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Quiet, please

In which the reference library is louder than you might expect, but somehow seems quieter than normal


Saturday night: to Bristol Central Library, for a gig by The Wraiths, a local band whose “thing” is setting classic poems to music. We’d seen them twice before, at various events,* but last night was the first time we’d seen them performing as a full band.

You might think that a library – the Reference Library Reading Room, in fact – is a slightly odd place to hold a gig. Unusual, I have to admit; Lancaster Library is a regular indie venue, but this was only Bristol Library’s second public concert. The tickets impressed me, for a start: the organisers were clearly trying to set the theme.

Library bookplate or concert ticket?

The library reading room is an amazing space. Part of an early building by Charles Holden, the architect of various iconic London buildings,** it has a high, vaulted ceiling wtih two gallery levels. Unfortunately, I hadn’t thought to bring a camera along; the clatter of a camera shutter can sometimes be a little unwelcome at quiet, intimate gigs. I’ll have to come back on an evening sometime, when the library is open for normal business, and see if they’ll let me take some photos of the interior. It is, allegedly, haunted; the band tried to persuade the gig’s librarian organiser to give us a talk on the various ghosts that live in the building, but sadly it never occurred.

The gig itself can’t really be disassociated, in my head, from the venue. The overall effect was magical, the music filling the vault, although if anything they should have turned the volume up slightly. Although there wasn’t any support, the band played a very full set, two halves and an interval, and the library reference desk had been turned into a cafe-bar for the night. As I said above, we’d seen them twice already, but this gig, with a fuller band, was by far the best; maybe because this time, they were the headline act. They persuaded us to buy their CD,*** and happily encore’d away, slightly tentatively, at the end.

All in all, a great gig, and the second good gig I’ve been to at the library. I’m hoping now that the library sees fit to extend this event into a whole series of concerts: they have a wonderful room, after all, and it makes the music shine.

* and I have a photo of the first time we saw them performing.

** including Senate House, 55 Broadway, and various other Underground Group/London Transport Art Deco premises. At the time Bristol Central Library was built, of course, Art Deco had not yet been thought of, so it’s in more of an Edwardian Classical style.

*** or, rather, the CD of theirs that we didn’t already have.

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Plug

In which we advertise something, albeit something we think ought to be advertised


Still in internet limbo, and keeping up with things as best I can via my phone. This, really, is just a quick advert.

About a year ago, we saw a gig by a crazily inventive Japanese musician called Ichi, featuring stiltwalking, steel drum, beatboxing, half a double bass,* a glockenspiel, ping pong, and (at one point) musical eating. Well, he’s back in the UK again with some other performers, and playing two gigs. This Saturday, June 19th, at somewhere called Cafe Oto in Dalston; and Sunday, June 20th, at the Scout Hut, Phoenix Wharf,** Bristol. There’s also a photography show, and (in Bristol) Japanese food. Both start at 7.30pm. Go there: it will be fun.

* Mathematics suggests that that would be “a bass”, then.

** The black building midway between Redcliff Bridge and the Ostrich.

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In-Flight Entertainment

In which we have a jaunt off to Birmingham to see Flight of the Concords


Off to Birmingham yesterday, to see Flight of the Conchords at the National Indoor Arena, the great hulking ostrich egg sat in a nest of redeveloped Birmingham canalside next to a clutch of restaurant chains. Despite their radio series and their sitcom, I still think that FotC have the feel of a cult hit to them, one of those acts* who nobody apart from us has heard about. It’s slightly surprising, then, to find that they can head out on an arena tour which – in the UK, at least – seemed to sell out within a morning. I wonder if the other thousands of people in the audience all entered to the same thought: “what, there really are other people who have heard of them?”

There was one big clue as to the type of people who like Flight of the Conchords. The merchandise stall. We arrived at the gig almost as soon as the doors opened, and we queued up for the merchandise stall, at the sight of their rather attractive playing-card-style tea towels. “I know this is sad, but I really want a tea towel” said a woman behind us. But when we reached the desk: nope. No tea towels. All sold out. The people who go to Flight of the Conchords gigs – or, at least, arrive early at them – are the sort of people who like an attractive tea towel in their kitchen.

