XpoNorth 2019 – The story of Duncan

Reading Time: 9 minutes

First and foremost, I am a music appreciator and I am most definitely not a musician. Nor am I a musical creator and I do not work in the music industry. But, I spend a vast amount of my spare time listing to music, either at home or while driving as I go to gigs. And I go to a lot of gigs. Really a lot. At the time of writing, I have been to 148 gigs so far this year, seeing 406 individual performances. I have a further 81 gigs planned until the end of the year. I am sure there will be more before the year is out. I like my gigs.

My favourite kind of gig is one involving local bands starting off, who play a half hour set of original music and then watching them grow as they mature, gig after gig. XPONorth is an ideal platform for these bands’ showcasing and so 2019 is the 4th year running that I have been in Inverness for this event.

Like Woolly, I did not attend the seminars. I was purely at XPONorth 2019 for the music. But, unlike Woolly, I saw a whole load of different bands.

I had the basics of my two evenings planned out, which stretched from 7:30pm to midnight. My must-sees were bands and artists I had seen many times before and knew they were unmissable, namely –
Wednesday = The 101, Moonlight Zoo, False Friends, Cara Rose and Annie Booth.
Thursday = swim school, Walt Disco and Luke La Volpe.

There were no clashes with these but it still left me a few gaps to allow the discovery of new talent; to review previously seen talent and to poke my head around the door of something interesting. The weather was ideal. Dry, warm and still. Nice.

The 101

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My starting point was The 101 at the Ironworks. They are a good band, although perhaps just a bit bloated by having 3 guitar players. Still, with one of them on backing vocals, it all adds up to a good sound. Having seen them before, I broke away half way through and walked the maximum venue-to-venue distance (a 3 minute walk) to The Tooth And Claw to catch Elisabeth Elektra.

Elizabeth Elektra

Sadly, she was not my type of music and singing solely to full-on backing tracks does seem like karaoke to me but she makes music that is clearly popular right now and the crowd liked her style. Her energetic performance included heading into the crowd at times, which can be quite intimidating so they politely kept a safe distance. She has a single launch gig soon in Glasgow, if you wish to investigate it.

Having seen enough, I dashed to Hootenanny where the rising stars Moonlight Zoo played a blistering set to a near-capacity crowd. Make no mistake here, they have really catchy songs; a great stage presence and vocals which will astound you. That was 30 minutes of sheer animal bliss.

Moonlight Zoo

Instantly I was off to the next venue; erm upstairs! To Mad Hatters where Lunir was having a bit of difficulty setting up. The beauty of XPO North is they run a very tight ship and the music starts at the allocated time and ends on or before the allocated end time. So, any late starting does mean a truncated set. They finally sorted things out and started 7 minutes late so I guess they had to cut it short. As I listened to the first two songs I realise their soulful sound were not my scene so I decided to head off to the PentaHotel.

There, SHEARS was playing. I have known Rebecca for many years and her recent reinvention fits the mould of the current trends of music. Her voice is utterly amazing but her music is not really for me so I bid a hasty retreat and went back to The Tooth And Claw to try out Folda.

Folda

They are electro pop and probably quite interesting but time was marching relentlessly onwards and one of my must-sees was up next at the Phoenix. False Friends were calling me. If you are keeping track, they are band number 7 so far.

False Friends

False Friends always put on a great show and are so much fun to watch. You have a front line of Irish voices, all four who are on vocals at some point. Jonny on acoustic guitar with Anna on keyboards share the main vocals and they put all their might into it. Corrie is on bass with shaved head and Fearghal on lead guitar and they both supplement the sound so well. Callum is on drums at the back, holding the whole lot together. To their absolute credit, they played mainly new songs. I know because that was the 17th time I have seen them live. Jonny debated whether playing new songs was a good move or not but sometimes when it is the first time people have seen a band, any song is new. The crowd enjoyed their set, as did I but Cara Rose was up next at the PentaHotel so I had to run as soon as they were done. I did a lot of running.

I suppose that “unmissable” means just that, but Cara Rose is one of those artists who is truly and utterly unmissable. Her solo piano playing style is a joy to hear and her vocals are wonderfully clear. Her songs are remarkably mature for someone so young and she is a very relaxed and happy performer. The venue was about half full for her set but as her set progressed you could tell they were being quickly won over. I spoke briefly to her an hour later as I spotted her in the Ironworks. She was genuinely surprised but pleased that I liked her music and I had no qualms in telling her this. Good music needs to be appreciated.

