I hadn’t been to a Cloud Sounds gig night before let alone an Xmas special, but I am fairly certain they haven’t been on this scale before. Tonight was a co-promotion with Red Deer Club featuring eight bands across both floors of Fuel Cafe Bar in Withington. And when I say ‘scale’ I’m not talking about the size of the venue: Fuel is a bijou cafe space, all stripped wooden floors and lit by fairy-lights, with barely enough room to swing a santa-hat let alone ambitiously stage this mini-festival. And with one band finishing on one level as another started it did feel like a festival – just with a walk up some narrow stairs rather than across a muddy field.
Sadly missing opener Alun Tan Lan, I arrived to see Stealing Sheep set up in the corner of the downstairs room. Hemmed in between towering speaker stands, the trio opened with an intricate clapping round and acapella harmonies before onto their short, sweet folk-pop songs played on keyboards, stand-up drums and tremeloed guitar. Mid-set they went up a gear as ‘The Mountain Dogs’ (renamed from ‘Telephone’ to avoid going head to head with Lady Gaga) introduced a new level of jauntiness and even more intricate rhythms. It was lovingly played, mixing melody and poise with nervous giggles – I look forward to hearing more.
Upstairs the The Louche FC performed as a three piece with drum machine. For the first song the drum machine dominated too much – or rather I was paying it too much attention. From thereon though either the sound levels balanced out or I stopped noticing - and it meant you could focus on the dreamy-drone pop of the guitars. On this second live viewing, it was the pulsing, shoegaze-leaning numbers that stood out for me over the girl-group pop sounds –but The Louche FC are equally adept at delivering both. Very assured, very impressive.
Jane Weaver told us she normally performs with a table-top of toys and gadgets. Tonight she just had a single box creating drones and acoustic guitar. Down-to-earth in appearance and accent, when singing her songs take on an eerie, other-worldly quality. Spook-folk? Quite entrancing if the police sirens and the icy blasts from the front door didn’t distract too much. On this showing it didn’t feel as though the box of toys was needed?
If Stealing Sheep had difficulty fitting into a small corner downstairs, there was more fighting for space as the seven piece The Maladies of Bellafontaine, mixing seated and standing members amongst their number, set up upstairs. Their double A-side single (both songs played here) has a cheerful skipping-to-school psych-folk feel which makes it easy to forget they also do fast and shouty (‘The Witch’), Broadcast-like motorik rhythms and just plain weird. I was left wanting more (and an album please).
Onions was the one band on the bill I knew nothing about and had no idea what to expect. Tonight their lyrics included references to muscles, vitamins and the Seven Wonders of the World. They are in fact three skinny and bookish indie-lads, two bespectacled for good measure, playing a good-natured Fountains of Wayne-meets-The Everly Brothers pop. Clearly playing to a partisan crowd and not taking it too seriously, I was nevertheless won over by their catchy melodies and playfulness.
And so to the Welsh surf-rock of Y Niwl in the upstairs room. Their self-titled album of ten instrumentals out earlier this week is a joy - but live they are something even more special. There is a ratcheting up of volume, intensity and energy, all anchored around the powerful drumming (those arms!) that is nothing short of enthralling. The band not only treat the genre with respect they treat their playing of these songs very seriously with a tightly-focussed precision and concentration. You could feel the tension lift as they finished each song. Just brilliant. Go and see.
The whole evening had the feel of a cosy lock-in: friendly, homely but still with a sense of occasion, something special without ever being self-important or full of itself. And despite the season and the title of the evening there were no mince pies and only one person was wearing a Santa hat. But what really made this night was the shrewd and cohesive selection of bands. All bands so far tonight had mixed to differing degrees the innocence of earlier decades of pop music, folky or droney melodies and quirkiness. Final band of the night Young British Artists therefore felt a bit out of step with the rest of the evening: a loud, brutal buffeting from industrial guitar squalls. Still a good, pulverising head cleanser for the journey home.
All this for only £6. Now this is how Christmas should be celebrated. Twelve months feels too long to wait to another one.