The Vaccines, Mystery Jets and Tribe at The Devils Arse Cave, Peak District
As far as birthday formulas go, three sizeable guitar acts, an immense, dripping underground cavern and a monstrous quantity of one of America’s most well-known tipples is a pretty promising one. Throw in some undulating Yorkshire dales and a name like The Devil’s Arse and… well the clamour for ‘competition only’ tickets said it all. The Devil, as it happens, has a mighty big arse: a giant cavernous entrance at the end of a meandering tributary, entered via a craggy pathway that – lit up and decked out for the occasion – makes for the most wonderfully strange, distinctive of venues.
There’s a neat logic behind it all, too: back in its homeland of Lynchberg, Tennessee (which, in an unlikely twist, is a dry county – JD had to give away every ounce of liquor at their previous birthday celebration), Jack is produced from mineral water fresh from a cave, giving the entire experience a crafty, cohesive feel. It’s quickly clear that the company has gone all out. The entire bubbly, old-world town of Castleton has a hefty array of JD-inspired BBQs, mid-afternoon singer-songwriter sessions and healthily heady mixers to help early starters along. There’s even an intoxicating recipe on offer that’s entirely new to us: a subtle, fragrant bottled blend of honey liquor and the whiskey itself, served from a bar imported all the way from Lynchberg for the occasion (and yes, that even means the bar is older than the ‘dry county’ status – not bad for a one-off venue).
With the roof lit in a mish-mash of flickering colour and depositing a light spray across audience and bands alike whilst rock ‘n’ roll classics pump through the speakers, it’s fair to say Jack’s Party has impressed before we’ve even kicked off. Tribes, sadly, are not the band with which to launch a wild birthday celebration. While it takes only a few seconds to demonstrate that the long, thin cavern of the cave entrance has an almost freakily good acoustic edge, the Londoners struggle to make a track stand out, with the recognisability of singles ‘Sappho’ and ‘We Were Children’ doing little to hide the one trick pony vibe. Their greatest redeeming feature – an asset the band is endlessly at pains to highlight in interview – comes in the slow numbers, which have a comparatively intricate charm to them, but it’s fair to say it’s the setting that thrills early on.
Mystery Jets, though, are a different proposition. Having reinvented themselves over the past couple of years as a band that’s closer to the pop melodies of The Beatles than the ‘indie is a genre’ throwback-rock of the likes of The Libertines/ The Maccabees / The Cribs, it’s fair to say the Londoners take us by surprise. With Blaine Harrison taking up a seated position at stage centre and alternating between feathery keys and gentile riffs, guitarist William Rees’ role in the song writing process stands out, too, and a soaring, measured yet compelling approach to off-hand, blues-inspired pop, seems to be the new live angle.
That means an emphatic step away from the likes of early single ‘You Can’t Fool Me Dennis’, and the emergence of a subtle, charming take on concept rock, heavily featuring the life of the fictional Emmerson Lonestar and his murky and befuddled experiences. Sunny melody is the key asset, with the likes of ‘Serotonin’, ‘Half In Love With Elizabeth’ and (in particular) a truly breathtaking run through of summer ballad and latest single ‘Greatest Hits’ standing tall. I’ve stumbled across Mystery Jets a few times over the years, and they’ve never seemed like a particularly important band until tonight. It’s taken eight years, but Blaine’s unassuming cool finally seems to fit with the song writing: it might be too late to convince those who’ve already checked out and put aside the band, but via Eel Pie Island and the Colorado River, they’ve reached a notable career high.
There’s no doubting though, that it’s the latest ‘hot new thing’ that has the Devil’s Arse (named, in a moment of childish brilliance, after the flatulent sounds that emerge as flood water rescinds) crammed two levels deep and shoving towards a quite fabulously out-of-place stage. The Vaccines refer to themselves as ‘knowingly dumb’ in their approach to music, but they deliver such hooky, bounce-along pop rock that – especially live – their ear-worm approach is unforgettable. And so it proves tonight. A frantic mosh pit kicks off within seconds of short, sharp opener ‘Wreckin’ Bar’, which is swiftly followed by a raucous, sing-a-long set featuring… well, just about every song of any note the band have strummed together to date.
In a live context, second album ‘Come Of Age’ is vital. First of all, tracks like ‘Bad Mood’, ‘Ghost Town’ and ‘No Hope’ are a battering ram of non-sexual emotional darkness, much needed after the girl-themed desperation of the debut. ‘Teenage Icon’ deals with the unexpected popularity of a band that were essentially a side-project to a moderately successful folk singer when they started out (“I never wanted to be the type who sang about being in a band, it just happened” – Justin earlier in the day), and manages to be anthemic despite it. Alongside the pulsating intensity of ‘Norgaard’ and the ‘we’ve all been there’ romantic silliness of ‘If You Wanna’, today’s set is infinitely more complete than the band of a year ago.
If there’s a weakness – and we’re struggling for one – it’s in Justin’s slightly reluctant frontman role, leading to a vocal occasionally delivered somewhat nonchalantly. In one sense, The Vaccines aren’t of the moment: mainstream guitar music’s had few lower ebbs than today’s, but if we had to pick a band to represent the last couple of years they’d be in with a shout, and the boisterous live outings are a large part of why. The Vaccines might not be the most sparklingly original act on the circuit, but we defy you to spend time in front of them without leaping around like an imbecilic jack in the box, or walk away without a day or two of humming along before you.
And so we head away from Jack’s cave to an equally enticing after party and with the light splashes of grotto water and heavier splashes of honey-infusion still taking their toll. A cave might seem like a shiver-inducing concept, but tonight’s gig – with lights flickering off uneven surfaces and a sense of the organic in the puddles, drips and rustic crowd set up – is a well-constructed triumph, and one of the most surreal and enthrallingly atmospheric gigs we’ve ever been to. Score one for birthday dreamers, this underground rock show is all-out beguiling.