It’s over!

I trust that everyone sang the title using their best impression of Roy Orbison.  However, fear not, no-one’s baby has moved onto romantic pastures new (well, obviously I can’t guarantee that, but it is not the subject of today’s post).  The title refers to the end of Christmas proper – though those with an inappropriately generous true love may continue receiving deliveries of miscellaneous birds and people for some days yet – but the rest of us are now in that liminal space that lies twist the supposed birth of the ickle Baby Jesus and the start of the New Year.  After weeks of build-up (or in my case, an hour or two), Christmas joins us for a few brief hours and then is gone.

I thought I’d share some vignettes from my own Christmas while the remain relatively fresh in my alcohol-addled brain.

Christmas Eve

A new tradition began and an old one was resurrected…  I think last Sunday was my first Christmas Eve at a gig – and what a gig!  It was a jazz session at the Talking Heads with a Christmas theme, produced by the Fathers of Christmas (a name the quartet will probably not be using at other gigs).  The musicians were joined by a singer – who was the only member of the ensemble to make a serious effort when it comes to dress – for several of the numbers and who, based on his youth, must have been a son or grandson of Christmas.  As well as jacket and shoes in red and black, alluding to the season, he also appeared to have spent more effort on his hair for the gig than I have on mine over the whole of the last decade.  I’m probably at least as vain as the next man, but am just too lazy to act on it: especially when it comes to hair.  The whole gig was so enjoyable, I’d rather like to spend every Christmas Eve with live festive jazz and friends – however, the timing of that particular gig means this would only happen every 7 years (on average).

It was also at the Heads that I was given my first Christmas stocking for rather more than three decades.  This might suggest that I am spending too much time at gigs or am excessively childish and I did wonder if it was a form of intervention: though if it was, I am unclear as to its nature.  The stocking was a festive “sock”, embroidered with my name, rather than one of my father’s unadorned seaman’s socks (he never went to sea, but he did have the socks ready) which served throughout my childhood.  I opened the parcels on Christmas Day, and there was one item in common with my childhood stockings: the tangerine!  The other gifts seemed a step up from their 1970s counterparts: I can now be musical in miniature, massage my aching muscles and study to be rock star with a Ladybird.  I consumed the very fine bottle of Duet from Alpine Beer on my return to Southampton, which slipped down worryingly easily for a non-session 7% ale!  Finally, the Lindt reindeer allowed me to test my theory that it is just a re-badged Easter Bunny: it wasn’t!

Christmas jazz and (slightly deformed) stocking

Christmas Day

On Christmas morning, I drove back to see my family through pleasantly quiet roads: something of a throwback to the road conditions of my youth (albeit with bigger and safer cars).  After a brief stop-off with my parents, the bulk of the day was spent at my sister’s with my nephew: the only readily available familial child (as measured by age, at least).  I ate a frankly infeasible volume of food and was a very bad vegetarian indeed!  I danced to Queen (thanks to a videogame, which frankly only monitors my right hand) and on the third attempt proved triumphant at Exploding Kittens (a card game: no actual kittens were harmed or – more importantly – harmed me!).  By dint of refusing to play again, I retain my hard-fought crown to this day!

I learned that you can buy your giant rabbit (he’s called Starby, if you want to correspond with him directly) a house made from carrots (compressed into a more practical building material) which the owner will slowly consume.  It became all to clear that my whole family (including me) is useless at Guess Who – the version where you must guess the name written on a post-it note placed on your forehead (top tip: this works much better if you attach the post-it note to a paper hat obtained from a cracker).  To be honest, given how bad we were I’m surprised that the game is not still underway (some three days later).  I can also commend my sister’s gentleman caller on the excellent quality of his light fruit cake: quite the best example of its genre I have had the pleasure of eating in many years.  It was when attempting to light a (Roman) candle on this very cake that I discovered how poor my family are at matters incendiary.  After recourse to a gas lighter, several matches and a tea light ignition was finally achieved.  I think parliament is safe from any repeat of the gunpowder plot instigated by my clan: I shall have to stick with the military option when I sweep to power…

The true meaning of Christmas: Easter and Guy Fawkes (no relation!)

Boxing Day

Boxing Day was spent at my parents and as has become traditional, a modest constitutional took place in a futile attempt to burn off a few of the million (or so) calories consumed on the previous day.  In older times (and better weather), this used to involve a hike to the nearby supergrid point circling home via the Christmas Tree farm but in more recent years we have limited ourselves to a stroll along the prom at Bexhill.  This was glorious, if bracing, but gathering storm clouds led me to forego the traditional Boxing Day ice cream.  A wise decision, as it rained pretty vigorously on the drive back to Ninfield: though this did provide a glorious double rainbow as we headed north from Sidley.

The day’s other major excitement was my father’s decision to cook me a vegetarian lunch.  His chosen meal required a very large amount of grating: something I would only have attempted with a food processor.  My parents could only field a manual grater and a rather feeble stick blender so I think my father and I burned off far more calories grating root vegetables than we did on our walk.  Despite some misgivings, the galette proved more than edible and, with some minor tweaks to the recipe (and better equipment), could well be worth making again.  In the evening I drove back home through heavy rain and traffic, leaving Christmas behind me in the east.

Building and sating an appetite!

Post-Christmas

Christmas itself was the first time I had spent two evenings not at a gig of some form or other for several weeks (possibly even months) and there was some concern about how well I would cope.  I can reassure readers that the sheer volume of food and alcohol consumed did mitigate against me running amok.  Still, to minimise the growing risk I did go out last night to see some live music: so I think you’re probably safe (for now).  Life should now return to a more normal footing, though gigs in early January do look slightly sparse at the moment.

Some might think my Christmas odd, but five people on each of the two main days chose to spend some of their time consulting this august instrument.  One can scarcely imagine how badly their days must have been going that they came here, nor what succour they took from their visit…

 

 

 

Trivial pursuit

Christmas is still a time for board games, right?  Certainly, broadcasters seem concerned that we are not watching enough television over Christmas (and so losing one of the season’s myriad meanings) and this time must be going somewhere…  However, this post will not be about games of general knowledge: instead the title will stand as a reproach to the author’s life.

For a little less than 24 hours, I have wanted to think of this blog as a modern day take on the feuilleton of old (this began when I discovered the word and concept of feuilleton yesterday).  This is very much of a piece with the delusional portion of me that likes to imagine I am an intellectual.  Sadly, these self-delusions rarely long survive exposure to my actual passage though this veil of tears.

I do read serious books and go to enjoy serious music and theatre.  To my mild horror, I both saw and enjoyed The Guardian’s No. 1 Film of 2017 – though pleasingly had seen only four other films in their top 50, the vast majority of them safely in the 40s (so I am still – mostly – a maverick!).  However, my last two trips to London have confirmed the essential triviality of my nature.

A couple of weeks ago I popped up to town to see some folk music and in order to obtain better value from my train ticket took in a matinée during the afternoon.  This had been recommended to me by friends of a friend on a previous train journey home to Southampton: one of the many joys of public transport that the car driver misses out on.  I shall pass on their recommendation for Romantics Anonymous at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in the Shakespeare’s Globe complex which is as heartwarming a theatrical confection as you could ever hope to see.  It is such a joy and so beautifully put together, right from the start and even includes the cast and musicians entertaining the audience (and any stray, confused visitors to the Globe) during the interval.  It didn’t make any lists of top theatre of 2017 that I saw – perhaps insufficiently serious – but it certainly made mine.

