘tache has gone...sadly (I have a thing for men with ‘taches...can you tell?) but the rest of the package...and boy what a package it is...remains gloriously intact. Joined by Lizzo on backing vocals (a cracking combination) he danced his ass off, blazing through classics like DUI and Power Lunch as well as showcasing tunes from his new, more soulful album Bye Bye 17, the pick of which, Lady You Shot Me, could seriously stand proudly up against anything from soul’s golden age. 

That’s the thing about Har Mar, beneath the tongue in cheek image the dude has the tunes and, just as importantly, the talent to deliver them. If this track had been released by someone who looked like one of JLS it’d be number one. Pah! On a unrelated note given the more soulful vibe I’d love to see Har Mar team up with the boys from the Dap-King or the Budos Band to do some live shows with a kickass brass section...maybe one day eh?

In between all the original stuff he slipped in a cover too, a soulful and surprisingly touching version of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s Alone Again Naturally delivered crouched down by the edge of the stage, eye to eye with the audience. “My favourite song” he admitted afterwards. Bless him. By this point the jumper and vest had already come off and that glistening sex god bod was revealed. Hell, I’m not into men in that way but if I was I’d want a hunka hunka burning love like Har Mar to get down with. “What do you think? This could all be yours...!” he murmured, stroking himself seductively. Form an orderly queue please ladies.

Ending the main set with the brass ‘n’ ass of We Don’t Sleep (imagine this bad boy with a live brass section) he ended up, in traditional fashion, doing the trademark Har Mar neckstand, in turn leaving a perfect Har Mar shaped sweat stain on the stage. “I’m fucking amazing” he exclaimed, somehow achieving the kind of balance that stick thin gymnasts would struggle with. You have to admit it...he is.

Returning for the encore, towel round his neck (“Just back from the gym, done a few reps...buff”) he played the underrated synth driven R&B of Tallboy (heck, what am I saying, all Har Mar’s tracks are underrated)  and Don’t Make Me Hit You. “Take your trousers off” yelled a bloke in the crowd “It’s always the dudes” retorted Har Mar. Awwwwww don’t you just want to hug him? Actually after the show I did. Couldn’t resist it. He’s a lovely guy, happy to chat and pose for photos. Obviously Har Mar’s a persona, I’m guessing the real Sean Tillmann’s a far more sensitive kinda dude. In a way it’s a shame, clearly for some people at least, that the music gets obscured by the image although would he have broken through at all without it? Who knows, one thing’s for certain though a night with Har Mar’s not something you’ll ever forget. In my eyes the dude’s still a Superstar. Har Mar-vellous. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Boy George / The Featherz @ The Glee Club, Tuesday 12th October 2013

Boy George’s recent transformation from...let’s face it...chunky bloke with a police record, drug addiction and penchant for doing stuff that we don’t need to rake over nothing short of incredible. If that opening description sounds a little harsh it’s meant to be. George is surely one of the best pop stars we’ve ever had. He coloured my adolescence and was a vital part of that magical soundtrack of the early 80s. To see him fall to pieces, occasionally edging dangerously close to Mr G. Reaper, was pretty sad for all concerned, not least George himself no doubt. He’s been pretty upfront and honest about his various ups and downs but now he’s back, back, BACK (as they used to say in Smash Hits) with his first new album and tour in three years (in recent promotional activities people seem to have forgotten about 2010’s Ordinary Alien for some reason...very odd). Thirty years on from Culture Club’s heyday would we still be mad about the Boy?

First up a little ramshackle glam punk courtesy of The Featherz. Unable to soundcheck (I think they got there a late EDIT: Correction, apparently George and co were a little tardy) they seemed a little wrong footed at first but heck, that’s the punk spirit right? I can’t imagine the MC5, Stooges and Pistols sound checking back in the day. Fronted by Bowie fan Danie Cox (sporting a rather fine Ziggy cut) they tumbled through half a dozen tracks culminating in When Was The Last Time You Had Sex, as gloriously fucked up as Tracey Emin’s unmade bed. Check out this live recording from one of their recent shows! (thanks to the fabulously dressed Featherz fan David for the link).  

Preceded by his 9 piece band George comes on to the modest Glee Club stage to predictably wild applause. He looks fabulous. Whilst the jury might be out on the facial hair (for the record I rather like it) the difference between the poor puffy faced soul seen sweeping the streets in New York in 2006 and this bright eyed glamorous creature is astonishing. Looks ain’t everything though. Far from it in fact. What matters is the voice and, as with his last show in Birmingham a few years back, it’s aged well. Deeper now than before it still retains that hint of blues and gospel that made Culture Club tracks sound so distinctive. George has spoken about “having the road in his voice” I think he meant in a touring context but it’s equally applicable to the great road that is life itself. It’s a neat way of describing each late night, drunken drugged up escapade, broken heart, triumph, tragedy, trauma, fuck...and cup of tea...that flavours every note he sings. I’ve always thought that the difference between, say, the old blues singers of the 20s and 30s and many of today’s versions is that the former endured the kind of hardships that happily no longer exist in most civilised societies these days. This gives the voice that unmistakable edge. It’s not something that can be taught or faked. You either got it or you don’t. And George has it.

