Live Reviews

Ferocious Dog – End of Year Party @ Holmfirth Picturedrome, 30th December 2022: Live Review

Ferocious Dog – End of Year Party @ Holmfirth Picturedrome – 30th December 2022

Well, you’d need the 31st to recover……..

A favourite band at a favourite venue equals a win-win end of year extravaganza to blow away any maudlin thoughts of this winter of discontent. And a damn good excuse to up roots for a week in the (currently) soggy delights of West Yorkshire.

You’d have to be blind or deaf to have not clocked the ascension of Ken Bonsall’s agit-folk-punk celtic rockers over these past couple of years, especially if a lover of the festival experience, they near guaranteed to crop up on any lineup, almost anywhere, irrespective of the category catered for. The first fortnight, give or take, of August this year had them both at Rebellion and Bloodstock, punk and metal respectively, as well as at Wickham, a broader-based festival with a healthy folkie undercurrent (and where I caught them last.) I think I also saw their name on one of those foodie-themed festivals and one also dedicated to wild swimming; eclectic or what?!

It was clear the tribes were collecting as the day drew open, social media awash with messages from their devoted Hellhounds, where to meet before and what to wear. (Actually, I jest, not what to wear, as the band must have one of the most successful merch corps in the country, and, those unable to have the logo inked on their skin, had it emblazoned on shirts, hats and hoodies and were filling up every bar of the Holme valley from noon.) Magic Rock’s Taproom was where I joined the circus, and it like the entirety of Bearded Theory’s Convoy Cabaret had rocked up for the night. Two swift sharpeners and I was ready to pop next door to the ramshackle faded delight of the Picturedrome. I had all but missed Ben Ottewell’s opening set, catching merely the last moments: he looked and sounded very angry, thrashing the life out of his acoustic, and it was going down a storm. Fun fact: the ex-Gomez singer hails from the Derbyshire village of Bonsall.

The gap allowed a decent prowl around the beauty of this iconic venue, from the large standing arena in front of the stage, and upstairs to the two tiers of seats, accessible each from the second floor. A rack of merch tables filled one half the ground floor, a bar the other, with further refreshment available upstairs. All areas were filling fast, as the denizens of the Dog thronged, a fair old smørgasbord of, largely, punk and crusty fashions, veering towards the more grizzled and ravaged end of the market, yet much more welcoming and accomodating than any appearances might otherwise suggest, with Ken Bonsall’s social conscience permeating deep into his congregation. The bars were kept busy, and it’s astonishing to report decent ale and normal pricing, less than normal pricing: £3.80 for a pint of Timmy Taylor’s Boltmaker. (Are you listening, O2 Academies and Institutes?)

Shanghai Treason was the main support, local lads, I’ll wager, given the white rose flag they came on stage waving. Very much in the Celtic punk lineage begat by the Levellers, with clattering drums and churning guitars making a swift and noisy entry after a few bars of, in this case, banjo, the speed of delivery trebling, always, at that moment. It could have been a bit generic were it not that astonishing banjo. Wearing a Black Flag T, although Black 47 may have been a closer reference point, Tom Hardy, not that one, showed us he had an instinctively exhilarating feel for the instrument, mixed high and spindly, a good word for banjo, in the mix, making each song a joy. Switching banjos, he gave the mainly vaguely Irish flavour some alternate bluegrass vibes, switching then to accordion for a couple of other tunes. Clearly in awe to their headliners, they seemed extremely glad to be there, and their singer, sporting also a flat cap, could have been the Southside Johnny, were Ken Bonsall Bruce. And, on T-shirts, T of the night went to their bassist, with his “Henderson’s Sauce, Strong and Northern“. Gradely!

Another gap, another wander, and smack on 10.10, on came the evening’s focus. Bonsall, all broad grin as ever, asking the audience if they liked his new trews, perhaps the first time in years he has not been in his usual battered cargo shorts. The Mohican now a distant memory, he too tends toward the flat cap, perma-welded to his bonce, his acoustic slung trademark low. With guitar and bass at the far sides of the stage, the prime slots next to their singer were Sam Wood, beany bedecked player of anything and everything, and Jamie Burney on fiddle, his big gig debut depping for Dan Booth, with the drums stacked behind, stage rear. (Where Booth, fiddler from the start and, along with Bonsall, the sole other original, the two the perceived core of the band, both image and songwriting-wise? He is taking some family time out, appreciating that life as an itinerant musician is detrimental to being a father of young children. However, as also the band’s manager, he remains integral to the band and personally sought out his replacement, from Sheffield’s Silk Road, another Celtic-punk band. As if there is any other type.)

