Staying Agile

Obviously important for all of us, and especially those of us navigating the unwanted stiffening than can come with middle age (this is quite different to the unwanted stiffening that I seem to recall was a feature of my teenage years). However, my top tips for flexibility into your sixth decade will have to wait for another post: this is all about my new baby: (Not) Your Trusted Music Guide – or (N)YTMG for short (which I think we have decided will be pronounced “nutmeg”).

Apologies to those of you who lack the good fortune to be resident in (or near) Southampton but, if we’re honest, a lot of content on GofaDM was already very me-centric and so somewhat focused on those places that I am most often found (which does tend to be the former Hamwic and principle gem in southern England’s diadem). And, there is always the possibility of moving to Southampton: property is more sensibly priced than in many places…

(N)YTMG is not a destination but a journey: for you, it should be the start of many journeys to see live music, poetry, theatre dance and more; for me and the coding demon that is gawpertron, it is a journey to make it ever more useful and useable (I promise to stop using the word ‘journey’ now, I’m not a contestant on ‘Strictly Come Great Britain’s Got X Factor on Ice Off’ and nor do I wish to be one). As (N)YTMG develops, I’m using its proud parent (GofaDM) as one way to announce the new features: yes, you are correct, he is just boasting about his other website. These will all be tagged (N)YTMG to make them (a) easy to find and (b) easy to avoid.

We have been using Agile development to build and enhance (N)YTMG and, in a marked contrast to any other experiences of that phrase in my working life, it has more than lived up to its name: it has proven more nimble than low calorie bread! The vast majority (for which read, all) of the credit for this must rest with gawpertron: I merely try and explain how I think people will use the site (I’m in charge of stories), attempt to answer any questions in a broadly sensible manner (while also being as childish as you would expect) and (sometimes) provide clear priorities.

We were keen that (N)TYMG should be accessible to as wide a range of users as possible. The design was chosen to make this a reality, but as both gawpertron and I possess relatively functional eyes (if we ignore my exciting combination of myopia, astigmatism and presbyopia) I wanted to get some feedback from a blind user. Many thanks to the excellent Jim O’Sullivan (a regular gig-goer himself) for reviewing the site and providing some suggestions for improving its navigability. These have now been implemented: a fact, which in a delicious reversal of the normal state of affairs, will be largely invisible to sighted users but will be “seen” by the blind and partially sighted.

We’ve also introduced alternative “themes” to change the look of the site. Classic retains the original look which is based on the GofaDM we all know and love (or are forced to tolerate), but we have added Night for those who prefer a more restful vibe (or are vampires). We have also added a High Contrast theme aimed at those who are colour-blind or who have other difficulties differentiating colours when navigating websites: as a bonus, it also works well if your screen is filthy or you are yomping across the Sahara desert!

Night has fallen!

Following user feedback, the date now also shows the day of the week: useful for those with a regular appointment that prevents them from going out (no more missed appointments with your Probation Officer!). We have also improved the interaction of the Search function and accented characters: a vowel (and even a consonant) will now find any of its brethren, even if they are wearing a hat or spurs!

Finally, I have the ability to add (invisible) tags to events which will add extra discrimination to the search function, e.g. I could tag a Music gig as ‘Jazz’ or ‘Opera’. I think there may be a period of experimentation here, as I try and find tags that are useful rather than merely annoying…

For now, GofaDM and its (N)YTMG posts will probably act as the main conduit for any feedback on the site. I am loath to put contact details on the website as I do not wish to see my (or the site’s) Inbox flooded with get-rich quick schemes from minor West African royalty and offers to improve my effectiveness in potential future gene transfer events. All feedback will be considered, though my opinion is final (if subject to arbitrary change without notice), however wrong it may be.

I’m really chuffed with how (N)YTMG has turned out: it has exceeded my wildest dreams by a country mile! I actually use it myself, as it is generally the quickest way to buy tickets for an event without wading through venue websites with their heavy graphic load and multiple clicks between a desire and its satisfaction. Trying to find things to do in Cambridge later in the month, I found myself frustrated that it lacked an equivalent tool (though the author will be there, which might count). One day, maybe the gradual geographical creep which has already begun will see me reunite Wessex and Anglia under a single ruler…

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(Not) Your Trusted Music Guide

Today, GofaDM is going meta and will discuss (at length, or it just wouldn’t be GofaDM) the launch of its firstborn into the world. Frankly, when I started GofaDM back in 2010, I really didn’t think it would still be going in 2019: let alone that it would have reached sexual maturity and prove fecund enough to produce issue. How fast they grow up!

