Raiding The Rock Vault – Subterania – December 5th 2019

Tom G is a work colleague (until he leaves shortly for pastures new). I’ll be sad to see him go. He’s a fab, young man who helps to make everyone’s working life better by being an all-round cheery charmer. We’ve spent a fair amount of time chatting about music; he previously worked for a student publication and used to knock out a decent review or five. I couldn’t make it to a show last week and in truth, the hair-rock on offer was less my thing than it was Toms. 

Over to Tom… 

With a tagline of ‘bringing the history of rock ‘n’ roll to life’, I had very high expectations for Raiding the Rock Vault.

The troupe, comprised of a rotating lineup of rockers of genuinely impressive credentials (guitarists from Heart, bassists from Bon Jovi, drums from Yes and more), have been plying their trade in Las Vegas for several years now, promising to take the audience on a journey through the annals of some of the best classic anthems rock has to offer.

As soon as the band took to the stage in the intimate Subterania venue, they had an immediate tick in the ‘looking the part’ box. These veteran rockers are dressed to impress, with all the requisite long flowing manes and grizzled leather jackets one would expect.

The Raiding the Rock Vault show, when it kicks into action, turns out to be a bizarre and interesting hybrid of a sort of musical-style performance combined with a more traditional gig – all the band ham up their parts, swinging their guitars Pete Townshend-style and performing all sorts of Freddie Mercury-style tricks with the microphone stand.

Theatricality aside, though, it instantly becomes clear that they are all bloody great at what they do. With a set stuffed with absolute classics of the genre, there are always going to be some fiendishly difficult guitar solos, drum beats and vocal pyrotechnics to pull off, and the Raiding the Rock Vault crew smashed through these with aplomb throughout the two-hour set they played.

Hotel California’s duelling guitar solo was recreated faithfully, the infectious talkbox riff of Livin’ On A Prayer was as hypnotic as ever, and even gentler, subtler tracks like Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams were pulled off supremely well, with the female vocalist for that track in particular producing a truly impressive Stevie Nicks impression.

The vibe of the whole event was very much a party, singalong affair, with most of the audience looking like they’d be equally at home as members of the band. There were some fantastic hands-in-the-air numbers and the crowd really did their bit to make the whole thing even more enjoyable, shouting along to literally every word of every song – even if they couldn’t match some of the operatic high notes as well as the vocalist did.

All in all Raiding the Rock Vault does exactly what it says on the tin, and you can’t really expect it to do more than that – if you love a power ballad and a hair metal solo while you wear your leathers into work, you’ll feel incredibly at home at Raiding the Rock Vault.

 

I’ve suggested that Tom reviews more for Sonic Breakfast. It’ll be grand to stay in touch when he heads off to his new job. 

 

Life At The Arcade, History & Lore, Juke Lucid and Day – O2 Academy Islington – November 22nd 2019

The Islington O2 Academy prides itself on being London’s smallest academy. It also seems to pride itself on being a bit shit. Not on its own in terms of academy venues, this is a space that appears to relish in sucking the life and soul out of live music. I find myself wondering, whilst there on Friday night, whether the whole set-up is a great conspiracy, an establishment investment. Make music venues naff and stack the cards against enjoying gigs and then people will come out less – bingo – control and suppression at its best. Thank goodness that London has so many other venues that buck that trend.

I concede that my conspiracy theory is an extreme one. But I have evidence with which to back it up. Expensive beer and an excessively poor range (fine if you like Carling); broken hinges on urine-soaked toilet doors; bands having to accept the less than adequate sound mix they’re given; crazy rules that dictate that once you’ve entered the venue you can’t leave if you want to come back in (despite gigs starting at 6.30PM) and over-the-top security searches. I could go on but I won’t. And in the interests of balance, the bar staff here in Islington are friendly. 

