Wednesday 21 June 2023

Recent gigs ( Part One ) - Dodgy, The Supernaturals and Billy Nomates

In my ongoing mission to see more bands in one year than ever before ( it's not really a mission, more a half-arsed wishlist ), I've recently been to a few gigs, including one festival and two contrasting nights in good ol' Bristol. In the time-honoured, but ultimately pointless, tradition of The Glass Walking-Stick, I'll talk about these in messed-up chronological order, starting a few Saturdays back at the Bristol O2 Academy with a Britpop revival and the return of my legendary Supernaturals T-shirt...

There's been a lot of publicity recently about Britpop legends Blur and Pulp* reforming, so interest in mid-'90s acts has been on the rise. W
hen I heard that two of the most underrated bands of that era were playing just down the road, I had to make my way to Brizzle. I even persuaded Sarah to come along, even though she really didn't know The 'Naturals and could barely remember seeing Dodgy back in the far-off days of ( checks notes ) 2016. With impeccable timing we arrived at the O2 Academy as the first act was just finishing. This was Chris Helme, formerly of minor Britpop band The Seahorses, performing a solo acoustic set. I remembered them as being quite generic, with some dodgy lyrics ( not "Dodgy" lyrics ) so hadn't been bothered about catching Helme's set. I'm clearly an idiot. We saw him play about half of Love Is The Law and last song Blinded By The Sun to a rapturous response from the early-doors crowd. Two fine, anthemic songs with Helme's voice strong, clear and powerful, far better than I'd expected. I'll have to try and catch a full set from him. 
( *I may have bought tickets to see Pulp... watch this space... )

After a few choice Blair-era songs over the sound system, The Supernaturals ambled onstage. Just as they did the last time I saw them, James McColl and the boys started in a fairly low-key way, this time with Submarine Song and its "Doo-doo-doo-doo, oh, I wish you were here" refrain. After a more upbeat Lazy Lover, James remembered to talk to the audience and the set started to perk up. He said they'd played a warm-up gig in Glasgow the night before ( this was the first official night of the tour ), and told us that one person had fainted, one had thrown up and one had pissed in the corner by the bar  -  "Gotta love a Glasgow audience!" Bristol was slightly more civilized :-)

Second album classic I Wasn't Built To Get Up continued the perennial 'Naturals theme of not being arsed to do stuff, and was followed by the sunny, Samba sounds of Bird Of Luck and two indie-pop bangers in Love Has Passed Away and Stammer. James had by now warmed to the audience and there was even some banter with the keyboard player about his shrimp collection. ( Which led some wag on Twitter to later coin the hashtag #shrimpternaturals... you had to be there... ) James himself has apparently adopted two crows who he regularly feeds and he was concerned his wife wouldn't feed them when he was on tour. Phew! Rock 'n' roll, eh?

Speaking of Twitter ( sorry Blogger... it's not you, it's me ) I'd earlier that day posted the story of the guy who'd tried to but my vintage Supernaturals T-shirt *while I was wearing it* the last time I saw them. This prompted the Naturals' keyboard guy ( I really should know his name ) to point me out in the crowd ( I was, of course, wearing it ) and asked how much I wanted for said garment. My reply of £1000 strangely didn't find any takers. Anyway, it was odd but strangely satisfying to realise that my T-shirt's more famous than I'll ever be. After playing two of the greatest pop songs in human history, Day Before Yesterday's Man & Smile, James thanked us all for coming along and finished the set with the epic ballad Everest. It was great to see The Supernaturals again, even though their more restrained stage personae today isn't a patch on the fun fun fun antics of their glory days. Understandable, really, as it was a long time ago and we're all older and wiser now. Well, older anyway.

Headliners Dodgy were doing the "play a classic album all the way through" thing and, unlike The Chameleons last year, actually stuck to it and played the whole album, in order. Said record was the pun-tastic Free Peace Sweet, probably the high point of their career. After the intro music, the band went straight into minor melodic masterpiece In A Room and had everyone bellowing out the highly appropriate "if we are together again" line. Yes, we were all together again and it felt bloody great. More Who-influenced perfect pop followed in the shape of Trust In Time and You've Gotta Look Up, before Chris Helme came back out to join Dodgy in a crowd-pleasing If You're Thinking Of Me. They then hit us with probably their most iconic song, Good Enough, which sounded frankly fantastic. It was much more than just good enough...

