Sunday, 12 May 2019

The Unthanks: Unaccompanied As We Are @ London's Union Chapel 2nd May 2019



This was my 15th or 16th time seeing Becky & Rachel Unthank and like other artists I have seen many times it's the fact that each time can be different which keeps me coming back and keeps their live shows fresh. Over the years I have seen them a 5 piece, ten piece, with an orchestra, the Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band and The Army Of Generals. Their constant search for the new and unearthing their traditional folk roots to a wider audience brings Becky, Rachel with violinist Niopha Keegan sans fiddle to "one of our favourite places to play".

The Unthanks often joke onstage about their mournful and depressive reputation with songs of lost love, unhappy marriage and death but god I adore proper melancholy. Their opening trio of tunes are soaked in dark duende, sung in the half light of the setting sun through the chapels large stained window. Niopha takes lead on 'Weary From Lying Alone' showing off a deeper tone than the sisters - and as they point out as she intros the song "we don't usually let Niopha speak cos people realise she's nota  Geordie'.

The uptempo 'Sandgate Song\Greedy' was a glorious blizzard of northern slang that Becky admitted they perhaps should have done a glossary in a programme for - particularly in metropolitan Islington but the energy and joy was infectious even if you only caught every fourth word.   

The performance that stuck out for me was 'Honey Bee' where the slightly swing pop harmonies they produced were superb and unlike anything that came before. Throughout the night it was astonishing how their voices blended, the ebb and flow of sound and the seemingly effortless richness of tone. We ourselves got to sing a three part harmony during 'Sea Coal' with Union Chapels superb acoustics making us sound better than we deserved.

Despite having seen The Unthanks so many times I think only 4 or 5 of the songs in tonight's set I had heard them perform before. 'Poor Mum' from their album of Molly Drake tunes, the ribald 'Where You Been Dick?' and for Detectorist fans the bewitching 'Magpie'. The set like a reflection of
their and several generations of tales, songs and social history in the political 'Bread & Roses' as much a statement of women's rights and ideals than any Beyoncé hit.

Tim Dalling popped in to lead us in a gospel banger with The Unthanks as his soul sisters before it was 'back to the misery cos we wouldn't want to give you the wrong impression' and 'Underneath The Blackthorn Tree' with its mesmeric 'the wind, the wind, the rain, the rain' and welcome use of the word "squall". It was all over far too soon of course but we left that we'd witnessed something truly unique.

Shows on the tour were being recoded to produce an album and if it captures even a tenth of the magic of this gig then it will an absolute cracker. A suitably religious experience indeed.   



- Setlist -

Guard Yer Man Well
Walking In the Dark
Weary From Lying Alone
The Sandgate Song
Greedy
Rock A Little Baby Now
Newcastle Lullaby
Honey Bee
The Bee Boys Song
Grisly Bride
Seal Coal
The Sandgate Dangling Song
Poor Mum
Where You Bin Dick?
Magpie
We Picked Apples In A Graveyard Freshly Mowed
Bread & Roses
River In My Soul
Underneath The Blackthorn Tree

(sorry if I got any song titles wrong, done from scribbled notes) 




Friday, 10 May 2019

Ricahrd Hawley @EartH Hackney 6th May 2019



'It always makes us nervous playing new songs' says Richard about mid gig, ' I hope you don't mind'.

A wag in the audience suggesting they play some old is jovially called a 'see-you-next-Tuesday' before the band launch into 'Tonight The Streets Are Ours' after which Hawley gives the fella a thumbs up and grin. Its been two and a half years but at the opening night of his two night stand in the capital its very much business as usual

EartH, down one end of Stoke Newington High Street, was once a Savoy picturehouse which fell into disuse during the 80s cinema slump, faded into a snooker hall and then pigeon roost & toilet. A multi million pound grant has seen it reopen as a multi use venue although a bar & restaurant tacked on the side is the most obvious sign of where the cash has gone. The actual auditorium is shorn of any fittings, seats or facilities - beer is sold in cans and its £2 to hire a cushion to save your bum chaffing on the stone steps. However as Richard described it as "a bit like us, fucked up but somehow right" its turns out to be an excellent venue with great sound. Its easy to get up close whether sitting and standing and there are no bad sightlines. I truly hope they get the regular business they deserve as London has needed a venue like this since the death of the Astoria.


