A lack of information regarding support acts on the venue’s website, coupled with an assumption on our part that there would only be one, meant that King Courgette were already at least half-way through their set when we arrived after a quick pre-gig pint. They play a sort of folk/bluegrass mix, using banjo, fiddle and mandolin, while the rhythm section (tonight at least) comprised of a mix of the usual – an electric bass – and the not so – a drum kit made from old water cooler bottles and a washboard dangling across the chest of percussionist Wild Zucchini Bill’s chest, his homemade look perhaps harking back to his time with Stomp. The music was lively, the lyrics, at least in the two-and-a-half tracks we managed to see performed, sparse, frontman String Bean Slim imbued his performance with bundles of personality and the whole thing came across as fun.
On the face of it The Blueprints, with their brand of sixties-inspired power-pop, seem less of a match with tonight’s headliners than King Courgette do, but the fact that everybody seems to know everybody else within the York music scene and that Mark Waters, their bass player, has played alongside Yom Hardy as rhythm section for Dan Webster, might go some way to explaining why they were invited to provide support tonight. That and the fact that they always put on a good live performance, obviously. Sadly, as the ever-growing crowd were still in chat mode, a lot of the song introductions and on-stage banter was inaudible, but the music came across just fine. It’s been a while since I last saw The Blueprints play and many of the tracks were unfamiliar, including the opener, a song about dancing, which saw guitarist Sophie McDonnell doing just that in her section of the stage, and the next, which included some nice vocal harmonies to accompany the apparently ever-smiling Stuart Allan. Waters removing his jacket at the end of that track brought forth a slew of good-natured insults before Seeing Red saw Allan alternating between gently stroking his guitar strings between lyrics and more vigorous playing. Another Breakdown was familiar, as was Staring At The Sun, my favourite Blueprints track, although it seemed to have been reworked since the last time I heard it. Either that or my memory is going. Earlier a small section of the audience had started dancing along, and that dancing seemed to become infectious, as more had joined in by the time Walk brought their set to a lively end.
As the stage was cleared and made ready for the headliners I witnessed one of my pet hates at gigs. Content until now to stand at the back chatting, groups of people took this as a signal to move forward, many with scant regard for anybody shorter than them. One particular group of women, who had been standing just in front of me were forced to move as a group of men pushed in front of them, standing almost on top of the women and leaving them with a not-so-nice view of the men’s backs. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating some sort of audience grading structure at gigs, with the tallest at the back, but some manners would be nice at times.
As usual, Blackbeard’s Tea Party had drawn a large crowd, including some faces familiar to me from previous gigs and others that I knew by name. The fancy dress that had been prevalent at their last Duchess gig (in the lead up to Christmas last year) was absent this year, but the audience were just as eager to get involved and, as the band took to the stage to an air-raid siren and after Laura Boston-Barber’s fiddle opening, they were soon singing along to Whip Jamboree. “Good evening, you bunch of reprobates,” called out Stuart Giddens, the first reference to the band’s new album – Reprobates – officially released today, before picking up his melodeon for the first track from that album, Roll Down. The rockier side of folk they may be, but the band’s music often brings forth images of harbour-side bar-room sing-alongs, bawdy sailors and sea shanties, the soundtrack, perhaps, to a pirate film, rather than the more traditional side of folk music, and the impression can be that it should be accompanied by tankards of foaming ale served by buxom wenches, rather than lager in plastic pint glasses and bottles of designer cider as it was tonight. Tonight Giddens’ vocals are as strong as ever –you almost feel that he doesn’t need a microphone – and fit the style of the music perfectly. A track from Tomorrow We’ll Be Sober, with a change of pace halfway through, saw Yom, the most hirsute of the band, almost headbanging, something which left him looking, in my mind anyway, like a modern day Captain Caveman. Then it was back to Reprobates for The Slave Chase, with a very un-folk opening from Martin Coumbe’s electric guitar and Tim Yates’ thundering bass, while Giddens’ serious, steely-eyed look belied his lively on-stage antics. The track segued into one of the band’s lively instrumentals. The Steam Arm Man, another new track, definitely heralded a rockier sound, with Boston-Barber’s fiddle taking second place behind the electric guitar, at least until later in the track. It also seemed to be a darker track than then band’s earlier output, something that seems to permeate the new album with it’s tales of hangmen and other less desirable characters. Speaking of which, Giddens took time out to read out the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of “reprobate” – although I suspect it doesn’t actually include “pig shagging politician” or “Ronnie Pickering” – before the band played Jack Ketch.
Another instrumental followed before Giddens once again humorously addressed the audience, admiring us as a “hip and happening young crowd” who had almost certainly “never heard of Radio 2”, where the next track, The Ballad Of William Kidd, had been played a few days earlier. The crowd had appreciated that introduction and, having been denied any interaction for a while, greeted Landlady, with it’s lighter tone and more risqué subject matter, with delight. As usual, it saw Boston-Barber, Coumbe and Yates racing around the stage between sections in which the crowd and band swayed along in unison. The crowd were definitely warming up and took little encouragement to clap along to the next instrumental, which Coumbe opened with an almost Queen-style guitar sound. Crowd-pleaser Chicken On A Raft followed, with people trying to join in with the actions, no matter how little space they had around them. Another short instrumental followed, with Giddens explaining that he had been staring at the picture of Taylor Swift at the back of the venue all night, thanking her for listening and then protest song Stand Up Now – “track ten on Reprobates, to remind you that it is ten pounds…” opened slowly before bringing the set to a rousing close.
Of course there was an encore. It opened with Boston-Barber on fiddle and husband Boston showing a deft touch with fiddlesticks as they performed the intricate opening to Hangman’s Noose, the rest of the band joining in as Boston, back on djembe, took up his usual place, looming over the rest of the band on the drum riser, soon to be joined by Yates, who revealed hitherto unseen (by me) shorts, bringing to mind ACDC’s Angus Young. The band left the stage again, only to return once more, Giddens leading the audience in a chant – “I say ‘Black’, you say ‘beard’s. I say ‘tea’, you say, ‘party’” – before ending the night in fun style with Tomorrow We’ll Be Sober, the whole band pretending to play fiddle during one section and the audience heartily singing along throughout. Another brilliant night from one of York’s most entertaining and consistent bands.