Scarlet Tone at San Tracuba – 12/04/2012
(Image: Andy Cowen by Scarlet Tone)
I don’t mean it as an insult when I say that Scarlet Tone is not exactly unique. You can go to just about any city in the country, from London to Manchester, Birmingham to Leeds, and I guarantee you can find nights just like it when you get there – provided you know where to look. Up and down the country people are gathering in quiet pubs somewhere between the city centres and the suburbs and listening to the local talent ply their trade on acoustic guitars…
Some of them are bands taking their new songs out for a road test, others are weekend warriors who’ve promised to play their mum’s favourite song, and you’ll always find a few old staples of the folk scene playing about their fifth gig of the week, and possibly their second or third of the night. If they’re lucky, sometimes the bar will turn off the TV that hangs over their heads at the end of the bar. Tonight, however, we have a repeating DVD of Donald Duck cartoons to keep us entertained should we drift off from the main event.
Invariably, these sorts of nights are presided over by a smallish man in thick black glasses and short-cropped brown hair (who may or may not have a BA degree in Events Management from the University of Somewhere) who will smile pleasantly as he potters around, tweaking volume pots on the sound desk and shaking hands with the acts. Step forward, Matt Swift – the man behind, in front of and more or less woven throughout Scarlet Tone. I wonder if you’ll know what I mean when I say he looks exactly like the kind of guy you always see in wedding photographs. He takes the opportunity of the sound-check to strum out a few chords from Green Day’s Good Riddance before introducing tonight’s first act.
Dominic Dunn is a 15-year-old kid from Kirkdale (who, incidentally, gets a bit irked if you balls up his introduction and tell everyone he’s from Kirkby). When I was his age, I was also hanging out in pubs with musicians, but I suspect for slightly different reasons. His set gets off to a bit of a shaky start, but it may just be nerves. Soon enough he seems comfortable, at ease, strangling a dreamy pop sound from his stubborn guitar.
(Image: Dominic Dunn by Scarlet Tone)
He starts off mainly alternating between originals and covers, but by the end of it he seems to have run out of his own stuff and ploughs on instead with a couple of radio hits. Run by Snow Patrol, Female of the Species by Space – frankly, I’m hoping to hear a few more Songs by Dominic Dunn. The kid’s clearly talented enough, the material he has is strong, and he seems to give himself more license to play around with them than with the covers. I put it down to teenage shyness, but hopefully he’ll get over it soon and start playing the way he knows he can.
After Dunn finishes up (and quickly disappears – I’m told for another gig he has in half an hour), Matt Swift pops back on stage for a quick song between acts. He solemnly reminds us about the upcoming anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, while above his head Scrooge McDuck swan-dives into a pile of money. Unperturbed, he plays a genuinely affecting song about the tragedy, 96 Souls, asking for a minute of silence afterwards, which we all observe.
The second act proper, Steve Khan, is possibly the best guitarist of the night. He is also by far the unluckiest. He plays a great set mostly of covers (including two brilliant John Martyn numbers), but is plagued by guitar problems. His guitar doesn’t stay in tune. When he gets it in tune, it slips back out mid-song. The guitar he borrows to replace it is far too quiet, which takes the length of another song to sort out. The strap keeps getting in his way. These and a million other little things mar his performance. I don’t really want to go on, because he was a great musician, and I would hate to judge him on this night alone. Catch him on a better night at his regular gig at The Cornmarket opposite The Slaughterhouse.
(Image: Steve Khan by Scarlet Tone)
Next up is The Fire in the Forest Collective, or what’s left of them. Down from a full band of seven to just two guitarists/singers, and playing their first gig as such, it would be unfair to say the band has been cut down. More like distilled, streamlined. They may not be capable of producing the same racket they once did, but it’s hard to deny that the songs in their new form have a certain clarity of purpose injected into them. Ones to watch.
Karl McCann is one of those faces you will recognise if you spent a lot of time at the old Masque, particularly during the Dry Bar years. A bit of a dark horse, he plays guitar in a way that’s become quite standard in alt. rock when done with an electric guitar, but that I guessed wouldn’t have worked with just a single acoustic. Turns out I was wrong. With his weird guitar style and soft, high humming voice, he’s strangely off-kilter, but cool and controlled. I’m not entirely sure how to take him. I suppose that’s kind of the point.
(Image: Karl McCann by Scarlet Tone)
Sunday Jones are a fairly infectious pop-rock trio, tonight comprising two guitars and a lonely snare drum. Their songs have been featured, so I’m told, on TV and adverts, and they’re signed to a New York record label. But to me, they just sound like a bit of a standard, poppy pub-rock band. Maybe that’s the kind of thing that works for TV and adverts, but it’s a bit difficult to find much to love about it, to really sink your teeth into. Their whole set is played well, sold well, received well. But ultimately it just feels like they’re going through the motions, another day at the office. There’s no struggle in it.
Last up is Andy Cowan, who suffers from a similar problem. He’s an accomplished guitarist, a talented singer, and… nope, that’s about it. I don’t want to say anything too mean about him, because he seems like a nice enough guy. His music just doesn’t mean anything to me – it doesn’t say anything to me. It’s pleasant noise, inoffensive sound, the kind of thing you might hear playing behind a kiss-in-the-rain scene on The OC or something. But like that show, it lacks depth and humanity, and what it has in its place is some crude caricature of it.
(Image: Gig goers. Forest Collective with ManGone reviewer, Mr Michael O’Farrell, himself by Scarlet Tone)
The night is over, and Matt thanks us all again for coming along. The words are barely out of his mouth before he’s deconstructing the mic stand. Matt Swift: singer/songwriter/promoter/roadie/activist. When I step back out into Allerton Road, it’s just past midnight, and I’m about one wrong turn away from suburbia. There are nights like this all across the country, if you know where to find them. And if you want to.
Words: Michael O’Farrell
Photography: Scarlet Tone
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