Blessing Force BF#1 @ The Old Bookbinders – 12 & 13/02/2011

Much has been made of Blessing Force’s swift rise to prominence in the last few months. National music publications have reacted to BF’s existence as if they have suddenly risen up out of nowhere and stormed the local music scene. Some thought that the praise was welcome and long overdue recognition for bands like Jonquil and individuals such as Andrew Mears, whereas others saw the media attention as undeserving compared to other local bands who endlessly tour the Oxford area. The latter prognosis is rather short-sighted and generally unhelpful as it is unwanted in a local music scene which has so often taken pride in the cooperative nature between artists. Either way, it certainly looks as if Blessing Force has a big part to play in Oxford’s music scene this year.

When Truck decided to host a stream of events at The Old Bookbinders in Cowley ahead of the building’s imminent demolition later this year, they seized the opportunity to stage a weekend curated by none other than Oxford’s most exciting creative collective. BF#1 promised a weekend of amazing live music, a showcase of underground art and a great example of how a local music scene can produce something beyond simply playing in a pub. Walking into The Old Bookbinders it was quickly apparent that this was going to be a unique evening of entertainment. A large instalment at the centre of the stage which resembled a plywood UFO complete with vibrant lighting was flanked by two images emblazoned upon lit-up screens portraying a nude female with a distorted face made to look rather extraterrestrial. The back of the stage was decorated with foliage and videos projected onto the back wall. All very arty so far. Now to the music.

Coloureds gave a typically lively performance despite a largely unanimated audience, not that it seemed to bother the masked pair on stage who gave a performance full to the brim with gusto. Young Athletes League may have cut a lonely figure on stage, but presented an aural pleasure which touched upon a vast array of impressive musical influences including Panda Bear, LCD Soundsystem and Caribou. Solo electronica of this type is as impressive as it is enviable; it can only be created by those who can afford to purchase a vast array of electronic gadgetry as well as spare the time to perfect a sound. Perhaps much of the furore which surrounded the rise of Blessing Force is as much about money and class as it is about jealousy and supposed entitlement. There certainly was an air of exclusivity about the weekend as a whole; a mood which was perhaps summed up best by Labyrinth Ear’s performance. Jaunty electronic rhythms fronted with downbeat xx style vocals from front-woman Emily, they found it difficult to enchant the crowd after experiencing a technical difficulty just one song in. The minimalism of the vocals drained some of the life out of their performance and divided the room between those who got it and those who didn’t.

Pet Moon is undoubtedly one of the dynamic driving forces behind Blessing Force and they took to the stage in front of a numerous and attentive audience. They began fairly shakily, struggling to communicate their admirably complex sound through a noticeably quiet PA system, but as the set progressed so did the performance, growing in quality with each song. Chad Valley was a more than worthy headliner. Tipped by the Guardian over here and Pitchfork over there, Chad Valley’s one man party is the perfect way to celebrate the end of the BF#1’s first night. Hugo’s amazing voice is the perfect foil for the woozy 80’s inspired electonica swirling underneath, mixing together both sunny nostalgia with the sound of ambition and progress. ‘Up And Down’ gets everyone dancing and they continue to do so throughout the rest of the set, despite the PA blowing half way through the final song leaving only sound coming through the monitors. But it didn’t matter; everyone was enjoying the night too much to stop dancing.

Day two of BF#1 looked set to be a different beast from the night before, focussing less on electronics and more on a standard guitar-band line-up. Ute proved once more why they caused such a stir live last year. The set culminated with a performance of ‘The Innocent Tailor’ which included a hilarious breakdown of cathartic wailing in between from all three members of the band, bringing a smile to everybody present. It was obvious from the outset that the weekend wasn’t going to be as simple as local bands holding an over-inflated house party with all their mates playing and Sunday tossed up a rare treat. Four drummers from local bands got together with a guitarist performing under the name OCD [Drumline] and MC Kid Fury to perform a unique routine which they had thrown together in the weeks leading up to the show. The entire crowd surrounded the four drum-kits and whooped and hollered appreciatively at this rare and gratifying treat. It only reinforced in my mind how wonderful this local music scene is, I can’t really imagine this kind of thing happening in many other cities in this country.

Sisterland took the opportunity to showcase what’s fashionable in London at the moment with Vaccines style garage-rock. Two-minute songs with fuzzy guitar chords and uncomplicated yet powerful drumming proving that the you don’t need a science PhD to be in a band, just a couple of guitars and some catchy riffs. As long as there’re 20-something’s with electric guitars in the UK, this kind of music will always exist…in a good way!

It must be said, Hugo Manuel was chiefly responsible for dishing out the smiles this weekend. Whether performing as the gleefully euphoric Chad Valley or playing with the joyfully chirpy Jonquil, crowds can’t help but get lost in the delightful pop offered to them. Who says music needs to be over-serious and depressing? Not I. The summery guitar hooks are as impressive as they are cheerful and Hugo (despite being a tad hung-over) remains buoyantly brilliant throughout. But he is cursed. The sound on his vocals cut out once more on the final track. Typical. Rhosyn were a unique addition to the weekend’s bill given the fact that their sound revolves around classical instruments; two cellos and two violins. Perhaps not fitting the optimistic vibe of the night, their music is serious and demanding. Undoubtedly impressive, and maybe I was just a little tired and achey, but it dampened the sensation of festivity which had been so apparent with previous performances. However, my miserable nature aside, they performed exquisitely and I would like to see them perform in Oxford again soon.

It must be said, music and art goes hand in hand; The Velvet Undergorund and Andy Warhol, Animal Collective at the Guggenheim more recently. It seems completely natural that the music of Blessing Force should also contain a more artistic appeal beyond simply lyrics, melodies and instruments. And with plans to stage similar events in the future as well as a stage set up and ready for them (figuratively speaking) at this year’s Truck festival, it seems that BF#1 was just the first chapter in a lengthy (hopefully) and promising (most certainly!)artistic narrative.