The National are, let’s face it, the biggest, bestest band on the planet right now. I’ve only seen them once, at the O2 ABC in 2007, just after ‘Boxer’ had been released and ‘Fake Empire’ had become one of my favourite horny songs ever (I mean the horn section, not sex). I’ve got tickets to see them at The Usher Hall in July (so keen, I bought them twice); since ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ is probably my favourite album of the last few years, it’s gonna be a gas
In the meantime, this documentary about their 2013 tour will have to do. Made by Matt Berninger’s brother, it’s less of a tour rockumentary than a touching portrait of two brothers’ relationship. Berninger invited brother Tom on tour to make the film, and there’s definitely a sense of the successful big brother giving the stoner wee brother something to do to keep him out of the way of the buses. Nine years younger, Tom is obviously in awe of his focussed, driven sibling’s success, even though he’s a ‘metalhead and thinks indie rock is shit.’
In my lifetime, I’ve met hundreds of wee boys who have been told they are the best, the most talented, the most quick-witted and funny and artistic boys ever (usually while their sisters toil their way unappreciated to success) and their lack of direction and purpose is just down to being misunderstood. I’m no success story, but at least my mum kept my feet on the ground: “well, you could have done better if you’d worked harder,” she said when I told her on the phone that I’d got a 2.2 in my degree. Thing was, she was absolutely right, I was a lazy bastard – I’d spent my final year playing pool and skipped all but a handful of lectures and tutorials – and there was no way she was letting me weave any tales about being an unappreciated genius.
There’s a whiff of that about charming, feckless Tom, who fucks up his simple job as a roadie and gets himself chucked off the tour because he can’t seem to do anything right; but, dammit, he is so likeable you’ll forgive him anything. He is obviously a pretty crap filmmaker if his short low budget slashers are anything to go by and, confronted by a wall of post-its, he’s obviously out of his depth; his sister-in-law is credited with joint editing. But then again, this is a carefully constructed film, and so there are legitimate questions about the extent to which the narrator we see is a construct.
It’s well worth the watch. The band come across as laconic yet purposeful, professional family men indulgent of the boyish camera being poked in their faces but nevertheless having clear expectations (‘I thought this was a film about the band and you were going to ask about me,’ says one of the Dessners, ‘but it seems all you want to do is talk about you and Matt.’). There are no wild revelations – you sense Tom desperately wants the drug-fuelled metal orgy, and it’s a lovely little touch that his big brother gives him a row for partying so hard he’s the one to miss the tour bus – but these excesses probably wouldn’t cut it nowadays for a band that tours as hard as they do. And I doubt the music would be so beautiful if they were stoned most of the time.
The film is followed by two local college bands. Oakland Moor are a Americana tinged outfit who can write a song – their opener is really listenable – though trying to cover the vocal perfection of The Civil Wars is perhaps a bit too exuberantly ambitious. Silver Falls are 80% female and cut from the same folksy cloth, producing some nice harmonies. However, when both bands proudly announce they’re covering songs from ‘The Hunger Games’ soundtrack, you know (a) where they’re coming from culturally and (b) that you’re getting too old.
A fab, vibrant wee event to celebrate the launch of National Collective Glasgow.
All the acts listed above gave their time and their talent free in order to entertain a crowd of around 200, who had a whale of a time. Shambles Miller started proceedings off with that wry style of his, including “Rapture” a song that is gorgeous in its sadness while being about a guy intent on getting his leg over the girl of his dreams as the Apocalypse approaches. Leo Condie then blew Mono away with his repertoire of Brel and Brecht songs. I love Brel, and Leo’s barnstorming, acrobatic, bonkers ‘Amsterdam’ was just brilliant – and I got to take part too!
A couple of surprise guests turned up too. Biggest cheer of the night went to Liz Lochead for a bravura performance of Corbie’s speech from ‘Mary Queen of Scots got her Head Chopped Off”. Lochead has been turning out fantastic live performances for decades, and it was a real privilege to have the Scots Makar’s presence. Eleanor Morton did a set too, and while she had to compete with a noisy bar area that wouldn’t shut up (come on guys, bit of respect for the artist there…) she was just great. She has that awkward geekiness of the socially inept down to a tee, and her two musical numbers were hilarious. What sounded like a teenager’s angst-laden You Tube cry to the world was turned on its head beautifully with a simple “I call that song ‘PacMan'” at the end. Her ‘I’m Really Good at Clubbing’ was a riot, a beautifully paced evisceration of the desperation we all feel when we don’t quite fit in when we really, really want to. She was a star.
