Much as Live at Leeds is one of the absolute highlights of the live music year and heralds the onset of the festival season in outstanding style, Wakefield’s Long Division – returning reinvigorated after a fallow year – has quite a different vibe, and really has a knack of punching above its weight. And, like its larger counterpart, Long Division has a strong emphasis on showcasing local and regional talent. In the spirit of the event, and out of a certain journalistic duty (not to mention curiosity) I’m inclined to spend the day exploring lesser-known acts than chase the obvious names like Billy Bragg, Charlotte Hatherley, and Cud. You either know and like them, or aren’t interested: either way, you probably don’t need my critical verdict.
The Boxing, opening the day at St Austin’s Theatre are a fine example. The three-piece knock out a distinctive brand of expansive alternative / indie, with the singer’s lower-end crooning style sitting w ell with the 80s-leaning aspects of the sound, with solid drumming, flanged bass and hints of The Cult and Interpol coalescing into something compelling.
As one half of worriedabousatan and Ghosting Season, as well as as a solo performer, Thomas Ragsdale has always made expansive music. Wakefield Cathedral is a setting which compliments and enhances this expansiveness, the deep, resonant bass frequencies filling the cavernous, high-vaulted nave. For this occasion, the impressive visuals projected at the back of the stage are equalled, if not almost eclipsed, by a contemporary dance troupe performing in front of the stage. The movement of the music – sample-heavy, vast, cinematic and propelled by some big beats – is rendered in physical form. Ragsdale looks as though he’s wringing the immense, galactic synth tones from his body, and the drama is fully multisensory.
Installing a bar with hand-pulled ales from a local brewery in the cathedral is a brilliant move. Not that I need beer to enjoy music, but it’s hot even in here, and a cool pint is ideal. It’s even hotter when The Membranes play later in the afternoon. John Robb – how does this man never age – glistening with sweat – leads the band, on this outing featuring a local choir, through a suitably energetic set. He’s loving he surroundings, and the incongruity of people actually moshing down the front during ‘Do the Supernova’.
If it’s clammy in the Cathedral, it’s roasting in the Red Shed, where I land after deciding to give Adore//Repel’s average alt-rock a miss. The venue is hosting a bill devoted to all shades of gender representation. I arrive to catch the second half of an entertaining set by The Bleeding Obvious, whose quirky, piano-led singer-songwriterly compositions about adversity are delivered in a style reminiscent of Victoria Wood.
In the same poky and meltingly-hot venue (thank fuck the beer’s cheap), transcentric punk-orientated foursome Hermes, who introduce every song in their set with the line ‘this is a song about gender,’ rise above a busted amp to deliver a buoyant and energetic set, while all-female guitar-pop foursome Peaness provide half an hour of joyous, melodic fun, with some quality Chester-orientated bantz, too.
While the upstairs at The Hop is no longer in use, they’ve got a packed-out day of music downstairs. The Rolling Down Hills, play country / Americana from amidst a cloud of incense. The dual male/ female vocals are they key focus of their harmony-led songs, and they go down well with a pint of Jaipur (perhaps not the most sensible choice when I’m supposed to be pacing myself, but it’s absolutely delicious). It’s so packed out when Colour of Spring spin their brand of spectral shoegaze that I can neither see the band nor get to the bar that I skip out and go elsewhere, and Barefoot Beware pull a respectable crowd with their jerky, quirky, abrasive take on noisy no-wave math-rock. It’s bassist Richard Vowden’s birthday, and he celebrates by giving 100% to a dizzyingly angular set
It’s back up to St Austin’s for The Golden Age of TV. On one hand, they’re quintessential indie, on the other, they’ve a bit more oomph, more guts. Visually, they’re an odd mish-mash: singer Bea rocks nerd chic, while the guitarist sports a plaid shirt and an iffy moustache. There are hints of Florence Welch about the vocals, and one might argue that their strength is less their originality but their execution. Noodly keyboards and mathy guitars make for interesting detail, and they close a slid set with current single ‘Television,’ which is a slow-burning atmospheric stomper.
Drahla were, I’ll admit, a bit of a punt for me – although how a band who’ve supported METZ and Ought, and a band this good have bypassed me for so long is as embarrassing as it is incredible. The trio knock out sharp-edged, grungy post-punk sculpted with sinewy guitars and solid, floor-shaking bass, with hints of The Fall and contemporaries like Moderate Rebels. The material is delivered with lots of attack, not to mention some sax. A lot of sax, in fact – frantic, frenetic sax. In contrast to the chaos and skewed angles carved by the instruments, Luciel Brown remains stone-faced, impassive, her half-spoken, near-monotone vocals as cool as fuck. A real standout, and my favourite new band. Chances are they’ll be a lot of people’s favourite new band before too long.
Team Picture are rocking white boiler suits and navy uniform jackets that resemble some kind of frontier-era getup, and it’s quirky but cool, which is a fair summary of pretty much everything they do. They open their set with the simple repetitive but ultra-catchy and super-effective ‘Birthday Blues’, and it sets out their tall for thirty minutes of propulsive, motoric, energised 80s-hued post-punk electroindie. If it sounds like one hell of a hybrid, it is, but it’s all packed in tight and delivered with just the right balance of proficient nonchalance and bouncy exuberance. It’s exhilarating stuff, and since I first caught them just over a year ago, they’ve evolved considerably and are very much a band in the ascendancy.
What’s Evil Blizzard’s appeal, then? I’m here on a tip, and am up for the spectacle, and judging by the crowd, they’re here for the same thing, pretty much. But, judging by those who’ve made their way for the last band of the day on at Warehouse 23, their appeal is very much to the over-40s, for a start. I get that the spectacle of costumes and masks is intended to be a bit naff, as the title of their forthcoming album, ‘The Worst Show in the World’, which provides a portion of the material for tonight’s set, suggests. But self-parody only goes so far, and while there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with single cuts ‘Fast Forward Rewind’ and ‘Unleash The Misery’, there’s more style than substance overall. And while a sea of bassists (did I count five) should be impressive for its all-devastating low-end assault, it seems as though drummer Side does 80% of the work while 80% of the band provide little more than posturing. It could, and should, be entertaining, but there’s something sadly missing here.
Having absolutely killed it at Live at Leeds, Fizzy Blood are an obvious choice for the last act of the night (as an alternative to Billy Bragg). The audience at St Austin’s Theatre is disappointingly sparse, and way, way less than they deserve, but they still perform like they’re playing to a packed crowd (minus the crowd-surfing). It’s a big stage, and a high stage, and they fill it, and everything about their set is says they ought to be huge.
On returning, Long Division has done its organisers and the city of Wakefield proud, with an eclectic lineup and an event that was well co-ordinated and smoothly run. Given more time or the ability to clone myself, I’d have liked to have been able to explore some of the spoken word and other non-music happenings, but this is simply testament to the range, depth and diversity of the programme. More of the same next year, please!