Catfish and the Bottlemen + The London Souls @ o2 Academy Birmingham, 8th November 2015

Catfish and the Bottlemen + The London Souls @ o2 Academy Birmingham, 8th November 2015Catfish and the Bottlemen + The London Souls @ o2 Academy Birmingham, 8th November 2015Catfish and the Bottlemen + The London Souls @ o2 Academy Birmingham, 8th November 2015Catfish and the Bottlemen + The London Souls @ o2 Academy Birmingham, 8th November 2015Catfish and the Bottlemen + The London Souls @ o2 Academy Birmingham, 8th November 2015Catfish and the Bottlemen + The London Souls @ o2 Academy Birmingham, 8th November 2015

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As predicted when I reviewed Catfish in the spring, the band’s autumn tour venue has moved to the larger o2 Academy with a capacity of just over 3000, from the 1500 capacity of the Institute in March.  File under: stating the bleeding obvious.

Support tonight is The London Souls (from New York), whose album I have been listening to this week and will review separately, but wanted to see how different they are live first, because the videos on the internet show them in a better light than the album suggests.  The difference is immense, whereas the recorded London Souls is considered and a little calm and collected, their live presence is wild and raw.  The band is made up of just a drummer and a guitar player both of whom sing lead and back up.  The drummer (Chris St. Hilaire) is a mixture of polite Ringo and uncontrollable Moon; one moment he is swaying his head lightly, the next he is a blur of arms and massive shaking curly locks.  Likewise guitarist Tash Neal unleashes his fiercely distorted Gibson 330 on the young audience who maybe are blissfully unaware of the melting pot of influences mixed up in the band’s sound: think of Hendrix, Kravitz, Beatles and Led Zep.

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There is a direct link to early Black Keys but with more rock n roll than the Keys’ blues roots.  This had bothered me initially, but within the first songs it is clear the Souls are more song based whereas the Keys generally work around massive guitar riffs.  Somehow the songs work better with just the two piece, as the two musician’s performances work hand in hand, beautifully complimenting each other, filling in the gaps left in the arrangements with incredible technique, stunning drum rolls, impossible guitar runs.  The album adds to the simple guitar drums on show here, but the live performance adds massive dynamics and a tonne of energy missing on the record.  The songs are still great, but as with many bands they need to be fully enjoyed live and loud.  The only problem the band had tonight, despite playing to a full house, is that almost everyone in front of them only wanted Van and his band of Bottlemen.  I am sure the London Souls are being appreciated, but with just polite applause after each blistering track, it seems like the duo are losing an uphill battle.  I think they must have been fully ware of this, as the latter part of the set, they don’t really stop playing and each song rolls into the next with either a whirl of feedback, or a beautifully considered drum solo.  For me, I grew to love this band, from just merely liking them before.

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My only reservation about this Catfish tour, is that it might be no different from the one at the beginning of the year.  In between these tours, the band has promoted the songs off the debut album night after night across the US, the far East and Australia, the summer festivals, the US again and now back in the UK on a sold out tour.  Van had mentioned in early 2015 about the songs he is writing for the second album being better than The Balcony, and you get the feeling the band has been given no time to work on this and just been told to keep flogging the tour while they are hot.  It is true that the debut album songs are great, and many here in the sold out venue will have missed the smaller tour shows, so they will never have heard the songs live like this, but for the rest of us, we want to hear something new.  As you will see, there is a taste of the future, and the rest of the show just makes up for any doubt in my mind.

The set is practically the same as the March show but the songs are transformed.  Somehow they sound bigger and better, more mature, yet still the sound of young men smashing out songs they love to an audience who love the songs.  The band seem to be tighter.  Van seems even more confident, but amazingly with still not a hint of arrogance or entitlement, he still believes he has fought every inch and worked his balls off to get to this point: and he has, this is no manufactured band, they may be on Island Records now, but it has been a long journey only made to look easy by how young the band were when they started.  Van’s voice belts out across the venue throughout the set, for the most part battling for space with the sound of the audience screaming back his words at the same volume.

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There were moments at the Institute gig where the pace flagged a little, but here, even though they take their time between songs and are more at ease, every song is a well-defined coherent blast – you would think that a band playing the same songs for months on end would seem jaded, but if anything they have found a new energy.  There are moments when you feel like you are listening to these songs for the first time again, and that sick feeling of excitement builds as you realise these are the best rock songs that have been written in decades.  It helps that the atmosphere in the rammed Academy is buzzing like overhead pylons in a thunderstorm.  The crowd do not let up for a minute: it’s rare when an audience knows every word from every song and wants to cry it out: wants to?  Cannot fucking help it.  During the acoustic ‘Hourglass’ it really is a duet between Van and the audience and he is clearly loving it, pulling back from the microphone every few words to fully appreciate the chorus of voices bouncing back at him.  It is not like when a singer points the mike at his fans and lets them sing the chorus, Van has no say in the matter, the wall of voices encloses him and the band.

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The only time the crowd is quiet, is when a new song is unveiled after ‘Hourglass’.  It is done so without introduction, or pomp and ceremony – and it does lose much of the audience who are desperate to sing along to something they know.  For me, it is the absolute highlight – not only is it a new song (I believe it is called ‘7’), it is everything I wanted for the band – because it is brilliant.  It shows Van has matured as a songwriter, but still maintains his ear for a hook and a chorus that his fans will eventually sing along with.  Tonight, they don’t.  It is funny though, as Van predicted this in the interview mentioned earlier in which he says that he will not introduce new songs in a tour, as they always die on their feet.  He is dead right, but it is absolutely the correct thing to do… to give a glimpse into the next phase, and it is going to be outstanding.

The night closes with ‘Cocoon’ and then ‘Tyrants’, and the crowd’s voice returns as one.  As with an intelligently extended ‘Business’ earlier in the set, ‘Tyrants’ is given a similar treatment with its breaks and slowed down sections fully utilised to draw in the enraptured crowd.  It sends shivers down my back and reminds me of the way the Stone Roses use the false endings in ‘I Am the Resurrection’ to inspire and excite their audiences: but where Brown was only singing about himself, ‘Tyrants’ is deffo the song of the people.  Although the lyrics state: “I won’t feel the same in the morning”, I absolutely do, and I know the rest of the gathered faithful here in the Academy will still be loving this band for a long time to come, never mind just the next day.  I cannot fucking wait for the next album, and am hopeful I am allowed to review the next tour to see how they have grown up again.

At the end of the night, as humble as ever Van McCann thanks the audience for selling out the Academy and says with an uncomplicated and natural honesty: “It has been an absolute pleasure… an absolute pleasure.”  The feeling is totally mutual.  This is without doubt the most exciting band on the planet right now.  If you haven’t yet been hooked, it is only a matter of time.





Review: Alan Neilson

Photographs: Katie Foulkes

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