Mike Atkinson

Rakim – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Sunday May 8

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on May 9, 2011

They may call him “The God MC”, but Rakim does have at least one human frailty: a fear of flying.  For his first visit to the British Isles in fifteen years – with a string of European dates to follow – the 43-year old veteran rapper arrived by boat, all the way from New York.  And for his second UK show, he wisely chose to visit a city whose hip hop community has kept the faith more purely than most, and where “old school” values still inform the new breed.

In Rakim’s eyes, the truest engagement with hip hop is a creative engagement, and as a successive showing of hands demonstrated, many of last night’s crowd are actively involved in the local scene themselves, whether as DJs, MCs, b-boy dancers or graffiti artists.  This was the perfect audience for him: noisily loyal yet keenly attentive, and seemingly possessed of a word-perfect recall of every line he has ever uttered.

Following two and a quarter hours of impressive support sets from three local acts (Scorzayzee, Juganaut and Ms Tempa) and  one visitor (Klashnekoff from London), and heralded by a quick-fire montage of hip hop classics, Rakim entered to a true hero’s welcome.  On stage for just over an hour, he mixed vintage cuts from his early career with Eric B with newer material from his 2009 comeback album The Seventh Seal.

Widely considered as “the rapper’s favourite rapper”, whose pioneering approach to lyrical flow opened up a whole new world of possibilities, Rakim’s languid, fluid, richly rhythmic delivery was as mesmerising in 2011 as it had been when he first appeared at Rock City in 1987.  Keeping corny crowd-pleasing stunts to an acceptable minimum, he concentrated on the task in hand.  The set climaxed with Paid In Full – performed in its Coldcut remix version, surprisingly enough – and a stunning acapella version of Follow The Leader, which sent his devotees away in a daze of almost disbelieving bliss.

The Leisure Society – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Thursday May 5

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on May 9, 2011

Musically literate, traditionally tuneful, unmistakeably English, with deft arrangements that encompass woodwind and strings: in some ways, you could argue that The Leisure Society represents a continuation of The Divine Comedy’s ethos. It’s a somewhat shoddy comparison, though. On the plus side, the newer band displayed none of the whimsical smugness that sometimes afflicted the older band. On the other hand, a more charismatic, interpretive front man might have heightened the impact of some of the material.

The seven players divided loosely into two camps. On the right, sporting floppy fringes and crisp white shirts, were the Burton-on-Trent contingent, including the core creative team of singer Nick Hemming and keyboardist Christian Hardy. On the left, clad in more sombre hues, we had the Brighton-based (and allegedly posher) mini-orchestra: violin, cello, and a prominently melodious flute.

A Rescue Rooms veteran, but from the other side of the stage, Nick’s nerves weren’t helped by the presence of his parents and his aunt, right at the front of the crowd. “I’m not going to explain what this song’s about”, he blushed, introducing a number called We Were Wasted. (“This one’s for you, mum!”) However, it would be hard to associate this bunch with much in the way of rock and roll excess, especially after Christian’s tale of an earlier encounter in the toilets with an alarmingly persistent substance abuser. (“He ruined my day! He’s not here now, is he?”)

Having earned an Ivor Novello nomination for their hauntingly lovely debut single (The Last Of The Melting Snow), The Leisure Society have just released a second album, Into The Murky Water. With admirable contrariness, the songs with the trickiest time signatures – the episodic The Phantom Life and the rollicking You Could Keep Me Talking – have been earmarked as the first two singles. The hour long set divided evenly between old and new material, with the band’s sole cover – a spirited romp through Paul Simon’s Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard – saved for the encore.

The Undertones – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Thursday April 8

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on April 8, 2011

It has been a good week for the punk rock dads.  On Wednesday night at Rock City, the newly reformed Big Audio Dynamite returned for the first time since the late Eighties, and the following night there was another treat in store for those of us of a certain vintage: a full performance of the 1979 debut album from The Undertones. 

It’s impossible for me to be objective about The Undertones.  When John Peel famously played all four tracks from their Teenage Kicks EP in 1978 – and then played the whole EP again, later in the same show – I was tuned in, cassette recorder primed.  And when the album followed a few months later – along with the classic singles Get Over You, Here Comes The Summer, Jimmy Jimmy and You’ve Got My Number – the Derry five-piece provided the perfect soundtrack for my coming of age.  

