Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Dean Friedman, Hastings, 9 May 2017

I was alerted to Dean Friedman’s appearance by the White Rock Theatre only five days before, but it was a no-brainer. Of all of my teenage/early 20s influences (ELO, Devo, Blondie, Kate Bush, The Smiths), Dean Friedman is the one that provided the yearning for adulthood. The notion of love between the sheets tormented me. And that woman, Lydia, accommodating that toothbrush, dissolved away my frontal lobe. Then there was that room where a cuckoo clock tells you that you are reflected in all of the things you own. I had a cuckoo clock (but no rocking chair).

I had seen him once before at the Hull Truck Theatre, at least 35 years ago. I am generally reluctant to revisit the past. I made an important exception here. And took the opportunity to introduce my beloved to this world.

The stage hosted a grand piano, a Yamaha keyboard and a guitar. And him. Each song has its own story – and not always the obvious one. The Shopping Bag Ladies were part of Friedman’s daily commute to New York. Company, was influenced by Paul McCartney’s Blackbird (to find out how, you have to go to the show or attend one of his song-writing workshops). He did not say too much about the S&M song, but it was great to hear it. Ariel captures that youthful exuberance of discovery, being “high” and the softness of the mouth. Only Dean Friedman wrote lyrics like that, at least in my world at that time.

There is a new album available today. It is called 12 Tunes and we were introduced to a number of the songs from it. Whilst youth is long gone, the use of song to capture life’s ongoing magic and frustrations is still in Friedman’s gift. “We must have done something right” he sings in reference to his child rearing. On being too busy he asks “how does everyone do it?”. The loss of an old friend – his guitar – “This guitar can’t hold a tune no more”. Clever, witty, metaphorical, reflective.

And so to the dark side. Early in the set there was a song about a former girlfriend that he was happy to see go. It was not complementary in tone or language. It reminded me of John Cooper Clarke’s brilliant Twat. I was not expecting that. Then he lulled us into a false sense of security about neighbourly relations. To paraphrase, if we cannot get on with our neighbours, how are we supposed to get on with people from other countries? Before unleashing a wonderfully vicious song about bad neighbours and escalating tensions. Revenge, even.

Talking of which, I remember Tim Minchin discussing one of his revenge songs written about a journalist who gave him a particularly bad review, the effect of which can be significant. Power without responsibility. Friedman regaled the audience about a phone call that he got from a friend in the UK telling  him there was a song on an album by a bizarrely-named band, Half Man, Half Biscuit, entitled The Bastard Son of Dean Friedman. The essence of this song is that the narrator has to deal with learning of his origins and coping with the ridicule and shame. That same album contained a song with a lyric “why is Rod Hull alive – and getting paid as well?” Older British Readers will know what that means. Friedman, suffice to say, was in good company.

It was not absolutely clear in the first instance whether Friedman was flattered or hurt by the Bastard Son. But his song riposte had light touches and humour. Or at least the way I heard it. I think that was the point of Nigel Blackwell’s/Half Man’s original song?

I end my review with a reflection on a song that captures what Dean Friedman does best. Gone, understandably, is Ariel’s manic, rapid heart beating sprint and replaced by a matured reflection on the really important things. Prompted by the question from a stranger at a party – something which Friedman seems to eschew – “what do you do”? The answer, “I’m Dean Friedman” should be enough. But he put the answer into a mischievous song. Brilliantly. His job is to make his beloved happy (secure, loved, warm, dry,  etc.). It’s a bit contrived, we all know that. And it should be true.

Talking of being contrived, here is a picture (right) of me with Dean Friedman.

The tour continues culminating in appearances at the Edinburgh Fringe in August.

Grandaddy – finally

I am a little bit too late sometimes to the party. Somewhere I heard that Grandaddy had sort-of reformed and were doing some shows. Into the ether I went, discovered that they were playing in Brighton, UK, and tried to buy tickets. Sold out. Next option, Brussels’ Ancienne Belgique, 5 April. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

And what did I know about Grandaddy? Well, eventually I made the link between Jason Lytle – whose solo album, The Department of Disappearance (right) I’d bought a few years’ earlier – and Grandaddy. Lytle has a distinctive voice, so it did not take much to make the connection once heard. And I’m a sucker for lumberjack shirts.

