Round about half way through this year, I realised I wasn’t in good shape at all. My inability to handle a whole heap of worries – my mum’s health especially – led me into a very dark place. Cue a good talking to myself, and a realisation I had to get myself fit mentally and physically. Part of that was getting into hillwalking. I did wee bit years ago, and really enjoyed it, but let it slide; I’ve decided not to be so complacent about making time for me from now on.
So in July, I connected with a friendly local walking group to get back out onto the hills. The first, Ben Lui, damn near killed me because I completely overestimated what I could do, and it’s a bloody big lump of a hill when you combine it with its wee Munro neighbour, Beinn a’Chleibh. But perseverance has paid off, and there were some real highlights in the remaining six months of the year.
Finding myself on Stuchd an Lochain with the mountain totally deserted; a great weekend with my friend and colleague Lio Moscardini’s friends and family to do his compleation on Ben More on Mull; a dreich day on Meall Chuaich philosophising with the lovely J. David Simons; meeting a gorgeous red head on Ben Lawers. I think I’ve got the bug, and intend to bag lots more next year, as well as having a two week hiking holiday in Bulgaria or Morocco.
One thing I have to do, though, is get used to heights. Never been too keen on big drops, and the walking group plan to do the Aonach Eagach next year.
Jings, my palms are sweating already…
I haven’t done nearly as much theatre as I should have this year, but I’ve seen some beauts. Good to experience some actors I’ve never seen before, like Antony Sher; ‘Henry IV’ was sleep-inducing (what does anyone see in the histories?) but Sher was having a ball, chewing the scenery as Falstaff.
Best of the year: one ensemble piece, one male performance, one female performance.
‘Much Ado…’ at the beautiful Royal Exchange was a delight. I rarely laugh when reading Shakespeare’s comedies, but when they’re successfully brought alive they’re great fun. Some didn’t like the big-headed dancing, but I thought it was gorgeous, and Paul Ready as Benedick and Ellie Piercey as Beatrice were brilliant foils.
Tom Hiddleston was fabulous as Coriolanus: I’ve said it all already. But probably the best performance of the year goes to Gillian Anderson as Blanche in the second half of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire.’
The first half – I’ve never liked. It’s all too loud and hysterical and self-indulgent. I confess to nodding off. Then, after the interval, Anderson proceeded to grab the audience by the throat and scream in their faces with a portrayal of a disintegrating woman that in the space of half an hour left me breathless and gobsmacked. She was stupendous, and how she did that night after night after night without going bonkers herself is a miracle. Along with her performance in BBC’s ‘The Fall’, she’s actress of the year, I think.
Not surprisingly, Anderson and Hiddleston won the Evening Standard luvvies’ award – well deserved. Honourable mentions go to Meghan Tyler for her portrayal of another woman off the edge, Ophelia, in the Citz’ otherwise patchy ‘Hamlet’, and to Richard Armitage for a perfect, powerful, sexy John Proctor in The Old Vic’s ‘The Crucible’.
|1. The Crucible||7/12||8||Old Vic Live|
|2. A Christmas Carol||5/12||8||Citizens|
|4. A Streetcar Named Desire||16/9||9||NT Live|
|5. Henry IV||14/5||5||RSC Live|
|6. Much Ado About Nothing||28/4||9||Royal Exchange, Manchester|
|7. War Horse||9/3||7||NT Live|
|8. Coriolanus||4/2||9||NT Live|
I’ve been silent really since the summer, concentrating on getting well, dealing with family, etc. Nobody reads my blog any more anyway, so this is just a round-up of the year as a bulwark against dementia; I may need to remind myself in years to come that I really have seen these acts…
So here they are – all the bands I’ve seen this year (or the ones I can remember) along with venues, dates and a rough mark out of ten that simply records how memorable the gig was. Hate marks out of ten, but in the absence of a review, it’s the best I’m gonna do.
