Photo credit: Jo Moolenschot
If I was being grandiose, I would say that “history is made by the people who show up” – but it’s probably closer to the truth to say that I just plain love going to gigs.
Whether it’s the joy of seeing my idols performing favourite songs right in front of me, or the pure, rare thrill of watching an unknown band be unexpectedly amazing, there’s always something in the diary and its never far away. This passion/obsession is further fuelled and facilitated by the fact I live in North London, placing the many venues of the capital, of all shapes and sizes, within easy reach. Although I’ve thought about it for a number of years, I’ve never quite managed to quantify precisely how many bands I actually see every year.
Throughout 2015, every time I watched a band, I added their name to a simple little list stored on my phone. Against all odds, I managed to keep the habit going, so I have, for the first time, a complete list of every single band I watched play over the course of a whole year. I set myself just one threshold for a band to be included in The List – that I must witness a minimum of three songs, or ten minutes if the band in question favours very lengthy compositions. So no sticking my head around the door, catching a glimpse and then shambling back to the smoking area to artificially inflate the numbers here, no sir. Don’t get me wrong, this definitely happened, but the names of those bands don’t appear in The List, and more often than not, they are best forgotten.
One more thing before I get into the meat of what I actually saw, it became clear to me fairly early on that the very existence of The List actually spurred me to see more bands. I’m sure the sensation of getting to the end of the working day and just wanting to go home and stick your face in something fattening instead of going out to a show is familiar to everyone. But I genuinely found that just the prospect of being able to add another 3-5 bands to The List was just enough of a spur to overcome that. Food for thought, there. Anyway, let’s get the headline numbers out there, shall we?
In 2015, I went to 62 gigs, including one weekend festival and five all-day event, across 28 different venues, where I saw 184 different bands play a combined total of 251 sets. Phew. No wonder I’ve felt busy. Considering that I was also abroad for about a month during the year, I think that averages out to about three gigs every two weeks.
Before I get on to talk about who I actually saw, it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider where I saw them. In all honesty, the fact I went to as many as 28 venues was probably the biggest surprise for me, especially as I only went to four events outside London (Tech Fest, an all-dayer in Brighton, Xerath in Bristol and Agent Fresco in Milton Keynes.
Perhaps less surprisingly, Camden venues dominate the list, having walked through the doors of no fewer than seven of them, and they comprise the entire top three. My most visited venue was the Black Heart, with forty sets across eleven shows. Then comes The Unicorn and the Barfly, with seven shows apiece and fifty one sets between them. I saw 38 sets at Tech Fest, which would place it in second place if it were a venue.
Overwhelmingly, talk of London venues on social media seems to revolve around them closing, usually with a forlorn picture of The Astoria attached. So it’s perhaps encouraging that I went to seven London venues I’d never been to before – Heaven and Hackey’s Oslo were particular highlights from these new (to me) venues.
It shouldn’t take a genius to realise that watching 184 bands play 251 sets means there’s some repeat performances in there. I saw 21 bands play twice, and 16 bands play three or more times. In all sixteen cases, at least one of those sets was at Tech Fest, proving – not that it really needs to be proved – that the festival really is the jewel in my gig-going crown.
Photo credit: Jo Moolenschot
Somehow, I managed to see Sumer and No Sin Evades His Gaze seven times each. Seven. I can’t work out if this is passion, obsession or outright lunacy. It’s also worth pointing out that none of these fourteen sets were headline slots. So what you see here is two great bands working really hard to bring their excellent music to as many people as possible. Kudos to both of them for giving me the opportunity to see them so often, and playing music good enough for that many repeat performances to not become boring. I’d go and see both of them again tomorrow.
There were then six bands I saw four times each, including Agent Fresco, whose astonishing acoustic set at Tech Fest and UK tour dates I’ve already written about extensively. The other five – No Consequence, Exist Immortal, Hieroglyph, Brutai and A Trust Unclean all took a noticeable step up during 2015, with No Consequence releasing the best material of their career and the remaining four hopefully dropping new tunes in 2016, I fully expect all of them to feature in this year’s list, too. In fact, I already know I’ll be seeing A Trust Unclean, Hieroglyph and Brutai within the next month.
Photo credit: Jo Moolenschot
I saw a further eight bands three times each. Perhaps most interestingly, I saw both Monuments and Rolo Tomassi play at Tech Fest, as main support to much bigger bands (Karnivool and Faith No More) at the Roundhouse and small, sold-out headliners. Past them, we have the perky and incredibly talented pairing of Press To Meco and Core Of iO, the total shrieking chaos of The Colour Line, up-and-comers Clockwork and Belial and the sure-to-be-missed final shows of Pete Graves with Red Seas Fire.
