Archive for June, 2012

Friday: five things which grind my gears

29 Jun

1. The incorrect use of the phrase ‘R and B’.

No, No and again, No! Sugababes, JLS, Craig David and an indistinguishable, interchangeable herd of pointless no-talent ‘artists’ producing the aural equivalent of candy floss are not ‘R&B’. And I don’t care how many Radio 1 DJs say they are, they’re just not. OK? They are 21st Century pop/pap, producing utterly forgettable musical mush which will last about as long as an Aga Shop in Castlemilk or a Greggs in Chipping Norton.

R&B is ‘rhythm and blues’. It’s Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, the Rolling Stones, BB King, the Yardbirds and, stretching a point, The Who. It isn’t 21st century pop moguls wrongly appropriating a genre and trying to give credence and weight where none exists. Stop it. Right now.

2. Bags on trains and bus seats.

Yes, I know you spent a lot of money on your fake Louis V or Abercrombie & Fitch and yes it does have some quirky wee badges on it, but I’m here now and have paid to sit down. Don’t look at me as if I’ve thrown up on your shoes, just move your bag without fuss or I may well throw both it and you off, regardless of whether the bus/train has actually stopped.

3. Food in cinemas.

Proof of Satan’s existence is evident in cinema food. In a public environment where quiet and concentration is necessary to hear words, sounds and music, what dastardly mind put the noisiest possible food in the middle of that? Seriously, crisps, sweets with wrappers, cavernous boxes of popcorn and ice with slurpy drinks? Why don’t Vue and CineWorld go the whole nine yards and make cymbals, bubble wrap and kazoos available? Well done Lucifer, blighting the lives of millions with your diabolical fiendish plots.

4. The misuse of the word ‘literally’.

Literally means, well, literally. As in actually. The sentence ‘I was literally beside myself’ is inaccurate unless a) the laws of physics are suspended or b) we’re in the middle of a ‘Red Dwarf’ episode. Ditto the use of the word in sports commentary, such as literally exploded, literally surrendered. Unless there is blood and guts everywhere or a white flag being waved, you are wrong. And stupid. Please stop or I will literally become very angry and bite someone’s face. Yours, probably.

5. Drivers who don’t say ‘thanks’.

I apologise to non-drivers, but those of you unlucky enough to drive on UK roads will get this: if not, you’re one of those drivers and I already hate you with a visceral passion. Like the Bible and the works of Marx, The Highway Code offers useful guidance yet is something few have actually read. For example, it says if two cars on a hill approach a similar situation, the car going uphill should get right of way.

The unwritten rules on British roads also include acknowledging other drivers as human beings, even if you’re thanking her/him for doing something they should do anyway; just a nod or a wave to say ‘thanks’. If someone stops and lets me past, I always do this, not just because my Mother brought me up to be polite, but because of karma: if I don’t, the other driver as well as thinking I’m a knob, may also think ‘I’m f*cked if I’ll do that again!”. If you don’t do this, please start. A polite society needs constant attention and care, no?

Tune in next week for foam-flecked ranting about ‘qualified infinitives’, people who sing too loudly at gigs, the word ‘coloured’ and songs that bands feel they have to play. And people who wait until they’re at the checkout, have bagged all their food and are ready to go before they even think about how they’ll pay for it….

Review: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Etihad Stadium, Manchester 22 June 2012

27 Jun

And so to the Etihad/City of Manchester Stadium, or Home of the Champions as it is known to the sky blue half of the city. No respite from the Biblical rain and therefore a much reduced crowd of Springsteen enthusiasts queuing , which turns out to be good news as once again I get a wristband for what a steward calls the ‘golden circle’.

No such luck for Dougie though, travelling down from Falkirk and stuck at Picadilly bus station waiting for a taxi as I vainly try to persuade a steward to keep one back for him. Richard and Carley fare even worse, being caught in the usual nightmarish Friday traffic and only getting in fifteen minutes before Bruce and Co hit the stage and fire into ‘Badlands’ with gusto and verve.

If anything, the sell-out crowd is even louder that at Sunderland, thumbing their collective nose at the conditions and determined to enjoy what turns out to be a 30 song show coming in just short of 3 and a half hours.

Having waxed extensively about Sunderland, I’ll confine myself to stand-out songs and rarities.

Set List:


No Surrender

We Take Care of Our Own

Wrecking Ball

Death to my Hometown

My City of Ruins – written about New York in the 9/11 aftermath, an uplifting gospel-based song which Bruce sang with understated and emotion, asking the crowd rhetorically if we were missing anyone tonight. Brought a lump to my throat.

The E Street Shuffle- Yes! Never seen it performed live before, a second album cut and a joyous horn-filled shuffle showcasing the jazz and soul vibe which characterises the pre-Born To Run Springsteen sound.

