Sunday, 13 October 2013

5th October 2013: Summer's End Festival, Day Two - Lydney, Gloucestershire

For some reason I can't quite place (perhaps see yesterday), I wake up feeling a bit worse than I would like - it's one of those 'manflu or hangover?' moments. Still, there's only one way to decide - a 7km run usually sorts out the men from the boys, and so it proves today, as I do circuits round Lydney and power past people in festival T-shirts on their way to or from breakfast. Hello, and sorry, if I nearly mowed you down in my wake - or, more likely, tutted loudly as I dodged round you on the pavement.

Nicely de-beered, there's just time for a quick breakfast at one of Lydney's many caffs, this time it's the Bridge Cafe (where somehow I manage to avoid getting fired) whose BLT is heartily recommended, as is their Chocolate Tiffin, which they even wrap up for me in a little bit of foil to take away, as if they were packing their only child off to prog camp.

Doors are a little late, setting the tone for the rest of the day, but soon enough I catch up with my fellow giggers again and we're inside, waiting for...


...who are young and vibrant enough to look like they'll be worth a watch, apart from having someone's Grandad on bass. As it happens, they're good fun, and can certainly play, but put a lot of effort into a set which manages to tick every box on the 'prog cliche' bingo card before the end of the first song. Guitar/keyboard duel - check... Quiet bit...  bass pedals and mellotron choir - check... Keyboard player plays a solo with one hand in the air- HOUSE!

The second song is called 'Far Away' and unfortunately I start to wish that that's exactly where I was, and perhaps so do the band, after the singer shouts "ARE YOU READY?!!" to stony silence from the crowd. As the set progresses, he starts to have some tuning issues and it's at this point that I reach the critical "I would rather be outside" point, so I take a little breather out by the war memorial, where I'm gradually joined by more and more people - each time the door opens, another unfortunately missed note echoing out into the Forest of Dean air and making the assembled throng wince.

They even have a song called 'Grendel Dreams'...
Photo: James Allen

Still, a decent sized crowd enjoy the whole set, and it's not easy to open a festival, so full marks for trying. Trying is something that...

... don't really have to do at all, entertaining the room for over an hour without doing anything more flashy than playing a load of songs. SONGS! At a prog festival -whatever next? Actually Jump profess to being bemused as to why they keep being asked to play at prog related events, and I can see their point, their highly melodic, storytelling material being more on the Mike Rutherford end of the prog songwriting scale than Mike Portnoy. 

Having said that, although magnetic front man John Dexter-Jones is a visually a good cross between "MORRISSEY!" (c James Allen, 2013) and Billy Bragg, his mannerisms and poignant story-telling (see 'Bethesda') certainly recall Fish at his more angry moments, and there's a touch of Steve Thorne here and there in the material. Actually, the entire band are spot on, giving the music room to breathe instead of slathering it in overblown solos and other trimmings, but it's John who's the clear focal point, prowling up and down the stage staring menacingly at members of the crowd or freaking out with every limb of his body during 'Get Used to the Taste'.

Never knowingly uncontroversial, he even tells a fine Princess Di story near the end of the set, before we're all encouraged to become windscreen wipers for 'Staring at the Rain', which is a mighty excellent song even if we do all look like tits. The set's over way too quickly, but it's been the most refreshing hour of the weekend so far.

'Tom Sawyer' starts playing on the PA, presumably in case we have prog withdrawal symptoms, and I simultaneously scare and impress Rick and Rob with my note-perfect Geddy Lee impersonation. 

"Are you starting a Bee Gees tribute?", says Rob.

Back outside, via Nellie, who is now selling Jump CDs (which come highly recommended), I break out the emergency tiffin, which attracts all the killer wasps left in Lydney, causing me to freak out and take a bite out of the foil along with the biscuit-y goodness. But there's no time to worry about that, because...


... have just taken to the stage, with their hybrid of heavy-ish riffs, space rock and Jethro Tull-style flute-prog. Actually I'm really impressed by the way the lead singer plays flute with such attack and percussive-ness - not as impressed as I am by the fact that they have John Peel from the 70's on the drums, though.

They've come all the way from Finland today, and wow the crowd with their interesting material, their enthusiasm and their array of bizarre equipment, including what Rob suggests might be a Tricorder, which the singer brandishes about in the middle of the second song, pointing it here and there, in a confused fashion, like a man looking for the source of a radiation leak. Neither of us can figure out what he's actually doing, but it's entertaining to watch anyway.

Photo: James Allen

Sadly my feet start complaining towards the end of the band's set, so I drag some willing accomplices off in search of food, thereby missing Overhead's cover of '21st Century Schizoid Man', which by all accounts is mind-blowingly good. Not so smug about that lengthy run now.


Curry fun, and we have the Kings Tandoori Restaurant to ourselves for the majority of our meal, largely because it's not actually open yet - we've just wandered in through a side door they've accidentally left open, and they're too polite to send us packing.

What's less fun is the 20-odd minute loop of Daft Punk's 'Get Lucky' which they use to try to get rid of us like Guantanamo noise torture. When this stops, we all breathe a shared sigh of relief, until a Kenny G CD goes on. "PUT DAFT PUNK BACK ON!", nobody has the guts to shout. Still, the food is delicious, even if all the biryanis come with a free omelette on top for no obvious reason.

Mmm, a curry and a fry-up all at once!
Photo: James Allen

We make it back to the hall to find that the Big Big Train draught beer is all gone, which is clearly the crisis of the weekend - but never mind, there are still some bottles left, and we're in plenty of time for...

Ravens and Lullabies

...or, Oliver Wakeman and Gordon Giltrap, as they're otherwise known. (Or Oliver Wakeman and his prog-metal stand-up comedy show, with a bemused guy looking slightly like Snuffleuphagus from Sesame Street, quietly strumming some acoustic guitar in the corner.)

