Saturday, 28 November 2015

Kathryn Williams & Michele Stodart: The Convent, Stroud - 27th November 2015

It had been a long day in London working, travelling on the tube back n forth from offices and depots: a bloody glorified courier for the day. Getting the train out west before the Friday night escape hordes I had two choices – feet up, chips, Gogglebox or make a trip out into the Cotswolds for an evening of live music in a new (to me) venue. Well I could do the latter and get some chips a some point, couldn’t I?

I’d missed (due to work) the last two Kathryn Williams shows that I had tickets too and spookily enough in between that had seen co-headliner Michele Stodart with brother Romeo as The Magic Numbers supporting McAlmont & Butler as well as being part of David & Bernard’s band. Must say I was so impressed by her opening set of the night – songs about guilt, loss, bitterness as she freely admitted herself before adding that she was alright really. The show came at the end of a writing week that Kathryn had organised and so both had freshly laundered material, often still nameless. One with the refrain “Are there any of the other sides of me that you couldn’t love” which was particularly heartfelt and moving with Romeo accompanying Michele on piano. Kathryn joined Michele throughout her set and played a co-composition “We Are The Lucky Ones” which shows that great things could come from collaboration.

It was really interesting to see Kathryn play songs from ‘Hypoxia’ (her album inspired by Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’) for the first time at JW3 in North London back at the start of the year and now hear how they have changed after she has lived with them on tour for several months. ‘Beating Heart’ with its ‘I am, I am, I can, I can’ echo has taken on a hopeful and mysterious air, really playing with the silence and tension in the atmosphere, ‘Tango With Marco’ even edgier and taut than before, rea menace and disgust in the vocals. The despair and unspoken anger in ‘Cuckoo’ in each line and note played, perfectly encapsulating the feelings of a disappointed parent scared and afraid for/of her child.

The set ended with a cover of Neil Young’s ‘I Believe In You’ which I didn’t see the significance of before but the opening lines “Now that you found yourself losing your mind \ Are you here again? \ Finding that what you once thought was real
Is gone and changing?” fit perfectly with what has gone before. This show, in a wonderful venue with awesome acoustics was the perfect balm to soothe those workday aches and pains in your head.

Sometimes it’s worth not just settling for what comfortable – go out, support you (not so) local venue and watch TV on catch-up at your leisure. That can be paused, rewound & replayed but great nights of live music exist in the heart and mind.
Although having said that you can watch the gig here

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Milestones & Millstones

I'll never forget my first group therapy session.

It was exactly how I expected except maybe posher. There was a proper wood fire and comfy chairs rather than flaky lino, moulded plastic and the faint whiff of disinfectant. I was lucky enough to be in a BUPA clinic rather than the 9 month wait (at the very least) for any sort of NHS treatment.

A South African woman handed a framed photo which circulated the room as she told her story, the picture was of a young baby and of course it was now dead. The trauma of "cot death", the subsequent police investigation, the small town gossip and rumour mill was relayed to us with great courage. Leaving me to only conclude, "what the fuck am I doing here?"

I can't remember how the question came up but I was asked how I would know when I was "better", what was it that I wanted to be able to do or experience that would mean I had succeeded in freeing myself from the clutches of anxiety and crippling self doubt.

After some thought I replied that when I was in my early teens, being close enough to London that it cost £5-6 for a travelcard to spend the whole day on the buses and tubes, at the weekends my friends and I would go into the big city, often pockets full of money and return with plastic bags full of records. We'd run around town, buying stuff, eating rubbish and being as annoying as only boys of that age can be. We were the very living embodiment of carefree little twats.

I said I wanted to be able to feel like that again.

I wanted o be able to go anywhere and do anything without having to consider all the elements which constructed my personal prison cell - the fear of panic attacks, fear of death and illness, fear of going mad, embarrassment, fear of inability to cope, feeling trapped, alone, isolated, constantly looking down and inwards. Not being able to eat and drink if at some point that day I may be in a situation where nausea and panic would make me want to flee and escape would be hard i.e. concert, theatre, cinema, train, bus, plane, shopping mall, the list seemed inexhaustible.

That was in January of 1999.

Since then there have been many highs and lows - but that's for another time.

Today I find myself more at ease with all those situations than I have been since those teenage years. I now regularly go up to London by train, take the tube, meet people for dinner - eat, drink and be merry. And yes I often return with plastic bags - well, record tote bags since the 5p tax - full of records. Not much progress in that regard but light years covered in terms of being able to live how I want.

It's mostly been down to facing fear and doing it anyway, sometimes out of necessity that my working life has bought but often because I want to push myself and be as "normal" as possible. Of course you catch yourself sometimes and the old negativity creeps back in but I've learnt to kick those baboons out before they grab a hold. Yes there are times when I do have bad nights but try not to let them get me down.

Thing is, it's not a finished project - it's about mak
ing running repairs while keeping an eye on the road ahead for danger.

I feel that since I've become regularly employed, doing a job I enjoy, appearing much more positive and less gloomy people assume that I don't need any support or attention. Those little messages to say hello, how you doing etc have ebbed away. It's not that people don't care but if you're no longer on the critical list then you slip from their minds.

"He must be doing ok, he hasn't been posting meaningful lyrics on the Internet at 1am" is the feeling we have but that lack of contact breeds paranoia in the heart of you. You assume people don't want you around, when you suggest meeting up and get no response. The fact is people have busy lives, work, family, commitments but the anxious and self conscious with low self esteem start sticking needles into themselves with every perceived slight.

You should pity people like me but I'd much rather you try and understand.

So yes, I do feel better, yes I do, I feel alright but that doesn't mean that I don't need you by my side now as much as I did then.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Richard Hawley: Camden Roundhouse (8th November 2015)

As we know, Mr Hawley doesn’t like ‘the “c” word’. No not THAT one which he uses to describe a persistent drunk heckler tonight but the one rhyming with moon that Bing Crosby was famous for. Which to be fair is understandable to those who’ve seen him live where he’s a far more feral beast than bequiffed smoothie. Then again, as the T-shirts at the merch stall proclaim ‘Let’s Ballad’ if the shirt fits etc.

