Being a Londoner might well give a person readier access to a wider day-to-day world than someone in a smaller British town (and you can read the same for anyone in a world city anywhere), but it also allows that person to become ignorant in the finer closer details, closed off from the simple knowledge that people in quieter places still come up with, or strive towards, interesting things. Part of what I’m doing with myself this year is actively trying to shed some of those blinkers, looking around outside the slew of London gigs I post about to find out what’s going on elsewhere.
Despite hearing about a longstanding enmity between “town” and “gown” in the city, I hadn’t made the necessary connections between Durham, economic poverty, commercial collapse and underground culture; probably because I’ve only previously swept through the town on the East Coast Main Line en route to Newcastle or Edinburgh, admiring the cathedral and the university castle from the insulation of the viaduct. (Like I told you. Londoner. Just plain ignorant.) If at some point I’d got my complacent arse down to street level and asked around, I might have found out more. Behind the mediaeval heritage prettiness and pleasant prospects there are indeed the same kind of economic problems which worm through the country as a whole and gnaw the north-east in particular. There are businesses failing and boarding up, and people becoming reduced to relying on food banks; there’s a sense of community which might dissolve under hunger and the decay of opportunity and moribundity; there are people whose lives might just peter out into a broke greyness; and none of this can be solved simply by proximity to a couple of World Heritage sites.
This is where the Empty Shop organization have come in during the last decade, making a local attempt to address the problems. They’re non-profit, aiming to make enough money to sustain a lively local arts culture and provide the platform for it to thrive. They also aim to make a thrifty, practical use of existing facilities instead of splurging on showcase showoff developments: their concerts, theatre and film shows, exhibitions and other events are housed in buildings which have fallen silent or empty, thereby ensuring that those places don’t fall into decay or become a town centre like a strip of dead teeth. Their gig calendar, too, is littered with events which raise collections for food banks: benefit shows which don’t sell themselves as such, since benefits don’t have to be special events but can be living, breathing regular exchanges of community resources, part of the fabric of being connected.
I’ve got three of this week’s upcoming Empty House gigs listed below – a punky sandwich with a surprisingly plush pop middle. I’m sure they’ll be the first of many which I’ll be flagging up in the future. For what it’s worth, both of the Equestrian Collective shows (the punkier ones, with perhaps a broader DIY communitarian ethic to suit) are food-bank all-age events.
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As Ondas‘ press release is essentially just a mass of pop-culture fibs, which tells me that they don’t take a complicated reputation seriously and that they’ve got one eye on the possibility of jamming themselves into evenings of campery and frills. Buried in the waffle is the phrase “no-wave-surf, trilingual indie band”, which will do, although it doesn’t convey their touch of fun. They’ve got a little lava-lamp shimmy as well as clean punky lines and a surfboard twang; they’re bouncy and lounge-y in the same way that Os Mutantes were, with an elusive, mercurial intelligence in their approach.
Middlesbrough punks Year Of Birds make a few fibbing pop claims of their own (they wrote a third of the songs on Gabrielle’s ‘Rise’… yeah, hmmm…), Instead I can hear bits of West Coast pop, German motorik and a broader psychedelia in their short-order songs. There’s the cyclic two-chord pulse of early Teardrop Explodes for instance (albeit a Teardrops who gave their work a couple of extra spins in a dirty cement mixer) and there’s Syd Barrett – or Robyn Hitchcock – in their precise English diction behind their frontman’s faraway, heavy-lidded baritone and its megaphone distortions. On top of that, they sometimes slip into a discoloured version of that chromium early-Neu! chug and have fluctuating taste for cosmic synth twitters. While none of that makes them Gong-family caperers or dedicated autobahnauts there’s no way that they could hold a bored English punk anomie for more than a few seconds without cracking an eye-twinkle. Their cover of Donna Summers’ I Feel Love (delivered in what’s best described as an ecstatic tannoy monotone) is a small piece of smogged-up Yorkshire wit and Space Dusted joy.
There’s another band on, apparently. There’s no word on who they are. There are rumblings about them having invented fuzzy-felt. If that’s a clue, it belongs to a story or a joke which I’m not in on. Sorry. Show up and see for yourselves.
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How long have Heir been hiding in Leeds, and where did they find a place to hide and do their growing up so secretly? Their debut EP’s only been out since March, their debut single’s barely a year old; but it seems as if they’ve arrived fully matured.
