Mike Atkinson

Cultural Vibrations presents Live & Local, Nottingham Playhouse, Sunday October 16

Posted in gigs, LeftLion, Nottingham Playhouse by Mike A on October 18, 2011

(originally published in LeftLion)

Live & Local is the latest brainchild of music promoter Rastarella Falade, whose not-for-profit organisation Cultural Vibrations has been active since 2009, staging events at the Hockley Hustle and the NEAT11 Festival and organising the Takeover showcase at Nottingham Riviera. As ever, Rastarella’s aim was to highlight a diverse range of local talent, bringing fans of different genres together in order to appreciate the full spectrum of what Nottingham has to offer.

As the Playhouse is currently staging a production of Noël Coward’s Private Lives, the eight acts on Live & Local’s bill found themselves performing in what looked like a period drawing room, complete with grand piano, standard lamp and rear windows opening out onto a street scene.

This suited opening act Elena Hargreaves rather well, adding a touch of extra class to her stately, elegant and heartfelt performance. Elena’s parents were in the audience, and were duly pointed out to us. (“My mum’s sitting over there, and my dad’s sitting over there – but they’re not divorced!”)

Opening with a cover of Feeling Good, Elena reclaimed the Nina Simone classic from the various maulings that it has endured from X Factor hopefuls over the years – not that she’s a stranger to talent competitions herself, having made it to the finals of the Open Mic UK contest last year. Her first ever self-composition, Don’t Go Leaving Me, was also introduced as a competition winner in its own right. Now moved to London, Elena is about to shoot her first video in Los Angeles, and a debut EP is in the offing.

“Welcome to my living room, guys. Please take your shoes off.” Undaunted by the incongruity of his surroundings, and eager to charm a crowd that might not be in the habit of attending too many hip hop nights, Karizma worked hard to forge a rapport with the seated audience. His mum was there too, watching her son for the first time, seventeen years into his rapping career. (He must have started young, then.) Perhaps this was why, when introducing his new single Bad Boy, Karizma was so keen to distance himself from its title. “I’m a bad boy – but in a different way”, runs the chorus, and as he explained, “I’m not gonna lie to you, I’m thirty years old now and I’ve got bills to pay – I ain’t got time for that.” Produced by Nottingham’s Junglewire Film, its video debuted on YouTube last week. “It hasn’t got girls shaking themselves about”, we were assured. “I’m not like that.”  (In truth, the video does feature female dancers, exercising themselves with some degree of vigour – but, you know, in a different way.)

Joined by live musicians for the close of his set, Karizma treated us to a live freestyle, in which he constructed an impromptu rap based on suggested subjects from the audience. (“It’s my birthday!”, someone shouted, slightly missing the point of the exercise.) It takes a special talent to construct a meaningful flow from the topics he was given – determination, wolves, freedom and the NHS, if you please – but the MC passed the test with flying colours, drawing mid-track cheers for each new lyrical flourish.

The ever-dependable, ever-delightful Nina Smith followed, accompanied by her three-piece boy band (or “man band”, or “hit-by-the-handsome-stick troubadour ensemble”, or whatever she cares to call them next). Nina has been working on a new set for a while now, so this might have been one of the last opportunities to hear the old one – but songs as strong asLonely Heart ClubSexy Surprise and the stunning I Won’t Forget You surely won’t be lost forever. And if, as is rumoured, the new tracks are going to carry a little more grit, a little more bite and a little more oomph, then perhaps we had a foretaste of it here, as the acoustic-led delicacy of Nina’s debut EP showed signs of making way for a more amped-up, revved-up approach.

Nina’s mash-up of the Spice Girls’ Two Become One and Sting’s Message In A Bottle (no, really, it worked a treat) eased us nicely into the reggae-rock stylings of Jimmy The Squirrel, who closed the first half of the show. (Not that we were allowed to dawdle during the interval; Rastarella ran a tight ship, and a fifteen minute break during a three and a half hour show was all that time permitted.) Featuring the ubiquitous Jody Betts (Royal Gala, Tray Electric, Hey Zeus) on keyboards, the five-piece rattled through an energetic set, which should by rights have got the whole audience up and dancing – and had there been a few more chances to visit the bar during the evening, perhaps we would have done, but the gravitational force which a theatre brings to bear upon twitching backsides is hard to overcome. To compensate to for our collective inertia, a scattering of loons emerged behind the rear windows during the second song, skanking furiously.

