Seazoo, Little Thief & The Desert – The Old Blue Last – April 3rd 2019

Sometimes, free gig nights in this fair city feel expertly curated; at other times, they feel like they’ve been thrown together with little thought to any common thread between bands on the bill. For a genre-hopper like me, the latter mish-mash approach is often more appealing. I had a grand time on Wednesday night at the Old Blue Last when three very different acts took to the stage.

The Desert were up first. From Bristol, this four-piece specialise in mellow acoustic pop layered with gentle electronics. Lyrically, they’ve got the broken love story off to a tee with words like distract, bitterness and gone featuring heavily. Their main singer looks fruity with a lime green dress and bob haircut and there’s no denying that she has a pleasant, calm voice. Think Everything But The Girl crossed with Sadė yet produced in the city of trip hop. Some of the more subtle changes in variety are a bit too much for a chattering Wednesday night crowd but mostly the good stuff on show here is appreciated.

 

Little Thief are a much harder proposition than The Desert. They’re a three piece and probably consider themselves a jagged indie-rock band. I can’t get over how much the singer sounds like Sting though.  A track that they put out a couple of weeks back, Bringing It Back, stands out as a slightly heavier version of Roxanne. The bass player (who is not the singer – a fundamental difference from Police) jumps into the crowd and plays his instrument behind his head before a ballad is announced and lighters are waved. It’s fair to say that the crowd are loving Little Thief. I didn’t dislike them myself.

 

Seazoo have featured on Sonic Breakfast before. Sometimes, back in my Leicester days, I ‘allowed’ friends to contribute and this (here) was one such post. My good friend, Paul, has pretty different music tastes to me but it appears that we converge when it comes to jjangle-pop from North Wales. 

Seazoo are a band made for Sonic Breakfast. It’s no accident that their album from last year, Trunks, shows up as one of my most played on Spotify. They’re are all about fine, happy tunes tinged with shuffling awkwardness. When we’re introduced to the ‘shoddy display’ of CDs and T-Shirts at the merch desk it’s all perfectly in sync with the somewhat makeshift and stumbling nature of the band. For me,this music is pure bliss but only those living with the Sarah Records and Belle And Sebastian back-catalogue might fully agree. 

Criminally, large swathes of the crowd that watch Little Thief leave and so, despite the long distance travelled, action is initially sparse for Seazoo. It must be a real bummer but like true pros, the show goes on. Those of us remaining get a treat. Spring is in the air and you can almost smell summer within these tunes. Many are enticed back and by the time the show ends, fans and new converts are energetically high-kicking with arms gleefully interlocked. 

Strangers smile over the friendly, ramshackle brew. It’s been yet another great night out.

 

Drenge and Valeras – Electric Brixton – April 2nd 2019

I receive confirmation of a press pass to the Drenge ‘Strange Creatures’ show at Electric Brixton barely two hours before Valeras are due to take to the stage. And given that it’s the PR company of Valeras that have offered me such a neat perk, I need to get a boogie on to get there in time. London’s rarely difficult to navigate though. out of rush hour, and I get into the queue at the Brixton Electric with minutes to spare.

I’m clearly not used to these gigs at larger venues; getting in is akin to navigating through airport security. In fact, I’ve been through airport checks that have been slacker than this. Initially, I’m forced to prove my age by showing my ID. Luckily, I’m carrying my driving licence. Yes, I get that they’re showing equal treatment to all but surely common sense must prevail. A man nearing 50 who looks his age is unlikely to be wearing a disguise to shield the fact he’s under-age. After that, every single one of my jacket and trouser pockets are emptied of coins and pens. My wallet is poked and prodded. The frisking is intense but in these times of heightened security I shrug and accept. 

One wonders how on earth Valeras managed to get into the venue themselves. It’s the first thing you notice when this five piece from Reading take to the stage. I’m sure it’s not what they want attention drawn to yet they look exceptionally young – as if this could be a GCSE music project. (I check – they’re older than that).

Standing in a straight line of four, the guitar playing members (3 girls, one boy) of Valeras quickly and urgently launch into their opener. The drummer, Max, sits behind conducting. It’s the most classic of rock sounds. Some have their hair longer than others and throw it around in time with the driving, ballsy beat. There’s head banging a-plenty and full-on rock stance before we even get to the end of this first tune. 

