James Atkin @ Guildhall, Gloucester (01.05.15)

Full disclosure: hardly a claim to fame, but I knew the singer of EMF for several years before the lads of Sin City (Cinderford) shook the world in 1990.

Back in ’86, I was one of the underage drinkers who knocked back snakebite and blacks as his Cure-like combo Faces of Glory graced the Forest of Dean’s social clubs and miners’ halls… I witnessed the day at Gloucester Park when James and Zac Foley’s interim band The LACs shared a stage with Apple Mosaic (unless Apple Mosaic played the same festival a year or so previously, my memory’s a bit foggy).

atkin2I was at the same teenage parties as James, Zac, Mark, Derry and co where we met Ian from the recently disbanded Apple Mosaic, and it was thanks to the formation of EMF that Zac and I failed our GCSE Drama exam (we didn’t get a chance to rehearse as Zac was otherwise occupied). I was at the Upper Bilson Inn gig in Cinderford when EMI – rather incredibly – turned up to sign the band, and I think – but the memory fog descends again – I was at the Guildhall where they shot the video for Unbelievable.

Some 25 years later, having reconnected with James again and his then-duo The ASBO Kid at the Cinderford free festival, I was feeling a sense of euphoria at the chance of seeing James going back to his roots with a homecoming gig of sorts (he now lives in Yorkshire). But my euphoria was a little dimmed by an audience who while appreciative, didn’t go as nuts as perhaps I’d imagined we all would (maybe we’re too old? I hope not!).

Wonderstuff singer Miles Hunt and violinist Erica, resplendent in an amazing wedding-white dress, played the finest Stuffies songs acoustically. They were justly well received but for some reason the Guildhall failed the atmosphere test tonight.

The sprung dancefloor should have been bouncing more than it was: the crowd should have been larger, the audience more rumbustious – many had come up from the Forest, after all… maybe the Renegade festival underway at the Rene and the triumphant return of Super Furry Animals to the Guildhall a couple of nights earlier had knackered out the place. [Editor’s note: Gloucester Rugby also had a huge European final on the same evening]

atkinOr maybe the crowd were expecting wall-to-wall EMF greatest hits? As it was, though, the songs from James’s debut LP A Country Mile were highly worthy successors to EMF’s three-album blaze of glory decades earlier. The sound and exuberance is stripped down but still bears the hallmark of the guitar-rave crossover approach Atkin pioneered 25 years ago. Green-haired ball of energy Rachael Mary Rea (who James for reasons unknown introduced as ‘Sharon’ – I think it’s his wife?) leapt about behind a keyboard graffitoed with ‘Acid’ and drummer Adrian Todd (‘Bob’ for the night) held it together, as James brandished a guitar, along with trademark headwear and baseball boots.

Openers ‘My People’ and ‘Terminal Velocity’ set the agenda – electronic basslines, acidic squelches and the same kind of infectious hooks that made the rave generation, spliced with equally catchy guitar riffs and James’s unmistakable lilting vocal. This is something new, something fresh, something highly listenable, and although it has a kind of retro feel, still feels timeless.

‘The Silence is Deafening’, another song title, needn’t have applied to this rather lacklustre reception from Gloucester, it wasn’t THAT muted, and there was enough tumult at the end to justify the trio’s return for an encore – yes, the ultimate crowd-pleasers, Unbelievable and I Believe. (The second being my fave EMF song).

One would think that someone with such a legacy wouldn’t need to go back to the beginning and start again, but perhaps the transient and fickle nature of pop music and our rise-and-fall music scene demands that? Whatever, next time James Atkin heads into town let’s give him a more fulsome welcome, as he/they and his/their music certainly deserves some more heightened acclaim and euphoria. It did feel rather too much like musical statues in the crowd on this occasion.

Review written by Owen Adams

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