Oh dear – thanks to horrid assignment marking, I’m almost a week overdue with a blog about the last of my Celtic Connections adventures to see Richard Thompson, the bestest guitarist in the whole widest world. No pyrotechnics, no histrionics, no acrobatics: he just stands there and plays that powder blue fucker to within an inch of its life.
The first half of the show consists of his new album, the live “Dark Attic”. Thompson’s albums have always been a mixed bag: “Rumour and Sigh”, one of his most commercial efforts, has glorious tracks like “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” and the psychotically bitter “I Misunderstood”, two tracks that turned me on to his music because I never was a Fairport Convention hippy freak. And on the same album, there’s the cacophony of “Psycho Street” and “Grey Walls”, neither of which I think do him any favours.
“Dark Attic” is more consistent than others. “The Money Shuffle” and “Demons in her Dancing Shoes” are solid Thompsonesque rockers, while “Sidney Wells” revisits his tendency for telling warped stories. There are a couple of numbers that are steeped in his folky roots – “The Gorse and the Grey”, “Geordie” – and a typically over-the-top piece of indulgence called “Burning Man” that doesn’t work for me, largely because the melody shows the cracks in Thompson’s vocals. His voice has always been a love or hate thing: I’m in the former category, and I think there are songs that only he could sing, such as the soaring “A Love You Can’t Survive” from “Old Kit Bag”, but it does mean that occasionally a bum one slips through.
I prefer Thompson’s voice and guitar when he’s at his most plaintive and singing about wrecked lives and loves. A wee gem from the “Hard Cash” soundtrack called “Oh I Swear” is one of the most heartbreaking songs about poverty I’ve ever heard, and my favourite ever Thompson guitar solo is the two minutes or so at the end of “Why Must I Plead” from “Rumour and Sigh”, when his guitar gently weeps. “Stumble On” from the new album approaches those heights.
The second half revisits some of his greatest hits (with a small g, he takes pains to point out). “Can’t Win” is a cracker of a track, with that misanthropic snarl of “the nerve of some people” ringing out and Thompson going gently bananas with a five-minute solo that gobsmacks my pal Donald, a pretty mean guitarist himself. From gin-joint django jazz to the folkiest folk, Thompson’s breadth of reference is huge. There are the predictable shouts for favourites – “Beeswing”, “Vincent” – but there’s no point: Thompson has hundreds of songs at his fingertips, and the vast majority of them will do just nicely, thank you very much.
The only down side is the venue. The GRCH plonks people into seats and something then transforms them into wax dummies. Perhaps it’s the age profile of the audience – there a queue for the gents at the interval – but looking out over the stalls reveals a sea of perfectly still grey bonces. Most of these people were probably at the Old Fruitmarket two years ago, when head-banging was compulsory. Still, at least they get on their feet for the final, rip-snorting “Tear Stained Letter”.
I head off into the night, singing “I feel so good, I’m gonna break somebody’s heart tonight” at the top of my voice – and he didn’t even perform that.
Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge” is a favourite play of mine, so, like “Macbeth”, any company attempting it will have a hard job pleasing me. It’s a quintessentially steamy tale of repressed sexuality and obsession, and Eddie Carbone’s descent as he struggles with his unacknowledged incestuous feelings for his niece Catherine has always touched me deeply. Of the three great Miller plays of the period, “A View…” seems to me the most poignant and accessible, even though I think “Death of a Salesman” is a better play.
So – this is a production which has been getting fantastic plaudits: check the reviews on the Lyceum’s webpages, which also has really interesting extras such as cast interviews. I have to say – I don’t know why. Don’t get me wrong, this is a sincere and worthwhile production, but there seems to be a gaping hole in the centre of it for me.
And that hole is the sexual tension that should – must – exist in the Carbone household. It just isn’t there. Catherine is a gentle, sweet and naive girl, but there is little sense of the growing awareness of her own sexuality that should underpin her attraction to Rodolpho and drive her albeit subconscious manipulation of Eddie. And while Stanley Townsend – recently doing a star turn as Mosacati in “Zen” – is excellent as Eddie and easily holds the audience’s attention, there are no looks or gestures that suggest what he is trying not to feel for Catherine.
