Monday, July 30, 2012

One Man (And Woman) Show

Making an effort to get to the gig on the basis of a single song can be a gamble. Sometimes though there is good reason to be thankful for where you live, as a local gig reduces the gamble element, and sometimes it’s just one song but with a brief interview that makes it clear it’s a gamble you can’t afford not to take. This is definitely the latter.

Support act the Only Poets are already on when I get in. One electric guitar and one acoustic, sometimes one vocal and sometimes two. When it’s two voices is when it works best for my liking and for a first gig it’s a decent start.

In the remaining limited standing room only, the room fills a tiny bit fuller, the temperature goes up another couple of degrees and in the humidity of the massing crowd, guitar strings start to go out of tune. There’s a degree of anticipation in the high summer air and I’m sure I’m not the only one brought to the gig entirely due to having heard that one song being played by Radcliffe and Maconie on 6music.

Paul Zervas is James Taylor from the Mud Slide Slim album cover circa 1971, before JT started needing a hat. Kathryn Pepper is Stevie Nicks by way of Emma Atkins, long before Stevie got into the heavy self-medication. Paul sounds like the Neil Young of Pocahontas charming his way out of a fistfight with Gram Parsons. Kathryn has the warmer, fuller voice of Natalie Merchant or Trisha Yearwood taking on Emmylou Harris and just coming out on top. I've been trying to put my finger on who she most sounds like and it could be Rindy Ross. In any case, the important thing is it's a sound I really like.

Z&P start off with a couple of tunes sung to the accompaniment of Paul’s guitar, then the stage fills with five more musicians and the sound level goes up several notches, sitting somewhere in between the driving rhythms of Jackson Browne and the summery rock of The Eagles. There's ample space for a bit of slide guitar, and the electric guitar solo that fills that space comes in perfectly for six or eight bars and leaves, never over-staying its welcome.

I could keep mentioning more influences for the next half hour but for all the influences are plain to see, it would still be difficult to call it derivative.  The he sings\she sings\they sing variations keep everything moving along nicely, the repeating short loop of film projected on the screen behind them reminds the crowd, as if there should be the remotest doubt, of Z&P’s love for West Coast Americana harmony vocal folk-rock and there’s a gentle tingle of special in the air.

At times Paul looks surprised to see that many people turn out but never overwhelmed by the crowd. The dynamic between the couple is one of obvious mutual trust, something that doesn’t happen overnight, and their faith in the other musicians around them looks well placed – again for a first gig in a full band format it’s a hugely promising start.

For an hour or so, the impending rain outside and the too many signs advertising those big sporting events, you know the ones, all disappear and we are on a beach in California or we are on a road trip out into Joshua Tree (nothing to do with tax-avoiding, perma-hatted, er, that lot). Or as in the encore that follows the preview showing of the new video, we are coming into Los Angeles, bringing in a couple of keys. But never off-key.

Why should you listen to Zervas and Pepper? I've got the album and the purple ep on heavy rotation right now, but you can just give this fresh new video a go and see for yourself.

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Saturday, May 19, 2012

Twenty Years And We're Still Together

Well, not quite twenty years, as it turns out this gig takes place a mere 7,281 days since I first saw The Frank And Walters, or 19.93 years if you want it that way. Sadly I haven't seen them as many times in between as I might like, but it's no real surprise that with their New York sojourn and the inevitable demands of putting food on the table our paths haven't crossed so frequently.

Support band Drawings For Paris (yes, another one of those names) ply a gentle trade in mature guitar-led pop with a moderately epic feel - they remind me of Salvation and that's never a bad thing in my book. Half a dozen tracks are downloadable from their website, and I'm especially fond of Here She Comes Again from their, er, "Salvation" ep!"
Moving on to the headliners, their story tells us something of where we've all been in the meantime. My first copy of Trains, Boats and Planes was on vinyl but I've moved on to CD versions of that and everything since, and the couple of weeks delay between the latest album Greenwich Mean Time becoming available in a digital format and the CDs being in their hands so they could stick them in the post even had me on the verge of reluctantly joining the modern world and buying the tracks in a digital format,daddio. And all the same, the album booklet being available for download in pdf format meant I could check out the lyrics to songs available as singles or in session versions before the CD itself popped into my eager, sweaty mitts.

This endless changing of the seasons is also heavily evident in the themes of this album, with artwork based around the elements of the clockwork mechanism and songs with titles like Twenty Years, The Clock and Trust In The Future all making that point clear.

Band stalwarts Paul Linehan and Ashley Keating are joined only by fresh-faced guitarist Rory Murphy, keyboardist Cian Corbett being unavailable for the evening. Trimmed down to a trio, old songs and new bounce along, energetically buoyed up on the ineffable humour that runs between Linehan and Keating like lightning runs down a conductor cable. When your drummer has a vocal mike almost exclusively so he can backchat his singer, it's a sign your band exists in a separate plane of its own internal dynamic.

Rory's broken guitar string leads into an improvised bout of Linehanisms, just as Paul's bass guitar strap coming loose towards the end of the set results in him completing most of This Is Not a Song supporting the weight of his bass on his knee despite the poor efforts at "helping" him by draping the strap over the strings on the fretboard.

This pretty much sums up the Frank and Walters - whatever happens, they just carry on, filling the world with beautiful, thoughtful sounds and apparently unaffected by changing fashions and sounding as good as they've ever done.

Twenty years and we're doing fine.

