Live Review: Louise Distras, Shepherds Bush Empire, 27th July 2014

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Once upon a time there was a girl called Louise. Louise lived in a town in Yorkshire and she was extremely passionate about her music. She practiced playing the guitar every hour of the day.

One day, when Louise was a teenager, her mother decided to teach her a lesson about the world; how harsh it could be, and how Louise needed to find something more constructive to do with her life. She took Louise’s guitar and, raising it above her head, smashed it into a million pieces.

Louise’s mother did teach her daughter a lesson that day, but little did she know that it wasn’t the one that she had intended…

Fast forward to the present day, and here is Louise Distras in all her zealous ectasy, standing tall in front of the 2,000 strong assembled throng at the O2 Shepherds Bush Empire. A feint and nervous introduction is not for her; as she steps toward the mic, she lets rip with a scream worthy of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” era Roger Daltrey, and soon all eyes are on the stage.

The blood, sweat and tears, born of years of graft and sheer determination, erupt as Distras throws herself full-force into “Stand Strong Together”, the opening track from her debut album Dreams From The Factory Floor. “They put us down in every way, it only makes us stronger every single day… Born original loyal and true, waging war on the chosen few.” On this form, the chosen few had better watch out, because it’s not a war that they are about to win.

20140727_200447-001As the song draws to a close, any thoughts that the audience may have had of talking or drinking through Distras’ set (some little 1970’s NYC band called Television appear to be the main draw of the night!) are vanquished, and a moment of stunned silence is followed very quickly with heartfelt and appreciative applause.

The raging fire of “No Mercy” follows, and you can almost feel Distras’ throat tearing itself apart as she screams “No mercy! Forgive me! Pray for me! Forgive me!” during the song’s coda. This time around the applause is noticeably louder, but Louise is only just warming up.

Next up is “Love Me The Way I Am.” The song’s message is one of self-care and self-belief; of coming to terms with yourself and who you are, and hoping that others will do the same. The lyric has an intimate and personal focus, as it tells the story of a friend of Distras’ who had attempted suicide before coming out. Fortunately the friend pulled through the darkest of times, and the song is just one powerful result of their survival.

Perhaps a surprise for some then comes sharply in to focus, as Louise recites the title track from her album, a prose poem that examines the power of dreams, and explores in detail an extraordinary and hard lesson learned. Already a moving moment on record, it resonantes beautifully at the Empire when, as Distras recites the line “They say that dreams never come true,” she lifts her eyes skyward, spreads her arms wide and motions to the room around her. The briefest of pauses to let it sink in, and then here’s the knockout punch: “Well I say that they do.”

It’s an impassioned and spiky blast through “People of The Abyss” and “Story Is Over”, before Louise is recalling in person that moment of wanton destruction on the part of her mum. Intended to stamp out the musical fire in Distras’ belly, as Louise stands strong and rightly proud on stage in London, it’s plain that it had quite the opposite effect. “I’ll show you. One day, I’ll show you.” And tonight, and on many other nights just like it, she has.

20140727_200453-001Another nod to a colourful past comes in “Shades Of Hate”, with it’s tales of Distras’ hometown of Wakefield and its infamous Westgate run, where “…the girls are in their Friday best and the men are wearing anger.” It has sections of the audience chanting the traditional refrain of God’s own county: “Yorkshire! Yorkshire! Yorkshire!” It’s not quite as poetic as Louise’s song, but it’ll do nicely, thank you very much.

Eventually, as they generally must, all good things come to an end; but what an end. Before her final song, Distras points in to the crowd and says “This song is for you. And you. And you.” With each “…you” Louise singles out the individual women in the audience, fixing them with her own eyes and an empowering sense of solidarity. “I don’t know about you, but I’m sick and tired of being told how I should feel about myself; about my body. All so big corporations can sell us products to try and make us feel better about ourselves.” And then comes the vivid imagery of “The Hand You Hold.”

“Advertising man hammers nails into my head, crucifies these children before they’re born and bred.” Well bugger me if Distras isn’t helping to give every single one of them a fighting chance.

