HeroFest 2010 A Huge Success: Alex James on the Road

31 May

Thank you for coming back my dear readers. It’s been quite some time since I’ve last updated the much-maligned State of Affairs webspace, but I would like today to mark the beginning of a trend back to what you’ve come to expect over our almost-one-year together. I promise I have an acceptable excuse for my absence, though, and before you start buying up nails and lumber for the inevitable crucifixion, I’d like to explain what I mean

Eight years ago I travelled to Jolly Old England to visit a friend I’ve known for many, many years. His name is Anthony Martin, and he’s a musical Jack-of-all-trades. Singer, songwriter, bass and guitar player for more bands than you’d care to shake a stick at, and most recently – promoter extraordinaire. For several years now he’s been running the titular AntFest musical festival in his home county of Kent, England; every year, he gathers his friends and compatriots in the astonishingly-large Kent music scene to come together for a day-long festival in support of a chosen charity that changes up each year.

This year AntFest was renamed in favour of the charity Anthony picked for this year’s festival: namely, Help for Heroes. As usual I urge you to check out the link, but here’s the Coles notes: H4H is a UK-based charity designed to raise money to support British war veterans wounded in action abroad, most notably in the Middle East. According to the charity’s chairperson Haydn Parry,

“Long-term injuries need long-term solutions. Going forward, Help for Heroes aims to supplement the available facilities and care so that those in rehabilitation get the very best facilities and treatment in order to recover from their injuries and rebuild their careers.”

Anthony has been hounding me for several years to participate in AntFest (for those of you who are new here, I’m not just a brilliant blog writer, I also try my hand at music) and up until now I’ve not been in a position where I could justify the trip. This year, thanks to the flexible nature of my position here at the Complex working for the Fixer, I was able to take the time required to fly out and perform. See? Not a bad excuse, right?

The obvious argument against my little working vacation was raised to me by a few Correspondents: “But Alex, you don’t support the war in Iraq. In fact you’ve been rather vocal in your castigation of the previous American administration…we think the descriptive terms ‘cluster-fuck’ and ‘shit-festival’ have been used more than once. Why go support this cause?”

Since I’ve been gone for so long, I’m not going to strap on my trusty soap-box shoes regarding this topic (I need to ease you all back into this), so suffice to say there’s a line between arguing against a war and arguing against the troops. It’s a big, thick, bright line with all kinds of ancillary considerations attached to it. Do I support the war? No. Do I think the Bush administration did little other than to make an unstable situation even worse? Absolutely. Do I blame GI Joe or GI Jane for the blunders of the administration? Why the hell would I? They aren’t policy makers; they’re soldiers. It’s their job to go where their government sends them and get shot at all day by people who don’t want them there. I doubt many of them particularly want to be there, but for their own reasons they are, and if they’re lucky enough to come back at all, many of them are returning missing key parts of their anatomy or with a few more holes than they had when they left. And, as I’ve written about before, for a country to ignore or shun their veterans just because the overriding public opinion runs contrary to the policies of the government is unconscionable. I’ve met veterans of many wars; some of them are even family members. What kind of person would I be if I were to cast the shadow of blame on the very people the blunder hurts the most?

Ant put it better than I did, in an interview he did with a local paper in Kent:

“Our soldiers who go abroad to fight are heroes, regardless of the legality or ethical nature of any war. They may not believe in the war themselves but they are doing their job with bravery and dignity.”

Damn right.

So it was with great pleasure that I shelled out some hard-earned for a cheap flight overseas, packed a bag and ascended skyward to the land of ancient history, bitchin’ music and bad teeth to play the appropriately-renamed “HeroFest 2010”.

I mentioned before that the music scene in the Kent area is surprisingly large, and I wasn’t kidding. For an area that only boasts 1.5 million residents I was absolutely shocked to find so many talented musical outfits who had the time and inclination to come out and play HeroFest. I’ll come back to that in a minute.

But first: what a venue! The show took place on Sunday 2 May at a bar called the Red Lion in Gravesend (a little outside the tri-town area in Kent, maybe an hour and a half south of London), and I can confidently say this venue, located in the middle of Nowhere, is easily on par with most of what I’ve seen in Toronto. The bar maintains no fewer than five performance spaces, which is impressive given the size of the place. The main stage is in its own separate building attached to the bar (called “Leo’s House of Fun”) while a second Rotary Club-esque stage lives in the basement of the same. There are two outdoor stages out back of the bar proper, and an acoustic space is provided in the main room of the bar itself. All of these boast a full PA and most of the associated gear any self-respecting band would require.

