Mike Atkinson

Martin Carthy – Frazer Theatre Knaresborough, Friday August 14 2015

Posted in Frazer Theatre, gigs, Harrogate Advertiser by Mike A on September 17, 2015

Originally published in the Harrogate Advertiser/Knaresborough Post.

He might be one of British folk music’s most pivotal and best-loved figures – garlanded with an MBE and a Lifetime Achievement Award, his early influence on Bob Dylan and Paul Simon a matter of record – but at the age of 74, Martin Carthy wears his achievements lightly. In best troubadour tradition, he strolls up Kirkgate into Knaresborough town, guitars and suitcase in hand, ready to open this year’s FEVA festival with a solo show at the Frazer Theatre.

With no starry stage persona to project, and no signature songs to present for the umpteenth time, he opens with High Germany, the first track on his recently re-released 1965 debut album. Dating from the eighteenth century, it’s the first of several selections that deal with themes of war.

Ahead of each song, while he sets his guitar to a different tuning, we are given the context.  The Doffing Mistress tells the tale of a group of mill girls who go on strike to support their sacked supervisor, one Elsie Thompson. While her charges have been bent double by their labours, Elsie can still stand up straight, hanging her coat on “the highest pin”.

The more we are told, the more meaning we can extract. For Carthy, this is a prime duty: the songs are what matter, and he is not here to distract us with showy dexterity or pretty frills. The playing is raw, unadorned, but full of character, invention and deft tricks of timing. He might forget a line here and there, shrugging off the blunder with an easy grin, but the picking never falters.

There are unorthodox tunings – he’s known for them – which twist new colours from his guitar. By keeping the bottom string tuned low, Carthy supplies his own bass section. On The Downfall Of Paris (“or The Downfall Of Pears, as it’s known in Dorset”), the effect is thrilling.

Some songs are as dark as any Nick Cave murder ballad. A jealous husband cross-dresses to trick his wife’s presumed lover, decapitates him, then learns too late that he is her secret bastard son. A battered wife stitches her sleeping husband into his bedclothes, then whacks him with a frying pan. Whoever said that folk music was twee?

He ends after two and a half spellbinding hours, with an acapella re-telling of Hamlet (“If you thought that was boring, you should read the bloody play!”) and a playfully creepy Harry Lime Theme. The cheers are hearty, sustained, and richly deserved.

 

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Sleaford Mods & Kagoule – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Tuesday January 27.

Posted in gigs, LeftLion, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on February 3, 2015

Originally written for LeftLion.

Kagoule as the support, eh? Aargh, just my luck. The last time I saw them play – Lacehouse basement, December 2013, an “in the round” set which placed us inches from their speakers – the experience left my ears ringing for weeks. Since then – and please, I mean to cast no slurs upon Kagoule’s art – I’ve not been able to hear them without suffering some sort of psychosomatic relapse. Yeah, it’s been an issue.

They start with Monarchy, their oldest song. Singer/guitarist Cai Burns wrote it five years ago, aged fourteen. A couple of years later, the trio broke through with the uncharacteristically lilting Made of Concrete, won a contest to play Rock City, and signed to Denizen. For a while, they seemed shackled to another new band, Kappa Gamma: similar age, same Rock City contest, same label, even the same initial letters. Kappa Gamma have since dipped from view, but Kagoule have been slowly stepping up. They’re on Earache now, and Gush, their debut single for the label, came out at the end of last year.

They may not be as noisy as the average Earache act, but Kagoule are still a good fit. For a teenage act, they’re more in thrall than most to the alt-rock boom of over twenty years ago – Fugazi, Unwound, the Pumpkins – so their place on the veteran label’s roster somehow underlines that lineage.

I’ve seen this band many times over the past few years. They’re less doleful these days, and they’ve grown bolder, spikier, more sardonic. The newer songs take more twists and turns. I was expecting them to have grown heavier and doomier, but mercifully that hasn’t happened. We only need one Swans.

They still play Made of Concrete, Lawrence English is still an uncommonly fine drummer – the glue that binds the band together – and bassist Lucy Hatter still has that song where she sheds her mask of inscrutability and starts screaming seven shades of hell. They’ve played stronger sets than this – Lucy has monitor problems, Cai vows never to use his guitar again – but on a big night at a sold-out Rescue Rooms, they feel like the right band at the right time.

It’s been nearly two years since I last saw Sleaford Mods: upstairs at the same venue, supporting I Am Lono, their second album as a duo (Austerity Dogs) just out. A few months earlier (to re-phrase John Cooper Clarke, an act they are often compared to but sound nothing like), its predecessor (Wank) had soured the mood of the newly self-celebratory Nottingham music scene like a fart at a birthday party. Whether born of righteous outrage or plain old trolling, its parochial pot-shots hit the mark, finding favour on the fringes and – against the odds – drawing the duo towards the spotlight, pariahs no more.

Side Two of Austerity Dogs was more or less a vinyl reissue of Wank, but with Side One, you sensed a widening of the net, a broadening of the scope, and a gathering focus for the fury. Jason Williamson had been ranting over loops on tiny stages for years, but Andrew Fearn’s arrival added vital new ingredients: a shared mindset, the right beats, the perfect onstage foil.

Two years, two more albums, countless limited edition singles, hundreds of gigs, an unexpectedly devoted pan-European fanbase, a hardback book, reams of column inches, a Guardian editorial, a fistful of placings on year-end critics’ lists and a smattering of press spats with UK rock royalty later, the Mods have returned in triumph, selling out the Rescue Rooms and earning a heroes’ welcome – however belated some of those welcomes might be.

Their return might be triumphant, but it’s anything but triumphalist. If anything, Williamson looks nervier these days: his movements more staccato, his demeanour less arrogant hard-man, his stage positioning more side-angled than head-on. Has all this acclaim humbled him? It’s a viable possibility.

He has developed a new tic, constantly flicking the back of his head in a singular, changeless manoeuvre. There are other tics, more sparingly deployed: puckered kisses, cheeky tit-squeezes, belly-flashing shirt-flicks, regal waves to the gallery. They ape the moves of a narcissistic rock star, but with an off-kilter, truncated timing that renders them as arch performance art. Beside him, Fearn does his usual: pressing play on a stool-mounted laptop, chugging bottled lagers, grinning, shuffling, mouthing along with key lines, the Yang to Jason’s Yin.

They’re on for exactly an hour, counting the encore. I’m told the atmosphere is less intense than at the last headline show at Spankys. Barring a few diehards down the front, this set of punters remains largely stock still, but they’re no less appreciative. A lot of scenester faces from, ahem, “back in the day” are here, dotted around the edges. Better late than never, right?

They open with Bunch of Cunts, from the latest EP. As opening salvos go, it couldn’t be more perfect. The energy levels rise for Jolly Fucker (“elitist hippies, arrogant cunts, Ian Beale tight trunks”), and they rise again for McFlurry (“I got a Brit Award! I got a Brit Award!”). By the time we get to the double sucker punch of Jobseeker and Tied Up In Nottz (“Hello Derby!”), the room is on fire.

Unlike their recorded versions, tracks have a habit of ending with repeated chants. “Smash the fucking windows!” brings Tied Up In Nottz to its climax, and “sack the fucking manager!” shuts Fizzy down. Dedicated to managers everywhere, Fizzy hits a special nerve. Most of us have worked for a “cunt with the gut and the Buzz Lightyear haircut, calling all the workers plebs”, and so has Jason – until a few months ago, when his rising fortunes as a Sleaford Mod enabled him to quit his day job with the council. It must have been the sweetest of victories.

