United Fruit /Shades/ Skull Puppies @ Head Of Steam, Newcastle, 20/10/2014)

United Fruit /Shades/ Skull Puppies @ Head Of Steam, Newcastle, 20/10/2014)

Tenacious Glaswegian rockers United Fruit took to the stage in Newcastle on Monday as part of their thirteen-date UK tour. Their studio recordings purvey an energetic, feisty post-punk sound, but would their headline slot on a four-act bill live up to the ripening hype?

As alty MySpace era heroes The Subways performed close-by at the O2 Academy, a crowd of around 40 packed into the basement venue of The Head of Steam for United Fruit’s second Tyneside show of the year. Joining them were lively post-hardcore rockers Shades and nerdy punks Skull Puppies, while first up would be dependable local openers Ghurst.

Shouty and intentionally abrasive, Ghurst are a relatively new band that pop up frequently at local gigs as a support, playing an often difficult to consume brand of alternative rock. But their sound has its moments: With strained vocals and furious thrashings of guitar, “Cathedral City” stood out amidst the noise, and as a new band they’ll progress as time goes on.

To judge Ghurst on their music alone, however, is to only tell half of the story. The trio’s real strength is their character. They’re all too happy to make fun of each other, and poke fun at their mistakes; The first line of the gig was “bear with us while [drummer] Jacque finishes his chips”, and it set a light-hearted tone. Ghurst are good at drawing a skeptical crowd in, and they’d do well to take note of this, because it’s their biggest asset as an opening act.

Skull Puppies followed next, a proudly geeky trio of ‘nerdcore punx’ whose performance was a promotion for their upcoming four-track EP Venus Crytrap, released this Friday. Their lengthy set included a performance of the EP as well as older tracks, and was lapped up by their devoted followers in the front row.

With pop-punk stylings, nerdy lyricism and an occasionally acoustic-tinged sound, Skull Puppies were surprisingly impressive performers, whose sprightly urge to cram as many tracks into their time slot as possible was refreshing. For the uninitiated, their cover of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ was majestic, similar in style to Me First and the Gimme Gimmes.

Their standout material was their own, however, most notably “Nerd Hutch”. A homage to Travelling Man, a comic and gaming shop in Newcastle and their spiritual home, it clearly stood out as their anthem and even got their fans singing along. Their EP is released this Friday via Bandcamp, and if you have any inclination toward pop-punk it should be well worth checking out.

Skull Puppies would be a tough act to follow, even more so as their following had left straight after their spot, seemingly disinterested in the rest of the show. But Shades were no musical freshers, a popular local experimental post-hardcore band with fans in their own right, fronted by eccentric vocalist Alexander Paul.

Shades were a chaotic discharge of angst and raw energy, with vocals that were spoken, sung and screamed in various measures. Alexander Paul seldom remained on the stage, touring his microphone wire all around the venue, sitting on the bar, and singing into people’s ears like a child that’s had too much sugar. But his cocksure confidence wasn’t misplaced, for they sounded good, worthy of a headline slot in their own right.

The fortitude of the support acts had set the gig up for a rip-roaring finale, any the good money would be on United Fruit to deliver. Featured on BBC Radio 1 and XFM and by a number of national publications, and with a hyped new single set for release next week, these were heady times for the trio. Newcastle would be the ninth date on their tour and the final stop in England.

Since Shades had left the stage the crowd had dispersed. Like Skull Puppies before them, it appeared that their own fans had limited interest in the headliners. This didn’t give the Glasgow boys much to work with, although a healthy contingent still remained and a band of their calibre should have been able to put on a show to outdo the impressive acts than went before.

United Fruit’s set started abruptly: No small talk and straight into the opening bars of ‘Nightmare’. It would, in fact, be three songs until vocalist Iskandar Stewart uttered anything more than his vocals. This may have been their style, but it was in sharp contrast to the stage presence of Shades, and to be highly critical it at first seemed like they were phoning their set in.

But what their stage show lacked, the music itself spoke up for. As they bedded in and the crowd repopulated, United Fruit’s quality as a studio band shone through, as did the noisy, occasionally punky overtones which define them. Interspersing new tracks with old favourites, the highlights included ‘How Long’ and popular new single ‘Open Your Eyes’ .

Yet a band with such a rising star should impress on stage too, and in this sense United Fruit didn’t deliver. Their music is loud and dynamic, so to just play through the songs, complete with jarring feedback loops between each track, isn’t what you would expect from them. At best it was a sign of weariness after a long tour, at worst a disinterest in performing for the crowd present. But this was tempered by two strong preceding supports, whose vitality was always going to set them up for a fall.

Overall, this was a high-quality, well-staged gig that was good value for money, warranting a larger audience than was actually present. United Fruit may have been upstaged by their support, but their music remains deserving of your attention. Their new single “Open Your Eyes” is released next Monday, and a new album is on the way too. Plus, if you’re in Scotland, there’s still time to catch their final tour dates in Aberdeen on the 23rd and Glasgow on the 24th. 8.8/10
Katy blackwood

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United Fruit /Shades/ Skull Puppies @ Head Of Steam, Newcastle, 20/10/2014)