The response to Richard’s latest ‘Hollow Meadow’ has been muted with a feeling that it’s a bit of a step backwards from the noisy, cathartic psychedelic sprawl of ‘Standing At The Sky’s Edge’s cry of pain. However it merely reaffirms the constants of Hawley’s worth, those of love, trust and acceptance of human frailties. The hopefully, jangly pop of ‘Tonight The Streets Are Ours’ nestles next to the brooding SATSE title track in a set that skilfully moves from loud-quiet-loud.

Richard has this old engine turning shed eating out of his mitt from the off – his ribald jokes, easy going northern charm and modesty. Few others could ask a 1000+ crowd to stand in a minute silence for Remembrance Sunday and not have some wazzock breaking the silence – truly an extraordinary moment.

Likewise the reverse psychology of asking people to talk through the quieter numbers ensured a rapt response to tracks like ‘Open Up The Door’ from his masterpiece ‘Truelove’s Gutter’ and ‘What Love Means’ dedicated to his daughter’s imminent 21st birthday.
The show moves ‘Down In the Woods’ to become a forest version of Willy Wonka’s boat ride with Hawley reciting nursery rhymes over a queasy eerie metallic drone, repeating the ‘Life is but a dream’ refrain from ‘Row, Row Your Boat’ . The towering oaks on the backdrop and effective lighting create a nightmarish vibe as the band increase the volume and Hawley’s guitar screams and echoes round the walls.

Had “one of those” behind me – the type that loudly claps the first notes of every tune to show “I KNOW WHAT THIS SONG IS BEFORE YOU DO”. In the trade they are known a ‘Layla Unplugged Liars’

The encore brings out the lush ‘Coles Corner’ to clear away the clouds before the rain comes down by ‘The Ocean’ ending with guitars squalling like seabirds as the storm rages. There’s so much more to Richard Hawley than the 50’s throwback that lazy journos paint him as – he’s just as likely to chill you as soothe you.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

McAlmont & Butler - London Roundhouse - 7th November 2015

McAlmont and Butler - UK 2015 Tour

"If the last word I hear from you is goodbye...."

On tonight's performance I hope for anything that this will not be the last time.

My second M&B concert in a week, was at the opening night at Vicar Street, Dublin whose under attended sedateness (seriously, people) despite the band's full on commitment was in direct contrast to tonight's celebration in Camden Town.

'Although' - this was simply majestic, took on a real power and poignancy with David wringing out all the emotion whilst holding onto notes seemingly forever. Matched by Bernard's aching guitar, both sweet and sad.

'Disappointment' - oh that point where Makoto Sakamoto's gunfire drums, Bernard's riffs and David's voice meld into one unstoppably thrilling pop moment.

'Blue' - Mr Butler sits on the lip of the stage playing some delicate acoustic runs while David croons making this venue suddenly seem so intimate. The show was perfectly judged moving from moments of noise and exuberance to stillness.

Similarly their version on 'You'll Lose A Good Thing' which was a highlight of last year's Islington Union Chapel was equally breath-taking this time around. Silencing the Saturday night crowd, who wanted to hear every note and expression is not easy at the Roundhouse but it was a joy to not hear the spell broken.

There is this idea that, perhaps due to the hit singles than M&B are all about the stings and anthems but this would sell them very short. 'The Debitor' was a great bit of Zep glam stopping tonight with backing singers Michelle Stodart & Angela Gannon gleefully joining David to power on the wig-out coda.

Having said that the string section played an absolute blinder, giving it the full John Barry effect during the, inevitably, closing, 'Yes' which the audience roared back at the stage and sung on the way down the stairs after the show. Pushing the space love song 'Falling' to the highest of heights - I 'm not ashamed it left me tearful and breathless.

I hope they can take this wave of support and goodwill towards them, their superb band and this tour and make that third album. Dangling the great last gasp of 'Speed' and melancholy sweet 'Goodbye' before us is too cruel to leave unfulfilled but I'll take the smiles created tonight to keep me company



Saturday, 7 November 2015

Mighty Like A Rose: A Study In Pogonophobia*

* it's the fear of beards - yes I did have to look it up!

The man who peers out from the cover of 'Mighty Like A Rose' is not the clean shaven avenging nerd of the summer of 77. If you passed him in the street you might think he lived there, his straggly beard and hair framing his Lennon specs.

Mighty Like A Rose, now near it's 25th birthday, is a much maligned LP from his back catalogue , along with the Brodsky Quartet release 2 years later, perhaps where Elvis and his mainstream pop audience parted company. The recent success of 'Spike' and Macca collaboration single 'Veronica' may have won him some new fans but MLAR (I'm not going to keep writing it in full) sent them scurrying to the hills with it's baroque pop stylings.

I adore it. Yes I'm a Costello obsessive. This isn't a case of sticking up for the runt of the litter or being wilfully obtuse. Those who claim it collapses under the weight of it's own 'everything AND the kitchen sink' production and 'clever-cleverness' need a punch for being so dull.

"as for 'arty-farty', that's a phrase that should be forcibly removed from the dictionary with a pair of scissors"

The bearded and bedraggled Elvis was riding along in an automobile with a bevy (the official collective term) of beauties for the Beach Boys pastiche 'The Other Side Of Summer' although strictly speaking it owes more of a debt to Randy Newman's 'I Love LA'. Where Randy sang in praise of the worst streets in the city, Costello outlines the dark side of life pointing out the homelessness and misery behind the shades and bikinis. Randy's promo for 'I Love LA' also featured him in an car surrounded by a bevy or two - seemingly a requirement for bespectacled songwriters.

The most quoted couplet from the album 'Was it a millionaire that said "imagine no possessions? A poor little schoolboy who said 'we don't need no lessons'" sets out the tone for Mighty Like A Rose. It is an angry, spiteful, cantankerous, disappointed and resolutely self righteous bastard of a album.

