Sunday 8 October 2017

Neighbourhood Festival (The Howl And The Hum / Blossoms / Pip Blom / Neon Waltz / Billie Marten / Black Honey / Rory Wynne) - Manchester Various Venues - 7th October 2017

The second Neighbourhood Festival took place on Saturday across a dozen venues in the Oxford Road area of Manchester with a line-up that covered nationally acclaimed bands in big venues such as The Ritz and The Albert Hall to lesser-known up-and-coming bands in more intimate surroundings. It also saw the second performance of Blossoms' collaboration with composer Joe Duddell accompanied by the Royal Northern College Of Music ensemble.

"What's the best time for a rock and roll gig? 12.30 in the afternoon." enquires and answers Sam, the front man of Deaf Institute openers The Howl And The Hum as they launch proceedings with a set full of widescreen soundscapes of the sort that a band would only usually feel brave enough to try around album three. It works though, despite the time of day, as they hit the mark every time with songs that are replete with dramatic intent and delivery, that draw you in, spin you round and spit you back out again.

They're not fazed by the fact their bass player only arrives with minutes to spare after getting an Uber from Newcastle nor that the audience is still coming in as the set progresses, but by the end they've got a full room as they finish with their debut single Godmanchester Chinese Bridge. Before that though, a new song called Murder and the magnificently titled The Only Other Living Creature In The Desert and My Love Wears Gloves have impressed us more than enough to recognise they're a band with an ambitious approach to their music that hits the spot and then moves it.

We then head over to the Met Union and once we're past the everything but anal cavity search to get in, we're primed for Tom and Charlie from Blossoms' meeting with the Royal Northern College Of Music ensemble with strings, bass clarinet, vibraphone and harp. Their eight-song set demonstrates just why Blossoms have stolen the hearts of young and old across the country (and this audience seems to be the broadest mix we come across all day) because these songs - Getaway, My Favourite Room, Blown Rose - possess a natural simplicity to them that allows the addition of the ensemble to take the basic skeleton and enrich and deepen the experience of listening to them. Stripped of drums, keyboard and Josh's soaring guitars, the ensemble fill the spaces, set the spine tingling in the way they both let the songs breathe, but also give them a sharp, pointed intensity.

This space also allows Tom's voice to be more expressive in its delivery, richer, more worldly-wise than it sounds with the full band behind him. He's now developed too into a genuine front man, gone are the slightly awkward between song moments replaced by off-the-cuff responses to hecklers about his hair, laughing at the way he thinks the end of Deep Grass sounds like The Apprentice theme tune and asking us to guess which b-side has found its way into the set. That was For Evelyn and the crowd surprisingly shut up and listen. Charlemagne, their traditional call to mosh, has a hushed reverence to it. They finish with a cover, which Tom describes as his and Charlie's karaoke song when they're on tour in Hamburg, and finally the 1,000 or so in this impressive and under-utilised gig room find their voices and sing along to The Beatles' Ticket To Ride.

That a celebrated composer and arranger as Joe Duddell works with Blossoms alongside established names such as Elbow, James and Richard Hawley is testament to how far they've come. This type of collaboration is something bands do many albums in to reinvent and reinterpret their sounds, for Blossoms it feels like its right and natural now as they break to regroup and record their second album.

We then head to Underdog for the first time ever for Pip Blom. We've seen the Dutch teenager a few times now and every time been more impressed and today her and her band are on great form in front of a crowd that really gets them. With hair flying from side to side and an infectious energy that transmits itself from stage to audience, they run through a ten-song set that never once drops in pace or power. Songs are laden with irresistible hooks such as Babies Are A Lie, School and the modestly-titled Demo 2.

By the time they reach their final song, I Think I'm In Love, they've won over a whole new room of admirers, drawn into by the absolute joy they seem to have in performing live. Despite the band having Pip's name, they're a band in the proper sense of the word, Tender taking over lead vocals at point when not throwing himself around the stage wildly. They're coming back to Manchester in November and we recommend everyone goes and sees them.