Which means my gigs of the year were Joan as Police Woman at Liquid Rooms and Angel Olsen at Mono. If you were to hold my hand in a candle flame to make me choose, it’d probably be Angel Olsen. As wonderful and vibrant and reinvented as JaPW was, Olsen was new and fresh and fantastic. Great stuff.
|1. Fatherson / We Were Promised Jetpacks||13/12||8/7||QMU|
|2. Rodrigo y Gabriela||6/12||7||O2 Academy|
|3. Sharon van Etten||25/11||7||Art School|
|4. The War on Drugs||8/11||5||O2 ABC|
|5. Dancing Years / Boy & Bear||4/11||7/7||Oran Mor|
|6. Marissa Nadler||5/9||5||Broadcast|
|7. Joan as Police Woman||5/8||9||Liquid Room|
|8. The National||10/7||6||Usher Hall|
|9. Anti Flag||29/6||5||Glastonbury|
|10. The Portraits||29/6||3||Glastonbury|
|11. St Vincent||29/6||7||Glastonbury|
|13. Juana Molina||29/6||8||Glastonbury|
|15. Bryan Ferry||28/6||7||Glastonbury|
|16. Manic Street Preachers||28/6||7||Glastonbury|
|17. Rev Peyton’s Big Damn Band||28/6||6||Glastonbury|
|19. Angel Haze||28/6||3||Glastonbury|
|20. Aoife O’Donovan||28/6||5||Glastonbury|
|21. Billy Bragg||27/6||7||Glastonbury|
|23. Wild Beasts||27/6||6||Glastonbury|
|24. Rodrigo y Gabriela||27/6||7||Glastonbury|
|25. The War on Drugs||27/6||6||Glastonbury|
|26. Turtle Island||27/6||4||Glastonbury|
|27. Seize the Day||27/6||3||Glastonbury|
|28. Wye Oak||13/6||7||King Tut’s|
|29. Angel Olsen||9/6||9||Mono|
|30. Smoke Fairies||30/5||7||SWG3|
|31. Jill Brown||28/5||7||Barlinnie|
|32. The Flaming Lips||26/5||4||Usher Hall|
|33. Prides||22/5||8||King Tut’s|
|34. Revere||15/5||7||King Tut’s|
|35. Pokey LaFarge||2/5||8||Paradiso, Amsterdam|
|36. Snarky Puppy||1/5||7||O2 ABC|
|37. British Sea Power||6/4||6||Liquid Room|
|38. Parlotones||3/4||7||King Tut’s|
|39. Dar Williams||14/3||5||CCA|
|40. Suzanne Vega||1/2||7||City Halls|
|41. Raghu Dixit||24/1||6||Oran Mor|
|42. Mayra Andrade||21/1||7||GRCH|
It is with great sadness that I wish to unsubscribe from the Scottish Review. I did not renew my friendship of SR at the beginning of this year because I was anxious about the trend in your choice of contributors to cover the Independence debate, and that anxiety has been vindicated.
I have been privileged to work with many dedicated and passionate young people – several through the magnificent National Collective and Radical Independence movements – who, quite frankly, have much more enjoyable things to do than spend constant months of their lives trying to convince an apathetic, fearful, self-interested and short sighted Scottish public that they have the wherewithal to create a better, fairer nation.
None of them ‘was their own worst enemy’; they were all our best friends. None of them ever called the opposition ‘bastards’; all of them engaged politely and knowledgeably with anyone who wished to discuss the referendum with them. None of them threw eggs; instead, they had a penchant for wish trees, balloons and some of the most inspiring writing, music and art I have encountered for years.
And some of them were hounded and assaulted by fascist thugs in George Square on Friday night.
Of course, Kenneth Roy was not directly responsible for the violence we saw in the streets of Glasgow. But if he is a journalist, and not a petty blogger fueled by personal animus because someone of importance didn’t take to heart his own inflated views expressed in a ‘columnar exchange’, then he has a duty to report it with the fairness and lack of bias that has been so lacking in this campaign.