Although his band 'The Attractions' had dispersed after an equally bad tempered 'Blood & Chocolate' in 1986 it took Bruce Thomas' memoir 'The Big Wheel' full of tales of life on the road including side swipes at 'The Singer' for Elvis to bare his teeth in song. If there is a songwriter you don't want to piss off it's probably Elvis' with his acidic rhyming dictionary.

'How To Be Dumb' - you can hear the bile hitting the mic as Costello spits out "And beautiful people stampede to the doorway of the funniest fucker in the world" you expect to see venom arcing from the speakers.

"You could've walked out any time you wanted
but face it you didn't have the courage 
I guess that makes you a full time hypocrite
or some kind of twisted dilettante
Funny though people don't usually get so ugly
till they think they know what they want"

No one was probably more surprised than Costello that Bruce Thomas signed back on for a couple of albums and world tours in 1994. It's as childish as Lennon's 'How Do You Sleep' but doesn't attack Thomas' musicianship but his "brand new occupation" where "Every fleeting thought is a pearl" a lyrical scalpel instead of a brick. It was interesting to see in a biography of Tom Waits that when approached to talk about his semi regular employer, Marc Ribot demurred saying that Tom Waits, along with Elvis has specifi.cally asked him not to contribute to any books regarding his work with them. Marc Ribot needed no such request, playing rhythm guitar on 'How To Be Dumb' was probably enough. of a warning

The spite in 'Hurry Down Doomsday' 'Wake up zombie, write yourself another book' and 'All Grown Up' with some wonderful string arrangements may or may not be also aimed at Thomas, the latter chiding a teenage girl "You haven't earned the weariness / That sounds so jaded on your tongue". The album's main fault in the eyes of it's detractors is its production and perhaps 'Invasion Hit Parade' and 'Harpies Bizarre' can be pointed to as prime examples of Costello egging the pudding. The latters harpsichord sound and medieval air is seen as too precious and the former just too suffocated by musical jokes and instrumentation.

Yet when the production is minimal like on the stark 'Broken' with some of his bleakest couplets "
But if you leave me, then I am broken / And if I'm broken, then only death remains" its equally as effective. 'After The Fall' similarly is underpinned by some fine Spanish guitar from Marc Ribot with it's illicit tale of sex after an adulterous affair by the wife of the couple. The songs of revenge and guilt are still serving him well.

Like 'Spike' this album features a couple more songs from his collaboration with Paul McCartney and it's very much a game of two halves. 'So Like Candy' is one of the best songs that Paul has been involved with for many a year. A perfect jagged anti-love song with an impassioned vocal if I was to guess I would say that the chorus was written by McCartney and lines like "Here lie the records that she scratched / And on the sleeve I find a note attached" are pure Elvis. His old flame, very long in the past at this point, Bebe Buell, claimed this refers to her trashing his record collection after a lover's tiff.

The other MacManus \ Macca co-write, 'Playboy To A Man' is a bit of a mess. It's the kind of Little Richard rock n roll shouter that McCartney could probably pull off back in the day but Costello's attempts to reach the same screaming pitch just sounds strained and painful. The outro with its piano car crash and screeching is just horrific
'Too many words' is often said by Costello's critics 'How few would you like, sir?' should be the response. 'Georgie & Her Rival' may well suffer from this however, it's slightly confusing narrative concerning a pair of scheming women torturing a suitor (or drunk phone pest if you prefer) still has a winning chorus. Whereas the loving 'Sweet Pear' is less verbose and it's brass and delicate playing along with a fine falsetto from Costello is one of his hidden gems.

The album's closing and crowning glory was born from the Channel 4 drama, GBH, and Costello's work with Richard Harvey, in particular it's opening and closing theme. Elements form the foundation of 'Couldn't Call It Unexpected No.4' with it's obtuse lyric. It appears to be a rejection of religion, spirit and the fear of impending death. When performed on the occasional Costello/Nieve tours from the late 90's onwards the song often formed the finale of each concert. The PA was turned off and both piano and voice unamplified, Elvis would stalk the edge of the stage projecting his voice to back row. A sudden chill as in the song's lyrics would fill the air and shivers would quickly shoot up the spine.

If, as I said, Mighty Like A Rose marked the point where Elvis lost many of his "pop" fans with his appearance, the LA session musicians and his experimentation then more fool them. Rather than the blunder current opinion appears to believe it is, Mighty Like A Rose is packed with more imagination, wit and spark than most artists manage within their entire careers.

'Who on earth is tapping at the window?
Does that face still linger at the pane?
I saw you shiver though the room was like a furnace
A shadow of regret across a young mother's face
So toll the bell or rock the cradle
Please don't let me fear anything I cannot explain
I can't believe, I'll never believe in anything

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Steve Nieve : St James Theatre, Victoria, London - 12th October 2015

Oh it was fanboy central downstairs at St James Theatre tonight – a lovely intimate venue with top sound. At one point, halfway through the intro to ‘Shipbuilding’ Steve Nieve, Elvis Costello’s erstwhile piano botherer and songwriter, asked “did you recognise that?” triggering an incredulous “yes”.

People had travelled from all over to see Steve take centre, well left of centre, stage with interpretations of Elvis tunes which most of the audience knew inside out and often that’s how they were played. In between we got little tales from the road and studio illustrating the song history that were a surprise and new to even the devoted nerd like me

His guest, Alex Cornish, admitted it was the most terrifying thing in the world to play an Elvis Costello song in front of a room of hardcore Costello fans but he played a blinder on both ‘Shabby Doll’ and ‘Alison’ which was the first communal singing of the night. Another young fella (who’s name I didn’t catch) also did stirling work particularly on the rarely heard Costello\Nieve co-write ‘Passionate Fight’ (bloke in front of me who said “Almost Blue” – bzzzzz, no, lose 5 points) and ‘You Lie Sweetly’.

My personal highlight was hearing Steve play ‘The Loved Ones’ which is the song that got me into Elvis big time and he hardly ever roles out despite Steve’s wonderful performance on the song. The main set ending with the room lustily enquiring ‘What’s So Funny Bout Peace Love & Understanding’ and a final shot of genius as Steve improvised a song based on five notes.