As with GofaDM itself, this all began with a foolish idea that got out of hand. Back in the mists of time, or a couple of years ago (time mists over much quicker at my age), various friends suggested that I should provide a list of gigs that I was planning to attend in Southampton to act as some sort of imprimatur of quality. I was unconvinced by this idea, not least because it would act as a stalker’s charter: it is already far too apparent that I rarely spend an evening at home and only my garret’s round-the-clock security detail has kept burglarious felons at bay. I also couldn’t help feeling that as a middle-aged, middle-class white man my probable views and tastes are already massively over-represented in the world (both real and on-line). Finally, listing my own planned gig attendance would tend to give the entirely erroneous impression that I had any idea what I was doing. In fact, I was, more recently, asked how I choose the gigs I attend and an answer (or something vaguely resembling an answer) may well form the basis of a future post: let’s just say that it is more black art than science…

Despite my reservations, my desire to support local venues and musicians led me to feel that I could perhaps take my OneNote document, which listed gigs I thought might be of interest, and create a public version of it. To avoid it being dominated by my taste (and wide ranging ignorance), as well as to provide a fig-leaf of cover as to my movements (I prefer that only Google and shadowy national intelligence agencies track my every move), I decided to list all live events at a small number of music venues in the city. This list would cover the next week and seemed a manageable project to keep up-to-date. Ah, the innocence of that younger me!

The listing was duly named (Not) Your Trusted Music Guide – to note that it was not (a) comprehensive, (b) reliable (given its maintenance by an all-too-fallible human) and (c) only music. It started as a Page within GofaDM – a page that had to be prepared through rather a complex process. Given my background, (N)TYMG was initially created as an Excel spreadsheet – but WordPress would not accept any output I could obtain from Excel, so I had to paste out the relevant cells into Paint 3D and then save the resultant image as a JPEG. This finally produced a form of the guide that WordPress would accept.

When I started with these rather modest beginnings, I had counted without my slightly obsessive nature and the sheer number of people I knew in the Southampton cultural scene. Quickly the range of venues grew as I sought to cover events at which friends were performing – and once I’d added a venue, I didn’t feel that I could delete it from future listings. I also extended the range of time covered in recognition of the fact that people may need more than a few day’s notice of a gig in order to attend. In this way, the list of gigs quickly grew to around 200 for each four week period.

When I started this foolish project, which must be more than a year ago now, I don’t think I had ever envisaged (N)YTMG as a long-term project. I’m not quite sure what I thought was going to happen, but I really didn’t expect to still be maintaining it at this point. I always felt that the city needed a one-stop (ish) shop to find out what is happening: it is something I always look for when visiting other cities, and have never yet found. So, as I felt there as still a perceived need (if only by me – and I have discovered and attended events thanks to maintaining (N)YTMG), I’ve just kept maintaining it. It is a major task for each Monday compiling the list, but to some extent it is a never-ending task with a part of my brain always on the look-out for a previously undiscovered event. This has led me to indulge in a worrying amount of photography in venue urinals where posters are often mounted: luckily, I have yet to be caught indulging in this slightly risky behaviour. However, the sheer size of the list was making it relatively difficult for people to use it and find any specific event and the process was also rather painful for me to maintain – and slow for a new event, once found, to make its way onto the web (it generally had to await the next Monday’s batch release). To help make it more usable, I started posting a cut-down, single-week version to the SO Music City Facebook page.

It was suggested to me that (N)YTMG needed to slip ‘the surly bonds of earth‘ as it were and fly free as a stand-alone, searchable entity: rather than live as an adjunct to an obscure blog. This seemed like a very good idea, but I lacked either the time or current coding skills to make this a reality (now, if you were looking for something in 6502 Assembly Language it would be a very different story). Luckily, attending a lot of gigs has introduced me to a huge number of implausibly talented people, a decent number of whom I consider friends. At least one of these, as well as having significant musical skills, is also a tech mage with current (as opposed to seriously obsolete) coding skills.

