Sunday 23 December 2012


Two concerts on two consecutive nights (again) - oops. Fortunately, the Thursday gig of choice was a choral performance at Cadogan Hall. Mrs Specs, our Prom-going friend David and I were privileged to see and hear - at extremely close quarters - the Choir of Westminster Abbey performing a programme of Christmas music.

However, it wasn't a traditional carol concert - it was aimed more at the classical music buff, which is why it was very useful to have David along and agree, as usual, to be subject to my relentless interval questioning. (Not that he had much choice, because we were holding the Extra Strong Mints to ramsom.) This time, I was asking about how pedals worked on a harp. Answer: "I'm not good with harps."

The harp in question was played to accompany the Choir on Britten's 'A Ceremony of Carols' - probably the most well-known piece in the programme, and the only one containing tunes I was familiar with. From our place in the gallery, on the right, I had a bird's eye view of the harpist and realised that I'd never seen anyone playing the harp from that angle before. It really underlined just how dextrous they need to be - not only to keep their hands darting across the strings at an awkward angle, but also to hit the right pedals at the right time with their feet.

Another bonus of our high viewpoint was enjoying the effect of the long scarlet robes worn by the choir, who appeared almost to glide along the floor like holy Daleks. Obviously this illusion was shattered when they had to use stairs to get on and off the stage...

The Britten suite was the centrepiece of the evening. Before that, the Choir sang some 'early' Christmas music - Byrd, Praetorius and an awe-inspiring 'O magnum mysterium' by Victoria - then the second half was given to modern Christmas compositions. The most well-known of these was probably John Gardner's 'Tomorrow shall be my dancing day'; the best, in my opinion, was a Peter Maxwell Davies setting of a sacred poem by (the) Rowan Williams. Maxwell Davies can be a bit forbidding - and the prospect of a carol by him seemed to cause David some serious concern during the interval, at least until we gave him a mint - but the piece achieved the trick of sounding less difficult than it is. We could hear that the choir were sounding some unusual harmonies, but intervals you might have expected to clash somehow gelled and gave some very high voices an unexpected layer of gravitas. Also crucial were the words: I regard myself as agnostic, but I was actually deeply affected by the lyric - not so much by the subject matter perhaps, but the willingness to use such unusual language. It's made me want to find some more of the former Archbishop's poetry. It reminded me of my studying days, when the sacred verse of the metaphysical poets like Herbert and Donne made such a big impression. If you're interested, the poem is here.

The following night, without Mrs Specs or David, I went to see Orbital at Brixton Academy. This is the third time I've seen them. First time round - before their extended break from each other - I never caught them at all. When they reunited, I saw one of the reunion gigs at Brixton, but something made me buy an upstairs ticket. Rather than fling myself around like a loon, I opted to go for the seated area (you're not actually allowed to stand in 95% of the upstairs area at Brixton, presumably in case you launch yourself accidentally into thin air and plummet into the crowd below). I knew their light show was supposed to be incredible, and reasoned that I would be quite happy lounging around just soaking up the spectacle. This was true up to a point - it was a visual feast - but the grass is always greener and the music is so infectious, I wished I'd been on the ground floor dancing.

The next time I saw them was in, of all places, the Royal Albert Hall - again, constrained to some extent and the seats got in the way once more. So - I made myself a promise - next time, I'd put myself in the midst of the throng.

I was pleased, then, that this latest gig was also at Brixton. It has a sloping floor. Why can't all venues have sloping floors? I can't think of anywhere else where the short of arse, like myself, can cheerfully buy a standing ticket and still turn up with a reasonable expectation of seeing something. It would be very rare, for example, for me to go to any other standing venue and get a snap showing as much of the stage paraphenalia as this one:

Obviously, I still enjoyed the odd reminder of why I often choose to get myself a seat now that I am a respectable gent approaching middle age. For a start, Brixton has what I shall call a 'sloshpit' - an informal audience area where people try to drink full pints of beer and pogo simultaneously. Not only is this destined to end badly, it usually ends badly for someone who isn't actually trying to 'slosh', but just happens to be innocently passing on the way to the loo. Luckily, I avoided a lager bath this time.

I was also unsettled by the fact that when I see Orbital, I AM often surrounded by people who are seriously loved up. I wrote a review of the last gig (the electronic version is now lost to the ether, sadly, with the demise of the Word website) where I bad-temperedly named some of the pseudo-steamy dances performed by my neighbours as, among others, the Teapot and the Bowel Movement. It wasn't pretty. Fast forward to this gig, and one bloke - who had clearly never been hit by the gallantry stick - decided to wrap his arms around his girlfriend and THEN jump up and down wildly to the beats. Quite what effect this must have had on her internal equilibrium I dread to contemplate. It also meant that to talk to her, he had to 'dip' her and yell in her ear, as if they were in a techno version of 'Happy Days' or something. Of course, if you do this to someone in a standing gig, you inevitably slam them into someone else, ie me. Over and over again.

This unexpected intimacy aside, nothing could detract from the exuberant, in-your-face, welcoming blast of Orbital's music, which can simply make everyone in a huge room blissfully happy. From the first glimpse of the brothers - in those torch-glasses that make them look like a couple of the Star Wars sand-people have flung off their robes because they've been working out, god dammit, and you're going to check them out whether you like it or not - everyone has a grin on their face a mile wide. It stays throughout.

Sunday 16 December 2012

Focus on Hannah

I mentioned back when I started this blog that I was into photography, although I realise I haven't really touched on the subject at all so far. I try my hand at as many different genres as I can (entering the Amateur Photographer monthly competition is like getting a brand new assignment every few weekends), but the one I get most excited about is portraiture.

For an amateur this is normally an interesting and rewarding experience. As willing as Mrs Specs is to have her photo taken, she shows signs of getting fed up after the first 2,184 shots. And also you can't learn about photographing different people unless you photograph different people. So ... and this can take a little bit of psyching up ... you ask friends and colleagues. If they say yes, it's a bit of a 'punch the air' moment, and a creative collaboration is born. I will post pictures featuring other members of my 'photo army' in future but this time I'll feature just the one.

About a year ago, my friend Hannah was making some huge changes - new look, new place, new start. H is a technical whizz, Photoshop included, and was already in the habit of putting together yearbooks/annuals as a regular record of her life. Possibly after some alcohol (or at the very least, high on H's cooking), I suggested I could do some of the photography, and pitched a plan based on a notional calendar. I surmised that we could do a series of 12+ pictures, in a year, that could all take their theme either from something in H's life, or from the month itself. Or, in some cases, if we were firing on all cylinders, both.

It was an epic project. Great fun, but at the same time, it took a lot of planning, industry and improvisation. H was up for it, and to her enormous credit, remained committed to the enterprise, trouper-style, throughout. Here is a 'first draft' sequence of photographs. 'December' is missing as it's a picture with other family members, and I've added a couple of alternatives/out-takes. H of course will have all the pictures taken at each session to choose from, and for anyone who's friends with us on Facebook, a wider-ranging set will go up there before long. I'm very proud of H, and these pictures, and I hope you like them.

Intro pictures: moving in.

January's theme is cookery (birth month of Nigella Lawson).

February was the month the late Word magazine started (in 2003). The reader community surrounding the mag and its website was and is a major feature of H's (and my) life. This picture was taken on its patch.

March: first day of spring. Or sun on the shed, anyway.

April 1923 is the first appearance we can find of the ukulele (H's 'other' instrument) on film. We used the uke on two different occasions...

H asked for a South Bank picture, so we went for May, when Tate Modern opened in 2000.

June 1968: release date of H fave Randy Newman's first album.

H is a keen lover/collector of Tube maps and lore. July 1933 marked the completion of 'her' line, the Piccadilly, where this shot was taken.

H's main instrument is the piano. One of her favourite composers is Debussy, born August 1862.

This outfit was first created when H improvised a 'pirate' look by accident. 19 September is National Talk Like A Pirate Day. (Arrr, etc.)

'Breakfast at Tiffany's' was released in October 1961.

An October 'out-take'. You may spot the Halloween reference.

We wanted a 'retro' studio style picture, so allocated one to November (Jean Shrimpton's birth month).

