Saturday, 31 October 2015

Cobblers to the Royal Family - Indie Folk at Norwich Arts Centre with Keston Cobblers' Club

Norwich used to have a thriving shoe and leather industry -  at its peak 26 factories employed over 12,000 people, and manufactured over 7 million pairs annually. Brands like Bally, Van-Dal, and Norvic were all produced within our fine city. Start-Rite received their Royal Warrant from The Queen in 1955, and I still remember noticing the graffiti crudely scrawled on the wall of their Mousehold Lane factory around the time of the Silver Jubilee, a crudely scribbled 'COBBLERS TO THE ROYAL FAMILY'.

This may have little to do with indie-folk music, or even the NME Best Small Music Venue, Norwich Arts Centre, but I have been drawn here tonight by the intriguingly named Keston Cobblers Club, supported by Wildflowers, a band I saw supporting Tom Odell at the UEA about two years ago.

Whilst I am aware of and familiar with several other musical 'clubs' - Bombay Bicycle Club, Two Door Cinema Club, Slow Club, and even a punk band I was briefly involved with at college, Baby Seal Club, most of these give away little from their names as to what to expect music-wise. Indian cuisine, film soundtracks and aquatic mammals were all, as far as I remember, noticeable by their lyrical absence or influence.

So, what of Keston Cobblers Club? Do the good people of Kent provide sufficient authentic inspiration to justify the podiatric moniker of this popular five-piece, other than the wonderful title to one of their songs 'We Will Heel Your Soles'?

Well yes actually. There really was a 19th century violin-playing cobbler who entertained drinkers within the taverns of Keston, and it was his story that inspired Matthew Lowe, one of the founders of the band, to celebrate and resurrect the story via the band's name.

As well as Matthew Lowe, his sister Jules and long-term friends from primary school Tom Sweet and Harry Stasinopoulos, there is now also classically trained tuba player Bethan Ecclestone on board. 'Wildfire', released this summer, is their second full-length album, and took the band beyond their brassy folk beginnings and into the territories of pop and indie-folk popularised by the likes of Of Monsters and Men. This was their third visit to Norwich Arts Centre, and they have already delveloped a loyal following up here in Norfolk.

First up, though, was Brighton/Bristol based 'Wildflowers' (without a 'The'). Described in their own publicity as 'bastard children of Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles', these guys have always portrayed themselves as free spirits yet seem to have nailed their influences firmly to the mast of Americana, even to the point of recording their debut album, 'On The Inside' in Detroit. I loved their performance two years ago when I saw them at the UEA, but was slightly disappointed when the album came out. It seemed to have rinsed out their authentic West Country charisma, even though the songs were still strong and instantly memorable. However, tonight's support slot totally restored my belief in them. Their setlist was pretty much unchanged from two years ago, and they seemed to have lost guitarist Kendal Sant for this tour, but the energy and chemistry between the two beer-swilling Bennett sisters and the surviving male James Ashbury simply exuded warmth and committment. Some of Siddy's stage posturing was a little full-on for a small venue like Norwich Arts Centre, but at least she'll be ready for the O2 Arena or Wembley.


Keston Cobblers' Club followed up with an impressive set, with a lovely balance of brass, accordion, keys and guitars, and Matt and Jules' harmonies effortlessly interweaving with the rest of the band. There's a hint of Mumford-first-album at times that certainly lifts proceedings above the niche appeal of die-hard folkies. There's an awkward pause whilst a set of batteries need replacing - no point in asking a Norfolk audience for a joke or funny story, that's your job in such circumstances, but all is well as the tale of Siddy (from Wildflowers) tipping her lager into Bethan's tuba at last night's London encore is regaled in the nick of time. Standout tracks for me included 'St.Tropez' and the title track from 'Wildfire', but still love 'We Will Heel Your Soles' and 'Maybe We'll Be Heard'.