Yesterday, I returned to the capital once more for a couple of frivolous, festive theatrical treats.  The first of these was the first time I have ever been expected to peel a potato as a member of a theatrical audience: like to think I made a decent fist of it (despite the porr quality of the peeler provided).  The piece also offered a serious indictment on the lack of diversity in the world of nog: basically there is only ‘egg’ and ‘Noggin the’ (and he and his Northmen weren’t even mentioned).  I fear the solutions proposed were always doomed to failure, but did give me some ‘sensible’ ideas…

Before the second piece, I had some four hours to kill in London.  I chose the obvious option and took myself to the British Museum.  The plan was to see the Scythian exhibition, but apparently I had mis-read the museum’s website and arrived too late (though not as late as the Scythians) to be allowed entry.  So, I fell back on my traditional plan when faced with the vastness of the BM and wandered randomly around and seeing what caught my eye.  I wandered through North America and into Mexico finding much to enjoy, but then stumbled into what may now be my favourite room: appropriately called Room 1.  It is a long room, laid out somewhat like a library with display cases down the centre, which (along with some of the bookcases) appear to contain an enormous range of random historic ‘tat’ we have plundered from around the world and across a huge span of time.  On the museum plan, this room is labelled “Enlightenment” but seemed to contain semantically themed collections of stuff.  It was such a joy, so much to delight the eye and brain!  I only managed to tear myself away when I was forcibly ejected by museum staff wanting to close up for the night.  I reckon I could have spent a day in that room alone (assuming, some kindly souls plied me with food).

However, it was while perusing the delights of this room that I cam to realise just how hopelessly trivial I have become.  As well as marvelling at the skill, artistry and imagination of generations past, a substantial portion of my brain was trying to develop brief, alternative histories for each of the things I saw.  These new histories seem to be some form of memetic metastasis from this blog and the more foolish content I supply in an attempt to bolster Mark Zuckerberg’s flagging fortune.

I think my brain finally jumped the triviality shark when it developed a whole back story after seeing an abandoned loaf of sliced white in a park near my home (at some from any ducks).  I’m not sure why this happened, though am weirdly proud of the pointless genius¹ of it.

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Since losing its position as ‘best thing’ sliced bread has entered a downward spiral and is now living rough on the streets…

Part of me seems to have decided that I have finally found my métier and so about 20 minutes into my visit to the BM, I found myself specifically seeking out historical artifacts and artworks around which I could weave my own version of Flash Fiction. A version even briefer than the usual 1000 words that I was going to call Flashier Fiction, but which the internet suggests may already have been named micro or sudden fiction: I still prefer my name!

As I result, I ‘discovered’ that the ancient Egyptians invented the electric guitar much earlier than previously realised but tragically never came up with the amp (which had to wait for a good couple of millennia to pass).  Subsequent on-line discussion also led to the revelation that this invention pre-dated the capo, and so Egyptian musicians had to use slaves to hold down the strings.

There would have been more new ‘discoveries’ from my visit, but the display bookcases had oddly reflective glass which I hardly noticed when using my unaided vision, but when viewed through the lenses of my smartphone camera produced amazingly strong reflections of the room’s lights.  I’m not quite sure how this works, but would seem to suggest my eyes (or brain) or doing substantial processing of images before they reach what passes for my consciousness – but don’t bother when looking at a screen.  I feel my subconscious may be trying to teach me something about enjoying the world ‘live’, rather than via a screen.  Frankly, this seems a bit rich as I do rather more live experiencing than many and I feel my subconscious might do better to direct its ‘hints’ at other, more deserving, targets.  Or maybe it is just that my eyes/brain have some sort of abilities relating to the polarisation of light and use this to manage glare: though I’ve never heard of such a thing.  Have I just out-evolved the rest of you ‘norms’?

I shall now be visiting obscure museums and seeking out unloved elements of the urban landscape to feed my need to tell short, silly stories to an indifferent world.  Consider this warning a Christmas gift to you, dear readers!

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¹Not genius

 

Les croyances populaires

I have become part of an annual tradition with a friend (and a selection of her friends, which varies from year-to-year), whereby we visit Brasserie Zédel, ranged deep beneath Piccadilly Circus, for a pre-Christmas lunch.  Well, I say lunch but it is more an excuse to drink and talk which is occasionally interrupted by food.  This event starts at lunch time, but often goes on for quite some time and often adjourns to the adjacent Bar Américain where any food-related pretense is dropped.

Both brasserie and bar have a very strong Art Déco vibe, dating back to their original opening as part of the Regent Palace Hotel in 1915.  I feel that the bar, in particular, is (or was) used to a rather better class of clientele than the author.  When, I was there on Sunday, I couldn’t help feeling that Cruella de Vil would have fitted right in and so I shall be trying to channel my experience when sat at the piano (it is either that or some very dodgy interaction with – and the risk of being outwitted by – a sizeable pack of spotted dogs).

This year’s gathering had a particularly international vibe but, as the title might hint, this post will focus on the French member of our party.  Rather gloriously, he attended clad in a Primark sweater adorned with a less-than-zoologically accurate representation of a reindeer and a range of flashing coloured lights.  He was trying it out in London – where it proved very popular with those partaking of lunch – before inflicting it on his French mother (who once modelled for Chanel): where it is likely to receive a less positive reception.

He it was who revealed a couple of French alcohol-based superstitions with which I had previously been aware.  I cannot speak to how widely these beliefs are held or to their antiquity but felt I should share them just in case any readers should happen to find themselves drinking with our friends from across the Channel.

Apparently, when saying ‘Cheers’ to another in France it is important to look them in the eyes as you say it, otherwise you will be cursed with seven years of bad sex.  While this would be a major upgrade for me and my own participation in the world of gland games, for the broader public it does seem rather a severe response to (at worse) a minor social faux pas.

It would also seem to be a French belief that whosoever completes a communal bottle of wind, by dint of the waiter placing the last of the bottle into their glass, will marry in that year the year.  As a form of augury, this does avoid the unpleasantness of animal entrails and is more compatible with a (mostly) vegetarian lifestyle – even if it can only be used for a rather limited from of prophecy.  I’m also not sure the marriage statistics, even in la belle France, entirely support the hypothesis – particularly, when considered in conjunction of the number of bottles of wind consumed in company.  Nevertheless, I am somewhat concerned to report that the Norns may have determined my fate and that I am to marry in the next 12 days.  This strikes me as something of a logistical nightmare to organise – I suspect both the church (busy elsewhere) and the civil authorities (on holiday) may be reluctant to formalise any knot-tying on my part at this late stage in the year – even if we discount the challenge of finding a third party willing to participate in the process on a longer-term basis.

No evidence was offered by our French companion to support either of these beliefs, but any prospective spouse should probably be aware that seven years of bedroom (and indeed more general “room”) disappointment may be on the cards.  I can’t say I really place much credence in either of these croyances populaires (and they do rather speak to stereotypical French preoccupations) but come the beginning of 2018 my mockery may look particularly ill-advised.  Still, it is probably my best bet for freedom of movement in the EU and, should Clotho have decided to spin my life in that direction, I shall try and accept her decision with good grace.  You heard it here first and may wish to start looking for your hat now, just in case…

Musical cheer for the time of year

Fear not, gentle reader, I am not about to ‘come out’ as a closet poet and this post will not be written entirely in rhyme (although, now I’ve had that thought…).  Nor will I be exploring the horrific sonic experience which I fear shop workers (and some others) will have been subject to since a point in the autumn.  I feel that if Christmas “hits” were blasted into the unprotected ears of prisoners of war for several hours a day over a period of months, the Geneva Convention would be invoked and Amnesty would step in – but there seems no such protection for those who work in retail.  No, instead I shall be focusing on the live music that I have chosen for my ears to experience in the run up to the apotheosis of the annual commercial orgy of Saturnalia (and its successors).