A happy product of the sessions - not part of the sequence (at least not at the moment), but still a favourite.

Monday 10 December 2012

Price less

Brixton Academy, earlier in the week, could not prepare me for the giddy heights of the Half Moon in Putney. On the surface, this is a comfortable, modern pub with a bright and almost airy interior. There's room to breathe, and the bar staff don't even look crestfallen when you just order a Diet Coke.

However, the pitch-dark double doors at the back only hint at the nefarious delights within - a pocket-sized venue dressed only in black and red, about to host four bands in quick succession, all with a common aim: to immerse the crowd in the sights and sounds of mod, punk and rock 'n' roll.

I'm not saying the gig was slightly nostalgic, but the bloke who organised it is called Retroman. (His nickname is 'Steve'.) Retro is a splendid chap I have the pleasure to know through Word magazine get-togethers. Giddy with excitement and unchecked love for this music (and, possibly, an ale or two), Retro comperes the evening, whipping up the crowd to even greater levels of enthusiasm, and crucially, telling the bands when they have '10 minutes left'.

For this crowd, the 'Scene' has always been here. It was a joyful sight to see the sharp attire (the men were decked out in hooped shirts, flat caps, and shirts so floral they actually started photosynthesising - while the women, as usual, looked even better in short pinafore dresses and flats) and, frankly, the willingness to simultaneously pogo and give the bands the finger as a sign of affection. Almost as if we'd put some hippies and punks in a blender - perhaps that's how this music can sound aggressive but feel inclusive: good, fast times.

The bands were all extremely enjoyable, but each one seemed to progressively add something to the night. The Legendary Grooveymen - describing themselves as 'the warm-up for the support acts' - were a burst of humour and energy, while the second band on - the Fallen Leaves - win the evening's 'I Like The Cut Of Their Jib' Award. All decked out in slightly tweedy, wobbly finery, sporting armbands with their leaf logo (all apart from the drummer, who probably thinks that any vegetation imagery is a token of weediness), they were the only quartet among a group of trios. The singer, therefore, didn't have to play anything - so had clearly perfected over time the skill of scowling at the audience as if he was about to select some slaves, and leaning nonchalantly on his microphone. He also drank from a flask of tea during one number. Strange brew indeed.

Then - and I'm sure this had something to do with the arrival of my friend Dave - the evening suddenly shifted up a gear. Main support the Past Tense powered through one monster tune after another - seek out the astonishing 'Wolfman' - I think there's a couple of versions on YouTube. This was the most successful marriage so far that night of melody and muscle. They are lucky to have one of those drummers who might be moving so fast he could be having an episode, yet every clash and pound is floor shaking and absolutely precise. The fact that (as I found afterwards) he rejoices in the name of 'Nuts' only adds to his charismatic allure.

Already influenced by Retro's matchless facility for tastemaking, I had been a fan of headliners The Len Price 3 for some time. All three of their albums zip by in a blur of ludicrously catchy riffs, wry lyrics and sunny harmonies - a good sense of Whomour. (Especially since, as you might have guessed, none of them are actually called 'Len Price'. Or '3'.) Live, they are simply immense - dressed in uniform (stripey jackets) each member still brings his own distinct physical personality to the stage show. The bass player, Steve Huggins, has no vocal mic, and lurches around, mute but grinning, like a cross between a Butlins redcoat and Boris Karloff. Drummer Neil Fromow seems to twist in all manner of contortions as he sings sky-high harmonies while beating his kit half to death. Glenn Page, lead vocal and guitar, has mastered a kind of robot-stare, idiot-dance that has him careering round the stage as if electrocuted - literally a live wire.

Seemingly born to play great gigs, the band weather a couple of technical hitches without batting any of their six eyelids, and succeed in combining a fantastic sound with being totally captivating to watch. And if conclusive proof were still needed of what a terrific night it was, Dave was able to buy some vinyl from the merchandise stall afterwards. As he said himself, that's a definitive hallmark of an excellent evening.

It wouldn't be the same if LP3 played Brixton Academy, but I would love the day to come when they could.

(While I'm here, an excellent way to find out more about this sort of thing would be to keep an eye on Retroman's blog. Yesterday's papers - today!)

And it was great to see you, Steve and Dave.

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Bitter sweet

Ben Folds Five absolutely slayed Brixton Academy. I can state this with complete authority, since I went along without knowing very much about them. (My friend and fellow pianist Hannah invited me along, knowing I'd be listening as forensically as possible to Folds's playing.) I wonder if many other folk in the venue could barely remember what any of their early stuff even sounded like, and only had a couple of plays of the new 'reunion' record in their mental armoury. I suspect not, since everyone around me was gradually progressing through several stages of hysterical euphoria, and I was minded to join them.

I knew this was a 'big thing' - the old line-up reuniting - but only at the gig did I realise how big. Trios are always interesting because each musician is that bit more 'exposed'. The other trio that came to mind while I watched this lot were the Police. (Understand: I LOVE the Police - no anti-Sting ointment here.) When the Police did their reunion tour they decided to play live as a trio - which transformed a lot of the songs. Compare and contrast: the comeback gig I saw before that - Roxy Music - was also splendid, but took the opposite approach: use a band of about 12 people and bring the actual records to life. What became clear from the way the Police did it was that they were a band of three leaders: all vital, all special.

The same is true of BF5. Yes, it's Ben's band and he makes a riotous, righteous noise on the piano (how he can somehow take Elton John, Jerry Lee Lewis and Thelonious Monk and put them in a blender, and THEN sing at the same time - I'll never know). But Robert Sledge plays bass like he was possessed by Hendrix or similar, soloing like a maniac and cutting through Folds's piano in routinely scene-stealing fashion. Darren Jessee is one of those drummers who can use the most modest of kits and still play with feeling and colour - no mean feat when the noise made by the other two regularly forced him into juggernaut mode. Add to that the obvious chemistry between the three - taking humour, spontaneity and improvisation into near-Crowded-House levels at points (Folds clambering over the piano one minute, singing a song about his last Brixton concert the next) and you have a truly heady mix.

'Heady' is a nice way of leading into something else I really want to talk about - the support band, Bitter Ruin. Perhaps other music nerds will share with me in understanding the pleasure of stumbling across something for the first time that you realise might take a serious, proper hold on you. This was one of those bands.

Bitter Ruin are a duo - Georgia Train and Ben Richards - although they were accompanied by a cellist for some of their songs. With a fraction of the amplification enjoyed by the headliners, they took the Academy by the scruff of the neck and didn't let go. Playing a kind of cabaret/Americana, Richards picked out intricate guitar lines while Train sang like the last diva standing - idiosyncratic and fearless. Every song seemed to leave her drained only for the power to return in seconds. Immediately, it was impressive how they weren't intimidated by the size of the place - they had finely tuned their dynamics so that, after knocking us sideways with an almost operatic opening, they started to introduce more hush and harmony, making us come to them - forcing us to listen attentively and get involved.

I hope they were pleased with how their support slot went. The applause grew louder with every song. Train in particular has the knack of addressing the audience as if we already love her band, and in my case, after a song or two, she was quite right. (Check out the video below. Be warned: it contains a Bad Word or two. And you should definitely head to their website, which is packed with lots of great music and photography.)

I loved the entire gig from start to finish. But it was Bitter Ruin's t-shirt and CD I went home with, a brand new discovery in my pocket. (Thanks to Hannah for organising - and great to see Dave and Carolyn too!)

Sunday 2 December 2012

Tinariwen in Chapel

I had never sat upstairs at the Union Chapel before. Very pleasant to not only have a terrific view of the stage but also to see the pews filling up with folk, like we were lofty spectators at some kind of unnamed vigil.

Adding to the mystery were the slightly unusual instruments littering the stage, which we soon got to hear. Sam Lee - support for Tinariwen that evening - is currently a bit of a noise in the UK folk scene. His debut album was shortlisted for the 2012 Mercury prize, and he has the good sense to walk around looking like he's just wandered out of the Strokes.