Disappointment of the night: Flight of the Conchords are touring supported by other comedians who have appeared on their TV series, such as Arj Barker and Kristin Schall. Our tickets told us to expect Schall; but the support who appeared was Eugene Mirman. It’s not that he’s a dull chap, it’s just that we’d already seen most of his material, recently, on TV. We’d have liked it more if we hadn’t heard almost all the jokes before.

You could say I’m being slightly hypocritical there, given that I know Flight of the Conchords’ songs from watching their TV series. Their TV series, though, is distinctly different from their show, and their TV characters are subtlely different to their stage personas. “Where’s Murray?” shouted a heckler at one point. “Murray couldn’t make it tonight,” replied one of the duo, “because … he’s a fictional character.” The songs, though, all worked very well on stage, even ones which previously seemed to be very specific to a TV episode plot.**

In some ways I’m not a great fan of big arena shows, partly because you can end up watching the performers on-screen, because the performers themselves are too hard to see. With Flight of the Conchords, though, there was a sense of warmth between audience and performers that really isn’t something you can experience watching a DVD. We were, apparently, a very polite audience. I wasn’t very surprised that the band thought so, to tell you the truth. After all, what sort of behaviour do you expect, from an audience that likes tea towels so much?

* Do you describe them as a band, or a comedy double-act? I’m not entirely sure.

** “Epileptic Dogs”, for example.

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The Sound Of Music

In which we go to a festival, albeit a mud-free city centre one


As I keep, keep saying, it’s been busy, so busy. Not only was there that trip to Manchester; but also K’s been busy at work. And then, following it all up, we had visitors, and we had tickets to the Dot To Dot Festival, or, at least, the Bristol half of it. A long and tiring day of music, bands, and trips back and forth between various venues around the city centre; so many different bands that they start to blur together.

First up, we had planned to start with Marina And The Diamonds at The Louisiana; but, unfortunately, they were replaced with a local band, First Of The Giants. Who weren’t bad, just not what we wanted to listen to; still, we stayed through to the end. Before moving on: another venue, another band.

Tell the truth, we didn’t move straight on; we stopped off in The Centre for ice cream, before going on to The Academy for the main line-up. There, we started off with The Rogues, who wore leather jackets and sidled up to the mikes as if they were trying to be Pete Docherty.* They were solid and competant, though, and good performers. Maybe not a band we’d go to see, but a band we wouldn’t mind seeing again.

The Rogues were followed by Mumford & Sons, a rather good Americana band who turned out, when they stopped singing, to have American singing accents but British speaking voices. They’re coming back to Bristol in September, and we’ll make sure we catch them again. After the Mumfords came Cage The Elephant. The best think I can say about Cage The Elephant is that they were enthusiastic. They were also dull, pedestrian and tedious; and all their songs sounded the same. “He thinks he’s Jagger,” I overheard the people next to us saying, about the Elephant’s lead singer. “He’s fucked, and he thinks he’s Jagger.”**

The bookers of Dot To Dot certainly like contrast between their bands. Cage The Elephant were followed by Patrick Wolf, who was the real reason we’d come to the Academy. Entirely unlike Cage The Elephant, of course; but he rocked out a lot more than the last time we’d seen him, at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. Then, he only had a single backing musician; at Dot To Dot, he brought a full band. He was dressed something like a glam-rock matador, with bright yellow quiff held in place with a lifetime supply of hair gel. He produced lively, sing-along music that still had meaningful lyrics, all expressed in his powerful, crisp and sharp-edged singing voice.

Next on was Ladyhawke, one of the best-known acts on the bill. Ladyhawke was a disappointment, and that was partly because of Patrick Wolf’s singing voice. Mr Wolf, we could hear every word and syllable of. Ladyhawke’s sound was all very mushy, not helped by a slightly mumbly voice.*** She was also a disappointment because there wasn’t much variation at all between her album tracks; we could clearly tell who in the audience had bought the album and who had only heard the singles. Personally, I can remember the ’80s the first time around; and we’re surprised that Chrissy Hynde hasn’t called Ladyhawke up and asked for her stance and hairstyle back.

