Allo Darlin’, Portland Arms, Cambridge, 24 July 2014

An evening of Summer Indie-pop at the Portland opened appropriately with Cambridge based trio The Centimes. They have a distinctive original sound as I have said in previous reviews and the long instrumental introduction to opener ‘Stormy Tuesday’ laid down the template of solid drumming and bass with that stylish 12-string guitar jangling above. ‘La La Land’ showcased a bit of funk guitar and ‘I’m Fine’ and ‘Local Pool’ impressed as usual with strong vocal performances. The venue had filled up rapidly during the set and the band were well received. I look forward to the debut album, with some extra input spice added by The Organ Grinders Monkey..

Next on were the six members of Model Village, an Indie Folk band I had last seen at The Junction as support for Half Man Half Biscuit, not the most likely combination?! On that occasion there was more of an acoustic feel but they have a varying line-up and last night it was mainly electric guitar with excellent piano contributions and some welcome short bursts of harmonica. They also have the options that three different lead singers give and the musical styles vary greatly, from the up tempo opening song ‘Splitting The Risk’ to the mellow ‘Stockholm’ and the emotive ‘Red Chair’. It was a confident and enjoyable performance setting the tone for the headliners..

Allo Darlin’ are a London-based four piece formed in 2010, fronted by Elizabeth Morris. They play catchy guitar based Indie-pop, with involving lyrics drawing on human relationship dilemmas, cultural references (‘Woody Allen’, unfortunately omitted tonight) and reminiscences of Australia. It was generally an up-beat summer sound but listen to the lyrics carefully, there is plenty of darkness and light. The sound quality and instrumental playing were top-notch, like the Smiths with ukulele added to give an extra dimension of rhythm. There were two great interplay songs between male and female vocals, ‘Bright Eyes’ and the exquisite oldie ‘Dreaming’, three and a bit minutes of pop perfection…

The long set was engaging and varied, tracks from the forthcoming album ‘We Come From the Same Place’ to be released in October 2014 slotted in nicely with the more familiar songs. The band seemed very pleased to hear the audience singing along and there was a clever encore, ‘Kiss Your Lips’ segueing into the Paul Simon song ‘You Can Call Me Al’ (including that fast bass run..). It was a great show and from speaking to the band afterwards, the friendly onstage personas are all genuine!

28 Boulevard, Portland Arms, Cambridge, 19 July 2014

A hot Cambridge evening for a bill of 4 varied bands at the Portland, the common link being loud indie-ish rock rather than mellow introspection. I only caught the end of the set from opening band Rubber Duck, but as that featured a belting cover of ‘Seven Nation Army’ that seemed to be a good omen for the evening.

Preacher’s Son from Dublin is a rock trio led by bass player and singer Brian Hogan who has been around on the Irish music scene in various incarnations for many years. They are on a short tour of the UK, pleased to be in the presence of the music loving audience of the Portland. They are taut and confident, excellent sound quality and musicianship. A hybrid of Thin Lizzy and The Fratellis?

Cambridge four piece Motor Tapes go from strength to strength, concentrating tonight on their faster, rockier songs. Frontman Paul is relaxed and likeable in front of the enthusiastic audience who are appreciative of the carefully crafted original sounds on offer. These include the excellent, hypnotic ‘Shore’ and ‘Aspirin’, the lively closing song. Their cover of ‘Blue Monday’ gradually appears from the instrumental end of their own song, and with limited use of electronic sounds it is a very convincing performance with metronomic drumming and an aggressive bass tune line on the guitar.

The final act was 28 Boulevard, brash swaggering indie pop, enthusiastic and loud. The five members are obviously committed to their music, powerful drumming backs up the three guitar soundwall and Tim Lloyd Kinnings can deliver the lead vocal with confidence. Their songs are brimming with ideas instrumentally and lyrically and the live sound lived up to expectations, a good end to the evening…
(PS Check out their song ‘Electric Feet’…)

Slow Club, Portland Arms, Cambridge, 16 July 2014

Opening act tonight were Cambridge 5-piece Fred’s House, with their engaging folk/pop/country blend. Two acoustic guitars, electric bass and cajon (the beat box you sit on) back the two or three part harmonies and the lead vocals of Vikki Gavin and Griff Jameson, shown to great effect in ‘Hold On’. The songs featured roving, sensitive bass lines, some banjo and gentle guitar picking, the music occasionally letting loose to give some extra contrast. The real-life sentiments of ‘Standing Next To Me’ and ‘Fine Life’ struck a chord with the rapidly growing audience and then ‘Beautiful You’ brought the set to a close with its Spanish flavour and changes of tempo. It was a good performance, appreciated by the audience. It was announced that drummer Paul was greatly looking forward to Slow Club and so were we…

