The Water Rats is a grand venue indeed. Resembling an old time music hall, it’s hosted a comprehensive list of names in music business, including Bob Dylan’s first UK performance, to the debut Pogues gig. It then went on to be a major hangout in the Britpop years, with a packed venue witnessing Oasis’ first London set here back in 1994. Oh, and it also boasts the accolade of once being the lodges of one dear old Karl Marx, who boarded in one of the rooms above the venue. Whether he saw any live music downstairs and participated in the liquor back then is unclear.

It’s a fitting venue for Pennyblackmusic’s 20th year anniversary gig in any case. The website has weathered all kinds of turns and music styles over the last twenty years, including numerous accompanying nights all over London and the rest of the UK, and has outlived many other online zines by a mile.

The evening begins with an atmospheric, slow-burning set by Raf and O. This favourite in the PB office eschew loud bombast for hushed confessions over electronics, echoing acoustic-electric guitar, and rigged up drums. Technical problems and loud noise from a rapidly swelling audience conspire in places, but the duo keep on going with an entrancing set of slanted, left-field songs that work their hazy magic on a drunken summer day. Comparisons to Broadcast, Stereolab, and even – yes – Kate Bush might help, but in reality Raf and O exist in their own, idiosyncratic universe, with a deeply unique sound that everyone should fall into for a while.

Oldfield Youth Club, by contrast, are more of a conventional trio, though aided by thundering electronic drums from Neil Palmer. Formed by Simon Rivers of The Bitter Springs, they are a more back-to-basics proposition than the headliners, sounding more akin to 80s-era The Fall, New Zealand’s Flying Nun roster, or the scratchy post-punk that dominated the start of that decade on tracks such as 'It’s Not Good News, I’m Afraid', 'Our Flowers Will Grow', and 'Bob Grant'.

It’s left to Idiot Son to have a much more stately and expansive approach, utilising cello and trumpet. Their sharply-dressed chamber-pop has been beefed up with electric guitars in more previous years, but there’s no mistaking their lovely melancholy and wistful tone, particularly on tracks such as 'Hold the Engines' and 'Like a Lot of Men Do'. “Would you be the truss for my aching back?/Would you be there when my defences crack?” implores singer Andy Thompson on ‘Tie The Knot’, as the music swells around him and an enchanted audience grows.

The night finishes with the Bitter Springs, another Pennyblackmusic favourite. Hailing from the London suburbs in the early 80s as Last Party, they changed their name in 1996 and along the way added the talents of Vic Godard, formerly the charismatic singer of Subway Sect. Godard appears tonight on keyboards and vocals, dressed in fetching khaki shorts. Song like 'Back in the Community', 'I Know It’s Not What You Wanted' and 'Blackpool' are irresistibly catchy songs that capture British humour in its finest, joining quintessentially acts such as the Kinks, Dexy’s Midnight Runners and the Jam in shining a perverse light on the quotidian mundane facets of every life. They’re rewarded by a mini-moshpit appearing at the front of the audience.

There’s one thing left at the end of the evening – and a fitting send-off to twenty years of Pennyblackmusic. A specially commissioned video, directed by former PB writer Sarah Johnston, is projected on a screen on the stage. In the video, there are many of those involved in the website, and includes stirring footage of many past Pennyblackmusic gig nights, including the late Robert Fisher of the Willard Grant Conspiracy. Watching those gigs, all of which this writer attended, and has fond memories of, it’s a tear-jerking way to end the evening in this grandest of venues.

Here’s to the next twenty years of Pennyblackmusic – and to many more drunken accompanying gig nights. PB, I salute you.


Photographs by Mo Robertson.


















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