Sunday, 5 December 2010

Live: We Are The Union & others all-day show - The Ivy Leaf Bar, Sheerness, 4/12/10

Considering the continuing presence of mysterious white powdery stuff on the ground, the fact that this gig even took place is a small miracle in itself. Seriously, it goes beyond funny and into the realms of facepalm-inducingly pathetic just how bad this country - mainly the government and local councils - are at dealing with the snow. After a week couped up inside listening to interminable news reporters standing around looking stupid and wittering on about 'the treacherous conditions taking their grip' and other such bollocks, I was rather up for a decent gig, and it appears Mother Nature agreed, easing up on the snow just in time for what, on paper, looked like one of the gigs of the year. A great little venue playing host to a roster of bands which read like a who's-who of the UK scene, complete with American headliners fresh off of tour with none other than Less Than Jake. This was a gig not to be missed, and by hook or by crook, and with a helping hand from Messrs Wayne and Tom with Dreads, I hitched a lift down and was able to bare witness to the fun that unfolded.

It's pretty much a given that any all-day event will never start on time, and I arrived just after the 4:45pm eventual start time, to be greeted with the slightly surreal sight of a bloke bobbing around on stage with an acoustic guitar doing tongue-in-cheek covers of Disney themes and old 90's pop songs. It didn't take long to deduce that this was in fact opening act Team Harry (6/10), though it's debatable whether the 'Team' element could be applicable, seeing as it was only the 'Harry' part, in the form of vocalist and guitarist Harry Broster, present onstage. He took the opportunity of having a stage to himself to essentially dick around for half an hour, poking fun at James Blunt and cheesy boy bands, amongst others. Hell, this was about as life-affirming as the toast I ate that morning, but it's still good fun all the same, and actually comes across more as a stand-up comedy set than a live music show, not that that's a bad thing at all.

Dodgy S Club 7 covers aside, the first band on proper were Gravesend's own My Third Leg (7/10), a band I seem to have seen live more times in the last few months than I have eaten hot dinners. And to be honest, there wasn't that much different about this show to the previous three times I've seen them - you could practically copy-paste my review of them at Piccadilly Circus at the end of October and you'd have an accurate picture of tonight's show. Frontman Will Woodrow was as always warm, witty and humble, acting as a counterpoint to bassist Dave Ja Vu, who bounced around the stage non-stop and punctuated nearly every song with staccato 'eys!' and other yelped backing vocals. Drummer Paul Smith had a fairly decent set, making only a couple of mistakes - it's just a shame then that they were both so glaringly obvious that a deaf man wearing earmuffs in Timbuktu would've winced at them. It wasn't a great set overall for the Smith brothers - guitarist Mike also suffered problems with his amp cutting out, and overall the set felt a little flat compared to previous shows. Perhaps it was the early start time, a lengthy journey down from Gravesend, maybe both? I'm not sure, but what is certain is that they are admirably consistent in the quality of their performances, which considering the amount of gigs they've gotten through this year, will serve them in good stead. The challenge now in the new year will be to see if they can lift themselves up another few gears as a unit and go from 'good band' to 'great band worthy of headline status at events like this'.

I know what you're thinking - that bloke in the picture doesn't look much like either of The Plan's vocalists, Tom Crabb or Andrew Keech. That's because neither of them were actually present, for some reason or another. So rather than bail altogether, bassist Wayne Tully and drummer Ben Gower hastily recruited Captain Bastard and the Scallywags' resident mandolin player Jordan Harris (pictured) as makeshift frontman, renamed themselves Mexican Wave (6.5/10), and proceeded to belt out a set of various Nirvana and Green Day covers with varying degrees of success. Of course, mistakes and technical sloppiness in these circumstances are about as inevitable as the sun rising in the morning and politicians lying to save face, so we wound up hearing the same verse to 'Longview' repeated 3 times (in fact, most bands have a problem with that song - Dr Goon brutally buttfucked it, and even The Submission struggled with the lyrics), and 'When I Come Around' clunked badly at times, but all things considered, the group actually did pretty well. Wayne's slick bass playing and Ben's driving beats formed a strong backbone when they fire together, just as they do on a regular basis with The Plan, while Harris brought an energetic delivery and barked vocals to the party. The Nirvana covers in particular went down very well, and as they ended on another Green Day cover, the criminally underrated 'Burnout', there was a sense that the trio might have stumbled on a combination that has potential to work if it's actually formed into a proper band. It'll be interesting to see if they decide to progress with the idea.

