First lesson at In The City was learnt the hard way: don’t expect to waltz in at the advertised time for the band and expect to be able see. Kicking off the three nights of gigs across 17 venues in Manchester’s Northern Quarter was Advances in Mathematics. However seeing here wasn’t a problem – the band were fairly immobile but their music wasn’t: sublime instrumental post-rock that shimmered around a packed Common Bar. It ably competed head-on with early doors bar banter (after work drinking rather than ITC delegates I suspect) but as the band upped volume with great rolling drum fills they effectively neutralised it. One song mid-set with guest vocalist broke the post-rock pattern – but in some ways an unwelcome distraction as the pattern had in a short time become so entrancing.
Under atmospheric lighting, the wood panelling in the freshly refurbished back room of The Castle took on the qualities of plush velvet. The small room felt as peaceful and spiritual as a chapel. What better setting for the brooding melancholy of Christopher Eatough accompanied here by violinist Clare? Six quiet acoustic songs of loss and despair but for all their fragility there’s a tough resilience – not quite hope – in Eatough’s singing and playing. “Never will the Castle have sounded so forlorn” he’d said prior to this performance – and forlorn has rarely sounded this beautiful.
Drinks in the front bar brought a salutary reminder of Lesson Number One. Returning to try and see Young British Artists was pointless – you couldn’t even get into the corridor let alone the room.
So passing the entrepreneurial band setting up their kit out on the street near Night and Day, I headed for the Soup Kitchen to see Big Deal - lured by the Mazzy Star reference in the Live Guide listings.
Sound-checking immediately before performing with a crowd staring on might not put any band at their ease. But Big Deal seemed to find it particularly intimidating. A boy/girl duo (him on acoustic, her on Fender Telecaster) they successfully negotiated the crackly interference in the first song but never seemed to be completely at ease despite the tranquil setting. Not having the sultry confidence of Mazzy Star and remaining tentative throughout, they still impressed with sweet, fragile melodies that peaked in (relatively) intense strummed finales with woozy shared harmonies.
The Milk playing in the refurbished basement at Dry Bar didn’t live up to the promise of energetic movement in any sense. The four piece played a generic and - yes energetic - bar-room blues-rock that did have a swing to it, and refreshingly no swagger, but not much else beyond that. It was not what I was looking for from In The City.
Next headed to Band on the Wall to see Dry The River but with a late-running bill actually caught the last couple of songs from The Steals. The name suggests an identikit indie-rock band from the mid noughties - instead The Steals play an intense psyche-folk-rock based on the couple I heard. The barefoot female lead singer with long Pre-Raphaelite hair suggested a decades earlier period of folk but the intense drones gave it a much more contemporary feel. Like Big Deal, another band to check out properly at a later date.
This is the third time I’ve seen Brown Brogues and they already feel like familiar old friends. Familiar but utterly reliable in delivering thrillingly visceral primitive garage-rock. “Hello” said Mark Brown Brogue, “we’re No Age.” Ah the cruelties of festival schedules. Given their growing local reputation it could be forgiven for locals to seek other entertainment – but this first of three daily performances deserved more visiting ITC delegates. Two more days to catch up.
Next in Mint Lounge was a full-band show for much-blogged American wunderkind Oberhofer. I expected something more leftfield or an unfinished idiot savant rawness from the four piece. Instead Oberhofer came across like a more intense Vampire Weekend or a souped-up The Drums. They had an edge both those bands lack but I suspect full adoration – of the music and his pretty-boy good looks - lies in pages of NME rather than here.
So a good balance of Manchester and visiting bands from day one. And in the appreciation stakes, the locals definitely had the upper hand so far.