Mike Atkinson

The Guardian gig venue guide: The Bodega, Nottingham

Posted in Bodega, features, The Guardian by Mike A on February 3, 2015

This tiny room with perfect sound and a clued-up crowd has a track record of spotting some of the best up-and-coming bands – including the Strokes, White Stripes, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, Scissor Sisters.

Capacity: 250

Who plays there: The Bodega has a remarkable knack for catching acts before they make it big: the Strokes, White Stripes, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, Scissor Sisters, Bloc Party, the Libertines, MGMT, the National, Mumford & Sons, Snow Patrol and Haim, Clean Bandit and the 1975 have all played here. The run-up to Christmas this year brings Eagulls, Circa Waves, Thurston Moore, Marika Hackman and many more. There are several shows a week.

Continue reading this article at The Guardian.

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Indiana – Nottingham Bodega, Wednesday February 5

Posted in Bodega, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on February 6, 2014

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

For her sold out homecoming show at The Bodega, rescheduled from December due to illness, Indiana brought out a brand new band, making their début performance. Unlike the previous bunch of London-based hired hands, this new line-up hails from Nottingham: Tim on guitar, Ed on drums, Angelo on keyboards and occasional bass. Markedly younger than their predecessors, but every bit as able, they brought fresh vigour and commitment, adding new colours to familiar tunes.

There was something different about Indiana, too. Following the birth of her second child, she recently spent time recording in Los Angeles, and some of that Californian sophistication must have followed her home. Elegant in sleeveless black, she merged rock-chick cool with Hollywood gloss, looking every inch the rising star.

Multi-tracked vocal samples preceded her entrance, as the band established the mood: taut, coiled, menacing, lacing icy synth-pop with a grinding alt-rock crunch. An unreleased track, Never Born, opened the eight-song set, introducing Indiana at her most threatening (“I’m gonna make you wish you were never born”) and defiant (“I will rise up, I will rise up”).

First performed on the same stage 18 months earlier, as a stark piano ballad, Smoking Gun has evolved into a dense, passionate drama, building from wounded vulnerability into steely, vengeful fury. Animal’s sub-bass throbs darkened the mood further, before the synths took over completely on New Heart, pulsing steadily through the track.

A new song, Shadow Flash, showcased the skills of the band to superb effect, with the most sonically adventurous arrangement of the night: a thrilling blend of eerie chirrups, unsettling shouts, metallic whirrs and deep dub tones, augmented by extra percussion and synth brass.

The main set ended with Solo Dancing, the next single, premiered by Radio One’s Zane Lowe a night earlier, and praised by the influential Popjustice website as “something very special indeed”. Notably more uptempo than anything else that Indiana has recorded, this could well turn out to be her breakthrough track.

For the encore, Indiana took things back to basics with an unadorned Blind As I Am, holding the room in rapt silence with an astonishing acapella finish. Recent single Mess Around closed the show in fine style, leaving the singer beaming with exhausted relief; despite struggling with a non-functioning earpiece, she had overcome the obstacle like a true pro.

Clocking in at a mere 37 minutes, the set did feel somewhat foreshortened – it would have been good to hear last year’s single Bound, for instance – and between the songs, Indiana’s stage patter could also benefit from some more polish, if she is to connect with crowds away from her home town. That aside, all the other elements – the songs, the arrangements, the presentation, and above all, that towering vocal talent – are fully in place, ready for this local girl to step up to the next level nationally.

Set list: Never Born, Smoking Gun, Animal, New Heart, Shadow Flash, Solo Dancing, Blind As I Am, Mess Around.

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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.

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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Spotlight Kid – Bodega Social Club / Grey Hairs – Nottingham Contemporary, Friday October 26

Posted in Bodega, gigs, Nottingham Contemporary, Nottingham Post by Mike A on November 12, 2012

The last time that Nottingham’s neo-shoegazers Spotlight Kid played the Bodega, just over a year ago, a friend and I agreed that they sounded like fifty thousand bees trapped in a wind tunnel, but – and this is the crucial bit – all flying in the same direction.

A year later, with a deluxe edition of their Disaster Tourist album ready for release and a clutch of new tracks ready to debut, they brought their buzzing, triple-guitar squall back to town, in front of a warmly appreciative crowd that contained many of their fellow musicians; members of Amusement Parks On Fire, Swimming, Grey Hairs and We Show Up On Radar were all in attendance.