Next up came part one of the Welsh invasion, in the form of Caerphilly's Detached (8/10). I'd heard a lot about this highly-touted ska-punk sextet, and tonight I saw exactly why they're creating such a buzz. This is proper ska-punk, in the purest sense of the word - snarling guitar riffs meld with bouncing horns and skanking beats to create a vicious, hook-laden assault that owes heavily to Less Than Jake and Big D and the Kids Table, but there's also a mild pop-punk streak running through their repertoire, bringing to mind early Kids Can't Fly or perhaps a revamped version of A Boy Named Girl with an added horn section, if you can imagine that. Frontman Rhys Mence was a livewire firecracker of energy with a vocal delivery to match, and bassist Gethin Lock cut an imposing presence next to him as they led the charge from the front. They did fall at times into a familiar trap experienced in this genre, in that some of the songs flit undisciplined from tempo to tempo, and there's never much time for a hook to embed itself in your head before they veer onto another one. Just because you have a lot of weapons in your armoury, doesn't mean you have to use as many as you can at any one time. They certainly don't suffer this as badly as other bands (I'm looking at you, Sonic Boom Six), and it didn't detract from what is an exhilarating performance full of high technical skill and chemistry. Watch out for a review of their current EP very soon, which I picked up immediately after their set from the merch stall.

Part Two of the Welsh invasion came courtesy of the band I was most looking forward to seeing for the first time - Cardiff's Captain Accident and the Disasters (9/10). Considering the enormous gamut of ska-punk bands littering the scene right now (in itself no bad thing), CA&TDs embracing of reggae so wholeheartedly makes for a refreshing change of pace, and they laid down a set of relaxed and heavily melodic grooves which got heads bobbing and bodies swaying with consummate ease. This is music so infused with the spirit of summer that it felt criminal that we were hearing it on a cold December evening, but the truth is, everyone was too busy having fun to notice - much like Jaya the Cat, this is music to loose yourself for half an hour with, swaying with the chilled melodies. Frontman Adam Parsons, in his alter ego as Captain Accident, had a soulful delivery with his vocals, and was very friendly and affable in between songs. His Disasters backing band were a smooth and fluid combination, with Earl Christian's excellent basslines and Huw Jones' nifty drumbeats providing the perfect foundation for both Parsons and lead guitarist Ryan Steadman, who's gorgeous, surf-rock-infused lead parts added another dimension to the fun. Like a modern-day Jimmy Cliff or Toots and the Maytals, this Captain and his merry men are a shining example of just how joyous reggae music can be, and long may they continue - their Pick Up the Microphone EP/Album is another record I'll run the rule over in the next few weeks.

One Day Elliot (7/10) are a band who have certainly paid their dues and earned the respect of the scene - touring and recording for all of 12 years, with multiple big-money record deals turned down along the way, tells it's own story. Tonight they successfully managed to defy their age and delivered a set full of heavy, pop-punk-inflected action, with the occasional bursts of epic overtones a la Funeral for a Friend. I personally didn't take to their music as enthusiastically as others did, but that didn't stop me admiring the energy of the performance, with frontman Paul Richards working the crowd brilliantly. They also exhibited on the shiny new tracks some awesome vocal harmonies, something that caught me completely by surprise and adds another string to their already rather crowded bow. Impressive stuff, and a demonstration from the proverbial greybeards of the scene that they still have the drive and hunger to continue for many years yet - here's to another 12 years, eh?

