Monday, 30 December 2013

Retrospecstive 2013

I enjoyed doing my own version of a 'round-up of the year' post so much at the end of 2012, that I thought I'd do another one for 2013. Caveat: not all of it was recorded/released during the year - that's just when I managed to latch onto it! Please dive in at will - I hope you find something you enjoy and want to follow up.

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Empty Pools: I first heard this band on my friend Juliet's brilliant radio show "Indie Wonderland". (The show normally goes out live on Thursday evenings, 7-9pm, on ARfm - with the archive of old programmes here on Mixcloud.) Jules is great at pushing her listeners' Britpop and Peel nostalgia buttons, without neglecting new underground music or treating her remit with too much respect, ranging into anything alternative or unusual that takes her fancy. I love Empty Pools in particular because their songs are a bit thorny - math-rock without any of the alienation - and repay close attention. 'Exploded View' is the first single from the debut album 'Saturn Reruns' and is full of these moments. Like the way the vocals seem to take a few lines to lock into the rhythm...or when the main jagged riff starts at around 0:55, there's another guitar just gliding along undisturbed... or the moment of genius at 2:19 when the distorted accompaniment suddenly cleans up. Ace.

Dengue Fever: a US band who formed to play the style of music they loved - and who doesn't love psychedelic 60s Cambodian rock? - and recruited a fabulous Cambodian singer, Chhom Nimol, so they could do it properly. This is the title track from their new EP, but all three songs on it are gorgeous - nightmare choosing which one to include.

I've had a bit of a proggy 2013. Golden Void, following a lovely debut album last year, released a double A-side single for Record Store Day 2013, containing 'Rise to the Out Of Reach' and 'Smiling Raven'. No accident they went well together, it turns out, as here they perform the two tracks stitched into a medley. Below that, I've included the song 'Empty Vessels' by Wolf People, another group prone to what you might call guitar 'exploration' and bewildered-sounding vocals. I unashamedly adore all this stuff - I play it and in my head, I'm once again the bemused and delighted kid listening to the 'War of the Worlds' concept album or trying out Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. *puts on hat shaped like a pot plant*

Chvrches: Let me confess, their name really gives me the willies. Apparently, they changed the spelling so that it would stand out more, be easier to Google, etc etc. Well, it isn't bloody easier when one keeps typing 'churches' like a NORMAL PERSON, is it? *resumes regular breathing...* The sound they make gives me goosebumps, though - for synth-pop, it's a real assault on the senses, with a real squelch and rumble to the production - like in 'Lies', here, at 0:57 when the chorus fills out and those clattering claps come in. Thrilling.

2013 has also been the year when I found my 'opera feet' - literally, as my friend David and I stood throughout the entire Ring Cycle at the Proms this summer. (Well, apart from David's Pimms-induced 'emotional moment' during "Die Walkure", when a bit of sitting down was required.) I've spent a lot of the months since reading and listening more widely to as much opera as possible, but there is something about this - Solti conducting the funeral march from "Gotterdammerung" during the first Ring studio recording - that overwhelms me every time, even though there is no staging and, at this point, no voices. The music is elemental but Solti communicates something extra with his energy and expressiveness. I'm routinely in bits by the fanfare at 2:56.

The great new work by George Benjamin, 'Written on Skin', premiered in spring before I got my opera act together, but finding out more about it since has led me to other performances by one of its stars, soprano Barbara Hannigan. Hannigan is famous for a kind of fearless glamour and sensuality - no bad thing - but is also a restless champion and programmer of contemporary classical music. For all that, this clip of her conducting and singing Mozart is one of my favourite videos of the year - the rapport with the orchestra shines through, and the bravura nature of her talent is evident from the opening seconds, where she sets the tempo, then wheels round to face the audience and start the first aria. Inspiring!

For regular readers of this blog (thank you, darlings, thank you), the following acts will not really need an introduction. I've written about them all before, and will no doubt do so again - they are brilliant people as well as captivating musicians, the kind of artists whose work I simply want to press into the hands of friends and strangers. Whatever arbitrary radar is out there, they're operating beneath it to some extent, but they communicate enough joy and wonder to inspire devotion in any audience. Here, I've tried to provide slightly alternative versions/songs, alongside links to the blog entries where I covered them in more detail.

The studio version of this Bitter Ruin single is a hypnotic, mantra-driven spell of a song. In this delicate acoustic version, the beauty of the melody and intricacy of the guitar-playing move to the forefront. More on BR here.

Matt Howden - who performs and records as Sieben - has a new album on the point of release, and I'm going to write more about it early in the new year. This is a scintillating live rendition of one of the new songs, which Matt has been performing for a while. The video is full of great things: starting to strum the violin; putting the fiddle and bow down to sing the first verse; the eerie rhythm after the gorgeous first solo; 'brushing' the side of the violin - and that's all before the halfway mark and the bow-whirling....!

I've posted this track by Jo Quail before, but not this particular video. I never tire of this beautiful adrenaline-rush of a tune, and this version was performed in St Leonard's Church (not 'Chvrch', by the way) where she shared a bill with Bitter Ruin at a great concert a few months back. This gives you an idea of how powerful her sound and stage presence are in such a setting - the 'dance' to press the right pedals from 1:50; creating new layers at the two-minute mark to the flourishes with the bow at about 2.35, onto the astonishing downward run of notes at 2:55... and each time you think it can't build any further, it does.

I've covered Matt's music here, Jo's here, and their extraordinary collaboration as Rasp here.

The Disappointment Choir featured in my last blog entry here, and this is a lovely track from the newly-released album "Polar Ships". It shows everything that's great about them - harmonies from voices that seem to blend almost by accident, melancholy underpinned by propulsion, electronica jostling with acoustic guitar. At this rate, they'll give ballads a good name.

Another late-year surprise from a dark folk singer, Jordan Reyne, I first heard supporting Rome and Jo Quail in autumn. I'm sure any fan of those artists ... or, say, Dead Can Dance ... will love this. Certainly the most pagan Christmas record I've heard, and one of the best. (PS The video has strobe effects, so watch yourself..!)

Finally, I heard this wonderful piece by Arvo Part live for the first time this year. Particularly appropriate in the Britten centenary year, of course, this could be five of the most beautiful minutes of recorded music. Part created something not only respectful and stately, but also melodic and - importantly - still experimental. Seemingly limitless variations on the same scale work themselves out against a tolling bell, and the dynamics come from the volume and balance as different parts of the orchestra dominate. Very pleased to find this YouTube version shows the score - fascinating to see something that looks so sparse generate so much warmth of sound.

I'm aware that that's quite a sombre finish and I've managed to include what are essentially two pieces of funeral music in my best of the year's listening. See, it's not all 'Ho Ho Ho'! With that in mind, then, it's a good moment to lay 2013 to rest. Happy new year to you, and my best wishes for 2014.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Polar opposites: The Disappointment Choir

OK - full disclosure. The Disappointment Choir is a band made up of two friends of mine, Bob and Katy. I knew them both before they got the group together, and even played in another (way more casual) band with Katy for a while. So I'm not exactly an 'unbiased' listener.

That said, if I didn't really rate their music, it would be very easy, purely as an act of friendship, to share their announcements and links with little or no comment and just help get the word out. Well, 'the hell' with that. Their debut album "Polar Ships" has just come out and it's brilliant. Here's why.

