Live Review: Frank Turner, Chris T-T, Jonny Black

31 05 2010

**As originally published on BBC’s Across The Line – May 2010**

Folk and punk may not sound much alike but both styles rose to voice the discontent of the people, the anti-thesis of popular music and mainstream ideals. On the surface it seemed like a huge change of direction when Frank Turner stopped screaming in Million Dead and picked up an acoustic guitar, but in hindsight it made perfect sense. Frank’s steady rise from the toilet circuit to Wembley Arena where he will support Green Day this summer, has been both sensational and inspirational.

Jonny Black is better known as the main-man from local-rockers, Lafaro; tonight, however, he’s providing support as a solo act having flown back especially on a day off in the middle of Lafaro’s UK tour. Whilst there’s a bit of a country-tinge to Lafaro’s dirt-rock, Jonny’s solo stuff is much more laid-back, good old-fashioned folk with pure Dylan vocals. With his plaid shirt, cheeky on-stage banter and engaging performance – not to mention a plectrum borrowed from the front-row – Jonny has the ability to shine solo if he wants to, but having just released a serious album of the year contender with Lafaro, hopefully he sticks to the day job.

Chris T-T is Frank Turner’s label-mate, mate in general, and main support tonight. He warns us that he’s “going to play for 2 hours, which will leave Frank with about 8 minutes”. He’s playing solo tonight too, and his set is a mixture of indie-folk, folk-punk and, er, folk-rock. The highlights include Preaching To The Converted and The Huntsman Comes A-Marchin’ (which Frank used to cover regularly), whilst he also plays a song called Market Square which he “co-wrote with AA Milne” about rabbits and an impressive rendition of M1 Song, where it’s just Chris singing without any instrumentation at all. It’s a brave move and testament to the size of the man’s cojones. Market Square isn’t really about rabbits, either – it’s a political song, much like Chris’ best songs – although the slower, soppier songs drag a bit, when he’s rocking and making a stand, there’s few who do it better.

It’s Frank’s turn then, and accompanied by his trusty backing band, he blasts straight into title track from his latest album, Poetry Of The Deed. There’s something about the atmosphere once Frank takes to the stage; it’s like a party – but one of those house-parties where you know everyone and it’s just a bit of a laugh and no-one’s trying too hard – it’s just fun. It’s because he seems like such a down to earth fella, as he sings in second song, Try This At Home, “theres no such thing as rock stars, they’re just people who play music / some of them are just like us and some of them are dicks”. He’s one of us.

Frank asks for a volunteer, and an eager lady in the audience obliges before knowing what she’s volunteered herself for. Frank says he can make her do anything he wants, but lets her off with playing the harmonica for Dan’s Song. She’s surprisingly good, actually. Frank’s relaxed style on stage is endearing, he tells us a tale of being pulled out of a riot by a cop to avoid an ex-girlfriend, and asks us for some encouragement to pull off a guitar-solo during Sons Of Liberty because he’s “not very good at guitar”. The majority of the set is made up of tracks from Poetry of The Deed and Love Ire and Song, with highlights including Substitute, Prufrock and closing track, Photosynthesis, where Frank invites Jonny back on-stage with his pal, Cahir from Fighting With Wire, to play the maracas and tambourine, like his own pair of Bez’s.

It’s been a steady and deserved rise for Turner, and having progressed from small, solo shows, he’s added a band and the bigger sound fits perfectly on the bigger stage. His songs have turned from folk-ballads to potential stadium-filling pop-rock songs, with massive sing-a-long choruses and buckets of heart. And that’s why Frank Turner is so great, his songs are genuine – full of emotion, sincerity and heart. I don’t think he really knows how good he is. Frank, sir, you definitely can play guitar.

Live Review: Dan Sartain, Lost Brothers

26 05 2010

**As originally published on Culture Northern Ireland – May 2010**

Belfast seems to be having a 50s revival right now. You can get the hair-do sorted at Vintage Rocks, we’ve our very own Whistle Bait Babies burlesque troupe and we’re spoilt for choice of an assortment of vintage fairs or throw-back events, where retro is celebrated and costume is essential. It seems like Dan Sartain – born about 50 years too late himself – is the right guy, arriving at the right time, to entertain a time-warped Belfast.