Slow Club are Charles Watson and Rebecca Taylor, multi-instrumentalists and vocalists from Sheffield and they have just released their third album ‘Complete Surrender’ this week. The music is not trapped in a single category, the new album is a change in direction from earlier folk-tinged sounds but the range of indie/folk/pop/rock sounds still vary. From the opening ‘oldie’ song ‘If We’re Still Alive’ the talented duo (with added bass and drums) set the tone for an evening of great sounds. They played the whole new album, the crowd were stunned, silent in the pauses in the slow songs, amazed by the Motown stomp of brilliant single ‘Suffering You, Suffering Me’. The album features extra strings and brass but they were not missed tonight in the intimate setting of the Portland. The air conditioning broke down during the show but the effortless cool of the band saw us through. The slow burning blues of the memorably named ‘Queen’s Nose’ and the big vocal of ‘Not Mine To Love’ were two of the many highlights.

They have a coordinated stylish image but any distance that may be perceived from the ultra-cool look is completely removed by the likeable interaction with each other and the audience. A great strength in their performance is the different instrumental combinations and the contrast when Charles or Rebecca takes the lead vocal and shines individually. It was a sensational show, they were brilliant, buy the album and see them soon….

The Hot Lights, The Corner House, Cambridge, 4 July 2014

Billed as ‘Cambridge Indie Heroes’, anyone expecting an evening of relentless introspective shoegazing would have been surprised at the exuberance and variety on offer. First on were Riverane, two guitars, bass and drums line-up. Vocalist /guitarist Gabriel Coulter has raw edges to his voice, suiting the sound well. The songs vary in unexpected ways, different sections, changes and instrumental passages show a will to experiment and keep the listener interested beyond the standard ‘Indie’ template. They are a young band with potential, listen to their soundcloud tracks.

The next act was the solo guitar and voice of Dickon McCarthy, an unassuming and unpretentious performer. His gentle and mellifluous vocal style, smoothly drifting over busy guitar work is something a bit different from the current crop of solo singer/guitarists. Having seen so many loops/triggered sounds/backing tracks etc recently it was intriguing to see a performer going back to basics, creating the rhythm and effects interweaved with the conventional accompaniment on a standard acoustic guitar. Again, have a listen to soundcloud…

Venus Grove are a competent four piece, playing catchy tunes drawing on the power-pop and punk heritage of the late 70s and early 80s. The lead singer Bob Nicholas had a style and delivery similar to Elvis Costello (and the glasses as well..) and the drummer created a punchy pace to the songs. The set built up well, again there was variety and having read that their influences were XTC, Beatles, Small Faces, Jimi Hendrix and others I think most of those boxes were ticked with style.

Top of the bill were The Hot Lights, they had a shaky start with a guitar string repair needed during a suspended opening song, but the audience were patient and responded well to the comeback ‘Keeping on Track’. With a relaxed and very charismatic front man and many supporters in the audience the rocking set rolled along with energy, their own material was strong and there was an interesting choice of two covers, ‘Luka’ the Suzanne Vega song (she was playing in Cambridge earlier this week), later covered by The Lemonheads, and the Nelly Furtado song ‘Turn off The Light’. Second guitar was sometimes substituted by keyboards for a different version of their Indie sound. I particularly enjoyed the songs towards the end of the set, ‘You Should Be With Me’ was a highlight. It was an engaging and enjoyable performance..

As a prelude to the Cambridge leg of the ‘Tour de France’, there was a free concert on Parker’s Piece featuring Billy Ocean and The Bay City Rollers, I think I made the right decision to seek out the alternative free show in The Corner House…

Horse Party, The Corner House , Cambridge, 20 June 2014

Horse Party are a 3-piece indie-blues band of drums and two guitars, playing a set of confident tunes, mostly taken from their recent album ‘Cover Your Eyes’. The pounding beat of ‘Back to Mono’ opens the set, the guitars overlap well and nobody missed the bass, it was certainly a full enough sound for the appreciative audience in the confines of the Corner House. There is a definite American influence, the guitar notes bend and linger and each song has plenty of time to establish the mood musically and lyrically. A highlight was when sparse arrangements in ‘Six’ gave way to guitar fireworks and inventive drum power, then back again.

