Tuesday, 20 March 2012

20th March 2012: Sting - Hammersmith Apollo, London (Sort of Review)

This conversation may or may not have taken place...

Phone Call: Good afternoon Sir, my name is Gordon and I am calling from Sting Enterprises, may I speak with Mr. Forever please?

GiggingForever: Um, yes, speaking...

Gordon "Sting" Sumner: How are you today, Sir?

GF: Er, great thanks.

GS: I'm glad to hear it, Sir. I'm just calling you today Sir as a courtesy call to let you know about the fantastic deals we have today if you come back to Sting as a valued former customer.

GF: Oh right, ok...

GS: First of all, Sir, I just have to go through some security questions. Can you tell me you mother's maiden name, postcode and 46 digit passcode please?

GF: No I sodding well can't, you called me! How do I know you're the real Sting?

GS: Dee-ya-yaaaaay-oh!

GF: Oh, alright then.

GS: So I see from my records that you were a valued customer from 1993 until 2001, would you mind telling me why you ended up leaving us?

GF: Well, to be honest, I thought "Brand New Day" was a bit ropey, although it still had enough good songs on it for me to pay out to see you at the Albert Hall on the tour.

GS: Thank you very much, Sir.

GF: Um, sure. Anyway, then you did that bloody awful acoustic live album where you turned all of your songs into these horrible lounge/ jazz arrangements. It was then that I began to realise that all was not well.

GS: But, Sir, that album was recorded on September the 11th, you can't blame us for being a bit subdued.

GF: No, fair point, sorry. Anyway, then your next new album had a duet with Mary J Bilge on it.

GS: You mean Mary J Blige.

GF: I know what I mean. Anyway, that was the last straw, to be honest. I played that album once and gave it away, and that was that I'm afraid.

GS: I'm sorry to hear you feel that way, Sir. We really valued your custom for all those years and would love to have you back.

GF: Well, I'm willing to talk. What have you been up to since then?

GS: Well, after that, I decided that rock music was beneath me, so I took up the higher pursuit of lute playing. I recorded a lute album for Deutsche Grammophon, you know.

GF: Yeah, I heard.

GS: Anyway, after touring daytime TV with that for a while, I moved on to my next project, a winter album.

GF: Oh right. What, like a Christmas album? We could use more up to date Christmas rock songs.

GS: Well, it wasn't really that rock.

GF: Did it have lutes on it?

GS: Yeah... Anyway, after that was something I know you will love, an orchestral album, reinterpreting my best songs as orchestral arrangements with a variety of respected orchestras. You're a sucker for bands plus orchestras, aren't you?

GF: Well, yeah, normally, but you know, Peter Gabriel got there before you last year and frankly that was on the verge of acceptability.

GS: But it had a really great name- Symphonicities.

GF: That's awful. What did you actually want again?

GS: Well, James, may I call you James?

GF: No.

GS: Well, James, I'm calling today to tell you about a fantastic new offer for former customers coming back to us. For one tour only, I'm offering you the chance to see me play bass and sing, with an actual band.

GF: Ok, that actually sounds alright. Will you play good songs?

GS: Oh yes, James. I'll play classics from throughout my career, with drums and everything.

GF: Hmm, alright then. And no bloody violins?

GS: Well, no, I have two great violinists in my new band, they play some amazing solos where normally there'd be keyboard or guitar solos.

GF: So, you don't have a keyboard or guitar player?

GS: No keys, no, but honestly nobody misses them. The violinists are really good. One of them is a hot Australian chick who also sings her lungs out, frankly she's better than I am. We do have two guitar players, too, Dominic Miller and his son.

GF: So why don't they play the solos?

GS: Because we have two violinists.

GF: You know what, that's actually pretty cool. And did I hear right, that you have Vinnie Colaitua on drums? He's a proper legend.

GS: Too flipping right we have. Also, it's got a really clever name ... "Back to Bass".

GF: Don't give up the day job, Gordon.

GS: So can we interest you in a ticket today, James?

GF: Well, I dunno. Aren't you just going to play the same old hits I saw you play twice in the 90s and once in 2007 with the Police?

GS: Well, you know, I like to keep my audience happy. I start off with some proper hits to get everyone in the mood, 'All This Time', 'Every Little Thing She Does is Magic', 'Seven Days'...

GF: That's a pretty rocking start, some of my favourite songs right there.

GS: Exactly! So, would you like to make an order then today, James?

GF: Well, hang on, what else are you playing? 

