This was a show that I had been looking forward to since early Spring, so I was more than excited to catch up with Holy Moly And The Crackers on the third date of their UK Headline Tour. Southampton and London had been rocked to the core by Boombastic Folksters and now it was Cambridge’s turn.
I spoke to Conrad Bird before the gig and we discussed what a mental year 2018 has been for the band. So much seems to have happened and they really can lay claim to being one of the busiest bands in the UK. Tours, festivals, the runaway success of Cold Comfort Lane (which you seem to hear at every turn these days), and the completion of a third album. As always Conrad was friendly, enthusiastic, and fairly soft-spoken, which is at odds with the persona that I have seen on video and heard in audio, so I was intrigued to see what would happen when this band took to the stage.
The Cambridge Junction has a few halls for entertainment and, as a few weeks earlier with Will Varley, we were in the Junction 2. The intimate venue had some of the seating removed to increase the capacity to around 300, and a larger stage was set, packed with instruments. Support was provided by Max Bianco And The Bluehearts – not to be confused with Matt Bianco, the Latin-jazz pop act of the ‘80s who were infamously called “a bunch of wankers” live on TV during a broadcast of Saturday Superstore.
Max Bianco And The Bluehearts are a five-piece band fronted by Max, former frontman of The Jar Family. He took to the stage looking like a modern day Artful Dodger, in very ripped skinny jeans, a long overcoat, and a big cap over his flowing locks. A neckerchief completed the look, and with a large Jazz guitar he appeared waif-like. They delivered a set of indie style songs with close harmonies and guitar solos. Max revealed that he is more artful than you would think, as he had 20 paintings in an exhibition, and 16 of them had already sold. Francis, the bass player, sang one of the songs and had a different, but no less accomplished, vocal delivery. Their debut EP is to be released on the 9th November, and I will definitely be giving it a listen.
As the final feedback of their set was fading, the lighting in the venue was a deep red. Fittingly, as Halloween had just been and gone, the ruby glow served as a precursor to the devilish delights that the fairly eclectic gathering were looking forward to. While the waiting crowd looked like some demonic sect having polite conversations over craft ales and gin and tonics, the stage was being set with violins for Ruth, Rosie’s squeeze box, and Conrad’s lone starburst acoustic guitar.
We did not have long to wait before Holy Moly And The Crackers took to the stage with Ruth Patterson looking as immaculate as ever in white striped trousers and black leather jacket; Conrad all in black wearing boots with one red lace and one white lace; Rosie Bristow in her trademark boots, tartan skirt, and eye make up; Jamie Shields, also all in black; Nick Tyler in black but with white jeans; and Tommy Evans, the manic drummer, in a boiler suit. Just like their music, the band’s appearance is eclectic and theatrical.
Sugar was a great opener to the set with Conrad’s gravely voice being contrasted with Ruth’s sweet vocal piercing through the song. The rest of the Crackers were like whirling dervishes as the lighting alternated from red to blue. Gravel Rag, the most recently released single, followed which animated the audience. Ruth’s vocal, as always, was faultless. Rosie was at the front of the stage, wearing a beaming smile that never left her face. Tommy was full out on the drums, and Conrad was supporting all of them with boundless energy, like a cross between a conductor and puppet master.
There could only be one song that followed it and that was, as Ruth put it, the song that “changed their world”. The distinctive drum beat and guitar riff that you can hear on adverts, TV and radio trails, and at the end of Oceans 8, of Cold Comfort Lane rang out. This was an exceptional rendition of this number and only went to prove that the band are not only extremely accomplished musicians, but are are as tight as Tommy’s drum skins and Ruth’s voice is even better heard live.
The opening songs certainly got the assembled masses moving, which continued as Holy Moly And The Crackers delved into their first album, First Avenue. Conrad took another sip from his very large gin, and asked everyone “politely” to join them in a dance. The galloping folk of Bluebell Wood meant that that you could not help but jig along, before the gentler Highway Shoes slowed the tempo a little.
The more sedate mood continued with a new song, which Ruth introduced by telling us all (as if we need telling) that a new album is on the way. Cryptically she said: “New album, new times,” which makes me wonder if it will be a different sound. Their second LP, Salem, is very different to First Avenue, so we should not be surprised, just on tenterhooks.
All I Got Is You Babe, the new song, is another where Ruth and Con’s voice harmonise well. Bathed in red she gave a flawless vocal, while the lyrics and driving beat made this new song very catchy. After Sister, where Tommy pounded the skins to within an inch of their lives, we were back to First Avenue with a song that Holy Moly and The Crackers had not played for a long time. Comfort In Lies started with Ruth’s distinctive strumming of the fiddle, as white light cascaded on the swaying crowd in front of her.
