I’ve been to stadium gigs and seen arena tours. I’ve seen gigs outdoors in parks and city centres and indoors in back rooms of pubs, front rooms of pubs, city halls, former tram depots and probably other venues that I have forgotten about. Until today, however, I hadn’t seen a gig in a museum or on a moving train. More on the latter later.
This was a festival put on by York’s premier musical instrument shop and the National Railway Museum in order to… well, to be honest, I’m not sure… Promote local bands? Promote the shop and the Museum? Pull more visitors through the museum doors on a damp Saturday? (It can’t have been the latter – nobody could have foreseen what the weather was going to be like when the festival was announced all those months ago, surely.) Whatever the reason, as a fan of live music it was too good an opportunity to miss and, with the whole thing being advertised as a family-friendly event, I dragged them along with me as well.
The event had been split into two sections. Bands would be playing the museum’s Station Hall, a long, high-ceilinged room through which stretched just some of the many exhibits, including Queen Victoria’s “palace on wheels”, King Edward’s royal carriage and, less “royalty” and more “royal”, a carriage from a mail train. The stage had been set up in the middle of one end (with a pillar neatly bisecting views of it), with a sizable floor area just in front of it and, for those with better than 20:20 vision, a nearly unrestricted view all the way from the hall’s “Dining Car” restaurant. At the same time, smaller acts would be performing in the Directors’ Saloon, a carriage being driven up and down the tracks by a small steam engine. Although the whole event was free, tickets were required for the carriage and they were quickly snapped up, well before I knew for definite that I would be going, let alone how many would be in my party. Not that that was, from my point of view, a problem. Yes, there were some very good acts due to perform on the train, but there was a wealth of talent on the main stage as well. Thirteen bands, in fact, between 3pm and midnight (although there was no way we were going to be able to stay that long) with an ambitious seeming, but ultimately pretty much adhered to, five minute turnaround between acts. In fact, there was so much going on that a full review would take forever to write (and read), so I’m going to summarise as best as I can.
Opening proceedings was Speakeasy Blues Band, a new band to me, who played a mix of Blues and RnB, including one track they boasted had received radio airplay, on Macedonia FM… The music, although mostly guitar-led, was drenched in Dan Hudson’s keyboards, particularly during a rendition of Sweet Home Chicago for which he also took over vocal duties. This was, for the most part, an energetic set which had feet tapping in the audience and was greeted by applause made echo-y by the environment.
With the absence of keyboard player Charlie Daykin, Barcode Zebra performed as a true girl-power trio. A funky opening to their set showed how much chemistry there is between drummer Emma Whitehead and Ruth Wilde on bass, one of the tightest rhythm sections around. Add to them Jess Gardham’s guitar and superb vocals and you have a great band. “York needs more events like this,” proclaimed Jess and I doubt few people there would have disagreed with her. The band’s mix of funk, soul and pop, including Hold On, with it’s anthemic chorus, certainly stirred Elizabeth and she shot off after their set to buy two EPs.
Although just third on stage, The Rodeo Falls ended up being my stand-out band of the day. They take two musical genres that I don’t normally have much time for – Merseybeat and Brit-pop – and mix them together to make something energetic and entertaining. Having seen and enjoyed them once before, I was impressed by how much better they were this time, in a “proper” venue with well set-up sound. Songs familiar from that gig, as well as solo outings by frontman Marck CK, sounded bigger and more expansive and a highlight was seeing Marck, having eschewed his guitar, prowling the stage while performing Dyed In Wool, even jumping off it to bring his very young daughter in for a guest appearance. Sadly, this could be the band’s final performance, at least with this line-up, as bass-player Bob Jackson is heading off to The States. While I believe it was he who, if not formed the band, caused it to come together, I can’t help but hope the remaining members decide to carry on.