Doubtless mindful of his captive audience, Jason gets Andrew to cue up an unscheduled track from Wank. Inspired by LeftLion’s 2011 music scene cover shoot at Rock City, Showboat blasts the hometown posers and careerists. “I heard the rule was: move to London. I heard the monkeys get the train. I ain’t a showboat, but you are, and I’ll die laughing my tits off in your face.” It’s the nearest we get to a “how d’you like me now, suckers?” moment.

Pubic Hair Ltd deals another kiss-off, this time to the Wellers and Gallaghers of this world. “Who gives a fuck about yesterday’s heroes… it’s not a pyramid, you’re not a fucking Pharaoh.” The Wage Don’t Fit closes the main set, then they’re back for three more. Fearn hands one of his beers to the front row, and Tweet Tweet Tweet ends the hour on the highest of highs.

Rock City next, then? There seems no reason not to.

Set list: Bunch of Cunts, Middle Men, Jolly Fucker, A Little Ditty, McFlurry, The Demon, Jobseeker, Tied Up in Nottz, Routine Dean, Tiswas, Fizzy, Under the Plastic and N.C.T., Showboat, Pubic Hair Ltd, The Wage Don’t Fit, 6 Horsemen (The Brixtons), Five Pound Sixty, Tweet Tweet Tweet.

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The Guardian gig venue guide: The Bodega, Nottingham

Posted in Bodega, features, The Guardian by Mike A on February 3, 2015

This tiny room with perfect sound and a clued-up crowd has a track record of spotting some of the best up-and-coming bands – including the Strokes, White Stripes, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, Scissor Sisters.

Capacity: 250

Who plays there: The Bodega has a remarkable knack for catching acts before they make it big: the Strokes, White Stripes, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, Scissor Sisters, Bloc Party, the Libertines, MGMT, the National, Mumford & Sons, Snow Patrol and Haim, Clean Bandit and the 1975 have all played here. The run-up to Christmas this year brings Eagulls, Circa Waves, Thurston Moore, Marika Hackman and many more. There are several shows a week.

Continue reading this article at The Guardian.

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Hockley Hustle – Nottingham, Sunday October 19

Posted in gigs, LeftLion by Mike A on February 3, 2015

Originally written for LeftLion

If the Hockley Hustle was Glastonbury, Nottingham Contemporary would be its Pyramid Stage. Dean Jackson and the BBC Introducing team have bagged a cracking line-up – including Harleighblu, Amber Run, Georgie and The Gorgeous Chans – and even at the start of the day, I find myself suppressing a rogue urge to park my lazy arse in The Space for the duration.

My Hustle odyssey duly begins here, with a long-awaited first chance to witness April Towers, a synth-pop duo who variously remind our little group of OMD, New Order and Hurts. April Towers have a knack for constructing sturdily chugging, dance-friendly tracks which surge into soaring, hooky choruses – not least on Arcadia, their imminent début single. All they need now are a couple of numbers which offer more of a contrast, in terms of rhythm and tempo.

There’s another strong bill at Antenna, at the opposite end of the festival. It’s a fair old trudge, but as my Glastonbury-hardened pals point out, it’s a mere stroll when compared to the trek between the Pyramid and Other stages. We’re here to see Ashmore, backed by his new band Unknown Era, but we also manage to catch the end of Captain Dangerous’s set; they’ll be performing again at the JamCafé later on.

The atmosphere at Antenna feels a bit weird: more like a TV studio than a gig venue, and focussed more on the Notts TV cameras than the seated audience behind them. The stage is hosted by Al Needham, who has been shunted onto a sofa in a far-flung corner, his introductions and interviews performed to cameras instead of punters. During his interview with Captain Dangerous, clipboard-wielding apparatchiks stalk the floor, shushing anyone who talks above a whisper. During Ashmore’s set, our view is obscured by a central column, and by a camera crew whose wheeled rig constantly trundles back and forth at the front of the stage. Still, the images on the monitor screens look most professional, and the event is sure to make good TV viewing.

In a departure from the gypsy jazz-tinged acoustic hip hop which first made his name, Ashmore’s sound has been fleshed out by the addition of electric guitars, bass and cajón, adding rock’s wallop and reggae’s lilt to familiar songs such as Misfit and My Town. It’s a bold step forward, and a successful one at that.

Signing ourselves out of Antenna – yes, there’s a little book on reception, even today – we emerge into an unexpected shower. With a spare thirty minutes before the next act on our list, we head for the main drag with open minds, ready to dive for shelter in any venue with music emerging from its doors. This does not prove to be an easy mission, as everywhere seems to be in turnaround, preparing for the next act at the top of the hour.

Help arrives on the corner of Stoney Street, as a group of friends on a smoke break usher us into The Corner, where I’m Not From London’s stage is already in full flow, blessed by a packed house. The band are “like Nirvana, but without a singer”, we are promised. “So, the Foo Fighters then?” we quip.

They turn out to be a bracingly intense instrumental trio, with the drummer marooned on stage and the guitarist and bassist lurching about on the main floor. Given the volume level, it takes me a while to establish their name. “Did you say Jay-Z The Pope?” “No, it’s like the bus stops.” “Bus Stop Madonnas? But this lot are blokes!” “I’ll write it down for you.” Oh, JC Decaux. Thank you. The atmosphere here is fantastic, but we have to move on.

In the dank basement of Bambuu, DH Lawrence & the Vaudeville Skiffle Show are the venue’s first live act at the day, over an hour earlier than the printed programme and on a different floor. This probably accounts for the somewhat sparse turn-out – the band themselves claim to recognise almost everyone in attendance – but a relaxed, jokey vibe prevails. The music is equal parts skiffle and bluegrass, with banjos, washboards, big hats, and our second cajón of the day. In a tribute to the band’s Eastwood forefather, Sons and Lovers sets passages from Lawrence’s classic novel to music. We emerge from the gloom with big smiles on our faces.

It’s one out, one in for Josh Wheatley at Boilermaker. With a dozen people ahead of us, we cut our losses and retreat. Where next? Bus Stop Madonnas are due on any minute at The Music Exchange, so we browse the racks and then take the afternoon air, to the strains of a busking duo covering Katy Perry. The expected few minutes stretch into half an hour – the first of several such delays – but we stand firm.

They’re worth the wait, of course. It’s a strange thing, watching rowdy, primitive, spirit-of-77 punk rock from all of three feet away, while an equal number of spectators cluster outside the shop window; clearly, the squall has no problems transmitting through glass. As all persons of taste should be aware, spirit-of-77 punk rock is one of the greatest genres known to humankind, and the two Madonnas serve it up with spirit and aplomb.

Dragging a couple of jazz fans with us, who have been enjoying the bill at Das Kino, we head back to Contemporary for Gallery 47. The last time I saw Jack Peachey perform, he was battling against chatty half-listeners at Jamcafé; this time around, he is blessed with absolute and total attention, from a hearteningly full room.

Doubtless bolstered by his recent European support slots with Paul Weller, Jack steps up to the demands of the larger space, projecting his performance without surrendering its core intimacy. Halfway through the set, he ditches his song list, ceremoniously handing it into the audience, and opts to play whatever takes his fancy. This includes a clutch of unreleased new songs, easily the equals of anything on his current album, and a beautifully understated rendition of All It Could Grow Up To Be, a personal favourite.

Within the prevailing “keep it positive” constraints of Notts music journalism, rave reviews are in danger of becoming devalued currency – but this was simply the finest Gallery 47 set I’ve seen to date, and my artistic highlight of the day. The jazz fans, who had never heard of him before, were mightily impressed; they can’t have been the only instant converts, either.