I’m telling you now folks, in these times of turmoil – of increasing social and civil unrest – the questing power of punk is alive and well, and its name is Louise Distras.

oOo

Louise Distras played:

“Stand Strong Together”
“No Mercy”
“Love Me the Way I Am”
“Dreams From The Factory Floor”
“People of The Abyss”
“Story Is Over”
“Bullets”
“Shades of Hate”
“Black and Blue”
“The Hand You Hold”

Louise Distras Dreams From The Factory FloorDreams From The Factory Floor is out now and you can buy it from Louise’s official merch store, Amazon and Google Play.

Visit Louise Distras’ official website here. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

You can read Skin Back Alley’s 5/5 review of Dreams From The Factory Floor here.

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Live Review: Holly Williams, The Ruby Lounge, 25th June 2014

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A year ago, these ears were struck dumb by the sound of Holly Williams’ voice on the opening bars of her song “Drinkin’.” And colour me stupid if the same damn thing didn’t happen again last night at The Ruby Lounge, the moment that support act Anderson East opened his mouth to sing.

The effect was all the more powerful for East’s unassuming presence. Cutting a lithe figure, he ambles on to stage, sips a beer, tunes his guitar, and then reveals that he’s been travelling for 25 hours straight from Nashville, TN without sleep, arriving at the venue just 20 minutes before stage time. “It would be funny, if it wasn’t true,” he quips.

Who would have expected the smoky, soulful, emotive sound that erupts from the man’s chest then, as he expertly and fluidly picks at his guitar. With just six strings and his vocal chords to hand, East conjures up a rootsy American sound, drawing on elements of country, folk and southern soul to mesmeric effect.

The audience, seated at round tables adorned with candles and surrounded by stools, look on in awe, something that East interprets as “intimidating silence.” But their appreciation is clear in the applause that erupts at the end of each and every song.

Holly Williams SBA 003And what songs. We’re treated to a number of cuts from East’s 2012 album, Flowers of The Broken Hearted, including the astounding title track, and what will presumably be the title track from his forthcoming new album of the same name too, “Cotton Field Heart.” At the end of his set, if the guy hasn’t just recruited 150 new enthusiastic advocates of his particular brand of southern-rooted rock n’ soul, we’ll eat our proverbial hat.

Trust us, don’t be one of those fools who buys tickets for a gig but only turns up for the main event, skipping the support act altogether. Buy a beer at the bar, sure, but get yourself to a gig and see this guy live. You won’t be disappointed.

Holly Williams herself could be entirely forgiven for seeming a little less lithe than East. “This isn’t a beer gut. I am six months knocked up!” she confirms later in her set for those who hadn’t figured it out, seating herself at the electric piano for a beautiful rendition of The Highway’s “Without You.” To say that she is six months pregnant, she puts on a hell of a show, the result of hard work, strength, determination and skill.

Rewinding for a moment, the set opens with Holly cutting a lone figure on stage – just her and a guitar – singing “a song from my very first album”, “Sometimes.” The assembled crowd are intimidatingly silent again throughout, as that heart-stopping, dumbfounding voice cuts through the air. Skin Back Alley notices one audience member hunched forward, huge grin in place, having earlier admitted in conversation that he had never before heard Williams’ music. Clearly he’s very glad that he has now.

20140625_210119_resized_1At the end of the spellbinding opener, Williams introduces Annie Clements on upright bass and vocals, and here’s Anderson East again, on vocals and guitar, standing in for “…my good friend Jackson Browne” who unfortunately, and with Williams’ tongue planted firmly in her cheek, we are informed “couldn’t be here tonight.” Both musicians do themselves, Williams, and the songs proud, delivering shiver-inducing three-part harmonies, tight instrumentation and, on the part of East in particular, extremely accomplished bursts of lead guitar that take flight and help the songs transcend.

