Holliedelayz

They’’re coming your way, so you’’d better get ready. I’’m talking about a new band from Southampton, UK called the Delays. Melodic pop-rock from a band with perfect hairstyles is always in with a chance of crossing over, and the Delays have a better chance than most. But what is most shocking about them is that they cite their main musical influence as the Hollies.
It’’s fair enough. Like the Hollies did when they started out (and much like recent Amplifier cover stars the Cooper Temple Clause), the Delays pay massive attention to their hair and how it looks. Most importantly, though, they specialise in harmonies and high-pitched lead vocals from singer Greg Gilbert. Not Muse-style falsetto, but a Graham Nash high harmony. They sound lovely.
The Hollies are out on a fortieth anniversary tour right now. It takes them all over the world, including the US where, lest we forget, they once enjoyed a number one chart hit with “Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress”. Graham Nash, no longer with them but stull on great terms, has a travelling exhibition of his brilliant black and white photos doing the rounds, very well worth a visit if you get a chance. Nash and his various projects have always been considered cool, but the Hollies never achieved this cachet. If it’’s okay for the Thrills to be proud of sounding like the Beach Boys, then well done to the Delays for rehabilitating the Hollies. And congratulations to Amplifier for never having been afraid to include the Hollies in their musical orbit.
Well, the other day, I got to meet one of my childhood heroes, namely Bobby Elliott, the Hollies’ drummer. Bobby it was who was indirectly responsible for my receiving a beating from my Latin teacher, who cought me thwacking out the drum part to “Stay” with my fingers on the school desk. Bobby had heard about this injustice and wanted to make it up to me. It was amazing how many of my friends were insanley jealous, I guess because Bobby is quietly acknowledged as one of the great rock drummers, certainly head and shoulders above most Sixties’ tub-thumpers. But what they all wanted to know above all was “Is he really bald?”
Listen, of course Bobby Elliott is bald. He was bald from the very beginning, which was always a problem for Hollies photo sessions. Currently, he sports a baseball cap, but previous attempts at disguise have included a straw hat, a fedora and, during the seventies, a very obvious blonde wig. Nowadays, with image at a premium, it would present an even bigger problem, Could you see the Strokes, Franz Ferdinand or the Delays with a bald member? I don’’t think so.
The Hollies put on a tremendous show, featuring brain-scrambling psychedelic back-projections, a slight anomaly from this most undruggy of bands. The music is intact but nowadays increasingly incongruous. Last year, singer Allan Clarke retired to nurse his ill wife (retirement from a band being another previously unknown concept) and was replaced by Carl Wayne from The Move. Despite his excruciating cabaret patter, he does provide the opportunity for a selection of Move songs, reminding us what a fine band they were. Unfortunately, the bassist from Mud is also present, and we don’’t really need a selection from them as well.
With the obvious exception of Bobby, hairstyles, playing skills and above all, the harmonies, are reassuringly intact. Not many of us will be around to see it, but here’’s hoping the Delays will make it to their 40th anniversary tour. And that none of them will be bald.

From Amplifer magazine

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Looking After Mr Baker

It was because of my extreme age that I was selected to be the genial host for Ginger Baker’’s show at the tiny Railway in Winchester. All the other guys at the venue are in their twenties and were, frankly, intimidated by the thought of the great man about to grace the back room of the pub. It certainly seemed surreal; Ginger is a superstar, a legend, surely the biggest star ever to have played the Railway. And the people there quite rightly wanted everything to run smoothly. They needed someone to meet, greet and keep an eye open.

Well, I’’d seen and loved Cream, kept abreast of his famously dissolute lifestyle, worshipped his drumming and read the autobiography. It was going to be a doddle, a privilege, and fun.

But that was before “Beware Of Mr Baker”, the documentary about Ginger which appeared, with uncanny accuracy, just before the start of the tour, of which the Railway was the very first date. All of a sudden, my friends were taking the piss in a major way. It didn’t help that I’d just completed a novel centred around an innocent person being murdered in a music pub, and that apparently the film starts with Mr Baker using his walking stick to break the nose of the director, who had had the temerity to mention Jack Bruce. Facebook positively lit up with comments speculating on my chances of survival. Someone even sent me an anonymous threatening postcard purporting to come from Ginger.

Was I worried? Actually, no. If he turned out to be as big a bastard as the reviews were saying, at least I wouldn’’t be surprised. I had no intention of saying anything to inflame his ire, and a friend who had seen him recently said he was completely harmless. I suspected, and still suspect, that many of the articles in the papers were re-hashed press releases designed to sensationalise the film and put bums on seats.

I was more worried about the audience than about Ginger. Many of them would be decrepit, and the small size of the room meant that we didn’’t have room for more than a few chairs. Others, towards the back, would be unlikely even to catch a glimpse of their hero, and might complain. Recently, we’’ve had trouble with irritating people talking loudly during shows (they nearly ruined an appearance by Terry Reid) and I might have to shut them up. My greatest fear was that some idiot might call out for Cream numbers, in which case the shit really would have hit the fan.

Jim, the Railway’’s booker, had prepared well. He’’d bought every last item on the rider, prepared the dressing room, printed out running orders, “”Quiet Please”” signs and a full page of instructions for me. My job was to get to the Railway at 4 pm, when the band would allegedly arrive, and generally attend to their every wish. But in fact, the only person there at four was tour manager Doug, an implausibly young but very friendly individual, whose job was to do pretty much everything. He explained that Ginger himself would simply be collected from his hotel at 8.15 and walk straight onstage without sound checking. This sounded like a recipe for disaster to me, but I had reckoned without the super-efficiency of Doug, who took two meticulous hours to set up Ginger’’s enormous drum kit and its numerous attendant percussion nick-nacks, before sound checking comprehensively on his behalf. Blimey, I thought, Ginger’’s going to have to go some to be better than his drum tech.

The other band members gradually arrived. There was the very affable Alec Dankworth, an absolute dead ringer for his famous dad. Normal sax player Pee Wee Ellis was absent, being replaced, just for one show, by another impossibly youthful musician called Josh Arcoleo (whose name Ginger later amusingly forgot). “This is never going to work”, I thought, but the moment he played his first note, it was clear he was a virtuoso and completely unfazed by the potentially intimidating situation. Ghanaian percussionist Abass Dodoo was full of joie de vivre and obviously very concerned about Ginger’’s welfare. All of them exuded concern that nothing should happen which could upset him.

A potential problem came up straight away, and that was how to handle the interval between the two sets. The dressing room was up two flights of stairs, and Ginger doesn’’t really do stairs. An alternative would be to come into the front bar, but Ginger certainly doesn’’t do mingling with the fans. Or he could hang around outside, but it was freezing cold, windy and pouring with rain. No one liked the idea of coming off stage all sweaty and potentially catching a cold at the beginning of a lengthy tour. In the end, a compromise was agreed whereby he would sit in the upstairs bar, which was almost empty.

By way of preparing the young saxist, a very lengthy sound check then took place, so lengthy that, by the time the rest of the band went to a local restaurant for dinner, it was clear that the start time was going to be missed. The audience didn’’t seem bothered or even to notice, but I was getting twitchy as the inevitable happened: Doug arrived with Ginger in his car and was about to enter the stage door when the band wasn’t even in the building. As he stepped out, wearing a beige cardigan and a woolly hat, he looked dangerously frail. I ran up and, with no introductions taking place, guided him slowly to the upstairs bar to wait. The downstairs bar was full of fans, who were transfixed to see their hero ambling past the pool table and up the stairs. “Shall I try to engage him in conversation?” I wondered, instead deciding to go in search of the band.

Eventually all were convened and I pushed through the audience to open the side door and let them in. It was instantly obvious that all was going to go well. The room was warm and packed, and the affection that greeted Ginger as he entered was quite moving. He was smoking a cigarette, which caused a great laugh. Still a rebel! He stubbed it out in the ashtray which forms part of his kit. He looked a completely different person, back straight upright, and as soon as he started to play, he lost twenty or thirty years in a flash. Has he still got it? He sure has.

I’’d forgotten that jazz shows are peppered with audience applause for every solo. And boy, were there solos. Each number started with a sax riff, proceeded to some improvisation, a bass solo, a percussion solo, more improvisation, a drum solo and finally back to the riff. The quality of the playing from all four members was quite astonishing. What’’s more, all of them, including Ginger, were smiling at each other. ““That’’s a good sign”,” said Doug, standing like a coiled spring, ready to leap into action at the slightest sign of a problem. “”They don’’t always smile.””

After 40 minutes, it was time for the interval, so out we came again, down the side alley and into the upstairs bar again. Would they like a beer? No, but a coffee would be nice. I went and made a couple of Nescafés, and that was when I had my conversation with Ginger Baker. I could only carry two cups, and as I placed them on the table, he looked up at me dolefully.

“”Milk!”” he said gruffly.

“”Of course.”” I turned round to go and get it.

“”Sugar!:” he called out after me. I nodded, returning shortly later with both.

““Spoon!”” Damn, I’’d forgotten the spoon.

Then it happened, as I came back with the spoon. “”Fank yew”,” he said, and smiled. Now according to Ginger’’s reputation, he should at the very least have nutted me for my forgetfulness, but not at all. Ginger Baker was thanking me. It’s been a good night, I thought, and it was only going to get better. The second set was even more exciting, with the audience reaching fever pitch.

What I only found out later was that Ginger had had a barney with the security guy, who had told him off for smoking in the building. But he seemed to get over it very quickly, and Doug made a point of going to the security man and apologising. The second set started with a typically abrupt introduction from Ginger: “”The smoking laws in this country are absurd. So we don’’t get cancer, they make us smoke outside, so we all catch pneumonia.”” And then, before the last number, noticeably out of breath (a man half his age would have been): “”This will have to be the last number, that is unless you want to watch me die onstage.”” This drew a bitter-sweet round of applause.

