The Payroll Union.

16th September.
Lantern Theatre.

Reviewer - Ben Eckersley.

The Payroll Union are clearly a very hardworking band, as Your Obedient Servant is the second EP they have produced in less than six months. Recorded by Alan Smyth at 2Fly and released by new Sheffield label Crystal Ship Recorders, its launch was celebrated with a gig at the Lantern Theatre.

If you've not been there before, find something to see there to support an excellent independent venture, but also for the sheer pleasure of being in the venue itself. It is one of Sheffield's true gems - a fully equipped and utterly beautiful Victorian proscenium arch theatre in miniature with only 90 seats. Any evening there becomes imbued with a certain magic.

First up was a solo set from Robert George Saull, better known as frontman of The Purgatory Players. I've seen him in his full band guise several times, but this was my first sight of him as a solo artist and, frankly, it was staggeringly good. The softly strummed guitar often faded into the background. His voice, a naturally rich baritone, came forwards and filled the room. The songs he chose were simple, filled with humanity and pathos. 'Cathy' held the audience in rapt attention and there were at least ten clear seconds of silence after 'Wedding Prayer'. No one wanted to break the mood with something as crass as applause, though Saull tempered the atmosphere with some brilliantly witty storytelling.

In contrast, Mike Hughes, a singer-songwriter from Rotherham, could really have done with the support of a large band. His voice was powerful though not always subtle, but his songs - on the whole quite raw and bluesy - were let down by guitar playing that couldn't keep up, and he never fully caught the attention of the audience. In another context I imagine I would have enjoyed it more, but Robert was an extremely hard act to follow.

The mood was very excitable as the sold-out crowd took their seats for The Payroll Union. They are highly able and accomplished musicians, and for over an hour they did what they do best, entertaining the audience with their accessible and thoroughly enjoyable brand of Americana. Singer Pete David is a deeply charismatic frontman with an engaging style and an easy-going voice. But it was his backing musicians who really helped steal the show, creating a full and rich sound, never dull, but never overbearing either. Drummer Ben Fuller is especially deserving of a mention.

After beginning with some slower new songs - '1826' with its droning harmonica lines was a particular highlight - they gained energy with the upbeat hoe-down music they've built their reputation on. 'Richmond Town' reminded me of Heartbreaker-era Ryan Adams, and personally speaking, I can't think of a more flattering comparison. It's fully deserved though. They'll be all over Sheffield this autumn, so make sure you go and see them, because you can be certain it'll be a hugely entertaining evening.

Zachary Cale.

9th September.
Heeley Institute.

Reviewer - Nick Del'Nero.

"I feel like I'm on a hill in a little village somewhere, far away from home."

This is how Zac Cale described the vibe at the Heeley Institute on Friday 9th September. The community centre, located just past the Sheaf View, was sweetly decorated and dimly lit. The organisers had even cooked up an alluring cushion pile which bled onto the stage, where people who wanted more intimacy could lounge around. All the bands were musical refugees from the End of the Road Festival just a few days before. Kate le Bon, one of the scheduled artists, couldn't make it due to a cold or Ebola virus or some other weird pathogen, so it was up to the other three acts to fill up the night.

Little Robots, first to take to the stage, are a charming group of folksy musos sporting a rag-tag collection of country instruments. Laura Little, Mary Booth and Dolly May spent the set working their beautiful and flawless vocal harmonies, while multi-musical talent Ric Booth underpinned them with hugely impressive banjo, guitar and violin performances. 'Goodbye Bennie Boy', a strange cocktail of blues-folk with an almost trip hop beat by drummer Guy Whittaker, was the stand-out track of the set for me. It was a straightforward masterclass in group performance, with a technically perfect and gorgeously inventive guitar accompaniment by Ric. Little Robots are versatile performers and accomplished songwriters.

Next up was Brooklyn-based Zachary Cale, who immediately changed the pace of the evening. It was as if people held their breath collectively, such was the intimacy in the room. His performance was narcotic and captivating and had a kind of dreamy grace at all times. 'Eye for an Eye' was perhaps my favourite song of the night, a slow, rich and melancholic track that perfectly framed Zac's hypnotic style.

The final act were the slightly rugged, tambourine-driven new-folk band This Frontier Needs Heroes. Also from New York City, the group comprised Brad and Jessica Lauretti, a high-powered brother-sister duo. From the outset they won over the crowd with their sibling banter and Brad's quirky storytelling. At times their energy outmatched their technical skill and they were beset by a few tuning issues, which slightly hampered the performance. Even so, the best parts of this set were thoroughly enjoyable.

