Over the past
few years, Newport in South Wales has been credited with producing
some of the most exciting up-and-coming music bands. The "Newport
Sound" has virtually been interchangeable with the "indie" scene,
but this is to ignore the many and varied bands in this earthy,
lively town which contribute to the overall music scene.
The home of the "indie" scene - the Legendary TJ's nightspot in
Clarence Place, Newport, prides itself on a music policy which
rejects covers in favour of original material. What, then, about
the other Newport bands which have been working hard to create
something home-grown, distinctive and expressive?
One such band, Beyond The Bars, is impossible to classify in the
shorthand way that marketing people and their public have become
accustomed to. Each of their numbers is custom-made, according
to the combination of mood and tempo they want to express. Consequently
the variety and virtuosity of Beyond The Bars, which is one of
their major attractions, has sometimes cost them dear in terms
"People never quite know what to expect from us," says Jon Airdrie,
the band's singer-songwriter. "In some ways we're a dangerous
band to book. But it's great when you get an audience which is
prepared simply to listen and find out whether they like our music."
Listening doesn't seem much to ask, but in a world where products
are explained and pre-sold via the most fleeting of soundbites
and images, the idea of spending time taking a risk on an entertainment
you might not like - from a movie to a meal or a show - has now
become radical. That's one reason why Beyond The Bars has set
up its own website, at www.beyondthebars.com,
which features sound samples and background information. "People
are always asking what our music is like, so it made sense to
put some of it on the web," says guitarist John Hilton, whose
is also a professional graphic and website designer.
"Some of the best times in the band have been gigs in some of
the smaller communities across Wales and the West Country, when
people have turned out to the local hall or pub to support live
music, purely on spec," adds Jon Airdrie.
"In those situations we have really been able to connect with
people and they've really appreciated what we have to offer. I'd
rather do one of those gigs, playing numbers that we care about,
than try in some artificial way to brand ourselves for a wider
This kind of integrity sometimes seems foolhardy in the music
business, but all becomes clear when you eventually take up the
invitation to listen to the music of Beyond The Bars. The band's
13-track debut CD, "Rustic", features an astonishing musical range,
with flippant and playful moments living harmoniously with some
profoundly beautiful lyrics and melodies.
"A Call From Home" conveys the powerful lure of the Gwent Valleys
for those from the area, and the majesty of the countryside. The
song, sparked by a bout of homesickness, eloquently expresses
the love-hate relationships many of us have with our home regions.
A similarly deeply-rooted track is "Spirit", which recalls Jon
Airdrie's experience as a teenager at a Christian festival. Although
Jon claims no religious allegiance these days, he studied Theology
at university and remains fascinated by the spiritual and psychological
aspects of life. "With Rebecca" stands out as a gentle and sympathetic
portrait of a young tearaway, revealing something of Jon's concerns
as a professional teacher, now turned educational psychologist.
The album also contains some of the songs which proved most popular
in the band's live gigs, such as the barnstorming "Promise of
Good Things" - a hugely optimistic tune which combines with lyrics
about how time turns our best intentions into things left undone.
Jon's voice is variously plaintive, expressive and full of character.
Many of his songs draw upon his personal experiences, and in the
band's second album, "Far Off Things", he describes his therapeutic
ambles, as a mixed-up adolescent, from the Newport suburb of St
Julian's to the hilltop village of Christchurch. "Prim Gardens
(of Christchurch Hill)" is at once wistful, celebratory and brilliantly
evocative of a defining moment in a teenager's life.
"I went through a time when I was amazed by everything. The colours
of the flowers seemed absolutely vibrant, and in my mind, things
were reaching a state of near-perfection," says Jon. "But at the
same time, there were the usual pressures to do with exams, what
I was going to do with my life, and so on."
Not all of Jon's songs hark back to the past, however, and some
of them have an unusual genesis. "White Hotel", on the "Far Off
Things" album - also the title track of the band's EP - was the
result of his waking up in the middle of a nightmare brought on
by reading White Hotel, by RS Thomas.
Beyond The Bars was formed in 1992, for a one-off gig at Blackwood
Miners Institute. The performance was such a success that the
band has continued through a number of line-up changes. Most recently,
the band lost a flautist, but gained a guitarist. The title of
the band was taken, in last-minute desperation, from the spine
of a tourist guide book about the English city of York, where
there is an area known as The Bars. Jon Airdrie liked the title
Beyond The Bars, with its double allusion to bars of music and
to playing elsewhere than in pubs. "After all, we're a festival
band, more than a pub band," adds John Hilton.
In a musical group featuring such diverse styles, there are also
different tastes and influences. Jon Airdrie's heroes include
The Incredible String Band, whose innovative style and disdain
for convention are things he tries to instill in Beyond The Bars.
John Hilton likes Travis, Fleetwood Mac and the Irish singer-songwriter
Violinist Gareth Broome is a fan of Semi Sonic, whereas Drummer
Vicky Harris likes Macey Gray, the Stereophonics and Indigo Girls,
and vocalist and keyboard player Jaime Hilton cites Kate Bush,
Shania Twain and The Corrs among her influences (though she once
was a devotee of heavy and thrash metal).
Jaime Hilton's rich voice and occasional song-writing input brings
another dimension to the band. She wrote and performed "Harp"
and "Lucky Day" on the "Rustic" album and co-wrote, with Jon Airdrie,
the beautiful "What a Dream" and instrumental track "Beltane Sunrise"
on "Far Off Things."
Jon Airdrie remains, however, very much the leader of the band,
drawing all the diverse threads together into workable new material.
Rather like the band's audience, he invites the other members
to listen to his initial stab at recording new songs, and then
some of these are improvised on and become fully-fledged parts
of the repertoire. Very rarely does the band perform covers.
Beyond The Bars remains unpretentious, talented, and in its own
terms both successful and creative. "The master plan is that there
is no master plan," says Jon Airdrie. "Music should be intuitive,
and we are always looking to express ourselves positively, rather
than worrying about how anything will be received. There's a sound
we're coming towards which I like very much. It's truly organic,
like nothing else."