Also fans of the retrospective are the warm-up act The Lost Brothers, getting the evening started in a slightly curious, heart-warming way, their sound possessing a Mumford and Sons vibe. They have a unique look, a sort of old-fashioned, working-class Irish chic.

The Lost Brothers play a cover of Ricky Nelson’s ‘Lonesome Town’ and at Sartain’s request, ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream’ by The Everly Brothers, which are fine bedfellows alongside the Lost Brothers original material, which is lovely, but a bit Father Ted ‘lovely’.

For those new to Sartain, he’s a punk-rock troubadour from Birmingham, Alabama. Tonight is his third visit to the city having supported Hot Snakes and The Nightmarchers previously, but this is his first headline show, and his first with his backing band.

Sartain looks every bit the rock-star in his leather jacket, slick hair and shades, with his certain awkward-charm, there’s definitely an aura of cool-geek turned bad-ass about Sartain. With the way he carries himself on-stage with tongue-in-cheek banter, it’s impossible not to smile when watching.

Although fun to watch, the music itself is pretty dark. It’s a mesh of rockabilly, blues and surf-rock with a Mexican Mariachi twist. The set tonight is filled with tunes from the upcoming album, Lives, including ‘I Don’t Wanna Go To The Party’, ‘Yes Men’ and ‘Praying For A Miracle’ with a selection of old favourites like ‘Atheist Funeral’ and a Samhain cover of ‘The Hungry End’ to name a few.

Most of the tracks are two-minute jives that have an assortment of movers and shakers in the crowd strutting their stuff in an erratic fashion, which is brilliant to see. Sartain has an inspirational, intangible quality that makes you want to forget your inhibitions and get your groove on. Tonight’s encore includes a crowd request for ‘P.C.B. 98’ and ends with a cover of The Ramones classic ‘I Believe In Miracles’.

Amidst the tequila and whiskey-soaked B-movie horror-tinged spectacle, Sartain remains a genuinely down-to-earth, self-deprecating, humble, human being. Living as he does in his own self-constructed vintage bubble, for Sartain, it’s most definitely not a fad, a revival, or a scene. It’s the Sartain way of life, delivered with effortless cool.

Live Review: Lostprophets, Jody Has A Hitlist

24 05 2010

**As originally published on BBC’s Across The Line – May 2010**

Lostprophets are tonight’s headliners having finally released their fourth album, The Betrayed, in January, four years after their previous effort. In those four years, Watkins and co have had various problems with labels and producers which have seen them scrap an entire album’s worth of recordings, and a a line-up change when drummer, Rubin, took up the chance to join Nine Inch Nails’ touring band. It’s been a difficult few years but they’re back to hopefully prove that it’s all been worthwhile.

Dublin-based Jody Has A Hitlist are opening the show tonight, having also played the previous night’s show in their home city. The crowd are chanting for them before they take to the stage; it’s amazing to see for a local(-ish) support band, so they’re obviously doing something right. Their music is pure emo-pop – they’re a lot like Motion City Soundtrack or New Found Glory musically – they tick all the boxes, flailing their guitars and fringes around, screaming a wee bit and singing sugar-sweetly a lot. They’re pretty decent musically, if a lot generic, but if they could get some bigger sing-a-long hooks in their choruses they could really take it up another notch. It’d be awful easy to criticize them for looking like emo-cliches but something local bands often don’t realise is that if you don’t look like a proper band, people won’t see you as a proper band, so I’d give them credit for that. It’s just a worry that they’re riding the crest of a wave that’s on its way out.

Lostprophets come out and kick things off with new album opener, If It Wasn’t For Hate We’d Be Dead By Now, which serves to set the scene with it’s moody stylings, then follow it up with recent single, It’s Not The End Of The World But I Can See It From Here, which sounds eerily like Billy Talent. Throughout the set we’re treated to some more tracks from The Betrayed including For He’s A Jolly Good Felon and Where We Belong. The newer material is surprisingly dark and heavy; Ian is looking a bit goth-chic too; My Chemical Romance definitely have a lot to answer for, stylistically; from their clothes, the lighting effects tonight and even their recent promotional designs, the Lostprophets have gone a little bit Lost Boys.