Most of the night’s material is cut from Williams’ The Highway, but that’s no bad thing, as the strength of the music is more than apparent in a live setting. And so it is that we all sit, rapped and in reverent mood, as the masterly trio power through stirring renditions of “Gone Away From Me”, “Happy” and “The Highway.”

Williams introduces “Giving Up”, explaining that the song documents her attempts to help a friend struggling with addiction. You can feel hearts breaking in the room as their owners picture the scenes of a family in crisis, poetically detailed in the songs’ lyric and delivered again in that profound and plaintive voice that has had everyone enthralled all evening.

A couple of earlier songs then make an appearance in “Alone” and “Three Days In Bed.” Sandwiched between them is the aforementioned “Without You”, a love letter addressed to husband, Chris Coleman. Together they paint a picture of different eras of Williams’ life; despair at the thought of being alone forever; a whirlwind romance with a lover in France; the knowledge that another human being exists who has proven to be the one with whom love has been finally found. Soul-stirring stuff.

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The harrowing sonic suckerpunch of “Drinkin'” then gets an airing, and as if that wasn’t enough, another highlight of the evening follows in a cover version, as Williams explains that she recently had the pleasure of performing with the legendary John Prine, “…who signed my guitar here, just by Mr. Kristofferson and Mr. Nelson.” Illustrious company to be in, but the group’s rendition of Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” that follows blows the place apart. Maybe with the exception of the original, it’s never sounded better.

The evening rounds out with the masterclass in deeply affecting, carefully crafted storytelling that is “Waiting On June.” Documenting the relationship of Holly’s maternal grandparents from initial meeting, through war, marriage, children, infirmity and death, at seven minutes plus, it may sound like heavy going. But it is full of light and warmth and connection too, and brings the night to a close on a tender and life-affirming high.

During the set, Williams briefly alludes to her family heritage, but this night in Manchester belongs entirely to her and her fellow musicians. Last year’s album, this year’s tour, and tonight’s set at The Ruby Lounge prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Holly has a voice, talent and work ethic that is solely, utterly and uniquely her own. Make sure you hear it for yourself.

Holly Williams played:

“Sometimes”
“Railroads”
“Gone Away From Me”
“Happy”
“The Highway”
“Giving Up”
“Let You Go”
“Alone”
“Without You”
“Three Days In Bed”
“Drinkin'”
“Angel From Montgomery”
“Waiting On June”

You can watch fan-shot footage of Holly playing “The Highway” and “Waiting On June” from last night at The Ruby Lounge below:

Find out more about Holly Williams: www.hollywilliams.com
Find out more about Anderson East: www.andersoneast.com
Find out more about Annie Clements: Annie Clements’ Facebook page

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Live Review: Nine Inch Nails, Manchester Arena, 25th May 2014

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Nine Inch Nails’ music has always seemed like the soundtrack to a dystopian nightmare world full of pre and post-millenial angst, the ‘sturm und drang’ of a failing global economy based on a model of mass production, and the sinister and quiet creep of the oncoming digital age.

Perhaps with the exception of the original master of Pretty Hate Machine, which has the unmistakable sound of it’s late 80’s inception, all of Trent Reznor’s albums as NIN sound timeless, and every single one of them remains prescient, challenging and highly relevant.

Before this leg of NIN’s tour began, naysayers were being needlessly critical of Reznor’s decision to play the larger arenas of the world. Why would an ‘alternative’ industrial rock band play venues associated with a mindset of corporate capitalism; atmosphere-free domes more suited to sporting events?

Clearly those naysayers have never been to a Nine Inch Nails arena performance.

Reznor had promised that NIN’s aim with these dates was to deliver a more “low key” and “agressive” show with just a four piece band, rather than the more elaborate eight piece band that had been exploring new material from the Hesitation Marks album during previous dates. And that’s precisely what he and his band mates do at the Phones4U Arena in Manchester.

NIN 005From the opening one-two of “Me I’m Not” and “Copy of A”, the 20 song show doesn’t let up across a career spanning set incorporating material from the entirety of the band’s 25 year history. In fact, just four songs from last year’s new album make an appearance.

