Saturday 22 July 2017, Level Up Festival 2017, Day 2, New Cross Inn, London
Popes of Chillitown
Captain Accident & The Disasters
China Shop Bull
A miserable, rainy Saturday in July is compounded by having to take a rail replacement bus for a segment of my now four-legged, nearly two-hour journey to New Cross. Still, it’s not about where you’re coming from, it’s where you’re going…
I sidle up to the Inn at around 6:30pm….ah, yes, excuses time. Now, the first band of Day Two was knocking about on the stage at least some four hours ago. I know, what a bastard, eh? Overlooking all those underappreciated curtain-jerkers and scene underdogs. Honestly, it’s not my typical festival strategy – see all four days of Rebellion 2016 for supporting evidence. However, while I could meekly mouth a few words about “maintaining stamina” and having “had a helluva week, don’tcha know?”, what, in the final analysis, can I really say? Nothing, absolutely nothing. Bastard it is.
Clearly I have been missing out as when I step inside, I am confronted by the aftermath of an explosion at the fun factory. The multicoloured mess of what appears to be glitter and tinsel decorations on the floor looks like Boxing Day in Albert Square after a like-clockwork, blazing domestic row has brought a hastily abrupt end to Christmas. Eventually, I learn that this is the result of previous band The Dancing Morons whacking a piñata containing, amongst other things, sweets and tampons – the latter subsequently being donated to the ladies’ bathroom by some Good Samaritan.
Thus, the first band actually witnessed in the flesh are Leeds-based six-piece China Shop Bull. Bugger me, what a pick-me-up. Going by their own description, they primarily combine ska, rave and drum n’ bass. Early songs here include “King Kong” (Public Disorder: Act 1, 2015), one speaking up in defence of immigration (called, erm, “Two For One”? Perhaps not) and “NHS“, their single from less than two months ago rallying behind the institution.
Dynamic, engaging and really rather unique, they confidently stand out and are led, to begin with at least, by the formidable Obi Joe. Assertively, he more than holds his ground on the mic, spitting vocal javelins and the like. After around the fourth track, however, the force appears to pull him towards the bar, as he vacates the stage, leaving his bandmates to launch into a cover of the Dead Kennedys’ “Holiday In Cambodia” (2012, on the “9 Lives” single). This is sung by a colleague in colourful chequered shorts – they may be innovators, but some stereotypes gifted to humanity by the mid-’90s American mainstream ska revival shall never die.
You have to admire this band’s versatility; there appears to be at least three members in their ranks who can handle lead vocal duties. Approaching the end, though Obi Joe is now back at the forefront, I have little clue as to what precisely all his bandmates are up to as, like most here, I am immersed in penultimate track “9 Lives” (2012 single, another version is also on 2015’s Public Disorder: Act 1), a brilliantly cool, high-tempo, shape-shifting smash. Then, to see out this 30-minute set, the frontman invites the singer from The Dancing Morons up to the stage to help him out with “Sandblaster” (Rave to the Grave, 2010), another cracker. They’ve apparently both been performing in Belgium recently and, during this final high-octane track, this guest is implored to crowdsurf, which he duly does – right out the door. As Spherical Manor goes to press, he was last seen hanging from the Inn’s doorframe before being left for dead on the rain-sodden, mean streets of New Cross, his disappearance eliciting in Obi Joe a bemused, shrugged expression of “Where’d he go?”
Witnessing China Shop Bull live is definitely recommended, but for the time being at least, if you haven’t already, do acquaint yourselves with some of their material here.
There are at least a handful of black people keenly awaiting the next band. Now, those who take the mantra “We live in a colourblind society” a little too literally may bridle at this sentence, but this is just a matter-of-fact observation. It is notable, as it is probably a greater number than I can recall ever seeing at any punk gig that comes to mind, many of which were held in much bigger venues. This perhaps shouldn’t really be a surprise as ska, as has already been experienced today, is in many ways a broader church and, more to the point, has far stronger roots in non-white communities, what with its Jamaican origins.
