Spiers & Boden – The Maze, Nottingham, Monday September 15.

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.

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.)

The Dodos / Euros Childs – Nottingham Bodega, Sunday September 14.

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. (**)

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.

Faustus – Nottingham Playhouse Studio, Thursday September 11.

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.

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.

I was toying with the idea of previewing the Mercury Music Prize…

…but William B. Swygart’s just-published piece on Rocktimists is so bang on the money, that there scarcely seems any point.

In short, then:

If Rachel Unthank and the Winterset win, I shall be beside myself with joy. Look, one of the token specialist genre acts (folk/jazz/classical) has got to win the thing sooner or later, or else what’s the point in including them in the first place?

If Elbow or British Sea Power win, I shall be very very happy. Because they’re both bloody wonderful albums, that’s why.

If Estelle or Burial win, then I shall smile broadly – because both albums are more than worthy, and it will be a nice change from the usual skinny white boys with guitars.

If Radiohead or Plant & Krauss win, then I shall think: fair enough in terms of quality, but what’s the point, and what purpose has been served?

If Laura Marling wins, then I shall smile fondly, and resolve to listen a little more closely.

If the Portico Quartet win, then I’ll be all like, huh? Pretty but unessential, that’s my verdict.

If the Last Shadow Puppets win, then I’ll be all like, sigh. It’s an interesting but flawed project, and Alex Turner certainly doesn’t need the award a second time.

If Neon Neon win, then I’ll be all cross-armed and resentful and frowny and BAH.

If Adele wins, then I might require oblivion-hastening medication, with some degree of urgency.

The Guardian are live-blogging the whole thing, by the way. As of now.

Update: I am very very happy at Elbow’s well deserved win. This seems like a good moment to link back to my interview with guitarist Mark Potter, which I conducted on the very morning that The Seldom Seem Kid hit the shops.

Oh, WHEN will this affliction ever LEAVE me?

I am now onto, let’s see, DAY NINE of my viral infection, with no end in sight – and frankly, it is all starting to get a little boring. Yesterday in particular was a complete write-off, which saw me up and about for not much more than ten hours – most of them spent groaning, mithering and angrily breaking wind. I’m generally quite good at handling illness – at least when it provides me with a justification for doing sod all – but one can only hold self-pity at bay for so long.

However, this was as nothing compared to the problems faced in our village over the weekend, as a freak downpour on Friday night/Saturday morning caused flash flooding, wreaking unprecedented havoc. (I’ve written the episode up on the village blog, accompanied by photos from K.) The village pub in particular was hit hard, but a concerted collective effort saw it back open for business on Saturday night. Our local pub singer performed a free set; couples danced on the newly exposed quarry-tiled floor (a distinct improvement on the ancient and now ruined carpets, if truth be told); everyone affected to ignore the pervading smell of damp; and the whole evening displayed the sort of Pulling Together In Times Of Trial spirit that Made Our Country Great, Spirit Of The Blitz, etc etc etc.

Turning to lighter matters, I’m pleased as Punch to have received this beautiful and extremely tasteful hand-crafted trophy from Guyana-Gyal, which will nestle in nicely with the contemporary ceramics on us cottage mantlepiece:

premio+arte+y+picoIt’s an understated little thing, isn’t it?

Now then, the rules also state that I have to pass the award on to “five other blogs that you consider deserve this award for their creativity, design, interesting material, and also for contributing to the blogging community“. (Oh, and I also have to credit the award’s originator. There, ’tis done.)

In which case, I shall firstly make a posthumous award to the much-missed Tired Dad, who rather abruptly shut up shop in April. TD’s contribution to the You’re Not The Only One blogging anthology (“Truce or Scare”, page 98) is not only the best thing he’s ever written – a masterpiece of controlled exposition, which saw me swerve from hysterical laughter to a full-on sobbing fit in a matter of minutes – but it also serves as the missing final post from his blog, for reasons which should become apparent.

My second award is also a posthumous one. Peach did a fantastic job with the aforementioned blogging anthology, and she has also done a first-rate job at keeping Post of the Week going this year. (And she’s dropping her first Babby soon, so Yay for that.)

My third award goes to Gordon McLean, both for long service (he’s been at it more or less continuously since 1999), and for generally being helpful, supportive and an all-round good egg.

