The Folk Forest. Saturday — 18:15
The story of Blaenavon’s debut album might be quite easily told: three teenage friends who entered a school talent contest, posted their songs online, and sprawled their way through early gigs, gathering a devoted fanbase and critical acclaim as they went. A band who, after the juggle of exams, EPs, record company attention, have finally delivered a debut album that is sumptuous and thrilling and brave.
But it is also a story of a more complicated time, a coming of age of sorts, of 12 intensely personal songs that explore friendship, sadness, hope, love held and lost, and all the confusions of youth in a world that is slowly revealing itself. And perhaps more than any of this, it is a story of a band that stand many feet taller than their peers, a band to help define a generation, whose songs provide the anthems for this time.
Ben Gregory, Frank Wright and Harris McMillan were 14 and living in Hampshire when they first performed a slightly shambolic cover of Muse’s Knights of Cydonia in front of a judging panel of three geography teachers sitting on plastic chairs. The teachers were bemused, their fellow students rapturous, the boys themselves so lit up by the experience that they took up residence in a bedroom at Wright’s house, recording as they wrote, swiftly posting their songs to Soundcloud. It was a process that proved impulsive, instinctive, compelling. Soon they were hitting the monthly download limit, music blogs sought them out, and gig offers followed.
To see Blaenavon live is to be struck by a sense of invincibility, and even at their earliest shows — even when they played their first London gig at the Barfly in 2012, they were infused with that same pluck and spirit: “We weren’t scared,” McMillan says. “We didn’t really rehearse, we just rocked up, had a couple of illicit pints and four minutes before we went on stage thought ‘Shit, what songs are we going to play?’ and wrote a setlist out. We didn’t know how long we had to play for, we didn’t have tuners, we had one pedal and this funny Yamaha keyboard.”
For all their ramshackleness, the band’s live shows soon grew an exuberant following: the dedicated schoolfriends who followed them down from Hampshire, the bands who took them under their wings, the new recruits and devotees they met along the way — not to mention Transgressive, the record label that signed them early on.
Gregory is a remarkable lyrical talent, at times inspired by the writing of Herman Hesse and Evelyn Waugh and the songs of Elliott Smith, but with his own distinctive style: an openness, a keen wit, an eye for beauty. On bass and drums, Wright and McMillan provide Blaenavon’s musical backbone; a sound that is ambitious, frequently majestic, sometimes ferocious yet refined, with a brilliant pop sensibility.