Sonic boom in B-town

Stephen Pennell watches another two nights of Birmingham’s finest.

Sonic Gun Weekender,
Castle and Falcon, Balsall Heath,
16th-17th August.

The number one showcase for Birmingham indie music, the second annual Sonic Gun weekender, took place at the Castle and Falcon last weekend. I’ve heard the venue address given as Moseley before now, but if I lived in Balsall Heath I’d probably give mine as Moseley as well; cheaper insurance and more tempting for gig-goers not that keen on taking a walk on the wild side.

The area has been cleaned up by the residents though, and its once questionable reputation is now more folklore than fact. The beautifully curated line-up reads like a directory of #madlands, the soubriquet given to the burgeoning scene currently centred on Birmingham, and was enough to tempt my mate Jason over from New Zealand for the weekend.

He’s been radicalised by the videos and streams I’ve been bombarding him with from the other side of the world, and I was confident that by the end of proceedings he would feel that his journey, from where they film Lord Of The Rings to the city that inspired it, was worthwhile.

It must have sounded a bit dodgy as I introduced him to everybody as “A bloke I met on the internet,” but what the hell, it’s 2019. Out of the three of us that were going, the two from Henley-in-Arden and Chelmsley Wood were late, while the guy who came from NZ was on time, meaning we missed a few of the acts, but we managed to see most of our favourites, starting with Karkosa on Friday night.

Half an hour flew by as they skipped through their set, upbeat tunes with choruses as bouncy as the crowd moshing in front of them. Their already massive sound was augmented by, of all things, a trumpet. It worked perfectly, although the five-pronged attack lined up across the width of the stage was a tight squeeze.

Catchy singles Mango Tree, Aurora, and the brilliant, Fratellis-like Red Hoodie went down a storm – it was just a pity that their set was cut short before we had a chance to sing along to the anthemic Sheffield. If I had to sum up their set, or indeed their whole vibe, in one word, it would be ‘joyful’. No wonder South Korea has fallen under their spell.

After appearing way down the bill in 2018 it was a sign of the Clause’s rapid rise that they headlined this year – and what a finale they provided. Tokyo, with its spoken word intro over a hyponotic rhythm and riff, is the perfect curtain raiser and the shape of things to come.

I have to admit that I wasn’t keen on next single Hate The Player at first, but it’s growing on me with every listen, and the hint of Neil Young’s Ohio I hear in the riff makes it a worthy addition to the bona-fide classics they’ve released so far. Talking of classics, Cigarette Kiss could be another one if maybe there was an extra verse and a bridge, and Comedown Conversations already is.

Dig This Beat has the kind of chorus that’s so good you think you’ve heard it many times before by the Arctic Monkeys, or was it the Libertines? I dunno, someone who’s got post-punk guitar pop totally sussed anyway. I’m not a fan of the slow-down/speed-up bit in the middle, but only because I think it’s such a great song it doesn’t need a gimmick.

Sixteen sounds like something Paul Weller might have written in his Jam days. Totemic ballad Where Are You Now stills the crowd into a state of reverential awe (apart from the singalong bits of course) and sparked the realisation that these guys were writing teenage anthems while they were still actual teenagers.

Shut Me Out boasts emotionally mature lyrics beyond their years and for a moment I thought the song’s visceral power had closed the show. Then I remembered that they hadn’t played In My Element yet and they HAD to, didn’t they?

Sure enough, frontman Pearce introduced it with the question “Who wants to hear a top fifty single, then?” Modesty must have forbade him from mentioning that it reached top spot in the iTunes Rock chart, but what a fantastic end to a thrilling performance. I tweeted a while ago that they’re the most exciting band in Britain and as I relived the gig on the way home I was even more convinced.

The three somewhat hungover survivors from Friday (me, Jason and Simon Pitt from the Birmingham Music Awards), were joined by my wife Kerri for part two on Saturday, and we made it a bit earlier this time. The first band we saw were Spilt Milk Society, bringing their beautifully-crafted songwriting skills and accomplished musicianship to the party. They really are a fantastic band to listen to at home, in the car or on your headphones, and their songs Amsterdam, Brunch and She Tastes Like Summer are three of the best I’ve heard from any of the Madlands groups, but for some reason they seemed to leave out their up-tempo numbers and big crowd pleasers – maybe not the wisest policy in front of a big crowd.

I tempted Wifey into coming by telling her The Novus were on – after seeing them live the other month she became as big a fan as I am. Needless to say they didn’t disappoint, but I’m seeing them again at their own headline show next month and I’ve got a feeling I’m going to need all the superlatives I can muster for that one. Well okay, maybe I can spare you one word – electrifying.

They were followed by the wonderwall of psychedelic hair and guitars served up by Lichfield’s Violet, another band I suspect are destined for greatness. Check out the beautifully melodic and ethereal Heaven Adores You and stone-cold banger Feel and I’m sure you will agree.

Sugarthief, joined on keyboards by Spilt Milk main man Harri, brought down the curtain on the weekend with a set that showcased their verve and versatility. Old school White Stripey rockers like When Did It All Go So Wrong were interspersed with the Pink Floyd vibes of their newer, subtler songs Good Luck, I Hope You Make It, Talk in Moderation and Modern Man.

There was sadly no room for their tribute to Brum’s best merchandise shop, Provide, but they finished, as they had to, with the epic, yearning power ballad that is Joy Affair. As always, it brought the house down. It was a superb set and a fitting ending that impressed Jason enough to ensure that a bit of their merch is winging its way back to New Zealand as I type.

The standard of the current Birmingham indie scene is incredibly high, and threatens to eclipse some of the giants of the genre that have gone before. As Toyah might have said, it’s a mystery that when being interviewed on Radio One the other week, B-town trailblazers Swim Deep were reluctant to big up the Brum music scene and volunteer names of the many artists about to break into the mainstream.

Surely it wouldn’t have hurt to shout out the local bands, including Sugarthief, who supported them at their recent Sunflower residency ? Or their brothers-in-arms Jaws, who released a great album this year and whose singer Connor DJ’d at one of the shows? Let’s have it right, I love Swim Deep – my recent review is testament to that. But their reticence in supporting their fellow Brummie bands was a bit remiss. Perhaps, given the explosion in new local talent, the King City icons think their crown is slipping.

Pics – Simon Pitt.