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Music Reviews

Welcome to a new feature of the magazine, where I report on the good, the bad and the downright ugly of recent live music in Exeter, with an eye on lesser known artists, rather than household names. Thankfully, there was little of the “ugly” in the performances reviewed below, and – with upcoming gigs by The Acorn and Art Brut to name but a few – I’m optimistic for the months ahead.

Kid Canaveral & Ono Palindromes

Exeter Cavern Club, 8th March 2009

Kid Canaveral

Having opened for cult-folk hero King Creosote and current indie darlings Glasvegas since forming in 2004, Scottish pop quartet Kid Canaveral clearly know the merits of keeping good company. Seemingly oblivious to the small Sunday evening crowd, the two boy/two girl combination cheerfully delivered a faultless one hour set of joyful, catchy, guitar-driven indie-pop to suggest – luck permitting – that it won’t be long before they reach a wider audience.

Much of the night’s focus was on Canaveral’s permanent smile-wearing front man, David MacGregor. Singing in a rich Scottish accent, MacGregor’s vocals infused Canaveral’s songs with honest warmth and led the many pitch perfect male/female vocal harmonies that dominated the evening. Comparisons with The Magic Numbers are obvious yet unavoidable, but the clever lyrics of Smash Hits and pounding drums on Couldn’t Dance suggest that Kid Canaveral have more strings to their bow than their bearded counterparts, while the influences of fellow Scots Belle and Sebastian and The Delgados are thankfully noticeable.

This is a band which deserves to be heard. With the release of their debut LP this summer, they might not have much longer to wait.

A word on Totnes art rockers Ono Palindromes (formerly Young Sensations) who offered support. Attired in red and blue trousers and sounding like a moody Art Brut covering The Arcade Fire, they are certainly an acquired taste but not devoid of a good tune, with Beautiful Noise a fine example of playful, leftfield pop. With greater quality control and a less knowingly-kooky band name, they could do very well indeed.

Joscho Stephan Trio

Exeter Phoenix, 12th March 2009

Joscho Stephan

Pick up a venue’s listings guide and you will invariably find a batch of over-hyped musicians assigned the labels “genius” or “maestro” (the woeful Nick Harper, for example) in the hope of luring us – Joe Public – into flittering away our hard-earned cash. With German Gipsy Jazz guitarist Joscho Stephan, however, such superlatives are not only fully merited, they probably don’t go far enough, and the privileged few who turned out to see Stephan, his father (Gunter – rhythm guitar) and Max Schaaf (bass) were treated to a genuine musical master class.

As the title of his third album (Django Forever) confirms, Stephan’s music is steeped in the style pioneered by legendary jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt; a style that combines faultless chord rhythms with complex and innovative single note fret work, all delivered at breakneck speed with assured brilliance. Having opened with the magnificent Django’s Tiger, other highlights of the hour and half long set included a playful yet complex interpretation of Mozart’s Ronda (alla Turca) during which his left hand danced manically like a drug-addled spider along the fret board.

While Stephan’s playing was the fulcrum of the performance, mention must also go to Max Schaaf who oozed class on the bass.

In view of my comment about labels above, I’m loathed to call Stephan the world’s greatest acoustic guitar player. However, what can be said is that he is part of an elite group – Clive Carroll among them – who are capable of taking your breath away.

For the diary

A brief list of highlights for the coming months:

Jonah Matranga, Exeter Cavern Club, 1 April 2009 – Talented American singer-songwriter. Check out the fabulous Not About A Girl Or A Place on his myspace page, which borrows the hook from Ryan Adams’ Someday, Somehow. If you like what you hear, try the album musicforthemorningafter by Pete Yorn.

Art Brut, Exeter Phoenix, 5 April 2009 – Hilarious art rockers specialising in sharp lyrics and minimalist but infectious riffs who, against all odds, have gained critical acclaim (5 star reviews in the Guardian, no less). A captivating live band, front man Eddie Argos is a natural comedian and worth the admission price alone.

The Quails, Exeter Phoenix, 25 April 2009 – Teignmouth based band specialising in generic indie fare. After a few drinks, you’ll forget the terrible name and the fact that they sound like the Kooks, and find yourself bouncing along with a smile on your face.

