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.

Ralph Pelleymounter and Charlotte Carpenter – The MOTH club – October 20th 2019

I have to move out of my property guardianship this week. I’m sad although I can’t pretend that I didn’t know the risks. In exchange for cheap rents and communal living in London’s zone one, you learn to put up with the uncertain length of stay, the chance that you might be turfed out with a months notice. I have somewhere else to go but it’s not yet ready. 

That’s why Sunday was largely spent emptying my room of big and bulky items, transporting them to storage for temporary safe-keeping. It looks like I’ll be back in AirBNB’s for a while.

After a day of such heavy lifting, I was glad to have an evening gig to go to. I’ve mentioned once or twice on these pages before but Hackney’s MOTH club really is the bees knees – and the chance to see Ralph Pelleymounter, frontman from To Kill A King, is too good an opportunity to turn down.

It’s not as if I’m a To Kill A King fan though. They’re one of those many bands that exist on the periphery of my vision. I think I’ve seen them before at festivals and been vaguely impressed by their twisted alignment to your standard Mumford and Sons fare. That’s probably harsh. Ralph’s fan base gathered here would certainly think so. They know his material, love his beard and sing along to all of the words. “The most under-rated songwriter operating in British music at the moment”, says one fan to me in a moments break from the music. 

We’ve already been treated to a set from Charlotte Carpenter. In all my years living in Leicester and writing about music there, it’s inconceivable to imagine that our paths have not crossed before. I’ve seen Charlotte’s name on bills up at the Cookie and The Musician and must have missed her by minutes. But no bells are rung when she takes to the stage solo. She’s a talent with a rich, sweet voice and a bluesy Americana about her storytelling. She’s bereft at the loss of her Nan and has songs about the long drive through Germany on hearing of her passing. ‘Follow You Down’ adds to the overall cathartic experience. Later, Charlotte joins Ralph on stage to offer select backing vocals. She sings Ralph’s praises. He’s a fine man to tour with by all accounts.

 

And it is hard not to warm to Ralph. He’s got a full band on stage with him tonight’s final gig of this tour. The rest of the tour has been more acoustic and solo. Perhaps this is why tonight’s stronger numbers are the slower, more stripped-back offerings. They’ve had more time to settle over the past month as the tour progresses. 

  As Ralph observes early on, these are songs about anxiety and feeling powerless. There are waltzes about heartbreak and soulful Americana offerings about loving somebody most when hungover, tunes about being with a desperately drunken lover. Ralph introduces latest single, AWOL, by saying it’s about liking your partner but finding people in your workplace frustrating. Lots of Amens are said in response by the Sunday evening crowd. 

Ultimately, it’s a pretty uplifting experience. ‘Get Drunk, Get High’ is saved until the end of the set. It strikes me that this could be the best funeral song ever. I probably need to cheer up a bit for work tomorrow and worry less about domestic situations over which I have no control. 

Jade Jackson & Laky – The Old Blue Last – October 1st 2019

Will this guy ever shut up? A super-stalker of a fan has placed himself at the front of Old Blue Last’s stage and is using every opportunity, every break between songs, to tell Jade Jackson, the emerging Californian Americana star, that he loves her. He probably doesn’t realise quite how disruptive his over-the-top obsession is and mostly Jade is able to steer the attention away from him and back towards her. “Oh, you can play every song of mine on guitar can you?“, Jade observes. “Good to know should I get tired.

I go to a lot of gigs at the Old Blue Last and it’s fair to say that I’ve never seen the average gig-goer so advanced in age. Perhaps that’s a direct consequence of the music on offer; the timeless bar-room spit of cool Country is never going to seem relevant to the grime-fuelled  popsters who  typically frequent this place. And they’re missing out. 

Laky, support for the evening, is probably the youngest in here. She takes to the stage armed just with an acoustic guitar. The beanie she wears gives her folk credibility; her confident chat and well-composed songs the air of a protest singer who’s not quite settled upon a cause. The heckler at the front auditions for the main event by also directing far too much between-song adulation towards Laky. She’s clearly not quite sure how to deal with such unrequited love and so offers up a bit of Country. “Whoops, Americana I mean”, she says, correcting herself quickly.

