+++*

Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts tagged with ‘music’

Mid-November, got back on the scene

You know the saying about buses, of course. I hadn’t been to a gig for years until the amazing Echobelly one last month, but then only the other day another one came along. To the Trinity Centre in inner-city Bristol, this time, for Saint Etienne.

Ironically, although I’m now several hours away, this time last year I was living within relatively short walking distance of the Trinity Centre; in fact, it was on my walk to work. It felt slightly strange coming back into my old neighbourhood for the gig, parking in the big shopping centre on the edge of town and walking down River St, Wade St, down to Lamb St, exactly the route we used to walk home from the city centre. The Catholic church, with its sign “No parking except for priest & disabled” still unchanged. And then the Trinity, opposite the angular red-brick police station, standing up in the night like a worn and broken tooth.

I hadn’t done anything to find out who the support act for Saint Etienne would be, so was rather pleased to arrive and discover it was someone who I would have happily paid to see in her own right: Jane Weaver. She slipped onto stage in shiny silver trainers, taking up her spot behind her keyboard before starting to show off the range and the peaks of her amazing voice. “Hey up,” someone shouted from the audience in a vague approximation of Weaver’s Lancashire accent.

Jane Weaver

Lovely though it was to see Jane Weaver live, I wasn’t really there for her and her band. I’ve been a fan of Saint Etienne since their second album So Tough, the one punctuated with audio clips from classic British films like Billy Liar and Peeping Tom between songs. I can still, I think, remember lying on my bed listening to it for the first time, on a cassette I’d probably just bought from Our Price or Andy’s Records, holding the dark green inlay in my hand.* Naturally, when the band and their backing band started to file onstage, I was already excited. They opened with “Like A Motorway”, which I’ve mentioned briefly in the past before going into “Mario’s Cafe”, the opening track of So Tough. I was in heaven. If you’d ever told me, back when I first heard its opening words, that a few decades later I’d have been in the front row listening to the band play that song live: well, I’d never have believed you.

Saint Etienne seem a bit overlooked sometimes. “Are they French,” the guy on the merch stall had said to me whilst waiting for the card machine to work. “Someone behind the bar told me they’re French.” At the very point in time that British “indie” music flooded the world with guitar riffs, Saint Etienne released an album which mixed folk melodies with dance beats and dark, morbid lyrics.** Nevertheless, they have kept going, and rather than focus purely on music have produced what could almost be a gesamtkunstwerk body of art encompassing music and film. You could never mistake them for being French, when so much of their work is devoted to the psychogeography of the Atlantic Archipelago in general and London in particular. I first heard about The London Nobody Knows through Saint Etienne.*** They have started producing films to go with their music: the latest features landmarks such as the Humber Bridge and Scunthorpe steelworks. All that time, though, they’re still themselves. Just as essentially I’m still the same person as I was in 1993 when I first listened to So Tough, they’re the same band too.

Saint Etienne

The three band members do need quite a lot of backup, to reproduce their album sound when playing live. The three band members are supported by a five-piece backing band, including their regular second vocalist Debsey Wykes, formerly of the band Dolly Mixture—she’s been providing additional vocals for Saint Etienne tracks since at least 1993. If you weren’t a fan, if you didn’t know what you had come to see, you could be forgiven for not realising which of the people onstage are the core band, given that Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs both stay at the back of the stage behind their laptops and synths. Bob is older but is still one of the cutest-looking guys on the UK music scene; Pete now has the grizzled beard of a Victorian lighthouse keeper. They say nothing on-stage, other than a wave (Pete) and thumbs-up (Bob) when going on and offstage. Sarah Cracknell is left to stand up-front and do all the talking between songs.

Saint Etienne

If you were a fan, though, then the band had certainly put together a good setlist. This wasn’t one of those gigs where a band with a new album to promote will only play the new stuff and little else. If it had been, it wouldn’t really have been a very long gig in any case, because the new Saint Etienne album is only about 40 minutes long. The main set only contained a couple of tracks from it, with everything else spread across the band’s whole discography. I can understand why Sarah needed a lyric sheet for the complex spoken-word passage in “Girl VII”, one of the tracks included from the band’s first album Foxbase Alpha, recorded over thirty years ago now; if anything, the setlist was focused firmly on the band’s first ten years or so much more closely than anything since. They encored with new Christmas song Her Winter Coat,**** followed by their mid-90s hit He’s On The Phone, the band’s translated take on the mid-80s Étienne Daho song “Week-end à Rome”. “The thing to do when you’re really hot,” said Sarah between songs, “is put on a feather boa.”

