Thursday, 2 March 2017

1,025 BLACK SHEEP APPRENTICE, Awakening Savannah, My Social Decline, Swindon The Victoria, Wednesday 1st March 2017

Well, I did call for more free AND local gigs at the top of the year, given my continued unemployed status, did I not, so I’m hardly likely to refuse when a couple crop up in a row! A gang of Bristolian punk girlies await on Sunday; but first here’s an eclectic bill up the Vic, offering different visions of American music, namely My Social Decline, recent new friend and fellow baseball aficionado Rich Carter’s embryonic band of US CBGB’s New Wave guitar abusers, along with Black Sheep Apprentice, whose alt-Americana vignette up the Beehive on Shuffle Saturday last year (gig 996) was an impressive last day treat.

So I headed up the hill, thankfully avoiding a soaking from a sharp downpour, and chilled with Mr. Carter (in-between his soundcheck) and his gregarious parents, hearing stories about his dad’s tennis partner – none other than XTC man Colin Moulding! The May boys arrived so I caught up with them and Raze*Rebuild bassist Mr. “Paj” Jellings (tonight with his Black Sheep hat on!) before hitting the back room for My Social Decline’s set, prompt at 8.40. A scuzzy, riff-heavy change-of-pace instrumental opener bled into “Rhubarb”, a slab of snarling proto-punk replete with entirely appropriate expletive-strewn snotty vocals from Rich Bellis, setting the tone for their set. “With Nirvana” was a groovier post-grunge effort with a 90’s feel (kudos for rhyming “Nirvana” with “Rihanna”, and the “Girl From Mars” lyrical homage!) but with the subsequent “My Social Decline” and “Maverick” it was back to those dark, beer-soaked smoky NYC dives such as CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City, prompting the thought that these boys could be a modern-day all-male version of The Runaways – if only they were prettier! “All Of My Dreams Are Dead” burst into life with a guitar intro reminiscent of The Only Ones’ classic “Another Girl, Another Planet”, and a solo “Sign Out” from Bellis was an in-your-face Woody Guthrie style protest number, all seething menace. The only jarring note for me was the final number, slower and almost ballad-like in parts, but that aside I thoroughly enjoyed this set. Error strewn and messy in parts it may have been, underlying their relatively new band status, but somehow that seemed fitting given the musical seam they mine. More important was that the set was delivered with a fair dollop of passion and furious purpose. Nice one boys!

Chatted back in the bar, and outside for the smokers, before checking out second band Awakening Savannah. They opened with an intricate noodling riff which I took as a sign, setting off my “Prog Alert” alarm, and I was right, as their set morphed into a prog/ early 80’s HM influenced riff-fest workout, with a vocalist reminiscent of Rainbow’s Graham Bonnet, underlying this. Clearly extremely good at what they do, but what they do leaves me cold – I prefer to see bands showing me how well they can play within the context of the song, rather than being technically intricate for the sake of it. We therefore repaired to the bar to wait out their set, instead chatting with Black Sheep mainman Richard Skidmore, who, between bigging up the “awesome” sound of his charges, also intriguingly remarked that tonight would mark the end of the “old” Black Sheep Apprentice, before a “new” version emerges. Hmmm…

We eventually escaped from the main bar karaoke, as a small but perfectly formed audience welcomed Skiddy and co onstage, the black-clad and trenchcoated vocalist exhorting some enthusiasm from the crowd with, “come on you motherfuckers”, then belting into galloping opener “Let It Go”, all Ennio Morricone spaghetti Western atmosphere and acoustic guitar licks. Then, some on-point Ed Sheeran slagging preceded a searing reading of Buffalo Tom’s classic “Taillights Fade”, the more acoustic driven version adding to the song’s tension and drama. Black Sheep Apprentice, like their spiritual forbears Linkous and Gano, lean towards a bleak, backwoods vision of Americana, evoking dusty deserted truckstops and menace at every turn. In another life Skiddy would be writing film scores and original music for Tarantino and Coen Brothers films, but instead he’s delivering his evocative, accomplished, excellently-constructed and atmospheric numbers to a Wednesday Vic crowd, with scary intensity and an entertainingly deadpan, rapier-sharp wit, backed up very ably by “Paj” and the rest of the Apprentices (or is it Sheep…?). He means it, maaaan… “God help the next motherfucker who fucks with me…” indeed!

“A word from our sponsors, San Miguel!” preceded, “a sad song about alcoholism,” namely “Water”, a slower-paced number recalling Band Of Horses for its’ morose majesty, then after “Black Sheep Apprentice”, a macabre death ballad with a strident chorus and cacophonous climax, set closer “Jessica’s Letter” ended things with possibly the best number, a stately, widescreen epic. Very impressive stuff indeed.

Compliments all round before we headed off, dropping the May boys home before a late post-midnight bedtime. So, a couple of fine showings tonight, well worth the money… oh, hang about, it was free…! Nonetheless, if that’s the end of the “old” Black Sheep Apprentice, I’m certainly well up for hearing the new version!

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