Mike Atkinson

Interview: Saint Raymond

Posted in interviews, LeftLion by Mike A on January 23, 2014

Originally published in LeftLion magazine

“I have Callum on the line for you. Are you ready for the call?”

It’s a sign of an artist’s rising fortunes, when the only way you can speak to him is through the record company’s press office. It’s also quite unlike most LeftLion interviews, which are simply a case of arranging which pub to meet up in, after the act has finished work or college for the day. But for Callum Burrows, who signed as Saint Raymond to Asylum/Atlantic Records in August, there are now more exalted protocols to follow.

“It’s all crazy now”, he says, speaking to LeftLion from “sunny Hastings”, where he’s working on new material for a forthcoming EP, with a debut album to follow. “But to be honest, life hasn’t changed a ridiculous amount, in terms of what I’m doing. We’ve just carried on with the goals we set out. But we’ve obviously got a bigger team to help us out now, so it’s all good.”

For all his playful daftness on Twitter, Callum comes across as a serious-minded fellow with an utterly professional mindset, who’s not about to squander his opportunity. The way he sees it, Asylum “appreciated the work we were doing, and they wanted to get on board and help out. I’ve had advice about stuff, but it’s not been an overbearing thing, it’s just been a helpful process.”

“It’s a brand new world for me”, he adds, “and it all came very quickly. When we released the EP [Escapade, which came out on Gabrielle Aplin’s Never Fade label in May], we didn’t expect much of a reaction, and we got into the Top 25 on iTunes.”

While 2013 has been a landmark year for Callum, it has also been a year which has forced him to adapt quickly to new situations. The instant success of the EP led to extensive national radio airplay – Zane Lowe has been a particular fan – and a Radio One playlisting for Letting Go over the summer.

“The Radio One support has been amazing, Dean Jackson at Radio Nottingham has been exceptional, and I’ve been getting quite a few telly syncs. I was watching a programme, and they played one of my favourite songs, and I was like: oh, I love this song. Then it went quiet, and a song came on, and I was like: oh, wait. The next song was me. So it was kind of weird. When you’re in the public domain, you can be in a position where you’re just watching telly and you hear your own music. It’s a strange concept, but it’s brilliant.”

In fact, all four tracks from the Escapade EP have ended up soundtracking scenes on a variety of TV shows, including the final scene of the most recent series of Made In Chelsea: a prestigious, if somewhat incongruous moment.

Although the EP was recorded with a full band line-up, it was recorded at a time when Callum was still performing as a solo acoustic act – most notably at Dot To Dot in Nottingham, two days ahead of its release, when the 18-year old played the main stage of Rock City, to a full and noisily appreciative house.

For Saint Raymond’s next festival appearance, on the Jagermeister stage at Splendour, it was clear that a full time band had to be recruited – but astonishingly, the band only began rehearsing on the night before. “We were thrown in at the deep end”, Callum admits. “Splendour was a big moment, playing for a home crowd, and it felt really special.”

In contrast to most bands, who generally get the opportunity to cut their teeth at low-key gigs, the four piece line-up’s next three dates were at equally high-profile festivals. Thanks to Dean Jackson’s efforts, all three were on BBC Introducing stages, at Y-Not in Derbyshire (“the tent was really busy, and that was a really good show”), and at Reading and Leeds, alongside Nottingham’s Joel Baker and Amber Run.

Leeds proved to be a testing experience, as Callum explains. “We got put on a couple of minutes late. Then it came to our last song, and there were still three minutes left, but they were like: no, we haven’t got enough time. It was quite funny when all the staff came out to clear the stage. They had quite a hostile reception from the crowd. It was one of those moments when you have to bite your tongue, but I was grateful to even get the chance to play on that stage. At the time, it was an absolute pain – but looking back, you’ve got to see the bigger picture.”

Another challenge presented itself in September, at the Theatre Royal’s Nottingham Rocks showcase. Headlining the evening, Callum appeared without his band, accompanied instead by a fourteen-piece orchestra. Once again, this was another last-minute, flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants affair.

“You have your first rehearsal with the orchestra the night before, and they know your songs better than you do. So you can’t make a mistake or anything; they’re so tight as an orchestra. That was another special moment.”

Later the same month, on the eve of his first headline UK tour, Callum faced another major test of his nerve. “The tour started on the Tuesday, and we had the first rehearsal on the Sunday, but the guitarist dropped out on the Friday. So we literally found someone on the Friday, who was a friend of a friend. It was so last minute, but it’s been amazing that he managed to pull it out of the bag.”

Unlike some solo acts, who get thrown together with a band by their record companies, Callum has been able to recruit his own team – including his brother-in-law, who plays bass. “I always wanted a family vibe on stage, and a friendly vibe”, he explains. “I think you see a lot of musicians, where you can just tell that they’re session musicians, and it doesn’t feel like a good vibe at all.”

The addition of a band doesn’t affect Callum’s writing process, though. “From day one, even when I was doing it acoustically, I was always writing with a band in mind. So nothing’s changed. When I wrote Fall At Your Feet, about 18 months ago, that was always a band song.”

As for the name, which originated when Saint Raymond were a duo and continued after Callum went solo, “Saint Raymond is me. I always wanted to be an artist with a different identity to myself, because I think you can easily slip into the category of: oh, you play the guitar and you’re a singer, so you must be like Ed Sheeran or someone like that. I always wanted to steer away from that. The name was personal to me, so I always wanted to stick with it.”

Despite this year’s sudden surge of progress, Callum has always tried to manage his development at an even pace. “I’ve always built it progressively and I’ve always wanted to do it organically, and take my time, and make sure the music was right. There are a lot of artists who are very keen to get the music out there, but you don’t want to be putting a product out if it’s not identifying yourself, and if you’re not making a statement about who you are, because it just becomes a confusion. “

In common with acts such as Harleighblu and Georgie Rose, he hasn’t gone down the slap-it-all-out-for-free-on-SoundCloud route, either. “I see some artists who decide to release all their catalogue really early, but I think you have to be careful. If that EP hadn’t reacted very well, then I might have gone: well, maybe the thing we’re doing isn’t working at the minute, so maybe we need to change the vibe of it.”

With the possibility of widespread national acclaim now dangling in front of him, our talk turns to future opportunities, and future perils to dodge. Of all his musical heroes – including Noel Gallagher (“I was brought up on Oasis”) and even, startlingly enough, the long-departed George Formby (“I had a really weird obsession”) – Callum would most like to meet Paul McCartney, his favourite Beatle. This leads us further into speculative waters, as I present him with a list of things that properly famous people do, seeking his reaction to each item.

For the record – and perhaps we should come back and check this in a couple of years’ time – Callum would say “yes” to an appearance on Later With Jools Holland, even if that meant being accompanied by the man himself on boogie-woogie piano. (“You’ve got to do it, haven’t you? I love his piano playing. He looks so chilled, yet his fingers are doing these amazing things.”) However, it’s a firm “no” to the poisoned chalice of a Sunday night X Factor guest slot, and an equally firm “no” to a spot of modelling for Heat magazine’s Torso of the Week, “unless they’ve got a section for lads who like a bit of beer and food.”

There are no such qualms when I raise the suggestion of a video featuring twerking models in flesh-coloured bikinis. “Yeah, why not – let’s do it. When do we start? I might tell them to calm down the twerking part, but I’m all for a model in a bikini.”

As for spouting off about politics, Russell Brand-style, on Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman, the lad is having none of it. “I don’t really care about politicians. As a musician, I think as soon as you start spouting off about anything where there’s a big opinion, you’re treading a thin line. So I’ll just stick to watching it at home.”

When it comes to the final item on my list – getting totally shitfaced at the Brit Awards – it turns out that Callum is already ahead of the game. “I went to the Q Awards the other day, and I did a very similar thing. It starts at midday, and it’s just free booze on the table, so you’re feeling a bit drunk by about half past one. Everyone goes to this pub afterwards as well. So you have to play the game a little bit, and fall into that world. But it was just a bit weird. You’re sat at the table, and someone’s going, can I just squeeze past you – and you turn around, and it’s Robbie Williams.”

