Thursday, 27 June 2013

28th May 2013: Depeche Mode / How To Dress Well - The O2 Arena, London

Part 3 of my 4-gig week and my 3rd attempt at reviewing something in 500 words. I think I wrote 500 words about the support- sorry.

You could be forgiven for thinking that I only listen to progressive rock music. Or even, rock music. Looking down through the list of old entries here does make me look like an ever older, fartier old fart than I actually am. The truth is, that I've spent ages reviewing newer, "dancier" acts (Cut Copy, M83, The Invisible) before now, but I don't move in cool enough circles for them to get much interest.

Still, there's a rich seam of synthpop and electronica hitting London over the next few weeks, and across my next 3 gigs I will see a sum total of 3 instruments with strings - all of which are here this evening; Depeche Mode being one of those bands that straddles the electro and rock genres like the Basildon colossi that they are.

Gig buddies tonight (and not biddies, as I just accidentally typed) are Tinyfish Bassplayer Paul and his wife Helen (Queen of the Apiary), who's something of a synthpop nut and has dragged "'Im indoors" along to see what all the fuss is about. Being a musician, he's also a useful person to have about at a gig, since we're too late to get close to the stage, so he suggests we plonk ourselves down in front of the mixing desk for optimal sound, and we end up standing on top of the remnants of the other night's Rush gig.

Um, what is that we're nearly putting our feet in? Yes, I thought so...

Support tonight is from Tom Krell, aka...

How to Dress Well

...who play what I remember as "Ethereal R&B", singing quite soulful vocals into two microphones at once (one more reverby than the other), while a chap on stage right twiddles knobs. Together they produce some fun, jaunty tunes like '& It Was U', as well as some much more sombre material like the beautiful 'Suicide Dream 1', where knobs-man picks up a violin and Tom gives an extremely heartfelt vocal performance which steers just on the correct side of "boyband". The songs are accompanied by sometimes interesting and sometimes downright bizarre video material; the scene which seems to be a man putting on and taking off an avocado facepack for an unspecified reason is a particular highlight.

The last song is quite anthemic, and I can imagine it going down very well in a small club or on an outdoor terrace in summer but in this cavernous arena it gets lost slightly. Ultimately, the crowd are waiting for Depeche Mode and haven't really been prepared to put in as much attention as is required, but these guys are definitely worth a listen at home. A commentator on Youtube suggests that "this is some baby making music" so that probably tells you all you need to know.

The main event is on its way, so it's time to head to the bar and pick up our rock and roll order of "3 waters", which takes a ridiculous length of time thanks to the most annoyingly generous man ever at the bar, who runs up an £80 bill two drinks at a time - firstly for his companions, then the lady he nearly punches in the face, then the people who are getting annoyed at him being at the bar for 25 minutes... All of which means that by the time I return, it's nearly time for...

Depeche Mode

...who make a fairly convincing argument this evening for the possibility of being a rock band without guitars (except when they feel like it), and also for bands from the '80s still managing to create relevant new music in the '10s.

Depeche Mode are another band, like Rush the other day, who I've only recently discovered (I know, I'm so on the pulse...) so it's testament to the quality of new album 'Delta Machine' that they manage to play three quarters of it tonight and not have it stick out like a sore Essex thumb (with a garishly bejewelled fingernail on the end, perhaps).

Kicking off with the one-two of album opener 'Welcome to My World', and current single 'Angel', is a pretty obvious statement of intent - this is no nostalgia show, and even when they reach further back into their bag of tricks, it's with a renewed sense of vigour and purpose. 'Walking in My Shoes' is suitably dark and menacing, and 'Policy of Truth' prompts Dave "I really ought to be dead" Gahan to start the first of many little bolero dances he undertakes this evening in his stunning combo of leather waistcoat and bare chest. I wouldn't recommend it for most of the bands I see, but he is a genuine rock star, commanding the entire venue by his very presence even when he's not singing.