Holy Moly And The Crackers have the look of a travelling circus about them and the circus came to town in the next part of the set. Conrad said that it had come to that part of the evening to celebrate one of the founding members of the band and asked those not already dancing to take to the floor as the rousing, Russian-influenced instrumental River Neva was played. ‘Squeeze Box’ Rosie showcased her talents as the stage lighting alternated frenetically from red to orange. We were transported from Russia to a fiesta in Spain with The Woman From Spain and this proved, if proof was needed, that there are no passengers in this group of musicians.
The circus theme continued with the last new offering in the set, Upside Down. It seemed that the tempo was spiraling out of control, with each number getting faster and faster, their pace accentuated by the strobe lights. By now Tommy had worked up such a sweat with his drumming that he was, as usual in this part of the set, topless. The one thing that recordings cannot capture is the sheer physical energy that Holy Moly And The Crackers have, whilst staying tight. As they seem to lose control physically, they do not miss a beat musically.
The main set was coming to an end and a few favourites were thrown in to bring it to a conclusion. It was Conrad’s turn to take the limelight. Draped in green and blue lighting, he picked up his trumpet for the intro of A Punk Called Peter. The multi-tempo number was perfectly followed by Zemir Atik, an instrumental folk tune for circle dancing. The energy on and off stage hit fever pitch, and you realised that this was not just a gig, it was a full-blown performance of boombastic proportions.
Before the last song in the main set, Conrad told us that the UK tour so far was “blowing their minds”, and that they were taking pictures of the crowd at each gig. So he urged us all to squeeze in as Nick took a picture, whilst being held up in a dubious nature by Tommy. There was incredulity when Conrad stated that among the merch was a red cassette. (I checked afterwards and there were red cassettes to be had!)
So the Devilish entertainment came to an end as the dark lord appeared in Devil And The Danube, gypsy folk at its best. Everyone, apart from Tommy, was at the front of stage. Tommy was gurning on the drums, Ruth played a choppy fiddle, and (even though bass players are typically static) Jamie was playing whilst incorporating a grapevine and kick. Meanwhile, the crowd were jumping up and down and clapping, as if to drain every last bit of energy from themselves.
As the rest of the band left the stage, Conrad looked at the shattered audience and asked: “Ladies and gentlemen, would you like one more song?” The answer was never in doubt.
With an extra new song Ruth and Conrad performed a beautiful duet. It was just the two of them on stage, Conrad with his acoustic guitar, Ruth with her violin, and a sublime vocal performance from both of them. As the pair sang Ain’t It Enough, the lights went up on the crowd, most of whom just stood as if sharing a moment whilst some were swaying.
The rest of the band returned to the stage for the last song. Ruth told us that when she sings “Mary” we were to sing “you left so long ago”. We duly obliged. Well, no-one expected this show to end with a quiet song. So Mary was the closing number. Rosie was arching her back with her trademark squeezebox technique. The tribal drumbeat was pounding, with synchronised red and purple strobe lighting. The band were in full swing, as they left all their energy on the stage. The appreciative crowd did the same, leaving every last ounce of energy on the floor.
Seeing Holy Moly And The Crackers was not attending a gig, it was immersing yourself in a show. It was circus, it was sideshow, it was international, but most of all it was bloody exhilarating. I spoke with Conrad and Tommy after the show, and the demonic showmen were once again the quietly spoken, humble guys I had spoken to before. All the band were appreciative of the people that came to see them, were very approachable, and enjoyed talking to the fans. I had high expectations for this show, which were far exceeded. So if this troupe of travelling troubadours roll up to a town near you, grab yourself a ringside seat.
Remaining dates in November
8th – The Moon, CARDIFF
9th – The Old Market Assembly, BRISTOL
10th – West End Centre, ALDERSHOT
11th – Hare & Hounds, BIRMINGHAM
16th – King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, GLASGOW
17th – The White Chruch, COMRIE
22nd- The Bodega, NOTTINGHAM
23rd- Brudenell Social Club, LEEDS
24th- The Deaf Institute, MANCHESTER
25th- The Crescent, YORK
30th- Riverside, NEWCASTLE
Live music review by Tony Creek and photography by Paul Lyme of Holy Moly And The Crackers live at Cambridge Junction on 3rd November 2018.