Last Friday NOTBad took itself down to the basement of The Barrels Ale House on Bridge Street to – as yoof vernacular would have it – check out some banging tunes. Or rather, some banging bands. Which makes it sounds as if we headed off to a dogging convention, an unlikely scenario given that you’d never get a Ford Mondeo down the stairs to the basement in The Barrels. We shall therefore give ourselves a stern talking to and leave yoof-speak right here, out in the open, where it can be TWOC’d with minimum fuss and left burnt out on a lexicographical wasteland somewhere.
Now music is so many different things to different people. It can be the main theme to your life or the incidental Muzak in the background; it can be used to elevate the soul or to numb it; an aid to moving forward with your life, or a signpost to the past. What music always is though, is personal, which is why NOTBAd feels nervous about reviewing it. Music is better felt rather than described, no?
And with that caveat attached, we are delighted to inform you that all three acts on Friday night – Matt Wilson, Le Woodsmen and Electric Penelope – were bloody awesome; completely different yet perfectly complementary.
Kicking off with fresh-faced singer/songwriter Matt Wilson: nineteen years old, wearing a baggy cardie and desert boots, our first thought was how vulnerable he looked. Our concern was compounded when he removed his cardie to reveal a vest the likes of which we haven’t seen since Wham! in its heyday. It was cold down there in the basement, and we feared for him.
We needn’t have worried though; fresh-faced Matt may be, but he delivered a set more confident and accomplished than a lot of musicians with more miles on the gigging clock – very impressive when you consider Matt has only been seriously plying his trade since April of this year.
All became clear chatting to Matt afterwards – he spent six years training in musical theatre. Furthermore, his father is a musician who encouraged him to pick up the guitar at a very young age, explaining the ease with which Matt plays and how his guitar seems a natural extension of himself.
It must be frustrating to be compared to other artists, and we do it here just so you have some point of reference. Matt’s self-penned, lyric-rich songs were delivered in a voice that nodded in James Morrison’s direction, with a pleasing hint of gravel used to great emotional effect when coupled with textured, jangling guitar. Yes, he is only nineteen, so you have to wonder exactly which emotional experiences have bruised him enough to act as a wellspring for his songwriting, but he convinced. Highlights for us included Matt’s interpretation of Jessie J’s Price Tag and his own Taste of a Smile .
Girvan-born Matt is looking for management but for now seems to be doing quite well by himself, seeing as he has already bagged gigs at King Tut’s and The Troubadour in London, and at various locations around Edinburgh.
What’s attractive about Matt, aside from his musicianship, is his infectious enthusiasm for the whole process. There’s no jaded defensiveness there; the unattractive characteristic of some older performers who have not only been around the block, but moved in there. Yes, this could all change – making a name for yourself in an oversaturated industry is something of a Sisyphean feat – but for now it’s a joy watching Matt Wilson welcome life through his door. And life, if it’s got any sense, should turn up with a bloody big box of chocolates.
Berwick band, Le Woodsmen, is a different proposition. More experienced in the ways of the world – NOTBAd could immediately tell from the fact they wore warm plaid shirts (oh, Matt, you’ll learn) – this slick indie four-piece (Mark Reid, vocalist/guitar; Nick Holmes, lead guitar; Brendan McDonald, bass; Gary Weatherhead, drums) moved with ease through a fast paced set. There was an edge to their music; a dark undertone hinting of bluesy roots. Heavy drums and bass guitar gave numbers a driving momentum and we found ourselves grinning like idiots as the bass thumped behind our ribs like a second heart. Glorious!
Talking of bass, NOTBAd is delighted Le Woodsmen’s bassist, Brendan McDonald, obeys the First Law of Bass Playing by wearing his baseball cap pulled down low over his eyes and appearing as if he makes new people out of the body parts of old people in his spare time. We adore him for it, and we haven’t had so much aural pleasuring since Mat Osman of Suede.
The thing about Le Woodsmen is that they’re like every band you’ve ever heard, and none. They’re impossible to pin down. Take, for example, Richard Ashcroft, James and The Coral; whizz them in a blender, and you’ve still only got a vague idea of Le Woodsmen’s sound. We recognise country/indie rock influences, but more than that we’re floundering. However, Reid informed us that while he does most of the writing, each song is a collaborative process with each member of the band contributing and adding their own gloss. This allows the numbers to stand as discrete and distinctive pieces, from the sublime Stuck like Glue to the plaintive Long Way Down. Listening to them you don’t get that dreaded sense of sameyness you can get with bands in which one person has control of the material.
These guys raised the roof and clearly have themselves an ardent local following. While not currently under management, Reid is sanguine. If it’s offered they’d take it but for the time being they’re happy just doing what they’re doing.
And so, let me tell you, are we.
(Find Le Woodsmen on Facebook.)
Rounding off the evening with a slip into lower gear was Berwick-based Electric Penelope. Consisting of Anna Emmins (vocals/songwriter), Jimmy Manningham(guitar), Duncan Bell (bass), and Dave Arnold (drums), Electric Penelope has been gigging like a mo-fo for the last year (no, we don’t know what that means either). If you’re from the Borders/North Northumberland area and you haven’t heard of these guys then we guess you’ve just got back from an alien abduction or an enforced stay someplace where you pass the time making matchstick models.
Blending elements of jazz, funk and pop, Electric Penelope were the perfect chill-out antidote to Le Woodsmen’s intensity, kicking off their set with the upbeat Trafalgar Square. Sadly there were sound problems for the first couple of numbers meaning that Anna’s voice got lost amidst the guitars, but once these were sorted they soon hit their stride with cracking songs such as Come and Find Me, My Everything, and Waiting So Long.
Anna sings with what NOT BAd would term a ‘lazy mouth’. Think Billie Holiday. She lets her voice find its own way around the melody yet still in perfect control. It contributes to this wonderful air of playful languor the band has got going on, with Jimmy– the showman of Electric Penelope – revelling in his guitar as he nonchantly wanders into the audience during his improvs. Blissful stuff, hinting at smoke and late night whisky.
In our opinion, Electric Penelope is unique and talented enough to take off and make a name for themselves outside the Borders area, as demonstrated by the band playing the first night of the Fringe this year. However, while they inarguably have a strong, distinctive musical identity and work well together on stage , they don’t have a recognisable ‘look’. Perhaps a little time spent investing in this area – and hands up, I’m looking at you, boys – may well return Electric Penelope rich dividends in the future.
Three brilliant acts, four quid. It’s good to know that even in these austere times a bargain can still be had that lifts the soul.