Twenty Years is track 11 on Greenwich Mean Time - buy it here.

setlist in full
Tony Cochrane
Trust In The Future
* broken guitar string debacle
Fashion Crisis Hits New York
Loneliness And Sweet Romance
Plenty Times
Little Dolls
That's Life
Indie Love Song
The Model
The Parson
After All
This Is Not A Song

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B I D Spells Bid

Once upon a time there was Janice Long and then John Peel on Radio1 in the evenings. This period pretty much pre-dates me listening to music in any meaningful way, having records of my own or having the slightest inkling that going to see bands in a live environment would be possible, never mind a commonplace part of my life.

Somewhere in the middle of all that stuff was plenty that I didn't really understand - well, it didn't have the same singalong immediacy as Neil Sedaka and all the other stuff Sir Jim'll was playing on Sounds of the Sixties which was the weekly musical input to my young life - but even though I was never a regular listener, Peel and Long (and Nightingale) brought me names that would stick in my mind.

Names and the odd tune, Annie repeatedly offering Napoleon XIV's They're Coming To Take Me Away and Barnes and Barnes' Fishheads on the sunday night request show, Camper van Beethoven's Take The Skinheads Bowling and the likes of Half Man Half Biscuit and Bogshed sneaked their way through into my consciousness. One of Peel and Long, I assume, also brought me This Island Earth's See That Glow and Jacobs Ladder by The Monochrome Set.

Fast forward a couple of lifetimes and I'm looking through a local venue's website for confirmation (and ticket price) of a show by one of my favourite bands and who should pop up out of nowhere? Apart from the 'we're climbing Jacob's ladder' line from the chorus I can recall nothing else beyond that I remembered that I liked it but nevertheless that residual memory was enough. True, I picked up a copy of Eligible Bachelors somewhere along the way, for 99p in the Virgin Smegmastore closing down sale, I think, but I hadn't even looked up Jacob's Ladder on youtube till the evening of the gig just before leaving the house.

So who on earth is going to go and see The Monochrome Set in 2012? At 8.30, there were four or five of us in the upstairs gig room but by showtime at 9.00 something like 60 people had crammed into the room, not bad on a wednesday night for a band who haven't exactly shared the ubiquity of Adele in recent times. There's a handful of diehard fans and a healthy swathe of the relatively youthful curious.

As for me, I thought they were great and I had a really good evening. There's a fair amount of Monochrome Set on youtube and I've looked at plenty of it since the gig. And I heartily recommend it if you want some slightly off-kilter pop music chook full of melodic and lyrical hooks.

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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Blimey, this whole condensedgoogleeverything is a pain in the arse.

Oi, data aggregators, wind your bleedin' necks in.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

A Gig Very Much Of Two Halves

Going to see someone largely on the basis of one song you love is always an interesting proposition. Paul Kelly's "Every Fucking City" is one such song, even if I have an album from around that period and I saw him the thick end of a decade ago too. I've been sat on this ticket for over three months, and given that the one previous sighting was in a park with tens of thousands of people, a night in a local club playing to tens of people looks a slightly different kind of spectacle.

Emily Barker is the second support - I missed the first due to momentary difficulties reconciling a building I last went in when it was an Italian restaurant with a venue that doesn't push the boat out when it comes to self-labelling or signwriting. It takes something special for someone to open with a song which includes enough fading vocal moments to suggests the song is coming to an end and then building it all up again despite the plausible unfamiliarity of the crowd with the turn. Emily's voice has the clarity of Kate Wolf, and alternately sounds like Julianne Regan singing Dolly Parton and someone impossible to compare to anyone else. It's fair to say I'm impressed.

Two acoustic songs in, one of which I'm very familiar with, and nephew Dan Kelly steps up to add some electric guitar over Paul's acoustic. What should be an awkward mix of electric and acoustic sounds turns out magnificently as Dan sprinkles shimmering flurries of notes over Midnight Rain, mimicking the album tones and never succumbing to the temptation to rock out except when the song requires. There's a healthy family vibe on the stage, and a crowd lapping up Paul's occasional stories and additional explanatory notes about where certain songs come from.

And the songs are often story songs, Mick Thomas or Richard Thompson universal humanity story songs where the detail never clutters the picture but puts the emotions in a concrete context, with a side order of humour and pathos. It's a beautiful introduction to some songs that might be with me for some time.

And then it happens. Gigs where acoustic artists don't blow the speakers with feedback and volume for its own sake are not infrequently blighted by people who'd rather make their own noise than listen to what's coming from the people everyone else wants to listen to. But this one is extra special.

The general vibe shifts as people move away from our shouty friend, and nobody looks impressed. Then the repeated 'I love you Paul' shouts turn into a move towards the middle of the crowd, quickly followed by him telling someone to fuck off. I'm not afraid of a bit of language, I love 'Every Fucking City' after all, but things begin to look as ugly as our shouty friend, and he carries on in much the same vein.

And then it really happens, as the frustration gets to someone else who dumps most of a pint down the neck of you-know-who. There's a bit of shouting, he pushes her and half a dozen people step forward and eventually he calms down enough to walk off, but not before making threats that 'I'll see you outside and stab you in the throat' and declaring 'I'm Australian, who the fuck are you?' as if shared passports with the turn entitles him to act the clown with impunity. I don't know whether this is an export version of the Bogan kind or just an evening ruined by some tool who lacks the self-awareness to understand that his floor show isn't what everyone else came for. Either way, I'm biting my tongue, because I've talked myself around the edge of trouble enough times before without trying too hard and I don't really want to start anything else with this drunken shouty oaf - it's one of the risks of getting involved with arguing with idiots that you get brought down to their level and the casual onlooker can't tell which is which.

