COME ONE, COME ALL: JOHN HALL’S GROOVY BALL

“…so when you get drunk Wilson, and you reminisce of the Hacienda, be told with a beautiful story of your own proper John Hall bender.


– Leon The Pig Farmer

John Hall is missing. Scan the faces assembled by the stage and nowhere within his usual 4-feet-from-the-front can today’s man of the moment be seen. It’s late afternoon at Manchester’s Ritz where already, a wide-eyed gang of his groovy friends and acquaintances are uniting for a gala celebration and musical fundraiser marking his existence. Of John I know little; our paths first crossed in the snug of Salford’s Eagle Inn. He’d taken a liking to a friend’s socks and since then has been the guy with a grin on his face, panning his camera back and forth from artist to audience whilst filming the scenes unfolding before him (and sharing the gig footage online for fellow revelers to see). Today is a celebration of life and music in John’s honour and, like a Marvel comic power-huddle uniting the forces of his favourite musical friends met in sweaty mosh pits along the way, it’s now from the balcony where he watches. Below, legions of guests gather to revel in a bash to behold, like Capote’s Black & White masquerade ball had it been held in Manchester. Only without (pandemic-precautionary!) face masks, where rainbow is the colour, and everyone’s invited.

“oo’s missed discos?” booms a bold northern accent down the microphone. Loose Articles don’t ask questions; they demand answers, and in no time at all the audience respond to their interrogation as the local 4-piece punch through a set of X-Ray Spex style post-punk stompers, transforming the venue’s basement into their own euphoric dungeon. Doused in traffic-light hues giving each member a green-red aura, their bratty B-52’s-meets-Bis bounce, Cramps-like shrieks and whistles blown unleash their own torrid tales of grievances including a trundling bassline fuelled by the familiar frustration of the 142 bus route. ‘Chaos’ captures the party atmosphere as the band disappear from view among an increasing number of bobbing heads, almost censoring Natalie‘s beaded flame-print leotard which later, outside, catches the eye of a bouncer who chuckles with the humour intended.

Having been cooped up too long has much to answer for; it seems walking stick waving is the newest demonstration of live music appreciation as Cheshire trio Déjà Vega take to the stage. Crooked handles aloft as though a gang of rogue geriatrics have fought their way to the front, a pair of crutches happily dance in the air, bouncing each riff back to the band. Bassist Mike’s left knee wobbles, almost powering their Diiv-like propulsion as singer Jack roams the stage denting a cowbell. There are fewer stomped-out stage patterns as Liverpool’s The Mysterines thrust their metal-lite grunge upon the crowd, but singer Lia’s understated delivery allows her game face and songwriting to do the talking. “It’s always the same, life’s a bitch” she rasps in her hauntingly low register whilst taking out the tension on a battered guitar. Under red light, the band tease further tracks from their forthcoming debut album and show confidence as they embrace their heftier side, choosing to filter out lighter hits from their set like recent single ‘Take Control’.

Now performing as a 6-piece, The Blinders’ familiar opener ‘Gotta Get Through’ launches the expanded collective’s amped-up set, only witnessed so far as a stripped-back Lounge Lizard session. Latest LP Fantasies Of A Stay At Home Psychopath is interspersed with old favourites ‘ICB Blues’ and ‘Brave New World,’ with the meatier sound resonating as a band having found their stride. Some intricacies such as the shimmering tambourine of percussionist Paris and added guitar are inevitably lost within the traditional vista, but overall it’s a welcome return. “Shut the fuck up,” frontman Thomas hushes to an over-enthusiastic audience, indicating something important about to happen as the band themselves step away from their instruments, leaving just keys player Johnny to accompany ‘Circle Song’. “I’m thinking, I’m thinking some, how the hero always dies young” is poignant as the lyrics are delivered towards the balcony blurring all else into the background. Picking up pace, a couple twirl each other unsteadily among plastic cups at their feet as the gloomy ‘Black Glass’ moves towards its dramatic climax, and Document bassist Max steps forth on harmonica for a rousing ‘Rat in a Cage’.

