Sunday 23 July 2017, Level Up Festival 2017, Day 3, New Cross Inn, London
Big D and the Kids Table
The JB Conspiracy
The only living boy in New Cross? Not quite. “Who’s been here all weekend?” Cheers greet the enquiry of The Pisdicables‘ Alex Gowchi almost as soon as I enter through the door. “Yeah, you look terrible”. Evidently. Yet, no doubt these folk have actually been here several hours longer, both today and yesterday, whereas, owing to some excuses and travails no-one’s day needs to be burdened with, I am only now making my meek arrival at around 6:30pm. I am drained to the point that I feel I ought to issue a pre-emptory apology to those acts I plan to see today, as much as to those who I have missed. If you’re in a band, by all means read on against your better judgement and decide for yourselves if this review strikes a blow against the adage that “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”
So, I’m right at the back by the door as a healthy crowd watch The Pisdicables, some lively South London/Dartford-based ska-punkers, whose eminently danceable brew – sometimes enhanced by a harmonica – is played with great spirit and energy. Early track “Never Learn” (from their official debut album Will We Never Learn?, 2015, but a version of which also features on their shorter, self-titled release from the previous year) proves to be one of the strongest numbers in their 30-minute set. At various points, frontman Alex is responsible for several comedic moments, not least when he fluffs the opening to a song they haven’t played live for four years but he soon recovers to do it justice.
“It sounded better in my head!” He later says this to laughs after one of several tributes to someone by the name of Mike. After a little digging, I gradually learn that these words are in reference to Mike Crampton, who served as the band’s keyboard player until tragically losing his life along with that of a friend in a car crash less than three months ago. Tonight serves as the band’s “comeback gig” and, on this showing, they have every reason to shoot for the moon and see how far they can take things.
Not 100% sure if they played “I Know I Know” (2015) but, frankly, this more chilled cut was in keeping with my state at this time, so it’s getting a recommendation. You can listen to that and much of The Pisdicables’ back catalogue here.
Hang about, Sonic Boom Six are in America on the Warped Tour, aren’t they? Oh. A very striking, incredibly hip lady turns around in the shuffling crowd and, though upon this new perspective I realise I’ve made an error, I still have to resist exclaiming: “You should be in a band!” Oh, again. She is. I later discover that this is the first of several times I see Millie Manders of Millie Manders & The Shutup fame, who earlier performed a solo acoustic set to acclaim downstairs in the basement.
That’s right, there is another performance area I have yet to venture to. This systematic neglect ends just after 7pm when Giles Bidder is paid a visit. The Great Cynics frontman – and journalist/music reviewer – plays a 20 (ish)-minute solo set from a somewhat unaccommodating position in a corner. People come and go as roughly 20 or so people are on hand, with a fair few others also sitting around and talking a tad too loudly in what is primarily a bar area. Still, he doesn’t let this phase him and he has band drummer Bob Barrett standing adjacent to him, providing morale-lifting head-bopping and lyric-miming (one’s eyes may be playing tricks, but it looks as if GC’s other, newer, member is also present on one of the seats).
Amidst some tongue-in-cheek riffs about the “hot cats of New Cross gettin’ the evening cookin’, both inside here and, up and out, right along to that street no one can pronounce…” (I’m paraphrasing, but not by much), he acoustically plays some band material. Most of these tracks are imbued with characteristic highly personalised and localised lyrics, chronicling and crystallising early, searching, adulthood, the highlight of which is perhaps “I Went Swimming” (I Feel Weird, 2015). Receiving a little more interaction from the huddled dozen or two is the set-closer, an affectionate, chilled cover of Cornershop’s “Brimful of Asha“, which also ended full-band proceedings at last month’s gig at The Dome in support of The Bouncing Souls.
We all awkwardly shuffle off, along the way passing the frontman of tonight’s headliners who is selling his wares – oh, you know: CDs, t-shirts, underwear – from underneath a staircase.
(A photograph was taken of Giles but, if you can believe, it just wasn’t up to the standard of the others featured in this weekend’s review).
