Friday, May 28, 2010


When I first saw that Ottawa’s The Acorn were booked into a church in the suburbs of Manchester not known for gigs, I was a bit sceptical of the accuracy of this announcement. However it turned out that this the first of four UK dates for the band was not only genuine, but at said church as part of Chorlton Arts Festival a “not-for-profit, week-long celebration of the arts in South Manchester”. An inspired booking for them and a special evening for everyone there.

St Clements Church occupies a leafy corner of a cross-roads in Chorlton and from the exterior appears quite twee and aged (late 19th century but built to look older?) but inside is quite modern and spartan. I was expecting to be sat on wooden pews but any seating had been cleared for this standing gig with the bands playing at the entrance to a large wing (chancel?) with a distant stained glass window behind them. My next surprise was to find myself jockeying for a good spot with hoardes of kids. This was truly an all ages gig with everyone from eight to eighty. Scepticism about this broad demographic also turned out to be misplaced - but first the opening act.

Local lads Blind Atlas were in support but the accent of the lead singer when talking to the sound guys sounded suspiciously North American to me. Which was entirely keeping with their music. The five piece play a gently paced, countrified Americana that is not afraid to take its time or extend songs with woozy guitar solos but it never feels indulgent or unwelcome. It reminded me of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s album “Sings Greatest Palace Songs”: a joyous easy-going country vibe but with undercurrents of darkness just below the surface.

Single ‘Take A While’ (“available now in independent record shops”) came early on in their seven song set. Just when I thought I’d got the measure of the band they finished with ‘Ironwall’ featuring tribal drums, dark incantations and bowed electric bass. A spooky-as-hell finish to a hugely confident set. Blind Atlas are one of the bands competing in Green Poll to win the opening slot for the Green Man Festival – definitely deserving of your support.

The Acorn are another all-male five-piece but with slightly further to travel to get to tonight’s gig, played in advance of their new album “No Ghost” being released in early June. It turns out they had only arrived in the UK this morning and were feeling the ravages of jet-lag. But it did not show.

I’d always thought the band’s 2008 record “Glory Hope Mountain” was a studio affair given its intricate detail and delicate arrangements but tonight’s final – and best surprise – was that The Acorn live reproduce that level of detail beautifully and seemingly without effort. Part of their secret is having two drummers playing on separate kits –this adds additional layers of percussion, occasional extra emphasis but also interwoven rhythms. It was great to watch the two drummers play in between each other, often adding fills for each other. Over these rhythms the rest of the band lead by singer and songwriter Rolf Klausener switch the mood from gentle lullabies (‘Glory’) to jagged folk-rock (new songs ‘No Ghost’ and ’Bobtail Ghostwraith’ – the latter I cannot wait to hear again) but without abrupt shifts or rough edges. And throughout Rolf’s clear and sweetly romantic vocals further held the mood together.

What really impressed me tonight was the slower and sparse songs – they were breath-takingly moving. And this is a band suffering jet-lag? I couldn’t imagine them sounding better, even with a full night’s sleep.

The band were all quite unassuming, happy to leave the talking to singer Rolf. He introduced songs, was so relaxed he was happy to let someone in the crowd answer their mobile phone (and even say “hello”) and to thank everyone repeatedly. He did so in response to the overwhelmingly warm and genuine welcome their playing received.

This audience seemed to be made up of a curious blend of fans, festival-goers who’d turned up on spec and families with kids in tow. But everyone, whatever their age or motivation for being there, was charmed and the atmosphere was friendly and enthusiastic. I think a marker of how many people were new to the band – plus how they had won the uninitiated over – was the huge number of copies of “Glory Hope Mountain” they seemed to be selling at the end.

It’s fair to say The Acorn should be playing bigger gigs than this (following Grizzly Bear and The Magnetic Fields into Manchester Cathedral?) – but for those festival goers unfamiliar with them and for fans alike – you couldn’t beat the intimate setting or the warm welcome.

The Set List:
Cobbled From Dust
Crooked Legs
I Made The Law
No Ghost
Bobcat Goldwraith
Low Gravity
Flood Pt. 1
Hold Your Breath

The Acorn
No Ghost [BUY]

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


Nina Nastasia has been making albums of sparse, unsettling beauty since "Dogs" released in 2000. All have been recorded with Steve Albini who described that debut as "a record so simultaneously unassuming and grandiose that I can't really describe it, except in terms that would make it (and me) sound silly. Of the couple thousand records I've been involved with, this is one of my favourites, and one that I'm proud to be associated with."