There was no encore, of course. Ginger was into the car and off into the night in a flash. The others hung around for a while, saying how much they’’d enjoyed it. Doug, stuffing the remains of the rider into his bag, even said, “”See you next time”.”

So there might be a next time? Yes please.

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sxsw 2012

sxsw 2012
I’m going to try to give an idea of what it’s really like coping with sxsw. You’’ll probably find the detail wearisome and you’’ll probably be disgusted by some of the music. I have very Catholic tastes. But when I am too old and knackered to do it any more, maybe I’’ll read this back and wallow in the memories.
Getting up a 4 am to catch the 5 o’ clock coach to Heathrow was challenging, but actually there was something rather relaxing about being in town at that quiet time of day. Everybody on the coach was asleep apart from a couple at the back who had a blazing row which lasted the entire journey. What kind of energy must you have to fight at 5 am?
I’’ve never had such a lovely flight. Following the merger of Continental and United, there is over-capacity on transatlantic routes and the plane was less than a quarter full. I lay down across three seats and, after a lovely veggie lunch, used the three blankets and three pillows to create a bed and slept like a lamb for the entire flight.
Actually, I hadn’’t booked this route at all (via Newark). I’’d booked via Houston but received a casual email saying the route had been changed. This meant a very short connection in Newark, so I was hoping for a smooth immigration process. Inevitably, I chose the only queue with an over-zealous officer and a series of people with apparent problems. As the other queues were waved by with a smile, mine stubbornly refused to move. Then came security. The queue I chose was hijacked by a series of people in wheelchairs. In my panic, my natural inclination to give them the consideration they merited was almost overcome with a desire to shout “”Get out of the bloody way, can’’t you see I’’m in a hurry?”, – but not quite, of course. I literally ran all the way to the gate, huffing and puffing in at the last moment. On the plane, I sat next to a very nice Dutch agent. Unfortunately he had a streaming cough and cold and I had to try to face away from him while still maintaining a conversation. Buggered if I was going to let my sxsw be ruined by a cold.
My friend Paul was waiting at the airport and we headed straight for the Convention Centre to get my badge. As I’’d slept so well, there were no jet lag symptoms at all. I was desperate for a shrimp enchilada and luckily such an emporium was just opposite. The waitress tried to convince us that the obviously chain establishment was owned by her father.
We headed straight for the “British Embassy” at a club called Latitude just off Sixth Street. This is where, each year, a succession of usually mediocre and never to be heard of again UK bands play apparently at our expense. It certainly seems from the brochure as if many of them are funded by local councils. I wonder how many council taxpayers are aware of their cash being used for these guys to have a full scale jolly and try to further their careers in the States? In effect, all the bands just play to each other, as there is a distinct lack of local accents. “Thank you Austin,” they all chant as they announce their long-awaited final numbers. Among those playing this year were Charlie from Busted (honestly) and the ghastly Frank Turner.
One of the quirks of my annual visit is that I have to write about bands from my area for the local paper. Frank Turner is the only “famous” rocker ever to have come from Winchester (apart from Mike Batt but he does’’t count). I really am not impressed by Frank Turner. It’’s not so much that he’’s an old Etonian pretending to be a man of the people, it’’s more that the songs are so poor and the performance so full of bluster. But I had to get a photo of him, so in we went. It turned out to be a good move, because we caught a great band from Wales called Future Of The Left, who were highly political and roared like buffaloes on heat. After that, Frank Turner announced he was going to play his “hits”. I wasn’’t aware he had any.
After a nice sleep in the Homestead Suite which was home for the week, it was time to make some of the awful decisions that have to be made every few minutes at sxsw. At any given time, there are probably at least twenty bands you’’d like to see, all playing miles away from each other. Plus there are loads you never get to find out about. The daytime “fringe”, mainly situated round the South Congress area, is now at least as big as the festival itself. Daytime activities on the Day Stage of the Convention Centre have become much more exciting than they used to be, and here you can catch many of the “buzz bands” in the almost plushy comfort of this large seated venue, complete with huge, dreamy bean bags. Thus it was that we were able to see three acts in just over an hour: Michael Kiwunaka (I think it may have been his US debut) being very pleasantly soulful, the lovely Whitehorse, (Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland demonstrating their new-found technological expertise in the adjacent Brush Square) and then back to the Day Stage for the rightly much-anticipated Alabama Shakes. They fit the bill for the Adele audience perfectly and it’s not unrealistic to imagine similar success for them.
Now here’’s an odd thing. As well as the clashes, there are moments when there’’s nothing to do. Such was the case next, so we wandered over to the South Congress area. This is where all the cool art galleries and eateries are, plus the yards where band after band can be found playing, so there’s always some music to catch. After another round of shrimp fajitas (I could have them for breakfast, lunch and tea for the rest of my life), plus some happy hour beers (Dos Equis, two dollars a bottle), we hung around for some great music featuring Scrappy Judd Newcombe and an unidentified vocalist who looked as if he were about to die but sang like an angel. Then, via the already burgeoning mayhem of Sixth, we caught Jeff Klein’’s My Jerusalem at Trinity Hall.
Ego’s has been re-named The Main, which caused a bit of confusion. We got there early for Jimmy Cliff, whom I’’d never seen. It was an acoustic set, which was unexpected, and took forever to set up. And then, how do I put this? The lovely “Many Rivers To Cross”, “You Can Get It If You Really Want”, “The Harder They Come” etc. were rather spoiled by the fact that Jimmy’’s flies were gaping open throughout the entire set. Well, I’’m sorry, but it ruined the vibe, because everyone was talking about it and pointing at it but no one liked to say anything. Shame.
I’’d heard of Dry The River (or maybe it was one of the many other bands which have river in their name), so off we went to the Red Eyed Fly. Well, I hadn’’t done my research, because they weren’’t American but British. They were weird, but not in a good way. There was something disconcerting about the giant tattooed bassist leaping on and off the drum riser and then introducing the next song in a fey Home Counties accent entirely at odds with the image. I’’d expected something authentic, which this certainly wasn’’t.
It’’s always worth paying a visit to the 18th Floor of the Hilton, a tranquil oasis away from the mayhem. Freedy Johnson was lovely there at midnight, playing “Cruel To Be Kind” on a ukelele. One of the highlights of the week actually, and how nice to relax on a comfy seat.
That day’’s final madness was the misguided idea Paul had that a band featuring Wayne Coyne’’s nephew from Oklahoma must signal a secret show from the Flaming Lips. It didn’’t, but they were fun nonetheless. Not enough fun to prevent us from heading for the hotel though.
Thursday was going to be Springsteen day. Attendance at his show was to be decided by lottery. So far so good, but the winners were to be notified by email. My phone wasn’’t so technically adept, so I was reduced to asking people if I could borrow their iPhones to check. I never heard anything, but soon was cursing my stupidity.
No one knew where the concert was to take place, but I should have spotted it. I’’d noted down Low Anthem, one of my favourite bands, as a show to go to at the Moody Theater. Straight after was Alejandro Escovedo, followed by nothing. As Alejandro and Springsteen share a manager, it was bloody obvious what was going to happen – and I failed to realize. Pathetic. Anyway, first we had something else to see: Luke Doucet and a huge array of guitarists at Trinity Hall, accompanied, I’’m pleased to say, by delicious breakfast tacos courtesy of Six Shooter Records. Yum.
But time waits for no one, and particularly when it’’s a question of getting into the Cedar Street Courtyard. This is arguably my favourite sxsw venue, a small open-air quadrangle with a stage at one end, capacity about 200 I guess. The showcase I had spotted showed an afternoon sequence, in this order, of Band Of Skulls, Kaiser Chiefs and Keane. Few things are as thrilling as being very close to a huge band, even if they aren’’t necessarily your favourites. Last year it was the Bangles (bliss) and the year before it was Primal Scream (brain-scrambling). This year it was essential to be in the front row for Band Of Skulls because, guess what, they’’re from Hampshire. But to achieve all this, you have to go several hours early and tolerate the innumerable supports, because obviously a show such as this will be ridiculously over-subscribed.
Well, it’’s very annoying for someone like me, who prefers things to be as they should. Admission to this showcase was supposed to be only for those who have RSVPd in advance and received an acknowledgement, a procedure which I had dutifully followed weeks before. In the event, what actually happens is that they simply randomly let everyone in regardless until it’’s full. Luckily I knew this, which was why we arrived two hours in advance. Imagine how furious you’’d be if you arrived, having carried out all the application procedure, and couldn’’t get in because of the place being full of uninviteds? Basically, they shouldn’’t even bother with the rigmarole in the first place.
Duly installed dangerously in front of the speakers, we settled down for the afternoon surrounded by lots of affable and mildly intoxicated new friends. The first band were awful Simple Minds clones, the second were certifiably insane and the third was Band Of Skulls. They have deservedly gone mega in the States and I genuinely felt proud to come from (near) Southampton. Plus they are all very photogenic, by which I mean that photos come out showing them as they actually are, rather than gurning. Next up: Kaiser Chiefs, loads of fun, swaggeringly confident and essentially going through the motions, but still a thrill greater than you’’d get from seeing them in a stadium. Keane were quite unable to follow them. I’’m sorry, but you don’’t come to Austin without a guitar.
It goes without saying that any spaces between acts are always filled by lengthy walks, interspersed with sticking your head into venues (almost every building is a venue) and catching a moment or two of random unidentified bands. I wanted to see Portland’’s Laura Gibson but got the time wrong (just the first in series of blunders). This meant tolerating a succession of no-hopers at the Red Eyed Fly. Happily, Laura and her band brought a blessed element of subtlety and relief.
I’’d been recommended The War On Drugs, so after sitting on the kerb eating a huge lukewarm chunk of pizza, I headed to the Mohawk Patio early, fearful of crowds. I ended up crushed against the front of the stage, far too close to the speakers. In fact, my ears are still ringing a week later. It meant that the sound was so distorted that I couldn’’t work out whether I actually liked them or not. I’’ll have to give them another go.
What followed was an unexpected highlight. Billed at the Hilton (ground floor) was “”Special Guest (Framingham, UK)”. All the acts are listed together with their provenance. This could, of course, only mean Ed Sheeran, so I got there early, assuming it would be rammed, with queues round the block. Ed was doing several other shows during the week, all in much bigger venues. But that was without reckoning on the difference of tastes between the UK and the US, nor the way that careers develop at different rates in different countries. Basically, the place was half empty, and it was only a small hotel conference room anyway, laid out, cabaret style, with tables, chairs and candles. At first I blundered straight into Ed’’s dressing room and had to beat a hasty retreat. Then (I’’d had a couple of drinks), I marched straight to the front and sat down at a table by the stage. This gave a good vantage point, firstly for the excellent Marcus Foster, then for Ed himself.
Bloody hell, he’’s good. I am instinctively prejudiced against anything commercially successful, particularly if bound up with Brit Awards and the like. Also, the “solo bloke with acoustic guitar and loop pedals” concept is so hackneyed. Well, not this time. He’’s ridiculously talented as a songwriter, uses the gizmos brilliantly and brought the house down with his rapping. At the end (he always does this but I’’d forgotten), he clambered on top of my very table and did a couple of unamplified songs. He was wearing very baggy shorts and it was tempting to point my camera up them. I resisted.
By the end of the long walk home, I was knackered enough to cancel morning appointments and opt to sleep instead. Just as well, since it would be another long day. It started with the beginning of a ridiculous but magical Chuck Prophet odyssey. He was playing at the excellent Ginger Man Pub, not even listed as a venue, but centrally placed and with a great patio and stage. Here I found a nest of UK promoters, all discussing the Springsteen show. Apparently it had been possible just to walk in there unchallenged. There’’d even been empty seats. People were saying it hadn’’t been anything special – – phew. In fact, a couple of songs into Chuck’’s set, all the talk was about Chuck being significantly more exciting. Basically, you’’ve never seen a better rock band. His band is astounding and the new songs from “Temple Beautiful” uniformly appealing. And Chuck’s guitar shredding is beyond belief. So when Peter Buck stepped up and joined in the “You Did” finale, it was more that anyone could ever have hoped for on a Friday lunchtime.
Time for a bit of comfort at the Day Stage. The target was Blitzen Trapper but I arrived in time for the end of Ben Kweller’’s set. This guy was being hyped all over the place, on billboards, buses and taxis, but it was hard to see why. Blitzen Trapper were much more interesting.
Next was a long trek to a venue called Lustre Pearl. On the way, we saw a bleeding guy who’’d been knocked off his bike. More of this later. The show was organized by the same magazine as the previous day’’s Cedar Street showcase, so needless to say the same chaotic admission procedure reigned and my RSVP was cheerfully ignored, indeed laughed at. Eventually we saw snatches of Deerhof (good) and The Drums (Strokes clones) but the call of hunger was irresistible and a visit to a nearby chain burger joint reinforced what we really already knew: avoid chain burger joints.
Then I did something silly. Keen to see M. Ward, I set off for a small venue called Frank. Wandering past a quarter mile queue (they call them “lines” over there), I vaguely wondered who was causing it, until I got to the venue and realized it was the front of the queue. Bloody stupid, of course I should have realized M. Ward was far too big for a little venue and that I should have gone along hours early. Nevertheless, I joined the line but it didn’’t move at all and eventually we were informed that it was “one out, one in”. So that’’ll mean getting in some time next week then.
But there was an alternative. Over at Joe’’s on South Congress, Alejandro Escovedo’s Orchestra was about to start playing. But it was a hell of a long walk, so the time had come to try out the ubiquitous bike rickshaws. I was a little surprised that a clutch of them declined to take me when I said where I wanted to go. “”No thanks man, that’’s up a hill”,” was the response. Eventually one agreed to do it for twenty dollars. It was actually a bit hair-raising. Austin prides itself on its eco-friendliness, but it hasn’’t really got its act properly together. Taxis are not to be found in the centre during sxsw because gridlock reigns and they’d never get anywhere. The status of the rickshaws seems vague. As we trundled along the road, motorists charged dangerously by, honking at us to get out of the way. So then we took to the sidewalk, whereupon we were quite rightly shouted at by angry pedestrians. On a couple of occasions I had to dismount because we couldn’’t get through gaps left by parked cars. Anyway, we eventually got to Joe’’s, where a huge crowd was being entertained by the orchestra. There were no “special guests” but a great version of “Rock The Casbah”.
It was back to the mayhem of Sixth for a moment, where I was tapped on the shoulder and turned to find the son of a friend of mine from Cornwall. That’’s crazy! As was Grant Hart, who I was interested to see because Bob Mould was in town performing “Copper Blue” but I couldn’’t work out where. Hart was shambling alone in front of a sparse audience and appeared to have no teeth. I lasted thirty seconds.
Shearwater was strange too. They’’ve suddenly turned into a rock band, losing two of their most important members (drummer Thor and bassist Kim Burke). They were good but had lost much of their original appeal and I wonder whether audiences on their forthcoming Euro tour will feel short-changed? I was cheered up by bumping into my friend Al James from Dolorean but shocked to find the beers at Red Seven cost 6 dollars each. Cheek!
Saturday started with something very pleasant, a secret show from Laura Gibson and band in her hotel room, complete with delicious breakfast courtesy of her record company. Things like that are so special . But the rest of the day was to be Chuck Day. Paul had decided he wanted to follow Chuck round Austin because he was so bloody good. Paul had a car, I was feeling less inclined to rush around checking out other artists and basically, the idea was irresistible. So there we were at Jovita’s, drinking beer at 1 pm (it feels deliciously decadent) and having our brains blown out by the storming Mission Express. Someone videoed lots of this show, try putting Chuck Prophet, Jovitas into You Tube. The ear to ear grins sported by the entire band tell you everything.
After a few minutes of the Waco Brothers it was off to the wonderful Yard Dog Gallery courtyard for the next Chuck instalment. This was enlivened by two power cuts, which hardly seemed to matter, because the audience just kept on singing until it was sorted out. Noticing that Ian Mclagan would be playing at the Yard Dog later, we zipped over to Maria’’s Taco Express, where the impeccably dapper Alejandro Escovedo was presiding over his annual taco party and a huge array of bands of wildly differing style and quality. Plus gorgeous food and margaritas. Back at Yard Dog, the Mekons’’ Jon Langford and the indefatigable Ian McLagan were finishing off the day in style. Austin residents and expat Brits both, they sum up the joy of being a musician in this particular town. Mac observed that he had now lived in the US as long as he had lived in London. He also invited everyone to visit Austin outside of sxsw, when there is still masses of music to choose from.
Getting towards the end now, I had a hankering to check out hotly-tipped new Scottish band Django Django, and it was worth it. Despite being at the oddly-shaped and very uncomfortable Latitude club, they impressed with their stoned synths and raging percussion. Plus their bassist was a dead ringer for Thomas Dolby (who was also in town somewhere). In fact, they were a pretty oddball bunch all round.
My plan was to finish off the week with a nice quiet dose of Hurray For The Riff Raff, but it turned out they had actually been on at 12. 30 lunchtime rather than midnight, so the trip had been fruitless. The only solution was another rickshaw (and another complaint about pedalling uphill) back to the Continental Club for a final helping of Chuck, preceded by a frighteningly loud Jon Dee Graham and Freedy Johnson, quite different from the acoustic version previously encountered. I don’’t know if it’’s true, but it’’s claimed that Elvis once played at the Continental, and it certainly feels as if the spirit of rock and roll is embedded in its walls.
And so to bed and a completely uneventful trip home. Next year i’s already booked.