We didn’t stay at the Academy to see the headliners, Friendly Fires. Instead we took a break, took in some unhealthy food,**** and popped over to the Thekla ready for Little Boots later in the evening. There was no queue, so we wandered straight in to the bar and came across the French band Naive New Beaters. We knew nothing about them, we didn’t plan to see them, and they turned out to be one of the best bands we saw all day. Certainly better than the band that followed them onstage, Pulled Apart By Horses, who thrashed about and rather suited their name. As the moshpit was between us and the exit, though, we were a bit trapped until their set finished. Looking out of the window porthole, we noticed that the Thekla had suddenly become the hot venue of the night, with a long, long queue stretching back almost all the way to Prince St.***** Possibly because the other venues had, by then, started to close. Almost certainly not because of all the people rushing to see Pulled Apart By Horses.

I don’t remember much at all about the final act we wanted to catch, Little Boots. I was starting to get a bit sleepy, and the festival’s timetable was slipping further and further. The band before Little Boots went offstage over half an hour late, and by the time Little Boots herself appeared, the schedule had slipped by another half-hour. The crowd were getting restless, very restless, and her first song was accompanied by loud boos. I was well out of the way; as the air conditioning had failed, I’d retreated to the back of the room because I felt that if I didn’t I’d probably faint. We heard Little Boots from a distance, and occasionally caught a glimpse of her through the crowd. I know she sounded pretty good, but I have no memory at all of exactly how she sounded. If she’d come onstage at her booked time, we’d probably have really enjoyed it; our slightly-more-hardcore friends, who had more stamina, certainly did.

Overall, it was a bit of a mixed day. Afterwards, we felt as if we’d need a long, long time to recover. It wasn’t all good; but we’d never heard of several of the bands before in any case, and didn’t know what we were going to find.****** Is it something we’d do again? Well, maybe: it would depend exactly on who’s going to be playing next. Enjoying the day with friends was more important, in the end, than the music we were listening to as we did it. And that, by any measure, was a success.

* when he looked slightly healthier than he does now.

** At least, that’s what I think I heard. The singer certainly was staggering about the stage as if he was about to fall over.

*** “You couldn’t even make out what she was saying between songs,” said K. “Because it was in ‘strine?” I replied. “No, just because she couldn’t say anything without mumbling.”

**** except K, who had pitta bread with hummus and salad.

***** I’m exaggerating. But not by much.

****** The slightly-more-hardcore friends mentioned earlier are more engaged with the modern music scene than us, had done quite a lot more research, and planned out the itinerary

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The Neighbourhood

In which we visit some neighbourhood artists


As summer comes in, it seems as if every weekend there’s something artistic or creative to do. Last weekend it was the Bristol Comic Con (which we missed), and the Southbank Bristol Arts Trail, which we didn’t miss; or, at least, didn’t miss all of. The Southbank Bristol Arts Trail, in short, is a weekend event where creative people around Southville throw open their doors and turn their houses and/or gardens into galleries for everyone to visit. And it was the weather for it: we toiled around the hills of Southville, trail maps in hand, all the time seeing other people doing the same.

We didn’t see all of the venues, nothing like all of them; there were 51 listed on the map, scattered over a pretty wide area. Off the top of my head, they tend to blur into each other, especially nearly a week afterwards. We definitely saw: the Wonkey House on Mount Pleasant Terrace; people from Number 40 at, erm, 40 Mount Pleasant Terrace; textile designs* on Allington Road; paintings by Terry Williams on Birch Road; and lots of other wildly artistic open houses whose owners’ names passed me by. We finally ended up at a second house on Birch Road where we saw various bands and performers play. Rachael Dadd served us tea, and her band The Hand played, along with The Wraiths and The Fingerless Hoodlum. We relaxed in the sunshine, the warmth of the garden, and K caught a sunburn.