Saint Etienne

A second, well-deserved encore, and the gig was over.

For some reason, I’d never ever thought, in my head, that I would get the chance to see Saint Etienne live. I suppose, subconsciously, I thought of them as too much of a studio band, too concerned with electronic effects, soundscapes and found sounds that would always work best in the context of recorded pieces. Naturally, they left out anything with a guest vocalist on it—apart from “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”, which sounds just as good with Sarah replacing its original vocalist Moira Lambert, and “He’s On The Phone”, which did feel to have a bit of an empty hole without the French-language spoken-word passage originally provided by the song’s composer Étienne Daho. I didn’t mind; I don’t think anyone minded, although the wide range of people in the audience screaming out to request “Hobart Paving” as an encore were inevitably disappointed. I was tempted to shout out for “I Was Born On Christmas Day”, which also had a guest vocalist;***** but any band heavily-dependent on programmed music is going to be unlikely to be able do impromptu requests in any case. This wasn’t quite as thrilling a gig as the Echobelly one last month, or as intimate a gig as the Echobelly one either; but, as something I thought I’d never experience, as something that also touched on such a large proportion of my life, it’s definitely up there as one of the most amazing gigs I’ve experienced. Top five, say. Top five, definitely. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

* In the weird, associative way that memories work, I also associate my first listen-through of So Tough with reading vol. 1, issue 2 of Modelling Railways Illustrated magazine. Entirely plausible, because both are from 1993.

** If you didn’t follow the link, I previously described “Like A Motorway” as a brave attempt to revive the 1960s “death disc” genre: it’s about a woman breaking the news of her boyfriend’s suicide to people. “Hate Your Drug“, one of the B-sides recorded at the same time—it was released on the single “Hug Your Soul”—is a beautiful song which seems to be about a teenage girl in a coma following an overdose.

*** I thought I’d written about The London Nobody Knows here before, but it turns out I wrote about it very, very briefly on the old blog. So that can be a story for another day.

**** When I first heard “Her Winter Coat”, live at the gig, its slow buildup of instruments reminded me somewhat of the Belle and Sebastian song “This Is Just A Modern Rock Song”. The Hebridean video can’t really have helped with the association in my mind. It doesn’t sound anywhere near as similar on the recorded version of the track.

***** Tim Burgess, in case you were wondering. Yes, the “Tim’s Twitter Listening Party” guy. Oh, in case you didn’t realise, the title of this blog post is a lyric from “I Was Born On Christmas Day” too.

Dark therapy

Or, going to a gig for the first time in a long time

There’s nothing quite like going to see a gig, is there? I haven’t been to see a gig in years—let’s not even count them—but there’s still nothing quite like the thrill of going into the dark venue space and seeing the empty stage all set up and ready.

There’s nothing quite like going to see a gig in a little local venue, is there? I mean, the sort of venue that is a properly local space for new talent to practice and learn their stagecraft, the sort of venue where there isn’t a backstage, the bands have to squeeze through the audience to get on and off, and the stage is really just a raised area at one end of the room.

There’s nothing quite like going to see a band that you’ve loved for years, either, is there? The sort of band that you loved in your teens and you still love their new material now, because they’ve grown and developed as you’ve grown and developed.

So when I heard that Echobelly were playing Le Pub in Casnewydd/Newport, obviously, I had to get a ticket. I’ve been listening to Echobelly ever since their early single “I Can’t Imagine The World Without Me,” which I bought in cassingle format in its first week of release.* For my first gig in many years to be one of my favourite bands, at a tiny little venue, it seemed as if all the stars were in alignment.

The support were a local band called Murder Club, an excellent four-piece group who call themselves “the quiet grrrls of riot grrrl” and who might well end up being the next big thing on the South Wales music scene, even though it’s a crowded place. Their drummer was also doing duty checking tickets on the door, and their keyboardist said: “Thank you for coming to our gig!” to me as I went in. It was just a shame their set wasn’t a bit longer, because their songs were great.

Murder Club

After Murder Club had left the stage, the room started to fill up** as Echobelly started to put their equipment together. Until, finally, all went quiet, and the band squeezed their way through the audience and into position. And then, it was time.