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Johnny Thunders in Winchester, 1977

Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, King Alfred’’s College, Winchester, May 11, 1977

A traditional teacher training college in the city of Winchester was not the place you’’d have expected to experience Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers. Rising from the ashes of the New York Dolls and beset with every imaginable problem from work permit issues to hapless heroin addiction, they were working their way round the UK to keep body and soul together. Darlings of the music press, who loved Johnny Thunders’’ “”wasted elegance”” (Julie Burchill described them as “the most immaculate combo on the planet”), the band had been booked in what seems to have been a deliberate attempt by social secretary Don Allen to provoke unrest among the staid college authorities and the thuggish rugby playing student elite. Previous college bookings had been the likes of Julie Felix and the Albion Band, and the Heartbreakers show was originally scheduled for the plush, seated John Stripe Theatre. On the day, however, scruffy punks from all over the country started pitching up and it was hastily moved to the “Great Hall”, deemed to be harder to trash.

Now a respected author, Mark Hudson then fronted local support band The Ba, effectively Winchester’’s only punk outfit, based down at the Art College. Hudson’’s memories of Winchester in the seventies accurately recall a certain era when violence was never far from the surface. ““It was a cathedral town with a seedy underbelly. I’d been corralled into the college band, which was led by a guitarist called Nick Jacobs, who dyed his hair aubergine, made his own clothes out of furnishing fabrics and was trying to create an alchemical fusion of Syd Barrett and Dr Feelgood. Our gigs were shambolic affairs, mostly in the dank shed of the students’ union, or in down-at-heel local pubs – our audiences always in a drunken frenzy.””

Andy Dobbs, now a record dealer in Lincoln, was one of the incipient teachers at King Alfred’’s. Being a member of the social committee, he was privy to all the shenanigans, of which the audience was blissfully unaware.

““From midday on the day of the gig, we became aware of a sizeable crowd beginning to assemble in the car park. It was decided quickly that we must do whatever it took to change the venue, as already the drama department were freaking out at the very idea of letting the crowd into the theatre. The Great Hall had been booked by one of the PE tutors for a dance class. Eventually, she reluctantly agreed to cancel it.

