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).

IMG_20171203_191344

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.

IMG_20171201_224118

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.

IMG_20171129_215847

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!).

img_20171130_213717.jpg

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!