Ane Brun at Oran Mor in December was just fabulous. She’s grown from an obscure Norwegian folk singer into a sensation. She gathers a top notch band around her, most notably bassist Dan Berglund, of the tragically disbanded Esbjörn Svensson Trio; my pal Ian’s a fan of theirs and suspects most of the band may be Berglund’s new group. This is a band that can play anything with consummate ease.
Brun has been updating her catalogue over the last few years, so that even oldies like ‘To Let Myself Go’ sound totally fresh. Once more, there’s enough percussion onstage to rearrange kidneys, and it pounds out the foundations of what she does impeccably; as ever, ‘Worship’ and ‘Do You Remember’ are thumping highlights. The stuff from her new album ‘When I’m Free’ – which has garnered mixed reviews – is slick and expansive, though the whole doesn’t quite get me as excited as ‘It All Starts With One’, underlined by the brilliant and habitual finale, ‘Undertow’. However, there are real gems in there, especially for me the sensuously drum-driven ‘Directions’. She’s incapable of disappointing.
However, gig of the year goes to a half-Norwegian lass, Nadine Shah, at King Tut’s in April. An iceberg when she’s singing, she’s a hoot when she’s interacting with the audience, and takes no prisoners. After ‘Stealing Cars’, I can’t resist and burst out a ‘that’s just beautiful.’ She’s momentarily touched, and says ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Raymond,’ I reply. ‘Daft name’ she says, quite rightly. Brilliant musician, cool, cool woman.
I was very happy to see an old hero of mine, the legendary Bruce Cockburn in October; one brilliant guitarist with a beautiful voice and a line in songwriting that is fiercely passionate about justice and humanity. An activist for decades, anyone who advocates bringing down marauding Guatemalan government helicopters with a rocket launcher can’t be all that bad in my book…
Great to see my pal Jill Brown supporting at King Tut’s, and the headline act, Polly and the Billet Doux were a bit of a revelation; lead guitarist Andrew ‘Steeny’ Steen may well be one of the best live guitarists I’ve seen since… like… ever. Jill is headlining a sell-out Tut’s in January; it’s well deserved for someone who works so hard on her music.
And it was also good to see Pokey LaFarge again at The Art School. After the debacle of a horrendous audience in Amsterdam a couple of years ago, this was a riot, with a crowd that was into him and willing to give him the space to build a relationship, and everyone, including LaFarge, has a ball. Once more, the musicianship was incredible, especially from the genius of Ryan Koenig on harmonica. Watch them here and marvel…
As for theatre – some good uns, including Benny Cummerbund as the best Hamlet I’ve ever seen. But cream of the crop was undoubtedly ‘Lanark’ at the Citz. It’s a novel I like and recognise the importance of in the Scottish canon, but I’m not the obsessive devotee I know some are. But this is astonishing and confirms David Greig as one of the world’s best playwrights. Sandy Grierson is immense in the title role (he has previous form with Greig, playing Malcolm in Dunsinane a couple of years back); self-absorbed, lost, manipulative and manipulated, he comes across as a true oddity. Direction and set design are amazing too. At over three hours, I wasn’t tempted to nod off once, which is a real feat on a work night these days. Stunning.
I’ve been silent really since the summer, concentrating on getting well, dealing with family, etc. Nobody reads my blog any more anyway, so this is just a round-up of the year as a bulwark against dementia; I may need to remind myself in years to come that I really have seen these acts…
So here they are – all the bands I’ve seen this year (or the ones I can remember) along with venues, dates and a rough mark out of ten that simply records how memorable the gig was. Hate marks out of ten, but in the absence of a review, it’s the best I’m gonna do.
Which means my gigs of the year were Joan as Police Woman at Liquid Rooms and Angel Olsen at Mono. If you were to hold my hand in a candle flame to make me choose, it’d probably be Angel Olsen. As wonderful and vibrant and reinvented as JaPW was, Olsen was new and fresh and fantastic. Great stuff.
