That unsettling, but hardly surprising, meme from earlier in the year, where removing all non-female acts (to be precise – any act simply not containing a female member) from the Reading and Leeds Festival bill left you with little more than a blank page, is cast into stark relief this weekend where Manchester’s annual A Carefully Planned Festival returns for a fifth time. Swing the same axe here and you’d still be very much in business. A well-loved staple of the gig year, it’s an endeavour built on inclusion, with consideration given for female artists but also for the broad tastes of the festival’s loyal audience: aside left-field alternatives, rock, electronica and folk all flesh out the bill. This year, 150 acts fill the stages of nine Northern Quarter venues over two days. And for this impeccably curated bill, the organisers are asking the grand sum of £17.50. What’s not to like?
At Mint Lounge, Manchester duo The Hyena Kill set about the early afternoon Saturday crowd. The pair has been a fixture on the local circuit for a while now, building a following on the back of a growing live reputation. Today, as singer/guitarist Steven Dobb’s swigs from a bottle of medicine, he offers apologies for their gig fitness: “I’ve been throwing up for two days, so now after this I’ll probably be shitting for two days.” A half hour later, the front row exits the venue minus their eyebrows. The Hyena Kill are a fearsome live proposition. Dobb’s guitar and his sandpaper vocals are the frontline offensive of their sound: a throwback to the likes of Deftones but informed by a punk spirit that dirties up the whole. But the key is Lorna Blundell, a drummer of rare skill and a deep musicality, who contributes much to the duo’s muscular dynamic. They play ‘Still Sick’ and “a song called ‘Jesus Little Bastard'”, alongside a handful of tunes where the chorus seems to go “Waaaaaargghhhhhhhhhhh!” No matter. There’s a debut album due next year, so the songs can make themselves known better then. For now, a real blast.
Birmingham folk five piece Boat To Row charm and intrigue at Gulliver’s. They start hesitantly and a handful of punters slink away, fearing, perhaps, genteel genre melodics. More fool them. Boat To Row step outside of trad forms enough to flavour their heritage leanings with a cool, ragged soul. ‘Time and Time Again’ is the highlight: a heady swirl, and defined by its deft and thrilling instrumental break and given fire by Anna Bennett’s violin. Perhaps because he barely looks old enough to be out on his own, let alone in a pub, singer Mike King can barely conceal his delight at the response. Boat to Row are the surprise of the day. For those of us playing catch-up, the debut album just dropped. Get on with it, huh?
Over at Soup Kitchen, Hannah Lou Clark arrives with just her semi-acoustic to win over a full and expectant house. Two songs in, we’re not sure. The artist formally known as Foe is a mean player and the voice was never in question: a rangy, grainy instrument made, you felt, for soul rather than the pop inclinations of her early guise. Worries dissipate as she introduces her drum machine ‘Lucy Brown’ (a nod to local pair Bad Grammar’s drummer?) and the songs are suddenly bigger, undoubtedly better. There’s a roots growl to her overdriven guitar and her soulfulness draws a line back to PJ Harvey covering Hank Williams’ ‘Wang Dang Doodle’ for Peel way back when. And then there’s ‘Kids In Heat’, the tremendous single from early this year that would have just stomped its way into the upper portion of the great man’s Festive 50. There’s a body of work emerging here. One – still – for the notebook.
Haiku Salut, the (their words) “baroque-pop-folktronic-neo-classical-something-or-other” trio, released their second album Etch and Etch Deep earlier this year. A beguiling work, it marries classical forms with electro mischief and emerges as almost a genre unto itself. Picture The Peter Greenaway Band on a Red Bull bender and you’re halfway there. Unfortunately, someone has had the bright idea of putting them on at Manchester’s ‘newest and most exciting event space’ Texture, which means they play to a crowd whose attentive front few rows is dwarfed by the bar scrum and groups who just stand and chat. From the back, away from the nattering fuckwits, Haiku Salut sound all sorts of magnificent, but eventually, the venue swallows them. A shame, but a reminder to catch them again on their own terms.
Sunday begins on a dizzy high. Cecille Grey epitomise ACPF‘s whole ‘stumble across an act you didn’t know previously but now plan on forming a new religion around’ ethos. They are unexpectedly spectacular. Eschewing the tired tenets of nu-folk in favour of dual electric guitars and a predilection for thrust and dynamics over gauzy reflection, they retain only a sliver of heritage elements. And they get everything right. Lead singer Aurelie Guinard, blessed with a voice capable of pinpoint clarity and muscle and volume, is a magnetic lead but the band around her deliver minor miracles. Most noteworthy is guitarist Nabeena Mali, whose technique and detailed playing is a wonder throughout, not least on ‘Tell Me”s euphoric coda.
