Friday 27 April 2012

Best Of York

Wednesday 25th April: A few weeks ago I was chatting to Rhys Bevan (bass-player with Dream Of Apollo) and, without any hard evidence to back up my statement, I put forth the argument that the music scene in York wasn’t in a particularly healthy state. By that I meant that the small local bands seemed to be few and far between, certainly on evening when I was being tempted out to gigs. Not that long ago Friday nights saw three or four locals playing Fibbers for a few quid on the door. We might not have heard of most of them (or heard again of half of them) but there were many gems and few that were bad enough that we wouldn’t consider seeing them again. Recently, at the two “major” live venues at least, local bands seem to have been replaced by larger touring ones (which I’m not complaining about) and locals seem to have been relegated to occasional supports slots. Again, I stress that the above is a general feeling on my part, with no researched evidence to back it up.

Tonight, my faith in the local talent was reinforced.

Last year, Connor Devine put out a call for artists who would be interested in appearing on an album that he was putting together as part of his music production course at York St John University. Not only would the album be a showcase for local musicians but would also raise money for MacMillan Cancer Support. The album – Best Of York - was launched tonight with a gig at the Basement Bar featuring four of the bands from the album.

My regular reader will, by now, have realised that I am a big fan of Boss Caine, who opened proceedings battling against a cold and the usual problem of gig-going talkers. (As an aside, I will probably never understand why people spend money to attend a gig, then talk all the way through it. It’s annoying. To actually stand directly in front of the person playing, right in their eye-line and to talk constantly throughout their set, isn’t just annoying. It’s both rude and disrespectful. One day I’ll be brave enough to say something, for now I’ll just hope that the idiots read this and somehow realise I’m talking about them…) Ahem, anyway… tonight Dan filled his too-short set with songs from his forthcoming second album, including three that I hadn’t heard before. Opening with the jaunty Kind Of Loving before being joined on stage by Vin North for the much more sombre Ghosts and Drunks (his track on Best Of York) and then the first new one which was about his friend and fellow song-writer, Mark Wynn and, I think, was called Song For Wynn. Dan is quick to acknowledge the talents of others and this song is just another way of him doing so. The next song was also new and if it was announced by title, I missed it. This one was in the more morose style that sometimes gets Dan labelled as “miserablist”, whereas the next – Left Hand Luke And Eleanor Louise – was more upbeat and showed that Dan can find lyrical inspiration in the strangest of places, in this case somebody who dropped into the regular open-mic night he hosts at York’s Dusk bar (Eleanor Louise was the guy’s guitar). The set finished in upbeat, if slightly morbid, style with Dead Man’s Suit. As I said, I’m a big fan and Dan never fails to entertain. Tonight was hardly going to be an exception.

It’s only a few weeks ago that I saw Suzy Bradley and the Morning After for the first time. The unique blend of Suzy on vocals and acoustic guitar, David Martin on electric guitar and Lucy Blakeson on cello was a breath of fresh air then and, if anything, their set tonight was even more entertaining. Starting with Stop Bothering Me, a Suzy-solo which showed what a quintessentially English-folk voice she has the set moved on with a second song in similar style but with the cello and some very Shadows-like guitar adding extra body and giving a much fuller sound. Until The Dawn, their track from the album, was followed by the rockier I Don’t Know Why, in which a small section of cello-string plucking provided a touch of near-funk. The set was building nicely and Bare was followed by Stay With Me which is more folk-rock and, itself, builds to a superb climax. Striving For Perfection was much slower and quieter while the second Suzy-solo, Something Blue, returned the set to it’s more traditional folk style before Suzy performed the final song, It Doesn’t Matter To Me, not only solo but a cappella and in a much deeper voice than used for the rest of the set. As with the last gig, Suzy’s pleasure at performing shone through in her expressions and the songs played tonight allowed each of the trio to show their worth to the whole.

Katie And The Questions are usually Claire and Katie with a backing band. Tonight, however, there was only one female singer and I don’t know which it was (although, I’m going to assume it was Katie). Even the band makeup was, from memory, different to that listed on the Facebook page – that line-up includes one keyboard-player and a bass-player, but I’m fairly certain that there were two sets of keyboards and no bass tonight. Although they list influences from the sixties to the noughties, tonight’s performance seemed to me to be heavily influenced by the former. Everything from the retro-pop sound to Katie’s look and understated performance seemed, to me, to come from the decade of my birth and wasn’t something I thought I’d enjoy that much. I was wrong – from You’re Not Here, through the slightly rockier but still pop-edged Elizabeth Jones and Don’t Talk, with its increased use of keyboards, I found my feet tapping along to the music. The slightly darker Strangers Dub Remix (currently available as a free download from their Soundcloud site) was followed by something which I think was called The Picture Remains The Same, then Katie’s favourite track, a more disco-like track whose title wasn’t announced. The set finished with Perfect Life, the band’s song from the album, which is so new that Katie had to refer to the lyrics throughout. This was a new band to me and I enjoyed them more than I thought I would. Overall the songs were bright and catchy and even guitarist Alex’s occasional slight dalliances into something more akin to rock solos seemed to enhance the pop sound rather than detract from it.

What The Cat Dragged In are another new band to me and little did I know how impressed I was going to be by them. Few of their songs were introduced by title, even though there was no small amount of between-song talking amongst the band, the confusion of which somehow ended up being more endearing than annoying. The opener was atmospheric while Emily Lies, this band’s album song, had a quirkiness that couldn’t help but bring The Cure to mind. The third, much faster song, saw lead singer Emily and backing singer Alice (sisters. I think) almost sparring against each other in a vocal sense. By now Emily had pointed out that tonight’s drummer was a stand-in who normally played guitar (presumably not for this band) – he did a superb job, throwing rhythmic curveballs throughout the set (I’m sure they were deliberate). Next up was a new song, with much merriment before it as Alice remembered what Emily had told her it was about. Shame they didn’t share the explanation with us, apart from “it’s the most political song I’ve written”. In this case, “written” meant wrapping her own words through the Oranges and Lemons nursery rhyme, ending with “Here comes the candle to light you to bed; Here comes the statement, it's written in red; Here comes the taxman to collect your debt; Here comes the hangman to chop off your head”. Not only political but deliciously dark and twisted and the whole thing sung in a delightfully angry style. It was back to the quirky, clipped vocals for the next song while Emily left the stage area and weaved seductively through the audience while singing the next and then the set ended, all too soon, with one of those songs which, rather than a recognisable tune, is comprised of slightly chaotic noise (think the end of Springsteen’s Thunder Road). In my experience almost totally original, fresh, exciting and entertaining, What The Cat Dragged In impressed me in much the same way that Dream Of Apollo did a couple of years ago, with a very assured an unexpectedly good performance. I’m hoping to catch them again soon.

Overall, this was an extremely good gig and one I would have been happy to attend even if it hadn’t been the album launch, or for charity. And it certainly went a long way to proving that York still does have talented musicians. You might just have to look a little bit harder to find them. But what was it with (or without) shoes tonight? Of the four lead singers, only Dan kept his on. But Suzy and Katie performed barefoot, while Emily performed in stocking feet. Must be a girl thing…

As to the Best Of York album itself… I’m hoping to find time to review that soon.

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