A Monkey’s Shuffle – A review of The Swindon Shuffle Festival

Septembers Ocelot column was a (slightly biased) review of the 2014 Swindon Shuffle festival – the most successful ever according to most sources!

The Racket the Vic 2014Bob Dylan once sang, “the times, they are a-changin’”, a late sixties sentiment hailing cultural change that suddenly seems very appropriate once again within the music scene of a parochial western railway town (there is even a verse especially for us scribblers!) in the aftermath of what has been hailed as the best Shuffle ever. Many of the great cultural shifts are attributed to a singular event, especially in music. Think the Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in ’64, Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock in ‘69, The Sex Pistols gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in ’76, the moment Shaun Ryder and The Happy Mondays first tried Ecstasy.

Whilst it is hard to pin down a single moment at this year’s Shuffle as that point when the crest of the hill was reached, the whole 5 days seems to have kicked much of the lethargy from the towns music scene.

It all started in the build-up, with the usual buzz of anticipation seeming to be louder and more intense, conversations being overheard in pub corners of people plotting well in advance who they wanted to see and where. And then, once it all started, this buzz picked up to unknown levels as the crowds followed like never before, every session on every stage not only being busier than normal, but in the case of the events happening from the Friday to the Sunday being totally full. Had there been tickets for sale the “sold out” notices would have been proudly displayed. For three days!

What follows is a brief review of happenings as seen from my point of view. As one of the organisers of the festival, I get tied up running particular aspects of it so can’t get round the whole thing. As my esteemed colleague Dave Franklin is fond of saying, “the problem with running The Shuffle is that you don’t get to go to The Shuffle.” So, here is what I got to see!

First chord was struck at The Queens Tap on the Wednesday by Skiddy, Swindon’s very own “Man In Black”, his set of melancholic songs performed with a contrasting upbeat style setting the musical bar for the week ahead nice and high. Tamsin Quin was her customary perky self but discovery of the night was Andrew Burke, just home from University and dipping his toe in the local scene. There will be more from him I am sure. An early start then forced a premature exit from the show.

The Queens Tap was the busiest it had been for a Shuffle, and the atmosphere was fantastic, but for me the real moment I began to feel something special was happening was on the Thursday. The night for me was all about my usual Songs of Praise stage at The Victoria, conveniently scheduled this year to form part of the festival. A real smorgasbord of music, The Nightjar kicked things off with a set of swirling psychedelic rock that shows these three young lads have spent a lot of time in their dads record collections. Then, that spine tingle moment happened for the first time as Si Hall took the stage for his first show with a full band. I already knew he had one of the best voices around, coupled with some excellent blue-collar punk songs. But with a great band around him things stepped up many levels. If you like Chuck Ragan, Hot Water Music, The Bronx, Springsteen’s more rambunctious output or Gaslight Anthem then get out and check these guys out (we were assured a band name will happen soon) as you will fall in love with the sound. Simply awesome. As I turned round and saw the full venue behind me I wondered if this was the Shuffle highpoint already?

Straight away I found out that no it wasn’t, it was merely the first of many as Dead Royalties screamed onto stage, leaner, meaner and more aggressive than I have seen them before. Three songs in and the sweat was dripping from frontman Alex, and the crowd were responding to the energy crackling off the stage.

Tough follow for SkyBurnsRed then, in their first gig back after a yearlong break. However, during this break they have recorded their best collection of songs yet, and have obviously been working hard as again that night a band played the best set I have seen them play. Feeding from the now sweating crowd they played with the dynamism, aggression and precision the songs deserved, resulting in a viciously delivered 30 mins of alt rock brilliance.

The night’s headliners Super Squarecloud, gambled by loading their set with a stack of new tunes. A risky strategy for bands at festival on the whole, but totally in tune with this droup, who are never predictable, but always seem to hit the nail on the head. For these new tunes showcased a change in direction for the band, away from some of the more eccentric and erratic sounds and samples and into a more flowing style, still unpredictable but it seemed somehow bigger, and wrapped around you as you listened. Majestic stuff indeed, further embellished by the increase stage craft they exhibit.

