Thursday 20 April 2017

Charlotte Church's Late Night Pop Dungeon and Lloyd Cole's Classic Songbook

Review - A Nostalgic Week of Pop Music in Oran Mor Glasgow

Charlotte Church's Late Night Pop Dungeon - Oran Mor, 14th April 2017

Lloyd Cole's Classic Songbook (1983 - 1996) - Oran Mor, 11th April 2017

A co-incidental collision of nostalgic pop acts were on show in Oran Mor, Glasgow this week giving completely contrasting performances. As part of a tour promoting a new box set collection (Lloyd Cole in New York, Collected Recordings 1988 - 1996) Lloyd Cole pitched up for three nights in Glasgow. Coming back to the town he first arrived in as a student, and where he formed Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, his only nostalgia for the place was gratitude that the University Cafe still exists. A seated audience and an acoustic set, first hour alone, second hour accompanied by his son on a second acoustic guitar, it was never going to be a riotous affair. At the end of a six month tour, where the box set only materialised in the final weeks, there was a certain weariness about his usual hangdog demeanour. With almost 30 songs in the show, there were always going to be moments when only the superfans were singing along, but his songs were always lyrically interesting and his singing as clear as I remember from my days listening to Rattlesnakes. Only once did he forewarn us that his voice wasn't going to reach its former heights.

With the hits spread out through the evening we got Rattlesnakes and Jennifer She Said in early and later got onto Cut Me Down, Perfect Skin, Brand New Friend and Lost Weekend. The studenty literary references in the songs and tales of one night stands in the songs maybe don't fit so comfortably a man in his 50s singing with backing from his son, but the big songs have stood the test of time. They are his songs, and I would have enjoyed seeing if re-visiting them now brought him back to the younger man that wrote them, what was he thinking/ doing/ dreaming? But there was none of that, the songs were slipped on like a comfortable coat, then discarded onto the floor when finished with a brief "thank you" to the polite applause. His musical inspirations leaked into the guitar outros of some songs with brief chords from Bruce Springsteen, Prince and The Beatles thrown in there somewhere. With aspirations to be a mid-Atlantic Leonard Cohen I like the Americana in many of Lloyd Cole's songs, even if it feels artificial. None of the songs touched me in any emotionally way, but there were plenty to hum along to and tap my feet (clapping along was banned). A droll evening rather than one filled with clownish whimsy.

Clownish whimsy was the tone Charlotte Church and her Late Night Pop Dungeon were aiming at from the off. The venue was packed with a very mixed crowd as she came on stage, like her band, all spangley hot pants, wigs, glitter and foil. Keyboards, drums, guitar, bass and five backing singers made for a cramped stage as she battered through a 90 minute medley of songs. If there was any musical theme it was "anything goes". A song you sort of recognised would suddenly morph into something totally different. A song would start as a disco hit and end as Radiohead's Paranoid Android. Nelly's song Hot In Here, ended as Talking Head's Burning Down The House. We went everywhere, from soul and funk to rock music and Fleetwood Mac. Edwin Starr's "War" had a lively crowd pogoing away. Only nearer the end when she went for more mainstream songs could the crowd manage to start singing along, desperate to join in by that point, then she changed direction again with a melodious rendition of John Williams's theme from ET. Charlotte Church certainly has catholic tastes when it comes to pop music.

Saturday 15 April 2017

Protect and Survive

War. What is it good for?

This is the front page of the UK newspaper The Daily Mirror today. "We're On The Brink Of Nuclear War" cry the headlines, yet only two weeks ago the UN held a week of nuclear ban treaty negotiations. The UK government boycotted the negotiations.

In the 1980s nuclear war felt like a real possibility. People were aware that with a huge arsenal of weapons was held on British soil, much of it 30 miles up the road from my home in Glasgow. No walk in the Scottish Highlands was complete without a couple of low flying RAF jets buzzing past you and when I used to camp in Glen Douglas, near Inverbeg, with my school friends we were aware that there were underground silos at the western end of the glen, never moreso than when a couple of soldiers woke us one night to ask why we were camping here. Scotland was going to be on the front line of any nuclear conflict. Realistically this would mean millions of civilian deaths across the globe and the destruction of our environment.

