Heading out to The Old Blue Last in Shoreditch on a Wednesday night I really wasn’t sure what to expect. Despite having been to plenty of shows at bigger venues, from the Mean Fiddler (under the old Astoria) to the O2 arena, I had never been to a London pub gig.
Upon arriving I found a surprisingly authentic, old-fashioned looking pub, that despite the overly trendy looking clientele, looked like it had been there for decades (if not more) and it was instantly obvious the night’s live music would be taking place in a separate room upstairs.
Heading up the narrow old staircase I emerged into a dark room packed with, at a guess, just over a hundred people, stood watching and listening to Critics who were midway through their set. The London-based band, who are set to support Theory of a Deadman in the near future, delivered a selection of bass and groove driven pop-rock with a good layer of synth included.
Frontman, Lynn Paignton, displayed a friendly charisma in his performance that was confident but not over bearing while bass player Carl Warren delivered the grooves with an admirable cool, smoothness. This all combined into something the crowd in the busy venue really seemed to be enjoying.
As the bands switched over, not an easy task with the only way on and off the stage being off the front into the crowd, it was interesting to see many of the audience stay put, waiting expectantly for the next band to start, not something commonly seen at pub gigs in Guernsey where drawing the audience away from the bar is often a big challenge.
Having seen them many times on their home turf, I was interested to see Of Empires in front of a less familiar crowd, and it was clear from the start that this wasn’t phasing the four-piece at all as they launched into a set made up almost entirely of new material. The new songs continued the band’s development with their cool, slick, rock ‘n’ roll swagger now being matched entirely by the music.
Liam Bewey and George Le Page, as the engine room-like rhythm section, may have provided the power but much of the essence of what makes Of Empires sound came from Matthew Berry’s dexterous, reverb laden, vintage guitar sounds that bring to mind a slowed down version of classic rock ‘n’ roll mixed with something of The Doors and 60s counter-culture vibes.
As always their stage presence is focused and transmitted through frontman Jack Fletcher, who, despite the small stage had all the stances, shapes and poses you’d expect to see from someone like Bono in a stadium, but in this case all driven with a barely contained frantic feel that proved infectious.
While the audience’s response to Of Empires started positive but polite it grew as the set went on and by the time it came to middle-eight of Carla Jack had many singing back to him, ending the set on a high, suggesting this could be a band on the brink of taking the next step.
Despite the positive reception afforded the two opening acts it was clear, as the already busy and hot venue, filled up even more, that many had come out to see the headliners, Brooklyn three-piece, Highly Suspect.
From the start the trio came on with a soulful power in their mix of blues, garage and rock ‘n’ roll, tinged with the infectious energy of punk. Even though this marked their first appearance in London the crowd were clearly already familiar with the band and this gave guitarist/lead vocalist Johnny Stevens already positive stage presence an extra boost.
Stevens’ jagged and fractured punk-blues guitar brought to mind the likes of Jack White but with an extra speed and intensity which was nicely offset by Rich Meyer’s smooth, progressive bass lines all backed by the strong, thundering drums of Ryan Meyer that brought to mind Teaspoonriverneck’s Brett Stewart.
As the set went on Highly Suspect showed a real dynamic sense to their music with more traditional power trio blues (featuring a lead vocal turn from bassist Meyer) along with a semi-solo track from Stevens that showed a dark side within the band’s positive presence driving home their already honest and authentic feeling.
Having been unsure what to expect at the start of the night I headed back to the tube station having seen three good bands and two stand out performances and, while I assume not every pub gig in London is of such a high-caliber, it certainly was a good one to start of with.