“More guitars!” someone shouted after Budge Up, the opening track. “Did someone say MORE guitars?” exclaimed singer Katty Heath, in amused bafflement. But if truth be told, this was a slightly more mellow and restrained show, which highlighted Katty’s sweet, classic pop melodies, shaping the noise into song-like form. So, perhaps just twenty thousand bees this time around – which is still an awful lot of bees.

After the show, the band and much of their audience made their way down to Nottingham Contemporary, to catch Grey Hairs performing for free in the café bar. Although strictly speaking a side project – the four players are all members of other more established bands, such as Kogumaza and Fists – Grey Hairs are beginning to make a name for themselves in their own right.

No less powerful than Spotlight Kid, but in an altogether different way, the Grey Hairs sound is punchy, brutal and primitive, making them worthy successors to the likes of The Pixies and The Breeders. They can play dumb at times – one song in particular was driven by a single chord for the first couple of minutes, which made the eventual appearance of a second chord feel like the most exciting thing in the world – but the dumbness couldn’t mask the band’s underlying precision and skill.

Two amazing bands in two great venues, on the same night?  This city’s on fire right now.

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Hyphen Hyphen, Moseek, The Lawyers – Nottingham Bodega Social Club, Tuesday September 11

Posted in Bodega, gigs, LeftLion by Mike A on September 24, 2012

(originally written for LeftLion)

There was a uniquely international feel to the Bodega on Tuesday night, as participants of the World Events Young Artists festival packed into the upstairs space for a free gig, staged as part of World Music Village night.

Indeed, you had to search hard to find any familiar city faces at all – but with such a wealth of events for us to choose from, including three simultaneous free gigs within five minutes’ walk of the venue, it was scarcely surprising that townies were so thin on the ground.

That said, perhaps it was a good job that few of us were on hand to witness the opening act: four clean-cut Spanish law students, whose uninspiring choice of name – The Lawyers, what else? – was matched by the plodding timidity of their performance. Quite how they came to be chosen as ambassadors for Spanish indie-rock is anyone’s guess; if they had entered this year’s Future Sound of Nottingham, they wouldn’t even have made it past the first round.

Mercifully, this was one of those bills where each act was at least ten times as good as its predecessor – which is not to damn Moseek with faint praise, as the Italian three-piece delivered a sparky, energising set, salvaging the night in an instant. Led by corkscrew-haired, permanently smiling Elisa Pucci (lead vocals, guitar and songwriting), and underpinned by the lofty, dreadlocked Fabio Brignone on bass, the players displayed an easy, natural rapport, and a relaxed good cheer which spread throughout the room.

The arrival of headliners Hyphen Hyphen, an electro-rock act from Nice, signalled another quantum leap upwards in every respect. Their bodies daubed in day-glo warpaint, the two glittery girls (Santa on vocals, Line on bass) and the two bare-chested boys (Puss on guitar, Zac on drums) gave it all they had, storming the stage with devilish glee.

Stylistically, they bore immediate comparison with Late of the Pier – indeed, the much-missed Donington lads are officially credited as an influence on their Facebook page – and fans of Yunioshi, Swimming and Navajo Youth would also have found plenty to enjoy here.

Material from their two EPs – Wild Union and the brilliantly titled Chewbacca I’m Your Mother – dominated the set, and Santa in particular established herself as a forceful, fearless presence, whether ordering us all to drop to our knees, or skipping right to the back of the room, mid-song, in order to reward her sound engineer with a kiss. This was Hyphen Hyphen’s first Nottingham show; let’s hope that it wasn’t their last.

Charlotte Church – Nottingham Bodega Social Club, Friday August 17

Posted in Bodega, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on September 5, 2012

(originally written for the Nottingham Post)

In her fifteen years as a performer, 26 year-old Charlotte Church has never before toured the UK. Now that the moment has finally arrived, she has confounded all expectations, booking a series of low-key dates in small, indie-rock-type venues at the quietest time of the year, in order to unveil a brand new musical direction. “I feel like I’m starting again and building from the bottom up”, she has said. Posters for the gig, which have been few and far between, show the singer’s mouth knitted shut with string. It’s all a far cry from the TV chat show days, and the chirpy pop of hits such as “Crazy Chick”.

Fans from the “voice of an angel” days seemed in short supply on Friday night. Instead, the respectably full (if far from capacity) house looked to be made up of curious-minded Bodega regulars, ready to give the girl a fair hearing, and a fair smattering of industry types (the guest list was sizeable).

