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Split Festival 2011 Roundup

By on Monday, 3rd October 2011 at 2:00 pm

Each festival is defined by its terroir: the land on which it takes place that gives it its atmosphere and reason for being. Where would Glastonbury be without its mythical rumours of ley lines and King Arthur, for instance? At first glance, the city centre of Sunderland wouldn’t be considered prime real estate by festival goers. But Split Festival have found a very accommodating venue in Ashbrooke Sports Club, a cricket and rugby venue with a proud tradition of sport, and a rather fine clubhouse, which is given over for a weekend a year to all manner of musical, comedic and gourmet endeavours. Some of the rugby team even double up as security.

Inevitably a festival on a tiny scale, there’s one large tent, a ‘fringe’ tent, and a food tent, laden with all sorts of edible goodies. The clubhouse is off-limits for regular punters, being reserved for staff, performers and press – and the regular sporting participants and their families, who continue to absorb their rugby league and Premiership football in the bar, even as the racket emanates from the tent below, whilst many a music fan’s Adidas wreak their havoc on the previously hallowed cricket outfield.

Sunderland clearly deserves its own festival; even though there are big national and international names on the bill, the roll-call of local talent is rather impressive, with Saturday’s Vinyl Jacket, B>E>A>K, Beth Jeans Houghton and Little Comets holding up the North-East corner. Beth Orton played a superb, brave solo set in the fringe tent, proving that even shorn of instrumentation, her songs still hold the power to captivate. The Rifles somehow manage to sound like an indie Madness, which is no bad thing when you get your head round it.

The Mystery Jets’ epic, thoughtful set is well-received, Blaine Harrison managing to deliver plenty of excitement despite being sat down throughout the set. The Drums bring a touch of flouncy transatlantic glamour to the affair – sticking to their new material, the set is tense, sparsely arranged, aloof. Something of an acquired taste, and not the most likely choice to bring a crowd to an excited climax on the end of day one, but certainly a class act. (Further, I got a chance to chat with them; you can read my interview with them here.)

On Sunday (day two), Hyde and Beast continue their meteoric ascent with a note-perfect rendition of the best bits of recent album ‘Slow Down’ (review here). Unsurprisingly popular, with the sprinkling of Futureheads in the line-up, the crowd give a justified warm welcome to the downtempo, subtle psychedelia. The only festival I can remember that actually runs ahead of time, Ganglians are off almost as soon as they are supposed to have begun, looking nonplussed about the whole affair.
Dinosaur Pile-Up’s stripped-down, Ash-on-steroids set is slightly incongruous in the late summer sunshine, and there’s a feeling of killing time until the utterly wonderful Frankie and the Heartstrings take the stage.

Arguably the biggest band in Sunderland at present, a truly deserved accolade, practically every song sounds like a hit single, with plenty of that jerky, assertive rhythm that distinguishes a Sunderland band. Frankie himself is a classic frontman, throwing shapes with abandon, the crowd enthralled. An apparently unplanned power cut in the last song couldn’t have been better timed, Frankie whipping the audience into a frenzied chant of “Sunderland!” in the darkness, until persuaded to leave the stage minutes later by a bouncer who himself couldn’t help but hold his fist aloft, proud as punch. Every festival has its ecstatic moment which sums up all that is special about the weekend. This was Split’s.

After such a strong set, the Charlatans had a tough job, and they sort of got away with it by dint of being a professional, well-rehearsed unit, with a popular body of work behind them. Great for fans, but missing something of the connection of the previous act. And after all that, it’s a short hop home. Festivals in cities are something of a rarity, but there’s something to be said for good transport links, and being in bed in time for getting up for work on Monday morning. On this showing, Split 2012 should be an unmissable event.


Live Review: Laura Marling with Alessi’s Ark at Sixth and I Synagogue, Washington, DC – 27th September 2011

By on Friday, 30th September 2011 at 2:00 pm

I’ve had the distinct pleasure of seeing three sold out shows (so far) in the historic synagogue in DC – the xx in March 2009, the Airborne Toxic Event in September 2009, and just a couple nights ago, Laura Marling. The synagogue is often described as a sanctuary, which is completely appropriate for an evening with Laura Marling and her opener on this tour, Alessi’s Ark. Both acts take the words ‘singer/songwriter’ and prove that even though they are young and female, they have more talent in a finger that plucks a guitar string than most top 40 artists.

