Racecar is Racecar Backwards is an album to constantly return to. Reuben were a band involved in the halcyon period of the British underground music scene at the turn of the millennium, perhaps the most recent period of high and broad quality until the past two or three years (but still unmatched in this writer’s opinion). Alongside bands such as earthtone9, Mahumodo, Miocene, lostprophets (yeah… I know, I know), Million Dead and a whole host of other quality acts who were playing small gigs and putting out shoestring budget EPs and albums, and who occasionally managed to permeate the membrane that rests invisibly over these acts and stages into some form of occasional mainstream recognition, Reuben were firmly one of the leading pack. Centre stage and forefront on this charge was band mastermind Jamie Lenman, a seemingly uncomfortable figure in the limelight and who, for many, became a reluctant icon.
When Reuben finally disappeared into the waves in 2008, many, including myself, imagined that they would either return, or that the members would resurface quickly in a new iteration. It seemed assured either way that new material from Lenman was only ever a few months away, such was his ferocious songwriting ability. Five years passed before Lenman found himself back on the media stage. Five years is a long time. In 2013, Muscle Memory was released – a double album that split his style in half: one blisteringly heavy with a weird jazz twist; the other a lighter, subtle affair harking back to the more placid moments of latter-day Reuben with another genre inflection, this time in the form of country. Similarly, to the split in style, the album split those who reviewed it. All delighted in Lenman’s return: some applauding the experimentation and willingness to push his songwriting into new uncharted waters; others lamenting it not being Reuben album #4 and being a somewhat fractured affair. Personally, I was one of few who sat on the fence. To me, more than anything else, it felt overwhelmingly like a much-needed purge. Lenman needed to get something out. Not out commercially, but to immediately eschew the expectations of fans rejoicing in his return; and to also find a vehicle to express five years (possibly more) or songwriting.
Fast-forward to 2017, and four more years of anticipation, and Devolver, Lenman’s second solo album, has landed. Despite a long working relationship with XL Recordings that has never been questioned, I was delighted to see him working with independent label Big Scary Monsters. It feels, to me, like an excellent fit. To celebrate the release of Devolver, and one thinks as a thank-you to his rabid fans for their not so patient wait, Jamie announced LENMANIA earlier in the year; a coming together of bands he enjoyed and respected, and featuring himself bookending the day. Featuring bands critically lauded and whom were familiar to this reviewer (Employed to Serve, Fizzy Blood) and those I’d quite frankly never heard of (The St. Pierre Snake Invasion, Broker), it promised to be a day of merriment and quality music, and hopefully, discovery.
Tufnell Park, London’s The Dome and Boston Music Room are perfect for these mini-festivals as they are, in essence part of the same building and conjoined. I had, in 2014, enjoyed a similar festival in the shape of the Cult of Luna curated Beyond the Redshift. That joyful day had included many walks – each time feeling a little longer – back and forth between the “headlining stage” of The Forum and the two used for LENMANIA. The absence of The Forum allowed for easier pit-stops for food and, more importantly, drink. It is a festival after all!
Three pm arrived, and in a crowded Boston Music Room, Lenman appeared to rabid cheers. Dressed in a dapper suit, he seemed instantly overwhelmed by the reaction and that the day had finally come. If nothing else, one cannot deny that Lenman is a born frontman. Not in terms of unbridled confidence and “rock star” moves, but his natural interaction with audiences is always friendly, humorous and at ease. Perhaps this is all the more true as we were at a festival that sported his name; and the fact that after a few conversations over drinks with attendees, a much larger amount of the audience than one would think were there to see him and him alone – the other bands of passing or no interest. This may be curious for many readers, but such is the unusual thrall that Lenman engenders in his fans, it did not come as too much of a shock to this writer. People had, after all, travelled from abroad for the day.
The first set was purely acoustic, the latter was to be electric, and felt somewhat like a live mimicry of Muscle Memory’s obvious split in traits. Starting with ‘Pretty Please’ was clearly a good move as the entire audience begins to sing it back to Jamie by the end of the first verse, which segues into an ecstatic rendering of ‘Moving to Blackwater’ from Racecar is Racecar Backwards. We come full circle within the first ten minutes of the set. This was clearly an important gig for Lenman; and the anticipation in the room had moved through a few gears by this point already, as all could feel that some tracks seldom aired might be played and that a few surprises might be in store. New track ‘Body Popping’ seemed, at first, an odd choice for the acoustic set due to its reliance on the electronic beats Lenman incorporated into his sound on Devolver with producer Space. However, we were treated to hearing the song in its skeletal, unevolved state, and it was great. ‘If You Have to Ask You’ll Never Know’ was quickly followed by a cover of Labi Siffre’s beloved classic ‘It Must Be Love’. The couples in the audience cuddle up. ‘Friends in Low Places’ happily broke that particular deadlock, and by that time Lenman had appropriated a small cone party hat. Party time, indeed! Everyone present trembles when Hannah Lou Clark comwa on stage to Jamie, announcing a very special rendition of ‘Good Luck’. It might not have been electrified, but it truly was electric. The energy in the room found fever pitch. Lenman closed his opening gambit with the title track from his new album and ‘Shotgun House’. What a start!