Frizzy of mane (it’s platinum blonde these days) and devoid of finger jewellery, Charlotte made an unassuming entrance, positioning herself in front of a laptop and an array of knobs and pedals, then crouching to the floor as she began to sing. Wow, this was different. Had she turned herself into some sort of histrionic indie diva? Would there be wails and sobs? Would there be rolling on the floor and foaming at the mouth?

Not a bit of it. As was eventually explained, Charlotte is still a little awkward around technology, and the crouching was basically to ensure that she was pressing the right pedals. In this respect, luck wasn’t always on her side. A later attempt at live-looping her voice into a multi-part choir quickly stalled, prompting a giggle and a rude word. “Have I deleted it, or have I pressed stop?” she asked her band: four standard-issue indie blokes, who played very well, but who were never introduced.

No such glitches marred the vocals, though. It was odd to hear the celebrated Church pipes wrapping themselves round the all-new, self-penned, as yet unreleased material, which leant towards the more dramatic end of the indie-rock spectrum, without leaping too far into the leftfield. (Easy comparisons should be resisted, but it’s a fair bet that Charlotte has a few Florence and the Machine tunes on her iPod.) They aren’t the catchiest of songs, and the stridency of the vocals sometimes sat strangely against the backing band, working slightly at odds with the arrangements.

This felt entirely deliberate, and it was a bold move for a singer who is still in the process of re-inventing her performance style. For in contrast to her brash public persona, Charlotte seemed somewhat hesitant at times, cautiously feeling her way into her new role, and sometimes singing as much to herself as to her audience.

Lyrics were hard to make out, but some songs had unmistakeable messages. Judge From Afar was inspired by nasty online comments, posted under a nasty newspaper article. Beautiful Wreck offered “a cynical view of the mainstream music industry”. Another song was written after Charlotte’s appearance at the Leveson inquiry into press standards; it was sarcastically dedicated to Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail.

As Charlotte explained to me after the show, a series of EPs are planned, starting from next month, with videos to accompany each song. Both offstage and on, there was no mistaking her commitment to the project, the disarming honesty which she brought to bear in her performance, and the sheer bravery of making such a risky public move. If the shows never scale up to larger venues, you sense that she would barely be bothered – because, although still far from perfect, this just doesn’t feel like a vanity project from a pampered star, indulging her latest whim. Indeed, there didn’t seem to be any vanity on display at all – and even for that alone, Charlotte deserves full respect.

Saint Raymond, Indiana, Michael Lynch – Bodega Social Club, Wednesday July 4.

Posted in Bodega, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on July 6, 2012

(originally published in the Nottingham Post)

The third of five “Road To Splendour” nights at the Bodega commenced with Michael Lynch, an acoustic soul singer-songwriter who recently reached the Future Sound of Nottingham semi-finals. Although audience numbers were disappointingly thin, he held his nerve and acquitted himself admirably.

Indiana made her debut live performance at the same semi-finals, just over two months ago, in the middle of the market square. It was a very public baptism of fire, which turned her overnight into one of Nottingham’s most hotly tipped acts. Now signed to a major international management company, she has swapped her day job for a full time musical career, and is wasting no time in building upon her good fortune.

As the buzz around her continues to build, fast-tracking her development with dizzying speed, Indiana has been obliged to do most of her growing up in public. But although her set might still only be five songs long, her remarkable, instinctive, self-taught talent shines through.

Accompanied by Ollie Green on keyboards, Indiana opened with her haunting re-working of Gabriel, better known in its dance version by Hot Chip’s Joe Goddard. Two of her own compositions (Erase and Blind As I Am) were followed by an equally startling cover of Frank Ocean’s Swim Good.

Indiana’s set concluded with a brand new song, whose glinting-eyed vengefulness (“I’m in possession of a smoking gun, and I want to hurt you just for fun”) showed a side of her which we hadn’t seen before, suggesting a sizeable emotional reservoir that she has only just started to tap.

The already busy Bodega grew busier still for headliner Callum Burrows, who continues to perform as Saint Raymond, despite its contraction from a duo to a solo act. Perhaps he’s retaining the option of expanding it into a band one day – but for now, the 17-year old is more than capable of holding his own, alone on stage with his acoustic guitar and his impressive collection of songs.

There’s currently a wealth of teenage musical talent in the city, spearheaded by the likes of Jake Bugg, Kappa Gamma and Kagoule, and it’s heartening to see how much progress can be made at such a young age. Callum has developed a lot of confidence over the past year, so much so that he is already on the verge of ditching some of the songs that first made his name.