I hadn’t come across The Mighty And The Moon before. Hailing from Hull, their sound was Country-based but with more than a hint of rock. Switching between quieter songs such as Something In My Soul and rockier tracks like Ghost, and including a brand new song, they also got my feet tapping. The vocal harmonies at the start of Toe The Line were superb and the song itself was a brilliant set ender, the drumming reminding me of the rat-a-tat style of Big Country in a country music setting.
It was about this time that we received a surprise visitor. Debbie had spotted the lovely Beth McCarthy wandering about and had brought her along to say hello to Elizabeth. Beth had opened the shows in the Director’s Saloon earlier in the afternoon and, full of smiles, seemed only too happy to chat about how not winning The Voice might not have been such a bad thing as she has retained her musical independence.
Van Der Neer were also new to me, although two members, Simon Snaize and Stu Fletcher were familiar from other bands. A trio, they seemed to be the loudest band so far – bluesy, but at times dirtier? Heavier? In my notes, I described Everybody Knows But You as “rawkous”. (Do you see what I did there?) Five tracks in and it sounded like they had ended the set with an epic. But, no, there was one more and it was even bigger. Running through the hall during it, trying to find a quieter place to answer my phone, I was struck by two things – how the music was carrying through the room and, while there was more than a few people in front of the stage, there seemed to be few others around.
I’m not particularly au-fait with post-punk, so didn’t know what to expect with Berlin Black, a York band who I have been aware of for some time but hadn’t managed to see before today. I’m sure they are going to hate me for saying this but, at times, the music included hints of Duran Duran. Our compere for the day, Alex King, put more effort into pulling faces at his front-row son* than he did in pretending he didn’t know what a guitar was when asked to stand in for the band’s “missing” guitarist. (He is said guitarist, for anybody who didn’t get the joke.) Theirs was another big noise, but very different from that of the last band, and as well as a great performance, there was a lot of image. A flood of photographers descended on the stage as frontman Chris Tuke, flamboyantly attired in a sort of animal print jacket and silver boots, danced around the stage in front of eye-linered drummer Thomas McLean while Jo Violet, on bass, looked like she had stepped out of a Goth version of the video to Robert Palmer’s Addicted To Love. “We normally have the problem that there’s not enough effects on the vocals, but this place is brilliant,” enthused Chris at one point. I realise I’ve not said much about the music – I enjoyed it, but I think I’m going to have to see this band again and, perhaps, explore more of the genre before I feel confident enough to write about it.
*Since this review was first posted, it has been pointed out to me that this comment could be interpreted as Alex somehow “phoning in” his performance. That was never my intention, which was rather to emphasise the “fun” and “family-friendly” aspects of this set in particular and the festival in general. I would like to apologise for any perceived insult.
By the time Vinnie and the Stars took to the stage, we had been joined by my regular gig-buddy Andy and decided to retreat to the Dining Car for a bit to rest our weary feet, catch up a bit (and give Elizabeth a more stable surface than a jacket across her knees to do her loom bands on – she was also listening to the music, she assured me…) Because of the layout of the hall we still had a reasonable view of the stage and there was only a slight reduction in the volume and quality of the sound. Songs I had heard before were recognisable, especially the fun Yorkshire rap of I’m Not From America… I’m From Hull, although to be fair to Vinnie and his band, we weren’t paying too much attention.
We stayed away from the stage for the next act as well and I’m not sure whether that was a bad idea or not. I can’t get a handle on Mark Wynn, who seems to have changed his act every time I’ve seen him and, on the basis of the last time, I wasn’t sure whether he was a good choice for early evening at a “family friendly” festival. However, I don’t think I could have imagined what I, partially, saw. He seemed to be running topless around the stage while shouting over a backing track that included Ace Of Spades and Whole Lot Of Rosie. Original? Yes. Entertaining? Depends on you point of view. Representative of the diversity of York’s music scene? Undoubtedly! Family-friendly. Doubtful. I’m no prude but I wasn’t surprised when a brief flurry of F-words during what sounded, from where we were sitting, like a Q and A session saw at least one woman seemingly quickly herding her children to linguistic safety. Towards the end of the set it all went quiet and then there was a burst of laughter and applause. “Put your hands up if you understood what just happened,” said Alex King. “Now put your hands up if you enjoyed it.” Quite a few people did, apparently.