I know of at least two people who came along skeptics and went away converts to the cause. If every one in the audience goes out into the big wide world and convinces just three others, and they each then convert three more – well, 2014 might just be one of the best years ever.
Finally got round to booking some of my annual Celtic Connections gigs. The line up is larger than ever – but, to be honest, nothing absolutely jumped out at me. However, I’m sure I’ll have fun.
First up is Vicente Amigo, the Spanish flamenco artist and composer described by Pat Metheny as the greatest guitarist alive. This, for example, is fabulous. Should be good, especially as he’s supported by yet another fadista to go gaga at: Carminho is 27 and the latest big thing in fado. I have her breakthrough album, and she’s excellent – though I don’t respond to her music the way I do to Ana Moura or Deolinda or Misza. It feels just a little too trad for me – but it’s another to tick off, my first fadista of the year, and there’s no doubting she has oodles of charisma when she sings something like “A Bia Da Mouraria“. To be honest, I’d love to go on holiday to Lisbon some time this year and trawl the fado bars: perhaps I’ll try to time it to coincide with Deolinda’s new album and get to hear them showcase it in their home town.
After that, I’m hitting The Roaming Roots Review, largely because it’s packed with lots of goodies I’ve seen over the last couple of years: the barnstorming Lau; the Fabulous Beth Orton; the drop dead beautiful Gemma Hayes. They’ll be some other goodies too: Roddie Hart produces some nice folk pop, and Amy Helm sounds good fun.
Then, if I can get the booking sorted, I want to see the sultry Cowboy Junkies. The online booking system seems a mess this year: it didn’t automatically deduct my 15% member’s discount, then gave me one wheelchair ticket for the Junkies and didn’t tell me I could have had two standing tickets. They’ll phone me back. I hope I get to see them: Margo Timmins is one of the most effortlessly sexy singers, and they produce gorgeous, tight music, including one of the best Elvis covers ever in their version of “Blue Moon“. It’ll be a blast from the past.
Then a night of Sahara Soul, especially to see Bassekou Kouyate with N’Goni Ba. I saw them in 2009, and it was my joint gig of the year. The n’goni is a fantastic instrument, looking like a four-stringed cricket bat you’d make in the garden shed; in the hands of these guys, it produces some of the most exciting music I’ve ever heard. Check this out. I’ve deliberately chosen the standing section at the Royal Concert Hall because dancing will be obligatory.
Finally, for now, every Celtic Connections must have a bit of Americana, so I’m off to see Otis Gibbs and John Fullbright at the Glasgow Art Club. Gibbs is a grizzled Steve Earle type, while Fullbright looks even more interesting. In his early twenties, he looks a great musician and songwriter, and may well be my find of the Festival.
So all in all, there’s plenty to keep me occupied. Unfortunately, some of the biggies are already booked out: I’d have loved to see Bellowhead, and the Transatlantic session with Mary Chapin Carpenter, Eric Bibb and Aoife O’Donovan would have been excellent, but I wasn’t quick enough off the mark. I’m also a little disappointed at the number of concerts in the seated venues: The Old Fruitmarket is one of my favourite venues because you can get a good jig on, but there’s nothing on there I really want to see.
However, it’s a good start to 2013, and, if I’d made it to Kazakhstan, I wouldn’t be seeing any of it…
Well, perhaps the lack of sparkle I noted at The Civil Wars gig last Friday was understandable. Joy Williams and John Paul White have just announced on Facebook that their tour – which began only on the 24th October and was supposed to last two months – is over, and it sounds as if the end may be nigh…
“We sincerely apologize for the canceling of all of our tour dates. It is something we deeply regret. However, due to internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition we are unable to continue as a touring entity at this time. We thank each and every one of you for your amazing love & support. Our sincere hope is to have new music for you in 2013.
