I would imagine there were more than a handful of disappointed punters at tonight’s gig. Just a few hours before it was due to start it was announced that, due to illness, Heather Findlay and Dave Kerzner would not be performing (for the first time, I believe) as an acoustic version of Mantra Vega. For many they would have been as big as draw (arguably bigger) than the headliners and I know at least one person who didn’t turn up because they were no longer playing.
The cancellation meant a shift around in bill and the opening slot was ably filled by Alex Cromarty, Halo Blind’s drummer. Just as when he supported Panic Room a few weeks back, he provided a short set of mostly covers accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, cajon and, this time, a battered old tambourine which got more than the occasional kick from his right foot. Making light of the extensive sound check – the doors were late opening and one act were still sound checking when we were eventually let in – and smilingly pointing out that he wasn’t who was noted on the bill, Cromarty kicked things off with Michael Jackson’s The Way You Make Me Feel and Nick Jonas’ Jealous, giving both a pop-feel despite the acoustic sound and slower style. The way he put power into the vocals led to some great facial expressions. With Cromarty was showing an amiable disregard for the set timings (understandable, given the late start), two of his own songs followed – one a bittersweet lament about a superhero looking for love, the other a faster track called, I think, Everything I Want To Be. The set ended with a sort of de-reggae’d version of Bob Marley’s Could You Be Loved. One of my gig buddies for the night commented that Cromarty exhibited all the characteristics of a drummer, in that he was “slightly mad”. I couldn’t possible comment, although it’s safe to say that he was, once again, very entertaining.
When I first saw Chris Helme, more than a handful of years ago, I had been put off him by the fact that his music seemed to take second place to what happened between the songs – too much talking and messing about with the audience. Not that I mind a bit of banter and explanation about the songs just that, in this case, it seemed excessive. More recent performances have seen him more focussed but tonight the faffing around was back and was, in one part, accompanied by way to much attitude. Which was a shame, because his music is more than listenable to. Joined on stage by Jennifer Chubb and Chris Farrell, a quiet unannounced start was soon rendered moot by a horrible dose of feedback which, given his reaction to it, might have been what soured Helme for the rest of the set. Starting again, the trio gave us a gentle song which built all the way through, the light electric guitar from Farrell never overpowering Helme’s acoustic and vocals and Chubb’s cello. Requesting a bit of echo for his vocals he next gave us a new song, the slow and emotional Closer Now, Farrell’s guitar once more providing a sonic backdrop, rather than coming to the fore. Between that and the next, there seemed to be a lot of conversation between Helme and the others, quips that the audience – or at least the section that I was in – couldn’t quite hear – and I found myself wishing he would just get in with it. Few of the songs actually got introduced, in some ways it was as though the audience weren’t there or, if they were, they should know the songs anyway. Next up was a stronger, more powerful song and then the low point of the set when Helme started asking if anybody knew the time. Nobody responded, despite repeated asking, until he pointed to somebody towards the front, almost shouting something along the lines of, “You’ve got a watch on, what’s the f***ing time?” It might be just me but that’s no way to treat somebody who has paid to see you play. Maybe if Helme was that desperate to know how long he has been on stage he should make sure he has some way of telling the time. Or maybe he could have just asked Farrell, who was sitting within feet of him and clearly wearing a watch. Perhaps, as well, Farrell could have volunteered the time, avoiding the unsavoury episode, which detracted a bit from an otherwise enjoyable set. Helme writes lovely lyrics and his clear vocals during the next track showcased them – “sailing on the ocean of my dreams” and “the crack in your conscience is shining a light on me” were particular favourites of mine – and then came the only song I knew I had heard before, the “Summery Summer Song” Summer Girl, given a lighter feel by the addition of Chubb’s backing vocals. This led straight into Farrell’s opening for the final song of the set, one that contained the most vocal diversity, going from quiet to loud and even slightly snarly in places. Musically, this was a good set. I just wish Helme would leave his attitude off stage.