Paul Kelly was tremendous, the expat clown who feels so attached to his genius is rather less so, so take this as a warning and hope that it's only Paul, Dan and co that turn up in your town and that this imbecile is somewhere further down the road.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

It Won't Be Long 'Til Summer Comes

Yeah, it's been a while.

Caught between being busy with the stuff of life and seeing people I'm highly familiar with, there's been a bit too much doing going on and therefore a bit less writing about it, but better that way round.

A mere seven weeks since my last gig, I'm expecting to buy a ticket on the door but greeted by ticket office staff ensuring I'm only collecting a prepaid ticket before referring me to a guy with a couple of spares to shift. Outbreaks of humanity in the ticket office are to be recognised and applauded!

Handing over a trifle under face value, there's a search for a seat somewhere I'd no particular plan to be. So I'm up in the roof, with only two rows behind me. Proper up in the roof, at the level of the lighting frame, the one bolted to the ceiling that the lighting rig itself hangs off. At something like seventy foot above the stage, it's a view I don't often have.

I didn't get there in time for the first support, but I'm in my seat to sit through Clutch. Imagine Reef doing Helter Skelter if Gary Stringer's dad was Brian Blessed and you're pretty much there. Nice chunky bluesy guitar sound, but the most exciting bit is when someone taps me on the shoulder to wake me up when he could have just walked past me; there's a lot more legroom up there to accommodate the rake of the balcony sections.

With John Sykes busy with the perming solution, Scott Gorham has hauled in Brian Downey and Darren Wharton, a prospect that clinches my decision to go. Dare were a great band, but it's Downey that legitimises this line up for me. No, it's not Thin Lizzy, whatever it says on the ticket, but it's the most authentic tribute act I'm ever going to see.

The Almighty are a band of my generation, one I never quite got on with over a number of gigs over the years. Ricky Warwick's solo act I enjoyed rather more, and his stepping into Lynott's shoes works better than might be expected. Downey's easy shuffle drumming is bulked out by Marco Mendoza's robust bass-playing, and the unexpected highlight is Damon Johnson's guitar work.

Starting off on the big white guitar he sounded a little bit off, but once he switched to something closer to the to the classically styled Les Paul it sounded a lot more right. Still not sure why Gorham wasn't doing more of the solo work - allowing the younger man the spotlight or having some kind of trouble or somewhere in between, it's unclear, but in any case Scott still nails the diddle-iddle-iddle-iddle-iddle-iddle-iddle-diddle solo in Waiting For An Alibi.

So, I can now include Brian Downey in musicians I never thought I'd get to see, and for that alone it was worth it. And yes, I probably will track down the re-re-remastered versions of the albums which have been available in the last couple of years but am I rushing out to get a ticket for the next clutch of dates? Not right now, no.

Are You Ready
Bad Reputation
Don't Believe A Word
Killer On The Loose
Dancing In The Moonlight
Angel Of Death
Still In Love With You - Wharton\Warwick mixed vocals
guitar solo into
Whisky In the Jar
Sha La La
drum solo into
Waiting For An Alibi
Cowboy Song
The Boys Are Back In Town
Roisin Dubh (Black Rose)

Friday, October 28, 2011

Bigger Brighter Better

From one night to the next, it's another act that's been around since quite some time ago, albeit on this occasion playing live with a full band for the first time in many years. Changes to the road layout around the venue make for more difficulty than usual to get the car parked somewhere, but I'm still inside for long enough to have got bored of how full the place is before the support set starts.

James Walbourne plays acoustic blues-folk-rock-pop, with some nice guitar solos and without the anodyne, soporific features of the Jack Johnsons of this world. His brother's supporting guitar and backing/harmony vocal work definitely helps and it's clear this is someone who's been on enough stages to have paid his touring dues. Man.

If I had a criticism, it would only be that the sheer variety of musical styling leads to a slight make-your-mind-up vibe, but I was still considering whether to buy the album as the set finished which means something about the impression made.

Now, there is no need to make any impression for the main act. Six years and one day previously I'd seen an acoustic set of solo material by Roddy Frame. A couple of years ago he did a handful of songs at the first Shared show in Birmingham but this time it's a set long on Aztec Camera material, and it's brilliant. There's something wrong with you if you can't share the inescapable pop joy of Oblivious, or the simple humanity of How Men Are - leaving some of the lines for the crowd to sing, Roddy comments how much he loves hearing blokes sing 'why should it take/the tears of a woman/to see how men are' to general amusement.

There's something a little newer in there too, White Pony is nice enough, but its' the older and older mobile hits jukebox that people seem to prefer. And how can I possibly criticise that? Somewhere in my heart there is a star that shines for bigger brighter better pop music. And then it's back out to the car for the less welcome return to reality and idiots on the car radio lauding the anticipated return of one not very good trick ponies the Stone Roses. If ever you needed an example of why the world needs the uplifting choruses of a Roddy Frame, that'll more than do!

The Crying Scene
Reason For Living
Back To The One
The North Star
Day Of Reckoning
Killermont Street
We Could Send Letters
White Pony
Bigger Brighter Better
Forty Days Of Rain
Walk Out To Winter
Pillar To Post
Hymn To Grace
How Men Are
Down The Dip
Birth Of The True
Somewhere In My Heart

Sing Us A Song That We Know To Be True

There's only so many ways you can have a go at 'I've seen this band I like a few times and now I've seen them once again and I still like them' before even writing it gets boring, so it's good when something reshapes that position ever so slightly. In a brief fit of extravagance I'd bought a few tickets and then had a couple of other gigs come up around the same time and suddenly I'm a bit busy.