Alessi Laurent-Marke, the woman behind Alessi’s Ark, started her set with the words “you are beautiful”. We could have said the same about her music. Although I’d never seen her perform, I had an idea that she would be quite bashful, like the Laura Marling I’d seen last year. She might have been stumbling over her stage patter from nerves, but once she started singing, she showed what she sings in ‘Stalemate’ is true: “the only thing I’ve learnt is I like singing / all the lessons that the guitar is bringing.” Good for us that she has turned her attention to writing songs, with grace (‘Time Travel’) and demonstration that you can cope with the pain of losing a love (‘On the Plains’). In a true act of democracy, she let the crowd choose the final song – it was to be either ‘Hummingbird’ from her 2009 album ‘Notes from the Treehouse’ or ‘The Robot’ from her current album, ‘Time Travel’. ‘The Robot’ won out, with Laurent-Marke standing there, looking overwhelmed by the positive response from the audience.

One thing that Laurent-Marke said during her set: “are you ready for Laura and her gang? They’re gonna melt your faces off!” It was funny hearing such a precious young woman say that to us, but it turned out to be true. When I saw Laura Marling last year at Iota, I was struck by how quiet and shy she was. This time around, she was still a bit shy, but she told jokes that made us laugh (like how she would be singing some lies during the show and wanted to be aboveboard: “the first line of the song ‘Salinas’ is ‘I am from Salinas’, and I am not!”), which indicated to me that she was a lot more comfortable being a ‘rock star’. She should get used to this though, since her cathedral tour of the UK in October is sold out. Wearing a denim shirt and jeans, she looked very laid back and dressed appropriately for her folky, jazzy new album ‘A Creature I Don’t Know’ (review here).

The set covered all three of Marling’s albums, and it was startling to hear the heavy darkness of set opener ‘Rambling Man’, the simple beauty of ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’ and the breezy folkiness of ‘The Muse’. I nearly cried hearing her play a solo version of ‘Goodbye England’ as she explained it didn’t matter at what time it was, whenever she was away from England she missed it terribly. ‘Sophia’, as the official video indicated, is fabulous-sounding live in a house of worship, her backing band on point. I will say this: if you have a ticket to the cathedral tour in October, feel lucky. Because below is a taste of what you will experience.


After the cut: set list and more photos.

Alessi’s Ark Set List:
On the Plains
Time Travel
The Horse
The Robot

Alessi’s Ark Photos:

Laura Marling Set List:
Rambling Man
Alpha Shallows
Alas I Cannot Swim
The Card
The Muse
Hope in the Air
Don’t Ask Me Why
Goodbye England (solo)
new song (solo)
Night After Night (solo)
Blackberry Stone
What He Wrote
I Speak Because I Can
All My Rage

Laura Marling Photos:


Bingley Music Live: Day 1 Roundup

By on Friday, 30th September 2011 at 1:00 pm

Bingley Music Live has been going for a few years now. Up in the heart of West Yorkshire, Myrtle Park, each is a great pilgrimage of music to see a host of acts for what is really a very reasonable price (£35 for the weekend!) and enjoy the fantastic atmosphere for the weekend. This year is no exception, as this year BML has become even bigger. On Friday, the 15,000 strong crowd were treated to a day of free music at one of the most diverse stages music can give.

First up was Alice Gold (read a recent interview with her here). Mixing elements of experimental rock with a punk rock attitude and catchy pop tracks with a genuinely beautiful voice, she further warms up an already quite warm crowd and certainly wins over some new fans, many of which are only here for the last two bands of the day.

Young Guns (pictured right) come on second as the stage already starts to lag behind, for one reason or other. They appear unsettled by the daylight setting they’ve been placed in, and whilst their most dedicated fans don’t seem to care where they are or what time it is, many of the others assembled don’t appear to be sold by Gustav Wood and company’s breed of rock. Their attempts at singalongs only really work with their fans, especially as the lead microphone is playing up. The band sound so much better on record or at their own show that you have to feel like they just got a bit lost on this stage here. That said, the track ‘Crystal Clear’ still sounds huge no matter what.

