Sunday 30 August 2015

Rope Store Headline Norwich's Tilting Sky Saturday

Emerging from the safety of a recording studio housed within a former nuclear bunker hidden somewhere in Norwich, Rope Store came and set up stall within Norwich Arts Centre on Saturday night as headliners of Craig Hill's 'Tilting Sky' event. For some, myself included, it was the first chance to check out this intriguing group of retro-popsters headed up by a certain Mr Jason. Others seem to have been in on the secret for some time, and are here to renew the acquaintance.

Tilting Sky have, as usual, pulled out all the stops to pack the evening with musical talent. Whilst I couldn't get in to see the wryly-named Tom Happy kick off proceedings, and only managed to hear local four-piece Mallie from the foyer, I was there complete with pint in hand ready to enjoy Sargasso Trio member Emily Winng and her band perform  immediately before Rope Store. I've seen her once before (at Gravy Records Summer Party) accompanied by the band, and the result is a ballsy mix of summery alternative calypso, with a lyrical prowess that really grabs your attention and keeps it throughout her set. Whilst Sargasso continue on hiatus, its good to know that Emily is still out here performing.

Emily Winng

A total of nine musicians take the stage to perform as Rope Store tonight. Mr Jason oversees everything from right of stage on guitar, lead vocalist Gemma Dietrich commands the centre ground, whilst around her the rest of the band arrange themselves, with two saxophones to the fore, and keyboards, bass, drums and guitar squeezed in somehow at the back.

Having heard the tracks that Mr Jason and Gemma have produced down in the bunker, I am already in love with the authentic re-creation of the 60's style that they have achieved by recording straight onto 8-track with analogue equipment and by using just the one microphone. Having got the attention of Tom Robinson, amongst others, with 'Get Me Out' and 'Stop', they have since added the poignant 'Never Too Late To Love', and the gorgeous 'That's Not Good Enough' to the content of their Bandcamp page. Can they cut it in front of a live audience, albeit a friendly Norwich Arts Centre crowd, before setting off to the likes of the trendy Blues Kitchen in Shoreditch in September?

Well, if last night was anything to go by, they'll smash it. Bill, on sound, has managed to get the levels of everything just right, and the choice of retro dressing by some and essential 't-shirt and denim' by the rest creates just that right balance that shouts homage rather than pastiche. We all know that it is the music that is paramount, but neither are we so naïve not to realise the importance of appearances either. Gemma's monochrome outfit of leather jacket, tu-tu style skirt and trainers, brings a contemporary sassiness to the overall look.


Their performance throws in elements of everything from Style Council to Hendrix, and takes in the vocal styles and  60's gaiety of Parisian chanteuse Françoise Hardy as well as Swinging London's Marianne Faithful and Motown's Diana Ross. But in the same way that Sundowners and Melody's Echo Chamber take the psychedelic pop influences of the 20th century and spin them into a current seam, Rope Store have that contemporary appeal that should go down a storm with the hip city slickers of London Town. Personally, I loved everything about them.

We will find out how they fared in Hipster-land when they return to play The Murderers in Norwich on October 9th.

Buy some, or all, of their recorded tracks via their Bandcamp page at , and keep up to date on social media via or

Thursday 27 August 2015

Kid Wave Headline Pony-Up at Norwich Arts Centre

I always look forward to the Pony Up nights at Norwich Arts Centre. I don't always know a huge amount about the headliners, but know that it will always be something worth listening to and something that is trending down in London Town, so it keeps me on my toes. There will also be a couple of local acts supporting, and often stuff going on in the bar. All in all, for an admission price of around six quid, and a limited edition poster sometimes thrown in for free, there are far worse ways to spend a Tuesday night in Norwich.

This week I was particularly excited. Not only had I seen the headliners Kid Wave before, but I knew they were dead good and had released their debut album, 'Wonderlust', only a few months ago. Also, support was coming from local favourites Claws, plus the debut of Graceland, a band formed out of the ashes of Fever Fever, and before that, The Brownies. 

There's a good crowd in tonight, and Claws open to an appreciative audience. I've seen them a couple of times over the last year, and whilst lead singer Josie's vocals can be a little screamy at times (she only seems to operate on one volume - loud!), you cannot fault the energy and enthusiasm of all four members. The songs are all strong enough that you certainly remember and recognise them next time around. 

