Martin Stephenson / The Hellfire Preachers – Preston, The Continental
The Amber List/Ivan Campo/Resonate – Preston, The Continental
My Twitter feed last weekend was dominated by those having their first taste of live music for Lorde knows how long. As was the case with me, enjoying my first return to The Continental, Preston, in my adopted Lancashire, 16 months / 73 weeks / 510 nights after the last, in what also proved to be my first live show in 494 nights – the longest break between gigs since catching Blank Expression on my live debut 41 years earlier at Wonersh Memorial Hall in rural Surrey.
Only two more gigs followed that last Conti visit – on Leap Day 2020 to see The Amber List, West on Colfax, and Cornelius Crane – before the shutters came down, first for I Am Kloot’s John Bramwell at The Venue, Penwortham, then King Creosote at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, reprising and soundtracking the award-winning From Scotland With Love album/film.
Talking of cross-border visitors, first up – for the venue’s first non-socially-distanced live music night since that March shutdown – was North West Scotland-based, County Durham singer-songwriter and Daintees frontman Martin Stephenson, on a night when The Boatyard’s air conditioning kept us cool on a hot summer evening on the Ribble Delta (as opposed to the Delta/Johnson variant). In fact, it was the first time I felt a chill in a couple of weeks or so, thankfully not multiplying in Travolta-esque fashion.
All a tad bizarre during this mask/no mask/alarming rise limbo period we find ourselves in, but this double-jabbed punter’s lateral flow-test came up negative, so there we all were, on what turned out to be a full house. And The Hellfire Preachers set proceedings off in style, this tight three-piece Lancy folk combo – and BBC Radio Merseyside veterans – priding themselves on their ‘old timey bluegrass’ and ‘Gothic Americana’, Dave Gardner (vocals/guitar), Matt Wells (mandolin/banjo and such-like), and relative young ‘un Charlie Wells (double bass) on it from the opening song, the highlight for me a brooding, atmospheric number on which Matt took a bow (so to speak) to his banjo, the sinister lighting making him look every bit the villain in a stylish ‘60s spy film.
The main attraction needed no band behind him. Martin Stephenson can do things to his guitar that few could pull off. I get the impression The Daintees could have been as big as label-mates Prefab Sprout, but the big time didn’t sit right with a frontman who seemed to emerge in the wrong era, one not so geared up for singular acts who get by on the loyal support of the kind of committed fanbase he has now. Always a free spirit though, fair play to him for never conforming to lofty music industry expectations.
He was in his element here, having fun from the off. At least I think he was. Was that nervous energy built on fear rather than some cock-eyed notion of confidence? Whatever it was, when he first appeared I thought a sartorially-challenged guitar tech was tweaking the sound before Martin stepped up. But no, he was already up there, the following half-inaudible introduction and back-story before the first song going on longer than the number itself. In fact, that casual Half Song Half Tale presentation carried on for much of the evening, the songs often split by asides from the main man, breaking off at will to offer punchlines or share observations with the audience, his grin and giggles plain for all to see and hear.
Those who’d seen him far more seemed occasionally wearied by this approach, an air of ‘just play the bloody song’ apparent in places. But God bless him, he’s a one-off, and long may he confound and amaze in equal measure. Along the way, he joshed with the support band – lurking ominously in the shadows – and laughed at a member of the bar staff crouching low to avoid getting in the way while collecting glasses, dubbing him Toulouse-Lautrec.
He wasn’t strictly on his own, his other half – fellow recording artiste Anna Lavigne (check out her Angels in Sandshoes when you get a chance – stepping out of the audience a couple of times for duets, his pride in her as apparent as her awkwardness hanging around behind him while he told us loving anecdotes from her past.
And while for me a loud couple at the bar talking through the set – surely they’d had 16 months to talk, why decide now to have a full-on catch-up? – spoiled poignant moments, that’s not Martin’s fault. This was as much a victory for him as the promoters and staff who ensured a winning return to live music on our patch. And while I earlier picked up on the main guest’s casual t-shirt, shorts and socks ‘Brit on a beach’ combo, as he pointed out, up until recently he’s only performed online, where he was able to just wander off to the fridge afterwards. So in that respect we should be thankful he was wearing any shorts at all. Besides, we got the wonders of ‘Coleen’ and ‘Rain’ from the first Daintees LP, with ‘Salutation Road’ also among the night’s highlights, his playing and vocal range still beyond question. Cheers Martin, that was a blast.
