(originally published in the Nottingham Post)
A lot has happened to Rufus Wainwright over the past three years. In early 2010, he lost his beloved mother, the singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle, to cancer. A year later he became a father – to Viva, born to Leonard Cohen’s daughter Lorca – and this year he became a husband, to partner Jörn Weisbrodt.
Although all of these events have informed Wainwright’s recent work, the loss of his mother remains the most keenly felt on stage. A choral acapella version of Candles, the final track on his current album, provided a requiem-like opening to the show, in which Rufus tries to light a candle in Kate’s memory, only to find that his nearest three churches have run out of supplies (a true story, by the way). Lit from the back of the stage only, he appeared in silhouette, features masked in shadow. The solemnity of the piece felt like a throwback to Rufus’s last show here: still raw with grief back then, performing the bleak song cycle All Days Are Nights in almost complete darkness.
Mercifully for us all, the mood swiftly lifted. The lights went up, the band struck up, and Rufus reverted to more familiar type. “This is where I usually say that I look like Rupert the Bear”, he grinned, pointing to his cherry waistcoat, custard yellow shirt and tight, golf-checked slacks. “But there’s a little bit of Robin Hood going on here tonight. I’m like his gay cousin: Gary Hood.”
Produced by Mark Ronson, best known for his work on Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, Rufus’s seventh studio album, Out of the Game, is a Seventies-inspired collection with contemporary pop touches. The songs feel lighter, less ornate, less showboaty and show-tuney – but if truth be told, they also feel somewhat overshadowed by the magnificence of the Wainwright back catalogue, as the late-set double whammy of The Art Teacher and Going to a Town made clear. Of the new songs, Montauk made for a neat summary of Rufus’s altered domestic situation: sung to daughter Viva, with mentions of “second dad” Jörn (the couple married in Montauk this summer) and the late Kate McGarrigle (“now a shadow, but she does wait for us in the ocean”).
Further musical tributes to Kate were provided by backing singer Krystle Warren (whose solo set opened the evening) and singer/guitarist Teddy Thompson, also a fine solo performer in his own right. There were more covers later in the set, from Rufus’s father Loudon Wainwright III (One Man Guy, whose lyrics took on a whole new meaning) and his father-in-law Leonard Cohen. For the latter, a tango-fied take on Everybody Knows, second support Adam Cohen returned to the stage, to pay his own tribute to his father, bringing the total number of onstage sons of veteran singer-songwriters to three. (Lest we forget, Teddy Thompson’s father Richard is returning to the same venue next year.)
For the encore, a beefed-up Cupid emerged from the wings, complete with loincloth, wings and bow. Mere words couldn’t do justice to the insanity which ensued; let’s just say that it involved Greek gods, a crowd invasion, a stage invasion, a smiting, a coming out, giant grapes and a singing salami sandwich. It was a suitably riotous end to a show which ran the gamut of emotions, from tragedy to farce, all delivered with consummate style by one of pop’s most unpredictable performers.
Set list: Candles, Rashida, Barbara, April Fools, The One You Love, Grey Gardens, Saratoga Summer Song (Teddy Thompson), I Don’t Know (Krystle Warren), Respectable Dive, Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk, Out of the Game, Jericho, Perfect Man, One Man Guy, Everybody Knows, The Art Teacher, Going to a Town, Montauk, 14th Street. Encore: Old Whore’s Diet, Bitter Tears, Gay Messiah.
Old age sits well with Daevid Allen, the 74-year old leader of Gong, who has steered his ever-fluctuating troupe of psychedelic space-rockers for most of its 43 years on Planet Earth. White-haired and twinkly-eyed, he cuts something of a hippy Gandalf figure these days; indeed, it’s hard to remember him any other way.
Gong were last heard of three years ago, when Allen reunited with guitarist Steve Hillage for 2032, the band’s strongest album since their 1970s glory days. Hillage has moved on since then, and a new line-up has been recruited, including Allen’s son Orlando on drums. Orlando’s mother Gilli Smyth, better known to Gong fans as Shakti Yoni, was also billed to appear, but illness sadly prevented the 79-year old poetess from adding her unique “space whisper” to the five-piece line-up.