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The gig venue guide: Rock City, Nottingham

Posted in features, Rock City, The Guardian by Mike A on January 23, 2014

We kick off a new weekly series giving you the lowdown on everything you need to know about the UK’s best venues with a trip to the East Midlands.

Capacity: 2,450 in the main room, 300 in the basement.

Who plays there: Big names from Rock City’s past include Nirvana, Oasis, David Bowie, REM, Guns N’ Roses and Blur. The roster is slanted towards rock, as the name would imply, but other genres still get a look in; to the disgust of regulars, Blue played here in 2013. The NME tour is an annual fixture, as are the Dot to Dot and Hit the Deck festivals, covering indie and rock respectively. Other recent acts include Two Door Cinema Club, the Deftones, Foals, Bastille, Suede, Public Enemy, Alt-J, the 1975, Johnny Marr, AlunaGeorge, Gary Numan and Disclosure.

Continue reading this article at The Guardian.

 

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15 Nottingham Music Picks for 2014

Posted in features, Nottingham LIVE by Mike A on January 23, 2014

Originally written for Nottingham LIVE

1. Aja

I’m starting this list with an artist who I only heard for the first time today – but hey, when you feel it, you’ve got to go with it. Having recently guested on One Bomb’s Take Over, Aja is now preparing for the release of a four-track EP, which showcases her brand of icy, bassy electronica – and as a teaser video for lead track Made Of Glass suggests, she’s equally strong on visual presentation, too.

2. Amber Run

If Aja is the darkest horse on this list, then Amber Run have to be one of the safest bets. Signed by RCA Victor less than a year after they formed, and with appearances at the Reading and Leeds festivals already under their belts, Amber Run’s rise has been so swift, and so smooth, that you could be forgiven for suspecting an undisclosed sinister master plan. The truth is pretty simple, though: they’re a naturally cohesive unit, blessed with good looks, canny management and a talent for turning out future festival anthems, such as last summer’s ubiquitous Noah and their anthemic set-closer, Spark. Aided by its memorable closing refrain – “Let the light in, let the light in” – Spark could well be their breakthrough track in early 2014.

3. April Towers

Formed from the ashes of the late lamented Frontiers, Charles Burley and Alexander Noble have re-grouped as an electronic duo, channelling something of the spirit of New Order and Electronic. They’ve been a studio-based project thus far, but live dates are promised in early 2014.

4. Ashmore

With a loose-limbed, beatnik style that sets him apart from the hip hop pack, Kane Ashmore burst onto the Nottingham scene last spring with his low-slung signature tune, The Ashmore Show. Since then, he’s been gigging incessantly, and building expectation for his next project, Loonyology, due in February and featuring the likes of Bru- C, Motormouf and Rebecca King. An unreleased album has been knocking around for a while – perhaps it will never see the light of day – but tracks such as the Notts-to-its-core Yah Get Meh and the cheeky Scribbling & Dribbling (“I’m the type of guy to steal your soul, and eat your rolls while listening to Nat King Cole”) are too good to be left on the shelf forever.

5. Bluebird

I may not know much about emo – well, let’s face it, I know next to nothing about emo – but Bluebird impressed me greatly when supporting Kagoule in the basement of the Lacehouse in December. As I said at the time, they’re “a young band, who haven’t been performing for long, but they’re already impressively tight. Offering a fresh take on classic emo, their songs navigate complex twists and turns, stops and starts. Hopefully we’ll be seeing a lot more of them in 2014.”

6. Gallery 47

If I had to pick a favourite track of 2013 from a Nottingham artist, it would have to be All It Could  Grow Up To Be, from Gallery 47’s free EP Dividends. Since then, The Guardian’s Paul Lester has picked Jack Peachey’s alter ego as one of his New Bands of the Day, describing him as a “Midlands tunesmith with an angelic falsetto singing about car bombs and weight loss”, and a number of London showcase gigs towards the end of the year have further helped to spread the word. A second album, All Will Be Well, is due shortly.

7. Georgie Rose

Few, if any, local acts can have worked it harder on the city’s live circuit in 2013, and no festival was ever complete without Georgie Rose’s name on the bill. And yet, wisely, she has resisted the temptation to give it all away for free on SoundCloud or Bandcamp, thus building expectations for the studio recordings which are sure to follow in 2014. In the meantime, live favourites such as Twenty Mile Road, Fool In The Summer, Love Me Again and L.O.V.E. are clear indications of a talent which has only just begun to be tapped.

8. Hang

Underground to the point of near-invisibility – you’ll search in vain for the merest trace of an online presence – Hang have retained a pleasing sense of mystery. “Transcendental repeato-riffs and primal boogie, for fans of all things cyclical”, said Cantaloupe, prior to a joint gig at The Chameleon. It’s a fair description, but nothing can really prepare you for the immersive onslaught of their live show. Pitched halfway between Hookworms and Hawkwind, and tempered with Krautrock’s unflashy precision, they play without pause, twisting basic, chugging riffs into slowly shifting shapes while their keyboardist adds sonic texture, and their drummer provides rhythmic colour. Spellbinding stuff, but you’ll need to work hard to track them down.

9. Indiana

Tipped by many to break through big time in 2013, Indiana opted instead for the slow build, rather than the big bang; understandable, when you’ve a baby on the way. Three singles emerged – Bound, Smoking Gun, Mess Around – and each fared well in terms of national radio support, if not in terms of chart placings. Meanwhile, she debuted at Glastonbury, performed for the Queen, recorded in L.A, and gave birth to Etta, her second child. With the likes of London Grammar achieving significant success in a similar musical vein, the time is ripe for that long awaited début album.

10. Josh Wheatley

“I’m not that rich, and I don’t have a boat; all I own is in my coat.” Featuring Nottingham LIVE! Radio’s favourite lyric of the year, “Sail Away” was angelic-voiced 18 year-old Josh Wheatley’s calling card, bringing him to the the city’s attention back in April. Produced by Trekkah from the Afterdark Movement, Josh’s début EP (Follow The Smoke) is due for release at the end of January, with a launch gig at Pepper Rocks on Thursday January 30th.

11. Kagoule

Their studies complete, Kagoule are now free to concentrate on their music full-time, making 2014 theirs for the taking. Once rather shy on stage, their performances now crackle with chemistry, as Laurence’s brilliant drumming underpins Cai and Lucy’s instinctive rapport. Radio One and the NME are already on board; many more look certain to follow.

12. Nina Smith

The formerly ubiquitous Nina Smith took time out during 2013, in order to work on new material and a fresh approach. Re-emerging at the end of November, with a showcase gig at a packed Rescue Rooms, she staged a triumphant return, working her way through a brand new set list with a brand new band, and never sounding in finer voice. A second appearance swiftly followed at the Royal Concert Hall, confirming that one of the city’s most enduringly popular characters is well and truly back in the game.

13. Ronika

It was also a quiet year for Ronika, with just one EP release to her name (plus a free download, featuring her strongest vocal performance to date), but that’s all set to change in 2014, with the release of her splendidly titled début album, Selectadisc. She might be based in London now, but what better tribute could there be to Ronika’s Nottingham roots?

14. Saint Raymond

At this stage, it’s almost beyond question that Saint Raymond is set to become Nottingham’s biggest post-Bugg breakout star. Signed to Asylum/Atlantic on the strength of his Escapade EP, Callum Burrows has gone one better with his follow-up, which is due to drop on January 5th. As a songwriter, he has an enviable knack for a winning indie-pop hook, and tunes like Young Blood (his hit-in-waiting) and Fall At Your Feet (from the first EP) are stuffed full of them, from end to end. Fresh from supporting Haim on tour, he’s perfectly poised to seize the moment.

