Colonel Bastard, MJ Hibbett and The Validators, Unit - The Man On The Moon, Cambridge
Obviously I can't really review my own gig - so this is going to be more of an account of what proved to be a quite brilliant night in Cambridge. Thanks must go to Cambridge local heroes Colonel Bastard for arranging this gig - it really was a great pleasure and privilege to play with some bands I actually like rather than a couple of random pub rock seventies throwbacks as usually happens. Self-promotion is the way forward - I intend to begin by honouring my promise of an exchange with Colonel Bastard - I hope we can repeat this line-up in London at some point soon.
Things got off to a terrible start, largely because of my EXTREME LATENESS. Some people (specifically John Kell) will tell you this was not exactly out of character - although having driven for three hours (across London North to South to pick up a bass amp - back again to avoid the apparently clogged M25 and then out to Cambridge) it was not entirely my fault this time. My reckless haste up an almost entirely empty M11 at least meant that the equipment arrived only just over an hour late, and frankly it could have been much worse. Sadly, that still left no time for adequate soundchecks - and I felt it was more than a little unfair that it was us, the latecomers, who managed to get a sneaky level check in before the doors opened.
Whilst we still have a few friends left in Cambridge, I wasn't sure how many people would be there. It transpired that a surprisingly good crowd turned out, which made me feel that my effort had been worth it. We began our groovy mash-up with a pretty storming version of 'Television' - Brendan getting crazy on the guitar, and Dan starting the silly cat dancing far too early in the set! Our new set list continued to work wonders, as there was far less arsing around (although Brendan's guitar tuning nightmares did return to haunt us tonight - we've finally bought an amp, a new guitar is now on the wishlist). We had intended to change it slightly from the previous gig at the Betsey Trotwood, but were ruthlessly curtailed as time seemed to slip from our fingers. Fair enough - it was my fault it was all running a bit late! So, our anti-Bush rant to backing track 'Monkey King' was an unfortunate casualty ('miditastic' as the soundman so accurately described it), as was the Turtle's sublime piece of wry borderline misogyny 'O Woman'. There always seems to be a gaping hole when these songs are absent - but the void was at least partially filled by new song 'The Explorer', given an even more energetic performance tonight than at its debut a couple of weeks ago, and it may well become a standard set closer. I love the lyrics - and the way it veers between half and full time without batting an eyelid. It's one of my current favourites. All good, although the onstage sound was frustratingly muffled and it's always annoying not to be able to hear the vocals. I wondered if place names were repeated during the improvised chorus to 'Shooting People'. This week we will be working on live versions of 'All EYes On You', 'Listen It Out', 'Highway 75' and 'Secretary Of State' - all to be given their live debut in the not too distant future. Check http://www.unit-hq.com for new live dates as they are confirmed.
The full set was:
SLEEP WHEN YOU'RE DEAD
EDGE OF TOWN
2C OTHERS AS THEY C ME
After a quick trip to a cashpoint on the realisation I had no money for drinks - on came MJ Hibbett and The Validators. I've seen them a couple of times now, as well as MJ Hibbett solo, but this was comfortably the best of the bunch. Mark was understandably concerned about playing so many new songs - but I didn't find this a problem at all, simply because the songs are among his most articulate, immediate and entertaining. I particularly enjoyed 'The Gay Train' and 'Tell Me Something You Do Like' and it's refreshing to hear a songwriter so adept at identifying the state of the nation, but also of singing about it all with such infectious positivity. Best of all was a song about the brutal reality of the Thatcher years that may or may not be called 'The Fight For History' - provocative, incisive and also good fun. The band were also on top form, with Frankie Machine's great steal from 'This Charming Man' an extra level of irony to 'The Lesson Of The Smiths'.
All these songs seem to deploy the same four chords - but this doesn't matter a jot, because Hibbett and band can reap so many rewards from what might appear to be a limited framework. The inclusion of a violin with multi-effects also adds to the quirky appeal of their sound. Their performance brought a great beaming smile to my face - and that's a big compliment, if it doesn't sound too cheesy. The Validators are recording a new album imminently - I'm really looking forward to its appearance later this year. MJ Hibbett's own account of the evening can be read at http://www.mjhibbett.com
Headlining were the superb Colonel Bastard, who played many songs I remembered from my student days, but in considerably more polished and impressive versions. I don't think it would be overstating the case to say that this is some of the best indie guitar pop I've heard in recent months - so much more distinctive and enjoyable than most of the po-faced tripe in the pages of the NME. It's music with zest, intelligence and charm to boot. Martin White also has a great sense of humour - "I'm MJ White" he says, "so for one night only we are MJ White and The Vindicators!"
There are classics in abundance - the hilarious 'Peter Sissons' and 'Boring Gordon' are songs which revive the great British tradition of character and narrative in songwriting (and in this respect, Colonel Bastard hark back not just to the power pop of XTC, but also to Ray Davies and The Kinks). They end with a gloriously ragged version of their 'punk rock opera' 'Whitley Grange' which has lodged itself in my consciousness and now refuses to go away. They also looked great in their suits and hats, and had energy and enthusiasm in bucketloads. Tonight has made me realised that, whilst we have some great material, Unit need to go away and work quite hard on this aspect of our performance.
Afterwards, it was all back to Ben from Colonel Bastard's place for an aftershow with BEER - although it involved negotiating a maze of Cambridge backstreets that I never even knew existed. Thanks again to everyone involved.