Hot on the heels of Jake Bugg’s album chart success, there was another musical first for Nottingham on Sunday night: the opening show of Nicki Minaj’s first ever arena tour.
As you would expect, the Trinidadian-born rapper has commissioned a big production job, with an elaborate stage set, fireworks, flame-throwers, animated projections, dance routines, costume changes, the full works – although live musicians were notably absent from the stage.
Almost inevitably, there were a few first-night glitches to contend with. Following well-received sets by Misha B and Tyga, the headline set was late starting – meaning that many audience members had to leave after the first hour – and by the time that it came to end, there were only twenty-five minutes left in the day. There were some awkward pauses between sections of the show, which Nicki’s DJ did his best to fill, but his call-and-response routines did wear thin at times.
There was accidental fun to be had along the way, though. One particularly plunging costume turned out to have a few problems in the fitting department, leaving Nicki fighting an almost constant battle against slippage. Towards the end of Va Va Voom, one of her more energetic numbers, the inevitable finally happened. “You guys have seen my boobs before”, she shrugged. “You won’t tell anyone, will you? What happens in Nottingham….”
“…STAYS in Nottingham”, roared the crowd, stuffing their smartphones back into their pockets.
A variety of vehicles brought the star to the stage. As the curtains opened, she emerged from a rather dinky little spaceship, complete with a vanity mirror inside its pint-sized cabin. Video projections had shown the ship blazing through the cosmos, before touching down on Planet Earth – only to be wheeled off, rather humiliatingly, by a stage hand. If there were any Spinal Tap fans in the audience, they might have been reminded of the spoof tour documentary’s famous “Stonehenge” scene. Had Team Minaj ordered something bigger, perhaps?
After the wardrobe malfunction, and a rather too lengthy break for the next costume change, Nicki re-appeared in a sparkling silver bathtub, clad in a full length bathrobe with a voluminous, furry collar. Underneath it, a skimpy little number twinkled invitingly. This time, the lady was taking no chances. The robe stayed firmly on, and the skimpy little number remained a well-concealed mystery.
An even longer break delayed the next section, and the DJ was fast running out of tricks. To their credit, the crowd stayed patient, never losing their will to party. Finally, the stage doors opened, and out came Nicki and her dancers, making merry in an open-topped pink convertible. There was just one snag: the vehicle was inflatable, and the backstage crew had clearly run clean out of puff.
As Nicki soon discovered, a semi-inflated convertible doesn’t offer the smoothest of rides. The car bounced and lurched, and the rapper bobbed in and out of view, still smiling gamely, if a little queasily. For one heart-stopping moment, the dashboard appeared to swallow her up completely, but the dancers saved the day, prising her out of the driver’s seat and depositing her safely on dry land. They won’t have fun like this in Manchester, or in London. We were the lucky ones.
Happily, none of these shenanigans dented Nicki’s showmanship and star quality. The steel-willed super-achiever in her would never have allowed it. The routines stayed slick, and the rapper’s flow remained razor-sharp. Perhaps she could have cut a little looser during the clubby pop bangers, which seemed to trap her slightly within her role. Like Katy Perry before her, the showgirl smile sometimes felt like a mask, shielding us from the woman within.
Perhaps this was why the show’s final segment worked so well. Freed from all stage trickery, her dancers dispatched to the wings, the rapper returned to her hardcore hip hop roots, spitting out her rhymes with dazzling brilliance, and a fiery conviction that hadn’t quite been there before. Meanwhile, the diehard fans in the front rows returned every word, almost turning the performance into a conversation.
“This is such an emotional night for me”, she told us, visibly moved by the crowd’s affection and loyalty. “Because this is the first show of my first arena tour, I will always remember you guys. And I mean that. This isn’t fake. This is real.”
If Nicki Minaj can hold onto that realness and nurture her on-stage connection with her ever-loving fanbase, even as the venues grow in size, then her biggest tour to date could just turn out to be her greatest triumph yet.
If her support act was to be believed, Joan Rivers had been shipped to Nottingham, piece by piece, in a stack of cryogenically frozen containers. As the duo – Kit Hesketh-Harvey and James McConnel – performed their elegantly witty set, she was apparently being thawed and re-assembled in the wings. The grand announcement was made and the fans rose to their feet – only to be greeted by a cadaverous figure on a stretcher, carried onto the stage and swiftly dispatched again.