GS: Well, in the encores I play three more Police tracks, including 'Message in a Bottle', but get this... I do it solo on an acoustic guitar, and get the crowd to sing half the vocals! How great is that?

GF: Um... Yeah, I can't help but feel you're keeping something from me. What's in the main body of the setlist?

GS: Well, I play no fewer than four songs from "Sacred Love", for starters.

GF: Four? That's more than you play from any of your other albums, AND it's easily your worst album. Will I suddenly find a new appreciation for these tracks when done live?

GS: Inside is pretty cool, yeah- you'll dig that one.

GF: Alright, what else?

GS: Three tracks from 'Mercury Falling', one from 'Brand New Day' , and one B-side from the 'Brand New Day' sessions, that's just for starters. 

GF: That doesn't sound awfully inspiring - unless that B-side is 'End of the Game', because that's way better than anything that made the album.

GS: It totally is.

GF: Alright then. But look, do you actually play anything from your best albums, you know the ones from 1985 to 1993?

GS: I play 4 songs from 'Ten Summoner's Tales', which my records show is one of the first rock CDs you ever bought and is a huge favourite of yours.

GF: Well, that's promising. Do you do 'If I Ever Lose My Faith In You?' I love that one.

GS: Don't be silly.

GF: What about anything from your first 2 classic albums, the ones that made your solo career a success?

GS: I do 'Fortress Around Your Heart'. That's a good song.

GF: True, true. Is it recognisable or do you bugger about with it until it breaks?

GS: The second one.

GF: *Sigh*. Look, even if I did want to come, I don't think I know anyone else who'd be seen dead at a Sting concert. Especially not after the Lute fiasco.

GS: How about your old friend Mark S, the one who came with you all the other times you saw me? 

GF: Hmm, that's true, I've not been out with Mark for a while, it'd be nice to have a catch up. And you have thoughtfully put a fair few shit songs in the setlist so we can buy, drink and relieve ourselves of beers all night without missing anything. Aright then, I'm in, how much are the tickets?

GS: That's excellent Sir, well for one day only the tickets will be the special price of £76.50 - after today the tickets will only be available from our preferred partner SeatWave for £250.

GF: £76.50? Seventy-six f*&^%ing pounds? I saw Roger Waters perform "The Wall" at the O2 for less than that. And he had a wall. And lasers and stuff. Do you have a wall, or lasers?

GS: There is a wall at the back of the stage, yes.

GF: That's not quite what I meant. What *do* you have?

GS: I wear a really tight vest so you can see all my rippling muscles.

GF: You're not really helping. How about support? Do you have a support band?

GS: No, but there's a tape of plinky plonky music that plays for an hour before I come on and again after I leave the stage.

GF: That doesn't sound very exciting. Mightn't that prevent people from really getting in the rock'n'roll spirit? 

GS: Oh, well there's no danger of that anyway, Sir, the gig starts at 8 and finishes at 10. You'll be home in time to write it up on your fantastic blog before you go to sleep.

GF: Oh, you old charmer you... alright then, you've twisted my arm. Seventy Six quid you say?

GS: That's correct sir, there'll just be a service fee of nine pounds per ticket to add onto that.

GF: ...

GS: I can assure you it will be worth every penny, Sir.

GF: It had sodding well better be, or you'll know about it from my review.

GS: You have a fantastic day, Sir... oh, and Sir, could you perhaps refrain from mentioning tantric sex in your review? That's getting really old now.

GF: Whatever.


Epilogue - March 21st:

Phone Call: Good morning, Sir, this is just a courtesy call from Sting Enterprises to see how you enjoyed last night's gig. 

GF: Yeah, did you read my review? 

GS: Well, actually, yes I did, Sir, but I assumed there must be some kind of mistake.

GF: No, there's not.

GS: That's not your actual review, is it?

GF: Yeah, it is.

GS: Is it possible, Sir, that you actually got so drunk with your friend Mark before, during and after the gig that you failed to make any notes on the show and as such had to resort to typing out a load of cheap gags and foul language on your phone on the train home, in order to have something to put on your pathetic little journal?

GF: *Cough* Bye!

