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:: Air Cav :: Beat The Radar :: Spokes :: Lowline :: Run Toto Run :: Jo Rose :: The Janice Graham Band :: Brown Brogues :: Patterns :: Driver Drive Faster :: The Watchers :: Alex Hulme :: Ian Britt :: The Narrows :: A Rookery :: King Tree And The Roots :: I Am Austin :: Glass Ankle :: Weird Era :: Cal Roberts ::
29 January 2011 / Kro and Jabez Clegg / Manchester
By Cath Aubergine / David Edwards

CATH: It's two on a Saturday afternoon and the Friends Of Manchester Festival is about to fling open its doors for the third time, against a backdrop of what can only be described as chaos. This is very much not Friends Of Mine's fault - a large student demo is leaving the university right this very minute, and bands and punters alike are being corralled by police into side-streets...

DAVID: We haven’t even arrived at the Festival before we’re covered in a wash of excitement and tension. Oxford Road is closed due to the student rally: we must disembark. Speculation rises amongst the passengers as to whether we’re about to be embroiled in conflict or kettling. But trudging down past the Universities, we’re relieved to see that the metaphorical dust is just clearing from the afternoon’s student protests, with only assorted banners and flags decorating the pavement to stand as a testimony: the streets aren’t painted with blood. A few assorted protestors still remain, standing around and chanting vociferously about the incumbent government. Say what you want and take whichever side you want; the fact is that it is thrilling to see the youth of the country becoming politicised in a way that hasn’t occurred for many, many years. This can only be a good thing.

CATH: After talking in one of the visiting bands who were lost round the arse end of Victoria Park (happy to help!) a bit of calm is required - so my day kicks off at For Folk's Sake in the upstairs room at Kro, where ALEX HULME (above) has already made himself at home and kicked his shoes off for a set of sprightly, upbeat acoustic-ish guitar pop. Albeit with a rather enormous pedal board. He's got a lovely, yearning voice and he's a great guitarist, using subtle effects to enhance his rich melodies as the sun streams through the window. Thank you Alex, I feel ready to face the day now...

DAVID: Stepping off the mean streets and into the welcoming sideroads, I find myself strolling into Jabez Clegg (which I’m glad to see is still standing, it had crossed my mind of whether someone might see the oversized word “CLEGG” and go on a rampage). Always an odd little venue, it combines the wooden-panelled intimacy of a Czech Pivnice with the sprawling air of debauchery expected from a student haunt. As a music venue, I’ve never been quite convinced - but today may well convince me otherwise: Friends of Mine have chosen to kick-start the new-year with an absolutely cracking selection of bands from the local area and further afield. So as I walk in, I follow my festival instinct and gravitate towards the first sound I hear, which happens to be Sheffield singer-songwriter IAN BRITT. Who has a cracking voice and purveys delightful upbeat songs of blanketing warmth. He also gives us all a good laugh by making reference to “having to look at that fucking huge pig at the back” before final song “Dedicate” - and indeed, Jabez Clegg does have an enormous plastic swine tucked away in the alcove of the main bar. (Why have I never noticed this?? - CA) As you do, of course.

And there certainly seems to be an animal theme going on here, as a sidled step towards the Bar Stage reveals a statuesque plastic bird adorning the PA Speaker which heralds the entrance of CROOKED ROOKS (One of three ‘Rook’ based bands on the bill: what’s it all about?). Who somehow, I’ve never seen before. But god, I’ve missed out: they are absolutely sublime. A fantastic combination of psych-folk shanty pop like The Coral used to do but with a darker, more muscular edge; shot through with memorable melodies, slinky keyboards and razor-sharp Ribot/Greenwood type lead guitar. The whole thing is a total riot; full of stomp and energy. They really do have something very special about them in the way they can combine jangling-pop with dirty blues and make the whole thing swing and bounce with uncontained glee. It may be a coincidence but when they start, the room is pretty much empty and by the time they finish, the place is packed out. Make of that what you will, they’re a triumph.

