The first thing that struck me about tonight’s openers, Harrogate power-trio Set Sails, was how much vocalist and bass-player Hannah Slater looked liked an updated version of a young Debbie Harry and how much her vocals reminded me of Gwen Stefani, those vocals managing to rise above the music of the band’s opening track even as it built to a devastating climax. With a speaking voice almost completely different to her singing one, much sweeter, Slater thanked the audience for coming to see them before the band started their second track in a much more subtle manner than the first until, partway through, it became much more rocky and raucous again, with guitarist David Colston’s backing vocals coming through much more strongly. She’s On The Radio was a slice of lively and enthusiastic pop-punk, while Cigarettes And Wine started very differently to the rest of the set – musically sparse with sultry vocals to begin with it seemed to explode in slow motion to a fuller sound, repeating the process twice before its end. It was an interestingly structured song that received a great reception from the crowd. Despite its title, She’s Dead was lively and, perhaps, the most musically accessible track of the set so far. “We’ve got a few songs left. If you like us, that’s great,” said Slater, refreshingly eschewing the usual list of social media sites that everybody knows to check out by now anyway. (Colston had, earlier, mentioned their Facebook page, only to be cut off by Slater who explained that they weren’t good at the talking parts.) The accessibility continued with their next track which also included a great ear-piercing piece of vocal dexterity towards the end. Halo (I think) started with a nice, subtle guitar line, Slater’s vocals coming in over the top of it and, eventually, a low-key drum line from James Astin, the whole slowly building in power then increasing by steps, with Astin pounding his drum kit as though his life depended on it before finally changing back to the subtleness of the start and then segueing straight into the final, much more powerful and energetic, song of the set, once more featuring some fantastic vocals. A great opening set from a band I haven’t come across before but another that I will now be keeping my eye on.
Next up were Broken Skulls, a duo of brothers from York. Drummer Dan Sawyer was already showing off an impressively tattooed torso as he took to the stage and, despite the otherwise clean-cut look of the pair, I had a bad feeling, perhaps in my mind comparing them to another, more well-known, local band with a similar make-up that, while I admit are great performers, play music that’s not my cup of tea. That bad feeling, however, was almost immediately dispelled by their opening track. Far from the shoutiness I expected (apart from one small section away from the mic), it was melodic and energetic, loud but not overpowering, with a short instrumental section leading into an impressively held drum beat with Dan, at one point looking as though he was trying to keep as many cymbals moving at the same time as possible, the drumming equivalent of the plate-spinning act. By the time the short and sharp Devil In Disguise started, guitarist and vocalist Elliot had removed his glasses, presumably to prevent them flying off during an animated performance that also saw his hair break free of the bobble previously holding it back. The next, new song was quieter with a nice jangly guitar line, its slower pace presumably giving the duo a chance to recover from the excesses of the previous song, with they seemed to do halfway through. “That went OK,” quipped Dan at the end, before another refreshing take on the “If you like us” speech – “If you like us, we like you…” All I can remember from the next track was that Dan’s hands were s blur during the opening, while his incredibly powerful opening to Thunder (again, I think) was made to look effortless. During this track, Elliot’s guitar was only just coming through the mix, his vocals still the right side of shouty but very indistinct. As they were for the next track, the first written by the duo and, they admitted, neither of them could remember the words, so it comes out different every time. It didn’t matter as, from where I was standing at least, they couldn’t really be heard. At the end of the track Elliot proudly showed off a guitar-string cut finger. By now, the set was getting a little bit samey, with just snatches of difference, mainly from the use of effects pedals, although the whole thing was rescued by Down And Out, a stirring set-ender featuring great dual vocals and, despite an initial false start, handled well and with humour, some incredible drumming. Broken Skulls might be one of those acts just outside my comfort zone, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a good performance.