Of course, one reason he surely looks so fuzzy - as if he's slightly smudged or out of focus, such is his rangy swarthiness - is because he plays gypsy music. His particular interest seems to lie in collecting old traveller folk songs and then flinging his own unusual arrangements at them. (If I have one criticism, it would be that his song introductions - all of interest - were slightly too long, and you could occasionally feel a slight 'get on with it' vibe wobble the room.) One of my favourite songs of his involved Lee and a member of his band kneeling down and both wrapping themselves around an accordion-like instrument from India - which I believe is called a 'shruti' box - because it needed four hands for them to wrestle the sound they wanted out of it. It was impressive that Lee's voice - a rich, solemn thing - lost none of its power despite the contortions.

There was no drum kit or real percussion, and I began wondering why so many of the songs seemed to drift and warp into and out of shape. As if by magic, Lee answered my question about two songs later. He described how the songs were typically performed with a 'pulse' more than a beat, allowing, I imagine, for more freedom to slow down or speed up according to the emotions in the song. That said, he built momentum into his set as he went along, with some later numbers moving at a hell of a lick. Sound thinking, because by now, we were finally all warmed up - and don't forget, that's not easy in a venue where the toilets are half-outside. The icing on the cake was when a couple of Tinariwen came onstage with Lee to do a Gypsy-Touareg duet. They chose to perform a relatively upbeat track (apparently thrown together when they met about an hour and a half before the show started) but it made the link between the two acts of the evening clear - the quality of steady mesmerism that Lee conjures up in his near-ambient reconstructions and which Tinariwen have made their trademark with their interlocking guitar patterns and stately rhythms.

When Tinariwen take the stage in their own right, there are a few differences from how I've seen them before. There was no Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, for a start - the band's founder and figurehead, a chap with such flamboyant hair I always imagine that it needs its own tent in the desert. (There is currently major unrest and uncertainty in Mali, and this affects which members of the bands from those regions can leave and when.) Equally, I miss the Tinariwomen who would appear on some tours and add their vocal gymnastics to the mix.

Also, the band were mostly seated. I suspect this is primarily because this current tour has been billed as largely acoustic - like the most recent album, 'Tassili' - but that turns out to be a bit of mis-direction. Acoustic guitars were to the fore early on, but still underpinned by electric bass - then as the electric guitars came out, so some of the younger, more vigorous lads in the group got to their feet and punted the sound up into the steeple. The venerable Alhassane ('Hassan') Ag Touhami - who looks like your favourite kind uncle (if your favourite kind uncle was wrapped from head to toe in Touareg robes and had genius dance moves) - gets some of the loudest cheers of the night, following his ability to appear utterly modest and unassuming while playing guitar licks that scorch the aisles to the extent that you truly believe the blues must have been orginally wrenched out of the desert after all.

So, not acoustic then, but perhaps more restrained. I've seen Tinariwen gigs in the past that have ROCKED, all in upper case, like that - ROCKED. Three or four guitars, thunderous percussion, audience going nuts. This concert in the chapel was more about 'groove' - even when the odd bit of shredding was taking place (and one of the benefits of being a Toureg guitarslinger is that thanks to your headgear, you don't subject the audience to your 'guitar face' when solo-ing - take note, Jimmy Page) the sound mix favoured the bass. No-one launched themselves from their pews, but feet and shoulders were shuffling and swaying. As a result, I think this was one of my favourite T concerts so far - it seemed to point towards a future Tinariwen, who might bring a dance as well as rock crowd into the world music fold.

It's a bittersweet idea. Because of the pecularities of their travel situation, Tinariwen have always had the air of a 'collective' - the touring line-up can be as fluid as their guitar lines. But a fan like me has to wonder - the youngsters' time is coming. Will Ibrahim tour again? And *head in hands* Hassan may retire one day.

Meanwhile, the greener band members have already collaborated with folk space cadets Tunng (a few years ago now) and there's the willingness to just pitch up onstage with Sam Lee tonight to consider. Maybe they will have something more akin to fusion or folk up their sleeves next time? It'll be interesting finding out.

PS I have to finish by addressing some people directly! To Maryam - thank you so much for taking my friend Fliss and I to the concert. And to Sadaf - I feel like I've known you for some time now, so it was lovely to actually meet you at last!

Tuesday 27 November 2012

Miniature heroes

Two visits to the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank to tell you about. The more recent concert is the easiest to describe, as it was a 'regular' (if that's really a suitable word to describe such incredible talent and sublime music) classical programme by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

The evening was loosely themed around heroism. We had two longish works, one each side of the interval: first up was Haydn's 'Nelson Mass', otherwise known as Hob.XXII:11 (by absolutely bloody no-one, surely), followed by Richard Strauss's tone poem 'Ein Heldenleben' ('A Hero's Life').

It proved to be an inspired double bill. I've decided that I really really love Haydn. It seems to be that all of the Hadyn I've heard reaches for glory without ever sounding pretentious; music with a kind of automatic beauty that comes not just from good tunes but also from stateliness, reassurance and warmth. The Mass is quite full-on in terms of volume - sizeable orchestra and choir, all giving it loads - but delicacy is at hand in the form of four soloists, who take the melody down to one or two voices before it all kicks back in. The 'Credo' section in particular was full of variation and inventiveness. Lovely.

Strauss was already one of my favourite composers so I didn't undergo quite the same epiphany with the second half of the concert, but the performance was still spellbinding. Always good to watch the percussion during Strauss, and sure enough there was pleasing deployment of snare drum, tom tom and - on one memorable occasion, the gong - brought in for one bash only. 'Hero's Life' is actually full of humour - a 45 minute sequence of smaller sections (unbroken) which are more or less about Strauss himself. (Yes, coming from a rock angle like I always seem to, I couldn't help but think of concept albums, and prog - particularly since Strauss is not just deciding that his whole piece is about the same topic, but using recurring musical motifs and references to back the idea up.)

Some particularly effective passages are where he gives 'voice' to his carping - and here, parping, critics with various abrasive combinations of instruments, but the prize goes to the amazingly talented orchestra leader - that is, the head honcho of the first violins - who took essentially a soloist's role, as Struass voiced his wife with a lone violin line. Apparently Frau S could be quite *cough* a challenge, and the part demands furious bursts of noisy, breakneck playing, alternating with pensive sensitivity the next. The player here was totally on the money, and the conductor (who must have already been impressed in rehearsals) had a bottle of champers on standby to present to him onstage after the performance. Quality touch.

(And since it was our anniversary outing, we were totally comfortable with any aspect of the evening that involved flinging a bit of bubbly around!)

The previous weekend, I'd been to see somethng rather different. I'm a huge fan of John Surman. *waits* "WHO?" *resumes* John Surman is a jazz 'reedsman' - in other words, while he focuses on saxophone, he can and does in fact play a variety of different saxophones, and pretty much anything else that makes a sound when you blow into it. (I'm referring only to inanimate objects here, of course.)

John Surman is on the ECM record label - if that's new to you, maybe the quickest way of describing the 'house sound' is that it primarily features European and often Scandinavian musicians making a type of glacial, cerebral jazz that doesn't belong to - yet also somehow relies upon - its US blues/trad/bop cousin. (Ironically, the label has an American as probably its single best-selling artist - celebrated piano genius and eccentric curmudgeon Keith Jarrett. But you could probably have a humdinger of a pub argument over whether Jarrett is a European musician trapped in an American's body.)

ECM has a classical wing, and label boss Manfred Eicher delights in bringing the two worlds together to see what happens. Surman has made a couple of terrific albums with a string quartet (here is the track 'At Dusk' from the album 'Coruscating'), for example - although the pairing that made the biggest splash was when the saxophonist Jan Garbarek began recording with the chamber choir Hilliard Ensemble.

Surman also releases solo albums. They have always featured pulsing electronics and synthesiser rhythms and loops, over which he plays (and improvises) melody lines on his arsenal of wind and brass. They are often hypnotic and rather gentle, and again appeal to my liking for automated beauty. His latest record, 'Saltash Bells', is one of this series. However, the concert I attended - one of the last in this year's London Jazz Festival - is billed as a gig of two parts: a newly-commissioned work, 'Lifelines' for reeds, piano and (wait for it) Welsh male voice choir... along with some solo playing.