The Acorn, Exeter Phoenix, 10 May 2009 – Evidently, the credit crunch is having an adverse impact on band names, but don’t let this put you off. Currently touring with Elbow and the Fleet Foxes, this Canadian outfit play wistful alt-folk with the emphasis very much on the alt: think the rebel child of the Fleet Foxes, Wilco and My Morning Jacket; a little too self-indulgent in places, but otherwise brilliant.

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Music Reviews

Two thoroughly enjoyable gigs reviewed below, and some great music coming up, including Idlewild, Pulled Apart by Horses and a range of artists at the Phoenix’s Acoustica Festival.

The Acorn

Exeter Phoenix, 10th May 2009

The Acorn

Imagine, as I often do, a world where Jake the Peg had no extra leg, or Scaramanga was just another Bond villain with two nipples – it would be rubbish. If you don’t believe me, go to YouTube and watch Rolf’s third leg in action without grinning. It can’t be done.

Musicians know the merits of an extra appendage, too with the Grateful Dead, early Genesis and ace Detroit rockers The Dirtbombs all dabbling with a second drummer in their live line-ups. To that list can be added inventive Canadian outfit The Acorn; a move which is logical considering the band’s reliance on infectious tribal rhythms on their breakthrough album, Glory Hope Mountain.

The results are stunning, with both percussionists competing against the other amidst a fusion of beautiful guitar hooks and handclaps on standout tracks Hold Your Breath and Flood Pt.1, and delivering a level of intensity only hinted at on the album versions. Keeping everything together is charismatic frontman Rolf Klausener (responsible for vocals and much of the guitar work), who is clearly as revered by his band as he is the audience (“he’s the guy that writes the songs”, says the bassist at one point, all puppy-eyed with admiration).

Klausener is undeniably a talent and his sincere vocals are a revelation, delivered with tender warmth and emotion no more so than on the affecting Oh Napolean, a song recounting his Honduran mother’s experiences with domestic violence, and which echoes Sufjan Stevens at his best.

If you don’t yet own Glory Hope Mountain, it’s time to make amends.

The Handsome Family

Exeter Phoenix, 31st May 2009

Handsome Family

Not many bands write music about a milkman who falls in love with the moon, or the loneliness of magnets, but for husband and wife duo Brett and Rennie Sparks – aka The Handsome Family – such playfully dark songs are ten-a-penny.

Their music appeals on many levels: Rennie’s lyrics – Lynchian life observations on anything from love and suicide to cement mixers – are mysterious, sincere and funny; the music, written by Brett, ranges from up-tempo country (think Johnny Cash at San Quentin) to rootsy folk while Brett’s booming baritone infuse the words with life.

The intimate feel of the Phoenix perfectly suits the laid-back Handsomes. Unlike the forced banter of tonight’s support act, The Smoke Fairies, the exchanges between Brett and Rennie are heartfelt and welcome, with Brett beating down many of Rennie’s quips about his domestic productivity, with a dismissive “Sha, right!” before taking a slug on an ever-present bottle of Budweiser.

While Brett dominates (literally) the centre of the stage with his bear-like frame and imposing vocals, Rennie (a diminutive Morticia Addams, dressed all in black) happily stands to the side, protectively cradling her omnichord and crooning wistfully in the background.

Most of the highlights come from the band’s latest album, Honey Moon, a collection of love songs marking their 20th wedding anniversary. When You Whispered is straight up country, all banjos, harmonies and tales of shared moments, while Darling My Darling perfectly captures the band’s appeal: a love story about two bugs wanting to eat one another, which is both funny and tender.

Long live gothic country music.

For the diary

A short list of highlights for the coming months:

Pulled Apart by Horses, Exeter Cavern, 9 August 2009 – Much tipped punk rock outfit from Leeds with a distinct sound: yelping vocals, macho riffs and occasional disco drums. Cool name, too.

Ben Taylor, Exeter Phoenix, 4 October 2009 – The spawn of Carly Simon and James Taylor is best described as a poor man’s Jack Johnson. While a competent musician, his is the kind of music that your mum would tap her feet to and ask, all surprised, “who’s this, dear?” which is surely not a good thing.

John Smith, Exeter Phoenix, 19 September 2009 – Highly accomplished and innovative folk guitar player hailing from Devon, who is yet to get the recognition his talent deserves. Check out his great cover of Queens of the Stone Age’s “No One Knows” on myspace.

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