After weaving my way through the busy London borough of Islington, I arrived to find The Old Queen’s Head to be a fairly large looking venue at first glance, though not quite as unique as I’d expected given the evening’s promisingly diverse line-up. Inside however, I found a really great pub; warm, steeped in character and highly animated. Furnished with chandeliers, huge ornate mirrors, grand wooden fixtures and intricate emblems in the plasterwork, it was impressively ‘English’, almost to the point of irony. Completing this near-spoof decor were royal busts, overlooking the venue sternly atop varnished ledges. Less stern were the eclectically presented punters milling about beneath; fashions likely to cause whiplash-inducing double-takes from the average Joe were common place, and by the time I had made my way into the performance room upstairs I had seen men dressed in patchwork blazers, others in vintage RAF-style bomber jackets, and at least one girl with one half of her head shaved. All signs pointed towards an interesting evening.
First on-stage were ‘Plaster of Paris’, a quirky group who soon gripped those assembled not by lack of an early-evening alternative, but because they were genuinely fascinating. The lead singer, an enchanting lady similar in appearance and demeanour to Paloma Faith (which may or may not be a welcome comparison), was wrapped in a flirty, Hawaiian-style skirt; she was a clear focal point amongst her band mates who initially remained so dramatically disengaged that they appeared to be an extension of the venues obscure furnishings. Eventually bursting into life, they joined the lead singer to craft a brilliantly original performance, during which her voice sailed in operatic fashion above their unpredictable mix of drumming, guitar playing and banjo picking. The quirky, artistic vibe continued throughout their set, which later included the introduction of an enjoyably puzzling wind instrument that I can liken only to the horn of a gramophone ripped from its base. It sounded superb, regardless of its obvious novelty factor.
When not carving surprisingly soulful solos from this obscure, rudimentary-looking instrument, the lead singer would invest great emotion and physicality into her performance, as if acting out her lyrics; this enriched the songs with a further sense of drama than the music could provide alone. Finishing with a great track about an elusive Spanish senorita, sung to the backdrop of super Latin-style guitar, Plaster of Paris were genuinely unique, great to watch, and an act I will keep an eye open for in the future.
By now somewhat more packed, the venue’s increase in buzz was capitalised on superbly by the second support act and unexpected gem, ‘Beans on Toast’. Whilst the loose T-shirt and baseball cap didn’t allude to anything special, his set was a joy from start to finish, taking the whole room on a brief but hilarious journey. Tinkering out toe-tapping rhythms by acoustic guitar, the basic structure of his music was in no way revolutionary, but the lyrics were expertly crafted for maximum impact and amusement. The envy of every man who has ever strummed a guitar and told a good joke, his lyrically poignant yet campfire-friendly songs were consistently enjoyable, whilst ranging vastly in content from singing the new-shoes-blues to getting topical with the shout-a-long track ‘Oil’. Reminiscent of Billy Bragg, or, for the YouTube generation, an everyman’s Bo Burnham, Beans on Toast was surprisingly thought-provoking whilst remaining great fun; he left the audience charmed, with smiles beaming warmly.
Clearly the main draw for tonight’s audience though, Kate Tempest and her Sound of Rum contemporaries took to the stage to massive adoration. Smaller than I had anticipated having only seen her previously in online videos and performance clips, Kate’s stature was by no means diminutive in its intensity. The lights had been dimmed, fan’s attentions were honed, and from the first beat heads nodded intensely, wrapped deep in concentration as those on stage demanded the attention of the room assuredly. Over the course of the set Tempest bounced energetically from one side of the stage to the other, instantly gearing the evening into a high-impact final third. Previously a fan of her spoken-word performances, tonight offered a chance to finally see her perform live having missed previous opportunities in Bristol and at Boomtown Fair last summer.
Incredibly entertaining and at times remarkably intense, Kate revealed no restraint or hesitancy in her delivery – every syllable was injected with fervent passion and drive. Swelling high and low with the flow of the lyrics, loud and soft with their message and fast and slow with their weighting, her performance frequently commanded the power of the spoken word as few can claim to do.
Stood atop sofas pressed to the far wall, I was overlooking proceedings and could see how captivated the room was in the rare moments I wasn’t locked into the groove myself. I was also impressed by the other band members, and was at no point allowed to forget them as Kate shared the spotlight frequently – the well-oiled team enjoying the crowd’s energy and enthusiasm both as individuals and as a group.
However, as much of a team effort as the gig may have been, Kate’s impact was stamped firmly upon those present. At times her ‘A Capella’ oratory was so spellbinding that the room would fall eerily quiet – the type of quiet that in any other gig would signal a lack of involvement, yet here indicated an audience glazed in reverence, transfixed by a performance so passionate that it felt akin to a rally, at times a call-to-arms. Brief, measured pauses allowed for riotous appreciation to erupt before withdrawing eagerly under the charm of the next verse.
“This is our United Kingdom!” Kate roared, galvanised with confidence and self-belief, stirring the audience and inspiring me not just as an artist but as an individual too. Seemingly imbued with blood, sweat and tears, her performances tap into something exciting deep within; commanding something; igniting something. The juxtaposition of this apparent authority with her contrastingly small, effeminate person make her all the more powerful a spectacle to behold.
Owning the stage as she does, beckoning the crowd to give her more energy, shedding clothes as the heat of the performance engulfed her in a room tipping into a boiling crescendo, I considered to myself that if she got truly political in her content things could get dangerous! As it happens, selfless ‘shout-outs’ to friends, innocent rap-swagger to the rhythms and a fun night’s performance are the aim of the night’s game, and it was a resoundingly well-received formula.
As I left reluctantly to meet a late-night bus back to Bristol, the place was bouncing with a final swell of energy that pounded the room harder than at any point in what was already a lively night by most people’s standards. No-one had come here by chance – this was a dedicated crowd supporting and enjoying Sound of Rum’s well-crafted showcase of unique and stunning acts which whilst perhaps not marketable to the masses, hold a huge artistic authority amongst a cutting-edge demographic. Tonight’s residency was not about crazy lights or lasers, elaborate costumes or cosmetics, but rather the pursuit of performance art that speaks for itself. As Kate Tempest had chanted earlier, “It’s all about the substance, not about the image.”
10 / 10
Darren Paul Thompson
Photo: Luke Eastop
More Info + Tickets for Sound of Rum can be found HERE!