Cobby & Litten (Live Debut Performance) – The Polar Bear, Hull. 22nd October 2016
After heralding their album ‘the best of the year‘ and a great interview, Ged Babey dearly wanted to go to this gig, but his bank balance said otherwise. Instead though, he asked Mike Robbo, if he fancied writing a brief and unbiased review for Louder Than War.
The city of Hull will be UK City of Culture in 2017. Its reversal of fortune quite spectacular from being the whipping boy for decades in those ‘Crap Towns’ books and lists that became popular around the turn of the millennium, as we seemed to become obsessed with things that we hate, to now being hailed as some kind of Bohemian utopia in some sections of the press. Both extremes are stretching it a bit, but as preparations for next year are well underway, there’s a genuine buzz about the place, as well as unwanted attention, notably a visit from Vice, by a clueless young cretin who chose a ‘rainy Wednesday in January’ to spew out his misguided observations of the place. There’s loads of cool stuff going on next year, and it should be an excellent chance to showcase all that’s great about the city once the refurbishment of the town’s streets has been completed, and an excellent chance for us to put right a few misconceptions about Hull and take the bull by the horns, and to use an old fishing metaphor, as the trawling industry is so ingrained into the culture here, ‘you have to put your bait out there and see what happens.’
Hull UK City of Culture 2017 started on 22nd October 2016, in The Polar Bear.
Steve Cobby and Russ Litten made their debut performance together in that building; an old listed building whose claims to fame include a ceramic bar counter front, one of only about 10 still surviving in England, and the fact that David Bowie drank there in his pre-fame days; Bowie’s links with Hull, a source of great pride in the city, as The Spiders From Mars were all local lads. These days, it’s more the creative hub for the beatnik crowd.
There have been a few decent albums this year: Bowie’s swansong, Nick Cave’s latest, Bon Iver’s resurface, The Avalanches’ long-awaited comeback; personal favourites, Teenage Fanclub, Wilco, Steve Mason, Tindersticks and Jamie T, all releasing standout long-players. But the album of the year for me is My People Come From The Sea, a peerless collaboration from two of Hull’s most celebrated mavericks. A marriage made outside the boundaries of mainstream society. A meeting of two idiosyncratic minds.
Steve is the famed producer of downtempo electronic music, whose musical CV includes being at the helm of Ashley & Jackson, Fila Brazillia, The Solid Doctor, The Cutler, his two recent solo albums, as well as extensive remix work for such heavyweights as Radiohead, Simple Minds and The Orb. Russ is the celebrated novelist, poet, screenwriter and raconteur extraordinaire, his 3 excellent novels ‘Scream if You Want To Go Faster’, ‘Swear Down’ and ‘Kingdom’ all essential reads which have led to comparisons with modern-day greats such as Irvine Welsh, John Niven and John King. Together, they have crafted an outstanding piece of work which marry Russ’ ruminations on life in Austerity Britain, fragmented memories from his childhood and tales of life’s forgotten men and women to Steve’s swathes of electronica and sometimes stark beats exercising his expert studio wizardry to great effect. It sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard, and it’s unmistakably Hull, Russ’ broad, chewy, accent taking centre stage, making no concessions to claims that our accent is impenetrable. It sounds amazing. Like John Cooper Clarke backed by a 21st Century Kraftwerk.
I run a small club night in Hull at The Polar Bear called Freak Scene, originally intended for middle-aged people who refuse to grow up, to listen and dance to music from their glory years. It’s got reasonably popular, with young and ‘old’ alike, and earlier this year, myself and the infamous landlord, Uncle Dave, decided to put bands on to flesh it out a little, featuring members of such local heavyweights as The Paddingtons, Mother, Fire (The Unstoppable Force), Pearl’s Cab Ride, The Evil Litter, and countless others. It would be an understatement to say it’s worked out quite well. It’s a hobby, I play tunes I like, get free booze and put it all together in a ramshackle, cack-handed way. I never thought I’d be able to put on the creators of my favourite album of the year.
It was born out of a pissed up text conversation with Russ, at about 1am one night in the summer, where I somehow plucked up enough lubricated courage to cheekily ask if he’d like to perform the album at my night. His immediate response was ‘Would love to’ which took me by surprise and I probably started to get all fanboyish. Within 5 minutes he had contacted Steve and sent ‘Just asked Cobby, he’s up for it.’ As easy as that. It made me think I should get pissed up and send Mani a text asking if The Stone Roses would play. So we provisionally booked a date ‘sometime in October’, enough time for Russ to ‘learn the words.’ Jurassic Park! Eat my goal! And other Partridge exclamations of joy.
