Monday, 17 December 2012

16th December 2012: It Bites / Frost* - Scala, London

And so to what is probably my last gig of the year - the fourth "sort of annual" Frost*mas AGM. ("Sort of" annual in that it happened once in 2008, skipped 2 years and then picked up again last year - I don't think there's an actual word for that.)

This year's event is billed as "Frost*Bites" - supposedly a double-headline set from Frost* and It Bites - a John Mitchell fan's wet dream and a quality night out for any discerning lover of modern, pop-infused progressive rock. It's the first Frost*mas gig not to be held at The Peel in Kingston, which is annoying when you live in Kingston and moved there deliberately to be near all the Prog, but also leads to the most odd experience of having an actual paper ticket for a Frost* gig, and security which doesn't consist solely of a ginger boy in a hoodie.

Tickets number 001 and 002 - 
sadly retained by overzealous security staff.

I wasn't actually meant to be writing this. I'd decided weeks ago that since I wrote about last year's Frost* AGM at ridiculous length, as well as reviewing It Bites twice already in the last 14 months, I'd give you all a rest.  I mean, how many synonyms can one man find for 'amazing'? However, as so frequently happens when I go along to gigs with the intention of not reviewing them, within 30 seconds of the band coming on stage, things start happening that I just can't stay quiet about, the phone comes out of my pocket and the notes begin.

Also I suppose I did promise to "take the minutes" again, on the condition that I didn't have to organise dinner after last year's fiasco - and sure enough, extra-curricular activities have been taken out of my hands this time, with a pre-gig meetup afternoon at the Craft Beer Co, not 5 minutes away round the corner. It's a lovely, cosy pub with a wonderful atmosphere and proper beers - until about 50 prog fans descend upon the place, driving out the locals. Within 10 minutes, prog sweat is dripping down the windows, due to a combination of London drizzle outside and the warming glow of Frost*iness inside.

The afternoon's meet up is ace - with many familiar faces, lots of new ones too, and a couple of famous/infamous ones, including Tinyfish scaryman Rob Ramsay, who arrives wearing a hand knitted black jumper with a white Frost*erisk on it, worryingly not created as a joke, but a present from his mother bestowed way before there was such a thing as a Frost*erisk. I suggest that all it's missing is a little drip, to which he pulls a face and says he'll refrain from commenting.

Photos by James Allen - the first person to get his pics up 
(mine were mostly rubbish as usual)

There's even the opportunity to recreate a photo from Frost*mas 2008, when a few of us met for the first time, and are all sitting around the same table for the first time since. Some of us are a bit thinner, some of us are a lot fatter. Bert is even a bit more cheerful, but pretends to be grumpy for the sake of continuity.

Anyway, after a couple of pints, we start to wonder when we should head in the direction of the venue, and I hit upon the bright idea of checking various social media outlets to see whether hardcore Frost*ie, Frost*vent calendar mastermind and actual giant, Pete (aka Pedro) is already in place and standing guard over the queue. Sure enough, 3 minutes previously he's announced that there are already 10 people waiting for the event of the year, so Karin and I judge that it's definitely time to make a move. Various people ask us where the heck we're going and look at us like we're mental, since doors aren't for an hour.

Arriving at the venue, it looks like we've made the right move - the queue has already tripled in size since Pedro's update, and it quickly fills up behind us. We end up in the queue along with regular gig friends James, Sarah and Rob, plus Celebr8 co-promoter and short-wearing legend Geoff Banks. There's also a guy a couple of places behind us who looks spookily like someone I know from work, who I briefly catch sight of, and ponder upon the resemblance. (It's not until I get an email the next morning asking if that was me in the queue outside the Scala that it even remotely occurs to me that it might be him, since we all know that you don't meet prog fans in the "normal world".)

Doors open bang on 7 as promised, and the mad dash for the front begins, made more difficult than usual by the fact that the venue seems to have been designed by the Ancient Greeks and is a never-ending labyrinth of small passages and staircases. Will we end up in the VIP area or the ladies loos? All part of the fun. Luckily we do eventually make it into the main room, more by luck than judgement, and it evidently takes us longer than most since we emerge, blinking, into the place where all the magic happens (that's the gig room, not the ladies' loos, in case you were wondering) to find that a couple of people who were still in the pub when we left are already there. Still, as always, half the people who queued up for an hour with us have made a beeline for the bar or the merch stand immediately upon entry (I will never, ever understand this phenomenon, or stop being grateful for its existence) so we manage to grab a spot at the very front and wait for the fun to start.