Thankfully, old favourite She Said No was given possibly its final airing (“for old time’s sake – you’ll probably know the words better than me”), before the equally popular Bonfire closed the set. Roars of approval from new fans, hardened music scene regulars, supportive classmates and beaming relatives brought Callum back for an encore. “I have no idea what I’m about to play”, he grinned, before launching into a cheery romp through Rihanna’s What’s My Name. Next stop: Splendour. And after that, who knows?

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Natalie Duncan, Nottingham Bodega Social Club, Wednesday June 28

Posted in Bodega, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on June 29, 2012

(originally published in the Nottingham Post)

She might have moved to London, but Natalie Duncan still feels like “one of ours”. Less than a month before the release of her debut album, Devil In Me, she has returned to Nottingham for a short season of shows, giving us a chance to preview the songs and re-acquaint ourselves with her extraordinary talent.

The sixty-minute set began with one of its boldest strokes. The opening lines of the album’s title track (“Sometimes I feel you looking for the devil in me, like I’m a dying dog and I’m begging for your bones”) were delivered unaccompanied, holding us captive and chilling the air.

Switching from raw vocals to elegant, stately keyboards, Natalie briefly calmed the mood, before opening the song up to her four piece band. These included a guitarist in a Miles Davis t-shirt, a glockenspiel player called Hattie, and a drummer called Hendrix. Other, more internationally distinguished players appear on the album, brought in by its Grammy-winning producer, but the young touring outfit did the recorded arrangements full justice.

Although her lyrics don’t exactly shy away from stark soul-baring, Natalie’s songwriting explores other avenues also. Some songs are addressed to friends, such as the spellbinding Flower, which offers touching words of tribute and support. Other songs observe the world around her: Old Rock was inspired by a drunk in a city pub, and Pick Me Up Bar is a caustic commentary on society’s false quick fixes.

The band left the stage for two solo numbers, neither of which appear on the album, and another unrecorded song (I Became So Sweet) closed the show in fine style, hinting at a songwriting stockpile which has barely been mined. Headline sets at Nottingham Contemporary (July 6th) and on Splendour’s Courtyard stage (July 21st) will follow; neither should be ignored.

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Kappa Gamma & Kagoule – Nottingham Bodega Social Club, Wednesday June 20

Posted in Bodega, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on June 22, 2012

(originally published in the Nottingham Post)

In order to showcase some of the Nottingham acts that will be appearing at the Splendour festival on July 21st, the Bodega has embarked on a series of five “Road To Splendour” nights. Ahead of shows from Natalie Duncan, Saint Raymond, The Barnum Meserve and Opie Deino, the season commenced with two young bands who first shared a stage at Rock City in December, supporting Dog Is Dead. 

Teenage trio Kagoule have been steadily building their reputation over the past few months, and it would be a surprise if they remained unsigned for much longer. Musically, they have a knack of balancing light and dark, interspersing grinding, power-chord driven, grunge-derived workouts with delicate, reflective melodic sections. The contrast could be startling at times; when the shimmeringly lovely Made Of Concrete lurched into the brutal Battle Howl, it was hard to believe you were still watching the same band. Meanwhile, the three performers negotiated these switches with calm purposefulness, displaying an unshowy intensity that draws you right into their world. 

Headliners Kappa Gamma opted for a different approach, with a relaxed onstage manner that made light of their considerable technical prowess. A single is due out in August on Nottingham’s Denizen Recordings label, and exclusive advance copies were available at the merch stand. Both tracks got an airing: the plaintive Just Another, whose inventive twists and turns are lashed together with a sturdy refrain (“you control it”), and the more expansive but equally unpredictable Wildfire, which couples Dog Is Dead-style chorals with intricate math-rock instrumentation. Sandwiched between them was a brand new track, only completed a day earlier, whose ambitious, episodic scope suggested that Kappa Gamma have only just begun to untap their full potential.

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Ronika, Harleighblu, Nina Smith – Nottingham Bodega, Friday March 23

Posted in Bodega, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on March 26, 2012

(originally published in the Nottingham Post)

Three of Nottingham’s finest female talents took over the Bodega on Friday night, demonstrating once again that this is an exceptionally fertile time for the city’s steadily rising music scene.

