Robert Plant, Corn Exchange, Cambridge, 20 Nov 2014

The crowd were in early for the sold out show with Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters, the latest of the many performing incarnations of the former Led Zeppelin frontman.

Support trio The Last Internationale played American blues rock, underpinned by folk and protest roots, a sort of Billy Bragg with louder guitars. Delila Paz opened the show with solo acoustic guitar and a soaring powerful voice, singing ‘Workers of the World Unite’. The rest of the set was electric and punchy, showing how sometimes the basic combination of guitar bass and drums is all you need for a satisfying sound. ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Indian Blood’ was the standout track and their covers of an Elmore James blues and Neil Young’s ‘My My, Hey Hey(Out of the Blue)’ went down very well with the audience too.

Robert Plant is a legend in rock music, his modest and relaxed stage presence and still stunning vocal talents deliver a superior show, a mixture of material from the latest album ‘Lullaby and…The Ceaseless Roar’, blues standards and reworked Zeppelin classics. The band is superb, all given individual personalities by Robert’s jokey asides and having many opportunities to bring their musicianship into the spotlight. Liam ‘Skin’ Tyson’s prowess on the acoustic guitar duetting with Justin Adams on mandolin and the eerie sounds produced by Juldeh Camara playing a ritti (one-stringed fiddle) were among the many highlights. Other eccentric stringed instruments add variety to the harder-edged sound that showcases Robert’s distinctive voice to perfection.

When an emotionally draining ‘I Just Want to Make Love to You’ gives way to the opening riff of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ the audience go crazy and we know we will leave the show happy. Then the icing on the cake, an encore of ‘Rock and Roll’….

Pere Ubu, Junction, Cambridge, 17 Nov 2014

Pere Ubu at Junction J2, the enticing prospect of an evening of experimental excess from long lasting leaders in the genre, originally formed back in 1975 in Cleveland, USA.

The first half hour was semi-improvisational, David Thomas the only founder member still in the band sits at the front of a semi-circle of the other musicians, directing and suggesting as each player takes turns to start off a themed piece (eg ‘Martian Lounge Music’!). Clarinet, keyboards, theremin, guitar and drums with fragments of lyrics create a rich seam of ideas, with potential for mining for future full songs. It is an instrumental blend that could feature in a Tom Waits show, where there is always space within the complex sound. It is a challenging listening experience but not inaccessible, just get absorbed into the mood.

Following on from the interval the band returned for the ‘professional band’ part of the show, featuring songs from their latest album ‘Carnival Of Souls’ and many others. Conventional rock guitar riffs are soothed by the clarinet then hijacked by twisted keyboard effects, bursts of drums and the aggressively slicing theremin. At the centre, the focal point is Thomas’s voice, sometimes tortured and edgy, sometimes being distorted through a telephone handset, always surprising. At times it reminded me of the tone of the late, great Kevin Coyne. In between songs David Thomas has many wry observations and anecdotes, including why the band did not want us to clap. This seemed to create a strange atmosphere at first but by the end seemed perfectly reasonable and quite liberating, even though the audience were trying to break the rule when the songs were as good as ‘Caroleen’.

After a break off-stage the band returned to play ‘Irene’. Beginning with keyboard effects like hailstones rolling down a window, beautiful clarinet lines underpinned a plaintive and gently sung vocal performance making it the highlight of the show for me. The final improvised song/statement was urging us to ‘Buy More Merchandise’, after wading through the many layers of irony of this I bought the CD. I did the right thing. I think….?

Violet Woods, Portland Arms, Cambridge, 7 November 2014

This was the launch party for the new album by Violet Woods, a Cambridge based five-piece led by vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Xavier Watkins. The psychedelic tone was set by DJ Rich Hero, playing very obscure and ultra-cool vinyl singles from the late sixties and early seventies, accompanied by oil slide projections on the ceiling.

The opening act were Riverane, previously reviewed on this site as support to The Hot Lights and moving their sound on into darker territory since then, as the vocals of lead singer Gabriel Coulter twist around the continually varying musical moods.

