Jerry Williams, The Dead Freights,Yeti Bianco – The Brook, Southampton
Henry Baroche waxes lyrical about three South Coast future-heroes as he goes to the Brook for the first time.
There were moments on Friday night (16th June 2017) at the Brook, Southampton when I questioned whether I was not in fact standing at the bottom of a swimming pool. Yes, I can tell the difference between one of Southampton’s most iconic venues and a public repository for water and splashing, and yes, my drinking habits are perfectly normal, thank you.
The sentiment stemmed in the first place from the structure of the stage, which stands several feet off the ground, and is reached via a small ladder, as one might find at the side of a swimming pool. Making the ascent onto the boards that night were a trio of South-coast acts – Yeti Bianco, The Dead Freights and Jerry Williams, from Lymington, Southampton and Portsmouth respectively. The southernmost coastal stretch of the UK has an uncanny habit of coaxing a strong and frothing tide of great bands onto its shores, as the thriving music scenes of Brighton, Portsmouth and Southampton attest to, yet may just as swiftly after passing inspection toss them back out to sea to bob about in obscurity. Those three musical outfits who performed at the Brook on Friday certainly seem capable and creative enough to combat the tide, and to trudge up the beach to sun themselves in the limelight.
Prior to the event, I was only aware of the Dead Freights, having seen them exhibit a rather restrained performance for Southampton’s most recent edition of the equally restrained, cushion-bound Sofar Sounds. I was looking forward to seeing them in apparently more characteristic and liberated form, as well as sampling two complete unknowns in Yeti Bianco, who purposefully describe themselves as “a collection of like-minded musical misfits on a quest to share their noises with the world”, and Jerry Williams, a 21 year-old singer-songwriter performing with her band from a catalogue of songs that included a number recently spun on BBC Introducing as their ‘track of the week’. An eclectic line-up awaited, most certainly.
Lining up in fairly traditional fashion of (left to right) guitar, drums and bass, with the lead singer behind a set of keys and synths front-and-centre, Yeti Bianco opened the evening’s proceedings with an energetic and introspective set of songs that veered at times into darker patches of experimentalism, largely provided by the combination of duelling synth and guitar lead lines, whilst predominantly maintaining a course within the tried-and-tested waters of driving ‘wall-of-sound’ compositions. The songs were played and performed well, and of a good standard, with particular personal highlights being the rhythmic interplay between a free and limber drummer and a tight and melodic bassist. At certain points, I feel the harmonic interplay between guitar and keys/synths was somewhat confused and jarring, with neither instrument seeming to know whether it was portraying the leading or supporting role. Said harmonic interplay was certainly of the more progressive and experimental bent, and should be commended for it, but does require further crafting, in my opinion.
The name ‘Yeti Bianco’ has intrigued me when reflecting upon the gig for the purposes of this article. When translated from the Italian, it means quite simply ‘White Yeti’. Apparently, the more idiomatic version of the band name would be ‘Abominevole Uomo Delle Novi Bianco’, meaning ‘White Abominable Snowman’ (and you can see why they smartly went for the shorter version). While the Italian connection is a mystery – my research on this seemingly ill-represented band atop the waves of the internet lead me to conclude that perhaps the Italian-looking guitarist is the source, rather than the positively Scandinavian remaining quarters of the group – the concise representation of the band in their name, the logo and the vast majority of their songs and overall sound should serve them well in their quest.
The Dead Freights (‘I Carichi Morti’ in Italian, if you’re interested) shuffled next onto the lofty performance platform to exhibit their idiosyncratic collection of noises. In the Southampton area, they have built up a supportive and enthusiastic following in recent years, a considerable and lively sect of whom were in attendance on Friday, and were returning to the Brook for the fourth time.
From the first few grinds of the cogs of string and drum-skin, it is clear that The Dead Freights is a well-oiled, versatile and powerful machine. The shifts from one gear of operation to the next are deft, dynamic and seldom foreseen; the dual guitar orchestration is wonderfully complimentary and carefully crafted; and the rhythm section is just bloody boss.
Their set of 40 minutes features an array of exquisitely constructed songs, all displaying the type of exercises in structural song writing skulduggery that one might expect of a group of tomb-raiders striking upon a forsaken vault of gleaming aural treasures, and delighting in as many movements as a Mozart symphony. The stand-out song to my ears was “What Would You Have Me Do Next?”, a number that tensely simmers along the infectious main groove as one half of the guitar/vocals duo, Charlie James, sardonically muses on a lover’s apparent love of the darker and more chaotic side of the self, of whom he does not “pretend to be his friend”. This is a subject that resonates resoundingly with the rock ‘n’ roll experience, if not the very nature of being a human, tormented as we may often be by the muddled spirits of pain and pleasure; the band as a whole seems equal to the challenge of riding the two, before the crashing waves of a fantastic descending guitar riff make one question whether they have not given in entirely to the compelling pull of gilt-edged glee. And what is rock ‘n’ roll, if not unadulterated pleasure?
