Mike Atkinson

Film preview: Weekend

Posted in film reviews, LeftLion by Mike A on October 31, 2011

(originally published in LeftLion)

Weekend is director Andrew Haigh’s second feature-length movie – his first being Greek Pete, a semi-fictionalised documentary about a year in the life of a rent boy. The emphasis on representing aspects of contemporary gay identity persists in Weekend, as does the raw, intimate, ultra-naturalistic approach – but here the characters and situations are, for all their true-to-life plausibility, entirely fictional.

The film was shot in Nottingham, and a large chunk of the action takes place inside one of the brutalist concrete apartment blocks which sit next to the Savoy Cinema in Lenton. Lingering – and surprisingly beautiful – exterior shots of the estate, which some out-of-towners might recognise from the 2007 Joy Division biopic Control, punctuate many of the scenes.

One of the flats belongs to Russell, a softly spoken and rather solitary man who works as an attendant at a swimming pool. It’s Friday night, and after spending an evening with his straight mates, Russell ends up taking a drunken detour to Propaganda, a large late-night gay bar in the Lace Market. Somehow or other, and it’s not made exactly clear how (although the courtship ritual does seem to involve a measure of pointed staring in the club bogs), he picks up a fit-looking stranger and brings him home for sex.

So far, so stock. But as the rest of the weekend progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that for Russell and his pick-up – an art gallery worker called Glen – this is to be no ordinary one-night stand. Initially, they don’t look like a promising match. Although Russell isn’t exactly closeted, he retains a cautious privacy as regards his sexuality. To out-and-proud Glen, this reads like a cop-out, and a cue for Glen to cast himself as something of a consciousness-raiser.  But it’s a fine line between consciousness-raising and condescension, and Glen’s tart little lectures do him no favours as a sympathetic character.  Neither does his scorn for the second-hand dowdiness of Russell’s flat – an old-lady sofa, a mug tree – although Russell provides a convincing aesthetic justification for his choices, and he’s hip enough to have a LeftLion sticker on his door (yay!) and John Grant’s album on his stereo.

Rather than going their separate ways after what could easily have been just a one-night stand, the couple start to hang out together. They meet Glen’s friends in another city centre bar, before heading for the Goose Fair and returning to Lenton. Spliffs are rolled, lines are snorted, sex is had, life stories are shared, and defences are lowered, revealing a more complex arrangement of strengths, weaknesses and interlocking emotional needs.

Although Nottingham audiences might be tempted to niggle at some of the geographical details – there’s no tram line between Derby Road and the Lace Market, for instance – what emerges is an arrestingly convincing exposition of human relationships, and a telling examination of contemporary gay life. The dialogue rings true, the lone sex scene is superbly well-drawn, and only the drug-taking fails to fully convince; Glen and Russell either have an abnormally high tolerance for consciousness-bending substances, or else they’ve been palmed off with Oxo cubes and chalk dust, and know no better.

Ahead of Weekend’s national release on Friday 4 November, Broadway are hosting a preview screening on Tuesday 1, followed by a Q&A with director Andrew Haigh and Gregory Woods, Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies at Nottingham Trent University.  The film has already been garlanded with awards in the US, where it emerged as the surprise hit of the SXSW Film Festival, and Stateside box-office takings have been hearteningly brisk. In the words of the New York Times, Haigh’s film is “perfectly realised – a bracing, present-tense exploration of sex, intimacy and love” – and LeftLion can only concur with its judgement.

 


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June Tabor & Oysterband – Nottingham Glee, Sunday October 30.

Posted in gigs, Glee, Nottingham Post by Mike A on October 31, 2011

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

Twenty-one years after recording their Freedom and Rain album, June Tabor and Oysterband – both highly regarded English folk acts in their own right – have finally got around to releasing its follow-up, Ragged Kingdom. It’s June Tabor’s second release of the year, following in the wake of Ashore, a superb collection of sea-themed material. But where Ashore is sparse, bleak and haunting, Ragged Kingdom presents Tabor’s vocals in a fuller, comparatively rockier musical context. As such, it forms a neat companion piece, which also emphasises the interpretive range of both acts.

Not having seen her on stage before, I was warned that Tabor has a tendency to be a rather stern, schoolmarm-like performer. If that had ever been true, then perhaps the genial bonhomie of the six Oysters had thawed her. Smiles and laughter might not exactly be her stock in trade, but there were flashes of easy good humour, as well as some deliciously witty anecdotes between the songs; a tale of a Goth-turned-mum from June’s home town drew warm chuckles from the room, for instance.

But where some might merely see sternness, others – and this must have included the vast majority of the supportive crowd at Glee – were afforded a glimpse of one of English folk’s most justly revered figures, channelling every particle of her being into the material, deftly exposing every nuance of every line with expert focus and keen concentration.

Standing beside her, Oysterband’s singer John Jones provided a relaxed counterbalance, the pair’s vocals meshing with seemingly effortless precision on a cover of Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart. Other covers from the rock era included the Velvet Underground’s All Tomorrow’s Parties, PJ Harvey’s That Was My Veil, and a lesser-known Bob Dylan song (Seven Curses), which heightened the sensation that, in certain respects, June Tabor could be seen as England’s answer to the great Joan Baez.

Of the other players, special mention must be made of guitarist Alan Prossser’s heart-stopping solo accompaniment on The Hills of Shiloh, and fiddler Ian Telfer’s shudderingly eerie break on a cover of Jefferson Airplane’s psychedelic classic, White Rabbit. Opening with the rumbling, almost Nick Cave-like Bonny Bunch of Roses, and closing with the tenderly communal Put Out The Lights, the band’s versatility was a pleasure to behold. Four UK dates into their tour, with fourteen more to follow, this was a collective operating at the very peak of their powers.

