LIVE REVIEW: Brave Exhibitions @ The Cluny/The Cluny 2, Newcastle (19-21.11.21) | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Image: Me Lost Me by Adam Littlemore

Words: Lee Fisher, Ali Welford

Anyone attempting to put on a gig at the moment – let alone a packed three-day festival – is braver than me. Between the Covid anxiety, the last-minute band cancellations, the generally shabby mental state of much of the audience and more, things aren’t optimal. So it’s a huge credit to the Brave Exhibitions team that they created – and held together, in spite of everything – a weekend of brilliant music that managed to be creatively programmed, diverse as fuck and just general a retort to what feels like a return of the lad-pleasing bro-fests that are fucking everywhere. (It’s sad to report that a cheer/jeer that broke out when one female singer removed her top suggests that elements of the audience have some catching up to do.)


Brave Exhibitions’ third edition kickstarts with a Friday line-up that’s as a much hostile auditory assault as a celebratory curtain raiser. Sure, there’s a Part Chimp-shaped hole following their withdrawal due to personal loss, yet this slim three-strong bill offers no shortage of decibels to atone for the London riff-masters’ absence. Certainly, there’s no question of easing in when you set out with No Teeth, who drop a typically snotty, rabble-rousing dollop of stupidity before shooting off to Sheffield to record their latest single. Although it’s one of their more coherent showings of recent months, this is still a gloriously absurd, obnoxious omnishambles; the six-piece evidently no wiser than their audience as to which key they’re supposed to be playing in.

Next up are Blóm, playing their first local show since the release of blistering debut album Flower Violence back in May 2020. A bruising reminder of the trio’s raw, visceral power, the jet-fuelled likes of Meat and Be Kind are invigorated further by fresh, unfriendly licks of distortion, particularly around the fringes of Helen Walkinshaw’s already-piercing vocal. There’s new material debuted too, offering tantalising glimpses of melody before Erika Leaman and Zach McDade – surely the region’s most ferocious drum and bass combo – crush any advance with the impenetrable ruthlessness of a pneumatic press. It’s a searing, triumphant return – though an even more full-frontal battery immediately follows in the form of Petbrick. Pairing a skull-excavating industrial synth barrage with one of the most relentlessly artless shows of caveman drumming we’re ever likely to witness, the unlikely pairing of Sepultura’s founding sticksman Igor Cavalera and harsh noise fiend Wayne Adams (Big Lad, Death Pedals) spawns a nausea-inducing sonic nightmare; completely, unequivocally horrible, and unrepentedly so. (AW)


While Saturday’s eclectic full-day bill promises further eardrum-busting debauchery, proceedings begin in more genial fashion thanks to the bright, generous craft of Ruth Lyon. Together with her band, the emerging songwriter provides an eminently enjoyable showcase of recent EP Nothing’s Perfect, conjuring joyous, celebratory odes to such wholesome lockdown activities as getting shitfaced and eating burgers on the couch. William Denton Wilde, meanwhile, embellishes his love of goth and new wave with the dense, fuzzy coating of his own trio (himself, his bass and a tablet drum machine) – a trademark sound to match his usual gown, leather trouser and stiletto attire.

Challenging Petbrick for the weekend’s most apt band name, Ballpeen qualify as Brave Exhibitions stalwarts, having appeared at all three events to date. This year’s showing perhaps isn’t their most impactful, but even off-colour their serrated brand of post-hardcore dishes out hefty blows aplenty. Less familiar are infectious trio Pretty Grim – a Birmingham supergroup of sorts featuring members of Youth Man, Dorcha and VICTOR. A true multidisciplinary collaboration, their performance blends vocal and synth duties in an ecstatically received triumvirate, with Kaila Whyte, Anna Palmer and Meesha Fones each brandishing their own idiosyncrasies in terrific industrial synth stew. For what it’s worth, Cardiff’s Obey Cobra could perhaps use a slice of their coherence. There’s plenty of solid material lurking beneath the gothic lighting which clouds the six-piece’s set, but little in the way of binding threads to connect each number. They’d doubtless prove adept vendors of weighty riffs, mechanised post-punk or Cocteaus-esque dream-pop – but in supplying all three, their promise too often left to languish in an unfulfilled stylistic muddle. (AW)

