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.

 

 

XpoNorth 2019

Reading Time: 11 minutes

It’s XpoNorth 2019

XpoNorth started off as an Aberdeen based venture called GoNorth at the turn of the century. I wasn’t there. I mean I was around at the turn of the century, and before, but I wasn’t in Aberdeen. I might have been at some point, but if I was, I wasn’t at that.

I was still kicking around the Raigmore Motel, the Market Bar and the Gellions for my musical kicks. The Ironworks was still a carpark and a pet shop, Hootenanny was still a pound shop, Blue Nightclub had only been shutdown once or twice T in the Park was the place to go for festivals. Rockness was six years away from being birthed, and Belladrum was four years away. (That’s right, Bella was about before Rockness.)

Xpo still is, and, but it’s changed a bit. The last person involved in it when it was GoNorth departed last year, and Highlands and Islands Enterprise are all over it this year.

It started as a ‘creative industries’ focused showcase. Designed to gather up unsigned and lesser known musicians from around the Highlands, to get them to play, literally ‘for exposure’ and mould them into going through the meat grinder that is the music industry.

My general understanding of the model for newly signed bands to medium to large labels is thus (however granted it will vary to a degree depending on the label);

  • Band signs contract.
  • Band gets advance for an album, promotion, and gigging. The album bit of it includes the booking, hire and all that goes with the recording studio, sourcing and paying for the producer/sound engineers etc. The advance is the band’s wage as well, so they also have to either live off it, or work the day job in between recording and gigging.The advance is as you’d expect, a loan. This gets paid off by the revenue generated by the band through ticket and record sales.
  • Band gets some contacts, guidance, and some influence given in terms of where they are to tour.
  • Once the first loan is paid off, if it is, then it’s time for a new advance, and a second album. Rinse, repeat.

This works for some, but I feel it’s not necessarily the best model for all band to follow – and harvesting all the highland talent like something out of the Matrix doesn’t seem like the best way.

That’s my take on it, but I’m a self-managing kind of person, so kind of a red pill guy. (Red Pill as in I like to know how things work and it’s reasonable to objectively question things, not red pill as in I am woke, there’s a third eye and everything is a conspiracy)

Anyway, as I said, Xpo has changed a bit, even since last year.


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There were a few grumbles that there was less music from the highlands, and some more from ‘down south’ (crettins, that’s how you create a bit of musical diversity, and inspire people. So long as there’s a mix of local and not local, I’m ok with it. Especially as we have local festivals that a few of the bands play at anyway). That’s not a criticism of local bands either, if that’s triggered a wee paranoia trip, I’m just saying that Inverness doesn’t need to get all BREXIT about foreigners coming in and eating our fish.

Regardless of all that, here’s some actual coverage.

I didn’t get to the non-music seminars and networking events this year, as I’ve got a day (and night!) job that’s not that, but Cornwallace wrote a little bit on some of the publishing side of things.

What I did get to mostly, was Wednesday, and the very tail end of Thursday. So, let’s talk about that.

Wednesday

The starting point for myself and Fremsley was the Tooth and Claw. I’d fancied going to see Hamish Hawk in Pentahotel. I’d seen him a couple years back with King Creosote, but hadn’t been able to give it my full attention due to some annoying and distracting chatter. You know when people go to a gig, and don’t actually care about the gig, then spend the whole time trying to make it about them. That.

Timing wise it wasn’t viable though, so I had a catch up drink, as Elizabeth Elektra played above our head. We didn’t get to hear her fully, but it seemed quite Kate Bush esq. The brief bits we caught of the white wig and floaty dress donning avant-garde pop were pretty good, but it was brief. (Oi, hold on, what are ye, the Daily Mail – don’t just write about what the artist was wearing!) But genuinely, we only caught a glimpse, but it sounded alright.

Echo Machine were also recommended, a new-wave synth pop band from Dundee, as were Pure Grief – as a bit of pop punk. I didn’t make it to either. Coming off a nine-day work stretch, directly into Xpo meant I was a bit fucked like. But I’ve linked to those I coulda-shoulda-woulda been to by means of acknowledgement and apology.

Get on with it!

The first proper band I saw was Lunir, at Madhatter’s.

