Category Archives: Music
So, here it is: my long-overdue blog about my experience at the Swansea University Summer Ball, which every year brings together hundreds of students at various stages of degree completion, but is the end-of-university-forever party for many. This makes everyone eager to get as much as possible out of the experience, which is a difficult task given that there is so much on offer. The tickets for 2012 were £40; slightly lower than in previous years, and comparable to (or cheaper than) some single-artist ‘big gigs’ (e.g. stadium gigs), where you don’t get a free funfair!
When I attended in 2006, it was to take photographs for The Waterfront (our university’s student newspaper), and I managed to get in for free. In 2007, I paid the full price, but pretty much stayed in the main arena. I never even got myself a pint (as the queues were too long), never went on any of the fairground rides (as I felt I’d have missed too much music), and only fleetingly whizzed through the other tents. I was far too busy with university work to attend any Summer Balls during the PhD, but in 2011 I stood behind the site for a little while to listen to the dulcet tones of Feeder sound-checking. I think that was the first year I regretted not buying tickets, although putting the PhD first was definitely the right thing to do. Although my thesis was submitted in September 2011, and my viva exam was in November, it would take me until February 2012 to edit, correct and submit the final approved thesis. I officially received my doctorate at the end of April 2012; going to the Summer Ball in ‘Feeder year’ to ‘celebrate the end of my PhD’ would therefore have been decidedly premature!
It took a little while for my head to clear, and to start thinking about what I’d do next. I did a spot of tentative job-hunting, and fanciful course-hunting…then, one day, I had the crazy idea to email the people in charge of entertainment at the Uni to ask if Thistledown (one of the bands I play with) could perform at the Summer Ball. They replied incredibly quickly, and to my amazement, the answer was an enthusiastic ‘yes!’ The whole band were overwhelmed with excitement, especially once they discovered who we’d be sharing the bill with…the one-and-only Tim Minchin!
We didn’t think it could get any better than this, so much so that we never anticipated it getting ‘worse’. In the run up to the ball, we had the star treatment – official passes, sharing the backstage area – and then came our big moment. Of course we knew we weren’t playing the main stage – this was reserved for Mr. Minchin, Pixie Lott, and Rudimental, amongst others – but I only saw two tents on the site. As we trekked farther and farther across the field, it slowly dawned on me that we were heading to neither of them. We left ‘civilisation’ behind, snuck through a gap in the shrubbery, past the burger vans, and into an understated but reasonably-sized marquee. Our stage may have been hidden from view, but it was fully-equipped with a lovely lightshow and a pretty large PA system. It wasn’t packed, but we had a decent crowd. We sound-checked, then we waited to be invited to start. And we waited. And we waited some more. The audience gradually disappeared as we started to play, but only after our set did we realise why. Reassuringly, it was nothing to do with our music (which the remaining audience enjoyed), but because we were schedule-clashing in the worst possible way, playing at the exact same time as the one artist that everyone in the band most wanted to see, as well as pretty much everyone else in existence – Tim Minchin. Even though we’d had a great time on stage, my elation was tempered by feeling more than a little sick, and not because I’d ridden the dodgems too soon after eating a burger. I ran as fast as my legs could carry me to catch the end of his set, but arrived only to see the remaining pieces of Tim’s piano being removed from the stage. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen; I knew in advance that we were scheduled to overlap with Tim’s set, but we were due to finish around twenty to thirty minutes before he did! Now the entire band had missed him, and even though the scheduling was completely out of my control, I felt somehow responsible.
We headed backstage, and were perked up by being asked if we wanted an interview, but the person holding the mic didn’t seem to know anything about us. It was a very short interview. We chatted, debriefed, chilled out, and then things began to turn around for the better. A load of us had a group photo with Mr. Minchin, one of our band managed to give Tim one of our CDs, and had a nice chat with him. I managed to get myself a pint (a 100% improvement in pint-buying, compared to the last Summer Ball I went to). Meanwhile, Queen B were the next band to grace the main stage; whilst I can’t testify to the authenticity of the tribute band’s performance (having never seen the ‘original’ Queen perform live), it was stupendous, musically brilliant, and overflowing with energy. After exploring the site a little, I remember stopping to watch Pixie Lott performing a strangely-structured set, which swung between her performing to backing tracks, and being accompanied by a guitarist (there was nothing wrong with her vocals, but I felt that they didn’t really gel with the backing tracks, with the result sounding musically ‘thin’…the set with the guitarist was far superior). On my way out, I got to see Rudimental performing their Number 1 single ‘Feel The Love’ live on stage. I say ‘on my way out’, because despite being the headliners, it seems they suffered from a schedule clash of their own, being billed to play at the same time as buses were beginning to take people away from the site to the afterparty! Still, they enjoyed (and Tweeted as much), we enjoyed, and it wasn’t all about everything going perfectly as planned, but about making the best of what you’ve got…and it’s not every day that you can (legitimately) say you’ve shared the bill with such a diverse range of famous acts. Our video turned out pretty well, too (though I wish I’d realised the lightshow was going to be so brilliant, as I might have brought better equipment in order to fully capture the audiovisual experience!)
