GATHERING FESTIVAL, 19TH OCTOBER 2013, OXFORD
The bill for this year's Gathering reads like a gauntlet thrown down by the organisers: can you successfully pick a path to musical enlightenment twixt the twin traps of singer-songwriters suffering from the delusion that Ben Howard and Ed Sheeran are deities to be worshipped, and shallow popstrels who believe singing with an accent and wearing Doc Martens makes them somehow different and alternative?
It's a challenge I accept nervously, and with JJ ROSA (East Oxford Community Centre) I feel I've fallen at the very first hurdle. She talks so much you wish she'd play a song. And then when she plays a song, you wish she'd stop and start talking again. 'Last Night A DJ Saved My Life' and Hendrix's 'Little Wing' are both covered (badly) as if to demonstrate the influences that have fed into her cringeworthy soul-funk, and a set-closer that sounds transparently like Amy Winehouse performing Donna Summer's 'I Feel Love' is infinitely worse than that description might suggest.
But amends are made instantly. PAWWS (Bullingdon) - not to be confused with Paws, the Scottish grungers who played last year's event - are (is?) Lucy Taylor, a chum of MGMT and Bloc Party's Kele Okereke, though don't hold that against her. She has a voice to die for but also, rather unusually, the good sense not to over-emote. While there are some similarities with Chvrches, the vocals, the synth sound and particularly the live drums call to mind the pop perfection of prime mid-80s Madonna, albeit shrinkwrapped in a cool detachment that is thoroughly contemporary.
Also suffering from a surplus of consonants are PYYRAMIDS (East Oxford Community Centre), who feature OK Go's Tim Nordwind, so their videos are likely to be more memorable than their music. That's not saying much, though, given Drea Smith's flat vocals and the band's uninspiring sub-Pixes dirge.
St John the Evangelist Church has been hosting gigs for a while now and is a superb addition to Gathering's roster of venues. And, in MT WOLF, it has a band capable of the impressive feat of filling its cavernous interior with intricately crafted songs that, while not quite the celestial music to which it's accustomed, nevertheless possess grace and power in abundance. The foursome have labelled their style "dream folk" but that hardly does justice to the drama of these suitably vespertine hymns.
SPRING OFFENSIVE (Academy) might be expected to look a bit dazed and confused, finding themselves finally back in the live environment after time spent holed up recording debut album Young Animal Hearts - but it's like they've never been away. Given that Oxford's biggest recent exports have been Foals and Stornoway, any band that naturally and without cynicism manages to imagine a bridge between the two must surely be primed for similar success. "I will be blamed for this", they declare in unison in 'Not Drowning But Waving' - what "this" is is unclear, though the song renders pretty much anything excusable, even the adoption of Mumford chic.
PORT ISLA (St John the Evangelist) are also obsessed with culpability, leading an end-of-set singalong of "Nobody else's fault but mine" that seems more triumphant than self-flagellating. By comparison with Mt Wolf, theirs is a homely, heart-on-sleeve folk rock perfect for an autumnal evening, though the vocalist would be well advised to rein in his apparent inclination to mimic Chris Martin.
Certainly, they have more life to them than DANCING YEARS (Bullingdon), earnest Jeff Buckley acolytes whose lachrymose indie struggles to arouse attention and who already come across as depressingly wet even before the acoustic guitar puts in an appearance.
Their predecessors in the Bully, Canadians GOLD & YOUTH, were no better, their songs suffocated in the literal and aural murk. Interpol the band may be a touchstone (along with Depeche Mode), but it would need Interpol the policing organisation to be able to track down any semblance of a decent tune.
While much of the itinerary thus far has been determined largely by taking wild stabs in the semi-dark, Wichita's WAXAHATCHEE (St John the Evangelist) come with enthusiastic recommendations from two separate acquaintances. Katie Crutchfield's second solo album under that moniker, Cerulean Salt, has struck a chord with the critics, who appear to be in general agreement that its superficial simplicity masks a lyrical richness that reveals itself over time. That would explain why the songs seem like little more than unremarkable, listless strumming - though not why the overall performance is so flat and unengaging.
LOCAL NATIVES (Academy) are anything but, LA residents visiting Oxford for the second time - "much better" than the first, on the NME Radar tour, they declare. Like Waxahatchee, the quintet also have a second album under their belt, Hummingbird. Once again, though, these uninitiated ears fail to see the appeal of a third-rate Grizzly Bear, even if we're clearly in a minority of one.
Over at the Bully, volume levels are rising. They say leopards don't change their spots, and neither do CHEATAHS, whose set soon becomes disappointingly samey. There are shoegazey influences, to be sure (they apparently reminded Wichita of Swervedriver), but the checked shirts worn unbuttoned over T-shirts are a redundant signifier of grunge revivalists at work.
Far superior are DRENGE (Bullingdon), on hand to shove a much-needed firecracker up the festival's arse just as my interest levels are flagging. The Arctic Monkeys comparisons are valid only insofar as they hail from within twenty miles radius of Sheffield. Likewise, the descriptor "blues rock" doesn't come close to capturing the full-on ferocity of the misanthropic duo's assault on the ears, one which threatens to quite literally bring the roof down by stirring members of a rabid audience to hang from the Bully's overhead pipework. At the end of the set guitarist Eoin waves his instrument around above his head as though he's dusting for cobwebs - unnecessary, as they've long been blown away.
Swearing is of course cool, as are SWEARIN' (Bullingdon), purveyors of a punk pop that thankfully has closer affinities with Guided By Voices and what used to be referred to as "emo" long before My Chemical Romance (think Get Up Kids and The Promise Ring) than with the clean-cut, glossy, Californian variety. Almost uniquely of all the acts on the bill, the Americans are undisputedly fun. Indeed, the only offensive thing about Swearin' is the sparsity of the late-night crowd here to witness their debut UK gig, which includes Waxahatchee's Katie Crutchfield, who spends the set exchanging smiles and knowing glances with twin sister Allison, playing guitar onstage.
TROUMACA (Bullingdon) boast both Brummie provenance at a time when Peace have drawn attention to the long-overlooked Second City and the support of Gilles Petersen's label Brownswood, as well as what has apparently become an essential marketing tool: their own logo. Their city of origin is undoubtedly reflected in the catholic fusion of indie, reggae, soul and so-called "urban" styles, but, commendable though their open-mindedness is, the results are unconvincing.
By contrast, CHARLIE BOYER & THE VOYEURS (East Oxford Community Centre) profit by being far more single-minded in their approach. Some have suggested they're a Stars in Their Eyes Velvet Underground - indeed, when a banana is lobbed onstage Charlie affects mock offence: "What are you trying to say?!" - but their label Heavenly are more accurate in alluding to Television and the Modern Lovers, albeit with a touch of glam thrown in. The clothing is regulation black, though you do wonder whether bassist Danny Stead will face Charlie's wrath for his choice of a Def Jam T-shirt. Most importantly, they have the substance to go with the impeccable style, and bring the day's proceedings to a classy conclusion.
So, the gauntlet was successfully run. Next year it might be nice to see more local acts and more musical variety (perhaps by inviting local promoters to get involved in curating certain stages), but as a means of promoting the new and up-and-coming, Gathering 2013 can nevertheless be hailed a triumph.