Then the second problem confronted us, in the form of the HB’s’ tour manager, the truly scary Gail Higgins Smith, who declared that the band would be playing for cash, to be paid at the end of the gig. It had been clearly stipulated in the contract, signed weeks before, that payment would be made (for legal and constitutional reasons) by cheque. While the crowd waited outside, contemplating their evening, the KAC Ents committee were locked in a fierce argument in one of the offices over whether we should break with Union rules, or risk the band pulling the gig, with the probability that cancellation might not be well received by the assembled masses.””

Remembering “the drugged and desperate remnants of the New York Dolls”, Mark Hudson recalls meeting the band in the city centre. “”Thunders had very dark, possibly dyed hair, which accentuated alarmingly pale, washed-out skin – so much so that the blood in the rims of his eyes really stood out. Seeing him walking down the high street past the Buttercross with the tour manager, a very big, peroxide blonde American woman, was a surreal sight.””

Mark recalls his contribution to the evening: “‘”‘This one’s for Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers’’, I yelled. ‘And we’re a lot better than they are!”’ As I spat out our lyrics, I could see Johnny and his boys, standing in a line at the back, watching us, their unassailable cool disrupted by a look of curiosity that asked, ‘”What is all this about?”’”

The only verbal contact the Ba had with Thunders was when he asked Nick Jacobs what he played:

Nick: “”I play guitar.””

Johnny: ““Really, I play guitar too.””

Nick: “”Do you want a ginger biscuit?””

Johnny: “”Not just now, thank you.””

Me, I was there covering the Heartbreakers for the local paper and my memories are of pure enjoyment, and of being surprised how good this supposedly washed-up lot were. How fickle is the memory. When I now look back through my archives, I discover that my review was as sniffy as if it had been written by the college authorities themselves, sanctimoniously referring to them as “bad tempered and sneering” and “as competent as any band of schoolchildren”. Well, it was pretty much true, but as a fully paid up punk follower, you’’d have thought I’’d have been a bit more supportive.

While arguments raged among the Ents committee as to how to solve their various problems, guitarist Walter Lure was causing problems in the student canteen. Failing to understand the convoluted ticketing system, he ended up calling the checkout lady a “fucking whore”. Meanwhile, the rest of the band was busy spraying “”Fuck you, Richard””, presumably a reference to erstwhile member Richard Hell, on the wall of the dressing room.

There were security issues, of course. Andy Dobbs describes “the usual hassle of “the morons from the rugby club who would try to gain access to the gigs solely to start fights. On this night, the security guards stayed until after the end of the gig, for no other reason than to keep student troublemakers out of the hall.””

The band was to split acrimoniously within six months and Thunders himself died in 1991. As for King Alfred’’s, the feathers of this traditional establishment had been well and truly ruffled. The subsequent fallout among the student community lasted months, but for everyone else, the memories (even if they do have the benefit of hindsight) are of a wild, unique and legendary evening.

Mark Hudson’’s latest book, ‘Titian, the Last Days’ was published by Bloomsbury in October 2010.

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SXSW 2010

People always ask me, “What is sxsw really like?”. “Well”, I usually reply, “it’s quite difficult to explain …”, and the conversation moves on. This year, I thought I’d try to put down in words a feeble attempt to capture what the festival actually is like for one punter. I hope it is interesting.

Tuesday

I never have problems sleeping, except on one day each year. That is the day when I travel to Austin for South By South West. The route is Southampton – Manchester – Chicago – Austin, and the flight is very early in the morning.  I have booked a taxi and set the alarm, so that should be sufficient, but no. What if the alarm fails to go off? What if the taxi driver’s alarm doesn’t go off and he fails to turn up? Best not to risk going to sleep then, but in this case it’s immaterial, because I have such a savage cough that sleep is out of the question anyway.

That cough. For days, I’ve been worrying on behalf of whatever poor person will have to sit next to me on the eight hour transatlantic flight. Now I am sure I have the answer. I have bought a bottle of cough mixture and cleverly decanted most of it so that less than 30 ml is left. Unfortunately that cuts no ice with the officials at Southampton Airport, who insist it is thrown away. They assure me, though I don’t believe it, that cough mixture is on sale in the departure lounge.

Astonishingly, I am wrong, and purchase a replacement bottle which enables me to spare my germs from the businessmen who make up the entire passenger list of the commuter flight to Manchester. I look around and confirm that I am the only person present who is not wearing a pinstripe suit. I feel rather proud that my next few days are not going to be as dull as theirs will be.

Transferring to the next flight makes you feel good, as you are fast-tracked to the front of the queue. To my relief, the security gentleman doesn’t make me throw away the cough mixture again, and I board the plane. This time last year, it was a huge jumbo which allowed me to stretch out across three seats, just behind Jarvis Cocker, who was doing the same. This plane, however is much smaller and inevitably I am squashed next to someone of enormous girth who spills over on to my seat. Boarding is an hour late because – get this – the incoming flight has had to be diverted round Iceland because of an erupting volcano. Then, we sit for a further hour and a half while engineers try to supply the plane with water, not for the radiator as I naively assumed (I suppose jet planes don’t have radiators), but for the loos and the tea. In the event, the tea tastes as if the water came from the loo anyway. My handy pocket book of crosswords comes in useful in passing the time, in contrast to two truly terrible Ricky Gervais Hollywood films which are played back to back on the neckache-inducing screens. I find myself star struck when I find that my vegetarian lunch is labelled “Rachel Unthank”. I wonder if she is just as thrilled to find hers is labelled “Oliver Gray”. I’m sure hers tasted just as crap as mine did.

The lateness means a quick stopover in Chicago and before I know it I’m in Austin, where my friend Paul collects me from the airport. By way of explanation, Paul is my best mate, even though he now lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We became pals back in the early eighties when both he and I were managing bands in Hampshire. He emigrated a decade ago and our annual treat is a visit to sxsw, where I write articles and search for new bands, he takes photos and we generally drink and laugh ourselves into oblivion for a glorious four days of musical overdosing (much like everyone else there). So from now on, most references to “we” and “us” will be shorthand for “me and Paul”.

Wednesday

It dawns warm and sunny, and my cough is in full retreat as we stroll from our conveniently-situated Super 8 Motel along Red River and towards the Convention Center, where our badges are to be collected. This used to be a tedious and slow experience but technology has helped enormously and now it is sorted in a flash, with the customary American welcoming politeness which is a hallmark of the entire event. They give you a huge bag of merchandise which weighs a ton and demands to be jettisoned immediately, so it’s straight back to the hotel with that before anything else can be undertaken. The hotel is pretty basic but has the merit of being affordable even though it is central. It does triple its prices during sxsw week, and its “complimentary breakfast” consists of donuts, muffins and coco pops and thus you’re not missing much when you sleep till midday, which is of course inevitable after each late night.

My request for the afternoon was to re-visit a place I went to with my wife when we first visited Austin ten years ago. The Oasis is an extraordinary restaurant built into a series of decks overlooking Lake Travis. It recently burned down and is in the process of being rebuilt as something much more posh. We chomped burgers and revelled in the sunshine.  I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten the sunscreen.

That was it for the car. From now on, beer was going to be a major part of our diet, so the car remained behind and it was down to feet and the very occasional taxi in time of need. Just for the record, I am suffering from a very painful foot. This kicked in more or less immediately and remained agonizing throughout the four days, so anything I describe as “walking” should actually read “hobbling”. This is significant, as any visit to sxsw entails many, many miles on foot. I’m going to attempt to describe the scene.

At first glance, everything seems reasonably reachable. There is a slew of venues on Sixth Street, and on thoroughfares like Red River, which cross it. There is nothing to stop you just staying in this temporarily pedestrianised area, the most crowded, but you’d miss out on an awful lot if you did. Some bigger venues, such as the open air one at Town Lake, and also La Zona Rosa and the Austin Music Hall are quite a serious hike away. Here is where big names are likely to appear (examples this year being Smokey Robinson and Ray Davies), but we have bitter experience of long journeys followed by fruitless hours standing in queues, and now ignore these events. Some of the best shows are in venues such as Opal Divines or the Continental Club, both of which are a long way from the main action. A few places, such as the improvised venues on South Congress (Home Slice Pizza, Yard Dog Gallery), the Mean Eyed Cat (home of Mojo magazine) and the Hole in The Wall (out by the university) are actually quite a hefty taxi ride, but normally worth the effort. One or two bars (very few indeed) actually choose to opt out of sxsw altogether:

That badge thing: Most people have badges, which don’t actually guarantee you entry to anything. There are also wristbands, which put you in a different and slower queue. Some people try to get by without paying at all. This is pretty hopeless in the evenings, when the official showcases are taking place, but during the day parties, you can go almost anywhere you like and, with patience, will get to see virtually any band, because they all play several shows, some managing as many as ten or more over the four days. The main difficulty is finding out who is playing where and when. I am embarrassed to say that it took us two years to discover that the daytime scene exists at all, since the officially documented events only run from 8pm to 1 am. This is, of course, the teeniest tip of the iceberg.

Sometimes you will find out what’s what because you are on a particular band’s mailing list. Sometimes there are posters which give you clues. Word of mouth is very active, plus nowadays there are all sorts of social networking devices which I don’t comprehend. Sometimes you can strike lucky by spotting a long queue and attaching yourself to it (a couple of years ago, I got to see the Flaming Lips in a tiny club by doing this). One thing which it is honestly worth ignoring is when word gets out that a big, unbilled band is playing in a small place (this year, it was Muse at Stubbs). You are in severe danger of standing in the queue for five or six hours, missing a load of other good stuff, and still not getting in.

It’s not really like Glastonbury at all (for a start, most of sxsw is indoors), but one thing the two do have in common is the problem of awful clashes. With nearly 1500 on the bill, when you search the schedules, you sometimes find a certain time when there is absolutely no one you want to see, followed an hour later by five or more acts you are desperate to see, all playing at the same time in different places. Or, in a variation on the theme, someone at six o’clock followed by someone else at seven o’clock but unfortunately five miles away. If you’re not careful (and I’m not careful) you catch the first few songs of Act A (you know, the unfamiliar ones from their new album), miss the rousing climax and arrive at Act B just in time to catch the immortal words “Thank you, good night”. You then listen to the crowd discussing what an incredible set it has been.

