On 28th September, The House of St Barnabus played host to Break the Chain Festival, raising money to help combat homelessness in London. The event brought 12 distinct bands together to perform stripped back and acoustic sets, perfect for the quirky, intimate venue. I bought my ticket to see Wolf Alice headline, but it quickly became my mission to see everyone I could.
Due to the nature of the performances, my reviews probably won’t correlate with how the artists usually sound, so bear that in mind before you listen to some jungle-emo-psychedelia while expecting gentle acoustic noodling.
Kicking off the event: Muck Spreader. With a fully electrified band and small drum kit, I believe they probably sounded similar to how they would on record, and what a sound. To assign them a genre would be futile. Their sound is so far out there, they blend dirty guitar riffs with a chaotic and furious brass section to create a scuzzy, visceral psychedelic sound unlike any other band I know. At the centre, lead vocalist Jake, whose powerful and – as I learned later – completely improvised lyrics drew on injustice and inequality. Reverberating through the chapel, his performance felt like a challenge towards some deity, scolding them for allowing such an imperfect world to exist.
following the improvisational 6-piece was Pica Pica, one of the most unique performances of the day. The twin vocal harmonized and resonated almost like a church choir, making the venue serendipitous. Over an alternately melodic and frantic Spanish guitar, the sound was profoundly unique and, while unlikely to end up mainstream, they’re certainly a must-listen if you’re looking for something different.
Annabel Allum performed next. I had seen her perform acoustically before, but tonight she stormed the stage with a pleasantly surprising full band, serving up a set of grade-A indie with touches of grunge in one or two places. It’s not difficult so see why they’ve had a lot of support from BBC Introducing; they gave a solid performance of high-quality, denim-jacket, messy-fringe bangers. sounding tight from start to finish, they’re absolutely one to watch out for in the future.
I did see the next acoustic act though, Mina Rose, who came strongly recommended by Annabel Allum at the end of her set. Rose’s music echoed the strong, socially-minded focus of most acts at Break the Chain, with songs exploring topics from police and judicial bias against people of colour to the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower Fire. Most interesting was the style of music, combining soft acoustic guitar and Mina’s often husky vocals with Caribbean influenced rap verses, blending genres far more effectively and intriguingly than you’ll find on most of Ed Sheeran’s new collaboration album, or indeed most attempts at such in the mainstream as a whole.
In a drastic reversal of tone, next to perform was Kevin Rowsell. My closest comparison to his sound here would have to be the lead track from Courtney Barnett’s recent album ‘Hopefulessness’. Deep, slowly building, droning guitar passages over an electric bass created a full, hazy soundscape. Uninhibited by the lack of percussion, the deep, trancy tones provided an unexpected backdrop to largely upbeat and energetic vocals.
One of my favourite acts of the event was Hampshire punk duo, Bird Shoes. Headlining The Dickens Room, their energy was direct in its defiance of what a traditional acoustic set should be like. Imagine Slaves performing The White Stripes track, Hotel Yorba – it was like that – thrashing out open chords over raucous, stripped down drumbeats with a typical anti-arsehole aplomb. I was ready to start a mosh pit after the first few chords, so their usual live performances must be nothing short of explosive.
Perhaps the group most divorced from my usual listening was Meitheal Cheoil, a traditional Irish group. The appeal of their style was immediately apparent, as it fostered a strongly positive atmosphere and had the room clapping and whooping in short order. Accordionist PJ even performed an Irish Jig during the second half of the show, adding an unsurpassed level of theatre to an already captivating cavalcade. Had you told me I would be this enthused by traditional Irish music a week ago, I would have questioned both your sanity and my own, but here we are. A particular highlight was Ellie Rowsell – lead vocalist and guitarist of headliners Wolf Alice – joining the group on stage to play the tin pipe for a song, as a return to her musical roots. To me, Meitheal Cheoil truly embodied the spirit of the event – they instilled a feeling of positivity, discovery, and community that reflected the charitable aims of the events more so than any other performance.
Except maybe the headliners.
Finally! The reason this event sold out in an hour, the scorching four-piece, Wolf Alice.
I have seen this band play festivals, I’ve seen them rock headline tours, and I can honestly say that this performance outshone even some of their more notable appearances, such as the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury 2016.
Right from the opener, hidden track ‘My Love Is Cool’ from the band’s debut album, it’s clear that this performance will be incredible. The crooning chorus line ‘teach me, teach me, teach me rock and roll!’ proves to be an apt description of what much of the set does, but before breaking into the heavier stuff, the band follow up with old B-Side and fan favourite: ‘White Leather’. The theme of older and less-frequently performed songs continues throughout the set, with tracks such as ‘We’re Not the Same’ and ‘I Saw You (In A Corridor)’ both appearing, the latter with an incredible, bluesy, sensual slide solo in which yours truly exalted, although lead guitarist, Joff admitted to not thinking much of it when I mentioned it with gushing admiration later. This isn’t to say that new songs were absent; ‘Heavenward’ and ‘Space and Time’ from 2017’s ‘Visions of a Life’ both impressed, while in less fuzzy and frantic form than usual. Two songs absolutely stand out, however – ‘Don’t Delete the Kisses’ and ‘Bros’. The resounding chorus of Kisses was the only point at which the whole crowd was sonically united, singing out “What if it’s not meant for me, love” with a volume and energy that directly opposes the depressed nature of the lyric, yet is entirely in keeping with how the crowd always reacts to the song, stripped back or otherwise. ‘Bros’ is similarly unifying, though more through feeling than vocalisation, imbuing the crowd with an atmosphere of hope and joy to end the set which once again embodies the intention and feeling that drove Break the Chain festival into existence, and hopefully will enable a return of the event next year.
In summary, the first of (hopefully) many Break the Chain festivals was an intriguing exploration of a wide range of artists new to me, made all the better by the charitable nature of the event. Going forwards, Bird Shoes, Muck Spreaders, and Annabel Allum are all artists I’ll be keeping a particularly close eye on, which is not to say the others will be ignored, just that those three will be intensely stalked.
For more charitable events at the House of St Barnabus, check out Killing Moon Live, who organise monthly gigs in the chapel, all of which raise money to fight homelessness.