King No-One – Alcatraz

Sometimes, when it’s so wintry and freezing outside, the only way to cheer yourself up is with a chunky slab of colourful pop. Such delectations are unquestionably ‘escapist in the extreme’ but I’m alright with that if you are?

And if the tune you’re using to escape with should be called ‘Alcatraz’ then all the better right? For, in cultural folklore (and also in reality), Alcatraz was the prison island that it was nigh-on impossible to escape from. Nestled in the San Francisco Bay, it’s up there with Folsom in a list of unlikely pointless answers in a category of ‘famous American penitentiaries’.

I’ve only just learnt that the name ‘Alcatraz’ or ‘Alcatraces’ means ‘Pelicans’ in Spanish. Once, before it was developed, Alcatraz was an island full to brimming with the bird. But the California Brown Pelican now nests in other places. 

King No-One are from York. They’ve been releasing a fine series of 1980’s influenced happy and melodic pop in 2016. With ‘Alcatraz’, they’ve arguably delivered their best yet. The video, full of glittery face-paint and derivative tendencies, can surely not fail to raise a smile in the coldest of hearts. 

Stick on your headphones or play this loud on your drive to work. It’s even possible to sing along should the mood so take you. 

Music to escape with.  

 

Rag ‘N’ Bone Man – Nottingham Rescue Rooms – Monday 21st November

Time is flying by. A whole week has passed since I saw the incredible Rag ‘N’ Bone Man at Nottingham’s Rescue Rooms. I suspected it was going to be a splendid gig and I wasn’t disappointed. 

I first spotted Rory Graham, the brilliant bearded big guy, over three years ago in the Chai Wallah’s tent at Shambala festival. In my eFestivals review (here) I said, “Rag ‘N’ Bone Man is bigged up by the compere and rightfully so. The crowd exchange knowing glances. Here we have a splendid, soulful voice with the ability to shake a room, something that’s rooted firmly in a bluesy past and yet made modern by the presence of a mixing DJ. I note that Rag ‘N’ Bone Man is about to accompany Bastille on their Autumn tour. I hope that that crowd appreciate him half as much as the crowd in here.”

Fast forward to the summer that’s just passed and I caught Rory again, this time at the lovely Barn On The Farm festival. I reviewed that one for eFestivals as well (here) and commented that, “over on the outdoor stage, there were also many highlights. I first saw Rag ‘n’ Bone a few years ago on a small stage at Shambala. Even back then, you could tell Rory Graham was an impressive presence. In recent years, he’s honed his craft and added a band of fine musicians. The bassy blues of his booming voice prove to be a fine choice of Sunday evening headline set on this stage.”

It was nice to now finally get the chance to see a set away from the festival field. 

It’s a packed room. I guess a combination of hard work and releasing a steady stream of quality-laden EP’s have got Rory to this point. There’s a noticeably mixed age range in the crowd. The kids push to the front whilst the older gig-goers, perhaps having caught Rag ‘N’ Bone Man’s electrifying, recent  performance on ‘Later With Jools Holland’ hang around toward the back. Couples grab their spot at the upper tier balcony and peer down on the balding and not so balding heads below.

Rory takes to the stage confidently holding a guitar. With immense power, he launches his rocket of a voice into a soulful sonic boom. Every corner of the Rescue Rooms is filled with the bounce and reverberation of this wondrous gospel melt. Our knees are weakened and we’re almost down on them before the first verse is complete. The band join Rory on stage, fire up their own instruments, and we’re given brief respite from our near submission. 

There’s quite a few new songs played. An album is due for release, perhaps early next year, and this is a chance to road-test some of that material. On first listen, you’d guess that those music industry insiders who’ve marked Rag ‘N’ Bone Man in their BBC Sound of 2017 nominations know what they’re playing with. Mark my words – I have no insight but Rory’s going to be pushing for a top three place.

I’m touched by the humility on offer. “I’ve hardly ever played Nottingham before and I was genuinely worried about how many people might turn up”, he ponders in a break between the songs. Surely, Rag ‘N’ Bone Man knows by now that these are not things to worry about? But, his style is not about arrogant swagger; it’s more about a polished and gentle confidence that sometimes belies the boom of his voice. He’s not afraid to mention his Mum’s critique of his songwriting or the fact that he has a friend going through a dark time. We want our pop stars to be ‘human’ and the laidback Rory connects generously. His band, session musicians no doubt with perfect pedigree, allow Rory to take the limelight. It’s a sign of their accomplished ability that you barely notice the complexities of what they play.

It’s all over far too soon. As we file out, the sense of joy about what we’ve just witnessed is palpable. “We’ll never see him on a stage that small again”, says one. “That massive guy is about to really get massive”, says another. 

