Budding British talent hits Brooklyn

The Blue Flowers music night, where some of the UK's best acts cut their teeth, has gone Stateside. By Nancy Groves
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The Independent Culture

Two years ago this month, Brooklyn's biggest bands-in-waiting both released their debut albums. Hard to remember a time when Williamsburg wasn't the beating heart of hipster cool, but it was MGMT's Oracular Spectacular and Yeasayer's All Hour Cymbals which propelled a borough best known musically as the place where an ex-Spice Girl conceived her first-born child to the centre of the alt-rock universe. The basements, bars and laundromats of Bedford Avenue became a seemingly endless production line of talent and the British press couldn't get enough of the likes of Battles, Dirty Projectors and Beirut. As Alex Miller, then new bands editor of NME, told the New York Times, Brooklyn was "the most exciting place on the earth musically at the moment."

Flash forward and there has been a reverse of traffic. Last month some of the UK's most promising new acts were out in Brooklyn for Blue Flowers, a British showcase at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. Featuring an eclectic bill including Mumford and Sons, Goldhawks, Golden Silvers and adopted Londoners The Temper Trap, the gig was part of the CMJ Music Marathon, NYC's answer to SXSW.

Far from being a New Yorker on the make, however, promoter Chris Pearson is a born-and-bred Londoner with an impressive track record for breaking new acts. "Bringing British bands out to New York and creating a club night based around our music was the idea," says 26-year-old Pearson, whose face will be familiar to anyone who frequented the original Blue Flowers gigs in west London from 2004 to 2008. "New York is very connected to London and knows what's going on musically. But there didn't seem to be a specific night bringing out new bands the way I wanted to."

Sitting in a booth at the back of the George IV pub on Chiswick High Road, where Blue Flowers first bloomed, the quietly spoken Pearson explains its origins. "My friend Richard [Brown] and I were always complaining about how crap it was to go and watch music round here so we decided to do something about it. After a couple of nights, we had Ed Larrikin come along saying, 'Can I bring my friend with me?' and then Jamie T turned up with his bass guitar and just blew the place away."

He wasn't the only one. Blue Flowers' hit-rate was extraordinary by any standards, with most of its young alumni still touring, recording and – notably – charting to this day. Laura Marling, Jack Peñate, Johnny Flynn, Cajun Dance Party, Adele and Noah and the Whale all cut their teeth there. Those at the third birthday party may even remember a young Florence and the Machine, showcasing the same gracefully gangly moves that won over a much larger crowd at Glastonbury this summer.

Blue Flowers differed from other London gigs, partly due to the tiny, tabled room, which felt more like a jazz club than a beer-soaked indie dive. "It was more intimate, more personal," says Pearson. "When someone came up and was good, it really was good – right up in your face and everyone around you experiencing the same thing. You can stand at the back of other venues and not get the same experience. Wherever you were in here, you felt it."

Despite remaining pleasingly under-the-radar, Blue Flowers seemed destined for bigger things. It curated its first mini-festival at the Lyric Hammersmith, featuring Patrick Wolf and Ed Larrikin's new project, The Pan I Am, followed by a New Year's Eve party at Westbourne Studios with Foals. Then, last autumn, Pearson announced he was quitting his job in A&R at Universal Publishing and heading off to New York for three months. Cue an emotional final Blue Flowers, headlined by Mumford and Sons.

In most people's books, the New York trip read like a jolly. Not for Pearson. Within two weeks of arriving in the city, he had cosied up to Bowery Presents (who, in his words, "pretty much run the New York music scene") and secured a night at the Music Hall of Williamsburg for a showcase. As Josh Moore, Bowery's talent scout, recalls: "Chris came to me with a good idea and seemed to have a great track record with his night in the UK. There are some other British nights here in NYC but they aren't done as well, I think because they are handled locally, whereas Chris is based in London and is able to produce the nights from there with a real UK feeling."

June's inaugural Blue Flowers NYC, featuring The Maccabees and Miike Snow, proved a storming success with the 650-capacity venue entirely sold out. "It was Maccabees' first ever headline show in New York and there was real excitement to see them," says Pearson. "There were lots of British people, which was warming, but Americans came too." Drawing up a guest-list that included Mark Ronson and Daisy Lowe felt a world away from checking fake IDs on the door of the George IV.

"It's definitely been a one-way street for too long," says Marcus Mumford, whose band's debut album, Sigh No More, charted at number 11 last month and who played at the second New York showcase two weeks ago. "It's a great opportunity to do an exchange and I'm really glad that Chris is in charge. Blue Flowers was one of our first proper gigs in London and everyone still talks about it being the most lovely, attentive crowd."

As were their American brothers and sisters, it seems, despite the billed headliner, Speech Debelle, cancelling last-minute due to visa issues. Carrie Nelson, senior editor of New York's achingly indie Sentimentalist Magazine dubbed Mumford and Sons "without question" the best act of CMJ 2009. "The shocking, utterly devastating brilliance of these bluegrass badasses was, from first blush and foot stomp to last joyful harmony, an undeniable, unimaginable victory," she coos. "Mumford and Sons is your new band to believe in, kids."

So could Blue Flowers become a regular night in Brooklyn? "That's the goal," says Moore, "and, so far, many of the artists we've spoken to have been very excited about being a part of it. The idea is to develop Blue Flowers as a brand so that when people see the name here they know they can expect great up-and-coming British bands."

"Right now, it's early stages," says Pearson, who is already planning a third instalment. "But it ain't bad at all." Fresh from his NYC marathon – more musical than athletic – Pearson lists off the acts he caught during CMJ, Brooklyn's Acrylics, Boy Crisis and Theophilus London among them. "But," he says with a wry smile, "I think what we've got is better."


Jamie T (2004)
"Jamie was Blue Flowers big time. He suffers from panic attacks and the first time he came down with Ed Larrikin, Ed said: 'You've got to be careful with him'. But Jamie got up and just blew the place away."

Laura Marling (2005)
"Laura (right) played early. She was 15 and we pretty much smuggled her in. People had been throwing her name around so I went to see her at Way Out West. But Blue Flowers was a better vibe for her, more acoustic."

Adele / Kate Nash (2006)
"I knew Adele's manager – he'd just taken her on – and she was one of those acts who just amazed everyone with her voice. She ended up playing three times, including our second birthday. Kate did just the one gig – she was getting endless amounts of MySpace attention and a mate at Universal said that she was causing a bit of a stir."

Florence and the Machine (2007)
"I'd seen Florence at the Lock Tavern and just approached her. She played two or three times, the first in April 2007 when Brakes headlined. She's a proper eccentric character: such a great performance as well as a great voice."