Thursday, 31 May 2018

1,088 SUPERCHUNK, Oblivians, London University Of London Student Union (ULU), Tuesday 29th May 2018

Of all the bands likely to take a stand against the idiocies and abominations of the current Trump administration in the US, I never expected one of them to be Superchunk! The ‘Chunk, Chapel Hill, NC’s enduring pre-grunge US alt-rock noiseniks, had never struck me as being overly political in their music or outlook, but one listen to their firmly tongue-in-cheek titled current album, “What A Time To Be Alive” put me in my place – a vitriolic attack on “the scum, the shame, the fucking lies” of the orange buffoon currently residing in the White House, coupled with the ‘Chunk’s trademark strident, frantic indie rock howl, and vocalist Mac’s entreating, one-octave-too-high-for-comfort vocals. A damn fine album, for sure, so when a London date was announced in support of said album, I was up for that too!

A quick albeit slightly damp run into London saw me park up at the Bush at 6.20, on the lookout for traffic wardens until I was legal (!), then tubing it over to ULU, one of my regular 80’s gig haunts. It’s changed a lot since then, evidenced by the fact I couldn’t find the right entrance door, eventually being pointed in the right direction by a good-natured security bod, then hanging outside said door with only one other couple for company, as no-one else was around! Eventually a small queue formed behind me, so I was first in when doors eventually opened at 7.40. Milled around as the place filled slowly with earnest looking blokes in black jeans; I overheard a snatch of conversation between 2 guys at the bar about walking football – yup, this is definitely my demographic! Took a place on the barriers, house right, for support Oblivians, on at 8.20 to a very small smattering of folk, and I immediately figured the latecomers had the right idea! A veteran Memphis trio, they were terrible, playing clumsy, hairy-arsed heavy bluesy rock’n’roll straight out of The Replacements’ dustbin. An incoherent early drum-heavy number could’ve been a Meteors B side back in the day, and quickly this hour-long (!) support set became a test of endurance, particularly after they announced they only had a couple more to play, swapped instruments around, played 6 (!) more numbers, announced they only had a couple to play – again! – then played 4 more! Much more entertaining was the scene unfolding to my right; a group of Italian rockers were trying to record the Oblivians’ set, much to the objections of the same security bod who’d helped me out earlier, then kicking off when told to stop. Why even bother!

Thankfully, they moved on after Oblivians finally finished, and Lisa joined me briefly down the front before Superchunk came on, dead on 9.45 to Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging”. “Last night at Leeds was like staring at a corpse!” announced guitarist Jim to a by-now respectably full ULU, the crowd taking that as a challenge with a warm reception for opener “What A Time To Be Alive”, delivered with the venom and strident intensity of old, Mac wide-eyed with righteous bile and fury. Time certainly hasn’t dimmed the fire…! “Reagan Youth” and “Lost My Brain”, both amphetamine-fast and no less pissed-off newies, followed, Mac announcing the latter as, “trying to stay sane in the face of neo-fascism,” then an early highlight with 2010’s excellent “Crossed Wires”, a gloriously infectious popcore number standing tall with Superchunk’s finest.

“Thanks for remembering us!” complimented a buoyed Mac, a punter replying, “it’s hard to forget you!” before oldie “Skip Steps 1 and 3” provided another frantic and strident highlight. The pulsating and palpable rock noise dished out tonight by the ‘Chunk was worthy of their 90’s pomp, and on a par with recent Bob Mould outings – no surprise really, as Chunk’s rhythm section tonight was Bob’s own, bassist Jason Narducy subbing for the absent Laura and complimenting regular Chunk/ Bob drummer Jon Wurster perfectly. “Break The Glass” was, “about trying not to look at your phone at 4am to see what fucked-up thing just happened in the world” – hey, I know the feeling… then melodic oldie “Driveway To Driveway” showed there was still a light touch to be had amongst the sonic assault. However, the boys were bumping up to time now, Mac announcing, “we’re just going to keep playing,” then delivering an astonishing final salvo of “Slack Motherfucker” and “Hyper Enough”, 2 of their finest, most towering terrace chant popcore moments. That’s the way to end a gig!

