Category Archives: Jeff Stuka

Review: Hot Monocles @TheFlapperBrum by @JeffStuka

Hot Monocles
The Flapper
9th July 2010

Hot Monocles?  What kind of a name is that to put on the lips of unsuspecting people.  Or in the eyes for that matter.  Dirty boys. It’s a long time since I’ve seen a band on stage that has this amount of… well, wow factor isn’t quite the way to describe it.  I suppose polished commercialism is nearer to the mark.

First impressions from their dramatic Muse tinged opener is that they could shift a lot of units. The last occasion on which I experienced such a resonance was a certain band called Snowfield and we all know what happened to them don’t we.  The brick walls of The Flapper struggle to hold in an expansive progressive sound, reminiscent of the pomp of Led Zeppelin and Queen. It would be better placed belting out of 50 foot stacks to a baying arena sized crowd.

Sadly though, the quality of the early part of the set peters away towards the middle, with the descent towards rock pastiche doing little to sustain interest. Unprocessed padding slipped in to fill time.  Perhaps a shorter, tauter set would suit better until they have enough quality material to achieve a consistent standard. Sadly, having started with such potential they fail to sustain it and by the time they’re doing encores I’m looking at my watch and wondering when to leave for the bus.  Shame.

At My Door by hotmonocles

Jeff Stuka

Review: Shady Bard / Harper Simon / Ben Calvert @TheFlapperBrum by @JeffStuka

Shady Bard, Harper Simon, Ben Calvert
Birmingham Promoters
The Flapper
8th May 2010

Another cold, damp night sees Jeff Stuka make an incognito visit to Birmingham’s premier canalside basement music hutch.  And damn them stupid buses, I say.  If I hadn’t been required to alight at Five Ways and march down Broad street, I may just have caught the whole of Ben Calvert’s set of lush acoustic melancholia.

I feel a kindred spirit to this plaintive voice detailing dry observations on modern life, and not just for the similar taste in hats.  A troubadour whose songs are rich and full of depth, never falling into formulaic structures, Calvert is a truly talented artist who inspires me with thoughts of what could be.

Another talented artist, hailing from the other side of the Atlantic pond, is virtuoso blues folk guitarist, Harper Simon (yes, Paul’s Son) who arrives on stage with a white jacket and some crazy hair.

Harper Simon

Opening with a rather beautiful cover of The Buzzcock’s ‘Ever Fallen in Love with Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)?”, like Ben Calvert before him, he mines the plaintive troubadour vein, veering somewhere between Chris Isaak and mid-sixties Bob Dylan.  He shows the hallmarks of pro-status by turning a failure to remember the words of a Who song he’s covering into an opportunity for playfully reaching out to his audience, which only adds to the engaging atmosphere. Quite lovely.

I was hijacked in the interlude by 10 Guitars, who insisted I listen to some of his home recordings and can now categorically say that everyone who goes to gigs should be hijacked at least once and forced to listen to the sound of the Pet Shop Boys fucking a glow-in-the-dark Rave Monkey.  Excellent stuff Mr. 10 Guitars.  I’ll be checking out more from you soon.

And now for Shady Bard, more of a light orchestra than a band, whose songs develop moody atmospherics that are more akin with a film score than a pop song.  Promoting new single, ‘Trials (part III)’, the audience are treated to a succession of songs that exhibit a mastery of the same trick, developing a sedate opening into broody concern before peaking with emotional denouement.

Shady Bard

A similarity to Arcade Fire could be loosely argued if you need something for evaluation purposes but personally, I think that Shady Bard are too unique to try to draw comparison and that is surely a good thing.

Jeff Stuka

Promoters are Ruining Birmingham’s Music Scene by @JeffStuka

***As ever, Jeff Stuka’s blog post comes with a disclaimer. His views are those of his own and do not necessarily represent those of Blue Whale Studios. For anyone wishing to respond to this article, there are comment boxes below for you to convey any views that you may have in response to this piece, thank you***

Ok. You’re someone who likes indie music  so you go somewhere for a night out, a bar which caters to your tastes with DJ’s playing tunes that fall broadly under the category “That’s my kind of shit”.  You notice a sign indicating bands are playing in the downstairs room. Local bands. You may even have heard of one of them. You’re intrigued.  So downstairs you stumble, perhaps dragging a couple of mates in tow to keep you company, and as you’re getting your first hearing of the young bunch of oiks who happen to be the first on the bill, blaring out some middling piece of clump rock, you ask the guy on the door what the entrance fee is.

