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.
Suzanne Vega has been around for yonks, it seems. There have been times when she’s appeared on my radar with a single or two of real beauty, but generally I’ve found her intensely complex narratives too demanding; hell, my usual preference is for music sung by people from Cape Verde, Portugal, Uzbekistan or half a dozen other places where they don’t speak English, so having to follow a story seems an awful lot of hard work for me.
However, I’m with my pal Jill Brown, a fine upcoming singer-songwriter herself, so I’m absolutely happy to trust her judgment that this will be something I’ll enjoy. And I do. Very much.
It works for three reasons. Vega’s songs are shy and introspective, yet she herself is effortlessly charming, sharing stories of her first Liverpudlian love, showing off the coat she bought at a thrift shop earlier in the day and bantering with the audience about gigging in Tenerife. She is easy in herself, sexy and assured and relaxed from the moment she comes on stage and pops on her top hat for Marlene on the Wall.
The second reason it works is that voice of hers. It isn’t a huge voice by any means; it’s intimate and understated, but tonally rich and always bang on tuneful. Whether she’s doing soft and gentle (‘Small Blue Thing‘ is, really, a goosebump gorgeous standout single song performance) or rocking it on the seductive ‘I Never Wear White’ (‘I never wear white / white is for virgins / children in summer… My colour is black…), she’s always absolutely convincing and engaging.
Lastly, it works because of her guitarist, Gerry Leonard. It’s just her and her guitar and Leonard switching between acoustic and electric. His electric guitar work is fabulous. He’s worked with just about everyone, and the ambiance he creates by looping provides a perfect backdrop for Vega’s ethereal quality. He also hits those strings cleaner and crisper than many I’ve heard during some beautiful solos; it’s just the sort of sound I love.
The hits come thick and fast to remind us just how recognisable her music is – Tom’s Diner (a sexy, sweaty, hypnotic delivery here), Left of Centre, Luka , Caramel – along with tracks from her new album, the tarot-inspired ‘Tales from the Realms of the Queen of Pentangles’, a concept which allows her to give her story-telling penchant free rein on the likes of ‘The Fool’s Complaint’ or ‘Jacob and the Angel’. All in all, it’s a fine gig, and I’d certainly see her again.
We only catch a couple of songs from support act Samantha Crain from Oklahoma; what we do hear is lovely. Worth a download at least. Check her out.
“There’s happy,” says Raghu Dixit. “Then happier. Then happiest. Drunk on happy. Puking on happy. We don’t do sad songs.”
And he’s right. I first saw The Raghu Dixit Project at WOMAD in 2012 (the now famous proposal set!) and grinned from ear to ear for hours afterwards, so I wasn’t going to miss them up close here in Glasgow, and I find myself suffering from the same facial deformity again. I can’t remember as much sheer good will at a gig before, and it’s great; they are certainly easily in my top ten live bands.
Partly, that’s because Dixit won’t shut up. He’s a natural storyteller, comedian and all round charming gossipy gasbag. He interacts with the audience constantly and never once loses that beaming smile of his. And the songs are happy: he has a way of turning 500 year old obscure philosophical poems from Bangalore into a crazy dance-fest, and he has a beautiful voice, rich with that Indian sensuousness. He has the audience singing along to ‘Lokada Kaalaji‘ (haven’t a clue what I’m singing, but I’m up for a go…) and, of course, the totally infectious ‘I’m in Mumbai (Waiting for a Miracle)’, which gets the biggest cheer of the night. The title track from his new album (housed in a cool tin!),’ Jag Changa’, is hip-swinging too.
“Yaadon Ki Kyari” is a beautiful paean from his five-year-old self to his adoring parents (he tells lovely stories about growing up). Softer numbers like ‘Sajana’ and ‘No-one will ever love you like I do’ slow the pace only momentarily and pretty soon we’re all pogoing to ‘Mysore Se Ayi‘, dedicated to the beautiful girls of the city of palaces.
I wish I had a setlist so I could link to all the individual songs for you. The new album is lovely, but it’s very different from this performance, suffering from the big production values of the complete orchestra and over-dubbing; they are a much, much more exciting, visceral proposition live. If you can, see them. And, for goodness’ sake, smile.
