Sunday, 14 June 2015

Sleaford Mods

I first saw Sleaford Mods as openers for The Specials at The Roundhouse in London in November 2014. I'd only heard them once on BBC 6 music, probably in the middle of the night and half pissed but the name was in my  brain. I said to my mate Rob that we should get there early to catch them rather than stay in the pub. 

Opening in a 3000 capacity venue in front of a few hundred early arrivals who are bagging the front row must be a bit dispiriting, people chatting and checking phones, waiting for the main act.  

On came a couple of roadies to sound check, one bloke barking grunts into the mike, another plugging in a laptop and pressing a few buttons to get the sound levels. But these were no roadies, it was the Sleaford Mods. 

The Roundhouse (Camden, London) - Nov 2014

For half an hour we had an onslaught of Jason Williamson's profanity strewn lyrics on life in austerity Britain and sink estates, laid on the bed of Andrew Fearn's stripped back beats.  It truely shook me: Who are this pair of men in their early forties?  Where have they come from?  What are they all about?

There are two type of reviews of Sleaford Mods, perhaps one that starts "They're like fucking Brown Bottle in Viz," he [Noel Gallagher] said. "There's no joy in that, is there? It's just two guys, one clearly mentally ill, who's just shouting like Brown Bottle about fucking cider and fucking shit chicken.".  The rest mainly mention how little Fearn does, whilst condensing Williamson's tics, swearing, and spluttering into one experience.  The first time you see the Sleaford Mods, coming out of the gig it does though all roll into one big "what the fuck have I just seen and heard?"  

So I booked up straight away to see them headline at the Electric Ballroom in London in January 2015.   Meantime, the Sleaford Mods are gaining more and more attention.  The pair have dropped the day jobs, and are now touring relentlessly.  A lyric book was printed up, gathering  together seven years of hard work and slog.  This was pressed as a run of 500 to flog on the merch desk for £15 on the next tour, but sold out on-line within a few days.  With a knowing touch, the publishers send it out with four Maggie Thatcher stamps on the parcel for postage, and the original print run now fetches £100 on e-bay.  It's daft says Williamson. It's ironic that the very people who can pay these prices are probably the opposite of everything Williamson identifies with.  He doesn't seem bitter about this, and the band continue to release eps and singles, and a crowd funded dvd is put into place.   I buy the Tiswas ep on orange vinyl from my record shop, and again the band have a little joke at our expense: one side is at 45rpm, the other at 33rpm.  "Take that, you hipster cunts, with your brand new turntables", I imagine them chuckling to each other as I take the platter off my record player to change the belt governing the disc speed. 

So at Electric Ballroom I thought I was a bit more prepared, having bought the Divide and Exit album and Chubbed Up best-of.  I wasn't expecting the very first words to be "bunch of cunts" shouted right in my face.  The pair rocketed through their catalogue in little under an hour, before the whole crowd was unceremoniously pushed out of the venue without even time for a beer due to a club night taking place later that evening.  

Electric Ballroom (Camden, London) - Jan 2015

Throughout the spring, the band sell out venues across Europe, the smaller the venue, the better the experience it seems.  Williamson guest vocals on the track Ibiza on the new Prodigy album.  Being a Prodigy track there are just a few lines of lyrics, "what's he focking doing?" is a reaction to overpaid superstar DJs who turn up with everything pre-recorded onto a USB stick, whilst also bemoaning the overpriced life and culture on the island.  

Iggy Pop of BBC6 Music now regularly plays their tracks, a real tribute that the original wild man of rock and roll on stage appreciates and shares their music.   

The Sleaford Mods are back in London in June to play to a sold out Koko in Camden.  The support act are Vic Godard and Subway Sect, survivors from the founding days of punk in 1976.