Photo: James Allen

It's an interesting, and very varied show - with a 'first half' consisting mostly of some proper 'rawwwk' material from Oliver's albums, and why not, when you've got Threshold's rhythm section on hand to provide all your awesomeness-related needs? There's also the small matter of Arena vocalist Paul Manzi, who belts out numbers in proper rock god mode when required (including one about "Elizabethan Pirates...") and then manages to sound quite like Phil Collins on the 'Follow You Follow Me'- esque 'Anyone Can Fly'. 

Photo: James Allen

Eventually, Gordon Giltrap is allowed to speak, thanks the band for letting him come along under the 'Care in the Community' programme, and introduces a few tracks from his solo career, including the excellent 'Roots' from his 'Fear of the Dark' album. There's then a very interesting solo looping instrumental, which he describes as "a cross between Boyzone and Mike Oldfield", with 'keyboard' and 'bass' parts building up from the guitar, followed by some Oldfield-esque solos, true to his word.  There's no cover of 'Father and Son', though, so not sure where the Boyzone bit comes in. He doesn't even do a comedy Father Ted accent.

So far, so engaging. But then, things take a bit of a turn. Oliver comes back on, and the two of them start on an acoustic set of songs from the 'Ravens and Lullabies' album, which sounds like a nice idea on paper but in reality is so ridiculously mellow that there's no option but to slide into the nearest comfy chair in the bar and get a spot of shut eye. Eventually I find myself at a table with 5 or 6 of my best gig buddies, all 'sort-of-listening' to the chillout sounds whilst having a chat about how amazing Lazuli are going to be, why Internet forums are dying a death, and why being a primary school teacher is, like, well easy. 

Photo: James Allen

When the rest of the band do eventually come back on, and with the gig nudging over the two-hour mark, it's hard to summon up the requisite effort to move from my comfy position, but I eventually manage it when they announce the final song, which turns out to be the bona fide top 40 hit single 'Heart Song', which is actually a cracking piece of music, and leads me to believe that I might be far more of a Gordon Giltrap fan than an Oliver Wakeman fan. Even if Oli does really, really, look, sound, and tell bad jokes like his dad.

Photo: James Allen

With the set concluded, and the day now running over an hour behind, co-organiser Lambsie takes to the mike to announce that there'll be a break before the next band, and they're not going to kick us out but could we possibly get away from the stage so that they can set up? A request which is studiously ignored by all the slightly scary Giltrap fans in matching 2005 Tour T-Shirts, who hang about getting in the way until it's apparent that Gordon has gone, at which point they disappear as swiftly as they arrived, completely missing...


... which is probably the biggest case in history of 'Your Loss', as anyone knows who was at Summer's End in 2011, or the Night of the Prog Festival in 2012, or, in fact, anywhere in the world where 5 men dressed as medieval-futuristic blacksmiths took to the stage and kicked seven shades of shit out of your very soul.

All Lazuli Photos by 'Cambot' James Allen

In fact, it's probably fair to say that my entire attendance at this weekend is down to my fundamental need never to ever miss a single note these guys play in this country - and I'd do it again in a heartbeat. Taking to the stage to the sound of distorted French Horn isn't your typical opening, and first song 'L'arbre' builds into a massive bass drum and marimba rhythm from percussionist Vincent Barnavol, whilst guitarist Gédéric Byar strums moodily, and Leode player Claude Leonetti (who invented the instrument after an accident left him unable to play a normal guitar), comes over all Shankar with some eastern-sounding guitar/violin screeching. 

As if they didn't already seem interesting enough, they don't have a bass player in the conventional sense - no, they leave this job to be performed by Keyboard player Romain Thorel, who apparently doesn't have enough to do just playing synth lines, so splits his brain (and his keyboard) in half, churning out thunderous and funky basslines with his left hand seemingly on autopilot. He also has his keyboard at the jauntiest angle I've ever seen on stage, which makes it fascinatingly easy to watch what his fingers are doing at all times. (Hang on, maybe that's the idea -what a bighead.)

Singer Dominique Leonetti, though, is one of the real stars of the band, with note-perfect and spine-chilling vocals cutting right through the world-rock sound his colleagues are hammering out with alarming ease. His English may be limited, as he constantly reminds us, apologising throughout, but he's a mesmerising frontman, acting out every word with his body, to the extent that nobody cares what he's on about (which is handy, since even those of us with a reasonable grasp of French are struggling.)

With nobody able to figure out a word of what's going on, the set relies even more than usual on the music, and by golly does it work. Someone tells me on Sunday they've never seen a room full of prog fans dancing before, but there's something so primal, so fundamentally electric about every song, that you just can't help but want to move - even if you really shouldn't. Grooves build up under heavy rock riffs, with influences from all over the world, and even a touch of skittery electronica, and the band are so perfectly tight you would swear they were miming if you couldn't feel the vibrations from the drum kit in your chest with every beat. Added to that, they're one of the most exciting bands that you will ever watch - feeling every note, being completely in sync with one another and sharing little sneaky grins across the stage when they think nobody's looking.

Song after amazing song goes by, including the incredible 'On Nous Ment Comme On Respire', where Dominique tries some Gabriel-esque stage trickery with a little hand-held light (an effect which works once the lighting guy figures out what he's trying to do), and 'Quinze Heures Quarante' which goes on a little improv excursion. It certainly isn't twenty to 4 by the time they're done. Then there's a brand new song, which is so much of a work in progress that Gédéric needs a screwdriver with which to play his guitar - and then comes the most technical display we've seen so far, as Romain is allowed a keyboard solo, which takes a turn from Chopin-esque piano brilliance to a drum n'bass left hand accompaniment to some curiously Frost*y glitchy synth trickery.

