Hoping to bring fellow Brits up to speed

It’s funny how sometimes artists need to leave the land they hail from in order to get the recognition they deserve. When foreign acclaim arrives they can then work backwards to win over their country-folk. That’s exactly what’s on the agenda for Southampton rockers Band Of Skulls, currently touring to promote second album ‘Sweet Sour’.

The trio have scored some major success in America, Australia and across Europe and are now hoping to bring fellow Brits up to speed. Their hook heavy and riff-laden rock has been featured in a slew of TV shows and commercials overseas as well as on the ‘Twilight: New Moon’ movie soundtrack. Throw in a global iTunes Single Of The Week with ‘I Know What I Am’ from the 2009 debut ‘Baby Darling Doll Face Honey’ and stints opening for the likes of The Dead Weather, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Muse, and you see why the UK is playing catch-up. In the words of guitarist and singer Russell Marsden: “You can do something so close up to the eyeball of England that you can be overlooked at first. It’s only when you go away and do something of note elsewhere that you’re given a hearing.”

The student union at Leeds University is packed with an expectant crowd eager to provide that hearing. And a mixed bunch they are too - teenage rockers, middle-aged chin-strokers and a good helping of young indie lasses all positioning themselves for a decent view. The venue itself is something of a surprise. For those who picture a grotty little dive when they hear the words “student union”, don’t be mistaken. This is a swanky, open-plan, two-storey club with a decent bar, good acoustics, fancy lighting and a convenient layout.

Will Band Of Skulls be able to dominate the room more than they did supporting on The Black Keys’ tour? That was undoubtedly a tough slot. Opening for one of the hottest bands on the planet to thousands of punters who may not have heard of Band Of Skulls. This evening the capacity crowd of six hundred are here to see them and them alone. It should be a breeze in comparison.

Striding on to a warm welcome they start things off with slow burner, ‘Sweet Sour’. The first verse sounds for a moment like ‘Sign O’ The Times’ but it soon becomes its own beast, the lilting repetition of “sweet sour” mingling with the grinding, unrushed playoff between bending riff and pounding drum. The driving ‘Patterns’ and the more atmospheric ‘Fires’ from the first album follow and judging by the reception I’m in the company of long-time fans.

The next two songs are greeted with uproar and are two of the standouts from the new material. ‘The Devil Takes Care Of His Own’ has a huge chorus with fat, inflated power chords. Nevertheless, it’s trumped by ‘Bruises’, surely a future single, which deploys a precise formula of big rock riffs that you can’t help but respond to. Like a well-crafted Spielberg scene that manipulates your emotions and elicits a specifically intended universal reaction, ‘Bruises’ does exactly what it’s supposed to. It’s the bastard progeny of Kings of Leon and Joan Jet and the Blackhearts, channelling the simple pleasure of the latter’s hit, ‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and none the worse for it.

They continue playing everything from both albums and the crowd lap it up. ‘You’re Not Pretty But You Got It Goin’ On’ is a rock chuggernaut and keeps the hard rock stakes high, while tracks like ‘Dull Gold Heart’ provide respite and a chance to hear bassist Emma Richardson’s beautiful soft vocals.

The band has an unspoken understanding; a real intuitive bond that allows them to communicate in barely detectable nods and glances. It’s not surprising given that Marsden and drummer Matthew Hayward have been playing together since they were twelve. The striking presence of Richardson came later when she met Marsden at art college in Winchester.

If they lack anything it’s a touch more ballsy conviction. The songs can be bombastic, overblown, gossamer delicate and bloody good – they must know that – the fact that they do just doesn’t come over so much. It doesn’t need to be egotistical rock posturing and lording it around the stage, but just a shade more self-confidence perhaps. They are not reluctant performers, but at the same time they don’t look to be having that much fun either. When they eventually start headlining they will have to dial it up a bit. There’s no room for shyness on the stages of sold out festivals with thousands of fans hollering for more.

Words & Photos by Nick Rice

View an accompanying live photo gallery from Band Of Skulls gig at Leeds University Union on 18th February 2012.

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