The BBC 6 Music festival was held in London this year – Camden, in north London, to be precise. Tickets for the three day event sold incredibly quickly, but I managed to get a couple for Sunday for the main stage at the Roundhouse. The line-up looked excellent: Nadine Shah, Jehnny Beth, Anna Meredith, Kim Gordon and Kate Tempest. All women, in honour of International Women’s Day. But, as Nadine Shah said, that shouldn’t be so unusual.
I’ve always liked Nadine Shah, since she made her first album, “Fast Food”, in 2015. Her sound is sometimes described as post punk – a reflection of the fact that it shares the sharp-edged guitars and sometimes rather grandiose melodies of that early 80s indie sound. Two of my favourite songs from “Fast Food” – “Fool” and “Stealing Cars” – are good examples of that. “Fool” made it onto the seven song set on Sunday and was a highlight. The guitars were strident and the beats pounded. Three of the songs were from the 2017 album “Holiday Destination”, including the catchy title track. There was a preview from the forthcoming album “Kitchen Sink” called “Ladies for Babies” which keeps up Nadine’s reputation for trenchant social commentary. It’s done with a smile though – she is an engaging performer who takes the trouble to talk to the audience.
Another highlight of the show was a short jazz standard called “There’s No Greater Love”, which she used to sing with Amy Winehouse when they both lived in Camden. It was a nice touch in an enjoyable show, my second favourite of the day. The best was next…
Jehnny Beth is best known as the dynamic singer with Savages, one of the most full-on punk/Goth/hardcore bands around. I was converted when I saw them play live at End of the Road in 2016. They were awesome and Jehnny was truly remarkable. The energy, the presence. Living the music.
It’s disappointing that they seem to have come to a halt after two albums, the last of which, “Adore Life” is a genuine classic. The hiatus seems to be the result of Jehnny’s need to explore her other interests. Jehnny is multi-talented: not only a musician, but an actor, poet and author. I saw her in a fascinating conversation with the new Poet Laureate Simon Armitage at King’s Place in 2018, discussing the relationship between music and poetry. “Adore Life” drew some of its force from poetry.
At King’s Place, venturing into poetry with an established poet, Jehnny was self-deprecating, even nervous, as she read some of her verse. But when she plays music she comes alive and takes no prisoners. I was thinking this show might be mellower than the typical Savages set, having heard the new single, “Flower”. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The set was as in-yer-face as any Savages performance. And when Jehnny gets going, she energises the place. There was the obligatory crowd-surfing, which I think might have taken some of the older members of the audience by surprise. “Flower” did feature, but it was more strident than the recorded version; and the other recent single “I’m the Man” rocked. It was a brilliant, exhilarating show. Jehnny Beth is a true entertainer.
I’m not that familiar with Anna Meredith’s music, though I’ve heard it a few times on Mary Anne Hobbs’ show on 6 Music. She has a classical music pedigree and ventures into avant-garde electronics now and then. Her 2016 album “Varmints” was highly acclaimed, and she has a new record, “FIBS” out now. The show was very percussive and dynamic, with a band that included a tuba and cello. Anna spent a lot of time banging out the rhythms on a pair of timpani drums, as well as manipulating the electronic beats on the keys. Towards the end things went into dance mode, and the crowd responded really well to that. There was something upbeat and engaging about it all – a real sense of enjoyment. Maybe not the sort of thing I’d listen a lot to at home, but fun on the day.
Now Kim Gordon has a hell of a history: she was bassist in the epoch-defining band Sonic Youth. Formed in the early 1980s, they were post punk, alternative, hard core, grunge and more besides. Not often an easy listen, but intriguing (in small doses). I bought quite a lot of their CDs, especially in the 1990s, because I thought I needed to know how they sounded. And I liked a few tracks (notably “Youth against Fascism”) a lot; but mostly it blended into an artful noise. I never saw them live, though I did see Thurston Moore, the singer and guitarist, play at End of the Road and didn’t stay the whole set!
Kim also wrote a really good autobiography called “Girl in a Band” which was published in paperback in 2016. The title says it all: she describes the challenges of being a woman in a hardcore rock band. There were many! And she documents the break-up of her marriage to Thurston Moore. It is bleakly honest.
She released her first solo album in 2019. It’s called “No Home Record”. She played the whole of it on Sunday, mostly in the order of the album. (I hadn’t heard it at the time.) What I got from it was a sense of intensity and power – and alienation. There was no interchange with the audience until right at the end. It was full-on noise. Pretty impressive; but not overladen with tunes. There was a big video screen playing a kind of road movie – an image of endless travel through the American badlands. Fascinating viewing, but uncomfortable listening. A lot of shade, but not much light. The crowd was respectful, but tentative in its response.
I’m listening to the album as I write this, and I’m getting it. The sheer noise didn’t really let a newcomer like me do that on Sunday, though there was a fascination about it, partly because of the visuals. Looking back, the most thought-provoking of the shows.
I saw Kate Tempest last year at End of the Road. I really respect what she does. She’s a great modern poet, with her finger on the pulse of today. On record, the music enhances the words. Live it tends to drown them out. So you get the electronics, and the beats, and the cadences of her words. But the lyrics are submerged, the subtleties lost. It crossed my mind as I watched and tried to listen on Sunday, that Sleaford Mods have a similar problem. Except they have a few more chants that people know. Of course this all depends on how well you know an artist’s work when you go to see them. If it is familiar, you find yourself playing the song you know in your head, even as the live version is overwhelmed by distortion or the drum beats. What I would really like to do is go to a Kate Tempest show that had no music, and just relied on the rhythm and the detail of her words. That’s where the real power – and musicality – lies. Her lyrics, her poetry. They are resonant, heartfelt, a sign of her inner struggle and a sign of the times. For me, all that was rather lost on Sunday, although the show was engaging. So I watched about half of it and started to think about getting the tube home on a Sunday…
An excellent evening anyway, and credit to 6 Music and all the performers for putting on such a great event. Did I mention how good the sound was? BBC class, as ever. Do not let this government touch this national treasure just because it doesn’t always tow the political line. It is a massively important part of our culture; and 6 Music, which has just turned 18, is one of its most vital offspring!
A few more photos, starting with Nadine Shah.