Jack of All Trades

Atlantic City

Prove it All Night – introduced as ‘a request’ with an extended guitar intro and a favourite of mine anyway. The first verse is distilled, bottled, story-telling genius, atmospheric scene-setting in a very few words:
“I’ve been workin’ real hard; tryin’ to get my hands clean; tonight we’ll drive that dusty road, from Monroe to Angeline. To buy you a gold ring, and a pretty dress of blue, Baby just one kiss, we’ll get this fixed for you, a kiss to seal our fate tonight, a kiss to prove it all night…’

It speaks of love, aspiration, desire, secrecy, intimacy, longing…..

Two Hearts – a showcase for Steve van Zandt, duetting on the middle and end sections with the Boss.

You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch) – not a favourite of mine, but called by Bruce off the cuff in what looked like an attempt to keep a reluctant Miami Steve front and centre.

Darlington County

Shackled and Drawn – notable for trumpet player Curt Ramm sliding inelegantly and falling badly as he came to front stage. I didn’t think Springsteen, Van Zandt and Gary Tallent were going to continue, they were laughing so much….

Waitin’ on a Sunny Day – Aren’t we all…

Save My Love – Incredible. An ultra-rare outing for this one and performed beautifully. The band were tight and on top of this all the way through.

The Promise – Everyone was shooed off stage as Springsteen took over Roy Bittan’s piano and sang solo, hushing the crowd and sharing an intimate glimpse into his songwriting.

The River – Stunning. Many of us would like to see him play more harmonica, and this is one of the main reasons why.

The Rising

Out in the Street

Thunder Road

Born to Run

Bobby Jean

Cadillac Ranch – used to be a live favourite with the Band hamming it up front stage, great to see it reappear. A feel-good song about a funeral hearse? Go figure.

Dancing in the Dark – like reality TV: I hate it, but recognise it makes a lot of people happy.

Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out – When Springsteen says “a change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band’ everything stops, and film of him and Clarence throughout the 40 plus years they played together is shown on the backdrop. You’d have to be made of concrete not to be moved.

Twist and Shout – Three and a half hours after starting, Bruce ended the gig with ‘We gotta go now, before someone get hurt.’ It ended another great night with 16 great musicians led by a peerless songwriter and performer. If you haven’t seen him play, don’t miss him next time round.

Review: Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Sunderland, Stadium of Light, 21 June 2012

25 Jun

Bruce SpringsteenAfter the premature death of original E Street keyboard player Danny Federici, Bruce Springsteen stated his intention of touring the world, playing live as often as possible and has been as good as his word. Since then the UK has witnessed the ‘Magic’ tour, ‘Working on a Dream’ tour, and here in June 2012 we’re slap bang in the middle of ‘Wrecking Ball’.

Last Thursday I headed north to catch up with the Boss in Sunderland, before following him to Manchester on the Friday, driving through monsoon-type rainstorms and wondering what life with Springsteen and the E Street Band would be like without larger-than-life sax player Clarence Clemons, cruelly taken from us last year. (The answer was ‘radically different’. Uplifting, like the greatest wake you’ve ever been to, sad and simultaneously sweet.)

Sunderland’s Stadium of Light was a waterlogged windy place last Thursday, and arriving there mid-afternoon my heart was warmed to hear the band sound-checking ‘Spirit in the Night’. Que bella fortuna!

Having checked tickets were still on sale I haggled with a tout for £25 for a spare standing ticket, took my place in the queue and lucky enough to snag a wristband which got access to the ‘pit’, the front of stage area where the hard-core congregate. This was in no small measure due to the rain keeping most of the 40,000 plus crowd at home, dry and warm until gone 6pm, while eejit Bruce fanatics like me queued for hours to get in early and secure a good spot. I should explain that these prized wristbands allow about 2,500 lucky punters access to the restricted front area and that once you have one, you can come and go as you please – in my case going to the stadium concourse to eat, drink coffee and dry off before the unusually early 7.05pm start.

As has now become customary, ‘Badlands’ jump-started proceedings with the huge crowd roaring their approval. The E Street Band were augmented by a four person horn section and three backing singers, offering depth and complexity to an already rich mix of three guitars, violin, Hammond organ, bass, piano and drums.

My musing on how Clarence would be replaced was answered two distinct ways: the first was that he wasn’t replaced per se, his stage right berth left vacant: some shoes are too big to fill. The second was the sax player chosen to pick up slack from rear stage: Jake Clemons, the Big Man’s nephew and already a fearsome player in his own right. More than once there was a tear in the eye as Jake came to front stage and played songs his Uncle helped make famous, memorably as he geared up to play the sax solo in ‘The Promised Land’ looking up and blowing a kiss with his fingers towards the rain-soaked Sunderland skies. I know you’ll think I’m a knob, but I teared up writing that….