I’m here as the afternoon gives in to the evening to see Day. They’re an act that I’ve been keen to see for a little while. Alex fronts up Day and also sings backing vocals in one of my favourite live discoveries of this London year, Fake Turins. (Reviews of them here and here). Alex has enthusiastically promoted Day live shows to me by e-mail but I’ve always had to make excuses with something else on. This O2 Academy gig supporting Life At The Arcade is my opportunity. 

Alex warns me that the gig has a hideously early start time. Half six on a Friday might be a challenge for some but not for me living a literal stones throw from this space. “I’ve never played a gig so early”, says Alex to other friends gathered. 

Day are an interesting proposition, a work-in-progress that have more than enough about them to keep on moving forward. As the venue manager waves an incense stick around to take away last night’s smells, the four-piece take to the stage. It’s lo-fi hippy; a sound mess of an intro gives way to an off-kilter police siren before a classic rock sound fuelled by Led Zep chords comes to the fore. There are obviously experimental kazoo-bits, cardboard didgeridoo’s and blasts of saxophone. 

Alex’s exceptional rock vocal holds it all together. In ‘Chasing Sugar’, his range goes from the bass of a Barry White into the falsetto of a Jimi Somerville in the space that verse changes into chorus. A set highlight for me comes at the end of Day’s set when they launch into ‘I have everything I need’. I interpret it as an instant anti-greed, climate-change classic, delivered in the style of The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown.

For a work-in-progress, Day have set their bar high.

Still early evening when Day finish, I look to temporarily head out of Islington’s O2 Academy to get a bite to eat. There are still three bands to play and it’ll be a long night without food. “Sorry sir, company rules is that once in we can’t do re-entry”, says the sympathetic guy on the door. After some radio kerfuffle, an exception is made for me. I’m grateful yet the venue has a handful of people within. Their practice is odd.

I return to see Juke Lucid take to the stage. I’ve got a real downer on the venue by this time. Sonic Breakfast in a critical mood is probably not what bands want when I’m reviewing and my notes on Juke Lucid are abrupt. I note that they’re perfectly pleasant if a bit characterless, little more than background music in a shit venue. The bland pop gets marginally more exciting when a chap in a hoodie takes to the stage to rap. Jake Lucid end with a cover of Stardust’s ‘Music Sounds Better With You’. I suspect that their music would sound better in a different venue. 

History & Lore are up next and fare little better than Juke Lucid in terms of grabbing my attention. Perhaps my grumpy mood is crumbling because I do note that the five of them make a decent sound, even if it’s not my thing. The lead guitarist and singer has an arrogance suggesting he’s better then he actually is but their keyboard player sings and is very good. There’s a Los Campesinos feel to some of their work. That’s the extent of my notes. 

I feel genuinely sorry for Life At The Arcade. Tonight’s headliner have travelled all the way from Liverpool to be welcomed by a fistful of fans. Life At The Arcade deliver indie scouse melody with charm and theatre. They’re all dressed in black t-shirts and have clearly thought about their show. Some might argue that the world has to many Catfish & The Bottlemen, Blossoms or Circa Waves tribute acts but I’m not one of them. As tough a gig as this might have been for Life At The Arcade, they keep on it throughout. They now just need to stop playing such shit venues in the hope of developing their career. 

There’s still time to catch last orders (and more) in a pub around the corner. It’s a pub with nice beer, decent toilets and a bunch of cracking tunes on the jukebox. I can see why it would make for a fun Friday night. 

Montrell, Michael Kurtz and Foreign T.V. – The Victoria – November 21st 2019

I’ve known Michael Kurtz since he was 16. That was six years ago. Back then, I spent January evenings down at Leicester’s Musician watching the best of the area’s local acoustic acts. And Michael was undoubtedly one of the best. With a rich, baritone voice and a lyrically astute delivery style, you couldn’t avoid the sense that he had effortless talent beyond his tender years. 

Dean Jackson, the influential BBC Introducing man of the East Midlands got wind of Michael’s talents and studio sessions beckoned. Deservedly, Michael’s profile was rising.

