It’s a lovely idea, putting on a diverse music festival in a tightly defined area of the city which is also its grubby up-and-coming creative quarter.
What Gigbeth still lacks, though, is big crowds. The Custard Factory now has a very useful middle-scale venue (it even has more or less proper toilets) but it’s worrying that a band with the profile of Guillemots was unable to fill it on Friday.
Around 600 tickets were sold for each day which, divided among nine venues on Friday and seven on Saturday, was clearly going to make for some thin houses. As Guillemots were about to take the stage a musician who had just played round the corner told me that his band had performed to about 15 people. Funnily enough, that’s precisely the number I later counted watching the closing stages of The Tomorrow Band’s set at nearby South Birmingham College.
Guillemots certainly gave value for money, holding the stage for two hours in a performance of two halves. In the first, a collaboration with film agency Future Shorts, they improvised accompaniments to a group of short films, with results that were at times spectacular – particularly in an exciting and remarkably sustained chase through the streets of Paris in a film about a young middle-class couple who take up armed robbery, escaping on roller-skates.
The unusual format, which continues through a national tour launched at Gigbeth, suggests Guillemots are reasserting their left-field credentials. Having been stereotyped as musical oddballs on their first appearance three or four years ago, their career progression has been steadily towards a more conventional rock-pop middle ground, a tendency which seems to be continuing, to judge from two new songs unveiled here.
Though their musicality and showmanship are never in question, there was a sense of split personality about their main set, with one or two songs – Little Bear was the obvious example – seeming poorly chosen for the occasion. You could only imagine how different it would sound if performed to a respectful Symphony Hall audience.
Someone once described Guillemots as looking like four people who were randomly selected at an airport and forced to form a band at gunpoint. That’s funny, but it’s actually a more accurate description of Young Knives, apart from the fact that here we’re talking about three people.
Brothers Henry and Thomas Dartnall and drummer Oliver Askew look like middle managers who have freaked out under corporate pressure. But unlike Guillemots there’s no ambiguity about where their musical focus lies.
They have taken diverse influences – on limited acquaintance I thought I detected traces of The Smiths, Madness and Talking Heads – crammed them into a stripped-down guitar-bass-drums format and thrashed the life out of them.
On record you are probably better able to absorb their satirical take on contemporary English life, but in live performance – in this case in front of one of the weekend’s fullest houses at the Barfly, including many people who had come straight from the Guillemots gig – the contrast between their geeky personas and rock ’n’ roll animalism is thoroughly entertaining, and when they have a head of steam up they can be thrilling.
Back at the Custard Factory on Saturday I saw The Wonder Stuff’s Miles Hunt, with violinist Erica Nockalls, cheerfully play and reminisce his way through an acoustic set of old favourites and more recent songs despite a heavy cold and another poor turn-out of around 50 people, though what the audience lacked in numbers it went some way to making up for in enthusiasm.
Then South Birmingham College hosted a triple bill with spectacularly gifted soul vocalist Bryn Christopher, a native of Great Barr who featured at last month’s Electric Proms and has recently enjoyed success in America, sandwiching a short acoustic set between The Destroyers and a revived Musical Youth.
The 14-piece Destroyers, purveyors of zippy Balkan gypsy jazz with a dash of just about everything you can think of, are not so much a band as a Birmingham phenomenon. If you haven’t caught up with them yet my advice is do it now, before economic realities catch up with them.
Those realities caught up with Musical Youth so long ago that the shameful industry exploitation of these one-time child pop stars and its tragic consequences has even been the subject of a play. Now, with just two founder-members, keyboard player Michael Grant and ebullient front-man Dennis Seaton, they are reborn as an eight-piece feel-good band. Hardly cutting-edge, they are nevertheless extremely good at what they do.
Saturday’s set was being filmed by a London company for a forthcoming TV series called One Hit Wonders, but they kept us waiting until the end for the hit in question, Pass the Dutchie.
If it makes the final cut of the programme, that’s me singing along in the chorus.