The Sleaford Mods are also a performance backing the strong social commentary.  Fearn could be dressed like a trendy DJ as in the Ibiza track, but instead on stage he dresses the ubiquitous uniform of the unemployed who leave home to buy fags from the corner shop - loose grey tracksuit bottoms, cheap t-shirt and baseball cap.  He could have a full drum machine and sampler set, playing his backing tracks live, however he has a laptop set on a chair, where he simply presses play for the next song, meantime supping from a bottle of cider or lager, fiddling in his pockets, sometimes jigging along to his own music, or mouthing along to his co-conspirators words. 

Koko (Camden, London) - June 2014

Williamson meanwhile builds up throughout the night.  As mentioned earlier, it is easy to condense him into one snarling spitting pit-bull of a man.  However it is more than that.  Williamson shows us the effects of all sorts of drug throughout the evening, speed, cocaine, E, LSD, as he descends into Dante's nine circles of hell.  The show starts with with slower beats, Williamson is swearing into the microphone, a bottle of water behind his back as a prop and for refreshment, rather than the lager or cider of Fearn.  Williamson has a hit list of all the bands and music he despises, Gallagher takes much of the flak for his champagne socialism sell out and Brit award, whereas newly big band Catfish and the Bottlement are also in his headlights.  

As the show continues, Williamson becomes more and more pumped up, veins bulging, pulling the mike stand around the stage;  then suddenly he is twisting his nipples, pointing his arse at us, blowing kisses;  the music speeds up, the crowd in the middle are moshing and crowdsurfing;  now Williamson is nodding to us, doing the wanker sign; next he is blowing raspberries into the mike, stutterring his lyrics; and with one arm almost tied behind his back to try and keep it under control, the other is now repeatedly tic-ing like a Tourettes, brushing his hair, then brushing his nose as if to wipe away a few crumbs of coke.  Then Bang!  Williamson is back as he derides the rest of the crowd who aren't moshing for not enjoying the night, and with a final song for the evening, that's it.  

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Jen Cloher live (2/2)

At the bar Downstairs at Newtown Social Club I recognised Jen Sholakis, said hello, and knowing I'd done the trip over to see the band, she said it was nice to put a name to the face.  Just like Courtney, Jen's a pleasure to meet and say hello to. Jen's a tousled hair girl, fresh faced, sporting jeans and t-shirt.

Upstairs, there's a small stage with just a dark curtain backdrop, two rows of steps around one back and side of the room. 

The steps were already filling up, so found a spot to the right.  One lady had plonked herself and a handbag in front of the stage. During the support act, a grizzle faced Aussie in his 60s was jigging around, cricket sweater slopped around his shoulders. 

I had an Aussie man, probably 40 or so, to my left, telling me about the gig last night, Ellie Hooper.  And then AfroMan came in. Probably 6'2"" with another six inches of hair on top.  AussieMan to my my left said he was there last night, and basically stands at the front all gig.

So yes, he stood right at the front and in my way even when standing on the second step.  On a trip to the bar I asked if he might take two steps to the right and he said "probably not".  

At the merch stall I picked up three copies of Jen's new single, a double a-side of Stone Age Brain, a duet with another Aussie Tim Rogers, plus a cover of Dark Sad Eyes, another Aussie classic I didn't know. Spotting a couple of tour posters on the wall, I unpinned one for later, and later bagged the other one too. 

After the support act, at last the band appeared.  J-Clo centre stage, skinny jeans and a flowery blouse, CB to the left, Bones to the right, and Slolaki at the back. 

And this was one of those gigs.  Every opening note or warm up chord to an In Blood Memory track, I knew what was coming.  Jen played all of IBM, the two songs from the new ep, and the Numbers duet with Courtney.  

The band really clicked together.  I think they'd had a couple of days rehearsal, and it all came together so well. Bones had a standing come back to Jen's chat with "we'll talk about that later Jen", Courtney took a real backstage supporting guitarist to Jen's vocals and lead guitar. Sholaki on drums was really enjoying herself, often breaking into little grins whilst playing. At points, Jen turned her back to the audience for a mid gig jam with Courtney and Sholaki, shredding for fun.  

Gig Highlights...
David Bowie Eyes. On the album there is a slightly cheesy slide guitar loud in the mix , but live it was perfect.
Name In Lights.  The album version finishes with Jen "there's nothing I can't do, so I get over you, ooh hooooh" but live Jen howls in anguish.

