Mike Atkinson

Natalie Duncan – Nottingham Contemporary, Saturday October 19

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

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Harleighblu album launch – Nottingham Contemporary, Friday October 18

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

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pentatronix: Sabar Soundsystem featuring Si Tew and Ling Peng / Sura Susso / Haiki Loki – Nottingham Contemporary, Friday June 7

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

Originally written for LeftLion.

Appropriately enough, given Sabar Soundsystem’s roots in African music, the premiere of Pentatronix was preceded by two African performers with Nottingham connections.

Haiki Loki left Ethiopia, her country of birth, at the age of twelve. Once resident in Nottingham, she now lives in London, where she has recorded an album for July release. An elegantly self-possessed performer with a warm, silky vocal style, she fronted a three-piece troupe, holding the audience rapt with her self-penned soul/jazz compositions.

Music as quiet as this can sometimes get lost in large stand-up venues, but Haiki’s subtly commanding presence warded off any such dangers. Stepping forward, she perched on the edge of the stage and sung about leaving her comfort zone, to a stark, bluesy backing that evoked some of the spirit of early Everything But The Girl. A toddler’s gurgle briefly broke the spell. Haiki stooped down and asked her name. “I want you to come to every gig”, she grinned.

Later, during an Amharic song, learnt on an extended visit to the singer’s birthplace, a girl of six or so threw graceful ballet shapes in a corner of the room, lost in her own world. Elsewhere, old Nottingham friends smiled, waved and traded quips with the stage.

This easy-going homecoming mood was challenged by the final song, inspired by George W. Bush’s presidency (“I can see there’s evil in your eyes”), but when rage sounds this seductive, mellow good humour can’t so easily be dented.

Sura Susso plays a Gambian kora, handed down from father to son over many centuries. It’s made from calabash and covered with cowhide, with a long mahogany neck and twenty-two nylon fishing strings. Before beginning his set, Sura demonstrated the essential kora technique. His left thumb strummed the bassline, his right thumb picked out the melody, and his two forefingers added rippling improvisations.

A sound hole, cut from the calabash bowl, doubled as a repository for tips. “Please show your appreciation”, we were urged, smilingly. “It’s usually with money, but there’s no pressure. We take credit cards. You can swipe…”

You wouldn’t think of playing a kora in public, without already being a virtuoso. Schooled in his instrument since childhood, Suro is unquestionably a master player – but more than that, he is a born performer. Kora music can sometimes sound arid and ornamental, but in Suro’s hands, it was given added passion, variety and depth. His playing ran the full gamut, from gentle and reflective to intensely rhythmic and whoop-inducingly frenetic. A first class performance.

Pentatronix is a new collaborative project, in which Mikey Davis’s Sabar Soundsystem – a sizeable percussion troupe, with African drums and bespoke tubular chimes – is augmented by the classical Chinese playing of Ling Peng and the electronic beats, samples and basslines of Si Tew.

The fusion might sound unlikely, but actually it’s logical. The Sabar chimes follow a five-note pentatonic scale, making them ideally suited for Ling’s Chinese melodies, and Si’s background in electronic dance music makes him a natural partner for Sabar’s percussion, which aims to evoke the feel of modern dance music acoustically.

At the front of the stage, surrounded by stacks of kit, Si and Ling forged their own rapport. Ling would conjure up an exquisite melody, on her zither-like guzheng or her bowed, python-skinned erhu, and Si would sample it, treat it and echo it back. Around and behind them, a shifting array of players, led by Mikey Davis and featuring Biant Singh on tabla, pounded seven shades of merry hell out of their combined arsenal. The effect was tumultuous, uplifting and energising. Naturally, dancing became the only valid response.

It wasn’t all perfect. The tablas needed to be mixed higher, especially when their job was to augment a particularly brutal beat. The beautiful-looking guzheng was underused, and removed from the stage too early. There was the occasional moment when the specially commissioned compositions seemed to teeter on the brink of chaos – but the sheer glee of the players, and of the unstoppable Mikey in particular, swiftly put paid to any potential logistical pitfalls.

Arts Council funding brought the Pentatronix project into being, but the troupe are on their own now, seeking to take their show onto the festival circuit. This is the sort of thing that would work brilliantly in the open air, whether in sunlight or moonlight, as all who witnessed it could testify – so let’s hope that this Contemporary show was the first of many more.