And I have to concur, they’re probably right. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Billy Bragg & Joe Henry – Lincoln Engine Shed – November 19th

Lincoln’s a beautiful city. I’ve known this for some time but, just recently I’ve taken much more of an interest in the place. My only son, Oliver, has headed there to University and so now I’ll look for opportunities to visit whenever possible.

This weekend offered a chance. Billy Bragg and Joe Henry were bringing their ‘Shine A Light’ tour to the Engine Shed, a former train shed and now a live music venue that sits within the University complex.

It quickly became clear that this was an appropriate setting. The over-arching premise of this new tour is that it provides a chance for Bragg and Henry to revisit songs from the past that celebrate and document the American railroad. They’ve released an album of cover songs they recorded in waiting rooms, hotels and cafés as they took a 65 hour long trek through remote desolation and Southern states. But this isn’t a nostalgia fest, a point that’s made by Henry in one of the informative and lengthy preambles to the tunes. It’s about joining some dots, linking the songs with what’s going on in the world right now and making the folk tradition whole. 

Thus, tales of Okies leaving Oklahoma as economic migrants and facing physical challenge on the borders of California draw comparisons to scenes at the Calais jungle. There’s a poignancy as they tell all about looking out of the moving train window as they track the Mexican border. And the sense of adventure and freedom offered by being able to find a new life on a train journey into the wild is explored through reference to Leadbelly, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Robert Johnson. It’s beautifully observed and impeccably performed, just Billy and Joe on a variety of guitars, drawing the harmony, the humour and the soul out of the songs.

The set up is relatively simple; it’s a show of two halves with the songs from ‘Shine A Light’ book-ending the gig. Half way through the first half, Bragg leaves the stage and Joe Henry gives us a small insight into his impressive back catalogue of songs. This is a man with pedigree as evidenced by his referencing of time spent with Kris Kristofferson and Allen Touissant. Billy begins the second half and, judging by the level of excitement this generates across the Lincoln crowd, it’s what many have been waiting for. With trademark. cantankerous jocularity, he despatches the hecklers who are insistent that he plays their favourites. There’s a reprise for ‘Accident Waiting To Happen’ and the classic refrain of ‘you’re a dedicated swallower of fascism’. The crowd are energetically pumped and visibly cheered by Bragg’s insistence that ‘solidarity’ is the way forward. There’s a definite power in this union. 

I never knew Billy had such a great voice’, whispers somebody sat near to me. It’s indeed true that his vocal range has never sounded better. He’s able to both boom out deep bass notes and yodel sweetly, a gift from the devil’s sparse stocking. He can still do gruff protest or mimic Americana anguish; it’s quite a range. It’s also a perfect foil for Joe’s more elaborate warbles and it’s this combination that makes the gig so compelling.

This is an all-seated gig at the Engine Shed – and don’t we know it. It’s not a space with comfy theatre chairs but instead plastic foldaway seats are laid out in rows. We’re thankful for the interval and by the time of the inevitable encore, I can’t be absolutely sure if those standing to applaud are doing so in an effort to ease their aches and pains. But that might be uncharitable. 

Billy Bragg and Joe Henry have educated and entertained tonight within the Engine Shed. They play more UK dates in January and this is a train worth catching.

 

 

 

Francesca Brown – Undone

Last night was a bit stupid. If I was of sensible nature, I wouldn’t have gone to the pub. Or, at least, I would have left after three pints to head home to my impeccably tidy house. I would have put on my slippers and chilled, maybe watching another episode of that box-set I adore whilst waiting for my wholesome stew to stew.

But I’m not sensible. I stayed at the pub for longer than I should have. I bought a pizza on the way home and woke fully clothed, having fallen asleep on my sofa. This is not the life I Imagined when I was a younger man.

Music is my constant. I can’t have been older than ten when I discovered the joy of headphones. Put on a pair, the more visible the better, and you’re making a statement that you don’t want to engage with the world. I woke this morning with headphones on.

The wonderful Francesca Brown had sent me to sleep. Or at least, it was her track, Undone that undid me. One minute I was watching this video, the next I was in the land of nod. In many ways, this might imply that what we have here is dull and languorous. But, the truth is something entirely different. 

For sure, this is not a brain beating punk excursion; it’s more of a protest song done serenely. Undone has a very specific ‘je ne sais quoi’ that I cannot fathom but love all the same. Maybe, it’s the shuffling melody or the rise and fall of Francesca’s vocal, the sense that something isn’t quite right here in a world that should be perfect. It both calms me and makes me anxious. It’s sexy and completely not so. It leaves me speechless and without a rudder. It’s soul that touches my soul and I suspect this is a good response.

Ladies and Gentleman – have happy weekends. I’ll continue to nurse this hanging head with Francesca and my headphones for company. 

