So who will you remember next week?
AT the XpoNorth Listening Room, the panel had around 90 seconds to take in a track and come up with some thoughts.
At least at the music showcases you had a half-hour slot to tune into a new act. Except you didn’t because you had to be on the move to the next one or risk missing out on the next.
It’s pleasure/torture trying to fit in the 30 bands/musicians that were presented, for example, on Thursday. I wonder if anyone mastered catching them all this year?
Setting off on Thursday, first up at the Phoenix, Glasgow singer songwriter RUSSELL STEWART was creating a mellow jazzy vibe as he documented the end of a relationship – “here we are falling apart, helplessly”, before picking up again with Old Wounds, more lyrics talking about shaking off a needy, fickle ex: “And now you’re on your own and you’re on my phone, I’m only of interest when you are down. Well, excuse me, but respectfully, I’m not the only shoulder in town!”.
“One more and we get funky,” grinned Russell.
And there was a funkier, more contemporary feel to Who Am I To You?, the earlier songs having a timeless quality that would have made Russell welcome in any late-night candlelit bistro from the 60s to now.
“Feel free to snap along,” he laughed, taking us back in time again when a hip, cool crowd would snap their fingers with just as much energy as the charmed Phoenix crowd did.
This laidback, easy-to-love set should have made new fans for Russell – and, for those who want to hear more, his new single Midsummer has a well-timed summery theme.
If you had read EMIAH’s critique from the Listening Room XpoNorth demo session, you would already have known before heading to hear her in Penta that she was judged to have a great vocal that the expert panellists had identified as being good for EDM tracks. That track Adios Amigo would fit well on tropical house playlists, said Bjorn Sandberg of digital distribution company FUGA. “It’s a genre that streams like crazy,” he said.
Live, with producer Stuart McInnes aka Esdaile State accompanying the singer live for her showcase set, Emiah gave a performance that showed she is as comfortable with an emotive balled such as the one focused on reminiscing, to pop song Head Over Heels which let us explore her range and Void, Void, before a reworked cover with Oriental-effect chimes of TLC’s No Scrubs. A question as you moved on was would her vocal be seen as too generic – or was it a case of seeing what a range of individual producers could add to her voice’s abilities.
FAUVES from Glasgow aren’t totally new, having formed in 2017. But it was great to see a band past the immediate first flush of newness still turning in performances that herded you to the front of the stage to get a closer look, to hear how they make those sounds. Chiming, almost African-influenced guitar, the charismatic falsetto of singer Ryan Caldwell and the track Blank Eyes turned into a seductive groove that gave guitarist Rory Bradley ample excuse to agitate those circling hips. The band has a joyful and individual take on funk and indie pop that consolidated in Whittle Away.
A serious-looking blonde young woman, Finnish singer ÜKKU was going through her last moments of sound check with her two bandmates – or her team – as she introduced “Vincent and Maria” at Mad Hatters. It is always a mission to catch some of the musicians who venture from distant places to be with the XpoNorth showcasing experience and here, you were rewarded with music that embraced alien sonic worlds and that began with the first song which began with hypnotic sounds reminiscent of Vangelis’s Bladerunner with tinkling bells, electronic beeps, harp melody and Ükku’s voice a little too far back in the mix to always pick up the words. The performance was low-key, understated, but quietly mesmerising – because of that, perhaps. Ükku stood behind her laptop and there was a sense you were overhearing someone almost singing quietly and soothingly to themselves.
Song Sick Badly, was maybe the strongest song of the set with its unsettling lines such as “I need to rest from myself” with someone pushing themselves to face their fears “sometimes the places you re most scared of, you have to go”.
Off to Mad Hatters to catch SPOKE TOO SOON and the “heavy/progressive pop/punk” that the Alness and Highland band currently call their own, to find perhaps the likeliest inheritors Northside to the rampaging live experience late lamented Bloodlines denied us with their death (RIP, but here’s to new projects!).
Even in the one song I could stay for before it was time to move on, the crowd at the venue were riveted by the gazumping leaps of frontman Cameron Grant in song Restarting Something.
Starting to ride the tail of the showcase wave – catching the last song as you get there – there was just the chance to catch the last couple of tracks from SOLAREYE, solo rapper well-known as Stanley Odd frontman. Last year he released his solo album All These People Are Me, but since then is back with Brickwall which came out in April.
But it was the climax to last year’s album, the track Deconstruction (Where The Sun Sets), that made the final moments for an audience that packed the Phoenix function room from back to front, anxious for the chance to catch the wordsmith who has not made it to Inverness in a while – “All these people are me – that’s the fiction/It’s just an excuse for being a walking contradiction”.