For many people, the music which they love in their teenage years can never quite be matched for emotional impact, and hearing it again in adulthood can trigger a whole series of powerful memories.  And so it was on Thursday night, as four-fifths of the original line-up – plus singer Paul McLoone, who replaced Feargal Sharkey when the band reformed in 1999 – gave a storming performance, their music sounding as fresh and timeless as ever. 

The Undertones have never acted like pop stars.  Thirty-two years ago, they seemed indistinguishable from their audience, and that “ordinary bloke” quality remains with them today.  It helps to explain why Feargal – now a major player within the music industry – could never really be expected to rejoin them.  In his place, McLoone – who has now been an Undertone for longer than Sharkey ever was – does a more than creditable job.  His voice might have a broadly similar upper register, but there the comparisons end: he is his own man, with his own confident, slightly eccentric performance style.  

The set opened with Side One, Track One of the debut album (Family Entertainment), and the remaining thirteen tracks followed in their original sequence.  Apart from True Confessions, which was played in its original (and vastly superior) EP version, the songs were played almost exactly as they had been recorded.  

Further singles and album tracks followed, including all the later hits: My Perfect Cousin, Wednesday Week, and the underrated It’s Going To Happen.  It was the sort of show that reminds you that nostalgia can have a positive purpose; transported back to the heightened emotions of your youth, you remember that the person you once were has shaped the person that you are today.  Those teenage dreams: they’re still so hard to beat.

See also: my interview with Damian O’Neill.

I Am Kloot – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Tuesday October 5.

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on October 6, 2010

Nottingham’s gig-goers were spoilt for choice last night, as three bands with strong live reputations vied for our ticket money. Like punters caught between competing stages at a festival, we were forced to choose between the cheery folk-rock of Mumford And Sons at Rock City, The Twilight Sad’s blistering angst at Stealth – or the Mercury nominated Mancunian three-piece I Am Kloot at the Rescue Rooms, now touring their fifth, and biggest selling, studio album.

Any worries that this conflict might have depleted the audience numbers were swiftly replaced by other concerns. A shoulder-to-shoulder capacity crowd, some of them caught out by the early show time, strained to catch a glimpse of the three players and their two occasional accompanists.

In such cramped circumstances, it can take a supreme effort of will to zone out from your surroundings and home in on the music. Mercifully, the sheer quality of I Am Kloot’s performance made the task an easy one. Band leader John Bramwell’s crystal clear diction soared above the exquisitely judged playing and the superb sound mix, drawing you into his world of bruised romance, beer-soaked regret and battered optimism.

“A lot of these songs are written about the night”, he informed us. “I’m not sure why”, he added. “Perhaps we could break up into small groups later and discuss it?”

The metaphysical poetry of The Moon Is A Blind Eye (“The sun may glorify the heavens, but he never sees the stars”) was a case in point, while the skeletally arranged I Still Do showcased Bramwell’s interpretive skills to astonishing effect, every repetition of the title line drawing out new meanings.

Elbow’s Guy Garvey and Craig Potter produced the current album (Sky At Night), and the close affinity between the two bands was unmistakeable. And with the anthemic and uncharacteristically triumphant Radiation (“Everything we ever thought we’d ever want, me and you, well it just came through, it just came true”), I Am Kloot even have their own One Day Like This.

The hundred minute set concluded with Same Shoes (“Over and out, is it screwed?”), which pitted deep, sleazy cabaret sax against a higher, sweeter supper-club trumpet. It provided a wonderfully downbeat conclusion to a stunning show from a band who, eleven years down the line, are now operating at the peak of their powers.

NME Radar Tour (The Joy Formidable, Chapel Club, Flats) – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Thursday September 30

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on October 1, 2010

Although smaller in scale than their annual ShockWaves packages, the NME’s Radar tours have helped to break a significant number of new acts to a wider public. In recent years, Friendly Fires, La Roux, Marina and the Diamonds and Hurts have all benefited from the exposure – but on the strength of last night’s triple line-up, it’s difficult to see who will be next in line.

One thing’s for sure: it won’t be Flats, who opened the night with a short set of uncompromising aggression that harked back to the second-wave British punk bands of thirty years ago. Quaintly, there was even a number (Rat Trap) which expressed their loathing of mods.