As a result, when his wife Beatrice complains that Eddie hasn’t made love with her for three months, we just feel that he’s gone off it a bit. At the end of the first Act, Eddies’s interview with the lawyer / narrator Alfieri should be a pressure cooker of dimly realised sexual guilt, but when the lawyer warns Eddie about there being “too much love” in his relationship with Catherine, we wonder where such an accusation comes from, since Eddie’s complaints about Rodolpho – he’s after legitimate papers by marrying Catherine, he’s a spendthrift, he’s homosexual – might sound unreasonable but are no more than any overly-concerned parent might blurt out in the heat of the moment. And, as the family argue over Catherine’s impending marriage, when Beatrice accuses him of wanting Catherine for himself, we can’t help but agree with Eddie’s perplexed “How could you think that of me?”
Of course, a balance has to be struck, and there would be no point portraying Eddie as a leering, sleazy old lech. However, Eddie risks everything – his family, his home, his life – to prevent losing Catherine, and there has to be a sense that he recognises the possibility that Beatrice and Alfieri just might be right about him. It’s partly a problem of directorship and partly of casting: Townsend is terrific, but apparently there is a new film version in development with Antony la Paglia in the main role. La Paglia – who was magnificent as the emotionally tortured cop in “Lantana” – may be perfect for the role, since he is unlikely to suppress his dark sexuality.
However, it’s a play that’s gorgeously set and costumed, well acted – apart from several dodgy accents – and generally well directed. I’m glad I saw it, and it’s certainly a play worth seeing. Just… just… not quite rampant enough.
First on tonight’s bill is a pipe band / breakdancing performance (yes, that’s right) called “Move“, and a fine pace they set for the evening too. A collaboration between street dance crew Random Aspekts, music producers Wild Biscuit (led by director John Saich) and a group of teenaged pipe and drum players, it’s a fast and furious collective, witty and catchy, and they do a grand job of whipping the audience up into a frenzy for the arrival of Lau.
And then it really goes bonkers. This is a band I haven’t paid much attention to, and I deserve to be beaten over the head for that oversight. Multi-award winning as a group and as individuals – including three consecutive years of being crowned ‘Best Group’ at the BBC Radio Two Folk Awards – they are just phenomenal, and worthy of the tongue-in-cheek title “folk supergroup”. It’s their creativity that is astonishing, and many of their compositions veer off into the most magnificent prog-rock soundscapes. All of them are consummate musicians – Kris Drever on guitar and vocal, Aidan O’Rourke on fiddle – but Martin Green is the stand out for me. Attacking his instrument like a cross between Jimi Hendrix and Animal from the Muppets, he is easily the best accordion player I have ever seen. Gobsmacking, testosterone-driven virtuosity – he might as well set fire to the damn thing, it’s the only thing left to do to it.
A warm handover with cuddles and kisses suggests Crooked Still are here to share the bill, not headline it, and it’s clear that bonds have developed in the rehearsal room. This is the band I’m here to see since I have a few of their albums already, and their gentle, modern take on bluegrass is sweet and tremendously musical. However, vocalist Aoife O’Donovan sums up the problem they face in following music she rightly describes as “epic”. This is a band that is gorgeously accomplished – O’Donovan is a charismatic singer, and all the band members, especially cellist Tristan Clarridge, are fantastic musicians – but their perfectly executed, melodic loveliness doesn’t quite keep the pulse racing. It’s simply a case of a great band having to follow a stratospherically extraordinary band.
The night finishes with a collaboration born out of all that noodling together in the rehearsal room, and it’s as if the sound man turns the amp up to eleven. Both bands seem to enjoy the experience immensely, and the final number, Lau’s “The Burrian”, probably measures up on the Richter scale. So, so good.
Had a great session with our PGDE Secondary students the other day. I’d inherited a session on numeracy in English – and of course, everyone’s initial reaction is that numbers and English don’t go together! However, just as all teachers – including Maths – have a responsibility to develop literacy in their pupils, so all teachers – including English – have a responsibility to develop numeracy.
What’s always interested me about numeracy in English is the way numbers and word interplay. We concentrated on how we express numbers, and how the different ways we express numbers can have a different effect. For example, we all know 33% is the same as a third. But when we are trying to achieve a particular purpose – for example, to persuade – what’s the difference between:
“One in three…”
“More than 30 in every hundred..”