When I first played it through, I experienced a kind of nostalgic rush - a flashback to the 80s, essentially. I don't mean that the songs sound retro - not in the least. I've seen the laptop Bob uses for music, and even the mouse pad looks like something only the children of the future could operate. I think it's more that the 80s - my decade of 'growing up to music' - is when we last really expected that pop music (not rock, not dance, not electronica) would also be soulful, would also mean something. Take your pick - for me, say, it might be Ultravox, Talk Talk or even the Human League - all in their own way picking up the Kraftwerk baton and conjuring something flesh-and-blood out of their youthful technology. Even my favourite pop of recent times doesn't quite do exactly this. The DC don't really sound like any of those 80s outfits, but they are unashamedly pop, and they are the first band in years that, for me, instil this definite sense of melancholy and longing into the chips and wires.

The songs are uniformly strong, although the album is slightly front-loaded with what you might call 'the hits' (the wonderful 'I Heard You're In Love', which sounds like the Pet Shop Boys telling the Magnetic Fields to sort themselves out, is followed by two more storming, pacey tracks) - which, following extensive research, makes the first half of the album slightly better to hoover to than the second. But the more tender and searching tracks, like 'Fairy Lights' or 'The Lock Keeper's Song', lodge themselves in your head as securely as the fast numbers.

The vocals are also key to why the record works so well. Bob mostly anchors affairs with a deadpan, yet intimate croon while Katy has one of those 'don't hear THAT very often' voices which combines steel and vulnerability to angelic effect. Unlike those acts (often families or siblings) where, so the cliche goes, the harmonies make this seemingly impossible, inseparable blend - Bob's and Katy's voices are absolutely nothing like each other whatsoever. This is actually a fantastic thing - they harmonise beautifully yet retain their quite distinct characters. You can listen to some tracks on repeat, focusing on one voice, and then the other, and get a whole new take on the song.

And that attention to detail leads me to the final thing I want to say about the album that makes me like it so much - it isn't seamless. In places, it belies the amount of machinery involved by acting knotty, angular and in-your-face. The arrangements and production are full to bursting with invention, so that instruments and sounds move in and out of the picture, constantly shifting - rhythms and beats change shape and mutate - blasts of synth one minute, followed by acoustic guitars the next.

They sound like a band of ten people, with the ideas of twenty. I am really, really proud of them.

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Allow me to bestow some links unto you.
  • You can hear the album on Soundcloud.
  • You can download it on iTunes and eMusic, although note that if you buy it from Bandcamp, you get an extra track (acoustic version of 'I Heard You're In Love').

Get it as an extra last-minute present to yourself.

And with that, please have a happy, safe and peaceful Christmas. I'll try and post something (lots to write about!) just before/after the New Year arrives, depending on ability to move out of dining-room chair, string sentences together, etc... Take care.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Ritual and reverence: more on St Leonard's

A few days ago, I wrote about one of my favourite bands, Bitter Ruin, and how they followed up a powerful live performance at St Leonard's, Shoreditch, with the release of a mesmerising new single. I also said in that post that I would almost certainly come back to the concert - and here I am, doing just that, while the experience is still lodged near the front of my memory. And 'experience' is the right word, because as the evening went on, it felt increasingly inadequate to think of it as just a 'gig'. It was actually a masterfully programmed event where every element slotted together like a jigsaw, and it provided a similar sense of elation as the concert came to an end and the final piece fell into place.

To begin with, I really admired the choice of artists: Mary Hampton played first, followed by Bitter Ruin, then Jo Quail, with Jarboe headlining. (Regular readers of the blog - thank you, darlings, thank you - will already know that I have favourites from this line-up, namely the middle two acts. Given that I found out about them at totally separate times and places, you can imagine how delightedly stunned I was to find them coincidentally sharing a bill.)

The artists involved are so original that there was no question of them all sounding like each other. But I did sense a kind of shared aesthetic that made the line-up click. Not visually so much (although the visuals played an exhilarating part in proceedings - see below)... more that they were all perfect choices for the St Leonard's acoustic, and each creates music carrying a certain level of ritual and reverence appropriate to the setting.

This ceremonial atmosphere was established so successfully, I believe, because of the way the event was allowed to build. It helps, of course, that St Leonard's has most of us ranged in pews and that there is no to-ing and fro-ing to a noisy bar throughout. But you don't get a crypt-like silence from a crowd just by removing distractions. Mary Hampton initially looked for all the world like a textbook opening act - and playing solo and seated, she could easily have been a little too low-key, had she not sounded utterly beguiling. That otherworldly voice, high but strong (and she performs one song with no instrument at all), focuses the audience completely on her static figure and her set is over before you even notice the time.

Bitter Ruin are more used to a bustling audience and seize the opportunity to make the most of everyone's undivided attention. They bring catharsis to the ritual - effortlessly mobile, but carrying off some truly staggering singing and guitar-playing, they enact their dramas-in-miniature as if each number was their last. Some of their songs hold back, the rhythm or energy going round in cycles, never quite losing control (the single, 'Diggers', is a good example of this) - while others are all about release, and build to colossal climaxes that threaten to raise the church roof even higher.

So, with the inaudible buzz in the congregation now running at a higher pitch, it was the perfect time for Jo Quail to take the stage. I've written about Jo a couple of times now (after first seeing her live, and as part of Rasp with Sieben's Matt Howden), but there is always more to say. For those unfamiliar: Jo's solo live act is just her, an electric cello, and a loop station. Without any pre-recorded elements, she builds up instrumentals of stunning variety, whether cool, measured, near-ambient meditations or raging, highly rhythmic pieces that build layer by layer into expressions of sheer orchestral joy.

A few things make this performance particularly special. For a start, it's the longest set I've seen Jo play - so, result. Also - and I touched on something similar about Bitter Ruin's presentation, too, in my previous post - Jo looked absolutely spectacular. As she mentioned onstage, she was wearing a dress made specially for her, and it really was remarkable - folds of material swirling round her, but with enough room for manoeuvre so that her feet, as usual, could dart left and right through the fabric like lightning to operate the loop pedals. It was like a feminine armour in rich, earth-tones that seemed so fitting for the music (which takes a great deal of inspiration from geographical locations and phenomena) and - perhaps by happy accident - the church backdrop, where Jo seemed to form a natural, visual focus for the candlelight and wood around her.

I realise I've wandered away from the music to discuss this, but this gig was special enough for the people involved to dress up. This isn't trivial. By this time, I knew I was at something unique. Act by act, the evening had surpassed my already high expectations, over and over. Visually, as well as aurally, it was starting to spoil me for future concerts. I can conjure up Jo's music in my head anytime I like, but now it's almost always accompanied with a view of her onstage that appears painted by a genius - where everything toned, matched, connected and sang.

And - I had never heard Jo play 'unplugged' before. During the set, she moved to the side of the stage and played a piece from her forthcoming album on a 'normal', acoustic cello - so no pedals or effects. As you start to lose yourself following the beautiful melody, a chiming note begins to recur alongside it, and for a few seconds you think - 'Ah! there's the loop.' But of course, it isn't - Jo is doing all of it, all at once, live, sounding the note with her left hand while playing the tune with the bow. I love the playfulness of that - the fact that JQ 'regulars' (like me) would be waiting for a 'loop', which duly comes, even though it shouldn't - wedded to the consistency of approach: the electronic facility might not be there, but the hypnotic, recurring elements should remain, and so they do.

