X-Men

I should perhaps start with an apology to lovers of the work of Stan Lee and his Marvel colleagues and admit that I am no expert on their oeuvre.  Nevertheless, I can’t help observing that most of the X-Men seem to have mutant abilities with a decidedly martial bent.  All well and good for fending off existential threats to the earth and/or its occupants from megalomaniac foes but of less utility in navigating the humdrum vagaries of daily life.

I seem to recall one of the X-Men could convert his skin to the sheen and consistency of metal which I will admit would be handy when picking gooseberries, cutting back a bramble or retrieving a lost ball from a nettle patch.  Storm could control the weather which would be a boon for farmers, gardeners and those planning outdoor events in our unreliable climate – but I must admit that the chaotic nature of the weather system does lead me to worry about unintended consequences.  If a butterfly flapping its wings in one location can trigger a hurricane in a distant locale, I do worry what impact the use of Storm’s superpowers to water my brassicas would have on the wider world: just think of the potential lawsuits?  I suspect that a hosepipe or watering can might be the safer option.  Wolverine’s rapid healing would be very useful for the klutzier among us but I could do without foot long metal blades emerging from the back of my hands: I have a very sturdy pair of kitchen scissors (which can and does crack nuts too) and an 8.25″ cook’s knife for anything they can’t handle.

If I’m honest, most of the superpowers exhibited by the X-Men also seem to play fast-and-loose with the laws of thermodynamics with energy and matter being created, and complex nuclear and condensed matter physics being performed, with no clear power source.  I think one can “borrow” energy from the quantum vacuum, but it does expect very swift repayment even for the tiniest of loans.  I have a feeling its debt collection makes even the least forgiving and most violent of loan sharks seem the very height of patient forbearance.  It’s not even as if the X-Men have a big meal before a major session of world-saving, or enjoy a slap-up dinner when they get home.  I have to do little more than cycle over the Itchen Bridge to find myself in urgent need of a pretty substantial snack, while Magneto can hurl around whole armoured divisions without scarfing so much as a handful of raisins.  I feel that the Laws of Thermodynamics are there for everyone’s benefit and should not be flouted willy-nilly: it’s basically an invitation to the dread Anarch to let the curtain fall and allow universal darkness to cover all.

The stage now set and the impracticality of fictional superpowers being, I like to think, firmly established, I will now go on to discuss actual superpowers witnesses by the author.  Given the nature of my life, these will relate to the production of music – though I think there could be side benefits in other areas of life.

On Saturday I went up to London for my musical fix – though I will admit to taking in a little music (and poetry) in Winchester on my way thanks to the excellent FAP in the Attic at the Railway Inn: which, as its name suggests, nestles close to Winchester station making it a convenient point to break a journey.  Well, that would normally be true but we seem to be going through an extended phase of Southampton being cut off from the rest of the world by engineering works and so my “rail” journey was only marginally swifter than walking.  I don’t often go to London for music – I think I only did it twice in 2017 – as it is a relatively expensive and time-consuming option and because there is so much music available locally.  Indeed, I feel slightly like I am betraying my adopted home city by going to gigs in London.  On this occasion, I missed a number of interesting gigs within walking distance of my flat though, despite popular belief, I do not (and can not) go to every gig howsoever hard I may try.

I went up to London to see Marius Neset at King’s Place (Hall One)  – which is a rather fine venue, guarded by supercilious metal goats (which will be the name of my first heavy rock band).  I first saw him playing with the London Sinfonietta at Turner Sims back in 2016 and that concert really blew me away.  I decided then that if he were to return to these shores I would make a serious effort to see him and this excursion made good on that pledge.  This time he was playing as a quintet – three of whom had been with him in Southampton – but the vibraphone. marimba and chimes player was new to me (more on him later).

Marius is my first suggestion for an actual superhuman.  At times watching him play the saxophone reminded me of observing albatross off the Otago peninsular in New Zealand.  With the albatross I kept thinking that they would have to flap a wing soon, with Marius I thought that he must have to breathe at some stage in this extended virtuosic solo but, in both cases, I was disappointed.  The man has frankly inhuman breath control and/or lung capacity – though did have the decency to appear slightly out-of-breath when speaking between the extended pieces.  I am also convinced he was producing polyphony from the saxophone – something which I had assumed was impossible with a reeded instrument.  I suppose these skills may be of limited use outside of playing woodwind, though I suspect if he ever fancied a stint as a pearl diver he would be a natural: though my recollection of John Steinbeck’s take on that career is that Mr Neset is probably better off sticking with the music.