Time for a complete change of scene. Nirvana and Revolution are the places to be for hip hop and grime, so we descend upon a heaving Revolution, where rap battle league Don’t Flop will be filming the ultimate hometown clash: Youthoracle vs. Bru-C. First brought forward an hour, the battle is then delayed by half an hour. My friends lose patience and peel away – one to Band Of Jackals and the other to 94 Gunships (both reportedly excellent) – but having covered the big Don’t Flop event at the Rescue Rooms earlier in the year for The Guardian, there’s no way that I’m missing this local derby.

They may be the best of friends in real life, but Youth and Bru go in hard against each other. Bru-C mocks his opponent for his nu-metal past and a suspicious fondness for Classic FM; in turn, Youthoracle derides Bru-C’s indie hipster cred and his “relaxed high-top” haircut, and teases him for choking at the Rescue Rooms event. Hush in the room for the unamplified set is hard-won, but the local crowd lap up all the in-jokes and Notts-specific references, roaring their appreciation for the many killer punches. Youthoracle narrowly wins the trophy – but in truth, these were classic, precision-honed, top-of-their-game performances from both MCs alike.

It’s an easy stumble over the road to the LeftLion stage in the Broadway bar, where twinkly soul showman Rob Green is, as ever, charm personified. With a new band and a new set list, he’s on fine form, spreading good vibes across the room. I haven’t seen much dancing until now, but folk are eagerly getting their groove on, and it’s a pleasure to behold.

My middle-aged feet can only take one more act, and that act has to be the newly rebranded, deceased-canine-no-longer D.I.D, back in the reassuring comfort of the Contemporary. Like Rob Green before them, the band play a mostly all-new set, with Two Devils and a concluding Teenage Daughter thrown in as crowd-pleasers. Apart from the greasy blues-rock riff which powers one of the new songs, which will be made available for general consumption very soon, no especially radical re-inventions are unleashed. Instead, we are offered a refinement of the classic D.I.D sound – but it’s no mere rehash, either. The material is strong, well-crafted and instantly appealing, and it all bodes well for the next chapter in the band’s career.

The feet are screaming for relief, and so the odyssey comes to an end. It’s been an extraordinary day: rich in musical diversity and strong on collective goodwill, and all in the name of several charitable good causes. Everyone involved in the planning, promoting, staging and delivery of the event should take immense pride in their achievement.

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Kiki Dee & Carmelo Luggeri: An Acoustic Journey.

Posted in Frazer Theatre, gigs, Harrogate Advertiser by Mike A on February 3, 2015

Knaresborough Frazer Theatre, Saturday October 25.
Originally published in the Harrogate Advertiser / Knaresborough Post.

Internationally successful chart-toppers aren’t exactly queuing up to perform in Knaresborough, to put it mildly. But although it’s a long way from Madison Square Garden and Live Aid to the 130-capacity Frazer Theatre, Kiki Dee and her long-standing musical partner Carmelo Luggeri have grown fond of the venue; by their reckoning, this is their third visit. “There’s a warm atmosphere here, isn’t there?”, Kiki remarks. “That’s because we can’t turn the heating off!”, someone calls back.

At this stage in her career, with over fifty years in the business behind her, Kiki could be playing it safe on the concert hall circuit: all the hits as we remember them, safe cover versions, maybe a Classic Love Songs collection or two, surrendering artistic evolution for “heritage act” comfort. But that’s just not her style.

Instead, over the course of two sets that span a full three hours, Kiki and Carmelo take us on an “acoustic journey”, twisting old favourites into startling new shapes, and showcasing an undimmed talent for thoughtful songcraft and musical invention.

Of the old favourites, none is twisted further than Don’t Go Breaking My Heart. No longer the playfully light-hearted duet of old, it re-emerges, with subtly altered lyrics and melody, as a pleading, touching torch song. This adventurous approach infects the covers, too. Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill becomes an episodic epic, climaxing with a stunning guitar coda from Carmelo, whose multi-layered, echo-drenched arrangement brings John Martyn to mind.

As for the newer material, drawn from the duo’s three studio albums, influences range from Indian raga drones to swampy bottleneck blues. While Carmelo dazzles on his fretboard and effects pedals, Kiki adds ambient keyboard textures, fleshing out the sound. Amen and Goodbye, a song about rejecting false prophets, segues into She’s Smiling Now, which describes the fulfilment and freedom that Kiki’s mother discovered in her later years.

A couple of weeks ago, the duo were surprised to find Robert Plant in their audience. After the show, they discussed the difficulties faced by older artists who still strive to push forwards with their music. (“In America, Led Zeppelin tribute acts get bigger crowds than I do”, Robert confessed.) On the evidence of this bold, spellbinding and warmly received show, it’s clear that Kiki and Carmelo have chosen the right path. They can come back as often as they like.

Elton John – Nottingham Capital FM Arena, Tuesday June 24

Posted in Capital FM Arena, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on October 15, 2014

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

Personally invited by Elton John onto this section of his world tour, Bright Light Bright Light – the alter ego of Welsh-born Rod Thomas – delivered a crisp, well received set of tuneful, heartfelt electronic pop. Elton guested on his last single, and a second album, Life Is Easy, is due out next month. “The best thing is that we get to watch Elton every night for a month”, Rod grinned, enjoying every moment of his time on stage.

Despite all the sumptuous, extravagant gloss of his celebrity lifestyle, an Elton John show is first and foremost about the music. The staging was straightforward and gimmick-free, and the performances were spirited, soulful and technically immaculate. Over the course of 26 songs and nearly two and a half hours, the 67 year-old superstar drew on material that spanned 44 years of continuing success, from his 1970 breakthrough hit Your Song to the most recent album, The Diving Board.

To mark the 40th anniversary reissue of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, the set opened with selections from the classic double album, starting with the whole of Side One. A magnificent Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding set the bar high, the lights coming up during its atmospheric instrumental overture to reveal the band, which included long-term collaborators Davy Johnstone on guitar and Nigel Olsson on drums. Dark suits and dark glasses were the order of the day, with a side order of glitter on Elton’s costume.

Hopping back a couple of years to the Madman Across The Water album, Levon and Tiny Dancer were early highlights, the former showcasing Elton’s piano-playing prowess with the first of many dazzling, rapturous solo breaks. This was to become a common theme for the set, as songs were extended and brought to thrilling instrumental climaxes. During these passages, the players exchanged broad smiles, nodding approvingly at each other, as if hearing each other for the first time.

A stately, mellifluous piano solo introduced Rocket Man, teasing us with its unfamiliarity before eventually cutting to the familiar opening line. The ovation at the end of the song drew Elton away from his piano for the first time, as he acknowledged our applause from each corner of the stage. This was good news for the seated punters on the left hand side, as they finally got to see more than the back of his head.

Introducing Oceans Away, written to commemorate the centenary of the First World War, Elton dedicated the song to the memory of those who lost their lives in military conflict. “Everyone who fights for freedom for us deserves our respect”, he told us. Appropriately enough, it was followed by Someone Saved My Life Tonight, another standout moment. Elsewhere, Philadelphia Freedom was so funky, that even the cameraman at the side of the stage couldn’t help jigging along.

Towards the end of Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me, as if summoned by an invisible signal, the punters in the front three rows surged towards the edge of the stage, ready for the final rock-out: I’m Still Standing, The Bitch Is Back, Your Sister Can’t Twist and a rip-roaring Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting.

They stayed put for the encore: Your Song, a glorious Are You Ready For Love, and a gleefully celebratory Crocodile Rock. Reprising the first verse, Elton cheekily altered the lyric – “I remember when rock was young, Doctor Crippen had so much fun” – as Davey Johnstone mimed an axe murderer’s chop.