Firstly, this post gives me a chance to mention two great gigs from 2017 missed from the last post (as I knew something would be – and something still will be, I have no doubt) given that they also occurred in the run-up to Christmas (or after August, as the period is also known).

ICP Orchestra: a truly extraordinary night of music from the Dutch ensemble, which probably had jazz as its starting point but ranged widely and joyously across and around genres.

Omar Sosa and Seckou Keita: another amazingly joyous performance that defied categorisation but used piano, kora and a plethora of percussion.

This last week, I have been to a number of gigs with a more overtly seasonal vibe about them.  Even where not directly Yule-themed, I think they have captured what (for me) is the real spirit of Christmas which is the coming together from our ever more atomised, siloed lives to enjoy something with others and a proper feeling of community.  It is said that Christmas is a time for family, and many a soap opera and sitcom episode has been predicated on this premise and the conflict that can arise, but my feeling is that it is a time to interpret the concept of family in its broadest sense.  As Adam Rutherford’s excellent book A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived makes clear, we have to go back surprisingly few generations before we are all related – and not just to Kevin Bacon.

On Thursday afternoon I had my regular piano lesson, with my repertoire being joined by the Snowman (well, the chordal element thereof).  My first Christmas song!  This was very exciting and as a result I did manage to smack my head into the piano lid a record (and skull) breaking four times!

That evening, only mildly concussed, I went to the Tuba Libres Xmas Bash at the Talking Heads.  The Tuba Libres are a funk brass ensemble, who clearly have both jazz and video game influences in their music.  I have also never seen them together and not in some form of fancy dress, though one member (no names, no pack drill) does appear to believe that Man United kit counts as viable fancy dress for every theme: I assume he’s hoping that the team will be a man down and he will be called upon to help close the gap with City at short notice.  I was hoping for something special for Christmas and the lads did not disappoint!

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Despite this fine example, I didn’t even wear the offered paper crown…  Three ghosts clearly await my Sunday night slumbers!

There were old tunes, new tunes and even festive tunes and, so far as I could see, everyone had a ball (the tenor sax sported a shiny pair!): some people even overcame their reserve and danced!  So full of some sort of spirit was I, that on retiring to the other bar I gave an unrehearsed (and best avoided – but it did help clear the bar) performance from Oklahoma!  Probably not my first choice of Broadway song, but the overlap between available music, bass parts and music I’d ever heard before was quite limited (and I sang the one piece in the sweet spot of that musical Venn diagram).

On Friday, it was the Christmas Three Monkeys at the Art House.  This is always a joyous event, as I have documented before, but there is something extra special about the Christmas show: this year we had five monkeys (though nominally grouped into three meta-monkeys) with one returnee from the 2016 Xmas show.  This gig was rendered even more special by me knowing everyone on stage (and much of the audience) which made it feel more like a party than a typical gig.  It would certainly have made it on to my list of the top gigs of 2017 had it occurred just a few days earlier (or I had kept my powder dry a little longer).  As can happen at such events, a whole series of in-jokes developed during the evening and will forever bond together those who were present (but will only confuse those who were absent and who should be counting their every hood cheap).  I can reveal that the sole male monkey was cast as the baby Jesus (to accompany three wise women and the VM) and that I shall expect a mention in the cover notes of the first album from Allure of Velour.

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Satin, Bridge of Sighs and Kitty O’Neal (+the baby Jesus): all in action!

Following the gig, I shall view any reference to a ‘glock’ as relating not to the gun, but to the xylophone’s metal cousin (a surprisingly versatile instrument) which is a much happier image (though it might make for a rather different next Bond movie).  I also acted as violin tech (OK, holder) for half of Bridge of Sighs, which was my first chance to get my (only slightly sticky) mitts on a violin (I was not trusted with the bow).  Still, it was a good opportunity for a discrete post-gig pluck and a fairly poor pizzicato rendition of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star was the result (there have been worse consequences of illicit plucking…) I found the neck and fingerboard of the violin very cramped after the guitar and I think some basic knowledge of how a violin is tuned would probably have helped, but I feel basic nursery rhymes could lie within my grasp – well, if someone is fool enough to offer me regular access to a violin.

Finally, on Saturday I went to the Esterhazy Family Christmas Concert in Lewes.  This featured carols and other songs classic and new: though on the whole, the classics worked better.  Christmas is a time for shared rituals and I guess it is tough for new songs to break into the canon – but at some time every song was new, so I mustn’t be too set in my festive ways.  Listening to In the Bleak Midwinter, I couldn’t helping noting that Christina Rossetti wasn’t much of a farmer (or, indeed, a shepherd) as obtaining a lamb (other than from a supermarket freezer cabinet) at mid-winter would be a challenge: frankly, your typical shepherd would find it easier to source myrrh.  I also gained great enjoyment from the sight of ladies of a certain age wondering a church and approaching people with the phrase “pound a strip”.  I’m reasonably sure that they were referring to raffle tickets, but we were close to the loucheness that is Brighton and so perhaps your pound would have provided a more eye-opening experience.

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As London appoints a female bishop, Lewes still leads the way with its ursine vicar!

And, my musical Christmas is not yet over.  Tonight I shall join the Southampton Philharmonic Choir for carols around the (very dangerous!) piano (I may bring protection), whilst I am spending tomorrow night in baroque Italy (in sound, if not physical person – a much trickier proposition altogether) for some festive tunes from traditions past.

At this stage, I’m not sure what will fill the rest of the week – but it will certainly hold my annual viewing of the greatest Christmas film and the greatest Dickens adaptation ever created and also the high point of Michael Caine’s career (higher even than blowing the bloody doors off): I refer, of course, to The Muppet Christmas Carol.  There will also definitely be more live music and plenty of mince pies.  The last week or so has led me to think that I should have suggested the deep-filled mince pie to Tim Harford as one of the 50 Things that Made the Modern Economy (perhaps there’s still time for the second edition?).

In news about other things that will be filling me (and some of my week), my own take on pannettone has just emerged from the robotic grasp of my breadmaker.  It is currently both warm and delicious: one of these will fade but I hope the other will last right down to the last slice (which, if I can stiffen my will power, will not be later on this evening).

There may be another post before Christmas is upon us, but in case the muse stays away, readers should endeavour to enjoy themselves (despite the many challenges that the season offers to the achievement of that objective) and consider participating in some positive, seasonal community ritual.  Release the midwinter merriment!  (A phrase which will appear in my new line of GofaDM themed Christmas cards in 2018: it will be slightly tweaked for the southern hemisphere.)

 

 

Not a complete ranker

We are well into the season (and have been since mid-November) when various commentators favour us with their top X events of 2017 (for suitable X in the set of Natural Numbers).  X can be as low as 10, but I’ve seen a lot of 50s and I’m sure larger numbers are available (just one of the advantages of having a Maths degree!).  The events in question could be sporting (goals or innings etc) or cultural (films, books or TV shows etc) or I’m sure are available in many other spheres of fleeting human endeavour.  It is not just important to pick your top X but it also seems critical to rank the events in order.

