The end of my hectic Celtic Connections week hits a real high. Deolinda, a young Portuguese foursome, make simply the most joyous and sun-kissed music on the planet today. Their fado concept album (there’s a first), “Cancao ao lado”, was one of the best releases of 2008, and this is their first visit to Scotland. Their website is extraordinarily generous with samples: try it out.
Three fine musicians accompany Ana Bacalhau, who is the most impossibly charismatic young woman I have ever seen. Pretty and with a voice that threatens to blast the front rows away when she opens her lungs, every arch of the eyebrow, every gesture of the hand, every sway of the hips is designed to narrate the stories of the songs. Fado is meant to be a dramatic performance, and Bacalhau is the most dramatic of performers. Her English is impeccable too – apart from her description of one of the characters as a “potato couch”, an error sweet enough to charm the whole hall – and the audience love her retelling of the songs’ narratives, almost every one about young love – and why not? Fado has been enjoying enormous popularity recently, largely due to divas like Mariza, but Deolinda surely represent the future of the form: fun, sassy, playful and musically brilliant. I may have just seen one of the best bands in the world playing one of my concerts of the year. Fantastic.
I’m here to see Deolinda, but it’s nice to see the support is Koshka, Lev Atlas’s latest incarnation of his dizzying klezmer / gypsy / baroque / Russian trio. Atlas, lead viola for the Scottish Opera Orchestra and proprietor of the lovely Cafe Cossachok, is a hero of Glasgow culture, and his work with guitarist Nigel Clark and violinist Oleg Ponomarev is simply wonderful. The conversation between Atlas’s sweet tone and Ponomarev’s more muscular, gritty sound is brilliant, and their set is humorous and incredibly accomplished. No one, but no-one, plays the fiddle like these guys.
There’s no accounting for taste. While I’m sure Sandi Thom’s recent Celtic Connections gig would have drawn a respectable crowd, three men and a dog turn up to see the wonderful Astrid Williamson support Joe Pernice.
Formerly the lead singer of Goya Dress, she’s just released her fourth solo album, “Here Come the Vikings”, and this is a rare visit to Glasgow – the last time I saw her here was in support of Michael Bolton (rest assured, I didn’t stay for his part of the concert!) in 2007. Since then, she’s been having long overdue success in the States, and it seems to be doing her good: she’s more beautiful than ever, she’s relaxed and charming and her voice is in great form. She’s at the piano tonight, which limits the repertoire a little; she apologises for turning down my requests for songs that rely on a band, but I forgive her since she makes up for it with “True Romance”, one of the sultriest songs I’ve ever heard (“Think of this, all my tangled hair across your hips…”).
She also manages a fantastic version of “Glorious” from her Goya Dress days, and some great new numbers (I can’t remember ever hearing Charlie Chaplin name-checked in a song before). Apparently she has a load of piano-driven songs she doesn’t know what to do with: I’d suggest a piano-driven album, then.
She says it’s great to be back in Glasgow: that’s very gracious of her given she’s treated with such disinterest by a Glasgow public who obviously don’t care much for perfection. It’s just not fair.
Headliner Joe Pernice has a sweet voice and a wicked way with lyrics: this time it’s a name-check for Leni Riefenstahl, and a line like “I’d kiss your ass just to kiss your ass again” deserves some kind of an award. He’s obviously hugely talented - he’s just published his first novel – but there’s a sameness about the performance that has me deciding on an early night. Astrid’s in the CD player on the way home.
Mayra Andrade produced one of my favourite albums of the last decade, “Navega”, in 2006, and I’ve been desperate to see her ever since. I bought it in France while I was on a two-month writing sabbatical, and it evokes some very happy memories. It’s a beautiful album, cool and tuneful and effortlessly elegant, yet with a social and political edge that’s evidence of real intelligence: the opening track, “Dimokransa”, is the grooviest of protest songs.