Blending much-loved classics with favourite album tracks from Elton’s vast catalogue, the set ranged from stripped-down balladry to blue-eyed soul and surging rock, uniting the generations and reminding us of Elton John’s continued mastery of his craft, both vocally and instrumentally. He can come back and entertain us as often as he likes. An outstanding night.

Set list: Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding, Bennie and the Jets, Candle in the Wind, Grey Seal, Levon, Tiny Dancer, Believe, Philadelphia Freedom, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Rocket Man, Hey Ahab, I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues, The One, Oceans Away, Someone Saved My Life Tonight, Sad Songs (Say So Much), All the Girls Love Alice, Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me, I’m Still Standing, The Bitch Is Back, Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock ‘n Roll), Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting, Your Song, Are You Ready for Love, Crocodile Rock.

The Guardian gig venue guide: Rescue Rooms, Nottingham

Posted in features, Rescue Rooms, The Guardian by Mike A on October 15, 2014

The Rescue Rooms is one of the jewels in the crown of a city that punches above its weight in music venues.

Capacity: 450. Upstairs, a separate performance space (the Red Room) holds 100.

Who plays there: Critically acclaimed bands on their way up, with the odd heritage act or tribute band along the way – the likes of Rudimental, Pere Ubu, Chvrches, John Murry, Fuck Buttons, 65daysofstatic, London Grammar, John Newman, Public Service Broadcasting and Low have appeared in the past year or so.

Continue reading this article at The Guardian.

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Katy Perry – Nottingham Capital FM Arena, Sunday May 11

Posted in Capital FM Arena, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on May 12, 2014

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

No one could ever accuse Katy Perry of doing things by half measures. Just over three years after her last visit, she returned to Nottingham with a stage show that was every bit as breathtakingly elaborate as before.

This was just the fourth date on Katy’s Prismatic World Tour, which she will be performing around the world from now until December, and although the staging was technically flawless, her crew took a lot longer than planned to put everything in place.

This wasn’t good news for the fans queuing outside, who were kept waiting for an extra 90 minutes, and it was even worse news for those with trains to catch at the end of the night, who were obliged to leave the venue well before the final encore. The Arena’s Twitter account was suitably apologetic, but as for La Perry herself, there was apparently no room in her script to say “sorry folks, we messed up”.

That said, the 90 minute delay had shrunk to 45 minutes by the time that Katy took to the stage, and no time-saving cuts were made to the two-hour extravaganza, which finished twenty-five minutes short of midnight. There must have been a lot of yawning in class on Monday morning, but in the grand scheme of things, it was a small price to pay.

Opening the show with Roar, perhaps her biggest hit to date, Katy emerged from a collapsing pyramid, in the centre of a massively extended triangular stage that reached more than halfway into the Arena’s standing section. In the middle of this triangle, her superfans were enclosed in a special pen, cut off from the rest of the crowd. This wasn’t perhaps the ideal vantage point, as their idol spent a lot of time at the very front of the stage, with her back turned to them – but they still looked appropriately thrilled throughout.

Setting the bar courageously high for the rest of the show, Roar featured tribal warriors with illuminated Mohicans and light spears, luminous skipping ropes, backwards conveyor belts that held the running dancers stationary – and that was before we got to the rising, rotating platforms, the high wires, the trapezes, the floating prisms, the giant teacups and all the rest of it. In the midst of this spectacle, Katy shimmied, hoofed and mugged, ever the showgirl, in a space-age crop top and matching skater skirt. The hem of her skirt and the edges of her top were also illuminated, as were the braids in her pony tail.

“We’re back”, she announced. “Let’s be in this moment, right now, together. Let’s forget about tomorrow!” Across the hall, anxious mothers checked their watches, while their daughters screamed with unrestrained delight.

While the 2011 show stuck to a carefully themed narrative, the Prismatic Tour jumped between wildly contrasting sections. For the second act, the stage turned into Ancient Egypt, as Katy reappeared on a gigantic golden horse, dressed as Cleopatra. For the third act, she returned to her alter ego, “Kitty Purry”, clad in a hot pink catsuit with matching ears, standing on a ball of wool.  Towards the end of the show, dayglo and neon were the order of the day, with an early Nineties retro feel; a bra top was adorned with smiley faces on each breast, and a black and white yin-and-yang skirt rose ever higher from the stage. Elsewhere, an inflatable pink Cadillac transported the dancers along the catwalks – Nicki Minaj had one of those, too, but this was a sturdier construction – while a giant pink champagne bottle and a tube of lipstick floated around the sides of the hall.

Things calmed down for the acoustic section, giving Katy a chance to focus on her interpretative skills, on new album tracks such as By The Grace Of God and Double Rainbow. Although this did rather expose her limitations as an artist – sincerity isn’t her strongest suit – it did allow her to forge a more personal connection with her fans. “I usually don’t perspire, but my back is sweating right now”, she confessed, before reaching for a refreshing pint of beer. “Down it! Down it!”, the crowd chanted, in true Nottingham style. “I am a lady!”, she retorted, before handing most of her pint over to a grateful punter, with a word of caution: “I have a bit of a cold, so drink it – but I’ll be with you for between ten days and two weeks.”

Towards the end of the acoustic section, Katy took out her phone and called her mother, to wish her a happy Mother’s Day (in the US, they celebrate on a different date). “She has no idea, so let’s put her on speaker phone, and see what comes out of her mouth.” Mother Perry handled the surprise well, graciously wishing us all goodbye at the end of the call. It was a rare unscripted moment, and all the more entertaining for it.

Having focussed on her most recent album, Prism, for most of the show, Katy returned to some of her older hits for the finale: Teenage Dream, California Gurls, and a showstopping rendition of Firework. Alone on the stage in a voluminous multi-coloured skirt, she twirled beneath the pyrotechnics, singing her heart out, caught up in the moment, and unabashedly lapping up the experience for all it was worth. The triumph was deserved. No one else at the top of their game in contemporary pop is working it as hard as Katy Perry right now; for while Gaga and Bieber might be stumbling, she continues to reign supreme.

Set list: Roar, Part Of Me, Wide Awake, This Moment/Love Me, Dark Horse, E.T., Legendary Lovers, I Kissed A Girl, Hot N Cold, International Smile/Vogue, By The Grace Of God, The One That Got Away/Thinking Of You, Double Rainbow, Unconditionally, Walking On Air, It Takes Two, This Is How We Do/Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.), Teenage Dream, California Gurls, Birthday, Firework.

The Guardian gig venue guide: Capital FM Arena, Nottingham

Posted in Capital FM Arena, features, The Guardian by Mike A on March 11, 2014

Capacity: 10,000 standing, 9,300 seated

Who plays there: A-list pop stars: Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, One Direction, Lady Gaga. R&B superstars: Beyoncé, Drake, Rihanna, Usher. Heritage legends: Elton John, Rod Stewart, Meat Loaf, Status Quo. Festival headliners: Kings of Leon, the Killers, Arctic Monkeys, Ed Sheeran, Elbow. Few acts are too big to play here, although Springsteen, Madonna and the Stones are still beyond its reach.

Continue reading this article at The Guardian.

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Indiana – Nottingham Bodega, Wednesday February 5

Posted in Bodega, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on February 6, 2014

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

For her sold out homecoming show at The Bodega, rescheduled from December due to illness, Indiana brought out a brand new band, making their début performance. Unlike the previous bunch of London-based hired hands, this new line-up hails from Nottingham: Tim on guitar, Ed on drums, Angelo on keyboards and occasional bass. Markedly younger than their predecessors, but every bit as able, they brought fresh vigour and commitment, adding new colours to familiar tunes.