Because I absolutely adore this man, I wanted (and expected) 'Lifelines' to be amazing. For the most part, it is: there are about eight 'songs' (arranged in three groups) and range from ambient sound-pictures to anthemic chants from the choir - even at one point he gets the whole lot of them to genuinely swing as he (along with the versatile keyboard player Howard Moody) propels the most overtly 'jazzy' section to a thunderous finish.

There is a chink in the armour: the lyrics. With a Welsh choir at his disposal - and I can sort of understand this - Surman steams head-on into the industry/mining/poverty genre of protest folk and ends up with some of the words sounding amateurish (couplets of the 'journey's end'/'fog it did descend' style). It certainly seems at odds with some exhiliratingly complex and sophisticated music, when at times you forget that there are only two instrumentalists on stage.

At other points - for example, when he has the full choir sing in a tribal dialect - the effect is overwhelmingly stirring and you wish for more of that. What saves the whole caboodle is that even in the mawkish segments, the sheer emotional heft the choir brings to proceedings (for whom the subject matter is of course directly relevant) carries the day.

The concert was a tad 'mis-sold'. 'Lifelines' was just over an hour long and a happy but drained Surman clearly regarded that as the whole concert, more or less (it was a reasonably priced matinee). With everyone else now off the stage, he told us - in a typically modest old-school way - that while the blurb drew attention to the solo material, he felt he shouldn't really play it because of all the overdubs - how could it be honest?

At this point, I did rather want to shake him, and point out how electronica and looping bands/artists can be absolutely amazing live, and that he shouldn't worry about it, and this is the 21st century and LOOK JUST PLAY SOME OF IT... Fortunately, before I had to get on his case, he did - as an encore. He started a loop on a small machine next to him, and played one of the most bewitching extended improvisations I can remember hearing.

For that, he is the third hero, after Nelson and Strauss, of this post. This second video is a track called 'Tintagel' from an earlier solo album, 'Road to St Ives'. He made up something similar to this for us, on the spot, knackered.

Saturday 17 November 2012

Gira scope

To the ongoing bemusement of Mrs Specs, I'm drawn to extreme music - of almost any kind. I don't mind how free my jazz is, or how grind my core. I think it's something to do with liking bands or records that demand I sit up and take notice. And I've also wondered if I'm innately resistant to thinking of any music as just 'noise' - as someone who plays a couple of instruments myself, I want to see and hear what the performers are doing and why. Is there melody, or a chord structure, or a distinct rhythm ... and if so, where is it hiding?

Swans have more of a reputation than most for 'extremity'. Led by the charismatic Michael Gira, they were mostly active first time round during the 80s and 90s. They started out as a brutal punk/noise outfit but 'mellowed' (and I mean this in a strictly relative sense) over the years - partly influenced by the arrival of Gira's female foil and equal, Jarboe - into a still-heavy rock band with more melodic, psychedelic and world elements. But throughout they never lost 'intensity' - you might be buffeted more than battered and feel more stoned and droned instead of sturm und drang - with stately, tribal percussion a particular speciality.

They were, by all accounts, terrifying on stage. Apparently, in their 'glory days', the volume of the band was such that people would be ill, need to leave - gosh, they may not have even been able to talk incessantly at the bar. Gira deliberately set out to confront and challenge - not in an entry-level shock-horror swearing and slagging off kind of way - but by dragging the audience into the cathartic, hellish vortex of the songs.

Obviously all this sounds BRILLIANT, but they jacked it in shortly before the millenium. Jarboe went solo, and remains so. Gira worked on other projects (I think the most well known is Angels of Light) but out of nowhere, it seemed, Swans suddenly reappeared in 2010. Their 'comeback' album, 'My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky', is not the wall-to-wall blast of sound you might expect, although review of the accompanying live shows suggested that the record was simply a launchpad for gigs every bit as coruscating as in their heyday. And the resulting follow-up record, current album 'The Seer', is scary and contrary, 2 CDs of carefully calibrated rage and despair, revolving around the breathtaking title track (which lasts for half an hour).

So here we were in London venue Koko (I was with my Swans-worshipping friend Jon, and a pal of his, Martin), waiting for them to come on. I'd fallen for the band big-time by this stage and had several of the records, but I was actually slightly apprehensive about the gig. I just desperately wanted them to sound amazing. I didn't particularly want to keel over, vomit, or have any part of my insides physically rearranged. I wanted to be blown away aesthetically, but not physically. Too old.

I needn't have worried. Yes, it was comfortably the loudest gig I've been to in about two decades (that honour previously belonged to Pixies, another band not especially keen on the definite article) and I had a bit of extra tingling in my ears the next day. But the sheer force of the sound - which could actually be felt like a draft as the wave reached one's body - was exhilirating rather than overwhelming.

I was struck by the fact that although the music was distorted - the guitars were rich in fuzz and feedback - it wasn't exactly what I would call discordant or dissonant. It was not in any way unpleasant or difficult, just colossal. You could hear riffs, and the insistent repetition made sure they entered your head and stayed there. Gira emphasised this ritualistic aspect of the performance with shamanistic gestures, encouraging the swaying, mesmerised crowd to give themselves up to the drone washing over them. That said, he was not above grinning broadly at the audience, breaking the spell by cheerfully thanking them, then - without missing a beat - launching into the next attack.

And as we might have expected from the records, the power is in the percussion. As well as a kit drummer (as in he played a drum kit, I don't think he was assembled each night backstage before the show), a second percussionist beat the crap out of all manner of hapless objects. With this long-haired, bare-chested Captain Caveman chap on stage left, through to the immobile second guitarist in the smart shirt on the right, it almost felt like the band were arranged in a kind of 'evolution of man' tableau...!

They were spectacular. Music that took you to another place, but also remembered to bring you back. It isn't for the faint-hearted, but then it wouldn't be any good for the stone-hearted either. For Gira, it's clearly necessary, some kind of outlet - and like a lot of extreme music, it's an outlet for us in the audience too. I enjoyed the overpowering (but also empowering) feeling of the sound taking me over, holding me in some kind of grip. I would see them again at every opportunity.

Grumpy PS: My only complaint is that I missed the end. Because so many Swans tracks are so long, it became clear they were going to play for well over two hours. The stage times got posted inside the venue. The support was off by 8.45, with Swans onstage from 9.15 to - wait for it - 11.50. That's right - pretty much after many last trains have left your London terminus of choice. Koko - not everyone lives in a cave next to the Tube. If the band is going to play an epic set - great. Tell people. Start the gig earlier, or if you can't bring yourself to do that, post the stage times on your website so your patrons can plan their journeys. It's not helpful just to say 'most bands finish by 11'. That's the difference between telling folk they can get home, and telling them they can't. And if someone tweets you politely to check the stage time - answer them.

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Another round

Two very different gig experiences in the last couple of weeks: Diana Krall at the Royal Albert Hall, then Bellowhead at the Roundhouse. It's starting to look like I no longer go to venues with corners.

I've wanted to see Diana Krall for a long time. I go weak for several female jazz voices - among those living (!) are Claire Martin, Anita Wardell and Viktoria Tolstoy - but those women I've mentioned sing with fuzzy warmth and carefree agility. They wrap you in a towel, in a sauna, on a volcano, on the Equator. Krall is my favourite of the lot, though, and she isn't like that one bit. The sexiness of her voice comes from its drawl and depth, sultry not through heat but near-ennervation. The technique, I think, is very exact - I am willing to bet that there's massive discipline in how she breathes and projects - but the effect is as if she's finding the note and volume without making any more effort than is strictly necessary. Sometimes you could almost decide she's just speaking, were it not for the pitch and power.

(It turned out that she was actually making rather a lot of effort. Slightly huskier than usual - *faints* - she mentioned during the gig that she was getting a cold. It was, in fact, laryngitis and she ended up cancelling a couple of dates after the London shows.)