Yes, that's an ironing board.

There are several things about this gig which are uncharacteristic of anything organised by Jon "Twang" Patrick, but the prompt 7.30 start is both the least expected and the most welcome, given that we're quite rammed in and it's getting a bit warm. The lights dim on the stage, revealing that the musical equipment and Jem's ironing board (don't ask) are all festooned with twinkly fairy lights, and then a familiar stomping sound heralds the arrival of...


... who've updated the excellent 'intro song' from their 'Philadelphia Experiment' live album for this evening's purposes ("We came all this way  / on the M25 / it took us all day / cause the traffic was shiiiiii-iiiite"),  and it has us all in stitches before the band come out to a massive roar (I expect I claimed last year there was a massive roar but there are literally 3 times as many people here this year, so this is a proper massive roar. Innit.)

The traditional 'What-ho!' from Jem announces the start of the set and then they head straight off into Hyperve... what? They don't start with Hyperventilate? Well, there's another break with tradition - no, instead it's time for a brand new song, something which with most bands is an excuse to bugger off to the bar, but Frost* fans have been so starved of sustenance in the 4 years since 'Experiments in Mass Appeal' that any tasty new morsels are pounced upon with excitement. So much excitement that two rather over-eager and possibly well-lubricated chaps a couple of rows behind me start bouncing around all over the place, falling into people and knocking drinks flying. Perhaps they think they're at a Slipknot gig or something (or insert actual hardcore gig experience here - as you may realise, I have no idea.)

Oh, the new song, yeah - well, it's called 'Heartstrings', apparently - and it's a bit flipping good. But since I didn't record it and I am blogging this hot off the press, I've beaten all the Youtubers to the punch so I can't listen to it again to give you any more info than that. Except to say that it was quite heavy in parts with some crunchy riffs, and sounded like a natural continuation of the EIMA sound - except to gig buddy Sarah, who thought it sounded more like Milliontown. Not sure which of us had more beers and can be trusted, so best wait until you hear it yourself.

'Heartstrings' comes to a close and Jem heads over to his ironing board - a reference, I do believe, to one of Jem's favourite sayings, that playing keyboards usually looks about as exciting as doing the ironing. It does look like he's about to start pressing Bob Dalton's shirt for the It Bites set, but (the scamp), he's installed some kind of gadgetry in the board and triggers some nice electro-sounding samples, which the rest of the band jam along with a bit before leading into the inevitable but extremely welcome 'Hyperventilate'.

Being the first familiar song of the night, it's here that you realise how far the band have come since the early (ramshackle, charming and fun) days. I think I said last year that Nathan King on bass and Craig Blundell on drums were the missing pieces of the live puzzle, but somehow even since the last gig and on only a few days' rehearsal, they've managed to surpass themselves. Both halves of the rhythm section really start to come alive tonight, making these songs their own instead of trying to replicate the albums, for the first time that I can remember (a feeling later backed up by Blunders himself online). I really start to appreciate their own playing styles, rather then worrying about whether they're playing the exact same notes as on the studio recordings (never easy to do with the tightly structured material most prog bands play), with Nathan bringing a slightly funky edge to some parts and Craig stamping his manic drum and bass-influenced style at the same time.

You again? I thought I told you to stop stalking me.
 No, I don't care if you write nice things about me. 

Third song of the night is another new one - yes, that's twice as many new songs as we've heard in the last 4 years. Monsieur Godfrey, weez zeez new songs you are reallee spoiling uz. I believe this one's called 'Fathers', and starts with a sample of a small child talking softly before our eardrums are blasted with another Godfrey mega-riff straight out of the 'Pocket Sun' book of songwriting. In fact, there's more than a hint of 'Pocket Sun' about much of this song, especially Craig's drum parts (or perhaps that's just the beer talking.) Like all good prog songs, there are quiet bits with nice harmonies in amongst the chaos, and it sounds like it'll be a monster track to get to know at home, away from the distorted monitor-only mix at the very front of the stage.

Fan favourite, and my nomination for one of the top 3 prog tracks of all time in the Dead Nobodies XmasX poll, 'Black Light Machine' is up next, always a highlight of any gig, featuring as it does not one, but two of the best guitar solos of all time from star of the night John Mitchell and the usual breathtaking keyboard shreddery from Jem, who even plays the ironing board with his nose just before the "And you know..." section (aka "Milk it Godfrey, milk it...") 