Hovering in the wings, Dave Haslam watches on before positioning himself at the decks for the night’s latest DJ set. Earlier, psychedelic scholars Astral Elevator, plus Jason Boardman and Jeff O’Toole took to the helm and now, in his Modern Lovers t-shirt, Dave steps up to flip through his CD wallet having famously bid farewell to his vinyl collection a few years earlier. Turning up the gain on bangers beginning with The Fall and Iggy Pop, a small group of Sunday night pleasure seekers force the venue’s sprung dancefloor to work overtime.

Also hard workers, Chadderton’s Dirty Laces open their own set with intent; “If you’ve not seen us before, you have now” tells singer Charlie, because there’s no time left at the end. “We’re halfway through but have just one song left”, he warns before the band plunge into the early Verve guitar sprawl and classic 70s rock refrains of 7-minute epic ‘You’. Hair now released from its scrunchie and stuck to his face, he steps down to join the front row and makes way for his bandmates’ instrumental outro. Upstairs however, it’s all about Intros. Tonight isn’t a politics party but the bard of Cabbage known as Leon The Pig Farmer is raising his own toast for our musical champion; “So deck the halls with Johnny, make your own hall of fame, make your own Lesser Free Trade Hall, be like John, don’t be the same, so let’s gather the reverb nation, applaud on all four walls, mark my words with appreciation and raise a glass for mister John Hall.”

“Life’s changed dramatically and yet it remains the same” offers Cabbage co-frontman Lee as a long-awaited live welcome whilst teetering on the stage edge. Delivering a high-energy set of delightfully grotesque anthems from latest album Amanita Pantherina including angular songs about Jeremy Corbyn and for the second time this evening, transport-inspired woes (this time it’s trains), a swaggering Leon returns and the band recall their own story of meeting mister Hall during Cabbage’s earlier incarnation. “John spied me, he said ‘You gotta be in a band, what you called?’ His response to the initial band name? “Oooh, do you want some psychedelic drugs?” and The Ritz descends into rapturous laughter and applause.

Leaving the night on perhaps an even bigger high, headliners Peter Hook & The Light briefly lure the man of the moment, or rather, an enthusiastic waving groovy arm, from the balcony for all to see. Cradling his low-slung bass with typically wide power-stance, ‘Hooky’ and co deliver a hefty Joy Division set featuring John’s ‘favourite song’ ‘Novelty’, an electrifying audience sing-along of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ and, casting a light from the shadows of a tough year, ‘Atmosphere’ is dedicated to “all those not lucky enough to be here tonight”. But that’s life; it is tough, and the set serves a stark reminder that whilst there will be a time when we no longer see John in the crowd, rest assured our lovable music-lauding laureate will still be around somewhere; perhaps getting a good angle, making more friends from strangers, or even admiring another great pair of socks.


>> Concert For John has raised over £10,000 so far, kick-starting the charity John plans to establish for assisting grassroots musicians at the start of their careers. Current plans include providing free, clean, rehearsal space in Manchester. Check back soon and a link will be added here for how you can support the cause.


NEW YORK – PENNSYLVANIA, USA – FONTAINES D.C. STORM THE EAST COAST

“I wanted real adventure to happen to myself. But real adventures, I reflected, do not happen to people who remain at home: they must be sought abroad.”

James Joyce – An Encounter, Dubliners

The eyeballs of Fontaines D.C.’s Grian Chatten are fixed towards the ceiling. You can hardly blame him. It’s a typical November night in Brooklyn – in September. Just days before, Hurricane Dorian was hugging the south-eastern coastline and nudging ever closer to New York City; its path an unpredictable whirlwind leaving only chaos and destruction behind. All day, the Music Hall of Williamsburg has been hammered by inclement showers and bracing gusts so tonight, as the Dublin 5-piece take to its stage, there’s a very real threat of “tearing down the plaster”  as Grian delivers ‘Hurricane Laughter’; stoking the storm’s eye with their turbulent tones and enough stabs of sonic distortion to leave Mother Nature herself recoiling in its wake.

