troubled diva  

My freelance writing can now be found at
Recently: VV Brown, Alabama 3, Just Jack, Phantom Band, Frankmusik, Twilight Sad, Slaid Cleaves, Alesha Dixon, Bellowhead, The Unthanks, Dizzee Rascal.

On Thursday September 17th, I danced on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.
Click here to watch, and here to listen.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Singles and tracks of 2009.

As it has been a golden year for singles, I've had to expand my list to a Top 100. The vast majority of these tracks were issued as singles (as evidenced by the accompanying cover art on Spotify). As per usual, I only include favourite album tracks if they somehow took on a separate life of their own, outside the context of their parent albums. (It's a peculiar rule, but it makes sense to me.)

All but twelve of these tracks can be found on this Spotify playlist, in ascending order. What better way to spend the next six and a half hours of your life?

1. The Fear - Lily Allen
2. Bad Romance - Lady GaGa
(Joint winner of my video of the year, along with #23)
3. Remedy - Little Boots
(I danced to this on the fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square, along with #4, #5 and #12)
4. When Love Takes Over - David Guetta ft Kelly Rowland
5. Just Dance - Lady GaGa ft Colby O'Donis
6. You've Got The Love (Jamie xx re-work ft The xx) - Florence and the Machine
(N.B. Florence's original version is a strong candidate for my most hated single of 2009, and her album was my most regretted purchase of the year. Which just goes to show what you can do with a good remix.)
7. Bonkers - Dizzee Rascal & Armand Van Helden
8. Wild Horses - Susan Boyle
(Oh, you can scoff. But for me, this was the standout vocal performance of the year.)
9. I'm Not Alone - Calvin Harris
10. Baby Can't Stop - Lindstrom & Christabelle
11. Did You See Me Coming? (Unicorn Kid mix) - Pet Shop Boys
12. Bulletproof - La Roux
13. Russian Roulette - Rihanna
14. Aidy's Girl Is A Computer - Darkstar
15. Raindrops - Basement Jaxx
16. Jetstream (Lindstrom remix) - Doves
17. The Howling - The Phantom Band
18. Love Etc. - Pet Shop Boys
19. Crystalised - The xx
20. Day 'N' Nite - Kid Cudi vs Crookers
21. Audacity Of Huge - Simian Mobile Disco
22. Kilometer (Aeroplane 'Italo 84' mix) - Sebastien Tellier
(I spent much of January and February obsessing over Aeroplane remixes, but this was the only one with a 2009 release date.)
23. How To Stay Alive - Gong
(Joint winner of my video of the year, along with #2. Please promise me that you'll watch this in full-screen?)
24. Daniel - Bat For Lashes
25. You Belong With Me - Taylor Swift
26. Lion Hat - Unicorn Kid
27. Umbrella Beach - Owl City
28. My Girls - Animal Collective
29. Stillness Is The Move - Dirty Projectors
30. New In Town - Little Boots
31. Tirsdagsjam - Lindstrom & Prins Thomas
(I once mistyped this as Tirdgasjam. Arf arf.)
32. Love Me Like This (Nonsense Dub) - Floating Points
33. Zero - Yeah Yeah Yeahs
34. This Momentary - Delphic
35. Fireflies - Owl City
(Absolutely baffled by the almost unanimous hipster hate for this one.)
36. Wee Monsters - Unicorn Kid
37. Islands - The xx
38. Folk Song Oblivion - The Phantom Band
39. Omen - The Prodigy
40. Empire State Of Mind - Jay-Z ft Alicia Keys
(Oh God, have I become one of those people who lists token Jay-Z tracks in an effort to pretend that he still "keeps up" with hip hop?)
41. Boom Boom Pow - Black Eyed Peas
42. Tic Toc - Permanent Vacation ft Kathy Diamond
43. Runaway - Grum
44. Ready For The Weekend - Calvin Harris
45. Cannibal Resource - Dirty Projectors
46. Pretty Wings - Maxwell
47. Paparazzi - Lady GaGa
48. Basic Space - The xx
49. A Nightingale - Isolee
(B-side of the year, if there is still any residual meaning in the concept.)
50. From Africa To Malaga - JJ
51. Maybe So, Maybe No - Mayer Hawthorne
52. Moto Moindo - Staff Benda Bilili
53. Rushing To Paradise (Walkin' These Streets) - House Of House
54. I Gotta Feeling - Black Eyed Peas
55. Not Fair - Lily Allen
56. If You Ever Get Famous - The Duke & The King
57. These Are My Twisted Words - Radiohead
58. Poker Face - Lady GaGa
59. Hooting & Howling - Wild Beasts
60. Embers - Just Jack
61. Arrogance Ignorance And Greed - Show Of Hands
62. Get Fresh - Kid Sister
63. Young Forever - Jay-Z ft Mr Hudson
64. Kingdom Of Rust - Doves
65. In The Morning - Fuzzy Logik ft Egypt
66. Take Me Back - Tinchy Stryder ft Taio Cruz
67. Lisztomania - Phoenix
68. Let's Go Surfing - Drums
69. Party Hard - Donae'o
70. One Day - The Juan Maclean
71. General - Buraka Som Sistema
72. Chasing Pirates - Norah Jones
73. French Navy - Camera Obscura
74. S'il Fallait Le Faire - Patricia Kaas
75. In For The Kill (+ Skream's Let's Get Ravey Remix) - La Roux
76. Number 1 - Tinchy Stryder ft N-Dubz
77. Make It Better - Anoraak
78. Bad Habits - Maxwell
79. Ambling Alp - Yeasayer
80. We Are The People - Empire Of The Sun
81. Story Of A Heart - Benny Andersson Band
82. Never Leave You - Tinchy Stryder ft Amelle
83. Method Of Modern Love - Saint Etienne
84. 1901 - Phoenix
85. 11th Dimension - Julian Casablancas
86. Love Story - Taylor Swift
87. Hyph Mngo - Joy Orbison
88. Animal - Miike Snow
89. Holiday - Dizzee Rascal
90. For Your Lover Give Some Time - Richard Hawley
91. Halo - Beyonce
92. Run This Town - Jay-Z ft Rihanna & Kanye West
93. Heads Will Roll - Yeah Yeah Yeahs
94. Bad Gyal - Ms Dynamite
95. Fire Burning - Sean Kingston
96. T-Shirt (+ Crazy Cousinz Vocal Remix) - Shontelle
97. It's My Time - Jade Ewen
98. I'll Keep On Loving You - Walter Jones
99. If I Had A Heart - Fever Ray
100. Restless - Buraka Som Sistema

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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Albums of 2009.

Here's a Spotify playlist, containing a sample track from 33 of these albums.

1. Live In London - Leonard Cohen
2. Vertical Ascent - Moritz von Oswald Trio
3. Here's The Tender Coming - The Unthanks
4. Tres Tres Fort - Staff Benda Bilili
5. The xx - The xx
6. Bitte Orca - Dirty Projectors
7. Warm Heart Of Africa - The Very Best
8. II - Lindstrom & Prins Thomas
9. BLACKsummers'night - Maxwell
10. Le Suivant - Smith & Mudd
11. Origin:Orphan - Hidden Cameras
12. Arc Light - Lau
13. Checkmate Savage - The Phantom Band
14. Yesterday And Today - The Field
15. Tarot Sport - Fuck Buttons
16. Merriweather Post Pavillion - Animal Collective
17. Troyka - Troyka
18. La Roux - La Roux
19. The Fame Monster - Lady GaGa
20. My Maudlin Career - Camera Obscura
21. The Glare - McAlmont & Nyman
22. The Middle Way - Keaver & Brause
23. Imidiwan: Companions - Tinariwen
24. Two Suns - Bat For Lashes
25. Inspiration Information - Mulatu Astatke & the Heliocentrics
26. 2032 - Gong
27. The Future Will Come - The Juan Maclean
28. Two Dancers - Wild Beasts
29. Vagarosa - CéU
30. Ready For The Weekend - Calvin Harris
31. Hands - Little Boots
32. Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast - Cornershop
33. JJ N° 2 - JJ
34. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix - Phoenix
35. Fever Ray - Fever Ray
36. Party Hard - Donae'o
37. See Mystery Lights - YACHT
38. Real Life Is No Cool - Lindstrom & Christabelle
39. The Glass Bead Game - James Blackshaw
40. It's Not Me, It's You - Lily Allen

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Gigs of 2009.

Reviews of most of these can be found on my freelance blog.

1. Beyonce
2. Gong
3. Cliff Richard & the Shadows
4. Crystal Stilts, Wet Paint, Manhattan Love Suicides
5. The Unthanks
6. The Specials
7. Neil Young
8. Elbow, The Acorn
9. Gary Numan
10. Lau
11. Late Of The Pier
12. Bat For Lashes, Yeasayer
13. Eurovision Preview Night
14. Lionel Richie
15. Dizzee Rascal
16. Bellowhead, Belshazzar's Feast
17. White Denim
18. David Byrne
19. Telepathe, Times New Viking, Rainbow Arabia, Icy Demons
20. White Lies
21. Unicorn Kid
22. The Nolans
23. La Roux, Heartbeat, Magistrates, The Chapman Family
24. Basement Jaxx
25. Fuck Buttons, Zun Zun Egui
26. Melanie Safka
27. Buzzcocks
28. Rhydian
29. The Phantom Band
30. Slaid Cleaves
31. Ungdomskulen
32. V Festival: Oasis, Lady GaGa, Athlete, Human League, Joe Lean, Miike Snow, Proclaimers, Bjorn Again
33. Glasvegas, Friendly Fires, White Lies, Florence & the Machine
34. Doves
35. Tinchy Stryder
36. Animal Collective
37. Frankmusik
38. VV Brown
39. Easy Star All-Stars
40. Okkervil River, Dawn Landes
41. Portico Quartet, Red, Natalie Duncan
42. The Magic Numbers
43. Alabama 3
44. Keane, Frankmusik
45. La Roux
46. Maximo Park, Bombay Bicycle Club
47. Kaiser Chiefs, Black Kids, Esser
48. Alesha Dixon

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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Cliff Richard and the Shadows - Nottingham Arena.

You know what? That might just have been my gig of the year. And hence a bugger to write about, without defaulting to gush. So I'll write it up tomorrow, once the dust has settled.

The xx, Beyonce and Gong: take heed. The bar has been raised!

Thursday update: I've been a bit poorly today, so this will have to wait a while longer.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Tinchy Stryder and Fuck Buttons.

Over on the freelance blog, you can find gig reviews of Tinchy Stryder (from Friday night), and Fuck Buttons/Zun Zun Egui (from last night).

Enjoyable as it was, Tinchy Stryder's gig was marred by one of those awful DJs (assuming that any actual DJ-ing took place on stage, which I rather doubt) who think that cutting out the sound on each and every hook line constitutes a smart move. (And I do mean every hook line, on all three of the hits.) As those of us of a certain age will remember only too well, mobile DJs used to do this with Jeff Beck's "Hi Ho Silver Lining" in the Seventies. It was annoying then, and it's annoying now.

As for last night's gig, I was tickled by an overheard comment from one of the many earnest young men in the audience, just after support act Zun Zun Egui had finished their set. "They transcend leftfield boundaries!" Oh darling, I wouldn't go quite that far. While during the shall-we-say "challenging" main set from Fuck Buttons, I spent significant amounts of time trying to dispel the memory of an old Biff cartoon from the early 1980s, where two similarly earnest men in long overcoats talked of "juddering, wired monoliths of sound". (In the end, I opted for the non-actionable "thick, monolithic, slow-moving slabs of sound". Well, it was awfully late.)

My next gig's a payer: the fantastic Ungdomskulen at the Royal in Derby on Thursday night (last seen blowing the Young Knives off stage at the Rescue Rooms), in the company of Sarah, SwissToni and our Very Special Guest... GORDON!

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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Clippings from Popular's boxes.

Following an extended sabbatical, I recently found myself returning to the comments boxes of Freaky Trigger's Popular, in which Tom Ewing is reviewing every UK Number One single in chronological order. I rejoined Tom and his comments crew in the summer of 1984, and hung around for the rest of the year. (I'm currently struggling for something relevant and instructive to say about Foreigner's ghastly "I Want To Know What Love Is".)

For those of you who don't read the site regularly - and if not, then why not? - here's a selection of my recent comments. They're best read in context with the general discussion, but hopefully I've snipped out anything too self-referential.


While “Two Tribes” was at Number One, I left West Berlin – where I had been living since August 1983 – and returned to Nottingham for one final year at university. My year in Berlin had been a period of absolute freedom, which I knew could never quite be repeated – and so I left the city with a heavy heart and a vague sense of retreat (back to the old campus, the old stamping grounds, the old life).

My final weeks in Berlin had chiefly been soundtracked by “Two Tribes” and Laura Branigan’s “Self Control” (a massive and ubiquitous hit in West Germany, which I think was 1984’s best-selling single over there). Along with “The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight” by The Dominatrix, the Top Three in my weekly personal chart (lovingly hand-written, and retained to this day) had remained static for a few weeks – and since I more or less abandoned the personal chart upon returning to Nottingham, there’s a part of me which still thinks they’re sitting there.

So it’s not just that “Two Tribes” marked the final peak of New Pop – it’s also that it soundtracked the final peak of my carefree, irresponsible, naively bubble-dwelling youth.

GEORGE MICHAEL – “Careless Whisper”

Blimey, so much love for this? I’m considerably less fond. The verses drag tunelessly, the sax break grates, and the preening faux-sincerity fails to convince. So, yup, I was another disillusioned former Wham fan who thought they’d lost the plot in the quest to Make It Big. (And this isn’t a patch on “Nothing Looks The Same In The Light”, the sole ballad on the debut album Fantastic and a spot-on depiction of the aftermath of an ill-advised one-night stand, which I also took as an instant signifier of George Michael’s sexuality.) A grudging five from me.

STEVIE WONDER – “I Just Called To Say I Love You”

Has there ever been a worse ending to any song than that perfunctory CHA-CHA-CHA? (To say nothing of that maddening bass line, which sounds like one of several machine-installed presets.) As others have said, this is an efficient – if corny – melody, clobbered by a deadening arrangement. It’s almost as if the whole tenor of the record is to bludgeon the listener with a particular aesthetic, over and over again, e.g. those hymn-like resolutions at the end of each chorus, which always get my back up. As such, it reminds me of awkward slow dances at family occasions, and of bored cabaret bands with bills to pay.

Come to think of it, that’s the main problem: that this already sounds like it’s being played for the thousandth time, by a bored cabaret covers band.

WHAM! – “Freedom”

Inhabiting similar stereotype-inverting lyrical ground to Joe Jackson’s “It’s Different For Girls” – she’s the flighty player, he’s the one seeking commitment (but note that this would also read well from a gay male standpoint) – this is a hefty improvement on “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” and “Careless Whisper” (being more substantial than the former and less irritating than the latter) – but I still struggle to care much about it. 6 sounds about right to me.

CHAKA KHAN – “I Feel For You”

I taped this off the radio before it hit the shops – most likely from Robbie Vincent’s Radio One soul show – and played it over and over again, adoring it without reservation. In a way, it does sound like Chaka is merely guesting on her own record; there are so many competing, equally fore-grounded elements at work that it almost feels like a Chaka Khan tribute record, with Chaka herself being borne aloft above the clattering fray, slightly at one remove from it all. Which is cool in my book, but perhaps less cool if you approach this record expecting to hear a traditional artist-led “performance”… and evidently much less cool if you’re Chaka herself! (Compare and contrast with the struggles which Diana Ross had with the Chic boys four years earlier…)


At the time, this felt to me like a fractional step down from “Relax” and “Two Tribes” – a 9 rather than a 10 – but I’d now rank this as my favourite FGTH single.

The song also took on another dimension when I saw Holly Johnson perform it at London Gay Pride in 1997. It was the last performance of the day (following three-song sets from Erasure and Pet Shop Boys), and halfway through it, the end-of-day fireworks display started up at the other end of Clapham Common. This all seemed to trigger off a mass hugging and smooching session amongst the crowd: everywhere I looked, pairs of men and women were locked in embraces. We’d just had a change of government, many promises had been made, and optimism was in the air as we sensed a sea change in public attitudes. It felt like a vindication, after years of struggle. With all this in mind, the song took on a newly anthemic quality – a perfect soundtrack for that particular moment, of that particular month, in that particular year. I duly bawled my eyes out – not for the first time, since the Erasure and PSB songs had been equally well-picked: A Little Respect, It’s A Sin/I Will Survive (medley), Go West and Somewhere (from West Side Story).

So when I hear “The Power Of Love” now, I link it to the new dawn of 1997 rather than the bleak chill of 1984. Yes, the lyrics are somewhat stylised and overblown, but they suit Holly Johnson’s performance style down to the ground. He delivers the song like some sort of benevolent deity, blending Olympian detachment with more touchingly earthbound qualities, and for me the strategy pays dividends. It’s the one Frankie song which lets you in emotionally, and as such it’s the perfect conclusion to the trilogy. Sex, death and love: where on earth do you go after that?

(Answer: the dumper. And yes, the album was a total damp squib. But you can’t have everything…)

BAND AID – “Do They Know It’s Christmas”

Tere’s almost too much that I want to say at this juncture, and most of it is barely about the actual song under consideration. Firstly, this record marks one of the most sudden and profound sea changes in pop history. As others have said, “Do They Know It’s Christmas” dealt a fatal blow to New Pop – along with the conclusion of the Frankie Goes To Hollywood trilogy, which took its concepts to their ultimate conclusion. Where, indeed, could we go from here?

To my (probably quite biased) mind, this represented the closing of a generation gap that had first opened up with punk. For any lingering notions of a culture of new breed/old school opposition within British chart pop were sent packing, as Good Old Phil Collins and Good Old Status Quo were called back in from the cold, to jam along with the (comparatively) cool kids.

And if you were of a weekly-inkie-music-press mindset, then you might have recoiled in horror at the scene, drawing parallels with the closing pages of Animal Farm. Did we fight the punk wars for this? Or as Biba Kopf put it, in his briefly notorious single-sentence dismissal on the NME’s singles review page (paraphrased from memory): “Millions of dead pop stars make rubbish record for the right reasons.”

For what Band Aid brought back, and Live Aid later confirmed, was the notion that Big Equalled Good. It re-introduced the pecking order, and re-affirmed the primacy of the superstar elite. Good old Queen! Good old Tina Turner! And with that re-alignment of public perceptions (and with the caveat that I’m obviously over-generalising to make a point), there was a sudden and marked swing towards a renewed notion of authenticity (”proper” songs, signalling substance over style), and a hurried distancing from artificiality (plastic poseur cocktail crap with stupid haircuts).

In chart pop turns, the effect felt immediate. The charts of the first couple of months of 1985 were widely praised for containing a sudden influx of “quality” material – and indeed, a lot of great singles did chart during that period, before (as I saw it) the rot properly set in.

To begin with, I welcomed this New Authenticity – possibly because it felt like the only logical next step. Playing catch-up during 1984 – and certainly this was influenced by the clubs I was hanging out in – I’d fallen in love with the back catalogues of artists like James Brown and Aretha Franklin, and consequently I had started to prize, and to seek out, new music which espoused overt notions of soulfulness and sincerity, and “classic” song-writing and performance values.

For me, this was a unprecedented step to take, as the notion that had underpinned all of my fiercest musical passions since childhood had been one of messing with the rule book, and of pushing back the boundaries. From the nonsense bubblegum lyrics and novelty songs of my childhood, through the experimentation of prog, the culture shock of punk, the self-consciously conceptual manoeuvres of New Pop and the modernistic thrills of electro-funk and hip hop, I had always valued the breaking of new ground. So perhaps in this context, the New Authenticity also offered the promise of expanding my horizons? In retrospect, I see it as a major mis-step – and so I’m looking forward to putting these assumptions to the test, as we step through the pop-cultural desert of the mid-Eighties.

Meanwhile, back in December 1984, we have one of the great chapter-closing Christmas charts – just as we did in 1973, with glam rock’s grand finale. And don’t get me wrong here: rather than aligning myself with the Biba Kopfs of this world, I was thrilled at the way that Band Aid seemed, albeit temporarily, to expand the possibilities of what pop music could do.


Friday, July 10, 2009

Unicorn Kid: the teenager who remixed Pet Shop Boys.

My feature on Unicorn Kid - a 17-year old electronic dance musician from Leith who recently remixed "Did You See Me Coming" for Pet Shop Boys - is in today's Guardian Film & Music supplement. You can read the feature here.

Here are some additional out-takes from the interview.

It’s a really good remix. It was the first time I heard you. I was listening to the Pet Shop Boys show on Radio 2, in the bath. And it came on, and I thought: oh, this is good. And then the next I heard of you was via Twitter, where Jake Shears was giving you a shout-out. Did he came to your London gig?

He actually missed it, but I went out for a drink with him afterwards with some other people and it was really cool. And also Peter Robinson [Popjustice], who has been really supportive. It was actually him who got me the Pet Shop Boys remix. He was the one who set it up.

Did you go into the studio, or did you do it all at home?

I did it all in my bedroom actually, during the Easter holidays. (Laughs)

Is that the first time that you worked with a vocal track?

I’d had goes at remixes, of my friends’ vocal tracks and stuff like that, just to mess around with what it would be like. It was the first time that I’d actually applied myself and thought: I actually have to finish this.

How long did it take?

The full two weeks of the holidays. Working every day in my room.

Did they just e-mail you the constituent parts?

It was on an FTP server, on the Internet. All I needed were the vocals, but they sent me every single part. So there were something like 30 or 40 WAV files that got sent to me. But I only touched five vocal parts.

So you didn’t even take a rhythm track from there?

No, no. I sped the whole thing up, as well. So it’s completely different.

So, this tour that you’ve been doing: have you had different reactions in different places?

Yeah, I tend not to like doing over 18s, because you realise it’s 14-to-19 that’s the demographic, or even younger. I like that, and I gear what I’m doing towards that. I like playing to those guys better than I like playing to the over 18s. I’ve played about four Club NME dates on the tour. Some of them were good and some of them were bad. Chelmsford was horrendous, it was really bad. It was empty, and nobody got it.

I think because when you’re playing a club night, everyone’s enjoying dancing to things that they know, and they’re all having a good time. Then someone weird like me comes on, and plays stuff that they don’t have a clue about, at such a faster pace. I didn’t get booed off the stage or anything, but nobody was really feeling it. But when I play 14+ gigs, people jump around and have a good time. I gauge the success of a show on how much the crowd seem to be enjoying it.

And you know that their senses haven’t been dulled by alcohol, so it’s all genuine. How much of the music do you create on stage?

The different parts of the songs are being triggered by pads on a MIDI controller. They’re being filtered or changed, or drums or bass are being taken in, or a chorus as a whole. There’s also synth parts being played over live.

I like to jump around and stuff like that, so there’s nothing much else more that I can do without kind of dampening [the effect]. It’s just me on stage, so I have to create a live energy. I couldn’t be doing any more without having to stand really, really still.

So you’re not picking out those incredibly fast melody lines with your fingers?

No, no way. My keyboard playing is poor. It’s done with a mouse. Essentially, you get almost like a piano down the side, and I kind of type it in. I think that’s how the melodies are so weird, because I’ve got free rein to click what I want.

But I’m happy with the legitimacy of my live show. If I wasn’t on stage, the songs would not be playing. If I pressed Go, it would be looping on the same bit, the same 30 seconds, for the next hour.

And you’ve got the freedom to change it around?

Definitely. Each live show is completely different to the next one. I might choose to go to one bit, one time, depending on if the crowd is enjoying it. If the crowd’s enjoying the chorus, then I can keep it on for another, or I can double it, or whatever.

You had a problem at one of the venues - they weren’t going to let you in because of your age?

That was Chelmsford. I got kicked out before we had even played the gig! We were sitting down on the sofa, and I was bored because I knew it wasn’t going to be a good one, and I was a bit moody because I was tired after London, and I’d just done Brighton. And the guy said, have you got any ID. And I said, I’m playing tonight, I don’t need any ID! And then he was like, get outside. Are you kidding?

That must have been your first "don’t you know who I am" moment.

I was like, are you honestly kicking me out? Because if you’re kicking me out, I’ll go. I’ll go home if you want me to. And then the manager came over and had a word with the bouncer. But obviously I would never not play the show, because a couple of guys did come down to see me who actually knew who I was. I wasn’t going to go away.

Even if there’s only two people in the room who have made the effort…

And they enjoyed it. They drove 40 minutes to come and see me. I also played Southampton, it was an over-18s one. And it was a girl’s birthday - I think she was 14 - and she and a bunch of her friends had come down for the gig. But it was an over 18s, so I had to turn them away at the door. It was heartbreaking, you know? And they’d driven about an hour and a half to come over, and it was about 9 o’clock at night. So I gave them all CDs and took pictures with them - but I felt really bad.

Well, at least they let you play. When Laura Marling was 16, she was barred from her own gig in Soho, so she ended up busking on the pavement outside.

I heard about that! Somebody used that as a comparison, saying you should have done that. But it would be difficult for me, I suppose!

You’d have to find a plug socket.

It would take about an hour to set up!

I loved your comment on Twitter. You were obviously replying to someone who was worried about going to the gig because they felt too old. And you said: just pretend you’re a journalist. That made me feel so much better about myself.

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Natalie Duncan: EP review.

Natalie Duncan – 5 track EP.
Farmyard Records

Natalie is a 20-year old singer and keyboardist from Nottingham, who has been making steady progress on the local live circuit. Her debut release showcases five original compositions, four of which are performed with a full band: saxophone, cello, flute, bass and drums.

There’s something breezy and yet melancholic about the arrangements, which blend soul and jazz influences with a more folky, acoustic approach. Natalie’s vocal style might loosely belong within the Bille Holiday / Nina Simone / Aretha Franklin tradition, but she also brings something uniquely of her own to the table. Her songs are complex and contemplative, resisting easy interpretations. At times, you feel that she is singing more to herself than to an outside audience, and there’s a diffidence to her approach that does place certain a barrier between herself and the listener. Nevertheless, Natalie’s slow-burning passion and unarguable talent make this EP an absorbing and refreshing delight.

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Keaver & Brause - The Middle Way.

The Middle Way
Keaver & Brause
Dealmaker Records

Once known mainly for its hip-hop output, Nottingham’s excellent Dealmaker Records have recently been branching out into leftfield, downtempo electronica. Following last year’s well-received album from Lone, fellow Nottingham artists Keaver & Brause make their debut with a similarly flavoured and equally absorbing collection of short instrumental cuts, which evoke the feel of woozy, hazy afternoons in the heat of the summer sunshine.

On first hearings, the album manages to be both relaxing and unsettling at the same time. The beats might be mellow, but the dissonant samples, unexpected stops and starts and occasional rasping acid bass lines guard against any blandness. With each repeated playing, these elements sound progressively less awkward and more integral, making The Middle Way a slow-burning and richly rewarding delight. If you’ve been missing Boards Of Canada, then this may well be the album for you.

Available from

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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Ours Was A Nice House, Ours Was.

Nottingham latched onto the house boom long before most cities but was too cool for smiley T-shirts, as Mike Atkinson recalls...

For me, it all began at The Asylum, in the autumn of 1982. Tucked round the back of Woolworths on Stanford Street, the basement venue had previously been a gay club called Whispers – and as a hangover from those times, it continued to sell little brown bottles of amyl nitrate (“poppers”) from behind the bar. “Avoid direct contact with the nose”, said the label – and so, knowing no better, we would hold the bottles at chin height, making vague wafting motions and wondering why nothing was happening. Ah, such innocent times.

The Asylum wasn’t Nottingham’s first poser’s paradise – that honour would probably go to the Saturday “futurist” nights at Rock City – but it was perhaps the first club in town to adopt the ethos of London venues like The Mud Club and The Wag. The music didn’t change much from week to week, but we were happy with the familiarity of Blue Monday, Buffalo Gals, Planet Claire, The Cure’s Let’s Go To Bed, Blancmange’s Feel Me and Lies by the Thompson Twins. A year later, as its allure began to dwindle, a new place opened up in the Lace Market: the legendary Garage, run by the Selectadisc crew.

Back in the day, the Garage’s clientele split right down the middle, mingling only in the ground floor bars. Upstairs was for the togged-up trendies; downstairs was for the crimped and buckled Goths. Our gang liked it better upstairs, where Graeme Park mixed style-pop with funkier stuff, gradually nudging the music policy towards the latter. By the middle of 1985, the conversion was complete, with the harder, tougher sounds of early Def Jam (Beastie Boys, LL Cool J) and Washington DC go-go now dominating Park’s dance floor. Twelve months later, Chicago house hit The Garage – and clubbing was never the same again.

Your entry was never guaranteed, though – for this was also the age of style fascism, led by the fashion pages of The Face, Blitz and i-D. “Dress up, dress down, dress sideways – but above all, dress”, ordered one of The Garage’s posters – and the door staff had been instructed accordingly. One Friday night, a group of us showed up in less than cutting-edge apparel, only to be turned away at the door. “But we’re interesting, creative, exotic people!”, I pleaded – not entirely seriously, but giving it a last-ditch shot none the less. “Oh, OK, you’d better come in then”, muttered the doorman, remembering his brief. A couple of months later, faced with the problem of sneaking in a mate-of-a-mate with a streaked mullet and stone-washed jeans, I tried the same line again, with equal success. It was like uncovering a magic password.

1988’s fabled Summer Of Love might have revolutionised the scene in London and Manchester, but the acid house explosion largely passed us by. Down at The Garage, now re-branded as the Kool Kat, Graeme Park continued to ride the entire spectrum of BPMs: half an hour of hip hop, half an hour of house, and back again. And it wasn’t druggy, either. The eccies didn’t make their empathy-inducing presence felt until the early Nineties, and so we continued to sulk in designer threads, sucking on bottles of Sol with wedges of lime stuck in the necks. Zhivagos in the Viccy Centre tried a one-off acid night, but it didn’t really work. The usual crowd turned up, aloof as ever, but obediently sticking their hands in the air because that was what you were supposed to do, right?

Meanwhile, James Baillie had opened The Barracuda on Hurts Yard, where Michael Murphy’s anything-goes “Queen Vic” nights became the stuff of legend. (Abba’s Dancing Queen, in a cool club? It felt radical at the time.) In the spring of 1988, Baillie and Murphy upgraded to Eden on Greyhound Street, and in late 1989 Ballie’s Venus – housed in the same venue as the old Asylum club – brought clubbers of my generation full circle. Next came the hazy hedonism of the Nineties – but that was a whole new chapter…

This interview can also be found in the current edition of LeftLion magazine.

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Interview: Graeme Park

This interview can also be found in the current edition of LeftLion magazine.

Two years ahead of the fabled 1988 Summer Of Love, The Garage on St Mary’s Gate became one of the first clubs – hell, perhaps even the first club - in the country to specialise in house music, (almost) all night long. And its introduction had nothing to do with smiley faces, bandanas, MDMA-drenched Ibizan epiphanies, or any of that distracting flim-flam – and everything to do with the knowledge and enthusiasm of one particular music obsessive.

From late 1983 until the end of the decade, Graeme Park was Nottingham’s most pioneering, most influential and best-loved club DJ, whose residency at The Garage took a generation of clubbers on a journey from early Eighties style-pop to late Eighties garage and techno, via electro, hip-hop, rare groove, DC go-go, Chicago jack tracks, and all points in between. And it all began in one little shop on Bridlesmith Gate…

If it wasn't for Selectadisc, I'd have never have been a DJ. I ended up in Nottingham more by luck than design, to be honest; I was playing in bands, signing on, and used to frequent Selectadisc: both stores, on Market Street and the smaller one on Bridlesmith Gate. Bridlesmith Gate is the one that I spent more time in; with the main shop, you used to walk past and be a bit frightened to go in. Apart from the fact that it was slightly more friendly, Bridlesmith Gate used to have the second hand department upstairs. In the singles department there was a guy called Mel, and then there was a guy called Jeff, downstairs in the albums part, and they were both very knowledgeable. And because I played in bands, like most 19 or 20-year olds who are really into music, I kind of knew my stuff. I used to buy what I thought were quite cool records, and what they thought were quite cool records.

One day when I was in there, they said, “Somebody’s ill, can you help out? It’s dead simple.” I knew it was dead simple, because I used to work at Saturday job at a record shop in Scotland. I ended up working there part-time. And when Mel left, I was in charge of upstairs, which was brilliant. That was about 1982, 1983. And the thing is, Brian Selby - the original owner - had his office was at Bridlesmith Gate. He’d often pop out to make a cup of tea, and ask what we were playing. So I got to know him really well.

Brian had a record label background - he used to have his own Northern Soul label. He was just really into music, you know? He dabbled with restaurants as well. He had some sort of diner called Zuckermans at the top of Hockley - at one point, he was kind of taking over the whole of the East Midlands.

I loved the fact that I was in charge of buying in the singles, because I had quite eclectic taste. I remember for example Madonna’s first single Holiday, which didn’t really do much. There was a great offer on it from the rep: buy one, get one free. I bought shitloads of them, because I knew it was going to be massive. But of course it wasn’t at first time round, and I got in trouble for buying so many. So by the time that it was a big record, Brian was dead pleased. We sold them all and made lots of money on them.

I also liked being in charge of buying in the second hand stuff. My eclectic collection owes a lot to the fact that people would come in, a bit down on their luck, and get rid of classic rock and pop albums. Stuff like The Doors, and Love, and all that late Sixties stuff that had gone out of fashion. I'd play them in the shop and go; “Wow, I actually get this band; I can understand why this is a classic album.” So I’d buy it for myself.

The other great thing about Market Street was that they had a massive stock of cut-outs, which used to be the name for cheap imports from Europe. Portuguese versions of British-released albums, with the corners cut off them; hence “cut-outs”. Brian could sell those for a lot less than the proper British releases. And people would go, “Well, you know what, for £4.99 you’re getting a cut-out and you’re paying £6.99 for the proper British version.” And they were just the same. Maybe the quality wasn’t as good.

Brian had access to all these warehouses that stocked all this stuff; Jim (Cooke, last manager of Selectadisc) and Brian used to drive around in this Transit van to get stock. One minute you’d be serving people in the shop, the next minute Brian would be running up the stairs. “Come on, we need you to help us unload the van.” You’d go downstairs, and he’d have got boxes and boxes of the new Big Country album that had just come out and was flying off the shelves.

I vividly remember the day that Brian walked in and said “Guess what, I’ve just bought: the Ad Lib club.” And I’m like, “You’ve bought the Ad Lib club? That seedy, dark place, where you can smell the weed coming out of it on reggae nights? Why have you bought the Ad Lib club?” He says, “Because I think Nottingham needs a really cool little club, just like the Wag Club in London. I think I could turn it into this cool club, where they play really cool music.” I said, “Brilliant, but what are you gonna do - close it and do it up?” “No no no. As of tonight” – because it was a Friday night or something – “I’m renaming it The Garage, and I want you all to come down". "So what about all the regulars?" “Well, they’re not getting in, it’s gonna be a new thing.”

"So who’s gonna be the DJ?" He goes, “Well, I thought tonight, opening night, you’re gonna do it.” And I’m like, “Whoa, hang on a minute - I’m not DJ-ing!” And he says, “Come on - one of the reasons you work here is that you know your stuff, and you play in bands, so it can’t be that hard to DJ.” I was like, “Well, I’m not convinced.” And then he pretty much said that if I didn’t agree to do it then I wouldn’t be working in Selectadisc. I'd only DJed once before. At school. For a laugh. My mate did a disco, and all he played was progressive rock - Deep Purple, Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow, Rush, all that stuff. And nobody was liking it. So I went home, got all my new wave and punk records, and played them. Everyone loved it, but I didn’t think: oh, this DJ-ing lark’s great. I just did it because I knew that this guy was just not happening at the decks.

So there I was, at The Garage, upstairs in this room where the DJ box was behind the bar. Downstairs they had a guy called Martin Nesbitt (the one and only Reverend Car Bootleg - LL), who played gothic, punk, dark stuff. And upstairs there was me playing anything and everything. I was playing current stuff; there was a lot of really great dancey pop stuff around like Orange Juice, The Associates, and of course New Order, Talking Heads, Blondie, all that kind of stuff. And I was playing lots of old Motown, Atlantic and Stax, a bit of old disco, and it worked really well. This was around 1983, long before house music.

Before I knew it, I ended up working there Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. I took to it like a duck to water. People were saying “Oh yeah, you’re really good”. They’d come in the shop and go “Ah, you’re the DJ at The Garage”. It was then that I decided that I was really gonna concentrate on it.

I soon realised that by being a DJ, three nights a week, I was getting 25 quid a night extra, so 75 quid a week. I didn’t have to split that money, because in a band you have to lug all your equipment in your rented van, set it up, do a soundcheck, take it all down, lug it in the van, take it back, and you were lucky to end up with a fiver. Then Brian opened a place in Leicester called The Fan Club, so I used to do a night over there as well. Obviously, working in Selectadisc meant I had access to all the new stuff that came out, while Martin played lots of reggae and things like Sisters Of Mercy and The Cult, which of course Selectadisc sold. So it kinda worked really well.

Round about that time, thanks to the shop, I was introduced to electro: Afrika Bambaataa and The Jonzun Crew and all the early Arthur Baker stuff. I’d play it in the shop, and think: this is great, this is fantastic. But Brian would say, “What's this stuff you’re playing? I don’t like it. I don’t think we should be selling it.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but this is Arthur Baker; he’s working with New Order. Blue Monday, Confusion…massive records.” And Brian was like “I don’t mind you selling New Order, but I don’t think we should be selling this stuff. It’s too...”

Well, reading between the lines, he was saying it was too black. But I played it in The Garage, and it was just brilliant. And then in '85, all the early Def Jam stuff was coming in, but Brian wasn't keen on us stocking it. I had to keep working in the shop, and I wanted to play this stuff, but he wouldn’t let me buy it in. So in my lunch hour, I had to go to Arcade Records. And then came Roxanne Shanté, Big Daddy Kane, all the early hip hop stuff. Brian wasn’t keen on me playing it in the club, but obviously it was what people wanted. There were an element of people who were like, “When are you gonna play Once In A Lifetime?” and electro did piss some people off. But for every one person pissed off, you’d get three or four new people who were into what I was doing.

Then in 1986, all the early house stuff started coming in from Chicago and Detroit: J.M. Silk, Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley, Farley Jackmaster Funk, Derrick May, Rhythim Is Rhythim, all that stuff. And I thought: fuck me, this is incredible! I had to give up working at the record shop, because by then word had spread about what I was doing at The Garage and The Fan Club and I ended up doing nights in Sheffield and Birmingham. It was impossible to DJ and work in the record shop. But the record shop was still important to me, even though I had to pop down to Arcade to get the house/hip hop/dance stuff. I had – and still have – eclectic tastes, even though I’ve become known for mainly being a house DJ.

I still liked to listen to all kinds of music, and buy it. So I was still going into Selectadisc, where obviously I’d still get staff discount. Virtually all the records I played at the Hacienda came from Selectadisc; I was Djing in Manchester, and had moved to London, but I was still doing The Garage and I would always pop in to Selectadisc on Bridlesmith. In the late Eighties you still had bands like the Blow Monkeys, who I used to love - they embraced club culture and dance music: a poppy, rocky, indie-ish type band who were quite cool, but who had got the 12-inch mixes done. And let’s not forget New Order, who carried on working with club people and making 12-inch mixes.

Unlike many DJs, I haven’t got rid of my vinyl at all. There’s loads of crap that I’ve kept, that I may have to get rid of one day, but I’ve kept all of my vinyl. I’m 45 years old, I’ve been buying records since I was five or six, and the bulk of that collection is from Bridlesmith Gate. But the landscape's changed now; I lecture part time at a university in Wrexham, on a music production degree, my students are late teens, early twenties, and none of them buy physical product. But I’ve got a couple of mature students who are adamant that they have to buy the CDs. I said, well, what about bands, where do you all hang out, where do you all meet to get your music and stuff, and of course they all buy their music online, and they all make music on their own. They all just sit with their laptops, beavering away. Whereas at Selectadisc, people would go in there to buy something, get into a conversation, and end up being in a band. That stuff just doesn’t happen anymore. I suppose it’s all through Facebook, isn’t it?

