Supports from M(h)aol and Thus Love

Another midweek run into central Manchester sees yours truly saying YES to a sold-out Basement bill comprising Sprints, Thus Love and M(h)aol, as part of Independent Venue Week, and with an advertised kick-off of 20:00 (the same as the Man United and Forest game, but more of that later), there’s just enough time to unceremoniously cram down some post-work pizza before setting off. “Proper” food? – not when there’s a gig to be attended, my good fellow!

First up tonight are M(h)aol. With debut album Attachment Styles out on Friday the 3rd of February, but sadly not available tonight, it’s the perfect time for M(h)aol (named after 16th century Irish pirate queen Gráinne Mhaol and pronounced “Male”, just in case you weren’t sure) to be on tour. Formed in Dublin in 2014 and comprising singer Róisín Nic Ghearailt, bassist Zoe Greenaway, drummer Connie Keane, second bassist and producer Jamie Hyland and guitarist Sean Nolan who absolutely REFUSES to face the audience, the band uses their gritty, dirty sound to call out (amongst others) the themes of misogyny and gender-based violence. You should check out the video for “Asking for It” if you haven’t already done so – although it documents horrendous statistics of violence directed towards women, the video still manages to end on a thread of love, hope and support, whilst the upcoming album has an equally strong message of optimism and inclusivity, something also close to the heart of Thus Love who are up next. Another song for your perusal should be “Laundries”, a song which covers the legacy of the Magdalene laundries and the culture of misogyny that enabled it. Telling Irish social horror stories that cross the generations in a very similar way to Meryl Streek’s unique delivery,  is something close to M(h)aol’s heart, as well as bemoaning the lack of diversity within the music industry.

Yet another band who used the lockdown to their advantage to deliver 2021’s debut EP “Gender Studies” which in addition to “Laundries” also includes the disturbing “No-one Ever Talks to Us”, the last twelve months have seen them support Steve Albini’s hardcore Shellac project in Dublin and Limerick, appear at Austin’s SXSW festival last spring and deliver their first UK headline tour last summer.

Live, they are a fearsome yet friendly proposition. After Kinder Bueno and Laundries, Róisín says her hellos and reminds us that the last time they played Manchester, it was an abridged set because she’d lost her voice, but advises us that tonight her voice is in fine form, which bodes well. After Kim (“A song about as little dog” which may NOT actually be about a dog at all…) concludes, she picks up on the crowd’s bemusement and admits that “People never know what to do with that one”, before launching into a bizarre story about a bag of boiled eggs. Although that revolved around an argument within the band the last time they were here, it’s clear that any such disagreements have now been resolved as they laugh with each other and with the audience, making new friends and picking out a few familiar faces in the process.

Bisexual Anxiety is a spoken piece introduced as “An act of compassion, dedicated to anyone struggling with their sexuality” and imploring us to turn up for each other. It’s an act of inclusivity that holds the crowd in its grasp until the introduction to Clementine and a promise that later on M(h)aol are going to get the audience to sing along with them, at which point Róisín looks your reviewer straight in the eye and laughs at my obvious terror: “My Mam never warned me about this!”. Of course, I wasn’t in the LEAST bit terrified, dear reader. Well, maybe just a bit. But there’s nothing to be scared of with this bunch – whilst they try to get their messages across firmly, it’s never aggressively.

“Bored of Men” brings on the much-threatened audience participation and it’s followed by a mention of another publication’s review of the new album, which they don’t seem overly pleased with, especially as it was reviewed by a woman – you get the impression that they expected better. “Period Sex” which is released today, is featured in a live set for the first time and is, in Róisín’s words, their most political and controversial song to date, but which has sadly, if predictably, been blanked by the media. Whilst we’ve come so far in so many areas of discussion, there are clearly many others that are still considered taboo and really shouldn’t be.

Róisín does the usual round of thanks to her bandmates and you get the impression of a group of friends who like to keep things in house in addition to the roles they play on stage, from to video conceptualization, artwork, editing and directing (Zoe), part international man of mystery, part lobster (Sean – PLEASE let us see your face next time!) recording, mastering and mixing and evil twin (Jamie), band and label management (Connie) and finally to herself (“The girl and Human Resources”).

The set continues with Gender Studies and after a heartfelt plea for us to by merch because “Feminism really pays and we’re really broke”, concludes with the first song they wrote, the wonderfully titled “Jack Douglas”. Think bass-driven (well, their line-up DOES include two of them), think punk, think loud, think Riot Grrl, think Bikini Kill – listen to what M(h) have to say – it seems there has never been a better time to challenge pretty much anything that needs challenging and these are just the folk to do it on your behalf.

