Wednesday, 30 October 2019

The Alternative We Need Right Now

So we are all headed for an election on 12th December.

Oh joy.

It isn't the usual ennui at weeks of political coverage or the whole seemingly flawed solution to an unsolvable problem. It's that it's my birthday and when I am lying in post celebratory curry mess I won't be able to escape into the world of my favourite radio show for a couple of hours.

It's been like that a few times of late when the 'B-thing' (I can't bring myself to write that word and I curse Peter Wilding for coining the phrase in 2012) action in parliament has led to ' The Late Night Alternative with Iain & Kath' being nudged off Talk Radio so that IT can be discussed ad nauseum until the wee small hours. At the same time as every other BBC and commercial speech radio outlet - with the same rent-a-gob panellists and MPs popping up spouting their mantra.

Or the callers - "will of the people" , "17.4 million", "taking back control", "Armageddon", "riots on the streets", "remoaners", "gammon", "idiots", "knew what they were voting for", "didn't know what they were doing", "pole dancing", "Marxist", "make our own laws" "make our own deals".....

You could just have a list of these opinions and people could phone up and say 'Well I think 7, 23 and 2". It would save so much time because nothing new has been said on the subject for years. Its an ever circling Catherine Wheel of bile, mistrust, division and joyless race to the bottom. I believe America might well be pulling itself out of the nosedive but we are going full Peter Davison cliffhanger of Episode 3 of 'The Caves Of Androzani' on this one.* 

The 'B thing' has killed speech radio in the UK - it used to be a breeding ground for real invention and a mix of the serious and the downright silly. It seems unbelievable now that the man who launched a thousand viral clips where he dismantles people's arguments for leaving the EU used to have a regular feature called 'Beat The Sweet'. Callers would try and guess what sweet James O'Brien had in front of him in a 20 questions like format - did it have a wrapper, was it chewy, was it minty, what colour was it? He claims that he does do other things than talk about the EU but outside 'Mystery Hour' those other subjects are few and far between. In the same way politics has gone mono while the police, schools, hospitals and other public services can't get a look in as they are being butchered - anything other than our national nervous breakdown is sidelined on the airwaves.
Night time radio was even more of a lawless state with masters like Clive Bull creating community on a wide scale - oddballs, fruitloops nestles next to those discussing news events but a meeting of minds rather than a bearpit of spite. Of course social media has made our discourse coarser and the joy of Peter Cook ringing up in character as a Swedish lovelorn lugubrious Londoner, weaving his brand of nonsense is in the dim and distant past but by narrowing the focus of speech radio, the broadcasters are giving people what they think they want. To the point that they no longer have any choice - the 'B thing' is the only game in town, the battle lines are drawn, the gobs are on their sticks, the callers have their shits in mitts ready to launch - it's lazy as fuck but what's the alternative?

Iain Lee (11 O'clock Show, RI:SE, Strawberries) and his producer\co-host Katherine Boyle (Northern Cher, coal shed dancer) are an oasis of sweet succulent fruit and cool refreshing water in the current speech radio desert. It's hard to describe the show as it really has no format other than there are no topics, no spoon feeding or patronising the audience - the phonelines open and it grows organically from whatever is on the callers minds that night, It's a high wire act and sometimes it falls but that's the nature of innovative broadcasting and it's never boring. Except when people ring in thinking it's just like every other show on at that time of night.

For me the show is like a community of disparate people, drawn together by their love of the silly, absurd and a belief in the creativity and goodness of most people. The Late Night Alternative or TLNA made the news last year when a listener rang in having taken an overdose and Iain kept him on the air, trying to get his location, keeping him talking until the emergency services turned up. It may be crass to describe it as incredible radio but it also showed what a unique environment that Iain and Kath have created. Where callers can lay themselves bare emotionally, share their life experiences and ideas and they will be heard and given time. Often a person may ring in to harangue Iain and slag off the show yet he is skilled in getting to the core of situations and discovering the real cause of their ire. Of course the show gets its fair share of straight trolling and hateful calls which the pair also deal with like a cat batting at a mouse. All this can happen within the space of half an hour. 

