Thursday, 26 March 2015

Ward Thomas - A Taste of Country (with just a hint of Hampshire)

Everybody knows the global epicentre of country and western to be in Nashville, Tennessee. So when a home-grown artist appears on the Norwich Arts Centre schedule described as being 'on the threshold of becoming one of the first genuine major British Country acts' it is hard not to feel obliged to cut some dirt and mosey on down.

'Ward Thomas' are two 20 year old Hampshire twins, Catherine and Lizzy, who have been writing music since their school days. Luckily their teacher was able to introduce them to Nashville based producers Bobby Blazier and Chris Rodriguez and, after completing sixth-form, were able to fly out to Nashville to record some songs.

And so it is that they are currently touring to promote last year's album release, 'From Where We Stand', written entirely in the UK, but recorded in Nashville, the spiritual home of country music.

Harry Seaton

First on stage, and making a welcome return to Norwich Arts Centre, was Kings Lynn based singer songwriter Harry Seaton. I only saw him about three months ago, supporting James Veck-Gilodi, but he seems to have grown in maturity and confidence even in that short time. The addition of  kickdrum added punch to a couple of the more rhythmic tracks, but it is his ability to bare his soul through his gentler songs that is so captivating by a singer who first gained exposure from recording and uploading covers onto YouTube. Tonight's premiere of his new song 'Problems' was further evidence of Seaton's confessional style, and the continuous honing of his songwriting ability.

Jessica Ridley

Jessica Ridley claims a Tennessee heritage, and it is true that she is currently based there, although she is originally from near Calgary in Canada. She began singing a mixture of country and pop for several years before entering, and winning, the ABC reality show 'The Big Time' in 2012.

First time for her in Norwich, and to her credit she correctly pronounced it without the 'w', her set consisted of tracks from her album 'Fit to Be Tied', as well as a call for audience participation in a song called 'One of These Days', in which we were encouraged to join in with a slightly complex non-vocal refrain. Like most of the people around me, that's what I did. I refrained.

With a voice not unlike Shania Twain, and accompanied on guitar by a bear of a man looking a bit like Rambo but without the camouflage or the warpaint (his name was Jimmy Herman), Ridley turned in an enthusiastic performance typical of visiting Americans, marred only slightly by an attempt to 'chug' £22 a month out of us in order to support some children's charity in exchange for a merchandise pack.

Ward Thomas take stage with a guitar, drum and bass backing band, and the first impression is of how young they look. Mind you, I have now reached an age where any artist younger than my own children catches me out. And this is not meant to be rude. It just beggars belief that such accomplished and harmonious singing can be produced by ones so vernal. I assume this is a consequence of the twins having grown up singing together. The Southern drawl obviously encouraged during the Nashville recording process is markedly less noticeable when performing live on an English stage. The influence of The Dixie Chicks style is evident, but not incongruous. Songs like 'Who We Are', a retrospective tribute to their mother, positively demands a Hampshire accent (is there such a thing?), whilst the tragic 'Take That Train' has the elements of a traditional lament.

A cover of Hozier's 'Take Me To Church' doesn't quite work for me - it isn't really suitable for the C&W treatment, but a version of Michael Jackson's 'Man in the Mirror' adds a whole new dimension and swings like a good 'un.

'The Deer Hunter', Jimmy Herman, is brought back on stage for the last segment of the set, and the pace really racks up a notch as they launch into 'Push The Stride', followed by the wonderfully quirky 'Town Called Ugley'. A real-life village in Essex, which blonde twin Lizzy initially declared to be just a few miles from Norwich, the song was written after they got lost in their car and ended up outside a village hall with a sign for the 'Ugley Women's Institute' ( which has apparently since been renamed 'The Women's Institute of Ugley').

A rousing encore of Neil Diamond's 'Sweet Caroline' brought the evening's sold-out performance to a climactic end, together with a massive audience sing-a-long to the chorus, For someone who has never professed to be a fan of country music, I leave having enjoyed my best C&W evening in a long while.

