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 – Listening learning liking at XpoNorth 2019 part 2

Reading Time: 13 minutes

Part 2: Thursday night music

Part one of reviewing XpoNorth for 2019 turned out to be long enough talking about the daytime programme and the Wednesday night music. So I split it up, and hence the birth of ‘Part 2’ here. This will just focus on the Thursday night music and atmosphere for XpoNorth this year.

The atmosphere. This is an interesting element. Interesting, and hard to definitively quantify. I was wondering how to bring this up, but might as well get into it from the beginning. Mostly I’m hedging my bets here as there’s parts that are inherently – at least on 1st look – self-contradictory. Basically, there were some packed out places, and some amazing gigs with amazing atmosphere. However, for that, neither night out had anywhere the same feel as they have had in the last few years. By this, I mean the buzz out in the street.


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Finally this year I knew about XpoNorth in advance, and was talking it up to people trying to coax them out and into having a great time.
Part of the (legitimate) sales tactics was the feel of the atmosphere around town. In previous years there has been a palpable energy buzzing through the wee small heart of Inverness. People bouncing and launching through the night, meeting up and raving about what they had just seen, and convincing others to head in their direction to the next band.
Notably there was that feel within a small patch between the PentaHotel, The Phoenix and the IronWorks. This area possibly came out best in this element this year. While there was a little bit of it through Church Street, it was way down on the last few years. Any area apart from that was noticeably diminished in this respect this year. A bit of high energy lurking out the front of the Tooth & Claw, but definitely nothing which extended further through the streets, which was a metric of joy that I had felt in the last few years, but much less this year.

Yet this contrasts with the feel within the venues themselves. As it does, the Market was fucking rammed in with people. On the Wednesday night I did attempt to get in there to see Run Into the Night. I saw about half a song, and they looked fun – 2 piece with talent and attitude (although for the space being 2 people could have taken up far less of the precious, precious space which is such a premium in the Market Bar). Getting past where they had spread themselves through to the bar to actually get a pint felt like a hopeless cause. I did hear another song before this half song, but that was in the slow process of ‘one out, one in’ leaking of people out of the space before I could even turn into the inner door to see them. Should have given them more of a go, in retrospect, but that the band stood in the way of the bar leaving a big empty space (including the tiny empty stage) behind them, coupled with the fact they’d be done before beer was in hand made for a bad choice, I think now.

This packed out feel was the case in a number of places on Thursday night.

The Phoenix, as per last year, showcased itself as a genuinely good place to put on music. It is my firm hope that they understand the potential here and pick up on it and become another venue throughout the year, as opposed to just 2 nights a year for XpoNorth. I didn’t get to the PentaHotel this year, but again it turned out to be a much better place for a gig than expected. The range and quality of the beer was pish last year, but the bands good, and the venue much better than expected. Again, any potential to expand options for bands in Inverness, TheNettle.scot is keen on.

So that was the counterbalance of the feel for the night. Good in places, much more dead than previous years out n’ aboot in town. But to the actual music…

Ukku:

Apologies first up for Ukku, for not bothering to chase up how to type their name with the Umlaut over the first ‘U’. However, this factor was instrumental in me getting there to see them. I hadn’t done the research as per previous years, so decided to take on board the ‘betting on horses’ philosophy of choosing by feel for the name and just taking a punt on luck. Ukku had on umlaut and were also palindromic, so were sure fire winners on a number of fronts. [ed. note –  To access the umlauted vowels (ö, ü, ä) use the following keyboard shortcuts. Hold down the “ctrl” and “shift” keys then hit semicolon. Let up on all keys, then type the vowel you want, but it’s key to the story here]

In writing this, I can see that the XpoNorth programme for the night has links to the bands and they link out to their own sites, but there’s not much detail on the actual created pages for each of the bands.
I take this as another odd weakness in the running of what is otherwise a great event. Again, another weakness which is born out by not practising what the content they delivered in the day about selling yourself in the creative industries. Odd, but a small consistent theme that XpoNorth wouldn’t have to put too much work into to improve.

However, back to Ukku!

The classic, easy way to try to classify them was ‘ethereal.’ On their own Facebook page they state themselves as “hyper realistic fantasy art dream simulation, dream pop, synth-pop, post-punk, 80’s inspired”. I went to the site to see where they were from. I guessed ‘Nordic,’ and they say ‘Elven forest,’ so I’m calling that a correct guess.