There was something different about Indiana, too. Following the birth of her second child, she recently spent time recording in Los Angeles, and some of that Californian sophistication must have followed her home. Elegant in sleeveless black, she merged rock-chick cool with Hollywood gloss, looking every inch the rising star.

Multi-tracked vocal samples preceded her entrance, as the band established the mood: taut, coiled, menacing, lacing icy synth-pop with a grinding alt-rock crunch. An unreleased track, Never Born, opened the eight-song set, introducing Indiana at her most threatening (“I’m gonna make you wish you were never born”) and defiant (“I will rise up, I will rise up”).

First performed on the same stage 18 months earlier, as a stark piano ballad, Smoking Gun has evolved into a dense, passionate drama, building from wounded vulnerability into steely, vengeful fury. Animal’s sub-bass throbs darkened the mood further, before the synths took over completely on New Heart, pulsing steadily through the track.

A new song, Shadow Flash, showcased the skills of the band to superb effect, with the most sonically adventurous arrangement of the night: a thrilling blend of eerie chirrups, unsettling shouts, metallic whirrs and deep dub tones, augmented by extra percussion and synth brass.

The main set ended with Solo Dancing, the next single, premiered by Radio One’s Zane Lowe a night earlier, and praised by the influential Popjustice website as “something very special indeed”. Notably more uptempo than anything else that Indiana has recorded, this could well turn out to be her breakthrough track.

For the encore, Indiana took things back to basics with an unadorned Blind As I Am, holding the room in rapt silence with an astonishing acapella finish. Recent single Mess Around closed the show in fine style, leaving the singer beaming with exhausted relief; despite struggling with a non-functioning earpiece, she had overcome the obstacle like a true pro.

Clocking in at a mere 37 minutes, the set did feel somewhat foreshortened – it would have been good to hear last year’s single Bound, for instance – and between the songs, Indiana’s stage patter could also benefit from some more polish, if she is to connect with crowds away from her home town. That aside, all the other elements – the songs, the arrangements, the presentation, and above all, that towering vocal talent – are fully in place, ready for this local girl to step up to the next level nationally.

Set list: Never Born, Smoking Gun, Animal, New Heart, Shadow Flash, Solo Dancing, Blind As I Am, Mess Around.

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The Guardian gig venue guide: Rock City, Nottingham

Posted in features, Rock City, The Guardian by Mike A on January 23, 2014

We kick off a new weekly series giving you the lowdown on everything you need to know about the UK’s best venues with a trip to the East Midlands.

Capacity: 2,450 in the main room, 300 in the basement.

Who plays there: Big names from Rock City’s past include Nirvana, Oasis, David Bowie, REM, Guns N’ Roses and Blur. The roster is slanted towards rock, as the name would imply, but other genres still get a look in; to the disgust of regulars, Blue played here in 2013. The NME tour is an annual fixture, as are the Dot to Dot and Hit the Deck festivals, covering indie and rock respectively. Other recent acts include Two Door Cinema Club, the Deftones, Foals, Bastille, Suede, Public Enemy, Alt-J, the 1975, Johnny Marr, AlunaGeorge, Gary Numan and Disclosure.

Continue reading this article at The Guardian.

 

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Curating Sound Performance – Nottingham Park Tunnel, Thursday December 12

Posted in gigs, LeftLion by Mike A on December 23, 2013

Originally published in LeftLion

Completed in May 1855, under the supervision of architect Thomas Chambers Hine, the Park Tunnel instantly became something of a white elephant. Although it had been planned as a main carriageway from Derby Road into the Park Estate, more convenient routes had already been constructed, and the expected traffic never materialised. Even to this day, it remains an obscurity, its street-side entrance obscured by apartment blocks and a car park.

However, as Nottingham Contemporary successfully demonstrated on a cold, drizzly December evening, this vast sandstone hollow has much to offer as a unique performance space. Illuminated after dark, for those few pedestrians who know of its existence, and with a naturally resonant acoustic, the tunnel turns out to be tailor-made for live music.

Around a hundred gathered for the free show. Folding chairs were provided, and a mulled wine and mince pie stall did brisk business. A health and safety announcement was made, but the designated fire exits couldn’t have been more self-evident. Hello, it’s a tunnel.

———

The bill began with Plain, shift, plane: the first of three improvised pieces, all conceived as specific responses to the tunnel space. Described as presenting “constellations of selected sets of pitch clusters”, it took the form of a dialogue between Rebecca Lee’s flute and Jack Harris’s sine tones, with the tunnel itself cast as the mediating third party.

Lee sounded each call, with a series of long, sustained flute tones; Harris would then provide a response, mirroring the natural sine waves of the flute with an electronic counterpart. Sometimes the tones were equally pitched, fusing into one as the instruments changed over, leaving Lee to complete each cycle. At other times, Lee would go much higher or much lower, extending the sonic range.

Stripped of melody and rhythm, the tones swayed in the air, shimmering and reverberating against the sandstone, and cutting themselves loose from any discernible sense of place. During certain passages, the sound felt all-enveloping, as if beamed from inside the listener’s head. At quieter moments, the steady, distant rumble of Derby Road traffic blended subtly into the mix.

A lone pedestrian stepped softly through the tunnel, past the performers and up to the street. Instead of breaking the spell, his footsteps somehow augmented the experience, nudging us into a fuller appreciation of the space.

———

“Before I begin, I just want to…”

Hunched over his smartphone, a loudspeaker strapped to his back, Phillip Henderson wandered off from us, inaudibly muttering his way up the tunnel’s incline. At the top, he turned around – “Sorry, sorry” – and commenced his return journey. Was this bumbling ineptitude, or an integral part of Maximal Cluster, his ten-minute performance piece? Almost certainly, it was the latter.

As Henderson paced the full length of the crypt-like space – down and up, then down again and up again, briefly conversing with the clipboard-and-programmes attendant at the bottom, but mostly resembling a pre-occupied academic checking his emails – the “Ion Block Rocker Bluetooth” on his back amplified the sounds generated by his constant smartphone key-taps.

These sounds – booming sub-bass rumbles for the most part, topped with high-pitched shrieks – filled the tunnel from top to bottom, no matter where Henderson happened to be at the time. As he stepped directly past you, they would briefly come into sharper focus, before dissolving back into infinite loops of echo. It was all too much for the pigeons at the top end, who surrendered their perches en masse.

Back in the centre, the performer casually scraped his shoe across the gravel a few times, signalling the end of the recital. His demeanour was deceptive. This had been a carefully researched exploration of the site’s sonic capabilities, where the tunnel became “not just an arena for sound art, but the instrument that we all get into”, and the performance became “a perfect opportunity to bring out the infinite maximal colours from inside the earth”.

———

No stranger to the process of exploring “the extreme acoustics of very resonant spaces”, John Butcher presented a two-part improvisation for tenor and soprano saxophone, intended to generate “an encounter between a musician and a place that gives a fighting chance to drawing something new from both of them”.

Arguably the most challenging, but ultimately the most rewarding performance of the night, The Geometry of Sentiment stalked the outer reaches of free jazz improv, as Butcher conjured a constantly shape-shifting, endlessly unpredictable riot of sound from his instruments, with a bracing disregard for conventional modes of playing.

Primitive and evolved in equal measure, Butcher’s playing pitched the unfettered explorations of a child against the studied technique of a pro, with startling results: sucking, wheezing, rasping, yelping and bellowing, sometimes tapping his reed against his tongue, sometimes bursting into glorious melodic flurries that could have been sourced from Gershwin, before instantly subverting them, like a crazed scratch DJ.

As if in solidarity with the pigeons, one listener made a mid-set exit. Turning towards the departing figure, Butcher’s sax fell into puttering, satirical step with the footfalls. The audience giggled, gently. Their concluding applause was hearty, warm and sustained.