Thanks to the coding wizardry of gawpertron – coupled with the input of a lot of their time and several beer-and-curry based meetings with the author – an ill-conceived idea which got out of hand has been transfigured into the fully searchable gig listing that you see today.   A second friend, also appropriately made via the Southampton music scene, has provided the hosting which has allowed (N)YTMG out into the wild (and few demesnes are wilder, or redder in tooth and claw, than today’s internet). The idea that there is nothing happening in Southampton should truly have been laid to rest with extreme prejudice and a mistletoe stake driven through its heart (or to be double safe, a stake made of twined mistletoe and rowan). My foolish dream that no-one should have any excuse to miss a gig through ignorance (well, assuming that I have been able to discover its existence – which can be a far from trivial exercise in itself: loose lips sink ships!) is finally rendered a beautiful reality.  Thanks to our connected world, wheresoever the family of IEEE 802.11 or at least a couple of Gs hold sway, (N)YTMG can be your companion: nagging you to leave the couch and enjoy more of this glorious city’s delights.

The future is now!

Not only is (N)YTMG now fully searchable but, as far as possible, you are never more than one click away from information about the venue, each event and the ability to buy a ticket. I’m afraid, as a website, it cannot yet ferry you to the event nor baby-sit your children or pets: but am sure there are people working on each of these problems somewhere in a silicon geographical feature: I don’t think anyone has yet taken Silicon Esker or Silicon Yardang…

Even better (for me, at least), it is much easier for me to maintain and I can add an event to (N)YTMG in real-time: or as fast as my fingers can transfer visual input from my eyes into the underlying database via a suitable device. As before, the weak link in the process will remain the ability of the author to find events and update the list.

I can honestly say this has been the most enjoyable, fulfilling and beer-fueled IT project I have ever been involved in. I like to imagine that all Agile development is like this – but rather fear that it isn’t. Further development may occur in tie but, for now, revel in the glory!

As a final envoy, I should note that the content of (N)YTMG guide is maintained by the author, and its underlying code by gawpertron, as part of some strange expansion of the dictionary definition of ‘fun’. We shall consider ourselves well-paid if you use it to support local venues, musicians, poets, theatre makers, dancers and the like. So, you know what you have to do…

When worlds collide

In common with most people (or so I assume), my life is divided into separate spheres of activity.  Whilst I am common to all of these spheres – crouching spider-like at the centre of the multi-dimensional Venn diagram of my life – the other people who populate its many spheres have little reason (or opportunity) to meet or interact with each other. My work colleagues are on the other side of the Irish Sea and so would never (knowingly) meet my family and they, in turn, live at some remove from Southampton and so are unlikely to meet my local friends.  Even within Southampton, there is relatively little contact between my exercise, musical and theatrical friends.  This is not as a result of some sort of strict cordon sanitaire I enforce between these groups to enable me to live a range of totally inconsistent lives – as frankly, I’m not willing to put that much effort into maintaining a collection of separate vizards behind which I hide my true nature (no, I put all my skill at concealment into sustaining a single mask that none should ever discover the horrors that lie beneath) – but just the nature of engaging with somewhat separate communities of people.  There is some leakage of information between these communities via my tireless work attempting to make social media a fun place to be, but this has been limited.

On the Saturday just gone (or has it…?  Perhaps I should leave a philosophical discussion of block time for another occasion: I used to think of it is comforting, but now feel it is more horrifying) two of my many local worlds came together at a glorious celebration of the city’s extraordinary musical strength.  For the first time, the new NST City theatre staged a music gig – and hosted it in style!  This meant that friends from the city’s music, spoken word, gallery and theatre scenes were all present in the same building at the same time: the risk of them sharing stories about the author was worryingly high.  I could attempt some damage control, but mostly had to rely on the consistency of the image of myself I share with the world.  I think I got away with it… though I have come realise that the presence of my name on the donor wall is noticed rather more often than I’d anticipated.

