The Rifles – Newcastle University SU – 13-10-16

the-rifles-drummer

Gigs on a school night. Who doesn’t love them? They break the monotony of the working week and make us feel all new and shiny and happy again. Especially when you’ve just turned 32 and recently had to explain who She-Ra and He-Man were to the less, erm, mature members of your department.

Part of the reason I’m “Poly ‘til I die” is that Northumbria Student Union was a lot less difficult to navigate, and therefore a deciding factor in selecting my higher education institution of choice. The Newcastle one took me a good twenty minutes and some help from students to get into, making me feel like someone’s nana being taken on a tour of MI5. Good start.

The first support act, Sonny (to be found on Twitter and Facebook under @nowthisissonny) was a fresh-faced local 17 year old who belted out an eclectic mixture of cover tracks by artists as varied as Frank Ocean and Elbow. Normally, I’d rather munch razors than listen to ‘One Day Like This’ since the world and his (new) wife had it as their wedding song from 2008 until The End Of Time, but Sonny’s version brought a freshness to it . With just his voice and his guitar, it was stripped of the bombast it’s been invested with over the years.

Sonny’s vocal maturity was truly astonishing, so much so that I was convinced social media must have his age wrong. Not so. He’s got a headline show at Jumpin’ Jack’s on the 24th November – he is well worth checking out.

The second support act were Scarletinas, a London-based foursome who’d not only stolen the style of the 1970s, but the attitude as well. Slight bit of distortion on the guitar to start? Shrug it off like a proper bunch of rock stars, because that’s how we roll, bitches. They recently covered The Rolling Stones’ ‘I’m Free’ for a Magners cider commercial, and only formed in April, but I’m guessing we’ll be seeing a lot more of them if only because of their sheer ballsiness. As they were playing relatively early in the night, the place wasn’t yet packed, but that didn’t stop lead vocalist Marc Hayward trying to whip the crowd up by encouraging us to clap and whoop along. It didn’t take long before most of us were, but it’ll be interesting to see how many more are going wild for them in twelve months’ time (my predication is LOTS).

Hayward’s deep, powerful vocals have equally strong support from Dan Williams, whose higher pitch truly was a thing of wonder to hear – the contrast between the two singers gives depth and variation to their songs, a personal favourite being ‘Surrender to the Night’, and makes them an astute choice of support for the main act. ‘Walking on Water’ is a track that deserves to be earworming the lot of us until at least February, with often melancholic, almost Country-esque guitar riffs backed up to the hilt by furious drumming from Jim Portas and thunderous bass from Craig Birrell.

scarletinas

With so many pseudo-rock outfits clogging up the airwaves today, Scarletinas feel more authentic because it’s evident that they genuinely believe in themselves as a band. Having formed out of several other bands – The Dash, The Valkrays, and KAV – their swaggering stage presence speaks of a belief that although they’re a young band, they should be far bigger than they are. I can’t help but agree with them. As a side note, I also need the skull-patterned jumper Portas was wearing.

By the time The Rifles took to the stage, the venue was packed and I was skint, having forked out what remained of September’s wages on Scarletinas and Rifles CDs and badges. Having first come across the band when their track ‘Romeo and Julie’ was featured on an episode of Gavin & Stacey, I was intrigued to see them live (this, incidentally, is what means I have far, far less hatred for James Corden than the rest of the general population – he choose the majority of tracks for Gavin & Stacey himself, and picked some absolute blinders).

As this was my first live Rifles gig, I wasn’t expecting to hear ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’ come blasting out as the band took to the stage, but that’s what happened. It suddenly struck me that not enough rock gigs are playful…maybe this is what the world needs more of? Posing and posturing only go so far in these times of austerity and Donald Trump being taken seriously as a member of the human race. As a warm-up song, it certainly wasn’t necessary but succeeded in firing up any crowd members who didn’t quite have that pre-Friday Feeling yet.

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Their opening track proper, ‘Heebie Jeebies’, from the 2014 album None the Wiser, played like a group of friends being welcomed back to the fold after a long absence. It’s a frenetic song, but everybody knew and sang and danced along in perfect agreement with the sentiment “I think we all agree / You’ve gotta have a good time”. The band have credited Oasis as inspiration in the past, and frontman Joel Stoker certainly has a touch of the Gallaghers about him as he holds court; regal, yet still a ‘Man of the People’.

A slight misstep in the opening minutes was brushed off nonchalantly with “We’re The Rifles! We know what we’re doing!”, and, “If anyone’s got any chords for our songs, bring them up!” This is a band arguably at the height of its powers – underground enough to still be niche, yet with songs most people have heard of; confident, but not mired in the arrogance that more famous, yet lesser, artists are.

The relentlessness with which the songs were fired out (no pun intended) was a little dizzying at times but it was interesting to hear the new material intersect with the older songs. ‘Numero Uno’ carries a slight hint of bitterness about “life in the slow lane”, a frustration I sensed was evident when one guy in the crowd yelled repeatedly, “Where’s ‘The General’?” Stoker’s response after this happened for the third time was an insouciant, “We left him in the dressing room.”

the-rifles

A pervading theme in The Rifles’ music is the desire to escape, be better, do things differently; anything to not get caught out doing the same old stuff as everybody else. ‘The Great Escape’ is a glorious paean to this sentiment, but the song following it, another new track from this year’s ‘Big Life’ album, ‘Turtle Dove’, epitomised for me where The Rifles are at right now – still acutely observant, but just that little bit more cynical. “There’s no salvation at your brother’s side” sounds desperately bleak in this world where it seemingly takes images of dead and dying children in the media to galvanise widespread sympathy in a nation that’s the 5th richest on Earth, but the band are speaking uncomfortable truths when stating that “there ain’t no pity in the city of the modern love.”

‘Wall Around Your Heart’’s demand to know “why you gotta make me crawl / and fall apart” speaks of a maturation that will no longer tolerate dissembling, a thread continued in a different vein in the plaintive and eminently hummable ‘Victoria’. This bittersweet ballad to lost love moved me almost to tears, not just with its sweet sadness, but with shared anger at the eponymous heroine’s refusal to “give…a love worth fighting for.”

It was a real shame that ‘Young For A Day’, sung by Lucas Crowther, could barely be heard above the noise of the crowd talking away to each other. This is something that never fails to annoy me at gigs, and there have been times when the artists themselves have had to ask people to shut up. Crowther’s vocals weren’t as strong as Stoker’s, but the song itself was beautiful, and made for a nice change in momentum.

The almost inevitable encore only happened after three solid minutes of chanting from the crowd that never once dropped in persistence. The Rifles are practising what they preach on ‘Big Life’ – if you want it, you’ve got to show that you want it.

Photographer – Victoria Ling

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