I wasn't sure what to expect from the Heeley Institute as a venue, but it surpassed all expectations and provided a genuinely touching setting for one of the most intimate gigs I've attended in a long time. Sadly Zac Cale and This Frontier Needs Heroes have now left our shores for Europe, but Little Robots remain on British soil, so seek them out.

The War on Drugs.

15th September.
The Harley.

Reviewer - Andrew Almond.

There was the unmistakable whiff of something tantalisingly exciting in the air at The Harley on the evening of 15th September. It was an atmosphere a lot more profound than the usual pre-freshers' week buzz that reverberates around the city during the early weeks of autumn.

For those who are yet discover The War On Drugs, in short the band is a rock and roll quartet in the finest sense of the cliché. They play music reminiscent of the great artists of North American popular music - Dylan, Neil Young, Springsteen et al - and they have already released perhaps the finest album of 2011 so far, entitled Slave Ambient. Of course such a concise appraisal of such a exceptional ensemble could never do them or their unique, lifeaffirming brand of Americana justice, and it was clear that it is in a live context that The War on Drugs shine most brightly.

The band came to the stage at around half past nine opening with 'Best Night' from Slave Ambient. It was a slow burner to start which heard frontman Adam Granducial croon: "Been a soldier from the start, been released and torn apart". 'Baby Missiles' followed, a track which it appears likely will become one of the tracks that move The War on Drugs out of cult obscurity and to a wider audience, what with its pop hook and agitated, restless energy.

Granduciel's chiming guitar licks were punctuated throughout by his idiosyncratic soloing, as he appeared to lose all perception of his surroundings and engross himself in the panoramic soundscapes. He was at ease between tracks as he spoke about wondering around "our beautiful town" during the day, his harmonica which was stolen in Leeds the previous evening and how his old guitar, despite routinely falling out of tune, is like a "fine wine".

The band rattled through 'Brothers' and the honky-tonk 'I Was There' before launching into a brace of tracks from equally acclaimed debut Wagonwheel Blues. 'Taking the Farm' with its stream of consciousness lyrics, 'Arms Like Boulders' and its crunching opening riff and the titanic My Bloody Valentine noiserock of 'A Needle in Your Eye #16' all followed before the band returned to stage for a one-track encore.

It was the perfect curtain call to an evening that highlighted the best in live music events in Sheffield and featured one of the most exciting live bands at large today. This was one battle the War On Drugs had won.

Bestival.

8th-11th September.
Isle of Wight.

Reviewer - Tom Childs.

"I just love everything here!" professed a member of my festival troupe on the final night of Rob Da Bank's annual island-bound soiree, and despite the cocktail of substances that may have inspired such hyperbole, one sobering week later I can only come to the same conclusion.

I bought my Bestival ticket fully aware of the arduous pilgrimage the festival's location asks of its attendees and quite unaware of the intermittent torrents of rain that would wash away all manner of sin over the weekend. I only knew one thing when I parted with my hard-earned £200 - The Cure were headlining.

Robert Smith and his noir-clad chums didn't disappoint. Playing for an all-too-brief two and a half hours, their set saw me weep twice - boys do cry - feeling a euphoria that I can only assume is akin to true love and joining a field of people in howling Smith's lyrics back to him like a huge ecstatic autocue. I hope that if I have a child, their nativity is capable of replacing the goth-romance combo of 'Lovesong' and 'Just Like Heaven' as my happiest moment, though I'm slightly sceptical.

The day prior had seen Kitty, Daisy and Lewis followed by Brian Wilson on the main stage, both of whom inspired some serious jiving from those present and enjoyed a welcome accompaniment from the sun. But the day belonged to Public Enemy, who performed with such bile and power, without a "rolex" or a "bitch" in sight, that it threw serious speculation on the plight of modern hip hop. The unifying content of Chuck D and Flava Flav's material was somewhat undermined by the latter's shameless mid-set plugging of his new book, but DJ Lord scratching 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' beyond all recognition just about made up for this.

As good as the line-up was, what really made this year's Bestival so memorable was the evident thoughtfulness of the organisers. Everywhere you went there were psychedelic installations to play with, free sideshows to experience, well-selected independent food vendors and, consequentially, satisfied revellers.

Whilst the site of the festival grew to a record size this year, the capacity remained the same, meaning that congestion was very rare and it was easy to get about and experience the vast amount of on-site attractions. This fact in itself shows the organisers' desire to ensure festivalgoer satisfaction ahead of boosting profits.

The summer of 2011 saw the world turn a bit grim due to a maelstrom of riots, dictators and financial woe, but anyone lucky enough to have escaped to the Isle of Wight in the dying moments of this year's festival season will have been reminded that being riotous doesn't mean trashing stuff, that DJs are the only dictators worth listening to and that money doesn't mean shit when you're dressed as a skeleton dancing to The Cure.