I’m not a reviewer, so I have to pay for my own tickets, which is why I tend to go to see things I want to see, and why my reviews are usually so sycophantically positive. Occasionally, though, I splash out on something I know absolutely bugger all about, and am usually pleasantly surprised; last year, it was wee gems like Gretchen Parlato and, especially, Ane Brun. This year, it’s this mob.
Neil Cowley Trio’s album “The Face of Mount Molehill” is a bit of an oddity – a couple of jazz aficionado pals of mine aren’t too sure about it, calling it “prog rock jazz”. Well, stuff them; when I downloaded it a few weeks back in preparation for this gig, I loved those infectious banging chords and thumping rhythms. I can’t talk about this music with any sort of authority or from a position of knowledge or appreciation of jazz in general – but I know what I like.
And live, they are even better. Cowley is a magnificent pianist; there are numbers delicate enough for a conservatoire – the meandering perorations of “Skies are Rare”, for instance, are wistful and lovely, and “Slims” is just the simplest and yet most elegant of jazz melodies – but he can also bang all the percussive potential out of his instrument if he has to; their second album is called “Loud…Louder… Stop!”, which just about sums them up. As with all excellent pianists, his hands on the keyboard are a thing of beauty.
And what a tight, tight band this is. Rex Horan (a man who possesses the finest head of hair in the music business, and I mean everything above the neck) on double bass and Evan Jenkins on drums are brilliant, and they obviously like working with Cowley so much, they are all almost telepathic in some of their seemingly random, thrashed entries, banging out staccato chords that seem to take them all by surprise and yet are all perfectly timed.
Listen, this was great. Tracks like “Fable” and “Rooster was a Witness” are as exciting as bungee jumping (not that I’ve ever bungee jumped) and the encore number, “She Eats Flies” is just damned well epic. Apparently, it’s about a spider that lives at the bottom of his garden that, he says, is as big as a cat; judging by the noise they make about it, I believe him, and there is no fucking way on earth I’m going anywhere near his garden.
Cowley’s also very personable (“You can dance to this if you have a limp”) and down to earth; he likes the Glasgow Festival because it’s the least jazzy jazz festival he knows, which he reckons is a good thing. I’ll go along with that; I’m still not sure if I like “jazz”, but I sure as hell like this. Great stuff.
Robert Cray’s 1986 album “Strong Persuader” is the second best sounding album on vinyl I have: the space, the soundstage and that glorious picking leaping out of the turntable to fill the room are all fantastic. If I want to sing and dance and play the air guitar, on it goes: my neighbours hate it, needless to say.
I’ve not been a huge fan over the years, but didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see him live, so here I am. It’s a terrific gig because of the quality on offer. Cray has the archetypal blues voice, pitch perfect and with a huge range; and, of course, he’s a quite brilliant guitarist, one of those players who is so distinctive, he can be recognised within a couple of bars. Everything about his picking is clean and clear, and every single note seems to be given its own space. At times, he plays so sensitively, it’s almost as if he’s turned the amp off; at others, he plucks those strings harder than I’ve ever heard. He’s a big guy – I can only remember one other guitarist, Booga from Ezio, who makes a guitar look so small – and he has huge hands that just dwarf the fretboard; that, along with the fact that he holds his guitar in a quite unusual fashion, on his right hip, the fretboard jutting out like an M16 rifle barrel, gives the impression that he means business, and there aint no messing with him
I have a couple of friends who are slightly critical of him for being a bit too MOR; thankfully, I’m not with them tonight, but with my pal Donald who is undoubtedly a fan and who goes home on a considerable high. I think I can see their point a bit; there is constant technical brilliance from Cray and his excellent band, but they’re so good and they’ve been grooving so long, occasionally one number does seem a little indistinguishable from the next. But there are some clear stand outs that make any samey-ness in the other numbers totally forgivable, including “The One in the Middle”, in which keyboard player Jim Pugh does an astonishing Hammond organ solo that almost brings the house down.
Best of all is the last of the night, the huge ballad “Time Makes Two” during which the very best of that wonderful voice and sublime guitar raises the roof again. It would have been criminal to follow it with anything else, it was just that good. Easily one of the numbers of the year.
Whoa. If David Hayman’s recent “King Lear” was a bit out there, this is somewhere the far side of Azerbaijan.
I love “Macbeth”. It is probably my favourite play of all time, and I have some extraordinarily odd views on it that I may share in the future that revolve around me wanting to marry Lady Macbeth. As such, productions almost always disappoint, and I’ve seen some real clunkers in my time; one of the most shockingly bad starred Mark McManus. Selling bucketloads of tickets on the back of his “Taggart” starring role, he was obviously a TV actor totally out of his depth on stage, to the extent that, at one point, he was delivering his “vaulting ambition” soliloquy from behind his cloak, a lá Dick Dastardly. One of the best I’ve ever seen was Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood in London a few years back, which was filmed and broadcast on BBC a couple of Christmases ago; it had some real vivacity about it, Stewart was terrific and the director Rupert Goold did something with the “hold enough” line that totally transformed the play. Great stuff – but still a nagging feeling I hadn’t yet seen my perfect “Macbeth”.
