Reasonably hot on the heels of his EP launch at The Basement, Toby Burras brought his Unfinished Drawings “roadshow” of musician friends (some of them possibly also his mentees) to the bigger venue of The Duchess. The crowd this time was bigger, younger and at times – sometimes at the wrong times – noisier.
The first two acts were just sixteen years old. Both Phoebe Marshall and Caitlin Steel looked nervous as they started their sets of mostly covers, but both grew in confidence and vocal strength as they went along. Phoebe, with her acoustic versions of songs from the likes of Kings of Leon, Lana Del Ray, and Jake Bugg seemed to get the best crowd in terms of attentiveness and acknowledgment. For me, her own as yet untitled song, with its haunting guitar and soaring impassioned vocals was a highlight, as was her version of Elliot Smith’s Between The Bars which was helped by her best vocal performance and a sweetness that never felt out of place.
Caitlin’s vocals were deeper and mellower. She appeared slightly more confident but I couldn’t help but think that the noise of the crowd, many of whom seemed to have already lost interest in the music and were chatting above it, was annoying her slightly. She seemed to be mostly looking above the crowd rather than trying to make any sort of eye contact, although she did break into a huge grin at times, perhaps when spotting a familiar face. Switching between finger picking and strumming styles (deftly putting down and retrieving a plectrum from the top of the guitar body) and adding small amounts of percussion, she gave us another nice mixture of covers from Alt-J, KT Tunstall (I think), Artic Monkeys and Johnny Cash. The liveliness of the latter’s Folsom Prison Blues drew her set to a close and, finally, seemed to counter the crowd noise.
There’s no way that Cat Maud could have been described as nervous. “Perky” or “Ebullient” would both be closer to the mark but even then I’m not sure either does her justice. Full of stage presence it was almost a shock when her bouncy intro (during which she rightly commended the previous two girls) was replaced by the subtle vocals of her version of Foster The People’s Pumped Up Kicks. Away from the music, two things made this performance stand out – an incredibly expressive face, which varied between cheeky, challenging, proud, surprised and many more and the fact that Cat had written her set list on her leg and was proud of the fact even if, between songs, she sometimes seemed to be trying to emulate Bruce Forsyth’s trademark stance. I couldn’t help but smile during her performance. Again it was mainly covers – a version of Christina Perri’s Human that she had, apparently, only learned the day before, Gabrielle Aplin’s Home and Daughter’s Landfill among them – but Cat did drop in a couple of her own songs. I didn’t catch the title of the first but the second, F*ck This, F*ck That, F*ck You, came with an apology to her Dad. In places a list song that brought to mind Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start The Fire, it was performed in a humorous way, its lyrics and Cat’s Yorkshire accent, seeming to delight the audience.
I had been looking forward to catch Stu Freestone’s spoken word act since the first time I saw him (at the previous Unfinished Drawings gig). Tonight was a preview of his Edinburgh Fringe-bound Spitting Feathers show and he kicked off his set with Futures a partly political poem littered with such diverse cultural references as Ian Curtis and Transformers films. As I said last time, I’m not a huge poetry fan (and nowhere near an aficionado) but Hip Hop Handshakes, described by Stu as his breakthrough poem, is my favourite of the ones I have heard from him. Stu’s rapid-fire delivery of images from childhoods past resonates with me, even though there is probably more than a handful of years between our ages. The short and sharp Media Circus, a rant against the Daily Mail, Express and celebrities was short, sharp and even more political than the opening poem but I prefer the imagery of HHH and the set-ender. Astronaut, appropriately enough about dreaming of being one, is another nostalgia-filled treat, not just in its subject matter but in a slew of genre-related references from X-Files, Dr Who and many others. This was a valiant effort, with Stu fighting against a mainly apathetic audience but still maintaining his faultless, engaging and enthusiastic delivery and taking time to pick out audience members who he thought particular lines might mean something to. If anything, tonight’s performance proved that, like good music, good, well-delivered poetry can be appreciated when heard multiple times. Thinking about why this particular poet has struck a chord with me I suspect it is because Stu’s output, while clever in it’s own way, is simple in so many others. There’s nothing particularly avant garde about his poems, they are both contemporary and relevant and, while I’m not sure I would have “got” them if I had seen them written down, Stu’s faultless delivery as as entertaining as the words themselves.