Strictly speaking, Jo was 'my' headliner, as Jarboe was the act on the bill I knew the least about. I had admired her work in the band Swans, and heard her solo material in fits and starts, but was reasonably certain I wouldn't have heard anything she was due to play (supported solely by P Emerson Williams on acoustic guitar).

It didn't matter. Jarboe was clearly intent on maximising the ritualistic element. Again, the visuals were deliberate and important - PEW appeared in faintly druidic garb (dark, hooded) and didn't so much strum as caress sounds out of his guitar, displaying a delicate, ringing style that hinted at free-form. In a slight departure from the solemn-rite approach, he was clearly having a brilliant time and spent much of the set grinning broadly. I approve of this sort of thing. Jarboe, however, in a long red dress, barefoot, didn't once depart from her own personal space: never acknowledging the audience, between songs gazing at either her feet, or the art in the church. And I found myself approving of that, too. They made a good double act, PEW animated and fluid, Jarboe - her lyric book on the lectern - largely fixed to the spot, sha(wo)manic, spellbound, like a pagan angel. She sang beautifully, and we were in the palm of her hand, even though we may as well not have been there.

In a final masterstroke, typical of the whole evening, Jarboe did not even stay to acknowledge applause. In the dying bars of her final number, she exited down the church aisle. PEW kept playing while Jo Quail took the stage once more, and they closed the event with an absorbing, exuberant duet. It seemed designed to bring the audience out of their trance, and walk back out of the church with strings ringing in their ears instead of bells.

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Since I've talked so much about how well the evening was put together, I should mention the organisers - Alan Pride and collective Chaos Theory - so you can watch out for other events they put on.

Also, here for your convenience are two videos that you should definitely see if you haven't already (I've posted both before and am unashamedly repeating myself): Bitter Ruin's splendid single 'Diggers', and the amazing 'Laurus' by Jo Quail.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Single-minded: Bitter Ruin

All of us are snuggled up into our jackets in the pews of St Leonards, Shoreditch. We are one act into a bill of four artists (who all perform so brilliantly that I think I'm probably going to come back to this concert in at least one further post). The church is dimly lit, with an almost sinister splendour, and provides spine-tingling acoustics.

Bitter Ruin take the stage. I've written about them before, but for those of you unfamiliar with either the band, or this blog (welcome, welcome), a summary: as a duo performing live, they are Georgia Train (vocals) and Ben Richards (vocals and guitar). Whatever might have instantly leapt into your mind while thinking 'a girl, a boy and an acoustic': forget it. Georgia has astonishing range and flexibility and can switch from operatic power to seductive whisper within a verse; Ben - no mean singer himself - displays similar dexterity on the guitar whether he's firing off flamenco-like runs or hard rock riffs.

This is ideal, because the songs don't slot easily into any genre: you might think they're folk one minute or a kind of jazz / torch song approach the next - no, wait, that's metal - my mistake, it's Americana. I mean this entirely as a compliment: both they and their songs are so full of distinctive character and presence that they make all these influences gel quite seamlessly. They amplify their music not just aurally, but visually, too: they bring in a sense of performance art and choreography, habitually dressing in a particular, near-matching style, and acting out some of the more intense numbers with utterly convincing ferocity. They may cover the whole stage for one song, take seats for the next, perform a third back-to-back - constantly stimulating the audience's eyes, ears and minds.

This song is their new single, 'Diggers' (which is available for download here). It's a perfect demonstration of the band's restrained power, as if coiled ready to strike, and how they can take what might seem to be something straightforward on first listen and layer it with complexity and elegance. Ben's repeated chant is the first element to get under your skin, and then you might notice how Georgia's vocal orbits around the mantra, constantly shifting parts of the tune, singing part-words. (Georgia's descending vocal just past the two-minute mark - not heard anywhere else in the song - is heart-melting.) This 'more than meets the ear' quality keeps me coming back to their music time and time again, always hearing new things after God alone knows how many plays. 'Diggers', in particular, is like a beautiful haunting.

The St Leonards gig is the first time I've seen them play live as a support for some time, so there is a slight difference in the dynamic from when I've been watching them lately as part of 'their' crowd. They look a little bit different and rather brilliant - the muted colours are absent and Georgia has swapped her usual flowing skirt for glittering leggings, Ben is sporting a patterned shirt. I mention this not to draw attention away from the music or discuss image or glamour - more to say that the attire made them seem somehow more lithe, agile and hungry. They made more space around themselves. They adapted from their usual rock venues - more claustrophobic environments like the Borderline (for London dwellers), say - to fill the sky-high space of St Leonards with their personalities and tune after glorious tune. They moved away from the microphones to sing and play their final song among the audience, directly into the acoustic - literally walking into our space, coming to get us. Succeeding.

Bitter Ruin's new album 'Waves' is due out next spring, but as well as 'Diggers', you can listen to their previous EPs on their Spotify page here, or go to their website for more information. Make haste!

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Voice-activated: rediscovering opera

Recently, I started going to the opera. Properly. I had been a few times when considerably younger (early 20s - mine, obviously, not 'the') and I'll come back to those experiences a bit later. Since those days, I had listened to plenty of classical, choral and operatic music but only really tackled the first couple of categories live.

However, regular readers of this blog (thank you, darlings, thank you) may recall that I had a baptism of fire during the summer - literally, given the temperature in the Royal Albert Hall - by seeing all four operas of Wagner's Ring cycle in a week. I realise this was quite a 'high-risk' enterprise and that I could've emerged thinking that was enough opera for another twenty years, but I had the opposite reaction. I was immediately desperate to hear more, although perhaps while making use of a seat and not reaching desert-exploration levels of dehydration.

Cue my initial, wary investigations on the Royal Opera House website. I went for the Royal Opera House rather than the English National Opera at the Coliseum, by the way, not out of snobbishness, but because I just feel instinctively that I would prefer to hear the operas in their original language rather than in translation. It feels to me along the same lines as watching a dubbed film instead of a subtitled version. One of the early opera visits I mention above was to a production of 'Eugene Onegin' in English. Against the climactic crescendo of the second act (if I remember rightly), with all the dramatic power she could muster, the soprano sang: "There goes a shepherd. The world's at peace. I'm not." And we're talking a local theatre budget here, so there wasn't even a shepherd. I made a mental note to try and hear operas in their original language from that point on.

The Royal Opera House website is clever, attractive and slightly scary. Once you find a production that interests you, you will see ticket price ranges like "£7 - £160' *faints*. Then, you move on to the booking stage, and come across seating areas with matchlessly flamboyant names, like the Donald Gordon Grand Tier ("Hello, Donald!" "Hello, Gordon!") or the Amphitheatre Upper and Lower Slips. Fortunately, the Google street van* (*possibly - not sure) has been round the auditorium and photographed not only the view from every seat in the place to show you what it's like, but also the seat itself. And no wonder, since a lot of them seem to carry a health warning. The really cheap options tend to have some kind of restricted view element, occasionally with the description "not suitable for those of short stature". Others aren't even fixed to the floor. (Not sure how these seats actually retain their position in the space-time continuum - maybe people are just all wedged in and held in a kind of stasis? "Warning: this seat isn't actually there.")

