Ålesund and Agata at Trowbridge Town Hall

With Andy gig-galivanting the Vizes this weekend, I trekked to neighbouring Trowbridge, to find mesmerising and enriching vibes at the Town Hall, via Ålesund and Agata; hold my hat, there’s a good fellow……

Just as Jim Crow segregation laws spawned juke-joints, the twentieth century is littered with examples of mainstream music venues unable to stay in touch, and consequently underground scenes progressing and pushing musical boundaries. It’s true for the Mods, frequenting coffee bars when pubs closed early and refused to play jazz, for beatnik outlawed psychedelia, and from Jamaican sound systems to bless ghettos of New York with hip hop.

Late eighties and early nineties Bristol reflected a different party from the paisley clubs of London. Leftover reggae sound systems merged dub back into hip hop, and a subversive scene of downtempo “trip hop” was innate, swamping rave chillout tents, and imaged by supplementary graffiti artists. If worldwide recognition for Banksy puts Bristol on the art map, I deliberate the music clearly rubbed off on a new generation, subsequently resulting in Bristol’s paramount cultural scene today.

I ponder this while a youthful Bristol-based four-piece fill Trowbridge Town Hall with blissful ambience. The band is Agata, based upon the Polish-born singer-songwriter’s name, and they’re only the support act, apparently! I’d blue-in-face argue this gig is a double-biller, not only from Agata’s proficiency to perform, but similarities to the headline, Ålesund, complimented them perfectly.

It’s spellbindingly mellow, even if the sound is stripped of yesteryear’s trip hop beats it maintains shards of electronica’s downtempo mellifluousness, of Massive Attack, and is governed with emotively powerful female vocals, riding me back to Portishead on a drizzly Glastonbury stage of yore. Drums prominent on these wholly and uniquely original pieces, bass and lead guitars sprinkle over the electronica soundscape, caressing Agata’s delicate but emotive and elegant voice. I love Salisbury’s Timid Deer for all the same reasoning.

Gavin Osborn, the town hall’s music and performance programmer is Bristolian, ergo he’s bringing a taste of the city to Trowbridge, which itself has a blossoming post lockdown gig map. Yet if the mass appeal of Gary Kemp deejaying eighties’ dancefloor fillers at the reopened Civic this weekend wasn’t your cup of tea, make your Trow-Vegas sojourn the Pump or Town Hall. There’s a continuous programme of exhibitions, arts and music at the Town Hall and musicians queue orderly for bookings at the Pump.

With music performances set in a characteristic yet intimate setting, gigs are a convivial experience here, one easy to interact with the bands, and you come away feeling part of it rather than a face in the crowd. Agata though would make for a perfect Sunday festival act, and have played Larmer Tree, Dot-to-Dot and Simple Things.

Currently touring a lockdown inspired EP “A Thread in the Dark,” Ålesund likewise, but the similarities don’t end there. Again, a Bristol-based four-piece creatively pasting natural soundscapes into a mellowed original repertoire, with upfront drums, female vocalist on keys, and bass and lead guitars adjoining them. The main difference is only a hint more professionalism than Agata, a tad more powerful voice commands, and more prominence on that mystifying Celtic folk-rock of say, Florence and the Machine.

Alba Torriset fronts the band, explained to me the Norwegian namesake is rooted to her father’s side. She cites Florence as a major influence, alongside Bat for Lashes, but she was eager to indicate Kate Bush to me too, as I nodded approvingly, thinking the same, and pointed to the preponderance of drums akin to Running Up That Hill. Also, her ability to use her voice as a musical instrument, results in a striking performance, as her naturally emotive soothing vocals carries you aboard her journey, equally as Kate Bush could.

On this particular occasion, in the usual drummer’s absence, an apt replacement was found, and boy did she give it her all, causing me to reason she must belong to a more hard-hitting rock band, later confirmed by sound technician Kieran J Moore. And in turn, this was a spellbinding performance. Hypnotically pleasing it cradled their new lockdown inspired songs, as Alba expressed her solace to the tranquillity of the moment, in the absence of industry and traffic she focused on the birdsong, and her writing reflected this, a song called Dawn Chorus particularly inspired from the notion, enthused with subtle birdsong samples in the background.

So yes, yes indeed, a memorable and most enjoyable evening at the Trowbridge Hall; both Ålesund and Agata less hip hop than predecessor Bristol scene acts like Massive Attack, less gothic than All About Eve, and less retrospective dejection than The Strangler’s Golden Brown, or 10CC’s Not in Love, but equally capsulating, emotive and euphoric; just with an uplifting contemporary method, gaging and merging aforementioned influences, future-beautiful. If either of these bands play near you, you’d be a fool to miss them.

