And now… it’s Shuffle Time! Time for the annual weekend-long multi-venue festival showcasing the finest in Swindon’s original music scene, initiated 11 years ago over a few drinks by my old friend Rich Craven, who, as with the inception of so many great ideas, simply asked, “what if …?” Only the third time I’ve supped from the heady nectar of the Shuffle’s cornucopia of delights, I’m afraid to say, given that my long-term broad ignorance of the local scene (well, all but any band my friend Tim Owen was playing in, at least…!) was still only relatively recently cured. However, given my thorough enjoyment of this event last year both from a musical and social standpoint, I was again determined to continue to make up for lost time, and Shuffle along as much as I could!
Thursday night’s previously booked Mercury Rev gig precluded my attendance at Shuffle Day 1, so I thereby missed Misfires at The Castle, whom I’d enjoyed at Level 3 recently. Reports indicated it was both a packed-out success, and a bit of a youth club kids’ rock night out! Friday evening at the same venue promised the same albeit for the older punters, a slew of heavier acts giving the schedule the look of a real Grunting Rock Pig stage! An early start too, as I parked up and hit the venue on a sunny Friday evening, shorts and double kneestrap in situ, well before 7! MY SOCIAL DECLINE were soundchecking for their early set, and after my mate (and MSD guitarist) Rich Carter paused for a quick chat, they were straight on in front of the early doors punters at 7.20. They were determined to play it hard and heavy from the outset, all scowling, sneering vocals from Rich Bellis, following their usual scuzzy instrumental opener, and driving, Stooges riffery from Messrs Bellis and Carter. “Rhubarb” featured a big dumb Ramones-ish riff and profanities liberally scattered around like machine-gun victims, “With Nirvana” had a more 90’s indie feel and a fun “Girl From Mars” reference (Rich Carter’s favourite song, apparently!), and “Maverick” probably featured the best hook of the set, some militaristic drum peels from young Liam Dearing, and a Drones/ Models proto-punk feel. I also actually enjoyed final number, the grungy, quiet-loud “You Mean Nothing To Me”, this time out, as this quickfire set provided a fine, slightly discordant but enjoyable Shuffle start!
Chats with Rich afterwards – he couldn’t hear himself onstage so just concentrated on making noise! – and Paul and Ellen Carter (no relation to each other – any of them!), then Bristol’s DOWNARD were next up. A boy/ girl, drum/ bass duo in grey boiler suits and colourful goggles, their confrontational, hard and fast post-hardcore noise was primitive and industrial, with distorted vocals from the drummer, recalling the strident noise assault of Spectres, Slaves and Idles. Not really my cup of sump oil but I warmed to their tumbling drums and palpable bass noise, although I wondered if this is what having an enema of the ears would sound like. One thing for sure; they’d kick the likes of Royal Blood up and down the street any day of the week!
I chatted with the arriving Hall brothers, pondering the absence of usual drummer Jamie from their line-up tonight, and we ruminated on how tonight’s set would work, with short-notice replacement drummer Liam O’Halloran (ex of Polar Front, now Hail) having only practiced once with the band! Next up onstage were another drum/ bass duo, GAGREFLEX, who again played it hardcore and superfast, with more tumbling drums and tempo changes not only giving the set a tense, agitated feel, but also recalling the embryonic stylings of early Biffy Clyro. Conversely, their set felt too intense and got repetitive for me, so I retreated to the refuge of the bar to gather myself for my Highlight of the Night!
Took a wander down the front, taking a pew as RAZE*REBUILD set up; strange not only to see a different face on the drumstool, but also to see something other than “Back To The Fall” as opening song on the list… perhaps I can ease myself in tonight then…! Ha! No chance of that, as newie “Burden Of Youth” was just as fast, frantic and widescreen, a flag-waving, breast-beating rock anthem worthy of a much bigger stage, followed in quick succession by the joyous popcore sonic assault of “New Leaf”. No easing myself in – I was rocking down the front as hard as possible from the off, thankful for the double kneestraps!
Tonight represented the 8th time I’ve seen this band in barely over a year, and if anything, I’m becoming more of a fan with each outing. The quality of Si’s songwriting is matched only by his kinetic, scissor jumping, vein bulging performance, and the band’s inclusive, open honesty. And Liam was a revelation; shirtless after 2 numbers (“it’s bloody hot [up here]!”), he scarcely missed a beat, his slightly more overt drum style a perfect substitute for Jamie’s more laid back technique, astonishing for just one practice! Praising his performance mid-set, Si joked, “[He’s] young and pretty too; we probably should have put him at the front!” “Back To The Fall” was again superb, this time sandwiched between two newies, the frantic “Never Saved My Soul” and a more sprawling, tempo changing closer “Poison Air”, which thankfully featured some slower interludes, necessary for this old dancer as, given the band effectively finished the set with 4 fast ones, the air was rapidly disappearing from the room! A pounding, visceral and once again brilliant set from a band rapidly becoming one of my favourite bands around, period!