This continues once you actually receive your ticket. Mind the steep stairs! No armrests! What next - "Beware! Contains opera!" on the envelope? Opera needn't carry any kind of reputation for being elitist - not at all - but extreme? Yes! This isn't for wimps. You don't necessarily need affluence, but you do need application.

The truth is: once you get one visit under your belt, this sort of thing never worries you again. I had been to the Royal Opera House before - another of those early brushes with arias and graces - to see 'Turandot' with my friend Laura from the US. That evening is a very fond memory, and my excitement on returning was definitely blended with nostalgia. However, it was different this time because the House had undergone its most recent facelift a few years after that visit. Inside, you now glide past pre-performance diners on an escalator through a palatial atrium up to the roof terrace. This extra shot of modernity actually suits the place well, and its air of slightly posh chaos takes away any potential intimidation.

I've now found that the main Amphitheatre seats suit me very well (and they will be even better if I can slightly reduce my own 'rear stalls' at some point), so I go for those when booking. They are broadly speaking, the price of a mid-level rock gig. You are high up, but this gives you the opportunity to take everything into your field of vision - the stage, of course, plus the surtitles - without straining your neck - and you also have a view of the conductor and orchestra, which I really enjoy. (Just for the avoidance of doubt - as it's quite a jargon-y word - 'surtitles' just means the English translation, like subtitles, displayed above rather than below the action. I confess that the first time I came across this word it was hearing it aloud, and I couldn't make sense of it at all. "Ah! Sir Titles! Have you met Lady Appellation?")

By complete coincidence, extremity has been a major factor in the first couple of operas I've seen there since my 'sabbatical': 'Elektra' by R Strauss and Berg's 'Wozzeck'. The former is myth, the latter modern - but the parallels are striking. For example, in how they're performed: 'Elektra' is a single act, and while Berg's opera is divided into three acts of five scenes each (it's a stylistic tour de force where each section is based around a musical form or technique, and it directly reflects the fragmentary state of the main character's mind), it was played out with no break to alleviate the tension. They are both studies in madness - Elektra driven demented by her desire to revenge her father Agamemnon's death, and Wozzeck the victim of medical experiments sanctioned by the authorities - and both call for extraordinary onstage deaths.

Elektra (who normally survives in most versions of this part of the myth) has to die at the climax of a jubilant dance once vengeance is achieved - and this production solved that slightly odd decision brilliantly by having her energy desert her before she collapses, exhaling, seemingly of a heart attack. Equally, Wozzeck - after killing his lover, has to wander into a pool where he has thrown his bloody knife, and drown. The extraordinary stage set, tiled like a laboratory as if everything we see is played back in the lab-rat Wozzeck's mind, included a series of tanks - one filled with water, already blood-red from the earlier murder. Simon Keenlyside, in the lead role, climbed in right in front of us, submerged himself and stayed still, underwater, for the remaining 10 minutes or so of the opera. They use an almost invisible breathing tube to achieve this (and avoid ritualistically slaughtering baritones) but the effect is spine-chilling.

Having my love of opera re-ignited by concert performances, I'm actually still getting used to seeing proper staging, and the alternative interpretations it allows. In 'Elektra', there was a deliberately early 20th century appearance - the notes on the House website helpfully explain that the production is designed to evoke the emergence of psychology and loosening of morals during that time, appropriate for the 'actual' era of the myth. As such, the palace has a glassy wall and the entrance is by a revolving door. Brilliantly, horrifically, the offstage murders at the climax as Orest carries out the revenge are shown by the blood splashing the glass from behind, until the battered, dying Agisth careers around in the revolving door, only to be pulled back in to be finished off.

Clearly, the whole look of the productions has preoccupied me, because that element is still, for me, the novelty. As it turns out, what I've seen first has been 'horror-movie' intense (I'm not really expecting much of this sort of thing when I see 'The Marriage of Figaro' next year). But none of it would work without the sublime playing of the Royal Opera House orchestra, and the fearless performances of the casts. I've already mentioned Simon K's athletic feats during 'Wozzeck' and even more impressive, for me, were Christine Goerke as Elektra and Iain Paterson as Orest in 'Elektra'. Elektra is a 'rite of passage' role for sopranos with stamina, and Goerke simply owned the stage, always on the move, relentless and malevolent. Both she and Paterson were particularly accomplished at singing such a demanding score while really acting - again, something that is less prominent in a concert performance. For all the blood and thunder, I will never forget Orest, the deed accomplished, sinking down by the desk where Elektra lies motionless, unable to look at the body or answer his surviving sister.

Musically, both of these operas are 'challenging' - there's not much in the way of pretty melodies (although plenty of dark, anguished beauty) or show-stopping arias - but only in the sense that the dissonant, edgy, sinewy music matches the equally disturbing subject matter. Seeing them live brings home the idea of opera as Wagner's 'total experience', where the music and drama unite to create a kind of separate artform. The way the music conveyed by both singers and orchestra can act on your emotions, sometimes independently of each other. The volume and power that the great performers can give a line. Where they choose to be, what they do, and what happens in the silences.

Productions like these show how vital, energetic, arresting and uncompromising opera can be. But now, after being smacked about the head a couple of times with my cast-sheet, the next opera I'm seeing is long, mystical and heady: 'Parsifal'. I'll report back.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

String theory: Rasp

There are two parts to this post, really. The first is something akin to a review, I guess - while the second, much shorter section is more like an open diary entry. It would be lovely if you read both.

Part 1

Matt Howden - a.k.a. Sieben - and Jo Quail take the stage at the tiny Lantern Theatre, a little way out from the centre of Sheffield. The setting is intimate - I think the Lantern holds about 80 people - and beautifully ornate, giving the impression it's been beamed into the present day just for our evening. (I am already on a kind of high, after hooking up - after far too long - with an old friend and his family now living in Sheffield, and bringing him out to the gig.)

Matt is clutching his violin and Jo stands behind her extraordinary electric cello. We can just about see the usual array of kit (mostly looping pedals) at their feet. What's unusual, though, is that they're both up there at the same time, about to perform as the duo Rasp.

What follows is enthralling: two musicians clearly on the form of their lives, testing their own and each other's creativity without ever losing sight of the need to involve and engage the audience. In the space of 40 minutes or so, they orbit around a contemporary classical sound - creating pristine harmonies, or at other times running so perfectly in sync that Jo will kick off a run of notes for Matt to finish off, or vice versa - but pass through a dizzying array of other touchpoints along the way.

Despite the use of loops, there's a level of improvisation that reminds me of some of the best free jazz, where the players' intuition is so finely-honed that you can trust them to take the music only to places you would want to go. On other tracks, ambient/drone and spoken word also put in cameo appearances, as the pair painstakingly build layers of immersive sound, seemingly out of nowhere, as if you'd convinced an entire string orchestra to have a go at performance art. And while the two of them can, and do, play with restraint and delicacy one minute, they also use Rasp to channel a harder edge - suddenly an industrial beat slashes through the small room, Jo lays down the heaviest of riffs, Matt solos over the top, and the band find a space somewhere between metal and electronica that causes some enthusiastic 'extreme nodding' (since a full-blown headbang is not really possible in the genteel confines of the Lantern's seating).