15. Sleaford Mods

Embraced during 2013 by the European arthouse hipster set, with gigs in Paris, Brussels and Berlin, and boosted by Twitter support from Luke Haines and Kim Gordon, Sleaford Mods ended the year on various publications’ “best of” lists for their album Austerity Dogs, while simultaneously releasing four 7-inch singles on four different European labels. A German tour is planned for May – although what German audiences will make of Jason Williamson’s surreal, venomous and deeply sweary tirades is anyone’s guess – and, perhaps most unlikely of all, a feature on the duo is due to be published in Arena Homme Plus, a magazine that is best known for its upmarket mens’ fashion spreads. Where will it all end? The catwalk, or the dole office?

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Interview: Roy Ayers

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on December 23, 2013

Originally published in the Nottingham Post

Your current touring schedule looks insane. You’re playing a large number of countries this month alone, including three separate trips to the UK. Is this a typical month for you?

Whatever they present to me when they do the booking, I just go along with it. I’ve been doing this for many years, and I’m 73 now. So it’s no problem; it’s great.

It’s the sort of schedule that could exhaust a man half your age. How do you maintain your energy levels?

I guess I maintain it by eating the right foods and staying healthy, not using alcohol or drugs, or anything like that. I keep my body clean; that’s the key to a healthy life.

Are you the sort of person that likes to get out and about, exploring each city you visit?

When I was young, but I don’t do that anymore. With most of the cities I’ve been to, I’ve travelled to them many times. I’ve been to Paris many times, and to London many, many times. So I don’t hang out anymore. It’s not even a thrill anymore. I just enjoy performing and sleeping and travelling.

Are there any places you’ve not yet played, that you would still like to visit?

The only place I haven’t been is most of the Middle Eastern countries. That’s because so many of them are having problems, like Syria and Egypt. I always wanted to go to Egypt. But I’ve been to almost every other country in the world. I’ve been to China, Russia, Brazil, and of course I work a lot in the USA.

How does your instrument, the vibraphone, handle all the travel? Is it a robust instrument?

I play a vibraphone called KAT. It’s small like a piano. It’s not huge, like the big vibraphone, so it’s easy to handle. Not only do I get the vibraphone sound, but I also get all kinds of synthesiser sounds. It’s very handy, very easy and portable.

How did you first start learning to play the vibraphone?

I got all of my musical training through Mr Samuel Browne, my high school teacher. He taught me musical history, and of course harmony. I graduated from there in 1958. And of course I’ve played with so many great artists. I went on to play with Herbie Mann, which was when I really started to get international recognition. I’ve worked with people like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Henderson from the Jazz Crusaders. I’ve recorded with Rick James, and I’ve done albums with George Benson. There’s so many great artists that I been with, like Guru’s Jazzmatazz and Donald Byrd, and I’m continuing to have a wonderful career.

Is the vibraphone difficult to learn?

It’s a difficult instrument, because it requires balance. When I was a little younger, I used to experiment with things. I used to put a towel over the top and play to people, because I remember where all the notes are. I got my first set of vibraphone mallets from Lionel Hampton when I was five years old, so I always wanted to be like Lionel Hampton. At one time, when I was very young, I was thinking I was going to be Lionel Hampton. When I grew up, my mother and father always played his music, so I was reared on Lionel Hampton.

Your music has never gone out of style. With some other artists, the audience will get older as they get older, but it’s not the case with you. You keep getting new generations turning up to your shows. Does that surprise you?

No, it doesn’t. It makes me feel good. As it happens, I have more sampled hits than anyone else in the music industry. It really made me feel good when they told me that. I have maybe 44, 45 songs that have been sampled by hip hop artists, and most of the songs that have been sampled have been hits, which is wonderful.

You’ve always been musically broad-minded. You’ve embraced jazz-funk, disco, Afrobeat, hip hop and house music. I’d like to know about your collaboration with the late Fela Kuti. What was it like, working with him?

It was a pleasure working with Fela Kuti in Nigeria. I spent almost a month over there with him. He was a mystery genius, because he taught his band, all of them, how to play in jail. He was a truly remarkable individual. Musically he was very on top of it, and he was a nice guy. I still have a couple of gigs that I did with him on video, in 1979. It’s never been seen, but it’s something that I plan on issuing later on. I have it in New York.

You’ve also worked with house musicians such as Masters At Work and Kerri Chandler. What was your first introduction to house music?

They come up with so much stuff over there in England, and that’s where I was exposed to it. I heard about it in New York, but I really heard about it on a much more popular level in England. It was so interesting to have all those kinds of transitions coming through my ears, because music continues to grow, and new expressions are happening, and I still continue to have a good time exploring new innovations.

What kind of band leader are you? Are you from the James Brown school of strict discipline, or are you more laidback?

I’m from the Herbie Mann school. He was the best leader that I’ve ever been with, and I run my band the same way. He was not very strict, but he was very organised and very together. He took care of business, and everybody got paid.

Do you always keep to the same set list, or are you open to requests?

Sometimes, in the middle of the show. I don’t mind them, if I have them planned. But sometimes people call for songs that I don’t retain any more; I’ve done 86 albums!

If I was asking for a song, it would be We Live In Brooklyn, Baby. Is that part of your repertoire?

We do that every night. We sing, “We live in Brooklyn baby, we’re trying to make it baby”, and then later on in the song we sing “We shop at Tesco’s, baby!”

Can’t Stop Won’t Stop and Goodtimes present Roy Ayers & Ubiquity live at The Approach on Sunday December 22.

Curating Sound Performance – Nottingham Park Tunnel, Thursday December 12

Posted in gigs, LeftLion by Mike A on December 23, 2013

Originally published in LeftLion

Completed in May 1855, under the supervision of architect Thomas Chambers Hine, the Park Tunnel instantly became something of a white elephant. Although it had been planned as a main carriageway from Derby Road into the Park Estate, more convenient routes had already been constructed, and the expected traffic never materialised. Even to this day, it remains an obscurity, its street-side entrance obscured by apartment blocks and a car park.

However, as Nottingham Contemporary successfully demonstrated on a cold, drizzly December evening, this vast sandstone hollow has much to offer as a unique performance space. Illuminated after dark, for those few pedestrians who know of its existence, and with a naturally resonant acoustic, the tunnel turns out to be tailor-made for live music.

Around a hundred gathered for the free show. Folding chairs were provided, and a mulled wine and mince pie stall did brisk business. A health and safety announcement was made, but the designated fire exits couldn’t have been more self-evident. Hello, it’s a tunnel.

———

The bill began with Plain, shift, plane: the first of three improvised pieces, all conceived as specific responses to the tunnel space. Described as presenting “constellations of selected sets of pitch clusters”, it took the form of a dialogue between Rebecca Lee’s flute and Jack Harris’s sine tones, with the tunnel itself cast as the mediating third party.

Lee sounded each call, with a series of long, sustained flute tones; Harris would then provide a response, mirroring the natural sine waves of the flute with an electronic counterpart. Sometimes the tones were equally pitched, fusing into one as the instruments changed over, leaving Lee to complete each cycle. At other times, Lee would go much higher or much lower, extending the sonic range.

Stripped of melody and rhythm, the tones swayed in the air, shimmering and reverberating against the sandstone, and cutting themselves loose from any discernible sense of place. During certain passages, the sound felt all-enveloping, as if beamed from inside the listener’s head. At quieter moments, the steady, distant rumble of Derby Road traffic blended subtly into the mix.

A lone pedestrian stepped softly through the tunnel, past the performers and up to the street. Instead of breaking the spell, his footsteps somehow augmented the experience, nudging us into a fuller appreciation of the space.

———

“Before I begin, I just want to…”

Hunched over his smartphone, a loudspeaker strapped to his back, Phillip Henderson wandered off from us, inaudibly muttering his way up the tunnel’s incline. At the top, he turned around – “Sorry, sorry” – and commenced his return journey. Was this bumbling ineptitude, or an integral part of Maximal Cluster, his ten-minute performance piece? Almost certainly, it was the latter.

As Henderson paced the full length of the crypt-like space – down and up, then down again and up again, briefly conversing with the clipboard-and-programmes attendant at the bottom, but mostly resembling a pre-occupied academic checking his emails – the “Ion Block Rocker Bluetooth” on his back amplified the sounds generated by his constant smartphone key-taps.