All this and she plays piano, too - again with a natural, understated style that doesn't dazzle with dizzying staccato cascades, so much as beguile with rhythmic chord progressions and shiver-down-the-spine note choices. This fits the style of the current album, 'Glad Rag Doll', particularly well - more blues and Americana flavoured than her more 'straight' jazz or bossa nova records, the production by T-Bone Burnett makes it as much a companion record to, say, the Plant/Krauss collaboration 'Raising Sand' as to any other Krall album. To establish and embellish the mood, old film footage or still photography played behind the band throughout the whole gig - interesting but sometimes a bit 'de trop', when the group themselves were all virtuosos and a happy nerd like me would've been just as happy keeping an eye on them.

For all the genius present in the ensemble, Krall played a short set-within-a-set of tunes solo at the piano and gratifyingly stole her own show. Singing Joni Mitchell's 'A Case of You', she has a voice at the halfway point between the way Mitchell sounded at the start, and the way she sounds now - the halting treatment making the song fragile, yet deathless. Overwhelmingly good.

Equally overwhelming, and equally good, were Bellowhead. For the uninitiated, Bellowhead are like a cross between a folk band and Frankenstein's monster. There are 11 of them. Four or five of them have the folk element covered - fiddles, accordion and an occasional cello. However, they have bolted on a razor-sharp, soul-template horn section. When not actually playing, the hornographers basically dance around in formation - you have to imagine you're seeing someone like Fairport Convention, but possessed by Madness.

The repertoire is built around traditional songs and reels adapted for the band's small army of players. At times, you can hear some metal or funk creep in as the 'bottom end' instruments lurch in and wrestle temporary control away from the strings. What amazed this listener was that while the sound might be made up of exhilirating, swirling chaos, the band were absolutely watertight. Totally disciplined, every instrument clear in the mix (you could even hear songs 'lift' when the singer would suddenly let rip on his humble tambourine), starting, stopping and turning at every tricky time change without drifting a split-second apart from each other.

They're building a reputation for being fearsome live, and you can see and hear why. The records are joyful, intricate affairs, but on stage, it's a party. Redefining the word 'upbeat', they hold the crowd - all in various stages of 'losing it' - in the palms of their 22 hands. Appearing to play as much for themselves as anyone else - the rapport between band members is obvious, as they face each other and indulge in miniature dance routines for their own amusement - their high spirits are infectious enough to go viral through the Roundhouse audience in an instant.

Finally, a huge hello to Martin - friend of mine (through the agency of the late Word Magazine) who I bumped into at BOTH gigs! See you at the next one, M!

Sunday 4 November 2012

Jack, Daniel

[RETRO-SPOILER ALERT! I'm blogging about the films 'Skyfall' and 'The Shining' in this entry. I don't think I've given anything important away about the former - but as the latter is a re-release of a 30-year old cult favourite, I've taken the liberty of discussing the events in it freely. If you think you might get to a screening of 'The Shining' or get hold of the DVD, then with my blessing, go and watch it before coming anywhere near this..!]

I don't get to the cinema nearly as often as I used to, so it almost felt like a throwback to my student days when I found myself at the flicks twice this past week. I suppose that's not the only reason I was wrinkling my nose at the whiff of the past - after all, 'Skyfall' marks 50 years of James Bond on film, and my other movie of choice, 'The Shining', is over three decades old.

I'm basically a huge Bond fan, so I was expecting to enjoy 'Skyfall'. But I hadn't expected to enjoy it quite as much as I did. There's not much point in my attempting to review it as such - it's received the odd bit of publicity here and there already, and its surprises and secrets are out there on the internet, beyond the reach of espionage. So without straying into spoiler territory (I hope), I'll just jot down four things that really struck me about it.

1) Sam Mendes might seem an odd choice to direct, but I can't remember the last time a Bond film was made by someone who was already a 'proven' talent/name - let alone a director equally at home in the theatre or arthouse. The difference shows. It's not just that the film looks amazing - it does - but it's also there in the use of the screen. During one of the major set pieces, an important building catches fire. You'll be amazed at how - whatever is going on in the foreground - the ruin is kept shimmering, ablaze, hovering in shot, the light still flickering against the characters. The film also draws you in with perspective, as the actors move through and around rows of desks, Tube tracks, casino staircases. It's as if to say, you don't need 3D to create something spacious and massive.

2) I do like a bit of graphic art and design, and the famous 'Bond opening title sequence' here is an absolute humdinger - almost disturbing in parts and fiendishly clever. It also uses rows/patterns/shapes in the same way the film goes on to do.

3) It's difficult to put one's finger on how the film seems to succeed in having it both ways: combining the more 'modern' elements (Craig's 'by the Books' approach; making the violence and, well, occasionally the sex, look like it hurts; even the odd sweary word) with some of the old-school flair and humour. The answer I've come up with so far is 'playing it straight'. I'm thinking here of the conversations M and Bond have while driving in the old Aston Martin; and the very final scene in particular - both to some extent 're-live' parts of the old films, but the ripple of pleasure comes from seeing how skilfully Mendes - and Craig - play them so they're totally true to this new interpretation. I wish I could - with a clear conscience - say more.

4) Javier Bardem.

Fast-forward four days, and rewind 32 years: I went to the Curzon Soho to see the re-release of 'The Shining'. This is the US cut of the film - about 20 minutes longer than the one shown and released on DVD in the UK. Please forgive me if I assume you know a little bit about this film - if you haven't seen it, I've already warned you off this particular post - but the longer cut mostly adds some extra backstory. A doctor visits the psychic son, Danny, after an early 'episode' and mum Wendy ends up explaining how Father Jack hurt Danny while drunk. We get a bit more of a feel for why the family seems a tad dysfunctional before they even get to the haunted hotel in the mountains. But the main body of the film - the relentlessly claustrophobic, nerve-shredding stay in the Overlook - is basically as everyone remembers it.

Over the years, I've had a bit of a love/hate relationship with the film - partly because in my youth I had really, really loved the book. Stephen King famously found the Kubrick version cold and unfeeling - hardly surprising since the terror in the novel is how the malevolent spirits in the hotel break the family, then the father's mind. The weapon of choice is a relatively impotent roque mallet and Jack succeeds in killing no-one. In a last moment of clarity he allows Danny to escape and faces down the hotel's evil spirits alone. In other words, there's self-sacrifice, redemption, all that stuff. Kubrick, who by this point had made heartwarmers '2001' and 'A Clockwork Orange', probably found the original plot a bit 'Little House on the Prairie', so created something wholly different. Give Jack an axe, for a start, and all bets are off. The hotel chef, who is also psychic like Danny and tries to come to their rescue when the boy sends a telepathic SOS, survives the novel but in the film, he gets the chop within seconds of arriving. On first viewing years ago, I felt this was a bizarre waste of a character. Now, I'm not so sure...

Equally, the casting of Jack Nicholson was a bold decision, partly because he is such a singular-looking actor. No-one takes any convincing when the guy's totally off his nut, charging around with an axe, but in the early scenes he struggles to convey a sense of normality. In one scene, he holds his son close and comforts him, telling him how much he loves him and it'll all be ok. But he LOOKS LIKE JACK NICHOLSON. *Gibber* If I was that kid, I'd be running a mile before he finished his first sentence. No doubt about it - unlike the book, something is wrong with the film's Jack from the very start.

In the cinema, I probably concentrated - really concentrated - on the film for the first time, even though I felt I knew it quite well. Shining Lore makes another clear distinction between book and film: that in the book, the hotel is targeting Danny's psychic power, which is where the pathos comes from - that first, the evil forces use Jack to try and get at the boy, and then it proves their undoing when he momentarily comes to his senses. In the film, the hotel is after Jack. Jack has 'always been the caretaker', and his face appears in a 1921 photo on the wall in the film's famous final shot. But the more one thinks about this, the more clearly Kubrick seems to signpost it. For example, Nicholson's 'twitchy throughout' interpretation of the character makes sense if you decide the hotel has him in its clutches before he even arrives. There is no evidence that anyone else is ever considered for the caretaker job. Even when he takes a phantom drink in the phantom ballroom, the barman Lloyd already knows he wants bourbon - which, of course, turns out to be 'Jack'. The film's only proper 'special effect' is of Jack looking down into a model of the hotel's maze (there's no maze in the novel), and seeing Wendy and Danny in there - who are there exploring outside in 'real life'. It could just be an empty bit of showing off, but it now feels more to me like the point where Jack and the hotel acquire the same, all-seeing perspective - become one, in effect.

