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.


BERLIN & VILNIUS – CHROMATICS AND DESIRE: A STORY OF LOVE AND LUST

Guitar slung over her shoulder, Chromatics’ Ruth Radalet casts an ethereal stare beneath her blonde bangs towards the hip crowd gathered before her. Tonight, surrounded by the retro remnants of a former theatre in Berlin’s Friedrichshain district, she is commanding and holding their attention with hypnotic spells of love and mystery. To her left, synthpop maestro Johnny Jewel nods as his hands dance upon the keys with the fervour of a marionette possessed.

A glamourous retro-future utopia with Desire in tow, the Double Exposure tour marks Chromatics’ first European shows in 6 years. Before both gangs of beautiful misfits take to the stage, the audience is met with what’s been keeping the band busy as a changing backdrop of neon 80s synthwave artwork depicts every release on Johnny’s vast Italians Do It Better label.

With his raven mane, skinny tie and ornamental teardrops on his face, Johnny Jewel is the gothic-indie antithesis to the melodrama of his technicolour world. Playing bass, and synths balanced on flight cases, he’s a Warholesque enigma; ringleader of his own muse-driven vision, yet creator of music that smoulders with emotion. ‘Back From The Grave’ is a pentatonic dream that ascends into a blissed-out groove and ‘Time Rider’ is ignited by its hefty analog vs. digital static as Johnny seats himself at the electric piano.

In Vilnius’ Loftas, Ruth sings with the grace of Nico through the smoggy disco haze of ‘I Can Never Be Myself When You’re Around.’ The pounding heartbeat of ‘I Want Your Love’ throbs like Faithless as it ricochets off the industrial hooks and pulleys of the former factory. Fans of Lynch’s Twin Peaks are treated to ‘Shadow’ as heard on the show and images of flames, smoke, monochrome zig zags and red velvet curtains appear whilst Johnny bobs to the beat with a fan-flung rose between his teeth. “That’s the first flower solo we’ve had,” he grins.

Falling to one knee and bowing to his singer-guitarist, Johnny thanks Ruth before turning his appreciation to the crowd. “Thanks for coming, mind if we play a few more?” Returning for an encore, the audience fall silent for Ruth’s heavenly acoustic solo of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘I’m On Fire,’ and Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ is given a Chromatic twist to finish. It’s sass, with pure class.

If Chromatics is love, Desire is lust. Singer, Megan Louise appears to have rolled onto Berlin’s Astra Kulturhaus stage across a slick of liquid tar, standing dominatrix-like in a skin-tight rubber catsuit. The devil to Ruth Radalet’s angel, in Vilnius her uniform is pillar-box red, and both nights’ crowds are met with military marching and waving salutes.

Swapping the glass of red she’s holding to pick up a classic telephone, she spirals its wire around her fingers and delivers lyrics down the receiver. “This is for lovers and future lovers,” Megan tells, before launching into the Drive film favourite ‘Keep Me Under Your Spell,’ and a rousing cover of New Order’s ‘Bizarre Love Triangle.’ On keys, partner Johnny and the sunglasses-wearing Heaven, close with a synth duel and hold the fuzz to a swell that could rip the venue in two.

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!