Broker kicked off proceedings up in The Dome. It was heavy/loud. It featured a lot of screaming. There wasn’t much more to it, though. Listening to their debut album QUIXOTA after the fact, which happens to have been recorded live, I can’t reconcile the band on record to the one I saw at the festival. The sound on record is inventive and incisive; live it was one-note, indecipherable, unremarkable. Either my ears hadn’t readied themselves post Lenman’s acoustic set, or it simply wasn’t Broker’s day. I reserve the right to propose the latter. Jamie had made a personal plea for people to check out Hannah Lou Clark’s set after their duet on ‘Good Luck’ and Lenman’s fans, still in that aforementioned thrall, pushed themselves back into the Boston Music Room. Her set was peppered with the tracks from this year’s EP The Heart and All Its Sin in a wonderfully understated performance, and over time you could see many audience members being won over. Those of Lenman’s fans who remember Reuben as the ‘heavy period’ of their past were certainly more at home in the Boston Music Room, and one could already see that many had decided to set up for the long haul.
I made my way back up the stairs to The Dome, and caught the end of the soundcheck for The St. Pierre Snake Invasion. Self-confidence can be a wonderful thing; it can also be extremely, extremely alienating. The band soon began their set and I let out a sigh. The audience were sold straight away. I, however, was not. Self-congratulatory preening aside, the band are accomplished musicians and make all the right moves; but they basically sounded like Everytime I Die, Norma Jean, Converge and so on, but without the bite. In fact, some riffs and drum patterns sounded eerily like parts from the catalogues of those bands. As they finished, I noted that the guitar dude was even wearing an Everytime I Die t-shirt. We get it, we get it. I’m surprised so many delighted in it. They could have just put Hot Damn! on Spotify and had a smoke. Go figure.
Next up was In Dynamics. Walking back into the room the first thing I noted was that a full back line had been installed. Boston Music Room was going electric! The band are the find of the day and are surely set to be indie darlings of those broadsheets recently looking to be cool and relevant (see The Independent and The Guardian). Frontman Beau Boulden has a voice that I think most would sell their soul for. It is always, without doubt, the facet of a musician I am in awe of and that transfixes me live when their vocals are effortless. When notes and melody just pour out without a scrunched-up face or without that slight live imperfection that so many in pop, rock and indie iron out in the studio; when that is just delivered, no questions asked, that, sir, is impressive. Beau’s range is incredible and he has a faultless falsetto that was Jackson Pollack’d throughout their set. The brotherly bass and drum duo have that implicit, familial understanding that you simply cannot replicate. The band were tight, have some great songs which occasionally journey into heavier territory, and had enough about them to engage with an audience whose attentions may have turned to food given the time of day. They haven’t yet managed to bottle their live quality on record, but ones to watch though, for sure.
Bad Sign followed on upstairs – another on the line-up I had little knowledge of, except that they were signed to Basick Records and had a new album out recently. They were the first band playing The Dome that felt like they truly belonged on the line-up at LENMANIA, combining a slice of heaviness with a healthy portion of catchy, head-bang-worthy melodicism. Were they this reviewer’s cup of tea? Not really, but they did remind me of the kind of band that I would have investigated if they had been on a CD included with a Kerrang! issue that Reuben featured on too. They sadly left me a little cold, as I believe the UK scene has (and should have) evolved from the heady days of the early 00s, but they clearly won over quite a few fans that afternoon. Fizzy Blood took to the stage to end their 2017 with a bang, and quite aptly, given that they are named after one of Lenman’s song. The band have quickly gained a buzz, and despite not being a fervent follower of theirs, the live show they brought to the table was extremely accomplished. With two EPs to their name, one can only imagine the plaudits that lie in wait from small and large media alike if they nail an album. The collective audience was about as engaged as I had seen that day since Lenman had been on stage four hours earlier, and they ripped through a set that included a fair few moments when patches of verse and chorus were sung back to them, much to the delight of frontman Benji. 2018 will be a big year for these guys.
