Thursday, 28 September 2017

Sparks - Shepherds Bush Empire London

Having left the physical jerks to his brother and lead singer, Russell, the otherwise keyboard squatting Ron removes his jacket and walks centre stage during the euro disco throb of ‘No.1 Song In Heaven’. After a short pause he breaks into a loping monkey dance across the front of the stage as the place goes nuts and roars its approval. Sparks have come home.
Throughout the show the brothers Mael refer to the capital and venue as dear to them while their appreciation of tonight’s enthusiastic devoted response is humble and heartfelt. As is their usual style they have a brand spanking new album and boy are you gonna be hearing a lot of it. Rightfully proud of Top 10 smash ‘Hippopotamus’ and it’s gloriously daft title track which, as my pal Spencer correctly suggested sounds like twisted song by the Oompah-Lumpahs, makes up a sizeable chunk of tonight.s show.
Sure there are plenty of hits and deep cuts performed with ceiling scraping falsetto and theatrical showmanship as the young band are fleetfooted and delicate when needed and a thunderous version of Quadrophenia era Who during the delightfully OTT ‘Dick Around.
There were many time during the evening when I gaffawed at a funny line hitting me just so or had a big grin across my chops at the sheer unique vibe with which Sparks fill a room. All the reasons someone may find to despise them is why we fans adore them. ‘This Town…’ is delivered with the same commitment and energy as if it was their new single. This is a band that loves those past glories but are about now, the future that they always seem to represent.
The two men have a combined age of 140 but the drive and energy of teenagers. We shall not see their like again so treasure them while you can

Monday, 25 September 2017

I've always been the one to blame

The thing about depression (& anxiety – the two go hand in hand for me) is that it is supremely isolating because of its basic internalisation of life.

I was out in that London this weekend and we did a busy museum exhibition, the tube, eating and drinking in pubs, shops n trains. At one point in my life this would have seemed impossible to imagine. Some of you who recall the epic Liverpool mingle and its Beatlesque tour the next day guided by the great Paddy Hoey will probably not have noticed but I was pretty much unable to eat, drink or communicate most of the day – so hard it was to keep myself from collapsing from the fear, panic and sadness that was coming at me in waves. In a room full of friends it can be lonely as hell.
However shortly after bidding my pals bon voyage on Saturday I found myself on a train about to depart from Paddington – wrecked with panic, throat tight, breathing shallow – willing myself to resist the urge to bolt for the door and the sweet fresh air. Knowing full well that if I did I would instantly feel better but curse myself as the train pulled away and would repeat the process again on the next homebound departure. Or the one after that. To stop myself I used the train app to find out the gap between stops and gave my brain escape routes if it all became too much. Even before the first stop and possible escape arrived I was over the worst and, if you’ll pardon the pun, home free.

Knowing that the anxiety and depression are just thoughts and feelings which will pass, CBT 101, are often no use with a brain that is irrational and afraid. Sometimes even having those closest to you doesn’t stop you want to jump in front of that train or call that ambulance when that panic attack is at its zenith.

At the moment, I feel trapped, isolated and envious of the subjects of The Undateables. I treasure every friend, savour everyone I meet but life still feels incredibly bleak and empty. The impression of a life forgotten and unmarked is so strong on my worst days.
The front I put up is sometimes to hide the depression but that makes it sound like I’m just pasting n a fake smile to plow on through which is not the case. The front is like an armour to give me confidence and see off any imagined peril. The downside being it acts like a wall and people often take that as disinterest, boredom or dislike. That wall is pretty hard for anyone to get over and many unsurprisingly don’t care to put in the effort.

Any suggestion that writing about this means that I am a passive pill popping emotional cripple incapable of bettering my situation is bullshit. I have worked damn hard to improve myself and my lot. I don’t do any drugs, smoke or drink – would I be more content if I did? – am I any better because I don’t? There is no easy fix, no one thing works for all people.

Advice is pretty much worthless but depression, anxiety and mental health is a vicious invisible killer of hundreds of thousands of people each year in the UK and that should be recognised.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

When I look back upon my life, it's always with a sense of shame

When the media discuss depression, anxiety, mental illness etc they say that doing so helps relieve the stigma around the subject which very well may be the case. However it doesn't deal with the shame that surrounds it.

Of course your rational brain says 'you wouldn't be ashamed if you had a broken leg' or any other ailment \ disease but that doesn't help. It's the shame of not being able to "cope like everyone else" not to be 'normal' in simple situations that should be enjoyed or treated as mundane. The moment when your emotions overflow, you want the ground to swallow you up, to become invisible, to be anywhere else but where you can be seen by anyone even those closest to you and shame is the strongest emotion.

the shame of every excuse made
the shame of every lied told
the shame of every friendship wrecked
the shame of every opportunity missed
the shame of time wasted
the shame of moments not taken
the shame of your lack of control
the shame of inability to cope
the shame at your defencelessness
the shame of weakness
the shame that destroys your self worth
the shame that dissolves your confidence
the shame that makes you scared
the shame that never leaces you

I guess some might see shame and stigma as very much the same thing but even when people know about your depression or anxiety the shame you feel when it makes itself known to others remains.