We’ve stayed in touch a bit via social media. I was delighted when Michael checked in a few weeks ago to tell me about a couple of gigs that he was playing down here in London with his new band, Montrell. 

I went along to the Gotobeat promoted Thursday night at one of my favourite haunts, Dalston’s Victoria. Michael generously added me to his list. I’d not come across the Gotobeat model before but I like what they’re trying to do. They’re putting on shows for a club of gig lovers. For a tenner a month, club members can go to all promoted Gotobeat gigs. Arguably, it’s an advanced way of doing things better for bands rather than fronting up the various free shows that London offers. I’ll watch their model with interest. And it’s their photo here as well. 

Before Michael takes to the stage to we get those Tricky Dicky’s from Billericay, the cheeky chaps of Foreign T.V.. They’ve all come straight from work if their stage garb is anything to go by. Their lead singer sports a fleece advertising the painting and decorating firm that employs him. “I’ve still got paint all over my face, I’ve come from an orgy”, he jokes before the band launch into a James Taylor cover. It turns out that the hip-hop vintage vest wearing guitar player is a primary school teacher. “It’s times tables tests tomorrow”, he tongue-twistingly laments.

Musically, Foreign T.V. jump through a range of genres with their main focus being a laidback and sleazy 70’s jazz-funk. Yet over the top of that, they place the swagger of a Britpop era Blur and a lyricism of early Squeeze. We get talk of pheromones in the back seats of taxis before their lead singer throws his fleece into the crowd and conducts a choreographed aerobics. “I need it back for work tomorrow”, he warns. 

Michael’s playing a solo set before he then takes lead guitar responsibility for Montrell. No slouch in the height front when he was 16, this giant man now towers over all as he haunches towards the mic stand. Foreign T.V. are a hard act to follow inasmuch as they make a lot of noise on stage and Michael doesn’t. And that background chatter (often coming from the mouths of that first act) is undeniably off-putting in the early part of the set. Michael perseveres though and his charm wins through. Like Nick Drake (or indeed James Taylor), his songs are gentle, clever and melodic. His voice still belies his years. He’s proud that Montrell have asked him to join them as their guitarist and the original members of the band repay the compliment by joining Michael on stage for a beefed-up and simply brill version of ‘Carved In Stone’.

There’s no denying Montrell’s musical prowess. So capable are they that they give off an air of session musicians having a night out. They write fine songs that might be classed as easy listening, middle-of-the-road pieces; think Bread (the band, not the sitcom) and you’d be in the right space. None of that is meant as an insult; indeed, I can’t think of many bands I’ve seen this year occupying such a space and I’d take such considered songwriting over indie bluster every day of the week. Jonny, lead vocalist, has a calm charm about him as he regales us all with tales of tracks written in German hotel rooms and songs about feeling alienated in the morning when you wake up in a strange place. There’s a picture of a lemon posted to the wall; the reason for which is none too obvious. 

Montrell tell how they met Michael and knew he had to be their guitarist. The baby-faced one seems to be fitting in well and certainly adds to the overall effect of the band. It’s been a neat night and I head home happy. 

 
 

Sløtface – The Old Queens Head – November 20th 2019

If 2019 has taught me anything, it’s to jump when Georgie, the fab PR person from Propeller Records, sends a recommendation about anything. She promotes a fab range of music, largely from Norway. It’s never failed me yet in terms of quality.

I was going to have a Wednesday in but then got the notice that Sløtface (still pronounced Slutface) were doing a special event at The Old Queens Head. It’s a pub just down the road on the Essex Road, a little over five minutes walk away. Always looking appealing from the outside, now was my chance to see the interior.

There’s a Wednesday celebration going on downstairs at the Old Queens Head. I guess that somebody has just got married. “I said to you in the first year of uni that by the third year I’d be sucking your cock”, screams one drunken casualty. It’s 8PM and I quickly head upstairs, following the printed instruction. 