After the interval, Joan made a second entrance, this time in full working order. Even at the age of 79, her energies were undimmed; throughout the 70 minute set, she barely paused for breath, rushing this way and that across the stage as she heaped her foul-mouthed scorn upon all and sundry.
If you only knew of Joan Rivers from her television appearances, which are hardly models of decorum and restraint in the first place, then you might have been taken aback by the sheer filthiness of her on-stage routine. Sexually unabashed and gynaecologically thorough – to put it mildly – she exhibited a bracing disregard for conventional notions of good taste, breaking every taboo in the book. All manner of love-making positions were mimed, her favourites being the ones that allowed her to multi-task; her demonstration of how to enjoy intimate pleasure while checking her emails was particularly unforgettable.
And then, of course, there were those deliciously vicious take-downs of celebrity figures; within the first minute alone, she had demolished Susan Boyle and Tom Daley, and that was just for starters. Whole sections of society were kicked away with a well-aimed quip or two: Mexicans, Chinese, Liverpudlians. At times, you had to wonder how she was getting away with it, but Joan’s brazen, take-no-prisoners bravado somehow rendered all prissy, PC-minded objections redundant.
Behind her, a three piece band remained motionless behind their instruments, only getting to play as the star made her exit. It can’t have been the toughest of gigs. The keyboardist was briefly pressed into service, attempting to hoist his employer onto the lid of his grand piano. She almost made it, as well.
A few were spared the Rivers wrath. The gay men in the audience got a free pass, “because they’ll laugh at anything”. Some of Joan’s “very dear friends” in show business were treated with something approaching kindness, although there was usually a sting in the tail. Other than that, it was open season: Justin Bieber was “that adorable little lesbian”, Angelina Jolie was diseased, Jennifer Aniston had, shall we say, some personal hygiene problems.
At times, it did all feel a little too relentless, with little in the way of subtle pacing. But for the most part, as the crowd shrieked with delighted outrage and the veteran comic mugged, cringed and mock-spewed her way through her routine, you had to hand it to her: this was a class turn, from one of the greats.
Tucked away at the south end of Sherwood Rise, The Guitar Bar at Hotel Deux is a hidden gem of a venue. It’s a quirky space, with a large model glider hanging from the ceiling, a rocking horse perched high in one corner, and a wall-mounted snooker table, complete with cues and balls. Comfy sofas and leather banquettes make for a cosy atmosphere, which proved to be the perfect setting for Dean Friedman, making a return visit to a favourite spot.
Best known for a clutch of singles and a successful album in the late Seventies, Friedman’s public profile might have waned, but he has steered a steady, if unpredictable, course through the intervening years. Still on the hip side of sixty, his lustrous mane has silvered, lending him a distinguished air. And if his voice isn’t quite what it was in strictly technical terms, his personality and panache shone through, putting us at ease, and placing us firmly on his side.
Alternating between lyrical, somewhat jazzy piano-backed numbers and guitar-based ditties which spanned from spiky satire to tender romance, Dean displayed an impressive range as both composer and performer. You could imagine him wowing a sophisticated boho crowd in a Greenwich Village cabaret bar, whose patrons would lap up his nods to Porter, Sondheim and Lehrer. Indeed, just like Lehrer, he even has his own funny song about S&M.
As for that unpredictability, it’s a rare artist indeed who can boast of being the subject of a tribute from Half Man Half Biscuit (we were treated to his hilarious answer song), before reminding us that he spent five years providing the soundtrack to Boon (a sound Nottingham connection, which always helps), and then recounting the drawn-out saga of McDonalds Girl: once banned by the BBC, more recently adopted by the burger chain for an advertising campaign.
A warm glow enveloped the room, as we savoured an all too rare intimacy between artist and audience. To aid Dean through his biggest British hit, a duet called Lucky Stars, we took it upon ourselves to furnish the missing female vocals. Most of us could just about remember the words, and so we sang along, softly and fondly, as if recalling a long-forgotten love affair. Sometimes, its small, shared moments like these which feel the most special. Let’s hope that Dean Friedman keeps us on his circuit for many years to come.
