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Soujourner Fleet

Shoreditch Twat. The expression has become so much a part of the London landscape that I wouldn’t be surprised if it eventually ends up in some kind of official fashionista dictionary. And, like all good generalisation, there is a kernel of truth in it. Shoreditch, once a rundown East End haunt of gangsters and market traders, is now filled with the trendy, the ridiculously dressed, and… well, the twats.

So it was with some trepidation that I headed eastwards on Friday night to the Spread Eagle pub, to see Sojourner Fleet. A band about whom I knew absolutely nothing.

Thankfully, I’d had a few pints by the time we headed down there, and was relaxed in the knowledge that it was unlikely to be anything special. The Spread Eagle used to be a strip club, and still has the slightly seedy air and inaccessible women’s toilets of a den of ill repute. Naturally, this makes it all the more attractive to trendy marketing types trying to get their weekend hit of ‘authentic London taawn’. I got drink, sat down with Sam and Ben, the drummer and bassist of Sojourner Fleet, and did a bit of people watching.

Of course, if I was some kind of professional music journalist I would have taken this opportunity to grill the guys on why this was their first London gig in over a year; they seem to have been purposefully avoiding the place, heavily gigging Leeds and Nottingham and leaving the capital alone. I might have asked a few cursory questions about how they felt about the Myspace phenomenon, which is doing them plenty of favours at the moment despite the fact they couldn’t sound less like the Arctic Monkeys if they tried. Or I could even have asked them about the resurgence of alt.country on the London scene, and where they felt they fitted into that. Instead, we discussed Sam’s imminent housing crisis, and heard how he had spent the last six months house-sitting for someone who had their own hot tub. Rock and Roll. Except the guy telling me all this looks more than a little unkempt, with the knitted Peruvian hat that is the signature of travellers all over the world and the workmanly shirt of someone who couldn’t give a toss about the bling bling. Imagining him sipping Cristal with his bitches in a hot tub was a little beyond me…

The soundchecks were all running behind schedule, but eventually Sojourner Fleet headed off to get set-up for their performance. They were opening the night, with two more bands to follow them, though they hadn’t heard of either of them. If the soundchecks were anything to go by, this was no great surprise. I settled down with another pint and chatted to a young lady about shoe fetishes. Well, it passed the time.

Sojourner Fleet took to the stage, and we gathered round the tiny wooden platform overloaded with four uncombed gents trying not to knock into each other. But then it kicked off, and the ridiculous stage somehow managed to make room for them all. Lead singer Rob has a soul-searching voice bringing to mind some Gomez moments, and his acoustic guitar and lumberjack shirt all suggest he’s come straight down from Appalachia to Shoreditch to put a few things straight. Except far from being a country sing-a-long, the Fleet are taking us back to interesting music, with guitarist Dan providing both beautifully phrased lead lines and stomping, shut-the-fuck-up moments of noise.

It’s been a while, but here’s a band not afraid to mess around with loud/quiet song dynamics, coming on like a Tennessee Sonic Youth or a less precise Pixies. And more to the point, they’re looking incredibly unfashionable as they do it. No suits, no ties and no porkpie hats, just a ragtag collection of blokes playing some music that they passionate about. Unfuckingbelievable. Doesn’t happen anymore, does it?

They speed through their set, establishing a good rapport with the crowd despite a fair few technological malfunctions and general cock-ups. Professionalism, it seems, is still a little way away for Sojourner Fleet. But there’s a good reaction, some serious toe-tapping and head nodding, and for a band with no commercial releases and two gigs in London, this is a success, no doubt about it.

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They come off stage; I get a few more drinks down me and dance around to the Velvet Underground. By this point it’s fair to say I’m in danger of becoming a bit lairy, and I’m chatting loudly to anyone who’ll listen. Chris and Mike come down and join us in the crowd, not entirely pleased with their performance’s technical hitches, but overall happy to be gigging again. I’m about to ask them why it’s been so long since they’ve played London, and why they would rather trek up to Leicester and back for a half hour gig than do some more local venues around town. And then the next band come on.

I had seen them soundchecking earlier, but had swallowed the bile and vitriol down in an attempt to behave myself. There was no holding back now though, and I turn to my mate Polly and start ranting. “How many fucking times do we have to hear this? Jesus. Wearing a tie and pretending to be crack addicts. That’s not talent! It’s the same fucking song, played by a thousand different bands…”. On stage, three studiously thin nineteen year olds are looking miserable in their jauntily angled Trilby’s and being cheered on by a squad of young girls in the front row, all ripped tights, heavy-eyeliner and early Yeah Yeah Yeah singles. It’s enough to make you want to give up.

At that point, perhaps having seen my rant, Chris comes over and points at the band. “What’s’ the point? I hate all these Babyshambles clones. It’s the same as a thousand other bands…”. And that pretty much sums it up. I’m fed up and tired, so make my excuses and head out back into Shoreditch, picking my way between the PR girls, struggling accountants and art students that litter the streets like so much gorgeous debris. Sojourner Fleet are not the best live band doing the rounds in London, and certainly not the most experienced. But they are playing real, heartfelt music. And they are playing it on their own terms, not those set by the East London cognoscenti. And for that, I fucking love them.

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