Gavin Chappell-Bates : The Sanctuary Of Stars, single released June 2018

Cambridge acoustic/electric performer Gavin Chappell-Bates has returned to a cosmological theme first incorporated into one of his early compositions ‘Black Holes’; this time he has moved beyond linking celestial metaphors with a personal relationship crisis and broadened his scope to look far beyond the Earth.
He envisages the departure of post-apocalypse humans to rebirth in the distant galaxies – a bold theme to tackle indeed, a bit like the classic 1950s sci-fi novel ‘Childhood’s End’. This is one of the final tracks on his recent concept album ‘The Last One’, a climatic ‘lighters in the air moment’ big ballad contrasting with some of the rockier numbers on the LP.

Beginning with simple and calm acoustic guitar, Gavin delivers a poignant vocal performance, then as on many of his songs the hook-line chorus lifts and gives the real emotional punch. Other instruments gradually appear in the mix, with sustained electric guitar notes, faraway echoing percussion and strings filling out the sound until the spirit of the song drifts away into the distance.

Gavin has always put a lot of effort into accompanying videos; this time the lyrics are superimposed over stunning images of outer space as a contrast to some of the worst excesses on Earth. In a week where some of the profound words of the late Stephen Hawking were transmitted towards the nearest black hole a song like this really makes you think.

http://gavinchappellbates.com/

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Carolyn’s Fingers : Twice Born, single released June 2018

A new single from Cambridge based trio Carolyn’s Fingers, making sounds unlike anyone else on the local scene.

Following on from recent release ‘Her Howl’ and a live showcase at the Portland Arms, they continue to tantalise and weave magic with a heady brew of unpredictable sonic textures and cryptic lyrics. This time bringing the mythological character of Dionysus to life (‘…described as the Olympian god of wine, vegetation, pleasure, festivity, madness and wild frenzy…’), who my researches show to be a major cult figure of ambiguity and multi-interpretations. This god is also known as Bacchus and sometimes given the epithet Eleutherios (“the liberator”), mentioned in the song and also the name of an earlier demo version of this track.

Beginning with a heartbeat, the pure vocal leads through, punctuated by keyboard clicks and distant effects before the guitar chimes in and takes over. A quieter section sounds almost like a Gregorian chant, sung in Spanish (and a made-up language?). That echoing guitar re-asserts itself as it all builds to a finale, controlled on the surface but with a frenzied undercurrent.

Quite how they achieve this hypnotic and distinctive sound with such minimal instrumentation is an enigma in itself, but with their own production skills (and cover artwork too) they are the complete package.

https://www.facebook.com/carolynsfingersband/

Red Red Eyes, Blue Moon, Cambridge, 5 June 2018

An excellent double-bill in the popular Blue Moon venue room, with an emphasis on keyboard-driven sounds.

First on was Cambridge based Luke Cowan; having recorded an evocative EP to illustrate the passing of the seasons he was performing this minimalist suite, having first set the tone with a cover of Bert Jansch’s ‘Veronica’. A quiet and unassuming frontman, Luke was directing his fellow seated instrumentalists from the piano as they added bass, acoustic guitar, drums and a range of percussion including a shaken cluster of shells and a singing wine glass.
Always building around a repeating and resonating piano motif each timeless, dreaming piece flowed and entranced, quite unlike anything I had heard in a live show for ages and very welcome too.

Red Red Eyes are Laura McMahon and Xavier Watkins, key performers in cinematic psychedelic adventurers Violet Woods back in 2014. This new band have recently released the impressive album ‘Horology’ (on which every track has something to do with clocks?).
The songs are based around sustained keyboard chords, varying from church organ to reassuring eighties synthesiser but the hypnotic, echoing and strangely soothing voice of Laura is the dominant sound. This is interwoven with Xavier’s effects box of tricks and sharp-edged electric guitar to cut through the mix as in the dissonant waltz ‘The Watch Ticks On’.

There are plenty of varied tones; the pulsing electro bassline on the up-tempo ‘Empty Land’, the mellotron accompaniment to the short and plaintive ‘Heart In Your Mouth’ and the many instrumental cross-currents in the sweeping epic ‘Wildfires’.