“A fiver.”

“£5? What does that get you?” you ask.

“Three bands.”

“Just the three bands?  No DJ?”

“No DJ.”

“What’s on after the bands?”

“Nothing. That’s it.”

You survey the room, sparsely populated by people glumly staring at the stage and think again about that £5 entrance fee.

“Fuck that, I’m not paying a fiver for this,” you decide and back upstairs you gambol to the music that the DJ is pumping out for free.

Not so long ago, Birmingham used to lack venues for local acts to perform.  For a time, bands were limited to the Flapper, the Jug of Ale and the Old Railway as pretty much the only places that were known as regular music venues with proper stages and proper PA systems.  In this limited market space, all bands were effectively vying for whichever one was most amenable to their fanbase i.e. their family/mates.

With so many bands and so few venues, promoters had little problem maintaining a three tier roster of bands, with those bringing the most people to the gig being most able to get their hands on the prime spots.  At £3 a person and the bands not seeing a penny of it before 15 people or more were marked down as specifically coming to see them, promoters could easily expect to see gross returns on the door of over £70 per gig and a lot more if two of the bands pulled a crowd.

Part of this deal was the requirement for bands to create the audience for the gigs themselves, either through word of mouth, their own advertising or sometimes flyers provided by the promoter. Bands would then spend the weeks preceding the gig trying desperately to Shanghai anyone they could into coming along, just to ensure they could continue getting gigs with the same promoter.

Things have changed for the better in the Second City but though this hegemony is now broken, the same approach to gig promotion is still propagated by some, with bands expected to source paying punters to attend a gig where they’re providing the entertainment. It’s an insidious form of pay to play except that instead of themselves paying, bands are embarrassingly forced to cajole family and friends into parting with a significant sum of money or perform to a depressingly empty room and risk not being invited back.  Passing trade, as I’ve tried to show, is unlikely to bulk out the audience.

Bands don’t want to play to empty rooms.  They want an audience present, people who may turn into fans if the band are good enough and who may come back to see them again.  On the other side of the coin, most people aren’t interested in paying three quid plus to see three unknown bands, at least one of whom will probably be a bit crap and unexciting.  Why would they want to stand around in an empty, atmosphere free room listening to music they don’t know when they can happily stay upstairs to enjoy a DJ playing tunes they want to hear for no charge?

Over recent years, it’s been amply demonstrated that gigs involving local bands can attract big crowds of people, simply by keeping prices low, adding a DJ or two to the mix, keeping the night going after the bands have finished and promoting the night vigorously using social media.  Adding quirky little touches to make the evening a more bespoke and exciting event has become a feature of many of the nights and a welcome sign of the ingenuity of Birmingham’s stylish entrepreneurs.

It works for everyone involved. Punters feel like they’re getting a great night out, bands get to play to an audience that they wouldn’t normally reach, the venue gets a shitload of people putting masses of wedge behind the bar and a hell of an atmosphere that encourages repeat business. They might even contribute to the running costs, if they can see the value in it.

Whether or not a venue will put money towards hosting gigs, by charging a nominal fee, the promoters can still get a decent bit of cash out of it to use for whatever.  Paying for equipment hire, covering promotional costs or dropping the bands a few notes for their time, though this is hardly necessary.  Most local bands will happily play for free if they’re guaranteed to get an audience. People don’t miss a quid.  If you have a couple of people to pay for, you still would hardly notice two or four quid, whereas eight pounds is almost a taxi fare home.  Paying a tenner for two people and you could reasonably expect a bit more than two or three not very polished bands coming through a shit PA and fuck all else to entertain you.

Even if your sole purpose for putting on gigs is to line your own pocket, it doesn’t make financial sense to charge too much.  If you get fifteen people paying a fiver to see their mates bands, they’ll come along for that one gig and not come back.  Get 75 people paying two quid and give them a night to remember, you’ll make double the money and they’ll be back again, again and again.

Is it acceptable for this form of promotion to still have a place in this city?  It’s a barrier to encouraging the average person on the street to go out and see local bands and as such, I believe it’s incredibly damaging to the future of Birmingham’s music scene.  Other promoters have proven that if you give people a value for money experience, they will flock to see live bands, and afterwards they’ll talk about a great night with friends and colleagues, creating a buzz which will attract more people to future events.

