REVIEW: Beacon Calling

In the space of a week Bristol Beacon produced an eclectic festival of music at a variety of venues in the city. Freestyle Bristol sent our writers out to sample the artists on offer.

Words: Libby Smith, Fran Pope & Delroy Hibbert

Gretchen Peters / Kim Richey
St Georges. 26/08/22

Words: Delroy Hibbert

My first night out and I’m at St George’s for a slice of Nashville in the shape of Gretchen Peters supported by Kim Richey.

Ms Richey tells us it’s not the first time she has visited these shores and the rapport she has with the packed out venue suggests that most of the audience is as familiar with her works as they are with Gretchen Peters. Each song is introduced with an anecdote and warmly received. At 30 minutes it’s a short but sweet set showcasing a selection of her back catalogue and influences.

Gretchen Peters walks onto the stage to applause and the tension of anticipation from her waiting audience. She and her band go straight into their set and fill the hall with her unique soulful sound of Americana.

Having recently listened to her live album The Show (some tracks recorded in this very hall) I know what to expect but it’s still a pleasure to hear these songs live. It’s her last tour she announces as she is retiring from the live circuit and tonight she bids us farewell.

Kim Richey continues her UK tour with dates throughout September.

Blue Bendy / Cola
Rough Trade 26/08/22

Words: Fran Pope

Nothing builds suspense like an empty chair on stage. Blue Bendy’s vocalist Arthur Nolan arrived a few minutes after his bandmates (cue banter about where he might be) and took up position – probably the first alt-rock vocalist I’ve ever seen begin a set sitting on a chair. But Blue Bendy aren’t quite like other bands, in ways that are hard to put your finger on. 

Blue Bendy. Image: Fran Pope @senfa_copper

Minus their synth player Olivia Morgan, the band were still five-strong, and they built an expansive and complex sound. Shifty, precise drumming underpinned the constantly restless tracks, with time signatures that morphed the second we got the hang of them: I ended up standing completely still, just because my own (mediocre) sense of rhythm couldn’t keep up. Their songs wheeled around in unpredictable shapes and finished unexpectedly. Guitarists Harrison Charles and Joe Nash kept up an interesting back and forth, spilling patterns, weaving agile riffs.

But the real crux of Blue Bendy’s fascinating oddness came from Arthur, whose lyrics and wild delivery drove the whole sound with an urgent, dazzled energy. His was a voice with a resonant depth, sometimes shifting its weight into sharp-tongued spoken word, occasionally unleashed into a scream that coursed with such a current, it’s a wonder no one got electrocuted. Trackwise, my personal favourite Spain was cutting and fun, while A Celebration slid periodically into poundingly, punchingly heavy segments and wild spin-outs of noise.

Formed in 2017, with members from Scunthorpe and south London, the band is now London-based and firmly establishing itself in the scene. Following several releases, including Glosso Babel/International and A Celebration, their debut EP Motorbike came out in February 2022.

Live, Blue Bendy exuded raw emotion and their expression was searingly fresh and surprising to the very end of the set. I still can’t quite wrap my head around them – which, in the world of up-and-coming guitar bands, I think is a pretty valuable thing.

Blue Bendy play Brixton’s Windmill on September 9 and Leicester’s Wide Eyed Festival on September 17 (tickets here).

Check out Blue Bendy on Bandcamp to stream and buy their music, follow them on Instagram, or head to their Link Tree for videos and merch.

With a shift in mood, Canadian art-punk trio Cola took us on a bright, deceptively breezy spin through their musical world. Guitar and vocalist Tim Darcy, bassist Ben Stidworthy and drummer Evan Cartwright, from Toronto and Montreal, brought clean shapes and crisp, uplifting rhythms – a groove you could fall right into – which belied the tight-twisted light and shadow of their lyrics. 

Cola are a part-reformulation of Montreal post-punk outfit Ought who went their separate ways in 2021, leaving many fans bereft. Members Tim and Ben continued to play music together, this time with Evan on drums, and Cola was formed. The new band is very much its own thing, with a quite different approach; still, several of the audience members at Rough Trade had been Ought fans and seemed excited to catch this new configuration, different or not.

Their sound was bright and melodic with danceable chords and bouncy, fluid bass. With only three instruments, each one really shone to satisfying, pared-down effect. With their polished delivery and very much at ease on stage, Cola didn’t say much, just got straight on with the tunes – and the crowd dived straight in with them. There was nonetheless something irrepressibly warm and open about their music, which felt totally without affectation.