Across the five albums to date and associated tours, Nastasia has also been collaborating and experimenting along the way. In 2004 she toured (and recorded a Peel session) with a backing band that included members of Tuvan throat singing group Huun-Huur-Tu. In 2007 she released a joint album with Dirty Three drummer Jim White. And sixth album "Outlaster" (due 7 June on Fat Cat) features orchestral arrangements by Paul Bryan for woodwind and string quartets. You can stream selected tracks via Fat Cat with extra tracks being added in the run-up to 7 June or pre-order the album direct.

In advance of that release, Nastasia is touring the UK in a series of concerts billed as "intimate performances" and tonight she plays St Margarets Church in Whalley Range. It is unclear whether this is solo or with a backing band but in either case it should be nothing less than spell-binding. Advance tickets are just £10.

After tonight remaining tour dates are:
26 May Cluny 2, Newcastle
27 May Nice and Sleazy’s, Glasgow
28 May The Folk House, Bristol
29 May Betsey Trotwood, London (sold out)
30 May Talking Heads, Southampton
31 May The Freebutt, Brighton

Nina Nastasia
The Blackened Air [BUY]

Thursday, May 20, 2010


At the end of the third song of tonight’s British Sea Power set, guitarist Noble hoisted the band’s WWII air-raid siren over this head and then pounded it into the stage. So early in the evening’s proceedings, this was a great bit of edgy stage drama as well as an impressive feat of physical strength (it’s three foot high and solid iron).

During the support acts, I wasn’t convinced this evening would hold any such surprises or drama. The set-up at The Masque (ex-Barfly) appeared at first to be cheap-and-nasty nondescript indie dive with accompanying harsh sound. However the room had both character and it turned out decent sound. The Masque appears to be the relics of a Victorian music hall – a high-ceilinged black square auditorium with deep wooden steps on three sides providing good sightlines all around.

This gig was part of Liverpool Sound City so the crowd was an odd mix of fans, delegates and the curious it seemed. The aforementioned stage-pounding didn’t provoke any real crowd reaction or interaction – the overall atmosphere was more friendly and supportive than fervid and animated. But that crisp sound meant I got to hear the new songs much more clearly – more so than at the dire MoHo Live. So ‘Pyrex’ now sounds less like a 1980 Fall b-side but still a great rowdy call-and-response affair. ‘RNF’ hasn’t revealed its charms yet fully but the lengthy, multi-part ‘Zeus’ definitely came across well – but still ‘odd’ rather than ‘majestic’ in my book.

The final song (no encore here) was a spritely ‘The Spirit of St Louis’ with Noble playing guitar atop one of the tall speaker cabinets whilst singer Yan did hand-stands. Eccentricity to be treasured whilst we await a release date for the album or for future tour dates to hear the new material again.

The Set List:
Lights Out For Darker Skies
Apologies To Insect Life
Canvey Island
Down on the Ground
No Lucifer
Remember Me
Please Stand Up
Waving Flags
The Great Skua
Fear of Drowning
The Spirit of St Louis

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Frontier Ruckus – what a great name. It conjures up images of grizzled wilderness explorers, facing down adversity and bristling for a fight. Surprising then to see band leader Matthew Milia take to the stage in clean-cut red Lacoste cardigan and chinos: more preppy than pioneer.

Mismatched expectations about appearances should not take away from what a beautiful, authentic sound Frontier Ruckus make. The five-piece from Michigan play a heartfelt back-porch strain of Americana given gorgeous depth and poignancy by bowed saw and banjo alongside acoustic guitar, bass and drums. Matthew’s lyrics are shot through with nostalgia and memories or reference the fictional setting of Orion town. But tonight in this intimate setting it felt immediate, alive, truthful and all very real. Frontier Ruckus have been playing together since 2006 and it shows. The band were also openly appreciative of the welcome and hospitality they had received in Manchester: “we’re from the North of our country too”.

The Set List:
The Back-lot World?
Mona and Emmy
Orion Town 2
Orion Town 3
The Latter Days
What You Are
Adirondack Amish Holler

Frontier Ruckus were preceded by local boys and girl Walton Hesse who I’d seen here last month but tonight were minus a keyboard player. The remaining five still looked the part in checked work-shirts and worn t-shirts. Except that is for the incongruous glamour of singer Nicola in black mini-dress and high heels (clearly she missed the dress-code briefing). . Incongruous because the sound of Walton Hesse is dusty-road grit and truck-stop sweat, country-rock songs about toil and solitude, hard-living and mountains.

This is the fourth time I’ve seen them now and I spent part of the seven song set wondering whether it is the thumping rockers (like ‘The Only Son’ – on their MySpace page) or the wheezing, slow ballads (‘Cows’?) I like best. Actually both sides of Walton Hesse are equally good. Another band from the industrialized North playing alt-country music with a thrilling ring of authenticity.

