AS always at the AMP Awards, there’s a real buzz around the Royal Hall.Everywhere you look, there’s young musicians getting ready and student business teams welcoming mentors and sponsors and VIPs.
Milling around are hundreds of young fans, by turns excitable and bored, waiting to cheer on their particular school’s band amid the glittering gold of a venue which always takes your breath away.
It’s the fourth year of this annual, truly district-wide battle of the bands and it’s the fourth time I’ve been a judge.
Once again, with the exception of the long gone Leeds-based Bright Young Things contest, it’s by some distance the best event of its type I’ve ever come across.
It’s not just that it’s well organized by local teachers Marian Farrar and Josh Hill and a small army of helpers, including the students themselves.
Nor is it the fact that in four years not one of the teenage bands has come close to freezing in the spotlight of such a big stage – amazing if you consider they’ve got just 10 minutes each to impress.
No, what really surprises about the live music music produced by these inexperienced students year after year, some of them as young as 15-years-old, is its consistently high quality.
A year ago the first band on stage were living up to their name. This year, The Specs (from St John Fisher School in Harrogate) have dispensed with those giant specs but picked up some impressive musicianship.
Having looked quite cool in the band’s video shown on a big screen above the stage, this skinny trio, led by vocalist and guitarist Tom O’Reilly in jeans and fashionably quiffy hairstyle, are a bit tentative on their opening number, a mid-paced, slightly Foals-like, funk-indie slow burner with a nice bassline from Tom Fox.
There’s no such inhibitions on the band’s closer, a faster-paced version of the above called About Me which wins a clapalong from parts of the teenage audience.
The mood turns darker with the appropriately-named Dark Days of December from Boroughbridge High School.
A serious band with a seriously atmospheric sound, their low key, semi-metallic, semi-gothic rock music underwhelms at first, even though their lank-haired, skinny lead singer in The Who T-shirt, Luke Smith soon has his fans clapping along.
Then you notice how good Luke Armitage’s shuddering, deep bass sound is and how impressive lead guitarist Becca Longbottom’s work is, nicely jingle-jangle on the verses and lovely and lyrical on the choruses and breaks.
Understated or not, Dark Days of December feel like a proper group. Their second song is a bit of a riff monster and I get the feeling, if they stick at it, they could become really impressive.
It’s hard not be swept away by crowd reactions as a judge. The tendency at all of the 100 or so battle of the bands competitions I’ve been involved with since the mid-90s is for the most confident, crowd-pleasing band to come out tops which is, I suppose, the only way it can happen in a one-off judgement.
I prefer to imagine whether I’d actually play any of the bands’ songs in the comfort of my own home.
This isn’t strictly fair, which is why, when I’m handed the microphone after the next band, Purple Mafia, have finished their slot I say the following in my best X Factor impersonation:
“If this was the Olympics, we’ve just watched Usain Bolt.”
As a silly line, in contrast to the reasoned comments of fellow judges the Blues Bar’s Simon Colgan, Muzo’s Richard Turner, Radio York’s Jenny Eells and Acceleris’s Alessandra Gritt, it turns out to be remarkably accurate, for this ridiculously young five-piece from Ripon Grammar School quickly emerge as the best band of the night.
Bouncing around with boundless energy from the off, these fresh-faced infants milk their mixture of indie pop and white boy rap like utter veterans.
Lead singer Dan Reynard is a natural-born cocky crowdpleaser in his jacket and white T-shirt, striking great poses, “woahing woahing” for all he’s worth and encouraging the first stage rush of the evening.
For such a tender age, I’m sure the boys will progress musically but, in terms of delivering the goods live, Purple Mafia are already a great band.
After a tentative start, the next band, The Tickets from St Aidan’s High School in Harrogate come out of their shell. Sharing vocals between guitarist Adam Wood in white vest and old skool baseball cap and cardigan-ed singer/bassist Tom Pallant, this funky three-piece have a nice sound and come alive with second track, Lead Us To The Dancefloor, their catchy debut single.
Full of good musicianship and shouty energy, the boys make a mockery of my later ‘hilarious’ remark about the bassist’s cardigan (clearly a case of fashion jealousy on my part).
What’s more, The Tickets also boast the best video of the whole event, in my opinion, a brilliantly shot comic journey across Harrogate filmed by Robbie Eardley, I think it was.
“The Royal Hall rocks”, shouts out drummer Barney Parsons at the end of Santa Rosa’s set.
That’s something you don’t hear very often.
This laddish four-piece from King James’s High School in Knaresborough are the only band of the night who believe wholeheartedly in ‘rock music’ in the old-fashioned sense of the term, mixing classic alt-rock and hints of reggae like a modern version of The Clash.
Musically muscular, this T-shirted four-piece’s delivery isn’t as good as their intentions but it’s hard not to warm to any group whose lead singer (one Tommy Flemming, he of the Johnny Cash T-shirt) tells the crowd he wants to stay 17-years-old for the rest of his life – and means it.
Last, but not least, The Idea concentrate less on crowdpleasing and more on playing well.
Thanks to a massive fanbase out in the hall, the five-piece from Harrogate Grammar School led by Tom Hall on vocals get one of the best crowd reactions of the night.
Sounding a little like a cross between Bombay Bicycle Club and Vampire Weekend, they play quite nice songs quite nicely and I like them.
While the judges deliberate, last year’s winning band, Summer City from Ripon Grammar School, play a live set as special guests, which turns out to be appropriate as this year’s winners turn out to be Purple Mafia, who also hail from Ripon Grammar School.
After totting up the judges’ votes from four categories and adding the audience’s own preferences, Purple Mafia narrowly edge out The Tickets from St Aidan’s High School and The Idea from Harrogate Grammar School for the title.
But, after such a great event with so many highpoints from each and every band, not to forget their business teams, we couldn’t leave it there.
So we give a special Muzo prize to Dark Days of December and best individual musical performances prizes to bassist Tom Fox of The Specs (St John Fisher’s High School) and lead guitarist Becca Longbottom of Dark Days of December (Boroughbridge High School).
A final thought, if the number of young, original bands playing at a professional standard across Harrogate district is greater now than at any time in the past 20 years, it’s at least partly down to the AMP Awards.