Amazing though this is, I become rather distracted at this point by a pair of hands tenderly massaging my shoulders. Checking that Karin is still in front of me, I gingerly look round to see just how lucky I've got, only to see one of the drunk pair from earlier using me as a leaning post to get a better view - I suppose he thinks that in return, the least he can do is relieve some of the obvious tension points in my neck. This is just about tolerable, although I do make sudden violent movements every so often to see if I can make him fall over, and he eventually releases his loving grip.

My attention returns to the music just in time for the 'big banana' section of BLM, my traditional time for a spot of jumping up and down on the spot, however after 2 bounces, I remember that I've gone for the looser fitting trouser this evening due to anticipated beer consumption, and swiftly realise that my jeans are falling down  - something I'm quite keen to avoid given my new friend's close proximity behind me. The rest of the show is therefore a little more subdued on my part, though up on stage it's anything but.

Before we can get another song in, it's time, as always, for some arseing about (literally in this instance as it turns out.) "Did you know, that before they stopped making Speak & Spells, they briefly moved production to Birmingham?", asks Jem, prompting a mixture of laughter and confused interest from the crowd.

Jem's love of buggering about with electronics is well known, and this Brummie Speak & Spell is just the latest in a long line, but it does prove an excellent catalyst for some typical Frost*mas merriment, as the Speak & Spell asks Jem and Blunders in broad West Midlands-style to spell various words, which they do, using the keyboards and drum pads. "Frost Monkey Trumpet Arse" then becomes a jolly little trio for keys, Octopad and audience, in which the audience plays the part of "Arse" when prompted with significant success. Some duelling/showing off between Jem and Blunders in their usual fashion rounds off this section, before the Speak & Spell breaks its programming, and tells them to "Get on wi'it" - which Jem obliges by hammering out the riff to 'Dear Dead Days'.

It's another tour de force from the whole band, which I enjoy very much for the most part, but we're just getting to the emotional middle section when I realise that someone seems to be trying to steal my Oyster card from from my back pocket - they're doing a pretty poor job of it, too, as they keep fumbling about with one pocket and then the other. As the tone of the fumbling moves away from "inept thief" and veers dangerously towards "Jimmy Savile", I turn around and glare right into my drunken friend's eyes with a look which says "there are only two people I allow to grab my arse, one is in front of me, and unfortunately Simon Godfrey couldn't make it tonight". I'm not sure if he gets the exact nuance, as I don't recall ever seeing such a blank, vacant stare from any living creature, but it seems to work anyway, and I go unmolested for the remainder of the gig.

Actually, the remainder of the gig consists of just one song, but before we can get to that, there's the small matter of the traditional band intros, never a dull affair, but this year Jem surpasses himself with a "rawwwwk" intro for King Nathan, whose bass lights up in appreciation (not a euphemism), and then the traditional "John John-Je-John-John" Toreador song for Mr. Mitchell, which we all sing with gusto. In the middle, though, we get one of the most hilarious things ever seen in King's Cross as Jem dances across the stage to greet Mr Blundell, Gangnam Style- surprisingly accurately. I have a sneaky suspicion that more rehearsal has gone into this than the rest of the set.

In between pants (of the lung-related variety), Jem announces that we've come to the last song of the night, which I can scarcely believe since we've only just begun, but it is at least a biggie - the early classic and none-more-prog 'Milliontown' from the album of the same name. There are amazing, understated vocals in Jem's typical style, amazing guitar and keyboard duels, amazing explorations of the bass guitar's range, and amazing, impossible drum fills from the Blunderbot. (See, I told you I was out of synonyms for 'amazing'.)

In fact it's at this point that I realise that I've been staring at Craig Blundell pretty much solidly for the majority of the set so far. Yes, it's easily done when he's right in front of you, but then again, there's a reason I'm drawn to that side of the stage - there's nothing like watching a phenomenal drummer at close range, and Blunders is one of the best. Crazy time signatures? Pah, he laughs in the face of any time signature you can name (and hundreds you can't.) Patterns only previously thought playable by drum machines? Yep. Ridiculous fills every couple of bars which raise the standard over and over? You bet. In fact, I would happily go and watch a whole gig of him just playing drums - as these lucky folks at the Gadget show live witnessed the other week.

It's not 'Milliontown', though, without the "oboe" solo during the quiet section in the middle, with its customary man-love moment, as John crosses the stage, to play Jem's keyboard and gaze lovingly into his eyes. And it wouldn't be a Frost* gig if it passed without humorous incident, so Jem has thoughtfully programmed the sound of dogs barking onto the key required for the last note, which causes John to giggle like a little girl.