It’s quite a venue – faux square music hall with an edge of punk spirit. On Wednesday’s The Old Queens Head does cocktails for a fiver. Sadly, it takes a good fiver minutes to make each drink. That leads to queues of nonsense length at the bars. It’s a good job that it’s a midweek session. 

Sløtface are here to excitedly proclaim that their new and second album, Sorry For The Late Reply, is about to launch. The set-up for tonight is announced. We’re going to get a band Q&A with a journalist from the NME before a first listen to the new disc. To round things off, Sløtface will play a short set. The serious fans here whoosh in unified excitement.

It’s hard not to warm to Sløtface. The NME fanboy gets his notebook out and asks his prepared questions. Discussions like this are rarely fun. But, at least he steers clear of questions about the recording process. There’s little more dull than discovering about how an album was engineered. 

We learn that for Sløtface, releasing records is anti-climatic, akin to those birthdays that nobody remembers. The staunchly feminist band rally against missed merch mistakes before revealing that this new record is political but personal not preachy. It still might be categorised as indie pop punk but Sløtface show that their influences range wider; Weaves, Phoebe Bridges and Julien Baker all get nods of acknowledgement. Specific tracks are mentioned. The NME scribe believes that ‘Crying In Amsterdam’ is the album’s centrepiece but the band are less sure. All of Sløtface like ‘Stuff’ because they didn’t much like Haley’s boyfriend who it’s about. “I wanted to call it ‘anti-consumerist love song‘”, says Haley, ever so jubilantly. 

The album does sound ace. Many here must have already heard it because they get up and mingle, talking over the top. I like what I hear. There’s every indication that 2020 could be a major year for Sløtface as their difficult second record lands. 

Gigs in bright rooms put on for fans and press wonks are always odd affairs. But the four members of Sløtface make a better fist of it than most. Tracks from this new album sound impressive and stand up well against the odd old track (Nancy Drew). A break from their current tour with Pup, Sløtface are initially relaxed about our sedentary state. But, by the end, they’re urging us to our feet. Haley stage dives because it’s what she’s done on every night of this tour. Sløtface are a band that could connect with you anywhere. 

The chap from the NME visibly riles Sløtface when he suggests that their mission is to make as many enemies as friends. On tonight’s evidence, the likelihood of more friends is the certainty. 

Clock Opera & Oh Baby – The Lexington – November 16th 2019

There was a time when I didn’t go to gigs to write about them; I didn’t go to festivals to observe and convey; I didn’t listen to music to necessarily have an opinion about it. That time feels like a memory from the dim and distant path. And yet actually as recently as seven years ago, I still stubbornly held onto the opinion that people who write about music are wankers. 

I saw Clock Opera lots back then. They became a favourite live band after blowing me away one afternoon/evening at Nottingham’s Dot to Dot festival. They seemed capable of squeezing that extra bit of sound from the Rescue Rooms decks; you couldn’t help but feel fully immersed whenever they played. Their live brand of complicated electronic pop was always magical and incredible. 

I saw them more in festival fields; an odd late-night Monday morning billing at Bestival after Stevie Wonder had finished and a hardcore weekend of drinking was almost done; an early Friday afternoon main stage gig at Summer Sundae when Clock Opera were a man down and I was deep in argument with my girlfriend of the time. These are the things I remember now. 

But it wasn’t until the following year that I started to write about music. Clock Opera missed out – not that my endorsement would have ultimately counted for much. 

It’s a Saturday afternoon and I’m struggling. I’ve stayed in London for the weekend, largely because I need to get some committee papers produced for the day job. The work is arduous; I tackle it distractedly. It’s the best way to get through this. 

I plan to keep working and so deliberately choose not to have a scan at local London gig guides for the night. But, during a particularly testing paragraph, I crumble and search. Clock Opera play the Lexington tonight, a ten minute walk from this guardianship. I am tempted. 

I send the band a cheeky FB messenger message asking if I can come and review. They’ll be busy preparing for the gig, I think. They won’t see my message and even if they do they have every right to discard the request of a blogger with less than six years of writing experience. I’m overjoyed and confess to doing a little dance around my room when a positive note comes back. I ditch the work immediately and drink some wine. 