While it was all tables and banter from the bar on Friday night, it was a proper half-and-half job the following night – another warm one – for The Amber List’s The Ache of Being debut LP launch in the same room, and I’d venture to say there were a few more in to mark the occasion.
First up, again setting the scene perfectly, were young guitar duo Ike and Harry, aka Resonate, a couple of covers complementing a finely-crafted set, the vocals and bridgework impressive. I expect to hear more from them soon … in fact, Harry guested on a couple of numbers with the headliners later, so I guess I already have.
They were followed by Ivan Campo, the San Sebastian centre-back who prompted the name of the main support in turn inspiring one punter to heckle ‘Bolton Wanderers’ at one stage. On this occasion they were (like the Trotters in recent seasons, you could argue) one down before we knew it, playing as a duo, and at first sight I expected singer and guitarist Adam Shaw to sound like John Otway. He looked the part, even if his bandmate was as far removed from Wild Willy Barratt as could possibly be. But Adam delivers a far less frenetic delivery, his voice reminiscent of a more chilled Alex Turner, and together with sticksman Ben Atha was a revelation, the latter all about percussion, sweet harmonies and whistling … and hats off to anyone who can pull all that off live.
In short, here’s a cultured outfit – and veterans of Spanish live TV, no doubt – who could add something to any bill, their brand of intelligent indie folk (or folk-infused pop, as they put it) capable of ensuring many a festival could be complemented by their presence.
Then came the headliners to complete a top night’s entertainment and ensure a cracking return for the Conti, post-Covid restrictions (at least for now). Admittedly, I’d had a head start, listening to The Ache of Being on repeat these last few weeks, but one of my 2021 LP highlights was given a great live outing on this occasion. It seemed to take a while for this accomplished four-piece – Mick Shepherd (vocals/guitar/bass), Tim Kelly (guitar/bass/vocals), Tony Cornwell (lead guitar), Simon Dewhurst (drums) – to truly settle, a shame when the record pulls off so emphatically, having produced a flawless side one and not far off perfect second side too. But they’d shifted up the gears in time for track three, ‘Appointments’, and there was no let-up from there. What’s more, you could tell by looking around that those who may have needed convincing grew more and more convinced as the set unfolded.
The seamless switch to and fro’ Mick and Tim on lead vocals – and this from a band with a penchant for passing the bass around too – adds another winning element, and all four pitch in with complementary harmonies, with Tony’s guitar antics also to be admired, while Simon holds it all together from the rear. A proper collaborative band, with plenty of joined-up thinking and delivery, the added guitar from super-sub Harry supplying a welcome extra layer.
All that was missing was an invitation from the stage to turn over before ‘Wrong Side of the Truth’ saw us away again. And while the spirit of Mick’s late-‘80s breakthrough band lingers within (as confirmed by Big Red Bus’ label boss, Action Records’ Gordon Gibson, on the night), here’s a band that clearly wear their influences on their sleeves, and on this occasion the spirit of early REM and perhaps Gene and The La’s shone through. But they get that extra dimension when Tim steps forward, taking them into more ‘60s-infused psychedelic territory, the back-screen house graphics adding to that feel. Furthermore, this punter at least is also reminded in places of Dublin’s The Stars of Heaven and South-East trio The Deep Season, among others.
In short, quality will always out, and many of the highlights on the album were given a good account here. While time was against them to get through the LP in full, there was still a chance for further crowd favourite, ‘Cold Callers’ from the first EP as an encore, and although I’m unsure how many CDs were shifted on the night, they won over many new fans … and rightly so.
All in all, this was just two nights, but on that evidence alone, it’s fair to say we’re back up and running. It was good to see a few regulars after so long away, and praise too for all those at this venue and countless others around the UK who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes this last year and a half to make sure it could happen when the opportunity finally arose. And I reckon we’re indebted to all those who ensured there are still places out there willing to take a chance on quality live music … against all odds. And as The Amber List’s closing number on The Ache of Being puts it, “I see the sun begins to rise; let it shine on, a new day is calling.”
To keep up to date with The Amber List, find out where you can catch them live and snap up their first album, head here. You can also keep tabs on Ivan Campo here, Resonate here, and The Hellfire Preachers here. And for all the latest from Martin Stephenson, including details of new LP, Howdy Honcho, try here.
Meanwhile, check out what’s coming next at The Continental here, and – wherever you are – make sure you support your local venues. They need you right now more than ever, I reckon.