CONFESSIONS OF A MUSIC ADDICT – DECEMBER 2011
Ah, December. The time of year when traditionally the music calendar starts to slow down, as the bigger touring bands head home to their families whilst local promoters get cold feet about the disappearing students. Except it’s not happened this year – despite Manchester being denied the traditional pre-Christmas pastime of a few Gluhweins at the German market followed by a big gig at GMex.
It’s really sad in a way – sometimes it didn’t even have to be a band you were that into, it was as much about the sort of collective experience: Arcade Fire last year, Doves in 2009, Morrissey and Ian Brown and many more in years past stretching back to my first ever arena-sized gig when New Order headlined a Factory night there in December 1988, with the label’s bright new hopes Happy Mondays as opening support.
For some reason the venue – and yes, I know it’s properly called Manchester Central but have you ever actually heard anyone local call it that? – has decided not to bother in 2011 and it’s as if someone stole the Town Hall Santa. As I said, though, smaller gigs aren’t as thin on the ground as usual despite the recession – perhaps promoters are finally realising that Manchester’s live music scene is about so much more than keeping a few thousand temporarily resident 18 to 22 year olds happy in term time. It always has been, of course, but it’s more visible these days as it’s no longer seen as a bit weird to be going to gigs all the time when you’re 40, which is perhaps as well as I probably will be by the time you read this.
Certainly you could extract all the students from your average Stroke Club night without noticeably affecting the turnout. Steve Shy’s excellent late night live session at Gulliver’s kicked off December with a fine showing from local stalwarts STRANGER SON – formerly known as Stranger Son Of WB (and before that, Stranger Son Of WB And The Robot Crab Exodus) launching their new album ÃÂ¬Luna MarseilleÃÂ® with what I described in a review for ManchesterMusic as “a slow-grinding spiral of malevolent psychedelia punctuated with Gareth’s trademark heavily reverbed proclamations that gives the odd impression of being half made up as it goes along, even though it clearly isn’t” and support came from the ever excellent MR HEART. We stuck our heads into the Christmas party on the 15th for long enough to watch ONIONS – once described by Frazer King singer Nathan as the best band in Manchester, they play wonderfully mangled psychedelic guitar pop that’s stood proudly outside of the local scene for a good five years now and they’re still getting better – but we had places to be, more on which later.
Tuesday 6th saw about half the Gullivers crowd cross the road to Night & Day where three Stroke Club alumni artists shared the bill. JEZABELLEZZA delighted early arrivals with her pink-haired plinky piano music-hall punk pop then all-female trio LITERATURE THIEVES demonstrated that there are still new twists on indie pop even in 2011 if you have some imagination, theirs incorporating a mandolin and some medieval-esque harmonies. Finally THE LOVELY EGGS (whose drummer David has played Stroke Club with his other band, Lancastrian space-rockers and one-time Damo Suzuki collaborators 3 Dimensional Tanx) reinforced the fact that they are one of the most enjoyable ways anyone can spend an evening. David and his wife Holly, once of 90s girlpunks Angelica, like drinking cider and playing fun, surreal, shouty indie punk tunes – if you’re not familiar with then then search online for their best-known single “Don’t Look At Me (I Don’t Like It)”. You will either love them or hate them…
Lots of local band action throughout the month, too. Local music site MCR SCENEWIPE who specialise in exclusive video performances by all manner of local and visiting bands as well as reviews and features, also find time to run a free monthly club night upstairs at Withington’s Fuel Cafe. On Friday 2nd December they had a bit of a prog/post-rock session featuring a blistering performance from Salford’s TROJAN HORSE – one of my personal favourite live bands of 2011 they comprise three brothers and one other and have picked up the baton left by the much-missed Oceansize, dealing in multi-dimensional modern prog that slides seamlessly from aggressive post-hardcore to melodic twists to strange chants and all sorts. In addition the Krautrock-influenced PLANK!, and CYRIL SNEAR who mix the unpretentious new prog sound with more kind of Mogwai-ish post-rock. Together, the three bands represent a corner of Manchester’s music scene often squeezed out of the limelight by ongoing battles between the Madchester retronauts and the more fashionable new scenesters – all worth seeing though. These Scenewipe sessions are always worth a look in: the next one on 6th January features slightly heavier stuff from Well Wisher, Doctrines and Burning Buildings.