Violet Woods hit the stage with an instrumental introduction, then straight into ‘Over The Ground’ from their self-titled album. It is a retro sound, lovingly recreating and extending the late sixties pop/rock/psychedelic vibe with some modern edges. On record it is mostly fairly smooth and relaxed but live there is no holding back, with added echo to the voices, over a powerful instrumental backing, such as when 12-string guitar and organ are thrashing away in the ending of ‘The Dancer’. To make a Cambridge early Pink Floyd connection, it is definitely more ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ than ‘Grantchester Meadows’…

Probably my favourite song, ‘Electric Fascination’ is based around an eerie descending 12-string figure, repeating and competing with distant vocals. The guitar wins in the end… The reassuring chord structure of ‘Here’ is a neat pop song, ‘Driftwood Royalty’ is an optimistic dreamy lyric. The epic ‘The River’ ends the set, going through changes before an exhausting instrumental onslaught. It was a great advert for a confident and impressive debut album.

Johnny Marr, Corn Exchange, Cambridge, 21 October 2014

Imagine being in an indie guitar band and being on tour with the man who wrote the hymnsheet/instruction manual/bible of how to play the whole genre. Anyway, support band Childhood from South London rose to the occasion with style and swagger. Singer/guitarist Ben Romans-Hopcraft led the band through many of the tracks from their confident debut album ‘Lacuna’, much praised in the NME and given some extra energy in the live performance, filling the rafters of Cambridge’s most cavernous venue. There was a warm reception from the growing crowd, their set was a real bonus to the evening and Johnny Marr was to praise them generously later on..

To a rapturous ovation, the winner of the NME ‘Godlike Genius’ Award in 2013 took the stage, the backlights spelling out the name of the new album ‘Playland’, the title track being the opening song. Extra guitar, occasional keyboard and tight and rock solid bass and drums from his band were a secure backing through the evening but it was the guitar moves of Johnny Marr that we all wanted to see. In case anyone wondered how the old songs would fit in, Smiths classic ‘Panic’ was next, with its prophetic ‘Hang the DJ’ refrain..(of course the DJ playing the Damned/Roxy Music/Talking Heads/Magazine vinyl singles during the interval should certainly escape that fate…)

The next 90 minutes followed this in a similar way, great punchy songs from JM’s two solo albums and more Smiths songs too. A highlight was the quieter ‘New Town Velocity’, a thoughtful, nostalgic tale of alienation. Building up to a finish with Electronic’s ‘Getting Away With It’ and then the distinctive opening strum of ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’, sometimes known as ‘The National Anthem of Smithdom’ and quite simply one of the greatest pop songs ever.
Five songs in the encore, including a cover of ‘Lust For Life’ and ending with the unmistakeable tremolo layers of an extended version of’How Soon Is Now?’, another classic and a great ending to the show.

Real Estate, Junction, Cambridge, 20 October 2014

There was a full and atmospheric Junction J2 to welcome Alvvays from Canada and Real Estate from the USA.

Alvvays are a fizzing and fully formed five piece indie pop band, playing catchy songs from their outstanding self-titled debut album. Molly Rankin fronts the band and plays guitar, with excellent interplay with Alec O’Hanley on guitar and triggered effects. There is strong support from some deep bass synthesisers, drums and incisive basslines (played on a Hofner violin bass, Beatles fans!). This instrumental line up extends the variety beyond the indie guitar of ‘Atop a Cake’ to the more introspective keyboards of ‘Dives’. The engaging personality and sparkling voice of Molly shines through best on the two last songs ‘Adult Diversion’ and the memorably named and poignant ‘Archie, Marry Me’.
It was a brilliant performance, they won over the audience completely and as they later posted, they thought ‘Cambridge is cool’.

Real Estate are a completely different prospect, a band playing longer pieces, involving and intricate, two guitars, electric piano, bass and drums with occasional vocals from founder member Martin Courtney. Psychedelic sounds, a sort of indie-rock version of the Grateful Dead with shades of Gomez too (remember them? their album ‘Bring It On’ won the Mercury Prize in 1999..). The setlist drew several songs from the current album ‘Atlas’, there were some good exchanges with the audience and we were immersed in the musicianship and mellow feel of it all.
As the band say, their music ‘conjures quiet, late-night drives down wooded highways, rural rambles with friends (and maybe a love interest) on the sunniest afternoons of the year, and hazy summer evenings spent alone, thinking back to those times and the people who were with you for them’. I couldn’t put it better myself..