We’re also treated to a unique take on The Prodigy’s Omen, which sounds a lot like Enter Shikari, and we’re teased with a few bars here and there of student-friendly rock bands such as Guns N Roses and The Killers to name two, which was a little bit weird in truth. Lostprophets have enough quality material that they don’t need to resort to token covers for cheap pops.

The best bits of the set? Obviously the older hits – Rooftops, Last Summer, Last Train Home and ShinobiVsDragonNinja. The Lostprophets are generally a band that don’t bother with encores but they came back for one last song tonight, with Ian performing The Light That Shines Twice As Bright under a spotlight (ah, symbolism) before chucking the mic and stand to the floor in proper angsty fashion.

Tonight’s performance has been re-affirming; proof that there’s life in the old dog yet. The trademark Lostprophets hooks are still there and they definitely still have the knack for crafting pop songs. Having said that they were inspired by bands like Faith No More and Refused during the song-writing process for The Betrayed, it’s actually evident and has been a positive step forward. They may have given themselves a bit of an image-makeover, but there’s definitely substance to back up the style, and it’s great to see a band that have been around for 10 years cranking it up a notch and not just going all soft on us like so many others have.

Live Review: The Continuous Battle Of Order, Jogging, The Cities We Captured

14 05 2010

**As originally published on BBC’s Across The Line – May 2010**

The Cities We Captured are the opening act tonight and having to support The Continuous Battle Of Order is a difficult ask of them. What are two essentially instrumental acts, couldn’t be much more different. The Cities We Captured have a more straight-forward post-rock approach, and while they show potential, they struggle to really captivate our imagination; it’s almost as if they’re here to provide us with a blue-print so that the headliners can come out later and tear it apart.

Jogging are the punk-rock filling sandwiched between the instrumentalists, having come up from Dublin to entertain us. They have a refreshing urgency. Their influences are obvious; pure DC sound, Dischord territory – nods to bands like Fugazi and Rites of Spring – but they also bring to mind Hot Water Music and Hot Snakes with the pace and anger in their delivery. They have some complicated guitar-lines, off-kilter drum patterns; they’ve been a perfect fit on tonight’s bill and a pleasant surprise.

The Continuous Battle Of Order take to the stage next. Or not, as it turns out, as they’ve moved their kit down to the floor, the drums are in the centre of the room, facing the stage, and there’s a chair directly facing them with a selection of pedals laid out in front of it. Craig takes to the drums and Hornby places himself on the chair. I’ll admit, at this point, having never seen TCBOO before – but being a big fan of We Are Knives (Craig and Hornby’s last band) – I worried for a second that I was about to see a more measured approach than their previous incarnation, a Knives-lite. I think it was the chair that threw me but I needn’t have worried, they ain’t no plastic cutlery. Right from the off, Hornby’s wrestling his guitar like it’s an angry crocodile, busting out mesmerising grooves, looping riffs on the fly and showing off the stunning technical proficiency that those who’ve seen him before have come to expect, while those who haven’t are stood around, wide-eyed in stunned silence. He’s jerking around, flailing his limbs and shaking uncontrollably all while staying, for the most part, firmly in his seat. It’s an interesting visual, he’s like an angry kid in a high-chair refusing to be spoon-fed. Maybe he’s tired of being spoon-fed generic music?

To label TCBOO a ‘math-rock’ band would be too easy; they’re almost like an aggressive jazz band. It’s hard to tell how much of Hornby’s guitar-work is improvised, if any, it all seems so chaotic but still faultless. Craig’s drumming is stunning too – it’s as if they’re trying to out-do each other technically, especially with the way they’re set up facing each other – but they’re not in competition, they’re very much on the same wave-length. At one point, Hornby sets up a floor-tom and leaves a set of drum-sticks on top, encouraging a little bit of audience participation while he goes off with another set of sticks to drum around Craig on his kit. We’re all a bit too shy to join in but it’s a nice touch. Amidst the whirlwind of noise, there’s some hand-claps, Hornby sings out a few lines (without mic) and the set ends with the crowd chanting “we are all just pattern seekers”. Tonight we certainly were, and discovering the patterns amidst TCBOO’s chaos has been an absolute pleasure.

