ICYMI Review // Sunflower Bean at Academy 3, Manchester

Sunflower Bean

Words by Scott Hill


Bean there – Done that – Got the T-shirt.

Chilly. Freezing. Glacial. Bitter. Serbian. Nippy. Brass Monkeys. Baltic.

You searched – ‘Synonyms for cold.’

And so - we are subjected to the imminent return of “Rainchester.” The harrowing wind and driving rain of The North is back with a vengeance. But never fear – for this is the time of year to seek refuge in the cosy communal living room that is - the good old local. You know it all too well - burgundy and green mismatched furniture. Leather clad - mahogany mad. Pictures from a huntsman’s alpine lodge - albeit abandoned for 30 years - and patterned carpet - perfect for concealing mystery stains. (There’s a whole book on Wetherspoon’s carpets – a must read for all you flooring fanatics.) Faint trails of malt and must linger in the air. Breathe it in. Home. For where would we be without thick cut chips and burnt to buggery burgers? £9 steak cooked to perfection - ranging from medium to charcoal. And all the empty bottles of condiments you could ever dream of.

To warm my cold hands – pre-gig paradise came in the form of ‘Big Hands.’ Presently the place of cinnamon scented mulled wine and Bryan Adams. An ode to a ‘Dad Rock’ Christmas. I thought I’d blend in with the atmosphere with a stodgy winter warmer white headed pint. The classic boozy breath – “Come give your old uncle a kiss at Christmas” kind of pint. The kind of pint that says “I should have stopped smoking years ago – but ‘tis the season. Besides what else are new year’s resolutions for…?” To leave my little cocoon of comfort was ‘easier said than done’ but my date with Sunflower Bean was around the corner at Manchester Academy 3. Stay tuned for power suits and death drops. Mosh pits and mullets. And above all else – Napoleon Dynamite’s long lost brother.

An empty stage set with a black sequined Sunflower Bean banner. A bass amp stack around 7 foot tall.

Enter – Jessie Jo Stark.

Now – being the first support band - you have a lot resting on your shoulders. Firstly - the majority of the audience will have never heard of you. You must make an impact. Make memories. Straight out of the blocks. A sodden Mancunian audience is one full of stoicism. You need to catch their attention – dig those claws in - and grip it.

And what can I say? Sex sells.

Eye fucking an audience under electric blue eyeshadow is certainly one way to get those engines revving. Ivory knee high boots and a black low cut flamenco style dress is a combination not for the faint hearted. Jessie Jo Stark’s Single ‘Wish I was dead’ was probably the best exhibition of their overall persona. Amidst Royal Blood riffs and straight up rock grooves - came feisty and ferocious hair flicks. The chemistry between Jessie Jo and her guitarist suggested more than just an on-stage relationship. At points becoming intensely close – faces only inches away - as the crowd watched on with bated breath - ‘will they – won’t they…?’ At the last moment - Jessie would pull away and drop to the floor almost as if the ecstasy of their embrace was too much to bear. Weather simulated or not - the tension portrayed by the provocative performance was lapped up by the crowd. Musically- light melodic lullabies derived of spring reverb soaked guitar and shimmering tremolo chords – surged into raging cacophonies of heavy - lustful distortion. As though Jessie succumbing to her sexual desires through song.

Although I found this display of promiscuous animosity entertaining – personally I found the overall performance to be rather too theatrical for my tastes - and somewhat self-absorbed. It reminded me of a truculent drama school teen who didn’t get the lead role – and so took ‘villager 2’ to new levels of extra. Jessie Jo Stark finished on a cover of ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ by Kim Carnes – of which I thought was rather apt and perfectly succinct with the overtly flirtatious style. After all – ‘she’s precocious and she knows just what it takes to make a pro blush.’

Next on the bill for the evening was Miya Folick. The depersonalisation of the band is something that interested me. Every member wearing the same bright white Adidas roll neck and plain black trousers- as though Miya’s entourage were had no part in her musical identity. Miya appeared sporting check wide leg trousers – contrasting zebra print roll neck – her head adorned with a dark brown mullet. Strong look. This performance was in complete juxtaposition with Jessie Jo Stark. Faint feminine subtlety surrounded by soaring vocals and sample loops. Soprano style operatics - interspersed with electronic percussion and instrumentation as Miya Progressed from her song ‘Thingamajig’ onto ‘Premonitions’ – the title track on her new album. Unfortunately - I felt the front of house sound mix wasn’t at all complementing to Miya’s vocals. With such a big amp stack – the bass must be treated very carefully. Don’t get me wrong – I like to feel the bass in my chest – but more so in the middle of a field with three packs of Wrigley’s Extra in my pocket. With the bass booming in such a way - the subtle textures of the rest of the band were completely drowned out.