The evening started with Christopher Eatough, sitting atop bar stoll with acoustic guitar and singing with eyes closed. He gave us his songs of “late nights and empty bottles” with high, clear and strong vocals (he’s no mumbler) which made the heart-breaking drama all the more captivating and the outside sunshine a distant memory. In a good way. He has a debut EP of songs available appropriately titled "Shadowlands".
Frontier Ruckus play Glasgow, York, Leeds, London and Winchester over the next week plus Wood Festival near Oxford alongside Tuung and Fionn Regan this weekend.

MONA AND EMMY (Daytrotter Session)
Frontier Ruckus
[BUY The Orion Songbook]

Monday, May 17, 2010


Titus Andronicus’s first album “The Airing of Grievances” mixed Camus, Shakespeare and Bruegel with high-octane alt-rock to thrilling effect. The follow-up from the band from Glen Oak, New Jersey is no less ambitious.

According to lead-man Patrick Stickles “The Monitor” is a concept album about the American Civil War. Between songs there are spoken interludes featuring the words of Civil War-era historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman; and the album’s title is the name of the first ironclad warship. Despite these references and readings however, the album “The Monitor” seems more concerned with contemporary themes of strife and despair – see the song ‘The Battle of Hampton Roads’: “is there a girl in this college who hasn’t been raped? Is there a boy in this town that’s not exploding with hate?”

Photo by Eric Hess on Flickr

As with “The Airing of Grievances”, this album is undoubtedly a rock record bringing punkish anger and despair, loud fiery guitars, and a rousing epic sound to each of its ten volatile and sprawling songs. Stickles’ vocals are a lot clearer and foregrounded more effectively on this record (on the first the lyric booklet was often a necessary listening companion) so not only are the words he is singing more easily audible so is his roaring anguish and fury. His role as wasted loser front-man, sounding rowdy or brittle or even both together, is one of the highlights on this record. At times he reminds me of that great chronicler of alcohol-fuelled self-despair Paul Westerberg of The Replacements: “I’m as much of an ass-hole as I’ve ever been / There is still nothing about myself I respect / I haven’t done anything I’ve not lived to regret” (‘The Battle of Hampton Roads’)

As well as a more confident use of his vocals, the album is a more ambitious move on from “The Airing of Grievances”. That’s not to say songs on their debut lacked ambition in song length or literary and artistic allusions (sample title:’Upon viewing Bruegel’s “Landscape With The Fall of Icarus”’). But “The Monitor” moves this forwards in a great leap – first single ‘Four Score and Seven’ nearly clocks nine minutes (and so is split across two sides of seven inch vinyl). The opener “A More Perfect Union” starts with stern historical oratory (“From whence shall we expect the approach of danger?”) before pounding drums usher in a gloriously deranged update on Springsteen’s anthem of escape (“I’m looking for a new New Jersey / Because tramps like us / baby we were born to DIE”) which builds and then drops repeatedly in volume and rage over its – relatively modest – seven minutes. Elsewhere there are Irish reels (‘Richard II’), bagpipes (‘The Battle of Hampton Roads’), wild saxophone (‘…And Ever’) and a song called “Theme From ‘Cheers’” that has nothing to do with the TV programme (“Sick and tired of everyone in this town… Kiss the good times goodbye”).

Guest appearances to present the historical readings include Craig Finn of The Hold Steady and Carrie Ramone of Vivian Girls – and these two groups perfectly encapsulates the spectrum of this record: it ranges from spirited, riff-heavy rock and roll anthems through to visceral, ramshackle garage rock with a power and vision sadly lacking from many current indie-rockers. As the group collectively chant “the enemy is everywhere” on ‘Titus Andronicus Forever’, this moment captures the band perfectly: not so much a rock band, more a rowdy and ragged troop, battle-weary but unbowed, ‘us-against-them’ fighters. The record may be shot through with historical references but it feels utterly alive and living in the present. “The Monitor” is exhilarating, literate, loud and epic – and a powerful contender for many end of the year lists. Titus Andronicus Forever indeed.

I wrote the above for back in March but timely to re-post it here given the short UK tour from Titus Andronicus before they fly to Primavera Festival:

21 May Sound City Festival, Liverpool
22 May Stag & Dagger Festival, Glasgow
23 May Cockpit 2, Leeds
24 May Ruby Lounge, Manchester [BUY TICKETS]
25 May City & Arts Project, London
27 May Primavera Festival, Barcelona

Titus Andronicus
The Monitor [BUY]

Thursday, May 13, 2010


The generously monikered Tim and Sam’s Tim and the Sam Band with Tim and Sam have been purveyors of fine instrumental post-folk since 2006. I first saw them in November 2007 on a great bill with Liz Green and Bishop Allen (a gig which I somehow never wrote up). After several singles and EPs they have now this month (self-) released their debut album entitled “Life Stream”. It may have taken time but it is well worth the wait - it is an exceptionally good record, and one I’d warmly recommend you spend some time getting to know.

