Live: The Pony Collaboration, Paul Goodwin, Thomas Truax & The Organ Grinder’s Monkey

Thanks in main to illness and apathy, and lots of cool but expensive things coming up later in the year, it has been a quieter gigging year so far than I’d hoped.

I’ve managed to get to three local pub gigs though, each of which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. Two were in Cambridge’s musical Mecca (The Portland) while the other I travelled all the way to Waterbeach for – a round trip of at least, ooh, 10 miles.

So what led me on such a bold trip? None other than The Pony Collaboration. The two Portland shows featured Paul Goodwin and Thomas Truax (with support from The Organ Grinder’s Monkey).

I should probably also say that if you like reading critical reviews, or nasty scathing ones, look away now – this will be something of an unashamed love-in. In fact I’m not going to go into the music really either – you’re on the interweb so check them out (links below). This blog is as much to help me remember what the hell I’ve been doing as anything else.

It all started with a January trip to the village of Waterbeach for the visit of The Pony Collaboration. While heavily rooted to Cambridge in their past they’re very much a London band now, although the Cambridge curse of unrecognition still seems to haunt them regardless.

I guess it doesn’t help their cause that they’re almost impossible to classify (while also being to their great credit). It’s whimsical, twee indie at its heart but the Pony sound is so much more than that. There are traces of Americana, while their songs tend to be multi-layered and intelligent, but more noticeably there is a layer of pure, innocent pop in many of their songs that oozes exuberance.

It was a lovely little show with a great atmosphere, while the set mixed some of my favourite of their tunes with a host of new ones that were really good too; exciting for the next album, although I won’t be holding my breath (they’re not the most prolific of bands). I keep hoping they’ll catch a break and shift some units, but the selfish bit of me is more than happy seeing them for a few quid in cosy little venues.

Talking of venues, this was my first visit to The Sun, Waterbeach and it wasn’t a pub I’ll be rushing back to. There was a Spurs mirror hanging up in the gig room, for gods sake – there’s just no need for that kind of thing. And it had the negative side of the typical village pub about it too – more “you’re new in these parts” stares than friendly country welcomes.

This isn’t a well recorded version of this song, but it’s the only video they’ve been involved with on YouTube, so I figure it’s better than nowt.

And so to The Portland for Paul Goodwin. Paul seems to be very much a Marmite artist in terms of his voice, which is a massive shame because his song writing ability, both lyrically and musically, are streets ahead of many singer-songwriters who have gained a modicum of fame in recent years.

Tonight he’s doing a rare full band show, which isn’t my favourite way to see him. I prefer his solo set, as there’s more emphasis on the lyrics and atmosphere, but the band show does bring out some good tunes you don’t hear him play very often as they need a bit of volume to work.

But the band and crowd seem to enjoy themselves in equal measure, while you could argue the more subtle ones I prefer gain emphasis when surrounded by ‘bigger’ tunes. It’s streets ahead of dull Brit winner Ed Sheeran and his ilk, but in a world chock-full of buskers, bedroom poets and oversubscribed singer-songwriter nights it takes pure luck to get noticed, more than talent.

So while Ed gets to bore a nation to tears on television, the Paul Goodwins of this world are taking the breath away from a handful of punters in the back room of a Cambridge pub.   A good reward for those who take pot luck and head to their local venue on a Saturday night, and it serves the rest of you right. Again, this is a shoddy quality video but hopefully you’ll get the idea!

Another artist who seems forever bound to the back room venues of the world is Thomas Truax, although I expect he’s probably a little less surprised by the situation. If you’re going to spend a career making your own musical instruments, giving them names (and talking to them) and creating your own fictitious town (Wowtown) to base your songs in, you’re probably not aiming to compete with Steps and Oasis.

Truax makes no secret of his David Lynch obsession – even if his look and persona didn’t give it away, the album dedicated to covering the music of Lynch’s films and TV shows certainly would. But that’s not to suggest he’s some kind of copyist – far from it. Thomas Truax is a truly unique, beautifully warped and incredibly gifted songsmith and performer.

There’s a vaudeville quality to his live show that really isn’t like any other show I’ve seen. But while it would be easy to hide poor songs behind the novelty of the home made instruments, light effects and storytelling that is rarely the case here; there’s enough inventiveness, humour and passion going on to keep an enraptured audience smiling from ear to ear long after the set has ended.

Tonight he was supported by The Organ Grinder’s Monkey, a fitting support slot for another former Cambridge performer Ben Garnett. Ben describes his current solo project as “lo-fi glitch rock”, which seems pretty accurate to me. It’s a man and his laptop – plus a guitar and more pedals than the Tour de France – having fun and experimenting with sound, mostly to great effect.

I hate to use the word ‘clever’ about music, as I can’t help but think it sounds derogatory in some way, but this is clever music. I’ve rarely seen someone take such care in making the drama of their music fit the lyrics of each song, and it works beautifully (if usually distortedly too).

From talking about losing control (while letting someone with a game controller distort what he’s playing) to singing about everything always going wrong (having asked us to boo him off at the end and then having the laptop glitch up at the end), this is as much about performance as it is the music itself (which is great in and of itself). Highly recommended.

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