I’ve also got into the frame of mind that I missed too many good gigs when I was younger thinking that there would always be another chance. I’m not so sure now. Hence the nonsense of going to Brussels.

So, in preparation for the gig, I bought the new album, Last Place, which the Guardian newspaper described as “solid rather than spectacular”. Apparently, I should have bought the first two albums, these were the dizzy heights. At the gig, I suspect Lytle himself recognised this and played extensively from them. A greying, largely male, audience was appreciative of this. It was anything but a sales push on Last Place.

That said, there are a number of tracks which, I suspect, Lytle himself regards as up to the mark. Much of it is disconcerting. So, I don’t wanna live here any more has the preceding line, “I’ve just moved here”. Seemingly autobiographical – Lytle moved from Montana to Oregon (in the Trumpian world, both sound places to avoid) and perhaps regretted it. Many of us have had that feeling, at least between houses if not states. Keeping up the melancholy, This is the Part a journey to Oregon living maybe? “This is the part, Some call a broken heart; Put down the phone, There’s no one coming home.” Ah yes, this is 2000s world where there are still landline phones. The backdrop for the band on stage is a film depicting this world full of freight trains, trucks, cement factories and a lot of wilderness.

Let’s go upbeat? The Way We Won’t is that pop song. Trademark melody, synth and guitar. The accompanying video, however, has a twist. Lyrically, I’m baffled. Maybe it is culturally too far away from me? “Less than an hour past control tower, On a big box store roof; Cinnamon smell and holiday sales, Why would we ever move?” Oh, I don’t know. I could find a reason.

The gig, wonderful. Lytle’s voice is not the strongest and it needed a bit more amplification. He’s also not the most charismatic on stage and did not even introduce the band members apart from Shaun who’d stood in at last minute on guitar (photo top left, far left).

Two gigs in a week – the Handsome Family and Austra

Life is good with a colleague who extends an invite to gig featuring a band you’ve never heard of. On 3 March the Handsome Family (left) straddled the stage at Concorde 2 in Brighton to present their brand of – what I am reliably informed is called – goth country. That does not mean to say that they turned up dressed in black with white faces.

The Handsome Family are essentially a husband and wife team, Brett and Rennie Sparks who sing songs about things like frogs, holes in the ground and murder. Brett Sparks’ deep voice bosses the songs with Rennie Sparks offering harmony. The show is punctuated by choreographed bickering between the two, for example, whether today’s sandwich had the right filling.

Rennie Sparks provides the lyrics, bass and autoharp (banjo is also in her armoury, but was absent from this performance); husband Brett does the music, guitar and keyboards. Touring as a four piece, the drummer did sterling work; the fourth member was a multi-instrumentalist. Largely playing guitar, but this being country he flirted around with a steel guitar and bizarrely a keyboard instrument that seemed no bigger than a 1970s stylophone! The climax was an extraordinary duel between the two guitars, culminating in Brett Sparks requiring a major re-tune of his guitar before he could give an encore. Rennie Sparks narrated this activity expressing her own bemusement of her husband’s guitar abuse. Presumably it happens every night.

Anyone wanting to hear more try this link. The tour goes on.

Austra is the music vehicle for Toronto’s Katie Stelmanis. I became aware of Austra in the days when the Guardian newspaper had live sessions. Me and my beloved caught up with the band in its extended form in Munich in 2011; they did a short BBC Music stage performance at Latitude in 2013, we saw that. I got a sneak preview of the new album, Future Politics, when in November 2016 Stelmanis did a free gig/Q&A at Kamio in London. And then on 9 March Austra appeared as a foursome at Ampere in Munich. Stelmanis, I understand, had opera training for her voice. It is extraordinary – it hurts just thinking about how she uses it. But she is also politically engaged. It is like that she could sing fascists into submission, much like Slim Whitman saw off the Aliens in Mars Attacks!