It's also at this point that I notice that a piece of fluff from the Santa hat Jem was wearing at the start of the set has become attached to the stubble on the back of his head like a mini-mullet- a fate which also befell his ex-bandmate Jim Sanders at a previous Tinyfish gig, and makes me strangely happy. The song eventually reaches its many climaxes and fake endings (not before he's changed the lyrics of the last section to "My lovely Scala..."), and finishes with a roar absolutely befitting to what we've just witnessed. 

Let's hope this year is finally the year of Frost*'s third album - which sounds like it will be well worth the wait - and there are more chances to hear these amazing songs live, to watch Craig playing, and for me to get my arse felt up by more middle aged men.


Frost* setlist:

New Song 1 (Heartstrings?)

New Song 2 (Fathers?)
Black Light Machine
Dear Dead Days
Band Intros

It's at this point that there's a choice to be made. We have possibly the best spot in the house, from a visual point of view anyway, but we desperately need a drink. Looking at the crowd and assessing (correctly) that there's no way either of us will make it out and back again, we decide to relinquish our position to the It Bites "even-more-faithful" and head out to the foyer, where we get our drink and have a quick chat with Nellie at the Merch Desk (buy the calendar - it's for a good cause and it contains several of our friends and their photos!).

And then...

It Bites

... start playing, so we decide to go back into the room and watch from the back. Not that that proves to be an option, as we go up to the doors and realise that the lucky people who have made it in are so tightly rammed that the doors won't even open. We therefore head off to take our chances in the corridors of prog, to see where we end up.

The design of the venue is actually really good fun, because you never know where you'll find yourself - if you're lucky, like some of our gits... er, I mean friends, you'll stumble across the VIP bar, with a large window onto the stage from up above the throngs, the sound piped in directly from the mixing desk, and prog celebs like Matt Stevens and Kavus from Knifeworld to chat to. If you're unlucky, like us, you'll find yourself in the topmost bar, which is 90% empty, zero queue at the bar, comfy sofas... it'd be lovely if there were any way to see the stage from here - sadly those more proactive than us have bagged all the spots by the balcony so no such luck. It becomes apparent that the venue's advertised capacity includes having 150 people in this bar, all of whom are currently in the main room.

So it's back downstairs to try again, and we do manage to sneak inside at the back just in time for 'Plastic Dreamer' - a Christmassy classic, as John Mitchell in his second role of the night describes it. And so we stand for a few songs, just listening to the band, which actually proves to be excellent fun as they're sounding the best I've heard them so far. Nathan King is on bass, also on double duties tonight, giving a welcome boost to the rhythm section and knocking rock-solid if unflashy drummer Bob Dalton up a notch or two. And John Beck, of course, founder member, key songwriter, keyboard wizard - there wouldn't be an It Bites without him.

Or I'm assuming that this is the line-up, I can't verify that because this is my view:

For all I know, JM's being backed up by Daniel O'Donnell and Anne Widdecombe on Uzbekistani nose flute.

Luckily Karin finds a little raised hobbit hole in the wall at the back, in which she can just about stand with crooked neck, and we pass a nice half hour in an odd role reversal where she towers above me watching the gig while I examine people's scalps for nits and listen to the excellent sound mix (apparently at this venue you can either see, or hear good sound). The best bit of the gig for both of us are the blistering renditions of some of the best tracks from this year's amazing 'Map of the Past' album (spoiler - it's on my end of year list), starting with current single 'Cartoon Graveyard' (as played by Dermot O'Leary on Radio 2 - surely the crowning achievement of anyone's career), and moving on to 'Send No Flowers' and proggiest song on the album 'Meadow and the Stream' with its funky time signatures and widdly keyboards.

Sadly at this point Karin's neck starts to complain, so we forgo 'The Wind that Shakes the Barley' for a bit of fresh air, and are just contemplating heading home when I hear the opening strains of something awesome. "That's... they're playing... what is that?", I start blabbering. "Once Around the World!", calls Nellie from across the foyer - but it's too late, I'm already running for the doors back towards the action. 

And so I spend the last 20 minutes of the main gig in aural rapture as intense as my ocular deprivation, rocking out to the keyboard solos of It Bites' finest epic on my empty Diet Coke bottle, singing loudly at the back of someone's head and ooohing and ahhing as I spot bucketloads of fake snow being unloaded onto the band's heads. It's bloody ace.