Heir are one of those enviable pure pop bands that covers virtually all bases. Accomplished sophisti-pop recombiners, they’re universal enough to hit Radio 2 playlists, to soundtrack summer picnics and sell bucketloads of records in supermarkets, but they’re still tuneful and dynamic enough to disarm and win over sharper tastes. There’s plenty of quiet-storm emotiveness in those finely-crafted, deceptively simple songs; clever feather-soft steals of space and atmosphere from trip-hop; and there are lessons well-learned from upper-drawer pop-soul, with hints of both Smokey Robinson or Commodores. Best of all are the gorgeous fraternal bursts of bell-like man-harmonies which back up and refract Tom Hammond’s sweet-and-sore lead vocal, right when they’re needed. (Think the Finn Brothers, or Francis Dunnery; but always bring it back to that soul source, of men stretching and basking in the sweet spot between church and itch.)
Sure, enough, the support slots and the BBC Radio plays are already coming their way. Of course, it could all go horribly wrong. Heir might follow a substantial path along the past lines of Elbow (the band whom they most resemble in their gusty Northern blueness) or Deacon Blue. On the other hand we could be seeing them at an early peak before rapid success and co-opting buffs or Barlowises that clear edge and talent; drives it down into frictionless sleekness, into something transient to lube the gaps between acts on ‘The X-Factor’. They might end up putting out no more than a couple of albums before going their separate ways, following many a fine performer in slipping invisibly behind the scenes to write toplines for anonymous r&b stars.
Right now, though, Heir are honed and treasurable. This will be an intimate acoustic show (fine with me, as long as they cheat and keep the Rhodes switched on) and at this point you can still get close enough and persuasive enough to reassure them that they should never swap the joy of singing to people for the staleness of singing to a demographic. Or, if you’re aiming to be a bitter old git, you could go in order to stockpile memories of that time you saw Heir when they still really had it.
Taking the support slot, Rebekah Finch (originally established in Belfast, but developing in Durham) offers her own pop songs. Though she cites Lana Del Rey and Florence + The Machine as influences, both her Hosanna single and various demos suggest a talent that’s both more slippery and more direct, pitched as it is between airy flights of positivity and the quick jabs of doubts and home truths. Well, that often worked pretty well for Stevie Nicks, whose mixture of tenderness and steely force Rebekah seems to be leaning towards; and whose gravel-and-honey tones she sometimes echoes amidst the dabs of soul and gospel. Promising.
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Equestrian Collective presents:
Captain Chaos + Chrissy Barnacle + Mama Lips
Empty Shop HQ, 35c Framwellgate Bridge, Durham, DH1 4SJ, England
Monday 20th June 2016, 7:30 pm – more information here and here
On the second of the two Equestrian nights, Captain Chaos –a.k.a Plan It X records boss Chris Clavin – headlines. A folk-punk legend, he’s played in more bands than it’s fruitful to list and his particular talent has outlasted all of them.
As he always does, he’s hauled a battered acoustic guitar, a hatful of gawk and a bag of witty, off-kilter songs all the way from his Indiana home and over state lines and seas, to touch down somewhere where he knows he’ll have an audience to share and play with. His songs are shaggy dog tales, or carefully honed stand-up routines in melody and verse with little zingers at the end, or comically gonzoid rearrangements of personal quirks. You’ll laugh at him and with him; you’ll want to buy him bar snacks; you’ll want him to come back.
Glasgow “song weaver” Chrissy Barnacle is still young enough to be showing plenty of influences – in particular Bob Dylan in the propulsive clawhammer fingerpicking and the densely worded lyrical shambles, and early Joanna Newsom in both the efflorescent femininity of her tumbling trains of thought and that yawp in her voice. But give her some more time – starting with some of your own. From what I can hear, she’s still a talent in development; taking a little longer to shake off her first roots, a bud who’s pushing hard to emerge in full.
What’s emerged already, though, already impressive. I just think that there’s going to be a moment in which all of those influences finally come into alignment, something clicks into place and they become integrated rather than transparent. That moment might even be this coming Monday. I guess that I’ll have to keep checking in.
Durham’s own Mama Lips sometimes went under the name of Andrew and mostly writes comics; but she also pens and performs upfront, supportive anti-folk songs for the queer of all kinds and especially the transgendered (as well as for those who empathise with them). Her brand new “Fairy Godmother’ EP is about “surviving in our identities, and our fairy godmothers who take care of us,” and she clearly doesn’t give a fuck about anyone who might sneer at her failure to prioritise bitchiness, snark and irony, since there are more urgent things to concentrate on first. Apparently she has other, raunchier songs in the bag, and if we’re good she’ll teach us about the hanky code. (I was impatient, so I cheated…)
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As I said, I’m sure that I’m going to be looking up more Empty House Durham gigs in the future, but there’s enough here already to make me wish that I’d gotten off that train earlier.