The Drums, The Northwestern, Taxi Taxi!, The Brute Chorus, Telegraphs - In The City- Part 3

Simon Jay Catling 30/10/2009

October 19th- Never forsake a DiS lineup

Industry eavesdrop of the day: [on discussing why a band hadn't attracted a crowd] “…well it's 'cos it's in Manchester isn't it; people are just going to go and see bands who they've finally got the chance to see.”

Cor my legs are stiff coming into day three of my In The City excursions. Thankfully, owing to booking issues, things rolls into the week this year, meaning activities for two of the three main days are restricted only to the evening, today shouldn't be another ten hour slog. It's another indication, though, that the buzz of ITC is dying after seventeen long years of attempting to make bands dreams come true. Certainly venues appear markedly emptier than even 2007, when I made my conference debut. The subdued aura of the smattering of A&R guys that have turned up, meanwhile, is indicative of the wider state of music as a whole. Rumour has it that Swedish Pirate Party leader Rick Falkvinge was threatened with being “burnt at the stake” by furious label bosses after his keynote speech yesterday; another example of the impasse still prominent between the two sides of the piracy argument.

Anyway I haven't got time to contemplate all that, I'm dashing my way through a busy Piccadilly Gardens to make my first and only visit to the Roadhouse. Much like Space last night, I'm not quite sure why I'm here. First I'm met with the utterly mediocre Spy Catchers; then Brighton's Telegraphs rock up with the aim of following the success of their same city peers, This City. Then it clicks: I thought, for some reason, that they were going to sound like At The Drive-In. They don't, though they do show promise, until a “new song” veers sharply towards bog standard American pop-punk. I sigh and grab my coat.

It's at this point that I should mention the name Cath Aubergine. Though I've never had the delight of being introduced to her myself; her presence around ITC (and indeed the Manchester gigging circuit in general) is ubiquitous. 2009's no different. Yesterday was my first Aubergine sighting, scurrying in during the Same Teens Showcase, red hair bobbing enthusiastically, to grab a couple of snaps and take in a couple of songs before dashing off on her quest to find unsigned gold. It's something I like to call the Aubergine-factor. A sighting of the Manchester Music gives reason to suspect that the following performer(s) should be pretty handy. This hypothesis proved correct yesterday evening for My Tiger My Timing, though Telegraphs sort of balance it out. It gains credence, though, when her appearance at Bar 38 heralds a fine set from tight-knit Scots Copy Haho. With ramshackle riffs that seem to bounce off each other, theirs is a sound hewn out of the more garage aspects of British indie; yet in their demeanour lies a spirit closer to the humble twee of Bell & Sebastian.

I'd stick around for Unicorn Kid but I'm desperate to see the delightfully charismatic Brute Chorus; this means a walk through the soulless commercial centre of Manchester to get back to TV21, a movie-themed bar where you can play a Pirates of the Caribbean pinball machine, but can't take drinks into the basement. This is annoying; it means a potentially large crowd is halved, with many choosing to stay upstairs and get another pint in. A shame really, because lead vocalist James Steel provides as fine an example of a captivating front man as you're ever likely to see, twisting and writhing to each thud of the Brute Chorus American rockabilly meets London garage. As the sinister build of 'Chateau' brings the set to a close, you can't help but feel the music execs have missed a trick.

Cellar Vie's showcase tonight comes from the rather excellent Fierce Panda; I arrive just in time to check out Swedish female duo Taxi Taxi! Live, they are a beautiful proposition: a pure, honest aesthetic with a shy but contented chemistry between them. Stripped of the backing percussion they possess on record, their songs shift into tenderly fragile shapes, comfortably the best music of its ilk that I'm likely to hear all weekend.

But then I make a mistake…

Drowned In Sound's 9th birthday celebrations are on tonight; for some reason, though, I decide I don't want to follow the crowd, not least all the way up to the Deaf Institute. So I branch out on my own, a noble feat surely? I hadn't counted, though, on how wide of the mark my ITC programme would be when describing Crystal Fighters as “raved up, Animal Collective folktronica”. Three minutes in, I'm questioning where the folk is; five minutes minutes in, I'm questioning where the Animal Collective influences are. Ten minutes in and I'm thoroughly fed up by the embarrassing combination of tacky Casio beats and topless men jumping all over the stage shouting "I LOVE LONDON” every few seconds. The fact that Chicago Rock Café is filled with industry people makes me worry that this may be the thing to listen to next year. Sickening if true.

So I'm in no man's land now, Frightened Rabbit have already started at Deaf Institute and I'd never make it in time for the end; so a trip to the Ruby Lounge beckons, in the hope that Ou Est Le Swimming Pool can provide something a bit more substantial in terms of electronic beats. But…well…they're a boy band right? Sure, they've got a couple of guys in the back messing about with laptops and samplers; but the vocalists at the front might as well be X-Factor's John & Edward. Maybe they are. I spot Cath Aubergine again (the theory's on ropey ground now for sure), she looks as shocked as me. This cheesy 80s pop repellent is awful; flat vocals and a complete lack of hooks. They'll be huge in no time.

