22nd to 25th April 2015
Review by: James White, Elizabeth Wootten.
Photography by David McKnight
Back in 2014, the Whitby Goth Weekend (‘WGW’) reached its 20th anniversary.
The UK’s best known goth festival grew out of promoter Jo Hampshire’s wish to gather a few dozen goths for a weekend at the seaside – the initial 1994 event was hosted in a Whitby pub (The Elsinore, which still bills itself as ‘Home of the goths’), with five bands over two days.
WGW has grown a bit since then. There are now two events each year, with up to 1000 attendees at the Whitby Spa Pavilion each night – and probably almost as many people attending the various Whitby fringe events that have grown in parallel with the official festival.
Despite all of this, the 20th anniversary itself was a little understated – due to uncertainty about the impact that new UK goth festivals launching in 2014 might have, the organisers opted to carry on as normal rather than turning the anniversary weekend into a larger event.
However, by the time the April 2015 event was planned, those concerns had faded away – so rather than celebrating its 20th birthday, WGW pulled out the stops to celebrate its 21st. With a double-length event and a focus on bands who’d played the festival before, the extended weekend offered a line-up of known fan favourites
Being the first band on stage at Whitby in April is no easy job. The audience is often scanty, and the huge round windows let in the daylight in a way that makes generating atmosphere difficult. But Ashestoangels gave it their best shot, throwing themselves around the stage like a band determined to give headliner value to those who’d showed up.
The band’s rocky, punk-with-synths sound has built them a determined live following. The first rows of the audience were packed with people who sang along to every song, eager to grab a piece of frontman Adam Crilly as he worked the audience like a star.
Ashestoangels lacked the polish of many of the other bands on the bill, despite their three albums. A few issues of timing and tuning, plus occasional weak vocals, dented an otherwise good performance. But their ricocheting, boundless energy made them a great opening to the weekend.
The Red Paintings came on stage and began with a gentle, ethereal sound which lulled the audience into relaxation and left them completely unprepared for the neck-snapping genre change that happened when the drums kicked in.
Put bluntly, The Red Paintings were odd. The singer’s space-Soviet combo of silver jacket and furry hat jarred with the beautiful kimonos worn by the violinist and guitarist. Two people stood onstage wearing bodystockings and magnificent headdresses while two others gradually painted them. Stage left, someone else painted straight onto a large canvas. The music veered sharply around, first one thing and then another: an orchestral sweep of strings suddenly turned into incomprehensible shouting. An almost-twee song segued into rocky riffs.
They were, however, a delight to watch. A creative, variable tempo cover of “Mad World” fitted into the set remarkably well and had the audience singing along. And if the obviously-political messages of many of the songs got a bit lost, that only added to the mystery.
Abney Park were one of the first steampunk bands – and are still perhaps the best known. With titles like “Tribal Nomad” and their anthem “Airship Pirates”, many of their songs tell upbeat folk tales of a fantastic world that never quite existed.
The band’s dress sense and stage presence only adds to the effect, as does the hefty dash of folk in their sound. It’s energetic stuff, quite different from anything else heard at WGW. Perhaps their material is a little limited in its range but, if so, it wasn’t terribly obvious at the time – the onstage energy was too contagious and the audience was swept up in it all.
Abney Park the steampunk band seem far more confident and distinctive than their original goth incarnation ever was – perhaps, as some claim, steampunk doesn’t need a soundtrack. But if it helps to inspire music like this, that’s no bad thing.
Thursday’s headliners, Canada’s The Birthday Massacre, immediately made an impression, launching their set with old favourite “Red Star”. The band offer an immersive, layered sound – guitars adding pace and punch to a more atmospheric, electronic backdrop.
Vocalist Chibi held the audience’s attention throughout the set, while the rest of the band jumped around with an impressive level of energy. Arguably, the Birthday Massacre sound hasn’t changed a great deal in the last decade – old and new songs flowed and blurred into one another as the set went on.
There was a little bit of banter from Chibi, who seemed genuinely pleased to be back at Whitby, but even when the band weren’t talking, it was clear that they were enjoying the show and acknowledging the audience. It was also pretty clear that the audience was enjoying it just as much…
At any other Whitby weekend, it would be a little unexpected to see a band as well known as California’s The Last Dance as an opening act – especially as they’ve actually headlined WGW before. This year’s album (“Ruins”) may be the first new release in almost a decade but they’re still a compelling live band – with a distinctly American darkwave sound and an upbeat stage presence from frontman Jeff Diehm.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this time the short set was dominated by old favourites such as “Nightmares” and “Once Beautiful”. One change from the old days was the addition of female vocals from Velvet of Sapphire Solace, joining the band onstage a couple of songs into the set. A lively cover of Oingo Boingo’s “Dead Man’s Party” (as played during their previous UK tours) also struck a different tone, with guest vocalist Ed Banshee of Partly Faithful adding his voice to Jeff’s.
Few outfits will raise so much as an eyebrow, let alone a comment, in Whitby but Martin Degville’s choice of that many sequins and three chickens on his head managed it. Once the lead singer from 80s new wave band Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Degville now tours old and new material under the name Sigue Sigue Sputnik Electronic.