Shorn of female energies, and also devoid of the floaty synthesiser burbles that helped to define their sound, the band headed in a more muscular, rock-based direction. But although this was a very different Gong from the incarnation that toured in 2009, the players did full justice to Allen’s back catalogue, performing two lengthy sets that took us on a journey through their celebrated Radio Gnome trilogy, interspersed with older and newer selections.
Tracks from Flying Teapot, the first part of the trilogy, dominated the first set, combining whimsical mythology with almost nursery rhyme-like chants and refrains. (“Banana, nirvana, mañana… “) Excerpts from the next episode, Angels Egg, closed the first set and opened the second, preparing the way for the epic, hypnotic intensity of Master Builder from the concluding chapter, You.
From there, we spun back in time to the classic Camembert Electrique album, then hopped forward to Gong’s 1977 punk-inspired single Opium For The People: rarely performed in recent years, and an utter treat to behold. This segued into the blistering mantra Dynamite, which mutated into calls to “free Bradley Manning, free Julian Assange, free information” – a reminder that Allen’s counter-cultural revolutionary spirit has remained undimmed by the passing of time. Cocking a cheerful snook at the 11pm curfew, the band concluded with You Can’t Kill Me, a defiant ode to survival that suggests that Allen fully intends to carry on space-rocking into his eighties, and well beyond.
Two nights on from Alice Cooper’s Halloween Night Of Fear, another face-painted veteran of so-called “shock rock” brought his act to town. Now seventy years old, yet still best known for his 1968 chart-topper Fire, Arthur Brown’s performance style provided the blueprint that the likes of Cooper, Kiss and Marilyn Manson later adapted, while his unearthly falsetto screech set a pattern that innumerable heavy metal vocalists have since followed.
Backed by a feisty band who looked young enough to be his grandchildren, Brown made his entrance in a face mask, lifting it to reveal an impressive make-up job beneath. Presenting himself as the living embodiment of a truly free spirit, his energies and vocal prowess undimmed by the passing of the years, he launched into a typically theatrical, hugely entertaining set, which ran the gamut from progressive rock to cabaret and blues, with a touch of tango along the way.
The set list included several selections from The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, the 1968 debut album which made its name. Tracks such as Spontaneous Apple Creation, with its climactic line “…and five million people ate one strawberry!”, could have sounded dated in their whimsicality, but the youthful vigour of the band breathed new life into them. Other highlights included splendid covers of I Put A Spell On You and The Green Manalishi, and a rendition of Brown’s 1967 debut single Devil’s Grip: the first single ever played on the John Peel Show, as we were proudly reminded.
The players were joined at the side of the stage by Victor Peraino from Detroit, who had played keyboards with Brown’s early 1970s prog rock band Kingdom Come. Reunited with Brown for the first time in 39 years, Peraino added his parts via an iPad, which he brandished as proudly as any axeman would wield his guitar.
The main set climaxed with the celebrated opening sequence from the Crazy World album. At the point where Fire Poem segues into Fire’s call to arms (“I am the god of hellfire!”), Brown paused for a bizarre spoken digression, which somehow managed to include Adam Ant, Lady Gaga and his own mother, prophesying that “you will have to sing this song almost every day for the rest of your life”. There are, of course, far worse fates to endure. Having been granted the keys to the kingdom via this one classic song, it was clear that Brown wore his burden lightly, remaining the master of his own unique and colourful domain.
Coming at the end of a landmark month for Nottingham music, which has seen three city acts gain national recognition for their talents, and the first ever chart-topping album for a local artist, the Branch Out Festival offered a perfect opportunity to savour and celebrate the rich diversity of the current scene.
Over the course of ten hours, over fifty acts performed at seven different venues, all for free, leaving punters spoilt for choice as they dashed from venue to venue, programmes in hand.
The day began at Nottingham Contemporary, with a mystery “Blackout” performance in The Space. Guides led us – ten at a time, hands on shoulders like a conga line – into total darkness, with strict instructions to leave phones switched off. As no advance notice was given as to the performers, our ears were our only guides.