The extraordinary look of the film is obviously easier to appreciate in the cinema. Because I already knew what Jack running around a corridor would look like, I took the time to just look at the corridor. It struck me that the truly scary thing about 'The Shining' is Kubrick. Essentially, every shot is symmetrical, mirrored, patterned. To a point of near-mathematical precision. It's fairly well-documented that Kubrick was an obsessive perfectionist but it's all here, on the screen. Mirrors, matches, doubles, echoes - everywhere.

Why add a maze to the hotel? Because then there are corridors outside to echo the corridors inside. (The novel has topiary animals that come alive.) Why change the weapon to an axe? Because Jack is doomed - assuming he'd succeeded - to live through what his predecessor had done and kill his family in exactly the same way. (Unlike the book.) Even the double elevator doors that spill blood are only in the film.

It's a truly enigmatic piece of work. If you're feeling strong, you can seek out seemingly endless theories and critiques about 'The Shining' - in the new documentary 'Room 237', for a start (not seen that yet), although the internet as ever is both your best friend and worst enemy for this kind of thing. I came out with a new respect for it - I had made the mistake of thinking that it for all its precision, it had treated the book carelessly. It now feels like Kubrick just took King's family into places even he didn't want them to go.

Speaking of which - here's the way into the auditorium at the Curzon. A long, narrow corridor. Thanks, Curzon. Thanks very much...

Monday 29 October 2012

Three nights, I'm out

Last week was quite 'busy' - one of those times where I booked a whole variety of things months apart, checking my diary one date at a time, only to find that I was OUT THREE EVENINGS IN A ROW. This is big news for an old fart like me. What ragged shadow of a man would I be come day 4?

Luckily, all three events involved a nice sit-down. In strictly chronological order, Wednesday came first, with a trip to see the Tallis Scholars at Cadogan Hall as part of its 2012/13 choral season. They were performing a programme of Fayrfax and, er, Tallis. The hook of the programme was that the Fayrfax piece, 'Missa tecum principium', is rarely heard live in its entirety. Surprisingly, they had decided to break it up into its separate parts, and 'interrupt' them with parts of Tallis's 'Lamentations'. Reading this in the programme before the concert began, I thought this was going to be odd - as if the group had put themselves on 'shuffle'. Afterwards, though, I think I got the reason why.

It's rare that I go to any choral concert and come away thinking the experience anything less than beautiful. I love that kind of music, and obviously with choirs and ensembles you don't have quite the same risk of the soundman forgetting the keyboards are there or the bass player coming on pissed. But but but - however lovely the Fayrfax was, the difference in quality between that and the Tallis was audible. Actual music critics could do a better job than me here (er, obviously) but I would broadly say that the Fayrfax seemed a little aimless in comparison. Tallis has power, movement, and harmonies to simultaneously lift and chill. Whereas the Fayrfax was 'pretty'. Pleasant. Perfectly enjoyable but somehow thinner, lower on substance. I could understand how hearing all the parts of the 'Missa' consecutively could give us all some kind of gossamer overload without the mighty Tallis stepping in to shore the whole thing up. So - a triumph of programming and a concert full of delightful moments - but you could equally argue that the whole Fayrfax piece is rarely heard for a reason.

And I object to the frankly attention-seeking spelling of the surname 'Fayrfax' as well. I can do without that kind of mucking about.

Inevitably, Thursday came next - when I went with a colleague of mine to see Dara O Briain. I probably shouldn't say too much about this, because otherwise I'll just end up keying in a bunch of his jokes. Not a good idea (especially if you might catch the tour or get the DVD). Add in the fact that I'm not really a comedy expert - some people treat it like I do music, going to loads of gigs and hearing a wealth of talent on the circuit that simply doesn't crop up on 'Mock the Week' or 'QI'. In comparison, O Briain is obviously at the 'aircraft hangar' level of TV shows piling on top of arena gigs on top of TV shows, and so on.

As a result, maybe it's fitting that he now seems to be some kind of comedy Springsteen - bounding on stage just after 8pm, he basically waved us off at about 10.30pm (with just a 20 minute break in the middle - and even then he was Googling stuff to use in gags revolving around particular audience members). Hardest working man in the ho-ho-ho-business.

I knew what to expect from his other DVDs, and the 'Craic Dealer' tour doesn't really deviate from the pattern. He feeds off a few hapless souls in the front one or two rows to improvise a section of the show - and the prepared material ranges across technology, media, and history. O Briain wears his knowledge very lightly and he sees the irony in how large a gap there is between what we think we know, and what we actually know. While it would be impossible for him to pretend he's an idiot, he still reserves some of his sharpest barbs for himself as he pulls the rug from under some of his assumptions about his own intelligence and celebrity. Determined as I am not to reveal any of his gags, I will simply say this in recommendation: I left the Hammersmith Apollo with eyes still watering, hoarse with the after effects of gasping laughter.

With a now total lack of surprise, Friday followed on, and this - I have to say - was the week's main event for me. Dead Can Dance's only UK date of this tour, at the Royal Albert Hall. I had waited around 15 years for this gig. DCD have been one of my favourite bands for years, but I finally booked tickets to see them on the tour following their 1996 album 'Spiritchaser'. Immediately, and no doubt just to spite me, they cancelled the gig and promptly split up. Then, when their reunion shows came round in 2005, I couldn't go to those gigs either. I really thought I'd never EVER see them.

Suddenly, out of nowhere - and no doubt just to cheer me up - they reformed AGAIN. This time it was for a new album and tour. (This picture is from the London show, from DCD's own Facebook page - Brendan Perry - er, left - and Lisa Gerrard.)

Dead Can Dance are perhaps a classic example of the 'creative marriage', with all the telepathic sympathy and understanding - and simmering tensions and differences - that implies. They began as a romantic couple but the band in its first life still outlasted the relationship. Each time operations ceased, the break was apparently due to an almighty barney. They do seem to embody the cliche, though, that whatever bond they share, it's still unbreakably solid, and clearly demands that they eventually come back to collaborate again.

Part of the difficulty, though, must lie in the fact that they are poles apart creatively. This is band that stays together due to 'musical differences'. For those of you unfamiliar with DCD, they are often lumped in with goth or post-punk due to their very early tracks (and being on 4AD can only have encouraged that) but within an album or two they were incorporating world and early music into their sound until they arrived in some kind of separate genre that no-one really thought existed. And within their own rather wide remit (Medieval dances? Check! Scott Walker-style ballads? Yep! Persian laments? Natch) ... they began to move further adrift from each other. A relatively early record, 'Within the Realm of a Dying Sun', had them taking charge of a side each. (The arrival of CD must've presented a problem. Another fight, no doubt... 'I want the side with the music on!' etc..)

To simplify to a ridiculous extent, Lisa is the dramatic one - a voice of operatic range and quality but with a kind of sensual control that's all her own - she is the avant-garde improviser, and absorber of exotic 'world rhythms'. Brendan is more song-orientated and has a rich boom of a voice well-suited to hypnotic, nagging ballads. When they work together, though, Lisa's material gets Brendaned, and vice versa, each lifting the other's material. One of the crucial joys of all the DCD albums - including the terrific new one, 'Anastasis' - is coming across the scattered moments when they sing together, exact compass points where their two directions meet.

If their Facebook page is anything to go by, they are having a whale of a time on tour. And that seemed to be borne out on stage. Gerrard is without doubt a 'diva' - but in the best sense, positively regal, utterly serene, looking spectacular and at every moment she isn't actually singing, she smiles affectionately and delightedly at the audience (who are showing their love back by, in general, going bananas). Even better, she blows kisses towards the end, which is exactly the kind of thing you want from someone you don't know but you're nuts about. Perry is not as demonstrative, but the admiring looks he gives Gerrard when she's in full flight, and the smiles they exchange every now and then suggest that at least on this particular evening they weren't flinging hammered dulcimers at each other before the opening number.

