For local fans of British folk, this has been a golden month. Following superb performances from Lau at the Playhouse and The Unthanks at the Arts Theatre, last night saw the return of the mighty Bellowhead: an eleven-piece act who blend traditional jigs, songs and shanties with a theatrical, vaudevillian approach.
Scruffily smart in their black shirts and loud ties, the players filled every inch of the stage. To the left, a four-piece brass troupe; to the right, a three-piece string section whose members doubled up on woodwind and pipes; and between them, three of the leading lights of folk’s new generation: John Spiers on the squeeze box, Benji Kirkpatrick on guitar and other related instruments, and their lanky, wild-eyed singer and band leader, Jon Boden.
It took a while for the audience to respond in kind to the sheer energy of the performers, but rambunctious crowd-pleasers such as Kafoozalum and Haul Away proved impossible to resist. By the time we reached the likes of Sloe Gin, London Town and Frogs Legs and Dragons Teeth, most of the room had surrendered to the madness of the moment, bouncing up and down like gurning loons – and proving that when it comes to sweaty nights out, folkies can match rockers pound for pound.
It’s not often that a band serves as its own support act – so it came as some surprise when the four other members of Fleet Foxes shuffled onto the stage, halfway through drummer J Tillman’s solo set, to provide understated backing for a couple of numbers. Their sheer diffidence left you wondering whether they would have the necessary stage presence to carry their own set.
As it turned out, we had no cause for concern. Nudged along by a precision-targeted marketing campaign and a blitz of positive press notices, the Seattle quintet’s self-titled debut album has been one of this year’s slow-burning successes, drawing a capacity crowd to Trent University. The venue’s reliably superb acoustics suited the music perfectly, enabling the band to deliver an exquisite performance to a spellbound audience.
On record, the lush pastoralism doesn’t always convince, erring at times towards the cloying and the twee. On stage, the same songs gained muscularity, range and depth. For all the soaring melodic sweetness of their four-part choral harmonies, Fleet Foxes demonstrated an unexpected grasp of rock dynamics, underpinning their ever-present Brian Wilson influences with echoes of Neil Young’s windblown ruggedness.
Equally unexpected was the band’s dry, sardonic, and somewhat rambling comic banter – although, as was cheerfully admitted, this could just have been due to some particularly heavy doses of cold medication. How else to explain their eulogies to John “The Mav” McCain?
“We want four more years of the same”, they drawled, to hoots of amused disbelief.
“Hey, if it ain’t broke…!”
The Breeders are not a band to be rushed. Released at the beginning of this week, Mountain Battles is only their fourth album in eighteen years. It’s a murky, low-fi, subdued affair, whose understated charm sneaks up on you from behind. Unlike 1993’s breakthrough album Last Splash, it won’t be going internationally platinum any time soon. These days, that’s hardly the point.
As on record, so they were on stage: unhurried, slightly shambling, not making a big deal out of themselves. An amiable goofiness, which masked a calm, clear sense of purpose.
Leading the band as always, but resisting the centre stage limelight, a broadly beaming Kim Deal set the mood of the whole show. “When are you going to marry me?” shouted one fan. “No warrants, a licence and a job, that’s all I ask”, she batted back, with an earthy cackle.
Her addictions long since conquered, Kim’s sister Kelley looked weather-beaten yet gamine, her singing voice as sweet as ever. Later this year, she’ll be publishing a book of knitting patterns: “Bags That Rock: Knitting on the Road”. How times change.
Trent Uni’s student union building is a sadly underused venue, whose superb acoustic played to the band’s strengths. The slower material from Mountain Battles resonated and captivated, while old favourites like Divine Hammer and the classic Cannonball retained a box-fresh sparkle.
Like Kim’s former band The Pixies, you can never quite pin down what makes The Breeders so special. You just instinctively know that they’re a class act.
