A bit of a soundclash in Norwich tonight, with some major gigs taking place, as well as another Black Watch performance at UEA, so this perhaps had some effect on the attendance for this gig but it was still nicely full with about 300 present for this enticing line up. Also taking place in Norwich was the Wooden Arms single launch at the Birdcage; The Drop, Solko and Killamonjambo at OPEN; as well as the regular Friday night gig at Jurnets and countless smaller gigs around the city.
One cannot attend everything, however hard one tries, and so tonight was the long-arranged line up of The Vagaband, Feral Mouth, and Das Fenster and the Alibis at one of Norwich’s newer venues, Epic. Previously used as a TV studio this dark and very spacious studio has been most helpful towards local acts, recording live videos free of charge in Raw sessions, and promoting monthly acoustic showcases, and streaming most of the gigs live over the internet. What it perhaps lacks in soul and comfort it more than makes up for in sound quality and stage visibility. The stage is large and well lit, at just the right height, and with two huge screens on either side showing the streamed gig as it happens. I have seen both The Vagas and the Ferals live here a few times, most notably that gig they did here in November which was one of the musical highlights of the year. Tonight was not as well attended as on that occasion but with so much going on in the city on the same evening that was hardly surprising.
First to the stage tonight was the wonderfully entertaining Das Fenster & The Alibis, a very charismatic trio with a great rock spirit, led by Paul Finlay, who also performs locally in Sun of Cash. Taking their places after each respectfully bowing to their ‘voodoo shrine’. Drummer ‘Stagger Lee’ with fake black eye, ‘Pearly Gates’ on upright bass and a caped Das Fenster, quite a gothic and theatrical entrance, and each wearing their now trademark ‘DF’ armbands in the style of the home guard! There is a great spirit in this band, and a delicious sense of irony and humour. They looked to all intents and purposes as if they had just had a backstage punch-up leading to the black eyes, looking mean and cool but brooding and angry they then launched into their set, the stage liberally decorated with the aforementioned voodoo shrine, a doll and even an aspidistra behind the upright bass. They create a great and full, rock, at times rockabilly sound with an excellent drummer and lovely tremelo guitar. The bassist must have fingers of solid rock the way he plays and paws the strings. The set featured many new songs previewed from their forthcoming album. I’ve seen DF quite a few times but this is probably the biggest gig, other than the support slot to The Toy Hearts at the Arts Centre about a year ago and a gig in the OPEN club room, and I have to say, they made the transition to the larger stage effortlessly, in fact I think they revelled in it. It was a joy to see them fill the venue with their sound and presence. Most enjoyable and I think the best I have seen them. Hopefully more larger gigs to come from this entertaining act, I heard a lot of complimentary words spoken about these guys afterwards.
Due to the fact that regular bassist Lake was at OPEN performing in one of his other guises with his band Killa tonight, the bass duties for Feral Mouth was tonight more than ably filled by Tom McGeady, and they played another excellent mix of their old and new, fast and slow numbers. This band have really been honing their set well in recent months, and with the recording of their soon to be released debut album, practices, and numerous live gigs this year have become a really tight unit. Tom did a great job of covering for Lake, and even using his upright bass. Set favourites such as Diniler, Darlin’ Cory, Ghengis, Hand on the Plough sat alongside some of the great new, self-penned numbers like Tatters (already a new crowd favourite), Old Man and Nelson County which seamlessly join the older, established set favourites. Poor Jape seemed to be plagued by broken guitar strings tonight but applied some onstage first aid to his guitar and this was not allowed to affect the set, and was a chance for some onstage banter. It is to be hoped that big things await this band, certainly they deserve wider recognition, and with some festival appearances lined up for the summer perhaps that could happen this year. Their brand of bluegrass has become increasingly unique and distinctive, and Jape is another extremely intelligent and talented songwriter, these songs have much depth and should be heard.
And so to the night’s headliners, the mighty Vagaband, who unbelievably, I have only seen two or three times so far this year, having missed their appearance at the Fat Cat Brewery Tap the previous Friday, suffering some exhaustion from probably too many gigs! It was nice to see the full band on a big stage again though, they can really fill a venue both in numbers, and increasingly by their reputation. Considering all the bands on stage tonight, and especially in the case of the Vagas and Ferals, are frequently to be found playing for free in the pubs around Norwich, this was a very respectable attendance of paying customers.
Starting the set with one of my personal favourites (Itchy Fingers) they played a set of mixed pace numbers and seemed to get the whole of the front of the audience dancing away, with smiles in abundance.
Towards the end of the set they were joined once again by Feral Mouth, which must have meant there were about thirteen musicians on stage, which included cello, upright bass, steel pedal guitar, accordion, flugelhorn and much more!
On a personal note, I would have preferred to hear more of the band’s own compositions, which I think are their strongest in the sets. I have nothing against songs like Sixteen Tonnes and It’s All Over Now Baby Blue, but this is not the aspect of the band that makes me really love the Vagaband. Speaking with someone about the band recently, he said “Oh, you mean the covers band?” which is not how I would wish them to become known at all, and it would be a great shame if that happened, they are much more than that. Jose is a very fine songwriter and I love their own songs, and especially the ones that seem to connect the whole band in spirit and mood, such as Ballad of El Molino (their masterpiece), Aye Aye Aye, Ocean, Black Sheep (which they did perform, to my great pleasure) Tripping on Cheese, My Maria, Ole Felixstowe and many others. They should have more belief in their own songs, especially when they are playing these bigger gigs. There are covers which they sometimes perform that they do quite uniquely and brilliantly – I am especially thinking ‘All Night Long’ here, which when coupled with Ole Felixstowe, at the point when the whole audience is dancing away is a really great way to please a crowd and end a show – and there is nothing wrong with having a few covers in a set but The Vagaband have their own following and identity now and in venues like this do not need to win people over with covers like a pub gig, they are far better than that. That’s just one individual’s subjective viewpoint though and the number of people dancing joyously is proof that this is a very minor quibble about a band dear to my heart. The set did not quite scale the incredible heights of the legendary gigs at Gorleston and in this same venue last year, but that is only because they set the bar so high, and to be fair, this is a venue which needs really to be full to get the most from it. Still a superb gig though. Epic is large, and although it has an excellent sound – which tonight I thought should have been a little louder – the area around the stage is a bit ‘cold’ and lacking in atmosphere, in a way that the similar but smaller OPEN is not. Tellingly, this is a venue I would feel far less comfortable attending alone for some reason, probably as alone one is just left standing around feeling awkward. I think the venue needs a bit more thought in how the peripheral areas are used, with some more seating, a little less blackness, and a much better bar. If it in some way can feel a bit warmer in mood and a bit more intimate (not easy in a venue this size) it will go from strength to strength. Still very early days though and that is not to take away from another excellent night and a very fine gig from a couple of heavyweights of the Norwich ‘Americana’ scene and one of the newer, darker bands. Epic are working extremely well with local bands and musicians and helping them a lot, and the staff seem very friendly and helpful too. I think there is definitely room for all these fine venues we are blessed with in Norwich at this time.
Words and photos (c) by shashamane
Thanks to Epic for permission to take photographs