It’s barely teatime and Shoreditch is already teaming with gaggles of gig goers in anticipation of the Stag & Dagger festival, the first year of a new event that’s the East End’s answer to the Camden Crawl.
Spread over 15 venues, the crawl aims to showcase the latest talent from home and abroad, as well as the most cutting edge DJs. Plenty to see then, if your legs can last the distance.
The 6pm start gives some a chance to have an alcohol top whilst DJ sets from the likesof Pivot and Stopkaingme entertain the early birds, but over at an already busy OldBlue Last, punk rock karaoke takes place downstairs whilst on the sweaty floor above, DuchessSays put on an electrifying performance. Although not an entirely original prospect(similarities compare widely from the likes of Magik Markers to even the more kooky side ofKate Bush), watching front woman Annie-Claude Deschênes waltz round the dingy pub, takingvarious audience members’ items of clothing in the process, is nothing short of mesmerising. Suchcontrol in a vocalist is rarely seen in an ever-growing dreary indie scene, so this display is arefreshing change.
Given our recent spoiling with good weather, a drizzly courtyard outside Vibe Bar isnot the nicest place for Rod Thomas to get the Brick Lane leg of Stag & Dagger underway. Buthis sample-infused folk combined with egg shaking, tambourine jingling, and warm rich vocals standup to the weather and even win in competition with a rather rude beer delivery. Thomas’s songs aboutlost love and too much time down the disco sound fittingly jaded. Pretty much how festival-goers canexpect to be feeling in a few hours’ time.
A hop and a skip across Brick Lane to the Pink Room at 93 Feet East finds CiaraHaidar pummelling a keyboard with all her might. In a world in which everyone is looking for thenext Amy Winehouse, Ciara is a breath of fresh air. A one-woman (well almost – she is joinedby a bassist and drummer) rock opera with lungs like blast-furnace bellows. Haidar’s songs recountbooze-fuelled break ups and nights out. She deserves a bigger audience than the few appreciativepeople who have turned up to see her, but as she points out, from where she’s standing it’s stillworth doing the gig for the free booze. Ode To South Ken, a sideswipe at some Sloaney friends, couldbe an anthem for the East End.
Hot on the heals of Rod Thomas at the Vibe Courtyard is the much tipped Edward JHicks. Wearing red jeans to blend in with the Shoreditch crowd, Hicks plies a retro, angry,angular blues. His guitar playing is wizardry, and his vocals ballsy and rough, but I get thefeeling that I have seen this all before. Jonn Spencer Blues Explosion was a refreshingcombination of blues nostalgia, punk attitude and modern song writing, and most importantly anexhilarating live experience. The Edward J Hicks Blues Squib sounds heavily indebted to Spencer butlacks the charisma.
There’s even less to say for Modular dullards Thieves Like Us who deliver toCargo the sort of drab, passion-free monotone electro drivel that we hoped to have seen the back ofin the Electroclash demise five years ago.
Thank goodness then for Cats In Paris at the Last Days Of Decadence, whose shortset of soaring indie-pop hits all the right notes even if there appears to be criminally more barstaff than punters in attendance (the pounding house soundtrack coming from the upstairs bar doesn’thelp). Recent single Foxes is a particular highlight, even if someone’s comedy ringtone from the TVseries Catchphrase does it’s best to jeopardise proceedings during the more delicate breakdown.
A skip across the road and we’re enveloped in the gorgeous surroundings of St Leonard’s Church nextfor Atlas Sound. Signed to 4AD, his delicate drum machine and guitar combination isan utter joy with this perfect venue’s acoustics. He comes across as a man who has suffered a greatdeal and with his songs of heartache, delivers possibly the night’s strongest set.
Back in the courtyard at Vibe, Smoke Fairies try to keep the attention of anaudience rapidly losing body heat. Two posh women with nice guitars and pretty folk songs, they arehardly remarkable, but pleasant enough. And you simply don’t hear enough people proclaim “This nextone is a sea shanty” during gigs any more. Their voices blend beautifully, one high andfluting, another like velvet. But their pretty pastoral songs would benefit from a bit of sunshine,some grass to lie down on, and a bottle of cider. One out of three is not enough, but might helpkeep the cold out.
The Golden Dogs in the Pink Room not only have the indie beards, they also havethe keyboard player in a golden dress who is moshing maniacally for the entire set. Most importantlythey have a singer/guitarist with a fox fur guitar strap. The music is a little generic, but muchless so than Cheeky Cheeky And The Nosebleeds in the next room, who might be the newKooks. CCATN have a bigger audience, but I can’t really work out why. Perhaps it’s becausethey are prettier – but they don’t have a chap with a fox-fur guitar strap. Golden Dogs win me overwhen I notice that the keyboard player relents in her head banging only briefly between songs tochange a sign stuck to the keyboard that has the title of tune they are currently playing: a boon toany reviewer.
Indoors at Vibe has filled up for The Wave Machines whose atmospheric,knob-twiddling, instrument swapping loveliness is like a post-rock Stereolab. Eschewingvocals, they create a wash of sound that envelops the crowd. Amid the decidedly folksy indieleanings of much of what we’d seen around Brick Lane so far in the proceedings, The Wave Machineswere a welcome break. Their hypnotic use of synthesisers and rhythm is enhanced by the visualsbeamed behind them. The uplifting wall of sound of their closing track is accompanied by flashingimages of brightly coloured buttons and toggles. Why I remember this so clearly I do not know, butsince I do, I thought it deserved a mention.
