- by Andy Brown Rating: Release Date: Label:
What better way to spend a sunny evening than to go to The Ritz in Manchester and watch The Membranes and six other acts hand-picked by John Robb himself. A mini-festival of sorts, minus the mud, tents and chips. What’s more, Blackpool’s finest noise-makers will be performing with a choir.
If that wasn’t enough, the fact that the other acts include The Lovely Eggs and Evil Blizzard makes the whole thing pretty unmissable. It might seem counterintuitive to head into the relative darkness of a music venue on such a glorious day but what else am I meant to do when faced with a line-up like that?
On stage around 16.20, it’s electronic duo Sink Ya Teeth. It’s always good to discover new music when you’re at a gig and Maria Uzor and Gemma Cullingford definitely know how to leave an impression. It’s a deceptively simple yet highly effective set up; live bass, drum pad, synth and a laptop create hypnotic, looping rhythms that nod towards post-punk and dance-y electro-pop.
Uzor struts, claps and dances as she sings, “I feel a little depressed/ a little melancholy at best/ but it’s nothing I can’t handle/with a little bit of rest”. A really engaging performance and a fresh, somewhat addictive sound.
Manchester’s very own Liines are up next. The three-piece specialise in dark, driving post-punk with singer/guitarist Zoe McVeigh providing some suitably passionate, defiant and dramatic vocals. Leila O’Sullivan’s drumming hits like a jackhammer as Tamsin Middleton’s bass playing invokes The Cure and post-punks rich history of storming bass lines. The likes of ‘Find Something’ and recent single ‘Shallow’ feel larger than life, nosily embracing all the drama of the cities musical past.
There’s a distinct change of pace with the arrival of tonight’s next act, One Sided Horse. Fronted by Evil Blizzard’s Mark Whiteside, the band’s sound couldn’t be further away from the carnival-like anarchy of a Blizzard performance (more of that later).
This is acoustic-led, rustic balladry with a hint of Nick Cave-esque romanticism as Whiteside delivers lines such as, “I need you darling/ you’re as pure as snow”. The songs steer clear of any kind of murder balladry though, gentle introspection the order of the day. A surprising (unexpectedly lovely) side to Whiteside’s musical output, with not a whalebomb or slimy creature in sight.
The Cravats have been going since 1977, formed in Redditch in the West Midlands. Despite this, tonight will actually be my introduction to their eccentric brand of punk-rock. Eccentric seems an apt description as the bands set begins with a man sat down with a Co-op bag, casually reading a book and eating a banana. He stays there throughout the set, his leisurely attitude at odds with the bands crunchy guitar lines, pounding drums and blaring saxophone.
The band’s tight and the sound’s good but a bit more volume on the sax would have made things all the better (you can never have too much saxophone after all). Smartly dressed and reading from a notebook, vocalist and bandleader Chris Harz (aka The Shend) heightens that sense of otherness with his bizarre, spoken-word delivery on the likes of ‘Jingo Bells’ and the hard rockin’ madness of ‘Power Lines’.
It’s been a great day so far but that’s all about to change with the arrival of Preston’s Evil Blizzard. The band has a unique relationship with their audience, encouraging booing after every song and exchanging some rather enthusiastically raised middle fingers. For the uninitiated, the band consists of four bass players, a pig that plays synthesiser and a singing drummer. They all wear grotesque masks while bassist and backing vocalist Filthy Dirty has a penchant for sparkly jumpsuits and getting his belly out like some nightmarish vision of Vegas-era Elvis Presley.
Rolling on stage like the circus pulling into town, the bands noise ritual starts with the endlessly propulsive ‘Sacrifice’. Heads nod along in approval. The rush of a simple but devastatingly effective riff being hammered into submission. ‘Are You Evil’ leads to an impassioned singalong while new tune ‘Fast Forward Rewind’ remembers the days of cassettes with a faintly funky, superbly repetitive groove.
With One Sided Horse put to one side, Mark Whiteside is back to howling like John Lydon’s long lost cousin and telling us, “you’ve been the worst audience since Liverpool”. The comradery and clear bond between band and audience make it feel like you’ve joined some kind of cult. They’re one of the best live acts around but if they ask, tell them I said they were shit.
The Lovely Eggs are a great example of how a band can grow simply through word-of-mouth. People go and watch them play, buy their albums or watch their videos before quickly going to tell their friends to do exactly the same. Vocalist Holly Ross explains on stage that they don’t have a manager or a publisher and that they tour the country with their baby in tow.
They have fully, and wholeheartedly, embraced the DIY mind-set. Not only have they built a veritable Eggland with their ever growing legion of fans but they’ve done it on their own terms. Not bad for a punk duo from Lancaster.
Opening with the pulsating psych-punk of ‘I’m With You’ Ross and drummer David Blackwell put in a non-stop, admirably energetic performance from start-to-finish. My god, The Lovely Eggs are so much fun to watch live. Ross thrashing around with her guitar, restless and excitable with every note.
The likes of ‘Return of Witchcraft’ add a brilliantly raw take on psychedelia to the mix while ‘Food’ remains an irresistibly catchy, brilliantly quirky indiepop tune. ‘Magic Onion’ never fails to excite (the drumming alone gets me going) while a pretty hilarious monologue about puking, solidarity and the morning-after-a-night-out precedes a typically joyful singalong to ‘Fuck It’. My friend hadn’t really heard much by them before the show but left a fan and bought the new album a few days later. Job well done Eggs.
In 2015 The Membranes released the magnificent Dark Matter/ Dark Energy, their first album in 25 years. A sprawling, noise-rock opus concerning particle physics, life, death and our place in the universe. Existential, sure, yet loud and defiant in the face of immeasurable odds. Basically, it kicked arse. Adding a choir, ramping up that sense of epic-ness, makes perfect sense.
John Robb was clearly born to be a frontman, energised and focussed throughout as he darts around the stage, his bass attached to his movements like some kind of additional limb. The build-up into 'The Universe Explodes Into A Billion Photons Of Pure White Light' begins, the choir adding further drama to its cosmic, wide-eyed sprawl. My feet might be sticking to the beer soaked floor but my head has gone elsewhere.
It’s a powerful sound they’re harnessing here; strapping their raw, muscular brand of punk-rock to a rocket and sending it straight up into the stratosphere. It’s ambitious but never simply over-the-top for the sake of it, the band remaining fierce and direct.
‘In the Graveyard’ proves to be particularly effective; Robb’s existential howl and the bands slow, menacing groove perfectly matched to the choirs atmospheric wailing. These might be songs about staring into the void but they feel liberating, cathartic and in the case of the bludgeoning ‘Do the Supernova’, positively euphoric. New songs like ‘Black is the Colour’ and ‘Strange Perfume’ sound fantastic; the band forging intense, danceable, post-punk rhythms. Further enhanced, of course, by the choir.
Ever the people person, Robb makes his way into the crowd to be greeted by hugs and high-fives. Sweating buckets and still smiling, Robb and his band have put absolutely everything they have into tonight’s set. Before the curfew of 9.45 and the dash to get the train home there’s just enough time for everyone to sing happy birthday. Yesterday was John Robb’s 57th, making today’s gig just about the coolest birthday party I’ve ever been to. Let’s hope he has a 58th birthday bash too.
John Robb was a top bloke to interview. It doesn't surprise me he has such good audience rapport.