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Origamibiro – Nottingham Contemporary, Friday 22 March

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Contemporary, Nottingham Post by Mike A on March 30, 2013

Originally published in the Nottingham Post

There’s more to an Origamibiro performance than mere music. As the Nottingham-based trio told us, their shows are also designed to lay bare the processes behind their work, giving us a glimpse of how it’s all done.  “We bring our studio with us everywhere we go – and we don’t travel light”, Jim Boxall explained, gesturing to the sizeable array of kit around him.

While Tom Hill and Andy Tytherleigh concentrated on the musical elements – a pair of ukuleles, a double bass, an electric guitar that was alternately picked and bowed – Boxall, who prefers to be known as The Joy of Box, took care of the equally important visual elements. With a miniature camcorder in one hand, he manipulated a variety of objects with the other, looping the sounds which they made, and beaming his actions onto the backstage wall.

These looped and layered noises – crinkled camera film, scrunched and torn paper, the hammering of an antique typewriter – gave the band its percussion section. The two musicians used the same techniques, conjuring crackling and shimmering soundscapes from their instruments.

The music’s dreamlike qualities were boosted by video footage that juddered and flickered, never quite settling into full clarity. Sepia-tinted civic dignitaries beamed at us, all dressed up for a long-forgotten function. A waving child emerged in front of smouldering undergrowth. Letters were typed onto blotchy paper, and magnified to the point of abstraction.

“Experimental” is an overused term, but in this case it was justified. Much of the music was being performed for the first time, ahead of recording sessions for the next album, and you could sense the performers feeling their way through uncharted terrain, responding to each other’s ideas as they emerged.

“We wanted to make it as live as possible, which means it’s fallible and risky” said Boxall towards the end of the show. “Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t – but that’s part of the joy, isn’t it?” It certainly was – for to our ears, this experiment was an unqualified success.

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Nottingham Branch Out Festival – Sunday October 28

Posted in Antenna, Broadway, gigs, Malt Cross, Nottingham Contemporary, Nottingham Post, Rock City, Stealth by Mike A on November 12, 2012

Coming at the end of a landmark month for Nottingham music, which has seen three city acts gain national recognition for their talents, and the first ever chart-topping album for a local artist, the Branch Out Festival offered a perfect opportunity to savour and celebrate the rich diversity of the current scene.

Over the course of ten hours, over fifty acts performed at seven different venues, all for free, leaving punters spoilt for choice as they dashed from venue to venue, programmes in hand.

The day began at Nottingham Contemporary, with a mystery “Blackout” performance in The Space. Guides led us – ten at a time, hands on shoulders like a conga line – into total darkness, with strict instructions to leave phones switched off. As no advance notice was given as to the performers, our ears were our only guides.

Eerie electronics morphed into pounding dance beats, which ebbed away into a field recording from a New York subway station. A male voice – John Sampson of Swimming – sung plaintively over a piano backing. A female voice joined in, and gradually took over, her soulful torch songs flowing into each other without a pause. For many of us, the voice was almost instantly recognisable; this was the wonderful Natalie Duncan, stepping away from her regular set list and delving into her massive stockpile of unrecorded songs. There is something very special about listening to such heartfelt music in the dark; it frees up the emotions, allowing for a very direct connection with the artist. A great start to the day.

From 3pm onwards, other venues started to open their doors. Over at Broadway, acoustic singer-songwriters were the order of the day, kicked off by Frankie Rudolf and Joe Danks, and concluded by Hannah Heartshape and Hhymn, the sole band on the line-up.

In the Basement of Rock City, Parks were an early highlight, delivering a crisp set of tuneful indie rock to an appreciative crowd.  Practical Lovers were an altogether darker proposition, with their doomy electro powerfully sung by the vaguely alarming Jack Wiles.

A quick hop around the corner took you to Stealth, and another line-up that focussed mainly on guitar bands. This proved to be the rat-run of choice for rock fans, who could stop off at the Rescue Rooms bar between sets.  Those who enjoyed Boots Booklovers, I Am Lono and Pilgrim Fathers were busily spreading the buzz, while one of this reviewer’s personal highlights of the day came from the brilliantly acerbic Sleaford Mods, whose bitter verses decrying their more fame-hungry fellow artists drew mid-song cheers.  Meanwhile, the upstairs floor of the club played host to a vast line-up of hip hop MCs, including local legends such as Cappo, Jah Digga, 2 Tone and Karizma.