Which is just as well, since he's rather fond of the old "get the crowd to sing the chorus" trick. So much so that he uses it again and again, certainly for the giant singalong classics. The problem with this is that Dave's got a deceptively low voice, and I don't know if you've ever tried to sing very low and very loudly but it usually involves soiling yourself, if it works at all, and is mostly quite impossible. The net result is that some of the best-loved songs this evening ('Question of Time', 'Enjoy the Silence') are essentially chorus-less, which is a bit disappointing. Still, there are plenty of pretty things to look at while we listen to the crowd trying to sing along in the style of Wookies.

Like this!

And this!

And some cute dogs. And the band wearing and swapping a variety of hats. And lights which come down like a helicopter at the start of 'Question of Time'. There's even a lot of fire, but it's just on the screens. Rush had real fire. Just saying...

Mid-set, there's the obligatory "quiet spot" where Martin Gore, with his never-aging, slightly sad clown-looking face, grabs a guitar and takes centre stage. It's an opportunity for the hardcore fans to enjoy his much softer, more melodic voice, and some of them embrace and look genuinely moved as he makes his way through 'Higher Love' and 'When the Body Speaks'. It's also an opportunity for people who only know three Depeche Mode songs to shout at each other, take photos of themselves in front of the stage, and generally act like, well I want to say "bellends" but really it's more like "modern-day giggers". Get off my lawn, hipsters.

Oh, go on, please listen to me, or I'll look even sadder... 

With Dave back on the stage, the gig makes its way to the finish line, with some of the biggest hits still to come, including a very dance-y version of newer hit 'A Pain That I'm Used To', based on the Jacques Lu Cont mix, and a slow, Johnny Cash style start to 'Personal Jesus' before it turns into the rockiest song of the evening.

It's in the encore though, that things finally come alive for the whole arena (bellends included.) A very James-Bond-esque version of 'Halo' (which turns out to be based on a Goldfrapp remix) is a surprise highlight of the entire gig, and then there's the small matter of an early '80s mega-smash hit single and erstwhile DFS commercial, which gets the whole place jumping up and down to Alan Fletcher's cheesetastic keyboard riff in a way which is rather at odds with the rest of the evening's dark, brooding set.

I bet they 'Just Can't Get Enough' of playing this song. Ha! HAHA!

A couple more bona fide hits, with occasional choruses, round up the evening and we're sent home with the sounds of 'Never Let Me Down Again' ringing in our ears, past the resident tube station busker knocking out 'Personal Jesus' for the hundredth time.

It's been a good night, with some excellent music and some proper rock star behaviour (not all of it from the band). It's hard to get too involved in a gig when you're standing right at the back of an enormodome, but Dave Gahan has a good old go at engaging every single person in the hall, even those standing by the sound desk on a pile of someone else's spit.

I will probably never, ever, forgive them for not playing 'Everything Counts', though. Surely that's the only way a Depeche Mode gig should ever end?

Depeche Mode Setlist:

Welcome to My World 
Walking in My Shoes 
Black Celebration 
Policy of Truth 
Should Be Higher 
Barrel of a Gun 
Higher Love (Sung by Martin)
When the Body Speaks (Sung by Martin)
Soothe My Soul 
A Pain That I'm Used To ('Jacques Lu Cont's Remix' version)
A Question of Time 
Secret to the End 
Enjoy the Silence 
Personal Jesus 

Home (Acoustic)
Halo ('Goldfrapp Remix' version)
Just Can't Get Enough 
I Feel You 

Never Let Me Down Again 

Sunday, 16 June 2013

25th May 2013: "Tubular Bells For Two" / Brett Winterford - Union Chapel, London

Gig 2 of this week's 4 - can I do any better at sticking to my 500 word self-imposed goal?

In many ways this evening is exactly the same as the previous night's Rush gig.  (No, really, stick with it.) Arriving at the Union Chapel and taking up our preferred balcony spot in what is fast becoming our favourite London venue, there's a wonderful light show already in progress, as the summer evening sun streams through the stained glass windows and casts a beautiful glow upon the entire venue. The stage set-up is actually even better than Rush, with the best pulpit I've ever seen at a rock gig, and a wonderful selection of instrument porn all nicely laid out for us to gawp at. They've even got just as many pyrotechnic devices, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale, as the gentle tealights around the periphery of the auditorium set just the right tone for an evening of what I am going to try to avoid calling ‘New Age’ music. A few joss sticks and some patchouli, and we'd have the perfect setting.