Outside the venue, a member of Chapel Club’s street team was cheerfully doling out so-called “download CDs”, in return for our e-mail addresses. These turned out to be designed for the express purpose of downloading and burning four exclusive remixes of the band’s new single. Or to put it another way: they were blank CDs. But they came with a nice cardboard sleeve, and the promise of receiving exciting marketing e-mails in perpetuity.

As for Chapel Club themselves, whose seven song set was respectfully if unenthusiastically received, perhaps their chances of wider acclaim rest on whether the world is yet ready for the next White Lies. (Remember them? They were the next Editors. Who, of course, were the next Interpol.) Competent to a fault, their familiar sonic template was beefed up with generous dollops of echo and effects pedals, lending it an agreeably expansive air.

Things stepped up a good few notches for headliners The Joy Formidable, who were clearly the band that most of the audience had come to see. The Welsh trio radiated good-natured bonhomie from the outset – particularly singer and guitarist Ritzy Bryan, whose smile sparkled from beneath a razor-sharp platinum bob. The reference points here were late Eighties bands such as The Primitives, The Darling Buds and Transvision Vamp.

Although they tended to err somewhat on the polite side, the band pulled out all the stops for the set-closing Whirring, which morphed into a lengthy and increasingly chaotic instrumental coda. It provided a rousing end to a night which, although billed as a showcase for forward-thinking breakthrough acts, turned out to have more than a whiff of the retrograde about it.

The Low Anthem – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Wednesday September 1.

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

There are two types of Low Anthem song. The first type is slow, quiet, tender, wistful, maybe somewhat dark, and quite possibly in waltz time. It may feature close-part harmonies: not a million miles removed from Fleet Foxes in tone (the two acts share a label in the UK), but less angelic and more earthy. It will sound as if it could have been written several generations ago. The second type is louder, rougher, raspier, bluesier and more insistent, possibly evoking comparisons with Bob Dylan or Tom Waits.

On the band’s breakthrough album, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, both types intermingle freely – but during the course of the Rhode Island four-piece’s hundred minute set at the Rescue Rooms, the latter type was shunted to a supporting role, mostly confined to the second half of the first hour. As much of the set featured material from a forthcoming third album, we can assume that the Low Anthem are taking the quieter road, at least for now.

There are, however, an infinite number of ways to play a Low Anthem song. The instrumental line-up shifted radically from track to track, as each band member traversed the stage and picked up something which they hadn’t played before: a stand-up bass, a cornet, a clarinet, a “singing saw”. An ancient field organ featured heavily, as did a set of antique cymbals that were sometimes stroked with a bow.

Bathed in red light and dressed in well-worn layers of cloth, the players looked as if they had stepped out of a nineteenth century daguerreotype, found in a dusty box at the back of an antique store. Their almost total lack of conversation added to the mystique. Lead singer Ben Knox Miller sported a Sherlock-style deerstalker, while Jeff Prystowsky wore a flat cap that had most likely been fashioned from a feed sack. Mat Davidson’s Grizzly Adams beard hid a sweet and sonorous voice (which we could have done with hearing more of), while the band’s sole female member Jocie Adams maintained a sombre, austere, slightly vexed presence throughout.

Although exquisitely played, in a manner which held the audience rapt and spellbound throughout (you could see why this band had received this year’s Breakthrough Act award from Mojo magazine), the songs did rather fall short on direct emotional engagement – with the notable exception of an arresting new country ballad, I’ll Take Out Your Ashes, which was dedicated to a friend of the band. If the Low Anthem could rein in their more reverentially antiquarian leanings, and allow themselves a few more moments of raw intimacy, they could be a greater band still.

Candi Staton – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Monday April 26.

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on April 27, 2010

While other soul stars of her generation might opt for the safety of the revival package tour, trotting out twenty minutes of hits to the nostalgia brigade, Candi Staton has chosen to walk the high road. Returning to the secular stage after two decades spent mainly on the gospel circuit, she concluded her UK tour at the Rescue Rooms last night, backed by a fine and funky eight-piece British band called Push (featuring Mick Talbot, former keyboardist with The Style Council).

Although the show was downsized from Rock City, the smaller venue worked in everybody’s favour. Dancers shook their stuff down the front, while veteran soul buffs beamed from the sidelines. This was a warm, earthy, up close and personal show, and an opportunity for the players to draw from a rich tradition of classic styles – from Southern Soul (I’d Rather Be An Old Man’s Sweetheart) to Northern Soul (Now You Got The Upper Hand), via blues, gospel, country, disco and garage house.