Katy B – Nottingham Rock City, Tuesday October 18

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rock City by Mike A on October 19, 2011

For once – and this doesn’t happen too often, so it’s worth noting – the teenage girls and the broadsheet music critics are of one mind. Katy B’s shrewd mix of underground dance with mainstream pop has enough club credibility to please the purists, enough musical weight to impress the Mercury Prize judges, enough tuneful accessibility to delight the pop fans, and enough warmth, heart and energy to ignite a live audience.

She has visited us a couple of times before: at Trent University with Magnetic Man, and at the Rescue Rooms, five months ago, where the crowd was even more overwhelmingly young and female than it is now. Katy and MC Tippa, her long-time stage collaborator, have been playing a game on the current tour: who can shout the loudest, the girls or the boys? Every night, Tippa has been trying his hardest to score a win for the lads (“Just once, guys – please!”), only to be trounced by the deafening screams of Katy’s ladies.

“Who here was born in the Eighties?”, asks Katy. There are a few cheers. “And who here was born in the NINETIES?”, she continues. Ouch, my poor eardrums. “In that case, your mum and dad were probably making love to this one”, she grins, introducing a cover of Inner City’s classic house anthem Good Life, oblivious to the winces of those of us who were dancing to it the first time round.

Released almost exactly a year ago, Magnetic Man’s album still casts a strong spell over Katy’s crowd. In common with both of her support acts – rapper P Money and a re-emerging Ms Dynamite, back in the game after an extended maternity break – Katy appeared on the album, and the mere mention of its name drew wild applause. Perfect Stranger is the track in question. In Katy’s hands, the bowel-quaking dubstep of Magnetic Man’s original is given a lighter, friskier, but no less powerful treatment. It’s typical of Katy’s approach, which seeks to convey her love of club culture to a mass audience, and which celebrates the joy that can be found on the dancefloor.

It was no surprise to see Ms Dynamite back on stage for the encore, duetting with Katy on their shared hit Lights On. The two artists share the same infectiously sunny approach to performing, and the smiles from the stage spread through the whole room, leaving us on the highest of highs.

Cultural Vibrations presents Live & Local, Nottingham Playhouse, Sunday October 16

Posted in gigs, LeftLion, Nottingham Playhouse by Mike A on October 18, 2011

(originally published in LeftLion)

Live & Local is the latest brainchild of music promoter Rastarella Falade, whose not-for-profit organisation Cultural Vibrations has been active since 2009, staging events at the Hockley Hustle and the NEAT11 Festival and organising the Takeover showcase at Nottingham Riviera. As ever, Rastarella’s aim was to highlight a diverse range of local talent, bringing fans of different genres together in order to appreciate the full spectrum of what Nottingham has to offer.

As the Playhouse is currently staging a production of Noël Coward’s Private Lives, the eight acts on Live & Local’s bill found themselves performing in what looked like a period drawing room, complete with grand piano, standard lamp and rear windows opening out onto a street scene.

This suited opening act Elena Hargreaves rather well, adding a touch of extra class to her stately, elegant and heartfelt performance. Elena’s parents were in the audience, and were duly pointed out to us. (“My mum’s sitting over there, and my dad’s sitting over there – but they’re not divorced!”)

Opening with a cover of Feeling Good, Elena reclaimed the Nina Simone classic from the various maulings that it has endured from X Factor hopefuls over the years – not that she’s a stranger to talent competitions herself, having made it to the finals of the Open Mic UK contest last year. Her first ever self-composition, Don’t Go Leaving Me, was also introduced as a competition winner in its own right. Now moved to London, Elena is about to shoot her first video in Los Angeles, and a debut EP is in the offing.

“Welcome to my living room, guys. Please take your shoes off.” Undaunted by the incongruity of his surroundings, and eager to charm a crowd that might not be in the habit of attending too many hip hop nights, Karizma worked hard to forge a rapport with the seated audience. His mum was there too, watching her son for the first time, seventeen years into his rapping career. (He must have started young, then.) Perhaps this was why, when introducing his new single Bad Boy, Karizma was so keen to distance himself from its title. “I’m a bad boy – but in a different way”, runs the chorus, and as he explained, “I’m not gonna lie to you, I’m thirty years old now and I’ve got bills to pay – I ain’t got time for that.” Produced by Nottingham’s Junglewire Film, its video debuted on YouTube last week. “It hasn’t got girls shaking themselves about”, we were assured. “I’m not like that.”  (In truth, the video does feature female dancers, exercising themselves with some degree of vigour – but, you know, in a different way.)

Joined by live musicians for the close of his set, Karizma treated us to a live freestyle, in which he constructed an impromptu rap based on suggested subjects from the audience. (“It’s my birthday!”, someone shouted, slightly missing the point of the exercise.) It takes a special talent to construct a meaningful flow from the topics he was given – determination, wolves, freedom and the NHS, if you please – but the MC passed the test with flying colours, drawing mid-track cheers for each new lyrical flourish.