I still go to Nottingham from time to time. I still do gigs, and my bank account is still in Nottingham. It was a big part of my life. In your early twenties, you’re working out what you’re going to do – and it was Brian Selby, Selectadisc, and The Garage that carved my path out. It was being a part of that whole thing: playing in bands, and all the parties, and playing the music that Selectadisc was selling… it was great, great times. And it was a great city then, as well.

See also:
Graeme Park at
Sleccy's vinyl countdown - my Guardian article on the closure of Selectadisc.
Graeme Park at The Garage, Nottingham 1988 - three completely fantastic hours of house and hip hop, recorded direct from the club's mixing desk.

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Monday, June 01, 2009

Interview: Natalie Duncan.

(An edited version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post. Natalie wasn't exactly the most forthcoming of interviewees - the words "blood" and "stone" spring to mind - but she's talented, and local, and I wish her well.)

I saw you supporting the Portico Quartet at the Malt Cross back in February, and really enjoyed your set. You had some technical problems, but despite that you still got a great reaction.

Yeah, the band didn’t turn up, because we couldn’t fit them all in [on the Malt Cross’s small mezzanine stage]. But I thought it went quite well. It was just me on my own, which was unusual. It is a nice stage – especially when I get to play on the piano, because I’m quite hidden then.

What’s your usual line-up on stage?

It’s me on piano, with Ben Martin on saxophone, Roger Jepson on cello, a flute player, bass and drums. I’ve just got a new bassist and drummer – it’s been about two weeks, I think – but we’ve already done two gigs, at the Jam Café and The Hub.

How often do you get to play out?

Recently I’ve had quite a few gigs, but normally I’d say a couple of times a month or so.

Have you done any out of town dates?

I did a couple in London, but that maybe a year ago now. There’s none coming up, but it is a priority. I’d like to do more out of town gigs, definitely.

How long ago was your [just released] debut EP recorded?

A few months ago. There are four tracks with the band, and then one with just me and piano. They’re all original compositions. The lead track is Joe, which I wrote quite a long time ago. It’s about a pimp, and it’s about prostitution. It’s quite a dark song.

I’m laughing, because my next question was going to be: are your songs based on personal experience?

That one wasn’t, definitely! Most of them are, but that one’s quite abstract.

When performing, are you baring your deepest, darkest soul to us – or do you adopt an onstage persona?

Most of it is me and my experience and my feelings, but there are one or two songs which I’ve made up. Just adopting a persona, like you say.

Do your songs come quickly to you, or do they take a long time to evolve?

Normally I go through periods of writing, so they do come quite quickly. I normally finish them within an hour or two.

Are you going through a creative phase at the moment?

I am, yeah. I’m writing quite a bit at the minute.

In terms of musical influences, who would you look to?

A band called Cocorosie, definitely. I love them. Aretha Franklin vocally, and also Nina Simone and Billie Holiday.

What do you make of the local music scene in Nottingham?

It is brilliant: friendly and supportive, and everyone knows each other. I think that’s the only problem with it, because it doesn’t seem to expand as much as it could. It’s quite in its own little circle.

So is this something you’re doing primarily for fun, or are you looking to make a full time living from music?

I’m definitely looking to make a career out of it in the future. That would be my dream, I guess.

Natalie Duncan’s EP is out now on Farmyard Records. Natalie is currently working on her debut album. You can listen to her at

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Maxïmo Park – Nottingham Rock City, Wednesday May 20.

Anyone expecting the originally advertised support act was in for a disappointment last night, as The Noisettes turned out to be missing from the bill – mysteriously so, as they are still listed as the support for the remainder of Maxïmo Park’s current tour. Their place was taken by Bombay Bicycle Club: a likeable teenage indie band, whose album is due out in early July. Singer Jack Steadman put in an intriguingly eccentric performance, his face contorted into the sort of cringing, apologetic grimace that you might pull if you had just offended your grandparents with an off-colour joke.

In stark contrast, Maxïmo Park’s Paul Smith – as natty as ever in his trademark black trilby and a close-fitting maroon checked suit – radiated an ebullient, unshakeable confidence from the off, his energy levels never dipping for a single second of his hour and ten minutes on stage. Eyes bulging and arms akimbo, he spent much of the set perched on a raised area at the lip of the stage, allowing even the most tightly crushed punter at the back of the sold-out venue to enjoy a full performance.

For a band whose rabble-rousing, anthemic indie rock was always underpinned with thoughtful lyrics and a leftfield approach, Maxïmo’s latest album is a disappointingly safe and conventional affair, which sees them treading water artistically. Beefed up on stage, the new material worked well enough – particularly recent single The Kids Are Sick Again – but it paled in comparison to crowd favourites such as Graffiti (which opened the set) and Apply Some Pressure (the final encore). And by placing such an emphasis on getting the crowd to leap around and generally go mad, much of the band’s subtlety was lost along the way.

Maxïmo Park used to be a little bit arty, a little bit different. Nowadays, they seem happy to turn themselves into the Kaiser Chiefs. Given their talent and potential, you can’t help wondering whether they’re selling themselves short.

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Spex Fest – Nottingham Bodega Social Club, Sunday May 17.

Starting at 5:30 in the afternoon and ending shortly after midnight, Nottingham’s inaugural Spex Fest offered an opportunity to sample six experimental indie bands – most of them American – in a well-chosen line-up which showcased the diversity of the current scene.

Following opening sets from Lovvers and Shitty Limits, Icy Demons (from Chicago) took to the stage at 7:45. Arguably the most technically accomplished live performers of the day, the band played a dazzlingly eclectic set, drawing on influences that ranged from jazzy prog-rock to funk and dub, all underpinned with a keenly rhythmic intensity. If you’ve been mourning the demise of Stereolab, then Icy Demons might just be the band for you.

Rainbow Arabia (from California) are a boy-girl duo who combine dance-derived electronica with Middle Eastern influences, overlain with obscure, echo-heavy vocals and pealing guitar lines. They took a while to hit their stride – but when they did, the effect was compelling.

Times New Viking (from Columbus, Ohio) took things back to raw, lo-fi basics, with a thrashy, brutal simplicity that stood in stark contrast to the previous two acts. Appealing enough in small doses, there was something a little too one-dimensional about their approach, which would have benefited from a sharper sense of dynamics.

Telepathe (from Brooklyn) were perhaps the strangest, most awkward and most challenging act of the day, blending girlish innocence with an unsettling sense of menace. Melissa Livaudais and the splendidly named Busy Gangnes stood sweetly behind their keyboards and percussion, singing mostly in unison with frail, emotionless, unschooled voices – while a booming, throbbing, deafening maelstrom of sound crashed around the room.

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Friday, May 08, 2009

Easy Star All-Stars, Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Thursday May 7.

At first, they sound like a novelty act – but on closer inspection, there’s a real seriousness of purpose behind Michael Goldwasser’s Easy Star All-Stars project. It takes a certain amount of brass neck for a bunch of mostly American and Jamaican reggae musicians to dedicate themselves to their chosen task: that of producing thoughtful, inventive and entertaining full-length covers of classic British concept albums. But instead of coming across as flippant or sacrilegious, the band’s underlying respect for their source material – Dark Side Of The Moon, OK Computer and most recently Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – shines through, breathing new life into the familiar songs.

There are eight people in the current touring version of the band, with most vocals split between the statuesque Kirsty Rock, the effervescent Menny More and the beaming, calming Rasta presence of Ras I Ray. Barring a couple of self-penned openers, the lengthy set divided fairly evenly between the Floyd, Radiohead and Beatles covers. The selections from Sgt. Pepper were lighter and cheerier, with the occasional artfully altered lyric – those cellophane flowers in "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" are now red, gold and green, for instance. But where Dark Side and OK Computer can tend towards the oppressively bleak, the All-Stars didn’t let the subject matter stand in the way of serving up a good time. If anything, a little more English gloom wouldn’t have gone amiss – but perhaps this wouldn’t have played so well with the crowd, sections of which were bordering on the delirious by the end of the night.

There were a couple of misfires. The Beat’s Ranking Roger showed up for a brief guest vocal, but sheepishly resorted to cribbing the lyrics from his phone. Considering that he only had one verse to sing, it was difficult to feel much sympathy. And the encore section dragged badly – firstly with Kirsty’s over-stretched attempts to re-create the vocal drama of the Floyd’s "Great Gig In The Sky", and secondly with an interminable meet-the-band jam session that brought the show to an anti-climactic finish. But set against these were a sparkling dub-style take on "When I’m 64", a lush, emotional "Breathe", a finely crafted "Paranoid Android", a complex yet danceable "Money", and much more besides.

There’s a good reason why this bunch have been almost permanent fixtures in the upper reached of the US Billboard reggae charts for most of the decade, and it was a pleasure to hear them weave their unlikely magic in front of such an appreciative audience.

COMING SOON: The Noisettes and - but of course! - an extensive preview of Eurovision 2009.

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Doves – Nottingham Rock City, Tuesday May 5.

The band themselves might be sick of the constant comparisons, but it’s hard to witness Doves’ return from the wilderness – it’s been four years since the last album – without remembering Elbow’s position this time last year. Both bands deal in a similar sort of weather-beaten Mancunian wistfulness: blending the melancholy with the uplifting, and addressing themselves more to the individual listener than the collective throng. And both bands have come back re-energised: offering fresh new twists on their classic sound, and trusting that the quality of the music alone will see them through.

But where Elbow’s Guy Garvey plays the showman, actively seeking a direct emotional connection with his audience, Doves’ Jimi Goodwin cuts an altogether more distanced, elusive, almost private figure. His band aren’t there to force their own interpretations of their music upon you. What you make of the songs is up to you. Everything’s left open-ended: from the impressionistic lyrics through to the obscure movie footage on the back wall.

At times, it seemed as if everyone in the room was lost in their own private world: concentrating on the exquisitely played material, without letting their faces give anything away. And then occasionally, an anthem like "Black And White Town" or "Pounding" would punch through: breaking the spell, and sending hands flying skywards.

A four-song encore climaxed with "There Goes The Fear", whose coda had the whole band bashing out funky percussion rhythms, their regular instruments abandoned. It formed the perfect moment for an unscripted extra encore, especially for the “Nottingham ravers” in the house who had been bellowing for it all night: the 1992 cult club classic "Space Face", recorded back when Doves were still known as Sub Sub. It was the one truly spontaneous moment of the night – and all the more welcome for it.

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Rhydian Roberts – Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Friday May 1.

With both Leon Jackson and Same Difference dropped by their record labels, Rhydian Roberts has turned out to be the dark horse from The X Factor’s 2007 finals. Last night at the Royal Concert Hall, in front of a packed and adoring audience of all ages, the reason for his enduring success became clear. This was no cheap cash-in job from someone who had been sold an empty dream, hoovering up the remaining pennies while there was still time. Instead, we were treated to a lavish stage show – there were eleven performers on stage, including a delightful four-piece string section – and a carefully rehearsed, musically ambitious, stylistically diverse and artistically satisfying musical experience.

The show opened with a lengthy, dramatic medley of two Meat Loaf numbers. Rhydian threw himself into one of the most challenging vocal performances of the night, stalking the stage like a man possessed, and wringing every last drop of drama from the material. It was an awesome statement of intent: grandiose, bombastic – and, let’s be truthful here, ever so slightly preposterous.

For Rhydian is a unique performer in every way – that extraordinary voice, those strange mannerisms, that gleaming white quiff – and tasteful understatement just isn’t his style. Sometimes, he played upon his eccentricities for laughs. His take on David Bowie’s "Heroes" was an exercise in high camp, and his cheesy dance routine in the middle of "Macarthur Park" was an absolute hoot – “like Michael Jackson meets Simon Cowell”, as one of the fans on his official forum observed.

Weirdly, none of these theatrical jinks got in the way of Rhydian’s remarkable ability to stir our emotions, when the material called for it. The night’s artistic highlight belonged to a simple, traditional song called "Myfanwy", which was sung in its original Welsh. It was a tender, heartfelt performance, sung with utter conviction. As the song reached its climax, a Welsh male voice choir appeared on the overhead video screen, adding their warm, rich tones to the song’s closing moments.

Other elements were harder to justify. Did Rhydian really need to abandon the stage for three lengthy costume changes, leaving his band to entertain us with a curious selection of instrumental numbers? And was it altogether wise to pick no less than five numbers from Shirley Bassey’s back catalogue, including the last three songs of the night? No matter, this was a sparkling show from a determined and likeable young talent, who has made his mark in his own very special way. Reality TV wannabes may come and go, but Rhydian Roberts is here for the long haul.

Set list:
Medley: I'd Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That) / Not A Dry Eye In The House
The Reason
Coming Home Again
Instrumental: Albinoni Adagio
The Living Tree
There Will Be A Time
Instrumental: Classical Gas
Macarthur Park
To Where You Are
Instrumental: Hypnotic
Get The Party Started
The Show Must Go On
This Is My Life
The Impossible Dream

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Friday, May 01, 2009

Interview: Jez Williams, Doves.

(An edited version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.)

(Photo taken at Sheffield Academy, Tuesday April 28, by phoenixlily)

It’s been four years between the last album and the new one [Kingdom Of Rust], so what have you been up to? Was there a chance to take a sabbatical break?

There was, yes. We took about four or five months off. We didn’t have a break for [second album] The Last Broadcast, and we had about a month off for [third album] Some Cities. Then with this one we said: look, let’s try and actually live like normal people – not in this weird travelling bubble, or studio bubble. It was a nice time to find ourselves again. When you’re in a band, it’s like this weird family you’re connected to – so we wanted to spend time with our other families! (Laughs) It was much needed.

Then from there it was like: right, fourth album, blank canvas. OK, we didn’t know quite where to start, or what the fuck to do. But a year later, we had all these songs. And we kind of stepped back from it, and we were saying: yeah, it’s good, but it’s a bit comfort zone for us.

Then we started upon our quest, if you like, to search for what we could do that’s different. We needed to push ourselves and go down different avenues for Doves. To almost justify coming back with a fourth album, it’s got to be different for us. So that became the long road to doing this album: what we could try and what we couldn’t try, what we could get away with and what we couldn’t get away with.

So there was a process of experimentation, where you were trying to push at boundaries and see where they’d take you?

It was almost on a song by song basis. It was like, where haven’t we been before? Right, let’s go down that road. Then when we came out of the recording sessions with all these songs, we wanted to pick almost polar opposites. On the album you get "Jetstream" followed by "Kingdom Of Rust": totally opposing songs. And everyone was like: you can’t do that!

But in a weird way, it works. It’s a strange Doves DNA stamp that we’ve got: we seem to get away with what other bands might not be able to get away with. (Laughs)

There are a few changes that I’ve picked up on. The album has a big, majestic, quite grand sort of sound, which can get very intense.

I’d agree with that. It’s possibly our most intense album, because it takes you through some dark passages. Thinking about it, maybe it was a reflection of some of the struggles we were going through with this album: personally and with the band. You can’t help but for it to come out, so it’s always a good stamp of where you were at the time.

But there’s a lot of optimism on that album as well. And there are also snapshots, which is what I call it when you take a picture with words. Lyrically, we enjoyed going into things that we haven’t really done so much.

The lyrics are quite impressionistic, aren’t they?

We’ve always liked songs that are ambiguous. In fact, we hate pinpointing what they’re about. Some are obvious, like "10:03" and "Jetstream". But there are others where we wanna keep it ambiguous, so the listener can put their own version of the story on them.

Anyone’s point of view is just as valid as ours. We might be coming at it from a different angle than what the listener might interpret it as, but that’s cool. That’s what good songs do.

What about "Kingdom Of Rust" itself? What’s the significance of that title?

It’s got quite a strange resonance, that song. We went away for four years, and literally the whole music industry imploded. We wanted to write a song with a bit of optimism, so the lyrics “It takes an ocean of trust in the kingdom of rust” hit a nice resonance with what’s going on today.

You’ve got a couple of your own lead vocals on the album, and it was interesting to note that they’re two of the more electronic influenced tracks.

In Doves camp, we always pass the mike. Jimi’s the main singer, but we always get tracks where we’ll go: you try it Andy, or you try it Jez. We’ll literally get the mike and try it. And if someone’s personality works best in the song, then that gets the vote. Jimi’s one of the first people to encourage other people to take the mike, so it was very natural. In fact, it wasn’t even an issue. The song’s got the ego, and not the individual.

You pride yourselves on this democratic approach – so egos get checked at the door, do they?

You know what? The democratic approach is fine, but it’s a pain in the arse. Everything takes twice as long. (Laughs) With quite a lot of bands, it all comes from one person: here are the songs, this is how they are, you can just play them. That’s never what Doves have been about. It’s always been about a sort of painful democracy, if you like.

Did you literally hole yourselves up in your converted farmhouse studio for months on end, cutting yourself off from the outside world?

Looking back on it now, I suppose we were isolated. We were almost in a tunnel, if you like. Halfway through, we were thinking there was no end in sight. We started to lose it a little bit. “When is the end in sight? When is it?” And so it just seemed to be this endless tunnel, with no light coming in.

But three-quarters of the way through, we started to see an album emerging, which was the most amazing feeling. It’s like you’re looking at a jigsaw puzzle and then suddenly in front of you, you can start to see the picture. So it was literally from the darkest point to the highest point, in a couple of weeks! (Laughs)

You’ve got a big tour coming up, where you’ll be spending two months on the road. I guess it’s been quite a long time, so have you had any warm-up dates?

We did six warm-up dates, and it was great. It’s something that’s been missing from being in a band. The live circuit has always been a part of us, and it was weird to be in a studio for so long and not do a gig. So it felt so good to get back there. That’s what being in a band is about: actually getting on stage and playing it, in front of the whites of the eyes in the audience.

It feels good to have fresh material in the set, and just to exercise these songs live is an amazing feeling. If you’re playing for a year, you get to understand the songs a little bit more, and you can have a different twist on them from the actual studio recordings.

It’s the old cliché: it’s the travelling and everything else that’s shit, but that actual hour and a half on stage is what you do it for.

Have you got any festival appearances coming up?

Glastonbury is confirmed now. We had two choices – the second stage or the John Peel tent – and we decided to close the John Peel tent on the Friday night. Just because we wanted word of mouth. Everyone was complaining: it’s not big enough, it’s not big enough! But it’s like: sod it, we want to get some atmosphere going in that old tent. It’s gonna be cool.

I’ve heard a few people comparing your position in 2009 with Elbow’s position this time last year. I hope no one’s putting any pressure on you to “do an Elbow”…

Well, that’s out of my control, isn’t it? We’ve done an album that we’re all very proud of, and that we’ve worked ridiculously hard on – so our work is kind of done in that respect. As for commercial pressures and all that, that’s out of our control now. What will be, will be. I don’t think we’ve done an interview, or an article, without people mentioning Elbow!

But there’s one thing that their success has shown: that if you make a bloody good record that can stand on its own qualities, then that record will actually see you through.

Well, yeah. I’m always a strong believer in that. When we went from [early 1990s dance act] Sub Sub to Doves, we thought people wouldn’t give us a chance, because of our prior history – but it just shows you how wrong I was. You do a good album, and I think people will appreciate it.

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Interview: Michael Goldwasser of Easy Star All-Stars.

(An edited version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.)

Having previously released reggae covers of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon and Radiohead’s OK Computer, what made you decide to cover The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for your latest project?

Our thing is that we like to do concept albums. We don’t just want to do a collection of songs, or greatest hits, in reggae. We want to do higher albums that work really well as a cohesive unit, where the songs make sense together. Sgt. Pepper’s is considered to be one of the first concept albums, so that made it a logical choice.

Besides that, our first two albums were – because of the source material – were somewhat dark, minor key affairs. We thought it would be a great challenge to apply our sound to something different: to a more upbeat, major key, pop-orientated album.

As a resident of New York City, is it important that the albums that you choose are all British? Because they’ve all been British so far.

I think it’s somewhat of a coincidence. Or maybe it’s just that the British make the best albums? I don’t know if this informs the decision-making, but I did grow up being something of a musical Anglophile – even with reggae, as a lot of my favourite reggae comes from British bands.

Were there any delicate negotiations involved, when it came to assigning tracks to your various guest artists? [Steel Pulse, Ranking Roger, Max Romeo, U-Roy, Sugar Minott, Frankie Paul, The Mighty Diamonds, Black Uhuru’s Michael Rose, Third World’s Bunny Rugs and others.] Or did they just do what they were told?

The funny thing is, that while Sgt. Pepper’s is considered by many people in the rock and pop world to be one of the greatest albums of all time, a lot of Jamaicans – while they might be familiar with The Beatles – don’t know the album. It’s such a well known album, but it doesn’t have a lot of so-called “hits” on it. There are songs that get played on rock radio each year in America, such as “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and “A Day In The Life”, but you don’t hear a lot of the deeper album cuts. And therefore they haven’t been covered a lot. So it was great for us to be able to do songs like “Fixing A Hole” and “Getting Better”, that probably haven’t been adapted. I’m sure that there’s covers of every Beatles song, but they’re not so well-known.

Listening through to the Beatles originals, how easy was it for you to imagine them as reggae versions?

There were certainly some tracks that were pretty difficult. My overall first impression was that it would be a very difficult project. Partly it’s because the vibe of the album is very different from our first two albums. Partly it’s the reverence that people have for this album.

It’s always good to attack that sense of reverence.

Oh yeah, and I have no problem with doing it – but it’s something to think about. I spent about six months just writing the arrangements. The beginning period was really just listening to the album, and immersing myself on a deeper level. I was very familiar with the album from the time that I was a child, but I hadn’t really analysed it on an intellectual and musical level.

Certain songs came easier. With something like "Lovely Rita", I knew pretty quickly what I wanted to do with it musically.

I‘d have thought “Within You, Without You” would be a challenge. That was the one that I just couldn’t imagine, before I played the album. But I like what you’ve done. You’ve put that “Sleng Teng” rhythm underneath it…

Hey, you’re the second reviewer who caught that, which is great. That arrangement was really difficult, because originally part of it is in 10:8 time, and then in 3 time. With our previous two albums, I’d done a lot of experimentation with doing reggae in odd time signatures – but on this one, just because of the pop aspect of it, I wanted to keep this album for the most part in 4:4 time. So I knew I had to get some kind of 4:4 beat and rhythm to this song. So, yes, this one was pretty tough.

Our bassist Victor Rice, who also mixed the album, wrote the string arrangement. He did a brilliant job of making it work in basically 5 time over 4. And then the whole “Sleng Teng” thing didn’t come about until we were actually in the mixing studio. I was like: you know what, this just isn’t night. It’s just not good enough. And I was just fooling around, and I thought: what if I replace the original bassline for it? I’d somehow got the idea of interpolating “Sleng Teng”, and that really glued the song together for me. It gave me the drive that it needed.

Another song which I didn’t think would work is “When I’m 64”, but it’s one of the most enjoyable tracks on the album. Especially with that extended dub section, which has a kind of Rico Rodriguez feel to it…

Yeah, with the trombone. “When I’m 64” was also difficult. I think that in England, people understand that it’s somewhat of a tribute to the whole 1920s music hall genre. But in America, people couldn’t quite relate to it on that level. I know quite a few people who actually just don’t like the song. They think that it’s too corny: “This isn’t rock and roll, what is this?”

In the course of my life, I’ve heard a lot of reggae covers of other music that I thought were very corny. It could be corny because of the source material, or corny because of making it reggae. So I had to be really careful to give it something that would make it sound cool to reggae fans and rock fans alike.

I don’t remember exactly how I came up with the arrangement, but I was just somehow thinking: OK, Twenties music hall in London; I’m gonna transport that to early Eighties dancehall in Jamaica. It’s kinda got the vibe of a classic Sugar Minott song called “Herbman Hustling”, and then I was like: well, let’s get Sugar Minott in to sing this one.

Have you had any response, from the Beatles camp? Do you know if they’re even aware of it?

Well, we do all of our albums above board. Before we put anything out, we’re dealing with the management and the publishers. We don’t want to fly under the radar. We want everyone to hear this, and we wouldn’t want to give anyone a reason to sue us.

So a long time ago, we dealt with Apple Corps: the Beatles company that they set up in 1968, which still technically administers their business. We got approval from them, and then we dealt with their publishers, Sony ATV, which was a much more lengthy procedure. That being said, we’ve not yet heard a response from Paul or Ringo or Olivia Harrison or Yoko Ono – but we really, really hope to get some responses from them.

I’d like to think that if Paul heard this, he would like it. I’m pretty sure that he likes reggae, and it seems like he’s into experimentation. Even if this album tanks commercially, if Paul McCartney ever said to me “I really appreciate what you did with my music”, I would remember that for the rest of my life.

Will your live show be dominated by Sgt. Pepper, or do you split it between the other projects?

We do a pretty long show, and with this new album we’re certainly going to play the majority of it. But because so many people love Dub Side Of The Moon and Radiodread, we’re still going to give them a healthy serving of those songs as well.

Do you carry a mental shortlist of albums that you might consider for your next project?

Oh, sure. When we did Dub Side Of The Moon, we didn’t realise that we were going to create a series. But once that became somewhat successful, we’ve thought about many dozens of albums. There are some that I’ve even started writing arrangements for. So we have a bunch in mind for the next one. I can’t tell you what it could be, because we try to surprise people when it comes out.

For what it’s worth, my vote would go to REM’s Automatic For The People. I’d like to hear you tackle that one.

I will register your vote!

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Thursday, April 30, 2009

NME Radar Tour: La Roux, Heartbreak, Magistrates, The Chapman Family – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Wednesday April 29.

Sticking out like a raw, throbbing thumb on the NME’s latest package of up-and-coming young bands, The Chapman Family faced the hardest job of the night: warming up the still sparse crowd, at the awkwardly un-rock-and-roll hour of 7pm, with their intense, thrashy, guitar-heavy squall. To add to the challenge, they were forced to compete for our attention with an annoyingly distracting overhead video screen, which was mostly given over to advertising the NME brand and the tour’s mobile phone sponsors. Worse still, they had to suffer the indignity of performing beneath an endlessly repeating multiple choice text competition: “Which town do The Chapman Family come from?”

To their credit, none of this deterred the band from delivering an impressively full-tilt, committed performance. Mercifully, the screen was switched off during the remaining three sets.

Notably less self-assured than their predecessors, Magistrates were likeable, but lacking in charisma. They were name-checked as a band to watch by Dawn from Black Kids, when she spoke to the Post last October – and it was easy to see the musical connection, as both acts deliver a light, tuneful, breezy brand of indie-pop. If you like Franz Ferdinand and MGMT, then Magistrates may well be up your street.

Heartbreak belong to the classic tradition of synth duos, but with an added drummer. Their singer sported a spivvy pencil moustache, teamed with a close-fitting leather blouson which sported the sort of shoulder padding last seen on Gary Numan in the early Eighties. Fully aware of his own preposterousness, he strutted and preened with a winning sense of self-belief, occasionally breaking into interpretive mime, and even a brief moonwalk. The girls down the front loved him, and he lapped up their adoration. The music drew on hi-NRG and Italo-disco influences, and was strongly reminiscent of the much hyped electroclash movement of 2002. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did.

Almost unknown at the start of the year, La Roux have been one of this year’s big breakthrough acts. Astonishingly, they had never even played live until just over two months ago, and so their learning curve has been a steep and public one. Backed by two synth players, Elly Jackson cut a startling presence on stage, her outsized quiff sculpted into a gravity-defying vertical point. Plagued by technical hitches in the middle of the set, she shrugged off the problems with self-deprecating humour. (“Thank you for forgiving me. I wouldn’t have done!”)

Somehow, this lack of slickness reinforced Elly’s compellingly flawed yet strangely winning qualities. Yes, her pitch control is all over the place, and she undoubtedly has a “Marmite” voice. You’ll either cover your ears in horror at the shrill screechiness of it all – or you’ll recognise that La Roux are all about celebrating human frailty and imperfection, and you’ll end up loving them all the more for it.

For in this age of airbrushed, Auto-tuned pop robots, who never quite seem fully real, it’s refreshing that the charts can still make way for a quirky girl with weird hair, an odd voice – and some cracking tunes to match.

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Monday, April 27, 2009

Interview: Elly Jackson, La Roux.

An edited version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.

(Photo taken in Toronto, April 5th 2009 - the night before this interview - by chromewaves)

Congratulations on going Top Ten with “In For The Kill”. Did you expect the song to do so well?

It’s kinda weird. I know it’s a pop song, and that with the right exposure and the right push behind it, we always knew it could get to where it’s got. But without things like radio backing, it doesn’t matter how good your song is; if no one hears it, no one can buy it. So it’s just all a bit of a gamble. It’s obviously one of those songs that people have heard once or twice and bought.

There’s also been a lot of buzz about the Skream remix, which is quite unusual for a remix.

Well, this is the thing. That’s helped. I think it’s probably about 50% of the reason why it’s sold so much, because that remix means that the song has reached people that it wouldn’t otherwise have reached.

It takes the song in quite a different direction. Was it a strange experience to hear it for the first time?

Yeah, I think it was. I was in a hotel in Exeter at the time, just after our first gig. I could only hear it on my laptop speakers.

Which is how most people hear their music these days, I guess.

I know, and it was exactly the same – so you might as well listen to it. And you’ve got to be clever with the remix. You’ve got to be sensible. A remix is about taking the song into a new vein. There would be no point in getting a really electro remix, because it’s already like that, if you know what I mean. So you've got to do something with it.

You first came to a lot of people’s attention when you placed fifth in the BBC’s “Sound Of 2009” poll at the start of the year. At that stage, you had one limited edition single and a couple of songs on MySpace, and you hadn’t yet played live. So how did all these tipsters find out about you?

I think it was just an industry buzz. That BBC poll was based on 130 people in the music industry – and that is pretty much most of the music industry, to be honest. People in the music industry had known about me for about a year, so it wasn’t that shocking. We didn’t know if we would definitely be in it – but to be honest, I really don’t care. I know that’s really bad. You know, I’m not dissing the BBC or anything...

But you were glad of it? You didn’t think: oh shit, I’m not ready yet, stop?

Not at all – it came at the perfect moment. And it was the perfect position. I wouldn’t have wanted to be any higher. If you’re at Number One in that poll, you deserve a fuck of a lot of expectation. You’ve got to have your album ready, then you've got to come back with a whole load of press – a whole load of bang, bang, bang – or people forget.

I think being at Number Five is a nice thing, because it’s slow and gradual. But I don’t think it makes any fucking difference whatsoever. Yeah, it’s important, and we wouldn’t have had as much awareness without that poll. But in terms of meaning anything real, it’s not going to affect record sales or anything like that. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in the poll not; if you’ve got strong songs and a good label behind you and good management, it’s gonna work.

Do you still keep tabs on what people are saying about you in the press, or is that a bad idea at this stage? Do you Google yourself, for instance?

No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Do you know what? I have absolutely no interest. I don’t go on YouTube. I check my front page messages on MySpace, but that is literally it. You only have to read one nasty thing about you on the Internet to make you never want to look for it again. It’s just not worth it. For every five people who like you, there’s gonna be five people who don’t like you.

And anyway, it’s all losers on the Internet. Anyone who’s got enough time to fucking sit there and comment and slag people off… It’s nice to write positive things, and if people feel compelled to write positive things, that’s different. I don’t think that means you’re a loser or anything…

It’s easy to hate...

How much of a sad bastard have you got to be to fucking sit there and slag people off on the Internet all day? Get a life, seriously!

What stage are you at with the album?

Oh, the album’s finished. It’s all done. It’s out in June. We’ve been writing it for four years.

Is that four years as a duo with Ben [Langmaid]?

Yeah. It was essentially a solo act, until we realised that it wasn’t a solo act – in that it’s not just a producer/singer situation. We produce together, and we write the lyrics together, and so it was more of a Goldfrapp thing. The songs are all about my life, and I’m the front woman, and I am “La Roux” – but in the studio, we are a band and it’s like Goldfrapp.

[Ben] doesn’t come out live or anything. He’s just not really interested, and I am the “face”, as it were, of La Roux.

I mean, I am La Roux – but we are La Roux at the same time. It’s kind of confusing.

The Goldfrapp thing helps to settle it in my mind, actually.

Yeah, I don’t know what I’d do without Goldfrapp, in order to explain things. I don’t know how they explain things; you’ll have to read some old interviews of theirs.

But you’ve gone in an opposite direction from Goldfrapp. They’ve moved from electronica into a more acoustic singer-songwriter vein, whereas you’ve done the reverse. Was there a moment of revelation, when you discovered the joys of the synthesiser?

Yeah, there was. I started fucking about on the synths one afternoon at a mate’s house. He used to make tunes in his bedroom. He dabbles in various areas of the industry – a bit of tour managing here and there – and we used to hang out. I used to go up to Dalston and not leave for days on end. He got me to play guitar on someone’s track and he said: do you wanna start making a tune, just for fun? And I was like: yeah, OK. Then he gave me a synth and he was like, do you wanna put some chords down on this? And then I was like, fucking hell, this is amazing!

Then I wrote “Colourless Colour”, which is on the album. It kinda spurred off my synth love. Then I went back to Ben and said: I wanna do this instead.

Did you junk all songs that you’d written beforehand?

No, no, no. “Fascination” was the first song me and Ben ever wrote together on guitar.

Did it change the way you put songs together?

We don’t write on guitar anymore, but we still go through the same process. You get four or five chords that you really like, and then you start humming over them. And you find some lyrics, and find a melody, and go from there really. So it’s the same process, but on a different instrument.

I was reading some old interviews, and in one of them you were asked to pick five words to describe your music. One of the first words you picked was “cheap”. People don’t normally describe music as “cheap” in a positive way, so what are its virtues?

We have one of these synthesizers called a Matrix. It’s by Oberheim and it’s fucking brilliant. It’s not like a keyboard synth. It’s just a rack with a plus and minus button to go through the presets. And it comes out with these noises that… there is no other way to describe them, apart from cheap and nasty. They’re just really tinny and thin and tacky and scratchy and plonky, and I love sounds like that. Really angular.

Obviously it doesn’t sound cheap now, because it’s been mixed and mastered and stuff. But some of our early demos were like old tracks from “Speak and Spell”. Really, really, really dry and beepy and angular. Then as the album grows, it starts to become more and more expensive… (Laughs)

Do you see yourself retaining that certain cheapness in your sound? Or could you ever imagine yourself hiring an orchestra and going for that whole epic, widescreen production?

No, I’m probably gonna go really epic, I reckon! (Laughs) But hopefully still with those cheap sounds in it. Songs like “Tigerlily” have that. They’ve got that slightly epic thing, but they’ve also got a cheap kind of Caribbean feel.

Do your songs come directly from personal experience, or do you like to invent characters and situations?

No, I can’t do that. I’m really good at lying (laughs), but I’m really bad at making stuff up. So it’s all totally from personal experience.

So how much of La Roux is a mask, and how much are we getting the real you, baring her soul on stage?

When you see me on stage, that is totally me: baring my most personal, most upset, most tragic moments, as it were. That really is what you’re getting. I really mean that, as well.

The character of “La Roux” came after the songs, so the songs are totally and utterly me and they always will be. La Roux is the hair, La Roux is the clothes, La Roux is the stage persona as it were – but it’s just a slight exaggeration of what I actually am. It’s not a massive acting job, or anything.

Your first live show was only in early February: at the Notting Hill Arts Club, where you had a short residency. Then just over a month later, you were supporting Lily Allen on tour, and so playing in much larger venues. You must have had to scale up pretty quickly, so how did that go?

It was kind of weird. I remember the first night of the Lily Allen tour: being backstage in the dressing room and just kind of… not being nervous. And then being nervous about not being nervous. But there were about 2000 people out there, and I could hear them. And I was like: I’ve got to go from 200 to 2000 in the space of two weeks, with no extra rehearsal either.

It could have gone so wrong. But it didn’t! I fucking loved it! It was brilliant! I think I was just really ready for it, and now I’ll probably be slightly disappointed to be back on small stages.

In a strange sort of way, it might be easier in a larger venue – because you haven’t quite got that intimacy with your audience. If you’re playing the Notting Hill Arts Club, you can see the whites of their eyes – but if you’re playing the Glasgow Apollo or wherever, there’s just a dark mass in front of you.

Oh, exactly. It is much easier. You can be that character a lot more, and you can over-perform. You can’t over-perform in a venue with 150 people in it, because it doesn’t have quite the same impact. It just looks like you’re over-performing for the size of the venue. So you have to bring it back down again. I was really enjoying performing, and really getting into that persona of La Roux – and La Roux doesn’t really like small stages much. (Laughs)

You can retain a mystique in larger venues – whereas in a tiny venue, you’ve got to hop off the stage at the end, and go to the bar with everyone else. So there’s a bit of a disconnect there.

I like that distance, and it can be hard to maintain that distance. Last night [at a small showcase gig in Toronto] I literally had to walk off the side of the stage, pretty much into the crowd, and this girl just showed me her tits.

She was like: I’m just going to show you my tits. And I was like: can you please not? I really don’t want to see them. At all. And that’s really… woah, it’s in your face.

And you can hear everyone talking and stuff! They’re right there in front of you, so you can practically hear what they’re saying. You can go to the front of the stage and drop down to do a kind of emotional bit – and literally, their face is where your crotch is. It’s just a bit weird!

What’s the biggest lesson that you’ve learned from these past four months?

(Long pause) I think it’s the stuff you learn from doing live shows every night. It’s stuff that you can’t really pinpoint, or that you’ve specifically learnt – but you find yourself being more and more comfortable on stage every night. And the people that have seen you from the beginning really notice the changes.

Every night you go: hmm, tomorrow night, I think I’m gonna walk right over to the left of the stage. Or I’m gonna use up a bit more of the stage. It’s little things about a performance, that really make a difference. You start to learn through experience and practice. There’s no other way of learning, apart from just doing it.

It must be a period of very rapid personal growth.

Yeah, and also just learning about interview technique: what’s going to be taken in the wrong context, and what’s going to be taken in the right context.

And learning not to get bored with the same old questions?

Yeah, totally: to give the same passionate answers, just as you would the first time you were asked the question. Because it’s not going to be the same people reading it. It’s going to be different people.

Well, we appreciate that. Finally, a friend of mine is concerned about the grammatical inaccuracy of “La Roux”. He says that it should be “Le Roux” for a man, or “La Rousse” for a woman.

I dunno, it was in this baby name book! It was their fault! Obviously, “La Roux” looks much better written down. Also, I didn’t know it was wrong until about a month after I chose it. And I just didn’t give a shit, really. I just didn’t care. It’s so irrelevant.

To me, it means “red-haired one” – and it does, vaguely. It’s just a male version of “red-haired one”, which I think is even cooler, because I’m well androgynous anyway. So it kind of makes sense.

And Depeche Mode doesn’t make any sense! And loads of English bands, or any bands all over the world, they call themselves… you know, a name like… I dunno, I’m trying to think of something. (Pause) Well, the Eurythmics isn’t a real word, is it?

No, I suppose not.

Exactly! But no one goes on about that!

My friend thought it might be a conspiracy. Because “la” and “roux” aren’t meant to go together, and because they haven’t been used together before, he said you’d show up quicker on Google.

[Stunned] Really? Oh, that’s amazing.

But then the French for wheel is “la roue”, and the French for street is “la rue”, so you can defend it on those grounds. And the famous female impersonator is also called Danny La Rue.

I thought he was a transvestite? No, I was wrong?

I don’t think he likes that, no. He’s a female impersonator.

Oh, never mind! (Laughter)

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Basement Jaxx - Nottingham Rock City, Tuesday April 21st.

Two and a half years on from their last album, it feels like Basement Jaxx are itching to get back in the game. Instead of waiting for their forthcoming album Scars to be released (it's due in May or June), they've broken with convention, touring the new material before anyone has a chance to hear it elsewhere.

Perhaps the purpose of this tour, which kicked off the night before in Newcastle, is simply to remind us that Basement Jaxx are still a going concern, and anything but a spent force? If so, then it's a canny if unusual move.

The new stuff sounds good enough – particularly the addictively thumping new single "Raindrops", which the band had only performed once before – and appetites were duly whetted for the recorded versions, which will include guest spots from the likes of Yoko Ono and Lightspeed Champion.