I had not originally planned to attend the gig.  The headliners, Band of Skulls, while locally sourced were unknown to me and I had concerns about the theatre parking its metaphorical tank on the lawns of the existing local music venues: many of which are in a financially delicate situation (in common with most arts venues).  I do still have some worries on this account but hope NST staging gigs (which will always be somewhat infrequent events) can help to bring new audiences to other music venues in the city while also bringing new audiences to the theatre.  However, the main driver of my ticket purchase was the joint discovery that my friend’s band was opening for the Band of Skulls – who are much less frightening that their name might suggest – and people I know via Playlist, the Tuba Libres and the local music scene more generally were all involved in the orchestra who would be accompanying the headliners.  Who could I refuse?  (That question will be explored in a later post about earlier events: real life has left me with quite a backlog of content for GofaDM, you have been warned!).  As it transpired, I also knew the people in charge of the sound, recording and filming – and quite a sizeable chunk of the audience.

The gig was amazing: I feel it will be seen as a seminal event in the city’s musical history.  NST City makes for a very comfy space for a music gig and the sound and acoustic were really good.  The folks at the theatre also did a really good job of hosting their first gig.

It was a source of real joy to me that the first musicians to take to the stage in this new venue were all friends.  Kitty O’Neal and her band offered the space a glorious baptism of sound with familiar favourites and new tunes from their forthcoming album.  It feels like a long wait until its release in June, but I suspect the time will flash by…

After a short break, Band of Skulls and their orchestral accompaniment in the form of the Space Between Collective – all drawn from local musical talent – took to the stage: behind them historic film of Southampton and its liners played.  Unlike many of the audience, I didn’t know the band but really enjoyed their music which built from a relatively stripped-back start to a seriously rocking finish.  The orchestral accompaniment – unique to this one gig – gave their music a sense of scale and grandeur quite different from that granted by mere amplification.  As well as their own music, the set also included settings of locally relevant hymns and folk tunes.  All of this gave the gig I wonderfully site-specific feel – it literally couldn’t have taken place anywhere else.  By the time the bass player returned to the stage for the encore, wrapped in an enormous white sousaphone playing the opening bars of When the Saints Come Marching In, the whole audience was on its feet and joining in.  I was reminded of the opening celebration of Studio 144 (which includes NST City) when one felt that a significant chunk of the city was coming together in celebration of the city and what a great place it can be.  Chatting and eavesdropping in the bar after the concert, I certainly had the impression that everyone had a really good time and I over-heard several suggestions that this should be an annual event: a sentiment with which I would heartily agree!

I’d arrived at the gig at 19:30 just as it started to rain and the sky was first riven by lightning.  I started to think about leaving at 23:00, at which stage it was still hammering down with rain and the city was illuminated by almost continuous lightning.  According to the lad manning the front desk it had been doing this the whole time, which I could believe given that Above Bar Street was less street and more surging river by this stage.  This did cause the romantic in me to imagine we audience members as the circle of the light defending something precious as the massed forces of the dark assailed our last redoubt: or that might be because I’m currently re-reading the Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper.    Luckily, the assault finally weakened around 23:30 and I could walk home in the relative dry, leading to me believe the Old Ones were victorious on this occasion!

NST City has its next gig on 11 May: I can’t imagine this can quite reach the emotional intensity of its first but I have high hopes for it and shall be there.  Hopefully, I will not need any of the four things of power crafted for the light – though I do rather fancy a trip to Cadair Idris and could fetch the “tomb of every hope” while I’m there…

Super marine city

Where else could the title reference but my adopted home, and that of Supermarine in days of yore, Southampton.  The city has been overflowing with cultural delights this week just gone – even I have only been able to capture a taste of the events which I shall ‘review’ in my inimitable (because, frankly, who would want to imitate it?) style.

Thursday was press night for the first production in the brand new NST City theatre and I was invited.  Not, as you can readily imagine, as a result of the press credentials granted by dint of writing this blog but as a friend of the NST.  I’ve chucked a few quid their way over the years (and bought a lot of tickets and warmed a lot of seats with my buttocks) but have also become friends with several of the people who work there.  As a result, it was quite a nerve-wracking evening as the brand new building and brand new play really had to shine to the full house of the great and good (and, in my case, the bad and the ugly).

