FIFTY3 FRIDAYS: IT’S A LIVE REVIEW HYBRID
Last week saw me at two live gigs on consecutive evenings while enjoying the freedom of the London transport network which, when it works, gets you to weird northern and central locations seamlessly from my SW London base. Let us start with last Friday and work backwards as eagle-eyed readers will recall that I opened last week’s column with a brief mention of the Thursday night show. Friday evening saw Nadia Sheikh launch her new EP, Neverending Trial, topping a three-act bill at The Grace, a North London venue new to my notepad.
Smooth connectivity notwithstanding, we got in too late to catch the opening act, The Book Club. You can click on the name to find out more about them. Note for the future: mind your Gs; that is, don’t find yourself queuing up for The Garage when you actually want to get into The Grace next door. Equally don’t eat at the adjacent Trevi Restaurant as they don’t take cards and the only cash machine at Tesco is out of service. Actually, do eat there. It’s actually very good but just remember to take the readies with you.
Photo of Shai Brides by Kasia Kwasniewska
Eventually inside The Grace, we did see most of the second act, Shai Brides, who self-describe as ‘pop wizards’ on the band’s Bandcamp page. It is a pretty apt label. As well as the outfit’s obvious musical dexterity, there was a degree of wizardry involved in being able to squeeze a five-piece, equipment and instruments onto the venue’s cramped stage. The gig room is your typical black clad rectangle with little other than the fulsome crowd to absorb the sound waves bouncing around. The sound balance was not the greatest but there was plenty to admire in the glossy synth-fuelled power pop on show.
I couldn’t catch song titles but snatches of lyrics suggested that the band is confronting some heavy stuff from incels to violence and toxicity. Thom Dent was a confident frontman and vocally shared lead with synth player Meghan Avery agreeably while the ensemble playing was crisp and tight throughout. For a sample of Shai Brides, this is the latest single, “Gatling Gun” while you can find more on Bandcamp. Take cover!
Headlining the evening and spearheading her third EP to date, Nadia Sheikh was flanked by her stoic, long standing band mates, bassist Rowan Davies and drummer George Gardiner, taking on lead and rhythm guitar duties with great panache. It. Her opener, “Get Away” might have been a risky choice as the song calls for audience sing-back but terra firma was quickly established and this crowd was going nowhere. Sound-wise the edge of Nadia’s distinctly soulful vocals was dulled a little but despite the limitations of the room and PA, the strength of songwriting and band camaraderie was quickly established as she moved on to the first song from the EP to be aired tonight. “Don’t Give It Up” is a plea to keep going when things get tough and the singer’s bluesy tones graced the verses, contrasting nicely with the more anthemic choruses.
The set progressed mixing back tracks with new material and incorporating all six songs from the new Neverending Trial EP. It said much for the durability of Nadia’s catalogue that crowd favourites “Fire Away” and “The Wire” could be left on the subs bench. Mid set, she gave a solo outing to a new song, “Wasting Away”, switching from guitar to piano. Its haunting refrain and poignant lyrics provided a fitting contrast with the rockier tones of most of the set throughout which she sealed her take on indie rock with a lyricism closer to that of a classic singer-songwriter. “The Shadows” stood out as a prime example of just that.
The set culminated in a run of three songs that encapsulated the best of Nadia Sheikh. Firstly the great “IDWK” from her Undefined EP – followed by two pearls from the latest work: “Broken Bridges” and the title track, “Neverending Trial”. There was a real dynamism to all three songs: imaginative fills and impeccable timing from drummer George, solid yet expansive bass from Rowan and some meaty guitar and top vocals from Nadia. As I have often commented in these columns, Nadia Sheikh hasn’t had an easy ride negotiating the highs of touring with Stereophonics pre-pandemic to the difficulties of surviving lockdown and rebuilding her career via independent releases and live gigs. She made her Glastonbury debut in 2022 playing four sets on relatively small stages. It surely can’t be long before her talent and appetite for live music is rewarded with a main stage appearance. Roll on 2024.
All photos of Nadia Sheikh by Maja Smiejkowska
The previous evening was spent at the Barbican Centre in London, amid the Brutalist concrete city within a city elevated above street level and composed of a rabbit warren of flats, an artificial lake, conservatory and more, flanked by grim looking 40-storey towers. Amazingly unlike our schools and hospitals though it is RAAC-free. While back in Islington it may be easy to confuse The Grace and The Garage, here the task is finding your way into the Centre as minimalism here seems to extend to signposting.
The occasion was to see a true icon of folk music in Judy Collins. The US singer’s career in music spans over 60 years and yet into her 80s she can still deliver her interpretations of the works of classic songwriters alongside her self-penned songs with such a vigorous, nuanced and powerful voice. Describing herself as the “American Idol of 1956”, she spent as much time telling jokes and meandering anecdotes as she did singing but it all made for an immensely entertaining set which spanned over 90 minutes. It was bold to open with perhaps her best known song, Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” which should have been a natural closer but it was de rigueur for the lady who twinkled “I didn’t do many drugs as they interfered with my drinking.” I loved her stories of Leonard Cohen and her version of “Suzanne” especially but then again much of her set left you somewhat “Spellbound”. Her brilliant accompanists on guitars and piano had a similar effect.
Photos of Judy Collins and Blánid by Kevin England
It was especially rewarding to see a star of Judy Collins’ magnitude offering a stage to a new generation of talent. Opening tonight for her was an undoubted rising star, the Irish singer-songwriter Blánid, whose remarkable voice and beautifully crafted songs will already be familiar to readers. With her flame-red hair and bold green faced guitar, Blánid captivated an audience here to see Judy Collins yet to their credit most of whom had taken their seats early enough to watch her support act. She opened with a song yet to be recorded, “Rise Up” which was heralded by spectacular vocal aerobics. Following that with three more new songs including the outstandingly beautiful “Good Fruits”, she closed with earlier singles “Fool’s Gold” and “Bad Decisions”, underlying that she has a great debut album in the making in 2024.
Fifty3 Fridays Spotify Playlist September 2023
On the first Friday of each month, I publish a Playlist on Spotify which includes all the songs featured in this column over the previous month. Not just that, but in order too!
So, our Fifty3 Fridays Spotify Playlist September 2023 includes all 19 songs from the month’s Fifty3 Fridays plus a bonus track from Alex Hall. It opens with the beautiful “Tourists” from the wonderful Blánid and reaches a heady conclusion with the brilliant blues rock of Samantha Fish & Jesse Dayton and “Lover On The Side”. Just one sub this month; Mitzi Irish’s “Time To Go” hasn’t been recorded beyond a demo yet, let alone arrived on Spotify, so I have added her song “Lost & Found”. As it was a shorter month due to my holiday, I’ve also included a bonus track from Alex Hall to make it up to 20 songs; the one that went under the radar, “16-bit Dream”.
Follow me on Spotify at TonyHardy53 for 33 of these monthly playlists plus others to keep you sane during an unexpected visit from Aunt Maud.