Caught a scrunched-up list thrown by Mac, then bade farewell to Lisa, untangling said list on the tube back to the car before a surprisingly easy drive home, back for 1am. Excellent stuff from the Chunk, harking back to their Mighty “live” pomp, but laudably, clearly with something to say about the fucked-up state of the world today. Well, someone’s got to say it, and it may as well be The Mighty Superchunk!

Monday, 28 May 2018

1,087 RAZE*REBUILD, Supp. Local Mad Men, Dark Days, Second In Line, Southampton Shooting Star, Saturday 26th May 2018

A bit of a Punk Rock Adventure, this; Swindon’s finest, Raze*Rebuild, were invited onto a “Punk At The Shooting Star” 4-band bill down in Southampton, alongside some local and out-of-town skate punk and hardcore ruffians. Probably a bit more akin to Si and Matt’s former skate-punk band Buzztone, this, but, relishing an out-of- town gig for a change, the Raze boys gleefully accepted the offer. As did I; circumstances had meant that I’d missed their last 2 Swindon Castle gigs – one, in fact, the previous night, Rach being out with Kasey at a show – so I was well up for this, going so far as to offer my services as chauffeur!

So, as “Raze Car 1”, I picked up Raze*Rebuild vocalist Si and his kit, along with fellow R*R uber-fan Paul, and Pete “Monkey” Butler, the “badger-haired gobshite” from Swindon hardcore mainstays 2 Sick Monkeys, from Si’s house on a sun-drenched Saturday afternoon. A swift and entertaining punk rock chat-filled hurtle down to the South Coast pitched us up at the venue for 6, parking around the corner and unloading. Immediately Pete recognised a few local faces from his 2SM travels, the rock chat continuing in the beer garden as “Raze Car 2”, comprising guitarist Matt, bassist “Paj” and drummer Jamie, arrived shortly after. A few spots of rain didn’t deter the chat and drink, and I stayed out as the first band Dark Days kicked up a grungy fuss in the pub. I did venture in for the next band, Second In Line; hairy local boys in skate shorts and Motorhead t-shirts, they sounded as they looked, 100 mph ramalama punk soundbites shouted out over a brutal and primitive delivery. The sound wasn’t great, but I could actually discern some melody beneath all the sonic assault, and a cover of the “Only Fools And Horses” theme was fun. Still, I felt Raze*Rebuild, next up, would sound positively cultured in comparison!

15 minutes for changeover, so Si got busy with the cables and I steeled myself for their ½ hour slot. Knowing that, as usual, I was likely to completely lose my shit when R*R kicked into gear, I’d prepared, with ¾ length shorts, kneestraps, contact lenses and some Anadin Extra to cushion the joints. And I’d need it, too, as given the nature of this event, R*R had opted for their most “punk” set possible, leaving out the slowies in favour of their fastest, most hard-edged popcore moments. Raze*Rebuild kicked off their set at 8.45 prompt, Si immediately giving it maximum intensity, noise and neck-vein-bulging effort, opener “Burden Of Youth” getting me rocking out, throwing my 52-year old body into shapes it really didn’t appreciate being thrown into, and bashing the overhead chandelier a time or two as well!

Raze were “on it” tonight, all agreeing afterwards that tonight’s performance was vastly superior to the previous night. “Never Saved My Soul” was a rollicking thrill-ride through Si’s dubious speed-dating past, “New Leaf” was careering, sweeping and swoopingly brilliant as ever, and “All The Gear” a strident Husker Du-lite anthem for workaday punk bands everywhere. I needed to power down during “Poison Air” as the oxygen was rapidly disappearing from the room, but I’d saved enough to do final number “Back To the Fall” justice; this was my highlight tonight, the soaring (Gaslight) anthemic hook towering over the poor sound, and Si’s high-kicking antics, lionesque roar and the band’s tight, dynamic power-play propelling the song – and the set – to a thrilling climax. Intense, raw, ragged and utterly superb!

After a breather and chat with a gregarious local (hi, “Cov John”!), I went back to the beer garden for some fresh air, and to avoid headliners Local Mad Men. If Second In Line were primitive, LMM were even more extreme – 10,000 mph unlistenable wall-of-white-noise, a real throwback to the type of noise (I hesitate before using the term “music” to describe them) that put me off punk in the first place. Honestly, I totally get the anger and fury, but this had all the sonic value of standing next to a pneumatic drill. Luckily it was short-lived, over before 10, and even luckier, the barman fired up the pizza oven in the beer garden, so I gratefully ordered a couple of pepperonis as accompaniment to more rock chat with the boys. Nature’s own fireworks display was kicking off in the distance, as we could see some of the reported 17,000 lightning flashes over the South Coast this evening, so we headed off at 11, luckily avoiding any deluge on the A34/ M4 way home. Dropped the boys off and achily arrived home at 12.30 after a real Punk rock Adventure, thanks to Raze*Rebuild!