Like everything else, we walked home wanting to do more ourselves; wanting to create things; wanting to have things to show ourselves. There are so many local art events, I wonder how people have time to make art in-between them sometimes.** We walked home, and then straight away started planning to go out once more. Because, we’d been told: “those people over there are in a really good band, and they’re playing tonight – you should come along, you’ll love it.” That’s another story, though, for another blog post.

* some a bit like the “crochet bomb” which I keep telling you I’m making

** the next one I’m currently aware of is the Easton Arts Trail, coming up in about a month’s time

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Sound and music

In which we go to see The Boy Least Likely To


As soon as we get home, we’re out again. To a gig, at the Louisiana, to see The Boy Least Likely To, hard at work promoting their new album that’s just been released. We were slightly confused when we arrived, to see that according to the posters the gig was on Monday, March 24th, and we’d turned up on a Tuesday. After checking our calendars, we went in. Inside, there’s not much room in the Louisiana. It’s quite a cosy place, so cosy that we quickly spotted that a good chunk of the pub was taken up by support band The School tucking into their tea.

The first band that came on were The Fox And The Bramble, an electric/acoustic duo who dashed about the stage swapping instruments, and made slightly-twee twinkly sounds with children’s toys. I spent a while wondering which one was Fox and which Bramble; the internet says the name comes from Aesop, though.

They were followed by The School, as I mentioned. We’ve seen The School before, so we knew what to expect; but we were slightly disappointed. They didn’t seem as good as they did in November. The sound didn’t seem to be mixed quite right, with keyboard and vocals overpowering the rest of the band.

The Boy Least Likely To had sound troubles of their own. “Violin isn’t plugged in,” one of them shouted, after the first song. “Too much violin,” he shouted after the second. They are apparently only a duo normally, but on-stage they mysteriously expand to a full band, like one of those toys for dropping in water. I have to admit to not knowing very much about them; but the gig left me wanting to find out more.* Their frontman smiled broadly, and flicked balloons back and forth with the audience in a genial way, never missing a beat.

* they do have a blog, and they’ve already written about last night’s gig on it.

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Condiment Frenzy

In which we are delighted by music and storytelling


Since we moved here, we’ve been promising ourselves that we’ll get Out And About, go to lots of local events, be actively artistic, and so on. And, well, we haven’t quite managed it. We’re doing better than we used to; we go to more things than we ever did before we moved; but the calendar still isn’t quite as full as we’d like.

As I’ve said before, though, one of the things I love about this city is that it doesn’t take long before you hear about a good-looking event.* For example: we quickly popped into Boston Tea Party at the weekend for tea and cake,** only to spot a poster on the wall that we quite liked the sound of. A regular event called Folk Tales, at the Scout Hut on Phoenix Wharf, on the last Wednesday of the month. So, we went along.

It turned out, as it happened, that one of the organisers of Folk Tales was one of the performers we saw on New Year’s Eve at the Cube; so we knew that things would probably turn out for the good. And any gig where the door-person, after taking your money, points you to the kitchen where you’re free to use the kettle, make yourself tea and help yourself to a biscuit,*** is going to be a good gig.

And, indeed, it was a good gig. Folk Tales is a mixture of folkish music and storytelling, as you might guess from the name; and the whole thing together made a rather good combination. I’m not really a fan of some “professional” storytelling, because I find it rather over-dramatic and stilted; I prefer a more naturalistic style of recounting. For that reason, I didn’t enjoy the storytelling as much as the music; but because of the mixture of performers, that wasn’t a problem. The storyteller closest to my taste – for that reason – was the aforementioned Jethro McDonald, who told us about a man who, after a kitchen accident, and ambulance delirium, became obsessed with falling. As I can just about remember a similar chunk of ambulance delirium myself, I could sympathise.

In-between the storytellers, came a selection of local musicians with a similar ambiance: quiet, thoughtful, and with stories to tell. My favourite was probably Shaun McCrindle, partly because of a coincidence: one of the stories in his songs was an anecdote in the David Crystal book I recently read and keep writing about; the others, though, both women playing ukeleles,**** sparkled just as much. Thoughtful songs, which raised wry smiles.