 

 

 

 

The Robocobra Quartet – Correct

If you’re told that a gig is lasting from 6 until 9 in an evening, what time would you turn up? I thought I was being a tad over-eager to show my face at 6.45. But, the truth is that I’d been looking forward to seeing The Robocobra Quartet upstairs at Nottingham’s Rough Trade since I’d chanced upon their music and sneaked an advance copy of their forthcoming album, Music For All Occasions. It truly is an album of the year, which oddly is also the subject of the final tune (and stand-out track) on it.

Thanks for being a decent audience. We’ll sign stuff at the merch desk but we’re in a massive rush to catch the boat back to Belfast”, says Chris Ryan, drummer and vocalist. “This is our last tune.” And the realisation sinks in. I’d missed out on this by being too casual. I still hadn’t had my tea.

I saw enough to know that The Robocobra Quartet are incredibly important. Post-rock, down tempo jazz influenced angst has hardly been something I’ve given much consideration towards in the past. Truly though, I’m not sure I’ve really heard much like this before. Unique and inventive whilst remaining accessible, it’s intensely satisfying stuff. The spoken word lyrics seem to make sense over the woodwind and bass even though the reality is that they’re fragments of nonsense on repeat. 

The final tune, the one I hear, is Correct. This was the piece that had initially drawn me to the Robocobra Quartet. It’s delivered with intense panache in this live setting. Drummer Chris loses himself amidst the staccato sax as he spits and sweats his way to the conclusion. The band leave the stage. I shake their hands and commit to seeing a full set very soon. 

Later, as I drink another pint, I spy others entering the venue expecting to see a band in full flow. They’re already on their way home. The disappointment is tempered by the knowledge that these guys will be back. They’ll make 2017 interesting. 

 

Ward Thomas – Cartwheels

I’m a bit out of touch with music charts. Long gone are the days when I would study the data in Smash Hits; when I’d know who was ‘this week’s highest climber’ in advance of the now disgraced Radio One DJ telling me on Top Of The Pops. 

I had absolutely no idea that an act I once wrote about in 2014 (here) had now had a bona-fide number one album. I knew that the career of Ward Thomas had taken an upward trajectory but I had no sense how much. I don’t hate it when my friends become successful. Well done Catherine and Lizzy.

I’d love to claim that I was there at the start of their journey and that it was my blog post that helped them on their way. But, clearly it wasn’t. This is down to hard work on their part, enthusiastic Radio 2 support and a sprinkling of promotional activity from their record label. I saw them again at Brighton’s Great Escape in May 2015 and it was easy to see the progress since that night in the Italian restaurant.

Ward Thomas released a new video today to accompany their third single from the number one album, Cartwheels. This song, also called Cartwheels, will have some Sonic Breakfast readers sticking their fingers down their throats in general disgust. “Sean’s gone soft“, some might say with others arguing that it’s always been thus.

But I like this. The harmonies are fab and the arrangement exquisite. The song stands up to scrutiny as well. It’s a bit of a heart-wrencher, a lament of a lover who refuses to accept that a relationship has bitten the dust. The video’s full of artistic endeavour, ballet being the chosen dance form with which to express the pain of the withering love. 

I never could cartwheel. 

 

The Molochs – No More Cryin’

This one very nearly slipped past me. I try my hardest to listen to most things that are sent into my inbox but sometimes have to admit noble defeat. There are not enough hours in the day when you’ve also got a busy day job and a life. 

I am sure that there are some works of absolute genius lingering there unread from the summer months. Festivals (and the subsequent reviews) become my priority. Sonic Breakfast starts to fester despite the occasional flurry. 

News of a video from The Molochs arrived a couple of weeks ago. I’ve no real excuse for not seeing it except I was grumpy with cold and stretched at work. I wish I had watched it then for it would have given me a smiley boost.

When I was a boy, I used to adore watching repeat episodes of ‘The Monkees’ on Saturday morning TV. They might have only been from the decade before but the vintage gloss and sense that they were relics from a different era definitely shone through. I liked the energy, the sense of collective community and the general quirkiness on offer. It somehow made sense.

In many ways, watching this video to No More Cryin’, the Molochs first release from an album that’s being released next year has a similar affect on me. Lucas Fitzsimons from the band observes that “shot in super 16, we wanted a classic look that moved into something more modern — there is no story, plot, or angle — the main objective was to shoot something that looked beautiful while maintaining an earthy fidelity.” 

But, it’d be missing the point to think that The Molochs are little more than a retro nod to times past.  The Molochs are taking the past apart, not trying to recreate it. Aware of their history and place in things, this is a story of hard work, of fighting against every challenge that comes your way and of reminiscing to move forward. I think you’ll enjoy.