Anyone who still dismisses folk music as a redundant art-form – cosy, twee, stuck in the past – might have their pre-conceptions challenged by Northumbrian singer Rachel Unthank, her younger sister Becky, pianist Belinda O’Hooley and fiddle player Niopha Keegan. Although the Winterset’s roots are in traditional folk, they are not afraid to take influences from more contemporary sources, including sparse, spine-tingling covers of Robert Wyatt’s Sea Song and Antony and the Johnsons’ For Today I Am A Boy.
Combining darkness and joy to sublime effect, the delicacy and grace of the music was offset by warm, self-deprecating comic banter between the performers, and a musical variety which encompassed ukuleles, clog dancing, and impromptu renditions of Christmas classics.
Material from debut album Cruel Sister kept the traditionalists happy, while its more dramatic, boundary-pushing follow-up The Bairns pointed the way forward – both for the Winterset, and indeed for English folk music in general.
Cardiacs have been described as “prog-punk”. It’s an imperfect description, but perhaps as close as you’ll get. Their music is complex and intense, combining the disciplined intricacy of progressive rock with the all-out attack of 1977-era punk – but perhaps their true spiritual forefathers are mavericks such as Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa. Remarkably, they have been together for thirty years, operating right outside the mainstream, and inhabiting their own singular musical universe.
Brothers Tim and Jim Smith lead the band, resembling Michael Douglas in Falling Down and Uncle Fester from The Addams Family respectively. They were accompanied by guitarist Kavus Torabi (Simon Amstell fed through a distorted lens) and two impassive female singers in matching pinnies. Keyboards were audible throughout, even though none were on stage. This merely added to the mystique.
Faced with such impossible rhythms, the mosh pit responded with precise stop-start timing. Like the band, they too had mastered the art of controlled chaos.
Almost exactly seven years since his British live debut at The Maze, Ryan Adams returned for his fifth Nottingham show, backed once more by the four-piece Cardinals. Backlit and shrouded in mist, the players cut shadowy, enigmatic figures, with the formerly garrulous Adams struggling – and mostly succeeding – to maintain an equally enigmatic silence. (“We shouldn’t talk; we might break up.”)
Once a workable balance had been struck between the rock-based material and the comfortable sit-down surroundings, the band delivered a fine, musicianly two-hour performance. The mostly languid, nocturnal mood was bolstered by Jon Graboff’s atmospheric pedal steel, and punctured by occasional wig-outs such as the raucous “Shakedown on 9th Street”, and the experimental free-form jam which closed the main set.
Having conquered the addictions which threatened to derail his career, Adams has enjoyed renewed success with this year’s Easy Tiger. Album opener “Goodnight Rose” was a particular highlight, successfully blending influences from Roy Orbison to the Grateful Dead.
Initially swapping between guitar and piano, Adams gave up on the latter halfway through: although easy to play in his “wasted” days, he now finds it too “mathematical”. Set against such a welcome return to form, this was a small sacrifice indeed.
Thanks for speaking to us at this uncomfortably early hour (8:10 am). Are you a morning person?
It depends. I’m heading to work right now, so I have to be awake! I’m in the middle of filming Torchwood, so we’re driving over to Port Talbot at the moment.
Let’s start by talking about your album Another Side, which comes out on Monday. I’d assumed this was your debut solo recording, but it actually turns out to be your fifth, right?
That’s right. My other recordings have all been geared towards the musical theatre crowd, or towards people who are more into Cole Porter and Rodgers & Hammerstein – but this is my debut recording for a more mainstream audience. A lot of people don’t know that for the last sixteen years or so, I’ve been doing shows in the West End and Broadway. When I did How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria and Any Dream Will Do, people would come up to me and say: we didn’t know you could sing, and we’d love to hear you sing some more! So it seemed like perfect timing.
You’ve already gone on record as saying that this isn’t an attempt to become a pop star. But you’re releasing an album of pop covers, and presumably you want it to sell well, so I’m a bit confused by that statement.
It’s an album of music that I love, that I’ve released because people want to hear me sing. I’m in no way wanting to be a pop star. I don’t want to be like a boy band, or Robbie Williams, or Maroon 5. I don’t only want to do concerts and albums. This is a facet of my career that I’m taking a journey with. But listen: if, five or ten weeks down the line, it proves to be hugely successful and the record company says that they need me to be a pop star for a while, then maybe I’d consider it. But it’s not the reason that I’m doing it.
So, no videos shot in glossy locations or any of that stuff?
Well, there is a promotional video for the song All Out Of Love. And I’m a businessman who wants to sell the record, so I will be going to major supermarkets to do signings. But just because I do that, it doesn’t mean that I’m being a pop star. I’d do that with my book! I’d do that with my Doctor Who merchandise! So it’s one and the same thing.