- Joy Williams & John Paul White.
PS – We understand that there are many of you stuck with service charges and travel reservations due to our abrupt cancelations. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if there are costs incurred that you would like to be reimbursed for, include a scan or attachment to your receipt(s) of the costs, and we will do our best to reimburse you for non-refundable charges.”
That’s a real shame, because in their short time together, White and Williams have created some stunning music that captivated the public imagination by being melodic and heartfelt and way off the beaten track. In their video tour diaries, over and over again they speak of wanting to sing together for years and years – but things have obviously not been right. Whatever has happened, it seems to have been recent and sudden. Who knows? The pressure of touring, Williams’ pregnancy… it has all been intense for them, constantly in the public eye as their popularity grew exponentially. It’s sweet of them to acknowledge that devotion they’ve inspired by offering to pay booking fees and additional costs; how may bands would do that?
One thing that always irritated me was the prurience of the fan base who saw in their closeness something that they have always said wasn’t there, and speculated to high heaven about their relationship. Both married to other people, one wonders if that barely concealed pressure added to the differences. I hope not.
Anyway, if they plan to release a new album in 2013, I reckon it’ll be a miracle; do any bands ever survive “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition”? However, “Barton Hollow” will become a little classic, and I can thoroughly recommend that you download their free live album, “Live at Eddie’s Attic” – that is, if their website comes back online.
It’ll be a pity if we lose them and their lovely music.
Well, that was my first WOMAD festival, and a grand time I had too. Loved it. The crowd was relatively cultivated: I’d heard all about the T in the Park piss bombers the previous week. For some reason, the idea of being drenched in someone’s else’s urine kinda puts me off a bit; especially a stranger’s urine, but that’s another far stranger story…
Of course, the place was awash with some weird and wonderful New Age shit, with more Tchai and Reiki than you could throw a seven chakra crystal healing stick at. Just what the fuck is Gong Therapy anyway? One of my Facebook pals accused me of visiting a Thai massage parlour; chance would be a fine thing…
I’ve no idea why WOMAD has become so enmeshed with all this stuff. Of course, I am an almost total skeptic (though I may tell you about my NLP squirrel experience sometime) but am happy to leave folk to do and believe whatever turns them on – unless they want to damn me to eternal hellfire for not believing what they do, that is. However, just what relevance has this stuff to the dispossessed of the favelas, or the starving of East Africa, or the war ravaged of sub-Saharan Africa? None, I reckon. To me, it should be about those cultures, those people and their music, not the idiosyncracies of western folk with too much time on their hands.
I do like this festival thingy, jumping about from band to band like a real life skip button. I see and hear a lot, bit and pieces here and there. I arrive in enough time to catch The Soul Rebels from New Orleans, a big brass band sound that is funky and tight. They do a fantastic version of “Sweet Dreams“, and remind me a lot of a band I was really into years ago, the Rebirth Brass Band. Cool.
I catch most of The Wilderness of Manitoba, a Canadian band that eschew the tradition of a lead singer for close harmonies. The result reminds me a bit of Chatham County Line or Crooked Still: mannered, interesting, sweet Americana that kind of washes over me. Not really a visceral experience, but worth a listen to. Hollie Cook is young and sweet and wriggling out of her dress with sheer vivacity, but I’ve never been a ska or reggae fan, so it’s another that I bail early on.
I manage about three minutes of Maga Bo, a Brazilian / American DJ. The crowd is too young for me, and the bass is up so high I’m convinced my kidneys will explode. However, more than that, it’s just that a guy behind a laptop just doesn’t inspire me to get involved in the show, which is the problem I also have with The Portico Quartet. I have their latest album, and the track “Ruins” is a thing of real ambient beauty. But four guys who end up playing with their knobs onstage, so to speak, doesn’t really do it for me. Pretentious? Les?
