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