Two of Saturday’s acts felt hamstrung by vocals that didn’t quite live up to the music. Andrew Hung’s set was full of interesting and powerful electronics – tribal percussion, banging loops, some proper Steinman maximalism, nods to Sleng Teng and – I think – Front 242’s Headhunter, but his voice felt underpowered and thin. This might create an interesting tension on record but live it didn’t quite work. Similarly, Copenhagen duo Evil House Party came correct with some glorious big-room rave stabs and darkside FX (and some excellent matching tops) but the vocals were a little too nineties dance-pop (and at times, a little too flat). Meanwhile Maltese-via-Brighton outfit Genn were a slightly bewildering proposition all round – a tight, vaguely gothy post-punk band with a lot of impressively hefty low-end, fronted by a singer who seemed a little too mannered – big gestures and poses, just a tad Bono in places. But there’s potential.

Also touched by the hand of goth was Nuha Ruby Ra, who performed with just two mics and an energy and honesty that suggests trauma, defiance and all the right post-punk/industrial bangers in her collection. It takes courage to perform in such an exposed way. I’ve seen Bonnacons Of Doom a few times and the same problem persists: the band deliver a great space-is-deep, repetitive-riff proggy noise rock that really gets the blood up but singer Kate Evans just doesn’t add anything, her voice a distraction from the excellent ruckus the band are working up behind her.

The new discovery of the day for me and a few others in the room was Birmingham duo Matters. With Brid frowning in concentration over a toppling stack of electronics and Stuart-Lee adding a series of sinewy guitar textures, they sounded phenomenal. Cleverly constructed, minimal but consuming, a glorious assault of loops, Moogs and shuffling hi-hats. They would sound equally at home in a blacked-out Corsica Studios as they did at the Cluny, Stunning stuff.

For my money, Gnod have been one of the finest live acts in the country for a long time now and reports from earlier in the tour suggested they were on furious form. And so it proved. The two-drummer line-up seems to be standard for the time being, and there’s not much more enjoyable than watching two people thrash the shit out of their kit in unison. Nominal frontman Paddy Shine – who warned me before the gig to expect their ‘pop set’ – was in a fierce yet playful mood, dancing and swaying around between spitting out barbed lyrics, and the bass was fucking ridiculous as usual, so much so that even fairly high-end earplugs weren’t cutting it. Gnod manage to mix up absolutely brutal noise-rock, PiL-influenced dub, the improvisation and expansiveness of kosmische and the dynamics of techno and come up with something uplifting, confrontational and life-affirming, the very apotheosis of the ugly/beautiful dynamic. It seems that having lasted 10 days of touring COVID-free, their luck ran out in Newcastle so we should be doubly grateful for their set. (LF)


Undoubtedly the most engaging audiovisual proposition of the weekend, Shelly Knotts’ densely constructed collage of experimental synth is backed by live coding, projected in real-time directly from her laptop screen. It’s a fascinating insight (even if it’s all completely above my head), and ensures that when blemishes and mishaps do occur, they – and their digital sources – are no less transfixing than the sonic brew she’s spent the past 20 minutes stirring into shape. (AW)