Gobbledigook, up next, started off with Bradley Blackwell on double bass, Phil on guitar and Dave on vocals.* They opened with Surprise Me, with Phil’s choppy guitar work mixing with the double bass to suggest a genre mash-up of acoustic indie folk-pop. Whatever it was, it was definitely catchy. Pigeon, about an unnamed audience member saw Dave take over the guitar while Phil provided percussion with some sort of hand drum and a spoken word opening to what turned out to be a tight, multi-layered song. Bradley took a break for Worries, with Dave explaining this was a quiet song and joking about the crowd noise. Sadly, even that didn’t quieten them enough to appreciate a nice song. A cover of Paulo Nutini’s Loving You only enhanced a growing impression that this band don’t taken themselves too seriously. Their music, however, is excellent – nowhere more so than during Sick Of You, another song with a spoken word introduction which led into some great vocals from Dave over such minimal guitar that, in places, the double bass was more prominent, although the whole thing built to a much livelier second half. The band ended their set with another cover, perhaps the most unusual I’ve ever come across… Dela is a Johnny Clegg song from the soundtrack of George Of The Jungle. Turns out it’s actually a pretty good song, but what was I saying about not taking themselves seriously?
Finally, the man himself. Toby Burras, a.k.a. Unfinished Drawings. And I was determined that, after his last gig, he wasn’t going to surprise me tonight. After all, I now knew enough about his non-busking performances, right? Well, sort of, yes. Positioned at the very front of the audience, I was able to see how Toby, armed only with a guitar and a loop pedal, builds up layers of music to form an intricate whole. See, that is, even if I still don’t fully understand how tapping or holding down that pedal does what it does. Watching him did nothing to dissuade me of my opinion that musicians are akin to magicians, with those who do stuff like this heading towards grand-master status. After opening with a trademark laid-back version of Rudimental’s Waiting All Night, his mellow vocals over soft guitar interspersed with power and complexity and some impressive percussive effects (I still marvel that flesh hitting wood can produce such diverse noises), Toby explained that he mainly does covers, “but I like doing silly covers.” A TLC song came next but, just as Toby started singing he broke off with a huge grin. “I know I’ve lost the loop,” he explained, starting again and getting a perfect second run. There were no such problems with his version of Modestep’s Sunlight, his “dubstep on acoustic guitar” song. Inviting Leo James – “the best male voice I know” – onto stage, the pair delivered a clever version of Ghostbusters, a song older than a good portion of the audience and unrecognisable at first but gradually taking familiar shape. It ended up being a wonderfully chilled-out version, with great vocal harmonies, despite Leo admitting that he didn’t actually know the words. “How do you follow Ghostbusters?” asked Toby, that grin still plastered across his face. Well, he followed it with Today, one of the great songs from his recent EP, and then the oft-requested Love Foolosophy, from that other bloke in the hat. “Your turn, Croft,” was his way of inviting Rachel Croft, the best female voice he knows, to join him on stage for a version of his favourite song, Biffy Clyro’s Just Boy and more lovely harmonies. Compared to some of the other songs, this one was musically simple, allowing those vocals to shine through. “Am I staying on?” asked Rachel when it finished. She was and between them they delivered a beautiful version of my favourite song from the EP, the title track Ciara Star. There was just time for one more and Rachel stayed on stage again. “Shall we have some fun? Do you feel like joining in?” asked Toby, explaining that he usually ended evening with Teenage Dirtbag. You could tell that the pair have performed this a lot – there was a well-practised ease in the way they both broke of for the audience participation sections, the first of which got a, “that was OK, it wasn’t bad,” reaction from Toby. Even better, though, was the effort of the female section of the audience, who delivered their three lines (those beginning “I’ve got two tickets to Iron Maiden, baby”) near faultlessly. Another entertaining set from one of York’s most affable musicians. I may not have been surprised this time but, once again, I was massively impressed.
*Apologies for the sparse information and lack of link – I can’t find one – and accompanying photo