Sting Setlist:

- All This Time
- Every Little Thing She Does is Magic
- Seven Days
- Demolition Man
- I Hung My Head
- I'm so Happy, I Can't Stop Crying
- Driven to Tears
- Stolen Car
- Fortress Around Your Heart
- Fields of Gold
- Sacred Love
- Ghost Story
- Heavy Cloud, No Rain
- Inside
- Love is Stronger Than Justice (The Munificent Seven)
- Hounds of Winter
- The End of the Game
- Never Coming Home
- Desert Rose
- Every Breath You Take
- Next to You
- Message in a Bottle

Sunday, 18 March 2012

3rd March 2012: Surrogate Cities Exploded! Southbank Centre, London

A couple of weeks ago I turn up, as I frequently do, to an event about which, frankly, I have no idea. Part of the fun of having a sister who works with music for a living is that you get invited along to all sorts of weird and wonderful things and you never know what you're going to get until you arrive (well, unless you pay attention to what you're told, but most people who know me will know I'm not very good at that.)

Over the last few years I've been along to all kinds of things from Renaissance choral events to African-themed outdoor jamborees, and enjoyed them all, so when I'm asked if I want to come along to the South Bank on a Saturday afternoon to watch something that Helen's been heavily involved in organising, I willingly agree, without asking too many details. (As we've established, the details are probably provided anyway but I expect I'm going "Mmm-hmm" whilst playing Angry Birds or something.)

What follows is a view of the afternoon's events from a member of the public's perspective, and hopefully it captures the spirit of the day, if not everything that went on, because, well, you'll see...

I get off the train at Waterloo a little early, and go for a quick wander back and forth across Hungerford Bridge, always my gateway to the West End, and a view of which I never get tired. Seriously, is there any better route into Central London? St. Paul's, The Gherkin, the Oxo Tower, the hideous concrete bunker to my right... yes, ok, the South Bank Centre isn't the prettiest building in town, but it has a certain "I don't know what" about it. Even the graffiti and sk8r bois underneath it seem somehow part of its history and would be missed if the place was demolished and replaced with yet another temple of glass and steel.

Who'd have thought a concrete egg box could be so pretty?

Eventually, it's 3pm and I head to the Clore Ballroom, a kind of open-plan sunken area in the Royal Festival Hall building, where I've been told that the fun will commence. I take up my usual spot in the front row, but somehow feel rather more self-conscious than usual. This is probably because everyone else in the "front row" is a child sitting on the floor, so I decide that normal gig etiquette doesn't apply and let a few people move in front so that they can see their offspring or siblings performing.

Soon enough, some children (and a couple of adults) come out and sit in front of some laptops at a table at the back of the performance area, as if they're about to start a day's number crunching for a top city firm. They're then followed by a whole raft of kids of varying ages with instruments ranging from cellos to trumpets to electric guitars - but rather than taking their obvious spots in the neatly arranged chairs at the rear of the ballroom, they stand in little groups dotted about the arena, still and silent.

At this point, one of the adults at the laptop table gets up and comes to the front, wielding what can only be described as a 'music detector' (okay, it could also be described as a microphone on the end of a pole if we're being literal, but let's not), and roams the space, waving it towards the various performers who start to play their instruments as he passes them. 

As he moves around, eventually everyone is playing, and there's an interesting mix of classical sounds, rock sounds (coming mostly from the band installed in seats at the back), even industrial sounds which come from the laptops. At one point there's some impressive sax duetting from either side of the room, calling and answering like an aural tennis match. The disorganisation in everyone's position is echoed in the music, which is discordant and rather avant-garde, but gradually people start to gravitate towards the back and take up their proper positions.

With the new seating arrangement comes a new order to the music, as all the performers lock into the same rhythm and the music takes on a gently undulating theme, like waves on the sea. Gradually, it shifts and moves into a more jazzy, swinging section which lasts a couple of minutes before the band members of the ensemble drive the theme into a heavy rock riff, which the whole group play with enthusiasm. As the riff builds in volume and intensity, the conductor prompts various instrument sections to stand up, until everyone is standing and rocking out to the powerful beat. And then, with a suitably climactic final flourish, it's all over and the proud parents erupt into furious applause. It's been little longer than 10 minutes, but we've been on quite a musical journey. 

I still have no idea what it is I've just witnessed, but I spot a friendly usher handing out leaflets so I grab one and take a look. "Surrogate Cities Exploded!" (exclamation mark mandatory) is, so the leaflet tells me, "a day of extraordinary new music, dance and film celebrating the city", inspired by a performance this evening at the Festival Hall of 'Surrogate Cities', a 1994 piece by Heiner Goebbels, a German composer noted for his mixture of orchestral, electronic and rock music. 'Surrogate Cities' is, in the composer's own words:

"...an attempt to approach the phenomenon of the city from various sides, to tell stories of cities, expose oneself to them, observe them, it is material about metropolises that has accumulated over the course of time. The work was inspired partly by texts, but also by drawings, structures and sounds, the juxtaposition of orchestra and sampler playing a considerable role because of the latter's ability to store sounds and noises ordinarily alien to orchestral sonorities. My intention was not to produce a close-up but to try and read the city as a text and then to translate something of its mechanics and architecture into music..."