Few people seemed to be able to muster many memories of the band’s 1980s incarnation, but this one delivered pounding electronic rock and roll. Behind the swagger, and the attention-grabbing outfits, was an impressive musical performance: driving synthesisers were layered with glammy guitars and Degville’s distinctive vocals to produce an electronica which was powerful and – quite surprisingly – fun. Things dipped slightly during a rather indifferent cover of Bowie’s “Jean Genie”, but ramped up again to a triumphant close with “Love Missile F1-11”.
American band Bella Morte didn’t get the best start to their Whitby. As vocalist Andy Deane put it: “It took us a while to get into your country. They were going to send us to jail and then send us home. This is a lot more fun.”
Judging by their reaction, the audience agreed with that last statement. If Bella Morte were worn down by lack of sleep and immigration bureaucracy, it really didn’t show.
In recent years, the band have veered away from their original rock-edged darkwave, adopting a harder, angrier live sound. To judge by this set, though, some of the older elements are now back in a new form, as showcased by the title track of new album “Exorcisms”.
It’s a combination that works well, especially when backed up by the band’s enthusiastic stage presence. Looking back, Bella Morte never quite managed to get the UK following that some of their contemporaries did, but it seems that they’re still winning over British fans.
Friday night headliners The Cruxshadows generally deliver a polished performance and this one was no exception, with frontman Rogue taking full advantage of his wireless microphone to wander through the crowd and clamber over the scenery. As usual, onstage dancers added to the stage presence – especially at the times when Rogue had vanished somewhere into the audience.
It’s a very well rehearsed approach that hasn’t changed a great deal in recent years, but it still works – not least because it’s backed up by a club-friendly Darkwave sound with violins and memorable lyrics. The time, the focus was very much on their newer material, with all of the first five songs (as well as a couple of the later ones) drawn from latest album “As The Dark Against My Halo”.
The second half of the set ranged a bit further into the band’s back catalogue – and also added a little more banter, with Rogue taking a moment to wish Whitby a happy birthday (and perhaps teasing the audience a little, following that up with “Sleepless” and “Winterborn” before actually playing “Birthday”)
At the end, it was time for the oldest favourites, with three of the songs that fuelled the band’s initial success: “Deception”, “Monsters” and, finishing the encore, the song that Rogue half-jokingly claimed would follow him to his grave, “Marilyn, My Bitterness”. Perhaps that’s true, but the rest of the set (and the audience reaction) certainly showed that the Cruxshadows aren’t just trading on past glories.
Opening the third night, the festival’s only solo artist Jordan Reyne filled the stage effortlessly. Her use of acoustic loops to build up complex, polyphonic layers of her own vocals, guitar and percussion produced a huge and fascinating sound. Additional recorded “found sounds” lent yet another texture to her music – and she’s willing to find them anywhere, hastily turning on her mic to record the audience singing her a Happy Birthday.
Her story-songs derived from folk tales, from the industrial revolution, from her own love-life. They wove in and out of the audio loops, drawing the listener into Jordan’s world. Between songs she was chatty and engaging, cheerfully explaining the workings of her loopers and poking fun at her own songwriting. It’s a testament to her skill that she managed the technicalities of her performance so effortlessly, producing an organic sound far removed from most ideas of technical wizardry. She left the stage, and left the crowd yelling enthusiastically for an encore.
Manuskript have now appeared at Whitby more times than any other band (by my reckoning, this was at least their tenth appearance on a WGW stage) – they played at the very first event, and since then they’ve headlined the festival twice. One of the few UK goth bands from the 90s who are still going, in recent years they’ve seemed almost semi-retired, with no new material released and only a handful of shows.
Perhaps that showed a little when they first took the stage, opening with a cover of the Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s a Sin”. Despite an enthusiastic crowd of fans, things initially seemed a little rough around the edges. Once back onto their own songs, though, they rapidly found their feet – and with a playful edge to their lyrics and a hint of pop, the sense of fun they bring to the show is reinforced by the fact that everyone onstage seems to be enjoying themselves.
The set ranged through most of their history, from early songs such as “Chase” and “Plastic Fangs” through to more recent favourites like “Semaphore in Thunderstorms” and “Protect and Survive”. By the time they reached their second cover – a crowd pleasing version of Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus” – it felt as if they were definitely back on form.
Influential post-punk band The Chameleons may have split up several years ago, but vocalist Mark Burgess is still touring and playing their material, backed by a new band, under the name ChameleonsVox. Or, rather, he was – since the Whitby show was billed as part of their final live tour.
If that’s so, they finished in style. From the first moments of the set and the distinctive introduction to Swamp Thing, this was a tour de force through the Chameleons back catalogue. Not a great deal in the way of banter or audience interaction, but solid performances of great songs. ChameleonsVox might not be quite the same as the Chameleons, but Burgess’s voice still has its power and the guitars are as distinctive as ever.
If this is really the end of them as a live act, they’ll be much missed.
