Mike Atkinson

Elton John – Nottingham Capital FM Arena, Tuesday June 24

Posted in Capital FM Arena, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on October 15, 2014

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

Personally invited by Elton John onto this section of his world tour, Bright Light Bright Light – the alter ego of Welsh-born Rod Thomas – delivered a crisp, well received set of tuneful, heartfelt electronic pop. Elton guested on his last single, and a second album, Life Is Easy, is due out next month. “The best thing is that we get to watch Elton every night for a month”, Rod grinned, enjoying every moment of his time on stage.

Despite all the sumptuous, extravagant gloss of his celebrity lifestyle, an Elton John show is first and foremost about the music. The staging was straightforward and gimmick-free, and the performances were spirited, soulful and technically immaculate. Over the course of 26 songs and nearly two and a half hours, the 67 year-old superstar drew on material that spanned 44 years of continuing success, from his 1970 breakthrough hit Your Song to the most recent album, The Diving Board.

To mark the 40th anniversary reissue of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, the set opened with selections from the classic double album, starting with the whole of Side One. A magnificent Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding set the bar high, the lights coming up during its atmospheric instrumental overture to reveal the band, which included long-term collaborators Davy Johnstone on guitar and Nigel Olsson on drums. Dark suits and dark glasses were the order of the day, with a side order of glitter on Elton’s costume.

Hopping back a couple of years to the Madman Across The Water album, Levon and Tiny Dancer were early highlights, the former showcasing Elton’s piano-playing prowess with the first of many dazzling, rapturous solo breaks. This was to become a common theme for the set, as songs were extended and brought to thrilling instrumental climaxes. During these passages, the players exchanged broad smiles, nodding approvingly at each other, as if hearing each other for the first time.

A stately, mellifluous piano solo introduced Rocket Man, teasing us with its unfamiliarity before eventually cutting to the familiar opening line. The ovation at the end of the song drew Elton away from his piano for the first time, as he acknowledged our applause from each corner of the stage. This was good news for the seated punters on the left hand side, as they finally got to see more than the back of his head.

Introducing Oceans Away, written to commemorate the centenary of the First World War, Elton dedicated the song to the memory of those who lost their lives in military conflict. “Everyone who fights for freedom for us deserves our respect”, he told us. Appropriately enough, it was followed by Someone Saved My Life Tonight, another standout moment. Elsewhere, Philadelphia Freedom was so funky, that even the cameraman at the side of the stage couldn’t help jigging along.

Towards the end of Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me, as if summoned by an invisible signal, the punters in the front three rows surged towards the edge of the stage, ready for the final rock-out: I’m Still Standing, The Bitch Is Back, Your Sister Can’t Twist and a rip-roaring Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting.

They stayed put for the encore: Your Song, a glorious Are You Ready For Love, and a gleefully celebratory Crocodile Rock. Reprising the first verse, Elton cheekily altered the lyric – “I remember when rock was young, Doctor Crippen had so much fun” – as Davey Johnstone mimed an axe murderer’s chop.

Blending much-loved classics with favourite album tracks from Elton’s vast catalogue, the set ranged from stripped-down balladry to blue-eyed soul and surging rock, uniting the generations and reminding us of Elton John’s continued mastery of his craft, both vocally and instrumentally. He can come back and entertain us as often as he likes. An outstanding night.

Set list: Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding, Bennie and the Jets, Candle in the Wind, Grey Seal, Levon, Tiny Dancer, Believe, Philadelphia Freedom, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Rocket Man, Hey Ahab, I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues, The One, Oceans Away, Someone Saved My Life Tonight, Sad Songs (Say So Much), All the Girls Love Alice, Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me, I’m Still Standing, The Bitch Is Back, Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock ‘n Roll), Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting, Your Song, Are You Ready for Love, Crocodile Rock.

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Katy Perry – Nottingham Capital FM Arena, Sunday May 11

Posted in Capital FM Arena, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on May 12, 2014

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

No one could ever accuse Katy Perry of doing things by half measures. Just over three years after her last visit, she returned to Nottingham with a stage show that was every bit as breathtakingly elaborate as before.

This was just the fourth date on Katy’s Prismatic World Tour, which she will be performing around the world from now until December, and although the staging was technically flawless, her crew took a lot longer than planned to put everything in place.

This wasn’t good news for the fans queuing outside, who were kept waiting for an extra 90 minutes, and it was even worse news for those with trains to catch at the end of the night, who were obliged to leave the venue well before the final encore. The Arena’s Twitter account was suitably apologetic, but as for La Perry herself, there was apparently no room in her script to say “sorry folks, we messed up”.

That said, the 90 minute delay had shrunk to 45 minutes by the time that Katy took to the stage, and no time-saving cuts were made to the two-hour extravaganza, which finished twenty-five minutes short of midnight. There must have been a lot of yawning in class on Monday morning, but in the grand scheme of things, it was a small price to pay.

Opening the show with Roar, perhaps her biggest hit to date, Katy emerged from a collapsing pyramid, in the centre of a massively extended triangular stage that reached more than halfway into the Arena’s standing section. In the middle of this triangle, her superfans were enclosed in a special pen, cut off from the rest of the crowd. This wasn’t perhaps the ideal vantage point, as their idol spent a lot of time at the very front of the stage, with her back turned to them – but they still looked appropriately thrilled throughout.

Setting the bar courageously high for the rest of the show, Roar featured tribal warriors with illuminated Mohicans and light spears, luminous skipping ropes, backwards conveyor belts that held the running dancers stationary – and that was before we got to the rising, rotating platforms, the high wires, the trapezes, the floating prisms, the giant teacups and all the rest of it. In the midst of this spectacle, Katy shimmied, hoofed and mugged, ever the showgirl, in a space-age crop top and matching skater skirt. The hem of her skirt and the edges of her top were also illuminated, as were the braids in her pony tail.

