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When it comes to showcasing the best new acts at XpoNorth in Inverness last week – how great was that?

By Margaret Chrystall

FOR anyone who had made it along to the Listening Room session at XpoNorth last Wednesday, there was the chance to get a 90-second taster of many of the bands later playing the band showcases across Inverness.

There was also the bonus of hearing their music critiqued by a testing panel of five experts.

Some, like Calum Mackenzie Jones, heard magic words like Bjorn Sandberg’s “This could go somewhere,” in amongst the odd slightly less glowing reactions.

But as A&R Worldwide’s Sat Bisla – with his transatlantic perspective – said later: “There’s a lot of good out there, but you have to be great.”

There was more than our fair share of great among the 58 bands showcasing their music last Wednesday and Thursday night across seven venues in Inverness.

And the good news for anyone going to Belladrum who likes the sound of an artist or band they read about here, many of the musicians will be there as part of the just-announced XpoNorth-curated Seedlings’ stage.

Starting Wednesday at Mad Hatters, first musician up was Hartlepool singer songwriter JAMES LEONARD HEWITSON and his band playing the title track from his album Only The Noise Can Save Me which will be out later this year. An upbeat pop song with a 60s beat band vibe, great harmonies, euphoric feel and singalong-friendly hook – plus something of Jonathan Richman (an influence, apparently) in James’s vocal and also Badly Drawn Boy – someone he has been compared to before. There was an immediate contrast with Dream Person, a slow, hypnotic drum-heavy slice of indie pop that made you want to catch the lyrics about the search for that elusive someone.

Hamish Hawk at Penta. Picture: Gair Fraser
Hamish Hawk at Penta. Picture: Gair Fraser

At Penta just time for a one-song catch-up with Edinburgh singer songwriter HAMISH HAWK, billed as being with his band The New Outfit, but actually on his own. No hardship as at last year’s Xpo Hamish charmed with his songs of urban life and fickle love.

This year the set was almost over – an occupational hazard of trying to pack in as many of the night's 28 acts round seven different venues.

But there was still time to appreciate the warm Neil Hannon tone to his voice and the signature unexpected lines that make his songs so unpredictable and arresting – none more so than Hubble Space Telescope with its talk of seeing Joni Mitchell and spending time on a Mediterranean island.

It’s on the Zero To One album, which has now been augmented by a new eight-track EP to covet, Laziest River.

Gary Moore of Echo Machine. Picture: Gair Fraser
Gary Moore of Echo Machine. Picture: Gair Fraser

There was a total contrast with ECHO MACHINE at The Phoenix, where there was clouds of dry ice and the wry humour of frontman Gary Moore in between Grade A goth electropop, totally topical and in everyone’s ears after the all-conquering Glastonbury set from The Cure three days before.

“Thank you for coming to see us – and thank you for leaving… mum and dad! See you later!” he improvised, as a couple left.

An early single from their debut album due out in the autumn, Automatic Lover surged along on a hovercraft of synth buoyancy while Gary danced with his back to us, his black coat flapping like a ghost.

“I’ve got one job in this band, to press this button,” he chided himself, before introducing The Road.

But maybe best track of the part of the set I saw, was St Elmo, introduced by Gary:“This is the closest thing we have to a ballad, so if you’re feeling emotional …”

With its big dancing melody and overwrought lines like “I remake the world/it’s turning just for us”, it would fit right into a Brat Pack movie, if only we had a time machine.

Shears aka Rebecca Shearing at Penta. Picture: Gair Fraser
Shears aka Rebecca Shearing at Penta. Picture: Gair Fraser

Back at Penta there was SHEARS – featuring the compellingvoice of Ayr via Edinburgh's Rebecca Shearing who started uploading music to YouTube in 2007 before studying music at university. She has stepped in on vocals for Stanley Odd in the past. But it’s as a solo artist that the vocalist is known thanks to her YouTube following.