You can’t help but notice the lead singer and bassist, Rose Yagmur. She does most of the talking between songs; there’s not much and it’s your standard stuff of urging people to come a little closer and checking how in the mood for Drenge people are. But Rose’s  vocal is strong and her bass-playing even better. When she really rocks out, my notes suggest that we could have a young Suzi Quatro. It’s no doubt lazy thinking on my part.

What stands out above everything is the unity between band members, even when cowbell and harmonies are introduced. Despite their tender years, Valeras are a band who have practiced and worked hard to sound more accomplished than many double their age. They’re definitely ones to watch.

 

I probably first saw Drenge when they were younger than Valeras. It was a festival up North (review here) and back then it was just the Loveless brothers, Eoin singing and Rory on drums. From memory, they played a small stage at the end of a long weekend but still from somewhere I summoned the energy to mosh, such was the compelling thrash of noise that they offered. I later reviewed them when they were a three piece for the Leicester Mercury. I’ve lost those words and the beasts at the Mercury haven’t archived them. 

It seems sort of right that I now see them as a four piece. With third album just released, Strange Creatures, it’s immediately obvious from set opener, Prom Night, that their sound, songwriting and stature continues to develop. This is dark storytelling, more contained than those early days, more angular post-punk than all-out raucous energy. As a set opener, it’s dramatic, unhinged brilliance. It bookends brilliantly with the slow build and electrifying wig-out of Let’s Pretend at the end of the set. 

In between, the raucous does come; the sound epic and fuller than ever. Classic Drenge tunes such as Bloodsports and Face Like A Skull mix in with the newer seamlessly.

I’m no longer moshing – I couldn’t possibly take it in that crowd tonight. At times, when it really kicks off, you almost feel some sympathy for the security guards, rigorously and desperately clinging to an out of control mob. 

By rights, these should be even bigger than they are”, mouths a chap sat (yes, I sat) next to me. And he’s absolutely right. Perhaps it’s Drenge’s gradual growth in band members, their fluent rather than sudden rise from brilliant to better, their determination to keep developing that has kept the stadiums a bit in check. 

Drenge might no longer be at the start of their careers but they’re forging one of longevity. As it would appear are Valeras. Drenge end in encore with ‘We Can Do What We Want’. In times as uncertain as these it’s probably a pretty fine way to look at things. 

 

Wovoka Gentle, Swimming Girls & Josiah & The Bonnevilles – Omeara – March 25th 2019

Show me a better and more solid live proposition in 2019 than Wovoka Gentle and I’ll be there with bells on. Let’s not beat around the bush here – Wovoka Gentle’s unique approach to live music-making is jaw-dropping; from splodges of sound and harnessed beats emerge the most beautiful of melodies; harmonic juice born out of the most intense of concentrates. This triumvirate astound with their innate electronic folk togetherness. Just see them should you get the chance.

Sonic Breakfast first became aware of their class after randomly walking past the stage they were playing on at the fine Nozstock festival. That’s been documented here previously in this blog. I’d pay to see Wovoka Gentle but their record label, Yucatan, has generously put on a lovely Monday night free show at Omeara. It’s another new London venue for me and it’s no-brainer to head along to the collection of railway arches just down from London Bridge.

Omeara is an ace venue. I’m none too sure where it starts and others begin. Once I’ve got my hand stamped and briefly look at the faux-dungeon crossed with music hall facility of the main venue, I wander through a series of connected rooms to see bars and street food spaces. A more upmarket version of a Budapest ruin bar, I sit eating pizza, drinking beer and waiting for the music to kick off.

 Josiah (from Josiah & The Bonnevilles) is tonight’s special guest. The crowd watch with interest despite his style bearing minimal resemblance for what will follow. He’s got a birthday coming up in the next few hours and gives quick nods to friends and family in the audience who’ll no doubt be celebrating with him. Catch him at the right angle and Josiah could be Brad Pitt’s shorter and younger brother. These tunes from Tennessee, mostly performed on acoustic guitar but with a brief piano break, are classic Americana. He’s Ryan Adams pre-disgrace. There’s a vibration to Josiah’s vocal not dissimilar to the one employed by Conor Oberst. My favourite tune of his that I hear draws influence from George Jones. “It’s about the saddest song on a record, the hidden-away one that you can’t stop listening to because you’re fucked up”, says Josiah.