CATH: The Jabez might be filling up a bit, but as first band on the downstairs Kro stage THE NARROWS (above) find themselves with an audience of your correspondent and friends, two of their own mates or fans, and the sound engineer. A few more are quickly enticed in from the front bar, though, by their deeply strange baroque pop. Phil Drinkwater - looking more like a sort of confused Heston Blumenthal than the musical visionary he clearly is - supplies planet-sized orchestral synths, techno-inspired bleeps, swathes of post-trip-hop atmospherics, a kitchen sink's worth of samples and electronic percussion, and an oddly early-80s vocal - yes, all at once. As if that's not enough he's flanked by two guitarists who like their distortion pedals and rock up some incongruous if rather effective abrasive sounds. And that's before one of them's whipped out what can only be described as a sort of mutant electric ukulele baby guitar type thing. It's not even three o'clock and I have no idea what's going on; this bewildering progressive melee - which goes full-on rock at the end, although with all the electronics still in full force - just really isn't three o'clock in the afternoon music but it's great. Much later, someone will tell me he's not seen a good band on this stage all day, and I'll inform him he should have got here earlier...

As ever it's perishingly cold in the Jabez Room 2, but this shouldn't bother THE WATCHERS, being from the North East where in my considered experience it's always perishingly cold. We've heard reports from up there (the Shields Gazette used the phrase "shock and awe") about the intensity of these lads' live performance and they're not kidding; by half way through their first song frontman Liam Milne is out in the crowd narrowly missing people with his flailing hair and guitar. Their songs are similarly arresting experiences: often understated at first, before you know where you are they're building into huge spirals of early Muse / Radiohead progressive power-indie. (Yeah, I know, that's two "progressive"s in a row: credit to FOM here for not doing what some all-dayers do and palming off the early arrivals with rubbish schmindie mate-rock). By track three Liam sounds nothing less than cathartic as the rest of them provide tribal chants and serious guitar abuse. And it just keeps getting bigger - this is a band with firepower to match their skyscraping ambitions and I wouldn't be surprised if there were a few Floyd records in their closets....

DAVID: A typically entertaining game played by Manchester gig-goers is called “Spot the Cath Aubergine”. She’s usually around somewhere and after a brief search; she is duly located upstairs in Room 2. Along with a band called The Watchers. Who are from my hometown: Newcastle. Now, when I left Newcastle in 2007, the entire city was rife with incestuous liaisons, rates for mates and intriguing-yet-unsatisfying art-pop acts more interested in their hats than the music. So how precisely did this…this thing I’m seeing tonight happen? How the FUCK did a band this fully-formed and exhilarating spring from the muddy banks of the Tyne. The Watchers aren’t just like any other band; they make the point of so many other bands redundant, moot and void. How? In the way that they look utterly natural and comfortable in the spotlight: every cut-glass stare and every freak-out seems totally convincing: a band of like-minded musicians caught in the magic and the moment. And the songs come from up above and down below at the same time; stunning blues-rock with a stratospheric edge and a passing, golden leer at the future. It is immediate and captivating. Above everything, their lead guitarist is something beyond words; the sheer attack and fretstorm of Hendrix combined with Butler, Squire and Greenwood-esque innovation and precision. They knock over beer, they fall on the floor, they spin in circles. And the music is jaw-dropping. There are about 30 people in the room and every single one of them is totally convinced. It is monumental in sound, scope and vision. It makes me thoroughly furious that they’re not from Manchester. Cherish them Newcastle: you haven’t had this good a new band since...well, ever. Welcome to the North: you heard me.

CATH: This quite astonishing set ends with the band throwing themselves, still playing, into a writhing pile-up. In a way, North East bands have a similar problem to that still faced occasionally (although thankfully less so these days) by Manchester bands: a lazy expectation of some geographically-defined sound - and with momentum gathering (they're about to head off supporting The Charlatans on four dates) this could well be the band to tear down that stereotype.

