Saturday, 29 July 2017

Gig Review: Level Up Festival 2017 Day Three 23/7/17

It was time for third and final day of, hopefully, the first of many Level Up Festivals at the New Cross Inn in South East London. The first two days had already surpassed all expectations but today was the big one - today was Big D day - with a rediculous line up that again started at 2.30(ish) and again featured some great acoustic acts down in the New Cross Inn basement. Feeling energised, Emma and I arrived at the pub early for the band tasked with the job of opening the show…

That first act were a band that CPRW's Dan has been raving about for a little while, Just Say Nay. As is often the problem for ska bands, it was a bit of a struggle to fit all eight members of the band on stage. To solve this problem singer Jak jumped down to the floor to have a dance with the crowd. For probably the first time this weekend, the crowd (myself included) were having an early skank with the band. Just Say Nay play an up-tempo ska punk that is full of irresistible horn lines. The band is clearly full of exceptional musicians but bassist Leo really stood out to me as he played some fantastic bass lines throughout the set. The song Bouncer was a particular highlight as well as the inclusion of a section of Cabin Fever from my favourite Muppets film, Muppet Treasure Island.

I hadn't seen Call Me Malcolm since 2015 when they supported Random Hand at the very same New Cross Inn. The five piece continued the good work that Just Say Nay had started by getting more and more people skanking along. Something I had forgotten from the previous time that I saw Call Me Malcolm was just what good singers all three vocalists in the band are. They provided some absolutely first class harmonies that were just a sonic treat to the ears. Musically Call Me Malcolm were bang on form and the between song banter was very entertaining. Call Me Malcolm are bloody great, I shouldn't have gone two years without seeing them!

Wales seems to be a factory for producing great reggae bands. After Cardiff's Captain Accident & The Disasters the day before, it was time for Swansea's Tree House Fire to bring the summer vibes to South London. Like Captain Accident & The Disasters, Tree House Fire are a band that really need to be seen outside on a hot summers day. I've seen the five piece a few times over the past few years and each time I've been very impressed. This however was the best I've seen them. There appeared to be more of a confident swagger in the band, as you can imagine the performance was slick with every member of the band (as well as Winston, the band's invisible horn player) playing their instruments perfectly. There was some nice crowd participation for the song Mr Aggressor but of course the highlights of the set were Dutty Girl and Rock To The Rhythm.

Saturday and Sunday saw the addition of another stage in the basement of the New Cross Inn, also known as Stocks Bar, for some bonus acoustic and/or folk-influenced artists. Given that that sort of thing tends to be the direction that my punk rock music tastes are most inclined, we decided that reviewing the basement would be my (Emma’s) job – shown in italic.

Hassan Afaneh is best known for being the vocalist and guitarist of Triple Sundae, a band who have graced the main stage of the New Cross Inn on numerous occasions. In fact, we saw him doing just that just a week before. Stripped back however, the Triple Sundae songs were taken to another level. I always like seeing Triple Sundae, the band, live but I feel like the songs were somehow easier to connect with in acoustic format. Said Triple Sundae songs were enjoyed well enough by the basement crowd but we were also treated to a cameo appearance from Cereal Box Heroes’ Conor for the only ska cover Hassan knew how to play which went down a storm – I must apologise because I don’t know what it was, but it was certainly good fun.

Jungleproof were playing their first show outside of Belgium at Level Up Festival. What a place to do it! They definitely had more of a punk style than the previous bands of the day but still managed to pack in plenty of horns, including a tuba, into their sound. Again the energy was high and the crowd were really getting into it. I loved that all these bands from Belgium, and one special one from France (more on them soon), came over to play the festival. The Belgium ska punk scene is apparently very strong. One moment that was particularly entertaining during Jungleproof's set was when a small circle pit started around one lady at the front of the crowd. One of those brilliantly silly moments that you only encounter at a ska/punk show.

Millie Manders is a name I’ve heard/seen many a time in the UK ska and punk scene but she’s not an artist who I’d actually seen before. And so, all the more reason to check out her solo set at Level Up! Armed with just a ukulele – I believe she usually plays with a full band – Millie Manders was greeted by many eager fans, and probably a few soon-to-be fans like myself. Despite apparently suffering from a cold, I can easily say that this lady had the best set of vocal cords of the whole festival. Her drinking game song went down particularly well with the New Cross Inn crowd but songs about dealing with anxiety and homelessness were also attentively received. And a bonus lesser known Bob Marley cover was also thrown in at the end of her set. Great stuff.

If one set was guaranteed to be the most emotional of the weekend it was The Pisdicables. For those unaware the band's organ player, Mike Crampton, sadly passed away earlier this year and Level Up Festival would be the band's first gig back. The Pisdicables are a band that I've wanted to catch live for a little while and, whilst it is sad for the first time to be in such a circumstance, the band completely blew me away. With help from some Just Say Nay horn players, The Pisdicables went through their set of ska/reggae punk tunes with great aplomb. I was so impressed with Alex Gowchi's vocal performance. Unlike many ska punk bands there was an element of barroom sing-a-longs amongst the up-tempo skanking fun which I really enjoyed. Something else you don't see in many ska bands (if any? I can't remember ever seeing this before) is a harmonica player. This added a different element to the Pisdicables sound that worked brilliantly. One of the highlights of the whole weekend (and there were many) and once they had finished The Pisdicables probably got the biggest applause of the entire weekend as well.