The fourth and fifth awards go to two relatively new blogs, which have been my favourite discoveries of 2008: Todger Talk (especially for the disarmingly honest and unfailingly hilarious reviews of sex toys for men) and Bête De Jour (back in business after a nasty flooding incident, which rather neatly brings this post full circle).

I hope that all recipients feel as aesthetically blessed by this sumptuous piece of craftmanship as I do. Oh yes indeed!

Oh crap, it’s been a week.

“Daily blogging, he said. Grumble grumble…”

Mea culpa, readers. And the excuse is a thin one: namely that I spent the earlier part of the week bed-ridden with man-flu. Well OK, just two days – but my affliction has cast a long shadow over this dreary week.

Amongst other disappointments, I had to duck out of the LeftLion pub quiz on Wednesday night (hosted by no less a figure than Nottingham’s ‘Mr Sex’, no less), where the ever-shifting team known as The Shadowy Cabal romped to victory for the second time in three showings. This quiz is fast becoming a regular social fixture, not least for the “Which pop classic is Mr Sex’s Nana from the Meadows playing on her Bontempi organ?” round. (We did well in Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” week, and less well in Brian May’s “Too Much Love Will Kill You” week.) But mostly because we keep winning it. Eight! Beer! Tokens!

The man-flu probably has its roots in last Friday’s marathon drinkathon in London’s trendy Clerkenwell, where friends and colleagues of Anna and Bobbie gathered to wish them bon voyage and bonne chance as they prepared to start their new life in America’s trendy San Francisco. Photos are here, here, here, here and here. (Yes, there were glowsticks. It was that kind of night.)

Suitably battered by the rigours of the occasion, I spent Saturday afternoon wandering around Stoke Newington with my sister, who has bought a flat there. (Strictly speaking it’s in Clapton, but let’s not quibble over a couple of blocks.) It’s not a part of London that I’m familiar with (barring a messy post-Trade All Back To Mine in 1995, which doesn’t really count), and I found myself quite charmed by its relative villagey-ness, overall vibrancy and good cheer. Yes, it’s getting a bit gentrified in places (a Farmer’s Market here, a Fresh And Wild there), but not in a snotty, obnoxious way. And my sister’s ex-council flat, while compact, is perfectly charming: a pleasantly characterful example of 1950s social housing from a period when public sector architecture still retained a certain idealistic sense of purpose, marrying simple functionalism and good design.

Regrettably, my battered state (coupled with the blazing sunshine) engendered such a false sense of security that I allowed my jacket to dangle a little too far over my arm, resulting in a lost wallet, a trip to the police station and a call to the bank. Hell, who needs plastic anyway? It has all been quite liberating.

10cc Top Ten.

I found out through Betty that some blogger is collecting 10cc Top Tens. “This is a sort of Group-Mind thing whereby we use 10cc as a sort of upside glass-tumbler on an ouija-board”, he says. Splendid, I say. Here’s mine.

1. The Dean And I. Why, its scope is positively cinematic. I’m a sucker for a good condensed multi-part mini-drama (see also Squeeze’s “Up The Junction”).

2. I’m Mandy, Fly Me. Especially the bit where the acoustic guitar comes in, and then it all builds up and up and… ohh.

3. Life Is A Minestrone. Fab 208 under the bedclothes, yadda yadda.

4. Donna. My sister and I thought they were such funny fellers on TopDiPop, especially the bloke with the squeaky voice. (LOL! Creme.)

5. The Wall Street Shuffle. “Dow Jones ain’t got time for the bums.” A searing critique.

6. Rubber Bullets. You can’t beat that glam-rock chunka-chunka-chunka beat.

7. Art For Art’s Sake. We bought this for a Christmas party in 1975. Not a dancefloor anthem, as it turned out. (That honour belonged to “You Sexy Thing”.)

8. I’m Not In Love. “It’s just a w@nking phase I’m going through”, we sang at school. What wags we were!

9. The Things We Do For Love. I’m starting to struggle a bit here, to be honest.

10,000. Dreadlock Holiday.Safe European Home” for uncool people with curly perms, and hence obviously – obviously! – unforgiveable. I sense that this analysis might lack a certain rigour.