Friday, 15 July 2016

996 THE 2016 SWINDON SHUFFLE, Various Swindon Venues, Thursday 14th, Friday 15th and Saturday 16th July 2016

Once again it’s Swindon Shuffle time… after my first experience of Swindon’s annual “live” extravaganza showcasing the best the town has to offer in original music, 2 years ago, I promised that despite my late discovery and participation in this event, I’d ensure I’d be shuffling along in future. 2015 was a non-starter for me, however; I’d popped up the Vic on Shuffle Friday in the hope of seeing Cirencester’s very fine Familiars, only for them to cancel late on due to illness, and then my daughter had a dance show on the Saturday which totally precluded any further Shuffling on my part. D’oh! So I was determined to be more active this year, a determination underlined with a slew of excellent or intriguing acts on the bill, including recent faves Raze*Rebuild and the indomitable Gaz Brookfield!

Thursday evening presented my first opportunity, so Rach and I conducted a Le Mans-style driver change after she returned from her lake swim at 8, and I headed up the Castle, squeezing into a parking spot by GWR Wiltshire Sound and bumping into Mr. Brookfield himself on my way through the Castle bar to the back room, where FAKE WALNUT DASH were into their 3rd number, a slice of swampy blues which then morphed into smoother, funkier 70’s-influenced fayre, embellished by their twin “Shoop Shoop” backing singers. We were also regaled with some more louche and languid late 60’s-feeling psychedelic blues recalling mid-period Doors, with meandering riffery and pseudo choral hooks aplenty. Not my usual listening fayre, but entertaining and appreciated by the already-ample crowd.

In a happy coincidence, FAMILIARS were next up; I had another quick chat with Gaz beforehand, who was stoked to hear my 9-year old son was learning his “Be The Bigger Man” in his guitar lessons! I then recalled last year’s no-show with Familiars vocalist Steve Skinley, remarking they owed me a decent Shuffle show! The boys did their best to provide it, with usual opener “Landscapes” setting the tone for their sonic template, the slow-burn, bleak and melancholy opening weaving a deliciously elegiac spell before the song took flight into keyboard-propelled National-esque territory, and the subsequent “Battlestations” a more post-punk-influenced number, particularly guitarist Ricky’s “Marquee Moon”-like slashing chord riffs. However, battlestations seemed to be the order of the day too, as the band battled with some keyboard mix issues and particularly some nasty shimmering bass drum feedback, which plagued them on and off throughout. They never lost their humour, though, Steve remarking, “we’re from Cirencester, we don’t often venture this far south of Cricklade, so be kind to us,” and a subsequent new number (“this is a new one, although if you haven’t seen us before – as you were…”) featured some fine “whoa-oh” harmonies either side of a skyscrapingly soaring hook. The circular piano riff of final number “Ballyhoo” (requested by yours truly) was underpinned by some guitar feedback giving it a more eerie air, but again the drum shimmer masked the rendition of this moody, mournful little number. Familiars’ widescreen and eminently melodic material demands a more precise sound, which unfortunately they didn’t get this evening, but nonetheless the boys gave it their best, and were satisfied afterwards with their efforts.

Had a chat with a dapper Mr. Dave Franklin before GEORGE WILDING, a raffish young tousle-haired hippy troubadour with some heavyweight local muso help in his backing band, including the drummer from Tin Spirits! They were unsurprisingly the best sounding act on display tonight, the sound and mix issues encountered by the preceding act suddenly (and a little frustratingly) cleared up. Dave had suggested George’s solo stuff had a folky, Nick Drake sound, but backed up by his very accomplished colleagues, his impressive vocals embellished a blend of early 90’s psych/ pop a la Charlatans or Kula Shaker, some folkier stuff recalling Bowie’s early 70’s Beckenham Arts lab work, and even some soaring Suede-ish glam influenced material. Intriguing stuff overall.