We’ll be going back to Folk Tales, and we’ll remember to get there early again next time, because the audience really had to pack themselves in tightly. We’re making sure we keep turning up in time to get a seat and a cup of tea; not to mention, making sure we can get in the door. If Folk Tales gets much more popular, people will be spilling out onto the quay outside. Understandably so, I’d say, because it’s a very good way to spend a weekday evening.

* and one of the other good things about this city is the converse: if you’re running an event, if you advertise, people will turn up. Putting random posters around the city does work.

** Why we say “let’s go for tea and cake” when we both rarely drink tea itself outside of the house is one of those eternal mysteries. I had coffee that day, for example, and K had hot chocolate; but we still referred to it as “tea and cake”.

*** Dark chocolate digestives, for the record. And we did indeed have tea, despite the previous footnote.

**** It wasn’t clear whether that was themed or coincidental, really.

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Folk

In which we review Rachel Unthank and the Winterset


This weekend’s gig: Rachel Unthank and The Winterset, at the Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital Theatre. “People ask us if ‘Unthank’ is our stage name,” said Rachel. “Who’d choose a name like ‘Unthank’?” Personally, it reminds me of Scotland;* but the Unthank family are Northumbrian. Rachel and her sister Becky share the major vocal parts, with a piano and another musician behind them.

I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of folk; but then, I don’t really agree with the concept of genre to start with. And, to start with, it was a little avant-garde: slow, not really rhythmic at all, but relying on the beauty of the sisters’ voices, the pianist darting from one end of the keyboard to the other and occasionally reaching inside the piano’s innards to pluck its strings directly. We were a little distracted by a woman just in front of us in the audience, who had decided that the quiet opening was the ideal time to take a loud phone call. “Don’t you shush me!” she said, harshly, to anybody who complained, as she pushed her way out of the row. “MY SON is more important than YOUR HEARING”. I was sorely tempted to mutter “Oh no he isn’t” sotto voce, but the rude bint would probably have tried to lamp me one. Fortunately, she was soon gone.

The gig continued, with songs getting a little more up-tempo, but always with the slight flexibility implied by the lack of percussion. If the band needed percussion, they provided it with their feet; but its lack gave them the freedom to explore, to work in free time without any constricting structures. They seemed to be able to soar at will with their voices; and Rachel stood with her hands spread and moving across her lap, as if she was consciously grasping the music with them and guiding herself.

I must have been enjoying it, because I even joined in with the audience participation sections, something I’m normally loath to do, and despite barely being able to carry a tune. Not that it matters when you’re in the middle of an audience; but still. After a rousing and catchy midwinter song** about the Allendale new year fire ceremony, they finished up with all four of the band, together a capella, singing a Shetland song with lyrics in Norn.*** I couldn’t make out the words from the sound, but the sound was beautiful enough to not need anything more.

* One of my favourite novels is Alasdair Gray’s classic Lanark, largely set in a city called Unthank.

** So catchy the chorus is still stuck in my head three days later.

*** The strand of the Nordic languages spoken in Shetland until the 19th century, similar to Faroese and some dialects of Norwegian

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Leeds Is A State Of Mind

In which we go and see The Mighty Boosh


A long day on Friday: a day out to Manchester, to see The Mighty Boosh Live. When the tickets for the tour went on sale, of course, we had to buy them straight away before they sold out; and back then, over a year ago, we had no idea that we’d have moved to an entirely different part of the country within a few months. So, back up to Manchester, to the MEN Arena.

