Opening a gig with Royal Blood is like lighting a candle using petrol. The in-form, in-demand two-piece from Brighton took to the stage for a 25 minute slot as people were still filing in to Brixton Academy. It is astounding quite how much noise two men can make. With only one studio album behind them and less than half an hour to play with, their set was obviously short — but limited further by the amount of walkabouts down to the crowd they had — particularly halfway through their final song Out of the Black. Still, the assembled masses revelled in it with mutual affinity; audience and band becoming one. If you haven’t already come across Royal Blood, our advice is to get down to one of their gigs before ticket prices quadruple.
Royal Blood were a surprise and late announcement to the XFM Winter Wonderland bill — now a permanent fixture of London’s music calendar. The event is less of a gig, more of a tasting menu: small, bite-sized sets from a large and varied list of artists. This sometimes stifles the atmosphere as some fans come for one particular act; nevertheless, it gives fans a chance to see and enjoy acts they might otherwise never have bought a ticket for. Regular listeners to XFM would also have recognised at least one song from pretty much every set.
Following Royal Blood was To Kill a King. When their flat-cap wearing singer picked up an acoustic guitar, significant numbers headed to the bar fearing something akin to Mumford and Sons. Their fears were not to be realised, and although the 10 minute set did not set the world alight, there were no banjos and their opening song, reminiscent of The Doors’ Riders on a Storm (but with a synth), showed that appearances can be pleasantly deceptive.
The next artist emerging from stage left was Canadian songstress Billy Pettinger, AKA Billy the Kid. Despite being from North America, she had a friendly face backstage in the shape of another Billy; Billy Bragg — having toured recently with him in America. Another welcome addition to the bill was Frank Turner, who helped write Billy the Kid's album, and he joined her on-stage to help perform This Sure As Hell Ain’t My Life. Her sweet voice proved a stark contrast to the fury and fire of the opening act of the night.
Billy Bragg and Frank Turner were back on stage later on, when Bragg was presented with the XFM ‘Inspiration’ award. After bagging the gong, Bragg announced that he “was sick of seeing comedians talking about politics; I want to see bands singing about it!”, before launching in to three songs including Never Buy the Sun (which he dedicated to the 96 football fans who died at Hillsborough) and his sing-a-long classic, New England.
Highly tipped for this year are Catfish and the Bottlemen, a four-piece hailing from Lllandudno who rock out a decent solo worthy of a late eighties guitar band. There were more subtle retro references as lyrics from Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark crept into their songs, set to a different melody as they bounced around the stage, spraying their energy in to the crowd, who in return jumped and danced more than for any other act of the night.
The Horrors battled with an over-productive smoke machine and the crowd never really connected with them as they played a number of songs from their latest album Luminous. They deserved better as the album is actually very good; however, they may well have been a victim of the difference in fan demographic. This didn’t stop them from giving their all, an even more admirable feat as singer Faris Badwan was suffering from a sore throat prior to their performance.
Closing the show was Frank Turner. His style has been compared to Ed Sheeran and as such can be a little Marmite with music fans. One thing that can’t be in doubt is his commitment to his work. He’s incredibly passionate about all he does and that comes through in his performance — his third appearance of the night on the Brixton Academy stage. His 10 song set opened with the beautiful If I Ever Stray and as soon as he was started, it was clear the majority of fans were there to see him, ensuring a successful finale to the evening.
Bringing the curtain down with Four Simple Words, Frank Turner ensured the audience was appreciative of what they’d seen. Although prior to the show, ticket holders might not have planned on catching all of the acts, much like a festival they got the opportunity to taste them. And if wasn’t for events like Winter Wonderland, we’d never get the opportunity to do this. Well, not in winter anyway.
Londonist attended Winter Wonderland as guests of XFM.