On a slightly related note, possibly the band least indebted to upstroke-abusing American/British 2nd/3rd wave (and beyond) iterations of the genre that I shall see during the festival are Captain Accident & The Disasters. Mr Accident – or, if one is familiar, Adam Parsons – is a Cardiff-based supplier of “soulful lovers rock, roots reggae, ska, dub and rocksteady”, who is supported live by his more-than-capable, Trades Description Act-defying, Disasters. After their rather considerable soundcheck, they begin their set at 7:45pm, coolly conveying a sense of more subtle, sensitive and graceful musicianship with a reggae-tinged opener.
Still, as the Hazardous One acknowledges, given the context, perhaps it’s advisable to play a higher-tempo number; he thus delves into the archive to knock out “Holding On” (2012-ish), a brilliantly infectious upbeat track that easily elevates spirits. In a room of incurable fidgets, it’s almost cheating, isn’t it?
Unlike most bands here, there is no brass contingent, as instead keyboardist Joel Beswick impresses; befitting the band’s music, he can not resist emitting plenty of easy-going smiles. They also play the sensually evocative, dub-like “Stompin’ Thru Twilight” (Slippin’ Up, 2013), before soon sauntering into a well-received cover of The Delfonics/The Fugees’ “Ready Or Not“, which sees El Capitán demonstrate his admirable vocal dexterity, particularly towards the end.
Their more delicate arrangements are a pleasure to absorb and they often provide that festival necessity: a welcome change of pace. That said, I, like many here, can be a “Restless Man” (Wake & Break, 2016), and thus such flick-happy, tempo-lifters will always locate my many weak spots, something that can also be said of “Business” (2013) – a track apparently about the boys in blue giving the guitarist/vocalist grief for possession of certain substances.
Still, so it began with the reggae, thus it ends with the reggae, as “20 Pence” (2011) rounds off a fine set.
To hear more from Captain Accident & The Disasters, do yourself a favour and click here.
Next up, significantly raising the dynamism and energy in the room are London’s very own Popes of Chillitown. Before these very eyes, the weekend’s hitherto biggest skank-fest breaks out as, not for the first time in one’s life, it immediately becomes apparent that yours truly has become a little slack in his awareness of contemporary British ska-punk. Indeed, with this sprightly six-piece, I had previously been on irregular bedroom-nodding terms – not a euphemism; headphones, not handcuffs, were involved – but had not anticipated the scale of the pandemonium that their entrance would provoke. Really, if you’re not down with this, your weekend wristband ought to be revoked and re-assigned, as live, they are very much the real deal.
Bodies gyrate, lyrics barely two years old are chanted as if they have been sung in the shower since childhood and otherwise reserved crowd members who had been withholding a skank from society suddenly succumb to multiple episodes of the contagion. The chaps, who blend an intoxicating mixture of all the good stuff (oh, not just ska AND punk, but also drum n’ bass, dub and no doubt more) begin with one of their strongest tracks, “OPOOM” (from second album To The Moon, 2015). Coming in after a brass-led rhythm – which may or may not owe something to Streetlight Manifesto – to voice the song’s main refrain, “What a waste of time/ What a waste of time and energy”, vocalist Matt Conner rapidly showcases his verbal agility. Indeed, akin to Capdown and a certain King Prawn who are both later proclaimed as personal favourites, he often breaks into an MC-like flow, heightening the feeling that the band is comin’ atcha from all angles. “Don’t insult my intelligence more than you already have” – many are on cue for this latter line which, somewhat typical of the vocal interaction their material receives, isn’t repeatedly sledgehammered into the audience’s heads, begging pork pie hat-in-hand for an expectant singalong. Instead, it’s coolly slid in, lingering somewhat but not put on a plate. With the Popes, it often feels as if they’re just doing what they want and too bloody right you’d want to try to be a part of the show in whichever way you can.
