Small venue gigs can be hit or miss affairs. Sometimes the atmosphere is just too subdued because the band haven’t generated enough support and the crowd are not familiar enough with the material. For regular gig-goers, these shows are often a form of musical discovery and the small venue event is attended in the hope that a hidden gem is unearthed that lay previously undiscovered. On very rare occasions, a show can involve all of this and be absolutely immense at the same time. Tonight is one of those nights.
The Soup Kitchen is one of the Northern Quarter’s smaller venues. Musty and dark, aesthetically it isn’t the city’s most appealing but tonight it hosted a show that will linger long in the memory. Support (or the hidden gem) comes in the unknown form of Irish five piece Princess. The band seem to surprise everyone with their intense, heavy sound that contains a myriad of influences swirling around like an intoxicating cyclone. The set is brief, consisting of five tracks but each one has an incredible personality and is distinctly different from the last. Lead singer Liam has the look of Jack White about him and his vocal delivery is also similar. Intense yet measured, his performance crackles with violent energy. Vocal responsibilities are passed to guitarist Aoife midway through the set, adding dreamier textures reminiscent of Stereolab in their prime, yet musically the band still retain a hint of something violent around the edges. Princess deliver a complex, unrestrained set and the band could be on to something special if they retain this creative passion on record.
Ex Hex are a new band but bring with them a wealth of experience. Lead vocalist/guitarist Mary Timony is a performer with quite a notable track record. Previous bands include Helium, Autoclave and the short-lived Wild Flag and growing up in Washington DC, she experienced the birth of hardcore, which certainly seems to have made its mark on the forty-four year old singer. The debut album Rips was released in October last year and would have definitely appeared on my end of year lists, had I been introduced to it’s eighties rock and punk sensibilities sooner. The album is lean, mean and a hell of a lot of fun and once the band have set up their own instruments on the small stage and the crowd has swelled to capacity, it is here where the show begins, opening with track one off the album, Don’t Wanna Lose. The dynamic of the band is quickly established with this opening song, which is vocally reminiscent of Joan Jett and the Runaways. It allows Mary Timony to demonstrate the close rapport she has with bassist Betsy Wright and this continues throughout the night. Wright, looking every bit like a black-haired Madonna circa Papa Don’t Preach, feeds off Mary’s energy and she scissor kicks her way through the song’s guitar solo. Waterfall swiftly follows, again demonstrating Timony’s ability to craft sinewy songs that demonstrate a musical and lyrical exuberance once thought to have been killed off in the early nineties.
The acoustics tonight are excellent and How You Got That Girl’s T. Rex inspired riff sounds immense in the small confines of the basement venue. Drummer Laura Harris is metronomic throughout, also adding vital harmonies to the vocals on the track. There is very little interaction in between these songs and none of the frustrating extensive re-tuning of instruments, which often seems to derail the tone of a show. Tonight is all about pace with just a little bit of swagger and this is what the song of the night provides. After an amusing moment when Mary asks if there are any beasts in the room and a quiet voice responds timidly “err, yep, I’m a beast”, the track roars to life. Beast is full of screaming guitars and archetypal rock and roll posturing that is more akin with the glam metal genre that originated in Los Angeles in the early eighties. Indeed, there are chord progressions that would not be out of place in a Faster Pussycat or Motley Crue song. This is in no way a negative thing and the song’s innate energy permeates around the room during the extended soloing that this genre was famous for. All that is thankfully missing are the misogynist lyrics and spandex!
Vocal duties are passed over to Betsy Wright during the Blondie-esque Radio On, adding a pleasing extra dimension to the evening before Timony launches into the additively catchy riff for the brilliant War Paint. The song can be used to epitomise the whole evening. Essentially, this is a song about trying too hard to be cool. It’s worth pointing out that most of the audience tonight are way past the age of worrying about these kind of things, but that is missing the point. We were those people twenty years ago and Ex Hex do a damn good job tonight of reminding us not to take things too seriously in the twenty-first century, as well as how exhilarating music can be when it’s performed with this level of vigour and exuberance.
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Review and Photos by Iain Fox | @IainFoxPhoto