1,086 SPARKS, Mr. B The Gentleman Rhymer, London Kentish Town Forum, Thursday 24th May 2018

A gig report that I never in a million years thought I would ever write, but one I'm so glad I'm doing...

When my brother mentioned last year that he was listening to an album that was blowing him away, I was surprised to hear it was by Sparks! Sparks, the 70s glam mavericks turned Giorgio Moroder-inspired disco divas, led by the madcap Mael brothers, Russell (he of the mass of curly hair, nervous energy and operatic helium falsetto) and Ron (he of the manic stare, non-communicative persona and Chaplin moustache)? Surely not! But Sparks it was, and said album “Hippopotamus” was a completely fun glory box of vaudevillian tunes, keyboard-propelled glam and convoluted lyrical silliness, apparently continuing a recent creative renaissance for the band, which had also seen them collaborate with Franz Ferdinand under the catchy handle of FFS! We’d just missed the Bristol leg of their 2017 tour, but when they announced a small 2018 reprise, we gleefully sorted tickets for the (eventually sell-out) London gig.

Leaving work early and driving to my brother’s, we then hit the road promptly, a good run seeing us decide to drive all the way, then slightly regretting that decision as A40 traffic delayed our arrival. Still, there and parked up before doors, and thanks to my O2 mobile contract, we joined the priority queue, snagging an excellent viewing spot down the front, house right. Chatted away the time before opener Mr. B The Gentleman Rhymer, on at 8. Somewhat of a niche act, this guy; a beatbox-backed, banjo playing mustachio'd toff straight out of “Jeeves And Wooster”, with song titles such as “They Don't Allow Rappers In The Bullingdon Club”, he was actually quite an apposite support choice, warming up the crowd nicely with some quickfire erudite lyricism, light-hearted and entertaining banter (“anyone fancy hearing a punk rock song about the National Trust? [Yes?] I’ve got my audience spot-on here…!”) and a Bavarian oompah version of Kraftwerk’s “The Model” (!). I mostly missed his subsequent cover of Bowie's “Starman” due to a loo trip, but overall this was a fun and diverting opener.

Kept our front spots and I did my best to ignore the annoying woman practically jumping into my back pocket, as the roadies laid out quite the biggest set-list this side of that blind Bunny McCulloch, next to Ron Mael's keyboard. Honestly, any bigger and they may as well have embroidered the set onto a blanket...! Heroic fanfare backing music and back lit cluster lights then heralded Sparks’ arrival just after 9; first the back rows, decked out in matching pastel pink denim jackets, then Ron, resplendent in white shirt, pink tie and enormous pantaloons, and finally Russell, bounding onstage in black, topped with a pink bombardier jacket. Opener “What The Hell Is It This Time” chugged along with sinuous purpose, much fuller and tougher-sounding than on record, setting tonight’s tone perfectly; the backing band were impressively in sync throughout, providing the perfect base for Ron’s staccato one-note keyboard refrains and Russell’s impressively energetic performance and ball-strangling yet tuneful vocals. Damn, Russell looked good for 69, putting a shift in that a man half his age would've been proud of!

An early “Tryouts For The Human Race” was tremendous, featuring that bubbling Moroder synth and a soaring yet eerie hook; “Missionary Position”, my favourite from the new album was epic and widescreen, yet played with “Carry On”-esque tongue-in-cheek humour, and an unexpected “I Wish You Were Fun” was a jaunty fairground singalong ditty, with Russell skipping about the stage energetically leading the audience in the “la la la la la’s”. A snatch of the old standard “My Way” led into an excellent “When Do I Get To Sing “My Way”?”, all huge, pulsating drama. But the 2 real highlights were to come; the coruscating, hi NRG synth pattern to a soaring “Number One Song In Heaven”, which saw Ron Mael abandon his keyboards during the break, perform a goony dance to the general astonishment of all, then return, gently dabbing his brow; and a brilliant version of “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us”, Sparks’ debut single (!) which fully deserves a place alongside the likes of “Roadrunner” and Surrender” as a bona fide all time rock classic.