Back upstairs now and whoever picked the PA music that plays between sets just can’t get enough of Tim Armstrong. Certainly no complaints here, though had I wangled a position to indulge, the collected works of Tomas Kalnoky may have dominated the airwaves. Instead, this weekend, not only have Rancid classics been repeatedly heard, but also tracks from their sprightly new album, two or three Operation Ivy numbers (one of which is “Bad Town”, a rare track with ol’ “Lint” on lead vocals – the odds!) and at least one from the not-so-ska-but-still-sensational Transplants. By contrast, the remainder of the playlist has largely consisted of one or two crowd-pleasers from the likes of Mighty The Mighty Bosstones, Less Than Jake, Goldfinger, Reel Big Fish, Mad Caddies and, yes (yes!), Streetlight Manifesto. Overall, during what have been some lengthy changeovers, this music has contributed to a very warm, communal environment.
Next band on the main stage are P.O. Box. These are perhaps not the ideal circumstances to have one’s first encounter with this band who have been putting out records since the dawn of the millennium, many of which feature some rather highbrow intellectual themes and influences. Indeed, in this Sunday state, it’s more the feel, rather than the lyrical substance, of the music which comes across to this weary onlooker. They play with no shortage of the requisite high-octane ska-punk energy, supplemented by a “Wo-o-ah” or dozen as well as the occasional usage of the mouth-operated melodica. At one point they also perform a sped-up Skints cover but, despite having seen the brilliant, multi-talented, multi-faceted, London four-piece some five or so times, one was unable to identify which track this was. Answers on a postcard/in the comments…
Frontman Seb, who to these (muffled) ears appears to have a difficult-to-place, though seemingly American, accent, regularly engages the audience, at one point enquiring out of the blue: “Who here is French?” At least a few respond in the affirmative. All right, French-Canadian it is then. Alas, no, as I later discover, this band sing in English but are indeed fully paid-up members of the tricolore-donning hexagon, hailing from Nancy. The most prominent individual of the brass section more easily fits the description as he speaks in a heavy accent – particularly when chiding those around him for not mucking in enough with backing-vocal duties. You tell ’em!
“So, there’s just another 25 songs of our set to go…”. Seb also likes a spot of audience-baiting, claiming as he does more than once that the following band, The JB Conspiracy, won’t be playing (“Oh, didn’t you hear…?”). None of their many fans in the room are ever remotely fooled, perhaps because they can see various members either doing some last-minute prep or watching on; these include frontman Lank, who gives off some eye-rolling smiles and joins in from near the bar with some serial “Woah”-ing.
Perhaps I’m finally waking up, but their set appears to grow in momentum towards the end, engaging ever-greater numbers and, as they bid us all adieu, leaving many of us with a hankering for more.
To join yours truly in belatedly trawling through some of P.O. Box’s releases, click here.
Once upon a time some 14 years ago, there existed a band called Duff Muffin, who headlined a very surreal gig just a 10-minute walk from my childhood home at a small hall, which more frequently played host to a playschool, cub scout meetings and the like. My classmates, who also performed that night, organised it. Bowed over by the bill-toppers, they revealed to me afterwards in reverential tones that the Guildford-based DM told them that they formed their band after each member pulled the name of an instrument out of a hat. Then, whatever their piece of paper said – guitar, bass, sax, etc. – this was happily accepted as fate and each then went about mastering their designated weapon before combining to unleash their very own sonic revolution.
Now, I ask you: does this not sound like the biggest load of bollocks you’ve ever heard?
I wholeheartedly accepted it as indisputable fact at the time, but now, it feels as if either my chums or the band – who must have been at least a few years older – spotted the perfect prey for a wind-up.
Still, this was a seminal show as it introduced me to the ska-punkers and, soon afterwards, their Eagle Eyes EP (2003) became a favourite, receiving regular listens up until this day.
Several years later, I belatedly discovered they had changed their name to The JB Conspiracy, yet aside from a brief run-in at Rebellion 2012, have never managed to see them up close. When they begin soundchecking tonight, though I can’t be sure how many were there back in 2003, there appears to now be at least seven or eight members; not for the first time this weekend, it is apparent what a disastrous personal financial venture joining a ska band is. Amidst their ranks here, they have Sean Howe on loan from Keighley’s Random Hand and also drummer Bob Barrett, who divides his time between this unit, Great Cynics and others (during this set, standing at one point right next to yours truly is GC frontman Giles Bidder – Christ, he’s tall! – who takes several photos of his bandmate).