The big hits – Nights On Broadway, Young Hearts Run Free, Suspicious Minds – all got an airing, along with both of Candi’s Grammy-nominated recordings: Stand By Your Man (which stayed just the right side of hokey), and a spine-tingling cover of Elvis Presley’s In The Ghetto.

The main set finished with a triumphant reclaiming of Candi’s biggest hit, You Got The Love – a song which started out as the soundtrack for a diet video, before being remixed and covered many times over, most recently by Florence and the Machine. This was soul music as it should be heard: immaculately performed, sung with love and understanding, and lifting the spirits of a small, sweaty, happy room.

These New Puritans – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Monday April 19.

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on April 20, 2010

These New Puritans are not a band for the faint-hearted. As the opening number We Want War creaks into life, a sequence of brutal drum smashes pierces the smoky darkness, each one making us flinch in shock. Emerging from the gloom, lead singer Jake Barnett begins indistinctly, before taking full command. “We hold all the secrets, we hold all the words”, he intones. “But they’re scrambled and broken, so you’ll never know.” It’s as clear a statement of his intentions as you’ll find.

For while Barnett’s lyrics may tend towards the unfathomable and oblique, the overriding emotion that his band conveys is one of foreboding and dread. It’s almost as if the performers are trying to warn us of some nameless horror which is about to unfold, but are prevented from doing so by some unseen force. If that sounds pretentious, then perhaps their brand of symphonic, percussive art-rock isn’t for you – but for those who are prepared to enter their world, the rewards are rich.

On their most recent album Hidden, the four main players are backed by the brass and woodwind sections of a Czech orchestra, as well as a children’s choir. On stage, it’s impossible to tell who is doing what. There are keyboards, drums, mixers, a laptop and a heavy set of chains hanging off a stand, but these are almost hidden from view by the thick smoke which shrouds the three performers at the back. Only Barnett remains visible throughout: a puny figure with a long neck and haunted eyes, wearing a tunic over his T-shirt that could almost be made out of chain mail.

The drum sound is like nothing you’ve ever heard: fierce, punchy, complex and all-consuming. The music defies all categorisation; no one you can think of sounds remotely like this. But for the encore, as a standard rock back-beat finally kicks in, they’re almost conventional. It helps to break the spell, easing us back into something approaching normality.

Ellie Goulding – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Tuesday April 6.

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on April 7, 2010

Given all that has happened to her since the start of this year – the BBC’s “Sound of 2010” award, the “Critics’ Choice” BRIT award, the Top Five single, the Number One album – success could easily have swollen Ellie Goulding’s head. And given the sheer scale of that success, she could easily have swapped the intimacy of the Rescue Rooms for a much larger venue, while still pulling in a capacity crowd.

But instead of pressing ever harder on the accelerator pedal, this commendably unaffected 23 year old singer-songwriter has sensibly chosen to develop her performing skills at a rather more measured pace. It has been less than a month since her last visit to Nottingham – supporting Passion Pit at Rock City – and despite the best efforts of the hype machine to turn her into an instant superstar, it is clear that she still needs time to find her bearings as a live performer.

Perhaps it was just the symptoms of her newly acquired chest infection kicking in, but Ellie spent a good deal of her hour-long set looking somewhat anxious and ill at ease. “You’re awfully quiet”, she kept muttering – and with good reason, as the whoops and shrieks that greeted the end of each song tended to die away quickly, leaving an uneasy silence in the room. Although an atmosphere of good-natured curiosity prevailed, few amongst the crowd could yet be counted as diehard fans, and so Ellie had to work hard to win us over.

In this respect, perhaps the weight of our expectations worked against her, creating an unhelpful level of extra pressure. But you also sensed that she was constrained by the glossy layers of pop production that have been added to her compositions, swamping her vocals and hemming her in rhythmically. Tellingly, she often sounded at her best when the pre-recorded backing tracks were switched off, and when her backing band were at their most subdued. At these moments, the self-consciousness slipped away, allowing glimpses of a more tender and heartfelt performance style to shine through. But at other times, you couldn’t help worrying that Ellie Goulding’s sudden success could turn out to be her worst enemy.

Unicorn Kid – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Thursday March 4.