(originally published in Metro and the Nottingham Post)
To mark the launch of their debut album, Dog Is Dead brought it all the way back home. Not to Rock City, as might have been expected, but south of the river, to the part of town where they grew up.
“It’s good to be back”, said singer Rob Milton, “especially so close to home… NG2!” At the age of 13, Rob played his second ever gig at the legendary Boat Club, once the hottest venue in town (Zeppelin, Sabbath, and the Pistols all played there in the Seventies), and you could feel something of the old atmosphere returning to the old place, as the heat rose and the sweat flew.
Inspired by the band’s formative Bridgford years, All Our Favourite Stories is an album about the joys and sorrows of being young and growing up. Some of the songs were written when the boys were still in their teens; they tend to be the quirkier, brasher ones. Others are so new that they have never been performed live before; they’re the reflective, bitter-sweet ones, whose anthemic choruses are underpinned by a certain sense of melancholy.
For one night only, the band tore up their usual set list, opting to play the album in full, in the same track sequence. This approach wouldn’t work for all albums, but the structure of All Our Favourite Stories lends itself perfectly to the concept; if you were the DJ at an indie disco, this is probably how you’d sequence the tracks anyway.
Opening with the sombre Get Low, and building the mood with the mid-paced groove of Do The Right Thing, the five lads (plus an extra mystery guitarist, tucked away at the back of the stage) reached full throttle on the excellent Teenage Daughter. This, you quickly realised, is a band who have learnt a lot from their summer on the festival circuit. They sometimes used to be a little cautious on stage, never quite letting go of their reserve. That’s all gone now. Once you’ve played in front of 5000 up-for-it punters at Reading and Leeds, there’s just no place for it any more. This made Teenage Daughter a perfect vehicle for the new, turbo-charged, no-holds-barred Dog Is Dead to open up, let rip, and have fun. It came as no surprise to learn that this will be the next single.
Four singles in a row followed it, from the brand new Talk Through The Night to the evergreen Glockenspiel Song. (When Trev slipped off his bass and reached for his sax, you knew what was coming up next.) The already vocal crowd were word perfect on this old favourite, navigating all of its twists and turns, filling the room with its chanted choruses, and turning it into a triumphant homecoming anthem: “Oh this town, it’s so electric; since I got the feeling, I can’t shut down.”
New song Heal It steadied the energy levels, sounding beefier and rockier on stage than in its Trevor Horn-produced album version. Then came the climax: a storming version of River Jordan, which played to all of the band’s new-found strengths. A future Glastonbury anthem, if ever there was one. One more track – the mournful, questioning Any Movement – and it was all over, despite calls for an encore that lasted long after the house lights had come up. Well, when you’ve just played the ten tracks that mean more to you than any others, where else is there left to go?
The rest of the UK will be getting them towards the end of the month, as they begin their biggest UK tour to date. We got them early, for a very special performance with a “friends and family” atmosphere all of its own. And we’ll be getting them again in March, when they return to Rock City for their second headlining show there. It’s been a long time coming, but Dog Is Dead are finally getting the national recognition they deserve – and it couldn’t be more richly deserved, either. All this and Jake Bugg too? Nottingham’s rocking the nation like never before, and we can all feel proud.
(originally written for LeftLion magazine)
Along with Kagoule, whose debut release is due soon on the same label, Kappa Gamma are spearheading a fresh wave of teenage talent in this city, and it’s to Denizen’s credit that both acts have been picked up so promptly. Each of these tracks offers an accurate reflection of the band’s live sound: freewheeling yet tightly structured, cheerfully tumbling and chiming – while still packing an emotional punch – and compressing a dazzling number of musical ideas into three and a half restless, constantly shape-shifting minutes. Tricksy math-rock instrumentation is sweetened with Dog Is Dead-style choral harmonies, solid refrains (“you control it” / “and it’s dark and it’s dark and it’s dark”) sit alongside oblique excursions into the unexpected, and yet the band’s assured lightness of touch makes all of it seem unforced, instinctive, and the most natural thing in the world.