This tour is about the third album, Future Politics (left). I still have not fully digested it lyrically, but Stelmanis is open about its allusions to humanity’s failure to place itself as a carbon life form on a finite planet (Gaia). This leads away from Utopia – her call to a plausible brighter future. Stelmanis is also hugely melancholic about relationships. Her second album, Olympia, was over-burdened with this melancholia; for example, an unfaithful partner on Forgive Me. Future Politics’ relationship dystopia comes out in I love you more than you love yourself. “There is nothing in your soul tonight, I only see darkness” sings Stelmanis. However, in contrast to the Olympia album, Stelmanis manages throughout this album, irrespective of the lyrics, to evoke the positive, even to the ability to dance to the song. And what is more it sounded so much better live. That is why I would recommend seeing Austra live and not rely on the recordings.

As  a foursome, they create a lot of sound. In Munich, Stelmanis’ voice did not have enough amplification, but Maya Postepski’s percussion was awesome (right), and the two male supports (Dorian Wolf on bass and moog, and Ryan Wonsiak), chalk and cheese as they were, ensured no one left melody-less.

This was as good a gig as I have been to. The tour continues:

MON 13 MARCH
Astra Kulturhaus, Berlin, Germany
WED 15 MARCH
BikoMilan, Italy
THU 16 MARCH
Les Docks Lausanne, Switzerland
FRI 17 MARCH
Dampfzentrale Bern, Switzerland
SAT 18 MARCH
Gloria Theater Cologne, Germany
SUN 19 MARCH
Uebel & Gefährlich Hamburg, Germany
TUE 21 MARCH
Patterns (formerly Audio)Brighton, UK
WED 22 MARCH
Village UndergroundLondon, UK
THU 23 MARCH
Summerhall Edinburgh, UK
FRI 24 MARCH
The Deaf Institute Manchester, UK
SAT 25 MARCH
Button Factory Dublin, Ireland
TUE 28 MARCH
Le Grand Mix Tourcoing, France
WED 29 MARCH
Les Trinitaires Metz, France
FRI 31 MARCH
Le Trianon Paris, France
SAT 1 APRIL
Le Metronum Toulouse, France
WED 5 APRIL
Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Gas Natural Fenosa (MAC) La Coruna, Spain
THU 6 APRIL
Teatro Barcelo Madrid, Spain
FRI 7 APRIL
La Rambleta Valencia, Spain
SAT 8 APRIL
Sala Apolo Barcelona, Spain
TUE 11 APRIL
Mascotte Zürich, Switzerland
WED 12 APRIL
L’Epicerie Moderne Feyzin, France
THU 13 APRIL
La Sirene La Rochelle, France
SAT 15 APRIL
Le 106 – Club Rouen, France
SUN 16 APRIL
AB Box Brussels, Belgium

The Divine Comedy, Folkestone Quarterhouse, 21 October 2016

20161021_215801The Divine Comedy is a self-confessed vehicle for Neil Hannon to embrace a passion for history, conventional and unconventional romance, surreal humour and outlandish orchestrations. Hannon is a fine musician, curious lyricist and showman – “I may act” he warned. This show was our fourth experience of the Divine Comedy, but only the second with a full band (previously we had seen Hannon perform alone with a piano and guitar at Somerset House and later in Cambridge). We have also seen him do Duckworth Lewis Method with Thomas Walsh in September 2013.

