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.)