From the outside, the audience must have seems like smug trainspotting bastards , nudging each other while trying to guess the intro and yelling sycophantic in-jokes . From the inside, like the best pub sing-a-long and virtuoso piano recital the world has ever known

Monday, 20 July 2015

They Might Be Giants - Rough Trade East instore, London -20th July 2015

I don’t usually do these sort of things. I already had their new album ‘Glean’ and (thanks to the shop rather than the band themselves) didn’t really want to buy another in order to gain access to the in-store. Yet TMBG are such a vital building block to who I am and people I am friends with that I had to go on a rare day off work.

‘Tonight will be divided into two clear sections’ deadpanned John F (the guitar one) the performance part and then the signing part’ The live performance part was 30 minutes of new songs from the first six months of the Dial-A-Song project drip-feeding their fanbase plus , well not hits, well THAT one but fan favourites. ‘Number Three’ from their debut was a nod to the fact that their debut album was released on Rough Trade “Records & Tapes” way back when in the U.K. A cheeky rocking cover of Destiny’s Child’s ‘Bills Bills Bills’ “which will form the basis of the show we’re taking to Branson, Missouri” slipped nicely next to another cover, the exuberant ‘New York City’. A personal fave, Dr Worm, had the place moving and John L. (the accordion one) squidgy keyboard sounds amused during the stop/start ‘Older’.

Yes of course they ended with ‘Birdhouse In Your Soul’ and it was greeted like its was 1990 all over again.

The John’s insisted, despite a day spent doing radio sessions, press and smacked up to the eyeballs with jetlag that they would stay until everyone had whatever they wanted signed, every picture they wanted with the band and so on. None of this ‘will only be signing new product’ bullshine. They encouraged people with their entire TMBG collection with them to go out for a beer and come back later when the queue would be shorter. This led to a more dignified and British approach to scrambling for a place in the queue and no anxiety that the door would slam shut just as you reached the front.
I took along my vinyl of ‘Flood’ and ‘Nanobots’ which were well vandalised and exchanged a few words about how they had bonded great friends to me with shared love of their music. I walked down Brick Lane to the tube with a stupid dumb grin on my face (what’s new? -Ed).

It’s great when you actually get to meet your heroes and they really don’t let you down.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Ash - Kings Cross Scala, London : 11th June 2015

There is a solid reason why Ash, when many of their ‘Britpop’ contemporaries have thrown in the towel and got proper jobs, have managed to survive without becoming a nostalgia act – Tim Wheeler’s uncanny knack to fashion a punky pop melody. ‘Kablammo’, rather than a slowed down version of their former selves is just as ‘kick you in the face’-tastic as they have ever been.

Solid gold slam-dunk, arms in the air, jumping, swaying, laughing, moshing tunes like A Life Less Ordinary, Orpheus and Jack Names The Planets do not mean that newies such as the infectious ‘Go Fight Win!’ , ‘Let’s Ride’ or ‘Moondust’ sound anything less than equals. Even ‘Wild Surf’ from the unlovable ‘Nu Clear Sounds’ – the classic example of a record recorded after tour and fame burnout – is a delight – the sound of the summer. These songs were always sky-scraping, joyous celebrations of life and the band remain forever young in their late 30’s.

‘Kung Fu’ turns the floor into a bubbling mass of pogoing just as ‘Oh Yeah’s timeless tale of summer lovin’ gets arms aloft, voices raised in unison as 20 years just slip away with a band showing as much energy and commitment now as then. Bassist Mark still stumbles around the stage before launching himself out on it’s edge, Tim’s shit eating grin plastered across his chops like he has the best gig in the world and drummer Rick solid as an indie rock with great deadpan chat between songs. Why wouldn’t you want to share in the fun?

After 23 years this lot are not about second, third or forth winds anymore – they are just confidently hitting their stride. “We’ve been coming to London from 21 years now and you’ve never let us down” said Tim, before a suitably incendiary tear-up of ‘Burn Baby Burn’ kicks us into the street. The feeling is mutual, sir.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Kathryn Williams - Hypoxia : 'Come On, Step Into The Eye Of The Storm'

'Oh the last time I felt lonely the room was full'  

When I was at university in the 1990's, young women on my English literature course were all about The Plath. Particularly her novel,'The Bell Jar', was like catnip and many shallow young male students professed admiration for it for less than academic reasons.

If only there had been a soundtrack to evenings in halls discussing the book's subtexts maybe some of us would have got more lucky than we did. However that would make us as bad as hypocritical Buddy, the boyfriend of the book's protagonist or the loathsome lothario, Marco for ignoring the struggle for sanity and social acceptance that Esther strives for.

When Kathryn Williams was commissioned to provide songs based on 'The Bell Jar' as part of 50th anniversary celebrations at the Durham Book Festival in 2013 she returned to the novel and was struck by how modern and relevant it had remained. The set of songs that make up her new album 'Hypoxia' show a deep understanding of the pain, experiences and anger of Esther and those around her. Those who have undergone any kind of therapy, periods of depression or mental illness will find lines here that cut right to the heart of the matter

'The heart beats on it's own / Plotting out the times to come/ It knows it can, it beats - I Am I Am I Am I am I Am'

It's hard to encapsulate the album's sound in a word, so I won't try but it is woozy, claustrophobic, dreamlike and sparky - a real star turn by producer Ed Harcourt who also adds harmony vocals. The opening 'Electric' is slowly enveloped by a fuzzy warm embrace as Kathryn's vocal slips into accepting ennui. 'Mirrors' crackles with synapse pulsing energy, Kathryn utilising her onstage vocal looping to great effect echoing Esther's confusion and fear as her grip on her self starts to change. On repeat listens you hear new sounds and vocal inflections that pull you further into the eye of the storm.

The expressiveness of Kathryn's voice has always been what drew me in to her work and on this record she really does emote the hell out of the material, the 'ticking, ticking bomb' of 'Battleships' giving the feeling of menace, fear and disgust in the book's scene where Esther is cajoled into meeting her boyfriend, Buddy, by both their parents in an attempt to steer her onto the path to marriage and the accepted norm for a young women of the age. The imagining of this scene as a game of battleships with Esther trying to avoid the traps set for her and destroy any attempts to break down her resolve works really well.