The sheer size of “1,000,000”, “Letting You”, “March of the Pigs” and “Piggy” carry the show forward on the strength of their enormous shoulders, each and every song filling the cavernous arena and whipping the thousands strong crowd into a frenzy. The songs are accompanied by a spectacular visual installation, including an impressive lighting rig and a rear screen for video projection that lowers and raises at strategic points to meet the demands of each piece of music.

The stage proves to be a dynamic entity then, and one that allows Reznor and his crack team of multi-instrumentalists to navigate it at will as it expands and contracts. Ilan Rubin proves an astonishing and powerful force behind the live acoustic drum kit as it appears for those songs that require it’s presence, and both Alessandro Cortini and Robin Finck seem as adept at keyboards and electronics as they do at their respective six stringers.

Music from the band’s extensive back catalogue continues unabated until mid-way through the set when The Downward Spiral classic “Closer” makes it’s appearance. The assembled throng sing along to the now notorious lyrics, prompting Trent Reznor’s only between-song banter of the hour and three-quarters the band play. “Thank you”, he says succinctly.

Manchester is then treated to a Hesitation Marks trilogy, with “Find My Way”, “Disappointed” and “Came Back Haunted” following each other, one after the other. Despite the new album’s laser focus on electronics over guitars, the new songs are greeted with rapture, feel just as powerful as their predecessors, and don’t seem at all out of place in the running order.

NIN 004It’s clear that the show’s sound engineers have done their job extremely well, too, as the quality of the sound within the arena is remarkably strong, helping the batch of songs that follow build upon the palpable atmosphere of excitement and reverie, and nail shut the coffin on those pre-tour cranks. “How do you take a big place designed for sports shows and find a way to turn it into something intimate and interesting?”, asked Reznor when these tour dates were announced. “That’s a question we’re constantly trying to deal with. And, I think we’re quite successful at it right now.” On this show’s evidence, damn straight they are.

Reznor’s assertion is a view that doesn’t fade as the concert builds to the final song of the main set, debut album Pretty Hate Machine’s colossal “Head Like A Hole.” It’s five minutes of relentless energy assault the crowd in the best possible way, leaving one gig-goer audibly screaming her love for the band and pleading for more. Nine Inch Nails’ logo is now writ large on the stage’s screen, signalling the end of proceedings. But the fact that the house lights don’t yet come up is telling.

Just a few minutes later, the arena is bathed in golden light, the band silhouetted against a firey backdrop projected on to the screen behind them. The brooding menace of “The Day The World Went Away” builds in the arena’s PA, and the audience are once again vocal in their appreciation and applause.

The only question that remains then, is “Will they or won’t they?” The answer is that they will, and against a rear projection of poisonous reptiles, predatory insects and the horrors of war inflicted upon the human race by our own kind, Reznor and Co. work through a quietly tense, powerful and moving rendition of “Hurt.”

If there is a band in the world more capable than Nine Inch Nails of taking a venue the size of the Phones4U Arena, and filling every inch of it with the overwhelming force and emotional power of their music, then we are yet to find them. Their newly stripped back set-up is at once visually arresting, sonically staggering and, as yet, unmatched. The show is another fine example of why Trent Reznor’s music has endured for a quarter of a century, and will no doubt endure for a considerable time to come.

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Nine Inch Nails played:
“Me, I’m Not”
“Copy of A”
“1,000,000”
“Letting You”
“March of the Pigs”
“Piggy”
“Survivalism”
“Gave Up”
“Sanctified” (with Sunspots riff)
“Closer”
“Find My Way”
“Disappointed”
“Came Back Haunted”
“The Great Destroyer”
“Eraser”
“Wish”
“The Hand That Feeds”
“Head Like a Hole”

Encores:
“The Day the World Went Away”
“Hurt”

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Live Review: Then Thickens at The Hop, 26th April 2014

Then Thickens - The Hop - 26 April 2014

Then Thickens are a band born out of the demos of Lancashire musician, singer and songwriter, Jon-Lee Martin. Having worked on 23 tracks with “…just a guitar and whatever I could fill them out with,” Martin was encouraged by friend and fellow musician, Jorma Vik of The Bronx, to give them the full band treatment.