Like a fair few of the talent on show, this was their first time in Inverness. The two piece had the venue giving an intimate feel from the start. They had a small keyboard each, and a mic each. The member that wasn’t the lead singer also had an array of effects, and a fairly minimal percussion set-up.

Lunir had a R&B/Soul vibe at the start. The lead’s voice was smooth and strong. Sometimes vocals are vocals, and sometimes they’re so on point in terms of refinement, they’re like an instrument. In this case they were like an instrument. The drummer’s backing vocals gelled into this fantastically.

There was a hint of jazz creeping in to. When we get to the second song and a rain stick is whapped out by the lead. This was their new single – best way I can describe it is if you were to have Beyoncé working with Lemon Jelly.

Their music was uplifting and wholesome, with a beautify structured drum solo intertwined. They seemed happy to be there cheery as fuck, which as a pundit, helps me be cheery as fuck. At one point we were introduced to a tiny mustard-yellow guitar. Played high up on the diaphragm like George Formby, it was contrasting to the song. The music took me on a journey with set the set list. Each song flows from previous one, complemented the last and evolved the set throughout. It was a musically unexpected but welcome (proper) start to XpoNorth for me.

Next up, was the mammoth journey downstairs to Hootenanny. To see Quiche. Two bands playing in such close proximity was handier than a teenager with a purity ring trying ecstasy for the first time.

I’d added Quiche to my list of bands to see based on the name. Generally, this is a terrible thing to do, as ‘zany’ names can be used as a way to pull people in to see them. See “Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head” as an example.

But Quiche, Quiche has a reputation for being a bland food. I actually like Quiche Lorraine. Lorraine Kelly is annoying, Quiche has a reputation for not being great, yet merge the two and you get something palatable. Perhaps Quiche the band were going to defy the odds too?

Hoots was reasonably full, not heaving, but busy. First thing I clocked beyond that was that there’s a guy that looks like Gary glitter, or that weird Inverness bloke with the long nails that does all that odd dance stuff with young females. (Roddy, Rodney?) That’s unrelated to the band in question though.

Quiche played with vocals and guitar style from the 1960s fused with 90’s/00’s. I didn’t meld into their music massively, but they were decent. My mind did wander a bit whilst listening to them – there was a point I thought the vocalist sounded a bit like Kermit the Frog. In fairness though, they sounded a bit like Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, or some of the more experimental Super Furry Animal’s stuff. Need to clarify if they’re Welsh or have just been hoofing aerosols to Peanut Dispenser in their yoof.

I didn’t mind them, but I think, with the style of music they were playing, they could have done with a bit more stage presence.

There were a few bands playing at the same time, so a hasty migration over to see False Friends at The Phoenix was implemented.

Not to be confused with Best Fwends, which I unrealistically was associating the band with, and probably to the detriment of me, but to the relief of everyone else, False Friends are not Best Fwends. Am I going deep and all that?

I got in during their set, and my immediate note was that they had a plastic cowbell. I like these. They have musical merit. They do.

They were the best band of the night for me. The Northern Irish band were happier than a nun stumbling over lovehoney.co.uk and I was immediately warmed to their announcement that they tend to play stuff live that you wouldn’t find as part of their online repertoire. They define it as career suicide, but it’s a good angle, and the choice struck a chord with me. This is me who was petitioning to call a band I was in “Various Artists” so take my insight with a pinch of salt.

They would have fit really well into Raigmore motel gigs of old. There was nice grimy keyboard, intertwined with an indy/rock feel. They were upbeat, well-polished and I liked them. There was a consensus around various people that had amalgamated into the Phoenix that they were one of the highlights of the Wednesday night. Two folks suggested they were a Christian rock band, based on their outfits being on the wrong side of the colour chart, and being ‘too clean cut’. I’m fairly sure both commentators were wearing all black, which is equally relevant. False Friends could more than hold their own on a main stage at a sizeable festival, with a fine range of songs. They do seem like a group that would be presentable on the telly, if that’s what was being alluded to by ‘too clean’, but better that than being shite, and alternative for the sake of image.

I went over to see Pure Grief in the Market Bar next, but it was packed tighter than the pursed lips of an Instagram influencer posting duckface, so I didn’t. My attention was pulled away from Xpo after that, so pure grief was the last note of the evening.