Most songs fit the template of their earlier records - delicately orchestrated melodies that start quietly and gradually take flight as more instruments (electric piano, clarinet, banjo, glockenspiel, drums and more) are added in over the course of their four or five minute time-span. Whether they are referencing the natural world (‘The Yellowhammer’, ‘Out In The Ocean’, ‘Summer Solstice’) or domestic comforts (‘Coming Home’, ‘All Tucked Up’ , ‘Up The Stairs’), each song possesses warmth, grace and cosiness: the quieter, pastoral passages drift in a good way and the rousing, more intense moments soar like birds in flight.

You wouldn’t be surprised to hear music on “Life Stream” sound-tracking a quality BBC nature documentary – the final section where a group of animals have survived a harsh seasonal hibernation or a brutal encounter with predators and emerge from this experience into a new dawn, blinking but free, safe and hopeful. The record is beautifully sequenced so that the rolling swells and troughs in each song are mirrored across the eleven tracks, with notable peaks in the truly anthemic instrumental ‘Summer Solstice’ or future single ‘Finders Keepers’. Can an instrumental be an anthem? In Tim and Sam’s hands it can: ‘Summer Solstice’ is a stirring hymn of praise to the rising sun that makes my head spin with delight.

<a href="">Finders Keepers by Tim and Sam's Tim and the Sam Band with Tim and Sam</a>

And on this debut long-player Tim and Sam also sing! Or rather band leader Tim McIver does on five out of the eleven tracks. The band use lyrics in the same way they do music: simple and repeated patterns and motifs that build into a satisfying whole. Some lines may appear simple sentiments or mundane expressions (“taken these steps many times before / I know these roads like the back of my hands”) but with judicious restraint and methodical repetition they become quite poetic. The singing may be a little lacking in confidence, wavering and hesitant at times, but the music that accompanies it never is.

Opening track “Choices”, in its title and with its lines about “these broken promises”, seems strangely apposite given the outcome of the General Election. The song starts with mournful piano and cello but layers this with other instruments. Lyrically it is quite dark (looking back on a failed relationship?) but as it develops and expands, the music is gloriously uplifting.

The music of Tim and Sam has nothing to do with the political situation but in these uncertain times I find its pastoral charms beautifully soothing and reassuring. The title “Life Stream” sounds a bit new age-y, a bit pretentious. Far from it – this record is a down-to-earth delight, music with its feet on the ground but its head and heart firmly in the clouds. Life-affirming reassurance for troubled times.

"Life Stream" is available direct from the band for only £7 in either CD or digital formats (limited edition vinyl may have sold out) and you can hear them live on this month's UK tour.

13 May Kings Cross Social, London
14 May Brighton
15 May The Labour Club, Northampton
19 May Morgan Lloyd, Caernarfon
20 May Tunnels, Aberdeen
21 May The Barrels Alehouse, Berwick Upon Tweed
23 May Spanky Van Dykes, Nottingham
25 May Hamptons, Southampton
26 May Moles, Bath
27 May The Railway, Winchester
28 May Stereo, York
29 May The Trip Festival, Anglesey
17 Jun Macmillan Brick Lane Takeover, London

Tim and Sam’s Tim and the Sam Band with Tim and Sam
Life Stream [BUY]

Monday, May 10, 2010

MIDAS FALL "Eleven. Return and Revert"

Edinburgh five-piece Midas Fall come to us on Monotreme Records, also the home to 65 Days of Static and Picastro (whose “Become Stranger” I liked so much back in March). Given such label mates it comes as no surprise to use the phrase ‘post-rock’ in conjunction with Midas Fall. And indeed debut album “Eleven. Return and Revert” does indeed feature songs, often quite lengthy, that can start gently and build in intensity using repeated phrases and passages. It’s all very earnest and intense (another 'check' for post-rock credentials) but with some gorgeous fluttering twin guitar interplay or mournful piano, often accompanied by emphatic and pounded drums. Although intense this is no teen-angst affair but is played with a maturity that belies their years (judging their ages from press shots or from live videos). And in Liz Heaton, Midas Fall have a singer (no instrumentals here) who actually emotes, rather than intones or mumbles.

