Monday 26 February 2018

Across the elements: 'The Kick Inside' play the songs of Kate Bush

It's hard to overstate what Kate Bush's music means to me - she is definitely one of my 'touchstone' artists, one of the cherished few who Can Do No Wrong. But as so often with these things, it's about more than the records themselves; it's to do with age, time and memory. Her career is so oddly shaped. The songs poured out of her in her youth, filling three brilliant albums between 1978 and 1980. But the fourth record, 'The Dreaming', a collection of searingly strange masterpieces, like 10 pieces of audio-only performance art, took until 1982 - and seemed to bring on a kind of creative exile.

I started listening as a near-teenager when 'Hounds of Love' came out three years later. These gradually-increasing gaps between albums were not as common then as they are now. For many listeners, KB had essentially disappeared, and this was a triumphant 'comeback'. Archive shows these days give you the impression that she was more or less a regular on programmes like Terry Wogan's chat show, staging each new single like a miniature play. 'The Whole Story' - an odd, all-too-brief hits collection - was released to take advantage of this imperial phase: so this new fan suddenly had a way into all the previous albums, too. Obviously, it was like entering another universe: many people will readily agree that KB's music is original, otherworldly; but for a boy grappling with puberty, it was also a window into the feminine, a kind of delicate power that I could barely make sense of at the time, but addictive, welcoming and beautiful.

And then, the silences. When you're 12, a four-year wait for an album is a lifetime. 'The Sensual World' arrived when I was 16, 'The Red Shoes' when I was 20. For me, the appearance of a Kate Bush album was like the monolith from '2001' turning up in HMV (and invariably, had as profound an effect). Every different record found me as a different person. And these absences made the heart grow oh-so-fonder. When I was a student, I even wrote a song about falling in love with Kate Bush, which - with a student's innate grasp of subtlety and nuance - was called 'Falling in Love with Kate Bush'.

Why go into all this? Because of a wonderful debut concert I had the pleasure of attending yesterday evening, by 'The Kick Inside' - a duo who, in their own words, 'celebrate Kate Bush's early career'. Not everything is quite as it seems, as 'The Kick Inside' is in fact an alter-ego of one of my favourite bands, Raf and O. (I wrote about their most recent, superb album 'Portal' here.) In their normal incarnation, the gossamer mix of Raf's voice and guitar, and 'O's drums, phased, treated and suffused until the songs sound unearthly yet intimate, give the impression that you are listening in on music that might be from another dimension. Utterly human, but thrillingly unfamiliar, off-kilter, evolved. The realisation struck me that Raf and O's music has a similar effect on me now that KB's albums did then: glimpses into the unknown followed by immersion in a unique sound.

So, when I heard that Raf and O were creating a Kate Bush side-project, it already felt like a perfect fit - in particular, who better than Raf to negotiate the swoons and swoops of those highwire melodies? The format for 'The Kick Inside' is, on the surface, more conventional: Raf, seated, sings at the electric piano and 'O' plays the double bass on most, but not all, the numbers. The opening 'The Man with the Child in his Eyes', performed by Raf solo, seems to set out their stall: even the most piano-led KB tracks had embellishments, but this was shorn of any distraction, a pure, commanding rendition. Just as 'Raf-as-Kate' sports a look that suggests KB without any hint of costume or fancy dress, so the vocals never become an imitation or pastiche: it's simply that Raf's voice is so well-suited to the songs.

The project also seems to have sprung to life fully-formed, with arrangements that sound like much more than the sum of their parts. You would think the pair had been doing this for years. Tunes like 'Them Heavy People', 'Hammer Horror' or 'Babooshka' have all the bounce and snap of the originals thanks to 'O's agile, percussive basslines snaking their way around Raf's rhythmic piano. It's a testament to both Raf and 'O's musicianship in finding the exact pieces of the jigsaw to ensure nothing is missing - and to the indestructibility of the songs themselves.

As an overall performance, it was one of the most carefully and effectively put together sets I have seen for a long time. When I read that phrase 'early career', I initially thought we would hear material from the first two or three albums. This seemed sensible given the modest set-up, and also a nice incidental complement to the fact that KB played no material from that far back in her remarkable 2014 run of live shows. For the first half of the evening, this proved to be the case - although the last song of 'part 1' dropped some intriguing hints. 'Breathing', a song imagining a poisonous nuclear winter, originally featured an ambient, eerie middle section, which here, the duo tackle with an abstract instrumental passage that fits the bill perfectly.