If it feels like I'm throwing arrows at some kind of genre dartboard, it's because when trying to describe music or sound you have to locate the best reference points you can. But the truth is that Rasp only sounds like itself. Whatever sound-environment Matt and Jo create from track to track, fast to slow, quiet to loud, vocal to instrumental ... the consistent thread running through the whole set is a shared instinct for melody and rhythm that hooks the listener from the opening notes and guides them unerringly through both familiar and uncharted musical territory. It's the sound of something you've never heard before feeling like the best thing you've ever heard.

Overall, the evening itself was something of a dream bill for me, as both Matt and Jo played superb solo sets before presenting Rasp. (Regular readers of the blog - thank you, darlings, thank you - may recall how I've tried to convey the magic of what they do individually in previous posts, but you can find more details here and here.) Neither of them betrayed any sign of nerves about the third act of the night (I'll come back to this). Something they do have in common - and I think this must be linked both to natural talent, obviously, but also to playing alone and operating pedals - is an intuitive and charismatic sense of stagecraft. Because they have to spend so much time rooted to the spot, movement becomes very important. There are few onstage sights more thrilling than Jo, eyes closed, broad grin on her face, stepping back momentarily, casting a stray hair from her bow then moving forward again to pick the tune back up in the space of seconds... or Matt, psyching himself up by whirling his bow on his fingertip, like a motor, as if giving him the energy to career around the stage for a few moments of freedom. The loops ensure that whenever they take off like this, the sound continues to swirl round them. It is as close to magic as music gets.

So I was intrigued to see how sharing a stage would affect them both. To the onlooker, Matt was stationed to the left and Jo to the right. I couldn't help imagining them carrying out a trial run on opposite sides, only to realise that Jo, in mortal danger, would be weaving and dodging Matt's circling bow ("you'll have someone's eye out with that", etc) and hastily swapping over. Matt was also controlling beats and recordings from a net book and spent a winning amount of time on his knees, essentially 'live-producing' much of the set. But what came across most of all - and you don't see this nearly enough in any area of live music - is the mutual respect they share and their joy in what they were doing. Clearly, near-constant eye contact is necessary when the material is so new and involves so much improvisation, but alongside that, I can't remember when I last saw a band smile this much. And far from excluding the audience, the creative rapport was infectious, making those of us watching - put simply - feel good: for ourselves, because we knew we were witnessing something new and exciting, and for Matt and Jo, because it was clearly hitting home, gradually, as the set progressed, that Rasp was succeeding in becoming truly special.

I've kept back till now a point of crucial detail about Rasp, because I wanted to find some way of conveying how captivating the music sounded, how fully realised, before mentioning that Matt and Jo had assembled Rasp's entire repertoire earlier that afternoon in Sheffield's Red Tape studios - in front of an audience, as well as streaming it live online. The vacuum wasn't total - both had brought ideas and song fragments to the session, and heard snippets of each other's material in advance - but essentially they had set themselves the task of putting an album together, each identifying the role the other would play in their tracks, in a single session. (This session was recorded, and you can watch it here. The combination of intensity, spontaneity and trust is already evident.) Looking at this, I'm reminded how the two of them could have taken an easier route - take some 'Sieben-style' songs and flesh out with cello, or add Matt's fiddle to Jo's instrumental creations. But they didn't. Instead of settling somewhere in the middle, they met up and travelled together to a different place entirely.

Rasp in its wider sense was born as a 2-day project, with the writing and performing scheduled for day 1, and the recording of the album - again, before an audience, in a small local rehearsal room and studio - for the following evening. Which brings me to...

Part 2

I was lucky to be among the invited audience to the album session, and the evening was just electric. The studio is underground, so players practice or record in semi-darkness under brick arches and low ceilings, making the Lantern seem to assume arena-like dimensions in one's memory.

In these conditions - a kind of pleasant, heady claustrophobia - Rasp took off somewhere else again, the on-stage chemistry still intact but if anything the pair gave even more confident and committed performances. At times it felt like we, the audience, were experiencing the same intensity as the performers, as this time we really were just a few feet away, half-familiar with the tracks, close enough to watch their feet work the pedals and gizmos as well as their hands fly across the strings.

It's at this point I should take off the 'review hat' and just talk briefly about the experience. You may have clocked, for example, that I don't normally talk about gigs in Sheffield, and that this was a little out of the ordinary.

So, I want to say thank you so much to Matt, Jo - and Jo's manager Alan - who invited me along to share in the Rasp extravaganza. It's a terrific thing, to talk to people - whose music means so much to you - after gigs and get some insight into what they do. But it's a privilege - it really is - to then be asked to see something like Rasp at first hand, taking flight before my eyes and ears. And while I was there, they looked after me brilliantly. I was touched and totally enthralled by the whole event, and I'll never forget it.

Blogging, for me, is almost exclusively a upbeat activity - spreading the word about anything I enjoy and want to share. But there could hardly be anything more positive to write about, than when folk you've been friendly with for a while, and admired for even longer, take their place comfortably among the best people you know.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

PG tips: 'So' at the O2

I think I can safely say that the one album I've spent the most money on over the years is 'So' by Peter Gabriel. I absolutely adore it (although it isn't even my favourite Gabriel album - that's 'Us'), but it was the one I had first. My cassette copy from first time round is now a 'thing of the past' - replaced by the CD... then the reissued CD... and I even caved in and bought that recent anniversary boxset with the demos, vinyl, posters, tea towel, socks (this may not be strictly accurate)...

But I have a lot invested in that record. Literally. And now PG - like so many others before him - was doing one of those 'my hit album' nostalgia shows, with 'So' as its inevitable focus. Thanks to the organisational skills of our friend Maryam, we had got tickets months ago, and by the time last night arrived, I felt this odd combination of near-unbearable excitement and strange apprehension. I had this very slight fear that PG might mistreat his hit record in some way, sabotage it with some kind of quirkiness, and that I might come home and cradle my copy of 'So' softly, wishing it better.

My only explanation for feeling this way is the apparent struggle between 'old stuff' and 'new stuff' going on at Gabriel HQ. As far as I can tell, he has always been fascinated by innovative technology, use of the web ... in other words, the future of almost anything except music. But actual new material from him is perplexingly scant. Instead he revisits and recasts old music. For example, the 'Scratch My Back and I'll Scratch Yours' project, where he produced magnificent orchestral versions of his own tunes and a range of covers, while challenging those artists to 'cover him back' (and the results of that are on 'his' latest record). Or the recent souped-up DVD releases of older shows. Or the clutch of 'Growing Up' DVDs that worked and re-worked his sets from that era in a variety of ways. And it isn't just his own music. I can't help but feel that his whole other musical life - WOMAD and the Real World label - is in some way a search for the roots or origins of the sounds that obsess him, as if there's some kind of answer buried in the global soil.

The show doesn't get off to a conventional start. In fact, PG sits at the piano and just starts talking to us, taking us through it, so we won't be frightened. First, we're getting an 'acoustic' set, so raw that the opening song is still a work in progress. (How many unfinished songs does PG have, I wonder?) Then, a darker, more electric mid-section, and finally - 'if you survive that', he jokes - they'll play 'So' from start to finish.