(originally written for LeftLion magazine)
A year on from splitting with Polydor, Liam Bailey’s re-emergence as a solo artist continues in fine fashion with this, his sixth – and arguably his best – release. Released by New York’s Truth & Soul label, these two tracks adhere to the label’s in-house style, inspired as they are by vintage soul traditions – but more importantly, the deft, sympathetic arrangements offer the best fit to date for Liam’s strong vocal personality. On Please Love Me, the singer sighs and swoons in falsetto over a simple template – choppy Stax guitar on the left, twangy country guitar on the right, snappily bouncing bassline in the centre – before strings and brass make their entrance. Meanwhile, the flipside re-visits an EP track from last year, re-casting it as a strutting, swaggering, almost menacing Southern blues shuffle. If this is how the album’s going to sound, then we’re in for a treat.
#nottinghamrocks: Natalie Duncan, Nina Smith & Indiana – Nottingham Theatre Royal, Saturday September 23
Originally published in the Nottingham Post and Metro.
This is an exciting time for Nottingham’s music scene. The debut albums from two of our best-known acts, Jake Bugg and Dog Is Dead, are scheduled for release in October, bringing renewed national attention to the city, and every opportunity is being taken to shout as loudly as possible about the amazing wealth of talent that we have to offer. Banners have appeared on city centre streets, proclaiming us as “the most vibrant music scene in the UK”. Two large-scale events, the Branch Out Festival and the Festival of Nottingham, will offer a platform to dozens of local acts. And by way of an overture to all of this, no less a venue than the Theatre Royal saw fit to open its doors on Saturday evening, to three of our finest female singer-songwriters, accompanied by a 12-piece orchestra.
Since making her live debut just five months ago, Indiana has gone from strength to strength, becoming one of the city’s most hotly tipped new talents, and her simply staged performances, backed by a lone keyboard player, have won her many admirers. However, nothing could have prepared us for such a transformation, as the shy newcomer re-emerged as a fully-fledged theatrical diva (even the hairdo was new, a striking combination of shaved skull and golden curls), adapting her performance style to the lush orchestral backing with the ease of a seasoned professional.
Four original compositions and a cover (of Frank Ocean’s Swim Good) were given stunning new arrangements by Jonathan Vincent, the show’s musical director, turning Indiana’s stripped down piano ballads into dramatic production numbers, which took the singer into a whole new dimension. Everything about her performance felt boosted and amplified, particularly the way in which she could switch emotional gears in an instant: pleading one moment, contemptuous the next, with an expression that could flick from timid vulnerability to steely rage and back again, in the space of a single line.
“That truly was the single best experience of my life”, she told her supporters after the show. “As well as the scariest”, she added – but the fire in Indiana’s eyes on the Theatre Royal stage signalled that this was where she truly belonged.
Nina Smith is one of the best-known characters on the current Nottingham scene, and a major supporter of her fellow artists, whose collaborations with figures from the hip-hop, R&B and dance communities have already demonstrated her flexibility as an artist. Undaunted by the orchestra behind her, she rose to the challenge with relaxed good cheer, and a determination to enjoy every minute. “I’ve asked them to play my next gig at The Social”, she grinned. “Some of them looked interested!”
Jonathan Vincent’s sympathetic arrangements added new colours to Nina’s open-hearted songs of love, longing and loss, meshing beautifully with the strumming and box-bashing of her regular three-piece band. Highlights included a scintillating percussion break in the middle of Sexy Surprise, and a soaring orchestral swell towards the end of This Love, which would have melted the hardest of hearts. “Most of these songs were written in my bedroom”, Nina explained, “so to hear them here is pretty special.”
For the final number of the first half, the twelve-piece G.O.A Choir joined the already crowded stage, for a reworking of R.E.M’s Everybody Hurts which soon spun far away from the original, turning itself into a whole new track. Glammed up to the nines, with outlandish costumes, hair and make-up, the self-styled “Gang of Angels” provided a suitably celestial chorus, as Nina Smith brought her set to a triumphant conclusion.
Opening with the title track of her debut album, Natalie Duncan began the second half unaccompanied, with her most starkly arresting lyric: “Sometimes I feel you looking for the devil in me, like I’m a dying dog and I’m begging for your bones.” Switching from raw vocals to stately, neo-classical piano, she ushered in the orchestra, who accompanied all eleven songs of her set – another astonishing achievement for arranger Jonathan Vincent and his troupe.
