Review: The Howl & The Hum Christmas Show, The Crescent, York, December 15

The Howl & The Hum: “What better way to end a really weird year”

IF you could put together one York double bill for Christmas, this would surely be the one.

Headliners, for art rock with a heart and anthemic choruses? The Howl & The Hum. Tick. Late addition, as party poppers, not party poopers? Bull. Tick. Definitely, not probably, “the greatest band in the world”, according to Sam Griffiths in his thanks, as if he were only here for the Beers, frontman Tom and festive sister Holly on keyboards.

History will record that both bands had the misfortune to release their big-label debut albums in the mire of lockdown: first, The Howl & The Hum’s presciently titled Human Contact on AWAL in May 2020; then Bull, snapped up by EMI after a decade’s toil, with their March 2021 invitation to Discover Effortless Living: a state denied us by the silent, stealthy creep of shape-shifting Covid.

This, however, was a night to reinforce just how much those contrasting albums have mattered in these inhibited times, prompting busy trading at the merchandise desk.

Bull entered, not quite like the proverbial bovine in the porcelain department, but certainly with bags of pent-up energy, Tom seemingly sporting a makeshift Santa white beard for the occasion (unless the lighting was playing tricks).

This was impromptu Bull, not only sister Holly for Christmas, but Jack Woods guesting on guitar and Joe Lancaster, on secondment from the New York Brass Band, on trumpet. Later, Tom would join in on trombone in a clash for top of the brass class.

Discover Effortless Living’s perfectly formed guitar pop nuggets featured prominently, from Eugene to Perfect Teeth to Disco Living – but not Green surprisingly – and Bull even stepped into Christmas territory with a delightfully messy but merry number that may or may not have been called I’m Coming Home For Christmas.

When we last gathered for a Howl & The Hum alternative carol concert in 2019, Sam Griffiths raided the Nativity Play cupboard for angel’s wings. This time, at 9.35pm precisely, he lit up the stage dressed as a decorated Christmas tree, giving him the shape of a block of Toblerone, but with the specs and cherubic look of a choir boy.

Sam revealed he had been in a grumpy mood before the gig, blaming his cat for persistently hiding, but as soon as he put on that shiny tree ready to come on stage with “these three idiots”, he felt much better.

Bull: Perfectly formed guitar pop nuggets

One of the joys of Christmas is meeting up with old friends again, never more so than at this gig. “Ladies and gentlemen, Bradley Blackwell is back,” said Sam, to the biggest cheer of the night, and there he was, back among “the idiots” on bass after time away from the band.

The fab four was restored: Blackwell’s bass ballast; Griffiths, out front on rhythm guitar and ever more transcendent vocals as York’s answer to Thom Yorke; Conor Hirons, on eclectic guitar, and Jack Williams as “the clock at the back”, as Sam has called him, on drums.

Human Contact addresses the absence of such tactile relations, the withdrawal to liaising online, choosing the bedroom over the dancefloor. Yet here, at last, after the band’s livestreamed concert from York Minster in May, was life with the human touch, that togetherness restored.

Band and audience alike loved it, so many songs turning into singalongs, from “our greatest hit”, Godmanchester Chinese Bridge – played early rather than held back till the home straight – to Sweet Fading Silver; from The Only Boy Racer Left On The Island, now usurping ‘Bridge’ as the climax, to first encore Hostages.

Death and vulnerability, modern masculinity and mental health have come to the fore in Sam’s songwriting, but at least he could celebrate outliving the sentiment of last year’s 27. More poignant still was this year’s new recording, Thumbs Up, a confessional about “men not knowing how to talk to other men about important stuff”, so he wrote a song about it instead.

Nick Drake and Ian Curtis did not survive such candour in their songwriting; hopefully, in 2021, we can now both talk more freely and listen too.

“Thank you, I couldn’t think of a better end to a really weird year,” said Sam, before taking Hostages to new heights.

Christmas tree fancy-dress back on, he welcomed back Bull for a full team line-up for THE Christmas cover version, playing Kirsty to Tom’s Shane in a rumbustious rendition of The Pogues’ Fairytale Of New York, bolstered further by Tom’s accordion and Joe’s trumpet as the bells were ringing out for Christmas.

What could possibly spoil the memory of such a special York night and its Fairytale Of Old York finale? Being pinged on Sunday to say “you were in close contact with someone with Covid-19” on December 15. Happy Christmas, my a**e, I pray God it’s our last with this accursed plague causing such misery. Thankfully, the PCR test was negative.