Of course, I believe that the world is a better place for the Scottish Review and I wish you well, but I cannot continue to actively support you, write for you or recommend you.
New Writing Scotland 32: ‘Songs of Other Places’ is now available to order from the Association for Scottish Literary Studies. Editors Zoe Strachan and Gerry Cambridge have gone for a slimmed down volume this year, and the quality is extremely high, with great writers like Christopher Whyte, Helen Sedgewick, Graham Fulton and Ron Butlin. Here’s an extract from my contribution, the title story ‘Songs of Other Places';
‘She kneads the pie dough, working through the flour, egg slipping between her fingers, strong fingers she has, and she knows how to knead dough cause her momma showed her how. Saturday afternoons, she’d park Alice up on a big kitchen stool and they’d be side by side, her momma baking big pies, apple and blueberry and pumpkin, and Alice made little pies with the same fillings that she’d feed to her dolls. Momma would sing Buddy Holly songs, sometimes whip her off that stool for a dance, whirling her around the kitchen, Every day, it’s a getting’ closer, Goin’ faster than a roller coaster, and she’d lift Alice high and they’d bump noses at the Love like yours bit.
‘During foaling, Roger Hernandez stayed in the hayloft above the barn, put up some walls with bits of lumber and bales of hay, ran a line from the generator so he could have a little hotplate and an old Dansette cassette player. Momma loaned him some Buddy Holly tapes, and he used to play mariachi bands, and Alice would sneak in and hide underneath the hayloft and listen to those horns. Then he got inta some other stuff, foreign like, first kinda Frenchy or European, then strange instruments she’d never heard before, and women’s voices that seemed to fit together in ways that didn’t sound quite like it shoulda. She asked him once, “Roger Hernandez, where does that music you listen to come from?” but all he said was, “Little Alice, they come from other places, far, far away.” They have camels there, he said, as well as horses, and the grasslands go on forever, even bigger and wider than the Prairies. “They don’t sing right,” she told him, and he said she was right, but it wasn’t really singing. “Ululating,” he said it was, and Alice reckoned the word sounded like the singing.’
£9.95 well spent, I say.
I picked up on Wye Oak – Baltimorians Andy Stack and Jenn Wasner – after catching ‘The Tower’ on Radio 6. They reminded me of another indie band I fell in love with last year, Dark, Dark, Dark, so this was a speculative gig just to check out a new sound to me. Given my mum had died the day before, I looked at the ticket and initially thought, ‘Nah’, but then decided that it was better to be not in the mood at King Tut’s than not in the mood at home on my own. It was the right decision.
They’re an odd band musically. Wasner is a multi-instrumentalist – bass, guitar, keyboards – and their sound has definitely changed between their breakthrough album ‘Civilian’ and their latest ‘Shriek’ because she is concentrating more on bass than guitar. Melodies are more electro-pop than grungy, her voice modulated somewhat. Stack is even more interesting. I’ve never seen anyone play keyboards and drums. At the same time. Yes, that’s right. Left side doing the keyboards, right side doing the percussion. And it works. It really does.
They are really very, very good. I’d recommend you have a listen to 1980’s-style pop anthem ‘Glory‘, ‘The Tower‘, ‘Holy Holy‘ and their most popular track ‘Civilian‘, one of those lyrics you haven’t a bloody clue about but which nevertheless seeps into your brain and just won’t bloody leave. It’s meaningless and marvellous and quite gorgeous.
Pretty short review because I’m doing it very much in retrospect, but this is a band I’d happily go well out of my way to see again.
I love The National. I have done since about 2006, when ‘Boxer’ was one of the albums of the year and ‘Fake Empire’ hit the streets as one of those classic anthems you’ll never ever be able to do without. I love their music – all syncopated and, dammit, difficult at times. I love Matt Berninger’s vocals, as if he’s just had a cello surgically inserted into his oesophagus. Most of all, I love their lyrics for their ability to knock you senseless with a startling image that comes from the corner of your eyesight and whaps you on the side of the head; lines like
‘You never saw me I was falling apart / I was a television version of a person with a broken heart’
‘I should live in salt for leaving you behind’
‘I’m a confident liar / Had my head in the oven so you’d know where I’ll be’
just scream genius. They really do.