Thoroughly depressed at the past hour's goings on (and a little bit drunk to boot), I head to Moho! Live to catch the last live act of the evening, Your Twenties. They provide some interest in their attempts to marry strains traditional roots to an angular motorik; but I'm thoroughly knackered and leave them to it before the final song; never forsake a DiS line-up. One day left and I'm out on my feet…

October 20th- Here come The Drums

Industry eavesdrop of the day: [as the Minaars announced that they were giving free CDs out] “CDs for free! Very competitive prices!”

Forget all that rubbish I was spouting last night about being out on my feet…zzzz…oh sorry, drifted off there. I don't think I'm going to be in any thus far unvisited venues tonight so that leaves me with a grand total of thirteen racked up from over the past three days. No wonder you see few fat people at ITC. The evening kicks off in the company of The Ray Summers at TV21; more people are here for them than were for The Brute Chorus. Humph. They're alright, though; Scottish they may be, but there's a distinct Mersey beat in their oompah stomp. The blend of Coral-esque flower pop soon reveals nothing much beyond surface enjoyment, though. And the lead singer looks like him from the Pigeon Detectives. Boooo.

I don't know why, but Cellar Vie seems to always have the most consistent line-ups of ITC. Last year I saw Vessels in here, and already in 2009 I've seen the delights of Taxi Taxi! Tonight is no different; I receive a double hit to the solar plexus in the forms of Leicestershire math-rockers Minaars and Leeds' Old Romantic Killer Band. Minaars have been around for a couple of years now, and it's a surprise that they didn't rise to the fore in the wake of Foals' 2008 success. There's a viscerally punk confrontation to their angularity, though, something the Oxford group have never attempted; and live this makes for a pretty interesting spectacle, particularly in the face of a somewhat bemused crowd. Their lead singer careers around onstage, jumping on the back of his guitarist, rolling out into the crowd and smashing a hole in the ceiling (cue furious glares from angry bar maids). It's pretty thrilling, a band who clearly don't give a shit if they're about to be signed or not (they're not), something that too many acts knocking about this weekend have clearly placed far too much emphasis on.

Old Romantic Killer Band are fond of crowd interaction two. After half an hour of their scuzzy blues rock, the guitarist stumbles up on top of the bar and, grabbing a beer glass, slides away on his axe, before looking for an audience member to take his instrument from him…this is quite fu- OH SHIT HE'S GIVING IT TO ME. I know nothing of playing guitar. I tried for a bit, and managed to master 'Street Spirit'; I feel this would go down poorly at the end of a raging demonstration of scorched blues, though. Floundering, I palm it off to a seemingly reluctant chap in a suit…who then shreds the strings off of it…Enough of this crowd interaction, I need to retreat!

Chicago Rock Café wouldn't be anyone's idea of a retreat, really. A Deansgate bar meant for Z-list celebs, footballers and models, it's only being used thanks to its proximity to the Midland Hotel, where all the delegates are staying. 20-year-old Paul John Saunders' gently sweeping acoustic tones seem understandably out of place here; but there is something to his breezy summer traditional roots. An affectingly warm personality pours over every song, something the Universal representative in attendance will no doubt be looking to stamp out.

At the Deaf Institute, it's hard not to spare a thought for Sam Herlihy. A criminally underrated songwriter who never found the respect he craved in Hope Of The States; the vocalist then found himself subdued in the post-rock of Troubles. Now, as front man of The Northwestern's excitingly direct post-pop, his efforts seem set to be ignored again; a mere thirty people turn up. One of them's Cath Aubergine, though- the theory is saved! And Herlihy himself is in an affable; and so he should be. It may be quiet here, but his latest group's brand of darkly-laced melodic indie is a delight to see; you just hope more people cotton on to it.

And so it comes to this. Night & Day on a Tuesday night; the place is rammed. May68 are up on stage, but their disco-thumping electro rhythms are going almost unnoticed, such is the fervour for the act on after them. New York's The Drums, almost impossibly, played their first gig in May; yet here they are at the end of an industry conference, fully formed and about to go stratospheric. They'd justify it too; the four-piece simply hurdle over the great expectations put on them tonight with a performance of youthful innocence and charm. Their nostalgic 50's surf-pop backed by a pair of doo-wop singers, and such dreamy pop is so light that they don't even involve bass on some of it, their “bassist” spending most of his time prancing around the stage, tambourine in hand. 'Let's Go Surfing' goes down as well as expected, but it's the whole performance that's mesmerising- a glimmer of light amongst what really is quite a cynical weekend for the most.

This isn't to have a go at In The City, which is a wonderful event. Where else in the UK can you get so many of the country's best unsigned bands together for a shindig? Sure there's the Great Escape, but that sets itself up on a higher plain with a greater emphasis on the already signed. The trouble is that In The City is an industry created event, when the zeitgeist, for better or worse, has clearly shifted away from them. More than one band take a mocking swipe at the business over the course of the weekend; something that probably would've been unheard of a few years ago at this event. The aspiration to get signed has definitely been dulled; groups instead are just up here for “another gig”, a chance to have fun and play some songs. The occasionally hostile, deeply judgemental environment that they walk out on stage to often leads to a collision that's never likely to gel. When you add to this the fact that there's an increase in record label executives who simply shake their head and say “nah”, you start to wonder whether there was any way this event could move away from being seen as an industry convention, and maybe just something a bit more…fun.

Photo of the Drums @ In The City by Shirlaine Forrest