The place wasn’t exactly packed, but it had a healthy amount of people filling the space, and for mine, the mood for them was a resounding positive. I put that in as most of this is just my thoughts, and mine are a bit more complicated than that, but I really wanted to put it up front and centre that I really liked them.

The lady in the front and the middle ostensibly was the controlling point and the fulcrum around which the whole structure worked. In saying that, the guy to the left was seriously good on the guitar and seemed to hold a confidence that reverberated and held the whole lot firm together.

For the lead, she was good. Although she wasn’t as good as she was hoping to be, at least not yet. This is one of the things you can say about acts which are so young (the drummer on the machine that looked like she was tapping on 6 coasters lined up was surely the youngest in the entire programme). There were things that you could see that she (the singer and front person) was trying to do, places she was trying to take it, but her voice wasn’t quite there yet.

It could be that I couldn’t get a decent photo of the front person because of things like my phone, or, obviously less likely, a lack of talent with the tech. I’ve settled on the theory that it was actually a synergistic effect between her resonate inner glow aura, combined with the light from her sparkly shoes. Occam’s Razor it is not, but it is a working theory at present, and one that helps explain my shit photos.

That’s not necessarily a huge criticism, considering what she was trying to do. There were times where you could tell she was trying to get a bit of growl into her voice, and it reminded me – in direction, if not action – of Deborah Harry, but she couldn’t quite get there, or didn’t quite have the confidence in her voice to go there.
On the other end of the scale, there were times where she was really trying to hold a quiet, ethereal note and it reminded me of the amazing joys of seeing Beth Gibbons. However, again, this is a big, big ask, and one that I hope she gets to in the future, but not one she could quite pull of this night.

That was the slight negative. The rest is all positive. In terms of influences, I’m sure that there’s many that one could pull out. They mention 80s synth, and at times the tone did remind me of The Cure and that balance between Goth and New Romantic 80s. Then again, I’m a fan of Goldfrapp and saw a fair bit of them floating about as well. Fuck it, chucking a bit of Air in there, while I’m on the subject. Kinobe too, just cause. And Christine and the Queens seeing I’m going down this path, because I find myself listening to this song a bit at the moment.

All could be heard in there, with plenty more besides. It made me want to explore this genre again a bit more. Listening to such right now, in fact…

I think that this is a seriously interesting band. Good combination of mood, skill and some good lyrics and ideas thrown in. If they get back this way, I’d chase them up for another viewing, definitely!

Solareye:

Next cab off the rank was Solareye. Already, this is a lesson in the eclectic nature of festival programmes. The ways in which Solareye was particularly NOT the same as Ukku were many. To be fair, both relied heavily on feeding the music through a computer in aid of its construction. Apart from that though, we move to another genre entirely.

This is purely about the lyrics and the beat. More details on Solareye can be found in the review from Chips & Gravy, which I’ve just read, so hoping to not cherry-pick from their perceptive musings. For mine, this was the good bit about hip-hop. I know that there’s a lot of sub-genres going on here, between rap and hip-hop and a few other names/ classifications.
It is, to be fair, not one of my favourite genres, but when it is done right, as here, it is magnificent, and can extend from places and acts such as Dingwall’s own Spring Break, across to Everlast, and many, many other examples going to way back when and back to another firm personal favourite displaying the awe-inspiring skill and raw talent involved when it hits the mark.

When done wrong, for me, it is all about gold, guns, cars, bitches, and treating others like shit in order to talk yourself up. Sure there’s something cathartic about it all, and there’s a lot of class and race theory bound-up there that I don’t want to dismiss. Stating that, the negative can feel like a massive self congratulatory ‘I’m richer, better and more well sexed than you’ wank-fest, and as such it was a massive relief that Solareye was so utterly devoid of such aspects.

This is the antidote to that. The lyrics ranged from engaging, thoughtful social commentary, to the pure love of a day with his wee man. Love mixed with tearing his hair out in exhaustion. Also this song managed to fold in more commentary about life, love, and social commentary by way of reflection as to the way in which his wee boy reminds him how easy is actually is to be creative and imaginative, if we drop the constructions we create about ourselves in order to be an adult.

Talent, observation, reflectiveness, humour. Good. Very good.

Solareye was talked up by Fremsley and a few others as being the show to be at in the programme. It was a fair call. Not sure if it was the top of the bunch, but it was way up there. The power of the genre was up front and large here. Positive, reflective, caring, thoughtful, respectful, angry at times, but overarchingly an experience that leaves you thinking that there’s things that can be done to help. Maybe it was the best experience of XpoNorth, coming to think of it…

[**Editorial note: This is getting long, and I need to do other shit with my day, so from here on in, apologies to the bands, but the reviews are going to be more ‘succinct.’]

