To the uninformed, walking around the streets of Stoke-on-Trent over the bank holiday weekend, would have felt like any other weekend. The rain fell before the sun shone, the shoppers gathered and then retreated home and the roads snaked through the historic city, as they’ve always done, delivering families, couples, friends, to wherever it was that they needed to be. But in the bars and venues in and around this cultural hotspot, a musical revolution was happening. The very first Your City Festival was about to take the city by storm and no-one could have guessed just how significant it would be.
Created from the combined minds (and hearts) of a group of local music figureheads, Your City was the first of its kind in Stoke-on-Trent. Hosting free gigs in nine different venues across Stoke-on-Trent, from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, the buzz around the festival had been building for some months, gaining interest from local and national press, as well as further cementing the City onto the cultural map.
F R I D A Y
It all began on the evening of the 14th April at two venues; The Sugarmill and The Exchange. Both sporting excellent lineups of local and national acts, it was a tough call as to where I’d begin my Your City experience. Over at The Sugarmill, Filth, Alma and Divenire were kicking things off to a flying start, with headliners Bonsai packing out the venue and blowing everyone away. With guitarist Joe Hough unable to do what he does best, thanks to an untimely broken arm, but still present on stage for backing vocals, frontman Chris Hough stepped up to the mark and took on the guitar, making for an unforgettable night at The Sugarmill and an enthralling beginning to an exciting festival.
I decided to spend my night at The Exchange a venue that is rising in popularity, thanks to gigs hosted by Rebel Bear Precinct and the return of the weekly indie night, through Come Together. Opening up the night were two acoustic acts Steven Dale and Chris Abramovs. Dale, also in the seldom seen Moitessier, performed a very raw collection of tracks, picking up his banjo mid set and adding a whole different feel to his performance. Dale was quiet and withdrawn, unlike Abramovs whose looping pedal and intertwining guitar melodies and rhythms (yes, rhythms) filled the room instantly. As a person, Abramovs appeared nervous, although his music was confident and contagious. Although occasionally slipping, Abramovs’ Ed Sheeran inspired set was promising, making him an exciting new name on the scene.
In a weird turn of events, which saw a headliner drop out in the final few weeks, Your City organisers were faced with two Liverpool-based bands performing on the same night, at the same venue. The Jackobins were confident. Frontman Dominic Bassnett certainly was, clad in tight white t-shirt and dark sunglasses (which he wore indoors), Bassnett was the full showman package. Performing at Your City as part of their Nightfire tour, The Jackobins were more than ready to grace the stage. Their set was supercharged and their audience were receiving, giving them a comfortable beginning to their tour. Their fellow Liverpudlian friends, Shy Billy, were quite the opposite. A raging machine of sound, with loud beastly melodies and guitar riffs that cut deep. A stand out of their set was ‘Digi LUV2.2’, which saw vocalist and guitarist Henry Pulp appear completely and utterly possessed by the music he was making. The band also performed two brand new songs, that were only a day old and had only been played three times – well, four if you count their recital to the crowd at The Exchange. Shy Billy were a treat for the ears and are my new favourite out-of-town band.
S A T U R D A Y
With the night before still ringing in everyone’s ears, it was time to kick things up a gear. Saturday 15th would see five venues, in and around Stoke-on-Trent, host even more acts for free. It was the biggest day of the weekend, but organiser Ben Nixon seemed at ease. After the previous night’s success, Nixon appeared to be excited as he told me “I’m not nervous. Not now the first night is out of the way!”.
Back at The Exchange and the crowds were gathering. It was the middle of the afternoon, the sun was shining and the wind was ripping around the old building, but local music fans had arrived to be entertained. As I began my decent to the downstairs room, the sounds of rock newbies GOYA reverberated up the stairs. It wasn’t until I walked through the double doors, that the real force of their sound hit me. An instrumental trio with colossal riffs and head-banging rhythms, GOYA wowed crowds and left their name on everyone’s lips. Following them and somehow attempting to fill the hole that they’d blown in the ceiling, was Attack Of The Vapours – or rather, Attack of The Vapour. Longstanding original member and musical mastermind behind the whole thing, John MacLeod took to the stage armed with a set list of favourites and his acoustic guitar. He didn’t beat about the bush, opening his set with the “song about a house share gone wrong”, titled ‘I’ve Still Got Your Blood On My Curtains’. A mighty version of this track is present on his current EP ‘Here Comes The Brim’, complete with a raging guitar solo from Stafford’s finest Jack Tasker. But even as a stand alone acoustic track, and as with his entire set, MacLeod managed to make it work in a way that was both entertaining and engaging. Performing new tracks ‘The Ghost Of Hope’ (“it’s about people shouting at me in the street”) and the beautifully bittersweet ‘Sierra Bravo’ which saw MacLeod reveal his hidden vulnerability, John MacLeod made us laugh with him at a world that is becoming increasingly hard to live in. He rounded off his set with ‘What You’ve Lost In Job Satisfaction, You’ve Gained In Meaningless Aphorisms’, gaining sing-a-long participation from the audience, a moment which is sure to stick with MacLeod forever, and new adoring fans at the same time.
