Friday 30 August 2013

David Byrne and St. Vincent, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

David Byrne's Talking Heads must surely have appealed to everyone who like me was 13 or 14 when "Road To Nowhere" was released. As well as the catchy tune, their use of these new-fangled video things was pretty unique and memorable. They were at their peak before I was actively buying records or going to concerts, so I was a Johnny-come-lately to David Byrne's output. I have though bought much of what he has been doing over the past 20 years, including stuff like his "Young Adam" soundtrack and his excellent book from last year "How Music Works". So I jumped at the chance of seeing Mr Byrne performing at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall this week.

As well as coming over as effortlessly cool and groovy he is, of course, essentially Scottish (these two facts are not unrelated). Born in Dumbarton his family emigrated to America when he was only 2 years old, but we know that he was back in the mother country last night, even if he was too serene to make any mention of it. Whatever reason we were there for he had a full house at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. The current album he is touring with is "Love This Giant" a collaboration with St. Vincent (Annie Clark). Her last album, Strange Mercy, is worth looking up if you haven't come across it already. Love This Giant is a complicated collection with slick production and lots of brass, so I was intrigued to see how they'd do this live. As it turns out they did it with slick production and lots of brass. He wanted you to sit and watch, so started with an announcement asking people to take photos if they wanted but not to watch the show through "a device", blocking everyone else's view - a request greeted with a heartfelt round of applause. (I'm fed up watching a band between a wee cluster of the people's phone screens).

Exhibition of brass instruments?

As you'd expect from someone with an eye for the visual effect as much as the aural (remember the big suit?) the whole show was carefully arranged and choreographed. For 2 hours the fantastic 8 piece brass section danced, marched and manoeuvred around the stage between the jerky robotic dancing of Annie Clark and the affected dad-dancing of David Byrne. Her guitar playing was warm and precise and the whole show has obviously been worked on and rehearsed for many an hour to end up looking this effortless. The brass sounded funky and jazzy but not ever cheesy. I love a bit of brass, and despite having been to many a Ska gig over the years have never seen a brass section as classy as this. (If only I hadn't stopped the trumpet lessons at school after 2 years, that could have been me up there!)

It was good to get a smattering of the solo material from both of them in amongst almost all the tracks of their joint album. St. Vincent's "Cheerleader" and his "Lazy" were stand outs. Talking Heads' "Wild, Wild Life" also featured, which apparently he hasn't performed live until doing this tour despite releasing it in 1986. The crowd of the venerable Concert Hall were on their feet for the encores which included "Burning Down The House" and finished with "Road To Nowhere" snaking around the stage with a brass band conga.

A great show and great performances all round.

Sunday 25 August 2013

Edinburgh. This Looks A Bit Like Alexei Sayle

Banksy: The Room In The Elephant. Pleasance Courtyard

Edinburgh Art Festival

Alexei Sayle. The Stand Comedy Club

Marcus Brigstoke, "Je m'accuse - I am Marcus". Assembly Hall

Brief reviews from my second trip through from Glasgow to the Edinburgh Fringe this year. I wanted to see some comedians this time, but as they don't wake up until the afternoon there was time to squeeze in some other stuff first.

We started off by going to see the exhibition on Mary, Queen of Scots at the National Museum of Scotland. It is an absolutely fascinating collection of stuff and the story of her life reads like a ludicrous Hollywood plot. I know the history of a nation is not the same as the history of its kings and queens but it is a story worth hearing. I've been inspired to try to find out more as it is a period of European history that ties me in knots. John Knox seems to have been a constant thorn in her side. As well as her Catholicism he wasn't big on female monarchs either apparently. A proper ray of sunshine he seems to have been.

