York’s Little Festival Of Live Music–Black Swan, 31/03/18

It’s a wet and cold Easter Saturday and, despite having taken a week off from work, I’m finding it difficult, for various reasons, to fit in doing things with the family. The girls aren’t normally into music (at least not to the extent that I am) so I thought my suggestion that they accompany me to the Black Swan to attend the latest acoustic and folk mini-fest put on by York’s Little Festival Of Live Music (the little-ist festival the the biggest name) would be met by scorn and the usual, “you can go” response. Instead we all headed off to the bus stop for an appointment with six and a half hours of the finest music that festival director Ellen could put together. And I really do mean “finest”. I make no secret that I try to support this festival whenever I can (sadly, not as much as I used to be able to for the main event in September), partly because of the charity aspect of it – this one was raising funds for The Island, a mentoring service for young people in York – but also because Ellen, through sheer hard work, determination and mainly self-publicity, has built this award-winning festival up so much that the calibre of musicians who want to appear is generally second to none for this level of event. And that seemed borne out today by the fact that, despite initial worries that only a handful of people would turn up, throughout the day the Black Swan’s beautiful events room was full to the brim, with people standing outside the door and queuing up the stairs for some time waiting for space to become available. Indeed, by the final act, we were being asked to shuffle our chairs around so that a standing area could be generated at the back of the room. It wasn’t just the numbers attending that helped made the day a success, though. It was the fact that the audience were both attentive – at times you could almost hear a pin drop in the room – and willing to participate in the sing-alongs that cropped up through the various acts.

As per my last posted write-up, I wasn’t planning to do this (I’m supposed to be retired from music writing, remember…) so I made no notes during the day and am relying on memory. You aren’t going to get a blow-by-blow account of every song played and story told but I hope what follows gives some idea of just how good an afternoon and evening was had. I hope that whatever “facts” I have remembered, I have remembered correctly.

The afternoon started with a short set from Scarlett Gordon who showed a musical maturity beyond her years. Kicking things off with a cover of Bowie’s Starman, she initially seemed a little nervous (but who, at just ten years old, wouldn’t?) and wasn’t quite able to cover up the few mistakes she made. The next song, also a cover but whose title and original artist I forget, was simpler in style and really allowed Scarlett’s vocals to come through and, with that, her nervousness seemed to evaporate. But it was her own, self-penned tracks that really impressed – 3 am  and Hole In My Paper, while short, were delightfully written, played and sung with growing confidence. There’s musical pedigree here as mum is Angela, of Mostly Autumn and Odin Dragonfly (among others) fame and it will be interesting to watch Scarlett grow as an artist.

Multi-instrumentalist Angela is also on quarter of the line-up of Leather’O, who took to the stage next and provided a set of mostly instrumental tracks featuring guitar, mandolin, flute and a variety of whistles, with the occasional accordion thrown in. The set was a mixture of their own self-penned material – including a track inspired by a tourist on Skye asking, in a pub just opposite the Talisker distillery, where they could buy some gin – and arrangements of other musicians’ tunes (none of whose names I can remember, I’m afraid). As usual with this band the music was lively, foot-tapping stuff with hints of Celtic and gypsy influences and was brought to life by the various introductions telling the stories of where the tracks came from or what their inspirations were. Their opening track seemed to generate some humour on stage and it was only at the end that guitarist Bob explained that, during rehearsal, they had decided to shorten it but, on stage, half the band had forgotten that fact and there required some musical shepherding to pull everybody back together. It’s testament to the musicianship that, as he remarked, I don’t think anybody would have noticed if he hadn’t mentioned it. I certainly didn’t. The band also joked that they were prone to outbreaks of spontaneous democracy while on stage and this seemed to happen for their last track, which might have started out being planned to be one thing until Angela could be heard asking if they were not doing something else, getting agreement from the rest and inviting Scarlett back to the stage as second guitarist.

Somebody had to be my least favourite act of the day and, with the greatest respect, I’m sorry to say that it was Toni Bunnell, another local multi-instrumentalist and folk singer. However, with a line-up this good, being least favourite doesn’t necessarily mean that there was anything too wrong with her set. Personally, I thought the song about the Grenfell Tower disaster, while sympathetic, was perhaps too soon and, in a strange way, too close to home. While folk songs have a tradition of telling stories including those of human disasters, this one just didn’t seem to fit. (Although, thinking about the lyrics, in hindsight I may have misunderstood the song’s message.) Much better was the song Toni had been asked to write about Stroma, the now-abandoned island off Northern Scotland. More poignant was the fact that the person who had asked her to write it was the last person to be born on the island. I’m afraid I don’t remember much more about the songs from her set, except for the wonderful array of instruments she seemed to have squirrelled away across the front of the room – as well as guitar, Toni also played what  think was a bouzouki, dulcimer and hurdy gurdy, the latter two of which I had never come across live before.

Next up was an act that initially appeared to be a novelty act and yet turned out to be the revelation of the day. Earlier I had seen a couple of people in the pub dressed as what seemed to be Norse villagers. Let’s face it, that’s not unusual in York but perhaps not as prevalent as during the Viking Festival, which had been and gone. Heading downstairs to replenish my group’s liquid refreshment, I was passed by these people as they hauled a variety of instruments up the stairs. It turned out that this was Bruni, a four piece who perform their own interpretations of Norse folk songs. With a mixture of tracks, including some putting the band’s musical arrangements around traditional poetry and others written completely – in Old Norse no less – by the band, the foursome beguiled the audience with some stunning music and beautifully haunting vocal melodies. Harps, violin, hurdy gurdy (yes, another one – you wait nearly fifty two years to hear an instrument and then two come along at once…), a variety of wind instruments – including both the biggest and smallest recorder-like instruments I think I have ever seen – and a selection of percussion were used to fill the room with harmonies the likes I have never heard before. From the first track they reminded me of Clannad at their most traditional – a mix of the music they produced for the Robin of Sherwood and Harry’s Game TV series – but they were better. Like most of the acts today, the origins of the music was explained, bringing it even further to life. Musically, the Norse seem to have a fascination with death, but even that couldn’t detract from the beauty of what we heard from this band. I have no idea what sort of venues or events Bruni normally play at but I really hope that I come across them again soon.

The gentle and infrequent between songs humour from Bruni – reduced to Dylan explaining that a track’s musical arrangement was created by, “Sarah on the harp” didn’t give the audience much of a clue when the three girls all had harps in front of them – was worlds apart from the garrulousness (and I mean that in the nicest possible definition of the word) of David Ward Maclean, whose stories seemed to take up half the time allocated to his set. Not that that matters – I could happily listen to him tell stories for hours, although his songs, another mix of covers and originals, were equally entertaining. While this festival brings together artists from different backgrounds and genres, it is testament to the local (and not so local) music scene that most of them know and interact with each other, so it is little surprise that David has a rambling story about headliner Edwina Hayes and an old jacket of his that, while bearing no relevance to whatever song came next, delighted the audience with its telling. It’s also testament that people in the audience were willing to travel from Bradford – OK, it’s not exactly the other side of the country, but this is for a small event – to see the man play. Some vocals are described as “whisky-soaked”, in David’s case this is literally true. As I pass him on the stairs before his set, he is explaining to Ellen that he’s just going to get a whisky and “have a fag” and said whisky is almost part of his act, in much the same way that it used to be for comedian Dave Allen, until it is replaced by something “twice as beautiful” – a double, provided by those Bradfordians. David’s set was brought to a close by a duet with Edwina Hayes on a song that they have been singing together for, I think they said, ten years – a lovely number about York’s Holy Trinity Church and a bench in its grounds dedicated to a warden who “loved this place”, prompting another story about a future churchyard, filled with benches dedicated to people who also loved it.

I have seen Nick Hall before, but always as half of Plumhall and not for a fair bit of time. With wife Michelle (literally the other half) off touring Europe he’s flying solo tonight, but still performing songs from their Thundercloud album, including the title track, as well as new songs from an upcoming album and a handful of covers, including Sinaloa Cowboys, a Springsteen song that I failed to recognise (probably because it’s on my least favourite Springsteen album) and the ubiquitous-at-these-sort-of-events Bob Dylan cover – don’t ask me which it was but you can guarantee that I would have preferred it to the original… Again there are humorous interludes – jokes about not being further away and not trying to be Ed Sheeran when he switched to tenor guitar and a story about writing a song about how much he missed Michelle while on tour with Magna Carta leading to a punchline about how he is still waiting for her to write a song about missing him. Another story inadvertently sets up an ending in Edwina Hayes’ set. But the humour never detracts from the power of his songs, particularly in the likes of the brilliant Remember My Name, a track about slavery. It was Nick’s set that brought out the singers in the audience, even if his choruses were sometimes so long that he told us it would be OK if we just sang the last word. Superb stuff and I’m looking forward to the new album.

