This month I taxed my car; visited a well-known Swedish furniture superstore in Ashton and bought some new bookshelves; went to the gym a few times; went to work most days; even went to the dentist. My life is often rather mundane, same as most people’s. When I was younger I dreamed of the great life I would have as a music journalist (we’re not all doing this because we’re failed musicians) – every week the NME, Sounds or Melody Maker would carry some article where a writer got to fly out to Seattle or Reykjavik to interview the city’s next big things or spend five days touring Japan with a band. All expenses paid and a wage at the end of it too, just for writing? Bonanza.
For various reasons, not least my passion for new music waning somewhat as my early twenties coincided largely with the Britpop era, I never pursued this youthful dream. Twenty years on, seventeen spent in a manufacturing engineering job, I sometimes wonder if I would still have the passion I do for music if I had managed to forge the career to which I’d vaguely aspired. Might have enjoyed a few of those expenses-paid international jollies before they largely went the same way as everything else record companies used to cough up for; might have got to a few more festivals than a real-world job with real-world annual leave allows; might have had a bigger CD collection. Might have ended up doing that thing that some ex music journalists do when they or their employer decides they’re too old to write about music: one of those regular columns where they write about their life and their opinions on things. Like taxing their cars, and going to the gym or the dentist, and how much fun it isn’t assembling the products of well known Swedish furniture stores. For me, though, music is still a pleasure, a passion, an escape from all that in which nobody sets my agenda – what you read here is the real life experience of someone who likes music a lot.
For the record, I certainly don’t think every band I see is amazing – although there is an undoubtedly positive spin on the stuff I write about here. There’s a good reason for that and it’s all to do with that full time job and the fact that this is squeezed in around it. Maybe I’m watching a band and my brain just glazes over; they’re not good or bad, they’re just – as the kids say – “meh”; maybe a band is truly inherently awful, or simply makes music I can not personally connect with. Unless they are being specifically hyped or having millions thrown at them (which may be worthy of note) I’m not going to waste even the smallest fraction of my life writing about them. These, then, are the good, great, awesome and above-average things I saw in February.
For a short month it seems a long time since the 2nd, when EVERYTHING EVERYTHING packed out Salford’s Islington Mill. They were just back from supporting Snow Patrol on an arena tour – which makes me wonder how the 75,000-odd couples who consider the likes of “Chasing Cars” to be “our tune” (sorry if that thought made you do a little sick) coped with the twisty and discordant likes of “Suffragette Suffragette”. Here on home turf (as in playing for Now Wave and their own crowd – yes, we know none of the band are originally from Manchester, does it matter? No, move on.)ÃÂ tracks from their Mercury nominated debut were interspersed with the first fruits of what will be album number two. I reckon it’s going to be good, some strong tunes there already.
The next day it was off down to Brighton for the monthly dose of BRITISH SEA POWER, whose Krankenhaus club hosted one of the strangest bills I’ve seen them on since the John Betjeman centenary events in 2006 where they performed alongside John “Bergerac” Nettles and Ralph McTell in a field in Cornwall then Ronnie Corbett, Dame Edna Everidge and Nick Cave at a London West End theatre. Here, the Brighton and Hove City Brass opened proceedings with brass band classics such as The Floral Dance and something I gathered, from the chanting from parts of the crowd, to be the Brighton And Hove Albion FC anthem. Next up was half of BSP playing a droney Krautrock backdrop for the perennially pissed performance poet Jock Scot who sort of comperes the shows in his own unique style; some more conventional (but good) modern indie from RACE HORSES; then a raucous set from a stripped down four-piece BSP. Mostly stripped down that is – the brass band joined them for a memorable “Waving Flags”. The icing on the cake though was a post-midnight set by a young band visiting the UK for the first time whose plane had landed just hours earlier, not that you’d have known from their energetic set: QUEER. A Japanese Queen tribute band. Why and indeed how this came about is a mystery, but I’ve already filed it under “things I never knew were lacking from my life until I experienced them”. Not a tribute band in the studied note-for-note sense, theirs was a faster, punkier take on the songs we all know and love/hate; the piano introduction to “Bohemian Rhapsody” could have been the ghost of Les Dawson. The same irreverence applied to their appearance with the Brian character’s ridiculous perm and the Freddie character’s hotpants-and-braces outfit both things I can safely say I won’t forget in a hurry… Even BSP’s manager was wondering afterwards exactly where the club can go from there – I can’t wait to find out.
February also saw the start of tour season proper, and a couple of my favourite bands were out on the road. I reviewed THE TWILIGHT SAD’s Manchester gig here at the time, noting that “by the next morning we have convinced ourselves we urgently need to go and see them again before this tour is over”. Which is how I ended up at Nottingham’s Stealth venue a few days later (15th), where after a great set of mid-80s-Creation-referencing indiepop from new and hotly tipped local support CHILDHOOD the Glaswegians put in a visceral and ear-splitting performance that blew the Manchester one – and most other gigs I’ve seen this year – out of the water. After that I couldn’t miss Leeds the following evening – although we very nearly did, as half a mile after picking my mate up in Whalley Range came the unmistakeable sound of a flat tyre… and us swearing a lot. Soon we were on the road again though, leaving her kids’ dad changing my wheel while we shot off in her car (with me driving, as she doesn’t do motorways and does do drinking at gigs – thank goodness for “any car” insurance policies!) only to encounter torrential rain and pea soup fog over the M62, miss the Leeds turn-off and finally get lost in the intricate network of similarly-named and similar-looking streets that surround the Brudenell Social Club. Our heroic efforts in getting there were rewarded though with a beautiful set in which singer James Graham did three songs – including a spine-tingling “Cold Days From the Birdhouse” – from offstage, down in the crowd.