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on March 5, 2010

It’s not often that the third act on the bill, on stage within twenty minutes of the doors opening, can whip a crowd up into such a seething, euphoric frenzy. But for Unicorn Kid, the alter ego of 18 year old Oli Sabin from Edinburgh, such scenes are becoming commonplace.

Unicorn Kid made his first breakthrough in the middle of last year, when he was asked to remix Did You See Me Coming for the Pet Shop Boys. Since then, he has supported Owl City across the USA, Calvin Harris in Edinburgh and Messrs Tennant and Lowe at a major arena show in Glasgow. With over 30,000 friends on MySpace and a newly signed deal with the Ministry Of Sound label, 2010 is his for the taking. His debut album is set for an autumn release, and a couple of collaborations with big name vocalists are also looking more than likely.

The Unicorn Kid house style is based around an almost ridiculously exuberant reworking of super-fast hardcore techno, sweetened with tumbling, intricate melody lines that are constantly twisting and evolving. The music never descends into mindless repetition, and the overall effect is optimistic, energising and life-affirming.

Old favourites such as Lion Hat and Wee Monsters were accompanied by new material which stretched the template, taking the music into new areas. A slower, dubstep-influenced track, whose title has yet to be confirmed, should be coming out as a free download within the next few weeks.

Fifteen years ago, music of this rhythmic intensity would have formed the soundtrack for long nights of chemical excess. These days, its natural constituency is a teenage audience who aren’t even old enough to drink – for although the gig was a sell-out, the bar was clear for service all night.

Headlining the show, the dance-punk band Hadouken! took the night to even further extremes of wild abandon – but for future success and impact (could a Nineties dance revival be just around the corner?), the smart money has to be on Unicorn Kid.

Miike Snow – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Wednesday February 10.

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on February 11, 2010

Although they have barely grazed the lower end of the charts in this country, Sweden’s Miike Snow have enjoyed a slow burning, word-of-mouth ascent, aided by steady support from Radio One and BBC 6Music. A capacity crowd at the Rescue Rooms greeted them with warm curiosity, as the six band members took to the stage in near darkness, their faces obscured by white dummy masks.

The masks stayed on for the first two numbers, before being cast aside halfway through recent single Black & Blue. This also marked the first appearance of lead and bass guitars, which added texture to the otherwise keyboard-dominated arrangements. The songs sounded heavier and more dance-based than their recorded counterparts, characterised by thickly throbbing synth riffs and brutally simple kick drum patterns. A melodic electric piano cut through the murk, offering counter-balancing sweetness.

Andrew Wyatt’s lead vocals were mixed low – one assumes deliberately – adding to the overall air of mystery, which was heightened by the low lighting and copious use of smoke. The players were lit entirely from the back of the stage, rendering them all but invisible from the back of the room. With little to concentrate on visually, we were left free to immerse ourselves in the intensity of the music. This worked best on beefy numbers such as Plastic Jungle and the band’s best known track, Animal, which spiralled to an ever-quickening climax before cutting to silence.

The hour-long set finished with a lengthy instrumental jam, which progressed from a free-form, beatless drone (inviting comparisons with Animal Collective) to a seemingly endless and oddly static dance workout, which didn’t quite hit the mark. Given that there was no encore, it made for a strange end to a performance which confounded many of our expectations.

VV Brown – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Monday November 16.

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on November 16, 2009

Widely tipped for stardom at the start of the year, VV Brown may not have set the charts alight during 2009, but a critically acclaimed debut album has nevertheless set her career off on a promising path. A tall, striking woman, with a unique look that has won her several prestigious modelling assignments, VV certainly looks like a pop star – and last night at the Rescue Rooms, it soon became clear that she has substance to match the style.

After a successful summer’s work on the festival circuit, and boosted by a memorable turn on Jools Holland’s Later, VV attracted a slightly older audience than you’d normally find for a pop artist. Her younger female fans were pressed down at the front, while those in their late twenties and early thirties hung further back.

Warm, beaming and eager to please, VV rattled confidently through most of the tracks from her album, pausing to offer a pair of contrasting covers in the middle of the set. Her rendition of Over The Rainbow drew repeated whoops of applause, which lasted all the way through the song. It was followed by a thumping take on Coldplay’s Viva La Vida, which had the whole crowd bellowing along with her.

A new song (Caroline) was debuted for the encore: an angry, charged rocker, which spoke of betrayal by a former friend. It showed VV at her best: passionate, committed and in control. If she can hold onto that intensity, and maybe lose some of the more obvious crowd-pleasing manoeuvres in the process, then we could be witnessing the birth of an intriguing artist.