After finishing with 'Dun Dun Dun' we are entertained with an encore from the floor with a wonderful version of Toto's AOR classic 'Africa', conjuring up more equatorial atmosphere than the American original ever mustered, and with Siddy Bennett keeping her beer in it's can and out of tuba bells as Wildflowers join the audience and band for one last stomp. This is one club I shall definitely be joining.

Buy 'Wildfire' from Keston Cobblers' Club's website at or from Amazon or i-Tunes

Similarly, Wildflowers' album 'On The Inside' can be purchased via their website at, as well as Amazon and i-Tunes.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

...and Our First 2015 Mercury Music Prize Nominee is SOAK.

Bridie Monds-Watson, from Derry in Northern Ireland, is still only 19 years old, but has been playing and singing since she was thirteen. Whilst her school friends were studying for GCSE's she was already gigging. By the time were taking A-levels and preparing for university it began to finally appear that, as SOAK., she was going to be recognised for her songwriting and set on a path for stardom. Her song 'B A NoBody' epitomised the frustration she must have felt during those early days, seemingly left behind as everyone else moved on.

Now it is all taking off. After appearing at two Radio 1 Big Weekends (including this year's here in Norwich), slots at Glastonbury, a European tour, and now her debut album, 'Before We Forgot How to Dream' being nominated for the 2015 Mercury Music Prize, SOAK. is appearing at Norwich Arts Centre, 'NME Best Small Music Venue'. After admitting that the Big Weekend gig was truly terrifying, she seems genuinely comforted to be back playing to 290 people.

Up until now, it has been SOAK. the solo singer and guitarist that has always performed live. Now, accompanied by drummer and bass/keyboards it is SOAK. the band, and in some ways now able to reproduce more closely the recorded versions of the songs off the album. However, for the first two numbers, including the opener 'Shuvels', it is Bridie and her guitar alone on stage. Only once we reach the first single 'Blud' does the band appear, and subsequently flesh out the sound.

Bridie herself is still fairly introverted and modest on stage, probably the exact opposite of the lively teenager that we hear about from the skateparks of Derry, but when asked how she is, admits to being '50:50'. It appears that whilst she was aping about on the tour bus earlier in the day, she ripped open her ear lobe during a fall (her trademark tunnel plug is masked by surgical tape). Not quite the sensible adult yet, then.

There are a couple of new songs, but the majority are off the album, finishing with a climactic version of 'Oh Brother' with screeching guitar and pounding drums. The encore is introduced as 'I Can't Make You Love Me', but is not credited to its composer Bonnie Rait. Similarly, I don't remember the band or the support act getting a credit either. Most probably a memory lapse rather than overt teenage pre-occupation.

Support comes from the lovely Rozi Plain, who I last saw performing at the Arts Centre alongside Kate Stables as part of 'This Is The Kit'. Tonight she is accompanied on banjo by Rachel Dadd, and the interplay of voices and mix of acoustic banjo with electric guitar is mesmerising. Rozi's voice has a slightly kooky but distinctly folky flavour - those old enough to remember Noosha Fox from the seventies might know what I mean. Having just flown in from a gig in Berlin the night before, and catching a train immediately after tonight's performance back to London for tomorrow's show at Union Chapel, Islington this visit may be brief, but gets a huge reaction. Highlights include 'Actually' (off the new album 'Friend') and the recent single 'Jogalong'.

Rozi Plain

Just a quick comment about the sound tonight. The mixing for Rozi's set (handled by Norwich Arts Centre's resident tech team) was absolutely spot on. However, several people leaving the show after SOAK.'s set were complaining about the volume, and the distortion of the vocals, during certain sections. I appreciate that SOAK. may have preferred to have her own team handling her sound, including the array of wireless mics feeding into their own mixing desk, but the volume levels were way off even from the first few strummed bars on acoustic guitar. Perhaps it was unfamiliarity with the intimacy of a small venue, or perhaps it is still early days performing live as a three-piece, but it was just a marring small criticism of an otherwise memorable evening.