So people organised against it, let our leaders know that we knew this to be wrong. I spent many a weekend in my teenage years up at Faslane near Helesburgh or over at Holy Loch near Dunoon joining CND protests. Aged 14 I was an organiser in Glasgow West Youth CND, and went as a delegate from CND to the World Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow in 1985. There I attended speeches by the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who in the coming years stepped back from the arms race that had been running up until that time and signed several disarmament deals with his US counterpart, Ronald Reagan.

The world breathed a sigh of relief, but the threat never went away. As the nuclear powers around the world, including the UK, refused to completely disarm other countries were keen to develop nuclear weapons themselves. India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea have joined the UK, Russia, USA, China and France in building up nuclear arsenals. The result is now that more leaders around the world than ever before hold a priaptic finger over the nuclear button. And when those leaders include the delicate egos that are Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un I think nobody is surprised that the Doomsday Clock is now closer to midnight than it has been at any time since the early 1980s. If you have read Eric Schlosser's book Command and Control you will know that good fortune rather than cool heads is the only thing which has avoided nuclear catastrophe over the past 50 years, and the more weapons there are on standby, the risk of an accident increases day by day.

So to reduce the feeling of impending nuclear annihilation I have been getting prepared and flicking through the re-assuring pages of my copy of "Protect and Survive", the British government's pamphlet from 1980 full of handy tips on what to do in event of a nuclear strike. I now feel quite justified in refusing to ever throw anything out. In case you don't still own a copy and the government don't get the chance to quickly re-print it when the big one goes off, I have dashed off copies of the one I have, for your education. I hope that this makes everyone feel much safer.

Alternatively you may want to support those campaigning for nuclear disarmament by either joining, or donating money to Scottish CND or CND UK by following the links. In Scotland the Scottish Green Party and The Scottish National Party support unilateral disarmament for Scotland. I know I would feel much more safe if we did not have a target painted over Glasgow, and imagine what a lead we could take in the world at this time by getting rid of these weapons of mass destruction from our country.

Protect and Survive

Click on images below to expand. Disclaimer - I have no evidence that painting your windows white and hiding under a table will protect your family from a nuclear payload detonated over your city, but good luck with that. For more information you may wish to watch the Raymond Briggs animation "When The Wind Blows".

Sunday 9 April 2017

Counterflows 2017 - Festival review.

Counterflows Festival. Glasgow. April 2017

Over several years now Counterflows has established itself as a regular event on a crowded calendar of music and performance in Glasgow. Showcasing experimental, marginal and DIY music from all around the world the number of performances this year which were sold out in advance shows that there is a healthy audience for this music in the city. In part that is due to the efforts of curators Alasdair Campbell and Fielding Hope and the many other people involved in organising the weekend, whose obvious enthusiasm for what they are doing holds the whole thing together. 

This year, for their sixth edition, the music was as varied and eclectic as the venues used to host the events. Over four days we visited Glasgow University Chapel, The Centre for Contemporary Arts, The Glad Cafe,  Garnethill Multicultural Community Centre, Glasgow School of Art, Langside Halls and Queens Park Bowling Club. That's before we even get to a performance at the Laurieston Arches, just across from where my great-grandparents lived in the Gorbals. Going between places of learning, community halls and contemporary art spaces is a good metaphor for the success of the festival, where performers are always part of the audience. Sociable, entertaining and always an education.

Day 1 - Thursday 6th April 2017

University of Glasgow chapel
The opening concert of the festival this year was in the old chapel of Glasgow University. The high space here was filled with birdsong as the five performers of Pancrace Project started their performance. Using everything from the church organ, to Uillian pipes, "piano paysage" (the belly of a piano) and Hurgy toys (which looked like hurdy gurdys) the spectacle was as integral as the sound created. It was nice to hear the organ given a good work out, as sometimes I have attended contemporary music concerts involving a church organ, where the aim seems to be to get as little sound out of it as possible when really what everyone wants to hear is Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor. 