Day three for me was also spent at The Victoria, opening with local blues-punk legend Ian Doeser and several members of his Hamsters From Hell band in his traditional opening slot. They staggered entertainingly through some cracking standards, even eliciting a sing-along out of the audience before handing over the stage to a very different set of Musicians.

Wyldest is the latest project from Zoe Mead, and is starting to look like one that will do some great things. The trio’s spacey ambient pop music is very ‘now’, but delivered with such heart and soul it soars beyond all of the current crop of wannabes clogging up blog sites and music column inches. Zoe has always been a great songwriter but now has the perfect vehicle with which to deliver this promise. As the songs swirled around me I found myself totally zoning out everything else around me and just focusing on the band on stage and the sound. Breathtaking stuff.

By the time The Racket provided a wakeup call the place was rammed. Not just full, but properly, sweatily, to the rafters rammed. And when you have a full venue this is one of the bands you want playing, as they thrive on the energy coming back to them. This was perhaps the best I have seen them play, their own brand of sleazy indie-rock getting the room pumped up and frothing at the mouth as band and crowd fed off each other, everything  coming together in a musical perfect storm.

Nudybronque somehow managed to get a few more squeezed into the room for their set, and quickly showed that they had brought their A game too. Their eccentric songs shouldn’t lend themselves to hyped festival atmospheres but somehow they do, with most songs getting loudly sung back at the band as Aiden in particular whipped up the crowd into a frenzy. It is amazing watching how he contorts his angular frame on stage, but, like The Racket frontman Plummie, his stage presence is becoming  a talked about focus that is pushing the reputation of the band to new heights.

So closing this incredible night of music and mayhem seemed to be mission impossible for British Harlem, who were understandably slightly apprehensive about rounding off such a strong line-up. But they saw what had gone before and joined in the whole stepping up of game that had been going on, playing what, in their words was their best show ever, complete with Praise You mosh, sing-a-longs and more sweat. Stunning stuff that was

I decamped to The Castle for the Saturday for a more chilled out show. Opener Luke De-Sciscio has just produced his best record yet, and I was itching to hear these new songs live. Have to say, I wasn’t disappointed. Stripped back to basics they still had the power to move, thanks mainly to Luke’s vocal prowess. His voice really is second to none and as per usual transfixed the growing crowd. Hot on his heels Billyjon ripped into a set of acoustic folk-rock that showed why he has been a fixture of the local scene for years. With a new, fully amped up band on the horizon thigs could get interesting for him too.

Middle act of the night Cook & The Case haven’t played round these parts for ages. And that is something that must not happen again. They effortlessly stole the show with a set of amped up, country and folk inflected rock n roll songs before handing over to Port Erin, who were stripped down to a guitar and bass duo, a situation that changed the dynamic of their jazzy indie, turning it into a smooth lounge style. Different, but no less brilliant.

All through the evening the venue was filling up and getting hotter, meaning that by the time Colour The Atlas were due on, I couldn’t actually get back in the room having popped out for a cooling off break. But, from what I heard from the back, they are in fine form at the moment, with a clutch of excellent new dream-pop tunes. It was the first time I have seen a venue so full you couldn’t even move in the garden….

I rounded off my Shuffle with the closing band on the Sunday, down at The Beehive. The Shudders, who feature James Adkin on drums, the only man on earth to have played at every single Shuffle, were  the perfect closure, their brand of rocked up Americana going down very well in another full to the brim venue. And the final encore tune was so appropriate – a majestic cover of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World”, complete with a pub full of backing singers.

Of course there was so much more going on that I didn’t get to see but that I am hearing great things about, so expect coverage of these acts on these pages soon. With the quality of the music and the number of people coming out to watch at all all time high this was hailed as the best Shuffle ever. Leaving the big question; how do we top this?

The Shuffle team 2014Team Shuffle (Me, Dave & Paj) 2014

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