Their performance, however, is nothing compared to the next band who I kind of wish had gotten lost. Caught somewhere between Balamory and indie-pop, The Go! Team are a hugely enthusiastic group playing a kind of music that I’m not sure is tolerable in a live situation. I’m not sure if it’s the heat or just the naive sense that they’re a fantastic band,  but the Go! Team just don’t cut it in person. The less said the better.

But today is all about the next two bands. Playing a sunset set to a crowd that seems to have appeared out of nowhere and prepared itself completely, Skindred (pictured below) come on stage with the kind of confidence that can only come through years of reinforcement of their brilliance live from their fans. Playing from throughout their entire back catalogue, everyone starts moving as if they haven’t moved all day. ‘Stand for Something’ and ‘Ratrace’ of course bring some of the biggest responses of the nigh,t but they blend in fantastically with new tracks from ‘Union Black’ such as ‘Warning’, and both Skindred and crowd appear to be in unison. Lead singer Benji is a fantastic showman, pulling off the robot (with full participation; it really is a sight to behold) and even joking with the crowd calling them both the worst and best crowds of their tour, just to evoke different responses. Sadly, all of this must come to an end, as tonight’s headliners are still to come.

After using up so much energy in the last hour, the crowd are virtually still panting as Fun Lovin’ Criminals take to the stage. Their breed of cool funk takes a while to get going, but once the crowd has readjusted, especially with such a big changeover in those at the front, it’s a chilled out party all the way. With such a nice atmosphere, it’s easy for Huey Morgan to take charge. Only on a Friday night can the Criminals play ‘Friday Night’ and they do it with the usual flair you would expect. ‘Barry White’, ‘Scooby Snacks’ and ‘Loco’ all feature in a set that you can’t help but enjoy. Before you know it, the night is over and after a brief firework display, everyone goes home happy for the night. Friday was free which made it extra special, but the rest of the weekend has an awful lot of promise.  As it stands, thank god for diversity and Bingley Music Live.


Interview: Jacob Graham and Jonathan Pierce of the Drums at Split Festival

By on Thursday, 29th September 2011 at 11:00 am

TGTF caught up with Jonny and Jacob from the Drums over a Sobieski and Sprite at the Split Festival in Sunderland earlier this month. A highly appropriate name, Split, as when another member of the band appeared at the door, he was swiftly shooed away. Clearly the band has two core members, and dare I say a revolving door policy for the rest; Jacob admits split rumours have plagued the band from the beginning. The duo have plenty to talk about: from being a dedicated synth fan in the grunge era, through lazy musical comparisons… to apiphobia?

Cheers, and welcome to Sunderland. How have the UK festivals treated you this summer?

Jacob: We were a little alarmed by the bees everywhere at Bestival – but we’re both from the country so we’re used to that.
Jonny: At UK festivals, everyone just wants to party with their friends. At US festivals, everyone just goes to see the bands they like and stays in hotels. Camping is very much a UK thing.

On to the new album, ‘Portamento’ (review here). The lyrical themes sound very much like one man’s opinions.
Jon: I write the lyrics, then we get together to write the music. Almost every song that we’ve ever released has been about the same person; we’re obsessive people in this band. [I note an exchange of not exactly cordial glances between the two at this point….unrequited love maybe?]

The themes on the new album change from very much being in control of a relationship to self-doubt and needing a doctor. There’s certainly some raw emotion on display.
Jon: I don’t see it as therapy. Decided the only option was to write an honest album, after all the things we’ve been through in the last year and a half: an album based on reality. There’s some whimsical aspects of the last album that I don’t believe in any more. We’re suckers for heartbreak, it’s the only thing that touches the two of us.

There’s a nice moment in the record where it breaks into a choral synth piece. It reminds me very much of Tomita. Is this a hint of a new direction?
Jacob: It’s interesting and wonderful that you bring up Tomita; people here who talk about us using synthesisers say the craziest things like Searching For Heaven sounds like New Order, which to me is totally absurd, such a limited frame of reference. I listen to a lot of Tomita, Jean Michel Jarre, and Wendy Carlos, that’s what we’re interested in as far as synths go. We specfically hunt down vintage synthesisers with a lot of fervour – that’s actually how we met each other, we were obsessed with old synths, around the age of 11 or 12, we were collecting as much old analogue gear as we could!
Jon: Do you want to hear the song that was playing when Jacob and I met each other? [A Macbook appears, playing ‘The Electric Joy Toy Company’ by Joy Electric: think Nintendo soundtrack with reverby, childlike vocals.] This was our favourite band for 10 years. Everyone else picked on me for listening to it. We were shipped to the same summer camp, and he came over and said, “who’s playing this?” I thought he was gonna make fun of me, but he was like, “it’s my favourite band!” I said, “really? Then look at this!” I pulled out a Joy Electric t-shirt, he asked if he could touch it, I said sure you can touch it, and we became pen pals. We were the last to get email.
Jacob: It was very strange for us growing up in the middle of America, being 12 years old, right when grunge music was at its height. Nirvana was the rage, and we were listening to this [Joy Electric]. It was not cool. It’s still not cool! [laughs]

