Tom Bell finds Gathering beset with delays and technical difficulties
The East Oxford Community Centre, site of famous open mic night Catweazle, exudes intimacy. Its small gig space is illuminated by softly glowing lightbulbs scattered in partially blown strands across the ceiling, and the backstage area is the outdoor courtyard in front of the building where bands and fans talk and smoke between sets. It seems perfect for folk four-piece Fossil Collective, with their lyrics of heartache and daybreak. But the set suffers from a lack of propulsion: each song features lead singer Dave Fendick’s plodding acoustic guitar and plaintive vocal harmonies that feel too thin to fill even this tiny area, a point which The Staves stress in sublime fashion later in the evening. By the time some tonal variation is introduced with the broken piano chords of ‘Satellite’ people have begun to talk, and when closer ‘On and On’ arrives it seems pertinently titled.
The atmosphere isn’t wasted by Glass Animals, who treat the thirty-strong crowd to the most revelatory set of the evening, with their brand of trip-hop tinged with the influence of the polite end of dubstep. “You can come a bit closer,” singer David Bayley teases, and we obligingly shuffle towards the stage. ‘Golden Antlers’ opens with some heavily processed guitar twinkling, and Bayley’s velvety vocal tones commingle with club beats that move you less to dance than to drift. The snaking guitar riff of ‘Cocoa Hooves’ eases into a soft climax of delicate synths, marking the high point of my night.
Moving to the larger Bullingdon Arms expecting to see electro-pop songstress Foxes setting up, I am met with the sight of a gyrating pelvis in a very tight pair of black skinny jeans, and a head topped with a flat-peaked cap bearing the gold shining word, ‘Power’. After examining the set list I decide that no, this is not the considerably more female Louisa Rose Allen, but the frontman of indie-disco outfit Swiss Lips. The delay in the schedule seems to have hurt their attendance, but they treat the scant crowd to a number of driving basslines and blaring leads. Finale ‘U Got the Power’ really deserves a sea of bobbing heads with silly hairstyles and headwear, but instead its jubilant groove prompts a good deal of contented nodding and foot-tapping.
Returning after a lengthy survey of Cowley Road’s abundant kebab and fried chicken outlets, the timing at the Bullingdon has crept further awry. Instead of the electro-jubilation of The Other Tribe, Splashh assault my ears with their louder-than-sociable mixture of US indie and UK punk. If that sounds unoriginal, prepare to be absolutely correct. The set is a dirge. Stabbed chords and choppy riffs abound, but where the likes of Yuck write splendid pop songs to mask with fuzz and angst, fuzz and angst here can’t mask the fact that the songs are repetitive, formulaic, and just dull.
When The Other Tribe finally start to play, an hour late, I am completely ready to hate them. In the course of my ‘in depth research’ I pinned them as Calvin Harris wannabes, a mortal sin under my musical papacy. And I was more or less right. After a surprisingly pleasant intro of wild syncopated drumming, the big beats kick in, engulfed in pompous bass, and accompanied by lyrics about really rather liking women. Notable single ‘Skirts’ is as dumb as they come: “Hit me up in the summer time, when the length of your skirts is just right!” But I just wasn’t ready for the sheer live energy of it. The band have really worked the tribal theme, arriving adorned with extravagant face paint and patterned attire, and singer James Hill prances along the stage like a shaman, pawing at the air to play the crowd like another instrument. The set runs without pause, the tracks bleeding together like so many DJ sets, but with the added intimacy of real people with real instruments. By the end, they almost have me at the front, pushing to get my face painted. Almost.
After ‘suffering’ through all this frivolity, the sheer number of wires and keyboards that Liars emerge with to set up fills me with foreboding. By the time they start their soundcheck they are an hour late. It doesn’t go well. A whole bank of synths keeps cutting out, and the heckles begin. Finally, they sort the problem, and begin to play an hour and a half late, at 2 am. A pulsing drone swathes the room in murk, and the lovely menace that characterises all that Liars do starts to make me forget how much my legs and eyeballs hurt. Then, abrupt silence. The band look at their sound guy. More fumbling. After a few minutes they resume with ‘Brats’ and make it the whole way through, and even though it’s one of the weaker tracks from recent album WIXIW, it’s an abrupt awakening from too much silence. It is to be the last song of the night. The next song they attempt to play sounds curiously empty and only lasts a few seconds before frontman Angus Andrew calls a halt to proceedings and motions at the electronic drum pads. They start and stop a couple more times. Then, the inevitable news from Andrews: “I don’t think we can do this show, sorry.” Boos and obscenities ring around the room. It’s 2.30 and the band who, for many, will have justified the ticket price, retreat dejectedly. Aaron Hemphill sticks around to explain things to a group of grumpy fans. “Do you blame the venue?” someone asks. “Well, yeah I blame the venue,” he shrugs, pointing out that they brought their own experienced sound guy. “But I wouldn’t get mad with these guys.” He motions to the venue’s technicians. “I’d blame whoever thought it would be a good idea to put nine bands on a stage this size in one night.” He has a point. Half an hour to switch from one act to another was just too little time, and the Bullingdon’s shoddy timekeeping meant that when things went wrong, it was far too late to fix it. I, like many around me, was left feeling cheated.