The first time we saw the Divine Comedy at a damp music festival in Inveraray, Hannon was clearly (and probably understandably) unhappy such that beer was thrown at the audience. Tonight, wine was actually offered to the audience in a glass (albeit to one lucky recipient in the front row). How things change.foreverland

Two observations. First, Hannon unusually did not play piano, only guitar. Second, I have never seen Hannon so relaxed despite a few technical sound issues that inexplicably accompanied the songs. One indicator of this was his dressing up routines. Staples in the repertoire, quite rightly, are the Complete Banker and Bang Goes the Knighthood. Both are propped with a bowler hat and an umbrella (the latter being particularly useful). Songs from the current album, Foreverland, benefit, it seems, from Hannon dressing up as Napoleon  – two actually: the uncomfortably revelatory How can You Leave me on my Own? and To the Rescue (the latter gets a guest appearance from Billy Cooper and his trumpet). This is a little odd because the song about Napoleon, Napoleon Complex, did not get on to the running order, likewise the title track. Whilst I feared too much emphasis on the new album, it being the Foreverl20161021_222102and tour, Hannon perhaps under-represented it. A Desperate Man, I feel, would have gone down a storm. But it was nice to duet Funny Peculiar with the enigmatic, charming and funny Lisa O’Neill, left, his support act (for some reason this reminds me of Dean Friedman and Denise Marsa’s Lucky Stars).

I find Hannon really frustrating at times. He writes great songs – Our Mutual Friend is epic and rendered so in this show. Sweden is a colossus. Though I do not know why (the Napoleon garb here seemed appropriate). Song of Love – does what it does better than any other. National Express takes us back to simpler times (albeit being a shade impolite to hostesses). Indie Disco is a clever temporal list of tunes that defined a generation. Tonight we Fly, flies 20161021_215801absolutely as an encore. But why Hannon persists with the Frog Princess and Something for the Weekend, I do not understand. It is maybe something to do with imagination, fantasy, storytelling – all legitimate elements of the Hannon way. Count Grassi’s Passage Over Piedmont, one of Hannon’s own favourites, features the romance of travel (a recurring theme), with just a little too much cheese (songwriting surrealism)? That said, I cannot say that I did not enjoy them. Only that Hannon has better songs.

Playing with Hannon was his long-time collaborator, Andrew Skeets on keyboards (for me as much a part of the Divine Comedy as Hannon himself). Tim Weller was the drummer (his charming son sold me a couple of posters), Simon Little, Bass; Ian Watson accordian and keyboards and the guitarist who, embarrassingly, is nameless (if anyone can help with naming, let me know).  A cool unruffled bunch.

This 50-date tour gives us the opportunity to go twice. It straddles 2016 and 2017. We are off to Hamburg in February. Really looking forward to it.

Benjamin Clementine, Somerset House, 9 July 2016

It was a quiet Friday evening. BBC Four was hosting the announcement of the Mercury Prize, a music prize for a  best – non-mainstream – album. We watched. The shortlist was long – something like 12 acts. The countdown profiled all of the shortlisted acts; some of the music was also performed live. It turned out to be a good way to relax on a Friday evening.

20160709_214019The unanimous winner was Benjamin Clementine (left). And with good reason. His debut album, At Least for Now, showcases his talent. His live performances demonstrate mastery of his art, genre and the stage. He’s 28. Away from his songs he seems very shy – though he interacts gracefully with an appreciative audience. He has a range in his voice unmatched amongst his peers (he is apparently a spinto tenor). His songs are asymmetrical, autobiographical and even angelic (in his song Adios he tells of angels singing to him which he the mimics for our benefit, just in case we do not know how angels sound).

He arrived on stage on time at 2100 (Somerset House imposes a 2230 curfew). He is preceded on stage by the Heritage Orchestra (a bit of it, at least) and his enigmatic French percussionist, Alexis Bossard (below right). He arrives enveloped in his trademark overcoat, surveys the stage as though it is his first time and is surprised to see an orchestra. He then perches on his stool at some peculiar angle for piano playing. Then he plays.

The set draws heavily on his album. Some of the songs are arranged for strings, others not. Condolence is one of the stringed songs. It is a20160709_213036 curious song dichotomising forgetting and remembering, nothingness and something: “And then out of nothing, out of absolutely nothing, I, Benjamin, I was born, so that when I become someone one day, I will always remember that I came from nothing.” The condolence builds into a crescendo. Marvellous.

