Monday, 31 August 2020

1182 THE SHUDDERS, Swindon The Manor, Saturday 29th August 2020


Breaking a Covid 19-induced 169 day-long gig famine with this local one, but hey, it’s some “live” music at last! Since my last gig, waaay back in March, the world had gone into lockdown hibernation to contain the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic, with my pre-arranged Spring “Dance Card” of scheduled gigs suffering blanket postponements firstly into Autumn, then further postponements into 2021! Of late, he world has at least taken small steps towards a return to normality (myself being back to work for 8 weeks now, for instance, after a 14-week furlough period from March to June), but there still exists considerable uncertainty about when larger public gatherings such as gigs can return. A very frustrating – and financially precarious – time for music fans, artists and venues, then, leading to this, my second-longest break between gigs – ever!

 I was actually expecting said break to be even longer, but local scene stalwarts The Shudders announced an acoustic gig at The Manor pub, a stone’s throw from our front door, and in the pub’s beer garden where the necessary dreaded Social Distancing (an utter oxymoron in my eyes – surely being “social” is about closeness and friendship, not staying away from folks!!) can take place. So we arranged a family evening outing to the pub, wandering out just as a cloudy but dry day had rather ominously morphed into a damp and chilly evening, threatening drizzle for our outdoor event. Bugger! The Shudders, however, were set up line abreast under a wooden gazebo next to the pub back door, so at least they wouldn’t get wet! Caught up with Tim between periodic soundchecks, and chatted with other punters “Paj” and Colin, before Danny called the band to order, kicking off their first set in front of a small but hardy clutch of onlookers.

 An “in between” band set-up, this, with Liam and Danny both wielding big acoustic guitars, Tim plugged in with his electric bass, and drummer Jim playing a percussion box, all huddled together under an ivy-bedecked wooden gazebo which gave the impression of a weird nativity play! The opening set material delved back to The Shudders’ embryonic first “Pirate folk” album, opener “Words Of A Fool” seeing their second speaker – which had apparently stubbornly refused to play ball all day – firing up midway through! Oldies “Dog You Can Kick” and the trad-country sounding “River Song” followed, sounding a little understated and hesitant, fragile even, which I guess was totally understandable given both the long break and unusual nature of this performance. Danny’s vocals however seemed more strident and upfront for the anti-war protest number “A Truce Song”, and after that each number sounded better than the last, as the band warmed to their task and shook off their understandable ring rust, Danny admitting to be, “suffering from the lockdown fever of not playing,” before “Standing In The Rain”. A subsequent “Long Way Down” was the best of this first set, a galloping CSNY-like 70’s country rocker to take us to a break.

 A pause then, Rach electing to take the kids home as it was now less damp but increasingly chilly, so I caught up with Tim before The Shudders’ second set. “By way of an apology for the cold weather, this one’s called “Sorry”,” introduced Danny as the number snuck in with its looped acoustic riff and groovy harmonic chorus. “Thought I Saw You” was its usual fine, breezy if understated powerpop self, then the boys tried a new number out on us before a lead vocal-swapping, meandering yet haunting cover of Neil Young’s alt-country classic “Powderfinger”. “Two more songs then you can go somewhere warm!” joked drummer Jim, but the remaining hardy perennials (all 5 of us!) made our own warmth with an energetic fun jig around the table to set closer “Lost And Broke”, the raucous fiddly-diddly Irish reel number interspersed with some audience participation and a mid-number “Box solo” from Jim! A fun way to end the set, after which we all decamped to the bar for warmth!

 A quick chat with the boys afterwards before I headed off home. This one’s admittedly not going to threaten the likes of Nada Surf or The Hold Steady in my 2020 gig “Top Ten”, but after such a lengthy period of Covid 19 gig hibernation, it was just nice to catch up with friends and hear “live” music again. So thank you to The Shudders for providing that opportunity, and hopefully it won’t be so long before the next one…

Sunday, 15 March 2020

1,181 FRANK TURNER, Micah Schnabel, Jess Guise, Bath Forum, Friday 13th March 2020

Another chance to take Logan along to see one of his – and my – favourite “live” artistes, namely hard-working folk-punk troubadour Frank Turner! The dates for Frank’s last tour, an acoustic band go-round at the back end of 2019 showcasing last year’s loose “concept album”, “No Man’s Land” (a laudable if inconsistent acknowledgement of influential folk through history – who all just happened to be women), didn’t work for us, but this subsequent early 2020 solo stint included an all-ages Friday night gig at the nearby Bath Forum, so tix were duly and quickly snapped up. This was supposed to be more of a family outing, but Rach felt poorly on the day of the gig, so it ended up just being a boys’ night out. 