First on the bill was singer-songwriter Nina Smith, accompanied by ace beatboxer Alex “MotorMouf” Young. Jettisoning the four songs on last year’s Lonely Heart Club EP  in favour of unreleased tracks and a couple of covers (Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy and Leona Lewis’s Bleeding Love), Nina charmed us with her frail yet assertive brand of acoustic R&B-tinged pop, while Motormouf beefed up – and occasionally subverted – the arrangements. This was a relaxed, easy-going performance in front of a supportive home crowd, punctuated by quips and giggles, and all the more delightful for it.

Instead of trying to squeeze her vast band onto the Bodega’s compact stage, Harleighblu opted for stripped-down simplicity, appearing with just a backing singer and a keyboardist-slash-guitarist. This bare-bones approach allowed us to focus all of our attention on her smouldering, soulful vocals, which draw inspiration from the neo-soul of Jill Scott and Erykah Badu, as well as the classic stylings of Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald. Wreathed in smiles, and displaying an impressive vocal maturity for her years, the 19-year old’s sheer love of performing radiated from the stage. Her recording debut is promised for later in the year, and its release date can’t come soon enough.

Looking every inch the pop star in shades, denim cut-offs and shredded black leggings, Ronika commanded the stage from the moment she made her entrance. Having made significant waves nationally, this was a long-awaited homecoming for our so-called “Madonna of the Midlands”, who brought glamour and guts to her Eighties-influenced, yet fully contemporary brand of glittering dance-pop.

Opening with Wiyoo from her second EP and In The City from its follow-up, Ronika introduced her forthcoming single Automatic halfway through the set. It’s a chunky, funky “summer jam”, based on a sampled riff from a 1982 Odyssey track, played by none other than Chic’s Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers (who was quick to tweet his approval: “pretty dope”). As Ronika and Rodgers are both scheduled to perform at London’s Lovebox festival in June, would an onstage collaboration be too much to ask for?

The set finished with two storming tracks from the forthcoming album: the ridiculously catchy One Thousand Nights – surely a future hit single – and the crunchy, rock-tinged Sister Mary. The album doesn’t yet have a release date, but Automatic is due out on April 9th, and Ronika will be back with us for the Splendour festival in July, sharing the bill with Dizzee Rascal, Razorlight and Katy B. Her future’s looking so bright, that it’s no wonder she’s wearing shades.

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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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Avi Buffalo, Admiral Fallow – Nottingham Bodega, Wednesday July 14.

Posted in Bodega, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on July 14, 2011

Following a well-received headline appearance in March, Admiral Fallow returned to The Bodega as a support act, filling the venue at an early hour.  Fronted by the wryly lugubrious and magnificently bearded Louis Abbott, the Glasgow-based six-piece delivered an elegant, musicianly set, characterised by Abbott’s poetic, autobiographical lyrics and augmented by deft touches of clarinet and flute.  Tipped by Guy Garvey and Fyfe Dangerfield, and with a renewed buzz building around their re-released debut album Boots Met My Face, the band made good on their promise, setting happy expectations for the headliners.

This time last year, Avi Zahner-Isenberg was an endearingly goofy 19-year old with an exceptional talent, who charmed all who witnessed him on his band’s summer tour of the UK.  Now enrolled at college in his native Long Beach, California, Avi has returned with a revised line-up, with only drummer Sheridan Riley remaining from the original band. 

For the first few minutes of the set, we were left wondering whether there had been a fresh schism in the ranks.  With no sign of Sheridan or new bassist Barbara, Avi and his guitarist George spluttered into action, sounding more as if they were concluding a soundcheck rather than starting a performance.  George drummed while Avi sung – or rather yelped – an unpleasant couple of numbers, stuffed with strong language and gross sexual details, which could almost have been made up on the spot. 

Barbara and Sheridan eventually emerged, and some semblance of order began to prevail – but this was fatally undermined by Avi’s rambling asides and general inability to lead his band.  Avi was looking forward to visiting Amsterdam, we were told, as he was planning to make full use of the city’s unique network of coffee shops.  Given his shambling demeanour and lame attempts at wacky humour – most notably an attempt to convince us that his girlfriend had just been diagnosed as HIV positive (“Haha, I’m joking, there’s no AIDS!”) – it was tempting to speculate that he was already in an advanced state of herbal refreshment.

Flashes of the old brilliance occasionally surfaced, but the band never gelled as a unit, and Avi’s florid guitar runs weren’t enough to compensate.  Applause was muted, and a few walked out.  It was a pale shadow of last year’s glories, and a troubling display of squandered talent from someone who, rather than ascending into adulthood, seemed more intent on regressing into adolescence.