It’s the opening night of Fontaines D.C.’s month-long, debut North American headline tour and the next phase of the band’s explosive trajectory. Following an emergency culling of their festival appearances since returning to the UK after a momentous SXSW in Austin, Texas and the release of their Mercury-nominated debut album Dogrel, they’re now reaping the benefits of having had a brief well-earned rest. As the thick brogue of Luke Kelly delivering his poem ‘For What Died The Sons Of Róisín?’ resounds through the speakers, the band are called to the stage and with a simple “Good to see you,” tonight’s sold out crowd brace themselves for lashings of frenetic noise that ricochets off every bolthole.

Whipping the congregation into a frenzy through an aggravated release of poetic sermons, Grian blesses each audience member with his gaze and as the tension mounts, they become euphoric. Geeing up the crowd, he wrings his wrists and paces back and forth with controlled convulsions. ‘Too Real’ sees a schizophrenic transformation in the pit from appreciative to cataclysmic, as the mass surge to the left. Phones are hung on to* and stances widened as Grian dons a Peaky Blinders style flat cap likening him to a Victorian baker boy in his shirt-slacks combo. Meanwhile, guitarist Carlos O’Connell launches himself into the crowd; kick-starting a domino effect of fans hurling themselves off the stage and riding a wave into the shadows.

The lone stage-diver repeating such behaviour in Philadelphia the following evening could only hope for such a smooth ride. Part-way between a diner for locals and intimate burlesque theatre with its low red lighting and wooden interior, the second night’s venue is Johnny Brenda’s. Sitting in Fishtown on the corner of a bustling intersection, the city’s Saturday night suburb is neon lit like a 50s film noir. Opposite, late night coffee is being served at Joe’s where the din of the venue’s groups of men drinking into the early hours carries across the street. Commotion and layers of half-conversations spill on to the sidewalk, fuelled by one, two or perhaps even five rounds of Boilermakers.

Upstairs the band have jumbled the previous night’s setlist and as they take to the venue’s corner stage, Grian greets the sea of faces at his feet and those scrutinising from the surrounding balcony with an awkward wave. At the rear of the stage hangs a velvet curtain, strung with what seems to be the clear plastic crystals from a cheap jewellery box, and the room is doused in UV light. Opening with ‘Television Screen,’ it’s an energised set; from the atmospherics of Carlos working the amp, extorting its feedback with each swing of his guitar and beer bottle string sliding, to the hefty punk beat laid down by drummer Tom Coll and Conor Deegan’s thundering bass. Tugging at his baggy stripes, Grian jerks as though to shake off any shred of lingering self-doubt and it’s intense, like watching a band fighting to escape the confines of a matchbox.

As ‘Liberty Belle’ rings out for what could be the city’s adopted anthem (the bell itself, a symbol of Philadelphia), a rogue reveller hugs the monitor at Grian’s feet and struggles with it as he crawls up on to the stage. Predicting what comes next, guitarist Conor Curley is on standby; wearing his white cowboy shirt with fringing and halfway holding out a hand to assist, he’s like Frankie Avalon in Grease’s ‘Beauty School Drop-out’ dream sequence coming to the rescue, until it’s too late. Rising from his knees, the unexpected visitor hurls himself across the room, head-first into the tiny venue’s supporting pillar – taking Grian’s microphone out in the process. The interruption is over as quickly as it begins and apart from a crafty lyrical edit nodding to the fact it happened, the band power on through.

The rest of the set is seamless; the blue hue pulses with the strobe effect of a Stranger Things electrical warning and the band are on fire. Whether over-compensating from the effects of a late night prior, or simply finding their stride, tonight is just better. Everything is wound tighter and cranked up a gear higher. Rubbing his face, banging his chest and dipping his hands deeper into his pockets as if to awaken himself, Grian’s pacing is most noticeable when contrasted by the band’s statuesque shredding. The most affecting moment is ‘Roy’s Tune’; a tender performance showing a band who can do beauty as well as they do brawn. ‘The Lotts’ is suitably gloomy, its spiralling 80s melancholia haunting through beautifully smoggy refrains and Grian breaks out the tambourine for electrifying new song ‘Televised Mind’ – a ferocious cyclone of rhythmic unravelling with dizzying wads of Orwellian dread.