Back to the calm environs of FFS next for the next in today's unusual conglomeration of of rook-based band names (Rook And The Ravens are on later, too). Halifax-based A ROOKERY are on Jayn (The Steals) Hanna's label Faun Records, and share that same kind of ancient moorland spirit, where the music seems to have been steeped in the landscape, although here the folk angle is (not surprisingly) the overriding sound. G. Scott (male) and J. Bromley (female) - yes, that's how they refer to themselves in a curiously olde-worlde fashion, so we will respect that - blend their voices over a rich fabric of acoustic guitars, violin and A. "Smudge" Smith's skilful trick of playing melodica and either bass or glockenspiel simultaneously - I guess that saves on van space. The end result carries echoes of the gentler and more pastoral end of seventies prog (I'm starting to wonder about this, now, you know. "2011 The Year Prog Broke", anyone?) And there's an odd bit of discussion with someone in the crowd about the shopping opportunities in Glossop - not great, seems to be the consensus - which kind of underlines the way For Folk's Sake has always been: friendly and inclusive.

DAVID: KING TREE AND THE ROOTS are warming things up downstairs with a dark twist on classic rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a bit like Nick Cave re-imagining early Sun Studios tracks and it spins out into rockabilly and excursions towards post-punk atmospherics. It’s thoroughly engaging and sonically it is a great mix. They also manage to err on the right side of raw and stop short of being utterly coherent. The ability to remain beautifully chaotic is an oft-used talent in music. King Tree and the Roots do it well.

CATH: WEIRD ERA are very much one of the current crop of local Ones To Watch - so we do, despite the Jabez second stage still hovering around the freezing mark...

Named after a Deerhunter album, releasing loads of tunes before they'd even played their first gig (which took place in a cool promoter's basement) and now largely associated in Mancunian music minds (or mine, at least) with Now Wave flyers, they turn out not to be the annoying hipster project I'd feared. No, Lo-fi grungey alt.rock sounds set to indiepop flavoured tunes are the order of the day here, with everything drenched in so much reverb (by request - we caught the end of the soundcheck) that the singer could be mumbling pretty much anything from under his hood. So that would be Dinosaur Jnr, then?, I hear you ask. Yeah, kind of, although skewed a bit more towards the shoegazey side than they ever were. Always a joy to watch Luke Chase (formerly of some very short-lived MM favourites whose name completely escapes me now as it did on the day) drumming, though - his thunderous enthusiasm driving the whole thing along at quite a pace. He even takes the lead vocal from behind the kit for the last track while the other two pile on so much Mary Chain fuzz I fear for my ears. Filthy stuff, in the best possible way.

DAVID: Following a brief excursion to The Footage for a questionable burger and chips (I never said I was classy; I was seriously misquoted), I am back to catch the end of I AM AUSTIN downstairs. Unless my eyes were playing, it was only a bass player and a singing drummer. And it was nicely ragged and disordered but it didn’t seem to be going anywhere particularly interesting so I head upstairs to catch a bit of PATTERNS who made a seriously striking impression on me last month at Fuel Bar. They still sound wonderfully exciting and gloriously textured but they seem a little bit restrained tonight, possibly not helped by their early (6pm) stage slot. In the midst of a sparse crowd, they try their best to raise the roof but despite their best efforts, the cavernous room swallows up the intrinsic intelligence of their music. They’re still great, they’e still one of the brightest lights inside the M60 but 6pm starts aren’t what they’re about. Bring the darkness; Bring the magic.

CATH: In general I hate the main stage room at the Jabez for a lot of reasons, but it's worth braving for Patterns cos I've not seen them for all of about three weeks... This is, at first, the darker, more guitar and bass driven Patterns than the more electronic version on the EP but the beauty of this remarkable band and their atmosphere-soaked songs is they work perfectly either way. That said, the synth-washed "Fly To New York" sounds absolutely immense here, as does my new favourite "Throwing Stones" immediately after it, and by this point the electronics has crept up in the mix. I don't think I've been this excited by a local band since I first saw Air Cav almost five years ago....