As for the Town Hall, next Saturday (20th Nov) night proves not to be so laidback, as another Bristol-based band, IDestroy plans to bring a riotous, all-female party-punk live show to Trowbridge. Kid Carpet, Larkhall, Katherine Priddy all lead up to the new year, when 22nd January sees Gaz Brookfield booked, and com’ ere, there’s more……


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Ride & Oasis Member “Andy Bell” Brings his Space Station tour to Trowbridge

Not only am I old skool enough to recall DJ Sonique singing whilst on the wheels of steel, I’m even so aged to confuse this musician-come-DJ with the namesake of the Erasure frontman. But Sheer promoter, Kieran J Moore is excited with the announcement the frontman of legendary Oxford “showgaze” pioneers, Ride, also called Andy Bell is coming to our county town.

“This is huge deal for me,” self-confessed massive fan of shoegaze and Ride, Kieran, explained, “so being able to bring this Independent Venue Week to a new and very cool venue in our County Town is special.” The reasoning for me bringing up Sonique is that on this Space Station tour, Andy deejays with live guitar, something I must say, is completely original to me.

Ride’s album “Nowhere” will often jostle for top spot in the all-time-shoegaze lists with “Loveless” by My Bloody Valentine. But you may also know him from late 90s indie outfit Hurricane #1 or latterly as the Oasis bassist, joining them for their last four studio albums and finally Liam Gallagher’s post-Oasis band, Beady Eye. He’s also appeared live with Pink Floyd, The Creation, Talk Talk, and The Brian Jonestown Massacre, and has appeared on record as guitarist for Andrew Weatherall, and recently as bass player for Du Blonde. Wherever you know him from, he’s a big figure in the industry, one of Oxford’s finest alumni and a noted figurehead of a scene.

Lockdown project, Andy Bell Space Station started in 2020, when Andy had a residency at Lo-Fi, a coffee shop in Crouch End, where he lives. As a way of reaching people with some form of live music, Andy started streaming performances from the empty coffee shop, playing electric guitar along with reworked versions of backing tracks from his various musical worlds, the backing tracks are deconstructed and extended in a way that makes them easy to improvise over; something I’d be both intrigued and impressed to see for myself.

Andy Bell will be performing his Andy Bell Space Station, at Trowbridge Town Hall on Sunday 6th February 2022, as part of a national campaign called, Independent Venue Week. Set at the end of January every year, the week-long campaign is designed to raise the profile and support independent venues during a period that is traditionally quite quiet.

“This is often done with underplays,” Kieran explained, “where a larger artist than would traditionally play a venue, goes in to give the venue a killer experience. This is also hand in hand with making the events really affordable and accessible.”

Tickets for our Andy Bell Space Station show go on sale this Monday, 15th November via WeGotTickets, priced a paltry £8, and in the spirit of things these gigs are all age too!


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Everything You Are, Onika Venus

You remember being given some coursework, when back in higher education, with various objectives and your task was to choose one to complete? Not really wanting to do it, you go to the student at the top of the class, and ask them what they’ve done. They reply, “ah, not much,” and this gives you the cue to do absolutely nothing. Then, on the day of handing it in, they’ve unexpectedly produced the single-most awesome project, covering all the objectives in one ingenious combination, and you stand there with zilch, except a jaw hanging and an implausible excuse, which you made up on the bus coming in?!

I’d imagine Onika Venus to be just like that. Now Bristol-based, Jamaican-born Onika plays Trowbridge Town Hall on September 18th, so, given reggae is cited as an influence, I thought I’d check out her debut solo album, Everything You Are, which was released back in March.

The title track was chosen as Songsmith’s Song of the Year 2020, and it’s easy to hear why. I’ve not been this blown away by a female vocalist since discovering Minneapolis’s Mayyadda.

Immediately this pushed my buttons, but if this opening title tune is decidedly acoustic blues, with a distant harmonica resounding in the background, there’s a truckload more going on than the first impressions here.

The premise from the beginning is as simple as, Onika Venus has the prevailing soulful voice to carry whatever genre is thrown into the melting pot, and drizzle it over you like hot sauce. It only leaves you pondering how far she will take it. The second tune I pigeonholed as RnB pop, a contemporary Macy Gray or Erykah Badu, aiming for chart success. When I’m Broken carries this concept to a higher height, and is simply, the model formula of popular music every song should aim for.

Yet, three songs in and here comes the Caribbean influence. Friday Love has a clear mento feel, it’s immediately beguiling, a good-time chugging song in the face the despondent romance theme. This will occur again towards the middle the album with Who’s Been loving You. Again, with Shotgun there’s similar appeal, perhaps the most definable as “roots reggae,” and, for me, they’re the favoured sections.

But it swaps back to the mainstay for track four, steady soul with an orchestrated ambience; Everything has its Season, is the ideal equilibrium to bless that heavenly voice and compose this euphoric moment of bliss. After a surprising modern dancehall intro, we’re back to an acoustic guitar riff for the poignant The Storm, using sax to mitigate jazz. I Need You, though, has kick-ass funk, Ike & Tina Turner in their prime.

With only three tunes to go, just when you think influences have been exhausted, there’s a duet with a male voice, supplied by husband, Mark, Mary, sounds classic Americana, as if Joe Cocker just walked into the studio and said, why don’t you try this?!

