Tindersticks have been one of my favourite bands ever since their first album in the early 1990s. What appeals to me is my inability to pigeon hole their music – is it orchestral? Soul? Jazz? – which comes from their ability to surprise on every album.
Of course, a key to their success is Stuart Staples’ astonishing baritone. It’s a take-it-or-leave-it type of voice, but there’s no denying its distinctiveness. Legend has it that it was the model for Vic Reeves’ pub singer on “Shooting Stars”. I think it’s a fantastic voice, capable of intense emotion, which is why T’sticks are the authors of some of my favourite love songs, “My Oblivion” from 2003’s “Waiting for the Moon” being the stand out.
That album was the last made before the band split right down the middle, though, most notably marking the departure of arranger Dickon Hinchcliffe on violin. The group’s biggest asset is the soundscape they create, a transcendent wash of strings and keyboards. The last time I saw them was in 2002 at the same venue, and the noise they made was quite simply beautiful. I have to say, this time round, great though they are, they seem to miss everything that Hinchcliffe brought to the mix.
But they are great, and they showcase the new album, “Falling Down a Mountain”. It has a slightly rockier feel, especially songs like “Black Smoke”, “She Rode Me Down” (which has their trademark spaghetti Western mariachi feel) and “Harmony Around My Table” which meld well with classic T’sticks tracks like “Sometimes it Hurts”. However, Staples’ voice is made for tear-jerkers, and there are plenty of those, culminating in the sublime “All the Love”.
One thing: T’sticks are a classic analogue band, all warmth and depth and richness, and, as a result, they bring out everything on vinyl. If you have a half decent turntable, ignore the CDs and downloads and buy them on this format: it’s the way they are meant to be experienced. Besides, if you do buy “Falling Down a Mountain” on LP, you get a free download to play in the car anyway.
It’s difficult to pin down exactly what Stewart Lee does that’s so funny, but funny he is. First, I think, is that he is a master at exploiting awkward moments: there’s nothing so uncomfortable in a comedy routine as half a minute of silence, not even a titter to break the stare Lee aims at the audience. Secondly, he shares with many comics the art of the surreal, free-fall tangent, especially during an extended imaginary phone call to an estate agent regarding the purchase of a home, one of the requirements of which is a view of otters frolicking at the bottom of the garden. Thirdly, he is capable of winning world-weariness á la Jack Dee or barely concealed fury that has him shuffling in his jacket, all of which give his act a sense of emotional movement.
But probably it’s his delicious wickedness which is his forte. There’s nothing more effective at getting an audience on your side than a complicity in a view so outrageous you just know you can’t possibly repeat it outside the theatre. Chief among these moments is his assertion that Richard “The Hamster” Hammond (not even a real hamster) should have been decapitated in that car crash, his head bouncing along the track into a pool of blazing fuel, his brain stem conscious just long enough to register that things were getting a bit hot. “I’m only joking,” he says, “just like Top Gear. But, coincidentally…”
This is an added show, and half past five isn’t exactly the best time to to warm up a sober audience, but Lee works the stage – and the stalls and the dress circle – really well. What’s noticeable is how he can be so in-your-face, and yet the swearing quotient is at a minimum. I’ve no problem with anyone who uses “bad language”, whatever that is, but Lee shows that confrontation can be just effective when it’s cerebral rather than visceral. One of the better stand-ups around.
An interesting panel discussion this, chaired by Alan Riach. For decades, those involved in Scottish writing have been concerned about the lack of status accorded to Scottish literature and – even more so – the Scots language in schools.
There are, however, too many blind alleys in the debate. Should Scots literature be compulsory? Well, doubts were raised about how pupils would engage with being made to do something they didn’t want to, everyone forgetting, of course, that school is, by its very nature, compulsory. So how do we ensure that pupils do engage with Scottish literature? The fact is, they do (around half of Higher answers are on Scottish texts), but the range is very limited because teachers tend to self prescribe.