After what seemed like a slow start – the band’s disposition drastically changed. Picking up her red Fender Jaguar - Miya swiftly engaged a powerful rendition of ‘Trouble Adjusting’ from her 2017 EP – Give It To Me. A world away from delicate samples and programmed percussion – this track - and title track ‘Give It To Me’ are songs born of grit and grunge. With a surge of attitude and energy - the bass didn’t seem so lost and the wall of sound was perfectly in tune with the bands new found temperament. Overall I feel the set could have been better thought out in terms of flow. Two huge songs back to back was certainly jarring - and in extreme contrast to those prior – but I felt it was misplaced and out of context with the rest of the performance.

Then came Bean.

“MANCHESTER - WHAT’S GOIN’ ON? Let’s do this.”

All aboard for the all velour. In terms of style – these guys have it. Nick Kivlen (Guitar/Vocals) dressed in black boots (velour) – tight black pants (velour) and 70’s wide collared black shirt (also velour). Julia Cumming (Bass/Vocals) shared the same stylistic traits – black heels – black pants - finished with a low cut – gold - rose ruffed – shoulder padded sheer beauty of a blouse (velour for sure). A look that Oozed authority. The Brooklyn based bombshells waste no time and hit the ground running - of which they subsequently ‘Burn it’ to. Julia’s striking smoky eyed stare stayed steadily transfixed - penetrating deep into the star struck crowd. A skill that I can imagine can only be obtained on the catwalk – that - and striding the mean streets of New York - New York. Synth swells instigate their second song of the night ‘Twentytwo.’ Although slightly more reserved in composition – Julia displays a more emotional side living through the words “I do not go quietly – into the night that calls me – even when I’m alone.” Poignant and pragmatic. A woman who knows her mind - with profound confidence that never lends itself to arrogance. Vocals clear and cutting. Ferociousness only exhibited when necessary – but when the time comes – be ready for ear shattering projection.

They’ve got a few technical tricks up their sleeves as well. The shadow of a ‘lesser spotted tech guy’ brings on the red – phone end - of an old rotary dial landline - taped to the top of a mic stand. In a sort of hipster homage to Jack White and his harmonica blues mic. Nick then continued to sing his backing lines into this chop shop set up with transistor radio realness - sitting supportively under Julia’s high register. After gesturing a ‘Come on!’ to the crowd – Julia - in a sultry tone prepares the fans for the next section of the Sunflower set.

“Here comes another old song...”

A slight problem with in ear monitors served as an extended intro to ‘Easier Said.’ This came as no dismay to the audience – only growing ever more excited in anticipation for Julia to make her triumphant return - and perform the fan favourite. With a whoop from the stalls and a wink from the stage - we were back on track. Both of Bean sang with a beam and I wondered who this old favourite was really being played for…? A slightly less heavy - alternative bedroom banger - with chorus led picking patterns and soft lead lines served as a reminder of how much Bean’s sound has developed over the years – and how versatile they are as a band. New single ‘Come for me’ is a perfect example of this evolution. It has all the qualities of Sunflower Bean’s subtle grooves with rocky overtones – but with now more funk style guitar stabs coming through in the chorus. This song gave Julia a chance to set down the bass and show why she is the pinnacle of their performance power. After a shimmy and sway for the first half of the song – like a rebel without a cause – leapt down from the stage – dodged the security guard and was over the barrier with feline agility. Even though immediately swarmed by the audience – Julia managed to keep her footing firm and pushed the crowd out to form a circle pit. As Nick struck the chord for a chorus refrain – Julia instigated the charge with every nuance of a die-hard Mosher. Brutal brilliance. She eventually fought her way back over to the railing - and with a helping hand for the guard leapt back onto stage. Swapping bass face for power stance – Julia stood basking in the atmosphere - glaring from beneath her brows at the stalls below. With another two handed “Come on!” she re-joined Nick on vocals for one last acapella stanza.

In an instant - the reason for the 7 foot bass amp stack became clear. It seems to me that it is more an extension of Julia’s personality. This woman is ready to take on the world – one pit at a time. Nick however is what I’d imagine Napoleon Dynamite’s slightly cooler brother – who shreds guitar in his bedroom for days – would be like. He has more of a dorky naivety to him – a kind of endearing awkwardness – until he rips out another face melting solo. With Julia’s unwavering confidence as a performer – it feels as though Nick’s flows through the guitar. I felt there may have been too many solo guitar spots throughout the performance but it displayed an extension in personality from Nick – the other side of Bean. Chalk and Cheese - but oh so very similar when looking deeper into both artists forms of expression - which seems to make for a perfect dynamic overall.

After being treated to an encore of another two songs – including a guitar and keyboard face off – with a salute like wave to the audience – they exited. I felt exhausted for them. I don’t always buy merch after a gig – but as this one was pretty special (also on reflection gave me a witty title for this review) I felt the need to contribute further after such an entertaining performance. From a nitty gritty New York night – to Madchester’s northern music might. Sunflower Bean – I’ll see you next time.

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