So – long time no blog, and I suppose seeing Mayra Andrade again is the best reason to get back into it. She’s at Celtic Connections to support Spanish singer Buika – more of that later – and she’s promoting her new album, ‘Lovely Difficult’. She has a new band and a new sound – occasionally, she sounds as if she’s going in the direction of the soft jazz of Nora Jones or Melody Gardot. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, except Andrade is so blooming wonderful, Nora Jones and Melody Gardot should be moving in her direction.
She also has a new band, a more recognisable combo of electric guitar, bass, drums and keyboards. I suspect they’re all still settling in; they sound great, but it kind of lacks the inventiveness and the ease she established with her previous band, led by Zé Luís do Nascimento. I’m sure it’s a matter of time, and they’ll fit like favourite slippers soon.
“Lovely Difficult” is in many ways a big departure. Sure, there are tracks that maintain that luscious Latin beat that permeated her previous albums – “Ilha de Santiago” is a great little calypso - but there’s that tendency to the slicker jazz that is epitomised by “We Used to Call It Love”, her first track in English (apart for a cover of “Michelle” on the Studio 105 live album). I’m not sure I like it all that much, to be honest, but it gets a great delivery here for three reasons. First, she gives herself space to improvise, something she always does wonderfully. Secondly, she’s nervous about singing it for the first time in front of an English-speaking audience and completely blanks the words, and, embarrassed and blushing, she has to get the road manager to fetch the lyrics, which endears her to the audience; “Don’t tell my mum,” she pleads with us all. Lastly, she shyly asks us at the end if we could understand the story of the song – a lover leaving for another – and says there are times in your life when it’s perhaps better to forget what has happened and move on; “So this is why I forget the words’, she says, with a sweep of her arm, and everyone wonders who would be so stupid as to dump her, for heaven’s sake.
She throws in a few oldies – ‘Tunuca’ and ‘Dimokransa’ hit the spot – and dedicates ” Meu Farol” (“My Beacon”) to her mother. She manages to get a typically uptight GRCH audience singing along to the chorus of “Rosa” and grunting a simian chant on the typically Cape Verdean “Téra Lonji”, and squeezes a standing ovation from them at the end of the set.
As always, she’s a life affirming experience, but it’s not the perfection of her gigs at Ronnie Scott’s or the Casino de Paris. Even so, 8/10 of Mayra Andrade is as good as a lottery win. Swoon? I did, I tell you. I surely did.
Main act Buika is a Spanish singer of African parents. She has a wonderful voice and an investment in her songs that has her hands fluttering across her breast with emotion. She comes from a flamenco and Moorish coplas tradition with distinct sub-Saharan aesthetics in there too. I have to say, it’s just a little overwrought for me, a sense I’ve always had that distinguishes coplas and flamenco from fado. She hints at a life philosophy that is embedded in hardship and pain and improvises startlingly, clearly riffing off of the emotion she feels. It’s admirable and heartfelt; however, it doesn’t speak so much to me, and, as my sister is very unwell, we bail early. We’re sitting at the front, and Buika gives is a huge smile and a lovely goodbye, for which we are very grateful; our apologies…
I never really connected with Editors until their latest album, “The Weight of Your Love”. It’s an album that’s had mixed reviews, largely because of the production which takes a swing away from indie rock values into more a by-the-numbers anthemic, stadium-friendly ethic. I like it, I have to say. Lyrically, it’s pretty shocking at times; “Two Hearted Spider” might as well have been called ‘The Beast with Two Backs’, for god’s sake, and ‘Bird of Prey’ is largely meaningless. But that last track indicates the strength of the record: while it may be a semantic mess, it is really quite a gorgeous sound.
I’m with a pal who was into their older stuff, and I have to say that’s where the strength lies. It’s actually surprising how little of “The Weight of Your Love” they do play – the big singalongs of ‘Honesty‘, ‘Sugar’ and ‘Nothing’ for instance, and one of my favourites, the funky ‘Formaldehyde‘, as well as those bloody spiders – despite this being the album tour.
