Monday, 17 October 2011

Tears on my Pilau

This blog is continued from here, where you can read about the gig I'd just been to, if you like. You really don't have to, though. I won't be upset. This kitten might be, though.

So we've decided to go for some food with Bob and Jacqui, and after much umming and ahhing, the Kismet Indian restaurant directly opposite the venue is chosen, in what may very well prove to be the best culinary decision of my adult life. (The best culinary decision of my entire life obviously being to upgrade from sludge to things you can chew.)

"Have you eaten here before?", asks the Maitre D'. Um, no, but I think I can manage to order a curry without instructions, I think silently. "No, we haven't", I say. This is obviously the signal for our new friend's A-game to kick into play, and he begins a barrage of sales patter of the kind not heard since the last series of the Apprentice left our screens. I couldn't possibly hope to remember everything we were told, but the general gist is this:

Eating at the Kismet is a unique Indian dining experience, the likes of which cannot be found anywhere else in the Warwickshire area, in fact they've been named the best curry house in Warwickshire by the Warwickshire curry club. In case we don't believe him, he brings over a small plastic stand in which an article about said accolade has been cut from the North West Warwickshire Bugle (or something) and proudly framed. This will remain on our table until at least halfway through our meal, as if taking it away will suddenly break the magical spell and we'll realise that we're actually just eating a curry. In the other side of the stand is an article where he is pictured next to the smashed front window of his restaurant and discussing what should be done about the state of youths today. Apparently he is equally proud of both his moments of fame.

Ha! I actually found it online...

Anyway, in amongst the sales patter he explains to us about the very special starter on their menu which he personally designed and will cook for us. We seem sceptical that he is also the chef (or I do anyway, I can't tell if the look on Bob's face is scepticism or lager), and he explains that he owns and runs the restaurant with his twin brother, and they are both chefs but he does more of the front of house work. He makes the starter sound so delicious and explains with such great enthusiasm the process of designing and cooking this dish that we feel duty bound to at least give it a try, despite it costing £3 more than any of the other starters (in an odd coincidence). He suggests that we leave ordering mains until after he's delivered the starters so that we can decide afterwards how much, and what we want to eat that will complement the flavours of his starter.

In all honesty, I'm not sure about the sound of this starter - he describes layers of chicken, pork, prawn and potato stacked ontop of each other and deep fried and I have a vision of some kind of giant mutant samosa, dripping with grease. The Indian equivalent of a deep fried Mars Bar, if you will.

While we wait, there are drinks and much bizarre discussion (Bob: "So what's Sweden like? I heard that even the clouds are interesting." - James: "Even the clowns are interesting?" - Bob: "CLOUDS!" - James: "Oh, ok. That makes much more sense.")

Some interesting clouds, in Sweden.

And then, out come the starters. The plates are enormous. The food itself, to my slight relief, is not a giant greasy battered monstrosity, but a neat little stack about the diameter of a jaffa cake and the height of a roll of sellotape (turned on its side.) It looks like something you'd see on Masterchef - from one of the really pretentious contestants, not the housewives who cook big, tasty, hearty portions and then get told off for it looking like actual food. We eye our plates even more suspiciously. Our new friend's credibilty is teetering on the brink and it's looking like we've been had, but there's nothing to do but give it a try.

Of course, it is absolutely delicious, albeit ridiculously tiny. I'm not any kind of food critic so I won't attempt to describe the tastes but safe to say it's one of the best things I've ever eaten in an Indian restaurant. From this point on, we're ready to order and eat and pay whatever we're told to. During his initial sales patter, the owner has been talking about "The Indian Experience" set menu, and being naturally keen to do the opposite of what I'm told, I've ignored him and decided on something fairly boring from the a la carte, however we're all now completely in his hands and when he suggests that he brings us a selection of dishes of his choosing, designed to complement the flavours of the starter we've just had, nobody puts up too much resistance.

Not only that, but he actually asks us in turn what we would normally order, how spicy we like our food ("Very", says Bob, perhaps unwisely), and then suggests something for each of us, along with some of his standard favourite dishes, including a beetroot and prawn hot salad and an amazing chicken and paneer dish which comes to the table in a sizzling pan over which our friend then throws a shot glass of something alcholic and nearly sets the whole restaurant alight.

Everything is absolutely delicious and each dish really does complement the others, leaving us in no doubt that this really is a meticulously thought out banquet experience and not just the restaurant's way of using up whichever surplus ingredients they have lying about, oh no, not at all.

To thank us for letting him take us on his culinary journey, he even throws in a free dessert, which looks a lot like a deep-fried banana fritter with ice cream, and pretty much is, but with hints of garlic and spices in the batter of the fritter. Sounds disgusting, tastes delicious.