Not perfect by any means (“Rhythm Thief” was somewhat wearing, and I’d have liked to see the set end after “Town”, rather than the subsequent throwaway “My Baby’s Taking Me Home”), but a tremendous set, with the emphasis on fun and entertainment. A 3 song encore showcasing splendidly undulating oldie “Amateur Hour” capped the performance, after which the Mael brothers took their bows, offered fulsome thanks (Ron even reluctantly taking the mic to praise the crowd for their support through the years), and took selfies with the crowd before departing, the deserved ovation still ringing around the hall.

Set-lists for both the Rose boys too (!), then, after a quick catch-up with old Lev mate Colin outside, plus a signature from Sparks’ guitarist Eli Pearl (who complimented my XTC t-shirt!), we headed off, into a truly nightmarish journey home; 2 banks of immovable traffic on the A40M leading into 3-into-1 roadworks, an M4 Junction 2 closure necessitating a diversion via Heathrow, thereby taking us 1 ½ hours to do the 16 miles from venue to motorway (!), then 2 further lots of slow roadworks on the M4 and a threat of J10-J11 closure which eventually proved not to be the case (but which briefly saw my by-then apoplectic brother threaten to abandon the journey and get a Travelodge!). Total fucking carnage. Nevertheless, despite all these setbacks (which saw me hitting home at a red-eyed 2 am), we agreed on one thing… if we’d known the journey was going to be this horrendous, we’d have still done it anyway. Hell yeah. I’m just sorry it took so long for me to see Sparks, and I hope it won’t be the last time!

Thursday, 10 May 2018

1,083, 1,085 FRANK TURNER AND THE SLEEPING SOULS, Arkells, The Homeless Gospel Choir, Bristol O2 and Oxford O2 Academies, Friday 27th April and Saturday 5th May 2018

A couple of gigs that pretty much elevated Frank Turner And The Sleeping Souls to the ranks of the Very Special Indeed, confirming his and their places as the best songwriter and “live” band the UK has to offer right now, and bumping up towards the very best of this current age.

It seemingly wouldn’t be Frank without somewhat of a ticket-mare at the moment, though, but for once, it worked out well for us, resulting in this (almost) double-header dose of Frank! When the O2 Academy level tour was announced, in advance and support of forthcoming album “Be More Kind”, I, as ever, was determined to be in on the pre-sale, buying some merch and an advance copy of the album from his own website to secure a pre-sale code. That, plus my O2 subscriber pre-sale, should sort me out for my preferred Bristol date, or so I thought… When the Wednesday pre-sale started, I was “on it” as usual from minute one, but despite using both artist and O2 portals I was getting nowhere; half a very frustrating hour later, and with “pre-sale sold out” signs appearing across the board, I reluctantly gave up on Bristol, bagging a couple (they’d only sell me 2! Bah!) of tickets for the Oxford gig instead. Shortly after, the “pre-sale sold out” signs went up for Bristol anyway, so I reluctantly faced the inevitability of pitching in on the general sale. Bollocks!

However, I then checked a day later, just to see what time the Bristol general sale was actually due to start on the designated Friday; the website however took me directly to the O2 pre-sale page and I bought 4 tickets, easy as pie! Happy with that! Thus it was that Rach and I set off with an eager Logan in tow (and Kasey on a hastily-arranged sleepover), down to Bristol for Frank Part 1… Got there at 7, and, also as pre-arranged, the medical team met us and showed us through to the First Aid Room for Logan’s Diabetes requirements, then to the VIP accessibility seating area, where a couple of seats awaited Rach and Logan. Not me this time, I was with the riff-raff on the floor! Hung out with some of said “riff-raff”, namely my old mate Olly and his delightful lady Caz, whilst main support Arkells were on. Sporting a loud-shirted vocalist who resembled Luke from “Modern Family” and had the voluble and quirky oddball stage presence of Indoor Pets’ Jamie, they entertained with some upbeat crisp powerpop; “People’s Champ” recalling 80’s funksters Hipsway, “My Heart’s Always Yours” the arena sweep of 80’s Springsteen, and final number “Leather Jacket” almost Posies-like in its’ powerpop bounce. Props too for a Frank like “love thy neighbour” attitude, and for their story about visiting the Arkells Brewery in Swindon earlier in the day!