These sounds – booming sub-bass rumbles for the most part, topped with high-pitched shrieks – filled the tunnel from top to bottom, no matter where Henderson happened to be at the time. As he stepped directly past you, they would briefly come into sharper focus, before dissolving back into infinite loops of echo. It was all too much for the pigeons at the top end, who surrendered their perches en masse.

Back in the centre, the performer casually scraped his shoe across the gravel a few times, signalling the end of the recital. His demeanour was deceptive. This had been a carefully researched exploration of the site’s sonic capabilities, where the tunnel became “not just an arena for sound art, but the instrument that we all get into”, and the performance became “a perfect opportunity to bring out the infinite maximal colours from inside the earth”.

———

No stranger to the process of exploring “the extreme acoustics of very resonant spaces”, John Butcher presented a two-part improvisation for tenor and soprano saxophone, intended to generate “an encounter between a musician and a place that gives a fighting chance to drawing something new from both of them”.

Arguably the most challenging, but ultimately the most rewarding performance of the night, The Geometry of Sentiment stalked the outer reaches of free jazz improv, as Butcher conjured a constantly shape-shifting, endlessly unpredictable riot of sound from his instruments, with a bracing disregard for conventional modes of playing.

Primitive and evolved in equal measure, Butcher’s playing pitched the unfettered explorations of a child against the studied technique of a pro, with startling results: sucking, wheezing, rasping, yelping and bellowing, sometimes tapping his reed against his tongue, sometimes bursting into glorious melodic flurries that could have been sourced from Gershwin, before instantly subverting them, like a crazed scratch DJ.

As if in solidarity with the pigeons, one listener made a mid-set exit. Turning towards the departing figure, Butcher’s sax fell into puttering, satirical step with the footfalls. The audience giggled, gently. Their concluding applause was hearty, warm and sustained.

———

Fifteen minutes later, reaching for my keys on a quiet road, I became newly fascinated by their jangle. Pausing at the front door, I jiggled them in my palm, savouring the rhythms they created. Evidently, the spell had yet to be fully broken. Perhaps other artists will soon find equally innovative ways of tapping into the Park Tunnel’s power, and expanding a few more perceptions in the process.

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Kagoule, Hang, Bluebird – Nottingham Lacehouse, Friday December 6

Posted in gigs, Lacehouse, Nottingham Post by Mike A on December 23, 2013

Originally published in the Nottingham Post

For the first date of Kagoule’s UK tour, which will take them as far afield as Aberdeen and Brighton, the teenage alt-rock trio opted to play a special gig in the basement of the Lacehouse. While the bar’s regular Friday night crowd hopped around upstairs to cheesy Eighties hits, the basement filled with a markedly different set of punters, who thronged around a central performance space.

In the middle of the room, the three bands on the bill – Kagoule, Hang and Bluebird – performed in the round, facing each other, their monitors arranged inwards. Rope lighting marked out the boundaries of their zone, giving the cellar a crypt-like feel.

For the audience, this was a chance for an up-close and personal experience, which gave us an extra focus on the dynamics between the players. The volume might have been skull-crushingly loud, but the experience was curiously, and thrillingly, intimate.

Bluebird are a young band, who haven’t been performing for long, but they’re already impressively tight. Offering a fresh take on classic emo, their songs navigated complex twists and turns, stops and starts. Hopefully we’ll be seeing a lot more of them in 2014.

Hang started their set with a basic, chugging two-chord riff, which seemed like it would never end. It formed the starting point for a uniquely immersive set, performed as one continuous instrumental piece. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the riff twisted into new shapes. As the guitar and bass kept a steady pulse, and the keyboards added sonic texture, the drummer was left free to roam, adding rhythmic colour to the hypnotic groove.
Pitched halfway between Hawkwind and Hookworms, and tempered with Krautrock’s unflashy precision, Hang’s set was utterly spellbinding.

It has been almost two years since Kagoule burst onto the Nottingham scene, with their landmark appearance at Rock City with Dog Is Dead – and yet the band members are still only just old enough to order beers at the bar. Having completed their education over the summer, Cai Burns (lead vocals, guitar), Lucy Hatter (bass) and Lawrence English (drums) are now free to concentrate on the band full-time, building on all the promise which they have consistently shown.

Inspired by Nineties alt-rock, as pioneered by the likes of Fugazi, Nirvana and Unwound, Kagoule breathe new life into the genre. Opening with Monarchy – their oldest song, written by Cai at the age of fifteen – they tore into their set with visceral power. Brought forward from his usual place at the back of the stage, Lawrence’s brilliant drumming was dragged right into the centre of the storm, underpinning Cai and Lucy’s instinctive chemistry.

The intensity lightened for the comparatively gentle Made In Concrete, before rising to new heights for new single Adjust The Way, perhaps their heaviest track to date. Encoring with a track so new that Cai apologised in advance for not remembering its words, Kagoule drew thunderous applause from the hometown crowd. If the staging had been an experiment, then it had paid off handsomely. Let’s hope that more city bands follow their example.

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Jake Bugg – Shangri La

Posted in album reviews, LeftLion by Mike A on December 23, 2013

Originally published in LeftLion magazine
Like his Sixties heroes, Jake Bugg prefers to bash his music out quickly. Recorded in a fortnight, Shangri-La emerges just thirteen months after his début, and there’s a similar urgency to its opening volley of rattling, skiffly bangers. The scope widens as the album unfolds, but there are fewer all-acoustic moments, as the plaintive folkie of two years ago steps further into rockier territory.

Dismissed by some as overly conservative, he’s best viewed as a classicist, using vintage stylings to express present-day concerns. Some new influences emerge, ranging from What Doesn’t Kill You’s three-chord punk thrash to the Neil Young flavourings of All Your Reasons, but Jake’s jaundiced view of his hometown is unchanged: “speed bump city” has become Slumville (“this place is just not for me, I say it all the time”), and “messed up kids” are still dealing blow on the corner. One day, he might yet pay tribute to our proud lace-making heritage and our vibrant creative business hubs – but you wouldn’t want to bet on it.

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Ashmore – The Ashmore Show (album)

Posted in album reviews, LeftLion by Mike A on December 23, 2013

Originally published in LeftLion magazine
Edging onto the margins of the city’s hip-hop scene, Ashmore’s laid-back quirkiness marks him out from the pack. He’s a loose-limbed rhymer with a characterful beatnik style, who first attracted attention with the album’s loping, swampy title track. “I’m not like the other folk, I’ve got nothing to prove”, he declares, with a half-sung, half-rapped delivery and a confidential manner which draws the listener close. Elsewhere, Misfit draws on swirling Balkan gypsy jazz, as does The Rebellious Jiggle, while Scribbling & Dribbling warns that “I’m the type of guy to steal your soul, and eat your rolls while listening to Nat King Cole”. Sampling the perky theme tune from I Dream Of Jeannie, a 1960s TV comedy show, Yah Get Meh is Notts to its core. It’s followed by BeatyWeaty – featuring the mandatory Motormouf guest spot – before Brick By Brick’s pissed-off social commentary wraps up this thoroughly likeable debut.

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Stornoway – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Monday November 25

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on November 28, 2013

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

Downsized from Rock City at the eleventh hour, Stornoway adapted to their reduced circumstances with good grace; they’re more of a Rescue Rooms band in any case, and the comparative intimacy of the room suited them well. Entering to the strains of the original Dr Who theme tune, they preluded their first song, Farewell Appalachia, with a delicate arrangement for triangle, torn newspaper, wood block and axe. It’s doubtful whether this would have worked so well on a larger stage.

Although they’ve been playing together since 2006, and releasing records since 2009, this was the band’s first visit to Nottingham, we were told. To mark the event, front man Brian Briggs had done some prior research, and he duly declared himself impressed to be performing in the birthplace of “cat’s eyes, HP sauce, shin pads and genetically modified tomatoes”.

