Band takes on equipment, pigeon-holing and venue……..and wins

Panic Room
The Peel Rooms, London
27th March 2010

Imagine a concert like this. The band who are headlining have a female vocalist and the venue is as often used as a strip joint as it is a rock venue. The female vocalist we have mentioned finds that she is using a microphone that means that her voice is completely inaudible and lost in the mix for the first three songs. The 17 song set list chosen by the band includes only three old songs and one cover. The remainder are unlikely to be known to the audience unless those watching have heard their new album (and the accompanying second disc which only comes with it if you have purchased it direct from the band’s website). And all this happening in a venue which is placed on the edge of domestic suburban housing area near London – not the most likely scene for a strip venue never mind a rock show. You’d be forgiven for expecting this show to be a disaster. But somehow this show by Panic Room at the Peel Rooms in Norbiton near Kingston-Upon-Thames was a winner for the band (well, except for the first three songs)

Acoustic support, Chris Johnson, from the band Parade, delivered an undistinguished set. One song lifted half a verse from an old Dylan song and there was an interesting story about a ghostly recording session but most everything else was forgettable.

So when Panic Room took the stage and encountered the aforementioned mike problems, expectations were sinking fast. I’d encountered Anne-Marie Helder performing before. On that occasion, she was providing flute, backing vocals and keyboards for progressive rock band, Mostly Autumn. On those occasions, she cut quite a demure figure but her role as lead vocalist with Panic Room is much more strident. On this evening, she was wearing a figure-hugging short black dress and feather boa which might have left you wondering whether she had borrowed them from a performer at the strip club but actually added to her ability to command the stage area and assert herself. All of this though might not do her any favours if she couldn’t be heard and various attempts at barking instructions at the guy on the sound desk revealed that the problem was with the band’s equipment rather than his. So Ms Helder traded microphones with Paul Davies, the band’s lead guitarist. It’s an interesting trade but one with the right result. No backing vocals for most of the night and no effects on the lead voice but when the other option is no audible lead vocal, this kind of becomes a necessity if you’re performing on a limited budget.

So the opening three songs, “Freedom to Breathe” and “Yasuni”, both from the new album “Satellite”,  and “5th Amendment” from the mentioned accompanying “Little Satellite” E.P. that can be bought with it – if you know where to go – are mostly lost but by the time of the intense “Picking Up Knives”,  also from the new record, things are beginning to fall into place. Anne-Marie has a strong, distinguished voice which can be heard to slightly better effect on the studio recordings but given the right tech she is one of the best vocalists in the rock world today. Lead guitarist, Paul Davies does not fit into the stereotype of appearance of musicians who usually fill the axeman’s  role but provides a melodic and imaginative lead. Gavin Griffiths on drums is a very solid rock drummer whilst bassist Alun Vaughan as a style which might fit more naturally into a jazz or funk surrounding but this unusual coupling in the rhythm section does open up some interesting possibilities which means the band are far from predictable. Unfortunately, keyboard player Jonathan Edwards’ sound was mostly lost in the mix except on the introduction to another new song “Dark Star” which appeared towards the end of the main set.

Unlike the formulaic  rock chick look that Anne-Marie has adopted visually, the set is unpredictable, varied and imaginative. The ballad “Sunshine” works well and allows you to imagine there is some fresh air circulating in this hot-and-dank venue. “Apockalypstick” from their debut album is all screaming guitars and voices and at the “heavier” end of their repertoire.

The show has a good touch of humour too with the vocalist prowling and shouting “miaow, miaow” on “I am the Cat” being particularly memorable. (note to self: something is happening here. This is the second song recently where the narrative character is a female who believes she is a cat. The second is the much more risqué “Marmalade Cat” by black tape for a blue girl. Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is………)

The lyrics (when you can hear them) are thoughtful and cover a broad range with “Blood Red Sky” from the singer’s solo e.p. being a particular highlight.

It is this unpredictability and variety which could see Panic Room break through to a bigger audience. Jonathan Edwards’ keyboards though not much in evidence tonight are tasteful and accomplished on their studio work and Alun Vaughan’s bass leaves open all kinds of improvisational possibilities when they want to flesh out their material and their ballads are thoughtful and poignant.

Panic Room is obviously and clearly linked to the definitively progressive Mostly Autumn in the hearts of their fans and the overlap of members. But Panic Room is anything but progressive rock-by-numbers and if it wasn’t for the fact that the band’s own website gives them that label too, I would be tempted to disassociate them from that  all together. They are broader than that pigeon hole and don’t slot conveniently into another one. If you want a good rock show on the right night and in the right venue then Panic Room ought to be coming to a larger hall near you soon.

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