A few days later (7th) it was a new venue for me, the 222 year old Platt Chapel just at the top end of Fallowfield opposite the university “Toast Rack” building. This was in the hands of NOW WAVE, who are so cool and fashionable it would be easy to really hate them if it weren’t for the fact that they have consistently put on excellent gigs this year. This one featured three Manchester acts – BUTCHERS who mix up sixties pop, acid garage rock and post-punk weirdness; GREAT WAVES who are a guitar-synth duo blending Bunnymen-Chameleons melodrama with electronic shoegaze sounds and headliners MONEY whose expansive skyscraping elegiac pop looks set to make its mark in Manchester and beyond in 2012, even if they are wilfully difficult to search online. The one visiting act was London’s S.C.U.M who are often derided as a scenester construct and/or Horrors’ understudies (they’ve toured together and one of them has a brother in the better known band) but when you watch them live, their Nick Cave meets Magazine gothic drama-pop sounds pretty impressive. And all that for just six quid in. People who moan about the price of gig tickets these days are possibly not going to the right gigs…
Thursday 8th December saw the long-awaited return of THE LONGCUT. It is something of a joke amongst Manchester music writers that every Longcut gig is described as “long-awaited” and it’s true that you could count the gigs they have played in the past three years on your fingers, although as we will soon discover, they’ve been busy. For reasons which must make sense to someone, this gig – in which they will debut a number of tracks from their forthcoming third album – took place in a studenty looking bar in Sheffield (the oddly named Bungalows And Bears) which does not even have a stage as such. And it was free entry. Half the people in there at least had no idea who the bands were. Support VICTORIES AT SEA, from Birmingham, actually sound a lot like The Longcut used to about four years ago, with a side order of Foals, but they’re good enough to transcend that. THE LONGCUT meanwhile have “progged out” somewhat – their first track shifts around for five minutes before coalescing into a tune while their second segues a bleepy 8-bit intro into a psychedelic trip in waltz timing. Time signatures change mid-song and guitarist Lee Gale seems to create some entirely new sounds while their final track – five of tonight’s nine are new – is a really uplifting postrock dance indie anthem. Chuck in some old favourites such as debut single “Transition” which still sounds immense after all these years, and the electro-monster that is “Evil Dance”, and it was definitely worth the life-in-hands experience that is the Woodhead Pass in December. They’re doing a little mini tour in February: Thu 23rd Wakefield The Hop / Fri 24th Manchester Roadhouse / Sat 25th London ULU / Sun 26th Stamford Mama LizÃÂs Voodoo Lounge, and yes, that last one does really exist although I’ll admit I was sceptical until I Googled it.
The Longcut gig also made for a great warm-up for All Tomorrow’s Parties, about which I have written plenty elsewhere on this site, after which a few nights in might have been a good idea but I got bored after one, so on Tuesday 13th it was back to Night And Day. Great to see the place starting to pick up again after falling behind a little these past couple of years – and they’ve finally installed beer and cider pumps after 20 years! If I’ve one little remaining criticism it’s simply that sticking a weeknight headliner on at 11pm isn’t a great idea: my mate saw three minutes before having to go for his train, whilst even those of us within walking distance still have to be up in the morning. We were mostly there for THE NARROWS’ last gig of the year; probably my first Exciting New Band Of 2011 (having first caught them live in January, previously unaware of their existence) I’ve seen them 8 times, reviewed them at least four or five times, interviewed them for LTW back in the summer; they meanwhile have forged a reputation with their oddly dark towering prog-pop and nearly finished their album which they hope to (probably self-) release early in 2012. They were supporting another rather strange synthpop band, some Canadians called MIRACLE FORTRESS who turned the stage into a mini-Blackpool Illuminations with a load of coloured tube and spot lights and sounded like a cross between Holy Fuck and Hurts.
The weekend before Christmas (16th-17th) saw local heroes PURESSENCE on a two night stint at Sound Control. It is something of a cliche to say they should have been bigger, although I can’t disagree with it; imagine their sound filling GMex at Christmas… the reality is a smaller but devoted following who over the two nights got to see a fantastic cross section of the band’s work. There were powerful prime cuts from this year’s fifth album (“Water’s Edge”, “Swathes Of Sea Made Stone”) and the debut (“I Suppose”); the poppier mid period stuff (“It Doesn’t Matter Anymore”), some rare treats from deep inside albums and b-sides (“London In The Rain”, “15 Years”), their biggest hit of the past decade “Walking Dead” and 2007’s great lost single “Palisades” – and that’s not even the half of it. A well-planned set list saw the best loved tunes appearing both nights (presumably to ensure those fans who could only attend once got to see them) with the connoisseur moments and rarities split between them to make it a memorable weekend’s double header for the hardcore following, including a good few who’d travelled somke distance to be there. Support on the Friday night came from EXIT CALM, with a set heavy on the new material, or at least that as yet unreleased and presumably bound for a second album. Still unmistakeably Exit Calm it sees a bit of a shift of focus from the guitar to the vocals, continuing in the direction forged by the later written tracks on the debut such as “Hearts And Minds”. It was the best I’ve seen them for a while, certainly this year, and makes for something to look forward to from them in 2012.