There is much to admire in this highly accompolished record - but I find myself only enjoying it in small doses. Over 11 songs the uniform intensity can get wearying. And Liz Heaton’s imploring vocals are uncompromising, top-of-the-register stuff that occasionally gets too overwrought for my taste. So a quick hit like the sombre torch-balladry of '17' or the soaring epic album-opener 'Movie Screens' work best for me; as do the moments when the band tweak the game-plan like the heavy alt-rock of ‘My Radio Star’ complete with crunchy guitars or the quiet, sparse atmospherics of ‘War Pigeon’ for instance.

Midas Fall - 17 from monotreme records on Vimeo.

Midas Fall have had comparisons elsewhere to Bat For Lashes fronting Radiohead. This does work as a short-hand for their sound (with less mysticism and more angst) but also explains my reticence. Neither of those bands really touch me over the course of an album, only in occasional small measures. I think I need to spend some more time listening to the lyrics rather than the guitars/atmospherics of "Eleven. Return and Revert" to immerse myself properly in the Midas Fall world and see if the single song attraction spreads across the whole record.

And if you like what you hear, the band are embarking on a 14 date UK tour this month:

11 May Cabaret Voltaire Edinburgh
12 May Greenside Hotel Leslie
13 May Dirty Hearts Club @ Snafu Aberdeen
14 May Dukes Corner Dundee
15 May Nice n’ Sleazy Glasgow (supporting A Sunny Day In Glasgow)
16 May Sneaky Pete’s Edinburgh
18 May Ruby Lounge Manchester [BUY TICKETS]
19 May Mad Ferret Preston
20 May Canteen Barrow in Furness
22 May The Blue Room Blackpool
23 May The Actress Birmingham
24 May Spanky Van Dykes Nottingham
26 May Buffalo Bar London
28 May The Barleymow Leicester

Midas Fall
Eleven. Return and Revert [BUY]

Friday, May 07, 2010

TONIGHT IN MANCHESTER: Misty's Big Adventure

The day after the General Election, a hung parliament and the spectre of a Tory regime still hangs over us. On such a depressing and uncertain day, what better band to see play live tonight than Misty’s Big Adventure? The eight piece band from Birmingham, England play a kaleidoscopic mix of jazz, lounge, psychedelia, two tone, pop and punk “producing the most uplifting, life affirming tunes you will hear since Louis Armstrong played with the Lovin' Spoonful”.

And the band have a new single out (listen below) which you can buy for the princely sum of £1 and thus help fund the completion and release of forthcoming album “The Family Amusement Centre”

<a href="">Dumb Head by Misty's Big Adventure</a>

Tonight’s date at Manchester Academy 3 is one of only three with Brute Force. I’m still not sure if this is a spoof or not but here’s what the band say:

Brute was on Apple Records in the Sixties. He released a single called 'The King Of Fuh' which was produced by George Harrison. It was quite controversial at the time and was banned. He also wrote one of the first ever Psychedelic songs for The Chiffons called 'Nobody Knows What's Going On In My Mind But Me', as well as writing many songs for bands such as The Creation, The Cyrkle, Peggy March and The Tokens. But the main reason we love him was for the solo album he made in 1966, 'Confections Of Love'. It is finally getting reissued on CD, and we thought it was time we got him over to do a few gigs with us. 'The Tapeworm Of Love' is one of his songs Misty's fans should know well as we end a lot of our gigs with it. Anyone who can come up with the lyric "The Tapeworm of Love is eating my heart out over you" is a genius in my book!

So tonight as well as a Misty's set, there will also be a set of Brute songs with Misty's as his backing band; and as band-leader Grandmaster Gareth tells us: “If you like Misty's, you'll like Brute”.

Advance tickets just £7.50 here (or more on the door).

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

SING YE FROM THE HILLSIDES II 30 April - 2 May 2010: Part Two

I would struggle with four hours sleep at the best of times. But four hours in sub-zero temperatures with the icy blasts shaking the canvas all night was just torture. Stumbling out of the tent I saw that some had a novel way of dealing the situation: a small group including several of The Phantom Band had stayed up all night around the bonfire keeping warm and drinking (they then came into pub and got a few rounds in. Impressive).

Sunday morning was a very mellow one, settled on sofas in the lounge, napping, reading the paper, eating and drinking. At 2pm the pub quiz started across all three rooms of the pub with 21 teams playing for BSP-related goodies including being able to request the opening song of tonight’s set. Our team included Basia Bulat plus Holly and Paul (he wasn’t Canadian!) from her band - and a fine Anglo-Canadian effort saw us finish just one point behind the winning team.

Enjoying the warmth of the pub so much and with the cold winds not subsiding, a tactical decision was made to take down the tent and drive home that evening rather than attempt another chilly night under canvas. With occasional snowflakes spotted this seemed like a very good idea indeed.

