Saturday, 16 January 2016

Should I Stay or Should I Go (Go!)

World music all the way from France via Bristol...
It has been a long week at work and play! I’m due at my fifth gig in six days and today I’ve been up early for work, managed to call home for half an hour before heading out to another work commitment, and when I finally get back home I am very tempted to kick off the shoes and relax in front of the ‘moron machine in the corner of my cell’! Do I go (Go!) to the gig? It’s wet and miserable out there. Do I go (Go!)?

Of course I go (Go!), but not with the usual anticipation. I’m back at the Brixton Academy, this time for the homecoming of Public Service Broadcasting, and as I inspect my ticket en route I realise I have booked the stalls and will be standing. My mood falls even more! I don’t want to be stuck behind the 6ft 4 guy and jostled by groups of friends and watch the gig through the camera screen of everyone in front of me! Why did I book the stalls?

As I arrive the support act are already playing and I feel a warming of my heart as I am greeted by a jangling West African guitar with electro acoustic double rhythm – this is world music all the way from France via Bristol! At least my grumpiness is put at bay and I am thinking about checking out eBay to see if I can buy some Francois & The Atlas Mountains CD’s!

The usual Goliaths who come to the same gigs as this David...
After my experience two nights ago at Union Chapel when my bag was moved and I lost my seat I stay firmly planted to my spot. As the crowd thickens, and there is the usual race for space, I am pleasantly surprised to find that I still have a good line of sight. The usual Goliaths who come to the same gigs as this David and obscure my view seem to have stayed at home!

With my spirits rising the band take the stage and their intro raises my spirits even more as they encourage people to watch the gig through their own eyes and not through their cameras!  Throughout the whole set my spirit continues to soar. I cannot believe I had been thinking about staying at home. I would have missed what is a very strong contender for my gig of the year.

There is a real art to producing a great live performance. I have droned on about stage presence and communication with an audience, and about not just replicating the CD. But what Public Service Broadcasting show tonight is that you can communicate with an audience through a computer generated voice. That you can have stage presence with a carefully and cleverly designed set of projection. And that these things can make the experience a delight for the audience.

Two large screens with two smaller ones in front, and a stack of four old TV’s each side of the stage make for a multi-media experience that attacks the visual sense but never overpowers the aural. Instead it builds layer after layer, enhancing everything. Yet the visual is not restricted to the 2D, as during the wonderful ‘Gagarin’ two cosmonauts dance on the sides of the stage to rapturous applause. The result of the bombardment of audio and visual has us transfixed.

The well-mined quarry of modern music...
The juxtaposition of old public service films, propaganda, archive footage and a live band is out of this world. Nothing seems anachronistic. It weaves a spellbinding whole that links last century's pioneering race for space to the modern-day pioneers of rock and roll. The drive to explore space is the perfect theme for a group who are not content to extract from the well-mined quarry of modern music, but seek a new frontier.

Engrossed as I am in the gig (gig is too shallow a word for the event I am witnessing) I allow myself a little self-indulgent what-if… What if I had stayed at home? I dismiss the thought – it simply doesn’t bare thinking about. I would have missed a mesmerizing experience!

As I walk home on the damp pavements of Coldharbour Lane I reflect on the difference in my mood compared to the journey to Brixton. I so often use music to lift my spirit or express my feelings. Loud blaring music on the car stereo after a rubbish meeting, shouting every word of Script for A Jester’s Tear at Reading Rock ’83 after breaking up with a girlfriend, raising the clenched fist of solidarity to a great protest song, laughing at a truly genius comedy song. Tonight was something different, tonight I wasn’t expecting anything and I was given so much.

To fill the reservoir of hope...
It has been good to be here tonight and I want to stay longer, but as I walk home I walk back - having stepped out of it for a while – to all that life is throwing at me. The mountain top experience of the Public Service Broadcasting gig is over and I still face all that I was facing before,  but I have had that experience and my life is richer for it.  Will work be any the less demanding – no. Will solutions fall out of the sky – no. Will life be easy – no. Has my life been enriched by the gig – yes. Did I need to capture it on my phone – no!

That is the thing with mountaintop experiences. They happen every so often, but the valley is still there and it takes quite an effort to climb to the top! We can enjoy the view but we have to climb down again. The best mountaintop experiences tho’ touch your life. They are transforming, and can be stored and taken away into every dispute, disappointment and despair to fill the reservoir of hope we draw on to get through - if London Can Take It - then with a little help from artistic highs - so can we all!