With other stuff being fitted in around making it to the gig, at least the electronic communications possibilities of the modern world make it simple to catch up with expected stage times and avoid rushing only to sit around waiting for hours. In an uninteresting coincidence it's seventeen years to the day I first visited this venue, and though a couple of rooms have gone through slight changes of name over that time, and it turns out it's also the single venue I've visited the most (among two hundred and odd).

Something different to challenge my tastes is never a bad thing, and support act Louise Distras provides plenty to challenge me. Just her voice and a guitar make for a powerful combination, but sometimes the power gets in the way of the song; there's no denying the passion but when the voice goes beyond the mighty rasp of Bonnie Tyler at her most momentarily foghornish into a slightly unfocused roar it produces something that I'm not going to buy so I can sing along with it on my own. There's nothing wrong with what she's got to say for herself, it's just my middle-aged ears would prefer a slightly different delivery!

New Model Army fit into a category something like 'bands I know I like but don't rush to buy every single album on release day', and the last time I saw them it was a trifle unsatisfactory, largely due to that particular venue I gather. This is a short flurry of only five gigs, and that alone makes it rather more of a special occasion than just another show in a long tour.

There are songs from the last couple of albums that I don't have, naturally, but there's more than enough familiar material to keep me engaged between the people on the shoulders of the people on the shoulders formation acrobatics displays.

Purity sounds immense, and the encore starting with Get Me out and finally ending with No Rest threatens to take the roof off the place. Today was a good day.

Setlist in full:
No Greater Love
Christian Militia
Rumour & Rapture
See You in Hell
Today Is a Good Day
The Attack
States Radio
Orange Tree Roads
Ballad of Bodmin Pill
Get Me Out
No Rest

'Sing Us A Song That We Know To Be True' is a line from Purity.

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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Alpe d’Huez For Idiots - More Fool On The Hill Than Man On the Silver Mountain

I belong to what Ned Boulting would recognise as the generation of British cycling fans who think UK television Tour De France coverage belongs on Channel4 , and for me Alpe d’Huez starts with Parra and Herrera, with Rooks and Theunisse. I even tried to make it there in the mid-90s while I was working in the region, purely to be able to see it and drive it, but just ran out of time on the day and had to turn back.

So when one of the people I was about to go on holiday with had it suggested by someone else that the Alpe was not just a possible thing but a must-do, I was delighted to get the email asking if anyone else fancied doing it. With just two weeks notice, any sort of meaningful training was out of the question and I hate climbing anyway, but I did go home from work the hilly way one day, climbing an extra 100m of altitude over the course of about a mile. That’ll be a great help, no worries, almost as much as having been camped at about 1000m of altitude for the week before.

Reasoning that an early start was a very good idea, breakfast before 7am meant we were parked in Bourg d’Oisans before 9, and started rolling up to the foot of the big hill almost on the stroke of 9. Even then there were cyclists on their way down – I can’t imagine why they’d have started that early, if indeed they had already ridden up that morning.

My full of training mate raced after some guy just in front of us, and I was rapidly left on my own, happy to settle into my own rhythm and take my time rather than get involved in some sort of race. My only concern was whether I could actually make it.

Turn 21, and the first sign announcing previous winners of the stage and a road full of paint markings, me and my thoughts and somewhere a kilometre above me was a notional finishing line that I might possibly see at some time rather later. The next couple of turns came in fairly quick succession, and as the clouds started to clear above, the towering nature of the landscape became apparent. A couple of bends further on provides a vantage point to see the road zigging and zagging back and forth across the hillside, just as my bike would later zigzag across the road, only in smaller (and ever more tired) legs.

After the odd numbered turns, the right lane drive meant that I could look down the road just below me and watch for who was catching me up as brief distraction from the shorter radius turn I was making. I watched one or two approaching and tried to guess the point at which they would inevitably pass me with a cheery ‘bonjour!’. We all know the game, show no signs of weakness as you pass with effortless grace, and then soar off into the distance. It’s par for the course when you’re passed by some gnarled road veteran with legs like seasoned oak and knotted cords for tendons, but being passed by what appears to be a twelve year old feels slightly less natural and comfortable for some reason.

On the even numbered turns, bearing back round to my left meant I could hug the very outside of the bend and enjoy the brief respite in the gradient levelling off a fraction, remembering to read the names on the signs and marshalling vague recollections of the rider(s) and rides in question. Every now and then I allowed myself to look right up, and see what I could see; it wasn’t pretty viewing.

The riders’ names painted on the road were already fading, in parts already gone even though the Tour riders had been on that same road only a week before. I smiled at every mention of both Thomases, Geraint and Voeckler, I mostly kept my counsel on Contador and the Schlecks and approved heartily of the Indurainish relentlessness with which Cadel Evans had finally claimed his yellow jersey in Paris.

And in the village of Huez (not to be confused with…) I was momentarily pleased to see the sign before registering what ‘Alpe d’Huez 10km’ really meant. Huez itself is on one of the longer legs between bends, and for the first time I started believing that making the top without stopping might just be possible. There were people there in GB triathlon club branded shirts, cheering on a mate of theirs, and we exchanged friendly words a few times as they drove on past us and stopped, then did the same again. Their mate was the last one of those that passed me, close to the top, and it was definitely a reassuringly early start that meant the number that passed me was only five. In turn I only passed three, numbers that would increase greatly for anyone starting the ride later in the day.