It's a good job there's no curfew, as it means the band get to play their full set, which goes on way past midnight, before coming to a close with the superlative 'Naif' at around 12:30. But wait, they've had a quick chat with Lambsie and there's just time for one more little thing - with a bit of "To me, to you...", the marimba gets shunted out to centre stage, and the entire band take their places around it to perform a little ditty called '9 Hands Around The Marimba', in which they all manage to play the same instrument at once. This must be quite a feat of coordination, especially since they all build in plenty of time to poke each other with the beaters when they're not playing, or slap each other on the arse. Ahh, those crazy French.

With the gig over, the hall starts to empty out, and a few people step up to try to have a chat with the brave members of the band who've stepped down off the stage into the pit of tired and emotional music fans. This works to varying degrees, until a couple of us get really brave and crack out the school-level French. 

"Ahhh, everyone here speaks French!", says Dominique, in French, after I try to tell him how "magnifique" they are. "Oui, un peu...", I say, with crushing false modesty, before going on to explain how he should stop apologising for his English because none of us care. "Everybody understands the language of music...",  I finish up, with more deep philosophy than my beer intake would suggest possible. "Ahh, you are most welcome to come again!", he smiles as I shake his hand and bid him farewell, smug mode well and truly activated.

It's now nearly 1am, the hall is nearly empty and I suddenly realise that nobody is there to witness my Gallic awesomeness, so I hop back across the road to the Bates Motel and try to sleep, the sound of 5 Frenchmen making a wonderful racket swirling round and round in my head.

Next time: I discover that "dere's more to Lydney dan dis", yodel my head off to Focus, see some Big Big Train songs live, and get propositioned in a restaurant toilet.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

4th October 2013: Summer's End Festival Day One- Lydney, Gloucestershire

Cripes, it's been a long time since I wrote a gig review. It's also been a long time since anyone used the word 'Cripes', but we'll ignore that for now. I wonder if I can still do it, let's see...

Angular riffing... spectacular fashion... heart-rending melodies... (chronic overuse of brackets)... Yep, still got it. Ok, it's time for:

It's Friday night, and I'm heading down to 'Sort-of-Wales', as I describe it to anyone who asks. 'Sort-of-Wales' in that to get there, you have to go to Wales, turn right, and drive for 10 minutes - that's Welsh enough for me.

Summer may be ending, but someone has forgotten to tell Freyr, the Norse god of weather - as bright evening sunshine lights up my entire journey down to the Forest of Dean. Luckily though, the organisers did remember to inform Stellr, the Norse god of cheap lager, who's turned up as he does, year upon year, to drink his entire yearly allowance of alcohol before most of us have had breakfast. (And discharge even more over other people's shoes.)

Not that I can talk, really. My Friday evening will have to be summed up thus, I'm afraid...

Right, I'm here, oh look, Unto Us are playing, cool, I liked them last time I saw them. Huw's got a good voice hasn't he? I'm a bit thirsty, perhaps I'll go and get a... 


 they have the Big Big Train beer ! I HAVE to try some of that. Ooh, looks chocolatey. Not my normal tipple but let's give it a... oh yes. Oh yes oh yes, that's lovely. Mmmmm - oh, hang on, there's a band on...

Mmmm, everything looks better through a pint of Big Big Train...

Yeah, they're still pretty good. They should probably make an album for people to buy. Oh they're done, now where are my friends? Ah, look, there's Rob from Tinyfish... and Rob from the Tinyfish forum... And Rick, and Chris... I really have a lot of single-syllabled friends, don't I? Another beer? Well, go on then, why not... It's Friday night - better let my remaining hair down...

Oh, Haze have started... pretty similar set to the other week at The Peel, except that one of them's wearing a wizard's hat. Sure, why not, it is a prog festival. I'm going to get that opening song with its 'fiddly-diddly-dee' motif stuck in my head for ANOTHER 3 weeks, aren't I? ... erm, hang on, why has the second flautist got a baby strapped to her front? No, I'm imagining things, aren't I? Nobody is that desperate for childcare. Oh, no, she really has. Ok.

Come to think of it, why stop at two flautists? May as well get another one in training...
Photo: James Allen

... My beer's empty, where's the bar, oh look there's Rob again...just have a quick chat, oh, Haze have finished. Well, that was fun. Think I'll just go out to the foyer and take a look at the merch on sale, oh hi Nellie, what's that, you'd like to remove the entire contents of my wallet? Sure, why not?

Aha, Sylvan have started, sounding pretty good, let's go and have a look... via the lovely people at the bar, of course...

Photo: James Allen

.. Yeah, I like this! Heavy-ish but melodic, good fun music, really tight band, oooh what's this, another giant merch table right next to where I'm standing? Just have a quick browse through the CDs between songs... OH MY GOD THIS IS PROG MUSIC SHOPPING HEAVEN, I must have this... and this... and these... ok that'll do... these please...HOW MUCH??!!!? But that's all the money I brought with me - oh well, there's a cashpoint at Tesco's... really shouldn't come to this stall when I'm hammered, will I never learn?

Ooh, another really good Sylvan song, I'm going to have to check them out when I... wow, I'm hungry. I don't think I've ever been so hungry in my entire life... must... leave... now.... find food... what's that, Rob? You want to make sure I don't fall under a bus? Probably a good idea (not that there are any buses round here except the special prog bus...) SHIT. It's 11:30. Nothing's going to be open, is it... WHY DO I DO THIS EVERY YEAR?? DAMN YOU LYDNEY, Y U NO HAVE FACILITIES... - ah! The curry place! That's open! Thank you kind sir, yes I would love one of your fine curries - what's that? No, I think I'd better take it away and get back to the band, actually... erm, do you have a fork? Cheers!

Right, back at the venue, there must be somewhere I can sit and eat this and still watch the band... orrrr, not. Actually this really smells, should probably go outside somewhere.... mind you, my hotel's just over the road isn't it... I'll eat this and come back... LOVELY, WONDERFUL, LIFE-GIVING CURRY.... ahhhhh, sweet nectar of the gods.... wow, I'm full. And drunk. And tired... might just sit down for a minzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

"Thank you, you've been a wonderful audience - especially you, drunk-shopping-curry-guy..."