Had a breather then joined the throng down a by-now packed stage front for the main event tonight; Ed introduced GAZ BROOKFIELD by suggesting legend had it that Gaz was the first ever act at the first ever Shuffle! 10 years on, the man is an established draw with a very popular and loyal regional following (myself included), just needing that “right place, right time” event to push him through the glass ceiling into the national consciousness, the breakthrough his talent and application surely deserves. This, the 14th time I’ve seen the man tread the boards, was no different to the previous 13; all-inclusive, honest and confessional yet celebratory music, with a punk/ folk core and delivered with maverick passion and maximum effort and commitment. The demand, “has everyone got a drink? This is a drinking song!” preceded an arms-aloft, swayalong “Under The Table”, then the impish Gaz asked, “is everyone in a good mood? Yeah? This is a nice cheerful song about death…” before a rampant “Godless Man”. The subsequent “Maps” degenerated into joyous chaos, as Mr. “Paj” Jellings took to the table at the back of the stage behind Gaz to shoot some pics, causing a bemused and amused Gaz to forget his lyrics, then make some up on the spot about Paj! “The Busker’s Song” was dedicated to, “my busker friends, none of whom are here tonight as they’re too skint!” and intended finale “The West Country Song” was an all-inclusive singalong which raised the roof, bringing performer and crowd together as one. He wasn’t getting off that lightly though, the crowd demanding more and Gaz delivering a venomous “Be The Bigger Man”, a galloping “Let The East Winds Blow” and the usual set closer “Thin”, the singalong hook again terrace-chant loud and all-encompassing. Not flawless or note-perfect by any means, but another totally entertaining night from Gaz, Ed remarking at its conclusion, “no matter how far you go, Gaz, you’ll always be one of us!”

That brought my night to a close, so a quick chat with old friend John Haydon, then farewells to all and sundry and a lift home for Dean saw me home at midnight. My Shuffle day 1 over; what does day 2 hold…?

A slightly earlier start, for one… thanks to my dear lady wife kindly giving up her usual Friday swim, I was able to head up the Vic – my primary base of operations this evening – well in time for some intriguing openers. And I was glad I did; tonight’s Vic compere Ed Dyer gathered the troops together to pop down to the venue for MARTYRIALS, due on at 7.45 but running slightly late at 8. From the outset they were a loud and seethingly potent psychedelic whirl of movement, hair and dissonant, mutant galloping rhythm and tempo changes, like a more psychedelic Ministry or harder-edged Wonky Alice. The skinny, splendidly be-trousered vocalist pounded away at his battered farfisa keyboard, often lifting it off the stand and waving it around – careful, son, you’ll have someone’s eye out with that…!

“I keep inhaling my hair,” the Zappa-like vocalist remarked at one point (which pretty much says as much about his performance as I ever could!), before their most conventional number “Are You Having Fun”, a Stooges-style slab of old school proto punk with an ascending earworm hook, segued into a tumbling, yelping and vicious destruction of Nena’s cold war pop classic “99 Red Balloons”! The vocalist also wrapped himself in an EU flag to cheers from the assemblage, before the end of a mightily entertaining, barking mad and bat-shit crazy set. Not sure as I could listen to that stuff at home, but for sheer jaw-dropping entertainment value, I’d come see them play any day of the week!

Follow that, IDESTROY! I chatted and caught up with a visiting Rich Craven before wandering down to the front as the Bristol all-girl 3-piece took the stage and immediately took the challenge head-on, with opener “Pins And Needles” a scuzzy, 70’s NYC CBGBs proto punk strut reminiscent of recent faves Ex Hex, and second number “Bitter Love” a chugging and flippant post-grunge rocker a la Veruca Salt. Therein lies their modus operandi, the crush collision of those styles forming the basis of the IDestroy sound, with the “live” interplay between the “2 Becks”, high-kicking pocket dynamo vocalist/ guitarist Bec Jevons and taller, goth-clad and rock-pose throwing bassist Becky Baldwin giving them a dynamic stage presence. “Vanity Loves Me” was a heavier, hookier stomp recalling The Runaways, and their eponymous “IDestroy” featured a frantic guitar groove comparable to Generation X’s “Your Generation”. Finale “State Of The Art” was a dark, dramatic groove – their “Seether”, perhaps? – bringing another impressive set to a close. Great stuff!