Offering a more relaxed ambience, the Alley Café provided gentle respite from the mayhem. A similarly easy-going vibe prevailed at Antenna, where spectators could dine at their tables while watching the acts, supper-club style. The Antenna programme was hosted by Dean Jackson, from BBC Radio Nottingham’s The Beat, who interviewed each act before they took to the stage. The superb line-up included Gallery 47, back in the game after a long break with a terrific clutch of new material, as well as the hotly tipped Ady Suleiman and Georgie Rose. Later on, Natalie Duncan stepped in for an absent Liam Bailey, followed by the ever-popular Nina Smith and the sublime Harleighblu, who offered tasters from her forthcoming album.

By 7pm, the crowds were peaking at Stealth and Rock City. There was turbo-charged ska from Breadchasers at Rock City, then a quick dash back to Stealth, now jammed to capacity, for two of the most eagerly anticipated sets of the day from teenage indie-rockers Kappa Gamma and Kagoule. It was a joy to witness how quickly both bands are developing. Once rather static on stage, Kappa Gamma are now firing on all cylinders, the players crashing around the stage and hurtling into each other, without ever sacrificing the complex precision of their material. And if you timed it right, you could also have caught a storming Rock City set from Captain Dangerous, a raucous four-piece backed by a string quartet, like an Anglicised version of The Pogues.

On the other side of the Market Square, the Malt Cross did brisk trade throughout the day, with sets including Chris McDonald, Cecille Grey and Will Jeffery. Topping the bill on the mezzanine stage, We Are Avengers delivered a more peppy, sparky and uplifting set than you might have expected from their more downtempo recorded work. They were followed by Injured Birds, premiering cuts from their just released debut album, and showing us just what could be done with a ukulele as lead instrument.

With sizeable turnouts at all the venues, the scale of the festival felt just right – although a shuttle bus wouldn’t have gone amiss, to relieve the strain on our aching soles. Everywhere you went, you ran into friends, eagerly filling you in on the acts you had missed, all sharing in the excellence of the day. Let’s hope that this becomes a regular fixture in years to come.

PHOTO GALLERY by Martyn Boston >>> (more…)

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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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World Event Young Artists: Blackout, Nottingham Contemporary, Wednesday September 12

Posted in gigs, LeftLion, Nottingham Contemporary by Mike A on October 9, 2012

Originally written for LeftLion.

With all coats and bags checked in, and with all phones fully powered down – strictly no exceptions, folks – we were led into The Space in groups of four, through a curtained ante-chamber and into total darkness. We shuffled in with hands on each other’s shoulders, guided by ushers with see-in-the-dark sensors, who plonked each of us at some indeterminable spot in the middle of the never-more-vast floor. Robbed of visibility, we staked our positions with chat, easing the risk of being bumped into by stumbling incomers.

It was strangely disinhibiting, this blackness. I found myself talking to a young British writer, one of WEYA’s 1000 delegates from 100 countries, who had read at Broadway earlier that week. She had once dined at a blackout restaurant in Berlin, staffed by blind waiters, whose aim was to direct their diners’ focus solely towards the food. This was to be an analogous exercise, pitched at ears rather than tongues. Or, as the NME saw fit to put it: “an innovatively synaesthetic descent into a world of music-led sensory possibility.” Or, to put it less pretentiously, we were about to listen to a live music performance in the dark, without having a clue as to who would be performing, or what genre they would be performing in.

As the room filled, the hubbub swelled. I had expected hushed, reverential anticipation, not this giggly babble. And here we hit the first hurdle: as there were no house lights left to dim, and hence no cues that the show was about to start, the players were obliged to wade in over the top of our chatter.

Faced with a more typically reverential audience, who hadn’t been hanging out with each other all week, perhaps the opening notes would have silenced us. Failing that, maybe a more pronounced, more dramatic introductory flourish would have done the trick. But as it was, the unexpectedly low-key start – a solo male vocal, devotionally chanting in an unfamiliar tongue – barely registered in the room. As further voices made their entrance, so the conversation began to ebb, egged on by a good few shushes. (This blackness could be empowering, as well.)

After several austere minutes of unaccompanied chanting, a drum struck up: an unexpected jolt of energy, which drew claps and cheers. Other stringed instruments eventually appeared, as the music built in intensity and tempo, without surrendering its core spirituality. But what was this music? Was it North African, Middle Eastern, Arabic? In what context was it more usually performed? What did the words mean? What emotions were being expressed?

And who was playing it?  Where were they in the room? And where was everyone else in the room? Were they facing the customary stage area? Or had they turned round, as I had, to face what seemed the most likely source: upstairs, at the back, in the far corner? And were they standing, or sitting, or lying down?

The rhythms built and solidified. I stood up, suddenly emboldened and – what the hell, let’s go with the flow – ready to dance.