Thursday

I finished work well after the festivities had started, and only really caught Ghøstwriter. I dunno what the Ø is in reference to, but in electronics it’s the number of phases in a circuit. (Hold down Alt then press 0216 in the keyboard if you’re typing it.) When Prince became TAFKIP that must have been a pain in the tits – there’s not even an alt code for that nonsense.

Ghøstwriter at The Phoenix were the best thing I saw at XpoNorth. Having not been able to make it to Solareye, but having told everyone I knew to go, I was happy to still get a satisfying gig to see.

After the initial acceptance that it wasn’t Matt Berry fronting the band but a doppelganger, all disappointment was washed away. They were diverse, atmospheric, and full of energy. The band was bouncing and it made the evening feel like Thursday would have been the night to be out. I was shattered though. If you think that this writeup is a bit lacking in content, it’s a fair shout – I had to switch notebooks for Thursday and it’s gone AWOL.

I thought it was worth mentioning them though, even without notes, they were phenomenal. Also, there were some grand photos, I’d go see them again without a second thought, though better prepared than straight out of whatever hell of a day I had that I won’t bore you with. Chips N Gravy will tell you all about them though, and we’ll link it up here when it’s on the interwebs.

I finished up with heading to the Tooth and Claw, downstairs. They were holding their own non-XPO open mic night, which brought in good craic and kept it all going.

A final note on the venues, specifically at XpoNorth time

The Market Bar – it’s a great venue for music, in that it’s full of energy and the pine clad walls makes the sound bounce around like nobody’s business it a hotbox for atmosphere, but you need to get in well in advance of the bands you’re going to see, standing room only doesn’t really do it justice in terms of how intimate it can get. Upstairs for the tunes, downstairs for a bit of respite and patter. Prices are reasonable as well for lubrication.

Hootenanny – You’ll generally get more of the trad stuff down here. There’re tables everywhere and a little bit of dancing area, it’s more of a musical restaurant than a bar with food these days, but grand enough, and if you’re needing a seat it’s your best bet. It’s by far from the cheapest watering hole though, and even soft drinks cost a fair few quid.

Madhatter’s – The upstairs for Hootenanny – More of a mixed bag, you’ll get all sorts of music in here, from hip-hop, rap, rock, blues, rockabilly, funk, and world, with splattering’s of everything else too. It’s plastic glasses upstairs, and glass receptacles downstairs, which should help with understanding the difference too. You’ll always get a dance up there.

The Phoenix – This place is pretty decent for the midweek festival, the stage set-up is pretty decent, prices are sensible and it’s the most balanced of the venues in terms of crowd. Never any trouble, comfortable as fuck, and unpretentious.

Pentahotel – It’s a hotel common area in an urban area, so can get a bit crowded, but it’s an alright setup – the bands tend to be lighter here, you won’t get a dance or mosh area. Prices aren’t immensely pocket friendly, but it’s a hotel bar, so you at least know that going in. (Gestures at hoots)

The Tooth & Claw – This is the hive for punk, rock, metal and comradery. It’s packed during XpoNorth and this time had music upstairs as well as doing its own off-programme musical thing downstairs. Prices are on par with the Market mostly.

Ironworks – First of all, prices are decent, and greatly improved on the past. This is the purpose-built venue for music, and the biggest capacity. Having said that, it’s also (personally) one of the least atmospheric of the places, when it’s quiet. I think that goes with the territory though, more suited to big events that it’s going to fill, it can be left wanting for ‘buzz’ if it’s not packed. You’ll not get a seat at this. If the crowd is right, and the band is right, it can be great, but the atmosphere is brought into it by the people.

MacGregors – Didn’t do Xpo this year, which is a shame, because they were one of the better venues last year – the mix of electronic music and more left field stuff, tied with the building’s styling/atmosphere was one of the highlights. Artisan beverages are reflected by the prices.

Mercure Hotel – Don’t get me wrong, I like this place for some things, they do a heap of charity hosting, and it’s great and all, but fuck me, I’m glad they weren’t part of Xpo this year. They do it upstairs, the sound quality and setup of the area was abysmal, and to make up for that with alcohol or even just refreshments is not a viable option due to the cost. A welcome exclusion, sorry guys.

 


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