“Na na na-na-na na!” Fuck me, that hits the spot! Some four or so songs in, it’s time for “Wisdom Teeth” (2015), probably their biggest track. From the off, the infectious and imperious brasswork leads the room towards combustion point as shirtless frontman Matt then jumps in to spit some sublime syllable-per-second ratio-busting bars. Subsequently, there is very little, if any, let-up in their 45-minute set, during which they also play, amongst others, “Voluntary Execution” (2015) and “Blame Game” (from first album, A Word To The Wise…, 2013). The final, particularly frenetic, track is also a highlight. Not that this Johnny Quest-come-lately actually knows what it is called; more so than at any point thus far this weekend, it appears that some urgent homework shall be in order.
When they sign off, their departure begs the question: have we peaked too soon? After all, there’s still one much-anticipated band to go, but that performance has thrown down the gauntlet. Should this festival be staged again in the next year or two, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see these chaps earning a promotion to the top of the bill.
New, old or just understandably curious, we could probably all do with some swotting up on Popes of Chillitown. Listen to their back catalogue here.
As always occurs here after a set – especially a barnstorming, sweat-drenched one – some attendees hit the bar and many more bask in some much-needed fresh air. Those of us who remain inside watch on for at least half an hour as a soundcheck is conducted by the genuinely groundbreaking King Prawn. Having not seen the London-based trailblazers for four years – soon after their reformation, which occurred nearly ten years after their initial decade-long run from 1993-2003 – they are the band most responsible for forcing one’s wallet to donate £30 to this weekend. As showtime approaches, vocalist Al Rumjen looks a tad apprehensive, cagily pottering about the stage – that is, until, apropos of nothing, he breaks into a lengthy, politically-tinged, home-spun, acapella rap. Yep, that mic works.
Not too many were actually around to witness this but by 10pm it’s a full house and there is indeed no more room at the Inn. Any doubts regarding whether this somewhat rejigged seven-strong army are still able to fire on all cylinders are immediately put to bed when they suddenly crack out ballsy band anthem “Bitter Taste” (Got The Thirst, 2003). Stylistically, as with many of their pioneering tracks, it blends traces of ska, punk, hardcore, “big bad dub”, hip-hop and more, whilst giving you a flavour of what they’re about. Led by a sometimes-“banana-brained iguana”, they can be chameleon-like as they redefine the word “eclectic” and, well, at the end of the day: “Disagree with the KP?/ Well, go and fuck your mama”.
Quite. Thematically, many songs express wariness, if not outright condemnation, of ideologies, our ever-encroaching surveillance culture, U.S./Western militarism and the alienating effects and unsavoury aspects of the city experience/contemporary life. More positively, they often emphasise individual thinking and actions outside of conventions and prevailing orthodoxies. Early set highlights that encompass one or more of these topics include: “No Peace” (Surrender To The Blender, 2000), “Caught Inna Rut” (2003), “Your Worst Enemy” (2000; during this, the line “If life is the only illusion/ You’ll never escape” rings out) and “Racist Copper” (Fried in London, 1998). For this last one, as the kids no doubt did at shows some two decades ago, everyone joins in with the retort to the old bill’s dismissive command to clear off “home”: “I say, ‘where? East London?!'”
Plenty are also on cue for certain lines during “Bring Down The House” (2003), a powerful track which covers the 1982 massacre of mostly Palestinians and Lebanese Shiites in the Shatila refugee camp and the nearby Sabra neighbourhood in Beirut, Lebanon. This topic was later featured in the 2008 animated film Waltz With Bashir, which just so happens to include some cracking post-punk/new wave tracks. However, sometimes in the live environment, no matter how well-acquainted one is with a tune and its meaning – perhaps indeed because of that familiarity – it is possible to feel a slight sense of detachment. Indeed, towards the end, one can not help but glance over at the distant window and wonder what bypassers on the New Cross Road are thinking if they can hear over a hundred people shouting “ROB THEM! RAPE THEM! TORTURE AND KI-I-I-LL THEM!”