With everyone completely stuffed, there's only one part of this consummate showman's spiel which is as yet unverified, so Bob asks if we can meet his twin brother. He heads off into the kitchen, and I think we're all expecting him to put on an apron and come back out again with a cheeky grin, but no, he re-emerges followed by someone who looks exactly like him but with substantially less hair and a good deal less swagger. I can see how they came to the decision of who would spend more time working front-of-house. We thank them profusely for a great meal, and suggest that maybe they'd like to make all our life decisions for us from now on, at which they suggest that maybe the gents would like to stay and have some more drinks while the ladies accompany the two of them out on the town. Ah, the comedy...

Instead, we ask for the bill and I wonder whether we are about to encounter a new experience in bill-getting where they tell us what we might like to pay and we blindly do so, but thankfully not. Everything comes to a very reasonable £75 for 4 of us, so we gladly pay up and make our way out.

"Please come back soon", we are urged, but explain that we live hundreds of miles away. No matter, he says, even if we come back in a year's time he will remember us, as he never forgets the faces of the people he serves. What a waste of memory, I think. Why not forget a few faces and make some room for useful stuff like times tables, or the lyrics to "This Charming Man"?

His parting advice to us - to look out for him on the TV. Why, is he going to be on it? No, not yet, he says but he will be one day. I actually don't doubt it.

15th October 2011: Burning Shed 10th Anniversary Concert - The Assembly, Leamington Spa

This blog first appeared on the forum of one of my favourite bands, Tinyfish. I'm sorry if you have already read it there - I promise I won't make you read it again. Although it is pretty good, and certainly bears re-reading, much like 'Bravo Two Zero' by Andy McNab, which actually improves with every read.

The occasion - a 10th Anniversary Concert for online record label and music mail-order company Burning Shed.

On Friday night, Karin and I headed up to Leamington Spa to see one of the most eclectic evenings of music ever assembled outside the heats of the Eurovision song contest.

Skillfully avoiding carnage on the M25 thanks to iPhone TomTom, we arrive in time to go and meet our friends Jacqui and Bob (of the most excellent Dead Nobodies podcast) at the, um, pub whose name I forget, where the Progeny 3 fringe festival was held last year. The fishfinger sandwiches look good but there's no time for any of that - a quick Crabbies Ginger Beer and then it's off to the venue.

I don't know how many of you have been to the Assembly in Leamington but it's a lovely, lovely venue. Grand in the extreme, or so it appears. Actually, the lights never come on properly the entire time we're in there, so thinking about it now I strongly suspect it's actually crumbling and in need of restoration, but at the time I'm fooled anyway.

The normally standing venue is set out with rows of seats, rather like a school assembly (oh, I see what they did there!), and we make our way to the 4th row or so and take our seats in anticipation of the musical delights to come.

First up: 

"The Resonance Association perform to images by Carl Glover"

We're sitting patiently in our seats waiting for the fun to start and listening to what some nameless person describes as "Whale music", when we suddenly realise that it's coming from behind us and The Resonance Association are actually performing in the bar upstairs.

Now, I don't know what you think of when you hear the phrase "perform to images", but I'd imagined some kind of giant projections of shifting images, with the band performing in front of them. What it actually seems to mean is that the band are literally performing *at* some framed photos set out on stands at the front of the room, as if the pictures were some kind of royal court demanding to be entertained. Since we've left it far too late anyway, the bar is rammed and it's impossible to get in, which is a shame, since I'd enjoyed their brand of post-rock loops and drones at a previous gig and was ready to give them another chance. Instead, we give up fairly quickly and head back downstairs to await the first act to perform for an audience of people rather than inanimate objects.

After a quick intro from the Burning Shed guys, the first act takes to the main stage and it's "Giancarlo Erra plays Memories Of Machines." Memories of Machines is normally Giancarlo plus Tim Bowness from no-man, but tonight he performs to keyboard parts on tape whilst singing and playing guitar. It's a nice opening, Giancarlo's voice and playing are gentle and soothing to listen to, and he plays 3 very mellow, dreamlike and quite melancholy songs. Not sure he could have pulled off a full set with this setup but it's a nice start to the evening.

Despite enjoying it, I can't help but smile and secretly agree with Bob's description of the set ("Like watching teardrops of rain trickle down the window on a wet and miserable day") . Is that necessarily a negative thing?