But it was the band's sterling back catalogue which the capacity crowd had come to hear, and it was songs like the strident "Good Luck" (which opened the show), the ridiculously cheery 1920s throwback "Do Your Thing" and the relentlessly building momentum of Slarta John's "Jump N' Shout" which drew the loudest cheers from the surprisingly youthful audience.

The ten-strong line-up divided equally between the musicians and a fluctuating team of up to five guest vocalists, whose every re-appearance signalled yet another change of outfit. The outfits drew heavily on early 1980s hip hop influences, with plenty of bold primary colours, and the brilliant computer-generated animations at the back of the stage continued this bright, colourful theme.

As ever, the core creative duo of Simon Ratcliffe and Felix Buxton kept a relatively low profile, allowing free rein to the crew at the front of the stage. The diva-esque Vula Malinga was as loveably sassy as ever, the more lithe Joy Malcolm busted some amazing dance moves, and the interaction between all the performers felt fresh, spontaneous, sometimes cheekily provocative, and always full of fun.

The 100-minute set peaked with a thunderous, roof-raising "Where's Your Head At", which had pretty much everyone in the room pogoing on the spot and furiously pumping their fists. Bizarrely, it was prefaced by the opening lines of "Three Times A Lady", which cut off just as Lionel Richie was telling us that "there's something I must say out loud". The Jaxx are never anything less than eclectic, and their spirit of inclusion and open-mindedness is one of their greatest strengths – but who would have guessed that dear old Lionel would rank as one of their muses?

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

My ultimate supergroup.

Over at The Art Of Noise, Ben has been running a series of fortnightly guest posts, in which contributors are invited to construct the line-up for their ultimate all-star supergroup.

This week it was my turn, giving me the opportunity to revive a line-up which I first put together at the age of twelve.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, I offer you... KING CONSTANTINE!

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Lionel Richie – Nottingham Trent FM Arena, Monday March 30.

Lionel Richie doesn’t exactly shy away from the superlatives. “I’m having the best night of my life, right here on this stage tonight!” he exclaimed, just before the encore – and given his seemingly boundless enthusiasm, which never flagged for a second during last night’s epic 24-song set, we could almost believe him.

Displaying all the hyped-up energy of a man half his age, the 59-year old Richie was in no danger of resting on his laurels. His sheer love of performing radiated from every sweat-soaked pore, and his easy, unforced charisma proved instantly infectious with his adoring audience. By the fourth number – a gracious and delightful rendition of Penny Lover from the career-defining Can’t Slow Down album – happy couples were swaying contentedly in the aisles, arms draped around each other’s shoulders.

Lionel’s strongest suit is the love song, and his most successful love songs – Truly, Stuck On You, Endless Love – are unashamedly romantic celebrations of strong, committed and lasting unions. You hear them as first dances at weddings, or as anniversary dedications on the radio. They don’t seek to say anything particularly new, and some of them teeter on the brink of downright corniness – but when you witness the reactions that they provoke amongst the faithful, it’s hard to remain cynical for long. Even the corniest of them all – the evergreen Three Times A Lady and the deathless Hello – had the ring of sincerity about them. For that’s Lionel’s art: to turn age-old sentiments into universal truths, and to make even the most over-used rhymes sound as if they had never been written before.

As for the more uptempo numbers – of which there were plenty – the musical emphasis leant more towards rock than funk. A pounding Running With The Night played to all the strengths of the five-piece band, and an extended Dancing On The Ceiling closed the main set in storming fashion, raising cheers as it dropped briefly into the opening bars of Van Halen’s Jump.

Surprisingly, there was just one selection from the newly released Just Go album: a duet with contemporary R&B superstar Akon, whose contribution was relayed from the giant video screens above the stage. Perhaps it wouldn’t have hurt to plug the new material a little harder. But then again, we were there to hear the classics – and from the opening Easy to the final All Night Long, the irrepressible, irresistible and hugely likeable Lionel Richie made it his business to give us all that we could possibly want.

Set list:
All Around The World
Just Go
Penny Lover
Just For You
Stuck On You
Tender Heart
Ballerina Girl
Running With The Night
Say You Say Me
Wandering Stranger
Lady (You Bring Me Up)
Brick House
Three Times A Lady
Sail On
Dancing On The Ceiling
Endless Love
Don’t Stop The Music
My Destiny
All Night Long (All Night)

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Interview: Lionel Richie.

(This feature originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.)

Photo by SpreePiX - Berlin

Some interviewees can take a little time to warm up. Sure, they’ll nearly always be polite – but sometimes you’ll detect a weariness, or a certain suspicion, lurking behind those first few answers. When that happens, it’s your job to turn on the charm and engage their interest, coaxing as much out of them as you can in the time available.

And then there are the Lionel Richies of this world: eager, enthusiastic, puppy-dog friendly, with an almost overpowering charm that instantly puts you at your ease.

“I have never been so happy to speak to a man this much in my whole life!” he begins, before serving up the twist. “Because you are the last interview of my day! How about that?”

When we speak, he’s in London for the Brits, where he’ll be presenting the Best Female International Artist award to Katy Perry. “Mainly I’ll just go and hang out. I have this brand new record coming out, and so it’s a little bit of rubbing shoulders.”

Moving and shaking, playing the game, and having fun while he’s doing it – that’s Lionel all over. One of Motown’s longest-serving and most successful artists, he’s been doing this sort of thing since the early 1970s, signing with Berry Gordy’s label just after it moved from the original “Hit Factory” building in Detroit to new premises in Los Angeles.

For many of Gordy’s artists and backing musicians, who had grown used to recording in their home city, the move was a traumatic and controversial one.

“They were doing great in Detroit, but then to move to L.A? Can you handle L.A.? L.A. is not Detroit. One thing’s for sure, they had no choice – because that was the bread and butter. These guys had a machine going called Motown. They would follow Berry Gordy anywhere on the planet. So I would say it was more difficult for them.”

None of this mattered much to Richie and his band The Commodores. Hailing from Alabama, they brought a fresh set of musical influences to the label – although it still took them a few months to find their feet.

“They tried to put this into that Motown formula. And we were trying to get into the Motown formula – but the formula didn't fit the Commodores. “We pulled a track from the Temptations, Lionel! We’re gonna give that to you!” And we kept saying: well, we don’t want a Temptations track; where the Commodores track?”

“We were a bar band, you know? We were the funk group here. And then I discovered that Marvin couldn’t read music and Smokey couldn’t read music… and wait a minute, you mean I don’t have to read music to be a writer? No? OK. Fellas, we are now writers! If we can explain what we want for a record, we can write it. And then we discovered our writing talent, and it was off to the races!”

Although Richie left Motown in the mid-1990s, a strong sense of identification with the label still remains with him.

“It’s like graduating from a university. If you went to USC, you will forever be a USC graduate, you know what I’m saying? I used to call it Motown University. It was the best course that you could ever take, and you couldn’t take it unless you signed to Motown.”

And when he attends the class reunions, which of the alumni does he hang out with?

“Smokey and Stevie are my buds, and I have a very special relationship with Berry Gordy. It’s one of those situations where the master teacher and I are still very much in contact with each other. And I love that. When Berry Gordy was presented his lifetime achievement award, he asked three people to stand and make a speech on his behalf: Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and Lionel Richie. And I thought: if that’s the history of Motown standing in front of us, and I happen to make that three… I had a lot of tears in my eyes that night.”

While his fellow graduates have mostly morphed into nostalgia acts, Lionel is still pumping out the product. The past few years have seen something of a commercial and artistic renaissance for him, and his newly released album Just Go – a collaboration with some of the top names in contemporary R&B – is already selling well.

“When I did this album, it was kind of a risky thing – but I always like to be a little risky. If I’m a little scared to death of what’s going on, and if I feel like I don’t quite have the control, I know that I’m in the right zone. If you talk to actors, they always like to stretch their talents a little bit. So with this one, I decided: OK, what have I not done?”

In the case, the answer lay in surrendering a certain amount of creative freedom to younger artists such as Ne-Yo and Akon, and recruiting some of the key creative talent behind hits like Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”.

“So here’s what we’re gonna do. I’m gonna go to Akon and Ne-Yo and these guys, and I’m gonna say: OK, you are now Lionel Richie in 2009. What does he sound like? And then I’m getting out of the way. Now you got my heart beating again, as if it were 1972! And now there’s no more guarantees about anything, because I’ve given up the control.”

As a testament of faith in R&B’s new generation, Just Go sets Richie apart from those of his contemporaries who dismiss the contemporary version of the genre out of hand.

“We have one common denominator that brings us all together, and that is melody”, he explains. “Now, if you’d asked me to rap, you’d have a problem. But if you’re asking me to hum a song, I can do that. So what I was looking for was the songwriters of this generation. I wanted to give them an opportunity to go places that they normally wouldn’t go, if they had done it for themselves. That’s where the art is: to make sure you don’t lose Lionel Richie in the process of writing the song.”

Thankfully, one of R&B’s more irksome new toys – the Autotune machine, which turns dodgy pitch into robotised perfection – was left in its box.

“They’d say: Lionel, we’ll straighten that one out right there. And I said, don’t straighten that one out! Every perfect note does not mean the song is perfect – it means it’s not believable.”

As for the current tour, which lands in Nottingham on Monday night, the focus will be kept on classic values rather than gimmicky excess.

“Lionel will not fly from the back of the room; that’s not gonna happen. I’ll wait till I’m 92, and then I’ll fly in from the back of the room! I just change the lights around a little bit, show up, and the crowd puts on the best show ever on the planet.”

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Animal Collective, Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Monday March 23rd.

Leftfield experimentalism and commercial success rarely go hand in hand – but nine albums down the line, something about Animal Collective’s unique, uncompromising approach has finally clicked with a wider audience. On stage at a sold-out Rescue Rooms, they pushed their sound well away from the sweet pop hooks that have crept into newer recorded work – submerging their melodies in a soupy, echo-drenched and ear-splitting mix, and testing the stamina of newer, less committed followers. Each track flowed seamlessly into the next, building an intense, powerful and all-consuming mood.

In time-honoured indie fashion, the three performers barely acknowledged the tightly packed crowd. Instead, they hunched studiously over their electronic equipment, obscured in semi-darkness. Above them, abstract moving images were projected onto a gigantic inflatable sphere. Below them, waves of thick, multi-layered sound crashed over our heads – battering some into stupefied submission, and coaxing others into twitchy, head-bobbing motion.

The first forty minutes were the hardest work: ponderous, proggy, and teetering on the brink of self-indulgence. Thankfully, a sprightly Lion In A Coma marked the turning point, ushering in a more rhythmic, physical second half. The band’s recent single My Girls was saved for the encore. It was rapturously – and gratefully – received.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Interview: Animal Collective's Brian Weitz, aka Geologist.

To avoid cluttering up the top of the blog during the closing stages of "Which Decade", I've posted my Animal Collective interview over at Rocktimists.

Next Friday, back here on Troubled Diva: Lionel Richie!

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Friday, March 13, 2009

Sleccy's vinyl countdown.

I've got a piece in today's Guardian Film and Music section, which charts the rise and fall of one of the UK's finest independent record stores: Nottingham's Selectadisc, which closes its doors for good at the end of this month.

Click here to read it online.

(And now you know why this year's "Which Decade" has been running so slowly. This took time!)

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Late of the Pier - Nottingham Bodega Social, Thursday March 12.

Despite enjoying Top Forty success last year with their debut album Fantasy Black Channel – and becoming our most successful band for many years in the process – Late of the Pier have yet to stage a large scale homecoming gig. Instead, they’ve opted to put on grassroots shows in small venues: firstly at the Chameleon Arts Café in December, where the set had to be cut short after thirty minutes after fears that the floor would collapse on them (“Don’t dance, or else you’ll die!”), and secondly at a “secret” show at the Bodega last night.

Publicised entirely via word of mouth – no press, no Facebook, not even a stray Twitter – the venue attracted a fiercely loyal crowd, many of whom would remember the band from their formative days as Liars Club regulars, at the same venue.

The forty-five minute set opened with a new song. By this band’s standards, it was a subdued, restrained, almost conventional affair – but any fears that commercial success had smoothed out their rougher edges were dispelled mid-set with a second, gloriously off-kilter new number. Starting out as jerky, staccato new wave, it morphed into a slow passage (causing certain over-excited punters to start stroking each others’ faces), before bursting into an almost heavy metal section and ending with atonal electronic bleeps and squelches.

“We’re playing this gig to demonstrate how broken our equipment is”, quipped the singer – and true enough, the set was almost derailed a couple of times by technical hitches – but nothing was going to stop this band from whipping its fans into a chaotic, near-riotous frenzy. During the wildly popular Focker, the left hand speaker stack almost toppled over, sending beer flying over one of the keyboards. Meanwhile, the Bodega’s security guy worked so diligently in quelling the crowd surfers, that he was thanked for his efforts mid-set.

At the final number climaxed, the singer joined the moshers – flinging himself into the front rows, where he was borne triumphantly aloft. It was a fitting end to a show that was thrilling, daring, and a rare privilege to witness.

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Crystal Stilts, Wet Paint, The Manhattan Love Suicides – Nottingham Chameleon Arts Café, Wednesday February 25.

(The next instalment of Which Decade Is Tops For Pops will be posted later today, probably mid-evening. Until then, here's what I got up to last night, on behalf of t'local paper.)

It might not be the highest profile of venues (and unless you know exactly where to look, you’ll struggle to find it), but the Chameleon on Angel Row is currently hosting some of the most exciting grassroots gigs in the city. Because of the lack of publicity (you’ll probably need to be on Facebook), there was a sense of having stumbled across a well-kept secret, far away from the shallow hipster pack.

The Manhattan Love Suicides churned out a low-fi, fuzzed-out racket, channelling elements of 1966-era Velvet Underground, 1976-era Ramones and 1986-era Jesus And Mary Chain. The playing was simple, fierce and precise; the effect was mesmerising and energising.

Wet Paint appeared to have recruited Spinal Tap’s Derek Smalls on bass and Scooby-Doo’s Thelma on drums. They were the most conventionally indie band of the night, and perhaps this counted slightly against them.

Like half the hottest acts of the past two years, Crystal Stilts hail from Brooklyn. As with their two predecessors on the bill, their drummer is female. On record, they mostly sound like sulky Mary Chain copyists. On stage, they quickened their rhythms, expanded their range, and came to full and glorious life. It was a privilege to experience them at such close quarters.

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Monday, February 23, 2009

Kaiser Chiefs, Black Kids, Esser - Nottingham Trent FM Arena, Sunday February 22.

If so-called “wonky pop” is a genre which we’re going to have to start taking seriously, then at least Esser makes a better fist of it than most of 2009’s crop of eager young hopefuls. (You know the ones: all shiny new record contracts, “directional” hairdos and over-zealous image consultants.) Stylistically, he was all over the place, cheerfully plundering anything that took his fancy from pop’s last three decades. Performance-wise, he didn’t let the crowd’s polite indifference stand in the way of putting on a confident, mostly convincing show.

Following appearances at the Rescue Rooms in June and Trent University in October, Black Kids found themselves in town for a third time, on their biggest stage yet. Although not exactly a natural arena act, their set scaled up better than might have been expected – especially given the rough edges that were on display just a few months ago. A little more variety in tone and pace would have served them well, but it’s still relatively early days for this cheerful and likeable band, whose well-executed indie-pop did a fine job of warming the arena up for the main attraction.

Given the disappointing performance of their third album, and the complete commercial failure of their last single, you might expect the Kaiser Chiefs to be feeling the strain by now. But when it comes to staging a crowd-pleasing show in a major venue, their status as one of this country’s most popular and effective live acts remains unassailable.

Bounding onto the stage in a haze of thick smoke, singer Ricky Wilson began his performance at full tilt, and barely dropped it down a notch for the full ninety minutes. A series of little posing platforms had been placed around the front and the sides of the stage, allowing him to give full expression to his exhibitionist urges. Occasionally, he would scale one of the lighting rigs, in order to dangle precariously above the capacity crowd. Towards the end of the main set, he darted into the wings and re-emerged moments later at the rear of the hall, perched on a slightly larger platform and bellowing his key message: “We are the Kaiser Chiefs!”

For while their detractors might find them smug and shallow, the whole essence of the Kaiser Chiefs is optimistic, celebratory, inclusive – and yes, unashamedly self-glorifying. Their songs might be peppered with clever lyrical twists here and there – but when all’s said and done, they’re not exactly the deepest songs in the world. Indeed, many of their most popular numbers – Ruby, Never Miss A Beat, Oh My God – scarcely seem to be about anything at all, barring a vague cynicism about the hollowness of modern life which sometimes teeters on the brink of outright sneering. As such, they make perfect anthems for 10,000 eager souls to roar along to – stabbing their fists in the air and having the time of their lives, but without ever needing to engage with the music on a deeper emotional level.

Subtle as a flying mallet they may be, but the Kaiser Chiefs – and the excitable Mr. Wilson in particular – are masters of giving their followers exactly what they want: punchy stadium anthems, delivered with precision and panache. Depending on your point of view, last night’s show was either a headache-inducing pantomime of empty gestures, or a belting, barn-storming and brilliant night out.

Set list:
Spanish Metal
Every Day I Love You Less And Less
Everything Is Average Nowadays
Heat Dies Down
You Want History
Saturday Night
Good Days Bad Days
Na Na Na Na Naa
Love’s Not A Competition (But I’m Winning)
Like It Too Much
Modern Way
Half The Truth
Never Miss A Beat
I Predict A Riot
Take My Temperature
The Angry Mob

Tomato In The Rain
Thank You Very Much
Oh My God

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Portico Quartet, Red, Natalie Duncan – Nottingham Malt Cross, Thursday February 19.

Thanks to the efforts of Nottingham’s excellent Dealmaker Records, the Malt Cross played host to a commendably diverse line-up of artists: a folk/soul singer-songwriter, a beat-boxing turntablist and a Mercury-nominated progressive jazz quartet.

Although visibly shaken by the unavailability of her backing band, coupled with a series of unfortunate technical glitches, local artist Natalie Duncan turned out to be a smouldering revelation. An intense, emotive yet controlled performer, her beautiful vocals carried echoes of early 1970s artists such as Minnie Riperton and Linda Lewis.

Squeezed into the far side of the venue’s uniquely challenging mezzanine stage, Red opened and closed his set with some amazing beat-boxing, his deceptively relaxed demeanour making it all look so easy. His turntable skills were no less impressive - particularly on Seen, his best known track.

They might have started out as South Bank buskers, but the Portico Quartet’s moody, cerebral style is more suited to the concert hall than the pavement these days. As such, their music proved an awkward fit for the convivial, chatty crowd at the Malt Cross. For those with the patience to concentrate, there were ample rewards to be reaped – but despite the undeniably exquisite playing, a little more colour and mischief wouldn’t have gone amiss.

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NME Shockwaves Tour – Nottingham Rock City, Wednesday February 11.

These annual NME package tours can be patchy affairs. For every band who leap-frogs to greater success (Coldplay, The Killers, Arctic Monkeys), plenty more are destined to fall by the wayside (hands up, who remembers Campag Velocet, Alfie, Mumm-Ra or JJ72?).

Following below-par showings in 2007 and 2008, this year’s line-up marked a return to form. Florence and the Machine opened the show, with a well-received set that showcased Florence Welch’s powerful vocal capabilities. Florence was at her best on the more intense, dramatic numbers, which carried distinct echoes of Siouxsie and the Banshees. If she can rein in the ditsy bohemian act, and carry herself less like an art student and more like an artist, then her future should be assured.

Although the most orthodox band on the bill – we’ve heard these early New Order/Bunnymen influences many times before – White Lies proved to be the surprise hit of the night, building their comparatively lengthy set up to a satisfying crescendo, and demonstrating an efficient grasp of stagecraft.

They might be the superior band on record, but Friendly Fires struggled to retain the momentum set by White Lies. Their sound mix was sludgy, their playing lacked focus, and there was something faintly irritating about front man Ed Macfarlane’s over-strenuous cavortings. That said, nothing could spoil the impact of minor-league gems such as In The Hospital, Jump In The Pool or the sublime Paris. Perhaps this was just an off night?

Headliners Glasvegas have come a long way since their self-effacing half-hour set at the Bodega last January. They carry themselves differently these days. There’s more assurance, more authority, and even the first glimmers of a rapport with their audience. Rock City suited them perfectly, and James Allan returned our love with a smile and a bow. Despite an overly booming, bass-heavy mix, the night belonged to them.

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Monday, February 02, 2009

Keane - Nottingham Trent FM Arena, Sunday February 1st.

According to Oscar Wilde, “being natural is simply a pose, and the most irritating pose I know”. But where countless identikit indie bands strive unconvincingly to maintain their artful “we’re just like you” anti-images, Keane’s uncontrived ordinariness sits at the heart of who they are and what they do. More than most stadium-level acts of their generation, they have succeeded in minimising the gap between band and audience. Sure, singer Tom Chaplin might have busted out a few rockstar moves – but there was nothing aloof or remote about his sweaty antics, and the unselfconscious way he urged us to get on our feet and show our enthusiasm.

For those who like their stars to act like stars, Keane’s basic lack of charisma will always be a turn-off. They have been called bland, boring, the musical equivalent of beige. But for those who love the band’s music, and who find their own emotions reflected back at them by keyboardist Tim Rice-Oxley’s yearning, heartfelt lyrics, the critics couldn’t be more wrong.

Chaplin’s vocals are perhaps his band’s greatest asset. Clear, resonant and pitch-perfect, he rode the soaring melodies with a chorister’s precision. Behind him, Rice-Oxley’s pounding keyboards dominated the sound as ever, fleshed out by unofficial fourth member Jesse Quin’s bass guitar. From time to time, Chaplin picked up a guitar or provided additional keyboards – but the simpler, stripped-down arrangements remained the most successful.

With all but two tracks from current album Perfect Symmetry getting an airing, the band worked hard to showcase their new material in the best possible light. But while the anthemic title track played to all their strengths, other more adventurous excursions – the Bowie-esque Better Than This, the skittering electronics of You Haven’t Told Me Anything – gave the impression of a band struggling valiantly to move forward, but in danger of burying the qualities that made them so popular in the first place.

Set list:
The Lovers Are Losing
Bend And Break
Everybody's Changing
Again And Again
Better Than This
A Bad Dream
This Is The Last Time
Try Again
Snowed Under
The River
You Haven't Told Me Anything
Leaving So Soon?
You Don't See Me
Perfect Symmetry
Somewhere Only We Know
Crystal Ball

Playing Along (Tom solo)
Black Burning Heart
Is It Any Wonder?

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Buzzcocks - Nottingham Rock City, Wednesday January 21.

Over the past couple of years, an increasing number of veteran acts have opted to perform their classic albums in full. The Human League toured Dare in 2007, Gary Numan toured Replicas in 2008 – and this year, Manchester’s original punk pioneers have taken the concept a step further, playing their first two albums in their entirety.

Released in March and September of 1978, Another Music in a Different Kitchen and Love Bites caught the Buzzcocks riding an extraordinary wave of creative energy. As the initial head-rush of hardcore punk idealism faded away, they broke ranks with the herd and forged a fresh, clean sound that blended classic songcraft with cutting edge modernism. Over thirty years later, the material sounds as timeless as ever.

To the delight of any purists in the audience, both albums were played back to back, in their original track sequence, without any interruption. It was a bold move, which required a certain patience from the eager moshers down the front. The band’s biggest and best loved hit Ever Fallen in Love was buried in the middle of the set, rather than being saved for the climax. It was one of just two singles to be aired, the other being the equally lovelorn and transcendent I Don’t Mind.

For the thirty minute encore, our patience was rewarded. One by one, all the remaining classic Buzzcocks singles – and their accompanying B-sides – were wheeled out, again in fastidiously chronological order, ending with a gloriously messy thrash through Steve Diggle’s Harmony In My Head.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Interview: Steve Diggle (Buzzcocks).

Photo by Nemone.

Let’s start with a banal but necessary question. On paper, you’re always billed as “Buzzcocks”, but most people refer to you as “The Buzzcocks”. Which is correct? I’ve always been confused.

It’s still confusing internally! Pete Shelley [lead singer] likes to think it’s “Buzzcocks”. I personally don’t mind “The Buzzcocks” – because grammatically, putting “the” in front of something means “the one and only”, “the definitive”.

So would Pete have preferred it if they’d called the quiz show Never Mind Buzzcocks? Would that have been more correct?

Well, he comes from a place called Leigh and they talk a bit funny there anyway. (Laughs) I think he’s wrong, you know? I don’t mind “The Buzzcocks”.

I’m sitting here looking at these rather handsomely packaged re-issues of your first three albums. [Another Music In A Different Kitchen (1978), Love Bites (1978), A Different Kind Of Tension (1979)] They also include a lot of bonus material. Do they contain everything you recorded, from signing up with United Artists in 1977 until you first split up in 1981?

There might be something left in the can here and there, but it’s more or less everything. It’s enough, you know? It’s a good comprehensive history of the band. And seeing them all like that, with all those demos and John Peel sessions and things, it all makes broader sense.

You’ve got a couple of live shows on there, that have never been released before. Where did they come from?

They’ve been in the archives at EMI. Shows were recorded, and just put in the vaults. During that period, I think we had a single out every two months and then an album out pretty quickly after that. So there wasn’t really time to put that kind of stuff out. But a lot of it was recorded, and mobile studios would be there, probably for a rainy day like this.

They sound clean and fresh; someone’s done a good job of remastering them.

That’s the whole thing with the Buzzcocks sound: it sounds like it was all recorded yesterday. There’s something about the music and the spirit in all the songs, that just sounds current and contemporary all the time. It was like our own Buzzcocks world. You’d put a record on, and you’d go into the Buzzcocks world.

It’s interesting that one of the shows was in the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall, as the Pistols legendarily appeared there a couple of times in the summer of 1976. Did those gigs really kick-start the whole Manchester scene as we know it?

Yes, I suppose so, because we put them on. We sorted that out. I met Pete at the first one, and then at the second one we opened up for them.

Did you see the Joy Division biopic, Control? They used the Albert Hall in Nottingham as the exterior for the Lesser Free Trade Hall show.

I haven’t seen the movie, but I do remember being there. I remember Ian Curtis telling me he’d got a girlfriend in France, and he was married, you know? And I think he hung himself a few days after. Ha! So that’s all I needed to know.

But being there at that time, and having the Pistols on, and opening up for them, it did kick-start a lot of things off. All the journalists had come up from London to review the Pistols, and they were amazed that there was a local band, doing this new thing called punk rock.

You were the first Manchester punk band off the blocks. Did you feel like part of a wider movement, and were you happy that it was being called punk rock?

Well, there was an attitude and an excitement. It was almost like putting two fingers up to the world – and to the music business in general, who wouldn’t give anybody a deal unless you went on your hands and knees, and you got told what to do, and you weren’t allowed to do anything that was real. And also the landscape was barren musically in Manchester, and everywhere else. So we were the first on the block in Manchester, and a lot of people looked to us. We also started two days before the Clash, in fact.

I’ve always thought of Spiral Scratch [the Buzzcocks debut EP from 1977] as the first ever indie record. Are you happy to take credit for inventing indie?

We’d done some shows in Manchester after the Pistols one, and we thought we’d go and record ourselves, to see what we sounded like. Then we thought: well, if we go to London to a big record company, they’re just going to throw it out of the window. So we got £500 together and made a thousand singles. And after that, we had about six of the major record companies all coming up to Manchester every other week, trying to sign us up.

You must have gone with the right label, because a lot of the early punk bands got really angry with theirs. The Clash always seemed to be fighting with CBS, for example. Yet with yourselves and United Artists, it seemed that you got a lot of artistic control. All your sleeve designs were exactly what you wanted, and there was always a complete package. Was it a good relationship?

It was. Because we had Spiral Scratch out, I remember Malcom McLaren saying: oh, you should sign a major deal quick, before it all disappears. But we just took our time, because we wanted artistic control.

At United Artists there was a guy called Andrew Lauder, who agreed to all of that. He came down to a lot of shows, and he knew what we were about to a certain extent. There was an empathy with what we were doing, rather than just going: oh, let’s sign them up to make a load of money out of them.

So he said we could have artistic control, and that’s why we put the woman with the iron on her head on the cover [of the first single, Orgasm Addict]. And at the pressing plants, they went on strike. They said no, we’re not pressing this filthy stuff!

What, because of filthy things like orgasms?

Yeah, I know! (Laughs) It’s not like nobody’s ever heard of one!

They were giving themselves away.

It was that time, you know? It was quite outrageous. So it was delayed three weeks because of that. Then we followed it up with a B-side called Oh Shit, which caused another problem! (Laughs)

But going back to the point of artistic control, at least we were allowed to do that. And we’ve met a lot of people who say: yeah, I took that record home and put Orgasm Addict on and my parents went crazy. “What’s this filth you’re listening to?” It was a bit like Lady Chatterley’s Lover. That’s not far from you, is it?

And then there was your incredible work rate. Your first two albums both came out in 1978, along with five singles in the same year, most of which weren’t on the albums. Was there a feeling that you were surfing a creative high?

It’s strange how suddenly you’re in the right space and time in the universe, and with your own mind. I personally felt like I’d found what I wanted to do. It was the same with Pete and the rest of us, and we just gelled. We got together, and this sort of magic was created. We didn’t have to rehearse it too much. It just seemed to take off, like it had a world of its own.

And from that, we were doing universities, and then we started doing theatres, and then we were travelling to America. So it just seemed like you’ve jumped on this plane, and we’ve gone on this massive journey.

But that kind of work rate is not something you can sustain forever. Did it begin to take its toll? Did you push yourselves too hard?

We started going to America a lot, and there were a lot of crazy, wild parties in America – and over here, and everywhere else where we played. But it’s a lot to keep up, for any band. Many bands come crashing down because of that, particularly when they start travelling to America. Because it’s such a wild, crazy place when you’re in a rock and roll band.

So we’d done this massive work rate, and we were constantly on tour, and there were a lot of drink, drugs, and girls involved. You know, it was that classic thing.

But when you’re 20 and 21 and all that takes off, you’ve got to embrace it, you know? It’s like Byron and Shelley, when they wrote the poetry and they went crazy, or like Turner tying himself to a mast. You’ve got to see and experience all this stuff. It’s all part of it.

Creatively, we did quite well to keep that going for all that time. But we stopped in the Eighties for a while, because it came crashing down for a bit, and suddenly there was all that New Romantic stuff, you know?

Maybe they were inspired by some of the romanticism of the Buzzcocks’ work? You were the band that re-introduced the love song, in some respects.

I don’t think they’re all love songs. We had a couple of hits with love songs, and we are tagged with that, but when you listen to those albums you’ll see that there aren’t just love songs on there. We sang about the whole human condition.

I mean, Harmony In My Head was in the Top 30 and that wasn’t a love song. Everybody’s Happy Nowadays, Autonomy, Fast Cars… but obviously you’ve got the Ever Fallen In Love song, and Love You More. So we’re kind of known for a bit of that, but I think there was a lot more to it.

Were you aware of the Magazine reunion that’s coming along? Does that spark any interest?

Yeah, I’m hoping to get to that if I can. That’s good; they’ve taken quite a while to get back. But yeah, I was always a Magazine fan as well. Obviously Howard [Devoto, original Buzzcocks singer who founded Magazine] was with us at the beginning; he did about six shows. But then you got two bands for the price of one.

And you share the same riff, in Lipstick [a 1978 Buzzcocks B-side] and in Shot By Both Sides [Magazine’s debut single, also released in 1978]. Which came first?

(Laughs) He did just as good a job with it. It’s kind of bizarre, isn’t it? I do remember him coming in when we were rehearsing – he’d just left [the band] – and he said “Do you mind if I borrow that riff?”

Oh, so he warned you in advance? That’s good. I thought you might have heard Shot By Both Sides and thought “Well, that’s a bit cheeky…”

No, it was the other way round!

You’ve set yourselves quite a challenge, in that you’ll be playing the first two albums in full on the new tour. What inspired you to do that?

There’s a lot of stuff [on those albums] that we haven’t played for a long time. So it seemed a good idea, since they’re all out again, in lovely packages with all the bits and pieces and demos and stuff. I’m going to have to start learning some of them again, as I’ve forgotten some of them! (Laughs)

It’s going to be a long set. You’ve got 22 songs on the albums to start with.

Well, we usually do about an hour and a half. I don’t know how long those albums are, but it will be quite a long set.

Are you literally going to play both albums back to back in their original sequence, or are you going to mix it up?

We’ll have to see how it flows. There were a lot of singles that weren’t on those albums, so maybe we might have to sprinkle a couple of singles in between the albums.

But the whole strength [of that time] was the great songwriting. You can see that every song’s a classic. It was always hard to choose A and B-sides. And the standard of songwriting on those albums has seen us through the thirty years, really.

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Thursday, January 08, 2009

Interview: Boy George.

A few weeks before his recent court case, a cheerful and upbeat Boy George spoke to me about his return to the gigging circuit, his most recent single, and his forthcoming headline slot on the next Here and Now tour.

Insofar as any Boy George interview can be called "standard" (as before, he was articulate, witty, waspish, and utterly charming), it was all fairly standard stuff – but in the light of subsequent events, some of George’s observations do feel especially poignant.

What follows are the edited highlights of our conversation, which took place in early November.

You’ve just finished a fairly massive tour of the UK – your second in twelve months. Are you enjoying your return to the live stage?

Yeah, it’s been a while since I’ve done it. At the moment, it’s really enjoyable. A lot of people seem to be going out more to gigs. I know I am, and I think there’s been a bit more of an interest in it. My audience is really across the board, from 80-year old women to kids, and it’s great to go out and really get to see them. I love that.

It must have been great to sing your latest single [the Barack Obama-sampling Yes We Can] during the build-up to the US presidential election.

It’s funny, but when I talked about Barack Obama on stage, people were really weird. Like, quite hostile. I don’t know whether it’s because people aren’t into politics, or because my fans are secretly Tories…! (Laughs)

Maybe they assumed it was a straightforward “Vote for Obama” campaigning song, which would have been a bit weird. But when you look at the verses, it’s saying something quite different. There’s one line which goes “Please forgive me for these crimes against myself” - and then there’s a real sting in the next line, when you sing “And I’ll forgive your lack of faith”.

It was interesting doing that on tour, because the hostile audience made it a bit more defiant. So I was actually really enjoying singing it. But when [Obama] was elected, we saw a kind of great goodwill. And when I first heard him talk a long time ago, that’s what I saw: optimism, and a fresh look at things, which is what I think people want.

It’s a total sea change. It reminds me of 1997, when Tony Blair stormed into power and everyone seemed incredibly optimistic.

But I think he’s even more eloquent than Tony Blair. And he’s got much more charisma. The only thing that comes across as a little bit nauseating is all that stuff about America being the greatest country in the world. It’s not, you know. They throw people out of ambulances who can’t afford them! (Laughs)

Have you ever been approached for any political endorsements?

Well, I’m not really the sort of person they would ask! (Laughs) Maybe in the future, but I’ve had so much negative press that I’d probably be the last person that they’d ask!

You’ve spent a lot of time in the USA, but you seem to be concentrating back on this country now. Has the love affair with America soured?

I think Great Britain is the best place to live. I love it here. I could never live anywhere else. America is a place you should visit, but it’s not somewhere you’d live.

You’ll be headlining the next Here and Now tour in May. Is this another sign of your increased confidence in touring?

Well, we kind of started this whole thing, because about 12 years ago Culture Club did a tour with the Human League and Howard Jones. So it’s something that we’ve done already. It’s kind of an easy gig, because everyone’s doing their hits, and everyone’s just on for a certain amount of time. So it’s not like doing a normal tour. It’s fun, you know?

How well do you know the other acts on the bill?

I know Kim Wilde pretty well, and I know Hazel O’Connor because she was a Hare Krishna. A lot of them are people that I’ve bumped into, if you know what I mean. But what’s nice about these kinds of tours is that you get to work with these people when you’re older and more settled. When you’re nineteen or twenty, you think everything’s a competition. But we all make assumptions, and when you meet people they’re nothing like you think they’re going to be.

Looking back on that first flush of 1980s pop, do you think that Band Aid and Live Aid killed the party off, or was it in its death throes already?

I think it came to a natural end. Although now you can see that people are trying to recreate it. Like the Tings Tings: that record [That’s Not My Name] is basically Money by the Flying Lizards [a Top Five hit from 1979]. Somebody should do a little cut-up of those two, because it’s the same record. You can literally sing the same thing. “That’s what I want!” “That’s not my name!”

What I find perplexing is that we seem to be in the throes of yet another Sixties revival. Amy Winehouse came and did her stuff, and then we had the Duffys of this world, and now we’ve got Girls Aloud and the Sugababes doing Sixties pastiches.

I think the only one who gets away with it is Amy, because she lives it. I’ve recently been listening a lot to Frank, her first album. She really uses her voice on that album, and it’s amazing. I remember buying it and liking it, but now I really love it.

Of all those people, she stands out. No offence to any of those bands, but you know they’re just trying to have hits. What’s trendy, what’s the flavour – let’s do that. With Amy, it just feels very natural. You don’t think she’s doing a pastiche. There’s a marked difference.

You’ve got a DJ-ing date coming up in Dubai, and I’m curious to know more about the place.

I love Dubai; I go there a lot.

Is it not all just a bit sanitised?

It’s very different there; you can’t do lots of the things that you can do here. You can’t kiss men in public. The last time I was there, somebody said that you’re not allowed to be gay. I said, it’s a bit late for that! (Laughs) You can’t drink in the DJ box, and so on. But people love music, and there’s a really great audience there.

So there are club kids there, who will connect with it all? It’s not just the children of the rich?

There was a big club that was shut down, where I used to play. I looked up at the balcony, and there were all these Arabs, dressed in all their gear! But that’s the great thing about dance music; it’s kind of universal. Because a lot of it is instrumental, the language barrier is not important. I first went to Dubai ten years ago, and I thought: oh, what’s it going to be like? And it was great, and every time I’ve been there I’ve always had good shows.

Just don’t ask the cocktail waiter for a Sex On The Beach. That’s off the menu.

Or a Slow Screw! (Laughs)

I sense that there’s been a real upswing this year for you. It feels like you’re in a particularly happy place right now.

I definitely am, and that’s a choice. It’s not that anything happened; it’s more my thinking. I’ve kind of accepted that I do what I do, and I love what I do, and I’ve spent a lot of time making things into a drama that didn’t need to be a drama.

And so I’ve reached the point where I realised I had choices: you can either make things great, or make them hard work. I try to do less of that now. I did a lot of that in the past, and I think it’s really unhealthy and disruptive.

On December 5th 2008, George O’Dowd was found guilty of falsely imprisoning Audun Carlsen. Sentencing will take place on Jan 16th, and imprisonment has not been ruled out.

In a statement on his official website, Boy George says: “I am feeling surprisingly objective and sane. No matter the outcome, I will get through it and move on with the wisdom I have gained from the experience. This past year has been magical in so many ways and I intend to keep it that way.”

The 2009 Here and Now tour comes to Nottingham's Trent FM Arena on Saturday May 16th. Kim Wilde, Howard Jones, Kid Creole & The Coconuts, Altered Images, Hazel O’Connor and Brother Beyond will all be performing. At the time of going to press, Boy George was still scheduled as the headline act.

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Monday, January 05, 2009

Chris Brown – Nottingham Trent FM Arena, Sunday January 4th.

He’s still only in his teens, but R&B’s latest and hottest superstar has already come a long way since making his UK chart debut, almost exactly three years ago. And on the second night of his first ever overseas stadium tour, this small town boy made good couldn’t afford to be complacent as he faced the challenge of building a live reputation here from scratch.

On the evidence of last night’s hugely entertaining show, he won’t have much to worry about. Deafening pyrotechnic bangs and equally ear-shredding squeals greeted his entrance – strapped to a wire cable, and slowly descending head-first towards the stage.

As the opening song Wall To Wall got underway, and the ten-strong dance troupe began to strut their stuff, it became clear that this would be more of a visual spectacle than a conventional concert. Apart from the drummer and the DJ, all of the music was pre-recorded – including all of the backing vocals, and even some of Brown’s lead vocals (although in fairness, his lip-synching was kept to a tolerable minimum). If a song contained a guest vocal, such as Lil’ Wayne’s rap on Gimme That or Jordin Sparks’ verses on No Air, then the vocal was simply played from tape.