And after a breather, they were back, and a short while into the second set, conjured up some next-level magic. 'Sat in Your Lap', from 'The Dreaming'. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. The twisted 'Take 5' riff, the noisy, jerky, stop-start rhythm - it was all there. Immediately after this, we were treated to 'Running up That Hill', with 'O' strumming the bass strings to suggest the thunderous drums, Raf somehow providing almost robotic chiming chords to fill in the sound and deliver an astounding vocal as well.

I was in raptures to hear my favourite KB song, 'Suspended in Gaffa' (another 'Dreaming' selection) brought to such lovingly intricate life - and I don't think any of us were expecting a finale of 'Cloudbusting': 'O' switching to a single drum, the electric piano under Raf's hands finding the circular string riff. In all the duo's interpretations of these later, more ambitious and certainly more technology-heavy Kate Bush tracks - nothing was missed. It wasn't even that I spent the gig wondering quite how they were doing it (although I did afterwards!) - I had almost stopped noticing. It seemed that the songs were just as happy existing like this, every idea present and correct, every corner explored and feature deployed, but in this stripped-down, intense form. 

The clues were already there in 'The Man with the Child in his Eyes'. Already so expert in suggesting parallel musical worlds with their own music, Raf and O as 'The Kick Inside' show us another alternative reality: where Kate Bush still wrote all those spectacular songs, but was never seduced by technology, submerged in band arrangements or occasionally dated production, perhaps never even became a perfectionist, or near-recluse. In this other dimension, she never stayed away from the stage for three decades - instead, she's out there, performing for the love of it, seeing the effect the sheer immediacy of her words and music has on the audience. Hearing this spellbinding show, I re-connected with all those memories I mentioned at the start of this post, and this made them into something new: a collision of past and present, thanks to 'The Kick Inside' sounding so like KB on the one hand, yet so like themselves on the other. I can't wait to experience it again.


You can read more about 'The Kick Inside' on their website here - and go here to listen to a session they recorded for Resonance FM.

Sunday 18 February 2018

Be still my beating heart: Barb Jungr and John McDaniel perform Sting

Yet again I have the pleasure of writing about Barb Jungr, after seeing her perform her latest collaboration with John McDaniel, ‘Float Like A Butterfly’, at the Pizza Express jazz venue The Pheasantry last night.

A brief re-cap: ‘jazz singer’ is possibly the closest short description of what Barb J does, but it’s nowhere near comprehensive enough. She's a gifted writer herself, but is perhaps best known as one our finest interpreters of song - especially those written by men, it seems. I think this may be because her ability to be robust and tender all at once is exactly what’s needed to find the chink in the chaps’ suits of armour. On justly-lauded recordings that focus on Dylan and, latterly, Cohen songs in particular, she dissects the bodies of work of these most inscrutable artists, performing a kind of open heart surgery on them, giving them new life. To see her live is to witness a masterclass of songcraft, storytelling - even stand-up. It's always struck me that - God forbid - if she ever fancied a break from singing, she could tour a spoken-word show and still hold the audience in the palm of her hand.

Her latest collaborator is musical director, producer, composer and - crucially for our purposes - frighteningly-accomplished arranger and pianist John McDaniel. They make a brilliant pairing, because what might at first seem like a case of 'opposites attract' - Barb J can be cheeky, outrageous, controversial and even confrontational, while John McD seems the model of unruffled urbanity at the keys - soon coalesces into something more intricate and complex, as their styles mesh into something uniquely affecting and compelling. She draws out his inner 'frontman'; he gives her the foundation to soar. (Onstage, she jokes that after expecting his professionalism to rub off on her, he's ended up adopting her bad habits!)

Previously, the duo created a set and accompanying CD of Beatles interpretations - which I wrote about at the time - but this new project is perhaps more left-field (of gold): the songs of Sting. (Hence the show's title.) In a brilliant introduction, BJ undercuts any potential eyebrow-raising by suggesting upfront people's reasons for not taking Sting seriously: daft name; too successful by half; and inevitably, the tantric sex. Personally, I could add more. My prejudice, I know, but as someone who listens freely across genres and quite likes it when musicians mix it up, I wish his foray into lute music hadn't felt quite so 'hobbyist'. And there's the pretentiousness: the sleeve-notes of '...Nothing Like The Sun' (even those three dots before the title! Aaargh!) are a high watermark of the genre - once read, never forgotten.