Getting into the single digit bends, the first glimpses of the village were revealed as the sun came out and the legs between bends seemed to be shorter and less steep, as if to encourage standing on the pedals in a final flourish of speed but there’s a definite catch. And as with any place of interest, there’s someone out to make a quid – the photographer on turn 5 being polite enough as I refused the business card to buy a ropey picture of myself suffering from his website, and the photographer on turn 2 being close to getting the rough edge of my tongue by standing right in the flaming way at a point where I was increasingly disinclined to indulge any sort of nonsense. Everyone’s got to make a living somehow, sure, but pissing off your potential clients isn’t a great business tactic, nor is it helpful to someone in the throes of just about keeping moving forwards , to say the least.

By these last couple of turns my legs were feeling the tortoise-like pace, and a number of Voeckler-style deviations into the first couple of metres of the odd driveway and turning meant I could have another brief rest from the gradient proper. Over latter stretches, the signs turn up for the Itineraire Tour de France, counting the visitor down in single kilometres from 5km out. This is a help of sorts, but it’s also a little misleading for anyone rounding turn 1 expecting to find the finish close at hand. Turn 1 is followed by the 2km to go sign, and on a friday this means 2km which include the negotiation of the disrupted road routing by the village street market. Not the sort of confusion my mind needed to guide my struggling legs through by that stage in the proceedings.

The village, while it does go on a bit, also levels out a bit and I even briefly revisited a larger chainring before pulling round the roundabout to the final uphill drag past the road marking declaring SKODA SKODA SKODA to herald the finish line, where a cluster of people waited for their mates or simply enjoyed their legs having a brief rest. I settled for rolling around the car park, a variety of trackstands and freewheeling down the slope, the odd bit of backpedalling and some other stuff just to keep my legs moving. Whatever, it worked as I felt no real after-effects in my muscles.

The 14km of the ascent took me 102 minutes, or about three times what the pros might expect to do it in on an especially good day. My trusty 30*25 gear kept me rolling nicely enough most of the way, barring occasional misguided bursts of optimism, and for all I’d had enough by the time I got towards the top, it wasn’t that horrific an experience for as long as I was happy to keep plodding. Indeed, I rather enjoyed turns 12 to 5 which was when I really started to believe I was going to make it without stopping.

And as to the difference a spring and summer of training makes? My mate beat me by about ten minutes, that’s all, so a five mile each way daily commute on a 40*16 singlespeed and general base fitness appears to be plenty, as long as you have a low enough gear you can keep spinning without actually grinding to a halt.

After a while at the top to rest a little, to nip over to the altiport to watch the helicopters take off over the cloud inversion in the valley below us and take in all the scenic sights, and it was time to go. Due to a combination of incompetence and indifference, I was riding without a computer on the bike, and while watching it struggle to show the high points of 5mph on the way up would have been potentially disheartening, it was undoubtedly good for my health and wellbeing that I was neither distracted by the numbers nor pushing my luck trying to hit an ever higher number on the way back down.

I know I was frequently well into the 30s mph, and I don’t really know I’d trust myself not to have tried to hit whatever I was actually doing plus a few more. I waved a couple of cars by and then chased them, preferring to have them where I could see them than wait for them to gamble on an overtake that might or might not be on. I followed a couple of cyclists round a couple of bends before pulling out to get past them where I felt it was safe to do so, and I made sure I got rid of most of my speed as I went into the bends, sometimes using the full width of the hairpin where it was clear.

And even with a relatively committed approach to the descent, I still took over twenty minutes to make it to the roundabout at the bottom of the hill, passing cyclist after cyclist on their own torturous rides up towards the summit. Twenty minutes of sheer delight, unmitigated pleasure and the joy of feeling the road dropping away under the bike. If a training-free idiot with a moderate sense of adventure and a healthy appreciation of Tour de France history can not just make it up Alpe d’Huez but enjoy the experience then I reckon almost anyone can. As for riding a hundred odd miles before it though, you can keep that, but given the chance I’d ride up it again any time and not just for the joy of the descent.

I really enjoyed the ride, but I’m in awe of people who can race up it, because I’m damn sure I couldn’t.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Heaven Tonight

Just as with bus services, heavy rock leviathans may be few and far between and then several come along at once. Despite the original hopes of another recently seen band filling the support slot, there's a change of plan somewhere down the line and this is a new one on me.

Plead The Fifth come from LA and play the sort of pop-punk you'd associate with something like Green Day, but with a lead guitarist who looks like Dave Hill by way of Angus Young, a bass player who looks like a very young Tom Robinson by way of Robyn Hitchcock and a singer who seems to know what he's doing I guess they might turn out something remarkable. For me, anything in that area of sub-genre has to compete with the flawless China Drum and they hardly match them yet.

Legend is a word that has been devalued repeatedly in recent years, and yet every now and then something rolls into town that resets the bar at a level most others can only aspire to. The last time something rocked me sideways to this extent might be the first time I saw Y&T, the last time I saw The Posies or the first time I saw Europe - all of them acts of multi-decade longevity, and household names to people who know what they are talking about musicwise. And to that list I now add another band I wasn't a particular fan of and who largely for that reason managed to give me a colossally pleasant suprise of the stunning live music kind.

After the cartoon-based fun of the previous weekend, I'm amused that the intro clips tape includes Homer Simpson saying 'I'd rather listen to Cheap Trick' and then Apu repeating a couple of lines from Dream Police, and then with a voice announcing 'the best fucking band in the world', Cheap Trick take the stage.

Rick Nielsen strides on like an affable uncle who's way old enough to know better, and with his son Daxx on the drums and Tom Petersson on the bass, the line up is complete enough to start playing around the intro to Just Got Back before Robin Zander steps up to the mike just in time for his first vocal line. With the keyboard player slightly hidden, there's nevertheless a mighty depth and serious melodic weight to the live sound. For now, Nielsen is playing a mere six strings, but both zander and Petersson are playing twelve, double string rhythm guitar and treble string bass respectively.