Trying to pin down my favourite live shows of the year is particularly tough, seeing as they can be enjoyable for so many different reasons. But, simply because an article like this pretty much demands some kind of Best Of list, here are five that really stood out.
1) Agent Fresco – I’ve said more than enough already about how much I love this band, both on stage and on record. You know the drill.
2) Battles @ The Electric Ballroom – with their headbending hybrid of digital and analogue sounds, and the presence of personal hero John Stanier behind the kit, Battles have always had my attention, even if falling in love with their recorded output is something of a struggle. But finally getting to witness them perform was a revelation. Completely hypnotic and quite unlike practically anything else. They’re back in the UK in March, and I already have my tickets.
3) Nordic Giants @ Village Underground and Hoxton Hall – another band that I have relentlessly and breathlessly enthused about in the past. Nordic Giants invest considerable effort in ensuring every single show is a memorable event. Less a gig, more a religious experience.
4) Amenra, Bossk, Talons and Torpor @ Heaven – just the right combination of great venue, enthusiastic but respectful crowd and a strong running order of broadly similar, but still clearly distinctive bands giving strong performances. Read all about it on that blue link.
5) Faith No More @ The Roundhouse – If there’s one thing better than seeing one of your all-time favourite bands, it’s seeing them twice on consecutive nights. Back with tracks from their excellent album Sol Invictus to intersperse amongst the greatest hits, and playing quite different setlists on the two nights, I emerged from both in an advanced state of nostalgic reverie.
No great year of gig-going is complete without a few special or unusual shows. So we’ll finish off this review of the year by just picking out a few of them, in no particular order
- There’s always something special about seeing a band play an album in its entirety, and I saw three such shows. Heading to Brixton to see Korn play through their seminal debut, also marking the first time I’d seen them since the Life is Peachy tour in the nineties. There was another trip down memory lane to see Snot play Get Some in full, on their first trip to the UK having never made it before singer Lynn Strait’s tragic death in 1998. This show was long overdue, and resulted in the most energetic moshpit I’ve ever seen from a crowd mostly deep into its thirties. Finally, there was a trip to the Royal Albert Hall for a incongruous evening of fart jokes and heavy metal in a venue synonymous with high culture. Thanks, Devin.
- Sometimes, London can be a bit TOO awesome, which can result in some heartbreaking clashes. But occasionally, you really can be in two places (almost) at once – so on one busy Friday night, I was able to watch Clockwork and Hieroglyph open a show at The Unicorn, then dash down the road to The Black Heart to see Latitudes headline. I love it when a plan comes together.
Photo credit: Jo Moolenschot
- Aside from Devin’s mega-show at the Albert Hall, he also popped back across the Atlantic with his acoustic guitar in tow to play a short run of solo shows, mostly in churches. Given the fierce commitment of Devin’s fanbase, this seems appropriate. It also provided just about the perfect environment for these delicate, stripped back versions of his most beautiful songs, and a cheeky little rendition of a radically reworked “Love?” from the SYL archives.
- After the music itself, the social aspects of gig going can make for a special night. There were numerous occasions when the Tech Fest family was out in force, but perhaps none more so than when far more people than was probably safe or legal crammed themselves into the Barfly to celebrate the tenth birthday of Basick Records. We love those guys, the main reason being they continually provide us with a stream of hugely exciting, innovative bands to enthuse about. Actually, that’s the only reason. They’re all terrible people. (It’s OK, this is a long article, they’ll never read this far). But, merriment aside, for their birthday party they laid on a free show featuring a crushing set from Devil Sold His Soul, a deeply pleasing appearance from Alaya, stopping over on their way to Euroblast, more great riffs from No Consequence, and the warm and soothing genius of Heights. There’s something very pleasing about looking around a packed out room and seeing an ocean of familiar faces, and even more so when it is set to the soundtrack of some of the finest music available on our favourite label. A jolly good time was had by all.
So that’s quite enough of that. As you can probably tell, I’ve had loads of great moments watching bands in 2015, and I’m glad to have some kind of record of them. The joy of discovery remains the endorphin hit that I chase like a crazed junkie – and stumbling upon bands like Toska, Raketkanon and 48 Hours is more than enough compensation for the bland or unfinished bands I watched, yet whose names recall virtually no memories whatsoever. But whether it’s brand new discoveries or old dependable favourites, watching bands play remains one of few tangible thrill that simply can’t be replicated by sitting on your ass and staring at a screen. I hope that this article might inspire a few of you to get out and see just a few more bands in 2016 than you might have otherwise. And get down nice and early – that group of kids shambling through an opening set could be headlining Brixton ten years from now. Who knows. Make some deposits in your future bank of anecdotes.
I’m taking eight months out from my day job this year, so I think I’m going to set myself a target of either 200 separate bands and/or 300 sets before everything shuts down for Xmas 2016. Who’s with me?