Nautical but nice
SOUTHSEA FEST, 19TH SEPTEMBER 2009
And there I was thinking piracy was supposed to be a bad thing for music. Not today.
For shiver me timbers if it isn't the annual Southsea Fest - a whole day of music courtesy of local and not-so-local acts at venues mere stumbling distance apart the length of Albert Road - which, by virtue of taking place in close proximity to the sea and on International Talk Like A Pirate Day, this year has a distinctly piratical theme.
So, there are three burning questions:
1. Who will lay claim to the day's bounteous though sadly metaphorical rich stuff?
2. Who will deserve to be flogged by the cat o' nine tails before being forced to walk the plank (again sadly metaphorical)?
3. Which intrepid reviewer is likely to hit the grog to the point of sickness that has nothing whatsoever to do with the sea?
Well, OK, so there are two burning questions...
We start at the Edge Of The Wedge with an assault that is airborne rather than aquatic. I've been led to believe that AEROPLANE ATTACK model themselves on My Bloody Valentine, but today at least they sound less like Kevin Shields and company and more like Helmet. Despite the inspirational presence of 2-D Cat perched on the amp, though, their heavy instrumental churnings never quite achieve take-off. The set over, Rusty Sheriff - a hip-hop DJ/producer when not behind the drumkit - is unsure whether to spew or have a large gin. It's barely 1.30pm.
FINAL ROUND ... FIGHT!'s appalling screamo - a billion times worse than song titles like 'If I'm As Good At Wrestling As I Am At Scrabble You're All Fucked' would suggest - prompts a very swift exit and it's off to the Fat Fox for THE LEVELS. Within thirty seconds of their first song, exactly the same thought has word-for-word popped into my head and that of my companion: the world doesn't really need another Reef. The Levels are cocks of the walk (or should that be swagger?), self-proclaimed "retro riffmongers" who aim at being Led Zeppelin (powerhouse drummer Sean Kenneally's John Bonham T-shirt makes an early claim to be the most redundant statement of the day) fronted by AC/DC's gravel-gargler Brian Johnson and who smell of testosterone and casual sexism. But, y'know, it's early, I'm feeling charitable and they remind me of The Datsuns marginally more than of Jet.
And I'm feeling even more charitable towards them as soon as I clap ears on their successor on the Fat Fox stage, GEORGE KING. King is a singer-songwriter who seems to believe that lyrics detailing more drugs, parties, booze and teenage bedroom fumblings than your average Skins script, if set to acoustic pluckings, make him a sensitive and edgy poet for the post-Doherty era and not a tedious whiny cretin. Give the man a girlfriend - or a good shoeing.
Their Southsea Fest stage in the Loft is local promoters Hong Kong Gardeners Club's swansong, so it's a shame we can't share their enthusiasm for VILLIERS TERRACE. That the name is taken from an Echo And The Bunnymen track should give some indication as to where the teenagers are coming from (or trying to) - the North, circa 1984 - and The Young Knives and The Futureheads are also evidently touchstones. But they're out of time and all over the shop - hopelessly so, even by the standards of music which makes no pretence of precision - and despite frontman Olic Asanovic spraying blood liberally over his white guitar for the cause, I can't help but speculate that Villiers Terrace must be a cul-de-sac.
Next comes proof that Oxford is considerably more pervasive and wide-ranging in terms of musical influence than a city of its size ought to be. To all intents and purposes, MINNAARS ARE Foals, just with inferior songs. But while it's difficult to imagine anyone wanting the likes of 'Are Lovers' when they could have 'Red Socks Pugie' and 'The French Open', there's no denying the quintet's energy, enthusiasm and self-belief. They and their de rigeur assymetrical fringes have come further than any other band we've seen so far (all the way from Leicester), and, judging by their selection for the BBC Introducing Stage at this year's Reading and Leeds Festivals, are destined to go significantly further too.
After all that frantic lurching to and fro, it's high time for HOLD FAST over the road in a rammed Little Johnny Russells, but local rag the News's Best Rock/Pop Band of 2008 aren't on long enough (translation: we're not there quick enough) for me to be able to comment on whether their Depeche Modish electro-noir really is as gripping as the moniker suggests.