So, we set off at 6.30 and my little man navigated me in perfectly into the car park around the corner from this old theatre venue, getting in at 7.15. After surveying the already-busy front standing area, Logan elected to sit in the rear stalls seats, 2/3rds back, the sloping floor allowing for a good view of the stage. First act on at ¼ to 8 was “the missus”; “I’m Jess Guise, I’m officially Mrs. Frank Turner – also known as that lucky bitch!” No point hiding from it, so Jess skilfully first made light of it (“I’m here because, well, nepotism…!”) then got the Frank massive onside not only with a challenge to their broad-mindedness (“we wanted to see how receptive a Frank Turner crowd would be to my music…”), but also with her set, which from the outset was captivating, charming and lovelorn. Opener “The Fun Part” was lilting, reflective and melancholy, and whilst the next number was slightly more upbeat, albeit still in Sundays and even early Smiths territory, we were soon, “back in heartbreak land – I did spend a lot of time there!” A buoyant, self-effacing manner at odds with her music (well, I guess she’s in a good place now!) and an impressive vocal range were also features of a charming set, at the end of which my 12 year old – that’s 12 year old – son commented, “that was very relatable – she’s been through as many breakups as I have!” 

After a short break, next up was a completely different kettle of reactionary radicalism in the shape of Micah Schnabel. Again pounding a well-worn acoustic, Ohioan Micah’s set was much more punky, in your face, full of self-deprecation and emo-angst, and variously recalled early Dashboard Confessional, Brian Fallon (when he’s good!) and even the powerfully rambling stream-of-consciousness delivery of Titus Andronicus’ mighty Patrick Stickles. Pointedly funny too… early number “How To Ride A Bike” featured the hook, “being alive is so expensive but being dead is such a lousy alternative”, and his garbled between-song banter included such gems as, “it’s an honour playing these lovely places; I normally play the dark corners of bars; this is nice, there’s a microphone and everything!” and, “I wish my dad were here to see this – he’d stop telling me to go get a job!” “New Norman Rockwell”, a rallying cry to be a better person, was an appropriate closer for another impressive set. Very good supports this time, Frank! 

I’d popped out mid-set to the foyer and had my ear talked off by the very gregarious Ms. Guise, and subsequently took Logan out for a brief (ha!) chat and pics. Back in to a crowded auditorium well before showtime; despite this being my 10th Frank Turner gig, this still felt like a slightly unknown quantity... We know full well what Frank’s capable of with The Sleeping Souls in tow, however my/our only previous Frank solo experience was in front of a few dozen enthusiastic punters shoehorned into Swindon’s short-lived RPM Records (gig 1,067). How would this one go down? 

Well, we needn’t have worried as from note one of opener, “The Ballad Of Me And My Friends”, this supreme showman had the audience utterly captivated, raucously raising the roof and singing along to every word. And no one more so than my little man, screaming, “we’re definitely going to hell, but we’ll have all the best stories to tell!” at the top of his voice. We’ve brought him up well, it seems… Welcoming us to, “show 2,470!” Frank informed us that we were all on backing vocals tonight (“the general vibe is that we all sing along!”) inducing a campfire singalong to his self-affirming, empowering folk/punk tunes and maintaining this all-inclusive attitude throughout, reducing this pretty decent sized theatre to the feel of a small pub back room. A rare talent. “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The One Of Me” was ragged and bar-room bluesy; the huge ascending hook of “If Ever I Stray” was preceded with a plug for his Sierra Leone charity: and he informed us “The Next Storm” was, “a metaphor… and an appropriate one at the moment…” But the hushed, reflective “Be More Kind” was the highlight, preceded as it was by a passionate call to hold on to our humanity and be kind and decent people in these troubled times. Wise words indeed. 

