An Evening With JF Robitaille and Lail Arad – Coronet Theatre Bar – February 11th 2020

Lying awake on a Monday night/ Tuesday morning, unable to sleep and convincing my hypochondriac self that my niggly cough is in fact Coronavirus, I use a bit of distraction therapy by checking out acts that are playing later today in London. My eyes and ears are drawn to JF Robitaille and Lail Arad’s set over at the Coronet Theatre bar in Notting Hill, a new venue for Sonic Breakfast. A quick listen to ‘The Photograph’ by JF and Lail on YouTube and I’m sold. This is my must see for a Tuesday night.

Their literate, country folk, steeped in the traditions of the best songwriters from the past, was never going to disappoint. Think Paul Simon meets Dory Previn, the streets of Greenwich NY with a Gallic twist, the poetry of Leonard Cohen with thoroughly modern flourishes and you won’t be far from the place that this duo navigate towards. 

The Coronet Theatre bar is quite a mish-mash of a space. Over there, a range of mirrors in all shapes and sizes dominate a wall. On the wall opposite, handbags are the theme. We sit on iron conservatory seats and plush antique chairs admiring the globes and hats that dangle above us. The bar staff work from behind a piano, serving drinks onto its top. The overall feel is one of plush yet quirky decadence, a private members club that nobody should feel excluded from. “It’s a great place for a gig”, I agree with Pip, a vicar I get chatting with who also has a neat sideline in gig promotion. 

Lail and JF take to the stage for this show of two halves and Lail reads from some prose. Perhaps I should recognise it – the florid descriptions of those moments before a gig begins both set the scene and calm the mood. Tonight we will lounge and luxuriate, relax and roll in chilled delight.

Lail and JF open with two singles; familiar territory for many here gathered before the new material is triumphantly tried and tested. We learn that the video to ‘The Photograph’ was filmed in this very venue. The duo jump between instruments; electric and acoustic guitars, harmonicas, tambourines and piano providing the variety that helps maintain our interest. But with harmonies and arrangements as special as these, there’s no chance that minds will wander. The first duo-album has been recorded in Italy with a full band but these are songs that don’t need clutter and full instrumentation to work. 

The second half begins much like the first ended but we do get chance within this section to hear mini sets from the solo repertoires of both JF, the doting French-Canadian and Lail, the proud Londoner.  JF digs deep into his back catalogue whilst Lail plays a completely new tune, a frantic ditty, busy with words perhaps called ‘hustling’ and possibly a reflection on there not being enough hours in any day. 

The home straight is upon us. This has been a night of optimistic romance, of lost love, of kitchen-sink dramas and travelling tales.A speaker buzz that crackles like a cry-baby as the set closes does not dampen the overall spirit. A medley of love songs to Europe and the EU bring proceedings to an end. Tuesday’s don’t tend to get better than this. 

 

Disco Lizards, Murman and Aubrey – The Finsbury – January 27th 2020

It’s back to the Finsbury for a Monday night of indie guitar; a trio of acts who all have something ‘new’ about them and one, in particular, who could be a bit special when they find their stride. 

First up are Aubrey, a three piece who reveal that this is their first gig. Given this, you can pretty much forgive that there’s a raggedness around the edges and simply focus on the positives. A female lead singer sports an androgynous look whilst singing and shouting with atonal charm. There are hints of placebo and hints of a post-punk prog about Aubrey. None of this is without merit. “Marry me”, shouts a punter between songs. “If you buy me a shot of tequila I will”, is the quick retort. 

 

Murman take a small group hug off-stage before jumping onto it and picking up their instruments. Another three piece, their singer delvers their energetic indie with a deep, gravelly sneer. He sounds the spit of Billy Idol and this is no bad thing in Sonic Breakfast’s book. Triumphant like a souped-up Glasvegas, they announce that this is their bass player’s first gig with the band. You could never tell; he seems a fine fit. Ending with crowd singalongs about not wanting to fall in love again, it’s obvious that there’s a lot here to like.

 

Disco Lizards have a great name; they’re not disco and neither (from what I can tell) are they lizards. They indulge us with some pretty traditional psychedelic indie. They’re almost trying too hard to impress and there’s no denying the technical quality of Ollie’s guitar playing; it’s his first gig as well we learn. There’s competence on show here as they sing about doctors, crazy car journeys and their friends. Solid stuff. 

 

Monday nights – and The Finsbury delivers again. It’s best not to stay in when you can watch new guitar indie at a fine venue. 

Georgia Reed and The Meg Cavanaugh Band – The Finsbury – January 26th 2020

If ever things are a bit slow on the London gig scene, it’s always a grand idea to check out what’s on up at The Finsbury. Heck, even on busy nights of quality gigs, it’s probably worth checking out what’s on at The Finsbury. 