Frankmusik – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Wednesday November 4.

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on November 4, 2009

Following a showy, energised and dazzlingly exciting set from beat-boxer Killa Kela – and a buzz-dampening no-show from DJ Starsmith – Vincent Frank and his three-piece band took to the stage amidst a shower of glowsticks, hurled onto the stage by his eager young tribe of followers. This hadn’t happened before, but Vincent took it in his stride with bemused good humour. (“Is it always like this in Nottingham?”)

Visibly more at home at the Rescue Rooms than he had been at the Arena, supporting Keane at the start of the year, Vincent commended us for being the “warmest” crowd so far on his autumn tour. Although Frankmusik has yet to enjoy the full scale commercial breakthrough of fellow electro-pop travellers such as La Roux and Little Boots, he has carved out a respectable niche within the pop landscape of 2009, with a string of middle-sized hits, a largely well-received album and a devoted online following already under his belt.

With work already underway on a follow-up album, just one new song was aired during the fifty minute set. It didn’t deviate much from the established Frankmusik template, which takes Eighties synth-pop as its starting point, and underpins its intelligently written love songs with hefty, galloping dance rhythms.

The set climaxed with the album’s opening track In Step (with an added section lifted from Rihanna’s Don’t Stop The Music), followed by a riotously received Better Off As Two. For his encore, Vincent treated us to a beautiful and powerful solo rendition of the Pet Shop Boys classic It’s A Sin, whose subtle, controlled passion hinted at future possibilities as yet unexplored.

Tinchy Stryder – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Friday September 20.

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on September 20, 2009

Like Dizzee Rascal before him, the 22-year old East End rapper Tinchy Stryder has made a remarkable journey, from hero of the underground grime scene to fully-fledged pop star. While scenester purists might baulk – as scenester purists always do – at the shameless commercialisation of it all, Stryder’s colourful, hook-heavy, dance-derived new sound demonstrates a keen understanding of pop craftsmanship. And in a year which has seen the UK singles charts rejuvenated and revitalised with some of the most consistently strong pop music in years, he has been responsible for some of its biggest, most memorable, and most defining moments.

With two consecutive chart-topping singles and a Number Two album under his belt, Stryder’s days of playing smaller venues such as the Rescue Rooms, to audiences of just under 500, must be numbered. Uncompromised by the relative intimacy of the surroundings, he claimed the stage like a pop star should, retaining most of his larger-than-life mystique. That said, perhaps the dense clouds of smoke that heralded his entrance were a flourish too far, keeping him virtually invisible for the first ten minutes of his hour-long set.

Combining razor-sharp lyrical flow with a commanding sense of showmanship, Stryder carried his audience with him all the way, even turning the obligatory merchandising plug into a rabble-rousing highlight. But was it really necessary for his DJ to dip the sound quite so often during the three big hits – Take Me Back, Number One and Never Leave You – leaving the crowd to fill in the gaps, and significantly dampening the mood?

A brief rendition of Calvin Harris’s I’m Not Alone drew the biggest reaction of the night, as everyone in the room surged forwards to its monster riff. A similarly chunky, euphoric version of Olive’s You’re Not Alone closed the set, blurring the lines between hip hop and dance to spellbinding effect.

Okkervil River – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Thursday September 10.

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on September 10, 2009

They may not be household names, but the Texan six-piece Okkervil River have steadily built up a dedicated, diligent following in this country, especially following the critical acclaim that followed their breakthrough album, The Stage Names. Returning to Nottingham after a well received show at the Bodega in 2007, the band started their set in a controlled, almost subdued manner, their melodic country-rock influences well to the forefront.

Just as the audience were settling into an evening of gentle, understated pleasures, the mood started to shift. The stark, poetic ballad A Stone silenced the chatter at the edges of the room, as band leader Will Sheff held us rapt with his confessional, bruised delivery. Then it was straight into the exultant, galvanising John Allyn Smith Sails, with its crowd-pleasing lifts from the old Beach Boys standard, Sloop John B.

This signalled a second half of raw, ragged fervour, climaxing with Our Life Is Not A Movie Or A Maybe – still the band’s best number – and the surging, riff-driven Unless It’s Kicks. Although the raggedness sometimes spilled over into unfocussed sloppiness, it was abundantly clear that Okkervil River’s audience preferred them this way.

