If we ignore the fact that it’s in Hove, and it’s arguable whether eleven acts makes a festival, we’re left with the relentless march of the ‘percussive acoustic guitar’ style, an affectation shared by each act, for better or for worse. The problem I have with players like these has been well-documented, by me, and it ought to be pointed out that two of the very best exponents of this style, the late Eric Roche and the very much alive-and-gigging Thomas Leeb were, at one point, both students of mine. I didn’t teach them anything about the acoustic guitar, but that’s another matter. But I heard them develop, and I jammed with Eric on occasion, so I do know how this stuff works, and my standards are high – impressing me ain’t easy. To be fair, I doubt many of the players here give a rat’s arse what I think but that’s another thing entirely.
Onto the show. I didn’t catch it all … I mean, eleven guitar players? Goodness. I don’t know how many people were at the Brunswick, which is a venue that seems crowded after the first fifteen bodies are in, but the suspicion remains that many of them were connected to the acts. There’s a reason for this, above and beyond the normal ‘coming to my gig’ vibe. Each one of these acts was in the development phase, that point before they’re truly comfortable with what they’re doing, how they sound, who they are. This was obvious not simply in the playing, which in all but one case (that of headliner Chris Woods) was flawed in various ways, but in the relentless bombardment of self-deprecating comments. Guys, if you keep telling your audience you’re shit, they may just start to believe you. Add to this the matey, jocular attitude of most all the performers, and the festival was less like a festival than a bunch of mates playing to each other one Sunday: part heart-warmingly touchy-feely, part alienatingly incestuous.
But that’s not to say that the atmosphere was that bad at all. And it’s not to say that the playing was bad, either. It’s simply that there was little fully-formed on view. Little that said to me ‘I am in command’. That, of course, is ultimately what these events are for: networking and building experience, like a postgrad conference.
But what of the acts?
Matt Midgely from Edinburgh had an engaging presence and, when he wasn’t shouting, a decent voice. His technique couldn’t quite keep up with his ideas, but this wasn’t disastrous. The cover of Tool’s Spiral Out was, as he admitted, rather ambitious but worked quite well, mostly, and a couple of his tunes were well thought out. It boded well, I thought. A short break and Sean de Burca took to the stage. He’s one of those players who plays very well, but as yet hasn’t much moved from playing the guitar into playing music. It won’t be long, mind.
Pipe and Tabor were next up, an odd little duo, combining guitar, vocals and the occasional bit of glockenspiel. Carly Stubbs has a very interesting voice, and while she occasionally lost lines through the odd technique of moving her head rather than the mic, she certainly did herself down when she said she felt like an interloper amongst these musicians, as there aren’t many bands of this nature who’d kick her offstage. Dean Morris isn’t a startling guitarist, but then he oughtn’t be in this setting. He plays tastefully and effectively throughout the set, but both he and Carly went off the boil rather with the new songs – and, in common with all the other performers, their lyrics were sometimes, well, wrong: ‘poor Frodo, oh, oh.’ No.
Chris Marsh started by telling everyone how crap both he and his guitars were, and certainly his songs were not quite there, one tune suffering from a good riff that meant nothing to the tune, and a final percussive tune that was ex a, ex b, ex c, rpt. Dodgy tunes are cruelly exposed by good ‘uns and an excellent cover of Ozzy Osbourne’s Crazy Train demonstrated two things: Chris’s tunes are somewhat lacking; Chris has a great voice. He could have a really great voice.
Warsaw Radio were next up and, like all of the acts, they were a curate’s egg. Brian McNamara plays ‘normal’ guitar, and sings his rather fluidly structured songs in a rich, expressive voice. He’s not a great ‘singer’, but he has a great singing ‘voice’, if that makes sense. Some of the lyrics could perhaps be polished a little but the duo suffered badly from the second guitar player’s rather hamfisted accompaniment. Hmm. What to say … unfortunately he wedded a lack of rhythmic understanding to a confused melodic approach. He also, to be fair, looked like he knew it wasn’t working. A pity, but that’s the way.
Last was Chris Woods, the only guitarist to really look at ease with his instrument. A deft touch, rich sound and good ‘I’m retuning bear with me’ patter proved a fitting end to proceedings. His percussive work and feel reminded me of Eric. I would suggest that the music is still perhaps not entirely arresting, other than the stand-out track Unhinged, but there’s time.
An interesting evening, and far more enjoyable than ‘The Guitar Masters‘ if only because of the lack of po-faced twattery. In a couple of years, half of this line-up will have quit the game. The other half may well be snapping at the heels of the big boys …
This was my short review:
Brighton Acoustic Guitar Festival
While ‘Festival’ might have been a somewhat overly grand title for this extended showcase of acoustic guitarists of the ‘percussive’ bent, there was certainly an intimate, family feel to the Brunswick on this rainy, windswept Sunday. Headline act Chris Woods aside, the performers were all in a state of development, with songs, lyrics, stage persona or performance lacking at some point. That these issues mattered little to the rather fluid crowd was testament to the atmosphere created in the room by organiser and performer Brian McNamara. Next year some of these players will return, and they’ll set the stage alight.
The Brunswick, Hove, 13 October, 2013
4 stars Pete Langman