I approach the warm lights of Manchester’s Retro Bar with a welcoming sense of reunion. It’s a second home to many in the Manchester punk scene. Retro’s upstairs walls are adorned with photos of last year’s sold-out Garlic Bread Club shows; framed prints of Hold My Pint’s high-contrast black and white gig photos dress the upstairs walls, and there’s a huge print stretched across the back wall of the basement, full of familiar faces. You can’t turn a corner without see seeing Jordan from Incisions – he’s even on Retro’s own-brand beer cans.
Jordan’s also the first person I see when I walk up to the venue, along with Shelley from MPRV, who are going from strength to strength in producing top-quality videos to help us remember these events. In the recent 18-month wasteland with no live music, MPRV’s videos kept me going – the closest thing I got to a fix of live punk rock.
Due to a last-minute lineup change, Arms & Hearts replaced Animal Byproducts as openers. Whilst I am a big fan of both acts, my day job isn’t, so I got there about 10 minutes after Steve finished playing. As you’d expect of any event called Garlic Bread Club, the whole venue reeks of garlic in the most inviting way – gig-goers are assembled round the upstairs tables eating colourful curries and sides from This Charming Naan (Retro’s Smiths-themed curry concession).
Squeezing down the stairs to the basement venue feels like an old and familiar descent. I wonder how many times I’ve walked down these stairs. I have just enough time to hug a few friends and exchange some small talk before Slap Rash start. From small packages come great gifts: they’re a fierce noise duo teetering into the alternative/punk rock genre. They use heavily metaphorical lyrics to paint descriptive scenes in a clean, stripped-back fashion close to spoken word, with layers of dirty bass and synth married in.
Drummers who simultaneously sing lead vocals is a rare and entertaining treat usually, yet there are three on tonight’s bill. Slap Rash, Burnout and The Sewer Cats all have multi-tasking drummers putting the rest of us to shame. Existing outside the standard four-person format, Slap Rash still grab and hold the audience’s attention with fuzzy and organically rhythmic, dynamic tunes that seem to grow and pulse, occasionally lurching into deeper Sabbath-esque eddies. I’m reminded a lot of Cultdreams.
On a trip to the downstairs toilets, I get a flashback of seeing The Franceens play here five or so years ago, when the floor of the bogs was so drenched in suspicious liquid that it seeped into my socks. Although the venue’s had a much-needed refurb, some things haven’t changed: four girls who half know each other are squashed into the tiny space exchanging the most genuine and elaborate compliments. I’ve not spoken to a group of girls in a toilet for two years! Nature is healing.
You can definitely feel the temperature rising in the basement as people file down the stairs to watch Burnout. The band won me over before even getting on stage, by standing right at the front giving it rice for all of Slap Rash’s set. Burnout are softer and play at a more laid-back pace than some of the other bands tonight; they’ve got a modern, experimental take on punk rock. They’re another band with a great understanding of dynamics, who know how to build tension – sprinkling in a little funk, a smidge of jazz and a nod towards math-rock. Their set creeps to a crescendo as the crowd relax; the floor gets slicker as anxiety melts into a warm fuzz of lager and Jagermeister.
During one of Burnout’s slower songs, a human pyramid is valiantly proposed. For me, pyramids are a run-of-the-mill gig activity, but I’m told it only happens in Manchester, or at events where a lot of Manchester folk are present. Personally, I think it’s a TNSrecords thing: where the TNS family is found, human pyramids shall be built. This particular pyramid was the most organised I’d ever been involved in – there could well have been a spreadsheet or a blueprint passed around. We discussed who was going in the bottom and top layers and when the best moment would be. In the end, we all fell dramatically in a pile on the floor, just as any proper pyramid should.
Van Halen bridges the gap between bands. My mate Jake tells me he’s been to 216 (or maybe it was 260) gigs at Retro over the years. I say an overly enthusiastically hello to someone who turns out to be a complete stranger. The cloying smell of beer and body odour hangs in the humid basement air.
The Sewer Cats are the night’s second duo, this time falling firmly into screeching break-neck punk rock. They’re a band you could imagine as feline strays caterwauling in a back alley at midnight, like a safety-pinned 1979 take on that jazz scene from The Aristocats. They play frenzied, angular garage punk with white-hot fury.
The dancing starts for real in front of the stage; the crowd fumbles through a catalogue of shenanigans like crowd-surfing, spinning and pyramids, trying to remember how it used to be done. Dedicating a song to the ‘toilet singers’, Sewer Cats play a mesmerising cover Islands In The Stream to close the set (at least in my head).
Next up are Knife Club, the TNSrecords supergroup, made up of members of Nosebleed, Matilda’s Scoundrels, Casual Nausea and Revenge of the Psychotronic Man. Ordinarily, Faintest Idea would be represented too, but Tanner from The Barracks is filling is on bass whilst Dani Rascal’s off being a new father. This is Knife Club’s third show and their official Manchester debut, after a lot of hype and too many pandemic cancellations.
Vocalist Andy Davies sums it up pretty well: “This is the stupidest project you could ever imagine, dragged out over three years.” Started as a joke, it’s clear that the band exist for fun, which is exactly what they bring to the stage. Zoe Barrow (Casual Nausea) and Andy share vocals. I’ve never seen Zoe smile so hard on stage, and Andy’s living his rap god fantasy. Not by rapping, but by running around the venue as far as the XLR will let him, shouting the words while crowd-surfing, and generally getting up-close-and-personal with the crowd in a way he couldn’t with Revenge.
As we’re beckoned into the ‘fun zone’ (which looks a lot like a wall of death), I feel like Knife Club are finally getting to tell the punchline of a joke that started long ago. It’s worth the wait.
As the next band set up, I decide that vaping in airless basements is definitely not cool. I’d rather smell 99 other people’s farts and sweat. At this gig and another on Saturday, I’ve also learned that it’s very much in poor taste to mention COVID on stage when the audience is crammed into a hot, humid, airless room. There’s a whole new etiquette we need to navigate now.
I’m apprehensive about watching Redeemon. They formed from the ashes of Beat The Red Light, who left some big shoes to fill. It’s hard not to directly compare the two bands, but I’ll try to do it quickly: they’re neither better nor worse than BTRL, they are different. They feel familiar and brand new all at once.
I’m in love with Redeemon’s heavy brand of ska-core, filling the slim niche for music lovers who would dance to Mad Caddies, Megadeth and Magrudergrind with equal vigour. The assembly of punks is similarly enamoured, throwing down to the heaviest band of the day. It’s complicated hardcore punctuated by abrasive, sharp saxophone, with Pook overlaying a cleaner vocal than on some of his previous musical projects. It’s a ruckus, and bloody good fun to watch. I feel a weight of tension lift off me that I hadn’t even realised I’d been carrying.
The lights come on and the basement empties, but there are hours of dancing upstairs to follow. Despite every plan to get to bed at a reasonable hour, I’m still listening to the Vengaboys at 2.30 am, feeling the happy warmth of a room full of friends. One of the greatest highlights of the evening was being able to shout, “See you next week!” on the way out the door, ready to reunite again in Hastings at Wotsit Called Fest, only five days away.
Written by Sarah Williams. Photos by Hold My Pint.
We have a brand new Shout Louder newsletter! Sign up here and never miss a podcast, article or nugget of punk rock news again.