If Chris had been any less of a performer, we could have been looking at an embarrassing flop. Thankfully, he possessed enough charisma and energy to carry the show virtually single-handedly.

Just as the corny audience participation stunts threatened to take over, Chris brought on his secret weapon. To gasps of astonished delight, his girlfriend Rihanna casually strolled onto to the stage, dressed in a simple top and jeans, singing the opening lines to Umbrella. The couple performed it as a duet, with Chris adding some new lines and even his own chorus: “You can be my Cinderella, ella, ella…”

Rihanna stayed around just long enough to treat us to a full vocal version of Live Your Life, before wandering back into the wings with a smile and a wave – leaving Chris to face his newly jealous female fanbase. “I apologise for bringing a lady on stage”, he simpered. “You know I love you.”

The surprises didn’t stop there. A few minutes later, Brown and two of his male dancers re-appeared at the back of the main floor, hidden under a tarpaulin. This was whipped away to reveal a flimsy disc-shaped performing area, which was then winched halfway up to the roof, as fireworks fizzed beneath it. Ropes were used to tilt the disc at varying angles, allowing Chris to mime a couple of sexy “slow jams” directly to the back rows of the venue, or back out towards the main arena. And if this wasn’t quite enough excitement, he ripped his vest off for good measure, hurling it into the clawing throng below.

From then on, it was a straightforward home sprint to the end. Having changed into some fetching beige leisure wear, Chris belted out a sequence of his biggest hits: Run It, With You, No Air and Kiss Kiss. His biggest hit Forever was saved for the encore, its live vocals filtered to produce the required machine-like effect.

This may not have been one of the most musically authentic shows that the Arena has ever seen, but it was certainly one of its more entertaining displays of crowd-pleasing showmanship.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Mike's albums of 2008.

Ah, what a list this is! From where I'm sitting, this has been a stunning year for albums, nudging me to conclude that 2008 has perhaps been this decade's finest year for music.

(The one disappointment has been the lack of African music - but then I did rather take my off the ball in that regard, having Mali-ed myself out by the end of 2007.)

1. Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid

An album I rate from a genre I hate (middle-youth indie-lite mope-rock, to be precise). Piercingly honest, palpably heartfelt songs of love, loss, loneliness, friendship and second chances. Pitch-perfect performances, exquisitely produced. You owe it to yourselves to see them live. (But maybe not at Wembley Arena in March. I can't see how the intimacy would scale up.)

2. Late of the Pier - Fantasy Black Channel

Local boys done good (for once). Everything that the Klaxons promised, but didn't deliver. Rowdy and screechy and all over the place. Am I supposed to be too old for this sort of thing?

3. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend

You have to be wary of albums which knock you out on the first listen, as this usually signifies a series of rapidly diminishing returns. And sure enough, I did reach a point over the summer where this felt somewhat played out. As it turned out, this was nothing that a couple of months of "laying down" couldn't cure. An obvious pick, but the critical consensus got it right on this one.

4. Lindstrøm - Where You Go I Go Too

Perfect travelling music: epic, expansive, atmospheric, with slow builds towards intensely pleasurable peaks. (I want to say "soundscapes", but it's such a wanky word.) Is this Cosmic Disco, Nu-Balearica, or both, or neither? It's so hard to keep track of these things. Shades of Jean-Michel Jarre and Jan Hammer along the way, and I never thought I'd be mentioning them in a positive context.

5. Hercules & Love Affair - Hercules & Love Affair

Smart, sexy, moody New York neo-disco, from the ones who got away on the gig-going front. (Did they HAVE to come to town on the same night as Public Enemy?)

6. Portishead - Third

I have to be in a Certain Mood for it, stark bleakness not being my strongest aesthetic suit. Consequently, this is my least played album in the top ten. But when the mood is right, the effect is staggering. If I were but starker and bleaker, this would have topped the list.

7. The Hold Steady - Stay Positive

I've had to vault the bar of their Springsteen-isms, and it's a bar which prevented me from getting to grips with their earlier work - but there's something new here (an expansiveness? an authority? an added depth and weight?) which keeps pulling me back, and a seemingly bottomless lyrical and conceptual richness which should keep me returning in weeks to come. In this context, Craig Finn's comment that "hopefully on someone’s 75th listen, they get something that they didn’t get out of the 74th" is most reassuring. There's no rush. Give it time.

8. Lone - Lemurian

Woozy, hazy, sun-bleached wonkiness from Nottingham's king of the wow and the flutter. An imaginary soundtrack for the summer that never was.

9. Barry Adamson - Back To The Cat

Did I just say "imaginary soundtrack"? Perplexingly overlooked film noir magnificence.

10. Bellowhead - Matachin

English folk done in a big band style, by a veritable supergroup drawn from folk's new breed (Spiers, Boden, the boys from Faustus). Jollier than its more Brechtian predecessor, and hence my feelgood album of choice for that crucial first beer on a Saturday evening.

11. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
12. Solange Knowles - Sol-Angel And The Hadley St. Dreams
13. Grace Jones - Hurricane
14. Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir - Ten Thousand
15. Lau - Lau Live
16. The Dodos - Visiter
17. Geeneus - Volumes One
18. Amadou & Mariam - Welcome To Mali
19. The P Brothers - The Gas
20. The Bug - The Zoo

21. Laura Marling - Alas, I Cannot Swim
22. Joan As Polce Woman - To Survive
23. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
24. Martha Wainwright - I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too
25. British Sea Power - Do You Like Rock Music?
26. Goldfrapp - Seventh Tree
27. Neil Diamond - Home Before Dark
28. Paul Weller - 22 Dreams
29. Erykah Badu - New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)
30. Rokia Traoré - Tchamantché

31. Estelle - Shine
32. Lambchop - OH (Ohio)
33. Jamie Lidell - Jim
34. Benga - Diary of an Afro Warrior
35. The Breeders - Mountain Battles
36. Various / Fred Deakin - Nu Balearica
37. Mary Hampton - My Mother's Children
38. Shearwater - Rook
39. Kanye West - 808s & Heartbreak
40. Teddy Thompson - A Piece of What You Need

41. Drever, McCusker, Woomble - Before The Ruin
42. Faustus - Faustus
43. Kelley Polar - I Need You To Hold On While The Sky Is Falling
44. Camille - Music Hole
45. Various / Charles Webster - Defected presents Charles Webster
46. Friendly Fires - Friendly Fires
47. System 7 - Phoenix
48. The Ting Tings - We Started Nothing
49. Scooter - Jumping All Over The World
50. The Rascals - Rascalize

And what were your favourites? Do tell.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

Mike's tracks of 2008.

1. If I Were A Boy - Beyoncé
2. Blind - Hercules & Love Affair
3. The Bones Of You - Elbow
4. What’s It Gonna Be - H "Two" O ft Platnum
5. Happy House - The Juan MacLean

6. Magpies - Joan As Police Woman
7. A&E - Goldfrapp
8. American Boy - Estelle ft Kanye West
9. Time To Pretend - MGMT
10. Do You Mind (Crazy Cousinz House Mix) - Paleface ft Kyla

11. Focker - Late of the Pier
12. One Day Like This - Elbow
13. Williams' Blood - Grace Jones
14. In The Air - Perempay 'N' Dee ft Katie Pearl
15. Entropy Reigns (In The Celestial City) - Kelley Polar
16. Bongo Jam - Crazy Cousinz ft Calista
17. Paper Planes - MIA
18. The Bears Are Coming - Late of the Pier
19. White Winter Hymnal - Fleet Foxes
20. Viva La Vida - Coldplay

21. Spotlight - Jennifer Hudson
22. As I - Geeneus ft Katy B
23. I Decided (Part 1) - Solange Knowles
24. That's Not My Name - Ting Tings
25. Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa - Vampire Weekend
26. Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It) - Beyoncé
27. Ready For The Floor - Hot Chip
28. Weather To Fly - Elbow
29. I'm Right Here (Perempay 'N' Dee remix) - DJ MA1 ft Sophia
30. Space And The Woods - Late of the Pier

31. Pretty Amazing Grace - Neil Diamond
32. A-Punk - Vampire Weekend
33. Sandcastle Disco - Solange Knowles
34. Ghosts - Laura Marling
35. Blue Ridge Mountains - Fleet Foxes
36. Broken - Late of the Pier
37. Falling Again - Wookie ft Ny
38. Swagga Like Us - Jay-Z & T.I. ft Kanye West & Lil Wayne
39. Sequestered In Memphis - The Hold Steady
40. Devil In A Blue Dress - Donaeo

41. Paris - Friendly Fires
42. Skinny Love - Bon Iver
43. Oxford Comma - Vampire Weekend
44. Mercy - Duffy
45. Leviathan Bound - Shearwater
46. Veronica's Veil - Fan Death
47. Love Lockdown - Kanye West
48. Green Light - John Legend ft Andre 3000
49. Bathroom Gurgle - Late of the Pier
50. Need U Bad - Jazmine Sullivan

51. Daddy's Gone - Glasvegas
52. Divine - Sebastien Tellier
53. Stay Positive - The Hold Steady
54. He Doesn't Know Why - Fleet Foxes
55. Time To Let Go - Perempay 'N' Dee ft Cleo Sol
56. Shut Up And Let Me Go - Ting Tings
57. African Warrior - Donaeo
58. Starlings - Elbow
59. The Devil Don't Mind - littlelostdavid
60. In The Hospital - Friendly Fires

61. Wearing My Rolex - Wiley
62. Fools - The Dodos
63. Fuckaz - The Bug (ft The Spaceape)
64. Sabali - Amadou & Mariam
65. Human - The Killers
66. T.O.N.Y. - Solange Knowles
67. Great DJ - Ting Tings
68. Telephone - Erykah Badu
69. Sun Machine - The Shortwave Set
70. I'm Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How To Dance With You - Black Kids
71. Jumping All Over The World - Scooter
72. Zero M2 - Benga
73. Gabryelle (D-Malice Refix) - DJ Technic
74. Waving Flags - British Sea Power
75. Put A Donk On It - Blackout Crew

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Mike's gigs of 2008.

1. Leonard Cohen - Manchester Opera House - June 19th (10)
2. Liza Minnelli - Royal Concert Hall - May 30th (10)
3. Elbow - Leicester De Montfort - October 16th (10)
4. Late Of The Pier, Fan Death - Chameleon Arts Café - November 30th (10)
5. Elbow - Rock City - April 14th (10)
6. White Denim - Bodega Social Club - July 7th (10)
7. The Dodos, Euros Childs - Bodega Social Club - September 14th (10)
8. Gary Numan (Replicas tour) - Rock City - March 5th (10)
9. Lou Reed (Berlin tour) - Royal Concert Hall - June 26th (10)
10. Gong - The Forum, London - June 15th (10)

11. Fleet Foxes, J.Tillman - Trent Uni - November 2nd (9)
12. Duran Duran, The Duke Spirit - Arena - July 6th (9)
13. British Sea Power, Make Model - Rescue Rooms - January 22nd (9)
14. The Breeders - Trent Uni - April 10th (9)
15. Girls Aloud, The Saturdays - Arena - May 20th (9)
16. Yazoo - Royal Concert Hall - June 11th (9)
17. Public Enemy - Rock City - May 28th (9)
18. Duffy - Bodega Social Club - March 7th (9)
19. Holy Fuck - Bodega Social Club - October 15th (9)
20. Glasvegas - Bodega Social Club - January 31st (9)

21. Lorna Luft: Songs My Mother Taught Me - Royal Concert Hall - February 11th (9)
22. Yazoo - Civic Hall Wolverhampton - June 12th (9)
23. The Hold Steady - Rock City - December 9th (9)
24. Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir, Congregation - Bodega Social Club - August 13th (9)
25. Barry Adamson - Rescue Rooms - April 6th (8)
26. The Beat, Neville Staple - Rescue Rooms - March 6th (8)
27. Alison Moyet - Royal Concert Hall - January 23rd (8)
28. Laura Marling - Rescue Rooms - November 4th (8)
29. Show Of Hands with Miranda Sykes - Rescue Rooms - November 27th (8)
30. Nouvelle Vague, Gabriella Cilmi - Rescue Rooms - February 7th (8)

31. Human League, ABC, Heaven 17 (The Steel City Tour) - Royal Concert Hall - December 3rd (8)
32. Spiers & Boden - The Maze - September 15th (8)
33. The Temptations, YolanDa Brown - Royal Concert Hall - October 29th (8)
34. UK Eurovision Preview Party (Ani Lorak, Bucks Fizz, Sirusho, Nanne Grönvall, Laka, Maria Haukaas Storeng, Isis Gee, Morena) - The Scala, London - April 25th (8)
35. System 7 - Rescue Rooms - February 15th (8)
36. Faustus - Playhouse - September 11th (7)
37. Drive-By Truckers - Rescue Rooms - August 7th (7)
38. Vampire Weekend - Sheffield Academy - October 22nd (7)
39. Martha Wainwright, Angus & Julia Stone - Rock City - November 3rd (7)
40. CSS - Rescue Rooms - October 13th (7)

41. Joan As Police Woman - Rescue Rooms - December 10th (7)
42. Black Kids, Team Waterpolo - Rescue Rooms - July 2nd (6)
43. Y Not Festival (Whiskycats, The Rusticles, Esteban, The Moutown Project, The Fallout Theory, New Groove Formation, Max Raptor, Toufique Ali, Anthea Neads, Jackel) - Pikehall - August 1st (6)
44. Menomena - Rescue Rooms - February 28th (6)
45. The Twilight Sad - Bodega Social Club - March 25th (6)
46. Pete Burns - Nightingale Birmingham - April 5th (6)
47. The Rascals - Rescue Rooms - June 4th (6)
48. John Barrowman - Royal Concert Hall - April 9th (6)
49. Westlife, Hope - Arena - June 24th (6)
50. Laura Veirs - The Maze - February 12th (6)

51. The Ting Tings - Rock City - September 24th (6)
52. Here and Now Tour (Rick Astley, Bananarama, ABC, Paul Young, Curiosity Killed the Cat, Johnny Hates Jazz, Cutting Crew) - Arena - May 9th (6)
53. Heavy Trash, Powersolo - Bodega Social Club - September 30th (6)
54. Delays - Bodega Social Club - March 4th (5)
55. The Futureheads - Rescue Rooms - June 3rd (5)
56. The Orb - Rescue Rooms - May 15th (4)
57. Will Young - Royal Concert Hall - November 28th (4)
58. Seth Lakeman - Rescue Rooms - April 23rd (3)
59. Boy George - Royal Concert Hall - February 8th (3)
60. MGMT - Bodega Social Club - February 28th (2)
61. Seasick Steve - Rock City - October 9th (2)
62. Joe Lean & the Jing Jang Jong - Rescue Rooms - May 19th (1)
63. Dolly Parton - Arena - July 1st (1)

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Joan As Police Woman – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Wednesday December 10.

Having supported Rufus Wainwright in 2005 and the Guillemots in 2006, Joan Wasser made her Nottingham debut as a headline act last night. In contrast to the self-effacing modesty of her previous shows, she radiated a new-found authority, looking glamorous and sleek with her newly auburn hair and sparkly gold frock.

Technical problems with Joan’s keyboard disrupted the flow of the first few numbers, loosening her focus and disrupting her concentration. Bolstered by the amiable patience of her audience, she soon warmed up. Switching to guitar for the bulk of the more muscular, rock-tinged second half, her performance stepped up a notch, her playing markedly more expressive.

A jumbo-sized packet of Doritos were handed into the crowd, and passed around like communion wafers. From this point on, Joan was on safe ground. The goth-like rumblings of Christobel worked better live than on record, and a sublime Magpies benefited from fine falsetto harmonies, courtesy of her bassist and drummer.

Dedicated with fervent glee to “our new president”, To America segued into a thunderous version of Furious, which climaxed with a no-holds-barred, free-form freak-out. As Joan repeatedly slammed her fists into her keyboard, those earlier technical glitches became much easier to understand.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Hold Steady – Nottingham Rock City, Tuesday December 9.

Patience was rewarded last night, as The Hold Steady compensated for October’s cancelled show with a storming 90 minute set. Just three nights into the rescheduled UK tour, singer Craig Finn could already spot familiar faces in the crowd. These people knew every word of the band’s dense, multi-layered mini-dramas, and they took eager delight in roaring an equally delighted Finn’s lyrics back at him.

Drawing on the experiences of his late teens and early twenties, Finn’s songs capture a world of reckless youthful excess, creating a complex narrative which runs through all four albums. There’s a nostalgic, almost mythological quality which invites comparison with Springsteen – but where Bruce can get bogged down in earnest worthiness, Craig never allows the darker undertows of his lyrics to stand in the way of having the best time possible. He’s the bespectacled college boy who hung out with dangerous “townies”, the geek made good, the thirtysomething who was given a second shot at success, and who has seized that opportunity with both hands.

Slamming from song to song with scarcely a pause, and with a set list that changes nightly, the band peaked with an exultant Sequestered In Memphis and an anthemic Chips Ahoy.

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Friday, December 05, 2008

Interview: Bruce Foxton.

(Photo taken by rhanke)

When you started the “From The Jam” project in 2007, how much of a risk did you think you were taking?

As some people already know, I played a couple of times with [original Jam drummer] Rick Buckler’s band The Gift in 2006, which was basically the line-up that we have now. I knew that Russell Hastings was doing a fantastic job of lead vocals and guitar, and having Dave Moore as the second guitarist and keyboard player added to the sound. So I just gatecrashed the band, really. Obviously there was an element of risk, but I knew we could perform those songs as well as we ever have done, and do them justice.

But of course, we couldn’t take anything for granted. When we announced the first From The Jam tour in May 2007, obviously we were all a little bit apprehensive: wondering what the Jam fans would make of it, and would they actually come to see the band, and so on. But then the tour sold out within days, so obviously they voted by buying a ticket.

The fans seem to have accepted the line-up, and accepted Russell and Dave with open arms. So any apprehension or fears were soon dismissed, because the reaction we got up and down the country has been phenomenal.

I imagine that within the first two or three dates, you must have realised that the risk had paid off.

Yeah – it’s all right selling the tickets, and the shows selling out in advance, but you’ve still got to come up with the goods. On that side of it, I didn’t have any doubts, because we’d had rehearsals beforehand. I knew the band were sounding great, so it’s nice that what you feel and what you hope for comes off – and it has done.

Before that, you were in Stiff Little Fingers for fifteen years. During that time, did you ever publicly perform any Jam songs?

I joined Stiff Little Fingers around 1990, when I spoke with Jake Burns. He said that Ali McMordie was leaving the band, and would I like to come in. I think we did play Smithers-Jones on the first tour that I did with them, but that was it. It was just an introduction to me to joining Stiff Little Fingers, and it was fun to play that one Jam song. But the From The Jam tour of May last year was the first time that I’ve played all those songs in a long, long while.

Was there a time when you thought you’d never play the Jam stuff again? Or had you always got it in the back of your mind as a possible option?

I didn’t think I’d be playing them again, to be perfectly honest. Over the years, Paul [Weller] had mentioned that he wouldn’t want to reform the band, and I was quite happy being in Stiff Little Fingers. It is a cliché, but I’ll say it anyway: you don’t know what’s around the corner.

We stumbled into forming From The Jam, just from doing a couple of numbers with Rick’s band in 2006. It kind of snowballed from there, and now here we are in 2008, with a winter tour of the UK, and having pretty much toured the world earlier this year.

So nothing was pre-meditated, and I didn’t really know. I’d occasionally hear a Jam song on the radio and was still very proud to hear it, because the actual production on the records still sounds very contemporary.

You struck lucky with Russell, who does a fine job as lead singer and guitarist. What makes him such a successful front man?

Russell was a big Jam fan. He was a young lad when the Jam were going, and he was at the last concert that the band performed in Brighton in 1982. He loved the music and the image and the whole package. And so we were very lucky. He was just a natural, to step in and take lead vocal.

I like the way that he’s able to channel the spirit of the songs, without ever coming across as some kind of impersonation.

Exactly. I’m glad you said that. He doesn’t try to emulate Paul. The tone of his voice is similar to Paul. If you close your eyes and listen to some of the vocal sounds, you think: that’s Paul, isn’t it? Then it’s just slightly different phrasings here and there, and he brings quite a lot to the table. He’s his own man. He was obviously very nervous about stepping into the role, but the fans have really taken to him. I do think he deserves it, because he’s a great front man, and he performs those songs with all his heart.

At your first Nottingham show at the Rescue Rooms, the old “We are the mods” chant made a comeback – and then about four numbers in, the chant changed to “Who needs Weller?” I’m sure they were just being cheeky, but that’s when I thought: Russell’s cracked it!

(Laughs) It may have settled the nerves a bit. But we wouldn’t be doing anything now without those great songs, of which Paul wrote the majority. I’m still very friendly with Paul, and so that’s their opinion, and in a way it was cheeky - but it caused a wry smile. It was quite amusing at the time, and obviously for Russell he probably thought, yeah, I seem to have fitted in OK here!

Does he have a full and equal say when you’re deciding on your set list?

Yeah, it’s very much a four-way thing. It’s difficult, because of the great wealth of songs that we’ve got to choose from. For the set that we’re playing in December, most of the singles will be there, and they probably will be forever – but it’s really difficult to choose the album tracks.

We all draw up a list beforehand of what we would like to play individually. There are obviously common denominators in there. There are certain songs where you go: oh, you want to play that one as well, great, OK! But we can’t possibly play them all, so we just get into rehearsals and go through each number. Some will sound better than others, so we’ll say: OK, that’s made the decision; we’ll play that one instead of that one. But it’s a nice sort of problem to have.

And will there be any new compositions?

Yeah, we’ve been saying this since we first got together! (Laughs) But we’ve had a bit more time recently to concentrate on the new material. There will probably be a couple of new songs in the set, which we’re very pleased with. We’ve only got to the demo stage, so we’ll see what the audience make of them.

Who wrote the new songs?

Again, it’s all four ways. You live and learn! (Laughs) With The Jam, it was whoever came up with the initial idea, and that was usually Paul. But it was very much a three-piece band, all those years ago, and the fairest way of doing things in 2008 is to split the songs four ways.

Is any physical product coming out to accompany the tour?

There’s a double DVD, which was released in November. The first DVD is a live concert that we did at The Forum in Kentish Town in December of last year. The second DVD is a series of interviews with the band. From my point of view, it’s really interesting to listen to Russell and Dave chat about how they feel about being part of From The Jam, because we hadn’t really spoken about it that much. Gary Crowley [DJ and radio presenter] also chats to Rick and myself. We go through all the Jam albums and chat about what we can remember about recording each one of them.

When the original Jam split up in 1982, you ended on a real high. Did you split at the right time?

I don’t think it was the right time. Like you said, The Jam were riding the crest of a wave. It’s what every band aims for, and the quality of the music was still there. I don’t think we’d dried up, or that we’d taken it as far as we could musically.

As you must be aware, Paul decided he wanted to leave the band. We tried to talk him out of it and we suggested other alternatives, such having a break for six months and taking a rest. There was a lot of pressure on all of us, and in particular Paul, because of the record company saying that they needed another Number One album and another Number One single. But Paul had obviously made up his mind and that was the end of it.

Maybe he just felt weighed down with the whole “spokesman for a generation” tag. After The Jam, he took a real step back from those “state of the nation” songs.

Well yeah, he went off to do the Style Council. If Paul knew that’s what he was going to do, he kept it a very closely guarded secret. Maybe he thought: well, I’m going to go off in this musical direction and I want to use different players.

When I heard the Style Council, it really wasn’t my cup of tea. So it made a bit more sense. Having heard what he wanted to do, I don’t think my heart would have been in that particular musical direction. Having said that, with the later stuff and with what he’s doing now, I really personally love it.

The new album is his best work in years, I think.

It’s a great album. Paul and I have renewed our friendship, and we’re talking a lot more these days. We’re on good terms, and that’s very nice to have as well, so what more could you want? We’re not playing together, but we may do in the future. But it’s nice to have him as a friend again.

If the three of you ever did get back together again, it would be a totally different gig. You’d be on the arena circuit, and I think that something might get lost along the way. Whereas it’s great to hear The Jam’s music in these smaller venues.

I don’t think the three of us will ever get together again, but there might be a possibility that I do something totally new with Paul at some point. I don’t know if or when. But as for The Jam, don’t hold your breath! (Laughs)

And I think you’re right – it may get blown out of all proportion and lose a lot of what the Jam were about, if Paul did join. If he came back to the band and it was arenas, it probably wouldn’t work. It would work financially! (Laughs) But it would lose everything else of what we were about, really.

That’s all my main questions, but I have got a couple of cheeky extras for you, because I can’t resist the opportunity to take you to task over some of the lyrics of Down In The Tube Station At Midnight. It is one of your greatest songs, and I know you didn’t write it, but I’ve always found some of the lyrics a bit puzzling.

Firstly, there’s the moment when the man in the song uses a vending machine, and the line goes “I put in the money and pull out a plum”. Now, even in 1978, I don’t remember seeing vending machines that sold fresh fruit! Was that a metaphor?

(Laughs) You’ve got me there! I think you’d best ask Paul about that. That’s one that has bemused me for a while.

And then we meet his assailants, who “smelt of pubs and Wormwood Scrubs and too many right wing meetings”. What is the maximum quota of right wing meetings that you might reasonably attend, before being tainted by their characteristic odour?

Well, I wouldn’t want to go to one! They were cheeky questions, you’re right.

And right at the end of the end of the song, when he’s lying semi-conscious on the platform, he says “the wine will be flat and the curry’s gone cold”. Now then, sparkling wine with curry? These people were fancy...

Now, I can answer that one. It could go off, couldn’t it? I’m not sure what wine he was drinking, but it may have been a Lambrusco or something! (Laughs)

She would have done better to have left the cork in until he got home – but thanks for clearing that up.

You’ve made me think about those other couple. I’ll put my thinking cap on. But it was a pleasure, anyway!

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Interview: Craig Finn, The Hold Steady.

(Photo by Juror8)

I’ve been listening to your last couple of albums this week, particularly the most recent release Stay Positive, and even three or four listens in, I feel I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the songs. There’s a lot for listeners to get their teeth into, isn’t there?

Yeah, the idea is that hopefully on someone’s 75th listen, they get something that they didn’t get out of the 74th. It’s pretty dense, and a lot of it relates to songs on other records. But you end up writing music that you yourself would want to hear, and I think my favourite records are like that.

Taken as a whole, your four albums form an ongoing narrative, which is almost like a novel. I’ve also heard it compared to episodes of The Wire.

It’s funny, because I’m a huge Wire fan. It does have a serial quality, in that people who are paying attention from the beginning get these updated chapters. Maybe it’s because of our age. We’re a little older, and we certainly are from the classic era of the album, rather than downloading one track at a time. So we tend to look at an album as one big thing that we’re trying to accomplish. I write songs in regard to the other songs on the album, each time we do one.

The comparison with The Wire scared me, as I’ve only ever tried to watch the series once. It was the first episode of the fourth season, and I couldn’t work out what was going on. A friend who’s a Wire evangelist said: well, come on, you wouldn’t start reading a novel at Chapter Four, would you? So, comparing it with your work: is it OK for listeners to start listening with Album Four, or do we all need to start from the beginning and work forwards?

You can absolutely start wherever you want, and hopefully if you enjoy it enough you’ll work your way backwards. But especially with the first record, it maybe only hinted at the stories that were to come. So I think the new one is as good a place to start as any.

What story is Stay Positive telling?

Stay Positive is a record about holding onto useful ideals as you grow older, get more responsibility, and become an adult. I’m 37 years old, and the idea of aging gracefully is a tough thing, especially in rock and roll. The theme of the record is that idea of staying true to yourself, while taking on more responsibilities. Not avoiding being an adult, but embracing it - but at the same time not giving up some of the things that you hold important.

This sounds like the stuff of which mid-life crises are made. As to whether you can lead a rock and roll lifestyle in your thirties, is that a dilemma which the band is actively wrestling with?

When we’re on the road, I spend almost all my time trying to stay healthy: drinking a lot of water and exercising. Being in a rock band at my age is none of the things that you might have thought it was when you were 15 or 16 years old.

Do you have any role models for aging with dignity as a rock performer?

Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young are two people that have aged well. They aren’t really tied to one particular era or moment, so the music they make is timeless. It crosses decades better than things that are caught up in the trend of the moment.

Neil Young and Lou Reed strike me as people who lost their creative mojo for a while, and then returned to form in their forties. Do you think it’s OK to go away and regroup for a few years?

Yeah. I’ve just read Neil Young’s biography, and he was off the mark for a while. He was doing stuff that was weird, and not super-interesting. But it’s about keeping at it, and being an intelligent person. Just keeping being creative.

There are a set of characters – Holly, Charlemagne and Gideon – who were referenced on your first three albums. They’re not mentioned on the new album. Why did you move away from them, and are they in any sense still present?

I think they are still present. I left it open as to whether they are or aren’t, by not using their names – but I think that they still inform the record. I wanted to increase the mystery on this one. Separation Sunday, our second of four albums, was really a linear story – it told the story from front to back – and I wanted to do something a little murkier, and a little tougher to figure out, hopefully with the same rewards.

I get the sense that different songs are sung by different characters from different viewpoints, and you’re trying to piece together what happens from there.

There’s also the concept of an unreliable narrator, that I like a lot. Is what the guy’s saying true?

For your long term diehard fans, you put in quite subtle back references to previous songs. You might even repeat a lyric of an old song in a new song. Does that ever rebound back at you? Do you ever get hardcore fanboys coming up with incredibly detailed questions, and maybe over-analysing?

I know there’s somewhere on the internet that you can find an analysis of all these lyrics, and I haven’t looked at it for that reason. Sometimes I do get questions from people: does this mean this? And I say: no, I never thought of that.

You can just smile your enigmatic smile, and say: that’s for you to work out. (Laughter) But I’m curious to know how your live audiences react. I went to see Drive By Truckers recently, who strike me as fellow travellers. They’ve got a detached, slightly literary style to their lyrics. When I saw them, the crowd seemed to split down the middle. In this case, it was literally down the middle. On the left hand side, you had the serious listeners who were concentrating on every word, almost stroking their chins with concentration. Over on the right, you had a bunch of really drunk people who were throwing themselves around, crowd surfing, and responding physically to the music. Do you get a similar mix at your shows?

It’s not so much right-left as front-back for us – but up front, it usually gets pretty wild. It used to be that we’d come in and we’d see the big barrier between the stage and the audience – especially in England, where they’re more common in the smaller clubs – and we’d think: ah, that doesn’t seem necessary. But it’s now got to the point where I’m pretty excited when I see the barrier! (Laughs) A year or two ago, we started to have problems with people coming on stage a lot, and we do have shows that get really wild.

Does that mix vary from city to city, or from country to country?

It does vary. In the States, you can get really different reactions from city to city. The shows tend to get wilder in smaller towns, and more so in middle America. In places like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, you have pretty mature crowds.

If you were a member of your own audience, how would you react? Would you be down the front, or standing still and concentrating at the back?

I’d hopefully be somewhere in the middle. When I go to see bands, I like to get up real close, but I’m a little too old to deal with getting trampled. But sometimes you can sneak up in front of the wild people. It really depends on the show, and how the club’s laid out.

How much of what you’re singing about is derived from real life experience, and how much is purely imaginary?

It’s mostly imaginary. The characters are built out of composites of people I knew, especially from the age of 17 to 23: when you’re younger, and maybe a little dumber. But each one is not based on a certain person in my life. These are the types of things that I was around for a while, but not specifically. There’s a lot of partying and abuse and things like that in the songs, but I wouldn’t say that was part of my life any more than the average American teenager.

But there are some things that pop in from my life. Certainly I make a lot of reference to Minneapolis, my home town. That’s something I can specifically describe, or picture where these things happen. It’s a way for me to put something real – real details – into the songs.

I find it an interesting approach. I’m so used to seeing bands performing as if they have personally experienced all the emotions in their songs. That’s the default, if you like. Whereas bands like yourselves and the Drive By Truckers are going for a different approach – maybe a more detached approach. Is there a danger that it can get a little too dry and detached?

I don’t think of it as detached so much; I think of it as cinematic. You’re trying to tell a big story, that may or may not have happened to you. Songwriters are so often expected to be opening up a vein and letting their heart flow out, whereas a film maker can do whatever he wants. No one thinks that Quentin Tarantino actually shoots people, for instance. He’s just telling a story through film. We get compared to Bruce Springsteen a lot, and that’s the one thing I think I did definitely take from Springsteen. He tells these huge, epic stories that I don’t really think happened to him.

There’s a direct cinematic reference in the album’s final song, Slapped Actress, which references a movie called Opening Night. What’s the story there?

It’s a John Cassavetes movie, and it’s really fascinating. I’m not usually so moved by film but this one emotionally moved me. There’s a huge separation in the film between performance and audience. It’s about an actress who’s refusing to admit that she’s aging. As an actress, she trades on her beauty, which she’s losing. It was a compelling thing to see as a performer, because it highlights the difference between performance and real life. The title of that song relates to a scene where Seymour Cassel wants to slap the lead actress, Gena Rowlands. They’re rehearsing for a play, and he says: I have to slap you. She says: well, why don’t we just fake it? It’s a play; you don’t have to really slap me. But he says: no, I have to slap you so that it will look real. And there’s an interesting kind of paradox there: that you actually have to slap someone, to make it look real to the audience of a play.

That reminds of a Chinese film, Farewell My Concubine. There’s a scene of corporal punishment in there, which you assume was staged. It was only after seeing the film that I realised that the director had sprung a surprise on the actors, and actually did beat them hard – so the expressions were accurate.

Yeah, lots of actors since then have said: that’s not totally uncommon.

On Constructive Summer, you “raise a glass to Saint Joe Strummer”. You say that “he might have been our only decent teacher”. Did you ever see the man in action? Did you ever meet him?

Yes, I did meet him. He came to see my old band in Minneapolis in November 1999. The Mescaleros tour was in town, and he ended up at our show afterwards, and really enjoyed it, and hung out with us for a couple of hours. It was a really brilliant night. He’s a hero: for his music, but also the way he carried himself was very inspirational.

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Interview: Joan As Police Woman

You first played Nottingham in 2005, supporting Rufus Wainwright and also performing with him during the main set. What memories do you have of that tour?

Oh, I have great memories, for a number of reasons. The fact that Rufus gave me a chance to open for his band was priceless, really. I knew that I was going to be opening for a bunch of true music lovers, so I really got my act together. I would have anyway, but I guess it just scared me a lot more. And then with touring and singing every night, there’s no better way to learn what you’re good at, what works and what doesn’t work. Rufus wanted me to sing in all these different ways that I wasn’t used to: REALLY LOUD! at times, or purposefully nasal, to get different timbres. That was really educational and interesting.

Were you also collaborating with Antony Hegarty [of the Johnsons] at around this time?

I joined Antony’s band around 1999, a couple of years after I started writing my own songs. I stopped playing with him in 2004, when I began touring with Rufus.

Collaboration seems to have been quite important to you along the way. Your name pops up on various albums, from Rufus to Antony to the Scissor Sisters. That suggests that you must be easy to work with, and flexible to other people’s ideas.

Well, I hope so. I find it fun to see how other people work. I go in with a very open mind and I like to make it as fun as possible. Music is the greatest joy of my life, and usually everybody else’s that I’m working with. So it’s wonderful fun, to be making the best of what happens by combining a bunch of brains together.

Compared to your debut release, your second album To Survive has a more contemplative, delicate feel. It also strikes me as less immediate than its predecessor; you have to put more work in as a listener this time round.

It depends on each person, but this record is pretty dense. You have to give it a moment, and I think it probably takes a little bit more time.

There’s also more of leaning towards piano in the arrangements.

Yes, definitely. Piano is the last instrument I learned, so it’s the most fun, and the most free for me to write on.

I know that much of the album was composed while your mother was battling with a terminal illness, so one might expect the dominant themes to be loss and mourning. However, a lot of the songs also seem to be celebrations of new love, so there’s an interesting contrast of emotions at work there.

You’re right about that. I love being in love, so there’s always going to be love songs on my records. I was very much in love when I was writing some of those songs. But it seems like a lot of people mistake some of the songs about my mum as love songs, and some of the songs they think are about love are about my mum. That’s kind of nice for me, because ultimately it is the same thing. And then I’ve also got a couple of songs about my government, that has taken a FABULOUS turn for the better recently! Thank the Lord above!

So you’re still surfing that wave of elation? I guess he hasn’t had a chance to disappoint anybody yet...

Well, he certainly has a giant job in front of him, but if anybody can do it, it’s going to be that guy.

I guess that relates to the final song on the album (To America), which you perform as a duet with Rufus. So many of the songs have been so deeply personal up until that point, but then it’s almost as if you’re looking outwards towards the world again.

That song has really complicated implications, but it’s really a hope for the future, and for a return to democracy for my country. Some people think it’s cynical or sarcastic, and it sure is not. I am not a cynic or a sarcastic person! I’m an optimist, even though it’s not hip. I don’t care, I’m not hip!

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The Steel City Tour (Human League, ABC, Heaven 17) - Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Wednesday December 3.

A tidal wave of Eighties nostalgia swept through the Royal Concert Hall on Wednesday night, as three of Sheffield’s most celebrated pop acts came together for the Steel City Tour. In happy contrast to the cost-conscious Here And Now packages, stylish stage sets had been constructed for all three acts, properly reflecting their art school roots.

Glenn Gregory’s broad, beaming smile never left him for a second, as Heaven 17 whipped through a well chosen selection of chart hits (Come Live With Me), cult hits (Fascist Groove Thang) and even a brand new song. Many of the tracks were subtly beefed up with contemporary dance rhythms, including an epic, show-stopping Temptation.

Bravely, ABC opted to include three songs from Traffic, their most recent album. These blended in well with their Eighties back catalogue, which included six selections from the classic Lexicon Of Love. Performing in front of a red velvet backdrop, a sharp-suited Martin Fry looked happy and relaxed, and sounded in as fine a voice as ever.

The Human League might be a nostalgia act these days, but their futurist tendencies still shine through. Their stage set was all clean white surfaces, retro-modern gadgetry (were those the remains of a vintage IBM mainframe?) and dazzling computer-animated visuals.

Like Glenn and Martin before him, Phil Oakey’s sturdy baritone placed him firmly in the “bellowing foghorn” school of Eighties pop performers. As ever, his commanding vocal presence was balanced by the endearingly unschooled voices of Susan and Joanne, whose occasional off-key wobbles merely added to their charm. Seemingly impervious to the normal aging process, 45-year old Susan vamped it up something rotten, flirting with the front rows and revelling in our attention.

The League’s hour-long set climaxed with the evergreen Don’t You Want Me, a properly arty Being Boiled, and a truly glorious Together In Electric Dreams.

Set list.

Heaven 17:
(We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thang
Crushed By The Wheels Of Industry
Geisha Boys And Temple Girls
I’m Gonna Make You Fall In Love With Me
Come Live With Me
Let Me Go
Penthouse & Pavement

The Very First Time
Poison Arrow
Show Me
How To Be A Millionaire
Date Stamp
Love Is Strong
All Of My Heart
Tears Are Not Enough
When Smokey Sings
The Look Of Love

Human League:
Mirror Man
Open Your Heart
Love Action (I Believe In Love)
Empire State Human
The Lebanon
The Sound Of The Crowd
(Keep Feeling) Fascination
Tell Me When
Don’t You Want Me
Being Boiled
Together In Electric Dreams

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Monday, December 01, 2008

Late Of The Pier / Fan Death – Chameleon Arts Café, Sunday November 30.

Fan Death are Dandi and Marta, an electro-disco synth-pop duo from Canada. They’re tiny and giggly and eager, full of fresh-faced fun, a bit arty, and quite brilliant. If there’s any justice in the world, you’ll be hearing a lot of them in 2009.

Late Of The Pier are the biggest and best act to appear from this part of the world in living memory. Last night saw them return to Nottingham for a barely advertised show in a tiny café above a card shop on Angel Row. It was the launch night for Sausage Party, a new venture from the Liars Club crew. Half the crowd seemed to know the band personally, making for an uncommonly friendly vibe that felt more like a private party than a standard rock gig.