That is something no amount of awareness days or publicity campaigns can undo.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Hallelujah: A Celebration Of Leonard Cohen @ JW3 London 14th September 2017

Romeo Stodart, Angela Gannon, Ed Harcourt, Michele Stodart, & Will Harvey (watched over by Leonard)

You'll be hearing from me baby, long after I'm gone
I'll be speaking to you sweetly
From a window in the Tower of Song
In 2016, aka the year of the great pop culture extinction, we lost a seemingly never ending swathe of precious talents. When David Bowie and Prince left the shock lead to impromptu and planned musical tributes of varying quality. When Leonard Norman Cohen passed in November the reaction was more of quiet respect and acceptance of a good innings, well played. Tonight's concert in conjunction with Camden Town's excellent Green Note venue and curated by Kathryn Williams tried to give a flavour of the wisdom, poetry, insight and, yes, humour of the man.

Interspersed by readings of his poetry, his prose and his witticisms in interviews from Mr Shale, echoing Cohen's deep sandpaper drawl Kathryn had called in friends, collaborators and fellow Len fans to present not carbon copies of well known tunes but with arrangements that threw fresh light on old ideas.

I've been an admirer of Ren Harvieu's stunning voice through appearances with Romeo Stodart at venues across the capital and early on her sultry take on 'Chelsea Hotel' set the high standard for tonight's show. At the Union Chapel's Flying Seagull benefit she and Romeo performed a dramatic version of 'The Partisan' which he repeated tonight with
fellow Magic Number, Angela Gannon creating a real chill. The third Number, Michele had the unenviable task of taking on perhaps Leonard's most iconic song 'Suzanna' that reverberated around a million bedsits as pale young boys failed to get off with pale willowy girls.

Partisans Romeo Stodart & Angela Gannon

Like Leonard's own live shows a choir of 'Angels' provided soothing backing vocals and call and response when Ed Harcourt stepped up to growl about 'The Future'. His voice fits these songs like a glove 'from his 80's electro period' and the band grooved brilliantly anchored by Michele Stodart's mercurial bass and foot stamps. Curator Kathryn Williams, closed the first half out with a moving 'Hey That's No Way To Say Goodbye'

What I particularly enjoyed was discovering new elements to Leonard's life that I wasn't aware of. I'm a fairly recent convert to his work, luckily I got to see the man live at one magical night in Brighton where he made a 5,000 seater feel like a tiny room like the one we were in tonight. Kerry read a section from Cohen's first novel, the semi autobiographical 'The Favourite Game' - a funny, poignant tale of dancing, teenage insecurity and comic pain. Even his interviews sounded like poetry, although his estate should get Mr Shale to do audiobook versions of his prose as he really bought the tales to life. Romeo and I would buy that for a dollar for sure. 
Host Kerry Shale
Kathryn Wiliams & Michele Stodart

This all helped create a more rounded and different experience for both performers and audience that your run of the mill tribute show wouldn't have touched on. Astrid Williamson performed a song not by but about Leonard by one time squeeze Joni Mitchell (course he did, the lucky blighter) 'Rainy Night House' from Ladies Of The Canyon. Cohen's admiration of Federico Garcia Lorca was represented with 'Ballad Of the Moon' spellbindingly sung in Spanish by Sylvie Lewis.

Ed Harcourt & his Angels

My personal highlight was the central section of the second half with Ren Harvieu, Romeo & Michele Stodart flowing on what felt like a telepathic energy during 'Famous Blue Raincoat' (which I suddenly realised refers to Cohen's experience with Scientology). Michele picked a song from the albums he recorded when he came back down from the mountain 'Crazy To Love You' which I admit I'd not noticed the gold in before hearing her perform it.

The real standout for me was Angela Bannon's reworking of 'Tower Of Song' - simply breath-taking. Shorn of its familiar female backing vocals it became a bare country song akin to that of Hank Williams who features in the lyric. From the running order below it appears this was a last minute addition to the set and I am so grateful it was.

Kathryn spoken movingly before 'Bird On A Wire' of how she recorded songs in her bedroom and sent them on cassette to the shop near the monastery where Leonard was living in the hope they might pass them on to him. That she heard about his passing while on the road, performing music all those years after he helped spark her career obviously guided her in piecing this celebration of his life together. A communal chorus of 'Marianne' beautifully led by Polly Paulusma and THAT SONG sealed a rather special night. Your correspondent was lucky enough to squeeze in to the sold out show at the last minute so stood for 2 1\4 hours, witnessing a loving and fitting tribute by some of my favourite musicians.