With a glittering brocade embroidered jacket and a sheriff's star leather cap that fools nobody - and hey, my hair's going the same way - Zander looks every inch the Rock Star with a capital \M/ and with that voice it's only right. Tonight Tom Petersson is the coolest man in rock, with a smile wider than the Bristol Channel and a clear delight just at being on that stage.

It's Nielsen's show though, with a range of jerky gestures and mannerisms that kinda bring to mind Suggs' nutty boy antics with a touch more theatrical verve, he prowls and bounces around the stage, throws enough plectrums into the crowd to put local musician's supplies outlets out of business for a couple of years, oh and there's a total mastery of his ever-changing guitar too. Whether it's playing the solo with just his fretting hand or strumming along with a thumb before reaching for yet another from his mike stand of a thousand plectrums, it's pop-rock corker after hard rock smash after powerpop belter that has me bouncing around like I'm seventeen again.

There's a brief break in proceedings as the euro fan club main man gets called up on stage to say a few words, calling some woman up on the stage to join him - Nielsen 'get on your fucking knees, man' and as he goes to say his piece Zander gets involved, re-adjusting the mike stand to the appropriate height. It's not quite the loudest noise of the night as the now bride-to-be says 'yes' and has the proffered ring put on her finger, but it's close.

And then it's back to the business of rocking, caught in between a number of festival appearances across Europe this festival season, this might well turn out to be their most intimate appearance this side of the Atlantic this summer. In equal turns intimate and bombastic, tenderly touching and aggressive, and sonically perfect throughout, this is live music as it's meant to be, committed, complete, perfect.

Ordinarily, the day after the gig, that band's music disappears off my mp3 player to be replaced with the next lot. My small collection of Cheap Trick albums are all still on there.

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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Don't Stop Believin'?

With a poorly timed release of the new album at the start of a week with a bank holiday monday with the gig on the sunday, I didn't get to listen to the new album till the wednesday evening and I can't say I'd had long enough with it to know it particularly well. Nevertheless I hit the motorway at exactly the right time to hit the traffic hold-ups at the end of the weekend, and naturally hit my own late arrival tension threshold.

In the venue car park at five minutes past stage time, it took another fifteen minutes to get from the car park to somewhere near my seat, including the enjoyable experience of hearing muffled songs from the stage making it through the venue walls and then walking right out of earshot to get to the front door. Man, I so love industrial concert venues like this.

All the same, I was singing (quietly, to myself) along with Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man) halfway round the car park, and Blue Collar Man which I caught the latter half of with my own eyes. The other couple of times I've seen Styx in recent years, I've been hugely impressed, and it's nice to see my favourite little and large combination since Fletcher and Defoe in the respective forms of JY and Tommy Shaw giving it their all. Miss America rocks hard, and for Come Sail Away the distinctive silhouette of Chuck Pannozzo appears before the lights come up, though I can't possibly go anywhere near Some Sail Away without hearing Cartman's version too. There's a brief pretend departure then an 'encore' of Renegade and while mildly disappointed to have missed part of their set, I'm still pleased to be there at all, and watch them do nothing released any later than 1978!

With a fifteen minute turnaround between bands, there's a brief stroll to see what the venue's actually like - a monster cinema foyer leading towards the arena pretty much sums it up - then it's back to find my right seat, or more or less. I couldn't say I'm a huge fan of Foreigner, and yes, that's partly because opportunities to see them over the years have been limited at best. Of course I've got a copy of 4, there's the vinyl LP of Foreigner Records (the early greatest hits) and that might be it, the fact I'm not even sure tells its own tale. I'm aware that Lou Gramm's health took him out of the picture some time ago, and with his voice being such a major part of the Foreigner sound (and his fantastic Midnight Blue single, something I do know I have), there's another replacement singer in the mix.

I needn't have worried - looking for all the world like Joey AORamone, Kelly Hansen hits all the notes smoothly while giving the full range of method frontman mike stand twirling, posing and even briefly disappearing into the crowd though thankfully without Bono-at-Live-Aid type embarrassments! Again the set is something of a vintage hits job - but then who could argue with this hour?

Double Vision
Head Games
Cold As Ice
Waiting For A Girl Like You
Feels Like The First Time
I Want To Know What Love Is
Hot Blooded
Juke Box Hero

So often the gig and my experience of it is based on my relationship with the band, and some of those relationships, like any other, go through rocky patches. On the one hand, there's a part of me that would love to see them in any guise and line-up just to hear Neal Schon's guitar, and there's a part of me that feels somewhat troubled by the recent revolving lead vocalist slot. Equally I've now had the luxury of seeing Schon on guitar seven times, in three different bands and in five different line-ups and I'm pretty confident in what I can expect to see; a few pulled faces at moments of string-bending tension and little in the way of excitement, but then I love the solos in Faithfully to listen to, not because I want to see someone doing star jumps on a tightrope.

As a show, it's AORena rock by numbers and it does seem like just another gig. Four new tracks in 18 is about the right mix, Arnel's song City Of Hope suddenly makes a lot more sense with a background slideshow of his home city where I was on that day two years previously and where even with that passing familiarity I have no doubts how troubled that city is. It's one of the highlights for me in fact, to start to see Arnel in his own right - getting a new haircut helps too - instead of just the latest contestant in the ongoing Perry-oke role.

Deen sings Mother/Father and I'd love to see him sing more. There's a mighty confetti cannon either side of the stage for Any Way You Want It - I'm revisited by Homer Simpson singing along during that one - and the final encore track Lovin' Touchin' Squeezin' sees us running out into acres of car park to take our chances in the queue for the long drive home.