Glenn and Sonya of Echobelly

Given what I said at the start, you can hardly expect this to be an impartial critical review.*** As soon as Sonya Madan sang the opening line of the first song—I think it was “Gravity Pulls”—I was bowled away. To hear songs I’ve heard the recorded versions of time after time after time, sung live, with the band only a couple of feet away from me, was almost overwhelming. I must have been grinning like a loon throughout.

“I can’t bounce about on stage like I normally would,” Sonya apologised. She’d fallen off the stage at their previous gig, apparently, and one foot was still recovering. Still, she managed to move about and take full control of the stage, even if she couldn’t really be seen from the back of the room. The whole band clearly loved being there to perform, and Sonya encouraged everyone to join in with a couple of the more anthemic songs, such as “Great Things” and “King Of The Kerb”. “We love to hear you sing along,” she said.

A couple of photographers were slipping in and out of the crowd, recording as much as they could. I did pull my phone out of my pocket every so often and try to take a quick snap or two, but as I was concentrating on listening to the music, the results are almost all terrible.

Sonya Aurora Madan

Bassist James of Echobelly

I wasn’t there to take photos, though, I was there to gather memories.

Sonya Aurora Madan

Sonya admitted they couldn’t be bothered—given the state of her foot—to pretend they hadn’t planned to do an encore. They played the “final song”, took their applause, then after some slightly comic and sarcastic chants of “More!” from the audience, went into the encore. The main set ended with “Scream”, the encore with “Dark Therapy”. Both are among my favourite songs of theirs, and I couldn’t have chosen better ones to end on. For my first gig in many years, it was a perfect night.

* It wasn’t the first Echobelly release, but it was the second single from their first album. They’d released an EP and another single before that.

** As an aside here, I’m always a little bit disappointed when people get tickets for a gig and only bother to see the headline act. So many people do it, and it’s such a shame, because it’s really important to support bands when they’re on the way up as well as when they’re at the top. Mind you, maybe I’m biased, because at the very first gig I ever saw, the support act was an unknown (to me at least) local band who went on to become major international stars.

*** You might also have noticed I didn’t give you any clue at all what Murder Club actually sounded like, which would make it a pretty rubbish review really.

Changing tunes

Thoughts from the history of music

I mentioned the other day about having a backlog of ideas to write about without forgetting what they are. Some of them have been bubbling around for a few years now, when I’ve read a book or watched something on the telly. For example, a few years ago I was given a copy of the book Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story Of Modern Pop by Bob Stanley. For the past thirty years or so, Stanley has been one third of the band Saint Etienne, who I’ve loved almost as long, and who right from their start in the late 80s have made pop music that cuts across categories, combining fantastically catchy pop hooks with lyrics that are pitched at just the right level between meaningful and slightly inane; but at the same time squeezing in London hip hop, club beats and art school sound collages. Their first album combines pop bangers like “Nothing Can Stop Us” with voice clips of Richard Whiteley and Willie Rushton; the second has excerpts from the 1960s British films Peeping Tom and Billy Liar, and a man ordering chicken soup.* Their songs “Like A Motorway” and “Hate Your Drug” are arguably the best attempt anyone has ever made to revive the 1960s “death disc” genre,** but at the same time they care as deeply about London psychogeography as Geoffrey Fletcher, Iain Sinclair or Patrick Keiller. In short, they cover such a broad area in their music, that it is not surprising Stanley wrote a broad, broad book.

Yeah Yeah Yeah is a history of British and American pop music from roughly 1945 to 2005 or so; the start and finish dates are a little vague, but it was intended to be the history of British and American pop music over the years that the 7” vinyl single was the dominant distribution format. Naturally, though, it is a history of pop music that doesn’t at all mention Saint Etienne; they are gracefully elided from the chapters they would naturally fit into. I wasn’t really surprised; it would seem a bit gauche to pretend to write about yourself in the same detached and journalistic style as the rest of the book. It left me thinking, though, how would Bob Stanley have written about his own band if he hadn’t been in his own band himself? It’s another of those impossible counterfactuals, one even more unlikely that most, but nevertheless I find it an interesting thought.

