Live at Joseph's Well on Thursday, 11th January 2001
The room downstairs at Joseph's Well had been taken over by tables and chairs and subtle candlelight. There were two stools on the stage. Guitars with big round holes cut out of them adorned the wall. Time for the dreaded Acoustic Gig!
Acoustic Gigs in a place like Joseph's Well are always a strange proposition because the audience are never quite sure what they should be doing. Is it background music, like on a cruise ship? Or are the performers yearning for the intensity last found at Nick Drake concerts? So there's always a slightly nervous atmosphere because the audience feel guilty for talking while the bands are giving their all up on stage, but there's that kind of awkwardness that you feel when you think you should be talking, but don't really know what to say. The Awkward Silence. However, Thursday night showed that even acoustic guitars can rock. The Acoustic Gig is often thought to be the last bastion of Real Music as well, in the same way as Real Ale is considered the saviour of mankind by many chunky-jumpered and ruddy-cheeked philosophers. MTV's Unplugged series started a resurgence a few years ago in the popularity of stripping down a band and their songs so they couldn't hide behind distortion, effects, 50,000-seater stadiums and Kiss-style pyrotechnics, and had to concentrate on real talent, emotion and the intimacy of playing to a tiny audience. Elton John nearly cancelled his appearance because he found it hard to play almost face to face with his fans. Sheryl Crow would have approved at the Well on Thursday. "Getting to perform in this format, which is taking your music and honouring the song as opposed to blowing up amps and stuff - I think that's a cool way to reach people." She's right, of course: as the two bands (and the audience) found, the intimacy and intensity of such a concert is totally different to seeing three balls-out rock groups blasting out two minute three-chord classics. You miss out on the ROCK at the electric gigs but see a lot more emotion at acoustic nights.
Anyway, THE BOY TATE remind me instantly of a more reflective Housemartins... i.e. The Beautiful South. This is not a bad thing, however: the Hull troubadours have sold a fair few records, and The Boy Tate don't sound like a rip-off band. A duo based in Leeds, they perform light-hearted acoustic pop with a summery feel. They boast a pretty impressive CV as well: The Boy Tate supported Suzanne Vega around the country and have been offered a two-week tour around the San Francisco area. It's no surprise really: they're tight, well rehearsed and talented as instrumentalists, singers and songwriters.
They're also really easy to take in on all levels: the songs are well-crafted yet simple and unchallenging; the vocals are emotional without being screamy or whiny; the lyrics are witty without being clever-clever and the inter-song banter keeps your interest throughout the set. You could say they might ride on the crest of the Coldplay/Travis 'reflective indie pop' wave which seems popular at the moment, but this would be demeaning to the band: they capture the timeless kind of mood which music stopped creating years ago without sounding particularly retro or 'dadrock'.
They had an endearing Englishness to them as well which reminded me of Madness - not that their music sounded anything like the Camden ska-popsters - just because in the same way as Madness couldn't come from any other country, neither could The Boy Tate. The final song of the night, "The Other Way Round" was probably the strongest, the one most likely to be picked out as a single by a record company. A good band, a fun band who would seem to have a bright future ahead of them. Go and see them now before you have to pay twenty-five quid to see them at your local enormodome.
Up next are THE SUMMERFIELD. Not strictly an acoustic band - the guitarist and bassist play electric - but the songs all have a very acoustic feel and at time remind me of Bob Dylan's MTV Unplugged set. If you imagine some of the Eagles stuff with a twist of Beatles and Counting Crows you wouldn't be far wrong. Again, The Summerfield clearly practice a lot but at times it seemed like they really wanted to let rip with a massive guitar chord going KERRRANGGGG!!! but didn't quite dare. The singer had a great voice and knew how to use it, but they would really benefit from one, two or maybe even three backing vocalists.
The Summerfield have a very lush guitar sound, and one vocal sounds a bit lonely over the top. Equally lush vocals would have enhanced the sound hugely. The keyboards had a very Sixties feel to them, also a little of The Charlatans or Inspiral Carpets in there possibly (although these two ripped the Sixties sound anyway).
The songs were inoffensive but sentimental and sometimes went a little over the top with their sentimentality. They were very retro but with a modern touch, and I spotted a few bits of other songs which they had pilfered... Some Guys Have All The Luck by Rod Stewart anyone? Days of Our Lives by Queen? Labelled with Love by Squeeze? There's only so many chords on a guitar though and none of these were direct rip-offs, but you could spot the points of reference occasionally a little too easily. A good use of dynamics means they constantly have the audience listening - none of the songs just went along at one level all the way through. The chain-smoking and impressive guitarist picked out some really tasteful sparse lead lines which were great, especially in the song which the singer described as "the most honest song we're singing tonight" - which was a fantastic ballad about lost love, bringing lumps to the throat of anyone in the audience with any soul.
Two songs which stood out apart from that one, which they didn't announce the name of, were My Sweet Dreams of You, which seemed quite Stonesy-bluesy at times, with some great vocals, and Lover Made Magic, which probably got the best reception of the night.
The Summerfield were a great band, and really professional sounding. I'd never even heard of them before, but if you imagine Four Day Hombre's older brothers (more in attitude rather than actual age, can I add!), you wouldn't be far wrong. Their main problem is that they seem too tense on stage. The singer seemed to open up a bit towards the end of the set but the others didn't look up from their shoes all night. As he pointed out "There's no fuckin' laughs in this set, eh?" It might be worth them looking at the humour of The Boy Tate and paraphrasing it as their own. Otherwise, a good night with two great bands.