‘Control’ has a distant melody and piano line and is a sublime summary of many of the aspects of the rest of the all too short set. Persisting in the memory it was a thought-provoking, imaginative musical evening much appreciated by an attentive audience…

https://www.facebook.com/redredeyesband/
https://lukecowan.bandcamp.com/

Strawberry Fair, Midsummer Common, Cambridge, 2 June 2018

Since its beginning in the 1970s, Strawberry Fair has become a much-anticipated fixture on the Cambridge summer calendar. Full of colour, costume, protest, food and drink it is still primarily a free music festival with upwards of 100 acts on show, only a few of which I was able to stay to see this time round.
Some years the event can be slow to get going but this time the weather brought out a substantial crowd early on, including an appreciative audience for The Scissors opening the Rebel Arts Stage at midday. After a decade at the forefront of the Cambridge scene they can still strike a pose and rip it up with the best of them, aided by a selection of their own fastest and loudest songs, including I thought an extra turning up of the blazing sound system to a volume beyond 11 halfway through the set. Having seen them recently in the confines of the Cornerhouse venue, their rich and hypnotic swirling sound easily steps up to an outdoor show.

Meanwhile in the Portland Ballroom (a large tent with excellent ale bar) Garden Birds were on stage; singer/songwriter/guitarist Sarah Taylor-Morris accompanied by another guitar and with an extra enhancement of five backing singers to add an ethereal choir to her uptempo folk tales.
Next on were indie fun-folksters Jacquie And Geoff, the duo joined by electric upright bass, percussion and the lushness of a clarinet. It was all enjoyable feel-good stuff, even with an occasional ukulele showing its ability to sound uplifting and melancholic at the same time.

Cambridge 105 radio have many ways of promoting local artists, with dedicated specialist DJs and the very popular ‘unsigned chart’. Here they host a stage, showcasing local artists of all genres; we caught the end of a set by Ffion Rebecca, originally from Wales but now living in Cambridge and making waves on the local music scene. Performing her own songs and covers she has a rich and versatile voice and a confident stage presence, accompanied by some jazzy stylings from her companion’s acoustic guitar.

I last saw guitarist Kimberley Rew guesting with cult legend Robyn Hitchcock two weeks ago, now here he was on the Flying Pig stage as the lynchpin of the band Jack, a good-time blues-rock band regularly gigging around the city. Rew is not an extravagant soloist, his short and spicy guitar lines and chops weave effortlessly over rock solid bass and drums and complement the traditional blues vocals. Definitely a band and vibe to savour as the afternoon turned to evening and the crowds continued to arrive…

http://strawberry-fair.org.uk/
http://www.thescissors.co.uk/
https://www.facebook.com/jacquiandgeoff
https://cambridge105.co.uk/
https://www.facebook.com/FfionRebecca%20/
http://www.jackblues.tk/

Fightmilk : Both Types Of Hayfever (EP Collection), released May 2018

As a prelude to their forthcoming album punk popsters and prime live attraction Fightmilk package together their first two sold-out EPs and bonus tracks…

1. Admin. Stunning opener; the band burst in on top of the guitar fanfare line leading into a frustrating tale of office job pointlessness; ‘…looking for fun where there just ain’t none…’, the words nailing the mood with plenty of dry wit.

2. Jesse. Brooding introduction then springing into life like a 70s Blondie A-side. A stinging demolition of love/hate towards the title character in every phrase of the lyrics.

3. Your Girlfriend. The dissonant guitar figure over minimalist backing is the musical core of this tour de force, it’s a sinister loud ballad, again with a turmoil of mixed emotion that remains unresolved with wry lyrics along the way ‘…I don’t have a pencil case but if I did I’d write your names…’

4. Winter Boy. The tempo steps back up, with a storming vocal from Lily Rae, on repeated listens you pick out the multiple musical twists and turns that are a feature of many of these tracks.

5. Some Boys. One of the bonus tracks but definitely one of my favourites musically, a joyous speedy two minutes with rousing hookline chorus from the rest of the band. There is even a key change to match the gender switch of the lyric.

6. Pity Party. Defined as ‘an instance of indulging in self-pity or eliciting pity from other people’ but actually sounding quite fun here (and on the accompanying video) due to the strength of this song, the lead track on one of the original EPs. The verses build stealthily to the glorious choruses.

7. Bank of Mum and Dad. Combining a Sex Pistols style pounding introduction giving way to the wittiest lyrics of the album with affectionate nods to the foibles of parents (‘….their love is beginning to drive me mad, there’s Antiques Roadshow on a Sunday night….’), as the returning to live at home narrator gets increasingly irked over her now very common plight. Brilliant!

8. Chaperone. Don’t be fooled by the distant piano introduction – this is another two minute blast of assertive raw power with drums to the fore.

