It’s nearly two years since Klare Stephens reviewed a Coco and the Butterfields gig at The Blind Tiger in Brighton for MusicRiot and it’s fair to say that the Canterbury band have grown (in more ways than one) since that gig, although they’ve managed to stay true to the busking ethos that underpins their music and has helped to create their truly dedicated fanbase. So now they’re headlining at The Jazz Café in Camden on a Friday night and it’s a good opportunity to see how far they’ve come in such a short time.
But before CATB take the stage, there’s a support set from singer-songwriter Mario Lottari who (despite a few technical glitches) wins over the mass of CATB fans crowding the front of the stage with his well-crafted songs and a versatile band backing him up with a huge variety of instrumental textures. That’s another one I’ll be watching out for this year.
CATB don’t so much hit the stage as engulf it; I have to do a headcount because there are so many of them. On top of the core line-up of double bass, banjo, fiddle, guitar and beatbox, there’s also trumpet, sax, a string section (two violins and a cello) and a drummer; I ran out of fingers and had to rely on a smartphone to keep count. By this time, the ground floor of the Jazz Café (and most of the staircases) is a seething mass of bodies and this isn’t a scenester crowd; these people are all here to see Coco and the Butterfields do their stuff. So what is it that inspires such fanaticism?
Well, the band has a pretty good repertoire of original songs now, including “King of the Corner”, “Astronaut”, “Scarecrow” and the anthemic “Warriors”, but they’re equally good knocking out their own take on a song that you might not expect, like “Hard Knock Life” tonight, for example. CATB is not about individual musicianship; it’s much more of an ensemble thing where everyone has their own part to play, but there’s another, more important, difference between this and any other ordinary gig. This isn’t a performance where the band play at the audience and the audience passively soak up the show; it works because the band and the audience enjoy a symbiotic experience. The band feed off the audience reaction and it pushes them on to an even higher level; if every gig was like this, we wouldn’t have any problem filling live venues and maybe more musicians could make a decent living.
This is the fourth time I’ve seen CATB and each time it’s been a step up the London gig ladder. I haven’t seen them play a bad gig, and this time they were superb. Their roots may be in busking and they look as if it’s all a bit of fun, but they take the music very seriously indeed. They seem to be moving at the moment towards a more conventional (by CATB standards) stage line-up, with the addition of a drummer to augment beatboxer Jamie’s percussion and the brief appearance of a couple of electric guitars during the set and it’s shaping up to be an interesting year for them; they seem to be at the point where they can break out from the Kent scene and build their following nationwide. The way their audiences are reacting at the moment, I think the band can still go a lot further (if they want to) without losing the fanatical following they have at the moment.
The bottom line is that you really should go and watch this band.
There’s quite a story behind Canterbury-based Jo Hook’s third album, “Silence Surrounds Me”, and it’s a story of talent, hard work, and optimism triumphing over adversity. Jo’s first album, “Inside Out”, was released in 2000 and her second, “Settle Down”, in 2005. Following the release of “Settle Down”, Jo was forced to take a sabbatical to deal with kidney failure, resulting in the donation of a kidney from a friend. Following her recovery, Jo started writing again with, not surprisingly, a different perspective. Another period of illness followed, leading to paralysis, before Jo finally approached multi-instrumentalist Geoffrey Richardson, also based in Canterbury, to record this album. The partnership worked so well that it quickly became a joint project, Jo’s songwriting and singing being complemented by Geoffrey’s playing and arrangements. The recording line-up was completed by Paul Townsend (drums) and Richie Bates (bass).
Jo’s style of songwriting is intensely personal and, unsurprisingly, there are many references to her recent experiences, although the minimally-arranged “Voice” cautions against identifying the performance too closely with the performer. The overall message of “Silence Surrounds Me” is positive and hopeful, although “Smile” and “Wind Me Up” both have darker sides and deeper layers of meaning. “Silence Surrounds Me” doesn’t reveal all of its secrets immediately; in the seemingly whimsical “Alexander Beetle”, for example, the title character is also a metaphorical representation of our choices of friends and lovers. Apart from the relatively straightforward melancholy of “Mrs Zippy” and the love song “Like What You Like” (a lovely vocal duet with Geoffrey Richardson), most of the songs need a little bit of effort from the listener, but it’s an effort that’s generously rewarded.
The opening two songs effectively set the musical scene for the album. “Eight” is topped and tailed by unhurried acoustic guitar interplay (with a bit of cello) with an uptempo middle third featuring the full band, and “Living is Easy” is driven along by a string section to a big finish with loads of backing vocals. Lyrically, both of these songs seem to be inspired by the recent events in Jo’s life and the lyrics of “Living is Easy” provide the title for the album. “Arial Ten” is another clever piece of wordplay, the title likening the ubiquitous font (or type) to the vanilla option, the average non-entity and the comparison that every artist dreads. “Oldest Silence” is another intensely personal song built around revisiting an old, but not extinguished, relationship while “Inside Out” is an acoustic reworking of the title track from Jo’s debut album which works much better with traditional instruments than the beats and samples of the original arrangement. “20,000 Bottles” closes the album in rollicking, upbeat folk style with fiddles, whistles and lots of layered harmonies.
Jo Hook has put together a very strong and varied set of deceptively simple songs on personal themes while also slipping in some social comment as well. Her voice has returned as clear and true as ever with the occasional fractured edge to add feeling to the more personal songs. The arrangements and playing of Geoffrey Richardson complement the songs perfectly, creating an album that amply rewards repeated listening. It’s great to have you back, Jo.
