Bury Sound Final- Review

Hopefully, by now many of you will have again experienced the joyful occasion of attending a gig after a break of up to 18 months, as I have done recently. So, imagine what it must have been like living in a town where live music was effectively banned for twenty years. This was the case with Bury St Edmunds, a town close to where John Peel spent most of his later years and which he affectionately dubbed ‘Rock City’ after playing local legends (and regulars in his Festive Fifty), Miss Black America on his late-night show.

The reason for that twenty-year lapse of live music in the town was down to the aftermath of a Clash gig in 1978 which, allegedly, led to levels of drunkenness, vandalism and – look away if your squeamish – public urination that left the local council in such a state of shock that they banned live performances forthwith. In the meantime, the only way the youth of the town could achieve similar levels of anarchic behaviour was to pop down the local pub and drink themselves silly without the diversion of a band playing on stage. Make sense? No, not to me either. With no live music to entertain the young gig goer, it all reminded me of this Jackie Leven lyric:

Now I’m sitting in a bar alone

With the jukebox playing a terrible song

The bartender says I see it’s you again

I been drinking deep from a jar of pain

Fortunately, in the late 90’s, a local Youth and Community Development Officer by the name of Jackie Smith decided things needed to change and eventually persuaded the council to allow the setting up of the Bury Sound music competition. This in itself encouraged many a young, disaffected youth to start a band, including the young Seymour Quigley of Miss Black America. Fast forward to 2021 and Seymour is at the centre of the Bury Sound music competition, along with several like-minded individuals who have grown it into an annual, must-see event.

The 2021 final, which is really the 2020 final postponed due to Covid-19, took place at The Hunter Club on Friday night. And what an epic, life-affirming event it turned out to be. The five finalists all won heats in the early part of last year before the final was postponed due to the lockdown measures that were introduced at the time. That the final eventually took place 18 months later is a minor miracle on several fronts. Firstly, the venue managed to survive the pandemic and return stronger than ever. Just as impressively, none of the acts that took part last year had disbanded due to (or maybe because of?) lack of time together, musical differences, life style changes or the other myriad of reasons for artists to fall out. Conversely, the 18 month gap (as opposed to the usual two week gap) between heats and final probably allowed all the acts time to think about and develop their stage performance. The other factor was a willingness from organisers, sponsors and audience to ensure this was a celebratory return to live music.

The running order for the five finalists was decided on the day of the final, with 12 judges chosen in advance of the event who were all key players in the East Anglia music scene, be it radio presenters, promoters, bloggers, industry professionals or fellow musicians. First act on stage was young singer-songwriter Leon O’Leary. During the heat, Leon was supported by sister Isabelle on vocals, lending a tinge of country to his Suffolk take on Americana. The intervening 18 months have allowed Leon to expand the sound with Isabelle adding some chiming, atmospheric guitar lines to supplement his own with Steve Maclachlan providing the rhythmic backbone on drums. The whole, including Leon’s languid vocals, reminded me of The War on Drugs with its rolling, emotional flow. The writing is incredibly mature for someone still in his teens, taking on subject matter such as drinking and drugs, though sex and rock’n’roll may also have been mentioned.

The all-female trio Pink Lemonade followed. I’ve seen the band three or four times and their brand of infectious indie pop (with added bubblegum), full of bounce and enthusiasm never fails to cheer me. Imagine, if you remember them, the joy of hearing The Rezillos doing ‘Top of the Pops’, ‘Crash’ by The Primitives or any number of tracks by The Dolly Mixtures and you’ll get the picture. Live, they’re even more loveable- the encapsulation of what it must be to have a cracking time on stage with your mates while entertaining a bunch of strangers. And the drummer has pink drumsticks. Talking of which, if anyone can find a picture of the drummer where she isn’t enjoying herself, then I can only assume it’s been photo shopped.  Since I last saw them, the sound has been beefed up, like a large gin has been added to the fizz, adding a bit of oomph to the ‘na na na na naas’ and tales of errant boyfriends.

