[First Published at The Girls Are…, October 17, 2014]
There’s no way anyone should feel like this at 7.30pm on a Thursday. TGA has just walked into the back room of The Birdcage; a small pub in the centre of Norwich. About thirty people are spread out across the room, completely silent, mostly terrified. At least half the crowd have to be record execs or A&R types judging by the number of lanyards around necks. Holding court are two fifteen-year-old girls called Let’s Eat Grandma.
Cramped behind drums and amps and pipes and anything else they can find, they take no breaks in between songs for warm applause. Instead, there are frantic bursts of saxophone or a biting, shouted refrain, all built around simple, repetitive, completely misleading keys. It’s fractured, disjointed music and occasionally it slips out of time or out of tune. And then stays there for four minutes. But it’s played with a haunting serenity and confidence that allows each manic digression to come racing forward like a frightening hallucination.
It’s music that’s organic, not because of some adopted idea of the past, but because it genuinely feels as though it’s being created in the moment, flawed and vivid. It’s almost impossible to imagine how Let’s Eat Grandma’s outbursts could be recreated on record without losing some of this immediacy. In person they are completely brilliant. There are people in this room who would like to try condensing it, though, just to see how much it might be worth.
This, then, is Norwich Sound And Vision Festival. Essentially the city’s answer to The Camden Crawl or SXSW, attracting as many industry types as locals and creating a rare buzz around a city that so often relies on understatement. In amongst the smattering of internationally recognized headliners – this year Chase & Status and The Hold Steady top the bill – artists from round the country are booked in to showcase their work. It’s also a chance for the city’s hugely impressive venues, many of which often lie dormant, to show off a bit. In all, there are eight venues this year and it’s heartening to see them boom.
Sadly, Daisy Victoria’s set isn’t as packed as some others. It’s still early evening, the week’s not yet through, and Epic Studios is just too far out of the traditionally trendy part of the city for festival-goers to fall into it. She’s also the only act playing twice this weekend. It’s a shame too as Victoria is an increasingly prominent talent in a local scene that’s starting to flourish. Rather than playing with the three-piece that she’s assembled around her recently, tonight it’s just her and her Telecaster.
She’s got more than enough presence and experience to make that work though, her perfectly constructed baroque pop embracing theatrics without ever veering into melodrama. Songs like ‘Tree’ and ‘Heart Full Of Beef’, in particular, highlight a grace that’s undercut by gravel, propped up by a refreshing experimental streak and an oil-slick voice.
Friday evening gives TGA a chance to go back to the Norwich Arts Centre, a deconsecrated church that serves as the city’s – if not the country’s – most charming venue. London-based Kid Wave are first up, all washed in summer and high reverb. It takes a while to click, but eventually their sun-scarred Polaroids of songs come together. Every song here could be laid on top of that Smashing Pumpkins video for ‘Today’, each one a memory of a drive through Southern California that doesn’t really have to have taken place. Serra Petale on drums is the only member who seems to have let loose and hit the ground running and her energy holds the interest as tracks blur into one another. Maybe it’s the weather outside, but it only really feels relevant in fits and starts.
Down the road at The Mash Tun, there’s a more beer-stained crowd gathered for Black Mothwhose more blues and weed induced moments hit the mark in an otherwise conventional metal set. Harriet Bevan’s vocals work best at the top of their range, punctuating the riffs rather than just enabling them. But TGA isn’t half as drunk as anyone here, especially not the man trying to fist-bump a guitarist mid-solo.
It might explain why Pony and Trap play to a half-empty room. Theirs is a set that never takes off despite the duo’s tireless efforts. Tom Meyer is a genuinely creative guitarist who adds a refreshing flourish to every bright pop song they throw out and Sally Rafferty is an energetic frontwoman with a great voice. What’s more, there’s a chemistry between the two of them that makes the whole thing move.
But the format is flawed. Though the electronic drums and basslines that underpin the band on record add something joyously artificial, on stage it feels empty. It’s partly because the pre-made tracks themselves don’t sound artificial enough in the first place, instead doing a decent enough impression of a drummer to make you wish there was one on stage.
Then it’s a run through a rainstorm to Girl In A Thunderbolt a few seconds down the road. After years in and around the local scene, Maria Uzor’s dark, occasionally twisted Americana has begun to attract the attention that it deserves. Trapped in the corner of a loud pub, though, Uzor’s loop-heavy set doesn’t carry and much is lost. It’s a shame because she can be captivating on her day.
Watching Kyla La Grange’s headline slot at the Arts Centre only rubs this in more – this would be the perfect setting for Uzor’s music. Instead, La Grange walks a sparse crowd through a set of inoffensive Scandinavian-influenced synth-pop. La Grange has a bright voice and a decent presence, but there’s little to this that hasn’t been played out already.
Quite the opposite has to be said for Hannah Lou Clark whose solo set down the road is entirely captivating. Clark is an exceptional songwriter, constructing gorgeous melodies around a brittle guitar. She cuts an introverted figure on stage and it’s difficult to step out of her world once dragged in, each chord and arching vocal line pulling a quickly silent crowd down with her. Each song tries a little harder than the last to make sense of the dissonance that surrounds it and she needs no frills to make it resonate.
The semi-stunned crowd were probably only here for Bad Grammar, too, so they didn’t see this coming. Thankfully, the Manchester two-piece rarely disappoint live. This is fun. Ben Forrester throws himself into the crowd and into his microphone, trashing each bluesy riff out as though it might be his last. Lucy Brown is a damned fine drummer, too, propelling every song and beating every offbeat into a pulp.
‘Stay Toned’ clicks in and out and lashes out whenever it sees fit and ‘Weekend Dad’ feels like it’s trying to overtake itself, such is the band’s reckless desire to push things forward. They earn every drop of sweat that drips from the walls. As Norwich slowly awakes from a half-decade long slumber of twee indie-folk – good in parts but rarely inspiring – Bad Grammar are an important reference point for the new bunch of garage rock bands beginning to gain traction in the city, all of whom are in this room.
Expect next year to be sweatier, then.
Words: Alex Ross
Photos: Anthony John Sayer