When Jade Jackson last visited London, she gigged at The Slaughtered Lamb. Jade’s proud that she’s now playing a larger venue and few would bet against that ascendancy continuing when she returns again – for tonight Jade’s composed, languid songwriting really does entice those watching. When it’s good, this is a very special talent indeed. 

Jade reveals that she almost chose never to play set highlight, Tonight, live. Initially cautious of baring too much, this autobiographical maelstrom is a hard-hitting exercise in cathartic release. “Tonight I’m confused but that don’t take away my right to refuse”, Jade sings, whilst retelling an all-too-familiar tale of predatory behaviour. 

Jade’s band of Devin, Tyler and Julian, seriously talented sessioners, back her to the hilt. They can all play but Julian on guitar particularly stands out. Here’s a man who can make his instrument sing and is given plenty of opportunity to do so with solos a feature of most tunes. 

“Give this man a microphone”, says Jade before launching into a cover of Elvis’ ‘Burning Love’. Most of the crowd are in no doubt though – they want more of the act on stage and no encore from the talkative twat. 

 

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. 

Dusty Stray – Estranged

One of the delightful and yet unintended consequences of maintaining Sonic Breakfast for four years now (on and off admittedly) has been the occasional, ongoing contact that’s developed with a pretty wide array of musicians from around the globe. 

Two and a half years on from writing not one but two short blog posts about Dusty Stray (here and here), I receive an E-mail from Jonathan, the man behind Dusty Stray. He tells me that the new record, Estranged, is to be released imminently (on October 12th in fact). We exchange E-mails. Jonathan is now back in Amsterdam after a couple of years in Colorado and I’m now here in Spain. It’s a sort of refreshing proof that our lives haven’t stagnated. 

Jonathan sends me a private link to ‘Estranged’ and I sit down to listen (with headphones).

In my humble opinion, more people should throw themselves into the work of Dusty Stray. And perhaps for a newcomer, Estranged is as good a place as any to start. It’s an album that’s both beautiful and sad. We watch through a window as Jonathan writes about relationships that are almost done – but not quite. We listen as his voice grieves over the potential loss; a range of instruments creating a sort of ‘folk-noir’ soundtrack that simply accentuate the mood. 

The cracks and the stains have been covered, all of the locks have been changed, broken windows boarded up, and we’ve become estranged.” That’s what Jonathan sings on ‘Houses’, one of the album’s many stand-out tracks. You feel the sadness and the honesty in the story-telling. A perky solo does its best to lift the misery but any respite is temporary. 

Not that it’s an album so desolate that there’s no cause for optimism. In ‘Things Will Look Different’, the romance refreshes before the lap steel and harmonica herald further disappointment. “In the morning, you were gone”, sings Jonathan with tumbling heart. ‘After The Play’, a romantic interlude, places our protagonists in a theatre and there’s flirting-a-plenty going on as tears are shed over the actions on the stage.

The title of the new album comes from the general out-of-place feeling I had returning to the US after living so long in Europe,” says Jonathan about Estranged. And you realise that there are different ways to read the album’s grief. On a literal level, it’s about that always-odd time when a relationship might have ended but you’re not quite sure. From a wider perspective, this is an album about falling out of love with a country that you now feel estranged from. 

In a world of Brexit and Trump it’s easy to see why this might resonate.

 

 

Michael Nau – Michael Nau & The Mighty Thread

I miss my headphones. When I was working back in England, I never travelled anywhere without my Sennheisers. Comfy to wear, I got through many train rides to far-flung towns by simply putting them over my ears and allowing myself to drift away.

My headphones half-broke quite early in my Spanish travels. They still work and it’s probably nothing that a good coating of super-glue wouldn’t fix properly. The foam cushion has detached from the ear-speaker thing. I have to hunch my neck a bit now if I want the full headphone listening experience.