I’ve only seen them once, back in 2007 at the O2 ABC (St Vincent was on the bill) and it was one of the gigs of the year. Given that ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ is easily one of the best albums of 2013, they were unlikely to disappoint. And they – themselves – don’t. Berninger doesn’t do audience interaction, despite being the thinking woman’s crumpet (well, any woman’s crumpet, probably) and leaves what chat there has to be to the Dessners on guitar. It isn’t much of a spectacle then, but by gum do they rattle through the hits. They hit the ground running with ‘Don’t Swallow the Cap’ (the introduction to which sounds spookily like ‘Goodbye Horses’, the soundtrack to that creepy cross dressing scene in ‘Silence of the Lambs’) and the utterly glorious ‘I Should Live In Salt’. It’s a set list dominated by the latest album, including ‘Graceless’ and ‘Pink Rabbits’ and ‘Hard to Find’, every one brilliant. I especially love ‘I Need My Girl’, Aaron Dessner’s beautiful paean to his newborn daughter, their new single with a breathtakingly classic video. It’s pure loveliness and the quietest song of the night, and is only marginally spoiled by the dickheads who barge in front of us, snog six inches in front of our faces and bellow down the mobile phone during it. Sigh. But there’s a fair smattering of oldies and goodies too, including ‘Afraid of Everyone’ and another of my favourites, the stonking ‘Conversation 16’.
So, this should have been one of those nights that just make me say, ‘I saw The National’; but, oh dear, the sound. The Usher Hall is one of those horrendous barns that sucks up any detail, and everything is reduced to a muddy blarp. Berninger is a pretty good enunciator, but if you don’t know the songs, you’d be lost. It’s horrendous, even worse for support act Mina Tindle, a fetching French girl who may be bilingual but it’s actually impossible to tell. Having just been at Glastonbury where a setup in a field can produce brilliant sound (don’t believe the TV, it’s a million time better than the shite the BBC pumps out) I cannot understand why a hall purposely built for playing music can be so utterly incompetent at it.
I’m relatively happy though. They finish the main set with ‘Fake Empire’ in all its glory, even if those horny horns disappear in the boomy mess. I leave at that point, so frustrated with the sound I can’t face the encore. So glad I saw them, so unhappy I didn’t actually hear them. Maybe they’ll headline Glasto next year – now that would be something worth elbowing my way to the front of the Pyramid stage for…
My mum was, in many ways, such an ordinary woman. She liked old-fashioned, middle of the road music like Ronnie Carroll and Frank Ifield and Frankie Vaughn, and she used to torture us with Sunday afternoon records or BBC films of Mario Lanza. Even though she was a young mum when she had me, she wasn’t keen on the excesses of the 60s; I remember her watching Top of the Pops on the tiny black and white telly we had and sticking her nose in the air and saying ‘that Mick Jagger: I can smell him from here.’
With hindsight, she could be a terrible cook – she boiled vegetables for three hours and fried lamb chops until all that was left was a postage stamp of charcoal left on the bone – but could make the world’s best pea and ham soup and mince and tatties and you haven’t lived till you’ve tried her bread and jam pudding. Her drop scones were so good, Kim the dog used to burn his mouth catching them when she flipped his share straight from the pan, and it seemed an injustice to us that there was only one Pancake Day a year.
She was a shark at card games like cribbage and funny rummy, and she taught us all to play, and we’d have card schools all evening that were much more educational than maths homework. Then there were the evenings when we’d buy rolls from the roll boy who came round, and we’d toast them on the open fire and butter them, and drink Alpine lemonade the lorry had brought round while we watched ‘Father Dear Father’ or ‘On the Buses’ or ‘The Champions’. What happened to the Alpine lorry and boys who sold rolls off the backs of their bogies?