The Correspondents, despite having a laptop knob twiddler called Chucks, are a different matter. I’m tired and only manage half of their show, but their über-camp glam-swing is so infectious it draws a massive crowd around the smallest stage on site, largely due to the Mael-like vocals and irrepressible whirlygig dancing of lead singer Mr Bruce. Infectious, danceable, watchable and I’d love to see more. Vadoinmessico are a multi-continental psychedelic folk band who I had on my list but who kind of disappoint, perhaps because I saw them after Raghu Dixit (more of him in a later post). They set up some interesting and energetic percussive rhythms which then dissipate during quiet and fairly understated vocals.
I catch a bit of Jimmy Cliff and Robert Plant. Yes, gods, I know, and what they do is slick and tight. However, quite frankly, it feels just a little tired and traditional to me. Khaled is interesting, but again, there’s a slickness about it that just knocks the edges off, and I like my edges a lot of the time.
I’ll do individual entries for the main acts I saw over the next few days. Many were good, some were great and a few were outstanding. So, yes, I’m off next year, all things willing…
I’ve just watched a lovely BBC4 documentary on Allegri’s “Miserere”, that most mysterious piece of devotional music that was held like a state secret by the Vatican for so long. Simon Russell Beale tells its story, and then The Sixteen, a cool choir led by Harry Christophers I’ve never come across before, deliver a spellbinding performance.
Like magnificent cathedrals and devotional masterpieces on the walls of luxurious religious palaces, I baulk at the idea of such beauty being owned by the corrupt bureaucrats of organised, brutalised religions: I can’t think of anyone who deserves access to this wonder less than a privileged, self-serving clergy who fatten themselves on the patronage of the rich while failing to give a shit about the poor; to claim this genius as your own is as perverse as the notion of land ownership or the disappearance of masterpieces of art into the private collections of billionaire criminal oligarchs or the corporate patenting of DNA. And let’s not forget that they were happy to castrate boys to sing this, and that if it hadn’t been for the sneakiness of Mozart and Mendelssohn, this would still be locked in the Sistine Chapel.
But that is what the world is, damn it. Plebeians like me can only drop our jaws in wonder at what the rich take for granted as their entitlement. And this is jaw dropping, and those four bars containing the high C – so wondrously sung by Elin Manhan Thomas – are the most jaw dropping of all. I don’t believe in God – cannot believe in God – but I envy the music and art and architecture men have created and have had created in His praise.
I wonder how beautiful the world would be if all that ingenuity had been devoted to man instead of myth.
Despite being a raving atheist – occasionally, literally – I have a great fondness for Paisley Abbey. At about five, I was taken to see the Queen plant a tree in its grounds, then grew up going to music lessons in Paisley on a Saturday morning, went out on the town with my pals as a teenager and then finally worked and moved there in the early 90’s. Paisley has changed enormously in that time. I have vague recollections of the magnificent old prison that stood on the site of a now almost redundant shopping mall; I saw the monstrous, brutalist council offices go up, one of the blocks now demolished for yuppy homes and the other softened with 21st century ash floors and atriums; I’ve seen the centre pedestrianised and de-pedestrianised and pedestrianised again. None of the changes, it seems to me, have done anything to improve Paisley, a town blighted by unemployment and social disadvantage that can’t sustain a good bookshop or top class restaurant but has empty civic aspirations to be a “city”; and yet it has some beautiful architecture, including churches like The Coates Memorial that would grace any nation’s capital. Throughout all those changes, the Abbey seemed as permanent as a geological structure, even as the area around it was tinkered with granite paving and the ancient graveyard was made respectable.
I also have good memories of playing there, in my younger days as a flute player and then as a teacher and woodwind instructor for Renfrewshire Schools Orchestras (I was neither a very good player nor teacher, to be honest). It’s the scene, too, of my one and only Christmas midnight Mass, when my ex-partner and I took her children along for us all to try to get some sense of what it was really all about, and I confess that in some darker moments over the last thirty years, I’ve slipped in there, not for the religion but for the peace and quiet to think.
But tonight is a pal’s nicht oot to see the City of Glasgow Chorus (including our friend Michael Inglis) and the Orchestra of Scottish Opera do their thing with a couple of heavyweight religious compositions.