Wednesday

I started sxsw 2010 in the same way as usual, the Canadian Blast, which takes place in a tent in Brush Park outside the Convention Center. Canadian music is government supported and usually this event is great, but this year I was unfortunate enough to encounter a series of rather nondescript bands, with the exception of You Say Party! We Say Die!, who were actually quite good, but I couldn’t take them seriously because their singer reminded me too much of Miss Jones from Rising Damp.

It was time to head for Lamberts, a far-flung upstairs venue which is actually a smart restaurant in normal life. Here you can find the most expensive beer of any sxsw venue, but it is very good beer. By contrast, the toilet was one of the very worst (and there’s lots of competition). The seat was broken and the floor awash with urine.

Mark Mallman, from Minneapolis, is one of my very favourite US artists, his melodies presented in a wild and eccentric stage act which comes across as a mixture of Elton John and Alice Cooper. On this occasion, he was performing with his other band, bouncy electro-poppers Ruby Isle. I wanted to talk to Mark about a possible UK tour with Chuck Prophet, but the news was bad. The proposed fee would mean a big deficit for Mark, and he doesn’t have record company support. Despite that disappointment, the show was great (how many bands feature a step ladder?) and Mark is always ideal for a good photo opportunity.

Opal Divines is a long way from Lamberts but I had promised to visit Welsh singer songwriter Christopher Rees, who was excited to be playing with the South Austin Horns. It was a flying by the seat of the pants show, but a nervous Christopher came across really well with a soulful performance, quite different from his normal more country stylings. The only problems were the lugubrious concentration of the sidemen and the almost complete lack of an audience. I had to set off before the end on a hike to see someone who, no offence, beat the horns hands down in the beauty stakes.

Asteroids Galaxy Tour is a Danish band we stumbled upon by chance at last year’s sxsw.  Their claim to fame is having their tune Around The Bend used in a TV commercial, but they are fantastic fun, with the stunning Mette backed by what amounts to a soul band, complete with horn section. In truth, they haven’t moved on for a year. They are still great entertainment but you wonder what the future holds for them. It’s a miracle that industry types haven’t tried to transform Mette into a Gaga-style electro-Diva, but she seems the sort of person who wouldn’t take kindly to attempted manipulation.

Just up the road is Club De Ville and my next plan was to see a band I’d wanted to see for a while, namely Bowerbirds. It turned out to be an object lesson in the Unacceptable Face of sxsw. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s infuriating. Along with a couple of hundred other people, I stood for over an hour as a completely hopeless excuse for a sound crew failed to enable the extraordinarily patient band to conduct a sound check. The crew were communicating over the PA, which revealed that they genuinely had no more clue what they were doing than most of the crowd would have had. Along with many other people, I eventually gave up and left without hearing a note, sad that we had potentially missed something good round the corner. That’s why I was headed to Stubbs, to try and get in early for Austin’s finest (equal) band, Spoon. It was a big deal for them to be headlining the prestige (if quaint) venue and they pulled it off with aplomb, aided by the fact that they only have a few members and instruments and therefore don’t need complicated sound checks. Plus, bless them, they do a sweetly lugubrious cover of the Damned classic “A Love Song”. As usual at Stubbs, we nipped down a secret side alley which heads to the stage and got a deafening ringside view and the traditional telling-off from the bouncers for using flash photography.

Thursday

Yesterday, I had made the embarrassing error of heading to a Shearwater show 24 hours early, having mis-read the schedule. The Galaxy Rooms is a strange place which seems to change hands and name each year. It is currently up for sale and completely empty, which actually makes it great for gig-going. They have brought in a stage and a PA, which is pretty well all you need. I make no bones about adoring Shearwater (prog roots revealed) and they delivered as usual. They all look so blissfully happy, it’s no wonder the music comes out so brilliantly. In the wrong hands it could be pompous, as it is, it’s sublime.

The afternoon panned out in perfect style. At two, we were at Headhunters, a homely metal dive which annually plays host to the Six Shooter Hootenanny, a label shindig for Toronto’s finest. With free Tequila and lovely tacos and salad, the atmosphere is fantastic and the music invariably great. Each act does just a couple of numbers and lots of cross-pollination goes on. Each year, I find something new and fun here, and this year it was Hot Panda.

Long-time favourites Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland entertained next, before we had to head off for an hour.

What could possibly drag us away from the Hootenanny? Probably the best band of the festival, that’s what, namely Rhode Island’s The Low Anthem, who had triumphed at the End Of The Road Festival back in September, and who triumphed again at the Galaxy Rooms. How lovely that such quiet, slow, intelligent music can hold an audience so rapt amidst all the mayhem on the streets outside.

Back to Headhunters in time to catch the wonderful Justin Rutledge rocking out to a much greater extent than usual with backing from The Beauties, newly signed to Six Shooter.

I was on a mission by now, doubtless fuelled by the Tequila, and needed to see one off my favourite artists, Jason Lytle (previously of Grandaddy). Lytle famously hated the pressures of fame and now has gone so far as to assimilate himself anonymously into a band called Admiral Radley, which played six times during the festival. Unfortunately we chose the wrong show because (are you seeing a pattern here?) they had trouble sound checking and by the time they got going, only had time for three songs, ignominiously playing behind a flickering projection of a sponsors’ logo. But I would later encounter Jason again.

After a quick peek at the excellent Besnard Lakes at Stubbs, I was off on a hunch. A friend had recommended Nive Nielsen, a singer from Greenland, to my knowledge, the only artist from that country ever to play at sxsw. Also, she was playing on the eighteenth floor of the Hilton Garden Inn, a plushy oasis where the beer is surprisingly cheap and the seats unusually comfortable. I like to go there at least once a year for a rest from excessive volume. Nive was enjoyable but suffered from a condition afflicting many this year, namely an inability to resist using loads of unnecessary musicians. Many of the songs got lost in the convoluted arrangements and it was always a relief when she did something solo. Plus, ahem, it entailed very lengthy soundchecking.

Everyone says how brilliant the Drive By Truckers are, so in the spirit of supporting local music, we headed back to Stubbs. Last time I saw them I found them to be lumbering, bog-standard alt-country with few redeeming features, and this time I found them to be – er – lumbering, bog-standard alt-country with few redeeming features. Surrounded by a crowd of Truckers fans, we survived five songs before heading off to a far more important Texan band.

Centro-Matic have been a highlight of all the “South Bys” I have attended apart from last year’s when they unaccountably didn’t play. After the disappointment of the cancellation of Will Johnson’s tour with Jason Molina (owing to Molina’s illness), it was essential to see them this time and, of course, they never disappoint. Even in the characterless Emo’s Annexe, the trenchant rock and Johnson’s soulful vocals underlined their uniqueness. It was terribly sobering when Johnson dedicated one song to the memories of Alex Chilton, Vic Chesnutt and Mark Linkous. That is way too many dead geniuses.

Buffalo Billiards is normally one of my favourite sxsw venues. Situated upstairs, it tends to host the hottest shows. This was where I was in the front row for Franz Ferdinand’s breakthrough show, one of the most exciting experiences of my life. Here, too, I shared the ladies’ toilet with Ricky Wilson of Kaiser Chiefs, but that is another story. This was where I rushed to after Centro-Matic, to catch another bunch of heroes from Denton, Midlake. Surprisingly, there was no queue, but a musical problem for me. Despite their “The Courage Of Others” being one of my top albums of 2010, they also suffer from having too many extra members. Because most of their instruments, including non-rock and roll items such as flutes, are acoustic, they – guess what – soundchecked forever and then gave a muted and, oh dear, I’ll have to say it, rather boring performance. Oh well, bed time anyway.

Friday

This is a good moment to add that the bands mentioned here are only a sample of those we saw. Nipping in and out of bars, you catch snatches of scores of bands you never identify, plus others you fail to remember. And while it isn’t really a street festival, you do come across gems on street corners, such as the Coal Porters, playing their hearts out outside a bank on Sixth Street.

Whenever I am at South By South West, I keep my eyes open for Hampshire bands. This is a strange thing to do in Texas, but I am aware I’ll be doing reviews for Hampshire publications and that they like a “local angle”. It’s normally quite a hapless task because, although half the musical population of the UK is present, there seldom seem to be any Southampton musicians around.

So it was with a certain amount of joy, not to mention surprise, that I spotted in the programme a reference to Southampton. What’s this? Band Of Skulls? God, it sounds like some horrible hardcore band, but I’d better investigate.

Investigation proved fruitful. They sounded great, they seemed respected and they were about to tour with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. But – my blood ran cold – it seemed I knew them after all. It dawned on me that this was a band previously known as Fleeing New York, about whom I had once written a stinking review. Now I may not have been wrong about that particular band, but obviously things had changed in a major way.

So in Austin, I was determined to find Band Of Skulls and make amends. The show I had decided upon (out of several) was to take place at the Cedar Street Courtyard at 1 pm, an outrageously early time by sxsw standards, but the alternative would have entailed going to something called the British Music Embassy, a nastily jingoistic establishment populated by freeloaders and the rump of the music industry. The Cedar Street Courtyard, on the other hand, is the ultimate place to see A Big Band In A Small Venue. Last year, I stood through four acts I didn’t want to see in order to be in the front row for Primal Scream on a stage the size of a pocket handkerchief, while in previous years, I’ve got close to the Kaiser Chiefs, Embrace, Billy Bragg and many others. The intensity is very rewarding, but this time there was a problem. There was only one queue, and it was plain that hundreds of hopefuls were employing my “get there early” technique in order to see BRMC, scheduled for later in the afternoon.