Gig: 40 of 50
Date of Gig: Sun. 29th November 2015

Brixton Academy

Public Service Broadcasting
Francois & The Atlas Mountains

Running total of artists seen 86

Thursday, 14 January 2016

I Didn't Realise the Middle Classes Still Owned Family Pews - My Mistake!

The way one is expected to behave in a church...
How much does a venue affect the audience and therefore the show? The crowd at a gig at Union Chapel  - which prides itself on selling Hot Chocolate (complete with Marshmallows!) - always seems different. Maybe it is the sort of acts that are booked. Or perhaps it is because it is a Church. Even the predominantly middle class lefties who have long shunned religion (and whose political party have long shunned them) have not quite been able to shun the way one is expected to behave in a church! There is a respectful chatter before the gigs and a silence during songs that is seldom found elsewhere. Or it may simply be that the bum numbing pews slowly numb the rest of the senses too!

The start of this gig has been slipped earlier, and by the time I have picked up the fact I am late for the first act Heg and the Wolf Chorus. I slip into Union Chapel for the second time this week and find a seat – well, the end of a pew - and settle in to catch as much as is left of their set. Turns out that there is not much of the set left at all and I only hear one full song but they have got me interested and I decide to check out the CDs before the next act. I place my bag on the seat with my jacket and head to the merchandise stand. There are a number of singles on offer so I decide to check them out online once I’m home and make an informed decision, but I’m right next to the café queue and it would be rude not to buy a coffee.

Coffee in hand I make my way back to my seat. I find it occupied and my bag and coat slung on the floor. I stand for a moment or two and wait for some eye contact from the people sitting there. They resolutely concentrate on the roadies setting up the next act. Now, solo gig going is not the easiest experience in the world. Standing on one’s own when everyone else seems to be with friends gets tiresome. Not having anyone to chat to about the gig on the way home is disappointing (perhaps that’s why I decided to blog!) and at a standing gig or unreserved seating how do you stake a claim to your place in the crowd? I reflect that it would be good if people could understand that and recognise that a single bag on a pew means that the seat has been temporarily vacated for legitimate reasons.   

For a moment I contemplate challenging their rudeness. But I’m in church and don’t want to make a scene.  So I trust they will enjoy their view and I move further back to sit with a better class of people!

This was not what I expected of a Union Chapel audience but oddly I have experienced the exact same behaviour before – not at a venue but at a Church service! So maybe the venue does affect the gig, or certainly the behaviour of the audience!

Even the hoi polloi at the back of the church have been blessed...
This gig has been advertised as a Moulettes and Nizlopi on a co-headlining tour, so I am not sure who will be playing next. Once settled I see that it must be the Moulettes, as the stage is set for more than a duo. And what a treat their set is! Creative, beautiful, mesmerising, energetic and bold. They make reference to the fact that this is the end of their ‘Constellations’ tour and I am reminded of the first time I saw them at the Ruby Lounge, Manchester, 18 months ago; it was the beginning of them touring their Constellations material. What a difference the 18 months and however many shows has made! At the Manchester gig I was disappointed with their new material but the whole set that night was worth it for their rendition of one of my favourite songs ‘Sing Unto Me’. Tonight the opposite is true. ‘Sing Unto Me’ seems to lack the energy and spirit that make it such a great song, yet the new material has a wonderful energy and is played with a tightness that was lacking in Manchester.

I completely forget that my original seat has been occupied. I forget the rudeness of the settlers, and simply enjoy strange songs played by musicians still enjoying their jobs who are willing to take risks musically and lyrically. Inevitably the set is too short and over too soon but even the hoi polloi at the back of the church have been blessed.

I realise I need the loo and with trepidation place my bag and jacket on my seat fully expecting them to be thrown out on the street in my absence! However, I told you they were a better class of people at the back, and when I return I find my bag still installed where I had left it.

Yes dancing - in church...
I didn’t buy a ticket to see Nizlopi - I wanted to see the Moulettes - but I stay unsure of what I will get! I have seen them before. They played a festival I was at shortly after their 15 minutes of fame when, for no reason anyone can really explain, the musical gods favoured them and ‘JCB’ became a massive hit. I remember enjoying their set and realising there is more to them than a song about being five and sitting in a JCB believing your dad is Bruce Lee. Alas, that was then and this is now. They should not be headlining. Frankly after the Moulettes they seem amateur. Their set ranges from being, at worst, cringe worthy to at best, OK! Their best is when they use the natural acoustics of the building and play unplugged in the aisles. To their credit they slip in JCB without fuss, and in the middle of the set, but the rest of set reminds me too much of being at a singers’ night and the mediocrity that often brings.