Ward Thomas website HERE

Jessica Ridley website HERE

Harry Seaton Facebook HERE

Sunday, 22 March 2015

She Makes War in the Basement of Open

Downstairs at Open in Norwich was the destination last night for fans of Bristol-based self-proclaimed 'gloom-popper' Laura Kidd, AKA 'She Makes War'. Those lucky enough to have been at Voewood Festival in Holt last Summer may have seen her supporting Midge Ure, or if you were at the UEA in November for The Levellers, you would have seen her then. I was on volunteer merchandise duty at Voewood, where her CD's outsold Midge Ure's by five to one - a new name to some of the literary audience present, but she certainly made an impression. Her third album is currently being mixed by Dan Austin prior to release, and has been funded by her fans largely through Pledge Music. Some of those fans were here tonight.

The club bar at Open is a comfortable, more intimate space than the imposing former banking hall upstairs, and has a well-equipped stage area bathed in alternating waves of red, blue and green lights. Having missed the eclipse in Norwich earlier in the week due to cloud cover, and not being far enough North to enjoy the Aurora Borealis, this seems like the next best place to be.

Chad Mason

First on stage with his guitar, harmonica and 'school chair' was local singer songwriter Chad Mason. Having missed out on chances to see him at Norwich Sound and Vision last year, and more recently at Dirty Stop Outs at The Murderers, it was a bonus to finally get to witness him 'open at Open'. As well as a repertoire of contemporary songs to deliver (think of a modern day Ralph McTell), Chad has a distinctive way of interacting with his audience - part Ross Noble, part Rik Mayall, his self-deprecation is matched only by his quick repartee. It is not surprising to find his album is entitled 'The Meandering Mind of Chad Mason', and that his new single is 'Procrastination Day'.


To be totally honest, I could not get into the next support quite as easily. Hailing from Derby, and performing under the moniker of 'Yakobo', James Currey is obviously a talented musician. Checking out his website reveals that he has composed the soundtrack to the recent X-Box One game 'Pneuma - Breath of Life', very different from his indie-folk songs performed tonight. I just found the urgency of some of his guitar playing, and the plaintiveness of the vocals not to my palette.

Laura Kidd (AKA 'She Makes War')

So, as the lights turn to green to welcome Laura Kidd on stage, we start a journey through her world of troubled relationships, family interaction, and observations on technology and life. Her endearing honesty in recalling past events is sometimes tempered with a considered request for us not to share on social media. In between, the songs, a pot pourri of reminders from her first two albums 'Disarm' and 'Little Battles' mixed in with the newer numbers almost ready for release on 'Direction of Travel', remind us of what a musical talent she is.

Performing with only a guitar and ukulele, many of the songs are built through a progression of looping, with vocals sometimes given the same treatment. Whilst not a new technique, few manage it without the cacophonous climax. Laura, though, always manages to construct a web of melody and rhythm, and the vocal build with celestial beauty. On 'Delete', she even attaches a foot tambourine before leaving the stage with megaphone to continue building the song as she wanders amongst the audience.

There is a passion with 'She Makes War' that combats so much of the cynicism we see in today's music scene. Laura connects with her audience, and the relationship is furthered and encouraged through the pledging model. Her interest in us feeds the continued support from ourselves, without the need of an X-Factor or major label to interfere and spoil that relationship.

We are promised a return visit in the Autumn, after the release of 'Direction of Travel'. In the meantime, there is the prospect of a return to the Edinburgh Fringe with a new show, "Shit Girlfriend". Whilst she is quick to point out that she is not a comedienne, and most of her songs are pretty bleak and doom-laden, she is actually very entertaining, and many of her observations are, by nature 'comedie-noir'.

Good luck, Laura, and we will see you in the Autumn.

Chad Mason (watch out, there are two!) has a website HERE

You can find out more about Yakobo HERE

'She Makes War' has a website, and links to make a pledge HERE

Another Pony Up Ride along to the Menace Beach

The lucky folk of Norwich did not have to wait long for the next Pony Up posse to turn up
 at Norwich Arts Centre. A mere two weeks after handing over our three squids to rip it up with 'PopOp', we are back for another pound-an-act helping of what's hip and happening.

Teen Brains (pictured at Epic supporting Peace earlier this year)

First up tonight, all the way from the Suffolk coast were psychedelic surf-rockers 'Teen Brains', fuzzy guitars and dreamy pop songs that positively waft of California (the American one, not the caravans north of Hemsby). With  their debut EP imminent, we could well be flicking the sand out of our O'Neills to 'Flume' and 'Annabel' on the way back from the dunes this summer.


