Villa Kit Launch Weekend @ Villa Park, Birmingham – 16th-17th June 2012

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Review by Ian Savage / Photos by Russ Tierney

As part of the fanfare surrounding the launch of AVFC’s new home strip, Counteract Magazine provided an outdoor stage at Villa Park over the Father’s Day weekend, featuring a dozen West Midlands-based bands. Donning garlic and silver crosses, Blues fan Ian Savage went to investigate for Midlands Rocks alongside the slightly more comfortable Russ Tierney

 

Saturday

On an AVFC car park sparsely populated due to unrelenting drizzle, The Culture kick off proceedings on Saturday morning. Thanks in part to a wobbly initial mix, the band take a while to settle in and lack punch and power (bizarrely for an outdoor stage, the mix being predominantly vocals), leaving a slightly formulaic indie sound without any real balls. The situation improves gradually as the set goes on, the drum intro to their penultimate tune leading to a couple of more up-tempo numbers which are badly needed: even factoring in the poor mix, a band currently fairly good at what they do, but what they do has certainly been done better.

The Bluebeat Arkestra are an altogether more original proposition. Featuring (among other instruments) trumpet, electric violin and percussion, all being electronically manipulated at various stages, they provide a thick, full backing to a female lead vocal. Second tune ‘Me, Myself & I’ launches from a funk intro into a densely layered upbeat pop tune complete with rapped middle section (a nicely-done feature repeated on occasion throughout the set), and the band, especially the sharp-suited menfolk, genuinely seem to be enjoying showcasing their art. Coming across like the Brand New Heavies with music technology degrees, TBA finish with a tune equally heavy on electronic thickening as old-school groove; a band I’ll be keeping an eye on for sure.

 Straight off the bat the most Midlands Rocks-worthy band of the weekend, Dakota Beats still have a decidedly indie vibe but infuse it with rockier structures and bigger, more sing-along choruses. A couple of dozen people even brave the now-driving rain to stand stage-front, and the band receive the best audience reception of the show so far. There’s even a few shouting lyrics back at by mid-set ”Come Home’, the solid four-piece apparently appealing across any indie/rock genre boundaries – Dakota Beats have hopefully gained a few new fans here today.

Swim Deep describe their sound as ‘sun-kissed noise’; the ‘sun-kissed’ part would be greatly appreciated at Villa Park this afternoon as the elements continue to dampen spirits. As the band take to the stage clad in raincoats, their Verve/U2-esque stylings manage to gradually muster an audience at the front, with synthesiser embellishments lifting the band above the standard vocal/guitar/bass/drums format. The vocals bring to mind long-forgotten (and loved by this reviewer) US supergroup Brad; that said, the ‘four-on-the-floor-with-a-chord-change-every-bar’ backing becomes repetitive after a while and the band become dull to watch. Perhaps the alcohol-free family-friendly zone of Villa Park today has done them no favours, as the singer sprays bottled Coke across the stage; perhaps a band better caught in a club than an open-air commercial setting.

Headlining the Saturday afternoon, The Lines take to the stage with half of the band wearing the 2012/13 season kit which the event is intended to promote. Unfortunately most of the crowd seem  interested in lines of a different sort (namely the queue for a stadium tour), so the band play to a much-diminished audience; a pity, as The Lines give a well-drilled performance as the sun puts in a long overdue appearance. On the face of it another vocal/guitar/bass/drums lineup, The Lines augment their sound with subtle and not-so-subtle electronic loops, as well as ably sharing out occasional percussion duties – by the end of the set the final song has morphed from a fairly straight indie/pop number into a mammoth percussion-and-bass groove, a nice touch which sets the band apart from the innumerable guitar pop bands out there. A fitting finale, and another band worth watching out for.

 

Sunday

More rocked-up than any of the preceding day’s bands, Stubblemelt open the live music stage on Sunday morning. Anthemic beyond their apparent years, the outfit possibly make an error of judgement by slowing things right down early on (with second track ‘Bloodlines’), but it mutates into an angular yet melodic bridge and chorus typifying the band’s style. Stubblemelt certainly retain an across-the-board appeal but will conceivably pick up a few metal fans along the way, especially if the shout-along chorus of show closer ‘Welcome Back’ is anything to go by.

The weekend’s rock quota is upped again by Deceptions Pocket, the (frankly awful) name belying a Lostprophets-esque ‘rock-with-synths’ sound which, as with the previous band, sounds more mature than the band appear. The set is interrupted after a couple of crowd-pleasing yet nigglingly predictable numbers for a club representative to present two of the band with the latest season’s shirt to replace the ones they’re wearing; a nice touch which exemplifies the friendliness of the occasion. Deception’s Pocket present a surprisingly full and well-developed sound for such obviously young musicians, but it still has a touch of ‘bandwagon’ about it.

Bringing to mind The Smiths after successful depression therapy within a few bars of the first song, Joyous showcase jangly guitar lines over a sparing but solid rhythm section to produce pleasingly retro alt/pop. They introduce mid-set tune ‘Mistakes’ saying that they hope they won’t make any more – this reviewer certainly didn’t notice any, and as the sun emerges by the last song the crowd has become far larger and more appreciative of this 90s-flavoured sound; another outfit to keep an eye on.

In keeping with the Father’s Day theme, Paradise Forum feature the son of Villa player Peter Withe who has just finished an onstage Q&A session. A solid if uninspiring covers band, PF plough through the requisite U2, Feeder and Kaiser Chiefs numbers as the Midland Rocks team head for some lunch.

Is there no up-and-coming band in Birmingham NOT featuring keyboards this year? However, where some let huge washes of synth overwhelm matters or use the presence of keys to push their sound in an ‘alt/dance’ direction, Soldier weave the keys neatly into a pop/rock tapestry which calls to mind the like of The Feeling or The Hold Steady. Female backing vocals add sheen to an extremely listenable mix whilst rock guitars add fire and potency – the band of the weekend so far.

In a similar stylistic vein come weekend big hitters Taking Hayley, fresh from a stadium support tour with McFly. It seems this experience has streamlined their sound; unfortunately to the point of removing any edge whatsoever, the results so slick that it’s easy for them to slide past the listener unnoticed. Throw in a fluffed new number (with some very dubious backing vocals – can three singers REALLY produce that level of harmonisation, or is some backing-tape augmentation involved?) and it leaves Taking Hayley smacking slightly of what pop/rock has become, up against Soldier’s what pop/rock can be.