As suggested, Richard Hawley has his new album 'Further' and he plays all of it across an evening that goes from pin drop emotional ballad 'For Your Lover Take Some Time' - "this is the quietest song I ever wrote so if you could talk all the way through it that would be fuckin' mint" he kindly warns - to the psychedelic wig out squalling of 'Down In the Woods' from 'Standing At The Sky's Edge'. Indeed it is the title track of that album early doors that makes you catch your breath as Hawley's rich tones fill the room backed by a droning rolling sound.

The new material melts in with the old favourites quite seamlessly. 'Coles Corner' topped off with some gorgeously mournful mouth harp from Clive Mellor gives way to 'Midnight Train' which has that same wanting, waiting and everyday wonder that seeps through Richard's work. His regular band is joined by a female string section - "the Lads" - as well as horns. New un' 'Doors' has effortless pop touch and the aforementioned 'For Your Lover' backed by those strings and a lightly plucked guitar is simply sublime. Following that up with the driving guitar led 'Galley Girl' perfectly encapsulates the shifting energy of tonight's set with 'Time Is' being a sprawling beast of a thing. The new album is shaping up to be a belter

The encore opens with Richard's tale of his boy, Danny's 19th birthday, with a storytelling skill and sense of timing which would make any stand up comedian proud in which 'he and his mates, who are, to a man, absolute fuckwits, lovely but fuckwits" all drink 19 tequilas each to celebrate.  The melancholy 'Not Lonely' - "loneliness does mean being on your own" says much about aging, family and the future. A fan tosses a gift up on stage, a 'Fuck Brexit' badge which garners a 'Well you know, I say, fuck all of it' before a suitably moody and defiant 'There's  A Storm Coming' that is, lets face it - a glorious racket.


National bloody treasure - like the venue - ragged but right

 







Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Tower Theatre Presents: Happy Days


I will start out by saying that this play by Samuel Beckett focuses on a woman buried up to her waist in a mound of earth. She monologues her thought processes and every fleeting idea occasionally interrupted by her barely glimpsed companion. I am not as well versed in theatre as I would like so can understand how this might not sound like a good night out.

What 'Happy Days' in fact is, in this production at the Tower Theatre, is a funny surreal look at a woman's life stuck in a moment that she can't get out of. Winnie (Ruth Sullivan) is a outwardly cheery sort, atop a slate mountain with her large bag of  objects and precious things that help her cope each day. Her husband, Willie (Ian Hoare), is visible only behind a paper with his straw hat and hankie but his interjections and grumbling are vital to the show.

However this is very much Ruth Sullivan's play and her performance is absolutely knockout. She has a lovely light comic touch, bringing a real energy to the text's rhythmic repetition. Her characters constant chatter rather than becoming annoying is given a dotty charm and sweetness. The tragedy of Winnie's situation is allowed to slowly seep through as Sullivan flickers from joy to sadness as her superficial happiness starts to crumble.

She expresses relief at one point that she is glad she has Willie as otherwise she would just be talking to herself . In the 2nd part of the piece, as time and soil has her further stuck she muses on how time and marriage has stripped her of her attractiveness, her ability to better herself and her life. All she is left with is her thoughts and memories that grow ever bleaker. Sullivan has to use every face muscle to express the battle that rages in Winnie's head as her dreams fade and reality in this most surreal of landscapes starts to bite hard. The set and lightning are really effective, the slow movement from dawn to dusk and the darkening colour pallete as the narrative gets bleaker

Actresses have described the part of Winnie as the equivalent of Hamlet for female actors. Ruth Sullivan is a captivating presence that drives this fine production

Happy Days runs at the Tower theatre, Stoke Newington until Saturday 20th April 

Monday, 8 April 2019

Hancock's Half Hour @ Leicester Square Theatre


The Tony Hancock that embodied the voice of Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock had been dead over a decade before I started asking my parents to play that record about the man talking to the man in a boat and at a hospital donating blood. That album being 'The Radio Ham / The Blood Donor' on Hallmark Records (aka March Arch label HMA228). walk into any charity shop today and you can pick a copy up for a quid. I often have just to give it to people as it is genuinely in my top ten albums ever made - for its comedic skill in the performance and writing. 