Live Review: Idlewild, Concerto For Constantine

30 04 2010

**As originally published on BBC’s Across The Line – Apr 2010**

Having announced an indefinite hiatus after the current tour thanks to, as Roddy himself admits, “There isn’t the demand for our music that there was in the past”, tonight’s Idlewild show is pretty much unmissable as you never know if or when they’ll be back. They’re a band that re-ignited the British rock scene once Brit-pop outstayed it’s welcome – this bunch of young Scottish upstarts, who were shambolically brilliant playing this passionate, spiky indie-punk. They were a breath of fresh air. Over the years, they’ve progressed and matured, their music is more radio-friendly, more polished and their song-writing has progressed in leaps and bounds. They’re a band who’ve matured, their sound has changed; it’s been a natural progression. It’s a shame to think that the demand for Idlewild isn’t there anymore as they’ve undoubtably been one of the most important British bands since their inception in 1995.

Opening tonight’s show is Concerto For Constantine who’re a bit of an Irish indie super group, featuring ex-JJ72 singer and guitarist Mark Greaney, ex-Turn (and Idlewild) bassist Gavin Fox and ex-Frames and Bell X1 drummer Paul Brennan. The last time they were in Belfast, they were supporting The Smashing Pumpkins. You can tell that would’ve been a huge honour for these guys as the Pumpkins influence is obvious, there’s a grunge back-bone to their sound but with a sort-of spacy, futuristic thing goin’ on. Muse are the most obvious point of reference really, but there’s hints of Nirvana and even more classically-inspired parts too. Greaney’s more like a rock-star now than he was in JJ72, the trademark high-pitched vocals have been traded in (mostly) for a deeper growl and he’s looking a bit rougher round the edges; more Kurt Cobain than his clean cut JJ72 days. CFC have the potential to be very good; they’re proficient musicians with plenty of experience in successful bands but at the minute they still sound like they’re trying to find their feet and decide what type of band they actually want to be.

Idlewild take to the stage shortly after and wow, they’re all looking very skinny. Are times really that hard in camp Idlewild? Someone needs to buy these guys a haggis bap. The sound in the Stiff Kitten tonight is very, very loud, the guitars are distorting and a bit of clarity has been lost in favour of sheer noise. Roddy’s vocals seem a little low in the mix, it might be because he’s not belting them out like he used to, although his actual singing has obviously improved over the years as he is now, note perfect.

Roseability is the highlight of the opening few songs of the set. We’re also treated to renditions of Love Steals Us From Loneliness, Readers and Writers, You Held The World In Your Arms and a couple of newer, slower songs including Make Another World. Roddy introduces the next song as “a quieter song” before playing The Night Will Bring You Back To Life. It shows how much their music has changed when they play some slower, quieter songs before introducing “a quieter song”.

The old fans are appeased and acknowledged with “a song for those who’ve been coming to see us for a very long time” when they burst into When I Argue I See Shapes, then treat us to a triple header of songs from 100 Broken Windows (Actually It’s Darkness, Listen To What You’ve Got, Little Discourage). It’s interesting to note that Roddy doesn’t bark through these songs the way he did 10 years ago, the strained vocals and shouts are nowhere to be seen tonight. It’s disappointing really, the passion and aggression of the songs witnessed in previous performances and even on the recordings, is replaced with singing ‘properly’. It’s good but it’s not the way they’re meant to be – where’s the emotion gone?

There’s a few more new tracks up next including Post-Electric and Blame It On Your Obvious Ways, delivered perfectly, but there’s something about Roddy tonight; he seems pleasant enough, his singing is flawless but he seems uninspired, disinterested even. The crowd are for the most part completely static, maybe that’s part of the problem, but when the last few albums have been aimed at a more mature audience, it was never likely to be any other way. During the instrumental sections of songs, Roddy always exits to the side of the stage – maybe he’s trying to give the other guys in the band the spotlight, but it comes across like he just doesn’t want to be up there tonight.