Pancrace Project
Their performance may have benefited from some trimming, but in part this was my impatience to get to the second performer of the night, Japanese composer and percussionist Midori Takada. She held us spell-bound from the moment she entered the hall, proceeding up the chancel of the chapel accompanied by her chimes as she stalked through a passage of cymbals. Whether giving an extended solo on the gong, playing marimba or on the drums her performance was hypnotic and utterly captivating. With echoes of the music of Steve Reich often in my mind, her performance itself was really like nothing I had seen before. Unique.

Day 2 Friday 7th April

Carnatic music is a form of Indian classical music from Southern India. Usually accompanied by the drone of a tambura the music goes back hundreds of years and is associated with Hindu worship. Last year the festival ended with the Carnatic Music Ensemble and this year there is a deeper exploration of this form of music. This included traditional musicians working alone and with contemporary artists to produce new music. Mark Fell's electronic piece at the CCA based on the rhythms of Carnatic music was enjoyable but the best parts of the performance were when the Indian musicians were playing their own combination of improvised and composed music, accompanied by the rhythmic drumming of Mysore Vadirajmore on his mridangam.

A Carnatic Paradigm
A short walk round to Garnethill followed, always nice to come back here for the cheap bar prices, where Sue Tompkins was first on the stage which faces the wall of Chinese dragon heads high on the wall opposite.

Garnethill Multicultural Community Centre
A visual and sound artist she merges borders between concrete poetry, visual and performance arts. Flicking through the pages of a magazine she emits phrases and snatches of song in a rhythmic manner whilst bouncing about on stage. The nearest thing to it I have seen is Dutch performance artist Jaap Blonk. I enjoyed seeing him perform whilst my kids nervously snorted in derision and that was the kind of mixed reactions the audience gave Sue Tompkins.

American musician and composer Ashley Paul is the featured artist of this year's festival and her first performance of the weekend was phenomenally good. Accompanied by Stevie Jones and an ensemble of musicians of percussion, keyboard, double bass, tuba, saxophone and clarinet it felt improvised but looked tightly composed. A remarkably impressive collective effort. Her floaty singing and energetic musicianship on saxophone and electric guitar was engrossing and reminded me of Julia Holter's performances but with more jazz, more texture and energy. I look forwards to seeing more performances by her over the coming days.

Ashley Paul Ensemble

Day 3 Saturday 8th April

There were many events over and above those which I am writing about here, late into the evenings and on Saturday afternoon, but sadly I was not able to see everything. As I was working at Firhill on Saturday I was not able to see Takahiro Kawaguchi and Utah Kawasaki or attend several of the talks and films on show that afternoon. However as compensation I did get to see Partick Thistle reach the top six of the Scottish Premiership for the first time in a few decades so, swings and roundabouts.

Glasgow Art School
I was able to get to Glasgow School of Art to see the "anti-performance" by Farmers Manual, an electronic and visual arts group from Vienna. This is very much my cup of tea, three guys messing around on laptops and a room filled with pings, buzzes and drones. How much is live and how much is just pre-loaded in their laptops is very much up for debate, like any club DJ nowadays, either labouring away mixing or alternatively twiddling the screen brightness control on his laptop whilst the music plays on.

Glorias Navales performing
Away from the Art School and back to the faded comfort of the Garnethill Community Centre for a quite different performance. Glorias Navales gave a beautifully unpolished performance, a group of Chilean musicians that had the whole room tapping their feet along to the tunes. Their name suggesting the Chilean anniversary of a glorious naval victories, with imagery projected behind them of Chilean ships, Chinese Socialist Realism and Pinochet's coup recalled Chile's turbulent history. With one of the musicians sporting a t-shirt with Victor Jara's face across the front, a folk singer tortured and killed by the Chilean junta, I was taken back to my childhood. My parents had friends who, as Communists, had been forced to flee Chile after the coup and had come to live in Glasgow. I had totally forgotten that I have held onto the small Chilean flag I had been given by them, but I've dug it out now after speaking to one of the musicians about his hero, Victor Jara. My parents used to often play an album of Jara's songs by a group called Inti-Illimani, who lived in exile in Germany as they were touring Europe at the time of the coup, when their music became banned. A warm and intriguing performance by Glorias Navales.