Yet, what do I know? In one part of the stalls there are people behaving in a very un-church like way. Whooping and hollowing after every song and dancing - yes dancing - in church! They have obviously built up a dedicated following for whom they seem unable to do anything wrong, but the polite applause and quick exit of the rest of the audience at the end suggests that I am not the only one for whom the Moulettes have been the highlight.

There is definitely a different atmosphere at Union Chapel. I conclude that it is partly to do with it being a church, but also to do with the way it presents itself as a venue, and it definitely adds something to any gig. Venues do affect the atmosphere of a gig and the best venues are the one that seek to be what they are and build on that not just a clone of every other venue. I just wish some of the audience hadn’t behaved as the worse type of churchgoers and I could have continued to sit near the front!

Gig: 39 of 50
Date of Gig: Fri. 27th November 2015

Union Chapel

Heg and the Wolf Chorus

Running total of artists seen 84

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Anthems for Doomed Generations

Struggling to get dressed lying on an airbed...
It’s a mini festival experience. All the things I love about a festival with none of the worst! I climb the steep hill from the train station to Ally Pally in the midst of a long line of unknown people and reflect that it is just like the long walk from far-flung camping fields to the main stage. Thankfully we have not camped, nor got ready for the gig by struggling to get dressed lying on an airbed choosing the least damp set of clothes that work the best with wellies! There is no mud, just well drained walkways and our hearts are glad.

Entering the main site we are greeted with a plethora of food stalls offering festival fast food favourites at fanciful prices, and production line bars the length of a small residential street.

Just like a festival its hard to find the friends who I am meeting and the phone signal is dreadful, but somehow after leaving answer machine messages I gravitate to the same point in the immense food hall. ‘Hellos’ are exchanged to the soundtrack of the first support act: Will Varley, a Frank Turner in the making!  Catch up over - it is time to trek to the main stage and claim our space.

The second support act is in full swing and Skinny Lister are what every self respecting festival needs - a raucous rocking riotous folk band. The crowd loves it almost as much as the band! The festival vibe is taking hold as the bass player (complete with double bass) crowd surfs!

Extravagant emotion in the toxic self-loathing...
All is set for the headline act at this one night festival. This is not T in the Park but T in the Pally – Frank Turner. A couple of nights earlier I had been at the Union Chapel for Billy Bragg and he had talked about playing the festivals in the summer and how he needs a different set compared to a tour gig. He explained how, at a festival,  he needs big, anthemic, songs that drag people in and keep them interested. At a festival he aims the songs at the passers-by. At his own gig he can choose a different set of songs which can be much more varied and subtle. Now Frank Turner is the master of the anthem, but however much the festival vibe is overflowing tonight this is not a festival and I get to the point where I have heard just one too many anthem after another!

There is much to be admired at a Frank Turner gig. Each time I have seen him I have been amazed at how everyone knows every word of every line of every one of his songs. At how there are teenagers, students, young professionals and old folkies in one audience and all of them sing along! For some, it is a family outing!

It is also quite amusing seeing loving couples singing his skeptical love songs to each other with mocking meaningful emotion! Less amusing is how others extrovertly pour out their extravagant emotion in the toxic self-loathing of the more introvert tracks. The group of people in front of us, 200 feet from stardom, sing, like backing singers, round a mic on a mobile, leaving a white noise answer machine message for the unlucky person left behind tonight.

Most artists joke about the embarrassment of that moment when they ask for audience participation and nothing happens!  Turner, on the other hand, has 10,000 people excitedly waiting for the chance to sit down and spring up like a primary school class participating in an Harvest Assembly! Lines learnt and perfected for the Photosynthesis anthem…

And I won't sit down (jump up)
And I won't shut up (sing your heart out)
And most of all I will not grow up (cheer like a banshee and vow always to go to festivals…)

All this is great and brilliant to see, and I confess to joining in but I still find the anthemic nature of the set too much. It is not that I am glad that the set comes to an end, just a little relieved that I won’t be roused and uplifted once again this evening!

