Monthly Archives: June 2013

David Bowie Is, The V & A Museum, London 21 June 2013

david bowieI managed to get to see the David Bowie Is exhibition at the V & A yesterday and by jingo was it busy…both in terms of the number of visitors lining up and and as a description of the sheer sensory overload you’re exposed to once inside. Bowie is the original multimedia pop star and has always taken as much care with the visual and performance aspects of his act as he has with the actual music, and this show has gathered together a highly impressive collection of his costumes, his sketches and his promotional material as well as films and videos from most stages of his career. It’s a lot to take in – you certainly can’t imagine a similarly themed show on the life of, say, Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen being anything like as visually stimulating as this one.

For once the description “all singing, all dancing” isn’t that wide of the mark: everyone entering is given a pair of headphones and an audio device which can detect where you are in the exhibition and feed you the appropriate accompaniment, which might be music or interview extracts or the soundtrack to one of the many video screens that line the route through. This is a smart tactic to avoid too many overlapping sounds from different sections of the show, but it did take me a while to adjust to the need to stand still once an audio track has started. If you wander from a hot spot you lose the signal pretty quickly and you risk picking up a commentary from another exhibit that may not yet be visible. I’m fairly certain Bowie himself hasn’t been to this exhibition but you can imagine the writer of Space Oddity approving of the idea of rooms full of people all isolated from each other, experiencing different ambient soundtracks and feeling vaguely alienated.

I got the hang of it eventually though, and even if the audio experience was not quite seamless there was more than enough to look at to hold my interest. The first couple of rooms focus on Bowie’s formative years and repeated failure to establish himself as a star in the 1960s and there are plenty of mod and hippy era photos and posters here, as well as hilarious footage of the 17 year old David Jones being interviewed by Cliff Michelmore about his campaign to stop persecution of long-haired young men. By the time Bowie actually scored a hit in 1969 he’d already worked his way through a bewildering variety of looks and musical styles, a trend that would if anything accelerate through his glory years, and the central rooms of the exhibition are packed with outlandish glam costumes that look like they weigh a ton and would cause severe over-heating if worn on stage, as well as videos of performances both iconic and obscure, some illustrations of significant influences, explanations on the contexts and recordings of the classic albums and most excitingly of all several of Bowie’s original handwritten lyrics for songs such as Ziggy Stardust and Ashes To Ashes, complete with crossings-out and rejected ideas in the margins. There’s also a room in which one can sample extracts from Bowie’s variable-quality, but never predictable, acting career (lovely to see Jareth the Goblin King from Labyrinth again). As you might expect, the depth of coverage falls off dramatically once we reach the 1980s and Bowie’s inspirational run comes to a bland, blue-suits-and-arena-tours, close, but there’s enough interesting material here on his 1997 album Earthling and the brand new The Next Day for the argument to be sustained that the man with the cheekbones and the ill-matching eyes is still relevant.

The highlight of the whole show is the big room at the end in which live performances from down the years are projected onto massive, double-decker bus height, screens – it’s all somehow completely beguiling, even the footage from only a decade ago. It’s pretty unlikely that Bowie will tour again, but this is as good a substitute for the real thing that you can imagine. If there’s a fault with David Bowie Is it’s that there’s not much coverage of the vast influence the man has had over the pop and rock and dance acts that followed him – as Madonna and Lady Gaga, and even to some extent U2 and REM would admit, it’s now taken as read that media-savvy stars are expected to in some way re-invent themselves with every new album and tour, and that certainly wasn’t the case in the era of long hair, sandals and earnest confessional singer-songwriters. The exhibition runs to August and is probably already sold out, but anyone with even a passing interest in Bowie or the conceptual end of 1970s rock music should try to get see it if they haven’t already.

Postscript: When the exhibition closed in London in August a special live event was held featuring many commentators and Bowie collaborators. Our correspondent Nicola’s review of this can be found here.

The Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Stampfel band, The Portland Arms, Cambridge 7 June 2013

JeffreyLewisPeterStampfelGreat fun was had last night watching Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Stampfel, two prolific outputters and interpreters of…I dunno…folk-psych-country-rock, possibly? The New York based Lewis seems to have a soft spot for Cambridge as he was only here last nine months ago (maybe he’s twigged that there’s a ready-made vaguely bohemian audience that’s receptive to his lovely faux-artless flights of whimsy) – this time he’s accompanied by the faintly legendary Stampfel, who may be seventy-five years old but has the enthusiasm and exuberance of a toddler who’s just come off a sherbet and lucozade binge. Fifty years ago Stampfel made his name as a member of underground groups The Fugs and The Holy Modal Rounders but he’s hardly resting on his laurels now, as the fearsome rate that he’s been releasing albums and getting involved in musical collaborations is testament to. Lewis is half his age but the partnership feels like a good and natural fit, with the two men taking turns to present the songs and talk to the audience – there’s a nice relaxed vibe about the evening that makes it feel more like an impromptu bar session than a formal show. The frontman are backed by Isabel Martin on bass, Heather Wagner on drums and Franic, on loan from the Wave Pictures, on mandolin, which blends in nicely with Lewis’s acoustic guitar and Stampfel’s banjo and violin.

Material-wise, this is about as eclectic a mix of stuff as anything I can remember seeing. There are some quirky folksongs (including a nice singalong extolling the virtues of eating roadkill), a fair sampling of things from Lewis’s and Stampfel’s back catalogues and loads of covers, some from sources you might expect (Daniel Johnston), some completely out of left-field (Hawkwind? The Fall? Goldfinger?!) Every now and then Lewis encourages Stampfel to recreate an advertising jingle from his youth and these paeans to detergents and petroleum jelly are lovingly rendered in three part harmony. Stampfel seems genuinely delighted to be here and relishes his daffy old man persona, coming off as some mutant hybrid of Albert Einstein and John Otway, and while he might have trouble keeping his banjo strap attached and occasionally forget which microphone he’s supposed to be using his vocals and playing are right on the money. The show’s long, but it’s plenty varied – Lewis, who has an alternative career going as a talented comic book artist, at one point stands on a chair and narrates a funny and surreally seamy story about video rentals while flipping through a book of illustrations he’s done for it, like he’s the teacher and we’re a primary school class. And the set isn’t completely given over to throwaways and funnies: towards the end Lewis sings What Would Pussy Riot Do, an impassioned piece about freedom and censorship. A really entertaining and unpredictable gig, and it was also nice to see the musicians mixing freely with the audience both before and after the set.

PeterStampfel

Daniel Kitson, Cambridge Junction, 2 June 2013

Daniel Kitson at Greenwich Comedy Festival, 2010Last night I got to see Daniel Kitson. Kitson is rated, by those who ought to know about these things such as Stewart Lee, as one of the best stand-up comedians in the country, though he’s not exactly a household name given his refusal to appear on television or indeed in any format that he doesn’t have complete creative control over. He does however appear to have a dedicated following judging by how quickly the tickets for this show at The Junction sold out – I heard about it purely by chance and was lucky enough to secure my place early, one of the few times I’ve paid to see a headline act I’ve literally never seen or heard anything by.

It turns out to be well worth it. Kitson appears on stage at 8pm, sits down at a table upon which rests a small keyboard-like device, and without any ceremony starts rattling through a hundred minute set that’s as densely packed with humour and pathos and arresting images and delightful connections and well, language, as anything I can ever remember seeing. It actually takes a while to adjust to the sheer pace of his delivery and his use of his electronic box of tricks to provide a simple musical backing track is also initially distracting, though in time you find yourself settled in nicely to the torrent of stuff that’s coming at you. There’s probably about two to three times as much material here as you’d get in the average comedy show filling this sort of time slot (and it’s particularly interesting to compare Kitson’s approach to the aforementioned S. Lee, who’s been known to get quarter of an hour or so out of the slow repetition and gradual embellishment of one simple phrase).

But what, you may ask, is this man’s stuff about? Actually…in basic terms, nothing that unusual really. Kitson is far from the first comic to mine his own life for instances of guilt or embarrassment or lust or peculiar obsession that he can then exaggerate or creatively embroider to humorous effect, though the incidents that he chooses to present are generally so particular that they ring true in a way that most stand-ups’ don’t. Where he really makes his mark though is in his detached, forensic and penetrating analyses of his and other human beings’ behaviour and in some of the insights he comes up with regarding the way memory works or the way people condition themselves or the tiny largely unobserved moments that betray oceans of insecurity just below the surface – this stuff’s in danger of being describable as profound. Thankfully he’s canny enough to temper any potential pretentiousness with a healthy side order of knob jokes, mock arrogance and comfortable Eddie Izzard style stuff about biscuits and fruit. It’s really impressive, and I’d love to have been able to hold onto more specifics but as Kitson himself says he goes so quickly there’s not much point trying to reconstruct any actual quotes from the show after the event.

Kitson may be fast but he’s never muddled and this show has a real structure, most obviously evident through his periodic replaying of a recording of a reported incident in a hotel room that seems more seedy the more you hear of it, and the conclusion of the set (which is otherwise as abrupt as its start) feels like an emotional pay-off as he manages to tie together his main themes satisfactorily but with no hint of sentimentality. This is only the latest in a long line of shows that he’s been performing over the last fifteen years or so and so far as I know none of them have been made available commercially so if you want to see him you’ll have to…um…go see him. But remember to get in there quickly if you hear he’s coming to town.