28 October 2012
Live Review: Blogtoberfest - The Bad Books, Cancel The Astronauts, French Wives - Flying Duck 27/10/2012
One of the benefits of being part of the Peenko empire but not ultimately responsible for its strategic direction, is the opportunity to write about events and releases with which Mr Peenko gets himself dubiously involved with a degree of critical freedom. So, if Randolph's Leap ever do drop that much-threatened reggae EP, I'll certainly not feel bound by ties of brand loyalty! But in the meantime, this event - organised by an unholy blogging trinity comprised of Peenko, Ayetunes and Scottish Fiction - promised three bands at various points on the curve, playing together. From The Bad Books first forays here in the West to local types French Wives on the brink of album number two, tonight cut a swathe through Scottish pop music that perhaps only three blogs deeply versed in its dark arts could manage?
The Flying Duck is new to me. Squirrelled away in a forlorn tenement block between Buchanan Bus Station and the futuristic glassiness of the Herald Offices, even getting into the place isn't straightforward. Once I'd found the correct door and descended several staircases into the subterranean bar, I was ushered further into the bowels of the place to find the venue itself. This is in fact a confused mess of a club - a huge sunken oval dancefloor, surrounded by semi-circular booths of seating, with various sections of the room last decorated in each of the preceding three decades it seems. One of these awkward booths doubles as a makeshift stage - with a seriously solid supporting pillar squarely in the opening through which the band can be seen. In fairness, this is not a great place to see a band play - and it's perhaps testament to the draw of these three names that people have turned out and dealt with the limitations of the place at all. Remarkably enough too, the sound guy managed to make the acts sound great despite one of the most irregular, confusingly cluttered rooms I'd ever seen music performed in.
First up are The Bad Books, hailing from Edinburgh and playing their first Glasgow show. This can of course, be something of a baptism of fire - and playing out of your hometown comfort zone is never easy. But the special friction reserved for interactions between the cities which form the two pillars of the Scottish music scene means the stakes are perhaps even higher - especially considering the hype which has surrounded this act of late. It's a fact here that I'm writing about a band of which I know virtually nothing at all. But any sense this positive press is misplaced is blown away early in the set, which opens with a wall of noise and melody which provides a canvas for impassioned, heartfelt vocals. Such is the wash of noise that hidden squalls of gorgeous guitar are suddenly exposed before submerging again, pushing the songs forward and creating a sense of urgency and impatience. It's in these moments of overwhelming noise and prettiness that your ears begin to play tricks, with the sounds far exceeding the number of instruments on stage - or at least that can be seen in this curious space. It's no surprise to find that these guitar manipulations come courtesy of Mikey Morrison, lately of much missed Edinburgh outfit Come On Gang! Pondering reference points i'm moved to remember the pristine guitar-pop of Kitchens of Distinction way back from the early 1990s One Little Indian stable, however pressing this opinion quickly marks me out as "oldest blogger in the room" so I decide to keep my own counsel for now. As the set ramps up the energy, so the emotional pitch of the vocals increases to the point that The Bad Books' effortlessly charismatic frontman is away into the crowd barking into a megaphone while the band maintain the harmonies on stage. It's a fitting ending to a storm of a performance. This, remember is a band yet to record a single note - but already delivering performances which are smart, engaging and self-assured enough to tackle a dreadful venue and first-billing to a Glasgow crowd. I'll admit it - I'm convinced....and I don't give in easily. I can't wait to hear more.
Next up are another act who have made the journey through from Edinburgh, but on the back of a recent album release which has done a fair bit to advance their name locally. Cancel The Astronauts came to my attention a couple of years ago with brace of witty, edgy singles which had that rarest of things in music - a sense of humour. But the recent "Animal Love Match" album raised the stakes far beyond these tentative first steps, delivering a set of intelligent, effervescent guitar pop tunes which frankly blew away any preconceptions I had based on past hearings of the band. That said I hadn't quite managed to make the album an essential listen yet, and I wondered if seeing the band perform might give me more of a sense of what they were aiming for? Squashed onto the tiny 'stage' it was clear that the space restrictions were not going to contain vocalist and frontman Matthew Riley who seems to be by turns possessed by Bryan Ferry and Ian Curtis as he jerks, shudders and gesticulates to the surprisingly poppy tunes being spun by the band. Of course I'm more careful with this observation given I've already betrayed my age with an idle comparison tonight! It's interesting to watch the audience response here too - with isolated outbursts of dancing occurring! That in itself is fairly compelling evidence that Cancel The Astronauts have grabbed the imagination of this strange little place and are now pretty much shaking the life from it. By closing tune and recent single "Intervention" any disconnection between audience and stage is purely physical, as the Flying Duck seems to be bouncing in time with the band. It's hard to reconcile those first, smart but funny, Pulp-influenced singles with the complex, nuanced pop music on display tonight - but the sense of occasion in the audience, and the steady trickle of punters to the merch stand, indicates that Cancel The Astronauts have an interesting time ahead.
Finally, French Wives arrived, crammed uneasily into the space, with Stuart Dougan's head dangerously close to the rafters. So cramped were they, that the ending guitar ensembles of several of the tracks saw them all turned to the centre of the stage in a weird approximation of Status Quo. However, this didn't affect the intensity or quality of a performance which, despite being a violinist down just now, exceeded my previous experiences of the band. Focusing a short set on tracks from the current and much vaunted "Dream of the Inbetween" album, and largely picking the more upbeat tracks to suit the occasion, they played to the strengths of a tiny place and made a lot of beautifully constructed noise, spun around their infectious choruses and hooks. The benefit of a hometown audience who knew these songs wasn't lost - evidenced in the collective bouncing along to the urgent pulse of "Me vs. Me" or the surprisingly respectful hush afforded to the lovely harmonies which opened the slightly-edited but still wonderfully epic "Halloween". While there is no doubt that I missed Siobahn's violin, not least during that track, the drafting in of keyboard player Frankie has ensured the sound remains full and rounded, and that the spacious orchestration and sparkling arrangements aren't lost despite the more straightforward rock band approach being employed tonight. Closing on a high with "Younger" was fitting given how I'd betrayed my own age earlier tonight - but whatever Stuart might sing, this is a band still at the start of something pretty special. It's going to be interesting to see how this develops into a second record next year.
Just before leaving I ventured into the gents to find one of the biggest open spaces in the entire confusion of a venue! A fellow gig-goer remarked that he "had better sightlines of the urinals in here than the bands out there", to which I had to agree. Extracting myself from the bowels of the Flying Duck into a damp Glasgow night, I was still humming the infectious melody of "Halloween" to myself as I negotiated packs of rampaging costume wearers wandering through the city. Who knew that the true message of this ancient celebration could be conveyed by dressing as a 'slutty cop'? That said, at least this increased the Police presence on Argyle Street, albeit in non-statutory and unenforcible ways. Despite the fairly impractical and fan-unfriendly venue, tonight was a triumph for three bands and three bloggers who are keeping things resolutely real, regardless how the rest of the music world dresses things up. Long may it continue.