At this exact point, the music suddenly stopped and the lights gradually raised, revealing a colossal projection screen, masking the stage. We shuffled around to face it, as abstract fields of colour emerged from the gloom, soundtracked by formless rumblings and quakings.

A giant pair of hands descended, sliding plastic shapes across a translucent table top. One shape said “stress”; another said “routine”. Some of the shapes left thin white lines behind them as they moved. Elsewhere, tiny cubes appeared, orbited by even tinier moons.

The sounds shifted this way and that: musique concrète, devoid of melody or rhythm. Perhaps the movement of the shapes was shaping the movements in sound? The more you looked, the more likely it seemed – and yet the laws of visual cause and sonic effect didn’t quite seem to apply, either.

Although different in almost every respect from the blackout performance, this still was an austere, demanding experience. Most of us stayed seated on the floor, gazing at the barely shifting visuals. Towards the far side of the room, the urge to lie down flat proved contagious for a sizeable minority. Around the sides, a small number opted to stand. Oddly, there was a greater sense of concentration in the room, now that we could all see each other – or was it merely zoned-out ennui? Time slowed to a standstill. How long had we been in here? It was hard to judge.

At the end of the second performance – which might have been twenty minutes long, or two hours long – the audience slowly rose from the floor and drifted away: softly and quietly, as if waking from a collective dream. A post-show Q&A had been billed, but this never materialised: a missed opportunity, as some background knowledge would have helped us to form a clearer understanding of what we had witnessed.

As it turned out, the blackout performance had been provided by a Lebanese ensemble, Taht Ahl El-Hawa, who had led us on a musical journey through classic and traditional Arabic renaissance styles, from the Byzantine period through to the 19th century. Performing from behind the projection screen, they were followed by Marco Colasso, a sound artist from Uruguay, whose piece Because was inspired – in ways that I couldn’t even begin to fathom – by the Beatles track of the same name. It had been an improvisational exercise, apparently separated into four sections – earth, fire, water and air – which sought to explore “the frequencies connecting the world and its inhabitants, and the relationships which occur between them”.

Although this had been a thought-provoking (if backside-numbing) experience for the most part, I left with a slight sense of disappointment, and a feeling that the promise of the evening had not been fully realised. Unannounced surprises might have their place, but perhaps a little retrospective context would have been no bad thing.

From Notts With Love – Nottingham Contemporary, Friday July 6

Posted in gigs, Metro, Nottingham Contemporary, Nottingham Post by Mike A on July 24, 2012

(originally published in Metro and the Nottingham Post)

Billed as “the first of a series of events that will celebrate the wealth of talent walking the streets of Nottingham”, From Notts With Love brought six of the city’s finest musical acts together, performing to a sold-out crowd in The Space, downstairs at Nottingham Contemporary.

Although stylistically diverse, all the acts shared distinctly soulful qualities, blending classic songwriting skills with powerful, characterful vocal performances and top-flight musicianship. As BBC Radio Nottingham’s Dean Jackson remarked, in his role as compere for the night, we could almost have been watching a locally flavoured edition of Later with Jools Holland. 

While some of the acts are familiar presences on the city’s current gigging circuit, others had journeyed up from London for the night, turning the event into something of a homecoming and a reunion. United by strong bonds of mutual respect, and visibly thrilled to be sharing the bill with their friends and peers, they rose to the occasion, bringing out the best in each other’s performances. This made for an uncommonly warm and happy atmosphere, where you felt that everyone – performers and audience alike – was basically on the same side, celebrating the best that the city has to offer.

Two brothers opened the show, performing separately, but sharing some of their musicians. Tim McDonald led a seven-piece band, including a three-piece string section, whose rich arrangements complemented his smooth vocals. A harmonica player joined them for the rousing final number, One Step Back, only to re-appear playing guitar for Tim’s brother Chris, alongside two fiddles, trumpet and banjo. 

Although he is now London-based, Chris McDonald retains strong links with his home county, and he played a key role in organising the bill. Confident but never cocky, with a style that bears comparison with Paolo Nutini, Ray LaMontagne and Mumford and Sons, Chris previewed selections from his forthcoming album. If the album gets the attention that his set suggested it deserves, then his live act could easily scale up to larger stages; it already has the power and the presence to make the transition.

Oozing class from the off, Harleighblu turned The Space into a smoky jazz club – minus the smoke, of course – leading another sizeable troupe of players through a set that drew influences from Jill Scott and Erykah Badu’s neo-soul, flavouring it with the older-school stylings of Aretha Franklin, Bille Holiday and Etta James. Glamorous yet down to earth, wreathed in smiles yet singing from the heart, she opened with the brassy, languidly mocking Casanova, before twisting Madonna’s Who’s That Girl into a whole new shape.