The Duke (full name: The Duke of Wellington, though I’ve only ever heard one person utter its full name, causing me to wonder where on earth they were talking about) is a fairly unique venue. Many of those who wander Neath (South Wales, UK) town centre during daylight have been deceived into thinking that the pub is inactive, but – especially musically – this couldn’t be further from the truth, with the venue being a desired ‘rite of passage’ for local bands, and host to an international diversity of usual and unusual acts.
The first time I ventured into The Duke was a fair few years ago, to see Supergene, a band that had been featured on ITV Wales’s ‘Unsigned’ show (which sadly no longer exists). From the minute I heard their music, I knew that I HAD to see them, but nearly didn’t go inside the pub due to being intimidated by its outer appearance. Luckily, I had my cousin for backup, and headed through the doors to a welcoming friendly bunch, some of whom were musicians, and some of whom were good friends who I wasn’t expecting to see…nor were they expecting to see me in The Duke (being of the opinion it wasn’t ‘my kinda place’). It’s yet another cautionary tale to remind us not to always judge a book by its cover, or in this case a pub by its exterior.
Supergene were (and still are) amazing, but this review isn’t about them, of course. Fast forward to 2012, and I (along with mum and dad) have come to see Frontline Fire, a three-piece rock band from Port Talbot (South Wales, UK), who I recently featured on The Unchart on Off The Chart Radio. Perhaps this makes me naturally biased – I do try not to be when writing a review – but in my honest opinion they set the bar at the highest position of the night. The acoustics of The Duke being what they are, the balance wasn’t perfect when they kicked off, but the band demonstrated self-awareness and could be seen adjusting their amps to reach an ‘optimum sound’ fairly quickly. Their set was tight, punchy and enthusiastic, creating a large and rich sound which was more than the sum of its parts. All of the musicians played brilliantly, but it was difficult not to notice some particularly intricate electric guitar work. They also interacted well with the crowd, and this was reciprocated in their response to the music.
Next up were cleverly-named band The Peppermint Hunting Lodge (though it was actually mum who spotted the joke…clue: we think it’s a nod to a certain well known gentleman’s club). They took great care over their soundchecks, spending a significant time setting the volume of the synthesizer, but once they started it was clear this was motivated by a desire to sound ‘just right’. Self-professed pioneers of ‘spacerock’, their music was certainly innovative, and I’ve always had a high regard for performers of fast-paced electronic-heavy music who choose not to rely on pre-programmed rhythms (it’s tricky to pull off the necessary tightness convincingly, especially song after song). The vocal harmonies – I think deliberately – replicated a double-tracking sound that could have been generated by an effects pedal, but the fact that they achieved this in real-time without electronic assistance was a nice touch. The combination of elements certainly bounced, resulting in a no-holds-barred melting pot of bass, guitar, drums and synth. The playing of the electronic and non-electronic instruments complemented each other really well, another quality which is difficult to achieve live, and deserves credit. Sometimes the aforementioned metaphorical melting pot could’ve been said to be overfilled, with a couple of the songs reaching my screamo limit, but additionally – since the quality of the singing was good throughout – I didn’t feel it was artistically necessary to ‘feature’ quite so much of it. Having said that (my screamo prejudice aside), overall I liked it. The crowd response was slightly more muted, and I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps the fact that this band hailed from the Forest of Dean, whereas the other two bands originated much closer to home (Port Talbot and Neath respectively) had repercussions on the number of fans in attendance.
The proud hometown headliners were Stars & Flights, a band whose name I’ve heard mentioned an enormous number of times over the past few months, which perhaps put them at an unfair disadvantage in terms of my expectations. I was waiting to be blown away by the band with such a reputation preceding them, but instead I received a gentle breeze, in an underwhelming rather than a soothing sense. It’s not at all fair for me to say that they were ‘bad’ – they weren’t – but in context, the running order now felt completely back-to-front, and my opinion remained unchanged to the end. The drummer and bassist looked like they were having fun, but they and the vocalist felt separate somehow, and the resulting sound ended up being lacklustre. I feel horribly harsh for saying so, but especially after being treated by the previous two bands (in very different ways!), I’m afraid I was left wanting. The level of local support was obvious in the crowd response, however, which was the loudest of the night.
Turtle Promotions are gaining a reputation for putting on quality gigs in the Swansea area, but even so, their ‘Punk Rock Night’ at JägerBar, Swansea (Saturday 15th May 2011) was full of pleasant and unexpected surprises.