The buzz and anticipation around Graceland's appearance is frenetic, and guitarist Ellie is still frantically scribbling notes down on scraps of paper just before they go on stage. Understandably there is a large contingent of friends and family present for the debut, a practice run for their upcoming appearance at Bestival. Despite the apparent pre-stage nerves, they did not need to worry. The set is a blinder, with atmospheric guitar and keyboards, pulsating bass and steady drum work all powered along by the girls' vocals. Think Interpol meets Joy Division - rocking rather than indie, but pushed along by harmonies and strong melody.


Kid Wave take over for the final hour, and do not disappoint, although it was a shame that not all of the Graceland support hung around for the headliners. Still, that was their loss. Not the longest set, as is often the case when headliners are still promoting debut albums, and it admittedly seemed to take a couple of numbers to settle into a stride - maybe they were also taken aback by how good Graceland had been. Very different in style, and certainly taking inspiration from the 90's guitar bands that we all loved so much, this is a revival that has already seen the likes of Wolf Alice take the festival season by storm, as well as bands like Slowdive coming back with a vengeance. Great drumming from Serra Petale, almost hidden in the shadows at the back of the stage, lively bass from Harry Deacon, leaving front-woman Lea Emmery to share guitar duties with Matthias Bhatt. 

Sometimes a little static, but with flashes of energy at the appropriate points in each number, it is the songs rather than the stage performance that carry this set, leaving me to muse that the soundcheck and the actual album both surpassed the live show. A shame, because with a bit more engagement and commitment, they had the potential to be so, so much better.

Kid Wave

'Wonderlust' is available now on Heavenly Recordings, and Kid Wave have a website at . They are touring throughout September.

Graceland will be at Bestival, then no doubt back in Norwich at some point. In the meantime, listen to their blinder, 'Jackdaw' on Soundcloud over and over again at

Claws are on Facebook at , and also have an EP to listen to on Spotify

Monday 24 August 2015

Youngblood Brass Band - Killing Me Softly with a Sousaphone

I have always had a soft spot for brass bands ever since Tara Fitzgerald picked up her trumpet and played 'Orange Juice' with on-screen ex Ewan McGregor in 'Brassed Off'. I had a bit of a wobbly when the Hanwell Band teamed up with Terry Wogan for that infamous version of 'The Floral Dance', but got over it and added CD's to my collection from the excellent Canadian Brass and our very own Grimethorpe Colliery Band. Them were the days. Men down pit, showering at end of shift, then playing brass in spare time. Margaret Thatcher soon sorted that one out.

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that a brass band could combine my guilty pleasure of brass arrangements with a contemporary twist on punk, jazz and hip-hop. Enter 'The Youngblood Brass Band', self-styled masters of 'Riot Jazz' from Oregon, USA.

Apparently they played here at the Norwich Arts Centre eight years ago in 2007, twleve years after getting it together as a group of students at Oregon High School. Amazingly, as they take the stage tonight, the vast majority are still from that original lineup.

After six album releases ( seven if you include 'Better Recognize' which was released under their original moniker of 'One Lard Biskit Brass Band'), and twenty years of their touring as a band, tonight is my night to become 'Youngblooded'.

It is an imposing lineup that amasses on the modest stage at Norwich Art Centre - trumpets (x2), saxophones (x2), trombones (x2), sousaphone (x1) and percussion/drums (x3) One of the drummers, David Henzie-Skogen doubles up as vocalist / rapper, and introduces all the songs. That's ten in total. In a tour bus. On tour. From the US of A. Playing to a sold out venue capacity of 260. Do the maths.

Not my problem. I'm a music lover, not an economist. But it does explain why the merchandise was mentioned so many times during the set. We were all encouraged just to buy a poster to help prevent the band from starving. On a more positive note, it was unusual, yet pleasing, to see sheet music arrangements on sale amongst the CD's and T-shirts. The Youngbloods have always encouraged participation in school bands, and will often perform workshops and masterclasses for young musicians. Even tonight's support act, local favourites Killamonjambo, were quick to acknowledge the influence that the group had on them after seeing them perform in Norwich in 2007.

Starting with a cover of Chaka Khan's 'Ain't Nobody', The Youngblood Brass Band go on to rip their way through an incredible set of numbers, each sounding better than the last. The playing, the arrangements and the sound balance is all superb, and we are dancing from the off. It is hard to give justice in words to the atmosphere of a Youngbloods gig. Yes, it was a hot night and a packed stage in the Norwich Arts Centre, and the packed auditorium were rammed right up against the monitors, grooving, clapping and waving arms in the air, and that type of ambience always guarantees a good night. But when you add such a high level of musicality and passion, then you have all the ingredients for something quite special. During instrumental numbers the band sweated and we danced. When Henzie-Skogen comes forward to deliver lead vocals the vibe changes towards a  fusion that can be reverentially described as James Last meets The Beastie Boys, or Sergio Mendes meets Eminem. This is certainly not a novelty clash of musical genres à la Floral Dance, but a full-on authentic mix of hip-hop, punk, rap and jazz - a brazen masterpiece of  how to 'get-on-down' with a sousophone and a trombone.