In my modest sampling, this urge for ranking seems to be strongly linked to possession of a Y-chromosome by the commentator – and this certainly seems to fit the general male stereotype.  I must admit to having a Y-chromosome but do not really have the urge to place my experiences (or much of anything else) into a ranked sequebce.  Depending on your point of view, this may make me a very poor or very good example of modern masculinity – but I rationalise it by reference to my degree.  In my first year, as part of the module on Continuity and Differentiability, I was required to prove that no order relation exists on the complex numbers.  Despite their name, complex numbers are not that complex (though you do have to imagine a square root exists to -1, which is only slightly absurd) – they can be represented by a pair of numbers: one representing the real part and one the imaginary part.  If there is no order relation on something so simple, how can one hope to rank events in sport or the arts which one would struggle to characterise, even using many more than two numbers?

Despite the above, it has been suggested that I provide a list of my top 10 gigs of 2017 and, in common with so many media outlets, I cannot afford to ignore content suggestions from my public.  However, I will draw the line at ranking in such a pubic forum – I might consider it behind a paywall – and, as you will see, will be heavily caveating my selection.  It will offer more of a flavour of some of my favourite gigs of the year, skewed towards those that I can remember (so may favour more recent outings), and trying to capture some broad trends of my 2017 in music.  For the eagle-eyed, number-fans I will admit now that my list will contain twelves entries – very much an Imperial take on a top 10 (i.e. I’m working in base 12).

I have no idea how many gigs I’ve been to this year, but it must be into the low hundreds.  Not all of these will be have related to music – I have to find time for theatre, circus, dance, science and spoken word – but music is very much in the majority.  If I have missed your gig – or it has yet to happen – don’t think that I didn’t (or won’t) enjoy myself, its absence may be explicable by the insidious impact of age and alcohol on the fleshy-tablets of my memory.  Or I may just be harbouring a grudge!

Rafael Aguirre: a classical guitarist I’ve seen twice this year, first alone at Turner Sims and once with a cellist at King’s Place in London.  If I had to pick a stand-out tune played by Rafael, it would be Gran Jota by Francisco Tarrega.  His dad also makes a very beautiful guitar!

Manu Delago: a hang player and percussionist with a curious penchant for recording music videos up an Alp.  I saw him at Turner Sims – having no idea what a hang was – and am planning to seem him again in the New Year.

Extrapolations: this was chosen as just one example of the free Professional Lunchtime Concert Series at Turner Sims.  I’ve seen some truly amazing – and often seriously weird music – at these gigs, mostly recently Three Voices by Morton Feldman.  Extrapolations was amazing contemporary music using a harpsichord – and I do love a good juxtaposition!

Lau: the folk trio and subject of a recent blog post!

Maple Leaf Lounge Sessions: there have been a couple of dozen of these in 2017 and they’ve all been fun and some have been amazing.  Unfortunately, I can’t remember the line-up of a particular favourite as they sort-of blur together in the recollection (and while I could review my blogs for clues, I feel it is enough to write them and live with the author 24/7 without having to read the wretched things).  The sessions wonderful resource for musical discovery, ales, cake and meeting/making friends.  Snaps to Cat, Hayley and Satin for organising them!

Music in 12 Parts: My marathon with the work of Philip Glass at the Barbican.  My first time being total immersed in a soundscape and an experience alluded to in an earlier post.

Out-take Ensemble: hard to choose one of their three amazing gigs, but I shall go with the latest, as mentioned in a recent post.  One of the great, unexpected pleasures of living in Southampton.

Papillon: a violin/guitar duo which – as with so many gigs – I went to on spec, with no real idea what to expect.  They claim to create cinematic soundscapes based on Eastern melodies – which sounds about right to me.  I had an absolute ball, but this entry in the top 10 also stands in for so much new music and so many new artists I have discovered through the welcoming doors of the Art House.

Perpetual Motion Machine: Sunday night is Southampton Modern Jazz Club night at the Talking Heads and this has introduced me to so much great jazz over the course of 2017.  PMM were my absolute highlight with their rock-infused take on jazz.  The lads were loads of fun to talk to after the gig as well.

Playlist (@ Cobbett Hub): in a very strong year of Playlist gigs this was my favourite.  Tabla music, contemporary classical with the Workers Union Ensemble and the stunning folk of the Drystones.  I love three genres in one gig: even better when surrounded by books in a library (though surrounded by beer in a craft ale pub comes a close second).

Romsey Beggars Fair: not perhaps a single gig, and I didn’t stay for the evening – packed pubs full of the inebriated do not represent my preferred music venues – but a really great day of music (and stilt-walking Italian theatre).  Most of my day was spent at what I think was officially called the Abbey Stage, but which all right-thinking people refer to as the ‘Chris Lucas Stage’ (though I did defect to Hundred Records for a little while) .  So much great music with excellent sound (especially given the stage was a flat-bed truck), Bad Cat were probably my highlight from a very strong field.

Three Monkeys (Jack Dale/Charlie Hole/Real Raj): the Three Monkeys sessions at the Art House are always fun, but this session was a particular scream as documented here.  Are you practicing safe capo?

So, there we have it: a very partial and subjective take on my favourite gigs of the year.  I’m pleased to say that all but one took place in, or very close to Southampton, such is the huge range of music and talent available locally!   I know that as soon as I press Publish, I shall remember a dozen other gigs that should have made the list – but such is life: any blog post can only be a snapshot of the author’s soi-disant thoughts.  There were also dozens and dozens of local gigs alone that I failed to attend, how many potential favourites did I miss out on?  I’d make a resolution to try harder in 2018, but I think I am close to the physical limit for a human being without a major breakthrough in either physics or biology allowing me to be present in two (or more) locations at the same time and somehow successfully integrate the memories.  I’d also have to ensure that all versions of me provided “good audience”, a skill I have been complemented on more than once which I think alludes to my inability to remain stony-faced and physically immobile in the presence of good music.  This probably indicates that a career on the international poker circuit is not a great plan, unless I can ensure that my face acts as a better vizard to my heart when playing cards (I fear it would also fatally interfere with my gig going as well).

 

 

What’s the Deal?

Audiences regularly baffle me.  Sometimes in terms of their composition, but more often in terms of their numbers.  I rather suspect this is because I extrapolate from myself and, despite attempts to correct for my musical (and other cultural) tastes (broad though they may be), I am clearly not coming up with a decent model for the general public.

Most of this post will be about the Southampton scene, but I thought I’d start in the nation’s capital.  On Saturday evening, I went to a folk gig in a London venue I assumed to be somewhat famous to see a pair of musicians I also assumed to be famous: I was anticipating a fairly packed 200 seater.  I think I may have been confusing the concepts of “known to me” and “famous”.  The music venue at The Harrison was a surprisingly small cellar with dangerously low ceilings (well for me, my mother would have had nothing to worry about).  While the cellar became moderately busy by the end of the gig, I think I was in a very small minority having booked ahead and I suspect the only person to have travelled even a fraction of my 70 odd miles.  It was a lovely gig and Tom Moore and Archie Churchill-Moss (footwear sponsored by Adidas) do some amazing work with viola and melodeon (I am listening to Laguna as I write this post).  Even better, the boys finished in time for me to catch the 22:35 train home (albeit with some fast footwork across the Waterloo concourse): an important aspect of any night out in London!

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Moore & Moss: too formally attired?