I personally became interested in pop music at the end of the 80s and the start of the 90s, something of a strange period that’s often considered a somewhat empty one, a period in which music was doing little more than treading water waiting for the 90s to start. Music from before that period is something I largely know about purely by the regular processes of cultural assimilation (aside from that covered in the folk-focused Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music by Rob Young). The Parents had a very curious, eclectic and limited record collection, which I naturally went through as a teenager, but it gave me a very one-sided view of things. The Mother seems to have been a sucker for the slightly-novelty single when she was younger: her 7”s included “Deck of Cards” by Wink Martindale, the original Doctor Who theme, and “Dominique” by The Singing Nun. She’s also rather liked rock or pop versions of older orchestral music; in the 60s she was buying “Grieg One” by The Second City Sound***, and at the start of the 80s she often listened to the band Sky, with their electronic versions of classical standards.**** Naturally, my knowledge of popular music from before “my own time” ended up being very strange, patchy, but with a deep knowledge of some curious corners. Yeah Yeah Yeah therefore was a fascinating synthesis, a map and a guide to a vast and complex landscape where previously I’d only seen the summits of the mountains peeking through the clouds.

The last portion of the book, though, I found less satisfying. Not just because Saint Etienne weren’t in it, but because in general my own musical tastes have tended towards the slightly niche and obscure, and those particular niches just don’t get swept. In particular I used to be a big fan of Belle and Sebastian. More recently I have gone back and explored some of their own influences, such as Felt, or some of the bands which recorded on the Sarah Records label. These are niches that tend to be seen as not just obscure but wilfully obscurantist, even though that is a very long way from the truth.***** I wasn’t surprised that my own particular hobby-horses were not deeply investigated, but it felt a shame that the 90s in general seemed to be quickly skimmed over. Possibly this was because Stanley felt unable to handle the days of the CD single; I wondered more, though, if it was a general reluctance to deal with the area he felt personally involved in.

The rise of streaming services is often given as something which has fundamentally changed the popular music landscape; and it is indisputable that the music scene today has changed completely from what it was 20 years ago. Personally, though, I feel the change wasn’t driven so much by streaming, but by communication; by MySpace letting every single band in the known universe put up their shopfront and become known across the world. It immediately broadened the scope of every music fan: the trickle of information about new bands that came from the weekly music press suddenly became an unstoppable flood. I, for one, felt that in 1995 I could at least be aware of all the bands in the genres I cared about, but by 2005 that was becoming completely impossible. I can also see how, if you were to write a book about pop music, continuing it past 2005 would seem impossible too.

When I reached the end of the book and read the acknowledgements, I wasn’t surprised. Yeah Yeah Yeah was put together with the help and influence of a number of key members of the ILX forums. Personally, I haven’t used ILX for more years than I really want to think about; but when I saw many named I recognised from ILX in the back of the book, I suddenly realised why some of the book’s arguments and standpoints felt so familiar to me. Of course, given I was a fan of Stanley’s music all along, given I have always been a fan of syncretic, holistic thought and of “reconciling the seemingly disparate”, I would have agreed with much of it in any case. As books go, this one will be staying on the bookshelf.

* One piece of trivia I only discovered when fact-checking this post: the woman on the sleeve of their first album, Foxbase Alpha, is apparently also the woman who says “Can I take your order?” on “Chicken Soup”.

** Yes, it’s a real genre. You probably know the most famous “death disc” track, “Leader Of The Pack” by The Shangri-Las. Incidentally Saint Etienne’s discography is awfully complex and only partially available on streaming services; “Hate Your Drug” was a B-side to the single “Hug My Soul” and an album track on some versions, but not all, of Tiger Bay—it wasn’t on the original UK release. For reasons I have never understood, the rear sleeve of “Hug My Soul” features a black and white photo of a kitchen with random items labelled in Icelandic.

*** If you’ve never heard of The Second City Sound, it’s OK: I suspect The Mother only knew of them because she lived in said second city and they were a local band.

**** Later on still, when she no longer came across new music herself, I managed to get her into William Orbit and The Penguin Cafe Orchestra: I figured they were exactly the sort of thing that would follow on from her previous musical habits.

***** Incidentally over the years I’ve seen many people say they thought Belle and Sebastian would have been a perfect Sarah Records band, if Sarah had still been around when the band formed. I don’t think is true at all; moreover, I feel anyone who says that can only have a wild misunderstanding of Sarah’s aims and purpose. That, though, is a topic too large to fit into this footnote.

Is it about a bicycle?