On this occasion, someone had decided to roll all the queues into one, which was not exactly fair for people like me, who not only had a badge but had also gone though a lengthy online rigmarole to reply to an invitation and acquire a confirmation. Well, I’m not proud, but I wasn’t going to miss this band, so, in an entirely uncharacteristic Margarita-fuelled attack of bravery / aggression, I barged past the doorman and charged into the crowd before anyone could stop me, rather startling the smartly dressed delegation from the Hamburg Reeperbahn festival, whose promotional stall I knocked over in the process.

The reward was ample, though. Sneaking through the side bar to prime position in the front row, I felt a warm glow of pride as the compère announced that he was a radio DJ and that Band Of Skulls was the most requested band on his station. A Southampton band making it big in the States? How exciting is this? And how could it be?

Well, how it can be is that this is not just a band name change, it’s an entirely new and very American sound. You know how the White Stripes and the Black Keys have that spare, bluesy earthiness but sometimes you wish they had a bass player? That’s the trick that Band of Skulls pull off. Bassist Emma Richardson looks and sounds great, cool in a Hynde way but somehow rather English Rose-like. Guitarist Russell Marsden is more unkempt but wrestles out abrasive squalls of sound and makes a grand job of that most excellent rock and roll tradition of kneeling on the floor, extracting groans and screeches from his effects pedals. Plus drummer Matthew Hayward, with his minimalist style, outshone at least two thousand other drummers in town. The hooks on many of the songs are almost chants, simple yet not obvious. Wow! For a second, I toyed with shouting out “Go Southampton!” at the end of the set, but resisted, for fear of being branded a football hooligan. And, for obvious reasons, I chickened out of trying to speak to them. I would have apologized for my age-old petulance, of course.

I had already booked Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles to play in Winchester, so wanted to make sure it had been a good idea. The Belmont is one of the most salubrious sxsw venues, and I have to admit that, lolling on the patio in the blazing sunshine, eating a “cone of shrimps” and nursing a Dos Equis (the most glorious Mexican beer), I felt all was very good in the world. So it was that, when I spotted the notoriously shy and un-showbizzy Jason Lytle in the crowd, I simply marched up and started talking to him. I don’t know what came over me, that’s just what sxsw does to you. Luckily, the mood seemed to have got to him too and he was charm personified, allowing me to feel that I hadn’t entirely made a fool of myself. Sarah Borges was great, too, so visiting the Belmont was a good result all round.

Paul, meanwhile, had adored Low Anthem so much that he insisted on trying to get in to what turned out to be a private media showcase, and had lengthy and unfruitful negotiations with an unbending security team. So we met up again to try to get to the Hole In The Wall, a distant venue where Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express were playing the first of their many shows. The taxi we eventually found was driven by a militantly gay chain smoker, maybe not the kind of thing people associate with Texas, but this is Austin. On the return journey, the driver was an outspoken and vile homophobe. Ho hum.

The Chuck show here was intensely vibrant, maybe not one of their tidiest (he told me afterwards that he “didn’t know what the hell was going on”) but with all the unique excitement that a full-on Mission Express show can stir up. Here, as all over town, the spirit of Alex Chilton was palpably present. Alex had been billed to play at Antones with Big Star but sadly passed away in New Orleans on the Wednesday. Chilton songs are always a feature of Chuck Prophet shows and this was no exception. I was so excited that I forgot to take any photos, but I did manage to film one song:

http://www.youtube.com/user/oliver794?feature=mhw5#p/u/3/b6Th0FvMMZE

A long walk and a nice meal later, it was time to hit the Central Presbyterian Church, one of several ecclesiastical venues brought into sxsw service. Just as well we arrived early, because they can’t just pack more and more people into the pews, so there is a more finite capacity than elsewhere. A long and friendly queueing procedure (with no alcohol or loos available) was eventually rewarded by Band Of Horses, playing melodic, Eagles-ish music which seemed entirely appropriate. Hard on the bum though.

For some reason, I thought it would be a good idea to see Boxer Rebellion at Maggie Mae’s but I was wrong, as they turned out to be a bombastic, sub-Muse affair. Entertainment was to be had, though, observing one gentleman pouring beer from the balcony into the upturned mouth of his mate on the ground floor below, with quite impressive accuracy. It seemed like an ideal opportunity to get early into the line for Red Eyed Fly, a venue where queuing is very dangerous because it is in a busy car park. Fruitless, too, on this occasion, as after forty minutes of immobility it was clear we were never going to get in to see Deer Tick. So time to trouble the shoe leather again in a challenging trek to the Continental Club. This is one of the most atmospheric Austin venues. Someone once told me that Elvis played here. It’s probably apocryphal but I choose to believe it. This journey was teeth-grinding as it was, because it meant missing Chuck Prophet’s “official showcase” at the same time, but Elliott Brood were only doing one show and I wasn’t going to miss it. I arrived in time to decide I loved the Deadstring Brothers after all. I’ve had an on-off relationship with their music over the years, but this environment suited them perfectly.

Elliott Brood is a hellraising trio from Canada, whose wild stage show is renowned. On certain occasions (for example, this one), they supply the audience with wooden spoons and baking trays, employing them as a vast percussion section. The show lived up to expectations, complete with stage invasions, collapsing equipment and the aforementioned mass culinary accompaniment.

After that, something calming was required and that was provided once again in the sanctuary of the 18th floor of the Hilton Garden Inn. I can take or leave Tom Brosseau, but his decision to dispense with all forms of amplification was a blessed change from the rowdiness of the day.

Saturday

The best-laid plans … The idea today was to amble out to the Mean Eyed Cat for the Mojo day party, but no one had anticipated the weather intervening in such a dramatic way. Overnight, the temperature had dropped by forty degrees fahrenheit! In the morning, there was sleet in the air. All day, the whole of Austin was remarkably quiet, the queues non-existent and the few brave souls around the place were wrapped in blankets and cagoules. Most of us, of course, had no such gear with us. I ended up buying three tee-shirts during the course of the day and wearing all of them on top of the two I started out with. Thank goodness for the sanctuary of the Six Shooter House, where we had been kindly invited to spend the  morning but ended up spending hours, because everyone there was so convivial, the endless Margaritas and quiches so irresistible and the music so wonderful (they set up a studio in the cellar and do impromptu live recordings).

Luckily, the house was a stone’s throw from Home Slice Pizza, a mine of cool music, and the inimitable Yard Dog Gallery, where we caught Jon Langford, followed by yet another Chuck Prophet show. Goodness knows how any of them managed to play any chords without their digits falling off.

At this stage I had planned to see Athlete, but had been saddened the day before to see a snatch of them reduced to an uninspiring acoustic duo. When their first album came out, I’d have bet on them being a world-beating band, but it’s been pretty much downhill from there. So it was off for a final visit to Red Eyed Fly (this time no problem about getting in, for obvious reasons) to listen to a few great new songs by Ben Weaver. When I shook his hand it literally felt like a block of ice, so goodness knows how he managed to play the banjo. Wrapped up in his hoodie, he had the air of a benevolent monk.

Now this is pretty shaming, but at this stage, I chickened out. On my list of unwatched bands for Sunday evening, I find Gemma Ray, Drums, Ian McLagan, Grant Hart and Swervedriver, but not only was the cold unbearable, but I was back into “panic about waking up” mode. What if I don’t hear the alarm clock? What if the taxi driver doesn’t hear his / her alarm clock? Oh god, how will I ever get home (etc, etc)? But the next day, remembering previous years when I have partied till 2 am and then had to get a morning flight feeling completely shit … well, I didn’t regret it.

And the best thing about the return flights? Waving goodbye to my bag at Austin Bergstrom airport and seeing it pop out in Southampton. It always seems like some kind of miracle, to be repeated next March (of course).

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What a picture!

It was thanks to Amplifier that my so far brief career as a rock photographer got started. The editor Joe likes his live reviews to be illustrated, so I spent slightly more than intended on a new camera and off I went.
First piece of vital equipment: a good set of earplugs. You have to be right at the front to get decent pics, but the people in the front row hate it if you push past them, so you nearly always end up with your head pressed against the speakers. It’s not good for your health, as you crouch among the cigarette butts and puddles of beer, being crushed my moshers and smashed by crowdsurfers’ Doc Martens. How we suffer for our art.
Probably the worst gigs to take photos at are sparsely attended ones. Here, rather than blending in with the crowd, you will attract attention and people will ask you why you are taking photos. You have to admit that it isn’t for the NME or Mojo, although, come to think of it, you could claim it was and they wouldn’t know any different.
My first foray into a photo pit was probably the most sensational baptism of fire I could have chosen. Those lovely old Flaming Lips hurl large objects at the crowd from the moment they hit the stage, but of course, as a photographer, you are between the band and the crowd. Within seconds, we were covered from head to foot with confetti and fake blood, being smashed in the face by enormous rubber balls. I caught the eye of the drummer, straight ahead of me, and we both collapsed into helpless laughter. It was a moment of pure – though uncomfortable – joy.
Less joyful were my attempts, last month, to get some photos of Mercury Rev. Halfway through the first song, I was physically dragged from the crowd by a security guy the size of a buffalo. As if I were a spy, he interrogated me as to my motives and threatened to impound my camera.
Now much as I love Mercury Rev, these bands just can’t have it both ways. They want, and need, publicity. At the beginning of their career, they are invariably delighted to be photographed, so who are they to get sniffy when they don’t need you any more? But Mercury Rev were innocent. The man-monster claimed to be “only obeying orders” and the tour manager located me a photo pass. From then on it was quite fun, watching Oddjob hauling other hapless snappers from the crowd and dispensing summary justice.
And how to achieve good photos? Use flash (this helps counteract the dry ice and the light show), be patient and persistent. Above all, take hundreds of photos of your elusive moving target. If you’re lucky, one of them might just be okay.