The evening started with Alessi’s Ark playing in the barn. I had heard mixed views but went to watch with an open mind. Alessi on acoustic guitar was accompanied by Marcus on electric guitar/bass and played delicate folk whimsy. Her gently wavering voice is quite other-worldly and I can see why this might be too much for some but in the quiet of the barn this was a lovely, floating start to the evening. Alessi came over as quite sweet: “thanks to my Dad for driving us here...oh and for making me”. She was another bowled over by the warm reception and was called back for an encore. She offered us two ‘appropriate’ options: ‘Over The Hill’ or ‘The Mountain’. “Play both” was the response and so she did.

Matt Eaton was down on today’s running order to play with his band The Point of Conjecture. Setting up in the Lounge Bar, he revealed that that band was of course “pure conjecture”. So he played electric guitar accompanied by Noble on snare drum and pub piano.

Matt played the same spot at this festival in its first edition. This set had the same mixture of relaxed vibes and moving songs but didn’t quite have the captivating magic of the previous time - maybe the novelty of seeing him first time or the high expectations this time? However there is an undeniable and genuine charm to the man and his music, here playing a set from new album “Cheers Pal” with just one from his highly recommended first album “Finish Your Chips” . The set also included a song for everyone whose birthday it was that weekend, a sea shanty with (toy?) accordian, accompaniment from Louis (aged about five) and cries of ‘Who ordered the three bean chilli’ from the kitchen staff during the last song. He kept smiling throughout.

Rose Elinor Dougall and I were linked by a Wikipedia citation (not my doing) relating to her live debut in this very barn in September 2008. However someone has edited that citation out (not my doing either).

From that hesitant, nervy and nerve-wracking start, I’ve seen her several times mainly in BSP support slots and it’s good to see her confidence and playing improve each time. However her swinging, upbeat pop still doesn’t really move me. But Rose and I go back a long way and I still feel a kind of paternal attachment: so please give her music a listen and make up your own mind (She has a new single ‘Find Me Out’ out this week).

The quickest of listens to a handful of tracks by Erland and the Carnival had me sufficiently intrigued to ensure that not even waiting for overdue but much needed food from the over-worked pub kitchen was going to make me miss them. They made an immediate impression. Singer Erland Cooper looks like Neil Hannon from The Divine Comedy wearing Ian Curtis’s dark overcoat and sings with a equally interesting mixture of moody and impassioned.

The five-piece band plays dark, swirling folk-rock that is more weird than whimsical with haunting fairground keyboards (played from the rear of the stage) and intricate, almost pagan drumming (played from the front of the stage). The sudden pounding of the drums as one song moved from quiet passage to loud was so genuinely surprising and loud, it made the woman in front of me nearly jump out of her skin. ‘Was You Ever See’ below was the quieter and therefore non-representative song from their set. One of the highlights of the weekend for me.

I’ve never been a huge fan of iLiKETRAiNS but with some recent listens to individual tracks I may be warming to them. And tonight’s set certainly helped. The Leeds band opened with four or five newer/unfamiliar songs that were quite accessible and almost poppy. And this was accompanied by a relaxed demeanour to the band and even – shock – chat and banter.

Mid-set they played ‘Terra Firma’ and the volume was upped and that flailing triple guitar wash of sound returned - but I still enjoyed this too. The band had earlier claimed to be ‘broken’. Not sure why they said this but didn’t seem to be anything broken in tonight’s performance for me.

There had been plenty of debate over the weekend as to what the set-list for this second performance by British Sea Power would comprise. Having missed Friday’s set, I was just happy to see them whatever was played.

They opened with ‘The Scottish Wildlife Experience’ as requested by the winning quiz team. If most of the festival crowd were a bit tired by this late stage of the festival, the band didn’t appear so; they seemed relaxed and jovial (clearly the beds at Tan Hill Inn are comfortable and warm).

However not everything would happen as planned. Towards the end of ‘The Great Skua’ the sound went dead, the lights went out and the barn was left with the green glow of emergency exit lights. Undeterred the band conducted the crowd in a sing-along finale to the instrumental – a great unifying moment. Realising there wouldn’t be a quick fix, the firework display was brought forward.

So most folk trooped outside to huddle around the bonfire with sparklers. Watching the firework display at 1am in the morning in the enveloping darkness of the Yorkshire Dales was something quite special but the edge was taken off the pleasure by the thought that the night’s music might be over (also by stepping more than 3 metres away from the bonfire – into those icy winds).

However resume it did. Back in the fully-functioning barn, the band opened with (what else?) ‘Lights Out For Darker Skies’ completing the set (but missing out ‘How Will I Find My Home?’ from the set-list below). They were also joined again during ‘Carrion’ by the teenage lad who had been on stage for ‘The Great Skua’. One brief appearance was amusing – the second and third were just annoyingly distracting.