Next up is Sax, Flute, Clarinet and ukelele legend Theo Travis*. The man is a woodwind genius who has played with Fripp, Gong, Sylvian and Richard Sinclair, and I've personally enjoyed his work on various Steven Wilson projects and with The Tangent too so I'm looking forward to this. Unfortunately, and it makes me feel like a philistine to say so, I just cannot get into his set at all. At best I find it tedious and at worst actively annoying. Imagine, if you will, Matt Stevens and his loop pedal. Now imagine that Matt didn't play any chords at all but just built up his music using single sustained guitar notes. Now imagine that he didn't even use this to build up interesting melodies, but rather developed minimalist soundscapes, almost like aural paintings. Rather like some of Robert Fripp's soundscape work.

I'm very sorry to Theo if he ever reads this because I'm a huge fan of his playing, but this just isn't for me - but much of the rest of the crowd seems to lap it up so I know I'm just missing something. In fact, Karin, upon reading this, tells me that I most definitely was missing something, and that it was awesome. So that's me told.

Anyway, next up are Bruce and Jon from The Pineapple Thief. "At last, a real song!", says Bob. They play a short set of songs from various albums in an acoustic guitar / electric upright bass duet, and it's good fun, although Bruce's Thom Yorke-esque vocals are an acquired taste, and the songs where the performance relies on them the most ("Debt to You" especially) are less enjoyable for me. Still, they get a rapturous response and calls for an encore, which sadly doesn't seem to be on the agenda.

And then, at last, the main event (as much as a 45-minute set can be considered a main event!). No-man are a revelation live - on the albums I've heard, they seem very subdued and I'd wondered how this would translate to a concert setting. I needn't have worried, the band have the audience mesmerised from the first song, Tim Bowness's breathy vocals being surprisingly powerful in a concert setting and managing to cut through the sometimes angry music being played by the band. It's also a new experience to watch Steven Wilson being relegated to "Guitar #2" and just standing there quietly playing away on stage for the whole set. Even the rare (but excellent) guitar solos are played by lead guitar player Michael Bearpark, with the majority of soloing being left to superb violinist Steve Bingham who adds a very different dimension to this most unique of rock bands.

They play tracks from across their career, including some never played live before and even one from 1987 which has never been released. (Names escape me, I'm sorry.) And all too quickly, our 45 minutes is up, except that they're allowed an encore which they use to staggering effect to play the best (and most rocking) song of the set so far. Halfway through the song, Tim Bowness hangs up his microphone and jumps down off the front of the stage, walking back down the aisle and down to the rear of the hall where he disappears completely, leaving the band to complete the closing instrumental portion of the song to rapturous applause.

So, it's all over by 10.15. I wander over to see which CDs I can purchase at the Merch stand but I don't have any cash on me. If only there were somewhere I could buy these things online when I get home, I wonder out loud to nobody in particular. Bob, Jacqui and I retreat to the bar for chatter whilst Karin catches up with some old friends, and we watch with quiet amusement as people start to arrive for 'Cortina Night - Playing the best 60s, 70s and 80s music'. Gradually the general mood shifts from "haha, look at those young, trendy people arriving for their disco" to "what are these fat nerdy old men doing here?", as the prog contingent disappear off into the night and the stragglers are eventually ushered out so as not to lower the tone.

I catch one last glimpse of the Merch Desk as I'm on my way out - it appears that several young ladies in short skirts are surprisingly interested to learn about no-man and Memories of Machines... but no, the "Merch Desk" is actually a repurposed cloakroom, I suddenly realise.

So it's definitely time to get out of here, but I'm not quite ready to drive back to London just yet so dinner is proposed.


Sunday, 16 October 2011

I can feel it, crawling in my hair tonight... oh lord.

When I was 16, I went to see Phil Collins at Wembley Arena. There probably aren't too many stories which begin like that. Not good ones, at any rate. But this is a good story, an excellent one in fact. This is the story of how I became completely obsessed with live music. 

The full story will actually have to wait for another post because it'll take me a bit too long to type out, and I also don't want to scare any potential readers away before we've even begun. Let's just skip right to the part where I'm completely obsessed with live music. Maybe even to the point that I think nothing of driving for a 10-hour round trip to see my favourite band play for 90 minutes. Or maybe not, if that makes you want to not be friends with me any more.

The idea of this blog is to jot down some thoughts, not only about the many gigs I go to, but the things that surround them - the trips I make to get there, the friends I meet along the way and the curries I consume afterwards. That way I stand a chance of remembering not just which gigs I've been to, but all the amusing things that happened around them, and the incredibly witty things I said. 

There might even be some posts which don't have anything to do with music at all, if there are any of these I will probably invite people who aren't as nerdy as me along to read them. If you're one of those non-nerdy people, please bear me through the descriptions of bands you've never heard of and 10-minute keyboard solos, you might still find something resembling normal discussion here and there.

And I promise this will be the only time you have to look at Phil Collins's face.