By the time the encore came around we had all danced ourselves silly and experienced one of the best nights out in ages. It was left to the band to play out an encore of their version of Roberta Flack's 'Killing Me Softly With His Song' before checking out the merch stand. My God, these guys deserve to eat!

And if you ever get a chance to see Youngblood Brass Band live, go! I promise, you will not be 'Brassed Off'.

Check out the Youngblood Brass Band's website at to find out details of upcoming gigs, and details of all music releases, including the latest CD 'Pax Volumi'.

Saturday 22 August 2015

The Stray Birds at Norwich Arts Centre

Fresh from their huge success at this year's Cambridge Folk Festival, where they performed three sets to wildly enthusiastic crowds, it was no surprise to find that The Stray Birds' visit to Norwich Arts Centre was a sell out, with all seats taken and standing room only at the back. This Pensylvanian trio have released two albums and an EP since their formation in 2010, and are still a new name to many UK fans of Americana, Bluegrass and Folk. However, the fact that a number of tonight's ticket holders were also at Cambridge shows that they are developing a loyal fanbase as well as rapidly winning over new audiences.

There is no support for tonight's show, so instead we are treated to a double set, or as Alan Hanson would say 'a game of two halves'. This allows for a relaxed pace, plenty of laconic chit-chat between songs, and a chance to meet fans in the bar during the interval as well as after the encore.

For those, like myself, who have not seen The Stray Birds before, there are a couple of things that become immediately obvious, and the first is that they are not all birds. The trio consists of Maya de Vitry on fiddle and guitar, alongside Charlie Muench (with whom she played in middle school orchestra) on double bass, and Oliver Craven (with whom Charlie played in a bluegrass band before meeting Maya), also on fiddle and guitar. The second thing is that the stage is arranged with just a single condenser microphone for vocals. Regardless of who is singing lead (and there is a lot of swapping and shuffling of position for this throughout the evening), the harmonies, and also Oliver's guitar picking on the resonator, are balanced not by the sound desk but by their proximity to the microphone. Anyone who saw the fictional Soggy Bottomed Boys singing in the Coen brothers film 'O Brother Where Art Thou?' will immediately get the picture, and also an idea of one strand of The Stray Birds style of playing. But their style also encompasses elements of jazz, swing folk and blues, with each genre infused with beautiful three-part harmonies and cloes-matched arrangements. This is singing and playing by three individual musicians who know each other's style and thought processes inside out.

It has to be said that I only recognised a couple of tracks from the evening, both from the latest album. They opened the first set with the lively 'Adelaide' and closed it with the title track 'Best Medicine'. In the second half there were more self-penned songs, but also a couple of covers. Almost by way of an apology it was explained that 'I Wish It Would Rain' was written by Nanci Griffiths in Texas, and did not refer to an English summer. Later, the Jimmie Rodgers classic 'Blue Yodel #7' gives Charlie a chance to show off some vocal gymnastics. What is impressive with The Stray Birds setlist is how well the covers blend into their own compositions, the transition is almost seamless - a credit to the authenticity of their songwriting as much as it is the contemporisation of the covers.

Understandably, after encouraging us to tip up our folding chairs and dance a two-step in the aisles to 'Sabrina', and to whoop after every reference to having 'got a little busy in the bedroom', an encore was inevitable, and duly given. In an impressive feat of Appalachian cross-tuned fiddling, Maya and Oliver lead us through three final tunes - 'Give A Wildman a Life', 'Bellows Falls', and 'Waitin' On A Hannah', with Charlie bowing the double bass to the slower second number.

With another five UK dates before heading off to Europe The Stray Birds are set to increase their fanbase even further before returning to Pensylvania. I, for one, have already added both albums to my wish-list, and look forward to seeing them return again to Norwich Arts Centre.

To learn more about The Stray Birds check out their website at

The latest album 'Best Medicine' is currently available to download from i-Tunes at the bargain price of £4.99, where the eponymous debut album, and the 'Borderlands' EP are also available.