The ever-dependable, ever-delightful Nina Smith followed, accompanied by her three-piece boy band (or “man band”, or “hit-by-the-handsome-stick troubadour ensemble”, or whatever she cares to call them next). Nina has been working on a new set for a while now, so this might have been one of the last opportunities to hear the old one – but songs as strong asLonely Heart ClubSexy Surprise and the stunning I Won’t Forget You surely won’t be lost forever. And if, as is rumoured, the new tracks are going to carry a little more grit, a little more bite and a little more oomph, then perhaps we had a foretaste of it here, as the acoustic-led delicacy of Nina’s debut EP showed signs of making way for a more amped-up, revved-up approach.

Nina’s mash-up of the Spice Girls’ Two Become One and Sting’s Message In A Bottle (no, really, it worked a treat) eased us nicely into the reggae-rock stylings of Jimmy The Squirrel, who closed the first half of the show. (Not that we were allowed to dawdle during the interval; Rastarella ran a tight ship, and a fifteen minute break during a three and a half hour show was all that time permitted.) Featuring the ubiquitous Jody Betts (Royal Gala, Tray Electric, Hey Zeus) on keyboards, the five-piece rattled through an energetic set, which should by rights have got the whole audience up and dancing – and had there been a few more chances to visit the bar during the evening, perhaps we would have done, but the gravitational force which a theatre brings to bear upon twitching backsides is hard to overcome. To compensate to for our collective inertia, a scattering of loons emerged behind the rear windows during the second song, skanking furiously.

The second half of the evening began with Mique, a singer-songwriter who learnt her craft singing in church, before progressing to the soulful balladry which now characterises her performances.  Accompanied by a lone guitarist called Simon, her songs spanned a range of emotions.  On I Deserve, she displayed proud defiance towards a false lover. (“You said you wanted me – you lost.”) For Call Me Baby, she became more imploring, and for her newest composition Believe, her forceful sense of self-belief found its fullest expression.  And on every song, the force of Mique’s personality and the scorching power of her vocals drew you into her emotional world, allowing you to journey with her.

By the time that the teenage indie duo Saint Raymond took to the stage, the elegant room had started to feel more like a student bedsit. The lads have already come a long way since their appearance at Derbyshire’s Y-Not Festival in early August, where – as the first act of the final day, playing in a large tent to a sparse and still booze-battered crowd – they had seemed a little swallowed up by their surroundings. This time round, the playing had tightened, the voices had gelled and the whole performance seemed more relaxed and more outwardly focussed.  Faded Colour got the crowd clapping along – entirely unprompted, always a good sign – and Callum and Elliot’s chugging, purposeful, almost skiffley strumming, combined with the wide-eyed romanticism of songs such as She Said No, Perfect Picture and Bonfires, was warmly received.

From the youngest performers on the bill, we switched to the oldest, as Saint Raymond’s rough-edged acoustic indie made way for the seasoned smoothness of Marvin Brown’s band. Combining dancehall flavours with a classic reggae template, the players – all decked out in branded Marvin Brown t-shirts – provided expert support for their inscrutably capped and shaded front man, showing a marked reluctance to leave the stage once their assigned twenty minutes were up.  (“Life is a rocky road”, we were informed, over and over again, the band seemingly caught on an endless loop.) But Rastarella’s schedule was not to be messed with, and a couple of meaningful stares put paid to any chances of an encore.

Introducing Breadchasers, the last act of the night, Rastarella declared herself in the mood for dancing, imploring us to follow suit. (“Just because you’ve paid for these seats, it doesn’t mean you have to sit in them all night!”) Finally, the spell was broken, as the band’s riotous ska-punk pulled ever greater numbers of skankers to the front of the stage, bringing the spirit of Mansfield Road to Wellington Circus.  This prompted keyboardist Ben Wager to introduce crowdsurfing to the Playhouse, almost certainly for the first time in its 48 years of existence. The surprisingly flexible drawing-room-turned-bedsit morphed once again, now resembling the set of Madness’s Our House video, as all residual decorum was thrown to the winds. Well, when faced with a turbo-charged ska cover of Dire Straits’ Walk Of Life, what else can you do but party?


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Spotlight Kid – Nottingham Bodega Social Club, Friday October 14

Posted in Bodega, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on October 16, 2011

(Originally published in the Nottingham Post)

They might have been together for five years, but Nottingham’s Spotlight Kid are currently being given the “hot new band” treatment. Thanks to the BBC Introducing initiative, they played at this year’s Glastonbury and were playlisted on daytime Radio One. Shortly after that, The Guardian tipped them as their “new band of the day”, under the mistaken impression that their new album (Disaster Tourist, released this month) was their debut effort.

Well, better late than never. And that’s to say nothing of drummer Chris Davis’s work with Six By Seven, or singer Katty Heath’s involvement with Bent – two locally based acts who achieved national recognition over a decade ago.

That said, the gathering sense of momentum which now surrounds the band, combined with the freshness and vigour of their approach, gives you the sense that you are indeed watching a brand new act, poised on the brink of breaking through to a wider audience.

Much has already been made of one of Spotlight Kid’s key influences: the so-called “shoegaze” sound of the early Nineties, spearheaded by bands such as My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Curve and Lush. It was a jokey term, popularised by writers who were amused at the contrast between the immersive, expansive, neo-psychedelic sound of these bands, and their shy, sulky disdain for the rituals of showmanship.

None of these bands would have willingly embraced the term at the time – and yet, twenty years on, there seems little point in pretending it doesn’t exist.  And so, with admirable good cheer, Spotlight Kid don’t mind in the slightest if you call them shoegazers.

Led by a thick, triple-guitar squall of sound that resembles a swarm of bumble bees trapped in a wind tunnel, they certainly draw on those influences – but on stage, the diffidence of the old school is replaced by an unabashed joyousness and delight. Instead of staring at the floor, they look out at us and smile, spurred on by our response.  Coupled with a knack for songcraft and an ability to carve out memorable tunes and hooks from the noise that surrounds them, this makes them an intensely appealing proposition.

