FIFTY3 FRIDAYS: LIVING IT LIVE IN SE14
New Cross may not be the most glamorous location for a London music venue but the Amersham Arms has history on its side. A Victorian drinking house that has weathered 160 years good and bad, hosting an eclectic range of music since the 60s and latterly comedy, it is blessed with a spacious gig room, as these things go, and, from what I heard tonight, a very decent sound set-up. On Wednesday night the Arms was hosting Trust The Doc Live with three intriguing acts to make the convoluted journey across from KT1 to SE14 well worth it.
The evening summed up the dichotomy in live music between the riches on stage and poverty in audience numbers. You could not wish for a more committed champion of independent and grassroots music than Neil March aka Trust the Doc who both curated and tirelessly promoted tonight’s show. You’d have to go far to find three acts who performed quite as well as tonight’s trio, managing to genuinely complement each other, while offering totally diverse musical styles. I always think a great evening is sealed by the acts staying to watch each other which, of course, they did. The problem is in the numbers. It was an enthusiastic and appreciative audience. There just could have been many more of them, especially at £7 a pop (try getting any change from a pint from that).
Photos of march, Retropxssy and Fonn all kindly by Kevin England
March, the moniker of London-based artiste Kitty O’Neal, should be familiar to readers as she was one of my three choices for Glastonbury Emerging Talent 2023. She opened the show solo with a trio of new songs with titles possibly still to be determined. In common with all her work there was something immediate about them that you know will be endorsed by depths still to be fathomed on future listens. There was a marked Laurel Canyon vibe coming across too. March was joined by her bass player, Frazer Pearce, for the remaining songs to complement her precise finger-picked acoustic, and her set closed in stripped-back fashion with the graceful, dream evoking “Hesperides”. The set was all too short in length but big on distinction and poise.
If March offered a relatively gentle lead into the evening, the next act provided a real contrast, underlining the eclectic and imaginative choice of performers Neil had lined up for us tonight. Retropxssy brings a heady mix of styles to the stage with punk, Hip Hop, Electronica, Jazz and Pop worn on the sleeves of a vintage pink dress which evoked waitresses from those American diners from the 60s. In fact, the outfit was more precisely adorned with classic US motor racing logos. Skilfully working to backing tracks, Retropxssy was energy personified, charging up and down the stage and into the audience in a frenzy of dance moves and theatrical poses. The music was continually surprising and her turn of phrase witty and engaging, whether singing or rapping. I loved the way Retropxssy commanded the stage yet presented like she was out with her mates. Don’t ask for a set list. I wasn’t sure of the song titles but she did do this one, “Fading”, for sure. I mean who could miss the line “Picture of my arse on your homepage.” A brilliant set, combining flamboyance with vulnerability.
The evening closed with a wonderful set from London-based five-piece FONN, a band which combines a raft of influences from indie rock to electro folk and mixes it with a dash of styles from past decades to create what is undoubtedly an epic sound. The band fronted by lead singer-guitarist Fionn Connolly coincidentally shares its name with a Norwegian construction company but is clearly building something here of its very own. Fionn seems to write chiefly about depression yet musically there is a grandeur that elevates these feelings to a genuinely uplifting plane. The interplay of guitars, bass, drums and keys was quite brilliant; imposing yet nothing was overwrought while musical dexterity was balanced by a plaintive note in the lead vocals and some delicious supporting harmonies.
To give you a flavour, this live video from a fundraiser FONN did for War Child UK back in February includes three of the songs the band played us tonight. In SE14, the songs came across loud and even prouder.
Photo of Nadia Sheikh by Javier Nomdedeu
Moving on from the live arena, it is always an event to hear new music on record from Nadia Sheikh as she works towards the release of her new EP, expected this autumn. The year is yet a third the way through but Nadia has now revealed another ace in her hand to follow the persuasive singles, “The Shadows” and “Quiet” in January and March. Perhaps with her joint British and Spanish heritage in mind, there is always a sense of duality in Nadia’s work and this continues with her latest single, “Broken Bridges”; a song which had already stuck in my mind from her stellar live sets at Glastonbury last summer.
Opening with a rising keyboard figure and strummed guitar, “Broken Bridges” builds with steady intensity, peaking two thirds in and then cutting back nicely before a further build towards the end. The emotions are restrained as Nadia works through an internal dialogue as she reflects on a fading relationship as two people grow apart. That realisation changes to an acceptance as the questions in the verses turn to answers. There is an undernote of anger amid the despair and vulnerability which Nadia voices with her trademark soulful twist. Her songwriting is often born out of times of confusion and deep pain and this makes her work so relatable to many, while production is always polished and nuanced.
Photo of Slaney Bay by Rory Dunn
Another act with new music just out is a band local to me in Kingston. Slaney Bay, the trio comprising close friends Cait Whitley (lead vocals, guitar), William Nicola-Thompson (lead guitar) and Joel Martin (bass, backing vocals) came to my attention last autumn via its single, “LS6”, closely followed by a sparkling debut EP, A Life Worth Living, which charted the many pains of growing up. Slaney Bay lyrically trade introspection while couching its thoughts in shimmering dream pop melodies.
Slaney Bay has returned with a new single, “Move On”, which as you may guess from the title is about… moving on, but more so about finding the resolve to take those initial steps after feeling in a rut. It comes across as a personal plea by Cait to rid herself of the mental baggage holding her back. It is a punishing work out she goes through to become unstuck yet with a payback in sight. Musically, “Move On” is vibrant, propelled by resonant guitar riffs, punctuated by cut-back passages where Cait gauzily voices her lines, before soaring off into powerful choruses. Slaney Bay are only moving in one direction and it’s a decidedly forward motion.
Photo of Boygenius by Harrison Whitford
I’ll leave you with Boygenius. In the tradition of those bands you used to get in the late 60s and early to mid-70s, Boygenius is a genuine supergroup, uniting the solo talents of seminal US singer-songwriters Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus. A debut EP in 2018 looked like a one-off as each of them soared in their solo careers so the announcement that they were going to pick up again, release a full-length album and go out on tour seemed like a blessing that was always going to be fulfilled.
The trio’s debut album, The Record, takes you on a rollercoaster ride through aspects of the male ego, blurring boundaries between female love and friendship and holding mirrors to each other as true confidantes. From its a cappella overture of an opener, “Without You Without Them” through to the greeting of a new start in the closing track, “Letter To An Old Poet”, The Record is packed with visceral imagery, graphic stories, letters to one another and musical variation that keeps everything fresh. Moreover, it is an intensely unified work; playing to the strengths of individual songwriting while bringing such camaraderie to every song that stamps it as a collective work.
It’s taken me three weeks to get around to writing anything about it and I could have picked out any of the 12 songs but here are two great tasters: “Not Strong Enough” and “True Blue”.