A new name to most of us, including themselves, is 'SuperGlu'. Having evolved out of 'Ben Club', a Manningtree duo consisting of Ben Brown (of Dingus khan) and Ben Ward, and having progressed through several name changes that even their record label Antigen called 'rubbish', they have since added guitarist Alex Brown and bass player Krista Lynch to the lineup, and come up with an energetic punk-pop sound that really smacks. 'Diving Bell' and 'Latvian' are just two examples of their garage guitar-driven tunes that smashed it with tonight's Norwich audience. Ben's energy is infectious, as his voice rises with and then surges above Krista's, at times reminiscent of early Pixies, powerful songs and lingering choruses. Love them. Do I have the nerve to say it, 'Let's hope the new name sticks' ?.

Menace Beach

Headlining tonight, and hot as hell since the release of  debut album 'Ratworld', come Leeds based duo 'Menace Beach'. Yes,if you are old enough to have grown up in the nineties, you remember right. This was a great game on the Nintendo NES. Now it is Ryan Needham and Liza Violet, at the core of what could loosely be called a supergroup, with contributions from the likes of Paul Draper (Mansun), Robert Lee (Pulled Apart By Horses) and Nestor Matthews (Sky Larkin). Needham and Violet share vocal duties, but whilst Needham strides back and forth with blonde hair flailing, Violet keeps a more restrained hold on proceedings, stepping forward only to supply keyboard duties. Menace Beach may have been a long while coming, but now that they are here they seem to mean business. Strongly influenced by the decade of shoegazing, grunge and Britpop, they are determined to put their own twist into the nineties revivalism.  Certainly the floor soon becomes a mass of writhing bodies and punching arms, and only recedes at the end of the set. No encore, but another reassuring performance for anyone worried about the future of  guitar bands.

Teen Brains : Soundcloud page HERE

SuperGlu : Facebook page HERE

Menace Beach : website HERE

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Pony Up Guys! - It's Friday, It's Norwich Arts Centre... and It's 'Top of the Popops'

In the week when Uncle Melvin finally revealed the 10th Latitude Festival headliners, and we  collectively sucked in our breath to mumbled strains of 'Well, is that what we get for £200?', it is reassuring to see that it need not cost an arm and a chicken leg to watch exciting live music in Norwich.

Yes guys, on Friday at Norwich Arts Centre, for less than the cost of a KFC Zinger Meal, I managed to get first looks on Aldershot's bad boys 'Venus Lyx'; experience the best named band in the universe 'Let's Eat Grandma'; and twisted my melon man with the Rainbow Renegade himself  'Pop-Op' -  all on the same stage, and no wellington boots or trench foot required.

Venus Lyx

'Venus Lyx' were on stage first, taunting us for being so quiet. For a band whose debut single is allegedly about burning witches even a deconsecrated church can still invoke a little biblical wrath. Their aggressively chaotic vocals, menacing bass, and a lead guitar that persistently became detached from its whammy bar, were driven along by a drummer who clearly takes no prisoners. These guys look as though they know how to look after themselves. Having played and survived the squaddie bars of Aldershot, we must have appeared like a room full of pussies. This was proper nostalgic menacing rock and roll the like of which I have not felt since 1977. Joe Strummer would be proud of you. I loved them.

Let's Eat Grandma

Next up are the kooky boho-chic duo that are 'Let's Eat Grandma'. These two have already whipped up a feeding frenzy of anticipation since appearing at Norwich Sound and Vision last October, and not without good reason. Whilst the live performance is still in its evolutionary state, the look and the attitude are already in place. The smart little synchronised moves that only come through knowing exactly what the other is thinking are dropped into their routines effortlessly, contriving a trance-like possession of dark forces at work. The girls switch instruments continuously, and as can be seen from their videos, they still have more up their sleeves. The songs blend spoken word, poetry, melody and an air of transcendentalism. Don't be fooled by the butter-wouldn't-melt innocence of their years. They have enough gothic tricks up their lacy sleeves to send us all to Hell. Fear and respect.


Last but not least is the analogue wavelength shifter and purveyor of lo-fi dance music that is Jay Barsby's alter ego Pop-Op. The last time I saw him perform was in a crowded bar at the Gravy Records album launch for BK and Dad, when I wallowed in his modulated rhythms and distorted vocals, and lusted after his jaunty skull microphone cover.

