Brittany Howard

9 March
The Ritz

Touring one of her "most honest" albums to date, Brittany Howard brought the perfect combination of soul, funk and rock to Manchester. Whilst most recognised as Alabama Shakes’ frontwoman, Howard has also fronted side projects Thunderbitch and the all-female trio Bermuda Triangle. Her apparent musical fluidity and confidence to experiment with genre, ranging from garage-rock to soul, suggests a musical restlessness, yet fails to deny her ability.

To introduce Manchester to Jaime, her debut solo album, which is dedicated to her late sister, Howard governed the stage in a dazzling gold gown, complementing her stage presence. Referencing her influences, Prince and Pink Floyd, her set went on to enlighten crowds on her unique musical ability.

But before taking the crowd into the depth of her performance, Howard took a moment to shout out to the kids in an Australian children’s hospice, with her audience applauding their bravery.

'Stay High' was the first single The Ritz was treated to, with its soft notes and speckled guitar, crowds were left feeling uplifted. The worry-free song, fixated on "keeping cool", makes any internal fret seem unjustifiable, acting as an almost mentally soothing melody.

Named one of Shadow Proof’s protest songs of the week, ‘Goat Head’ grapples with racial identity, telling a chilling story from Howard’s youth. The tyres of her family car in Alabama were slashed, with the severed head of a goat being put on the backseat – her "mama is white, and daddy is black," she begins. The hushed outro chant of "goat head in the back" shows how this event continues to haunt Howard, ever pondering the question of who did it.

Alongside dealing with race, Howard addresses sexuality and the internal exploration of such, with ‘Georgia’, which transitions from a steady beat to more of a ballad. The song narrates the unconventional story of a young girl having a crush on an older woman, which acts as a needed alternative to the tired theme of a young boy having a crush on his older sister’s friends.

First seen on Jools Holland’s annual Hootenanny bringing in the New Year, Howard’s performance of Jackie Wilson’s soul classic ‘(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher’ got the crowd moving; her energetic and soulful rendition arguably on par with the original.

Later in the set, Howard presented the audience with a defiant spoken-word manifesto, '13th Century Metal', backed by broken synths and urgent drumbeats. The track acts as an opportunity for the frontwoman to preach a borderline holy ideal, "to spread the enlightenment of love, compassion, and humanity to those who are not touched by its light".

Howard brought the set to a close with the acoustic track ‘Short and Sweet’, her soft yet powerful vocals position the song on the cusp of a lullaby. Although usually found at the front of a band, Howard's solo presence felt incomparable.

Amber Dawson

Joe Armon-Jones

14 February
Soup Kitchen

Recently nominated as UK jazz act of the year by Jazz FM, Joe Armon-Jones impressively merges an array of influences to form a sound that sways its way through the various cultures and genres impacting today’s scene. Joe and his army of young representatives epitomise the laidback nature of the exploding UK jazz revival; arriving at a sold-out Soup Kitchen show with no planned setlist, just a free-flowing, dynamic energy and the talent to create the liveliest Friday night party in Manchester.

The band’s ability to seamlessly lock into every tune that their band leader decides to spring on them is truly captivating. Gliding in and out of dub, funk and afro-beat grooves to hypnotise a crowd with a flavourful set of improvisations and embellishments personal to the 200 lucky attendees.

The London outfit’s prowess is exaggerated by their intricate fills and flawless placement. Beautifully composed sax arrangements from fellow Ezra Collective bandmate James Mollison and Deji Ijishakin weave in and out of the synth swells and melodic solos delivered from Joe’s Nord keyboard, while the drums and bass bounce off each other to deliver an infectious rhythmic intensity throughout.

Armon-Jones plays through tracks from his sophomore album, alongside covers of the great Fela Kuti – ‘Try Walk With Me’ sees album contributor and veteran of the scene Asheber join the four-piece to add an entirely new depth to the performance. The musician and educator’s reggae, spoken word styled vocals echo around the tenebrous depths of Soup Kitchen’s basement.

However, it’s the band’s unpredictability that provides the greatest scenes of the night. An extended version of ‘(To) Know Where You’re Coming From’ sees band mates collide in a flurry of solos, Armon-Jones unassumingly composing from his seat on the side-lines before allowing his hands to dance through jazz lines – “fucking beast,” Deji says as he does so.

The sheer joy and spontaneity of the collective delivered an unforgettable set, collaborating to construct an incredibly rich sound in what must be one of the best gigs of the year so far.

George Lincoln

MEWN

4 January
Wilderness Record Store

With the enjoyable excesses of the recent festivities disappearing into a different decade, the audience willing to sample the potential sounds of the future have itchy feet, but the Wilderness Record Store continues to actively provide a platform to give them a good scratch.

There is now more space at the side of the store after a recent knock-through, but amongst the beer fridges, espresso machine and racks of vinyl, it is a still a very intimate venue. It will also feature as part of the upcoming Independent Venue Week events.

"I will belong to you," Chris Lyttle sang to no-one in particular, but everyone in general. It's relayed in a haunting, possibly threatening manner. Picking notes on a Gibson guitar, the only other instrument he used was his rich, sonorous voice, which could be a mixture of Johnny Cash or Richard Hawley. Maybe he was simply auditioning for a musical contribution to a Sergio Leone soundtrack of a western movie.

The second band of this free event, MEWN, are a quintet that could have easily filled Version 1.0 of Wilderness Record Store with their kit alone. Now, there is a bit of space to allow a drum kit, stacked keyboards, a set of pedals for a guitarist and a couple of microphone stands to reside. All for the better.

The basic set-up should not allow for lazy assumptions about acts that perform with so much technology lacking in ability and hiding behind processors. That myth was comprehensively dismissed when MEWN kicked into life. Having been together for a few years now, MEWN have focused on developing their repertoire and then performing live rather than using live performances as a testing ground. And the hard work showed.

MEWN created a deliberate and rich palette, sometimes it was via the keyboards, played by Matt Protz, which still allowed the subtlety of Rachel Bell's guitar work to shine through. Other times it was the steady pulse of Daniel Cowman's drumming. There are few spaces between the notes; a picked bass line here, a lick of guitar there.

"Please tell me what happens next?" sang bassist Daniel Bluer. Well, you garner a loyal fan base, get great reviews, such as the one by Lyndon Higginson, venue owner, who said, "This band will blow you away."

Ged Camera