Transgressive Records have quietly garnered an enviable reputation over the last few years, giving The Subways and Mystery Jets their first leg up into success and signing bands such as Foals and Young Knives. A pretty stellar roster, you’d think.
So when a tour is announced, featuring no less than five Transgressive acts in one night for the measly sum of 7, you’d think the place would be packed to bursting, wouldn’t you?
Sadly, that wasn’t to be the case in Sheffield on a very wet Monday night. The ill-named Transgressive Hot Summer Tour was witnessed by no more than 20 people in Sheffield’s Plug – and half of those seemed to be Transgressive staff and the other acts on the bill. It made for a curious atmosphere, but a delightfully intimate one.
With each band being restricted to half an hour, and a maximum 15 minutes allowed to change instruments between sets, the organisation had to be spot on. The best way to think of it was as a mini-festival, but without all the mud and stoned teenagers everywhere. Oh, and a lot less people of course.
First up was So So Modern () from New Zealand. It was easy to feel slightly sorry for the young Kiwis, playing as they did to a handful of rather disinterested people. They’re one of the new wave of serious, intense young men hunched over keyboards and sounding like Bloc Party after spending hours at an all-night rave. Oh Foals, what sort of scene have you spawned?
If So So Modern had appeared about a year ago, they’d have been seen as ground-breaking, but in 2008 they just look like the latest in a long line of similar bands such as XX Teens and Does It Offend You, Yeah? – such is the fickle nature of pop. Although to be fair, 7pm playing to an empty venue is probably not the best time or place for them. Bonus points for conjuring up the spirit of the ’80s with the keytar though.
After a lightning quick change of instruments, it was time for Esser (). On record, simply one man band Ben Esser, live they’ve been transformed into a four-piece. Boasting a very impressive quiff, Ben busies himself when not singing by playing cowbells and a free standing drum while the intensely serious gent to his right twiddles away on various synths.
Esser’s sound is very reminiscent of early Athlete (before they turned into Coldplay imitators) and there are also hints of fellow English eccentrics such as XTC and Blur. But most importantly, they know how to write a decent tune, and with recent single I Love You burying its way into everyone’s brain, the night suddenly started to feel like a proper gig rather than a performance in someone’s front room.
Although they were forced to cut down their set due to the strict time-keeping, there was enough evidence to suggest that Esser could well be crossover hitmakers when their debut album comes out – forthcoming single Headlock in particular had the sparse crowd dancing and singing along, while Satisfied already felt like a hit after one play. Look out for them.
The beauty of the Transgressive tour is that each act sounds incredibly different to the last. To prove the point, Liam Finn () was next up – the son of Crowded House‘s Neil Finn couldn’t be further removed from both So So Modern and Esser. Accompanied only by EJ Barnes on vocals and percussion, Finn is an absolute revelation live.
Fully utilising loop pedals and samples, he brings the songs of his debut album I’ll Be Lightning to life. At the end of songs he’d often put down the guitar (still playing the riff, courtesy of that loop pedal) and then unleash merry hell on the drumkit. The intensity of his performance was impressive to watch. EJ makes the perfect vocal foil for him, and songs such as Better Be Gone prove that he’s inherited his father’s way with a memorable chorus. Yet the cacophony of noise created by Lead Balloon shows he’s not afraid to experiment either.
Esser were even invited back onstage to perform a jam of a song written the previous night called Sex In My Pocket before Finn’s all too short set was brought to an end with the excellent Second Chance. The highlight of the night, and then some.
Those of you with an encyclopedic knowledge of indie bands may remember a short-lived group called Les Incompetents. They were known for being slightly shambolic and ramshackle and never even got round to releasing a proper album. Ox. Eagle. Lion. Man (), formed from their ashes, couldn’t be further removed from their previous incarnation.
Clad all in black and looking almost ridiculously intense, lead singer Frederick Blood-Royale has the obligatory Ian Curtis-alike vocals while his band’s songs tick all the relevant Birthday Party boxes. Although the market is somewhat saturated with bands who sound like Interpol and Joy Division at the moment, there’s something weirdly compelling about Ox. Eagle. Lion. Man.
Their set was enlivened by the unexpected reappearance of Liam Finn in jeans and a flowing white cape for an attempt at stage invasion, before Blood-Royale jumped down onto the floor and tried to wrestle him. It was a suitably surreal interlude to what was shaping up to be a pretty surreal night.
Finally, bringing the evening to a close was Jeremy Warmsley () , still playing to the 20 or so hardy souls who’d been there since the start of the night. Opening with a beautiful acoustic rendition of 5 Verses, Warmsley seems to have shed the electronic experimentation of a couple of years ago and become a fully fledged singer/songwriter. It’s a move that suits him, especially when backed by his guitarist and drummer.
Looking like a cross between Jarvis Cocker and Louis Theroux, Warmsley played a mixture of new songs and highlights from his excellent The Art Of Fiction album (with the meshing together of I Believe In The Way That You Move and Dirty Blue Jeans particularly impressive). A cover version of New Order‘s Temptation brought things to a close, although there was one last surprise waiting.
“That’s it I’m afraid guys”, apologised Warmsley, “we’re over the curfew”. As a wag from the audience suggested, rules are there to be broken, and so Warmsley led us outside onto the street for one more acoustic number, a spine-tinglingly good rendition of If He Breaks Your Heart. We watched, audience and bands gathered in a small circle around Warmsley, as he quietly broke our collective heart in the chilly air outside the Plug.
It was a beautiful end to an event which, although not witnessed by many, was a perfect way to spend a wet Monday evening.