Seeking to add spice to I Saw You Blink, a well-worn old favourite, Briggs had also been casting around for a song from a Nottingham band, whose lyrics he could work into the tune. “As I’m sure you are painfully aware, there aren’t many bands to choose from”, he told us, blithely unaware of the city’s reviving musical reputation. A snatch of Lightning Bolt might have been fun, and even Billy Don’t Be A Hero might have raised a smile, but we had to settle instead for KWS’s cover of KC and the Sunshine Band’s Please Don’t Go. Oh well, never mind.

A six-track mini-album, You Don’t Know Anything, was released a fortnight ago, and three of its tracks found their way into the set list. The best of these was Clockwatching, a rousing early highlight which collapsed into cacophony before the final refrain, like an explosion in a farmyard. Later in the set, the droll lyrics of the title track – “I’ve less energy than a stick of a celery” – raised chuckles in the crowd.

Stepping away from the mikes for an unamplified four-song sequence, Briggs performed November Song on his own – “the noise of the air conditioning you can imagine to be the wild winds”, he quipped – before gradually being joined by the rest of the band, their guest fiddler and their guest trumpeter. Again, such intimacy would have been impossible at Rock City, but here it drew perhaps the loudest applause of the night, particularly following the gentle hoedown of We Are The Battery Humans.

Perplexingly, the band’s most recent full-length release, Tales From Terra Firma, was poorly represented in the set list – it would have been particularly good to have heard Knock Me On The Head and Invite To Eternity, for example – but on the whole, the audience warmed most to the oldest songs, softly singing along to Boats & Trains and Fuel Up, both from the first album.

Pitched somewhere between Noah & The Whale’s folk-pop and Belle & Sebastian’s chamber-pop, with a fondness for nature and wildlife imagery that makes them naturals for the outdoor festival circuit, Stornoway have carved a serviceable niche for themselves. They’re clearly sensible and grounded fellows – perhaps a little too sensible and grounded at times, with a tendency towards pious over-tidiness that could do with keeping in check – but they do what they do well, at a level of success that should sustain them for a good while to come.

Set list: Farewell Appalachia, Clockwatching, I Saw You Blink, Boats & Trains, When You Touch Down From Outer Space, The Ones We Hurt The Most, Fuel Up, November Song, Josephine, You Don’t Know Anything, We Are The Battery Humans, Watching Birds, You Take Me As I Am, The Great Procrastinator, Zorbing.

Nina Smith – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Thursday November 21

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on November 28, 2013

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

It’s been a long time since we last heard from Nina Smith. For most of this year, she has been lying low, working on new material and developing a new sound, which sees her shifting away from acoustic pop and heading in a more soulful direction.

Having taken such a long break from performing, Nina needed to come back with a bang. Booking the main stage of the Rescue Rooms was a bold move – it’s the first time she has headlined there – but as she stepped onto the stage in front of a packed room, to wild applause, it was clear that the risk had paid off.

As an introductory video explained, Nina has forged a more “grown-up” approach to her songwriting and presentation, with a fuller, richer and funkier sound that draws inspiration from Alicia Keys, Carole King and Nineties R&B. With a new four-piece band, two new backing singers, and a brand new set of songs, she had set herself the task of effectively re-inventing herself in public.

Quirkily stylish in a black polka-dot top and crimson velvet hotpants, Nina radiated personality, warmth and charm, connecting with the room in an instant, and displaying a keen commitment to her new material. “Tired of closing curtains, I want to open up to sunshine”, she sang on Waiting For You, a song about hanging on to hope in an unrequited love affair – but the words fitted the occasion, too.

Elsewhere, Why Can’t I Sleep dealt with conflicting emotions at the end of a relationship, a theme that was revisited for I Wish, the eighth and final song of the night. There were more unrequited longings in This Love – “your heart’s not for sale, but I stole it” – while on Come Home (“let me show you, this is how it’s done”) and I Can’t Read You, Nina asserted her desires more explicitly. “You should come a little closer, take your clothes off”, she teased on the latter, drawing mid-song cheers.

Musical influences ranged far and wide. Opening the set, Love To Leave’s light reggae backbeat served the song well, and those Carole King influences came to the fore on Scars, a stripped down number for voice and piano.

Overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of the crowd, Nina couldn’t thank us often enough. There will be another chance to catch her performing for free this year, at the Royal Concert Hall on Tuesday December 3rd. In the meantime, she can take pride in this triumphant comeback, which opens a highly promising new chapter in her career.

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Public Service Broadcasting / Girls In Hawaii – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Wednesday November 13

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on November 19, 2013

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

Girls In Hawaii are a top five act in their native Belgium, who have yet to make much of an impact over here. Regrouping after the death of their drummer in 2010, they have just released their third album, Everest. It’s an understandably melancholy and subdued affair for the most part, which stands in marked contrast to the six-piece band’s muscular and varied live set. Whenever you think you’ve got the measure of them, they’ll throw in something unexpected: a funky keyboard vamp, a discordant howl, a big pop chorus.

Midway through the set, the two keyboard players abandon their posts, bringing the number of guitars on stage up to five. Wired to identical amps, two Telecasters are played in unison, fattening the sound; a simple but effective trick, which is repeated for the set’s closing song. By this stage, the formerly mild-mannered singer has vaulted one of the speaker stacks. Bathed in red light, his tambourine worn like a crown, he yells unintelligibly into an old-fashioned telephone receiver, as the band crank up the energy levels to a breathtaking degree. Nobody saw this coming. It’s a stunning moment.

The mood lightens for the headliners, who preface their set with a public information film of their own, warning us of the perils of Wafty Mobile Phone Camera Video Disorder: a welcome and hearteningly effective piece of propaganda.

Borrowing the words of Lord Reith, the founding father of the BBC, the title of Public Service Broadcasting’s album – Inform Educate Entertain – spells out their mission. Blending sound samples and video footage from vintage public information films with live drums, keyboards, guitars and banjo, they mash the past up with the present, with wit, style and dexterity.

To the right of the stage, the tweed-jacketed and bow-tied J. Willgoose, Esq. manipulates the sonic elements, looping and layering his live instruments, and punching sound samples from his array of kit. Even the stage banter is pre-recorded (“we have always wanted to play” – long pause – “Rescue Rooms”), including retorts to hecklers (“we’ve all had a few”). To the left, Wrigglesworth’s gleeful live drumming powers the set, while in the centre, Mister B controls the visuals, beaming pre-recorded and live footage onto two giant screens and two rickety towers of antique television sets. Completing the boffin look, all three performers sport the same thick-rimmed spectacles.

Two new tracks are performed, both of them in Dutch (“it seemed like the logical next step”), and featuring footage of the world’s biggest ice-skating race. Elsewhere, dandies in boutiques form the backdrop for The Now Generation (“how about these slacks?”), while Night Mail pays tribute to our most recently privatised public service, and Spitfire quotes from The First of the Few, a fictionalised account of the airplane’s construction that served as a morale-booster during World War Two.

It’s high-concept stuff, but there’s nothing too academic or remote about it either; “entertain” takes priority over “inform” and “educate” throughout, and the players clearly don’t take themselves too seriously. It’s difficult to see how they can sustain their act in the long-term, as its novelty is a large part of its appeal – but as of now, it’s a raging success, and a delight to witness.

The Invisible Orchestra – Nottingham Albert Hall, Friday November 1

Posted in Albert Hall, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on November 19, 2013

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

This had to be the best-dressed audience of the year. More burlesque parade than Halloween hangover, everywhere you looked there were masks and feathers, paired with dressy frocks and sharp suits. In one corner of the Albert Hall’s main bar, expert make-up artists applied elaborate facial adornments. Meanwhile, at the far end of the room, before the show and during each interval, Swing Gitan filled the dance floor with sprightly jazz.

In the upstairs hall, Origamibiro performed a peaceful, meditative opening set, blending looped effects and acoustic instruments with impressionistic visuals, and using contemporary techniques to evoke dream-like memories of a forgotten past. Sepia photographs merged into the decaying pages of old books; an ancient typewriter hammered out disconnected phrases onto a split screen. It was an oasis of calm in an otherwise riotous night.

