Wednesday 30 January 2013

Jane Birkin performs The Songs Of Serge

Review: Jane Birkin performs The Songs Of Serge Gainsbourg and showing of film "Souvenirs Of Serge"

Arches, Glasgow 29.1.2013

This evening was part of the Glasgow Film Festival. The festival which started 8 years ago, this year is bigger than ever with over 300 screenings and has several strands within it. This was part of the "Glasgow Music and Film Festival" strand.

It was difficult to work out from the wee paragraph advertising it in the programme what shape this evening would take. Jane Birkin introducing the UK premiere of her 40 minute documentary, Souvenirs of Serge, and then singing with a band to "perform the songs of Serge". Serge Gainsbourg was a bit before my time, but years ago I had bought a couple his cds which were, to say the least, varied. Some songs jazzy, some classic chansons, then some reggae. He is the archetypal heavy smoking, hard drinking, tortured genius which the French are very good at producing and Jane Birkin was his "elusive muse and partner". Serge was an artist, poet, composer, singer, songwriter, actor and always a controversial figure (eg his interjection here to Whitney Houston). I didn't know much about him until I saw the French film of his life "Gainsbourg" last year, which I found witty and entertaining. Jane Birkin I knew even less about. Apparently she has a Hermes bag named after her. I knew that she and the older Serge were lovers, that she sang the infamous song "Je t' non plus" that he had written for his then lover, Bridgitte Bardot, and that they had a daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg (whose album 5:55 is excellent, if you don't already own it, go buy it now). Anyway I was intrigued and so were many others as the Arches venue was a sell out.

As we took our seats the film started, a collection of home movies of Serge, a young Jane Birkin and their families at play, on holiday, walking the dog. Very relaxed, very cool, very private, with Jane Birkin giving a commentary of where they were and what they were up to. When the screen was pushed aside it was initially strange to see the girl on screen in her early twenties come on stage as a 66 year old woman, still slim and elegant, with a tousled mop of dyed brown hair and the same recognisable broad, toothy smile. She was supported by a jazzy four-piece of Japanese musicians; pianist, violin, drummer and muted trumpet, giving a jazzy backing to her gentle voice. She sang for over about 1 hour 40 minutes, from early songs such as 'Les Amours Perdues' to songs he wrote in his last months. A highlight was 'Comic Strip' with Jane Birkin singing Serge's part and the Japanese violinist emerging from the back of the hall to provide the "Shebam, Pow, Blop, Weee". She broke off singing to tell us about their lovely dinner in Cafe Gandolfi the night before (haggis) and their meal this evening across the road in Sloans where she was tickled by a bunch of old Glaswegian women blowing her a kiss earlier. I really hope she tried the Scotch pie, chunky chips and beans. She wandered through the crowd singing at times and was open, engaging and charming throughout. I'd happily have paid to watch her musicians alone as they were excellent throughout. She finished her encore with a rendition of a ska version of 'La Gadoue' (originally a hit for Petula Clark) and seemed to enjoy herself on stage and thanked the audience for giving her "the courage" to head to London to play there next.

I'm off to get a couple more Serge Gainsbourg cds I reckon. Jane Birkin felt "Histoire de Melody Nelson" and "The Man With the Cabbage Head" were his best, so that seems as good a place to start as any.

Thursday 24 January 2013

Cowboy Junkies, Celtic Connections 2013

Review - Cowboy Junkies, Kelvingrove Art Gallery, Celtic Connections, Glasgow January 23rd 2013.

I bought a very random selection of tickets this year for Celtic Connections, which has a great knack of turning up surprisingly random gigs. However, when I saw that Cowboy Junkies were playing I was genuinely and nostalgically excited. It is 25 years now since they brought out Trinity Session, their second album. It is often cited as the forerunner of all the stuff, with its lo-fi sound and Margo Timmins's languid singing. When I was in the mood for it I'd have many a night of playing that album over and over, maybe alternating with kd lang's "Absolute Torch and Twang" and 10,000 Maniacs, "Hope Chest". Their "Sweet Jane" was the one that I knew, long before I heard of The Velvet Underground.