The mundane, the silence, and the conformity...
And just like all festivals after the final headline act we troop back en masse in the dark. This time down the hill to the train station. Everyone talking about the gig as we are herded on to the London bound platform. Then once on the train suddenly the crowd fall silent. During the gig we had been one - singing in unison and leaping up together - but on the train we are silent commuter-strangers as London culture dictates, and there is no evidence of our shared uplifting experience. Rather, it is more like an Anthem for Doomed Youth… 

And I won't sit down (only if there are no seats)
And I won't shut up (except when everyone else does)
And most of all I will not grow up (but I’ll do a very good impression of it)

There is a silence that is only broken by the awkward and stumbling conversation of a young couple as they dance around the parameters of their relationship… 

Heathcliff: I’d like to see the Book of Morman…
Cathy: You could stay longer…
Heathcliff: I’d have to buy some new underwear…
Cathy: You could sleep on the floor…
Heathcliff: I only brought one pair of pants and socks…
Cathy: We could go to a show and you could sleep on the floor…
Heathcliff: I didn’t think I’d need to bring more than one pair…
Cathy: We’ll see if we can get tickets tomorrow…
Heathcliff: And then I’ll buy some more underpants...

Meanwhile in the minds of those of us silent on the train Turner sings.. 
Oh maturity's a wrapped up package deal so it seems
And ditching teenage fantasy means ditching all your dreams
All your friends and peers and family solemnly tell you you will
Have to grow up be an adult yeah be bored and unfulfilled 

And together we sing…

And I won't sit down (until I have a ticket)
And I won't shut up (about my underwear)
And most of all I will not grow up (until one day I realise I have wasted my youth!)

And perhaps this is why the bombardment of anthems began to leave me so cold at the gig because despite all the clenched fists and loud singing, all too soon, and all to readily, we slink back into the mundane, the silence, and the conformity!

Gig: 38 of 50
Date of Gig: Thurs. 26th November 2015

Alexandra Palace

Will Varley
Skinny Lister
Frank Turner

Running total of artists seen 81

Sunday, 10 January 2016

May You Build a Ladder to the Stars

On the altar of his wealth...
Headline News: 'Louisa Johnson has recorded the lowest chart entry for an X Factor winner's first single, making her debut in this week's UK singles chart at number nine.' Could this be the end of the manufactured pop star? Could this signal that finally the public are fed up of Cowell’s foie gras Christmas #1? One can only hope. 

What I hate about X Factor is the premise that you can take a 17 year old (Lousia Johnson, the youngest ever X Factor winner) and turn her into a star overnight. Cowell preys on the wanna-be’s dreams and makes a packet for himself sacrificing the hopeful’s career on the altar of his wealth while enjoying God-like power over them. Purely and simply the only X Factor winner is Cowell himself.

It used to be accepted that you learnt a trade. An apprenticeship was to be valued and stood you in good stead for the rest of your working life. It is with a certain irony that Johnson sings on her Christmas #12 ‘May you build a ladder to the stars’ and yet it is Cowell who had built it for her and will knocked it from under her feet once she fails to line his pocket. Too many times have I seen young musicians catapulted to fame too soon who have learnt nothing of the craft of the stage and are not able to mature musically enough to produce a half decent second album. 

Sorry for the rant and in the season of peace and goodwill to all!

Better the experience was for such distance...
Having said all the above it is good to be able to reflect on an evening in late November at the Green Note in Camden. I will be honest, the only reason I went was because an old colleague of mine was headlining. It was a great evening of young artists who were still learning their trade but who were making a way for themselves and not a packet for someone else. Yet who entertained and gave us a great night out.

Vive La Rose
opened the night with a beautiful vibe produced by delicate and laid back guitar playing. Finishing with his Christmas Single - that will never get close to the Top 100 never mind the Top 10 - I realized how far removed from X-Factor we were in the Green Note, and how much better the experience was for such distance!

Second up was a brilliant show person - Rachel Sage. She was funny and quick witted, switching between keyboard and guitar and keeping everyone entertained. She started with the closest she would get - as a Jewish Girl - to a Christmas Single!

Next up was Jess Hall, my old colleague, with her beautiful voice and chilled songs. She was accompanied by great cello playing that lifted the songs to a very special musical place. Jess’ encore was the old favorite 'Red Jumper' - not a Christmas Single just a beautiful homegrown love song. 

You don’t have to sell out to make money...
I wish Louisa Johnson well in her career. I hope and pray that she doesn’t stay 'forever young' but matures into a strong independent artist. But credit to the Green Note for promoting independent music in an otherwise grey mediocre melee of manufactured popular stuff. The fact that I can count on the index finger of one hand the number of times I’ve managed to get a seat at the venue is testament to the fact that you don’t have to sell out to make money.

Gig: 37 of 50

Date of Gig: Wed. 25th November 2015

Green Note

Vive La Rose
Rachel Sage
Jess Hall

Running total of artists seen 78

Saturday, 9 January 2016

A Gig of Two Halves and a Tale of Two Singers

A reminder of how things should be...
A matter of days after the experience of high security at Brixton Academy we simply stroll into Union Chapel, although there is an embarrassing moment when we pause, offering ourselves to be searched, and the people on the door just look at us! It somehow feels good to be entering a building on trust; a reminder of how things should be!

