Shy And The Fight, Telford's Warehouse, Chester - Thursday 12 August 2010
This city has no heart. None that you could find without pulling up gravestones, or ripping through the pages of history books. It's a boutique city. Nice shops, nice restaurants, nice people, nice buskers on nice streets filled with nice tourists from the nicer parts of the world. Nice, nice, all too bloody NICE! Great for bringing up kids, or for a day out shopping. A brilliant city to spend a weekend in. Pretty and safe. These are rare and precious qualities. But they're not great conditions for inspiring original and essential sounds.
It's a rock n roll vacuum. At least, that's what you'd think gazing at the faux Tudor façades, the criminally under-maintained city walls, the Blue Peter garden Roman ruins. It's Chester. Famous for Hollyoaks and Daniel Craig. But the moon has a more interesting musical history.
There's no theatre. No mid-sized music venue (although one is rumoured to be being developed). The incredible art deco cinema in the centre of town stands empty, boarded up; but not boarded up like brick edifices get boarded up in Liverpool, say. These are nice boards. No metal grilles. No signs promising sharp canine teeth for the soft fleshy bits of squatters and junkies. The boards used to have the phrase 'Chester Renaissance' stencilled onto them. Very funny.
But peer behind the moribund façade and things are happening. We'll get to some of them in due course.
First, though, you might - with some justification - be asking why I am writing about an English city on a Welsh music blog? Well, it's a border city whose existence was defined by the border it sits on, but it seems to have forgotten that the border exists. Many of the bands here have both Welsh and English members. The small number of venues it does have provide vital out-of-town gigs to many North Walean bands. And Chester - Cheshire as a whole - doesn't have a BBC local station to call its own. It's down to BBC Merseyside and Shropshire, maybe Wales too, to support its talent. But, honestly, it's at something of a disadvantage in that respect, I think.
And I live here. Have done since I couldn't find a house I could afford in the village I grew up in. I gaze wistfully over at the Clwydian Range on my daily walks around the walls.
Interesting things do happen in Chester, occasionally. The Sex Pistols played here and changed Mike Peters' life. My Bloody Valentine, Rapeman, Mudhoney, Dinosaur Jr, The Stone Roses, Mclusky and Coldplay all passed through at some point. Aimee Duffy was a student here and cut her singing chops at a local open mic night. Local promoters like Reprobate, funkdub and, before them, Cat in the Hat, have helped add a more cosmopolitan and urban dimension to this least urban of cities' musical experiences. But - to me - it's mostly about the musical talent a city provides rather than the talent that it brings in and hosts. And Chester's own musical contribution, rather like its current football team's, hasn't even been Conference standard.
OK, I loved Mansun. But one swallow in one summer out of the 60-ish that have passed since the dawn of rock 'n' roll is paltry and inexplicable.
This is why I am surprised to find a whole row of swallows perched on the telegraph line outside my local pub.
It's the second time I've come out for a drink in a fortnight to find my local, which is usually quite quiet on a Thursday night, besieged by hundreds of bright-eyed youngsters. A couple of weeks ago they'd come to hear SCAMS launch their début EP. I didn't see enough of their Vampire Weekend-straddles-Foals' set to review them (but saw enough to draw that asinine comparison). They were very good. As evidence of the no border pollination I mentioned earlier, they're half Chester/half Wrexham. Next time they play I'll write it up properly for you and nab a couple of CDs.
There was more to the energy and enthusiasm of the crowd than it just being mates supporting their mate's band. And that momentum has carried through to tonight.
Shy And The Fight were introduced to me by one of that crowd. A tip-off on Facebook. "Check these out. They're from Chester and they're good" - or words to that effect. In retrospect, I'm mortified at the cynicism with which I initially reacted to that message. 'Good' and 'from Chester' just haven't been synonymous phrases in my recent experience. But the MySpace page I was directed towards contained music that was better than good. And, importantly for my remit, extended far enough over the border (Llangollen) to warrant my 'professional' interest.
They're a multi-legged, multi-instrumented scramble up the precipitous slopes of 20-something hearts, driven along by melodies that'd tan your backside if you dared to flag. There's nothing to buck trends here. We have acoustic guitars, a banjo, a glockenspiel, a melodica. Someone is making interesting electronic sounds and there is percussion. I think. But reducing bands to their constituent parts is like sniffily suggesting Monet and Picasso are similar because their palette all comes from blends of the primary colours. It's how you arrange these sounds and the greater picture to which they are constituent parts that determines the quality.
So, after something of a misfiring start that sounds like an unfinished Tuung b-side, we're treated to some rather unforgettable songs. Chief songwriter, Thomas, looks a bit McCartney and just like that doe-eyed boy, he has a real melodic gift. Look, I'm not saying he's as good. That kind of praise doesn't help anyone. It's just something that crosses my mind as song after song latches onto me like a stickybob. I'm still humming them days later. How often, truly, does that happen?
The band also benefit from a real, easy charisma on stage. Many times in the past, bands from this city have come across as smug, bandwagon-jumping fakers. And there has been a tendency towards the big fish, teensy pond arrogance that distinguishes every crap band from the real deal. Not here. The self-deprecation is disarming and not a false air adopted to try and charm you. The second time Tom says, "we sounded really good in the rehearsal room, sorry about this," I want to run up on stage and shake him: "but you sound bloody great!"
And they do.
They sum up all of the contradictions of this city. They're nice middle class kids doing crappy jobs so that they can persist with their musical dream. They know they come from a rock n roll purgatory. As Tom sings in How To Stop An Imploding Man, "This town needs something catastrophic." Christ, if this place is stultifying for a man of my advanced years, how must it be for someone this young and this talented?
The sing-a-long melodies sweeten lyrics about frustration, death and loneliness - and I know that this apparent contradiction has been the coal that fired the whole rock n roll revolution, and that that seam appears to be running low, but when it's done with this amount of truth, and a welcome lack of irony, it's enrapturing.
They're brave, too.
Some of the songs start off slowly and quietly enough to hypnotise sloths. They don't patronise their audience with a monotonous series of rabble-rousers-by-numbers. It helps give the set a dynamic, emotional core. And now I sound like I'm describing a battery, or something.
There is joy in these songs, a hard fought joy, not the happy clappy, painted on smile type. The penultimate song sees Tom on stage by himself singing plaintively. It's a transcendent moment, despite the fluffed notes that make him grimace. As the song rather collapses, and he is buoyed aloft by the kind of applause you only get from people genuinely moved by what they're witnessing, the rest of the band return to the stage one-by-one and start up an elevating and excellent rendition of How To Stop An Imploding Man.
In many other bands' hands, this would have felt horribly staged. But Shy And The Fight do it with such affability and enthusiasm that it shoots straight to the top of my table of Live Music Experiences 2010.
In Yoda-speak: swept up, I was; excellent they will be if discovered they are.
Of course, the overriding advantage of a bust music industry is that no one's relying on A&R-types with atlases (OK, sat navs) that only feature the major UK cities. Shy And The Fight aren't at a disadvantage because of where they're from. They're as likely to be mentioned by a tour guide in this city as become one.
Chester renaissance? This time, for real.