Bones - his mum and dad had driven several hundred miles down the coast to see him play.

At the start of the gig Jen's guitar strap came unclipped and she said she needed a new strap on. To a mainly female audience this went down a storm. 

Introducing the band, Jen said to the audience, "you've probably all heard of Courtney who's been touring the world, so she's fucked my career"

Towards the end of the gig, Jen thanked venue manager Emily Ferris and it was a real What The Fuck moment. (Courtney's first ep is called "I've got a friend called Emily Ferris' and I'd assumed it was a pals in joke, someone so six degrees of separation remote you'd never know who she was.

Possibly Jen's stand-out emotional track is Hold My Hand, which she introduces by telling of her parents talking in the kitchen over a sandwich, and her mother forgetting what she'd been talking about by the end of the conversation.   At the first gig it was a BLT sandwich, and the second a ham sandwich - whether it was just the spontaneity of retelling the story or perhaps a little in-joke to change the ingredients each time she tells it.

The second night I saw the band at their hometown gig at the Shebeen in Melbourne.  This is a community food and music venue, with 10% of beer proceeds going to the country of the producers.

There was support from a couple DarkFair, a dark haired singer and blonde haired drummer.

Also East Brunswick All Girls Choir.   These are label mates on Milk! records, primarily Marcus on guitar and vocals, and Rie on bass, with Sholaki on drums.   Apparently they've been through seven drummers, hence the name of their current album.

Again, some quiet banter with the crowd, presumably with lots of friends in the audience.  I spotted Courtney's drummer Dave Mudie.   Again, to a female audience, there was a joke that the area they lived in called Reservoir, should be renamed Lezzervoir.

Apparently there had been a few problems with moving the equipment from Sydney to Melbourne, but a panic drive back to the airport I think for a cymbal and all was resolved.

Highlight of the second night was Name In Lights, and perhaps the perfect end to it was Jen Sholaki's quiet "woah" after the crashing finish to acknowledge the performance.

And remember I'd organised this trip to get the fourth signature on the record sleeve?  Well I left it at home in the last minute packing for the airport.  Luckily Jen appreciated my epic travel, and gave me another copy, this time I did get all four signatures, together with set lists, lyrics for a new song, and signed gig posters.

I left the band and their friends to the post gig disco and later saw pictures on social media of the band dancing beneath the mirror ball.

All in all, the furthest I've ever travelled to a gig.   But worth it.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Jen Cloher live (1/2)

It's a strange route from Guildford UK, to a small upstairs gig in a bar in hipster district Newtown, in Sydney. 

So here goes:-
Jen Cloher crowd-funded $15,000 AUD to record her third album, and in Summer 2013, a week long live recording session with fellow Melbourne artistes Courney Barnett (slide guitar), Bones Sloane (bass), and Jen Sholakis (drums) resulted in In Blood Memory.  Sholaki has played with Jen before, and Courtney had recorded a duet, Numbers, with Jen. 

They played a couple of album release gigs in Autumn 2013, a double a-side with Courtney was released at the gigs. And then in October, Courtney went for world exposure with her self penned double ep, A Sea of Split Peas. 

I heard the single Avant Gardner on BBC6 music, ordered it on import, and was struck by the combination of slacker garage rock music, and story telling lyrics. Courtney's record label Milk has four other artists, The Finks, Royston Vasie, Fraser A Gorman, and Jen Cloher.  Seeing that Courtney played on In Blood Memory, I ordered this on a whim to see if the same magic was there.  

It was, and more. Whereas Courtney's two eps are the tales of a 26 year old budding musician, Jen's is from a few more year old's perspective, after a four year music break and tells of love and relationships, and losing her parents the year before. It's a bluesy rocked out album, just seven tracks, but none a filler. 

