As a rule, the live record is a poor substitute for the live experience, and there isn't much argument against that. How could an audio recording match the camaraderie, the spontaneity, and the atmosphere of being in a darkened room, flooded with sudden light and immediate sound, able to stamp out the frustration or spin out the enjoyment of life by dancing in your own space surrounded by people who feel the same as you do about a set of sounds? It's the trad, defanged remake of your favourite film. It's the internet dreamboat to their disappointing reality. It's the unnecessary hot take on something you love. I'm here to say we've somehow conjured one of those rare exceptions to that rule.
Xtra Mile has a current roster of artists who are among some of the best live performers in the UK (and a few outside of it). This is why they generally receive a warm welcome wherever they play and also why we send them overseas, so others may experience their expertise. Hence our 2017 Reeperbahn Festival showcase. Quite a few of our artists play festivals throughout the world, but it's rare that we are able to put on our own showcase outside of the UK. By taking Skinny Lister, Will Varley and Beans on Toast to Hamburg, Germany, we get to highlight the label's strengths.
We have the rambunctious, whirling six-piece Skinny Lister who tap into traditional folk from our isles and enflame it with its own hidden sense of celebratory abandon. Though only three albums in, they've toured far and wide, never seeming to take much of a break from playing to people. Beans on Toast is the comparative veteren performer, a DIY solo singer who has as many albums as active years recording music (at time of writing, that's nine). He too spends a lot of his time playing to people, sometimes in unusual circumstances as in his May 2017 tour of Britain's pubs. His brash songs aren't poetry but direct missives and tender ballads, interspersed with bursts of rap or diverse musical accompaniment and he has a fanbase who love his direct sound and dedication to them. Will Varley is the freshest face here, even if he's been on the road himself for over seven years. In distinct contrast to Beans and Skinny in sound and song, his words are either evocative and affecting or silly. Just him and a gently-picked acoustic guitar, his voice strides across the strings with authority, moving all in earshot. Some say he's a poet and a philosopher. Others, an amazing entertainer. He seems to inhabit the venn diagram of all of these.
These are among the best live acts Xtra Mile can boast, and it makes sense that Reeperbahn would welcome these three with open arms. My own one Reeperbahn Festival experience included playing harmonica for Frank Turner during Dan's Song, on my birthday (if anyone has video evidence of this, I would love to see how bad I was before I share it with everyone). It was a wild festival which ended with one good friend and someone I'd met on that trip lying on the floor crying with laughter in a puddle of smashed crisps. But the important thing was that each live music performance filled our positive cups to brimming, allowing them to burst into memories like that one. Mornings with boat rides and on building sites (don't ask) weren't quite so fun, but that's the risk you take to absorb as much of that soul-shuddering live experience.
Fancy supporting this motley trio in Germany? Grab tickets to Reeperbahn and visit them on 20 September at Kaiserkeller, Grosse Freiheit 36 in Hamburg.
One of the highlights of 2017's live calendar was the Association of Independent Music award-winning (for best independent festival) Lost Evenings which as you probably know was four nights at Camden's Roundhouse headlined and co-curated by Frank Turner. The final night of the May extravaganza was exclusively Xtra Mile acts, while a scattering of others played on other days or associated satellite events (called, naturally, Last Minutes). This seemed the perfect time to capture what our bands do best. We rolled up the Xtra Mile Outside Broadcasts truck (known as XMROB1) to record as many of our artists as we could performing some of their songs outside, as well as taping those playing the main stage, including all four nights of Frank's sets.
We selected our favourites and compiled them for your listening pleasure in Xtra Mile High Club Volume 9: Live at the Roundhouse. You can listen to it on Spotify or Deezer. You can also buy it for a mere £3.49 from our shop.
The opening salvo as the crowd recognises 'Vital Signs', the cheers rising in response, brings you swiftly into the fold. Like all live albums, the pitch is occasionally warped, notes are occasionally off, feedback sears through at points, crowd noise filters in and out, and of course you can't see anything. But isn't that also the actual live experience? All that's missing – and it's a huge thing – are the people around you. But if you can't get to a show, or have never heard that song live, suddenly...well you're there aren't you? Of course, Frank's live sets are relatively slick productions with attention to sound and mixing. This isn't true for most artists. So the Outside Broadcasts (XMROB1) takes bring you a more suitable intimate living room performance, away from the crowds, but still a liver performance. Sam Duckworth (you porbably still know him as Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly.) has the unenviable task of following 'Vital Signs' and immediately brings us in closer, face-to-face with vulnerability. A song that appeared on the loop-and-sample-heavy Baby Boomers 2 under the Recreations moniker, 'In Good Time' still really suits this downbeat acoustic rendition. And that's another way live albums can give value for money: you might hear a version of a song you like that makes you love that song or that you prefer to the original. Because sometimes the live version is the one that prickles the nerves and picks at the hairs on your neck.