The trick with these kinds of shows that rely on the input of people calling not to make it feel like a club that you can't be a member of because there are regular voices that are heard nightly. Calling a radio station is a nerve wracking and odd thing to do but its also a thrill and like reaching out into the world to wave at strangers. TLNA has its long time residents but rather than put you off they draw you in because you either care about them or they drive you mad - like family and groups of friends. 

It's a welcoming and inclusive place for whether you are happy or sad, feeling silly or thoughtful - just don't swear (too much), don't be a dick and don't be dull. Iain and Kath bouncing ideas off each other, arguing and generally mucking about is key to the shows success as their friendship is a wonderful thing to hear.

It would be sad if the push to discuss the 'B-thing' 24\7 means this kind of show has to lose its spark and freewheeling energy to become ordinary. There has to be room for people, for sharing, for exploring what unites us rather than constantly creating atmospheres for us to be snide and bitter towards each other. Politics never used to be this overarchingly self important presence and it is unfortunate that it has come to this. Iain & Kathrine have imagination, honesty, humour, filth and a mischievous but ultimately universal appeal that can't be learnt - it's a genuine gift

Sky Television recently launched a news channel that doesn't mention "B" because they believe a sizeable part of the UK population are sick to the back teeth of it and want other topics in the depth that is given to 'B' .

Talk Radio is in the same stable as Sky so they must be able to appreciate that radio needs a safe space too? That audience and advertising revenue is there for the taking so listen up - start shouting about your output which is different and innovative rather than how you are always going with the flow.

As the election looms the idea that their contribution to helping us through life might be dulled or tainted by the "serious" and "important" is truly worrying to us late night losers. The absurd, the irreverent and a bit of cabaret as the Titanic hits the iceberg is just as vital

Iain & Kath are the alternative that we need right now - more than ever

The Late Night Alternative - every weeknight from 10pm-1am on Talk Radio **

* shut yer face
** except when the B thing is SO important

NB: The above is purely my opinion of the show and does not reflect that of the staff of Talk radio or anyone who listens to the TLNA because who would take notice of those bellends? 

Monday, 22 July 2019

Kathryn Williams Anthology: 20\20 Vision

One of the threads running through singer\songwriter Kathryn Williams' work for these past 20 something years it is bringing light to the darkness - whether that be of human frailty, love conquering fear or another making life more bearable.

'Darkness\Light' from 2013's 'Crown Electric' (Sometimes there are shadows that I have to fight/ but you can make the darkness bright / You can make my darkness light) and 'Mirrorball' from 2002's 'Old Low Light' (Moonlight is so overrated \ Complete darkness is so embracive) demonstrate a love\hate relationship with the darker side of nature.

When I first encountered Kathryn's work I was just emerging from a dark place myself and finding that wish to hide from the world and the need to experience fully it for the first time in years very much at the forefront of my mind. I had been in a clinic after a nervous breakdown at the beginning of the year, anxiety, depression mixed with a form of acrophobia and loneliness had made my world fall apart into crippling daily panic attacks. I came out the other side with a renewed confidence and understanding that this was something that I would have to constantly work at to maintain a fairly normal existence. The one thing I knew I wanted to do was go to more live music as my anxiety had prevented that for so many years - the crowds, the claustrophobia, heat and heightened awareness made it all so difficult.

I can't recall if it was a session or interview on GLR, as BBC Radio London (or LDN) will always be known to some of us that I heard in late 1999 ahead of her appearance at the 12 Bar in London (don't look for it, its not there anymore) and was immediately taken by her voice on the title track from her EP 'Fade'. Perhaps I should declare my interest in that I sneaked a copy of her performance at the 12 Bar from the sound desk in exchange for a beer which I gave to Kathryn some 17 years later when I heard she was putting together a box set of her career so far.

Each remastered album is accompanied by a bonus disc of demos \ live and unreleased songs that rather than replicate material already out there on B-side and the like demonstrates a development of the albums as well as Kathryn as a songwriter and artist. So what follows is 20 selections that mean something to me and are my guide to what makes this a special collection, so lets start Side 1, Track 1….
Leazes Park 
Self financed and manufactured debut album and the opening track arrives like a mystery with an uneasy sense of dread and obsession. The simple backing with its insistent circular guitar figure helps hold your attention. Kathryn's vocal is woozy yet brittle and fierce, accusatory and beguiling. She draws you into her world. 

