Now in its second year, Birmingham Popfest is a weekend event admirably put together by Gavin Priest of indie band the Proctors. Although relatively low-key, there are a few well-known acts at the top of the bill, including some who you might not have realised were still around. Despite Birmingham's thriving music scene, many seem to think everything is centred around London so it's encouraging to see that fans have travelled from elsewhere in the country to attend.
I get to the Hare And Hounds early on the first day, expecting things to kick off at 5pm with the Tamborines. I have no idea who they are or what has happened to them but they are nowhere to be seen so I have nothing to do except have a drink until 6pm when the weekend gets started properly with Fever Dream. They sound exactly how I imagine a band of that name would sound - classic shoegaze in the style of My Bloody Valentine and true to form, the vocalist/guitarist spends most of the set hiding behind his fringe. There are some obvious melodies beneath the noise and towards the end everything goes a bit mid-80s Sonic Youth. As with most shoegazing, I have no idea what is being sung but the lyrics are probably pretty abstract anyway so I just let the waves of noise wash over me.
Next up is Karen, featuring members of long-standing Bristol act the Brilliant Corners. I've assumed it will be a solo artist and I try to remember if the Corners ever had a female vocalist, but it turns out to be a band and as far as I can make out, none of the members are called Karen. I'm expecting something similar to the Corners' headline slot last year but I'm baffled at first when the opening songs bear little resemblance to the quirky songwriting of "Teenage" and "Somebody Up There Likes Me". Three songs in, when they announce that they're going to play a few break-up songs, I realise that this is something very different from their other band, and it's actually closer to the more morose aspects of the Auteurs. It is an enjoyable set, although afterwards I can remember few of the songs.
Many indie bands have generic names that are formed by simply taking two random words and sticking them together. As soon as Night Flowers have finished their set, I forget what they were called as there are so many bands with "night" or "flowers" in their name. They are the first real indiepop band of the weekend, with some nice guitar lines and twee vocals, and in case it isn't already clear where they're coming from, the singer smiles a lot and shakes a tambourine. Unfortunately the drums are a little too powerful and drown out the gentler elements. Eventually things even out as everything becomes more noisy but although I enjoyed their set I would have preferred to hear more of the prettier parts. If they can balance out the sound and come up with a more memorable name then Night Flowers do have potential.
Saturday's highlight for me is the collaboration between Pete Fij (formerly of Adorable) and Terry Bickers (The House Of Love/Levitation). I hadn't realised that they'd been working together so I have no idea what to expect, whether it will be songs from their respective bands or something new. Apart from one Adorable song and a Spacemen 3 cover, the set is drawn from their album "Broken Heart Surgery". The contrast between Pete's gently strummed acoustic guitar and Terry's elaborate Durutti Column-inspired electric playing is phenomenal. The songs are moving but nothing has prepared us for the climax. Pete dedicates the final number to his father, who had died the previous week. The whole room falls silent as he delivers one of the most emotional performances I've seen. He just about makes it to the end then politely says his goodbyes and moves to the side of the stage. Once he's composed himself I have a long chat with him about such wide-ranging topics as his approach to songwriting and the recent scandals involving Dave Lee Travis and others. He's clearly a very intelligent man and I wish I had listened to the album sooner.
Pete Fij and Terry Bickers
As headliners the June Brides take to the stage I realise that despite their cult status, I'm not that familiar with their work. I have a compilation of their 1980s singles but I can't remember when I last played that. Apart from their best-known songs "No Place Called Home" and "Sick, Tired and Drunk", I recognise little of tonight's set and I actually feel slightly guilty about this. I'm coming to realise that it's insane to attempt to hear every band that fits into my usual style of listening so I manage to make the most of the June Brides' set despite my lack of acquaintance with the songs. As you would expect from the lead band at such an event, they have a recognisable jangly guitar sound but it's the addition of violin and trumpet that makes them stand out. I would like to give their songs a better listen and then maybe see them live again, but I still feel that the first night has been rounded off in style.
The June Brides
I arrive on Sunday to find that the running order has been shuffled slightly to make space for the Tamborines. But there is no sign of them. Again. I'm starting to doubt that they actually exist. The afternoon eventually gets going with an Italian (I think) going by the name of Morning Tea. At first this seems an odd name for a performer but it does suggest something very relaxing, which sums up his sound pretty well. It's reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens at times and the tales of regret over things that could have been reflect what usually goes on in my head while I'm drinking my morning tea.