M(h)aol played: Kinder Bueno, Laundries, Kim, No One, Therapy, Bisexual Anxiety, Clementine, Bored of Men, Period Sex, Gender Studies and Jack Douglas.

Next up are Thus Love who drop you headfirst into a game of, “Agh – who do they remind me of?” and keep you loitering there throughout their energy packed set. A threesome based in Brattleborough, a small town in Vermont (so just round the corner from Manchester, really) Thus Love started out in 2018 with vocalist/guitarist Echo Mars and, drummer Lu Racine with bass player Nathaniel van Osdol joining the fun in 2019, and were yet another band who took advantage of living together during lockdown to start work on what would become their debut album Memorial, which finally saw the light of day back in October 2022. With no opportunities to play live, they turned inwards, build their own recording studio (as you do) and started designing their own merch. They all agree that without Covid, neither they, not the album would have existed. With all three identifying as trans, they describe themselves as, “Queer Post Punk” (your reviewer is happily discovering new genres with every passing day) and make a glorious, Marr-esque guitar-laden, 80s poppy sound. But just as important as the music is their friendship and the shared challenges of trans artists as outsiders looking in whilst trying to make a stand both on their own behalf and on behalf of others in a world laden with obstacles.

They open their set with Friend, Anathema and Family Man, then frontperson Echo announces that this is their first time in Manchester and informs us that there are train strikes going on in the US right now (sadly something that prevented a few people from being able to make it tonight here, too) although the media aren’t covering them – selective media coverage is a worldwide phenomenon, it would seem.

On the Floor finally allows me to drop an inevitable (well, for me anyway) Joy Division reference, but the guitarwork, as well as channelling “New Dawn Fades” to my aged ear, rekindles memories of The Chameleons too. Echo skips from one side of the stage to the other, spitting out his words furiously. New single “Put on Dog”, in addition to dropping fancy Fontaine-y fretwork (that’s today’s alliteration sorted) into the mix, echoes their message of feeling comfortable in your own skin by “Getting Dressed Up, feeling hot and not giving a fcuk about whatever people think about of you”. Sounds like a plan, for sure.

In Tandem’s guitarwork teases at early U2 (it’s OK to say that, honestly) and Lu’s drums pound out incessantly in a Psychedelic Furs stylee. I LIKE these guys. Echo gives a shout out to their own Independent Venue in Brattleborough, The Stone Church, without which they wouldn’t have got a start. Independent venues are something to be nurtured and nourished, as are the artistes that play in them. Pith and Point gets off to a false start as Echo is using somebody else’s guitar, which doesn’t seem to want to play ball, but when it does, it delivers a dreamy sound with Strokes-y vocals. He informs us that the last time they played a show they didn’t play “Repetitioner” (dedicated tonight to Radio6 Music) and the audience weren’t too pleased, and when it launches, you can see why. Those Fontaines boys have sneaked in again and if you’re familiar with “Roy’s Tune” from the Dogrel album, you’ll soon spot the similarities in the opening riffs. Set closer Centrefield is out in a fortnight and is another U2/Fontaines-y influenced number, and my friends Joy Division sneak in there too midway through. How on EARTH did Thus Love know I was coming tonight?

As an aside, I make a new friend in the crowd tonight (take a bow, Jillian!) who once she finds out I’m reviewing the gig prods me (figuratively, not actually) to take more pictures of Lu as it turns out she is a friend of drummer Lu’s Mum! Happy to oblige, I try to pick Lu out through the murky non-light, but it’s a bit of a challenge. Considering the distance Thus Love have travelled, it seems unlikely (both statistically and geographically) that I should be standing next to a friend of Lu’s Mum, but pleasingly, at gigs, sometimes these things happen.

If you like the sound of Simple Minds (ask your mum), The Psychedelic Furs (ask your dad) Future Islands (ask your mates) and Joy Division and The Smiths (you shouldn’t need to ask), get yourseIf an earful of Thus Love. If you missed this gig, they’re going to be supporting Dry Cleaning in May. On the strength of this performance, expect to see them headlining soon.

Thus Love Played: Friend, Anathema, Family Man, On the Floor, Put on Dog, In Tandem, Pith and Point, Repetitioner and Centerfield.

Finally, to Sprints and my first use of the genre “Garage Punk” in a review. Formed in 2019, frontperson Karla Chubb ably supported by bassist Sam McCann, guitarist Colm O’Reilly and drummer Jack Callan, will close one chapter of their existence with the upcoming release of “Back Catalogue”, a compilation album of tracks from their Manifesto and Modern Job EPs, just as they have opened a new one with the release of the Daniel (Gilla Band) Fox-produced single “Literary Mind” (check out the W.H. Lung remix on the B-side too). I can hear early Wedding Present in there somewhere, but that’s because I am INCREDIBLY old.