No One To Blame (Live at 12 Bar, London 1999)
From her first London show and the tape I sneaked away that night is the song Kathryn claims 'gave me the reputation of being a lesbian which I went along with just to be polite'. Performed with Laura Reid on strings it has a menacing, angry and regretful air with staccato stabs echoed in the lyric. Even at this early stage she is able to hold a room quiet and attentive.

We Dug A Hole
This is a song I can probably recreate every note of in my head without needing to hear it. Her Mercury Prize nominated album bought her to a wider audience with a superb collection of songs. What gets me is the almost whispered opening lines that slowly builds swirling through waters, popcorn and sticky carpets to the joyful coda chant 'Warmer than wood, old and safe' that descends into barking and laughter.

Changeling (unreleased song)

What I find so interesting about this, one of many unreleased home recordings in the box set, is that it would not sound out of place on 'Hypoxia' many years later. It has the same directness and sensitivity that makes that album such a success. 'For as long as you need to I'll tell you what you want to hear' comes from a place of love but also resigned desperation. 

3AM Phone Call 
There is just something about this one. It may be the imagery 'She looked up quick and back down \ like a flash from a lighthouse \ he saw the sea asleep in her eyes' or the lightly strummed sleepy delivery but it always makes me chilled

Little Black Numbers (live at Union Chapel)
When I first saw Kathryn perform this song using live sample looping she did so gripping hold of the box for dear life. After years of practice and probably better and smaller equipment she effortlessly creates this fan favourite performance. Doubletracking a backing vocal for the song as accompaniment, the repeat 'They're just fat men and thin girls' is built into a massed choir with added refrains - a wild cacophony of sound and its great to finally this masterful delivery on tape.

Spit On A Stranger
When promoting her covers album, Kathryn appeared slightly embarrassed about it in her own sweet way, encouraging people to check out the originals instead. Unlike many, many other artists I think its a rare successful entry in the genre. Plus the song choices and artists are not obvious and to be frank, Id never heard this Pavement song before I heard Kathryn's take and I still prefer her version for its simple and direct approach and sensitive arrangement.   

Saturday Sun (Live at London Barbican 1999)
The first time Kathryn received some notice on the national stage was at this Joe Boyd curated tribute in 1999 to mark the 30th anniversary of his debut album release. It's such an assured and confident performance considering the Guardian reported her saying  'I went to get my coat and they said you're on, and they put the guitar in my hands and basically pushed me towards the stage. It was like floor-to-ceiling people and then the orchestra didn't start... I was meant to give the cue... when I got off stage, it was amazing, the sound of clapping, it was deafening.'

Beachy Head 
What I particularly love about this track is its arrangement - the way the strings weave, swoop and dive like seagulls, the gentle muted brass and the percussive driving energy. It has a classic 60s feel about it with an superb vocal that goes from full throated joy to barely whisper, echoing the halting passages and tumbling off the edge.

The Gift (home demo)
Another fine songs that fell through the cracks - full of hope and optimism 'If you look at whose around to this day / every one a gift that you never thought would stay'.

Glass Bottom Boat 
Often described by Kathryn as the first proper love songs that she wrote and it perfectly encompasses that feeling of finding someone you can be yourself with - all your insecurities and fears on display but it doesn't matter. Echoes a bit of another track 'Old Low Light #2'. If there is a finer declaration of the warm enveloping comfort of love that 'I feel like you've turned me into a glass bottom boat / You see everything I hide but still keep me afloat' then I haven't heard it. 

Calderstones (home demo)
Apparently written when she was 16 this is the soundtrack to a scene in a coming of age film yet to be made. One of those endless summer days and nights that only exist in your memory. Picking at the grass in the park, talking until dusk, mucking about in your pals old banger, friends becoming something else until the rain send your scurrying for home. It has an inner truth and the 'you and me and everyone' bit will be in your head for weeks

Grey Goes 
Kathryn's collaboration with Neill MacColl resulted in a large number of songs which spill over onto the bonus CD. The sweetly soporific 'Come With Me' and the delightfully domestic & sweary 'Armchair' are firm favourites but the spiky 'Grey Goes' with its staccato rhythm and woozy feel and abstract lyrics is a standout. A live take amongst the extra tracks shows how far out the song can go.