To keep you guessing what the last couple of tunes will hold, yeah, folk is strapped onto soul, Reaper Man aches of Aretha Franklin, but by this point you just know Onika Venus can carry this off with bells on. Raising the bar of comparisons is justified, believe me. For when it’s funky I’d give you Randy Crawford, Chaka Khan, and when it levels with acoustic and folk, her voice dishes out notions of reggae heroines, of Phyllis Dillon or Marcia Griffiths, and the gospel finale, yeah, Aretha will be justified, if not Sister Rosetta Tharpe; it is this magnificent.

Yet, unlike all these aforementioned legends, the style here is not monocultured, neither does it jerk from genre to genre without consistency and flow. Onika Venus gives volumes to the eclecticism, and it moulds efficaciously into one melting pot, beautifully. Prior to this solo launch, in a band called Slyde, her voice customised their breakbeat, techno and house style, to great effect, and I can well believe it. The flexibility of her skill is captured here, I’d imagine as comprehensively as she chooses personally, and just as the student who bursts in effortlessly, with the homework complete and to an exceptional standard, Onika Venus makes this look easy!


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Up to Trowbridge for Some Miller-Art

Halfway up the grand staircase of Trowbridge Town Hall, where it splits into left or right, my daughter, permanently two paces ahead of me, asked me which way now. I’d noted a sign to the art exhibit I’ve been aching to check out, so I called it. Problem was, the show is called “Up,” to which her only rejoinder could’ve been, “yes, I know it’s up, but which way?!!”

If I had reservations about the unpredictably positive response in asking if she wanted to come, being sports is her thing and creativity perhaps not so much, it was only that she might drag me around Usain-Bolt-going-for-gold fashion. Key to my pitch was that, essentially, the most appropriate movement in which to pigeonhole artist Tom Miller was street art, secondarily only to the fact she was “bored, with nothing better to do anyway!”

But it’s not her incentive on entry which is important here, rather her reaction inside the exhibit, and if she enjoyed it, which she did, anyone with a mere slither of a passing interest in art will we wowed by this show. For me, it was up my street and knocking loudly on my door.

Native to Trowbridge, Tom Miller exhibits at his hometown until 20th August, not long left to pay it a worthy visit. For yeah, Miller typically uses spray paint as street artists do, but only as a base for these canvases. He thickly layers acrylics and oils over it, amalgamating mediums as much as influences, in explosions of colour and meticulous and intricate detail. The result is staggering.

Swirls of psychedelia snake your eyes across them, akin to underground comix or yore, and in particular S. Clay Wilson. They can be themed darkly, with elements of cyberpunk, or lighter, fine art, impressionism is at play too. Yet there’s a nod to pop art, capturing humorous elements, wide-ranging themes from flowers to ice creams, and contemporary cultural icons, such as The Simpsons can be discovered on closer examination. Then, as you pan out, you begin to focus on a central point, the composition vortexes into a subject, often random, but themed to suit the surroundings. It is also a clear running concept to repeat the central subject atop the first, but slightly smaller in scale, and perhaps the topper most of one below, larger, like a play with a hall of mirrors.

Apt to mention a hall of mirrors, as there’s generally something fairground going on here, if the repetition of the central subject is cubist, it would be like viewing cubist art whilst on the waltzer. On a few occasions the subject can feel tangible, as fine art, expressionism, but with Miller’s style brashly expanding the realms of normality, somewhere along the lines. For this, and the running theme of these scaled duplications, Edvard Munch meets Marcel Duchamp in Salvador Dali’s studio, as the lines of expressionism, futurism and surrealism blur into dada in such a way only pop artists could’ve dreamed of.

But, as I said, if your knowledge of art doesn’t stretch to the influences and movements I’ve cited, none of it really matters, as why I contemplated René Magritte, my daughter also examined the concepts and discovered subjects. Like a Where’s Wally book, you could circle this exhibit twenty times and still discover something you’d not noticed before in these canvases.

Added to the pieces, there’s some sublime charcoal sketches, showing his workings and thought process. There’s also a bio, with printed matter showing the various private commissions and frescos which obviously couldn’t come to the exhibit, for quintessentially, Miller is a street artist, and in Bristol and round and about Trowbridge there’s some excellent examples. The brilliant finale to this show is, once you’ve left, you can make a beeline to Stallard Street to find such a wall with Miller’s art displayed, and in the same ethos as what’s on display inside. This added an extra dimension to the enthralling exhibit.

Plus, I’m pleased to say, Usain-Bolt had no influence over my daughter’s pace through the show, she took her time, examined everything and came out with some exceptionally precise observations. This is ideal to enthuse a non-art lover equally as much as one who is, as good street art does, but with the extra dimension of this influx of various art movement influences. Go see it, but hurry; it’s only running until 20th August!

Not forgoing Trowbridge Town Hall is a friendly place, where I gossiped and namedropped to the man on reception. There’s a vast and amazing array of events planned over the coming months, from the yoga classes to the PSG Choir and from Moo Moo Music for little ones to an impressive gig line up from the likes of Will Lawton & the Alchemists on 11th September, Onika Venus on 18th, Juice Menace on 25th, and on the list goes on….


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