Right out of the textbook of emo.alt.country.americana (in fact, he may have written it) that includes such oddities as Ray LaMontaigne and Bon Iver, Will Oldham brings a thoughtful, gentle set from Kentucky.
I’m reading a history of the Civil War at the moment, and Oldham looks as if he’s stepped right out from the photographs of Southern farmers who took up arms against the Union; either that, or he’s a 30’s train track troubadour, an aesthetic reinforced when he grabs the thighs of this jeans and jigs like a hobo with restless leg syndrome.
I’ve a couple of his albums, and like them a lot though find them a little one-paced. It’s the same with the show, but it doesn’t seem to matter because it’s all quality stuff: lyrically, he keeps you riveted with the complexity of layers of meaning that feel almost like sermons (“Don’t go to bed if you know that something’s waiting to grab you in the night and throttle hope from your heart / Don’t close your eyes if the ills are fornicating and conceiving of an evil to break you from the start”); musically, the impeccable harmonies (partly helped along by powerhouse waif Angel Olsen) and brilliant musicianship are more than enough to maintain interest. He reminds me of Don McLean in many ways, not of the overblown “American Pie” and “Vincent” singles but of the folk-tinged intensity of albums like “Homeless Brother” and “Tapestry”, or songs like “Winterwood” or “Empty Chairs”. He has a similar voice too, I think: powerful, an extensive range, capable of real subtlety and emotion. It’s a fine instrument. He also has the same eye and ear for the details of life and love, and is brave enough to capture them in songs that lay human existence bare.
He examines the poverty of the dirt poor farmer in songs like “Quail and Dumplings”, and the influence of the hymns of the Bible Belt, harmonium and all, can be heard in “Cows” (which, like McLean’s “Babylon”, ends with a spine tingling round), while songs like “No Match” and “You Win” seem to speak of the emotional and physical exhaustion of… well, just living and loving, really. Not that this is in any way morbid: it’s gentle, honest, reflective, wry, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Support is provided by a Norwegian singer (the third in 6 months!) called Susanna Wallumrød . She has a good voice and plays the piano well. She also sings everything – including the greatest hits of AC/DC, Kiss and Dollie Parton – at relentlessly funereal pace. Hmmm.
You get a lot of unsolicited rubbish when you have a site like this, but I’ve never had anything as insulting as the following, from someone called Jamal Butler.
“obviously like your web site but you need to check the spelling on quite a few of your posts. Many of them are rife with spelling problems and I find it very bothersome to tell the truth nevertheless I will definitely come back again.”
The evening kicks off with Fernhill, a Welsh quartet consisting of a lead vocalist, a guitar, a fiddle and – a little bizarrely – a muted trumpet. It works well, largely due to Julie Murphy’s lovely voice, and there is one exceptional song, Glyn Tawe, in which fiddle player Christine Cooper recites a section of prose poetry that is beautifully evocative of summers in a rural idyll now lost: it’s the kind of stuff Kathryn Tickell does so wonderfully. This is a good band, but they’re not helped by the quality of the sound system, which is barely adequate for a school show.
Julie Fowlis is a charming, warm host, a mean player of the penny whistle and the owner of perhaps the purest and sweetest voice in Scottish music. She warms up with a few numbers, complete with cheeky interplay between her and her band. I’ve never seen her before, but she feels like an old friend, and that’s a very special charisma to be able to convey on stage.
“Heisgeir” is the main event. A film project she’s been working on for the last year, it’s a wonderful and vitally important cultural artefact, chronicling as it does the lives linked to the tiny deserted Hebridean island. The people interviewed – including the last person born on the island – are fascinating and heartwarming, and what is clear from them is just how much Gaelic culture has retained that we have lost. Their names – so, so long – are almost a catalogue of lineage, and their daily names, like Black Haired Iain of the Blizzard or McCordum of the Seals, are testament to stories passed down from generation to generation like the Epic of Gilgamesh. And what stories: the sole survivor of a drowned boat eking out his existence until his rescue by eating the ground tongue of the one cow that swam away from the same wreck; the horse that could tell the future, refusing to pass a point on the track until the day they found the body of a drowned lighthouse keeper there. Age, lineage, family, history – all are vital to these people. They wrap themselves up in the lessons of their past while we grub about looking only to the future, and that is a horrible, dark place where only work and debt and death await us. Oh, to know you’re part of something much, much greater.
That’s why one old man, speaking of the many versions of the song he has just sung, says that he learned it from his father, who learned it from someone older, “and,” he says, “I am happy with that.” That’s why the youngest person in the film, a middle-aged fisherman son of a fisherman, speaks of reciting the old place names so that they are not forgotten; names that identified a bay, a skerry, a cliff, a single rock; names that held significance because in them they told story upon story of the people who coined them.
