Last weekend the Tyneside-based music development agency Generator teamed up with the Discovery Museum in Newcastle to present a free all-ages gig with seven fine upcoming bands from the region, billed as "North East Beat Unsigned - a celebration of new North East music".
They invited Claire Dupree, editor of the influential local music magazine NARC - plus Peter Brewis from Field Music, and myself - to offer constructive encouragement to the five less established acts within a non-competitive setting. But none of them really needed to be lectured by the likes of us. Perhaps the real reason for inviting Claire, Peter and myself was to point out just how high the local standards actually are these days.
First up were THE ILLUSTRATORS. It's a sure sign of advancing years when not only policemen but even indie bands appear to be getting younger. In appearance they might have superficially passed for a school band - until they walked briskly onto the stage, picked up their instruments and hit the first number like a sledgehammer. No messing, no tuning up, in fact frontman Ali Colquhoun laid straight into his vocal pitch perfect without even needing to check the note. They played the kind of tight, disciplined high-octane set that comes only from a great deal of serious rehearsal. Everyone sang backing vocals and the songs were hooky and to the point, without an ounce of surplus fat. I felt perhaps their best work will come if they can now slacken off that discipline and trust some of their own wilder - and riskier - creative impulses.
Sunderland's THE ANGLO FORM managed to impress without any impression of discipline at all. Having played them on my 6 Music show I was already aware of Andrew Holder's dark, brooding approach to songwriting, and his fierce scorn for pop music and all its works. This was passionate music written with serious intent - Peter Brewis made a comparison with Joy Division's early incarnation as Warsaw - a reference point Andrew himself was happy to accept. It turned out this was his first-ever gig for a new guitar-driven lineup of the band, which perhaps explained some of the rough edges. Drummer Jonathan Winship had a great feel, but it struck me that if he hit the kit about three times harder it would match the emotional intensity of the music a lot better. For the moment this is a band that sounds better on record than live, but it's nothing that a few months of serious gigging won't cure as the new lineup beds in.
It was very much the other way round with PINK LANE. None of the hastily-recorded demos on their MySpace prepares you for fact that their live set is vigorous, focussed and littered with memorable pop hooks. That said, they too suffered from a lack of collective flying hours, caused by their frontman being away in Leeds much of the year. Which is a shame because Ollie Chalkley is a shy, intense performer in the Kurt Cobain mould who provides a natural focal point for the group. He's flanked by the driving guitar and bass of Dann Brown and Tom Hogg who are not only excellent players but possibly the skinniest most authentic-looking indie musicians you'll see on a stage this year. But it struck me that the real motive power behind the band came from the vocals and drumming of Craig Birmingham who frankly ought to be moved downstage as part of the front line to reflect the strengths he brings to the band. But for me, this still seemed more like a blueprint for a successful band - with all the component parts ready to be pulled into place - rather than the thing itself. Again, nothing that a little time and plenty of gigs won't fix, and their songwriting was very promising indeed.
A complete change of pace next. I'd already come across Leon Millar's casiotone laptop instrumentals on his side project LIGHT SLEEP/HEAVY DREAMS, but with VACATION PIONEERS he stands centre-stage with an acoustic guitar in full antifolk DIY songwriter mode. Cellist-about- town Sarah Cawthorne sits on one side and ukelele player Calvin Millar (Leon's younger brother) on the other. The songs reached out and grabbed us from the outset and the vaulted Great Hall of the Discovery Museum was hushed into silence, the audience not wanting to miss a single word. In itself that's a pretty remarkable achievement - as anyone who's ever tried to play an acoustic set immediately after a rock band will tell you. Leon's lyrics ranged from English whimsy to the genuinely affecting - with often startling lyrics ("Always with vaseline on your lips - so that your kisses don't stick"). Huw Stephens and Bob Fischer at BBC Tees have already played Vacation Pioneers - all that's needed now is the recording and marketing expertise of a Moshi Moshi or Domino Records to let the Great British Public know just how good these songs are.
When a group of musicians has spent hours, days and months playing together, it becomes much more than its component parts. BLACK CAB CASINO had all the energy and assurance of a band that's just moved up a gear and gunned the gas. Though their stripped-down trio lineup is just three months old, they gave the daring and exhuberant performance of a band finally hitting its stride. Drummer Graeme Ross could barely contain himself - beating the bejasus out of his kit and constantly leaping to his feet to deal vicious blows at his luckless cymbals. Out front his twin brother Dan nonchalantly reeled off virtuoso guitar parts while singing his heart out. His voice would occasionally pluck impossible high notes from thin air as if for the sheer joy of it, while bassist Joshua Hawick nailed down the sound with his solid basslines. All three sang on nearly every song and - as with the mighty Field Music - made a sound that was massive without being dense or deafening. There are some good downloadable recordings on their Soundcloud page, but the day they capture the sheer uplifting power of last Saturday's performance in a studio, the world will be theirs for the taking.
Finally the tables and chairs were cleared to make way for half-hour sets by two more established bands - both hotly tipped by Generator for success next year.