Up from London, The City Shanty Band took to the stage in masks with Mickey Mouse ears. “We don’t know whether we’re mice or rats”, they confessed, before lurching into a boisterous set of sea-shanties that pitted nine lusty male voices against drums and occasional accordion. With arms thrown around each other’s shoulders, they stomped and clapped and roared, goading the hall into life. The set ended with a stage invasion, the drums growing ever faster as the singers roared their final battle cry: “all for beer and tobacco!”

With each successive performance, The Invisible Orchestra grows larger, and less invisible. They’re up to 42 players now, with an 11-piece brass section, a 13-piece choir, and a line-up which – as this paper has said before – makes Jools Holland’s Rhythm and Blues Orchestra look like a skiffle band. In logistical terms alone, it’s a phenomenal achievement.

After a slow-building instrumental overture, choir leader Rachel Foster stepped forward for the first guest vocal of the night – not that many in the audience would have known this, as none of the singers were introduced by name. She was succeeded by reggae legend Percydread, whose leg injury proved no barrier to a storming rendition of War.

By this stage, half the audience were on their feet. Following Ed Bannard’s slow-burning Into The Arms Of The Night, a crazed percussion duet between band leader James Waring and Sabar Soundsystem’s Mikey Davis brought the other half to their feet, ready for Hannah Heartshape’s electrifying No Time Like The Present. By the end of the song, the aisles and the front of the stage were packed with dancers. The Albert Hall probably hadn’t seen anything like it since The Rolling Stones played there in 1964.

Other star performers included  Emilios Georgiou-Pavli from Nottingham’s Hallouminati, who led the band with his bazouki, and a startlingly dapper MC $pyda, who drew on his dancehall roots for a reggae-soul workout.

Despite being marred by a terrible, soupy sound mix, which rendered the string section and the choir literally inaudible and blurred much of the percussion and keyboards, this was a spectacular performance, which succeeded in provoking unforgettable scenes of the most elegant mayhem.

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The Boomtown Rats – Nottingham Rock City, Tuesday October 29

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on November 8, 2013

Originally written for the Nottingham Post.

In the parallel universe of BBC4’s 1978 Top of the Pops re-runs, The Boomtown Rats are having a good year. As of now, Rat Trap – the first new wave Number One – has just knocked John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John off the top of the charts, making this an ideal time for the first ever Rats reunion.

To get himself back into role, Bob Geldof is spending the tour in an imitation snakeskin suit. He found it festering at the bottom of a drawer, we were told, with a stench that brought back such pungent memories, that he felt compelled to reform the band. It’s a cute myth, if more than a little unlikely.

It’s a role which Geldof hasn’t played for the thick end of thirty years. He’s 62 now, with a reputation as an international humanitarian campaigner that has buried the memories of his hit-making career. Nevertheless, as he told a newspaper last week, if he were writing these songs today, he wouldn’t change a word.

Listening to them again in a packed Rock City, you could see his point. Disturbed teens are still waging indiscriminate shooting sprees (I Don’t Like Mondays), or responding to tough economic times with a me-first, screw-you mindset (Looking After Number One). And if we were worried back then about state surveillance, then in the wake of Edward Snowden’s security leaks, the words of Someone’s Looking At You have never rung so true. “Facebook are selling your details to the highest bidder”, Geldof declared, in his only political harangue of the night.

Fronting a line-up of four original Rats and a couple of new recruits, the singer’s commitment to his material was astonishingly intense. On those old TV clips, he can seem a little gauche, a little try-too-hard – but the 2013 Geldof, for all his Jagger-esque posturing, is a captivatingly effective front man, breathing new life into songs that could otherwise have sounded dated and corny.

They might have ridden into town on the punk rock bandwagon, but the Rats were never much of a punk band at heart. They were always more Springsteen than Strummer, with the pizzazz of an Irish showband and a healthy dollop of Doctor Feelgood’s supercharged rhythm and blues.

The Feelgood connection came through loud and clear on (She’s Gonna) Do You In, as Bob whipped out his harmonica and dropped to his knees, showing surprising instrumental flair. Three songs later, the band dipped into new-wave reggae for Banana Republic, a bitter denunciation of the Irish establishment that caused the Rats to be banned from playing in their home country. “One of the few benefits of age is that sometimes you’re proved right”, said Sir Bob, in a scornful introduction.

Dropped into the middle of the set, I Don’t Like Mondays had everyone roaring the “tell me why” call to Geldof’s response. Similar mayhem greeted Rat Trap, following an extended Mary of the 4th Form whose middle section quoted from I Wanna Be Your Man, Born To Be Wild and John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom. Dodgy as that might sound on paper, the sequence worked brilliantly on stage.

Saved until the encore, Diamond Smiles reprised the tale of a doomed socialite, whose fate was tragically mirrored twenty years later by Paula Yates. The parallels can’t be lost on Geldof – he said as much in another recent interview – and indeed, there was something about the way we were urged to “sing it for me, sing it louder” that suggested he needed our support.

By this stage, he had more than earned it. Reunion tours are always risky propositions, but as this unexpectedly thrilling show demonstrated, The Boomtown Rats have absolutely made the right call.

Set list: (I Never Loved) Eva Braun, Like Clockwork, Neon Heart, (She’s Gonna) Do You In, Someone’s Looking at You, Joey’s on the Street Again, Banana Republic, She’s So Modern, I Don’t Like Mondays, Close as You’ll Ever Be, When the Night Comes, Mary of the 4th Form, Looking After Number One, Rat Trap, Never Bite The Hand That Feeds, Diamond Smiles, The Boomtown Rats.

 

Alison Moyet – Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Sunday October 27

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on November 8, 2013

Originally written for the Nottingham Post.

Surfing on the success of her highest-charting album since 1987, Alison Moyet has never seemed so at ease with herself. Having shed her old skin – figuratively and literally – she has re-emerged, six years after her last release, as a determinedly bold and uncompromising artist, showcasing a remarkably strong new collection of electronic-based material.

Banishing all traces of her jazz and blues influences, and stepping firmly away from the middle of the road, Alison’s current tour has picked up where 2008’s Yazoo reunion left off. Backed by two knob-twiddling synth players, who occasionally picked up the odd guitar or two, she offered a sound that was fully contemporary, without falling into the trap of merely chasing trends.

The new songs were dovetailed with electronically reworked versions of older singles – some hits, some more obscure – “so that I don’t end up being my own tribute act”. Although none of the back catalogue choices dated from beyond the mid-Nineties, they blended seamlessly with the 2013 material, giving us a fresh perspective on Alison’s body of work.

Four Yazoo tracks peppered the set list, ranging from a faithfully rendered Nobody’s Diary to a radically altered Only You, which successfully pitted the original melody against a minor-key arrangement. If you want the original, stay at home and listen to the record, she told us. “It’s so much cheaper! Otherwise, you’ll get what you are given.”

Such was Alison’s confidence, that two botched starts on one new song could be shrugged off with cheery laughter. (“That’s the first time this has happened, and I’ve been touring for two months. This set is going to be long, I can feel it!”) Reciting the forgotten line over and over again – “the shift of air, the turn of page” – she launched back into the track, ironically titled Remind Yourself. As the lyrical hurdle was finally vaulted, her persistence was rewarded by a nice big cheer.

Elsewhere, A Place To Stay nudged towards London Grammar territory, current single Changeling rubbed shoulders with dubstep, and Right As Rain bore a whiff of stripped-down electro-house. Of the older songs, the beats were removed from Ordinary Girl and Is This Love, highlighting the songcraft beneath, while All Cried Out and Love Resurrection were reinvigorated by a more pronounced sense of rhythm.

On the torchier tracks, most notably on a smouldering version of This House, Alison was captivatingly intense, drawing our full attention to her impassioned delivery. At other times, she brandished her mike stand and rocked out as never before, cutting an almost Bowie-esque figure. Towards the end of the show, as more dance-based elements came to the forefront, she shimmied and twitched with pleasing abandon, revealing herself as quite the nifty mover.

