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!