Conveniently positioned a minute from Manor House tube (and the 341 bus), it’s rare that I’ll have a night here in which a new, up and coming, artist doesn’t grab my attention. Better still, loads of the gigs have no door charge. I’ve been twice this week already. 

The first of those gigs was on Sunday night. A monthly show, curated by the people behind the ‘Sunday Kind of Love’ podcast, it proved to be a worthwhile trip, even though I missed the opening act. 

The first thing I notice is that the venue is set up differently to the other times I’ve been. Recognising the need to create a relaxed and laidback Sunday setting, chairs and tables are moved to the front of the room. There’s no urging us onto our feet to dance here. We can watch in lounge mode. 

The Meg Cavanaugh Band are onstage when I arrive. ‘A Sunday Kind of Love’ is Meg’s baby but she’s not here to make up the numbers. Enticing and stylish, Meg and her five-piece band are a throwback to the soundtrack of your favourite 1970’s film; we’re in an American bar and about to hustle; with swinging beats and the finest of harmonies we’re partying on the craziest of nights out. It all ends with a Nina Simone cover. ‘Do I move you?’ asks Meg. ‘Well, yes you do as It happens’, we collectively reply. 

 

Fine gig moments happen when you least expect them to in the break between acts. I get into conversation with a chap who seems keen to talk. He’s a musician from Ireland via two decades in Australia , just embarking on a year-long sabbatical during which time he plans to conquer London and the world. Liam Naughton is his name. You can’t help but be impressed by somebody following their dreams and going outside of their comfort zone to do so. Liam’s a charming chap and his mates are playing in the headline band. 

 

Georgia Reed is the headliner. She hails from Perth, Australia and specialises in a sort of gothic and husky pop. The sum is by no means unpleasant even if her singing style renders it impossible to understand her words. Georgia, dressed all in black with white and silver cowboy boots, half-mumbles with bluesy and sultry effect, through an impressive range of songs before covering The Killers and ‘When You Were Young’. New single, Colours, is a smoky stomp and stands up well amongst the sedentary Sunday crowd. 

WILSN and Mabes – Folklore – January 24th 2020

On the weekend that Australia Day falls, it feels strangely right to be watching an act from Melbourne who’s making waves. WILSN is currently on tour supporting The Teskey Brothers but tonight’s a night off and so the rising poppy soul sister takes on her own London headline slot at the intimate but all sorts of lovely Folklore. 

I’ve been to Folklore before. I like its quirky charm, the vintage glassware, the backroom gig space that’s made out like a rural conservatory, foliage everywhere. A place with fine foibles we can agree. 

On arrival, Mabes is playing. It’s her and an acoustic guitar. She plays well and has a cute voice whilst singing about the things that impact upon London-based youngsters in 2020. She tells us that she doesn’t easily fit in at parties but fills this room with her charm. I’ll try to catch a full set next time. 

 

The sound at Folklore is fab. It’s clear and crisp and made for WILSN and her three piece. She has a drummer and a guitarist/keyboard player for accompaniment but also utilises backing tapes to work her magic. And it is magic; sweet and soulful, powerful where it needs to be and with an ample splash of gospel to keep aficionados intrigued. Her voice quivers a la Mariah Carey but WILSN stops short of the excessive theatrics that render MC unlistenable. 

Yes, at times it does all goes a bit X factor and you can’t help thinking that WILSN needs to get a bit better at the between-song banter. But that will surely come over the course of this current tour. She’s delighted that crowds have come out to see her but she shouldn’t be surprised because the talent is there for all to observe. 

Sporting an Alicia Keys T-shirt, there is something quite old school about WILSN. She plays a tune written last year in London with her friend, Tobie Tripp, and you suspect that milking these collaborations is a fine way forward. 

It’s been a fun Friday night. I’ve even had a bit of a dancefloor shuffle at the more up tempo moments. You can’t say fairer than that. 

 

Noah Gundersen and Harrison Whitford – Union Chapel – January 16th 2020

Noah Gunderson is right. It probably does suck to start any UK tour at Islington’s Union Chapel. The wonderful serenity of the surrounds; the stained-glass looking down on us in this stunning place of worship. Other venues just can’t compete with the peace and beauty. “It’s all going to be downhill from here”, observes Noah wisely. 

Tonight, the Union Chapel is Noah’s ark. His brand of singer-songwriter folk goes down a treat with the hushed audience who cling to his every word. Noah loves the British audiences; they’re attentive listeners and polite with their praise. We are in a chapel and sitting in pews after all. 