By then, the only option was keeking through a glass door over the shoulder of a photographer to catch the tiniest glimpse of Solareye, soundwise though, everything was clear as a bell letting even those of us left outside sharing the quality lines that have made him creatively and politically one of the most switched-on presences in Scotland.
The party started instantly with SCARLETT RANDLE’s set at Penta as she and her guitarist/bassist and drummer wellied into Abba’s Dancing Queen revealing a voice with a good range, great high notes and a classical clout including a relaxed vibrato.
All that and a cabaret feel to Scarlett’s delivery, a kooky line in inter-song chat and her sharp pin-striped suit with just herself and nipple covers beneath her jacket.
It made Scarlett’s set feel risqué, a little bit dangerous and quirky.
She told us her second song Falling was about a break-up she had had.
“My gran has a theory my ex stole her salad servers!” confided Scarlett with a grin.
But the pain of losing someone was genuine in the next song where “No-one makes me feel the way you do.” Hunt was about “fancying people”, while Don’t Break My Heart let Scarlett’s voice reveal a lovely lush wobble on her mellifluous top notes and more memorable lines – “I don’t want to say goodbye to those eyes.”
But maybe the key song of the set was Berlin.
“This was my debut single – and that is French for debut!” Scarlett joked. And she kept light-hearted the story behind the song, her ex with whom she had been planning to move to Berlin, saying the week before to Scarlett she was going with someone else.
“I’d given away my flat in Glasgow and sold my belongings. I was sad for a week and then I wrote this song,” Scarlett told us.
It was a performance full of individuality.
One of the most exciting bands in the Highlands since their first gig in March last year THE DAZED DIGITAL AGE’s evolution continues. At the Ironworks, the indie electronica line-up with its unique blend of sounds was a man down. Where there has been a guitarist, originally Daniel Bucheggar and more lately singer Gogo McKerrow’s fellow Lional compadre Josh Mackenzie, it was hard not to notice there was only a mic on stand. Were they having a guest guitarist for a couple of numbers? Not as long as I could stay.
And the lack of guitar sound in the mix was a loss. But it meant concentrating on what remained – and that is more than plenty. First single IV came second with Martin Gowans/Polymath surging out the bassy melody and a tempo made for dancing, Gogo McKerrow’s voice plaintive and keening is part of the reason why the band is compared to The Human League, a powerful falsetto part of the toolbox. Though always engagingly edgy in his role as focus for The DDA, Gogo’s is a compelling presence, if not comfortable, confessing at one point - “I can’t see you - thank God!”
In contrast, you wonder how much of a part the music would play with the super-confident WALT DISCO from Glasgow (three by way of Perth) if you had to shut your eyes and couldn’t see the spectacle of their joyfully theatrical, unpredictable performance, inspired by New Wave and 80s pop. It lives by the band’s self-description, flamboyant and androgynous and their attention to detail. For example, when did you last see a down-on-one-knee marriage proposal incorporated in a set? It was for the track Marry Me – “Please feel free, afterwards,” lead singer James Potter said as he introduced it. Opener You Make Me Feel So Strange was followed by My Pop Sensibilities, a hustling-paced ditty that saw the singer pointing imperiously out at us.
The attention to detail is impressive – what they wear, how they sound, how they move, who they are. For most of the set, bassist Finlay looks like a musically-talented murderer, temporarily detailed by the task at hand, but with a murderous glare that gives away his dark heart. Or is that my imagination? But that is the point. Walt Disco let your imagination run free.
Next song Sling goes double speed and incorporates a perfectly-executed pirouette from the singer complete with the ‘spotting’ eye technique that the professional ballerinas use to keep their balance. Last song Drowning In Your Velvet Bed is the way you want gigs to end, a guitar frenzy after a slowdown, a key change and an ending with a long piercing note ringing out as a farewell.
It leaves you with the sense that if this were a musical (which parts of it echoes), it would be the most important song in the show. It leaves you a little breathless. This is how you want a gig to end.
In the end, as A&R worldwide’s Sat Bisla pointed out in the Listening Room track critique right at the start of this year’s XpoNorth: “There are 40,000 plus tracks a day being uploaded to Spotify daily.”
So it’s about standing out, as Listening Room host Vic Galloway added.
Who is being remembered a week or a couple of weeks on from the music showcases in Inverness?
As Sat said to the hopefuls and audience in the Listening Room: “How do you try to stand out – through your performance, your production or a unique voice?”
And above all, the ones with the voices, music, faces, performances you remember are totally themselves.
As Vic added in the Listening Room: “The key to all of this – whether it’s getting on the radio, or getting onto Spotify or building up a following, it’s about trying to stand out from the crowd.
“It’s trying to make you sound like an individual or an individual act.
“And I suppose it is the hardest thing in the world to do.”