Published on March 16th, 2015 | by Mike Ainscoe0
AGAINST THE BARRIER – A WEEKLY ROUND UP OF GIG TARTING WITH MIKE AINSCOE
It’s been a busy round of ‘gig tarting’ following a great little gig with Pure FM pin up boy Luke Jackson, accompanied by Ed Sheeran collaborator, Amy Wadge, at The Met in Bury, followed by a weekend trip to ‘that’ London to see long time hero and all round prog rock good guy Neal Morse. The latter included a totally unexpected personal encounter with the man himself in the ‘worker’s café’ opposite the venue of all places – think ‘Only Fools & Horses’ but a bit more upmarket. Fantastic gig with another great support band in Sweden’s Beardfish, naturally slightly overshadowed by the events and fallout revolving around drummer Mike Portnoy, but a chance to confirm that Neal is a truly inspirational character whose personal beliefs provide the muse for most of his songwriting, which picks you up and carries you along on a fervent tide of emotion.
Amongst many highpoints, the moment in ‘Alive Again’ when he sang of “the king of angel armies has come to bring the dead to life” in a eulogy of rebirth and renewal of belief, was enough to make you turn to religion – moving at your own pace of course. Just one of those moments in life which make you believe that there must be a higher power, to the point that when the time comes to shuffle off this mortal coil, it may well be Neal Morse welcoming you at ‘his’ right hand.
Tuesday 10th March 2015
THE DEAF INSTITUTE, MANCHESTER
Result! A case of the Sonic Bandwagon principle of ‘always see the support band’ coming up trumps again. At the back end of 2014, the Seth Lakeman tour hit The Lowry and as has been his wont of late, Seth had a support act who proved to be worth arriving early to see. Half an hour of Kim Churchill’s adrenaline fuelled performance prior to Seth’s own high energy gig must have left many of us attendees keen to see more.
So, to Kim Churchill, how could he be described? A mid twenties Aussie with chiselled features, good teeth and a shock of blonde surfer hair, on which most of us would look like a fright wig, but on him simply looked the epitome of cool. Skin tight jeans and bare feet finishing the look, think along the lines of fellow Aussie and one time hot property film actor Yahoo Serious and the style might be catching. However, there’s more to Kim Churchill than being serious eye candy for the ladies, many of whom seemed to have swelled the Deaf Institute music room and give an unusual imbalance to the gender count in the audience.
What he produces is a mesmerising country blues and rock concoction with a folk twist, all the while accompanying himself on a bewildering collection of instruments. It’s all based around a simple acoustic guitar, albeit with a truly rock standard pedal board, plus a heavily taped harmonica around his neck and a pair of kick drums at his left foot (one electronic, one acoustic) – oh and a floor tambourine at his right foot. This all combines to produce a full blown sonic rampage! He could well be the Southern hemisphere version of Sonic Bandwagon favourite Lincoln Durham, both producing the sort of sound which makes one positively believe that there’s a hellhound on their tails.
He does the more sensitive too – pulling out a song about his Grandfather’s funeral ‘Smile As He Goes Home’, a true celebration of a life passed over rather than the typically sombre and dour funeral fayre. An all-round cool dude, complete with an easy manner, he recounted tales of how he started in the business, earning enough through busking to fund his own transport and now armed with touring vans in countries around the globe (apparently) accompanied by possibly the most hard selling merch man in the history of rock touring.
His recorded music bears no testimony to the force of nature which is Kim Churchill’s live performance. Check them out naturally, particularly ‘Detail Of Distance’ which the merch man assured me was recorded when “he was drinking a bottle of whiskey a day so it rocks!” (and buy it NOW as there are limited numbers so there may be none left at the end….etc). Yet catching Kim in the live arena, even if, like the Deaf Institute, it reminds you of your Nan’s front room with velvet curtains in the bay window, do it asap.
Wednesday 11th March
THE UNTHANKS, THE YOUNG ‘UNS
THE RITZ, MANCHESTER
There was not a guitar in sight the following night at The Ritz, and while not enough tickets had been sold to justify the balcony being opened, around a healthy 800 packed quite tightly into the downstairs area for the first Manchester appearance in some time for The Unthanks. As Becky Unthank commented, the last time she’d been in The Ritz was as a student in its club guise. Heading up first though were the hugely entertaining trio who make up The Young ‘Uns. Although now not quite so young as they once were as youthful pretenders in the folk world, a much larger crowd than the usual round of folk clubs they take in (apart from of course their appeal as a festival draw) were thoroughly entertained by a mainly unaccompanied half hour set. A series of songs which celebrate and commemorate their native Stockton and the North East in general, plus and hopefully for them, they did plenty business selling their new album a couple of months ahead of time (as you do). All in all, a welcome bonus before the main act. Once again and at the risk of it becoming boring – always see the support act……….