With her rendition of the Etta James classic At Last currently sound-tracking a television advert, and with appearances on Later With Jools Holland scheduled for Tuesday and Friday of this week – alongside The Beach Boys, Muse, Public Image Ltd and The xx, no less – Natalie’s star is rising, after many years of patient graft and hard struggle. Some of her most painful experiences are inevitably reflected in her songs, but there’s room too for tender sweetness and fond reflection, such as on Old Rock, a tribute to a grizzled, alcoholic regular in the city centre pub where Natalie once worked.
Elsewhere in the set, the sultry, low-slung Black Thorn provided a showcase for some truly outstanding vocals, while the sheer drama of Sky Is Falling and Villain Hands turned both tracks into worthy candidates for a future Bond theme. Became So Sweet upped up the tempo, bringing a few people to their feet, and the sombre, anthemic Uncomfortable Silence – like Nina Simone with a side-order of Radiohead – closed the show, drawing a deserved standing ovation.
Although stylistically diverse in most respects, all three performers shared one very important quality: absolute, heartfelt sincerity. Thrilled but unfazed, each one of them stepped it up to the next level, seizing the moment and using it to amplify their talents to the best possible effect. Forget the hype – this was a landmark show for all the right reasons, and an event in which all involved should take immense pride.
This time last year, Jack Peachey was riding the crest of a wave. Retaining the name of Gallery 47 from a previous band, but recording and performing as a solo artist, his album Fate Is The Law had earned good reviews, and his name was beginning to be tipped for wider success, beyond the supportive confines of the regular Nottingham gigging circuit.
But then, with appalling timing, disaster struck. Clobbered by an illness that he couldn’t shake off, Jack’s strength was sapped for months on end. Worse than that, the condition had attacked that most precious asset, his voice. For three whole months, the singer couldn’t even speak. And yet, agonisingly, the offers continued to roll in, offering him opportunities that no artist would ever normally turn down. Laid up and lying low, by necessity rather than choice, Jack entered what he now freely admits was a period of personal emotional turmoil.
Finally, over a year since his last live show, Gallery 47 returned to the upstairs stage at the Rescue Rooms, supporting headliner Rachel Sermanni. Friends and well-wishers were thick on the ground, and an atmosphere of warm goodwill prevailed.
As the space filled with that instantly familiar combination of piercing, reedy vocals and intricately curling and tumbling guitar lines, it swiftly became clear that those long months of inactivity hadn’t left a single dent on Jack’s performing skills. A ring of seated supporters formed at his feet, settling in for the ride. Smiles met smiles, reverberating around the room.
The man himself was in a relaxed, good-humoured frame of mind, shrugging off the oppressive heat and offering us background context for some of his newer songs. Waiting For My Girl dealt with the immediate emotional aftermath of relationship, when you know that you’re supposed to “move on”, yet stubbornly refuse to do so. Mister Baudelaire was a song about critics. Another song addressed the events of the past year, with some baldly candid lines that hung in the air (“Oh no, what about the DHP show, feel I’m falling down”), and other passages that defied straightforward interpretation – for as Jack explained, when you’re feeling sick and all you can do is scribble lyrics, then some pretty strange metaphors can emerge. On Invasion, another new composition, the lyrics faded away halfway through the song, replaced by wordless – but no less communicative – keening and wailing.
Unlike certain other talented young acoustic singer-songwriters from this city, Jack’s cheerfully uncool demeanour is never going to win him fashion spreads in FHM magazine, or showcase gigs for casual clothing companies – but if there’s any justice in the world, his remarkable talents shouldn’t be hidden from wider public recognition for too much longer. In the meantime, a five-track EP, Dividends, is due out soon as a free download. “That’s because I can’t be bothered to sell anything”, Jack grinned, doling out the last remaining copies of his album to anyone who wanted them. But as nice as it is to receive freebies, we can only hope that his gifts soon find their true and deserved reward.
With all coats and bags checked in, and with all phones fully powered down – strictly no exceptions, folks – we were led into The Space in groups of four, through a curtained ante-chamber and into total darkness. We shuffled in with hands on each other’s shoulders, guided by ushers with see-in-the-dark sensors, who plonked each of us at some indeterminable spot in the middle of the never-more-vast floor. Robbed of visibility, we staked our positions with chat, easing the risk of being bumped into by stumbling incomers.