“We’re back”, she announced. “Let’s be in this moment, right now, together. Let’s forget about tomorrow!” Across the hall, anxious mothers checked their watches, while their daughters screamed with unrestrained delight.

While the 2011 show stuck to a carefully themed narrative, the Prismatic Tour jumped between wildly contrasting sections. For the second act, the stage turned into Ancient Egypt, as Katy reappeared on a gigantic golden horse, dressed as Cleopatra. For the third act, she returned to her alter ego, “Kitty Purry”, clad in a hot pink catsuit with matching ears, standing on a ball of wool.  Towards the end of the show, dayglo and neon were the order of the day, with an early Nineties retro feel; a bra top was adorned with smiley faces on each breast, and a black and white yin-and-yang skirt rose ever higher from the stage. Elsewhere, an inflatable pink Cadillac transported the dancers along the catwalks – Nicki Minaj had one of those, too, but this was a sturdier construction – while a giant pink champagne bottle and a tube of lipstick floated around the sides of the hall.

Things calmed down for the acoustic section, giving Katy a chance to focus on her interpretative skills, on new album tracks such as By The Grace Of God and Double Rainbow. Although this did rather expose her limitations as an artist – sincerity isn’t her strongest suit – it did allow her to forge a more personal connection with her fans. “I usually don’t perspire, but my back is sweating right now”, she confessed, before reaching for a refreshing pint of beer. “Down it! Down it!”, the crowd chanted, in true Nottingham style. “I am a lady!”, she retorted, before handing most of her pint over to a grateful punter, with a word of caution: “I have a bit of a cold, so drink it – but I’ll be with you for between ten days and two weeks.”

Towards the end of the acoustic section, Katy took out her phone and called her mother, to wish her a happy Mother’s Day (in the US, they celebrate on a different date). “She has no idea, so let’s put her on speaker phone, and see what comes out of her mouth.” Mother Perry handled the surprise well, graciously wishing us all goodbye at the end of the call. It was a rare unscripted moment, and all the more entertaining for it.

Having focussed on her most recent album, Prism, for most of the show, Katy returned to some of her older hits for the finale: Teenage Dream, California Gurls, and a showstopping rendition of Firework. Alone on the stage in a voluminous multi-coloured skirt, she twirled beneath the pyrotechnics, singing her heart out, caught up in the moment, and unabashedly lapping up the experience for all it was worth. The triumph was deserved. No one else at the top of their game in contemporary pop is working it as hard as Katy Perry right now; for while Gaga and Bieber might be stumbling, she continues to reign supreme.

Set list: Roar, Part Of Me, Wide Awake, This Moment/Love Me, Dark Horse, E.T., Legendary Lovers, I Kissed A Girl, Hot N Cold, International Smile/Vogue, By The Grace Of God, The One That Got Away/Thinking Of You, Double Rainbow, Unconditionally, Walking On Air, It Takes Two, This Is How We Do/Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.), Teenage Dream, California Gurls, Birthday, Firework.

“Value of working in close harmony”

Posted in features, Nottingham Post by Mike A on March 25, 2014

Originally published in the Business section of the Nottingham Post, to accompany an interview with George Akins of DHP Family.

The rising fortune of Nottingham’s music scene has much to teach us about the value of co-operation and collaboration. Shorn of the backbiting cliquishness of former years, a genuine sense of community now prevails, where new talent is welcomed and championed, and the success of more prominent acts sets an inspiring example for emerging artists.

Over the past three years, eight acts have signed to national labels, spanning a wide variety of genres: from Saint Raymond’s catchy indie-rock to Harleighblu’s fresh take on classic soul. During that time, Jake Bugg’s chart-topping success has shone a new light on the city, sending record company A&R teams regularly scuttling up to showcase gigs.

Three years ago, you would have struggled to find a Nottingham act headlining a DHP show. Since then, Dog Is Dead have sold out Rock City, Jake Bugg has headlined the Splendour Festival and filled the Capital FM Arena, and three artists are booked to top the bill at the Rescue Rooms over the next few weeks. Meanwhile, a welcome shift in booking policy has seen countless local acts filling support slots at DHP venues, offering valuable experience of working larger stages.

Further encouragement is provided by the likes of LeftLion magazine, which has noticeably increased its music coverage, and Mark Del’s NUSIC team, who provide podcasts, filmed sessions, workshops and school tours. Over at BBC Radio Nottingham, Dean Jackson has been a stalwart champion of East Midlands talent; thanks to his efforts, Nottingham music has been added to national radio playlists, and represented at the Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds festivals. Elsewhere, an enthusiastic and interconnected network of promoters, venues, studios and independent labels all have their part to play.

Blessed with the imminent arrival of Notts TV, which is sure to give the scene a further significant boost, Nottingham’s thriving music community is both an inspiration, and a source of immense pride.

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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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Interview: Roy Ayers

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on December 23, 2013

Originally published in the Nottingham Post

Your current touring schedule looks insane. You’re playing a large number of countries this month alone, including three separate trips to the UK. Is this a typical month for you?

Whatever they present to me when they do the booking, I just go along with it. I’ve been doing this for many years, and I’m 73 now. So it’s no problem; it’s great.

It’s the sort of schedule that could exhaust a man half your age. How do you maintain your energy levels?

I guess I maintain it by eating the right foods and staying healthy, not using alcohol or drugs, or anything like that. I keep my body clean; that’s the key to a healthy life.

Are you the sort of person that likes to get out and about, exploring each city you visit?