The second half of the evening began with Mique, a singer-songwriter who learnt her craft singing in church, before progressing to the soulful balladry which now characterises her performances.  Accompanied by a lone guitarist called Simon, her songs spanned a range of emotions.  On I Deserve, she displayed proud defiance towards a false lover. (“You said you wanted me – you lost.”) For Call Me Baby, she became more imploring, and for her newest composition Believe, her forceful sense of self-belief found its fullest expression.  And on every song, the force of Mique’s personality and the scorching power of her vocals drew you into her emotional world, allowing you to journey with her.

By the time that the teenage indie duo Saint Raymond took to the stage, the elegant room had started to feel more like a student bedsit. The lads have already come a long way since their appearance at Derbyshire’s Y-Not Festival in early August, where – as the first act of the final day, playing in a large tent to a sparse and still booze-battered crowd – they had seemed a little swallowed up by their surroundings. This time round, the playing had tightened, the voices had gelled and the whole performance seemed more relaxed and more outwardly focussed.  Faded Colour got the crowd clapping along – entirely unprompted, always a good sign – and Callum and Elliot’s chugging, purposeful, almost skiffley strumming, combined with the wide-eyed romanticism of songs such as She Said No, Perfect Picture and Bonfires, was warmly received.

From the youngest performers on the bill, we switched to the oldest, as Saint Raymond’s rough-edged acoustic indie made way for the seasoned smoothness of Marvin Brown’s band. Combining dancehall flavours with a classic reggae template, the players – all decked out in branded Marvin Brown t-shirts – provided expert support for their inscrutably capped and shaded front man, showing a marked reluctance to leave the stage once their assigned twenty minutes were up.  (“Life is a rocky road”, we were informed, over and over again, the band seemingly caught on an endless loop.) But Rastarella’s schedule was not to be messed with, and a couple of meaningful stares put paid to any chances of an encore.

Introducing Breadchasers, the last act of the night, Rastarella declared herself in the mood for dancing, imploring us to follow suit. (“Just because you’ve paid for these seats, it doesn’t mean you have to sit in them all night!”) Finally, the spell was broken, as the band’s riotous ska-punk pulled ever greater numbers of skankers to the front of the stage, bringing the spirit of Mansfield Road to Wellington Circus.  This prompted keyboardist Ben Wager to introduce crowdsurfing to the Playhouse, almost certainly for the first time in its 48 years of existence. The surprisingly flexible drawing-room-turned-bedsit morphed once again, now resembling the set of Madness’s Our House video, as all residual decorum was thrown to the winds. Well, when faced with a turbo-charged ska cover of Dire Straits’ Walk Of Life, what else can you do but party?

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Rick Wakeman – Nottingham Playhouse, Thursday June 17

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Playhouse, Nottingham Post by Mike A on June 20, 2011

For all the grandiosity of his best-known musical projects – the concept albums, the rock operas, the sprawling prog-rock symphonies – Rick Wakeman remains a remarkably grounded character: unpretentious, straight-talking, warm and funny.  Having discarded the excessive trappings of the rock and roll lifestyle – once a notorious boozer, he hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol in twenty-five years – he has embraced the mainstream (Watchdog, Countdown, even Songs of Praise) while remaining fully true to himself.

Rick’s one-man shows are sporadic affairs.  To keep them spontaneous and fresh, he spaces them out over several months, sparing himself the tedium of the touring life.  The shows follow a simple, effective formula, alternating between solo piano recitals and anecdotal stand-up.  Some of the audience come for the music, others have been brought in by the television appearances, and all are catered for equally.

The words and the music are deftly intertwined, with each spoken routine serving as an introduction to the next piano piece.  A selection from Rick’s 1973 debut album, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, was prefaced with a hilarious account of its performance at Hampton Court in 2009, which featured a barely controllable Brian Blessed as the show’s narrator.  Three times divorced (“whoops, there goes another house”) and with a fourth marriage pending, Rick was wryly aware of the parallels; he’s only two wives short of an autobiographical follow-up album, after all.