Promoters, you know who you are.  I challenge you to defend yourselves.  Not to me but to the bands you put on, to the punters who pay and to those that turn away.  What exactly are your reasons for promoting and pricing gigs the way you do, because if it’s trying to provide a platform for local music, build a vibrant music scene or just give people a good night out, it doesn’t look like it’s working to me.

Jeff Stuka

Do you agree with this article? Are you a promoter or an artist or even a gig goer who would like to put across your opinion or reaction to Jeff Stuka’s piece? If so, please do via the comment box below. Many thanks.

Review: Tignes / Neon Friction / Imogen’s Kiss @ The Sunflower Lounge by @JeffStuka

**Please note, the views expressed in the below review are those of Jeff Stuka and do not necessarily represent the views of Blue Whale Studios**

Tignes, Neon Friction, Imogen’s Kiss
The Sunflower Lounge
30th April 2010

Playing the oversize living room that is an empty downstairs at the Sunflower Lounge, I imagine could be a bit of a bummer. I know it was a bummer sitting there thinking “£5 for this?” Certainly, both Imogen’s Kiss and Neon Friction struggled to overcome the yawning chasm where an audience should be.

I must stress here that I’m not criticising the bands. Yes, Imogen’s Kiss weren’t the most original three piece I’ve heard, havering to Weezer and Fountains of Wayne, but they were competent, the songs were not unlistenable and they seemed a likeable bunch if a little staid for my tastes. Yes, pretty much the same could be said about Neon Friction, but changing the comparisons to Elbow, Doves and maybe Six By Seven.

But, it’s not their fault that there were barely enough people in to fill a Smart Car. It’s not their fault that the sound mix had as much balance as a drunk nun on stilts. It’s not their fault that I was there to see it. And in fairness to both bands, I’m not going to criticise their performances because they still got up their and did their stuff despite shit sound and a virtually empty room.

Tignes (pronounced Teens) suffered less from the poor sound having more band members to thwok up the noise bulk, though in no way were they immune. They did have the added bonus of being a shithot bunch of excitable buggers, hammering cowbells, chucking guitars around and generally pissing our ears full of eclectic, dynamic tunes that had me thinking Beta Band meets Sigur Ros meets Vampire Weekend whilst keeping one tit in the No-Fo* bra.

Christ knows how much of my brain they’ll fuck out of my head when I see them on a decent sound rig. Sadly though, tonight sees too few people paying too much money to see a band who, on the basis of this performance, should be watched by many.

*No-Fo = Northfield Scene: a sound exemplified by bands such as Tantrums, Scarlet Harlots and (silver) souvenirs who hail from the Northfield area of Birmingham. Check ’em out.

Jeff Stuka

Review: Che / The Electrilickers / Abie Bugden / Get Frank / Jodi Ann Bickley @OxjamBrum by @JeffStuka

Che, The Electrilickers, Abie Bugden, Get Frank, Jodi Ann Bickley
Oxjam Brum Presents You’re A Sister

The Victoria
Friday April 16th 2010

You're A Sister

Hi.  I’m Jeff and I’m an alcoholic diabetic.  If that doesn’t get your sympathy then this should.  Women all over the world are abused, overworked, neglected, beaten, treated like second class citizens or in many countries, not even recognised as citizens but beasts of burden to carry the expectations of mankind on their shoulders and in their wombs.  It’s half three in the morning and I can’t sleep because of this.  Why? Because I attended You’re A Sister, a night specifically aimed at raising awareness of the plight of deprived women and raising funds to help them, and it’s been both thought provoking and fabulous. Compered  by a quite literally feverish Jodi Ann Bickley, who filled in the gaps with her poetic paeans to love, it was a treat from start to finish and I felt proud to call myself a sister.

Jodi Ann Bickley

Get Frank were instantly likeable. A four piece of drums, bass, acoustic guitar and glockenspiel toting chanteuse with a some excellent songs, laced with the dry wit of Kirsty McColl and a somewhat folky air that reminded me of Eddi Reader’s Fairground Attraction.  Singer Frankie Ward’s glorious voice was showcased on the song Bedspread, conveying sincere emotive power and quite unliterally grasping me by the baggins and making me a little wibbly lipped.

If Get Frank were instantly likeable, Abie Budgen turned my head and made me fall in love with her a little. Starting with a twenties style ragtime, she moved easily into the southern blues of Big Bill Broonzy, foot tapping the floor to keep rhythm and entrancing us with washboard accompanied tunes.  This petite young slip of a girl is an incredible mistress of the blues and I was massively disappointed that the sound problems with the Banjolele couldn’t be overcome. Still, moving on with audience participation, she continued to grab the room with her awesome talent.  Yep, definitely a little bit in love with her.