The evening started with drinks – always critical for we members of the fourth estate – in the bar.  For me this was an excellent start as I knew the jazz trio playing and bumped into friends from many aspects of my life in Southampton – which does leave a chap wondering if they should be permitted to compare notes?  We then all filed – only slightly sloshed on fizz – to the auditorium for the play: in my case, just behind David Suchet.  I am holding this fact responsible for the somewhat surreal, Poirot-based dreams I had later that night (nothing to do with any alcoholic beverages I may have subsequently consumed).

The play, the Shadow Factory by Howard Brenton, tells a story I hadn’t known of how, after the Supermarine factory in Woolston was bombed in early Autumn 1940, buildings right across the city were requisitioned to be used for Spitfire construction.  This complex of buildings were known as the Shadow Factory: what a brilliant piece of naming, I can’t believe an urban fantasy novel hasn’t used it!  This episode was critical to the Battle of Britain but is hardly known.  Indeed, I happened to find myself in the Imperial War Museum yesterday and couldn’t find a single book about the Second World War which mentioned it – it was hard enough to find mention of Southampton, despite its importance as a port, production site for fighter aircraft and how heavily it was bombed.

The play was absolutely brilliant and totally rooted in Southampton.  It is gloriously funny at times with many of the jokes hinging on local knowledge: I have never been to a theatrical production with such a feeling of the place in which it is being performed before.  It also presents a far more nuanced picture of people’s response to the war and the impact on the home front of the need of the government and military to prosecute the war than is almost ever heard.  I’d had no idea that people moved to camp on the Common, rather than face continued air-raids, or thought about the impact of the general populace when their homes and businesses were taken for the war effort.  The play had a professional cost of seven (I think, sorry if I’ve missed someone) and a community chorus of twenty-five locals who play an important series of roles.  They are the people of Southampton (on stage as well as IRL), staff in Whitehall and Fighter Command and in sung numbers give an outlet to the emotions of the populace without the need for clunky exposition.  I’ve never seen this done before, but it was really effective.  The chorus were also an important element of making the play personal for me as I knew two of the lads, who carried the 40s look rather well: perhaps it is due a comeback…

The new theatre also deployed some amazing technology with plans of the city and Whitehall, landscape, blueprints, rooms and carpet being projected onto the stage in lieu of set: it was really effective seeing a bomber’s eye view of the city with the shadow factory sites marked.  This play also marked the first use in a UK theatre of nano-winches – NST are nothing if not ambitious – rows of which, in groups of three, held coloured lighting strips which sketched out buildings in light, but also represented bombers swooping and squadrons of Spitfires taking of in defense.  At one point, they even demonstrated the basic aerodynamic principles of flight.  It was beautiful and really well integrated into the play, but I could also see it would be amazing for kinetic artworks made of light.

Everything went like a charm and, so far as I could tell, a good time was had by all: certainly, the play has garnered good reviews in the national press.  One of the highlights for me was seeing Mac, someone I know as we both drink in the Guide Dog, at the press night: he is roughly 95 and was a Spitfire pilot.  This is a link to WW2 which we won’t have for much longer and it was good to see it recognised

Friday night then marked the official opening of Studio 144: the pair of two new buildings which house NST City (North) and the John Hansard Gallery and City Eye (South).  These new cultural spaces have been a long time coming, the councillor currently responsible for culture noted that she was 12 when the project started.  Southampton City Council may not have necessarily moved quickly (but I’m probably on dodgy ground given my tendency to allow projects to lie fallow for a couple of decades), but across multiple administrations and financial crises they did stick with their plans for a cultural quarter for which they deserve credit.  The buildings seem really well designed and it was lovely to see both of them full of people on Friday – indeed, to see people queuing to get in!  Whilst I’d seen the North building before (the night before, for a start) it was my first time seeing inside the new John Hansard Gallery.  I particularly loved some de-saturated grey-scale prints of small details of the building while it was being constructed: as with a lot of art, they found something extraordinary in the mundane that one normally wouldn’t give a second glance.

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Transformer: of the city’s cultural scene!