Last year I finally got to see Edwina Hayes live, after trying and failing a number of times previously. Now, in the space of a week, I have seen her twice more, albeit one of those times was performing as part of the Boss Caine band during last week’s album launch. Tonight she’s the headline act on a bill full of headliners and, while much of her set is the same songs as that first time I saw her, it is no less entertaining. There’s an unavoidable and lovely sweetness to Edwina, both in her between song interludes (that speaking voice…) and her vocals, which you can’t help but like. Even her self-deprecating humour – Nick wrote a song in a truckstop in the desert, I learned this one outside services on the M62 (sic) – is lovable. Given that, it’s shameful that I can’t remember most of the songs from a set that included solo work, songs she had written for and performed with other acts and the odd cover. The only one I can remember with any certainty is Waiting For The Guy To Die – a cover that I have a history with (Edwina dedicated the song to me (!) that first time I saw her) and which reduced my teenage, K-Pop-loving daughter to a mess of shaking shoulders as she giggled her way through the very funny lyrics. It definitely wasn’t all jokes, though, as Edwina invited us to sing along to the chorus of a beautiful song inspired by a family member. Another highlight occurred when Edwina invited her friend Stevie to take her place – and guitar – on stage for a great rendition of Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler. This set, and the evening, was brought to a close by another duet, this time with Nick Hall back on the stage for a slightly more rockier (for want of a better word) song. Six and a half hours had flown by.

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Boss Caine–The Crescent, 24/03/18

It’s happened! I’ve been to a gig that has inspired me to come out of retirement, if only as a one-off. I didn’t know at the time so, with no notes taken on the night, what follows may be a little scant on detail (some may say less wordy) and I’m going to break my own cardinal rule and only write about the headline act.

It had been a long time – too long a time – since I had seen any formation of Boss Caine play live. The last time was towards the end of 2016, supporting the Christians. According to my gigs list, the last time I saw them as a headline act was way back in 2014, at the Basement. It’s strange, to me, that an act that I can genuinely say I love, and one that was such a staple of my gig-going for a while, had dropped off my radar so fully. But there was no way I was missing tonight’s gig – full band run-through of the latest album, the very long-awaited Loved By Trouble, Troubled By Love.

It says a lot about main-man Daniel Lucas, who pulls talented musicians into the Boss Caine collective, that The Crescent played host to a very sizable audience which, along with music-lovers like myself, included a cross-section of the Who’s Who of the York music scene, as well as friends of the man who had travelled the length and breadth of the country – some without telling him they were coming – to see him play tonight. It also says a lot about him that he seemed very much blown away by the support. Increasingly buzzing on social media in the lead up to this gig, Dan seemed more at ease on stage than I ever remember seeing him before, joking with band members (and there were plenty to joke with, the band at times tonight verging on double-figures…) and asking for “Hell yeah”’s from sections of the crowd who had travelled more than ten, fifty, one hundred, two hundred miles to attend the gig. Admittedly, some in the audience could have been a bit (by which I mean a lot) more respectful, especially given that Dan himself is a huge proponent of the crowd being quiet when the musicians are playing. Having said that, one song (I forget which) towards the end of the set brought the crowd to near silence.

The new album has been so long coming that, even though the set-list was predominantly taken from it, a large chunk were as comfortably familiar as a well-worn pair of shoes. The likes of Evidence, Lady MacBeth and Star Crossed Lovers have been in the live set for some time, and I found myself silently singing along to all three. The melancholy that Boss Caine seems to be known for (and which puts some people I know off) was still in evidence, but overall this was a much lighter performance. Of the new songs, the title track of the album, with Edwina Hayes sharing vocal duties, was a revelation – a Boss Caine song you can dance to, who’d have thought it? Rounding out the main part of the set, Smoking In My Backyard – a live staple for even longer – included a chorus sing-along from the audience, egged on by the band’s trumpet player, who jumped off stage to encourage us to join in.

The Boss Caine line-up varies from gig to gig and, even though it was billed as full-band for tonight’s show, that tradition continued from song to song. From memory, the only members on stage for every song were Dan and Bradley Blackwell, the latter switching from bass to double bass for one song. Of the rest, Amy Greene, provided backing vocals and percussion for most songs, but even she had to be encouraged back to the microphone for the last two songs – Dead Man’s Suit and personal favourite Leaving Victoria a sort of encore addition at the end of the main set. (Despite cries of “More!” after over and hour of music there was no actual encore.) Keiran O’Malley was the only other familiar face to me and his violin playing seemed more restrained, and yet still effective, tonight.

A friend and local musician who I was talking to at the gig (not during the set) had already heard the album – I picked my copy up on the night and it’s currently on rotation as I write this – and told me how good it was and how the Boss Caine sound had progressed, leading him to wonder what the next album would be like. He mentioned a fuller sound, with bigger compositions and his speculations went down the Bruce Springsteen route. Now, I am in no way saying that Boss Caine and The Boss are on a level but it did get my brain working overtime during the set and I couldn’t help but see Amy Greene as, in a musical sense, Patti Scialfa to Dan Lucas and the addition of that trumpet, while a different sound to Clarence Clemens’ sax, couldn’t help but increase the image of the collective as a Yorkshire E-Street Band (although that moniker has already been taken by another brilliant brass-filled band), even though O’Malley is usually more of a visual foil to Dan than the trumpet player was tonight.  Maybe, just maybe, there is more comparable between the two than those shared four letters.

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2016 In Review–Part 1, The Gigs

It’s not news that the past year saw me take a massive step back from my (admittedly somewhat minor) involvement in York’s music scene, taking the decision to stop writing up each and every gig I went to. The time and effort involved were proving to be too much for the limited engagement those blog posts were getting and I was getting tired of being “expected” to go to gigs. I did eventually reach the three-hundredth “review” that I promised when I announced my impending retirement and, but it wasn’t the gig number three hundred chronologically, nor did it instil in me a desire to start again on either a full or part time basis. Since then I have dabbled with small snippets of writing, mere teasers of what could have been full articles, posted directly to my Facebook page as and when the words came to me while at gigs and, if anything, they have cemented my own opinion that what I had been writing wasn’t that good and that there were much better wordsmiths out there. Those snippets are, in my opinion, much better than anything I ever wrote in longer form and I know that I could never maintain that quality over a longer piece. I will continue to post them as and when my muse strikes me, but few people will see them. Certainly fewer than would have done a year ago, as I also took the opportunity to have a Facebook friends cull, removing most of the musicians who had, I assume, sent me friend requests simply because I had written about them and stopping accepting such requests. If I haven’t interacted with you in real life…

But all that, obviously, hasn’t stopped me attending gigs and I always intended to continue with these year-end summaries. After all, I’ve got to justify paying for the domain name somehow.

Let’s start, as always, with the statistics – 2016 saw me attend 36 gigs (2015 – 41, 2014 – 38) and seeing 85 performances from 81 individual acts (2015 – 96/88, 2014 – 119/96). The gigs took place in 7 venues (2015 – 8, 2014 – 11), all in York and including 2 that I hadn’t been to before. As usual, Fibbers was my most-attended venue, with 19. The Duchess and The Basement saw me 5 times each, The Crescent 3 times, The Cottage Inn in Haxby twice and The Post Office Club and The Little Festival Of Live Music in Parliament Street once each. As always, there were gigs I didn’t manage to get to for various reasons (cancellations, family events, clashes and the dreaded “not being able to swap an on-call night – the latter particularly annoying as it meant I missed Hope & Social for the first time in years…)

A quick word about the main venues. This year saw the inevitable closure of The Duchess as it, along with all other businesses there, were forced out of the Stonebow building due to its impending renovation. It’s a shame – even though I didn’t see as many gigs there as at Fibbers, it did put on some crackers and there seemed to be acts that had been “exclusive” to that venue. Blackbeard’s Tea Party have already played in York at a different venue but I wonder whether acts such as Von Hertzen Brothers, Nerina Pallot, Hayseed Dixie and Aynsley Lister (just four off the top of my head) will be seen in these parts again. The Crescent probably didn’t set out to be a replacement for The Duchess, but it has filled a gap left by the closure. It’s very similar to The Post Office Club, in that it is located in an old (possibly still going, I’m not sure) Working Mens Club and your walk through the main bar to get to the back performance room. It can be fitted out with chairs and tables, or left open for well-attended “dancing” gigs. Its main downside, however, is the temperature – it can be very cold, which can’t be much fun on stage. I don’t think it’s any secret that Fibbers sometimes has an issue with noise bleeding through from the Bier Keller next door. I’ve heard enough audience members moan about it and seen acts rearrange their sets, dropping quieter songs. There has been a mostly successful attempt to counter this, with one door being blocked off and the last few times I have been there it hasn’t been an issue. It’s worth pointing out, though, that the Keller almost certainly helps Fibbers keep going financially (as does the early curfew to allow the venue to change to a club later in the evening), although whether it also ends up being one of the nails in its coffin remains to be seen. The Basement remains a steady venue with perhaps its only downsides being its size and the price of drinks.

As to the music, well this year seemed to be in part dominated by classic rock, with FM, Bernie Marsden (ex-Whitesnake), Heaven and Hell (Dio tribute), Diamond Head, Praying Mantis and Y&T all putting in appearances. Once again, I was surprised (and slightly annoyed for them) that York-based band Morpheus Rising couldn’t pull a larger crowd in their hometown. On the heavier side, the annual event to mark the end of the Viking Festival saw Týr come down from the Faroe Islands with support from slight more local Aloeswood and Darkest Era – all, possibly, too heavy for my music collection but well worth seeing live.

There was blues rock in the form of Stevie Nimmo, Ben Poole, Band of Friends (Rory Gallagher tribute), Federal Charm, Aaron Keylock and the annual appearance of Chantel McGregor. But it was Nashville trio Simo who stole the show in this genre, with an explosive live performance which included instrumentals of prog-proportions.