Another change of direction in musical styles with The Electrilickers, who too were plagued with sound issues.  It’s such a shame as the muddy sound, with the vocals too low and lacking a touch of reverb, really undermined what could have been a brilliant performance.  Elements of Royksopp and even a smidgeon of the gargantuan Sigur Ros sound, The Electrilickers have something that could be both commercially accessible and critically acclaimed.  Despite the sound issues, I found myself chilled to the mellow yet elated and writing the word Super over and over in my notepad. I guess that means it was Super.

Stavrini Koumi of The Electrickers by Bonita Wadwha

With the evening now running late, I was forced to leave part way through Che’s set to fulfil another appointment, but from what I did hear I got anthemic tunes with powerful vocals that draw comparison with Evanescence but with far superior songs.  Outside my usual tastes but taut , enjoyable and filled with quality.

Oxfam’s Sisters On The Planet campaign couldn’t have asked for more this evening in bringing this veritable cause to the fore. Regardless of sexual orientation, we were all sisters tonight.

Addendum: Special mentions must be made for the most delectable looking cakes made by Cherry Sprinkles shared amongst the audience, diabetic poison which I sadly had to decline, and also to Atta Girl, DJ’s for the night.  Anyone playing Scout Niblett is ok in my book.

Jeff Stuka

Simon Cowell is the best thing to happen to British music! by @JeffStuka

The Best Thing To Happen To Music

Man, I come up with some questionable arguments don’t I? Ok, it’s not quite as reflex puke your face off and shit in your pants it’s so wrong an idea as “Hitler – the Jews would be nothing without him!” but it’s still a pretty bold statement to make in an article aimed squarely at the anti-reality brigade.  Still, I’ve dropped the clutch now so strap yourself in, people, and hold onto your nappies as I accelerate you towards a storm of bullshit big enough to give the Moon a methane atmosphere.

It’s true.  Simon Cowell is the best thing to happen to British music right now.  Sort of.  A little bit.  Alright, it’s tenuous at most but his Saturday night yawn-athons (currently Britain’s Got Talent),  have become almost monopolistic in the “nominal search for a star whilst laughing at society’s dregs and the mentally ill” market.  Yes, Baron Andrew Lloyd-Greenback, when he’s not trying to destroy Dangermouse, has his own franchise for finding pretty young things to leer over but it’s based around musicals so it’s all a bit privileged and upper middle class.  Cowell’s brand of personal fiefdom is wildly more classless and therefore more accessible to braying idiots from all walks of life.

SyCo’s sustained dominance of the reality TV music market has, I believe, changed the way many aspiring musicians attempt to achieve popularity.  Because our screens are super-saturated with wall to wall shit every Saturday night, artists with even the slightest of critical faculties now realise that the Cowell’s of this world aren’t really looking for genuine talent, but somebody pliable with a handsome slash pretty face and a voice that at least sounds better than the effect of sandpapering a live bear’s testicles.  Someone who will sit there quietly while SyCo pumps his profit margins through them, a pound coin shitting machine to be discarded the moment the nuggets turn brown.

Any musician possessing the most mild pretensions to controlling their artistic output must realise that the reality TV path is a closed alley.  Blocked with razor wire, heavily mined and also Simon has done a big poo in the shape of Louis Walsh in there so it smells a bit.  Definitely not a route anyone with common sense and good taste would choose to travel.

Yah boo sucks

This disenfranchisement of music with critical intensity seems to extend beyond the mere reality TV world and across the wider music industry, where mainstream music is disproportionately over-represented by shiny disco pop, whatever passes for rap these days and women who seem to be trapped in a serious clothing and self esteem shortage. It’s hard to turn a critical ear against this audiobox of bling coated fluff because it is what it is.  Honey coated shit to appease the uncritical palettes of people who don’t care about moving music, unless that movement is pelvic in it’s orientation.

With so much anti-music filling the vacuum, the situation feels almost within gobbing distance of that in the mid 1970’s. Frustrated by a music industry that favoured the pompous overblown nonsense of prog rock and the MOR AOR of bands like Fleetwood Mac, the kids thought to themselves “fuck it,  I’m gonna do what I wanna do and I don’t give a shit if anyone likes it”.  Brilliant.  It was that kind of attitude, that spawned a whole new approach to music that still resonates today (True, it also spawned the risible Oi! scene but we’ll save that for the next time Gary Bushell needs a good kicking).