Put simply, every curriculum document says that teachers of English should study Scottish literature. Having compulsory exam questions will simply encourage them to study a narrow range of texts which will satisfy the rubric of that exam, a sterile experience if ever there was one. The key to ensuring real engagement with Scottish literature is to ensure that teachers do their job, and include quality Scottish literature experiences in their planning and in their teaching. That will mean head teachers, principal teachers and inspectors playing a much more active role in ensuring staff are able to deliver a curriculum that reflects the importance of the pupils’ own culture.
A respectably sized crowd turns up this time to give Astrid Williamson something approaching the reception she deserves. Supporting Kathryn Williams, she’s at the piano again, but she’s brought a guitar to widen her set list and assures us she’s practised since the Oran Mor gig back in January – though there was absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, being on the road as part of a tour seems to have allowed her to polish up some of her very best gems.
Her voice is in cracking form, easily driving more upbeat numbers like “Shhh…” or “Hozanna”, but the gentler songs really shine: “Only Heaven Knows” the unlisted track at the end of “Day of the Lone Wolf” album, is wistful and brooding and perfect, as is the beautiful “Eve” from her latest album, “Here Come the Vikings”. Both songs show just how fine a piano player she is, but she’s great on the guitar too; the lovely, light “Superman” (“Oh how I wish / You would be my Superman”) has most of the males in the audience seriously considering wearing their underpants outside their trousers just to oblige.
Her music has been a big part of my soundtrack over the last six years, and I’ve never really been able to pin down which of her songs I’d take to my Desert Island. However, she finishes with “This is how it’s done here”, I think the first time I’ve heard it live, and that settles it. For me, it’s a song about the utter improbability and unexpectedness of love, and the inevitable, delicious pain that lies in the path you have to take to negotiate it. “Love,” she sings, “is a curious land / where you can never be a native or stake your claim”, a sentiment that I should have had tattooed on my heart years ago. The emotion of the refrain is capable of dismantling a listener:“I’m sorry that I came without warning, And I’m sorry that I led you astray. I would never harm a breath in your body, But there’s nothing much left to say; This is how it’s done here.”
It is just stunning.
Kathryn Williams is new to me, but the audience is knowledgeable and enthusiastic. Both of her – she’s heavily pregnant – put on a lovely performance full of cheeky lyrics and woozy melodies. The band is great, throwing everything from hurdy-gurdies to vibraphones into the mix. The set concentrates on her new album, and songs like “50 White Lines”, “Wanting and Waiting” and “Just Leave” are real stand outs. She’s sweet and perhaps a little eccentric and, despite getting irritated by sound problems from time to time, builds real warmth with the audience. A good show.
Honourable mention to local singer, Emma Jane, who opens the evening with a short set. The girl has a great voice – a bit like Carol Laula with the volume turned down a bit – and she writes fine songs; her opening number has a bitter lyric about Glasgow sectarianism. Highlight, though, is a cover of “Ain’t no sunshine…”, delivered with real grace. Her guitarist, Iain McKinnon, is pretty damned good too. She’s just as talented as other young singers who get much more attention – such as Lisa Mitchell, who I saw last month – so I hope she has the success she deserves.
I’m a huge fan of the BBC. For all its faults, it provides an unparallelled quality of service not just to Britain, but to the world. Yet it’s constantly under attack from the private media who claim unfair competition but are just embarrassed by the crap they put out in comparison; every time I hear someone complain about repeats on the Beeb, I remind them that they can always watch the same twenty year old episode of Star Trek three or four times a week on Sky 1 if they don’t like it. That’s why the recent retrenchment of the corporation in agreeing to half its website and abandon some radio stations infuriates the hell out of me. Get rid of Asian radio? Do you see Rupert Murdoch rushing to fill that little void in public service?