Next time: I drink less beer, and pay some actual attention to bands including the mighty Lazuli, and the 'differently-mighty' Gordon Giltrap.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

15th August 2013 - Dream Theater 'Dream Theater' Album playback: Angel Studios, London

Is there anything worse than trying to write something under duress, pressure, obligation or blunt force trauma to the head? Some of the above are responsible for this post, as "someone" has been nibbling away at me for the last few weeks like a belligerent rabbit at a particularly offensive carrot.

"When's the review coming out?"
"What do you mean you're not doing one?"
"You reviewed the sodding Pet Shop Boys?"

So, fine, here we go, but don't blame me if I write this in the style of a petulant teenager hacking his way through an essay on Henry VIII.

It's early August, as it is at least once a year, and I get a text from my some time co-host of the Dead Nobodies podcast.

"Do you like Dream Theater?" A question, like most posed by Bob, to which I'm not entirely sure of the required answer, so I decide to go with the truth.

"Not specially, if I'm honest. Have tried a couple of times to get into them."

"So, not enough to be a plus 1 at a new album playback at Angel Studios on Thursday?"

A previously unawoken love for the lords of overblown Prog-Metal apparently overcomes me.

"Wow, I would actually love to go to that!"  - (and drink the free beer and eat the free Pringles and maybe bump into a celeb or two.)

It's for this reason that on a Thursday evening I find myself heading down past the Islington Screen on the Green...

...and meet Bob in The Bull, a typical swanky Islington beererie in which I make my mark as a giant girl by going straight for a pint of Hoegaarden. "You don't hang about, do you?", says Bob, sarcastically. Or maybe that's just his voice.

Doors are at 5:45, and we have to be in by 6 due to a strict lockdown, so I down my MAN BREW, and we head across to Angel Studios, an actual proper place where real artists record albums which normal people buy -fairly exciting in itself, and the pictures up the stairs speak to its history: Annie Lennox, Porcupine Tree, Cockneys vs Zombies... Actually I am guessing at what the pictures are because, before we are allowed up the stairs all bags are confiscated and placed in the cloakroom - along with all mobile phones. I'm fairly sure it's some kind of infringement of basic human rights to deprive the modern man of his smartphone, but sadly I lack the quickness of thought or bare-faced obvious lying skills to claim not to have one.

This presents rather an issue for writing down any impressions of the album itself (which one might uncharitably suggest is intentional), so bear that in mind as you make your way through the rest of this. What it does mean, though, is neither of us can Tweet, or check each other in (or out), or brag to anyone not in the room about how awesome our lives are, so instead we grab a free beer from the table in the side room, a handful of Pringles, and sit down for a good old chinwag about what to do with the podcast, amongst other top secret plans for world domination. Then we go and get another beer. And another. And maybe a couple more

At some point, which feels like about 10pm, a record company lackey comes out and apologises that the band have been a bit delayed, so to just help ourselves to some free beer and snacks. Way ahead of you, mate. What band? Time ticks by and beers keep coming, and eventually, when I'm just about to lose vision in my left eye, in slope James La Brie, John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess of Dream Theater, who say hi and wave to us all before heading over to a little side area to pose for some photos with the hardcore fans.

It's quite amusing actually (not really giving two flying hoots at the best of times, let alone sat amongst the growing bottle bank under my chair) - watching people nervously queuing up, getting things ready to sign , watching the band plaster on the best smiles they can muster for each new person who wants their photo taken... by the official photographer only, natch. Photos available for download tomorrow. Oh, there's Bob, making friends with Jordan by namedropping our mutual friend Mr. J Godfrey, Esquire.

One of these people is not in a rock band.

"Was it everything you ever dreamed it would be?", I say to him as he sits back down.

"And more...", he probably says.

When the queue disperses, out they come to answer some pithy and completely unexpected questions from Prog Magazine editor Jerry Ewing, such as 'How did you approach this album going into it with new drummer Mike Mangini?', and 'Why was it time to do a self-titled album?' - to which the band trot out the usual 'We wanted to say, this is really us, this album defines us' response, which should really be retired after 30-odd years in service from bands the world over. C'mon, someone just say 'We couldn't be arsed to think of a title. It saved us 5 grand in consultancy fees.'

Then there are a few fan questions, which seem to get answered to a greater or lesser degree depending on how stupid the band think they are, and eventually, with a collection of empty Beck's bottles rapidly approaching double figures under my seat, the album gets put on.

And here's where this review really comes unstuck, because here's all I can remember:

- It seems AMAZING. Like, literally the best thing I have ever heard. Mind you, so does the busker playing 'Another Brick in the Wall' at the tube station on the way home. And the Aqua song which pops up on shuffle on my phone on the train. And the sound of the fox mewling in the street outside my flat at 3am. Beer = FUN!

- It's notably more melodic than previous Dream Theater music I've checked out, a bit less emphasis on histrionic fretwankery and epileptic drum seizures. Not that that's saying an awful lot.

- We're listening to it in 5.1, which is pretty cool. It doesn't strike me as being a particularly adventurous mix but there are a couple of moments, especially near the beginning of the first track, (which we'll say is called 'Track One', really defining the essence of opening an album) where there's a giant swoosh of sound from front to back of the room like an especially flamboyant jet engine taking off, with toms rolling all about the room, passing the 'ohmigod' test.

- There's a point towards the end of the final track where I lean over to Bob and start singing 'High vibration, go on...' , but he doesn't seem amused.

Here's my hot off the press Twitter review:

Which is high praise indeed. I'll probably buy it. Which is even higher praise, for a Dream Theater album. But don't take my word for it. Wait for someone to hear it sober - seems unlikely that applies to anyone in the room tonight, mind you.

Apart from perhaps the band, who sit in the row behind us trying not to look uncomfortable whilst watching a room full of pissheads attempting to make sense of their latest magnum opus. Jordan Rudess shuts his eyes and taps his feet, earnestly - either really getting into the music or trying desperately to hold in one too many lagers.