The Szymanowski, despite being “modern”, works well; there’s a muscularity about it, especially Quis et homo which thunders out from the nave. It’s sung in Latin rather than the original Polish, which is probably a good idea, and the soloists are all fine singers. It may be the long, narrow acoustics (the back of the chorus must be a good fifty or sixty feet away from the conductor) or my less-than-ideal seating position, but the mezzo-soprano, Úna McMahon, and the baritone, Benjamin Weaver, tend to get a little overpowered at times, while the soprano, Maria Kozlova, has the register to counteract that effect. In addition, the sound seems to come at the audience in great, dramatic lumps. It is, however, totally accessible and, in some places, infused with an austere Eastern European beauty.
The Berlioz is typically romantic, with reflective, occasionally gloomy prayers counterpointed with sparkling hymns. When it’s huge, it’s very, very huge, particularly in the celebratory glory of Christe Rex gloriae. The soloist, fine tenor Jonathan Cooke, does his one moment in the spotlight, Te ergo quaesumus, appropriate justice. The final hymn, Judex crederis, is typical Berlioz, with a big finish immediately followed by a “let’s do it all again” moment.
I’m not a classical aficionado by any means – I lost my ear for it many years ago – but this is a very pleasant evening of excellent musicians playing lovely music in a beautiful setting. I hear an audience member say, “The tedium will last about an hour, I take it?”; thankfully, it was nothing like that at all.
Awww. Just spent a lovely evening at the Christmas performance of the City of Glasgow Chorus (my friend Michael Inglis is a member), accompanied by the Orchestra of Scottish Opera.
Is there anything more evocative than beautiful sopranos soaring their harmonies on the “Fa-la-la-la-la” of “Deck the Halls”? Choirs are lovely – I don’t see enough of them.
A really fun time. Even an old cynic like me was singing along to the Mamma Mia medley, and old favourites like “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” evoked quite a few goosebumps. Many thanks and Merry Christmas to them all!
Okay, end of year and nothing planned between now and January, so it’s time for a bit of reflection. Let’s start with music which, I’m sure you have gathered, is like food and drink to me.
Best concerts? Well, of course, Mayra Andrade at Ronnie Scott’s would win the top five places in my top five list, but that’s a bit unfair on the others. Seeing one of the world’s great new stars in such an intimate setting and with such a fabulous band was a highlight of this or any year. Along with Paul Simon’s “Born at the Right Time” tour at the SECC in 1991 – a very different proposition – it’s definitely an all time favourite.
So if I am giving other places out, second goes to Ane Brun at King Tut’s, one of my discoveries of the year. A fantastic night of gorgeous songs and transcendent sounds, it was gob-smacking in its emotional power. Third is Love and Money at the Queen’s Hall, purely for nostalgic reasons. Impeccable funk and charisma personified from James Grant, it was a wonderful reminder of a band I constantly return to on the CD player. Fourth – Yasmin Levy at the GRCH in January: a fantastic voice, beautiful Sephardic songs and a warmth of spirit that was captivating.
So many others: Lau’s set at the O2 ABC in January; Grethcen Parlato’s cool at the Tron; Imelda May’s raucous sexiness at the O2 Academy. But fifth spot in the top five goes to Catfish Keith at The Ferry in October. A brilliant, brilliant guitarist, a growling voice and a genuinely nice guy; a perfect blues night.
As for the albums that I’ve been playing a lot, I’ve been part of the so-called “vinyl revival” that never really went away. On a good deck LPs still sound as good as any digital source, and on top of that, there’s the aesthetic of watching a record spin. I’ve always felt turntables are as much musical instruments as anything else. Mine, a thirty year old Alphason Sonata with MC-100s pure copper rewired tonearm, Atlas power supply, Dynavector Karat cartridge and Trichord Dino and Dino+ headamp, is my pride and joy.
So what’s been spinning? Ane Brun’s “It All Starts With One” has been almost worn out. “Undertow” fills the room, the flat, the whole fucking building with its huge sound (really, it does – ask my neighbours), and the last three “bonus” tracks – “One Last Try”, “Du gråter så store tåra”, “I Would Hurt a Fly” – are astonishing. Album of the year for me…
Except I love Paul Simon’s “So Beautiful or So What”. Simon’s inventiveness at 70 is incredible. He’s always reinvented himself, done something new, refused to trade on past glories. His latest is a huge return to form (I wasn’t too impressed with “Surprise” or “You’re The One” when compared with his legendary albums like “Graceland” or “Still Crazy…”) and is outstandingly produced. His voice sounds just as gorgeous as it did when he was twenty. Incredible.
