Eamon Hamilton of The Brakes, The Voluntary Butler Scheme, Hella Cholla at The Faversham, Leeds
Two guys and a gal stroll into a bar. They are greeted by a plate of Bourbon biscuits at the door in exchange for an e-mail address or just plain charm. Whichever of the three acts on tonight in the Faversham have sponsored said biscuits, they have already won over one member of group that have travelled near (Morley), further (Bradford) and far (Newcastle) to be here tonight.As it is, we have strolled in on the last three songs of the opening act Hella Cholla – the biscuit sponsors.
They are, at the core, a duo act of lively Hannah Yadi on vocals and stoic Will Betts on acoustic guitar although tonight they are supplemented by a bass and simple drum beat. Hannah’s voice fills the bar easily with its strength and sharpness striking the ears of the audience seated around the tea-lit tables in front of the stage or stood, pints in hand, around the columns of the room. Her voice has a tone reminiscent of a southern or even antipodean origin and it ensures the lyrics are sung with clarity and your attention is hers.
The backdrop is a red curtain that forms three sides to the stage and there is a brass bar along the stage front to keep any potential moshing at bay – not that is required tonight as the tables and tea lights create quite an elegant, cabaret ambiance to the room. Hannah certainly captivates and is a little firecracker as she constantly bops about the small stage utilising the microphone prop to its full advantage. Her expressive face eagerly illustrates the songs (co-written with Will) with the passion and energy of a childrens’ television presenter. If this is the result of sugar and E-numbers in Bourbon biscuits prior to taking to the stage, more acts should have Bourbon biscuits mandated on their riders!
Confident as Hannah is when singing, the shy chat to the audience between songs (promoting the hospitality Bourbons and the e-mail sign up) and her nervous impatience as Will re-tunes his guitar endears her to us whereas the strength of her voice and animated show may have left the impression of overbearing brashness.
Just as we are really getting into the swing and toe-tappingness of their Mediterranean flavoured upbeat rhythms, we are informed that the next song, Dance Like Ordinary People, will be their last. We are told it was the first song they co-wrote together and the performance of it is alive with the joy of familiarity and quirkiness that the song holds for both Hannah and Will, who supplies some vocal harmony. The song describes a shy girl with an alarmingly unique dance style “you don’t just dance like ordinary people, neither do i...” – personally, I’d check for Bourbon biscuit consumption – and it makes for a rousing, warm end to their set.
Not too soon after the stage is vacated, a tall, solitary figure unpacks a number of instruments and sets up the keyboard and mics mostly unnoticed by the crowd. By this stage, the two guys and a gal have secured one of the tea-lit tables right at the brass bar front of the stage and have an excellent view of the assembly in action. It’s not apparent until a yellow maraca is studiously shook for a looping pedal to capture, that this is actually the start of the build of the first song from The Voluntary Butler Scheme. Although perhaps not obvious from the act name, The Voluntary Butler Scheme (or TVBS) is all but one man, Rob Jones. Hailing from Stourbridge, Rob is a one-man-band for the Jens Lekman, The Go Team!, Divine Comedy, Mr Scruff loving generation. As he layers up the loops of a maraca, a tambourine, some guitar bridges and some backing vocals of the first song, he does not address nor make eye contact with the audience.
Jones diligently applies each layer with an expression of focus and thought that gives the impression of watching a scientist, or even a magician, set up an experiment. Loops in place and already creating a sound that belies the work of one man, he finally plays the keyboard over it and glazes the finished product with vocals delivered from behind a curtain of hair. The keys are depressed with the same sure footedness that the guitar has been strummed, and he sings Tabasco Sole as his foot keeps rhythm on the bass drum – a true multitasking master. The song ends and he engages the audience from behind the hair and mumbles about his act name not really being indicative of a solo performer. The audience applaud him generously, impressed by the skill alone, to say nothing of the jaunty tune. For the second TVBS song - Hot Air Balloon Heart - he wisely simplifies it down to just the keyboard.
