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Live Report - Slow Decades

Posted on Wednesday, 10 September 2014 | No Comments

Old friends in a new guise.

For a region so proud of its industrial heritage, it's slightly surprising how obscure a place The Mining Institute is to many in Newcastle. Sitting snug just along from the train station, it's a still-living memorial to a largely extinct way of life, its proud Victoriana an expression not of top-down ownership but of working-class pride. The hall where tonight's event takes place is opulent all right - the high arching ceiling of an old, grand church, beautifully maintained wooden panels and staircases, a carefully kept library of mining. Being here on a Saturday night for a evening of performances from the area is one kind of riposte to the glut of horrific yuppie-bating bars that line the nearby, over-optimistically dubbed Diamond Strip, a calm quiet refusal of the Geordie Shore lie that only the more gullible out there have ever come close to accepting.

A fitting place indeed for tonight's headliners Slow Decades, celebrating the imminent release of their debut album The Frost and The Concrete. It's an album that speaks to a speficially British, even more specifically northern British sense of refusal and isolation. Musically, it's firmly of the indie-pop tradition, but even so the sensitive and dynamic performances the whole band bring to their work elevate them far above the simplistic jangling of their would-be contemporaries: Gary Cameron's woodwind and piano bring a gentle nobility to proceedings, while the simple grace of tracks like Crimson and Fur achieve real beauty with sparse arrangements. Lyrically too, it deals with the awkward lessons of late adolescence - love gone wrong, a mild existential ennui and not knowing your limits down by the pub in particular - and the love/hate relationship with one's home that accompanies the road to adulthood. The narrator may not always be sure of himself, but he's just as sure he doesn't want to be stuck repeating cliches in the place where meaning could have been either.
For the sake of full disclosure, your reporter here at Endless Window should lay his cards on the table: he has indeed been friends with the members of the band for some years, and  a fan of their music for just as long. (This long-delayed debut had in fact been previewed back when this blog started in 2013, back when the band were still known as Our Imaginary Friends.) Their music remains something I am highly passionate about, and that I have friends producing work as strong as The Frost and The Concrete is quite simply a source of gratitude and pride for me. Seeing them perform in a venue as sympatico to them as The Mining Institute - little known yet undeniable, a regional gem that fails to sit within boring, self-propagated narratives - is an ideal frame in which to consider them again.

Supporting Slow Decades on the night were returning local indie heroes Blackflower and the acerbic spoken word of Ettrick Scott. The former started the night with a series of comic rants and heartfelt pleas on modern life and politics that, it's safe to say, certainly found their target audience amongst a crowd as inevitably left-leaning as the one gathered here on this occasion (not that this is necessarily a bad thing, it should be pointed out.) Blackflower's gentle guitar strumming made the transition into the dark of the night that bit smoother, the band premiering a clutch of new material that suggests the newly returned band intends to stick around for a while this time: needless to say, the more established north-east indie heads in the crowd were delighted.

But the point of the night (and, yes, this article also) arrived with a headlining performance from Slow Decades. As effective an opener as Confetti is on album, it blossomed at the start of this set: amidst this beautiful hall, the delicate strings and guitars that glide through the song gained new resonance. As for the lyric - well, singing of selling lies "to London hearts and minds" before wryly commenting "we're simple men from a simple town" gains an extra layer of black humour amidst this reminder of lost identity. Rising to the occasion, the whole band are at the finest tonight: guitarist/keyboardist (and Yellow Creatures man) Paul Gardner keeps pace with Cameron in the instrument-swapping stakes, Sam Sheppard and John Egdell have locked into a fine, delicate rhythm section while Ben Lowes-Smith delivers his best vocal performance to date. The Chaos and Margaret Badboy crunch in all the right places, Hesitation remains a falsetto-led joy and the main set closer Home for the Weekend delivers a beautiful British Sea Power sweep.

Most impressive of all though is the sheer amount of new material they cram into the set. Whilst waiting for the completion of The Frost and the Concrete, the quintet got to work writing the follow-up, and their latest material boasts a new-found directness and confidence that comes at now sacrifice to the band's innate intelligence. Especially striking is a new encore closer that moves their lyrical themes of indecision and insecurity into the strange compromises but also promises of adult life, and does so with the most concise pop punch of any of their songs to date. As rewarding as The Frost and the Concrete is (and it is), tonight also offers a tantalising glimpse of what lies after, of how they can continue to, as Lowes-Smith sings in Sleep It Off, "turn your violence into beautiful art", and offer a striking voice that provides a refreshing and honest take on northern identity.

Live photographs taken by Rebecca Evans.

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