If I’d been alert and awake ten years ago, I could have gone to see the Boosh at Edinburgh, in a cosy and intimate venue. Not cosy and intimate by Edinburgh Fringe standards, really, but cosy and intimate by anyone else’s. As I wasn’t, and didn’t, I end up not seeing them until they’re already famous enough to fill stadium-sized venues, alongside an over-excited audience who were still in primary school when the Boosh first put a show on. Lots of people in the audience had dressed up as characters from the show; my sole concession to dressing up was invisible and unseen.*

It was, despite our distance from the stage,** rather good. Very slickly done, considering the number of rapid costume changes. Backstage must, I’d imagine, have been frantic with people coming off and on. It did lead to Tony Harrison having a slight costume problem, at one point, with Noel slipping slightly out of character; which went to show how well they could extemporise when needed. For the rest of the show, improvisation wasn’t really needed other than to deal with people shouting “I love you Vince/Noel/Howard/Julian”.***

Structually, in some ways, comic theatre hasn’t changed much since, ooh, the comedy of Ancient Greece. People come along with a grand plan to make the world a better place; various characters are introduced to disrupt their plans, and the various disruptions get dispatched. Roughly, that’s that – I know I’m simplifying hugely, but it’s a long time since I last looked at any Ancient Greek comedy. My point is: the Boosh aren’t exactly groundbreaking in what they do, but they do it well. Certainly, they know how to entertain an audience, and how to make the scripted sound unscripted.

We poured out of the arena and into Victoria Station, slowly, with smiles on our faces. It was a long trip; but worth it. Never mind the limitations of the theatre; it’s definitely worth seeing the Mighty Boosh in their original habitat again.

* No, nothing dirty! The cosmetics chain Lush makes a range of hair products with Mighty Boosh-inspired names.

** at least we weren’t way up by the roof – we were only about 6ft or so above stage level, enough height to get a good view but not too much so we were looking down on it all.

*** To be honest, I can’t remember hearing that last one at any point, but the other three all cropped up regularly. Why people skipped the last I couldn’t say.

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Wall of sound

In which we go to a Death Cab gig


I wonder, sometimes, how much music reviewers know about the bands they review. Some, it’s obvious, are fans. Some are at least knowledgeable. But there must be some, surely, who turn up knowing nothing and leave knowing less.

We went to see Death Cab For Cutie play the other night. “Ah,” I thought, “I’ll write about them for the blog.” It’s the second time we’ve seen them this year, having seen them already a few months back at the Manchester Apollo. I even recognised some of their tunes. But, nevertheless, I still don’t feel qualified to have an opinion about them.

The stage felt slightly odd at Sunday’s gig. A big, wide stage, the band set themselves up at opposite corners of it, with a vast empty area in the middle through which their bass guitarist romped, jumping about wildly. We were pressed up against the front barrier, so I amused myself by watching the local photographers jumping about in pretty much the same way, grabbing photos before they had to leave. Nice cameras.* I wasn’t entirely sure one of them had chosen the right lens – it looked a bit slow for the job. But I was supposed to be listening to the music.

They’re not the best band if you want onstage banter. They launch straight from one song to the next without leaving any applause room, sometimes stopping briefly to change guitars. We learned: they think that British and American Pizza Hut branches are just as bad as each other.** We learned that the band learned: swimming in the harbour is not a good idea.*** And that, as far as banter went, was that.**** Their music, though, is good. They’re a tight band, even though they practically needed telescopes to see each other on stage. People don’t necessarily go for talk, do they? They go to listen to the music. Benjamin Gibbard danced about on the balls of his feet, a roadie in the wings paying out and reeling in his guitar lead as he went, to stop him tripping up on it; not knowing the music, I liked watching the little details like that. After the very full set – twenty-odd songs, including a 4-track encore, not just stuff from their current album – we went home filled up with feedback and our ears ringing.*****

*All Nikon. A D3, a D300, and a lower-end SLR, something like a D40 or D60.

** Or Pasta Hut, or whatever stupid name they’re calling it now. I’m not surprised they’re equally poor.

*** Possibly they saw the same thing as I saw the other day: the Big Issue seller whose pitch is on Pero’s Bridge, standing and pissing off the bridge into the water, about 10ft below.

**** unless you count the Barack Obama campaign sticker on one of Benjamin Gibbard’s guitars. If you don’t say much, even a single sticker can count as a statement.

***** although not painfully, like some bands I’ve mentioned in the past.

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