But - as BJ goes on to point out - look at his track record. A 40-odd year career, with way more than its fair share of unforgettable songs. And I could identify with this fannish feeling, too: I absolutely adored the Police, and I particularly cherish those first two Sting solo albums. They somehow combined his old band's 70s-into-80s pop nous with the restless feeling of a musician who wanted to stretch out a bit but couldn't quite settle on where, or how. I think this is how you end up with a debut referencing blue turtles in the title, and including bursts of late-night jazz, reggae and Prokofiev - so the world, buying it by the truckload, at the same time mutters, 'Oh come on, mate.'

But I also recalled certain Sting-related things I'd read - for example, the Police were such adept and versatile musicians that there are no guests at all - whatever the instruments used - on any of their albums. Or the fact that they performed on their reunion tour (still one of the most memorable gigs of my life) as a three-piece: stripped of any production mush, the songs were indestructible, in that sparse a format, in stadiums.

(John McDaniel, Barb Jungr: photo from BJ's website by Isaak Berliner)

So it starts to become clear how two consummate reinventors of seemingly familiar music would be drawn to the Sting catalogue, identifying some of its most compelling highlights, drawing them out and nailing them down. As soon as the show started, it was obviously so special that - in the midst of my enjoyment - I almost started to worry that I wouldn't remember all of the great moments, the touches of genius that decorated every number.

I think the show differed slightly in 'character' from the Beatles evening, because those songs are already worshipped - if anything, they were re-examining the sacred. Here, you could detect a sense of missionary zeal as if aware that for some listeners, they would be making a case for the material. As such, they were a Formidable Unit. It's hard to imagine two performers more determinedly in sync. Immaculate two-part harmonies, sometimes sustained for virtually entire songs, inventively exploiting her deeper, fuller timbre against his lighter tones. Moments where BJ would embellish the basic tune - one I keep thinking about is the 'Confront your enemies, avoid them when you can' lyric from 'Englishman in New York', where on 'avoid' she found something else in the melody, and JMcD instantly mirrored it in his accompaniment, the songs seemingly effortlessly wrapping themselves around his fingers.

The arrangements were ceaselessly arresting. 'King of Pain', in its Police format, is a rigid, numbed song, and here both performers sang the tune with less predictable rhythms, pushing against the steady accompaniment and making it feel even more wracked. 'Roxanne' became a demonstration of the possibilities of serious cabaret... the pair first dialling the original's pop sheen down into the lament its subject matter merits, then - just when you think it couldn't travel any further - Barb J tells a story from her youth that makes a perfect, poignant fit. John McD continues playing - surely one of the hardest musical tasks in the word, to accompany someone who is simply speaking, without unbalancing the mood or masking the voice. With split-second timing, they break back into the song as if connected telepathically. 'Don't Stand So Close To Me' was breathtakingly sinister, the verse building and building the tension until the muted, repeated line of the closing chorus (under dim lights) suggests anything from resignation to psychosis.

On a personal note, I have to say that in places it was as if the duo had reached into my head and plucked out my favourite Sting songs. 'Moon Over Bourbon Street' becomes something definitively great, here performed by one of the finest vocalists we have, capturing the undead narrator's internal conflict, resignation, despair and ennui. And - in case you thought it was all doom and gloom - I was overjoyed beyond measure when they launched into 'Fortress Around Your Heart', a joyous, celebratory rendition that lifted the Pheasantry's basement ceiling a good few inches.

It was a magnificent evening. I think it's safe to say that everyone there left on a colossal high. It made me realise that firstly, there isn't anything these two cannot do. Secondly, and fittingly, it reminded me that this is a songwriter that has always aimed - at the risk of seeming too clever by half, on occasion - to reach both the brain and the heart together. In the care of this duo, however, he more than succeeded.

Some excellent news to end with - the CD of this show is on its way, scheduled for a June release, with the promise of more gigs to accompany it. I will shout more loudly about these on here (and on Twitter, too) nearer the time. In the meantime, you can keep track of Barb Jungr's live dates - and explore her many and varied other achievements - on her website, here.

Sunday 11 February 2018

Dark star

As regular visitors here will know, I also use this blog as an archive for my 'other' hobby - photography, especially portraiture. I'm fortunate to have a group of friends who are willing 'victims' (or, as I prefer to call them, 'subjects'), and I find collaborating with them a constant source of inspiration. My friend Al is also a keen camera-wielder (her street photography is, in my view, breathtakingly sharp) and always brings ideas and art-direction nous to the enterprise.

After taking some eerie, slightly surreal outdoor shots in the past, we wanted to see if we could push the atmosphere further with the barest minimum of visual clutter. So here, we used an expanse of off-white wall, a largely black wardrobe, a few props, a lot of hair and a veritable frenzy of filters to see what we could come up with. I hope you enjoy the portraits.