At first, you might think - "Snakes alive! - the 'So' material is TWO SETS away. Truly this man is a maverick." But the wily old fox knows exactly what he's doing. The pacing and stagecraft of the entire concert are majestic. He must realise that there are probably two types of audience member in the building - longstanding fans who will be happy whatever he does, so he doesn't need to worry about them; and the rest, who are essentially waiting for 'So'. So he cranks up their expectations, as slowly but steadily as he can, so that when, some ten songs in, 'Red Rain' kicks in and the entire arena is drenched in crimson lights, the release is absolutely euphoric.

It only dawns on me gradually how wise this whole approach is. 'So' the album has some monster hits, obviously, but overall it's actually quite an introspective and involving listen. Live - with the original band, no less (who, slightly disarmingly, almost all look like they should be played by Ben Kingsley) - it's a revelation.

As you might expect, we all went completely hatstand during 'Sledgehammer', the second track in the sequence. (And endearingly, the audience were largely of 'a certain age', so that when the next song started there was a palpable sense of "Great! It's 'Don't Give Up'. We can sit down again." A Mexican sigh of relief rippled around the O2 as everyone gratefully collapsed back on their rear ends again.) But no-one will remember 'We Do What We're Told' or 'This is the Picture' from the record as full-on funk workouts. That's all changed for this tour. The intricate rhythms and percussion patterns - courtesy then, as now, of magician Manu Katche on drums - are all present and correct but with a brand new power and urgency.

I mentioned the stagecraft earlier, and it helped make one of 'So's most spine-tingling moments even more memorable. For 'Mercy Street', surely one of the eeriest songs ever written, the energy was dialled down and everyone played with real restraint. PG lay flat out on his back as some of the mobile onstage lights and cameras both surrounded and craned over him - and sang the entire song (beautifully) like this, stretching his arms out in appeal or curling from side to side in the foetal position. We could see the bird's eye view of him through one of the cameras by watching the video screens at the side. The insistent quietness of the song, nagging, intimate, drew the entire O2 into an awed hush. 

But for all that, 'So' was only part of the story. I was delirious with happiness throughout the entire gig. As an 'Us' fan, I was well catered for - with an acoustic 'Come Talk To Me', a joyous 'Secret World' and an absolutely immense 'Digging in the Dirt'. The band were seriously intent on lifting the roof off the place. Catching us unawares, the arena was plunged into darkness when they switched gears from acoustic to full-on electric mode in the MIDDLE of 'Family Snapshot'. Some of the more wayward album tracks - 'The Family and the Fishing Net' (from the 4th album) and 'The Tower that Ate People' (from the Millenium Dome album, 'Ovo'), for example - were resurrected and performed with such ferocity, it was as if they were the most massive hits ever to stalk the earth. Which they probably should have been.

There will be an 'official bootleg' of the gig (and all the others from the tour) available on the PG website ... and they were filming the whole thing for DVD, too. This may well mean I still haven't finished spending money on 'So'. I don't mind at all.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

My new album

After a relatively quiet summer on the photography front, I recently had a run of portrait sessions that have given me so much satisfaction, it felt like it was time to bring a few examples together in a blog post. (Regular readers - thank you, darlings, thank you - will recall that I do this from time to time...) I hope you enjoy them. And I ought to stress upfront what a debt of gratitude I owe to all my friends who give their time and energy so freely to take part in all this, and then let me share the results. Thank you.

Sometimes, the most gratifying results can be matters of pure chance and improvisation. For example, when Hannah - after gamely agreeing to perch precariously on some steps in King's Cross - looked up and grinned:

Or when I suddenly remembered that the inside of the BFI (the old National Film Theatre) sported the same colour scheme as H's other outfit. It must've known we were coming...

One of the characteristics I like to bring to portraits if I can, is some kind of signature element that makes them more meaningful to the person kind enough to model for them. Recently, I photographed Ellie for the first time. E is an expert and enthusiast on all things German (including fluency in the language), as well as being a fellow music obsessive. I also needed to bear in mind that the weather on the day we'd arranged to meet was due to be absolutely shocking. So I came up with a route that meant we could shoot entirely under shelter, and also build in my increasing fascination with using station tunnels and architecture as atmospheric but somehow non-specific backdrops.

For maximum flexibility, I suggested E wear black. This meant that we were able to match the colours of the German flag by finding a convenient South West Train...

...and reflect Ellie's musical side by taking some shots at the Royal Albert Hall.

While getting from location to location, we improvised almost all of the pictures at station stops along the way. The shot directly below was taken at Waterloo, and beneath that, one of my absolute favourites from the session, at South Kensington. E had really got into her stride by this time, and simply walked out to the middle of the tunnel, turned to the camera and said 'How about this?'. *Click*.

I was overjoyed when Paula and Andy agreed to be photographed. It's great taking portraits of a couple because you can benefit from the interaction between people who are totally relaxed with each other. I also knew that Andy's very English demeanour contrasted with Paula's Brazilian features would be a particularly photogenic combination, and suggested that for some of the photos we went almost for a kind of movie-poster feel. They really rose to the challenge! - witness Paula's expert femme fatale below. I made sure to capture a softer version, too.

I wanted to give each of them their spell in the limelight, so took some individual shots as well...

...with Paula managing the additional feat of wearing an outfit that matched one of the walls we passed:

But there was a lot of fun to be had putting together the double portraits, which involved me thinking harder than ever about the composition. One key principle I kept in mind was that both Andy and Paula are tall - and I tried to get away where possible from the temptation to take 'standing side-by-side' pictures and use angles and the location to vary their height and posture:

Finally, my most recent pictures have been for an actual commission (although, I hasten to add, still very much on an amateur footing). Two friends of mine, Bob and Katy, have formed a band, The Disappointment Choir (find them here and here), and asked me to take some pictures for them. This would be interesting, because it would involve certain elements I wasn't used to: I needed to remember to take some 'square' pictures (for use in download or CD inlay artwork); I had to ensure there were more serious (versus 'cheerful') photos than usual; again, there were two people, but this time not a couple. However, the DC actually gave me quite a relaxed brief and complete freedom over the locations. As you'll see, they arrived with a distinctive look; I found them, among other things, a leafy bench, a piano and a spooky tunnel.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

An audience. (With Nicola Benedetti.)

While hanging around dangerously near the Royal Albert Hall box office during the Proms, I spontaneously purchased tickets for Nicola Benedetti's recital, which took place last night.

The performance itself was charming throughout and in places spectacular. Nicola B's latest CD is part-classical, part film music (I've hesitated to buy it, to be honest), so the programme reflected that, too: we heard the 'Schindler's List' theme, and something from 'Ladies in Lavender' (no idea) but I felt this sort of thing was comprehensively knocked for six by a dazzling Saint-Saens rondo, for example. A generous performer, NB included some ensemble pieces which allowed some fellow musicians - some of whom, including her sister, she had played with for some years - to shine. So, we heard a lovely early Mahler quartet, and best of all, the entire second half was given over to Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio, written in memory of Nikolai Rubenstein. This work (Opus 50, for fans of, er, Opus numbers) was new to me, and I was totally hooked from about a minute in. Sombre, certainly, but always with a memorable hook or burst of jaw-dropping frenzied activity (as NB described it, talking through the piece beforehand, 'we're all scrubbing away!') around the corner, to catch you by surprise and keep you immersed.