We’re treated to a few more songs, including the ‘encore’ (played without the pretense of leaving the stage and coming back again) including Everyone Says You’re So Fragile and In Remote Part/Scottish Fiction before the final song, A Modern Way of Letting Go. And that’s it all over. It’s been a good gig, there’s been a mix of old and new songs, played note perfectly and sang note perfectly. But Idlewild seemed like a band going through the motions tonight. Having announced their hiatus, they were like the guy at work who’s handed in his notice and is doing the minimum to get by. Maybe it’s because they’re getting older, it’s gotta be hard to be as passionate and aggressive in your performance when you’re in your mid-thirties. Maybe there’s just not as much to be angry about when you’re married with kids having sold millions of records. Hopefully the break will allow Idlewild to get the fire back, find their inspiration and come out fighting. Because tonight, they seem like a band content on being ‘good’ when they used to be great.

Live Review: Dropkick Murphys, Face To Face

22 04 2010

**As originally published on BBC’s Across The Line – Apr 2010**

For those who aren’t aware, the Dropkick Murphys are a celtic punk band all the way from Boston. They’re not Irish exactly but they’re proud of their roots and it’s clear that Belfast is more than happy to embrace them as our own; they’re becoming quite regular visitors and each time the crowds are getting bigger.

We’re in the sold out Mandela Hall tonight – there’s green, white and gold everywhere, silly wigs and leprechaun hats but more importantly, everyone seems to have had a pint of Guinness or ten.

Before we get to the Dropkicks, we’ve got the first ever Irish appearance of Face To Face, a seminal Calfornia punk band who got back together in 2008 after a four year hiatus. They’re a band of considerable pedigree, having toured with NOFX, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and The Offspring in the past. In fact, The Offspring’s current drummer was Face To Face’s drummer for several years and four albums. Their single, The New Way was on heavy rotation on now-defunct music channel, P-Rock – remember it? It’s about as impressive a support band as you’re likely to get.

Now that I’ve significantly hyped them up, are they any good live? Yes. Of course they’re good. They start off with A-OK before flowing straight into Struggle. The sound is a bit hazy at first with the guitars lost in the mix but by the end of the second song things are sounding pretty spot on. They’re obviously genuinely happy to be here -all smiles, enjoying some friendly banter. They ask the crowd to sing-a-long and fill in the “woah-ohs” on Bill Of Goods and Belfast happily obliges. What was initially a modest crowd watching sceptically with arms folded or worse, ignoring the band altogether downing pints at the bar, has already been converted; it’s really packed now, things are starting to get a bit more lively, they’ve got everyone’s attention.

We’re greeted to “a love song” when they burst frantically into You’ve Done Nothing, which is about as romantic as any 2-minute burst of loving is every likely to be I suppose. Not very. They continue their set blasting through tracks from an extensive back catalogue, musically they sit somewhere between Hot Water Music and Rocket From The Crypt; blistering punk rock with an upbeat feel.

Now it’s the Dropkick Murphys turn to shine and they milk their intro for all it’s worth – there’s a long fiddle-de-dee Irish folk instrumental played before they take to the stage. The expectant crowd can’t agree on a suitable chant as “Let’s Go Murphys”, “Let’s Go Dropkicks” and “Dropkick Murphys” all get an airing but the one thing that is agreed on is that it’s time for the main event.

They fire straight into For Boston, with front-man Al Barr bouncing around the stage like he’s psyching himself up for a scrap. He looks edgy and jerky, he’s a ball of energy; it’s not long before he’s down in the front row getting fans to sing the lyrics back at him. The Dropkicks are a band who put on a real show, there’s plenty of flashy lighting and they’ve got a huge green backdrop which looks church-like. Tonight, they’re preaching to the converted. There’s a fairly sizeable mosh pit and everyone’s singing along to every song as they play their way though favourites such as Famous For Nothing, The State Of Massachusetts, Sunshine Highway and Time To Go early in the set.

The tempo never really lets up and it’s heaving in the Mandela now, totally rammed, it’s sweaty, everyone’s boozed up and having a right old shindig. It’s a triumphant atmosphere actually, it feels like a homecoming gig. I suppose it is, of sorts. A pretend homecoming at least. As questionable as their Irishness may be, it’s undeniable that the Dropkicks write great tunes and put on a great show; it’s just non-stop anthem after anthem tonight as they work their way through a selection of tracks, new and old, including Caught In A Jar, Bastards On Parade, Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya and countless others.