Five new bandmates, a recording session, one mixing nightmare and a forthcoming glorious debut album later, and here we are, on this balmy Spring evening, at Wakefield’s The Hop.

The atmosphere feels almost like a mini-festival, albeit with a roof overhead, no tents and a far more intimate environment within which to savour the musical wares. Doors opened early at 6pm for an extensive bill of performers, including The Spills, The Ainsley Band, VerseChorusVerse and, after Then Thickens own set, grunge rockers Nine Black Alps.

As their 8:50pm stage time rolls around, Then Thickens waste no time in setting up and getting down. No sooner are they plugged in than album opener from Death Cap At Anglezarke, “Heaven Won’t Wait”, creeps into the crowd on a wave of synth-wash and strummed guitar. Jon-Lee’s deep-voiced delivery of the opening lyrics begin to build the tension, and the song only grows as Helen Thorpe joins him with her beguiling harmonies. It’s an engaging, captivating, mesmeric delight in the close quarters of The Hop’s upstairs room.

Those who know the song wait in anticipation, and are handsomely rewarded, when it breaks ranks on the rumble of Charlie Hartley’s drums and added ‘sturm und drang’ of Bobby’s bass and Sean’s guitar.

The band then segues directly in to first single, the fuzzy, driving rocker “Restart Your Heart,” a perfect one-two that has the audience warming up now, heads bobbing, feet stamping and giving nods of knowing approval to each other. Here are a band that have really got something.

We’re treated to non-album tracks, too, one containing a striking lyric about vaseline and nipples. For a group of musicians with just one finished album to their name, it’s a seemingly healthy sign of more good things to come, and a reminder that Martin was already sitting on a wealth of quality songs.

A slew of tracks from Anglezarke follow, one after the other, never letting up in emotional push and pull, including “Worms”, second single “Tiny Legs” and the sort-of title track, “Death Cap.” Each is delivered with total and devastating commitment, Jon-Lee in particular becoming more passionate, involved and intense with each and every note.

By the time the end of the set starts to make itself known, guitars are being wrangled like lives depend on it, Hartley is a whirling dervish clattering at his drums and Tom Griffin, up until now a relatively stoic presence behind his keyboards, starts to look like a mad scientist, desperately trying to perfect his sonic formula through the frantic twiddling of knobs, slamming of keys and creation of cataclysmic aural violence.

In a live setting, with each of six musicians at the top of their game and firing on all cylinders, it’s astonishing just how big every one of Then Thickens’ songs sounds. An already expansive album, full of poetry and melody, becomes something of overwhelming power when delivered on stage with such conviction.

The audience at The Hop can have been left in doubt that they’ve just witnessed a matchless set of single-minded and vital rock and roll. If Then Thickens are indie rockers, make that rockers with a capital R.

Then Thickens - Death Cap at AnglezarkeDeath Cap At Anglezarke is released via Hatch Records on the 5th of May. You can pre-order the album via iTunes.

Read our interview with Then Thickens here, and look out for our album review of Death Cap At Anglezarke, arriving on Skin Back Alley later this week.


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Live Review: The Wildhearts, Manchester Academy, 10th April

The Wildhearts - Manchester Academy April 2014

There are many musicians in the world today who claim to be the hardest working in rock. Many others, too, claim to be geniuses. The fact that Ginger Wildheart doesn’t claim to be either – yet may well qualify to be both – makes him all the more worthy of the titles.

He appears for the first time this evening at Manchester Academy in a pair of shades as part of one of his many projects, Hey!Hello!, a relatively incognito presence stage-right. Despite Ginger’s legendary status for the fans out-front, it makes absolute sense that Victoria Liedtke takes centre stage for the set, as her unending enthusiasm and enigmatic way with words and a melody soon engage the crowd and have them cheering, pogoing and baying for the band’s brand of upbeat, tune-centric rock n’ roll. A majority of the group’s eponymous debut album gets an energetic airing during the 30 minutes they’re on stage. It’s a fine opening and sets the scene for the rest of what proves to be a memorable night.