Returning to the instrumental trios, although this time, in a slightly softer on the ears sort of way, were Umbrellabird. Combining drums, bass and piano, as well as a few samples for good measure, Umbrellabird are one of the most exciting local acts in the scene at the moment, simply because they’re unique. I first spotted them at Ashcombury Music Festival last year, when they blew me away with their thought provoking tracks and standout performance. Opening with ‘The Victorious Dead’, Umbrellabird seemed to have the same effect here, as they did on the audience at AMF. As their set progressed, they enticed listeners to stop and stay a while, inviting you to open your ears to their sound.
A few miles down the road, at another Your City venue, things were heating up. Revellers poured out of Pilgrims Pit and onto the pavement, as did the music that flowed out of the PA in the small room. Approaching the venue was like walking to a house party; the faraway thuds of the bass could be felt in your chest, the sound of voices and laughter ringing louder.
When Sonic A.M. took their places behind their equipment and everyone decided to huddle together in the tiny room, Pilgrims Pit appeared to transform in front of my very eyes. It was a strange choice to host a selection of punk bands, yet also seemed extremely fitting, being a DIY establishment. Sonic A.M. appeared not to care in the slightest, crashing into their set with songs from their ‘What We Do When We Do Nothing’ EP, enveloping everyone and everything in sight with their organised chaotic punk sound. Watching them is tiring in itself, as they move about the stage in a carefree and uncontrollable manner. They make you want to go out and set fire to things in frustration, as every good punk band should (although I don’t recommend doing so). Maybe just lock yourself away and play their EP at full volume.
Following them were Camens, a dramatic difference in sound. Arriving only ten minutes before they were due to go on, yet setting up and sound checking quicker than anyone else on the bill, the band seemed more than ready to perform. After their recent name change (formerly LazyEye) and release of their brand new single ‘Boys Will Stray’, this short and sweet acoustic set for Your City was the first gig for the four-piece since last year. They played one of the strongest sets of the weekend with tracks old and new, including ‘I’m A Stone’ and ‘Away From The Sun’. As the band turn over a new leaf and with more new music due to be dropped in the coming months, Camens are most definitely on the right path.
At The Sugarmill on Saturday night, although slightly tamer than the night before, people of all ages were braced for yet another evening of entertainment. Groups of young music fans flocked to the front of the stage, where Rewenge, a brand spanking new band, were performing. Complete with trippy projections and strobe lighting, that were last seen at Psyence’s EP Launch at The Exchange, Rewenge gave it their all. If their popularity with the young crowd wasn’t already evident, they even managed to acquire a few stage invaders in their final song. Musically they’re still finding their feet, but they performed a memorable set and are a band to watch. Next up was an acoustic Stu Whiston, who began his set by performing to the leftovers of Rewenge’s audience. But slowly, like creatures appearing from the night, the crowd returned and by the time Whiston concluded his set with a cover of ‘Supersonic’ by Oasis, he had a sizeable crowd before him. His original music was what struck me the most, however. Tracks such as ‘True To Life’, ‘There Was A Time’ and ‘Money’ (“a song about being skint”), filled the room, giving him an added spark that set him apart from other male acoustic acts.
As Whiston packed up and headed off stage, it was time for the Saturday night headliners to ready themselves. Sherry Counsellors looked like caged animals as they walked onto the stage, frontman Keith Mellor in particular. It was as though they’d been wound up and let loose, as they begun their Your City set. And possibly one of the greatest sights to see, was that of the young Rewenge crowd taking their places at the foot of the stage, dancing, singing and immersing themselves in local music. Sherry Counsellors played a blinding set of originals, including ‘This Could Be It’, ‘The Hunter’, ‘Lucky 13’, ‘Sunshine Symphony’ and brand new single ‘Elixir’, which they gave free copies to everyone and anyone who’d take them off their hands. The pinnacle of their set was ‘Twisting Me Around’, which saw bassist Chris Reynolds on the trumpet and Mellor on the triangle. It was a wild sight to observe and it kept the interest of the crowd until the very end.
S U N D A Y
And on the third day… Your City Festival organisers took a deep breath and prayed for a smooth final day. By Sunday 16th, we were over the hill and we were cooking on gas. With six venues hosting a range of acts across a diverse spectrum of genres, the third and final day would ensure that Your City Festival went out with a bang.
