Music, like food, is founded on taste, layers, texture, the way it feels as it hits your head, heart and soul. Music is not static, it doesn’t sit prettily on the plate, staring back at you, slight and impudent. At least it shouldn’t be doing this if it wants to be noticed above the hub bub of our daily toing and froing, forcing us to put down our phones, headphones, book, magazine, coffee, sandwich…. and just LISTEN!!!!
Tonight’s performance reflects everything that is shiny and brilliant about the reality of witnessing a band in a live setting and feeling your vital organs change position, as your ears can’t quite believe what they are hearing. I am far from kidding you when I say that this proved to be one of the most exciting line ups I have witnessed in years from four bands who are self-financing their torrid and beautiful journeys to some sort of musical nirvana – all for the knock down price of £2.
After tonight , and after thinking deeply in the wake of Bowie’s passing, I realise once again that the best music is brought to life by individuals who are physically compelled to follow a muse, for whom music is a life force which refuses to tow the line and just do what is expected. The artists who adorn the stage tonight are so bound up in the creative process, that they would prefer to explode into tiny shards of lost inspiration rather than not forming those melodies, riffs and soaring choruses in their fizzing heads into something shared and communicable.
What’s so frustrating is the relatively small turnout for Annie Rew Shaw, erstwhile backing vocalist for the mighty Stella Martyr (more of whom later) and now a blossoming solo artist in her own right. Refreshingly, she debunks the expected trait of a solo performer by singing accompanied only by an electric piano, which she plays with true verve and passion. Apologising for a recent bout of tonsillitis, she spills her emotions into new song ‘Honey’, overflowing with husky tones and deep yearning. The crowd (numbering maybe 30 at this point) absorb the sound, a reverent hush as Annie intones ‘ I won’t return to this town / You don’t want me here’; it’s hard and heavy listening, pricking at your heart and turning your head with its honesty and directness.
She sashays elegantly into a breathtaking cover of Nirvana’s ‘Heart-Shaped Box’, breaking it down whilst breaking our hearts just a little bit more all over again. It is a magnetic moment and makes you appreciate what a brilliant lyricist Mr Cobain clearly was. Her own songs continue to cascade through the auditorium, composed of strident chords, her voice describing the turmoil and the unending torrents of another faltering relationship – ‘ in the smoke you left behind’. She expresses truth with a heart-stopping catch in her voice. The applause for her is genuine and it should soon be to the sounds of hundreds upon thousands of palms clapping. When she finishes, there is a brief return to silence, an aching longing to hear more of that stunning voice, a voice which seduces and is destined to stay with you, lingering long into the night.
Her is one fantastic name for a band. Super short, close up , with no added fat. Their musicproves the point, blasting into your head with muscular rhythms and teasing echoes of late 90’s indie jump funk with some Bloc Party thrown into the mix. They are a 3 piece. Buffalo Tom were a 3 piece. Says it all.
No set list so no titles I’m afraid, but no cause for concern. First tune careers into view, narrowly missing that wall outside the venue with biting, unsettling lyrical concerns –‘ We can be the best of friends / Sweethearts to the very end’. It suits the mood : slightly unhinged and out of sync. Next song is influenced equally by Shostakovich and Miami Vice (the original I hope!) and ups the intensity levels with discordance and truth telling.
‘Never been Made’ (I wrote that down in the semi-darkness) sounds punk-stuffed, chiming and chunky, bringing in elements of The Jam, generating a tangible atmosphere. It’s so skinny and sinewy, lean and furtive, tugging at your shirtsleeve, wanting in on your secrets. Here is URGENCY, breath caught in a vacuum, struggling to expel itself; like experiencing fresh, flesh-pricking sweat, spilt beer in the mosh and rusty blades penetrating your heart. Another hyper ballad is gnarly in mood, suspended upon well-defined riffs and insistent bass throb : like a swift whack to the sternum it lingers on, rough round the edges.
‘Leave me where I am’ rides to oblivion on a wave of scuzzy keyboards. They finish (too soon, like all the artists tonight) with a justifiably ragged ‘n’ raw cover of Bowie’s ‘Andy Warhol’. These boys are magnificent, vivrant things. Keep your eyes peeled – I tried to catch up with them later, but missed out so the biog will have to wait. In the meantime, check them out on Soundcloud.