When I was young, but I don’t do that anymore. With most of the cities I’ve been to, I’ve travelled to them many times. I’ve been to Paris many times, and to London many, many times. So I don’t hang out anymore. It’s not even a thrill anymore. I just enjoy performing and sleeping and travelling.

Are there any places you’ve not yet played, that you would still like to visit?

The only place I haven’t been is most of the Middle Eastern countries. That’s because so many of them are having problems, like Syria and Egypt. I always wanted to go to Egypt. But I’ve been to almost every other country in the world. I’ve been to China, Russia, Brazil, and of course I work a lot in the USA.

How does your instrument, the vibraphone, handle all the travel? Is it a robust instrument?

I play a vibraphone called KAT. It’s small like a piano. It’s not huge, like the big vibraphone, so it’s easy to handle. Not only do I get the vibraphone sound, but I also get all kinds of synthesiser sounds. It’s very handy, very easy and portable.

How did you first start learning to play the vibraphone?

I got all of my musical training through Mr Samuel Browne, my high school teacher. He taught me musical history, and of course harmony. I graduated from there in 1958. And of course I’ve played with so many great artists. I went on to play with Herbie Mann, which was when I really started to get international recognition. I’ve worked with people like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Henderson from the Jazz Crusaders. I’ve recorded with Rick James, and I’ve done albums with George Benson. There’s so many great artists that I been with, like Guru’s Jazzmatazz and Donald Byrd, and I’m continuing to have a wonderful career.

Is the vibraphone difficult to learn?

It’s a difficult instrument, because it requires balance. When I was a little younger, I used to experiment with things. I used to put a towel over the top and play to people, because I remember where all the notes are. I got my first set of vibraphone mallets from Lionel Hampton when I was five years old, so I always wanted to be like Lionel Hampton. At one time, when I was very young, I was thinking I was going to be Lionel Hampton. When I grew up, my mother and father always played his music, so I was reared on Lionel Hampton.

Your music has never gone out of style. With some other artists, the audience will get older as they get older, but it’s not the case with you. You keep getting new generations turning up to your shows. Does that surprise you?

No, it doesn’t. It makes me feel good. As it happens, I have more sampled hits than anyone else in the music industry. It really made me feel good when they told me that. I have maybe 44, 45 songs that have been sampled by hip hop artists, and most of the songs that have been sampled have been hits, which is wonderful.

You’ve always been musically broad-minded. You’ve embraced jazz-funk, disco, Afrobeat, hip hop and house music. I’d like to know about your collaboration with the late Fela Kuti. What was it like, working with him?

It was a pleasure working with Fela Kuti in Nigeria. I spent almost a month over there with him. He was a mystery genius, because he taught his band, all of them, how to play in jail. He was a truly remarkable individual. Musically he was very on top of it, and he was a nice guy. I still have a couple of gigs that I did with him on video, in 1979. It’s never been seen, but it’s something that I plan on issuing later on. I have it in New York.

You’ve also worked with house musicians such as Masters At Work and Kerri Chandler. What was your first introduction to house music?

They come up with so much stuff over there in England, and that’s where I was exposed to it. I heard about it in New York, but I really heard about it on a much more popular level in England. It was so interesting to have all those kinds of transitions coming through my ears, because music continues to grow, and new expressions are happening, and I still continue to have a good time exploring new innovations.

What kind of band leader are you? Are you from the James Brown school of strict discipline, or are you more laidback?

I’m from the Herbie Mann school. He was the best leader that I’ve ever been with, and I run my band the same way. He was not very strict, but he was very organised and very together. He took care of business, and everybody got paid.

Do you always keep to the same set list, or are you open to requests?

Sometimes, in the middle of the show. I don’t mind them, if I have them planned. But sometimes people call for songs that I don’t retain any more; I’ve done 86 albums!

If I was asking for a song, it would be We Live In Brooklyn, Baby. Is that part of your repertoire?

We do that every night. We sing, “We live in Brooklyn baby, we’re trying to make it baby”, and then later on in the song we sing “We shop at Tesco’s, baby!”

Can’t Stop Won’t Stop and Goodtimes present Roy Ayers & Ubiquity live at The Approach on Sunday December 22.

Kagoule, Hang, Bluebird – Nottingham Lacehouse, Friday December 6

Posted in gigs, Lacehouse, Nottingham Post by Mike A on December 23, 2013

Originally published in the Nottingham Post

For the first date of Kagoule’s UK tour, which will take them as far afield as Aberdeen and Brighton, the teenage alt-rock trio opted to play a special gig in the basement of the Lacehouse. While the bar’s regular Friday night crowd hopped around upstairs to cheesy Eighties hits, the basement filled with a markedly different set of punters, who thronged around a central performance space.

In the middle of the room, the three bands on the bill – Kagoule, Hang and Bluebird – performed in the round, facing each other, their monitors arranged inwards. Rope lighting marked out the boundaries of their zone, giving the cellar a crypt-like feel.

For the audience, this was a chance for an up-close and personal experience, which gave us an extra focus on the dynamics between the players. The volume might have been skull-crushingly loud, but the experience was curiously, and thrillingly, intimate.

Bluebird are a young band, who haven’t been performing for long, but they’re already impressively tight. Offering a fresh take on classic emo, their songs navigated complex twists and turns, stops and starts. Hopefully we’ll be seeing a lot more of them in 2014.

Hang started their set with a basic, chugging two-chord riff, which seemed like it would never end. It formed the starting point for a uniquely immersive set, performed as one continuous instrumental piece. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the riff twisted into new shapes. As the guitar and bass kept a steady pulse, and the keyboards added sonic texture, the drummer was left free to roam, adding rhythmic colour to the hypnotic groove.
Pitched halfway between Hawkwind and Hookworms, and tempered with Krautrock’s unflashy precision, Hang’s set was utterly spellbinding.