The leaflet also explains what we've just witnessed, a new composition called 'Then the Bricks Spoke', improvised in a few days' workshop by a group of students from schools in the Boroughs of Greenwich and Lewisham under the banner of "Animate Orchestra", an initiative organised by the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. (I say it explains all that - it pretty much tells me what the day is about and the name of the various groups performing, and I have to fill in the rest of the information from Google after the event, but let's pretend.)

The one thing the leaflet cleverly doesn't do is tell you when or where in the South Bank complex any of the day's events will be happening. Hence, 5 minutes after the Animate Orchestra is over I'm still standing about waiting for the next thing to happen when I start to hear some faint music coming from elsewhere. Suddenly realising what this event is all about, I follow my ears which lead me up the stairs (not for the last time) to one of the top floor lobbies. 

It's difficult to get close at first, since there are lots of people wanting to take a look, but as I push my way through the crowd the music starts to take shape, into something vaguely approaching a jazz-rock type sound. There are both double bass and bass guitarists, some funky Fender Rhodes-ish keyboard playing, drums, violins, trumpets, oh and bassoons. The music is pretty loose and soulful and it sounds fantastic. There's also a vocal section featuring 4 vocalists "ooh-ing" and "ahh-ing" over the top of the groove that's built up. (This later turns out to be a piece entitled 'Running', which is being performed by LPO The Band, although I have no idea of this at the time as I'm too busy enjoying it to read my leaflet.)

Gradually, as with the previous piece, the music starts to evolve, moving into an absolutely fantastic section which is somewhere between progressive rock and a film soundtrack, with half-rapped, half-scat vocals over the top. It's amazingly powerful, and it doesn't last anywhere near as long as I would like before moving into an equally impressive tribal sounding section with the vocalists chanting, the orchestra thrashing away, and a guy banging on a dustbin lid with some real gusto.

It's pretty unique, absolutely fantastic, and ends far too soon. I curse myself mightily for not having seen the whole thing so I hang about for a minute to see if it looks like there might be a repeat performance but the musicians start to pack up almost immediately. Instead I follow a section of the crowd who are purposefully heading across to the opposite side of the building and down the stairs, and then when we're halfway down the stairs some piano music starts to play and a group of girls who seem to have been standing around suddenly spring into dancing action.

Now, honestly, I don't claim to be able to write about music particularly well but when it comes to dance, I'm completely lost. To me it looks like the girls are in regular clothes, as if they were hanging out in the school yard, and indeed the dance is reminiscent in parts of playground games, so that's my interpretation of what's going on but if anyone from the group (students from Mulberry School for Girls) reads this, please feel free to put me straight! It's a fun way to spend the next few minutes but like with everything else today, it comes and goes in a flash and I'm off again, this time back down the stairs to the main foyer to see if I can figure out where and what the next thing is going to be.

I can't hear anything happening when I get there but as I'm standing wondering what to do, a girl with a violin comes and stands pretty much in front of me and sets up her music stand, so I figure something of interest is about to take place.

Soon enough, she starts playing from the decidedly odd notations on her score which don't look like any music I've ever seen, and sound even odder. It's at this point that I hear a trumpet coming from somewhere else and then looking up and down the walkway I notice that there's also a clarinetist and the three of them are standing in a line, performing music which if you stand in the right spots does actually go together to form a cohesive and interesting piece. It's the most flash-mob like part of the day's events and it's quite something to have the public continuing to walk up and down as if nothing is happening. The piece ends to the sound of 3 people clapping (literally, which is a bit unfair but is I suppose fitting with the kind of "pop-up" nature of the event), and the performers pack up and are on their way. (I think, from the leaflet, that these are performers from the Junior Trinity Composers' Ensemble, but forgive me if that's not correct...)

I'm just thinking about where the next thing might be happening when I spy a percussionist nearby, looking like he's about to start doing something interesting - and sure enough after a couple of minutes he starts whacking the hell out his kit in a very rhythmically complex percussion solo. Or is it a solo? Suddenly from behind us, clarinets start playing from the balcony above the foyer and turn this into a fascinating percussion / woodwind duel. It's very clever stuff, using the architecture of the building as part of the performance, and I suppose very much in keeping with the theme of the day.

