Sly & The Family Drone at Centrala, Birmingham

Support: Ore| Haq123
October 14, 2018 at Centrala, Birmingham

Fun for all ages! Roll up, roll up Laydeeez ‘n’ gennulmen, boys and girls, witness the return of the amazing Sly & The Family Drone with your very own eyes! Plus! Punk metal kids! Sombre doom tuba! Good vibes! Come one, come all! 2018 has been a difficult year for Sly, complicated by Matt’s lengthy recovery from a crash in January. When I spoke with him earlier in the summer he seemed hopeful, if not entirely confident, they’d be out on tour again before the end of the year. On Friday they returned to live action on their Spatchcock home turf, and this is the third date in a packed week taking their noise jams up and down the country. It’s Sunday night and October has turned up late in all its damp and windy glory, but those of us who made it out are rewarded with a triple-whammy of greatness tonight.

It’s actually two long years since Sly & The Family Drone last played Birmingham, during that time local youngsters Haq123 have arrived in some style. Two pre-teen kids and an allegedly ‘grown-up’ one, they play a Haribo horror-mix of Sabbath sludge and b-movie punk. Since wowing the crowd at Lunar festival earlier in the summer, they’ve been gigging pretty regularly and getting better and better. It’s always a good sign for a young band when their new songs are the best. They end on two tracks from their new single: ‘Ugly Baby’ finds Millie hilariously sniping at a family whose hideousness has scared their pets away and caused the neighbours to grow taller hedges. ‘Deathmaker’ rocks harder than anything else they’ve done and showcases the increasingly fierce drum skills of Zac Attack. Smiles all round then, even from my moaning vegan friend hit in the face by thrown gelatine treats.

I guess it’s possible Sam Underwood might strike an imposing figure at first sight. Tall, with a shaved head and pointy devil’s chin beard, he is dressed in a long black smock as he comes out to play his doom tuba. If so it’s an impression quickly dispelled as he cracks a warm smile, asks us to gather round, and says he hopes Ore will tonight be the calm between two different kinds of storm. So it proves. A duo of tuba and trombone they sit opposite one another in the centre of the room and play one long meditative piece of doom-drone. A combination of skill and subtly deployed effects pedals keep the deep warm drone of the brass constant, there’s none of the lung filling gasps or blatting attack you might expect watching someone play tuba at such close quarters. The room is drenched in blue light, shining from the floor up to the ceiling it gives the impression we’re sat on the floor of a swimming pool. Subtle melodic lines move beneath the surface of the music which is calmer and even more sorrowful than on the wonderful Belatedly LP. It is, as hoped, a wonderful moment of stillness between storms.

The return of Sly & The Family Drone is a cause for widespread rejoicing. This is the first time I’ve seen them with the new-ish sax enhanced line up and it proves a fine development of their sound. James’s playing is not out front skronking away over the top of everybody else, but embedded within the band changing it in less obvious ways. It’s like that extra, weird ingredient that really makes a cocktail but which you never bother with when you’re making them at home. They seem sharper, a little more structured. It’s as if the enforced time off has intensified their commitment to the cause making them, somehow, a little more serious about what they’re doing. As it goes with Sly things steadily gain in intensity and focus as the set wears on, pulling you in to a whirlpool of rhythmic noise. Driving drums, twisting, squalling electronics and saxophone skronk. It’s hypnotic and uplifting, wave after wave of glorious churning sound. Tonight’s performance reaches an unexpected ending. As the drumming builds, young Zac from Haq123 joins them on floor toms and we reach the point where things start getting passed out into the crowd. Suddenly, we’re plunged into blackness. The power has shorted but they don’t miss a beat thundering on with drums and wailing sax. The surrounding crowd lights them with phone torches as they play on. It’s different but still captures the shared sense of event that makes Family Drone gigs so special. It’s good to have them back.

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