It has been almost two years since Kagoule burst onto the Nottingham scene, with their landmark appearance at Rock City with Dog Is Dead – and yet the band members are still only just old enough to order beers at the bar. Having completed their education over the summer, Cai Burns (lead vocals, guitar), Lucy Hatter (bass) and Lawrence English (drums) are now free to concentrate on the band full-time, building on all the promise which they have consistently shown.

Inspired by Nineties alt-rock, as pioneered by the likes of Fugazi, Nirvana and Unwound, Kagoule breathe new life into the genre. Opening with Monarchy – their oldest song, written by Cai at the age of fifteen – they tore into their set with visceral power. Brought forward from his usual place at the back of the stage, Lawrence’s brilliant drumming was dragged right into the centre of the storm, underpinning Cai and Lucy’s instinctive chemistry.

The intensity lightened for the comparatively gentle Made In Concrete, before rising to new heights for new single Adjust The Way, perhaps their heaviest track to date. Encoring with a track so new that Cai apologised in advance for not remembering its words, Kagoule drew thunderous applause from the hometown crowd. If the staging had been an experiment, then it had paid off handsomely. Let’s hope that more city bands follow their example.

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Stornoway – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Monday November 25

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on November 28, 2013

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

Downsized from Rock City at the eleventh hour, Stornoway adapted to their reduced circumstances with good grace; they’re more of a Rescue Rooms band in any case, and the comparative intimacy of the room suited them well. Entering to the strains of the original Dr Who theme tune, they preluded their first song, Farewell Appalachia, with a delicate arrangement for triangle, torn newspaper, wood block and axe. It’s doubtful whether this would have worked so well on a larger stage.

Although they’ve been playing together since 2006, and releasing records since 2009, this was the band’s first visit to Nottingham, we were told. To mark the event, front man Brian Briggs had done some prior research, and he duly declared himself impressed to be performing in the birthplace of “cat’s eyes, HP sauce, shin pads and genetically modified tomatoes”.

Seeking to add spice to I Saw You Blink, a well-worn old favourite, Briggs had also been casting around for a song from a Nottingham band, whose lyrics he could work into the tune. “As I’m sure you are painfully aware, there aren’t many bands to choose from”, he told us, blithely unaware of the city’s reviving musical reputation. A snatch of Lightning Bolt might have been fun, and even Billy Don’t Be A Hero might have raised a smile, but we had to settle instead for KWS’s cover of KC and the Sunshine Band’s Please Don’t Go. Oh well, never mind.

A six-track mini-album, You Don’t Know Anything, was released a fortnight ago, and three of its tracks found their way into the set list. The best of these was Clockwatching, a rousing early highlight which collapsed into cacophony before the final refrain, like an explosion in a farmyard. Later in the set, the droll lyrics of the title track – “I’ve less energy than a stick of a celery” – raised chuckles in the crowd.

Stepping away from the mikes for an unamplified four-song sequence, Briggs performed November Song on his own – “the noise of the air conditioning you can imagine to be the wild winds”, he quipped – before gradually being joined by the rest of the band, their guest fiddler and their guest trumpeter. Again, such intimacy would have been impossible at Rock City, but here it drew perhaps the loudest applause of the night, particularly following the gentle hoedown of We Are The Battery Humans.

Perplexingly, the band’s most recent full-length release, Tales From Terra Firma, was poorly represented in the set list – it would have been particularly good to have heard Knock Me On The Head and Invite To Eternity, for example – but on the whole, the audience warmed most to the oldest songs, softly singing along to Boats & Trains and Fuel Up, both from the first album.

Pitched somewhere between Noah & The Whale’s folk-pop and Belle & Sebastian’s chamber-pop, with a fondness for nature and wildlife imagery that makes them naturals for the outdoor festival circuit, Stornoway have carved a serviceable niche for themselves. They’re clearly sensible and grounded fellows – perhaps a little too sensible and grounded at times, with a tendency towards pious over-tidiness that could do with keeping in check – but they do what they do well, at a level of success that should sustain them for a good while to come.

Set list: Farewell Appalachia, Clockwatching, I Saw You Blink, Boats & Trains, When You Touch Down From Outer Space, The Ones We Hurt The Most, Fuel Up, November Song, Josephine, You Don’t Know Anything, We Are The Battery Humans, Watching Birds, You Take Me As I Am, The Great Procrastinator, Zorbing.

Nina Smith – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Thursday November 21

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on November 28, 2013

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

It’s been a long time since we last heard from Nina Smith. For most of this year, she has been lying low, working on new material and developing a new sound, which sees her shifting away from acoustic pop and heading in a more soulful direction.

Having taken such a long break from performing, Nina needed to come back with a bang. Booking the main stage of the Rescue Rooms was a bold move – it’s the first time she has headlined there – but as she stepped onto the stage in front of a packed room, to wild applause, it was clear that the risk had paid off.

As an introductory video explained, Nina has forged a more “grown-up” approach to her songwriting and presentation, with a fuller, richer and funkier sound that draws inspiration from Alicia Keys, Carole King and Nineties R&B. With a new four-piece band, two new backing singers, and a brand new set of songs, she had set herself the task of effectively re-inventing herself in public.

Quirkily stylish in a black polka-dot top and crimson velvet hotpants, Nina radiated personality, warmth and charm, connecting with the room in an instant, and displaying a keen commitment to her new material. “Tired of closing curtains, I want to open up to sunshine”, she sang on Waiting For You, a song about hanging on to hope in an unrequited love affair – but the words fitted the occasion, too.