A well-connected man, who clearly relishes the company of other kindred spirits, Rick told us tales of recording sessions with Cat Stevens, songwriting lessons from David Bowie and bird-watching jaunts with Bill Oddie, displaying an expert comic timing that matched his skills at the keyboard.  His musical selections ranged from Morning Has Broken – whose rippling flurries and intricate cadences typified his piano style – to a sublime medley of two Yes classics (And You And I and Wonderous Stories), via a bizarre and brilliant reworking of nursery rhymes in the styles of various classical composers (Mozart, Ravel, Debussy… and Les Dawson).  Astonishingly for such complex pieces, everything was played from memory, without the aid of sheet music.

The set finished with another inventive tour de force: Paul McCartney’s Eleanor Rigby, played in the style of Prokofiev.  “I don’t care what McCartney thinks of it”, Wakeman quipped.  “He never comes to my shows, so sod him!”  But as with his “Grumpy Old Man” persona, the grouchiness was only skin-deep.  This was a warm, generous and oddly life-affirming show, from a rare talent and a true survivor.

Bella Hardy Trio, Nottingham Playhouse Studio, Thursday December 2.

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Playhouse, Nottingham Post by Mike A on December 3, 2010

Undeterred by the adverse weather conditions, Derbyshire folk singer Bella Hardy and her cheerful guitarist Anna Massie spent most of yesterday travelling down from Edinburgh, arriving just in time to grab a quick mug of tea before the show. They were joined by Chris Sherburn, an amusingly self-deprecating concertina player from Goole. During the second half, while Chris’s services were not required for a couple of songs, he duly shuffled off the stage to brew another mug. It was that kind of show: informal, light-hearted, the songs interspersed with chat and banter, the performers humbly down-playing their considerable talents.

Billed as “an evening of seasonal treats”, the show was almost entirely Christmas themed, and performed on a stage that had been tastefully sprinkled with baubles and fairy lights. (Bella gamely offered to autograph some of the baubles during the interval, but there were no takers.) Some unlikely standards were given the folk treatment, from Brenda Lee’s Rocking Around The Christmas Tree to a surprisingly effective version of Shakin’Stevens’ Merry Christmas Everyone. As Bella hails from Edale, some carols from the nearby village of Castleton were given an airing. Audience participation was sought, and happily supplied, for Oh Come All Ye Faithful and We Wish You A Merry Christmas. An adaptation of Silver And Gold, taken from a US TV special in 1964, transformed into a rousing jig.

But for all the “seasonal treats” on offer, the artistic highlight of the evening came when Bella momentarily stepped away from the theme, in order to perform an as yet unrecorded new composition from her forthcoming album. Full Moon Over Amsterdam was a reflective, atmospheric piece, written during a stopover at Schiphol airport, which perfectly captured the romance of long distance travel. Then it was back to the carols, the standards, the sing-alongs and the fun, delightfully sung and played with rare skill and precision.

Chris Wood, Nottingham Playhouse Studio, Thursday November 25.

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Playhouse, Nottingham Post by Mike A on November 26, 2010

“I’ve had this cold for the past month and a half”, says Chris Wood, explaining the coughing fit that had almost derailed him during the previous song. “And guess how long I’ve been out on tour? A month and a half!”

Instead of cancelling his shows – which he said he might have done, had he been singing Mozart rather than a mix of traditional and self-penned English folk – Wood has opted to battle on, and it will take more than the occasional splutter to throw him off his guard. But even operating on reduced power, his warm, relaxed singing voice shone through, casting a spell of deep concentration amongst the capacity audience who squeezed into the Playhouse’s upstairs studio space.

The folk cognoscenti have already started naming him as a possible inheritor of Martin Carthy’s crown, and on the evidence of last night’s show, it was easy to see why. Wood’s passions – for the folk tradition, for the songwriter’s art, for speaking out against social injustices – were on full display, as he led us through songs such as Spitfires, The Grand Correction, My Darling’s Downsized and set highlight Hollow Point, a gripping account of the shooting of Jean Charles De Menezes. All of these were taken from current album Handmade Life, as was the achingly lovely Two Widows, whose strengths even managed to withstand a sustained coughing fit from a similarly afflicted audience member.