Musical taste is about opinions and if people don’t like Bruce Springsteen that’s fair enough. Some see him as bombastic and overblown. But what can’t be denied is that even at 62 the Boss and his band are one of the best value live acts on the face of the earth. The crowds, the sheer epic scale of events, the fact that these shows have such a variety of music on display….can’t be ignored. They don’t have a support act; gigs are three hours plus and invariably sell out; the crowd is involved at every gig; we are asked to participate in the show and engaged, not only by Springsteen’s regular forays into the crowd but by having the absolute undivided attention of a charismatic man who many, many years ago stopped ‘having to do this’.

Wealthy beyond measure, with a teenage family and now over 60, there are a hundred reasons for Springsteen to just stay home in New Jersey or California rather than spend three hours in a wet Mackem football stadium communing with his people: but he does.

It’s one of the reasons he inspires such loyalty. He’s a Marmite artist and you either get it, or you don’t.

Anyway, to songs from the three hour show. Seven cuts from the new ‘Wrecking Ball’ spread throughout the set, culled from an eclectic album railing against injustice, full of righteous anger and thick with Biblical language and imagery.  ‘Death to my Hometown’ was exceptional, as was ‘We Are Alive’, which starts off with just solo voice and acoustic guitar, features a Johnny Cash ‘Ring of Fire’ riff and ends up as a jump-up-and-down country style hoe-down.

‘My City of Ruins’, ‘Spirit in the Night’ and set closer ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out’ were an ongoing homage to Clarence Clemons; ‘Youngstown’, ‘Johnny 99′ and ‘The River’ all full of resonance, played on Wearside and on the site of a former mine and in the midst of an area laid waste in a previous recession, politically and economically abandoned by the rich South.

A nine-song encore of classics drew events to a close, but not before we’d witnessed an ultra-rare outing for the forty year old (!) ‘Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street?’ and for us anoraks a wonderfully melodic and softly-delivered ‘Point Blank’ which held the stadium rapt as Bruce ended the song, moving slowly further away from the mike and becoming quieter to let the sad, poignant tale of lost love fade into the damp summer air. Wonderful, moving stuff.

I’ll leave you with words from “We Are Alive”, capturing both the spirit of the gig and the uplifting, enduring message from this remarkable man from Freehold, New Jersey:

‘And though our bodies lie alone here in the dark, our souls and spirits rise, to carry the fire and light the spark, to fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart’.


Set List:

We Take Care of Our Own
Wrecking Ball
Death to My Hometown
My City of Ruins
Spirit in the Night
Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street?
Jack of All Trades
Murder Incorporated
Johnny 99
Working on the Highway
Shackled and Drawn
Waitin’ on a Sunny Day
The Promised Land
Point Blank
The River
The Rising
Out in the Street
Land of Hope and Dreams

We Are Alive
Thunder Road
Born to Run
Hungry Heart
Seven Nights to Rock
Glory Days
Dancing in the Dark
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out

Facing both ways at the same time?

13 Jun

A recent YouGov Poll for Prospect magazine came up with some interesting stuff about what we Brits think of our own nation. In the run up (see what I did there?) to the Olympics, with the European Football championships in full swing and with the arguments about Scots independence raging, it’s worth reflecting on the good, bad and, to be blunt, utterly contradictory.

People were asked to rate the best and worst things about the UK and two lists of top tens have very mixed messages.

For example, other than the countryside, the thing most Brits are proud of is the National Health Service. Socialised medicine, free on demand at the point of use and paid for collectively. The NHS is the single greatest achievement of the Left in this country and although neo-liberals have tried their best to undermine the service and turn it into a commodity, the enduring support for the NHS shows what can happen when the Left connects properly with the people we represent.

In marked contrast, the thing most Brits appear concerned about is the number of immigrants. I need hardly point out the irony of a mongrel race like ours expressing alarm at immigration but to be honest I’m not really surprised that many years of alarmist headlines, political dishonesty and old fashioned racism have found root in popular attitudes. I’m not going to give what I see as wilful ignorance and credulousness fuelled by xenophobes any more houseroom other than to say that the Left needs to start taking the Daily Mail and Sun on head-on instead of pussy-footing around with talk of Blue Labour values and pandering to racist idiots.

Funnily enough, the top ten list of ‘best things’ also features diversity and multiculturalism and the ‘worst things’ list features racism and intolerance, proof if it were needed of the nation’s ability to hold 2 contradictory positions simultaneously.

On the whole, the attitude survey is full of contradictions, which show the depth of the country and reflect it’s tribal political breakdown.

I’m encouraged by support for people in need, the NHS, diversity and opposition to poverty and inequality; I’m disheartened by hostility to immigrants, Europe and so-called welfare scroungers.

I guess you can’t have everything.

Stephen Smith: writer

Rants, rambles and other assorted thoughts

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