Les Filles de Illighadad
Moving across the globe the next stop-off was Niger. Les Filles de Illighadad are from the Alabak region where they sing and play their Tuareg music. Starting with the melancholic sounding voices of Fatou Seidi Ghalia and Alamnou Akrouni accompanied by tende drum and the wonder that is a gourd water drum, weaving complicated rhythms. For the the second half they donned electric guitars for a more familiar, dreamy Tuareg sound, the music being shaken up by being performed by scarf wearing women, smiling, laughing and enjoying their performance.

Day 4 Sunday 9th April

In Langside Hall in the late afternoon Svitlana Nianio from Ukraine was performing. Svitlana Nianio and her band played twinkly synths accompanied by the percussive sounds of an electric guitar, constrained at times by having a polythene bag weaved under the strings. Above this Svitlana's haunting vocals rose, making each song sound like a dark, cautionary nursery rhyme. Not many smiles were cracked on stage, their music-making a very serious business. Or maybe that was because she had to play in the chill of an April afternoon in Glasgow, in a council hall where the heating system wasn't working.

Mark Vernon in Queens Park Bowling Club
Up and over Queens Park to the next venue, Queens Park Bowling Club. I accidentally indulged in some orienteering as I headed in error to the council bowling greens in the park, before I found my way to the venue. Glasgow's Mark Vernon opened with a perfectly incongruous deck of cables, laptop and cassette players beneath the names of decades of bowling champions. His mixing of field recordings and found sounds from old tapes bought in a Portuguese market was delightful start to the evening.

Ashley Paul was back on stage, this time with German based electronic artist Rashad Becker. From Ashley Paul's squealing sax and bowed and bashed electric guitar, to Rashad's thrumming, dystonic sounds it was an energetic and woozy sonic sparring session.

Langside Hall
Hoping that some heating had been located, we returned to Langside Halls to be sent home warm by the uplifting music of Mark Ernestus' Ndagga Rhythm Force. A collaboration between German dub-techno musician Mark Ernestus and a group of Senegalese musicians, they had the hall bouncing from the start. No band this weekend made a more chic entrance on stage, as the musicians came on one at a time, many wearing big shades in the dark hall. Once all six musicians (four of them on percussion) were on stage, singer Mbene Diatta Seck and dancer Fatou Wore Mboup took centre stage and got everyone dancing. Their acrobatic dancer on stage and dancing into the audience was a real crowd-pleaser.

Another exhausting and entertaining four day weekend from the Counterflows organisers Yet again they managed to bring enthralling and disparate musicians from all corners of the globe to Scotland. They seem to be growing the audience, with bigger halls used and many gigs sold out. If you haven't attended any of the shows over recent years, I would heartily recommend looking out for the 2018 version.

Sunday 2 April 2017

Bluebeard's Castle / The 8th Door. Scottish Opera

Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle and The 8th Door by Lliam Paterson.

Scottish Opera, Theatre Royal Glasgow. March 2017. Review

From Scottish Opera website, click here for more info
Scottish Opera combine Bartok's one act opera, Bluebeard's Castle with a new piece composed by Lliam Paterson, The 8th Door. Both are produced by Glasgow theatre company Vanishing Point, who were behind National Theatre of Scotland's The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler among many other shows. 

The version of Bluebeard's Castle which I know is from a children's book of "Villains In Myth and Legend" that I used to read regularly. It told the story of Bluebeard's new wife who was forbidden from looking behind a locked door in the castle. When she could not resist she found the floor covered in blood and in a corner the bodies of Bluebeard's previous wives. Bartok's version has the newly wed couple arrive at the castle of the title. Judith asks for all the seven locked doors to be flung open to let in light. Bluebeard refuses; some things should be kept private. If she wants the secrets from the past uncovered, she will need to accept the consequences.

