published: 21 /
In his 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll' column Ben Howarth writes of some of the excellent acts and bands that he has discovered in support slots at recent gigs that he has attended
"The job of the serious cultural critic," writes Will Self in 'The Guardian', "mostly consists in telling the generality of people that their opinions simply aren’t up to scratch."
A thankless task, he says. A pointless task, I say. Instead of telling me why I shouldn’t like something that I do, or why I should like something that I don’t, my favourite kind of cultural critic isn’t interested in manufacturing opinions. Instead, they are truffling around in the undergrowth, finding us fascinating things we wouldn’t otherwise have known about.
Of course, music critics will all tell you that this is what they do. The professionals are currently busily generating excitement about Jessie J and James Blake, around whom critical consensus has circled like a lost tourist.
But, like so many once-exciting things, tipping each year’s new bands has become depressingly formulaic. First, the Guardian's ‘Band of the Day’ column, then the ‘BBC Sound of…’ list, then the Critics Choice Brit award and then the NME New Bands tour… and then, eventually, we have the mildly disappointing debut albums that I never end up buying.
A lot of the hot tips from two years ago have ended up as last year’s hot tickets, which suggests that the massive marketing budgets aren’t entirely going to waste. But, the fawning donated to James Blake since Christmas clearly hasn’t passed Will Self’s criticism test, and it certainly hasn’t passed mine. This isn’t truffling, it's just advertising.
Much more fun, surely, is finding new bands who you don’t see staring at you from a poster every time you use public transport. I’m on a good roll at the moment - I’ve found several support acts in tiny venues who I then feel compelled to go and see when they headline in ever tinier venues. Ignoring Jessie J at the same time has proven remarkably easy.
My first taste of the excellent Dan Michaelson and the Coastguards, who were interviewed on this bit of the internet last month, came in a support slot. Low down the bill was also where I first heard the irresistibly catchy Goldheart Assembly, who should have received far more attention from the press. Cathy Davey’s excellent debut album has done very well in Ireland, but hasn’t had as much attention here, so it was lucky that she played an excellent support slot at the Royal Festival Hall in October.
A year ago, Yorkshire born singer-songwriter Hannah Peel played her delicate folk-pop songs on a music box at the Boogaloo in Highgate. She was supporting David Ford, once the singer of Easyworld, whose third album was one of my favourites of last year. Now, Peel has - with the help of some members of Tuung and Nitin Sawhney - made a very impressive album of her own (‘The Broken Wave’, Static Caravan). She launched it with a highly entertaining show at the Vortex Jazz club in East London, and will be playing again in April. She comes highly recommended.
Peel has, (like James Blake, in fact) been performing live for several years now, so I’m sure there are other places that might have recommended her first. But, if you haven’t heard her before, now is your chance.
Another band whose album I’ve been especially impressed by is Maia. They were the first band on the bill at a tiny show at the 12 Bar Club in May last year, and were quirky and catchy enough to make the offer of buying their first album irresistible. Packaged in a hand-made balsa wood sleeve, and performed on a strange array of instruments, the album would impress people who think Mumford and Sons might be trying too hard. Again, they seem to be gigging with impressive regularity in the coming months.
Then, appearing before Laura Veirs at the Union Chapel this month, came Sam Amidon. Amidon offers his own arrangements of folk songs, none obvious choices, and plays acoustic guitar and banjo standing up, without bothering with a guitar strap. His vocals are similar in tone to those of Damien Jurado, but less mumbly, and hearing him sing the beautiful ‘Relief’ makes me think I’ve found a friend for life.
The fun here isn’t in being the first to find the band, or being able to predict who will be successful (I’ve a pretty bad record on both counts). The fun is the variety, the choice and the unpredictability. Just as the fashion industry tells people what to wear, the music industry tells people what to listen to. I think we’re better at picking for ourselves.
Oh, and in the interests of fairness, I ran a Google search for Jessie J and James Blake‘s music. But I shall say no more, citing instead the wise words of PG Wodehouse: “Mere abuse is no criticism”.