“The Lioness” (one of only 2 numbers tonight from that “No Mans Land” album) was racey and appropriately teeth-baring, and a new song, “The Work” was about Jess; “we’ve been married for 6 months and I’m still enjoying saying the word “Wife”!” “Get Better” then heralded a quickfire blast to the end of the set and through the encores, with “I Still Believe” and final number “Polaroid Picture” singalong standouts. But everything was singalong tonight, let’s face it, in another stellar Frank gig. A quick exit in the rain and blast home before midnight for a tired but elated little man and his dad. A great boy’s night out!

1,180 NADA SURF, John Venderslice, London Camden Electric Ballroom, Thursday 12th March 2020

The first booking on my 2020 “Spring Dance Card” was this one, and it was a total and utter no-brainer… it takes a Very Special Band indeed to drag me up to London on a school night – particularly the deepest, darkest recesses of North London’s Camden Town – and the list of bands who justify such a trek is getting smaller all the time. One name, however, always rises to the top, that being NYC’s Nada Surf, a band who for me have pretty much gone toe to toe with The Hold Steady for the honour of Best Band In The World for the last decade, and, thanks to another wonderful addition to their flawless canon of work in this year’s sumptuously melodic and warm-hearted “Never Not Together”, pretty much a shoo-in for Album Of The Year honours (yes, already…!), might be actually putting some space between themselves and Minneapolis’ finest. All it needed was a stellar “live” performance…

So I hit the road early from work for this one, and a good thing too, as an accident on the M4 delayed me and vindicated my plan to park up at Osterley, despite a frantic ticket-mare at the car park (note to self – coins! Coins! Coins!). Nevertheless, I tubed it easily over to the venue for 7.15, joining a small band of punters on the barriers down the front and chatting to a young couple who’d travelled from Swansea for the gig! During a trip back to the loo, I saw Surf mainman Matt Caws manning the merch stand so took the opportunity for an elbow bump (no handshakes at the moment!) and a few words, which was nice. Support Jon Vanderslice, on at 8, pulled some anonymously provided questions from a bowl (“Desert Island top 3?” “How did you lose your virginity?”), his answers unfortunately proving more entertaining than his set of morose melancholic college pop. The blue-haired Vanderslice had the slightly distracted and heron-like stage presence of a Ken Stringfellow, and some of his better material veered towards Posies-like, but this was mainly a bleak set, invariably and slightly annoyingly smothered with effects from his percussion machine, and only a duet with Matt (preceded by a story from him about a recording session at Jon’s studio, during which he encountered one of Jon’s neighbours, a guy who, following an accident, had a big toe for a replacement thumb!) rose above the mediocrity. I did like Jon’s description of Matt following said duet; “he’s just sunshine, isn’t he?” You’re right there, bud… 

Took another loo break and got back quite easily; in comparison to Saturday’s Hold Steady gig, this was probably a disappointing 2/3 full. Thankfully that didn’t play into Nada Surf’s performance; on at 9 to the accompaniment of eerie synth and dry ice, they were utterly majestic from note one of lushly melodic opener “So Much Love”, with Matt, still rakishly rock-star slim, already the centre of attention. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, the man has a gift for making you feel as if he’s playing exclusively for you, and pretty much every time I looked at him, he seemed to be looking right back! A tough, bouncy “Hi-Speed Soul” preceded greetings from the man and tonight’s first surprise, “our first single – rehearsal space back in New York was expensive, so we played really fast!”, the frantic, superfast strumalong thrillride of “The Plan”, which saw me bouncing up and down like a loon in my front row spot, bad knees be damned!