With no raised stage area, visibility was tight. The front rows were asked to sit on the floor – which they did, for all of five minutes. As the spiky, punchy set progressed, a kind of collective frenzy engulfed the room. The singer surfed the crowd, before scaling a wobbly speaker stack. The moshers shook the floor so hard that fears were raised for the ceiling below. “Please don’t dance”, the singer pleaded. “Or else YOU’LL DIE.” The sense of danger merely heightened the mood.

An unforgettable night, from one of the most exciting young bands in the country. We should be proud.

See also: Fan Death on MySpace; Fan Death in The Guardian; Fan Death on KARINSKI.NET.

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Will Young, Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Friday November 28.

Having plied his trade on the arena circuit for the past few years, Will Young has returned to theatres and concert halls for his current tour. For his fans, it’s a chance to see him in a relatively more intimate setting. For Will, it’s an opportunity to showcase his skills as a singer, rather than coast on his status as a pop star.

If last night’s show was any fair measure, then there’s still some work to be done. An unsympathetic sound mix tended to bury his voice in the arrangements on the more uptempo numbers, most of which were stacked up in the first half of the show. This did his delicate, reedy voice no favours, leaving him sounding somewhat lacking in presence and authority.

The breakthrough came with the ballad You Don’t Know, performed to the accompaniment of a single guitar. At this point, Will seemed to find his focus, giving a sincere performance which carried emotional depth and weight. This stripped down mood was carried through to Let It Go: the title track from Will’s fourth album, and one of the strongest songs on there. Following the poor chart performance of current single Grace, it has the potential to restore his hit-making status.

From this point onwards, Will was on safe ground. Bounding around the stage in a loose, scooped neck T-shirt and a pair of impossibly tight trousers that looked more like leggings, he looked dressed for a dance class rather than a concert performance – but this casual attire suited his relaxed, informal manner. The banter flowed, as cheeky calls from the audience were answered with witty ripostes and off-the-cuff anecdotes. This wasn’t an evening for considered artistry and solemn song craft, but a light-hearted coming together of a much-loved personality and his adoring fanbase.

The evening’s most bizarre moment came with the encore, which saw Will in fluorescent gloves, making “jazz hands” and throwing all manner of unlikely shapes, for a tango-flavoured Grace Jones cover (I’ve Seen That Face Before). Sanity was restored for the inevitable closer Leave Right Now: the only one of his four chart-topping singles to be performed (All Time Love being the other major omission), and still his most enduring classic.

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Friday, November 28, 2008

Interview: Phil Oakey.

(An edited version of this interview appears in today's Nottingham Evening Post. You might also enjoy the audio version.)

Photo taken by rodc, September 2006.

Along with fellow Sheffield acts ABC and Heaven 17, you’ll be participating in the forthcoming Steel City Tour. How did the idea for the tour come about?

It might have been my idea, but people have thought that I’ve claimed ideas which weren’t mine before! I just remarked at a meeting with our manager that one day we would have to do a tour with all the Sheffield people. He seemed to go off with that and get it somewhere, which seemed like a nice idea.

Did anyone need much persuading to join the line-up?

I think people always need loads of persuading. There’s all sorts of different things going on. Everyone wants to be on a stage, and then everyone’s thinking: ooh, can we afford it, or can we afford not to do it, and will it put our status up or down, and all of that. So I should think there’s been loads and loads of behind the scenes stuff.

We [the Human League] are more resigned to working live. We’ve done it for years and years and years now. At the end of the year, we’re going to go out and do a live tour, because after thirty years, we’ve realised that it’s our job.

The Human League Christmas tour has become an annual tradition, hasn’t it?

Well, we’ve been doing it for a really long time; I think it must be ten years or so. And it’s always great to have a little wrinkle. The worst ones to do are the ones where it’s just us on our own – because when we have to do an hour and a half, we just run out of hits. We have to have one or two songs where we’re begging the indulgence. But luckily on this one, our set will be a little bit shorter and we can have a bit of a storm through the hits.

The most immediately startling thing about this line-up is that you’re touring with Heaven 17, as two of them [Ian Marsh and Martyn Ware] were founder members of the Human League. Is this the first time that you’ve appeared at the same event?

It isn’t. We have done various little things. We all went through a period of doing PA appearances in the early 2000s, and a thing called Here And Now that we did with Tony Denton, and we got together on a couple of those.

Really, the Human League is Martyn Ware and Ian Marsh’s. I came along and joined, then they branched off and I continued it on. But I actually like the lads very much. At the time when I joined, I think they would have had Glenn [Gregory, Heaven 17’s vocalist] as the singer, but he happened to be working in London at the time. But then he was massively hospitable to us. When we toured in those days, we had no money at all, so if we were anywhere near Glenn, he’d say: come and stay at our flat, I’ll feed you up and make sure you’re all right.

You split from Martyn and Ian at the end of 1980. It must have seemed like there were huge musical differences between you then, but perhaps those differences dissolve away over the years?

I don’t even know if it was musical differences. I was more inclined towards commerciality, maybe because I was brought up with three older brothers, and I’d grown up with pop music, and I loved pop music. The Heaven 17 guys were maybe a little bit deeper and more philosophical than me. I’ve always said that my favourite band is probably Slade. I really wanted to be in a pop band with our photos on the front cover, and maybe they had a more long term artistic sort of thing.

During the late Seventies and early Eighties, all three of the bands on this tour were associated with an emerging Sheffield music scene, which was mostly centred on electronic music. Did it feel like a proper scene at the time?

It really was a scene. I didn’t know the people until after I joined the band, and then I found that all these things were going on all over the place. Ian Burden, who eventually joined us, was in a band called Graph, and I became a very big Cabaret Voltaire fan. For a couple of years, I didn’t miss a show that they did.

So there were rivalries, but then again there was really good stuff going on. I would have loved Richard Kirk to bring Cabaret Voltaire on this tour. I don’t know whether anyone sussed that out, but I’m still a big fan and I see Richard around in Sheffield.

We all knew Martin [Fry, of ABC], because he was running a fanzine at the time. We knew Martin before he was in ABC, when we played shows with [his previous band] Vice Versa.

Do you have any theories as to why that scene, which consisted of people working in broadly similar areas of music, suddenly sprung up at that time?

I’ve often wondered about it myself. Sheffield was a very European kind of city, strangely. We had two art colleges, and we had a council that really tried to pour money into supporting the arts. All the guys in the Human League apart from me were in a theatre group called Meat Whistle, which was council funded. That was where they got their ideas together, and maybe that was why they thought it should be a little bit more theatrical, electronic, and maybe a bit more cabaret, than just going and doing the rock band thing. Which Def Leppard were doing down the road anyway, with massive success.

That’s interesting. So there was council money, and there were links to the arts. In Nottingham, we have slightly more inhabitants than Sheffield, but we have a dramatically less prominent music scene.

Things seem to go in waves, though. The odd thing is that music often does really well when people haven’t got any money. You’ve got nothing to lose. I think if someone had given me a good job somewhere, and a company car and all that, I wouldn’t have been out until two or three o’clock in the morning fighting with my friends to try and get one tune and not another tune, and scraping by, and living in vans and so on. Sometimes it’s bad for people when they’re doing really well.

That tradition of electronic music from Sheffield has continued over the past thirty years: from Warp Records through to acts like Moloko, and then with the whole Gatecrasher era. Do you feel in any sense like one of the founding fathers of that tradition, and are you acknowledged as such?

I tend to think of myself more as an observer. I always seem to join in on someone else’s thing, which has been very interesting. I ought to write a book about it one day: the way that I’ve often been standing at the back of the room, while someone important is doing something good. I think the League is more or less in that tradition.

The Gatecrasher era gave us the chance to say that something good was established with electronics: something that was an alternative to rock. I loved Gatecrasher, actually.

I wish I’d been. I never got the chance. We’ve got a Gatecrasher in Nottingham now, but it’s obviously not the same thing.

That scene got so big that it couldn’t continue, could it? But Gatecrasher is certainly the best nightclub I’ve ever been to. It was incredible.

Some remixes of The Things That Dreams Are Made Of came out at the start of the year, which did quite well in the clubs. Did you have any involvement in that?

Only in that we said yes. I really enjoy all that stuff. I’m feeling slightly miffed at the moment that people tend to ask me to be the voice on something, or the front of something, as I’m killing myself trying to write some new stuff at the moment. But I do really like to hear the remixes going on, and getting some new ideas going.

So people ask you to be featured vocalist on their tracks, like you did with The All Seeing I? [Phil supplied guest vocals on their 1999 hit, 1st Man In Space.]

It was better with The All Seeing I, because I knew the lads anyway and so that made a bit of sense. Quite a few people ask me, and it seems that what they really want me to do for some reason is to be in the video – which is odd, because I don’t look particularly good or anything. But they think that maybe that would get it in the paper, or something!

So I’m fighting shy of that at the moment, and trying to do a new electro-glam-disco album. We’ve got a load of new material. We’ve gone in quite an interesting direction, and we’re just trying to wonder how to put it out. The business not being what it is at the moment, we might end up putting it out ourselves.

I was wondering about that. I believe you’re currently unsigned, but maybe in this day and age it doesn’t matter, because you can bung it out yourselves.

It’s a real big help if you are signed. I know that’s the model that has died now, but I’ll tell you, it’s absolutely brilliant to walk into a room, and have someone say: what would you like? And you say: oh, can we have £200,000 and then we’ll start making an album? And by the way, we need £200,000 to live on while we’re making it. And the guy says yes. That is a really good feeling, and I miss it! (Laughs)

If you were to distribute your own music, you’d need your own official website. You must be one of very few bands left that don’t have an official site, and I don’t quite get why not.

It’s because I never wanted to be the guy that drove the Rolls Royce into the swimming pool after Keith Moon. If I could have done it first, I would love to have done it. But we’ve always tried to go down a different stream to everyone else. And I think, in a way, we didn’t make the most fuss of that in the papers. Because if everyone’s doing rock, we’re going to do electronics, or if everyone’s off doing white soul, we go over to Minneapolis and do Prince-y sounding stuff, and then people are surprised.

I just didn’t want to do [a website], because 10,000 other bands do it. So there’s got to be some other way. Right now, if I had a million in the bank, I would say: I’ll do it on 12-inch vinyl. My friend Dean who was in The All Seeing I had a couple of record labels where he put everything out on 7-inch vinyl. And it was really lovely, and it was dead arty, even if it didn’t get to quite as many people.

Vinyl is the format that refuses to die. They’ve even re-introduced it into some American supermarkets, which you wouldn’t have expected.

I love it, but maybe not for the sound. I love it because it’s physical. I think we miss the fact that you used to have to make that decision. You’d play one side of an LP, and then you had to get up out of your chair, go over, take the arm off, turn it over and say: I want to listen to the second side.

Absolutely – you’re committing to the act of listening, rather than randomly flicking shuffle on your iTunes. When you started up, and especially when you first started having hits, you and a lot of your contemporaries would talk about “subverting” pop, or of taking control of pop and redefining it. How much of that was just talking it up? Did you just want to be pop stars anyway?

It’s really hard to tell, because you change. As soon as you have a few hits, you immediately become a very different person – and to be straight, we always had a plan to have hits. When Martyn Ware asked me to join the band, he brought round a copy of I Feel Love by Donna Summer. It wasn’t that we wanted to be obscure European musique concrète people. We really loved pop music, and we wanted to be a bit like KC and the Sunshine Band as well.

I got that right from the start. The first thing I ever heard was an early cover of You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ on a Peel session. That was a completely radical idea at the time, because “electronic music” meant alienated urban robots or whatever. So perhaps you were the original New Romantics?

I thought we were the first people who were called the New Romantics. I thought Rick Sky [tabloid showbiz journalist] said it in an interview with The Star about us, but now some other people are claiming it. Spandau Ballet’s manager is claiming it now, isn’t he?

There’s also a lyric in an early Duran song. [“Like some new romantic looking for the TV sound”, from Planet Earth.]

God, I didn’t know that. Duran were always a little bit rocky for me. I was really into Japan and John Foxx, but as soon as they put guitars on it, then I’m only a punter because I don’t understand it. They’re twanging these things and these notes are coming out – but I can’t see on a screen what they are, so I get confused.

I shared your sense of purism when Duran came along. I’d already heard it from Japan, basically. But I always sensed with the Human League that there was some kind of grand plan behind the scenes: right down to the design of the record sleeves, and the period when you colour coded your singles, Was there a grand plan, or was it all smoke and mirrors and you were just winging it as you went along?

There was a grand plan, and most of it just didn’t work. Every time you thought you were going to have a huge record, no one bought it. And every time you slipped one out quietly, thinking: oh my God, why are we putting this out, we had the big hit.

We were nicking ideas left right and centre from people, all over the place. A lot of our plan was basically George Clinton. The colour coding was referring to George Clinton: we’ll have a Parliament, and a Funkadelic, and a Brides of Funkenstein. It will all be different things, and we’ll roll it all together, and maybe at some stage all the people who like all the different things will buy all of them.

I’ve got one more question. With you and Heaven 17 on the same tour, has the door been left open for an onstage reunion? Maybe a jam on Empire State Human, or something like that?

I would be really surprised if that happened. For a start, I think the question is: who’s going to be doing Being Boiled? I would be surprised, because we’ve all got pretty solid stage set-ups that we would be terrified to deviate from. I guess it would be more likely that we get together in the studio at some stage.

And if you did that on stage, you’d have Martin Fry standing in the wings, thinking: well that’s all very well, but where does this leave me?

Yeah, and he’s probably the best singer who’s going to be there.

He played Nottingham on the Here and Now tour, earlier in the year. Of the seven acts on the package, ABC were unquestionably the best act of the night.

Well, he is such a good singer. He was fantastic on the records, and he’s much better live. It’s frightening.

So the futurists of old have become kind of the nostalgia acts of today – but it seems to me that you’re all very reconciled, and very happy with that aspect of your work.

I guess so. I mean, we’re all approaching retirement; we haven’t got any fight left. I’ve just gone out and got a new dog, so I’m worn out from trying to walk him!

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Sausage Party.

(This article also appears in today's Nottingham Evening Post.)

They may be the biggest band to emerge from this part of the country in years, but Castle Donington’s Late Of The Pier are in no hurry to play a major home-coming gig just yet. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Instead, the band’s next Nottingham gig, which takes place on Sunday, will be in a tiny venue called the Chameleon Arts Café, above Clinton Cards on Angel Row. And since the venue only holds around a hundred, tickets inevitably sold out within a few hours.

The night in question, which rejoices in the name of Sausage Party, is the joint brainchild of the band and promoter Ricky Haley, best known locally for his wildly successful Liars Club nights.

Mike Atkinson caught up with Ricky this week, to find out more…

How did the idea for Sausage Party came about?

As you have probably noticed, Late Of The Pier are doing alright for themselves of late. I’ve been running Liars Club since March 2003, and the boys from the band used to meet up there, with the aim of one day being the house band!

Well, they’ve probably shot a bit too high, and are too big to play every week. So we thought: let's do it anyway, but give it a name that plays down the hype and squeeze it into an even tinier venue.

Sausage Party was just a fun name that I had. When I worked on the door of The Social, you would get groups of lads pushing their faces against the window, and then wheeling away saying "Come on, let’s go somewhere else, it’s a bleedin' sausage party in there." In other words, there were no girls!

The whole idea, what with myself being a full time tour manager and the band being on tour all the time, is that we are finding out about new music from constant touring, and then bringing this weird bunch of ideas back and feeding it to the Nottingham party monsters. You never know quite what you'll get in a sausage!

Are the band going to have a continuing involvement in future Sausage Party nights? And will there still be future Liars Club nights elsewhere?

Liars Club is myself in the third person, really. I run it all myself, unlike a lot of club nights, and it gets a bit much. This is why I occasionally do co-promotions with other like-minded promoters, such as Damn You, Exalt Exalt, Mantile, INVSBL FKRS etc.

I decided to stop my weekly Saturday at Stealth in May, and took a four month break which coincided with the Dot To Dot festival happening. I really needed a break to keep myself excited in running events. So Liars Club happens on an impromptu basis these days.

Late Of The Pier may not always play live at Sausage Party. But they will curate, promote and DJ at the nights, which will be reliant on having myself and the band, plus a line-up of other acts, in the same place at the same time. It will take some doing, but when it happens, BE THERE!

What led to you choosing the Chameleon Arts Café as a venue?

We decided it was a perfect setting, as the guy that runs it is a real crazy character and the venue itself is like someone's living room. It has real character and anything goes. It's secreted enough to keep the riff raff out, and makes it seem like a house party amongst friends

This all sounds, dare I say it, a bit elitist. Then again, there's something to be said for tight-knit, closed communities, as a lot of creativity can come from them. What's your take on that?

Liars Club always used to be called elitist, but to be honest I tried doing loads of free entry nights, and they just filled with people who weren't really interested. They just ended up intimidating the crowd who were there for the music, and who wanted to escape that kind of thing.

Late Of The Pier specifically wanted to do a small intimate venue, and it’s not elitist to want to do a show for the people who have supported the band since Day One. Without this show, there wouldn’t have been another one until 2009 – but that one will hopefully be bigger and better than anything before.

What's the best advice for people wanting to come along to future events?

If people want to keep informed, they can search out the Sausage Party Facebook group, and we’ll have a website and a MySpace page, but we don’t really intend on handing out flyers or posters at this stage.

I also gather that you’ll be giving away CDs at the door on Sunday night. What can we expect on those?

Oh yes. I’m due to meet the band this week, as we both have a few days off. We will be sitting in our living room, and running a little conveyor belt of CD burning and labelling as a thank you to everyone who is coming to the night. Expect new unreleased music, and plenty of gems that we have dug up from here, there and everywhere. I don’t want to see them on eBay after Christmas, either!

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Show Of Hands with Miranda Sykes – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Thursday November 27.

Photo taken in Trowbrisge, July 2006, by perlmonger.

Veterans of the sit-down folk club circuit they may be, but last night’s mesmerising show at the Rescue Rooms demonstrated that Show Of Hands’ current “Standing Room Only” tour was a gamble that has paid off. As vocalist Steve Knightley remarked, stand-up venues give the crowd a chance to bellow along to their hearts’ content, without risking the glares of their neighbours.

For a band that remains firmly off the radar of anyone unfamiliar with the English folk scene – despite a seventeen year career and three sold-out appearances at the Royal Albert Hall – it was remarkable to observe the fierce loyalty of their audience, who greeted many songs like old friends. The night’s biggest crowd pleaser was Cousin Jack, a stirring tale of migrant mine workers, while the trenchant Country Life (“The red brick cottage where I was born is the empty shell of a holiday home”) proved that the tradition of the protest song has not yet been extinguished.

As the set progressed, the music took a darker, more brooding turn, Knightley and his partner Phil Beer switching to fiddles for a stunning version of Innocents’ Song. The set closed with the anthemic Roots, whose outspoken polemic roused the crowd into one final massed bellow.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Interview: Will Young.

I’ve noticed that the gaps between each of your albums have been getting steadily longer. Why has there been such a long gap this time? I can’t believe you’ve been slacking off…

It has been three years since the last one was released, and about two years since I finished work on it. Then I did a play in Manchester, which took up about four months. I also did a gorilla programme for the BBC [Saving Planet Earth], in Gabon and the Cameroon. Then I had a bit of a break, and then I started the album. So, yeah – the gaps have been getting bigger, but maybe I’m just working out how long I can get away with it, before I have to do another one! (Laughs)

How would you characterise the material on the new album, Let It Go?

I find it really hard to characterise my stuff. I normally end up nicking journalists’ reviews and quotes, and saying: “Oh, I think it’s like this…!”

So I’m not really sure how to answer that, but I definitely set about writing very simple, more lyric-led pop songs. Rather than write to tracks, I tended to write to just a guitar or a piano, before adding in rhythms and things like that. And I think that’s made a difference.

So there’s a song called I Won’t Give Up, which started very simply with a guitar – but then we went to [dance production team] The Freemasons for the rhythm, and then we went to a Nashville quartet for the strings. It’s quite a piecemeal approach to writing pop songs, but it means that you can, at each stage, choose the best people that are right for that job.

You’ve also got more songwriting credits on this album than ever before.

Yeah, I have - which is great. I love singing other people’s songs, but I’ve definitely got better as a songwriter. That comes with experience, and also learning from people that I’ve been writing with, who are at the top of their game. That’s made a big difference.

Are the lyrics pretty much down to you?

Yeah, they are. I normally have to co-write because I’m not very good on instruments, but I definitely think that my lyric writing has improved. That’s something that I’ve learnt from Eg White [writer of Leave Right Now, who also co-wrote Will’s Who Am I and Changes, Adele’s Chasing Pavements and Duffy’s Warwick Avenue]. He has a real honesty in his lyrics, and I think people can relate to them because they are more conversational.

I sense that lyrically, the new songs are quite personal. Some of them feel moody, introspective, and quite troubled at times – as if you’re trying to work things out. Have I read them right?

Definitely. You can’t help your songs being personal to you, and sometimes I suppose they do help you work things out. I’ve definitely been doing that in the last two years: working out what life’s about. They call it “Venus Returns” or something like that. It’s a time when you’re approaching thirty, and you do think about life, and I think there a reflection of that.

Are there any musical surprises lurking on there?

I think there are some curveballs. As I was saying earlier, I think getting people like The Freemasons to do the rhythm is interesting. People wouldn’t expect it, but I think that’s what pop should be all about. And I think that the music is the best that I’ve done – but maybe people always say that on new work, that’s fresh in their minds.

I did a couple of songs with a guy called Mike Spencer, which were done live in the studio. I hadn’t done a whole song live before, and that was a great experience. He’s worked with Jamiroquai and Kylie and Alphabeat, and it was great to go to a new producer and forge a new relationship with him.

Filming the Changes video sounded like a hairy experience. Had the director got some sort of vendetta against you?

Yeah, I know – why can’t I always go for simple videos? It was quite hard work, but I think that it needed to be, to reflect the struggle in the song. Martin De Thurah is a fantastic director. I loved his Kanye West video [for Flashing Lights] and I just thought: yeah, we’re going to work really well together. So I get struck by lightning, burnt, half drowned, pushed over, I burn my possessions in a ten-foot bonfire, I run down country lanes… it was nice to do something so physical and challenging. I like to be challenged in everything that I do, and videos are definitely a big part of that.

You played Glastonbury for the first time this year. Was this a long held ambition?

Yes, I’ve always been a big fan. I’ve gone for the last seven to nine years, and it was great to finally perform there. The crowd were fantastic, and the feedback was: yeah, come back next year and maybe even play a bigger stage.

I’m really enjoying the festivals, and I’m really pleased that I’ve come from Pop Idol to singing at these kinds of events. It’s a different crowd, as they are there to see a wide variety of different music. They don’t have to stay, they can always leave – and I think that’s the scary thing about festivals. It would be awful if you started playing to a full house and then suddenly they’d leave!

Who did you see at Glastonbury that rocked it?

I thought that the Kings Of Leon were great, and the Raconteurs were amazing.

I gather that you’ve only recently started getting back into music as a listener, as your initial success destroyed the mystique. Was entering the music business a disillusioning experience?

It can become a bit disenchanting – as with any job, when you start to learn the ins and outs of a profession. But I’ve started to really enjoy music again, and I think that’s tied in well with the stuff I’m doing now. It’s made my writing better, and I go to more gigs than I’ve ever gone to before.

Things changed so much for me, and so quickly, that there were only so many new things that I could take on. Now I’m a bit more accustomed to it, and more relaxed about the whole thing, I can get back to enjoying music – which is why I started singing in the first place.

When you were going through the Pop Idol process, did you have a “Plan B” in mind?

I would have gone back to drama school, to finish my course. I always said that I’d try until I was thirty to be a singer. I did want to act as well, but the singing was the priority, so I think I would have kept on going. I also worked at a record company before drama school, so maybe I would have tried to get back to that.

Your screen performance in Mrs Henderson Presents was over three years ago. I know you’ve done a stage play since, but are we ever going to see you in the movies again?

With the two jobs that I’ve done, I was very fortunate to work with fantastic people that I could learn from. I took a lot from it. It’s a really tough thing to get into theatre, and the reviews for the play were honest, but they were encouraging. That gave me so much confidence in my acting.

It’s the same as with the music: you have to earn respect. You can’t just demand to get auditions. But the more auditions I get, the more experience I get.

So although the music is key at the moment, I’m really looking forward to doing some more acting. I strongly feel that it’s something that I can do more of in the future.

Has your experience on stage informed you as a musical performer?

I think with the acting, the relationship with the audience is very different, and I don’t know if you can really equate the two. But nothing is mutually exclusive in performance. They do all feed into each other.

I found that every night was a different show, and sometimes I’d see something different in the play. There’s so much text to learn and delve into, so the way you feel about the play at the end of the run can be completely different to the way you felt at the beginning.

So it takes on its own life, and I think songs can do the same thing, but in a very technical way. You can make split-second decisions live, and that’s a different type of excitement.

Photos of Will Young taken at Glastonbury 2008 by Neal Whitehouse Piper and reproduced under the terms of a Creative Commons non-commercial attribution licence.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

The Art Of Noise: 5x5 II.

It's been a good while since I last guest-blogged... but here's me and four other panellists (including SwissToni and JonnyB), giving five current recipients of so-called "A&R buzz" a Juke Box Jury-style Blind Tasting, over on the collaborative music blog The Art Of Noise.

Last time we did this, a full 18 months ago, we found ourselves waxing lukewarm over such future luminaries as The Ting Tings, Laura Marling and, er, Joe Lean & the Jing Jang Jong. So take heed: here's where The Stars Of Tomorrow are made!

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Martha Reeves: interview out-takes.

(Click here for the main interview feature)

Pop music is a fickle business. Musical styles come in and out of fashion, but classic Motown music has gone through a period of sounding dated. Why do you think that is?

I feel the same way. It’s because we had classic musicians. Jazz guys; they called them “cats”. The Funk Brothers [backing band on most of the earlier Motown hits] made music that was classic. We had our first recordings with the upright bass, which is not fashionable now. You’ll hear an upright bass in symphonic music, and maybe some jazz musicians will play the upright and soothe your soul, but we had classic musicians. And the Funk Brothers will always be accredited with 50% of the success of Motown.

And most of the acts are still touring. They’re still out there, still working. I saw the Temptations in this city just two nights ago.

They had a big band, didn’t they?

They did. They had a nine piece horn section and a four piece band. There were nineteen people on stage; it was a real production.

Yes, a joyful ear candy! (Laughs) I can guarantee you: any time that you see a Motown act, they’re gonna have horns, they’re gonna have live instrumentation. Very seldom do we work with tracks. The only time we do is when it’s inconvenient for the band. Our aim is to work with live musicians, and to keep live music as happy and current as we can be.

I’m glad you said that. Diana Ross came here last year, and she didn’t have a brass section on stage with her. So it was very strange when she sang Where Did Our Love Go, and you got the sax break on tape…

Ooh, I’d hate to hear that.

You’ve stayed fiercely loyal to Detroit, and you’re now involved in city politics. When did that start?

Three years ago. I was elected to Detroit city council – a lot of people refer to it as “common council” – and I have to be at work in about half an hour! (Laughs)

So you’re sitting on committees?

Making decisions, and helping a lot of people in the city, because a lot of our citizens believe that their voice isn’t heard. We’ve had quite a bit of news lately, and it hasn’t been all good. However, we’re working it out. We’ll always have problems to work our way through. We’ve made the headlines with our mayor, who is now incarcerated. We have an interim mayor, who is doing a very good job of holding the banner until we have a special election. But the city council is standing strong, and we’re continuing.

We’re improving and enlarging our main arena, where we hope to hold our auto show, which is reputed as being the largest in the USA. Detroit is still known for its good music, and we’re working right now on an album produced with the Motown sound, with live musicians who remember how the Motown sound was developed.

How is downtown Detroit? I visited for a couple of days in the early Nineties, and the downtown area seemed so strange to me. There were buildings, but there were so few people.

You should come again, because we have new buildings erected. We’ve got a place called Campus Martius; in the summer we have live performances, and in the winter it’s a skating rink. We have a river walk, and we have a casino, right in the heart of downtown. There’s three casinos altogether. They’ve lit up the city, so we’ve got three major hotels that coincide with the casinos. And we’ve got the Renaissance Centre, which is run by the car manufacturer GM now. So Detroit’s on the move. It’s beautiful, and I’m very proud to be here, and proud to be on the Detroit city council.

Now that we’re in a download culture, most of your back catalogue is just a click away, so we don’t have to go hunting the racks in the record stores. Since we can easily get hold of some of the lesser known songs in your back catalogue, what would you say is your most underrated record, which you’d like people to hear?

Oh, No One There. The audiences that I have performed for have brought it to my attention. They have shouted it out to me, and I sang it a cappella on a tour with Edwin Starr. On that tour, I was made aware that No One There was a big favourite of a lot of people. It’s a ballad, a moody song, and it’s just good to listen to. Very underrated.

I did come across one song, I Should Be Proud

It was on a [BBC Radio 4] special: a documentary depicting the Vietnam War. It was played for a while, but the CIA thought it was a little too antagonistic. They thought I was asking for trouble, and they took it off the air.

But it’s a good song about a woman whose husband went to a war, and I’m saying that it’s the evils of society. It’s written by one of your native women, Pam Sawyer, and Marilyn McCloud, who collaborated on a song to be the voice of the women who suffered when their husbands were killed in Vietnam. It was a little deep.

So we did a documentary, and it sort of explained how African Americans were treated in the Vietnam War. This was the first war that was integrated. All the other wars were segregated, but the Vietnam War was the first one where everyone was equal and fought the battle side by side. (Pause) We’re part of history, huh? (Laughs)

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Interview: Martha Reeves.

Photo taken in Helsinki, August 17 2008, by ilkka.rinne.

Evidently, Martha Reeves is a morning person. Speaking to me from her home in Detroit, the 67-year-old Motown legend was already on her fourth interview of the day – and it was still only 8.45 in the morning.

As an elected, full-time city councillor – a position she has held for the past three years – Martha had to be at work in 45 minutes' time. In the meantime, she was more than happy to talk about her five decades in the music business, and about next year's "Once In A Lifetime – Motown Legends Live" package tour.

Martha's introduction to Motown's "hit factory" was unorthodox, to say the least. One fateful Sunday evening in the early 60s, the aspiring singer was handed a card by the label's A&R man, William "Mickey" Stevenson, and invited for an audition. Somewhat recklessly, she quit her dry-cleaning job the following morning, and showed up at the front door of "Hitsville USA".

As it turned out, the legendary building was little more than a regular house on a regular street.

"When I saw the front door with a hand-painted sign saying "Hitsville", I started to turn around, and I said: oh my God, what have I done!"

Matters went from bad to worse when Martha discovered that no auditions were being held that day. Instead, a busy Stevenson asked her to field an incoming phone call.

"I answered the phone – "Martha Reeves, A&R secretary" – and I sort of spoke my way into the position. He was gone mostly all of the day, preparing a session for this drummer named Marvin Gaye. When he got back, I had practically taken over. I was issuing cheques and assigning the piano, as there were 17 writers in that office. It was just a little cubbyhole of a place."

Although hired as a secretary rather than as a singer, it didn't take long for Martha's musical talent to be recognised.

"I left the job to three girls from secretarial college, and boarded my first Motown revue. All of us got on the bus, with our shoeboxes full of home-made pound cake and fried chicken, tied with a string. We rode for 94 one-nighters, until we arrived at Hitsville again with hit records. Everyone's records charted after that tour."

Recognition in the UK was quick to follow.

"Luckily, Dusty Springfield had a BBC special that she did every week, and she and [her manager] Vicki Wickham invited the Motown revue to England. I think the Temptations came over for the first time, and the Miracles. Heatwave was our record at the time, but I think the Supremes had no hits in the UK. However, they were discovered and we were all embraced."

As an early champion of the Motown sound, Dusty Springfield often included Martha and the Vandellas' signature hit Dancing In The Street in her live set. On her BBC show, the two acts collaborated on a version of Wishing And Hoping. However, when it came to exposure on the live stage, the Vandellas already had a head start on their label mates.

"We had already performed prior to that with Georgie Fame, when Yeh Yeh was a big hit. He let us do 40 one-nighters with him, and so we were already familiar with England. When we came over with the Motown revue, it was just a welcoming home by the Tamla Motown Appreciation Society!"

As for my rash suggestion that Martha left the label in the early 70s, it was swiftly and crisply corrected.

"Wait a minute: Motown left me. I stayed in Detroit, and they moved to California. There's a difference!" (Laughter)

"I had a young baby, and I wasn't able to travel. And I didn't know that they were moving, actually. I was not informed. There was no baby planned in the contract, and I was away recuperating. In that short distance of time, they made plans to move. The only thing left of the company, when I went to report for my next assignment, were a few computers that were being put on a truck to leave the city."

Needless to say, the move to Los Angeles fundamentally changed the character of the label.

"It ended the Motown saga. There were no real successes, other than maybe a discovery of disco with the likes of Rick James and Teena Marie – but the Motown sound stopped at that point."

The label's trademark sound may have come to an end more than 35 years ago, but the unique Motown "family spirit" endures to this day – as evidenced by the gathering of the clans which occurred at last month's funeral for Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops. Martha spoke at the service, describing Stubbs as "my Pavarotti".

"It was a very difficult time to say goodbye to Levi. He had been ill for seven years. We all hoped that he would recover and sing to us again. However, it never happened. On his 60th birthday, they had a celebration. Aretha Franklin joined the Tops and the Tempts at a concert, where he did sing a little bit – and then that was the last time that his voice was heard."

"It's unreal. You don't think they're gone. You say, how can they take Levi? And the realisation is that we're all going, eventually. I just have his music now, to remember him by. Just Ask The Lonely still tugs at my heart. That was one of my favourite songs that he sang, and he will always be my Pavarotti."

Perhaps it's at sad occasions like these that the old family spirit feels at its strongest.

"We never stopped being family, no matter what. We don't work together as often as we would like, because we have our own music and do our own shows."

For next year's Once In A Lifetime tour, Martha and the Vandellas will be sharing the bill with The Miracles, The Commodores, Mary Wilson of The Supremes, and the late Junior Walker's All-Stars: a line-up which evokes memories of those old Motown revues.

"This reunion is a very well-thought-out tour, and one that I'm anticipating, because there's a strong, good feeling when everybody performs. The competition starts then."

These days, the Vandellas are strictly a family affair. Martha's sister Lois ("my longest standing Vandella") started with the group in 1968, and her other sister Delphine started in 1980. ("That makes her a senior citizen too", she laughs.) Back in the 60s, their chief rivals in the girl group stakes were The Supremes, but Martha is quite clear on the difference between the two acts. "You can classify our music as soul, and you can classify theirs as pop", she states.

As for her biggest hit of all, Dancing In The Street, much has been made of its adoption as an anthem for the civil rights movement during the troubled years of the mid-to-late 1960s. However, the song started its life quite differently.

"I'd heard Marvin Gaye sing it, and it was a love song to a girl. He sort of crooned it, and then he said: man, give this to Martha, let her try it. So when I tried it, I called to mind New Orleans, and Rio De Janeiro where I had been at carnival time. Actually, I had seen people get in the street and dance."

"This song was used to quench a lot of the evil feelings that were out in the streets, because of the riots that happened in every major city. And the words were simple: 'Calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat'. Not the hate that everybody was feeling, but the happiness that it brings."

"And we've changed a lot of ordinances with our song. Now, some cities allow you to block off the street and actually have dance parties."

"So it didn't start a riot; it quenched one."

Coming soon: Exclusive blog-only out-takes from my interview with Martha.

See also: Dusty Springfield, accompanied by Martha and the Vandellas, performing "Can't Hear You No More" on Ready Steady Go's 1965 Motown special. Stay tuned for The Supremes, The Temptations, and Martha and the Vandellas performing "Dancing In The Street". Fantastic stuff.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Laura Marling, Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Tuesday November 4.

(In which the Triple Dose of Mellow reaches its conclusion...)

Photo taken in Aberdeen on October 30th 2008 by Nick Bramhall.

Despite all the attention that has come her way this year, Laura Marling remains resolutely unfazed by the trappings of stardom. When shortlisted for the Mercury Prize, she fretted that “winning it would have been disastrous for my career”. She regards the rituals of the encore as phoney and ridiculous, opting instead to add her “encore” to the end of her main set. And it’s only recently that she has even consented to wear make-up on stage.

This unadorned, “what you see is what you get” approach suits Marling’s music well, allowing her elegant, articulate and remarkably mature songcraft to shine through. Last night’s show featured several new compositions, easily the equals of her recorded work, including a Christmas song that avoided using the word as that would be “too corny”.

Marling sang quietly and delicately, with immense concentration and a fixed, faraway, unreadable gaze. Her set alternated between solo acoustic performances and full band arrangements, her backing sympathetically provided by a fine four-piece troupe. Violin and stand-up bass were to the forefront throughout, augmented variously by keyboards, drums, banjo, mandolin, squeeze box and clarinet.

The capacity audience couldn’t have been more attentive and respectful. At the age of eighteen, Laura Marling is exactly where she wants to be.

See also: SwissToni's report, and Lady Penelope's illustrated review of Laura Marling's show at the London Scala.

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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Martha Wainwright, Nottingham Rock City, Monday November 3.

(aka Part Two of this week's "Triple Dose of Mellow"...)

It takes a special kind of boldness to announce to your audience, after the third number, that you’re not wearing any underwear. Despite wrapping her admission in layers of wry self-deprecation, Martha Wainwright’s words came back to bite her later on, as a boorish heckler sought to labour the point. “I really wish I hadn’t said that”, she sighed.

This kind of reckless candour lies at the heart of much of Martha’s material: confessional, twisted, deeply personal songs that can teeter on the brink of over-sharing. On stage at a draughty, under-populated Rock City, her interpretations deftly straddled two competing standpoints: the accuser (“You cheated me, and I can’t believe it!”) and the victim (“My heart was made for bleeding all over you”).

Such dense lyrical complexity demanded much from us, and those with the greatest familiarity with Wainwright’s work derived the greatest rewards. Happily, most of her audience fell into this category, and an atmosphere of fond concentration prevailed.

Saving her most notorious song for the encore, Martha performed BMFA – written as an angry rant at her father – with an affectionate half-smile that suggested that the hatchet had long since been buried.

“Underwear is available in the foyer”, she quipped, truthfully. On the way out, the crush at the merchandise stall was three-deep.

See also: SwissToni's longer review, in which he justifiably rips into the drippy, self-satisfied and quite ghastly support act.

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Monday, November 03, 2008

Fleet Foxes, Nottingham Trent University, Sunday November 2.

Photo taken at Bristol University on October 30th 2008 by prusakolep.

It’s not often that a band serves as its own support act – so it came as some surprise when the four other members of Fleet Foxes shuffled onto the stage, halfway through drummer J Tillman’s solo set, to provide understated backing for a couple of numbers. Their sheer diffidence left you wondering whether they would have the necessary stage presence to carry their own set.

As it turned out, we had no cause for concern. Nudged along by a precision-targeted marketing campaign and a blitz of positive press notices, the Seattle quintet’s self-titled debut album has been one of this year’s slow-burning successes, drawing a capacity crowd to Trent University. The venue’s reliably superb acoustics suited the music perfectly, enabling the band to deliver an exquisite performance to a spellbound audience.

On record, the lush pastoralism doesn’t always convince, erring at times towards the cloying and the twee. On stage, the same songs gained muscularity, range and depth. For all the soaring melodic sweetness of their four-part choral harmonies, Fleet Foxes demonstrated an unexpected grasp of rock dynamics, underpinning their ever-present Brian Wilson influences with echoes of Neil Young’s windblown ruggedness.

Equally unexpected was the band’s dry, sardonic, and somewhat rambling comic banter – although, as was cheerfully admitted, this could just have been due to some particularly heavy doses of cold medication. How else to explain their eulogies to John “The Mav” McCain?

“We want four more years of the same”, they drawled, to hoots of amused disbelief.

“Hey, if it ain’t broke...!”

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Friday, October 31, 2008

Interview: Martha Wainwright.

(This is one of my favourite interviews to date. Even if you're unfamiliar with Martha Wainwright and her music, I hope you'll still find this conversation interesting.)

Photo taken at the Big Chill, August 2008, by Richard Pluck.