Moving from one skyline to another, the Fontaines D.C. storm is ready to wreak havoc on its next location; both nights’ sets are just under the hour offering a short, sharp, shock from a rising band who pack one hell of a punch. Or to quote Philadelphia’s revered local hero Rocky Balboa, “The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows…” but therein lies a damn good place to start.  

*Not mine. It’s still in Brooklyn… somewhere. Big thanks to my gigging partner-in-crime, Denise, for sharing her pics!

AUSTIN, TEXAS – SXSW 2019: 10 TOP SETS

Returning from SXSW there’s only ever one question; ‘which band was the best?’ After taking some time to reflect (and sleep!) it’s without doubt, this year, the charge was led by British bands… so instead of choosing the best acts of the week, here’s 10 killer sets from around the world that made this year’s trip to “The Lone Star State” so great…

Amyl and the Sniffers – Thrasher x Vans: Death Match @ Weather Up

There’s a storm brewing at Weather Up. On the edge of town, a good ten blocks from the downtown action, chaos has erupted and the pit of colliding human-sized atoms bouncing off each other are being rewarded for their eneavour to one of South-by’s most easterly venues. Call it rage, a tantrum or simple flip out, singer Amy Taylor knows how to summon a storm. Her bandmates create a relentless tirade of 110mph rapturous punk-rock as ignited by the spirit of Johnny Ramone and swilled down with a vodka-infused Gatorade chaser. Yelping in her Aussie twang, “I’m not a loser!” Amy grins as she sings with a mischievous glint in the eye. There’s some chat about poppers, the moshing becomes a scrappy swirl, dust clouds tan the revellers and just like Debbi Harry with the sass and savvy of a guttersnipe alley cat, she launches herself upon the crowd and rides their arms on one giant wave of enthusiasm – a solid celebration from the newest queen of punk-rock, positioning this band as the best kind of SXS-mess.

Ratboys – Stereogum Range Life @ Cheer Up Charlies (Outdoor Stage)

They say you can take a band from its hometown but can’t take the hometown out of the band. And as the clouds gather above the swinging canopy which is gradually picking up momentum over Cheer Up Charlie’s outdoor stage you can’t help but think, from their on-stage attire, Chicago’s Ratboys are right to be tuned to the climes of their Windy City. Standing centre-stage, singer Julia Steiner occasionally glances up to the sky from under the fold of her Chicago Bears beanie and seemingly gives a few knowing smiles to partner-in-rhyme Dave Sagan and the Ratboys live band, before they launch into a rollicking set of honest songs about toxic friendships and taxing relationships from their latest GL (Good Luck) EP. Emitting sweetness through summery strumming, gauzy choruses swell from alt country undertones and offer a hit of serotonin through the grey of the day; fresh, like the packs of free Stereogum gum being handed around the crowd.

Art d’Ecco – Desert Daze + Ritual Events @ Hotel Vegas (Inside Stage)

Apostrophe placement has been a hot topic this week. From The Beths’ Jonathan Pearce talking about spelling of ‘y’all’ to Liverpool’s Her’s declaring at the Brooklyn Vegan party they “know it’s grammatically wrong, but don’t care.” Fellow apostrophe rogues Art d’Ecco are a figment of Lynchian subconscious and the most glamorous of punk-rock dreams. Hailing from the Pacific Northwest, the Hotel Vegas back room is dwarfed by their super-sized Bolan-esque tones and spiky starboy synths. Hook-laden stompers brim with Patrick Wolf pop majesty, Gossip shimmer and Public Access TV indie rock sensibility. That the singer looks immaculate with a raven bob framing porcelain sky-high cheek bones, bold colour to the eyes and lips, and is sporting a shimmering jacket kissed by the mauve and pink hues of the dive bar lighting, whilst three of the most dapper suited and booted band members sway to the beat, makes it all the the better. No-nonsense, just genuinely danceable, straight-up glamorous indie rock n roll with the biggest of hearts. Like being given a naughty VIP pass, the entire room is enticed to join the party in their nostalgic but forward-facing world.