I was joined by a late-running Matt between bands, keeping our usual spot as this sell-out crowd made for a very busy dancefloor! The lights smashed to black at an early 8.10, The Sleeping Souls bounding onstage and kicking into the pounding opening beat of newie “1933”… Frank took the stage last, to a huge ovation, guitar already firmly bolted on, spitting venom and righteous fury from the outset. And my hopes that the new material might be holding up a mirror to the desperate state of the Tory/ Trump/ Brexit-poisoned clusterfuck that is Planet Earth 2018 and saying, “what the holy fuck is going on?” were met immediately, “1933” being a huge rallying cry against all these “shower of bastards” and the hook, “don’t go mistaking your house burning down for the dawn” another incisive motto for our troubled times. Wow, what a start!

Incredibly, it got better… “Get Better” (!) kept the momentum before the usual Frank welcome, this time to, “Show 2,160! Are you with me??” and the huge fairground hook of “The Next Storm”. A few technical difficulties early doors then threatened to derail proceedings, Frank irritatedly swapping guitars a number of times before one worked, but channelling his frustration into a venomous version of Plain Sailing Weather”, venting his annoyance by stomping on his singing platforms. A funkier newie, “Make America Great Again” was preceded by Frank calling out “the failed actor with the orange spray tan,” then “I Am Disappeared” was a brilliant early highlight, this poignant wallow through the heartache of everyday life fast becoming my favourite FT song, and one of my favourite songs, period.

“God’s got something against me – I’ve had a chest infection – but I’m back on form!” announced Frank, and he wasn’t just whistling Dixie… following the dark, dramatic and almost hardcore chorus rant of “One Foot Before The Other”, Frank promised to delve back to album 2, rolling out an unexpected “Imperfect Tense”, one he and the band allegedly hadn’t played for 8 years and had been practising, but which they totally nailed. “Opening Act Of Spring” cleared the mood, a delicate, pastoral delight with an audience participation chorus, and Frank made reference to having played “Long Live The Queen” at the Thekla 10 years ago before an understated and tender version, which then led to a solo interlude kicking off with a beautiful new ballad, “There She Is” (“people tell me they play my songs at weddings… not sure which ones, as they’re all sad!” Frank commented by way of justification for this one) and rounding off with a lusty singalong for “The Ballad Of Me And My Friends”. If we are indeed all going to hell, as this one suggests, we’re in good company…!

After the funky newie “Blackout”, Frank called for a circle pit for the frantic, Pogues-ish “Out Of Breath” before a titanic “Photosynthesis”, punctuated by a crowdsurf from Frank (Logan bolting to the front of his viewing area to check where Frank had disappeared to!), then a totally on-point address about treating others with respect and dignity, rounded off a set which had initially threatened to succumb to techy issues, but was pulled back from the brink by Frank’s sheer chutzpah and star quality. Four splendidly chosen encores followed; rousing singalongs to “Prufrock” and “I Still Believe” preceding the manic punk dash of “Four Simple Words”, with a slow-burn and melancholy version of “Polaroid Picture” then ending the night perfectly. I’d pitched up at the front by this time, so grabbed an easy set-list before meeting the fam, bidding farewells to Matt and hitting the road home, eulogising about Frank Part 1!

So, Frank Part 2 came 8 days later, and given Oxford’s increasing reputation for awful parking combined with a 6pm door time, Logan and I set off at 4 for a sunny Saturday dash down the A420. Unfortunately, our early departure availed us nought, as our usual Tescos car park was already utterly rammed with an unmoving queue to get in, all street parking was equally overflowing or not available yet, so we eventually parked up in the last spot at St. Clements Street car park, a good 20 minutes walk from the venue, a clear 45 minutes after arriving! So much for getting there early to get Logan a good viewing spot on the barriers, or so I thought… luckily, after joining the queue at 10 to 6 and hitting the venue shortly thereafter, some kind folks down the front, stage right, found a Logan-sized front barrier spot between them. Thanks people!