|1. Fatherson / We Were Promised Jetpacks||13/12||8/7||QMU|
|2. Rodrigo y Gabriela||6/12||7||O2 Academy|
|3. Sharon van Etten||25/11||7||Art School|
|4. The War on Drugs||8/11||5||O2 ABC|
|5. Dancing Years / Boy & Bear||4/11||7/7||Oran Mor|
|6. Marissa Nadler||5/9||5||Broadcast|
|7. Joan as Police Woman||5/8||9||Liquid Room|
|8. The National||10/7||6||Usher Hall|
|9. Anti Flag||29/6||5||Glastonbury|
|10. The Portraits||29/6||3||Glastonbury|
|11. St Vincent||29/6||7||Glastonbury|
|13. Juana Molina||29/6||8||Glastonbury|
|15. Bryan Ferry||28/6||7||Glastonbury|
|16. Manic Street Preachers||28/6||7||Glastonbury|
|17. Rev Peyton’s Big Damn Band||28/6||6||Glastonbury|
|19. Angel Haze||28/6||3||Glastonbury|
|20. Aoife O’Donovan||28/6||5||Glastonbury|
|21. Billy Bragg||27/6||7||Glastonbury|
|23. Wild Beasts||27/6||6||Glastonbury|
|24. Rodrigo y Gabriela||27/6||7||Glastonbury|
|25. The War on Drugs||27/6||6||Glastonbury|
|26. Turtle Island||27/6||4||Glastonbury|
|27. Seize the Day||27/6||3||Glastonbury|
|28. Wye Oak||13/6||7||King Tut’s|
|29. Angel Olsen||9/6||9||Mono|
|30. Smoke Fairies||30/5||7||SWG3|
|31. Jill Brown||28/5||7||Barlinnie|
|32. The Flaming Lips||26/5||4||Usher Hall|
|33. Prides||22/5||8||King Tut’s|
|34. Revere||15/5||7||King Tut’s|
|35. Pokey LaFarge||2/5||8||Paradiso, Amsterdam|
|36. Snarky Puppy||1/5||7||O2 ABC|
|37. British Sea Power||6/4||6||Liquid Room|
|38. Parlotones||3/4||7||King Tut’s|
|39. Dar Williams||14/3||5||CCA|
|40. Suzanne Vega||1/2||7||City Halls|
|41. Raghu Dixit||24/1||6||Oran Mor|
|42. Mayra Andrade||21/1||7||GRCH|
I picked up on Wye Oak – Baltimorians Andy Stack and Jenn Wasner – after catching ‘The Tower’ on Radio 6. They reminded me of another indie band I fell in love with last year, Dark, Dark, Dark, so this was a speculative gig just to check out a new sound to me. Given my mum had died the day before, I looked at the ticket and initially thought, ‘Nah’, but then decided that it was better to be not in the mood at King Tut’s than not in the mood at home on my own. It was the right decision.
They’re an odd band musically. Wasner is a multi-instrumentalist – bass, guitar, keyboards – and their sound has definitely changed between their breakthrough album ‘Civilian’ and their latest ‘Shriek’ because she is concentrating more on bass than guitar. Melodies are more electro-pop than grungy, her voice modulated somewhat. Stack is even more interesting. I’ve never seen anyone play keyboards and drums. At the same time. Yes, that’s right. Left side doing the keyboards, right side doing the percussion. And it works. It really does.
They are really very, very good. I’d recommend you have a listen to 1980’s-style pop anthem ‘Glory‘, ‘The Tower‘, ‘Holy Holy‘ and their most popular track ‘Civilian‘, one of those lyrics you haven’t a bloody clue about but which nevertheless seeps into your brain and just won’t bloody leave. It’s meaningless and marvellous and quite gorgeous.
Pretty short review because I’m doing it very much in retrospect, but this is a band I’d happily go well out of my way to see again.
I love The National. I have done since about 2006, when ‘Boxer’ was one of the albums of the year and ‘Fake Empire’ hit the streets as one of those classic anthems you’ll never ever be able to do without. I love their music – all syncopated and, dammit, difficult at times. I love Matt Berninger’s vocals, as if he’s just had a cello surgically inserted into his oesophagus. Most of all, I love their lyrics for their ability to knock you senseless with a startling image that comes from the corner of your eyesight and whaps you on the side of the head; lines like
‘You never saw me I was falling apart / I was a television version of a person with a broken heart’
‘I should live in salt for leaving you behind’
‘I’m a confident liar / Had my head in the oven so you’d know where I’ll be’
just scream genius. They really do.
I’ve only seen them once, back in 2007 at the O2 ABC (St Vincent was on the bill) and it was one of the gigs of the year. Given that ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ is easily one of the best albums of 2013, they were unlikely to disappoint. And they – themselves – don’t. Berninger doesn’t do audience interaction, despite being the thinking woman’s crumpet (well, any woman’s crumpet, probably) and leaves what chat there has to be to the Dessners on guitar. It isn’t much of a spectacle then, but by gum do they rattle through the hits. They hit the ground running with ‘Don’t Swallow the Cap’ (the introduction to which sounds spookily like ‘Goodbye Horses’, the soundtrack to that creepy cross dressing scene in ‘Silence of the Lambs’) and the utterly glorious ‘I Should Live In Salt’. It’s a set list dominated by the latest album, including ‘Graceless’ and ‘Pink Rabbits’ and ‘Hard to Find’, every one brilliant. I especially love ‘I Need My Girl’, Aaron Dessner’s beautiful paean to his newborn daughter, their new single with a breathtakingly classic video. It’s pure loveliness and the quietest song of the night, and is only marginally spoiled by the dickheads who barge in front of us, snog six inches in front of our faces and bellow down the mobile phone during it. Sigh. But there’s a fair smattering of oldies and goodies too, including ‘Afraid of Everyone’ and another of my favourites, the stonking ‘Conversation 16’.