There are plenty of fans on hand for The JBC here, but vocalist/guitarist Lank immediately makes himself Public Enemy No. 1 amongst a certain segment of the audience by abruptly halting their fevered singalong to Goldfinger’s “Superman” (1997). Ah, the cold, unsentimental slap-down of adulthood.
He and his rather lean cohorts have long since reached full-blown maturity, imbuing some rather considered, contemplative lyrics into their potent ska-punk brew; this is often played at an electrifying pace with the elements combining to pull the listener in several directions at once. They reach for this compartment of their arsenal on early highlights such as “The Escape” (The Storm, 2013) and “This Machine” (This Machine, 2007), with the latter receiving a healthy chanted response for its “You won’t fool me” chorus refrain.
These get the throngs dancing, but the boys also occasionally take things down a notch or two, as on the keys-heavy “Going Up In Smoke” and the commanding, head-bopping singalong “Drop Your Anchor” (both 2013). Do-be-do-be, do-be-do-be…
They soon pick things up again, particularly when they play two frantic crackers on the trot. “The guys told me they wanted to play those two back-to-back; they’re the two fastest for me to sing. I said ‘fuuuck off'”. Yet, thankfully for us, Lank evidently relaxed his opposition to this experiment and admirably pulled the pair off with aplomb.
They also slip in a new song but, of course, the personal highlight for yours truly – that most frustrating of fans who suffers from arrested development and is most keen on the work you did back when you were still in school uniform – is, of course, “Pipe Down” (2007); this is a re-recorded Duff Muffin-era track, frenetic, unstoppable and impossible to remain impervious to. Soon afterwards, the strapping chaps have to accept that it is “Time To Leave” (2007) and they depart the stage to a hearty reception and – well, why not? – a sample of Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long”.
It has been a pleasure to see them properly at long last. As they are packing away, I realise that the path is clear to simply go up to one of them to confirm or deny the Duff Muffin foundation legend. Alas, I opt against it and watch them turn and waltz away, reasoning that the answer to some of the most enduring tales in music history are best left blowin’ in the wind…
To listen more to The JB Conspiracy – as you jolly well should – click here.
It’s now coming up to 10pm and after a two-hour (or so) stint downstairs as Big D and the Merch Table, David McWane and co. are all set to transform into Big D and the Kids Table. These Boston-based ska-punkers have draped the stage with two banners, one of which reads, “Refugees and Immigrants Welcome Here” and the other, “No Ban No Wall”. When the clock hits the hour-mark, they instantly jolt everyone into action, laying the groundwork to close out the mother of all ska blowouts.
First track is the apt “Steady Riot“, which is followed by the relentless pulse-escalator “Noise Complaint“; this call-and-answer corker causes pandemonium, as we are all very much hip to Davie’s lingo – one just has to hope that all the street-traipsers outside share our vocabulary. Next up, things take a cooler, though no less popular, turn with – imagine that – “Shining On“. These are the opening three tracks on 2007’s well-received album, Strictly Rude, and, correct this frazzled reviewer if need be, but it seems that the first nine songs tonight are all off this LP, played in the exact same sequence. Well, it is its 10th-year anniversary, after all.
Thus, pace-raiser “Souped Up Vinyl” gets an airing, before things take a stylistically more unorthodox shift with “Deadpan“. This is a somewhat brooding composition featuring some echoing vocals and a low-burning riff, allowing the band to show off their versatility and the frontman to get out his melodica for its first outing of the night. This track seamlessly transitions into “Snakebite“, which simmers with incremental intent, building to a final minute’s worth of crashing elements, overlaid by Dave’s shadowy reminder to the prey that, “We’re gonna come for you”.
The leader of the band founded nearly 22 years ago cuts a very youthful, slight and aerobic figure – one suspects many ask him what his “secret” is. During the more frenetic songs, he is very animated, leaning into the crowd left, right and centre, whilst archly delivering his lines with characteristic hip-hop-influenced nonchalance.
