Van Susans – EP Release Night
Camden Barfly, London
An early autumn wind blows in the chilled night air, shortly proceeded by a dramatic downpour as I leave the train station for my first visit to prestigious London venue Camden Barfly, and my first experience of the Van Susans live show. As the rain calms down I enter the lowly lit venue and dry off with a fresh pint of cider. Minus the cracked mirror and collection of flies that haunt the toilets downstairs, the venue instantly has a positive and relaxed atmosphere with people chilling out around the outside within its various seating booths. As I discover my way upstairs to the band room, the familiar layout reminds me of several other music venues dotted around the capital. As someone politely gives way to me at the top of the staircase I push through the black double doors and into a second dark room buzzing with chatter. Moving through the people to the centre of the small, rectangular space, first things noticeable are the glowing green ‘Barfly’ backdrop and the age of the crowd which is mostly young, around college age. A cluster of guys and girls to my left are joking around and taking photos of each other, whilst others stand patiently waiting for their mid-week fix of live music. With high spirits in the air (and unfortunately the smell of someone’s passed wind), the warm up act is Indie band Colour Clouds who play their songs to pleasing effect. On the constructive side, this five-piece might be yet to discover a sound that makes them stand out uniquely from the surplus of Indie bands on the gigging circuit. Soon after they finish up, the tall female host with red head band tells us that Van Susans will be up in a moment and you can buy their EP tonight, prior to its full release at the weekend. One lucky EP owner out of 100 will win a golden ticket warrantying them to a date with a band member of their choice. A clever sales tactic, although a prize more appropriate for a strong follower of the band than perhaps one of the first listeners in the room, such as myself.
Van Susans are a pop/rock/folk/indie six-piece, five guys (lead vocals and rhythm guitar, lead guitar, bass, keys, drums) and a female violinist, Holly McLatchie, who tonight adds a feminine touch of serenity in a fitted, sparkling black dress. Lead singer Olly Andrews, who has a ruggish look with shaggy hair and whiskers wastes no time and gets quickly stuck into the set. An unexpected twee accent in his singing voice drifts over the rhythmic melodies of the songs which can be picked up quite well. So well in fact that one song gets heads bobbing, particularly a section of the crowd who decide to sway from one side to the next in unison, duly noted by the band afterwards with comedic effect. If the audience were more familiar with their repertoire you get the impression that things could go as far as a full-on barn dance to the chugging noises and soaring choruses of the Van Susans sound. Early on in the set we’re told that their original bassist isn’t present because he’s away playing for Boy George, a ‘true story’ the band member insists, and his replacement gets the cheer he deserves. It’s not long before the room starts heating up due to all the bodies crammed in the room and it becomes a squeeze to get to the bar and back. After a slower song plays out, Olly refers to the tricky piano section he’d written for his fellow band member on keys, who honestly admits to messing up without any hesitation and allows the crowd to laugh along with him. Elsewhere in the set, guitar solos from Ed Dullaway have the crowd enticed, ears anticipating every note, whilst Olly nervously rambles about the lyrical meanings of the songs and what they mean to the band after the odd song. Mid-way through the set and now standing at the back, a young guy decides either he’s liking what he’s hearing or that now is the time he desperately needs to show his pals how well he can do the shoe shuffle. Manically he moves his feet and I look around wondering if this was a reaction anyone else was expecting to witness. I assume it to be a totally unexpected reaction and he just keeps going.
Olly explains how the next song was inspired by his dad’s illness which has been ongoing for a year and a half and how his band mates have helped him through this time. We reach a tender moment in the set when the pace slows down and Olly is assisted by just Ed on piano and Holly on violin. This is the perfect way to perform If I Succeed with a shade of delicate poignancy exposed over the attentive audience. With just a mic in hand, Olly’s soul is laid bare in front of the crowd who can decipher the meaning of his heart-felt lyrics. Those that can relate to the song can truly feel the hurt when he sings, ‘And I feel so warm from all their support but in truth I’ve never felt so cold and alone.’ With songwriting as strong as this, the audience can truly connect to the lyrics and will keep begging for more. The band really hit their stride when the soaring sounds blend perfectly with the strings and backing vocals from keyboardist Olly Groome. Wonderful harmonies are interspersed with the lead singer’s rousing folk-tinged vocals. Pockets of family/friends/die-hard fans show their appreciation throughout with the loudest cheers at the right moments, including a humorous heckle of ‘You’re cute!’ which helps meliorate the positive vibes.
Ultimately there is a feeling that this is a band better suited for bigger stages and that this intimate venue has a slight cramping effect on their abilities. Van Susans need platforms that give them plenty of breathing space to make their own, the perfect scenario being in front of a field full of people at a folk festival in the summer. You can also tell that this band are primed to join the current nu-folk trend and support bigger bands of a similar genre. Ideal support slots would come in the form of a Noah And The Whale show or even Mumford And Sons if they are ever so lucky. In any case, a slot on the XFM radio playlist is definitely on the agenda. Another thing noticeable about this band is their chummy chemistry. They are a tight group that demonstrates ‘the band that works well together, bonds together’, banter firing back and forth across the stage between songs. The Barfly is a small, intimate venue but there’s still enough space to have a good time and for bands to create a positive ambiance if they do well to win round their audience. Lead singer Olly Andrews’ stage presence could be stronger and with a boost of confidence he has the potential to gain control of an audience, especially in important circumstances such as tonight where the right influence on new fans would mean encouraged sales of the new album. Although Van Suans are a fairly new band that have only just passed their two year anniversary, collectively they have a convincing charisma which could only be acquired from valuable gigging experience. They play stomping music with uplifting lyrics you want to get to grips with and understand, and if the audience in the room were bigger fans you could sense there would have undoubtedly been singalong moments throughout. Van Susans are on the verge of a break into a brighter future, it’s just a question of when and how. Onwards and upwards.