She always went overboard at Christmas, with the biggest trees and the most parcels and pillowcases of presents at the bottom of the bed, great games like Mousetrap or The Magnetic Driving Test, or toys like robots with TV screens in the chest or Major Matt Mason the bendy toy astronaut – all of those memories gone to the rubbish bin or given to the charity shop decades ago – and always a tangerine wrapped in silver paper.
She loved animals, from Glen the knicker-eating collie to Sherry, my rescue puppy who was a bit more ambitious and ate the sofa; she eventually got it right with her favourite, a little Beagle called Picot who only ever ate his own body weight in dog food. I remember being really anxious about persuading her of my absolute need for a rabbit, and rehearsing all 101 reasons why I had to have one: ‘Can I have a rabbit, mum?’ I asked. ‘Of course’ she said. I think I was disappointed I wasn’t going to get to practice my persuasive skills on her. We had a procession of cats, all of whom seemed to have names beginning with M (Macavity, Morgan, Mina), the best of the lot being Miffy, who grew up with me and hung around for 16 years. Then my wee sister Christine started keeping horses, and my mum found a new purpose and pastime in helping her mucking out and grooming, all that fresh air and exercise. And she loved children. One of the favourite events at the nursing home was the visits from her great grand-daughter Amelie, and there’s a photograph of my mum taken with all her grandchildren and great grandchildren at my niece Karen’s wedding a couple of summers ago; she looks the proudest woman in the world.
But my mum was also a hugely complex woman. She had a fierce will – I inherited her bloody good finger wag, which made teaching the perfect job for me – and for some reason you felt she couldn’t be crossed. I only remember being really cheeky to my mum once. I was 19. I was drunk. I felt brave because I was three miles away and on the other end of the phone.
I also inherited the black dog that visited her at times, when the pressure of looking after five children basically on her own got overwhelming for her. And she was an incredibly secretive woman; in the last few weeks, I discovered just how secretive when I found out I was an unexpected surprise for my brothers and sisters. My parents hadn’t told them about me, and my brothers Peter and Martin were sent off to a Cubs event and my sister Jennifer was told to go and collect them off the train, and they all arrived back at the house to find me there. Of course, that meant none of the preparation had been done, so I slept in an orange box for the first few months of my life.
Why would you not tell your children they were about to have a wee brother or sister?
I think all that complexity, all that secrecy, came in part from my mum’s background, which she rarely spoke to me about. Bits and pieces I’ve gathered over the years amount to a story of heart-breaking difficulty. Her father is unidentified on her birth certificate, and the family scandal is that my grandmother was working in service, and the lord of the manor took a fancy to her then sacked her as soon as she became pregnant, paying her about 1s/6d a week hush money to look after the baby. My mother spoke about grinding poverty, she and her mother moving from one itinerant service job to the next, never staying in the same house longer than a few months for the first ten years of her life. Her mother married and then died, and so my mother was sent to her grandmother, a fierce wee woman in the days when you didn’t spare the rod, and a succession of step relatives and foster homes. Few of these people had the time or the inclination to give her the love and attention she needed; my mum spoke about being punished by having to stand in the corner of the room facing the walls for hours on end, being refused permission even to go to the toilet. When she got her first job at 14, she turned up in her school uniform because those were the only clothes she owned.
And after the war she met my father, and then it really gets interesting. My dad too was an ordinary man. From him, I inherited a good head of hair but a distinctly dodgy hairline. He did the football pools, watched wrestling on World of Sport (he hated Mick McManus) and got tipsy on whisky at New Year. I asked him about my granddad in Poland, and all he would ever say was that he worked hard for his family. When I visited my Polish relatives for the first time three years ago, I asked them about my grandfather and all my uncles, and they always said just one thing; they worked hard for their families. And that’s what my dad did. It was in his DNA.