His melodica is back in gainful employment for the reggae-tinged “Strictly Rude“. Perhaps it’s the relatively subdued tone and tempo of this and the majority of the previous few songs, but one member of the audience has taken this track/album title a little too literally, incurring Dave’s ire. Indeed, just beforehand, our man on the stage bluntly announced that “‘Checklist’ is not getting played tonight” and when the track ends, rounds on his irritant. To the majority of us in the blue, all is seemingly revealed: “Just so I can enjoy the rest of the show, the kid who keeps shouting “Checklist”: we’re gonna play your song!” He goes on: “I can tell you’re from a rich family, ’cause you have no manners”, adding, “I can tell your parents are fortunate”. He continues with more about the Inn crier’s perceived background, so much so that one half expects all of this to just be an elaborate, pre-planned build-up for him to break into, “Hey elitists from L.A., Los An-ge-leee-eee-eeese… California!” Alas, no. He’s serious. He also tells this chap to “fucking stop it”, but wouldyabelieveit? This just encourages several others to join in with calls for the song. Sadism and sabotage are alive and well in South London.
This does undercut the atmosphere a tad but, more than once tonight, Dave has promised “Less Talk, More Rock” and is as good as his word, seeing out the Strictly Rude run with “Try Out Your Voice” and “Hell On Earth“. The latter track initially sounds like something Andy Kaufman would have sung on a huffy night before it transforms into a rollicking steamroller, portraying an amoral, dystopian future with gleeful brattiness.
Breaking the cycle is their bouncy, infectious cover of The Rudiments‘ “Wailing Paddle” (Gipsy Hill EP/LP, 2002). Shortly afterwards in the set, it is time for the formidable horn-led thrash-fest that is “Checklist” (2002). Is there a rapprochement between artist and attendee? Does a middle-finger salute aimed from the stage count?
Dave seemingly isn’t in a forgiving mood, but nevertheless, he and his band proceed to embark on a fantastic string of belters, the first two of which are from a similar millennium-straddling era and are played in a comparable vein. First, there’s the never-more-relevant “President” (Look What You’ve Done… EP split with Five Knuckle, 2001; also a version on How It Goes, 2004), which owes its structural template to “G.L.C.” (1978) by early British punks Menace. The second slam-smash is the unstoppable “G.L.D.” (Good Luck, 1999), with its orchestral-like brass flourishes which bring out the ska-punk conductor in the best of us. As is customary, in the gap towards the end, Dave sings a snippet of another song: tonight’s choice is a chorus line from “So Let’s Go Nowhere” by The Arrogant Sons of Bitches.
Then, it’s the palpitations-inducing “My Girlfriend’s on Drugs” (2004) before…ONE-TWO! Their cover of “Little Bitch” (2004) by The Specials spirals out, gaining such a massive reception that you could almost forgive a young’un for thinking it originated in Massachusetts not Coventry.
With a view to taking a breather before the first and only encore of the festival, the band then scuttle off the stage to an adjoining seated area that anyone could easily follow them into – indeed, a few salivating skankers attempt to do just that.
Realising privacy here is at a premium, they swiftly re-emerge, first returning to their formative years to knock out “Find Out” (1999), a gentler, easy-to-like, groove. Finally, at 10:55pm, the time has come to light the dynamite on Level Up via the long-standing anthem, the fucks-per-minute ratio-exploding “L.A. X” (2001/2004), during which Dave ends up in the crowd. Perhaps he feels his nemesis for the evening may think otherwise, but it’s not hard for most here to empathise with the blistering attacks on work-shy, upper-crust poseurs, whose gilded, vacuous lives are counterposed with the more frugal, hand-to-mouth struggles of the frontman. Indeed, he doesn’t quite have the space to do his full mock-posturing routine – as witnessed at last year’s Rebellion Festival – but with this crowd as back-up it matters not. After he provides the feedline, “And maybe your clan is not in Boston…” everyone is on hand to shout: “BUT MY FRIENDS ARE FUCKING AWESOME!” “And we’ll keep on doing our best/ Even though our lives are a mess” – subsequent lyrics which in many ways encapsulate the spirit of what over the past three memorable days has been a blessed oasis of niche pleasures and a meeting-point for refined like-minds.
As we depart the venue for the final time fully in the knowledge that we’ve just witnessed a performance to rival any other at the festival, a complete stranger suddenly holds out his hand on New Cross Road for bypassers to high-five. Like a right pair of Millhouses, our palms slap – we both know this weekend has been an absolute steal.
To listen to more of Big D and The Kids Table, click here.
To compensate for all the sub-Brooklyn Beckham photography, please watch this brilliant video compilation of the weekend’s highlights from the organisers of Level Up.