SOAK.'s debut album (nominated for this year's Mercury Music Prize) is available from HMV, Amazon, and all good independent record stores, including Soundclash. Her website is at

Rozi Plain has her website at, from where you can buy any, or all, of her three albums.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Micachu and the Shapes, Pop-Op and Painted Heathers

I had been looking forward to this gig at Norwich Arts Centre for quite some time, certainly since well before the attempt to book them earlier in the summer of this year. Tonight it is actually happening, and we get a chance to see and hear Mica Levi's 'pop band' perform live on stage.

First, though, is a support slot from a new Norwich band - Painted Heathers. Formed only three months ago this is Brandon, James and Lauren's first ever live gig, and they have produced free CD's for the first fifty punters through the doors tonight. 'So Can I', the lead track has already been played on BBC Radio Norfolk, and is a good marker for their style of music, which is pop-based guitar, bass and drums and reminiscent of Dandy Warhols. Impressive debut, and thanks for the CD.

Painted Heathers

I have seen Norwich based Popop several times over the last couple of years, and I have to say I love his wonky lo-fi creations more and more with every performance. His trademark plastic skull is back tonight, but is tonight mounted on an old videogame joystick instead of residing as a microphone diffuser. In fact, Popop's appearance always reminds me of a modern-day Doc Brown creating electronic sounds and vocals from what looks like the contents of a Maplins clearance catalogue and charity shop junk. He is joined on stage tonight by Pip Cotterill on drums for an amazing half hour journey that not only has the audience mesmerised, but clearly leaves an impression on tonight's headliner as well. 


Mica Levi is indeed quick to praise Popop's set as she brings her band on stage to commence their set. Playing tonight as a three piece of Mica on guitar with Raisa Khan on keyboards and Marc Pell on drums. In fact, her pedigree and back catalogue of sounds created from anything from a vacuum cleaner to a collection of home-made instruments has made her the darling of the avant-garde, with a creepy soundtrack to 'Under The Skin' gaining a BAFTA nomination for best film score. 

Tonight's show, though, is all about 'the Shapes', and accompanies the release of the band's third studio album 'Good Sad Happy Bad'. The performance is not as experimental as some would have perhaps expected, and is carried largely by Levi's clattering guitar work and raspy vocals, a combination that contrasts and fights alongside Khan's gentler contributions and effects. This is a meeting of present-day anger and grime with the rhythms of early Talking Heads and the experimentation of Laurie Anderson, but the overall effect is a streetwise aggression that at times borders on self-obsession. There is certainly little time for niceties or engagement with the audience, hence the added significance of her tribute to Popop's performance. Certainly they both share that 'mad-scientist' air to the way in which they approach their music. A rewarding act to watch, and an intriguing album to listen to, but be prepared to put in the effort in order to pull out the substance.

Micachu and The Shapes

Sunday, 18 October 2015

A large helping of Sweetbeats please, and a side order of Lobster

What is it with this part of the country's fascination with ska and reggae music? We must have one of the smallest indigenous Afro-Caribbean communities in the UK, and yet we have historically always loved the sound of Jamaica, going back to when I was at school in Lowestoft in the seventies, when one's degree of 'coolness' was measured in part by the amount of Trojan in your record collection.

The answer undoubtedly comes down to the sheer danceability of ska music, which manifests itself in many forms, from full-on skanking to a gentler chilled-out and more soulful varietal which has come to be tagged as 'Rocksteady'.

Two of today's Norfolk bands that can be almost guaranteed to sell out wherever they play locally are heavily influenced by Ska and reggae. One is the sweaty, laddish collective that goes by the name of Killamonjambo. The other is an 8-piece combo that have been a staple fixture of the Norwich scene since 2003 - The Sweetbeats.

I am at Norwich Arts Centre on a Saturday night in October, not only to lose my Sweetbeat virginity, but also to compare and contrast the local legends with a young group of funk and jazz inspired upstarts that are creating their own scene, and are supporting here at the NAC tonight - Lobster.