Of the new songs, I’m not sure about ‘Cleaning Up Room’, an ambling drone with mumbled vocals from Hamilton, but ‘7/4’ sounded good and it was the second hearing of ‘Pyrex’ for me and it already sounds like a winner. Given the lateness of the hour the band didn’t bother leaving the stage to return for an encore, they simply started playing (“our last song… but it’s a long one”).It’s a while since I’d heard the majestic ‘Lately’ and as usual it turned into ‘Rock in A’ and associated shenanigans: both Noble and Yan crowd-surfing to the central wooden beam and tying themselves and the crowd together with fluorescent tape. It doesn’t make sense when you write it down or read it – you just had to be there.

Metronomy were due to play a set now but at 2.30am it was time to scrape the ice off the car and hit the road home.

Sing Ye From The Hillsides is a one-off: sometimes more like a lock-in in your local than a (micro-) festival. This year the quality and range of the bands had improved (apparently Marc Riley had a hand in recommending some to the band) but I would still like to see more music in the afternoons. The wildlife, games and antics are part of the quirky charm there’s always room for some more music in my book. A couple of things could be improved : next year regular emptying of the portaloos and limiting any appearance of children alongside bands to a single two-minute slot if that please. But keep the mixtape CD and book swap, the relaxed atmosphere, the friendly spirit and the remote setting. A world apart from other festivals – literally.

Monday, May 03, 2010

SING YE FROM THE HILLSIDES II 30 April - 2 May 2010: Part One

Having missed day one due to some bad family news, I caught the train from Manchester to Kendal to then get a lift to Tan Hill Inn to join the remainder of Sing Ye From The Hillsides II. Having been to the first edition of this quirky British Sea Power-led micro-festival, I knew what to expect – but I had forgotten about the weather.

Kendal was bathed in Spring sunshine but the drive through Kirkby Stephen and from Cumbria into the Yorkshire Dales was in pouring rain and with darkening skies. But I shouldn’t have been worried about the rain. As soon as I got out of the car at Britain’s highest pub (altitude 1732 feet) what I should have been worried hit me in the face: the strong, icy winds. This wasn’t refreshing, bracing stuff – this was chill-you-to-your-bones-where-you-stand wind.

I had missed the husky dog racing on the road outside the pub to start off Saturday’s antics but was there in time for the Birds of Prey demonstration (didn’t stay watching as long as last time given those winds) followed by a hearty plate of veggie curry and a customary pint of Black Sheep bitter.

Given the rain the ‘Tan Hill Olympics’ was down-sized and moved indoors: cracker and doughnut eating and pint drinking. But what we were really here for – the music – kicked off at 6pm in the barn.

‘Barn’ sounds beautifully rustic. It is in fact a breeze-block and slate floor affair with wooden beams (now featuring lighting equipment!) and a small riser stage but has a rare intimate charm of its own. First up were Sharp Tongues featuring Paul (member of British Sea Power crew) on bass and his identical twin brother on drums. The trio played a spiky pop-punk that didn’t immediately make an impression but I warmed to by the end of their set.

Mid-set there was an attempted stage invasion. Of sorts. Two lambs wandered in and nosed around the equipment at the side of the stage. You don't get that at V Festival.

This early on in proceedings and with a door open to the outside elements (it led to a covered beer tent along the side of the barn) it meant the room was icy cold. It was warmed somewhat with the summery indie-pop of London four-piece My Sad Captains playing I think their first live gig of the year.

Their set was almost exclusively new material with just ‘You Talk All Night’ from the excellent “Here and Elsewhere” album. The new songs sounded good: the same mixture of downbeat wistfulness with gorgeous melodic tunes and a touch of fuzziness. My Sad Captains are an unshowy band, their performance favouring thoughtful and workmanlike over flamboyant, but nevertheless enjoyable and a great addition to the bill. Looking forward to the new album – hopefully due this year?

<a href="">You Talk All Night by My Sad Captains</a>

If My Sad Captains are unshowy, Thomas White is SHOWY and in giant neon flashing letters. Arriving on stage via the audience and wearing what looked like a hooded, embroidered picnic blanket, there wasn’t a moment in the next 30 minutes where he wasn’t posturing or preening or punching the air.