When this is done, I decide that it must be time to leave the main foyer again in search of something, however the lack of a timetable or plan at this point makes it very difficult to know where to go next. I wander over towards the stairs again and hear what sounds a bit like whalesong, so I follow it up the stairs only to realise on the 4th floor that it's actually got quieter and must have been somewhere on the ground floor. It's a good workout, but it's frustrating knowing that I'm probably missing something really spectacular in another part of the complex.

Eventually I realise that the source of the sound filling the entire stairwell is actually right underneath the stairs, as I come across what I think is a member of the public having a go on a computer, making different sounds based on the movement of the operator's hands. It looks like fun but I'm not brave enough to have a go, so run away in the direction of some music coming from a sunken area across the hallway.

Peering over the edge I spy some more girls dancing (in fact they may be the same ones, it's hard to tell from above) and they're gradually joined by some guys, who take the display in a more modern, street-danceish direction, accompanied by music which bridges the gap between hip-hop, classical, and world music and is rather intriguing. (From the programme - the group is called Dance Fusion and they're performing 'We apologise for the delay to your journey' with music by Jason Rowland - also the conductor of the Animate Orchestra, the talented chap.)

When they finish to huge applause, I realise I have no idea what's happening next. I make one last attempt to find something upstairs, and think I've done so when I come across a couple of people playing cello in the hallway but suddenly realise after I've stopped to listen that they're actually just practising. There are awkward glances and giggles as they stop playing and I avert my gaze and carry on up to the next floor. Hey, I wouldn't have been surprised to find something really cool happening on the fire exit today, so I think I can be let off.

After a trip up and down each of the two main stairwells of the Festival Hall complex, I've not seen anything for a good 10 minutes and my legs are hurting too much to continue with this auditory treasure hunt, so I decide it's time to take a break and return to the foyer. Bumping into my sister Helen, we both grab a cold drink as she finally manages to relax after having devoted the last however many weeks to the Animate Orchestra part of today's proceedings. It makes me realise just how much must have gone into organising this completely free event - the leaflet lists 11 different groups performing, each with anything from 5 to 50 performers, and then there are the organisers of each of these, the conductors, the project managers, not to mention the SouthBank Centre staff responsible for making sure that everything happens in the right place at the right time. Hats off to them all. 

Unfortunately it also makes me realise that for all the great stuff I have seen, there's probably just as much again that I've missed. I know it's part of the idea, the spontaneity and surprise of stumbling across something incredible happening in a broom closet, but I feel rather sorry for the performers who didn't happen to get stumbled across. As my G&T goes down rather too nicely, I spy some young lads setting up percussion instruments by the main entrance so I decide that to save some shoe leather I'll stay here until something happens.

10 minutes later, a really exciting percussion ensemble performance kicks off. (The programme later explains that this is the Junior Trinity Percussion Ensemble with a piece of their own entitled 'Route Record'.) There's a xylophone duet which meshes nicely with bass drum and samples from the other side of the space, including some cleverly recorded London train announcements, the best use of the "Surrogate Cities" concept I've heard all day. There's also some amazing drum'n'bass-esque snare work, tubular bells and all kinds of other percussion, building up an incredible piece, loaded with complex syncopation yet never losing the strong beat which keeps the audience mesmerised. 

Another well-deserved round of applause rings out through the building as the piece comes to an end, and with it we come close to the end of my afternoon's fun. I stick around for a bit of a chat with Helen and some of her colleagues, one of whom has a timeplan of today's events, something I would have killed for an hour ago. 

Unfortunately it looks like the musical performances have drawn to a close, but I stick around just long enough to catch the showcase dance performance from the Trinity Laban Undergraduate Dance Students back in the ballroom. It's an amazing display of contemporary dance from a very talented ensemble, set to music from Herr Goebbels himself and is a fine end to a most enjoyable afternoon.

It's been a unique but fascinating couple of hours. The concept of wandering around the building to see what's going on here and there may not be a good match for my worrisome nature, causing me to panic all the time that I'm missing something incredible elsewhere, but it's been spontaneous and fun, and what I have seen has been extremely professional, whatever the age of the performers.

The "main" events of today (a chat with Goebbels and then 'Surrogate Cities' itself, both of which I have to miss due to another gig later this evening) may have grabbed all the media attention, but this pop-up, flash-mob approach to new and exciting music has been quite the event in itself. 