Oh Baby are the support for the evening. They are a two piece that indulge in an industrial light form of electronica. They have a gadget in so much as they press play on a reel to reel tape when they take to the stage. It’s hard to tell from a distance if this makes a difference to the sound at all or if the effect is marginal. The fine singer cracks some angular dance moves before picking up a rickenbacker guitar to sing a chorus of ‘this is not your fault’. The chap standing next to me thinks they sound a little like Roxette. I tell him that this is harsh but concede privately that he has a point. Oh Baby are one of those duos I’ll have to see again to make my mind up about. I guess this is no bad thing. 

 

Clock Opera are road-testing a fair bit of new material tonight. They’ve got a new album, Carousel, that’s imminent and that’s what bands do. The core elements remain (even if some original band members don’t) and Guy’s voice sounds as incredible as it ever did back in the day. Clock Opera are the Bastille that it’s ok for fans of more complex pop to like. They still have that insane ability to bleed every ounce of sound from a venue, to make it feel as if the electronic bleeps and beats are wrapping you up in a noise cocoon. 

Guy recalls the time when they last played at the Lexington. It was for a small company  (Spotify) showcase. “Whatever happened to them?“, he quips. I guess most of the crowd here tonight are stalwarts of Clock Opera’s history and are all thinking how time has flown and things have changed. Andy West, former bass player of Clock Opera stands in the crowd and gets a nod from Guy as he picks up that particular  instrument, ever the multi-tasker. “We miss you Andy“, he says. 

There’s undoubtedly still a place for Clock Opera in the world of complex pop. The likes of Everything Everything will surely acknowledge that. For a moment, time stands still when the band launch into ‘Once And For All’. We’re all transported back to when we first experienced that tune live. It still sounds fresh and world-beating. My papers will be easier to write tomorrow. 

Spearmint and Piney Gir – The Water Rats – November 14th 2019

I’m none too sure when I first heard Spearmint. It might have been when the much missed ‘Word’ magazine featured one of their tracks, the excellent ‘Scottish Pop’, on their wonderful monthly compilation CD. It could have been as a result of listening to good friend Steve and his effusive praising of the album ‘A Different Lifetime’. 

“It’s got a story running throughout that you’ll definitely relate to”, said Steve. The rise and subsequent fall of relationships was undoubtedly my thing back then. 

Whatever, I’ve been a fan of Spearmint for the best part of twenty years. And, in that time, I’ve never once seen them live. I do remember trying to get my friend Richard to book them for Summer Sundae after I found one of their CDs lurking in the submissions box. “I’ve never heard of them”, he said, promptly putting an end to that plan.

Imagine my excitement then that on a cold Thursday night in London, I’m going to see Spearmint at the Water Rats. The venue is close enough to walk to, just 15 minutes from my new property guardianship. It’s all set up perfectly. 

Water Rats is a fab, iconic venue. I’ve been here years ago but not in the last year since I’ve been living in London. A cosy bar at the front gives way to a back room complete with a decent stage, lighting desk and sound system. It seems better equipped than many of the spit and sawdust gig venues I go to; more upmarket, the place oozes confidence and class. 

Piney Gir supports Spearmint. And makes a bloody good job of it. Piney is dressed in a stylish, 60’s era, black dress with a swathe of green running through it. Her backing singer dresses in identical fashion but the green dash is replaced by red. The backing band dress with similar astuteness. It’s very mod; stylish, cute and kooky with a healthy amount of maraca shaking. “This one was written during a summer when I listened to nothing but doo-wop”, says Piney before launching into a set highlight,  ‘Peanut Butter Malt Shop Heartthrob’. 

Piney’s an engaging raconteur, a bit of a vintage witch and full of ideas about how Spearmint could improve their merch take by selling toothpaste. Most of all though, there’s a smiley joy about this set. Her final song comes with a chorus of ‘I could make you happy every day’ and by the time the song ends few are in the mood to argue. There’s a ton of grinning as we head back to the bar for refills.