Speaking of prog… that was, of course, my main focus, with the now-defunct Messenger, the ever-energetic Von Hertzen Brothers, Halo Blind, Howard Sinclair, The Moulettes, Mostly Autumn, Celestial Fire and Soma Crew all putting in good Shifts. Stand-out performances, however, came from The Heather Findlay Band (who I saw three times) and Odin Dragonfly (a welcome return and a chance to see them twice) and Gong, a long-standing band who I knew very little about before seeing them in November. Their music was complex, confusing and challenging – just what prog should be.

It’s well known that I’m a sucker for a female voice, in almost any genre, so it was nice to be able to see some superb singer-songwriters from around the world or femme-fronted bands more local to home this year. Highlights were the alternative country of Canadian Lindi Ortega, Norwegian folk/pop singer Frøkedal, Brit Nerina Pallot, psych-pop from Merseyside’s She Drew The Gun, Hull’s Carrie Martin and the acoustic rock of young York trio Little Resistance, the final act to perform at The Duchess.

As usual, there were some relatively big names playing our smaller venues. I was impressed by Reef, who packed out Fibbers but The Coral (who did the same) had less of an impact on me. A surprise highlight were The Christians, and not only because I didn’t originally have a ticket for their gig. The eighties soul/pop group produced an entertaining set, featuring songs that were familiar as well as others I had forgotten about and and emotional tribute to the Liverpool 97, with frontman Garry also amusing the crowd with banter and wry observations on how fame is fleeting.

And then there were the local acts, some of which have already featured above. Alt-country duo Mulholland launched their album at the Basement with the help of a host of musicians who played on it and a couple of great support acts – The Bronze who I like more each time I see them and The Lungs who I saw for the first (and hopefully not the last time). Perennial mainstream favourites of mine also launched their album at the Basement with another brilliant performance. Blind Eye returned from Manchester for a headline gig at Fibbers which saw the place buzzing. I finally got a chance to see Joshua Burnell and his band and was extremely impressed with their mix of folk and prog. Sam Griffiths proved once again what a talent he is when he supported Eef Barzelay (who, I suspect, is an acquired taste) and York Music For Refugees put on a charity gig at the Crescent featuring Rachel Croft and The Dan Webster Band, who I had seen before, along with new-to-me acts Bramble Napskins, who had the crowd dancing, and Stillhouse who could well be my new favourite local band.

Of course, that’s just a taste and there were many more, headliners and support acts both, but, as is traditional in these posts, I have picked five favourite gigs.

5 – Vesper Walk @ The Basement 1/7/16. I love Vesper Walk so this was always going to be a candidate, but it was made special by a full line-up of truly alternative styles which also included York’s Flora Greysteel and Brighton’s Mishkin Fitzgerald. It was a brilliant night of thoughtful, slightly strange music and performances (and in no way hampered by the fact that I was also watching Wales play in the European Championships on my gig-buddy’s phone.

4 – John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett @ The Basement 2/4/16. I nearly didn’t get to this gig and it’s thanks to its promoter that I made it. These were names I was aware of, but that was all and I had no idea what was to come. A superb mix of music and hilarity from two veterans of music, one of them a one-hit wonder who also has an entry at number 7 on the BBC’s All Time Favourite Lyrics poll. This would have been my 300th write-up but there was no way I could have done it justice.

3 – Red Hot Chilli Pipers @ Fibbers 30/4/16. Another gig I nearly didn’t go to, until I was offered a couple of cheap tickets. This is not a tribute act but a fully-fledged bagpipe band who play “bag-rock”, covers of classic tracks from all sorts of genres, while (again) entertaining with humour. This was the first gig that my daughter attended with me and, having made me stand right at the front, she can now answer the age-old question about what a Scotsman wears under his kilt…

2 – Gong @ Fibbers 27/11/16. After a great support slot from psych-droners Soma Crew, the current line-up of Gong (urged to keep going by founder member Daevid Allen even as he was suffering a terminal illness) produced a brilliant set of prog rock. I can’t add much to what I’ve already said above, except to say that, prior to the gig, I was slightly worried that Gong’s music might have been too surreal for me (based on what, I don’t know). How wrong I was.

1 – The Heather Findlay Band @ The Post Office Club 25/7/16. I’ve chosen this as my number one for a number of reasons, not least of which was the company I was in. Not only were there a few regular gig-buddies, but I had convinced both my wife and daughter to attend (or, it might be said, to let me attend, given it was on my daughter’s birthday…) This was the first time I saw Odin Dragonfly this year and it was great to see them back and even better to hear they have new material planned. The Heather Findlay Band impressed with a set comprising Heather’s solo work along with songs from Mostly Autumn and Mantra Vega and Heather’s performance reminded me just how good a vocalist she is. It was a very similar gig to the December one at the Crescent and, while the latter was made more poignant by appearances by Heather’s sons and Angela Gordon’s daughter, this one was a lot warmer.

Posted in Live Music, Year in Review | 1 Comment

Jon Palmer Acoustic Band–The Cottage, 10/07/16

I’m not sure why, partway through this evening, I decided to start making notes but, since I did, I might as well use them. I’m also not sure whether this signals an end to my (so far) brief retirement from gig write-ups, or whether it will be a one-off. Chances are it will be somewhere in between, probably leaning more towards the latter.

I’ve always tried to be a champion of local live music and you couldn’t get much more local than tonight. In fact this was the second time in three days that I had walked to a gig at The Cottage Inn in Haxby. The first was Dos Paulo, a blues duo who were playing in the pub itself (very good but, typically for pub gigs, playing mainly to people who were chatting) but tonight was different. Two Sundays a month, the local community radio station, Vale Radio, put on gigs in the pub’s function room, primarily to record for broadcast during the week. Having already mentioned this month’s in my YorkMix column, and having had tonight’s headliners recommended to me, it was only fair that I wandered down to try it out.

There’s probably a chance of a few new readers (yeah, like I have many regular readers) and so, before I start, it’s worth noting a few things about me. Firstly, I rarely listen to the radio and even more rarely listen to music on it. Generally I’m a Radio Five listener or, occasionally, Planet Rock, so can’t comment on Vale Radio. In terms of music, I listen to a fairly wide variety, although I admit it’s not as wide a choice as some people I know. I’m by no means a folk aficionado – apart from some fairly traditional stuff, it’s unlikely that I could accurately categorise folk music itself, nor at times distinguish it from Americana and the plain old singer-songwriter labels. From my point of view there are, broadly, three categories of music – that which I would buy, that which I would happily listen too (recorded or live) and that which I have no interest in. The first two categories sometimes, but not always, overlap. Folk and, in fact, many acoustic acts fall firmly in the second category and there has to be something very,very special about them to entice me to purchase CDs, mainly because I know that, while I might enjoy an act enough to see him/her/them again, those CDs would rarely get played at home. I’ve posted to this blog for the past few years, focussing mainly on music – and generally referring to the posts as “write-ups”, rather than “reviews”, because I don’t see myself as a critic – with no formal training in writing beyond my all-too-distant time at school, and with no personal knowledge of the technicalities of music. My last attempt at playing an instrument came in my second year of secondary school, when I bravely strummed a single chord on an acoustic guitar when the music teacher pointed in my direction and I freely admit that I couldn’t hold a note – any note, let alone the right one – if I was given a bucket to put it in. In fact, one might argue that I am in no way qualified to write about what I, now occasionally, do…

But that’s enough about me. Let’s move onto the venue. The Cottage’s function room is, it turns out, very good acoustically – there wasn’t a lead, amplifier or microphone in sight tonight (expect the one being used to record the gig) and the sound was brilliant from where I was sitting. I’ve been in the room before, for celebrations, and knew that it had its own small bar. Tonight, however, that bar was closed and a chalk board directed us through a “Staff only” door towards the main bar. Now, it might have been a failing on my part, but I didn’t think that made it easy to get a drink – I can understand why it wouldn’t be possible to man the room’s bar, but the rapid-fire change over between acts barely left the small but enthusiastic audience time to draw breath, let alone nip next door to get a pint in. Personally, I thought it would have looked rude if I’d got up and disappeared halfway through a set. Which is a shame, not only because I would have quite liked a pint of Guzzler but also because I believe the room is being provided free of charge, with the landlord hoping to male a bit of extra money on bar takings and very few people seemed to be making the journey.

The evening started off pleasantly enough, with Vale Radio’s resident folk DJ Tony Haynes kicking things off mere seconds after I arrived. Playing an autoharp and accompanied, on violin, by a lady I assume to be the “Aunty Pat” mentioned in a Facebook post after the event, he opened with a song that was achingly familiar and yet took me a few minutes to recognise. I’m used to the more rambunctious version of Whip Jamboree performed by Blackbeard’s Tea Party than the slower, quieter version heard tonight. Not that that made it any less enjoyable. A pair of a capella songs followed, first from Tony as he sang his own recently award-winning song, Tommy’s Remedy, a sombre affair inspired by the final scene of the Blackadder TV series. The second half of the set was handed over to Pat, who also performed one song without accompaniment, singing with a pleasant sounding Gaelic tone, before playing a slow and sombre tune on the violin.

Next up was Mick O’Hara, who I think Tony said had come down from Edinburgh, where he has hosted regular folk nights for around seventeen years. The four songs in his set were all covers, and I think I’ve identified all of them. Indeed, I knew one (and would never have classed it as a folk song). Opening with Widdecombe Fair (Show Of Hands) and continuing with Richard Thompson’s God Loves A Drunk, he broke up the set with an age old Van Gogh joke before breaking into Don McLean’s Vincent, a song that was harmonised by the next performer, who was sitting just behind me, providing a presumably unplanned stereo effect. Mick’s final song was One In A Million, Chris Wood’s ode to the chip shop worker Peggy Sue. Yes, really.