Fowlis and her band, backlit behind the sailcloth used as a screen, interject some beautiful songs: she herself admits that the whole project started off as a film to support a musical project, but became a film with music because of the importance of the people in it. Appearing ethereally from time to time, they seem like the ghosts of the many men drowned at sea, or lonely spirits wandering the broken down community, or sprites amongst the machair. It is quite enchanting.
I sometimes hear people moaning about tax payers’ money going to support Gaelic. Let it die, they say, why should I pay to keep alive a language that I don’t speak and isn’t any use in the modern world? Well, this film gives us reason enough. I don’t want to live in a world so arid that we can’t look back on the people of only four or so generations ago, can’t watch films of them, study their photographs, and not know what they sounded like. Every language lost – and dozens disappear every year – means the loss of a history, of stories, of music, of meaning. Every language lost is like another endangered species tipping into extinction. The few quid it might cost me in taxes is worth keeping that alive, and I’d much rather spend it on this kind of beauty than hand it over in some banker’s bonus, or have it used to send young men to Afghanistan to kill and be killed.
I don’t understand Gaelic, but I care enough about humanity to know that to let it die, to lose all the beauty that “Heisgeir” shows us, to lose all that has gone before that these people have strived so hard to preserve, would be a crime of cultural vandalism as bad as any book burning dictatorship the world has ever known: perhaps worse, because it would have happened not because of ideology, but because of short-sightedness, selfishness and complacency.
If there is a God, he should bless this film and the lovely music it has inspired.
Well, Ana Moura, yet another flashing-eyed fadista I’ve wanted to see live for some time, was everything I hoped she’d be, and a whole lot more.
Let’s get the obvious adolescent boy stuff out of the way first. She is one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. Dressed in a stunning black sequined and lace evening dress, she shimmers and explodes like a firework when she catches the light: “she’s like a mermaid,” my sister says. Indeed she is: a fabled, fabulous creature.
She’s much more self contained than many of the fadistas I’ve seen before; singers like Ana Bacalhau or Mariza throw themselves dramatically into the song, physically grabbing it by the throat. Moura’s style involves the merest swing of the hips, the drop of a shoulder, an inclination of the head, and the effect is just as mesmerising, just as sensual. She is utterly elegant.
But of course the star of the show is that voice, a lusty contralto that is capable of breathy subtlety, heart-rending sorrow or barnstorming joy, and Pedro, Angel and Phillippe provide the impeccable backdrop a voice of this quality deserves. Whenever I listen to fado, I’m transported to orange groves and beaches strewn with fishing boats and whitewashed villages where love is rampant and hearts are broken every day. It’s gorgeous. She sings songs mainly from her new live album, “Coliseu”, and songs like “Os Meus Olhos São Dois Círios” or “Sou Do Fado, Sou Fadista” certainly do it for me. Get it, listen to it, fall in love with it.
The second act is one of those weird combinations Celtic Connections delights in encouraging; if you thought teuchter salsa was odd, N’Diale combine the Breton Jackie Molard Quartet with the Foune Diarra trio from Mali. There’s no doubt these are fantastic musicians, but it doesn’t quite hit the spot for me. The Malian desert blues is great, and the set is at its most successful when the n’goni and the drum and Diarra’s beautiful voice are foregrounded. However, the Celtic jigs and reels bolted on seem a little irrelevant, while some of the contributions from the western instruments – bass and sax solos that are more like jazz than anything – are just a bit… well… self-indulgent. This is obviously really accomplished music, and I admired it: I just didn’t feel it, and while I wanted to hear songs, at times I felt I was listening to compositions. The audience too seem to drift, the enormous goodwill that flowed towards Moura turning into something more polite and reserved.
Along with quite a few others, we left early – work commitments tomorrow! – so perhaps N’Diale (which means, rather sweetly, ‘the pleasure of being together’) hotted up the house. I hope so.
Meanwhile, I’m off to sleep, and hopefully dream of fantastically beautiful dark mermaids who can sing my soul to life.
Today would have been my father’s 99th birthday.
It’s been a particularly momentous time for us both; it took ninety-eight-and-a-half years for his Scottish son to arrive in his home town, to visit the street where he was born, to look at the school and the church he went to, to stand at his parents’ graveside, to get a sense of what family means.
And for his Scottish son to finally get a measure of what he was like as a man.
Big year. Big, big year.
