REVIEW: Hackney Colliery Band at Wilton's Music Hall

Hackney Colliery Band at Wilton's
Photo credit: Evie Monnington-Taylor. All Rights Reserved

Hackney Colliery Band
(Wilton's Music Hall 13th May 2016. Review by Dan Bergsagel)

The slow thump of a bass drum invites nine brass silhouettes in front of a three storey high-textured and peeling plaster wall. Wilton's Music Hall does provide the band with an inimitable backdrop. The crowd shuffle through the building's narrow corridors, its dilapidated chic and ornate arches for Hackney Colliery Band's second of two nights at the venue, launching their new album Sharpener.

These nights got under way with an intense pair of numbers from the new record, all rich close trombone harmony and tight sharp stops, with a blistering tenor solo from Tom Richards. Reawake takes an almost fugal tone, with plodding sousaphone lines and reverberating trumpet, before slipping into the synchronised contrapuntal Cramm and jaunty high-speed Timelapse. Front man Steve Pretty playfully prodded the crowd with a style verging on a children's entertainer – encouraging them to outdo the audience of the night before, and received pantomime boos and cheers in response. He was apologetically admitted that, although launching the album, it was not yet available. Instead personally numbered Wilton's Music Hall EPs handed out to all attendees and the audience were tempted with the possibility of a recording of the gig featuring on a new live record.

Its an interesting band which can distribute the arranging duties between the front man and the two percussionists, and the new music on display is both diverse and engaging: politically charged chaotic elephantine flurries mixed with melancholic interludes of Bread and Circuses, followed by the more controlled traded eights between brassy Nick Ashwood and jazzy alto dep Ollie Weston on The Morning. The strong dancey title-track Sharpener and It's Normally Bigger bring out ripping soloes from Pretty and Richards.

Many brass-bands rely on covers for the meat of their set, and it is testament to HCB's progress that they succeed in keeping these to a minimum. However it is also clear that they and the audience relish working on someone else's groove, and their new adaptation of London soul artist Kwabs' Wrong or Right demonstrates a level of passion and of rhythmic inspiration which they do not always match with their own pieces. Nirvana's Heart Shaped-Box and Kanye's All of the Lights get people moving near the end of the night, before the band channel the brass attitude of the Hot 8 or Hypnotic Brass in singing/shouting their way through a Prodigy medley, with breakdowns almost designed for brass arrangement.

Hackney Colliery Band have been playing together for 8 years now, but their unexpected collection of personalities still springs surprises – the ever active Pretty, engrossed in the music and dancing as he orchestrates the band standing next to the statuesque figure of Ashwood, focused on the task at hand. The band overseen from the raised back of stage by energetic Luke Christie rigged up with a snare and with bouncing hair, Olly Blackman guarding the bass drum and electronic wizardry, and the languid Jeff Miller wrapped in his sousaphone's brass embrace.

Hackney Colliery Band against the backdrop of Wilton's
Photo credit: Evie Monnington-Taylor. All Rights Reserved


For most of the gig the curious mix of ex-farmers and true jazz deps play with composed intensity, leaving the stage impact in Prettys hands, but as the first set neared its close the full ensemble did come out of their shells, and carried the audience's momentum through to the encore. Started by a lone trumpet wandering amongst the crowd as the applause died down, they launched into traditional Balkan songs and No Diggity before leaving the stage for the dance floor. Taking advantage of the inherent portability of a brass band to encircle the audience, marching beneath the perimeter balcony precipitously propped on beautifully slender corkscrew columns to play the anticipated crowd-pleasing finale rendition of Toto's Africa.

Friday the 13th is said to be unlucky for some, and perhaps an album launch without an album is unlucky. But HCB seem to be going from strength to strength balancing varied new material with crowd-pleasing pop arrangements While an atmospheric venue like Wilton's can't hurt, they did  generate plenty of their own intensity on the night.  The CD Sharpener will arrive any day soon, but in the meantime this gig served as a reminder that HCB are - as ecer  - worth catching live. In fact, they could not be any sharper.

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