Whilst promoting his film "Exit Through The Gift Shop" in LA in 2011, graffiti artist Banksy got chatting to a homeless man who had been living in a disused water tank. With his permission wrote "This looks a bit like an elephant" on the side of it. Cue rapacious grasping for ownership of a Banksy work (which the artist refused to authenticate) and Tachowa Covington was made homeless. Here Gary Beadle off of Eastenders plays the man who had made his home in the tank for the 7 years before meeting Banksy (as Titus Coventry here). The story asked lots of questions about what makes art 'art' without really giving any answers. Gary Beadle's was a gripping one-man turn, as he debated issues with the toy rat he had for company (a recurring Banksy motif) and Bristolian music from Portishead and Massive Attack occasionally broke in. However in a surreal twist at the end we were introduced to the man himself, Tachowa Covington. He is over from LA and saw the show for the first time himself today. A lovely twist that slaps you in the face with the fact that this is a real life being recounted. The man himself had dressed up in a purple kilt and a fedora to mark the occasion. You can only hope that he manages to get some personal benefit from the play, to help him get what he wants in life. Shame we never got to hear his thoughts on it and I hope some journalists are all over him tonight to hear his tale.

After that we had time to dash about some of the exhibitions which are part of the Edinburgh Art Festival. One of the best is in the ever-reliable Fruitmarket Gallery where there is an exhibition of paintings, photography and sculpture by Gabriel Orozco, Thinking In Circles, in which the geometric motif is played out in a variety of ways. The centrepiece is a painting called The Eye of Go. This I liked as I have read a couple of Japanese novels and a manga which feature the game of Go, played with black and white discs. GO is also the artist's initials and a verb which opens up a variety of meanings. (D'you see what he's did there?). If you look at them long enough you start to see Mickey Mouse too.

The Eye of Go, Gabriel Orozco
There has been a lot of love for the Peter Doig exhibition on at the Scottish National Gallery, No Foreign Lands. The Scottish-born artist, little known in his own country, has lived extensively in Trinidad and this exhibition features works painted over the past 13 years since he returned there. The scale and vibrancy of the paintings is more remarkable in the flesh than in any of the reproductions of his paintings which I had seen in the papers before I went along to see it. Often there is a sun-bleached, dreamy quality to them. I liked the colour and composition whilst my wife was unimpressed with his draughtsmanship. Then again I quite like the primitive works of French painter 'Douanier' Rousseau whilst she hates them.

Keeping the Mary Queen of Scots theme going we had time to have a quick pint in the Queens Arms before wandering on via the Open Eye Gallery who have a interesting show of Alberto Morrocco's early works and sketches on show. I'm personally not a big fan of a lot of his later work but his skill shone through in these. I particularly liked the pen and ink sketch of a drunk man falling asleep on the train. Around the corner in the National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street, there is a temporary exhibition of new work by someone else who can definitely draw. Ken Currie's work is painterly, skillful and full of atmosphere. To be honest seeing these made me re-appraise my opinion of Peter Doig's stuff we'd seen earlier as these paintings had so much more to them on many levels.

John Knox scowls at Mary Queen of Scots in the Portrait Gallery
Running upstairs past the mural featuring Mary, Queen of Scots (once you start noticing her she's everywhere) we went to see the Man Ray photographs, a fascinating collection of people captured by his camera. The Fleece to Fibre exhibition in Dovecote Galleries is worth looking in at, if for nothing more than the spectacular photograph portraits of the sheep. I also liked Rachel MacLean's slightly mental exhibition on at Edinburgh Printmakers, I Heart Scotland. A bizarre spectacle, as if the souvenirs from a tacky tourist shop have come alive in her photomontages but done with a great sense of humour. Her Lion and the Unicorn film maybe shows where the independence debate should be going instead of the current petty sniping we have to endure.
Alexei Sayle doesn't stand still when doing stand up
So as the galleries closed their doors it was obvious that the comedians were waking up. We had passed Jerry Sadowitz, Tim Vine and John Lloyd in the streets but we weren't here for them. Alexei Sayle is a comedy legend as far as I'm concerned. He first entered my consciousness as the shouty, angry landlord and various random, mental members of the Balowskis family in the Young Ones TV show, before going on to have his own TV series of monologues and rants. One time member of the Communist Party, actor in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and if you haven't read any of his novels then you are missing a treat. I shouldn't forget "Hello John, Got a New Motor" either as it appears to be one thing he reports that people still expect him to do. As the original compere of the London Comedy Store he was present at the birth of "alternative comedy" but hasn't done stand up himself for about 16 years. As you'd hope, he is a bit vitriolic about the current banal level of observational comedy and also pillories the current upper class stranglehold of media, the arts and government. Apart from the fact that he had something to say, he was also laugh out loud funny whilst saying it.