Oh, you would raise your camera above your head
at the exact same time as me, wouldn't you? Git.

And that, for me, is where the gig ends. As I head out to collect Karin and get on our way, I hear the band start up 'Kiss Like Judas', which I assume is the last song, but I fully expect someone to leave a comment now telling me that Jem comes back on and him and John Beck play the whole of 'Relayer' with Widdy on the spoons.

It's been a cracking night, and I'm happy for Twang, managing to sell 800-odd tickets this year compared to the 250-odd people at last year's Frost* Peel gig. Either It Bites have lots more fans (probable), or there are lots more prog fans willing to buy tickets for gigs at Central London venues where you can book tickets online and you don't have to get back from Norbiton at midnight. I'm going to say both - it looks like the House of Progression is going places. (Let's just hope they're places where everyone can see, eh?)

It Bites Setlist:


The Big Machine
Plastic Dreamer
Yellow Christian
Cartoon Graveyard
Send no Flowers
Meadow and the Stream
The Wind That Shakes the Barley
Once Around the World
Kiss Like Judas (how come It Bites get an encore, eh? I thought this was a double headline gig... huh? HUH?)

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

5th December 2012: Ben Folds Five / Bitter Ruin / Alicia Witt - Brixton Academy

1999, what a cracking year. I was living in Paris for 6 months of it, during which time I broke up with a spectacularly psychotic girlfriend (hiding in the bottom of a wardrobe after a fight, anyone?), gained a 14-year old stalker, developed an unhealthy crush on my German flatmate, and made it impossible for myself to return to the 20th arrondissement by getting drunk on my last night and throwing unwanted frying pans and other household items out of the window into the street at passing cats.

Oh, and there was some kind of business with numbers around the end of December that left us with The O2. But I'm a bit sketchy on that.

December 1999 was also the last time that Ben Folds Five came to London Town, making it a full 13 years, as Ben reminds us tonight. Which is a bit rude, especially since, as he tells us near the start of tonight's set, London has always been good to the band and they love playing here. (No, of course he doesn't say that every night, why would you even ask that?)

They were riding high on the back of their career-defining statement and best-album-you've-probably-never-heard "The Unauthorised Biography of Reinhold Messner", a concept album of sorts and one which didn't quite set the charts alight despite the Gigging Forever seal of approval. In fact I distinctly remember the bloke in Richard's Records in Canterbury telling me that my copy was the first one he'd sold. Mind you, Richard's Records in Canterbury is now an Italian sandwich shop, so who's sniggering now, record shop bloke?

Even the cover just oozes "underrated classic". 
Go on, have a listen.

I'm a little bit hazy about what happened to the band after 1999 but the next thing I knew, Ben Folds was touring solo with Neil Hannon (of the Divine Comedy - what I wouldn't give to have seen that show), then there were solo albums and collaborations with Nick Hornby, and solo shows which I didn't make it to, for reasons I know not.

But now they're back, and ready to prove they're still relevant in 2012. Will it be a nostalgia trip or do they still have something important to say?


My companion for this evening is my good friend Rob, who's known me since we were both 11 years old (but somehow hasn't escaped.) I would tell you more about him, but I'd have to kill you. In fact I'm not even allowed to know anything about him that's newer than 1996. I assume it's still his Saturday job at Hollywood Bowl Margate which is keeping him so busy, so I try not to ask.

Anyway, Rob manages to make some good friends in the queue outside whilst waiting for me, as the BFF massive prove to be quite a friendly lot. I exit Brixton tube to several texts of increasing urgency...

- Are you there yet?
- Err, there's two queues...
- Are you there yet?
- Are you there yet

The tone of the last one suggests that someone's life is in danger, so I chivalrously decide to assume that's it's his, and do break into a moderate trot in the direction of the venue, not easy to do when you're wearing a giant overcoat and scarf to protect yourself against the close-to-zero December night. When I finally do come around the corner, I'm greeted with a hero's welcome: apparently Rob's new friends have been following the saga of "does this guy really have a mate who's bringing his tickets or is he in fact some kind of mentalist?" with some interest.

The running turns out to be a good call as I arrive at what is almost the front of the queue with only a few minutes to go before doors open, and pretty soon we are stationed right down at the front staring directly at Ben's piano. Sterling work from East Kent's foremost shoe-sprayer.

We don't have long to wait before a rather striking redhead comes out and sits at the aforementioned instrument, launching completely unexpectedly into something rather Rachmaninov sounding, with note-perfect precision. It's extremely impressive and Rob and I turn to stare at each other, eyebrows raised in pleasant confusion. The concert pianist turns out to be...