Such superhuman skills would certainly inspire a degree of awe in me, but these were applied to a series of glorious jazz compositions and with incredible musicality.  He even continued the work that Gilad Atzmon had started a couple of weeks ago and has left me convinced that the soprano sax is a sensible musical instrument and not, as I had previously thought, a terrible, squeaky mistake by Adolphe Sax.  I may not be an expert on the saxophone, but a friend who was also at the gig is a very fine sax player and also rated the playing as the best he’d ever seen.  It is early in 2018, but I am taking little risk in saying that Saturday night will be on my list of the best of the year – possibly even the decade.

The whole quintet were of the standard you’d need to support such stunning sax playing, but it was Jim Hart, the vibraphone and marimba player, who is my second superhuman of the evening.  My longest finger is some 3.5″ from base to tip (I know as I have literally just measured it: my guess had been longer, but then I am a man).  My attempt to play Scarlatti requires me to play a note on the piano with a finger in my left-hand and then immediately play the same note with a finger from my right hand.  This relative minor crossing of my longish (for a human) fingers in a relatively confined space is proving quite the challenge to make work.  The risk of a finger-jam is never very distant and all the notes do not yet reliably sound in the right order.  (Does the melodeon have a more QWERTY-style keyboard to reduce the risk of finger-jams, I wonder?)  Mr Hart was playing using a pair of 18″ (my guesstimate) long sticks (probably not the technical term) in each hand, hitting up to four notes on his “keyboards” simultaneously with the sticks in the left and right hands crossing each other in a blur of movement and not the slightest hint that a collision was even the remotest of outside possibilities.  I still can’t entirely believe the evidence of my own eyes, but if I was going to “gift” anyone with Wolverine-style blades I think Jim would be the least likely to become a danger to himself and others.

So good was the gig, that I even stuck around afterwards to get a CD signed by the great man himself (as shown above).  Unusually, I seem to find myself in agreement with the Daily Telegraph who gave the concert it 5 out of 5: which doesn’t leave the lad much room to improve but I’d still be reluctant to bet against him managing it.  Should he return to these shores, I’m certainly keen to go see him give it a try!

Based on the gig, I have been inspired to try and learn circular breathing, though fear this may end up looking more like an impression of an asthmatic squirrel in the midst of an attack.  Certainly, the omens so far are less than encouraging.  Perhaps more practically, I feel it is time for my first clarinet lesson – so expect a post in about 20 years revealing how it went!

Feast time for little lambs?

Well, it has been IV Week and according to a rather odd song while mares and does prefer oats, young sheep are gluttons for Genus Hedera.  I have often worried about the accuracy of these lyrics, but in researching this post I have discovered that our ovine friends, of all ages, love to eat ivy.  The internet is less unanimous on whether such consumption is wise.

However, while interesting the title and opening paragraph are merely be way of an amuse bouche to today’s more hearty fare.  The IV refers to Independent Venue Week which comes to a close today.   This describes itself as a celebration of small music venues – though does seem to have its focus away from classical and jazz music and more on the sort of fare which might feed BBC Radios 1, 2 and 6.  This event recognises the importance of small venues as a critical launchpad for new talent and promises to bring small venues together with a range of people including bloggers and tastemakers – into which categories I like to imagine I fall (the former isn’t much of a stretch).  Oddly, it fails to mention audiences – of which more later…

Southampton has four venues which were taking part in the scheme and so I decided to try and visit all of them during the week: I do like a pointless, self-imposed objective!  In a fruitless attempt to avoid going on too much, I shall attempt to say a few words about each.

The Talking Heads is the venue I visit most often.  This is partly because it is very closes, but also because it offers a range of regular events of interest including the Southampton Modern Jazz Club and the Maple Leaf Lounge Sessions which are well-curated and have introduced me to a huge range of new music.  It also provides the widest range of musical genres of any venue I know, including classical and experimental music.  This week I took in a couple of jazz gigs, a friend’s band and a particularly entertaining, and downright funny, Maple Leaf Lounge Session.  I don’t think any of these gigs actually operated under the banner of IVW.