We were by now heading towards the climax of the event, and despite the best efforts of a valiant band of Welshmen earlier to try and steal the show, the night was only ever going to be about one band - the pride of Medway, Tyrannosaurus Alan (10/10). From the moment the seven members crammed onto the stage and surged into action, it was complete carnage on the floor - bodies pogoing and skanking everywhere in an incendiary display of energy from both crowd and band. Co-vocalist and occasional trombone player Simon Champ took centre stage and led the troops, snarling and spitting his vocals with wild abandon and whipping the crowd up into a frenzy with ease, getting fists in the air and circle pits spinning. Guitarist and fellow vocalist Ollie Harries gleefully assisted in the mayhem, and the band as a whole drove home bouncing hook after powerhouse riff with stunning precision and unity. Horns blared, basslines boomed, drums crashed, Harries' guitar crunched and the aforementioned vocals chattered like staccato machine-guns in a devastating display of contemporary ska-punk, blending their wide-ranging influences (from hip-hop to funk by way of Skindred ragga-punk) into a seamless and rip-roaring stream of awesome and honestly life-affirming anthems. The horn hook from 'The Officer Problem' embeds in your brain like a piece of white-hot shrapnel, and if the likes of 'Cheer Up' and 'Tunnels' don't get you skanking frantically, then I'm going to save you the bother and declare you medically dead. Fantastic fun. Time to raise a glass for T-Alan, one of the finest live bands in the UK right now - 2010 has certainly been their year.

You really had to pity We Are The Union (8/10) - they were supposed to be the headliners and all-star international act, and yet they discovered tonight that it's almost damn near impossible to follow on from T-Alan, largely because, once the dust has settled, there's barely anyone actually left in the venue - I'd say around 20-30 people remained when the American ska-punkers hit the stage. It may well have made sense for the two bands to have swapped around on the bill, with T-Alan headlining instead - yes, WATU are internationally well-known, and it's a pretty big deal for them to be playing a tiny club in Sheerness having just come off of a UK tour with Less than Jake and Zebrahead, but let's face it, you could put Less Than Jake themselves on and offer free beer to all attendees, and they'd still struggle to pull a crowd on a par with T-Alan. The fact that WATU still managed to rip through an energetic set despite the thinning numbers (trombone player Matt Belhanger took time out after one song to bemoan this fact, and thank those who stuck around) is admirable and shows great conviction. Mind you, the music they play demands an energetic delivery by it's very nature - buzzsaw ska-punk rock that varies in pace between breakneck and blistering. In fact, I'm going to coin a new term for them - 'skate-ska'. Because listening to them felt like listening to a skater kid's mixtape, a mixtape that skips from Less Than Jake to NOFX to Black Flag to Bad Religion to Mad Caddies and back again. It's just a shame that they fell into the same trap I mentioned above with Detached and SB6 - ill-disciplined songwriting. In fact, forget just bad discipline, this was flat-out musical schizophrenia - if ten seconds went by without sudden tempo change, then that meant you had probably passed out unconscious on the floor, gibbering and foaming at the mouth. Their music has promise, definitely, it's just that it comes and goes so quickly that you'll wonder if you were just imagining it. Like I said earlier with Detached, pick one weapon, or perhaps two at the most at any one time, and batter us over the head with that - switching weapons every five seconds more often than not kills any momentum you've built up, and can mean that songs breeze by with a lot of bluster and flare, but with no end product. Whereas T-Alan's songs will be lodged in my head until sometime after Christmas, too many of WATU's tracks will slip into obscurity until I look them up on Myspace again. If they rectify this, then they have potential to be a great band; there's nothing wrong with their live show, which was tight and frenetic from first note to last. Drummer Jim Margle switched through the various tempos without breaking sweat, and his powerhouse drumming drove the entire performance with great precision and technical ability, whilst directly in front of him onstage, frontman Reed Michael Wolcott was a hunched, aggressive figurehead with a whiplash vocal style to match. In the end, this was never going to be the glorious finale it claimed to be - T-Alan ruthlessly saw to that - but it was nevertheless a decent way of wrapping things up, and there was more than enough on show to convince me that WATU are a band worth investigating further. If they can get whoever writes their songs to calm the fuck down, then there's a chance they can harness the explosive power they possess and focus it into something great.

Summation time: with a lineup this strong, it was always going to be difficult for this show to live up to the heavy weight of expectation, but do you know what? It actually does end up matching the hype, and then some. Arguably though, this was by far and away Tyrannosaurus Alan's night, and their spectacular performance was worth the trip down and admission fee on it's own. The likes of Detached, Captain Accident, We Are The Union et al all played their part well, but in the end they were all overshadowed by one of the absolute greats of the current UK scene right now, and it was a pleasure, as well as quite a thrill, to bear witness to them.

Overall 9/10

All photos by Vic Wintergreen.

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