Talking of which, in the middle of the album (which will therefore be the best part, everyone) I decide I have no choice but to get up and run down the corridor for a wee, which I attempt to do as quickly as possible so not to offend the band. Finishing up and starting to do up my flies, I turn around and there's James LaBrie.

"Hey!", he says.

"Hello!", I say, as cheerily as you can when the lead singer of the world's biggest Prog Metal band has probably just seen your knob.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

25th August 2013: Damian Wilson Acoustic Session- The Old Crown,Weybridge

I think it's been a little while since I raved about something to such an extent that you wondered if I'd been brainwashed into some kind of cult, hasn't it? Allow me to indulge myself just a little, then...

See this man? See his majestic mane and his pogonophobe-baiting face furniture? I imagine he went to his 6th form careers advisor and got the diagnosis of 'Rock Musician' without even taking the test. And rock musician he is, having fronted the prog-metal band Threshold, the prog-metal band Headspace, and starred in the West End production of prog-metal musical 'Les Miserables'.

He's actually a rather big deal amongst those who know their prog-metal, having headlined some massive festival shows and toured around the globe with the aforementioned bands, as well as his acoustic Iron Maiden tribute 'Maiden uniteD' and guest spots with Ayreon and Rick Wakeman. I'm therefore extremely surprised to find that he's playing a low-key acoustic session at a pub just down the road from me, so with nothing much to do on a Sunday evening except watch 'Spinal Tap' again, and with gig buddy Tim 'Mouse' Lawrie in tow, we bundle into the Prog Passat and head on over to check out what on earth is going on. This may prove to be one of the finest decisions of all time.

Further research reveals that tonight is the first of a number of small acoustic sessions warming up for a proper acoustic tour later this year, and given the lack of promotion anywhere, I'm half expecting to be able to sit and eat a roast dinner whilst occasionally glancing across an empty pub at a man in the corner apologetically strumming away.

Well, it isn't quite like that, as the pub is already absolutely rammed when we arrive, although nobody seems to be remotely interested in getting close to 'THE VOICE', and are either hanging about at the bar, in the garden, or in the back room watching England picking up the Ashes. The giant, Aussie-baiting TV screen in the back room is presumably the reason why Damian and his guitarist are crammed into a tiny nook the size of a Weetabix packet behind the front door - so we take our spots in the 5 square feet between him and the bar, and find ourselves rubbing shoulders with a few hardcore fans, one of whom has travelled all the way down from Glasgow and rather sweetly brings Damian cups of tea all evening for his poor ickle wickle throat. (Presumably. Or maybe he just really, really likes tea.)

Eventually, it's about time to get started, and off he goes, completely unamplified, and accompanied to start with only by his guitar and that of fellow guitarist Brian Willoughby who quietly gets on with his backing job with a minimum of fuss. This part of the gig is pretty much what I expect - a selection of cracking acoustic songs, like 'Naked',  'Moment of Your Doubt', with its touching local backstory, and 'Homegrown', a song in which he talks to God about growing his own pot. As you do.

I'm absolutely hopeless at describing music at the best of times, but especially when it comes to a man with a guitar playing some songs. I think that's the best I can do - they're good, old-fashioned melodic songs, with choruses and all, ranging from quiet and introspective to good time singalongs. How I've missed out on this catalogue of tunes for so long, I have no idea.

Gather round, children, and I shall tell you a story...

Both my previous Damian gig experiences involved him singing a metal set for a festival crowd, so I know how powerfully this man can sing; and he doesn't disappoint this evening, belting out the high notes with pitch perfect accuracy. What's more, I'm so close that his voice sends visible seismic ripples through my arm flab and I can smell the Timotei in his hair - it's an experience I'm never likely to forget. However, even this vocal colossus can't keep quiet a whole pub of people who can't see him, so he's constantly having to ask for quiet, something which would spoil some of the more emotional numbers if we weren't down at the front getting an up close and extremely personal masterclass in singer-songwritering. He's joined on quite a few numbers by his brother Paul, who adds some beautiful close harmonies, troubling the spine department on a worrying number of occasions.

And if you can't get to the front, never fear, there's always out in the street.
But don't worry, Damian won't ignore you...

It's just about getting to be time for a mid-gig break when one of the chatterers from the bar seems to be pushing his way up to the front to make trouble but, no, he just wants to ask Damian if he can do something about the fact that nobody apart from me can hear. A mighty fine idea, which leads to us all ousting the last cricket stragglers from the backroom and setting up camp right down the other end of the pub, where the gig resumes 20 minutes later, with me perching on a table down the front and Tim hiding in a little hobbit hole behind the artists.

It's at this point that this gig shifts up more gears than Concorde taking off round a Grand Prix track. (Or something that makes sense.) With the crowd a little more spread out and able to engage with the performers, it soon becomes apparent that everyone in the pub was here for the gig all along - tables upon tables of people having a wonderful time and creating a two-way appreciation between audience and band. I suppose it doesn't hurt that everyone, and I mean everyone (apart from the 5 or 6 of us 'fans') appears to be a member of the Wilson family, or friends thereof. There's a third brother, who sings along louder than anyone, and heckles in all the right places, and there's Uncle Tony, and then there are Damian's sons, who get sent around with a pint pot to collect a few coppers for the poor starving artistes, and are suitably embarrassed when songs are dedicated to them and claim never to have heard them (but still look mighty proud of their Dad when they think nobody's watching.)

As we settle down, and Damian, Paul, and Brian whip through an impressive number of songs, including the jolly 'Let's Start a Commune', the roots-y 'Subway' (which prompts a good-natured brotherly argument about the lyrics) and even a wonderful cover of Depeche Mode's 'Somebody', I suddenly get this sense of being at something extremely special. The room is full of people who've obviously been there for Damian throughout his career and watched him go from strength to strength, and they're all genuinely happy to be there, proud of him and his songs - with the whole room singing along at various points, aunties and cousins and all.