The ceremony climaxed in a huge dance number performed by children (some in parent’s arms) and young people from across the city under the aegis of Zoielogic.  This was seriously good and unexpectedly acrobatic, particularly as they’d only had a day or two to practice as a full ensemble on-site.  There was a huge crowd in Guildhall Square to watch the dancing and see the new buildings lit-up initially with floodlights and later, as the dance reached its finale, by fireworks launched from the roof of NST City.  There was the strongest sense of a community coming together that I have ever felt in Southampton (and possibly anywhere) and I found myself becoming quite emotional.

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Friendly bombs light up the sky!

I followed all this culture with a music gig at the Talking Heads.  I felt it was important on this day celebrating new cultural facilities and multi-million pound investments to spend time in the deeper, long-standing cultural roots of the city.  Fewer speeches and no sign of the national press, but three stunning local bands playing acoustic sets – Reawaken, A Formal Horse and Our Propaganda – in one of the city’s vital grassroots venues.  In the case of Our Propaganda, it was the first (but I trust not the last) time translating their electric rock vibe to the acoustic stage.

Saturday I spent in London of which more in another post, but rest assured that there was a Southampton connection.  Today, I wandered into the city’s shopping centre – not to shop (though I did snag some reduced celery) – but for yet more culture.  The centre was hosting events to mark the recent start of the Chinese New Year – the Year of the Earth Dog – and I’m ashamed to admit it was the first time I have ever been to such an event.  It was a glorious mix of the UK and China, with hints of the village fete in the speeches and prizegiving but also dragon dancing and martial arts demonstrations.  It may only have been a two-man dragon, but it was very impressive combining dance, puppetry, acrobatics and drumming in ways I’ve never seen before.  I was also rather taken with the Chinese dragon itself with its demurely fluttering eyelashes and taste for cabbage.

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Any geopolitical symbolism is purely accidental…

The next couple of night’s will be gig free as I’m away for work in a cultural Atacama (not everywhere is as lucky as Southampton), but I suspect after the last four days of overload I could probably use the break!

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.

The Jazz (w)Age

For me, in many ways, last weekend both started and ended with sax.  That is not a typo, I was fully intending to reference Adolphe Sax’s invention for use in military bands as my weekend was bracketed by jazz gigs.  While thinking of M. Sax, I find myself wondering whatever happened to the ophicleide?  I feel it is time for it to make a comeback!

This seemed a good opportunity to fritter away some words on the subject of jazz (and me, obvs) as this marks the first anniversary of my regular going to jazz gigs.  Before January last year, I had occasionally been to jazz gigs both in London when I first lived there in the early 90s and at the Preservation Jazz Hall in New Orleans when I briefly visited that city back in 1990: an encounter which brought an end to my exploration of the Vieux Carré as I lost the desire to move on (I also had a frozen daiquiri, which may have contributed).  However, since that time I had largely ignored – and at times actively avoided – jazz.

An attempt to diversify my musical experience had tempted me to a few Nordic jazz gigs at Turner Sims in 2016.  However, it was on the evening of a dismal Sunday in January 2017 (not unlike today) that I decided I fancied some live music.  A quick search revealed that the Southampton Modern Jazz Club (SMJC) had a free entry gig on at the Talking Heads and as it was both close and free, I figured “what’s the worst that can happen?”.  As Dr Pepper (a self-claimed title rather than a formal qualification, I think) has been trying to warn me in a series of harrowing public information films since the late 2000s, there can be serious consequences from apparently harmless, trivial even, choices.

Since that fateful day, I have (on average) consumed more than one jazz gig a week and I have even indulged my filthy habit while away from home in both Cambridge and Edinburgh.  Indeed, I visited Edinburgh with the express purpose of attending its Jazz and Blues Festival.  It has gone even further and I have started indulging in jazz chords at home, using my piano and only my lack of skill has spared the guitar and clarinet.

At the start of last weekend, I went to see Binker and Moses (and friends) at Turner Sims.  After a while, I was able to stop speculating as to whether Binker’s mother was a big fan of the poetry of A A Milne (does he have a sibling roughly six years his senior?) and really enjoy the music.  I was sufficiently close to the stage and at a suitable angle to see some of how the sax is played and it looks tractable at some level as it seems to share basic fingering with one of the descant or treble recorders (both of which I played back in the 70s).  This gig also highlighted what a great jazz instrument the tabla is (are?).