As an experience, I was mildly surprised to see so few eight year olds from the post-Glee generation in attendance though the x chromosome quote of the audience was a bit higher than some gigs I've been to, and yes there was a tiny bit of handbag envy going on. In summary, pretty much as expected but definitely still showing signs of life.

Separate Ways
Only The Young
Edge Of A Moment
Ask The Lonely
Send Her My Love
Stone In Love
City Of Hope
Mother/Father - Deen vocal
Open Arms
Chain Of Love
Wheel In The Sky
Be Good To Yourself
Don't Stop Believin'
Any Way You Want It
Lovin' Touchin' Squeezin'

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Back To The Future

The advent of modern technology means I can check the venue website before making the trip, and on one recent occasion it's just as well I did. Seeing that evening's gig marked 'postponed', my relief at sparing myself the drive evaporated when I read further and it became clear that it had only been postponed in the sense of moved up the road to another venue. Both venues are close enough I'd have parked in more or less the same place anyway, but all the same it's nice to know beforehand.

Approaching the door, I hear something that sounds rather familiar - somewhere between the rising dynamic of Talk To Me and the tempo of Telephone, both songs by Shy from 1987 - and as it turns out, there's a very good reason why. Despite the keyboard player's unhappiness with the sound, Serpentine sound fantastic with a guitarist playing exactly the sort of lead breaks I love, keyboards filling out the sound and a vest-wearing singer from Barnsley. It turns out that Serpentine had previously boasted lead vocals from Tony Mills, formerly of Shy and a dozen other bands, which kind of figures. For thirty minutes, it was like 1986 never ended, and for me that's about as high as praise gets when it comes to this area of music.

There's something slightly unsatisfactory in buying their first album when only the final track has vocals from the new/current singer, but I'm delighted at the prospect of tracking down their second album in due course as it promises to be an absolute cracker.

There's a rustle of alarm and anticipation in the hedgerows of the crowd for the next band, and for good reason. I only picked up on them from a 'this year's next big thing' list - a self-fulfilling experience, it turns out - in Classic Rock magazine, but once I'd read that article/interview/advertorial piece (deleting according to taste) and checked out a couple of tunes on youtube, I couldn't wait to track down the self-titled debut album by Houston when it was released in the UK.

In classic style, the band start noodling about on their instruments, launch into the first song and the singer arrives on stage a matter of seconds before his first vocal line. Arrives on stage in a boxer style silk dressing gown with his name on the back no less, and hitting the cultural reference to Eye Of The Tiger as he does so, starts singing. I didn't note the set list, I was too busy taking pictures and soaking up the experience of something I'd been waiting for for a couple of months taking place in front of me.

Some bands occasionally look a little bored on stage, or somehow distracted because it's just another gig, but this was A Show at an early enough stage in the career arc that those on the stage seemed to be enjoying it as much as the rest of us. Yes, a guitarist climbing on top of the stage-side amp isn't new, but it is mildly amusing in what amounts to the size of a larger than average sitting room! Among six people on stage, four of them are wearing headbands of dubious fashion-criminality, and apart from the one guitarist's Hendrix fantasies, this would be almost a perfect production line keyboard and vocal heavy AOR band of the sort Derek Oliver couldn't help but approve of.

There's a couple of nice touches afterwards as an eight year old at his first gig gets his picture taken with band members while wearing the singer's boxer robe, and exactly the sort of friendly accessibility that will take a band forwards from this level. Vocal iffyness due to consecutive nights on the road notwithstanding, I wasn't expecting they'd be quite this good.

The final band Crash Diet also come from another place in time - and it's one where they've clearly put the time in planning their show in detail. If Tigertailz had listened to tons of Hüsker Dü, Crash Diet is exactly what you'd get, and it's amusing and entertaining enough but after 40-odd minutes I'm back out and on my way home.

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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Fragile Thing

It’s been a very long time since I was reliant purely on public transport to get to the gig, something like fourteen years at a guess, but needs must when nobody drives because the car’s off the road. Had I not already had the ticket on my pinboard, I would have found it very easy indeed not to bother, and I was still not 100% even after the online train ticket booking window had shut.

Dumping the bike outside the station, I just made the earlier train of the two options I had, and arrived at the other end with time to spare. A leisurely stroll across to the venue without looking at the clock meant I had something to go on for gauging what time to leave the show. Knowing that the venue curfew is after my train left is useful information gathering.

At the venue with the doors still shut, which is pretty unusual for me these days, I decided against joining the queue in favour of nipping up the road for chips from the kebab shop. Fine dining on the road!

Getting the rucksack of bike lights, waterproof, tools etc into the gig was fine on the proviso it was going in the cloakroom, and Sam Lloyd was in the middle of her first song by the time I got in front of the stage. Female vocal and acoustic guitar is a combination I like a lot, she’s a decent enough guitar player and her voice is quite strong but I can’t say her material really grabbed me.

Second support Mike Marlin is a five piece band named for the singer, frontman, raconteur, shambling wreck of a showman and a few other things besides. Located between Mark Lanegan’s growl and Guy Garvey’s genial landlord, MM is backed by a band where it varies from song to song whether the lead instrument is the bass, piano or guitar. "Interesting" risks sounding like criticism but it really isn’t meant that way. But doing anything particularly interesting in the modern popular music idiom is fairly remarkable, and I'd like to hear more.