THePETEBOX, Nina Smith, Captain Dangerous – Nottingham Bodega, Thursday July 7

Posted in Bodega, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on July 8, 2011

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

There’s a new sense of confidence and purpose in the Nottingham music scene, with several local acts – Liam Bailey, Ronika, Dog Is Dead – being widely tipped to break through on a national level.  All over town, games are being raised, as the shackles of cosy underachievement are lifted at long last.  This new mood of optimism was reflected on Thursday night at the Bodega, as three impressive Nottingham acts took to the stage.

Captain Dangerous are a six-piece outfit, with a two-piece fiddle section in their ranks.  They’re rowdy, rambunctious and heaps of fun, with a front man (Adam Clarkson) who wasn’t afraid to scale the speaker stacks – even if he did need help to clamber cautiously back down again.  Free copies of the new single (Forgive Us We’re British) were made available at the front of the stage, and a polite feeding frenzy ensued.

Although visibly nervous in front of her home crowd, Nina Smith and her trio of backing musicians (“my boy band”) delivered a charming, understated set.  Nina’s songs combine emotional vulnerability with an unexpected streak of sexual assertiveness, and she performed them with a frail but focused sincerity.

Pete Sampson – better known as THePETEBOX, at least when he’s not drumming with the hotly tipped Swimming – was on the last night of a short UK tour, and playing his first full gig in the city for about three years.  Visibly touched by the warm support of the near-capacity crowd, he wondered aloud why it had taken him so long to return.

Having made his name as a straight-up beatboxer of the old school, Pete has progressively widened his range, adding guitar, live looping and full vocals to his box of tricks.  There’s an album in the pipeline, which will feature his own compositions: proper songs, which have allowed him to develop his craft well beyond the usual showy gimmickry.  Indie rock influences have also come to the forefront, as evidenced by his choice of covers:  Crystal Castles’ Crimewave, Nirvana’s Lithium, MGMT’s Kids, and even a Pixies track, Where Is My Mind.

As the looped layers of sound built up around him, it was hard to believe that just one man was creating all this music on the spot, without recourse to pre-recorded samples.  The crowd danced, Pete smiled and swigged from a vodka bottle, and the healthy state of music in this city was ably and convincingly showcased.

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The Rural Alberta Advantage – Nottingham Bodega Social Club, Tuesday May 25

Posted in Bodega, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on May 25, 2011

Halfway through The Rural Alberta Advantage’s opening number – a raucous, clattering affair – there’s a pause in the music.  In the space before his next line, singer/guitarist Nils Edenloff looks heavenwards, them emits a deep sigh.  “I’ve played this song so many times”, he explains. “So… MANY… times!” 

And then we’re off and away again.  Edenloff’s sandpaper rasp claws its way above drummer Paul Banwatt’s tumultuous squall, while their gamine backing vocalist Amy Cole – shoeless, in laddered tights which spell either thrift-store chic or end-of-tour fatigue – picks out one-note melodies on her rickety keyboard.  This sets the template for the rest of the set, which is notably more muscular in tone than the band’s rather wan new album, Departing.

Like White Denim and The Dodos before them, the trio’s sound is dominated – and at times, almost overwhelmed – by the rare accomplishment and sheer force of their drummer.  Mostly reined in on record, Banwatt comes alive on stage, pummelling his basic kit with blazing-eyed glee.

They’ve all been to Nottingham before; not to play music, just to grab a bite in a “grill house” that turned out to be a kebab shop.  Undeterred by the brawl which broke out as they chowed down, they seized the opportunity for a proper return visit.

It’s the last date on their UK tour, and Nils is delighted with the turnout.  Jaded no longer, he even risks a rare, semi-apologetic outing for an early cover, dating from the band’s origins at open mic nights in Toronto.  It takes a moment or two for us to recognise Survivor’s Eye Of The Tiger, whose opening lines could almost pass for Neil Young.  “Maybe it was once written like this”, Nils suggests.

As for the self-penned material, there’s a recurring theme of obsessive love.  “If I ever hold you again, I’ll hold you tight enough to crush your veins”, Nils offers on Two Lovers.  More touchingly, there’s In The Summertime: “Once in a while I know our hearts beat out of time, and once in a while I know they’ll fall back in line.”  And finally, encored unmiked from the middle of the floor as the crowd clusters round, there’s the tender kiss-off that closes Departing: “Maybe we might get back together, but good night – good night.”

Jonny – Nottingham Bodega, Thursday February 10.