All of these incarnations – the balladeer, the rocker, the dance diva – were made all the more credible by her utter sincerity as a performer, and by the absence of anything resembling a stage persona. For after more than thirty years in the business, Alison Moyet seems more fully herself than ever before – and that’s a wonderful thing to witness.

Set list: Horizon Flame, Nobody’s Diary, When I Was Your Girl, Ordinary Girl, Remind Yourself, Is This Love, Filigree, Falling, A Place to Stay, Only You, Apple Kisses, Changeling, This House, All Signs Of Life, Right as Rain, Love Resurrection, Situation, Whispering Your Name, All Cried Out, Don’t Go.

Clean Bandit – Bodega, Sunday October 20

Posted in Bodega, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on October 26, 2013

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

Uniquely for a dance-based collective, Clean Bandit started life as a string quartet at Cambridge University, making them light on urban credentials, but heavy on musical prowess. Strings still help to define their sound, courtesy of violinist Neil Amin Smith and cellist Grace Chatto, and quotes from familiar classical pieces pepper their songs, adding melodic sweetness to the electronic thump.

The four core members were joined by two female vocalists on stage – their names were never revealed – for the opening date of their first headline tour, at a sold-out Bodega. This wasn’t Clean Bandit’s first Nottingham gig – they supported Disclosure at the Rescue Rooms in March – and they’ll be back again next month, supporting Bastille at Rock City.

The twelve-song set opened with Rihanna, the B-side of the last single: an instantly popular and well-recognised choice, although the sight of actual live strings did appear to take some punters aback. Mixing these acoustic instruments with amplified electronics can present a technical challenge, so the band had taken no chances, bringing their own sound desk with them. The investment paid off, and the sound mix was faultless.

Plenty of the set was familiar to the crowd; even the comparatively sombre and commercially under-performing Dust Clears, the most recent release, drew cheers of recognition and a mass singalong. A cover of SBTRKT’s Wildfire also went down a storm. Of the as yet unreleased tracks, the uplifting Nineties-tinged diva-house of No Place I’d Rather Be proved to be a clear winner in the room.

Later in the set, a double run of slower songs dipped the mood, causing conversation levels to rise. Order was restored by a walloping version of Nightingale, whose mid-song bass drop and Disclosure-esque beats ignited the main floor.

Mozart’s House, the biggest hit to date, was saved for last. It’s an endearingly daft track, with a wry spoken intro (“So you think electronic music is boring? You think it’s repetitive? Well, it is repetitive…”), a chamber music breakdown and a rapped lexicon of classical terms, which sails close to being a novelty song. If Clean Bandit can shake off the novelty tag without losing their delightful sense of fun and their anything-goes approach to music-making, they could be headlining bigger venues in the near future.

Natalie Duncan – Nottingham Contemporary, Saturday October 19

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Contemporary, Nottingham Post by Mike A on October 26, 2013

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

Ahead of Natalie Duncan’s first hometown show in many months, four-piece band Cecille Grey stilled the busy room, with an atmospheric and reflective performance. Their sound has more in common with American indie-folk singers – Neko Case, Cat Power, Feist – than with homegrown acts, making them a unique proposition on the Nottingham scene. The set concluded with Stories, a track from their self-released EP You Me, whose jazz-tinged vocal cadences brought Joni Mitchell to mind.

Before hitting us with brand new material, Natalie Duncan and her band warmed us up with Sky Is Falling and Lonely Child, two of the most memorable tracks from last year’s debut album, Devil In Me. Looking elegant in black, with striking jewellery and a bold, side-swept haircut, she immediately struck you as someone who has matured as a performer, and who now feels significantly more comfortable in front of an audience.

Although as passionate as ever in her delivery – vocally, she has never sounded stronger – most of the old glumness has gone. These days, she will smile, chat and joke between songs, putting us at our ease instead of drawing us too far into her web of gloom.

This shift in mood was reflected in Natalie’s first two new songs of the evening. I See Colours is possibly her most straightforward and immediate composition to date, and no less powerful for it. “The world was black and white, but now I see colours raining over me”, she sang, and the message couldn’t have been more clear.

This was immediately reinforced by Warmer In My World, whose title should be self-explanatory. If Natalie gets her way – which is still a matter for negotiation, we were told – it should be the title track for the next album.

Three more new songs – Moon On The Bridge, Night Owl, Will We Be Strong – were performed solo at the keyboard, as the band took an offstage breather. Night Owl had only been written two days earlier, and Natalie wryly admitted to a certain recklessness in performing it so soon. She needn’t have worried; the song was spell-binding.

The band returned for a smoky, bluesy Black Thorn, followed by Keep Me Safe – another immediate crowd-pleaser, with a rousing, gospelly climax – and Over Again. For the encore, Natalie returned to another old favourite. “Then you can go and leave me in uncomfortable silence”, she sang, bringing the show to a cathartic conclusion. Ignoring the prophecy, we cheered her to the rafters.

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Harleighblu album launch – Nottingham Contemporary, Friday October 18

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Contemporary, Nottingham Post by Mike A on October 26, 2013

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, the promoters of Harleighblu’s Friday night album launch at Nottingham Contemporary, chose their support acts wisely. First up was local lad Ady Suleiman, who is also enjoying a landmark year, with appearances at the Glastonbury Festival and on the Radio One playlist. Accompanied by Ed Black on guitar, and performing without the safety net of a rhythm section, he delivered a crisp set of acoustic R&B that showcased an impressive vocal command and a razor-sharp sense of timing.

Special guest MC Supernatural – a veteran of the New York hip hop scene, who holds the world record for the longest continuous freestyle rap – charmed the swelling crowd with a warm-hearted and hugely entertaining display of his skills. His quickfire impersonations of Busta Rhymes, Slick Rick, Biggie Smalls and DMX drew roars of laughter, as did his closing freestyle session, in which he grabbed items from the crowd – lipstick, beer, vaseline, you name it – and incorporated them into his non-stop rhymes, never missing a beat.

Interrupting an effusive opening speech from organiser Parisa Eliyon, for fear of bursting into tears before the show had even started, Harleighblu strode onto the stage wreathed in smiles, and eager to entertain. This was her second album launch of the week – “we’ve got London out of the way” – and the 21 year-old’s delight was plain to see. “I’ve even seen my liitle bobble head in HMV”, she grinned, gazing wide-eyed at the packed room and declaring that “this is absolutely mental”.

Released last Monday, Harleighblu’s debut album Forget Me Not is a shrewdly sequenced collection, which divides into two contrasting halves. At the start, we find her struggling to set herself free from a toxic relationship with a charismatic and charming cheater. Wise to all his tricks, and refusing to play the role of victim, she nails him with devastating eloquence. In the second half, as the mood switches from gritty funk to swooningly orchestrated neo-soul, a new love enters her life, bringing fresh hope for a better future.

Songs such as these require dexterity and range, and it was a delight to witness the singer rising to the challenge with such consummate ease. Opening with the withering Enough Now, and following it with her mocking re-interpretation of Annie Lennox’s Who’s That Girl, she commanded the stage, expertly fusing the roles of soul diva and jazz chanteuse. Her regular six-piece band surrounded her, supporting her vocal flights with empathy and precision.

Ending the eight-song set on a gentle note with the wistful Let Me Be, the players returned for a thrillingly funky extended jam. Joining them on stage, Supernatural took on the role of musical director, coaxing the band members into unscripted breakdowns and solos, and making the homecoming homegirl blush with his tributes: “Nottingham’s queen… better than Amy Winehouse!”

It was a suitably climactic end to a triumphant show, celebrating Harleighblu’s achievements and launching her career onto the next level. “Absolutely mental”, it might have been – but it was thoroughly deserved, too.

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M People – Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Wednesday October 16

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Royal Concert Hall by Mike A on October 26, 2013

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

They may not have released any new material since the end of the Nineties, but M People have never really gone away. For their first full UK tour in eight years, the band are celebrating the twentieth anniversary of their breakthrough second album Elegant Slumming, with a greatest hits set. That said, it was a little strange to hear them repeatedly thanking us for the last twenty years, when they actually formed in 1990 – but, hey, who’s counting?