Now, carrying on as a band when the line-up changes in terrible circumstances is a funny one at the best of times. When I saw the three piece version of Big Country a few years ago they were on storming form, so I was really curious about what this version would offer. The addition of Jamie 'Son Of Bruce' Watson on guitar means there’s now two skinny jeaned blokes bouncing around stage right, which adds a little depth to the guitar sound but isn’t a dramatic change.

Bringing in another singer, on the other hand can’t help but be a significant change. Bringing in another singer from more or less your generation is one way to go. Bringing in Mike Peters makes some sort of sense, even if I’m not sure how his distinctive voice will work, but with history in common he talks about Stuart Adamson repeatedly, as you might expect.

I love The Alarm (that’s Peters, Sharp, MacDonald, Twist - accept no substitutes, kids!) and I’ve seen Mike a dozen times in various guises, hell there’s even a tape of a highly personal dedication story and song that may yet emerge in certain company at some point so I don’t especially have an axe to grind. But while it’s noticeable how he takes to the role of frontman, all waving arms and shouting ‘come on!’ and this does get the crowd going, there’s a little bit trying too hard in talking about Stuart Adamson being passed over the heads of the crowd decades ago and then appearing in the pit shortly thereafter. I don’t know, it’s a difficult job and there is no replacing Stuart so maybe adding your own stamp to singing his songs is always going to be difficult. Personally I’d rather just listen to Peters sing, and on songs like Fragile Thing I’m not sure his voice has ever sounded better.

After fourteen songs, and with Tony Butler talking about the current relevance of Where The Rose Is Sown, it’s time to reclaim my rucksack and head for the station. Missing my train would leave me relying on there being one at 01.30 and getting home about 3am, so it’s with good reason I walk out with Wonderland ringing around the venue and delighted I did make the effort to get there. Even if the knock-on effects at a time when I’m already quite remarkably stressed and tired are something I can do without.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Don't Give In, It Will Repeat, It Will

Over and over and over and over, watching the same band many, many times can pale a little over the years. So it's often the what's new this time angle that is the interesting stuff, and this is no different: with the departure of Andres Karu from drumming duties - and given the transatlantic distance between one band member and the others, it's perfectly understandable that it becomes difficult to combine the rest of your life around that - there's a new face on the drum stool.

First man onto the stage, Fuzz Townsend is not an unfamiliar face to some of us, partially hidden behind shades and under a hat though his face is. As a veteran of Pop Will Eat Itself, Fuzz is rather closer to The Wonder Stuff's history, so it's going to be interesting to see how that changes things. With an hour-long set in the support slot for the tour, the stories are largely cut out as hit follows hit. The story about Kirsty MacColl that introduces Welcome To The Cheap Seats still brings a chill, Mother And I is still a welcome recent return to the set, and Sing The Absurd is dedicated to those of us who've survived all those years is preferable to a number of other possibilities.

Hammered down into the condensed set format, this is verging on a fantastically tight performance, perhaps at the crucial point of just easing into a new routine and before actually hitting cruising level. The little bit of ongoing adjustment of Fuzz to everyone else looks like it'll settle down further as time ticks on, but it's definitely a great time to see The Wonder Stuff all the same.

Celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the Levelling The Land album, headliners The Levellers split the two sides (remember that, kids?) of the album with a handful of associated b-side tracks, and the re-appearance of The Devil Went Down To Georgia is a pleasant surprise among them. With the balcony bouncing alarmingly and the wave of heat rising off a venue I've rarely seen this packed in all my previous visits - and this now my fourth most attended venue, it turns out - it's more a sensory experience than a spectacle to watch, and after Battle Of The Beanfield I made a sharp exit instead of hanging around to see what would happen in the encore, in the faint hope of getting home and not increasing my current sleep deficit by too much.

All that, and posters advertising a couple of gigs that I really want to see in the coming months that will drag me back out onto the motorway with the excitement of finally seeing a couple of acts that have been on my radar for variously a couple of months and a couple of decades. Here we go again.

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Traiveller's Joy - End Of An Era

I know, you won't be the first to point out that postings have been a little bare on here in recent times.

There's a couple of reasons, partly it's down to being busy doing stuff rather than writing about stuff, partly down to the effect that has on the stuff I'm prepared to write about. But the most significant change came in January 2011, the first calendar month in which I've not been to a live gig since about August 2004. And there's been a good few bands broken up, reformed, lost members and been through other dramatic changes since then, so I'm in good company.

Having ended up back in full time employment and at a place where I'm perfectly happy, I'm combining the slow progress of getting my financial stability back, which isn't damaged by the closure of a few of my favourite venues, both locally and further afield. So if I'm being more selective about the tickets I buy and the distances I'll travel to use them, there's a pretty good reason for that.

Gigs in the meantime then; watching Emily Smith do Karine Polwart's Better Things at Richard Thompson's festival of political song last summer, I was delighted a few months ago to find she would be coming to my town, though it's a good job I didn't buy a ticket immediately as it turned out I couldn't make that gig as I was away. On the plus side, I did make the gig in another town even if emerging from Heathrow airport at 5pm on a friday night isn't the calmest planning for a gig that evening.

Making it to my hotel with moments to spare, I arrived at the venue in time to miss just the first song. She's an engaging performer, the inter-play between her and the husband is amusing and there's plenty to be said for someone doing something traditional with a modern twist. That said, I'm not entirely convinced by the material when it sometimes needs the story explaining beforehand and also includes repeated requests to join in on a chorus where the lines to accompany are complicated enough to escape the short-term memory immediately.

The early start with no support meant that by a quarter to ten I was strolling the streets in search of a chip shop, after a week some way further north though that's another story. I returned to my hotel to catch a little sleep, to watch the telly and catch up on some emails.

Phew, rock n roll!

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