For editor Mary's coverage of SXSW 2013, go here.
For TGTF team coverage of Liverpool Sound City 2013, go here.
For TGTF team coverage of the Great Escape 2013, go here.
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The tent is packed away. The wellies have been demuddied and chucked in the back of a cupboard, not to be seen until next year. By September all the big summer music festivals have been and gone in a haze of traffic jams, mud, and the occasional transcendental musical performance. But for the music fan that wants more, there are a few notable events still yet to come – of which Split Festival in Sunderland is one. A modestly-sized, two-day, outdoor-but-under-cover shindig just outside the city centre, Split has a great local feel to it, showcasing a superb blend of North-East talent and national acts.
Following on from the success of 2011, which saw the Drums and the Charlatans headline a rich and varied bill, 2012 promises to be even bigger, better and brasher. The pièce de resistance, perhaps curators Futureheads’ greatest coup ever, is the appearance of Public Image Limited in their headline slot on the Main Stage on Saturday night. Johnny Rotten’s post-Sex Pistols outfit reformed in 2009, and in May released ‘This Is PiL,’ their first album of new material in 20 years. Expect a razor-sharp band featuring guitar virtuoso and Fagin lookalike Lu Edmonds, and coruscating bar-room banter and plenty of brandy-swigging from Lydon himself (pictured right at Primavera Sound 2011). As the last PiL date before their American tour in the autumn, this is simply a no-brainer. One to savour.
Elsewhere on the bill we find a double dose of West Yorkshire noise in the form of Pulled Apart by Horses and That Fucking Tank, postmodern chanteuse Kyla La Grange, the dreamy pop of St. Etienne, and finally our hosts The Futureheads wrapping things up on Sunday night on the Main Stage. If the ears finally succumb to noise, there’s a fine tent of folk at the Tunstall Hill Tent on the Saturday (Kathryn Williams, King Creosote, followed by The Unthanks to close out the night), which turns noisy again on the Sunday with headliners Future of the Left. Last year saw a food tent with international delicacies galore, and a wide selections of real ales to dig into, both of which make a welcome reappearance this time around. Split is a great way to wrap up to a fine season of festivals, and with tickets a veritable steal at £40 for the weekend and day tickets for £25 for either Saturday or Sunday also available, it’s bound to be Rotten.
Music is so deeply hewn in to the tapestry of Camden’s past that even if a rogue bulldozer were to somehow escape the Olympic park and flatten the lot, the Camden faithful would still gather on the detritus (like Kevin Costner in the film Field of Dreams) to watch the ghostly echo of gigs passed. Camden Crawl has managed to do away with wrestling the country/city festival debate that plagues the likes of Hard Rock Calling and SW4 – those who assume the hardware set up should remain universal – by setting up in the across the attics, backrooms and great halls of this cultural nucleus. Since 1995 this festival has showcased the best of the new alternative scene, and this year is set to kick off the festival season with more than 100 artists across 27 venues.
If there’s a better way to kick off a festival than staring down the barrel of two trombones and a trumpet, then I don’t want to know about it. North London eight piece ska punks Imperial Leisure bring a touch of Madness to the opening bout of Camden Crawl 2012 shoehorned, like jostling commuters, on to the wooden floorboards of the archetypal Wheelbarrow pub. As afro sporting singer Denis Smith leers over the baying home crowd, they blast through the likes of ‘Bitter and Twisted’, ‘Landlord’s Daughter’ and ‘Man on the Street’ at a frenetic pace and set an almost unsurpassable benchmark for interaction and tempo.
On the way through the assault course that is tourist dodging up Camden Road to the hallowed turf of the Roundhouse, Hip-Hop Shakespeare have taken to the stage in the cool blue oasis of the Jazz Cafe. With razor sharp wit and tongue, MCs and poets alike take to the stage with the house band to recite their works and challenge the stigma surrounding hip hop as an inferior art form.
At the Roundhouse, the enigmatic Sam Lee has taken charge of the mezzanine and roof space to claim in it in the name of folk for the day. He regales the cross legged crowd with old folk tales before introducing the quintessentially English but bright and almost painfully innocent melodies of Magic Lantern. He then returns with his own modest troupe of eclectic musicians to tell stories and sing, choral and otherwise, to the appreciative gathering. It is an achievement that all festivals should strive for, where for a moment or more people experience the universality of musical and social understanding.
