Over 100 local music acts applied to be a part of this, the 11th annual Next Big Thing competition, organised by Future Radio with the support of Outline Magazine and Open Live. From these, fourteen were chosen and invited to compete in two semi-finals with three acts from each semi-final, (together with an extra 'wild card' winner), going through to compete in the final on March 5th for a £500 cash prize provided by Access to Music. As well as the cash, it is the kudos of winning such a prestigious local competition that attracts such a high standard of entrants, meaning that both semi-finals become showcases for the variety of musical talent currently based in this region.
Acts were invited to upload a maximum of three original tracks with the applications for entry, although at what stage one becomes primed as being ready to be considered as the 'next big thing' and at what point one's level of recognition and success precludes you from entering the competition is not quite clear. Certainly previous winners of the competition would not be expected to re-apply, hence the reason why a certain Mr Sheeran did not send in his three tracks this year.
I arrive for the first semi-final having only seen two of the acts previously perform live, and whilst each act has its own entourage of friends and family in the audience, it will be the judges that have the final say in who goes through to the final, and their decision will consider the submitted tracks as well as the live performances. For the purposes of this blog, I have therefore included the internet links as made available via the Future Radio webpage, together with my brief notes from each evening and some rather dubious quality photographs.
Ben Male - 20 years old but apparently with already seven albums under his belt, Ben has the privilege of opening the first semi-final. He's a quality act with a great voice, and his opener 'The Drugs Will Kill You' will obviously strike a chord with a pharmacist like myself. It's just a shame that he hadn't had time to come up with a title for his third song, so instead mused on the fact that he couldn't find an orchestra to play on the recording for £5 and a bag of chips. 7/10
The Beelips - Introduced by compère Dean Tucker as Chris and Jamie who 'eek out dark electronic pop with the help of computers', the boys actually perform their three songs with a traditional four-piece guitar and drums line-up, which kind of confuses the hell out of me. Listen to them on Bandcamp, though, and it all starts to make sense. 5/10
Catnip and Claws - Possessing without doubt the best stage name since Roobarb and Custard, electronic 'naughty-step' musician Emma Catnip is suitably attired with cat motifs on her top and jacket as well as on her laptop. Whilst some of her beats don't quite meld together seamlessly, and I had already seen the aerobics video footage elsewhere, there is some enthusiastic grooving occurring in the audience in front of me. The recorded tracks, together with the whole moggy thing going on is strangely addictive. 6/10
Young States - Initially mis-read this one as Young Skates, which may be excusable as their re-interpretation of good old-fashioned grunge and rock would certainly work as a soundtrack to half-pipes, bowls and decks on skateparks across the country. Really pleasing to see an all-girl rock band coming through the ranks - two of the girls have only just turned 18, and one of them already looks and moves like a female Kurt Cobain. Not sure whether they are yet ready to win the competition, but they win me over. 7/10
Clyde Automaton - My God! What a surprise. I'm not the biggest fan of electronic or sampled music, but this guy blows me away. He is the 21st century heir to the throne of Fatboy Slim, dropping dubstep beats instead of big-beat and acid-house, and absolutely loving it on stage. This is so entertaining, I just want him to carry on all night. 9/10
Lobster - I have a lot of affection for Lobster. They have an enormous amount of stage presence, a great singer in the shape of Molly Holdom (although tonight battling against suspected glandular fever), and an infectious enthusiasm that oozes out of sax-player Dom Trevor and the rest of this nine-piece band. Any youngsters that can get it on with classic jazz, funk and soul have my vote for a great live show. Can they make the leap to being radio-friendly as well? 8/10
Savage Island - Another act that I have had the pleasure of seeing live, the first time was supporting the Bosnian rockers Dubioza Kolektiv at Norwich Arts Centre, where they fitted in so well I could not believe they weren't also from the Balkans. There's trumpets, guitars, keyboards and saxophones combining to produce a thrilling climax to tonight's semi-final. But once again, does their charisma extend beyond a live show? 8/10
The judges choice of three acts from the first semi-final was (in no particular order) Clyde Automaton, Catnip and Claws, and Savage Island, and these will appear in the final, which will be staged in Open's main Banking Hall, rather than here in the more intimate Club Room.
Twenty fours hours later and we are back for the second semi-final, and another seven acts all hoping to be crowned Next Big Thing 2016, and receive that £500 prize from Access to Music.
Compèring tonight from Future Radio is Robbie Powell who whips up a frenzy with each and every call to 'Make Some Noise!', contrasting with Dean Tucker's repeated instructions the previous night to 'Go to the bar and get a drinkie-poo!' - it's a game of 'Compare the Compère'.
So these were the acts that performed on Sunday, together with their internet track-links (although some of these tracks may not be those actually submitted to Future Radio) :
Dazy Crown - The name may sound like it should be a female singer, but this is actually a four piece indie band led by Canadian singer-songwriter Thomas Little. Sounds a little bit like Vampire Weekend with neat melodies and hooks delivered pleasantly enough. 6/10
Luke Peter Foster - I do like Luke's gentle blend of spoken word and electronic beats, which occasionally ramp up the angst and emotion with some rap-style couplets and rhymes. The trick is to get the sound balance just right for the live show - his lyrics are too good to risk missing out on. 5/10
Midnight Zoo - It's been a pleasure watching this band develop throughout 2015. Forget the label of being the next Joy Division hanging around their necks like millstones - these lads are increasingly acquiring their own distinctive sound. Brave move to premier a brand new song tonight. 8/10
Aplah - another electronic act, but with an eye very much on the dancefloor with an anthemic set that drops the beats in just the right places. A bit too like David Guetta in places, but just right for cranking up for a banging weekend. 5/10
Maya Law - I first saw 16 year old Maya at a Sonic Youths showcase a couple of months ago, and was blown away by her voice, and the way her songs switch tempo and rhythm so effortlessly. She is so nervous she nearly descends into a fit of giggles at one point, but believe me, she absolutely smashed it here at Open tonight. 10/10
Happy Coloured Marbles - A big entourage of fans present to cheer on this rock band that rise to the occasion with a blistering three-song set that nearly takes the roof off Open's Club Room. Very much in the same vein as new boys from Essex, The Bohicas, Happy Coloured Marbles is a perfect accompaniment to a few lagers down the pub. 7/10
Real Life Charm - This seven-piece 'arts collective' with only one guitar between them are, quite honestly, a little bit too clever and complex for my simple tastes. The sound is almost symphonic, and the vocals delivered with an intensity that demands to be admired. The real 'musos' will love them. 7/10
So after a final twenty minute interlude when the judges compared notes, cogitated and generally scratched their collective heads Kate Roma from Future Radio came on stage and announced that the second trio of acts to make it to this years Next Big Thing Final would be (again, in no particular order) Dazy Crown, Real Life Charm, and Maya Law. She also announced that the seventh act in the final would be the jazz-funk-soul ensemble Lobster, who win their place by way of the competition's wild-card.
Really looking forward now to the final at Open on Saturday March 5th, with those seven acts all appearing on the magnificent Banking Hall stage. Best of luck to all seven.