By Shay Quillen
San Jose Mercury News
Posted: 01/08/2009 12:00:00 AM PST
Last year, Glasvegas went from being a Scottish act with two obscure singles under its belt to being one of the most celebrated young bands in Great Britain. And as 2009 begins, the group is setting its sights on America — a country whose musical past plays a crucial role in its look and sound.
Glasvegas. L-R: Rab Allan, James Allan, Paul Donoghue, Caroline McKay (Photo Credit: Steve Gullick)
In Britain, "the name's out there, and people are getting it," says bassist Paul Donoghue, speaking from a tour stop in Manchester last month. "Now we need to go to America and really put a lot of work and a lot of effort into that."
The quartet — which also includes singer-songwriter James Allan, guitarist Rab Allan (James' cousin) and stand-up drummer Caroline McKay — played some East Coast dates last year but just embarked on its first jaunt across America. It's marking the U.S. release of its self-titled debut album, which hit No. 2 in England last year, with two national TV spots and a handful of club dates, including a Popscene show tonight at 330 Ritch St. in San Francisco.
Monday, Glasvegas played "Geraldine" on "Late Night With David Letterman." Next Thursday, the band will wrap up the tour with an appearance on "The Late Late Show," hosted by fellow Glaswegian Craig Ferguson.
It's a remarkable turn of events for a band that still lives in the gritty East End of the Scottish city that inspired its tongue-in-cheek name.
"It's like any other working-class city in Britain: It's got its bad points, but it's also got a lot of electricity and a lot of romance to it," Donoghue says in a Glaswegian accent so thick that, at times, it's unintelligible to American ears. "I love the East End of Glasgow, and I don't think I'd ever move."
The bassist says that when the band started about five years ago, James Allan's songs showed promise, but he hadn't quite arrived at what would become the band's signature sound — soaring, heart-on-sleeve vocals in a thick Scottish accent over music that manages to suggest both the Jesus and Mary Chain and the Shirelles.
"They were a lot more poppy," Donoghue says of Allan's early efforts. "I still think Glasvegas make pop music, but back then it was a lot more of the indie, color-by-numbers thing, jangly guitars and stuff like that. As James' confidence grew, that wasn't what he wanted to do. . . . He realized if he wanted to be true to himself, he had to completely change the style of songwriting."
Fueled by long record-listening sessions at McKay's house, the musicians began gravitating toward vintage American sounds by artists like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Dion.
The band broke out of Scotland with the self-released "Daddy's Gone," voted the No. 2 single of 2007 in the influential English music magazine NME. The song was re-recorded for the band's debut album and became Glasvegas' biggest hit to date in the U.K.
"Where we were in Glasgow, there's so many broken families," Dougherty says. "Be it a child whose father left or a father who's left children — people will come up and say the song really affects them."
JANUARY 05: Musician James Allan of the band Glasvegas performs onstage at Virgin Megastore Union Square on January 5, 2009 in New York City.(Getty Images)
Last winter, NME's staff awarded the band, which had yet to release an album, the Philip Hall Radar Award, an honor that previously had gone to Franz Ferdinand and the Kaiser Chiefs. The award was presented by the Libertines' Carl Barat, who will perform a solo opening set at tonight's show.
Glasvegas is the kind of up-and-coming British act music fans have come to expect on Thursdays at the little room at 330 Ritch St. Over the past 13 years, Popscene — a series co-founded and booked by "Live 105" Music Director Aaron Axelsen — has given the Bay Area an early, up-close look at such soon-to-be-massive acts as Bloc Party, Muse and Amy Winehouse.
Axelsen voted the British import of "Glasvegas" as his No. 1 record of 2008, and his Popscene partners share his love for the band.
"The first thing I noticed while listening to Glasvegas was this incredible sound that reminded me of all the records I love — the shoegaze ones, the doo-wop ones, the space rock ones," writes DJ and marketing maven Nako Hashizume via e-mail. "I just wanted to drown in those waves of sound."
Contact Shay Quillen at email@example.com or (408) 920-2741.
Glasvegas has plenty of potential import
By STEVE WILSON
Special to The Kansas City Star
January 16, 2009
The resounding debut album from Glasvegas opens with “Flowers and Football Tops.”
Sung by James Allan, a 29-year-old from Glasgow’s tough east side, its perspective is that of a mother who’s just learned of the death of her young son. The lyrics don’t specify what events brought the police to her door, but the song evokes the story of young James Bulger, the Liverpool boy killed by two boys scarcely his senior.
Guitarist Rab Allan, the singer’s younger cousin, opens the song with a full minute of glacial, harmonic distortion that sets the stage for Caroline McKay’s whopping Phil Spector backbeat and James’ raw, impassioned vocal.
Allan sings like a cross between Joe Strummer and a Glaswegian Joey Ramone. Assuming the persona of a grieving mother is a potential landmine for any male singer, but Allan makes the grief dramatic and dignified.
Remarkably Glasvegas maintains the pace established by “Flowers and Football Tops” throughout most of its 11-song program.
The songs of James Allan are not basic pop fodder, tending instead toward evocative portrayals of working class life in Glasgow — its perils and iniquities. “Stabbed” evokes the everyday horrors of gang life. “Go Square Go” is sung by a young man steeling himself for a showdown with a playground bully (the refrain is terrifically catchy, but its repetitive use of the f-word won’t garner much media play). “Geraldine,” like “Football Tops,” finds Allan in female persona, this time as an empathetic social worker.
Especially powerful is “Daddy’s Gone,” a song for both an absent father and the young protagonist himself, which combines regret, resignation and defiance.
Beginning in 2003 as an Oasis cover band, only gradually did James Allan start writing songs for the band. Like so many of rock’s powerful ensemble sounds, Glasvegas’ was built piece by piece by trial and error.
Performing initially at blistering punk tempos, they found that slower tempos breathed life into Allan’s gritty songs.
Bassist Paul Donoghue and McKay lay down a propulsive foundation. Rab Allan’s mammoth guitar sound is derived from Will Sergeant (Echo and the Bunnymen), the Edge, and the Jesus and Mary Chain.
In a curious way it also updates the slap-back echo of early Sun Records recordings. He frames his cousin’s vocals with a strum and drone, pedal tone-heavy palette that’s huge and dense.
And while that density can be overwhelming, it’s consistently affecting.
As it’s already one of Britain’s most popular bands, it will be interesting to see how this latest, potent British import translates to an American audience.