For the slightly fragile, there could have been no better start to the third day than SL Walkinshaw, who offered a really thoughtful spoken introduction to a gorgeous set of soothing, immersive analogue joy, using samples, field recordings and loops to call to mind everyone from Grouper to Fridge and creating such a bucolic, honeyed vibe that lying down and closing your eyes suddenly seemed deeply tempting. It was heartbreaking to hear that Mariam Rezaei’s highly anticipated turntablist performance was scuppered by our failing transport system but Late Girl – another new discovery for me – was an absolute delight. An intriguing blend of sparkling, music box electronics, plaintive vocals and spoken word snippets, and backed by some absorbing Koyaanisqatsi-esque visuals, the set overcame some tech issues to become one of the weekend’s most lovely. Me Lost Me also had some battles with awkward tech to overcome (in this case a wilful Mini Moog) but did so with an amused good grace that was fully in keeping with her calm, beautiful music. Solo performers with electronics seemed to outnumber the guitars by some distance this weekend but Me Lost Me’s set was a masterclass in how to do it right: rich clear vocals, inventive and original loops, almost a gently folk horror Coil vibe in places. Folk runs right through her music but there’s a strength in her songwriting that displays an almost pop sensibility.

Birmingham’s Blue Ruth – who I’d seen previously in Youth Man but also played yesterday in Pretty Grim – hadn’t, by their own admission, been having a good day, and a malfunctioning MIDI box made the first part of their set a little chaotic, something they dealt with in a charming, self-effacing way. Things came together for the last couple of tunes, where some genuinely unsettling, glacial electronics and gnarly guitar samples coupled with alternately brooding, soulful vocals and a conversational, near-rapped style made for a really impressive end. Sofa King brought the abstract, glitchy electronics and some nicely sleazy bass loops (and a jar of Vaseline) for a set that didn’t quite land for me until a slightly perplexing onslaught of bangers at the end. Astrid Sonne appears to come from a classical background, and there was a carefully constructed austerity to her sombre synths and melancholy, frail vocals. A mostly quite affecting set although the occasional guitar contributions never felt essential.

Smote are the sound of the Tyneside Space Programme, Hawkwind on quaaludes, Major Tom on mogadon. Their brand of astral noise-rock is less prevalent than it was a few years back, and that’s probably a good thing overall, but Smote still fucking rock and it’s cool they’ve ended up on Rocket Recordings. Between the rumbling rhythm section and the overlapping wailing guitars, it’s a fucking blast and even the never-acceptable flute moments are in merely homeopathic amounts so they don’t fuck up the interstellar trajectory.

Curl is a new-ish project featuring lauded musician/soundtrack composer Mica Levi alongside Coby Sey and Brother May in a guitar, drums, bass/keys configuration that proved to be an interesting, abstract collision of jazz, gnarly indie rock and UK hip-hop. At times it felt like it lacked a little focus, but it was bursting with ideas, and was especially enjoyable when the low-end lurches were to the fore in a demented blues that evoked everyone from Jesus Lizard to The Birthday Party.

The expectant atmosphere for homecoming hero Richard Dawson’s set – ramped up by a cleared-out venue and queues to get back in – was electric, and Dawson obviously felt it himself, acknowledging his anxiety early on. But from the opening, heartrending Joe The Quiltmaker, it was clear everything would be better than fine. With him was The Amber Cat (absurdly accomplished, Manchester-based jazz and session drummer Andrew Cheetham) who added a dexterity and heft to Dawson’s guitar and even finished off a rousing Civil Servant with an honest-to-goodness drum solo. Dawson was clearly enjoying the duo set-up, throwing himself into some gloriously frantic exchanges. In a set that leaned heavily on 2020, he found time to talk about Iris Murdoch, mental health, his disdain for joggers and (almost) about an early sexual awakening involving chips.

There was much sharing across the weekend between festival goers who have had a rough couple of years, and Brave Exhibitions often felt like a coming together of the anxious and fragile. As ever, Richard Dawson felt like a lightning rod for all the collective damage, and the love in that room – for him and for each other – was huge. Normally I make it to Ogre (tonight’s closer) before my steely resolve collapses but tonight it took only the first verse of Jogging (“my hit single”) to see me break out in big, ugly gulping sobs, the whole thing so relatable. And it’s in that ability to fuse the profane and the humane, Sunday football and the soul, chips and tragedy and love, that Richard Dawson’s power resides. (LF)

Image: Richard Dawson by Lee Fisher

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