One of our most anticipated bands of the day were Neon Waltz as the band that is seemingly forever on tour never seems to be in Manchester. They're beset with technical difficulties before they even start and Factory's sound is notoriously bad, yet still they emerge triumphant at the other side, their final kiss off Dreamers being one of the finest singles of the last twelve months. However, right from the start, Jordan's stage presence, almost oblivious at times to the couple of hundred of people in the room as he stares into the distance, is intoxicating and unsettling. This is in direct contrast though to the songs - Perfect Frame, Heavy Hearted, Barewood Aisles, Bring Me To Light - which are celebratory and uplifting in their nature and delivered in much the same manner live as they are on their recent stunning debut album Strange Hymns.

There's time for a unreleased slower song called I Fall Asleep mid-set, which shows another side to them not so evident on the album. What's is very clear though is their togetherness as a gang, forged in the van over long trips from their John O'Groats home. But it's Dreamers that sends everyone out into the Manchester rain just a little bit more in love with one of the country's most endearing and underrated bands.

Next up is Billie Marten in Gorilla and she's playing a solo set, which is a brave move with a festival crowd, given that they might not be there specifically to see her. For the first few songs they're incredibly respectful as her soft, gorgeous voice delivers Heavy Weather from her debut album Writing Of Blues And Yellows and a new song Cartoon People which she explains is abut a love affair between a tramp and a daughter.

The temptation to talk is a bit too much for some, which seems to slightly irk (quite rightly) Billie later in the set, but it doesn't quite manage to break the intimate fragility of Lionhearted or an impromptu encore of Milk And Honey. She's not fazed either by a technical hitch which sounds like a gun being fire and shakes up some of the crowd mid-song, even stopping to enquire about someone on the front row. Whilst standing out a little against the more raucous elements that make up much of the line-up, her set is a half-hour of reflective wonder.

We then head back to the Union where the searches help me find a micro SD card hidden in a fold in my wallet and which means the room is only half full by the time Black Honey make it to the stage with others outside in the rain waiting patiently. The room fills up eventually for a band that's standing right on the edge of becoming huge. They've managed the transition from being able to see the whites of our eyes in intimate halls to making stages like this their own without losing that connection. When Izzy tells us how much she loves Manchester, you know she means it. And her band mean it too.

Their songs have stretched out to project themselves in the way all bands that want to make the big league have to work out how to do. All My Pride, Madonna, Somebody Better and Cadillac sound like they were built for big halls and they're delivered with a power and precision which mean they hit the mark. There's bits where they sound like they've ransacked the record collections of their favourite bands, thrown it all up in the air, replaced things in the wrong sleeves and made their own fabulous mix tape which is them and no one else. The mosh pit goes all the way back to the sound desk.

When they slow things down and ask us to put the lights on our phone and wave them for the people who died at the Arena, everyone complies. It could be empty gesturing from out of town, but it's not. At the end of the set, Izzy thanks us all for being there from the start, then stops and questions if this is another beginning, it certainly feels like it as hundreds of people join her in signing the chorus as the band take the song down and she leaps down on the barrier. They look and sound pretty unstoppable right now.

Our last set of the day is Rory Wynne back at Underdog. He's been quiet this year since his debut EP and the Blossoms tour in the Spring, writing with only the occasional live outing. He plays all four songs from that EP plus three of the new ones which show just how much he's progressed since the early days of Post-Party Confusion and Why Don't You, neither of which appear as he's determined to look forward and not back. Considering it's been a while since they've played together, they're a tight outfit live, capturing the essence of the recorded versions of the songs, but also injecting an added thrill and buzz into them.

He jokes that's he's only 18 so he's not retiring yet and on the basis of Enigma, Friends and the final track What You Said To Me, that's something to be thankful for as these songs take the confident directness of the EP tracks and expands them yet further. There's no thrills or fuss between songs, the band simply stop one and burst straight into the next one, pausing only before the final song for Rory to humbly thank us for coming to see him when there's so much else on offer. As we leave and observe people standing in long wet queues outside Black Dog and Sound Control, we wonder why people don't just take a chance and watch something they don't know rather than standing there.

The Howl And The Hum are on Facebook and Twitter.

Blossoms' official website can be found here and they are on Facebook and Twitter.

Pip Blom's official website can be found here and they are on Facebook and Twitter.

Neon Waltz's official website can be found here and they are on Facebook and Twitter.

Billie Marten's official website can be found here and she is on Facebook and Twitter.

Black Honey are on Facebook and Twitter.

Rory Wynne's official site can be found here and he is on Facebook and Twitter.

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