What happens when you take your dragon fairy to a music gig?


On being pleasantly surprised by all four musical acts, the importance of small musical venues, the importance of accessibility of said small venues, and ‘diversity issues’ in comedy.

It’s kind of a risky thing to do – turning up at a pub on the other side of town that you’ve never been to, with your dragon fairy in tow. It’s not the sort of everyday thing anyone does. But as one of Puffles’ younger local followers – Grace Sarah Shelley –  tweeted that she was playing live in Cambridge, I thought it was worth heading across the river.

I first spotted Grace on BBC Look East. The quality of her singing voice speaks for itself. Not surprisingly, positive comments went viral in and around East Anglia – at least for those of us that saw the clip. Yet her musical talents have been known for quite some time locally – Grace won the Cambridge Band Competition at the 2012 Strawberry Fair. Bear in mind she’s still at secondary school.

Puffles with Grace at The Portland Arms just before her live singer/songwriter performance
Puffles with Grace at The Portland Arms just before her live singer/songwriter performance

Grace was on a line up with three other bands: Affairs from Hull, English Sporting Defeat from Soho, and Cambridge funksters The Varsity. My understanding initially was that Grace would play first, and because it was so cold that evening I’d head off once she had played her set. As it was, she was on second and all of the other bands were superb. It’s just a shame that the freezing weather kept many others inside, for the performances that evening all deserved far greater and far larger audiences. One of the things each of the lead vocalists have in bucket loads is stage presence. In the mid-late 1990s I used to go to a number of gigs – at both The Junction and The Cambridge Corn Exchange, along with numerous days at the Cambridge Folk Festival that’s in my neighbourhood every summer. But I tend not to go to see live music these days – more stand up comedy. So going to see four young acts most of whom I’d not heard of was not something I’d normally do. But social media and all that? Exactly.

The sound effects used by Affairs immediately caught my attention before the lead singer even opened his mouth. When he broke into song, the combination was quite striking. Have a listen to Cressida or Elephants to hear what I mean.

Grace was on next – have a listen to her tracks here. I sort of knew what to expect song-wise, but when amplified via monster speakers, the intensity of not just her voice but also her harmonies on the piano are incredibly soothing – similar to the tracks on Sweep Me Away by Frederika Stahl – that has this little nursery rhyme.

English Sporting Defeat were up next – as a violin/viola player of sorts my eyes turned to Jess to see what she’d make of an instrument not often seen in mainstream guitar bands, but it was their use of drums – and the lack of a snare drum at the start that caught my attention. (I’ll leave you with this snippet). As with the previous two acts, something different to what I often hear in the mainstream.

Puffles with the band English Sporting Defeat after their set
Puffles with the band English Sporting Defeat after their set. (Credit ESD)

Finally it was the highly energetic young funksters The Varsity who blew the roof off. The clean cut studio performance of If Tomorrow Never Comes doesn’t really do justice to what it’s like live. Matt bashed out a thumping bassline that was the engine for lead singers Connor and Nigel to bounce off of. (The latter who’s voice reminded me of Black Grape in the mid 1990s). They also took some musical risks with a couple of tracks – but they came off! In particular they broke off into a reggae number, a track I think which was called “Jungle” that could have gone badly but fortunately didn’t, and another track that was written…about four days prior to this performance. They label themselves as playing ‘feelgood music’ – and they do, just not in a cheesy manufactured pop way. Which is splendid!

So, yes – awesome stuff all of you and good luck with your future tours!

And…the Portland Arms?

I really like what they’ve done with their new small performance venue. It’s these sorts of venues that the liberalising of live performance laws are hopefully helping (though I think the capacity of the Portland may be slightly below the old limit – it’s now 500). It’s also something that the House of Commons of all institutions has been getting behind, promoting new independent acts through the Rock The House and House the House competitions. I hope they’ll run these competitions again – if so and are of interest, get in touch with your MP.

#DiversityFail 1 – accessibility

The only downside of pubs in general in Cambridge is lack of accessibility for wheelchair users. It’s happening all too often when several of my followers say they cannot come along to a given event because the venue doesn’t have access for wheelchairs or mobility scooters. It simply isn’t good enough given the requirements of the Equalities Act 2010. It’s. The. Law. Page 13 onwards of this guide for small businesses sets out the issues and what they need to do to comply with the law regarding accessibility. Think of the positives too. Given that there are so few places in Cambridge that are accessible to people with mobility problems, isn’t there an untapped market for you? More and more workplaces now specify an accessibility requirement when booking venues for formal events, or look for venues that are accessible for things like post-work drinks.

#DiversityFail 2 – where are all the women performers?

I noticed it last night – Jess and Grace were in a substantial minority in what was otherwise a male-dominated line-up. This is an industry-wide issue. Puffles regularly bites The Junction on the ankle (in so far as a music venue has ankles) over its failure to book more female comedians into its comedy line up. Have a look at the line up here for April 2013. How many leading acts are women? Junction! I love you to bits as a local venue, but really, this is not good enough at all. (Some of you may want to get in touch with The Junction and persuade them to diversify their comedy line up – perhaps with some of this lot. If so, please do so politely – Puffles and I don’t want to get banned from the place!)

So…in conclusion: Four brilliant young acts last night, but venues need to sort out accessibility and bookers need to sort out diversity of comedy performers.


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