But what a complex character he was too. Born ethnic German, he only became Polish after the First World War, and when Germany invaded in 1939, my dad found himself in the German army and sent off to fight on the Eastern Front where he won a medal for bravery and got wounded. Then he was sent to the Western Front where he was captured by Americans and washed up in Aberdeen and, at the end of the war, found he unable to return home. Overnight, my dad changed from being an enemy prisoner of war who had actively fought against this country to being an immigrant asylum seeker looking to work and to make a life here. Can you imagine the Daily Mail headlines these days?
And this was the difficult man my mum devoted herself to, at the age of what? 19? 20? And it was a real devotion, because my dad’s complexity didn’t end there. Already 35 when they met, he was married in Poland and had two children, one by his Polish wife and one by – wait for it – his sister in law. Yes, my dad was a one man subplot for EastEnders. It was just as well the communists wouldn’t let him back in the country; his family over there wanted a wee word with him too. But that’s what war does; it dislocates people from their loved ones and throws them across the world, and they wash up in the unlikeliest of places and meet the unlikeliest of people and have the unlikeliest of new lives.
So two people who couldn’t marry – they didn’t finally tie the knot until the mid-1970s and, of course, never told me – built a life together. Think of the bravery of them both, but particularly of my mum. She had no experience of what a family was really like, had never been brought up with that stability around her, had no role models and no extended family to turn to, and there she was with five children to a man who worked away from home most of the time who wasn’t her husband and therefore had a lot less reason to stick around than most, and who had secrets up to his eyeballs that at any minute could come back to haunt them. The only thing she had to rely on was his pathological commitment to working hard for his family.
What a life of insecurity, living on the edge. And with that fierce will of hers, that drive, that desire to make the family she never experienced as a child, she got there. She always stuck by us; despite occasional turbulence, she was there for us, we could depend on her in times of need. I think she put a roof over all of our heads when we needed it; I certainly know that in my twenties, when I was making some catastrophically bad decisions in my personal life, I could always turn up at the wee semi-detached they worked so hard for and of which they were so proud and find a safe haven. I’d arrive at half past three in the morning with nowhere to stay, and my dad would answer the door and make me a cup of tea, and in the morning mum would pop her head round the door of the spare bedroom and ask what I wanted for breakfast; no judgment, no inquisition, just dedication to the cause of their children.
We’re not perfect – good grief are we not perfect – but we’ve never intentionally hurt people for our own ends, we’ve always stayed on the right side of the law (though my right foot gets me into a lot of bother with the traffic police) and we’ve always contributed to society in our own ways. In the last few years, we’ve fractured – what family doesn’t? – and it hurt her and she blamed herself for it, not realising that she’d raised five strong-minded, wilful, capable characters who simply reflect her. That was her legacy to us.
And that’s why I don’t mind sharing all that secret family stuff now; because I think it shows my mum to be a real hero. She looked at all those hurdles, those insecurities, those secrets, those troubles, and one by one she worked her way around them and made the successful family she craved. For me, her quiet, ordinary achievements in life in the face of all of that, are extraordinary. They certainly put all my selfish ‘look at me, amn’t I so clever’ achievements in perspective; I have done nothing compared to my mum.
It’s never a good time to become an orphan. If it happens early in your life, you miss out on all that could and should have happened, all that potential. But later in life, you have less time to get used to the idea that your existence has fundamentally changed, that the air around you has altered forever. And then there’s the realisation that time’s up, and you’ve spent 50-something years missing all those opportunities to be a better son.
Extract from eulogy for Margaret Soltysek for family and friends who couldn’t be there.
Angel Olsen is the queen of lo-fi. Her music is capable of being scuzzy and blurred, a wall of cacophony that harks back to a hallucinatory Roy Orbison; I love ‘Sweet Dreams‘, which sounds as if Chris Isaak has been on the Jack D and a huge bag of magic mushrooms for a week in nothing but his underpants, ‘Hi Five‘ has a woozed out fifties feel (opening line; ‘I feel so lonesome I could cry…’) and ‘Free‘ is a brilliant grunge re-realisation of the twangly guitars of the likes of Tommy James and the Shondell’s ‘Crimson and Clover‘. And I defy anyone to listen to the opening bars of ‘May as Well‘ and not think of ‘You Saw Me Crying in the Chapel’.