For those who don’t know, Halo Blind is the name adopted by York band Parade when they were told that they couldn’t use that one because some girl band had taken it. The girl band officially split in 2013, after just one album while Halo Blind, have sort of stayed together and have produced, so far, two. I say “sort of” because the line-up for their second album, Occupying Forces, was almost completely different to that of 2009’s The Fabric. Yes, the band are hardly prolific. I believe mainstay Chris Johnson got tired of waiting for the members of the original line-up to all be free at the same time and ended up deciding to work with other musicians who were available. Occupying Forces was actually released last year but this was the first time the band have played live together and so tonight’s gig was billed as the album launch, boosting awareness of an album that might have slipped under the radar slightly given the otherwise lack of promotion in the intervening months. The gig drew in a larger than normal crowd, including a fair few of Johnson’s other band mates, other York musicians and some who had travelled across country for the band.
The ripple of applause as the band took to the stage was, perhaps, slightly premature as the soundman came forward to confer with Johnson. Soon, though, Andy Knights announced, “We’re going to start now,” which brought a small cheer from the crowd. I hadn’t bought the album before tonight, so wasn’t familiar with the songs. First impressions, from the live set, were that they were quite different and yet, at the same time, similar to those on The Fabric, at least partly because Knights seemed to take a bigger share of the vocals than Johnson. The set opened more quietly than I expected, with Knights playing guitar and keyboards as well as singing, but the song built nicely, with the three guitar lines – Johnson and Farrell were also on guitar duties – coming across very clearly. Revolutionary Soul also started quietly, then exploded into life as we heard Johnson’s distinctive vocals for the first time. “This is the first time live for all these songs,” announced Johnson before Mirage, which saw Cromarty using brushes to produce a different, softer drum line for the quieter song which segued into Saturate. I assume the band, playing Occupying Forces in full, were also following the track listing (although the lyric segment I noted down for the opening track doesn’t appear in Better?, or anywhere else on the album as far as I can see…) so the next track, with Knight’s keyboards very prominent, would have been Torrential. Whatever it was, it was well received by the audience. Downpour saw Knights asking for hush by “ssshh”ing down the microphone so that Johnson’s quiet vocals could be heard. A sudden change to a faster pace, though, heralded what seemed to be a substitute for the album’s instrumental track End Of The First Side and saw Knight’s keyboards and Farrell’s subtle guitar in to build towards an ending that faded out with just the guitar.
“A lot of the songs are about being angry,” explained Johnson before Brain Dog, a track which did little for me or my gig buddies. Its funky opening, rap-like vocals and slightly aggressive tone, came across as a sort of homage to the likes of Run DMC and, for me, it just didn’t sit very well with the rest of the set. It did, however, see Farrell using the vibrato arm on his guitar as though his life depended on it and Knights apparently playing his part on an iPad. False Alarm was, as announced, something much more “usual” and saw the band joined on stage by Jennifer Chubb, making Chris Helme the only performer tonight not to appear with the headliners. Chubb stayed on stage, while Farrell, Cromarty and bass player Stu Fletcher took a break, for The Puppet. A simple and yet very effective track with a solemn opening and comprised mostly of piano and cello, it received a huge cheer as it finished. With the full band back on stage Smithereens saw Farrell teasing even more unusual sounds from the strings of his guitar while Analogue, with its electronic soundscape, had Cromarty on xylophone and Johnson now on the iPad. Coma, heralded as the last song, had to build from its slow opening in order to reach the heights of a set-ender, something it did admirably and, to a degree, angrily.
After the requisite brief return to the green room, the band came back on stage in rearranged form, Johnson having moved to the keyboards and Farrell now on lap guitar for Control, the final song from the album. But that wasn’t to be the end and, it turns out, it wasn’t the first time live for every song tonight as Johnson introduced The Dogs from The Fabric, an album he himself described as “very different” from Occupying Forces. This is one of my favourite tracks from the first album and it was great to hear it live again, especially as it built to a fantastic instrumental denouement.
Halo Blind describe themselves as a progressive rock act, but they aren’t the standard fare of that genre. There are no long instrumental sections, no sweeping guitar or keyboard solos, no bombastic songs and definitely none of that staple of 70s prog, songs about fantasy tropes. Instead they provide a mix of gentler, subtler music which still manages to convey anger and, at times, darkness. The album, when it was released, was compared to Radiohead (a band whose output I have yet to dip my toe into) and, during a post-gig pint, that was confirmed by one of my gig-buddies who said that was the band he had been reminded of during the performance. Personally, in terms of the albums, I think I prefer The Fabric, just… but this gig saw the band give a great performance and I hope that it’s not as many years between this and the next time we see them live (and, indeed, that it’s not another five years between albums).