Clementine came from a middle-class south London musical family with lots of time spent listening to classical music – apparently after he got bored with pop music. He started playing the piano at 11 years and is self-taught (difficult to believe, but this man is exceptional). A family breakdown resulted in him moving to Paris where he busked, slept in hostels and was eventually discovered by an impresario (this has Edith Piaf’s biography all over it). His time in Paris is celebrated, presumably, in his ditty St Clementine-on-tea- and-Croissants. London beckons a return, however: “London is calling you, what are you waiting for, what are you searching for?”

Benjamin_Clementine3Nemesis tells us to “Treat others the way you want to be treated. Remember your days are fully numbered”, whilst Cornerstone pricks us about loneliness amongst others and even lovers. And Gone reminds us how fleeting the present is “oh brother, when did you get married?”.

I counted two new songs, one of which, Clementine reassured the musicians was not on the playlist. He had clearly been thinking about Brexit and composed a song that, in the first instance, maintained a balance between leaving and staying (in a metaphorical sense), but journeyed towards the realisation that we may have given way to a “little In-ger-land” located somewhere in the middle of a disinterested USA. Maybe that is the European in him? From my own experience, it is what the Germans think.

Pictures: from Somerset (work of someone close).

b/w image, Clementine’s own work c2011, Paris.

Tortoise, 29 May 2016, Feierwerk, Munich

20160529_212341For once, the recommendation for this gig did not come from Jools Holland, rather Stuart Maconie on BBC Radio 6 Music. Maconie choreographs an alternative music show on Sunday evenings. Quite a lot of it is “unlistenable” – as my partner reminds me often – but the nature of alternative music is that it is sometimes challenging. A few weeks ago Maconie highlighted the work of veteran musicians collectively known as Tortoise. Now, it is fair to say I’d never heard of them prior to an interview with a couple of the members  of the band; namely, Dan Bitney, most instruments; and John Herndon, percussion, keyboards. Maconie also played a couple of tracks from their most recent album, The Catastrophist (cover, below right).

So, what do we know of the band? They are a five-piece, “post rock” band. They have been together for 25 years and released 7 albums. They hail from Chicago. The three other members are Doug McCombs (guitars, percussion, stands at the back, mostly), John McEntire (percussion, electronic jiggery-pokery)  and Jeff Parker (guitar, bass, percussion). Post rock, in this context, seems to mean, jazz, progressive rock, electronics and a lot of percussion. It also means a bunch of musicians who have many simultaneous projects, some of which intersect with other members.

Before the band arrive on stage, one sees a curious array of instruments and order. For example, there are two drum kits both at the front. There is a xylophone and an electronic panel that also acts as a percussion instrument, itself hit with “mallets” (the latter is most evident on the track entitled Shake hands with danger). An array of guitars and three notional keyboards, one of which is connected to a compuTortoiseter enabling McEntire’s in-play jiggery-pokery. Suffice to say I have never been up so close to percussionists.

Of the music, I cannot really comment. I do not know the band’s music beyond this performance. And through their 100 minute set, we were spoken to twice. Once to say, Thank you for coming. And once to say, goodbye. The set was exclusively instrumental, so there were no lyrical clues. But it being the Catastrophist tour, I imagine most pieces were from the album. (I have subsequently bought the album and will listen carefully.) Don’t get me wrong, the lack of banter with the audience is not a reflection of some contempt for the audience (in a Bob Dylan way, for example). Rather, they are an intense band. The concentration is palpable. After the gig, I spoke to Herndon and there was not a gram of arrogance. He signed my CD simply with the word Thanks!

Venues are important. It is fair to say that Tortoise are unlikely to fill the Munich Philharmonie like Gregory Porter did a couple of weeks ago. But actually Feierwerk in Munich is that intimate venue that would have suited Porter. And this being a largely middle-aged audience, it was all very civilised and focused on the music. We were all being transported somewhere unexpected. This was impeccably orchestrated by five blokes who know each other very well. Extraordinarily, between each track there was a musical chairs – virtually all the musicians played all of the instruments.