If it worries you too, then join the 38° capaign at http://38degrees.org.uk/page/s/bbccuts#petition . In the meantime, here’s an adapted article from TV critic Joyce MacMillan I used as a close reading passage with pupils all of fifteen years ago. It’s as good a dissection of populist Thatcherite psychology as I’ve read but, sadly, it’s message is still hugely relevant today:
“Read my lips, no new taxes: it’s been the guiding mantra of Western politics for more than a decade now, a creed so universally honoured, by all politicians with a chance of power, that it is now very difficult in most Western democracies to tell one potential government from another. Yet on Friday night, a man in the mainstream of British public life – a well-known wearer of grey suits, a leading advocate of the new market managerialism, a man whom socialists love to hate – stood up and made what was, in effect, a powerful argument for an increase in direct taxation to help preserve a public-sector institution at the expense of its commercial competitors. The man was John Birt, director-general of the BBC, who used his keynote address at the Edinburgh Television Festival to launch a campaign for a substantial increase in the BBC licence fee; and the case he made was, I think, almost unanswerable.
At less than 25 pence a day for two substantial television channels, five network radio services, a host of local, regional and national-regional programming, and – most importantly of all – one of the most reliable and serious broadcast news services on the planet, the BBC represents spectacularly good value by any measure. Yet in an age of rapid and expensive technological advance, and increasingly ferocious competition, the real-terms cost of a licence has actually declined over the last decade; small wonder that round after round of drastic efficiency savings, along with a fierce push to maximise commercial income, have been necessary to keep the BBC show on the road at all.
But will Mr Birt and the BBC get the increase they need to maintain standards and carry on competing? Not to judge by the immediate response to his speech, which has been almost universally negative. The weakest set of objections, and the easiest to refute, come from the representatives of those on low incomes, including a rent-a-quote handful of Labour MPs. Of course the flat rate licence fee is a regressive tax which bears heavily on the poor. But the idea that low income groups will be better served if the licence fee is allowed to wither away, and purely commercial broadcasting operations gradually supplant the BBC, is short-sighted beyond belief. Either the BBC is properly supported, or pensioners will end up paying almost four times as much – the typical annual cost of Sky television is around £320 – for a much less comprehensive service; if that’s progress for the poor, then I’m John Birt’s tailor. Nor should the BBC have much trouble in countering arguments from the far right, from those anti-public sector ideologues who want to diminish the role of the BBC purely because its successful presence drastically reduces the amount of British viewing and listening time available for commercial exploitation.
No, it’s in meeting the resistance of the public itself that John Birt, in his new role as defender of quality public services funded from taxation, will face his toughest test. For it’s here that the broadcasting debate falls foul of the same vicious Catch-22 that has come to plague the whole of Western politics in the age of privatisation; the iron psychological rule of the New Right project, which says that people will always rubbish services for which they have been forced to pay, but will always defend and overvalue those they feel they have acquired by personal “consumer choice”. According to a recent survey, only 47% of Scots are satisfied with terrestrial television services, whereas 65% are satisfied with their satellite or cable services. Of course, it s unlikely that these figures represent serious value for money judgements; even people with satellite or cable services do not use them four times as much as they use terrestrial television. But to admit that your satellite service at £6.50 a week is a bad bargain is to admit that you are a fool for buying it; whereas to complain about the licence fee, at £1.75 a week, is much like complaining about the weather.
And this is the subtle psychological trick by which the unemployed couch-potato in Pilton, slumped in front of the telly bumming about how great Sky television is, gradually becomes the ideological ally of that woman in Eastwood who can’t stop talking about her marvellous private hip operation; both, knowingly or unknowingly, have joined the poor bloody infantry, and unpaid propaganda corps, of an ideological revolution designed to deprive us of huge amounts of cash in return for inferior substitutes. And until we learn to resist being used in that way, to see through the trick, to recognise the danger it represents to all public goods that are essential to a civilised society, and give unequivocal support to those – even John Birt – who are willing to make a stand for decently-funded public provision – that revolution will not be stopped by a government of any colour, no matter how much we claim to oppose it, or wish it had never happened in the first place.”