Your second album has been out for a few months now, and it’s still selling well. Have you been pleased with its reception?

I’ve been happy with the response in the UK, definitely. I’m more concerned about the States, because it has always been a difficult territory for me. Maybe it’s an odd time to be making records, as fewer people are buying albums – but considering there’s no pop or radio hit on there, it’s a totally respectable amount. I’m absolutely glad for any attention I might receive! (Laughs)

It’s not an obvious sounding record, and the songs aren’t particularly straightforward. Do you think your audience has got where you’re coming from?

I think that my audience are generally musophiles, who are deeply interested in music. So of course they’re going to get it, because music is obvious, if you open your mind and your heart to it. I certainly don’t think it’s for everyone. It’s quite exposed emotionally, and you have to like that kind of element. If you’re a very serious jazzo, who likes things that are not particularly emotional, then I don’t know if you’re going to love Martha Wainwright. It takes all kinds.

Although this seems to be another very personal, confessional collection of songs, I sense that maybe we shouldn’t always take the lyrics as directly autobiographical, even when they feel that way.

I think that’s right. I think that there’s a power to poetry, and to meaning. If I take things a little far, it may not be exactly autobiographical – and that’s because it’s to make a point. And as a singer, if I have to sing the same songs over and over again, sometimes it’s better that they’re not exactly autobiographical! (Laughs) Otherwise it becomes quite indulgent and scary.

One of the things that I try to do as a songwriter is to allow the songs to have several possible meanings. So as a singer, you are just there to serve the song – so that the song becomes the focal point, and not me as the singer.

In that way, the personal element can become more universal, and people can identify themselves within it. And also as a singer, it becomes more interesting for me to sing if there are different ways that I can interpret it, night after night.

The album sets up an interesting conundrum for me. When I listen to your music – and I think the same applies to a lot of singer-songwriters – the distance between the singer and the song can become blurred, giving the illusion that there’s no distance between the singer and the song. It strikes me that maybe that’s something you’re consciously playing with: that you’re effectively setting up a hall of mirrors, which deliberately leaves us puzzling as to where you are.

I know… it’s very odd, because when I listen to myself singing the song, sometimes I’m more interested in the song, rather than the fact I’m singing it. But I could see that, especially with the way that I sing, that people think it’s only about…. (pause)

Because you have that dramatic delivery in your voice…

All I can say is: yes, it has this feeling that I’m alone on the earth and these terrible things are happening to me – but I’ve noticed from the standpoint of an audience that a lot of them seem to identify, and feel as though I am perhaps singing their experiences in their own voices.

And I think that’s the point of being a singer-songwriter: as a minstrel or a troubadour, just to tell the story of the people of your town, or whatever. And I get the sense that people seem to understand what I’m saying, and to feel as though it’s their story as well. So maybe the way to do that is to be quite internalised in the style; I’m not sure.

There’s the troubadour aspect, and there’s also maybe a theatrical aspect. I gather you’ve had acting experience, so is there any process by which you might consciously step into different characters for different songs? I spoke to Liza Minnelli a few months ago, and she said that when she sings her songs, she does a whole method acting breakdown; she thinks about the character that narrates each separate song. Is there a sense in which you do that, or do you approach them more as different facets of your own character?

I think I have the tendency to be a bit of a chameleon – in a good way and a bad way – throughout my whole life. Certainly in my songs, and in my life, I straddle between a very strong willed person and someone who’s quite damaged and vulnerable. There’s always that duality there. So a lot of these songs can be sung differently, depending on how strongly you want to go either way: whether you want to give them from the point of view of the victim, or from the point of view of the victor.

But I think a certain amount of acting becomes necessary. The songs are kind of theatrical, and you don’t want to lose control on stage emotionally. And I used to do that more. I used to be very affected by things, perhaps because I was younger. I made the mistake of actually losing a certain amount of control, whether it’s to the point of crying on stage or something else. And then I realised that I didn’t really want to do that any more.

Well, there’s a sense in which that’s age-appropriate. Maybe that’s what you’d expect from a younger performer.

Yeah, exactly. And then at a certain point professionally, you have to get better at what you do, and also be in more control – and that feels good. That being said, it’s sometimes really nice to just open yourself up and allow the music to take you somewhere. And have that fear perhaps after the show, or in a moment where no-one can notice.

There must be a combination of emotional states to deal with, once the show is over. You might feel mentally drained, because you’ve had to dig so deep. Or does the audience gives you something more valuable in return?

I think that does happen. I’ve noticed that the more you give, the more you get back. And it’s true that if you’re singing to the point where your kidneys are hurting or whatever (laughter), and you’re trying to be sincere, you can look out at people’s faces, and at their lips moving to your words… and it’s an incredible return. It’s an exchange.

There are certain nights where you get off stage, and you sit down, and you do need to put your head in your hands for a moment, but that doesn’t last. Generally there’s just enough time to have a nice glass of wine and go and have some dinner in a good restaurant! (Laughs)

Photo taken in Nijmegen, May 2008, by Christoph.

Is there a particular state of mind which you have to get into, in order to write a song?

Well, I like to be on the edge. Maybe that’s not a good idea all the time, but I have a tendency to write songs when I’ve been heavily affected by something, or something is grating at me. I think that can sometimes at least open the gates of poetry and ideas, and you can jot things down. Then if you jot down a lot of different ideas, or phrases, or things like that, they can be useful later on – when feel like you need to try and write something, even though you’re emotionally OK.

That’s interesting. So the process would begin in the heat of the moment, when you’re experiencing that emotion – and then you might return later, in a calmer, more contemplative state of mind, and order the thoughts?

That’s right. You might start with something that’s got some kind of real abandon, but it takes time. I’m not very fast – and I’m also very lazy, in the sense that I do it in a condensed sort of way. I won’t write for hours and hours and hours at a time, because I’m not very virtuosic on my instrument. So it takes weeks, sometimes months, to finish a song.

Sometimes I’ll just sit down and be like: OK, I’ve got to get this second verse. You’ve got to spend three or four hours just to try and finish something, and you might not be completely and utterly feeling what you initially felt when you started writing the song, but you’ll try and sort of get back there, or bring something into it.

In terms of songwriting, are there any aspects of your character, or of your life, which you quite clearly identify as being off-limits?

From experience, I’ve learnt that it’s not a great idea to write songs about people that put them in a bad light.

Even when you think you’ve disguised their identity?

Yeah, exactly. That’s something that I’ve learned, and it’s good to know. And it’s good to couch things. If you need to talk about someone, then find a way not to have them be able to identify themselves completely.

That being said, I think that some of my songs are about people who would recognise themselves fully, such as Bleeding All Over You. The people who that song is about would know who they are.

So I care a certain amount about it, but at the same time I think there’s poetic licence, and I think it’s also important not to be afraid. Because oftentimes music becomes so dull, if everyone’s so conscious of hurting anyone’s feelings.

You’ve been married for just over a year now. Is there a risk that your natural source of inspiration might dry up, because you’re just so darned happy all the time?

Well, from what I’ve experienced of it, marriage is not all bliss. It’s a very serious institution. I’m also married to someone whom I work with, so it’s very intertwined with work and music, and it’s very helpful to my career! (Laughs) So if I were to get rid of the husband, then maybe I’d write another bunch of songs about unrequited love – but I don’t know if I’d ever get them made into a record. If I become really, really happy and I need to make a living, then I’ll just sing other people’s sad songs!

Your one cover on this album is See Emily Play. I’m curious to know why you covered it, as it seems to come from quite a different place to the other self-composed songs on there.

When I was making the record, I was afraid that I wouldn’t have enough songs. I was really conscious that every song had to be record-worthy, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to write them in time, because I really wanted to get a record out. So I was thinking about different covers. It was a song that my mother Kate had suggested, because Joe Boyd had asked us to learn it for the Syd Barrett tribute at the Barbican the year before. I wanted her to be on the record, and it was a perfect opportunity.

It forms a nice counterpoint to the other emotions; there’s almost a sense of childhood nostalgia in there.

It’s a breath of fresh air, after all of the overly emotional gloomy singing that I do.

You’ve performed a number of songs by Leonard Cohen over the years. Have you had the chance to see him live this year?

Yeah, I opened up for him in Bruges. I’d wanted to open up for him for a long time. When I got there, I was worried that his audience wouldn’t care, because they’d waited twenty years to see him. But they were a really great audience, because they’re so interested in lyrics – so I was very satisfied with myself. Then I watched the show, and I realised that he really doesn’t need an opening act at all! It was a stupid idea!

He was on stage for three hours when I saw him at Manchester. It was an amazing show. It was like he’d learnt to sing all over again, and I felt he was singing for posterity – as if it might be his last chance, and so he was going to give the performance of a lifetime.

Exactly, exactly. That’s exactly the feeling that I had. It was really and truly and utterly a farewell, on an epic scale, from one of the greatest songwriters ever. Then I sort of felt stupid for pushing so hard to open up! (Laughs)

One last question. I’ve avoided asking you all the standard questions about your famous musical family, but do you have any relatives with no aptitude or interest for music at all? Are there any cloth-eared cousins who only buy two CDs a year?

No, unfortunately. My sister’s a singer too – Loudon’s other daughter – so it’s crazy. It’s a drag! No, it’s amazing.

Acknowledgements: Marcello's superb post on Martha's second album was a great help to me when preparing for this interview, and I'd also like to thank Karen and Pete for introducing me to her music in the first place.

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The Temptations – Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Wednesday October 29.

Speaking at last Friday’s funeral for Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops, the Reverend Jesse Jackson mistakenly listed Otis Williams, sole surviving founder member of The Temptations, as another deceased Motown legend. This must have come as surprising news to the ebullient Williams, still leading the group after 47 years in the business.

His four newer colleagues – Joe, Ron, Terry and Bruce – joined the group well after their classic run of Sixties and Seventies hits. Although no match for former lead singers such as Edwards, Kendricks and Ruffin, the burly Bruce and the more diminutive Ron acquitted themselves ably enough, reminding us that the songs and the spirit of The Temptations have always been greater than any individual member. As the group’s chequered history would testify, over-inflated egos have never survived in its ranks for very long.

As ever, band leader Otis remained happy in his traditional role as “tenor in the middle”, never grabbing the solo limelight for more than an occasional line. However, the group’s trademark vocal balance was undermined by a surprisingly under-par PA system, whose murkiness all but smothered bass singer Joe Herndon’s vital contributions. The nine-piece horn section fared little better, sounding oddly muted and distant.

None of this deterred the loyal crowd of seasoned Motown fans, who spent most of the show’s second half on their feet, reserving their warmest cheers for Sixties classics such as Since I Lost My Baby and the immortal My Girl. Their enthusiasm, coupled with the group’s slick choreography and impeccable back catalogue, saved the night.

Set list:
Overture (Also Sprach Zarathustra)
How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)
The Way You Do the Things You Do
Ain’t Too Proud To Beg
Ball Of Confusion
I Wish It Would Rain
Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)
Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone
I Can’t Get Next To You
You Are So Necessary In My Life
Get Ready
Treat Her Like A Lady
Since I Lost My Baby
The Girl’s Alright With Me
Cloud Nine
Psychedelic Shack
My Girl
(I Know) I'm Losing You

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Friday, October 24, 2008

Interview: Otis WIlliams, The Temptations.

I’ve been reading up on the history of The Temptations, and I hadn’t realised what a dramatic, epic story it was. With so many changes to the line-up over the years, it almost reads like a soul soap opera. But looking back on your career to date, what makes you the most proud?

Being able to survive. Once you know the history of The Tempts, with all the ins and outs of different guys coming in, and the deaths and the tragedies, here we are 47 years later, still doing it. Ordinarily, a group that has gone through as many changes as we have would have been through a long time ago.

A lot of that longevity must be down to you, as the sole surviving member of the original line-up. Were you always the band leader?

I’ve been the spokesman for the group from day one. As far as the records, that was Motown’s concern, because they were the record company. But as far as the members, and who was in the group, that was pretty much up to me.

Did you do the hiring and the firing?

Well, I hate to sound callous – but you know, somebody’s got to do it. I don’t necessarily want to fire anybody, but in most cases, something would happen that would just make it circumstantial. So we would have to let a guy go, for health reasons, or for many different reasons. I just wasn’t firing somebody because that was my role; it would have to be something very detrimental to the group for me to do so.

A lot of times, it’s a group effort. I would always some of the other guys what they thought. Our president, he’s got a cabinet, and we have to ask to see what their thoughts are. So it was pretty much a diplomatic kind of thing.

Looking at your contribution to the band, it’s interesting that as the leader of the band, you’ve never taken on the lead vocals. Instead, you’re known as “the tenor in the middle”. Why has that been so?

If it’s a song that I really feel good about, then I would do it, but most cases I was just happy keeping it together. We all got the same money, so it wasn’t that the ones that were doing the lead were getting more money than me. I guess we all have a role to play, and mine was to keep The Temptations going and to take care of business. So I’ve always been the man behind the scenes.

In many of your hits, you each take it in turns to sing single lines. Is there one particular line that you can point to, where we can all recognise you?

On I Can’t Get Next To You, I sing “I can make a change, just with a wave of my hand.”

I’m personally very fond of your output from the late Sixties and early Seventies when you worked with the late Norman Whitfield, who took over from Smokey Robinson as your chief musical mentor. How did that change come about?

Well, we started losing record sales. Berry Gordy was always having a competitive thing going with his songwriters and producers. He said that if Get Ready didn’t crack the Top Ten, then Norman Whitfield would have the next release. Get Ready did real well, but it didn’t go Top Ten pop-wise. So Ain’t Too Proud To Beg came out, and we had a great eight or nine year run with Norman.

People sometimes call it your “psychedelic soul” period, but it doesn’t sound psychedelic to me. “Psychedelic” sugggests fantasy and escape, but a lot of your songs of this period – Ball of Confusion, Law of the Land – were rooted in realism and social commentary.

I can understand why some people refer to it as psychedelic soul, because prior to Cloud Nine we were doing sweet ballads like Please Return Your Love, My Girl and Since I Lost My Baby, and those funky R&B tunes like Ain’t Too Proud To Beg and I Could Never Love Another. So when you change from those kinds of songs to something that’s got a whole other spin to it – and here comes the psychedelic era at that point – I can understand why they would relate to it as psychedelic soul.

When we came out with Cloud Nine, it didn’t jump off at first. For about a week or two after Motown released it, we were kind of concerned, because normally when our record came out it would run up the charts real fast. But it took a minute for Cloud Nine, and I guess our fans were thinking: wow, the Tempts have really changed up on us. But the next thing you know, it took off, it sold a million copies and we won our first Grammy.

It sounded so different. I remember the first time I heard Papa Was A Rolling Stone on the radio. At the age of ten, I’d never heard anything like it before. It felt groundbreaking.

We were the first act at Motown to venture off over into that kind of style of music, and we were the first Motown act to win a Grammy, so it paid off very handsomely all the way round.

That social commentary aspect is something that seems to have disappeared from a lot of modern popular music. Do you miss that at all?

Its just like anything else; there’s always a change. The Sixties has been noted as the most tumultuous decade in the last hundred years. All kinds of movements were involved. Dr King was making his move. You could sit right at home and see world leaders lose their lives on TV. There was women’s lib; there was civil unrest at school campuses. We were living in some crazy times, which would breed that kind of creation, as far as making music goes. So I guess it was just indicative of the times that we were living in.

Was there a lot of competition between the Motown acts, to try and get the best songs that everyone else wanted?

The way Berry had everything set up, at the beginning he would say: Hey, I think I’ve got a song for the Temptations. That could come from Norman Whitfield, or from Smokey Robinson, or possibly from Holland Dozier Holland. But once Smokey really started having consistency, he was the man. But Motown was so competitive from within. They would have a quality control meeting up in Berry’s office on a Friday. A lot of things were decided in those meetings, depending on whoever had recorded the best material during the course of that week.

Who are you still in touch with from the old Motown days?

Well, all of us are still good friends; we just don’t see each other. Because Motown is no longer the Motown that we knew, or that the world knew, everybody has moved on with their lives in different places. But when I see Smokey, it’s just like we never missed a step.

When you play to British audiences, how different are we to your American audiences?

England is almost like coming to our second home. We’ve been over there so often, and for so long, that the English people just love us unconditionally, even if we were never to get another hit record. They really love and appreciate the hits that we have. England just loves that old Motown music! We’re getting ready to celebrate our fiftieth anniversary, and the music is just as fresh and well received as if it was being made today.

Great soul music always stands the test of time. I think it matures like a good red wine.

I agree. And Motown music, Philadelphia International music, Stax music, and all the music from the Sixties and the Seventies is still wonderful. They’re not making records like that today. I listen to the music that’s being made today, because I’m in the business, but the music that we all made was much better.

You didn’t just turn on the machines. You put your heart and soul into it.

That’s right!

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Lou Reed's Berlin - a film by Julian Schnabel. (DVD)

Riding a commercial and critical high in the wake of his classic Transformer album, Lou Reed alienated many newly acquired fans with its downbeat follow-up Berlin (1973). Said to be one of the most depressing records ever made, the album flopped in the States and was never performed live. In the UK, where we don’t let a healthy dollop of misery deter us, Berlin went Top Ten. To this day, it remains Reed’s second highest charting album.

In December 2006, Reed fulfilled his long-held ambition of performing a stage adaptation, complete with orchestra and children’s choir. This DVD was recorded at an early New York show, with Julian Schnabel directing the cinematography. Schnabel’s daughter Lola provides the atmospheric movie clips that weave in and out of the performance footage, illustrating the decline and fall of the story’s anti-heroine Caroline.

Reed's second and final Berlin tour came to Nottingham's Royal Concert Hall in June. For those who attended that memorable, magical show, this DVD provides a useful musical souvenir. As in Nottingham, the album’s original guitarist Steve Hunter leads the band. (If Berlin was meant to be a downer, then no-one seems to have told the irrepressible Steve.)

Those who recall the many extended guitar jams between Lou and Steve at the June show will be either disappointed or relieved by their near total absence from the DVD. Indeed, the whole show is a markedly more sombre affair, the dimly lit stage bathed in tones of muted, sickly green. The album’s second half is a particularly harrowing parade of misfortune, punctuated by crying children and gloomy choral wails.

Things don’t even pick up for the encore. Antony Hegarty (of the Johnsons) adds a mournful guest vocal to Candy Says, leaving even the habitually impassive Reed looking visibly moved.

Release date: Monday October 27th.

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Interview: Dawn Watley, Black Kids.

WARNING: This is possibly the most boring interview I have ever done. Contributory factors included a rubbish phone connection to Dawn's tour bus in the States - we struggled to understand each other at times, and transcription was a nightmare - and Dawn's own hesitancy and nervousness. (Almost every answer began with an "Um" followed by a long pause, and tailed off at the end with an "I don't know...")

But hey, shame to waste it! Enjoy!

Black Kids, Chicago, August 2008
(Dawn's on the right.)

Where are you today? According to your schedule, you should be in North Carolina.

Yeah, we’re on the tour bus right now.

It says here that you’re playing two dates tomorrow: in Baltimore and Washington DC. Was that a misprint?

Tomorrow, in one day? Maybe, maybe not! I don’t know! (Laughs)

Do you just take each day as it comes, and not worry too much?

I do. I think you have to, on this schedule.

How long is it since you’ve managed to get back to your home town in Florida?

I was home maybe a week ago, for a few days. We get to go back every now and then.

The animated video for your current single Look At Me is really entertaining. How closely were you involved?

The script was written by this Texas guy, who based it on his favourite 1980s cartoons. The video is awesome; I love it. But I don’t really feel like it’s me. You’re sitting in front of a green screen, and then all of a sudden you see this made video, and you think: oh wow, look at that helmet that I’m wearing, and there’s the car I’m driving! It’s all kind of odd, because it wasn’t there when we were making the video.

You’ve been doing a lot of work in the UK and Europe this year, as that’s where your greatest amount of success has been so far. Are you now trying to break the States?

That’s what we’re doing right now. We’re trying to get more support, by doing television shows, and lots of interviews, and just getting summer out of the way, and meeting fans and stuff like that.

You had a lot of initial love from the music bloggers in the States, back in the early days. Does that kind of “blog love” translate into a wider popularity in the quote-unquote “real world”?

I think sometimes it can make or break a band. But I’m not sure whether that happens if the band’s already big.

You must be doing a phenomenal amount of travelling this year. Is it broadening the mind, or does it become routine like any regular business travel?

I still love travelling and seeing different places. Usually I don’t get to see much when I go to the towns, so maybe one day I’ll be able to actually go and take a look at some museums and stuff.

What have been your top travel destinations?

I loved Norway when I went up there. It was beautiful and green, with the water and different kinds of boats. I don’t know, I just really enjoyed it.

Any highlights from the festival season?

My favourite thing is meeting the bands that I really love. I got to see Yeasayer probably three or four times this year.

Which acts would you say were your fellow travellers? If someone was mentioning a whole bunch of bands in a list and your name was on there, who else would you like to see in that list?

What, like people who have been travelling with us?

I’m thinking kindred spirits. People who are doing a similar sort of thing, with a similar sort of vibe.

Magistrates [an electro band from Essex]. Cut Copy, who are definitely a dance groove, party down kind of band. CSS definitely; I love them.

You recorded your album with Bernard Butler in the UK. What was he like to work with?

For me, I guess he was like a father figure. It was one of our first times in the studio, and he made me feel at home. It was really comfortable. Reggie was already a huge fan, and I knew some of his songs, and I was like: wow, we get to work with this guy!

Are the band finding time to write new material? If so, how will it be different?

We haven’t really decided what direction we want to go in. We do have some new songs, that we’ll be playing on the UK tour.

In terms of the band dynamic, how democratic are you? Is there a leader?

We’re all pretty equal. We read things that come along, and we just sit and discuss it for a while. I wouldn’t say that one of us has more say than the others.

You’re known for playing basically happy music, but you’re playing it in increasingly troubled times. Is this a good time for escapism?

I think any time is good for listening to happy music – because maybe it clears it out, I don’t know. But the music does have some underlying sexual tension, and it’s kind of like comedy. Even though it sounds happy, it might not necessarily be happy music.

When I saw you playing Nottingham in June, you all looked like you were having a great time. But if you’re touring night after night, are there ever situations where you have to manufacture the joy?

Well, that’s the thing about playing live. Even if you’ve had a shitty day, you can get up there and just let it all out. That’s my favourite thing about being in a band. I don’t get tired of playing live, ever. That’s the truth of it.

That sounds like one of the best reasons for being in a band. Every shitty day becomes a good day by the end of it.

It’s true. Especially when you have good fans out there.

Photo taken at Lollapalooza in Chicago on August 3 2008 by incendiarymind and reproduced under a Creative Commons non-commercial attribution license.

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Interview: Lone (Matt Cutler).

Your debut solo album Lemurian has been out since August. What sort of reaction have you been getting?

It's all been really flattering – which has been strange, because I always tend to think the worst about stuff like this. It has given me a lot more confidence to do another one, and not be too worried about what people think about it.

Were you worried it was a bit too leftfield to connect with people?

It was the only thing I was worried about. My mates all said: oh, it'll be all right, people will like it – but the only thing you'd have to worry about is that maybe it will go over peoples' heads.

When I first played the album, the first things that hit me were all those warped, wow-and-flutter samples. I think there's a bridge that has to be crossed there – but two or three plays in, they just become a natural part of the fabric of the music.

Yeah, totally. It's strange for me, because obviously when I'm making the tracks I hear them over and over again, so none of it really shocks me at all. So I can forget that for other people, on their first listen, it might be a bit strange – but hopefully you can get into it after a while.

How did the idea come about?

I've always been into Boards Of Canada, who were the first people that I heard using it. I took it from a different angle – like a warm, hazy sound like you get on an old tape that has been out in the sun too long. It's something I've been obsessed with since I was really young, from listening to tapes in my parents' car that were warped. I thought they sounded better like that.

It just makes things sound nicer, for some strange reason. It gives a more gritty feel to the music. It almost makes it more human. It gives it more personality, rather than just sounding really clean, and turning into ambient, which is something I really don't want it to be.

Did you have a particular concept for the album, even before you started recording the music?

I knew I wanted to make music that sounded kind of warped, but it wasn't until I'd made loads of tracks that it started taking shape, and getting this summery feel. I didn't really set out for it to be a summery sounding record. As I gradually got more into it, it took that on for itself. I just ran with it.

Comparing the reviews, the same words keep cropping up: shimmering, sun-drenched, hazy. What were the climate conditions like when you wrote the tracks?

Not quite as nice! I started it last summer. I made a couple of tracks in a short space of time, and the weather was really nice then. So I thought: right, if I keep making tracks like this, it will get me away from the fact that the weather's going to be really shitty and horrible. I kept making tracks that sounded like they were for the summer, because I hate the winter so much. So maybe there was a bit of escapism.

How about this summer? Did you go to anywhere sun-drenched and heat-hazed and lie by an ocean?

I've just been in Nottingham for the whole summer, in the rain basically. It's typical: I make a really summery record, and I hoped that once I got to the summer, it would all be perfect – but we've only had about a week of sun. Typical, really. But never mind.

At what age did you start making music?

Probably about twelve. Probably even earlier – but you really couldn't call it music, it was just messing around with a tape player and keyboard. Then I heard Boards of Canada on John Peel when I was twelve, and that was it – I just got into music from then. It was their appreciation for writing melodies, basically. The most important thing for me now is nice melodies, and they were the best I've heard.

You've got some club dates in Nottingham coming up. When DJ-ing, are you setting a mood or are you aiming to fill a floor?

I want to make people dance. I try to get music in there that relates to what I do – but it's totally different, because my stuff just doesn't work in a club.

So what sort of avenues do you go down?

What I usually want to hear in a club is dubstep, but I'll try to play as much as possible. I've been playing a lot of sleazy Eighties synth-funk, because that's the stuff I'm going to try and make next. Things like Michael Jackson, and even stuff like Luther Vandross. If you can mix that with hip hop and stuff, then people go with it, which is lucky. And I do play a bit of acid house: the real early stuff from the late Eighties.

You've got an EP scheduled to come out later in the year. How's that going to sound?

It's totally different. It still sounds like my stuff, but it's a lot faster and it's really influenced by Eighties synth-funk. I don't know if it's going to put people off who like the album, but I just don't want to repeat myself.

Listen to Lone on MySpace.

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Holy Fuck – Nottingham Bodega Social Club, Wednesday October 15.

Holy Fuck, August 2008

They may have looked like mild-mannered indie kids – but when it came to unleashing an all-out barrage of distinctly unholy noise, this experimental four-piece from Toronto held nothing back.

Teaming a traditional rhythm section with a sprawling array of electronic devices, the band welded rock dynamics to dance-derived textures and effects. No pre-programmed beats were deployed, and there were no laptops on hand to provide easy shortcuts. Pieces of kit were rapidly unplugged and re-wired on the fly, according to need.

The psychedelic squiggles and swirls sometimes evoked the progressive space-rock of the early Seventies. At other times, the brutal rhythmic energy strayed closer to late Nineties hard trance – but equally, we were never bludgeoned by over-repetition. Tempos were constantly switched, keeping us alert and focussed.

The similarly mild-mannered crowd nodded and twitched their appreciation, but never truly cut loose. Considering the visceral power of the performance, their restraint was perplexing.

(Photo taken at Pukkelpop, Limburg on August 15th 2008 by Maarten_Timmermans)

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CSS – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Monday October 13.

Just over two years ago, Brazilian dance-punk sextet CSS – then known as Cansei de Ser Sexy (“tired of being sexy”) – made their British live debut at Stealth. For their fourth Nottingham appearance, a packed Rescue Rooms was treated to an early, short (it was all over by 9:25) and pleasingly chaotic set.

Opening with selections from their second album Donkey – a more streamlined but less memorable collection than their eccentric, fun-packed debut – it took the band a while to connect with the room. Notably less dance-orientated, the first few numbers felt buried beneath a muddy, guitar-heavy squall which betrayed a lack of technical finesse.

As the set progressed, both band and crowd loosened up, the introduction of keyboards adding welcome funkiness and flair. Teaming her sea-green bodysuit with a shaggy cape of multi-coloured rope, her eyebrows dyed dayglo orange, lead singer Lovefoxx goofed merrily around the stage, lost in her own parallel universe.

The show ended on a rowdy, exhilarating high. A disco mirror ball was procured; helium balloons were inhaled; shiny armfuls of confetti were strewn. A gloriously messy (if barely recognisable) “Let’s Make Love And Listen To Death From Above” gave way to an exultant “Alala”, leaving us with the frustrating sense that CSS had only just warmed up.

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Seasick Steve – Nottingham Rock City, Thursday October 9.

Seasick Steve, Cois Fharraige, Ireland, September 2008

The mythology surrounding Seasick Steve is a powerful one. Having drifted around the fringes of the music industry since the Sixties, an appearance on Jools Holland’s Hootenanny dramatically raised his profile. Now in his seventh decade, his third album in the Top Ten, this former train-hopping hobo has become one of the year’s more unlikely stars.

Last night at Rock City, a capacity crowd treated the grizzly, bearded bluesman to a hero’s welcome. Like thousands before them, they seemed keen to buy into Steve’s heart-warming rags-to-riches story.

The set began promisingly enough. Mixing traditional blues stylings with a dash of rock-based, Jack White-style showmanship, Steve played well – if not spectacularly – and quickly developed an easy, jokey rapport with the crowd. Good natured heckles were met with a brandished baseball bat. Showy slugs were taken from a bottle of Jack Daniels. A female admirer was serenaded on stage. A clock was theatrically smashed.

Nevertheless, attention spans soon started to drift. We might have warmed to the man and the myth, but how many were truly in love with the music? The songs became interchangeable, the genre’s limitations ever more exposed. Worst of all, most of us could barely see Steve’s seated figure – an awkward situation which eventually drew an apology.

As the crowd chatter escalated to uncomfortable levels (*), Steve worked ever harder to save the show. Quieter numbers were dropped. The rock-star flourishes grew flashier. It still wasn’t enough. Two years from now, will we still be indulging him like this?

(*) I'm being way too polite here. The crowd were ghastly. The rudest, most attention-deficited audience I've had to endure since Rodrigo Y Gabriela played the same venue.

Photo of Seasick Steve taken at Cois Fharraige (Ireland) on September 6 2008 by timsnell and reproduced under a Creative Commons non-commercial attribution license.

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Friday, October 03, 2008

Interview: Teddy Thompson.

(An edited version of this piece originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post. This is the extended blog remix.)

Congratulations on the success of your new album, A Piece Of What You Need: not only your first Top Ten entry, but also the first of your four albums to chart.

I think everybody was pleasantly surprised. We all put quite a lot into the set up, so we were hoping for something in the Top Forty – but not quite as high as we got, which was great.

You have described the mood of the record as “happy”, and there are certainly a lot of uptempo tracks – but lyrically, things seem to tell quite a different story.

It seems happy to me, but only relative to my previous work! (Laughs) It is more uptempo than before, but not necessarily happier in terms of subject matter. I’ve always loved happy tunes with sad lyrics. A lot of country music employs that tack. It was something I was always trying to do, but I just couldn’t figure out how to do it. It doesn’t come naturally to me!

The lyrics of Turning The Gun On Myself leapt out at me. On paper, they read as bleak in the extreme, but something about the arrangement suggests we shouldn’t be taking them too seriously.

Exactly – it’s supposed to be tongue in cheek. I was trying to dip my toe into Randy Newman territory – not that I claim to be at that level – but it’s dark humour. It depends what your perspective is, because people in America didn’t find it very funny.

Well, it does happen quite a bit over there…

We had the sound effect of a gunshot at the end of the song, which they made us remove. The promo copies in America had it, and they had some complaints from, I don’t know, Wal-Mart or something. Who sell guns, but refuse to carry music with the sound of a gunshot. Actually, the percussion on the track is a slowed down gunshot, so there’s gunshots on every beat. We slid it in there!

The lyrics of the title track have something of a jaundiced quality to them. You talk about a “drop dead gorgeous teen” who’s singing bad diary entries, and there’s a “soulless boy” who’s making us feel “pretty blank”. Did you have any particular individuals in mind?

Well, I’m not going to touch that! Probably at the time, but I’m not going to mention names. Not that they’d care what I think. It’s more of a general comment on the music business: traipsing around America and feeling like you’re banging your head against a wall, and why bother, because people don’t really want to hear this sort of thing; they want to hear disposable pop music. ‘Twas ever thus...

On my first listen to the album, I thought: this is all very pleasant, but maybe a bit on the mainstream Radio Two side for my tastes. I’ve since reassessed that initial knee-jerk reaction. There are some sly lyrics, and there’s some great and sometimes surprising orchestration – particularly as the album progresses, on tracks like Jonathan’s Book and Can’t Think Straight. It feels like you’ve placed the straight-up pop tunes at the front, and then as the album progresses, you stretch out and take things in new directions.

To be honest, I’ve been trying to make a real pop record for the last three records (laughs). I just hadn’t quite been able to do it, and so they turned out as slightly more home made and a bit less sparkly.

Things lined up this time. I was able to get a producer I wanted to work with for a long, long time (Marius De Vries), and so it just fell into place. I thought we had some really good pop tunes, but I knew that he would bring some interesting quirky production moments.

I didn’t change the way I wrote the songs. It was more a question of recording them in such a way that they were fully realised pop moments. We really tried to take each idea to its conclusion. I hadn’t really done that before.

If you look at the sleeve notes, Marius is credited with strange things like “lushness”, “can-do attitude”, and “general showing off”. But how did the collaboration work? What did he bring to the table?

Marius is a bit of an old school producer. He’s a bit George Martin-esque: tall and English and proper. I called him to make my first record, eight years ago, but it never worked out. I then met him about three years ago, because he was working with Rufus Wainwright, and we became friends. So it all came around, and I was able to get my man!

I’ve worked with different people, and some are more hands-on than others. Marius is very hands-on. You really feel like it’s money well spent by the end of the project – no matter what the result – because he works very hard.

He does a lot of pre-production, and a lot of thought goes on between the two of us before we even got in the studio. Once we did, he played a lot of things, and he arranged a lot of things in the studio. After we finished he did a lot of work, physically engineering and tweaking things. So he really did everything that I didn’t do, which was… well, he did a lot more than me! (Laughter)

Which is as it should be, you know? I’d written all the songs and done all the work, and it’s right and proper that the producer should come in and take over and make your dreams come true. Which he did.

Why did you call him “Mr. Bounce” on the sleeve notes?

I found some Mr. Men books at a book store on my way to the studio one day. I got Mr. Bounce for him, because he literally bounces into the studio every morning, no matter how little sleep he’s had. I think I got Mr. Worry for me, because I was constantly fretting over things.

There’s also a curious, and perhaps not entirely serious credit to Sir Elton. Have you met?

No, I just had to write that very quickly, so I don’t know where that came from. But I did read that he mentioned me somewhere, a few months ago. I think he mentioned me, Justin Timberlake and The Killers as his favourite new music, which was incredible. But I was just messing about, and looking to curry some favour with the movers and shakers! (Laughter)

Well, you do seem pretty well connected anyway. I’ve seen your name popping up on various credits over the years – most notably with Rufus Wainwright, who even has a cameo in your new video, dressed as Elvis. Are you planning to work together again?

I should think so, yeah. It’s all quite family-ish now. We’ve been friends for a long time, and our families all know each other, and I’ll be at his Christmas show in New York with lots of other friends and family. So I’m sure we will – but to what extent, who knows?

You’ve participated in a number of Leonard Cohen tributes. Have you seen him on tour this year?

Yes, I saw him at the O2 Arena a couple of months ago.

What did you make of the show?

(Long pause)

I can’t imagine seeing him at the O2, I have to say.

I’m trying to think of a superlative, but I can’t think of one quite lofty enough. It was really brilliant. He played very quietly, which was a way of trying to make the O2 more intimate. Everybody was sort of leaning in, which made for a wonderful atmosphere. I’m not ashamed to say that I cried for a good portion of a couple of the songs – but everybody, even the people in the friends and family box, couldn’t hold their tears for the whole show.

I saw him at Manchester Opera House and there was a sort of soft weeping, going round the room.

Yeah, very square jawed, tough looking guys were crumbling. The ladies went first!

I notice that you’ve covered Roger Miller’s King Of The Road (on the Brokeback Mountain soundtrack). I have to tell you that my partner absolutely cannot listen to that song. He actually has to leave the room, because he finds it incredibly emotionally upsetting, for reasons that I cannot fathom. Have you ever known anyone who’s had a similarly extreme reaction?

No, not to that particular song. That seems as if there are some underlying emotional problems!

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Heavy Trash / PowerSolo – Nottingham Bodega Social Club, Tuesday September 30.

Heavy Trash, New York City, August 2008

Having started as a side project, Jon Spencer’s Heavy Trash seems to have overtaken his Blues Explosion as the main focus of attention. In the four years since the last Blues Explosion release, Spencer and his musical partner Matt Verta-Ray have put out two albums as a duo. Last night at the Bodega, they were joined on stage by the three members of their Danish support band, PowerSolo.

Effectively playing a double set, PowerSolo were the heroes of the night. As the support act, they worked hard to win us over. During the final number, the band’s gangly, goofy front man Kim Kix leapt off the stage, and began to prowl the front ranks of the crowd. Dangling the neck of his guitar well below waist height, he pressed it into service as a kind of musical Geiger counter: provocatively probing his victims, and registering his reactions to hilarious effect.

Both acts specialised in roughed-up versions of Fifties rockabilly, as filtered through Sixties garage rock, Seventies punk rock, Eighties psychobilly and Nineties alt-rock. Shut your eyes, and you could hear echoes of everyone from the forefathers of rock and roll – Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Gene Vincent – through to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, the Count Five, The Stooges, Doctor Feelgood, The Ramones, The Stray Cats, The Cramps and points beyond.

In place of PowerSolo’s more playful approach, Heavy Trash offered a more studied pastiche. His vocals drenched in reverb to the point of incomprehensibility, Spencer in particular seemed locked into character: expertly channelling the spirits of Presley and Vincent, but leaving you wondering how much he had retained of himself, beyond his obvious love of the genre.

Perhaps this was the only sticking point in an otherwise superbly delivered show. For all their raw physicality, and for all their fine musicianship, Heavy Trash never quite connected on an emotional level. They might have stirred our hips, but did they touch our souls?

Photo of Heavy Trash taken in New York City on August 19 2008 by nevbrown and reproduced under a Creative Commons non-commercial attribution license.

Addendum: A somewhat stern assessment, but then I had such a split reaction to the gig. My head and my heart were pretty much unmoved - but, ahem, the hips don't lie.

As a dance band, they were great - and as such I increasingly found myself convulsed in all manner of peculiar Pavlovian twitchings. But in the final analysis, it was still just a touch too retro-reverential for me.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Kevin Ayers - Songs For Insane Times (An Anthology) 1969-1980.

In a fairer world, Kevin Ayers would enjoy the widespread acclaim of a Martyn or a Reed. Had tragedy struck, we would reverently file him next to Barrett and Drake. Instead, Ayers has carved out his own singular, defiantly low-key niche, seemingly destined to remain under the popular radar.

For the uninitiated, this four-disc set offers an expertly chosen overview of the Ayers glory years. The earliest material combines post-psychedelic pastoralism with veiled menace, flitting between nostalgic whimsy and radical experimentation. As the early Seventies progress, the songwriting deepens and matures, its easy tunefulness concealing rich seams of romantic idealism and wry cynicism.

By the mid-Seventies, stardom began to beckon. Unimpressed by its false promises, and temperamentally ill-suited to the rigours of self-promotion, Ayers slowly retreated. Overlooked by all but the committed few, there are still shining nuggets to be mined from the patchier later work, as ably demonstrated here.

A previously unreleased and quite magnificent 1973 concert performance completes the package, showcasing the cult hero at the height of his powers.


(Extended fanboy witterings still to be appended....)

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The Ting Tings – Nottingham Rock City, Wednesday September 24.

Down at the Bodega, 53 minute sets (including encore) are nothing to complain about. Over at the Rescue Rooms, they’re just about acceptable. But at a sold-out Rock City, where over two thousand punters had shelled out £15 per ticket, you couldn’t help feeling a little short-changed.

