Teesside one-day festival Stockton Calling returned on Saturday 26th March for another sold out day of live music, with over 70 bands playing across nine stages. The festival, now in its seventh year, boasts a lineup of mostly local and up-and-coming bands, with the occasional bigger name thrown in for good measure. The festival has gone from strength to strength since its inception, with this year’s event promising to be the best yet. What follows is my thoughts on a tiny selection of the bands who played.
One of the first sets of the day was from The Black Sheep Frederick Dickens, the latest offering from Darlington music scene luminary David Saunders. Taking inspiration from the tale of Charles Dickens’ wastrel brother (who died in Darlington and is buried in the town’s West Cemetery), this was more at times more performance art than a traditional rock show. In fine Scott Walker-esque voice, Saunders delivered a collection of gothic ballads, which often build to showtune levels of drama. He was aided by Rob Irish, who played keys and bass as well as unleashing an arsenal of samples from his laptop, everything from atmospheric drones to funky drum loops. This two-hands-one-mouth setup is reminiscent of Sparks, as is the high drama and sense of theatricality imparted by the music (Saunders himself prefers to be compared to the Pet Shops Boys). Venturing out into the crowd, Saunders pinned up various sheets with buzzwords that link not only to the story of Dickens, but also draw comparisons between the harsh Victorian past and the harsh Cameronian present. An impromptu gig at Teesside’s last remaning record store, Sound it Out, followed shortly after, with Saunders delivering an even better vocal performance in an even more intimate setting.
Less challenging fare was provided by Lost State of Dance, who packed out the Sun Inn and provided a perfect antidote to the inclement weather which had set in by late afternoon. Their 80s inspired indie struck a chord with the mixed-age crowd, many of whom will have fond memories of the decade of excess. Correct me if I’m wrong, but LSOD themselves look far too young to have experienced those heady times, but tap keenly into the sounds of Ultravox and Duran Duran (including a cover of the latter’s Planet Earth). The songs tended to sound homogenous, but the band themselves were endearingly enthusiastic and even the most cynical critic would have been hard pressed not to raise a smile. Similar party vibes came from Be Quiet, Shout Loud, who brought 2000s indie disco sounds to the Green Room in the early evening, their flamboyant front-man belting out such as tunes as (You’re Not) Sitting in Tonight and You’ll Never Know How to Dance. Tongues were firmly in cheeks, with Alan Partridge references and sampled air horns giving the crowd a good laugh in between songs.
I must now take a moment to be truthful: I missed Avalanche Party’s hotly anticipated Stockton Calling set, but all was not lost as they played in nearby Darlington the next day, headlining the Love Fuzz night at InsideOut. Their punky garage sound is now rounded out by new keyboard player Glen Adkins, but they have lost nothing of their intensity with this more polished sound. Lead singer Jordan Bell veered between glassy eyed semi-ignorance of the crowd and snarling at them, all the while riffing on his Vox Phantom with significantly more skill than the D major chord that fellow Phantom player Ian Curtis was supposedly limited to. The band build up a wall of sound during their gigs, second guitarist Jared Thorpe is fond of creating squalls of feedback by bashing his Rickenbacker against the amps. The crowd provided the vocals for much of Let’s Get Together, as well as one lucky audience member getting to play Bell’s guitar during the song. The set was loud and raucous and left me feeling more than a little bit disappointed about missing the previous day.
The reason for missing Avalanche Party at Stockton Calling itself was that my friend Richy and I wanted to get a good spot for Velvoir, who played at 7pm at Music Lounge, a venue acting as a stage for the first time. Lead singer Verity Jasmine Bee prefaced opener Bring out your Dead with an introduction to the band and acted as our host on this trip down the rabbit hole, challenging societal concepts of gender, identity politics and sex along the way. The band are all incredibly talented musicians in their own right, but Velvoir is greater than the sum of its parts. Military tattoo drumming and propulsive basslines provided a solid bed for guitarist Adam Sams to deliver his more-is-more riffing, which appears to be as grounded in jazz as it is the blues. Bee is the undoubted star of the show however: with the voice of Jim Morrison and the shamanic dancing of a young Mick Jagger, she growled out sexual innuendoes and filthy come ons to the packed out room. The set climaxed, almost literally, with Pearls on Velvet, Sams’ guitar cum-faces perfectly mirroring Bee, who writhed on the floor, alternating between throaty laughter and orgasmic moaning. Velvoir are certainly one to watch, especially if one is lucky enough to catch them playing a full-length gig. The band themselves took to social media to state that playing for only half an hour felt like being interrupted ‘mid-coitus’. Expect to find them playing an even more prominent spot and to an even bigger crowd should they return to Stockton Calling in 2017.
Immediately following Velvoir, David Saunders and Glen Adkins retured to do double duty, this time playing in their main project, Goy Boy McIlroy. The brooding alt-blues boys played what is rumoured to be their sole gig of the year to a packed Music Lounge, many of whom had hung around following Velvoir. As Adkins, guitarist Simon Goy and drummer Al Evans worked their brand of dark post-punk, Saunders turned the crowd participation up to 11. I myself was encouraged to down half a bottle of Aftershock by the man himself, who went on to start a pillow fight between members of the crowd. With a frontman as effervescent as Saunders, it is easy to forget that he has three very talented compatriots, who sounded as tight as they ever have done. Last year’s EP Duell is well represented, its huge riffs and pounding drums sounding even more visceral live than they did on record. As with Velvoir, it is all over much too soon, but not before an incendiary version of Writhing. Almost all in attendance will surely be hoping that they do not have to wait too long to experience the magic that is a Goy Boy gig once again.
Dutch Uncles played to a criminally underpopulated Georgian Theatre at 9:50pm, with large swathes of the festivalgoers obviously drawn by the more populist music of fellow headliners Reverend and the Makers and Blossoms, who played at the ARC and Ku Bar respectively. Those in attendance experienced a sparkling set, filled with atypical rhythms and lead singer Duncan Wallis’s idiosyncratic tenor and jerky dancing. Appropriately for a band obsessed with non-traditional time signatures, Wallis sang an acapella snippet of Kiss from a Rose, one of the biggest pop hits not to be in 4/4 time, before the gig began in earnest. A sultry Babymaking was the first song of the show proper, one of many offerings from Dutch Uncles’ most recent album, O Shudder, which was also represented with breezy versions of Decided Knowledge and Upsilon, among others. Older songs such as Cadenza and Flexxin’ were also aired, as was Same Plane Dream, a song newer even than O Shudder. When not dancing or singing, Wallis darted to his keyboard, sprinkling the songs with short blasts of piano and dual electric xylophone, played in tandem with his fellow members. Although the songs are tricky, nothing was lost in translation from the studio to live arrangements. By Wallis’s own admission, the set flew by at 100 miles per hour, but it was the perfect way to wrap up a day of impressive live music, with BBC Radio 6’s Marc Riley taking over to see the happy festivalgoers into the early hours.
2016 was another vintage year for Stockton Calling and 2017 cannot arrive quickly enough. In the face of brutal cuts to local arts funding, it is refreshing to know that a town such as Stockton can pull off an event like this. That it was such a success is a testament to the organisers, the artists and those who came down to support their local music scene.
Bands we wish we had seen: Kingsley Chapman and the Murder, Mouses, Figmennt, J.P. Riggall, Plaza.