Mike Krol – Hipster Robots Suck @ The Side Bar (Outdoor Stage)

Rocking back and forth in his Elvis t-shirt with one foot on the drum kit, Mike Krol is taking care of business. It’s a good job; most of the crowd who’ve gathered around this DIY backyard stage – complete with monitors on patio furniture – have been awake just a few hours and what they need is a shot of driven and raw garage-grunge adrenaline. Surrounded by band, Mike leans forward in his shades and pulls himself up, holding balance before dropping back off and pacing the stage. A sermon of his sharp take on the world through scratchy Strokes-tinged yelps, Mike tambourine-bashes like he’s secretly powering the band through each track; if he stops, they stop and together they clatter through songs from latest album Power Chords. ‘What’s the Rhythm’ is a highlight, enticing the sun from behind the clouds and transforming the yard into a blazing hot sun trap, keeping it all very cool but igniting a fire for his SXSW debut. “I tend to avoid SX like the plague,” he says, “but I don’t know why. This is a lot of fun.”

Durand Jones & The Indications – Ticketmaster Showcase @ Stubbs BBQ

When ‘screaming eagle of soul’ Charles Bradley passed away he left a James Brown wail-sized hole in the lives of many soul fans. Durand Jones & The Indications might not be able to fill it, but they’re doing their damndest to try. As the sun sets over Austin’s famous outdoor venue, the crowd are hit with the talent of the 7 musicians before them. Durand can hold a breath-defying note to challenge the sustained chords of the organ and his voice effortlessly soars to sooth the most jaded of South-by souls. On ‘Is It Any Wonder?’ the drummer’s time travel-inducing falsetto harks back to a golden age of smoke-filled jazz clubs and just like a tight family unit raised in Daptone’s House of Soul, the skills of each member are given chance to shine. Stepping back into the spotlight after a stint on saxophone, Durand takes the mic and gestures to The Indications’ trumpet player; “we like to play a game,” he tells the crowd, before trying to catch her out in an improvised contest of call-and-response. Fans of Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson or Nick Waterhouse will recognise the band as vintage soul enthusiasts rather than revivalists; a fresh young band who can take a pause as well as they can throw a party.

Dreamer Boy – Vinyl Me, Please: Rising @ Empire Control Room

“Do you wanna go to Nashville?” asks one Zach Taylor, donning his Stetson and grinning before navigating the edge of the stage and joining the clumps of crowd in front of him. Tonight, wherever we find ourselves; his hometown or Austin, the true destination is more complex. Better known to friends as Dreamer Boy, his mellow chillwave is befitting of the stage name as it filters through the speakers and laps upon glitchy Bieberesque r’n’b pop. Singing and flexing wibbly auto-tune alongside synths from right-hand man and Love, nostalgia collaborator Bobby, this stripped-back dive bar set is that of a DIY bedroom set-up, yet Zach’s showmanship shines as he weaves about huddles of curious cats, serenading them with teenage love songs on the right side of awkwardness and sweetness. Wherever we are or wherever we’re heading, this set is one wild trip.

Emerson Snowe – International Day Showcase @ Austin Convention Centre

You’ve got to hand it to Jarrod Mahon, even when presented with the most sterile of spaces, under his Emerson Snowe moniker, he is a pure entertainer. Stood with guitar in hand and only a backing-track for company, he sweetly delivers dreamy nursery rhyme pop to ‘Ballroom G’s rows of chairs, and their occasional occupier. Majestic swan song ‘If I Die, Then I Die’ is a glittery waltz wrapped in a smog of Lemon Twigs splendour and sensitive synth ballad ‘Could You Love Me?’ sees Jarrod showing off his best sides to the cameras transmitting his image across multiple screens surrounding the stage. It’s a tricky set for the Brisbane songwriter but in his world, if the party doesn’t come to him, he’ll take the party to them; when not strumming his guitar, he sings whilst climbing and hanging from the rigging and ducking under the TV monitors, before leaping off, strolling down the aisle, and leaving those in their seats to serenade unsuspecting delegates in the foyer outside.  

