Sunday, 6 November 2011

28th October 2011: Mostly Autumn & It Bites, O2 Academy, Islington

So, after the excesses of the previous night, I'm sitting there at work in the afternoon when I suddenly get a text from my friend Bob asking me if I'm coming to the It Bites gig that evening. Now, it's been in my gig calendar for months but I haven't got round to buying any tickets yet. I text him back to say I've had a pretty heavy night the night before and that I'm not sure I'll be much fun, at which he probes me for information, and upon discovering I've been at an electro gig and dancing the night away he says "So, what you're saying is, you were E'd up?"

When, half an hour later, I manage to stop laughing at the idea of me on anything harder than M&S extra strong teabags, I decide that I've had such a good time the night before that to stay in watching Dave all night will be a failure of the highest order and mark the point at which I officially become Old and Past It. I therefore buy myself a ticket, and when I'm finally done working for the day I put on my best prog gig outfit of black t-shirt with band logo, Tesco jeans and hiking boot/trainer-type things, and head off towards Islington.

I'm halfway there and attempting to change tubes at Bank (always a bad idea), when I swipe my Oyster card on the ticket gate and I get the dreaded 'Seek Assistance' message (aka the 'You are a cretin who can't use a ticket gate' telling-off.) Trying several more times, I eventually have to speak to someone and he explains to me that I am indeed a cretin who has somehow failed to swipe his Oyster card twice along the way and has therefore already paid £15 for the journey halfway to the gig (nearly as much as the gig ticket.) "What you have to do, you see, is swipe in and swipe out..." Yes, I know, I say, I thought I had done. "Ahh, but you didn't swipe in, did you?" Yes, I did try but evidently it didn't work. "Yeah, well if you make sure you swipe in, then you won't pay so much." I sigh, and follow his directions to the ticket office to get someone to sort me out. "Ahh, you see, what you should have done was swipe in AND swipe out", says the ticket office man. Oh right, I say, deciding that a lecture is probably no more than I deserve.

Maybe I'd have got a more sensible conversation out of this ticket inspector.

Suitably warned about the dangers of not swiping in (the government should definitely make one of those scary 70's-style Public Information films about this), I'm eventually on my way. Unfortunately, it's 10 minutes past Mostly Autumn's scheduled stage time when I finally get to Islington so I decide to skip meeting Bob, Rob, Paul and various other single-syllabled friends in the pub and head straight for the venue.

But wait, who's this handing out flyers outside the venue like some kind of prog-Big Issue seller? Why, it's Matt Stevens, wearing a Burning Shed T-shirt in case we haven't heard that he's now hit the big time and been picked up by the country's premier distributor and online emporium for discerning lovers of quality music. A quick chat about Matt's music, useless record label bosses, and why on earth Lou Reed and Metallica thought this was a good idea delays me even further but it's time well spent.

I will confess right now that I'm not overly fussed about seeing prog-ish / folk-ish band Mostly Autumn. But this is to my shame - I've never actually heard a note of their music, all I know is that they won pretty much all the prizes at this year's Classic Rock Society awards and that I thought some other bands might have deserved a look in. I'm kind of expecting the venue to be half-empty, but no, it's absolutely rammed when I get in there, and the front few rows are full of guys craning their necks to get a better look at the band.  

The reason for this may be somewhere in this (terrible) photo.

I get myself a beer and take my place to have a listen to the band, and blow me down, they're actually rather good. I'm struck by a few things - firstly that Bryan Josh is a damn fine guitar player, and knows how to pen a good tune or two. Okay, so he looks, plays and sings a lot like David Gilmour - but that's no bad thing in my book. Secondly, he really seems to believe in his music and get involved in it emotionally - the last track that they play is touchingly dedicated to his father and almost brings a lump to the throat. Thirdly, they have musicians with real talent, notably Anne-Marie Helder, who stands quietly in the corner all night singing backing vocals and playing keyboards, but suddenly appears out of nowhere during one song to play the most incredible flute solo I've ever witnessed at a gig (ok, so it doesn't have much competition, but still.) 

The third thing is that Olivia Sparnenn (the lady dressed in what a friend of mine once described as a 'spray-on dress') can actually sing, mighty powerfully and with real soul. 
This confuses my whole understanding of the current UK prog scene. I have been known to make disparaging comments about 'Totty Prog' bands and how I perceive that they cover up for their shortcomings as songwriters by getting young ladies in short skirts to entice us ageing prog fans along to gigs (and, of course, nothing could be further from the truth.) But dammit, on this showing, the songs are good, the musicianship is amazing, the singing is powerful AND the skirts are short. I'm confused.