From Amplifier magazine

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Laughing hyenas

I have a friend who has just joined a fast-rising and very fashionable band. My delight about his success is tempered with worry about how it might all turn out. It’s been said often enough, it’s a nasty industry. We punters and journalists can just sit back and enjoy it, but for those at the cutting edge, trouble is always lurking round the corner. This particular band is so sparky that there is major potential for a Libertines / Vines style implosion, and then where will my friend be? He doesn’t have a manager and I’m sure as hell that the band is in the same position as any other newly-signed act has ever been in: feeling temporarily and thrillingly rich but in reality in massive debt that will only ever be resolved if they have a highly successful long-term cereer.
Or not even then. Seeing little Ian McLagen onstage recently with his Texan Bump Band reminded me that it took the Small Faces over thirty years to salvage any of the royalities due to them, by which time, two of them were already dead. And that, remember, is a band which had many, many major worldwide hits. Avid consumers of music biographies will be delighted with the publication of a long overdue acount of the life of Steve Marriott (“All Too Beautiful”, by Paolo Hewitt and John Hellier), but the best book to read in preparation for the moment when your son / daughter announces that he / she intends to enter the music industry, is “Without You”, the tragic story of Badfinger, by Dan Matovina. Two members of this highly influential band, Pete Ham and Tom Evans, hanged themselves as a result of their treatment by the music business – and these, lest we forget, were the writers of “Without You”, which over the years has sold multi-millions in various versions.
It can’t get any worse? It can, actually. Last month, a UK TV channel showed a documentary entitled “What Happened to the Bay City Rollers’ Millions?’ Actually, it was revealed that in today’s terms, the band’s record sales actually reached a value of over a BILLION dollars. Singer Les McKeown was seen playing tiny cabaret gigs to avoid the destitution into which all the other remaining band members (apart from the dead one) have sunk. Les was granted an interview with Rollers manager Tam Paton in his mansion, but the only answer to his question was, “There is no money, it’s gone.” This didn’t explain how Les, in another scene, was able to go into a London record store and fill an an entire basket with Bay City Rollers compilation albums for which he would receive not one penny in royalties.
Anyway, the other day. I popped into my local small-town gig and was astonished to find it full of people, despite the fact that a little-known local band was playing. “What’s up?” I asked the promoter. Ah, he replied, bursting with apparent pride, “It’s an A & R feeding frenzy.” This rather upsetting phrase apparently refers to the fact that these creatures invariably hunt in packs, mainly in the fear that someone else might sign a hot new act that could have made money for them. Little matter that the image conjures up a picture of a bunch of rabid hyenas chewing over the bones of some hapless wildebeeste, because, if you’ve read the above, that’s in fact an accurate picture. The band was weak and the A & R pack were so drunk and inattentive that, by the end of the evening, they had probably all signed each other. The band, assuming there was any vestige of good taste in the A & R boys (no girls, for some reason), remained unsigned. They had a lucky escape, I reckon.
And yet, there’s nothing like the thrill of a rumour going round town: “Hey, guess what, so and so’s been signed by the such-and such label!” You can’t help but be impressed and excited. But, if you’ve read enough rock biographies, the awful reality will soon hit you. “Love and Poison”, David Barnett’s fascinating story of Suede, is full of dimly-remembered names of bands which once hit the front page of the NME in a flurry of techicolor publicity but were quietly dropped after a couple of singles and an album: Menswear, Adorable, Spitfire and Kingmaker, to name but a few. Remember them? Thought not. 

From Amplifier magazine

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Soft Bulletin

I wake up a worried man. I’m worrying about everything, but about one thing more than others, namely: Will the venue be too full and will the customers complain? No, hang on, there’s a bigger worry than that: What if the Soft Boys don’t turn up? There’s no reason even to consider this eventuality, but people are travelling from all over the UK for this “secret” warm-up show and won’t like it if they’re disappointed.
Now, have I thought of everything? That thing with the bass amp last night was extraordinary. My friend Phil has agreed to lend us his amp, which previously belonged to the Joe Jackson Band. We have to load it onto a straw-covered trailer in the pouring rain in the car park of Fleming Park Leisure Centre. Why? No idea. The speaker is the size of the Empire State Building, housed in a flight case so gigantic that it barely scrapes through the Railway’s door.
The Soft Boys haven’t played in Winchester since 1978 and I’m so excited. They’ve re-formed and have made a great new album. Prior to their American tour, they need a warm-up show and somehow or other I’ve booked them for this tiny venue. The interest is high but the organisation is demanding. We normally put on much “smaller” bands and it’s all done on a handshake, but here there is a contract involved and I have to be conscientious and responsible.
This is my first experience of purchasing a “rider” and it entails spending over two hours in Sainsburys. It’s surprising how confusing your local supermarket becomes when you’re buying unfamiliar things. There’s a whopping great list of items such as soya milk, honey, olives and pitta bread, not to mention copious amounts of alcohol, all specific brands. At one stage, I’m fretting about whether I’ll get into trouble for substituting Sainsbury’s own-brand vodka for the specified Smirnoff. Like I say, I’m a worrier.
The contract is full of all sorts of specific demands that we can’t possibly fulfil. I have penned an addendum and made the agent promise to pass on all the details to the band, so they know what to expect. I’ve also Emailed a reminder with a request to pass it on to the band members. Principal among these is the vital information that there is no dressing room.
So Robyn Hitchcock arrives and his very first words are, “Hello, where’s the dressing room?” He looks genuinely hunted when I say there isn’t one. “I have to have somewhere to hide away. If I stay in the pub I’ll be hassled.” It’s true that he has a disturbingly large number of obsessive fans, some of whom (inexplicably, really) are actually quite unruly. So I have a brainwave and ask my friend Hector, who lives just down the road, if they can use his house as a dressing room. “I’ll have to tidy up first”, he replies. What a hero.
They sound check for ever (part of the point of a warm-up show). Ben, the engineer at the Railway, displays the patience of Job as he assists the meticulously professional sound man the Soft Boys have brought with them. And then, would you believe it, apart from the drummer, they don’t use the dressing room at all. Instead, they watch football in the front bar while Robyn disappears into town. He spent his teens in Winchester and wants to explore (not to mention being tempted by the Gurkha Chef).
Support artist Mark Andrews is performing solo for the first time in his life and is absolutely terrified. The audience receives his set of carefully-chosen covers warmly, but before long I’m worrying again. I’ve impressed on the Soft Boys that they MUST be on stage at 9.30, but Robyn has disappeared. It appears that he’s managed to get himself lost and the rest of the band, while mildly concerned, can do no more than shrug their shoulders as if to say, yup, that’s Robyn. As the clock ticks ever onward and the crowd starts to become restless, I’m almost on the verge of panic. It’s nearly ten when I run down to Hector’s house, where Robyn has somehow gained admission and is sitting in the kitchen. “Sorry, I haven’t got a watch”, he says.
Still, I’ve had a beer by now and have decided that at least it’s another good Hitchcock story. A lifelong ambition is fulfilled as I push my way through the crowd, making way for the star. He towers above me, which rather spoils the effect.
All the effort has been worthwhile. The sound is perfect, the band performs sublimely, but still it’s impossible to relax. There are a couple of annoying talkers in the audience, one of whom has sneaked in without paying. I have to tell them to shut up, and you never know how people are going to react. Worse, at the back of the hall is a group of extremely drunk blokes. Who knows why they follow Robyn Hitchcock, merely to shout out inappropriate remarks and stagger around, but they do. No wonder he’s desperate to have a dressing room. I am nice to these guys, who are actually harmless music-lovers with a strange way of showing it. My magnificent wife, who has been acting as bouncer, charms them and keeps them relatively quiet. “I love you, door lady”, announces one. “Is that your wife? Bloody hell”, gasps another.
The gig is over. I’ve had to interrupt the band in mid-flow because there’s a strict 11 pm curfew. Immediately, Robyn is at my shoulder. “I need protection, get me out of here.” I’m beginning to enjoy my new-found “minder” role, so it’s all back to Hector’s house. It’s all worked out, but one thing has been missing: enjoying the show. So, the next evening, I travel up to London to enjoy the Soft Boys as an untroubled audience member. There they are, playing to a large audience in a big venue. I like to think that the warm-up show has helped them. But, on the train back, I’m still worrying:
What the hell are we going to do with that whopping great bass amp, still cluttering up the Railway’s back room?