The Wants – Quit Your Day Job @ Cheer Up Charlie’s (Indoor Stage)

It’s early days for this Brooklyn 3-piece who’ve been infiltrating the city’s subterranean scene and gradually causing a buzz with the defiant, murky sound of their own rhythmic underworld. Tonight, with an extra member in tow, an unexpectedly short 20-minute set proves only one mission; to leave the crowd wanting more. A clue in the name, perhaps? ‘Ape Trap’ and ‘Clearly A Crisis’ possess the stark art-pop bounce of Franz Ferdinand with the stop-start stomp of Gang of Four, and the bobbing heads of a packed crowd pick up speed as the tracks gain momentum. The set is mostly industrial doom-laden post-punk and danceable guitar grooves powered by throbbing basslines and singer Madison Velding-VanDam’s monotone, interspersed with a side helping of anxiousness and melancholia. The brevity of the set might hint at a lack in material but could only mean one thing; more good things to come.

Avalanche Party / The Blinders – End of Trail Records @ Valhalla

A special moment in the trajectory of Avalanche Party and The Blinders’ careers to date, SXSW was always going to be more British invasion than pilgrimage. A billing featuring both acts would only result in the deepest of war wounds and a trail of destruction left in its wake. Punked-up poets, each perform solid sets, erupting with a blistering and unapologetic gut-punch of monumental proportions. Yet, it’s the surprise collaboration between the two, in tribute to The Amazing Snakeheads’ recently passed Dale Barclay, which is pivotal and emotional. Performing a rousing ‘Memories’ from Dale and his band’s Amphetamine Ballads album, Avalanche Party frontman Jordan, typically bare-chested and sweat-clad after an impassioned performance from within the crowd, is joined by The Blinders’ singer Thomas who swigs from his Lone Star and positions himself at a second mic. Together, the band stir up the Snakeheads’ distinctive stoned groove, and a cacophonic sound erupts, unravelling into bittersweet scenes of beautiful disarray. Dale would be proud.

Fontaines D.C. – DIY Magazine @ Swan Dive (Patio)

“My childhood was small, but I’m gonna be big,” intones singer Grian on frantic post-punk number, ‘Big’ before pacing the stage and shaking his wrists with pent-up energy. Taken literally, it’d be a bold prediction for the Dubliners; building a buzz at the world’s largest music event, particularly with an unreleased debut LP, is no mean feat; there’s stiff competition. But putting similar confidence into their set, the Fontaines frontman roams his invisible cage and surveys the faces surrounding the band. ‘Boys In The Better Land’ is ferocious and the 5-piece hammer through each track with vigour. Through the band’s relentless commotion their usual nonchalance is, tonight, injected with restless spirit; guitarist Carlos stands tall on the speakers, hunched under corrugated awning whilst bandmate Conor shreds his strings with a cig gently resting in his lips. Wearing a baggy pinstripe shirt, Grian’s resemblance to Ian Curtis is evident as he clutches at the mic before adding to the band’s racket with a tambourine in hand, moving their position from big prediction to big premonition.

Honourable mentions (in no particular order): Blushh, Illuminati Hotties, Sharkmuffin, Odonis Odonis, Sneaks, Pkew Pkew Pkew, Cherry Glazerr, TC Superstar, The Beths, Squid, Black Midi, Thyla, Black Belt Eagle Scout, Madeleine Kenney, Viagra Boys, Dylan Cartlidge, Murray A. Lightburn, Anteros, Whenyoung, Samia, Bedouine, Trudy and the Romance, The Texas Gentlemen, Fatherson, The Mystery Lights, Oh Sees, GRÜN WASSER, Sports Team, Gabriella Cohen, Fruit Tones, Her’s, Sweet Spirit…