Cara Rose

Indeed, what happens at these events is that the artists themselves become fans of other bands. I lost count of the number of performers I knew who were in the audience for other sets and thoroughly enjoying it all. It has long been said that the Scottish music scene is perhaps unique where bands will praise other bands when they gain success and do not just humph about it with a “why not me?” attitude. That camaraderie is a testament to its strength and potential to grow. It was also nice to see music pundits Vic Galloway and John Robb in the crowds, loving every minute of it.

Zoe Tait

I missed Acrylic as I wanted to hear Zoe Tait back at the Phoenix. There is an engaging quality to the loud and forceful delivery of her own songs. Her lyrics are still quite teenage but I can see a lot of potential as she will inevitably move into more mature subject matters than just bad break-ups. One to watch.

Keir Gibson at the Ironworks was someone I had encountered before, although I did not realise this until I looked up my gig history a lot later. With the help of a guy on piano and backing vocals, the half hour was filled with good songs, well sung and the crowd knowing they were seeing a class act. It was after this set I chatted with Cara Rose but I had to be brief as I had that running to do.

Emme Woods
Keir Gibson

What then happened was a comedy of errors. I caught Emme Woods play to a capacity crowd in the Phoenix dry ice fog but a restricted view meant I tried out The Woods quickly next at Hootenanny. This was a solo act doing a really long looping song which I did find quite tiresome. Escaping, I headed back to the Ironworks to catch Annie Booth. Once there, I realised she was not the band who was setting up. I was confused and it was 11:30pm at night. My brain really could not process why she was not there so I gracefully retired back to my hotel room. Only as I was falling asleep did I realise I had gone to the wrong venue. Duh me. I was too late to remedy it but was happy that I had seen 12 bands in full or toe-dipped and I had had a really good day.

Thursday evening was set to be much of the same but the daytime need to get out of the way first. So, I hire a bike and cycled the 30 mile very scenic loop around to Beauly and back. As you do.

Goodnight Louisa

Seconds away and round two. 7:30pm was seeing Goodnight Louisa at Mad Hatters. I could only stay for the first 15 minutes but that was a good set. I had not realised that Skjor had broken up and this is what Louise is up to now. Very nice indeed.

Swim School

A dash to The Tooth And Claw allowed me to catch the full set by my current favs swim school. They play superb songs and even threw in a new one, which I spotted. The crowd liked them too and that is always nice to see and hear. Another quick dash back to Ironworks and I caught the tail end of Fauves who really know how to get the crowd going.

A few experiments were next and I saw Ukku who were really not my scene. So, I went to see Lizzie Reid charm the socks of everyone at Phoenix. That band really knows how to play well. I saw most of False Friends in the audience and caught up with half of swim school too as I headed out to my next gig. The next blind date was Spoke Too Soon who played a superb set at Hootenanny. They are well worth seeing again.

Spoke Too Soon

Outside there was pavement art persuading anyone and everyone to see Ivy Flindt upstairs next. Well, I am not one to decline such positive invitations but was sadly disappointed by the music which really did not have that much substance to it. So, I went to see A Dazed Digital Age back at the Ironworks who have the sound that is currently bubbling up from nowhere which everyone will love in the next 6 months or so. They are going to be big. Mark my rather feeble prediction.

The Dazed Digital Age

The cream of the night was the fact that Walt Disco were scheduled for Mad Hatters and that venue was just not big enough to contain them. Right from the start, they blew the roof of it with an explosive performance which is as infectious as it is spectacular. If you have any chance of seeing them live, never pass it up.

Walt Disco

They were band number 9 of the night and things were starting to thin out. I went to the Market Bar for the first time that trip and it was packed to the gunnels with folk waiting to see Pleasure Heads. It was clear they could put on a show but the crowd’s very boisterous enthusiasm meant that even seeing them was difficult and so I had to leave to actually be able to breathe! People were being turned away at the door as there was literally no room left inside.

I headed back to Hootenanny and am very pleased that I did as it was a first time see for James Gordon And The Power who were a late substitute for the unable-to-make-it-due-to-family-matters Mark Sharp And The Bicycle Thieves. James put on a superb show with great songs. Once again a nice find and another to put on my watch list.