Album Review, The Centimes, released 12 Oct 2014

Track by track review of the new CD ‘Wooden Shirts’ by Cambridge Indie band The Centimes.

1. Wooden Shirts. A lively opener, setting the template of 12-string guitar, driving drums and solid bass. Some acapella vocals and harmonies add extra gloss to the mix.
2. Local Pool. Previously a single, a driving rhythm behind a full sound and strong vocal, the much repeated line ‘the party’s over, find another party’ indicating fruitless Saturday night wanderings or maybe a bigger metaphor.
3. I’m Fine. Coupled with Local Pool on the single release, a sparse but well-balanced and rather lovely song with a Velvet Underground first album feel. The sort of song to be playing in your head when you wave goodbye at the railway station after a weekend that didn’t go that well, perhaps with some regrets but ultimately tinged with optimism.
4. Locked Out. A moody echoing guitar figure slowly starts, then goes into another up tempo track. Lots going on behind the lead vocal, even a bit of synthesiser.
5. Billy. A change of direction into an American blues rock sound, heavier guitar and rolling bassline, smoky voice on the verse then blistering chorus that leaves no doubt that Billy is ‘the only one’.
6. La La Land. The guitar goes into full jangly mode, developing into a Chic style rhythm over steady drumming on one of the more musically changeable tracks on the album.
7. Stormy Tuesday. The musical centrepiece of the album, a long instrumental introduction, a pounding bass gathering storm, thunder and lightning on the drums and guitar eventually resolving into chords, then the voices blend well together for a lyric of threatening weather nightmare….play this one loud.
8. I Don’t See It Anymore. A slightly heavier track, each lyric line answered by the title phrase. A bit of keyboard and a guitar solo add to the atmosphere.
9. Little Table. Like a track from the first Orange Juice album the echoing 12-string skates on top of the bass and solid drum beat, then a tale of relationship aftermath unfolds with a strong optimistic chorus.
10. Spider. Often the first song of the live set, this is a confident but subtle mid-tempo closer to the album. An end of summer mood, beginning with a slow chiming picked chord, answered by a delicate descending bass run and some non-drums percussion and gentle vocal. The song keeps building, by the end we have strings and synthesisers and as the last chord fades away we are very glad we have shared 40 minutes with The Centimes, it is an impressive debut album.

Wooden Arms, Junction, Cambridge, 11 Oct 2014

As the summer finally gave way to a mellow autumn Junction J2 was the venue for three musical performances of contemplation and experimentation. First on was Gaze is Ghost, singer-songwriter Laura McGarrigle from Strabane alone at an electric piano, with her plaintive voice and sensitive chords illustrating her songs of love and loss. The back projections of desolate seascapes and blurred light sources complemented the absorbing sounds.

After a short interval multi-instrumentalist and composer Tom Adams sang and played electric guitar. He augmented his songs using effects and guitar loops in the most imaginative way I had seen for a while, the patterns he set up twisting and turning and arriving in the mix when you least expected them. Even one of the control boxes seemed to have a life of its own and generate a chorus of sound when moved around. A multi-layered trumpet was used in the final song to create a rush like the wind blowing across the continuing background images.

Wooden Arms are from Norwich, touring to showcase their recently released album ‘Tide’. The six talented band members, led from the piano by main composer Alex Carson, play a variety of acoustic and electric instruments, violin, cello, trumpet, guitars and drums. All of the band sing and the resulting music produced has classical, ambient and folk influences with many fragile textures and subtleties. ‘Prelude’ opens the set, a repeating piano figure gradually joined by ethereal voices and strings. The pieces move at a gently flowing pace, vocals arrive and depart, sometimes the drums add fireworks, such as at the end of the evocative ‘December’. The album title track ‘Tide’ is a standout, a classical piece with a powerful build up of voice and instruments. New song ‘Burial’ brought the show to an end, yet somehow the haunting sounds of all three of the evening’s acts continued…