I usually try to make my gig reviews about the music, the performance, the atmosphere of being there. For this one, however, I’m afraid that I’m not only going to talk about the elephant in the room, but the room itself.
This was one of the gigs moved from Fibbers to Tokyo (the club, not the city) while the former venue was closed due to an at-the-time fairly undisclosed reason. Since the night of the gig, it has been announced that this is to be a permanent move – Tokyo will be renamed Fibbers and will be closed for a short while to allow a refit. “You’ll like this room,” promoter Tim Hornsby told me as I good-naturedly complained about the longer walk to the venue. He was right. There may have been a couple of “issues” – the stage was so narrow and, thanks to a mirror at the back, deceptively long that somebody commented to me that it was “like a runway” and the small bar was, sadly, bereft of anything resembling proper beer and seemed to be unable to hold enough stock of expensive bottled lager without the staff making near constant trips through the audience to a stockroom – but at least one of these should, hopefully, be put right during the refit when a new stage is constructed. These aside, though, the venue was better than the old Fibbers, less “grungy”, with excellent views of the stage, either from the sunken area just in front (a true mosh “pit”) or the raised areas all around, which included seating. The sound, ably managed by Craig Rothery, was excellent and the lighting, perhaps due to the more reflective surfaces around the room, seemed more vibrant. There was also a much larger area for the merchandise table. After some initial doubts when Fibbers was refurbished a few years back, I had grown to like it a lot as a venue. I suspect I’m going to grow to love it in its new home.
So, that’s the room, what about the elephant it contained? Well, being honest, if there had been a real elephant, as opposed to the metaphorical pachyderm, it would have been less distracting. Although Plumhall enjoyed a relatively small and appreciative audience for their support set, by the time Cloud Atlas took to the stage the crowd had swelled and I had noted that many seemed to be too young and, dare I say it, too well dressed to be prog rock fans. Don’t get me wrong, although there is usually a general stereotype to these audiences, there are always exceptions. It’s just that, tonight, there seemed to be a lot of them and I don’t know whether that was a factor in the number of people who seemed to be using the music as background noise to their night out. I had taken up position at the end of the bar, an area that is, normally, quite noisy. Strangely, tonight, it seemed to be one of the quietest and, apart from one loud woman standing in front of the sound desk, there wasn’t too much distraction for me. In other areas, however, I could see people getting more and more annoyed with the talkers. Those at the very front seemed to get the worst of it and could frequently be seen glaring at and trying to get those behind them to stop talking over the music. Normally the talkers stay at the back of a venue. Tonight they seemed to migrate to the front, causing maximum disruption. I have seen one normally eloquent reviewer stating that he could review this gig due to the audience noise (I haven’t checked whether he decided to in the end) and it was fairly obvious that at least one member of Cloud Atlas had found it annoying. Maybe it’s time for more bands to do what I’ve seen the likes of Hope&Social do and ask the audience to shut up or get out. If bands can ask audiences not to spend the entire gig taking photos and videos, surely they can ask them to give the music a chance. Personally, I don’t understand why people pay money to get into a gig only to talk loudly during the music.
But what of the music itself?
Nick Hall of Plumhall started by saying what a weird evening it was, primarily because he used to come into this room drunk, extending a night out with clubbing. He and Michelle Plum provided us with a nine-song set of powerful dual guitars and vocal harmonies, sharing lead vocals depending on who wrote the song being played and, unlike the last time I saw them, without the keyboards of Charlie Daykin (who was down in Cornwall with another of his bands). Just like that last time, however, there was an obvious on-stage chemistry between the pair, both in their playing and the bits between songs. Stories about how and when songs were written, the inspiration behind them, teaching and how Michelle doesn’t like doing solo vocals were both informative and, at times, humorous while the songs themselves ranged from the “big rocker” of slavery-inspired Never Forget My Name through the “stadium folk” of the anti-BNP How Deep Is The Valley?, right through to the brilliant ghost story of Uniondale, described by Nick as the “weirdest thing on the album”. Perhaps the weirdest thing about it was that it somehow reminded me of Led Zeppelin’s Battle Of Evermore. The title track of that album, the slightly Country-sounding Thundercloud, was inspired by an article about Joe Strummer and was followed by Bankrobber, a song written by him. It might be true that Michelle doesn’t like performing solo vocals, but my favourite song of the set, the lovely Trophy, was led by her. An excellent opening set.
Apart from a short teaser of the album, tonight was my first exposure to the music of Cloud Atlas (although, subsequently, I seem to remember that Searchlight was previewed as a new Stolen Earth track). A general dislike of pre-ordering debut albums without hearing some music beforehand, as well as now-resolved personal circumstances, meant that I didn’t buy Beyond The Vale until after tonight’s gig. So, the vast majority of their set was new to me and, with few songs introduced, it was difficult at the time to work out whether I was hearing short songs segued into each other or longer numbers. What was obvious though, was both the Eastern influences in the music and how powerful the whole performance was. Heidi Widdop’s vocals could send a shiver down you spine or raise the hairs on the back of your neck while the music, Martin Ledger’s guitar in particular, held more than a hint of Pink Floyd. As mentioned, Mr Rothery did a great job on the sound bringing each instrument out in the mix. Stu Carver’s bass, for example, was prominent throughout, but never over-powering.
Coming onto a dark, smoke-filled stage, the band started with Searchlight, its thrumming opening building through Heidi’s recorder, wailing vocals, percussion and keyboards to Martin’s guitar. It was a very rocky opener, with an impressive extended instrumental section, which eventually slowed down and faded out to the water and whale song effects of the equally maritime inspired, slower and shorter Siren Song. The crashing introduction of Let The Blood Flow turned the sound slightly heavier but no less atmospheric, Neil Scott’s slow pounding drums behind Dave Randall’s keyboards leading into an Floyd-inspired section from the ebow-wielding Martin. As the band were playing the album through in full, this must had segued into The Grieving with the piano work bringing forth shouts of, “C’mon Dave!” from the audience. The recorder and soft rock guitar opening to Stars gave it a slight medieval sound (something reinforced by subsequent listens to the album – the song could easily be described as folk-prog). Before Journey’s End, Heidi explained the sad circumstances behind some of the writing, reminding us that the night was raising money for charity and dedicating the final song I’ll Take Care Of You to a member of the audience. It was at this point that the talkers out-did themselves, nearly drowning out the gentle opening to Journey’s End, members of the front row frantically trying to point out to them that they were spoiling the effect and the haunting atmosphere. The set ended with a self-proclaimed “jam session” which seemed to me to get a bit chaotic at times, especially Martin’s guitar part. Throughout, though, the whole band seemed to be having a blast and, on the basis of this performance, York has nurtured and released another powerhouse of atmospheric prog-rock.