Then again, when you’ve only got a 35 minute debut album to your name, there’s little to be gained in pointless padding. Ting Tings songs are mostly short and sharp, and on the whole they’re best kept that way. And with pre-recorded backing tracks inevitably playing a large part in the duo’s instrumentation, there wasn’t exactly much scope for spontaneous jamming.

However – and this is very much to the band’s credit – the performance never felt overly constrained by the technology. Stepping confidently into the Deborah Harry/Kim Wilde tradition of Great Pop Blondes, singer and guitarist Katie White maintained a cool, commanding, effortlessly sexy presence: strutting her stuff, but preserving her mystique. Jules De Martino provided solid, unflashy accompaniment on the drum kit, switching to keyboards whenever it was required.

Almost inevitably, the three hit singles – a chugging Great DJ, a funky Shut Up And Let Me Go and a frenzied, climactic That’s Not My Name – proved to be the biggest highlights. Although most of the album tracks were well received, chatter from the only-here-for-the-hits brigade did threaten to drown out the more subdued Traffic Lights.

A fun night out – but also rather a short one.

(Photographs © Nottingham Evening Post 2008, and reproduced with permission.)

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Spiers & Boden – The Maze, Nottingham, Monday September 15.

Spiers & Boden, Newcastle, May 2006

The professional bit:

For anyone impatient to hear more from all-star folk band Bellowhead, the past few days have been a rare treat. Following Thursday’s Playhouse appearance by Benji Kirkpatrick and Paul Sartin as part of Faustus, last night saw the Maze play host to Bellowhead’s key founder members: singer and violinist Jon Boden, backed by John Spiers on melodeon and concertina.

Where Faustus focus on finely balanced three-way counterpoints (*), Spiers and Boden take a more straight-up traditional approach, with Spiers providing a solid, unflashy backdrop to his partner’s resonant vocals and amazing fiddle playing.

Clocking in at over two and a half hours, the duo’s marathon set showcased many numbers from their fifth album Vagabond. As befits its title, these were songs of rebels, wastrels, pirates, beggars… and even a certain Mr. Hood, whose conception and birth in the “good green-wood” provided the subject matter for a fine epic ballad.

Amongst the many splendid jigs, the irresistible Sloe Gin – as recently popularised by Bellowhead and The Imagined Village – made a welcome appearance.

The evening finished with a surprise non-traditional choice from the Tom Waits songbook: a lilting, yearning Innocent When You Dream, which had the crowd softly singing along, almost to themselves.

Photo of Spiers & Boden taken in Newcastle on May 22 2006 by pdcawley and reproduced under a Creative Commons non-commercial attribution license.

The amateur bit:

(*) The eagle-eyed reader will have noticed that this is the third consecutive gig review in which I have used the word "counterpoint". Are counterpoints the new curveballs? Perhaps they are.

(In truth, I filched the observation from K, who described Faustus as "more contrapuntal" and Spiers/Boden as "more chordal". I love it when he talks dirty.)

Boden, it has to be said, looked physically knackered - pasty-faced and red-eyed, in the manner of a new dad who hadn't slept for a few weeks - which made the two and a half hour set all the more remarkable. To further emphasise the already significant height difference between his lanky frame and Spiers' altogether squatter construction, Boden performed on top of a wooden box, which K reckoned was miked up, in order to add resonance to his all-important foot-stamping.

(Faustus were all about the feet, as well. I may be new to the folk scene, but I'm learning fast.)

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The Dodos / Euros Childs – Nottingham Bodega, Sunday September 14.

The Dodos, Groningen, August 2008

The professional bit:

Two years on from the breakup of Gorkys Zygotic Mynci, former leader Euros Childs continues to plough his gently idiosyncratic furrow. Seemingly impervious to the normal aging process, his demeanour remains cheerfully relaxed, and his solo material continues to blend whimsical pastoralism with understated tunefulness.

The Dodos have been steadily gathering critical acclaim since the release of their remarkable second album Visiter. Their music is both brutally primitive and impossibly complex, with drummer Logan Kroeber the undisputed star of the show.

In place of a standard kit, Kroeber pounded out his dizzyingly syncopated rhythms on a semi-circular set of four drums, balancing his breakneck tempo with an extraordinary lightness of touch, and displaying a technical accomplishment which frankly beggared belief. (*)

Over to the left, a seated, floppy-fringed Meric Long added plaintive indie-boy vocals, sometimes using two microphones to build looping effects. His equally unique guitar style combined bottleneck blues and oblique thrash, providing a mesmerising counterpoint to Kroeber’s ceaseless energy.

Meanwhile, Joe Heaner drifted on and off the stage, alternating between an industrial-sized glockenspiel, an ancient miniature organ, a giant cymbal and a vast, ugly-looking metal bucket.

Veering between rapturous applause and stunned silence, the uncommonly attentive audience lapped up every note. (**)

Photo of The Dodos taken in Groningen (Netherlands) on August 29 2008 by Niels ten Have and reproduced under a Creative Commons non-commercial attribution license.

The amateur bit:

(*) In actual fact, his drumming technique repeatedly brought Adam and the Ants to mind, circa Kings of the Wild Frontier, and particularly the intro to Antmusic. Lots of rimshots, and virtually no footwork, save for a tambourine attached to his left foot. Oh, and can we say CUTE? All lean and moustachioed, like a baby-faced Brandon Flowers.

(**) As my friends found out after the show (getting their posters signed while I chatted to Euros about his connection with Kevin Ayers), the band initially mistook our reverential silence for icy indifference. "We thought you weren't into it", they explained. "Then we realised: actually, you were just really into it."

Luckily for us, this lead to them adding an unscripted second encore (despite the drummer making reluctant "tired" signs at the singer, as well he might) - which turned out to be the most spectacular performance of the whole show. How the hell these things even get composed in the first place, I simply have no idea.

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Faustus – Nottingham Playhouse Studio, Thursday September 11.

Faustus, Union Chapel London, May 2008

The professional bit:

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.

Photo of Faustus taken at the Union Chapel in London, May 14 2008 by BohemianCoast and reproduced under a Creative Commons non-commercial attribution license.

The amateur bit:

(*) This was of particular interest, since I ONCE WAS THAT CABIN BOY! 'Twas in the year 1974, and I had been assigned an understudy role to the lead chorister in our school's end-of-term production: The Golden Vanity, a childrens' opera by Benjamin Britten, which is based upon the same story as The Green Willow Tree. (With certain variations as to the exact manner of the plucky cabin boy's watery demise.)

Three or four days before show time, said chorister went down with a nasty case of the measles, and I was duly bumped up to Heroic Male Lead - a role I discharged with great gusto (drama being one of my Big Things at the age of 12, and did I ever tell you about the time I played Mole to Jeremy Clarkson's Toad?), albeit a semi-tone flat throughout (I winced my way through a subsequent classroom playback on the music master's reel-to-reel).

All matters of pitch control aside, my greatest challenge was miming a convincing dive from the deck of my ship (the titular Golden Vanity) into the tempestuous ocean below (as represented by the floor of the school gym), and then battling my way through the waves until I reached the dastardly pirate ship (on the other side of the gym, manned by a bunch of classmates in Marks and Sparks pyjamas with their mothers' scarves tied around their heads). As a confirmed non-swimmer, whose irreducible combination of stubborness and terror had broken the will of a long succcession of swimming teachers down at Doncaster Baths, I lacked all semblance of convincing mime technique. Many hours of coaching ensued, after which I was just about able to muster a vaguely convincing upper body breast stroke.

Following the high drama of my drowning ("And then, and only-then, did the crew-throw-out-a-ROPE!"), the opera climaxed with my re-appearance as a ghostly presence (i.e. standing behind a darkened screen with a gauze-covered, head-shaped hole cut in it, a hand-held torch pointing up at my ghostly chin), forever destined to haunt the ocean waves with my netherworldly wailing:


It was very moving. If half a tone flat.

I nearly told all this to Benji Kirkpatrick during the post-gig Meet And Greet/Retail Opportunity session - but thought better of it, confining myself to a simple "Ooh, I've got all these CDs already, thank you very much, that was great, bye bye!"

Well, one doesn't like to monopolise.

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Friday, August 29, 2008

Sometimes i wake up early in the morning, to play my con-con-congo...

As it has been a quiet week, I have seized the opportunity to dive headlong into the Exciting New Sound that the kids are calling "funky house". It's a little confusing, as the term has been around since the late 1990s - but this stuff is far removed from the shiny-shirted, disco-sampling (and fairly clapped out) genre that periodically surfaces on Hed Kandi compilations. And goodness me, I LOVE IT I LOVE IT I LOVE IT!

The music sounds to me like an update on the UK garage sound of 1999/2000 - but with a more propulsive edge to the rhythms, and a percussive feel that bears some comparison to soca. Some of it is quite song-based and girly, while at the other edge of the spectrum the feel is dirtier, rawer, and distinctly butcher. Predictably, it's the girly, song-based stuff which grabs me most of all - most notably the genre's cheesiest offering to date, "Bongo Jam" by Crazy Cousinz ft. Calista, which I have been playing five or six times a day. This SO has to be a massive hit single.

Indeed, Crazy Cousinz are quite the production team du jour - as evidenced by their gorgeous remix of Paleface ft. Kyla's "Do You Mind", which just grows and grows. Both of these tunes can be found on a handy 26-minute mix from DJ Cable, which serves as an ideal introduction to the genre. To this end, I'd also recommend Tim Finney's impeccably learned overview of the scene, as blogged at Idolator three months ago.

All of this funkiness has led me to investigating the current playlist at BBC 1Xtra, which reveals an absolute wealth of riches, signalling to me (and better late than never) that so-called "urban" music is currently enjoying a significant upswing, after a couple of years of stagnation. YouTube links for virtually the entire playlist can be found here. I particularly recommend Jazmine Sullivan's raw, yearning, reggae-tinged "Need U Bad", Perempay's sultry, smoking "In The Air", the floaty, piano-housey "Falling Again" from Wookie ft Ny, and the more classically soulful "LoveLost" from the long-lost Shola Ama. Ooh, you'll have hours of fun!


Lone - Lemurian.

(I wrote this a while ago for the newspaper - but then their album reviews section was binned for a couple of weeks, so it never saw the light of day. Always good to have somewhere else to park it...)

Having established himself on the UK hip hop scene with Kids In Tracksuits, Nottingham musician Matt Cutler is now branching out on his own, with a fresh, intriguing new take on chilled out electronica. Named after the mythical lost island of Lemuria, and sporting titles such as Atoll Mirrored, Lens Flare Lagoon and Buried Coral Banks, the album successfully evokes images of sun-drenched seascapes, shimmering reefs, and the woozy heat hazes of high summer.

The seventeen short tracks resemble a series of sketches, taking a few simple ideas and developing them without excessive elaboration. Crunchy beats add grit to the sweetness, as does Cutler’s fondness for introducing dissonant effects that sound like samples from heat-warped vinyl or dashboard-baked cassette tape. Although initially disconcerting, there’s something compelling and beautiful about this kind of sonic experimentation. Immediate comparisons with Boards of Canada spring to mind, but Cutler’s added wows and flutters take his music to a whole new place.

A potential landmark release for Nottingham’s Dealmaker label, Lemurian is a bold yet understated treat.


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Monday, August 18, 2008

Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir / Congregation – Nottingham Bodega Social, Wednesday August 13.

There’s something not quite of this time or place about Congregation. While guitarist Benjamin picked out ethereal, Gothic twists on traditional blues figures – occasionally activating a kick drum via a foot pedal for added emphasis – vocalist Victoria maintained a mournful, otherworldly presence, as if beamed straight from a dusty 1920s photo album. The indistinctness of Victoria’s strange, slurred diction – like a Bessie Smith recording that had melted in the August heat – merely added to the mystery.

Victoria and Benjamin declared themselves thrilled to be supporting the Agnostics, and with good reason. Both acts take the blues as their broad base, shaping it into intriguing new forms. In the case of the headliners, a quartet from Calgary that have transplanted so-called “mountain music” from the Appalachians to the Rockies, their music has been informed by Beefheart’s scratchy roughness, the bruised romanticism of Tom Waits, and the energy of good old-fashioned garage rock.

Although frustratingly subdued to start with, the set gradually gained momentum, carrying the increasingly enthusiastic crowd with it. The playing was delightfully loose and instinctive, taking the sparseness of banjo, acoustic guitar and stand-up bass and building something remarkably rich and full upon it.

A dead ringer for Fidel Castro in his prime, bearded, behatted, bespectacled vocalist Judd Palmer saved his coup de grace for the climax, ecstatically riffing on his mouth organ at dizzying speed, as drummer Peter Balkwill pulled out all the stops. It was a suitably thrilling end to a fine display of ensemble playing, from a thoroughly likeable bunch of guys.

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Friday, August 08, 2008

Drive-By Truckers – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Thursday August 7.

If last night’s show was any fair measure, then the audience for Drive-By Truckers – a six-piece alternative country-rock band from Athens, Georgia – divides neatly into two.

For some, the quasi-literary narrative style of the lyrics was the main attraction. Most Truckers songs, whether composed by the shaggy, imposing Patterson Hood, his leaner co-vocalist Mike Cooley, smiling bassist Shonna Tucker or former member Jason Isbell, take the form of carefully crafted mini-dramas, which demand close attention.

Meanwhile, a smaller but more vocal faction was happy to respond on a gut level to the band’s sturdy Southern boogie, and to the exultant drive of their so-called “three axe attack”.

For the first half hour or so, neither tribe were best served by the slightly samey mid-paced chug on offer. Muffled by the mix, the vocals remained impenetrable to all but the most word perfect of diehards – and despite the brilliance of their execution, there was something interchangeable about all those guitar jams.

Just as apathy threatened to set in, the Truckers shifted gear. The harrowing You And Your Crystal Meth dipped the mood to powerful effect, while the suppressed fury of The Righteous Path evoked Neil Young at his most blistering.

The absolute highlight was saved for the encore. Taken from 2001’s much loved breakthrough album Southern Rock Opera (essentially an extended homage to Lynyrd Skynyrd), the compelling Let There Be Rock was played from the heart, both the band and the crowd finally shedding their last vestiges of studious detachment.

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Ten Thousand - Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir.

Listening to this rootsy, rambunctious take on pre-WWII Mississippi Delta blues and Appalachian “mountain music”, you’d never guess that its practitioners hailed from a different set of mountains, several thousand miles northwards. As it turns out, the Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir have transplanted the music of the Deep South up to their native Calgary in Canada, where they have developed their own twists on tradition.

Recorded mostly live, and overdubbed with bursts of slide guitar and dilapidated junk shop trombone, the mostly self-penned songs tend towards the fast and furious, adding an almost punk-rock energy while paying clear nods to Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart. It comes as no surprise that Seasick Steve has already voiced his approval.

This album’s appeal lies less with song craft and emotional range – the mood being uniformly joyous throughout – and more with the sheer pleasure to be had from the band’s playing. On the strength of this hugely enjoyable set, next Wednesday’s show at the Bodega should be well worth catching.


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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

White Denim, Nottingham Bodega, Monday July 7.

Nothing on White Denim’s debut album Workout Holiday could prepare you for the all-out aural onslaught of their stage performance. Quite frankly, you might as well be listening to two different bands. Where the album is measured, focussed, its production erring towards the dry and clinical, the live show is a hard, fast, deliriously messy, no-holds-barred experience. Perhaps there were hints of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in there somewhere, along with a whiff of Kings Of Leon’s raw Southern garage rock.

As we were repeatedly and cheerily reminded, the trio hail from Austin, Texas. At the city’s influential SXSW festival earlier this year, they received the award of Best New Band. The fabled “SXSW buzz” can sometimes be a poisoned chalice, but the band’s exuberant, spontaneous, instinctive energy cut through all the hype in an instant.

Star of the show was drummer Joshua Block, whose intensely complex playing style mesmerised the crowd. It didn’t matter that almost none of the songs sounded familiar; album opener Let’s Talk About It was mangled almost out of recognition. White Denim are all about capturing the moment, and attempting to reproduce it on record seems almost beside the point.

See also: SwissToni's more detailed review of the same show.
"it's not for the cock": another review of the same show (including the support bands which ST and I missed, as we were too busy yakking downstairs).

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Monday, July 07, 2008

Duran Duran, Nottingham Trent FM Arena, Sunday July 6.

Duran Duran, Sydney, April 2008

Acoustically speaking, the Trent FM Arena isn't exactly the easiest of venues. For visiting sound crews, its unforgiving, hangar-like dimensions must present a significant challenge -- but, as last night's show proved, the challenge is not an impossible one. While lesser acts have floundered, their instruments buried in murky sludge, Duran Duran's sound quality was well nigh impeccable, and a tribute to the professionalism of their team.

Bravely, the band opted to open their set with the first three numbers from their most recent album, Red Carpet Massacre. Although the album has under-performed sales-wise, the songs were enthusiastically received, signalling a return to the band's funkier, clubbier roots, and marking a noticeable shift from their more rock-based influences. Perhaps it is no coincidence that guitarist Andy Taylor -- always Duran's biggest rocker -- left the band during the album's early sessions in 2006. His place on stage was filled by an unassuming chap called Dom, who kept his profile low and his solos to a minimum.

As if to emphasise the shift, bassist John Taylor -- still pretty-boy handsome, despite an increasing sartorial resemblance to Keith Richards -- doubled up on additional keyboards, adding a walloping bass-heavy throb to set opener The Valley. Giving him a run for his money in the forty-something heart-throb stakes, Roger Taylor cut a lean, agile figure on the drums, his superb playing placing him at the heart of Duran's revitalised sound. Representing the arty faction, keyboardist Nick Rhodes maintained his usual inscrutable, impassive stance.

And then there was Simon: still playing the rock star, striking every pose in the book, lapping up the limelight and occasionally making a bit of a twit of himself -- but never taking himself too seriously, and clearly still loving every minute. According to Simon, Duran's debut single Planet Earth "is about the fact that we're not alone". Had he been communing with latter-day UFO watcher Robbie Williams, one wondered...

For the crowd, the galvanising moment came early on, as the new songs gave way to a storming version of Hungry Like The Wolf. Suddenly, the entire Arena was on their feet, giving it up and living it large. From that point on, Duran could do no wrong. Even comparatively weaker hits such as A View To A Kill and the more recent (Reach Up For The) Sunrise sounded fantastic, the latter prompting massed arm waving from the front to the back of the hall.

Although the band could easily have played it safe, risks continued to be taken. An hour into the set, in a neat inversion of the increasingly popular "acoustic interlude", a fifteen minute all-electronic set was performed, with the four core members lined up in front of mini-synthesisers, paying homage to electro pioneers Kraftwerk.

Or at least, that was the theory. As it turned out, Simon couldn't rein in those rock star impulses for long. Barely touching his kit, he soon broke rank from the line-up, engaging instead on a sequence of moves which combined 1980s b-boy robotics with some decidedly camp pelvic thrusting. The overall effect was as endearing as it was preposterous.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was when an extended Girls On Film morphed into a cover of The Temptations' Papa Was A Rolling Stone. Considering Duran's somewhat shaky reputation for cover versions (who could forget their bizarre take on Public Enemy's 911 Is A Joke, for instance?), this was another major gamble -- but again, it was a gamble that paid off. "WHO'S YOUR DADDY?!" yelled Simon, over and over again, slapping his breast for emphasis. You had to love him for it. No, really, you did.

Almost two hours in, the set climaxed with an exemplary, spot-on Wild Boys, which played to all the band's collective strengths. The only real error of judgement came during the encore of Rio, which was besmirched by not one, but two, Eighties Jazz Sax solos. (Paying homage to Kraftwerk is one thing, but paying homage to Spandau Ballet's Steve Norman is quite another.) It was the only quibble in an otherwise mighty, masterful and gloriously entertaining night.

Duran Duran, New York, May 2008

Set list:

The Valley, Red Carpet Massacre, Nite Runner, Hungry Like The Wolf, Planet Earth, Falling Down, Come Undone, Skin Divers, The Reflex, Save A Prayer, A View To A Kill.

Electro set: Last Chance On The Stairway/All She Wants Is/Warm Leatherette, I Don't Want Your Love, Skin Trade, Tempted.

Notorious, Girls On Film/Papa Was A Rolling Stone, Ordinary World, (Reach Up For The) Sunrise, The Wild Boys.

Encore: Rio.

(Photos of Duran taken by pj_in_oz and AmandaB3)

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Friday, July 04, 2008

Black Kids, Team Waterpolo – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Wednesday July 2.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a strong, thumping bass line – so long as it is used as a force for good. Faced with support act Team Waterpolo’s brutal subsonic assault, which left you fearing for the stability of your internal organs, you had to question the band’s motives. Was this some sort of revenge for the controversial high-pitched “Mosquito” alarm, this time audible only to the over-25s? It was certainly the only point of interest in their otherwise routine assemblage of spiky, bratty punk-pop postures.

As for Black Kids – a likeably shambling indie-dance five-piece from Florida, with a fresh attitude and a healthy sense of fun – comparisons could be made with CSS’s position in 2006. Both acts have benefited from a blog-generated buzz in the US, catapulting them into the spotlight rather ahead of time. Happily, Black Kids also have enough style, suss, wit and charm to compensate for their technical limitations. Although their short set basically consisted of a dozen or so variations on the same bag of tricks (best summarised by the effervescent I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How To Dance With You), the tricks were effective, and the mostly 1980s influences (The Cure, New Order, B-52s, Talking Heads) were wisely worn.

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Westlife - Nottingham Trent FM Arena, Tuesday June 24.

In just over a week's time, the four members of Westlife will be celebrating their tenth anniversary as a working outfit. In just under a week's time, the last date on their Back Home tour completed, they will be disappearing from public view for a year-long break.

Looking at the band's extraordinary track record over the last decade -- nine hit albums, twenty-three Top Ten singles and no less than fourteen UK chart-toppers -- the break is clearly well deserved. Whereas most boybands have been lucky to make it past the three year mark, Westlife's enduring success, and their transition from teen scream idols to adult contemporary artists, has seen them tearing up the rule books, and taking their place in the record books. It's an astonishing fact, and one which their detractors would rather not face, but only Elvis Presley and The Beatles have had more Number One singles in this country. Clearly, Westlife must be doing something right.

On record, the band's stock in trade is the romantic ballad. Songs typically start quietly, building up to a sturdy, memorable chorus, and ending with a dramatic flourish. To some, the music sticks to a tiresomely unadventurous formula, which has been stretched way too thin. To others, they simply make for pleasant, undemanding easy listening. But to their loyal fanbase, several thousand of whom packed into the Trent FM Arena last night, singing and waving along to almost every word, they are lapped up with the sort of buoyant, infectious enthusiasm that cannot easily be argued with.

Smart enough to realise that an evening of wall-to-wall ballads would soon start to drag, the boys displayed a versatility on stage that could have surprised some of their critics. The show started in an uptempo mood, and never sunk into smoochiness for too long. The trademark stools were almost entirely absent, only appearing during a three-song acoustic section, and the customary dark suits were soon swapped for more casual gear. Time and effort had been spent on the choreography and the staging, with well conceived visual backdrops and some cracking pyrotechnic effects.

Shane's lead vocals sounded weightier and more authoritative then on record, where they sometimes suffer from a certain weediness. A smiling Kian and a more subdued Mark provided solid backing throughout, while Nicky shamelessly milked the crowd for screams, his enjoyment plain for all to see.

Having built the crowd up to fever pitch with a medley of classic pop covers (The Jacksons, Kool and the Gang, Wham, Robbie Williams), the show's only real wobble came during the stripped-down acoustic section, which couldn't help but expose the underlying weakness of some of the songs. A final run of Home, Us Against The World, Swear It Again and Flying Without Wings provided the necessary uplift, with proceedings being briefly halted for an unscheduled marriage proposal. A banner had been spotted in the crowd ("SHANE, ASK ALEX TO MARRY ME PLEASE!"), and the happy couple were duly hauled to the front of the stage, where Alex bashfully accepted her boyfriend's bold romantic gesture.

The best loved hit was saved for last, as the boys re-appeared in matching white suits for You Raise Me Up, the anthemic final encore. Sure, Westlife's music might be conservative and unchallenging -- but the straightforward pleasure that it brought was a joy to behold. As one of their songs puts it: what's wrong with saying it the easy way?

Set list: Hit You With The Real Thing, World Of Our Own, Something Right, What Makes A Man, Uptown Girl, The Easy Way/ABC, If I Let You Go, Mandy, Medley (Sexyback/Blame It On The Boogie/Get Down On It/I'm Your Man/Let Me Entertain You), I'm Already There, Unbreakable, Queen Of My Heart, Fool Again, Catch My Breath, Home, Us Against The World, Swear It Again, Flying Without Wings, When You're Looking Like That, You Raise Me Up.

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The Rascals: Rascalize.

Fresh from his recent chart-topping collaboration with Alex Turner (as the Last Shadow Puppets), Miles Kane has returned to his day job band, for what amounts to his second consecutive debut album. As you might expect from such close kindred spirits, Kane covers similar stylistic ground to Turner’s Arctic Monkeys. The lyrics are wryly observational, the vocals are sardonically Northern, and both bands specialise in the same kind of rattling, rumbling uptempo indie-rock.

That said, there’s more of a late 1950s/early 1960s retro feel to Kane’s outfit, with nods to Link Wray and The Shadows, and copious usage of the whammy bar. And while Alex tends towards hard-bitten cynicism, Miles plays the part of the wide-eyed innocent, “people watching” in cafés (Does Your Husband Know That You’re On The Run?) and chronicling the ramblings of a random nutter at an after-hours party (Freakbeat Phantom).


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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Yazoo, Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Wednesday June 11.

Yazoo, Nottingham, June 11 2008

(Photo taken last night by Sarah, from the front row. View the full set here.)

Yazoo's recording career might have been brief, but it was certainly prolific. Between March 1982 and July 1983, Vince Clarke and Alison Moyet released twenty-five songs, spread over four singles and two albums. Last night at the Royal Concert Hall, twenty-five years after splitting, they performed all but four of them, to a loyal -- not to say patient -- bunch of fans, who greeted them like old friends.

Mindful of their limited visual interest on stage, the duo beefed up their show with a giant neon lighting rig and a series of illustrative back projections: an orbiting planet for Mr Blue, a swinging red light bulb for In My Room, kitsch patterned wallpaper for Goodbye 70s, vintage arcade games for Bad Connection.

In musical terms, a similar beefing-up exercise had taken place. Although Vince Clarke's re-worked backing tracks didn't stray too far from the sparse, stark originals, his re-arrangements lent them a renewed power, making full use of the three-dimensional sound system. During Ode To Boy in particular, the simple synth lines bounced from wall to wall, creating a shimmering mesh of sound.

For Alison Moyet, the tour has been an opportunity to perform some of the later Yazoo songs for the first time, completing what she has described as “unfinished business”. Whether bopping away on the dancier numbers (Situation, Don't Go) or losing herself in the darker ballads (Winter Kills, Midnight), her enthusiasm for the task at hand was infectious.

Highlights for the committed fans included a newly added Walk Away From Love, performed for only the second time. As for the nostalgia brigade, set opener Nobody's Diary and the inevitable final encore Only You ("They used it on The Office Christmas special, I was so happy!" beamed Alison) were greeted with fond smiles of recognition.

Yazoo's live reunion might only be brief, but last night's show proved that their music is timeless.

Set List: Nobody's Diary, Bad Connection, Mr. Blue, Good Times, Tuesday, Ode To Boy, Goodbye 70s, Too Pieces, In My Room, Anyone, I Before E Except After C, Walk Away From Love, State Farm, Sweet Thing, Winter Kills, Midnight, Unmarked, Bring Your Love Down (Didn't I), Situation, Dont Go, Only You.

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Friday, June 06, 2008

Interview: Vince Clarke, Yazoo.

An edited version of this article originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post. This is the extended remix.

Yazoo, Copenhagen, May 2008

Twenty-five years after splitting up, Alison Moyet and Vince Clarke have reunited as Yazoo for a two-month tour of Europe and the USA. Speaking to me in late April from his home in Portland, Maine, Vince Clarke looks back on Yazoo’s brief but remarkable career.

I think Alison described Yazoo’s reunion as completing unfinished business. If that’s the case, then why has the business taken 25 years to complete?

Well, she’s looking at it from a different perspective from me. Alison loves performing live, but she’s never been able to perform half of the songs that we wrote.

Although I knew that Alison was keen to do something, I didn’t really know that I’d have the time to do anything. I was so busy with Erasure. It was only during the last tour that Andy mentioned to me that he’d like to take some time off. So I thought: OK, Alison wants to do this tour and there’s this anniversary, so let’s do it.

How long were Yazoo together as a working proposition?

It was 18 months. Two albums, and one small tour.

And that was supporting the first album, whereas you never toured the second.

That’s correct.

You formed Yazoo very quickly after leaving Depeche Mode. Did you have any pre-conceived ideas for the project, before you hired Alison?

Not really. All I had was a song, which was Only You. I wanted to demo it, and I knew Alison, vaguely. We both come from the same town. The guitarist in her first punk band was – and is – my best friend, so we kind of knew each other, and I knew she had a fantastic voice.

So I just phoned her up and said: look, do you want to demo this song for me? Then I talked to the record company, and it just went from there. We never sat down and had a plan. We did the first single and that did quite well in the charts, and then the record company said: right, why not make an album?

Your background was synth-pop and Alison’s was blues-rock and punk rock, so you were merging two different musical approaches. Did Alison need much persuading as to the joys of the synthesiser?

(Laughs) She told me two weeks ago that she was quite embarrassed about doing the demo. She didn’t tell her friends. The way that she saw it, she would do a demo, which would be a decent recording quality, and then it would be something that she could play to prospective bands, to let them know that she was a good singer.

It was about the same time that some student friends of mine were in a rock band. They went into a studio and recorded a demo, and they played it to a couple of people who said: well we’re not sure about the rock stuff, but there’s this really good track at the end where you’ve got a female singer. So they had to explain: er, no, that’s Yazoo’s Only You. It just happened to be on the end of the cassette.

(Laughs long and hard)

Yazoo, Copenhagen, May 2008

People forget that what Yazoo were attempting had never really been done before. The synth-pop gods at the time were Kraftwerk and Berlin-era Bowie, and there was an awful lot of Alienated Urban Robot music going around. Did you feel on a mission to prove that synthesiser music could express warmer, more recognisably soulful emotions?

I think I was on more of a mission to produce good songs. It just so happens that I used synthesisers. It’s my tool. If I was a really good guitarist, then I’d probably be writing for a rock band. I wanted a voice that could express emotion, and make the songs come alive. It wasn’t like I sat down and cynically thought: right, synthesiser music, bluesy voice, that’s something different. I was just looking for a really good singer.

It’s tempting to theorise about the reasons why you might have felt frustrated with your previous band, Depeche Mode. Maybe you were coming at things from more of a classic pop approach, whereas the other band members had a hankering to get edgy and industrial. Was Yazoo a chance to further those ambitions?

I think it was a chance to perhaps write more expressive songs. And maybe more romantic.

You did seem to catch a moment. Were you at all aware of the link between what you were doing in the UK and what the early hip hop acts were doing in the US, where they were merging American soulful influences with European electronica in a similar way?

I don’t think so. Alison was saying the other week that we never actually played each other records whilst we were recording. We never really talked about music. We weren’t friends when we made those records. We didn’t have a real relationship. We lacked the skills of communication. So that’s why the group didn’t last.

And that’s precisely why Erasure have lasted, of course.

Yeah, we were 21 and I think we were a bit paranoid. In the course of being together, we never went out for a drink and we never did anything social. We just did the work. Because we weren’t able to express any problems that might have arisen with each other, that’s when it all went pear-shaped. I was pretty good at working with synthesisers and using a mixing desk, but I had no idea how to talk to people.

Yazoo, Copenhagen, May 2008

I have been immersing myself in Yazoo back catalogue this week, and it has been an interesting experience, hearing some of the songs for the first time in 20 years or so. What struck you when you sat down and listened to the tracks again?

Well, I’m the same; I hadn’t listened to the songs in ages. I’m just amazed at how sparse they are. Looking back, I think the reason why they sound like they do is because everything was new to us. We didn’t feel that we had to fiddle with the tracks and add frilly bits. We made a decent snare sound, which was fantastically reverbed (laughs), but that was great, you know! To us that sounded really impressive, because we’d never heard that before; it was all new.

Unfortunately, what happens as you get older is that your songwriting starts filling those spaces. So it’s almost impossible to go back and make a simple record like that again, I think.

I think that’s part of the joy of the first album (Upstairs At Eric’s), actually. There’s a sense that you’re making things up as you go along, and there’s quite a bit of overt experimentalism, such as the little snatches of studio dialogue that appear. But after that, you kind of smoothed things out, and you followed a more classic direction. With the first album, was there a sense that you were getting that “mucking around” aspect out of your system?

Well, there was definitely a lot of mucking around and experimenting in the studio. We were working with such a fantastic producer, Eric Radcliffe, who was just totally open to all kinds of ideas. I was so full of questions – like what would happen if we did this, and what would happen if we spliced this piece of tape with this – and I learned a tremendous amount from him. We had the freedom to do that, and so a lot of the material was written on the go, as we were in the studio.

I think of Eric Radcliffe as the unsung third member of Yazoo, if you like. Would that be over-stating it?

No, I think that sounds very true.

What happened to him?

He carried on with the studio. But everybody’s got studios at home now, so the business didn’t last as long as it should have done.

There was a side to your music which was very club-friendly. Situation and State Farm were big club tracks at the time, for instance. Was that a happy accident, or were you intentionally designing tracks like Situation to work in a club environment?

We both enjoyed recording dance tracks, but again we didn’t sit down and talk about it, you know? Situation was on the B-side of Only You, and then it was remixed for America, and did quite well in the clubs in the States. But it’s not like we were going to clubs and finding out what was happening; we were just doing it.

So that side of things took on a life of its own, really.

I think so, yeah.

(with sarcasm) It must have been a great thrill for you both when Alison’s laugh on Situation was sampled on the Macarena. Did you get any royalties on that?

No, no. I’ve think I’ve heard her laugh on more records than anything. It’s incredible, it appears everywhere.

Yazoo, Copenhagen, May 2008

It also struck me, when I was listening to the songs, that Alison’s voice was much wilder and rawer in those days. In more recent years her voice has matured, and it has developed a kind of comparative restraint – so it’s expressive in a different way. I guess you’ve already been rehearsing the tour, so has there been a process of finding a way back into those old songs, but from an older perspective?

Well, actually we haven’t started rehearsing yet. Not until a couple of weeks’ time [i.e. early May]. All that’s been happening is that I’ve been preparing the stuff for the tour. I’ve got all the multi-tracks here, and I’ve been sort of taking them apart, analysing them and trying to put them in time and in tune. (Laughs)

When we play the songs live, my intention is to try and keep them as authentic as possible. I don’t want to start making them up to date or anything, because it’s not like we’ve played these songs over and over again. It will be the first time that some of these songs are heard live. First and last probably, you know? So I think people would want to hear them as they were.

You were actually quite cantankerous, in that you announced your split before the release of the second album. Is that right?

I guess so. I mean, I don’t remember.

It wouldn’t be allowed these days. You’d be screwing up the marketing campaign. Were you aware of being put under any pressure to stay together for the sake of the children, the “children” being the new songs on You And Me Both?

No, there wasn’t really any pressure. The guy who ran the record company, Daniel Miller, was busy with Depeche Mode anyway at the time. It wasn’t like there was a huge organisation or anything like that. It was a small independent record company, and they were as supportive as they could be. But they certainly didn’t start begging us to stay together to sell more records.

Yazoo, Copenhagen, May 2008

How did Yazoo end? Was it an amicable mutual decision, or was there some great big drama, or a big flashpoint?

There was no drama as such. I think it was just a building up of tension. We were unable to talk to each other, and so that tension grew to be unbearable.

Perhaps that creative tension between your two backgrounds got too much, and so the centre couldn’t hold, in a sense?

Possibly. I think it was more to do, like I say, with the fact that we weren’t really close, and friends. Had we gone out a few times and got drunk together, we would probably have lasted a bit longer.

I remember reading that there was a bit of an argy-bargy about the song Happy People. Alison refused to sing it, so you sang it instead. Is that your only recorded instance of a lead vocal?

(Firmly) It’s my first and last.

And will you be treating us to a rendition on the tour?

No, I don’t think so. (Laughs)

I thought that would be one of the two least likely songs, along with I Before E Except After C. Are you going to be attempting that one?

We might do something with that track again. (*) I heard a really interesting remix of it, actually. But we’ll see. As I say, we start rehearsals in a couple of weeks’ time, and that’s when we’ll really sit down and decide what we’re going to do.

In terms of staging, are we going to have dancers and exciting sets and stuff like that, or is it going to be more of a stripped down approach?

It’s going to be just myself and Alison, but we are going to have lots of sci-fi effects on stage. On the first tour that we did, or rather the only tour that we did, we were back projecting onto a screen, and so we’ve kind of updated that idea. There will be lots of video and film, and all kinds of images going on, so plenty to look at! (Laughs)

Are you going to be dusting down that Andy Warhol fright wig that you wore on the last Erasure tour?

I’m attempting to re-grow my quiff, but it’s coming mostly out of my ears at the moment. (Laughter)

How much time have you and Alison actually spent together in the same physical place? Or has this all been arranged remotely?

Well, we actually got together two weeks ago in the UK [i.e. mid-April], for the first time in fifteen years. So… that was quite… weird. I’ve seen her a couple of times: I saw her at my best friend’s wedding, and I saw her perform live on her acoustic tour. But as I say, that was fifteen years ago.

Obviously we had all kinds of stuff to talk about: finding out who’s married who, and who’s working where, and all that sort of stuff. She had a lot of people that we both knew. So it was very nice, and very calm.

It’s great that you got Andy’s blessing for the project, because it strikes me as a little bit like leaving your long-term partner to go off on a date with an old flame you found on Friends Reunited.

I wouldn’t have considered doing this tour if Andy hadn’t given his support. You know, my life is Erasure; I’ve been working with Andy for twenty years. It’s the most important musical relationship I have. I would hate to do anything to jeopardise that relationship.

So it’s a finite project, and there’s no question of getting back in the studio or anything like that. Is that completely ruled out?

Yeah, we’re not going to be recording again. We have discussed the idea of maybe sitting down and writing some songs, which would be nice to do in the tour, but we’ve got no plans. (**)

Last time we talked, I was asking about what music you were listening to, and you were kind of stuck with The Wiggles. Has your son moved on in his musical tastes?

He has, actually. We’ve started downloading glam rock from iTunes; it’s his new thing.

Oh, that’s all right. It could have been Hannah Montana; you could have got really unlucky.

He likes something with a beat, so Sweet, T.Rex, that kind of stuff. So we enjoy that. We usually have it on a Saturday night…

Photos of Yazoo taken in Copenhagen, May 26 2008 by awahlbom and reproduced under a Creative Commons non-commercial attribution license.

(*) Indeed he has; I Before E Except After C is "performed" on the tour (after a fashion).

(**) This didn't happen; the set list is back catalogue only.

See also (1): My interviews with Alison Moyet (January 2008), Vince Clarke (June 2007) and Andy Bell (September 2007).
See also (2): The Herald's review of Yazoo at Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow.

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Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Rascals – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Wednesday June 4.

With The Rascals, it’s all about the whammy bar. For those who still nurture a fondness for the likes of Link Wray, The Ventures or Johnny Kidd & The Pirates, Miles Kane’s tremolo-laden playing comes as a rare treat. And for those whose memories don’t stretch back further than the first Arctic Monkeys album, The Rascals make an effective, accessible substitute for Alex Turner’s seldom-seen gang.

OK, so the vocal similarities between Messrs Kane and Turner are inescapable – in which case it’s only fitting that they have become close friends, collaborating on the recent chart-topper from the Last Shadow Puppets. But once that particular hurdle has been crossed, The Rascals have much to commend themselves in their own right.

Last night’s set formed an effective showcase for the forthcoming debut album Rascalize: a tidy, spirited collection of observational vignettes, which sees Miles indulging his fondness for people watching. The ominous rumble of Does Your Husband Know You Are On The Run played to all their strengths, as did spiky new single Freakbeat Phantom. The playing was immaculate, the crowd were attentive, and all the elements were in place for a major breakthrough during the festival season.