Far From Refuge followed. They’re a seriously heavy band with an intense sound. It’s like being on a rollercoaster, though there’s little of the slow grind to the top and plenty of the thrill of the ride down a never ending, quickening slope. Twin guitars, heavy bass and relentless drums back two vocalists who sound and look like they’re from different bands. You have the primal growl of someone who looks like a caped, eccentric science teacher whipping up a storm interspersed with the relatively detached and calm metal croon of someone who sounds like he’s in the eye of that storm. Riffs barely get started before another riff muscles in while a deranged rhythm section continually changes tempo. It’s a loud, dense and thrilling ride. Oddly, it occurred to me, while we’re talking about drummers, the stick man here looks uncannily like the Aussie dancer from Strictly Come Dancing.

Fourth band up were Fleas, another group who have used the 18 months of enforced gigging inactivity to think about their image, hence the charismatic frontman wearing a rather fetching pink bow tie. Their brand of music is a heady mix of punk, metal, rap and what can only be described as edgy power ballads, the latter involving the singer persuading the audience to sit on the floor and wave their arms from side to side above their heads while the rest of the band have a thoroughly enjoyable wig out. At times it’s a writhing, shambolic mix of genres, but a glorious and hugely enjoyable one at that. The warm heart of the band was also on display, dedicating one song to the absent Sara Kathleen, a brilliant ambassador for and key part of the good things happening at The Hunter Club, who sadly missed the event as her son had come down with Covid.

Final band on stage were a bunch of teenagers who are still at school called The Daze. Bearing in mind their age, this band have so many things going for them. They mine the same seam of jagged post punk guitar riffs that were visited forty odd years ago by the likes of Wire and Swell Maps, topped off with the enthusiastic shared vocals of Flo (who at times sounds like Poly Styrene) and Albert. As you might expect, the band have improved hugely since I last saw them, without losing the youthful zest of that made them such a joy to watch in the first place. Flo in particular has an infectious energy and the drummer leaves everything on stage, looking at times like he might spontaneously combust due to the relentless power he generates. One can only guess at how they could develop should they choose to stay together or head off in separate directions.

Headlining the evening was the Bury Sound winner from 2019, Gabby Rivers, who I sadly missed as I was ferreted away with the rest of the judging panel to deliberate on the evening’s finalists with the unenviable task of picking the Bury Sound Winner and Rising Star awards. Gabby has already developed a sound of her own, both catchy and complex with her own distinctive vocal style and has graced the likes of 6 Music since winning the final.

I have to say, music competitions were never particularly appealing to me, and I never anticipated I would ever be invited to such a thing, but having experienced three Bury Sound competitions, I have re-evaluated my opinion. In relation to Bury Sound, there are two acts that take away prizes, but in reality, everyone wins. Generally, the grass roots acts that enter these competitions are playing to their biggest audiences to date and are having doors opened to them that might previously be unimaginable. The audience is never less than enthusiastic and the judges are knowledgeable (with the exception of myself of course), coming from a variety of positions within the music industry. I’m not about to reveal the deliberations of a panel of 12 just women and men, but suffice to say the range of opinions and arguments presented was constructive, persuasive and well presented, with every member’s passion for new music shining through. The standard of the acts was extremely high, each one receiving at least one vote. In the end, Fleas won through on the overall winners’ category while Pink Lemonade picked up the Rising Star gong.

Following the awards ceremony, MCed by the irrepressible Seymour (with big thanks to ‘silent’ Tim Willett, the other key organiser), the evening ended with a mass, on stage singalong and boogie to Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’, a spot of crowd surfing and the welcome sound of Seymour once again imploring the audience – ‘when the worlds going to shit, what do we do? We do something that’s not shit’. Amen to that and well done to all involved.

See you in 2022.            

It’s all about Cambridge Part 2 (and other stuff)

Following on from the previous blog covering lots of local releases, here’s part 2 of ‘It’s all about Cambridge’ with a couple of reviews from further afield, just to show there is a high standard of music outside the area as well as in.