So we put the wheels in motion for what would eventually turn out to be the unofficial curtain raiser for The City of Culture celebrations a full two months ahead of the official, obligatory firework display on January 1st. We got the posters done, chucked a few e-flyers up on social media and spread the word. Both have got a large following in Hull, so it was never going to be a worry, a good turnout was guaranteed. The only worry was that I going to be exposed as the charlatan that I am next to an actual internationally renowned DJ. Then I just thought ‘fuck it, we’ll all be suitably refreshed by that point that no one will give a fuck.’ There was a huge buzz in the weeks leading up to the gig, as old-timers getting as excited as the young folk as they prepared for their yearly night on the town. It was mainly word-of-mouth and minor irritation on social media, but you could feel the excitement and anticipation leaping out of the ubiquitous phone screens. More delight was created with the announcement that Steve was going to play one of his legendary DJ sets a couple of weeks ahead of the gig. Add to this a surprise release the day before the gig of four new songs on The Polar EP, which sees the duo take their singular vision into new waters. If anything, it develops the template, and leaves you craving for more; the sounds a little warmer than its predecessor’s harsh beats, and Russ becoming more confident in his delivery, weaving his spoken word prose into the beats, his words inhabiting the music.
We didn’t bargain on what was to come though.
People started to wander into the pub unusually early, the place being reasonably busy at about 8pm. Steve and Russ’ family members had reserved a booth next to the stage which expanded over the next couple of hours, as proud parents, spouses, siblings and extended family members got the party started in quite impressive fashion, Steve’s sister and mum, leading the charge to the dancefloor as I played my usual cocktail of The Clash, New Order, Massive Attack and Talking Heads in an attempt to get people up on their feet and shaking their stuff, ready for the main event. By 10.30 they took the stage with all the nonchalance of the seasoned pros they are. And then it kicked off. What we’d been waiting for.
The audience, mainly comprised of local artists, musicians, writers, teachers, poets and social workers lend the event quite a bohemian atmosphere, rubbing shoulders with the regular, open-minded, cultured clientele, The Polar Bear attracting quite an arty crowd anyway. It’s a comfortable communion, and there’s a hushed sense of expectancy as the two take centre stage. 90% of attendees there for them, the people who wander in blind off the streets must have wondered what the fuck they are witnessing. It certainly isn’t your regular Saturday night covers band playing ‘Proud Mary’ and ‘Hotel California.’
They launch into ‘Spiderman Unmasked,’ off the new EP, a tale about an immigrant who ‘fell off the back of a lorry’ armed with a ‘phrasebook and a passport he bought off a bloke,’ Steve orchestrating the electronic soundscapes like some mad conductor while Russ spits out his poetry like some bastard love-child of Mark E Smith and Shaun Ryder, all delivered in his inimitable Hull brogue. The crowd have gathered in front of the stage and look on in awe, unsure of quite what to do. Was this dance music or a poetry reading? The sounds booming through the speakers are unprecedented, and it takes a couple of numbers for both the crowd and the performers to loosen up as they get more familiar with the form. There are minor technical difficulties at the beginning as some struggle to hear the vocals clearly, but that’s quickly remedied by the slide of a channel upfader. Next up, seamlessly mixed together with the first track, is ‘Tinder Surprise,’ evidently already a crowd favourite, despite the fact it is being aired live for the first time. The crowd move with recognition of its refrain of ‘Just slide left,’ the song a dark tale of a rather loathsome character cruising dating app Tinder, people now dancing to the bouncy rhythm and chanting the chorus of sorts back at the duo. People are captivated and the assembled throng are creating an energy that the men onstage are clearly feeding off.
The pair’s skills as masters of improvisation start to come to the fore, as Steve piles on the effects, twisting and bending the vocals and the music so it sounds like a mindwarped aural equivalent of a Salvador Dali painting, and Russ ad-libbing lines to comedic effect, the barbed monologues taking new shapes as he grows more confident and indeed, drinks more cider. ‘Iceland’ follows, an account of a ‘single mam’, crushed by punishing austerity measures, resorting to shoplifting in Iceland, and the internal monologue she’s having, Russ inhabiting the female protagonist perfectly. People are now grooving along to the beats, all smiles, drinks being used as props for a spot of air drumming, the duo onstage also shimmying along to the magic they created, that started out as two middle-aged men pissed up, just having a laugh, spinning spangled stream-of-consciousness yarns in Steve’s shed. The improv becomes more flexible as the set progresses, as they play every track, bar two, that they’ve put out. Other standout tracks in a set of highpoints are ‘I Can See The Lights,’ about Russ escorting his dad home after a few pints, his dad recounting anecdotes from his glory days, and ‘Tongue,’ a faster-paced recollection of a childhood memory about someone biting their tongue off. They really hit their stride with this new art form early on and the crowd lap it up, those newly-purchased leaf-green and maroon Wallabees respectively, seeing some action as they shuffle along to their creations, Russ’ rasping rambling diatribes becoming more ostentatious, and Steve’s technical muscles being flexed, taking the music into hitherto unchartered territory.