The band play their final gig of this tour on 30 May in Frankfurt. They are back in Europe in July.

 

 

Gregory Porter, 15 May 2016, Munich Philharmonie

Gregory PorterHere we go again. Friday evening watching Later with Jools Holland on BBC TV, next in front of the very same artist two weeks later. This time, Gregory Porter and his band playing in Munich.

Gregory porter is billed as a jazz artist, but I suspect in order to sell out large venues – which he does as effortlessly as he sings – he probably needed to do a bit of cross-over. We did a bit of homework by listening to his album, “Take me to the Alley” a few times. And then we were ready.

The first thing to say is that the Philharmonie in Munich is not a great venue for amplified music. For one song he sang 20160515_200755unsupported and there was no problem hearing – we were up in the heavens (having come late to the ticket-buying party). The second thing to note is that for this tour at least, Porter is accompanied by a fabulous band (Albert Chop Crawford on piano; Tivon Pennicott with alto sax; Emanuel Harrold on drums and Aaron James on double bass), each of whom is given a slot to demonstrate their individual talents. So much so that Harrold himself is the last man on the stage after the concert. Almost reluctant to give up his drum kit. Third, this was an audience that did not seem to want to listen – far too keen to cheer at inappropriate moments and seemingly oblivious to the subtlety – or not – of Porter’s lyrics. More of which below.

So what of Porter’s set? Three albums – two definitively jazz and the latest – balanced with other complementary tunes that he makes his own (Papa was a Rolling Stone, for example). Take me to the Alley is a fantastic song. It is more of a canvas on which he lays his singing prowess and his social conscience. Alleys are often insalubrious and the people to be found there down on their luck. Porter himself has no privileged background, so one gets the sense that his empathy is real and genuine. The offer to “relax in my garden” has a reassuring congruence to it.

There is also a darker side. I remember many years ago when singles charts were important to me, hearing for the firstLou_Rawls_1995 time Lou Rawls’ timeless classic, You’ll never find another love like mine. For many years I did not listen to the lyric closely enough to understand that it just might be about infidelity. Rawls’ voice just pushed the listener away from that possibility (though the intonation becomes more and more bitter as the song progresses). Why else would his ‘Baby’ contemplate leaving?

Porter with his song Don’t be a fool is more explicit on the topic. The scenario here is that he admits to being an adulterer, asks for forgiveness, trust and to fall in love again. I have to say that as a song it makes me feel uncomfortable. I cannot think that trust can somehow, through a song, be magically re-established.

It is not a great point to finish on. Porter is a consummate artist – the two hours glided past. Maybe I should have just cheered like everyone around me and not tried to listen too hard?

Next week we are off to see Tortoise. Watch this space!

 

Everything Everything, Strom, Munich, 5 December 2015

Get_to_Heaven_Everything_EverythingI am a recent convert to the music of Everything Everything, a 4/5-piece based in Manchester, formed in 2007. This tour co-incides with the release of their 3rd album, Get to Heaven (left). We were first exposed to them on Jools Holland’s BBC music show, Later. I distinctly recall noting that they were rubbish. The lead singer, Jonathan Higgs, had a ridiculous hairstyle and sang in falsetto (too much Bee Gees imagery for me). Alas, my partner put me right. I bought the album and then booked us two tickets for this gig. And what a gig it was.

The set was a near complete rendition of the album, plus a few oldies, Kemosabe, for example, which was nominated as Best Contemporary Song at the 2014 Ivor Novello Awards, amongst others. The first thing to say is that the band have an extraordinary presence to which their TV performance did not do justice. Higgs engages with the audience and genuinely seems to be enjoying himself.