Grabbed a copy of their CD and a chat with Bec as Simon Hall and his band of grizzled rock ruffians set up, and I then took a spot down the front, full of anticipation for my pre-Shuffle faves. As expected and hoped, RAZE*REBUILD didn’t disappoint, immediately blowing the doors off with an immense reading of magnificent opener “Back To The Fall”, Simon roaring like a lion signalling his intent to reclaim his territory. As also hoped, the confines of The Vic suited the sound better, being immediately loud, strident and pindrop perfect in the mix, and the boys totally did it justice. “Fall”s Husker Du fist pumping, sweepingly anthemic multiple hooks were followed by “Jaded Heart”s more jagged, ragged rhythms, by which time I was a whirling dervish, giving it loads as best I could, dodgy knees be damned… this is going to hurt in the morning, but the Mighty Raze*Rebuild were well worth the effort tonight!

“Happy St. Swithin’s Day… it’s the Swithin Shuffle!” announced Simon to some bemusement, before backtracking with, “hey, I live on my own… who else is going to get that joke?” “New Leaf” was a Gaslight-alike galloping blue collar rock anthem, “All The Gear” an amphetamine-fast popcore blast with a decided”Self Made Maniac” China Drum feel, and after their usual Fleetwood Mac destruction, “Sand In The Petrol” was the titanic, roaring conclusion to a superb set delivered with maximum effort and commitment. Band of the Weekend for me, right there!

Not time to ponder it, however, as I joined Messrs. Franklin, Craven and Mr. “Skiddy” Skidmore for a wander around to the Castle in the hope of catching part of Polar Front’s set. However, the Castle was running to time so we just missed them. D’oh! Still, I joined the younger crowd down the front in plenty of time for potential highlights RAIN. Having checked out and enjoyed their elegant shimmering shoegaze on Youtube, I was looking forward to this; however from the outset it seemed more like sonic cathedrals of despair, as the mix exposed the very fragile and understated vocals, which sounded off-key and discordant. Musically fine and evidently taking a heavy cue from Oxford shoegaze legends Ride, their opener recalled the splendid, slow burn “Drive Blind” and a later number had more of a chugalong “Chelsea Girl” vibe to it, but the vocal mix just let them down tonight. A very interesting and promising lot, whom I’m certainly not going to give up on, but for me it just wasn’t their night tonight.

Had a brief chat with Polar Front vocalist Sophie, promising to catch them and their intriguing blend of goth electronica (my reference point for them being recent finds Pvris, which Sophie gladly agreed with) next time, then wandered back to the Vic with the boys for the last knockings of hardcore punk veterans 2 SICK MONKEYS, who were laying waste to the packed back room with a shit-kicking moshpit for their trashy and thrashy punk. Ed paid tribute to them and particularly “badger-haired gobshite” vocalist Pete afterwards, announcing, “I’m going to vote for him as Prime Minister – he’ll be better than that shower of shit!”

Some more chat and philosophising outside the Vic, before going back in for headliners ALL EARS AVOW. They justified their headlining status with the most popular set of the night; the room was utterly rammed and a young and enthusiastic moshpit greeted their Evanescence-like blend of gloomy and brooding Goth Nu Metal, growling, dramatic and drum dominated “live”, with powerful vocals from the diminutive Claire. Not my cup of tea, though, and I was largely unmoved, but I conceded that what they did, they did very well, their heavy rock both anthemic and accessible. Half a dozen numbers in, however, I turned it in for the night, having seen my own “headliners” already in Raze*Rebuild!