I have been to some stunning theatre in Southampton, often very highly reviewed by professional critics (rather than random, self-obsessed bloggers like me), but very rarely in a mid-sized theatre even as much as half full.  This fact has proved quite handy for me as I can book very late once I know I will be at home, rather than over the Irish Sea, but can’t be ideal for the funding of the arts.  I also feel that lots of the folk of Southampton and its environs are missing out on some reasonably priced treats: I can generally go to the theatre half-a-dozen times locally for less than the cost of one trip to the west end (and this is very much what I do: there’s nothing wrong with thrift!).

However, the main thrust of this post will be about music and my totally inability to guess how busy a gig will be.  Part of this must be down to my rather sketchy musical knowledge: especially in regard to the popular music of my lifetimes.  There would appear to be large number of touring bands of yesteryear that visit Southampton, perhaps with some changes from the original line-up, of which my memory can deliver no recollection whatsoever.  I have, for instance, noticed that there were a lot more punk bands than I have any memory of and can also observe that the years have not treated the fans of these bands kindly.

I do have a feeling that a significant audience prefers to go (or only goes) to see musicians they fondly remember from a formative period of their youth.  Luckily, I don’t do this – or I’d never go out.  My youth seems to have been formative in non-standard ways, if at all…  Recently, in an unexpected (and now forgotten) context, I heard a JFK quote about not looking to “the safe mediocrity of the past“.  I’d been planning to use this in a savage indictment of the recent politics of both left and right – and perhaps typified by Brexit.  However, I shall instead – and perhaps more in keeping with the character of this blog – apply the principle to being culturally adventurous, with particular application to music.

I do wonder if there may be a certain lack of courage when it come too programming music – though, there may be some financial wisdom to this cowardice as I suspect audience caution robs them of experiences they would love.  Just this Sunday, I went to see the Armida Quartet playing at the Turner Sims.  My reading of the audience – including a few I chatted to over cake at half-time – was that the most enjoyed piece was the least safe choice in the Bach, Mozart and Beethoven: the third string quartet ‘Jagdquartett’ by Jörg Widmann.  It was the presence of this piece (well, that and the free half-time cake) that was my trigger to book the gig, but I suspect I was in a tiny minority (if not alone in this).  I was not disappointed: great music and visually exciting to watch as well – particular snaps to the acting skills of the cellist!

However, sometimes I am positively surprised.  Last Tuesday, I went to my Sofar gig – as part of Sofar Southampton.  These were traditionally held in people’s homes, with the venue announced only 24 hours ahead of time.  This has been an issue in the past, when I have been dependent on public transport or my bike.  They also have tended to require booking ahead of time, which has also been an issue with my rather variable availability midweek.  However, I now have a car and decided to take a punt.  As well as not knowing the venue, the artists performing are not announced at all: you find out who they are when you arrive at the gig.  So, no safety net: you are entirely relying on the skill and judgment of the local Sofar team (I will admit I do seem to know several of them).  I always feel slightly ambivalent about music taking place in unusual places: it is always great fun to see new places (I’m as nosy as the next man – more, if you’ve seen my face), but I feel I should be supporting established venues which have a hard enough time financially without the nation’s reception rooms filching their raison d’être.

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This is not the droid you’re looking for, it’s busy enjoying the music!

No cause for guilt last Tuesday as the ‘front room’ was upstairs at the Art House (a music venue I have often visited).  However, they maintained the usual Sofar vibe by having much of the audience (including me) sitting on cushions on the floor: I’m too old for this, I have come to realise and next time I’ll sit on a chair with the old codgers.  All four acts were great fun: Tom Pointer was originally from Southampton, Djuno are a local band and Ciircus Street had come from exotic Reading.  I enjoyed all of these, in each case sat underneath the neck of some sort of guitar, and would certainly seek them out again.  The headliner (or at least he was on last), Will Varley, claimed to have come all the way from Deal, however, post-gig conversation (as I was buying CDs) revealed he actually lives in Kingsdown (but he did have a range of Southampton gigging experiences, so I think we might still claim him as a son of the city).  I spent chunks of my youth in Walmer (I lived there for four years, as a blonde!  All natural!  Where did it all go wrong?) and regularly walked over Kingsdown with my grandparents and their dog.  Apparently, the area has changed somewhat and is now trendy and possessed of a vibrant music scene (in my day, I think the music scene was limited to the Royal Marines Band).  I now have a hankering to return to the places of my youth, walk the cliffs and prom and take in some live music: might wait for the weather to warm up a little first…  Nostalgia can be a cruel mistress!

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Will Varley with an almost JJ Abrams vibe, viewed from beneath.

Despite the uncertainty about location and musical fare, the gig was fully booked – and I believe this is not unusual.  Clearly there is an audience in the Southampton area with a sense of adventure, but where – I found myself asking (as I didn’t recognise most of them) – are they the other 29(ish) days of the month?  I’ve been to many gigs with three or four acts unknown (to me – and I suspect many others), often at lower cost than a Sofar gig, but been part of a sadly tiny throng: most of whom later turn out to be in (or related to) one of the bands on the bill.  What is Sofar‘s secret and how can we spread it more widely around the local music scene?

Every time I go to update (Not) Your Trusted Music Guide (as I did this morning) I find yet more music and other cultural treats in and around Southampton.  I think I might have to establish a new page to capture details of the potential audience so that we can (together) do suitable justice to our cultural riches!  It’s either that or some experiments of very dubious ethical standing to clone myself – and nobody wants that!

Finding the spirit

There was an exciting festive moment this morning as I drew the first curtains at a little after 10:30.  Would there be snow, as Twitter suggested there might?  No, a far more typical British festive scene greeted my eyes: rain and strong wind attempting to steal the last few leaves that the trees had managed to retain.

Given this opening paragraph, readers might wonder if the author is an avatar of the pre-haunting E Scrooge (I am haunted, as already established, only by sliced white bread).  I like to think not, but that perhaps I do Christmas slightly differently (or perhaps, as so often, I am just deluding myself that I am some counter-cultural maverick).  This post will likely provide some evidence for both the prosecution and the defence – but will serve as a note of my “preparations” to date.

In most respects, any preparation has been purely pyschological in nature – though yesterday I did technically buy a Christmas present.  However, in the interests of full disclosure I must admit this was only because I had no cash and needed to reach the card-minimum spend.  I have also, as I believe is a widely observed tradition, acquired an Advent cold.  I am taking some time to shake this off – I don’t think my sinuses like the combination of viral load and extreme temperature changes – but I have high hopes that one morning I shall open the Advent calendar window of my duvet to find a different treat lurking beneath (so far, just phlegm-filled lungs)!

I have visited not one but two Christmas markets!  Both in November – breaking a general, though weakly enforced rule of not troubling the concept of Christmas until December pits in an apperance.  On both occasions the draw was the prospect of a warming polystyrene beaker of glühwein.  Winchester was perfectly adequate, though I did object to having to queue to enter, but it did give me something to do both before and after seeing Temples of Youth play to a packed (and not easy to find) Elephant Independent Record Shop (and again, while waiting for a train home – you can’t be too careful when trying to avoid contracting a chill).  Belfast though is much better – which I can (and do) visit on my walk from the office back to my hotel.  It is such a joy to buy and then consume patisserie in my very rusty French (I do have order something I can remember the vocab for) and then do the same for glühwein in German.

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A festive City Hall and the Xmas Market, Belfast.