This is probably the most evocative photograph I have of myself and my father: the memories of that trip to London are still somehow pin sharp to me. So I thought I’d reproduce here a very short piece I contributed to a British Council anthology, “Identity Papers”, published in 2001 to celebrate the cultural diversity of “Britishness”. I hope you like it.
“If you see a German soldier…”
On my mantleshelf, a black-and-white photograph shows a jerkin-clad boy, squatting down, hands cupped, outstretched, feeding pigeons in Trafalgar Square. I am beaming: I have never been so close to wildlife before. My little sister stands behind me spearing the ground with her umbrella – was it pink? – and stares at the camera like some stern-faced little goddess. My father is on his knees beside her, her hand in his. He shines at her, a fifty-year old man already, proud of something so tiny and perfect. Huge in the background looms a great black lion: we are obviously oblivious to it.
It was 1964. I remember the sweaty journey from Glasgow to Euston: the dusty fabric of the cramped first class carriage with its tiny ledge by the window; the old couple who sucked humbugs and tutted at noisy children; the joy of moving to second class where my mother found a huge table on which we could spread our crayons and colouring books. We visited my father in his lodgings, and my mother scolded him because all he’d organised to eat was Polish bread and liver sausage and cabanos (my sister and I thought it a feast), and I fell asleep watching Gregory Peck win a sea battle in a Hornblower movie and felt at the centre of his Empire because the next day we were going to see Buckingham Palace. And I never thought my father wasn’t part of that.
My childhood brought “Dad’s Army” and “Hogan’s Heroes”, or “Colditz” and “Manhunt”, in which resourceful heroes outwitted crop-haired villains who wore handsome black uniforms. I went to the cinema every Saturday with my friends and watched “The Longest Day”, “The Great Escape”, “The Battle of the Bulge”, and when we emerged from the gloom we were true British heroes, dancing and singing down the street:
“Holy Mary I am dying
Just one word before I go
If you see a German soldier
Shove a bayonet up his
Hoooo-lll-y Mary I am dying…”
My dad won the Iron Cross. I was fourteen when two suited detectives – perhaps Special Branch, how would I know? – came to the house to interview him and left smiling, shaking his hand. He spoke of his unit, pinned down by two Russian tanks, his comrades killed one by one each night they came marauding, and of how his flame-thrower stopped them. And he spoke of the frostbite and the wounds he received, and hinted at the terrible things he’d seen and done which made him whimper when he fell asleep in his fireside chair. I loved him for telling me.
Being British sloughed off me like snakeskin after that, and I knew why my dreams took place in sleety landscapes of sleek black cobbles and high tenements where there lurked an atmosphere of War having started or having ended, either being much the same. All the Churchillianisms I had grown up with signified nothing, made not one bit of difference.
We are what our fathers make us.
from “Identitiy Papers”, The British Council, 2001, isbn 086355489X
“A Thousand Cranes”, the Scottish writing anthology published in support of Japanese earthquake relief, is being relaunched at The Arches 2 on Saturday 25th February. The new edition, in a handy-sized format and with a new foreword by man of the moment Alex Salmond, will retail at £11.99, with all profits going to the Japanese Red Cross disaster relief.
The event is part of the new Margins book and music festival which has an eclectic and interesting three days planned. Christopher Brookmyre, Roddy Woomble, Don Paterson, Tom Leonard and Alasdair Gray are all highlights. Well worth checking out.
I’ll be joining Helen Sedgwick, Andrea Mullaney and Katy McAulay in reading from the anthology. Tickets are £3, available here.
Many thanks again to Cargo publishing and Iain Paton and the editors for all their hard work.
Over the last few months, I’ve begun to get more and more irritated by the behaviour of some gig goers. In October, Catfish Keith had to stop at the beginning of a song to demand that two women sitting above the stage stop their loud and intrusive conversation which had been going on throughout his set when it would have been easy for them to adjourn to a farther corner of the venue where they could chat in peace without disturbing him. He got a round of applause and cheers from the audience.
At Ane Brun’s gig in November, the quietest, most delicate song of the night, Brun singing solo to a single piano accompaniment, was ruined by two cackling girls who’d hardly listened to a word she’d sung all night. They were told to keep the conversation down during the songs, but the damage had already been done. An audience member was asked to leave Chantel McGreor’s gig at The Ferry in April for – well, for just being a bit of a dick and heckling her all the time.
At Sarah Jane Morris’s gig at Ronnie Scott’s last night, the evening was warmed up by the house band, the Ronnie Scott All Stars. I was sitting three feet from the stage, and right behind me, two couples were on a night out. At first, everything was fine; they had a wee bit of banter with the band – no bad thing to set the mood, I feel – and were having a great time. However, things went downhill pretty quickly. By the end of the set, they were actually raising their voices to hear each other above the music, drowning out the musicians so they could continue their conversations. Laughing, joking, flirting, showing off – on and on it went.