On the Saturday we missed the supports (and indeed the start of Puressence’s own set) but there was good reason for this – the greatest indie (in the true sense) band of them all was in town, at the Ritz (a convenient three minute dash from Sound Control, which is how we managed to see most of Puressence’s set) for their first Manchester gig in almost three years – HALF MAN HALF BISCUIT. I have written at length, here and elsewhere, about my love for Brtiain’s finest indie punk folk poet and his trusty comrades – and thus am delighted to report that this, a quarter century into their career and the 29th time I’ve seen them myself, was up there with their very best. Despite the very early start (the Ritz had some sort of curfew for a later club night, much to the annoyance of my Chelsea supporting mate for whom the tea-time match at Wigan followed by the gig had seemed like an awayday almost too good to be true) the band were straight into it with an almost unbeatable opening of “The Light at The End Of the Tunnel” into “When The Evening Sun Goes Down” – and yet still managed to sustain the energy for the whole set, other highlights of which were perennial live favourites “For What Is Chatteris”, “Everything’s AOR” and “Joy In Leeuwarden” from their latest album which looks set to join them… oh, and the cover. You usually get a cover with the Biscuits and often it’s one with a geographical link to the place they’re playing – in the past Manchester has seen covers of The Fall, The Hollies and Magazine – and tonight is no exception. A truly outstanding take on The Bee Gees’ “Tragedy”. I can’t think of another band who could pull this off.
Mention should also be made of their support and Probe Plus labelmates LOVECRAFT whose eight-strong line-up (including two female backing singers in bridal gowns) reminded us of a more psychedelic Art Brut. And they weren’t the only representatives of the legendary Liverpool label in town that weekend: Thursday 15th had seen ex-Calvin Party frontman John Donaldson briefly return from Rotterdam where he’s currently living, to play in the Castle with his new band JD MEATYARD, which is him and a couple of Dutch mates. It’s not dissimilar in sound to the last Calvin Party album – just even more stripped down and raw, with “Myspace Star” a wonderful dressing down for those bands who have thousands of “Friends” (or, latterly, Facebook likes: the song’s a year or two old and time moves fast on the internet) but no actual fans. The eponymous JD Meatyard debut is out now on Probe Plus and recommended. Our mini-tour of the label’s roster was completed by JD’s support, the introspective and delicate folk of German-Scouse band SONNENBERG. None of these bands (the relatively well-known Biscuits aside) ever get much press or publicity because Probe Plus is still a true indie label, run on a shoestring out of pure dedication to the music, and can’t afford pluggers and the like – so do them and yourself a favour and check them all out.
Things finally started to slow down the week before Christmas, although on the 18th we did manage to sneak in to catch I Am Kloot’s JOHN BRAMWELL opening for Thea Gilmore at the Royal Exchange: “This is really quite posh isn’t it, I’ve got my wedding gear on” joked the down-to-earth Tamesider between songs before musing “I’m quite old you know, wars and the Tory party and royal weddings are all coming around again…” and treating us to some slightly tipsy renditions of Kloot classics and new songs. THEA GLIMORE meanwhile isn’t the sort of thing I’d generally go and see, but we’re here – she has been entrusted with some half-finished songs by the late Sandy Denny which she has respectfully completed, and plays them alongside her own pretty, folky pop. The weirdest thing about this for me, though, is that many many years ago back in mid-Cheshire, the 13-year-old me was taught my first ham-fisted attempts at rock’n’roll guitar playing by local session musician Nigel Stonier, who is now Ms Gilmore’s husband, guitarist and co-writer. He did his best, showing me how to bar the chords for Buzzcocks’ “Ever Fallen In Love”, but frankly I was a bit shit. Sorry for wasting your time Nigel, but thanks for the loan of some decent indie and punk albums in those pre-internet days where it was pretty hard for a kid without older siblings / cousins etc to expand their musical horizons. I am impressed by how little he has aged in the intervening quarter century.