Erm, you've forgotten a verse...

Mind you, he has a knack for writing songs that have you singing along even though you've never heard them before, which I catch myself doing by the second chorus of most of them, carried away on an exhilarating wave of a whole room of people having the time of their lives. I suddenly think that this must be what it's like at a folk gig in an Irish pub, not that I've ever been to one. Or to Ireland.

This instant familiarity is rather handy for guitarist Brian, who's been happily playing along all night until Damian suddenly announces him.

"This is Brian, by the way. He's never played with me ever before, and he's never heard any of these songs before in his life. He was in the Strawbs, you know."

Let's just have a moment's silence for a man who turns up to play a gig without any rehearsal or knowledge of the songs being played other than looking at the other guy's fingers, shall we?


Brings a whole new meaning to the phrase 'Sight Reading', doesn't it?

Eventually they seem to come to the end of what's on the setlist and start repeating some of the songs they played in the nook earlier, which nobody minds. It's half past ten (two and a half hours after the gig started), but there are no signs of either audience or band being ready to go home. So now it's Request Time. Various attendees shout out their favourite songs, which Damian comes up with various reasons not to play - 'Array of Lights' is too Christmassy, for instance, but 'Wedding Song' does eventually get played for the couple over by the door celebrating their anniversary. It's quite a lump-in-throat moment, until someone's phone starts ringing over the last chords, luckily prompting more guffaws than tuts. 

Perhaps the most touching moment of familial bonding this evening, though, comes with a rousing rendition of the Scottish folk tune 'Mingulay Boat Song' during which Damian invites his father up to sing a verse, followed by Paul, and Damian himself, and then Uncle Tony is summoned to have a go but lets the side down so the whole pub takes over the chorus for a good few minutes. I feel simultaneously like I'm part of some wonderful new family and a gatecrasher who's extremely lucky not to have been noticed.

As if the mood has become rather too sentimental, the evening just degenerates from here into insanity - there's a wonderful acoustic cover of Iron Maiden's 'The Evil That Men Do', during which everyone in the crowd gets their turn to scream out the chorus, including Damian's poor dad, then the landlady requests a Cat Stevens song so we eventually get 'The First Cut is the Deepest' after many attempts to ignore the post-it shoved under his nose.

There's even time for a reprise of 'Fable' which includes the fan-authored alternative lyrics:

"She's got legs like a table,
she's mentally unstable,
Completely disabled..."

But still nobody's ready for home, so then Damian starts going completely bonkers, making his way into the middle of the room to stand on a stool and belt out 'Satisfaction', before running about the place screeching for a rendition of Otis Redding's 'Hard to Handle' (which, despite Paul and my best guesses, is in fact not the theme tune from the BBC snooker coverage.)

One more touching family moment as he reprises 'When I Leave This Land' and actually makes his son pay attention this time (and I swear I spot the odd sneaky tear round about the place), and then at getting on for midnight, there's a seemingly inevitable finale of 'Johnny B. Goode', which has the entire place singing and raising their glasses to a fine, fine evening which I've been privileged to spend in the company of such warm and fun-loving people.

As the pub empties out and only the hardcore fans remain, Tim and I hang about to thank the artists for such a wonderful evening, and I start chatting to the other fans, explaining how privileged I feel to have been here on this unique and special evening, never to be repeated.

"Oh, that? Yeah, that was a pretty normal Damian Wilson gig."

Pfft, whatever. I reckon there was something special going on here tonight. Even if it was just Timotei and Tea.

I strongly suggest you try to catch Damian's acoustic tour at a venue near you- starting TODAY, yes TODAY, on a floating boat on the Thames near Vauxhall. I will see you there...

Thursday, 18 July 2013

17th July 2013: Goldfrapp and the RCNM String Orchestra, Albert Hall, Manchester

I really am the best boss in the world. A poor member of my virtual team, based in Manchester, on maternity leave and unable to get down to London needs to have her laptop collected, so here I come all the way up on the train at great personal inconvenience to pick it up from her.

What's that? Goldfrapp are premiering their new album with a string orchestra and choir at the Manchester International Festival, the same evening I happen to have decided would be the most convenient day for this trip? Well, it'd be rude not to.

See where someone has scribbled out the band name? Yeah, that was the doorman. He had real anger issues.

Actually the only times I've ever been to Manchester are for gigs, and they've been very much an "in and out" affair- getting the heck out before I can start talking all funny. But this time I end up with a couple of hours to kill between my important meeting and the evening's festivities, so I spend a while seeing the sights- Piccadilly Gardens, Piccadilly Records, Vinyl Revival, Vinyl Exchange... Yep, at least record shopping isn't a dead art up here, much to my wallet's misfortune.

They sure do have a weird concept of Jazz up here, though.

Perhaps my favourite part of Manchester, though, is the buskers. There's the guy with a descant recorder (yes, those plastic ones you slaughtered at school), hammering out "Three Blind Mice" or something, over and over like a man trapped in a horrible infinite loop. But he's nothing compared to the sight that awaits me around the corner, where a fairly normal looking chap with a guitar is merely standing by with bewilderment while his microphone has been commandeered by a passing toothless hobo, who belts out "Relax, don't do it... When you want to go to it," over and over again (carefully avoiding any of the dodgy lyrics) with the earnestness and lack of tuning only possible from someone who closes their eyes to sing. Come to think of it, maybe he doesn't have any eyes either.

This evening's organised musical entertainment is rather more pleasing to the ears, I'm happy to say. And the eyes, come to that. Tonight is one of the first times the Albert Hall has been used in many, many years, having been criminally boarded up and discarded around 40 years ago and left to rot above a scuzzy nightclub which closed some years back. It's in the middle of a giant restoration project, but has been opened just for a few events as part of this year's Manchester International Festival. If the half-finished venue is anything to go by, when it's done it will easily rival London's Union Chapel for sheer atmosphere, if not go one better; with gorgeous stained glass windows all around (including the ceiling), a stage which is high enough for even the most vertically challenged to see the band at all times, and a giant church organ taking pride of place amongst the 73 musicians up there tonight (all numbers approximate.)