'Cuckoo' beautifully condenses the feelings of many parents and relatives of people with mental illness - that others will look upon them as somehow responsible for their child's illness and thereby they struggle to understand why or how this could come to pass. In the novel Esther's mother, when Esther agrees to see a psychiatrist sighs in great relief - "I know my baby wasn't like those awful dead people at that hospital. I knew you'd decide to be alright again". Kathryn shows her inability to sympathise with her daughter, 'My little girl's gone mad / And who will they blame but me?' with the echoed refrain 'I couldn't pick you out of a crowd' demonstrating how the illness has taken Esther and the dream of a life she had for her daughter away.

As I said there are so many lines that just cut to the core of how mental illness effects us all. 'When Nothing Meant Less' is the track I keep coming back to again and again as it speaks to that dark part of me that I kept hidden for so long. 'And when you thought that I was strong / I always knew that you were wrong' she sings to her childhood friend reflecting on the journey both their lives have taken. The regret and despair of  'And I don't even know how your story ends / Cos you turned a corner and I stayed on the bend' is just heart-breaking.

This isn't a solemn or depressing listen by any means - melancholy, yes, but there's nowt wrong with that - a key chapter in the book receives the angry and pointed 'Tango With Marco' as he is pinned to the wall with sharp lyrical blades 'On the back of your eyes there's a list / Of the different ways to hit - and kiss' who sees women as 'a coat draped on your arm / I'm a jar on your shelf/ Or a pig in the farm'. Whereas the waltzing 'The Mind Is It's Own Place' brings comfort in our ability to survive life's traumas and emerge hopefully stronger and wiser on the other side.

'Oh please put down your fears / My plan was always to get you out of here / get you clear'

To get the most out of the album it may have helped if you have read the novel on which it is based but as I had already done so I can't tell. It may have deeper significance if you have suffered periods of mental illness but again I can't help you there. What I do know is that 'Hypoxia' speaks as strongly and assuredly as 'The Bell Jar' does about life's expectations, troubles and the wondrous way in which the spirit endures despite it all.

'Hypoxia' is released on 15th June 2015 via One Little Indian Records on CD, Vinyl and I-tunes

Kathryn is touring throughout the UK over the next few months so get out and catch her live


Monday, 1 June 2015

Elvis Costello - Birmingham Symphony Hall: 31st May 2015

You can go home now, you’ve seen all the hits” yelled The Beloved Entertainer as he strode to centre stage, the giant TV set behind him having played promos from his past while we awaited his arrival. (why don’t more bands put thought into entertaining the audience during these longueurs? – The White Stripes used to show old 50s cartoons). It’s a tricky balancing act he takes on these days – rewarding the trainspotters (Hello!) with rarely played nuggets while satisfying those there to hear ‘Oliver’s Army’ and She. Tonight he pulled it off superbly in a two hour set that spanned the years as he painted himself in the same vaudeville tradition as his father and grandfather.

He opens with two songs from the same vintage but years apart, ‘Red Shoes’ and ‘Blue Minute’ – both demoed for ‘My Aim Is True’ but the latter not seeing the light of day until the umpteenth reissue of his debut. There was a sparkiness and energy in his delivery of even familiar material. “Look out music lovers, I’m gonna play the piano’ he once yelled on a live B-side’ which was felt on last years jaunt where a shonky electric keyboard made songs like ‘Shipbuilding’ sound like musak to my ears. Fellow gig attendee @SteveT remarked that his other half must have been giving him a few pointers as his playing on that and ‘Shot With His Own Gun’ was fine although missing Steve Nieve’s effortless light and shade.

He paid tribute to local boys, The Move, with a verse and chorus – “it’s all I know” – of the mighty ‘Blackberry Way’ who I assume have a star on the Brum Walk Of Fame that runs past the venue. I spotted Jeff Lynne, Murray Walker, Noddy Holder & Tony Iommi among others. The dreaded ‘She’ reared it’s head during a section that Elvis performed on a rocking chair under a standard lamp. Shorn of its sticky strings and bombast, low key with softly picked strings it became Parisian cafĂ© introspection with no vibrato but still as yearning.

His brother , Ronan Macmanus, whose Brand New Zeros had opened the night, joined for a strum through crowd-pleasers ‘Good Year For The Roses’ and ‘Oliver’s Army’ before Elvis appeared inside the big TV to ‘Pump It Up’. A slowed down piano take of ‘I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down’ bought it back to the original Sam & Dave version which was my personal highlight along with the guitar loop and feedback squall of ‘I Want You’. The fact there was room for ‘Peace Love & Understanding’ & the underrated ‘Mr Feathers’ from the criminally underrated ‘Momofuku’ in tonight’s set shows there was something for everyone.

This fabulous venue seems to bring out something special in Mr Costello – whether it’s the audience, the ambiance or response but it makes the trip up the M40 worthwhile.

Friday, 29 May 2015

The Fall - Sub89, Reading : 27th May 2015

I was listening to the band’s new album ‘SubLingual Tablet’ over the weekend and thought “This is rather spiffing, I wonder if they are playing near me soon”, I google and find tat, yes, in a couple of days time at the comfy club in Reading where I saw them last. On that occasion a fight broke out and police were called so donning Spartan battledress I went along.

The first thing to note is that Mark E Smith managed to stay onstage for the whole time. His last appearance here involved disappearance for about 5 songs while the band ploughed on – apart from the start of encore ‘Junger Cloth’ where he was a little tardy. He seemed to be in a good mood, regarding the crowd with a thousand yard stare, only occasionally turning his back to read lyrics off tatty bits of paper.

At one point Mark put both his mics in front of guitarist Pete’s face for him to sing which seemed to cause him some difficulty (doing two things at once) which amused MES no end so he kept it up, his face breaking into an evil pixie grin. Drummer Darren also took over lead vocals during ‘2014’ coda whilst still thrashing away then walking out to stage centre.

