Xfm Winter Wonderland, Brixton Academy, London (4/5)


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The Independent Culture

If Xfm’s festive knees-up truly reflects the station’s character, its male-dominated line-up chafes against most other annual charts and round-ups.

Winter Wonderland is chock full of guitar groups that have either kept their end up this year or hope the rock economy comes out of recession in 2012.

One such is feisty Southampton trio Band Of Skulls, an anomaly tonight with the brooding Emma Richardson on bass and vocals. Previewing second album Sweet Sour, they have sharpened their garage rock to a metallic gleam, as on a fierce ‘The Devil Looks After His Own’, before acoustic troubadour Ben Howard briefly shows off his nimble finger work and powerful strumming. More a Devonian David Gray than a British Jack Johnson, his sincere platitudes are underwhelming pitched against tonight’s raucous audience.

Such a setting is better suited to local heroes The Maccabees, headliners here in the past, returning after a lengthy sojourn developing a more textured direction for third album Given To The Wild, due out in January. A worthwhile excursion, as the group have devised a layered sound with room for skittering guitars, glowing ambient washes and a teeth-rattling bass drone. They still cram in plenty of hooks and tempo changes, with all the majesty of Arcade Fire when they hit a marching beat.

With The Horrors pulling out due to Faris Badwan feeling unwell, there is an awkward gap before Manic Street Preachers’ James Dean Bradfield emerges to accept some lifetime achievement award – “for old people,” he ruefully points out. Bradfield straps on an acoustic guitar and plays a snatch of Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’ to an enthusiastic response before a mass chorus of ‘Design For Life’. A fine warm-up before the Kaiser Chiefs prove they are entertainers par excellence. Letting fans select tracks for current album The Future Is Medieval highlighted its lack of anthems, but they rely on past hits to get the party started.

Take ‘Ruby’, with Madness-style ska-pop peeking out from behind its day-glo indie fringe. Elsewhere, their bouncy tunes sugar-coat mid-life dissatisfaction, most plainly on darker recent material, namely the bleak ‘Starts With Nothing’ and the delayed release of ‘Little Shots’. Ricky Wilson crackles with energy, someone that makes leaning on a mike stand look like a statement of intent. Later he loses breath, but rouses himself to blatantly ignore the no-crowd-surfing signs. It is winning end to the year, with even better prospects for 2012.