And I kind of get the feeling that the fans in the audience aren’t all that disappointed, and are quite happy with a setlist that is actually pretty retrospective. Despite the fact that I don’t know much of this, it does seem much more direct, more grungy, more honest than the newer material. ‘Eat Raw Meat = Blood Drool‘ really kicks on, and ‘Munich‘ gets the crowd revved up. They finish with a metaphorically and literally blinding ‘Papillon‘, a kind of Sisters of Mercy meets Depeche Mode moment that works well.
So – next stop is to track down all the old stuff. This was a good, good gig, but I’ll enjoy it even more when I see them again and can connect with the stuff that really sets the blood pumping.
Just one down note: my pal and I go for something to eat before the show and apparently miss – dammit – the wonderful British Sea Power. A band that strong deserves to be co-billed, and if they had been, we’d have happily gone hungry.
I’m knackered. Shuttling around the country visiting schools, two gigs in two nights and a day trip to London for meetings. I may sleep the weekend away.
However, I’m glad the energy levels kept up well enough to see The Heavy. They’re a hardcore R’n'B band, heavy on the soul sound of the 60s updated with smattering of grunge, punk, hip-hop and snarling rock. Their latest album, ‘The Glorious Dead’, is very reminiscent of the days of Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye, with great harmonies over grooves embellished by massive horn sections, strings by the barrowload and acres of backing singers.
Live, the band (singer Kelvin Swaby, guitarist Dan Taylor, bassist Spencer Page and drummer Chris Ellul) are backed by only two saxes, so the reliance is on a much meatier arrangement. If anything, Swaby’s vocals are better unmitigated by the studio production of the album – he has to bellow and hoot and holler – and the sound is much more raw and even more fun. Backing vocals are provided by the audience anyway – they’ve been here before and have a knowledgeable fan base – and it’s a hoot. I know enough of the music to howl along with ‘The Big Bad Wolf’ and to join in the choruses of most of the rest, including ‘What Makes A Good Man‘ and ‘Curse Me Good‘. There really isn’t a bum note all night, and I dance my bollocks off for ninety minutes energetically enough to suffer from excruciating cramp in my left calf muscle at three in the morning; that’s the sign of a good night out at my age…
Support is provided by The Computers, or, as Alex the lead singer informs us, ‘The Motherfucking Computers from warm and creamy Devon’. He is a cross between Elvis Costello and Dennis the Menace, and their loud and proud rock and roll is bonkers. A very hot warm up act, and well worth checking out.
It’s wonderful to see Ane Brun again; once a year isn’t often enough, though. Having just released two compilation albums, she’s on the road to promote them. However, this isn’t a straightforward retrospective in any way, shape or form.
Last year at WOMAD, I asked her about the difference between her first folky acoustic albums and 2011’s fantastic ‘It All Starts With One’, which was huge and sonic and operatic in scale, with washes of strings and keyboards and layers upon layers of thumping drums. Yes, she said, it was deliberately different; a self-taught musician, she had reached the point where she wanted to grow and extend and experiment. That album was a huge leap forward, and an explosion of creativity.
And so this gig is about reimagining those earlier songs, and the results are beautiful and often quite astonishing. Songs like ‘The Fall’ and ‘My Lover Will Go’ are reinterpreted with woozy trip hop beats and seductive rhythms over which vocals soar; a pleasant surprise is the presence of the gorgeous Nina Kinert, a bit of a Norwegian wonky pop superstar herself. She adds great texture to Brun’s already magnificent voice: ‘To Let Myself Go’, already a slow burning moody number, gains oodles by Brun and Kinert howling in counterpoint above thrashing sexually charged keyboards and percussion. Most wonderful of all, I think, is ‘Humming One of Your Songs’ which in the original is melodic and catchy; here, it’s slowed right down and thumps the guts like the best of Portishead, Brun as gloriously and seductively erotic as I’ve ever heard her.
Then, of course, there are the big, big numbers from ‘It All Starts With One’: that bonkers double drum of ‘Do You Remember?; the crushing beauty of ‘These Days’; the almost hallucinogenic mantra of ‘Worship’. Her final encore – after her version of ‘Big In Japan’, which would easily get on my compilation of top ten covers of all time – is, of course, ‘Undertow’, that gloriously delicate piano refrain and that fabulous delicate voice giving themselves up to the biggest, loudest, most thunderous sound on the planet.