Next up is another solo artist, a Scotsman called Paul Tierney or Lonely Tourist as he prefers to be known. At first his guitar playing reminds me of early Billy Bragg, although his songs are not especially political. It's not until the second song that I notice his Scottish accent and I immediately think of Ballboy. (Are they still in operation? I hope so.) His accent is such that I don't know what all of the songs are about, apart from one about finding a footballer who shares his name. I should really have bought his album to find out more but I always come away from these events with too much to listen to anyway.
I've seen some people sitting in the bar downstairs, all hair and sunglasses and leather jackets, and I know they have to be the Manhattan Love Suicides. They follow the tradition of the Primitives, Flatmates etc. and use sixties girl group-influenced vocals over buzzsaw guitars. But the vocals are sugar-coated barbed wire and the seemingly sweet songs have titles such as "Never Stop Hating You" and "She's A Bullet". The guitars could have come straight from "Psychocandy" and, dare I say it, the sound seems louder than when the Jesus And Mary Chain toured that album recently. Such is the ferocity that after three songs the bassist has lost his sunglasses and his perfectly groomed quiff has fallen into his eyes. I obviously need to give him some tips on hair products. Bands like this typically self-destruct within six months so catch them while you can.
The Manhattan Love Suicides
It's well known that I'm a big fan of Desperate Journalist, in fact they were responsible for my favourite release of last year. But when you're so enamoured with a band it's often difficult to describe them in a way that will convey what they actually sound like. Tonight they're playing on the biggest stage I've seen them on so far. It may just be due to the increase in volume but they seem much angrier than usual. It strikes me that what we have here is four very different people, which could explain why it's so hard to describe what happens when they come together. Rob Hardy's guitar sound brings to mind classic post-punk acts such as the Bunnymen, although tonight he attacks his instrument with such force that I wonder what it's done to upset him. You could usually imagine Jo Bevan fronting a pre-Britpop '90s band but tonight she too seems irate about something and her delivery borders on "riot grrrl". Caz Hellbent, as always, sits at the back channelling the spirit of Keith Moon. Bassist Simon Drowner is relatively restrained but I suspect that's because he has a lot going on inside his head. He could have stood in for Richey when the Manics toured "The Holy Bible" recently. If that description leaves you any clearer as to what the band sound like then I've obviously underestimated you. If not then your best bet is to head over to their bandcamp page and listen for yourself.
Bob were always one of those bands who (to me at least) seemed to be better known for their t-shirts than their records. Back in the late '80s their red, white and blue logo was everywhere but I don't recall hearing their music. It's only in the last few years with a compilation of their singles becoming available that I've become familiar with their songs. So I'm surprised to find that they have such a dedicated following and that many people, including one of my friends, have come along specifically to see them. To a certain extent I get what I'm expecting, indiepop that characterises a specific era, but there is some scratchy guitar that takes me by surprise - something that could easily have been found on a Postcard release from many years prior to Bob's original incarnation. The percussionist tonight is playing what I believe is called a cajón. OK, it's just a wooden crate but it's still very effective. Songs such as "Convenience" and "Trousercide" get the crowd moving, with Bob delivering the most rousing set of the weekend.
Sunday night headliners the Primitives are usually remembered for one song. I'm sure I don't need to name it and I can't deny that it's one of the best singles of the 1980s, but there's a lot more to their back catalogue that is often overlooked. Their recent album "Spin-O-Rama" perfectly captures the post-C86 sound (I guess that would be C87?) and several songs from that record get an airing tonight. Most of all it's great to hear the other 1980s singles "Really Stupid", "Stop Killing Me" and "Thru The Flowers". Of course they also play "that song" but it's a very subdued rendition, as though they are desperate to take the focus away from it. There are criticisms from some in the room that it's just style over substance and I can see their point; the show is very much about Tracy Tracy, who is so small and sparkly that she wouldn't look out of place atop a Christmas tree. The way she twirls around and playfully reaches out to those at the front means that few people notice what the rest of the band are doing. Sure, it's a bit frivolous but it's a cheery way to end a weekend that has showcased a variety of styles.
I've noticed that when describing the weekend's performers I've compared most of them to other acts. This is simply because I've been going to gigs for so long that it's rare to find something that sounds truly new. But I've come to realise that this shouldn't be a problem. If you enjoy a particular sound then it's fine to embrace new acts playing in that style rather than criticise them for being unoriginal. Overall this was a very successful event and I hope Gavin can put together another varied line-up for next year. But the main lesson learned is probably that if you see a gig by the Tamborines advertised, don't count on them showing up.