It sounds like a toy sound. In fact, you seem to make guitars and drums sound like this, the opposite of Nirvana, when they turn everything up to 11.
Jacob: It’s always one note at a time – we never knew how to play guitars, we can’t play any chords or anything, so when we played them we knew how to sequence notes on a sequencer, so it’s the same mentality on a guitar.
Jon: We grew up on monosynths so we tend to just play one note at a time – like a mono guitar.
Jacob: The night we met, Jonny wrote down his address for me, and signed it Electric Till Death! It wasn’t a joke to us, we were like, Yeah! Synthesisers! As much as we’ve used guitars over the last couple of years we’re over that too, it’s all just one big blur. I think that’s why we used synths again on ‘Portamento’.
Jon: It’s like going back to a past lover: it’s comfortable, but kind of boring.
Jacob: [indignant] It’s not like that for me!

I want to pass on a complaint from a friend of mine. He wanted to hear ‘Let’s Go Surfing’ at Bestival, and apparently you didn’t play it. Is that deliberate?
Jacob: [sarcastically] We just forgot to play it!
Jon: It’s strategic – the words in that song are empty at this point. The show can only be as good as the level of sincerity; if I’m standing there singing, and the song is void of anything that I’m feeling, you go away with less of a feeling of potency, like you witnessed something special. At the risk of losing a fan who likes us for that song, I’d rather play something that every word that I sing I can feel when I’m singing it – I think it heightens the energy and intimacy of a show.
Jacob: I don’t want to discredit your friend [personal note: discredit him as much as you like!], but anyone who says ‘Let’s Go Surfing’ is their favourite song of ours has failed to check out the rest of the catalogue. There’s loads of special moments there – we’re happy to lose the fans who don’t want to dig any deeper.
Jon: I don’t know if we’re really a festival band anyway – we really record stuff bit by bit, it sounds like it’s made in the basement of a house in Ohio with a shitty lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. We are very much an indoor band.

They really don’t seem like an indoor band when they take the stage to headline Split… although we’re in a tent, so, technically, we’re indoors. Jonny flounces around the stage like a stroppy diva, Jacob conducts the band from his bank of synths, the two of them defining the sound of the Drums. Tension is never very far away; it’s built into the songs, it’s built into the band. There’s no denying the rawness of emotion on offer within ‘Portamento’, and it continues the sound of a band who love their electronic music but seem able to cross over into the mainstream guitar band consciousness. Direct from the Joy Electric dating agency.


Live Review: Fenech-Soler at Newcastle Academy 2 – 23rd September 2011

By on Wednesday, 28th September 2011 at 2:00 pm

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder – certainly it seems to have worked for Fenech-Soler, whose splendid return to the live scene was heralded by an uproarious welcome by a capacity crowd at Newcastle’s O2 Academy last Friday night. Whilst the memories of summer are fading, foliage turning autumnal reds and oranges, in the world of Fenech-Soler it’s forever the height of summer; a permanent Balearic party. Frontman and focus Ben Duffy’s seemingly boundless energy and enthusiasm are lapped up by the up-for-it crowd; the 9pm start of this early Friday gig is a perfect start to an inevitably messy weekend.

The comparisons with contemporaries Friendly Fires are inevitable; the difference is, the latter are more cerebral, making the song work for its keep – these guys just want to dance and have fun. Essentially a live version of a dance music set, close your eyes and the wailing alarms, pulsing bass, repetitive electronic and acoustic beats could be part of a 3 AM Ibizan DJ set, yet executed by a sharp five-piece band who could just as easily have ended up playing indie tat. Right from the off, the audience are pogoing along, with the worryingly bouncy floor just about keeping things the right side of chaos. Most of the recent eponymous LP is played, tracks like ‘Lies’ and ‘Demons’ not deviating much from the successful formula of brief, perfunctory verse, before the massive, uplifting chorus kicks in. Add in a breakdown, buildup, crescendo and the beats come back in with a sweaty, handwaving vengeance. It works, it gets everybody moving, and if your party needs starting, just call Fenech-Soler.