What a lovely head. Ha! Ahahaha!

For us early queuers, there's quite a wait for the band to come on, which is made almost intolerable by the intense heat on this 30-degree day, but luckily it's improved by the people I get chatting to from the Goldfrapp online forum, who simultaneously make me glad to be a Goldfrapp fan and just as glad to have given up band forums some years ago, after hearing the standard tales of politics and trolling. I have a particularly good chat about all kinds of music, including a discussion on why Phil Collins is just a shadow of the man he once was, with a chap named John - or at least, I'm assuming that's his name, since it's the start of his email address. But then by that logic, my name ought to have been "moosgeoose37" for about 10 years so perhaps not.

Tales of Us

Eventually the lights go down and the RNCM take their seats, after which we only have to wait another 5 minutes for the rest of the band to appear, accompanied by some off-stage childlike vocals and then eventually Alison Goldfrapp herself, dressed in black silk jammies, and ready to launch into the band's new album, "Tales of Us". It's the first time anyone has ever heard most of this material, so I can sense a small amount of trepidation coming from the stage, as much as from us. What if it's unspeakably awful?

Lucikly, and amazingly for a crowd about to expire from heat exhaustion, we are utterly rapt, from opener 'Jo', with its jazzy acoustic bass line from long-term bassplayer Charlie Jones, and shimmering strummed acoustic guitars, all the way through to closer 'Clay', which builds on a foundation of Walker Brothers-esque string arrangements to an epic finish and is my pick for best track on a first listen.

In between, there's the only previously heard track, 'Drew', whose 'lalala' vocals and wistful strings, (led from the front by band violinist Davide Rossi) recall a summery French movie from the 60's, and 'Stranger', with cinematic orchestral flourishes summoning up a touch of John Barry.

It's difficult, without frantically jabbing at your phone throughout, to accurately record your first impressions of 40 minutes of brand new material, but on tonight's showing, the album is going to be a lush, sumptuous affair, with the strings taking a pivotal role in the sound; from luxurious backing sounds here to driving cello riffs there. Electronica or dance music, it is not - in fact the percussion is extremely subtle, letting the rest of the instruments provide the beat a lot of the time.

 One thing that's very easy to remember, though, is a general impression of the lyrics, which are far less personal than before, with a focus on telling intense and bizarre stories - from 'Laurel', a post-war Hollywood film star who unwittingly marries a serial killer, to 'Simone', who comes home to find her lover in bed with her mother. As you do.

The TL:DR version? Imagine a John Barry-arranged hybrid of Seventh Tree and Felt Mountain, without the electronics, and with a storybook of tales to tell.

"The Old Stuff"

As if to prove my assessment correct, when the band return to play a second set of old favourites, it's entirely composed of tracks from these two albums - and mostly Seventh Tree, which is A.O.K with me, being my favourite. Not so much with the people behind me who keep chanting "Strict Machine, Strict Machine" between each song. Sorry ladies, it's really not that kind of evening.

If the first half had me entranced with unfamiliar material, the second set was always going to be a slam dunk - with the string orchestra adding a beautiful extra dimension to this most heart-rending material, not to mention the choir who really are the Rolls-Royce of backing vocalists. And Alison herself is on fine form - seemingly having a wonderful time and lapping up the rapturous applause between songs with an enormous smile (of relief?) The vocals are absolutely perfect, she looks confident and assured even on the material getting its debut tonight, and she duets beautifully here and there with keyboard player and backing vocalist Angie Pollock.

But wait, there's someone else on the already crowded stage for the second half - who's that big cuddly bear at the controls of the Starship Goldfrapp? Yes, it's 'the other half' of the band, Will Gregory, who usually isn't seen much in public, but is having a wonderful time up there on stage tonight, grinning from ear to ear as we clap and sing along and generally worship the astonishing music that this duo have created. It's a bit hard to tell what he's doing at first, sitting with what looks like a whole studio mixing desk balanced on his knees and twiddling things now and again, but it soon becomes apparent during an extended outtro to 'Little Bird', where he manages to make the whole band sound like a mono pysch album from the 60's playing on a transistor radio. And even more so when Alison takes to the second microphone during 'Lovely Head' and the most insane sound issues forth. To say that I have a "goosebump-gasm" at this point will hopefully give you an idea - or just a very odd impression of me.

Actually the second half is pretty much one big gasm of one kind or another, whether it's the eargasm of the entire of 'Clowns', or the rockgasm of the closing 'Caravan Girl', during which the new drummer (whose name is eluding me) finally gets to hit his kit properly. There aren't any maypole strippers, though, which is probably a good thing for avoiding any other kind of gasms.

We cheer and clap and bay for more, but the band are gone and there isn't any. It's been a wonderful, wonderful evening, beautiful music in a stunning setting. On my way out, I pause to take a photo of the magnificent stage and a fellow fan stops to do the same, catches my eye and says:

"What a fine organ... I've seen some big organs in my time but that one really takes the biscuit!"

"Ha, yeah! Bye!"

Goldfrapp Setlist:

"Tales of Us":


Paper Bag
Little Bird
Lovely Head
Road to Somewhere
Caravan Girl

Saturday, 13 July 2013

18th June 2013: Pet Shop Boys / Jon Hopkins - The O2, London

"You have a certain quality which really is unique,
Expression with such irony, although your voice is weak.
It doesn't really matter cause the music is so loud,
Of course it's all on tape but no-one will find out..."

I may have mentioned last time that May and June saw me entering into a nice little seam of electronica, cutting like a very funky raspberry ripple into the vanilla sea of rock gigs I normally drone on about. 