Just Let Me Go (Unreleased)
A bittersweet song about being able to make your own mistakes
'walk the wrong road, get lost far away, meet the right love and throw it away' underpinned by a harmonium and a suitably melancholy duet. 

50 White Lines
This song has got me through a few dark nights out on the road when the isolation and anxiety of the encroaching darkness get too much. Not sure if that was the inspiration for the lyric but when I am trying to gather my thoughts and stay on the road I find myself counting the white lines as 'the nerves down my arms hit like sparks'.

Timer (unreleased)
Fittingly the bonus material presented shares the same experimental and adventurous ideas present in the main album. The brittle and playful 'Timer' is short but there's a lot going on in its off kilter percussion, collage of vocals and mysterious tone. 

Instantly fell in love with 'Sequins' the first time I heard it and for me it's one of Kathryn's finest songs full of honesty, wit and a brilliant production by Ed Harcourt. His work on the album as a whole is great but the chiming piano and the luscious strings take it to another level. On an album concerned with time, aging, life and death - all the good stuff - Sequins sparkles. Musing on heaven and whether the pubs will be open longer 'Heel gets stuck in the crack on the cloud / lightning strikes at the pull of a shoe / if I walk the afterlife with no makeup on I'll be frightening the angels for good' is done with a smile. 

Sorrow Flies (Unreleased)
Seriously, how this didn't make the album proper I don't know.
Its such a great vocal, the sunlight banishing shadows and darkness, knowing its will return but making hay in the meantime. Lush strings and bassy bass give this an unbearable poiniancy

Beating Heart
For me this is the central nervous system of Kathryn's album based on characters in Sylvia Plath's 'The Bell Jar' developed out of a commission by New Writing North. Its the quiet moment of reflection in a storm of emotions, crises, loss, hard life lessons and confusion. The fragility but indestructability of the minds will to survive and endure with a featherlight touch. The final 'I can, I can' which turns into an enquiring 'can I? can I?' is a beautiful summation of the battle at the heart of both novel and album. 

Mirrors (recorded on tour)

The song is based on an incident in Plath's novel where the protagonist, Esther, has a confusing experience in a mirrored elevator where she fails to recognise herself, reflecting her weakening grasp of her own identity. The tour version turns that disintegration up to 11, with double tracked vocals and a more jazzy backing as if emphasising two sides of the same personality. Its an alternate choice of how the song could have been presented.

Packaged with a book of lyrics and another illustrated stories behind the songs and her career - all with Kathryn's own designs and artwork this is a very personal, intimate and tactile release from someone whose music connects with the listener in a very direct and simple way. A perfect place for newbies to start and so much more for double dippers to discover - welcome to her world.

Available to preorder here with signed and special edition extras
and released on 9th August 2019 by One Little Indian 

Saturday, 6 July 2019

Belle & Sebastian @ Oxford Academy 4th July 2019

“Twenty two years ago to this very day we were stood on this stage” announced Stuart Murdoch, “how has your life been?”. The last of these small warm up UK shows for a US tour ahead of their Boaty Weekender cruise gave the band a chance to shake the setlist up a bit. Whereas Sheffield & Manchester got a fairly usual set with firm favourites like ‘I’m A Cuckoo’ & ‘Me & The Major’ we in Oxford were shown, what I think sportsball commentators term ‘strength in depth’.
A sizeable chunk of tonight’s set was taken from ‘Fold Your Arms Child, You Walk Like A Peasant’ – a less celebrated entry in their canon and one which I don’t actually own. Then again I’m not a massive fan of one of their most celebrated ‘The Boy With The Arab Strap’ so go figure. I am a bit of a late passenger on the B&S Express – I got on board with The Life Pursuit and worked my way backwards. An acquaintance played me Tigermilk back in 1999 and I have fond memories but I was in a clinic after a nervous breakdown and high on legal drugs so I didn’t trust myself.

Kicking off with side 1 track 1 of that 1996 debut ‘The State I Am In’ they immediately make their lightness of pop touch look effortless. They have a new album in the fall – The Days Of The Bagnold Summer – a soundtrack to the film of the award winning graphic novel – and the lead track ‘Sister Buddah’ kicks serious amounts of bottom live as guitars jangle, that little refrain gets in your head and Stuarts joyous vocal just soars. After last years slightly lacklustre ‘How To Solve Our Human Problems’ its great to hear them sounding fresher and inspired.

