The Institute Tutor Showcase is the annual opportunity for willing and available instrumental and vocal faculty members of the Institute to perform to a room full of students getting more and more drunk. It’s always fun. And tonight I have the privilege of drumming for Lee Hodgson’s Hoo-Has, along with Holly Petrie, Atar Shafighian, Alan Mian and David Combes. I can’t wait!

Atar and I leave Kilburn early, find the last remaining parking space in Camden, and both carry my gear (the price for bumming a lift with a drummer) half a mile to the Dublin Castle. Although our sound-check is meant to be at 5.30, it’s 5.20 and there is no drum kit anywhere to be seen. Lee Hodgson has been here for forty-five minutes already, has set up his three guitars, and has them tuned and polished, on stage, ready to go. Lee has also brought and distributed colour photocopies of his stage plan for the band, which features photos of each musician along with our names and illustrations of our respective instruments. Lee is using his own microphone, rather than an in-house SM-58, so he has a picture of precisely that model of mic next to the image of himself on the stage plan.

The drums arrive, courtesy of Mike Newman – Institute alumnus, singer, percussionist and go-to-guy for making stuff happen. He apologises for being late as he hurls cases across the floor of the venue. Soon the headline act sound-checks. This is protracted, and everyone tries (with a modicum of success) not to show their irritation that none of the XLR inputs on-stage appears to be working. Eventually, though, everything sounds wonderful – full, clear, and thrilling. Running 2 hours behind with sound-checks appears not to bother the overly diligent sound assistant, who, once the drummer of the next band is seated at the kit, proceeds at length to test the sound of each individual drum. Again. It’s the same kit, with the same mics, in the same places as for the first band! Lost for (inoffensive or non-sarcastic) words, I practise my double stroke rolls on my thighs.

By 7.30, when the doors are due to open, Lee mentions quietly to someone that he’s been there waiting since 4.30, and an empathic stage manager permits him a line-check as the audience file in. Before long the venue is full of students clutching pints and talking sufficiently loudly to all but drown out the gorgeous, virtuosic guitar duo of Gianluca Corona and Maciek Pysz. These two go at it for about twenty minutes; after each song there’s a pause while everyone notices the lull, claps for what they collectively hope to be an appropriately respectful time, and return to their conversations. These guys would have fared better in the middle of the running order, like When Zeppelin used to do an acoustic set in the middle of a three-hour epic Rock-Out. Anyway, I give up trying to hear them properly when a colleague engages me in conversation and amidst the general din I feel it would be ruder to ignore him than to talk over the band. I feel guilty, but for the four or five minutes I manage to snatch of these guitar masters I’m utterly impressed, spellbound – they are dynamic, tight, fluid, totally on the money. Sorry, chaps.

Next is Atar Shafighian’s band with their brand of West-Coast (of the US, not Pembrokeshire) jazz-inflected smooth yacht-rock Steely-Dan-Michael-Franks homage. The group is reduced from previous appearances – no female BVs today, and no horns. However, with Nathan Williams on bass, Ben Barritt on guitar and backing vocals, and Steve Green on drums, they do not disappoint. As Atar strikes the first chord of opening number, I shout an enthusiastic “yeah!!”into the silence (the audience, for reasons of their own, are now all listening in rapt attention). The girl next to me throws me a startled look, which I address by advising her that she just heard the first chord of an epic tale in contemporary jazz-rock fusion, the story of The Rise and Fall of Danny Chevron. By the end of the second tune, the band is simmering, and they pile on the class through the culminating “Weimar Superstar” a dancy tribute to none other than Father of Western Harmony, JS Bach. Pretentious? Maybe. But also righteous.

It is the turn of Lee Hodgson’s Hoo-Has. I take ages to scrabble around and change over cymbals, replace the snare drum, secure the kick pedal, put the ride cymbal stand somewhere I can reach it, lower the hi-hat stand and screw some memory locks in place with finger and thumb because my Allen key is at home. But we get there. Lee launches into the first song, and I notice that I can hear nothing of his guitar or vocals, or any of the rest of the band in my monitor. I ask for this to be addressed at the sound desk, and it isn’t, so I resort to guesswork, counting, hoping I’m hearing the harmony right over the drums. I finish our opening number,  “Rock Me Baby”, one beat after the rest of the band. We then play funky Prince tune, “I Feel for You”, showcasing the soulful vocals of Holly Petrie, followed by country ballad “Love Will Keep Us Alive”. David Combes sings Biffy Clyro’s “The Captain”, through which I relish the opportunity to batter the crap out of the kit (loud is my default setting). We close with Albert Lee’s classic hoe-down shred-fest “Country Boy” (featuring Lee Hodgson in a silver Stetson) to rapturous applause. After the set a handful of people compliment me on my suit and tie. My wife has assured that they probably mean simply “I see you’re wearing a suit, and that tie looks ridiculous”.  Atar tells me she’s almost certainly right. Anyway, I finished our ripping version of “Country Boy” on the same quaver as the rest of the band. Thank you, Alan Mian, for keeping me in time.

Following the Hoo-Has is Ben Jones’s Down and Dirty. I’m sure they’re very funky, but I don’t catch a note of their set. I am too busy rehydrating with lager after my exertions, and fielding questions from the senior management propping up the bar. Ben concludes his set as I reach the bottom of my second pint – I return to the heaving sauna of the back room to trailing applause.

Nate Williams’ set is basically perfect. Forty minutes of gorgeous contemporary R ‘n’ B featuring Karme Caruso on keys and Holly Petrie and Tor Hills on BVs. It is beautifully arranged, and expertly performed by the whole ensemble with an understated virtuosity to every subtle melodic turn of phrase and chromatic harmonic shift. This is mature, grooving soul music. Rookie guitarist James Wiseman nails every song, and the rhythm section featuring Marijus Aleksa and Adam Kovacs make even me want to dance. Man of the Match is Nate, though – the voice of an angel, wafting mellifluously over the bass lines he delivers with conviction. If Prince and Sting were both one bearded Welshman, they would sound a lot like Nate.

Headlining the night is Herne the Hunter. Front man Ross “The Boss” Bicknell, slung with guitar and poised over synths, introduces a set of “Heavy Psych Jams”, which the trio delivers with intensity, taking the audience on a sonic journey into the abyss where we encounter a searing blend of Hendrix, QOTSA, Mogwai and a late ‘90s (ca. THRaKaTTaK) King Crimson. Ross, Andre Hitsøy and Mike Stokes take no prisoners as they lunge and swell, ebb and flow, and lure us in to the vortex. Herne the Hunter is contagious, rocking the joint with the most in-the-zone musicking of the show.

So, this was a great night. The question tugging at my mind on the way home, though, is “where were all the women?” Holly and Tor did a great job of BVs, but aside from this the evening’s performances were a wholly manly affair. There were plenty of women in the audience, so it would only be fair to let some more on to the stage too, wouldn’t it? Maybe we can persuade the Dixie Chicks, Imogen Heap or St. Vincent to join the faculty in time for next year’s Tutor Showcase.


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