Once more, Ane Brun is fabulous. And once more, I’m happy to admit I just love her to bits.
Well, that was fab…
A last-minute opportunity to grab a ticket for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds saw me catch one of the most eclectic, gloomy, surprising, ambitious, infuriating songwriters I know - and the man who wrote the script for one of my favourite all time Westerns, ‘The Proposition’.
Cave has a new album out, the brilliant ‘Push the Sky Away‘, itself a gloriously brooding, beautiful song he finishes the main set with. It’s a fabulous album: he starts the gig with “We No Who U R” (Warren Ellis with that trademark flute the Seeds use so often) and includes ‘Mermaids‘ – I mean, what the hell do you make of ineffably wonky lyrics like ‘She was a catch / We were a match /I was the match /That would fire up her snatch’ , that then turn into just one of the most gorgeous refrains known to man? Then there are the two stonewall epics they perform: “Jubilee Street” and, my favourite from the album, “Higgs Boson Blues” are monumental.
There are a number of similar biggies thrown in to the setlist, including the misanthropic ‘Tupelo’ and simply psycho ‘Stagger Lee’, both of them howling and cacophonous (as they need to be), and brilliant sinagalong oldies like ‘Red Right Hand‘ and ‘Deanna’. The unutterably lovely ‘Into My Arms’ heralds three piano-acoustic numbers mid-set (along with “Watching Alice” and the gorgeous “People Aint No Good”) that shows Cave is a true romantic at heart, but a heart that’s just a little on the black side.
The man is 7’5″ of sheer goth charisma, easy in himself and with his audience: this is the first time I’ve seen him and wondered if he’d be all glum and introspective, but not a bit of it. Dammit, the man’s a real rock star. The Barrowland audience is hot and fractious – within six feet of me, one girl faints and two guys start fighting – but absolutely committed to having a ball. And we do.
Awfy, awfy guid.
Nadine Shah is perhaps the scariest singer I’ve seen since Geddy Lee of Rush screamed at me for three hours in 1979. I’m with a pal who says she finds it difficult to watch her during the first three songs in case laser beams shoot out of her unblinking eyes and burn us all to a crisp. Of Pakistani / Norwegian parentage, she’s all ice queen.
Then, she decides to talk to us, and we discover she’s a beautiful, charming girl full of kooky smiles and the broadest Geordie accent you can imagine. The difference is quite astonishing: Goth Goddess one minute, Giggly Gal the next.
Her music is unashamedly gloomy; towards the end of the show, her guitarist retunes; ‘Is that it?’ she asks, to which he replies ‘Fine. Close enough for Goth.’ That has her collapsing in a helpless heap. She has a marvellous voice: what it lacks in octaves, it more than makes up for in timbre and texture and sheer bloody volume; when she fills her lungs and opens her throat, she can hold her notes loud and long and spine-tingling, despite the heavy cold she’s carrying. Combine that voice with the often industrial noises of her music, it all adds up to an intense set.
She’s showcasing her new album (I get it on vinyl! Whoopee!) and there are some cracking tracks. The opener for the record and the show is ‘Aching Bones’, startling in its clanging zither and pounding drums and snarling piano. Most of her work is about past and lost love and the winter of the soul that results; ‘Winter Reigns’, and aching bones indeed. ‘To Be A Young Man’ is slightly more up tempo and growls a great rock beat, but there’s a real poignancy about the lyrics, apparently inspired by a man in his sixties observing to Shah that he was able to forget how old he was until he caught his reflection in a mirror. God, do I know that feeling…
‘Floating’ is terrific too, a yearning for a lover shared with another leading to a state of near madness, while ‘Never Tell Me Mam’ is a slow-burner that builds in emotional intensity to a huge climax: she’s great at that sonic wash I love so much. She ends with a wonkily heart-stopping version of ‘Cry Me A River’ that fits her ethic perfectly.
She’s young and relatively new, and this is a short set. With a bit of time and a bigger repertoire under her belt, she’ll definitely be one to watch. My pal and I agree: we wish her lots of success.