Opening their new tour in front of a supportive home crowd was a smart move, which should have fuelled the band with all the self-belief they need for the remaining dates. “If the rest of the tour is even a quarter as good as tonight, we’ll be happy”, they said. It was the only moment of understatement, in a precisely honed and confidently delivered set that was little short of triumphant.

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Contemporary Music Weekend, Nottingham Contemporary, Saturday October 8.

Posted in gigs, LeftLion, Nottingham Contemporary by Mike A on October 10, 2011

(originally published in LeftLion)

Framework is a Nottingham-based charity, which supports homeless and vulnerable people in the East Midlands. At a time when it should rightfully be celebrating its tenth anniversary, the charity has been hit by funding cuts of nearly 50%, which threaten its services just when more people are in need of them than ever before.

Displaying admirable resourcefulness in the face of looming crisis, Framework have organised Raise The Roof, a month-long festival of music and performance that seeks to raise funds and heighten awareness of its work, as well as offering a diverse and well-chosen range of entertainment. During the rest of the month, there will be classical and choral concerts, film screenings, gigs, club nights, exhibitions and even a sponsored bike ride – all of which have been set a high standard by the Contemporary Music Weekend that took place at Nottingham Contemporary on October 8th and 9th.

With Sunday’s line-up focussing on the jazzier end of the spectrum, Saturday night was given over to electronica, dance, rock and experimental music. In the café bar, Si Tew added fluid, rippling live keyboards to his funky house beats, creating an ideal early evening soundtrack. Later on, crazed knob-twiddlers Betty and the Physics did amazing things with their home-made synthesisers, and Royal Gala’s Jody Betts performed as the dance act Tray Electric.

Over in The Space, which had been cleared of its seating, a large crowd gathered for a return visit by Origamibiro, who launched their album Shakkei there in August. The trio combined traditional instruments – double bass and bowed guitar – with live-looped samples of torn paper, rustling plastic, a vintage typewriter, and a Rolodex-like contraption that displayed flickering images of a waving child. Using a small hand-held device, the samples were filmed as they were created, and projected onto the back walls of the venue. There’s a risk with this kind of approach, as the intricacies of the process could distract the listener from focussing on the musical content, but the sounds that emerged were sufficiently beautiful to captivate the room.

After rather too long a gap, which threw the rest of the running order back by an hour or so, the boffin-like Robin Saville offered cerebral laptronica, which journeyed from twinkling prettiness to richly layered, drone-like wooziness. Ambient music can suffer in public performance, if some – quite understandably – choose to treat it as an amiable conversational soundtrack, but the chat never converted to cacophony, and Saville’s more immersive moments rewarded all who cared to concentrate.

The natterers were duly silenced by Flotel’s abstract soundscapes, which floated free of conventionally recognisable structures, bombarding the room with disquieting force. Unfortunately, none were more disquieted than the performer himself, who abandoned his set due to sound problems. The murmurs of dismay which greeted his abrupt exit confirmed that although Flotel couldn’t properly hear what he was doing, we were all enjoying it just fine.

Although two members of 8mm Orchestra are regularly loaned out to Ronika, the band’s all-instrumental post-rock sound couldn’t be more different. The music veered between still, meditative passages and broody, crunchy freakouts, all performed with a somewhat incongruous rock-star swagger that isn’t often found in music of this nature. While the quieter moments sometimes felt like extended interludes, which would have benefitted from a more defined sense of direction, the heavier stuff hit the spot with cranium-denting exactitude.

By the time that Kirk Spencer and Marita took to the stage, the average age in the room had dropped appreciably, the early evening culture crowd replaced by eager moshers whose appreciation was more physical than cerebral. This was only fitting, given the shifts that have taken place in Spencer’s approach.  Having progressed from the instrumental, Indian-influenced electronica of his Enter The Void EP to the more song-based Shangai Underground EP, Spencer’s live set is rawer and rockier than his recorded music might have led you to expect, with an emphasis on live guitar, drums and vocals.

Although an imperfect sound mix dampened most of the bass frequencies, the energy and infectious good cheer of the performance more than compensated. Earlier tracks were rendered almost unrecognisable, as Marita chanted and freestyled over the music like a soul diva MC, while songs such as Scars and the Radio One-playlisted Gold demonstrated why the Spencer buzz has been building so rapidly in recent months.

DJ sets from Geiom and Spam Chop brought the thirteen-hour event to a close, hopefully leaving the organisers with heaving collection buckets, and a re-confirmed optimism for the rest of the month.

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Nottingham’s music scene: soon to be heard?

Posted in features, The Guardian by Mike A on October 2, 2011

(Guardian Film & Music, Friday September 30 2011)

Its biggest claim to pop fame was once Su Pollard. Now, a formidable new generation of Nottingham artists is emerging.

‘So, which acts from round here have been in the charts?” In any decent-sized city, there’s a standard pub conversation to be had – but in Nottingham, it might be briefer than most. Forty years after their last big seller, blues rockers Ten Years After remain the city’s most successful albums act, by a huge distance. As for singles, the hall of fame is still headed by Paper Lace (three hits in 1974, including the chart-topping Billy Don’t Be a Hero), closely followed by KWS (early 90s dance-cover merchants, best known for their grim take on KC and the Sunshine Band’s Please Don’t Go). A pause will follow, as brains are racked. “What about Alvin Stardust?” someone might venture. “No, he’s from Mansfield,” another will counter. Finally and fatally, someone else will dredge up the lone hit by Nottingham’s highest-charting female singer: Su Pollard, who stormed to No 2 in 1986 with the wince-making Starting Together.