DAVID: Downstairs, Driver Drive Faster are making a lovely noise. And I mean that. They’re the first band I’ve heard for ages to be blending the gossamer dream-pop of Mercury Rev with the head-in-clouds Mew-ness together. It’s all very atmospheric, occasionally to the exclusion of significant song progressions but their sound is beautiful and richly carpeted. The most exciting thing is when they start going chaotic and intense: it sounds like Arcade Fire on acid. Very good, they’ll have some wonderful stuff to listen to in a few months time.

CATH: Back over at Kro I watch a bit of GLASS ANKLE whose indie-ish take on folk is a bit more mainstream than your average FFS fare, but I need food more than I need that, sorry chaps (and chapess). On returning to the Jabez we find The Janice Graham Band playing "No Money Honey" and people having a dance - that was the afternoon, this is definitely the start of the evening. Joe Jones's skankin' bass sounds outstanding here; I remember one of the reasons for my long-held dislike of this place was its notoriously ropey sound but on the strength of what I've seen so far that's been sorted. The trademark monkey-call heralds "You Can Dance", and we do. Not least David who's having a right good groove down the front... Mind you, how many bands, exactly, have a trumpet-fuelled samba tune that rhymes "the devil" with "Gary Neville"? People walk in, look, listen and dance. As ever. Congratulations, you have been Janice Grahamed...

DAVID: Now you all know I like them...I pretty much love them. And tonight, they show how rapidly they are progressing through the developmental stages of a great band. Like Patterns, they’re not helped by an early start time but their response is to smack everyone metaphorically in the side of the head with upcoming single ‘Murder’; which packs enough bass to kick the crap out of the Dubstep community. Listening to them, you wouldn’t contend that they were a bunch of young white kids; they sound like something from out of Lee “Scratch” Perry’s drawer of doom. Joe is truly growing into the frontman role and his voice is taking on a dangerously distinctive tone. There really is no-one like them in any way: the sound, the songs, the swagger. Closing song “Carnival” is just that: an utter riot like the end of Doves' “There Goes The Fear”. I’m standing next to a dancing, entranced girl who sums up the gig better than I ever could. She smiles and says “They just make me feel happy”. Full. Stop. If they aren’t signed by the end of the year then I’m not trusting my brain anymore (thank god Manchester Music doesn’t have a comments section!).

I stop by BEAT THE RADAR in Room 2 who I’m delighted to find have pulled a huge crowd - it takes me a good couple of minutes to fight my way across the room. They’re great as ever but they’re badly hamstrung by the sound tonight: the whole thing keeps getting rudely interrupted by feedback squalls and an air of darkness sits over their typically bright, radio-seducing soundscapes. To their credit, they give their all and battle on regardless. And no sound issues can disguise the quality and promise of their songs. Nevertheless, they look slightly disheartened when they finish but there really is no need – the crowd and the reaction they give tells you all you need to know about how they are starting to infiltrate the public consciousness of Manchester.

CATH: "Charlie, where the fuck's Ben? Ah, we're just gonna start it without half our band..." JO ROSE has this year been promoted from acoustic stage to the bar stage, and his first couple of quiet tunes are fighting against the chatter - but from thereon in it's a full band set - the first he's ever done, he tells us. Well, if he can round them up. Thus, "Balcony Doors" grows into the late-night whiskey-soaked lament it probably always was, with a gorgeous pedal steel crying in the corner. "Maiden Name" sounds more hurt and angry than ever, and when he gets to "California" one of my companions says "I could just close my eyes now and fall into early 70s Neil Young bliss." Which I think is exactly what Jo's aiming for, so I'd call that a success...