They save the best til last though. The northern soul stomper, ‘I’m A Mate of Dean’s’ takes the roof off, the tale of a one-sided homosexual romance in a meat factory leaving people spellbound and gagging for more. It’s a brief 1 minute 32 seconds of joyous sonic brilliance which sees everyone throwing themselves around with beaming faces usually reserved for a warehouse rave circa 1989. It’s a superlative parting shot, and as the music stops, Russ is still barking random thoughts over the mic as the crowd give uproarious approval.
It’s a stunning set, and encapsulates all that the City of Culture should represent, the piece of art they’ve created is as vital as anything out there. The fact that two middle-aged men in comfortable shoes are creating a document of the times we live in should be a source of shame to the young bucks, these vignettes represent not just the city, but the country as a whole, comparable to the importance of groups like The Specials and The Clash in terms of their message, and they’ve shown on that Saturday night, that it’s just as powerful in a live environment. It’s an absolute triumph, but we’re not finished yet, Steve delivers a masterclass in DJing for 90 minutes, playing everything from disco, electro and northern soul, to old-school house classics. A hard act to follow, so I just bang on some more house and indie anthems for the last 90 minutes, and people scatter into the night entirely satiated. As it should be.
The social media posts that followed were immediate and rabid with their praise, so what’s gone down is the perfect prelude of what’s to come in the following year. What’s gone down here is biblical, and people will be talking about it for a long time.
These are trying times, and the city of Hull, badly neglected since it suffered enormous damage during World War 2, and the decline of its once great status as one of the country’s most prosperous ports, seems to be on the up. The people of Hull must get a special mention here, they are fiercely proud of their city, and unique in their worldview, its remoteness causing almost a siege mentality, literally when Charles I was denied entrance to the town in 1642, triggering The English Civil War, resulting ultimately with his execution and the abolition of the monarchy. Yes, the people are ferociously resilient, and we can weather a bit of bad press, it feels like this once great powerhouse of the fishing and whaling industries is on the rise again. We no longer have to search through the annals of history for glory, from the aforementioned Civil War and the prosperous fishing industry and commercial gateway to Europe and beyond afforded from having the UK’s 3rd largest port, through Amy Johnson, Philip Larkin, The Spiders From Mars and The Housemartins. We don’t need to look back anymore, the future’s there for the taking. And the great people of Hull can feel a sense of optimism after being disregarded for so long, and they deserve it. Who knows, we may even precipitate the monarchy’s abolition again…
The communion on display tonight was indicative of what can happen when it all comes together perfectly. Hull’s unique brand of serendipity, all elements synchronising to make a uniquely HULL celebration. Two exceptionally gifted, nonconformist artists onstage playing music from the future, a wonderfully diverse crowd of people exuding positivity, in a historical, welcoming venue and a gloriously eclectic playlist; it’s a superb showcase of the real culture we have to offer in this city, regardless of what happens next year. That one was for the people of Hull, an all-star cast.
Let me sign off with a Facebook post from an old friend, Chris Cagney, posted immediately after the gig, who says it far more succinctly in a few words, what I have taken 2,500 words to say:
Hull culture is extended family dancing joyously all night to a local poet of national standing backed by a musician producer of international standing on 150 year old parquet floors under an ornate dome in a bar once frequented by sailors and whalers with people you have known since you were 15. I wish the incoming pros all the best, but for me Hull City of Culture is Robbo, Cobby and Litten and the women who love them.
My People Come From the Sea is available from here
The brilliant new Polar EP is available from here.
All words by Mike Robbo. Photos by Dee Norton and Mark Richardson.
Maybe it isn’t the ‘done thing’ to allow a promoter to review a gig he has put on himself, but Cobby & Litten have made such exceptional ‘art’ in 2016, and this gig just HAD to be covered. Mike has done so with style and passion and unique insight. Thanks mate (Ged Babey on behalf of LTW)