All anyone seems able to remember about the last time Andi Sex Gang headlined Whitby is that (a) they didn’t like it, and (b) there was a pig’s head involved. This reviewer went along with gritted teeth, and joined the really rather small crowd in front of the stage.
The sound was pared-down, the guitar, bass and drums fading discretely into the background as the man himself howled and shrieked into the mic. The lyrics were barely comprehensible, except for the occasional disturbing word. Andi’s heavy stage make flickered disturbingly from coloured to black to invisible under the changing lighting.
Between songs, Andi Sex Gang was improbably softly-spoken and erudite, thanking his audience politely. Add in an Edith Piaf cover, and the whole thing seemed like a mass of contradictions. Bewilderment was only increased by a mid-set interval (after which he returned wearing a – mercifully fake this time – pig’s head).
And yet… despite all the above, it became increasingly obvious that there was more to it than a bit of screaming. The music was strangely hypnotic and compelling, and he made a genuinely fascinating frontman. Although uncompromisingly brutal and savage at times, the whole thing was quite unexpectedly enjoyable.
Pussycat and the Dirty Johnsons play straight-up, filthy-dirty rock and roll. The three-piece line up – drums, guitar, and Pussycat herself on guitar and vocals, hit the stage at break-neck pace and didn’t let up for the next 35 minutes.
With her trademark “ears” hairstyle Pussycat looked like a tiny teenager, and it remained a continual surprise that that powerful voice could come so effortlessly out of someone so slight. She prowled around the stage, and out into the audience, her voice raw and urgent and drenched in reverb, never quite tipping into a snarl.
Onstage it remained business-as-usual for the rockabilly Johnsons, the guitar and drums creating a solid, tight backing. The set closed with Pussycat collapsing to the floor amid an audience yelling for more.
Despite their distinctive look, Doctor & the Medics might seem an odd choice for a goth weekend. In their current incarnation they’re mostly an 80s cover band, but despite that this was their third WGW appearance – “not bad for a one hit wonder” as The Doctor commented midway through the set.
Starting with a cover of “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)”, things weren’t immediately promising, with vocals sounding a little rough and a dancing Cyberman onstage seeming a bit gimmicky. However, as the set progressed through “Tainted Love”, “Kids in America” and other old favourites, the sound steadily improved – and it’s hard not to warm to the Doctor’s jovial stage presence.
They may not be goth, but they’re certainly enjoyable. By the time the set closed with “She Sells Sanctuary” and the inevitable “Spirit In The Sky”, most of the audience seemed to be swept up in the fun and playing with the huge balloons the band had thrown offstage.
If anything, perhaps the audience was a little too enthusiastic at the end – a couple of especially energetic shoves sent the balloons into the ceiling and temporarily closed the spa hall after the set, due to the risk of dislodged ceiling tiles falling on the crowd..
Thankfully, a few minutes of inspection (and a very tall ladder) allowed the evening to resume.
Last time William Control headlined Whitby he seemed to arrive with a specially bussed-in audience of teenagers. This time, the regular attendees formed the bulk of the crowd, clearly won over. Since then William Control has acquired a full-time backing band, The Neuromantic Boys, who all sport beards and side-partings the better to point up his clean-shaven, bequiffed image.
The stage layout, with the drummer front-right of stage and the keyboardist the one hidden away at the back, is unusual but a winner – who doesn’t like to watch a drummer? And this one is worth watching. Combined with the additional heavy electronic drums the result is a massive, driving drum sound that hits like a piledriver. Synthesizers that almost tip over into industrial, rock guitar and a frontman who’s all over the stage, twirling his mic on the end of its cable, make for an exciting live act.
Although Control’s relentless demands that the audience “scream for him” became tiresome after so many repetitions, it didn’t stop this being a hugely enjoyable show.
Headlining the last night of the festival, The Damned took to the stage in a packed venue. With a career that spans almost 40 years, they’ve occasionally embraced gothic imagery – and goths have certainly embraced their sound – but punk is clearly still close to their hearts.
After decades of shows, their live sound and stage presence is tightly controlled, but it’s not lost that energy – especially not on earlier punk-tinged songs such as “New Rose” and “Plan 9, Channel 7”. On later, slower material, it’s Dave Vanian’s voice and stage presence that really brings the intensity, especially for goth favourites “Eloise” and “Grimly Fiendish”.
As often happens, things took a different turn when Captain Sensible got his moment – although this time the audience was spared a full version of his 80s novelty hit “Happy Talk”, a verse or two was played before returning to the Damned’s own back catalogue with “Disco Man”.
Somewhere well after midnight the set’s encore – and the festival itself – finished in style with a final burst of energy for punk anthem “Smash It Up”. With the crowd calling for more (and keyboardist Monty limping offstage with a broken foot, injured before the set), Captain Sensible was left onstage to assure them that this was really the end.
After four nights of festival, perhaps it’s surprising that the attendees still had the energy and enthusiasm for more – but it’s fair to say that not only was this WGW longer than most, it also had one of the most impressive lineups the festival’s offered in the last ten years. Hopefully the next WGW will aim equally high!