The greyish afternoon sun begins to dip towards the rooftops behind the indoor stage as people are ushered out on to the terrace for Melodica, Melody and Me. Close your eyes and this could be the Champs-Élysées, with people milling and reclining on the steps as the melodica strikes up. Tracks like ‘Hold On’, ‘Ode to Victor Jara’ and ‘Plunge’ are lyrically modern but classic in style, given a Hawaiian twist with the omnipresent (so much so that I’ve already missed a few) ukulele, and despite the dropping temperatures the wax jacket parade has turned out in force.
Pint-size French synthpop three piece We Were Evergreen will surely be one to watch this summer and, having come on in place of Atlantics at the Wheelbarrow earlier in the day, anticipation was growing to see how they would manage a full set at the Roundhouse. Band members Fabienne, Michael and William work independently as masters of their instrument sets – be it guitar and vocal loops, ukulele and banjo, or synth and glockenspiel – to produce a sound with the same good time vibe as the Ting Tings on tracks such as ‘Baby Blue’ or the infectious ‘Eggs’.
Back in the centre of Camden at the Black Head, and Antlered Man are laying down their own crunching brand of hypnotic metal through a loudspeaker to a packed upstairs, whilst round the corner at Underworld post rock instrumentalists Brontide are nailing a precision piece of musical hardware to the largest and loudest crowd yet gathered. In this dingy basement layers build on loop pedals in time with a surge in energy levels, driven by the relentless crash of ex-La Roux drummer Will Bowerman’s sticks.
Hindsight is a wondrous thing, a precious commodity that is lacking as band of the moment Big Pink took to the stage as only second headliners under the shimmering beams of Koko’s mammoth mirror ball. The atmosphere has gained a synaesthetic sheen to match the soundscape of this peculiarly appropriate line up; now the sound has the power to reverberate through chest cavities, and there’s enough dry ice to Beadle’s About a house fire. It is their first time in London, and with material from their acclaimed debut ‘A Brief History of Love’, as well as tracks from 2012 release ‘Future This’ such as ‘Hit the Ground’ and ‘Rubbernecking’, had the audience blown away. And, while lead singer Robbie Furze intermittently sounds like Richard Ashcroft in space, floor filler ‘Dominos’ has every pair of hands up.
Rounding off Saturday of Camden Crawl 2012 are a band who stand out on the bill as somewhat mainstream, even slightly ‘one hit wonder’ for a headline slot. It is an absolute joy to find that the proverbial ‘tip of the iceberg’ saying rings true and that ‘Hounds of Love’ was merely a marketable peak the PR team let puncture the surface of the Futureheads’ (pictured at top) early career. Below is a hulking mass of traditional folk music done as nature intended, through multi-layered harmonies and classic acoustic instrumentation. There is the oldest song in the English language, ‘Sumer Is I’cumen In’ (the one Edward Woodward is chargrilled to in ‘The Wickerman’) and ‘The Machem’ before the crowd start to lose their nerve and begin an unfortunate smattering of boos and (ironically) a capella versions of ‘Hounds of Love’. But, with an a capella album of their very own to flog in the coming months, the Futureheads continue unperturbed and round off the Saturday admirably with a more inventive, acoustic version of their biggest hit. This appeases the now swaying crowd, who leave with both cheers, and murmurs of anticipation for what Sunday could hold.