One advantage of the new digital age is that often when you order physical CDs or vinyl, you get a free download, and in this case with Milk Records,  a free Bandcamp app of the album.  I refuse to buy anything on iTunes due to their tax arrangements and poor return to the artist, So my mp3player has just Jen's three albums, and Courtney's double ep.  

Courtney hit New York in October for a short visit of sold out gigs at a music festival, a pair of solo gigs in an upstairs bar in London supporting young Scottish drum and guitar duo Honeyblood, before returning to the UK in February 2014. 

I'd had my house redecorated at this time, and lost my Walkman which has hundred of albums, and so on long train journeys for football, and walks to work, all I had was my iPhone and those 3 Jen albums and 1 CB ep.   In modern digital times you can shuffle and skip, but I had just these four, so for the first time in years I was relistening to albums again and again. 

I'd bagged a ticket for the first Courtney Barnett show at the Sebright Arms, London, in February, an NME promoted gig.   This was her first UK date with her band with Bones on bass, and drummer Dave Mudie. One thing soon becomes apparent and that is Courtney is hell bent on making it. She says she reads books to pass the time, but it seems even on days off for the rest of the band, she'll do a solo appearance at a record store or a radio session. Occasionally she'll do a cover version, but primarily it's her own songs that she plays. She'll also reply to almost every fan's twitter interaction, again building the links between artist and the listener. 

March and April she's off to New York and Europe before a May return to the UK. I caught one sold out gig at the Horn in StAlbans. As I was driving, I took my vinyl copies of the double ep, and In Blood Memory (pre-signed by Jen) for signing post gig. Courtney is the perfect artist, waiting for fans to chat and sign. Bones and Dave hang around outside for a cigarette, and I corner Bones for a signature too on IBM.  He tells me how proud he is of the final mixed album and I mention my standout track is the rock out epic Name in Lights with it's quiet building start, mid song riff break, and screaming rock out finish. 

I tweet a picture of the signed album to say thanks and then CB replies that I just need Sholaki to sign for the complete set.  

Jen tweets a photo from Primavera festival in Spain, and I wonder if they might do a gig with 3/4 of the band in Europe, but without Sholaki, it's not happening.

A few weeks pass, and then Milk email to tell of a short whole band tour to Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne in July. Go for it I think, I've not had a day off for six months, so why not?  

The gigs get released, a Friday in Sydney and a Saturday in Melbourne, plus a couple of other dates. I decide to do a week in Sydney, and then a couple of days in Melbourne.  

CB keeps on touring, including Glastonbury with two stage gigs and a six Music session. 

Finally in July the band fly back from North America and Canada to Melbourne.  Jen's Saturday Melbourne show is a sell out so they add a school night Wednesday show, whilst CB squeezes in a a radio session in front of a subscribers audience for RRR rock radio.

So I've been in Sydney a week, seen Lorde, and Aussie favourites Something For Kate. It's a short train ride to Newtown, a big change from the Central Business district, Newton is all two story buildings, small restaurants and shops. 

I found the Newtown Social Club a few minutes from the station. Downstairs it's a typical Aussie bar, a few stools, pedestal tables, and sit downs for people eating. A nice retro touch was the pinball machine, so I spent ten minutes playing that. And then upstairs for the gig.   

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Courtney Barnett and the Courtney Barnetts

I first heard Courtney Barnett on a BBC six music show, Mary Anne Hobbs last October with her current single, Avant Gardener.  Her lo-fi approach is reminiscent of another Melbourne band, Scott and Charlene's Wedding, but they don't seem to be connected at all.  

I immediately looked for her double ep, A Sea of Split Peas, which collects her 2012 release I've got a Friend Called Emily Ferris, with the 2013 How to Carve a Carrot into a Rose.  As it wasn't available in the UK other than download, I ordered directly from her label, Milk records in Australia, and a week or so later the two cds arrived, with a cute handwritten note thanking me for supporting the record.   
The two eps are brilliantly tuneful, songs written of everyday life and things she has written down in her journal.  The first ep is a bit more basic and stripped back, the second recorded with a full band and backing from a local cultural grant.  Influences are Nirvana, Lou Reed, Jonathan Richman.  She also keeps her twitter account very active, replying to lots of fans who say they have enjoyed the shows, without clogging up your timeline with her own tweets.  
After seeing she was listed for the NME awards tour in February 2014, I booked a ticket in December for her first return to the UK.  Previously she has only visited as a solo artist, but this time she brought the band, Dave Mudie on drums, and Bones Sloane on bass.  