Brief congrats afterwards with the boys before I needed some air and a drink, and I stayed at the bar for headliners 2 SICK MONKEYS. Veterans of the Swindon scene, they’re apparently knocking it on the head this year, so the back room was packed with veteran rock punters determined to make the most of this showing. They’re a very “marmite” band and I confess I’m very conflicted with them; vocalist/ bassist Pete (whom I’d referred to, affectionately (honest!) as a “badger haired gobshite” when they supported the Dickies for gig 826 a few years back) is a rapid-fire, entertaining raconteur (an early diatribe including, “I’ve got no money, I’m can’t pay, we’ll take that monkey away!”), but their ramalama leather and studs style primitive punk assault sails uncomfortably towards the type of band (Discharge, Anti Pasti and their homogenous ilk)that turned me off punk back then. They went down a storm, so good on them for that, but, sweaty and tiring, I hit the road before their set concluded, to close out my Shuffle Day 1.
My Shuffle Day 2 didn’t start with the lunchtime library sessions, as had been the case in previous years, due to Kasey having a stagecoach end-of-term show! Instead, this was a Saturday evening affair, as I picked up my wingmen for the night, Messrs. Carter and May, and the 2 Rich’s and I parked up in old town in time to grab a drink in The Tuppenny and take our pews for MOLEVILLE’s early set at 5.30. Familiars mainman and occasional Vaudeville performer Steve Skinley’s side project, this, and I was pleased to see his Moleville material didn’t deviate too much (overlapping frequently, in fact!) from Familiars’ usual modus operandi of dark, rich evocative late night mood music with just a soupcon of Nattionals-esque baroque US alt-indie. Filtering a looped drumbeat through his keys to flesh out the sound, “Battlecry” was an early highlight, mournful and haunting with Steve’s vocals as smooth and dark as mahogany, Steve also plugging his “Oliver Postgate/ 50’s Sci-Fi” YouTube video for this track! A lush, lovely “Red Forest” was apparently inspired by the reclamation of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site by nature, “Dynamite” was a deliciously morose penultimate number, and Steve perversely left us with a final, more upbeat and almost fuzzy pop number about reality TV! Overall, a lovely start to the night thanks to this truly talented gentleman.
Steve joined our table as well for some music and comics chat, as OLI NORMAN, next up, set up. Unfortunately his set was beset with technical issues; 2 strings broken during the first number, forcing compere Ed Dyer into a time-filling stand-up routine (!) and tuning issues visibly frustrating him thereafter. He deserved props for perseverance, though, and his smooth, well-structured melodic numbers, which for me had the feel of 70’s singer-songwriters such as Paul Simon, and for Steve Bon Iver, eventually shone through. I could even forgive the use of those dreaded loop pedals to add harmonic depth - in fact I actually liked that! “Stockholm”, his final, darker and racier strumalong number, was my favourite of his set.
DREUW, eventually next up at 7.30 after a fiddly set-up process, were an intriguing prospect; an eponymous vocalist/ guitarist backed up by Perry Sangha, formerly of the very fine Polar Front on occasional guitar and computer-based backing tracks. In fact, with the set-list sticking out from Perry’s set-up, it occasionally looked as if he was playing a photocopier! They opened with a cover of Chris Isaak’s mournful “Wicked Game”, their chilled, stripped-back interpretation even quieter than the original, and their set thereafter was equally low-key, quiet, atmospheric and delicate, veering between Bella Union Americana and even Galaxie 500’s hushed ballads (although both Steve and Rich C drew comparisons to Explosions In The Sky, a band I’m unfamiliar with). A great shame, therefore, that it was fighting a losing battle in a room full of noisy people, ironically many of which were their own entourage!
We headed off a couple of numbers before the end, as our parking ticket was due to expire, and repositioned the car at the bottom of the hill (I don’t do hills, me, if I can help it!), hitting a packed Beehive for 8.15, midway through CANUTE’S PLASTIC ARMY and their introspective, folk-tinged works. They provided the soundtrack to our greeting folks and getting the drinks in, although I took notice again of their apposite reading of Pulp’s “Razamatazz”. I then took a wander to the front of the performance area (tucked away by the door, necessitating a viewing spot almost in the face of the performers) for NICK PARKER, a (very) late addition to the bill (getting the call, “a couple of days ago,” apparently!) and due on at 8.45 but taking the stage at 9. A 25 minute set time-slot only then, and this was an object lesson in making the most of it. Grabbing the attention from the outset with opener “Departures”, he weaved a tapestry of observational life, holding a mirror to the minutiae and mundanity of humanity. A splendid opener, recalling Del Amitri’s “Nothing Ever Happens”, he followed this in short order with a jolly, knockabout “Down With The Yoof”, bringing on his German friend Emily for vocal accompaniment on a mid-set ballad. “Terry And June”, a folky “list song” which for me always recalls The Lemonheads’ “Being Around” as well as Ian Dury’s list-based lyrical style, was next up, and a splendid vignette of a performance was concluded with Nick joking, “my name’s Nick Parker, or TBA as the poster says!” and a great, singalong “Es Tut Mir Leid”, during which I got to hold up the “Entschuldigung” placard and conduct the crowd in the choral singalong. Affable, dry, funny and inclusive – great stuff again Nick!