Posted in Bodega, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on March 3, 2011

Given that they couldn’t even remember the release date of their debut album, it’s fair to say that Jonny – a side-project comprising Scotsman Norman Blake (Teenage Fanclub) and Welshman Euros Childs (formerly of Gorkys Zygotic Mynci) – are an act with nothing to prove. And given the number of false starts and mid-song cock-ups that peppered their set, it was clear that neither performer was taking the venture too seriously.

The stumbles – most of which were related to Euros’s inability to set the right tempo on his drum machine – were shrugged off with easy-going humour, and the duo’s relaxed geniality and unforced charm characterised the whole show.

Blending Blake’s lyrical romanticism with Childs’ wide-eyed whimsy, Jonny’s songs are light, tuneful, cheerful, and steeped in pop tradition. The quaintly old-fashioned lyrics stem from a more innocent time: when girlfriends were addressed as “ladies”, when lovers sent each other letters, when music fans accumulated “videos and tapes” that would “never be erased”, and when it was deemed perfectly acceptable to write tender odes to the simple joys of bread and butter.

Seven dates into the tour, album track Circling The Sun was given its debut performance. “We’ve sung it before”, explained Euros, “and we’ve played it instrumentally before, but we’ve never sung it and played it at the same time.” And yes, it showed – but then again, it scarcely mattered.

Avi Buffalo – Nottingham Bodega, Tuesday August 31.

Posted in Bodega, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on September 2, 2010

For such a youthful band, Avi Buffalo draw a remarkably mature audience. Not that this seemed particularly apparent to the players: “Is this a college town?” asked 19 year-old band leader Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg towards the end of the set, seemingly oblivious to the fact that many of us were over twice his age.

For some of the older punters, perhaps it was the band’s label – Sub Pop, still best known for signing Nirvana and breaking the Seattle grunge sound – that first piqued their curiosity. However, the Californian trio’s influences stretch back even further, suggesting a familiarity with Sixties West Coast psychedelia and folk-rock, filtered through the likes of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, and bearing occasional traces of Seventies prog.

Following the recent departure of keyboardist Rebecca Coleman, whose relationship with Zahner-Isenberg (better known to his friends as “Avi”) reportedly inspired much of the band’s self-titled debut album, there has been a certain toughening up of Avi Buffalo’s sound. Played live, their songs had a habit of starting gently, before building to intense instrumental codas that brought Avi’s fine, fluid and richly inventive guitar playing to the forefront.

Although this could have become self-indulgent, his flights of fancy were kept in check by Arin Fazio’s deceptively undemonstrative bass runs, and by Sheridan Riley’s loose-limbed, contemplative, almost quizzical drumming, which quelled the urge to turn every climax into a showy freakout. On previous nights, perhaps the balance between control and excess had been struck differently – but for their final British date, a sense of easy-going playfulness prevailed.

“We feel like being silly tonight”, explained Avi, flashing us a goofy grin. For his solo encore, a self-proclaimed “work in progress” called Sleep On The Floor with a wholly improvised ending, his free-form guitar experimentations threatened to become very silly indeed – and yet there was still something thrilling and magical about the way that he coaxed such arrestingly new sounds out of such a familiar instrument.

“We like old things that still feel new – like cool grandparents”, he had told us earlier, introducing one of several new songs. Perhaps it was this mix of tradition and innovation that lay at the heart of Avi Buffalo’s appeal.

The Invisible – Nottingham Bodega Social Club, Wednesday March 10.

Posted in Bodega, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on March 11, 2010

Imagine the thrill of having your debut album nominated for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize. Now imagine the disappointment of playing to fewer than thirty people, on the second date of your UK tour, six months after losing out to Speech Debelle (hardly a roaring success in her own right, it has to be said).

To The Invisible’s great credit, the three players – singer/guitarist and jazz-fusion veteran Dave Okumu, bassist/keyboardist Tom Herbert and occasional Hot Chip drummer Leo Taylor – didn’t let the lack of punters stand in the way of putting in a powerful, authoritative performance. Instead, they absorbed the situation with relaxed good humour (“We’re not going to start playing until you all leave the room”), and proceeded to focus on the task in hand, displaying an impressive musical range which spanned from angsty, tense, doom-laden indie-rock to lithe, taut, choppy funk.

So engrossed were the band in the complex, rhythmically overlapping textures of their final number Jacob and the Angel – the sort of music that has you swaying blissfully from side to side, eyes closed, head tilted back – that they remained unfazed by the collapse of a young man at the front of the room. Thankfully he returned for the encore, smiling and seemingly unscathed.