The first – long – song was glam-prog-punk meets performance art. The four piece band hammered out the tumbling tunes as White sang and conducted the band sometimes from the stage, sometimes from amidst the crowd. It was entertaining and on occasion a little threatening as he saluted the players, kick-jumped, span around furiously or threw the tambourine around him with abandon. Entertaining as I say but I was all ready to dismiss the music until the band then delivered a passionate and faithful cover of Warren Zevon’s ‘Accidentally Like A Martyr’. From over-the-top to lump-in-the-throat I was not expecting. More costumes changes and masks followed (long-sleeved kaftan dress with peacocks if you’re interested) before finishing with a storming cover of Sparklehorse’s ‘Some Day I Will Treat You Good’. Still remain unconvinced by the originals but the barn was definitely warmed up now.

Canadian Basia Bulat and her two-piece backing band play bluegrassy folk-pop. Basia started singing acapella without amplification accompanying herself with cowboy boot-heel foot stomps. The band then joined her playing an arrange of curious instruments – a five string electric bass, a was-it-a-miniature-guitar-or-a-ukelele and Basia on autoharp (including one that was 95 years old) and acoustic guitar. Highly engaging neo-folk tunes all played with a warm, natural style that got an equally warm and good-humoured reception from the crowd. By the end such was applause she was called back for an encore and seemed genuinely bowled over. Apparently they normally play with a drummer (Basia’s brother) who had been caught up in volcanic ash travel woes – without wishing to cause family disharmony, it was difficult to imagine this improving the sound.

And talking of curious instruments next up was The Phantom Band with their myriad percussion including metal shelving brackets. If My Sad Captains played all new material, The Phantom Band stuck purely to songs from 2009’s “Checkmate Savage”.

This was a great performance of their rhythmic voodoo-swamp-blues-rock – a real pleasure to watch and enjoy. The band were accompanied on stage with plenty of whisky but if they were a bit worse for wear they didn’t show it in a tight performance (except for moments of ‘Crocodile’ going a bit astray) and singer Rick even passed his bottle around the crowd – a true gent. However as several people pointed out they really need to improve their taste in whisky: Famous Grouse and Grant’s?? Surely a single malt band if ever there was one.

The Phantom Band Set List: Burial Sounds / Throwing Bones / Folk Song Oblivion / Crocodile / The Howling / The Whole Is On My Side / Left Hand Wave

Festival sets are often rely on bands sharing the same kit to minimise turnaround time. Not for the next band though. The entire stage was cleared and then re-filled with vintage instruments and amps. Even the harmonica case for Kitty, Daisy and Lewis was a battered brown leather affair from a bygone time. I don’t know the full back story for Kitty, Daisy and Lewis but I bet it goes something like this: Mum and Dad drill their children from an early age in learning an array of instruments and immerse them in a musical education that starts in 1949 and ends in 1959. Said parents raid an Aladdin’s Cave vintage musical instrument store and once old enough set their children out into the world. Daisy, Kitty and Lewis have supported Coldplay I’m told; if they are more used to stadia than a barn in the Yorkshire Dales they didn’t show it.

The two sisters opened their set singing an acapella duet before being joined on stage by brother Lewis, Dad (acoustic guitar) and Mum (stand-up double bass). The three siblings tore through 50s standards – blues, r ‘n’ b, even hillbilly – with each moving between instruments, swapping drums for guitar or keyboards or banjo or accordion or harmonica. It was unashamedly retro but thrillingly vital and given some real bite by Lewis’s often fierce guitar playing, and Daisy’s impassioned drumming (in stilettos no less) and some real snarl in the vocals. You do wonder what life at home for this curiously retro-kitted family must be like; but live they transformed this chilly Swaledale barn into a swining 50s Soho dive bar.

It was after 1.30am in the morning when The Modern Ovens (“The UK’s premier Jonathan Richman covers band”) took to the stage and the crowd had definitely thinned despite being half the band being BSP members. Lead vocals swapped between Darren Moon (of The Tenderfoot), Matt Eaton and Hamilton from BSP (with Martin Noble of BSP on drums) for a highly reverential, warmly entertaining and mostly tight run-through of Jonathan Richman’s back catalogue.

Some songs like ‘Astral Plane’ they admitted not been played live before/recently ("We nailed it" claimed Matt not entirely truthfully) but this set was not about polish. After exploring the whimsical side of JR, The Modern Ovens (joined by Andrew Mitchell from Thomas White band on extra guitar, Phil from BSP on cornet and Thomas White on tambourine and shapes) played a noisy ‘Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste’ and then finished with the Velvet Underground’s ‘Foggy Notion’ (as played live by JR). This morphed into ‘Roadrunner’ with additional air raid siren, rowdy audience singalong and The Phantom Band climbing on the rafters. A late but enjoyable finish to the day sending (most of) us off to our tents and to brave those chilly blasts with smiles on our faces.

The Modern Ovens' Set List
(NB 'New Teller' was not played)

Report of Day Three to follow shortly.