The Futureheads are in Gateshead to perform their latest superb opus, ‘Rant’. [Read Martin's review of 'Rant' here.] It’s worth repeating, this is pretty much an entirely vocal album which spans performances of Futureheads songs rearranged for voices only, some unlikely covers, and a handful of traditional folk songs. This is the closest thing to a home performance of the freshly-minted album so far, although they will return to their actual hometown of Sunderland in a month or two for a couple of gigs. Nothing special, just one in Sunderland Minster (“a place of prayer, worship, God’s love, community action, friendship and much more”), and a place called the Stadium Of Light supporting a little-known band called Red Hot Chili Peppers. But tonight is all their own, in the neutral territory of Gateshead. But first of all there’s the little matter of the Cornshed Sisters…
The Sisters are the perfect support act for this tour. Not only because both acts’ styles align perfectly tonight (of which more later), but for the more familial reason that Jennifer Brewis, her of the lovely soul voice stage right, is the better half of Field Music’s Peter, who is duly present in the audience tonight, along with Neil Bassett (Beast from Hyde and Beast, which features Dave Hyde, drummer of the ‘Heads, and singer Barry Hyde’s brother… are you paying attention at the back?). As if that’s not enough, there are several family members here to see what their offspring have been getting up to in the last year or so. Much like Field Music’s Cluny gig earlier in the year, it’s a proper celebration of what’s going so right with the music in this part of the world, with everyone turning out in support of their own.
Anyway, back to the Cornshed Sisters. This delightful all-female quartet have cornered the market in Americana-influenced folky ditties, with each taking turns at lead vocals, and the rest providing note-perfect harmonies. There’s a distinct vintage bent in the songwriting: ‘The Beekeeper’ is a perfect example, featuring as it does the sacrifice of a calf… then there’s the slightly disturbing comparison between a love affair and the Allied bombing campaign of a German city in ‘Dresden’. Overall, the sight of four dignified ladies purveying such singular material is surely more helpful to the ‘Girl Power’ meme – if such a pop-feminist movement exists or is even relevant now – than the ’90s girl bands ever were.
And then the Futureheads cometh. In the rack of guitars and drum kit hiding at the back of the stage, there are signs that this won’t be an entirely à capella gig, but just to prove their overall intent, the band choose to start with ‘Beeswing’. Surely the finest recording released this year, and a good reason for the Ivor Novello awards to open a new category of “Best recording of a previously released song” that there ever has been, this note-perfect rendition of the Richard Thompson classic sets the bar for the rest of the gig… which develops quite like a lost MTV “Unplugged” session. Debut album single ‘Decent Days and Nights’, and superb paean to the lost Busby Babes ‘News and Tributes’, are both rearranged for acoustic instruments which, if anything, seems to enhance their power; the songwriting is given room to breathe without the distracting noise of electrified instruments.
Lead singer and bandleader Barry Hyde is surely destined for a career in musical theatre if the Futureheads’ star wanes; his performance is just as much physical than vocal, and given the power and attitude contained within his voice that is quite a compliment. ‘The Old Dun Cow’ rollicks along with the audience joining in with choruses of “Macintyre!” and foot stamps; like a modern-day Fagin, Hyde exhorts his crew into a chorus of bawdy goodwill, his powerful storytelling manner finally giving vibrant life to a traditional song that has been murdered countless times by talentless YouTube karaoke merchants. The definitive version is finally made flesh.
As if this weren’t enough entertainment for one night, the Cornshed Sisters are invited back onstage to provide backing vocals to ‘Sumer Is Ecumen In’; suddenly the vocal palette is twice as deep. And as if that wasn’t enough, all of a sudden the stage is full of the tender-aged, angel-voiced throng that makes up the local Longbenton Community Choir; by some twist of fate Barry Hyde has conjured a whole orchestra of voices with which to climax the show. Their version of Sparks’ ‘The No. 1 Song in Heaven’ is utterly sublime; always a song with a spiritual theme, the young choir evoke a quite otherworldy backdrop worthy of the finest cathedral mass. Stunning.
It is difficult to imagine a finer gig; a band who have discovered a fine seam of form, collaborating with superbly talented musicians reimagining superb source material. Barry Hyde admits afterwards that the challenge of reducing 120 tracks of vocals to just four voices has been a challenge; a shaky version of ‘Meet Me Halfway’ aside, it’s one that has been met admirably. And he assures me that the appearance of a choir is not just a one-off – if by the time this review is published the Manchester and London gigs have passed, I have it on good authority that the Sunderland Minster performance promises to be quite special. On the evidence of tonight, there’s no way it could be anything other.