It’s against today’s backdrop of mass inanity that our musical youth are once again saying “fuck it,  I’m gonna do what I wanna do and I don’t give a shit if anyone likes it”.  Bands are recording their music the way they think it should sound, setting up their own labels to release it and, as the Lucky 27’s illuminate in an earlier Blue Whale piece, they’re even putting on their own shows when they disagree with the way some promoters run their gigs.  (Check out what they say here – Some salient points, though naturally I disagree with their views on the “no scene” scene and Christ, don’t get me started on their playlist choices).

Anyway, the point I’m hoping you’ll see amongst all of this waffle is that, thanks in no small amount to Simon Cowell trying to rule the known universe with his brand of devil’s puppetry, and everything else that brings with it, rebellious musicians are sticking two fingers up to the existing structures, taking matters into their own hands and reviving that oft misquoted moniker, independent music. Whilst the rest of the world is flying 30,000 feet up through a volcanic gas cloud of unchallenging crap, down here on the surface creativity is being allowed to flourish unfettered by the direction and influence that a less pop orientated music industry might choose to exert. And hurrah to that, I say!

Now discuss.

Jeff Stuka

Birmingham Has No Music Scene by @JeffStuka

Blimey, off he goes again. Watch out, Jeff Stuka has the grumpy and he isn’t afraid to use it….

Man, sometimes people fuck me off.  When I come across people who claim Birmingham has no “scene” my rage gets thunderous.  An overreaction I know, but as I look at all the people busting their nipples till they explode to make things happen in this great forsaken city, I can’t help thinking, “WHAT A FUCKING INSULT!”

What people can’t grasp with this city is it’s eclecticism.  I mean there’s so much going on.  Every night there’s some kind of show from hot plesiastic bands, DJ sets of microbasic cleboticism or some specialistic night of supercool human herbaceous border trunt that is low key, sexy and unique. There isn’t a common thread through the Birmingham music scene and that’s why people don’t see a scene.  But, you bunch of wrongform spelliasticle gunterbiscuits, it doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

The traditional view of a scene has been for too long dictated by the idea that there should be a local style of music that a “scene” can shoehorn itself into. A kind of mould that allows ignorant people to turn around and say, “Oh, they come from Bumsquitterton, I know because they have the Bumsquitterton sound.” That may be ok for other cities but Birmingham isn’t like that. The centre of the country is a melting pot of everything the UK has to offer. Where other cities have in the past been influenced by imports, Birmingham has always seen the world through a filtered view and this is where it’s brilliant unpredictability comes from.

The punk DIY ethic is alive and well here. As you read this you are at the site of the Blue Whale, a Birmingham based recording studio and promoter of local music staffed and managed by Brummagens.  At the same time as shouting about the depth of talent swimming about this city, the Blue Whale has had no qualms about promoting other Birmingham based endeavours.  Gigs from Birmingham Promoters and This Is Tomorrow are trumpeted.  Excitement is generated for acts at the Basement Bar or the Flapper or The Rainbow.  This pleasure in local music is reciprocated by these organisations.

At the same time, we have Chicks Dig Jerks, The Autumn Store and Coffee and Cake, all locals pushing their own local designs for the music they love.  And then there’s Bigger than Barry, which started as a club night and has now expanded to include a record label, championing such homegrown indie heroes as the Scarlet Harlots whilst pushing a dance music agenda and stretching tendrils well beyond this city.

Scarlet Harlots

Birmingham is also served with an eclectic audible mix by Rhubarb Radio.  Broadcast from the Custard Factory, highlights include Brumcast, Birmingham’s very own answer to John Peel.

Not enough for you?  How about Brumnotes, a magazine for the general public with information about the local scene and the bigger acts to visit Birmingham.  A vital link between the underground and the overground that reaches a wider audience and a much needed asset for the second city.

This is just skimming the top of the cream.  There’s not enough space to celebrate what’s going on in Birmingham. Silent Noize, Oxjam Brum’s You’re A Sister, Jason Pegg’s Acoustic Lounge.  I could go on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on but you get the point.  Birmingham has a “scene”.  And it’s a fucking great scene.  Something for everyone.  It may not fit some nice music press criteria about what a “scene” is but fuck it, what an exciting place to be!

Jeff Stuka