I have seen Lobster play several times over the last twelve months, and what I love about them is their unashamed love of 80's and 90's funk and soul, combined with an ability to build and blend onto a platform of jazz, samba and rock. Molly Holdom's vocal performance is restrained, and often understated, but complements perfectly Dom Trevor's energetic and conductorial sax playing, with which he holds together their movable feast of young talent focused around a core of eight players. Whilst I applaud their enthusiasm for what they do, and the large young following that they bring to every gig, they do sometimes run the risk of becoming slightly self-indulgent during a support slot. But, hey, that's show business. The world, literally, is your stage. Go grab it.


The Sweetbeats are every bit as professional and slickly presented as I expected. Their up-front duo of Saffron Paffron and Sophie Fox have the energy and panache that you would expect from an experienced outfit. The moves are slickly choreographed, and the set is proudly proclaimed by trombonist 'Professor Bonestawm' as being proudly '52% Sweetbeats original material'. The stage has been given a wonderful Autumnal feel with a makeover of Oriental parasols, and the outfits project an authentic 70's vibe.

The entire set is a wonderful homage to the decades of my youth and an opportunity to dance and immerse myself within a slickly presented 'Ronseal - does exactly what it says on the tin' experience. A ska version of Donna Summer's 'I Feel Love' shows that they are certainly not afraid to leave the box, let alone think outside of it.


As for comparing and contrasting - Sweetbeats win it hands down. Their entire stage show, from projections and stage-dressing to individual costume choices, demonstrates a production based on professionalism, experience and expertise. The slickness and synchrony that comes from hard work and practise has, and will continue to, fuel The Sweetbeats' shows. But, Lobster have the energy and dynamism that gives them the opportunity to continue on that forward trajectory to who knows where. Either collectively, or individually, those crustacean claws have the talent to clamber beyond the rock-pool of Norfolk.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Blossoming in Norwich - The Stockport boys play Norwich Arts Centre

Blossoms is a band that likes to try and do things different. No sign of the fan bus tonight, though. The band had laid on a vintage coach the previous evening to take a crowd of local fans on a 'big night out', leaving the Stockport pub that shares their name and taking them to their Village Underground gig in London. All in ticket price? A tenner!

The indie five-piece that seem to have one eye on the all-inclusive day-trip are in Norwich to show us their wares, which, until the album is released, currently consists of two EPs and a couple of singles. However, they have already assumed the crown of best new Manchester band, and the current tour ends with a sold out homecoming gig at the Ritz next Saturday. They have even invented their own sub-genre, something they have called 'Ethereal Nostalgic Sonnance'. Basically, that appears to be a bit of Oasis swagger, a sprinkling of Jim Morrison mystique, and a generous helping of catchy songs and guitar licks à la Coral.

Maybe it was the post-euphoria comedown from having their away fans with them in London the previous evening, or perhaps Norwich wasn't quite sure what to expect of Blossoms, but the expectation from the audience seemed a little subdued, and the band themselves seemed quite happy just to run through their set without the need for too much energy being expended. Tom, Charlie and Joe on guitars seemed quite happy to line up on stage in a neat row, sometimes bending the knees a little and transferring their centre of gravity back a tad to strike a rock and roll pose, but for the most part fairly static. If anything, there was more movement coming from Myles on keyboards than from the three up front.

Which was a bit of a shame. Combine that with slightly muffled vocals, and the whole experience really did not do justice to the quality of their material, and their playing ability and 'Sonnance'.


Support from newcomer Declan Mckenna demonstrated an emerging talent, but still in the early days of live performance. His largely home-recorded material seemed quite complicated to perform live, juggling guitar and vocal duties with programmed synths, drum machine and looping. The result was that we hardly saw his face during the entire set, the head-down concentration compounded by the floppy fringe. Nice vocals, though, and a promising range of material.

Declan McKenna

Local boys Teen Brains did impress, however. I hadn't seen them perform live since March, and their live sound has matured enormously over that period, now sounding far less surf-pop and much more meaty rock and roll, particularly the bass playing, whilst Tyler's vocals are beginning to really come together with more depth and control. Please can we have a CD soon boys. The cassettes are lovely, but something to whack into the car player would be nice.