As a change of pace, they ran through an epic version of One Of Those Rivers. Frontman Nigel Clark said they didn't often play this back in the Britpop days as it was "too ballad-y" for those times but, in 2023, this Waterboys-esque anthem was a soaring singalong. After a couple more power-pop bangers ( including Jack The Lad, which is surely a lost Who single from 1965 ) Nigel introduced the seemingly written-for-2023 UK RIP by saying "We wrote this song 30 years ago and, even then, we could see the lies and the bullshit. There's only one way out of this mess - together." Let's hope so, Nige.
They finished the set with Homegrown, a paean to ganja, which prompted Nigel to ask "Anybody here smoke grass?" It's Bristol, mate. You might as well ask who *doesn't* smoke grass. After a brief pause, the band came back out to finish off an excellent gig with a bouncy Staying Out For The Summer ( of course! ) and a rampant charge through Grassman, with full-on axe histrionics. Cracking stuff! Dodgy are definitely one of those bands who, while their music is damn good on record, really come alive when on stage. Great musicians and singers, with some beautiful harmonies, and tunes that just don't quit. Let's do it again soon, guys!
( Oh yeah, after the gig I actually bumped into "T-shirt guy"! It was great to catch up with him, even though I still can't remember his name: apparently he has about three different online aliases as he's a teacher and doesn't want his students to stalk him on social media... )

Back to April, now, and another gig at Bristol's Marble Factory. My good friend Tom, of The Sensitive Bore fame, sussed this gig out and said I would appreciate the artist, Billy Nomates. And, as Tom's recommendations are always spot-on ( I won't mention Joanna Newsome. Oh, I just did. ) we found ourselves hitting the M5 yet again for a trip down to cider country. Luckily, the Marble Factory was busy but it wasn't the involuntary game of sardines that the Underworld gig became. Which was nice. Before the gig we had a chat with the merch guy for Australian support band RVG. I asked him what that stood for ( as we were completely ignorant ) and he said it meant "Romy Vager Group" and explained their sound was similar to The Go-Betweens. Interesting.
Tom and I found a decent spot to the right of the stage and then it was time for RV and the RVG. 
( Really not sure about that name. )

Vager turned out to be a hugely passionate singer, putting her heart and soul into every line, and also a fantastic guitarist, shredding away for all she's worth.

The band had a tough, post-Punk sound ( which didn't really warrant the Go-Betweens comparison ) and they were all excellent musicians. The second guitarist's penchant for playing guitar and keyboards at the same time was certainly impressive. Vager's lyrics about serial killers and squids often bordered on the surreal ( "Don't go back in time / It's not worth it" ), but she sang them with the vein-bursting intensity of Patti Smith and her performance was almost, as one of her song titles has it, Feral.

The band had probably one of the best reactions from a crowd I've ever seen for a support and they were highly appreciative, saying this was the best gig they'd played in the UK. They're hoping to come back again later in the year, as headliners in smaller venues, to promote their next album so hopefully I'll get the chance to see them again.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Tor Maries aka Billy Nomates. I'd quickly Googled her when Tom first mentioned the gig but had only heard a couple of songs. I didn't know if she would have a backing band or be on her own, as her name suggested. As it turned out, she really was billy nomates and came out onto the stage solo, a diminutive figure with an acoustic guitar. Introducing the Country lament of Fawner, she said "I'm going to start off quiet then burn it down." And she did.

After this deceptively sedate opener, Billy discarded the guitar, a backing track kicked in and she began to move...

And when I say "move" I mean she moved. She pinballed around the stage, electrified, intense, a Catherine Wheel of energy.