When the set reaches a suitably climactic ending and the band leave to tumultuous applause, I decide that I will definitely be doing some more research into Mostly Autumn, via their merch desk- but I suddenly notice that, contrary to the usual rush to the front after the first band have played, it's suddenly emptying out (I guess John Mitchell needs to start wearing those skirts), so I quickly take my chance and plant myself in the front row dead centre.

And after a short break, It Bites take to the stage. I strongly suspect that anyone who's read this far will know who It Bites are, but just in case there's someone out there who reads this blog only because they enjoy my wonderful way with words (hello Mum), It Bites are what I shall call a Prog-Pop band, famous for a couple of subversively progressive hits such as "Calling All the Heroes" in the 80's, but who split up in the very early 90s never to be heard from again. Until... in 2007, the band (minus their platinum blonde frontman Francis Dunnery), reformed to play some gigs with the supremely talented John Mitchell from Frost*, Kino, The Urbane, Arena et al. taking over on lead vocals and guitars. This was followed up by an excellent new album in 2008 and many gigs, of which I have been to so many, that to me this is the band line-up as it should be.

And now they're back, promoting a new double A-side single, and they come out dressed in their trademark all-white outfits and launch straight into the, um, second A-side, "Wallflower". This is the first time I've heard this song and it seems like an odd choice for an opener initially, as it starts in rather gentle fashion, but then like all good prog songs, explodes into a rifftastic second section which has everyone furiously nodding along and behaving generally like people having a splendid time at a prog gig. 

All in white, all in white you are...

A couple of songs from The Tall Ships have everyone singing along in full voice, not least of all the rest of the band who pull off some pretty amazing harmonies. And then John Mitchell asks if we'd all like to go back to the 80's... well, of course we would. Every time I've seen It Bites, the old stuff has gone down extremely well - and with good reason. The current frontman is every bit as much of a star as his predecessor, hitting the high notes consistently with amazing power, all the while playing some extremely complex guitar parts without seemingly being too taxed by the whole affair. Not only that, but he doesn't just reproduce what has gone before, he takes the songs and makes them his own to the point that you forget there was ever anyone else singing them - except when he makes a point out of it by changing the lyrics to 'Underneath Your Pillow' to "Johnnie doesn't mind if the ladies don't want him..." This last song has always been one of my most favourite It Bites songs and seeing it performed live for the first time is a definite highlight of the set.

A 12" picture disc. This is all you need to know about how awesome this band and song are.

The rest of the band are no slouches, either. Original keyboard player and major songwriter John Beck is his usual enigmatic self on stage, although unusually he is not wearing any kind of hat - but by pulling off the classic solo to 'Screaming on the Beaches' in suitably impressive style, he proves that the headgear is not the source of his powers. The rhythm section, too, of original drummer Bob Dalton and superb bass player Lee Pomeroy ( of the Take That touring band - yes really) are the best I've heard them, driving the band along with their pounding beats and getting the crowd jumping up and down. 

But wait, something's wrong. It's not the band, it's not the music, it's not even the lack of short skirts on stage. No, it's the fact that having got completely wedged in in the front row, I am essentially all by myself and unable to meet up with my friends - fun, but not what an It Bites gig is all about. So about 45 minutes in, I decide to fight my way back to what is quite literally the last row of the entire venue (via the bar), where I locate Bob, Paul, Nellie, Rob and several other people including a chap by the name of Jem from a little band named Frost* who I may have mentioned once or twice if anyone's been paying attention. 

Safely ensconced amongst the IB hardcore, the rest of the evening goes exactly to plan - bellowing along to all the songs with beer in hand and having a great time with friends. Somewhere, several kilometres away down the wind tunnel that is the Islington Academy, the band seem to be having a fantastic time on stage too, and genuinely appreciating the amazing reception they're getting from the crowd on this, the last night of their tour.

With a 10pm curfew so that the venue can kick us all out for Propaganda - The UK's best Indie Night (actually, this sounds pretty good to me), the set is short but sweet and they leave us all wanting more. What's more, the anticipation is set for the new album to come, which, if the two new songs they play are anything to go by, is going to be one of the highlights of 2012. John Mitchell told me on Twitter that it's "amazing, obviously", so that's now a confirmed fact and not just my opinion.

So, as the venue clears, I stick around for a chat with some friends but my heart's not in it, having been at work until 3am on Wednesday and out on E's dancing until midnight the night before. Various pub sessions are proposed but I decide to slope back to Surbiton for an early night, although I later discover through the wonders of social networking that several of my friends ended up in the pub with the band until the wee small hours. Ho hum.

As I walk back alone to the tube, hundreds of vibrant young things are exiting the station in Halloween costumes, off on their way to start their night out. For the second time in two days I'm reminded of my increasing age but I'm not unduly worried. I've had two great nights in a row, and besides, I have to drive to Stratford-Upon-Avon in the morning for the next gig in this amazing weekend line-up.


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