Tonight Pop-Op has de-camped to the main stage of the Arts Centre auditorium. He still has the trademark plastic skull, the wild hair and the baseball cap, but tonight he is flanked by a guitarist on one side and a drummer (who, it turns out, is none other than Pip from BK and Dad) on the other. The cumulative effect is a total assault on the eardrums, as if Royal Blood themselves had gatecrashed a Chemical Brothers set. The thing with Pop-Op is that he just does not let up from start to finish. There is no encore. How could there be? We are all reeling from the sonic blasting that we have just received.

Do not underestimate the Pop-Op. And don't be surprised if you wake up next morning with a stiff neck, and blood still trickling from your ears. And a plastic skull in your bed.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

A Night of Blue House Music - Lewis & Leigh, Raevennan Husbandes, and The Black Feathers at Norwich Arts Centre

Lewis & Leigh

You only have to check out Blue House Music's website and Facebook pages to realise that their founder James Partidge cherishes a special relationship with his acts that extends beyond simply making money and arranging gigs. Wednesday night's show at Norwich Arts Centre was a case in point, an opportunity to see three of their featured artists, one that I had seen before locally, but also a brace of singer songwriting duos who, for me at least, were new kids on the Norwich block.
Raevennan Husbandes is a name already familiar to many of us in Norwich, especially since winning the Next Big Thing competition two years ago (previously won by a certain Ed Sheeran). Lewis & Leigh had been highly recommended to me by another local singer songwriter. But first up was a husband and wife duo from Gloucestershire, The Black Feathers.

The Black Feathers

A lot of up and coming English writers will allude to both Americana and English folk influences, but not all will have visited, let alone toured America. The Black Feathers, having completed a seven week tour of the US last year, including a sold out gig at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, are already well-placed to give the current breed of nu-Nashville wannabes a run for their money, whilst still winning over traditional audiences raised on a diet of Dunford and Thatcher and Nick Drake.

 With their perfectly paired voices, effortless delivery and laconic sense of humour, we are drawn into Sian Chandler and Ray Hughes' world as easily as we are enthralled by their unique re-working of Norman Greenbaum's 'Spirit in the Sky', complete with Addams Family 'finger clicks' at the end. Throughout the year we will be served up a fresh cover each month. The ball was set rolling in January with 'Sealed With a Kiss' the sixties tear-jerker immortalised by Brian Hyland (oh yes, and later re-visited by Jason Donovan). We are invited, via their Facebook page, to suggest other songs worthy of the Black Feather treatment. In the meantime we have their five track CD 'Strangers We Meet' to enjoy until they hopefully return to Norwich before too long.

Raevennan Husbandes

Sandwiched between two duos is our local girl  Raevennan Husbandes, who has brought along legendary pedal steel guitar player BJ Cole and cellist Simon Lewis, to add extra dimension to her beguiling guitar and angelic velvety vocals. Both musicians featured on her recent 'Box of Innocence' EP, but this was the first time that I had seen her play accompanied. Since I saw her at Bedfords in Norwich last year, and now based more permanently in London, she supported Sophie Ellis-Bextor, and is now touring alongside The Unthanks on their national tour. This may have explained the slightly stretched re-tuning sessions between numbers - blamed on having left some of her gear, including her tuner, on the tour bus ready for the next night's Norwich gig at Open. No need for awkward pauses with Raevennan, though. She is never ever stuck for a few words between songs!

Lewis & Leigh

And so on Lewis and Leigh, the recommended act that had primarily brought me to tonight's gig. Al Lewis (guitar and vocals) is from North Wales, and Alva Leigh (keyboards and vocals) hails from from Mississippi. Alva moved to London in 2012, and whilst both had previously recorded solo albums in Nashville, it was in London last year that the two met and started writing and performing together. The collaboration has so far spawned a four-track EP, 'Night Drives', featuring three of their own compositions plus a cover of Wilco's 'Say You Miss Me'. It has also created a Lewis & Leigh sub-genre of country-folk, which they have light-heartedly labelled Celticana.

As they are both primarily solo artists, the songs are predictably either keyboards or guitar driven, but it is Al's eschewing of acoustic for electric guitar that contributes a less-is-more intensity to many of their numbers. It is this, together with the perfect match of the voices that sets this duo up as something rather special. Still in their collective infancy, but individually bringing enormous individual experience to the table, this is just the beginning of Celticana! Check them out individually, but be sure to catch them together.

The Black Feathers' website is HERE

Raevennan Husbandes' website is HERE

Lewis & Leigh's website is HERE

For more details of Blue House Music's acts and gigs check out HERE