Kicking off with Haul Away Joe, a shanty-alike, from latest album, 2021’s folk chart-topping The Hope, as were the majority of the set, it was clearly business as usual. With little truck for slow songs, the template is for anthemic tunes, often led by fiddle and whatever Wood is playing, with soaraway choruses, perfect for the word-perfect choir in the stalls. Bonsall affects a hoarse shout, but has enough raspy melody to polish the grit. Seldom without a grin, he looks as if he can never quite believe he does this for a living, unfailingly generous to the folk that have put him in that position, pointing out those he can see in the audience and name-checking others. It feels like a family and, in some ways, is. Other between-song banter is resolutely political; words of praise for the posties and paramedics alike, for the transport unions, the NHS and, well, pretty much anyone bar the Tories. All greeted by rapturous cheers: it is hardly surprising one of their biggest merch sellers is a T with instruction about what to do with our esteemed government. Pentrich Rising, a terrifically sturdy rendition, Victims and Broken Soldier gave Wood the opportunity to switch from mandolin and mandola, to banjo and back again, the heat of the performance meaning many of the audience now needing to peel off their shirts, so as to mosh more effectively, the stamina remarkable for, let’s say, some of the portlier frames.

With the thus revealed tattoos often more exotic than the previous shirts, I wonder how many had their Dog logo inscribed by Bonsall himself, a tattoo artist after leaving the pits? Broken Soldier is one of the several songs devoted to post-conflict veteran stress and mental ill-health, and carries no small emotional heft in the lyric, not least given the memory of Lee, Bonsall’s son, who took his own life on return from a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Hellhound, an earlier song, was, as always, dedicated to those proud to be members of that grouping. For me it showed quite how well the newer members of the band have jelled in, the guitar of Kyle Peters proving far more evident than at previous shows I have attended. Likewise, the rhythm section of Nick Wragg and Luke Grainger far more powerful than I remember, Wragg a powerful turbine to Grainger’s hammering. Picking up then on the highpoints, Sea Shepherd was one, the maritime conservation charity of that name dear to the band. To hear the audience sing out the name of the founder, Captain Paul Watson, is a marvellous moment in a glorious song. The Punk Police is another, a polemic against the self-appointed guardians of what and what isn’t allowed to be punk, a song of hope for middle-class softies like me who love the genre. (So, fuck them, shouts Bonsall at the end of the song!) Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ya and Paddy On The Railroad offer a folkier direction, belligerent songs that bring memories back of the mighty Pogues in their prime, the banjo on Paddy incandescent. Wood had, along the way, picked up both penny whistle and accordion.

A few more fast ones before even this most Duracell ensemble has to slow it down a bit, for Parting Glass, or at least the introductory stanza, ahead it leaping off like a drunken Dubliners. Which led in turn to the wig-out mazurka weirdness of Pocket of Madness, where Peters took the lead vocal, as well as adding some aggressive guitar, with Wood, now also on electric guitar, duelling magnificently with him. What could be next, I mused, fingers crossed. And, answering my prayer, here it came. For many, myself included, the title track of the last album is the pinnacle of their career thus far, however different, with its piano and choirs, it is from their excess all areas elsewhere. A quite beautiful song, even with neither piano nor choir offered tonight, it was a thing of beauty. I lie, a choir was present, albeit of the throng assembled, as, houselights part up, Bonsall entreated us all to enjoin with those around us and show some love. A soggily swaying chain of all present sang out their hearts and, reader, something must have got in my eye. (And I don’t mean the fake snowflakes, pumped out intermittently over the crowd, irritating lungs, eyes and skin alike, the one false step of the night). Ragged? Yes. Wobbly? Yes, that too, but as tingly a moment as I can recall all year.

Sort of the end of the show, just with Gallows Justice to remind us of their forte of fast, before their other tour de force, Slow Motion Suicide. An ironic song, perhaps, to end a set where the bar will have had such a bumper night, given the subject is how alcohol can destroy those without any other support, but it remains a strikingly powerful message. With its extended fiddle coda, this is where Bonsall fully introduced Burney, willing him to slay it. No pressure then, but slay it he did, doing Booth and himself proud, the version tonight a perfect end to the performance. Stunning!

Wot, no encore? Nah, the Dog don’t need that, everyone satiated enough and every favourite song played. Well, bar one, with Bonsall hoofing it up, heartfelt and hammily, to a karaoke Nellie The Elephant. So much energy left after that, he had way more than I, and it seemed a fittingly bizarre way to end this most good-natured of nights. Happy New Year on the 30th? I now know why.

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