Starting with Haverhill’s finest, and inventors of shed punk, the Umbrella Assassins are back with the second in a trilogy of EPs going out under the title of Kings of Fruit. I’ve watched this trio blossom over the last few years, honing their song writing and heading off into new, experimental territory without losing the vigour and energy that are key to their sound. The latest trio of tracks finds our loveable bandmates ‘in the waiting room of purgatory, trying to atone for their sins.’ I can only assume their sins involve not releasing enough records and not buying me a pint, but I’m sure I can forgive them for that. Opener ‘Trophic Cascade’ has a great fuzzy opening which stretches into an ominous riff and an angry, threatening vocal. ‘Missed the Bus’ is a blast of garage rock with a hint of The Ramones, featuring the joint lead vocals of Steve and Bunge with Garry banging away on the piano. ‘Up in the Early Morning’ is the surprise track, sounding to these ears like an edgier Creedence Clearwater Revival, perhaps more Fenland Rock than Swamp Rock, more River Colne than the Mississippi. It’s another great addition to their ever-growing canon of work.

https://umbrellaassassins.com/album/king-of-fruit-vol-2

One of my favourite interviews on The Smelly Flowerpot was one conducted over Zoom in the middle of last year’s pandemic with Martin, Chris and Barbara, collectively known as Tribes of Europe. I could honestly talk with them for hours about what they’ve done over the years and what they’re doing now. I don’t suppose there’s many bands that count members of anarcho-punk band The Poison Girls and 80’s soul band The Vernons among their number. The latest single is another slice of timeless, classic soul pop with a hint of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The song is powered along by a thrusting cello and a keyboard sound that seems to come from the 60s and early 80s simultaneously. Add in a great lead vocal (a la Dusty), heavenly backing vocals with nods to The Ronettes, some spacey vibes and a story relating to a schoolgirl crush on another girl and you have four minutes that pack in more than most bands can manage in a full album. It’s called ‘Rosalind’ and it’s an exuberant and joyful listen.

https://tribesofeurope.bandcamp.com/track/rosalind

Another artist who soaks up his influences and re-imagines them is Chris Free of The Sound of Pop Art. Chris has worked under various band guises in the past, but I believe his new EP is his first solo outing. Where TSOPA’s music generally has a summery feel to it, this has more of an autumnal feel, though with the seasons currently as they are it could be late summer or early winter, who knows. There’s some great twangy guitar and cool crooning on the lazy swinging opener ‘Mad Affair’, while the instrumental ‘Reflections’ could be the soundtrack to an imagined 60s TV show about a down at heel private eye in Cambridge with a cover of running a punt hire shop by the river (if it hasn’t already been done). There’s a change of pace with ‘Rosemary Jane’, which sounds like one of those sing-a-long 60s pop song with lots of ‘ooohs’ and aaahs’ that never seem to age.  That the guitar sounds like peak George Harrison adds to that notion. The pace is upped again with the new wavey ‘What’s it Like?’, which is something of a throwback to the kind of music Chris produced with previous band ‘The Users’. More urgent than the previous tracks, asking a series of questions to an unknown companion who obviously lives a different life to the questioner. It’s a wonderfully varied EP which allows Chris to stretch out and explore different sounds from TSOPA. In terms of scope and feel, it charts similar musical territory as the great Vic Godard.

https://thesoundofpopart.bandcamp.com/album/chris-free-a-mad-affair-ep

Tony Jenkins must be one of the busiest musicians around Cambridge. Apart from his work with Lizard Brain and collaboration with Victorian Tin leader Christian Gustaffson, as Kammahav, he’s also the singer in his own band, The New Fools (the name taken from a line in a Bob Dylan song), who have been pretty prolific over the last few years. Introductions out of the way, I can now tell you The New Fools have a new single out called ‘Murry Wilson’. Bizarrely, due to various circumstances, this is actually half of the band with Christian helping out. It’s pure indie pop with bouncing bass, chiming guitars and Tony’s pleading vocal and lyrics, which often reference other artists and songs- indeed, Murry Wilson was the father of the Wilson brothers who gained worldwide fame as The Beach Boys. As it’s over a month since this was released, we must be due another release featuring Tony soon… 