At the weekend’s close on Sunday night, the SMJC gig was billed as Ted Carrasco and Friends, though as it transpired it was very much Gilad Atzmon‘s show.  As so often with the SMJC, it was a truly incredible gig with some amazing jazz music and Gilad’s entertaining patter between.  On more than one occasion, he paid two saxes at the same time – which smacks of showing off!  Young Marius Neset is going to have to bring his A game when I see him in a couple of weeks in London: though, I’m quietly confident he is up to the challenge…

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Double the fun!  Two reeds and no sign of Victoria Coren-Mitchell!

The very high standard of (often international) jazz musicians which Southampton manages to attract is a source of constant amazement to me.  Turner Sims stages formal gigs with tickets priced at around £20 and can seat a few hundred punters and has support from the Arts Council (among others).  The SMJC on the other hand relies on donations from at most a 30 or 40 attendees to pay the artists with bar receipts paying for the space and (perhaps) topping up the donations.

I will admit that I am scarred by my time as the treasurer of a musical festival in Cambridge and still count empty seats at paid gigs and worry about how the economics of the event are stacking-up.  My experience of gigs funded by donation was that the contribution averages £2-£3 which, given the modest size of the Maple Leaf Lounge, wouldn’t cover petrol money let alone a fee for the musicians. The creative world does seem to be afflicted by those who believe that exposure has a much higher value than can conceivably be justified.  I think the level of over-valuation can perhaps be illustrated by how rarely one sees an accountant, lawyer or CEO working solely for the exposure.

I hope that Southampton jazz patrons are more generous than classical music aficionados in Cambridge and I always try and pay as I would for a normal gig at the Heads (and often buy a CD – yes, I am very old).  Ted is the force behind the SMJC and I must assume that he must be very persuasive – or has a very impressive collection of blackmail material.  He is not from around these parts – or spent way too much time in front of US TV at a formative time – but he adds immeasurably to the richness of Southampton music by staging such great gigs every week of the year.  He is one of several folk this city would do well to appreciate and support.

During the week, I was in Belfast and looking for something to do on Wednesday evening.  The city has almost three times the population of Southampton (based on official stats), but it is often a struggle to find a gig to attend.  This may reflect my lack of knowledge of the local scene, but I compile a local Gig Guide, which graces this blog, using the same tricks with which I research Belfast.  The guide shows that most nights Southampton can offer multiple gigs within walking distance of my home.  There is rarely nothing to do, more often than not there are far too many options: some nights we are into double figures (more if you go deeper into the suburbs).  I’m not sure that the city recognises its great good fortune and I’m sure it makes far too little of its riches when selling itself to the wider world.

So, if any readers find themselves at a loose end in Southampton on a Sunday night – and feel they will be able to cope with an escalating jazz habit – they should hie themselves to the Talking Heads and support the SMJC!

Mumm’s the word

My life since moving to Southampton a little more than 4 years ago has moved, and continues to lurch, in unexpected directions.  I would like to claim that this is not my doing and that it has just “happened” but, in my more honest moments (catch them while you can), I might admit that I have at least (unintentionally) facilitated some of the change.  Much blame may adhere to my willingness to talk to people and (far worse) occasionally listen to them as well.  Further fault may lie with my use of “going out” as a defence against the acquisition of more physical “stuff” which I do not have the room to store.

I shall use my day to illustrate the curious nature of my life, lest any readers be tempted to follow in my footsteps.  The snow may indeed there lay dinted, subject to its availability (I struggle to dint the rain, deep and damp and even though it may lie), but my goodness is debatable (at best) and I lack crown or eponymous square in Prague (I’m sure these last two are mere oversights and will shortly be brought to a satisfactory resolution).

I woke – always a plus at my age – and having hawked up the worst of the fluid to have collected in my lungs overnight (I’m a martyr to cattarh at the moment) dressed, performed my ablutions and tidied away the laundry.  So far, so mundane I think we can agree.  I then put in a solid stint practicing at the piano and like to feel some progress was made.  Adding in the trills to my Scarlatti did have the useful effect of forcing me to assume the correct fingering at several points: it’s also a lot of fun to trill.

