June 17, 2024

If England win the Euro 2024 Championship then the date of 16th June will be etched in football history as the day England kicked off their campaign against Serbia. To allow us to participate in that potential piece of history in the evening, the Fiddler’s Elbow kindly moved this double-header to a 2pm start. Sadly, the fact that it was a sunny Sunday afternoon, and Father’s Day too, meant that the turnout was still quite small, which was a pity given the quality of the bands on show.

The venue name gives the impression that it is a typical regular pub venue with the music down in a dark basement or in some seedy back room, but the Fiddlers is an old pub that has been converted fully into a music venue which means it is surprisingly spacious even if its capacity of 150 is reached. Prior to the two headliners, things got underway with special guest, singer/songwriter Jon Hunt. As a solo artist, one might have expected some twee folk songs, especially since his Bandcamp bio describes him as ‘quintessentially English’. However, his music was surprisingly spiky, and the lyrics had some down to earth Billy Brag realism to them. The story of frustrated working-class lives in Emergency Call was particularly striking. Hunt’s new album (his fourth apparently) will be out this summer and will be worth checking out.

Nic Beal of Sweetpool showing off his fashion (and curious guitar)

The Midlands trio Sweetpool claim they like to ‘bludgeon audiences with their post-punk attack of rare grooves, motorik beats and psycho flamenco space noise’. I’m not sure where the psycho flamenco bit comes in (or what psycho flamenco might sound like!), but the word ‘groove’ is the one that really captures the essence of the band live. That groove is there, either in the faster three- or four-minute punkier songs,  or in the lengthier pieces that get into an irresistible krautrock groove. Visually, the band were somewhat contrasting. The bespectacled and anonymously dressed rhythm team of Ant Cook on drums and Jase Holgate on bass did not stand out. In contrast, guitarist and singer Nic Beales had ‘look at me’ written all over him. He had a small tuft of hair on his head (naturally grey or maybe bleached) along with a matching goatee, and white paint on his cheeks, looking half-way between Adam Ant and Peter Criss. The look was completed by a shirt which looked like it had been borrowed from a Country & Western musician.

Sweetpool opened with In Winter which sounded like it was going to be a good but maybe predictable punkish song, but then it veered off into a cool heavy groove. It was as if Brock had joined them on stage and started to hammer out one of those hypnotic Hawkwind riffs. It’s an unusual but potent mix of styles. Three of four shorter numbers followed, mostly from their recently released debut album Triple Earth Star. By this time, I was thinking the high-energy approach might wear thin and a certain sameness about the material set in, but the band then cleverly mixed things up, firstly with The Man In The Castle which had more of a languid stoner feel and surprisingly soulful vocals, and then The Fruit That Hangs Out OF Reach which had a syncopated rhythm and even a burst of rapping!  The set climaxed on the fantastic Back To The Factory, which mixed an upbeat punkish Jam-like vocal part with another stomping Krautrock instrumental. All in all, it was an excellent set that won over the audience with ease. Those present might have expected a bog-standard pub rock band, but Sweetpool oozed class in both their playing and their material. Their mash-up of punk and krautrock is startling in its originality and yet commercial enough to imagine them garnering a sizeable fan base.

The Brackish concentrating hard on their guitar work

The Brackish were a completely different kettle of fish. The four piece instrumental group from Bristol opened with the track Willox For A New Age which probably had more time changes in the first minute than in the whole of Sweetpool’s set. The song was built around an angular, almost jazz-rock riff, and moved through various variations and different moods, sometimes with deliberate discordance, bringing to mind some of the more extreme moments of King Crimson or Van Der Graaf Generator.

Brackish guitarist Neil Smith….. looking distinctly like Vladimir Putin

The rest of the set followed a similar pattern: odd time signatures, rapid changes of mood, and the occasional bit of cathartic Floydian guitar brilliance to offset the intensity of much of the music. The way the two lead guitarists Luke Cawthra and Neil Smith played off each other, often improvising, was fascinating to see. However, I found my eyes frequently drawn back to drummer, Matt Jones, whose creative percussion work underpinned the Brackish sound. I’d normally squirm at the prospect of a drum solo, but Jones got his well-deserved couple of minutes in the spotlight during the highlight of the show, Mr. Universe.

 It’s rare that one complains about a band being too loud, but I got the impression that this was the case with The Brackish. Their music is incredibly complicated and if you listen to it at home you can manage to follow the musical thread. Here instead, the volume meant that some of the detail and subtlety was lost, making them sound more like a (slightly deranged) post-rock band than the thoughtful experimental prog band that they are. It was a shame because The Brackish are clearly a very capable group.  

If I had to summarise the gig in one sentence then I’d say it was a fast-flowing and enjoyable first half performance, followed by a more disjointed and harder to watch second half. Strangely, just like England against Serbia.