When it comes to gigs, small is often beautiful. If you’re not able to see the whites of the dials on their effects pedals and read the hastily scrawled set list by leaning in a bit from where you’re standing then it’s not a gig, it’s a rock show, which may if you’re lucky turn out to be something quite extraordinary in its own way (witness Patti Smith at Cambridge Corn Exchange a few weeks ago) but is very much not the same thing as being in a small room with no backstage area in close proximity to the musicians. Nowhere to hide, for them, or indeed you. Last night I got to see sets by two excellent American guitar groups in a space about half the size of your average village hall, with no more than thirty people in attendance and no distance at all between the acts and the audience. It was wonderful.
The Green Door Store is located in the archways at the side of Brighton train station and the bar and stage area have a rough unreconstructed feel, the exposed brickwork and uneven cobbled floors suggesting that they haven’t changed much from the days when they were used as stables. The dim lighting and old-school toilet graffiti add to the mood – you can easily picture a classic bar-room brawl breaking out here, although both staff and clientele are perfectly friendly and civilised. On arrival there are only a handful of punters in evidence, along with a few assorted musicians and a couple of promoters. It’s fairly apparent that the risk of there being an unseemly crush down the front when the bands come on is minimal. Eventually, and with a pleasing lack of urgency and ceremony, two of the figures on the musicians’ table put down their beers and wander over to the stage. One quick introduction from the enthusiastic organiser of tonight’s event later, and we’re off.
I’ve bimbled on about my love of Wussy before, so I’ll try not to waste too much time trying to convince you again of their charms, but honestly: how is a group this charming and accessible with such a killer repertoire of great pop songs not massive? I can scarcely believe I’m even standing in the same room as them, let alone standing in a room with, at the start of their set, only about ten other people. Although, to be strictly accurate, this is only two-fifths of the group, albeit the important two-fifths – this mini-tour being something of a UK reconnaissance mission for them they’re minus a bassist, drummer and pedal steel player, and are represented by core duo of singer-guitarists Lisa Walker and Chuck Cleaver. It doesn’t seem to matter. They kick off with a sweet and sensitive take on Little Paper Birds that has everyone’s attention and then roll out one great tune after another in a thoroughly engaging manner, never quite sloppy but with enough rough edges and imperfections to lend the character needed to distinguish the performance from a sterile, over-drilled runthrough. Walker’s guitar technique is pretty basic, involving mainly standard open chord shapes that are capoed up to the appropriate key, but that’s perfectly fine if it lets her concentrate on her plaintive but always appealing vocals. Cleaver handles most of the fiddly bits, riffs and even one or two sections that you could describe as solos, and gets to sing lead vocals on the numbers he write the lyrics for. Between songs there’s a lot of relaxed banter and a bit of last minute re-ordering of the setlist, and you get the sense the pair quite enjoy the freedom the stripped-down version of the band gives them to change things around. There’s a lot of joking with the audience, usually at their own expense (the heavily bearded Cleaver had been reminding me of someone, so when he revealed that he’d been hailed in the street that afternoon with a “Yo, Hagrid!” I couldn’t help laughing out loud), and even a genuine rock’n’roll anecdote (Cleaver had previously played in a band that had once supported, and been ill-treated by, Oasis. They found a way to get revenge). Towards the end of the set Cleaver starts breaking strings but not before Walker gets to deliver a brilliant one-two of songs from the band’s debut album Funeral Dress: the slowie Human Brained Horse (“and that’s the first time we’ve ever played that in a place a horse might have actually lived in”) and the rousing Motorcycle, which I only heard for the first time a few months ago but sounds like a song I’ve known all my life. They finish with Cleaver minus a D and top E string but they still sound just great.
Wussy stick around and watch headliners American Werewolf Academy along with an audience which has by now grown enough to half fill the room. AWA are a three-piece from Dallas who also know how to put together and present punchy three minute pop songs, but they’re significantly tighter and play in a much more aggressive style than Wussy, with the decibel level cranked up and singer-guitarist Aaron Thedford executing full-blooded rock’n’roll kicks across the stage. It’s a shame that there isn’t a group of boozed-up teenagers on hand to form a decent moshpit, and I never thought I’d wish that on myself. This full-on display of attitude from the band would be just annoying however if they didn’t have the talent and material to justify it, and thankfully they do – the songs are mainly drawn from their album Everything Is Alright So Far and they’re fast, hooky, melodic and varied enough for the overall sound not to just blend into a mush. The band (alongside Thedford there are Jake Barnhart on bass and Tony Harper on drums) crack through a dozen or more songs in what seems like about fifteen minutes, but is actually more like forty, and that’s including quite a lot of between-song chat.
The gig wraps up at not long after ten, giving me time to snag a signed Wussy LP and canvas bag before going back to my hotel for cocoa. Two great bands in one cosy venue, what’s not to like?