In which I hasve been to see an operatic adaptation of that classic 20th century Irish novel The Third Policeman, so write a review filled with in-jokes

Thursday night: to the Cube Cinema. Not for a film, but for an opera: The Third Policeman, adapted and produced by a chap called Ergo Phizmiz. Having read the novel, I was intrigued as to how a stage adaptation would work: of all the books I have read, it is…

The Plain People Of The Internet: By, there’s no footnotes yet. What are you doing there getting forty words or more into a blog post already and not writing any footnotes?

I was wondering when you people might turn up. Somehow, I thought you might. The footnotes were something I was wondering about, because they do rather alter the structure and format of the novel.* How would they be presented, in operatic form?

The Plain People of the Internet: So did they put signs up on the stage then? Cards with the footnote text on? Or a simultaneous narration chap type of thing?

Well, no. The works of de Selby*** were integrated into the main part of the libretto. But now, you’re getting me ahead of myself. I meant to say how faithful an adaptation it was, but you people there have led me down the line of criticism much quicker than I had intended. Everything is getting turned and turned about, and we’re getting to the wrong parts of the review first. Which is ironic, really. The Third Policeman is sometimes said to be a classic surrealist novel, or a classic postmodernist novel, but at heart it really has a quite straightforward start-to-finish plot. No fiddling around with flashbacks or more complicated temporal structures: it starts at the start, ends at the end, and gets there directly.**** Nice and straightforward to translate into a stage production, so long as you manage to replicate the mood. The mood, indeed, is the important thing.

The Plain People of the Internet: The key to the whole lock, stock and breadbasket!

Indeed, if you want to put it that way. There have been innumerable…

The Plain People of the Internet: We counted them.

You don’t know what I’m going to say!

The Plain People of the Internet: Ah, but we counted them. Five hundred and twenty-seven.

Don’t be silly. Nobody has counted them, and there aren’t five hundred and twenty seven. There have been innumerable…

The Plain People of the Internet: Well then, how would you know?

Shush now. There have been innumerable dream…

The Plain People of the Internet: Fünfhundert, sieben und zwanzig.

…dream sequences committed to literature, but none of them, to my ears, quite ring true. The Third Policeman is the only book I have read that does have the feel of a real, genuine dream. It has dream logic, hallucinatory dream logic, buildings with impossible perspectives or images that are two contradictory things simultaneously.***** It has dream-logic in the plot: the mechanics of Eternity or the machinations of the eponymous Policeman Fox.** And this is something that came across very well in the opera. The combination of live actors, Phizmiz’s music, projected video, shadow-puppetry and all, had a wonderfully dreamlike atmosphere to it, wonderful at capturing the tone of the book itself, both surreal and slightly frightening. Moreover, clearly the company had some finely-honed stagecraft skills: the projected video seemed to be a single stream, and the music was essentially continuous, so there was no space at all for the cast to miss any marks, whether acting on their own, as a group, or with partly-prerecorded dialogue. With several costume changes for two of the three actors, things offstage must have been hectic.

I would go back and see The Third Policeman again, but Thursday’s performance was the last one in Bristol. If you’d like to see it yourself, then it is coming up in the next few weeks in Rotterdam, Dartington and Bridport, according to Mr Phizmiz’s website. If you’re going to be around any of those places, I’d recommend it. Having read the novel, I was intrigued as to how a stage adaptation would work: of all the books I have read, it is…

The Plain People of the Internet: By, there it is: if you saw us coming, then we’re sure we saw that. And you never even told us: Is it about a bicycle?

* Someone once said, about this site, that the profusion of footnotes meant I wasn’t a very good writer. I see their point,****** but disagree. A heavily-footnoted work such as The Third Policeman is possibly as close as you can come to a hypertext narrative in book form, and reading it leads to one skipping up and down and flipping between two separate trains of thought, main text and footnote, as one goes. Rather, in other words, like browsing the Web with a dozen tabs all open at once, flipping to another whilst one waits for the first to load.

** Or, at least, the dreams I have have that sort of plot. Maybe not everyone’s dreams are the same.

*** A most distinguished and unique philosopher who is generally only to be found within the pages of O’Brien’s work.

**** It’s certainly not a postmodern novel when compared with Lanark, one of my favourite novels; although it did influence Lanark greatly — or apparently, at least. It says as much in the pages of Lanark, in a section where the book’s author lists all his various sources and inspirations, including some sources and inspirations which allegedly inspired passages which, if you look them up, don’t exist anywhere else in the novel. Now that’s postmodernism.

