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Wednesday, 15 June 2011

ahab in a perfect storm

Seeing ahab on stage at the Wychwood festival the other weekend was a bit like watching the taper on a firework being lit. A really big firework.

Driving home, the CD on the car stereo was their EP, called kmvt. "Rumour has it that stands for 'kill my valour tonight'," said Cal Adamson, who plays 12-string guitar and bass. "Or it could be 'kiss me vile troubadour'." Ha ha. "Or kill my vintage tiger."

I couldn't decide by this stage whether he was being playful or irritating (because he was irritated with me). There had been an ambiguity during the interview because I'd learnt, while poking around on the net, that his father was the late Stuart Adamson, of Big Country, something that stunned me, because of his untimely death and because I own four Big Country albums, saw them play god knows how many times and know most of the words. 

But despite some fairly heavy handed prompting Cal had said nothing to address this. (Me: "You father's a musician then? Anyone I would have heard of?" Him: "No.") Awkward. On the one hand, why should he? ahab's four-part harmonies and Lyle Lovetty song-writing had hooked me without the back story, which I didn't discover until I'd already decided to write about them. But Nashville, where he spent time after his father moved there, is pivotal to the band's history, as well as their Americana sound, and my professional twitchiness and fear of seeming to have over-looked something important meant I couldn't not mention it. So: his dad was Stuart Adamson and he has a sister, who's also a musician. That's all. I'm sure he has his reasons for not wanting to talk about it.

Because ahab is interesting enough without the ghoulishness. It started with Adamson (left) and Dave Burn (second from right), when they were in their early 20s, five years ago. "I heard Dave open for the band I was with one night soon after I arrived in London and it was a case of 'he's great, my band's not'. Not a hard decision."

They came up with the name during an evening in an unfortunate hotel in Winchester. "Dave and I had gone away to write some songs. We got drunk, messed up a hotel room and re-enacted the scene in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in which Johnny Depp brandishes a curtain rail, saying 'Don't fuck with me now, man. I am Ahab.' There was £380 worth of damage."

Multi-instrumentalists Luke Price and Seebs Llewellyn joined when Adamson and Burn received an invitation from Nashville in 2009 to play at a festival. "We didn't want to be a quiet little folk duo - we wanted to make some noise. We spent two weeks over there and had a blast." 

Then when they got back they started busking on Brick Lane, soon getting into trouble with the police for drawing the kind of crowds that upset the local market traders' business. Then a video - possibly the one linked in the previous sentence - found its way to the organisers of the Cropredy festival, someone dropped out and they ended up playing to 17,000 people on the main stage last summer.

Bob Harris heard them and booked them to do a session on Radio Two. John Leckie, who was there to see Bellowhead, heard them and invited them to record with him, telling Navigator records that he had a band for them and they wouldn't be cheap for long. They also acquired a manager - Gareth Williams, who is Cropredy's festival director - a record label and a top-notch PR and agent - Stevie Horton at Iconic Media - as a result.

So now they're  surprisingly well tooled up, professionally speaking, for a band that has only had people paying to see them for around six months. Seventeen more festivals this summer should sort that out.  

Adamson says that the songs are a joint effort. "Someone brings a pick-up or a verse and then we all work on it. We're a very democratic bunch." If their drummer, Griz (or Graham, more prosaically), seems slightly semi-detached that might be because he has outstanding work commitments with Bonnie Tyler (!) 

They sing three-minute twangling Americana as if their lives depended on it, which in an understated sort of a way they do. Seeing them play the Scolt Head in Dalston last week - to check I hadn't imagined the whole thing - was odd because the audience was split between drunk youngsters shouting through the music and the slack-jawed and spellbound, who couldn't quite believe what they were hearing on a week night in a back room.

That's the point they're at. The fuse has been lit. But it has to be said that the odds are stacking up very substantially in their favour...

* Here's a post about ahab from the Cropredy festival in August.

* And another about borderline obsessive fandom from the Bristol festival in 2012.

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