She opens tonight, which suggests that she hasn’t made the impact in Scotland necessary to headline a Celtic Connections show. That will surely change. She has a voice like chocolate-flavoured cigar smoke, and an engaging cool that counterpoints complex melodies over the top of her fantastic band’s equally complex rhythms. Revelling in the wonkiness of a minor chord or odd harmonics tossed in to the mix, her performance is getting on for flawless.
It’s too short a set, and I’m sat too far back to bask in her loveliness, but it’s more than a privilege; along with Brazil’s CéU and France’s Soha, she’s one of the young women destined for world music super-stardom. Hopefully she’ll be back soon heading up her own show, and I’ll get tickets close enough to fool my arthritic heart into believing that’s she’s singing “Comme S’Il En Pleuvait” just for me…
Salsa Celtica’s 15th anniversary performance is a much more conservative affair: I guess that once you’ve had the brilliant idea of bringing together Celtic and Salsa music, there’s nowhere to go, a bit like using up all the fun to be had the first time you weld a squirrel to a toaster.
Like watching a band of a raggedy-arsed, Plockton-based Mariachi, the whole set, perfectly rehearsed as it is, has the feel of a lock-in at a folk pub. Huge numbers of guests wander on and off to do their bit – “Here’s my pal from Ireland to sing you a song…”; “We met this next guy at a huge party we had…” – and this is the biggest problem with the set; the cursed ceilidh rule of everyone gets their shot at the limelight. Set up a belting rhythm and then make sure you all hear just how fucking good Sean on the fiddle and Duncan on the fiddle and Hamish on the banjo and Jose on the chanter really are. This unfortunately keels into self indulgence on occasion, most especially during the obligatory battle of the pipers, or a couple of teeth-achingly miserablist dirges from that guy from Hothouse Flowers.
I find the salsa bits much more effective, vanilla in conception though they are. Being serenaded by Vic Mackey’s wee Glesga uncle and what I am sure is one of the Baldwin brothers is great fun, let me tell you. And there’s no doubt that these are brilliant musicians whose sole aim in life is to enjoy themselves by making tight, exciting, danceable music for an audience that rightly loves them. Hell, I buy their latest CD after the show, so I had a good time with them too.
This Christmas blockbuster suffers from the usual Guy Ritchie overspends: sweaty bare-knuckle fights with loving slo-mos on fists connecting with jaws; over-slick tricksy editing; smooth-tongued dialogue that fails to engage the audience with much real depth of character. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a hoot.
Victorian London is fabulously realised with big but sensitive CGI work, reminiscent of Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York”. It also has the subtlety (and you don’t often hear that in a Ritchie movie) to take the audience in one direction – a supernatural thriller – but then to deflate all expectations with a damned good dose of Holmesian logic, honouring the likes of “The Hound of the Baskervilles”. There are a also couple of thrilling set pieces, especially one in a ship yard.
Of course, Robert Downey Jr. is fantastic, as he always is, and the supporting cast is solid enough, though the terrific Mark Strong’s villain is underused. As I watched, I kept wondering where I’d seen the relationship between Holmes and Jude Law’s Watson before, and then I realised I was watching another H & W partnership: House and Wilson. Downey’s emotionally distant and self-centred genius who uses his intellect as a means of repressing any inconvenient emotion is a carbon copy of Hugh Lawrie’s diagnostician, while Law’s faithful friend who will put up with anything from the misunderstood prodigy – even the humiliation of his fiancee – is reminiscent of Robert Sean Leonard’s long-suffering doormat James Wilson. And there’s nothing wrong with that successful dynamic.
So, a big budget, big stars and a big, big musical score actually work in Ritchie’s favour. Sure, it’s not Robert Altman or Ingmar Bergman, but it’s great fun nonetheless.
Okay, I’m a bloke, so it’s time for an end of year lists. I know, really dull, but it’s my blog!
Favourite concert 1: James McMurtry, Oran Mor, January.