We took a breather outside the cramped pub thereafter, complimenting Nick on his performance and catching up with other folks and friends. I’d fully intended to catch some of the next set from the splendidly named and punkish Cupcake Diaz And The Felt Tip Pens, but hunger was a greater call, so we headed off for sustenance, before I dropped the boys off to round off my Shuffle Day 2!
Family commitments unfortunately precluded my joining Shuffle Sunday until mid-evening (sorry Si and Matt!) but I hurriedly headed into town, to a packed and sweaty Beehive, after Logan arrived home from his swim class. No real need as the schedule was running an hour late, so I managed to catch the last knockings of BUSWELL’s set. A local musical maverick, Shaun Buswell tonight fronted a relatively conventional 6-piece band, running through a powerful, potent Nick Cave-esque number, “about a serial killer,” and an equally strident and dynamic cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” (again!), with some nice flute embellishment, and Isaak’s lilting soprano replaced by Buswell’s lionesque roar,. Glad I caught some of that!
Next up, as I caught up with Tim and Tracy in the bar and briefly outside, were the 6-piece BLACK SHEEP APPRENTICE at 8.15. The irrepressible Richard Skidmore (we’re all “Skiddy’s Shuffle Hotties!” this year according to his 2017 badge, which is far preferable to his 2016 version!) took the stage to a Cowboy theme film music backing track, then led his black Stetson-clad charges into Wild West territory, dishing up dark and rampant Country-tinged powerpop, dusty Alt-Country and whisky-soaked murder ballads in equal measure. “Let It Go” recalled Posie Ken Stringfellow’s excellent Chariot project, a darker “Born To Walk Alone” was dedicated to his mother, then Skiddy got “The Maiden” out (a gorgeous white Gretsch with gold trim) for a morose and (ironically) parched-sounding “Water”, giving props beforehand for the Shuffle organisers by announcing, “people involved in the [Swindon] Arts are special… well, not that [type of] special!” The set highlight, however, was a stunning, elongated “I Cursed Your Name”, a menacing, Violent Femmes-like revenge ballad with a lengthy, repetitive hook and some excellent slide guitar from Jim Blair. The eponymous and cacophonous “Black Sheep Apprentice” rounded off a startling set, Skiddy, soaked at the finale (commenting earlier, “it’s between me and Si from Raze*Rebuild for [the title of] Swindon’s sweatiest performer!”), having poured all kinds of scary conviction into a stellar performance.
Another breath of fresh air outside, catching up with familiar faces from the past (hi Bex!), then back in for the finale of the weekend. Or, as Ed Dyer put it before thanking all and sundry for a successful weekend, “we’ve got one band left, and we were desperate!” THE SHUDDERS however were absolutely the perfect act to close out the Shuffle; right band, right place, right time! After the gathering storms of the nonetheless superb BSA set, the clouds parted as they delivered an upbeat, inclusive and celebratory set of harmonic powerpop worthy of the occasion. “Thought I Saw You” was all Summery harmonies and Posies powerpop riffs, “Words Of A Fool” racey and ramshackle, and newie “Star Bright” featured a great memorable hook. Another newie, “You Look Good”, could have walked off Teenage Fanclub’s “Songs From Northern Britain” album, and “Sorry” was deliciously understated, the boys round harmonising as Paj filmed the band and audience. “In the spirit of the festival,” Danny ironically announced a cover, Neil Young’s fine countrified “Powderfinger”, which saw Danny, Liam and Tim all taking lead for one verse each, before the song rounded off with a chorus of “Rocking In The Free World”. That should have been it, but the crowd clamour prompted a final run through of “Lost And Broke”, the jaunty Irish reel and singalong hook proving a great way to finish proceedings.
More catch-ups with Tim and Darren Dust afterwards, before I reluctantly bade farewell to all and sundry and headed home to conclude my Shuffle Day 3. Thus ended (for me, at least…!) another great Swindon Shuffle, with excellent performances throughout from truly talented people. If a relatively small town such as Swindon and its’ environs can throw up excellent songwriters and performers of the likes of Si Hall, Steve Skinley, Nick Parker, Rich Skidmore and the Shudders, playing in small venues to friends and contemporaries for a worthy cause in mental health charity Mind, it baffles me that the likes of Ed Sheeran can pack out Wembley Stadium 2 nights on the bounce. Nothing against the guy, but there are far better singers and songwriters out here going unnoticed. Scratch the surface, people, there’s musical talent right on your doorstep, and, year after year, The Swindon Shuffle goes a long way towards proving it!