Sunday, 19 July 2015

When is a gig not a gig?

Oh I do beg your pardon…
I am going to see Ladysmith Black Mambazo and my assumption is this is gig number 15 of 50. OK, it’s at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre but it is still a gig – right? However, finding that the evening is billed as ‘Inala – A Zulu Ballet featuring Ladysmith Black Mambazo’ I feel my confidence ebb away! Is this a gig or not? And in any case, what makes a gig a gig and a show a show?

As I exit the theatre my gut says this wasn’t a gig. But why not? As I am pondering this question, I absently mindedly bump into a striped blazer wearing audience member who exclaims ‘Oh I do beg your pardon’. Perhaps it’s the class of the audience that does not allow me to call this a gig, but when I think about the gigs I’ve been to many have had more than a whiff of the moneyed middle classes about them.

So what else? The audience is different. We are not squashed together in the stalls shouting loudly over the music played before the headline act appear. We are not screaming with delight as the first chords of the latest hit are struck, nor do we throw beer or attempt to lift our partners on our shoulders! But then again, I’ve been to gigs with soft seating, interval drinks, programmes for sale, and ushers who show me to my seat (even if I do sit on the edge of it!). My brain and gut can’t at this stage seem to agree.

No, it’s the curtain. That’s what it is! A curtain is raised on a show and it is lowered at the end. At a gig the stage is open for all to see the roadies at their work; there is no secret intercommed announcement from the Stage Manager, just the public flash of the roadie’s torch to say the gig will begin. This is not a gig! But this is subjective surmising on my behalf; in my distant gig-going memory I see a curtain open and a blanket of dry ice fall off the stage and engulf the audience as the band take the stage. Still no answer……

I need a definition, so I turn to the trusty font of all twenty-first century knowledge; Wikipedia!

“Gig is slang for a musical engagement in which musicians are hired. Originally coined in the 1920s by jazz musicians, the term, short for the word "engagement", now refers to any aspect of performing such as assisting with performance and attending musical performance. More broadly, the term "gigging" means having paid work, being employed.”

So this is a gig, in one sense! The musicians performed and I assume they have been paid. But the musical performance is not the whole story tonight because there is also drama and dance, chorography and costume! I know there will be some who argue that it is possible to go to any Kylie concert and find plenty of costume changes! And there is nothing more (crassly) choreographed than the boyband, dressed in white suits, seated on stools, standing as one as the music modulates and walking to the front of the stadium stage! But I would struggle to call such events gigs!

Perhaps it is the sense that the whole evening is choreographed that means I cannot call it a gig. I know bands create set lists but they can change night-to-night and even on the night! Bands carefully arrange their songs, but at a gig the way they present each song is live, on the spur of the musical moment. Even the clichéd rock-star poses are not rehearsed to appear at exactly the same moment of each song and show! The best gigs are those that create the vibe and set the scene as the musicians feed off each other and the audience. A show on the other hand, is carefully rehearsed, planned and choreographed to create a whole into which the musicians fit.

So before I tie myself in knots and bore the reader rigid (if that hasn’t happened already) my final definition is……. it’s a Show with musicians gigging at it!

Celebrate the normal…
As I have suggested it is a show that brings together musicians,
Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and some truly incredible dancers. There are some wonderful moments, simply beautiful dance and a touch of humour thrown in. During the first half I’m desperately trying to work out what the story is. Am I so uncultured I can’t see the metaphor?

I resolve to let the second half happen and not worry too much. This, it turns out, is the best decision I make as I enjoy what is a fusion of cultures and art forms with – according to the reviewers -no particular story to tell or axe to grind.

“Inala is most vibrant when the dancers and singers come together to share moves and jokes and their personalities come to the fore. It’s like a danced concert, rather than a fully realised concept, but there's a real warmth to this cross-cultural experiment. The title, in Zulu, means “abundance of goodwill” and Inala is a show true to its name.” 
Lindsey Winship London Evening Standard

So I was right about there being no message, but wrong about it being a Show with musicians gigging – it’s a danced concert, rather than a fully realized concept!!