If Employed to Serve were American they would have had the kind of year Code Orange have just had. As they are not, their rabid brand of attack is not quite as well known; but in the right bedrooms around the world they are revered as much as the Roadrunner quartet, and in the media where both feature, the reviews have consistently been glowing, particularly for sophomore album The Warmth of a Dying Sun. Aside from Lenman, they were the band I was there for; but with the previous acts and the audience’s apparent lethargy towards most, I couldn’t wrap my head around how they would be digested. My theory prior to their set had been that the festival might not quite work for them, with only a rabid fifty or so people going crazy, and a bemused majority keeping to the sides of the venue with startled eyes. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The Dome suddenly became a war zone. Proportionally for venue to crowd size, this was the biggest mosh pit I had seen in a long time – half the room was beholden to its circumference. This was the greatest cathartic outpouring of emotion the festival had entertained thus far, with people in contorted exorcism during ‘Void Ambition’ and ‘Half Life’. The band were in full command, full control. The future of UK hardcore are now its defining present, and LENMANIA had been resuscitated back to music festival atmosphere once again. The headliners of the Boston Music Room were Palm Reader. It’s been a while since their 2015 effort Beside the Ones We Love, and it was good to hear that a new album is soon to appear. They struggled to keep the buoyancy created by the surge of adrenaline pumped into the crowd from Employed to Serve, but the smaller space assisted in making their raging more intimate. Favourites from the aforementioned album plus a smattering of new tracks made for a happy audience. Palm Reader were in full flow throughout their set and they have enough originality that they kept all focused on a sterling performance.
An exodus then occurred as everyone at the festival moved into The Dome; a veritable stampede and jostling for prime position. Here was the reason everyone was in attendance. Lenman bounced onto stage after drummer and collaborator Dan Kavanagh, both sporting an all-white look; dungarees, socks, shoes, shirts, you name it. The silver balloons that spelt out LENMANIA stood behind him, somehow still intact. Fifteen tracks were played and Lenman had clearly put much thought into the set. Five tracks are non-solo work – four Reuben bangers and a surprising cover. Five are from Muscle Memory, and the other five are from the newly released Devolver. A crowd-pleasing set. It brings a smile just on paper. ‘Hell in a Fast Car’ ushered in the closing set of the festival, followed quickly by fellow newbie ‘Waterloo Teeth’. The set didn’t start slowly though, as both tracks had been doing the rounds as singles prior to the album’s release. Audience members were already puce and screaming themselves hoarse when Jamie and Dan launched into ‘No One Wins the War.’ The whole venue seemingly started to melt. ‘The Six Fingered Hand’ and ‘Fizzy Blood’ rattle along next, with the frontman of The St. Pierre Snake Invasion featuring on the latter (which seemed an odd decision given the guys from Fizzy Blood were present). We were once again brought back to “contemporary Lenman” with Devolver track ‘Personal’ before everyone sings along to ‘I Ain’t Your Boy’, the only track from the softer side of Muscle Memory on offer in this electric set.
The slowing down with ‘I Ain’t Your Boy’ was Jamie at his most masterful, as it gave a moment’s respite before the room once again erupted when ‘Blamethrower’ unexpectedly blasted out of the amps. By this point the room was bouncing. ‘All of England is a City’ featured next. For me, it’s probably the weakest track from the new album, but the momentum gained from playing Very Fast Very Dangerous’ signature tune meant all were swept along and shouting the title-as-refrain moments later. It’s heavy for a while longer as ‘The Fuck of It All’ blares around The Dome with Employed to Serve’s Justine Jones joining Jamie on stage. Lenman ticked off all three Reuben albums by playing In Nothing We Trust’s ‘Agony/Agatha’, and the audience once again produced shrieks and bubbled furiously due to the main man’s previous band receiving airtime. Lenman brought the energy back down again with a cover, of all things, of Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’. It was a bizarre moment after the ferocity wrought upon the previous quarter of an hour, but with his voice and great ear for what will work, he managed to get a few hundred metalheads to sing along to the 80s’ hit. Rob Piper, Jamie’s faithful tech joined him on stage for this and the following ‘All the Things You Hate About Me, I Hate Them Too’ on saxophone. For the last time that night, the pace and the heaviness were dialled back up to ten, as a merciless rendition of ‘Stuck in My Throat’ was delivered with great aplomb. The evening closed with stomp-along single ‘Mississippi’. Jamie was beaming and simply gave a double thumbs-up to his fans before leaving the stage in a hail of rapturous applause. Some seemed upset at a lack of encore, but you know what? A good set list is a good set list, and an artist’s intent is their own. Also, to use an old adage, “leave them wanting more”, and Jamie can always rely on that.
LENMANIA was an interesting day but overall was quite inconsistent in terms of quality. The day was never really about cohesiveness, though. Put together by Lenman, it was a true reflection of the very varied music he enjoys, and those he is currently enjoying in the UK underground scene. When it comes to the man himself, he clearly still has it, and is incredibly lucky to still have a rabid fanbase despite some fairly lengthy periods of inactivity (and he knows it). My question now is whether the next time we see him we will finally receive a set without Reuben included. I hope so. They are his songs and he clearly enjoys playing them and pleasing his fans, and I too will always, always, always be delighted to hear those tunes played live; but I hope Lenman soon feels he can move out of Reuben’s shadow, and from behind that legacy. Devolver still shows an artist trying to find his way. Some songs would be better as stand-alone singles – ‘All of England is a City’ is a B-side at best. Other tracks are sublime. I look forward with great intrigue to album three (and here’s hoping 2021 isn’t its release year) and maybe a second version of the festival. But, put simply, whatever he does, I’ll be there.