Although the studio lights made it hard for Wood to see his fretboard, the sound he produced from his guitar was exceptional, striking a richly satisfying balance between booming, resonant bass tones and light, feathery flurries from the upper strings. A delightful evening, from a skilled craftsman and a natural communicator.

Lau – Nottingham Playhouse, Friday October 9.

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Playhouse, Nottingham Post by Mike A on October 12, 2009

In February 2009, Lau won the “best group” category at the BBC Folk Awards for the second consecutive year, thus setting the seal on their fast-growing reputation as one of our finest live acts. At Friday night’s well-attended show at the Playhouse, we were duly treated to a two-hour display of superb musicianship from guitarist Kris Drever, accordionist Martin Green and fiddler Aidan O’Rourke.

Although Drever and O’Rourke hail from north of the border, Green grew up in the south of England. This geographic division gave rise to some wry banter, as the English accordionist remarked on the “topographic pretentiousness” of the Scottish Highlands, while chuckling at his bandmates’ unease with the flatness of the Fens. On the current album (Arc Light), there’s even a track about it: Horizontigo, which Green defined as “the fear of lack of heights”.

Selections from Arc Light comprised the bulk of the set. As with the band’s previous compositions, the pieces tend to be lengthy, episodic affairs, which can shift between exquisite tenderness and euphoric frenzy without ever sounding disjointed. O’Rourke’s beautifully expressive fiddle playing stood out during the quieter sections, while the louder passages saw Green rocking and lurching in his seat, his accordion almost becoming an extension of his body.

Blending considered precision with earthy passion, Lau represent British folk at its very best.

Faustus – Nottingham Playhouse Studio, Thursday September 11

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Playhouse, Nottingham Post by Mike A on September 12, 2008

Boasting a collective pedigree that stretches from Norma Waterson to Seth Lakeman, and from Paul Weller to Bellowhead, Faustus could almost be described as a folk supergroup. Kicking off an exceptionally promising new folk season at the Playhouse, they worked hard to warm up the initially subdued audience, scattered over three rows in the stark studio space above Cast.

The three band members – Paul Sartin on violin and occasional oboe, Saul Rose on an array of melodeons, and Benji Kirkpatrick on guitar and bouzouki – radiated a relaxed, good-natured rapport, interspersing their music with droll asides and a dry banter which sometimes bordered on the surreal.

This easy demeanour masked a remarkable level of dexterity and craftsmanship. On dizzying jig medleys such as Next Stop Grimsby / The Three Rascals / Aunt Crisps, the players perched their intoxicatingly cheery melodic refrains on top of complex rhythms and constantly shifting counterpoints.

While the jigs were largely self-penned, the songs were all traditional: excavated from a variety of archives and songbooks, and given fresh, sturdy new arrangements. A broadly nautical theme ran through many of them. The Green Willow Tree told the story of a heroic but doomed cabin boy, betrayed by his captain and dispatched to a watery grave, while The Old Miser recounted the fate of an amorous sailor, sold for transportation by his sweetheart’s jealous father. On The New Deserter, a ballad made popular by Fairport Convention, the familiar lyric was given a haunting and effective new melody.

DV8 Physical Theatre: To Be Straight With You. Nottingham Playhouse, Friday April 11.

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Playhouse, Nottingham Post by Mike A on April 12, 2008

Unlike most contemporary dance companies, DV8 specialise in adding more overtly theatrical elements to their productions, making integral use of the spoken word throughout. For this performance, the text was entirely sourced from specially recorded interviews, which explored issues of sexual identity and its acceptance and repression within different religious and ethnic cultures.

Thematically speaking, this was a hard-hitting, unflinching examination of homophobia and its consequences. As such, it challenged the cosy assumptions of our supposedly more enlightened times, without ever needing to resort to obvious soap-box tactics.

But where did all of this leave To Be Straight With You as a contemporary dance performance? With so much to challenge the mind, some of the more visual aspects were in danger of being swamped. For the most part, the balance was deftly struck – but a notable lessening of dramatic tension in the closing scenes brought the evening to an unexpectedly subdued conclusion.