The impromptu harmoniser was up next. Annie Curren also provided us with a set of covers, starting off with another song that I knew and, again, wouldn’t have classified as folk. Also, if Annie hadn’t introduced it, it might have been another that, under her tender ministrations, I wouldn’t have recognised immediately – this version of Paul Simon’s Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes was stripped back musically and seemed to be slowed down as well. I’m not a big fan of The Beatles and their music falls firmly into the “I can listen to it” category, which might explain why I didn’t recognise Annie’s version of I Love Her. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the original. Joan Baez’s song, To Bobby – written in 1972 to try to entice Bob Dylan back to political activism – was next and was performed in a haunting style. Her version of Paul Grady’s The Island was more powerful and then it was time for the second Richard Thompson song of the evening as Dimming Of The Day brought her set to a close with some great vocals and a lovely voice.

It was with the final two acts of the evening, however, that my interest was piqued. Carrie Martin, we were told, had recently started performing again after taking time out to bring up a family and she had played the main stage of the Beverley Folk Festival earlier this year. The diminutive singer proved to have a fantastic voice and started her set with an expressive rendition of Both Sides Now, probably my favourite Joni Mitchell song. (It is, perhaps, a mark of how much my music-buying has changed that, back in the day, a handful of Joni’s albums featured in my then vinyl collection, a collection that barely reached two hundred albums at its peak, yet not one appears in my four-figure CD collection.) The rest of the set was made up of Carrie’s own songs. Purple Heart, a song about trying to get to sleep, featured strong guitar work, while new song Woman In Me, which brought the set to a close, included a nice melange of guitar styles. It was Carrie’s other song, though, that really caught my ear. Even as she introduced it, Tony seemed to sit up and take notice, asking if he could accompany her on a bodhran. The Dancing Dragonfly is about “Things that make you go wow”. And that’s just what it did to me. It’s a beautiful song about beautiful things and, clichéd as it may sound, was performed beautifully.

If I had one complaint about the evening it would be directed towards the people who chatted throughout the brief interview that Tony did with Jon Palmer prior to the his band’s set. It, along with the set, was being recorded for broadcast during Tony’s show but it would have been nice to hear it while I was in the room. This was definitely one of those times when it wasn’t even polite to talk while the band wasn’t playing…

With the interview out of the way, the Jon Palmer Acoustic Band took to the “stage” – tonight as a five piece having left the drums (and, presumably, the drummer) at home – and performed a very enjoyable, foot-tapping, at times rollicking, hour long set of folk of the more rock-y variety, for the most part played on two guitar, a double bass, a violin and a mandolin, with occasional whistles thrown in and all the members providing backing vocals to Jon’s lead, making some nice harmonies. The songs varied between having a sort of “hometown” feel, such as the likes of Brown-eyed Northern Girl or being about personal experiences, like one about changing jobs (I didn’t catch the title). That latter showed off each band member in a short not-quite solo section before a short a capella section with audience clap-along accompaniment. There was also a political side to some of the songs – I Stuff Their Mouths With Gold was about Nye Bevan and his legacy of the NHS while, later in the set we were treated (and I do mean treated) to Eton Mess, a song about the government (now, just a few days later, changed almost beyond recognition) that Jon admitted on the night would need re-writing soon. As it was it featured some very funny lyrics about the likes of Jeremy Hunt and David Cameron – my favourite was along the lines of “didn’t remember what he oughtta/first the poor and then his daughter”.

Along the way they also played Haul Away, a traditional sea shanty that Jon wrote a couple of months ago, with great multi-part harmonies and the violin of Wendy Ross (dare I say a Yorkshire Stevie Nicks…?) coming to the fore in the mid section. New song Vagabonds And Rogues, a story song about a woman who liked those types of men, was, if I heard correctly, slightly fruity with the lyric “Gave Maidenhead a whole new meaning”. After the lively The Silences In Between, which showed how tight the musicianship was during a short, staccato instrumental section, Jon took up what I think was a tenor guitar for the powerful This Is My Country, another political song that referenced mine and steel workers, asked what happened to compassion, described a (metaphorical) cold wind blowing over the land and pointed out that the people in charge don’t know they’ve been born. After the seriousness of that song, Barleycorn Way lightened the mood again by celebrating all things folk without being a folk song, playing with the genre and having fun doing so. After a false start – “John Barleycorn said…” looks to the band. “What did he say?” – the song opened slowly but then livened up, with the chorus explaining “This isn’t a folk song because nobody dies and nobody drowns and nobody gets lost in the vale” and the ending being a vibrant, whistle-imbued affair.

The remainder of the set was made up of:

Where The Mountains Meet The Sea – a song inspired by the Scottish Highland clearances which gave Jon the chance to sing the words “Nova Scotia” which, he explained, are nice words to sing. This song also brought about an energetic clap along that belied the audience size.

A “whisky song” that I, apparently didn’t note anything down about except the word “slow” and I’m not sure whether that was the title or my description of the song itself.

Another Friday Night In A Northern Town, described as an “Otley song”, it was just that – a song about going out in Otley on a Friday night that seemed to give a name check to many of the town’s pubs and included another impressive instrumental section.

Overall this was a very entertaining evening and one that didn’t make me wish I’d stayed in and watched the football. The turnout was, I suppose, disappointing, but for me this was live music on my doorstep and, while I might not become a regular, I will be keeping an eye out for who is playing these nights and certainly wouldn’t rule out a return trip sometime soon, and maybe even a trip to the bar (if there’s a long enough break in the music…)

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On Putting Not Quite Music Journalism To Bed

Having announced, back in December, that I was going to stop publishing gig write-ups, I had always had the intention of writing a final piece that explained why. As it happened, a busy period at both work and home meant that I put it off until now, which is probably a good thing as I’ve had a chance to think about my reasons and realised that, if I had written this a few weeks ago, they probably wouldn’t have been the same as they are now.

Unless you have followed my writings through Facebook, you might not even know that I had given up. Yes, I had mentioned it on the “About Me” page of this blog, but how many people read that? And I know that there are some people who follow the blog directly or just pop in now and again to see what I have been writing about, so it’s only fair that I let them know I have given up, rather than just disappearing off the face of the internet.

To recap… I announced my, at the time, impending retirement the day after my birthday. One of my friends (also a contributor to a number of write-ups, having allowed me to use his photographs in them, as well as my partner in the short-lived “Words From The Street” project, which I am still incredibly proud of), as part of wishing me a happy birthday told me to “keep writing, keep rockin’” adding to that a quote from Lester Bangs. Being completely frank, it was probably the wrong thing to say to me at that time. Just the night before, for no specific reason that I can remember, I had been thinking about giving up and, when I mentioned that to said friend, his response was:

It’s your birthday…..you can do what you like today….but as you only ‘think’ you came to a decision last night you can sober up tomorrow and ‘re-think’. Your contributions are valued by (a lot) more people than you realise.

Being the ornery Yorkshireman I am, I think that spurred me on to make the final decision and, as I said, the day after I announced that I was retiring, with the aim of getting to three hundred write-ups before I did, just because that felt like a good number to go out on.

I never did get to three hundred – that would have been an incredibly entertaining gig by John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett that, quite frankly, deserved a write-up. However, that busy period meant that, it would be at least three weeks after the even that I could have got the piece written and I simply wasn’t prepared to wait that long. So I called it a day one short of my target.

So why have I retired? That’s a very good question. And I came up with a number of reasons many of which, as I say, have changed in recent weeks. In some cases they now feel like excuses rather than reasons. One – the feeling that I was starting to be expected to go to certain gigs just because of the fact that I wrote them up – actually feels downright spiteful in the cold light of day. Having thought about it at various times over the last few weeks, I think I’ve come up with a reason and that is because the write-ups (or at least my feelings towards them) were becoming less about the music and more about me.

It took me a long time to accept that people – some that I knew, some (presumably) knew me and others who could probably have passed me in the street without knowing who I was – thought my write-ups were good. I rarely did and, if you were able to look back easily enough, you would see that I rarely tagged bands on the early write-ups, only doing so if I thought the piece was good enough. Later I tagged most bands (unless I didn’t actually like them) but was still rarely impressed by my own articles. There were some I was proud of – the last time I saw Hope & Social, for example – but I was constantly trying, and usually failing, to come up with a different format, while still maintaining the detail that most reviewers (<cough> York Press <cough>) fail to come up with. You will also notice that I constantly refer to the pieces as “write-ups” rather than “reviews” – I never thought myself critical enough, or even knowledgeable enough, to be a reviewer, but I could tell you what happened and which bits I enjoyed.