Watching Cocorosie casually shambling around the stage, sharing private jokes and either unwilling or unable to concentrate on their performance, we seemed in danger of having all our worst preconceptions about the self-consciously arty avant garde confirmed. Led by sisters Bianca and Sierra Casady, and backed by a keyboardist, bassist and human beat-boxer, the band’s hip-hop influenced “freak-folk” sound was dominated by the sort of squeaky Björk-on-helium vocals that could have become intensely grating.
As the set progressed, these eccentricities became steadily less troublesome. Slowly but surely, the performers settled into their roles. Predominantly song-based, the material was never allowed to drift into the sort of aimless meanderings that make the likes of Joanna Newsom such a struggle.
With their radical re-working of Akon’s I Wanna Love You, sung from the stripper’s perspective (“You see me trying to smile up on this pole, just hiding the pain that’s deep in my soul”), everything snapped into focus, the remaining material displaying a new sense of purpose and cohesion. This no longer felt like smug experimentalism for its own sake. What could have been one of the year’s most insufferably pretentious gigs instead turned out to be one of the most spell-binding and magical.
On his first visit to Nottingham two years ago, Sam Duckworth played to a scattering of sweaty punters upstairs at the Old Angel. Last night, performing as Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly. (no, me neither) to a capacity crowd, he faced his largest headline audience to date. Not bad going for a 20 year old whose debut album briefly grazed the lower end of the charts last autumn.
Although barely registering on the radar of anyone over 25, Duckworth’s student-based audience displayed a hearty familiarity with his lyrics, which reflect the concerns of his generation in a way that is almost without precedent in today’s decidedly smug musical climate. Unashamedly political and idealistic, his songwriting and performance style hark back to the traditions of the protest singer – but with a contemporary sound that mixes acoustic and electronic elements in a fresh, invigorating way.
At the back of the stage, each intricate, skittering backing track was synchronised to video footage, and fleshed out by a two-piece brass section and an outstanding drummer. Up front, a wide-featured, chubby-cheeked Duckworth proved to be an able, articulate performer, radiating an understated yet unmistakable charisma.
Between numbers, we were variously urged to buy from fair trade suppliers, to campaign against racism, to boycott unauthorised merchandise sellers, and to shun the dubious and exploitative agendas of reality TV.
Give Duckworth an early evening slot at Glastonbury, and there’ll be no stopping him. Just you wait and see.
With the sold out NME Rock’n’Roll Riot Tour lined up for tomorrow, and The Divine Comedy scheduled for November, Nottingham Trent is clearly serious about re-establishing its Shakespeare Street building as a venue for “name” acts. After a gap of over a decade, this is welcome news, as the hall lends itself superbly to live music. The stage has been shifted onto the long wall, allowing the crowd to spread itself out, visibility is excellent, and the acoustics are spot-on.
None of this was enough to lift Mumm-Ra’s support set out of competent mediocrity. The band cut their teeth with two-hour experimental Krautrock jam sessions in village halls – but such experimentalism is long gone, replaced by the sort of tame orthodoxy which has characterised far too many of this year’s bands. They need to get their Krautrock back, and fast.
Thankfully, The Automatic took the evening to a new level, aided by excellent lighting from the impressive rig, and an inventive series of brain-scrambling animations on the cinema-sized screen behind them, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Super Furry Animals last came to town.
It would have been understandable if they had been weighed down by Monster, their ubiquitous mega-hit of the summer. (Indeed, it was cheekily introduced as a “Status Quo cover version”.) However, a tight, energetic, confident set showed that the band have stepped up to the mark admirably, and are already at ease in larger venues.
An unexpected highlight was a cover of Kanye West’s Gold Digger, which had the irrepressible keyboardist Alex Pennie rapping over vocalist Rob Hawkins’ flute, in a kind of hip hop/Jethro Tull soundclash (ask your Dad).
If straight-up, student-friendly, NME-approved guitar rock has begun to bore you, then The Automatic are the hugely enjoyable exception to the rule.