Chatted with our gig companions as the place rapidly filled up, before opener The Homeless Gospel Choir joined us at 7. Actually one bloke, a voluble bundle of nervous energy in a loud shirt, who introduced himself as, “Derek Zanetti, 35 years old, 5 feet 8, from Pittsburgh – home of the motherfucking polio vaccine… you’re welcome!”, we’d missed his Bristol set as we were settling Logan into his VIP seats and first aid room. Damn shame, as this was a funny, inclusive and thoroughly entertaining set – practically every splendid, Bragg-esque number being introduced with, “this is a protest song,” lots of Craig Finn-like off-mic chatter embellishing his witty lyrics, and no little between-song humour (“you think you’re going to a punk show but you end up in a cult with a face tattoo – amirite????” and, “I’m playing a gig in Grimsby tomorrow – I said I wanted to play a show where no-one’s ever been before!” being 2 of my favourites). Barking mad, but brilliant stuff. Derek was then joined onstage by Arkells for his last number, Arkells taking over thereafter for their own set. And they were no less impressive again; opener “Knocking At The Door” was a ringing, Gaslight Anthem blue-collar rocker, and the subsequent “Private School” saw a punter joining them onstage to play guitar, after pledging that she knew the D, G and E Minor chords! “Peoples Champ” was again a funky singalong chant with an acerbic dismissal of Trump (“I’m looking for the people’s champ… it ain’t you, Mr. President!”), and elsewhere there were chunky, Waltham/ Weezer-esque beats and powerpop riffs aplenty embellishing another pretty decent Arkells set.

By now it was total sardine city behind us – somehow Logan managed to squeeze through to the loo to wash his hands prior to his evening Diabetes injection, but when I tried to make the same journey I couldn’t get past the edge of the bar! Tough it out time then, methinks… tonight’s witching hour was 8.40, as a medieval acapella backing track heralded The Sleeping Souls’ entrance, Frank again bounding onstage, already guitarred up, ready to both rock and lead his devoted congregation in song. Again “1933” was a blistering opener, raising the roof from note one with indignant protest fury, follow-up “Get Better” maintaining both pace and skyscraping choral power.

“Everybody having a nice time?” asked Frank, then remarking, “actually, “nice” is the least of our ambitions for tonight…” before guitarist Ben chimed in with, “perfect!” A lofty goal indeed, but Frank and The Sleeping Souls tonight delivered possibly as perfect a set as I’d seen them play. Much like The Hold Steady, Frank’s lyrics, personality and performance inspire communality and inclusiveness, blurring the distinction between audience and performer, Frank almost operating as conductor for mass singalongs for much of tonight. A massive plug for the new album, released the previous day (“yesterday was a special day… it was Star Wars Day! No, not really, my seventh album came out yesterday… I normally don’t have anything against Zac Efron (star of “The Greatest Showman”, the soundtrack of which is the current incumbent of Number One in the Album Charts), but this week would be a good week to buy it [and get it to number one]… not for me, but for my mum!”) preceded a poignant rendition of the title track, after which Frank teased the crowd with, “we’re not just playing new songs…” before anther brilliant reading of “I Am Disappeared”. “The Road” was a massive campfire singalong, illustrating the communal vibe, and tonight’s slightly rejigged set featured an ace “Reasons Not To Be An Idiot”, Logan revelling in the “invisible llama” line (the outline of a llama also being projected onto the large TV screens onstage!). Frank’s solo interlude then featured newie “21st Century Survival Blues”, preceded by a lengthy explanation of the subject matter, and an excellent “Balthazar Impresario”, before “Blackout” saw Frank dive into the pit in front of us and shake Logan’s hand, much to my son’s delight. Again, “Photosynthesis” and Frank’s mid-song sermon of respect (during which the cramped front rows nonetheless sat down together – well, those of us without dodgy knees, anyway!) ended the set, the subsequent 4-song encore this time featuring another newie, the plaintive “Don’t Worry” before a pounding “Four Simple Words” and stripped-back “Polaroid Picture” ended a quite superb near 2-hour set.

We’d had some friendly stewarding during the set – the crew supervisor escorting Logan through the sardine squeeze to the loo, bringing him back through backstage, as even he couldn’t find a way through the crush! – and this continued afterwards, another steward organising guitarist Ben’s set-list for Logan, even before the encores had concluded! Mindful of the 20+ minute hike back to the car, we then set off pretty promptly, Logan buzzing about tonight’s show, before an entertaining drive home chatting about roadkill and ankylosauri (!) got us home a shade before midnight.