The stripped-back format in the Penta with her guitarist/bassist and drummer helped focus on her one-in-a-million voice, Shears' long hair swishing around her as she moved in a drama of its own during her performance of debut single Circle Line, the track that is very much out there at the moment.

Loanhead's Ryan Hunter, singer with Edinburgh's Fabric Bear. Picture: Gair Fraser
Loanhead's Ryan Hunter, singer with Edinburgh's Fabric Bear. Picture: Gair Fraser

Sometimes it pays to go off-grid and ditch the plan. Getting to the Market Bar early meant catching Edinburgh’s FABRIC BEAR powered by singer Ryan Hunter’s throbbing vocal and red-cheeked intent – and a set of tasty slices of time-served slick guitar pop that rocked.

New single Waste My Time was a sharp story of sussing out his latest flame – “I want to find you out before you waste my time lovin’ you”. It followed the tail end of what might have been a cover of Billie Eilish’s Bad Guy, but I arrived too late to be sure.

But if you liked the current single, Ryan offered a heads up on their coming soon follow-up, Comfort Zone. Then, changing gear from the loud and sweaty – though “There’s nothing wrong with loud and sweaty”, Ryan pointed out! – there was break-up song. One Last Time, slower was tinged with regret – “Darling, after all is said and done, I wish I could see you one last time”.

There’s an indie slant on Fabric Bear’s sound to – what Ryan has called in the past – the “chorus-filled pop” of their songs. And it’s easy to understand why record labels like Universal are reportedly interested.

Straight after in the same venue, PURE GRIEF from Thurso and Wick were every bit as savvy.

Starting after Cactus & Cardigan finished in 2015, Peter Bacon and bassist Marc Sutherland drafted in Darren Macleod on drums and Pure Grief was born with a double-A single of two tracks, Pure and Grief.

But now with a new album recorded and due for release later this year, there is every chance they will be continuing the genre-hopping tradition of songs that sound very different from each other, having heard this set.

On a first listening to the live three-piece, there is a lot to take in.

For the XpoNorth gig, singer and guitarist Peter wore a stunning shirt in a loose, silky scarf-print shirt which included a striking seated lion (or was it lioness?) on the back plus a pair of silver shoes.

“Thanks for coming along – like my shoes?” grinned Peter.

Pure Grief in a packed Market Bar at XpoNorth. Picture: Gair Fraser
Pure Grief in a packed Market Bar at XpoNorth. Picture: Gair Fraser

Orchestrated to the hilt for contrasts in the planning of the set, it began with an eerie, weird siren noise that partly sounded like a deflating bagpipe, before song two, Hearse Me – which has been a single – kicked in with a great guitar riff and the chance to snatch some passing lyrics from the air and hope your ears weren't deceiving you – “I can’t believe we’re so naïve, make Elvis weep!”.

Title-announcing wasn’t much of a thing, so guessing at song three, involving what seemed a recurring chorus line – Electric Gold, might be my guess. There were harmonies to love and then what sounded like a classic slacker pop song Getting Over Zooey Deschanel, shining like a perfectly-formed little diamond in the heavier guitar alt.rock around it.

Following was an eerie rocking opera of paranoia (My Second Skin?) – “I’m sleeping with the light on. I’m leaving when the song’s gone. I think I’m put together wrong. My evil twin. My second skin.”

Last was Gossamer, half of a double A-side out November 2017, a blistering rocker that built to a climax worthy of a final song in a set that made you long to hear the coming album.

And wish you’d asked for a setlist …

With Wuh Oh at Mad Hatters a no-show, Pure Grief made a worthy high-spot finish for my night – and, after all, Wuh Oh will be back to play the XpoNorth stage at Belladrum in a few weeks.

This was an opening night that had plenty ‘great’ in it – including a reassuring number of female artists bridging a spectrum of styles in a contemporary environment where PC gender-balancing may seem heavy-handed at times, but is no bad thing when you get canny selections like the ones the XpoNorth selection panel included on the Wednesday night.

And Thursday?

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