Partly because of the later relaxation of COVID rules in Wales, partly because of a series of personal circumstances, this early-October serving of alternative rock was my very first live music event in Cardiff in nearly two years; it felt odd, comforting, and slightly tense to be back queuing outside the familiar door of Clwb Ifor Bach, for a long time now one of the unmissable haunts for those interested in grassroots music in the Welsh capital. The upstairs room has been somewhat rearranged in its layout, but there were familiar faces in the audience and the low lights over the stage were the same, and there was that peculiar buzzing feeling in the air that clearly spelled it out: at last, we are back.
And what a strong line-up for a return, too; I could hardly have chosen better. Not just because the three acts listed for the night were individually interesting and more than capable of holding a room, but also because their strengths and their quirks played perfectly well together with each other. Anyone who’s been to a grassroots night in the past is familiar with the jarring sensation of being confronted with a series of bands which are great individually, but just don’t quite mix. This was not the case at all here: there was a distinct thread running through the entire night, as the three setlists echoed in a sense, each other, while also having three very clear, strongly personal voices. This was one of the best assorted line-ups I’ve seen in quite a while, and the perfect demonstration, if ever one was needed, of why you should really always show up early and catch the support acts.
Take, for instance, Plastic Estate. This band was an unknown to me when I walked in, but I walked out determined to follow their future exploits. Their peculiar brand of synth-infused mellow rock can only be described as “Depeche Mode meet the Smiths in a lounge bar”. They sound exactly like you’d imagine them to upon hearing their name, with jangly, bluesy guitars and a very interesting use of percussion like a pulsating heartbeat in the background; but it is the synth that dominates and gives depth to the sound whenever it rears its head. The vocals are warm and slow, but fractured in places; this band has been listening attentively to the whole catalogue of the New Romantics (I was reminded of A Flock of Seagulls, of all things) – but also to a whole number of classics; a tinny guitar emerges at one point which is like an echo of Velvet Underground. They are not scared of long instrumental bridges and changes of pace; it’s the kind of music that makes you want to dance, but awkwardly – which is great, because there is a precious kind of liberation in feeling enabled as an awkward dancer, which deep down we all are. It’s the kind of music you could easily imagine Audrey Horne, out of Twin Peaks, doing her shuffling dance to: quirky and immersive, retro without being dated. One to follow, without doubt.
Folly Group steal the scene whenever they get on stage – and that is the case here, too. They immediately launch into their own unmistakable brand of mayhem, their first track reading like a demented videogame soundtrack laced with post-punk vocals. Their love of clever dissonance translates perfect from the studio to the stage (or is it the other way round?) This band has such a brilliant understanding of rhythm and all the ways it can be manipulated, which is a great asset to have live. They lean into it unashamedly, infusing otherwise layered, complex tracks with an immediate sense of energy that almost commands a mosh pit. Their love for changes in pace is even more effective live, coupled with a powerful stage presence and meant to whip the audience into a frenzy. It lends an additional edge to everything: the vocals, which are such a trademark for this band in their outstanding versatility, ranging from almost spoken word to moaning, to unrestrained screaming; the smooth blending of so many disparate influences, from hardcore punk to metal to country, with an ever-present bass line providing a backbone for it all. This is an ambitious band with an ambitious voice, capable of sounding like something I’d love to hear on the soundtrack of a Tarantino movie, but also – towards the end – like Madness would if they took themselves seriously; some of the catchier riffs are like classic rock earworms (think AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck’ on instant-classic ‘Butt No Rifle,’ but immediately devolving into something else entirely, jumpier and more fragmented). You can clearly see the roots of this band in post-punk, but you can see them moving into something that doesn’t quite exist fully yet and making it their own, and they do it with such genuine enjoyment – glee, almost – that by the end of the set the feeling is heady and almost exhilarating.
Headliners Do Nothing, too, lead you into their music by the bass line. The Nottingham punk rockers played to a room which was not ashamed to show its love of their music, and the moments in which everyone was singing along made for some powerful commentary to the return of live gigs. When frontman Chris Bailey sings “we’re all back together at last,” and everyone joins in, it feels oddly topical, and perhaps a moment to be moved by. This is another band which brings high energy to the stage; sound and presence alike are close cognates to that new type of experimental, punk-rock-adjacent with some added spice brand of sound which has been brewing in the British Isles for a while – think of the likes of early Shame, or Squid, or perhaps even Fontaines D.C.. Do Nothing throw a distinct element of grunge and garage rock into the mix, too. There is a hint of Nirvana in the sliding guitar, but perhaps even more clearly something of Incubus, A Crow Left of the Murder-era, in the way the smooth deep vocals shatter in places and the tempo of the songs jumps around. Other influences play around with classic rock ideas; the more danceable bits have something of the late ’70s to them, also in the band’s stage presence, which reads like that heady moment in music when glam and punk were still close relatives and no one quite knew what to expect next. There are some spoken word influences here, too, but something more melodic also, with broad swinging choruses and a hint of a ballad sneaking through. The newer songs in the setlist play around with dissonance a little bit more, perhaps somewhat of a new direction to look forward to. Overall, though, the band comes across confident, in charge of the stage, and most importantly, like they’re having a lot of fun – just as the audience is.
This, perhaps, was what was left of the evening, after all was said and done: the way the artists and the audience alike relished being back in that room, the genuine connection they made; the way in which all the pieces, aided no doubt by the excellent line-up, fell into place. It might be the coincidence of this being my personal post-lockdown return to a Welsh gig, but it truly felt like picking up and going forward, with genuine abandon. It’s all that grassroots music should be about, paired with a very high level of innovation and inventiveness. I certainly hope to see much more of the same.
Do Nothing continues their tour throughout October into November (w/ Folly Group on select dates), for more information head here.