I played my set on the acoustic stage in the main room, but the real show-stopper was the main stage. Thanks to the help of soundman Vic Wintergreen and lighting tech Tom Crittenden, the main stage looked and sounded absolutely spectacular. The sound was good and loud without being overpowering, and the light show would have been as at home on any major venue stage this side of the Atlantic. The smoke machine was also a nice touch, as was the awesome mural of the lion featured directly behind the performers. Vic and Tom deserve major kudos for setting up such a fantastic musical space, and the fact that room was packed from open to close is testament to that claim.

And as for the bands. Well. I’ll have to admit I was a little surprised for a few reasons, speaking as a foreigner to the UK. First of all, when I arrived at the Lion I initially felt distinctly out of place: as I looked around I noted that almost everyone was done up to the nines in what I can only describe as “scene” gear: as far as the eye could see I was surrounded by long bangs, full-sleeve tattoos, plug earrings and skinny jeans. Welcome to Emoville, population: everyone but me. I’ve written before about my distaste for that particular style, both in fashion and in music, so my outlook was somewhat dim from the starting gate, but I’m pleased to say I was pleasantly surprised: not only was everyone really, really cool, but almost every band whose performance I was privy to was absolutely excellent – and diverse. I came in fully expecting an afternoon of Paramore and My Chemical Romance ripoffs: not the most appealing of prospects where I’m from, but what I got was an incredible range of musical talent, from hardcore to mainstream rock to punk to acoustic-folk (my personal favourite). There are too many bands for me to list individually but I’ll cover a few here.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to see as much of every band as I wanted to, mostly because I couldn’t be in four places at once. But given the show started at 2pm and I didn’t go on until seven, I managed to catch a solid several – and I’m glad I did.

I spent most of my day hanging around the acoustic stage in the main room, since that’s where I’d be playing and because acoustic rock is where it’s at as far as I’m concerned. Turns out that overreaching statement proved true.

The first act up was a very young duo calling themselves “The Damsels”. I’ll admit it wasn’t without some trepidation that I approached this act, because I hadn’t yet had a taste of what HeroFest would offer and apparently I completely forgot that I used to be young, too. Once they started playing, however, I was rightly shamed to doubt them. Headed by seventeen year-olds Sara Harrington and Callum Morris, the group delivered a soulful set of home-spun acoustic numbers with Harrington providing the lead vocals and solid rhythm guitar work, and Morris backing with pleasantly melodic harmonies and pop-friendly licks that did a lot to fill out their sound. This is a group to watch, in my opinion; they’re still on their way up and smoothing out the rough edges of their performance, but I reckon in short order they’re going to be something really special. Of particular note was their charming acoustic rendition of Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name”. I really never thought lines like “fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” could be delivered so sweetly – shows what I know.

I decided to stay put after The Damsel’s set, partly because I was waiting on a Red Lion house ale (quite tasty, by the way) and partly because the next act up looked like they were going to be interesting. They call themselves Laveer and they do some of the best female-driven folk music I’ve heard since Joni Mitchell. Lead singer Aimee Herbert is an absolute delight to listen to; her voice calls to mind early Sarah McLachlan, and the way she interacts with her lyrics instills a deep sense of longing in the listener (me), but for what I can’t quite put my finger on. She was backed up by what might have been the best acoustic duo I’ve seen this year: I was only briefly introduced so I haven’t got names for you, but check out their Myspace page and you’ll see what I mean. Unfortunately they didn’t stick around long after their thoroughly enjoyable set because they had another one to go play that evening (lucky bastards) but I fully intend to keep my eye on these guys, and you should too.

Next up was the cleverly-named acoustic duet Balls Deep, the brainchild of veteran players Dave Irving and Dan Nash. I’d met Dave the day before the show at a band rehearsal for his other outfit (I’ll get to them shortly) and he’s hands-down one of the best rock guitar players I’ve ever had occasion to watch, so I was interested to see what he’d do with an acoustic in hand. For those interested, he’s also a really nice guy. They opened their set with a song I found vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it: I discovered later it’s because the majority of their set consisted of delightfully tongue-in-cheek covers of hip-hop/dance/R&B songs (the first one wound up being “Replay” by some guy called Iyax). I would continue to dish praise on these guys, but why don’t you just swing on over to YouTube and check out their entire filmed set list from the Help for Heroes show? Here’s a taste of what you’ll get:

My enjoyment of the acoustic stage was wrapped up by the very talented Sam Craddock, a solo artist who bills himself as Hands Shaped Like Hearts. I’ll go on the record saying I can only take so much of the Dallas Green / Chris Carrabba school of singer-songwriter, not because I don’t like their lyrics (I really do) but mostly because I find they tend to get a bit whiny after two or three songs. Sam wins on both counts here because not only are his lyrics heartfelt and emotionally relevant, I never seem to tire of his voice. I’ll admit to tearing up a little during his extremely poignant number “Drive” (which I’ve included below) and at the time I was willing to put it down to the superhuman amount of whiskey I’d consumed by the time he took the stage, but Sam was kind enough to give me a copy of his EP “It’s Just A Ride”, and every time I hear that song on my iPod I find myself dabbing at my eyes just a little bit, so the staying power is there. Like many of the other performers I met during my short stay, Sam is an incredibly nice guy, and we’re hoping to organize a cross-Atlantic double bill tour, coming to a city near you in 2011.

After that it was over to the aforementioned main stage, where I was treated to some of the best rock and roll I’ve seen in a long time. I’ll admit by that time I was more than a little in the bag, but after going back and reviewing the work I saw, it turns out my memory was less fazed by the booze than I initially thought. If I were you I would check out Paul Richards’ fantastic outfit The Representatives who I was lucky enough to meet before their excellent set – Paul is a Canadian expat who also fronts the legendary Kent band One Day Elliot, a band I’ve been listening to for years thanks to Ant.

An unusual (but really fun) addition to the lineup was the talented Tim Lawrence of Maybe We’re Ghosts? – one of the most energetic one-man electronica lineups I’ve ever seen live. I genuinely didn’t think any one man could go on stage at a rock show with naught but a Macintosh laptop to support him and convincingly rock the house, but Tim delivered in spades. He was like a human pinball, bouncing all over the stage, holding the mic out to the crowd for the big moments and generally being a genuinely enjoyable personification of insanity. He was an incredibly cool guy who manned up and took the stage despite spending the day before spectacularly hung over – you would never have known it from his performance, believe me.

Also noteworthy was the hilarious – and incredibly talented – cover outfit Rage Against the Latrine (just guess who they’re covering). They bill themselves as the Medway towns’ fourteenth-best RATM tribute outfit, and while they’re being tongue-in-cheek, I can’t imagine the other thirteen are nearly as good. Featuring the aforementioned Dave Irving on guitar (he sounds just like Tom Morello) as well as the talented Chris Mills (lately of Fall of the Forest), Ant on bass and the absurdly talented Chris Baxter behind the kit, the band can quite literally play their asses off – and even with all the beer they drank (except poor Chris who was the DD) they still pulled off a remarkable set.

Their singer was out of town during the show, so they invited the other performers up on stage to take on the vocal spots: I may have wound up on stage screaming incoherently into a microphone until the band asked me to kindly fuck off back to the bar, but thankfully there’s no photo evidence of that little mishap.

There were dozens of other bands I didn’t have time to see – the price you pay for having that much going on at once, I guess. For those interested, my own set seemed to be well-received and I gave away a handful of CD’s to interested parties – I have a standing invitation to head back and play whenever I like, and there’s a very good chance I’ll take them up on that.

What was the outcome? It gives me great pride to tell you all, my dear readers, that HeroFest raised almost four thousand pounds in support of Help for Heroes (for those of us on this side of the Atlantic, that’s about six grand. I was genuinely honoured to be part of such a great festival for such a worthy cause, and everyone involved in the production and implementation of the HeroFest show deserves heaps of praise and huge thumbs up.

And as for me? Well, I spent the rest of my time in England jetting about, playing shows, looking at really cool ruins and meeting more spectacular people than I can shake a stick at, but if there’s one thing nobody wants to see, it’s my vacation photos, so I’ll save you all the misery.

And that’s why I haven’t updated recently. I hope this gets me off the hook, but if it doesn’t, why don’t you come back tomorrow when I’m finally back on track and you can get back into the groove of enjoying your daily dose of cynicism from Alex James, blogger extraordinaire and (apparently) international rock star.

Thanks for your patience, my friends, and welcome back to State of Affairs.

3 Responses to “HeroFest 2010 A Huge Success: Alex James on the Road”

  1. Vic May 31, 2010 at 4:44 PM #

    Nice words there, and thanks for the bigup. You have put the argument very succinctly. It was a great day for a good cause. Vic

  2. Ant Martin June 1, 2010 at 3:19 AM #

    You, sir, are my hero :)

    It already feels like it’s been too long so lets make it a much shorter interval before our next hanging out sesh!


  3. Shayla June 1, 2010 at 7:45 AM #

    Glad you had a good trip, and glad you’re back.

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