It was strangely disinhibiting, this blackness. I found myself talking to a young British writer, one of WEYA’s 1000 delegates from 100 countries, who had read at Broadway earlier that week. She had once dined at a blackout restaurant in Berlin, staffed by blind waiters, whose aim was to direct their diners’ focus solely towards the food. This was to be an analogous exercise, pitched at ears rather than tongues. Or, as the NME saw fit to put it: “an innovatively synaesthetic descent into a world of music-led sensory possibility.” Or, to put it less pretentiously, we were about to listen to a live music performance in the dark, without having a clue as to who would be performing, or what genre they would be performing in.
As the room filled, the hubbub swelled. I had expected hushed, reverential anticipation, not this giggly babble. And here we hit the first hurdle: as there were no house lights left to dim, and hence no cues that the show was about to start, the players were obliged to wade in over the top of our chatter.
Faced with a more typically reverential audience, who hadn’t been hanging out with each other all week, perhaps the opening notes would have silenced us. Failing that, maybe a more pronounced, more dramatic introductory flourish would have done the trick. But as it was, the unexpectedly low-key start – a solo male vocal, devotionally chanting in an unfamiliar tongue – barely registered in the room. As further voices made their entrance, so the conversation began to ebb, egged on by a good few shushes. (This blackness could be empowering, as well.)
After several austere minutes of unaccompanied chanting, a drum struck up: an unexpected jolt of energy, which drew claps and cheers. Other stringed instruments eventually appeared, as the music built in intensity and tempo, without surrendering its core spirituality. But what was this music? Was it North African, Middle Eastern, Arabic? In what context was it more usually performed? What did the words mean? What emotions were being expressed?
And who was playing it? Where were they in the room? And where was everyone else in the room? Were they facing the customary stage area? Or had they turned round, as I had, to face what seemed the most likely source: upstairs, at the back, in the far corner? And were they standing, or sitting, or lying down?
The rhythms built and solidified. I stood up, suddenly emboldened and – what the hell, let’s go with the flow – ready to dance.
At this exact point, the music suddenly stopped and the lights gradually raised, revealing a colossal projection screen, masking the stage. We shuffled around to face it, as abstract fields of colour emerged from the gloom, soundtracked by formless rumblings and quakings.
A giant pair of hands descended, sliding plastic shapes across a translucent table top. One shape said “stress”; another said “routine”. Some of the shapes left thin white lines behind them as they moved. Elsewhere, tiny cubes appeared, orbited by even tinier moons.
The sounds shifted this way and that: musique concrète, devoid of melody or rhythm. Perhaps the movement of the shapes was shaping the movements in sound? The more you looked, the more likely it seemed – and yet the laws of visual cause and sonic effect didn’t quite seem to apply, either.
Although different in almost every respect from the blackout performance, this still was an austere, demanding experience. Most of us stayed seated on the floor, gazing at the barely shifting visuals. Towards the far side of the room, the urge to lie down flat proved contagious for a sizeable minority. Around the sides, a small number opted to stand. Oddly, there was a greater sense of concentration in the room, now that we could all see each other – or was it merely zoned-out ennui? Time slowed to a standstill. How long had we been in here? It was hard to judge.
At the end of the second performance – which might have been twenty minutes long, or two hours long – the audience slowly rose from the floor and drifted away: softly and quietly, as if waking from a collective dream. A post-show Q&A had been billed, but this never materialised: a missed opportunity, as some background knowledge would have helped us to form a clearer understanding of what we had witnessed.
As it turned out, the blackout performance had been provided by a Lebanese ensemble, Taht Ahl El-Hawa, who had led us on a musical journey through classic and traditional Arabic renaissance styles, from the Byzantine period through to the 19th century. Performing from behind the projection screen, they were followed by Marco Colasso, a sound artist from Uruguay, whose piece Because was inspired – in ways that I couldn’t even begin to fathom – by the Beatles track of the same name. It had been an improvisational exercise, apparently separated into four sections – earth, fire, water and air – which sought to explore “the frequencies connecting the world and its inhabitants, and the relationships which occur between them”.
Although this had been a thought-provoking (if backside-numbing) experience for the most part, I left with a slight sense of disappointment, and a feeling that the promise of the evening had not been fully realised. Unannounced surprises might have their place, but perhaps a little retrospective context would have been no bad thing.