As December began, I started an ill-fated arithmetic series of mince pie consumption.  I did manage one on Dec 1 and two on Dec 2, but then I was struck down with man-flu and my subsequent performance has been much poorer.  Some days, I have failed to consume even a single mince pie – it has been too chilly to take my germs out to hunt and/or gather examples of this festive treat.  I prefer to avoid the industrial, plastic-wrapped, cardboard-boxed variety and go for those made in-house.  Both the Art House and Mettricks in Southampton offer excellent examples – and I hope to try some more venus and examples before the season comes to an end (though today’s weather is reducing the temptation a little).

I have also been to my first Christmas concert of the year, staged at Turner Sims by the students of the music department.  This contained all of the expected treats: an obligatory Oasis cover (nothing says Christmas like the feuding Gallagher brothers), seasonal music and audience participation carols.  I was reminded, once again, that glorious as Hark the Herald Angels Sing is, as a carol (who can fail to enjoy and/or snigger at the line ‘veiled in flesh the Godhead see’: always feels more like a reference to almighty Zeus rather than his Christian counterpart), it is very hard to reproduce with a bass voice.  Or at least I find it very hard, and this was not aided by my cold which moves my voice even deeper into Barry White territory than usual.  My attempts to access sufficient head voice rather oddly left me with a rather severely aching jaw.  Frankly, given the amount of exercise it gets both talking and chewing, I had not expected my jaw to prove the weak link in my performance…

There was a grade one orchestra – a group of people who can read music but playing instruments they have only just started learning – playing Jingle Bells and We Wish You a Merry Christmas (the most aggressive of all the carols).  I am learning three of the instruments being showcased and now feel much better about my own abilities: particularly, my feeble attempts to generate music using the clarinet.  I reckon I could produce a pretty functional rendition of either tune – albeit with some pauses to lie down and take oxygen – if transposed into a suitable key.  Still, it was great fun watching young people flounder – rather than just seeing, hearing and feeling myself do so!

The gig also included two members of the faculty applying their four hands to the piano to bring us jazz versions of a couple of seasonal classics.  Once you’ve heard, Jingle Bells played as a jazz standard or Away in a Manger as a minor key samba you will never want to go back to the original versions.  To be absolutely clear, I am not joking and if Ben Oliver and Andy Fisher are willing to write and record a Christmas jazz album or EP, I would be willing to stump up some cash to make that happen!

The gig was held in conjunction with Mencap, so I manage to leave the concert not only full of Christmas spirit but also with a bag of home-made deep-filled mince pies.  I regret to inform you, dear reader, that these did not survive the afternoon: my jaw recovered pretty swiftly given a suitable incentive!  Still, what a joy to support charity, local musicians and fill my face with festive treats from a single event.  I think this might be my closest approach to the true spirit of Christmas and one which can be enjoyed by those of almost any religion or none!

Despite the bravado of that last statement, in this coming week I shall have to knuckle-down and face the horrors of Christmas shopping, writing Christmas cards and the like.  Then again, I seem to recall that last year the extraordinary shop workers of Southampton – I remember particular snaps are due to those of John Lewis and Game – actually made the shopping experience a pleasure.  How they retain such good humour given what must be an appallingly trying job at this time of year, I do not know – but I doff my cap to them.  I feel that there ought to be a charity that does something special for shop workers once they have survived the horror of Christmas and the January sales: perhaps to send them all on holiday somewhere nice come February.  Lacking that, we should all make an effort to treat them well, however, stressed we may be feeling…

 

 

Or is he a very naughty boy?

I shall open with a confession, and I’m sorry if this shocks anyone: I have never seen The Life of Brian.  It is an area of our culture that I have acquired entirely by osmosis and a having seen a few clips – usually after alcohol has been taken.  There are other whole swathes of popular culture for which I can talk a good (or if not good, than usually sufficiently convincing) game but have never experienced directly – these may be revealed in later posts, or I may take some shameful secrets with me to the grave.

Talking of the grave, I like to think that I am raging against the dying of the light: quick before Chaos’ dread empire is restored and universal darkness buries all.   I like to think that my foolish attempts to become a multi-instrumentalist and gymnast (among other manifestations of the mid-life crisis) in my early fifties – despite little previous indication of any innate ability in either sphere – set me well ahead of the vast majority of my cohort.  Last night I had the great joy to meet someone who makes my raging look more like the work of a man only vaguely disappointed before the uncreating word.

Yester e’en, I took myself I took myself by Sprinter Express to Romsey to see a performance of Handel’s Messiah (hence the title) by the Hanover Band and Chorus, plus some rather fine soloists.  Arriving a little early (always safest when relying on public transport), I had time for a rather pleasant pint of Tessellate at the Tipsy Pig.

The gig was held in the impressive space of Romsey Abbey and described as The Messiah by Candlelight – and there were certainly lit candles present, but the vast majority of the light was powered electrically.  While I may quibble about the light and the lack of heating (the poor choir must have been frozen by the end of the gig), there was no room for complaint about the quality of the music.  The Hanover Band play on period instruments and play them with surpassing skill – and the soloists were excellent.  Sitting in the front row – my feet were in a position to trip the tenor on his way to perform each aria – the quality of the sound was excellent (it may have been good elsewhere, but I have no direct evidence for this).  It was great to be so close to the action for such an iconic choral work, it was particularly astonishing watching the bass (as I am one) singing The trumpet shall sound and his extraordinary breath control – I couldn’t even tell he needed to breathe (if I attempted that aria, people would know of my need to inhale from a couple of counties away!).  However, if there is one tune in the Messiah which really grabs at my very vitals, it must be the soprano aria I know that my redeemer liveth – somehow it always catches me by surprise (it’s right up there with Ruht wohl from the St John Passion for emotional punch).

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Marvel at the massed candles!

During the interval, while a chap raced to tune the harpsichord and I assume the choir tried to get warm, I was somewhat surprised to be recognised by one of the second violins.  Now, I have seen the Haonver Band once before but it was ~15 years ago and I was part of an anonymous crowd at the Wigmore Hall.  As it transpired, he had played at an Out-take Ensemble gig and remembered my skilled audience-work from there – truly I do need to permanently be on my best behaviour as I could be recognised anywhere!

I was sitting on the right-hand edge of the front row of the central nave and found myself chatting to the pair of ladies sitting next to me.  Somehow conversation turned to my attempts to play Valse Lente and Cruella de Vil on the piano and the joy that I find in the slow process of mastery.  Not only did one of my new companions (I shall call her J for the rest of this post) also love these pieces, but she could also recommend Joc cu bâtă by Bartók and the Bach A Minor Invention from the same book!  The three of us got on like a house on fire – including some mischievous football-related banter between J and the tenor – so well, in fact, that they offered me a lift home (saving a longish wait on the platform at Romsey station).  It was on this journey that I discovered just how extraordinary J was.

I would say that J was certainly well into her sixties and quite possibly beyond, but I already knew that she had cycled 20 miles that day.  As it transpired, this was very much one of her lesser feats.  In very recent years she has skydived, para-glided, climbed Kilimanjaro, Go(ne) Ape and abseiled off the Spinnaker Tower.  In her day-job, she is a piano teacher and is corrupting her young female charges in ways that frankly their parents probably don’t (initially) expect from a woman of her age.  She also makes my own recent bike accident and recovery look very tame.  Recently, she was rear-ended by a car at a roundabout and really quite seriously injured – quite the range of broken bones and lesser abrasions and contusions.  Lying on the ground she heard a woman screaming and wondered who it was, before realising she was the one making the noise.  Nevertheless, she refused an ambulance and instead insisted – very forcefully – on being taken to the crematorium.  Not to cut out the middleman, but because she was due to play the organ at a funeral – which she proceeded to do.  She has also continued working through Hepatitis B and her survival from this continues to amaze the medical profession. What a woman!  What a role model!  I shall have to seriously up my game…

There has been a recent “thing” on Twitter after someone asked users to “name a badder bitch than Taylor Swift”, probably rhetorically.  Historians (among others) led, on my feed at least by the lovely Greg Jenner, have been offering some stunning examples from the past.  I would definitely add J to the list – and to think, if I hadn’t gone out last night and chatted with complete strangers, I would never have known that such amazing folk live among us!