Well, keep me immersed, at any rate. And Mrs Specs. I'm not sure I can speak for anyone else.

The Hall was packed. And yet I've never known an audience quite like it. It's as if they didn't really know why they were there. As regular readers of this blog (thank you, darlings, thank you) could attest, I've been to gigs of all types, shapes and sizes and I still wasn't quite prepared for the sheer randomness of this crowd.

Might need to make something clear at the outset - I am absolutely NOT an elitist, snobbish type who only wants cobwebbed experts at classical concerts. (I'm no expert myself, although I may possess a few cobwebs.) For example, people who get annoyed when folk don't know when pieces start or finish. I am NOT one of those. If someone accidentally claps between movements of a symphony or concerto, I am totally fine with that. You haven't ruined my night. In fact, good on you, applause-wielder, for coming along and getting into it. It'll be you and yours who turn up again and again, and keep love for the music going.

In fact, I am being ultra-inclusive, by not making excuses for people. I expect them to treat the music they've come to hear or investigate with respect and attention, whether it's their first concert or their thousandth. You won't catch me saying, 'Oh well, you've only come to three of these so far - of COURSE you'll be wanting to behave like an arse.'

Because that's what happened. Lack of politeness and consideration, on a kind of 'hive mind' scale. I did not expect to see or hear, for example:

  • A group of young women directly behind us who waited for each piece to START before swapping around in their seats, zipping and unzipping their bags, taking out drinks and clunking them against the seats in front, chatting. Maybe their local pub always has a world-class violin player on of an evening, hence their confusion.
  • A couple in front who were so loved up that the woman kept rubbing, disturbingly hard, her partner's bald head. It was like she was buffing up a billiard ball. In fact, I suspect he had a full head of hair when they met, now consigned into oblivion. The problem with such a smoochfest is the constant movement - snuggling together, then apart, then whispering to each other, then taking photos (after being asked not to) then FILMING! Thanks, my view is much better* now I can see it through your iPhone. (*No, it isn't.)
  • The bloke on my immediate right spent part of the concert trying to wrap his programme around his face. He was by himself, for some reason.
  • The woman to Mrs Specs's immediate left was using her programme to fan herself, but with so much literal 'gusto' that Mrs Specs was caught in the slipstream. The same woman also produced some eats for her son just as the lights were going down for the second half. Crisps. (To his credit, he lowered them onto the floor - RUSTLE, SCRUNCH, CRACKLE - for later.)
  • And if you're about to say - you were just unlucky, you obviously just had seats among a bunch of maniacs - well, you make a fair point. But I can still cite the incessant use of flash photography as well as constant movement between selections by audience members all over the Hall as signs of more remote irritations.
Also - the coughing. I know people always moan about this. What surprises me is that it got so bad during this concert that it became obvious: no-one with the slightest inclination to cough tried to stifle or tackle it. They coughed during the quietest moments. They coughed at the exact point between the music fading into silence and the applause starting. During the Mahler, I really felt like we were hearing a quintet with the audience as fifth member, on lungs. No-one attempted a gentle clearing of the throat. It was as if we were sitting in the middle of a raging TB epidemic. I've heard of 'mass consumption', but this is ridiculous, etc. Ho ho ho ho. *HACK*

Famed jazz egghead Keith Jarrett (and I LOVE him) has become notorious for railing at, er, 'ejaculating' audiences, accusing them of coughing through lack of attention span - that is, you're not transfixed enough so you don't try and suppress coughs, fidgeting etc. I still - just about - think this is a bit graceless and off-beam. First: if the audience really ARE bored (and they aren't), then arguably it's KJ's problem and responsibility. Second: it's a slightly awkward stance with KJ in particular, because he wails like a banshee when he plays. "Hey! You in the crowd! Shut your noise up!" *sits at piano* "Wurrrrrgh! Hnnnnnnng! Gnnnarrrgh!"

But I'm now starting to think that KJ has tapped into something that really could be true. Not that we might be too dull to engage with the music. More that some people now go to concerts with the point of view that the evening is in fact, really about them, and not the artist. Why should they behave differently out than they do at home? Why should they not do exactly what they want to, even if does affect others' experience?

Context is everything. My fellow gig-goers at, say, Camden Underworld do this sort of thing all the time (ok, perhaps not polishing the bald heads of their companions to a shiny glow, there's a mirrorball for that), but it's a standing venue, the music is always loud, etc etc. So you move about, and you chat. But extreme metal fans are often fantastically polite - the outlet for their pent-up energy is the noise itself. The rest of the time, enormous Vikings who are so hard they have tattoos on their piercings and essentially give the appearance they could snap me like a twig, in fact spend gigs buying each other drinks, taking quite a lot of care of each other, checking they're not in everyone else's way and basically behaving with twenty times the bonhomie and goodwill we witnessed at the Albert Hall.

And talking of the Albert Hall, I also gloomily realised that I had been spoilt by being part of so many Proms audiences - lauded by performers as among the most attentive, and silent, crowds worldwide. I hope Nicola B and pals were so 'in the moment' - and their performances would suggest so - they weren't affected by one of the least interested and aggressively selfish crowds of all time. Everyone stopped clapping as soon as possible, by the way, and headed off. Whatever encore they had prepared, we threw away.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Cello songs: Jo Quail

Back to Electrowerkz last night - London's most consistently surprising venue. Last time, the bar area had a carriage from a tube train in it. This time we were waved through an entirely separate series of corridors and up the stairs into a larger room (which I'm guessing is where the after-hours club nights take place). After a visit to the merch stand, I put my rucksack up on a nearby ledge to stow away my purchases, only to notice that the handy surface was a mortuary trolley. At least, it really looked like a mortuary trolley. Two of them. At that point I noticed that some of the headlining band's t-shirts seemed to be hanging off a gallows pole. I know there's a lot of goth/dark folk stuff at Electrowerkz, but if they were trying to get across a 'bad artists only play here ONCE' vibe, they were succeeding....

Top of the bill were the enigmatic Rome, who play 'martial folk' music. I'm not especially good with these kinds of genre names - martial folk, as far as I can tell, essentially means mostly acoustic music that still carries a power, drive and discipline (thanks, live, to some brilliant percussion work) that would suit a march - particularly of the funeral variety. It's reductive, though, because if you were really expecting 'martial' music, you wouldn't necessarily expect the range, sensitivity and soul you can get from this band in particular. Not sure they play over here very often - really glad I got to see them and will look out for them again.

I was actually at the gig to see one of the supporting acts, Jo Quail. Regular readers of this blog (thank you, darlings, thank you) may recall that I'm a huge fan of Matt Howden, aka Sieben, who creates spellbinding music by looping only his violin and vocals. I'd seen Jo Quail's name in connection with Matt's work - they had shared stages before and in particular they played a recent gig together in Sheffield. Further investigation on YouTube and the like yielded remarkable results, so I ordered Jo's album, 'From the Sea'. The CD is a marvel, but witnessing a live performance brings home even more so the skill and flair involved in what she does.