———

Fifteen minutes later, reaching for my keys on a quiet road, I became newly fascinated by their jangle. Pausing at the front door, I jiggled them in my palm, savouring the rhythms they created. Evidently, the spell had yet to be fully broken. Perhaps other artists will soon find equally innovative ways of tapping into the Park Tunnel’s power, and expanding a few more perceptions in the process.

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Kagoule, Hang, Bluebird – Nottingham Lacehouse, Friday December 6

Posted in gigs, Lacehouse, Nottingham Post by Mike A on December 23, 2013

Originally published in the Nottingham Post

For the first date of Kagoule’s UK tour, which will take them as far afield as Aberdeen and Brighton, the teenage alt-rock trio opted to play a special gig in the basement of the Lacehouse. While the bar’s regular Friday night crowd hopped around upstairs to cheesy Eighties hits, the basement filled with a markedly different set of punters, who thronged around a central performance space.

In the middle of the room, the three bands on the bill – Kagoule, Hang and Bluebird – performed in the round, facing each other, their monitors arranged inwards. Rope lighting marked out the boundaries of their zone, giving the cellar a crypt-like feel.

For the audience, this was a chance for an up-close and personal experience, which gave us an extra focus on the dynamics between the players. The volume might have been skull-crushingly loud, but the experience was curiously, and thrillingly, intimate.

Bluebird are a young band, who haven’t been performing for long, but they’re already impressively tight. Offering a fresh take on classic emo, their songs navigated complex twists and turns, stops and starts. Hopefully we’ll be seeing a lot more of them in 2014.

Hang started their set with a basic, chugging two-chord riff, which seemed like it would never end. It formed the starting point for a uniquely immersive set, performed as one continuous instrumental piece. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the riff twisted into new shapes. As the guitar and bass kept a steady pulse, and the keyboards added sonic texture, the drummer was left free to roam, adding rhythmic colour to the hypnotic groove.
Pitched halfway between Hawkwind and Hookworms, and tempered with Krautrock’s unflashy precision, Hang’s set was utterly spellbinding.

It has been almost two years since Kagoule burst onto the Nottingham scene, with their landmark appearance at Rock City with Dog Is Dead – and yet the band members are still only just old enough to order beers at the bar. Having completed their education over the summer, Cai Burns (lead vocals, guitar), Lucy Hatter (bass) and Lawrence English (drums) are now free to concentrate on the band full-time, building on all the promise which they have consistently shown.

Inspired by Nineties alt-rock, as pioneered by the likes of Fugazi, Nirvana and Unwound, Kagoule breathe new life into the genre. Opening with Monarchy – their oldest song, written by Cai at the age of fifteen – they tore into their set with visceral power. Brought forward from his usual place at the back of the stage, Lawrence’s brilliant drumming was dragged right into the centre of the storm, underpinning Cai and Lucy’s instinctive chemistry.

The intensity lightened for the comparatively gentle Made In Concrete, before rising to new heights for new single Adjust The Way, perhaps their heaviest track to date. Encoring with a track so new that Cai apologised in advance for not remembering its words, Kagoule drew thunderous applause from the hometown crowd. If the staging had been an experiment, then it had paid off handsomely. Let’s hope that more city bands follow their example.

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Stornoway – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Monday November 25

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on November 28, 2013

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

Downsized from Rock City at the eleventh hour, Stornoway adapted to their reduced circumstances with good grace; they’re more of a Rescue Rooms band in any case, and the comparative intimacy of the room suited them well. Entering to the strains of the original Dr Who theme tune, they preluded their first song, Farewell Appalachia, with a delicate arrangement for triangle, torn newspaper, wood block and axe. It’s doubtful whether this would have worked so well on a larger stage.

Although they’ve been playing together since 2006, and releasing records since 2009, this was the band’s first visit to Nottingham, we were told. To mark the event, front man Brian Briggs had done some prior research, and he duly declared himself impressed to be performing in the birthplace of “cat’s eyes, HP sauce, shin pads and genetically modified tomatoes”.

Seeking to add spice to I Saw You Blink, a well-worn old favourite, Briggs had also been casting around for a song from a Nottingham band, whose lyrics he could work into the tune. “As I’m sure you are painfully aware, there aren’t many bands to choose from”, he told us, blithely unaware of the city’s reviving musical reputation. A snatch of Lightning Bolt might have been fun, and even Billy Don’t Be A Hero might have raised a smile, but we had to settle instead for KWS’s cover of KC and the Sunshine Band’s Please Don’t Go. Oh well, never mind.

A six-track mini-album, You Don’t Know Anything, was released a fortnight ago, and three of its tracks found their way into the set list. The best of these was Clockwatching, a rousing early highlight which collapsed into cacophony before the final refrain, like an explosion in a farmyard. Later in the set, the droll lyrics of the title track – “I’ve less energy than a stick of a celery” – raised chuckles in the crowd.

Stepping away from the mikes for an unamplified four-song sequence, Briggs performed November Song on his own – “the noise of the air conditioning you can imagine to be the wild winds”, he quipped – before gradually being joined by the rest of the band, their guest fiddler and their guest trumpeter. Again, such intimacy would have been impossible at Rock City, but here it drew perhaps the loudest applause of the night, particularly following the gentle hoedown of We Are The Battery Humans.

Perplexingly, the band’s most recent full-length release, Tales From Terra Firma, was poorly represented in the set list – it would have been particularly good to have heard Knock Me On The Head and Invite To Eternity, for example – but on the whole, the audience warmed most to the oldest songs, softly singing along to Boats & Trains and Fuel Up, both from the first album.

Pitched somewhere between Noah & The Whale’s folk-pop and Belle & Sebastian’s chamber-pop, with a fondness for nature and wildlife imagery that makes them naturals for the outdoor festival circuit, Stornoway have carved a serviceable niche for themselves. They’re clearly sensible and grounded fellows – perhaps a little too sensible and grounded at times, with a tendency towards pious over-tidiness that could do with keeping in check – but they do what they do well, at a level of success that should sustain them for a good while to come.

Set list: Farewell Appalachia, Clockwatching, I Saw You Blink, Boats & Trains, When You Touch Down From Outer Space, The Ones We Hurt The Most, Fuel Up, November Song, Josephine, You Don’t Know Anything, We Are The Battery Humans, Watching Birds, You Take Me As I Am, The Great Procrastinator, Zorbing.

Nina Smith – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Thursday November 21

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on November 28, 2013

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

It’s been a long time since we last heard from Nina Smith. For most of this year, she has been lying low, working on new material and developing a new sound, which sees her shifting away from acoustic pop and heading in a more soulful direction.

Having taken such a long break from performing, Nina needed to come back with a bang. Booking the main stage of the Rescue Rooms was a bold move – it’s the first time she has headlined there – but as she stepped onto the stage in front of a packed room, to wild applause, it was clear that the risk had paid off.

As an introductory video explained, Nina has forged a more “grown-up” approach to her songwriting and presentation, with a fuller, richer and funkier sound that draws inspiration from Alicia Keys, Carole King and Nineties R&B. With a new four-piece band, two new backing singers, and a brand new set of songs, she had set herself the task of effectively re-inventing herself in public.

Quirkily stylish in a black polka-dot top and crimson velvet hotpants, Nina radiated personality, warmth and charm, connecting with the room in an instant, and displaying a keen commitment to her new material. “Tired of closing curtains, I want to open up to sunshine”, she sang on Waiting For You, a song about hanging on to hope in an unrequited love affair – but the words fitted the occasion, too.

