by Danny Hill
Photos By Darren Washington
Conditions were bleak last Sunday night at The Old Brown Jug and it wasn‘t just down to the cold weather. The experts have been warning us for a while that the pub industry is under serious threat due to the collective strength of a smoking ban, a credit crunch, inflated energy prices and cheap supermarket alcohol. And under the grim, dark cloud of a recession, who can blame punters for shopping cheaply and drinking their beers at home? It’s all a little Catch-22. It’s not just licensees bearing the cost of these economically challenging times either. It’s bands and artists. Fans, too, though sacrificially rather than financially. Many of you will already know that The Glebe in Stoke, a fantastic live music venue, will be shutting its solid-oak double-doors for the final time not so long from now. So, as a live music fan, you have to ask… Which one’s next?
The Clay Faces have recently completed the 08 leg of their current tour and so are perhaps the most suitably placed band to speak about the current crisis. I spoke to multi-instrumentalist Paul Dunn from the quartet: “The '08 leg of the tour was pretty much just a warm-up for the big push in '09, so we haven't been too far afield. We've been to places both familiar and unfamiliar and I have to say, the main impression is that live music at the licensed trade level is on its arse. It's the arty/cultural music club and theatre type venues that are the best to play, meanwhile some of the pubs can be really hard work.”
That isn’t to say The Old Brown Jug wasn’t doing any business at all last Sunday night, but the venue offered free-entry and one of the top local bands to its punters and still it only remained half-full throughout the evening. If precedents are anything to go by, the same gig would’ve been packed to the rafters 12 months ago. In the spirit of professionalism, however, the bands were not to be deterred.
First up on Sunday’s bill was Soul 69, an acoustic trio with two guitarists, Marcus handling rhythm and vocals, Doon on lead and Vinnie on the turntable. Their quirky, choppy Iggy Pop- Passenger-style riffs and Marcus’ falsetto singing style fused well and made for agreeable listening straight from their opening song, Lookin’ setting the scene for some genuinely unique songs. Soul ‘69’s reggae and hip-hop influences then came across with their next number Old England, with some awesome scratching and lead work and lyrics laced in social and political irony. Songs Sometimes and Answers set the trio in poppier, sing-a-long territories. They finished their set with the infectious In This World to great applause.
The Trent Vale Poet has followed The Clay Faces over the last few months of their tour. “Taking the poet with us and watching him perform outside his comfort zone has been great,” enthuses Paul. “He really raises his game and it's a pleasure to see his work being enjoyed outside of Stoke. I've challenged him to write a poem about the tour, to be performed at Oggy’s on the 20th Dec. So that should be interesting.”
It’s always a pleasure of mine to see TVP perform, and I’ve seen him numerous times. I’m accustomed his act these days, so it’s not him I‘m watching as he begins. I‘m watching his audience. I’m looking for the ones that haven’t seen or heard of him before. Their initial reaction - they don‘t know what to expect. Trent Vale Poet, a man characterised by his flowing black trench coat with its pockets stuffed with his poetry on scraps of paper, performs his work with such passion and energy that his audience’s faces can sometimes leave them set to stunned. That’s when they’re not wise to his approach. Seasoned followers of TVP look forward to his appearances rapt with attention from the second he grabs the microphone. I Were Born In Fenton! is a poem that personifies his approach, written about a real character from the pubs of Fenton, a character that after a few pints or more would always shout “I Were Born In Fenton!” TVP echoes this broad statement as the entrance to his poem, startling a few punters in the process. But after that they’re hooked, and TVP goes on to deliver a few more poems from his massive repertoire, all perfectly-timed and flawlessly crafted, including the tongue-in-cheek one-liners of A Love Letter To Steve Davis.
Performance poetry and band collaborations are on the rise. Just recently, poet John Cooper Clark supported The Fall at The Liquid Rooms in Edinburgh. With that in mind, you could call TVP a pioneer.
The Clay Faces’ birth, in 2004, came from the demise of Jugopunch - a band, then, more concentrated on its Celtic influences and songs about whiskey-drenched songs of yore. One of the original band member’s Paul Dunn explained their name: “I can take responsibility for being the first one to utter the words 'The Clay Faces' as a band name suggestion.
It came about at an emergency brainstorming session - the first EP was in the can and we had a production deadline to meet, and no name! In fact, the decision to change the name at all completely overshadowed the name itself. But basically we just wanted to have something that tied us back to our roots, so that the name would kinda be an explanation as to what we were up to in terms of us moving away from being 'an Irish band'. We wanted to show that we represented Stoke and her history, her heritage…”
And although the Celtic influence may still be alive with The Clay Faces’ material, only somewhat to a lesser degree, the band admit that it was the demise of Jugopunch that opened doors in terms of their songwriting. The band are certainly no strangers to addressing the problems of society through the medium of social commentary, particularly with songs like Football On The T.V. - a song, ironically, about the decline of the pub trade, and World’s Away - a song regarding recent problems in America and Iraq. “The social comment is a Clay Faces trait,” said Paul. “Jugopunch was mainly the traditional Celtic thing, and then on the last album you can hear that political aspect beginning to creep in, with songs like Dark Waltz... That’s when we realised it was that kind of emotional response and social comment stuff is what we wanted to do. We're pretty emotional types, so singing for 90 minutes about whiskey and highwaymen and bonnie maidens wasn’t really doing it for us - much better to vent our spleens about the real problems like fascism and racism and all the other problematic 'isms'.”
These days, it’s only usually hip-hop artists using their music in this way, and in the sappy-pop order of modern times - the music dominating today’s charts - where thousands upon thousands of television viewers will vote for a Christmas number one that has already been decided twelve months earlier (The X Factor) it’s refreshing to see a band using their music in an innovative way to address issues that are important to everyday life.
The Clay Faces kick off with what is also the first track on their album ‘and the word was..’ the punchy Mississippi Burning, quickly followed by my personal favourite Love Lies Bleeding, percussionist Cara Beech trading her drums for a bodhran, and written by mancunian guitarist Dave Walker. Masters of the build-up and break-down as they are, The Clay Faces then soften the mood with the melodic Will You Come Away With Me, singer Andrew Tranter’s trademark deep-throated bark and venom in perfect working order throughout. Their songs are a reminder of some of the most essential sing-along punk(ish) songs ever written, and played by those who wrote them in the way they were supposed to be played. In my opinion The Clay Faces stand exposed as the most rousing trad-fusion band since The Pogues.
Later on in the night came a cover of traditional Irish favourite Barney Hair, along with a collection of favourites from their Jugopunch days, including Cold and A Fiver On The Horses, with Paul seemingly switching instruments between each song. “I get really bored playing the same instrument all the time,” he said. “Definitely a 'jack of all trades, master of none' thing going on.” Impressively, throughout their set, The Clay Faces use a total of nine different instruments in their set, including the mandolin and a penny whistle. “It's a conscious thing on our part to ensure a bit of variation sonically through the set, and I think it works…”
Singer Andy awkwardly attempts to draw conversation from the audience between songs but, alas, it’s a slow night in The Jug and The Clay Faces are more at ease communicating through their music. Up-tempo versions of Marianne and Monyash Road follow, and for the encore fans’ favourite from the new album And The Word Was… earns great applause. For the encore the TVP-penned Black Hearts rounds the evening off.
As for 2009 the tour will continue further afield, with the band considering a few good offers from different parties. Paul also informs me that the band are currently rehearsing-up a fifth member, predominantly playing bass and lap-steel. In the near-future, however, The Clay Faces, along with TVP and Soul ‘69, will be playing Oggy’s on Dec. 20th.
The Clay Faces
The Trent Vale Poet