The set encapsulated the essence of this very special band, encompassing all eras and elements of their sound. “Killian’s Red” was slow-burn, eerie, blood red lit and goose-bump inducing; “Looking Through” was upbeat, metronomic and hard-hitting; a lovely “Inside Of Love” was a heartbreaking ballad from the heavens, delivered with a deliciously yearning vocal from Matt; and the backbeat “Cold To See Clear” was soaring, optimistic and divine. All throughout, Nada Surf’s performance was underpinned with generosity, warmth and humanity, Matt’s expression a picture of beatific serenity whilst he delivered the rock, leaving the expansive gestures to his bandmates Daniel Lorca – flailing his dreadlocks wildly – and octopus limbed drummer Ira Elliott. In fact, Ira, as ever, gave a massively Caldes-like energetic performance to the set highlight, a brilliantly undulating “Hyperspace” (“a song I wrote in a taxi to rehearsal as I was late!”), prompting some wag down the front (OK, me…) to shout, “yeah, Ira!” to which Matt joined in. Yeah, Ira!!
“See These Bones” was its’ usual slow-burn self, building a head of steam to a brilliantly layered and startlingly epic conclusion, whilst set closer, newie “Something I Should Do” was a crazy finale, dovetailing Joy Division steals (“Dance! Dance!”) with a steam-of-consciousness monologue from Matt. Another surprise awaited in the encore; a run through of early single and post-grunge MTV favourite “Popular”, then an extended “Blankest Year”, featuring 3 false endings to prolong the party, ended the night on an utterly celebratory note. I grabbed one of the lists gathered up by Matt at the end, deciding against waiting for more merch-stand facetime with the man after surveying the queue – long journey home and all! Back just after 1 after a stellar night, everything I’d hoped for from these boys – and more. If bliss had a sound, it would be Nada Surf. Gig Of The Year? Already? Don’t bet against it…!

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

1,179 EXTC, Swindon The Victoria, Tuesday 10th March 2020

This one was thrown into my “Spring Dance Card” as a last-minute extra… and an enticing one too! Following the 2017 semi-“reunion” of former XTC stalwarts Colin Moulding and Terry Chambers in their TC&I project, which yielded a suitably Beatles-esque, smooth and lushly melodic EP, and, surprisingly, a slew of immediately sold-out Autumn 2018 gigs at Swindon’s tiny Arts Centre (one of which I got along to, in the process righting a couple of wrongs – see gig 1,113 for details!), it seemed that Moulding’s subsequent proclamation that he was done after the shows put paid to any further activity. However, Chambers, a couple of years removed from his return from Australia, still has the “live” bug, it seems, and with the recruitment of a couple of the TC&I wingmen and a couple of other local muso types – and, just as importantly, the blessing of his former bandmates Moulding, Gregory and even the famously reclusive Partridge – thus was birthed this new project “EXTC”, apparently the only suitable name for it, again according to Mr. Partridge!

So, when they announced a “warm-up” gig at Swindon’s own Victoria back room (“warm up” for what, I wonder… only one other date thus far…) I paused briefly on account of my already hectic March, before ultimately going for it. The only gigs to regret are the ones you miss, and all that… Rich May had already booked, happy that this gig fell on an “off day” on his new shift pattern, so I picked him up and we headed up the hill, parking behind the Roaring Donkey and wandering in, immediately noting the number of guitars racked up onstage, plus the size of Chambers’ kit, making the already-small Vic stage look really cramped!

The place was pretty rammed for the introduction of EXTC at just before 8.30, but we managed to find a spot house left, as TC&I stalwart Steve Tilling, all angular, tousled and wild-eyed and the de facto onstage leader and rabble-rouser, led the band into the off-kilter rhythm and clipped, staccato hook of (very) oldie “This Is Pop”, followed by the languid, meandering bass of a similarly vintage “Statue Of Liberty”. Great openers – they can stay in this XTC era for as long as they want, I remarked to Rich!

The mix was very clear despite Tilling’s concerns (an early sound-related comment of, “I’ve got organ in my ear!” prompting titters), the 5-piece band were clearly all accomplished in their particular art, and Tilling in particular was a fine frontman, constantly exhorting the packed crowd to sing along to these oh-so well-known numbers, whilst fairly authentically replicating Andy Partridge’s idiosyncratic, West Country round-vowel vocals. But it was, inevitably, Chambers who was the centre of attention, his hard-hitting drums the main feature, underpinning and propelling this splendid EXTC set. “Towers Of London” was marvellously louche and lazy, “Wonderland” more pastoral, hazy and Summery, “Big Day” featured some excellent psych-guitar from Tillings’ fellow guitarist/vocalist (and a man with more than a passing resemblance to Dave Gregory!) Matt Backer, but it was the excellent, acerbic backbeat of “No Thugs In Our House” that proved the first set’s standout (although, surprisingly, a lushly harmonic descending melody of an almost Gigolo Aunts-like “Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead”, which closed out the first 50 minutes, ran it close!).