To break my self-imposed rule of not utilising band or genre comparisons when reviewing an act or artist, I will address a close connection oft made with The Dead Freights. When I ask friends who are aware of the band to describe them, some will say “sleazy rock ‘n’ roll”, others will say a merging of The Beatles and The Libertines. I can appreciate the comparison with the former, given the complex construction of their songs, and I can see from where the likening to the latter stems, namely the strident dual-frontman performances of guitarist-vocalists Robert Franklin and Charlie James, as well as their certain harkening back to a “good old days”, somewhat vaudevillian take on the shuffle-oriented vagaries of “that old rock ‘n’ roll”. Yet I feel it is a comparison that is merely superficial, and perhaps fails to consider the engaging and expansive attitude the band bring to their craft, as well as the highly accomplished technical side to their music (no offence, Carl and Pete), and the more blatantly roots-inspired elements that flash in and out of earshot. James may look like Mssrs Barat and Doherty skinned into one. But then Franklin resembles Neil from The Young Ones if perhaps he’d been loved more as a child. Some comparisons serve on face value alone.
You might also compare them to such 60s bands as The Doors, the addition of whose song ‘The Changeling’ was the only bum note in the set, as far as I was concerned; their version, sung bombastically by drummer Louis Duarte, whilst good, was dwarfed by their own compositions, and seemed unnecessary. With numbers like ‘Baby Shake Blues’, a raucous turn and soon-to-be released single gleefully received by an audience roused to splish and splash about the deep end of any venue, that oft-deserted territory that falls just before the stage, The Dead Freights can jostle for position with the greats entirely on their own terms.
With the weight of headline billing weighing upon her leather-clad shoulders, Jerry Williams was the last act to take to the stage, flanked by a youthful 3-piece of guitar, drums and bass, themselves clad in the Topman ‘I’m In a Band’ all-year-round range. Added to that burden was the fact of her recent prime airtime on BBC Introducing, a combination which could prove too much and cause confidence and vocal chords alike to waver and buckle. But Ms. Williams did no such thing, and gave a performance that displayed assuredness without arrogance, allowing her to engage the crowd with a youthful and down-to-earth charm. I wouldn’t say she was the typical “girl next door”; but then I’ve never liked nor understood that phrase, living as I do between a gay couple and a retired aid worker. However, were she to be my neighbour, the sound of her soft yet powerful vocals wafting through the walls would be a pleasing thing, for sure.
Her talent for writing songs that will perform the necessary to successfully ride the tightrope of the mainstream airwaves is evident. The song that seems to prick the audience’s ear most strikingly is her single ‘I’m Not in Love With You’, a tale of young adult amour, or the lack thereof. Its restrained tone throughout the opening stages of the song prepares the listener a grand-standing finish, and this is exactly what is delivered, with an ever-growing aural landscape emerging, the guitar lines and vocal harmonies thickening, to add extra lustre to the light and enjoyable chorus melody.
As for the lyrics, I find these rather predictable and mundane; neither “We’re in a friend’s flat, playing Ring of Fire” nor “I chose a song and everyone is dancing” are going to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, but then I don’t think that is her aim (nor do I reckon Ms. Williams would seemingly plagiarise a winning speech she might give for said prize from Spark Notes). She seems rather intent on capturing a pre-ordained imagination, that which the contemporary, digitised society collectively draws from; and, if that is her aim, she does it well, via the aid of well-constructed and memorable songs, the subdued, tender and somewhat nostalgic feel of ‘Let’s Just Forget It’ being another example.
But then perhaps her style is not that definable: one of the most notable moments of the night is a solo performance of ‘David at the Bar’, a cautionary tale written for a man who had handed her that very same thing in a chance encounter at the counter of a drinking establishment; he implored her to not squander the opportunities for a good life that he had failed to seize, and in writing the song she has certainly taken the mantle of positivity, and added a simple yet touching turn to her set. It is a song that hints at, if not entirely delivers upon a more thoughtful, less superficial attitude to song writing.
As a whole, on the subject of definability, I feel there is a somewhat convoluted element to her stage show. Being a great singer and competent guitar player in her own right, she could very easily have performed entirely solo, as she did for a third of the set; but being blessed with a variously talented assemblage of musicians, she was able to give her songs a more full and rounded treatment. With this variability and flexibility could have come a thrilling and diversely pleasing performance, but what instead filtered through to my place in the audience was a slightly juddering set. The band would gain momentum in one vein, then Jerry would curb that to some extent by performing a song or two on her own, leaving the band to twiddle their accomplished thumbs. Then they would all come to life again a quarter of an hour later, in a related yet somehow non-cohesive musical style, with a gifted guitarist breaking out into textbook solos that seemed more for his own personal pleasure than for the benefit of Jerry’s work. In short, the set, whilst filled with skill and style, lacked the singularity of purpose that made The Dead Freights sound and feel so damn good.
Perhaps this harlequin star-in-the-making’s outfit, a brown leather sleeveless vest over a leopard-print shirt atop a striped skirt, is much like her music and the performance thereof: full of life, colour and finesse, but arranged and layered in a mismatch fashion. Nevertheless, she does very much objectively seem just that – a ‘star-in-the-making’.
Leaving what my brain had momentarily confused for a swimming pool that night, I felt creatively nourished, and felt very much the same sort of pleasure and relief that I would feel whether departing a swimming pool or a music venue: with all the potential for disaster amidst the unpredictable waters, nobody drowned. And that may seem like a somewhat ridiculous thing to take away from a night of entertainment, but in these morose and desperate times, it can always be taken as a victory.
All words by Henry Baroche. His author profile and collected works thus far are here.
Dead Freights photo by Rhona Murphy. Jerry Williams portrait by Gareth Gatrell.