The evening started with a likeable support set from Tunde Baiyewu of the Lighthouse Family, whose smooth vocals and relaxed, benign manner instantly found favour. Opening with the crowd-pleasing Lifted, Tunde switched between old favourites and brand new material, ending with a rapturously received High.

Accompanied by fellow founder members Shovell on percussion and Paul Heard on keyboards, and backed by a further five musicians and two singers, M People’s Heather Small burst onto the stage in a blaze of gold lurex, as the players launched into One Night In Heaven. Her trademark “pineapple” hairdo is long gone – she wears it straight and long these days – but Heather’s unique vocal style is as recognisable as ever. She has some curious intonations, which are easy to caricature – step forward, Miranda Hart – but they give her voice both character and charm.

You won’t find much anger, heartbreak, or edginess in an M People song ; rage and pain just aren’t their style. Instead, they’re big on self-empowerment; we are forever being encouraged to stand strong, to reach for the skies and to believe in ourselves. These sorts of messages have become common currency in modern pop, but they were less common twenty years ago – so in this respect at least, you could argue that M People were ahead of their time.

In other respects, modern pop has left M People behind. Towards the end of their chart career, the club culture which helped to shape their sound had already moved on, leaving them working a formula that was beginning to tire. Tellingly, the current set list includes all the hits from the first four years, but just three from the final four years.

Among those older hits, the catchy piano-house of Renaissance was an early highlight, and Heather did a beautiful job on the band’s cover of the CeCe Rogers classic, Someday. Following a lengthy mid-set lull, as Heather changed into a silver trouser suit and the remaining players noodled on for rather too long, flagging spirits were revived by a rousing Open Your Heart and a super-extended Sight For Sore Eyes, which showcased Shovell’s percussion skills. And although fellow founder member Mike Pickering was absent on stage, saxophonist Snake Davis deputised in fine style, peppering the songs with fluid solos.

A three-song encore climaxed with the evergreen Moving On Up, whose defiant, I-will-survive sentiments finally gave Heather a chance to bare her teeth and show some scorn (“take it like a man, baby, if that’s what you are”).  A delighted crowd showed their love, the players took their bows, and the night finished on an exultant high, giving us all a much-needed twenty-first century shot of vintage Nineties optimism.

Set list: One Night In Heaven, Renaissance, Excited, Angel Street, Colour My Life, Someday, Search For The Hero, Natural Thing, Don’t Look Any Further, Open Your Heart, Sight For Sore Eyes, How Can I Love You More, Just For You, Itchycoo Park, Moving On Up.

Amber Run – Bodega, Thursday October 10

Posted in Bodega, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on October 26, 2013

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

Formed at Nottingham University in December 2012, Amber have made remarkable progress over the past few months. Noah, their debut single, was played on Radio One, Radio Two and 6Music, and playlisted by Radio One last month. The band’s fourth and fifth gigs were at the Reading and Leeds festivals, and an appearance at the Theatre Royal for Nottingham Rocks soon followed, backed by a 14-piece orchestra.

For Amber’s first headline show – still only their eighth as a band – the timing couldn’t have been more auspicious. Only last week, they became the latest Nottingham act to sign with a national record label (RCA Victor), bringing the current total up to seven, and giving the city’s thriving music scene yet another boost of confidence.

All of this good fortune ensured a near-capacity crowd at the Bodega. Friends and fellow students filled the front half of the floor, while industry figures and scene regulars squeezed in at the back. For many, it was the first opportunity to witness these overnight sensations in the flesh, and an atmosphere of eager curiosity duly prevailed.

Opening with Heaven, the forthcoming second single, Amber launched confidently into their nine-song, 45 minute set, setting the bar high for what was to follow. It was hard to believe that they are still such a young band – some are 19, others have turned 20 – and harder still to match their comparative inexperience on stage with the polished professionalism of their playing.

A sound choice for a major label debut, Heaven is a powerfully surging track with a yearning, heartfelt vocal, skilfully navigating various twists and turns before coming to rest on unaccompanied vocal harmonies. (“Now that heaven is on fire, and the world’s technicolour, I’ll be chasing angels all my life.”) Lyrically, it felt like a bold and optimistic statement of intent.

Little Ghost, one of the strongest tracks on the Noah EP, was followed by a couple of numbers that were introduced as “old songs”. Although this seemed a strange claim for such a new act, at least one of them (Stone) dated from singer Joshua Keogh’s pre-Amber solo career. Some of the audience clearly recognised the track. Perhaps they had seen him perform it at Splendour in 2012, when Joshua opened the LeftLion Courtyard stage – just as Jake Bugg had done in 2011.

See You Soon built up the energy levels, paving the way for the instantly memorable Spark, which showed all the signs of being a future festival anthem. By the end of the song, both the band and the crowd were chanting along to its central refrain: “Let the light in, let the light in”. It felt like another of those “great things are about to happen” moments.

An extended version of Noah closed the set. As the fans at the front sang along from the first line of the first verse, the observers at the back exchanged meaningful glances. This is how followings are built.

“It’s been a real graduation for us”, said Joshua towards the end of the show. Since all five band members have just dropped out of their final year at university to concentrate on the band full-time, it’s also the only graduation that they’re likely to get. But with the likes of Bastille and Kodaline making it big this year, there could well be a place waiting for Amber’s similarly pitched, but musically and lyrically weightier approach. If they can be this good after less than a year, then in a year’s time, they could be spectacular.

Note: At the time of this review, Amber Run were known as Amber.

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Splashh / Charlie Boyer and the Voyeurs – Spanky Van Dykes, Nottingham, Thursday October 3

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Spanky Van Dykes by Mike A on October 26, 2013

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

It’s the first night of the tour, and Charlie Boyer and the Voyeurs have only made it to the venue in the nick of time. Within minutes of their arrival, they’re into the first song of their support set, lined up along a low stage that is all width and little depth. Centre partings and all-black outfits predominate, save for a trend-bucking keyboardist in a figure-hugging floral scoop-neck.

Viewed in a certain light, and at a certain angle, Boyer bears a fleeting resemblance to a young Ray Davies. His dour, faintly vexed demeanour is shared by the rest of the band, none of whom seem to be having much of a good time.

This is a shame, as the songs themselves are far from dour. Sometimes they spin off halfway through, into psych/space-rock territory. When this happens, it works very well indeed. At other times, particularly towards the end, the playing inches towards Quo/Creedence-style boogie. This is also pretty effective. If the players ever manage to break through their collective self-consciousness, it could be doubly effective.

It’s harder to gauge the stage presence of the headliners, as Splashh are practically invisible to all but the front row, illuminated only by the groovy Spankys light panels behind them. Happily, their sound is so immersive, and their playing so focussed and cohesive, that you can live without the visual distraction.

They’re significantly more echo-drenched on stage than on record, which does help to blur some perilously weedy vocals. Sonically, this is the rough equivalent of those last few mouthfuls of a Sunday roast dinner, when all the elements on your plate have fused into one flavoursome whole. This is, of course, the best bit of the whole dinner, so it’s a neat trick to extend the sensation over a full set.

There’s a lot of wanting going on in Splashh songs. On Vacation, they “wanna go where nobody knows”. On Need It, singer Sasha Carlson is itching for escape: “I wanna ride away, I’m leaving today, I want it today.” And then there’s recent single All I Wanna Do, whose title should be self-explanatory. Performed immaculately, it’s possibly the highlight of the set. There are also some new songs, including the episodic Peanut Butter And Jelly, which builds its energy by switching between radically different tempos.

A super-extended reworking of Need It ends the set. “We’ll try to keep it going for as long as we can”, they promise – and true to their word, a two-chord bass and drum breakdown gradually soars off into the stratosphere, boosted by abstract guitar textures and jet-plane-taking-off synth rumbles. Having spent the song talking about their need for escape, it’s almost as if they have managed to construct their own getaway. What better way to end a set, and start a tour?

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