We’re usually much slicker than this…

My attempts to prop up the failing Zuckerberg empire with my mildly eccentric posting, combined with its ability to direct its more discerning users to this even longer-form example of my “brand”, has caused me to acquire a certain degree of notoriety.  I suspect this is mostly local to the Southampton area, though as any content Liked by a Friend becomes accessible to that Friend’s Friends (and so on, to Kevin Bacon and beyond)  my nonsense may be spreading more widely than I realise.

There is a (heretical) school of thought that believes if a gig occurs in Southampton and I am not present, then it can’t really exist – however, this is not a universal belief.  In conversation after the Tankus the Henge gig on Thursday night, I discovered someone surprised to see me there – I think they expected me to only attend more high brow entertainment: how little they know me and the depths to which my brow is willing to sink!  At last night’s gig – of which rather more later – someone felt the need to explain, after I apparently gave the impression of recognising them from another recent event (in fact, I was staring vacantly into space at the time), that they weren’t following me.

I used to think that were I to shuffle off this mortal coil in my freezing garret, it would be many weeks before the smell of decomposition (slowed down my reluctance to use the heating) caused my remains to be discovered.  This no longer seems to be a major concern!  There was significant traction and amusement last night following a Facebook friend posting that they were at a gig in Southampton and I wasn’t there.  Despite my best attempts, I am still only able to be in one place at a time – though I am working on this limitation…

Anyway, my fame is such that this post was basically commissioned by one of its main subjects (and not me).  Yesterday evening, I took myself to the Art House and managed to find time between scoffing their delicious mince pies to attend a gig by guitar maestros and (probably still) friends Nathan Ball and Jack Dale.  It was Mr Dale who approached me before the gig began seeking a “review” in this infamous cultural institution – I made no promises, claiming it would depend on the quality of the content provided.  As this post will confirm, more than sufficient incidents of moment arose during the gig for me to let my fingers do the walking over the keyboard this morning.  Jack also proposed a title for this post, which I have not used – instead going with the most oft repeated phrase from last night’s fun!  His proposal was “An evening of stories”, but I feel my choice has more appeal to the click bait generation.

While the chaps are friends – and more as I will later reveal – some areas of contention did arise early doors.  Both musicians had CDs on sale at the gig and each played the title track from their musical momentos, but Jack was willing to significantly undercut Nathan on price.  I am unable to report whether this aggressive pricing was reflected in the volume of sales following the gig: sometimes premium pricing can act as a sales driver by suggesting a higher quality product…  For the first half of the gig, the chaps played tunes alternately with some attempt to link each tune thematically with its predecessor though I don’t think the long-running The Chain feature from the Radcliffe and Maconie show has much to worry about.  During this segment there was a notable divergence in use of the capo – with Jack making much more extensive use of his example.

My followers on Facebook will know that I have shown in interest in Mr Dale’s use of the capo and his opinions thereon over recent weeks.  After last night, I am starting to wonder if his use of the capo is an attempt to pass messages in code: either to his controllers in Moscow or Pyongyang or perhaps as a desperate cry for help.  Last night’s code was 35200223, but so far my crack team of cryptographers have been unable to decipher it.  He did also use three guitars – against Nathan’s one – and I wonder if these also have some meaning in the code.  This could be my big Dan Brown moment, a whole series of novels about a middle-aged white guy (me) deciphering the secret codes used by a cabal of guitarists and blowing open some global conspiracy (OK, I’ll admit it, I’ve never read anything by Mr Brown or, for that matter, his wife and their boys).

As well as giving me the idea for the Capo Code™, the gig contained significant intra-song conversation (whether ad-libbed or scripted was left unclear, but if the latter I feel I should throw my hat into the ring as their new scriptwriter) which brought a significant portion of the Ball and Dale back story to our attention.  We discovered that Jack had a surprising number of people called Nathan as best man at his wedding (two!), sadly the number of best men not called Nathan was not made explicit.  The other (better) Nathan(II) also had an important role as duenna, bringing our heroes together.  Back in the mists of time, Jack had stalked Nathan(I) for quite a while before they were brought together by his illicit covering of one of Nathan(I)’s songs.  Nathan(II), a drummer in Nathan(I)’s band, in an attempt to head of any incipient feud introduced Jack to Nathan(I) (I presume without raising any more alarming incidents of stalking: nothing was mentioned directly, but I feel binoculars and rifling through bins may have been involved).  One feud averted, he became an unwitting cause of another as Jack promptly poached him to drum in his band.

The gig also featured the traditional guest slot where a person is plucked randomly from the audience to play the B Minor piano accompaniment to Medicine.  Last night, John drew the short straw but managed to fill Patrick Ytting’s shoes (and indeed the rest of his clothes) in fine style.  I assume ‘John’ will, by now, have been poached to join Jack’s new musical venture as a drum’n’bass collective.

Following an intervention from the world viewing the gig from beyond the confines of the Art House (thanks Samuel, wherever you were!), the much maligned Wonderwall cover was discovered to have played a pivotal role in bringing the gig to the world.  It was shortly after Wonderwall was released, while seeing two fellow sixth-formers performing an early cover version, that Nathan was inspired to take up the guitar and his first guitar tutor was a book of Oasis ‘tunes’.  Despite this inauspicious start, his guitar skills were impressive – and his strumming technique much more in line with my own teachers’ opinions than Jack’s.

For the second half of the gig, Nathan played a few songs (mostly) uninterrupted by Jack  except for the stentorian sound of his heavy breathing, which even unmiked could clearly be heard above the amplified guitar and voice.  The gig closed with Jack accompanying Nathan on a lap slide guitar for the final few songs (well, that and quite a lot of tuning – but, we were reassured that this was atypical with the words quoted as our title).  It was a glorious of evening of music and fun – and yes, I’ll admit it, of stories too!  Almost the whole thing was recorded by Jack (from two separate camera angles) but the cameras ran out of storage space in the final song and so the gig’s stirring apotheosis will have been enjoyed only by those of us lucky enough to be in the room.  Slightly disturbingly, the feed from one of the cameras was continuously displayed on a large flat screen TV to my right – which given that I was clearly visible in the feed, could leave a chap feeling a tad self-conscious and even physically inhibited during the gig.  Living in the world’s most surveilled nation I am probably on camera for most of life, but I can’t usually ‘enjoy’ the footage in real time.  Hopefully, I refrained from doing anything too outrageous on camera (though I was sorely tempted): I guess time will tell…

If this post has a moral dimension, I guess it is to be careful for what you wish.  It also acts as a timely reminder that Jack Dale plus the Art House equals fun times!