Happily despite all of the crap of the last decade or two he seems to be in a great place these days and the gig itself had a delightfully intimate and celebratory feel with George clearly loving every minute of it. There’s often been a reggae vibe going on his music and this evening it was more prominent than ever. Opening with the laid back deeply dubby Play Me and backed by a fine pair of female vocalists it’s the kind of track that makes you want to roll a phat one, curl up on a bean bag and watch lava lamps for an hour or six. Feel The Vibration picked up the pace, adding a bit of a Middle Eastern funk feel to the mix as George shimmied across the stage, before Live Your Life saw the Boy and the Band go all UB40 on our ass (that’s a good thing by the way). Perhaps one of the most confessional songs of the evening it’s the sound of ‘Man’ George drawing a line under his past and looking ahead to the future “Daddy was cruel, tried to make him tough” sang George, before delivering the more optimistic “Now is the time to live your life, you can’t rewind”. Critics might sneer at the simplicity of this lyric but how many of us spend far too much time looking back? Exactly.

In between tracks he seemed really at ease, chatting with the crowd and acknowledging the hardcore fans in the front row who’d literally come from all over the world to be at these shows. Rewarding their devotion he played a number of ‘the hits’, a mellow Everything I Own (featuring an acapella chorus from the crowd) and a brilliantly brassed up Church Of The Poison Mind (kudos to any female vocalist who does such a good job of filling Helen Terry’s shoes). 

There was also a moving tribute to one of his heroes Lou Reed courtesy of Satellite of Love and a subtle reinterpretation of Do You Really Want To Hurt Me featuring a deliciously bluesy opening trumpet solo, Hammond organ and another obligatory crowd sing along. The main set ended on a high with the gospel funk of Bigger Than War, already one of the standout tracks of the new album This Is What I Do it’s soooo much better live. 

Still not convinced about the rap bit but hell, it’s his party.

Whereas most encores consist of just a track or two George played about half a dozen. 

Coming back onstage wearing a jacket that a fan had given to him during the set he kicked off with recent single King of Everything...or Queen of Everything as he renamed it tonight. Ahem. Karma Chameleon was sloooooooowed down and dubbed up (Calmer Chameleon anyone?), refreshing perhaps the Boy’s biggest song, a Hammond driven cover of Get It On put the XXX in T-Rex before the night closed in suitably upbeat style with the happy clappy Krishna klassic Bow Down Mister.

Okay, so I’m a fan but after several false dawns it really does look as if the Boy’s back. With a Culture Club reunion mooted for 2014 (live dates and a new album) and George in the best shape (physically and seemingly mentally too) for decades the future looks brighter than anyone might’ve hoped. To borrow one of the Club’s biggest hits, It’s A Miracle.

PS: Hanging around after the show I didn’t expect to see George come out again...but he did. There must have been around 50 or so fans gathered around the backstage door...some were, let’s say, particularly ‘enthusiastic’...and he patiently posed with every single one, even taking the photos with their camera phones himself. It must’ve taken 30 minutes or more. He didn’t need to do this, he’d put on a great show but perhaps he’s as happy to be back as the fans are to have him here? Whatever the reason any artist 30+ years into his or her career who still spends the time pressing the flesh deserves a healthy dollop of respect.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Mott the Hoople / Del Bromham @ The Symphony Hall, Monday 11th November 2013

From ‘69 to ‘80 Mott the Hoople enjoyed their fair share of highs and lows, inspiring some pretty fanatical devotion from their followers (The Clash’s Mick Jones famously followed them to the ends of the earth...well Liverpool at least...which is close) and influencing a whole generation of bands. Their charismatic lead singer, Ian Hunter, quit way back in ’74 and given that he turned 70 in 2009 a comeback seemed unlikely. But that’s just what they did. Fast forward a few years and with interest in the band stoked further by 201l’s fascinating documentary Ballad of Mott the Hoople, they’re back for more. 

Opener Del Bromham (lead vocalist with 60s rock band Stray) got the early birds in the mood leading a meaty 6 piece band in some catchy classic sounding blues and rock numbers. He’s an impressive guitarist. Add an archetypal rock drummer (hair, beard, denim), a dude who played harmonica like a man possessed and a young lady trading under the unlikely name of Cherry Lee Mewis and it added up to a pretty good package. Ballad of JD, a tribute to the life, times and whisky of Mr Jack Daniels Esq, in particular stood out. Where would rock be without a little...okay...a lot...of JD eh? Legend has it that Lemmy drinks nothing else...LITERALLY nothing else.

Looking around the crowd tonight unsurprisingly it was an overwhelmingly...ahem...older audience, some of whom were no doubt spotty teenagers when they last saw the band live. This time round they’re more likely to have liver spots. Music’s a miraculous thing though, as soon as Hunter and co step onto the stage to the strains of Holst’s Jupiter (the I Vow To Thee My Country bit) you can almost see the decades roll away and the entire audience seemingly rose as one (this is a seated venue), remaining on their feet for the next couple of hours. 