My night began with a shot of blue Jägermeister (well, it was JägerBar, and the shot was also free). I found the shot to be refreshing, but somewhat lacking musically.
I hadn’t heard of Sleepy Panda Club before. They’d already started their set before I arrived, and sounded pretty good from what little I could hear outside the venue. With every step upstairs they sounded better and better; by the time I got to the top of the staircase, they were a phenomenon. The sound they created consisted of textured layers of carefully-constructed sounds, synchronised perfectly to merge beautifully, cramming more music per beat than should be humanly possible, yet somehow still allowing each element room to breathe. It’s fairly close to my definition of ‘awesomeness’, and all done live. The seven-piece band – with an arsenal of close-harmony vocals, guitars, keyboards, bass, drums and even a trumpet – describe themselves as an ‘indie synth pop [band] from Wales with a Canadian twist’. I don’t say this about everyone…they could become VERY big! Despite being the first of two support bands, they’d set an almost impossibly high standard for the night.
21 Against from Llanelli were up next. I’d seen them once before on a random night out years ago. The night out itself was underwhelming purely due to it being a quiet night in this particular nightclub. The redeeming feature of the night were 21 Against, since I was expecting the nightclub to be in ‘club mode’, not ‘live music mode’. They sounded fantastic then, and still do sound fantastic on their recordings. Unfortunately for them, some technical problems with the sound at JägerBar during their set resulted in the band not being shown off at their best, with the subtleties of the lead singer’s soulful voice being swamped by an unbalanced instrument mix, which was a shame. Still, everyone else enjoyed the set, and (with my mental audio filters in place) so did I for the most part.
Last up were The Bambi Killers, who were at an unfair disadvantage (as far as impressing me) due to me having completely mixed up their name with an entirely different band with an entirely different line-up. I realised my mistake within the first few milliseconds of their set, and was thoroughly impressed with their musical offerings. I was even amused and amazed by their cover of ‘Let’s Go Fly A Kite’ from Mary Poppins, which I’d usually have considered sacrilege if it hadn’t been so well done. In fact, with a few more shots of Jäger (and the inability to properly recollect Mary Poppins), I might even have been convinced that it originally hailed from the heavy metal genre!
I dedicated tonight’s Midnight Banquet (a feature on my Off The Chart Radio show) to Bill Steele, guitarist and singer in the Swansea-based bluegrass band Roots & Galoots. When they played in Pontardawe, I managed to collect a ‘100th gig’ celebratory keyring, which has remained on my bunch of keys ever since. I also had the pleasure of sharing the stage with Bill and the band for the odd jam. He will be sadly missed by all.
Roland Emmanuel, fellow member of Roots & Galoots, posted this announcement on the UK Bluegrass website:
The untimely death has been announced of Bill Steele, guitarist and singer with the Welsh based bluegrass band, Roots & Galoots.
Bill had previously played with his brother-in-law, Bill Titley, on the UK bluegrass circuit and was a regular picker at Terry Holland’s sessions.
It was Terry who gave R & G their first big break with an invitation to play at the Wharf in 2006. Many other gigs followed including a memorable debut at Didmarton and we quickly became established on the festival scene. Together with Bill’s great friend, Paul Morgan, R & G developed into a tight unit paying close attention to 3 part harmony. This was to become a hallmark of the band’s set with Bill regularly taking the lead vocal.
A key player in organising the Gower Bluegrass Festival, more recently his input and support at the ‘Bluegrass at the Buck’ picking session has ensured its success in promoting the genre.
Bill lived for bluegrass music and last year, even with a debilitating illness, he was determined to play at the La Roche Festival in France. R & G’s performance was well received and this year we were invited back to play at the event. With flights booked and all arrangements made, Bill was really looking forward to the occasion and, in a sense, the invitation gave him the drive to overcome his illness and live to play another day. Sadly, this was not to be but the band will continue to play on in his memory.
Condolences have already been paid to his family, especially to his children – Faye, Kim and Hazel who have been dedicated in the support of their father.
Bill’s untimely passing has been a shock to many but the tributes paid to this gentleman of bluegrass will ensure that his spirit will continue to be celebrated by all of us who were privileged to know him and play with him.
As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m meant to be using this blog (aside from my usual random musings) to make sure I don’t forget to pass on important promotional messages! This piece of information was on the verge of being lost on the dark side of the Nemethsphere, but I brought it back from the brink…just!
Andrew McKay and Carole Etherton have released a new CD, entitled ‘Silver, Stone and Sand’. Regulars at the Gower Folk Festival, they’ve also recently gigged at festivals in Ellesmere Port and Upton, all in the U.K. I’m hoping to feature one of their tracks on The Unchart soon!