Easy Star All-Stars, Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Thursday May 7.

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on May 8, 2009

At first, they sound like a novelty act – but on closer inspection, there’s a real seriousness of purpose behind Michael Goldwasser’s Easy Star All-Stars project. It takes a certain amount of brass neck for a bunch of mostly American and Jamaican reggae musicians to dedicate themselves to their chosen task: that of producing thoughtful, inventive and entertaining full-length covers of classic British concept albums. But instead of coming across as flippant or sacrilegious, the band’s underlying respect for their source material – Dark Side Of The Moon, OK Computer and most recently Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – shines through, breathing new life into the familiar songs.

There are eight people in the current touring version of the band, with most vocals split between the statuesque Kirsty Rock, the effervescent Menny More and the beaming, calming Rasta presence of Ras I Ray. Barring a couple of self-penned openers, the lengthy set divided fairly evenly between the Floyd, Radiohead and Beatles covers. The selections from Sgt. Pepper were lighter and cheerier, with the occasional artfully altered lyric – those cellophane flowers in “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” are now red, gold and green, for instance. But where Dark Side and OK Computer can tend towards the oppressively bleak, the All-Stars didn’t let the subject matter stand in the way of serving up a good time. If anything, a little more English gloom wouldn’t have gone amiss – but perhaps this wouldn’t have played so well with the crowd, sections of which were bordering on the delirious by the end of the night.

There were a couple of misfires. The Beat’s Ranking Roger showed up for a brief guest vocal, but sheepishly resorted to cribbing the lyrics from his phone. Considering that he only had one verse to sing, it was difficult to feel much sympathy. And the encore section dragged badly – firstly with Kirsty’s over-stretched attempts to re-create the vocal drama of the Floyd’s “Great Gig In The Sky”, and secondly with an interminable meet-the-band jam session that brought the show to an anti-climactic finish. But set against these were a sparkling dub-style take on “When I’m 64”, a lush, emotional “Breathe”, a finely crafted “Paranoid Android”, a complex yet danceable “Money”, and much more besides.

There’s a good reason why this bunch have been almost permanent fixtures in the upper reached of the US Billboard reggae charts for most of the decade, and it was a pleasure to hear them weave their unlikely magic in front of such an appreciative audience.

NME Radar Tour: La Roux, Heartbreak, Magistrates, The Chapman Family – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Wednesday April 29.

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on April 30, 2009

Sticking out like a raw, throbbing thumb on the NME’s latest package of up-and-coming young bands, The Chapman Family faced the hardest job of the night: warming up the still sparse crowd, at the awkwardly un-rock-and-roll hour of 7pm, with their intense, thrashy, guitar-heavy squall. To add to the challenge, they were forced to compete for our attention with an annoyingly distracting overhead video screen, which was mostly given over to advertising the NME brand and the tour’s mobile phone sponsors. Worse still, they had to suffer the indignity of performing beneath an endlessly repeating multiple choice text competition: “Which town do The Chapman Family come from?”

To their credit, none of this deterred the band from delivering an impressively full-tilt, committed performance. Mercifully, the screen was switched off during the remaining three sets.

Notably less self-assured than their predecessors, Magistrates were likeable, but lacking in charisma. They were name-checked as a band to watch by Dawn from Black Kids, when she spoke to the Post last October – and it was easy to see the musical connection, as both acts deliver a light, tuneful, breezy brand of indie-pop. If you like Franz Ferdinand and MGMT, then Magistrates may well be up your street.

Heartbreak belong to the classic tradition of synth duos, but with an added drummer. Their singer sported a spivvy pencil moustache, teamed with a close-fitting leather blouson which sported the sort of shoulder padding last seen on Gary Numan in the early Eighties. Fully aware of his own preposterousness, he strutted and preened with a winning sense of self-belief, occasionally breaking into interpretive mime, and even a brief moonwalk. The girls down the front loved him, and he lapped up their adoration. The music drew on hi-NRG and Italo-disco influences, and was strongly reminiscent of the much hyped electroclash movement of 2002. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did.

Almost unknown at the start of the year, La Roux have been one of this year’s big breakthrough acts. Astonishingly, they had never even played live until just over two months ago, and so their learning curve has been a steep and public one. Backed by two synth players, Elly Jackson cut a startling presence on stage, her outsized quiff sculpted into a gravity-defying vertical point. Plagued by technical hitches in the middle of the set, she shrugged off the problems with self-deprecating humour. (“Thank you for forgiving me. I wouldn’t have done!”)