Alicia Witt

... although it takes a few songs before we find this out. You've probably seen Alicia before, even if you don't know it - she was a child actor in 'Dune' and 'Mr Holland's Opus' amongst others, as well as having been in various episodes of 'Law & Order : Criminal Intent', 'The Mentalist', 'Friday Night Lights', and much more. Apparently she's also a shit hot stand-up comedian, or so Ben tells us later.

I'm sorry but my phone failed to take any usable photos tonight
so you're stuck with other people's. 
Which is a real shame in this case, obviously.

Oh yeah, and she can tickle the ivories a bit. And it soon becomes apparent that she's a rather fine singer, too, as she casually brings her piano piece to an end and says 'Okay, here's a song'. The CD I buy after the gig and various Youtube videos I check out later reveal a slightly country-pop-ish tint to her material but when it's just her and Ben's piano, getting intimate up on stage, it's classic singer-songwriter stuff. I'm almost ashamed to say that Rob and I both agree after that it reminds us of some of Billy Joel's really early material - I'm not sure this is something anyone necessarily aspires to, but given that the two of us originally bonded over songs like 'Piano Man' and 'Falling of the Rain', I can assure you it's intended as the highest of compliments. There's just something about her furious playing style on a couple of the songs which puts me in mind of 'Summer Highland Falls'. Plus, when you're sitting at a piano and singing songs, it's a bit hard not to be reminiscent of someone else who famously sits at a piano and sings songs.

Just when we start to think there's no end to Alicia's talents, she reveals a hitherto unknown weakness in the wrist department by completely failing to open a bottle of water, and having to call for a roadie to come and help her. But no roadie help is forthcoming, instead Rick Moranis appears from stage right and comes to her aid... or perhaps it's Ben Folds, I'm not quite sure.

I ain't afraid of no Highland Spring...

Alicia seems genuinely surprised to see Ben coming to her rescue, although I'm slightly suspicious that he's just coming to check on his piano after the pounding she's been giving it. I needn't worry, given the treatment I see him doling out to it over the next couple of hours.

Sadly there's only time for a few of Alicia's excellent (and in some cases deceptively angry) songs before she has to vacate the piano stool, but Rob and I are both extremely impressed and pick up her live CD on the way out, in lieu of being able to make it to tomorrow night's solo gig at the tiny 12-Bar Club in Denmark Street, tempting though this is. 

No sooner has Alicia left the stage than some figures emerge from the shadows and start setting up for...

Bitter Ruin

... tonight's second support act and definitely the most wonderfully intriguing thing I've seen in a long while. Things start well when I notice that a cello is being tuned, which is always a plus point in my book - never enough cellos at rock gigs (and the more tuned, the better). Aside from the guest cellist, Bitter Ruin is a duo comprised of guitarist Ben Richards and vocalist Georgia Train (middle name presumably 'Midnight') - so far, so student union open mic night.

Photo: Bitter Ruin Facebook page / 
Jenny May Finn Film & Photography

Opening song 'Gentle Man' starts nicely, with some minor strummed arpeggios bringing to mind a slow tango, and Georgia's breathy, controlled vocals begging us to stop chatting and listen up. And then, from out of nowhere comes what can only be described as a primal scream from the very depths of her soul - only it's an actual pitch-perfect note. And another. And then another. This girl has the lung capacity of a deep sea diver and the raw power of a market stall trader, only rolled into something way more melodic than it has any right to be. I look around to see that I'm not alone in being completely stunned - I'm not sure I can tell who's loving it and who's hating it, but one thing's certain, she can't be ignored.

All the words I want to use to describe Georgia's vocals would normally conjure up horrible mental images when applied to singing: screeching, wailing, yelling, bleating, even yodelling now and again - and yet somehow she manages to reclaim them as something not only listenable but downright mesmerising. She brings to mind at various points Regina Spektor, Anja Garbarek and Kate Bush in equal measures, but without ever sounding anything other than utterly original. I'm always loath to join the X-Factor bashing-bandwagon (way too easy), but I'm sorry Louis Walsh, THIS is what being 'born to sing' sounds like.