Live Review: Elbow with Glasser at 9:30 Club, Washington DC – 22nd September 2011

By on Monday, 26th September 2011 at 2:00 pm

Two years is far too long to go without seeing Elbow live. But when you live in America, the land of frustrating commercial radio strangled by major record labels, you make do with what you can. And I’m very pleased that for a second time in 2 years, DC music fans sold out yet another Elbow show at the 9:30, so if American record execs aren’t paying attention, they should. The Manchester band made playing to a crowd and making every single person in the club feel loved. I could go on and on about this gig but I’ll try to break down the highlights…

…after I introduce the opening act, Glasser. I knew nothing about Cameron Mesirow and what she does, so I will defer to Paul Lester and his New Band of the Day segment on the Guardian last year for the following description: ‘This synth siren sounds like a weirder and more credible version of Enya, all ethereal vocals and meandering melodies’. For all the rubbish Enya gets for being soft, I think this is a diss on Enya. (At least I fine something palatable in Enya’s songs.) If you like women who yelp, squeal and moan to an electronic backdrop, Glasser’s for you. I didn’t think Enya: I thought Bjork. Her outfit – green and black striped trousers under a dress that looked like a sack, with white and blue stripes on top and white and red stripes on the bottom – was completely unflattering, with an unsightly bulge in the front as if she were pregnant. She didn’t ‘look’ truly pregnant, so seeing this woman doing interpretative dancing / arm movements while singing was strange. Sorry, that’s just not my thing. Not getting it at all. It’s as far away musically from Elbow as you can get. The best part? The backbeats provided by her bandmate onstage, working furiously over a synth and drums. This opening for a review sounds a lot like the Friendly Fires one in May…

So Elbow. They’ve had a stellar year so far and I thought it might be a downer for them to come over to the States and play clubs when they have no trouble selling out the MEN Arena at home. Not so, says guitarist Mark Potter, he thinks it’s fresh every time they come back here, because they have win people over. Interesting – and in my opinion, a great – way to look at it. As should be expected, the majority of the songs they played were from ‘build a rocket, boys!’ (John’s review here) and from the 2008 Mercury Prize-winning ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’. What could not be predicted was how Guy Garvey got the audience involved every step of the way. ‘Grounds for Divorce’ was preceded by him picking out a girl in the crowd, asking her what her name was (Diana, it was) and leading the entire crowd to sing a capella to her in the song’s melody and say how great she was. If it’d been me, I would have fainted dead away. (The parting shot of this evening for me will always be seeing this girl Diana hugging Guy outside the club. Him picking her out of the crowd no doubt made her year.)

It was a rowdy crowd and there were many shouts, demanding songs and wanting their birthday / wedding / etc. etc. etc. to be acknowledged. I was getting a little sick of this because it broke up the continuity of the show, but Guy took it in stride, trying to play up to each one of these requests the best he could. But then he took the opportunity to single out songs that had particular meaning to him: ‘Newborn’ was written when, with a broken heart, he’d gone over to drummer Richard Jupp’s house and played with his infant son; he took advantage of one bloke’s demand for birthday wishes by introducing ‘The Night Will Always Win’ as a way to celebrate the man’s birthday with a song about someone loved who had died (everyone laughed); ‘Great Expectations’ was prefaced by Guy’s explanation that he wrote this song when he was much younger and had gotten married, but the woman still had no idea.

‘Starlings’, the opening song from their last show here in 2009, was moved to the start of the encore, and it shone with its multi-trumpeted glory. Perfect placement. But there was no question what would be the last song of the night. ‘One Day Like This’, showing how adorably awkward love can make a person, shone like a beacon in the night. It’s times like these that make me think American radio is criminal. But when I think about it again, really, it’s everyone else’s loss. Everyone at the 9:30 Club Thursday night got to enjoy their little secret.

After the cut: set list and more photos.
Continue reading Live Review: Elbow with Glasser at 9:30 Club, Washington DC – 22nd September 2011


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