Emotional space

Despite the example offered by a brave iris, still flowering in a Southampton park despite recent frosts and little hope of finding a pollinator, I continue to feel pathetic and have retreated to the comforting space of my bed.  By the way, the brave little iris will have a starring role in a series of uplifting, moral tales for children which I am planning to pen at some, unspecified future date. Very much a hero for our troubled times…

I mentioned feeling pathetic, but it is mostly just tiredness that I am experiencing after too many consecutive nights on the town (or multiple towns) in a row and the depleting effect of sending a pint of my red stuff off to a new home and gorging myself on biscuit-y goodness (may not be good, even as part of a balanced diet) afterwards as a reward.  Today’s ‘errands’ complete I feel entirely justified in retreating to a space of comfort to harangue the world with my soi-disant thoughts before venturing forth this evening for musical sustenance (may also include the consumption of cake and liquid bread).  While my bed is a very comfortable space, I will admit that it is not optimal for laptop use.  Still, I believe there is some theory that the creation of great art often benefits from challenging circumstances – let’s see if the same is true for this old tosh!

Building on my current retreat from the world and its cause, this post will pontificate about the feel of different performance spaces I have visited this week and influences thereon – or at least how the feel was perceived by the author with his rather limited emotional range.

On Tuesday evening, I went to Turner Sims to see Imogen Cooper play the piano.  For this concert there is a single piano and stool on the stage and a single performer – though, for the start of the second-half she was joined by a lute player and a counter-tenor for a lovely bit of Dowland.  The lute is a beautiful instrument and looks relatively tractable with relatively few, well-spaced frets and what looks like plenty of room to manoeuvre a chap’s large and recalcitrant fingers across the neck – but that is by the bye.  With the exception of the high-pitched whine of hearing aids and some of the soundscape of a sanitorium, the audience sits in serious-minded silence and just accepts the music rising up from the stage.  As is common, but not always the case, for classical music gigs, the performer did not converse with the audience – except via the music.  There is the excitement of live music and some feeling of sharing an experience with others – but the latter is quite limited, unless you bump into a friend in the interval to compare notes (as I did).  With the exception of a piece by Adès, the programme did  not introduce anything too unexpected (though three pieces were, I think, new to me) so there was no susurrus of emotion responding to a moment of excitement, or an encounter with the unexpected, to bring the audience together in any form of gestalt.

Exactly the same space had a completely different feel last night when I returned to see the folk trio Lau.  For the first half, most of the stage was concealed behind black sheets with the musicians clustered together in front of this barrier.  They were lit unusually – and significantly from below – and played acoustically to a rather gorgeous central microphone.  This create a wonderfully intimate atmosphere – almost like we were sharing a campfire with the band – and their conversation between songs helped to build this feeling of intimacy.  It also created some wonderful – and slightly sinister- shadow play in the space.  Several times, I felt someone was approaching me from behind and also came to realise the terrifying shadows that an accordion can cast: lit from below the bellows look like teeth.  Coupled with the red colouring showing when it opens its “mouth” and its ability to breath heavily and make alarming moaning or screaming sounds, I feel that the acordion has been criminally under-used by the makers of horror films.

The second half was totally different, with the sheets down to reveal the stage filled with the equipment for by far the most impressive light show I have ever seen at Turner Sims (the band had clearly brought the equipment with them!).  The band switched to electric instruments and a range of effects pedals and more – including ‘Morag’, a half-alive collection of electronics, switches and what looked like a long stick and some tangled fishing line.  This gave a completely different feel to the second half of the gig – but a half still enlivened by historic population stats from the Scottish islands.  Despite the huge change, the connection with the audience was maintained and sealed with a sing-a-long to close the show (and a chance for us to practice our Scots dialect!).  At this gig, the space felt much more intimate than it had on Tuesday (despite being the same space – though with a somewhat different audience) and there was a much stronger feeling of the audience as a single creature, as well as a collection of individuals.  I really enjoyed Imogen Cooper, but Lau really brought the space to life as well as the music and brought the audience together with a much stronger feeling of a shared experience.

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All mysteries revealed, the curious pore over Morag… she won’t like that!

On Wednesday night, I attend the second Belfast Guitar Night at the Crescent Arts Centre.  This is a flexible performance space, but was arranged in cabaret format, i.e. with tables and chairs.  It was also a BYOB gig – not something I’ve been to very often (if at all) and I failed to bring anything beyond myself and a book.  The gig was very enjoyable with three different guitar based-acts – a guitar and fiddle duo, an electric guitar accompanying a poet and finally a young Dutch guitarist playing her first gig in the UK (having arrived at 3pm that afternoon and flying out at 6am in the morning, it was a brief visit – but she seemed to enjoy herself).  My experience of the Belfast audience is of it being incredibly warm and welcoming.  As I had arrived early and was sitting at the front (no surprise there), I hadn’t realised quite how packed the space was until I looked behind me in the interval.  It was a quite different feeling of intimacy, almost feeling that the musicians were playing just to me – but while surrounded by dozens of other rapt guitar fans.  I was impressed by how large an audience Belfast could field on a freezing, damp midweek night for a headliner which I assume few (if any) could have seen before and such a mixed bill of fare.  The gig was clearly put on by people with a love of the music who were doing it to share the love and not for any hope of gain – though based on the success of this gig, there should be more.  I found myself wondering if there were lessons to be learned here for the Southampton music scene.

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Karlijn Langendijk: I am nearly as close as it seems!

Rushing from the airport after my flight home landed on Thursday night, I caught Tankus the Henge supported by Mad King Ludwig and the Mojo Co at the Talking Heads.  Two bands which are all but impossible to pigeonhole (and I shall not try) each led by a theatrical front man made for an excellent combination and a very entertaining – if slightly bonkers – evening.  With both bands the audience was expected to be an active participant in the gig and was invaded by the front man at times.  I have rarely, if ever, seen the Heads so busy and that many people having fun together created an amazingly dynamic feel at a gig.  Much as I like a sit down (I’ve yet to attend a gig where you can lie-down – but could easily be tempted), there is an energy to a standing event which is hard to match.  It was also great to be at a cultural event without my inner treasurer worrying about the financial viability of both the event and the venue (never work – even at a voluntary level – in the arts if you want to experience culture anxiety-free again!).

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I cannot recommend using your piano in this way…

For my final gig of the week, and my second of last night, I headed to the Hobbit to see The Sea Slugs: a band which seems to lose a member each time I see them (is it me?  Should I stop going before they disappear entirely?).  The Hobbit is built into a cliff – from which the sea has now retreated some distance (whether willingly or not, I couldn’t say) – and music is staged in a sort of cellar space.  It is the sort of space which, if you had even the slightest thought you might have wandered into a horror movie, you should on now account enter alone – and probably not even with friends (unless they happen to be a fully armed infantry division).  As a result, it has the most transgressive vibe of any of the spaces I visited this week and does chime with my love of culture taking place in a dark, sweaty box which you wouldn’t want to see in the harsh light of day.  It doesn’t have the greatest sound or lights, but I am rather fond of the space – there is an essential rightness about it somehow.  Last night, I’ll admit that with the door permanently open (I assume it can close, thought I have never seen it in this state) my calves were feeling decidedly chilled by the time the gig came to an end – but, again, I think a modicum of discomfort is an important part of any night out.  Too much comfort is the enemy of much (or all) that is good: discuss…

I’m not sure what we can learn from my week, other than that a variety of venues and performances spaces are a good thing and that with the right equipment, staging and interaction you can really change the feel of a space.  I suspect the audience is also an important factor – but they are harder to control for confounding factors across such a small number of gigs.  Even with a larger sample, I’d probably need to perform some rather intrusive research into the audience’s lives to obtain any solid conclusions…  In the absence of this important body of research, I shall just have to ask you to cherish (i.e. visit and enjoy) your spaces and add to their feel – or you may find you’ve lost them and its too late!