In our increasingly sophisticated society we have lost the ability to celebrate the normal, and it is this that gives the piece its ultimate charm and depth - it is basically a celebration of the everyday – of highs and lows, of love and death.  

Conversation I overheard today…
Adult 1: Did you win anything at your sports day?
Child: No.
Adult 2: But you and your Dad came second in the Dads and Lads race.
Child: Well yes.
Adult 1: Well that’s good too. Coming second is OK.

We celebrate celebrity; we write about winners, we share success, we brag about beating others but no longer do we value the everyday, the masses that don’t win but simply compete.

No clearer is this seen than in the development of the soap opera on TV.

It fascinates me that when I watch the original episodes of the original soap, Coronation Street, all I see are normal people having everyday conversations. But then we must have got bored of that because today every back street of Manchester, every sleepy village in Yorkshire as well as the East End of London has its mass murdering, plane crashing, adulterous script. I remember when I was in conversation with Johnny Vaughan after he had interviewed me on Big Breakfast (I add this in so you can celebrate my celebrity story…..) he said ‘David, all you need for a good soap is a bitch with an itch and a man with a plan’!

Then we got bored of the excesses of Soap Operas and we watched ordinary people in Big Brother. Then we got bored with them and we watched the weirdest ordinary people producers could find on Big Brother and we made them into celebrities. Then we got sick of ordinary people and so we watched celebrities in Big Brother. In other words we have lost the ability to celebrate normality.

However, Inala has redeemed us through exceptional musicians (the gigging kind), wonderful singers (Ladysmith Black Mambazo) and brilliant dancers (hard to pick out just one but Jacob O’Connel was amazing). But in all that, the producers refuse to tell a story of epic proportions and apocalyptic scale, instead we celebrate the natural rhythms of ordinary lives.

The eternal in the fleeting…
And there is something spiritual about the evening because of that. Art is spiritual. It lifts and communicates with the soul in ways that words and shopping can’t.

Music can and does soothe me, stir me, calm me, make me weep, transport me to another dimension, make me glad that I am alive. It communicates directly with my spirit and makes me whole.

Inala enables me to be lifted by the music (how can you fail to be moved by the beauty of Ladysmith Black Mambazo), to be touched by the sheer beauty of the dance, yet it also raises me above the routine of my life to remind me in each conversation and every confrontation, each traffic jam and every open road, each loving word whispered in my ear and every angry shout directed at me there is something deep at work.

True spirituality comes in finding the eternal in the fleeting, the beauty in the mundane, the meaning in the everyday - the divine in the ordinary.

When is a gig not a gig? When it fails to lift your spirit and does not enable you to see the world differently. Despite my gut reaction, my reasoned argument and Wikipedia definition - tonight is a gig!

Gig: 15 of 50
Date of Gig: Sat. 11th July 2015

Saddler's Well theatre

Ladysmith Black Mambazo

Running total of artists seen 36

Friday, 3 July 2015

The Nursing Homes of North London are Empty Tonight

Check the pulses of those in front of me… 

At last night’s gig, during the My Grey Horse set, I was old enough to be everyone’s Dad. Tonight I am young enough to be everyone’s son! As I queue at the venue door you can see the confusion on the bouncer’s face – he is not sure whether to check the tickets or the pulses of those in front of me!!

I wander into the venue, Under the Bridge, having suffered a very quizzical look from the bouncer whose unspoken question is, ‘Surely you’re too young to be at this gig?’ The venue is under the away stand at Stamford Bridge the home of the Premier League Champions Chelsea and I wonder how different it was when Fotheringay were last on the road. That was in 1970 and Chelsea only managed 3rd place in Division One behind champions Everton (you may just have found out where my football allegiances lie!) 

Its 45 years since they last played live. This gig is taking the denim-clad audience back to their carefree youth. Back to a time when they could have bought Fotheringay’s first album for less then the cost of the pint they buy at the bar tonight. A time when they would have sat cross-legged on their mate’s Afghan for the whole duration of the gig and still sprung up without any ache or pain! A time when, despite the 10 pints, they wouldn’t have had to visit the facilities after every second song!