McMurtry is one of the great chroniclers of the blue collar Midwest. Steeped in rage against heartless capitalism and the vicious slaughter of the dirt poor in war, his songs are heartbreaking. I defy anyone to listen to “Hurricane Party”, “Ruby and Carlos” or “Holiday” and not burn for the disadvantaged who suffer the carnage caused by corporate America. Scathing poetry of destitution, wrapped up in beautiful music. McMurtry has a few of his backing band with him: it’s ironic that they are called “The Heartless Bastards”, because you’ll never hear music with more heart anywhere.
Favourite concert 2: Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni ba at Queen’s Hall, April.
The ngoni looks like a beaten up cricket bat with two bits of fishing line tied along its length, but in the hands of these guys, it produces the most exciting music I’ve ever heard. Breathtaking virtuosity and energy in abundance, along with the delights of Kouyate’s wife Amy Sacko on lead vocals. The finest desert blues available.
Favourite one-off song: Joan as Police Woman, “Keeper of the Flame”, Oran Mor, October.
See my earlier blog review. The final song of the night was the most beautifully sung eight minutes I’ve ever heard. I walked out into the night in a daze.
Best vocal performance: Mor Karbasi, The Voodoo Rooms, June.
Karbasi is a 23-year old Israeli singer with a 2000-year old soul. Accompanied by her partner Joe Taylor, percussionist Andres Ticino and fantastic guitarist Jorge Bravo, her renditions of Sephardic and Ladino songs are gorgeous. Who cares if (a) you don’t understand them and (b) you know they’re all about menfolk going fishing anyway?
Most eccentric concert: Richard Thompson, 1000 years of popular music, Concert Hall, January.
Trust Thompson to take an invitation from Playboy in 1999 to nominate his favourite ten songs of the “past millennium” literally. Of course, they weren’t interested at all in the last 1000 years, and wanted the predictable re-run of The Beatles and Michael Jackson numbers: so when Thompson’s list of Olde English and Victorian music hall masterpieces was rejected, he beefed up the repertoire and has been taking it on intermittent tour for the last few years. Accompanied by the excellent Judith Owen and Debra Dobkin, it’s great to hear catchy old numbers like “Summer is a-cumin in” again, as well as the grizzled old git doing Britney’s “Oops, I did it again”. Great fun. Good for him.
Most sickeningly youthful performance: The Whispertown 2000, The Captain’s Rest, October.
This young LA foursome’s latest album, “Swim”, is a fantastic, scuzzy, swing-hop-skiffle clatter, and the performance is similarly and joyfully shambolic. Songs don’t finish: they rattle to a hirple before picking up and bashing off into another tune. Even at my age, I’m afraid I have to be very rude about Morgan Nagler, the lead singer. She’s the kind of girl you imagine drinking lemonade on her front stoop, and if she invites you into the secret places in her cool dark house, you just know you’re going to come out an hour later happy, dazed and much, much wiser. A smashing wee band.
“Storia, Storia” by Mayra Andrade. Anything following up “Navega” was going to be welcome, but “Storia, Storia” is fantastic. Cool and elegant Cape Verdean grooves from possibly the most beautiful young woman in music today.
“Here Come the Vikings” by Astrid Williamson.
Again, a long awaited follow up, this time to “Day of the Lone Wolf”. Williamson, from Shetland, is at her best with slow, lust-laden trip-hop, and “How You Take My Breath Away” and “Slake” are among her best. Just gorgeous. The music is too.
“The Hollow Way” by Genevieve Maynard and the Tallboys.
A huge surprise, downloaded on the off-chance from e-music. Great lyrics and cracking tunes, every one memorable: the bookends of the album, “Ripped” and “Take Me Home”, are stunning. Aussie Maynard has a brilliant voice, and I’ll be looking out for more.
“Written in Chalk” by Buddy and Julie Miller
Americana at its finest. Rattling good tunes and a great contrast between the guttural Buddy and the more ethereal Julie. On vinyl, this is a cracking production, as good as “Raising Sands” by Robert Plant (who guests on this album) and Alison Krauss, one of my favourite albums of the decade.
Oh, and I think Lady Gaga’s the saviour of pop music too!