Kelvingrove Art Gallery dressed up for a gig
The venue for this gig was intriguing, the main hall at Kelvingrove Art Gallery. I've heard baroque music here, choral music and the big organ of a Sunday. The echoey acoustics work brilliantly for those things. I was less sure if this would be the case for amplified electric guitars. First up was John Murry. He looked like a man who'd be happier playing in a darkened bar than the rather to the stilted, seated, middle-aged Celtic Connections audience. My fears about the acoustics were shown to be justified as soon as he started talking. His opening gambit of stating "I am not intoxicated!" was almost unintelligible and once he started playing the muddied acoustics did his confessional tunes no favours at all. About the only thing I understood after that was when he asked the audience "Why is there a Spitfire chasing an elephant?" which to be fair was a valid point. The atmosphere was pretty flat during his set, but he finally relaxed into by his last song and was chatty and relaxed at the merchandise stall. I'll buy his cd "Graceless Age" and try it again back home.

I was hoping that this had just been the traditional "don't give the support act much time for a sound check" thing and I had high hopes that Cowboy Junkies would temper their sound to the venue, after all the Trinity Session album had been recorded in a Toronto church.

A Canadian fan looks on from the side gallery
Although their more contemplative tempo worked better, they still struggled with the acoustics except when the bass player and drummer stood down and they did a few more acoustic numbers, such as Remnin Park. A lot of the set was made up from material from their "Nomad Series", 4 albums recorded over the past 2 years with common themes running through them. Late Night Radio and Damaged From The Start were stand out songs, whilst 3rd Crusade seemed to borrow and stretch a riff from "Play That Funky Music White Boy".

Cowboy Junkies on stage at Kelvingrove Art Gallery
They finished off with some of their earlier stuff including "Sweet Jane" and an excellent rendition of their "Blue Moon Revisited" and an encore of "Misguided Angel" confirming that Trinity Session stuff was what most of us had turned up to hear, and they ended with a Neil Young cover.
I enjoyed seeing them and she has a great and voice, but I am not sure if I'd pay to see another band play in Kelvingrove Art Galleries as the echeoy sound was entirely predictable and pretty disappointing.

Monday 21 January 2013

Getting Folky. Celtic Connections Begins

Review: Celtic Connections 2013, Scots In The Spanish Civil War

Glasgow's annual "folk, roots and world music" festival, Celtic Connections is up and running, now amazingly in its 19th outing. Unconnected with this but getting into the acoustic/ folky vibe I took up a friend's invite this week to come to her house for a "living room gig".
The idea is that you push your sofa to the back wall, squeeze in some friends for some nibbles and the band squeeze themselves into your bay window to provide the tunes. On this occasion the band were Ashton Lane playing their thing, two acoustic guitars and the voice provided by Esther. The music isn't really my usual thing but it's a great way to listen to live music, and the guitar playing in this instance was great to watch, particularly when one of them was Esther's dad, Graeme Duffin, once of Wet Wet Wet. Weird, eh?
After that I made a quick dash across to Mono to catch the tail end of Alasdair Roberts wee freebie gig launching his new album, A Wonder Working Stone, which is getting rave reviews.

That got my folky juices flowing in time for tonight's gig at the Mitchell Library. "Scots in the Spanish Civil War" was the name of the concert, based on the album that came out last year from Greentrax; "No Pasaran" (They Shall Not Pass). As a child my brother and me often sang along to Jarama Valley on the Laggan's old STUC album "I Am The Common Man", and even though it seems further removed in time now, it is a song that my kids all love to sing along to since I bought it again on CD recently.

