I am glad I decided to wait to write this this morning, when I had time to calm down and collect my thoughts. I think if I had written this straight out after returning home last night it would have been a much more opinionated and shouty kind of review (which will be hard to believe if you make it to the end). Two things were on my mind last night, one positive and one not so, and both were stirring me to some kind of reaction.
Firstly I shall deal with the positive. Last night I made my regular way out to The Victoria (in Old Town, Swindon for those non locals reading this). As is typical of many Thursdays nights it was one of Green Man Music’s Songs Of Praise shows. These shows I feel are an integral part of the local scene which is why I am immensely proud to have an association with them. They are free, and mix the best of the local original music talent with bands from outside of the area, allowing them to grow their fanbase away from home. This is something that I wish more places did, booking gigs for a Swindon band as I do, I find it very hard to get meaningful shows outside of the town, promoters and venues constantly worried about the bottom line and insisting bands commit to certain levels of ticket sales etc. As a promoter I can understand this stand point, however you can also take the view that if bands never get an opportunity to build any audience outside of their home area how will they ever be able to sell tickets for your Tuesday night £5 entry gig? I guess in bigger scenes like Bristol and Oxford there are simply more bands to allow you the variety without going to outsiders.
Anyway, I feel one of the reason that Swindon does punch above its weight musically, and have a fair number of accomplished bands and songwriters is Songs Of Praise allowing them the chance to perform in a professional environment, and hone their skills. A group of acts who have been regulars are all starting to make increasing impacts outside of the area and on a national stage with performances at good size festivals, label, PR and agent interest, airplay on BBC 6 Music, good coverage in music press and blogs and increasing numbers of higher profile gigs in London and other cities.
Last night presented locals The King In Mirrors (old school indie influenced) and The Starkers (indie-grungers) acting as the bookends to Londoners Hitchcock Blonde. I am going to concentrate on the filling to this musical sandwich as quite frankly, they were the act of the night and seriously impressed me, to the point I bought their EP (which when you are on an income like mine is praise indeed). First thing that impressed was the music; a hard rocking guitar-led big pile of noise basically. Drawing from a hundred influences from alternative rock like Pearl Jam, At The Drive In and The Red Hot Chili Peppers to more Indie and punk stylings like Husker Du, Madder Rose and Juliette and The Licks, it also journeyed through blues, funk and pop. Vocalist Ella Grace sounds like Florence Welch, Juliette Lewis and Mary Lorson by turn. All the musicians were skilled, and despite them only being a bass, drums and single guitar combo they created a hell of a wall of noise that sounded as if a much bigger band was up there, with lots of clever little touches amongst the big but melodic riffing. Lyrics are by turn cheeky, honest, provocative and serious, any band that includes a Kazoo solo on a song titled Sexy Like You or includes the lyrics “I want you in my underwear” (Animal) has got to be respected!
But for me, the big difference that marked them out as a quality act was the performance. Not minding there was a small crowd for their set they played as if they were onstage at Wembley, really into the music. Ella jumps around like an electrified marionette, shaking hair, flailing limbs with scant regard for her surrounds, the rest of the band grooving with what they were playing, smiling and happy to just be there doing what they love. In short, it was as good to watch as to listen to, and a wholly professional performance that a lot of the “just stand there and play the songs” local bands could learn a lot from.
And that brings me on to the gripe I mentioned earlier. Here we were; some excellent local music and a simply stunning band from out of town, a great venue and sound system and plenty of booze. All the ingredients for a fantastic gig in fact, except one – an audience. Now, Swindon has developed a bit of a reputation for being a bit of a cultural backwater. And people moan about this, they aren’t happy when the Big Arts Day was cancelled, call The MECA a waste of money and time and bemoan the lack of good musical acts that come to the Town compared to neighbours Bristol, Bath and Oxford. But, and here is the crux, are they supporting promoters and venues committed to bringing fantastic music to the town? The sort of acts you can talk about in years to come when they headline the O2 for two weeks and say “oh, I saw them before they were famous and had a chat at the bar and everything”. The short answer is no.
Frankly I was ashamed at the lack of a crowd. It wasn’t raining, the gig was free entry, there was very little else going on in town. So why were people stuck at home in front of the TV, probably saying how bored they are? I do not understand it. Is Swindon perhaps just not culturally developed enough to sustain any kind of music scene, the people who care too few in number and too poor to be truly supportive? It astonished me that the very venue we were in often rates it busiest night each week as Wednesday, when they take a whole £1 off the price of a pint and have karaoke. Seriously, the place is heaving. So it is not the fact it is not a weekend that keeps number down. Does a pound off a pint really make that much difference?
This isn’t just music this is applicable too, as funding is cut across the board to art and culture projects. The defence for this is it is diverted to education. But surely people cannot believe that all education takes place in a school environment? There will come a time I am sure where the promoters and venues decide that enough is enough, there is little point letting their heart dictate their business plan, and the head will kick in, and all we will be left with are pubs and bars doing cheap drinks, sports on TV, team vomiting, karaoke and bar brawls, or those that are boarded up. And generations of people who get their entertainment from small screens, providing of course that is if anyone is left with the ability to make that entertainment. So use it or lose it, before culture, art and real music will be relegated to those rose-tinted memories of “the good old days” and that is a proposition I for one, am frankly terrified of.