After the break, I am transported to my special place, at the feet of steely magnificence. A good few weeks since the release of ‘Neon Traces’ and I am lost in pure devotion for Stella Martyr ,this most singular of bands. I had their EP playing in the motor on the way into Exeter’s pearlescent streets and felt my heart skip several beats. I also knew that Annie Rew Shaw would be joining the boys on backing vox. Never to be disappointed, never to be defeated.
As expected, they emerge stageward greeted by white noise and the electric snap of the drum machine. Sketch strides across the stage, bristling with primordial instinct. The multi media voiceovers bleed into ‘Red Rum a Red Rum’ on insistent repeat. Now I really can’t read my scrawled notes….something about cracked beauty, mixed in with scattershot moods and a healthy dose of declamatory genius. Either way it's a frenetic excursion into the void with layer upon layer of attitude and political nous.
A level of familiarity breeds complete contentment – ‘Running Rabbits’ glistens, darkly atmospheric, utterly beguiling, Sketch drinking in the stage, the lights, the whole damn farrago. Emotions lit by touch paper, I can really feel the neon traces scratching at my eyelids. I can’t bear to open them, I don't want to lose this damn, brilliant moment. It feels like rediscovering all you have ever loved about music and witnessing your waking dreams in a slew of crazy colours. That poker face of his, don’t believe it, this man lives for this art, this music, this expression, as do the band….
By the time ‘ Sugar’ rolls into view, I’m half lost in my own reverie. After a hard week personally, its restorative power cannot be underestimated. I’m trying to wipe those dust mites from my eyes during the unforgettable chorus – ‘ Cut me out in little stars, shining on the darkest night / morning light…. and see my reflection’. Sublime, so sublime. One of the anthems of last year, of any year in fact.
Then it’s time for a newbie. ‘White Rose’ is a revelation, tub thumping and replete with blazing rhetoric – ‘Let freedom live forever / We see through your lies’. It flowers, burns, blows up the stage. Thunder, sweet thunder. Tonight - at this very moment - Stella Martyr make one hell of a holy racket. It proves the perfect juxtaposition to ‘Concrete Kisses’ another stunner, a prowler, howling at the moon, wanting more, wanting this to be the perfect explanation for everything. The third chorus explodes beautifully into life – ‘I wish I’d found a way to talk to you / Not involving the use of words’ and now I am spent, levels peaked.
THIS BAND ARE IMPORTANT. IT MATTERS NOT THAT ONLY 200 OR SO TURNED UP TONIGHT. THEY MATTER, WHATEVER THE NUMBER. People, you need this now.
What can follow that, I wonder? Only Rapha Ghetti, that’s bloody who! Like G Love and Special Sauce smoking on a big, fat doobie, these boys mean some low slung, funked up bizness. Rapha twitches and flips his cap on the heavily populated stage and I believe that I may have just reached the summit of smiles, so damn fun and lip-smackingly delicious is this sound.
He is part Zach La Rocha, part Ska saviour, part Plan B with a full skank of Roots Manuvafor your pleasure. What a frantic, fully possessed soul he is up there, scatting and rapping whilst exposing the crowd to some snappy rhymes – ‘I’ve been dreaming about dreaming’. It could be 21st century blues, replete with sinuous, funky beats and stretched, booming bass lines. His wordplay is akin to Jamaican toasting, riding merrily over the top. ‘Wesley’ evokes Gandy Street translated through Camden Market, all knowing winks, nods and bags stacked with attitude and bumper stickers.
This sound is bass bound, catching fire, full of SW originality, the expressive chords trip over each other, become jazz-inflected, the rhythms easy and as another groove strikes up the band, Mr Getti, your inner city soul saviour, just smirks and says, ‘We’ll see what happens!’. Expect the unexpected and then be surprised.
Guess what people – this tsunami of talent would have put you out for the princely sum of £2, just 50 pence per act. In days of future past, there will be those who can say ‘I was there…’
Words by HUGH OGILVIE
Photography by JULIAN BAIRD