Live: Cut Capers + Neville Staple @ Circus of Boom, China Town, Bristol 23/02/15

BOOMTOWN have decided, this year, to run a series of themed events in Bristol in the run-up to the city’s 7th proudly-independent summer festival of the same name. For those who haven’t been or are unaware of the vibes that Boomtown provides, exploring the website and taking a look at the phenomenally well-produced video of the 6th festival last year gives you a great idea of what to expect. Certainly what I experienced at this promotional gig corroborates the fiercely alternative and independently-focused production style Boomtown aims to provide, with an immaculate attention to detail – the weirder and wackier the better.

The Circus of Boom – Official Fair warm ups, to give the series of events their proper name, consists of 6 nights in a temporary venue in the earthy area of St Paul’s in Bristol.

Covering more niche genres such as gypsy, folk and electro swing, as well as bigger bases like reggae and hip-hop, I found myself drawn to the ska night along with two eager companions and we snapped up tickets for the “Chinatown” warm up event.

Motivation for this particular Circus of Boom night came from a couple of channels. Firstly, the chance to see local ska and hip-hop outfit Cut Capers (who I have been following with great interest since first writing about them last year) live in Bristol was a big draw.

Secondly, the Neville Staple Band promised to deliver classic ska sounds as the headliners, and I was interested in how similar the sound would be to the iconic The Specials, of which he was a member.

Curiosity about the new, temporary venue created for the Circus of Boom was a third factor, and alongside an intrigue into the concept of Boomtown as a festival, the combination of reasons proved irresistible.

It was, as it turned out, a phenomenally crafted event. The venue, the costumes and décor, the bands and the crowd came together to provide a fantastic platform for Boomtown to showcase why they should be near the top of the list for any festival-goer this summer.

The entrance to the gig was patrolled by two costumed ladies on high stilts who had clearly not held back whatsoever on the Chinatown fancy dress code, but maybe could have spent a bit more time on their East Asian linguistics, as an enthusiastic “konichiwa” was aimed in our direction. Friendly bouncers waved us in and we entered the venue.

To describe the ambiance in one sentence: small-sized warehouse meets medieval English town. Throw in a group of scantily-clad Chinatown dancing ladies and a pop-up bar (with pints of Becks for £3.50 to boot) and you’ve found yourself a winning formula.

The raised stage fit in well next to a thatched “Olde English” walkway above the entrance, where the contingent of costumed dancers perched perilously, their seductive movements somewhat at odds with the overriding ska look of trilby hats and frantic brass sounds.

Exploring an open side door at the beginning of the night led us to a small upstairs seated area. In a standard venue this might be a VIP area; not the case with the Circus of Boom. We stumbled upon a real circus of characters, of varying costume influence (clowns, Chinese men and a terrifying cockney witch) and dubious sobriety, and were informed that later it would become a games room.

Barmy Bristol - Picture by Faye Hedges.
Barmy Bristol – Picture by Faye Hedges.

What games, we pondered? Hazy chess? A two hour competitive Monopoly session?

We quickly decided it would be something more sinister, and a particularly intense conversation with the aforementioned witch proved too much for one of my companions. We promptly fled the games room and went back to reload on beers and prepare for the music.

Counting Coins were up first. As a band, they have an interesting look. The trumpeter, MC, drummer and guitarist all looked as though they could have come from completely different genres, but this disparity in appearances did not translate to musical output as they delivered a solid performance of songs such as ‘What Gives You The Right?’. It was a great start to the evening, with the hip-hop backed by bouncy ska. Throughout the performance, the enthusiasm of the MC and the heavy drums produced gave them the ska-punk sound, and this band from Hull were confident, involved with the crowd, one to keep an eye on for the future.

Cut Capers killed it in China town
Cut Capers killed it in China town – Picture by Faye Hedges.

We had been excitedly looking forward to a live Cut Capers performance, expecting great things, and were not disappointed when they gave the stand out show of the night. Great interaction with the crowd, a natural stage presence and a faultless musical exhibition came together seamlessly. Early on in the set, a surprise cover of Witness The Fitness’ was received rapturously by the crowd (and even more enthusiastically by our group), and at the end, a ska-style cover of Zorba’ sent Cut Capers out on a big high. In between these two, the band played a number of their original songs, such as Say What’ and ‘Pinstripe Tux’, as well as mainly Spanish vocals from ‘Walk Away’ and The Trip’.

The quick fire flows, clever rapping and big brass sounds really brought the venue to life. Something that really stood out was how the band would skilfully bring back a chorus from an earlier play – a nice feature that they really got right. The Spanish MC had a genuine rapport with the crowd, first giving a shout-out to his mum (clapping away in the games room upstairs) and later instructing the crowd to raise ‘las manos’ in the air. We bumped into some of the band in the smoking area outside afterwards, and congratulated the other MC-saxophonist (particularly on the Roots Manuva sample) who was appreciative and humble, and seemed like a genuinely nice bloke. 10/10 looking forward to seeing them again.

neville staple 1
The Neville Staple Band brought some classic ska vibes – Picture by Faye Hedges.

The arrival of the Neville Staple Band saw the night return to the vintage ska sounds you’d expect from one of the members of The Specials some decades ago. A brief technical mishap at the beginning of the set temporarily put a bit of a downer on as one of the brass players quite rudely demanded the sound minions fix the issue, but this was quickly forgotten as feet and arms starting moving around to some really great music. Although I think most people were hoping for a famous song from Staple’s previous band, everyone was still pleasantly surprised when ska anthem A Message To You Rudy started. A brilliant end to the night, and whilst not as high-tempo as the prior sets, it was to be expected with the removal of the rapid and bouncy hip-hop that characterised Counting Coins and Cut Capers.

The Circus of Boom fundamentally got it right when it came to providing a unique and weird (in a really good way) backdrop to present some of the more unique genres alongside some classic ska.

I’m hugely tempted to see if Boomtown can replicate the atmosphere, which was similar to one of a small, independent festival with the attention to detail, on as a big a scale platform as their summer event provides. There are still some tickets for the remaining Circus of Boom events – I highly recommend giving them some consideration to get a taste of what this summer could hold.

Credit to Faye Hedges Photography for the images.

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