Finally, as pumpkin time approached, the last band to see were Luke La Volpe at the PentaHotel. Imagine, if you will, that George Ezra bloke but with so much better songs and a much better attitude and you are half way there. They are a superb band and the lack of audience did not do their great music justice. Prior to that though, I had a lovely chat with Anna & Jonny from False Friends. Such nice people.

Midnight and I was truly done. Another 12 acts seen and a fantastic time was had. XPO North is cementing its place as a music festival of pure quality and long may they continue to support these up and coming bands in Inverness. A big thank you to the organisers for all their very hard work.

 

 

Xpo North and the joys of rapid fire music education – Wednesday 27/06/2018

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Part 2 of 3 – Wednesday night

I have been lucky enough over the last few years to see some amazing bands for the 1st time because of XpoNorth, and it was always going to be the case this time out as well. In fact, the only band out of 8 of seen this year that I had already seen before was Lional, and the only reason I was going to see them again was that I just will see them, come what may, given the opportunity.
In saying this, as the separate ‘Intro/ overview’ review explains in slightly more detail, I found out about the event very late in the day, owing to what I think was a balance between poor advertising, and me being in a cave, apparently.
To try to counter this, I spent a frenzied, unfair and very off-the-cuff couple of hours trying to sample each of the 68(!) announced acts, by virtue of the links to their Facebook pages provided on the XpoNorth page, and hearing that which they wished to promote themselves by therein.
Some (the minority) didn’t have actual videos posted there, and I felt for the one on the XpoNorth page who’s link wasn’t actually a link, just the name ‘ewenc.grant’. I did actually see that act on the Thursday, but didn’t hear any correction of the name, so on the Thursday review that’s how it’s dubbed. If anyone wants to correct me here, please feel free to do so.
This process was unfair, but also just a guide, knowing that I’d also go to things by virtue of what others I was going with wanted anyway, which did eventuate.
More than anything, I had to approach this with a certain mind-set – a ‘sensibility’, for the Jane Austin oriented. I had to head into town with an open mind and just see what the next couple of nights would offer.
And so to start…

Megan Airlie:

(There was more of the band tucked around the corner also. And while they deserve exposure, it shouldn’t be ‘over-exposure’ like my phone did here – apologies. She does have a face, I swear)
One who did catch my ear straight away from the maybe not quite 60 seconds my extremely non-rigorous sampling research was Megan Airlie.
As an aside, one of the unknown things that such an event provides is the ability to see venues that you wouldn’t normally go to or associate with such activities as live music. The PentaHotel was such a place.
One of the bonuses of this was the discovery that they had a really nice outdoor courtyard space. Although this was somewhat countered by only having Bud Light on tap (everyone had drunk the other tap dry before having to succumb to the fate of Bud Light), it is still a nice thing to discover and keep up the sleeve.
Anyway, the short research I did made me think of someone crooning some lazy soft rolling blues in a 1930s Speak Easy, which was enough to pique the interest and get me there.
There was definitely some of this feel in the mix on the night, but the image that most strongly resonated was that of how the band were tapping into something that was, now they were showing me the links, quite cyclical, popping up through the decades. I thought of the speak easy, and then of the edge of MoTown with a Booker T groove but with an Otis Redding gravel in the voice. A friend leaned in and said it reminded them of Jeff Buckley, which actually was very fair comment, and something I wish I’d thought of.
All of these over the decades tap into a smooth, soulful goodness. The band behind Megan Airlie were understated but definitely made a good mark. Some with bare feet, or intense emotion on their face (that’s you, Mr Bass Guitar), or salt-shaker in hand to smoothly add to the rhythm, and with at least 3 of them harmonising well in the back-up vocals, they completed a good sound which centred naturally and rightly around the lead of Megan Airlie herself – guitar in hand, and voice that capped off the whole ensemble.
I liked the whole band and would definitely give them another go, but if I had to pull out one stand-out element it was her voice. Controlled, going from sullen moody to emotive and raw and raspy, she was seriously good.
It was also a good start to this whole XpoNorth thing, I thought, happily knowing that I’d had my last Bud Light in a long time (if all goes to plan), and that they were a band to look out for in the future.
Next step, Hoots.