Well, in terms of conventional instruments played, I think this gig sets a new record, as between the support and the main act there actually aren't any. I mean, there's a keyboard in front of Chris Lowe which he jabs at occasionally, but there's a moment in the middle of their Hi-NRG cover of Bernstein's 'Somewhere' where he just wanders off stage (leaving only dancers dressed as minotaurs in day-glo orange jumpsuits - this could only be the Pet Shop Boys) and the music keeps on playing without anything discernible being missing.

Yeah, by the way, these are some of the worst photos I've ever taken.
You're welcome.

You could complain, but it's there in black and white italics above and they've never made any secret of it. But to moan about most of the music we hear tonight playing itself is to miss the point of a Pet Shop Boys gig. They're serious electronic artists, honey, they don't need no guitars. Yes, that's right, they're electronic pioneers and dancefloor gods - what do you mean they're just a cheesy pop band?

It's a point which is hammered home tonight at every opportunity- from the title of the tour (and upcoming album), 'Electric', to the selection of banging choons which play over the PA while we wait, to the part of the gig where the duo are packed away into giant hard drives either side of the stage for one of their many, many costume changes while 'Love, Etc' plays itself with accompanying projections- and I don't see anyone complaining. 

Tonight's support fits the theme perfectly...

Jon Hopkins a name that's been on the outskirts of my attention for a while, but it's not until tonight that I get to check out what the moderate fuss is about. It's hard to describe just what is so mesmerising about his set- perhaps it's the continuous flow of tracks from nervous, pulsating beats to all-out dance floor grooves and then onto Balearic bliss with a side order of morning after style chill out. Prog fans like to say their favourite music takes them on a journey, but this cinematically epic set shifts about all over the place in moods and feels, from a dark London alley at chucking out time to the beaches of Ibiza, and conjures up more mental imagery than even the colourful backdrop projections suggest.

Yes, colourful backdrop projections. Not my fault if you can't see them.

So, what's Mr Hopkins actually up to on stage? Well, aside from gyrating around behind his laptop in a most endearing fashion, he uses pads and knobs to trigger glitchy, mashy, scratchy sounds which truly differentiate his music from your average chill out compilation. With some dubstep bass here and there and the hypnotic cycling keyboard theme of 'Light Through the Veins' providing his biggest "hit", 40 minutes passes in a flash and he leaves the stage to a mixture of bewilderment and rapture from this crowd. Clearly it wasn't for everybody. 

Pet Shop Boys

...don't care whether they're for everyone or not- even their fans. Taking a leaf out of the Steven Wilson book of stagecraft, they're not even visible to a lot of the audience for the first couple of songs - being encased in a giant tent where projections and shadows bounce off the front, while banging new album opening track 'Axis' starts things the way they are destined to go on all night. A mash-up of old classic 'One More Chance' and 'A Face Like That' from last year's somewhat overlooked 'Elysium' album establish the theme of pleasing the hardcore - and in fact it's not until song number 8 that anything approaching a major hit single pops up, with a joyous version of 'Suburbia' beckoning the entire crowd (a curiously varied lot, to be honest) to their feet for a bit of a boogie.

In the interim, Neil and Chris do pretty much whatever they please - and it's clear from the new album (which you can listen to here, and you should) that they're in a mood for a dance. That, and revisiting some long overlooked corners of their catalogue - hence minor hit 'Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)' gets mashed up with 'The Clothes Show' theme 'In the Night', then there's the oddly topical 'Integral' ("If you've done nothing wrong, you've got nothing to fear...") before the more chilled beats of last year's single 'Leaving', during which everyone takes the title literally and decides to go to the toilet - so many of them that I take a picture by way of passive aggressive protest. It's a shame, because it's a lovely performance, with this and 'Invisible' being some of Neil's best vocals, although he's in astoundingly good voice all night.


There's also time for a couple more new tracks - including Bruce Springsteen cover 'The Last to Die' (which, I suppose, is no more odd than the version of 'Always on My Mind' they play later), and the excellent 'Thursday' which give us both our first Chris Lowe trademark deadpan Mancunian vocals of the night and a guest appearance from Example, who pops in for a quick rap and a cup of tea. (Minus the tea.)

It's a bold set for the first two thirds at least (opening and closing with brand new, as yet unreleased tracks is a gamble which luckily pays off), and it necessarily does away with a few of the hits, but some of those that remain are given a makeover- 'I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind of Thing', for instance, managing to confound everyone by being prefaced with an excerpt from 'The Rite of Spring', before having the "electro" knob turned up to 11 whilst Chris Lowe wears a kind of Viking Transformers helmet.

Then there's a version of 'Rent' which I describe in my notes as 'dirty' (although I don't remember exactly why, I don't think there's any more gyrating on stage than at any other point), before they move into the home strait with a slam dunk final half hour of tracks from iconic 90's Best-Of 'Discography' including the first PSB song I ever heard, 'It's a Sin', and the big covers ('Go West', 'Always on My Mind') which personally I would live without in favour of something (anything, pleeeeease?) from the 'Behaviour' or 'Bilingual' albums. Still, earlier in the night they played my favourite B-side 'I Get Excited (You Get Excited Too)' so totting up the scores I think they're still ahead.

My favourite part of this hit-tastic final section? The Latin-infused 'Domino Dancing' has always been a favourite, and it gets everyone up and samba-ing to the best of their ability (yeah, you can probably imagine), but it's enhanced for me by the two middle-aged ladies in the row behind and their "We love you Neil" banner. I hate to break it to you, ladies...

Pet Shop Boys Setlist

One More Chance / Face Like That 
Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money) 
Memory of the Future 
I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind of Thing 
I'm Not Scared 
Last to Die (Bruce Springsteen cover)
Somewhere (Leonard Bernstein cover)
Thursday (with Example)
Love Etc. 
I Get Excited (You Get Excited Too) 
It's a Sin 
Domino Dancing 
Go West
Always on My Mind

West End Girls