Posted in SHOFT on Monday 18th June 2012 at 10:06am
Regular readers will know that I make this trip on a near regular basis, which accounts for the disproportionate amount of Scottish music featured here. However, this time around things felt a little different - with the switch from England to Scotland much more marked as we crossed the border. No trace of the Olympics, of the Jubilee, no tattered bunting flapping from the buildings or grubby flags attached to car-bonnets. Nationalism here is a much more serious business, in the face of which the cartoon image of face-painting and "God Save The Queen" is just a bit silly really! In the midst of this the vibrant cultural scene continues to churn out surprising amounts of new, interesting music which is ably chronicled by the likes of Scottish Fiction - a blog and podcast which displays far tighter quality control and dedication than this one, and which is branching out here into promoting gigs with the first Scottish Fiction Presents... night, sitting neatly in the middle of the West End Festival and dovetailing perfectly with the Gibson Street Gala earlier today.
Descending into the bowels of Great Western Road once again, Barrhead six-piece Saint Death cram three guitarists on the Captains' tiny stage, standing at a diagonal tilt to the audience, rather like a modern day Shadows, just to squeeze in. But that's where any comparison with sixties instrumental groups most definitely ends. Initially discordant and brittle, the opening and somewhat epic piece ramps up into a sort of spaghetti-western-meets-horror film soundtrack. The doom-laden drums and portentous bass are overlaid with a rather lovely twanging solo. Its almost unclear if there is a break here, or whether this is a second coming of the initial song, but the punishingly loud piece throbs and pounds dangerously. There are vocals here but they're buried, like a distant howl. Submerged melodies and ear-splitting layers of noise are piled onto each other. It's full of false crescendos and heart-in-mouth crashes. Next up is a more traditionally constructed post-rock track which benefits from melodic keyboard interludes and which spirals into something beautifully noisy and shamelessly indulgent. It eventually collapses into itself gracefully enough, the keyboard returning to see it off with dignity. Finally "100 Times" shimmers in, an initially shoegazey drift with confident, if rather sombre vocals. There's a final, truly sinister vocal interlude before an apocalyptically chugging sludge-rock ending. Saint Death have been something of an eye- and ear-opener tonight and remain a highlight for me. Surely no band needs three guitars? But if you've got them, this is very clearly how to use them.
I've heard quite a bit of praise for Queen Jane in recent times, and exactly as predicted they managed to take up the baton of good, old fashioned Glasgow guitar pop and carry it forward into a new generation. It's angular, gleefully urgent stuff which explodes with melodies and ideas. Scratchy, complex guitar work and an almost furtively slick rhythm section keep everything tight - when the band pauses, they stop on a sixpence and the dramatic tempo changes kick in effortlessly. Meanwhile the staccato vocal delivery harks back three decades to another era of Scottish music entirely. The lyrics though are wistful, and seem to ache for a not-so-distant past where things were just, well....better somehow. Within the space of just their first track Queen Jane are brave enough to throw in a drum solo, a little calypso interlude then a searing burst of noise to end things. "Romance" sets off on a post-Postcard jangle, jittering and careering through frenetic choruses towards an all-hands-on-deck chanted break in the onslaught. When they set their minds to it, these four unassuming gents can make a heck of a noise, but it's always controlled and delivered as an integral part of the absurdly infectious pop tunes. Next up, "Confession" packs all this together with regret-laced vocals, reverb drenched shimmers of guitar and deftly delivered and dizzily complicated rhythms. Recent EP lead track "Denver" is propelled in by a clamour of keyboards before a stomping, pop anthem kicks off. It works through chorus after chorus of stirringly energetic yelping before a choppy, helicopter-blade bass brings in the closing assault. Saving something of their best for last "Fighting Man" is a wistful closer. Altogether gentler, the vocals take a more central role and showcases James McGarragle's talents in reaching for the emotive high notes. The drummer slips back behind his kit for a frenzied close with military beats and bugle-call guitars which befit the title of the track. I can see exactly why people are tipping Queen Jane for bigger things on the strength of tonight.
Decked out in oversized football strips provided by hyperactive drummer and surrogate frontman Niall McCamley, Edinburgh's much vaunted The Spook School bound on stage and rip directly into their urgent, layered punk pop. It's scrappy, gloriously unkempt and delights in its sharp edges, stupidly catchy hooks and sudden off-kilter interludes - in fact I'm pretty sure I just heard them sing "Would you ever trust a band who think Matt Damon's really cool?" to which the correct answer was an emphatic and unanimous "No!". The rhythm section is solid and pounds relentlessly away while duel guitars skitter and scratch, before emitting swathes of feedback and eardrum bursting noise. There's just a hint of The Only Ones in the jagged but soaring guitar melodies and chugging rhythms. A ukelele is broken out for a brief and strangely woozy sea shanty, then an acoustic guitar arrives for the intelligent, clever pop of "Devil Of Mine'. Benefiting from multiple vocalists, The Spook School create a sort of twee-with-bared-teeth call-and-response dynamic which is infectious and probably as much fun to play as it is to watch. During a discussion of their attire, the band explained that one shirt was a Barcelona strip, another a rare Team Canada jersey - but Niall sported a white shirt with "I am footballer" crudely scribed on in permanent marker. With razor sharp wit an audience member asked "Is that not Rangers new top?" to a riotous reception. They close things triumphantly with their recent single "History" in all its urgent, tangled and discordant glory with its perfectly choreographed 'lalala' ending and guitar-hurling exit. It's been a good night for The Spook School and to celebrate Niall is off into the audience, taps aff and wanting to swap shirts or to exchange CDs for sweaty hugs. Somehow he's like the older kid who led the young 'uns astray. But if this is what it leads to, long may it continue.
Opening with a foot-stomping Spanish-influenced number, Michael Cassidy might seem a little out of place at the head of a noisy bill like tonight's, but his cosmopolitan and wide-angle take on the singer songwriter gig lifts him head and shoulders above similar acts. His strength lies in the sheer range of approaches to his material, which veers from scuzzy delta blues to more formal ballads. These switches of style are effortless - Cassidy's guitar playing creating a sparse but atmospheric web on which his heartfelt vocal gently rests. Another of Cassidy's strengths is his inter-song engagement with the spirited audience. He's not afraid to engage, to rib us a little and to draw people into his songs. The audience, annoyingly young and fresh-faced and hyped up by three noisy acts remain surprisingly quiet and respectful, and when they do break into a fit of giggles, Cassidy is on it straight away with wit and charm. It makes for a celebratory atmosphere which fits the sense of occasion perfectly. His closing tune "Fifteen Years" is plaintive, lyrical and strangely upbeat given the unrequited ache at its core - and it garners a rapturous reaction from the audience too, who are calling for another tune the second he takes his guitar off. Initially, I questioned the wisdom of putting the 'acoustic singer-songwriter' guy on last, but having seen Michael Cassidy's way with an audience, it made a good deal more sense.
So it's out into the night for the wander home, with a little light still evident in the western sky. It's nights like this that reaffirm my faith in music and remind me that however dull and uniform things can seem sometimes, there's always a crop of new and interesting bands about to appear from left-field to surprise me and confound my expectations. It'll be a sad day when I'm too old and jaded to appreciate that. Long may Neil of Scottish Fiction keep flagging these artists for attention too. I know from personal experience it can be a thankless and sometimes frustrating game - but tonight is testament to exactly why it's important.
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.