https://thenewfools.bandcamp.com/track/murry-wilson-feat-christian-gustafsson

Naomi Randall’s ‘Trippin on my Tepid Heels’ was one of my favourite albums of last year and she has a new EP out called ‘Very Nearly Nocturnes and Gnomic Verse’. And yes, it’s another release of rare beauty. Five tracks loosely connected by themes relating to the process of going to sleep. As you might expect given the EPs title and theme, the songs have a similar dreamy, psych folk feel to last year’s album though the tracks are more focussed this time round. The acoustic guitar or piano led songs have gorgeous, hazy, woozy backing vocals with wind instruments floating in on the ether, sometimes drifting serenely by and other times gently threatening to overpower the song. Even the introduction of electric guitar is subtly done so as not to disturb the equilibrium. The lead vocals are often multi tracked with lines overlapping each other, the overall effect giving the impression of drifting in and out of consciousness. Or as if some nocturnal siren is gently beckoning you to into an inviting and warm but dark void where all is peaceful and calm, clearing your mind of all the days clutter in the process. You can resist for only so long before you become intoxicated and its musical charm wraps itself around you and pulls you in. The lyrics compliment the feeling, with lines inviting you to a ‘land unconscious’, eulogizing about the heart singing when dreaming of dawn or the notion of keeping sleep in a jar. And what’s wrong with that?

https://naomi-randall.bandcamp.com/album/very-nearly-nocturnes-gnomic-verse

I may have mentioned this once or twice before, but Cambridge Calling Volume 5 is still available on all the usual platforms, as well as German Shepherd Records Bandcamp page, with all proceeds going to a local charity. By an amazing coincidence, all the above artists have appeared on one of the Cambridge Calling Volumes, showing the diversity and strength in depth of the music scene in the area. Coincidences come thick and fast on this blog as Collars, who appear on Volume 5, have a new EP out. It’s almost as if this has all been planned. ‘Everything Present 1’ features five glorious slices of idiosyncratic indie pop by a duo who have managed to forge a distinctive sound and image in the short time they’ve been together. Kane plays guitar and drums (simultaneously when playing live, on a specially adapted kit) while Danielle sings and plays keyboards. There are changes of tempo and tone aplenty, ‘Jeremiah’ being a prime example, shifting effortlessly from indie piano ballad to something that wouldn’t sound out of place on an early Postcard Records compilation with its quirky, funky guitar. ‘Gemini’ does a similar thing with its shift from indie folk tinged opening to it’s fast paced, sing along outro. The final track features what sounds like a ukulele, toy keyboard sound and another catchy chorus. An excellent debut release.

https://collarstheband.bandcamp.com/track/over-you

And now, completely unrelated to Cambridge, there’s something wonderful and sad from Santa Sprees, a new album called ‘Fanfare for Tonsils’. Wonderful because any new music from this Anglo-Japanese husband and wife duo is a sheer delight, but sad because one half of the duo, Anthony Dolphin, was diagnosed with cancer late last year. Following a rather gloomy looking prognosis, Anthony accordingly took this as a sign to continue their singular musical quest anew, hence the latest (but hopefully not the last) opus, rolling out at 34 tracks. Far better writers than I have described at length what the Santa Sprees music is like so, rather than write a standard review, I’m going to throw a few phrases together that sprung to mind when listening to the album… Unfiltered but expertly channelled. Banishing banality from pop. Surreally real and really surreal, like Lewis Carroll wrestling with Tom Waits. Wobbly and warbly. Taking the worms eye view while everyone is taking the birds eye view. Precisely shambolic/shambolically precise. Four sides of a triangle. Post Avant Spectral Psych. Dark humour with a big wet sponge and a side order of cough candy. Tickles and tortures all the sweet spots. Sometimes jerky and disoriented, sometimes precise and thought provoking. Foot tapping and makes me smile. Life and death through a kaleidoscope. Poetic and poignant, heart breaking and liberating. Do yourselves a favour and dive into this, or any other, Santa Sprees album for a refreshingly different take on life and death.

https://santasprees.bandcamp.com/album/fanfare-for-tonsils

More reviews in a couple of weeks, but first a rarity on these pages of late for a variety of reasons- a gig review. Yes, a real, live, sitting down watching people play on stage kind of review. Another rarity- a Sunday afternoon gig review. A new initiative from those wonderful people at The Hunter Club in Bury St Edmunds and new(ish) kids on the block, Delicate Management, this was their first (of many, I hope) Sunday afternoon events. I could have been forgiven for thinking I’d stumbled into the final of some alternative folk version of The Voice, such was the quality of singing on offer from the four acts who played. Opener Josie Edie May is a mere twenty years old, though her song writing has the maturity, confidence and intelligence of a seasoned writer. A set split into two, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar before switching to piano, was as impressive for the playing and lyrical content as it was for her singing, which at times has a breathy style, with little rises and falls, similar to Lisa Hanigan. Though there’s no music released to date, I hear there’s enough songs written to fill several albums once she gets in the studio. Well worth looking out for.