Eerie electronics morphed into pounding dance beats, which ebbed away into a field recording from a New York subway station. A male voice – John Sampson of Swimming – sung plaintively over a piano backing. A female voice joined in, and gradually took over, her soulful torch songs flowing into each other without a pause. For many of us, the voice was almost instantly recognisable; this was the wonderful Natalie Duncan, stepping away from her regular set list and delving into her massive stockpile of unrecorded songs. There is something very special about listening to such heartfelt music in the dark; it frees up the emotions, allowing for a very direct connection with the artist. A great start to the day.
From 3pm onwards, other venues started to open their doors. Over at Broadway, acoustic singer-songwriters were the order of the day, kicked off by Frankie Rudolf and Joe Danks, and concluded by Hannah Heartshape and Hhymn, the sole band on the line-up.
In the Basement of Rock City, Parks were an early highlight, delivering a crisp set of tuneful indie rock to an appreciative crowd. Practical Lovers were an altogether darker proposition, with their doomy electro powerfully sung by the vaguely alarming Jack Wiles.
A quick hop around the corner took you to Stealth, and another line-up that focussed mainly on guitar bands. This proved to be the rat-run of choice for rock fans, who could stop off at the Rescue Rooms bar between sets. Those who enjoyed Boots Booklovers, I Am Lono and Pilgrim Fathers were busily spreading the buzz, while one of this reviewer’s personal highlights of the day came from the brilliantly acerbic Sleaford Mods, whose bitter verses decrying their more fame-hungry fellow artists drew mid-song cheers. Meanwhile, the upstairs floor of the club played host to a vast line-up of hip hop MCs, including local legends such as Cappo, Jah Digga, 2 Tone and Karizma.
Offering a more relaxed ambience, the Alley Café provided gentle respite from the mayhem. A similarly easy-going vibe prevailed at Antenna, where spectators could dine at their tables while watching the acts, supper-club style. The Antenna programme was hosted by Dean Jackson, from BBC Radio Nottingham’s The Beat, who interviewed each act before they took to the stage. The superb line-up included Gallery 47, back in the game after a long break with a terrific clutch of new material, as well as the hotly tipped Ady Suleiman and Georgie Rose. Later on, Natalie Duncan stepped in for an absent Liam Bailey, followed by the ever-popular Nina Smith and the sublime Harleighblu, who offered tasters from her forthcoming album.
By 7pm, the crowds were peaking at Stealth and Rock City. There was turbo-charged ska from Breadchasers at Rock City, then a quick dash back to Stealth, now jammed to capacity, for two of the most eagerly anticipated sets of the day from teenage indie-rockers Kappa Gamma and Kagoule. It was a joy to witness how quickly both bands are developing. Once rather static on stage, Kappa Gamma are now firing on all cylinders, the players crashing around the stage and hurtling into each other, without ever sacrificing the complex precision of their material. And if you timed it right, you could also have caught a storming Rock City set from Captain Dangerous, a raucous four-piece backed by a string quartet, like an Anglicised version of The Pogues.
On the other side of the Market Square, the Malt Cross did brisk trade throughout the day, with sets including Chris McDonald, Cecille Grey and Will Jeffery. Topping the bill on the mezzanine stage, We Are Avengers delivered a more peppy, sparky and uplifting set than you might have expected from their more downtempo recorded work. They were followed by Injured Birds, premiering cuts from their just released debut album, and showing us just what could be done with a ukulele as lead instrument.
With sizeable turnouts at all the venues, the scale of the festival felt just right – although a shuttle bus wouldn’t have gone amiss, to relieve the strain on our aching soles. Everywhere you went, you ran into friends, eagerly filling you in on the acts you had missed, all sharing in the excellence of the day. Let’s hope that this becomes a regular fixture in years to come.
PHOTO GALLERY by Martyn Boston >>> (more…)
The Invisible Orchestra, Royal Gala, Sabar Soundsystem – Nottingham Arts Theatre, Saturday October 27
By way of a grand overture to Sunday’s Branch Out Festival, the venerable old Arts Theatre on George Street played host to a very special event on Saturday night, the result of many months of planning by James Waring of Royal Gala.
