Gig Review: XFM Winter Wonderland (@Brixton Academy – 17/12/2014)

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XFM’s Winter Wonderland has always been something of a curate’s egg, and this year’s gig is no exception…

XFM’s Winter Wonderland has always been something of a curate’s egg, and this year’s gig is no exception. Indie music is a surprisingly broad church, and the temptation for the promoters is to attempt to please everybody, which is clearly an impossible task. Couple that with the limitation put on the event by artist availability, and the inevitable outcome is a somewhat disparate bill which certainly provides variety, but a variety can undermine the gig’s cohesion. CA - xfm-winter-wonderland-2014-london-poster-1415287941
Tonight’s event is not sold out, so presumably the late addition of ‘band of the moment’ Royal Blood as openers is an attempt to get more people through the door, and get them in early too. This inevitably leads to the whole event having a somewhat ‘front-loaded’ feel.

CA - Royal Blood at SXSW 2014

Royal Blood at SXSW 2014

Royal Blood are, perhaps inevitably, awesome. They are already rock stars. They play the audience just as effectively as they play their instruments, and their five song set is simply just not long enough.
So how does Mike Kerr get those sounds from his bass? He’s talked about a ‘secret’ combination of pedals, but the fact that he plays quite high up the neck and uses loads of distortion and feedback are probably equally contributory factors, but when a band is this good does it really matter? Royal Blood are a very rare animal – a band that is actually worth every bit of the hype.

“And then we were told we’d be following Royal Blood”. These are To Kill A King’s Ralph Pelleymounter’s first words to the audience, and they elicit a suitably sympathetic round of applause. The audience make nowhere near as much noise again during the rest of their set. To Kill A King’s serviceable singer/songwriterly indie with heartfelt lyrics are simply not qualified to follow a band like Royal Blood. To make matters worse, at times they are horribly reminiscent of Travis. Sorry guys – wrong time, wrong place.

Billy Pettinger at Rock Camp 2014, Germany

Billy Pettinger at Rock Camp 2014, Germany

In between acts we get the XFM DJs doing their best ‘Smashie and Nicey” impressions. They seem to be undecided whether this is a radio show (it’s being broadcast live) or a gig. Whatever, they are an annoying intrusion that kills the night’s atmosphere. Perhaps they would be better served by having a studio backstage and being only audible to their listeners.
We are saved from more DJ drivel by Canadian singer-songwriter Billy The Kid, aka Billy Pettinger. Her powerful performance and harmonica solos get rapt attention from the audience. There is a lot of light and shade in her material, and even Frank Turner’s appearance for one song doesn’t steal the show.

A barrage of high pitched screaming announces the arrival of Catfish and the Bottlemen, who are clearly popular with the ladies. They are aiming at the heavier end of indie with lots of feedback between songs, but whether their tuneful powerpop actually hits their intended target is debateable.

The Horrors’ 21st Century psychedelia gets a surprising and undeservedly muted response from this audience. To my mind, along with Royal Blood they’re the highlight of the event so far. As a frontman Faris Badwan has a commanding stage presence, and there are superb guitar histrionics throughout. What’s not to like??? I suspect that this is more of a ‘pop’ audience than the band would normally attract. CA - The Horrors 07

Billy Bragg is presented with the XFM Inspiration Award and proceeds to play a short set armed with just a Telecaster. This kind of award is often given to artists who are about to “go gentle into that goodnight”. This is certainly not the case with Billy Bragg, whose songs will remain relevant long after he is gone. Bragg is very much alive however as he rips intoWorld Turned Upside Down,To Have And To Have Not and Never Buy The Sun. The latter is particularly poignant bearing in mind the legal battles that have once again been raging regarding the Hillsborough tragedy over the past months. After giving us A New England, probably the nearest he has had to a hit (It was a hit for the much missed Kirsty MacColl) Billy Bragg is gone.

Frank Turner at The Park in Peterborough 2007

Frank Turner at The Park in Peterborough 2007

The show is closed by Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls. Frank Turner is a ‘marmite’ artist if ever there was one: he seems to be loved and hated in fairly equal measure.
The sticking point for some people seems to be that he went to Eton and had a relatively privileged upbringing. Personally I couldn’t care less about a musician’s background as long as the music is good, and in Turner’s case it is. His populist songs certainly have a case for making him a de facto man of the people. Turner and the Sleeping Souls come across like the product of a drunken coupling between the Mumfords and an English Pogues. They certainly give a good impression of an impassioned performance, even if they are jet-lagged having flown in from Nashville specially for the show.
Winter Wonderland, despite XFM’s efforts, is not the best gig you’ll ever see. It is however, one of the more varied shows on offer.

It’s a good opportunity to see bands live for whom one wouldn’t necessarily shell out for a full price ticket. When all is said and done it’s a little like a mini festival, which is a good thing. Long may it continue.

Mark Kelly


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