I hadn't been to the Sebright Arms before, a small pub and rock venue in Hoxton.  Upstairs it has a bar where they also serve huge burgers and other snacks.  I'd got there far too early, so settled down for a few beers and a burger.  At around six, Courtney herself walked in with black jeans and flowery blouse, sat with her band and friends in the lounge bar, and proceeded to order food and drinks.  
The support band were due on at 8pm, so I went downstairs to the venue, which again had a small bar, and stage at the far end.  I found a decent spot near the front on the left, and then CB herself was also watching the support, chatting to another friend.  This time I finally got the confidence to say hello and ask for a picture, this time she had changed into a battered red and black checked lumberjack shirt, looking a bit like Kurt Cobain with her shaggy hair and loose shirt.  
The crowd was around 100, I think a mix of seasoned music journalists and fans lucky enough to get tickets, so it was a bit quiet, and I doubt many of the audience had heard more than the songs from the radio.  

She rattled through perhaps six or seven of the songs from the eps in around an hour, finishing off with two new songs, Depreston and one other, promised for Record Store Day.
Are you Looking After Yourself?

Lance Jr. Canned Tomatoes (Whole)
Avant Gardener
Out of The Woodwork

So what's her discography like?

I've Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris. (released April 2012)
1. Lance Jr 03:27
2. Are you looking after yourself? 07:42
3. Scotty Says. 03:52

4.  Canned tomatoes (whole) 04:32
5.  Porcelain 07:07
6.  Ode to Odetta 02:46

December 2012
Covered the INXS album kick
July 2013
Everybody Moves - duet with Dave Faulkner of Hoodoo Gurus. cover of Died Pretty song.

How to Carve a Carrot into a Rose (released October 2013)
1.  Out of the woodwork 05:50
2.  Don't apply compression gently 03:35
3. Avant gardener 03:28

4. History Eraser 03:28

5. David 02:53
6. Anonymous Club 05:50

Black Skinhead (Kanye West cover)
Being Around (Lemonheads cover)

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Ben Watt and Bernard Butler live at St Pancras Old Church 24 February2014

Ben Watt was one half of Everything But The Girl together with his wife Tracey Thorn, perhaps best remembered for their 1998 cover "I don't want to talk about it", and the 1995 remixed smash hit "Missing" with the line "And I miss you, like the deserts miss the rain".  At the end of the 20th century, EBTG took a break, with Ben DJ-ing and running his Buzzing Fly record label.

Bernard Butler was guitarist in indie rock group Suede in the early 2000s, later teaming up with vocalist David McAlmont.  I've no idea how he knows Watt, but they have an understanding with guitars, and tonight there was no need for a support act or any back up.  

So what brings them to a small church ten minutes from St Pancras Station in 2014?  Ben helpfully explained that music journalist Pete Paphides had suggested to him in the garden at a party a few summers ago that he thought people would like to hear him play guitar again, was taken aback that there was still a desire for people to hear new music from him, and so over the year or so, Ben and Bernard have been collaborating on Ben's first solo album in some three decades. At the same time, Ben has also been writing a book after his parents, "Romany and Tom". 

I'm not quite sure when I first started following Ben on Twitter.  It was probably December 2012, when Tracey released a Christmas album recommended to me by my local record shop [People Music, Chapel Street, Guildford], and so I added her, and then Pete Paphides, followed by Bob Stanley from St Etienne, and then Ben, when I clicked it would be good to follow musicians I've loved and admired both then and now.  

