“I hope you’re appreciating the full brunt of our theatre training,’ deadpans Ancients singer Jonathan Mitchell after another static and unemotional display. An inspired choice of support, The Ancients quiet an audience largely new to them and get a response louder than the bewitching sounds they send. Mitchell’s rabbit-in-the-headlights blinkless gaze when delivering lyrics is unsettling and forces wrapt attention on the band in a way that few performers manage, Jonathan Richman perhaps. Playing most of their recent Ancients 2 album, highlights include any song in which guitarist Mark Rodda’s fluid brittle trills are a driving point such as Marsh Tomb, Street Funk and a particularly rocking new song, as Mitchell’s understated lyrics are largely lost in the thickly-populated room even if his intensity and songwriting nous is unmistakable.
Half an hour later, red curtains part to reveal Girls, another five-piece, this time with bunches of flowers gaffered to the mic stands and strewn on amps, and the opening bars of Laura playing to squealing fans. Songwriter Christopher Owens is at once a culmination of a dozen influences and yet a clearly talented songwriter and guitarist. With his newly cropped hair (as reminiscent of Jesus and Mary Chain’s Reid brothers as the last half of the set sounds), Owens’ slightly shrunk turtleneck sweater gathers at his throat, adding to the ugly-urgency effect of his facial contortions that accompany each squeezed vocal outburst. Often hopping on one leg, occasionally rolling on the floor or playing his red Rickenbacker between his legs, it’s a strange blend of 50s clean-cut rock star and new wave influenced pop that this band push and, unarguably, they do it well. Far more than a few memorable hooks and some set filler, Girls dispense with the clean, brief songs early on and let lose once they know we're on side. Lust For Life nearly disappears beneath the preceding anthemic outro of Hellhole Ratrace and the protracted glorious fuzzfest that is a segued Morning Light/Heartbreaker/Carolina is surprisingly abrasive for a band so obsessed with melody.
Owens clearly loves the bell-clear sparkling guitar tone and both he and birthday boy guitarist Ryan Lynch mess with it, sometimes echoing each other’s parts with tonal shifts but never straying too far from chiming precision. Bassist Chet White’s (Edgar Winter autographed) bass malfunctions and holds things up for a little while, but by the time the solo encore Oh My Life ends the set with a spellbinding, shimmering pin-drop-quiet close there is only glee spilling through the crowd, surging for the merch desk.