It takes a brave act to tour the UK in the middle of August. It takes an even braver act to schedule the last date of their tour in a strange town on a Tuesday night, before an audience of just under thirty. And it takes an almost heroic act to play that date with a sunny good grace, seemingly untroubled by even the merest flicker of disappointment.
Piney Gir is a Kansas born singer, who moved to London in 1998. Originally an electro-pop act, she started performing her songs in a country style around four years ago, almost on a whim, and hasn’t looked back since.
Backed by a four piece band, and alternating between accordion and melodica, Piney’s stock in trade is a rambunctious “yee-haw” hoedown sound, its pedal steel twang balanced by a rockabilly stomp. It’s essentially good time party music, which needs a lively crowd in order to come into its own.
Without this suitably up-for-it atmosphere, the music was exposed as somewhat one-dimensional. Most songs were played at a similar rattling tempo, with little emotional range. By the end of the short set, what started as an affectionate tribute merely felt like shrill pastiche.
Thousands of miles away – both literally and figuratively – from the braggadocio, bling and suffocating conservatism of the commercial hip hop scene, Nottingham’s Dealmaker Records are quietly but persistently advancing the cause of a clutch of innovative, thoughtful, and occasionally pioneering new artists who, although they might never secure prime rotation on MTV Base, are equally dedicated to that well-worn old maxim, Keeping It Real. Think DJ Shadow rather than 50 Cent, Ninja Tune rather than Death Row, and you’re already halfway there.
First emerging in late 2003 with the acclaimed UK Duty Paid compilation, Dealmaker have steadily acquired an impressively diverse roster of artists, with twelve acts currently signed to the label.
Leading the way in terms of visibility are the duo Kids In Tracksuits, who have recorded Radio One sessions for Steve Lamacq and Rob Da Bank, and supported the likes of De La Soul, Amp Fiddler and Big Daddy Kane.
Representing the underground, Johnny Crump is a turntablist with a unique approach, whose mixtapes aim to redefine the boundaries of what can be technically achieved with two decks and a cross-fader.
In sharp contrast, singer-songwriter Sophie Johnson-Hill is a former St Peter’s Church choirgirl who, following an enforced break due to throat problems, is re-emerging as an artist with clear commercial potential. Her debut double A-sided single matches the dramatic, orchestral A New Dawn (inspired by the Nina Simone classic Feelin’ Good) with the witty and summery Bounce Your Head, whose easy-going conversational approach should appeal to fans of Lily Allen and Kate Nash.
The latest Dealmaker single, which hit the shops on Monday, is an intriguing release from a solo artist called Red: a former Nottingham resident, who started out as a drummer before switching to turntables following a year spent in California, where he was heavily influenced by the thriving Bay Area underground scene.
“I was quite lucky”, he explained. “While I was there, a kind of new movement was coming to fruition. They had a band of scratch DJs, each with one turntable and a mixer. One would be playing a drum part, and another would be playing a riff, and so forth – and so together, they would be making a complete track. I’m doing much the same – but I’m putting everything into one, using looping technology.”
Remarkably, every sound on the lead track Seenis produced entirely by scratching, as a video on Red’s Myspace page (myspace.com/redsource) demonstrates. Even more remarkably, only one turntable is needed to do the job, as Red’s scratching is looped back via foot pedals connected to a laptop, thus building up layers of sound. This “live looping” approach, which has been used on stage by artists such as KT Tunstall, Jamie Lidell and Imogen Heap, lends itself particularly well to a solo scratch artist. As for the vinyl that Red uses, this consists of one-off pressings of sounds which he has sampled – again via a turntable – from a variety of obscure sources, specifically to be used on the track in question.
For his live shows, Red combines these turntable techniques with beatboxing, live vocal loops and elements of showmanship, so that the crowd have something more to concentrate on than just one man, a deck and a laptop. Building on the success of his solo sets, the next logical step was to put a band together, in order to reproduce the music by more traditional means. The band in question, Full Fat, retains the turntables as the lead instrument, augmenting them with keyboards, guitar and drums.
“Part of me thought I could get a band together of scratch DJs, like I saw in California – but I couldn’t actually find any DJs who had the right mentality to do stuff like that. In the end, it was great that things happened this way, as it’s never really been done before. The turntables justify their place in the band – they’re not just there for a gimmick. I wanted to show that they could hold their own against other instruments such as guitars.”
Red’s forthcoming album Fingerprints aims to push the envelope further, in an attempt to demonstrate that turntables can be used in a more varied, emotionally expressive way. “Scratching is usually associated with noises – with percussive, “wicky-wacky” type sounds – but I wanted to show that you could use that technique to create moods and styles that people wouldn’t have associated with it .”
