It’s the Sunday of Freshers’ Week, and something isn’t quite right. It’s not a raging hangover (surprisingly), nor is it a powerful sense of dread at the thought of lectures tomorrow. Something’s been missing from my life for weeks now – and I just don’t know what.
Later that evening, nestled comfortably in a familiar landscape of oak beams and dim orange light, I realise what my problem had been: I’d been suffering from Firehouse Withdrawal Symptoms.
I’d been suffering from firehouse withdrawal symptoms
For those of you new to the University, the Old Firehouse is a homely location in Exeter which places itself somewhere between a pub and a restaurant. In other words, the cider is famous, but the pizza is practically world-renowned, and the combination of the two means that Firehouse is consistently perfect. For the keen fresher, though, there are two specific nights to look out for: DJ Jude and Crazy Terry’s Pub Quiz, and (far more importantly) ExTunes Live on a Sunday.
This particular session starts with singer-songwriter Nick Hurford. His guitar is busy warming up, and the lively strumming has enticed the eager audience to already start gathering round the stage.
A few minutes later, Hurford is breaking out into a Johnny Cash cover, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, and the first signs are promising. He’s clearly a skilled musician, but his voice also ticks all the boxes; and it’s adaptable, too: I can definitely hear an American country accent sneaking into the lyrics. Hurford clearly knows how to balance a song perfectly too, and he manages to dial the tone of this lilting tune down from lively to soft in an instant.
Over the course of the next few songs, we’re back on home turf, flying around England, and the adaptability of his voice becomes even more prevalent. First off, he switches to The Beatles’ ‘I’ll Get You’, and a Liverpudlian twang fades in; it doesn’t feel like this is his comfort zone, but it’s still a confident performance. It’s completely overshadowed by Blur’s ‘Tender’ (“not an Oasis cover”, Hurford jokes), which shows his control of both the emotional lyrics (“Tender is the ghost / The ghost I love the most”) and his guitar, with a passionate solo at the end. “Spot on!”, someone shouts.
He manages to dial the tone of this lilting tune down from lively to soft in an instant
Soon, I’m taken back home to Sheffield, and Hurford acknowledges it’s hard to avoid putting on a northern accent for Arctic Monkeys’ ‘Mardy Bum’. This is a personal favourite of mine, but that only means there’s a lot of pressure as those opening chords float across the room. Luckily, Hurford doesn’t disappoint, delivering a perfect, fairly romantic rendition of the track: the fractional pauses before “cuddles” and “kitchen” are a particularly nice touch. If anything, I want it to feel even more like an acoustic version though, maybe by changing the pace. Nevertheless, it was such a beautiful performance that a guitar string snaps under the pressure. A few minutes later, James from Flaws Above comes to the rescue, much to the crowd’s delight.
After a quick recalibration, Hurford is straight back into action, unleashing his final accent: the country-infused vibes of Nottingham songwriter Jake Bugg. ‘Love Me The Way You Do’. “I wanna hold you / and kiss you goodnight”, he sings, and – judging by the pleasing original earlier on – this seems much closer to Hurford’s natural voice. It’s a neat rendition, and a great way to finish.
Next up are Flaws Above, a fledgling indie band forged in the fires of our very own Campus Bands. Full disclosure: I’m a massive fan of these guys, and I’m hoping that the close quarters of the Old Firehouse will bring a whole new dimension to their music.
Confident guitar opens up the set, and soon a heavy beat resounds through the pub, almost shaking the cider glasses in our hands. Not long after, we’ve drifted away into a light acoustic sound; for me, this is Flaws Above at their best: flirting with the boundary between loud rock and slower melodies, showcasing the unlimited variety of a band who have firmly rejected getting stuck in a groove.
Later on, their range is displayed yet again with grungy tune ‘Rosie’, with the emotional shouting, which then softens to a steady drum beat, which then builds up beautifully, layer-on-layer, to raucous noise yet again. Flaws Above are rocking the Old Firehouse to its very core.
By their second original, ‘Stars Tonight’, the audience are completely caught up in the music, dancing along to the echoing, poetic lyrics (“words make fools of all of us” always sticks in my head after a gig). And when we get to the cover of ‘Bulletproof’, sections of the crowd start singing along too; although Helen’s light harmonies are already nicely complementing Ellie’s passionate vocals. The two singers look like twins in the mellow amber light, especially with the festival wristbands decorating their wrists, and it’s always nice to see a band laughing to each other between songs: a gentle reminder that live music is a special experience.
Flaws Above are a campus band to be reckoned with
Sometimes, the lyrics have a tendency to get slightly lost in the sound, but that’s often understandable: ‘Cold Coffee’ was being roadtested for the first time at the Old Firehouse, but despite the promising title, I struggle to hear the words.
The cover of MGMT’s ‘Kids’, however, goes down especially well with the audience, and for good reason; Flaws Above pick up this classic – in my opinion, fairly stale – tune, and reinvigorate it: stunning drums from Matt open the proceedings, and James’ creativity on guitar takes it to the next level.
The set closes with two of the band’s recent additions. ’Landslide’ is a fast-paced number with more of those signature slow, lyrical moments (“In the morning we might regret / the way the night went, we can’t forget”) and which had the whole audience moving — appropriately enough, considering the song’s name.
The infamous “jolly little ditty”, ‘Cracks Developing’, closed proceedings, showing just how heavy their sound can go; although it’s a bit too shouty and American for my tastes, the moment when the chorus drops is to die for, proving once again that Flaws Above are a campus band to be reckoned with.
A Capella sensations Bluebelles are the last act on stage. This group of ten bring a touch of class to the proceedings from the very beginning, as a tide of blue shirts flows into the room. Mika’s ‘Lollipop’ is a solid opener, and the layering of tones proves the professional nature of this group; the beatboxing in particular is a welcome addition to the traditional cutesy 50s swing.
The “rogue cover” of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ really kickstarts the set, with the single soloist emphasising the words in a way that’s almost lost in the original. There’s an odd clash between the positive tone and the dark lyrics, too, which makes it slightly disturbing: weirdly, it reminds me of how the Pinocchio theme was distorted for the Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer. It’s undeniably beautiful too, although it’s crying out for a moment of pure climax to really spice things up.
The set also features a number of silky-smooth A Capella classics like ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’, ‘Mr Sandman’ and ‘It’s Not Unusual’: every single member of the group knows their part to perfection, and the choral notes have soon spread out to fill the homely cathedral of Old Firehouse. For me, I’d prefer more creativity – perhaps even an inversion of the traditional songs – especially considering the clear talent on display: the beatboxing, although used sparingly, consistently took the songs to the next level. I’d be the first to admit that this music isn’t the usual soundtrack to my life, but I’m still loving it.
These echoing, floating lyrics are the main reason i feLl contentedly to sleep as soon as i got home
As another new lead singer steps up (solo talent grows abundantly amongst the Bluebelles), and Beyoncé’s ‘Love on Top’ sways onto the stage, the crowd’s excitement peaks, especially when an elevated pace kicks in partway through. In the words of a drunk guy behind me: “it’s fucking sick”.
As midnight rears its ugly head, the fairy tale starts to draw to a close. But cries of “encore” come up from the crowd, and Paul McCartney’s ‘Blackbird’ is the obvious choice. Our soloist’s passionate vocals float round the room, and the gear-change at “into the light” is handled with perfect poise.
Maybe it was the busy night, or the hectic week, but I like to think these echoing, floating lyrics are the main reason I fell contentedly to sleep as soon as I got home. Or maybe it was just the cider.