A short pause, then the band were back on at 10 to 10, the second set drawing a little more from the latter, more crafted and Beatles-esque XTC albums, opening with a fine Tilling vocal for a stripped-back, guitar and keys only “Dear God” before a bouncy, singalong “Sgt. Rock” and, “a powerpop song about real estate!”, namely “Earn Enough”, which The Pills famously covered during their Swindon gig back in 2004 (gig 634!). “Mayor Of Simpleton” and “Respectable Street” were bouncy pop gems, although the subsequent “Generals And Majors” could have done with more of that pulsating bass sound to propel it along. No matter, I still loved the speeded-up finale…! An inevitable and slightly messy “Making Plans For Nigel” finished the set, before a 3-song encore fittingly concluded with the highlight of the night, “Life Begins At The Hop”, over 40 years old but still bright, brilliant and ridiculously fun, the band taking a bow at the end, bringing Chambers to the fore for a deserved ovation.

A lengthy wait for someone – anyone! – to come back onstage afterwards finally netted me a set-list… well, part, at least! Dropped Rich off and back at midnight, after a splendid EXTC celebration of XTC. So, well and truly warmed-up, we await what EXTC will do next with interest and anticipation!

1,178 THE HOLD STEADY, Martha, London Camden Electric Ballroom, Saturday 7th March 2020

A third annual visit to London to partake in a segment of The Hold Steady's London Weekender; but surprisingly this was one I wasn't anticipating with as much frenzied relish and the previous two... The Hold Steady, Minneapolis' rock'n'roll ruffians, inheritors to a swaggering lineage running from the likes of The Rolling Stones and early Springsteen, through The Replacements and Husker Du, all the way to the Gaslight Anthem, Menzingers and such blue-collar contemporaries, had for at least the last decade also been clear owners of the title of Greatest Rock'n’Roll Band on Planet Earth, so far as I’ve been concerned. However, a performance last time out which was initially flat, taking time to soar to usual heights, was followed with a very patchy album in 2019's "Thrashing Through The Passion", perhaps their poorest effort to date and one which honestly read like a collection of outtakes and half-formed ideas, rather than a flowing, coherent whole. Heavy is the (collective) head that wears the crown, indeed... in fact, for me THS had consequently all but ceded their title to the more lustrous and magical brilliance of Nada Surf (next Thursday's hosts at this very venue, ironically enough). So, Mr. Finn and co., what'cha gonna do (brothers) to turn the tide around, and restore my faith in The Hold Steady?

An intriguing aside to this one was the addition of Durham's C86-inflected spritely punkers Martha as support, and an announced 7 pm stage time for them saw me, suitably kitted up in shorts, kneestraps and contact lenses - it is the Hold Steady, after all, so I'm still likely to utterly lose my shit - setting off just after 3.30! Parked at Osterley and tubed in, hitting the venue for an early 6.20, well in time to take a place at the front, chat with some fellow early-comers (one of whom complimented my Nada Surf t-shirt and told me about his having once invited them to stay at his Tennessee ranch after a local gig!), and be ready for Martha's early entrance at 5 to 7. On it from the off with the racy "Wrestlemania" and the rolling, repetitive hook of "Ping", the sound was tough and full, and this ruffian band of gender warriors did it full justice. An early "Goldman's Detective Agency", my favourite Martha track, got me bopping and singing along to their effervescent bouncy guitar pop, vocal chores as usual being swapped between all 4 band members, although guitarist JC took most leads. A galloping "Horny", again featuring an insistent repetitive hook, was the penultimate highlight, drummer Nathan pronouncing, "it's an honour to support The Hold Steady; we first saw them in 2007, so it's taken this long to get here!" Well, it was worth the wait; Martha rose to the occasion good and proper, and fucking nailed this set!

Gambled on a loo break, somehow managing to squirm back through this sell-out and anticipatory crowd to my spot about 3 rows back. Dead on 8, the intro music of Boz Scaggs "Lido Shuffle" started up, eliciting some warm-up "woah-ohs" from the crowd, also reciprocated by the band and particularly vocalist Craig Finn as they took the stage. And from note one of brilliant - and brilliantly chosen - opener "Stuck Between Stations”, all my doubts fell away like scales from my eyes, disappearing as fast as the air from my lungs in the sudden yet good-natured crush. A phenomenal starter, chased in shortly after by a huge singalong for "You Can Make Him Like You". These boys know how to start a gig, no messin'...