It also feels good to be heading into a wonderful venue with an old friend from back up north. We claim a space on a pew with our coats and head to the bar. After picking my mate up off the floor  - he has paid for a couple of drinks what we used to pay in our local for a round of 5 drinks - we find a space and catch up.

Like some modern day Rapunzel...
The last gig we went to together I went to hear the support band (British Sea Power) and he went to hear the headliners (Manic Street Preachers). Tonight is only slightly different. True, this time we are both here for the headline act (Billy Bragg) but although I am looking forward to seeing him again, I still can’t wait to hear the support, Duke Special.

He does not disappoint. Behind his keyboard on a table are old gramophones. As the lights dim a gentleman walks majestically on stage and, with white-gloved hands, places a disc on a turntable, carefully positioning the stylus and lowering it. Towards the end of the track Duke Special appears and standing behind his keyboard leans forward to play, like some modern day Rapunzel, with his dreadlocked-hair falling far below the instrument.

The support set is beautiful and theatrical. Discs and cylinders are changed and played as introductions and backing tracks. Yes, he could programme the same effects into a MacBook (ubiquitous at gigs nowadays) and achieve the same audio effect, but the theatre of the assistant and the live nature of the engagement between artist and recording lifts the performance. A performance, which ends with a fantastic rendition of Salvation Tambourine, and we are glad he has come to London!

Time for another round…

A fresh cup of Bovril - so rock ‘n’ roll...
We return to our seats just as Billy Bragg walks out and launches into ‘A Lover Sings’. For all Duke Special’s theatre, Bragg is the stripped back rebel with a chord. Both approaches suit the individual artists - neither could pull off what the other does. For this reason this is a gig of two halves and a tale of two singers but it works as a whole.

The exceptionally talented CJ Hillman, who adds finesse to the raw nature of Bragg’s songs, joins Bragg for part of the set. But this does not take away from the power of Bragg’s songs and his presence as the voice of the people’s protest. Neither does the sight of his guitar roadie boiling the kettle and brewing up and mixing a fresh cup of Bovril - so rock ‘n’ roll!

Five days ago Brittany Howard, of Alabama Shakes, had thanked the Brixton Academy for coming out and braving a gig. Bragg, by contrast, uses the recent events in Paris, firstly to promote the collection he is taking for the family of the ‘merch guy’ who was first to be killed at the Bataclan, and then to push home the point about what it is like to live in fear for your life and that of your family. ‘Imagine if what happened in Paris happened in London, imagine if it happened regularly, imagine if it was a daily occurrence – its no wonder those who experience such violence and bloodshed in Syria want to seek safety for their family.’ As ever Bragg shows the bigger picture to us.

We’re a bit late to the party...
In between the political commentary Bragg returns to cheap and easy jokes about playing in a Church. I have seen Bragg a few times before and one of the best of his concerts I have been to was at Greenbelt (a Christian Arts Festival) in 2003 - his encore rendition of ‘Jerusalem’ was one of the most moving musical moments I have experienced. So I find his throwaway humour about church and faith annoying. It’s not that I have a problem laughing at faith, but  in front of that audience at Greenbelt he had said: ‘I’ll work with anyone who wants a compassionate society – you guys have been working on that for 2000 years – we’re a bit late to the party’. It would have been good to hear the same sentiment in amongst the jokes at the Churches’ expense. I’m sure I am not the only one in the audience who has faith, both  in God and  in the protest of artists like Bragg, believing together we can change this flawed society.

As he returns for the encore a member of the crowd heckles – calling for
Waiting for the Great Leap Forward’ by asking whether is Jeremy Corbyn the Great Leap Forward? Without even a thoughtful pause Bragg explains that no one person is that Great Leap forward but rather all those who joined the Labour Party to be part of the movement, all of us who call for a different, fairer society. Leaders will come and go, he tells us, but if we continue to stand together then we are the Great Leap Forward.

It has been a fabulous evening of music with bits of theatre and comedy thrown in. It has been an evening of friendship and beer. It has been an evening that fires the spirit to believe once again that this world doesn’t have to be like it is.  It has been an evening to be reminded of how things should be!

Gig: 36 of 50
Date of Gig: Mon. 23rd November 2015

Union Chapel

Duke Special
Billy Bragg

Running total of artists seen 75