That said, there is little doubt that vocalist Al still shares this track’s sentiments, though perhaps this is less the case with some of the band’s other ditties from what must have been a very different phase of his life. Indeed, I would have been quite keen on hearing “Lick of the Flame” (2003), with its made-for-t-shirts slogan/refrain “Mundane monotony is all you have to offer me” and other lyrics such as, ahem, “So tell your fucking kids to shut the fuck up/ King Prawn: family men/ We are not.” However, some pedants would argue that this may no longer sit so well with someone who currently describes himself in his Twitter bio as, quite succinctly, a “family man”.
Perhaps he’s being ironic, but even if so, it ain’t on the list tonight. Instead, two further highlights from around the midway point come from each of the two albums – the two last full-lengths they recorded – that have provided roughly two-thirds of their set. The first is the brilliantly desolate-yet-rather happenin’ “The Loneliest Life” (2003), which Al dedicates to “all the bands”; then, not long afterwards, we are treated to “Be Warned” (2000).
In most tracks, with refined, soul-nourishing aplomb, our man Al and his gang often exquisitely switch tempos and tones, from, say, the suave and nimble to the pacy and powerful. In a memorable sequence of a trio of stone-wall belters – all of which are singalong favourites – this could perhaps be said of the exhilarating transition from the first song to the second. Indeed, this begins with “Someone To Hate” (2000), with its soaring and hauntingly self-destructive chorus which is preceded by some masterly, suspense-filled work by the boys on brass. Upon its conclusion, this track is immediately followed up by “Survive” (1998), the opening lyrics of which everyone heartwarmingly sings with Al:
“We all gets knocked down/ And kicked in the teeth/ Sometimes we land, splat/ Sometimes on our feet/ We struggle to survi-i-ive/ Better days might come/ Well, fuck it/ If they don’t/ We still carry on/ We survive.”
The band then kick in with dazzling, danceable panache. It’s a great moment, one that many will cherish and take away with them for some time yet. Afterwards, the chief ambassadors of avant-garde ska-punk really are spoiling us as, rub your eyes, unclog your ears and pinch yourself, they then launch into the always-welcome “Day In, Day Out” (2000).
Now, all us fanboys and girls make personal playlists of our favourite bands (oh yes we do). I can’t say I’ve ever played these three songs in this order before, but certainly will in the future. Upon closer lyrical analysis, the facts may contradict my perceptions in the here and now but, listening up close in 2017, it’s not hard to build a coherent narrative from this string of corkers. “Someone To Hate” certainly brings to mind a portrayal of a lonely, resentful person whose precarious state of mind could one day lead him to carry out various atrocities; “Survive” can easily represent the empowering response and sense of solidarity from the targeted community/collection of individuals; then, “Day In, Day Out”, with its lyrics of mindfulness regarding state surveillance, may be a little tougher to tie-in, but one message it certainly conveys is that of ceaseless vigilance and caution towards all-comers, regardless of the circumstances and whose side they claim to be on.
“That’s it, yeah?” says Al, comically baiting some of the audience who are no doubt on tenterhooks awaiting a certain track. After they play “Freedom Day” (2000), he rounds off an excellent one-hour set by giving them what they want, the band’s most famous song: “The Dominant View” (2003). Check it! Oh, he’s still got it, all right. His MC-work is impeccable; up close, it seems even faster than on record. Towards the very end, probably as an act of appeasement towards Mary Jane aficionados, he even overlays a line with the chorus refrain of “Smoke Some Shit” (2003). Some may have wanted to hear the whole thing, but you know KP, “They give with one hand/ And they/ Got take with the other…”.
When it’s all over, grateful as we all are to be outside inhaling the elements, we all know that we have just witnessed something special. Personally, it was certainly several notches above the first time I saw King Prawn at Slam Dunk ’13; as great as the band were back then, I could have done without having to stand near a lady in her early 20s who spent almost the entire set trying to get Al’s attention and desperately gesturing for him to call her. Good grief. No, this was something else and, rather than quibble over who was the best band today, perhaps a more pertinent question is: can Sunday ever hope to possibly top this brilliant day?
King Prawn also played some some new-ish material, recorded since their reformation. You can listen to a couple more recent tracks here; most of their earlier work can be found in the usual locations. Also, click for a great live video of “The Loneliest Life“.