Fifteen years ago I ambled down the stairs of the dearly missed Buffalo Bar to be confronted by a man raving with the righteous fervour of a firebrand preacher about the power of pop music as his band blasted out bright guitar shapes around him. “We’re going to write a song,” he half-said, half-sung, “as universal as happy birthday, that makes sure everybody knows everything is going to be ok. We’re going to take that song and we’re going to play it eight weeks in a row on Top of the Pops.”
A decade and a half later, and though Art Brut never quite made it onto the fondly remembered Thursday night TV staple, Alcopop! Records have served up the next best thing with a night of TOTP themed antics. There’s a giant Top of The Alcopops logo hanging at the back of the stage, a dad-joke cracking announcer in a gold lamé jacket and most importantly a cracking line-up of bands from the label’s roster and beyond.
Opening proceedings in the downstairs Boston Music Room, Foxcunt are every bit as shouty and abrasive as you’d hope for a band whose name would have barred them from getting anywhere close to the original TOTP. We get furious riot grrrl punk ranting (“Rip off your cock, suck it yourself!”), violin abuse as a form of percussion, and some excellent between song chat (“Right, we’ve finished with hating men, this song is about how we hate this country.”) It’s fair to say that they’re not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, and they most likely prefer it that way, but if you like your revolutionary politics served with a slice of spiky lo-fi punk and a sprinkle of sardonic humour, check them out.
We make the first of several journeys upstairs to the larger Dome stage in time for the start of Alcopop! newbies Gaffa Tape Sandy‘s set of lightly fuzzed alt-rock tunes. The Bury St Edmunds trio supported Art Brut at their show at The Garage a few months back and perhaps it’s the early start but today their sweet & sour guitar pop buzz doesn’t resonate quite so strongly as it did on that night.
Back down the stairs Haggard Cat are tearing through a breathtaking set of breakneck garage rock and roll. There’s fantastic chemistry between the two of them as frontman Matt rips riffs from a succession of guitars and drummer Tom flips beats at the drop of a hat setting hair flailing in the front rows of the crowd.
Sadly the combination of overlapping sets and the need for sustenance (provided in the form of an excellent ‘vegan-amese’ wrap from The Duck Shed in the courtyard) means that we miss punk witches Dream Nails, so it’s back to the Boston Music Room for Frauds, who continue their seemingly never-ending ascent of our esteem with a set that matches serrated post-hardcore power with tongue in cheek humour. And as guitarist Mikey flounces off-stage in a mock-huff after one too many remarks about his new “Larry David haircut” from drummer Chris, the crowd would be almost as happy with half an hour of the between-song exchanges as they are with a set of songs that is gradually shifting away from the long-established favourites from their debut LP to incorporate new material that builds on its predecessors with a slightly looser feel that lends a heightened air of unpredictability.
Back upstairs I find myself wondering how I’ve managed not to see The Lovely Eggs before now. The Lancaster lo-fi odd-pop duo have been putting out wonky gems for years now but this is the first time I’ve caught them live. Holly Ross is the very definition of a free spirit as she strums power chords while balancing on one leg, cocking her head to the side and singing about a magic onion. There’s no great deal of musical variety going on but the Eggs do what they do well and everyone leaves with a metre-wide smile on their face.
As we approach the Boston Music Room for the final time we’re almost blown right back out the door by the sheer volume of Belgian hardcore synth-rock fantasists Raketkanon. Complex guitar lines, snaking synths and bludgeoning drums are blasted out so loud that I can feel my spine vibrating and my earplugs beginning to melt, while singer Pieter-Paul Devos howls in a language which the band have created themselves, leaping into the audience at regular intervals. It’s all a bit much for my indie-softened ears and I squeeze out of the jam-packed room for the sanctuary of the upstairs bar.
Which brings us to our final act of the night. Looking around it’s almost like travelling through time – I can spot half a dozen people in the crowd who were at that Buffalo Bar gig fifteen years ago and as Art Brut launch into ‘Formed A Band’ the years just peel away. It’s not all about nostalgia (though old favourites like ‘Emily Kane’ and ‘These Animal Menswear’ undoubtedly trigger something in a long dormant part of my brain), tracks from latest album Wham! Bang! Pow! Let’s Rock Out! are just as well received, each one a sparkling indie-pop gem.
And the Art Brut live show has moved on from that night too. With only frontman Eddie Argos and guitarist Ian Catskilkin remaining from the original line-up (bassist Freddy Feedback is on maternity leave), Argos delights in toying with new rhythm section recruits Charlie and Stu, stopping mid-song for a ten minute ramble during ‘My Little Brother’ (during which we’re informed that his little brother is in fact in attendance tonight), keeping the band riffing in the background all the while before finally kicking in after repeated false starts.
We get requests, false encores, debates as to the relative merits of Morrissey and Axl Rose, endless whimsical anecdotes and lyrics updated to match the changes that have taken place since some of these songs were written. ‘My Little Brother’s mixtape becomes a Spotify playlist, ‘Bad Weekend’s line about not having read The NME is re-worded to take in the magazine’s demise and in ‘Formed a Band’ they’re no longer talking to the kids but to people in their mid to late thirties.
But one thing that hasn’t changed is the fervent belief in the power of pop music to make our lives better, and as the crowd chant “Art Brut, Top of the Pops” back at the stage, you’d have to be pretty hard of heart to not be persuaded of that power yourself.
Review and Photography by Paul Maps