A great little band. Now watch them go.

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The Futureheads – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Tuesday June 3.

For Sunderland four-piece The Futureheads, the next few weeks could well be make or break time. Bloodied but unbowed by the cool reception afforded to their second album, the band have re-grouped their energies, bouncing back with a notably stronger follow-up, This Is Not The World. The new album has charted respectably after its first week in the shops, but there is still much ground to be reclaimed if they are to return to the glory days of 2005.

The band’s undeniably impressive strengths were much in evidence at the Rescue Rooms last night. The tight, taut, economic playing displayed a remarkable cohesion and unity of purpose. The riffs were razor sharp, the songs were clear and concise, and the characteristic vocal interplay was strong and punchy. Set opener Decent Days And Nights sounded as fresh as it did four years ago, and their bold reworking of Kate Bush’s Hounds Of Love remained a buoyant, boisterous delight.

Nevertheless, you couldn’t help feeling that they have stayed too long within their comfort zone. Yes, recent single The Beginning Of The Twist might be the best thing they’ve done in ages – but none of the new material represented any noticeable development from what has become a dangerously restrictive template. There were no real changes of pace, no variations in mood, no light and shade, and ultimately no sense of any risks being taken.

The Futureheads still have it in them to be so much more than this, but is time running out?

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Saturday, May 31, 2008

Liza Minnelli, Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Friday May 30.

"Do you notice anything different about me?" asked Liza Minnelli after her third number, sucking in her cheeks and pouting for comic effect. Having recently shed 44 pounds in weight (apparently thanks to a diet program that she had seen advertised on television), the 62-year old diva looked in amazing shape: trim, toned, in radiant good health, and (as we were to discover during the second half) sporting a pair of legs that would have graced a woman half her age.

But it wasn't only Liza's outward appearance which confounded expectations. Not quite knowing what to expect from someone with such a chequered history and such an erratic track record, many of us had come prepared to make allowances for whatever eccentricities might be in store. As it turned out, we had no need to worry at all.

From the first number (a splendid rendition of Teach Me Tonight) to the final encore (a spellbinding I'll Be Seeing You, performed a cappella), Liza was in full control of her voice, her performance and her audience. Every note was hit; every mark was struck; every nuance was attended to.

This was no booze-addled, pill-popping, delusional spent force, hamming it up and trading on past glories. Instead, what we witnessed was a bravura performance from a consummate artiste, miraculously restored to the height of her powers.

As was explained during a recent interview, Liza's preferred interpretive technique is to inhabit a different character for each song: a "method acting breakdown", as she called it. During the first half in particular, we saw this technique in full effect.

For George Gershwin's The Man I Love, Minnelli's lovelorn yearning was underpinned by a self-mocking wryness, as was only appropriate for a woman four times divorced. Taking an opposite stance, I'm Living Alone And I Like It was sung in the character of a feisty old lady dressed from head to toe in maroon, whom the singer had once met on a New York street corner. For My Own Best Friend (from the musical Chicago), Minnelli transformed into Roxie Hart: on trial for murder, and converting her fear into defiance. And for Cabaret, she once again assumed her Oscar-winning role as Sally Bowles in the film of the same name: laughing in the face of misfortune, with a survivor's resolve to continue living life to the full.

The bulk of the show's second half was given over to an extended tribute to Liza's late godmother Kay Thompson: a key figure in the history of Hollywood, who had given vocal coaching to the likes of Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, and Liza's own mother Judy Garland. Given that Thompson is a considerably lesser known figure in this country, this was a section that could easily have flopped. Instead, the lively, full-throttle recreation of her celebrated nightclub act, accompanied by a quartet of song-and-dance boys (The Williams Brothers), swept us up with its sheer energy, successfully evoking the spirit of a lost golden age.

As the two and a half hour show progressed, the standing ovations grew ever more frequent: starting with Maybe This Time in the first half, and climaxing with Minnelli's signature tune New York, New York in the second half. (By this stage, the cheers were erupting even as the song progressed.) Liza rode these waves of adulation in the manner of someone whose stardom is written in their very DNA.

Let there be no doubt about it: this was a truly exceptional show, which will be remembered for years to come by all who witnessed it.

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Friday, May 30, 2008

Interview: Miles Kane (The Rascals, The Last Shadow Puppets).

An edited version of this article originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.

Miles Kane, March 2008

You’re in an interesting position right now, because your side project album [as the Last Shadow Puppets] has topped the album charts before your debut album [with The Rascals] has even come out. When you and Alex Turner [Arctic Monkeys] sat down last year to plan the Last Shadow Puppets project, did you have any idea that it would be this successful?

No, not at all. We wanted to make it because we were enjoying writing tunes together. We didn’t know how it would turn out, and we didn’t even know whether it would get put out. Obviously we’re made up with the success that it’s had. I suppose that I’m lucky to be able to put two records out in the space of a couple of months, which I feel passionate about.

It’s great when artists get the chance to bang some records out in quick succession. We don’t get enough of that.

Yeah, definitely. The Rascals album is darker and rawer. It’s not dead polished, but that’s exactly what we wanted. We needed to get that out of our systems, from being frustrated in our previous band The Little Flames. It’s an album of ideas and experimentation, and I think of it as an album of release.

I’m glad that it’s captured us at those early stages – which no one does, because everything’s so safe, and everyone these days has that one single which gets w**ked all over the radio. We wanted to make a cooler album, that people will look back on and think: wow, they were mad bastards then. I think it’s better in the long run.

Something you have in common with Alex is that you’re very much wordsmiths. Where do you get your lyrical inspiration from?

On this album, I suppose it’s all about things that have happened to me, and taking a dark twist on them. There’s a song on there called People Watching, and I do like that. I like to go to the café, get my little notepad out, gaze out of the window, have a coffee and write down stuff.

A lot of the songs are about girls. Stockings To Suit is about a girl who’s going round a couple of the clubs in Liverpool. She’s a bit of slag and that, but she’s dead fit, and she’s ripping through lads. It’s what a lad would usually be like, shagging loads of birds - but it’s like the other way round. And then she comes down to you, and then you’re like: oh no, I can’t do that! But then she just gets you, and you’re just like: f**k it, I’ll do it – but you get had off by her, sort of thing.

I like the song title Does Your Husband Know That You’re On The Run. There’s a whole drama suggested just in that title, but how could anyone’s husband not know that his wife was on the run?

(Laughs) I was in London, and again I was in a bar/café, just sitting there having some lunch. There were two women chatting next to me, and one was saying (adopts high pitched voice and London accent) “I’ve left my husband, but he doesn’t know. He can’t find me, and he’s been trying to phone all my friends.” I wrote down the title in my book, and took it from there.

The new single Freakbeat Phantom strikes me as another observational song. Who is this character, that’s “psychotic” and “bionic”?

I went to this party once in Liverpool, after a night out, which was going on until five in the morning. It was a bit out of town and I hadn’t been there before; it was a stranger’s house. Everyone was getting off their heads, and I was just watching.

This fella just wandered into the house. He was on crutches, he had a backpack on, and he was just weird. There was obviously something wrong with him. Nobody knew who he was. There was all these people sitting on the table, and he sat down and started telling all these weird tales, trying to freak everyone out.

I was sat at the back, and on my phone I wrote “the freakbeat phantom”, as the name for this character. When I sing “I’m holding on”, it’s because he was doing my head in and I couldn’t get home, but I wanted to be home.

So I wrote that about this character “resting himself on his crutches”, telling “suspicious stories which are fake”. And everyone was laughing at him, so “laughter was going around in a stranger’s house”. It was the story of that night, really.

There’s a song called Fear Invicted Into The Perfect Stranger, where you seem to have invented a new word. I can’t find “invicted” in the dictionary, so what does it mean?

(Laughs) I did make that up! I suppose it should be “inflicted”, but I didn’t want to say “inflicted”. I like “invicted”, as in “put on you”, if you know what I mean.

How do you mean?

Like, the fear’s put on you. Or like, someone’s put the fear on you. Or putting it on you.

Well, when it gets into the Oxford English Dictionary in two years’ time, they’ll cite that as the first usage.

(Laughs) I’m glad you picked up on that!

Miles Kane, March 2008

Musically speaking, there’s a use of echo and tremolo throughout which reminds me of early Sixties guitar pop, just after rock and roll and just before The Beatles. I’m thinking of people like The Shadows, The Ventures, Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. Have you taken inspiration from these people, or am I just giving away my age?

As a guitarist, that’s what I’ve always been into. A few years ago, I was shown this fellow called Link Wray. Instead of like doing leads like noodling, his style all kind of slides up, and his sound is all reverb. Once I heard that, I knew that was what I wanted to sound like. I use a lot of whammy bar on my guitar, and I do love that reverb sound. It’s something that I want to do more of.

There’s also something of a cinematic feel, and even a track called Bond Girl. Do you see your songs as miniature movie soundtracks?

I think Freakbeat’s got a bit of a Bond-like chord progression. I love that sound, and I’d love to do a Bond tune one day. I love all the early Bond films, and even the early Steve McQueen films: the look of them, the way they dressed, and the music.

You’ve combined lightness and darkness on the album, I think. There’s humour, and the same time there’s menace. Was that the idea?

Yeah, I think the humour comes out because even though the music is quite dark, we’re so not dark. We’re like three best mates that laugh every day, all day.

I think that a big inspiration, and this is a mad one, was watching a DVD about the making of John Lennon’s Imagine album. It shows him doing a live take of the song Gimme Some Truth, and the way it’s sung is really spat out and venomous.

There’s a song on our album called I’ll Give You Sympathy, which will be our next single. It’s about going out and having bladdered Scouse fellas spitting in your ear and giving you their opinions: Listen lad, what are you doing, being in a band? So the lyrics are “When you spit in my face, you’re wearing yourself out as well as me. All you want is more!” That was definitely inspired by that Lennon tune.

Whereas the Last Shadow Puppets used orchestral overdubs, with The Rascals it’s much more of a live sound. How long did it take to nail the performances?

With some of the newest tunes, like People Watching and The Glorified Collector, we sort of worked them out in the studio. We messed about with the rhythms, and how fast or slow we’d want them to be. So they took longer. People Watching was about twenty-five takes. By the end of it, I was like (makes exhausted heavy breathing noises), and then I had to do all the overdubs and vocals. That was a long day.

Rehearsing that intensely in the studio must really help you develop your chops as a live act.

Yeah, lately I feel like we’ve improved so much. I feel like we’re a proper amazing live band now, in terms of not just bashing out tune after tune. We’ve worked out a set which is dead atmospheric. In certain tunes we jam them out, and then drop them right down to dead quiet playing. It’s a bit like Queens of the Stone Age, if you’ve ever seen them live.

We end on this tune called Is It Too Late, which was on our first EP. At the end, we bring it down to dead silence, and then just the vocal on its own, and then it all comes back in on the last ending. Stuff like that live works so well, and no one does that these days.

Photos of Miles Kane taken at SXSW, March 2008 by The Current Online and littleamandie, and reproduced under a Creative Commons non-commercial attribution license.

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Public Enemy, Nottingham Rock City, Wednesday May 28.

Here in "Nudding Ham", we've grown used to visiting American acts telling us that we're a "special audience". In the case of veteran hip-hoppers Public Enemy, there's a distinct truth behind the sentiment.

Back in the autumn of 1987, the band played a seminal gig at Rock City, which saw them debuting their classic Bring The Noise to wild -- and unexpected -- acclaim. Two decades later, the same song opened a set which was largely given over to a full reconstruction of their most celebrated album, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back.

With founder member Professor Griff unable to leave the US due to passport problems, Chuck D and Flavor Flav had more work to do than ever. Although the comforts of middle age might have blunted some of their youthful anger (barring the occasional swipe at Bush and Blair, and even a vicious, unrepeatable crack at "Queen Elizabitch" of which Mohammed Al Fayed would have been proud), their energy levels remained impressively high. Riffing off each other in time-honoured fashion -- the preacher and the party animal, the sage and the fool -- their delivery was crisp and sharp, hitting every mark with absolute precision.

This being the last night of the tour, the band invited their production team -- Hank and Keith Shocklee, aka The Bomb Squad -- onto the stage, in order to explain some of the musical thinking behind their groundbreaking masterpiece. Although this broke some of the early momentum, nothing could stop the crowd once Side Two of the album kicked in. (As the Shocklee brothers explained, it was originally conceived as Side One, before a last minute switch was made.)

She Watch Channel Zero got the fists pumping; Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos got us chanting along with its memorable opening lines; and when the delirious squall of Rebel Without A Pause dropped, the venue all but exploded.

The album's final track dispensed with, the band launched into a lengthy greatest hits set, climaxing with a fierce, galvanising Fight The Power. Nearly two and a half hours after taking to the stage, Flavor Flav had to be virtually dragged off it.

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Friday, May 23, 2008

Interview: Chuck D, Public Enemy.

An edited version of this article originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.

Chuck D, Minneapolis, April 2008

On this tour, you’ll be performing your 1988 album It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back in full. What made you decide to return to it?

Well, it’s the twenty year anniversary, but I think this happens to be more of a promoter’s dream, to commemorate the album. So therefore it’s a challenge, because from Minute One, this album showed the world that hip hop was global. The minute the album opens up, you hear Dave Pearce talking about London. It was really rap’s first live album, as well as being all those other things that people call it.

It has also found its way into quite a few of those “Best Album of All Time” lists that magazines like to compile. Why has it had such a lasting impact?

I think it was the first album that really signified that rap music was an album-oriented format. Run DMC and Whodini and the Beastie Boys had successful albums as well, but they had built their following with singles, and Public Enemy was really like the first rap group to come out with album concepts. We looked upon making the album as being like a sonic explanation of what we were all about, and where we came from, and what this genre was all about, and how could it actually persevere.

It is strange to see such a challenging, radical, and at times threatening album sitting in lists of typical middle-aged favourites such as The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen and Elton John. Is that an inevitable consequence of the passing of time, which tends to neutralise everything?

No, I don’t think it’s strange at all. When the Rolling Stones first came out, it was like, what is this? Then as time goes on, those genres mature. I think that rap has matured, but also there’s still a sense of being unstructured and undisciplined, which holds us back. So we want people to look at Three Feet High And Rising by De La Soul, or Illmatic by Nas, or at anything by KRS-One, as strong pieces of art and culture. It’s like how you’d look at Jim Morrison and The Doors.

That album was supposed to represent an energy at the time. We made the album faster, we made it stronger, and we made it almost like a rollercoaster ride. We got you on the edge of your seat. I mean, that was our sonic standout from the rest of the pack. The only way we could exist is that we had to stand out, by being stronger, faster, more.

Chuck D, California, February 2008

There was a defining moment for a lot of us here in Nottingham, when you played that legendary gig at Rock City in late 1987.

It was where we debuted Bring The Noise. I remember it very clearly, almost like yesterday. We’ve played there since, but that first time we were just kind of feeling it out.

Although you were bottom of the bill [to LL Cool J and Eric B & Rakim], you also created the biggest impact.

We looked at it differently. We looked at it as being the top of the bill. Opening up was almost like an opportunity to go and seize our audience, like being in the boxing ring and taking the first shot.

The show was promoted jointly as a hip hop/house music event. I think you came on straight after a house DJ, which just seems weird in retrospect.

Yeah, but also I remember that the whistles were ringing by the time we got up, so it was something to look forward to.

In terms of what was happening with hip hop at that stage, we saw two different directions that day. LL Cool J had just had a hit with I Need Love, but he had dropped it from the tour as he was getting a bad reaction.

It wasn’t LL’s fault, because that had a tremendous reaction in the United States. One revealing thing about that tour was that we were entirely in a different place, with a different sense of what hip hop was. It was the first time that internationality had figured in. After LL and Eric B & Rakim had played in front of tens of thousands in the United States, it was like: well, how are we going to treat this area, where you’re not going to have the same luxuries of home. We didn’t have any luxuries in our first year, and that was our first time out, so we had nothing to lose. We just let it all hang out.

We didn’t see it coming at all in 1987, but hip hop has gone on to be possibly the dominant musical genre on the planet, in terms of commercial success. But maybe there has been a price to pay for that success. Has something been lost along the way?

Hip hop is at a point that maybe it’s been for the last two to five years, in that people are kinda waiting for something to pop up. And I don’t know what to tell you. I would like it to happen, but it has to happen on its own terms. And it will fix itself along the line, in one way or another.

It’s good that you have faith that it will.

Well, I mean, bottom line is that it’s a great genre. You can put a lot of words in. And the more that we’re going into a crossroads of the world, where uncertainty is high and people are trying to figure out how to hold onto their heads as well as their pockets, then people want to go out and be entertained.

There’s being entertained, and there’s being educated.

Yeah, and there’s ways that you can do both. Even if you’re being entertained the wrong way, you’re getting an education. (Laughs)

Chuck D, California, February 2008

We’ve also reached the stage where US hip hop artists can headline the main stage at Glastonbury, which is still seen as our leading outdoor rock festival.

Who’s headlining, Kanye West or somebody?

You’d think! But they’ve gone with Jay-Z. Do you think he’s a good choice?

I think Jay-Z can handle it now. He was a slow learner, as far as being a performer is concerned, but I think now he’s really starting to like it, and to get it under his belt.

There’s been a lot of debate about whether it’s going to work or not. There’s only one way to find out.

We’ll see. Kanye West to me, he’s the Elton John of rap. (Laughs)

Kanye West would have made perfect sense for that particular crowd.

I don’t know, I think I’ll rep for Jay-Z. But I’ve always had a problem seeing one person anyway. Or maybe I’m spoiled by people like LL and Big Daddy Kane.

Another thing I remember about that 87 show was the mixed, multi-racial audience. Did your audience ever change in that respect over the years?

It’s mixed. It varies from place to place, but I’ve always thought that most of the UK was white anyway. You’ve got to understand the culture shock, coming from the United States and playing in front of 15,000 predominantly black kids, to like a half-and-half crowd of 5000 or whatever. It told me that the UK was still predominantly white.

Yeah, but we also have a strong multi-cultural musical heritage over here, which we take some pride in.

Yeah, but when you ask me about crowd make-up, the make-up is dependent on the mix of the people that you’re visiting.

Have any British acts caught your attention recently?

I don’t really listen to the radio, but I always read about people like Dizzee Rascal in magazines. Of course we’ve got all the Amy Winehouse news. Her crew [The Dap Kings] is a Brooklyn band.

Chuck D, California, February 2008

I remember buying You’re Gonna Get Yours on import; it was the only way to hear Rebel Without A Pause, which was on the B-side. As a club DJ at the time, I’m sorry to say that I didn’t dare play Rebel Without A Pause. It sounded so extreme, and I didn’t think my crowd were going to take it. How did you come up with the idea of looping that screeching JB’s sample all the way through? Did it feel like you were taking a risk?

It wasn’t looping; we actually played it. Some things were looped, but it was an orchestrated record that built on aspects of what we did with the so-called “loop that will blow your head off”. We just wanted to bring the noise. We wanted to be as irritating as possible. We knew that the ones who weren’t irritated, that was our crowd. And the ones that were, we were like, f**k ‘em.

There’s a section in the middle of Caught, Can We Get A Witness where you all ask each other “Do you think we’re gonna sell out?”, and then you promise that you won’t. Did that promise come true?

Yes. I think there are stages where people might consider us capitulating here and there. But I guess that’s life, right? For example, people might consider it a sell-out if you’re not touring all the time. They’ll say, oh man, you don’t need to be with your family, you need to tour! (Laughs) You don’t need to raise your kids, you need to be on hand and respect your fans. So you’ve got to beware of anyone laying things on you.

I think your fans have got to learn some boundaries at some stage! (Laughter)

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Interview: Nomi from Hercules and Love Affair

An edited version of this article originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.

Nomi of Hercules & Love Affair

I know that Hercules and Love Affair is basically the brainchild of Andrew Butler, so when did you first get involved with the project?

I got involved more than a year ago. I came in towards the end of the making of the record, as they were mixing and putting some final touches. I just came in for two songs and punched it out in the studio.

How did you and Andrew first meet?

I met Andy through Antony [Hegarty, of Antony and the Johnsons]. I’ve been friends with Antony for a while, and I knew Antony was friends with Andy. I’d always see Andy whenever I visited Antony, and Antony suggested we work together. So we did it just for fun at first, to see what would happen. It worked so well for us, that it made sense to work together on the record.

Is the music that Hercules does very different in style from your solo material?

My solo stuff is a little more downbeat. More gritty, more urban and street. These are very different tempos and melodies for me. It’s extending my experience, so I’m learning a lot.

Do you share Andrew’s enthusiasms for disco and for late 1980s house music? Is that all part of your heritage?

Actually, no. I never listened to disco, really. It’s strange, but when I listen to the record, it relates to me just as a modern, futuristic, mainstream electronic pop record. I don’t have those references in my head, so I can’t really refer to it as disco. So the way it registers in my ears is just as some new kind of pop.

I’d agree with you. Whenever we hear things for the first time, we’re always keen to find the influences – but the longer we listen, the less the influences matter. And I do think he’s created something quite new. So do you now consider yourself a full time member of the band?

I’m a guest vocalist, and I’m sure there will be many guests. I’m here as long as I’m wanted, and I love being a part of it. We have a great show and we have great chemistry, so I’m in for the ride, for as long as it works.

How many of you are there now?

There’s eight in total. Andy sings some of the songs as well, but the main singers are me and Kim Ann. We’re sharing vocal duties on the songs.

On the album, you sing on Hercules’ Theme and You Belong, and then there are four numbers that Antony sings. We know that he’s not going to be touring with you, so which of the tracks are you taking over?

I’m singing lead vocals on Blind. Yeah, I’m excited. I love to sing Blind, it’s my favourite.

Although you’re a very different performer to Antony, I think you have certain things in common. You both have a certain emotional intensity, I guess. Are they difficult shoes to fill?

Yeah, they’re very difficult shoes to fill. But it’s such an amazing song that it kind of stands alone, so I’m lucky to have that. I drop in the same place that Antony drops, and we’re both very emotional singers, so we can really sing it and put our heart in it. I really feel that I mean it in the same way that Antony does on the record, so in that way it’s similar.

Have you worked directly with Antony yourself?

I’ve toured with Antony and we’ve actually recorded a song. I love Antony. Antony is someone I can admire and look up to. He helps to guide me in the right direction.

It was a surprise for us to hear him suddenly transformed into a disco diva, if you like. Is that a part of his character that we just didn’t happen to know about before?

Antony is just a genius. Antony can do anything! (Laughs) Anything that makes sense, and that comes from an honest emotional place, Antony can relate to. Antony says it’s the spirit.

Nomi of Hercules & Love Affair

You’ve also toured with Cocorosie, who played Nottingham last year. How was that experience?

I learned so much more, on a whole different level. There was a lot of improvising, which really opens you up as an artist, and as a performer. You’re onstage, and you’re doing it as it comes. You’re so in the moment, which is really so good for the soul.

That’s what was so fascinating about their show. To begin with, I thought: oh, they haven’t rehearsed properly, it’s too random, they don’t know what they’re doing. Then as the show went on, I thought: I’ve got that wrong, there’s a real attention to detail.

Sometimes it starts off, and it’s a little rough. That’s because we’re trying to get into that one moment, which happens towards the middle. It’s like: wow, this is it, we’re really here, we’re present.

You’ve also collaborated with Deborah Harry. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

She was working on a remix to a song from her Necessary Evil album. Her producer had heard me. I did this show where I was rapping, and she really loved the way my voice sounded when I was doing this kind of hip-hop slangy rap. So she had this idea for me to do this rap song, and Deborah was kinda like the girl singing the hook. It’s a really amazing song; I’m really excited to put that out in the future.

In the UK, we hear a lot about a Brooklyn music scene. There’s an ever-expanding list of acts that we associate with Brooklyn, such as Cocorosie, MGMT, Vampire Weekend, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and so on. So from where we’re sitting, it feels like there must be a real creative community, who all know and respect and support each other. Is that the reality, or have we all got a rose-tinted view?

No, it’s very true. A lot of artists have been drawn to Brooklyn, for some reason. I guess it was the only place in New York where it was cheap enough to live. It used to be downtown Manhattan, but everything’s changed so much. Everything’s so much more expensive, and now Brooklyn is becoming much more expensive too. But the artists are there already, and everything has been built up, so there’s this strange circle of art and support.

Some Brooklyn acts have initially found a greater degree of acceptance in the UK for their music. The Scissor Sisters broke the UK while they were still unknown in the US, for example. As someone who has also spent some time working in the UK, have you found that British audiences tend to be more open-minded, and more receptive to new ideas in general?

Much more. There were shows that we performed at, where they put very different artists on one bill. I guess the audiences there are just really drawn to the emotion of the music. It’s the same way that I relate to music, and Antony relates to music, and Andy relates to music. I feel like the people there just feel it much more. When we do a show in Europe, audiences are so there, they’re so present.

In New York it’s very different. People are a little more into themselves, and a little more introverted. But over there, it just seems like there’s so much more energy and love.

We used to be more tribal, but the tribes have broken down. It’s generally cool to be eclectic now, which is a good development.

Nomi of Hercules & Love Affair

I’m curious to know what sort of atmosphere you get at your shows. You’ve got that lovely contrast: uptempo, celebratory dance songs, but with a private, introspective quality. How does that work on stage?

It is a celebration, but it’s emotional as well. When I’m singing the song, it’s emotional for me because the lyrics are so introspective, and I really empathise. It really makes me think so much. When I’m singing Blind, I’m really singing the words, and I’m singing to the audience. It’s strange, because I can talk to myself and use those words, and I can talk to the people and use those words.

I can imagine you looking out as you’re singing that, and seeing that some people are getting it on the level of being a dance track, and that other people are completely in the emotion of the song at the same time.

It’s so fun, because at one point you’re just having fun, you’re dancing, the band is all in the moment. And then there are the words, and the emotion where I sing from. I sing from an emotional place. I relate the songs to my life, and it comes out in my performance. It’s an interesting mix.

You’ve talked previously about growing up in a rough neighbourhood, where music helped to provide you with a fantasy world, and a means of escape. Is that still an element of how you perform now?

Yes, I still have that. It’s when I feel most alive in myself. I just feel like my existence, whoever I am, matters at that moment. So when I’m on stage and I’m performing, I just feel like: this is it, this is what I’m made of, you know?

But I hope there will also be glamour, and general fabulousness of that nature...?

Oh, it’s all glamour. I’m really curious to see how people will respond, because it’s an intense show. It’s really beautiful; people are going to be dancing and going crazy, and learning, and we’ll be sharing these experiences every day.

Nomi of Hercules & Love Affair

Oh, this is hell for me! I wanted to come and see you, but Public Enemy are re-creating their It Takes A Nation Of Millions album on the same night, just around the corner, so I’m down to see that. I am just so torn. I want to divide into two…

Oh my goodness, I want to go with you to see Public Enemy! (Laughs)

Maybe you could have a word, and then you could come on after they finish. That would be nice…

I’m going to play hooky that day! I’m playing hooky and I’m going to see Public Enemy!

Well, at least you could go to the soundcheck. It’s only two minutes’ walk away. (Laughter) So what about after the tour is over? What other plans do you have for this year?

I’m going to cut a solo record. I’ve been writing and recording songs, and I have a lot of material that I want to put together as an album. Keep working, keep touring, put together a really great show for myself, and still be a part of Hercules, and just be like a workaholic. (Laughs) Keep it going, keep moving!

Photos of Nomi taken in New York City on May 18, 2008 by mecredis and reproduced under a Creative Commons non-commercial attribution license.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Girls Aloud - Nottingham Trent FM Arena, Tuesday May 20.

Budding pop stars, please take note: if you’re going to take on the demands of a full-scale arena tour, then last night’s Girls Aloud show was an object lesson in how to do things properly.

Lesson One: Don’t stint on the Wow Factor. The girls started their set suspended on high wires, black capes flapping in the breeze, before slowly descending into the arms of their hunky male dancers. (Note: if you must make economies, then it’s quite OK to deprive your dancers of their shirts for most of the night.)

Later on, a massive illuminated catwalk dropped from the ceiling, stretching all the way to a platform at the back end of the arena. The girls sashayed across it, crooning and waving all the while, before greeting the folks in the "cheap seats" to wild acclaim, and giving them a three-song performance.

Lesson Two: Don’t cut corners. Many acts have a revolving stage. Girls Aloud’s stage revolved in two directions at once, allowing for some clever choreography. Most acts let off a couple of fireworks towards the end of the show. Girls Aloud’s crew blasted us with pyrotechnics throughout, as well as firing off enough ticker tape to keep the Arena’s cleaning staff busy for days.

Lesson Three: Don’t play it too safe. It takes nerve to drop sure-fire favourites such as No Good Advice, Long Hot Summer and The Show, in favour of album tracks such as Girl Overboard, the pounding crowd-pleaser Close To Love, and the slinky, ska-tinged Control Of The Knife (as mashed up with Kelis’s Trick Me). And it’s a brave act indeed who can take on Robyn’s brilliant but challenging With Every Heartbeat, and make it their own.

Lesson Four: Don’t forget to have fun. In stark contrast to last year’s sulky showing by the Sugababes, the five girls genuinely looked as if they were enjoying themselves. Self-confessed party girl Sarah larged it from beginning to end, while even sulky old Nicola was wreathed in smiles throughout. And while the Sugababes treated each other like strangers, Girls Aloud bonded like a gang of best mates.

Lesson Five: Don’t mime! OK, so Nadine slipped out of key a couple of times. But who knew that Nicola had such a great, gutsy voice?

Lesson Six: Don’t act too cool for school. During the encore of Something Kinda Ooooh, middle-aged mums bopped in the aisles, while the gays squealed and the pre-teens waved their glow-sticks. (My ten year old niece’s verdict: "fantabulous".)

Lesson Seven: Don’t take us for granted. There’s a reason why Girls Aloud have stayed at the top of their game for over five years, with eighteen consecutive Top Ten singles to their name. It’s because they deliver the goods, to the best of their ability, time after time. Long may they continue to delight us.

Set list:
Sexy! No No No...
Girl Overboard
Sound Of The Underground
Close To Love
Can't Speak French
Love Machine
Black Jacks
Whole Lotta History
With Every Heartbeat
I'll Stand By You
Push It
Wake Me Up
Walk This Way
Control Of The Knife/Trick Me
Call The Shots
Something Kinda Ooooh

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Joe Lean and the Jing Jang Jong – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Monday May 19.

Back in early January, it was all going so swimmingly for Joe Lean’s preposterously named crew. Tipped by the BBC’s influential “Sound of 2008” poll, and with a second place billing on the NME Awards Tour to look forward to, it seemed as if 2008 was theirs for the asking.

Fast forward to mid-May, and what do we find? That tour’s opening act has the current Number One single (step forward, The Ting Tings), while the Jing Jang Jong have endured a string of wretched reviews and a flop single, and are now playing to scatterings of mildly curious, mostly non-committal punters at half-empty venues like the Rescue Rooms.

Based on this almost laughably dismal show (under 45 minutes, no encore), you had to wonder how they got to be so handsomely hyped in the first place. Granted, some of their early demos showed sparks of personality and potential, before being flattened into generic indie-lite – but the JJJ’s most glaring weakness was their utter inability to engage the crowd.

The chief offender in this respect was Joe Lean himself: a front man so fundamentally irritating that his sheer cluelessness almost bordered on the heroic. From his skinny-hipped Jagger-esque wiggle to his Lydon-esque thousand yard stare, none of his rag-bag of semi-digested poses rang true.

Stuck at the side of the stage, and displaying more energy and commitment then the rest of the band put together, drummer James Craig (aka “Bummer Jong”) deserved better than this bunch of sorry chancers. Perhaps his time is yet to come.

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Defected Presents Charles Webster.

Various, mixed by Charles Webster (3xCD)
**** (***** for the "Lounge" CD)

For devotees of the deep house underground, local hero Charles Webster needs no introduction. For everyone else, this triple set forms an ideal starting point for anyone wishing to investigate the man and his music. Webster’s stock in trade is soulful, spiritual house music: light on banging beats and formulaic breakdowns, but suffused with a subtle, sinuous vibe that lends itself well to home listening.

The “Club” CD re-creates a typical Webster DJ set, mixing popular favourites from Kings Of Tomorrow and Rosie Gaines with long-standing cult heroes such as Blaze, Moodymann and Matthew Herbert. The “Studio” CD showcases his music-making career, and features several previously unreleased mixes.

Best of all, a truly superb “Lounge” CD makes connections between 1970s acoustic folk (Vashti Bunyan, John Martyn and even an unusually chilled out Black Sabbath), ambient electronica, soul, jazz and rock, offering a glimpse into Webster’s musical heritage, and his interests outside dance music.

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Ultimate Eurovision Party.

Various Artists (2xCD)
Sony BMG

Now that Eurovision season is upon us, what better way could there be to get revved up for next weekend’s finals, than by re-visiting 42 of the contest’s past glories on this handily timed double CD? Bearing in mind our natural patriotic bias, the compilers have done a commendably even-handed job, with over half the selections coming from that scary place known as “abroad”.

Kicking off with Abba’s immortal Waterloo, CD1 focuses mostly on the 1970s, with occasional forays into ancient history: Sandie Shaw, Lulu, and Cliff Richard’s newly controversial runner-up Congratulations. CD2 divides neatly between the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, including Finland’s monster-masked heavy metallers, Israel’s fierce transgendered diva, and Ukraine’s bacofoiled Christopher Biggins lookey-likey. The “party” only comes unstuck towards the end, with a sequence of drippy, buzz-killing ballads, but for the most part this is a rollicking good soundtrack for internationally themed finger buffets everywhere.

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The Orb – Rescue Rooms, Thursday May 15.

It’s hard to believe that The Orb have been a going concern for the past twenty years. These days, the band is essentially a vehicle for founder member Alex Paterson, plus whatever collaborators he has happened to gather around him. On this tour, Alex’s sampling and live DJ-ing is augmented by Fil Lump on assorted computer gadgetry, Keith York on live drums, and an MC called Eric.

Given the music’s mostly instrumental nature, MC Eric had the easiest job of the night, his vocal duties mostly confined to asking us how we are feeling. (The answer for most of this 90% male crowd being, to varying degrees: enthusiastic, energetic and euphoric.) Eric’s big vocal moment was a decidedly unlikely cover of David Essex’s Rock On. It was one more element in a thoroughly eclectic stew, which extended well beyond the band’s trademark ambient dub. Snatches of rock, ska and systems music were woven into the mix, along with looped rap samples (you had to feel sorry for Eric) and even the opening credits for Star Trek.

The lengthy set peaked with old favourites Little Fluffy Clouds and The Blue Room, before a mostly DJ-based interlude gave way to a banging, techno-heavy finale.

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

Here And Now tour, Nottingham Trent FM Arena, Friday May 9.

The first night of this year’s ever-bankable Here And Now tour saw the Trent FM Arena transformed into one giant Reflex bar, as seven chart acts from the 1980s wheeled out their old hits and several thousand eager thirty- and forty-somethings turned back the clock with them. This time around, the focus was on the latter part of the decade, and particularly the years 1987 and 1988: an era when yuppies ruled the roost, Gary Davies and Bruno Brookes ruled the airwaves, and "club culture" still meant wearing a shirt and tie to get into Ritzys. If you were at the right age to be buying Smash Hits and watching The Chart Show, then this was the show for you. Any older or any younger, and you might have found yourself muttering that old cliché: nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.

Hands up, who remembers Cutting Crew? With only two hits to their name (and only two members left in their line-up), the duo were on and off the stage in the blink of an eye. This was a shame, as Nick Van Eede turned in on of the best vocal performances of the night, backed by some appealingly flashy soft-rock soloing from guitarist Gareth Moulton.

Johnny Hates Jazz fared slightly better, being permitted to perform three of their four hits, in what was announced as only their second ever live appearance in the UK. Opening with the anti-war song I Don’t Want To Be A Hero, they provided the night’s one brief nod to "social commentary" -- an element that was key to much of the decade’s most memorable music. The band’s trademark slick suits were back, but sadly not their original vocalist Clark Datchler. New vocalist Danny Saxon gave a passable imitation, but his somewhat puny delivery failed to ignite the arena crowd.

Anyone expecting to see the full original line-up of Curiosity Killed The Cat was in for a disappointment, as singer Ben Volpeliere-Pierrot shambled onto the stage accompanied by, er, nobody. According to Ben (whose unique line in stage patter is best described as "eccentric"), the other three members "said Hi" and "sent their love". Hands up, who believed him? As Ben diddled aimlessly around the stage, drifting in and out of key, and looking thoroughly out of his depth, it was enough to make you feel nostalgic for Cutting Crew.

With the evening in danger of floundering in a half-baked stew of half-remembered mediocrity, it was time for a seasoned professional and a proper star to rescue the proceedings. On that score, ABC’s Martin Fry delivered in spades. A veteran of the nostalgia tour circuit, he knew what was expected of him, and he knew how to pitch it to perfection. As the opening chords of Poison Arrow rang out, the whole night stepped up a notch, the crowd rising to their feet and bellowing along with some of the sharpest pop lyrics ever written. If Ben from Curiosity was the random youth trying to chat you up at the bus stop, Martin from ABC was the smooth gigolo, sweeping you off your feet in the cocktail bar.

Boasting a similar veteran’s pedigree, Paul Young gave an equally arena-friendly performance, hurling his mike stand around the shop in best Rod Stewart style. Although numbers such as Love Of The Common People suffered from the absence of female backing singers (hands up, who remembers the Fabulous Wealthy Tarts?), and although Young struggled with his upper register on Come Back And Stay and Senza Una Donna, a terrific extended performance of I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down turned out to be the night’s unexpected musical highlight. In particular, it allowed the six-piece house band to demonstrate what they were made of. On stage for the full three hours, during which they trawled through thirty-seven songs and a myriad of musical styles, the band were the unsung heroes of the night.

As the acts got bigger, the sets grew longer. Bananarama managed nine songs in thirty-five minutes, spanning seven of their most successful hit-making years. With founder member Siobhan and substitute member Jacquie long gone, Keren and Sara have been performing as a duo since the early 1990s, cranking out their roster of camp classics with a delightful disregard for stage-school slickness (they still have trouble remembering the set list) and sophisticated vocal technique (you’ll still search in vain for a harmony line). That said, the set was tightly and ably choreographed, the girls being joined on stage by a pair of humpy male backing dancers.

And finally, and to a hero’s welcome: Rick Astley, making his debut on the nostalgia circuit, and cheerfully admitting to finding the whole experience overwhelming and bizarre. Now re-established in the nation’s affections thanks to an Internet phenomenon known as "rickrolling", Astley surfed a tide of goodwill from the crowd, which was almost enough to cover his lack of memorable hit singles. (Hands up, who can name more than three of them?) Admittedly, it all got a bit Cruise Ship during his syrupy cover of When I Fall In Love, and even Rick himself seemed less than enamoured of some of the later Stock Aitken Waterman hits (he could barely wait to get to the end of the frankly rubbish Take Me To Your Heart, exclaiming "will this madness never end?" during the final chorus). However, all was forgiven in time for the grand finale, and the only chart-topping song of the whole night: the immortal Never Gonna Give You Up, which duly raised the roof and sent the crowd home happy.

Set list:

Cutting Crew: I Just Died In Your Arms Tonight, I’ve Been In Love Before.

Johnny Hates Jazz: I Don’t Want To Be A Hero, Turn Back The Clock, Shattered Dreams.

Curiosity Killed The Cat: Down To Earth, Misfit, Ordinary Day, Name And Number, Hang On In There Baby.

ABC: Poison Arrow, Tears Are Not Enough, All Of My Heart, When Smokey Sings, The Look Of Love.

Paul Young: Love Of The Common People, Come Back And Stay, Senza Una Donna, I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down, Every Time You Go Away.

Bananarama: Cruel Summer, Really Saying Something, Robert De Niro’s Waiting, I Heard A Rumour, Nathan Jones, I Want You Back, Love In The First Degree, Venus, Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye).

Rick Astley: Together Forever, She Wants To Dance With Me, Hold Me In Your Arms, When I Fall In Love, Take Me To Your Heart, Cry For Help, Whenever You Need Somebody, Never Gonna Give You Up.

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