Probably one of the more out of place additions to the Level Up line-up was the final act to appear in the New Cross Inn basement, Giles Bidder of Great Cynics fame. Great Cynics are a band synonymous with south east London but perhaps not so much in the ska scene – although drummer Bob does also happen to play in the mighty JB Conspiracy. Playing a ska show clearly didn’t phase Giles as he flied through Great Cynics songs with confidence and force, trying his best to keep his volume above that of the noisy bar. And if his original songs, or ramblings about how nice the sunshine outside (despite being in a basement), didn’t hook every member of the audience then the fine Great Cynics hit that is Brimful Of Asha (just kidding, it’s a cover) probably did. It was odd to see Giles at a primarily ska festival but we enjoyed his performance nonetheless.

Now, about that French band… it was only P.O. Box! I've loved this band for years but have never seen them live before. The one time I had the opportunity I got quite sick beforehand and missed out. Witnessing them live was well overdue. The seven piece are now veterans of the game and had such a confidence and swagger on the stage, they knew they now owned the room as soon as they got started. Like Jungleproof, P.O.Box play more of a punkier style of ska punk but also throw in a bit of reggae influence for good measure. Of course they quickly won the crowd other with the Belgium contingent in the crowd particularly enjoying the band. I got the impression that not that many people were massively aware of who P.O. Box were but this certainly didn't stop the room having a dance with the band. At one point the biggest circle pit of the entire weekend (so far) opened up as more and more people started moving. The highlight of the set was the final song, Look What You Have Done, which got a big sing-a-long moment courtesy of the "whoa-oh" sections of the track. This is my favourite P.O. Box song so I loved that they ended with it. P.O. Box were well worth the wait.

The penultimate band of the weekend were a band that could have easily headlined it. London based UK ska punk heroes, The JB Conspiracy, have been going for absolutely ages now and are always guaranteed to put on a fantastic show. This was my first time seeing JB in over a year but it felt like much longer. The thing that's really helped JB stand out from many of their contemporaries over the years is those incredible horn lines. They are definitely some of the best in the genre. They really do this fantastic job of driving the band forward and give off this energy that overflowed into the New Cross crowd. And the New Cross Inn is getting incredibly rowdy now. By this point of the weekend I'm aching all over so how people still have the energy to skank, mosh, dance, crowd surf or whatever else is beyond me. I guess this is the influence that JB's music has on people and it doesn't take long for this influence to hit me. Despite my body feeling quite broken I find myself dancing along with a stupid grin on my face. The set is full of fan favourites from both JB albums, This Machine and The Storm. They also gave a bit of a tease regarding the album This Machine that we should keep an eye out for. By this point when you have the conversation about the greatest ever UK ska punk bands, The JB Conspiracy should be high on your list.

Finally it was time for the final band of the weekend. Incredibly the Level Up crew had managed to book ska punk superstars Big D and the Kids Table. This would be their first ever London headline show that wasn't at the Camden Underworld. This was a pretty big deal! When they were first announced it served as a big statement of intent that the Level Up guys weren't messing around. This was going to be a huge festival. Everyone, and rightly so, was so excited to see Big D and the Kids Table. For me they emphasise what being a DIY band is all about and, like their motto states, they're "built up from nothing." Along with posessing some of the best songs in ska, they are one of the best live acts around. Front man David McWane is hard to ignore as he bounds round the stage singing classic after classic. With such a stacked discography behind them it's a guarantee that you'll love everything they play. I know I did anyway. The set started out with the first nine songs from the Big D classic Strictly Rude, an album that is celebrating its ten year anniversary this year. It was cool to hear some of my all time favourites such as Shining On, Souped Up Vinyl, Hell On Earth and Try Out Your Voice live. Other highlights included covers of Little Bitch and Wailing Paddle, President (which I don't think I've ever seen live before) and of course L.A. X. Twenty years into their career now and it's obvious that the Boston band are still one of the best ska punk bands in the world. What a show!

What a weekend! Paul and Michael from Be Sharp, Chris from Fishlock Promotions and Jason from El Topo Bookings deserve all of the credit in the world for putting on such a fantastic weekend. It's a DIY festival so you generally expect chaos and confusion at times but this was never the case. The whole weekend ran pretty smoothly. I was so impressed with the sound all weekend as well. Setting up a ska band must be one the most daunting things for a sound technician to deal with, (so many horns, so many mics) but the New Cross Inn's sound people were just superb and are the unsung heroes of the weekend - along with the bar staff. I hope Level Up Festival isn't a one and done idea, I hope it continues for years to come. For as long as it goes on, I have a feeling that we'll be attending.

If you need further convincing of how awesome Level Up was, watch this.

This gig review was written by Colin Clark and Emma Prew.