I then went off to have brunch with a friend at Mettricks Guildhall.  Yes, I have become someone who brunches: something I never saw coming, as while I have often inserted meals in the long stretch between breakfast and lunch I have always done so somewhat surreptitiously and left them unnamed.  However, this has become a roughly monthly Sunday ritual which is great fun – who could complain at the felicitous conjunction of good conversation and good food?  Given the nature of the vegetarian options on the menu, I generally find myself enjoying avocado toast which also offers the vague chance of being mistaken for a millennial (albeit one with a long paper round).  The concept of the millennial seems a flexible one, but including me within it would move beyond flexibility into bursting.  However, I may be having some success as in the last couple of weeks I have been described as both forty and a handsome young man.  As a result, I am expecting to be appointed as ambassador plenipotentiary for SpecSavers at any moment.

Usually, I follow my millennial toast (grilled bread is all to ready to see an imminent apocalypse) with some cake but today Mettricks was woefully short of cake, so I returned to an old habit and had a toasted teacake.  This used to be my cafe staple and after today, I believe abandonment of the earthy virtues of the teacake for the flight charms of cake may have been a mistake.  My teacake my have been bifurcated inexpertly (or at least asymmetrically) but it was buttery deliciousness incarnate.  The teacake revival starts here! (Though, I shall not be giving up cake – merely augmenting its consumption with yeasty treats).

From brunch I flew – or at least walked briskly – to St Michael’s Square to a Mummer’s Play.  This was an enormous amount of fun with modern references blending seamlessly into ancient tradition.  A decent crowd could almost forget the biting wind as St George, Father Christmas, Jack Finney(?) and all played out scenes of battle, death and resurrection and the ability of folk of good spirit to put Beelzebub and his dripping pan to flight.  In fact, the devil was not the only thing put to flight – a new £5 note was tugged free of the dripping pan and danced around the square in the gusting wind – watched by all (who needs fireworks?).  At one point, it looked to be seeking sanctuary in the church but at the last minute the age-old enmity twixt God and Mammon saw it leap salmon-like back up into the air.  It was finally caught with extraordinary (one might say cat-like!) grace by a friend of mine to cheers from the assembled throng: it seemed somehow to bode well for the year to come!

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The crowd tries not to see a stricken St George in need of urgent medical attention as a metaphor!

It is a tradition of the Mummer’s to retire to the Old Red Lion pub in the High Street after their labours and it seemed churlish not to join them.  I had never visited this particular hostelry before, though I have now learned it is the oldest pub in the city.  It is a very Southampton historic building in that (a) you would never know it was there (I must have walked past it dozens of time) and (b) whilst it has an amazingly historic interior this is counter-balanced by a giant screen showing Sky Sports obscucing a goodly chunk of it.  If one ascends the stairs to the gallery area, one can peep behind the screen to see a full suit of armour ‘displayed’ for almost none to see.  This seems a metaphor for Southampton and its cultural jewels – of which it has a myriad – in that unlike, other brahser cities, we do not boast about them but instead often do our best to hide them.  The city gives up its cultural bounty reluctantly and only to the determined.

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Hidden heritage, crouching armour (not shown, the reader must discover it for themselves)!

Having toasted my discovery with a little ale, I returned home to attempt to move my corporate email over to its new server.  This should be simple enough: export the old emails from Outlook, connect to the new server and import the old emails.  A doodle one might think, well one might think that if one had spent the last 50 years in a coma and had never experienced the work of Microsoft and its ilk.  I exported my old emails, all 2GB worth: fine.  I changed server: fine.  I imported my old emails: not so fine.   When I attempt to look at my old emails Outlook just says, “nothing to see here, move along” (I paraphrase).  This must count as the last efficient storage of nothing in the history of computing, using 2GB to store the sweetest of Fanny Adams!  It is as well I am not possessed of god-like powers, or the entire western seaboard of North America would have been destroyed in an expression of my divine wrath that would make the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah look like a walk in the park (nothing mentioned in the news, so far)….  Still, I have two half-solutions which might eventually form a whole – and can now view long millennia in Purgatory as a well-deserved rest.

I am shortly off to enjoy some keyboard-based jazz, which should bring my blood pressure back to the sort of levels which preclude diamond formation, and so shall bid you, dear reader, adieu!