So the beauty of “deep cut” setlists influenced by tweets n mails from the fanbase is that you get to hear devastating songs for the first time that completely floor you – tonight being ‘The Party Line’ from the unloved ‘Fold…’ which relates to a friend of Stuart’s being raped while working at Butlins. Achingly bleak and tragic, a stream of consciousness with anger, fear, shame and helplessness topped off with the closing image ‘Her face was just a smear on the pane’ as she leaves for London on a bus. We did request a really sad song and this just made the world stop for a minute of so.
Not that it bought the evening down as title tracks of ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’ & ‘Dear catastrophe Waitress’ got us boogieing. Sarah & Stevie got vocal spots with ‘Family Tree’ and a rockin take on ‘Wrong Girl’ before the invited stage invasion for ‘The Boy With The Arab Strap’ & ‘We Are The Sleepyheads’ among the already busy stage with horns n strings augmenting the bands sound. Stuart balancing on the front barrier to make this already intimate show even more so as main set ended with ‘Sleep The Clock Around’

An earlier shouted request for ‘The Blues Are Still Blue’ (“We’re you the person who wrote and asked for that? Cos its been signed, sealed in triplicate that one) is delivered in the encore with their best T Rex stomp and feline grace with some elementary kung fu moves thrown in. A final pick from ‘Fold…’ in ‘Woman’s Realm’ seals a rather brilliant demonstration that 22 years on this band can still surprise and shake your expectations.

The State I Am In
Dirty Dream Number Two
Sister Buddha
She’s Losing It
The Model
Beyond the Sunrise
I Want the World to Stop
The Chalet Lines
If You’re Feeling Sinister
Family Tree
The Wrong Girl
I Can See Your Future
Dear Catastrophe Waitress
The Boy With the Arab Strap
We Are the Sleepyheads
Sleep the Clock Around
The Blues Are Still Blue
Women’s Realm

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Nick Lowe @ Brighton Old Market (4th June 2019)

‘I think there will be something in our repertoire tonight to satisfy even the most jaded of audience members, including those who might only recognise one or two song – probably sung by someone else’ grins new septegenarian Nick Drain Lowe from the low stage of the Brighton Old Market. Despite being many years down the rock n roll road he appears to still be having a whale of a time. Backed by surf garage band Los Straitjackets in their Mexiacan wrestler garb he’s already given his his initial solo statement ‘So It Goes’ (BUY1), ‘Ragin’ Eyes’ and ‘Without Love’ with an effortless grace and cool.

Still whippet thin and in crisp white shirt, this silver fox has left the crooning at home for the most part and got his dancing shoes on. With a new EP ‘Love Starvation’ folowing on from last years ‘Tokyo Bay’ he indeed has songs of all kinds to despense. This aims to be a rather civilised evening – doors open at 7pm, the excellent support set from rockabilly riot Howlin Jaws at 7.30 with Nick done and dusted by 10pm sharp. Which means there is nstill time to grab a drink or three or be home before you turn into a pumpkin
Was particularly delighted to hear Nick play ‘Shting Shtang’ after seeing him many times from one of his finest ‘Party Of One’ with Los Straitjackets providing that tremelo wobble and choppy rock n roll sound. In order to catch breath and change to a more colourful shirt, Nick gives way to a set from his band which sounds like The Ventures recorded by Joe Meek with Dick Dale on buzzsaw guitar. Playing originals like Space Mosquito as well as a beat cover of ‘My heart Will Go On’ they rework ‘I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass’ as Nick reenters stage right pursued by a beer.