The problem was that, getting down that level of detail – researching set lists, looking up lyrics to work out what songs had been performed, checking artist histories, not to mention the actual writing – takes time and I was spending more time writing articles than I was at gigs. Each piece took, on average, two to three hours, sometimes more. Let’s say I went to thirty gigs in a year (it’s usually more than that) – that’s about four solid days I would spend writing about them, as well as working full time, having other hobbies and a family. I was also spending more time at gigs wondering how I could say something different about a performance/song/quip than a band member made and making notes, than I was actually listening to the music. It sometimes got to the point where I had a backlog of four or five write-ups to try to find time to complete. It also got to the point where I would finish a write-up, publish it and then sit with my laptop out, constantly refreshing my WordPress statistics page until I saw that somebody had read it (or at least visited the page…)

And that’s another thing. In the quote above, my friend suggested that a lot of people valued my contributions. Well, actually, being honest, a lot of people might have valued some of my contributions but, towards the end, most of my write-ups were being read by no more than a handful of people. Imagine spending three hours writing a piece then seeing that only six people had read it (more accurately, visited the page). Imagine spending your time saying nice things about a band with just a few tens of Facebook likes and then that band not even acknowledging you had done so. I know, things like that shouldn’t have bothered me, but they started to do so. And that’s what I mean by it becoming more about me.

This whole thing started out as a bit of a laugh and, I guess, it grew beyond what I expected it to. I was never doing this for fame – when I started out I didn’t even realise you could see how many people had visited your blog – and I certainly wasn’t in it for any any sort of reward. It was always nice to be acknowledged by being invited down to review (their choice of word, not mine) gigs, but I always refused guest list entry from the bands themselves, preferring to support the bands and the venues, even if the few pounds I spent on a ticket wouldn’t make that much of a difference. In the interests of transparency it’s worth pointing out that I did accept a few cheaper ticket prices and the occasional guest list entry from a promoter or two. Since I started writing, the local music scene has changed (and continues to change). Local bands that appreciated the write-ups have become increasingly rare in the venues I frequent, moving more to the pubs and bars (not ideal places to listen to music) if not disappearing altogether, while I seem drawn more towards touring bands that I wasn’t aware of just a few short years ago, along with a few much bigger names that have visited York recently. Of those two categories, the former probably play so many gigs that they have dozens of reviews written about them, while the latter are hardly likely to scour their won Facebook pages to see which amateur has tried to say how good their gig was.

So, I decided it wasn’t worth the effort. Ask yourselves – if you spend hours doing something and very few people were bothered, would you carry on doing it?

Add to that a few situations which I have looked at in a different light and seen that I may just have been in the wrong – having one local musician saying it was insulting for me to say that he had put more effort into one piece of his act than another; being asked, through my daughter, by a fellow audience member to turn off the device I was making notes on because it was distracting them; getting into an argument at a gig because the person next to me talked all the way through the support act (nope, I maintain I’m right about this one…) – and I think it was time to start taking other people’s feelings into account. I could never maintain the level of detail without taking notes. Anybody who writes (and those who don’t) is allowed an opinion even if they, perhaps, express it badly. But if those things and similar are causing upset or distress to others, it’s time to stop.

I’ve said elsewhere that I’m not ruling out a return to writing, maybe on a smaller scale than before, perhaps covering every gig I go to once again, but that won’t be for a while. I still intend to post my end of year reviews at very least Am I missing it? Yes, I think I am, a bit. Am I enjoying gigs more now that I’m not constantly reaching for my phone to jot down a note, a lyric or a thought, now that I’m spending more time listening to the music than I am thinking about it? Yes, definitely.

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Blind Eye–Fibbers, 01/04/16

Tonight reminded me of those halcyon days when I first started attending local gigs, with my then-regular gig-buddies. Evenings where York bands would headline a bill of three or four bands, some of which we might have come across in the past, others that were brand new to us and, inevitably, some that weren’t up to the standard of the rest. But we didn’t care because it had only cost us a few pounds, a bargain, to get in. Even better, given the apparent decline of those sort of evenings in recent years, was the fact that tonight was at Fibbers and that it was well-attended.

I’m kind of a “shadow fan” of Minster Conspiracy, who opened proceedings tonight. By that I mean that I’ve only actually seen them twice before but that I can’t help but be impressed both by the amount of talent for their ages and by their work ethic. They seem to pop up everywhere, having played, amongst others, in Parliament Street and Gibsons, at Haxby Carnival and even opened at Fibbers for the mighty RSJ, and there’s bigger and better coming up, with appearances at the Grand Opera House and York’s Apollo Festival already scheduled for later in the year. Tonight they opened with a rocking instrumental introduction to a song that, throughout, felt achingly familiar and yet which I couldn’t identify. Later we were told that it was Rollercoaster, an original and the fact that it felt like I should have known it goes some way to showing how good it was. Musically, anyway. Unfortunately Ellie’s vocals were mostly swamped, in particular by Morgan’s drums, which were way too loud in the mix (just like those of many other bands). It was only during the chorus, when she really let rip, perhaps losing tone slightly, that we could hear them properly. The rest of the set comprised of covers, most of which I wasn’t familiar with so can’t comment on how their interpretations compare. Catfish and the Bottlemen’s Kathleen was followed by One Republic’s Counting Stars, and Ellie’s quieter acoustic guitar opening, along with my familiarity of the song, meant that the vocals came across much more clearly. As the song finished, Blind Eye’s Harley Daniels rushed on stage to drum up support for the band. Not that the venue was empty, but most people were hanging back and the front of stage was empty. Harley encouraged the crowd to move forward, which many did. I can’t imagine how it must feel on stage when you are performing to people who are not only up close (many acts do that) but many of whom you will know and recognise. Still the band seemed to be growing in confidence and what I, personally, saw as the sound issues were being overcome. The next track was a return to more of a rock style but musically less overpowering and then came the slower, deeper guitar sound of 30 Seconds To Mars’ The Kill before the set finished with the much livelier Don’t Stop, originally by Five Seconds Of Summer. Tonight Minster Conspiracy may have shown their influences to be bands typically favoured by people their own age (my daughter would have loved it) rather than mine, but I’ve also seen them cover Bon Jovi and Guns ‘n’ Roses and the fact that I only (vaguely) knew one song from tonight’s set definitely won’t put me off seeing them again.

Next on stage were The Blinders, a rock trio from Doncaster whose fast and furious opening soon calmed down. Facebook only lists the trio’s names, not what their roles are so I’m guessing that it was Thomas Haywood providing guitar and angry vocals, with Matt Neale at the back on drums and Charlie McGough on bass owning the front of stage while managing to look both casually disinterested and yet still fully engaged. Their next two tracks got increasingly darker, the first musically interesting with sparse vocals while the more-spoken-than-sung vocals of the next gave the impression of a protest song before it morphed into a faster, rockier in-your-face instrumental section before fading back to a slow, dark ending. The fourth track had a Black Sabbath-esque opening and, by now, it was becoming apparent that this set should have come with one of those “Parental Advisory” stickers that (in my opinion) too many CDs come adorned with these days. I’ve nothing against any level of swearing, except that if it’s overused it loses potency, and that’s the impression I was getting from this set. Not that that was going to spoil my enjoyment of the music. The end of this track saw Haywood practically leaping across stage to twiddle with amplifier controls, perhaps searching for that mythical “11”. Up until now there hadn’t been too much to distinguish one song from another but that hadn’t stopped the crowd from bouncing along to an energetic and competent performance. That was to change with what I think was the epic final song of the set, although I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that it was three or four songs segued together. It was a much longer, sustained performance with loads of variation. I hesitate to say that it had a “prog-gy” feel about it as I doubt that’s a label that this band would be happy with but, whether it was one track or four, for me it was a hugely impressive end to the set and didn’t need Haywood’s “sorry for taking so long” apology as the band left the stage.

Liverpool’s Sugarking were up next and, being honest, I wasn’t sure what to make of them. Frontman Kyle Taylor, with his long leather coat and hair that reminded both me and my gig-buddy of the cover of David Bowie’s debut album, seemed to be trying just a bit too hard to show that he was in a band. His vocal tone was clearer than the lyrics he was singing during their short, sharp opener with its big sound, in particular, once again, from Gregg Scott’s drums. Again there was similarity between tracks, with the second track (Runaway?) sounding very like the opener, although with a nice screaming guitar section in the middle. Sol Murphy’s bass rumbled around the venue during the next song, with both him and Taylor moving energetically around the stage during an instrumental section. Brand new song You’re Not Alone had a more subtle opening  and were there smiles of relief on stage as it ended? The opening to 1967 was brash but the song contained the best vocals of the set, with a slight drawling tone to them. There was a nice riff throughout, although it led to a more bass-driven ending. After Close To You came Count The Stars, with its pounding drum opening. Mid-way through Harley Daniels appeared once more on stage to add tambourine and backing vocals, seemingly very at home in the middle of this band. At times, the vocals during Pleasure Of Being Offended reminded me of Oasis, but over a much heavier sound and then the set was brought to a close with a faster track called, I think, Saturday. The overall impression was of a brash, raw sound that wasn’t wholly unpleasant but didn’t really do much for me. Another reviewer describes Sugarking’s sound as “very much bedded in the high-tempo rock style of the 90’s and early 00’s” and it might be the fact that I never really got into that that meant I couldn’t find a way to easily relate to this band.