However, there are a number of unused instruments scattered around him and the crowd anticipates what he might pick up next. The Eiffel Tower & BT Tower delights as he adorns a harmonica holder affixed with a Kazoo and then picks up the Hawaiian style tiny guitar. Several tracks in and it becomes apparent there is a food theme threaded within the everyday whimsy of the lyrics. From “a tv chef adding too much seasoning” (The Eiffel Tower & BT Tower) to “if you were broccoli, I’d turn vegetarian for you” (Trading Things In) or “buy my dinner from a dream take-away” (Alarm Clock). These references pepper songs inspired by the mostly sunny side of love and devotion and the quirky turn of phrase “my employment status is low” and the imagery painted in, for example, Blender (which is recipe involving mushrooms, peppers, onions, garlic and his heart) should render smiles even in those who might find it a bit twee.
When all the instruments had their turn in the spot light and the finale of Trading Things In finished with a good thrash at the high-hat and bass drum, the audience was charmed as it should have been by the effort, skill and over all sunniness that The Voluntary Butler Scheme brought to the Faversham. If twee and everyday minutiae are of interest to you (hello Jens fans) and you also appreciate some Divine Comedy, Mr Scruff, the Go! Team and 1970s sounds, then I would encourage you to seek out TVBS.
On a personal footnote here, seeing the performance of Rob Jones of all the instruments in front our eyes and ears then employing use of looping as spare pairs of hands, did not leave me feeling “cheated” at all in terms of giving a false performance. This further threw into sharp contrast the experience of watching Two Madre where the two people played keyboard, guitar and saxophone over full percussion and guitar backing provided by an ipod. It felt rather cheap and lazy to watch – either have the rest of the “band” there, do without and simplify or use a third way shown here by The Voluntary Butler Scheme.
Sometimes, it’s a bit of a worry that the fun of the evening has peaked too early with the support act, especially when not overly familiar with the headline act, as was the personal experience of watching the ridiculously good-time twangers The Wild Strings before the earnest British Sea Power earlier this month. Hopefully this wasn’t to be a case of history repeating with Eamon Hamilton (Brakes, nee BSP) and TVBS.
An unassuming presence on the stage – just a slim man dressed in black jeans, shirt and boots with an acoustic guitar stood where the melee of musical instruments had been strewn earlier. The rest of the stage was darkened so a single spotlight could pick Eamon Hamilton and his glass of red wine out on the stage. But there was a glint in the eye and a curl to the lips that quickly became a gurn Mick Jagger would be proud of as he launched into Spring Chicken and suddenly the character of the Brakes is made clear.
It is Eamon Hamilton with his set list taped to the back of his guitar introducing his songs with a couple of lines of throw away quips that suddenly give the often taken as ironic but nevertheless furious guitar work abare bones openness. Ring A Ding Ding is about George Bush and Tony Blair - and we thought he meant proper Cowboys - and Cheney is "still sadly relevant".
Eamon is on the road to try out new songs but he only has two of them. They both sound like a continuation of the impressive The Beatific Visions album and as someone shouts for Mobile Communication and isobliged one of us wishes he had shouted for Porcupine or Pineapple.
"The next one is a heart breaker" he says. No Return rings out and cuts through the air as the finest song in an impressive collection. He carries on a little after that but the night has been crowned.
And so, as the last flay of the guitar strings for Comma, Comma, Full Stop left their mark on the night, two guys and a gal rose from their ring side seat at the acoustic food cabaret and started to make their way into the night, where they happened upon the plate of Bourbon biscuits nursed by the friends of Hella Cholla. Thinking the night couldn’t be improved further after the triumphant acquisition of the third biscuit of the evening, the event was (chocolate) iced when a post-gig Eamon amiably spent a few minutes chatting to two guys and a gal as he relaxed with wine, cigarette, knitted hat and some of his moonlighting “stage technicians” in which Eamon tells us which of the five is his favourite in Girls Aloud - Nicola - and that The Brakes will be recording their new album in April to release not long after.
Tonight has been the best night so far for Eamon, for Rob Jones who is driving the Brakes man from gig to gig and for the other stage technicians who randomly include on of bright new lights Joe Jean and The Jing Jang Jong and for us because we all smile and we just discovered that when British Sea Power appeared on Later... Eamon was the Wrestler in the blue.
He lost then. We all won tonight though.