We were given a free firework display from the Tattoo whilst we waited to get into the Assembly Halls on the Mound, where we were greeted by a statue of John Knox as we made our way in, snarling over the temporary bar set up here. Is it the piece which he wrote called "The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women" that they commemorate here with this statue or some other achievement of his?

Marcus Brigstocke is the omnipresent voice of liberal ire on Radio 4 comedy programming at present. He seems to have had a couple of shows on in Edinburgh this year, and 2 days into a three week run here he tells us that he tore his achilles whilst jiggling about on stage. He has soldiered on and starts by saying he'd decided not to do any political stuff this year. So instead we got rather banal observational stuff. His tales of his boarding school and the scary working class people he met on the oil rigs felt a bit hollow after Alexei's sharper stuff earlier. I like Marcus Brigstocke and he seems a very nice chap. However I recognise the childhood world with the local Communist Party branch having meetings in your front room and eating all your biscuits more than I recognise the traumas of being a fat boy in boarding school.

Maybe by this time I'd had enough of the tipsy Edinburgh rugger types pushing into the queues or the plummy Morningside diners vacuous conversations at the table beside us for dinner ("But we're just not rich enough to pay the Gift Aid prices, are we dear?"). Time for the midnight train home to Glasgow where people either re-enacted Morocco's head-nodding drunken nap or blethered aimlessly to strangers.

I have only really started in the past couple of years making the effort to head east along the M8 for the festival. Obviously it is a hugely successful enterprise for the city, but I just wish they would make it feel a bit more inclusive. I know that in recent years they have consciously targeted those living in Glasgow's G12 area for ticket sales. I just wish that they'd make a bit more effort to attract those living in G15 and G34 as well. I like Edinburgh, but you can have it back now that the Fringe and Festivals are coming to an end.

Wednesday 14 August 2013

Death and the Poet

Review: The Events by David Greig, Traverse Theatre

Review: The Poet Speaks, Philip Glass and Patti Smith, Edinburgh Playhouse

I took my first Edinburgh festivals trip along the M8 this year to take in Patti Smith and Philip Glass, but before that managed to squeeze in a visit to the Traverse to see David Greig's new play. On a late summer evening Edinburgh was looking very handsome I have to say.

The Events deals with the aftermath of a mass shooting, where a survivor, played by Neve McIntosh looks for answers to the inevitable question - "Why?". There appears to be an understandable searching for a reason after these events (I'll use his word), people asking "why did it happen?", desperate to understand, to find some meaning in a pointless act. On Channel 4 just now the drama "Southcliffe" follows the lives of the perpetrator and the victims of a mass shooting in a fictional English market town. However when we get specific in this fiction, the close up attention to the detail of their lives in this TV drama, it begins to feel unreal, manipulative and fake as many real people have gone through these terrible incidents in the real world in their own individual ways. You end up thinking "that pub looks too busy" or "would you really say something like that?". You cannot help but think that the feelings that people affected do experience are unique to them and just unimaginable to someone who is not them. I'll watch Southcliffe to the end but it seems unsure what story it is trying to tell.

Rather bizarrely David Greig took a trip to visit Norway, researching the aftermath of the Anders Breivik shootings whilst writing the stage adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This led to some alarming (and incorrect) reports that he was writing a musical of the events which occurred in Utoya that day. What he did write was this play, The Events, which is showing just now at the Edinburgh Fringe before transferring to London. It does feature singing, but in the form of local choirs playing a Greek chorus to the story. The Events used similar devices to Southcliffe with flashbacks and different characters, played with gusto by Rudi Dharmalingham, flitting in and out. However the story here was more focused than the TV drama and the amateur choristers gave a stumbling feeling of real life to it all. The play worked well whilst walking a tight-rope of the sensitivities around the issues raised within it.