There’s a real eclecticism about her though, with heartbreaking intimate ballads that at times almost seem incoherent in the free association of both melody and lyric. I first saw her onstage with Bonnie Prince Billy at Celtic Connections, and she stood out because of that voice of hers, unexpected yowls and yodels coming from somewhere in the pit of her stomach; watching her sing, you get the impression that she often opens her mouth and has no idea what sound is going to come out of it.
This is a fabulous set. Playing with her new band – Joshua, Emily and Stuart is all we’re told – she absolutely rocks it. ‘Free’ starts the set, and it just gets louder with ‘Hi-Five’, ‘High & Wild’ and an absolutely barnstorming ‘Forgiven / Forgotten’ and, star of the show, ‘Sweet Dreams’, complete with a stunning guitar solo. It’s just flawless, head down grunge.
But this is a bit of a departure for her; she’s grown up doing those more intimate songs, her and a guitar and just that magnificent voice. The band leave her for the final three songs, and she performs an oldie, ‘Some Things Cosmic’ – listen to this al fresco performance to get the full flavour of the fabulous things she does vocally. But the best comes next. She sings ‘White Fire’, which supplies the title for the new album, ‘Burn Your Fire For No Witness’. It is seven minutes of stunning beauty, a slow-burning malignancy that gets into your brain and anaesthetizes the senses. Brilliant.
A big hand too for a magnificent audience. I’ve never been to Mono, and it’s really a bar / diner, so I was expecting irritating noise bleeding into the show. None of that. It’s an absolute sell out crowd, hot and heaving, yet every single song is greeted with pin-drop quiet respect, essential for some of her numbers. If this is the usual, Mono may well become my fave Glasgow venue.
I’ll see bigger and slicker shows – hell, I’m off to Glastonbury in two weeks – but at the end of the year this will have a firm place in my gigs of the year. Loved the venue, loved the audience, loved the music, loved her.
Another woozy retro visit to Smoke Fairies, this time at tiny, cool SWG3 underneath the train line to Partick. Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies have a new album out (and it’s on vinyl – hurray!); it’s much of the same 60s-inspired psychedelia, but feels richer and broader, their sound growing in maturity and basic balls.
Once more, stage presence is limited; I think they’re both just actually really shy. Blamire tries small talk once, complimenting the weather, and trailing off into a story about a stand off she had with staff at the Westmoreland Services about eating a take-away Lancashire Hotpot in the seated area; as she approaches the punchline, she realises she doesn’t have one, and says meekly ‘Oh well, that’s that… this song’s called…’. It’s really charming, but Prince they ain’t.
So it’s just as well she’s got her twangy guitar to do her talking for her; she’s well capable of opening up and letting it rip, such as on the exquisitely jangly ‘Want It Forever‘, a real stand out. They have a real ear for a great riff, and I think that’s when they’re at their best; ‘The Three of Us‘ and ‘Strange Moon Rising’ are stonkingly riffy tracks, and they do something exceptional with my favourite, ‘Hotel Room‘. It begins slow and downbeat, like waking up with a hangover in a chain motel, then they kick it up and blast their way through the rest at a great lick. Fantastic.
But they’re also developing a real ear for slow burning ballads: ‘Your Own Silent Movie’ and ‘Are You Crazy’ are lovely. Then there’s their pastoral folky stuff (‘Misty Versions’, ‘We’ve Seen Birds’, etc.) which means it all adds up to a mix that is far more eclectic than it sounds on first listening.
They’re supported by The Lake Poets, aka Martin Longstaff, a Sunderland lad who brings along some of his mates to play with him. He’s awfy good; great songs, great guitar picking, charming chat and the voice of an angel. ‘Edinburgh’ and ‘Rain‘ are particularly beautiful. He should go far.