Elsewhere, Why Can’t I Sleep dealt with conflicting emotions at the end of a relationship, a theme that was revisited for I Wish, the eighth and final song of the night. There were more unrequited longings in This Love – “your heart’s not for sale, but I stole it” – while on Come Home (“let me show you, this is how it’s done”) and I Can’t Read You, Nina asserted her desires more explicitly. “You should come a little closer, take your clothes off”, she teased on the latter, drawing mid-song cheers.

Musical influences ranged far and wide. Opening the set, Love To Leave’s light reggae backbeat served the song well, and those Carole King influences came to the fore on Scars, a stripped down number for voice and piano.

Overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of the crowd, Nina couldn’t thank us often enough. There will be another chance to catch her performing for free this year, at the Royal Concert Hall on Tuesday December 3rd. In the meantime, she can take pride in this triumphant comeback, which opens a highly promising new chapter in her career.

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Public Service Broadcasting / Girls In Hawaii – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Wednesday November 13

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on November 19, 2013

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

Girls In Hawaii are a top five act in their native Belgium, who have yet to make much of an impact over here. Regrouping after the death of their drummer in 2010, they have just released their third album, Everest. It’s an understandably melancholy and subdued affair for the most part, which stands in marked contrast to the six-piece band’s muscular and varied live set. Whenever you think you’ve got the measure of them, they’ll throw in something unexpected: a funky keyboard vamp, a discordant howl, a big pop chorus.

Midway through the set, the two keyboard players abandon their posts, bringing the number of guitars on stage up to five. Wired to identical amps, two Telecasters are played in unison, fattening the sound; a simple but effective trick, which is repeated for the set’s closing song. By this stage, the formerly mild-mannered singer has vaulted one of the speaker stacks. Bathed in red light, his tambourine worn like a crown, he yells unintelligibly into an old-fashioned telephone receiver, as the band crank up the energy levels to a breathtaking degree. Nobody saw this coming. It’s a stunning moment.

The mood lightens for the headliners, who preface their set with a public information film of their own, warning us of the perils of Wafty Mobile Phone Camera Video Disorder: a welcome and hearteningly effective piece of propaganda.

Borrowing the words of Lord Reith, the founding father of the BBC, the title of Public Service Broadcasting’s album – Inform Educate Entertain – spells out their mission. Blending sound samples and video footage from vintage public information films with live drums, keyboards, guitars and banjo, they mash the past up with the present, with wit, style and dexterity.

To the right of the stage, the tweed-jacketed and bow-tied J. Willgoose, Esq. manipulates the sonic elements, looping and layering his live instruments, and punching sound samples from his array of kit. Even the stage banter is pre-recorded (“we have always wanted to play” – long pause – “Rescue Rooms”), including retorts to hecklers (“we’ve all had a few”). To the left, Wrigglesworth’s gleeful live drumming powers the set, while in the centre, Mister B controls the visuals, beaming pre-recorded and live footage onto two giant screens and two rickety towers of antique television sets. Completing the boffin look, all three performers sport the same thick-rimmed spectacles.

Two new tracks are performed, both of them in Dutch (“it seemed like the logical next step”), and featuring footage of the world’s biggest ice-skating race. Elsewhere, dandies in boutiques form the backdrop for The Now Generation (“how about these slacks?”), while Night Mail pays tribute to our most recently privatised public service, and Spitfire quotes from The First of the Few, a fictionalised account of the airplane’s construction that served as a morale-booster during World War Two.

It’s high-concept stuff, but there’s nothing too academic or remote about it either; “entertain” takes priority over “inform” and “educate” throughout, and the players clearly don’t take themselves too seriously. It’s difficult to see how they can sustain their act in the long-term, as its novelty is a large part of its appeal – but as of now, it’s a raging success, and a delight to witness.

The Invisible Orchestra – Nottingham Albert Hall, Friday November 1

Posted in Albert Hall, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on November 19, 2013

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

This had to be the best-dressed audience of the year. More burlesque parade than Halloween hangover, everywhere you looked there were masks and feathers, paired with dressy frocks and sharp suits. In one corner of the Albert Hall’s main bar, expert make-up artists applied elaborate facial adornments. Meanwhile, at the far end of the room, before the show and during each interval, Swing Gitan filled the dance floor with sprightly jazz.

In the upstairs hall, Origamibiro performed a peaceful, meditative opening set, blending looped effects and acoustic instruments with impressionistic visuals, and using contemporary techniques to evoke dream-like memories of a forgotten past. Sepia photographs merged into the decaying pages of old books; an ancient typewriter hammered out disconnected phrases onto a split screen. It was an oasis of calm in an otherwise riotous night.

Up from London, The City Shanty Band took to the stage in masks with Mickey Mouse ears. “We don’t know whether we’re mice or rats”, they confessed, before lurching into a boisterous set of sea-shanties that pitted nine lusty male voices against drums and occasional accordion. With arms thrown around each other’s shoulders, they stomped and clapped and roared, goading the hall into life. The set ended with a stage invasion, the drums growing ever faster as the singers roared their final battle cry: “all for beer and tobacco!”

With each successive performance, The Invisible Orchestra grows larger, and less invisible. They’re up to 42 players now, with an 11-piece brass section, a 13-piece choir, and a line-up which – as this paper has said before – makes Jools Holland’s Rhythm and Blues Orchestra look like a skiffle band. In logistical terms alone, it’s a phenomenal achievement.

After a slow-building instrumental overture, choir leader Rachel Foster stepped forward for the first guest vocal of the night – not that many in the audience would have known this, as none of the singers were introduced by name. She was succeeded by reggae legend Percydread, whose leg injury proved no barrier to a storming rendition of War.

By this stage, half the audience were on their feet. Following Ed Bannard’s slow-burning Into The Arms Of The Night, a crazed percussion duet between band leader James Waring and Sabar Soundsystem’s Mikey Davis brought the other half to their feet, ready for Hannah Heartshape’s electrifying No Time Like The Present. By the end of the song, the aisles and the front of the stage were packed with dancers. The Albert Hall probably hadn’t seen anything like it since The Rolling Stones played there in 1964.

Other star performers included  Emilios Georgiou-Pavli from Nottingham’s Hallouminati, who led the band with his bazouki, and a startlingly dapper MC $pyda, who drew on his dancehall roots for a reggae-soul workout.

Despite being marred by a terrible, soupy sound mix, which rendered the string section and the choir literally inaudible and blurred much of the percussion and keyboards, this was a spectacular performance, which succeeded in provoking unforgettable scenes of the most elegant mayhem.

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The Boomtown Rats – Nottingham Rock City, Tuesday October 29

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on November 8, 2013

Originally written for the Nottingham Post.

In the parallel universe of BBC4’s 1978 Top of the Pops re-runs, The Boomtown Rats are having a good year. As of now, Rat Trap – the first new wave Number One – has just knocked John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John off the top of the charts, making this an ideal time for the first ever Rats reunion.

To get himself back into role, Bob Geldof is spending the tour in an imitation snakeskin suit. He found it festering at the bottom of a drawer, we were told, with a stench that brought back such pungent memories, that he felt compelled to reform the band. It’s a cute myth, if more than a little unlikely.

It’s a role which Geldof hasn’t played for the thick end of thirty years. He’s 62 now, with a reputation as an international humanitarian campaigner that has buried the memories of his hit-making career. Nevertheless, as he told a newspaper last week, if he were writing these songs today, he wouldn’t change a word.