The ten piece Unthanks band based around the sisters Becky and Rachel, and pianist/arranger Adrian McNally are a step or two ahead of their support band. Their recent album ‘Mount The Air’ released a few weeks back has been earning significantly positive praise from all quarters including a number of celebrity fans. The arrangements barely rarely shift the dials into the red yet the atmosphere nad sound remains sublime and lush. While the stage presence of the Unthanks sisters who front the outfit sees Becky hand on hip in a sassy looking gesture, and Rachel gripping the mic stand with both hands, neither have that rock and roll attitude in a defiant Liam Gallagher confrontational sense, remaining much more understated bordering on self conscious in their folk related alternative. Not to make too big a point of it, but they must also be the folk version of local heroes Elbow in the way their music impacts, subtly creeping up on you with the ingeniously arranged strings, brass and the trumpet, placed up at the front of the stage giving an unmistakably northern air. It was exemplified no more so than on the title track of the new album, the first of a couple of extended pieces (let’s avoid any prog rock references at this stage) ending suddenly with the sisters heading off into a clog dance.
Again, paying homage to their Northumbrian roots they embrace the folk ideal of bringing forth the songs of the people without any pretentions, airs or graces but simply transcendent musical arrangements which push the boundaries quite naturally as a matter of course.
Saturday 14th March
BRIDGEWATER. HALL. MANCHESTER.
Hailed in some circles as ‘The man who saved prog rock’, the ‘go to’ guy if you want your album from the dim and distant seventies reworking with a shiny new coat, 5.1 DTS mix, and without question the darling of ‘Prog’ magazine. Steven Wilson’s new ‘Hand. Cannot. Erase.’ album is very good indeed. Dispensing with the jazzy inflections he had explored in his previous ‘The Raven That Refused To Sing’ and ‘Grace For Drowning’ albums and outings, the return to a more rock route was welcomed as the musical soundtarck to the concept behind the ‘Hand. Cannot. Erase’ record. The reason behind the three single words presented in such a way and prompting a thousand imitators? Answers on a postcard please.
The venue – more at home to the Halle and rather more low key popsters than cutting edge prog rockers. Very civilised. Even the staff were obligingly helpful:
Me: Can you tell me what time the show starts?
Lady at door: 8 o’clock sir
Me: And is there a curfew or finishing time?
Same lady at door: Nine minutes past ten sir.
Divergent might be the best word to sum up the event. Despite an appeal from Mr Wilson himself from the stage to prompt his audience to behave in a more rock and roll manner (as they may have felt more comfortable doing in say, the Apollo or Academy), remaining seated and possibly subdued was the order of the response. Except, of course for the standing ovations which many felt was appropriate at the end of each song.
The music of course, was superbly played by a crack band, many of whom are regular Wilson acolytes. Nick Beggs, another ‘go to’ musician when it comes to bass guitar and Chapman stick duties (and finally freed – almost – of the shackles of his eighties Kajagoogoo association) and drummer Marco Minneman forming the rhythm section to die for. There’s only the more recent addition of guitarist Guthrie Govan, resembling a young version of Tull’s Ian Anderson, yet delivering most of the telling guitar of the evening. Sitting right in front of him helped, although getting an overbalance of his guitar in the soundmix kind of detracted, slightly. Add to the team a guitar tech who worked almost as hard as Kim Churchill’s merch man in delivering a steady stream of retuned electric and acoustic guitars, basses and a stool to his boss, sometimes mid song. Whilst at other times, Wilson remained crouched behind his (probably state of the art) keyboard housed in a mock antique wooden casing.
Striding barefooted around the carpeted stage monitoring and prompting the abundance of talent in his band, Wilson is clearly the master of ceremonies or maybe even the master of puppets. The music varied from the more straightforward – maybe all the better for it – title track ‘Hand. Cannot. Erase.’ (becoming ever so slightly irritating, the full stop after each word is ostensibly a little beyond me yet it’s bound to have some more significant meaning which those in the know will….erm, know) to the electronic beat and simple repeated phrase of ‘Perfect Life’ and aching sentiment of ‘Happy Returns’. Who said prog rockers and their audiences can’t get in touch the emotions? At other times it was bombastic and intense – Porcupine Tree’s ‘Sleep Together’, the first of two encore songs played behind a gauze curtain (again, someone might have to explain but all very arty and progressive and probably genius) was brutally overpowering, and ‘Index’ which owes more than a nod to Peter Gabriel’s ‘Signal To Noise’, provided searing confirmation that at his best, Wilson is untouchable and the accolades aren’t misplaced. At other times, he may stand accused of being a bit too clever with instrumental passages and doodlings which conform to the prog map, much of which he has helped to chart.
The new album and a smattering of carefully chosen selections from the back catalogue which fitted in with the theme of the new album –social networking, the internet and childhood memories to which he seems to return, provided a setlist which few could complain about. However, it’s interesting to cast the mind back a week to draw comparisons with that other dominant force in prog circles, Neal Morse. Morse’s easy warmth and classic compositional style which remains rooted in the long established prog nucleus may contrast with the serenely distant and clinical ground breaking cool of Wilson yet the pair remain as two sides of the same coin.
With ‘The Raven That Refused To Sing’ film playing out as a backdrop to the final song of the night and the band farewells bade, the audience milled around in a slight mood of uncertainty and drifted out of the auditorium as the credits literally rolled by on the screen alongside an ambient drone. Maybe people were waiting for the 10:09 end time for something significant to happen in the way that you do, but might have been ultimately disappointed. Maybe they didn’t want to leave, bearing in mind that someone once said that you’ve never had it so good. While Steven Wilson continues to apply the Midas touch, hopefully people will soon stop adding a full stop to every word they write. Fingers. Crossed.