An adventurer, storyteller and writer with an insatiable curiosity for the fresh, the bizarre, the brilliant. Exploring life in North East England and elsewhere.

Cellar Door: Backstage Pizzazz at KU Bar

Cellar Door: Backstage Pizzazz at KU Bar

As the crowning event of excellent achievements and development in the North East music community, XFEST gathered some of the best bands of the region in what was one of 2016’s most chaotic nights of original live music. The KU Bar initiative stood out in many respects. The event advertised two stages and eight bands to perform in one night. The line-up included the up and coming, the newly returned and the already established. All different. All irresistible. Including Casual Threats, Rambler, The Black Sheep Frederick Dickens, Gallery Circus, Abel Raise the Cain, Avalanche Party.

And Cellar Door.

XFEST took place on the 30th of December 2016 at KU Bar in Stockton

XFEST took place on the 30th of December 2016 at KU Bar in Stockton

For once you did not have to choose between bands. You could listen to them all. At least in my own experience, KU has never been transformed quite like that. Instead of two venues, you had two rooms in one venue — one fully equipped for live music performances and the adjoining nightclub turned into an improviso stage. There was no overlap between performances. As soon as one band finished, the one in the neighbouring room started.

Even with such a canny setup, you would expect a more selective audience, supporting only the bands that tickled their fancy. Not so. What made this evening particularly enjoyable was the generous support of the audience: a group of strangers waltzing between two rooms, taking in all that the line-up had to offer. New faces soon became familiar faces and a unity rooted in this musically-driven rotation started growing between the crowd.

The promoters at KU Bar managed to allow a maximum combination of bands to play so as to capture enough musical diversity and talent to adequately represent a brilliant year of original music in the North East. Cellar Door — those five lads from Teesside who would freely call themselves a low-key local band — would probably say they have no idea why they were on the bill. (Yes, of course they have recently been very active, recording a new EP, making a music video, gigging regularly across the region, spreading beautiful combination of sounds, but why does that matter?)

Cellar Door performing during XFEST

Cellar Door performing during XFEST

The energetic and continuously innovating Gallery Circus during XFEST

The energetic and continuously innovating Gallery Circus during XFEST

Avalanche Party : a perfect headline act for XFEST

Avalanche Party : a perfect headline act for XFEST

The nature of XFEST meant that sets had a strict time limit and the pre-performance process of setting up the equipment and checking the sound had to be done quickly and efficiently. The same went for packing up the equipment afterwards. On a normal gig night at KU, as a support or headline band, the whole process is usually calmer with more band banter going on. And even enough time for some casual micro-pub exploration before doors open at 9pm.

When Cellar Door supported The Hummingbirds at KU Bar in the November of last year, they all arrived around 7pm. The live performance venue was almost unrecognisable. Flooded in bright light, with guitar cases, bulky amps, dissected drum kits and other equipment bundled together in groups where the audience would normally stand. Band members milled about sipping on their free Carlsberg, waiting for their turn to do soundcheck.

A proper soundcheck can last up to an hour (or more) depending on how complicated audio requirements are. The sound technician is a band’s best friend when it comes to ensuring a glitch-free performance. He is responsible for testing all the various channel levels, setting and monitoring equalisation (to prevent feedback) and checking other requirements such as monitor mixes and effects. During Cellar Door’s soundcheck, the technician first ran through each member’s sound range and effects individually, before they did a section of their set together to check the overall balance.

It lasted roughly twenty minutes and then, after quickly clearing the stage for the next band, they were free to relax until their slot at around 10pm. That meant enough time to pop out across the road to The Looking Glass for a luxurious pint.

Soundcheck for The Hummingbirds gig on 26 November 2016

Soundcheck for The Hummingbirds gig on 26 November 2016

Performing as support for The Hummingbirds on 26 November 2016

Performing as support for The Hummingbirds on 26 November 2016

So backstage pizzazz comes down to a drawn-out waiting process propped up on Carlsberg. Yet, it is the waiting and the idle time together that no doubt tighten a group of musicians’ understanding of each other, which distinguishes an average band from an excellent one. It also adds to the build up of tension until they go onto stage. And it is there — then — that it all happens. A sphere of inner contentment in each musician’s head that, if carried across well, can hold a room full of people’s attention: silent, roaring, swinging, crazy.

It is not hard to understand why Cellar Door were on the XFEST line-up. Despite their carefree modesty, they are professional, organised and their music has immediate (and widespread) appeal. Adorned in a clear veneer of indie rock, their songs strike a balance between rich, coaxing instrumental waves, which carry Liam Rowden’s deep narrative-style lyrics, and more compact forceful spikes of sound. Yet, whether they play the apocalyptic War Paint, evoke robust intrigues of revenge in Bandito or descend into the naked pain of being in-love in Angelica, their music always seem to blend seamlessly into any venue.

Click here to watch the teaser to their upcoming music video, War Paint.

How it all started
It is strange to think that I met Danny, Cellar Door’s drummer, at the start of 2016. We were both brushing up on our swimming skills at Splash Gym in Stockton, following our coach’s instructions, swimming up and down the pool. We got chatting in between sets and even though he told me he was in a band I would never have thought I would be writing about them by the end of the year. In fact at that stage I wasn’t even aware that there was a local music scene as such. At some point I started attending gigs, supporting music initiatives and events, such as XFEST, and also spending time with some of the local musicians. What I learned about them, as well as seeing the efforts of some of the promoters, has helped shape 2016 into an unexpectedly inspiring year, which makes me wonder what 2017 holds.

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