Unlike the TV versions Hancock is not relying on cue cards or in the case of The Blood Donor, concussed after a car crash so gives much better performances. The foundations of my love of comedy can be traced back to that record that I know every click, pause, breath and line by heart as I do a Beatles album. As a kid I laughed along despite not understanding references to Neville Chamberlain, Kuala Lumpur and Rob Roy. This was the post war world of frothy coffee, rock n roll and Mrs Dales Diary that was making me giggle 25 years on

On cassette I had 'Unique Hancock' - a compilation from across the radio series and 'A Golden Hour of' with slightly trimmed edits of the peerless 'Sunday Afternoon at Home' and 'The Wild Man Of the Woods'. These I played until they literally wore out so I was delighted to discover that a live recreation of those radio show tapings by Apollo Theatre Company featured that latter episode. 



I'm sure you are familiar with footage of people recording radio shows back then and I dare say it hasn't changed that much today. actors stepping forward to do their bit, stepping back to turn the pages. The sound effects might be digital rather than a Foley artist at the side of the stage opening and closing small door, making footsteps or paper scrunching but the stage was set to make us feel like we were in the Paris Theatre in the 1950s. 

I think you may have gathered that I had high hopes for the show and I was not disappointed. The cast were note perfect without it feeling like a faithful but dull impression show. There was real camaraderie and slight competitiveness between the characters. Colin Elmer's Kenneth Williams was shamelessly playing to the audience as Williams was famous for, embodying all the authority figures and simpletons with ease physically and vocally.

Laura Crowhurst just was Hattie Jacques' Griselda Pugh with all her withering sarcasm and girlish glee, particularly in 'The Americans Hit Town' where she gets engaged to a new Yank every night. Tom Capper plays the butt of Hancock's jokes, Bill with a loveable idiocy.

The recent BBC recordings of 'The Missing Hancocks' have had a weak link in Simon Greenall's take on Sid James. Sid's voice is one so familiar to several generations from the Carry On films and Simon, a superb comic actor, just doesn't hit it right - it's a broad cockney growl. James' voice is a product of his South African roots and adopted London home, sharing some of the sibilance of Chris Eubank's speech (he was also a boxer) and a strange mix of high gruffness.
Ben Craze absolutely nails Sid James - it is a beautifully understated but perfect take so good I closed my eyes a couple of times and I swear it could have been him. This gave the piece such a kick in the opening 'PC Hancock' where the Lad unknowingly provides Sid with info to carry out some heists. The sly charm of Sidney Balmoral James is all there. 

At the centre of it all, James Hurn as the Lad Himself brings the pompousness, gullibility and quick wit of Hancock alive. At first sight he doesn't look much like Hancock, not that it really matters in this context but as the evening progresses and you ease into accepting him as Tony your eyes strangely join the dots and he begins to morph into him. I really can't explain it, it was the oddest thing. The adlibbing and fluffs only added to the warmth that glowed from the stage and players.

With Clive Greenwood acting as MC really cementing that feeling you were watching the real thing this was an absolute treat from Wally Stott's theme to the final curtain call.


Stone me - it was marvellous.


Thursday, 28 March 2019

Being Frank:The Chris Sievey Story



I hate funerals.

Well I guess no one looks forward to funerals but they are an event where people are remembered and talked about with warmth, honesty and love by those who thought the world of them. Often feel that it would be good for that to happen while the person is still alive. I hope that Chris Sievey felt the great love, respect and gratitude expressed in this excellent documentary by Steve Sullivan before his death in 2010 aged just 54 - still with plenty of fun and nonsense planned.

I first encountered Frank Sidebottom on the British version of MTVs 'Remote Control' quiz presented by Tony "Mr Manchester" Wilson where he was one of the channels that contestants could pick a question from. This was also at a time when Jonathan Ross' chatshow would feature early appearances by Vic & Bob, Higson & Whitehouse plus Jools Holland Hootenany stalwart, Roland Riveron. Despite being given minimal airtime Chris / Frank made an instant strong impression on me with his surreal, childlike wit and imaginative props. His outsized papier mache head cocked to one side he skilfully built up this world for Frank to inhabit which was a skewed version of reality.