As for the people who run Dealmaker, Red has nothing but praise. “Ste Allan from the label has been a big supporter of mine for years. I think he represents a very small minority of people in the music industry these days, in that he supports talent, and he loves music, and that’s why he’s doing what he’s doing.”
Having built their reputation as an independent hip hop label, Dealmaker recently acquired two-storey premises directly opposite the Broadway Cinema, right in the heart of the city’s creative community. As well as providing a base of operations for the label, the property also houses a fully equipped recording studio. This opened its doors three months ago, following ten months of preparation.
While the label continues to showcase new music from the hip hop underground, the Dealmaker studio is open to all comers, and has already played host to everything from rock bands to string quartets. Taken together, both arms of the operation provide a much needed focus for musical independence and creativity at a grassroots level, in a city which has all too often struggled to provide its emergent talent with the exposure and support which it deserves.
He may not have had a Top 20 hit since 1999 (and even that was a re-issue – no prizes for guessing which), but all of a sudden, Prince feels like a global superstar once more. Although each new album is routinely hailed as “a stunning return to form”, only to be forgotten a few weeks later, a cunning marketing ploy has ensured that Planet Earth, his most straightforwardly accessible release for years, has shipped over 2 million copies in the UK alone. OK, so it was given away free with a Sunday newspaper, but tough times call for desperate measures.
His profile duly raised, Prince has now installed himself at London’s O2 Arena (formerly the Millennium Dome) for the next couple of months, playing a series of 21 dates to crowds of 20,000 at a time. With the opening night of the season – a marathon, hit-packed extravaganza – instantly gaining ecstatic reviews from the national press, the Purple One’s re-ascendance to the major league already seemed complete.
However, second nights can sometimes tell quite a different story – and last Friday’s showing was a classic example of the dangers of promising too much, too soon.
As measured by the time between the first and the last notes played, Friday’s set clocked in respectably, at just under two hours. During that time, Prince himself was absent from the stage for at least thirty minutes, leaving his band to serve up an eclectic but pointless array of covers. One of them, a syrupy lounge-jazz rendering of What A Wonderful World, quickly turned into a mass stampede for the bar. This was good news for the large section of the crowd who seemed more interested in getting the beers in than focussing on the music.
Although billed as a “last ever chance” to hear Prince play his greatest hits, the show was noticeably short on crowd-pleasing classics. Of the twenty songs played, only seven had ever troubled the Top 20, and the gaps between them were sometimes dangerously long.
In their place, we had unloved recent album tracks (Satisfied, Lolita, Musicology), seldom heard fan favourites (Joy In Repetition, Anotherloverholenyohead), and a lengthy trudge through Wild Cherry’sPlay That Funky Music, for which Prince forgot most of the words.
None of this was helped by the abysmal sound quality: booming, sludgy and echo-laden, with a general absence of top-end clarity. Neither was it helped by the seeming inability of the lighting crew to keep a spotlight trained on their star performer, frequently leaving him cavorting in the darkness.
Nevertheless, the evening was not without its highlights. Led by a stunningly tight four-piece brass section which included veteran James Brown sideman Maceo Parker, the band displayed all the stellar musicianship that you would expect from a Prince show, particularly during the funkier numbers such as Black Sweat and Controversy. A reworking of I Feel For You (as made famous by Chaka Khan) hit the spot with the crowd, as did the cheekily updated Kiss, which now proclaims that “You don’t have to watch Big Brother to have an attitude”. Songs from the Purple Rain soundtrack dominated the end of the set, with the sole selection from the new album saved for the final encore. It was a shrewd gamble, as the straight-up old-school rocker Guitar went down a storm, already sounding like a future classic.
Ultimately, the biggest let-down was the man himself. Although undeniably energetic, there was something essentially half-hearted about Prince’s performance, which displayed all the signs of Just Another Day At The Office Syndrome. For the second night of a two-month run, this did not bode well.
For the 2000-strong audience who hung around for the “Official Prince Aftershow Party” at the smaller Indigo2 venue next door, an even bigger disappointment was in store. After patiently waiting through a “surprise” 80-minute set from Dr John, who had played a scheduled show at the same venue earlier, the crowd were eventually shown the door at 3:30 am, Prince having apparently declared himself too tired to perform. The following night, he appeared on stage for just one number. At £27.50 a ticket for what amounted to a lottery – something that was not made clear at the time of booking – this was a rip-off on a grand scale, which left a sour taste at the end of a long and lacklustre night.