Older heads will tip a nod to the likes of Goya Dress and Sidi Bou Said, two ostensibly ‘indie’ outfits who lit up the fringes of the UK’s alt. guitar scene all too briefly in the mid 90s. More helpfully (maybe not), imagine Daughter switching their austere minimalism for larger scale, more fully-featured arrangements. Every song connects, and the craft is off the scale. A hundred or so curious types venture into Mint Lounge and every single one just folds. The most dramatic example all weekend of a crowd just getting it as the set progresses, Cecille Grey exit like headliners. Celebratory hugs all round (the band, not crowd) seems more than reasonable. Googling confirms a couple of EPs long since sold out and the backstory is kinda vague but catching up shouldn’t be that hard, right? Dang. Whatever. Is there anything more patronising than telling a band they don’t know how good they are? Cecille Grey, apologies, but you really don’t know how good you are.
Kagoule are preaching to the converted over at Soup Kitchen, where a full house gathers to hear them lay waste to excellent debut album Urth. Singer and guitarist Cai Burns admits to forgetting to bring any merch with them as well as neglecting to write out a set list. The former is foolish/criminal but they more than get away with the latter. They open with ‘Adjust the Way’, the album’s most immediate tune, and never look back. Amidst the strictures of their tight, post-hardcore arrangements, Kagoule strive to entertain and via a combination of Burns’ easy charm and bassist Lucy Hatter’s prowling stage presence, they blow the house down. Thumbs up to the venue sound engineer who mixes them loud and (for this place, unusually) clear. They return next month as headliners. Don’t miss.
The Castle readies itself for Ill. The Manchester four piece, whose DIY ethos and feminist provocations have seen them make waves throughout 2015, are in no mood for fucking about. If you’ve ever come home to find everything you own no longer there and your boyfriend of two years having shipped off back to Poland to the wife you didn’t know about, Ill have a song for you. ‘Secret Life”s chorus might never trouble the daytime airwaves (“Who the FUCK do you think you are?”) but tonight it’s a mid-set explosion of clear-sighted bile and an irresistible battery of twitchy, wiry pop. It sets the heart-stopping scene. Ill’s short set bulges with ideas, character and an infectious, nervy energy. Keyboard player Harri Shanahan doubles as the band’s sardonic ringmaster. “Right, after that I’m going to play you a nice love song.” Pause. Deadpans: “No, I’m not.”
Ill are perhaps the only band playing this weekend who properly, fully challenge accepted norms. Their set feels like both an affront and a call to arms. But when they really plug into a groove and they sing with unstoppable gusto, they’re the band you dance to after gleefully stabbing somebody to death. That’s gotta be worth something, right? The only bum note comes when Shanahan registers that it’s “a guy crowd” after asking, before they launch into ‘Space Dick’, if anyone has ever been sexually harassed at work. In reality, it’s not. It just so happens that a good dozen or more six foot-plus blokes have claimed the front couple of rows. In the rear half of the room, a largely female contingent is hooked from the off, despite the, um, restricted view. You don’t need a tape measure to size up basic good manners and decency. Fellas, show a bit of class, huh?
“It’s really hard, man! They’ve not even given me any time to learn it.” A bass player’s lot is not a happy one, doubly so if you’re False Advertising‘s Josh Sellers. Urged by Jen Hingley to fill in with the theme from Seinfeld while she swaps from drums back to guitar with Chris Warr, his reluctance soon attracts the ire of both crowd (“Sort yourself out, Josh!”) and band mates (Warr: “They think you’re shit!”) No wonder, post-gig, he’s so sheepish. No need, of course, because mid-set japes aside, his band launch themselves into a blitzkrieg showcase for their recently released, self-titled debut and the Mint Lounge crowd falls hard for their advanced grunge-pop. From an opening ‘Breaker’ to a closing one-two of singles ‘Wasted Away’ and ‘Dozer’, they’re just on it. And while it’s Hingley and Warr who throw themselves into the performance, it’s actually the rock steady Sellers, despite that distaste for classic US sitcom themes, who could well be the beating heart of the band. False Advertising breathe new life into an ailing genre. Manchester’s finest? No one in town can touch them right now.
The Orielles wowed a Sunday afternoon crowd at last year’s ACPF – a year on, they close proceedings at Texture. Their retro schtick is properly, smartly stylised, built around the chiming surf guitar of Henry Wade and the unshakeable rhythm section of sisters Esme-Dee (bass) and Sid (drums) Hand-Halford. ‘Space Doubt’ and new single ‘Joey Says We Got It’ showcase a sharply crafted dream-pop but it’s their regular set closer that shakes the walls: the 7 minute psyche wig-out that is ‘Sugar Tastes Like Salt’ is fast becoming one of the live scene’s intoxicating high spots. Shame that the thin sound doesn’t let the bass really take hold but let’s not quibble. Impossible to dislike and, in keeping with the spirit of this fine and developing festival, the Halifax trio are ever more a prospect.