The new songs slip in seemlessly with the country bop of ‘Half A Boy & Half A Man’, Somebody Cares For Me’ – a particular favourite is ‘Raincoat In the River’ which is classic Lowe – shedding the blues for the optimism of rekindled love. But of course ‘Blue On Blue’ takles us back down again. The set ends with the triple treat of the peerless ‘Cruel To be Kind’ with Nick playfully watching how the solo is played and taking notes, ‘Heart Of The City’ and ‘I Knew The Bride’ with a namecheck for the local King Hotel.
Los Straitjackets return for a slam through Batman with some detours before ‘When I Write The Book’ – ‘ please feel free to join in – cos if Rockpile could manage to sing it, so can you’ and PL&U ends with a gracious goodbye wave. If you are going to see him on this tour then I would advise you get there early, not just for the support but also cos the clock on the wall waits for no one.
This Jesus is still cool as fuck - miss him and forever repent your sins

Monday, 27 May 2019

Rocketman (2019)

Director Dexter Fletcher (aka Baby Face from Bugsy Malone aka Spike from Press Gang) infamously came in to complete the Queen biopic ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ after Bryan Singer was shown the door. Its hard to tell how much impact he had on the films tone etc but in ‘Rocketman’ he’s only made the film that Bohemian Rhapsody could have been.
The biggest problem I had with “Bo Rhap” is that it was dull. Not the factual innacuracies, not Rami Maliks prosthetics not the lumpen script that ticked every clichĂ©. The last thing, like them or loathe them, that Queen were was humdrum and ordinary – ok maybe John Deacon – but that film made their extravagant, outrageous, ego bomb of a frontman into a most ordinary man.
The main advantage that this Elton biopic has is that it isn’t one. The subtitle is ‘based on a true fantasy’ and if anything it is a musical based on Elton Johns life. You could easily see this leading to a show in the West end. It has characters singing at each other, expressing their feelings through lyrics that are anachronistic to the events portrayed – 2001’s ‘I Want Love’ sung by an 8 year old Elton, his mum, dad and nan.
Like the Queen flick there are set pieces like the infamous Troubador shows in August 1970, Dodgers Stadium in 1975, Royal Variety in 1972 but they aren’t faithful recreations like the Live Aid climax to the Queen film. There is an infamous shot from the Troubadour of Elton with legs flailing behind him like he is levitating. The film takes that moment and turns it up to 10 as Taron Egerton’s Elton takes in the moment in slow motion as the crowd rise off the ground with him before slamming back to earth into ‘Crocodile Rock’ . It doesn’t matter that he didn’t play that song at that gig and wouldn’t record it for 2 years – as part of the fantastical nature of the film which has already seen a ten year old Reggie Dwight banging out ‘Saturday Nights Alright For Fighting’ on the pub joanna
Edgerton is absolutely terrific as Elton – the little twitches, shy smiles and frowns are just as vital as the OTT concert performances and tantrums. I had a problem with Richard Madden as his manager / lover John Reid as I couldn’t get the comedian talk show host Craig Ferguson out of my head every time he appeared. Jamie Bell (aka Billy Elliot – Elton of course wrote the hit musical based on the film) does a fine job as Bernie Taupin desperately trying to stop his friend and himself from disappearing down the bottom of a glass.
Thankfully there are no people wandering on in dodgy wigs to be Freddie, Rod, Mick n Keef etc although Kiki Dee does show up. His homosexuality is not avoided or toned down for a mainstream audience and neither is his failings as a person, a friend, a son and a husband (although his marriage to Renate goes from meeting to divorce in less than 5 minutes) and as he says “I started being a cunt in 1975 and I just didn’t stop”. Neither is the sliding quality of his career with ‘Victim Of Love’ chosen as the nadir which is probably the lowest point of anyone’s association with Elton.
The film is framed around Elton in an AA meeting in 1984 – dressed in a red silk diamante devil costume complete with horns and wings which he slowly sheds as he confronts his past before he struts from the room in a faithful recreation of one his most iconic videos.
Yes the film has some corny n sappy dialogue, is sugary enough at points to give you Type II and it has the obligatory “Here I’ve written some lyrics, see what you can do” scene where Elton just throws together one of his signature songs. However you can forgive the film that for its fantasy sequences, playing fast and loose with reality and making the experience of being Elton John in the 1970s simultaneously wonderful and horrific.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Setlist -

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

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

Friday, 10 May 2019

Ricahrd Hawley @EartH Hackney 6th May 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

National bloody treasure - like the venue - ragged but right


Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Tower Theatre Presents: Happy Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 8 April 2019

Hancock's Half Hour @ Leicester Square Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stone me - it was marvellous.

Thursday, 28 March 2019

Being Frank:The Chris Sievey Story

I hate funerals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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