When you’re a new band starting out, there are usually two career paths you can take. One involves headlining small gigs in small rooms, the other is supporting someone else’s tour. For many bands, the reality is a combination of both, which means sometimes playing to a large crowd who haven’t come to see you or finding yourself in front of a handful of people above a pub. Both have their challenges and both are important steps in honing a band’s stagecraft and developing the fortitude they will need to push on.
For Manchester quartet Girl Friend, having recently toured the UK with The Kooks, seeing where they would be playing in Brighton must have been a chastening moment. It was for me, too, as it was also my first time at the Prince Albert. Having chatted with the band just an hour or so earlier, my heart sunk when I stepped foot into the room where they’d be playing. Describing it as tiny almost sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s barely the size of a large living room. Even more disheartening, it was also empty.
Now I’ve spoken to many bands about the challenge of playing smaller rooms – for many, it’s more daunting than playing huge venues – but others have said that when they’ve played to empty rooms it was all about playing for themselves. However you approach it, it’s about making the most of the situation. After all, come stage time, there’s nothing an artist can do about the size of the room or the size of the audience they’re playing to.
To add insult to injury, as Girl Friend set up their gear, technical gremlins caused microphones to malfunction and feedback to force hands to cover ears. It wasn’t the most auspicious of starts. Despite the circumstances, they battled on and showed why many think they are a cut above. Somewhat incongruously given the surroundings, all four still wore their trademark sparkly tops. Sadly for them, the lighting was less than sparkling: it was either red or blue.
That left the music to do the talking and one has to commend Girl Friend for putting on a spirited performance. In Amory Niesh-Melling they’ve got a front man who not only draws the eye, but also has a distinctive voice. It’s a voice perfectly complemented by younger sister Eleanor on backing vocals. Indeed, much of the time she’s more like a second vocalist than a background singer. Together, they’re most responsible for shaping Girl Friend’s sound. And it’s not just the vocals that are polished, their songs are too, so much so that a few month’s ago The Guardian named them their Band of the Week.
Judging by this show, much of the slinky sonics are down to guitarist and keys player Jake Ward. But just like Olly Alexander with Years and Years, (with whom he shares a similar look) it’s Amory’s voice which really elevates them to another level. Songs like the opener ‘You Lead The Way’ and the even catchier ‘Style And Substance’ confirm that Girl Friend have got what it takes. Yes, they’re still learning their craft and they’ve only just changed their line-up, but they have enough about them to suggest they’re going to make it. Indeed, I’d be astonished if they don’t. Just listen to ‘Stop’ and you’ll hear a band that can craft a perfect pop song and with Amory’s seductive vocals give it a distinctive sheen.
So what to make of this gig? For me, I’d put it down to experience and cite those wise words of wisdom from Steps: it was better best forgotten. That said, there’s no doubt this was a band who found themselves – probably through no fault of their own – playing the wrong venue. A pub – any pub – is not where Girl Friend should be performing. I for one, look forward to seeing them on a bigger stage, with some decent lighting and in front of a more sizeable audience. Of course, a hit single would help, but for now getting to support a cooler band than The Kooks has to be the priority. If they can get their stars aligned and find themselves on the lips of some tastemakers who knows where it could take them?
In many ways, they came to Brighton three weeks too soon. What they should have done was to have been part of this year’s Great Escape. But there again, Years and Years did just that in 2014 and little became of them until much later in the year when the plaudits didn’t stop coming their way. It’s only a matter of time before the same happens for Girl Friend.