Photo: Bitter Ruin Facebook page / 
Jenny May Finn Film & Photography

And just when you think Ben is simply Georgia's back-up guitarist, we come to the second song, 'Trust' -  (a link to the video is right there for you but it's also available as a free download from their website, and I urge you to go and have a listen for yourself.) Starting with flamenco-ish style guitar (something of a feature of their sound and even their image to an extent), it's not long before Georgia's dramatic, piercing vocals are loosening the audience's earwax. But what's this? The chorus knocks things up several gears, with frantic guitar thrashing accompanying call and response vocals between the pair - and then Ben takes the second verse and reveals himself to be every bit as accomplished a vocalist as his partner, in a more earthy, bluesy way but just as powerful.

Photo: Bitter Ruin Facebook page / 
Jenny May Finn Film & Photography

Frankly I could sit here raving all night about Bitter Ruin, but I expect you clicked on this expecting to read something about Ben Folds Five, so I'll have to leave it there. Suffice it to say, however, that over the course of the 6-song set, I'm turned into something of a convert, especially by closing number 'Child in a Seacave' which is apparently the song which got them the gig with Ben, and is the closing track on their new EP.

The 4-track EP, by the way, entitled "The Rocket Sessions", is highly recommended, containing as it does 4 amazing songs showcasing both the soulful and crazy side of the two vocalists, and some fine guitar playing (and cello too, for those who enjoy such things as much as I do.) It also reveals some of the bizarre subject matter and sweariness which turns out to be a huge characteristic of their output once you get it home for a little cosy one-on-one action. But do you know what the best thing is? We actually get to hear both Georgia and Ben's voices unencumbered by the studio trickery which is usually applied to excellent live vocalists to make them sound bland and generic on record. (Or, if it's there, it's at least not audible, which I suppose is okay.) Yes, I know, I'm a grumpy old man, but seriously, I'm fed up with enjoying people live, then buying their CDs and finding their unique and powerful voices have been fed through the 'constipated robot' tool.

The last words have to go to Stephen Fry - not someone I often disagree with in any case but this time he's got it nailed.

"Initially rather disturbing, but ultimately brilliant!"

Photo: Bitter Ruin Facebook page / 
Jenny May Finn Film & Photography

Bitter Ruin Setlist:

- Gentle Man
- Trust
- The Vice
- Tom Thumb
- A Brand New Me
- Child in a Seacave

Two excellent acts already down and we've almost had enough value for our money, but there's only one name on the tickets, and it's...

Ben Folds Five

... who manage to provoke levels of adulation I'd thought impossible outside of a One Direction concert, simply by appearing on the stage and grinning at us - but to be fair, we've waited a long time for this. We nerds need our role models, too, you know.

I found loads of awesome photos of the gig by Rachel Lipsitz at this site -
  but no contact details to ask if it was ok to borrow them.
Loyal readers, I am taking the risk of legal action to bring you the best review possible
, I hope you appreciate that and go check out the site for more snaps. Rachel - loving your work.

The set starts in rather subdued fashion, with 'Missing The War', a majestic and haunting quiet piano-based number, and it's a nice chance for both band and audience to warm up their vocal chords, ahead of what might be considered the first song proper - 'Michael Praytor, 10 Years Later', from this year's comeback album 'The Sound of the Life of the Mind'.

Right back at the start of this blog (you remember that, right, it was when you still had hair and everything was made of wood?), I wondered whether we were in for a night of pure nostalgia or if BFF could be considered a rejuvenated and current band again. Well, if the crowd reaction to the drum intro to this album track is anything to go by, I'd say they're still relevant to their fans at least. In fact, far from being a travelling oldies jukebox merely paying lip service to the new album, they play the vast majority of it tonight, and every song is greeted by the faithful like a long lost classic. 

From the aforementioned celebration of friends lost and regained (during which said friend Michael Praytor actually emerges from behind the mixing desk and comes onstage to wave at us), to angry break-up song par excellence 'Erase Me' ("Do me like a pro and taze me..."), which has a rocking extended outtro during which Ben thrashes the crap out of his piano- so exciting I have to take my scarf off.

And then there's the bouncy but bitter 'Do It Anyway', with a rollicking drum beat from the rocksteady Darren Jesse, and the beautiful 'Sky High', which sees bassist Robert Sledge pick up his upright double bass for the first time tonight (yes, it's like a cello only EVEN MORE AWESOME.)

Yeah, that's Robert but that's not a Double Bass.
Rachel didn't manage to get a picture of the Double Bass. I dunno, Rachel...

Ahhh yes, the other members of the band. It's tempting to wonder, when Ben Folds has been playing live all through this band hiatus, playing BFF songs, why it's such a big deal to have the band back. Isn't Ben Folds pretty much interchangeable with Ben Folds Five?