 

The room gets really busy for Swimming Girls. It’s not surprising given that they’re flavour of the month in some quarters. I confess though that, on tonight’s showing, they pass me by a bit. And that’s despite having a guitar player with a Smiths lyric on his T-shirt. They’ve got a sound that’s not far removed from the excessive soft rock of the 1980’s. My notes suggest Starship or an ideal soundtrack to a recently unearthed, never-seen-before, John Hughes movie. Swimming Girls are fronted by Vanessa, a slinky, confident sort who clearly has good rapport with her crowd. When the rest of the band sit down and Vanessa plays a peeled-back number on her electric guitar, the influence of Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors comes right to the fore. There’s nothing wrong with Swimming Girls; they do what they do well and the kids love them. I guess their influences were never entirely my thing the first time around. There’s a slight exodus for Wovoka Gentle and the crowd demographic gets noticeably older.

 

Wovoka Gentle must surely be a sound technician’s nightmare. They bring trays of gadgets, cluttered desks of wires and mics onto stage with them pre-set. But with striking efficiency and organised calm, the three members find the right holes in which to plug things in. A violin is sound-checked. Six separate mics are given cursory attention. The three desks look inward; wires now flail across the stage; complicated neural pathways of the Wovoka Gentle brain.

The opening segment almost induces tears from this quarter. William strums an electric guitar and launches into the briefest of covers of 30 Century Man whilst Imogen and Ellie accompany with exquisite vocal harmony. “That’s our tribute to Scott Walker. He very much influenced us”, says William (or words to that effect).

As for the rest, the biggest big-up that I can give is that I make no more notes. This is a set of such variety and such pulsating beauty that I can do little more than stand transfixed. With the slightest of nods, Ellie lets Imogen know what William is thinking. It’s that sort of understanding that elevates this set beyond the norms. I think (though can’t be sure) that the beats are continuous and that the songs of highest quality merge into one. I recognise some but not all; there’s a new album out in June that’ll surely push the genius that is Wovoka Gentle further to the fore. I am dazzled again.

This is where it’s at.

Glowie, Karimthapeasant and Millie Turner, Sebright Arms, March 21st 2019

It’s nearly the weekend. But before I head out of London to catch up on sleep there’s still time to take in one more gig. The Sebright Arms is yet to let me down so I head there for a Thursday night of new music promoted by Abbie McCarthy’s Good Karma Club that, on paper at least, looks like it could be a banger.

There are four acts on but the key breaks in the lock of my AirBNB hampering my ability to see the opener and testing my ‘escape room’ resourcefulness. When I get to the Sebright’s basement, Millie Turner is about to take to the stage. I’d seen her name recently announced as a Barn On The Farm festival act – always a reliable predictor of up and coming pop talent.

Millie doesn’t let us down. She’s got years on her side but has already got quite a handle on her stagecraft. Her name is painted on a sheet backdrop across the stage but that’s the only noticeable nod to any DIY ethic. This is polished and smooth; the theatre is thought through. 

 

Flanked on either side by a keyboard player/guitarist and a drum machinist dressed in identical white T-shirts, Millie adds to the symmetry when she emerges centre-stage in angular red mack. She’s got a voice, a decent pair of lungs for this game. It’s hot up there and she throws the mack to the floor as she launches into a spoken word intro to her tune, The Shadow. You expect a duff moment, filler amongst the glorious pop but it doesn’t come. There’s more poetry and you can’t help but notice that Millie’s literate and well spoken. She suggests to all that she’ll send us an individual drawing if we fill out our address on one of the postcards she brandishes. You’d be a fool not to. They could be worth something in years to come.

Karimthapeasant indulges in a very modern rap that I’m not sure I’ll ever entirely understand. That’s not to say that I don’t thoroughly enjoy his enthusiastic set. He bounds on stage with a look not dissimilar to the lion from The Wizard Of Oz yet with so much uplifting energy it’s contagious. He introduces Will, his backing technician on the MPC before freestyling and doing ‘new shit’. The crowd love KTP; he works them well. When he jumps into the crowd for his finale, a mosh pit gets going that your average rock fan from 2019 might only dream of. Exuberant and a total triumph. 

 

Glowie, the headliner for tonight, arrives from Iceland highly rated. My eyesight isn’t what it once was but I can still tell that her charms are seductive. With T shirt tucked into her jeans that are pulled up to her belly button, she flicks her hair around and tells all that she’s good. On balance, this is probably true though I’ll reserve judgement until I’ve seen her with band. Tonight, with backing tape and the slightest suggestion of miming to her vocal tracks, there’s room to improve. I do feel for her though when men old enough to be her Grandad poke their cameras into her close and personal space to get shots of her writhing dance. It feels just a tad seedy and unsavoury.

 

This London scene shows no sign of letting up. Across genre and across town, they’re are emerging pockets of brilliance. Tonight has again proved that. 

Bjørn Tomren – The Betsey Trotwood – 20th March 2019

Everybody likes receiving an invite to a ‘showcase’. Obviously the lure of free beer is simply a hook and the chance to see new music in a live setting the deal-breaker. 

Propeller Recordings are rapidly becoming one of my favourite labels. Dedicated to the promotion of Norwegian acts, their thorough and diligent UK based coordinator has invited me to some right cool stuff in recent weeks (here) and (here).

And it’s because of Georgie that I’m standing in this basement at the Betsey Trotwood in Clerkenwell on a Wednesday evening to watch an act newly-signed to Propeller, Bjørn Tomren, do his thing.

A word about the Betsey Trotwood first. The more that one scratches at London’s surface, the more you uncover great bases of entertainment. The Betsey is a dinky pub where streets converge. The basement, at a guess, holds no more than 50 though it could be deceptive with nooks, crannies and alcoves all offshoots of the main space. It would appear that they hold folk sessions down here, ukulele jams and knitting circles. It has community and great charm.

Bjørn shuffles to a bar-stool, emerging out of one of the nooks. He has a self-deprecating manner that verges on the fatalistic; he’s an observer, a storyteller with a dry sense of humour and it’s hard not to warm to his folky reference-laden Americana.

After celebrating Vera Lynn and questioning the validity of there ever being ‘bluebirds over Dover’, Bjørn launches into a story about Eartha Kitt’s invite to the White House in 1968. Eartha speaks out about the Vietnam war and sees her career in the States nosedive as a result. Bjørn champions her and other protestors in his song, 68. 

He might be Norwegian but his outlook is truly global. A traditional Norwegian folk song complete with a form of throat singing is included but so to a tune about Drinking in Helsinki, an opportunity to literately reference the influence that the mathematical best-seller ‘The Drunkard’s Walk – How Randomness Affects Your Life’ had on his thinking.

Showcases, by their very nature, can be short affairs but I really don’t want this to end when Bjørn says that he’s going to close his set with a cover of Hank William’s Long Gone Lonesome Blues. Most of us gathered are more than aware of the innate darkness and suicidal sadness lingering within this tune but can’t help raise a smile as Bjorn effortlessly and impressively takes on the yodelling parts.

It’s just another string to his bow. Propeller Recordings have successfully whetted the appetite of those gathered regarding their latest signing. You can see why they’ve trusted in Bjørn. 

 

Lonnie Storey, Leyma, Jimmi Herbert and Harry Heart – The Finsbury – 19th March 2019

I’m making a conscious decision this week to check out gig venues in London that are new to me.  With some of the more obvious places now ticked off, I head north and to The Finsbury. There’s entertainment in this Manor House pub most nights but for some reason I’ve not considered trekking up here before.

And that’s my loss. This is a busy boozer with a back venue of not inconsiderable space. The stage is raised and the lights good. I can overlook the smoke machine overdosing just after acts take to the stage. For some, I’m sure the haze adds to the atmosphere though for this older man it simply brings on the wheeze.

Harry Heart is on first. It’s just him with an acoustic guitar. He does nothing wrong as such but also nothing to stand out. He’s got a pleasant manner between tunes and we glean that Harry is probably here from Australia. He plays a tune that he ‘normally plays with four other blokes’ and another that he ‘wrote the last time he was in England a few years back’. The voice is a strained Jeff Buckley but, on first listen at least, none of these tunes really stand out. Even when Harry changes his guitar tuning, the songs all pretty much mesh into one. He offers free CDs from a murky merch table, a nice touch from a nice chap.

