Portable Indie Club sparking live band Students’ Union revival

Students’ Union nights are normally reliant on Ministry of Sound DJs, Lady Gaga tributes, or ‘Poundstretcher: Krispy Kreme’ parties: “Donut miss out on your chance to be part of this fantastic club night.” The artists put on by the Portable Indie Club are a far cry from Lethal Bizzle, S Club 3 and other recycled staples of the Union scene.

An eclectic array of musical acts met a wall of indifference from a majority fresher crowd at Imperial College’s Beit Triangle on Saturday 1st October. And on Thursday 6th at London Met, well, there were more people playing pool than there were watching Johnny Foreigner. A valiant effort met an unenthusiastic (and absent) audience

“Students’ Union nights have become about really big names or a DJ who is going to put on crowd pleasers,” remarked Duncan “Dunk” John, the charismatic force behind the ‘Portable Indie Club’, the alt-booking company he founded. They promise to deliver a “festival in a can”, a high-octane line-up packed with non-generic acts who possess a twist of uniqueness.

The Portable Indie Club is a 2-year old artist-run organisation seeking to reignite the not-so-eternal flame of the once blazing Students’ Union music circuit that hosted major bands, who people used to flock to see, until the likes of O2 came along and monopolised it all (there are other reasons for this too: house prices, privatisation, higher tuition fees, etc.).

“’Name branding’ has led universities to blast the vast proportion of their budget into getting a recognised name. There is no thought to the artistic integrity or the quality of the music that the show will offer” -Duncan John

Wresting back the torch from DJs, who may or may not have killed the union band scene with their catch all, crowd pleasing, ‘one person, less hassle’ appeal, is the raison d’etre of the Portable Indie Club. That said, closing Saturday’s show was DJ Jamie MacColl of Bombay Bicycle Club fame.

Whether there really is a golden age to be returned to or not – the Sex Pistols show at Brunel University Students’ Union ostensibly went down in folklore around 1977  – it is probably fair to say that people are simply less into your traditional 4-piece band these days.

40% of London’s live music venues have closed over the last decade. Students’ Unions are in a prime position to capitalise upon the gap left by the closures of Fabric, Barfly and others, and provide a space for acts on the cusp of wider discovery.

Duncan – performer, promoter, compere extraordinaire hailing from Canterbury – sees this venture as the natural progression of his experiences in the noughties as live-music society coordinator at the University of Kent. A skilled guitarist and Carl Barat esque singer in “punk on the rocks” band The Jaw, who often perform the Portable Indie Club’s events, he is often found sporting a sleeveless green woollen cardigan.

The Portable Indie Club’s ambitious events host a melange of cross-genre artists, definitely not taking the safe option like many tacky Union nights. They usually cost less than a grand, too, like many relatively well known DJ’s.

From Rob Auton, of funniest-joke-at-the-2013-Edinburgh-festival infamy: “I heard a rumour that Cadbury is bringing out an oriental chocolate bar. Could be a Chinese Wispa,”; to Tankus the Henge, whose quirky blend of cabaret, punk and rock’n’roll is fantastic; to ABH, UK beatbox championship champion hopeful whose rippling neck muscles contain an orchestra – Duncan’s assertion that he brings a “festival in a can” to university campuses is not to be sneered at. Although the night at London Met had a high tumbleweed density. But that’s society’s fault, right?

Duncan was pleased with the impressive turnout at Imperial, which did resemble something akin to a gala you could fit in a tin, but was frustrated at the poor promotion at the London Met night.

“If the event is promoted properly – as an indoor festival – then there is a real scope for success. But I didn’t see posters anywhere or anything on Facebook since a few days ago.”

There was a gulf between the audience and the aspirations of his project at Imperial. But is having informed listeners a prerequisite for success? Well, it won’t matter to Donald Trump if he is elected in November.

The young Imperialers were there cause it was their first Saturday and the inevitable realisation that the SU is shit hadn’t quite landed yet. While some got into it, many appeared to be wincing and others, chain-smoking outside, described the music as “shit”.

Since I grew up listening to The Clash, Stiff Little Fingers and Billy Bragg, I liked it. All of the acts offered something fresh – musically or otherwise. The atmosphere, however, was far estranged from your typical rock show.

In the words of Jazz from Tankus the Henge who spent a large part of his set prancing on a piano: “This is nothing compared to racing around Boomtown at 60mph with a broken window.”

“I think tonight was more about the mingling than the bands,” Duncan mused.

At London Met, it was beatboxer ABH who undoubtedly got the best reception. The fact that top-20 pop punctuated the live music told a thousand tales: not everyone is into indie, even the soundmen at indie nights.

Yet, all the frivolities ought not necessarily be judged against the reception to the music. The Portable Indie Club are blazing a trail and it naturally takes time to win international students who’d rather be listening to an Avicii remix around – particularly if they can’t remember Whatever People Say I Am That’s What I’m Not coming out or don’t know what Nevermind The Bollocks is.

“People leave our nights buzzing with excitement from seeing great acts that are on the verge (of stardom),” surmised Duncan. “They wouldn’t have witnessed that if they’d gone to that Lucy Spraggan show.”

Reviving student interest in live indie music, perhaps at the expense of stage-time for the DJ, is like the possible reintroduction of Clause 4 to the Labour Party’s manifesto. Like the vinyl renaissance many may resist, fearing it to be a step back into a bygone era, but how much longer the Blairites can hold out remains to be seen.

The show must go on.

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