“It couldn’t get more embarrassing” says Simon Wilson, entertainment editor at the Nottingham Post, who is acutely aware of the city’s reputation for underachievement. “Record labels have always said to me: build up a scene in your own city, and that will attract the attention of A&R,” he says. But where cities such as Bristol, Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds have all had their time in the sun – thanks to a particular defining sound, or a notable breakout act – there has never been a “Nottingham moment”. If success came at all, it was despite an artist coming from Nottingham, not because of it.

In 2011, the situation is markedly different. Four local acts have signed to major labels this year, and there’s a tangible buzz in the air, as the scene finally finds its identity: confident, visible, with a new spirit of collaborative bonhomie. “They all seem to be genuinely supportive of each other, and they don’t slag anyone off,” Wilson says. “It wasn’t like that in the 90s; there was a lot of bitching going on. We’ve not had anything like this, in terms of people getting recognition.”

This shouldn’t be surprising, given Nottingham’s enviable reputation for live music venues; a recent survey placed it third in the UK in terms of consumer choice, behind Newcastle and Manchester. Venues range from the 10,000-capacity Arena to tiny ventures such as The Chameleon, and the Jamcafé. Four of them – Rock CityRescue RoomsBodega Social Club and Stealth – are operated by local promoters DHP, whose booking policy regarding homegrown acts has become notably more inclusive.

“There’s more of a spotlight on the city, because we’re trying to put one on it,” says DHP managing director George Akins. “We’re trying to be more proactive about how we give the leg-up. If we spot someone we like, we try and fit them with a suitable support slot. Let’s not wait for the agent to tell us there’s no support. We’re already thinking about who would fit.” This integrated approach has spread to annual music festivals such as Dot to Dot and Splendour, both promoted by DHP. The city’s leading acts now share stages with nationally recognised names, bringing local talent to the attention of more casual punters.

Mark Del, who heads the non-profit voluntary organisation Nusic (it’s a contraction of “Nottingham New Music”), has lobbied hard for this shift. A forceful, ebullient character, who grew his venture from local radio shows and a “let’s get a Nottingham act to No 1” Facebook campaign, Del is just the sort of scene champion the city needs. Nusic is active on a number of fronts, including awareness-raising workshops in schools, weekly podcasts, and a high-profile contest called Future Sound of Nottingham,whose winners opened the main stage at this year’s Splendour. The podcasts are cheery affairs, peppered with jingles and DJ banter, and aimed squarely at a general audience. This sits well with the more populist, less niche-bound nature of the current scene, which is now producing many acts that you could plausibly expect to hear on daytime playlists.

Liam Bailey has already tasted chart success this year, contributing lead vocals to Blind Faith, a top five hit for Chase & Status. Bailey achieved recognition in the old way, by moving to London and slogging round venues in the capital. “Not enough bands are willing to come down and play London,” he says. “They’re too happy where they are. In London you’re here on your own, and it’s dog-eat-dog. So if Nottingham is starting to establish itself as a scene, then God bless it.”

Bailey retains strong personal links with the city – his last video was shot here, for instance – and he enthuses over fellow soul singer Natalie Duncan, now signed to Universal. (“The best singer I’ve ever heard coming out of Nottingham. She wipes the floor with me.”) He’s particularly passionate about its long-established and distinctive hip-hop scene, which is characterised by adherence to old-school breaks-and-beats values and an almost universal retention of local accents. (Nottingham’s vowel sounds and cadences are mysteriously well-suited to rap; it’s difficult to imagine rappers from Birmingham or Bristol pulling off the same trick.) Lyrically, there’s an absence of brag, bling and hard-man posturing; instead, the wry, observational rhymes of MCs such as Cappo,Scorzayzee and Juga-Naut are rooted in real-life experience. On C-Mone‘s current album Dancing With Mirrors, there’s even a rap about housing policy in St Ann’s, one of the city’s toughest neighbourhoods. “Nottingham hip-hop is how it should be,” Bailey says. “It’s real people talking. I don’t hear any American hip-hop artists talking like that.”

Bailey’s decision to leave town might have made sense at the time, but perhaps it’s no longer necessary. Take Ronika, for instance. “Obviously, coming from Nottingham it’s harder to get yourself heard,” she says. “But now there are so many online tools, I decided that rather than waiting to be found, I’d do it myself.”

Working almost entirely independently, Ronika has built her own buzz, offering previews to tastemaker blogs (Electronic Rumours has dubbed her “the Madonna of the Midlands”) and steadily accruing national press attention for her delightful brand of 80s-influenced dance pop. While majors hover, she is retaining her mystique and keeping a cool head; a third EP is due this month on her own label, and live dates are gradually becoming more regular.

The impact of Ronika’s online strategy suggests an altered landscape, with a newly levelled playing field. Today’s A&R departments are no longer just trawling gigs; they’re scouring SoundCloud, Bandcamp and Facebook, and looking for evidence of genuine support. In this world, followers and play counts matter just as much as audience numbers, offering enhanced opportunities to regional acts.