And at the complete opposite end of the local musical spectrum, no round-up would be complete without a mention for scary masked post-hardcore lunatics KONG who played a triumphant festive (ish) gig at Ruby Lounge the following evening. And three days after that, my last gig before Christmas was also at the High Street venue where Mark Burgess and John Lever brought their still controversial CHAMELEONS VOX project for two packed nights (of which we caught the second). The controversy being that almost nine years after the Chameleons’ final and seemingly irreversible split, some people don’t like the duo (the rest of whose band is drawn from a loose pool of collaborators) using the Chameleons name or playing their songs. Personally I have no issue at all with that – enough people do it, look at all the 80s bands on any Academy flyer and ask how many of them are 100% original members. However when I first caught the project live, two years ago, they sounded terrible. The Chameleons were my favourite band for many years and whilst I was just a little too young to actually see them before they split, I saw them 35 times during the 2000-02 reunion and the guitarist in the early ChameleonsVox was nowhere near worthy of carrying the legacy. These days however they are as close as can be to the real thing – the current guitarist makes a fine showing of it and as Dave Fielding will never return, they’re as close as it will ever be. I have enjoyed the incomplete Magazine and various other not-all-the-original-line-up bands this year, so I put my personal feelings aside and… I enjoyed them. But what I realised that is that even if the full band returned right now I don’t think I would go trekking round the country and beyond watching them as I did a decade ago. In 2001 I was living in the musical past a bit as there wasn’t a lot about that interested me; in 2011 it couldn’t be further from the truth.
The traditionally empty space between Christmas and New Year even saw a run of gigs in 2011: on the 27th Tameside ska brigade D.I.L.E held their regular post-Christmas blowout at Ashton’s Witchwood; we sang along to their heartwarming if rather geographically specific festive folk stomper “Christmas In Hyde, Doomsday In Hattersley” and brilliant Clash-like dub anthem “Salford M5” which warns of social unrest and the breakdown of law and order and “panic on the streets of Ordsall” – released in 2008. On the 29th there was a packed day-into-night line-up of emo, indie-punk, hardcore and DIY bands down at the Whitworth pub supported by a really friendly and enthusiastic crowd (they’d even run a “Secret Santa” for attendees via the event facebook page) with highlights including Devon-based post-hardcore trio MARSHALL TELLER and a great headline set from FOOTBALL ETC all the way from Houston Texas whose great post-grunge sound draws equally from emo-punk, the noisier end of shoegaze and 90s alt-rock.
Then the 30th saw my final visit to The Warehouse Project on Store Street: FOALS headlined a very Now Wave line-up and their best known tune “Spanish Sahara” was incredible with lasers bouncing off the brickwork; CHAD VALLEY supported with some strange twisted electronic pop (as did the critically acclaimed TOM VEK, whom I’m afraid I’ve never been able to get into) and early arrivals were granted an additional treat by way of an excellent set from locally-based purveyors of heavily warped 21st century techno STAY+. They were forced to change their name from Christian AIDS earlier this year after pressure from the Christian Aid charity, and they seem to have ditched the live vocalists/performance artists and some of their more disturbing visuals – but their music proved to be more than enough in itself. As I write (3pm on New Year’s Day) the Store Street car park rave has just opened its doors for the last time, and when they close at 5am tomorrow morning five years of forward-thinking music and clubbing will be just a memory. The Warehouse Project have already secured a new location for the 2012 season, to be announced in the summer.
Finally, the year that started with Shellac ended, 263 gigs later, with FRAZER KING. OK, technically it started with British Sea Power who were coming to the end of their set at Camden Koko at 00:00:00 on 01/01/11, but Albini’s men were on stage at Highbury Garage barely twelve hours later. Since then I’ve watched thousands of people dancing to the septuagenarian Suicide’s ever-disturbing “Frankie Teardrop” on the Barcelona coast; discovered I Like Trains’ hitherto unknown Eastern European fanbase in Bucharest; seen some great new bands such as The Narrows, Hookworms, Minion TV, Dr. Mahogany’s Goat Circus and Womb plus some brilliant oldies like Big Audio Dynamite, The Loft and Einsturzende Neubauten. And as the bells ring, Frazer King have just come off stage at Night & Day after a mass singalong “Sail A Boat”; local music scene stalwart Alex Staszko has invaded the stage with a Santa jacket and pint of cider to announce the new year; raw blues singer JIM ADAMA and nine-headed “gypsy rock and roll” crew (complete with musical saw, one of the best instruments ever) THE YOSSARIANS played fantastic sets earlier in the evening, and DIRTY NORTH are about to see in 2012 with a late night party set of their raucous streetwise reggae. Cheers, 2011, it’s been one hell of a year for music.
In a few days’ time I’ll be 40 and the words of James Murphy (astute frontman of LCD Soundsystem, who themselves threw in the towel this year) ring ever louder: “I’m losing my edge, to the internet seekers who can tell me every member of every good group from 1962 to 1978; I’m losing my edge, to better-looking people with better ideas and more talent, and they’re actually really, really nice.” Maybe it is time to slow down a bit – but then again, I say that every year…