Tamzene:

The place was already packed by the time I got there, although obligingly people were standing a little back, offering space gladly pilfered front and centre.
I, like many living in Inverness I’m sure, had seen Tamzene a few times, yet for me it was a little while ago, and as a solo act. There were 4 on the stage in this incarnation, and the band behind her, back-up vocals included, definitely added a roundness and completeness to her presence and the whole performance.
In terms of the music, it was utterly intriguing to me, in a positive way, in that it slapped some of a well-worn musical prejudice out of me, smartly. For the thing was that her songs sounded like straight up and down, clear, bonafide Top-40 songs.
Her voice was of the quality, as was the mixing. More than that though was the sound, the feel, and looping and rhythms in the songs. I kept thinking that these would be good songs to use for some ad where they have the young and the beautiful selling a pair of shoes/ a watch or some clothes brand as a lifestyle choice. Maybe shot in black and white, or as though every day was in the golden light of the sun setting over the warm, embracing water in Spain.
The funny thing is, for all that, I really enjoyed the music. Seeing this stuff live, I understood some of the appeal to it. It was smooth, it was layered and patterned in the change-ups in the songs. It showed imminent skill and was fundamentally likeable. It was also astounding, as an aside, to not only see what would happily fit into the Top 40 live, but to see it in, and from what I understand, from Inverness.
I liked the band and in and of themselves, but also very much liked that they kicked me up the arse (if it was the soundtrack to an advertisement, the foot doing the kicking would have had either radiant, never worn before white or maybe gold trainers – possibly Adidas – adorning it). It pushed me past being dismissive, and showed me the skill and likability of it.
It still wouldn’t be my ‘go to’ music, but out of all the music over the 3 nights, I can see the marketability of this act as much as any. Good for them!

The Dunts:

The eclectic nature of the XpoNorth programme hits home when you wander from Tamzene straight to The Dunts, as we did. From the clean, light and relatively airy downstairs of Hoots we traipsed up the stairs of The Tooth & Claw.
It was a hot day anyway, and the heat held sway up there in this venue. I distinctly remember feeling the humidity starting to cling to me walking up the stairs, and by the time my waist was about level with the floor on the ascent, it was like being waist deep in water, the 2 levels of warmth and atmosphere being so distinct – head muggy, feet cool. I warned the partner in crime for this gig coming up behind me, but still wandered in.
We’d bought a beer downstairs for the glass over plastic factor as well as the chance to chat, wandering up when we heard them start. They were easy to hear but not as easy to see. The heat and the dark sheet walls and the smoke machine that someone was a little too over-excited about meant that for large patches the 4 on stage were more or less silhouettes in the mist.
That is all the ‘other stuff’ though. The music itself was pretty good. Not great, but absolutely toe-tapping worthiness. They were also the 1st band I saw that had people gleefully dancing to them, including me, so gotta give them this as well. However, out of all of the bands across the 2 days they were the one that myself and said partner in crime turned to comment a couple of times about what did seem quite clanging errors. Spots where they just, not to put too fine a point on it, fucked up. They played though them and kept their heads about it all, but they were there.
Saying that, I wouldn’t say that they had polish at the forefront of their minds in quite the same way as Tamzene directly before or Lional directly after them. They were a fun, raucous, raw, charged up, young band that needs a little polish, needs to define what they actually want to play, but do not need to find more fire in the belly. That they have down pat.
Above I mention about them potentially wanting to decide what style that they want to play. Maybe this isn’t a thing, maybe they’re bouncing around genres happily – the audience were. It did raise comment between us though. There were times at the start where I most thought of influences like the Fratellies, or even the White Stripes. In the middle they felt a little bouncier and pop-punkier (is that a word…), and for the last few songs, more standard rock/ hard rock/ pub rock angle.
They were hard to pin down in terms of style, they were a little unpolished, and they were obviously pouring buckets of sweat and trying their hardest in the upstairs heat. In among all that, there was something genuinely infectious about their playing and their energy.
They make me want to see them again.
In a year or so, when they’ve got some of the kinks ironed out.