As the sound reverberated around the hall, every song felt like being enveloped in a warm glow. The band - all keyboards or percussion - were modest but propulsive, driving each hypnotic number along without eclipsing the two stars. I was fully aware that even as they struck up my favourite DCD song ('Rakim') I couldn't quite believe I was really seeing them live at last. An enterprising soul has already put the track on YouTube, so please have a listen for yourself (below). It contains at least two heart-melting moments for me - three and a half minutes or so in, when Gerrard starts the chant, and then the point a little later when Perry sings the outro over it. An absolutely unforgettable evening.

Thursday 18 October 2012

Celebrate Good Times (Bad Times)

Last night, Mrs Specs and I went to the cinema to see Led Zeppelin. Some of you may be aware that, in typical 'lumbering behemoth' style, Team Zep have finally got round to releasing a live album and concert film of the legendary reunion gig they played at the O2 in 2007. (The event was arranged as a tribute to Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records - but inevitably, 99.99% of the focus was on the headliners.)

The CD and DVD, both called 'Celebration Day', are out in November, but advance screenings of the film have been lined up at various local picture houses, including one just down the road from us. So, faster than you could say, 'Ooooh yeeeahh mama, ain't no denyin' etc', I booked tickets. Stairway to Heaven (or Row K, to be more precise), pictured below.

In many ways, the film is a masterclass in simplicity. There's no build-up or epilogue, no pesky bits of documentary inserts, no backstage interview or even candid out-takes. Once your eyes adjust to the screen, there appears to be ancient footage of the band playing back, suspended in darkness; then you realise that this is an intro visual projected on-stage at the O2. Then - bang! - they're on.

Much was made at the time of how the band seemed to treat this a bit like a club gig. The O2 stage is roughly the size of the universe (ish) but they stick very close to each other, gathering supportively in front of the drum kit and beaming with encouragement at Jason Bonham - son of their late drummer John and for one night only, taking his place. (Jason does a fine job - it's unlikely that any drummer alive could emulate Bonham Snr's power, but the new JB has clearly been playing these parts all his life. He nails the precision and technicality, and sits happily high in the mix. Any potential 'he's not his dad'-style carping can also be laid to rest just by seeing, close up, the teary excitement in his eyes - who could begrudge him this experience? Especially when he's obviously so bloody good.) When they're not grinning in Jason's direction, they're darting smiles and knowing glances at each other, obviously having a fantastic time. What's easy to notice now, of course, is how well this whole approach lends itself to the film, with many shots able to contain at least three of them at once and make sure we are voyeurs when they make eye contact.

The 'mature' Led Zeppelin are, collectively, an extraordinary sight. I used to wonder why old concert clips of Jimmy Page showed a man literally soaked from head to toe in sweat. Now I know. He began the concert in a shirt, waistcoat and long overcoat. Someone could've taken him to one side and said, 'You know, you probably won't need all those layers, Jimmy. The heating's on, and everything.'

Also, Page has the most dizzying repertoire of variations on the 'guitar face' that I have ever encountered. (I did wonder if this experience would prove as traumatic as seeing the Rolling Stones 'Shine a Light' concert film at IMAX, where every on-screen wrinkle was the size of the Grand Canyon. Fortunately not.) But for each wailing note of each solo, each razor-sharp turn in every riff, Page would also pull a gurn of such complexity, I thought he might be half-man, half-camel. There were times when it looked like his face, by itself, had entered zero-gravity.

Amusing though this was, the music nerd in me did have time to be taken aback by Page's playing. One of the pleasures, for me, of Zeppelin's records is their excess - dense with overdubs, a thick stew of a sound. Here, though, you can only hear one guitar line and it's fine. Does the job. No gaps. Page clearly isn't playing 'everything', but he's worked out how to suggest that he is. Spellbinding, even if there's the very real fear that he'll perspire onto something electrical and short himself out.

By contrast, Robert Plant may have been bitten by a radioactive lion in his youth, but here he is lean and unruffled, prowling the stage, throwing a few well-timed shapes and most importantly, giving a terrific vocal performance. Again, he can't do what his younger self did on the records. In fact, his younger self couldn't always do it (for example, they speeded up the vocals on the original 'Song Remains the Same'). But he's now a performer of such vast experience that he simply, subtly changed the pitch or melody where appropriate without ever undermining or departing too far from the fabric of the song.

If Plant is calm and imperious, John Paul Jones - the band's quiet genius - sticks mainly to two facial expressions (delight and concentration) and just gets on with proving why he was and is so essential to the group. How can there be such a talented bassist - whose funky and catchy parts provide a kind of liquid surface for Page to lurch all over - who can then get behind a keyboard and play so well that you forget the fact that for those numbers, there's no bass at all?

The set list was clever. Most of the big tunes, but not quite all (wasn't expecting 'When the Levee Breaks' - apparently that's impossible to play - but missed 'Heartbreaker') ... at least one monumental surprise ('In My Time of Dying'!!) and a song they never played live at all first time round ('For Your Life'). As a result, everyone was thrilled and pleased.

Well, I say everyone. One of the weirdest things about this whole experience was the audience. No surprise that they were quite easy to spot (instead of looking for our screen number on the ticket, we could just follow the chaps with the long grey hair). But once in there, everyone was on 'gig' rather than 'film' behaviour. People clapped between songs - quite nice, actually. Less nice was the near-ruckus in the corner where one bloke asked another to stop talking, only to be met with a torrent of intimidating abuse at top volume. Add to that the well-refreshed woman a few rows down 'singing along' tunelessly at every opportunity, waving her arms around, and on a couple of occasions, standing up to dance, much to the chagrin of the poor sod behind her. Fortunately, she was accompanied, so her sheepish other half could pull her back down into her seat before she caused another scrap. And a few seats along from her, someone was filming bits of the, er, filmed gig on the screen. What's the matter with these people?! It's coming out on DVD in a few weeks! For a few, maudlin minutes, I felt that everyone in my town was an idiot. Out of 200 or so people, who'd all gone to the trouble of tracking down a local Led Zep screening, we had, say, 10 people - an unacceptably high percentage - who felt that they were so important that it didn't matter if their way of enjoying themselves spoilt things for others. That said, I soon got over it. I was watching an almighty film. I focused on the screen, and the music, and tuned the miscreants out.

Should Zeppelin have ridden the wave of interest generated by this gig and toured? No. I think it was Plant who ruled it out (I might have done myself if I'd been on the point of touring with Alison Krauss) but with the blessing of hindsight, he had his head screwed on. This was perfect. Any more would have diluted the triumph and amplified the disappointment. It is sad in some ways that Page seems to be rather trapped by the band's legacy, whereas Plant in particular has just got stuck into new projects and collaborated widely. (This seems to happen sometimes when a band collapses - the 'musical' one is stranded without the frontman/woman ... whereas the muse in question goes off to a spectacularly varied solo career. In my generation, I think this might be the case with Marr/Morrissey post-Smiths as well... Discuss!)

But 'Celebration Day' must be the kind of absolute pinnacle that any great band would want to leave as their epitaph. See it on a big screen if you can... but I confess - I'm already looking forward to another viewing on the laptop with headphones. I can always get Mrs Specs to start yelling or wave her arms around in the middle distance if I feel like recreating the cinema experience.

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Tallis in Northumberland

Came back - reluctantly - from our hols in Northumberland at the weekend. One of our very favourite parts of the world, and it was still the most gloriously relaxing and recharging of fortnights, despite the weather being a little 'brusque' at times. (We weren't a million miles from Morpeth, one of the flooded areas that made it onto TV, but comfortably far enough, thank heavens.)

I hope to blog at some point about the amazing walks, castles, coasts and the like (this will depend on when I get my photos sorted, I suspect) but perhaps inevitably, I've ended up bursting to tell you about something 'arty'.

We used one of the wetter days to head into Newcastle. First we headed to the still-shiny arts complex the Sage for breakfast. (Its cafe affords such a glorious sausage sandwich, I think in honour the whole  venue should be renamed either the Sausage - or for grammar-hostile typographical larks, the SauSage - or for arched-eyebrow obliqueness, perhaps the Sage & Onion - BUT I DIGRESS.)