I have no problem with noise at a gig if it’s the right kind of noise. Cheering, dancing, singing along, engaging with the music is all fine, in the right setting. And it’s all down to context. Going crazy at the Carling Academy to a rock band is one thing, but, if you’ve any sense, you’re not going to behave like that in an intimate venue listening to a folk singer or some jazz. It seems some people lack that sense of self-awareness required to adjust their behaviour to circumstances.
In addition, engaging with the music is one thing; making a nuisance of yourself because you’re not engaging with the music is quite another. It’s utterly disrespectful, for one thing. Musicians work bloody hard in rehearsals and sweat blood up there to entertain us, and they don’t deserve the kind of contempt that treats them no better than a jukebox in the corner of the pub or the muzak in an elevator. I wonder how those people behind me would feel if they put a lot of effort into an interview presentation, and then some members of the panel turned their backs on it and started talking about the football?
I turned round to them. “Excuse me,” I said, “I don’t want to spoil your party and I’m glad you’re having a good time, but do you mind keeping your conversations down during the numbers?” Polite, but assertive. What I got back, of course, was outright hostility.
“You just do your thing and we’ll do ours,” one of the men said, completely ignoring the fact that I couldn’t “do my thing” because of interference from him doing his “thing”. “There’s always one,” said his pal, suggesting that he comes up against complaints from moaning killjoys like me on a regular basis, so perhaps there’s something persistently wrong with his behaviour.
Underpinning all this is a boorish sense of entitlement. “I’ve paid for my ticket,” the argument goes, “and so I can behave any way I like.” It’s the consumerist concept gone wild, and it’s just plain arrogance. Earlier in the day, I admit I hogged some time in front of Cecilia Gallerani: but there was plenty of room around me for 20 or 30 people to get an even better view, and I didn’t get in anyone’s way and didn’t spoil anyone else’s viewing. The purpose of buying a ticket was to see the paintings, and everyone did in the way they wanted to, whether for thirty seconds or thirty minutes: the purpose of buying a ticket for live music is to listen to the music, and no-one has the right to interfere with that.
Of course, this isn’t a new problem, and it’s certainly not limited to live music. I was a particularly strict teacher at the theatre: pupils were warned within an inch of their lives – no talking, no rustly sweetie wrappers (I once confiscated a family size bag of crisps before a performance of ‘Hamlet’) – because some of them seemed to need to be reminded that they weren’t watching images on a screen, but real people who had to remember lines and who were aware of every potential disruption out in the auditorium. I think, eventually, the pupils appreciated what I was on about.
I was at the infamous show at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow many years back when Timothy West played Willie Loman. At the end of the performance, he raised a hand to stop the applause, and stepped forward to admonish the audience for the noise that filtered up on to stage during the performance; of course, he was referring to the school parties that made up the majority.
There was a self-righteous fury in the papers for a while after that – how dare he, went the line, who pays his wages? – but any teacher with any sense got the message: that children need to be educated, socialised to behave appropriately in different situations. Why is it, for example, that young people go to the theatre or even the cinema and are unable to last three hours without eating some kind of junk food, be it caramels or (boak) cheese-slathered tortillas with gherkins?
I was mortified once when a review in the newspapers of a production of ‘The Turn of the Screw’ which I’d taken my class to complained about the noisy kids eating and laughing and popping cans of Coke at the back of the auditorium, and realised the critic was talking about my pupils. Mine! Words were had, let me tell you, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that I’d let everyone down, I’d spoiled someone’s night out by not being vigilant enough. It seems others don’t have that social conscience.
The couples last night settled down a bit for the main act, though not enough to avoid getting some daggers drawn from other members of the audience (“they were a nightmare,” someone agreed on the way out) and not without some sarky stage-whispered shooshes for my benefit. Still, enough for me to be able to concentrate on what was a great set, and so I hope they enjoyed the rest of their evening.
“There are no rules here,” one of them said last night. Perhaps not, though when I heard him ask his waiter, “Are we allowed to talk?” he was told, “Yes, but you must keep it down during the music,” which sounds suspiciously like (a) what I’d asked them to do, and (b) a rule. However, even if there aren’t rules, there is such a thing as good manners.
My faith was restored by a little girl on the Tube back to the hotel. Her dad whispered something in her ear, and she slid onto his knee and shyly offered me her seat. “It’s okay,” I said, “I’m getting off in a minute. Thank you very much though: next time, I’ll bring my crutches.” She smiled at having her kindness acknowledged, her father smiled with pride at her. As he should. God bless ten year olds: some adults could learn a thing or two from them.