The Dazed Digital Age:

Just down the road from the Phoenix, a bunch of people were hyped up after Solareye and heading to The Ironworks to see The Dazed Digital Age. Actually, as an aside, this is another big plus for Solareye, as the mood of people coming out of The Phoenix and buzzing down the street after what they had just experienced was the highlight for me for the 2 nights in that thing I was mentioning earlier, i.e. the buzz on the street, which was much less this year, but which peaked at this short walk over to The Ironworks.

I’ve written about The Dazed Digital Age before, and seeing them again, the feeling continues. They do what they do well, and they are very much liked by the audience. I’m not their biggest fan, however. They seem to just be missing ‘something’ – that classic, unhelpful thought ‘something’.

The friend I was chatting to thought that they were too static on stage, that they needed a front man owning it in the middle. He liked them, but the term ‘two-dimensional’ was given, and I find myself quoting him for the accuracy of it. I am sure that when I have seen them before that there was a 3rd member on stage, and this might account for a bit of this. However, in the end, I know that I’m in the minority of the audience for the night.

All the accoutrements around them – the feel, the lights, the adherence to the 80s synth feel is done well. It’s just missing something at the heart of the music for me. Maybe the front person, as the friend mentioned. Maybe a bit of fire in the belly. I’m not happy about being negative in light of the mood that was around me in the crowd, but they didn’t really do it for me. Again. But it was the most that I have liked them so far, so maybe I’ll get what I’m missing sometime in the future…

Pleasure Heads:

Next it was over to the Market Bar, and a reminder of loud, bouncing, rolling fun music with the Pleasure Heads. Whereas I should have tried to get into the Market for ‘Run Into the Night’ the night before, this time it was, somehow, even more wedged in. And yet in we went.

The band The rammed in audience.

Surely there’s going to be some University physics team coming up sometime and studying the Tardis-like nature of the Market. How that many people fit in that place is worthy of study. They should do this, and pay people, including myself, to drink beer in there and dance somehow where there’s no space to do so. I am up for helping science, as you can see.

Anyway, we were all there playing sardines for a reason. The Pleasure Heads were good! They were fun. They put in, and worked for their craft.

And there was much rejoicing.

As per caveat above that this is already a long review, I’ll be short here. They were good. They were fun. People loved it. The category was firm ‘alt rock pop’, an expansive genre that doesn’t help, but his voice was good and with a bit of gravel in it, the band had energy and drive to it. Notably for me the drumming stood out as excellent, and took the crowd along with the faster sweat invoking rhythm of it all. I see they reside in Glasgow at present. If you get a chance, I think you’re gonna have a good night if you catch them there.

LaKyoto:

Last band for the night, and hence for XpoNorth, were LaKyoto, back at The Phoenix. Again, the choice of seeing them was purely on the horse-picking philosophy of a name that grabbed us, so off we went.

We missed a bit of the start, but got a feel for them enough, I think. They were the most straight up pop that I managed to see for the whole programme. They were good for this also. Had the crowd bouncing and happy, even though it was approaching the end of the 2 nights and fatigue was starting to set in a bit, thinning out the numbers of a couple of hours before. They played with heart. They were enjoyable. The lead singer had a smooth voice – possibly a touch ‘autotune smooth’, but this is an observation, and in no way a complaint.

People holding onto the good vibes until the end of the show, and thus the end of XpoNorth

By this time of proceedings I was quite knackered and wondering about the sense in going for back to back chippy nights (*this did happen). So while part of the brain was wanting to say a final howdy to the friend I went there with who I don’t get to see enough, and part on chip shop goodness, there was enough talent and interest going on up on stage to keep the attention front and centre. This is another good band, particularly polished and smooth in quality, that had catchy tunes that held people there until the end. I wish to see them again in a less exhausted state, but the important part of that is wanting to see them again.

Round-up:

No massive round up. This is long enough already. XpoNorth did another good job this year in putting on a varied, interesting showcase of talent for 2 nights in the middle of the week in Inverness.

The crowds in the venues were large and appreciative, but the mood on the street, the much-vaunted ‘atmosphere’ I garbled on about at length above, was significantly less at play throughout the town across the 2 nights. Maybe there’s a reason why, but will leave that for others to speculate on, should they wish.

The potential to explore so much music in short bite-size samples was again the strength of the programme offered by XpoNorth. Here’s hoping for more of the same next year.

 


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