The songs were minimalist electro-pop, pulsing and surging and very loud, but the performance was everything. After a few minutes of adjustment for sad old bloggers like myself it didn't matter that there was no backing band as Billy captured our attention with her physical performance and her strong, distinctive voice. And that voice always stayed in tune, always stayed melodic, no matter what contortions she put herself through. The Country inflections of Fawner resurfaced throughout, especially on the glistening Saboteur Forcefield ( "I had such a terrible evening"), making an interesting contrast to the ultra-modern backing and often reminding me of Angel Olsen.

The only instrument on stage was a cymbal and, unsurprisingly, that took a beating during the twisted fairground dirge Roundabout Sadness...

Highlights were Blackout Signal, the furious Spite ( "Don't you act like I ain't the fuckin' man!" ) and the more reflective Cacti, while the pounding Balance Is Gone added some New Order / Cure indie guitar sounds and seemed like a method statement: "I just go round and round."

Although originally from Leicestershire, Tor Maries now lives in Bristol and this was a homecoming gig in front of a hugely appreciative crowd. She was clearly overjoyed with the reaction and said:
"I hope you've enjoyed the show and you won't be disappointed if you see me tomorrow, doing my Tesco's weekly shop, in my joggers. But I live here."

So, a great gig and a stunning performance from a singular artist. I'll definitely have to catch Billy Nomates again soon. After the gig, Tom and I headed to the merch stalls where we had a quick chat with the guys from RVG before the less-than-friendly security guards ushered us out of the building. ( The Marble Factory also plays host to the Motion nightclub and hundreds of teens were starting to queue outside for the late night partying. ) Tom asked the RVG people to name their favourite films ( of course he did! ) and the results were: Romy - All That Jazz ( no hesitation! ), guitarist - The Wicker Man ( excellent choice! I told him it's the film's 50th anniversary this year ), bass player - Casablanca. I remarked that nobody had gone for Weekend At Bernie's, and then they realised their huge mistake ;-)
Afterwards, Tom and I walked into Bristol for a quick drink and post-gig chat in a pub near Templemeads Station, before heading for home. What a great night, thanks Tom!

( It looks like Blogger's playing up again, as I can't keep the letters in the same format / size. This used to be a much more user-friendly platform but it seems to be largely forgotten now, hence the lack of support. Oh, well! )

Wednesday 14 June 2023

RIP John Romita

 I was sad today to hear that the legendary John Romita Sr. had passed away at the ripe old age of 93. "Jazzy Johnny" was one of the mainstays of the Marvel universe, his smooth style an unmistakable visual roadmap to the time of the Silver and Bronze Ages. From his early days of illustrating the brief Captain America revival of the Atlas era, through his romance comics work for DC, and through to his triumphant run on Spider-Man, Romita lent a touch of class and glamour to everything he worked on. He successfully tackled the tough gigs of taking over from Jack Kirby ( Fantastic Four ) and Steve Ditko ( Spider-Man ), and brought new life and sophistication to Daredevil and Captain America. His work on dozens of comic covers, as well as Marvel's advertising and licensed products, made Romita's style "the" look of the Marvel universe for many fans. I'm going to share a few images of the great man's work from my collection, namely two of my favourite comics, the iconic Amazing Spider-Man no. 50 and the first FF comic I ever owned, Fantastic Four no. 106...

Of course, Romita was well known for drawing fantastic female characters and created the iconic look of Mary Jane Watson, Peter Parker's perennial love interest. Romita's glamorous touch transformed the angular world Ditko had originated and gave Peter and the strip a more "grown up" feel.

I've written about this issue of the FF before but it's always good to share it again. The cover artwork and many of the images inside are permanently etched into my brain, a testament to the enduring excellence of Romita's visual ability. I love the sequence below, simply done but hugely effective. And the colouring ( I'm assuming not by Romita ) is just wonderful in all its newsprint glory...

Again, Jazzy Johnny draws a beautiful Susan Richards, showing how he brought his romance comics sensibility to the super hero genre.

There are many, many wonderful tributes to this great artist out there in t'internet, so it's well worth seeking them out for more insight but I just wanted to pay my small tribute to the great man and his work.

RIP John Romita ( 24/02/1930 - 12/06/2023 )
Thanks for the years of spectacular entertainment, Jazzy John, you were truly a master of your craft.


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