Lional:

(The heat went up, the jacket came off. The music remained consistently good.)
I’ve talked before about Lional, and shall again, with any luck. Fuck they’re good. I liked The Dunts, for sure, but going straight from there to The Phoenix, this element of polish resonated.
As it turned out, the dining room of The Phoenix is a surprisingly good size and feel for a venue for live music. If they were wondering about it ever, they should consider it as an option. It’s popularity – i.e. Lional’s – did seem to surprise the venue, though.
I was glad that there was a small break to get there and to get a beer, and I really felt for the 2 poor, hardworking bastards behind the bar that were understaffed and working their arses off. It was a wait for the beer, but they do good beers there. Apologies, but I had to segue to applaud these 2 for their obvious hard work in lubricating the crowd for the gig to come. To the bar staff!!
Lional have brought out a new album recently, and a couple of weeks ago did the launch at The Ironworks. They’ve got a video clip for the new single, they have a strong, deep back catalogue now to work with, and they have a guy on the keyboards wearing super cool sunglasses inside at night. Oh, and a shout-out to the bass player’s shirt n’all. Class.
Upon reflection, if you say them walking down the street, they had such different fashion to each other you wouldn’t connect them, but luckily this says nothing about the tightness of the playing, which again struck me ‘bout them.
The style is mostly 80s through 90s Brit-Pop influence, but it’s hard to leave the categorisation there. They bring something else to it, which I know is there, and like, but unfortunately cannot pin down, no matter how many times I see them. By this stage I’m inclined to say that this final ingredient is their own originality. Being a band from inverness people may baulk at that, but the more I think about it, the more it seems valid.
Either way, they are a tight, sharp outfit. Even now I can recall the clarity of the guitar riffs, the build-up of the songs, the clean pause, slow-down and build up again. That, or the drive of other songs – punchy, sharp, infectious. It’s quality rock, with some pop, some syth on keyboard, and some noticeable groove support with the drums and bass.
If anyone actually reads these, then there sick of me saying this by now. Just go and see them, ya bastards.

Emme Woods:

By this time of the night I really was sated. Had happily got my fill of good music, and partner in crime for the night was working early in the morning and agitating to go home. The vibe in town was good though, the weather warm, and the part of the personality that sees the reason and logic of going home happy was unceremoniously brushed aside by the part of the brain saying ‘fuck it, let it roll on!’ Convincing them that half hour more wasn’t going to do them any harm, and that it was my buy and their choice for good beers at MacGregors, lack of sense happily held sway, and we got to see Emme Woods.
Again this nudging was in part due to the instinct over science research conducted, wherein it took under 10 seconds to decide Emme Woods had a good voice, moody and dark and smooth, and a good sound.
The confession here is that by this time of the night, the ‘feeling the vibe’ had definitely taken over any thoughts of ‘let’s really stop and analyse this for the purposes of a review’. This was added to by the packed bar, open back glass windows letting in the cooling air and also letting the crowd spill out into the beer garden. People, beer and good times were flowing by now, and the band were underpinning this atmosphere admirably.
The voice was not only dark and smooth, but also demonstrably a powerful roar when she wanted. The band was good. They played the songs and the crowd, and all were happy with them being in control, if control was a word for the atmosphere generated there and then.
They resonated in a few ways for me. Her voice reminded me at times of Patti Smith, and at others of just plain Smith (e.g. songs like ‘Baby it’s you’).
There was a distinctly 70s angle going on, but then among that there was a trombone doing rhythm. A fucking trombone! And it was good! It worked! It added fun, style and dancability (again potentially making up a word here sorry, by in keeping with the feel of this stage of the night, it feels somehow legitimate to do so).
From all this, though, what they gave, to give it anthropomorphised form, mostly resonated in the big smile of the guitar player in the hat, which was matched by the crowd all around. They were solid, tight, but creating a vibe of late warm night looseness in the place. A smart scheduling move to put them on there and then, and they carried it off with aplomb.

And then:
After they finished, it was definitely late for a school night, and most knew, even if they had only planned to go out the one night, that they’d had enough fun that they’d be lured back out again the next night.
That’s in a separate Thursday review, hopefully easily clickable from where you’re reading this.
-Cornwallace

Links to Facebook pages:
Megan Airlie
Tamzene
The Dunts
Lional
Emme Woods

 

Part one can be found here:

Xpo North and the joys of rapid fire music education

Part three can be found here:

XpoNorth and the joys of rapid fire music education – Part 3. 28/06/18