Saturday, 10 March 2012

25th February 2012: Matt Stevens - The Peel, Kingston-Upon-Thames

Long-term readers (both of them) will have heard me going on about Matt Stevens. His album 'Relic' made my "Best of 2011" round-up, he accompanied us to curry after the Frost* gig in December, and he pops up to hand you a flyer when you least expect it outside gigs, like a real life 'Where's Wally?' only a lot more hairy and slightly less stripey. I even raved about his slot at last year's Mattfest in my guest slot on the excellent 'Dead Nobodies' podcast last month. (That's your monthly plug, Bob.)

This, however, is the first time since starting this blog that I've actually had a chance to see him play live. What if he's gone rubbish, energy and joie de vivre sapped by his new found fatherhood? What if I've remembered wrongly and confused him with Moby or someone (they're physically quite similar, after all) and all my plugging has been a huge mistake?

Well, we can all relax because the man's still got it. 

Please sir, can I have some more... loops?

After a ridiculous week of work, there's a chance I'm not going to make it to the gig at all, and in fact I'm still sitting at my desk as the doors open at The Peel, but a canny decision two years previously to move within walking distance of the venue means that as soon as I down tools (well, mouse), Karin and I are able to hop on a bus and still arrive just as Matt strums the first note of 'Rusty' from last year's 'Relic' album.

And what a note it is, which is just as well, since we hear this note once every 2 seconds for the next 4 minutes. In case I haven't previously explained what is so cool about what Matt does, I think I will steal someone else's description of him as a "One man guitar orchestra" since I will never come up with something as apposite by myself. Building layers upon layers of guitar loops, he gradually starts from one simple riff, such as the almost flamenco-sounding theme which kicks off 'Rusty', loops it with his trusty pedal, and then adds harmonies, counterpoint, even bass lines, all with the use of one acoustic guitar. 

Last time I saw Matt, back in the summer, the venue was a lot less packed, and I was right down at the front where I could see his feet, so it was very obvious what he was doing. This time, however, the venue is rammed (no mean feat for a support slot) and as we've arrived late we're right at the back by the mixing desk and can only see him from the waist up. I can therefore see how one nameless reviewer famously came to the conclusion that he relied on backing tapes rather a lot. 

Maybe, to avoid such confusion in the future, Matt could make it more obvious what he's doing, perhaps using a laptop or a Tenori-on to do his looping, something that the whole audience can see. Of course, that might make it a bit difficult to carry on playing whilst stopping and starting the loops, something that he does with incredible skill all night tonight, rarely taking a break from hammering the strings of his instrument and yet somehow still using his pedal to bring in certain loops and take them out again, or pause everything and play solo (catching out the chatters in the crowd in the process, tsk tsk.)

Clearly my suggestion would require Matt using something other than his feet to trigger the loops, and since his hands are at full capacity, I guess the nose would be the only option. And since he suffers from a bad back, I think I will go ahead and consign this idea to the scrap bin of good intentions. It's probably just as well that I decided not to respond to Matt's call for a manager last week- I'd have him looking like a hunchback clown in no time.

This evening's set of 30 minutes goes by in an absolute flash, largely because the pieces are a lot more varied than anyone could expect from a performance based entirely on acoustic guitar. One minute he's playing furious strummed, percussive notes, the next delicate picking, then he's tapping on the body of his guitar to create what is nearly a drum beat ('Doll's House'), and then he's managed to build layers of sustained notes that almost sound like keyboards and he's playing a thunderous bassline over the top ('Scapegoat'). There's even time for one piece this evening not composed entirely by Matt, 'Part 2', a track from his post-rock band The Fierce and the Dead, which on record is a piece with distorted electric guitars, bass and drums, but is just as effective given the loop pedal treatment.

And it's not just the music that keeps us entertained, which is just as well, since staring at one guy with a guitar for 30 minutes could get a little dull, even if he is standing in front of a giant poster with some kind of centaur emerging from flames on it. Like many of the best musicians I've featured here, Matt is wonderfully self-deprecating and with a sense of humour which wins over the crowd based on likeability alone. He seems genuinely surprised and grateful for the huge applause he gets after every track, says "Cheers" humbly, and gets right back on with it.

What he lacks in stage banter, he makes up for in sheer performance. If I've given you the impression of a man standing on the spot strumming away at an acoustic guitar, I'm doing this all wrong. He announces with his face what he's about to play, hops about on the spot during the more upbeat sections, grooves along to some of the excellent riffs he creates, and grins broadly when his favourite sections come together to create something wonderful sounding.

There are some fantastic loud / soft contrast sections, which eventually lead to almost complete silence in the venue as he quietly plucks away, and also a surprised look on his face and a "wow!" at having finally shut up the chatters in the crowd, provoking loud chuckles all around. 