So, this should have been one of those nights that just make me say, ‘I saw The National’; but, oh dear, the sound. The Usher Hall is one of those horrendous barns that sucks up any detail, and everything is reduced to a muddy blarp. Berninger is a pretty good enunciator, but if you don’t know the songs, you’d be lost. It’s horrendous, even worse for support act Mina Tindle, a fetching French girl who may be bilingual but it’s actually impossible to tell. Having just been at Glastonbury where a setup in a field can produce brilliant sound (don’t believe the TV, it’s a million time better than the shite the BBC pumps out) I cannot understand why a hall purposely built for playing music can be so utterly incompetent at it.
I’m relatively happy though. They finish the main set with ‘Fake Empire’ in all its glory, even if those horny horns disappear in the boomy mess. I leave at that point, so frustrated with the sound I can’t face the encore. So glad I saw them, so unhappy I didn’t actually hear them. Maybe they’ll headline Glasto next year – now that would be something worth elbowing my way to the front of the Pyramid stage for…
Angel Olsen is the queen of lo-fi. Her music is capable of being scuzzy and blurred, a wall of cacophony that harks back to a hallucinatory Roy Orbison; I love ‘Sweet Dreams‘, which sounds as if Chris Isaak has been on the Jack D and a huge bag of magic mushrooms for a week in nothing but his underpants, ‘Hi Five‘ has a woozed out fifties feel (opening line; ‘I feel so lonesome I could cry…’) and ‘Free‘ is a brilliant grunge re-realisation of the twangly guitars of the likes of Tommy James and the Shondell’s ‘Crimson and Clover‘. And I defy anyone to listen to the opening bars of ‘May as Well‘ and not think of ‘You Saw Me Crying in the Chapel’.
There’s a real eclecticism about her though, with heartbreaking intimate ballads that at times almost seem incoherent in the free association of both melody and lyric. I first saw her onstage with Bonnie Prince Billy at Celtic Connections, and she stood out because of that voice of hers, unexpected yowls and yodels coming from somewhere in the pit of her stomach; watching her sing, you get the impression that she often opens her mouth and has no idea what sound is going to come out of it.
This is a fabulous set. Playing with her new band – Joshua, Emily and Stuart is all we’re told – she absolutely rocks it. ‘Free’ starts the set, and it just gets louder with ‘Hi-Five’, ‘High & Wild’ and an absolutely barnstorming ‘Forgiven / Forgotten’ and, star of the show, ‘Sweet Dreams’, complete with a stunning guitar solo. It’s just flawless, head down grunge.
But this is a bit of a departure for her; she’s grown up doing those more intimate songs, her and a guitar and just that magnificent voice. The band leave her for the final three songs, and she performs an oldie, ‘Some Things Cosmic’ – listen to this al fresco performance to get the full flavour of the fabulous things she does vocally. But the best comes next. She sings ‘White Fire’, which supplies the title for the new album, ‘Burn Your Fire For No Witness’. It is seven minutes of stunning beauty, a slow-burning malignancy that gets into your brain and anaesthetizes the senses. Brilliant.
A big hand too for a magnificent audience. I’ve never been to Mono, and it’s really a bar / diner, so I was expecting irritating noise bleeding into the show. None of that. It’s an absolute sell out crowd, hot and heaving, yet every single song is greeted with pin-drop quiet respect, essential for some of her numbers. If this is the usual, Mono may well become my fave Glasgow venue.
I’ll see bigger and slicker shows – hell, I’m off to Glastonbury in two weeks – but at the end of the year this will have a firm place in my gigs of the year. Loved the venue, loved the audience, loved the music, loved her.
Another woozy retro visit to Smoke Fairies, this time at tiny, cool SWG3 underneath the train line to Partick. Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies have a new album out (and it’s on vinyl – hurray!); it’s much of the same 60s-inspired psychedelia, but feels richer and broader, their sound growing in maturity and basic balls.