Let’s get this straight from the start. Ian Hunter must have a particularly knackered looking painting of himself in an attic somewhere. Truly he is the Dorian Gray of rock n roll. He’s how old? 74? can’t be. Thin as a whippet, with curly (albeit blonde/grey) hair and a rock star swagger, if you squint a bit he could pass for a man half his age...or my age come to that. Remarkably his voice – a mix of Dylan, Bowie and Reed (not a bad combination eh?) – is still intact too, ably demonstrated by opening number Rock and Roll Queen. Without this there would be no Oasis (that might well be a good thing but that’s another conversation), it’s as simple as that. Hell they even borrowed some of the lyrics. In fact throughout the whole evening it was possible to detect some of the origins of rock’s DNA, a debt seemingly acknowledged by the presence of a certain Joe Elliot (Def Leppard mainman) tucked away in the crowd with all the rest of the regular punters. Surely tracks like The Moon Upstairs, played with a Who-like heft this evening, were a permanent fixture of young Joey’s turntable back in the early 70s? 

There’s even a touch of punk about it, a good 5 years or so before the Pistols came spittin’ and screamin’ into the nation’s cosy living rooms. There’s more to Mott than heads down rock ‘n’ roll though. Hymn For The Dudes (from ’73) is just one of the ‘ballads’ they play this evening. Like many of Hunter’s lyrics this song could be interpreted in a number of ways, Hunter himself has said it’s simply about friendship and support, a song to give comfort to those who might be feeling lost and alone. Whatever the true meaning it was impossible to miss the odd moist eye in the crowd.

Sucker gave the audience their first real chance to sing along and Hunter led them in a riotous call and response. Not for the first time the band rapidly changed pace again though with Waterlow (written about Hunter’s divorce from his first wife) receiving a particularly enthusiastic reception. I’m guessing a number of the blokes in the crowd have been through similar stuff in their lives perhaps.

Local lad Overend Watts stepped up to the mic to rapturous applause “Thank you fan” he acknowledged modestly “I was born here in the 80s...1980s” he added jokily lest we all thought he was 130 (he was actually born in 1947!), before launching into the straight up organ driven rock n roll shouter of Born Late 58. The regret laden country tinged Ballad Of Mott the Hoople slows the pace again with the line “I’m still a rock n roll star” getting a huge cheer. You can’t deny it...he is. A cracking version of Violence underlined Mott’s influence on punk bands more than any other track this evening with Overend Watts playing some of the filthiest guitar in history. Not bad for an old dude with a bus pass. Seemingly tiring of his endless changes of guitar Hunter took up position behind the piano for the epic Journey which, as the lyrics hint at, does actually seem to last “40 days and 40 nights”. Out of the corner of my eye I even caught Joey Elliot air drumming at one point. Bless him.

As the gig drew to close they wheeled out the big guns with Honaloochie Boogie, The Golden Age of Rock And Roll and All The Way From Memphis, a trio of underrated classics. Encore? Of course. “You can sing along and enjoy yourselves now” instructed Hunter. The audience didn’t need the encouragement as several hundred arms were raised aloft to the strains of All The Young Dudes. With the band silenced for a minute or two the crowd took over and sang their hearts out in one of those “we’ll meet again” moments. “That was really good” admitted Hunter afterwards. Roll Away The Stone kept the good times coming before a moving version of Do You Remember The Saturday Gigs looked back at Mott’s....and let’s face it...most of the audience’s golden age of the late 60s and early 70s. Toward the end of the song Hunter moved to the edge of the stage to sing and wave goodbye. Who knows, perhaps this really is the swansong of one of rock’s most influential and underrated bands? Somehow I don’t think so though. Incredibly 40 years on some things still are ‘Mott’ they used to be.   

Photos courtesy of the lovely Shakeypix

All Years Leaving...coming this weekend!

It’s cold. It’s wet. All the shops are playing I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day on constant ruddy repeat. Bugger. Oh for those far off days of summer festivals eh? Relax dear friends, if you’re missing your festival fix purveyors of some of the best gigs in Birmingham over the past decade or so, This Is Tmrw, hold their first ever festival this Friday and Saturday at the Hare and Hounds (where else eh...I really should move in). They’ve got a dozen tip top bands playing with Friday’s highlights including the absolutely fabulous Dutch Uncles (seriously, their lead singer's dance moves are one of the eight wonders of the world) and Saturday dishing up the super cool Yuck and His Clanceyness. Birmingham bands are well represented too with, amongst others, Boat to Row paddling by on Friday and Wide Eyed and Victories At Sea bringing da noise on Saturday. Check out the rather lovely poster above for the full line up and wrap yer ears around these tracks to get you in the mood...

Unsurprisingly the weekend tickets have all been snapped up but there may be some day ticket availability if you’re as speedy as Gonzales.