And then, after what is far too short a time, he announces the last track, which turns out to be 'Big Sky' from the 'Ghost' album, a track which builds up with impossible numbers of harmony lines getting ever higher and higher before breaking down again to the simplest level at the end and then exploding into a wall of backwards loops which he stands back and enjoys as he walks over to take a sip of his pint before laying into his guitar once again with gusto to finish the whole thing off in explosive fashion. A quick "Cheers, thank you", and it's all over. It's taken me three times as long to write about it as the gig itself.

Heading out for some fresh air afterwards, we find that Matt's done the same himself. Leaning against the wall outside he looks like he's been for a particularly intense gym session, and as is the only course of action after such a thing, I buy him a beer and we start chatting about everything from Helloween (okay, that was Karin) to King Crimson to Steve Davis (not such a leap when you're in the know), to why he still needs to have a day job to make ends meet even though he's had offers from several record labels, and some of the very exciting projects he's involved in which are coming up later this year.

Unfortunately he also buys me a beer and the pattern continues for the rest of the night, so the rest of the evening is a bit of a blur, which is why this blog is entitled "Matt Stevens" and not "Pallas supported by Matt Stevens" because, well, Pallas sounded great but I can't for the life of me remember much of anything. Sorry guys.

Matt Stevens Setlist:

- Rusty
- Burning Bandstands
- Doll's House
- Scapegoat
- Part 2 (The Fierce and the Dead)
- Big Sky

Thursday, 8 March 2012

13th February 2012: Pain of Salvation & Cryptex, The Garage, Islington, London

And so we come to gig number 2 for 2012, and in ridiculous contrast to the last one, this evening is a veritable rawwkfest. We arrive somewhat late at the venue to find the stage occupied by some rather hairy German teenagers (oh, dear - I've done it now for misdirected Google searches, haven't I?)

I have no idea who is playing, but they're rather good fun - good old fashioned blues-type rock, with a bit of metal here and there, some hippyish folky stuff elsewhere, and then there are the digeridoo and xylophone spots (always a plus, I find.) I later discover that the band is called Cryptex and they have an album out called "Good Morning, How Did You Live?". Frankly, if I'd known the name of the band and their album, and certainly if I'd seen the cover before setting out, I might have made sure I left home even later.

Um, yeah.

But in actual fact, even though we really do only see about 15 minutes of the set, it's great fun, and on this showing they're definitely worth a look if they're playing a festival near you some time.

Onto the main event, and it seems Daniel Gildenlöw of Pain of Salvation is an avid reader of this blog, since I suggested, nay demanded back in November that a headline PoS gig in London was long overdue and within weeks one was announced. That's what 3,000 hits gets you, folks. The power to make things happen.

Anyway, seeing the band support Opeth was one thing (and frankly I enjoyed them back then much more than I enjoyed Opeth), but they're really a band who demand a full headline slot and by golly, do they make the most of it.

Their appearance on stage is heralded by the same Swedish song that was played the last time we saw them (the one almost entirely composed of swear words and insults) - and this time there's the added bonus that we've just returned from a week in Sweden where I learned some of its colourful language from a street workman having trouble erecting a new lampost. It's immediately followed by the string intro to their latest album 'Road Salt Two' which gets a huge cheer, before they come out and give us a perfect demonstration of how to rock an audience.

'Softly She Cries' is the first proper song from 'Road Salt Two' and it's the new Pain of Salvation to a T - bluesy-rock with heavy riffs and a catchy hook that stays in your head for weeks. So far, so much the same as the previous gig. But what's this- half the band appear to have changed since October? Yes, in the short space of a few months, the line-up has transformed somewhat, with bassist from last time Daniel Karlsson having moved to keyboards, to replace departing PoS veteran Fredrik Hermansson (a member since 1996), new / old boy Gustaf Hielm (bassist from 1992-1994) returning to pick up bass, and proper new boy, the Icelandic Ragnar ZSolberg looking rather like a hot chick playing guitar on stage right (or maybe it's just my eyesight, I'm a little further back than I normally prefer.)

Daniel will aways be Daniel (thank goodness), and frankly, I think I raved about him enough in the last review, so let's concentrate on the others.

If you squint... and especially if you can't see his moustache.

New boys / old boys / whatever, nobody has any cause to complain tonight as they sound like they've been playing together for years, the rhythm section is ridiculously tight and our Icelandic friend has all the solos nailed (as well I'd expect since there was quite fierce competition for this spot. Personally I was hoping that Concrete Lake / The Tangent guitarist Luke Machin might have got a look in, and I idly wonder whether he's here tonight since I know he's a massive fan.)