The second thing to say is that the band’s music is curious. I would call it20151205_214133 Post-modern, a collage of styles, genres and techniques that, generally, work together. That is perhaps the skill. But lyrically – and certainly the songs on Get to Heaven – render this album worthy of attention. It is an acutely contemporary political statement/observation set to music. They are on the right side of the political spectrum. It does feel rather uncomfortable actually enjoying it when its subject matter includes Islamic State, the 2015 UK general election and mass shootings.

20151205_220524But even with the knowledge about what the album is about, it is still rather esoteric. Take, for example, Reptiles, where the lyric “Oh baby it’s alright, it’s alright to feel like a fat child in a pushchair old enough to run. Old enough to fire a gun” is chillingly surreal if nothing else. The opening track, To the Blade, is seemingly about the beheading of captives by IS. It starts with “So you think there’s no meaning in anything that we do?” Distant Past kicks off the theme of time – “Take me to the distant past, I want to go back”. But why? The printed lyrics are not much help. “Saw off my stinking limbs, blood dripping down my sunken monkey chin”. Maybe. “Did you ever watch your life slide out of your hands?” (Regrets) and then the mild relief of “Spring, Summer, Winter, Dread, I don’t want to get older”. This is a beguiling apocalypse.

 

Richard Hawley, Brighton Dome, 25 October 2015

20151025_212213Richard Hawley (left), denizen of Sheffield and purveyor of guitar baritone romance and melancholy is difficult to match. We were quite late to the party and had to wait even longer to get to see him. His first words when he came on stage were “we’re back!” For some, maybe.

He played for getting on 95 minutes with his band Shez Sheridan (best mate and guitar), Dean Beresford (Drums), Colin Elliot (bass) and Jon Trier (keyboards and known to Hawley as the Librarian). Good value, if nothing else. With a new album to plug, one might have expected a full track listing. But this is a rather humble and knowing Richard Hawley. We were treated to the full range across the repertoire and the six-and-a-half albums of which I have four, including his latest, Hollow Meadows.

He dedicated to his audience a track from Hollow Meadows, Heart of Oak, as a metaphor for his loyal followers. That was nice. We were treated to the romantic hits, Open up your Door (from Truelove’s Gutter), The Ocean (from Coles Corner) and Tonight the Streets are Ours (from Lady’s Bridge). For those in the audience wanting louder – and the audience was a shade vocal, almost hecklers at one point – got a good chunk of his very loud album, Standing at the Sky’s Edge including the title track, She Brings the Sunlight and the quieter Don’t Stare at the Sun. This is an album, so loud is it, that one needs a lyric sheet. If you want loud, this is the section of the gig for you.

So, the music was great and sustained. The banter good natured. But the care with which the set was played Richard_Hawleyimpressed me no end. Hawley has a guitar dresser or caddy (as golfers have). The said character was a wisp-like man in jeans and a tee-shirt armed with a duster and a keen ear for tuning. Each of Hawley’s guitars (at least eight) got his tender loving care. Tuned to perfection and the dusted so that they sparkled in the lights. Hawley’s attire is equally choreographed. It might only be a pair of jeans and denim jacket. But it is an ironed pair of jeans and denim jacket.

Here is the Independent’s review of the same gig: http://tinyurl.com/p68dmhe

Pic (right): http://www.richardhawley.co.uk/photos/promo/

At the time of writing the remaining gigs are the following:
Wed October 28 2015 – SCARBOROUGH Spa
Fri October 30 2015 – DUBLIN Vicar Street
Sun November 01 2015 – LEEDS O2 Academy Leeds
Mon November 02 2015 – MANCHESTER Albert Hall
Tue November 03 2015 – GATESHEAD Sage Gateshead
Thu November 05 2015 – GLASGOW Barrowland
Fri November 06 2015 – SHEFFIELD Sheffield Arena
Sun November 08 2015 – LONDON Roundhouse
Mon November 09 2015 – BRISTOL Colston Hall
Tue November 10 2015 – SOUTHAMPTON O2 Guildhall Southampton
Sat February 20 2016 – SOUTHAMPTON O2 Guildhall Southampton
Sun February 21 2016 – NORWICH The Nick Rayns LCR
Tue February 23 2016 – LONDON Eventim Apollo
Wed February 24 2016 – MANCHESTER O2 Apollo
Sun February 28 2016 – CARDIFF Cardiff University