Once more, stage presence is limited; I think they’re both just actually really shy. Blamire tries small talk once, complimenting the weather, and trailing off into a story about a stand off she had with staff at the Westmoreland Services about eating a take-away Lancashire Hotpot in the seated area; as she approaches the punchline, she realises she doesn’t have one, and says meekly ‘Oh well, that’s that… this song’s called…’. It’s really charming, but Prince they ain’t.
So it’s just as well she’s got her twangy guitar to do her talking for her; she’s well capable of opening up and letting it rip, such as on the exquisitely jangly ‘Want It Forever‘, a real stand out. They have a real ear for a great riff, and I think that’s when they’re at their best; ‘The Three of Us‘ and ‘Strange Moon Rising’ are stonkingly riffy tracks, and they do something exceptional with my favourite, ‘Hotel Room‘. It begins slow and downbeat, like waking up with a hangover in a chain motel, then they kick it up and blast their way through the rest at a great lick. Fantastic.
But they’re also developing a real ear for slow burning ballads: ‘Your Own Silent Movie’ and ‘Are You Crazy’ are lovely. Then there’s their pastoral folky stuff (‘Misty Versions’, ‘We’ve Seen Birds’, etc.) which means it all adds up to a mix that is far more eclectic than it sounds on first listening.
They’re supported by The Lake Poets, aka Martin Longstaff, a Sunderland lad who brings along some of his mates to play with him. He’s awfy good; great songs, great guitar picking, charming chat and the voice of an angel. ‘Edinburgh’ and ‘Rain‘ are particularly beautiful. He should go far.
So – that was a pretty unique gig!
My pal Jill Brown – who was one of those stand out pupils you have in your career at Lenzie Academy 18 years ago – is a wee Renaissance gal; a PR consultant, spin doctor,TV presenter, singer songwriter and boxer (yes, boxer – her grandfather was a pro). Her music is no nonsense AOR R&B with a slick production (she’s worked with half of Texas, though not the really famous half), and she’s been cutting her teeth doing gigs in Scotland’s toughest prisons. She also sleeps occasionally.
So come along, she says. I do. A few other of her pals do too, all of us lined up along the back of a tiny hall in the depths of the prison as a crowd of Glasgow’s finest come traipsing through the doors. They look so tough, their faces so full of character, I think I must have wandered into a Peter Howson exhibition. ‘Nothing has ever, ever kicked off,’ one of the warders tells us, ‘but if it does…’
The first half of the show is the prison guitar group, and there is some real talent on display. Two of the guys play their own songs, including one about missing a beloved daughter (they can put a tune together, these blokes) and Jill joins a pretty fine guitarist for a couple of covers.
Then there’s a break for one of the best Scotch pies I’ve ever had. Honestly. I dimly remember having one at a St Mirren match, one of those legendary Kilmarnock pies that were the only reason anyone ever went to Rugby Park. This one is better. And it’s with Irn Bru. Diet tomorrow, I think…
Second half, Jill gets her band up to crack through eight or so of her songs. I can hear her developing as a songwriter. Much of her work is informed by the industrial amounts of shit she’s had to face in her life (she won’t mind me saying that, she freely admits it on stage) so you can hear the pain and the fight and the redemption behind the toe-tapping tunes. Two I haven’t heard – ‘Neverending Song’, a startlingly good love song, and ‘A Right Hook’s Coming, and a Whole Lot More’ (yes, I told you, she’s a boxer) – are especially good.
And that audience? Well, they’re perfect. There’s no even good natured heckling of their fellow inmates who are performing – they’re treated warmly, because they all share the same sentiments – and, apart from a couple of wolf whistles as tiny, perchink Jill takes the stage (which she charmingly deals with PDQ), they are perfectly respectful. Applause is genuine, songs are greeted with careful attention and they take Jill’s quips and barbs and jokes with good humour (‘What is it? Do we fancy him?’ she asks, as her bass player gets a particularly loud cheer). How I wish they’d been the audience at Pokey LaFarge’s gig in Amsterdam earlier this month…
So – a great wee evening. Jill works so hard at her music, she deserves a lot more success. I’m very proud of my pupil. I’m very proud of my pal.
After their great mini-set at Sofar Glasgow a couple of months, ago, I was damned sure I was going to see Glasgow’s biggest up and coming band; seems everyone else had the same idea, because Tut’s is an absolute sell out, groaning at the seams for a band that, remarkably, only put their first track online about a year ago. They are going far, and they deserve to.