On UK shores, Von Hertzen Brothers are still a relatively unknown quantity. After their frankly astounding 40 minute set tonight, however, the Finnish siblings will no doubt have a few hundred more converts for their cause. Their’s is a particular brand of rock that somehow wouldn’t seem out of place on classic rock, prog or heavy metal bills. Try to imagine Rage Against The Machine crossed with Pink Floyd, and somehow filtered through the lens of Crosby, Stills and Nash. Tracks such as ‘Flowers and Rust’, ‘Insomniac’ and ‘Coming Home’ from their recent Nine Lives album are delivered with commitment, passion and – almost – show-stealing style. They deserve to be heard.

But let’s not be disingenuous. The vast majority of the crowd are here to see one band, and if there’s any band who could deliver the goods following the opening acts’ two brilliant performances, it’s The Wildhearts.

Their’s is a well-told and familiar story to a hardcore group of fans who have remained loyal to Ginger and Co. over the last 20 years or so. Bursting on to the scene in the early 90’s with a very British brand of lyrical wit and hugely melodic, guitar-centric, glam-tinged punk rock, they soon built a rabid fan-base, managed to sell enough to sneak in to the charts, and then somehow fell from favour amidst tales of difficult relationships with press, record labels, drugs and each other.

The atmosphere in the Academy shifts tangibly up a gear as Ginger, CJ, Ritch and Scott amble on to stage, plug in and immediately set about the intro of old-school fan favourite ‘Nothing Ever Changes But The Shoes.’ A cheer goes up as the crowd recognise the song, and a triumphant set begins.

It’s obvious everyone here knows every word to every song, the audience providing on-tap gang-chant vocals for the likes of ‘TV Tan,’ ‘Nita Nitro’ and ‘Caffeine Bomb.’

“Thank you Manchester, it’s nice to get a positive audience reaction. It’s been a while!,” quips Ginger after the barrage of opening tracks that sees their public raising hands and playing air guitar to song after song after song. It’s possibly a knowing reference to early reports from the preceding two gigs in Bristol and Wolverhampton that suggested sound problems and a lukewarm reaction.

A mix of better and lesser known songs keeps coming as the night draws on: ‘Someone That Won’t Let Me Go,’ ‘I Wanna Go Where The People Go,’ ‘Tim Smith,’ ‘Junkenstein,’ ‘The Jackson Whites’ and ‘Chutzpah!’ all get outings.

Ginger regularly checks with the crowd, “Is it okay if we play some stuff that WE like?,” before cranking out b-sides and more obscure album tracks. What could be construed as a clever artist’s conceit – getting the audience to be complicit in indulging the band’s need to play what they want to play, rather than what the audience may want or expect – soon proves to be an unnecessary tool, if that’s what it is. Every single song is met with nothing but love, rapture and mass sing-a-longs.

Scott takes lead vocals for a rendition of ‘The Only One’ that he dedicates to his wife, apparently watching from the wings on her first trip to the UK, and CJ gets a shot too, delivering an impassioned cover of Helmet’s ‘Unsung.’

The grins on both audience and band faces alike have just been growing and growing as the 11:00pm curfew draws nigh, but as Ginger announces that they still have time for two more songs, ‘You Took The Sunshine From New York’ and stone-cold classic ’29 x The Pain’ metaphorically destroy what is left of the Academy’s PA.

“Thank you, Manchester, we needed this,” says Ginger, visibly beaming.

So did we, Ginger. So did we.

The Wildhearts Strike Back 2014 UK Tour with Von Hertzen Brothers and Hey!Hello! continues until the 17th April, with dates as follows: 12th April @ Nottingham Rock City, 13th April @ Newcastle O2 Academy, 14th April @ Glasgow O2 ABC, 16th April @ Cambridge Junction and 17th April @ London Electric Ballroom.

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