This was again one of those rare nights when the join between band and audience was so blurred as to be imperceptible. The rock, well, rocked, with a swagger and a strut, never totally note-perfect but played with so much passion and conviction that that mattered not. And Craig Finn was everywhere... quickly as red-faced and sweaty as the rest of us (I was pretty much in full Cleo mode by the third number!), dashing hither and thither like a demented hamster, repeating vocal lines off mic with the most beaming of grins, a picture of euphoria, this little rotund, slightly receding man somehow managed to reflect the distilled essence of decades of rock'n'roll. "We went to the Clash exhibit today; I didn't know what [the Clash's lyrical references] meant, I just knew they were important..."

In all honesty, Craig's usually frequent stream-of-consciousness banter was largely absent tonight as they concentrated on the rock, the exclamation, "Oh shit, it's "Party Pit"!" being a notable exception prior to a soaring singalong rendition. In fact much of the set was air-punching, terrace-chant roof-raising singalong moshpit catnip tonight, and I stayed in throughout, immersed fully in the experience. "Sequestered In Memphis" was a swaggering delight; a plaintive "Lord, I'm Discouraged" provided a necessary mid-set breather as well as a guitar riff highlight from Tad Kubler, eliciting roars from the crowd and applause from his singer; and the frantic punk rock of "Constructive Summer" nearly saw me subsumed by the pit. "Hoodrat Friend" saw a mid-song diatribe from Craig complimenting his band and the occasion, the subsequent confetti throw as the final chorus erupted reflecting the celebratory mood, and "Resurrection" rounded out a stunning 1 1/2 hour set as swift as any of late. Encores took this to 2 hours, the usual euphoric "Killer Parties" seeing Craig lead the crowd in the inevitable chant of, “There! Is! So much Joy!!! In what we do!" And once again they proved it, sweeping away my pre-gig concerns as if they never existed.

An easy list from a friendly roadie then quick merch-stand chat with Martha's JC, and I was off, sweaty as hell and feeling like a cod - totally battered! A couple of quick tube arrivals promised a quick return to the car; however I was held for 20 minutes at Northfields - 2 stops away! - so back to the car for 11.15 and home after the painful 50mph limit on the M4 for a weary and hungry 12.45, kebab in tow. Knackered but euphoric; and I can safely say that following that stellar performance, the Hold Steady crown has been restored to its full gleaming lustre... as they say, tonight at least I was a skeptic at first but these miracles work! 

1,177 ELVIS COSTELLO AND THE IMPOSTERS, Ian Prowse, Southampton Mayflower Theatre, Sunday 1st March 2020

First of a currently scheduled 7 in a packed and stacked gig month of March, and this one is pretty much solely down to my Boston friend Dennis... during my visit to "The Hub" last November, Denny was kind enough to offer me accommodation, putting me up in his "Elvis Room", a veritable shrine to Mr, Costello with framed and signed posters and art prints adorning all walls. Denny's enthusiasm for Elvis - who he'd apparently seen "live" north of 80 times - was contagious, and he persuaded me to check out this tour. Costello, New Wave's bespectacled and be-suited snarling, angry young man, latterly turned genre-straddling musical chameleon, hall-of-fame singer/songwriter and near-National Treasure, had been a 70's Punk/New Wave icon who had largely eluded me, a clutch of skinny-tie, herky-jerky 7-inchers and a fine "Greatest Hits" collection notwithstanding. So, after picking up tix for this one (persuading old friend Ben to join me along the way), I also picked up Costello's first 3, punky and reactionary yet well-crafted and eminently tuneful albums, enjoying them immensely, and immediately appreciating why Costello is held in such high esteem not only by Dennis, but also by many of my Boston rock friends (The Gravel Pit being an obvious one here). Why haven't I done this before?