I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Pet Shop Boys - Bord Gais Theatre, Dublin 5th September 2017

They called us the Pop Kids
Cause we loved the pop hits
And quoted the best bits
So we were the Pop Kids

I have loved The Pet Shop Boys (hereafter PSB, no not THAT lot but they are great too) since the punchy beat and swirling wind of ‘West End Girls’ (not the 1st issue, wasn’t that trendy a pop kid) in 1985. Echoes of Ghost Town along with Neil Tennant’s distinctive deadpan delivery of arguably the greatest opening couplet, like, evs and I was smitten. I haven’t got the aversion to arch or cooly detached that some suffer from. My7 attention in their career wavered in the 2000’s (as possibly did theirs) but they’ve had a strong run of albums in the 21st Century although the latest ‘Super’ is a bit pony.

Despite this admiration I had never got to see them live – they rarely toured during their “imperial phase” perhaps too aware that Raw Sex’s spoof of their image “me, I’m good at standing still, you stand behind me with a keyboard someone has lent you” suggested their music wasn’t made for the stage. The decline of people actually buying records has made the need to tour to pay the rent a necessity. Thing is that they’ve become very good at it in a stylish way rather than the overblown egotism of stadium acts like U2, Coldplay etc

So the annual Irish roadtrip this year was a quick hop over to Dublin to see PSB in the fairly intimate Bord Gais Theatre – beautifully designed inside and painfully modern from the outside. From the Upper Circle for the first of a pair of instantly sold out nights we had a great view of the stage and full effect of the impressive lighting setup that would dominate the night, the sub bass throbbing as an intro as people slowly filtered in from the bar.

Neil and Chris appeared as if by magic, adorned with metal headgear, in front of two large circles either side of the stage before Chris took his post behind keyboard rig and Neil slowly prowled the monitor line. Despite his image of slightly bemused and embarrassed detachment, Neil was not averse to yelling ‘DUBLIN!’ in between songs in a rousing fashion. Unlike other acts of their vintage they have not slid into a nostalgia act and it was clear from the opening ‘Inner Sanctum’ from the so-so ‘Super’ that they had ‘new’ and we would hear it.

The duo were aided by two drummers percussionists (one regular drumkit / one electronic) plus extra keyboard, violin and beats from another. As to how much was actually being played live, I don’t think it really matters, this wasn’t Kraftwerk levels of inactivity – that band were tight and on it with the sound immaculate, bass kicking and the highs sharp. When I had seen Elvis Costello there three years earlier the sound had been muddy and vocals buried but it wasn’t the case tonight – a delight.

Although the set was heavy on recent adventures there was still room for “deep cuts” and ver hits – ‘Opportunities’ signalling the first roar from the crowd but I was particularly thrilled to hear ‘In The Night’ originally the B-side to the aforementioned single and the glorious 'The Sodom & Gomorrah Show' from ‘Fundamental’. The songs from ‘Super’ were given extra energy played live and ‘The Dictator Decides’ with images of battling insects mixed with militarialist material as a backdrop was the nights darkest moment.

As there wasn’t much movement on stage the lights and projections had to reflect as well as enhance the music in ways that a glittery jacket (ala Father Ted & Dougal in the My Lovely Horse promo film) Neil sported for most of the show could not. Hits were played but with a modern feel and edge thatr some might see as heresy when it came to ‘Left To My Own Devices’ sans Anne Dudley’s divebombing strings replaced with sparse trance drones and scattered beats. Hearing a couple of thousand people sing ‘Che Guevara & Debussy to a disco beat’ was still thrilling thou.

“This is called Love Comes Quickly, it used to go like that, now it goes like this” Neil Tennant didn’t drawl as another 30+ year old tune was given some fresh fairy dust and hits came in a similar rush – Go West, West End Girls, It’s A Sin, Domino Dancing, ending the night with one of the best Xmas number one’s ever (that kept Fairytale of New York from the top spot) the non-festive ‘Always On My Mind’

In an alternate universe they played ‘Being Boring, ‘Suburbia’, ‘So Hard’, ‘Can You Forgive Her?’ ‘Heart’ (although we got a couple of lines of that), ‘You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk’, ‘Rent’, ‘It’s Alright’, ‘Jealousy, ‘DJ Culture’ ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This’ or (as it was Dublin, ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ but it was a fabulous night in this reality showing the quality of their work. The pop kids still rule, ok?

Inner Sanctum
The Pop Kids
In The Night
Love Is A Bourgeois Construct
New York City Boy
Se A Vida E
Love Comes Quickly
Love Etc
The Dictator Decides
Inside A Dream
West End Girls
Home & Dry
The Sodom & Gomorrah Show
It's A Sin
Left To My Own Devices
Go West
Domino Dancing
Always On My Mind \ The Pop Kids (slight return)