A brief lull, during which a girl in a porkpie hat tries her darndest to knock my pint off a table, and then THE B OF THE BANG. Named after the the ill-fated and near-lethal sculpture erected in Manchester to mark the 2002 Commonwealth Games, they're a collective centred around one man, Wit, who also happens to have booked all the bands for this stage. Initial impressions are mixed - he's plainly a good lyricist, but musically the first song drags with the unwelcome lethargic anthemicism of Snow Patrol. There's a marked improvement, though, with the arrival of extra members, and we're suddenly transported into the everything-including-the-kitchen-sink psych-folk holler-along territory occupied by the likes of Oxford types Jonquil. All the same, as far as the bang goes, we don't get much further than the B.
Back at the Loft, it's one in one out. Thankfully there are a couple of punters on hand to assist our swift re-entry, both escorted off the premises by security when one decides to resolve a dispute with the doorman by distracting him and planting a smacker of a kiss on his cheek.
And why's it one in one out? That would be because arguably Pompey's most successful exports of the last couple of years (tour with the Manics; release through Fantastic Plastic; NME album review; festival appearances at Latitude, Greenman and Primavera) have entered the building. THE STRANGE DEATH OF LIBERAL ENGLAND owe their name to a book and their sound to The Arcade Fire. Keys, xylophone and brass are all called upon, but that additional instrumentation generally feels like a simple supplement rather than a constructive complement, and there's neither the fierce passion nor the fascinating idiosyncracy of, say, My Latest Novel to carry them through. Maybe I'm missing something, but the reason for their flirtation with the big time largely escapes me.
That said, TSDOLE are certainly more interesting than Brighton's JUMPING SHIPS, who soon have us, er, jumping ships to the One Eyed Dog. Immediately we're cursing ourselves for tardiness, as BRONTIDE are already well into their mission to command and conquer. They say "Pink Floyd for the scenesters", I say a maths class as taught by Shellac. Bare chests: two. Sinuous bass and tidy guitar patterns with a brutal thwacking follow-through: lots. Niceties: none - except between songs, when frontman Tim Hancock enthuses about the festival and their predecessors at the One Eyed Dog, Tall Ships (not just on the bill for the nautical theme, it seems). Little wonder Holy Roar - sometime label for Dananananaykroyd, Gallows and Rolo Tomassi amongst others - have taken rather a shine to them.
Next up here, on the stage curated by Meat Pie Promotions (which explains the bloke we saw earlier wandering about in a pie costume - unless it was a local with a very odd fetish) - is Malvern's answer to Bright Eyes, SAM ISAAC. He and his band have been holed up writing new songs, all of which impress, but then he already has a 2009 album (Bears) and neatly formed tracks like 'Sticker, Star And Tape' to call upon. On another day (perhaps had we seen all of Brontide's set, or had the Cider Of Doom not brought on a bout of sentimentalism), the politeness and slick professionalism of his cute emo-indie might have been offensive - and indeed the fact that someone in the crowd is quietly singing the "These problems matter" song from the Dawson's Creek parody episode of Family Guy makes me chuckle - but all the same I find myself easily won over.
Walking back past the Loft we spot our over-amorous bouncer-kissing punter being pinned to the pavement just as his taxi announces its arrival with a blue flashing light. Can't tell you much about THE RAMBLINGS (Fat Fox) or DAN SMITH (Wedgewood Rooms), as we catch barely two minutes of either - but, based on those two minutes, the former walk a bluesy walk but with the lolling gait of the Happy Mondays, and the latter is a solo loopmeister and multi-instrumentalist in need of a stage name.
In need of an identity of their own are Cambridge outfit THE TUPOLEV GHOST (Edge Of The Wedge), whose unremarkable post-hardcore wears its influences on its sleeve (or, in the case of the frontman's Black Flag T-shirt, on its chest) and rarely suggests it has either the brawn or brains to step out from the shadow of the likes of Bluetip and Sparta. But I'm prepared to cut them some slack for three reasons: firstly, they're just finding their feet again after losing two band members; secondly, the single 'Diagrams' has a corking chorus; and thirdly, their mini-album, released on Oxford label Big Scary Monsters, features a track called 'Giant Fucking Haystacks'. I'm assuming the "Fucking" is an adjective and not a verb - otherwise that would just be weird.