The five piece band really played an absolute blinder tonight – the bass rattling your teeth, never less than tight, the new material sounding even better than expected – ‘Venice With The Girls’ and ‘Quit I-phone’ in particular, ferocious and funky. Creating a solid bedrock for MES vague approximation of the lyrics – droning, squalling, throbbing and precise. Ending with a spiffing ‘Sparta FC’ which had the place rocking and chanting along, grinning like MES torturing his grupe.

Those who believe the Hepworthian bullshit about this band really miss out on one of the greatest live experiences you can have. If you see them playing a small club near you, even if you’ve seen them before and think you’ve had enough – go, the Fall on great form is mesmerising

Friday, 22 May 2015

Kathryn Williams - JW3, North London: 20th May 2015

It seems fitting that this launch show for Kathryn’s new album ‘Hypoxia’ based on characters from Slyvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ should find her slightly on edge, nervous, uncertain but capable of articulating those concerns wonderfully. If we wanted icily cool, detached and studied perfection we wouldn’t get the warmth, vulnerability and humanity that Kathryn gives this material. Clearly nervous about playing these songs for the first time outside her own head or the studio, she settles us and herself in with three tracks from my personal album of 2013 ‘Crown Electric’ which is the same year she was given the commission to write these songs.

She has risen to the challenge wonderfully with a set that is spiky, woozy and at times claustrophobic. Like the book’s protagonist, Esther, her lyrics show a fractured sense of self, a nervous energy along with an acceptance of the comfort of medicated blackness. I’m not sure if you get or understand the songs more if you have read The Bell Jar (which I did again recently, almost in preparation for the album) but Kathryn spoke a little about each one, something I hope she continues for the tour. Not only would it help those unfamiliar with the characters but a little of her own impetus behind the song’s creation.

Hearing all these new songs in one rush it’s hard to pick out “favourites” but ‘Mirror’ with it’s live vocal looping creating an uneasy foundation as shaky as Esther’s sense of who she is or wants to be. The insistent ‘ticking, ticking bomb’ of ‘Battleships’ echoes like the ‘I Am, I Am, I Am’ of ‘Beating Heart’. ‘Tango With Marco’ is suitably vicious and uneasy as the encounter with the most unpleasant man of the novel – ‘Like a coat draped on your arm / I’m a jar on your shelf/ A pig in the farm’ she almost spits in disgust. My personal highlight was the simple honesty of ‘When Nothing Meant Less’ which lays out the friendship of Esther and Joan ‘I don’t even know how your story ends cos you turned a corner and I stayed on the bend’ is heart-breaking stuff. Her producer, Mr Ed Harcourt, joined her onstage for the sweet ‘Cuckoo’ as well as returning during the encore for some production duties, using a stage mic for amplification when the bass players sound failed. Despite any irritation or nervousness at a couple of technical hiccups, Kathryn’s voice is markedly more confident than ever before, really inhabiting the songs and bending them in new an unexpected ways.
Ending with her traditional cover spot – a splendid version of Neil Young’s ‘I Believe In You’ this was what live music should be – making you think, feel and share in the things that make us all what are in our own slightly mad way.

People I spoke to afterwards were knocked out by the new material which rewarded Kathryn’s bravery of presenting it whole rather than cut up in the set. A wonderful taster for the album I am even more keen to hear and I encourage you to catch her on tour as live she brings so much to her songs. I hope she performs the album as a piece like this as it creates a very special atmosphere.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

The Unthanks : Camden Roundhouse (7th March 2015)

‘You know it’s going to be miserable, don’t you?’ warned Becky Unthank ‘but we’re wearing our clogs’ “Clogteasers” pianist & arranger, Adrian McNally, chimed in and those were rare moments of humour in a bleak yet uplifting night – a beautiful oasis in the den of scum and villainy that is Camden. The support set from vocal group ‘The Young Uns’ with a fine cover of ‘Between The Wars’ and a song about Benefit Street in between the sea shanties and traditional material got the place whooping and singing along but The Unthanks set offered little of that.

Their ‘Mount The Air’ album had the lion’s share of the set, greeted like old friends. The intricate arrangements were recreated perfectly but in no way clinically, there was grit, warmth and emotion there even if the band did sometimes swamp Rachel & Becky’s vocals during the louder sections. Speaking with fellow attendee Mr Rosbif afterwards we agreed that although Rachel’s voice has always been the groups selling point, live and on the new album it is Becky that catches your attention with its unusual timbre and emotive power as in the woozy, trippy. ‘Flutter’

Despite my fears that a standing audience would get chatty n fidgety having to remain fairly static for a couple of hours but the silence was golden and applause – especially at the end of ‘Mount The Air’ which took the band aback. Adrian McNally dedicated their cover of King Crimson’s ‘Starless’ to “anyone who wishes they were sitting down”.

Twenty quid. That’s all it cost tonight for what will probably be vying for my gig of the year come December. Those who could have been here but were not for trivial reasons shall think themselves accursed they were not here.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Great music TV moments #1: Elvis Costello - Saturday Night Live (17th December 1977)

Live television is the last place you should try to be spontaneous.

At the time that Elvis Costello and The Attractions, in the middle of a pulverising touring schedule that made their reputation as a fearsome live band, played the cult late night comedy show on NBC it was regarded as a daring and provocative response to Monty Python. Or at least a team of the US best and brightest comedy performers - Dan Aykroyd , John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Gilder Radner, Bill Murray et al. The shows passion for presenting musical acts that might not necessarily get airtime elsewhere gained it a reputation for being cutting edge - so Elvis and the razor sharp Attraction seemed a perfect fit.

But it wasn't supposed to happen at all.

Nearly two years before on a sleepy teatime TV show in the UK, the popular and interview shy Queen were booked to appear on the Today show. Perhaps wishing to avoid the comfy area chat with host Bill Grundy they withdrew at the 11th hour. A desperate EMI publicity department searched round for a stable-mate to replace them and found that fresh young signings, The Sex Pistols, were rehearsing across town. A limo was dispatched and the rest is talking head programme history

It is a delicious piece of irony then that the Pistols were due to make their US TV debut on the show but were unable to get the necessary visas that would enable them to gain entry to the USA. Elvis' first US tour with his new band had just finished with early n late shows at the Stony Pony, Asbury Park the night before so were duly booked as a replacement. Drummer Pete Thomas' 'Thanks Malc' T-shirt the only onscreen reference to this as a cheeky nod to the Pistols self aggrandising mentor.

