When will I be famous? special

Steve Jelbert on the annual gathering of rock's young hopefuls at Manchester's 'In The City' festival
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It's Sunday evening, and a friend has just returned from one of Manchester's more distant suburbs, where he saw a seven-piece Detroit band playing to a tiny audience of afternoon drinkers, surely the absolute definition of a festival fringe venue. Just how much does it cost to get from Michigan to Manchester, anyway? Let's hope they managed to fit in some sightseeing.

It's Sunday evening, and a friend has just returned from one of Manchester's more distant suburbs, where he saw a seven-piece Detroit band playing to a tiny audience of afternoon drinkers, surely the absolute definition of a festival fringe venue. Just how much does it cost to get from Michigan to Manchester, anyway? Let's hope they managed to fit in some sightseeing.

Manchester's In The City describes itself as the nation's biggest urban music festival; literally so, for it doesn't take place in a field, it takes over the city's venues for a long weekend. There are conferences and seminars and all manner of music business events, as well as the perfect opportunity for bands and musicians to pitch their wares at a potentially influential audience.

In fact, the removal of the audience factor seems to be the event's main flaw: the chance to play directly to A&R staff and PRs hungry for new talent to work with means that the actual consumers become something of an irrelevance. Whatever one's misgivings, most of those employed in the business are professionals with a serious dedication to music. But they don't leap around in the audience very much, being too busy forever running from one slot to the next, searching for the Next Big Thing.

The public could be better served, though. Effectively, ITC is a trade fair, like the Edinburgh Fringe, and the interests of consumers seem to come way down the list. Take the official "Unsigned" section, mainly centred on the Northern Quarter around Oldham Street, where venues, bars and all manner of interesting shops have sprung up. Entrance to all shows is free, so you might expect the street to be heaving with music fans, eager to spot or slate the stars of tomorrow. But the concept of simply posting a running order on the doors of places such as Night and Day, Ascension, North or the Dry Bar seems beyond the organisers. Worse still, acts are scheduled to start at the same time in each spot, meaning that to watch an entire set, you'll have to miss several others.

And that's the official selection, chosen from some 2,000 entries. The "fringe" is so diffuse it's effectively impossible to work out who's on where and when. No wonder rumour and hearsay is the traditional method of communication among hacks and those who drink with them.

Despite those reservations, ITC is a lot of fun. Insiders (those who've paid to register) get to see seminars where the ill-informed (me) make jokes at the expense of more serious issues. There's the now legendary pop quiz, hosted by the extremely amusing Elliott Eastwick, where teams of pros come together to display their lack of knowledge of Elton John's oeuvre, and sponsors PPL (the collections agency behind the renowned "Royalties Reunited" scheme) dole out cheques to otherwise indigent local musicians, including the great Bez, whose speech consisted of the words "I'll come again next year then."

My own team, Stupidity Now!, came third, winning ourselves a bottle of Cristal champagne (bling!). Popping into the press room with an ice bucket and half a dozen glasses to toast our mild cleverness, our celebrations were interrupted by grumpy headmaster and ITC major-domo Anthony H Wilson, who ordered us to turn off the groovy metal tunes we were enjoying, complaining that his old company Factory "had a silent office for 10 years and were very successful, but once we installed a record player everything went to cock in two years". And on that bombshell...

There was some music, too, though it was hard to spot any cast-iron certainties this year. Still, with some 500 acts performing, missing the real deal is no big deal. They all turn up in the capital in the end.

None the less, despite the ever- unenthusiastic crowds, most everyone played like their life depended upon it, none more so than the genuinely scary Youth Movie Soundtrack Strategies. You'd never listen to their art-metal racket for pleasure, but their tight performance was certainly convincing. Blackburn's Rises could do with more speed and less introspection, but their anthemic pretensions might one day prove justified. (In an uncanny echo of the entire event, it's difficult to figure out what some of the sextet are actually doing).

Warrington's Cable Car turn out to be a sub-Coldplay quartet with a certain dexterity (the bassist plays keyboards simultaneously) but, as yet, no definitive melodies, while the sweeping arrangements of locals The Reflections are endearingly heroic, though it's hard to imagine a major taking a punt on them. Ditto Leeds' Infrasound, all dated rigid basslines and dated keyboard washes, although energetically performed.

Further up the food chain, Scotland's annoying if proficient Dogs Die In Hot Cars have already won some acclaim for their naggingly familiar tunes, which fit neatly into the whiny British sound currently popular, not least among North American bands as diverse as The Rapture and Hot Hot Heat. New York trio Johnny Lives were hotly tipped, but their Anglophile power pop evokes the likes of the Posies and Fountains of Wayne, great bands who have never really sold squat. They are not The Answer then.

Half the fun is discovering just what bands sound like. Newcastle's rowdy Sound Explosion are, reassuringly, exactly what you might expect, while jerky-sounding East Londoners Future of Junior are worth a closer look. Yet Australia's Spencer Tracy turn out to be a sub-Jet pub combo, if that's possible, while their compatriots Machine Gun Fellatio are a B-52s-influenced cabaret act given to public nudity. And Lisa Brown are four young men from Liverpool, who will certainly have changed their useless name the next time they cross your path.

In fact, the finest discoveries of the weekend have travelled the least distance. Ben is a 15-year-old local lad with a wonderful voice who shames any of the Lame Academy/Pap Idol hopefuls. While the seedily named C-Jags (as in "cocaine jag", presumably) drown him out from upstairs, he serenely plays on. Better still are Raw T, South Manchester's own garage crew, too young to join the army, let alone vote. The charismatic Solja, also 15, leads them through a short, irresistible set. You can bet they won't be mutating into Muse anytime soon.

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