BBC Proms – the Sibelius symphonies and more

Proms_logoThe BBC Proms is an extraordinary annual classical music festival. For two-and-a-half months, each night some amazing orchestra (and sometimes more than one) takes to the stage in the Royal Albert Hall in London and plays some amazing music. For visitors, it is possible to see this spectacle for 5 Pounds (the standing space in the arena). If that does not appeal, it is possible to have a seat ranging from the Circle at what seems to be close to the moon (and hence cheap), or the stalls just around the arena (a shade more expensive). Relative to most ticket prices for Orchestra performances, it is the best deal in town over the summer.

We mix and match, sometimes in the circle, others in small boxes (otherwise known as the second tier). We often dressA&I_proms_160515 up for the occasion (right). This year we have been quite strategic in our choice. It is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sibelius and to mark it all of his symphonies are being performed over three nights (that is 7 in all). Moreover, the BBC being what it is, does not just play the music, but it tries to give context and develop listeners’ understanding of music in general and specific pieces in particular. It is fair to say that we knew very little of Sibelius other than he being Finnish. We learn that at the time that Sibelius was writing at the turn of the 19th Century, Finland was a place with little history and national identity. Sibelius became a cheerleader for Finnish nationalism and independence (first from Sweden and then Russia – finally getting independence in 1963, six years after his death).

SibeliusOne of his most famous pieces, Finlandia, dating from 1899, is an eight-minute call to national self-determination. It seems to me, it is a piece to Sibelius what Bohemian Rhapsody is to Queen in more modern times. It was a great way to start. But then come the symphonies – some against the backdrop of tumultuous change, others against his own alcoholism (his wife would go searching local bars to drag him home). His fourth symphony is a paen to landscape. The programme notes for this symphony make reference to conductor Herbert Blomstedt, who described it as ‘an essay in trying to be happy which fails.’ That works for me.

They are a mixed bag. Again, my ignorance takes over. Sibelius’ symphonies were not written for huge orchestras. Strings do much of the work (there is a lot of string plucking going on which doubles as percussion; there is not much of a percussion section). Woodwind and brass also feature. There are a lot of key changes. They are not the most accessible or indeed friendly. In his later years, he was a recluse, retreating to a country residence, Ainola, touchingly named after his wife, Aino. Though he did compose an eighth symphony, the score for which he destroyed.

We were treated, however, to Sibelius’ violin concerto. The soloist was Julian Rachlin (right). Seemingly, this is not an easyJulian_rachlin_ta_2011 piece for violin. The expectations for finger and bow coordination are considerable. Rachlin, however, is a virtuoso – a child prodigy – and handled it with aplomb – and provided an encore (a little frowned upon at the Proms). The concerto demonstrates the brilliance of the composer who, it seems, always doubted  his ability.

And maybe that accounts for – what seems to me to be – the inconsistency between the symphonies. His influences may also be a factor. In his early work inevitably Tchaikovsky is evident, as well as Brahms. Later he seemed to be in some kind of battle with Schoenberg, certainly in terms of pushing the boundaries of what actually is a symphony. For example, the Seventh Symphony which is about a river is composed in a single movement (normally one would expect three or four). That said, if one really listens closely, the separate movements are there. Maybe he was just trying not to give an opportunity for the audience to shuffle and cough inbetween movements (a very Proms thing to do)? His efforts at creating his own identity may well have done the opposite. I’m not sure how easy it would be for us to immediately identify a Sibelius piece, say for example against Mozart or Beethoven. One feature, perhaps, is Sibelius’ curious way of ending movements and symphonies. The end can often come by surprise for the uninitiated. I think further listening is needed.

Pictures:

Sibelius (BBC Proms website)

Julian Rachlin: Levg (Wikipedia)