By Mary Chang
on Thursday, 12th April 2012 at 4:00 pm
If there was any doubt in your mind how talented Sunderland’s most famous sons the Futureheads were, wipe that all out now. Fellow Mackems Frankie and the Heartstrings alerted us to this video from the Futureheads’ gig last week at London Union Chapel, an amazingly brilliant performance of Sparks ‘The No. 1 Song in Heaven’, entirely a capella in the style of their latest album, ‘Rant’, along with the Cornshed Sisters and choir. (Read Martin’s review of the LP here.) Further, Frankie and co. warn that tickets to the Futureheads’ gig at Sunderland Minster – to feature the Longbenton Community College Choir – are selling fast so if you want in on this sans instrument action, be quick!
For more Futureheads a capella goodness, you can watch their performances of ‘Hanging Johnny’ in the open air here and ‘The Old Dun Cow’ in a pub here.
By Mary Chang
on Wednesday, 4th April 2012 at 4:00 pm
The Futureheads released their latest album, an all a capella affair called ‘Rant’, this past Monday. Read Martin’s review of it here. Below is a live performance by the Sunderland band of the album track ‘Hanging Johnny’, filmed in black and white and while the band’s just hanging about by the seaside. Man, those guys are talented. Enjoy.
Sometimes the unlikeliest things happen. A black and white silent film has won the best picture Oscar. Newcastle are level on points with Chelsea late in the season. A sumptuous a capella album has been recorded by a bunch of Wearside lads better known for their jagged guitar-led post-punk. We are being excessively taxed on behalf of natural variations in the Earth’s climate. These are strange times.
To the topic at hand: most groups follow a conventional career trajectory of releasing increasingly directional material of their own invention. But what if a band take the time out to reassess who they really are; what they stand for; and most importantly what music should represent them in these unpredictable times? For that is what the Futureheads have done.
‘Rant’ presents twelve songs arranged for voices only. There are five Futureheads originals re-imagined, four traditional standards and a handful of covers. What they share in common is that they are all far superior to the original recordings.
The evidence? ‘Meet Me Halfway’, originally a discarded Black Eyed Peas track, is unrecognisably reimagined for voice; ditto for Kelis and Sparks. The four-part harmony has never been so front-and-centre, so full of its own self-confidence, and so appreciably better than its source material, that at first hearing one literally takes a second breath, deletes the memory of the originals, and starts afresh with that which is presented. Neither has there been such a definitively Wearside album – the accents are parodically strong, but that is not to say they are fake – there is a deep history of upbringing, of living the life of baby, child, teenager, and finally the release of adulthood in the sound of each voice of the four. Anyone who knows the men involved will recognise each voice as an individual; it’s probably better to let them all blend into one satisfying whole.
There is so much to digest here, it seems unfair to choose one song over another. But the star of the show is undoubtedly ‘Beeswing’, written by Richard Thompson and famously described in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity as England’s finest electric guitarist. A heart of stone would surely melt on hearing this period tale of hard living, hard drinking, and hard loss; Thompson’s original is lethargic in comparison with the urgency and emotion with which the ‘Heads infuse this poignant tale of love in a world where one’s independence was all there was to live for.
The most intriguing aspect of this collection is that it is as if the Futureheads have discovered a new way in which to interpret songs; whether it be their own, other contemporaries, or traditional songs. In dispensing with any instrumentation, four men have delved into the soul of the pieces and emerged with a way of portraying them with their essence laid bare. In every case, the originals sound distant; their employment of instrumentation a distraction from the essential message of the piece. Why not just sing every song – whither the piano or guitar at all?
In any event, the traditional pieces have never sounded or been arranged better: for instance, their arrangement of ‘The Old Dun Cow’ (live gig video here) is an utter bawdy delight, showing an affiliation with the folk songs of the North East which cannot be faked or approximated. The salty sea shanty tang, the football chant, the chorus of drunks emerging from the pub on match day: this is the sound of Rant. At once humble and arrogant, vibrantly performed with the energy of men singing with purpose, and a genetic knowledge of that which they present. Faultless in choice of material, arrangement, and execution, ‘Rant’ is an instant modern classic.
‘Rant’, the new and unusual album from the Futureheads, is out today on the band’s own label Nul.