I wasn't sure whether I wanted to come along to this, I'll be honest. How could a rendition of one 45-minute album from the 1970's constitute a whole evening's entertainment worth spending £25 on? But what swung it in the end is just how few chances there have been in my gig-going lifetime to see any of Mike Oldfield's music played live – and as you may recall, I've been obsessed with the man's output since I was 6 years old. In fact, the one and only occasion to date was an unexpected rendition of ‘North Point’ by Chapman Stick player Carrie Melbourne opening for ReGenesis many years ago. I can still feel the tingles just thinking about it now, and I don't just think that's because I'm on a long haul flight and my leg's gone to sleep.

The question of how they're filling a whole evening is answered by the improbably high microphone at the front of the stage, which is soon occupied by Aussie giant Brett Winterford, a friend of the TBFT duo from back home. Brett spends a fantastic 30 minutes, filling the wonderful decommissioned church with his soulful vocals and nifty guitar playing – although it does help that his songs are mighty impressive too. Brett's slightly overwhelmed at being here to play for us tonight in this marvelous venue, tells us what amazing, if slightly scary fans Mike Oldfield has, and asks for our indulgence as he decides to find out what it's like to sing completely unamplified in this amazing space. Answer- if you're Brett Winterford, absolutely spine-chilling. I'm not recommending it for everyone, mind you.

Soon Brett comes to his last song, a message of hope for the future entitled 'The End of Shame', and with absolutely no ado, leaves us to listen to Pink Floyd's ‘Echoes’ for a few minutes before Daniel Holdsworth and Aidan Roberts, aka "Tubular Bells for Two" arrive on stage to tumultuous applause. They'd better live up to the hype, is all I'm saying.

Settling in like musical hoarders amongst the pile of instruments at their stations on either side of the stage, Daniel on stage right kicks off the familiar tinkling piano intro, and we're off on a journey which excites and entertains more than the sight of two guys playing someone else's 70's instrumental album ought to. At each station, there are racks of keyboards, which both guys play studiously, slightly like they're at the controls of the Starship Enterprise, whilst somehow managing to play guitars and basses slung around their necks, as well as glockenspiel and other percussion that's conveniently sitting about nearby, and of course turning on and off the technology that makes this spectacle possible.

And therein lies the key to tonight's performance – as everyone who cares knows, Mike Oldfield played the whole album himself, overdubbing instrument upon instrument on top of himself until the tape nearly wore through. Recreating it all live with just two people, without using any pre-recorded elements, is a wonderful way of paying homage to this incredible feat, and has serious potential for disaster. As each of the guys plays a musical motif, it gets looped around to continue on playing whilst they move to the next theme, which is probably on a completely different instrument (and may or may not actually be on the other side of the stage.) Just looping and then stopping everything at precisely the right times must surely be the hardest thing to get right in the entire show?

But get it right they do, producing a completely live and wonderful rendition of ‘Part One’ which is essentially the album version, with perhaps a few arrangement ideas from the Orchestral version thrown in. Boring and predictable it certainly is not. Visually, though, the fun is just beginning, as we get towards the climactic section of ‘Part One’, and Aidan on stage left is left to play a repeating motif whilst Daniel leaps up from his station like a man who's just been violated with a giant suppository of pure electricity. He runs around, moving instruments into various strategic positions, plugging and unplugging cables, taking a comedy swig of beer (which gets a huge laugh and breaks the rather serious atmosphere), and then finally stops the loop pedal in preparation for the main event.