It’s short set, but it oozes class. My only complaint is that they start the set with my favourite, ‘The Seeds You Sow‘, a huge track that demands that you chant along and dance your bollocks off. However, they don’t really let up, and those big chants and tingly synths come thick and fast with ‘Out of the Blue’ and ‘Cold Blooded’ and their brilliant new single ‘Messiah‘ (the video is a hoot). They’re a great band, tight as a drum; it’s noticeable that all those difficult syncopations and startling abrupt entries are pin point sharp. Stuart Brock, too, has a wonderful voice, shown to great effect on a kitsch cover of ‘Time after Time’ and an a capella ‘When Doves Cry’, two songs that suit their big, romantic aesthetic.
Fab stuff. A band to watch, big time.
A reprise of last year’s gig, this time thankfully a little better supported. The Youth and Young share the bill again, and hammer their way fetchingly through a setlist that gets them and the audience hot and bothered. This is a lovely band who love their music. ‘Our Father’s Wars‘ is a cracking track with that big anthemic ‘Whoa’ stomping throughout, and ‘Blanket’ and ‘The Colour Upstream’ are clearly radio friendly. I don’t know if Radio 6 has picked them up yet, but they should.
Then on to Revere, with Stephen Ellis back in fine voice and with a beard that has become Old Testamental in proportions since last year. They’re travelling light this time round – no Nick Hirst on keyboards or Ellie Wilson on violin and vocals – which means the use of samples and soundfiles. It feels a little bit less of an event without them, but there’s no denying the quality. They rip through their operatic anthems undeterred: I really do love ‘I Won’t Blame You‘ and, especially, ‘Maybe We Should Go Outside’ simply because they are so ambitious, so over the top. Brilliant stuff.
Afterwards, I get a hug from Ellis and have a chat with bassist Russell Cook. They’re happy to be back, he says, and feels they’re slowly building a fan base here; ‘Aberdeen was difficult, though’, he says, and I wish I’d alerted some of my pal’s up there to go along. Big things are, deservedly, beginning to happen for them though; European label V2 has picked up their latest album, ‘My Mirror / Your Target’. Here, they’re going to work more with The Youth and Young to plug into their local knowledge – there seems to be a genuine bond between two very different bands – and they’re playing house gigs to build support, and if my living room was big enough, I’d have them round tomorrow. If they’re going down that route a little way, I reckon Sofar in London should snap them up.
However, I go out the door happy, because I’ve got ‘My Mirror / Your Target’ on vinyl; and cool, crystal clear vinyl it is too. Yum yum. Next time, I’ll buy them a pint to say thanks.
What to do on my first night with pals in Amsterdam? How about some honky tonk, redneck blues roots music from a wee guy who looks like the kinda gopher you’d find dodging time on the chain gang by wheeling and dealing in all sortsa black market commodities?
Pokey LaFarge looks like a 1930s criminal from the Deep South, and the ethic of the music and the clothes and the set has me feeling like I’ve wandered into a scene from ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou’. From the snazzy suits and spats and polka-dot dresses to the retro amps and single-mic’d voices, this is straight from a moonshine bodega. And it’s great.
He’s a real toe-tapper. For the first half hour, I can’t stop dancing in my seat to ‘La La Blues‘ or ‘Sweet Potato Blues’ or ‘In the Graveyard Now‘ or ‘Garbage Man Blues‘. His band – Joey Glynn on bass, Adam Hoskins on guitar, TJ Muller on horns and cute birthday girl Chloe Feoranzo on clarinet and sax – are all musicians at the absolute top of their game, but stand out star is Ryan Koenig on percussion who also happens to be one of the very, very best harmonica players I’ve ever heard. Watch him on the videos and marvel. The result is a tight band that is fabulous to watch as well as listen to.
So this would have been a fantastic night – except…
The audience is shite. Easily the worst I have ever encountered. LaFarge tells them this is being recorded for a live album, but that does nothing to gain any sort of respect from them. The first six or seven rows are great – real fans who have dressed up and know the songs and dance to their hearts’ content – but, as I look down from the balcony, the noise begins to filter through my enjoyment and I see that the back third of the hall couldn’t give a damn. Girls taking selfies, couples with their backs to the stage, groups clustering around mobile phones and hooting at the inanities they find there… they are utterly shocking. LaFarge is a musical historian and a natural raconteur and wants to talk to us, to build a relationship with us, but halfway through a tale about his tour to Madrid, he gives it up as a lost cause; ‘Well just listen to you,’ he says, ‘you’re about ready for the next song, aint ya?’ Thereafter, he plugs on through the whole magnificent set because he’s a pro, but his irritation can’t help showing; ‘I’d like to thank you all for listening so intently,’ he says, scowling down at his strings, and his irony is completely lost on this shower of barbarians.
I want to piss on them from a great height. I regret I refrain from doing so.