Blind Eye now class themselves as a Manchester band but they started out in York and this was very much a hometown gig, with an audience of appreciative fans. If Sugarking gave the impression of trying to hard to look like rock stars, the same couldn’t be said for Blind Eye and yet they have a palpable stage presence, despite the three members having very different personas. Marcin Ellingham is quiet, almost reserved and he plays in a much less in-your-face style than a lot of guitarists. Joey Leyland on drums but sporting a t-shirt which declared that he would rather be playing guitar is all smiles as he beats out rhythms that never overpower, as well as providing backing vocals. And Harley is a confident, quintessential frontman who knows how to engage with his audience. “There’s no place like Yorkshire!” All that from a band that was only founded four years ago. With lasers now added to tonight’s light show the band opened with the most subtle, yet still rocky, sound of the night before moving on to a cover of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition which managed to be rocky and funky at the same time, Marcin’s scratchy guitar line leading into an impressive instrumental ending. If previous bands had been energetic Vultures took it to another level, with both Marcin and Harley literally bouncing across the stage. This song included a change of guitar sound midway through and led into a drum solo from Joey. The tight performance and clear vocals of the next track (We Stare At The Sun?) received a great reception from the crowd. Other differences between this band and the others was the amount of variation between tracks and the fact that, while the music was loud, it seemed more controlled and with more discernable tunes. The next track was an older one that Harley explained hadn’t been in the set for years. It slowed things down but was just a bit too brash to be called a ballad. And I, with its much more anthemic sound, felt like a set-ender but there was still more to come. That track that followed was faster and had a more defined “indie” sound. It had the crowd bouncing in front of the stage and Harley bouncing on it. “I want to see you all jump,” cried Harley as he introduced Blood And Diamonds and the crowd obliged for a track that included the best guitar line of the set – no, actually of the night – and a stunning, powerful instrumental ending to the set. I suspect it was this track that made me declare Marcin’s playing as “Santana-like” the first time I saw Blind Eye. That time they were, like Minster Conspiracy, in a tent in Parliament Street. Tonight they were very much worthy headliners.

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Mulholland–The Basement, 25/03/16

They say that things happen in threes. If it’s true Mulholland’s Stan Smith must have been increasing worried as tonight’s gig got closer to starting. After a breaking a guitar string just as he started playing live on local radio that morning and dropping an almost full drink in front of The Basement’s stage area in that lull between doors opening and music starting, what else could go wrong…?

The evening started with Stan and Ann presenting Vinnie Whitehead with a gift, thanking him for the good work he had done co-producing and mixing their debut album, North Country, for which this was the launch gig. It then continued with the premiere of their latest video, accompanying Black Feathers, a song from the album. Things started well, promisingly so, with the video being projected onto a big screen at the back of the stage. It looked impressive, art-y but not pretentiously so, well thought out with the images fitting well with the lyrics. Unfortunately, as it went on, the gremlins that inhabit Bill Gates’ well-known operating system seemed to take over and, after a brief attempt to sort things out, it was decided that it would be easier to move on and we were advised to keep an eye out for the on-line launch in the morning. For anybody interested, you can see the full thing here.

Then it was on to the live music, with Stan taking to the stage to introduce the first of tonight’s hand-picked support acts, The Lungs. I hadn’t come across this duo before but I really hope I do so again. The description of “country/folk” on their Facebook page doesn’t really do them justice. There was a sort of irreverence to their songs that, to me, begs for  a second (and subsequent) listen(s) in order to work out what they are actually about, what stories they are telling. Their opener was musically light, but seemed lyrically darker, with Theo Mason Wood’s vocals deep and raw, just the correct side of over-powering those of Bonnie Milnes. Dengue Fever, we were told, was about being ill, a state that, apparently, Bonnie was in tonight. Not that you could have told. During this once again dark and this time more intense track, her vocals were stronger and she took a bigger proportion of the lyrics. Me And You was anything but dark. Musically faster it had a more traditional country sound but that wasn’t reflected in the lyrics, which drew chuckles from the audience throughout. The pair displayed an easy humour between songs. “This one’s called tuning. It’s not one of our best,” quipped Wood before Barrel, during which a lovely effect on Milnes’ vocals brilliantly counterpointed his deeper tone. This song continued the theme of surreal lyrics that had started to surface in the last one, but that was nothing to what came next. The next three songs, which ended the set, all shared the same title – Julianna Buttermaker – and were parts one to three of a story that spanned over thirty years. It’s songs like these that deserve another listen as I doubt I could explain the story after just one. Part One saw the duo’s country sound morph into a sort of angry-jazz vocal style. Part Two ended with a darkly amusing lyrical bombshell and when Part Three was announced I couldn’t help but wonder how they would follow it and yet they managed, with each subsequent track getting bigger applause and more laughs and, by the end of the third, shouts for more. This had been an interesting, intriguing and entertaining start to the evening.

Next up was The Bronze, a duo I have seen before. During Stan’s introduction he described Holly Taymar’s vocals as “sublime” to which, seemingly embarrassed, she replied, “Don’t build ‘em up, Stan.” I was on my own at the gig tonight but really wished that one of my regular gig-buddies was with me, just so that he could hear that The Bronze really aren’t “depressing”, a description I’ve never agreed with and which seemed even further from the truth than ever tonight. They opened quietly with simple-yet-effective guitar and, yes, some quite lovely vocals which seemed to hold the audience spellbound. Chris Bilton switched from electric to acoustic guitar for Seeking Me Out In The Dark, a song which upped the volume from the opening and for which Bilton also provided some subtle backing vocals. “Do we have any AC/DC fans in the house?” Taymar asked somewhat unexpectedly – only one person owned up to it – before they performed a version of If You Want Blood (You Got It) which was not only acoustic but gentle. I hadn’t made the connection before but the duo took their name from the club frequented by characters in the Buffy The Vampire Slayer TV series (and which also introduced me to the music of Michelle Branch) a fact explained by Taymar as she re-tuned for Hush, inspired by one of that show’s best episodes. Then an inaudible (to me, anyway) comment from Bilton prompted her to explain that wasn’t, in fact, the next song. Instead it would be Gun To The Floor, which was inspired by an episode of Dexter. “You can tell how we fill our evenings,” she explained. The on-stage banter was raising smiles, the song brought forth a nice mid-section guitar-line. To cries of “Awww” Taymar swapped her guitar for a ukulele for Small Love, her solo vocals nearly its sound before the song built into a more complex duet that ended the set in style.

Mulholland themselves are also a duo, but an array of guest musicians helped them make North Country and many of them were also helping out Ann and Stan tonight. At various points throughout tonight’s set, which saw the album played in full, you could hear the sounds of a dobro (Mike Taverner), mandolin (Jack Woods), banjo (Steve Askew), electric guitar (Dan Archer) and cajon (Ed Simpson) as well as a very charismatic performance of a double bass by Kai West and backing vocals of the sublime sort from Holly Taymar. Cold Wind kicked things off in foot-tapping style, with Stan’s lead vocals and Ann and Holly’s backing never overpowered by the music, despite the whole band joining in. Ann’s fiddle also came through strongly, both facts a testament to tonight’s engineer who juggled the sound superbly. Strangely, though, I don’t think anybody (in the crowd at least) noticed that Stan’s guitar was missing from the mix until he asked for more of it in his monitor, only to discover that it wasn’t fully plugged in. Maybe things happen in fours… With the problem resolved the guitar could definitely be heard clearly through So Sorry Blues and, indeed, the remainder of the set. During the light and lively Summertime Stan’s vocals were Dylan-esque and yet, in my opinion, much easier to listen to. My Wasted Heart was followed by Black Feathers, slowing things down a bit. Without any operating system involvement we were treated to the full song this time and a fantastic and just a little bit edgy song it is. Shifting Sands was described by Ann as having the “true country tradition of sounding jolly but being tragic” but I doubt that she she was referring to the half-remembered Jim Reeves track from my childhood that the spoken-word section brought to mind. There is one cover on North Country. It’s a Warren Zeavon song but not “that one” anybody who was expecting Werewolves Of London was told. “It’s a song for our times, we feel,” explained Stan, before they played Don’t Let Us Get Sick, which again brought the tone of the set down a notch or two. Highway 101, the last track on the album and the last played with the band tonight, was backed by such a furious cajon rhythm that it resulted in a cry of “Yes!” from Simpson and a congratulatory hug for him from Ann as the track ended and the band left the stage. That wasn’t the end of the set though as Ann and Stan stayed on to play a duet version of the lively Come On Back, from the original Mulholland EP, Ghosts And Shadows and a version of Bob Dylan’s Tomorrow Is A Long Time.

Three duets (and a backing band) providing some lovely, entertaining music in similar and yet still diverse styles and a copy of North Country included in the ticket price. This really had been a Good Friday.

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Von Hertzen Brothers–The Duchess, 22/03/16

Back in 2013, at the end of their double-headline gig with Touchstone, Mikko Von Hertzen told the crowd at The Duchess that they would be coming back. At the time, after what ended up being one of my favourite gigs of that year, I was happy to hear it but had an inkling it wouldn’t happen – very few international bands have returned to York in the time I been going to gigs here. True to his word, though, the brothers did return and, when I saw the gig listed earlier in the year, I knew I would be there.

Last time it wasn’t clear to me whether the reasonably big crowd had come to see Touchstone or VHB. Personally, I was there for the former and hadn’t even heard of the latter until that night. Tonight, though, with an equivalent crowd it was obvious that VHB have a fair few fans in the area, including me, a relatively new fan. Other prog tour t-shirts abounded – Steve Wilson, Dream Theater, Genesis and one HRH Prog 4, at which VHB played – along with more the more general rock of Europe, The Grateful Dead and Biffy Clyro, but I couldn’t spot any familiar faces from other similar local gigs, unless that was the same Mohican’d guy that had been at Fibbers to see Reef a few days earlier.