On one level it was zesty, fun and easy on the ear; at the same time, the frank lyrics took aim at several of the knotty snares of modern life, especially the superficiality that can leave us empty: “The blank curtain, what’s on the other side?” – “Peace will come, peace will come out in the wash, it’s not enough” and the physical trappings of modern life: “I feel abrasions like a seawall feels the rain, this city looks like dirty teeth, I do not mind” – “Out of nowhere, satisfied, tattooed and starry-eyed.”

Cola play in Edinburgh on August 30, Glasgow on August 31, and Larmer Tree Gardens and End of the Road festival on September 1, 2022. More dates and links to all tickets can be found on their website; you can also stream and buy music on Cola’s Bandcamp and keep up with their news on Instagram.

Tank & The Bangas / The Suffers
The Fleece 29/08/22

Words: Delroy Hibbert

Gig number three sees me heading into the Centre on a Thursday evening for a night that couldn’t be more different from the last one. Tank & The Bangas have left their base in New Orleans to promote their new album Red Balloon but as we arrive the noise is being made by the support act The Suffers

Hailing from Houston this seven piece plays a danceable mix of soul, disco and all things funky with a solid Latin feel to several of the bands tracks. The audience are feeling their modern but retro sound, which reminds me of the likes of Mick Jenkins or The Gabriels, calling for more at the end of each song.

Kam Franklin, band’s lead vocalist, has a huge, warm voice and the seven piece are accomplished musicians having fun and it shows. The genres mix and I swear I even detect old school GoGo in one of their songs. 

One thing not easily coming across is the depth of feeling within the socially conscious lyrics of some of their newer songs but it’s not their fault entirely as the sound quality in the venue itself tonight is terrible but such is the fate of the warm up slot! If you do get a chance though, do check this band out.

The Suffers new album It Starts With Love is on general release. 

We’re outside finishing half time drinks when Tank & The Bangas take to the stage however the roar from the audience seems to pick us up and drag us inside with the rest of the straggler posse. The one thing this series of gigs from Bristol Beacon has shown me is the hidden depths to American music away from the usual hitsvilles of New York & LA.

Tonight’s headliners are a seven piece from New Orleans both visibly and audibly striking. The Suffers before them have done the job they were asked to and warmed up not just the crowd it seems but also the speakers as the sound has improved markedly.

This is not the first time to these shores and they have their fans some of whom have also caught them more recently on the festival circuit. One tells me that she first saw them back in 2017 as part of the Tiny Desk series and is seeing them live for the first time.

Nominated for a Grammy for Best New Artist in 2020, Tank is Tarriona Ball and her bandmates are The Bangas. Together they are similar in sound to The Roots, but funkier and with a hard hitting female vocalist who sings, raps and delivers spoken word with ease over their tracks. 

Like their fellow performers tonight the band also mix humour with social consciousness in their lyrics, especially those from the new album.

It’s a tight set and then the band have finished their set and left the stage all too soon. They are generous enough to respond to the noise made by the audience demanding one more tune; we do indeed get an encore, and they are gone.

Brandy Clark / Alex Hall
St George’s 29/08/22

Words: Libby Smith

At the beginning of the week, I had the pleasure of experiencing an evening filled with incredible country music being showcased in the venue of St Georges, Bristol. Having never been a listener of country music, I went into this gig unsure of what to expect and if I would even enjoy it, but that quickly dissipated from my mind as I went on a journey through the lives of these artists and the way they wore their hearts on their sleeves through songwriting, and when I left the venue at the end, the world had one more country music fan in it.

Alex Hall. Image: Libby Smith @myfavouritedays

I made my way to my assigned seat and watched as the venue began to slowly fill up with excited fans, chattering amongst each other and waiting for the show to begin, and as everyone settled in, the lights dimmed and the talented Alex Hall took to the stage to warm everyone up for Brandy Clark.

Hailing from Gainesville, Georgia, it was clear that Hall’s raw and perfected talent in singing and guitar playing was the reason why he had gone from playing bars and restaurants in his hometown, to a room full of fans in Bristol. His voice echoed throughout the whole room, sharing stories about love, loss, and a few covers in between. It was easy to see from the start that he had strong links to Elvis’ music and overall style, whilst also making his own music sound modern and unique within the country scene.

His voice was incredibly emotive and left everyone silent and focusing all their attention on his performance. This, combined with the perfect acoustics and lighting in the venue itself made for one of the most intimate gigs I had ever experienced. I loved listening as Hall shared songs about his wife and where he grew up, and I was feeling thankful that I had the opportunity to experience a genre that I had no real knowledge of, yet had been incredibly moved by.