Meanwhile THE LONGCUT came out of hibernation; their third album is all but finished now and some of its fruits were unleashed in Wakefield and Manchester on the 23rd and 24th. The very same week someone wrote a really snobbish piece in the Guardian about how rubbish Wakefield is, I was there for the first time since 2011’s Long Division festival (reviewed here at the time) and once again found it a great place – and The Hop where The Longcut played is a cracking little venue. Don’t believe what you read! Both Longcut sets were much the same – starting with a new multi-faceted thing which combines the bleak electro-post-rock of the band we know and love with a new, proggier direction: at the Manchester gig me and a mate were referring to it as “Hocus Pocus by Focus” and we were only half joking. Well, maybe two-thirds joking. Birmingham’s excellent VICTORIES AT SEA supported in Manchester and where a year or so ago they did sound rather a lot like The Longcut their sound has evolved and expanded a lot since then with electro-shoegaze type effects coming to the fore: this was the third time I’ve seen them and if they keep getting better at this rate they’ll be joining that “must see again right now!” list pretty soon.
Elsewhere a couple of Manchester’s more unusual bands headlined their own typically intriguing nights: LOUIS BARABBAS AND THE BEDLAM SIXÃÂ took over Band On The Wall on a Monday night (13th) and packed the place out with music for which I was forced to coin the rather unwieldy phrase “high-octane vaudeville big band jazz steampunk blues” whilst attempting to review it. The wild-eyed and big-bearded Barabbas is a master showman and his band a troupe of exceedingly skilled musicians, their songs proper stories whihc generally involve love and alcohol, and they’ve recently co-opted the equally individual KIRSTY ALMEIDA as co-vocalist. A few days later MONKEYS IN LOVE – a band I once saw golden-showering their audience with a plastic willy on a stick with some glittery gold tinsel attached to it – got their hands on TV21 basement for an evening of electronic psychedelia, performance poetry and more home-made props including a massive kitten head with glowstick whiskers. I just love the fact that this kind of stuff happens at all, really.
There was a headline set at Ruby Lounge for GROUPLOVE whose hybrid of Arcade Fire style big epic pop and happy-clappy-hippie vibes was somewhat upstaged by brilliant young Margate-based surf-rockers TWO WOUNDED BIRDSÃÂ ; some weird launch night for Vice Magazine’s new Youtube channel at the Deaf Institute featuring the twisty weird-pop of NEW HIPS and the twiddly instrumentals of TRIBAL FIGHTERS, then as February drew to a close, Philadelphia’s THE WAR ON DRUGS brought their atrocious name and pleasantly warm Americana to Sound Control (27th). Their second album “Slave Ambient” featured in 2011 end-of-year lists across the board, from the hippest critics to people I know who generally resist anything recommended by such, so I figured it was time to see what the fuss was all about. The answer, it seems, is Dylan meets Springsteen in a blurry haze; earthy songwriting and stargazing guitars. So far so good… for an hour. The problem being they were still mid-set at this point; by 90 minutes even the people I was with, album-owning fans, had had their fill. I have no idea how much more there was after that, although a London mate said she’d seen them do an hour and 45. Learn to self-edit… or as my mate’s ex used to brilliantly and loudly heckle any band he considered had overstayed their welcome, “Don’t be selfish!”.
I’ve long been of the opinion that 90 minutes is the absolute maximum (yes, even for bands I love); I appreciate that at arena and stadium level where people have paid 60 quid then longer might be expected, although from a quality of set point of view alone it’s very rarely necessary. It seems to be a cultural difference though; they’re not the first American band I’ve seen at this level (two albums, 500 capacity venue full-ish but not sold out) play a patience-stretching and ultimately goodwill-draining set. Equally, I once watched British Sea Power play a storming, explosive hour and ten minutes in Los Angeles – perfectly reasonable for a band with, then, just the one album and a few singles out – and heard people moaning how short it was, as if minutes-per-dollar mattered more than what they had seen and heard and felt. Anyway I left Sound Control thinking yeah, I can see why people like The War On Drugs’ sound and songs – there wasn’t actually any part of the set that could be described as bad – but I don’t think I’ll bother watching them again outside of festivals.
I can hardly believe it’s been eight years since that LA trip but I know it has, as said BSP show at the Echo was the first time I’d ever been to a gig on 29th February; this year’s Leap Day live music comes courtesy of a band I saw for the first time about a year later which I guess makes them something of a Manchester institution now (doesn’t time fly!) THE WHIP. Stripped back to a three-piece a couple of years ago, their hard beat driven electro rock is still Britain’s best answer to the now defunct LCD Soundsystem and despite their relative absence from the local live scene this past couple of years they thrilled the young, lively crowd in the basement Club Academy. If we have to have an extra day in the year then this was a pretty good use of it.
The bookshelves from the well known Swedish furniture store are still lying in the back bedroom in their flatpacks. You can take your bets now on when I’ll finally get round to doing anything with them, but with March already pretty much full it could be a while.