And mostly there’s no need for them over here. The villa is so remote from others that there’s little risk of complaint should I turn my speakers up to 11. I enjoy the peace and quiet and listening to the sounds of nature but when I need to blast music out it seems to impact upon nobody. 

In cases of emergency, I have a pair of Apple earplugs. They’ve improved since the early I-pod days and slot into my ears quite neatly. I couldn’t wear them for long periods of time though. 

This weekend, I’ve been listening to Michael Lau’s latest album through them. It’s a dreamy, reverb-laden Country soul thing. There’s a sort of laconic fuzz that drifts across the album and it draws you in. You want to get closer to the action, to hear the vocals and the pedal-steel close up, and headphones become a natural choice. 

Lyrically, it’s a record open to interpretation. The best I can deduce is that Michael feels on the edge of something. In the Autumnal ‘Shadow On’, the second tune on the disk, that something is hanging by a thread, the final leaves are falling and you wonder if Michael Nau and The Mighty Thread might be setting itself up as a break-up album. 

But as the album progresses, there are signs that whatever has been failing has turned a corner. “The shit from here on in isn’t going to be so hard”, he sings on No Faraway Star as the mood of the record lightens. The reconciliation continues during ‘On Ice’, a highlight of the album and a song about separate beds and the power of the lampshade in fixing what has gone before. 

“Could you let me help you smile?” asks Michael on ‘Funny Wind’ and you sense that the journey is nearly complete before album closer (and another highlight), ‘Smudge’, throws a bit more doubt into the mix with lines like ‘walking together, walking apart’ and ‘another sinking boat’. That all builds towards the final lyric of the record, “waiting for something to never end“. And you realise that this is probably the point of the record. 

Life drifts; there are few clear-cut beginnings and endings. That’s the preserve of films and books. For the rest of us, we wander, often aimlessly, through things. We’re curious about our future and reminiscent about our pasts. We’re all ‘waiting for something to never end’. 

 

Shelter – Stephen Karl and Handsome Animals

It’s raining in Alicante today. At one point, for about five minutes, it came down quite heavily. But, for the most part, this is the sort of rain that might register as light drizzle back in England. When I meandered back from language school this afternoon, people were sheltering in doorways or tentatively reviewing their instructions for putting up barely-used umbrellas. I took some delight in openly walking in the rain. I’m hardened to the extremes it seems. 

But the rain has served to quell my exploratory spirit. I’ve spent the afternoon drinking breakfast tea whilst eating tomatoes, cheese and bread. Instead of wandering around this fine city, I’ve been listening to music that’s been sent my way. I’ve barely scratched the surface. 

There’s a lot of great music being released but this track, Shelter, by Stephen Karl and Handsome Animals caught my ear on this rainy day.

“My heroes are Prince, Springsteen, Tom Waits, Townes Van Zandt”, says Stephen, clearly a man with fine taste. “A lot of these tunes that were written around this time deal with romantic relationship struggles: ‘Shelter’ is an honest story of a relationship that is failing, but it does it in an honest, compassionate, and not-too maudlin way by acknowledging what I’m experiencing, and what I love about the woman I’m losing, and how I basically do want the best for her.”

Sonic Breakfast thinks it’s a belter of a tune; the exact sort of Americana that sends us all wobbly and quivery. Stephen has a rich voice that digs away into your brain whilst his quality musicians burrow into your body.

 

 

Shelter is one of four songs on a split EP with another New York based act, Darlin Darlin. Perhaps in future Sonic Breakfast blogposts I’ll feature them. Cyndi, the other track from Stephen Karl and Handsome Animals on the EP is also a cracker, especially for those of us who like story-songs.

“I wanted to present a fun story, and ‘Cyndi’ is that—about a night when I was 25 and got a kiss from Cyndi Lauper,”, says Stephen about this track whilst men and women of a certain age fight back the feelings of envy.