Listening to them again in a packed Rock City, you could see his point. Disturbed teens are still waging indiscriminate shooting sprees (I Don’t Like Mondays), or responding to tough economic times with a me-first, screw-you mindset (Looking After Number One). And if we were worried back then about state surveillance, then in the wake of Edward Snowden’s security leaks, the words of Someone’s Looking At You have never rung so true. “Facebook are selling your details to the highest bidder”, Geldof declared, in his only political harangue of the night.

Fronting a line-up of four original Rats and a couple of new recruits, the singer’s commitment to his material was astonishingly intense. On those old TV clips, he can seem a little gauche, a little try-too-hard – but the 2013 Geldof, for all his Jagger-esque posturing, is a captivatingly effective front man, breathing new life into songs that could otherwise have sounded dated and corny.

They might have ridden into town on the punk rock bandwagon, but the Rats were never much of a punk band at heart. They were always more Springsteen than Strummer, with the pizzazz of an Irish showband and a healthy dollop of Doctor Feelgood’s supercharged rhythm and blues.

The Feelgood connection came through loud and clear on (She’s Gonna) Do You In, as Bob whipped out his harmonica and dropped to his knees, showing surprising instrumental flair. Three songs later, the band dipped into new-wave reggae for Banana Republic, a bitter denunciation of the Irish establishment that caused the Rats to be banned from playing in their home country. “One of the few benefits of age is that sometimes you’re proved right”, said Sir Bob, in a scornful introduction.

Dropped into the middle of the set, I Don’t Like Mondays had everyone roaring the “tell me why” call to Geldof’s response. Similar mayhem greeted Rat Trap, following an extended Mary of the 4th Form whose middle section quoted from I Wanna Be Your Man, Born To Be Wild and John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom. Dodgy as that might sound on paper, the sequence worked brilliantly on stage.

Saved until the encore, Diamond Smiles reprised the tale of a doomed socialite, whose fate was tragically mirrored twenty years later by Paula Yates. The parallels can’t be lost on Geldof – he said as much in another recent interview – and indeed, there was something about the way we were urged to “sing it for me, sing it louder” that suggested he needed our support.

By this stage, he had more than earned it. Reunion tours are always risky propositions, but as this unexpectedly thrilling show demonstrated, The Boomtown Rats have absolutely made the right call.

Set list: (I Never Loved) Eva Braun, Like Clockwork, Neon Heart, (She’s Gonna) Do You In, Someone’s Looking at You, Joey’s on the Street Again, Banana Republic, She’s So Modern, I Don’t Like Mondays, Close as You’ll Ever Be, When the Night Comes, Mary of the 4th Form, Looking After Number One, Rat Trap, Never Bite The Hand That Feeds, Diamond Smiles, The Boomtown Rats.

 

Alison Moyet – Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Sunday October 27

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on November 8, 2013

Originally written for the Nottingham Post.

Surfing on the success of her highest-charting album since 1987, Alison Moyet has never seemed so at ease with herself. Having shed her old skin – figuratively and literally – she has re-emerged, six years after her last release, as a determinedly bold and uncompromising artist, showcasing a remarkably strong new collection of electronic-based material.

Banishing all traces of her jazz and blues influences, and stepping firmly away from the middle of the road, Alison’s current tour has picked up where 2008’s Yazoo reunion left off. Backed by two knob-twiddling synth players, who occasionally picked up the odd guitar or two, she offered a sound that was fully contemporary, without falling into the trap of merely chasing trends.

The new songs were dovetailed with electronically reworked versions of older singles – some hits, some more obscure – “so that I don’t end up being my own tribute act”. Although none of the back catalogue choices dated from beyond the mid-Nineties, they blended seamlessly with the 2013 material, giving us a fresh perspective on Alison’s body of work.

Four Yazoo tracks peppered the set list, ranging from a faithfully rendered Nobody’s Diary to a radically altered Only You, which successfully pitted the original melody against a minor-key arrangement. If you want the original, stay at home and listen to the record, she told us. “It’s so much cheaper! Otherwise, you’ll get what you are given.”

Such was Alison’s confidence, that two botched starts on one new song could be shrugged off with cheery laughter. (“That’s the first time this has happened, and I’ve been touring for two months. This set is going to be long, I can feel it!”) Reciting the forgotten line over and over again – “the shift of air, the turn of page” – she launched back into the track, ironically titled Remind Yourself. As the lyrical hurdle was finally vaulted, her persistence was rewarded by a nice big cheer.

Elsewhere, A Place To Stay nudged towards London Grammar territory, current single Changeling rubbed shoulders with dubstep, and Right As Rain bore a whiff of stripped-down electro-house. Of the older songs, the beats were removed from Ordinary Girl and Is This Love, highlighting the songcraft beneath, while All Cried Out and Love Resurrection were reinvigorated by a more pronounced sense of rhythm.

On the torchier tracks, most notably on a smouldering version of This House, Alison was captivatingly intense, drawing our full attention to her impassioned delivery. At other times, she brandished her mike stand and rocked out as never before, cutting an almost Bowie-esque figure. Towards the end of the show, as more dance-based elements came to the forefront, she shimmied and twitched with pleasing abandon, revealing herself as quite the nifty mover.

All of these incarnations – the balladeer, the rocker, the dance diva – were made all the more credible by her utter sincerity as a performer, and by the absence of anything resembling a stage persona. For after more than thirty years in the business, Alison Moyet seems more fully herself than ever before – and that’s a wonderful thing to witness.

Set list: Horizon Flame, Nobody’s Diary, When I Was Your Girl, Ordinary Girl, Remind Yourself, Is This Love, Filigree, Falling, A Place to Stay, Only You, Apple Kisses, Changeling, This House, All Signs Of Life, Right as Rain, Love Resurrection, Situation, Whispering Your Name, All Cried Out, Don’t Go.

Clean Bandit – Bodega, Sunday October 20

Posted in Bodega, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on October 26, 2013

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

Uniquely for a dance-based collective, Clean Bandit started life as a string quartet at Cambridge University, making them light on urban credentials, but heavy on musical prowess. Strings still help to define their sound, courtesy of violinist Neil Amin Smith and cellist Grace Chatto, and quotes from familiar classical pieces pepper their songs, adding melodic sweetness to the electronic thump.

The four core members were joined by two female vocalists on stage – their names were never revealed – for the opening date of their first headline tour, at a sold-out Bodega. This wasn’t Clean Bandit’s first Nottingham gig – they supported Disclosure at the Rescue Rooms in March – and they’ll be back again next month, supporting Bastille at Rock City.

The twelve-song set opened with Rihanna, the B-side of the last single: an instantly popular and well-recognised choice, although the sight of actual live strings did appear to take some punters aback. Mixing these acoustic instruments with amplified electronics can present a technical challenge, so the band had taken no chances, bringing their own sound desk with them. The investment paid off, and the sound mix was faultless.

Plenty of the set was familiar to the crowd; even the comparatively sombre and commercially under-performing Dust Clears, the most recent release, drew cheers of recognition and a mass singalong. A cover of SBTRKT’s Wildfire also went down a storm. Of the as yet unreleased tracks, the uplifting Nineties-tinged diva-house of No Place I’d Rather Be proved to be a clear winner in the room.

Later in the set, a double run of slower songs dipped the mood, causing conversation levels to rise. Order was restored by a walloping version of Nightingale, whose mid-song bass drop and Disclosure-esque beats ignited the main floor.

Mozart’s House, the biggest hit to date, was saved for last. It’s an endearingly daft track, with a wry spoken intro (“So you think electronic music is boring? You think it’s repetitive? Well, it is repetitive…”), a chamber music breakdown and a rapped lexicon of classical terms, which sails close to being a novelty song. If Clean Bandit can shake off the novelty tag without losing their delightful sense of fun and their anything-goes approach to music-making, they could be headlining bigger venues in the near future.