I didn’t think I had heard of Messenger, tonight’s support act, before but a quick Google revealed that I must have seen their name in Prog magazine as they had won that publication’s “Limelight” award back in 2014. Promising. They opened with Midnight, the dual vocals and twangy guitar sound at the start giving the track a vaguely Middle-Eastern sound. After a minute or so, though, it changed gear into something much more powerful. Another change of pace followed, then another and now the track was much faster and rockier. There was a brief pause and then yet another change upwards. You don’t see many people change guitars mid-way through a track, but both Khaled Lowe and Barnaby Mallick did during this exceptional and impressive opening. With Dan Knight changing from third guitar to keyboards for the next track, which was quieter and had a more sustained pace. Lowe’s vocals seemed to suffer quite a bit during the louder chorus, a fact attributed later, along with an apology if he had been singing out of tune, to the fact that his monitor wasn’t working. Sound man to the rescue and the issue was soon repaired. Away from the problems, this shorter track featured a nicely subtle guitar line which suddenly exploded into life. Between tracks members of the band seemed to jam out atmospheric, sometimes psychedelic, interludes, filling the whole set with music. Messenger are about to release their second album and during Balearic Blue, a track from it, it wasn’t clear to me whether the feedback, which seemed to be too regular to be accidental was a deliberate part of the track, which had a more subtle sound and didn’t reach the heights of power attained previously in the set. Back to the debut album and The Perpetual Glow Of A Setting Sun opening in a jangly, reverberating fashion. Drummer Jaime Gomez Arellano signalled an upwards change in volume and pace before the track slowed down again and a nice guitar line forced its way through to the end. “Would anybody like to hear another new song?” asked Lowe. Of course we did. Celestial Spheres opened with a light keyboard sound before, you guessed it, bursting with power again, with those keyboards more prominent throughout. For me it was the best track of the set, lively both musically and in its performance. Knight was back on guitar for Dear Departure, which had the gentlest opening so far and turned out to be a slow builder, containing another psychedelic section, Lowe making use of an e-bow in places. A short, almost screamed vocal section led into the by now inevitable more powerful, louder section, shorter this time with the track – and the set – fading away to nothing almost immediately afterwards. Entertaining and varied, this set propelled Messenger onto my watch list.

Glancing across at the merchandise table, where Lowe was chatting to fans between sets, I noticed an unusual piece of tour merchandise. I’ve never seen a band selling elasticated ankle boots before. I wonder how many they have sold? At the table fans seemed to be spending freely, presumably making VHB’s return to York worthwhile.

As Von Hertzen Brothers took to the stage, greeted by loud cheers and applause, leading into a clap-along to the introduction to New Day Rising, I found my line of sight blocked by a person who had decided to film the gig on his phone. I soon forgot about him, though, when a much taller man, moved from the outskirts of the crowd to the centre, standing directly in front of me, with his spinal cord practically touching the end of my nose. Oh the joys of being short… Mikko Kaakkuriniemi’s rat-a-tat drum rhythm heralded You Don’t Know My Name. Kie Von Hertzen wandered around the stage with his guitar before returning to the mic to provide tongue-twisting backing vocals. At the end of the track frontman Mikko (it’s hard enough referring to band members when three of them have the same surname, but when two also share the same first name…) acknowledged how many people had turned out on a Tuesday night, telling us that they (the band) were very pleased. Flowers And Rust – one of my favourite tracks – opened with an almost toy-keyboard sound before bursting into life. Mikko then encouraged an audience sing-along of “Yeah-o” during Sunday Child, which opened nicely with piano and vocals. It’s the tenth anniversary of the band’s second album – Approach – and Mikko explained that Endlessly, from it, contained at least three guitar solos, “So it must be good…” Again it had a gentle opening, leading into a vocal section full of expression from Mikko. Kie changed to bottle-neck style during the first instrumental section before the track became livelier with Mikko and third brother and bassist Jonne eating up the stage space.

This gig took place on the day of the Brussels bombing and Mikko’s speech asking for love, peace, understanding and acceptance was greeted by more applause. He then went on to explain that the next track, didn’t fit that theme. Trouble – about, he explained, an inner struggle – was kicked off with crashing drums and was performed in an incredibly powerful and energetic style. Always Been Right brought a change of scenery (Mikko struggled for the word, eventually getting a translation, or at least suggested replacement, from his Finnish phrase from the audience). It was fast and almost chaotic and briefly saw Mikko leave the stage to join the crowd in clapping the rest of the band. In a band of beards, drummer Kaakkuriniemi’s twin-pronged effort was easily the best. His pounding rhythm signalled the beginning of the next track, which came from Stars Aligned, but I wasn’t able to identify it. Voices In Our Heads had been missing from the live set for two years. “You can leave now if you want,” joked Mikko, already drenched in sweat, before a false start brought laughter from the crowd and band. Once it got going it was a nicely varied track with incredible vocals and brought nods of satisfaction from the band at its close. “Cool stuff, eh?” quipped Mikko, “Should we play that more often?”

As usual Kie took over lead vocals for Coming Home, giving it a deeper sound above the fast-paced drums. The set so far had been energetic but it was during this track that the extraordinary energy I remarked about on first seeing this band was back in evidence. All too soon it was time for the final song of the set. A more pronounced keyboard sound gave The Willing Victim the most traditional prog-rock sound of the set, at places reminiscent of the likes of Genesis behind the harder guitar sound. The track’s quiet mid-section exploded into an extravagant and brilliant instrumental which brought the set to a superb end.

After a brief break in the green room Mikko returned to stage, briefly taking a turn at the drum kit before fielding requests from the audience. “River!” came one shout. “No. Have another guess,” before a fast and furious guitar line that might have been Freedom Fighter (I’m not sure). Then came Prospect For Escape, whose piano and cymbal opening lured the crowd in before the track started properly with a metallic guitar riff which, in turn, made way for the vocals before returning, slowly building to an apex and then coming down again, resulting in a song that came at the audience in waves and ends beautifully. There was no promise of a return at the end of this set, but we can hope.

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Reef–Fibbers, 18/03/16

Photos provided by and © Marc McGarraghy, whose work can be found on Facebook or the Yellow Mustang website. Thanks, as always, go to him for allowing me to use them.

Desert Mountain Tribe kicked off their set with a distorted guitar sound from Jonty Balls, a heavy bass line from Philip Jaun and, finally, an almost languid drum line from Felix Jaun, all of which added up to and atmospheric droning and a very big sound for a trio. With Jonty’s vocals echoing around the venue (lots of echo, as evidenced by the fact that the effect was left on between songs, making the few times he spoke to the audience slightly off-putting) I was reminded of something that I couldn’t put my finger on until later in the set. With no introductions that I heard (and the set list on one website, for the previous night on the same tour, not only containing less songs than they played tonight but, apparently, a different order to my notes) I can only guess at some titles. With Felix hitting the skins a lot faster, Take A Ride saw the guitar and bass combine into a wall of sound from which neither was distinguishable. From the lyric “We all Die”, I suspect it was Heaven And Hell, during which the band were almost obscured by smoke, that brought to mind The Doors, although it might have just been a close comparison – something about the vocal style – rather than an influence. It was a short song but, even so, managed to fit in a false ending. An already impressive set continued to get better in its second half, which opened with another easy-going drum line behind powerful guitar. Way Down had a simpler, quieter start. With repetitive lyrics throughout it slowly built in volume, pace and power into a superb live track. The final track of the set had an even quieter start, almost atmospheric. Then Felix hit the drums harder than he had done previously to signal the start of a louder section which faded back to another quiet section of just guitar and vocals before this brilliant track built the set to an epic climax. It’s still early in 2016 but Desert Mountain Tribe may well have just taken my “favourite support act of the year” slot.

“You know this is going to sell out” proclaimed Fibbers’ website. Well, I managed to pay on the door and, during the support slot (which, admittedly, did start earlier than normal) the crowd seemed to be of fairly average size. During the gap between bands, however, a lot of people moved forward of my usual spot. Even so, it wasn’t until the end of the gig, as I joined the slow moving tide towards the exit, that I realised that the venue was fuller than, I think, I had ever seen it. Gone was the usual free space right at the back. It was a mixed crowd of young and older – with hairstyles running the gamut from Mohicans to dreadlocks almost long enough to sit on –  and one that, throughout the night needed little encouragement to participate. More often than not there was a sea of raised arms in front of me and each of the headliner’s song was greeted with louder and louder cheers.

The lights being dimmed roused an initial, small cheer of anticipation, but there was still a few minutes to go before one of the roadies, flashing a torch as he walked across the stage like a moving lighthouse, signalled that Reef were ready and they came on to bigger cheers, Gary Stringer immediately moving to the very front of the stage, clasping the hand of one person in the front row and flashing a thumbs up to the rest of the crowd. Stringer had been interviewed in the local press before tonight’s gig and, referring to playing different sized venues, was quoted as saying, “…you can get just as much of a buzz playing at a place with people in your face just the other side of the barrier,” something evidenced by the fact DSC_7706that, after prowling and dancing around the stage during the opening track, he returned to the front of stage, and crouched down to be at the same level as the crowd, literally singing in their faces. “It’s nice to be in York,” he proclaimed as that opening track ended, before deciding, in what was to be a recurring theme of the night, to use the fixtures and fittings as part of his act and reaching up to swing from the metal beam above the stage that so many other artistes have taken such pains to avoid hitting. “Come on York, make some noise,” he shouted during Higher Vibration, and the crowd duly obliged. That beam came into play again soon afterwards, becoming an impromptu mic stand during the next track, while Come Back Brighter saw the crowd engaged in their first spontaneous sing-along.