The grandfather of a good friend of my parents died in Spain in the International Brigade. I can remember standing near her as the La Pasionaria statue was unveiled on the Clydeside. In my head I can therefore make a direct connection to those that left their homes and families to make a stand against Franco and Fascism. With the passing of the last Scottish veteran of the Spanish Civil War last year it is important that books like Daniel Gray's "Homage to Caledonia" and cds and concerts like this one commemorate these events and I was glad when my son was keen to come along to this concert with me. (If you haven't read Daniel Gray's book I can heartily recommend it, also his romp around small town Scotland "Stramash" is a great wee book).
Citizen Gray
The theatre at the Mitchell Library was full and the audience were clearly in a mood for joining in. The stage set up was interesting with the aforementioned Daniel Gray and Radio Scotland's Iain Anderson sat at wooden desks either side of the stage with a small lamp illuminating them like journalists in a 30s movie. They acted as narrators between the songs and poems, telling the stories of individuals deciding to leave home and join the International Brigade, their experiences there and of those left at home and ultimately, for many of them, their death or imprisonment. Several of the songs I already knew, but hearing them in this context often brought a lump to my throat. Also, my son got a lot out of the night being presented in this carefully shaped way, with the songs matching the story. The music was outstanding too, with a great mix of styles and ideas. There were eight or nine different groups of performers coming on and off stage to organise. Some old hands were there such as Alison McMorland and Geordie McIntyre and I won't be able to look at the "sleeping giant" of the Campsie Fells again after hearing their song "Another Valley". The Wakes a "Glasgow/Irish folk 'n' roll band" were excellent throughout, particularly their bodhran player. Gallo Rojo, an Edinburgh based group of Spanish and Scottish musicians were my son's favourites on the night with their lively "No Pasaran!". The Peatbog Soldiers is one of my favourite songs on the cd and it was fascinating to hear German trio Liederjan sing the German original version of this marching song. I had never before thought about the bravery of German International Brigade volunteers, who knew what fascism would do to Spain from their own experiences back home before they left everything behind to join this fight. It was a shame that Dick Gaughan was unable to be there due to illness as his heart-felt singing would have gone down a treat on this evening, but Arthur Johnstone stood in for him to lead off the mass singing of Internationale to end the first half and The Wakes sung Ewan MacColl's "Jamie Foyers" in his place. The evening ended with Iain Anderson reading Bob Cooney's poem "Hasta La Vista - Madrid!" and a massed singing of Bandiera Rossa, which was made more emphatic with the German and Spanish musicians singing the verses in their languages. With Arthur Johnstone getting the whole audience going with that and his earlier Jarama Valley. At the end of Bandiera Rossa I wanted to stand and sing the verse from the Soviet Airmen's Song that my brother and me used to finish it with when sung at parties.

This was a great night of music, of stories, of remembrance and of politics combining a lot of what Celtic Connections does so well. The whole complicated event ran like clockwork and had obviously been carefully planned and thought out and we had a really good night out.

Sunday 6 January 2013

Question: What Did You Do In East Lothian Today?

National Museum of Flight, East Fortune

National Mining Museum Scotland, Newtongrange

At this time of year you would expect a family day out in Scotland to require scarves, wellies and gloves but it was so mild today that we could have had a picnic without too much bother. So rather than a frosty walk up Conic Hill or suchlike we decided to head eastwards today to entertain the children. I'm not that old, at 42, but it does seem like everyday things from my youthful years are now appearing as museum pieces and "how we used to live" exhibits. Today we came across loads of examples of this.
Concorde, at The National Museum of Flight
Anyway we decided to head for the National Museum of Flight, at East Fortune in East Lothian. We hadn't been here for over 6 years, which wasn't long after the Concorde had arrived here and you had to book a time for "The Concorde Experience". Today it was a lot quieter and we were able to experience the Concorde at our leisure. Based at East Fortune airfield the museum covers several hangers filled with old aircraft, various Nissen Huts full of artifacts telling the history of the airfield during two World Wars and as a base for airships. Wandering about the airfield I was seeing it through fresh eyes today after my children did a school project recently which involved speaking to my gran about what she did during the war. She joined the WAAF, working on an anti-aircraft gun and her jolly tales, which I'd never heard before, of listening to the shrapnel hitting the roof of the Nissen Hut when she was trying to sleep made me see it today as more than a collection of rusting huts in an old field. I could now picture real people working in places like this.

First stop was Concorde, which is a beautiful piece of engineering, was a commercial aircraft until 12 years ago but is already a museum piece from a bygone age. Wandering through the cramped passenger area it is hard to imagine that this ever appeared luxurious despite the sleek image it had. After a run about some of the planes parked outside and the assault course we headed into the hangers to see the collections of military and commercial aircraft.

One wee exhibit which I liked was the remains of the engine from Rudolf Hess's plane from his crash-landing at Eaglesham (where Whitelee Windfarm is now) before he was imprisoned at Maryhill Barracks. That seems like proper history befitting a museum. The rest of the things here however seemed very recent. It is funny trying to explain the Cold War to my children, I had the same problem when we visited The Secret Bunker. But my wife and I were looking at the fighter planes and Harrier Jump Jets and trying to explain that when we were teenagers these things were flying over our heads every day. This was especially true for my wife living in Fife near Leuchers, or they were scaring the bejesus outta me and anyone else into walking in the Scottish countryside in the 80s as we all prepared for nuclear armageddon.