The Joiners is a venue I find myself growing increasingly positive about.   I think it appeals to my feeling that a lot of proper culture should take place in slightly down-at-heel, cramped, dark, sweaty spaces.  The addition of Whitstable Bay Pale Ale to its limited range of ales has not done it any harm either.  Like so many venues, I think it struggles financially and had to launch an appeal to repair the structure of the building in 2017.  This prompted me to visit more often and I have always had a good time.  It holds the honour of hosting the most packed gig I have ever attended in Southampton, when This is the Kit visited in January.  I’d only vaguely heard of the band, but it was a really excellent gig.  This week I went to see the launch of Southampton Sampler Vol. 1, a curated vinyl album of some of the best local bands.  This was a lot of fun, but I can’t help feeling could have been better publicised and – perhaps – organised.  However, it did bring more significant media voices than mine to the city’s music scene which can only be a good thing.

The Brook is probably the venue I visit least often, partly because of its slightly remote location but mostly because it leans very heavily towards programming tribute bands.  My musical taste tends not to be especially nostalgic and so I’ve only tended to go to gigs when new bands are playing.  It is, perhaps, the most beautiful performance space in the city and I always enjoy going.  This week, I went to see Police Dog Hogan – a band I’d never heard of – who play a rather English take on Americana, Bluegrass and folk.  This was really enjoyable and I was glad my pointless project for the week had led me to attend.

The Alex is a pub and so a representative of a very important class of venues for music.  I think that by far the largest volume of opportunities for musicians to perform in and around Southampton is in its pubs.  I don’t know how many of these gigs are paid and the quality of the spaces and the audiences is very variable, but pubs must be the first chance to play in public for a significant majority of musicians.  The Alex has the advantage that it has a raised area for musicians to perform and does have proper lighting and a sound system (though I suspect it a relatively basic one).  It also does not require the audience to stand in what is basically a corridor connecting the pub to the toilets an/or smoking area.  It is probably the closest venue to my flat and I made it to two IVW-branded gigs during the week: headlined by Tom Hingley of the Inspiral Carpets and by SK Shlomo.  I had a vague recollection of the Inspiral Carpets, but no strong memories or feeling about the band, but really enjoyed Tom Hingley’s set.  I saw Shlomo (before the SK – but what a fine set of initials to adorn any name!) in Edinburgh a few years back and have been hoping to see him again very since.  His set at the Alex was less about building up the beatboxing and looping as it was at the Fringe and more  pre-written songs but was an amazing musical and sonic experience in a pub a couple of minutes walk from home.  It was like a bit of underground Berlin had moved in next door for the evening!

I had a lot of fun touring the IVW venues in the city over the week, but none of the gigs struck me as particularly well attended.  The mid-week gigs might have had a few more people than usual, but there didn’t seem much of an attempt to bring new audiences to small venues.  BBC 6 Music does talk about IVW during the week, but otherwise there didn’t seem to be any obvious additional marketing push.  Nor did there seem to be any obvious attempt to stress that small venues are not just for the first week in February, but, like a dog, are for life.

This raises the broader issue of the marketing of gigs – an issue which probably applies more broadly to the arts.  I follow a lot of local (and some less local) bands and venues on various social media platforms.  I also actively search local venue websites and Facebook Events in an attempt to find out what is happening in and around the city to maintain my gig guide (which grew from a merely personal interest).  I have even taken to visiting venues and scouring their walls for posters in the hope of finding clues about upcoming gigs.  This is a very time consuming project as most venues and bands do not make it easy to find out what’s on: this is particularly true as each month comes to an end as a lot of venue websites are loath to show any gigs occurring in a future month (even if that is a mere 24 hours away!).  Even if discover an event is happening, most venues give little or no detail about the band playing – so often I struggle to work out if a grouping of words is the name of the band, the name of its tour or genre (or is a band at all).  This places a lot of the onus for going out on the audience to seek out events and then research the bands.  I’m not sure that many people rely on the curatorial skills of the bookers at small venues or just take a punt on the “how bad can it be principle”, especially when it is so easy to slump at home in front of the TV and its alarmingly vast range of content.