This isn’t it either, but then again it isn’t really “Macbeth”; what it is is a stunning re-imagining of it and an outstandingly impressive performance by Alan Cumming. Here, Macbeth is locked up in an asylum, reliving the horror of his rise and fall day after day, all the characters of the tragedy part of his interior landscape. Cumming’s performance is a tremendous feat of memory if nothing else – he must recite 2/3 of the text – and he differentiates between the characters extraordinarily well, despite, on a couple of occasions, it slipping into caricature, such as Duncan’s mangled-vowelled English aristocrat. There are moments of real insight and brilliance – of course the “if it t’were done” scene should end in steamy, angry sex, “bring forth men-children only” taking on a whole new aspect as the two characters played by one actor writhe on the bed. I also liked the “unsex me here” soliloquy, Cumming’s Lady Macbeth luxuriating in a bath with a gin and tonic to give it a lightness I think is totally appropriate; and Macduff’s reaction to the slaughter of his wife and children should be a heart-stopping moment, and Cumming pretty much nails it.
What I especially liked are the moments of real vulnerability which Cumming does so, so well. Tearing himself apart after Duncan’s murder, a silent doctor and orderly come in to pacify him and put him ever so gently to bed, a scene echoed several times through the play. Thus, there is a real sense of a mind in utter agony, too fragile to cope with the enormity of what has been done, what has been lost and won.
The staging is fantastic too. Particularly effective are the three video screens which ostensibly show the CCTV security footage of Macbeth’s room / cell. However, they bring Cumming’s three witches eerily to life. In addition, they are used for spooky moments of dissassociation, such as when Banquo’s ghost appears on stage but is absent from the footage, or when the sleeping Cumming, alone on stage, is watched by a sinister suited figure on-screen. Credit also has to go to a brilliant ambient soundtrack, including a beautiful solo cello.
There are a couple of oddities. That silent doctor and orderly are a great conceit at the beginning, mouthing unheard diagnoses beneath the discordant noise that fills Macbeth’s head. I wondered, therefore, what the purpose of having them interact with Macbeth’s world in the final Act was: they take on parts, discuss Lady Macbeth, speak with Macbeth. I have to say, I didn’t understand the need for that change.
But, another clear triumph for the National Theatre of Scotland. And yet – it isn’t Macbeth, is it? It does raise all sorts of existential discussion points my pal Ian and I mulled over in the pub afterwards, and it all comes down to the question of just who the guy on stage really is. It is Macbeth? In that case, the narrative has been changed, and Macbeth is not killed at the end. But if it’s not, then who is he? Are we actually watching the psycho-drama of a bloke with a Napoleon complex? If he really believes he is Macbeth, and has his words and memories, is he therefore Macbeth? What we are left with is the possibility that we are seeing a “Shutter Island” Shakespeare, and I’m not sure I’m completely okay with that.
But it doesn’t matter, because once again it’s got me thinking, and thinking hard, and that’s never a bad thing.
Today the Jordanhill campus of the University of Strathclyde had an official closing event, though the buildings will remain open for a few weeks longer before staff move to the refurbished Lord Hope building in Cathedral Street. I had lots of work to do and so didn’t attend what was billed as a “celebration of Jordanhill”, but I’m quite sure the 400 people or so who did go heard some inspiring speeches and had a very nice buffet while listening to the jazz band.
Jordanhill has been one of Scotland’s key institutions over the last century or so. I’ve been working in teacher education there since 2001, and it’s the one job in education I always wanted to do and the one place in education I always wanted to work ever since my own training in 1982. In the short time I’ve been there, I have personally been responsible for the training of well over 200 English teachers, and my English section has trained about a thousand. The potential for having an impact on how children have been taught is enormous and hugely rewarding.
Factor in all Secondary subjects, Primary teaching, social work, community education and a whole host of other graduate, postgraduate and professional courses, and we’re talking of several hundred thousand people in the history of the place who comprise a web of interconnectivity across Scotland and the world that is huge. So, despite the fact that most of what is still done there will be transferred to a new beginning on the city centre campus, there is a sense of the closure of an iconic part of education and the end of an era.
The process has taken some time, ever since proposals to build a brand new, £50 million “bespoke “city centre Education Faculty building with offices and state of the art teaching space were mooted in the mid 2000s. Times and priorities have changed since then. The Hope building houses accommodation for the School of Education staff to work side by side with many of the other subjects that have been subsumed into the Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty in integrated working environments: teaching accommodation for the influx of the additional students is provided by the existing city centre campus stock. However, we are almost there now. I’m looking forward to meeting and working with people we have been dislocated from for so long, and having access to the facilities of the city centre; I’m also looking forward to the undoubted fun I’ll have delivering my annual Behaviour Management lectures in the Cineworld cinema complex!
