By Jordan Mooney.
Photographs by Zhaos Photography.
Manchester Printworks is a pretty damn impressive place.
I’d never been – not even once – but it ticked all of the boxes for me in the manner its ‘point’ is executed – disney-esque theming of a romanticised print industry in the very building that once housed the real thing.
It was a genuine surprise to see what we did inside this hulking great facade, and to see so many unusual places there, well…it was a delight.
“This looks like a fantastic music venue”, I proclaimed to our photography wizard, Matthew. Unfortunately, our stop for the night wasn’t really much of a venue at all…
The Bierkeller chain of pubs are effectively like German ale-swiggers’ renditions of Wetherspoons. The personality of the place is there, but it’s copied and pasted – blatant and predictable at every corner. And their next idea is to try and turn the branches into a live music venues, akin to some of the fine gig-pubs in many big ‘gig-cities’. And Leeds.
Impressions were, at first, excellent – but as we began to notice the technician’s deck was a small unit sitting precariously on a bench next to the stage and realised there was nowhere for an audience to stand by the edge of the stage in the conventional manner of musical worship…well, we were steadily feeling a level of cynicism.
The lack of marketing for tonight (we saw one poster at Affleck’s today for the gig. At least seven posters across the city for an event at the Star and Garter that had happened the previous Friday.) was such that the audience was built up of the other bands, a few lost looking drunks, the sound technician’s friends and ourselves. Marketing is utterly essential for a Sunday show, ladies and gents. Without fail. This does not bode well for the venue’s musical future – but it did, no doubt, prove beneficial for Alexa De Strange as a ‘warm up’ before their final ‘Fucked Me Farewell’ show in London, which took place to rousing success on the 16th of May.
Yes, one of our favourite groups is leaving the UK for a very long time – to travel to LA – intending to educate the yankeedoodle masses of their sexual, belligerent brilliance in due haste. This small audience (after a sell-out in Newcastle’s Head of Steam, might I add…) is perfect to refine that little bit more ahead of the big night, and, at the same time, meet some new bands they haven’t performed with before. In the end, that might be even more valuable than a big audience…
Lead-in Act – Neil Gaw
The music started strong, leading in with… two gentle men on guitars?
Yes, first off came acoustic musician Neil Gaw, whom manage to rouse us with a surprisingly strong vocal. With only the aforementioned two men strumming away, it was a good way to see what the Bierkeller was actually good for – simple acts that can fill a room with sound without pushing the capabilities of that tiny techie-deck or sound system. Combine with some excellent cover songs, plenty of very sincere – even rather intelligent – tracks of his own, add some some great stage communication, and Mr. Gaw’s techniques become irresistibly catchy and undeniably entertaining.
When I first saw him arrive on stage, I was quite sure there could have been no worse a fit than an acoustic act before increasingly hefty rock guitar and bass – but they proved themselves as a very, very strong warm up that’s perfect for getting feet tapping before the ‘main event’. A great way to chill away the hangover before the evening offers another one for the next morning.
They went off to as impressive an applause as the audience could muster. A great acoustic act – one of the best I’ve seen without a doubt. Very well done!
It’s worth noting that there was no formal announcement of the groups. Was this a normal thing at the Bierkeller, was it due to lack of equipment or was the audience just too small to bother? Who knows? The sound technician, in all fairness, was very hard working – which wasn’t helped by having to go back and forth along continuous lines of pine keller tables, that allowed no easy traversing, to see how it sounded! There’s no denying she was more than capable, and did a damned fine job of getting a decent sound out of the stage, too. But the problem rolls in as per – that isn’t an acceptable environment for a rather skilled techie whom should really be working in a place that’s far better.
Our next act was delayed by traffic, so what followed was fifteen minutes of talking to our lovelies from the De Strange camp and gently ribbing our poor photographer, as is standard. Bless his heart.
The Filthy Palms
Finally, The Filthy Palms, a group from our camp of Yorkshire – Keighley, to be exact – arrived. Looking younger than your hapless reviewer, touting very expensive looking instruments and rather surprised by our…uh…’cosy’ audience.
The Filthy Palms are a group that is visibly batting out of their early slot and are riling themselves for hitting a higher place on posters and playlists alike. They’re very skilled players, both technically and rhythmically.
Even without much of an audience, this was a group working to ensure they impressed every soul in the room. I dare say this is the truest form of promotion and marketing a band is capable of.
The main criticism I have is that their stage behaviour itself needs refining. The way they move to their music is rather awkward, and they do lack a certain amount of eye contact. They were what I like to call ‘noodling’ – just flopping about as they play rather than biting heads off of bats and the like.
But, I feel this may constitute as nitpicking. It’s early days, they’re a young group, and it must be said that this criticism is a very low priority when compared to their music – which speaks for itself and proves itself.
The sounds ceased and they dropped their guitars onto the stage.
Alexa De Strange’s camp all winced despairingly at the sight of the aforementioned instruments hitting the floor. I’m quite sure Mr. Shannon Lee was writing up a plan to steal them. Thankfully, he was foiled before such a terrible plot could be brought into action.
