The final night of the world’s largest winter festival, Celtic Connections, and the 15th birthday celebration of Glasgow based indie label Chemikal Underground (home, at various times, to Mogwai, Arab Strap, The Delgados and The Phantom Band) gave the O2 ABC dual reasons to smile through the Sunday night blues. With a mammoth bill of seven eclectic acts blazing through half a dozen tracks each, interspersed with label-affiliated videos, Chemikal Underground fell somewhere between a live version of an album sampler and a full on mini festival.
Surprisingly, the ABC didn’t seem that up for it. The indie-folk sounds of Ireland’s Adrian Crowley passed with barely a whisper, followed by a similarly drab reception for local starlets Zoey Van Goey, who produced a subtle brand of electro-tinged, shoe gazing indie worthy of substantially more attention than it seemed to generate. Maybe it was Sunday night fatigue; perhaps the noise absorbing size of the venue, but State found the ambience markedly uninspiring.
The music, though, was far outdoing the crowd. A debut performance from pulsing rockers The Unwinding Hours (featuring former members of Aerogramme) – an act that have learnt plenty from Placebo’s angsty melodrama – was followed by one of the label’s owners, Lord Cut-Glass. Accompanied by ten assorted Chemikal Underground musicians, the man otherwise known as Alun Woodward is a former member of The Delgados, and performs an upbeat, folk-influenced blend that’s strangely reminiscent of a very high-class pub session.
Next comes former Arab Strap man Aidan Moffat, giving a truly dazzling performance accompanied by local jazz star Bill Wells. The delicate, shoegazing set finally woke up the ABC crowd, with a focus on slow building rhythm and some brilliant sporadic vocals from Moffat, who even threw in a full on spoken word track. Wells might have all the on stage charisma of a laptop, but he’s an ideal foil for charismatic slow-drummer Moffat, who throws abundant emotion into his performance and looks every bit like – for all his past acclaim – his best is yet to come. They make for a duo well worth keeping an eye on.
Judging by the amount of collaboration going on in the Chemikal Underground camp, there’s no doubting this is a close-knit label community: one musician found himself on stage with at least four different acts tonight. Performers like Lord Cut-Glass and Emma Pollock rely heavily on their label for backing musicians, who add a notable oomph to what would otherwise be performances lacking in any real depth. Pollock is another ex-Delgado and another joint label owner, and plays a brand of girl rock that’s heavy on emotion and no doubt aimed – at least in part – at her love interests, past and present. She’s got an independent woman attitude a la Pink, or Garbage’s Shirley Manson, coming over as a strong angst-rock songwriter, if a tad generic. Strangely – despite having a vested interest in Chemikal Underground – Pollock released her debut album on another label, something she’s at great pains not to repeat.
Nominal headliners The Phantom Band are a loud, sleazy and extremely tight act that fully justifies the hype surrounding them late last year. Moustachioed lead vocalist Rick Anthony grunts and struts like a percussion-fixated Dick Valentine, while the rest of the band produce a full on -wall of sound’ aural assault, tinged with eclectic influences that seem to stem from areas like horror movies and extraterrestrial movie sound effects. It’s heavy alternative rock with a great new twist, and the band’s lively stage presence and plethora of unusual instruments – check out the use of a Melodica in particular, which makes some members of The Phantom Band look like their puffing on a Hookah when the smoke machine kicks in – make them both different and inspiring.
For a small, in-house indie label, it’s genuinely exciting that Chemikal Underground have managed to achieve so much in so little time, and – despite the notable absence of star acts like Mogwai tonight (the Scottish superstars left the label after their first two albums) – are still able to put out such a strong range of acts, and pack out a warehouse-sized venue. Scotland’s underground indie scene, it seems, is alive and well.
Photo via Flickr.
For more information and to plan your winter break in Scotland, visit
This show was part of the Celtic Connections festival: www.celticconnections.com