Classically-trained, her weapon of choice is an electric cello - an extraordinary object in itself which barely moves (it's fixed firmly in place) but looks so arresting that it becomes the 'other character' on stage. Another devotee of looping, Jo builds each instrumental up layer by layer to include melody lines, and often percussive or atonal effects, to reach life-affirming levels of intensity and complexity. As a self-confessed 'how are they doing that?' geek, I would've been quite happy just to watch her play all night. My eyes were darting between her left and right hands, getting my head around the fact that she was controlling God knows how many streams of sound while picking the bass notes out at the same time. All the same - in the end, you kind of give up and give in to the gorgeous sound.

What can be more satisfying than to hear an act you really rate guide an audience (that for the most part is probably not their own) through that 'oh - hang ON' tipping point and into a smitten silence? Brilliantly, we got to hear some relatively meditative tracks from the current record but, in the mix, were two new songs from the next album which totally lifted the roof off (and no doubt sent the mortuary trolleys spinning out the back doors and down the stairs). 'Laurus' in particular - the track in the video I've embedded below - has a beat to rival any bit of techno or electronica (let's call it, er, "tech-llo" - yes, that'll catch on) and seeing just how she does it is enough to draw a 'Snakes alive!' from even the most reserved individual.

See her live if you possibly can. Yes, the music is great, but so is the performance. For a start, it's massively refreshing to see that at the moments of greatest intensity - when the artist seems to get truly lost in the music - Jo has a broad grin on her face. And while there are no vocals in the songs themselves, her chat to the audience between numbers is funny and engaging. About to tap the cello with a slightly odd-looking object (to achieve, no doubt, a particular kind of percussion sound), she told us, 'For those of you that don't know, this is my aunty Heather's hair-brush'. I'm now really pleased that, at future gigs, I will be one of the people who DO know. I will be able to look around me, nodding at bemused concert-goers, as if to say, 'Yep! It's aunty Heather's.'

The Jo Quail website is here - proceed! (I note with interest that Jo has her own logo and typeface. More of this sort of thing.) Check out the events page. Her next concert with Matt Howden (including a collaboration) is in Sheffield in early November. Then at the end of that month, she appears at St Leonard's in Shoreditch supporting Jarboe, along with Bitter Ruin, another band I've been raving about constantly in recent months. It's as if someone was trying to construct my dream bill. Hopefully see you there.

Now don't go before watching this:

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Team players: 'Beyond Shame'

Something a little bit out of the ordinary to report on this time. I want to tell you about a play I saw a few nights ago - not my usual gig/exhibition 'comfort zone', so I'm exercising some slightly different writing muscles. Still - I had the best possible reason to be there. Full disclosure: the writer is a friend of mine, Sadaf, and this was her first play. 'Beyond Shame' had been accepted for a read-through performance as part of the Angelic Tales festival at Theatre Royal Stratford East.

The festival is designed to showcase new writers, and stages more or less a play per night for a week. The company behind the initiative, Team Angelica, choose the winning submissions, and start by mentoring the writers - Sadaf was keen to point out how helpful TA's John Gordon was in helping her develop the script. They then spend 1-2 days rehearsing each one until they're 'match-ready' to go before a live audience. To me, Sadaf was already a winner - to be one of the five selected (when the team received 75+ submissions) is a fantastic achievement.

I'd not been to a theatre evening quite like this one before. Because both Team Angelica and the Theatre Royal are heavily involved in the community/education side of drama, we had a great warm-up from the show's director, who primed us to think about certain elements of the play in readiness for a short discussion afterwards. He invited Sadaf up on stage to discuss the title of the play. I liked this inclusiveness - as if we, the audience, were somehow a natural extension of the whole workshop environment. Could something we thought or said spark a reaction, revision - or a brand new idea, even - in the writer's mind?

When the lights went down, I experienced the same tingle of anticipation I get at a gig where I've heard the band's records but not seen them live. I already knew that S had a way with words (from hard-hitting non-fiction to some genuinely lovely 'stop-you-mid-scroll' lyrical tweets) but this was a PLAY - a whole universe conjured up in her mind, from scratch. And the focus really is on the writing - the staging is minimal and the cast hold the scripts - and what it produces in your imagination.

At the risk of embarrassing S (oh, what the hell - I'LL TAKE THAT RISK), I can honestly report that I was completely blown away. To give a brief plot outline: a teenager has taken his life, and it's established in the very early scenes that we're observing his funeral - along with his ghost, who provides a commentary on events and on occasion - at moments of frustration or high emotion - addresses the attendees directly. They of course do not see or hear him. In flashback, we find out the events and experiences that drive him to suicide.

I want to include as few spoilers as possible - since the play will almost certainly be developed further and performed again - but Sadaf tackles head-on a perfect storm of issues, and not just the ones that make the headlines. Abuse and intolerance (racial and religious) are in the mix, but dovetailed into an equally searching examination of the pressures on adolescents to conform, and struggles with changes to mind and body when becoming an adult.

Sadaf explained in the Q&A that the piece started life as a short story, and I think turning it into a play was the first brave and brilliant decision (of many) she made about it. Brave, because once you're writing a play, you need other people to get it out there, and I love that sense of confidence and faith in the material. Brilliant, because her sense of dramatic tension and ear for dialogue are gifts to the actors.

I was also delighted (given the subject matter) simply by how funny the play is. Gallows humour is present from the outset: we're allowed some respite from the tension, then the chills become all the more powerful. S also sends up - gently and not so gently - the family and community with a superbly crafted pincer attack: Adam, the super-aware main character, who delivers some stinging lines ('you're told what to study, you're told who to marry, then your wife tells you what to eat') and Huma, the epically judgemental Imam's wife who delivers some of the play's most hilariously intolerant remarks without ever becoming a stereotype.

But what really makes me think that S must absolutely do more of this sort of thing, are some crucial signs that suggest to me she is a born dramatist. There is some serious sophistication - and experimentation - going on with the stagecraft and the play does not patronise you - you've got to keep up. We slip between past and present with no joins. One actor doubles up for two crucial roles, creating disarming parallels between them. And there is a really bold move towards the end where not only Adam but Huma as well, 'break out' and address the audience directly. This section includes, I think, some of the best writing in the piece as it simultaneously brings the two most 'opposed' characters closer together, fills out your understanding of why they both behave they way they do and clarifies some of the play's most searching questions. (Questions I'm still thinking about days later.)

Cap doffed, too, to the cast and direction. All the players were superb - they made it easy for us to forget they were reading and I stopped noticing the scripts very early on. Particular mention should go to Hormuzd Todiwala as Adam - a tour-de-force of a part where the actor has to convince as a small kid, stroppy teen, and inhibited, defeated young adult - and Sajeela Kershi as Huma, for keeping her monster all too human. The director, Rikki Beadle-Blair, had nothing but praise for the writing, but mentioned his constant aim to keep the pace up, to do justice to an already tight script. He did a brilliant job, because everything about the production seemed vital and secure - no evidence of nerves or awkward pauses, and not a single actor 'dropped the ball' at any time.

Reflecting afterwards, I realised that the best and most accurate compliment I can pay Sadaf and her production is that I would never have believed it was a debut. The structure - complex but clear, and very precise - it was completely a play and you could not achieve quite the same effects with it in another format. And the dialogue - totally natural, brilliantly varied, satirical and heartfelt. Just keep writing, S, and don't stop.

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You can find out more about the excellent work Rikki Beadle-Blair and Team Angelica do at their website here. And you should definitely consider giving S a follow on Twitter - especially since you'll want to know when her next play is ready!