It’s a busy night at The Duchess – a large queue had formed before the doors were opened and, by the time I get in, the staff on both bars were being kept busy.
There are some bands I just don’t “get”. Vinnie And The Stars, who were one of the support acts the last time Blackbeard’s Tea Party played York, are one of them. There’s no disputing the dynamism of frontman Vinnie Whitehead but, while the performance and music are entertaining, they’ve yet to tempt me to put my hand in my pocket for an album. The first song tonight seemed to feature a nice piano line, but it was frequently drowned out by Vinnie’s vocals and guitar. Few songs were introduced, at least during the first half of the set. What followed – which might have been, but apparently wasn’t, called I’ve Got Problems – was catchier, the vocals a sort of rap/reggae cross. (Is that “Hip-hop”? I don’t know.) The rap feel was further enhanced by Vinnie briefly wandering around the stage, microphone in hand, a couple of times during the next song. The set took an upturn with Nonsense. Louder and a bit rockier, it was the best song so far. At least one audience member was giving it large at the front. (I’ve seen him at gigs before and he does like a good dance. Strangely, Spaceship Blues, with its lighter keyboards and vocals that came across as more sung than spoken, was followed by Vinnie asking, “Who likes a bit of Blues music?” Paid Slave Blues definitely had more of a feel of the genre than the previous song and, during it, each instrument was allowed a short time in their own spotlight. It was the most complex song and the band maintained the tightness of their playing. Another piece of genre-hopping came with Roulette Gun, a punk song that featured a very fast drum line and thrashed guitar. Vinnie’s propensity for asking how the audience were between each song was getting a little annoying. I have nothing against between song chat or banter, but it needs to be varied. Unfortunately, his story about how I’m Not From America, I’m From Hull preceded a downturn in the set. The song, a riposte against a factually incorrect reviewer (I’m still awaiting mine), saw a return to the rap/hip-hop style and it got a bit too repetitive for my liking. A microphone mishap which saw Vinnie having to move away from the centre of the stage to be able to carry on singing didn’t help. The set ended, in much the same style, with 4 Or 5 Canner and once again, despite being entertained, I felt no urge to visit the merchandise table.
By now, The Duchess was packed. Another thing I don’t “get” is why Blackbeard’s Tea Party draw such a big crowd. I mean, I know I enjoy their modern take on folk music (this is the second time I’ve seen them this year) but, in my experience, they pull in bigger crowds than any other local band, despite playing what could be seen as a slightly more fringe genre of music than most. Even with the more than reasonable ticket price, it’s not that long ago that you could have seen at least part of the line-up performing for free as they busked the streets of York. In fact, you could have done so today, as they took the opportunity to return to the streets before this, the final date of their first headline tour, a tour that had seen bass player Tim Yates lacerate his hand, vocalist Stuart Giddens lose his voice and cajonist Yom Hardy’s car breaking down on the way back from the previous gig in Leicester (a venue which got a “boo” from the crowd), which in turn led to guitarist Martin Coumbe busking on the roadside.
Coming on stage to a huge cheer after a build-up of flashing lights and siren, the band opened with Valiant Turpin before Stuart picked up his melodeon for an instrumental number – one of the band’s energetic jigs or reels. I Can Hew featured a decidedly un-folk guitar solo from Martin and by now, it was obvious that, however long ago it was that Stuart lost his voice, it was now back in fine fettle. “I’m horny!” he shouted as an introduction to Landlady, one of their saucier songs that saw Martin chasing fiddler Laura Barber around the stage and the audience swaying along during the song’s quieter sections. Another jig followed and, while the music would have been entertaining on its own, little “extras” in the performance – such as the frontline alternately bobbing up and down and Laura and Stuart jumping through ninety degrees as they play – added to the feeling that this is a band who thoroughly enjoy what they do. Stuart decided to hold an audience poll about the next song, Clear The Track, to settle a band argument as to whether it is about railways or ships. The vote in inconclusive, despite the lyrics making it obvious. The song itself sees a solo start from Laura, with the rest of the band pumping their fists before coming in.
Despite touring the band have also been working on new material and we next got a darker, story-telling song about the hangman Jack Ketch who was, basically, better with the noose than he was with an axe. We stayed with the executioner theme for The Hangman’s Reel an instrumental track which was not only a bit of light relief after the last song, but also educated me in the fact that fiddlesticks isn’t just an expression of disbelief but that they are an actual musical instrument, in this case wielded by Laura’s future husband, Djembe player Dave Boston. Mr. Slippyfist saw Stuart joking that they had been picked to provide the theme tune to the upcoming 50 Shades Of Grey movie and was followed by the playful and saucy Tomorrow We’ll Be Sober, it’s breath-sapping pace handled superbly by Stuart. Another instrumental was used to slow things down a bit before Dave ventured to the front of the stage again, to join the frontline bouncing across it. Before the final song each member was introduced in turn, Dave playing a fast solo on the djembe as everyone else came in. Just as I thought Stuart was beginning to look tired, he seemed to find a new burst of energy, leaping around the stage and cajoling the audience to join in, which they dutifully did, making the shout-along to Whip Jamboree, the title track of the band’s latest album, the loudest interaction of the night. With the audience baying for more, the band returned for an encore of Chicken On A Raft, complete with actions for us to perform during the chorus before Laura was left to play the final section of the set.
I had been accompanied tonight by a very occasional gig-buddy, who declared this to be my best recommendation so far, enthusing not just about the music but also about the energy in the performance, value for money (given that very reasonable ticket price) and the fact that the band clearly had as much fun on stage as the audience had in front of it. I couldn’t have put it better myself. And that’s probably why Blackbeard’s Tea Party draw such a crowd.