Somehow, this lack of slickness reinforced Elly’s compellingly flawed yet strangely winning qualities. Yes, her pitch control is all over the place, and she undoubtedly has a “Marmite” voice. You’ll either cover your ears in horror at the shrill screechiness of it all – or you’ll recognise that La Roux are all about celebrating human frailty and imperfection, and you’ll end up loving them all the more for it.

For in this age of airbrushed, Auto-tuned pop robots, who never quite seem fully real, it’s refreshing that the charts can still make way for a quirky girl with weird hair, an odd voice – and some cracking tunes to match.

Animal Collective, Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Monday March 23rd.

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on March 24, 2009

Leftfield experimentalism and commercial success rarely go hand in hand – but nine albums down the line, something about Animal Collective’s unique, uncompromising approach has finally clicked with a wider audience. On stage at a sold-out Rescue Rooms, they pushed their sound well away from the sweet pop hooks that have crept into newer recorded work – submerging their melodies in a soupy, echo-drenched and ear-splitting mix, and testing the stamina of newer, less committed followers. Each track flowed seamlessly into the next, building an intense, powerful and all-consuming mood.

In time-honoured indie fashion, the three performers barely acknowledged the tightly packed crowd. Instead, they hunched studiously over their electronic equipment, obscured in semi-darkness. Above them, abstract moving images were projected onto a gigantic inflatable sphere. Below them, waves of thick, multi-layered sound crashed over our heads – battering some into stupefied submission, and coaxing others into twitchy, head-bobbing motion.

The first forty minutes were the hardest work: ponderous, proggy, and teetering on the brink of self-indulgence. Thankfully, a sprightly Lion In A Coma marked the turning point, ushering in a more rhythmic, physical second half. The band’s recent single My Girls was saved for the encore. It was rapturously – and gratefully – received.

Joan As Police Woman – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Wednesday December 10

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on December 10, 2008

Having supported Rufus Wainwright in 2005 and the Guillemots in 2006, Joan Wasser made her Nottingham debut as a headline act last night. In contrast to the self-effacing modesty of her previous shows, she radiated a new-found authority, looking glamorous and sleek with her newly auburn hair and sparkly gold frock.

Technical problems with Joan’s keyboard disrupted the flow of the first few numbers, loosening her focus and disrupting her concentration. Bolstered by the amiable patience of her audience, she soon warmed up. Switching to guitar for the bulk of the more muscular, rock-tinged second half, her performance stepped up a notch, her playing markedly more expressive.

A jumbo-sized packet of Doritos were handed into the crowd, and passed around like communion wafers. From this point on, Joan was on safe ground. The goth-like rumblings of Christobelworked better live than on record, and a sublime Magpies benefited from fine falsetto harmonies, courtesy of her bassist and drummer.

Dedicated with fervent glee to “our new president”, To America segued into a thunderous version of Furious, which climaxed with a no-holds-barred, free-form freak-out. As Joan repeatedly slammed her fists into her keyboard, those earlier technical glitches became much easier to understand.

Show Of Hands with Miranda Sykes – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Thursday November 27

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on November 27, 2008

Veterans of the sit-down folk club circuit they may be, but last night’s mesmerising show at the Rescue Rooms demonstrated that Show Of Hands’ current “Standing Room Only” tour was a gamble that has paid off. As vocalist Steve Knightley remarked, stand-up venues give the crowd a chance to bellow along to their hearts’ content, without risking the glares of their neighbours.

For a band that remains firmly off the radar of anyone unfamiliar with the English folk scene – despite a seventeen year career and three sold-out appearances at the Royal Albert Hall – it was remarkable to observe the fierce loyalty of their audience, who greeted many songs like old friends. The night’s biggest crowd pleaser was Cousin Jack, a stirring tale of migrant mine workers, while the trenchant Country Life (“The red brick cottage where I was born is the empty shell of a holiday home”) proved that the tradition of the protest song has not yet been extinguished.

As the set progressed, the music took a darker, more brooding turn, Knightley and his partner Phil Beer switching to fiddles for a stunning version of Innocents’ Song. The set closed with the anthemic Roots, whose outspoken polemic roused the crowd into one final massed bellow.