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Bristol Fashion

Glastonbury 2000. On the Pyramid Stage, Travis have just finished their triumphant set. In the Dance Stage, Fatboy Slim has also finally shut up. Me, I’ve just had one of the most thrilling experiences of my life in the form of a transcendental performance by Oklahoma’s Flaming Lips on the New Stage.
Suddenly, all is not well. The three crowds have met in a narrow channel between two of the arenas and a frightening crush has developed. I begin to feel physical pressure from all sides and a few people are starting to panic. The odd scream goes up and it appears for several minutes that we are teetering on the edge of an actual disaster along the lines of Hillsborough.
This, I realised the next day, was a silly fear, because the wide-open spaces of Glastonbury meant that it turned out to be possible to relieve the pressure by gently opening a few barriers and allowing us to overflow into the car park. But it was with some horror that I looked back on my thought at that time. It was “At least I’ll die happy”. Some people will do anything for rock and roll. I could write a book about it. In fact, I have.
The rock and roll adventures described in all their horrors in my book “Volume” contain several visits to the Bristol area. In fact, having grown up in Gloucester, my earliest experiences of having my brains blown apart by loud noises took place in the unlikely environment of Cheltenham. My first ever live gig was a concert by the youthful Hollies at Cheltenham Town Hall in 1964. We sat around the edge of the dance floor, not daring to ask anyone to dance and marvelling at the fact that Graham Nash’s acoustic guitar wasn’t plugged in.
When I finally became a Bristol resident in 1972, it was in the fraught circumstances of attempting to pass a teacher training course. Every day, I would ride my scooter out to Hengrove School, shaking so much from terror of what lay before me that I could hardly steer it. I had found a tiny and, let’s face it, squalid bedsitter in Somerset Street, Cotham, overlooking the city from behind the hospital. This room (always freezing owing to my lack of wherewithal to feed the gas meter) had the advantage of a bay window which provided an ideal stage for trouser (and ear) splitting impersonations of the stage antics of my hero of the time, Free’s Paul Rodgers. I had encountered Free at the very beginning of their career, and so it was a depressing experience when I found myself attending their concert at the Colston Hall that same year. Guitarist Paul Kossoff, another musician I hugely admired, was on his last legs through drug abuse. He collapsed twice on stage and the gig had to be curtailed. It was horrible.
My girlfriend was a primary teacher in Chew Magna, so it wasn’t easy to go out to gigs, but we did see Rory Gallagher at the Colston Hall, as well as, bizarrely, John Entwistle’s Ox at the University and the Spencer Davis Group at the plastic palm tree-bedecked Locarno. The doubtful highlight of the year was Stackridge at the Victoria Rooms. It seems unlikely today (Stackridge still stagger on) that they were once thought of as fashionable, but going to hear Mutter Slater playing “Purple Spaceships Over Yatton” was as hip as going to see the coolest indie band. Every now and then, I would get outrageously drunk in the Dugout club, which served, I remember, corn on the cob. During the Eighties, long after I had left the city, this became an underground venue of some repute and I felt a warm glow of nostalgia every time I read a review of someone in the NME.
In the late Seventies, I managed a Winchester band called Thieves Like Us, which played frequently in Bristol. For some reason, we kept coming back to a pub called Crockers. As this was a folk venue, it was odd that the audience rook a real liking to the flamboyant punk rock served up by Thieves. Odd features of this place were the fact that you had to play two nights on the trot (sleeping in the van, of course) and that you had to collect the pitiful fee from the landlord, who kept several ferocious, slavering alsations in his attic office. As he counted out the small number of notes, it was possible to see that the safe was crammed with mountains of cash.
We had to suffer these indignities because the Rainbow Agency ran some bigger venues in the city and demanded evidence that the band could pull a crowd. Although we proved that over and over, we were never allowed to graduate. There was some excitement, however, in the form of a rumour that a journalist from Sounds was going to review a Crockers gig. When the article appeared, it was complete demolition job and directly responsible for the total collapse of credibility in the industry the band suffered. And he was annoyed by me sticking a decal on his jacket. This person went by the pen name of RAB. I bet he still lives in Bristol, the sod.
My best Bristol adventures came courtesy of a fascinating band called Automatic Dlamini, which I followed for years. Their leader, John Parish, had been the drummer in Thieves Like Us, and Dlamini survived for close on a decade, first in a series of freezing cottages near Yeovil, then in another series of even more freezing flats in Bristol. John still lives in the city (thankfully with central heating) and Automatic Dlamini’s baffling number of line-ups, dodgy record deals and fantastic music is remembered by the slogan “The D Is For Drum” which is still to be seen adorning a gateway near the harbour.
For this band, I was willing to attempt (and fail) to mix the sound at an unenviable venue called the Bristol Bridge Inn (which resulted in a TV appearance for them on the show RPM) and also to run out of petrol in the middle of Salisbury plain (not to be recommended), trying to get back from a gig at Bath’s Moles Club. I was also able to survive the Moonflowers while roadie-ing for Dlamini at the Ashton Court Festival and to experience the PJ Harvey phenomenon at its height when Dlamini supported her at a sweat-drenched Bier Keller, as I tried desperately to plug their album “From A Diva To A Diver”.
The last time I visited Bristol, we had driven all the way from Winchester to see PJ Harvey’s show at the Colston Hall. As we emerged from the Broadmead multi-storey, someone threw a bottle at us from a passing bus. Well, cheers, Bristol, I love you too. I do actually, and your music. Bristol is famous for Portishead and, er, Portishead, but the nearly-made-its have been even better: K-Passa (Simon Edwards is brilliant); Strangelove (Patrick Duff is even more brilliant); and the Blue Aeroplanes (Gerard Langley is even more even more brilliant).
Now, about that scam we used to pull to get over the Suspension Bridge for free…
From: Western Daily Press, Sept 2000

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Tribute to The Hoax

You might never see the Hoax again. That’s quite a thought. What if, in years to come, someone asked you to analyse the band which almost broke the mould? Where would you start? What would you emphasise?
I’d start by describing a moment which summed up my love affair with the music of this unique band. It was the moment I felt compelled to confess to Jon Amor that I, the most hardened and cynical of rock journalists, a slave to rock music for over thirty years, had never, ever seen a better band. Well, I’d had a few drinks, but like a declaration of passion, it had to be said. Jon looked slightly startled, maybe even blushed slightly, then responded: “Gosh, that’s quite a tribute.” He knew it was genuinely meant; and he wasn’t so modest that he didn’t believe it. The Hoax is the best band I have ever seen.
Or rather, was the best band. Because, unless you catch one of their farewell shows next month, you’ve had it. The Hoax have decided to go their separate ways. The dream is over. The band which seemed destined to do what few other bands have done before – take on the music industry and win – has done what so many others have also been forced to do: admit defeat.
Think back to what made the Hoax so unique, and try to explain it. Well, they were sort of blues based, but there was some hard rock in there as well. And some funky stuff. People kept arguing about them. Why were they so bloody loud? All right for the band, they always wore ear plugs. Apparently it was all something to do with Jesse Davey’s Leslie cabinet, which needed a certain volume to function properly. Who cares, we didn’t mind the volume anyway, once we’d got used to it.
And then there was their image. Do you suppose they thought about it, or was it pure chance that they were so stylish despite being not stylish at all? Believe it or not, people would hold endless discussions about whether Jesse should cut his hair, whether Jon’s baggy suits were appropriate to the kind of music he was playing, whether Robin really should be wearing sunglasses on stage.
And the playing: Hours of innocent debate would centre on who was the better of the two guitarists. Acknowledging that both were brilliant, everyone who ever saw the Hoax would have an opinion. Was there any sense of rivalry on the stage? Not as far as anyone could tell. On the face of it, Jesse was the more flamboyant while Jon was content to be slightly more straightforward but possibly more emotionally committed. Who can tell? Like everyone else, I have an opinion, but I’m not about to divulge it.
And which party piece was the better? The full scale stage front guitar battle, or the later effort in which they played each other from behind, as it were?
Guitarists, guischmarsists. What was the magical element that drummer Mark Barrett brought to the band which enabled them to take such a quantum leap forward when he joined them prior to the “Humdinger” album? Why, at the same moment, did Robin Davey decide to depart from the role of taciturn bassist and start careering round the stage since no bassist since, frankly, Captain Sensible? And how on earth did High Coltman summon up such depths of emotion from both harmonica and voice on the stunning “Don’t Shake My Hand” night after night after night? My theory is that still waters run deep and they don’t run much deeper than Hugh.
So this short story is over, and perhaps it’s better that way. Here’s a summary: Robin and Jesse Davey met Hugh at Great Cheverell Primary school. Jon had already departed for Levington Comprehensive School, where all four of them worked on their blues obsession. They were called the Hoax from the start, and with their third drummer, Dave Raeburn, they were spotted by Mike Vernon at the Boar’s Head in Wickham. They had already recorded a commercially-available cassette, and this formed the basis of the first Code Blue album “Sound Like This”. It almost looked as if the breakthrough was going to be achieved instantly, as Mark Cooper, who reviewed the album for “Q”, also booked the Hoax onto Later with Jools Holland. But, in time-honoured music business fashion, it soon started to go pear shaped on the recording front. The clearer identity the band sought to display on the second album “Unpossible” wasn’t to the liking of the record company, which demanded a rethink and – unbelievably – three potential singles.
Pleasingly, the Hoax actually achieved their greatest success after regrouping and setting up their own entirely independent operation. They armed themselves with the incalculable advantage of the ideal drummer, Mark Barrett joining them from a band which had supported them in Lincoln, from where he was destined to commute until the end. Turning down several proffered deals, they instead formed Credible Records. As Robin said: “To do what we wanted to do, we needed total freedom.” The “Humdinger” album and its spin-off video represented the nearest the Hoax would get to conveying their live magic on record. Nonetheless, they had hoped for more. American deals were not forthcoming and the enemy of all creativity – economics – reared its ugly head.
Thinking about this tribute has given me that chance to listen back to most of the Hoax’s recorded output. “Sound Like This” now sounds misconceived, an attempt to make them sound like “just a blues band”, which was always out of the question. “Humdinger” is acknowledged as a triumph, perhaps an appropriate note on which to bow out. But, amazingly, “Unpossible”, despite the fraught circumstances of its creation, throws up all sorts of Hoax possibilities. “Fistful of Dirt” (retained in the live set almost until the end) was an essential dirty-sounding grunge lope for which Jon Amor wrote the sinister lyrics. “Will Be True” points to a whole soul area which largely remained unexplored, while “Realisation Dawns” can easily be interpreted as a gigantic metaphor for the band’s disillusionment with the industry.
Another matter which made the Hoax unique was their extraordinary self-sufficiency. So talented are the individuals involved that they had no need for designers, producers, video makers, animators, agents or publicists; they could do it all themselves. The indefinable something which made their stage shows so intriguing was a stage-audience connection which made you feel part of the show as well as being in awe of the performance. And it has been well-documented how each member of the band liked to observe the audience almost as keenly as the audience observed the band. Not to mention, of course, the thorny old “Is it blues?” question. The answer is yes, by the way.
On the early Hoax track “Wake Me Up”, Hugh admits that “Everyone tells me ‘Get a Job and Cut Your Hair'”. They’ve mostly done the latter, but is it likely that any of the Hoax will, inconceivably, quit music altogether? At first, that seemed possible but, according to Robin, both Jon and Hugh are working on new musical projects, Hugh from a new base in France. Jesse, Robin and Mark plan to stay together; as Robin says, “Jesse and I never considered doing anything other than music”. The unique pot-pourri that threw up the Hoax could never be recreated, but maybe, just maybe … for once, the parts could be greater that the whole.
From Blueprint magazine, October 1999

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