As for the old campus: well, it seems it will be mothballed until the University can sell it to private developers, a transaction that will help finance the University’s ambitious aspirations to create a “leading international technological university” with a new £89 million “flagship” Technology and Innovation Centre. Most of the existing buildings will be bulldozed I imagine, but I’m sure the grand old lady that is The David Stow building, along with perhaps the beautiful red brick student accommodation, will be retained, possibly for development as luxury flats. It’ll be a pity that I’ll never be able to afford one of them – I reckon they’ll be out of reach of all educational professionals below Directors of Education or University Principals – because it would be lovely to live in a place that has had such an important influence on my life and my career.
Of course, the University of Strathclyde will continue to provide the very best teacher education you can find. You can find out about the School of Education and the courses it offers here:
Beware – quite a few spoilers in here!
I loved the first film in the ‘Alien’ series, largely because the hype was so huge I had nightmares before I even saw it. It didn’t disappoint when I did finally see it either: it was just a brilliantly simple conception, an indestructible monster picking off a captive food source one by one until something had to give. It was why I’m one of the few who also like Alien3, recapturing as it did that sense of claustrophobia, that sense of having nowhere to go. I never really got Aliens: though it was exciting enough, the monsters became scary not because they were sneaky bastards who were hard to kill, but simply because there were more of them than the heroes had bullets; they might has well have been pigeons. And as for the final in the series, Resurrection – well, apart from that really cool basketball scene, it was a pompous mess.
I love SF films, but I do prefer them conceptually simple: District 9 (a heist movie) or Blade Runner (cops and robbers) or Silent Running (fuck the corporation) or Serenity (cowboys in space); even, dare I say it, Predator, a movie I always find myself watching if it’s on, and the only film ever made in which Arnold Schwarzenegger is tolerable. So when I heard Prometheus was a high-concept ‘prequel’, I was prepared to be let down.
And I was.
The problems start early, with mumbo jumbo about us being the seeds of an alien race (SF cliché #1), a notion that depends on us believing that there was an ancient civilisation based on the Isle of Skye 35,000 years ago. Funny, there isn’t one based there today. Sorry, Skye folk, I’m really only joking. Why can’t we leave that discredited and old fashioned stuff behind us and get on with the real joys of the universe? Does anyone still seriously think Erich von Däniken might have a point?
I wouldn’t have minded if it all hadn’t been so… predictable. Alien infection (SF cliché #2); alien impregnation (SF cliché #3); double dealing android (SF cliché #4). Every single step of the way is SF 101.
And never mind the predictabilities – what about the stupidities? Why do “scientists” always take their helmets off as soon as they’re told the atmosphere is breathable, regardless of whatever pathogens might be lurking? And why, when they’re ‘infected’, do they always wait just long enough to turn into something horrible before telling anyone? They’re meant to be scientists, for God’s sake, and one of them, apparently, has lost her father to Ebola, so should know a thing or two about quarantine and sterilisation.
And here’s one for you. Imagine you see a hundred foot structure toppling towards you. Would you avoid it by (a) trying to outpace it by running a hundred and one feet in the direction it’s falling, or (b) sidestep it by moving ten or twenty feet to your left? What do our super-intelligent and resourceful characters do? Have a guess.
Performances are adequate, no more. Noomi Rapace, so brilliant in the Dragon Tattoo series, mangles lines in an execrable script; for example, the Prometheus has a crew of 17, half of whom are off the ship when she radios back that “I want a full medical team at the cargo bay immediately” to save her expiring lover. Whatever happened to “get the doctor”? Michael Fassbender is being lauded for his performance as Peter O’Toole the Android, and I suppose he’s the best of the bunch. Charlize Theron manages to convey neither steeliness nor coquettishness – damn, I love her too – and her “that’s the natural cycle… father” is one of the least surprising surprises in the history of cinema. Idris Elba, always watchable, is… watchable, I suppose, and the rest are the usual bunch of expendable nobodies, including Scot Kate Dickie whose role, it seems, is that of Sigourney Weaver’s in “Galaxy Quest”, repeating what the computer tells us; “Sterilisation complete: no contaminants present” she says, right after a shot of a pad that reads “Sterilisation complete: no contaminants present”. Why these characters weren’t just dressed in tight fitting red uniforms to indicate they’d be done away with soon I do not know.
There are some nice nods at the previous films – Fassbender wittily recreating that basketball scene on a bike, for instance – but the potential for any sort of lightness is lost in it’s portentiousness. So all that’s left, then, is the spectacle, and this is where the big let-down occurs in comparison with the original. Should prequels be bigger, more brash, more technologically cool, than the originals? Should they feel more advanced? I don’t know.
But apart from that, the beauty of Alien was its scuzziness, the fact that actors were crawling around a real set, were trapped in real access tubes. The Nostromo was a place of sweaty, dirty fear – an aesthetic that was so brilliantly captured in the “Alien” themed haunted houses that did the rounds for a while – while the world of Prometheus is one of grandeur and scale, and as a result you know it adds up to nothing more than pixels put together on a greenscreen.
A pity. I’d hoped for something with the verve of the first Alien; instead, it’s another CGI blockbuster without a heart to be ripped out of its chest by a wee nasty with an unusual set of chompers.