“66% don’t believe…”?
Of course, we need to know how the numbers work, but what’s just as important is the purpose we put them to, and the effect we want to achieve by using them. Fascinating stuff, and we all had a great time playing with numbers and language at the same time.
Well, I did: I’m not so sure about the students!
Well, I’m rising to WordPress’s (is that punctuation correct?!) challenge to raise my game, and so I’m joining their Post Once a Week project. I couldn’t possibly manage the every day target, so I’m chickening out – but my target will be twice a week. So be prepared to be assailed by all sorts of rantings about work, war, music, English, teaching, writing and books – and anything else I can think of. You could support me by commenting on my entries: alternatively, you could just ignore me…
Phew, I’m exhausted already!
Oh my goodness, I could get used to this business of sitting in front row seats to see fantastic, beautiful women singing in tongues I don’t understand. Yasmin Levy from Israel sings in Spanish and Ladino, that wistful, mongrel, dying language of the Jews evicted from Christian Spain in 1492 to wander the largely Muslim Ottoman Empire. And she does it superbly.
Her acoustic band easily recreate flamenco, coplas, moorish, middle eastern and latin backdrops, over which Levy’s towering vocals are capable of causing serious goosebumps and the occasional tear. Make no mistake: Levy is capable of ringing out every drop of emotion from the listener, a bit like two hour’s worth of Rebekah del Rio’s Spanish language version of “Crying” in “Mulholland Drive” that is capable of stopping hearts at fifty paces.
There are stunning interpretations of traditional Ladino and Sephardic songs, including “La Hija de Juan Simon”, about a village gravedigger who buries his own heartbroken daughter, which Levy describes as the “saddest song ever”. This version, stripped to the accompaniment of a single guitar, is even better than the album version from “Sentir”. “Adio Kerida”, from “Mano Suave”, is gorgeous too, and even has the typically buttoned-up and frosty GRCH audience singing along in Ladino.
She’s also capable of a few surprises. Fed up to the back teeth with soulless X-Factor type shouty-shouty versions of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”? Well, listening to her take on it is a breath of fresh air.
But she’s a talented writer in her own right, and songs like “Una Noche Mas” and “El Amor Contigo” demonstrate her ability to create beautiful music from found narratives.
Head to toe in black, tiny and perchink, gloriously pregnant, wearing a fabulous embroidered and bejewelled coat that would feature in a New Romantic’s wet dream, she is one of the most exotic creatures to grace the GRCH stage. What is also noticeable is her charm, frequently stepping away from centre stage to allow her band the spotlight. She also shares the stage with the support act, cracking Scottish klezmer band Moishe’s Bagel, melding one of her Ladino interpretations with one of their own compositions. And pianist Phil Alexander, who she met for the first time earlier that day, has what must be the considerable thrill of accompanying her on a few numbers. That speaks volumes for her generosity of spirit.
Despite the sadness of the songs and the frequent plaintiveness of her transcendent voice, I spent the whole concert grinning from ear to ear at the beauty of it all, a fact she sweetly thanked me for when, feeling like a teenage groupie, I re-bought “Mano Suave” after the show just so that I could ask for her autograph. Every inch the diva and not one jot of the attitude. Just lovely.
My 2011 Celtic Connections adventure begins at the Old Fruitmarket with a disappointment and a hugely pleasant surprise. The latter comes in the form of OqueStrada, another entry to add to my favourite Portuguese list. A five / six piece acoustic band, they are led by the typically dramatic Miranda, a singer whose performance is full of goofy sexiness reminiscent of a saucy seaside postcard (an approach evident in the design of their MySpace site and album cover).
As with many Portuguese artists, there is a whole philosophy behind their music: outlined on their site, it is described as “Tasca Beat”, the title of their first album. Miranda tells us that the band’s name conjures up images of orchestration, of taking charge of one’s destiny: in this sense it is the apposite of fado’s sense of fate, and so the band can be seen as either “new fado” or “anti fado”, much in the developing tradition of bands such as Deolinda, another new, fun, sassy band that causes fado traditionalists to raise an eyebrow.
