Wednesday night the at the Portland Arms was one of those rare nights when all the bands playing put on a great noise with the kind of anarchy and liveness that makes going to gigs and discovering new music worthwhile – the new spirit of punk was in the air. Headlined by Philadelphia’s Beach Slang, supported by Toronto’s Weaves and opened by Exeter’s Muncie Girls, this transatlantic trio are enough to make you thankful that Cambridge has independent music promoters and a well-equipped venue at the back of a pub. The three bands make very different sounds across the spectrum of indie-punk but share an intelligence with it.
I’ve written before about how much I love Muncie Girls and their English, bookish poppy-punk when they were at the Portland a few months ago supporting Tellison. Their songs are great, they play them well live, but in the wider scheme of things, they’re just an okay live band – they’re probably a band to see if you like the songs, rather than for the experience. That said, they were what drew me to the Portland that night – I really like the songs. They did their set, they played their songs, the audience was solid numbers early on in the eve so they’re clearly gathering interest, they kicked the evening off well, but it was the rest of the evening that really made it a standout gig.
Weaves are going to be big. Their self-titled debut album was released on Friday and they’re touring widely across Europe at the moment. They’re a female-fronted four-piece with a lot of Toronto cool: lead singer Jasmyn Burke struts about the stage with an almost-rude level of nonchalance, singing words and noises as if making that high-pitched controlled-rasping tone was so easy it bored her. But at the same time, she was also such a leader of the band – cueing, narrating, conducting, being effortlessly watchable. Competing for attention, however, are both the bassist and the guitarist who wear the finest examples of Bass Face I have seen since Haim: totally moulding and remoulding their entire facial expressions in time to the show-boating funkiness of their noise-punk. The crowd were converted early and for good reason. At one point the guitarist’s amp seemed to completely cut out, but under the strict instructions of Burke they continued the song while the guitarist plugged his guitar into a new amp and re-tuned his guitar, joining in precisely in time for the end of the song. A slick outfit, but flexible and accomplished embracing the chaos of DIY gigging – and the evening felt more punk for it.
Already elated by Weaves’ turn, when Beach Slang came on the audience became more boisterous. Beach Slang play the kind of college / garage punk that America churns out, emotional lyrics, loud guitars and simple musical structures. They’re good, and they’re gathering an increasing following since releasing 2015’s The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us. Unlike both previous front-people, James Alex and his band seemed to treat the gig like a stand up show, interspersing songs from their album and EPs with quips. Dressed in red velvet trousers, a frilly dress shirt and badge-adorned black velvet jacket Alex was sweating profusely but resolute not to remove it, like, he said, Samson (of Old Testament fame) or some Game of Thrones characters I am unaware of. At this point, the bassist became particularly excited to explain more about Thrones and it seemed to open up conversation with the audience which never died down. First to the best and worst heckles that they’ve had for their rock-gig-cum-comedy-show, then to song requests as their set-list ended and they launched into a series of covers, some from their recent ‘mixtape’ EP, then and then one of the most excitable audience members produced a bag of party-poppers which then opened up further discussion on how to use them in a song, then a rehearsal, and then a communal pop. I reckon most of the last five songs never actually got played all the way to the end, Alex getting bored and the band following. It was chaos, once again, but it was fun. They left the stage with a hum-a-long, again abandoning a song mid-way so that we would sing and they could bask in the glory of this ramshackle, elated punk set. A slightly bizarre, but wonderful end to a great Rock Show.
Words from Daniel Pitt