I reckon we should have a zero tolerance of disruption at gigs, concerts and plays. Cinemas do well at reminding patrons to turn off phones and keep noise down: venues should perhaps do the same, with clear expectations on their tickets and polite but firm reminders before the performance begins. Perhaps they’re afraid of alienating the audience, but those who know how to behave will appreciate the intention, and those who don’t will have no excuse when their lack of consideration is pointed out to them or they are asked to leave.
Footnote: in the interests of balance, I’ve just discovered this, courtesy of Sally Beamish: http://www.gramophone.co.uk/blog/shaping-the-invisible/disengagement-rings
In London, I have a credit note for Ronnie Scott’s and I decide to go along to hear a singer I don’t really know. And beat me senseless me for that, because Sarah Jane Morris, ex-Communard, deserves more attention than that. It’s a great set from a woman with a fantastic voice and a true revolutionary’s heart, and she’s backed by an outstanding band who seem to love her to bits.
She showcases numbers from her new album, “Where It Hurts”, released in Italy where she’s something of a superstar but available here through eMusic. The swinging Latin / reggae tunes are the most satisfying for me, especially as they have an explicit message of protest that certainly hits home. “World to Win”, about repression in Burma, and “Promised Land”, about refugees, are particularly effective. However, she’s also capable of handling all sorts of issues, both personal and political, and is quite happy to share with the audience the narratives that accompany the songs: “Warm Welcomes, Cold Goodbyes” is an upbeat song about her divorce. I’ve always liked songs that wrap up a hard-hitting message in a catchy tune, and Morris is especially good at that. She’s also tremendously engaging and warm.
The band is tight too. Tony Remy and Dominic Miller, especially, are two fabulous acoustic guitarists, and an excellent horn section that includes Michael Rosen (not the children’s novelist!) and Annie Whitehead gather around her during the evening. There are plenty of covers, all of them done with a touch of originality and belted out in her trademark subterranean registers. And, of course, there’s a rousing “Don’t Leave Me This Way” to finish off the night. A great start to my live music, 2012.
A usurper to the throne of Milan (a very Shakespearean thing to do), a Duke of Milan at the time when the city-state was one of the most powerful in Europe, patron to one of the greatest minds who ever lived and he went to bed with women who are the subjects of two of the most beautiful paintings I’ve ever seen. Respect.
I’ve already written about Cecelia Gallerani, the “Lady with Ermine”, and I spent a lovely half hour in her company today. Other jostling art bibbers were a bit unhappy with me standing there for so long – hey, there’s so much else to see, and we’ve got to get to the souvenir shop (I did too) – but I couldn’t help it. I stood there, drinking in her absolute beauty, then worked my way round the preparatory sketches and studies – a bear that was the source of the ermine’s head, the dogs’ paws that became the rodent’s claws, the hand studies that became Cecelia’s strangely elongated, oversized, dirty-nailed right hand, the page of sketch upon sketch of the turns of a woman’s head that became the perfection of her glance, the line of her shoulders – and then went back to suck her in again. Sod ’em all; I wasn’t passing up a single solitary second with her. Really, she is that life-affirming. “You can’t help falling in love with Cecilia Gallerani,” says the audio guide, “and that’s just what da Vinci intended.” Clever bugger.
But there’s another, only slightly lesser star. La Belle Ferrioniére may well be a portrait of Ludovico’s wife, Beatrice d’Este. How ironic that she should remain unidentified, but his sixteen-year old mistress has become the stuff of fantasy. The Belle is nevertheless gorgeous in the extreme, idealised, we are told, to a perfectly oval head, lit in the classic da Vinci way, a statement of intent of the great man that sets out exactly what beauty should be and how it should look. How accurate an image of the real woman it is we’ll never know, but she’s breathtaking nonetheless. It’s this room, his appreciation of female beauty, which is the highlight of the exhibition for me.
But it’s all just fabulous anyway. The two versions of The Virgin of the Rocks, the unfinished St Jerome, the Salvator Mundi, the sketches and copy of The Last Supper and, most fantastic of all, the Burlington House Cartoon, are all magnificent, and that magnificence is reinforced by the drawings, such utterly wonderful creations thrown off in a matter of minutes like the sketch of a youth for the fabulous face of James the Greater, or of drapery, or a hand, or a shoulder.
What it must have been to be Ludovico Sforza, to have all that power and beauty at his disposal, and to be remembered for providing the greatest artist the world has ever known with the means to flourish and leave to us, 600 years later, all this transcendental beauty. I don’t care if he was a Machiavellian bastard: I’m grateful.