DAVID: I catch the last five minutes of Jo Rose - the full band set-up brings out the best in him; a wonderful Saddle Creek fleshing-out of his excellent songs. It really works; keep going with this. Sadly I don’t get too much time to appreciate this new rendering but as soon as he finishes, we’re straight on with CAL ROBERTS on the acoustic stage (they’ve got a nice little tag-team thing going on: as soon as one act finishes, the other starts. Now Cal is wonderfully endearing. Armed with only an acoustic guitar and his fast-talking wit and enthusiasm, he’s constantly swaying, stepping, kicking and generally bringing his metabolism fully to the boil (even on the slow songs). And generally, his songs are excellent. There’s the odd clunky lyric or Enemy-esque cliché but generally, the lyrics are sharp and witty and he’s just a delight to sit back and enjoy. He’s warm, charming and has some generally laugh-out-loud one liners at his disposal (even greeting Manchester Music’s Ged with a cry of “Ah! The Paparazzi are here”) and brilliantly introducing a song as being “About a friend of mine. Who’s a prick”. He can do introspective too: his song about mates fighting in Iraq, featuring the poignant repletion of “Thinking a lot about the future today”, is brief, touching and well-executed. By the end he’s won you over, he’s an absolute pleasure to watch and you can really see him going somewhere if he just tempers some of his more obvious lines. He’s clearly an awful lot cleverer than that.

CATH: It's worth noting at this point that everything at this point is running bang to schedule, which has never happened before at FOM. So it's a quick dash upstairs to catch a bit of SPOKES who remain largely unchanged since I first saw them back at the tail end of 2007. Then, mostly-instrumental post-rock bands doing big soaring Explosions In The Hope Of The States type things were seeimgly round every corner; now they're less so and in a way we can appreciate them more. They do veer interestingly close to Air Cav at times, though - especially on the occasional sung tracks - which is a little unfortunate given that Manchester's greatest unsigned band (having parted company with their record label, and recorded their debut album - currently at the mixing stage - completely independently) are about to make their long-awaited live return downstairs...

DAVID: I’m recovering from a bout of feeling ill and so I unfortunately have to pull out of tonight’s shift, but before I go I have the absolute pleasure of watching AIR CAV return to the boards of Manchester. Hidden away for a while recording their album and recruiting Oisín Scarlett on bass, this is their first performance of 2011. And they are glorious. So many things go on during their sound it’s difficult to know where to start. The obvious touchstone is Modest Mouse in how they blend disparate elements of folk and rock together into a chaotic, intoxicating brew, as well as sharing their love of rapid right angle turns mid-song into something wonderful (they have a great knack of “the build” and how to bring a song to a climax). But there are touches of Mew and The Magnetic Fields in how they can create an electronic-kissed haze of atmosphere, as well as Arcade Fire sound collages (and no, not just because of Sophie Parkes' violin; slicing and sharp through the grind and churn). But the real key; the real skill is how all of this is laid as a carpet for golden pop melodies to tread above the clever chaos; a platform of sound from which all variety of delights can leap. Finishing with “A Call to Arms” is apt: it most certainly is for all crammed inside Jabez Clegg tonight. Their return is our gain; their sound is our pleasure.

Walking outside onto the streets, it’s like a ghost town. The wind swirls and drifts around my head, as if all the energy and emotion is being sucked in towards this particular corner of the city. There is something afoot, there is something a-changing: musically and socially. Could it be that Manchester is growing up? For now, let’s suck in a breath of air and dare to believe it.

CATH: The trouble with a good Air Cav performance - and sometime involvement with the band (hence my forcing the ailing David to stick around long enough to review them objectively; you think it's an easy life being a MM scribe? Think again...) means I know a good one when I see it, and this was - is that it's damned hard to follow. I'd been looking forward to Wild Palms but heavens know what happened there; instead Jonny "Twisted Wheel" Brown is doing a solo set on the main stage and squeezing into the room at all is a hard enough job, never mind getting close enough to actually see or hear him...