Yes, it's easy to see how the whole concept for this evening could have grown out of the last 8 minutes of ‘Part One’ alone, with its roll-call of various exotic instruments all playing the same theme, layering on top of each other one by one before coming to a head with the eponymous Tubular Bells which are indeed present and correct tonight and hit with accuracy and gusto by Aidan, prompting a huge cheer. Both the guys make this 8 minutes as much of a visual spectacle as an audio delight, running about, playing all the instruments on the stage, prompting much ‘Oooh, are they going to make it?’ (a-la Phil Collins on 'In the Air Tonight'), Aidan playing the part of the announcer with as much delight, if slightly less eccentricity than the album. (Less eccentric than Viv Stanshall – I think anyone could live with that.)

The bells fade away, gentle acoustic guitar strumming brings the first half to a close, and the whole venue gets to its feet. Our Aussie friends look genuinely shocked at the response, and scurry off backstage, from where a disembodied voice suddenly announces that they've gone to turn the record over. Har-de-har-har!

If Part Two is less explosive, the reasons lie solely with Mike himself, as the music is rather more reflective and less in-your-face than the first half, but everything kicks back into life again halfway through, as Daniel reveals himself to be an excellent drummer, Aidan turns out to make a great caveman/pianist and, um, Daniel again manages to "play" the guitar solos by humming (or screeching) them whilst drumming. It's another bonkers highlight. When the whole piece comes to a close with the Sailors' Hornpipe and there's another full standing ovation, it's at this point that I really do wonder what is next – although we don't have long to wait.

Any Mike Oldfield nerds in the audience?” – there's a murmur. “Sorry, experts, I mean…” – more of a laugh. “We’re going to try an experiment in a bit with something you might know – but first, we’d like to play you some of our own stuff…” – there’s a palpable tension. What if their own stuff is rubbish and we can't easily leave without looking rude?

Luckily, we needn't have worried. Each of the guys plays one of their own, quite varied songs, proving that you don't have to sound like Ed Sheeran or some other aggravating bellend just because you're a man with an acoustic guitar. One of the songs is positively Dylan-esque, and the other is equally fine in a different way – it's no wonder that by the time we get downstairs all the promised cards for a free download of some of their material are long gone.

So, what's the treat for the Oldfield nerds? Well, it's pretty much exactly what this Oldfield nerd had hoped for - a somewhat loose and experimental stab at some of ‘Ommadawn’ Part One. It's clearly a work in progress but when it works, it works, especially when they tackle the closing section of the piece with the tribal drums and chanted harmony vocals. More of this next time, please, chaps. It segues neatly into a reprise of the climatic section of ‘Tubular Bells Part One’, during which Daniel gets to have a go on the bells instead, but doesn't get a cheer. Sorry mate, we're harder to impress the second time around.

Another ovation and a bow, and it's all over. It's been a far better evening than either of us anticipated, but most importantly, were there tingles? Indeed there were. Although that could have just been the effect of 2 hours sitting on a church pew.  I strongly urge anyone with a passing interest in Mike Oldfield, ‘Tubular Bells’, tubular bells, music, performance art, or life to go and catch them somewhere on this extensive UK tour. Who knows when they'll be back?

Oh good, this one’s even longer. Balls.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

24th May 2013: Rush - The O2 Arena, Greenwich

Part one of ‘James attempts to write a normal amount’. 

Rush are surely the biggest band that most people have never heard of, aren't they? Ultimate proof of this comes a few days after this gig when on round one of daytime quiz show par excellence "Pointless" (what can I say, I work from home…) it's revealed that only 3 of 100 people surveyed could identify the name Geddy Lee as a member of the band. Still, you wouldn't know this upon arrival at the O2, as hordes of middle aged men and the odd outlier like gig buddies Tim and Karin queue up for nigh-on 45 minutes to buy T-shirts at £25 a pop. “No T-shirt is worth queuing for 45 minutes for,” says Karin. “Not unless when you put it on, Peter Hammill magically appears in front of you.

Actually there's a lovely, chilled atmosphere in the queue – a chap in front of me and Tim joins in with our banter, we all roll our eyes in mock scorn and secret jealousy at the blowhard behind who is proclaiming loudly about having seen the ‘Hemispheres’ tour at the Southampton Gaumont, and we have a good old snigger at the £400 Rush leather jackets. “Who would pay that much money to look like that much of a knob?” I say, a question which is answered on the way to our seats as we spy two gentlemen proudly wearing the said matching garments in a way which Karin likens to teenage girl BFFs.