A short hop along the bank of the Tyne is the BALTIC contemporary art gallery. (In the photo you can see in the middle distance the new footbridge. The building on the immediate right is BALTIC. The cocoon-style building on the near right is the Sage.) A poor - but easy - comparison in London might be Tate Modern, in that BALTIC also resides in a beautifully re-purposed industrial shell, but BALTIC is a bit younger in both feel and actual age, and - with only temporary exhibitions - seems to be moving faster.

We were going there to satisfy our curiosity about a piece of sound art. Obviously, there are certain areas of 'sound art' - like records and concerts - that I have been immersed in for decades. But audio installations - noise made for the gallery rather than the gig - have mostly eluded me, despite studying the pages near the back of Wire magazine with a furrowed yet curious brow.

The installation is by Janet Cardiff. It's called 'The Forty Part Motet', and at face value, is simply a playback of the late 16th-century choral work 'Spem in alium' by Thomas Tallis. The motet itself is unceasingly spectacular. It requires 40 voices (in eight groups of five) and the piece passes between the mini-choirs, building up then ebbing away, with all 40 singers coming together at a few key points during proceedings for maximum impact. It's an incredible achievement already, before some Modern Art Person got their hands on it. What gives, etc?

Cardiff's idea feels like one of those notions that is now obvious, but only because someone has conveniently already thought of it. When you walk into the gallery, all you see is a minimalist hi-fi enthusiast's nirvana - a totally blank white room, with forty speakers in a big circle. Except it isn't quite a circle - if you looked down from above, it would be an octagon, with each of its eight sides a line of five speakers. Each speaker plays back one voice. If you manage to enter the room at the right time (we did - yay!) you hear the choir chatting to each other before starting to sing. Nothing quite prepares you for when they do.

This really is surround sound. The music travels from in front of you to behind you, or seems to glide around the circle as if music really could be passed like a gift from one person to another. Some people stay fixed to the middle of the circle, or as near as they can get; others are constantly on the move. Most of us did a bit of both. At one point, I parked myself by a silent quintet and waited for my chosen choir to get their turn; the sudden rush of sound physically moved me and I shuffled into the centre to recover.

(A brief point just to say how astounding I think the technical achievement is, too. My hearing might not be perfect after God knows how many noisy gigs and pairs of mega-bass headphones, but I could hear more or less no bleed between the speakers. Each one really did seem to broadcast just one singer.)

Cardiff describes how people in a choir all hear their own unique mix of any piece they sing, and that she tried with this work to give that experience to the audience. If anything, she has enhanced this idea, because we're not rooted to the spot, and we can 'sample' different positions during the motet just by wandering about the circle. I started thinking even at the time - with Tallis's notes washing around my ears - that everyone has a unique reaction to any bit of art. You look at a painting or sculpture, and the person next to you sees their own individual version of what you see. But Cardiff has created something which is absolutely different for everyone at the point of experience. No-one can replicate the version of this I heard.

There are infinite ways to stand, to move, to listen.

(We arrived towards the end of the run, and the installation is only at BALTIC for a few more days, to 14 October. If you ever get the chance to see/hear this, in Newcastle or anywhere else, please go. I've reproduced the photo from the BALTIC site here so you can see what it was like. The image is copyrighted to Colin Davison - brilliant picture. Link to the full site here.)

Tuesday 18 September 2012

Last Two Nights of the Proms

A week or so late, but at last I'm managing to write up my 'report' on the Big Finale, which for Mrs Specs and I, was spread across two nights. The Last Night of the Proms was, as usual, on the Saturday - but we had been unable to resist the Prom on the Friday night before.

In some ways, the Penultimate Night of the Proms was very modestly programmed but performed by giants: the mighty Vienna Philharmonic (conducted by Bernard Haitink) tackling two pieces, one each side of the interval. Haydn's 'London' Symphony, then Richard 'not the waltz bloke' Strauss's Alpine Symphony.

I hadn't heard the Haydn before. It was his last symphony - only his 104th, the slacker - but it's hard to imagine a less valedictory work. Possibly because he spent the 14 years remaining to him on other, perhaps weightier stuff - oratarios and masses, it would appear, but with a light sprinkling of chamber music to cleanse the palate.

It's tempting - if no doubt massively simplistic, but hey! that's my habitat - to think that he might have given up on the symphonies simply because he knew this one was perfection. It sounds 'easy', because it is lovely. That's not to say it is light, or minor - rather that it is not aiming to challenge or provoke. It wants to make you smile. Admittedly, there is a bit of 'Adagio' at the start, but it's not long before Haydn goes 'Ha! Got you there!' and ups the pace to a happily melodic dance pace, reaching its zenith in the Minuet & Trio. A half-hour of pure pleasure.

The Alpine Symphony - WARNING, NOVICES! Not even a symphony! - is in fact a 'tone-poem', in other words, the music throughout is specifically designed to evoke something real-world or visual. Now - I love everything I've ever heard by R Strauss, so I'm not really impartial here. If you like the soprano voice, seek out his 'Four Last Songs' - you will melt like an ice lolly, in a furnace, dangling inside a volcano, on the sun. Or the famous theme from 2001 - that's RS as well ('Also Sprach Zarathustra').

The Alpine Symphony lasts a full 50 mins with no pauses for breath, although Strauss itemised the individual sections of the piece carefully. It depicts a day in the mountains and glacier from sunrise to sundown, and even 'tells a story' of a tricky expedition where the climbers reach a summit then leg it down as a storm kicks off. The whole thing is tremendously captivating and exciting, but trust me - if you get the chance to see an orchestra 'do a storm', take it. The percussion guys at the back were larging it with actual SHEET METAL in their arsenal for some proper thunder and lightning action. It's always refreshing to see classical players behaving with the same in-your-face gusto that you'd expect at other types of gig. Life-affirming.

(And they went down a, er, storm, too - so much so that the whole orchestra encored, with a piece by Johann 'yes! the waltz guy!' Strauss. Slightly odd but very delicate after the Alpine tour de force. Haitink is adored by the Proms crowd - a delicate figure himself now, but all the energy clearly goes into the conducting.)

So - to the Last Night itself. I think there's actually a bit less to say about this, partly because if you're interested in the Proms at all, you probably know what the last half-hour is always like. We bought into it completely. We had flags. We had a HAT. Okay, there were two of us, so one hat was obviously a bit limited in scope, but Mrs Specs made up for it with antennae with crowns on.

And there were really three of us, because our classical music guru David was also there (a few rows along) and his total, all-consuming love of the occasion was infectious. (David loves the Proms so much, I think he feels the same way about Proms the way I do about food - except that David would go to more than three square Proms a day if he could.) We wondered if the climax of the concert would 'get to us' emotionally - would we tear up at 'Jerusalem', or the anthem? Answer: no, because the main atmosphere at the Last Night is 'Huge Party'. Everyone is just larking about. With an eye on bar profits, I can only assume, the Hall opens a good 1.5 hours before the start time (for other Proms, it's much closer to 45 minutes) so a large percentage of the attendees are 'adequately refreshed' and, in a good way, it shows.

Which makes the rest of the concert all the more interesting. It's clearly programmed for gnat-like attention spans, and that's not a criticism. This Prom has its sights on revellers and casual TV viewers, and if you don't like one thing, something else will be along in a minute. It's like one of those 'Only Classical Album You Will Ever Need' compilations, except that it's live, and rather excitingly off-piste. Yes, we had evergreens 'Nessun Dorma' and Bruch's first Violin Concerto (and both 'stars' of the night, tenor Joseph Calleja and violinist Nicola Benedetti were brilliant value) - but I was also treated to unfamiliar (to me) Shostakovich, Massenet and Dvorak. In particular, there was a charming duet between violin and voice by Leoncavallo, called 'Mattinata'.

And the whole evening kicked off with a brand new work by Mark Simpson called 'sparks', seemingly included just for its Mrs-Specs-scaring qualities (although I rather enjoyed it).

This is an occasion so utterly steeped in tradition that you could easily imagine it wading through a quagmire of Empire-era pea-soup-thick treacle. This year in particular, some of our successful Olympians made a cameo-appearance to an understandably wild reception. But the Last Night also succeeds in the rather less predictable aim of sneaking some relatively unusual spice in with the sugar. It definitely moved me. But for two-thirds of the running time, it jangled my brain more than my heart.