So Elvis & The A's were more than match fit for what was now their US TV debut, with both band and Elvis enjoying their growing success. Having finally got that elusive record contact and an album in the racks, Costello had ideas and new songs ready to go and saw this as the perfect opportunity to play a brand new stunner, Radio Radio, a caustic attack on the dull programming on UK\US radio stations. Both his record company and SNL producer, Lorne Michaels baulked at this and wanted him to stick to the plan - Watching the Detectives and Less Than Zero

Although Elvis was content to creep the hell out of the viewing public with his serial killer stare during the former he saw Less Than Zero (his debut release in the UK) as the wrong song for the wrong place. With its lyrics about English fascist leader, Oswald Mosley and the right wing of British culture it would go straight over the buzz-cut of the majority of the US public. Shitty radio - now that's something that we can all get behind.

After a suitably deranged Detectives, Elvis makes a slight pretence of beginning Less Than Zero before theatrically waving his arms to halt the song and you can literally hear the room crackle with electricity. "I'm sorry, ladies and gentlemen, there's absolutely no reason to play this song here tonight' he spits in his best mockney accent and yells the intended song title at his band who immediately blast into the opening stabs of 'Radio Radio'. Its almost as if they knew what was coming. Its such a polite detour that he makes it sound like he is doing the programme, studio audience and viewers at home a favour.

You can see the clip here as Youtube constantly takes the clip down

One thing I was only made aware of years after seeing the clip for the first time in those pre-Youtube days was that Elvis begins by singing the song with this intense look right down the barrel, seizing the moment, totally committed as if trying to avoid any signs from the production staff to stop. However he changes about a minute in to seemingly directing all his fury just to the left of centre. It was claimed that when Elvis made the song change, producer Lorne Michaels started flipping him "the bird" and continued to do so for the rest of the song. Whether the myopic avenging nerd was addressing Michaels in a live TV standoff is not clear but something seems to have changed his approach. His immediate stroppy stomping off in that direction at the end could also be a clue.

It's the sound and the fury- most musical appearances are castrated by poor sound and total lack of any energy making it further than the camera lens. This feels exciting, Elvis is seething, the studio lights and cramped conditions give him a volcanic glow. Maybe Lorne's raised digit is only compounding that anger giving him a focus. He's petulant, aggressive, contemptuous and walks unafraid. at the song's final flourish he knows he's won whatever battle - inner or outer he's fighting.

Elvis was subsequently banned from SNL, which lasted 11 years until the might of Warner Brothers Records behind him and his new hit album with its co-Beatle penned single, Veronica, saw him revisit the show. Inevitably as the show celebrated it's 25th anniversary of waxing and waning success, the incident was parodied by the man himself with the help of The Beastie Boys.

Elvis would return to the USA in January 1978 and play 'Less Than Zero' most nights but with a freshly penned lyric that changed the focus from Mosley to a more infamous Oswald in the shape of John F Kennedy's alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. Perhaps spurred on by the SNL incident, he wanted to make it clear that his decision was based on simple artistic freedom and belief rather than some Spirit of '77 snotty punk stunt. 

The other Elvis may have panicked studio executives with his hips but this one took them on with a thousand yard stare.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

I was looking for a job and then I found a job

I'm still not sure while writing this that I should be as I don't want this to piss off any of my good friends stuck in unemployment hell.

So back at the tail end of summer I got a job with a huge tech firm of Japanese origin. It isn't massively paid and sometimes it isn't that mentally straining but after a long period of not working it was far better than I could hope for.

So I find myself now with a company vehicle, equipment, security passes galore, fuel card, company credit card, branded polo shirt and a Tesco's loyalty card full of points earned from fuel bought travelling the country. Yes I know The Man now has all my details and can track everything I do but I could care less.

Thing is now I have something more important, that a job shouldn't give you as you should be more self assured but I'm not that fortunate. It's a sense of being appreciated and needed by society or fuck it, just anyone.

Long periods of unemployment just suck the life out of you. You are treated like a worthless scrounger by the media, the authorities and random people who see you walking into the Job Centre. Every time you turn on the TV or talk radio they are talking about

a) how people who can't get jobs aren't trying
b) that we're all fucking minted & pissing it away on flat screen TVs
c) that employers ask people to turn up to interviews and they never show up
d) it's the easy option being unemployed

It's like when you break up with someone and every song on the radio is about heartbreak and everywhere you look people are snogging each others faces off. It's just an infection.

OK in my journey through the IDS ghost train of fuckery I have encountered a minority of people who could be described as playing the system and genuinely actively not willing to do what it takes to get a job. Yet the employers themselves can be equally as blasé.

The amount of times I've been told "We'll let you know, won't leave you hanging" after an interview and never hearing anything, not even a mass email. "You did a brilliant interview, we think you'd be great but we think you'll leave once you find a better option as this isn't exactly taxing" - they have no concept of what it's like out there these days. Yet you also think "well if that's how you treat people then...."

We've all read the horror stories of people being left at the mercy of faceless bureaucratic  decisions that leave them penniless and desperate at the click of a mouse. How government agencies with little to no knowledge of personal circumstances can plunge unemployed people into an Orwellian abyss. Tragic deaths happen when a society at its core is run by people who have little grip on the reality that 99% of the population experience 24/7

Russell Brand's "Don't vote" manifesto is student arse-gravy but when you look at the choices we'll have come May 2015 don't you just shake your head in disbelief. No wonder the politics of fear and division peddled by UKIP are so attractive to some people as at least you know what they stand for - even if it is bullshit.

The work is really varied from helping set up new systems in whole office buildings, install whole shops worth of equipment, patch networks, strip out whole shops full of equipment, help people solve IT problems, customer service and all that. So many different environments, new challenges and things to learn and apply. I get to see the rest of the country a bit more and visit a few more record shops, natch.