Photo: Tim Lawrie

Arriving in our seats, the PA keeps us entertained with selections from Crimson and Genesis, and the gods of fate and coincidence throw a complete curveball as I suddenly realise that the chap standing in the aisle by our block looking around for his gig buddy is my cousin Adrian, who I haven't seen in possibly years. “Adrian! ADRIAN!” I shout repeatedly, in an unintentional homage to both Rocky and Alan Partridge. He doesn't run up any steps to come and meet me, but to be fair the poor guy's just had a baby, so I'll let him off.

Eventually, with only 135 words remaining, the gig starts. (This is going really well, isn't it? Perhaps I'll reset the word count now we're talking about the actual thing.) Now, here's a confession, in case you're expecting the kind of gushing eulogies I sometimes dole out to my most favouritest bands – I like Rush, I'm on the way to loving Rush, but I am basically quite a noob compared to everyone else I meet this evening. The problem is, it took me until 2009 to start listening to them at all, and at that point I ended up picking up all the albums pretty much at the same time, and in case you hadn't noticed, there are quite a lot of them.

'Subdivisions' - Photo: Tim Lawrie

Whilst this means I don’t really know anything apart from "The Hits" very well, it does basically mean that I don't care what they play, as I sort-of-know it all to about the same degree. Which is just as well, since they've decided that this tour is to be a kind of “80's to present day” tour, with lots of selections from albums like ‘Power Windows’, ‘Grace Under Pressure’ and ‘Signals’. Kicking off with one of my very favourites, ‘Subdivisions’, is a good move on their part as this completely partisan crowd goes completely batshit crazy and doesn't let up for the next 3 hours. ‘Big Money’ is up next, not a song I know that well but it's ok, a thoughtful fan directly behind me sings the lyrics directly into my left cochlea in exactly the same register, pitch and accent as Geddy - to his own beer-befuddled mind, anyway. Nobody can sing like Geddy, let's be honest. And thank goodness for that – even Geddy can't actually sing like Geddy half the time, although he's in fine voice this evening, hitting a higher percentage of the high notes than in 2011 and commanding the stage and everyone's attention more than anyone who yelps for a living ought to.

Photo: Tim Lawrie

And over the course of the evening, the band give us a master class in how just 3 men can keep a giant arena audience entertained for the whole evening whilst playing far from their best known material. Geddy switches between bass, pedals, keyboards and bad jokes all evening (“We've got about 60,000 songs for you tonight…”) and makes it all look effortless, Alex Lifeson runs the full gamut of guitar techniques from the Police-esque strumming of ‘Grand Designs’ to the far more rifftastic display of ‘Far Cry’, and Neil Peart proves several times why he's widely regarded as the best drummer in the business, not least on his two solos, the second of which breaks new ground in having his kit trigger notes and samples to create a surprisingly electronic atmosphere, continuing on into a fantastic reading of ‘Red Sector A’.

'The Percussor' - Photo: Tim Lawrie

The songs and the playing are enough for me, but then again, if you're going to play a giant dome like the O2, then why not use its capabilities? Hence there are giant screens showing both impressive modern graphics and wonderfully vintage animations for songs like ‘Force Ten’, there are fantastic light shows, and there are even giant pyrotechnic explosions which literally make me jump out of my skin. Ok, not literally, that would be disgusting. There's even a man who runs on stage in a chicken suit and throws things around, some guys with traffic cones, and a giant popcorn machine. No, me neither.

'Force Ten' - Photo: Tim Lawrie

But for me, the highlight of this evening is the second half of the set, when the band bring out a wonderful string section to accompany them for the vast majority of new album and probable personal favourite ‘Clockwork Angels’. I'm still inordinately annoyed about missing the Yes Symphonic tour in 2001, but this nearly makes up for it. Exquisite string arrangements for heart-rending new songs like ‘The Wreckers’ and ‘The Garden’ and the old classics like ‘YYZ’ cause Karin to wonder whether the band will ever sound the same again without their new wooden friends. (She might not have put it quite like that, mind.) And the best bit about this whole thing is that we can actually hear what they're playing thanks to a great sound mix– adding sumptuous harmonies here and biting riffs there.

