Some live tickets are destined from the start to be great ones. The emergence of Cassia has without doubt been one of the biggest and most pleasant surprises of the year. Joined by Brighton’s rising star Alfie Neale and new local favourites Make Friends, and crammed on to a hot, sweaty and packed-out Thekla, a classic were-you-there night was always certain to unfold. Much like Cassia’s debut album – when the night finally arrived, it didn’t disappoint.
Make Friends raised an eyebrow or two with their debut EP which they drip-fed earlier in the year, assembled in Geoff Barrow’s Invada Studios in Bristol with Everything Everything collaborator Pete Sené on production duties. With names like those on your resumé, you are going to be expected to live up to the hype. A home-town support slot was always going to be a helping hand for Make Friends tonight. Evidently there is a fair smattering of the already-converted in the crowd who, with the help of a polished performance from the band, are soon bringing others along for the ride.
“[Ellie by Make Friends] is a swooning summer-breeze of a song, during which singer Tom Andrew puts on his best brave smile in the face of love being lost.”
Make Friends create an ambitious and well-conceived indie sound which sparkles at its best on the bedroom-dream-pop of recent singles Ellie and Drop Naked. The former is a swooning summer-breeze of a song, during which singer Tom Andrew puts on his best brave smile in the face of love being lost; the latter starts up in a shimmer and ends with dualling-guitars and drama. Talk Tomorrow is a math-influenced romp of the kind that Foals used to rip through 10 years ago: no bad thing at all while the band seek out a more defined identity of their own. It’s promising stuff as the night gets underway from a local outfit who, justifiably, enjoy the kind of raucous reception rarely given this early in the evening.
Alfie Neale has already enjoyed one support tour with Cassia back in the Spring and no-one could blame the headliners for a reluctance to change what was clearly a winning formula. Brighton-based Neale has spent the last 12 months showcasing his prodigious musical eclecticism, turning his talents to a myriad of genres with the enthusiasm of a kid in a sweet shop – and with increasingly satisfying results. Responsible for one of the year’s best releases in Tongue Tied, and recently returning with the equally accomplished Stepping Stones – two releases at either end of his stylistic spectrum – Neale is a hot ticket in his own right; displaying the increasingly confident on-stage demeanour of a man who knows he is destined for greatness.
“It’s [Alfie] Neale’s voice that continues to burn into the ears and the memory… white soul which sparks with a rare and affecting authenticity.”
The recent release is an initial instalment on Neale’s forthcoming E.P, much of it trailed tonight. The material is just as strong as expected and sees him beginning to settle on a more coherent, trademark sound; a platter of new and old influences laid down with his own quirks and attention to song-writing detail. New song Vices is a highlight of the night, as Neale delivers a setlist built on good-time feels. Emerging repertoire aside, it’s Neale’s voice that continues to burn into the ears and the memory just like the first time we heard it; white soul which sparks with a rare and affecting authenticity. He’ll be back here on his own before long.
For their part, Cassia return like all-conquering prodigal sons. Rock-and-roll posturing isn’t this Manchester trio’s style; instead they have simply set about creating one of the finest debut albums in years, Replica. A slow-burner on release, the importance and impact of which has grown as the year has worn on, Replica is a rewarding, optimistic outing. It’s impossible to know whether the material sets the mood of the audience or reflects it, but either way it works perfectly both on the album and in a pressure-cooker setting like Thekla.
“It’s to [Cassia’s] credit that… in 2019 it is still possible for a band to come along who have the courage of their convictions to create a sound that is fresh, distinct and above all, engaging.”
On stage, Rob Ellis, Lou Cotterill and Jacob Leff cut the shape of unassuming and reluctant heroes. It’s all about the music and the legacy of the Ellis family record collection, which has informed an infectious hybrid sound. Citing influences from Talking Heads to Fela Kuti via Vampire Weekend, Cassia are hard to pigeon-hole. Calypso-pop? Afro-indie? It’s to the band’s credit that this is a conversation in itself; that in 2019 it is still possible for a band to come along who have the courage of their convictions to create a sound that is fresh, distinct and above all, engaging – rather than simply aping the safe bets of guaranteed popularity. Shorthand comparisons are never easy, but if Paul Simon’s Graceland had been released on Postcard Records, it might have sounded a little like Cassia.
There is a beautiful awkwardness to Ellis on stage, right up until that precise moment that his fingers make contact with that fretboard. Music flows with organic intensity as the Replica material is recreated; all band members doubling up on another instrument – in Ellis and Cotterill’s case, additional toms – while Leff supplements his octopus efforts on the kit with extra keyboard duties. It makes for a different take on the album but one that fizzes with intensity, mirrored in the response of tonight’s crowd, who look like they’ve been waiting their whole lives to hear it. “I always wanted to play Thekla,” confesses Ellis as the night wears on, barely hiding a grin of genuine satisfaction.
The tunes are immense. Loosen Up kicks off the set, ensuring that we start on a high. After loosening up, there is no letting up. Sink might have been one of the more unintentionally amusing songs to be played on a floating venue but no matter, the boat is literally rocking. Throughout, the crowd sing along not only to the lyrics but also the guitar riffs. The more enthusiastic in the audience create a maelstrom, somewhat randomly, during Weekender. Positive vibes do that to people.
“[Album title track Replica] offers up a little respite with its easy-going singalong chorus; a love letter to a frozen Manchester, toasting its hands on a calypso campfire.”
The title track from the album offers up a little respite with its easy-going singalong chorus; a love letter to a frozen Manchester, toasting its hands on a calypso campfire. Small Spaces is monster-loud. “We could get away… so why don’t we?” invites Ellis at the denouement. We’re already with you, Rob. “How can you waste such a beautiful moment,” we are asked in DreamA, as good an album closer as you will ever hear but making way tonight for Cassia’s signature tune 100 Times Over. Out of Her Mind takes the intensity up another, darker, notch; as Ellis delivers the coup de grace, “wrapped around her honesty, lies and infidelities.” It’s a warning shot that Cassia are about a lot more than just a beach party.
It’s an intense end to the night. Thekla won’t have had many better.