The first thing to note about COVtember 2023 which was held over the weekend (three days' worth) is that as ever, it raised money for Coventry Foodbank (I'm sure they are still accepting donations by the way). That really puts other things into context.
This inspired conception of Paul Quinn just goes from strength to strength & if we do not allow ourselves to forget its primary purpose, nevertheless it has evolved into an event of the utmost significance culturally: I had several conversations while there about how it so effectively captures the zeitgeist of local music. Now working with Joe Colombi, it seems that the best artists are falling over themselves to get involved & between them they again organised a magnificent lineup: completely without any local precedent.
I was sorry to have missed a plethora of superb acts I'd have liked to have seen: Joe's response to Duke Keats' set was to dub his band "the best local group since The Specials". Apart from Duke, in a perfect world I'd have aimed to see bands and artists like Roddy Radiation, Andy Beglin, Brass Hip Flask, The Fallows, Jack Blackman etc, but maybe that would have been too much great music to process in such a short time.
In the event, personal circumstances at least allowed me to be there for what those who'd been present all three days, felt was an extra-special sequence: including several "Hot Music Live Presents" featured artists. I was looking forwards to seeing one of my own favourites, Bar Pandora, but very sadly personal issues at their end rather than mine prevented their playing (fortunately, despite Bar Pandora being qualitatively irreplaceable, Paul & Joe found a band called Exotic Suite to plug the gap in the schedule).
Local favourites Shanghai Hostage, as is their habit, decided to up the ante with what they advertised as their "heaviest" performance ever & the energy level just soared. Playing songs everyone there knew & loved, somehow they found yet another set of aspects of their musicianship and indeed, the sound was heavier than I'd heard before (or indeed presumably anyone else). Yet their characteristic funkiness remained intact and whatever the extra profundity of the sound might have added, it did not overwhelm the nuances of their smart songs. To be fair, Shanghai Hostage have a musical restlessness & curiosity which means that they don't deliver identical performances ever, (at one point I was admiring the sax playing until I spotted none of them was playing one: it apparently was Ian treating his guitar thusly) but this particular one was certainly most impressive & its impact on the many there, tangible. I wish I'd been able to take an even half decent photo of bassist Richard's excursion onto the dance floor, to be surrounded by a whirling circle of admirers, but you perhaps had to be there…
I'd not seen Gutter Puppy previously, but their high octane set certainly built on what had gone before. I loved their energy and commitment to what they were doing and how they rattled through so many songs in their allotted time. If only I could have discerned their lyrics better (one of their later ones contained the phrase "fucking hell" and those were litreally the only two words I made out all set)... Having taken the time to write them, it would be nice to have figured out what they were about and after years of listening to punk bands, I'm not short on deciphering experience. I'm sure some degree of incomprehensibility was intended, but even so….
The consensus among those to whom I spoke was that a high percentage of those there were particularly keen (as I was) to catch Septic and the Tanks: given the buzz surrounding this band, as I hope my recent articles have in some way indicated, the word is definitely spreading about this exciting band and they did not disappoint.
I speculated while reviewing their new single "Be My Feet" as to some of the possible elements in why they are so popular and last evening was a chance to test them against the live sound.
Firstly, though the band themselves are very modest about how raw they were to start with (in most cases from minimal musical experience), they are clearly quick learners and have come a long way fast. They are tight (and most songs are such that keeping together must be challenging in itself) and the bedrock of Sarah's bass & Sophie's drums are key to this: not only are they rock solid enough to hold the songs together but both showed imagination in playing which you simply wouldn't expect from such relative newcomers to the instruments. This also meant that once I'd heard more of their songs than I'd previously experienced, I could appreciate the rhythmic variety across the set: which impressed.
Frankly the eye and ear are drawn irresistibly to front person Robin: and you couldn't wish for a more dynamic and powerful presence to play that role. Her voice is something like you might get if Iggy Pop mated with Regan from The Exorcist and they had a daughter who inherited vocal elements from each. I mentioned earlier in the week how she seemed on the verge of vomiting during her singing on the single, so great was her disgust… well that remained the zenith of that aspect live (thankfully she managed to just hold herself back), but on every other song her contempt as well as disgust at the various things she was telling us about was most impressive. Unsurprisingly, as with Richard earlier, the stage was ultimately too small to contain her passion and so she needed to roam further afield.
James' guitar, played by the most experienced musician is a very key element in all sorts of ways: intros, another part of the structure, the odd solo bit (but this is a band who don't indulge in the superfluous or egotistical). However fitting Lucy's banjo in had to be the most radical element & they not only have found a way to do it effectively, but the excellent sound (by Ian Whitehead) made it audible and it has a few showcase moments of its own: the track which stood out for me was called "7" (their seventh composition) and the instrument is integral to that one: which in my opinion would make a great single.
Following them (and that was not an enviable task) fell to the Duck Thieves (It was my first Duck Thieves gig since Cait moved on) and they were probably one of the few bands who could: the audience, already whipped up by the previous three acts, maintained their euphoria admirably. Like the best current local bands, strict adherence to the constraints of genre is anathema to this great band (who you may remember have supported the Specials), though kindly they offer suggestions of pop, punk & panto to those seeking a starting point. Utterly idiosyncratic and totally at ease with who they are, this is another band who bring joy to the mixture and that is such a tonic. They seem to have eliminated the idea of self consciousness and what an antidote that is to all the cynical and affected stage mannerisms out there. And it's great musicianship once again, despite the apparent light heartedness (the songs do have great depth and their insouciance on stage is not altogether unconnected to their interests in personal identities and their glories of diversity).
All these bands in collaboration with many others we cover in the magazine & in passing above, offer local music new delights and challenges. None seeks the comfort of convention nor seeks to emulate others: they are all happiest being themselves & in various ways offering the encouragement to their audiences to do the same.
Humour is a vital common element & all prove that this is not inconsistent with profound messages. To be honest, those po-faced, self important artists without humour seem both anachronisms & irrelevant in the face of this current trend. That pretty much all of them feature gender diversity (as well as other kinds) in their lineups is not coincidental in my opinion.
So back to where we came in: these are exciting times and Paul & Joe have done sterling work in capturing the essence with events like COVtember 2023 (and I shudder to imagine the hard work which went on all year to make it happen.
I've had occasion to regret poor sound engineering at various local events recently, so all the more praise to Ian for getting it so right: not only with unusual instruments & combinations, but also turning sets around so often & so quickly: not easy & when done this well, it looks effortless. It's not. So if you are reading this & you are one of those organisers who thinks you can save money by skimping on sound engineering: please think again.
The event, lest I overlook it, was at the admirable Tin and much praise too to the team there for three days of hard but hopefully enjoyable labour.
The cause was a great one & the bands gave their time as well as their talent gratis: again, the linkage between this generosity of spirit and the quality of their art may be significant.
I foresee so many of these artists pushing forwards in the coming year & hopefully gaining yet more recognition beyond the enthusiastic audiences this weekend (kudos to them too!). Paul, Joe & team deserve a pat on the back for their vision and efforts plus a few minutes to relax: but I know they won't and COVtember 2024 will already occupy parts of their minds? How can they top 2023? Well that won't stop them trying for sure.