Elsewhere, Why Can’t I Sleep dealt with conflicting emotions at the end of a relationship, a theme that was revisited for I Wish, the eighth and final song of the night. There were more unrequited longings in This Love – “your heart’s not for sale, but I stole it” – while on Come Home (“let me show you, this is how it’s done”) and I Can’t Read You, Nina asserted her desires more explicitly. “You should come a little closer, take your clothes off”, she teased on the latter, drawing mid-song cheers.

Musical influences ranged far and wide. Opening the set, Love To Leave’s light reggae backbeat served the song well, and those Carole King influences came to the fore on Scars, a stripped down number for voice and piano.

Overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of the crowd, Nina couldn’t thank us often enough. There will be another chance to catch her performing for free this year, at the Royal Concert Hall on Tuesday December 3rd. In the meantime, she can take pride in this triumphant comeback, which opens a highly promising new chapter in her career.

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Public Service Broadcasting / Girls In Hawaii – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Wednesday November 13

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on November 19, 2013

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

Girls In Hawaii are a top five act in their native Belgium, who have yet to make much of an impact over here. Regrouping after the death of their drummer in 2010, they have just released their third album, Everest. It’s an understandably melancholy and subdued affair for the most part, which stands in marked contrast to the six-piece band’s muscular and varied live set. Whenever you think you’ve got the measure of them, they’ll throw in something unexpected: a funky keyboard vamp, a discordant howl, a big pop chorus.

Midway through the set, the two keyboard players abandon their posts, bringing the number of guitars on stage up to five. Wired to identical amps, two Telecasters are played in unison, fattening the sound; a simple but effective trick, which is repeated for the set’s closing song. By this stage, the formerly mild-mannered singer has vaulted one of the speaker stacks. Bathed in red light, his tambourine worn like a crown, he yells unintelligibly into an old-fashioned telephone receiver, as the band crank up the energy levels to a breathtaking degree. Nobody saw this coming. It’s a stunning moment.

The mood lightens for the headliners, who preface their set with a public information film of their own, warning us of the perils of Wafty Mobile Phone Camera Video Disorder: a welcome and hearteningly effective piece of propaganda.

Borrowing the words of Lord Reith, the founding father of the BBC, the title of Public Service Broadcasting’s album – Inform Educate Entertain – spells out their mission. Blending sound samples and video footage from vintage public information films with live drums, keyboards, guitars and banjo, they mash the past up with the present, with wit, style and dexterity.

To the right of the stage, the tweed-jacketed and bow-tied J. Willgoose, Esq. manipulates the sonic elements, looping and layering his live instruments, and punching sound samples from his array of kit. Even the stage banter is pre-recorded (“we have always wanted to play” – long pause – “Rescue Rooms”), including retorts to hecklers (“we’ve all had a few”). To the left, Wrigglesworth’s gleeful live drumming powers the set, while in the centre, Mister B controls the visuals, beaming pre-recorded and live footage onto two giant screens and two rickety towers of antique television sets. Completing the boffin look, all three performers sport the same thick-rimmed spectacles.

Two new tracks are performed, both of them in Dutch (“it seemed like the logical next step”), and featuring footage of the world’s biggest ice-skating race. Elsewhere, dandies in boutiques form the backdrop for The Now Generation (“how about these slacks?”), while Night Mail pays tribute to our most recently privatised public service, and Spitfire quotes from The First of the Few, a fictionalised account of the airplane’s construction that served as a morale-booster during World War Two.

It’s high-concept stuff, but there’s nothing too academic or remote about it either; “entertain” takes priority over “inform” and “educate” throughout, and the players clearly don’t take themselves too seriously. It’s difficult to see how they can sustain their act in the long-term, as its novelty is a large part of its appeal – but as of now, it’s a raging success, and a delight to witness.

The Invisible Orchestra – Nottingham Albert Hall, Friday November 1

Posted in Albert Hall, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on November 19, 2013

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

This had to be the best-dressed audience of the year. More burlesque parade than Halloween hangover, everywhere you looked there were masks and feathers, paired with dressy frocks and sharp suits. In one corner of the Albert Hall’s main bar, expert make-up artists applied elaborate facial adornments. Meanwhile, at the far end of the room, before the show and during each interval, Swing Gitan filled the dance floor with sprightly jazz.

In the upstairs hall, Origamibiro performed a peaceful, meditative opening set, blending looped effects and acoustic instruments with impressionistic visuals, and using contemporary techniques to evoke dream-like memories of a forgotten past. Sepia photographs merged into the decaying pages of old books; an ancient typewriter hammered out disconnected phrases onto a split screen. It was an oasis of calm in an otherwise riotous night.

Up from London, The City Shanty Band took to the stage in masks with Mickey Mouse ears. “We don’t know whether we’re mice or rats”, they confessed, before lurching into a boisterous set of sea-shanties that pitted nine lusty male voices against drums and occasional accordion. With arms thrown around each other’s shoulders, they stomped and clapped and roared, goading the hall into life. The set ended with a stage invasion, the drums growing ever faster as the singers roared their final battle cry: “all for beer and tobacco!”

With each successive performance, The Invisible Orchestra grows larger, and less invisible. They’re up to 42 players now, with an 11-piece brass section, a 13-piece choir, and a line-up which – as this paper has said before – makes Jools Holland’s Rhythm and Blues Orchestra look like a skiffle band. In logistical terms alone, it’s a phenomenal achievement.

After a slow-building instrumental overture, choir leader Rachel Foster stepped forward for the first guest vocal of the night – not that many in the audience would have known this, as none of the singers were introduced by name. She was succeeded by reggae legend Percydread, whose leg injury proved no barrier to a storming rendition of War.

By this stage, half the audience were on their feet. Following Ed Bannard’s slow-burning Into The Arms Of The Night, a crazed percussion duet between band leader James Waring and Sabar Soundsystem’s Mikey Davis brought the other half to their feet, ready for Hannah Heartshape’s electrifying No Time Like The Present. By the end of the song, the aisles and the front of the stage were packed with dancers. The Albert Hall probably hadn’t seen anything like it since The Rolling Stones played there in 1964.