In terms of how you selected material for the album, it feels to me like a collection of your personal favourite songs.
You have got that correct. It probably took about four or five weeks for us to choose them. When Sony first approached me, they gave me a selection of their discs, which I narrowed down to songs that have actual relevance to situations and events within my life thus far. So they are very personal songs. Because there’s not enough space on the album sleeve, the listener can find out more through my website, where I will explain why I chose each one.
You’ve balanced classics – Your Song, Time After Time, Bryan Adams’ Heaven – with some more unfamiliar material. There’s one I really liked, which I’d not heard before, called Being Alive. Where’s that from?
Ha ha ha! See? I’m twisting everybody a little bit, by integrating something from a musical! That’s from a musical by Stephen Sondheim, called Company. I’m so chuffed that you said you liked it, because you might now want to go and see a musical!
Oh God, maybe now I’ll get over my block of Sondheim…
There you go – I’ve done a Sondheim number that you actually liked!
One of your more bold interpretations is Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic, which is almost in a Ricky Martin Latin style. Were you nervous at re-interpreting a well known song in such a different way?
Sony said: we want you to do one song that people would never expect you to do. I went away and thought about it, and considered a song by the Foo Fighters – but we thought that wouldn’t quite fit into the scheme of things. This was one of my other choices, because my friend and I were big Police fans in high school. So I brought it forward, and said: look, please trust me on the musicality that I have, and what I know about music. Let me do this in the style of a Mexican mariachi band, with a Latin sound, and we’ll see if it works. So we recorded it, and I let the execs hear it, and they said: we think it’s great, we’re going to put it forward for Strictly Come Dancing!
So this is the song that you’ll be performing on Strictly Come Dancing?
On the [Sunday night] results show, yes. We pumped that song to them, and they went: this is great, this is perfect for our show!
You’ve also done something quite unusual for an openly gay performer, in that a lot of these songs do specifically reference women. Was that something you had to think carefully about?
Not at all, because I still like women! Just because I’m gay, it doesn’t mean that I don’t like women. It doesn’t mean that I want to sleep with them, but some of my closest friends are women. Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic doesn’t necessarily relate to someone you’re having sex with. Also, the songs are for the listeners. When they listen to songs like She’s Always A Woman, my vision is of a man and a woman, partnered, married or whatever, sitting next to each other. It could even be a lesbian couple. And they’re listening to that song, and the one turns to the other, and says: that song is you to a tee. I want it to stir emotion within people. But I don’t see my homosexuality as being a guide for me.
You’ve got yourself into an interesting position – and a good position, really – in that you can cover songs that reference genders in that way. I can’t think of a gay performer who has been able to do that before, without people thinking: oh, that’s a bit off. Maybe the Captain Jack character has helped in that respect?
I don’t think it’s because of the Captain Jack character. What you also have to remember is that people have changed over the last five or ten years. People realise that I am an actor, and that my duty is to entertain people. I give an illusion. I’m a gay man, but when I go on stage in the West End, as I have done for the last sixteen years, I will play a romantic leading man. I will fall in love with girls, and I will let the audience believe that. You’re not watching John Barrowman – I’m playing a character. That’s the way you have to look at it, and audiences have moved on from five, ten years ago.
You’re taking the album out on tour next year, and Nottingham will be one of the dates. Will it be primarily a singing gig, or will it be more of “An Evening With”, where you’ll be mixing the singing up with some talking as well?
At the moment, we’re still formulating some of the ideas, so I’ll give you a couple of little inside details of things that we’re currently working on. I’ve done cabaret before, and one of the things that I love about cabaret is that it’s intimate. Now, what I want to create, although it’s on a bigger scale, is some of that intimacy. So I will be telling stories and anecdotes, and certain things will be scripted – but if I diverge from the script, then I diverge. I’ve always found that in the past, audiences enjoy that. They like to go on those little journeys with me. So there will be chat, and there will also be some guest stars. I’d like to have a couple of artists that people may not have heard of before, so that we can introduce some new talent. It stems from the reality shows that I’ve done, which are based on bringing new talent to the forefront.
I like the sound of the unpredictability. It means that people can read reviews of the previous night, without being told everything that’s going to happen on the following night.
Exactly, and that’s bringing the element of where I started in live theatre, because you just don’t know what’s going to happen, on a nightly basis. So, yes, there’ll be a bit of unpredictability about it.
You seem to have the most incredibly full schedule at the moment. For instance, you’ve got a BBC1 game show coming up, called The Kids Are All Right. What’s that all about?
It’s a light entertainment show, where adults will compete against kids who are super-intelligent – not just in the academic sense, but in the social sense, and with books, and all sorts of stuff. It will be a group of kids, and that’s why we say that “the kids are all right”. I mean, they’re cool – but they’re always right. So the adults will either be glorified or shamed by these kids. We did a pilot, which worked really well. These kids are very smart; they have attitude, and they sling it around the stage. So it will be good fun.
