❉ Do bears like rock music? Den Cartlidge finds the answer as Sea Power launch their October tour at Stoke’s Sugarmill.
I miss the bears.
At the last but one gig I saw them dancing half-way through Sea Power’s set. They emerged from a side door to an ecstatic reception and joined the crowd in front of a stage decorated with foliage and stuffed owls. This might conjure up a slightly twee image, but the reality was anything but: picture two uber-fans in eight-foot bear suits, dancing like ursine peers of the Happy Mondays’ Bez, in a riotous melee as Sea Power powered their way through another anthemic set.
The bears have retired from live music (well, there’s only so much dry cleaning a bear suit can take), and it looks like the foliage and stuffed owls are also absent at tonight’s gig. The location is Stoke’s Sugarmill – a small, but perfectly formed venue that has, over the years, played host to everyone from The Cardiacs to The Damned and Jim Noir.
It’s nearly twenty years since I first saw Sea Power. They played their debut LP, The Decline of British Sea Power, at a gig at Staffordshire University, to an audience of about nine people. There are more than that at tonight’s gig, thank goodness, and although not quite a sell-out, there’s certainly enough of their loyal and distinctive fanbase to make this a noisy start to the tour.
I often play a sort of career guessing game with the fans at Sea Power gigs; identifying what I think might be canoeing and rock-climbing instructors, senior library assistants, hydrologists, ecologists, community hub managers, idiosyncratic students (and often their parents too) and communication officers for non-departmental public bodies. I’m 99% sure I’m wrong about all of them, but they always seem to be a pleasantly modest and well-behaved crowd – until Sea Power come on stage.
A good-natured melee usually starts down the front, and that’s pretty much what happens when tonight’s gig starts with fan favourite, Who’s in Control? They follow this with two cuts from their last LP, Everything is Forever: Transmitter and Two Fingers. If you’re unfamiliar with Sea Power, both tracks offer a helpful sampler to the pounding and uplifting side of their music. There’s also always something very British about their songs, whether it’s in the lyrics or, during Two Fingers, the cheeky two-fingered salute lead singer and guitarist Yan gives the crowd – this prompts a mass response of V-signs that Liam Gallagher and Brian Clough would no doubt approve of.
They play The Lonely from their debut LP next. This is a meandering excursion into the beautifully melancholic side of their sound, before Yan and his bass-playing brother, Hamilton, swap instruments, with the latter taking the vocals for the next two tracks.
A Trip Out and the sublime No Lucifer up the tempo again – the latter is a classic example of how unique Sea Power are: who else could write a song with lyrics namechecking the Raleigh Twenty bicycle, roe deer and WW2 anti-aircraft crews – before throwing in a chorus inspired by the ‘Easy!’ chant that used to follow wrestling icon, Big Daddy.
Hamilton then sings the wistful Everybody’s Business, another cut from their most recent LP, before Yan returns to the mike and ups the tempo with Lights out for Darker Skies. The crowd responds with a jolt when they recognise the rocking next track, Remember Me, from their debut – later covered memorably, by none of than The Wurzels. A wonky snare drum fails to spoil the delights of Bad Bohemian from 2017’s Let the Dancers Inherit the Party, before Sea Power finish their set with the unappetisingly titled, but absolutely brilliant Carrion.
This was the song that turned me into a Sea Power fan. Sounding more like an engine than a song, it’s a track with that trademark uplifting melancholy sound, namechecking this Corpus Christi isle, Scapa Flow and whatever brilliantine mortality is.
The band return for an encore, and it’s no surprise to hear two tracks from their 2008 LP, Do You Like Rock Music? showcasing the different sides of the Sea Power repertoire: first up is the rocking Waving Flags – a song welcoming those who came to the UK from beyond the Vistula, the Carpathians and Bohemia; followed by one of their most beautiful and poignant songs, The Great Skua.
As I file out of the Sugarmill, my ears suitably ringing, I wonder why the band have never quite hit the big time, and why, whisper it, they’re a much-loved cult band. You couldn’t say the band haven’t tried to promote their music to a variety of audiences, in more than one eclectic way. Look at their gig history: how many bands have played venues as varied as Jodrell Bank, manmade Cornish caves, the Czech Embassy and the Scillonian Club on the Isle of Scilly? They’re also been regulars on Jools Holland’s Later…, appeared on David Letterman’s TV show, and performed on that great British TV institution, Countryfile. The band have provided music and soundtracks as well, for videogames, films and documentaries – my favourite Sea Power gig might actually be a live performance of their soundtrack to From the Sea to the Land Beyond, where they played with their backs to the crowd, to ensure their music matched the black-and-white action on screen.
Festival goers will also know they’ve been a regular on that circuit for years; and in true Victor ‘I bought the company’ Kiam style, they liked that kind of gig so much, they created their own festival based at, where else, an owl sanctuary and castle in Cumbria.
And their music should appeal. Take a pinch of Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, add a dash of Killing Joke and The Cure, sprinkle in some Pixies, before adding uplifting melancholy – well it should work, shouldn’t it? The band had their own reasons for dropping ‘British’ from their name, but maybe they’re just too British in some ways (with songs echoing ’70s wrestling chants and appearances on Countryfile) to appeal to the mainstream, but if that’s right it’s mainstream’s loss.
I’ll finish where I started: with the bears. In addition to the ursine dancers that used to be a regular part of live shows, bears have appeared on their LP covers, and arguably one of Sea Power’s best songs is called, funnily enough, Bear. Ursine designs have often featured on band t-shirts and other merchandise as well. I’ve never understood the fascination with this particular mammal, but here’s a possible explanation.
Sea Power have played live at more than one rustic location over the years, and maybe once, at a gig in a wild forest somewhere, something with dark mammalian eyes watched their set. They’d never heard sounds like this before and began to tap a furry foot in appreciation. Meeting this new fan after the gig, Sea Power made an amazing zoological discovery.
Do bears like rock music? Perhaps the answer is: yes.
❉ Sea Power will be performing live across the UK in October.
❉ Den Cartlidge is a writer of submissions rarely accepted. After two failed novels, he’s currently failing to write a memoir.