Chris T-T performs a delightful acoustic guitar version of 'Love Me, I'm A Liberal', a song that already has a piano solo version and a blaring full-band recording. Here he sounds like he's enjoying the last few months of these songs being played live and unless you're at one of the final London shows, you won't be hearing this again, so be ready to play this over and over. We return to Frank with the sombre 'Redemption', a song that takes full advantage of the band's live dynamics: gently picked acoustic guitar, piano, harmonies, and as it builds into the climax, huge distorted guitars and ricochet drums. And of course, Frank's voice blooms into it's higher registers, retaining that howl that still slides across the skin like gooseflesh.
Beans on Toast's 'Afternoon in the Sunshine' delves into the political - unavoidable in 2017, and the second song in five that does that – but it's the ragged melody that carries us through, resonating with the tension of trying to enjoy ourselves while still worrying and trying to keep the peace even in the face of hostility. It's brilliantly Beans, and deft with charm. Speaking of which, the next voice we hear is Will Varley claiming pure road grease is his preferred conditioner. 'As For My Soul', recorded on the main stage at the Roundhouse, gives another dimension to the compilation. Playful with the audience, and reckless with the original pace of the song, Will improvises extensively and provides a passionately-proved reason why seeing and hearing an artist live will enhance the songs you know. This isn't slavishly devoted to replicating the recording. It's a drinker's lament, interrupted by crowd laughter at an unseen moment of levity. It's a song careening down a hill while the singer is in total control of his tune and his audience. All that plus his voice is unbelievable.
Frank Turner goes solo next, if you don't count the sold out audience singing back every word of 'Jet Lag'. This is note perfect, and wildly affecting even ten years after hearing the original for the first time. As I was there for this one, I know this felt particularly special and I sang loud with the rest of us - it had been a long time since I'd seen Frank play it. And it is lovely to hear just how beautifully it's performed here. Almost sounding like a radio session, Skinny Lister's 'Devil In Me' from the main stage is them at their rooted, soil-soaked folkiest, with Lorna's warm voice almost pounding the boards of the best Irish song-storytellers, especially during the loud middle-8, and her "yeaaaaah baaaaby" at the end.
Non Canon picks one of the best from his personal, self-titled album. 'Home Alone 3' showcases his chiming picked guitars, his straightforward honest voice, and his penchant for lyrics which catch you unaware, a hitch in the throat, an unexpected pinch on a sensitive memory. It's both lovely and disarming, and bare. At this point, you'd be happy for this course to run for another hour or more. Rob Lynch's 'Tectonic Plates' sounds like a half-whispered classic, stripped of the fine-tuning on Baby, I'm A Runaway. The slight-broken falsetto note on the chorus rings like the best true emo songs. It's a reminder that Rob's tender songs are inescapable and touching, that his live sets let his songs breathe, grow and stay with you.
Next, a flurry of arpeggioed notes descend into a reverbed, floating guitar line. Based on Fizzy Blood you might think the noise most suits Ducking Punches' songs, but 'Sobriety', a brand new track, is a superb acoustic duet. With its ambigious chorus riff, the percussive strumming against the plucked melody, Dan Allen's restrained but aching voice, or the softer use of shifting tones, it's possibly my favourite Ducking Punches song yet. Ben Marwood, alone, just punches every button you want from his wonderful songs. 'Nights' has a morbid lyrical nous, but is delivered with such exuberance – palm-muted acoustic chords, delicious rolling of words, the hesitating on the penultimate chorus, even the slight echo on the recording giving gravitas to Ben's words and melody – that the performance is one of the strongest inclusions here.
We reach the end with Frank Turner's 'Journey of the Magi'. An appropriate end, in what the song tells us, but it's also a fittingly sad-sounding conclusion - it leaves us wanting more. But we know that it was never about reaching the final song, but pushing us to seek out and feel more.
It may be strange to say, having a heard a lot of these songs many many times, but these performances fill me up; whatever that giddy feeling is wants to burst out but I grasp hold of it because it's a feeling unlike any other. I think this could be our best snapshot of where Xtra Mile has ever been. It could be the song choice, it could be the performances really being stand-outs, it could be the order of the tracklisting, it could just be the magic of that weekend sprinkled across it; it's probably all of these. And of course you can disagree. But if we had to stop every band going on tour, if live venues were abandoned and life itself turned darker because of it, this would be a torch light and a reminder to ignore the rules. A call to arms to relight whatever keeps us going.
It's impossible to capture the feeling of live shows, just as it's difficult to take just a handful of songs from just some of our artists and say "yep, this is us!". Yet it's difficult not to be pleased with what we've managed. As ever, we urge you to go to shows and meet like-minded people. Say hi to our artists – they're all lovely, honest! – and dance, sing, flail and cheer. But if you're at home, or on a commute, or just in need of a pick-me-up, listen to the latest Xtra Mile High Club. And if you're in Hamburg, come and see our three artists who will do their absolute damndest to make it a night to remember. If XMR had a mission statement, that might well be it.
If you're still after the original recordings of these songs, you can find them on these records, alongside some other very good songs.