Resisting the urge to head to a late night haberdashery, I head back over to 93 FeetEast where one room is emptying of a satisfied looking audience from Cheeky Cheeky And TheNosebleeds but few stop to catch Jill Barber. The Canadian has a voice from the 1920s OldWest and songs to match. As she picks her acoustic guitar, a grizzled guy in a flat cap plays someamazing electric guitar and joins in on harmonies that don’t so much tug on the heartstrings as pullthem till they snap. This is excellent stuff, the music of the Carter Family for the newmillennium. All that’s missing is an upright bass. It’s criminal that more people aren’t here to seethis.
An apologetic Anita Bay, aka TheCocknBullKid, is also setting things alight downat Bar Music Hall. Now with a full band, her short set of soulful pop (including co-written withMetronomy new single On My Own) leaves the pack of devotees who have waited for her delayedperformance thirsty for more.
A quick poke round the Hoxton Square Bar & Grill shows Telepathe and their hypnotic droneymelodies falling on deaf ears as the heaving venue seems to be suffering from attention deficitproblems, so I pop to the bizarrely decorated Favela Chic to catch Slow Club. It turns out tobe a wise move as the Sheffield two-piece’s soaring set is devastatingly affective for just twopeople. There are shades of a much better Raveonettes and fellow pupils of the same school of songwriting as The Wave Pictures, with optimistic songs of lost love and more rockier jams withthe aid of wooden chairs for percussion. Comparisons to certain Detroit siblings should be greetedwith a sigh, because this duo of simplicity is utterly enchanting.
The Duke Spirit at St Leonard’s Church is an undeniably tantalising proposition,but amid the treats on offer elsewhere, your reporters miss their offering; it’s a shame that wealso miss out on Jay Reatard at the Old Blue Last.
The Vibe Courtyard, where I seem to have spent an unreasonable amount of the eveninggiven the weather, is still thronging with people grabbing a smoke between indoor sets and fills upeven more with an audience for Johnny Flynn. Sans backing band The Sussex Wit, Flynn deliversa neat set of tracks from the imminent album A Larum. Flynn is unabashedly a folk artist. There isno dressing up his performance with electric tricks and he, I suspect, affects the olde Englishinflection in his voice. His songs contain the pathos and humour of the best folk. His tales ofvagrants and men of the road go down well with an appreciative drunk behind the railings and thewristband wearing festival goers alike. He closes his set with Tickle Me Pink, which sees certainsections of the crowd stripping the dancing dosey-doe.
Over in Hoxton, there is no hope of any such exuberant displays in The Macbeth, notbecause people aren’t enjoying Example, but there’s not enough room to swing a kitten, let alone one’s partner. And besides, folk moves at a hip-hop gig? The problem withmiddle-class white rappers is that they attract middle-class white fans. There is nothing garageabout Example’s polished stage show, he and his backing band are a well oiled and well rehearsedmachine. Feeling slightly jaded by hours in a cold courtyard, I just can’t warm to this show,despite the heat. But I am in a minority, as the crowd here are the most enthusiastic I’ve seen allevening. Unless I am confusing enthusiasm with an attempt to hold it in, as getting through thecrowd to the toilets is nigh on impossible.
Back to Cargo and Montreal DJ legend (and brother of Chromeo‘s David Macklovitch)A Trak has got the place jumping with slices of hip-hop, electro and R&B favourites. It’sentertaining just to watch the Tom-and-Jerry-gone-wrong visuals. Back atFavela Chic for Zombie Zombie, their searing instrumental electronica (like a moredemented Electrelane) falls flat because of poor sound quality. It’s a damn shame because with a half-decent soundsystem this could have been one of the night’s best gigs.
Filling in the gap between Example and Operator Please is walking haircut, enemyof music, and vacuum of originality George Lamb. Following a set by Example withmainstream ’90s hip-hop is hardly high-concept: but Heads High, Sound Of Da Police and Push It godown a storm among the white middle class rap fans. Lamb would be better off DJing School Disco thanStag & Dagger, a fact driven home when he starts playing Duran Duran‘s Girls On Film.Thankfully, Operator Please soon save us. The Macbeth is packed for the young Australians,but although their combined age is probably less than mine, they are totally undaunted. Fusing punk,three minute pop and violins, they are the perfect act to perk up a jaded Stag & Dagger survivor.But the crush at the bar makes it difficult to enjoy them fully, and the brief uplift they providewanes.
It’s left to The Mae Shi at Favela Chic to raise our spirits, something that theyaccomplish within about 30 seconds of being onstage. This set is the closest Shoreditch comes to a party band all evening. Draping the audiencewith a massive white blanket, embracing members of the somewhat stiff crowd and leaping on and offthe stage. Slow Club return to the stage for a beautiful near a cappela version of Run To Your Grave- their closest thing they have to an indie hit thus far – before The Mae Shi launch into it themselves and leavethe final remaining gig crawlers in a state of awe.
From Favela Chic and the Macbeth 93 Feet East was a bit of a schlepp, but TheMetros and 1990s are bound to have attracted large and enthusiastic crowds without eitherof us turning up, although it’s a shame we missed two of the biggest indie draws of the evening. Such is life with multi-venue festivals.
Various DJs play the night out across the few venues that remain open, but as we scrapeup our tired bones for the traipse home, it’s with the knowledge of having attended an excellent andwell-structured event with few queues and a lot of excellent music. Roll on next year.
Stag & Dagger 2008 @ Various Venues in Shoreditch, London
Preview: Stag & Dagger 2008