Well, this is answered pretty swiftly with tonight's first "hit", 'Jackson Cannery', which reminds us what a rock solid rhythm section the "other two" really are, and how much of the band's style they're responsible for. Power trios are trios for a reason, and that reason is... well, there are three of them, yeah... no, that reason is that they make an enormous sound without needing anyone else. I've seen many good drummers but I've yet to hear one with such a big sound from such a small kit as Darren Jesse - firmly rooted in the rock style with big old fills but with proper swing.

And Robert is the foundation of this sound, tight as anything down at the low end (ooer), with some amazing bass runs and a lovely crunchy tone which rattles the fixtures and fittings of this lovely old venue. And as well as the sublime bowed double bass on 'Brick' (another "stone" cold classic, eh? eh? Ok, never mind...), he also gets to have a go on a keyboard next to him every so often, adding some wonderfully analogue squelchy synth sounds to some of the songs.

Then there are the vocal harmonies. Almost as much of a part of the sound as the rollicking piano of Ben Folds himself, the Beach-Boys esque close vocal work is back in spades and demonstrates why this is a band and not just a piano man and his backing artists. If there's a more impressive vocal opening to a song than the wonderful doo-doo- harmonies that open 'Battle of Who Could Care Less', I've not heard it. Feel free to send it over.

Having said that, it's hard not to spend much of the gig just watching Ben. No, I mean it's literally hard, he's right in front of us and I don't really enjoy getting neckache. It's just as well, then, that he's an incredibly engaging performer, somehow managing to exude charisma despite his almost-deliberately unassuming appearance and deadpan vocal delivery. It certainly helps that he thumps, humps and jumps on his piano from all kinds of angles, alternating between intricate little syncopated melodies and flat out keyboard abuse. In fact he freaks out with his fists so violently at the end of 'Philosophy' that Rob is concerned he's actually broken one of his keys. It's not so unlikely after all, given Ben's story tonight about how they appeared on "Later with Jools Holland" back in the 90's, playing this song, after which Jools apparently had cause to complain that "that geezer fucked me piano"...

If there's anything that's surprising about tonight, it's just how RAWWWWK you can be using only a piano, bass and drums - the sound is loud and distorted (in a good way) when it's supposed to be, and somehow there's more raw power here without a single guitar than at Muse a few weeks ago.

What's not even remotely surprising, though, is how good the songs are. Slotting the new numbers in amongst the classics from the 90's albums and even one solo track ('Landed') is a masterstroke, and adds up to an extremely cohesive body of work. There's a bit of everything throughout the set, including lesser known album tracks like 'Selfless, Cold and Composed', but it naturally works up towards a big finish with genuine chart smashes like 'Underground' and 'Army', the latter including a duet between opposing factions of the crowd who want to sing different parts of the brass arrangements (yeah, there are some things a power trio can't recreate live...) And then there's the joy of standing in a room with several thousand people all shouting 'Give me my money back, give me my money back you bitch' over and over again during 'Song for the Dumped'. Unbeatable.

My personal highlight, though, is the opening track from that album I started talking about several thousand words ago. 'Narcolepsy' is probably my favourite BFF song, and the closest thing they have to a 'prog' song, perhaps- either that or one of those Billy Joel epics like 'Angry Young Man' which kick off with a piano prelude before heading off into something different. We're lucky to get this tonight (it wasn't played last night), and we're even luckier that Ben manages to get through it, given that he's distracted by a disembodied hand coming out from under the curtain behind him, attempting to fix a stuck spotlight. Eventually the light gets fixed and the hand disappears, but not before Ben tries to detatch it from its owner with a carefully thrown bottle of water. All whilst playing piano and singing.

The night ends with a crowd pleasing final encore of 'One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces', and it's all over, leaving us to head back to Waterloo to negotiate the carnage still ensuing on the rails from the 17 flakes of snow which fell in Surrey last night. 

Hopefully this won't be the only chance we get to see the band, because on tonight's showing, and listening to the new album yet again on the way home, they still have plenty to say.

Ben Folds Five Setlist:

Missing the War 
Michael Praytor, Five Years Later 
Jackson Cannery 
Hold That Thought 
Selfless, Cold and Composed 
Erase Me 
Sky High 
Best Imitation of Myself 
Battle of Who Could Care Less 
Draw a Crowd 
Thank You for Breaking My Heart 
Do It Anyway 
Song for the Dumped 


One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces