Category Archives: Live

Cate Le Bon, Cambridge Junction, February 10 2014

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Cate Le Bon’s hour long set at The Junction last night was brisk, efficient and surprisingly loud and crunchy. Surprising to me, anyway – for some unfathomable reason I’d had her tagged somewhere down the hippy corner of the indie-alternative scene and had been expecting a few bespoke acoustic instruments and possibly some onstage basket weaving and pot throwing as well, but other than the occasional bit of swirly organ reminding me of paisley patterned wallpaper this was a no-nonsense rocking-out set played at high volume but with enough clarity to be able to pick out all the lovely fiddly bits that help give Le Bon’s music its distinctive offbeat character. Other significant distinguishing factors are her wistful, highly proficient and definitely Welsh vocals (she sustains some of the high notes for very impressive stretches of time) and the slightly lurching, loping nature of her compositions. The band (which contains notable musicians Sweet Baboo on bass and H. Hawkline on guitar and keyboards) is as tight as a drum, but the tendency towards including bars containing irregular numbers of beats, unconventional accenting and chord sequences that never quite develop or resolve as you’d expect make the songs as hard to dance to as they’re intriguing to listen to. There’s no shortage of catchy hooks though, as a few listens to the lead tracks I Can’t Help You and Are You With Me Now from her recent Mug Museum album will make clear, and there’s no hint of any proggy indulgence. In the end the only disappointment is the absence of mugs for the sale at the merchandise stand, but that’s a pretty churlish complaint given the musicians’ friendliness and willingness to chat to the fans after the gig. A lovely night out.

Anna Calvi, The Troxy, London, February 8 2014

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English singer/songwriter/guitarist Anna Calvi doesn’t seem to be that well known to the great music buying public, possibly because she doesn’t fit neatly into any convenient marketing category, but on the evidence of last night’s gig at The Troxy in east London (a rather beautiful venue, incidentally, which looks like it was a probably a ballroom in a former life) she deserves to be a major star. Her restrained appearance, non-existent stage banter and tastefully minimal back-up band (drummer, keyboard player and percussionist, with the latter two occasionally taking turns on bass) don’t give much of a clue to what’s coming, but believe me, this was a full-on rock’n’roll monster of a set.

Calvi’s stock-in-trade is to set up broody, pulsing atmospherics in which her impeccably twangy electric guitar conjures up lovelorn encounters in oppressive badland locales before soaring operatic choruses dramatically raise the stakes – it’s impressive on record, but quite astonishing to witness live. Imagine the soundtrack to a desert-set David Lynch movie suddenly ramping up into a full-blown torch song and you’re getting somewhere close. Flame-haired divas whose lung-power can fill a hall without the aid of a PA system are not so unusual, but Calvi’s unique in being a genuine guitar hero too, with a technical grasp and inventive flair that would put a lot of prog-rock veterans to shame. She hardly ever resorts to mere strumming while she’s singing, usually picking out spare but ingenious riffs and counter-melodies but sometimes pulling off complex and quite alarmingly ferocious wig-outs. I don’t normally comment on or even notice the lighting at gigs, but here the lightshow complements the music with rare taste and effectiveness, picking Calvi and her Fender out in silhouette as she shreds her way through her solos. The dominant colour is red, which fits as Calvi’s songs seem be to be constantly evoking images of heat, passion and flame, and her choice of Springsteen’s “Fire” as a cover version couldn’t be more appropriate. The pacing, arrangements and dynamics of these songs are highly impressive: none of them seem to go on a second longer than they need to and they all seem as spare and pruned of extraneous layers of sound as they could possible be. The sound in the room is excellent, with Calvi’s powerful vocals ringing out even in the loudest passages and lots of lovely reverb-y space in the quiet parts.

After an encore featuring her rousing singles Blackout and Jezebel Calvi calls it a night…at this venue, anyway. A solo show follows straight on at a pub down the road for those lucky ticket holders not reliant on public transport to get home. She’s an amazing talent, and her profile might get considerably higher before too long: with this much command of the whole sultry/operatic thing surely a Bond theme sometime soon is an inevitability? See her if you get the chance.

Sweet Baboo, The Portland Arms, Cambridge, 20 November 2013

SweetBaboo1I’m getting to really love The Portland Arms as a venue. It’s just the right size to accommodate a band and an audience that’s still able to see the whites of the musician’s eyes even from the back of the hall without it feeling like you’re squashed into someone’s front room, and you generally get excellent sound too. After getting up close and personal with The Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Stampfel Band and The Wave Pictures in recent months I went to see Sweet Baboo last night and it was every bit as great a gig as those that went before it.

Sweet Baboo is the stage name of Welsh singer-songwriter-guitarist Stephen Black, and he’s been releasing singles and albums containing charming romantic ballads and boppers for a few years now. He’s been playing live for ages too, though I think this is his first tour as a headliner rather than a support act, in promotion of recent album Ships and the EP Motorhome. On the evidence of this show he and his tastefully minimal band (just bass and drums) deserve their top-of-the-bill status for sure – despite arriving to the venue late due to traffic snarl-ups on a cold and miserable evening and thus failing to get a soundcheck and being forced to set up in front of a waiting crowd they deliver a beautifully rounded set of what sound like instant classics to me and have the good taste to keep it short (I think they were done within an hour) and leave the people wanting more.

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I was in fact really taken aback by how much attack and focus the band had, and how skilfully they managed to vary the dynamics. On record, Baboo’s songs run the risk of sounding a bit winsome and lightweight to me, with his clever way with a mundane metaphor (“this is a song about the Cardiff University electric library”) sometimes standing out as much more interesting than the pleasantly strummed guitars that form the basis for most of the backing tracks. On stage however the band properly rocks and at times even convincingly wigs out – that impressive array of effects pedals is not just there for show – but this is never at the expense of the songs and their melodic and lyrical charms. Baboo turns out to be, like David Tattersall of The Wave Pictures, a really impressive guitarist, capable of lovely flamenco and country flourishes on the acoustic guitar he picks up for the “mellow” section of the set, while his band prove themselves to be positively supple, grooving where appropriate or dialing it down for the quiet numbers (incidentally, I’m very taken with that black Epiphone bass guitar, though I’m not sure I’ve got the funds or houseroom for it). Despite all this conspicuous flair, Baboo maintains a convivial if slightly reticent tone to his between-song chat, as if he can hardly believe that anyone would bother to come out and see him play, though the fact that the room isn’t quite packed is probably more down to the weather than to him.

Baboo rounds the evening off with a solo encore of Tom Waits Rip Off and then heads straight over to man the merch stall, in typically self-effacing style. It’s been a brilliant gig. In one of his songs he’s got the line “Daniel Johnston has got loads of great songs, and I’ve got six” – I think he’s seriously underestimating himself. Catch him while he’s still playing in rooms at the back of pubs.

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Rush: rat race

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Rush is a brash and pacy account of the fierce rivalry between Formula One drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda. I’m no student of motor racing and have no idea how much artistic license has been taken here but the way the movie tells it you couldn’t have made up two more sharply contrasting personalities: Hunt is a leonine devil-may-care playboy who spends his off-track hours boozing, drugging, and shagging glamorous models, while Lauda is a fastidious tact-free control freak who seems to regard other people’s desire for human companionship to be a sign of weakness. What they have in common is a mile-wide competitive streak and formidable talent behind the wheel, enough to take both to the brink of becoming world champion in 1976, and that particular season turned out to have moments of drama so singular that makes you wonder why they took so long to make a film out of it.

Ron Howard directs from a script by Peter Morgan, who’s got some impressive form in bringing to life famous 1970s confrontations (see Frost/NixonThe Damned United and The Last King Of Scotland). This is, thankfully, not an experimental or arty piece – it’s tightly focussed on the two men, there’s plenty of helpful expository dialogue and on-screen captions to let you know what’s happening and why and it showcases two really rather excellent performances by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl. Hemsworth is apparently Australian but you’d never guess he wasn’t born to good old English privilege and wealth based on what you see here: he captures that combination of floppy-haired charm and old-school entitlement beautifully. Brühl on the other hand has the harder job of getting the audience on-side with the obsessive and asocial Lauda but he pulls it off very well and is considerably aided in his mission by the deadpan and cutting zingers he gets handed by Morgan’s script. The verbal duelling between the two leads was in fact for me a lot more effective than the bulk of the footage of the actual races, which tends to be presented in fast-cutting montages and close-ups that don’t have the physicality of something like the chariot race in Ben-Hur, though as the season reaches its nerve-wracking climax I found myself drawn into the action despite myself.

I’ve probably got the advantage over fans of the sport in that beyond one or two hazy details I had no idea going into the film as to how this story plays out but in the end I found it thrilling, despite my longstanding bewilderment at the appeal of watching fast cars go round and round a track for hours. For fans of F1 this film is I suspect required viewing.

Thomas Dolby: The Invisible Lighthouse

ThomasDolbyLighthouseSo that makes two idiosyncratically English songwriters that I’ve seen play live in Screen One of the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge in support of their new films in the space of two days, though I think you can safely say that the seasoned producer, session player and electronic games designer Thomas Dolby possesses just a touch more technical competence than the blessed John Otway. He’s not however known as a director and this presentation of his forty minute film The Invisible Lighthouse has more of the ambitious Pink Floyd-style concert-plus-lightshow about it than your typical film festival screening: Dolby provides live narration, soundtracking and inventive visual effects from the side of the auditorium while his movie plays, making this a unique and personal event.

…which is nicely appropriate, given the subject matter and the autobiographical slant Dolby has given it – his roots are in Suffolk and he grew up near the coast among the peculiarly bleak flatlands of Orford Ness, where a lighthouse has stood since the eighteenth century*. This area is gradually being reclaimed by the sea and the lighthouse (which at one point boasted the most powerful lamp of any in the United Kingdom) was finally deemed unsafe and decommissioned in 2013. On hearing the news Dolby, who has in recent years returned to live here again, felt moved to mark the passing of what he remembered as a formative influence on his childhood by shooting what is in effect a home movie, albeit one that’s been shot and assembled using modern digital technology. He weaves his memories of the lighthouse and its landscape together with stories from his family history and he turns out to have had plenty of illustrious forebears including the builder of the barley malting plant of Snape Maltings, now an arts complex, and the first woman to become the mayor of an English town (Aldeburgh). He’s determined to be present when the lighthouse shines out for the last time but receives scant support from the Ministry of Defence and the National Trust, the bodies responsible for the spit of land on which the lighthouse stands, so takes the opportunity to go on a dawn commando-style reconnaissance mission in his speedboat down one of the murky channels that criss-cross the site and thankfully gets out without detonating any of the unexploded warheads supposedly still concealed in the shingle. At one point the film digresses in a slightly Sebald-ish manner into an account of a dubious extra-terrestrial sighting in a local wood and Dolby has rounded up the footage of US army personnel swearing blind that they witnessed something metallic dissolve into liquid and vanish through the trees (if you want to visit the spot in question it seems to be clearly signposted on a woodland UFO trail). If nothing else this film is a lovely look into a highly distinctive part of the country that very rarely gets much exposure outside regional news bulletins.

After the screening the confident and affable Dolby chats about why and how he chose to make his movie and even goes into the detail of how much particular bits of equipment cost him: he reckons the total cost of the project to be of the order of a modest £1,500. It’s unlikely to receive a conventional release, either in cinemas or on DVD, as he prefers to be present when it’s shown and besides he still enjoys tinkering with it – the beauty of it existing only on his laptop is that it’s easy to chop and change elements without inconveniencing anyone but himself. He rounds off the evening with a few of his old songs, the backing tracks of which have been pre-programmed into his keyboards, and even this provides an impressively multimedia experience with footage from his 80s videos and the visual representations of the songs on his computer being seamlessly projected behind him while he sings. He’s clearly fascinated by the possibilities of technology and is something of a master of the software – the only mechanism that lets him down is the mechanical pivot he uses to secure one of his keyboards to his waist which fails rather badly when he attempts a ZZ Top style spin of the instrument, not that it seems to affect the smooth playing of the music at all. I bought my first Thomas Dolby single in 1981 and now I’ve got to see him live, and at a film festival too. This was an unexpected treat.

* Interestingly Brian Eno, Dolby’s chief competitor in the electronic music boffin stakes, hails from nearby Woodbridge. Must be something in the water.

The Wave Pictures at The Portland Arms, Cambridge, September 11 2013

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I’ve been remiss. I’ve only recently become aware of The Wave Pictures and on the evidence of Wednesday’s gig at the Portland Arms this represents a rather serious case of cultural oversight on my part. They’re a trio from somewhere in Leicestershire who have it seems been regularly releasing collections of witty and infectious deconstructions of personal relationships and neuroses (with particular reference to household condiments) for the last ten years or so. Their wikipedia page lists The Smiths, Jonathan Richman, Darren Hayman, Jeffrey Lewis and The Mountain Goats amongst their influences and collaborators, which places them so firmly in my ball-park they’re practically sitting on my lap and nibbling on my burrito, and if the two or three albums that I’ve heard are anything to go by their songwriter David Tattersall deserves to be as celebrated as any of the above. Musically they come over initially as classic jangly indie-pop, but close attention reveals a rare fluency and judgement in the arrangements and playing. This date was the first on a tour to promote a new album City Forgiveness (which curiously their record company are not going to be releasing for another couple of months) which will be something like their thirteenth…difficult to believe given Tattersall still looks like he’s in the sixth form.

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Support is provided by Mammoth Penguin, who would be worth a mention just for their splendid name even if they weren’t a pretty good power trio in their own right. Their pleasingly diffident and self-deprecatory stage manner contrasts nicely with the crunchy vigour of their performance and the distinctive full-throated delivery of the singer and the crowd get behind them enthusiastically. A short set of short but eventful songs, just the way I like it.

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In what must be a first the main act takes to the stage slightly before the advertised starting time and without any ceremony kick things off with a nimble take on Spaghetti. It’s clear straight away that this is one talented band. Drummer Jonny Helm is all over his kit, managing to hold down a light funky beat at the same time as providing backing vocals while the seemingly unflappable Franic Rozycki (who I saw in June on this very stage playing mandolin in The Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Stampfel band) plays his bass like a master, throwing in unexpected melodic runs up and down the neck but never straying into irritating muso territory. It’s David Tattersall’s guitar playing however that’s the real revelation: slightly obscured on record by his defiantly English vocals and wordplay it’s actually a bit of a wonder to behold, with full-on bluesy solos, crisp choppy chord-work and delicate picky bits being effortlessly despatched, all on a slightly battered looking Les Paul with no effects pedals anywhere in evidence. I really hadn’t expected anything half as accomplished, and that he’s also able to find his way through his sometimes knotty and tongue-twistery lyrics without fouling up once makes it even more impressive.

From the first song on you know that you’re in safe hands and the evening flies by. They play songs old and new, including one from the forthcoming album that features high-life style guitar playing that recalls Paul Simon’s Graceland, and a couple (Now You Are Pregnant and Sleepy Eye) that afford Jonny Helm an opportunity to emerge from behind his kit and treat us to his soulful lead vocals – honestly, he looks like he’s having his very heart torn in two while he’s singing them. The material ranges from old school indie stompers (Leave The Scene Behind) through ballads (Red Wine Teeth) and even something that sounds a bit like a proper respectable blues. One of the most striking aspects is the band’s willingness to leave space in their material (instruments often drop out and sometimes Franic’s bass is the only sound to be heard) and to be, you know, quiet. On a couple of occasions Tattersall mutes his guitar right down and starts singing a song softly off-mic – at first the chatter from the back of the audience drowns him out, but it doesn’t take long for people to catch on, shut up and give him their full attention. You can’t imagine ever witnessing this kind of dynamic at Wembley Stadium.

WavePictures3After ninety minutes or so they leave us with the rowdy Friday Night In Loughborough and the house lights come on…except they don’t leave us, they go straight to the back of the room to man the merchandise stall. This gig was a rare treat. If you like your pop quirky and literate and English you should go see this group as soon as you can, and even if you don’t you should probably go anyway just because they’re such damn good musicians.

Guest blog! Nicola reviews the live “David Bowie Is Happening Now” event

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Back in June I went to the much talked about David Bowie Is exhibition at the V & A (after rediscovering my fascination for the man a couple of years ago. Here’s guest blogger Nicola’s take on the screening of the event that was held to mark its closing in London:

I didn’t see the Bowie exhibition at the V & A, making me, it seems, one of only a few Bowie fans for whom it didn’t appeal. The live event ‘David Bowie is happening now’, transmitted live to cinemas across the UK, however did.  The chance to hear the curators talking about the exhibition pieces and explaining why particular artefacts from Bowie’s archive were considered representative of its themes was the draw.

The event got off to a shaky start with the presenters directing their opening words to the audience members at the V&A and not to camera.  With the presenters turning their heads in every direction other than straight ahead it looked like they couldn’t find the right camera.  And nerves got the better of one presenter who couldn’t wrestle them into submission for the best part of the show.

As one might expect, we were guided around from the beginning of the exhibition with live commentary and pre-recorded footage from guest commentators and members of the public, before the focus returned to the stage with the first of a series of special guests being invited to talk, setting the format for the evening as we were slowly led around the various rooms.

Guests included Hanif Kureishi, Kansai Yamamoto, Jarvis Cocker, Sir Christopher Frayling, Paul Morley, Terry O’Neill and Michael Clark, providing plenty of added value.  When clothes designer Kansai Yamamoto took to the stage the event really took off.  He was clearly moved by the recognition of his talents via the inclusion of his iconic pieces.  By his own admission, his English hadn’t improved much in the decades since he created the Aladdin Sane outfit, but there was a power in his delivery even as he struggled to find the next word.  He managed to raise a ripple of laughter when he revealed that  the first time he met his future muse Bowie was wearing an outfit he had designed to be worn by women.  All the invited guests spoke well and interestingly and had something different to say – there was only one fawning appreciation of Bowie but this inclusion was to represent the fan.

Standout moments included the shared amazement that Bowie had the foresight to keep EVERYTHING: every doodle, every scribble, every scrap ensuring a comprehensive archive; Bowie’s vision: he thought BIG from the outset and refined his ideas on paper; his skill at finding the right collaborators; Paul Morley and others commenting on Bowie’s naive handwriting on scrawled lyrics, which make Bowie’s genius appear to be mere child’s play, belying the enduring power and magnificence of the songs they became; members of the public impressing on today’s audience the impact of Bowie singing Starman on TV; the colour and flamboyance of every new persona he invented, many represented by beautifully tailored outfits; and the photographic images taken throughout Bowie’s long musical career that, in Nicholas Coleridge’s words, somehow remain timeless.

Michael Clark discussed Bowie’s legacy which the exhibition successfully conveys.  The live event covered much of what one would expect, yet the production team were wise not to gloss over the rich seams captured in the details that lead one to a better understanding of the subject, thus also retaining the exhibition’s inspirational quality. One pre-recorded voice in particular struck a chord: a young visitor to the exhibition said that, having seen Bowie’s hand-written lyrics, she was going home to have a go.

Sir Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, wanted to make the Pompeii exhibition accessible to as many people as possible.  Hence, he brought the exhibition to the UK’s cinema screens.  With the Bowie exhibition being the fastest selling sell-out exhibition in the V&A’s history, the screening of the live event meant that anyone who wasn’t lucky enough get a ticket could still get a taste of what they missed, which has got to be a good thing.  Although, for anyone who would still like to see the Bowie exhibition in person, I am pleased to report that it is a travelling exhibition, ending in Paris in 2015.