After a last-minute venue change from the North Laine’s Komedia to London Road’s Bleach (above the Hare & Hounds, FYI), we’re feeling a tad apprehensive. After all, this is unfamiliar territory – rarely do we find ourselves “off the beaten track” as it were. However, after a beer at H&H (locally brewed, in case you were wondering), we soon realise we needn’t be. Bleach is slick. Dark. It’s every inch the quintessential Brighton indie venue that we’re used to. And, watching the opening band take the stage, we like it.
What’s instantly noticeable about Eyes & No Eyes is the unexpected presence of a cello (insert Scrubs’ “CELLO!!” pun here). It’s an unusual addition to the indie outfit that formed four years ago at a Brighton art school, but fitting for a band that nods towards folk songs, J.G. Ballard novels and the 1960s experimental rock group, Can. They open with Hidden Thieves, a structured track where vocalist Tristram Bawtree competes with a backing not overly dissimilar to John Cage’s famous 3.33. Continuing the experimentalist sound are three more songs from their self-titled debut ‘, where vocals, strings and percussion synchronise fluently. It’s obscure enough to remind us of early Alt-J, had Simon Neil fronted them, but it doesn’t feel as polished as maybe it should.
Our second support of the night is Norwegian singer Farao, the alias of multi-instrumentalist Kari Jahnsen. From the moment she begins laying down her tracks, we’re hit by her voice, so powerful and melodic. It’s a little Lykke Li/Oh Land – perhaps there’s something in the Scandi pronunciation – with emotionally charged lyrics and a keyed Owl City-like backing. Tell a Lie is our favourite – another from the Made In Chelsea back-catalogue – exposing Jahnsen’s musical talents perfectly as she juggles keys, guitar and singing simultaneously. The variety of melodies is notable, with mixed tempos, instrument combinations and moods, but the message remains the same: pay attention, Farao is here.
Dan Mangan + Blacksmith follow soon after, trumpeting immediately into Offred, the opening track on their album, ‘Club Meds’ (the album, as noted by the band, “that the British press forgot about”). To anyone unfamiliar with their background, Dan Mangan began his career as an indie-folk singer-songwriter, only officially collaborating with Blacksmith – the musical collective comprising John Walsh (bass), Gordon Grdina (guitar), Kenton Loewen (drums), and trumpeter JP Carter – on tour, until recently. As vocals and instruments intertwine seamlessly with one another during the bluegrass/folk second track Vessel (from last year’s indie flick, Hector and the Search for Happiness), and later in the more lively songs, Kitsch and Mouthpiece, it’s difficult to see why the quintet didn’t team up sooner – that is, until we’re treated to some tracks from Mangan’s pre-Blacksmith fame.
Taken from third album ‘Oh Fortune’, the songs Starts With Them, Ends With Us and Leaves, Forests, Trees possess an unusual tempo that prevent their melancholic verse from feeling overdone, each of them boasting acoustic melodies that progress into fuller riffs, with soft meaningful lyrics. The band follows up with Post War Blues, a tune with a Vaccines-esque chorus that contemplates anarchy from the intro: “let’s start a war for the kids/a purpose for which to unite”. It may be the edgiest track on the album, yet live – with Carter’s trumpet – it loses its angst to make way for a jazzier feel.
Providing vocal backing, layers of reverb and a full-band arrangement that draw from a multitude of genres, Blacksmith’s contributions to Mangan’s originals are outstanding. Mangan’s mellower songs Road Regrets and Row of Houses are fleshed out and brought to life, fuller and with much more energy – the latter of which culminates in a tremendous Blacksmith medley as their bandleader takes a momentary backseat. It’s impressive to see a group so versatile, as they effortlessly combine sounds to show off their respective talents across a plethora of genres, while their onstage banter reflects the five years they’ve spent together on the road. Listening to them play – all the while Mangan’s voice jumping from gentle and lamenting to harsh and gravelly – reminds us a little of Mumford & Sons (or, perhaps, the band that Mumford & Sons could have been, had they picked up a decent instrumentalist after they ditched the banjo).
They’re a joy to watch, and it’s a real shame when we come to New Skies – the close to both ‘Club Meds’ and, apparently, the evening. The band play it out emotively – it’s a slow one, and pretty depressing if we’re honest – yet we’re left feeling a little disappointed as they leave the stage; we were hoping for more of a, well, bang. But, of course, in the spirit of true showmanship, Mangan returns to the stage to play fan-favourite Basket, before Blacksmith reappear for one last performance: a slowed down rendition of Sold, from Mangan’s 2009 ‘Nice, Nice, Very Nice’ album. Urged by Mangan himself, we all sing the refrain together – ultimately achieving the magnificent finale that we were looking for.
By Nammie Matthews