Dominic Greensmith provided a rat-a-tat drum opening for Stone For Your Love, during which bassist Jack Bessant moved about his section of stage, his long hair and beard making him look for all the world like a wild mountain man who had wandered into the wrong band but who somehow still manages to fit in. The cheers at the end of each track were almost deafening by now and it seemed an appropriate time to slow things down a bit with a new track and its nice guitar line from new boy Jesse Wood. The quieter section continued with I’ve Got Something To Say, with Stringer, standing still for  a change, opening the track on acoustic guitar prior to the rest of the band coming in. Consideration saw another mass sing-along as Stringer encouraged the crowd to join in with “It’s gonna DSC_7815be all right” to see the track to its close. Spotting another fixture that he could use, Stringer, with microphone lead around his shoulders, eschewed all thoughts of health and safety when, during I Would Have Left You he clambered off stage and onto the little drinks stand just to its left, standing on it as though crucified before throwing the microphone back on stage. In a set of gravelly vocals and powerful rock music, Lucky Number somehow seemed even more raucous, its ending greeted by chants of “Reef! Reef! Reef!…” from the crowd.

The opening notes of the next track brought forth huge cheers, a lot of bouncing in the audience and another spontaneous sing-along. It was, of course, Place Your Hands (still the only Reef track I recognise after being “educated” a few years back when, after seeing Stringer Bessant live, I admitted that I knew nothing about Reef). After the band’s biggest song their keyboard player, whose name I didn’t catch, despite Stringer giving him an accolade earlier in the set, switched to banjo for My Sweet Love, another new track, during which Stringer unselfconsciously discarded his sweaty t-shirt. Don’t You Like It sawDSC_7854 Bessant getting more animated than usual during its drum then guitar opening. So far I haven’t mentioned the incredible lighting. Reef are, I think, the first band I have seen at Fibbers who have brought their own full lighting set. At times, as it threw blue, green, yellow, white or purple beams across the stage, it seemed almost too big for the venue, yet still managed to produce an stunning effect.

As the band recovered in the green room after the final song of the set, there were as many chants of “Reef! Reef!…” as there were shouts for “More!” and, once again, a deafening cheer as they returned to the stage for a three song encore that ended with Jerome and started with two tracks I, unfortunately, can’t identify. There were shades of the sound of AC/DC to the vocals of the first and the second saw a roadie have to come one to replace the battery pack of Stringer’s monitors. Presumably they were as exhausted as he must have been after his energetic performance. Those monitors were discarded completely during Jerome, DSC_7902-1during which Stringer conducted an almost obligatory clap-along before returning to that beam for a full-on swing session which could easily have seen him crash into the drum-kit or the audience. Thankfully neither happened. Once again he spun the microphone around the beam and managed to drop it while doing so, which saw him flash a guilty look off stage. Wood used the dangling mic to name-check the band members before a final hit from Stringer as he left the stage saw it spin over the beam, leaving a challenge for whichever roadie was to retrieve it. A brilliant night from a resurgent band.

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Frøkedal–The Basement, 26/02/16

Although tonight’s headliner continued the Scandinavian theme of the last gig I attended, it couldn’t have been more different from the loud heavy metal of that night. Local promoter Please Please You had put together a female-heavy bill at The Basement and the only comparison could have been that this much smaller venue was, relatively, as crowded as Fibbers was when Týr came to town.

Opening proceedings was the young North Yorkshire singer/songwriter Amy May Ellis, who I hadn’t come across before. It is, perhaps, testament to the fact that I am drawn more to female vocals that I didn’t immediately think, “Oh no, not another acoustic guitar act.” Or maybe it was the fact that Amy May’s guitar was a four-string (tenor?) guitar, which gave her playing a different sound to the usual. Kicking things off with Sailing, my initial impression was that her lovely vocals reminded me of somebody but I haven’t been able to work out who. The next song – Fading? – saw Amy May take up a strumming style, as opposed to the finger-picking of the previous and featured a strong mid-section both musically and vocally and a far-away look in her eyes as she brought it to a close. That look turned melancholy for the next, sadder sounding song while the vocals for the next – with its chorus including the lyric “Dreams are made for us” – came across as more plaintive. “This is my last happy song and it’s called Happy Song,” announced Amy May. It was faster than the last few, with her vocals quaintly almost falling over themselves in places and it may have been that complexity that meant it was very short. “It’s downhill from here,” she quipped as she moved on. That far-away look was back and, at times I found myself having to look away when it wasn’t clear whether Amy May was looking straight at me or straight through me. This track was much longer and featured the strongest vocals of the set, along with powerful lyrics. After a quick drink and a re-tune of the guitar, we got the final track of the set, an un-named new song which was wistful in places. A nice, pleasant start to the evening.

Next on stage were Sur (there’s an extended “rr” sound at the end) and I initially spent as much time trying to find out more about them as I did listening to their wonderful music. This all-girl trio, all dressed in black provided us with a too-short set during which they swapped vocal and instrumental duties and even languages. I have since read that they are “from” York University and, with their mix of accents and their names being Gaia Blandina, Uma Bunnag and Holly Gurney, there is a good chance they met there. They opened with the soft and gentle Mockingbird, Holly and Uma providing lovely dual vocals, with cellist Gaia, playing her third gig of the day, adding a third harmony later in the track. The first instrument change came with just their second track, as Holly took over guitar and Uma moved to main vocals for a lighter song with a bit of an old-fashioned feel to it, to which Gaia added a whistling section. More lovely three part vocals followed before a restful cover of Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat. With Holly now wielding a violin, the next track saw Uma once again playing guitar and providing vocals in what I think was Spanish. There was a more sombre instrumental section from the cello and violin before the track became lively again, with Holly picking at the violin strings. There was more instrument movement as Gaia laid down her cello and took up guitar for a the next track, which featured some stunning vocals “in the round”. Instruments were discarded completely for the a capella start to the girls’ penultimate track, while the final track of their set featured both plucked and bow-played cello. Completely different to anything I have heard or come across before Sur provided the audience with a blissful, restful, laidback set of relaxing, wind-down music. As they prepared to leave the stage one of the girls said, “Thanks for putting up with us.” In fact, it was the audience that was thanking them, for something that was rather lovely.

Frøkedal is Anne Lise Frøkedal, who has been part of Norway’s indie-rock scene for years. Tonight, she is joined by her Familien (Norwegian for family) for a gig that, coincidentally, falls on the release date of her first solo album – Hold On Dreamer. She had copies for sale but, unfortunately, only on vinyl as no CD versions had made it here. There’s a short and atmospheric start to the set with Don’t Look Back, Frøkedal playing electric guitar and providing vocals, accompanied by keyboards, violin and a rhythm section comprised of just two drums. The dreamy The Man Who Isn’t Here follows, Thea Glenton Raknes’ single drum providing a sparse atmospheric backdrop to the track. If the openers were atmospheric, the next – simply introduced as “about surfing” – is lighter and yet almost rocky, with soaring vocals in places. Misery was introduced as being about the West coast of Norway which, Frøkedal assured us (perhaps to the dismay of the Norwegian tourist board), can be, “a really gloomy place at times”. The song itself was more haunting than gloomy. After a short interlude in which it was implied that, if anybody in the audience ever visited Norway they would find it easier to drive there than the band did driving in York, the next track was opened in solo style, with Frøkedal providing vocals and sparse guitar, but slowly built to include violin and keyboard.

W.O.Y. (Without You) started with a sort of traditional folk sound, primarily because of the violin, but with an “electric’d up” feel to it. Again it built to a bigger sound for its main section. I didn’t note much down about Cherry Trees, apart from it was inspired by one of Oslo’s “scruffier” streets, but one which is lined with said trees which, once a year, burst into colour. In some ways that description is indicative of the sort of inspiration and music flowing from this set (and that is in no way meant to imply that any of the set was scruffy…) As the Familien on violin swapped that instrument for what looked like a covered-over wooden soup ladle, one of the members of Sur took advantage of the fact that we had been invited to shout out questions (she had already asked where Hold On Dreamer could be bought) to ask what the instrument was. The player explained that it was a miniature bouzouki from Greece. By now I was getting lost in the music and making fewer notes so details are sparse. Suffice to say that the tracks continued to be welcoming and evocative, a mix of laid-back pop and folk, with tracks coming from the album and an earlier E.P.

By the time my fingers had found the keyboard of my phone again the set was drawing to a close. My gig-buddy pointed out that the keyboard opening of Dream gave it a “prog-gy” sound. That opening led into a pleasantly strident (I can think of no other word to describe it, but that one feels so inadequate) track both vocally and from the violin. As it continued it lost that strident sound and built strongly into another wonderfully atmospheric track. “Do you want us to play one more?” asked Frøkedal, somewhat unnecessarily. Of course we did and we were treated to the lighter and livelier Kid as a combined set-ender and encore. I would have loved to stick around afterwards to try to catch a word and say how much I had enjoyed the set but the later-than-normal end to the evening meant I was in danger of missing my transport home so I my exit was hastier than I intended.

I haven’t been to many Please Please You gigs but I have enjoyed those I have attended. Tonight’s not only featured, in my opinion, the best headliner put on by the promoter that I have come across but the overall line-up made it by far my favourite of their gigs.

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