***** One of these — a cracked ceiling that is at the same time both just a pattern of cracks in plaster and a detailed map of the local area — was one of the few things in the book that didn’t seem to get mentioned at all in the opera.

The Plain People of the Footnote Internet: No Plain People either, but to be fair Mr O’Brien kept them to badger in his newspapery work. Now, here’s a thing. You know those horror films where your man thinks it’s all a dream, but then he wakes up and the evil axe-wiggler nightmare is still around and about the place? Is this the same here? You, reading or writing on the outside of that screen there, thought that you had escaped into a footnote and had gotten yourself away from us, only for Plain People to jump in and interrupt your footnotes too? And does that mean we are about to tap you yourself there on your shoulder?

****** ie, that I can’t edit properly.

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.

In-Flight Entertainment

In which we have a jaunt off to Birmingham to see Flight Of The Conchords

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.

Ubiquity

In which there’s a band you can’t avoid

If there’s one band that was ubiquitous in everyone’s best-of-2009 lists the other months, it must have been Florence And The Machine. Everyone, pretty much, loved their debut album, Lungs, and every review couldn’t stop raving about it. We got a copy; and it was, I have to say, pretty decent. I was impressed.

This post isn’t a review of the album, though. This post is a complaint that now, if you turn the telly on, you can’t get away from that album. Over and over again, tracks from that Florence And The Machine album are being used as background music on trailer after trailer. I’ve heard it used to advertise everything from Slumdog Millionaire to The Hairy Bikers to Lard Rise To Candleford,* and more than once I’ve heard successive trailers, back-to-back, with songs from that same album in the background.

The end-of-year lists might well be at fault. After all, the album was released back in the summer, but this wasn’t happening back in October or November. All at once, though, at some point in December, every sound-editing person across the entire TV world seems to have picked up a copy of Lungs and started plastering its tracks all over their output. All channels seem to have had the same idea, all at the same time. It was a good album, but now, you can’t get away from it. Sometimes too much is too much.

* I prefer the typo there to the actual programme.

List Post Of The Week

In which we list some bands

This week’s List Post Of The Week: bands scheduled to perform at this year’s End Of The Road Festival, just completed, on the borders of Dorset and Wiltshire:*

The Acorn; Alela Dian; Iain Archer; Sam Baker; Archie Bronson Outfit; Au; Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo; Bear Driver; Blitzen Trapper; The Boy Least Likely To; Brakes; Peter Broderick; Broken Family Band; David Thomas Broughton; Neko Case; Dirty Projectors; The Dodos; The Duke & The King; Steve Earle; Efterklang; Jess Elva; Esben and the Witch; Explosions In The Sky; First Aid Kit; Fleet Foxes; Get The Blessing; Laura Gibson; Joe Gideon and The Shark; The Hand; The Heavy; Darren Hayman; Herman Dune; The Hold Steady; The Horrors; Beth Jeans Houghton; Huw M; Lay Low; The Leisure Society; Bob Lind; Bob Log III; Loney Dear; The Low Anthem; Magic Arm; Magnolia Electric Co; Dent May & His Magnificent Ukelele; Dan Michaelson and the Coastguards; Malcolm Middleton; Motel Motel; Mumford & Sons; The Mummers; Ohbiju; Okkervil River; The Pack AD; Charlie Parr; Josh T Pearson; Quack Quack; Richmond Fontaine; Alasdair Roberts; Dan Sartain; She Keeps Bees; Shearwater; The Sliding Rule; Soy Un Caballo; Sparrow & The Workshop; Spokes; Stardeath and White Dwarfs; Stars Of Sunday League; T-Model Ford; The Tallest Man On Earth; The Tenebrous Liar; This Frontier Needs Heroes; Holly Throsby; J Tillman; Tiny Vipers; The Travelling Band; Treecreeper; Twi The Humble Feather; Vetiver; The Week That Was; Whispertown 2000; William Elliot Whitmore; Wildbirds & Peacedrums; Wye Oak; Zun Zun Egui

* Literally so: the gardens and main stage were in Wiltshire, the camp site and other stages in Dorset.