We promised to point you in the direction of some great music that we think will break through this year and I think it’s about time we started. A couple of these groups have been mentioned on MusicRiot in 2013, but we think they’re on the verge of national recognition this year, so I make no apologies for bringing them to your attention again.
Canterbury’s Coco and the Butterfields kept us entertained for a few nights last year in various venues across London and Brighton and were well worth seeing each time. The band came together on the busking scene in Canterbury and their live shows still have the feel of a very intimate interaction between audience and performers. The line-up is unusual (double bass, banjo, guitar, fiddle and human beatbox with two very strong lead vocals with occasional help from trombone and trumpet) and the band are tremendous in the live setting but they have a lot more going for them. They have some very innovative cover versions and some outstanding original material (the single “Warriors”, for example) and they win over audiences wherever they play.
Which brings me to my second tip: I saw Gentlemen of Few supporting Coco and the Butterfields upstairs at The Garage in Islington, and they were tremendous. They play country bluegrass, they’re young, they’re enthusiastic, they’re from south Kent and they’re a joy to see live. They play a wide variety of traditional instruments and they play them really well. The vocal harmonies are the icing on the cake; they have great voices and the four-part harmonies are superb. They might not break through this year, but it’s only a matter of time. Go out and see them in 2014 if you can.
Two of the Riot Squad have been following Black Casino and the Ghost very closely this year. I’ve reviewed a couple of singles (as well as their contribution to the “Radio (in my) Head” album) and Klare reviewed their debut album; we’re both very impressed. Fronted by the powerful and dynamic vocals of Elisa Zoot, BCATG are superb as a studio and live act with a bunch of powerful and original songs and varied live arrangements and visuals. They attracted some national attention towards the end of the 2013 in The Guardian and it’s only a matter of time before they break out from the London scene.
Another band I saw as a support in 2013 was Bird to Beast (supporting Black Casino and the Ghost at The Finsbury) in November. The core of the band is Sam and Hannah Hird from Colne in Lancashire and their own description of the band’s sound is psych-folk although there’s an awful lot more going on there. The songs are very good (certainly strong enough to stand up to a stripped-down live performance) and the vocal harmonies give them a huge lift. Their new single “Elephant” is released officially on Monday 13th January and has already had plays on 6 Music and Radio 2. I think we’re going to hear a lot more from Bird to Beast in 2014.
The final tip for 2014 is an artist that I listened to for the first time today and had to listen a few more times because he was so good. Noel Cowley is a London-born singer-songwriter with very pronounced Celtic influences and inspiration. His songs are introspective and sometimes nostalgic and he knows how to write a good melody and a very good chorus. His second EP, “Home is Everywhere” is released on Tuesday January 14th and the title track caught my attention immediately because the vocal had a very strong feel of one of my favourite singers, Iain Matthews and that has to be a good thing.
We’ll be publishing more detailed reviews of the Bird and the Beast single and the Noel Cowley EP in the next few days, so keep an eye out for those.
This exciting five-piece band from Canterbury headlined the Africana fundraiser tonight, raising money for projects in Kenya. They formed in 2011 and only a year later, won the accolade of the UK’s best unsigned act. They describe their music as ‘Fip Fok’ (the title of their first EP), a bouncing hybrid of folk, pop and hip-hop; even checking them out on You Tube before the gig, I was excited about the evening’s entertainment. They feature a unique set-up of guitar, banjo, double bass, violin and beat-boxing so the sound is unlike anyone else I’ve heard.
The support acts: Brighton’s The Beatnik Horrors and singer songwriter, George Olgivie were good too making the long wait for the headliners a real warm up. The Beatnik Horrors are a post-Chilli Peppers rock act with 3 guitars and helium vocals from their tom-boy lead singer, Ari playing memorable and distinctive songs. George Olgivie is an acoustic singer-song-writer with a nice vibrato, playing covers and original material who will release a self-penned EP in July.
It was late in the evening when the Butterfields started their set; C&TB are used to playing a variety of arenas from busking, which they still do, to thousand-seater theatres, but they seemed particularly at home in this large music pub, having brought some of their loyal tribe with them. The audience are mainly students who gave them a warm welcome, but the venue is sadly not packed, probably due to the cool, wet weather. They kick off slowly with Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”, but turn up the tempo half way through with some impressive beat-boxing. Then it’s swiftly into Supertramp’s “Breakfast In America”, or their unique twist on it. The crowd are on their feet and stay there for all of the hour long set but the fun really began when they launched into seven original songs, starting with “Scarecrow”, apparently a tribute to the band’s variety of long or be-dreadlocked hair. I was glad I had worn my dancing shoes as I was soon jigging around too, as were, I noticed, the support acts. The last couple of times I have been at such a lively feel-good gig were Basement Jaxx in Brixton and going back further still, The Pogues in Kilburn on St Patrick’s night in ’87! It was almost as if C&TB were playing a unique hybrid of both in this festival atmosphere.
Fan favourite “Astronaut” was next, utilising the strong musicianship of each member of the band, including Dulcima the female lead’s vocals. Percussion duties were entirely the domain of the beat-boxer of the group, who had astounding energy, variety and talent, later soloing in a most entertaining way, but each band member, like in a jazz quintet, got to show their impressive individual skills in a short spot-light. The next highlight, and there were many, was the new single “Warriors” which went down very well with the crowd and is released this week. All this and a radio presenter I chatted to, who had interviewed them earlier in the day, confirmed what a nice bunch Coco & The Butterfields are, and they look the part too.
The evening of exuberance concluded with “The Hip Hop Song” and Flo Rida/T-Pain’s “Low”. I hope the band get the wider audience they deserve; in an era of karaoke pop and synthesised dance, this band are the real thing constructing an original sound with great musicality and a very infectious energy.