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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.