Other star performers included  Emilios Georgiou-Pavli from Nottingham’s Hallouminati, who led the band with his bazouki, and a startlingly dapper MC $pyda, who drew on his dancehall roots for a reggae-soul workout.

Despite being marred by a terrible, soupy sound mix, which rendered the string section and the choir literally inaudible and blurred much of the percussion and keyboards, this was a spectacular performance, which succeeded in provoking unforgettable scenes of the most elegant mayhem.

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The Boomtown Rats – Nottingham Rock City, Tuesday October 29

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on November 8, 2013

Originally written for the Nottingham Post.

In the parallel universe of BBC4’s 1978 Top of the Pops re-runs, The Boomtown Rats are having a good year. As of now, Rat Trap – the first new wave Number One – has just knocked John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John off the top of the charts, making this an ideal time for the first ever Rats reunion.

To get himself back into role, Bob Geldof is spending the tour in an imitation snakeskin suit. He found it festering at the bottom of a drawer, we were told, with a stench that brought back such pungent memories, that he felt compelled to reform the band. It’s a cute myth, if more than a little unlikely.

It’s a role which Geldof hasn’t played for the thick end of thirty years. He’s 62 now, with a reputation as an international humanitarian campaigner that has buried the memories of his hit-making career. Nevertheless, as he told a newspaper last week, if he were writing these songs today, he wouldn’t change a word.

Listening to them again in a packed Rock City, you could see his point. Disturbed teens are still waging indiscriminate shooting sprees (I Don’t Like Mondays), or responding to tough economic times with a me-first, screw-you mindset (Looking After Number One). And if we were worried back then about state surveillance, then in the wake of Edward Snowden’s security leaks, the words of Someone’s Looking At You have never rung so true. “Facebook are selling your details to the highest bidder”, Geldof declared, in his only political harangue of the night.

Fronting a line-up of four original Rats and a couple of new recruits, the singer’s commitment to his material was astonishingly intense. On those old TV clips, he can seem a little gauche, a little try-too-hard – but the 2013 Geldof, for all his Jagger-esque posturing, is a captivatingly effective front man, breathing new life into songs that could otherwise have sounded dated and corny.

They might have ridden into town on the punk rock bandwagon, but the Rats were never much of a punk band at heart. They were always more Springsteen than Strummer, with the pizzazz of an Irish showband and a healthy dollop of Doctor Feelgood’s supercharged rhythm and blues.

The Feelgood connection came through loud and clear on (She’s Gonna) Do You In, as Bob whipped out his harmonica and dropped to his knees, showing surprising instrumental flair. Three songs later, the band dipped into new-wave reggae for Banana Republic, a bitter denunciation of the Irish establishment that caused the Rats to be banned from playing in their home country. “One of the few benefits of age is that sometimes you’re proved right”, said Sir Bob, in a scornful introduction.

Dropped into the middle of the set, I Don’t Like Mondays had everyone roaring the “tell me why” call to Geldof’s response. Similar mayhem greeted Rat Trap, following an extended Mary of the 4th Form whose middle section quoted from I Wanna Be Your Man, Born To Be Wild and John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom. Dodgy as that might sound on paper, the sequence worked brilliantly on stage.

Saved until the encore, Diamond Smiles reprised the tale of a doomed socialite, whose fate was tragically mirrored twenty years later by Paula Yates. The parallels can’t be lost on Geldof – he said as much in another recent interview – and indeed, there was something about the way we were urged to “sing it for me, sing it louder” that suggested he needed our support.

By this stage, he had more than earned it. Reunion tours are always risky propositions, but as this unexpectedly thrilling show demonstrated, The Boomtown Rats have absolutely made the right call.

Set list: (I Never Loved) Eva Braun, Like Clockwork, Neon Heart, (She’s Gonna) Do You In, Someone’s Looking at You, Joey’s on the Street Again, Banana Republic, She’s So Modern, I Don’t Like Mondays, Close as You’ll Ever Be, When the Night Comes, Mary of the 4th Form, Looking After Number One, Rat Trap, Never Bite The Hand That Feeds, Diamond Smiles, The Boomtown Rats.

 

Alison Moyet – Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Sunday October 27

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on November 8, 2013

Originally written for the Nottingham Post.

Surfing on the success of her highest-charting album since 1987, Alison Moyet has never seemed so at ease with herself. Having shed her old skin – figuratively and literally – she has re-emerged, six years after her last release, as a determinedly bold and uncompromising artist, showcasing a remarkably strong new collection of electronic-based material.

Banishing all traces of her jazz and blues influences, and stepping firmly away from the middle of the road, Alison’s current tour has picked up where 2008’s Yazoo reunion left off. Backed by two knob-twiddling synth players, who occasionally picked up the odd guitar or two, she offered a sound that was fully contemporary, without falling into the trap of merely chasing trends.

The new songs were dovetailed with electronically reworked versions of older singles – some hits, some more obscure – “so that I don’t end up being my own tribute act”. Although none of the back catalogue choices dated from beyond the mid-Nineties, they blended seamlessly with the 2013 material, giving us a fresh perspective on Alison’s body of work.

Four Yazoo tracks peppered the set list, ranging from a faithfully rendered Nobody’s Diary to a radically altered Only You, which successfully pitted the original melody against a minor-key arrangement. If you want the original, stay at home and listen to the record, she told us. “It’s so much cheaper! Otherwise, you’ll get what you are given.”