Nottingham’s newest significant arrival is 17-year-old Jake Bugg: a plaintive performer with a distinctive, reedy voice and a knack for writing songs that already sound decades old. Bugg, who signed to Mercury over the summer, is a beneficiary of the BBC Introducing initiative, which aims to support “unsigned, undiscovered and under-the-radar” musicians. Its website provides an upload facility for new acts, who can tag their tracks by genre and region. Any submissions from the east Midlands are automatically routed to Dean Jackson, a music presenter at BBC Radio Nottingham. Jackson and his team typically receive around 200 tracks a week. They aim to listen to at least 95%.

If Jackson likes what he hears, a live session is arranged for his Saturday evening show The Beat, and filmed for YouTube. A respected figure nationally, with several years of service on the Mercury prize judging panel, Jackson habitually refers the most promising acts to his contacts on national radio, such as Tom Robinson at 6Music, Radio 1’s Huw Stephens, or Mistajam at 1Xtra. The dream conclusion of this process is a place on the Radio 1 playlist, which reserves a weekly slot for BBC Introducing acts. This year, four tracks from Nottingham acts have qualified for inclusion, including Jake Bugg’s Someone Told Me andYoung by Dog Is Dead, a dextrous and characterful five-piece who have since signed to Atlantic.

Meanwhile, Jackson’s radio clout has been matched by his track record of placing bands on the BBC Introducing stages at festivals, both regionally and nationally. At this year’s Glastonbury, for example, three of his proteges appeared: Jake Bugg, shoegaze revivalists Spotlight Kid, and a rap collaboration between 2Tone, Jah Digga and DJ Vimto.

Dog Is Dead’s 2010 appearance there proved to be a major staging post, setting them on the path that led to their deal with Atlantic. Widely tipped to be the next Nottingham act to break through, they remain unfazed by the weight of expectation. “I don’t think there’s that kind of pressure,” singer Rob Milton says, “because we’ve had all the support we need. So it spurs us on, in a way. It’s something to be proud of, and in fact it helps us nationally – because it’s more interesting, coming from a place without anything.”

Thanks to this recent flurry of activity, a gathering sense of momentum has infected the music community, sweeping aside the last vestiges of cosy fatalism. “Coming back to Nottingham after two months on tour, you notice that there’s three or four artists who are pushing to a stage where we were a few months back,” Milton says. “It’s happened really quickly, and it hasn’t really happened before.” Speculation is rife in the city as to who will be next to step up; perhaps it will be Nina Smith‘s deftly understated acoustic pop, or Kirk Spencer‘s Indian-influenced electronica, or Swimming‘s synthy, cosmic indie rock. And who knows, perhaps Mark Del’s longed-for third Nottingham No 1 may yet become a reality.

Listen to a playlist of New Nottingham Music on Spotify.

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Interview: Wilko Johnson

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on October 2, 2011

A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.

I looked up your dialling code, so I know I’m calling you at home in Southend. What sort of place have you got? Is it a rock star mansion?

In my more imaginative moments, yes. It’s in a fairly normal street, but my house is the one with battlements. I defy the world from here. Actually, they’re a bit of a con. My house has got a flat roof, where I’ve got my telescope and my observatory. It looks like a little fortress. But if you go up on the roof, you’ll find that actually the battlements are only six inches high.

They’re not really going to repel the continental invaders, then?

Not really. I couldn’t practically pour boiling oil down on them. But I could put up a bit of a show.

Are there any rock star trappings inside? Are you the sort of person that puts framed gold discs on the walls?

Well, one thing that I’ve always thought was really horrible and vulgar – he says, like the fox with the sour grapes – was those bloody gold discs. Would I put them on my wall? No. I gave them away. Some people really dig ‘em, but in fact they’re rubbish – he said, with all the venom of somebody who hasn’t sold a record for about five hundred years. (Laughs)

Does living alone suit you well?

Actually, it does. Sometimes I sit here, and I go “Oh man, I’m so lonely in my fortress here!” But on the other hand, I can do whatever I like. If I want to shoot all the light bulbs out with my air pistol, I can do it. And nobody’s going to tell me off.

Yeah, but no one’s going to sweep the mess up for you, either.

Yes, and the house does turn into a slum, on a regular basis. I’ve kind of reverted to studenthood. But you can’t do anything about it. You think: hang on, this was all tidy a little while ago. And now it’s covered in fast food containers, old newspapers, and things that are probably best not investigated.

Generally, I stay indoors. People are always telling me off, because it’s gloomy here, in my castle. You can’t even draw the curtains. They’re actually nailed across the window. So I’m in this gloom; I kind of creep about. Upstairs, where my bed is, I’ve got this huge television. I connect it up to my laptop, with my astronomy program, and it becomes the window of my spaceship.

There was a supernova the other week; did you catch sight of it?

I’m afraid not. I caught sight of nothing, because it’s been so cloudy. Although actually, I thought I was being clever, because I recently acquired a solar telescope. So I can look at the sun.

I thought that was the one thing you should never do…

Oh yes. We must tell the public, and have a little announcement in a special box: never, never, never look at the sun through a telescope. This thing I have is a special one. If you look through it, you can’t see anything; it’s black. But when you point it at the sun, you can see the sun. It’s pretty good, except the sun is obscured by clouds, just as well as the stars. So I haven’t been doing a lot of astronomy this week.

Have you ever moved away from Essex, or have you been a lifelong resident?

I was born on Canvey Island, I grew up on Canvey Island, then I went to university at Newcastle for three years. Then after some wandering about, we came back to Canvey Island: me and the missus. Then the next thing I know, I made some money from doing rock and roll. So she buys a house up in Southend, within spitting distance of Canvey Island – which is probably the best distance. So I’ve stayed in Essex, but I do like Essex. It’s rather flat.

