The Sunday Review: British Sea Power and Race Horses, live in Bristol

by Victoria Williams

One of the best things about Bristol, if you are as easily excited as I am, is that half the nightlife there is on boats. You want to go to the pub? There’s one on a boat. To a club? There’s one on a boat. To a gig? On a boat. And so on. With that in mind, it was surely destiny that brought Brighton-based indie rockers, British Sea Power, to town to play a sold-out show. On a boat, naturally.

Popular floating entertainment venue, Thekla, was packed to the rafters – literally, as it’s an old fashioned, wooden ship with a high balcony – by the time support band, Race Horses, took to the stage. Race Horses are a criminally under-hyped four piece from Aberystwyth whose debut album, Goodbye Falkenburg, was released in 2010. Their eclectic mix of bouncy pop, vintage synths and 60s pyschedelia went down a storm with a crowd already merry from sampling Somerset’s finest. (Rumours started circulating halfway through the night that the constantly busy bar had run out of cider. It hadn’t).

By the end of their set, both band and audience were drenched in sweat, although for the front row a lot of it had been dripped onto them by singer Meilyr Jones’ enthusiastic head-bopping. Stand out tracks were paen to teenage holidays, Benidorm, and debut single Cake, a genius if bonkers song about baking.

Bonkers is also a good word to describe British Sea Power‘s stage set. Famed for covering their mic stands and often themselves in leaves, the six piece temporarily disposed of the foilage to bedeck the stage with a variety of replica birds instead. Singer and guitarist, Yan, has spoken before of his dream to have on stage a 30 foot tall robotic owl with a revolving head and laser eyes, based on the metallic sidekick Bubbo from Clash of the Titans. Clearly, this is still a work in progress, but perched atop his amp was a more modestly sized owl, proudly wearing a Viking helmet. It was joined on stage by a heron, another, mildly demonic looking, stuffed owl and, most colourfully, a life sized flamingo.

The act everyone had been waiting for arrived on stage to rapturous applause and ploughed straight into Who’s In Control, the second single to be taken from new album, Valhalla Dancehall. “It’s militant, not military”, sings Yan on the album opener, which perfectly captures the zeitgeist of  these tumultuous, protest-punctuated times.

Other tracks from the new album gracing the setlist included Stunde Null, a song referencing the fall of the third reich; the ultra energetic Thin Black Sail; slow number, Baby, and Mongk II, both of which see Yan swapping lead vocal duty with brother Hamilton, who plays bass. It wasn’t all new material though – Apologies To Insect Life, from their 2003 debut album, The Decline Of British Sea Power, was met with an ecstatic response, as was rarely heard older track, Oily Stage.

If there’s one thing for which British Sea Power are adversely criticised, it’s a lack of on stage banter with their audience. And it is true that vocal interaction with the crowd is generally limited to Yan and Hamilton’s polite thank yous. But that’s not to say they’re cold or unfriendly – in fact they’re one of the nicest bands I’ve met. What’s more, their performance in Bristol should go some way towards silencing those critics. Not only did they emanate warmth from the stage, as they usually do, with violist Abby Fry smiling throughout, there was even a brief exchange with Bristol’s music super-fan, “Big Jeff”. The subject of a documentary, Big Jeff is a famous face in Bristol – he goes to almost every gig played in the city, head-banging enthusiastically at every one. “Oh, Jeff is it”? said Yan on spotting him in the crowd. “Yeah, how are you”, said Jeff.  “Almost as good as you, mate”, Yan replied. See that? Banter.

Such distractions aside, it was a straight set of 21 songs  – an impressive number considering the venue had a 10pm curfew. They finished with Carrion, a strong fan favourite, also from their debut album, with All In It Together as an encore. It sounded eerily apposite in the age of Cameron.

And then it was over. And as the sweat that had turned to condensation dripped onto our heads, the audience left, clutching brooches, mugs and BSP-branded tea from the merchandise stand. Making our way back ashore, attempting to find our land legs, it felt, for a few moments at least, like we really were all in it together.

Victoria Williamsis a freelance journalist.

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