The documentary is clearly a labour of love and miraculous distillation of literally days of film, audio and written material. In fact it is a minor miracle that the archive exists as it was rescued at the 11th hour from authorities clearing Chris' old house. That would have been tragedy upon tragedy as a vital record of outsider art would have been lost

Like the unhurried genius that was Ivor Cutler, Frank's talent was built on a particularly individual worldview that we were invited to share. Spurred on by The Beatles ill fated talent scouting Apple project he was fizzing with creative ideas. The mind that creates the worlds first ever computer program released on vinyl should be cherished. His straight ahead pop career was beset by bad luck despite the tunes yet also there seemed a devilish self destruct strain running through his work. His DIY ethic led to him personalising videos and extravagant replies to fan letters.

It's hard to tell from the film how much the success, although limited in terms of the general public, of Frank was an albatross or a useful tool to express himself. His five year plan that was cut short by his death involved using the character of Frank to build up a public profile and then remove the head at his zenith like an unmasked Kendo Nagasaki to emerge as Chris Sievey, musician.

The person that emerges from behind the mask via the documentary however is a wonderfully positive optimistic and enthusiastic soul. He had his demons and vices like we all do but his relationship with his children is a joy as he colours their world with his fantastical adventures. When they reach school age he admits "They aren't mine anymore" cursing the passing of time and relinquishing their minds to the influence of more mundane adults.

Bursting with grainy VHS footage, songs, home movies and intimate moments it's a treasure trove for Frank fans but easily accessible for those who are new to Franksworld. People like Chris Sievey are rare and rarely cherished or acknowledged for their spirit until after they are gone. This film hopefully will give him the recognition that he deserves. For me he stands alongside people like Ivor Cutler & Viv Stanshall - those unable or unwilling to accept the world as it is & try and show us how magic and absurdly funny life can be.

Treasure those who create and embrace the woozy strange dreamlike vibe of this life affirming documentary

'Being Frank' opens on 29th March and screening venues and dates can be found here

The soundtrack is out via 7A Records on limited edition vinyl picture disc and CD here







Sunday, 17 March 2019

Daylight Music Presents: Distant Voices


I grew up connecting songs with prison. One of my touchstone records that I wore out was Johnny Cash live at San Quentin with his hastily penned title track that tears the walls down and takes the roof off with its bitterness and fury. Todays sets provided by members of the Distant Voices collective, written in conjunction with serving prisoners looked beyond their current surroundings, often backward with regret but forward with hope

What made this event truly special was that we were able to gain insight into the people and the stories behind the songs. Not what these people had done to end up where 0they were but how their lives shaped where their imagination took them. Presenting the songs featured on the album 'Not Known At This Address' and beyond, Emma Pollock, Jo Mango, Louis Abbott & Donna Maciocia. gave voice to those often forgotten by society.

Some of the songs delved into the life story of the inma8tes with 'I Will Not Follow Him To The Grave' showing the influence that Liam Forsyth's brother had on his life and how that will shape his future. Emma Pollock, ex-Delgados, gave us all the pain, sorrow, hope and spirit of the song through her performance. 


Dreams of home are unsurprisingly at the heart of a couple of the songs played but not in a cliched or standard way. 'A Home From Home' is from the point of view of an Indian national who was looking forward to release and returning home. However his song is full of thanks and memories he will carry with him of Scotland where he lived and unfortunately served time. 





Frewsie penned a tribute to the Magnum Leisure Centre of his hometown, Irvine, 'Rendezvous With Warpaint' which was demolished while he was inside. The song represents the death of a part of his childhood and something in his life that he thought would always be there. 


During the show, betwee2n cake runs, we were encouraged to ask questions and engage with the subjects, learning about the creative process and the artists own reactions to the process. Jo Mango played 'Regardless' her response to 'Franks' song' reflecting his use of sunshine and light at its emotional peak. I particularly enjoyed a song I didn't catch the title of (and is not on the album) with the lyric 'I wish I could rewind the tape and record over all the mistakes I made'

All the performers put such emotion into the tales they were telling , Donna on the mournful 'Never Got To Say Goodbye' and Louis perfectly inhabiting the aching to be free of 'An Open Door'. The set ended with a slight rewrite in 'Buck It Button' - perhaps in deference to the chapel or younger ears in the audience 8(I've heard worse there meself) an upbeat funny warning to the  dangerous, often fatal impetuous spirit in us all
You came away from this event, back into the wild windy Saturday afternoon with its traffic and noise perhaps thinking more of those behind bars as individuals with stories more complicated and imaginations more varied and intense than the media like to portray.