Ben and Tracey have a curious twitter relationship, both individually tweeting about their daily lives to their own sets of followers, often it seems whilst sat on the sofa together, Ben reporting Tracey dancing round the kitchen to Courtney Barnett, or her asking about what brand of coffee machine to buy.  One of Ben's set of tweets from 2013 was on how he was "searching for a vintage Wurlitzer keyboard", "found it", and then "It's Arrived!".

Towards the end of last year, rehearsals with Bernard were progressing, with a two night set at The Slaughtered Lamb, (sold out before I realised it was on).

Moving forward to 2014, a Sunday and Monday night were announced at St Pancras Old Church, and Ben's album is now I believe finished, with a release set for April. I was too slow for the Sunday, but figured I could do the Monday and still get home to Guildford on the train. 

St Pancras Old Church is a lovely church venue, perhaps holding 120.  Doors were at 7:30, and arriving about ten minutes later I grabbed a quick drink and looked for a seat.  The chairs were rows of five either side of the aisle, and luckily I managed to squeeze into a spare seat between two pairs of gig-goers on the right hand side right at the front.

The stage was already set up, Bernard's guitars to the left, and Ben's to the right, together with that Wurlitzer piano mentioned before. My neighbour must also have been a twitter follower, as he pointed out to his friend the story behind it.
Church gigs are always quite archaic, not overamplified, and this one was too, with table lamps and floor lamps for lighting, rather than the usual spot lights from gigs.  I also noticed a trail of 4-plug extension cables onward plugged into another 4-plug extension cable, leading back to one socket in the wall.  Ben had tweeted of a ten minute PA failure the night before, and I could imagine that going back to a small venue after all these years has its drawbacks.

At around 8:30 Ben and Bernard came out from a side door by the altar, Ben with dark jeans, black t-shirt with a logo/quote I couldn't quite make out and lumberjack shirt; Bernard with turned up thin jeans and a buttoned up blue denim shirt.  Bernard still looks the same with his floppy haired fringe, Ben's twitter cartoon of a sharp jawed man with jet black stubble and a buzz cut, is now growing into a grey speckled beard and can't quite be bothered to buzz cut so often haircut.  A smartly dressed gentleman, perhaps in his sixties, was roadie for the night, bringing guitars out and back through the evening.   

Ben's first song was "Levels", written a year ago about trips to the Somerset Levels, coincidentally in the news for being flooded.  

This seemed  a very autobiographical set, "Bricks and Wood" being about a journey with his brother to his parents' old home, apparently now without roof or windows, and how sometimes it's best not to go back.

Ben and Bernard changed guitars at every song, Ben must have had four or five, he explained all tuned differently, and that he really needed an interlude between songs to tune them.  I'm no guitar expert, but Bernard I think switched between two electric guitars, Ben with acoustic, lead, electric. 

Ben revisited his first ever single on Cherry Red Records, on which he had blagged Robert Wyatt to guest vocal at the time, as well as a few of his songs which he performed alone.

One of the most moving songs was "ashes and bits", Ben starting with a journey from Stokenchurch and onto the Oxford ring road, a journey I've made many times having grown up just south of Oxford.  He then went up to Matthew Arnold field, up at Boars Hill.  For me, Boars Hill meant sledging in the winter as a child, school cross country runs as a teenager, scout camps at Youlbury, and driving up to Jarn Mound late on Fridays to try and pick up distant radio stations from the top of the hill.  For Ben, it was to scatter "ashes and bits" under the arched trees, before leaving past a car with picnickers eating their sandwiches.  Ben's singing style is with his eyes half closed, and I wondered how he made it through this song without a tear.

One more about feeling his age was a rambling folk-rock song about continuing to DJ at events which earlier in life he would have happily done until the early (or late) hours of the morning, but how he felt he was now the old man at a younger man's party, perhaps DJ-ing for the last time.

The gig finished around 10pm (the church bells ringing the hour in, as Ben said he hoped they were in the chord of C at the 9pm chimes), and off out into the rain and train home.  

Ben and Bernard  have a UK tour set for May, and this time he will be at the Boileroom in Guildford, ten minutes walk from home for me, so I will look forward to seeing how they rework for  a pub venue.