GDFAF: Shady Bard, The Modified Toy Orchestra & Pram

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GDFAF: Shady Bard, The Modified Toy Orchestra & Pram

By way of a recap: last week, Birmingham’s Town Hall reopened it’s doors after more than a decade of sitting derelict at the top end of New Street looking like a jilted bride’s abandoned wedding cake. A week-long festival of events are currently being held to celebrate its reopening, which on Monday featured an evening dedicated to the city’s experimental music scene.

The former home of the CBSO, Birmingham Town Hall dates back to 1834 and over the years has played host to legendary bands like Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones. It’s a fine example of neo-classical civic architecture and its design was based on the ancient Roman temple of Castor and Pollux, which also played host to legendary bands like Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones.

I used to go to gigs at the Town Hall in my teens and would love to sit back now, stroke my goatee and reminisce about catching some rock legends before they hit the big time and/or imploded due to musical differences and substances beyond their control. I’d like to, but I can’t. Here and now most of the acts I saw there and then cause me nothing but shame and indigestion. Let’s just say ‘Hue & Cry’ and leave it at that.

Monday night, by contrast, filled me with pride and joy. It also helped settle my stomach.


I’d heard of Shady Bard but hadn’t listened to them before. The lead singer was a slim chap whose trembling basso profundo voice seemed to contradict his body mass index. That’s a compliment, by the way. I’m a slim chap myself and I’d love to have a voice that contradicts my body mass index.

Anyhow, maybe it was the deep voice or the fact he started the set perched at his piano, but I was put in mind of a Boatman’s Song era Nick Cave. As anyone who knows anything about my taste in music will tell you, this immediately put the band straight into my file marked “Good shit wot I like.”

As the set progressed I was reminded of a lot of other things, too. With what – to my ears at least – sounded like an effortless stew of brooding melancholy seasoned with some good old-fashioned sardonic wit, I thought of the brilliant New York based band The National. My good friend and erstwhile gig pimp Pete Ashton apparently believes its bad form to compare unfamiliar bands to one’s that are more familiar.

This one’s for you, Pete.


The Modified Toy Orchestra is more than just the name for a band, it’s a bold statement of intent. They’re a five piece outfit that make sophisticated music using modified toys that make beepy, burpy noises. It really is that straightforward, and maybe the world would be a far less confusing place if more bands adopted this honest approach to branding. Or maybe it wouldn’t. I’m not sure I want to live in a same world as ‘The Generic Oasis-Inspired Guitar Combo’ or ‘The Blandly-Anodyne Conspicuously-Consuming Production-Line R&B Artiste’ or ‘McFly.’ Sadly, I already do.

But there’s more to The Modified Toy Orchestra than just a clear labelling policy that would put most major supermarket chains to shame. I’d seen two of them perform before – collaborating with Krautrock legend Damo Suzuki at the Hare & Hounds in August – but even that sublime and buggier-than-batshit night could not prepare me for a full-frontal assault by the MTO. The things these guys can do with a Texas Instruments’ Speak & Spell, a toy plastic guitar and a weird looking Barbie doll with red glowing eyes will blow your hat through a ceiling tile. They’re fun without being a novelty act, brilliantly innovative without being alienating, and they kick the arse of other genre-breaking electonica acts so hard that they’ll end up farting out of their nostrils.


Local ambient avant-pop pioneers Pram were the headliners, and of the three acts that played they were probably the most experimental. Mind you, I’m not sure how you can measure how ‘experimental’ a band is. Maybe it has to be done under lab conditions.

I’d never seen them before, but I was looking forward to their set. For one thing, I’d been reliably informed that it would feature a marimba. As I explained to Jez, Pete & the delightful Jo, the sound of a marimba invokes in me images of sun-kissed beaches, of palm fronds rustling in a soft breeze and of soft white sand compressing beneath my bare feet. Pete – however – took exception to this, and questioned my right to indulge in such marimba-induced tropical fantasies based on the fact that I live in land-locked Birmingham.

“Ah, but I was raised in an Irish coastal town,” was supposed to be my swift retort. Unfortunately, I said “postal” instead of “coastal”. Being raised in an Irish postal town is a piss-poor retort in any context.

Pram’s music had a dreamlike, oceanic quality and the lead singer’s voice was beautiful and haunting. At various times they reminded me of Lambchop, Angelo Badalamenti, Stereolab and The Penguin Café Orchestra. At other various times I reminded myself that I should stop comparing new sounds to things I’d already heard. At least by reminding myself I’d save Pete the trouble. I think my friend Jez put it best when he described them as “a less-accessible Portishead.” Jez is much more succinct than me.

There wasn’t much in the way of between-song banter. In fact, there wasn’t any at all. At one stage I discretely whispered to Jez: “What this band needs is a fucking raconteur.” With hindsight, though, that was harsh. It’s a bit unfair to expect them to “Do a Springsteen”. They are, after all, local ambient avant-pop pioneers: lengthy pathos-soaked tales of growing up in New Jersey would have seemed a tad out of place. They did come across as very serious people, however. I get the impression that if you saw them at a party they’d be huddled in a corner earnestly discussing Jean-Paul Satre and Existentialism. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – I’ve been known to indulge in the occasional Sartre-themed corner-huddle myself – but I tend to break things up a bit by interjecting the occasional knob gag.

That aside, the music was beautiful and meticulously crafted. After the endorphin rush that accompanied The Modified Toy Orchestra, Pram eased me into a tranquil mid-theta state. The change in gear was a bit of a shock to my system, and my ankle ached the next morning. It seems I can’t handle polarity changes like I used to.

All in all, it was a very special night. Kudos to Capsule – the event’s organisers – for putting together something so special and unique, and let’s hope they get the chance to do something similar in the Town Hall again. I might not have managed to get to a “You had to be there” concert at the Town Hall in my teens, but on Monday night Shady Bard, Pram and The Modified Toy Orchestra more than made up for it.


About the Author:

My name is Tom Lennon and I'm a freelance writer who specialises in humour at the geekier end of the pop culture spectrum. I'm based in Birmingham, UK, and my work has recently appeared in BuzzFeed and Time Out.

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