It’s taking me back to a time before I fell in love with music. That was a simpler time, a time before I realized I couldn’t sing. A time before I painstakingly started to learn to play guitar! A time when my favorite - well, only - album was the Trumpton LP and I used to wake my Dad up early on a Saturday morning to put it on the record player for me! I guess what I’m trying to say is tonight is a little bit before my time!!!

Going to their God….
I find a seat, a kind of Dave Allenesque chair. I sip my whisky as I wait for the support act, absent-mindedly wiping imaginary ash off my upper leg with one finger bent double to give the illusion of having lost half a digit, and I find myself practicing my Irish accent with the words "May your God go with you.” If I’m honest most of the audience look like they are more likely to be going to their God rather than their God going with them!

Tonight seems more Darby and Joan than Rock ‘n’ Roll as the audience reminisce about the heady days of folk-rock and wonder where nearly half a century, their waistline and their hair has gone! At least they still have their denim!

I’m not sure if it’s the fact that the average age of the audience is 87 but there is a strange laid back feeling to the gig. Even the lighting engineer is sat doing the crossword and fails to notice the support act is on stage!!

Really should just play covers…
Fabian Holland is the support and proof that some people really should just play covers. He is a wonderful guitarist but his self-penned songs leave me as flat as the Dutch countryside. They are composed of recycled predictable rhymes and damn obvious lyrics that are an insult to the poetry of Denny’s songs, which we will hear later. A lot has changed since Fotheringay last toured, not least the growth of an individualistic society (although I’m aware that is something of an oxymoron). But whatever the Thatcherite legacy is, please don’t let it destroy music too - not everyone is a one-man band, Fabian. Cultivate a partnership with someone else to write songs together. A little seed of poetry in the lyric fertilized by your exquisite guitar playing we could witness the growth of a headline act. Continue to plough your own furrow Mr. Holland and you’ll be a wallflower all your gigging life!

At the break, the person sitting next to me is doing his crossword. I half expect him to reach in his bag and bring out a packed lunch too. It does have more of the feel of a village cricket match crowd than a gig audience!

Fotheringay take the stage and invite people forward as if we are at some church meeting. At this point I should point out that this is Fotheringay 2015, i.e. the surviving members plus extras! Sandy Denny and Trevor Lucas both have died (there is no truth in the rumor that Jerry Donahue is dead - he's just not moving!). Their replacements for this tour Kathryn Roberts, Sally Barker and PJ Wright.

I had thought long and hard about going to this gig – I have been listening to Fotheringay for years but was it worth coming to hear them live in 2015 without Denny and Lucas? In the end I decided to come because I never had the chance to see them first time round! Roberts and Barker are excellent, but Wright’s vocals are nowhere near strong enough and are the weak link in the new Fotheringay chain. However, this might be an intentional link back to the original line up as Lucas’ vocals were similarly criticised; “his voice offers nothing that you could not hear in any amateur folk club, any night of the week” (Dave Thompson - Allmusic).

The musical statue…
It is great to hear the songs live but nothing has moved on. At last night’s gig Matt Owens had a set full of songs that owed much to his favourite artists of the 70’s yet there was a modern feel to the gig and sound – a sound that had the crowd dancing. Tonight the songs still have that very early 70’s sound and the gig feels like an anachronistic monolith, some kind of weird time travel where only the sound has travelled back in time. Back to a time that was at a turn of a decade that would give us prog rock, glam rock and ultimately punk rock and with so much music under the bridge these songs tonight sound dated.

The beauty of the songs goes without saying and on CD they still sound great, but live they need updating, reworking for a different time and relative dimension in space! Jerry Donahue, the musical statue, declared they might well tour some more after this. I’d think twice if I was you Mr Donahue there can’t be much mileage in such dated songs and such an aged audience! Or sack PJ Wright and employ Matt Owens he would have the octogenarians leaving behind their crosswords and dancing!
Gig: 14 of 50
Date of Gig: Fri. 19th June 2015

Under the Bridge

Fabian Holland

Running total of artists seen 35

Filling the Dance Floor with Songs for an Empty Room

Walking into some illicit card game or speakeasy...