I spent my Sunday at The Glebe catching the acoustic talents of many local acts – some I’d seen before and some I hadn’t. As I walked into the old pub, the delicate and dainty vocals of Helena Raby were swishing through the air. You could have heard a pin drop, as listeners silently gorged themselves on her feathery light talent. Raby was a real delight to watch and to listen to, her infectious smile and hushed vocals making her instantly likeable. And that theme seemed to continue well into the afternoon, as Kez Liddle replaced Raby to perform her own captivating originals. ‘Enough’ and ‘Not Love’, taken from her current EP ‘Rain Songs’ were simplistic bliss, making it hard not to listen to Liddle’s painfully real and often relatable lyrical content.
Picking up the pace from where the acoustic acts that had gone before them had left off, Wilcox:Hulse seemed a perfect fit for The Glebe. No strangers to their welcoming surroundings, Gary Wilcox and Phil Hulse charmed and entertained listeners with their politically themed songs and humorous rapport. Wilcox proudly stated that this would be the first time they’d ever performed ‘Upon’, a song written about Stoke-upon-Trent, in a festival based in Stoke, something that seemed to hang with some significance. The pair breezed through their set which included tracks ‘Gallows Humour’, ‘From The Top Down’ and ‘Victoria Avenue’, taken from their two EP’s, whilst laughing off a minor slip up and announcing an album release later this year. Wilcox:Hulse rounded off their set with a cover of Midnight Oil’s ‘Beds Are Burning’, leaving everyone wanting a little but more.
Luckily for the audience, a little bit more is exactly what they would get. The Taskers were a member short, with key member Sophie Bret Tasker being unavailable for the gig, so friend and fellow musical comrade Gary Wilcox, stepped up to play a very hairy version of Jack Tasker’s sister. Accompanying them both was the wonderful Laura Ellement, whose vocal strength became evident when the trio reached ‘Misery and Me’, a song written by Ellement herself. Wilcox tried his best to fill SBT’s shoes, but nothing could quite come close to the sheer force that she brings to the band. The three-piece played a fantastic set, with Jack Tasker swapping his usual axe for an acoustic, to tear through ‘Litas’, ‘Trials’ and a brand new track titled ‘Everything Spins’.
A little later into the evening and it was time for Megan Dixon-Hood to do her thing. Her music was as alluring as her voice, which slithered out of the old pub and into the night. She was calm and carefree, whipping up her own storm of emotions through the goosebump-inducing ‘With Time’. Every single listener sat in adoration, as she made us fall for her over and over again.
The penultimate act of the evening were The King’s Pistol, but with a difference. You’ll usually find them somewhere between Americana and English folk, but on the final night of Your City Festival, the Pistol did something unexpected: he went electric. Resisting the urge to shout “Judas!”, I watched, as did the rest of the room, as the band performed electrified versions of tracks from their two albums ‘Long Was The Road, Dark Was The Night’ and ‘Songs From The Ghost Road‘. It put an interesting slant on their sound, but made me wonder whether it was a little too much too soon, in terms of just how prominent the guitar was. In spite of that though, The King’s Pistol played a strong selection of songs. Closing their set with a brand new track, that was perfectly suited for the screechy electric guitar, the trio could leave with their chests puffed and heads held high.
As we entered the final hour of the festival, a feeling of anticipation fell about The Glebe. The last three days were about to come to a close and there was only really one act, that seemed fitting enough to shut it down. Nixon Tate & The Honey Club strolled, coolly, into the pub as The King’s Pistol were taking their places. To the untrained eye, they appeared to be nothing more than a group of local music revellers, arriving at the venue simply to enjoy what remained of the festival. But as soon as they stepped onto the stage, everyone knew exactly who they were and what they were going to do. The band was on form, as they always appear to be, with a good receptive crowd before them. Playing songs from their current EP ‘Roses & Bones’, the four-piece gave everybody exactly what they wanted and needed. ‘Dancehall Blues’, ‘All Over Now’ and ‘Heady Redwood Days’ stood strong, as well as ‘Joyce’ which pulls hard on the heartstrings of anyone who listens. NT encouraged those that knew the words to sing along and before he knew it, the whole room was singing the very lyrics that he’d written many months ago. Looking around the room at that moment made my heart flutter with love and pride. This is what local music does to people; it brings us together, it makes us happier than we’ve ever known and it puts us in a moment that we never want to end. This is definitely how Nixon Tate & The Honey Club left us feeling, when they wrapped up the weekend with ‘Honeytrap’, closing the festival with a mighty bang.
Y O U R C I T Y 2 0 1 7
It lasted for two and a half days but once it was over, it felt like it had finished far too soon. The first Your City Festival had been, by all accounts, a huge success and each and everyone involved in putting the weekend together should be commended, for their hardwork and dedication to the scene. I’d watched 19 acts, visited 4 different venues and only driven a tiny amount of miles to witness it all. Your City proved that Stoke-on-Trent is about more than the bad press it receives. It’s about more than the grey filter that is forced upon it by the misinformed outsiders in the media. This brilliant city is a cultural hub of vibrancy and potential, with a thriving music scene that isn’t ready to sink back into the background anytime soon. Stoke-on-Trent, I salute you.