Can you remember those World War II soldiers who, isolated from the rest of their army, hid on a deserted island and didn’t realise the war had ended, decades after everyone else had finished fighting?
Sometimes music scenes work like that – the media declares something to be over, but a small crew continues with the genre; ignoring its declared death, with the fashionable music scene, in turn, ignoring them.
This is undoubtedly a good thing in my opinion. In Birmingham, if you’re in the right place at the right time it can feel like Two Tone never ended. The latest manifestation of this is in front of me tonight at the Wagon and Horses, promoted by Subvert Soundsystem, with relative new comers Malarkey coming on like the delinquent children of The Beat – multi racial line up, culture clash approach to songwriting, varied selection of haircuts (bald head, mohican, corn rows, Sideshow Bob afro) and a pervading cheekiness.
Malarkey’s vocalist, Juggernaut, is a pure joy to watch. A large man of Jamaican descent with deep, Ragga inflected vocals (think somewhere between Buju Banton and Ragga Twins) and a ridiculous amount of stage presence. Guitarist, Kyle, contributes lead vocals on some of the songs, his guitar playing showing the influence of 90’s Grunge bands, fitting in dirty, sloppy riffs alongside the ‘cha cha cha cha’ guitar that so many Ska influenced bands get stuck with.
It’s a strange mix but it works. Malarkey’s distorted guitar and reggae MC aspect is bound to draw comparisons with Skindread, but at present they lack the MTV polish that’s so prevalent in the latter. But tonight’s slightly chaotic feel is also probably due, in part at least, to the drum kit refusing to stay in one place (a brick is found, and then another, but in the end the bassist has to stand on it to stop it sliding about).
Next up tonight is Hip Hop collective Dantanna, who with four MCs, one female singer, two brass, drums, guitar and a magical-music-box-that-does-all-the-other-bits, pretty much cover the Wagon & Horses‘ small stage.
Alongside Malarkey, Dantanna are part of the small circle of bands orbiting Daylight Robbery studios in Hockley, and are led by Hip Hop svengali/ageing Superhands, Dan Skins – who this evening wears a strange red blanket with a green children’s hat and spends most of the night playing tambourine in a corner of the stage, effectively Bezing himself in his own band.
There have always been some good ideas in Dantanna (musically, their chosen approach of Soul backing and high energy rapping is a pretty effective combination) but tonight is the first time I’ve seen them really start to capitalise on them. The variety that comes from having five vocalists means you can do a lot to hold people’s attention, and for most of their set they work this strategy well; the entertainment factor of seeing them all constantly bouncing around up there is high.
Dantanna have also developed a solid sense of onstage chemistry, and the clowning around feels natural rather than choreographed – at one point two of them finish a song whilst rolling around on the floor together, seemingly not dropping a lyric. The act isn’t entirely perfected yet, there’s some talking over each other between tracks which causes confusion, but on the whole tonight’s audience is impressed.
Finishing up the evening is China Shop Bull, a Leeds based band who have been winning over audiences both in the UK and Europe with their Rave/Ska/Hip Hop/Punk crossover. And although they’ve been around for years, China Shop Bull have received almost zero press attention, which says more about the inane nature of the modern media than it does about their music.
Tonight the first few songs seem a little flat, and I’m worried they’re going to disappoint. Interestingly, the spark that eventually ignites the fire is a spontaneous jam that only occurs when the bassist breaks a string – sounding initially like it’s made up on the spot, then morphing into a song of its own accord.
About two thirds of the way through their set, China Shop Bull play their version of the Dead Kennedy’s ‘Holiday In Cambodia’ which instigates a mass sing-a-long, and although their early track, ‘Sandblaster’, may be lyrically out of date (does anyone blast weed with sand any more to make it heavier anymore? Answers on a postcard…) it definitely has a good effect on the audience, who by this point are looking particularly sweaty and deranged.
And with the occasional attempts at crowd surfing, which turn into lads carrying their mates around on their shoulders whilst everyone else bobs about with silly grins on their faces, overall it’s an incredibly fun night. One of the reasons why this small army of misfits keeps getting booked is that they’re absolutely great for dancing to, with their mixture of groove and aggression appealing to a surprisingly wide range of people.
Great though the lineup is, the venue deserves some credit here too. If tonight had been held in one of Birmingham’s more mainstream venues, with their higher bar prices, low quality booze, overzealous security staff and corporate sponsorship agendas, I feel a lot of the enjoyment factor would have been taken away.
The Wagon and Horses‘ combination of 80’s old man front bar and marquee full of nutters out back, is a winning one for me. And those who are either too timid or too snobbish to give it a go are missing out. Long may it continue.
For more on China Shop Bull, visit https://soundcloud.com/china-shop-bull
For more on Dantana, visit http://www.dantanna.co.uk
For more on Malarky, visit https://www.facebook.com/MalarkeyBand
For more from Subvert Soundsystem, visit https://www.facebook.com/SubvertSoundsystem
For further listings from the Wagon & Horses, visit https://www.facebook.com/wagon.horses