Day 3 Shuffling had a much earlier start than the other 2; lunchtime in fact! Given how much Logan in particular is enjoying watching “live” music, Rach and I suggested to the kids that we call in on the lunchtime acoustic sessions at the Central Library and get some books out in the process, which was met with approval. So lunchtime was whiled away sitting in the sun-dappled open courtyard listening to a couple of young performers. First up, BRADLEY COWTAN, who resembled a (very) young Frank Turner and had an idiosyncratic understated nasal delivery for his often late night bar-room bluesy material, then JORDAN MARVELL, a young chap with his own t-shirt design (there’s confidence for you), a more soaring, overt voice and a tape loop (which fascinated Logan) embellishing his mix of pop covers (George Ezra, Dustbin Beaver.. sorry, Justin Bieber) and like-minded originals. Embryonic performers both, but some nascent talent on display, and we’d have stayed longer but for other arrangements.

Said arrangements – namely Kasey appearing herself onstage at the Wyvern with her “Stagecoach” troupe as a chimney sweep in a “Mary Poppins” scene – precluded my being able to catch my friend Rich May’s last performance with his band The King In Mirrors; therefore I can report with all confidence that they totally killed it in front of a huge, reverential and adoring crowd, arrangements are already under way for a massive reunion tour and they’ll be headlining Wembley this time next year. There! Anyway, I didn’t hit The Beehive until 20 past 8, catching the last half of the last song from Raze*Rebuild frontman SIMON HALL’S hastily-arranged set. D’oh! Si, I’m sorry…! I nonetheless chilled and chatted with Dave Franklin and held onto my precarious spot at the top of the stairs, in plain sight for BLACK SHEEP APPRENTICE at 8.45. The latest musical brainchild of the aforementioned local legend Skiddy (whom I increasingly feel is to the Swindon music scene as Pete “The Peach” Stone is to Boston’s), and featuring Paj on guitar amidst their 5-piece expanded line-up, they opened with a bleak, dusty alt-Country, almost Spaghetti Western soundtrack style number recalling Sparklehorse, Willard Grant Conspiracy or Nick Cave, following up with a more dramatic yet no less moody and desperate rocker resembling Ken Stringfellow’s solo Chariot project. A well-observed and appropriate reading of Buffalo Tom’s “Taillights Fade” fitted the mood of desolation conveyed by the set; newie “I Cursed Your Name” blended the guitar intro from Love’s “A House Is Not A Motel” into a noir anti-love song, and “Black Sheep Apprentice” was a dark, Violent Femmes-like country death song. Morose and impressive stuff overall from Mr. Skidmore.

Hung out with Messrs. May and Craven outside afterwards, then eventually made our way up to The Castle, catching the arse end of REWIRE THE TIME MACHINE and their popular, noisy desert stoner rock. Heavy riffing stuff, underpinned by some pounding drums provided by Lee Moulding, son of XTC’s Colin. We then grabbed drinks and chilled in the courtyard during A WAY WITH WORDS’ set, venturing in for the last 3 or so numbers. One strident, “lighters aloft” stadium rock ballad building to a crescendo and couple of formulaic, straightahead but exciting dynamic rockers, slightly unfocussed but energetic, made me wish I’d come in earlier and caught more. Grabbed a couple of free CDs (nice work gents!) and promised the boys I won’t make that mistake again.

By this time I was feeling the effects of 3 late nights out on the trot (out of practise, I know!), so I bade my fond farewells, grabbed a (very) late tea down the hill and drove wearily home, my Swindon Shuffle experience over for this year. And a splendid experience it was too; over the last 3 days. I saw a whole load of friends, both old and more recent, and talked music and bollocks with them into the night; I saw a slew of great bands, ranging from fully formed to embryonic but promising, all playing original music, with the Mighty Raze*Rebuild winning top honours for me; I saw the Swindon rock fraternity come together in friendship, solidarity and support, both for each other and for an eminently worthwhile charity in Mind. What I didn’t see, though, was a bad act. Not a single one.

It took until 3 years ago, 900 gigs in and mainly out-of-town, for me to realise the plethora of talent right on my doorstep. So to anyone else who thinks, “I can’t be bothered to go see some local band playing stuff I don't know, ‘cos it's bound to be a pile of unrehearsed shite, right?” let me tell you I used to think that way, and I could not have been more wrong.

Go on, give it a try. You might just discover your new favourite band. I did.

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