The ever-delightful Nina Smith followed, lightening the mood with her airy, affecting R&B-tinged acoustic pop. Old favourites from last year’s Lonely Heart Club EP were mixed with new compositions such as I Can’t Read You and the delicately shimmering This Love. As for her deft mash-up of The Spice Girls (Two Become One) with The Police (Message In A Bottle), what might sound daft in theory actually worked a treat on stage.

It has been far too long since Liam Bailey last took to a Nottingham stage. Thanks to his success with Chase And Status, which has seen him play to huge festivals worldwide, adding guest vocals to their anthemic dance hit Blind Faith, Liam has acquired a commanding stage presence, without surrendering any of his unique qualities as a performer. 

Beaming with pleasure at being back home, and buoyed up by an outstanding new band, he delivered a magnificent, spell-binding set, which brought out the best in his songs: last year’s singles You Better Leave Me and It’s Not The Same, the loping, Marley-esque backbeat of When Will They Learn, and a brand new track called Autumn Leaves. By way of an extra treat, Harleighblu joined him on stage for a dazzling duet on How Does It Feel. Playful yet focussed, thrillingly idiosyncratic (and at times downright unhinged), unfettered and bursting with life, Liam exuded star quality from every pore.

Natalie Duncan brought the long night to a fittingly intense climax, previewing tracks from her remarkable debut album Devil In Me, released on July 16th. Natalie has come a long way since the days of her Sunday jazz sessions at The Bell Inn, and on Old Rock she paid fond tribute to a particularly eccentric old regular: “They call me crazy too, but you’ve got fifty years on me.” On the tender, subdued Flower, further tribute was paid: this time to an old friend, who had supported Natalie through troubled times and was now in need of support in return. 

Seated behind her keyboards for most of the set, Natalie took to her feet for Pick Me Up Bar, which nodded towards Gil Scott-Heron in its influences, climaxing with a superb coda of echoey psychedelic dub.  An unrecorded song, Became So Sweet, closed the set, causing an outbreak of dancing in the front ranks which seemed to take the performers by delighted surprise. An encore hadn’t been planned, but we got one anyway: Uncomfortable Silence, which closes the album in a sombre but stirring fashion.

Next month, an almost identical line-up of performers will reunite in London, offering the capital city a showcase of Nottingham talent. Based on the evidence of this astonishingly accomplished show, we couldn’t ask for a better set of ambassadors.

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Fists, Cantaloupe, Kagoule – Nottingham Contemporary, Saturday April 21

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Contemporary, Nottingham Post by Mike A on April 26, 2012

(originally published in the Nottingham Post)

To mark the end of Record Store Day 2012, LeftLion magazine teamed up with The Music Exchange to present a free evening of live music at Nottingham Contemporary’s café-bar, a venue which has done much to promote Nottingham’s thriving music scene in recent months.

Teenage trio Kagoule, who opened for Dog Is Dead at Rock City at the end of last year, proved to be equally capable of impressing Contemporary’s largely older clientele. Their playing displayed a calm, steady purposefulness, and a maturity which was well beyond their years.  Singer and guitarist Cai Burns, an intense but unshowy performer, formed an effective partnership with bassist Lucy Hatter and drummer Lawrence English, delivering brooding, low-slung grooves that evoked the spirit of Nineties post-grunge alt-rock.

For those who mourn the passing of long-time scene stalwarts Souvaris, who played their farewell gig at Contemporary in February, it was cheering to witness three-fifths of the band continuing to perform as Cantaloupe. There aren’t many acts who would introduce a track as their “disco” number and then perform it in 10:4 time, but Cantaloupe have a rare knack of twisting tricky time signatures into surprisingly dance-friendly shapes. Led by John Simson’s retro-futurist keyboards, the instrumental trio retain some of the experimental krautrock influences of their old band, but the overall mood is lighter, bouncier and sunnier. Cantaloupe’s debut EP (Teapot) is due out in June, on local label Hello Thor.

Fresh from a recent tour of the USA, Fists returned to their home city in triumph, filling the café-bar to capacity. It immediately became clear that the tour had done them the power of good, fusing the five players together as a tighter unit than ever before, but without losing their ragged, ramshackle charm along the way. Their searing, surging triple-guitar squall engulfed the room, and their deranged, devilish delight in performing was a joy to behold.

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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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