 

Spearmint take to the stage on the dot of nine. They’ve got a lot to get through. Mr. Shirley Lee wears a smart dotted shirt and a skinny red leather tie. It’s almost as if he’s come straight from work. The bulk of tonight’s set draws from Spearmint’s recently released album, Are You From The Future?. And I don’t mind this at all seeing as it’s been on regular repeat since I received a copy. It’s a fine work and, in the live setting, the songs come alive even more. The electro-pop urgency of ‘St. Thomas In The Darkness’ sounds nothing like Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ but we still laugh at the observation made by an American journalist in interview. 

Of the new album tunes, ‘Fireflies’, all about the reliability of memories, really hits the spot. ‘Pick The Paper Up’ sees Spearmint firmly nail their colours to Europe and we all love them the more for that. They’re a band of vintage and they use this experience well. You can’t help but gulp in awe when the gently subtle harmonies between the band come to the fore. 

A sprinkling of older tracks are mixed in to keep the nostalgia-heads happy. I guess I’m one of them. I cannot even explain the all-encompassing joy I feel when hearing the likes of Julie Christie, Scottish Pop and The Flaming Lips played live. They are stupendous indie-pop songs. Tonight provides the perfect release from the daily grind. 

It all comes to an end far too quickly. The world would clearly be a better place if more people knew about Spearmint. 

 

Dark Tea and Roscoe Roscoe – Shacklewell Arms – November 12th 2019

I’m in a new zone one property guardianship, an old, disused Natwest bank building that’s a stones throw from Angel Islington underground. It’s only been two weeks since I left the last one but it’s felt longer. Being without roots and living out of a suitcase in AirBNB’s is both exciting and exhausting. Having a bit more permanence, albeit with fewer rights of tenure than if I were renting, allows me the chance to think, to take stock and to get a bit comfortable. I stay in for a couple of nights getting my room to a level that can be lived in before the draw of the free London gig scene again entices me out.

It’s seriously so well connected here. I walk out of my front door to bus-stops galore. Different routes will take me to all of my favourite venues on these chilly, dark nights when walking and exploring is less of an option. 

I arrive at the Shacklewell Arms just in time to see Roscoe Roscoe. They’re a five piece who indulge in dreamy and woozy shoegaze-filled psychedelics. Their frontman, complete with a moptop that marks him out as true indie, flits between falsetto and a deeper singing style whilst the others in the band give the impression that this is little more than a prog-jam. They all know how to play but could now maybe look like they’re enjoying themselves more. A Mum of the band (years of gig going has got me well-skilled at spotting them) sings along with every note and dances wildly in the otherwise static and earnest crowd. Roscoe Roscoe’s overall impact is positive. Ultimately there’s something of interest happening here and I’d happily watch them again.

Dark Tea is the current musical vehicle of Gary Canino, a resident of Brooklyn, New York. His latest album, named after the band, is well worth listening to if skewed stoner Americana is your thing. Sitting somewhere between Wilco, Bright Eyes and Jeffrey Lewis on the music mind-map, Dark Tea are also a five piece tonight. It’s none too clear if this is a permanent arrangement (one of the guitar slots is taken by the orange jumper wielding guitarist from Roscoe Roscoe) or a temporary bulking of the sound. What is true is that the full band oozes with a shambolic shuffle that’s kind of endearing. Camino, sporting a Norwegian ice hockey jacket, sings with a muffled casualness; the lyrical quality slightly obscured by the deliberate half-effort. Dark Tea’s main guitarist shuts his eyes and looks towards heaven in an euphoric state as a ‘down to love’ mantra spins out. It’s over quickly. I must have been enjoying myself.

In between bands and after the sets have finished, the iconic Lawrence (from Felt, Denim and Go-kart Mozart) chooses some wayward tunes for our aural education. Bonus for sure. 

That’s what happens in London. It’s difficult to stay in.