Upstairs @ O2 Academy Oxford – 21/05/11

I’ve been looking forward to Upstairs at the O2 ever since it was announced earlier this year, five of the best local acts, every month, in the centre of Cowley road, for just a fiver. Why did no one think of this before?! And what better occasion to hold the launch night than the day we’re all going to get slaughtered in the Rapture? Just to add to the anticipation, every day of the week before the gig, they released a different ‘Upstairs Sessions’ video, featuring each of the bands playing an acoustic version of one of their songs on the roof of the O2.

There’s a certain level in a bands career where a little douche-baggery is allowed. If you’re selling out arenas on your European tour you can have a Liam Gallagher moment. Number one album for the fifth consecutive week?  Yeah, you can just about get away with refusing to wear anything that wasn’t hand sewn by Tibetan nuns, or maybe insisting that your fans bear with you through your southern hip-hop phase. Opening band The Graceful Slicks, however, are not at that level, and thus their walking onstage to a DARKENED ROOM wearing sunglasses looks more than a little ridiculous. It’s a shame, because behind the pretentious facade, their 60’s infused shoe gaze rock is actually pretty good. Where other bands with three guitars have fallen into the wall-of-sound trap, The Graceful Slicks use all three to great result, at least, when they’re not playing them with violin bows (to absolutely no audible effect). If they go back to basics, and concentrate on just playing good songs, I can see a lot of potential.

Up next is Max Levy, a.k.a. King Of Cats, who, to put it mildly, is on the eccentric side of ‘totally bat-shit crazy’. Clad with an acoustic guitar, he walks on stage, makes a weird noise into the microphone, then darts into the audience, and plays the first song weaving circles through the crowd, completely disregarding the pair of glasses that keep slipping off his face and eventually fall on to the floor. Also taking to the stage (or thereabouts) for a set of charming raspy folk, is a drummer, who turns out to be just about as mad as him, and a cellist, obviously. Actually though, all three complement each other surprisingly well, and it makes for a very entertaining set.

Third to play tonight are Vixens, a reverb drenched five piece, doubly reminiscent of Joy Division in that the singer not only sounds like Ian Curtis, he also holds the same awkward stage presence. They play an impressive set of multifaceted songs, their older material being particularly well received by the extremely animated fan base that seem to have taken over the crowd. The fact that the guitarist was so into it he kept bumping into the other band members just made it a better set!

Kicking off their summer U.K. tour are Gunning For Tamar, who seem to improve every time I see them, tonight being no exception. Backed by huge guitar and an ever solid rhythm section, lead singer Joe Wallis has acknowledged the fact that he sounds better when not over exerting his vocals, and as a result, the songs are tighter, more defined and better received; closing song ‘Astronaut/Abort’ is one of many set highlights. Before tonight, I’d always been of the opinion that Gunning For Tamar are a band that sound better on record than they do live; suffice to say they changed that view.

By now the venue has completely filled up, Ute take to the stage to raucous applause, and launch straight into ‘The Refuser’ from last year’s Gambler EP. Lead singer Ollie, who is possibly the most charismatic frontman in the Oxford music scene at the moment, works the crowd perfectly, and judging by the reception they get, it seems that if anyone in the audience wasn’t already a Ute fan when they arrived, they were pretty much converted when the band took to the stage. They play a pretty varied set, combining older material with songs from the EP – the beautifully harmonious ‘Brother’ providing a high point – and some newer songs as well. Returning for an encore of ‘Innocent Tailor’, Ute seem genuinely surprised and elated at the cheers and screams from the crowd. Their characteristic elongation of the ‘wooooaaaaaah’-ing outro goes on even longer than usual tonight, as we hail the onslaught of the end of the world.

Next Upstairs, on the 18th of June, is headlined by the mighty Spring Offensive and also features Phantom Theory, Deer Chicago, Cat Matador and Message To Bears