Now HERE's something: a rabble with a double-bassist and an extraordinarily barnetted showman called Lou Vainglorious who look like Dexys Midnight Runners lost in Shoreditch and whose secret weapon is a bizarrely effective cover of MIA's 'Paper Planes'. A cynic might venture that Southend's HOODLUMS (Wedgewood Rooms) are at least three years too late for the Thamesbeat scene, which in any case only really spawned Mystery Jets in terms of bands with any longevity. But nevertheless, the likes of 'Estuary Boys' and the glam-gone-gypsy-with-terrace-shouting single 'The Beat Bop' (released on Nude) intimates that they've definitely got a certain something about them.
I've repeatedly missed THIS TOWN NEED GUNS (Edge Of The Wedge) when they've played in their native Oxford, so gawd bless the Southsea Fest organisers for putting them on tonight. Labelmates of The Tupolev Ghost on Big Scary Monsters until recently, they're math rock flavoured with a little early emo (think Cap'n Jazz, The Promise Ring - ie back when emo meant thick-rimmed glasses, rucksacks and Smiths-loving US punks, not black clothes, self-harm and My Chemical Toilet) - which makes me just a little nervous that their song 'Wanna Come Back To My Room And Listen To Some Belle & Sebastian' might not be satirical after all. Judging by the handclapping of an excited crowd, their popularity with the locals is well established - but, while I can admire how busy and tight they are, I can't say I genuinely love it.
Strolling back through the main room en route for the exit I note that PEGGY SUE have dropped the "& The Pirates" since I saw them supporting Blood Red Shoes (well, since gaining a drummer, to be precise) - rather inappropriately, really, given the context.
Back at the Loft, it's cooler and quieter than earlier in the day - almost as if people don't realise that one of the festival's highlights are about to hit the stage. Not that IT HUGS BACK could really be described as "hitting the stage" - these four fresh-faced youngsters are far too polite and restrained for that, and it's hard to believe that they call legendary label 4AD home. But debut album Inside Your Guitar actually makes a virtue of being largely devoid of visceral impact; instead, it's the subtlety that seduces. Live is no different: 'Q' is a gorgeous wash of fuzz, and when they do work themselves up into a bit of lather (relatively speaking), on 'Don't Know' and set closer 'Now + Again' (which has my companion jigging around with the keyboard player's mum and sister - it's that time in the evening...), it feels organic and natural not like a forced teenage temper tantrum.
And so to the headliners. And So I Watch You From Afar, Band Of Skulls, Tubelord, James Yuill and Official Secrets Act are all playing elsewhere along Albert Road, but we opt to stay put for THE JOY FORMIDABLE. My first impressions were far from favourable - will time, another viewing and copious quantities of alcohol change my perspective? Not really, is the answer. They're certainly looser and not quite so buttoned up as they were supporting Howling Bells (Ritzy Bryan actually turns off the icy stare on a few occasions long enough to crack a smile or two), and coo-pop-in-a-hurricane single 'Cradle' has won me over. But I'm left unconvinced generally, not least because the rest of their material (presumably taken from the debut LP given the comically awful name A Balloon Called Moaning) is rarely up to scratch. All the same, it's pleasing to see speaker stacks shaking and feel the floor vibrating at the end of the night, as Hong Kong Gardeners Club goes out with a flourish.
The music over, there's nothing left but for two deafened inebriates to dissect the day's entertainment - all for the bargainous price of £12 - over a curry, awarding the rich stuff to It Hugs Back and the flogging and plank-walking to George King.
My guess is that Southsea Fest could become an annual fixture in my calendar as well as that of Portsmouth. I wonder whether the organisers will realise the potential in making it an all-weekend event to coincide with Love Albert Road Day, which this year takes place the following weekend?
Anyway, a sneak preview of next year's bill: Oceansize, Wavves and Fish from Marillion. Perhaps.