It is incredible fun. Miranda plays the crowd with crazy dances and glimpses of big knickers, and she is wonderfully charismatic. The band members – and I need to find out their names – are adept at having those intricate conversations between individual musicians, most especially a hot and intense accordion player and an utterly wonderful Portuguese guitar player who does mind-boggling things with his left hand. There are stand-out tracks I’ll need to get better acquainted with, and thankfully “Tasca Beat” is available on e-music. I’m listening to it now, and “Oxala Te Veja” and “Agarrem-me” spring to mind. They also do a fantastic accordion/Pguitar duel over, I think, Tubular Bells, and a brilliantly witty version of a classic slushy ballad I won’t mention because they don’t have permission to play it. They are brilliant.
The disappointment comes with the set from Cheikh Lo. I have a couple of his Senegalese jazz-funk-reggae albums, and love their cleaness and clarity and their irresistible groove. I had high hopes for this, but overall I’m distinctly underwhelmed. Lo is a percussionist, but relegates himself to the dimly lit drum kit at the back, and the result is a physical and emotional hole in the centre of the stage. There are some flashes of brilliance – especially when he comes down front to rattle the bejasus out of a pair of snare drums – but overall the sense is of something efficient but largely heartless, along with a ballad that is, quite honestly, inept. They have significant sound problems too, constantly tweaking levels, and the effect is the very antithesis of his recorded sound – muddy and distant. The balance of the band is hugely percussive too, and I felt that another guitar and a horn to accompany a saxophonist who carries much of the melodic burden would have balanced and spiced things up a bit. There’s no doubt these are fine musicians, and Lo has a classic voice, but, God, they didn’t even look as if they were enjoying themselves that much.
Next stop – Yasmin Levy on Tuesday!
First WPM of 2011, and the first I’ve been to in The Arches. The venue is cool and suits the event well, so thumbs up for the new home.
The performances are good too, with a couple of real stand outs. Claire Askew’s poetry is exceptional in its ability to take every day stuff – snow, her partner’s atheism – and spin something rather special out of them. Best is her final piece, a gently witty warning to anyone in her eyeline that they may well find themselves the subject of a poem. She has a fantastic voice, and her performance is slick and persuasive, with hardly a glance at her text. Lovely talent.
Another great voice is Allan Radcliffe. His story of a chance meeting of a young waiter and a louche gay revisiting his past is poignant and lyrical. He has a beautiful turn of phrase that is elegant and he isn’t afraid to take the time to paint a scene. Gently told and very convincing.
Allan Wilson’s story proves a little difficult to get to the heart of, largely down to it being a dialogue piece, always difficult to do live because of the need to differentiate many voices, and Sara Thomas’ performance piece – the musings of a live statue done in full costume – is a little distant too, written as it is in the second person. Sian Bevan’s opener is really well written and performed but, perhaps because she is first up, some of her Brigitte Jones-style humour falls flat with the audience, who perhaps need a few more drinks down their necks. However, all three have evident talent.
Singer songwriter Michael Cassidy finishes off the afternoon. His songs are well written, well sung and delivered in a cracking Paisley accent.
All in all, a pretty good afternoon.
The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:
The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads This blog is on fire!.
A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 3,200 times in 2010. That’s about 8 full 747s.
In 2010, there were 42 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 60 posts. There were 46 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 3mb. That’s about 4 pictures per month.
The busiest day of the year was January 31st with 226 views. The most popular post that day was Deolinda / Koshka, City Halls, 29/1/10.
Where did they come from?
The top referring sites in 2010 were soltysek.com, facebook.com, twitter.com, en.wordpress.com, and pgde.strath.ac.uk.
Some visitors came searching, mostly for claudia cardinale, estelle brisard, once upon a time in the west, raymond soltysek, and claudia cardinale once upon a time in the west.
Attractions in 2010
These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.
Deolinda / Koshka, City Halls, 29/1/10 January 2010
Astrid Williamson / Kathryn Williams / Emma Jane, King Tut’s, 2/3/10 March 2010
WPM2, Creation Studios, 6/6/10 June 2010
Astrid Williamson / Joe Pernice, Oran Mor, 27/1/10 January 2010