Ellie Langley, Seymour Quigley and Shannon Hope are accomplished musicians, based in Bury St Edmunds (once described as ‘the new Seattle’ by John Peel during a previous musical flourishing..) and are important contributors to the resurgence of the local music scene, including their own fanzine and promoting regular music nights. An enjoyable set, I hope to see them again…

The Organ Grinder’s Monkey, Portland Arms, Cambridge, 18 June 2014

An experimental night at The Portland, free entry and biscuits. Squadron Scramble are a duo, playing keyboard and guitar and totally lost in their music, anonymous to the point of standing in the shadows and not speaking with the crowd. But they didn’t need to, the sound was powerful, adventurous guitar underpinned by sympathetic keyboard, backing tapes and an animated back projection. The overall theme of the instrumental played was flying, from the Second World War to echoes of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. It was hypnotic, pulsing, sometimes challenging and discordant but always interesting and the visuals fitted well.

Pete Um has been on the Cambridge music scene for a while but this was the first time I had seen him. Seated at a table like a character in a Samuel Beckett play he speaks or sings over tapes of varying low-key musical styles , most tracks lasting less than a minute. Reflections on relationships, political ideas, war and peace, Cambridge, all a bit random but you keep listening to see where he goes next..

The Organ Grinder’s Monkey is talented guitarist Ben Garnett, inextricably linked to his laptop (‘Bill’), together on a restless quest to alter the form and structure of song. Describing the sound as ‘lo-fi glitch-rock’, he plays guitar and sings, interacting with loops and effects, triggered by guitar, pedals and voice. Audience participation was taken to a new level when one of the crowd was given a controller for a personal real-time mix of one of the songs. In ‘See This Through’ at the end of the set, the staccato bursts of bass and percussion invaded the existing complex structure of melody and vocoder. The ideas are strong, as conventional songs they stand up anyway but the constant diversions and changes sustain the listeners’ interest. Have a listen on Soundcloud, including some intriguing remixes of other peoples songs…

The Pogues, Thetford Forest, 14 June 2014

It has been said many times, but the setting of this venue is something else, a clearing deep in the forest (must not get too mystical, there is also a visitor centre, playground, bike hire etc next to it…), towering trees with the sun sinking below as the headliners arrive on stage….

Back to the music, the opening act was Billy Vincent from South London, named after the two singers, Billy Barratt and David Vincent. They have some good recordings already (see SoundCloud), but recent new songs formed the bulk of the set. The band line-up produces a full sound of electric and acoustic guitars, with some sparkling short lead lines too. There is great interplay and understanding between the two singers, taking turns to carry the song. Their contrasting voices, pleading on ‘Loveless Man’, heartfelt on ‘Dark Are My Days’, add to the variety. On ‘Learning to Drink’, the country sound and sentiment soon gets a more London grown flavour. It was their biggest gig to date, they were pleased to be there and that communicated well to the crowd, who were with them all the way.

I had listened to the Fat White Family album ‘Champagne Holocaust’ but hearing those tracks played on stage was a whole other level. The opener ‘Auto Neutron’ is an unusual slow building song but established the template of Hammond organ, spaced-out guitar (5 sided), bold drumming and the deranged vocal acrobatics of Lias Saoudi. There were reminders of The Fall, especially in ‘Wild American Prairie’, Velvet Underground on ‘Touch The Leather’, but they have an overall sound and presence all their own. And what a presence it is. It was music for a cramped, dark venue but they just went ahead anyway in the light and air, greatly appreciated by the mesmerised enthusiasts down the front who realised that this could be the start of something very big.

Finally the mighty Pogues arrived, they may be older and more static (although James Fearnley was jumping around with his accordion for most of the set!) than when I last saw them but they make up for it in musicianship(featuring an eccentric collection of unusual stringed instruments), strength of songs and of course the legend that is Shane MacGowan. It was a greatest hits set, ‘Streams of Whiskey’, ‘Dirty Old Town’, ‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’, ‘Sally MacLennane’ all good crowd pleasers. Shane left the stage a few times, but Spider Stacy and tin whistle filled in the front- man role perfectly, including a spirited ‘Jesse James’. Shane’s vocals seemed to improve as the show proceeded, by the time of ‘The Irish Rover’, he was on fine form. Shane said…’You’ve got a nice set-up here’, a bit of an understatement as they launched into ‘Fiesta’, an appropriate end to an amazing party..