Towards the end of the set, the Dropkicks are joined onstage by Stephanie Dougherty, singer from fellow Boston punk band, Deadly Sins, to share vocal duties on Dirty Glass – a song which she sang on the recording of as well. It’s a definite highlight, and it’s shortly followed by an all-female stage invasion for Kiss Me I’m Shitfaced. Things are getting a bit chaotic in here, but it’s all harmless fun and it’s a credit to the security staff for letting everyone get on with it.

The band clear the stage for a while but leave all their equipment set up in true encore fashion, leading them to play another few songs including Shipping Up To Boston and Skinhead On The MBTA, which prompts an all-male stage invasion this time round. Apart from a few sneaky girls who just made their way up there too, I saw ya…

All in all, the Dropkick Murphys put on a helluva show and turned the Mandela into a proper Irish knees-up. Not bad for a bunch of Americans. The audience tonight was truly diverse as well, plenty of punks with mohawks, plenty of drunken students with their novelty wigs and plenty of older trad/folk fans too, all together to enjoy the craic. And I think it’s safe to say that tonight, they’d all agree that the craic was ninety.

Live Review: Pocket Billiards, The Cities We Captured, No Mean City

31 03 2010

**As originally published on BBC’s Across The Line – Mar 2010**

No Mean City kick off proceedings tonight; they’re a pleasant surprise as they’re actually pretty awesome. The focal point of the band is without a doubt their striking front-lady, Jilly, who not only looks good up there in her tiny shorts, but has a great voice and throws some mean shapes too. She’s like our own homegrown Karen O with a bit of Peaches sex-appeal, and attitude thrown in – she’s not afraid to put a heckling punk firmly in his place, mid-set. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are an obvious reference musically too, but No Mean City are a heavier beast, more straight-up rock, grunge guitars and big riffs. Set highlights include ‘TigerKissRose’ with it’s catchy refrain and ‘Gettin’ Off’, which is a bit pervy (but in a good way). They’re still a little rough around the edges in terms of full-band performance, it’s more like a solo act with a backing band at the minute, Jilly’s rock star swagger makes the other guys look timid in comparison but there’s bags of potential here for No Mean City to add a bit of polish and truly sparkle.

After all that rock, it seems appropriate that we have some post-rock (!), and here’s The Cities We Captured to deliver it. They’ve got more pedals than you could shake a stick at. You’d need several sticks. Not sure why you’d want to do that. The lighting effects in the Speakeasy tonight really add an extra dimension, helping to create the perfect atmosphere for this type of set – when the music tries to deafen you, the lights try to blind you. It sounds a bit painful actually but it’s not, it’s great. There’s a hint of magic in the air, the atmosphere is tense and the waves of music are enveloping. At least for a bit anyway, then things start to all sound a bit the same. The influences on display are obvious: think Pelican or Russian Circles but I’d wager that if it weren’t for Tracer AMC and more recently, ASIWYFA, bands like The Cities We Captured might not have been so quite to pop up on the local scene. Undeniably tight and technically proficient, there’s some great ideas in here but some of the songs go on a bit and they haven’t managed to replicate that intangible, emotional investment that Tracer AMC or ASIWYFA have honed to perfection. And so I watched the rest of their set from the bar.

Through a haze of cider, Pocket Billiards are headlining tonight’s extravaganza. The cider is important; Pocket Billiards are a party band, so to truly appreciate them you need to be suitably lubricated. Pocket Billiards deliver ska-punk in their own unique style, they may appeal to fans of Less Than Jake or The Mighty Mighty Bosstones but they don’t try to imitate them; they do things their own way, there’s no Americanisms or faux accents here – these are songs about their own lives (‘Don’t Scratch My Soca’ is about their love of comedy classic, Desmond’s) and about Belfast (such as set highlight ‘SPIDE’), sung in a Belfast accent, they’re passionate about what they’re doing but they don’t take themselves too seriously either – they’re here to have fun. You don’t need to be a ska or punk fan to enjoy Pocket Billiards. You just need to like having fun. And everyone likes having fun, don’t they? So check them out, they’re one of Belfast’s finest and it’d be a shame to let the punks hog all the fun.