Teen Brains

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Gengahr at Norwich Arts Centre - with excellent support

So, it appears, every year produces a crop of bands who, having been given the green light of credability and the confirmation of cool by the music press, take to the festival circuit knowing that they already have sufficient buzz of anticipation to attract a crowd. We all love that smug feeling when, several years later, we can brag in the pub of how we remember seeing the latest stadium slayers when they played that tiny stage at such and such a festival.

This year's crop of new next-big-things included north London four-piece Gengahr who had booked a slot on the opening day in the woods on Latitude's i-Arena, having debuted on Huw Stephens' Lake Stage the previous summer. Unfortunately I missed them both times, opting instead this year to stake my colours to the mast of the US act Tor Y Moi. First rule of festival clashes - try and work out who will be least likely to play East Anglia again soon.

Sure enough, my hunch paid off, and tonight Gengahr are playing Norwich Arts Centre, mid-way through their first headlining tour of the UK before heading off to Europe in ten days time.

A forty five minute set is just about long enough for a band with a debut album to run through all the tracks without having to stretch themselves, and that is essentially what we got last night. No extended solos or cover versions, just a live skim through of 'A Dream Outside' and the 'Tired Eyes' EP, but saving their best loved song 'She's a Witch' for the encore. The reception from Norwich is warm, but not ecstatic, but then Gengahr are a band to listen to and nod your head to rather than lose inhibitions and complete control of arms and legs, or to attempt to get a mosh going. John Victor's shredding guitar work is what drives the band's sound, and gives it the slightly psych feel, but balanced with pop sensitivities and vocal harmonies. Sometimes they begin to sound a bit too much like everyone else, whether that be MGMT, Metronomy or Tame Impala, and the start of 'Heroine' is frustratingly similar to Stereophonics' 'Pick a Part That's New'.

Ultimately, though, unless you happen to be a fan of the falsetto vocals favoured by bands like Wild Beasts, Everything Everything and Alt-J you are never going to really get into Gengahr. Personally, I think that when it comes to songs within that vocal range the girls do it so much better. But if you prefer your male singers to be less gravelly and basic, then you can file Gengahr under the above.

Two very impressive supports kicked things off last night, starting with the excellent London-based Pumarosa. Reminding very much of the glory days of  Kosheen, but plucked out of the hippy commune and deposited into an urban industrial wasteland, this indie but trip-hop influenced combo pull together thumping bass, powering synths and a gothic/pagan manifesto that is visually mesmerising as well as infectiously danceable. Isabel Munoz-Newsome on guitar and vocals throws some pretty sacrificial shapes herself , bowing her guitar with a drumstick at one point before ending their set with the memorable, and highly appropriate 'Priestess'. Stylish and slickly presented.


Cash+David (almost an ironic piss-take on chirpy Cockney duo 'Chas and Dave', but apparently it refers instead to Johnny Cash and David Bowie) are actually a London electro-pop duo, Tim Ross (Cash) and Liz Lawrence (David) who successfully beef up their sound with expressive and at times gutsy guitar work to supplement synths and drum machine, and for the live performance add a real drummer as well. Lawrence is the undoubted lead presence on stage, but as yet seems to lack the confidence to really push herself forward and engage with the crowd. Punching well within their weight, and taking leaves out of the books of both La Roux and Chvurches, Cash+David have a lot more than just Rabbit up their sleeves, especially with tracks like 'Bones' and 'Pulse'.


So, as the tour moves on to Cambridge I am left with my mind unchanged over Gengahr (they did pretty much what I had already read on the side of the can), but totally impressed with Pumarosa and Cash+David. And that is why I go to all gigs with an open mind.

Gengahr's album 'A Dream Outside' is available on Transgressive Records, and have their website at

Cash+David are signed to Columbia, and have a website (with free download available) at

Pumarosa are on Facebook at