Next up was Russian female-led group Slightlykilld, whom had toured across the UK for a few days prior. It’s a shame that this has to be their view of Manchester – something completely inaccurate considering how great the live scene really is around here – but the group took it into their stride.
With keyboards adding into the mix, they pushed that tiny sound deck more than a little. The ultimate response is that they simply need – and deserve – a better equipped venue to get out what is ultimately a very strong, atmospheric sound.
Haunting, melodic, tough and powerful – with some really impressive playing to boot – they seem destined to rocket in popularity if given the right platform.
Their heavy accents were, perhaps, a bit tough to understand – but this only gave them more of a character, something that was clear throughout their set. They evidently have a lot of fun doing what they do, even to such a small audience – and proved their strengths without any difficulty.
Their tracks bring to mind slow walks through a dark, woodland landscape – loud and alive, but at the same time carrying a quiet contemplation. A sort of dark fairy tale – fantasy landscapes of beautiful cities overtaken by a certain form of guitar-laden blackness.
I’m always a huge fan of rock music with a unique elegance – and I think Slightlykilld managed to tick that box with ease – they almost made it seem effortless.
Alexa De Strange
And now, back to the loud generic rock music soundtrack as I scuttle off to get a copy of Slightlykilld’s EP and another beer. Our star attractions, Alexa De Strange, were incoming, and I’m certain the techie had tears in her eyes at the sight of Georgie’s guitar board. (“It’s the size of a bloody decorating table”, as keyboardist Nathan James so pertinently pointed out…)
The group looked quite fabulous – as ever they do – feathery, glittery, prim and proper across the board. Like a particularly sexy regiment of pink and black rockers. Bless their hearts.
Shannon’s superbly camp stage personality came out in droves, acting as if he was talking to a crowd of thousands regardless of those actually in front of him. This is where Alexa’s true talent comes in – the personalities they each and every one of them tote on stage.
It’s not something we’ve picked up on so readily before as this is only our third time seeing them perform, but once they’ve been put in their respective environments, each member becomes a form of caricature of themselves. Georgie becomes a guitar god worthy of the best of them, bedecked in shades, looking in the mirrors behind him and basically being so gloriously vapid that you can’t help but respect him – Frankie becomes a diva-pop-star vocalist whom can unleash a ridiculous operatic vocal at the drop of a hat – Shannon becomes a ridiculously camp bassist, over-excited, even giddy with anticipation and flaunting like a particularly proud pink peacock – Nathan becomes a surprisingly broody-looking party animal rocking away, completely caught in his own world…and (relatively) new drummer, Violet…well… Violet goes a bit mental, as if she’s ready to tear each and every drum in her set apart and throw it at the audience. Honestly, it’s a bit scary.
Ultimately, the result is a band that, somewhat obliviously, perhaps, is built up of each ‘live band’ stereotype, playing in their own directions and coming together as a sort of supergroup – fragmented styles, walks and ideas thrown into a great big bubblegum melting pot.
And it truly is rather amazing to watch. Frankie’s incredible vocals unleashing some stunning high notes, Georgie’s brilliant guitar work unleashing riffs that would make Mick Mars vomit in agonising envy…all of this fantastic instrumental work is very nearly overtaken in prominence by these stage characters. Characters the band themselves carry as a second nature.
There’s truly something special – something electric – in the dynamic of Alexa De Strange, and that is what I shall miss most when Shannon and Frankie set off for Los Angeles. These people couldn’t be more suited to work with eachother, and it almost seems a shame to break that up. The chemistry is one of the finest I know, and I can’t really imagine the group without their keyboardist, guitarist and drummer – but Frankie and Shannon are smart people whom know exactly what they want.
And so help me, I think they’ll get it.
This pair are well deserving of American success, and they’ll work for it. Just as they do almost every day of their lives with Alexa De Strange.
I’d like to personally thank everybody whom performed wholeheartedly for a fantastic show, some fantastic conversations and a really great vibe even with so few to enjoy it. I can without a word of a lie say it was a show to go among the best of them, with a great – and rather well matched – line up of groups.
However, the main worry – and, as you’ve already seen, main complaint – is the lack of promotion and equipment afforded some supremely talented people in a city like Manchester where gigs are happening practically every hour.
The Bierkeller – at least, this branch, having not experienced the others across the country – has a lot to learn if it thinks it can become a venue so easily. It needs a lot of money pumped into it, a lot of equipment and a lot of change before it’ll ever be truly effective. It isn’t the bands who are made to look bad in these situations – it’s the venue. It looks bad to people like myself, the groups, the promoter, et al – and the result is teetering towards the farcical. One poster across the majority of Manchester’s alternative hot spots is absolutely appalling.
It’s perhaps of little surprise that our first negative experience of a venue was part of a fairly large and successful chain of pubs.
Rock music isn’t an oompah band, lads. You may have an elevated bit of floor and a drum set, but damned if that’ll carry a guitarist like Georgie. Spend some money, and do it now. And I hope that your other branches are more capable of a decent rock set up.