Flat lands scare me. I want to have a few hills around.

Well, there you go; you’re from up the bumpy bit. I get among hills, and I feel a bit overpowered. I like to see a big sky, a big horizon. Preferably with oil refineries. Then I feel comfortable.

Julian Temple’s documentary film (Oil City Confidential) about your former band Dr Feelgood was very well received. How closely were you involved with the making of it?

When I was told that Julian Temple wanted to make this film, my first reaction was surprise. Dr Feelgood largely existed before the days of video cameras, and there wasn’t a lot of footage of us. And Lee Brilleaux is dead. So how can you do it?

Man, what a guy! The first thing he wants is to film at the oil depot on Canvey Island, in the night time. He was going to project movies of Dr Feelgood onto the side of these big oil tanks, and interview us. What an experience! If you grow up on Canvey Island, you’re always aware of the oil works, but you never go there. So to go in there was a kick. To go in there in the night time, and then to stand there with these great big films being projected, of me and Lee Brilleaux from 35 years ago, was absolutely surreal. I could have stood there all night.

So I thought, well, this guy’s good. Julian gets you to say all sorts of things. I don’t know how he does it. He sort of insinuates himself into the conversation, and I find myself revealing all sorts.

Anyway, the film took some time to make, but I was never involved in the making of it, and I didn’t see any of it, even when it was completed. They gave me a DVD, which I didn’t watch.

So you don’t like looking at footage of yourself?

No. Or reading, or listening to records. The thing is: if you’ve made a record, or done a show, it’s done. There’s nothing you can do about it. So I just like to leave it there, for the universe to either ignore or applaud. I don’t wanna know.

Anyway, when the film was premiered – as we say in the business – in the National Film Theatre in London, of course I had to go and watch it then. You drink champagne, and you take your place. So I’m watching it through my fingers. I was sitting next to my son, and there’s all this stuff from before he was born. And it was the first time I’d ever actually seen Dr Feelgood. And I’m looking, and I’m thinking: pretty good! And I’m digging my boy in the ribs. I’m going: go on, get a load of that. I think it’s an excellent film. I’m very, very chuffed with what he’s done.

 Has the film led to renewed interest in your work?

Certainly it was one of Julian Temple’s motivations. He felt that Dr Feelgood had been rather airbrushed out of history, and he wanted to reassert them. So, for instance, I’m finding a lot of younger people are coming to see the gigs now. And I go down Tesco’s, and people are going “Look, there’s Wilko Johnson! Can I take a picture of you with my telephone?” There was one young lad, a shelf stacker. He says “Oh wow, man!”, and he’s shouting out across the store, “Get me a felt tip! I want to get an autograph!” So I creep into Tesco’s now.

I always thought that Dr Feelgood’s legacy had been a bit overlooked, especially in terms of how it helped to inspire the British punk movement. Everyone will talk about Iggy and the Stooges and the New York Dolls, but people never used to talk about the Feelgoods. Did the British punk forefathers acknowledge your influence?

Well, they did. I’d started to hear about these bands, and then it wasn’t long after that that Dr Feelgood exploded – or imploded, or whatever it did – and I was out of the band. And I was thinking, oh man, I wonder what all these new bands think about me? Do they relegate me to the dinosaurs that they are attacking?

But then I started to meet people. I shared a flat with Jean-Jacques Burnel from The Stranglers. Then I was walking in Oxford Street just after the bust-up had become public, in the rain, with my little boy on my shoulders. Suddenly, Joe Strummer comes running up. He goes to me, “You don’t know who I am.” I says, “Yes, I know who you are; I’ve seen you in the papers, man.” He says, “Well, what’s going to happen, what are you doing?” I says, “I don’t know.”

And so I got to meet him, and also the Pistols, and all these people, and I found out that actually, they all rather dug Dr Feelgood. The year before they’d all got going was the year that we were playing in London a lot, and I think most of them had seen us. I think what the punks took from Dr Feelgood was the energy.

In fact, with this flat I had, I used to have half of them sleeping on my floor. I’d get up in the morning, and I’d be tripping over Billy Idol. So I think it’s fair to say that we were quite a big influence on that whole thing.

You were back in touch with The Stranglers earlier this year, as you supported them on tour. How did that go?

It was great, because I’m old friends with Jean-Jacques. Last year, Oil City Confidential won the Mojo award, for being a brilliant film. I went with Julian to receive this accolade, and Jean-Jacques was presenting it. We hadn’t seen each other for about twenty years, so everyone was slobbering over each other. Shortly after that, he invited us to support them, and we were saying, why haven’t we done this before?

The shows went great; they were all sold out, and I think we put on a very enjoyable show. The Stranglers! DUR DUR DUR… (sings the riff from Peaches)

People normally describe your music as rhythm and blues, but today’s R&B stands for something very different. Do the Beyonces of this world have any right to call themselves R&B?

Actually yes, they do. R&B was really an American term for black music. It bounced over to England, with the Rolling Stones and all that, and that’s what we’re doing: it’s rhythm and blues. I started realising a long time ago that this term was a bit nebulous. What do I call my music? I call it beat music. I’m a beatster.

How musically open-minded are you? Is blues your first and foremost love, or do your listening habits range far and wide?

I’m no different from most old folks. I know nothing about anything that’s happened in the last twenty-five years. And being a rhythm and blues person, when I was a teenager: what a snob! It’s got to come from Chicago, or it’s no good. It’s like: how many rhythm and blues fans does it take to change a light bulb? It’s ten: one to change the light bulb, and nine to say it ain’t as good as the original. That would sum me up, in a way. I’m probably still a bit of a snob.