Such was Alison’s confidence, that two botched starts on one new song could be shrugged off with cheery laughter. (“That’s the first time this has happened, and I’ve been touring for two months. This set is going to be long, I can feel it!”) Reciting the forgotten line over and over again – “the shift of air, the turn of page” – she launched back into the track, ironically titled Remind Yourself. As the lyrical hurdle was finally vaulted, her persistence was rewarded by a nice big cheer.

Elsewhere, A Place To Stay nudged towards London Grammar territory, current single Changeling rubbed shoulders with dubstep, and Right As Rain bore a whiff of stripped-down electro-house. Of the older songs, the beats were removed from Ordinary Girl and Is This Love, highlighting the songcraft beneath, while All Cried Out and Love Resurrection were reinvigorated by a more pronounced sense of rhythm.

On the torchier tracks, most notably on a smouldering version of This House, Alison was captivatingly intense, drawing our full attention to her impassioned delivery. At other times, she brandished her mike stand and rocked out as never before, cutting an almost Bowie-esque figure. Towards the end of the show, as more dance-based elements came to the forefront, she shimmied and twitched with pleasing abandon, revealing herself as quite the nifty mover.

All of these incarnations – the balladeer, the rocker, the dance diva – were made all the more credible by her utter sincerity as a performer, and by the absence of anything resembling a stage persona. For after more than thirty years in the business, Alison Moyet seems more fully herself than ever before – and that’s a wonderful thing to witness.

Set list: Horizon Flame, Nobody’s Diary, When I Was Your Girl, Ordinary Girl, Remind Yourself, Is This Love, Filigree, Falling, A Place to Stay, Only You, Apple Kisses, Changeling, This House, All Signs Of Life, Right as Rain, Love Resurrection, Situation, Whispering Your Name, All Cried Out, Don’t Go.

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.

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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M People – Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Wednesday October 16

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Royal Concert Hall by Mike A on October 26, 2013

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

They may not have released any new material since the end of the Nineties, but M People have never really gone away. For their first full UK tour in eight years, the band are celebrating the twentieth anniversary of their breakthrough second album Elegant Slumming, with a greatest hits set. That said, it was a little strange to hear them repeatedly thanking us for the last twenty years, when they actually formed in 1990 – but, hey, who’s counting?

The evening started with a likeable support set from Tunde Baiyewu of the Lighthouse Family, whose smooth vocals and relaxed, benign manner instantly found favour. Opening with the crowd-pleasing Lifted, Tunde switched between old favourites and brand new material, ending with a rapturously received High.

Accompanied by fellow founder members Shovell on percussion and Paul Heard on keyboards, and backed by a further five musicians and two singers, M People’s Heather Small burst onto the stage in a blaze of gold lurex, as the players launched into One Night In Heaven. Her trademark “pineapple” hairdo is long gone – she wears it straight and long these days – but Heather’s unique vocal style is as recognisable as ever. She has some curious intonations, which are easy to caricature – step forward, Miranda Hart – but they give her voice both character and charm.

You won’t find much anger, heartbreak, or edginess in an M People song ; rage and pain just aren’t their style. Instead, they’re big on self-empowerment; we are forever being encouraged to stand strong, to reach for the skies and to believe in ourselves. These sorts of messages have become common currency in modern pop, but they were less common twenty years ago – so in this respect at least, you could argue that M People were ahead of their time.

In other respects, modern pop has left M People behind. Towards the end of their chart career, the club culture which helped to shape their sound had already moved on, leaving them working a formula that was beginning to tire. Tellingly, the current set list includes all the hits from the first four years, but just three from the final four years.

Among those older hits, the catchy piano-house of Renaissance was an early highlight, and Heather did a beautiful job on the band’s cover of the CeCe Rogers classic, Someday. Following a lengthy mid-set lull, as Heather changed into a silver trouser suit and the remaining players noodled on for rather too long, flagging spirits were revived by a rousing Open Your Heart and a super-extended Sight For Sore Eyes, which showcased Shovell’s percussion skills. And although fellow founder member Mike Pickering was absent on stage, saxophonist Snake Davis deputised in fine style, peppering the songs with fluid solos.

A three-song encore climaxed with the evergreen Moving On Up, whose defiant, I-will-survive sentiments finally gave Heather a chance to bare her teeth and show some scorn (“take it like a man, baby, if that’s what you are”).  A delighted crowd showed their love, the players took their bows, and the night finished on an exultant high, giving us all a much-needed twenty-first century shot of vintage Nineties optimism.

Set list: One Night In Heaven, Renaissance, Excited, Angel Street, Colour My Life, Someday, Search For The Hero, Natural Thing, Don’t Look Any Further, Open Your Heart, Sight For Sore Eyes, How Can I Love You More, Just For You, Itchycoo Park, Moving On Up.

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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Splashh / Charlie Boyer and the Voyeurs – Spanky Van Dykes, Nottingham, Thursday October 3

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Spanky Van Dykes by Mike A on October 26, 2013

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

It’s the first night of the tour, and Charlie Boyer and the Voyeurs have only made it to the venue in the nick of time. Within minutes of their arrival, they’re into the first song of their support set, lined up along a low stage that is all width and little depth. Centre partings and all-black outfits predominate, save for a trend-bucking keyboardist in a figure-hugging floral scoop-neck.

Viewed in a certain light, and at a certain angle, Boyer bears a fleeting resemblance to a young Ray Davies. His dour, faintly vexed demeanour is shared by the rest of the band, none of whom seem to be having much of a good time.

This is a shame, as the songs themselves are far from dour. Sometimes they spin off halfway through, into psych/space-rock territory. When this happens, it works very well indeed. At other times, particularly towards the end, the playing inches towards Quo/Creedence-style boogie. This is also pretty effective. If the players ever manage to break through their collective self-consciousness, it could be doubly effective.