Bought late in 2010 but worked hard this year was James McMurtry’s “Live in Europe”, an artist who may well be, after Simon, the greatest living US songwriter. Recorded on the tour I saw him on, it contains some classic protest songs of blue collar America, including “Hurricane Party”. It also contains one of the saddest, angriest, most beautiful love stories ever recorded: “Ruby and Carlos”. If it doesn’t make you weep, you’re a robot.
Sevara Nazarkhan’s “Tortadur” is only available digitally, unfortunately, but it’s beautiful. Her 2007 album “Sen” was phenomenal in it’s cool, Uzbek take on trip-hop – I heartily recommend the cool, cool, cool live recording of “Erkalab” on You Tube – and she then diverted into cheesy pop for a while. “Tortadur” is a return to Uzbek folk roots, and its slow-burning gorgeousness is fantastic. I’m hoping for a tour on the back of the album, though it’ll probably mean a trip to London. Damn…
The Civil Wars “Barton Hollow” made a big impression too. Grounded in folk rock of the Sixties and a traditional bluegrass aesthetic, the duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White produce some of the most convincing harmonies since Simon and Garfunkel. It may be gentle music – perhaps even at times twee – but it’s never less than utterly listenable because of the perfection of its pitch.
Other ear-grabbers included Vintage Trouble’s “The Bomb Shelter Sessions”, the seriously deranged My Brightest Diamond’s “All Things Will Unwind” and, a personal favourite and a lovely discovery from Poland, Mikromusic’s “Sova”.
I’ve missed out so much, but next year starts in just a fortnight. Six gigs booked in January – methinks I’ll be busy!
Oh my goodness, that was a surprise.
I expected to be mildly entertained by another idiosyncratic Norwegian singer, ticking off a bit more Scandinavian wonky-pop. What I got instead was one of the highlight concerts of the year and a live introduction to a singer I’m going to be listening to pretty much constantly for the forseeable future.
Ane Brun and her band are just wonderful. There’s little mainstream about her, though, like Susanne Sundfør, she’s capable of some damned fine tunes. Forget that – utterly mesmerising tunes. She relies on that Scandinavian thing of setting up a rhythm section (three drum kits on a stage the size of a postage stamp) that is quite capable of rearranging an audience’s internal organs, and lays wash after wash of transcendent ambience over it, and then piles on top of that a voice that is pure, pitch perfect and astonishingly engaging. The result is the biggest, widest, deepest, broadest soundstage I think I’ve ever heard in a venue this intimate and in many that are much bigger.
And it’s gorgeous. I don’t know enough of the songs to rhyme them off – I will soon – but one after another has me muttering “Jesus” at the end of yet another wringing out of the senses and emotions. The new album – “It All Starts With One” – features heavily. The single “Do You Remember” is a thundering drum-driven pagan thrashing: if you don’t dance your bollocks off to it, you are clearly in need of urgent hospitalisation. And she ends with “Undertow” which just soars and soars and soars and when you think it can’t soar any higher – up it fucking well goes.
Brun herself is lovely. She’s very beautiful – those eyes! – but much more attractive is her enigmatic charisma, warmth and obvious delight at the roaring reception she gets. I dunno – I reckon she would be perfect in the part of a Norwegian Resistance agent in a World War 2 movie. I haven’t a clue where that came from, but it’s stuck there now.
I don’t know where this will come in my end of year top five gig list, but it will be in there somewhere. Easily. Ane Brun is a singer I must have more of. Must, must, must, must. Definitely. Must.
Do you think I liked this a wee bit?
Footnote: Support is supplied by a member of her band, Linnea Olsson, who is excellent. A solo cellist and vocalist, she loops, samples, overdubs to produce a quite lovely sound. Definitely worth checking out on You Tube, bearing in mind that the compression ruins the hugeness of her sound.