At the tail end of last year, a friend of mine saw Fontaines DC at The Apollo, Hammersmith. I asked them for their highlight from the night. The answer?
“To have got there early enough to see the support”.
The support were Wunderhorse, the new solo project of Dead Pretties frontman Jacob Slater. They’re a band I was only peripherally aware of, but that glowing report from the night with Fontaines DC piqued my interest. I dug out some YouTube. I liked what I saw. Then I dug out their debut album, Cub. I liked what I heard; so much so, it’s been on near constant rotation ever since.
The only thing missing then was a chance to see them live, in person, up close. The band have done other recent big support slots, most notably with Pixies through mainland Europe, but I wanted to see them as a headline. That opportunity comes tonight, at the iconic Joiners Arms in Southampton. It’s a rock star proving ground; a venue that has seen many, many, soon to be famous names take its stage.
Truth is, I’m lucky to be here watching Wunderhorse, if not on the ground floor, but whilst they still inhabit the treeline. All eighteen of the current run of smaller venue gigs in the UK and Ireland (and this includes the Electric Ballroom in Camden, which, with a capacity of 1500, can hardly be classed as ‘small’ anyway) are sold out. Following the Electric Ballroom, the next time the band play London they’ll be at The Forum, Kentish Town in November. Capacity 2,300. Clearly, the shy, elusive Wunderhorse that can only be seen in intimate venues is rapidly becoming an endangered species.
The support for tonight’s show and for a number of dates on the tour are Eades, a five-piece guitar band from Leeds. They play some tunes from their 2022 debut album Delusion Spree and they are a hell of a lot of fun. The band describe themselves as sounding ‘Like Andy Gill and Lou Reed’s love child making a lo-fi record with David Byrne’. I couldn’t put it any more eloquently myself.
The crowd swells whilst they’re on and by the end they’re delighting a full house of expectant Wunderhorse fans. Eades finish with a jubilant, jangling 27 Years; a cut from their 2021 Abstract Education EP. They go off with a sell-out crowd ringing in their ears and they deservedly seem to have made a lot of friends. I certainly like them.
At a little before 9pm, Wunderhorse come out. It’s the first night of the tour and it’s rammed in this small but perfectly formed venue. I’m in shorts and tee-shirt; pretty chilly in the late March air but I’m grateful for the attire in here. The Joiners is already feeling mighty warm.
What began in COVID lockdown as the solo project of Jacob Slater has now evolved into a fully formed band. Slater might be the majority shareholder but he’s surrounded by some excellent musicians and the whole is certainly greater than the sum of the parts. Seeing the band in action it most definitely feels like ‘Wunderhorse’ and not ‘Jacob Slater and Wunderhorse’.
Upon the drum throne sits Jamie Staples. He’s been active for years in post punk bands such as Shark Dentist and more recently with ethereal rockers Teeth Machine. Slater acknowledges that everyone wants Jamie in their band and he’s lucky to have him; and, well, he is. Staples is equally at home playing the most delicate of ghost notes on a snare as he is pounding out thunderous tub-thumping rhythms, which is just as well given he’s often called upon to do both, frequently at opposite ends of the same song.
Stage right is bass player Pete Woodin. We occasionally see his face when he contributes backing vocals but much of the time, he performs head down in full shoe gaze mode. In the late tweenies he was in a band called Film with a guitarist called Harry Fowler, who happens to be a school mate of Slater’s, and who happens to currently be playing guitar stage left.
Fowler has music running through his DNA. He’s the son of 80’s pop sensation Kim Wilde, which makes him by extrapolation, the grandson of 50’s and 60’s pop sensation Marty Wilde MBE. But he’s definitely not here as a result of some awkward nepotism. With a low-slung Telecaster over his shoulder, he’s understated in the way people who have nothing to prove about their abilities tend to be. Playing without a pick, he hits the strings so hard with the fingers of his right hand that it’s a minor miracle there isn’t a pool of blood beneath his feet.
Of course, for the majority of the set all eyes are on Slater, an electric presence who corrals the microphone centre stage. Jacob is the most enigmatic of the quartet and certainly the one burning the most calories tonight.
Much of the time, he delivers a slightly vulnerable, sensitive vocal that has been compared most frequently to Elliott Smith. I certainly get that connection, but in songs such as Girl Behind The Glass or in the final chorus of Purple, I’m hearing the fragile tones of the late Jannis Noya Makrigiannis from the Choir of Young Believers. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, do yourself a favour and spend a few moments with the opening titles of Scandi noir crime drama The Bridge. Your ears will thank you. And me.
Slater is also a fantastic guitarist and for the majority of the night also has a Fender Telecaster under his fingers. This makes Wunderhorse the first twin-fronted Telecaster band I’ve ever seen that aren’t either a chicken lickin’ finger pickin’ country and western outfit or Status Quo and mercifully they sound nothing like either. Jacob and Harry work the guitars brilliantly between them. Regardless of how sparse or complex they fall; the guitar parts are always complimentary and the pair spin around each other like a couple of kids descending on opposite sides of a helter skelter.
Perhaps oddly for a band with only one album to play, Wunderhorse choose not to play all of it. They eschew the song Atlantis for staple live offering Oprah Winfrey (Is This Love?). It’s one of the loud ones delivered with such passion it has a vein on Slater’s neck looking like it’s making a bid for freedom. They also play a new song; Arizona, a tune introduced simply: “Here’s a song on the next record”.
Truth is Slater barely engages with the crowd at all during the performance, clearly content to let his music do the talking. And that’s no problem with music such as this. The rest of Cub is present, so the crowd get to engage with songs already lodged between their ears; songs that already feel destined to be classics. Butterflies, a modern day Mrs Robinson tale, which sounds like something Thom Yorke forgot to put on The Bends is epic. Leader Of The Pack, with its rootsy americana feel has the entire place singing along. Mantis is a dreamy interlude.
But the highlight is surely the closing trio. Teal builds and builds. A finely crafted song detailing a close friend falling gravely ill, it’s delivered with all the passion you’d expect. Next, a trouser flapping three-note bassline resolves into a psychedelic three-note jam, which resolves into song Poppy, closing with an extension of the excellent jammed instrumental outro from the record. The outcome of a clandestine liaison between The Stone Roses and Kula Shaker, it’s just about my favourite part of Cub. Whilst the band rock out, Slater puts so much pressure on his wah-wah pedal I’m half expecting his foot to go through the floor.
The show finishes, appropriately enough, with Epilogue. It’s essentially one riff repeatedly played over a number of minutes. The first half is quiet. The second half is loud. Very loud. I look behind me. The crowd is going bananas and the members of Eades are in the thick of it. This is the way all decent support bands should behave. I like them even more than before.
Wunderhorse walk off stage leaving a wail of acoustic feedback in their midst. Every self-respecting rock ‘n’ roll show should end this way. Slater and the rest of the band stand for a minute or so by the side of the stage taking it all in before heading to the dressing room. To be brutally honest, they look knackered. I’m not surprised. They’ve got a pretty deep tank and they’ve left absolutely nothing in it tonight.
The Wunderhorse tour continues through March and April concluding on 17th April in Belfast.