“Extravagant dress advised”, they said, and so we turned out in our finery: suits and hats, cocktail dresses and cravats. But this was where the formality ended, as the theatre transformed, for one night only, into a heaving gig venue. The aisles filled with dancers, cramming themselves into every available space and throwing the most elegantly debauched of shapes.
The Sabar Soundsystem opened the show: a ten-piece percussion troupe, which stirred Brazilian, Cuban, Indian and Indonesian ingredients into a hypnotic melting pot of joyous clatter. Six sets of tubular bells, mounted horizontally on wooden stands, added a Gamelan-style melodic touch, while at the other end of the stage, booming oil drums brought the bass.
Led by the delightfully demented Lou Barnell, resplendent in Mexican Day of the Dead face paint and a floral headdress adorned with tiny skulls, Nottingham’s premier party band Royal Gala turned up the heat, forcing more and more of us out of our seats. “Dancing in the aisles, how decadent”, purred Lou, strutting and high-kicking and goading us into life, like a queen of misrule. It was never like this on “am dram” nights, that’s for sure.
For the main attraction, twenty-one players – drawn from local bands too numerous to mention, as well as touring members of The Specials, Bad Manners and the Beat – became The Invisible Orchestra for the night, led by James Waring on guitar. An eleven-piece brass section, with saxophones, tuba, trombones, trumpets and cornet, did battle with a string quartet, a double bass, a Hammond organ, and pretty much any other instrument you might care to mention, making Jools Holland’s Rhythm and Blues Orchestra look like a skiffle band in comparison.
A succession of guest vocalists brought soul and passion to the proceedings, each in their different way. Veteran reggae man Percy Dread got things underway, chanting his warnings of war like a prophet of doom. A beaming Hannah Heartshape took things in a sunnier, funkier direction, followed by Ed Bannard of Hhymn, who led the orchestra through a dolefully impassioned rock waltz, to stunning effect. Finally, stepping in for Harleighblu at the eleventh hour, Natalie Duncan revealed a side of herself that most of us never seen before, transforming from moody chanteuse to fierce psychedelic soul-funk diva before our very eyes, tearing the roof off the theatre with a staggering vocal performance, and bringing an unforgettable night to a triumphant conclusion.
The last time that Nottingham’s neo-shoegazers Spotlight Kid played the Bodega, just over a year ago, a friend and I agreed that they sounded like fifty thousand bees trapped in a wind tunnel, but – and this is the crucial bit – all flying in the same direction.
A year later, with a deluxe edition of their Disaster Tourist album ready for release and a clutch of new tracks ready to debut, they brought their buzzing, triple-guitar squall back to town, in front of a warmly appreciative crowd that contained many of their fellow musicians; members of Amusement Parks On Fire, Swimming, Grey Hairs and We Show Up On Radar were all in attendance.
“More guitars!” someone shouted after Budge Up, the opening track. “Did someone say MORE guitars?” exclaimed singer Katty Heath, in amused bafflement. But if truth be told, this was a slightly more mellow and restrained show, which highlighted Katty’s sweet, classic pop melodies, shaping the noise into song-like form. So, perhaps just twenty thousand bees this time around – which is still an awful lot of bees.
After the show, the band and much of their audience made their way down to Nottingham Contemporary, to catch Grey Hairs performing for free in the café bar. Although strictly speaking a side project – the four players are all members of other more established bands, such as Kogumaza and Fists – Grey Hairs are beginning to make a name for themselves in their own right.
No less powerful than Spotlight Kid, but in an altogether different way, the Grey Hairs sound is punchy, brutal and primitive, making them worthy successors to the likes of The Pixies and The Breeders. They can play dumb at times – one song in particular was driven by a single chord for the first couple of minutes, which made the eventual appearance of a second chord feel like the most exciting thing in the world – but the dumbness couldn’t mask the band’s underlying precision and skill.
Two amazing bands in two great venues, on the same night? This city’s on fire right now.