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Pale Fire // The Red Skies // Mathew Hill - The Wakes, Oakengates 28.06.2019

A hot sultry June evening and it’s a sweat box. Lights low, a decent crowd building and The Manics’ ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ bleeding through the PA as I show my ticket to Dave. Dave also happens to be doubling up on sax tonight, for the first time in a long time, as well as doing door duties. That’s the kind of thing that happens here: it’s a DIY machine that Nick Knowles himself would be proud of.

It’s not my first visit to this regular band night at The Wakes, indeed, I’ve been at all but two gigs at what is a relatively new venue that has already hosted multi-instrumentalist and producer extraordinaire, Ethan Johns and Jazz legend, Henry Lowther. There is a special ethos at this community hub and that is to primarily encourage and give an opportunity for local bands to showcase their own songs and material. Nothing new in that, I hear you say. Well, in towns up and down the country where stand-alone music venues are closing, and where the plethora of pubs open their doors mainly to covers and tribute bands, it is refreshing for a venue and promotor to say no, ‘we’ll have none of that here!’

Tonight, it’s the turn of veterans of the Telford scene, Pale Fire to headline what turns out to be a benefit gig, where each of the musicians is giving their fee to the venue to buy some new monitors and mic stands to add to the house PA, so passionate they are about making this work for local musicians and the community at large.

Opening support is a regular songster at The Wakes, Mathew Hill, a leftie guitarist with a shouty busker style delivery and a clutch of well-crafted songs that are in your face loud and proud. He has a distinctive guitar strumming style and his short set of songs contain some nice lyrical hooks that once you get to hear a few times are hard to let go. It is a nice warm up for the indie rock wave to come, and I am sure this is not the last time we see Mathew Hill at the mic.

Fresh from gigs at The O2 and a headline at The Flapper, Birmingham, Shropshire based, The Red Skies, casually wander to the stage, plug in and step up to the mic. They are a cool looking bunch, with a couple of impressive hipster beards in the guise of Chris Simmons on guitar and vocals and Jack (1) on bass, with Jack (2) holding it all together on drums and the swaggering Macca on guitar and vocals. There is an unusual sharing of the lead vocal duties, which gives the band balance but also a contrast between Chris’ smooth low tones and Macca’s Liam Gallagher growl and stance. There is a beast of a bass sound and while sometimes the snare drum loses its snap and cut to drive the sound through, they manage to create a intense groove.

The songs have a heaviness and a depth to them, contrasted by Macca’s lead guitar work, which is shrill and biting on ‘Snake Charmer’. But on other songs it bites too much and doesn’t express enough diversity of sound to give each tune an individual identity and sometimes gets lost in the ether. ‘It’s Not Too Late’ is a great opener and ‘Take My Soul’ leaves the audience, as any performance should, wanting more. The best song is ‘Found It Finally’ with a wonderfully soulful vocal hum from Simmons.

There is a confident air about The Red Skies that they would do well to nurture but would be also minded to hold in check: let the music do the talking. They have the songs, they have the look and now. a settled line-up. With a few more performances like this, they are on their way to building a strong fanbase, winning plaudits and turning the skies a very vibrant red wherever they tread.

With the stage now set for headliners Pale Fire there is a palpable expectation from the many regular punters in the crowd. It is just before the band goes on that Dave, who checked my ticket, announces that it is thirty-nine years since he played sax with the band. It is a revelation that astonishes me, and I can see the nervousness and angst on his face. These guys are original punksters and while the music is not quite Punk these days, the beating heart of the band still bangs with the same messages of social depravation, societal apathy, lost generations and there is a definite leftish political leaning. You don’t name your band after a novel by Nabokov for nothing.

There is nothing to fear for Dave. There is some lovely interplay between the sax and Mike Veric’s guitar playing reminiscent of Roxy Music’s Andy Mackay and Phil Manzanera. Ray Adams is front man and raconteur. He’s one of those singers whose voice is the same when he sings and when he talks. The London/southern accent has a streetwise edge and the lyrics are delivered with the air of someone who says, ‘I know what I’m talking about, you get me’? All are seasoned musicians and the clean, tight drumming of Jon Page is supported well by some high up the neck bass from Rob Brown. The real surprise is from Ron Cooper with some lovely backup guitar and some great Ebow work on ‘Redemption’ and ‘The Raven’.

Their leftist credentials are nailed with a rambling Donald Trump intro for ‘Fool On The Hill’, and with songs ‘The Man Down Your Street’, ‘Beaten Generations’ and ‘Shackles & Chains’. It’s an accomplished set and despite it being their first outing this year, there is a chemistry that enriches the performance and transcends any rustiness shown from lack of regular gigging. Above all, they are a down to earth, honest bunch and for their dedication to their craft and generosity to the cause, I salute them.

Review - Mark Welby Johnson

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