I texted Dennis back to inform him that I'd sorted tix for Elvis' Southampton gig, receiving the response, "I may well see you there David!" And he wasn't joking, Denny making the reverse of one of my Boston rock pilgrimages to catch a couple of the UK tour dates! So we made dinner plans beforehand, Ben and I meeting Dennis after a leisurely mid-afternoon run down to the South Coast, thence joining his friends Jillian and Claire (like Dennis, both veteran Elvis fans, both also having seen the man 80-90 times - although Jillian also claimed to have seen the Rolling Stones 250 times!) in the Mayflower's restaurant. Fine food, good company and rock banter passed the time convivially, until a helpful bell heralded the countdown to showtime, so Ben and I took our splendid front stalls seats, house right, as support Ian Prowse took the stage at 7.30, accompanied by a violinist and keyboardist to provide accompaniment to his easily melodic, Irish folk- inflected indie-acoustica. Opening with a jolly rendition of his old band Pele's "Fireworks" and continuing that vein with "Taking On The World", Prowse again impressed, the stripped-back treatment proving just as effective as his band set at Shiiine On in 2017. A couple of slower, windswept and evocative ballads also showcased his near-virtuoso backing wingmen (wing-people?), and this endearing vignette of a set was concluded with "Does This Train Stop On Merseyside?", dedicated, "to the people who refuse to read "The Sun"!"

I lost Ben in the foyer (he'd headed back to the restaurant for dessert!), so took the chance for some time with Mr. Prowse, manning the merch stand as promised. Got a pic and reminded him of our "Shiiine On" conversation (wherein he'd responded to my lack of familiarity with his work with the immortal phrase, "that, sir, makes you a cunt!") to general hilarity and sincere (but totally unnecessary) apologies from the man. Back in at the bell, so I was in place as the lights fell dead on 8.30, Elvis taking the stage last in an iridescent black jacket, and kicking into the swinging honky tonk blare of strident opener "Strict Time".

Thence followed a perfectly chosen set for a relative Costello virgin such as myself, a veritable "Greatest Hits" run- through, thankfully (for me at least) relatively free of the Man's latter-day excursions into easy listening, traditional blues and jazz, genres mostly meaningless to my narrow-arsed guitar rock musical tastes. So from the get-go, I completely enjoyed this set, I really did... that said, and despite his affable enthusiasm and easy, witty between-song banter ("I was in this venue 30 years ago... up on the balcony with Kia Ora; at least that's what she said her name was...") Elvis initially sounded low in a cluttered and busy-sounding mix, that oh-so distinctive voice a little buried, and his occasional predilection for singing behind the melody line also made certain numbers feel a little disjointed. An early, synth pulse and voice only "Green Shirt" was however great, bucking this initial trend, although I'd have done without the swathes of wah-wah feedback over "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea". Less is more!

The flamboyant trad-bluesy rock'n'roll of "Mystery Dance" steered things in a clearer-sounding direction, although a subsequent "American Without Tears", a part of a piano-led triad, sounded badly off-key. Thereafter, however, it was like the clouds parting, the set suddenly sounding utterly spot on, and Elvis' voice taking flight on the stunning, heart-cracking ballad "Good Year For The Roses". Back off the piano stool, "Beyond Belief" was a rambunctious rocker, a highlight as the set really gathered momentum, and set closer "Alison", despite again slowing the pace, was plaintive and excellent.

However, if the set was variable, from sound-affected okay to excellent and all points between, the encores were all utterly brilliant, splendidly chosen and superbly executed. A lengthy "Everyday I Write The Book" showcased the virtuoso band and backing singers; "Oliver's Army" (pretty much my 3rd Year Senior class anthem, back in 1979!) was a wonderful, emotive memory-jogger; but the man saved easily the best until last, a rattling and rocking rendition of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding", over 40 years old but still as relevant as ever, a manifesto for these troubled and divided times. A perfect way to end an ultimately totally worthwhile 2 hours in the company of a musical icon.

No list though - a friendly roadie confirmed they're not allowed to hand them out ("orders from the boss!"), but Ben and I bumped into Dennis on our way out, and joined him for a short wait in slight drizzle, eventually being rewarded with pics and brief chats with Elvis and a more voluble keyboardist Steve Nieve . Nice one! A swift hammer home saw us hit the 'don and home just after 12.30, after an overall very fine start to a busy March. Dennis, thanks for the push; glad I took your advice to see Elvis, and now I'm only 89 times behind you...!

Saturday, 22 February 2020

1,176 THE MURDER CAPITAL, Egyptian Blue, Unorthodox Coolock, Bristol SWX, Wednesday 19th February 2020

Support set-list only this time... hey, sometimes you get the bear, sometimes the bear gets you...!