In recent weeks, they attracted a great deal of useful publicity when, having seen them perform on the Tommy Tiernan show, the Fine Gael spokesman for Arts, Culture and Media tweeted “I’ve heard better music from slightly embarrassed TY (Transition Year) students”. As a musician himself, he probably should have known better and whilst he was forced to delete his tweet and apologise, the resulting furore didn’t do Sprints any harm at all, introducing them to a wider audience than they might previously have had. In addition to their links with UK indie label Nice Swan, they have recently signed to Berlin indie label City Slang off the back of support from Radio 6, (speak it softly) Radio 1 and increasing interest both at home and abroad.

2022 was a good year in the form of appearances at both SXSW and The Great Escape and Glastonbury, plus, who doesn’t love a raucous cover of Wet Leg’s “Chaise Longue”? But fun aside, in common with the other artistes on the bill tonight, they have important things to say. Sprints’ music continues to speak up on the subjects of misogyny, trans rights and attitudes to gay women and Karla has previously spoken up on the subjects of abortion rights and the appalling lack of mental health services, with the inevitable rise in suicide. Sprints are also vociferous on the subject of everyone having the right to a say, no matter what their background, social standing or education. Sprints music also howls into the wind against the curse of double standards for women in the music industry (especially when, according to Karla, you hit your thirties). So, all, in all, a band with many messages and 11 songs and 40 minutes or so in which to deliver them tonight.

Not wanting to break us in easily, Sprints launch the first three songs of their set at a blistering pace without so much as a pause for breath, until Karla stops to ask the crowd if Man United beat Forest tonight, delighted that the response is in the affirmative. Her suggestion as to what the Man City fans in the audience should do once identified, is sadly unprintable, but I have to grit my teeth and stay as I’m reviewing. I’m in a Band pounds out the theme of having to justify yourself both as a band, as well as being an individual within that band, whilst A Modern Job bemoans society’s expectations that we should all conform to the same ideals. There’s a clear theme running through Sprints’ catalogue – be who you want you be and justify yourself to nobody, something that clearly resonates with both the other bands on tonight’s bill and is picked up with equal enthusiasm by the crowd, which finally starts to consider The Possibilities Of The Mosh (a recently discovered sequel to The Lord Of The Rings trilogy by the way.)

Karla calls for audience participation during Delia Smith and, unsatisfied with the response, announces, “That was fcukin’ pathetic!” and tries again, this time to a much louder response to her cries of “Who wants to be special anyway?” Next, bass man Sam McCann asks us to go easy on them as new song “Up and Comer” is delivered, with echoes of Buzzcocks’ “Fiction Romance” seeping in from my encyclopaedic subconscious somewhere. Ask me why I went into the kitchen 5 minutes ago however, and I’m usually at a loss.

The newest song gives way to the oldest (after a bit of in-band discussion and confirmation) in the form of Sprints’ anthem to bisexuality “The Cheek” before Karla launches into Manifesto and its defiant refrain of, “I don’t need nobody to tell me what to say, I don’t need nobody to tell me what to do” with which the crowd, by now in full mosh mode, joins in enthusiastically. How Does The Story Go covers the dichotomy of even when you’re doing what you want to do end enjoying being who you are, you can’t help feeling left behind as you watch your contemporaries moving on in the more “Accepted” routes of life. It feels like you can’t win sometimes.

Sam treats Manchester to the ultimate back handed compliment from a Dublin-based band, in that our Guinness is “Acceptable” (ugh) before, with the night’s final nod to the merch stand, Sprints launch into fan favourite “Literary Mind” which Karla cheerfully describes as “Gay, like all the rest of them”, before admitting that her parents are “So proud” – just as they flipping well should be, Karla. Drinks and people fly in all directions as the floor hits Critical Mosh. The night’s final message comes in the form of set closer “Little Fix” detailing the challenges of being a woman in music and “How fcuking sh*t it is”.

And then they are gone, leaving your reviewer to ponder the lyric from Little Fix as a way of summarising the message not only from them, but from all three bands tonight: “’Cause I’m medicated, medicated. And they like me better when I’m sedated” – don’t conform, wake up, be you, and let everyone else be who THEY want to be too. Just be kind – it’s really not that hard.

Sprints played: Drones, Heavy, I’m in a Band, A Modern Job, Delia Smith, Up and Comer, The Cheek, Manifesto, How Does the Story Go, Literary Mind and Little Fix