BROWN BROGUES are always good fun though, so it's back to Room 2 where the missing link between the unfettered rawness of pre-fame White Stripes (RIP, just, by the time I get round to editing this piece) and the snarly splatter of early Fall takes the form of two permanently bewildered looking lads from Wigan or thereabouts. The wave of hype that's swarmed over the past year around these two spectacularly (and gloriousy) un-hipster-ish looking individuals doesn't seem to have affected them one bit - they still have that wonderful air about them of having absolutely no idea what they're doing, even if that's not strictly the case. This sort of music is often referred to as garage-punk; Brown Brogues are actually quite unusual in that they do genuinely sound like they live and create their music in a garage.

RUN TOTO RUN appear to have lost a member since we last saw them and now exist in the classic electropop "one has loads of equipment, the other puts on the show" duo format - their first gig like this, apparently, and it's a bit of a welcome shake-up to a day that's been very guitar-based for the most part. Mind you it is very bizarre electropop: the breathy-voiced Rachael Kichenside have so easily chosen a path more commercial, but it's the charts' loss and our gain that she is instead fronting this truly warped music.

It's like pop, but from another universe. Pop that's been mainlining Fischerspooner while nobody was looking, and moreover has got you well sussed out. "Did You Hear That?" is a cracking pop tune wrapped up in skittering percussion (some on a synth, some the banging drumsticks together variety) and twisted keyboard sounds - plus a lyric that's gloriously dismissive of some chancer daft enough to try and mess this girl about. In fact you're left feeling absolutely certain that Rachael's brilliantly cutting words are all about real people - and that they probably know exactly who they are and cringe a little when they hear them. It's been absolutely fascinating watching Rachael's development over several years from sweet little folk-pop singer to this vision of stage presence in pink tiger-print Lycra, but enjoyable at every turn.

LOWLINE, meanwhile, have over the same period, progressed about as much as Stockport County. There was a lot of promise in this band when they first emerged - a tense, powerful hybrid of Black Rebel rock'n'roll, post-punk atmosphere and just a bit of trad-Manc swagger, we tipped them for big things and watched as the likes of Nick McCabe (The Verve) and Tom Clarke (The Enemy) did likewise. OK, so that may sound a little irrelevant these days, but at the time these unlikely bedfellows of indie rock were also making noise about the excellent Exit Calm, and people were listening. Lowline shared bills with the Barnsley boys and impressed their die-hard fanbase, but three years on they seem stuck in a rut. There was always, as many reviewers noted, a collision going on here between the laddish and the anguished - "a shotgun wedding between Oasis and Joy Division" as the Guardian once called them (other Mancunian bands are available, no, really...) and tonight, despite the still all black clothing, the balance seems to have shifted - only a little, but shifted nevertheless - in the direction of the former. Their tunes are well-received as ever by the rather blokey throng, and there are still some good ones in there, but they sound like an unsigned band - in the "bring all your mates to Moho" sense - than they ever did back then. If they're happy and their crowd is happy - as it appears to be - then it seems churlish to criticise this, but in the wider world they now seem destined to be filed in the list of bands who never quite lived up to their early promise.

Friends Of Manchester Festival 2011 very much did live up to its early promise. In 2009 the idea of running this many bands across this many stages seemed ridiculously over-ambitious, and so it transpired to be with sets slipping up to two hours behind schedule. This year there was none of that; just a really well put together event which bodes very well indeed for FOM's first "proper" festival in May - with Patterns, The Watchers and The Janice Graham Band now added to that line-up. See you there.

Slightly dubious photography by Cath. Proper photography, i.e. Jo Rose and Brown Brogues pictures, by Ged Camera, along with this rather ace picture of Jim Noir (below) that would have been more relevant if Cath and David hadn't each thought the other was going to watch him. Sorry Jim. Scroll past him for all the web link addresses.

Friends Of Mine HQ
Friends Of Mine Festival, May 2011 - line-up and ticket details here

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