Venues do carry out a degree of cross promotion and I do have a friend whose progress through the city I can trace by the presence of posters and brochures where he has been.  Bands – particularly if they have some fame – may be able to attract their own audience.  However, it strikes me that both of these approaches tend to draw from an existing pool of audience members or, especially in the case of newer bands, the friends and relatives of the band members.  This thesis certainly has anecdotal support from my own experiences at gigs.  This is exploiting a wasting asset unless the continuous generation of new bands can, like a Ponzi-scheme, bring enough new people to gigs to replace those lost.  (Not) A Trusted Music Guide is my attempt to at least create awareness of the existence of gigs, even if I don’t have time (or the skill) to write a bio for every band playing.  However, I don’t think this is a sustainable business model for the industry as I am probably a bit of an outlier audience-wise: in terms of my adventurous spirit, willingness to go out night-after-night and prepare listings for a wider public.

I must admit that I don’t have an answer to the issues raised in this blog and nor have I provided a number to call if you have been affected by any of them.  Nevertheless, I fondly like to think that there must be better options than are currently being used.  Maybe this needs greater co-operation between venues or with whatever remains of the cultural arms of local authorities, which may not be much after years of reducing the funding for soi-disant non-essential activities.  Perhaps it needs targetted funding by Arts Council England or similar body – but I suspect it will need to cover more than one week per year.  Or is it down to us as audience members to come together to physically drag people from their sofas to come out and have fun?  I reckon every four audience members could between them frog-march a fifth to a venue and force them to have a good time.  I’m hoping this would only need to be done a few times before they become a convert and start proselytising themselves. There may be minor legal issues with this approach, but there is a greater good involved!  Perhaps Public Health England would be interested?  Leaving the settee, walking to a venue and some bopping, moshing or grooving once there would all surely be some help to the beleaguered NHS – though the associated drinking might be a downside.

Talking of drinking, my liver may well be wilting under the consumption of beer purchased to maximise my support for venues, which obtain most of their revenue from bar sales.  Given the high level of duty on beer, I do find myself wondering if this is the best drinking option from the venue’s perspective.  Should I be switching to spirits, or does tea or a soft drink have greater margins?  I, and my hard-worked liver, need answers!  Sticking to session ales can only take a chap so far…

The word limit lies in tatters, but my chest feels a good deal lighter and this blog is written for my benefit not yours.  Still, for those feeling in need of an insincere apology please feel free to infer one here.

Journeyman

The word ‘journey’ seems to slip ever further from its moorings – as the distance travelled in a day – as time goes on.  It has in a very real, and modern, sense been on a journey.  Any fool given exposure to a wider public via a glowing screen will attempt to describe some more-or-less trivial, curated set of their life events as a journey.   Never one to ignore a band-wagon, let’s explore how high, and or far, I can jump in my attempt to gain a free ride.  As you will have come to expect, this exploration will take place through the medium of a blog post: I’ll leave the humiliatingly public route to brief, vapid and bland pop fame until after I’ve sucked every last morsel of marrow from the dry bones of my life.  To put your fears at rest, no sharks were harmed in the making of this post.

Of course, even as I lay under my crumpled duvet last night desperately seeking sleep – or even Susan (I was growing desperate…) – I was on a journey.  Whilst my bed remained (virtually) static relative to my flat, Southampton and the local tectonic plate, we were all whirling in some extraordinarily complex set of super-imposed translations and rotations though the fabric of space-time.  While some of these motions were more than glacial slow – my gradual parting from the New World, for example – many were occurring at frankly breakneck speeds.  Or so it will seem, many years in my future, to an observer located somewhere beyond the furthest reaches of the Virgo supercluster.  Is it any wonder that when I finally left my organic cotton-swaddled cocoon I did not feel entirely refreshed?

I sometimes feel that much of my life is spent in a futile effort to exhaust both my mind and body to the extent that they sign up to some sort of nightly treaty to allow me eight uninterrupted hours of great nature’s second course.  Well, it’s either that or a desire to spare myself the company of my own, unaccompanied thoughts.

Of late this blog has, perhaps, tended to matters of the mind so I thought we’d start today’s outpouring with the physical.  My long-running plan to run away to the circus had to be put on a hold for a while last year while my broken wrist healed.  It then took a little time to return to the peak (more a molehill than Olympus Mons) of physical perfection that I had previously been taking for granted.  With the start of a new year, and with the front and back-levers continuing to improve, I decided that 2018 needed a new – and foolish – gymnastic physical project for me to attempt.  So, I have decided that 2018 will be the year that I achieve the human flag: let’s face it, it looks like people will always need flags.  With countries continuing to fragment, I can see opportunities opening up to become the official flag for a tiny new nation!  My plan might also be linked to the fact that I’ve seen it described as ‘arguably the most visually impressive bodyweight feat of strength anyone’s ever come up with‘.