https://www.facebook.com/josieediemay

Second up at The Hunter Club was Elly Tree, someone I know to be a few years older than Josie (not that age is a consideration when it comes to making great music), largely because our pre and post gig chats covered the likes of John Peel’s Perfumed Garden, Dusty Springfield and The Fall. Now there’s a thought- Dusty fronting The Fall in a great gig in the sky. Or The Fall covering ‘Son of a Preacher Man’. Sadly, we’ll never know. I believe Elly Tree normally perform as a three piece, but for this performance it was just Elly and her baritone ukulele. Each track was performed with the glee and passion of an artist in their element after an enforced pause in performing. The playing was varied, everything from gentle picking to energetic, punky strum was drawn from her trusty uke while the voice had that same unbridled joy for singing that could be heard every time Mama Cass Elliot sang. The between song banter was humorous and interesting, covering such song subjects as neurological abnormalities and making a coat from the velvety petals of wallflowers. I now need to check out their studio releases.

https://www.facebook.com/EllyTree

Following Elly was Belinda Gillett, someone I first heard on a streamed performance last year to raise money for The Hunter Club. It’s fair to say, I was blown away by her voice, to the extent I thought she couldn’t be performing live as it was so perfectly pitched and effortless. I duly tracked down some recordings to listen to and further live performances on YouTube, which served to show just how special she is. Generally, she accompanies herself on acoustic guitar but, due to an incident involving a Doberman while out jogging, she has a broken elbow and was unable to play guitar. With minimal time to rehearse, up stepped Matt Carter aka Matt Reaction to support Belinda on acoustic. Fortunately, Matt being something of an uber fan, this didn’t present an unsurmountable challenge. As mentioned, it’s sometimes difficult to believe that wonderful voice comes from such a relaxed and effortless performance. The range is incredible- when she lowers to a near whisper, it’s the only sound you want to hear in the room but when she fully releases, there is no space in the room for any other sound, such is its emotive power as it reaches out and fills every corner. I can only liken it to a large church organ given full throttle in small room. Visually she’s quite enchanting too, losing herself in the performance while the hand that’s free and not strapped up, having no guitar to strum, weaves little shapes and patterns in the air or plays imaginary guitar in unison with the strum of Matt. Her EP from earlier this year highlights every aspect of that voice and word is there’s an album in the pipeline too. I’m not overstating things when I say, for this reviewer, her voice is up there with the likes of Joni Mitchell, Sandy Denny and Emmylou Harris.

https://belindagillett.bandcamp.com/album/homing

Last on stage at a perfectly reasonable hour of 4.30pm (plenty of time to get home and make the kids tea- Sunday afternoon gigs are the way forward) were Elizabeth and Jameson, featuring the harmonies, violin, accordion and guitar of Hannah and Griff. Musically, they bring elements of country, folk and bluegrass to the mix, these backing the rich, Welsh tones of Griff and the sweater voiced Hannah, who compliment each other perfectly. The vocal interplay reminded me at times of another great husband/wife duo, My Darling Clementine. They played several tracks from their recent album, which I was delighted to hear had a theme running through it, being based on stories, characters and life in Whitby on the North Yorkshire coast. They engaged with the audience well, recounting tales about the background to the songs, and sung and played beautifully, dotting the originals with a couple of unexpected covers (Bowie’s ‘As the World Falls Down’ from Labyrinth and The Beatle’s ‘You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away’), involving some willing audience participation. This was top quality song writing performed by artists at the top of their game.

https://www.facebook.com/hannahandgriff

All in all, not too shabby a way to spend a Sunday afternoon. For more info on what’s on at The Hunter Club, including The Bury Sound Final and their 10th Anniversary all day celebration, go to the link below. More reviews in a couple of weeks or so. X

https://www.facebook.com/HunterClubBSE/events