As he said his goodbyes, the once quiet and attentive crowd erupted into cheers and claps, showing that everyone was equally as impressed as I was, and as he left the stage, the excitement in the air began to rise for the next act.

After the half an hour break in between the two performers, the room once again began to quickly buzz with energy, the lights dimmed once more and the one and only Brandy Clark strolled onto the stage, being met with a wave of applause as she picked up her guitar and her charming smile lit up the room.

Brandy Clark & band. Image: Libby Smith @myfavouritedays

Having listened to Clark running up to the event, I could tell that she was a star in the country music scene, being a ten time Grammy nominee, and racking up millions of streams and fans across different platforms, as well as writing some highly influential songs for others such as Miranda Lambert and Kasey Musgraves. She’s also recognised for being an openly queer country musician, something that has become an inspiring step in building the LGBTQ+ scene within the genre.

Growing up in Nashville, it was immediately clear that her life up to this point had been poured into her music, each song telling a detailed story or ingrained memory, whether it was positive or negative. The entire performance took everyone on a journey through what felt like the intimate pages of her diary, and it was easy to see why she was such a respected songwriter across the world. 

Throughout her hour and a half performance, an assortment of emotions ran through me as each story was told to the beautiful sounds of the guitar, double bass and harmonica, played by her and her two fellow musicians on stage. Every second of her performance was captivating, and not only a pleasure to watch and listen to, but also created a visual storyline in my mind, that made this stranger standing on the stage before me, feel like a close friend who I’d known all my life, and that is a very rare talent.

As the final song played out and Brandy thanked the crowd, she was welcomed with a standing ovation of shouts, smiles, and even some tears were shed. As the crowd slowly spilled out of St Georges, the air was filled with contentment and love for the performances we had collectively seen, and I made my way home feeling fulfilled, grateful, and humming the songs all the way back.

 Xenia Rubinos / Jemima Coulter
Strange Brew 30/08/22

Words: Fran Pope

Tonight’s support act, Bristol indie-folk artist Jemima Coulter, delivered a streamlined solo arrangement of their work. Balanced against a friendly glow of electric guitar, their vocals were warm and crisp as early autumn; this was music to bask in, to let flood over you and to absorb through your pores like vitamin D. And, along with several other audience members, we settled into it, cross-legged on the floor.

The set list featured several tracks from Jemima’s 2021 album Grace After a Party, including the rousingly gorgeous Heaven; soft-jazzy Estrella with its half-smiling lilt; and the Well of…, a gleamingly lovely song that sent literal shivers down my spine.

In between numbers, Jemima had us in stitches with their grounded humour, and their easy-going presence seemed to put everyone at ease. They also got us chipping in for the backing vocals and, with a little encouragement, we all to got to our feet. Combined with this choir-like feeling of togetherness (not that singing three notes qualifies us as a choir), laughter and warmth seemed to goldleaf the corners of the harmonies.

Rounded, solid and twinkled with blues and greens, Jemima’s music felt like pieces of seaglass worn smooth from touch, edges softened and warm. While their recorded material is rich with backing vocals and instrumentation, this simpler pairing of voice and guitar was arresting and intimate – the kind of music that reminds you to slow down, listen, look, breathe, and feel what you feel.

Jemima Coulter plays Map Studio Café in London on September 9, Lafayette in London on September 21 and The Crofter’s Rights in Bristol on September 29, 2022. For more dates, tickets, and to stream and buy Jemima’s music, check out their website or Bandcamp, and check out their Instagram for news.

The mellow mood was replaced by intrigue and tangible anticipation when Xenia Rubinos arrived with her two fellow musicians Stefa Marin Alarcon and Marco Buccelli, each of whom were draped mysteriously in white veils. They stepped ceremoniously across the stage to Una Rosa, the title track of the 2021 album, then removed their veils one by one, Xenia sparkling in a ruffled silver robe like a kind of futuristic queen.

Having been a fan of her wildly creative and impossible-to-pin-down music for a few years, I was expecting the unexpected from her live performance. And I was completely floored by Xenia, Stefa and Marco, and the dizzying, fearless, impassioned show they delivered.

Xenia Rubinos. Image: Plaster PR

A curious collection of props and set-pieces (scrunched piles of clear plastic, aforementioned veils, and a harness by which the artist hooked herself to a wide swathe of red fabric) symbolised the emotions of the music with a visual force that words alone can’t always match.

