SJ Brett – Rialto Theatre – 12th March 2018

Photo by Adam Kidd

This was my first time seeing the Bleeding Hearts Club at the Rialto Theatre, which seems pretty remiss of me when I think about it: they’ve been based here for a couple of years at least. For the uninitiated, it’s a monthly night organised by Chris Davies, the man behind local label Bleeding Heart Recordings, who’ve given us some rather illustrious indie releases over the years from a raft of local artists, including Clowwns, Crayola Lectern, Grasshopper, Seadog, and Thomas White, who was appearing later on in the night.

These nights have always had a bit of an experimental feel to them, cramming songwriters together in an ad hoc fashion, giving equal stage time to outsider musicians and the more established types most of us are used to seeing on the live circuit. The first act I saw was Neil Palmer, who performed two songs, before bowing out due to an apparent oncoming asthma attack. Neil played electric guitar through a tiny retro looking amplifier and sang never-before-performed (and scantly rehearsed) songs with the aid of a lyric sheet that was barely legible. At one point he interrupted his show to have a brief tête-à-tête with a rustling woman in the audience, which would have seemed harsher if it wasn’t apparent they already knew one another.

Georgie from Porridge Radio played a few songs on lo-fi keyboard, under the name SUEP. The highlight of these was a strangely compelling version of Loudon Wainwright III’s ‘The Swimming Song’. Her set also included a pre-recording of some abstract spoken word poetry, which she accompanied with random, but atmospheric, notes on the electric piano. Make of that what you will! I’m not sold on the Porridge Radio output myself, although I’m aware some people find it genius. This was an eccentric performance, which was clearly following a different set of criteria to those I normally judge music on – but people don’t come to this night to hear the same old same. It’s quite refreshing to be baffled by stuff you find a bit bonkers every once in a while.

Thomas White followed, billed as The Fiction Aisle, which is actually a group I often play guitar for! Tonight was a very different set indeed, though. Recovering from a recent tonsil operation White’s voice was not yet healed enough to sing those wonderful songs we are used to hearing from him. Instead he took the opportunity to perform a 25 minute drone in the key of D flat. If you’re not familiar drone it is a minimalist form of music, where the normal concerns of melody and structure are stripped away. In this case we were exposed to loud, ambient sounds to lose ourselves in – controlled guitar feedback, harmonium sustaining a single note, and effects controlled by White on his laptop. It’s a strange experience, sitting in a darkened room, listening to what effectively amounts to dense amorphous humming. It’s interesting how a few slight changes to the tone can transport one from a state of relaxation, to something more akin to nervous tension. Overall the experience was meditative and rather enjoyable.

Next up came SJ Brett, the main songwriter behind the now defunct Brighton band The Mojo Fins. I’d been following them for a long time, so I was as excited to see Stephen perform tonight as I had been sad to hear news of the split. Last year Brett teased us with a few tracks from studio sessions at Church Road, which featured his evocative vocal over a wider, more orchestral palette than we’d heard him use before. I wasn’t sure then what to expect tonight, wondering if we might hear some of those songs, but that would have meant finding a pianist, and some clarinets at the very least. Instead, as the group took to the stage and promptly launched into ‘Your Little England’, we were met by the most conventional band of musicians to appear tonight: a four-piece with drums, bass and two guitars.

As Brett is currently hard at work putting a solo album together, the songs he played this evening gave me the sense it might be a record of two halves – songs like those lush pieces you can hear on his SoundCloud page and tonight’s songs, arranged for a similar band set-up to the classic Mojo Fins, including former ‘Fin Adam Luke Atkins on bass. The songs were solid and interesting, great vehicles for Brett’s beautiful vocals to soar over. The new faces in his band were impressive talents too. Drummer Nick Van Vlaenderen provided a solid and creative backbeat and some wonderful vocal harmonies, while guitarist Oddur Runarsson, who is best known for working with Lamb, had a great mastery of tone. His ambient delay-soaked licks, combined with the excellent sound in the venue throughout the night, helped transport us mentally to a much larger stage. Brett himself moved between acoustic and 12-string guitar, playing both skilfully, electrified through his amp. The two guitarists complemented each other with inter-locking parts and sympathetic tonalities. They closed a short five song set with ‘Repeatedly Forever’, having seemingly stopped time for the last 20 minutes or so. This was a great first toe-dip into the world of live performance for Stephen’s new project, so keep your eyes peeled, it’s going to be great watching this act develop over the coming months.

Adam Kidd