The Hoxton Square Bar and Kitchen is a trendy 3 in1 all purpose space, a cocktail bar, pizza restaurant and spit and sawdust live music venue. As I venture inside through the pavement café tables I am searching for the slightest evidence that I have the right place. As I travel deeper into the complex I spot a darkened door in a far corner, with yet another beyond it – it might be the venue, but then again I might just as easily be walking into some illicit card game or speakeasy!

Thankfully, it is the venue, and as I enter I immediately feel old. My Grey Horse are setting up and their fans seem to be too young to be in such a place. I can tell by their sideway glances that they think I am too old to be here and that they probably assume I am a parent of one of the band!

I am actually here because I heard My Grey Horse support Lily and Meg and loved their well-crafted songs with beautiful harmonies and interesting arrangements. Tonight they don’t disappoint.

We have gatecrashed a rehearsal...
The crowd grows throughout their set, mainly younger things, apart from myself and a slightly older couple in a constant embrace who appear very much in love. The young crowd responds enthusiastically to each song, but there is more passion from the audience than there is on stage! There is no interaction with the crowd, no outward show of joy, and it is as if we have gatecrashed a rehearsal. My Grey Horse appear to be taking very little enjoyment from what they do! Are they just trying to be cool musicians? Is it all a carefully chosen persona? Do they not really care? Are they already bored of the songs they have written? Whatever the reason, it adds nothing to their set and threatens to take much away from their obvious talent.

During the interval I spend a futile 10 minutes waiting at the cocktail bar trying to get a drink, then, thinking I’m clever, I try and get served in the restaurant, but fail. I head back into the venue and get served straight away!

How much more 70's could you get....
Matt Owens takes to the stage. I really came to listen to My Grey Horse but I am happy to stay and hear him – I was never a big Noah and the Whale fan but I did see them once at the Green Man Festival and am intrigued to see how the solo career of their bass palyer has developed.  As I look around, the audience now seems totally different, apart from the loving couple who are now propping each other up by the bar, apparently afraid that if they let each other go they might fall over! It appears that most of the original audience couldn’t be bothered to stay, but have been replaced by those who couldn’t be bothered to listen to a support band they knew nothing about!

What is the point of going to a gig only to listen to a band or artist you know you like? Stay at home and listen to your CD collection!

The first thing that strikes me about the set is that there is a very heavy 1970’s influence. This is something of a surprise, especially as his speakeasy banter between songs tells us he is just 24 (unless my maths is wrong!) Although how more 70’s could you get than his keyboard player who appears to be a disturbing cross between Brian May and the keyboard player from Sparks!

I am hearing Smokie and Eagles (in particular Lyin’ Eyes) but I’m not complaining. It is a really enjoyable set. In complete contrast to the worthy, cool, impassionate My Grey Horse, Owens is playing songs with a joy that oozes out of every chord. It is infectious and the crowd is responding not just with whooping and applause but with dancing too.

“Dancing at an acoustic gig!” beams Owens. He is really enjoying the launch party for his new solo CD.

The songs on the new CD are a deliberate nod to Owens’ early influences (not Smokie or Eagles) but Young, Waits and Zevon. Yet despite the heavy 70’s feel the concert is very much of the here and now. The set doesn’t have the feel of a tribute act or the reunion tour of some 70’s supergroup. It feels like a 21st century gig.

Songs from an empty room - that old couple should just get a room....

The album title is ‘Songs for an Empty Room’. By the middle of the set the title seems strangely inappropriate as the crowd has swelled and the void between stage and audience is filled with people dancing. I’m sure in listening to the album cold you would never envisage such songs filling a dance floor, but I’m certain it has as much to do with the enthusiasm and sheer delight Owens has at being a musician as it has to do with the songs themselves.  My Grey Horse could learn much from Owen’s experience, insight and delight!

The whole audience has been moved – changed even - and we are privileged to share in such an experience. It is only, I’m certain, the old loving couple who (still firmly embraced) might have preferred that the Songs for an Empty Room had been played in an empty room!

Gig: 13 of 50
Date of Gig: Thurs. 18th June 2015


The Hoxton Square Bar and Kitchen

My Grey Horse
Matt Owens

Running total of artists seen 33