Thursday 11 August 2016

Sonic Youths Celebrate Their 2nd Birthday at Norwich Arts Centre

Have you ever wondered why Norwich now has such a lively music scene, and why there seem to be so many talented local acts playing regularly across the city's venues? Well some of it is organic - there are bands like Magoo that led the way more than twenty years ago that are still playing today. Guitarist Owen Turner now runs a recording studio in Norfolk where young artists can take advantage of the facilities as well as picking up tips and advice. 

There is a network of artists who seem to hang out at each other's gigs, and many have a loyal fanbase that turn out to each and every show, as well as downloading or buying any recorded material. Once you start frequenting pubs and bars like The Plasterers, The Murderers, The Birdcage, and Gonzo's it is not long before you start recognising familiar faces, both in the audience and on the stage. You also rapidly become aware that edges blur as the folk scene overlaps with the indie scene, which merges into rock, metal, rap and eventually comes full circle into jazz and blues.

Promoters like Barefoot Records, Odd Box, and Ian Hudson (who books acts for The Bicycle Shop as well as Eaton Park Café) act as catalysts, putting artists in touch with the venues, and ensuring that we have a constant stream of events to attend.

And then, of course, we have a fantastic network of individuals and organisations that actively seek out and encourage the next generation of up and coming musicians. No-one can ignore the importance and the help from the likes of  BBC Introducing, but on a local scale we also have Access to Music, Culture Works East, The Garage, Young Norfolk Arts Trust, The Tilting Sky, and, of course, Norwich Arts Centre's Sonic Youths, a regular showcase for 14-19 year olds curated by the legendary Annie Catwoman.

Usually held on a Saturday lunchtime in the Café Bar of the Norwich Art Centre, but having recently ventured to The Chantry for this year's Lord Mayor's Celebrations, and as far as the Inbetweeners Stage at Latitude and making an appearance at this year's Worsted Festival, Sonic Youths provides a showcase for any local young musicians between the ages of 14 and 19. Held roughly every three months, call outs for demos normally appear via the Art Centre, but also on their own Facebook page at . Any genre of music is welcomed, and a typical showcase can include a post-punk band playing alongside a singer-songwriter, an experimental jazz and electronic fusion duo and a hip-hop act. Like Forrest Gump would say, 'You never know what you're gonna get'.

It is hard to believe that Sonic Youths has only been in existence for two years, but, true enough, this month saw them celebrate their second birthday with an evening show at Norwich Arts Centre, bringing together five acts that have graced the Café Bar over the past two years. Having last week felt guilt-tripped into volunteering to man the front desk and ticket office for the event, it was a lovely surprise to turn up at the venue on Tuesday only to find that another volunteer had also turned up and was happy to do the shift. Result! I will get to watch all five acts after all!

The evening started off with Mullally, a young man with an incredible voice who first appeared at the March 2015 showcase, but has since gone on to massive success with the song Troubled Love, which has clocked up almost 1.4 million listens on Spotify. The recorded version comes with electronic samples and beats, but when he played it at the Sonic Youths showcase last year it was just him and an acoustic guitar. Tonight's set is a loose, free-flowing affair with a free-styling acoustic accompaniment, but it is a neo-soulful voice that is so unforgettable, whichever way you hear it. Now a graduate of Norwich's Access to Music, Mullally is playing gigs around London, so we were really pleased to have him back in Norwich for this opening set. 


No sooner had Mullally finished his set and Annie Catwoman and her megaphone are ushering us from the main auditorium and into the Café Bar for tonight's youngest performer, 16 year old Sadie Nencini. Sadie played her first ever public set here just five months ago, and it is lovely to see her back. One thing she will learn about Sonic Youths is that once Annie has you under her wing you will be nurtured and followed every step of the way with a keen interest. Sadie writes her own songs, and has a delicate, almost fragile, voice that combines some heartfelt lyrics with sensitive guitar work. She still has a way to go in terms of confidence, but the fact that she is happy to play in front of so many people at such an auspicious occasion deserves full credit.

Sadie Nencini

Abigail Blake played the first ever Sonic Youths showcase back in August 2014 (you see, Sadie, I did warn you that once Annie gets her claws into you, you will never escape!) and back then she, too, was singing and playing an acoustic guitar over a Saturday lunchtime in the Café Bar. Now, two years later she is back, playing the main stage as a 21 year old alumini of Sonic Youths.

Abigail has been causing quite a flutter around Norwich, with people talking about this exciting female singer who plays harp and loops it into electronic music from a laptop. I was lucky enough to see her supporting Avec Sans at The Waterfront Studio a few months back, and can vouch that everything you've heard is almost certainly true. A former student who went off to study audio production at college, Abigail is now back in Norwich and playing gigs again. Together with Clare (the harp) and an I-Mac (who may or may not have a name?), the result is a captivating exercise in combining a traditional instrument and harnessing its sound with modern electronic sampling and loop work. Add to that a captivating voice and some lovely songs, and you have a unique performer with contemporary appeal. Oh, and a model bracheosaurus. But that's another story.

Abigail Blake

We are ushered again into the bar where the duo of Dominic Trevor and Alex Guy, otherwise known as Jaztec, are set up and ready to go. Dominic is also plays tenor saxophone with Lobster, a local  jazz-funk collective of nine youngsters (plus or minus a few depending on the night) whose infectious rhythms were also featured at that very first Sonic Youths showcase. Jaztec is a new venture in which Dominic's saxophone mixes with electronic soundscapes created on laptops and keyboards by Alex. The resulting blend was premiered in March this year (again, at a Sonic Youths showcase), and has also created quite a stir locally. There seems to be a real appetite for this use of traditional instruments alongside electronic music, and when the technology works correctly it is a joy to hear live.

Tonight all seems to go well, and the set gets a great reception. It must be Dominic's furry squirrel ears that did the trick, or just the karma that comes with wearing your Sonic Youths t-shirt to your performance.


And so to the night's final (for 'headlining' would perhaps be against the spirit of Sonic Youths) act, the awesome post-punk trio led by guitarist and vocalist Jess Page Jarrett, backed up with purposeful bass player Zachary Nunns and energetic drummer Michael Trayhurn. Together they are Midnight Zoo, a band that I have had the pleasure to see play several times over the last twelve months, and leave me breathless with admiration each and every time. 

Tonight's set, with their name emblazoned across the back of the stage amidst mountain scenery, was probably the best I have seen, even if Jess lost his momentum momentarily when a string appeared to break on his guitar. These three guys give so much in their music, and have extraordinary stage presence. People have compared them with Joy Division, which I have always claimed is rather unfair, as it carries the stigma of the poisoned chalice, but I can see what they mean. However, songs like Reproduction, Ride The Tide and An Ode really mark these boys out as a band to watch grow (although Jess certainly does not need to grow any more in height). One of my favourite local bands, for sure.

Midnight Zoo

And so that was it. The first two years, but hopefully many more talent-packed showcases to come. With Craig Hill's Tilting Sky on Saturday, and Tuesday's Sonic Youths showcase at the Arts Centre, I had seen 16 up-and-coming local acts in the space of four days, and whilst it was somewhat of a sacrifice to give up two sunny August evenings in one week, it was a labour of love that I certainly do not regret. I just feel so proud of all the artists that are making my home city's music scene the most exciting that it has been in years. Seek out and support them all, and buy their albums, EPs and singles when you get the chance. It is your patronage that they will initially depend on for their continued success.

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