The set progresses much the same as last time, with the new Pain of Salvation sound of the two 'Road Salt' albums dominating - as well it should, since they're blooming fantastic, and anyone poo-poohing the lack of metal or prog on them is frankly missing out big style. But the big advantage of the extended slot is the opportunity to delve more extensively into the back catalogue, and this they do with some style. Early fan favourite 'Ashes' is the second track of the night, and goes down an absolute storm. A clutch of Road Salt tracks follow, with the new members of the band proving their worth, especially Ragnar whose harmonies are absolutely impeccable on the intense and frenetic 'The Deepest Cut'. 

Then the band are introduced and there's some amusing banter from Daniel, who is on top form tonight ("We love playing in London, I really feel we're tapping into the essence of... something essencey.") But it's all just a delaying tactic for the highlight of the night - a brace of older tracks for the long-term fans to get their teeth into, including the wonderful 'Ending Theme' from the 'Remedy Lane' album (my personal favourite, especially the growling spoken word section in the middle which marries metal and rap far better than yer Limp Bizkits and Linkin Parks  - and Daniel was doing it before them anyway.)

We then go all the way back to 1997 for a track from 'Entropia' entitled 'Stress', which is by far the most amazingly bonkers song we hear all night, although it's run close by 'Kingdom of Loss' from 2007's 'Scarsick' which begins with Daniel rap-ranting quietly about all kinds of things (mostly America) while the band build up a laid-back groove before building up to a rousing, anthemic ending which is greeted by an incredible roar from the crowd. 

This proves to be the last old song of the night, but nobody cares, it's time for the opening track from Road Salt One, "No Way", which this evening sees a special guest joining the band on stage. "Please welcome... Luke on guitar!" says Daniel, as Ragnar scuttles off to the back of the stage to sing backing vocals - and Luke (yes, Luke Machin, from The Tangent / Concrete Lake) joins them on stage. So, he is there tonight, then. 

It's an incredible moment for us and a few select prog fans in the crowd who've seen him play with the amazing Concrete Lake to about 20 people a couple of months before at the Peel. It's like one of our own has made good. Luke beams, gurns, throws his long blond locks around ("It's the same guy!", someone behind me says as he replaces Ragnar on stage), and generally behaves like he normally behaves on stage, only with about 50% more "I can't believe this is happening to me..." Well done, lad.

After a suitably rocktastic end to the main set in the epic 'Enter Rain', the encore is actually a rather more sombre affair. Two previously unplayed tracks from the 'Road Salt' albums close the evening, the 8-minute 'Physics of Gridlock' which starts in proper riffing and headbanging style before ending up as a kind of Gallic funeral march, and then the amazing ballad 'Sisters' which starts out as the evening's quietest song before building up to a furiously belted out triumphant chorus, which would have had us all with our lighters aloft if this was the 80's. But it's not, so instead there are iPhones and laptops (ok, maybe not laptops.)

It's a somewhat brave ending to the gig, but it works. There's a huge cheer and the band leave us satisfied, having taken us on a tour of their entire catalogue and proved why they're one of the most unique bands around. 

Some ghosts take a bow. Sorry, I really failed at photos
 on this occasion (you know, since all my others are amazing.)

Afterwards there's the chance to hang around a bit and chat to some friends, to congratulate a still-elated Luke on his triumph, and then finally to head home on the train. We're accompanied by a, shall we say, well-lubricated Jon Patrick (aka Twang, promoter extraordinaire at the House Of Progression / The Peel), who explains to us why the Odyssey is so great ("You see, Odysseus, he's just a fucking dude, man...") and how timeless the story is. I dare say if Twang was teaching it in schools, it definitely would be.

He also tells us several times about why "Celebr8" is going to be an amazing festival (which it definitely is, by the way, go and buy your tickets now...) - amusingly he also tells the entirety of the late night train, prompting one lady to ask him to be quiet as she's trying to process the date she's just been on. I'd say a dose of the UK's leading prog bands would be just the thing - we should have given her a flyer.

Pain of Salvation Setlist:

- Softly She Cries
- Ashes
- Linoleum
- The Deeper Cut
- 1979
- To the Shoreline
- Chain Sling
- Ending Theme
- Stress
- Kingdom of Loss
- No Way (featuring Luke Machin)
- Enter Rain
- The Physics of Gridlock
- Sisters