The 8th Door is what we are presented with first, a newly produced piece from Lliam Paterson and Matthew Lenton. The six singers are in the orchestra pit, with two actors on stage, seated with their backs to the audience facing cameras which project their faces onto a large screen (Robert Jack and Gresa Pallaska). The pair on stage act out the rise and fall of a relationship, whilst the words of Hungarian poets, in English translations from Edwin Morgan, then as things progress, more often in the original Hungarian. The actors do very well to hold our attention with their everyday misunderstandings and lack of closeness, but there isn't much meat to it. The singing and music follows their mood through harmony and more dystonic turns. It's dramatic and tense, but I would have liked to concentrate on the poetry, or the singing...or the music, or the acting. My focus flitted from one to the other.

As an average, modern couple failing to connect, beyond the Hungarian verse and some musical nods to Bartok, their connection to the mass murderer and polygamist of the second half was maybe a bit loose. Bluebeard's Castle had been rendered as a mundane apartment for bass-baritone Robert Haywood and mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill to wander into. The seven locked and barred doors that Judith demands opened are oddly all metaphorical, and they reveal on stage for each one is done with varying degrees of success. The first door, which reveals a torture chamber, rather dully turns out to be Windows as Bluebeard's laptop screen glows red. Has he been watching snuff videos? The words and music are so incredibly tense and dramatic that the setting and scenery was rather disappointing at times. The lack of castle and lack of doors could have worked fine with more bravado, but felt oddly flat. The orchestra played beautifully, at times the brass coming from up in the theatre boxes, bringing a lot of tension to the story and the singing was perfect, particularly that of Karen Cargill.

Tense and intriguing, just not as grisly as I was expecting from my days reading the story of Bluebeard as a 9 year old. 

Saturday 1 April 2017

The Beat and The Selecter. ABC Glasgow, March 2017

The Beat and The Selecter . Co-headline tour 2017. 

ABC, Glasgow. 31.March 2017. Live review. 

The Selecter, fronted by the stylish Pauline Black I last saw play a couple of years ago in Oran Mor and The Beat with Ranking Roger, were in Glasgow 3 years ago at the ABC 2. Tonight playing a joint headline tour they have managed to sell out the bigger hall at the ABC on Glasgow's Sauchiehall Street for a night of nostalgic 2-Tone ska. Originally a 6 date tour it has now grown arms and legs, including a return to Glasgow in November 2017, after the first dates sold out so quickly. I was surprised to see how easily they filled this place, the crowd ranging from 50 year old overweight men with shaved heads, to girls night out crowds and hipsters adorned with ginger beards and pork pie hats. 2-Tone was always a broad church.

First on stage for us in Glasgow on Friday night were The Beat. The indefatigable Ranking Roger runs the show, but accompanied on stage in recent years by his son, Ranking Junior (or Matthew Murphy). Ranking Junior's rapid MC rhyming style appeared on the Ordinary Boys song "Boys Will Be Boys" (1 min 50 secs in on this video) and he gives some of the Beat songs a bit of a shake up with this. But only a wee shake up, as there are so many tunes you want to hear entirely as they should be. It is also so refreshing to hear songs with a bit of a political bite to them, such a big part of the 2-Tone scene. When did music start living in this apolitical bubble that makes songs like "Stand Down Margaret" sound alien? The Beat are still writing new songs and fitted a couple seamlessly into the set without dropping the energy levels. There is no sign they are coming to a Ranking Full Stop (see what I did there?)
The Selecter, Glasgow March 2017
Each night they will swap over who plays first and second. Playing first The Beat had to step aside when it looked like they could happily carry on. The Selecter swept on stage next, with rude girl Pauline Black and Arthur 'Gaps' Hendrickson looking as stylish as ever. They have a fantastic back catalogue of songs and this is a bigger band playing with them than I have seen for a while. Despite that a couple of my favourite Hammond organ and guitar riffs from the recordings were a bit subdued tonight, and the two sax players could have done with their volume being up a bit. That aside they had the hall bouncing when blasting out Three Minute Hero, Missing Words and On My Radio. Again politics is never far below the surface with The Selecter, was references to police shootings and Brexit thrown in amongst the dance tunes. 

The night came to an end with a nostalgic nod to the finale of the 2-Tone tour, with members of The Beat joining The Selecter on stage for a rendition of Prince Buster's Madness