Bull end year with EP message of love and friendship and promise of spring album

Bullish for you: York band Bull end their year with an EP and look ahead to a spring album release and return to gigging in 2021. Picture: Amy D’Agorne Craghill

YORK alt-rockers Bull close out their breakthrough year with a new digital EP.

Out now on EMI Records in conjunction with York label Young Thugs, it combines the new title track with Bull’s three 2020 singles: the fuzz-rocking Disco Living, the noisy pop of Bonzo Please and the summer high of Green. 

Billed as a “brilliant slice of indie maximalism”, Love Goo hooks sweet pop melodies onto a ramshackle jangle rock template, with spritely xaphoon lines (a kind of pocket saxophone), tin whistle and piano to the fore.

“It’s a song about getting along with people,” explains wry-humoured Bull songwriter and singer Tom Beer. “It looks at my relationship with my family as well as my own feelings of ‘sticky love goo’, when thinking about people in my life and from my childhood.

“It’s about the difference between people, universal truth, gender fluidity, peace and love, understanding and all of that stuff.”

Tom penned Love Goo in 2018. “It’s one of my more recent songs on our upcoming album, in fact it’s the newest one on there. Out of the 13 songs, it’s the freshest,” he says. “It was written before all of what’s gone on this year but that now adds to it.

“It’s probably the happiest song I’ve ever written and I’m so happy to have written it. It’s both a reminder of why I wrote it, to make myself a better person and to be positive, and it’s nostalgic too, reflecting on people in my life and people I love.

“One of the reasons it sounds so good and comes across so well is that we recorded it maybe only a month after I wrote it.”

Contributing to Loo Goo’s happy disposition is the xaphoon, the aforementioned pocket saxophone. “It was ‘advertised’ to me on Facebook thanks to the wonders of algorithms; I showed it to [lead guitarist] Dan Lucas’s dad, Ross, who very kindly bought it for me for Christmas,” recalls Tom.

“We’d never thought of using it on any other song – though there may be a toot on Bonzo Please – but it suited Love Goo.”

Love Goo: Bull’s artwork for their new EP

Bull have made not one, but two videos to accompany Love Goo. “We started off making one video after our bassist, Kai West, bought a VHS camera for £6. It came with all the tape, so we thought, ‘we’ve got everything we need, let’s film while we’re on tour’,” says Tom, as they headed off to Amsterdam for shows with Dutch group Canshaker Pi.

“Kai’s idea was to take lots of two-second clips, tiny little snippets of whatever we were doing, for a song with a ‘Jing Jing’ rhythm to it. It’s simple but effective in what it does, showing us knocking about on tour, starting with getting on a train at York station, taking a ferry from Newcastle, playing the Dutch shows and coming back for our UK tour, playing Bristol and Manchester in the days when we could tour.”

Love Goo video number two has just been recorded, filmed against a blue screen backdrop, in the manner of Curtis Mayfield’s Seventies’ shows “before they were going to add all the hippy stuff”.  “Keeping it on the blue screen, it looks like we’re floating in this crazy space,” says Tom.

The Love Goo EP closes a year when Bull became the first York band to sign to a major record label since Nineties’ chart regulars Shed Seven. “2020 has been a mixed bag, but I think I can say it’s been a good year for us, in as far as how well it could have gone under the circumstances,” says Tom.

“We’ve done a lot of good things; we’ve finished our album; we’ve just done our live-streamed Christmas gig, the Snow Global Tour show we filmed at Reel Recording Studio in Elvington.

“We’ve made lots of videos; we’ve designed the album sleeve – and we’ve written lots of songs, progressing towards the next album.

“In a normal year, we’d have had the usual stresses of touring, though the other side has been great, but of course I’ve missed touring, seeing people, as everyone has, but it could have been worse.”

Looking ahead, the album is scheduled for March release and a tour is booked in for April for Beer, Lucas, West and drummer Tom Gabbatiss. “We’ve decided to go ahead, even if the gigs have to be socially distanced. We’ll be headlining at The Crescent [in York] and we’re going to play Leeds Brudenell Social Club, which is a dream come for me. It’s my favourite venue,” says Tom.

His wish for next year will strike a chord with everyone as the pandemic refuses to back down. “I just kinda hope that the vaccine really gets going and everyone gets it and we can all start moving on again,” he says.

Copyright of The Press, York