Read and Shout 2011, West Norwood Library, 19 March 2011

An increasing number of gigs have, for some reason, been taking place in libraries lately – with the likes of Darwin Deez playing in Westminster Reference Library last March and The Good Natured having recently done an entire tour amidst public bookshelves around the country.

But Read and Shout 2011 is, as far as we know, the first all-day festival to take place in a public library, with bands playing for free to help raise awareness of the threat to Britain’s libraries.

From the off, it’s clear that this is not a normal gig. Upon arrival at West Norwood Library, guests are offered free waffles with jam and badges declaring ‘LIBRARIES FOR ALL FOREVER’, just to remind you that today is as much about politics as it is about music.

The bands play in Nettlefold Hall – which resembles the sort of place you’d usually have children’s ballet recitals – above the library. The audience are predictably middle class and spend much of the day, quite fittingly, sat cross-legged on the floor.

First band on, The Sunbathers, are exactly what you’d expect from an event like this: twee acoustic pop songs sung in a lovely gentle voice by a woman in a pretty floral dress. Their songs are quite samey, but pleasant, and each is dedicated to a different library which is either under threat or already closed – really bringing home the scale of the cuts.

Next comes something we probably should have been prepared for: librarians. The Give It Ups are the definition of stereotypical librarians: brown blazers, corduroy trousers, bad haircuts and all. They play songs about such cringe-worthy subjects as missing cats, on over-dominant, over-distorted guitars. Between tracks they openly declare their musical mistakes and ask the audience whether the levels are ok. The mood only lifts when one of the event organisers comes round offering free flying saucer sweets in the middle of the set.

It’s now up to Sheffield’s The Sweet Nothings to give us something good. They don’t get off to a brilliant start, playing a song about trains featuring (God help us) a train whistle. However, they do go on to have a few catchy, three chord indie tunes and certainly fit in with the left-wing political vibe of the day on tracks like Peace, Love and International Socialism.

Just as things are looking up, Horowitz step onstage. They are two guys with two incredibly noisy guitars thrashing out samey, standardised rock songs over pre-recorded drums and bass. The lead singer can’t really sing, and disguises his difficulties by shouting. They are on for far too long.

Salvation comes in the form of the aptly named Leaf Library. They are about ten years younger than the other bands so far (i.e. they’re in their mid twenties) and play warm, atmospheric indie of the kind you’d like to fall asleep to. Lead singer, Kate Gibson, sings in soothing tones over carefully intertwined instruments. They get everyone to stand up for a faster song, but when it’s over we’re back on the floor, relaxed and taking in their graceful music.

Things are definitely improving at Read and Shout, and they’re about to get better. It’s time for Darren Hayman, who claims to have written about seven songs containing the word ‘library’ or ‘librarian’ and endeavours to play as many of them as possible this evening.

He and his quiet electric guitar are joined by Dan, the violinist, as Darren sings wonderfully well-crafted, story-telling lyrics that feature some of the best rhyming couplets we’ve heard in years. His words are captivating, and the whole audience (now so big some can’t get in the door) listens intently.

Between tracks his quirky sense of humour proves incredibly entertaining, even during his speech in defence of the libraries. He captures the mood of the festival as he complains about how far the political spectrum has shifted to the right, and talks about how important it is that libraries are there for when the public needs them.

For his final song of the set, he has the whole audience sing along with the chorus: “we’re tired of getting dicked around”. When it’s over, we carry on singing these conclusive words as Darren interjects with complaints about everything from the government’s plans to sell off the forests, to the unavailability of high speed broadband connections.

This is the essence of Read and Shout 2011 – it is proof of the enjoyment that can be had through the use of public services, and proof that libraries should be ‘FOR ALL FOREVER’. The mood has been set among this crowd for the huge protest that will engulf London next Saturday. If only more musicians would get involved in politics.

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