As Allen Ginsberg said in Father Death Blues,
Suffering is what was born
Ignorance made me forlorn
Tearful truths I cannot scorn
The many faces of Neve McIntosh
One last aside. Neve McIntosh's twitter profile reads "Actress and part time Lizard Queen!!!!". Is she at risk of being typecast? One minute she's tortured, guilt-ridden, lesbian vicar, Claire. Next she's Victorian sword-wielding, crime-fighting, lesbian Silurian, Madame Vastra who she plays in Doctor Who. Well, maybe not.

The other performance I'd specifically wanted to see in Edinburgh tonight was Philip Glass and Patti Smith's "The Poet Speaks", an evening in tribute to Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg. He died in 1997 and was a friend to them both. They've been doing these evenings together for a while now and it was the concept rather than any of three constituent parts (Glass, Smith and Ginsberg) that drew me to this show. The work of Philip Glass I have enjoyed without ever feeling particularly engaged by it, since I first heard it in Glasgow in 1990 (1000 Airplanes on the Roof - the projected backdrops is about all that I remember from that night). The "Beat Generation" is no more my generation than the flappers and Anita Loos were the generation of Ginsberg, Kerouac and William Burroughs. Their work has never grabbed me particularly and I find their books a bit self-obsessed.

Likewise, Patti Smith I think you either get or you don't get and I'd probably put myself in the latter camp (in much the same way that I "don't get" Jim Morrison). I struggle to see her as the "Godmother of Punk" that she is sometimes painted as. I like "Because The Night" as a Bruce Springsteen song rather than as a Patti Smith song and wouldn't be surprised to hear "People Have The Power" on a soap powder advert. It just doesn't seem to have any fire in its belly, the way a Gil Scott-Heron song or poem just does. My personal perception of her is more of a rather humourless, self-important individual who was in the right place at the right time to be part of a scene which on the whole generally leaves me a bit cold.

Patti Smith and Philip Glass

So I came to the Edinburgh Playhouse, which was filled to capacity, hoping to be proven wrong. Despite Ginsberg looking down on us from the projected photographs of the backdrop this was mainly about Patti Smith and Philip Glass. The meaningless, shamanistic ramblings of the shooter in The Events were rejected by Claire's choir for the gibberish that they were. Patti Smith however is someone who still appears happy to embrace the shamanistic affectations and eastern mysticism. She started the evening with her own poems which meandered through vague Earth-mother and Buddhist tropes (Notes to the Future, The Blue Thangka) whilst Philip Glass accompanied her on piano. Ginsberg's Witchita Vortex Sutra had more bite to it. She then read some of her favourite poems from Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses. Never can The Land of Nod have been read with such portentous earnestness. It ends with the line "The curious music that I hear" echoed in the line "Some strange music draws me in" in the verse of her song Dancing Barefoot which she followed it with. She repeated this trick with two other RLS poems (eg Looking-Glass River leading to her singing Pissing In A River with some gusto). Dedicating John Lennon's Beautiful Boy to Kate and William's wee George was a bit "yeuch". What was striking was the rhythm and pace Stevenson's poesy demonstrated in contrast to the earlier free verse.

Allen Ginsberg
More rhythmic again was Philip Glass who came back for an impressive run through excerpts from Metamorphosis and Etudes. Then Ginsberg's poems got a look in again towards the end with a rendition of the touching poem Aunt Rose and the strident anaphora marching out in Footnote to Howl and On Cremation of Chogyam Trungpa. The night was finished off with Tony Shanihan on guitar, Philip Glass on piano and Patti Smith singing her soft rock anthem People Have The Power, definitely a bit of a curio.

She certainly has a stage presence, but her serious, humourless, declamatory style (even when reading children's poems) I found a bit wearing.