Another early 2020 trip down to SWX for me, this time to see The Murder Capital, a band I'd just missed on their last go-round, moving too slow before their Exchange gig sold out... Following the likes of Spectres, Autobahn, Idles and more obviously 2019's much-hyped rock press darlings Fontaines DC (whom I like fine, but find the vocalist somewhat off-key and jarring, and for whom I gave up my Oxford O2 ticket to my friend Andy, as that gig fell one day after a knackered return from Boston in November!), this Irish post-punk band of gentlemen ruffians take their sonic cue from the likes of Killing Joke, The Fall and The Birthday Party with a bruising, viscerally dark, claustrophobic yet intriguing sound, encapsulated in an impressive debut album, last year's "When I Have Fears". It's a bleak, uncompromising vision, but, let's face it, with a name like "The Murder Capital", this lot are hardly likely to cover "Shiny Happy People", are they? So, prime proponents of the type of aggressive post-punk I'm increasingly referring to as "Arthur Shelby Rock" (as it all invariably sounds like it should be sound-tracking a scene from "Peaky Blinders", where the Shelby's attack dog gives someone a fucking good kicking down a darkened alleyway), I was curious to see how this worked "live"; a set to be enjoyed, or endured?

Equally curious was old school and recent Facebook friend Keith, along with the aforementioned Andy, so we left early, queueing to get onto the M4 but then enjoying a swift drive down catching up. Pitched up midway through opener Unorthodox Coolock, an Irish poet-raconteur whose social commentary was worthy if a little hectoring, so we stayed at the back of this already busy venue, wandering forward to a spot house right for main support Egyptian Blue, on at 8.15. Straight away a considerably more enticing proposition, all Will Sargent guitar textures, long gloomy raincoats, taut and tense rhythm and building mid-song crescendos, they not only elicited the obvious Bunnymen/ British Sea Power comparisons, but also the regimented, metronomic jangle and clipped vocals of the likes of Mission Of Burma or Gang Of Four. A study of insouciance, with very little audience interaction - only their change-of-pace last number was introduced, and that only with, "this is our last number" - this was nonetheless a fine support set from impressive if currently slightly derivative newcomers.

We kept our spot, but the place got proper old school rammed, with big blokes barging past left and right. An uncomfortable wait then, before choking dry ice, strobe and feedback welcomed The Murder Capital onstage at 9.20, intense vocalist Jack McGovern taking the stage last, barking out the terrace-chant hook of opener "More Is Less" to an increasing and adoring moshpit, whereupon he abandoned the stage and joined in! Sure, seen that plenty of times, but rarely if ever during the opening number...!

"What's the fucking story Bristol!" announced McGovern, relishing in his chief rabble-rouser role, before the discordant siren scream and militaristic drumbeat of "For Everything", which kept up the initial frenzied pace. No one-trick ponies however, this lot, as following an apposite address from McGovern emphasising the sense of community TMC have felt during this tour, they delivered the set highlight in an elegiac and astonishing "On Twisted Ground"; stark, bare and affecting, drawing not only reverential silence from the crowd, but an emotional, impassioned vocal from McGovern. The boy can sing, no messin', and judging by the moment he took to compose himself afterwards, the song clearly cut deep.

A staccato, Interpol-like "Green And Blue" changed up the tempo if not eerie mood; "Don't Cling To Life" again saw a frenzied moshpit spread out even to our vantage point, then the caustic, fractured punk of final number "Feeling Fades" (which in a Frank Turner "Photosynthesis" moment, initially saw the crowd crouch down - not me, not with these knees! - before bursting into ragged, raucous life) saw McGovern crowdsurf to its denouement, rounding off a stunning set which, if somewhat short at 50 minutes, never left anything out, material-wise or in terms of commitment.

The set lists went quickly to the moshpit massive (fair enough really), but we caught our breath then chanced to have a quick word and handshake with a surprisingly softly-spoken and humble frontman, laudably following up his onstage proclamation that he’d hang out afterwards at the merch stand. So, a dark, brutal and raw-boned set then from The Murder Capital, yet delivered with a confidence and swagger from a band clearly destined for much greater things. Glad I caught them on the way up, because the sky appears to be the limit for this lot. And as for McGovern? Well, judging by his flagrantly puffing away at a couple of ciggies onstage, he's not the messiah - he's a very naughty boy!