The Invisible are exactly the sort of band that you would expect to be championed on BBC 6Music. If the corporation’s bean-counting bosses make good on their threats and the station is axed, it will become even tougher to find an audience large enough to sustain their career. So if you have stumbled across this review online, and if you are wondering whether to take a punt on one of the other shows on the tour, do both yourself and The Invisible a favour, and lend your support to this admirable and unfairly overlooked band.

The Magic Numbers – Nottingham Bodega Social Club, Monday December 14.

Posted in Bodega, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on December 15, 2009

Just over ten years ago, The Social on Pelham Street hosted its very first gig. Since then, it has played host to many of the outgoing decade’s leading acts, at formative stages of their careers: Coldplay, The Strokes, White Stripes, Scissor Sisters and Bloc Party, to name just a few. Occasionally, it has put on shows from acts that you would normally expect to see in considerably larger venues, who have opted for the very special intimacy that the tiny space provides. Last year, Duffy packed us in like sardines. This spring, Late of the Pier played a riotous homecoming gig, which nearly resulted in the collapse of the speaker system. And last night, having all but disappeared from public view over the past three years, The Magic Numbers played their penultimate date on a tour of deliberately small scale venues, which has given them the opportunity to debut material from their forthcoming album to their most loyal fans.

If the band had maintained the standard set by the opening four numbers, then this would have been one of the standout gigs of the year. They started quietly, with a pair of new songs (Restless River and Sound Of Something) which hit the spot perfectly, showcasing their exquisite playing, tender harmonies and instinctive, unforced rapport. The energy levels built during Take A Chance, then exploded into life with a joyous rendition of their debut hit, Forever Lost.

Just as you thought they had the night in the bag, things started to unravel. Although the sound quality was crystal clear for those in the centre of the room, those towards the bar weren’t feeling so lucky. “Sort it out, Romeo”, someone shouted. Already rattled by the muffled vocals coming through the stage monitors, which meant that they could barely hear their own voices, the players appeared to lose confidence. The smiles became strained. Those beautiful West Coast harmonies started to sound ragged round the edges. The playing became more distracted, and less focussed. The newer numbers began to sound interchangeable.

Goaded by one request too many for Love Me Like You (their biggest hit to date) from a well-meaning but extravagantly drunk contingent in the middle of the crowd, lead singer Romeo Stoddart finally snapped. “Shall we just play it now, to shut you lot up?”, he snarled, frustrated by his desire to focus on the new songs which he felt “so passionate” about unveiling.

Moments later, Romeo was all apologies. The mood lightened, as the marathon set built to its exultant conclusion. During the encore, a Facebook competition winner called Victoria took to the stage, for a delightfully feisty lead vocal on Mornings Eleven from the first album. Her excitement at being on stage proved instantly contagious, squeezing out the last drops of enthusiasm from an audience who had diligently stood through twenty-two songs, over the course of a whopping (and frankly excessive) two hours and ten minutes.

It had been a set of Springsteen-esque dimensions, from a band whose gentle charms had been stretched to the limits by awkward conditions, and whose understated songcraft lacked sufficient drama and variety to sustain the full course. But for all that, it was still great to have to them back.

The Phantom Band – Nottingham Bodega Social Club, Tuesday November 3.

Posted in Bodega, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on November 3, 2009

Two dates into their autumn tour, this Glasgow sextet have been struggling to maintain their line-up. For Monday night’s Leeds gig, the drummer from support band Stop Eject filled in for Damien Tonner, who had been called back to Scotland for a funeral. Although Damien managed to fly back for the Nottingham show, the band was once again missing a member. Guitarist Greg Sinclair’s absence was announced as the result of a “serious psychotic episode”, which had apparently caused him to be admitted to a monastery. In his place, a “phantom” member had been constructed at the foot of the stage, resplendent in the same gold lamé monk’s cowl that was worn by the keyboardist and bassist.

As it transpired, not a word of this was true. Like most of the band, Sinclair holds down a full time day job, and a professional emergency had called him home. With two other guitarists in the band, the gap was seamlessly closed around his absence.

Combining a knack for catchy, riff-driven numbers (The Howling, Folk Song Oblivion) with a more leftfield, experimental approach, The Phantom Band’s playful eclecticism bore comparison with the much missed Beta Band. Their chugging rhythmic steadiness suggested a schooling in Krautrock, whereas on the epic lament Island, distinct highland folk influences rose to the surface. A sparse but attentive audience gave them the respect they deserved.