This is not going to be easy: partly because of my advanced age but mostly because I’m annoyingly long in limb and body which means that my effort, fulcrum and load are very poorly placed to reap any mechanical advantage.  I strongly suspect my physical frame will be delivering mechanical disadvantage to my cause.  However, I am not the sort of cove to be put off by the apparent lunacy of a project and so the training has begun.  At the moment, at those times at which this most resembles an attempt to perform the human flag, my own movements most closely resemble the flailing of a beached mermaid.  This is partly down to a lack of strength and/or flexibility in the relevant parts of my body but also down to a failure to apply the powers I do possess in any constructive way.

As the snapshots above might illustrate, while I can haul myself off the deck parallel to the plane of my sternum (the more impressively-named, but much easier to achieve, dragon flag), anything in the perpendicular plane is much less effective.  Still, I think I am slowly working out how to apply my effort via a more effective set of fulcra to shift the load.  In the meantime, I can’t help wondering if the south coast needs a drag tribute act to Bette Midler in her guise as Dolores deLago?  We would have to transpose the songs down an octave or two – or my costume would have to be eye-wateringly tight – but I’m game… (not for the tight tailed option!)

The other journey which will add the ‘mens sana‘ in today’s ‘corpore sano‘ will be a musical one.  In pursuit of another lunatic project – to become a concert (or jazz) pianist (why couldn’t I have chosen the much easier and more traditional path of fast cars and inappropriately youthful female company?) – I have been delving ever deeper into chord theory.  I find this absolutely fascinating and find myself playing with chords when sat at the keyboard – and when I am supposed to be practicing!  So many well-known tunes, or fragments thereof, are based on some relatively simple transitioning between chords.  There are many ways to move from one chord to another and some of these journeys are more interesting and/or satisfying than others.  I have discovered that this as an area in which I have Views as heading back to the home key too quickly or directly was clearly very dull leading me to accidentally re-discovered cadences.  While at a concert last weekend, I found I knew where Beethoven was going at various point of his 3rd Piano Concerto but could admire the glorious route he took to reach his destination.  I was also left in awe of John Lill’s beautiful technique at the piano: would that my younger wrists and fingers had such poise and bounce.

In a possibly successful attempt to head off the launch of yet another project, my piano teacher treated me to a boy’s first accordion lesson on Monday.  This is a somewhat terrifying device comprising, as it does, 72 tiny buttons (though it can be as many as 120) arrayed in 12 slanted rows of 6 which one is supposed to control with the fingers of your left hand.  Worse, you cannot see any of the buttons whilst doing this – though three do have a slightly different feel: two have a cross (E and A flat) and one is concave (middle C).  Even worse, I am trying to sense this minor haptic difference using the tips of the fingers on my left-hand: fingertips whose sensitivity has been mangled by holding down steel guitar strings.  I tried to channel my youthful skill at reading Braille playing cards while playing cribbage with my blind uncle, but I fear those neurons have moved on to better things (or their eternal rest).  I found that as soon as a finger lost contact with middle C, I was all at sea (do you see what he did there?) with digits flailing wildly around the forest of buttons in the hope of encountering either one of the three marked trees or the forest’s edge and working back: which I believe is an important technique for wild navigation at night without a compass.  The keyboard side of the instrument was less problematic, albeit at an angle only previously experienced when attempting to play the piano while prone (or attempting the human flag).  I am now much more impressed when I see an accordionist in action, particularly one who is particularly free and easy with their left hand.

I think for now I shall confine my musical voyage to the piano, guitar and a selection of available woodwind.  Perhaps I’ll take up something percussive and portable: I quite fancy an egg.  Or perhaps the melodica could be stepping-stone to the accordion – it uses a bellows (the player’s lungs – unless he has a footman, groom or valet for that kind of thing) and a keyboard at an unexpected angle.  I could also try texting with my left hand and wearing a blindfold as further preparation…

Still, in the hope of sneaking in under the unofficial word count I try and impose on my text-based largesse, I think this is a good point to bring this particular journey to its conclusion.