And then you’ll be coming back as Captain Jack in the New Year…
I’m not in the Doctor Who Christmas special, but I come back in Series Four, which starts filming after Christmas. Series Two of Torchwood also starts airing on BBC2 in January.
There must be a special sort of responsibility in playing Captain Jack, in that you must get collared by fans of both Torchwood and Doctor Who, who expect you to know every last detail of all the plots. Do people delight in trying to catch you out, saying that something happened in Episode Two which was contradicted in Episode Six and so on?
Some of them do, and I’ll be honest with you – my response is to say: you have too much time on your hands, and you need to get a life. I have no problem saying that! They usually laugh back, and say: yeah, you’re right. I am a fan of Doctor Who, and I love what I do – but I don’t go into so much detail. Sometimes when we’re looking at scripts, I’ll say if something contradicts a previous episode – so I do recognise these things. But if someone challenges me on it, I’m like: dude, come on!
I mentioned to a Doctor Who fan that I’d be talking to you and he said: ask him why the Face of Boe looks nothing like him!
[Suddenly very animated] Well, you can go back and say: because the Face of Boe was designed in Series One, before that plot had actually come round to it!
Oh, but that de-mystifies the whole process, if you’re going to say that!
But you’ll probably find that if you go back to the Face of Boe now, they’ll re-configure it a little bit – because the Face of Boe is the oldest living being in the universe, and obviously he’d change. That’s the other answer: people change over time! [Shouting] He’s being too literal!
Quite so. I will pass on your comments! Now, in the midst of all this, you’re also writing your autobiography…?
Funny you should say that: I finished it this week! I’ve been carrying an iPod with me, on a daily basis, and I’ve been telling my story into it. I then send it off to my sister, who has been penning it. The way it has been written is like a musical. I have started at one point, and like a musical story you jump to different parts, every so often. It takes you on that kind of journey. Each chapter is named after a show – and within that show, there’s a song which relates to the chapter. It’s all done so that it’s very musical-based. It will be out around February.
And then the next event coming up is your starring role in Aladdin at the Birmingham Hippodrome…
Yes, it’s my third year in a row doing panto. My first was in Wimbledon, and my second was at the New Theatre in Cardiff, which was the biggest financial success that they’ve had in their entire history. Consequently, they put me into Birmingham, which is the largest in the nation. It’s going to be spectacular: we’ve got Daleks, we’ve got 3D, we have interactive. This production of Aladdin has been written for me. It has almost sold out, and it’s done so well that they’ve already asked me to do next year. People say to me sometimes: why are you doing panto, you don’t really have to. It’s not a question of having to, but I see it as a perfect way to introduce theatre to a young audience. That’s their first experience, and what a great way to have it.
This is an insanely busy schedule, especially for someone as lazy as me to look at. What motivates you to be so busy all the time, and do you have a lazy side?
I do have a lazy side. Funnily enough, I carry a suitcase around with me, that has all my paperwork in it. That’s my lazy side: I very rarely get around to it. My driver has to lug it every single frickin’ day, in and out of the car, and it never gets any lighter. So there is a lazy side to me – but you know what? I enjoy working. I have these golden opportunities that I am given, and I am so not going to pass them up or turn them down, because someone else says: you shouldn’t do that. My attitude is: fuck ‘em, I love what I do. I trained to be a working actor, and I’m being given work – so I’m going to take it. Listen, you’re a long time dead.
Indeed. Well, good luck with the album.
And please let the people of Nottingham know that I’m looking forward to singing for them!
If you’ve ever hung out in a backpacker bar in Koh Samui on your gap year, necking cheap sangria, smoking roll-ups and discussing world politics, then Manu Chao’s music will need no introduction. As the spiritual heir to the late Joe Strummer, he is one of the few remaining international performers who still dares to wear his ideology on his sleeve – although with his frizzy hair, thick scarlet bandanna and lurid green shirt slashed to the navel, he owes his look more to Keith Richards.
A massive star in continental Europe, Manu is much less well known in the UK. Consequently, relatively intimate venues such as Rock City must be a welcome novelty for him and his band. Their delighted looks throughout last night’s marathon set said it all, their enthusiasm more than matched by the ecstatic crowd reaction.
That said, the band stuck to a rigid formula, alternating between loping reggae and frantic, breakneck ska-punk, laced with Latin overtones. There were more “mi corazons” than you could shake a stick at, interspersed with the sort of cod-Jamaican “ma-yo-yo-yo” chanting that Sting popularised a generation ago. For the uninitiated, the formula swiftly wore thin. For the majority, those blissful backpacking memories were skilfully evoked.