published: 5 /
Mark Rowland writes of an enjoyable evening of music at the Pennyblackmusic Bands Night at the Half Moon, Herne Hill, South London which saw sets from the Willard Grant Conspiracy, the Monroe Transfer, Adam Donen and Altai Rockets
The Pennyblackmusic Bands night has been going for over seven years now, and has stuck to a fairly rigid formula of four diverse acts and fairly low ticket prices. The range of acts are often so diverse that you never really know what you’re going to get from band to band – could be something folky, it could be a punk band, it could be something a bit avant-garde, it even, admittedly, could be an aural car crash, though thankfully, there haven’t been many of those.
Like the site itself, the nights have slowly grown in size and got better with each one. The recent move from the dear departed Spitz to new venues – first the Brixton Windmill, then the Half Moon in Herne Hill – has seen the scope of ambition broaden ever further with the selection of bigger name acts, with Television Personalities performing a rather, er, memorable set at the previous night.
This time, much loved Pennyblackmusic favourites the Willard Grant Conspiracy are headlining, with support from neo-classical instrumental band Monroe Transfer, wide-eyed psychedelic folky Adam Donen and indie rock band Altai Rockets. It is, as usual, a varied mix, but, like the previous night threatened to do, offers real consistency of quality from all the bands, and a warm atmosphere that is fed by the bands and audience alike.
Altai Rockets are playing their second ever gig tonight, not that you’d know it. They play with the confidence and clarity of a more established band, though that might have to do with the collective gigging experience of the band’s members – front man Nick Bergin plays bass in Madam, who headlined a previous band's night, and guitarist Adam Franklin used to be in Swervedriver. Their music is atmospheric and melodic, and, for such a new band, surprisingly complete. The only hitch in their set is a brief lighting failure. Otherwise, it’s a great start to the night.
South African-born Adam Donen takes to the stage with a full band, featuring violin players, backing singers, and a man playing a large handsaw with a violin bow (and drums for most of the songs). Donen’s stage persona is one that is away with the fairies, fixing members of the audience with a goggle- eyed stare and rambling between songs about magical lands. His music is a little Bob Dylan, a little Syd Barrett, a little bit Love; folky, psychedelic, and often wilfully childlike. Donen’s backing band is great, although occasional imbalances in sound bring the backing singers a little too far forward in the mix.
It’s strings all the way from now on, with the Monroe Transfer on next. The seven-piece band performs epic, emotionally-charged instrumental pieces, the longest of which are almost half an hour long. If this sounds like a case of boring extended jams, think again – this is as meticulously written, incredibly melodic and dynamically dramatic as a classical piece for strings or a memorable film score. They play one song, ‘Frozen Field, Burning Field’, the epic centrepiece of the band’s most recent album, ‘Trials’. It is a testament to the strength and accessibility of their music that the audience is practically silent during the set’s quieter moments. The band sold out of copies of ‘Trials’ at the gig and was taking mail orders by the end of the night. They were even invited to support the Willard Grant Conspiracy at their next gig in London at the Luminaire at the end of this month.
By the time Robert Fisher and David Michael Curry – tonight’s stripped down incarnation of the Willard Grant Conspiracy – take the stage, the audience already seems happy and settled, some even sitting cross-legged in front of the stage. The stripped down line-up is supporting a stripped down album, ‘Paper Covers Stone’ featuring reworked and simplified versions of WGC songs from across the band’s previous albums. Fisher and Curry both seem to be in good spirits and the removal of the original arrangements brings Fisher’s rich voice and songwriting talent to the fore. Curry is providing strings to accompany Fisher’s acoustic strum, giving the songs a more emotional punch and even providing distorted leads from time to time. Again, the crowd is silent – the only sounds to be heard are coming from the stage. Fisher plays fan favourites such as 'Soft Hand' (which is possibly stronger in its new, acoustic form), and new tracks such as ‘Scars’.
We see the handsaw re-emerge once again for the stunning, haunting ‘Ghost of a Girl In the Well’. Fisher’s voice, on top form throughout the set, sounds even more powerful her, and the performance practically has the whole room transfixed.
The WGC play all the way through to 12 o’clock curfew, ensuring that everyone gets more than their money’s worth from the night.
Perhaps we’re biased, but this is the best bands night Pennyblackmusic has ever put on; the consistency and quality of the music has been incredibly high, the turn out great, the punters considerate, the whole feel, the buzz of the place, is fantastic. Long may these nights continue.