A couple of brilliant gigs then, Oxford shading it for me, despite the parking-mare and crazy sardine-like conditions. Either way, this was confirmation that Frank Turner, for me, is just about the best the UK has to offer right now. Very Special Indeed, no doubt; budge up, The Hold Steady and Nada Surf, you’ve now got some Frank-shaped company on the Top Table of Rock!

1,084 FAMILIARS, Swindon The Castle, Friday 4th May 2018

Sandwiched in between two Frank Turner gigs, I’m happy to squeeze this one in… a return to “live” gigging for Cirencester’s Best Kept Secret, the deliciously doomy keyboard-led moody post-punk rock of Familiars. Led by “professional attention seeker” Steve Skinley, they’d been absent from my Gig Dance Card since the 2016 Swindon Shuffle (back in gig 996), quite possibly due to Steve’s other entertainment commitments. This short-notice gig was therefore an opportunity to make up for lost time!

I’d tried to get my Shuffle companions, Messrs. May and Carter, out for this one, but work commitments precluded either of them attending. It was therefore a solo run up the hill for me, after Rach brought Logan back from his swim session, parking up reasonably easily and wandering round to The Castle for 8.45, finding it disappointingly deserted. Cirencester’s best kept secret, indeed… “known only to one,” as the (early) Human League put it…! Found the boys in the beer garden and caught up, chatting with drummer Giles about The National (I’d seen him in passing in the lobby at the end of their Apollo gig last September (gig 1,055)), which prompted some entertaining circular chat about other post-punk bands and influences. Always happy to talk rock’n’roll with this lively and knowledgeable bunch of chaps, but time moved on and they had to earn their crust tonight…

The place was still pretty much tumbleweed city come showtime, and I was indeed the only one sat in the back room as the boys kicked off their set at 9.15. But of course, nothing ever happens in Swindon, does it? The boys took the sparse attendance in good humour, however, Giles joking beforehand that they should have brought Franklin the Labrador along from the Cirencester Golden Cross (my erstwhile gig buddy for their set there, gig 948), and the band nonetheless applying themselves to their set with determination and gusto. Opener “Red Forest” set the tone for the majority of the material in the set, with a mournful, elegiac keyboard-led opening, building up as the other instruments layered in, to a strident, hooky chorus and dissonant crescendo, whilst retaining that dark and gloomy atmosphere. The dramatic “In Silver”, next up, was more of a tub-thumping post-punk flag waver (shades of Comsat Angels and embryonic U2, perhaps?), and “Battlestations” featured some dramatic and urgent slashing guitar riffery from guitarist Ricky, underpinned all the while by some “Shadowplay” Joy Division-esque bass from James and stripped back, militaristic drum patterns from Giles. All this provided a suitable platform for Steve’s excellent vocals, his resonant and dark baritone really taking flight for the choruses and building crescendos. And for once the sound was kind to them here; The Castle sound mix can occasionally be a bit iffy (and hasn’t always served Familiars well…), but whilst a Raze*Rebuild can power through poor sound with an avalanche of tumbling rock riffery, Familiars require a more nuanced and balanced sound, which was thankfully in evidence tonight.

“We like sad songs, sad and loud… like a bad blouse!” quipped Steve before “Half Life”’s racier gallop, Steve then referring to “Tickertape” as, “a 2 chord wonder – that’s one chord less than punk, folks!” A new number, “Dynamite”, initially started uncharacteristically happily, with an almost late Summer evening vibe, before morphing into a “London Calling” style march, and the “Killian’s Red”-like circular piano pattern of “Ballyhoo” provided the launchpad for said song to really take flight. “Last one – then we can get drinking!” announced Steve before usual set closer “Bottleneck” ended the set on a more upbeat note, the small handful of punters who’d eventually taken notice from the backroom and bar applauding their efforts, and justifiably so.

Congrats and some more rock’n’roll chat before I headed off, mindful of tomorrow night’s Frank gig, but still taking a diversion to Mr. Cod before heading home. A great shame that Familiars played to such a sparse crowd; they deserve better, but that didn’t stop them delivering another fine performance. Well done boys, and see you again soon, I hope!