Skinny Lister live at Cambridge Junction

April 10th, 2019

Skinny Lister are a welcome reminder that not everything in England has gone to shit. This rollicking good-time indie folk six-piece are a tonic for our troubled times – a dose of communal uplift and an advert for the healing power of live music. They should be prescribed on the NHS.

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Since the band formed in London in 2009 they have released four albums and toured extensively, honing the kind of polished-yet-spontaneous live set showcased at this Cambridge Junction gig. Not having heard them before my son offered me a ticket, I am now a convert. Skinny Lister’s songs are so catchy they get into your bloodstream after first listen. By the time they play Six Whiskies during the encore you feel like bellowing along even if you’ve only had a couple of shandies.

Comparisons to The Pogues are warranted – see Sally Maclennane-soundalikes This is War, and Hamburg Drunk. Skinny Lister share the same bar-room romanticism and sonic template. They even have a Christmas song (Christmas Calls). But they are far more clean-cut and harmonious. Singer/guitarist Dan Heptinstall looks more like young actor Thomas Sangster (Maze Runner, Nanny McPhee) than Shane McGowan, and their folk-pop cocktail never seriously threatens to go off the rails.

Any resemblance to folk imposters Mumford & Sons, though, should be confined to their most popular song on Spotify, Rollin’ Over, which has the same earworm quality as Mumford’s inescapable smash The Cave.

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Skinny Lister have a musical magpie approach, borrowing sparkle from British pop royalty – Dexys, Madness and The Clash (see My Distraction’s nod to Police on My Back’s 2-note guitar solo); they also deign to allow the commoners into their repertoire – see The Alarm-like call-to-arms of 38 Minutes. But their best songs transcend these influences: Cathy has an exuberant terrace-chant of a chorus (“Oh Cathy, you’ve got me on my knees, my knees, my knees”) and Six Whiskies is a stirringly bittersweet ode to London.

On stage Skinny Lister line up a bit like The Clash in their global heyday, orchestrating their look and attack – red shirts and quiffs on one side, black on the other. They have a cool bass player (Scott Milsom) who lifts his double bass high in the air; he looks like actor Laurence Fox (Lewis) playing Paul Simonon.

The band are generous. “You’re looking very beautiful tonight” vocalist Lorna Thomas tells us more than once (we’re really not, but thanks, anyway). She gets off the stage to dance with those at the front, passing round an enormous earthenware flagon from which many of us take a swig. What was that stuff? I can’t be sure but it tasted like vodka and peppermint. In the spirit of cameraderie they invite members of the support bands on stage for a communal encore.

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Slow songs such as Colours are interspersed in the set, but don’t dampen the party mood, with the band encouraging audience sing-alongs to Bonny Away and John Kanaka. We came to escape the madness of Brexit and Skinny Lister have a song for that too (Thing Like That):

Why do you want to go and do a thing like that?

We’ll come to find we’re living in a land gone mad

Throw away the world to get your country back

Why do you want to go and do a thing like that?