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.