'The Wreckers' - Photo: Tim Lawrie

For fans of classic (i.e. pre-1982) Rush, it might have been a long old, synth-and-new-album-heavy slog for the main part tonight, but not to worry, there’s still 30 minutes of the gig remaining, and following “the best instrumental ever to be named after an airport apart from perhaps ‘Heathrow’ by Level 42 – oh dear lord am I going to get it from certain people now” , the show ends with the “feel-good classics”, the closest Rush have to “hits”. ‘The Spirit of Radio’, ‘Tom Sawyer’ (sadly with real, non-South Park lyrics), and a nice chunk of ‘2112’. Who can argue with that?

Certainly not any the people we meet up with afterwards, including Bob "Top 5 gig of all time” Hodds, Matt “Loopy” Stevens, and Paul “Vitamin P” Tippett, who's even managed to catch one of the T-shirts fired from cannons on the stage.

They love lamp, you know. Photo: Oh, me!

Like much of this evening, it doesn't make a lot of sense to the uninitiated, but for those who are fully paid-up members of the clandestine society of Rush, it's the icing on the cake. Let's just say I may have learned the secret handshake this evening…

1209 words. That's actually not bad for me, honest, and I think Rush deserved it. Will try harder next time.

Rush Setlist

The Big Money
Force Ten
Grand Designs
The Body Electric 
The Analog Kid 
Where's My Thing? (Including drum solo)
Far Cry 

Set 2: (with Clockwork Angels String Ensemble)

Clockwork Angels 
The Anarchist 
The Wreckers 
Headlong Flight  (Including drum solo)
Halo Effect
Seven Cities of Gold 
The Garden 
Manhattan Project 
Drum Solo (The Percussor)
Red Sector A 
The Spirit of Radio (Without String Ensemble)


Tom Sawyer 
2112 Part I: Overture 
2112 Part II: The Temples of Syrinx 

2112 Part VII: Grand Finale 

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Gigging Rather-a-lot

I think I may have a sickness. I suppose there are worse ailments (sciatica, piles, thinking any member of the Kardashian family is a worthwhile addition to the TV schedules) – but mine consists of an unending compulsion to buy gig tickets for every band I've ever liked, every time they come to London. I know, poor me, being able to afford such luxuries. Anyway, as I think I opined once before, every band I've ever liked seems to have realised that touring constantly is the only way they can continue to live their rockstar lifestyles, with champagne enemas and caviar face packs and whatever else these people do.

And fair play to them – if people won’t pay to listen to music over and over again to their heart’s content in the comfort of their own home/car/head, on their preferred delivery method, but will pay 7 times as much for a one-off session of standing for 2 hours behind someone with giant hair, being jostled by people who can't cope for more than 13 minutes without going to the bar and listening to badly mixed music being played too loudly, then what's a poor artist to do? (Remind me why I like going to gigs again?)

I swear this guy follows me around to gigs.
Or, presumably, I follow him - otherwise he'd be behind me, wouldn't he?

Anyway, the upshot of this new music business is that my gig calendar is filling up at a ridiculous rate for this year, my self-imposed last year of full-on gigging. Ah yes, next year it's going to be time to buy a house and start doing other assorted scary stuff that I secretly want more than anything, despite pretending that I'd rather be out in London every night- so I'm making the most of this while I can.

It's for all of these reasons that last week I found myself with 4 gigs to go to over a seven-day period. And I know that given the chance you would all gorge yourself on my words until they spewed out of your earholes, but for your own safety I think I'll spare you my usual treatment on each one of them. I'm therefore going to attempt something I've never tried before – limiting myself to 500 words on each. Let's see how long that lasts - given that I've now written 400 words about not writing much, it doesn't look promising, does it?