That's me at the moment. I'm more level and happy than I have been in a long time - anxiety and depression at an all time low. I have great support from my friends and family who helped me get this far through their love and belief that I could do it.

And I'm setting myself up for a fall writing this as I could be back in the cesspool at any point, none of us know what's round the corner. However I'm enjoying what I'm doing, the people I'm working with and for (mostly, there are always idiots) and also sort of know what I'm doing most of the time.

So I say to anyone who is struggling through the government's attempts to strip you of any dignity - hold on, it will come good soon and don't let the bastards grind you down.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Queen: 'The Rock Snob Tour'

I suspect that we all saw the New Year in watching Queen and Adam Lambert rocking in the shadow of Big Ben then?

No me neither

Cards on the table, big Queen fan in my teens, went to the Mercury Tribute gig and think there is much to love in their work. Went to the first gig at Brixton with Paul Rodgers out front and although the rock stuff worked well anything with any lightness or humour just didn't fit. Proving if there was  any need that Freddie Mercury's voice and talent was indispensable. I've seen that Lambert chap with em and he does a good job, bit X Factor in parts but a good set of pipes.

However you can't imagine the rock snob, even if they could see their way to accepting Queen as a fantastic rock band, going anywhere near their greatest hit live shows.

With Queen there seems to a be a clear dividing line - pre and post moustache. So pre 'The Game' which was the first not to contain the credit "no synthesisers" they were a serious rock band, after they were disco nancies with their pop music and silly videos.

It occurred to me that the recent Status Quo wheeze (cough, splutter, hack etc) of getting the classic no nonsense head down boogie lines up of 1970-6 seemed to appeal to a different and more 'rock snob' audience that wouldn't be seen dead at the more familiar Quo annual Xmas shows. The setlists were drawn purely from that period and 'Caroline' the only "hit" that would show up in their regular sets.

So I would wager that a Queen: Rock Snob Deep Cuts tour would do quite well and off the back of the rather spiffing 'Live At The Rainbow' set from 1974 remind people what a versatile songwriting unit they were.

So here's my suggested setlis
tDeath On Two Legs

Stone Cold Crazy
The Prophet Song
Lily Of the Valley
You And I
I'm In Love With My Car
Sail Away Sweet Sister *
Spread Your Wings
Coming Soon
Teo Torriate

Long Away
Doin' Alright
Queen II Suite:
Ogre Battle
The Fairy Feller's Masterstroke

The March Of the Black Queen
Funny How Love Is

Seven Seas Of Rhye

Brighton Rock \ Bring Back That Leroy Brown

See What A Fool I've Been
Dreamers Ball
Sheer Heart Attack
Rock N Roll Medley incl. Big Spender \ Shake Rattle & Roll \ Jailhouse Rock
We Will Rock You (fast version)
My Melancholy Blues

* - yes it's from 'The Game', well spotted

Yet the thing that has been missing from Queen as much as Freddie's voice, showmanship and so on is his sense of humour. The silly, camp and faintly ridiculous were all part of the fun. That what po faced rock fans missed just like the people who accuse Morrissey of being miserable despite writing extremely witty words. Or rather the sense of fun was something that they couldn't relate to or believe belonged in rock music.

Perhaps John Deacon has the right idea in letting sleeping dogs lie. Yet he wrote more than a few crackers including this which would be my highlight from that set.


Thursday, 1 January 2015

Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot?

Well that was 2014 apparently. Quite a busy time for me offline as the lack of blog entries may have indicated. Well, like a teenager with his new diary he got for Xmas from his gran, I intend to be a more regular blogger (Doctor's orders)

April 10th : Auntie Maggie's Birthday

I found myself at the year's end surrounded by the usual space filling lists online, in the papers and magazines - best films, best TV, best gigs, best books and of course, best albums.

I could make a fair fist of identifying runners and riders in many of those categories but the last one, the one which should be a walk in the park for a music obsessive like me was a struggle. I couldn't share the enthusiasm for the self indulgent wibble of The War On Drugs, the further adventures of white boys with guitars and the latest dubstep pioneers.

The only really outstanding new album by an artist I bought this year was Beck's immersive 'Morning Phase' which in itself is part two of 2002's 'Sea Change' - no bad thing. Yet Beck is someone who has rarely made a duff album so that's no great surprise.

This year I didn't really dig the new breed but found much to love in days gone by.

Over the festive period the album I have been playing to death is 'Brother Brother Brother' by The Isley Brothers from 1971. I bought it mainly for the 10 minute plus cover of Carole King's 'It's Too Late' that smokes and unfurls in its own sweet time. But I found the rest a complete joy from start to finish - brooding, pained, longing and soulfully rueful.

The remastering of the Boss' early albums made me appreciate and fall for the previously unloveable 'Greetings From Asbury Park' with the mud and dirt removed from its chrome fenders revealing a shining beauty. The Zeppelin and Beatles vinyl reissues made me dive back in, lots of dusty old soul shellac and so on.

I just didn't want to hear anything from now, today, and that was fine.

It's not that I'm wallowing in familiar sounds and old favourites (although I have the same binges of Costello that I always have) it's just I'm still so busy investigating the back roads of pop, soul, rock n roots from days gone by. Perhaps its age, lack of a real source of "new music" to sip from or just a boredom of trying to keep up.

Bottom line is should I be worried about it? I never have been hip (more "hip replacement" as the line goes), never followed fashions or trends so why start now? I love what I love regardless of time and place. New old stuff or old new stuff - it's all been the same. It either grabs you or it doesn't. 

Perhaps a world which makes everything available to you at the click of a link makes it harder for the good stuff to be heard. Recommendations from friends can only go so far and often end in disappointment.

I have a poster which is the London tube map with bands and artists in place of stations. Music interconnects, leads you down different paths and ending in new destinations. Sometimes they build fresh tunnels and lay down new tracks but there are plenty of disused stations and fascinating adventures to be had lying undiscovered in the darkness.

Anyway, here's to 2015 - let's make it a good un!