American band The Last Internationale were fitting in tonight’s gig between appearances at the Leeds and Reading festivals. I know a few people who were attending Leeds this weekend and, if the trio had been playing Leeds second I would definitely have recommended they check them out. Sadly the band’s appearance in the North was yesterday and I can only hope my friends managed to catch them without my recommendation. I doubt they would have been disappointed if they did. The set opened with a backing track of Gil Scott-Heron’s poem The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, a nod to the band’s “social awareness” and/or political leanings. As the poem ended Delila Paz exited the green room already playing acoustic guitar. Encouraging the audience closer, she performed a solo version of I’m Going To Live The Life I Sing About In My Song, the vocals coming across in an almost Country style. Joined on stage by guitarist Edgey Pires and drummer Brad Wilk (also of RATM and Audioslave), Paz switched to an electric bass. Pires kicked things off by pounding the body of his guitar over a reverberating backing track before the track proper opened in a slow, almost heavy fashion, more than a hint of Blues coming through before a near-screaming guitar section and the most perfect level of drums in the mix that I think I’ve ever come across locally. Towards the end of the track Pires appeared to be playing guitar with his teeth, revealing a “Refugees welcome” sign attached to the back of of the guitar. Another musical style was brought to mind by the next track, its opening and guitar work somehow bringing to mind seventies glam rock. By the time Fire started, Paz’s vocals were reminding me of Alannah Myles, but more powerful. Pires’ mic stand, which I had missed disappear from view at some point during the last couple of songs put in a brief reappearance as, in response to Wilk pointing at it lying across the stage, Pires picked it up and threw it at least partly out of the way. It was still plugged in so that resulted in a loud bang and an apology as it once again hit the floor. A change of guitar led to a nice guitar riff during the next track and then the audience were encouraged to clap along to the start of Honest Man, its guitar line not too far from something you might have heard coming from Big Country. It all sounds like a stylistic mash-up that shouldn’t work – it might just be the way my mind picks out musical influences that aren’t actually there – but it most definitely did work. Pires’ guitar playing bordered on an aggressive style and the song ended with a huge cheer from the audience, many of whom, at the front at least, seemed to know every word. Perhaps the band’s recent support slots for Robert Plant had gained them a number of fans. There were certainly a few in the crowd tonight who had seen those gigs. Pires switched to acoustic guitar for a requested cover of Malvina Reynolds’ It Isn’t Nice. Reynolds was a folk singer in the sixties who was connected to the civil rights movement and the powerful performance – just acoustic guitar, vocals and minimal drums – was dedicated to those still struggling in that movement today. It was back to electric guitars for the next song and, I’m afraid to say, after that incredible last track, it was the only song of the set that did nothing for me. Then the set was brought to a close with another heavy-blues type track and more screaming guitar.
The trio left the stage and cries of more started immediately. With nearly fifteen minutes until curfew, and the band (I was told in advance) playing an hour-long set, an encore was inevitable and they were soon back out and encouraging another clap-along as Pires, already honoured as a political activist, explained that the song, 1968, was about a year of revolution and that he believed another cultural and economic revolution was due. It was a powerful piece of rock and roll that might have included lyrics from (or even segued into) Patti Smith’s People Have The Power. As Pires brought forth a scratchy guitar sound, Paz ditched her bass for one section which saw her briefly leave the stage, singing in the middle of the audience. Pires then turned his amplifier up to something close to eleven before owning the front of the stage and, eventually, also jumping down into the crowd for a short time. With both back on stage the epic encore, and the set, was brought to a definite close with Pires looping his fingers between the strings and neck of his Les Paul and, with the help of a foot further down the neck, pulling until four of the strings broke and he could hold the instrument aloft by them. If I hadn’t already used the Jim Steinman line about an expensive musical instrument in a recent write-up, I might have been tempted to do so here.
Unfamiliarity with the songs meant that, apart from the explicit political and revolutionary references, I couldn’t hear the lyrics enough to know what the band were protesting about but there was no denying the power of their performance. I’ve written this review with their debut album, We Will Reign – bought last night and signed by Paz, with the addition of both a kiss and an anarchy symbol – playing in the background. It was released last year and, if I had heard it then, there is little doubt it would have been in my top ten for that year. Supporting Plant on tour can’t have done the band any harm and, with a seemingly increasing fan base, there is a feeling that they are on the cusp of something special. I’m glad I caught them at a small venue while I still can.