 

Jimmi Herbert has bought a new band with him. In crueller moments, I wonder if he’s raided his college Dungeons and Dragons after school club to find them. It’s their first gig and they’ll no doubt get better as they perform more together. Jimi, half wearing a floral shirt and with frizzy long hair is every inch the slacker yet his voice and manner is distinctive enough to mark him out. A chilled and laidback jazzy hip-hop, I struggle a bit to get beyond the notion that future single, Purple Pills, sounds like Frank Spencer covering Easy Life. Oooh Betty.

 

Easy Life are a band of the moment and I suspect that Leyma (up next) have also been influenced by their rise. More jazzy-chilled stuff with splashes of hip-hop, there’s an effortless cool about them. Leyma has a deep voice that contrasts well with track-suited Siv on bass. They’ve got a raucous fan base who have come from the East of this city to support. And in tunes such as ‘Extra Extra’ and ‘Smile For A Second’, they’ve got the material to back up the buzz that’s forming around them. Older adults stride around giving direction – managers and advisers one suspects who have promised these young lads fame, glory and celebrity endorsement. An enthusiastic but official photographer takes photos everywhere even jumping on stage and taking pics of Leyma’s set list. Somebody needs to tell him to turn the flash on his camera off. It dazzles like you’ve just been blinded by the sun and ultimately spoils the enjoyment of the unconverted.

 

A track by Rilo Kiley plays in the interlude between Leyma and tonight’s headliner, Lonnie Storey. I recall how much I miss that band.

Lonnie Storey is a charmer. His thing is lo-fi bedroom pop and he does so with the manner of Mac De Marco and the voice of Edwyn Collins. His confidence is understated with more than one tune announced as “being about making a dick out of yourself”. He specialises in crisp, cheesy guitar riffs executed with fine technique as the programmed-synth bleeps and beats away in the background. He tells all that he’s not yet released much but that more will be coming. I like his music and resolve to check out more when it arrives. 

 

I’ve been to some cracking gigs in recent weeks. This one doesn’t perhaps hit the heights of some of those but I’m glad to tick another venue from my London list. I’m sure there’ll be a return in coming weeks

Louis Brennan – The Greenwich Pensioner – 18th March 2019

I am drunk. On a Monday night. This is evidently not a good thing. Even if I make excuses in my own head and try to justify it all by saying it’s just my St. Patrick’s Day one day late this is far from convincing. 

I have an excuse of sorts; it’s another gig in this fair city and a new venue for Sonic Breakfast. The Greenwich Pensioner, out Poplar way, has had a makeover. Energetic new owners have lined up a tasty range of beer, a fine pizza menu and a set of live gigs that are not to be sniffed at. “I’m just booking things that I hear and like“, says the Northern proprietor. “We’ve not even got a PA. I don’t know what one is“, she adds, in a refreshingly honest moment.

You suspect though that these are people of good taste. And they’ve struck lucky with their first booking, Louis Brennan, even if the crowds aren’t exactly flocking in to support. Louis has been featured on Sonic Breakfast before (here). He’s got the quality to be playing venues much bigger and the select few know they’re getting a treat.

“I hope everybody likes depressing music“, he says by way of opening banter. A table of beer-swillers having a few post-work pints show their opposition by raising the level of their conversation. Louis wears them down by attrition and a few songs in, they leave. 

His voice, baritone gold, is one to get lost in. Sat on a bar-stool in the corner of this square and open room, Louis picks away on his guitar playing new songs and old songs. It really is all sorts of lovely. Ideas flow from lyrics with such speed that it’s sometimes not possible to keep up with this master poet-raconteur. It’s like discovering that Leonard Cohen is alive and well and playing a secret show at your much loved local.

Louis declares that he was going to play three half-hour sets but will now settle for two 45 minute halves. “It’s like a paper round where you’re diligently delivering the free papers rather than throwing them in the hedge“, he suggests whilst stoically working through his set-list and wondering if anybody actually cares.

But we do. This is a night of unplugged joy, a Monday night delight for the discerning. As Louis draws things to a close, a local group of Kendo enthusiasts come into the pub in an altogether surreal quadrupling of the punters present. Their menacing looking swords are sheathed but Louis doesn’t risk alienating them by playing on.

Beer is drunk. The wonderful Wild Brew beer at 6.6% is not one for a Monday night session. But it’s too tasty to not test. Taxis are booked. This hangover will hurt at work tomorrow.