Five Gigs In Five Nights: Air Traffic at the Camden Barfly

Monday October 2 and I’m back in London. In fact, I’m back on the Chalk Farm Road, up Camden way, scene of Friday night’s merry old shindig at The Roundhouse and that insidious set by the Fratellis. But tonight I’m not in the luxurious surroundings of a £35,000,000 renovated landmark building. I’m in the far less salubrious confines of the almost equally infamous Camden Barfly, home base to a nationwide franchise of seven Barflys that have become part of every young band’s tour schedule.

There are Barflys to be found these days as far afield as Glasgow, Cardiff, Birmingham and even York, but the London club has the cachet of being the original. It’s nothing more fancy than a room above a pub – one with terrible sightlines and marginal sound at that – but in its bare bones, cigarettes-and-alcohol simplicity (and prime NW1 location), the Camden Barfly exemplifies the British gig experience.

This, no doubt, is why the EMI people have shown up in force to support their new signings. Bournemouth’s Air Traffic are all barely 20 years old, an age that would seem impossibly young were this not the year that Arctic Monkeys sold a million albums before they could buy a drink in the USA. Already feted by such tastemakers as Zane Lowe, who labeled their debut indie release the ‘hottest record in the Universe’ and their first EMI single ‘Never Even Told Me Her Name’ more realistically his ‘Single of the Week’ already, Air Traffic almost certainly have a hit on their hands come November. But they’re also staring down a doubled-barreled shotgun full of expectations. Get out the gates this fast, this young, and people are going to be suspicious to the point of vicious. In the most simple of terms, Air Traffic need to prove they can cut it live. Hence a solid month of touring kicked off by the supposed credibility of the Barfly.

So what are Britain’s latest near-teenage sensations all about? One friend warned me to expect ‘Busted doing Radiohead’ but he was off mark. If forced to make an equally lazy comparison, mine would be ‘The Faces doing Coldplay.’ At heart, Air Traffic are decidedly conventional: guitarist Tom Pritchard wears a scarf in worst Ron Wood tradition, bassist Jim Maddock jumps about like he’s auditioning for Nirvana even after all these years, and drummer David Jordan provides skilled powerhouse backing that will make him a likely target for bigger bands should the British rock scene ever agree on a transfer window. But none of this really matters: these three are the mere supporting cast. Air Traffic belongs to Chris Wall, a precociously gifted pianist, singer and, presumably, songwriter, whose talents are so evident he strains to downplay them: from back of the Barfly, you can’t even see him.

Ones to watch, indeed, though Air Traffic’s front man, pianist and singer Chris Wall, is hard to spot in a crowded room.

Frustrated by this lack of visibility, and not convinced by the group’s retro riffs and boogie piano, I force my way to front of stage, where I line up alongside the teenage girls focusing on Chris’s quick lyrics, fast piano chops and generally likeable persona. (He makes reference to himself as a “twat” at one point, though this seems more an attempt to deflect from his evident talent than a statement of fact.) He dons guitar for a couple of songs, but it’s those at the piano that distinguish the group, even if his playing is more Billy Joel than Chris Martin. Meantime, I enjoy the opening power chords to the indie B-side ‘Charlotte’ (for what young band does not name at least one song for a girl and open it with power chords?); I note a number called ‘Left On Our Own’ that “we don’t play very often” (and how you have to love a bunch of 20-year olds that can afford such a wisened attitude); and I agree with everyone around me that ‘Never Even Told Me Her Name,’ for all its Faces-meets-Supergrass familiarty, is the song of an alarmingly short set: 40 minutes at most, no encore. This is the London lig scene, and brevity is the name of the game.

Brevity may yet be Air Traffic’s experience of the music business in general. Groups this young should not, by rights, be subject to such rapid industry attention and media expectations. Chances are that, likely hit single aside, Air Traffic will need to sell a hundred thousand albums out of the box so as not to be considered a failure. It’s a ridiculous high demand for a group possessed with such obvious raw talent, but it’s typical of a British scene that loves nothing more than to cannibalize its youth. Right now, Air Traffic sound like a combination of everything that a new British band is meant to sound like, and in the fullness of time, what with Chris Wall at the helm, they may even come to sound thoroughly like themselves. Whether they have that time to spare is an entirely different story.

Air Traffic are on tour in the UK throughout October. Full dates here.

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