Thursday, February 25, 2016

The underground resistance


Ian Dury's sarcastic, splenetic 'Spasticus Autisticus' was inspired by its creator's disgust at the UN's designation of 1981 as the International Year of Disabled Persons. Why, wondered the maverick singer who had contracted polio in childhood, wasn't every year International Year of Disabled Persons? In the same vein, why isn't every week Independent Venue Week?

Of course, it's a sad state of affairs that such a designation is deemed necessary. But gig venues up and down the country are finding themselves facing myriad threats on a daily basis: the insidious creep of gentrification, noise complaints from NIMBY newcomers (who, in a bitter irony, are often attracted by the prospect of vibrant nightlife), unsympathetic local councils revoking licences or insisting on financially crippling soundproofing measures, the impact of government cuts on music lovers' disposable income, the popularity of the internet as a quick and easy means of both disseminating and discovering new music.

Thankfully, aided and abetted by the Music Venue Trust as well as the Arts Council England-funded Independent Venue Week (IVW), many of the nation's finest are putting up a fight. Take our very own Cellar, for instance - a scuzzy subterranean mecca for music, infinitely preferable to soulless Academy venues or enormodomes, and tonight playing host to the pick of the city's IVW gigs.

IVW isn't solely about celebrating independent venues, though; it's also about championing the musicians to which they give a platform, an opportunity to cut their teeth in the live environment. It's fitting, then, that gathered here tonight are three of Oxford's brightest prospects.

At first, it seems that singer-songwriter Rosie Caldecott, with her wispy feather-light compositions and use of the word "betwixt" during a song referencing her diary, may be a sacrificial lamb who's been unwittingly led by promoters BBC Introducing into the lion's den. But the audience prove to be tame and even respectful, not only allowing her to escape back upstairs into the outside world alive but also affording her generous applause before she does so.

It's common practice for people to go into an underground bunker when seeking shelter from explosions - something that Cassels clearly seem to have misunderstood. But then the Chipping Norton noiseniks are hardly known for their veneration of convention. Their idea of an anthemic love song is called 'Hating Is Easy', and their flagrant disregard of such songwriterly niceties as coherence (aside from one blink-and-you'll-miss-it newie) is what makes them such a thrillingly psychotic live act.

If Cassels are about as coherent as Ozzy Osborne with a mouthful of marbles, headliners Maiians are the polar opposite - all smooth curves and sleek lines rather than jagged edges. They soon settle into a fluid groove with 'Sionara', and everything - synths, guitars, bass, dual drums, cowbell, jazz trumpet - is in its right place. The finely honed setlist is starting to have a familiar feel - no bad thing, yet - and as 'One Of Each' builds inexorably to its euphoric climax, there's only one conclusion to draw: 2016 is, quite simply, theirs for the taking.

(This review first appeared in the March issue of Nightshift.)

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