Independent

In which we fill the weekend with music

A bit of a musical weekend, this weekend. A bit of a busy one too: there’s always too much in this town to choose between.

It started off with Big Pink Cake. Or, at least, the Big Pink Cake Indiepop All-Weekender, starting off on Saturday at the Cube. It offered free cake, so really there was no choice. Plus, Dimitra is always saying that we should go and see Pete Green, largely because he’s one of the best stars of indiepop to emerge from Grimsby in recent years. He does things like: release songs to benefit the Lincolnshire Wolds Railway,* too.

So, we ambled down to The Cube on Saturday afternoon for the free c… I mean, for the first stage of the Big Pink Cake weekend. The first few bands, including Mr Green, were to appear in the bar, which is really rather cramped. We saw a stream of bands play to the small crowd: The Short Stories, Countryside, Secret Shine, and at least one other band that weren’t on the roster. The singer of said band held up their CD and said that anybody there could have a free copy; the audience carefully avoided eye contact. No Pete Green though. He’d been moved to today’s setlist. Ah well.

After nipping out for food at Café Kino, we returned for the evening bands, over in the cinema. Being a cinema, each band had picked a film to be screened behind them, their choices all rather interesting. There was: something black-and-white from late-50s Britain,** chosen by French band Electrophönvintage; La Dolce Vita, chosen by The Westfield Mining Disaster; Convoy, picked by Amida, March Of The Penguins accompanying Santa Dog, and classic British film Les Bicyclettes de Belsize showing behind The Pocketbooks. That does, really, tell you more about each band than I could explain myself.*** We weren’t really impressed by the sound quality, though, or the way that the first song of each set turned into a sound check.

The Big Pink Cake weekender did – being, you know, a weekender – extend through to today, with an afternoon of bands at the Mothers Ruin. The bill included Pete Green (moved from Saturday, apparently) and Tender Trap, a band beloved of all C86/Sarah tweecore fans and/or economics experts everywhere. However, we didn’t go along, because we’d left on the Saturday feeling relatively uninspired. As luck would have it, in our meal-break down at Café Kino, we spotted a poster for a rather better-sounding gig that was on at the same time. So, instead, we spent our Sunday afternoon at the Scout Hut down on Phoenix Wharf.

At the Scout Hut we saw Jam On Bread and Mat Riviere, in the middle of a joint tour, supported by local band Boxcar Aldous Huxley. I’ve seen Boxcar Aldous Huxley before, and they were very good then; they were very good again today, with tales of Francis Dashwood, the responsibilities of the free press, and messianic movements in 19th century Canada. They were followed by Mat Riviere, who performed kneeling on the floor with a variety of keyboards and samples; and Jam On Bread, who had both a ukelele and a beard, and played both brilliantly.

I was sitting listening to Jam On Bread’s**** set, and I couldn’t help thinking: you know, his accent sounds a bit, well, Grimsbyish. Not really northern but not really southern, a bit flat and dull but with the full complement of vowels.***** But, of course, he couldn’t be: it might be a small world, but there’s no way that two stars of pop music, both from Grimsby, would both be playing gigs in Bristol on the same afternoon. And then: his lyrics mentioned that he wasn’t Swedish, because he was born in Grimsby. Gosh.

We didn’t get time to speak to Jam On Bread after the gig, so I didn’t have time to confirm his Grimsbyness face-to-face; but the internet seems to think it’s true. So: we did get to see a top Grimsby-born indiepop star this weekend, after all. It just wasn’t the one we’d been expecting to see when the weekend started. I think we might well have seen the best one, though.

* one of the country’s shortest steam railways, and hence in need of the donations. It will, if ever finished, be notable for being the country’s straightest steam railway, a good ten miles long and with utterly no curves. At present it runs for about a quarter of a mile, but it does have a somersault signal, which is obviously a plus point. I should point out that Pete Green’s song does largely blame Richard Beeching for the line’s original closure: in reality it didn’t shut down until 1970, whereas Beeching was sacked from the British Railways Board in ’65.

** easily dated from the railway carriages featured, if we’d got a better look at it

*** No, really, it does; although it would take rather more space to explain why. Maybe that will be a blog post for next week some time.

**** His real name is Steve Carlton, or at least, that’s what it says on the Internet

***** To be contrasted with the nearby Hull accent, which only uses one vowel. “E hed e slerce ef terst, smerked e feg, end went dern the rerd”

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