A Czech MiG jet
I have to admit that despite my peacenik nature, the MiG jet fighter and the Harrier were the coolest exhibits, and it is great that you can get so close up to them and see them so well. The Vulcan bomber sitting outside looks impressive too, but you read that it was previously carrying nuclear warheads and then was active in the Falklands War and you remember what job these things were designed for. It seemed this stuff was all around us when we were younger, but although we have rolling 24 hour news and British soldiers on active service  around the world just now, it somehow has become more abstract and "over there".

The children had a lot of fun in the interactive gallery, which had a lot of imaginative displays which, unusually for places like this, were all working.

I also liked seeing the parachute storeroom which wasn't open last time we were here, as the Singer sewing machine here reminded my wife that her granny spent a lot of time during the war making parachutes for the army. The other thing that caught my eye as being just recent was the Green Goddess fire engine, last seen by me on TV during the firemen's strike in 1979. It looks like some antique thing from ancient history rather than from the days of my youth. So, as a National Museum it did its job, telling the story of our lives and our families.
We had a lot of fun here, and the kids had a great time. We finished our visit off with aeroplane shaped shortbread biscuits in the canteen, then a rummage through the Airfix models in the museum shop (we couldn't find a Messerschmitt to engage in a dogfight with the spitfire hanging from my son's bedroom ceiling).
The Scottish Mining Museum
On the road back to Glasgow we stopped off at The National Mining Museum, Scotland at the site of Lady Victoria Colliery in Newtongrange. Through the conscious efforts of Margaret Thatcher's government this vast industry is now all but obliterated in Scotland. Most people in Scotland who aren't directly related to mining stock will find plenty of miners in their family tree if you dig deep enough. I've found lots of Ayrshire and Fife miners when I looked into my ancestors, with relatives able to recall tales of roof falls, accidents and Bevin Boys. My wife's grandfather spent over 50 years down pits in Fife. Visiting this museum is as close as we can get to the trip down into the Seafield pit he took her dad one day to show him what it was like down there (he hated it). Miners' Galas, coal lorries delivering fuel to our flat in the 70s, the 1984 Miners Strike. It is only there in museums and history books now.
The museum starts you off with 2 floors of exhibits on the history of coal mining in Scotland and the social history of coal miners.
You then start a self-directed guided tour of the pithead, with a wee audio thing to guide you. It has lots of interesting photos and information, but I hate these things where you turn up at a place and stand there ignoring it and stare at a wee photo, I'm quite happy looking these things up later or buying a book to get a bit more context. It just seems to detach you from the place you are in. It also makes it hard for children to absorb. "Shhh, shhhh. Hang on until I hear this....okay it says that we are in.....". Anyway I guess it is optional, so on the whole we did largely opt out, and I see that the tour can be downloaded as an app apparently, although searching the iTunes store today I couldn't find it.
The Winding Engine
At the Pithead you can walk about the massive winding engine, there are waggons of coal at the pithead, but the main shaft is obviously filled in. However there is a recreation of the descent down the pit tunnels to the coalface.
It is respectful to the old industry and interesting and educational but the whole place just feels a bit sterile, on too small a scale to recreate the vast size of these enterprises in their full vigour and the actual physical graft and danger involved.
The board with the miner's tags hung on it was one of the most evocative things there, the way of monitoring who was still to come up from below, but this was hanging about at the back of the video room without any label or information. There are interactive displays and a soft play area (which you have to pay for, which seems a bit mean as otherwise children get in for free). The shop also has a fascinating collection of books ranging from history to archives to personal memoirs of mining in Scotland.
There are other industrial museums across Scotland, the one at Summerlee in Coatbridge is a cracker and Almond Valley in Livingstone is good too. They work best when they tell the story of the people in the industry and you can put yourself in their shoes. To be fair we were rushing through the Mining Museum a bit before it closed, with three children who'd already had a morning of jet fighter planes, so we didn't get to read all the displays. It is a good collection with at times a ghostly absence of miners. A bit like Scotland I suppose.