As always, Daylight Music is a unique oasis of calm contemplation that I am torn about - I'd love as many people to experience it as possible but not too many that it would mean getting in becomes a problem. Such a chilled out vibe, children are welcomed, not shushed into submission and its all so friendly. Add to that the wonderful sound, in one of the country's finest venues plus cake and hot drinks - its always a pleasure.




You can find more about the Distant Voices Project HERE
And download or buy 'Not Known At This Address' HERE
 or via iTunes & Spotify

And Daylight Music runs throughout the year at UNION CHAPEL Islington - full details HERE





Friday, 8 March 2019

I'm Every Woman: A Musical Celebration For International Women's Day



Quiet please, there's a person up there
And she's been singing of the things
That none of us could bear to hear for ourselves
Give her your respect if nothing else


Every year the comedian Richard Herring spends 8th March on Twitter telling anyone asking the question 'When is International Men's Day?' that it is on 19th November - raising laughs, awareness and money for charity. You can check his twitter feed for this years efforts and how to throw in a few quid.

For the past couple of years I have marked it by attending events organised by the award winning Green Note and curated by Michele Stodart - bass face extraordinaire from The Magic Numbers.

In reality nights like this can be mixed affairs with varying quality and degrees of success when interpreting songs in often vastly different arrangements but this evening flowed perfectly representing the many stages of womanhood.



What I enjoyed about this years event was the slightly wider breadth of age and experience gracing the stage which opened up themes and insight through their and other artist's eyes. There was a strong mix of covers and original material throughout with accapella trio The Rosellas kicking us off with a sweet 'Que Sera Sera'. Margo Buchanan gave 'At 17' a wistful and dreamlike quality that made a familiar tune sound fresh once more. She later joined Charlie Dore for an impromptu comic double act as they discussed their hero, Joni Mitchell, before a simply beautiful version of 'Both Sides Now' that even captivated this casual fan of the lady. 



Charlie's own song 'All These Things' which revolves around a couple going through IVF - she admits the 1st line "Waiting in a petri dish" came to her and the rest just tumbled after - is a heartbreaking song full of hope, prayers and dreams. It wasn't the only one to bring a lump to the throat as musical arranger and Dream Academy vocalist Kate St John's 'We Watch You Slip Away' about her own mothers battle with dementia seemed to make the whole room hold its collective breath.



Bristol's Celestine closed the first half and absolutely blew the roof off the place with her take on Nina Simone's 'Four Woman' inhabiting the strength and power of the lyric and Nina herself at its climax. Encapsulating motherhood and what it means to be  female wre at the core of Michele Stodarts' choices for the night in Dar Williams' 'When I Was A Boy' and Brandi Carlyle's take on motherhood, 'The Mother'. The Rosellas mostly unaccompanied version 'Grandma's Hands' really shouldn't have worked on paper but was genuinely brilliant. Throughout the night violinist Connie Chatwin added subtle colour and pathos to the songs.



Was thrilled that Angela Gannon chose Dusty's 'Quiet Please, There's A Lady On the Stage' * (she is the Magic Numbers "Paddington Bear death stare" weapon to constant qig talkers apparently) as the 20th anniversary of her death has just passed I thought Angela stole the Leonard Cohen tribute gig here a couple of years ago with her country tinged take on 'Tower Of Song' and she nailed this too. The audience rose without prompting on the 'stand for the ovation' line and stayed there for the title song Whitney\Chaka Khan's 'I'm Every Woman' with Celestine again wowing with her voice and expressive dancing. 


The night was rounded off with a group sing-a-long of 'Turn Turn Turn' and this incredibly talented group of women took their final bows

Quiet please, there's a lady on stage
Conductor, turn the final page
And when it's over we can all go home
But she lives on -- on the stage alone.



*
yes I know it's a Judy Garland song but its Dusty's for me