Review: Nil By Mouth Sessions II

The Shark. Photography by Chris Vella.

The second edition of the Nil By Mouth Sessions saw a packed house at V-Gen in Paceville, and no wonder, given that this year’s line-up was nothing short of impressive.

The two-day-long festival, organised by Hairyamp, opened on October 5 with a spirited performance by the local The Violent Violets. Interesting sound with quite a bit of promise, particularly from drummer Samuel Xiberras (who also plays with The Clandestines), although they do need a lot of work on the vocal side of things.

The Violent Violets set the tone for the rest of the first night, which turned out to be a high-octane, pumping sound affair.

The first foreign act on stage was Joe Gideon & The Shark: they were meant to play in Malta last year but had cancelled last minute due to unforeseen circumstances (aren’t they always?).

Throughout these past months I have been slowly falling in love with this brother-and-sister duo; their music feeds off the semi-autobiographical lyrics and, when listening to their CD, the words almost take priority over the music.

However, when you hear these guys live, it is a totally different kettle of fish, with Gideon’s gravelly voice, his riffs and The Shark’s spectacular percussion moves blending together into a mind-blowing sonic experience.

This duo knows the true meaning of showmanship. The Shark drips glamour with her attractively over-the-the-top moves, in perfect synchronisation with Gideon’s ‘choreographed’ guitar riffs and poetry reciting. How can you choreograph poetry and guitar? I don’t know; ask these guys, they manage and the result is lethal.

The sound at V-Gen was pretty perfect, which meant that the crowd could immerse itself into a total music experience while also enjoying the full benefit of Gideon’s half-drawled, half-sung lyrics.

The duo played most of the favourites from Harum Scarum; one of my top choices, Hide and Seek, came on towards the beginning of the set. Its inherent darkness comes across even better live.

Hearing Gideon whisper: “What I didn’t like about him was the way he smelled, or the clothes his mother made him wear, or his stupid curly hair” two feet away from me pretty much sent shivers down my spine.

Kathy Ray was one of the biggest crowd-pleasers, with everyone shouting out the lyrics even before Gideon himself. Civilization was equally well-received. The whole set contained no duds and, as they left the stage, I told myself that the rest of the acts were going to have a hard time following this one.

Turns out I was wrong. Friday’s session came to an end with Tall Ships, the Brighton-based trio are currently being tipped to be the hottest young things around since Mick Jagger pouted those lips at us.

Well, they are certainly easy on the eye. Their music, however, is far from easy on the ear – and yes, that is a good thing. If the music is of any worth, it needs to totally take over your senses, capture your whole imagination without leaving room for any outside distractions. It needs to make you just a tad uncomfortable, even.

These guys managed all this with a perfectly blended succession of tracks (Gallop and T=O were particularly amazingly executed) that have already made them the talk of town on publications like Q Magazine and The Guardian.

The crowd, which for once was extremely well-prepared, lapped it all up and the front of stage didn’t take long to become one cohesive mosh pit. Always a good sign, of course. As was the fact that the cries of “We want more” continued long after the band actually gave us more and left the stage with an endearing “Grazzi” and a reference to one of Malta’s most famous beer brands (pronounced badly, of course).

Saturday’s line-up was no less impressive. On the local front I finally got to catch a performance by the enchanting Carrie Haber, who is now pretty exclusively based in London. The singer presented an irresistible combination, with her bubbly personality, drop-dead gorgeous looks and rather amazing vocal range. Her music contains just enough weirdness to make it intriguing while still being rather catchy, and her quirky style reminds me somehow of Amanda Palmer in a good way. Crash and Burn, one of her most popular compositions, brought the house down.

Although I feel that Haber’s original material is good enough that doing covers is a waste, she did include two superbly reworked versions of Sweet Dreams and Skinny Love. My favourite from the night, however, was definitely Chocolate.

Not many singers can make a song about comfort food and binge-eating interesting, but Haber does, with an irresistible mixture of irony, self-deprecation and cheeky smiles. And that voice, of course.

Haber was followed by The Areola Treat, icons on the local indie scene. Lisa Micallef-Grimaud never disappoints and the Areolas, as they are now affectionately known, delivered a tight performance. The Areolas’ sound has matured significantly since the launch of their first EP.

On this occasion they chose to play mostly tracks from their album Pleasure Machines, although vocalist Lisa Micallef-Grimaldi did promise the crowd some old favourites like Boulevard Werewolf next time round. I have a feeling fans will hold her to that promise.

Micallef-Grimaud’s vocals are as distinctive as ever, making the band what it is. However, it is good to see that the band is also heavily focusing on the guitar and bass side of things and the protracted solos definitely work, almost giving it a post-rock sound.

The festival came to an end with the eagerly awaited Esben & The Witch, the trio that refuses to be pigeon-holed into a single genre but that seems to effortlessly combine rock with goth, post-rock, haunting vocals and the constant magic of strong percussions.

Esben’s Daniel Copeman turned out to be just as talented as The Shark on the drums and is also one mean guitarist.

The trio’s tracks rely very heavily on the interplay between Rachel Davies’s soft, alluring vocals and Copeman’s consistently harsh percussion and his guitar solos. The contrast between the two is beautiful.

As with all bands, Esben’s magic is created through the trio’s team effort.

However, I feel Copeman does carry quite a bit of responsibility on his shoulders to create the whole effect. His stage persona is impeccable, with the expected and accepted over-the-top moves coming across as genuinely passionate rather than pretentious.

He eclipses even Davies, with her admittedly effective dramatic pauses and trademark eerie gaze that kept the crowd in thrall.

Organisers Hairyamp managed to pull off a festival line-up that didn’t contain one single fail.

We can only hope that this is set to become a yearly event.

An edited version of this review appeared on The Sunday Times.