To the casual reader, being a music journalist must sound like a pretty glamorous job. Free gig tickets? Check. Workable knowledge of as-yet unreleased albums by obscure American artists? Check. (Very) Occasional free drinks from over-excited PR girls? Er… You get the idea. What we traditionally fail to tell you about, however, is the times that said journalist’s free gig tickets aren’t quite enticing enough to convince friends or family to join them as that honoured ‘plus one’, which results in your floppy haired protagonist lurking at the back of a gigantic queue quietly shuffling his feet.
But, from the off, this celebration of über-cool club night/label/fanzine Fandango’s sixth birthday looked a safe bet for a lonely journo – six bands, two rooms, three hours, no overlapping. Just enough time to race between the bar and the other room, do not pass go, do not stop to text grandma or crane your neck ‘expectantly’ as if you were meeting someone. Unfortunately, for all Fandango’s venerable experience in organising concerts (they’ve managed to launch the Strokes and Razorlight into the public consciousness in years previous) it doesn’t quite work like that. Huge queues mean that bands run concurrently, 229’s cavernous main hall is often half-full, and punters are still stuck outside way into openers Royworld’s set.
Which actually isn’t such a bad thing, as Royworld are absolutely dreadful. Spectacularly, heroically awful. It probably doesn’t help that their frontman is manfully attempting to channel Brandon Flowers through the voice and dancing style of a drunken uncle at a wedding, but even that should be no excuse for the bland, stadium rock-apeing tosh on display here. Selected lyrics like “Don’t crryyyyy/ Cos it’s OK” and “Go back to the place we used to live/ To the place where we were young” over synths set to ‘epic’ are enough to drive us screaming into the main room, only to find we’d missed half of gorgeous folk troubadours Monkey Swallows the Universe.
Already, the cavernous 229 venue has taken a bit of a shoeing on these very pages, and unfortunately this journalist must add his voice to the dissenting throng. While ‘Room 2’ (or ‘the bar out the back’) simply resembles a particularly soulless students’ union, the main hall is a cavernous, echoing sports hall that swallows all but the noisiest urchins. Monkey Swallows the Universe are not these noisniks. Already a guitarist down, singer Nat Johnson struggles to fill the chasm with their lovely, quavering harmonies, and despite Sheffield Shanty and the drop-dead love song Science being almost perfect examples of the brighter side of the anti-folk revolution, the group, armed only with a mandolin and a recorder, are terribly served by 229.
In the smaller confines of the room out back, though, similarly twee indie popsters Fanfarlo are faring much better creeping up on your neck hairs like a younger, better looking Belle and Sebastian, lead singer Simon Aurell looks and sounds like a Swedish Stephen Malkmus just perhaps without all the yelling. Fanfarlo really are gorgeous, the kind of introspective, souring melodies that you’d find on the very best Sufjan Stevens tracks, and in We Live By the Lake and Fire Escape they have beautiful little vignettes that will appeal to even the hardest hearts.
Back through the double doors, The Early Years are attempting to prove that prog rock never died with a monumentally boring set of booming, screaming, reverb-drenched dramatics. While, unlike the unfortunate MSTU, they have the amplified punch to fill the room, they sacrifice tunes for widdly eight-minute guitar workouts that leave most of the room looking nonplussed. Only single So Far Gone is discernable from the unrelenting barrage of ersatz-psychedelia here, and we quickly up sticks and leave to see erstwhile Arab Strap singer Malcolm Middleton in the adjacent room.
Middleton, whose miserablist outlook hasn’t changed since going solo, is also finding the Early Years hard going. Traditionally pretty monosyllabic, the burly Scot becomes more and more morose as his tender, lovelorn acoustic fingerpicking is interrupted time and again by blasts of blundering metal resonating down the corridor from the room next door. It’s a huge shame, as the tiny group that gatherer around the stage are enthralled by this minor indie hero – Stay Close Sit Tight and Fight Like The Night are more sensitive than the work of his former alma mater, and when he abruptly finishes the set the crowd are left shell-shocked wishing for an encore that never comes.
Maps, on the other hand, are charm personified. A day after missing out on the Mercury Music Prize, James Chapman and co go cheerfully go about fulfilling an engagement that, going on this performance, they probably won’t need to bother with in future years. Taking to the stage brandishing a Mercury runners-up gong, they kick off with glorious album opener So Low So High and never look back. It’s a strange moment of bravado from Chapman, who between songs comes across like a shoegaze Brian Wilson – a mumbled “Thanksverymuchcheersthanks” is the most we’ll get out of him this evening which exemplifies the quiet confidence that surrounds this supremely talented group.
While they still may not have the songs to rival, say, The Jesus and Mary Chain yet, Maps at their best are a truly transporting experience set highlights Elouise and You Don’t Know Her Name are soaring torrents of electronica-influenced rock, with the kind of synths that The Early Years and Royworld could only dream of emulating. Loud enough even to fill the much-maligned 229, tonight Maps are simply fantastic, with even their album tracks given a bombastic makeover that leave the ears ringing and the heart melting. It’s a superb ending to an evening that promised much, but delivered only in tiny bursts.