It’s harder to gauge the stage presence of the headliners, as Splashh are practically invisible to all but the front row, illuminated only by the groovy Spankys light panels behind them. Happily, their sound is so immersive, and their playing so focussed and cohesive, that you can live without the visual distraction.

They’re significantly more echo-drenched on stage than on record, which does help to blur some perilously weedy vocals. Sonically, this is the rough equivalent of those last few mouthfuls of a Sunday roast dinner, when all the elements on your plate have fused into one flavoursome whole. This is, of course, the best bit of the whole dinner, so it’s a neat trick to extend the sensation over a full set.

There’s a lot of wanting going on in Splashh songs. On Vacation, they “wanna go where nobody knows”. On Need It, singer Sasha Carlson is itching for escape: “I wanna ride away, I’m leaving today, I want it today.” And then there’s recent single All I Wanna Do, whose title should be self-explanatory. Performed immaculately, it’s possibly the highlight of the set. There are also some new songs, including the episodic Peanut Butter And Jelly, which builds its energy by switching between radically different tempos.

A super-extended reworking of Need It ends the set. “We’ll try to keep it going for as long as we can”, they promise – and true to their word, a two-chord bass and drum breakdown gradually soars off into the stratosphere, boosted by abstract guitar textures and jet-plane-taking-off synth rumbles. Having spent the song talking about their need for escape, it’s almost as if they have managed to construct their own getaway. What better way to end a set, and start a tour?

Nottingham Rocks – Nottingham Theatre Royal, Saturday September 14

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

Returning to the Theatre Royal for a second year, Nottingham Rocks showcased four of the city’s most promising young musical talents, backed by a 14-piece orchestra under the direction of arranger Jonathan Vincent. Remarkably, most of the performers are still in their late teens, and none are over 21. For all of them, the evening presented a unique opportunity: to adapt their material to the demands of an orchestra, and to present themselves to a largely older audience, in a more formal setting than usual.

Georgie Rose and her three-piece band opened the evening in fine style, blending Georgie’s country-tinged balladry and strong songcraft with ambitious, dramatic arrangements. Channelling the spirits of Johnny Cash and Stevie Nicks, the 18-year old rose to the challenge with calm confidence.

With scarcely half a dozen gigs to their name – two of them at last month’s Reading and Leeds festivals – Amber are making astonishing progress. Commanding the stage like seasoned professionals, they brought uptempo rock energy to Heaven and the epic Little Ghost. Powerful orchestral stabs brought out the drama in Spark, and current single Noah, recently playlisted on Radio One, was a triumphant climax to the set. Great things must surely lie around the corner.

After a shaky start with Enough Now, Harleighblu’s set quickly improved, powered by the 21-year old soul singer’s warm stage presence and creamy, luxuriant vocal delivery. The gritty, hip-hop tinged neo-soul of her forthcoming début album was re-cast as sultry supper-club jazz, evoking comparisons with Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Receiving its live debut, Love Like This was boosted by a dreamily shimmering, Nelson Riddle-style string arrangement, turning the song into an instant classic.

Stepping away from his band, Saint Raymond’s Callum Burrows was faced with the challenge of marrying his rough-edged, decidedly blokey indie-rock with the controlled discipline of an orchestra. It could have been a car-crash – but as the sparky Everything She Wants converted to sprightly chamber-pop, and the reflective This Town blossomed into a mini-symphony, it became clear that the risk had paid off. Encoring with the hook-laden Fall At Your Feet, Callum left the stage beaming.

Although an impressive night in most respects, it wasn’t always a smooth and seamless ride. Compared with last year’s immaculate performance, the orchestra sounded ragged at times, exposing an awkward gap between the players at the front and the back of the stage. Perhaps a longer rehearsal period would have helped to iron out the wrinkles.

The evening was also in sore need of an on-stage compere, who could have introduced each act more fully, creating a stronger sense of occasion.

As for the four acts themselves, each should take immense pride in their achievements. As Georgie Rose said after the show, “Tonight was beyond special. One of those lifetime moments.”

Note: At the time of this review, Amber Run were known as Amber.

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Fuck Buttons – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Wednesday September 11

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

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

For an experimental act with an unprintable name, Fuck Buttons have made remarkable progress. Last summer, two of their tracks were selected to soundtrack Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony. A year later, they headlined the Park Stage at Glastonbury – going head-to-head with the Rolling Stones – and their third album, Slow Focus, recently entered the lower reaches of the Top Forty.

Following the eerie, doomy, abstract electronica of The Haxan Cloak, whose set climaxed with brain-scrambling waves of ear-splitting noise, Andrew Hung and Benjamin John Power took up their positions, facing each other over of a vast array of kit, and launched into Brainfreeze, their forthcoming single.

Live silhouetted images of the duo were superimposed onto computer-generated graphics behind them, offering a hypnotic visual accompaniment to the equally immersive soundtrack. Each epic track bled into the next, the transitions marked by shifts in the graphic themes.

Combining dance-derived dynamics with grinding noise/drone squalls, the music often teetered on the brink of euphoria, without ever fully surrendering to it. A fidgety, pummelling Tarot Sport got sections of the crowd moving, as did a soaring, comparatively melodic Olympians and an almost funky The Red Wing.

A small drum kit was briefly pressed into service at the start of Colours Move, the sole surviving track from the first album, Street Horrrsing. And although there were no vocal lines as such, indistinct shouts and yelps were blended into the mix; at one point, the pair looked as if they were yelling at each other over a bad phone connection, trading indecipherable private messages.

The set list was mostly unchanged from Glastonbury, except for the final track of the main set: Hidden Xs, which also closes the current album. A descending melodic chime played over and over, while synapse-frazzling whirrings, buzzings and blastings rained down upon us. Tinnitus was never so magnificently induced.