I think we’re all welded to the music of the time we were growing up.

Yes, and you can’t do anything about it. Every now and then, I might see or hear somebody that’s new to me, and it brings you up with a start. But generally speaking, I think you stick in your comfort zone, don’t you? Three chords and twelve bars does it for me.

What is it about the blues that has led to this lifetime love affair with the genre?

I don’t know. Like most Sixties people, I first started hearing it because of the Rolling Stones. When the Stones came out, it was just so exciting. At school, we all started growing our hair long. And then you think: what is this music that they’re playing? Then you start checking it out, and you start to hear the music from Chicago: Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, right through to Bo Diddley. It was just so powerful, and it made the kind of pop music that I’d heard before seem a bit trivial. I remember thinking: wow, this is the thing for me. And that was it. It knocked me out then, and it still does now. I’ll put on some Howling Wolf, and it will give me a tingle.

Like most old folks, I got into my own kind of bubble back then, and I still exist in it. For pure kicks, I’m going to play a record from a long time ago. It’s wrong of me, probably, but I don’t go searching out the latest sensation. But I’m sure they’re very splendid. Good luck to them!

You went through a bit of a hippy phase in your younger days. You did the Katmandu trail, for instance. Do you retain any residual hippy values?

I can still do a full Lotus, actually. I’m sitting on the carpet. Ooh… aah… yes, that’s it! Silly old fool.

That was a good scene. Oh man, I’ve got some beautiful memories of Afghanistan: the country, and the people there. And it’s just been so tragic, to see the way that country has been brutalised. Those people are really friendly, and they dig you, and I think it’s going to be a long time before an Englishman can go to Afghanistan and get a friendly reception. It’s a tragedy.

I guess you’re getting to that stage when people start calling you “one of the great survivors”. What would the Wilko Johnson of his twenties have made of the Wilko Johnson in his sixties? Would he be surprised at how things had turned out?

Absolutely. I’m playing in this local band for a couple of years, and then it starts happening. And of course you think: wow, this is great. I was twenty-five or something, and I’m thinking: yeah, this will be good for four or five years. I’ll have a good time, make a lot of money. If somebody had said to you: actually, you’re going to be doing it when you’re sixty-four, you would have laughed in their face.

But then again, if somebody said: one day, Bob Dylan’s going to be seventy… that still doesn’t sound right to me.

See also: my Dr Feelgood feature for The Guardian, January 2010.

Lonely Heart Club EP – Nina Smith

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on October 2, 2011

Written for LeftLion magazine.

Already well-regarded on the city scene, Nina Smith has gone from strength to strength this year, making her one of our most hotly tipped acts.  A graduate of Trevor Rose’s CRS studio in St. Ann’s, where she learnt her craft adding guest vocals to hip hop tracks, Nina has developed her own style of delicate, vulnerable, yet subtly assertive acoustic pop, whose roots in urban music can still be faintly discerned.

On this, her debut EP, a beat-free, wordlessly improvised introduction segues into the title track, in which Nina hesitantly contemplates the prospect of a new relationship.  (“I think I’m falling in love and I want to just fight it – should I take or embrace or deny it?”)  These doubts are confirmed in Sexy Surprise, which has Nina helplessly observing her lover falling for someone new.  “Can you let me in?” she pleas, already aware that the game is lost.  “Oh, what a surprise”, she shrugs, shoring herself up by slyly mocking his new infatuation.

Then, the killer track: I Won’t Forget You is a deceptively simple love song on the surface, whose superb video (also included on the CD, along with an “on the road” documentary) subverts its meaning, suggesting darker undercurrents which are never fully explained.  Lastly, on The Truth, Nina strives to resolve these uncertainties, this time addressing the listener directly.  Her final words are inconclusive: “Please don’t make me tell you it’s OK, because I don’t know.”  Ultimately, perhaps the only certainty here is Nina’s remarkable talent.

Nottingham Post interviewbuy the EP on iTuneslisten on Spotify

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Sparks EP – The Money.

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on October 2, 2011

Written for LeftLion magazine.

Giving the lie to the usual assumptions about “battle of the bands” contests, The Money’s success at this year’s Future Sound of Nottingham has given their profile a massive boost, turning them from unsigned unknowns to one of the city’s most talked about acts.  Opening the main stage at Splendour in July, they scaled up a treat: radiating confidence and authority, and looking and sounding like seasoned festival regulars.

But then they’re hardly short on experience, having served their apprenticeship playing covers in Greek holiday resorts: three sets a night, five nights a week, in time-honoured “Beatles in Hamburg” fashion.  It’s not the coolest of ascendancies, to be sure – but to dismiss The Money for lacking indie cred is to miss the point entirely.

Although firmly rooted in a classic pop/rock tradition – choppy riffs, hooky tunes, soaring harmonies, anthemic choruses – the band have transcended their influences and crafted a sound all of their own: instantly familiar, yet impossible to pigeonhole.  Two of the tracks on this EP – Looks Like Rain and Feel Like You Save Me – could have been A-sides in their own right, both deserving to be placed on heavy radio rotation.  And in the latter track, which accrued extra poignancy on the Splendour stage (“come on and give me a lifeline, I think it’s about time, I need to feel like this all of the time”), the band even have their own ready-made “winner’s song”.  Hey, Nottingham: it feels like we saved them.

Buy this EP from iTunes. Listen to it on Spotify.

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