Xenia Rubinos covered an incredible emotive spectrum in her set, just as in her recorded work: songs shifted from the supercharged, sassy, acerbic Working All the Time (sung as a duet with Stefa) to the autotuned, stripped back and passionate Ay Hombre; the frustration and fury of Don’t Put Me in Red simmered alongside the playful spirit of Cógelo Suave, which exploded with brilliant attitude. Did My Best, an unflinching work of grief and reckoning, was amplified by otherworldly, Laurie Anderson-style vocoder effects, while Who Shot Ya shone a piercing light on racism and injustice. As if to restore a balance of something sweeter, as if to take care of the audience, this was gracefully followed up by a warm-hearted ballad (“if you’ve got a crush, if you wish you had a crush, this one’s for you”), leaving no one adrift in despair. Still, my favourite track Sacude was almost too much for me to handle, with its devastating line, “I’m carrying weight for the both of us, time to let it go.”

If the ability to blur genres is an attribute bandied about by writers and artists alike, Xenia Rubinos is the genuine article. Her catalogue shapeshifts through knotty beats, broken rhythms and vast crunching basslines, vocal percussion, haunting electronic instrumentals and multilingual lyrics (“I speak in three languages, you barely speak one,” she snaps in Don’t Put Me in Red); if anything, she smashes genres to pieces and builds something new from the glowing fragments.

This intimate gig in Strange Brew’s colourful, ambient space was nothing if not memorable. The audience were switched on and mindful, seeming to catch the passion of Xenia’s singing and resonate with it like a bell. We were immersed. At one point, the man in front of me burst into tears. It was that kind of a show. I really haven’t really been to one like it before, and I don’t expect to again any time soon. Xenia Rubinos takes her tour to the US from October 29 to November 4. For dates and tickets, see her tour page; keep up to date with news and releases on her website and Instagram.

Dareshack 31/08/22

Words: Delroy Hibbert

A week after the first gig with Gretchen Peters and I’m on my musical travels again this time to Dareshack. I have journeyed through the sounds of Nashville, the country soul & funk of Houston and the spoken word & hip hop coming from New Orleans. For me the festival is over and it ends with Taraka

Taraka Larson released her debut album Welcome To Paradise Lost last year. It was also her first solo album after the break up of the previous band she shared with her sister Nimai, Prince Rama. The album is an introspective one covering themes of self-discovery and was released on her own label Rage Peace Records. 

Walking into the venue I was slightly confused as this was a new space for me and I seemed to have entered the coolest coffee shop in Broadmead. I’ve been past this place a few times since it opened but not stopped there before now. I was soon directed to a sparse, blue lit performance space which even more confusingly consisted of what seemed to be a futon, a MacBook and a microphone stand on stage.

Ok this is interesting, I’m thinking. I tweet my thoughts and someone asks me if I’m in Amsterdam. I assure them it’s not that type of show and I’m actually in Broadmead.

Taraka. Images: Delroy Hibbert @crossingthedanny

A silent figure comes from behind the stage and settles into the bed as if she’s asleep. The gig has started but I soon realise this is no ordinary gig. Taraka combines the energy of her music with the aesthetics of a one woman show using the bed clothes, clock radio and even an audience member’s borrowed phone as props to breathe life into her lyrics and introduce a multidimensional element to the sparseness of the performance space.

Her music in the first half of the show is a clash of electronic punk and heartfelt lyrics taken from the album’s songs. While singing she is sometimes under the covers, swinging and throwing a pillow back & forth to the audience and rolling around the bed. 

It’s an engaging spectacle and the synchronicity between the songs and the in-between ad-libs & conversation show the hard work she has put in as preparation for tonight.

For the second half of the show the mood is changed and the entire audience is invited to join her onstage. Climb on we do, with audience members now lying on the bed itself and all over the stage while Taraka herself sits in a corner and picks up her guitar. 

The songs are now sung without a backing track and she performs with her fans curled up in front of her. It’s an intimate affair and allows her to perform her more intimate songs as if she was at home with a group of friends hanging out and it feels that way.

Afterwards I caught up with Taraka for a selfie and an opportunity to buy her album which she graciously signs. Although fresh off stage she has time to hang out and speak to those that have come to see her including a couple who had driven over from Wales and decided to come to the gig at random. They have now become confirmed fans as have I and invite her to play their hometown.

It’s been an interesting run of gigs for me and I congratulate the Bristol Beacon for having the foresight and knowledge to curate such an interesting and diverse range of acts. It had the feel of a festival which for me is about discovering new artists as much as hearing your favourites but without the camping and bad toilets. I for one hope they continue to promote smaller acts like Taraka in other spaces whenever they reopen their own venue.

Taraka’s latest single is Reverence released on Rage Peace Records