He’s joined for most of his set in the chapel by support act, Harrison Whitford. Clearly friends off-stage, there’s a magic that works between them. Harrison harmonises and play crisp slide guitar licks whilst Noah holds fort taking cheap (and obvious) shots about the state of British food. Rich from an American. 

We’ve already been treated to Harrison’s support set. He’s great; a storyteller with a manner of delivery that mixes Sufjan Stevens with Randy Newman; he plays a cover from the latter. It’s definitely going to rain today. 

Talking of covers, Noah’s not averse to one or two himself. ‘I wanna dance with somebody’ sounds sad and mournful rather than pop. The Tom Waits cover, ‘Day After Tomorrow’ a smart addition and a set highlight. His own songs, earnest and literate, sometimes suffer from a popular blandness. I yearn for a bit more weirdness in my music but there’s no denying that when Noah really opens his mouth, a powerful voice comes to the fore. 

In between the acts, a chap (whose name I miss) comes and gives an impassioned speech about the sadness of suicide, especially in young men. Apparently, it’s a cause close to Noah’s heart and he’s actively working with this charity to get men to talk, to be more open about their emotions. Got to appreciate that touch. 

We parade out into rain-drenched Islington streets. I’ve enjoyed my first visit to the Union Chapel. The adoring fans are oblivious to a bit of drizzle. 

 

Sonic Breakfast Top Ten 2019 – Number One – Bjørn Tomren – The Betsey Trotwood

Take out the slight blips and 2019 was a great year for Sonic Breakfast. This top ten rundown has enabled me to reflect on some of the many highlights. But ten is a pretty arbitrary number and it does mean that no space in this list has been found for some storming memories; LIFE at Marathon Kebabs (here), my early evening at the Institut Francais (here), Spearmint and Piney Gir at Water Rats (here) and Louis Brennan at the Pensioner (here) being just a sample. 

I’ve hinted at it elsewhere in the countdown but 2019 was my Norway year. Aided by great releases and invites from Georgie at Propeller Records, I’ve been able to scratch the surface of a rich musical scene. There is no genre that defines the country. But, like cuckoos, the Norwegians are nesting in other homes, putting their own unique slant on the tried and tested to come up with something new. 

Number one (fanfares all around) in the Sonic Breakfast chart of 2019 goes to the ace Bjørn Tomren and his short, showcase set at the Betsey Trotwood back in the Spring (here). Was this the best gig I went to over the course of the year? Probably not! But it whetted my appetite for an artist who had a neat spin on gloomy Americana. Like Kurt Wagner from Lambchop, Bjørn’s voice deeply swayed over picked guitar as stories of frustrating times on the road were relayed. 

His album, Bad Science Fiction, came out in October and it really is a record to cherish. Dripping with melancholic delivery, it’s icy Americana, one for wintry nights around a log fire or for long drives over freezing plains with your in-vehicle heating turned up to eleven. It dabbles in folk and jazz flourish before returning to its alt-country core. A true slow burn of an album, you could see the quality of the songs emerge during the Betsey Trotwood showcase. 

A truly deserving number one. 

 

Sonic Breakfast Top Ten 2019 – Number Two – Jonathan Bree and John Moods – The MOTH club

2019 was a full-on year of exploration for me. I loved nipping between the many, varied London venues discovering new delights. I’d struggle, if pushed, to name a favourite venue because there have been many iced buns in the bakery but high in the rankings would be Hackney’s stunning MOTH club. The repurposed British Legion Club is a fab gig venue; I’m yet to have a bad night there. 

 

And of the few MOTH club gigs that I could pick for this epic exercise of a top ten, I’m delighted to announce that number two in the countdown goes to the night spent with Jonathan Bree and support act, John Moods (written about here).

John Moods played Paper Dress Vintage, another favourite Hackney venue, in November but I foolishly managed to miss that. His single that came out in the summer, I Wanted You, was a real cracker. The German popster returned to Berlin and played all manner of gigs across Europe. 

 

I still smile when I consider Jonathan Bree’s direct generosity. A sold-out show, I’d given up hope of seeing Bree and band but the cheeky E-mail paid off. The friendly soul in a mask didn’t need to guest-list me but he did. I love that Jonathan Bree’s career has grown and grown in the last year. Once you see the live show it’s hard not to be smitten. 

New tracks are being drip-fed from a future album. They’re sounding solid and in ‘Cover Your Eyes’, you suspect that there’s another set highlight in the making. It’s been a year of relentless touring for Jonathan and band, including a first ever gig for them in the Ukraine. I wish I’d been there. Returning to Camden’s Dingwalls on May 1st, you’ll have to lock me in my room to stop me from being there. And this time I won’t be begging Jonathan for my ticket.