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