9. Nye. A bittersweet acknowledgement that a New Year’s Eve and its party can be a most unrewarding experience. ‘…we get the night that we deserve…who knows the words to Auld Lang Syne?…’. It is a cleverly constructed song, with a winning and intense vocal performance.

10. Nobody Hates You No-one Cares. If ‘Nye’ brings the mood down a bit then this is the antidote; a proper punk anthem (‘…my boyfriend’s rubbish…and the band he’s in is rubbish as well…’). Fightmilk are having a great time on this track, and it is infectious…

I look forward to the new album…


https://www.facebook.com/fightmilkisaband/

Bouquet Of Dead Crows : Bunched Up Bradley, single released May 2018

Cambridge rockers Bouquet Of Dead Crows are soon to release their long-awaited follow-up to debut long player ‘Into The Night’. In the meantime we have a new single, surprisingly not to be included on the new album (of course this strategy did not harm the prospects of many Beatles singles, most notably Strawberry Fields/Penny Lane missing out on Sgt Pepper….).
And hopefully this assured blast of raw power is representative of the LP…

The title stems from a misheard comment about an adverse clustering of balls on a pool table, as described in the ‘Star Wars’ style rolling prologue at the beginning of the accompanying video. Starting with a speeding up metronome, drums launch in and then guitarist Neil Bruce creates a riff density of thunderous proportions, sustained through most of the song and forming part of a spectacular instrumental middle eight with the rhythm section.

The fireworks of drumming are superb on this track and the sharp no-nonsense bass cuts through (including a short solo), highlighting the excellent production values of the band. Above it all soars Antoinette’s voice, effortlessly propelling the ‘…tick tick tock and the moment is lost…’ hookline onto a higher plane.

When I saw them recently at Cambridge’s premier noise venue The Cornerhouse, it was a definite highlight of their current live set….


https://www.bodc.live/

Robyn Hitchcock, Unitarian Church, Cambridge, 18 May 2018

The small Unitarian Church is an ideal venue for the close bond that Robyn Hitchcock has with his devoted followers, he was playing the second of two long ago sold-out shows, with the promise of a completely different setlist for each evening.

Support Jessica Lee Morgan sings her own compositions with acoustic guitar and some jazzy bass. She has a warm and versatile voice; opener ‘Texas Angel’ shows shades of Joni Mitchell while ‘I Am Not’ is a bold alt-country statement of independence. ‘Nobody Knows’ is a short sharp up-tempo bluesy number and then back to the country stylings and catchy chorus of ‘Waiting To Leave’. ‘The Less Said The Better’ was co-written with Jessica’s mother, singer Mary Hopkin, then she managed to get the normally reserved Cambridge audience to sing along to set-closer ‘This Is My Love Song To You’, leaving a real feel-good atmosphere in the church.

Robyn Hitchcock draws on his substantial back catalogue and his attachment to Cambridge for his set (most recent album not featuring at all?), opening with his original band Soft Boys song ‘Tonight’, probably written he says across the road on Midsummer Common in 1979.
The songs work with just his acoustic guitar accompanying; often using quite a complex instrumentation. With a warning that a throat infection may render his voice a bit more “Leonard Cohen” than usual he launched into the excellent ‘My Wife And My Dead Wife’ with its multitude of twisting lyrical rhymes (‘..my dead wife’s upstairs, she’s still wearing flares…’) and a macabre but irresistible chorus.
The surreal words stay in dark territory for ‘Sinister But She’s Happy’ but how can you not raise a wry smile to the line ‘…like a chandelier festooned with leeches…’ and so many others.

With its pop laced with psychedelia ‘Beautiful Girl’ would have sat nicely at the top of the charts in the late 60s, while ‘I’m Only You’ is another tour de force of lyrical imagery (…I’m a liquid you’re dissolving in…’) and then a cover of Syd Barrett’s ‘Octopus’ fits in well.
Being a church venue, you could expect to find a piano, so Robyn moved across to the Steinway upright for a trio of ballads ending with ‘I Used To Love You’ with local references galore ‘…the police station is still on Parkers Piece, it hasn’t drifted and nor have the police…’.

Local guitarist and original musical collaborator Kimberley Rew stepped up to add some spiky electric guitar colours to four more songs, including the timeless political frustrations of ‘I Wanna Destroy You’ and a moving cover of alternative national anthem ‘Waterloo Sunset’ bringing this brilliant show to an end.

http://www.robynhitchcock.com/
http://www.jessicaleemorgan.com/
http://www.greenmind.co.uk/


Robyn and early arrivals outside the venue (photo by http://www.karenfranceseng.com)