We moved forward again for party band FUNKtion, the only true covers band of the festival that we saw (but, if your guitarist owns the shop that is sponsoring the festival, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be on the bill). It was during entertaining renditions of the likes of Teenage Kicks, Born To Be Wild and Superstition that we found out that people who had tickets for the Director’s Saloon hadn’t been turning up (a downside of booking free tickets in advance) and, if we were outside in a few minutes, there was a good chance that we could get onto to train to hear Boss Caine, a favourite of both me and Elizabeth. So, leaving Andy to wait for the next band, we headed off and, after a short wait, did indeed find ourselves in the carriage. With a very limited number of seats most people sat on the floor, with a few of us standing at the very end of the carriage, where I found myself in the company of Stan and Ann from Mulholland and Vinnie himself. Playing completely acoustically, with no amplification at all, Dan was aided by Keiron O’Malley on violin and Karl Senior, for the upbeat tracks, on cajon. Familiar tracks such as Ghosts and Drunks and Dead Man’s Suit were joined by a newer, powerful song inspired (if that is the correct word) by recent river drownings, during which, apart from the noises of the train, you could have heard a pin drop. “This is going to freak me out,” remarked Dan at one point, referring to the movement of the surroundings outside as the train moved up and down the track. Eventually the “journey” came to an end, but the performance continued. “Do you want another?” Of course we did and we got Streetlights And Stars. “You’re getting one more whether you like it or not.” We liked it and the only thing that spoiled Leaving Victoria was the sound of the train letting off steam through the now open door of the carriage. (Unless you are Elizabeth, that is. Apparently she was hiding her face in embarrassment because I was singing along. I didn’t realise I had been doing so out loud and apologise to anybody else that heard me…)
Finally ushered off the train, we headed back inside to just in time to catch the end of We Could Be Astronauts set. I’ve seen this band a few times and like their music but Boss Caine had won the family vote. I’m not sure which song they were playing when we got back to Andy but the set ended with Guess What I’m Not, the denouement of which saw Robert Loxley-Hughes, who seems to model his frontman persona at least in part on a time of real rock and roll excesses, threw his guitar off stage. Ah well, maybe MOR Music will be getting more out of the festival, even if it is just a bit of repair work.
Finally for us (we had a bus to catch, unfortunately, meaning we had to miss the last two bands – The Blueprints and Jonny And The Dunebugs, apparently another covers band. But, you know, if one your members works in the shop promoting the festival…) was The Littlemores. By now the crowd was swelling for a band that Alex said had “stolen the show” the last time MOR put on a festival. Theirs was a youthful, poppy sound, with vocal harmonies and lively guitars bringing to mind, for the second time today, a Merseybeat sound, with Tom Moreton’s retro guitar producing a nice sound throughout. Frontman Conor Hirons told us that this gig was so prestigious that he had put a shirt on for it (presumably he normally wears a t-shirt, rather than parading around like Mark Wynn) then later confessed that he wished he hadn’t because he was “roasting”. Highlight of the set for me was This Town but, overall, it was a good set to end on.
From a music fan’s point of view this had been a great day. A nice mix of bands and musical styles. Personally I thought the sound was pretty good for the majority of the day, especially given the size of the room and the number and size of the objects within it, although one audience member that I spoke to was less than impressed. I wonder whether the loudness scared the general public away from the Station Hall and whether, maybe, it might have been better to start the afternoon with some quieter, more public-friendly acts, building up to the rockier stuff. Purely selfishly, though, I’m more than happy with what we got. Comments on social media after the event suggest that the bands who played and people who attended thought it went down well, as did comments from the NRM themselves in the local Press the day after. I can only echo the sentiments of Jess from Barcode Zebra. Whether it should fall to MOR Music to organise them all the time is another question, but they and their team get my thanks for organising this one.