It sounds like a good idea on paper – bands pooling resources, effort and fan bases rather than competing. Touring together to build each other’s profiles and show that bands can work together to bring their music to a wider audience. Then the Consortium Tour hit York… and the hordes stayed away.
I don’t know whether it was because it was a Sunday, the first warm, sunny evening we had seen for a while or because it was Father’s Day. Maybe it was just that the music-lovers of York hadn’t heard of or didn’t know enough about the bands. Whatever the reasons, to say that the band members outnumbered the audience is a bit of an understatement. There were even faces familiar from many other similar gigs conspicuous by their absence. Still, it has to be said, the three bands shrugged off what must have been disappointment and gave their best efforts, both on stage during their performances and off stage supporting each other. Unfortunately, there was more (slight) disappointment to come.
Things started well enough when Ryan James took to the stage, resplendent in his steampunk hat and retro military jacket. Sitting on a cajon behind keyboards and surrounded by various pieces of percussion, Ryan introduced himself as the acoustic part of the evening before launching into a nicely varied and occasionally incredibly moving set, regaling us with tales, as well as songs, of past loves. Essentially a seated one-man-band, Ryan’s music comprised of sparse piano lines mixed with the various percussion and rich, deep and solemn vocals which in places had a degree of “showman” to them. His unintroduced opener was eclipsed by Breathe And Let Go, a “battle-cry to love” which was fast and lively, with an almost Country feel to it and hints of Cotton Eyed Joe in places. Machine featured more of a haunting piano sound while Jerusalem, inspired by an ex-partner who disturbingly and, from Ryan’s point of view, dangerously kept a dark secret, was a powerfully emotional mix of sombre prayer and tribal chant. Whoa, introduced with a story about homophobic bouncers, was designed to generate positive energy and the sparse crowd, helped by the other bands, managed to clap and sing along brilliantly – maybe it was the fact that there was so few of us that made it more difficult for people to drop out. Probably the campest cover version of Lady Gaga’s Poker Face (yes, really…) I will ever hear was followed by Over The River, Trouble and Digging Up The Mountain, the latter about being broke, needing a drink and being angry with God. All the songs mixed simplicity – there were no grandiose musical interludes, the lyrics were generally short and snappy – with complexity in their structure, with rhythmic changes seeming to feature in most of them. River Of Bones had a theatrical feel to it while Serenade returned a lighter tone to the set, a tone which continued into the humorous banter around how to produce the band names -Sankara is pronounced “Shankara”, “We are Not-ter-mine-us,” shouted Maria, from the audience” and “I am Rye-ann Jam-ess…” – and then the set ended with another unintroduced song, this time performed mostly a capella, except for a small amount of percussion and featuring some incredible yodelling that put the likes of Focus to shame. A nicely entertaining start to the evening.
With Noterminus on stage, the military jacket theme was continued and brought slightly more up to date by bass-player Scott Owen-Midlane’s World War One stylings. Without preamble, Maria Owen-Midlane’s wordless vocals built into a scream, with Scott taking over vocal duties just before the music burst into thunderous noise which all but obliterated the vocals which, in turn, looked as though they were getting stronger as the song went on. Yes… “looked”. I have previously enthused about Maria’s vocals, both live and recorded, but tonight they were swamped by the music. I’ve never felt knowledgeable enough to comment on whether the soundman is doing his job properly but, given that two members of tonight’s audience (both musicians) took to social media the next day to lambast his contribution, I suspect that tonight’s sound could, and should, have been much better. One person’s response that it’s difficult to get the sound right in The Duchess unless there are a fair few people to soak up some of it seems to hold water but it’s worth noting that this write-up concentrates more on the performance than the sound. It’s also worth noting that I struggled to hear the titles of those songs that were introduced. The second song of the set saw the guitar riffs drowning the vocals again, but this time those riffs were much darker. As the only front line musician freed from microphone duties, guitarist Paul Reynolds was giving an energetic performance, wandering about stage and engaging in a few power-stances. Not that Maria and Scott were lacklustre when not on their respective vocal duties. Muted Creatures is a towering, dark and moody song but unfortunately the spoken word sections which are so clear on Haselupker’s Ink, the band’s debut album, were just indistinct tonight. There was a lot about the performance that reminded me of The Reasoning, a band that Maria has provided backing vocals for, but of a time before Maria was a member and the line-up was quite different to what it is now. This was especially apparent during Fast One which, with its dual vocals, epic nature and crunching guitar line, was the best song of the set so far but only served as a springboard for the remaining two tracks of the set. They built in momentum and power, ending the set with some great dirty riffs, powerful drums from Vinden Wylde and what I can only assume were fantastic vocals.
Sankara have a similar line-up to Noterminus and, therefore, suffered a similar fate when it came to the sound mix. After a quick, “Good evening York”, Gareth Jones went straight into an impressively held wordless cry but, once the music started, his obvious vocal power was once again swamped. “We’re not a Micheal Bublé tribute band, this is how I choose to dress while in a rock band,” he explained after the first song, referring to his suit and tie. Full Flow, from the band’s debut EP Enigma, confirmed that as they launched into a full-fledged classic rock track and followed it with the even heavier In God We Trust, opening track of Guided By Degrees, their first (and current) full-length album. The opening of Enigma saw a change of pace and tone as Gareth moved to keyboards for a piano sound that was allowed to breathe and, being quieter, allowed his vocals to come through much more clearly. Eventually even this song surrendered to the harder rock sound, with the guitars of Jay MacDonald and Paul Wilson coming through stronger towards the end. Doll’s House saw Maria scurrying around the venue trying to find a way back onto stage to perform a duet with Gareth and finally, because of the piano opening and sparse guitar sections, her incredible vocals were allowed to shine in a song which, not surprisingly contained the best and most emotionally powerful vocals of the night, from both singers. There was more piano during Lullaby For A Lost Boy, a song about homelessness with it’s roots, I believe, in Gareth’s day job, but this it eventually gave way to another grinding guitar riff in the latter section. There was more heavy riffage in the next song, which was written by MacDonald and was “about shagging”. Sadly I didn’t catch the title. Chasing The Sun continued the heavy feel, with some brilliantly pounding drums once again from Wylde. (Yes, the bands share a drummer.) The set ended with a song which seemed, from his performance, as though it should have showcased Gareth’s powerful voice before a brief encore of somebody else’s song. It was introduced but, at that point, Maria wandered up to me to tell me I looked like somebody she knew and I didn’t catch the title. Nor did I recognise it. Overall, the mixture of riff-driven guitar tracks and piano led songs meant that this was a nicely varied set, somewhat different to what you normally get from a rock band.
Despite the sound quality, I thoroughly enjoyed this gig. The audience may have deserved better from the venue but the bands, despite deserving a bigger audience, came out and gave their all. I can only imagine how much harder that is than thinking, “well, if the punters can’t be bothered…” The upside of the lack of numbers was that I got to spend some time chatting to Maria (and another audience member, Steve Lord, who had made the trip over from Leeds) who eventually coaxed me back inside to get the CDs I had purchased signed by the bands. She and the others who found time to come out and say “hello” couldn’t have been nicer and seemed genuinely pleased that anybody had turned out to see them. These bands may not come back to York again, but at least I got to see them once.