Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Gig Review: The Stranglers, Sub 89, Reading, 8 July 2014

09 Jul

How are The Stranglers doing these days? Pretty darn good, as it happens.

Still going strong without the 75 year old (!) Jet Black on drums, they treated a packed and bijou Sub 89 Club in Reading to a fabulous set list and a performance that made the Germany vs Brazil match irrelevant.

‘Welcome to, err, someone’s living room?’ opined Baz Warne. ‘Reading on a Tuesday night’ as he surveyed the sweaty fifty-somethings before him, ‘ain’t you got jobs to go to?’.

 The Stranglers were never a ‘punk band’ in the sense that even in 1977 although they had a ‘fuck you’ sensibility, they could actually play.

In Dave Greenfield and Jean-Jaques Burnel they have talent and depth, and both are on display this evening, assisted by a PA and sound which gives each instrument and voices room to breathe and clarity. Burnel’s snarling bass and Greenfield’s ethereal keyboards give the Stranglers a unique musical signature, evident on opener ‘Toiler on the Sea’, followed by killer versions of ‘(get a) Grip (on yourself)’ and ‘Skin Deep’.

 I find myself smiling like a chimpanzee, drinking in the ageless sound of a great rock band playing a small venue. The front section of the crowd sings along raucously and jumps up and down in time with Warne’s singing and Burnel’s obvious love for his people. Gone are the days of menace and introspection, The Stranglers are clearly enjoying themselves in their senior years.

 The set rattles effortlessly through the gears: Always The Sun, Curfew, Death and Night and Blood, Nice N Sleazy, Duchess and a peerless cover of Walk On By……the show is peppered with songs from Black and White and Rattus Norvegicus IV and the sparse newer material blends in nicely without being overdone.

Most people in the crowd want the classics, although a surreal moment occurs when Warne tells the crowd they can vote by applause on the choice of ‘Golden Brown’ or ‘La Folie’ and the latter wins by a distance. These are hardcore fans.

 I baled out early to catch the last Oxford train before midnight, but relished the chance to catch up with a seminal band on top of their game. Keep on Stranglin’…….


4 July 2104: Black Sabbath, Soundgarden, Motorhead….

07 Jul
Heavy rock works best in the dark: that’s just empirical observation. Shady music, minor chords and ghoulish lyrics, grandiose audio-visual effects, a genre which flirts (often laughably) with the powers of darkness…… how would this work in the blazing sunshine of Hyde Park? 
The answer is pretty well.
The British Summer Time festival on Friday 4 July kicked off with Soulfly, the US based thrash band fronted by Brazilian Max Cavalera. Soulfly, are, bluntly, not my cup of tea, with impenetrable lyrics delivered in the growly/grunty/shouty register favoured by too many nu-metal bands and, in my honest opinion, over-compensation for a lack of vocal talent.
There, I’ve said it.
SF tried hard, threw in a blast of Symptoms to tickle the Sabbath fans but they didn’t hold my interest. Meh.
Next on were the band whose motif sums up what they’re about. ‘Everything louder than everyone else’. Motorhead.
Lemmy seems to operate on his own time zone, about half a second slower than everyone else. You can hear the peculiar diction of someone with a mouth full of false teeth, which makes him sound like the pensioner which he most assuredly doesn’t look like. Dresed in wrap-around shades and US cavalry hat, he leads the most unsubtle band on earth through an hour and a bit of their canon. Stay Clean, Killed by Death, Over The Top, Damage Case, an excellent Going to Brazil and others, topped off by a roaring and snorting version of Overkill.
There isn’t much stage patter, Lemmy concluding with ‘we are Motorhead, and we play rock and roll’. A consultation with Mr White leads me to believe that the last time I saw them play was 1982. Love them or loathe them, they’ll probably survive a nuclear armageddon.
The sun continued to beat down and on the Hyde Park stage, something very odd indeed was happening: a crew of roadies dressed in white bolier suits were turning all of the back line and side of stage white, while another set were busy bring on a few thousand  pounds worth of fressh flowers and putting them stage front. This heralded the arrival of Faith No More, a band I knew nothing about.
Seriously, the depths of my ignorance about them are as yet unplumbed. Don’t own a single one of their records, didn’t even know they were from the States. (For some daft reason i thought they were from Sheffield.) Anyway, on they came, all five dressed as priests and, well, they, er, tore it up. In Mike Patton, they have a front man of genuine charisma, huge stage presence and no little vocal talent, but for a band supposedly inactive for 2 years, they were as tight as a drumskin. 
It was hard not to pay attention and in fact they got the first encore of the day, well-deserved and  a set which, I’m told, featured 2 new songs and all their biggest hits. I may well check them out, solely on the basis of a great set full of hooks and clever melodies, delivered with passion and energy. Top notch.
The unseasonal sunshine provided penultimate act, Soundgarden, with a challenge which Chris Cornell, on tremedous form, acknowledged as he led the band out to a thunderous welcome. The band were going to play the entire ‘Superunknown’ record, including miserablist classics like Fell On Black Days and Black Hole Sun, in the bright evening sunshine. How was that? Superb.
I was looking forward to seeing them when the line-up was announced and they didn’t disappoint. In Ben Shephard, they have one of the coolest bass players around. Fretting high and playing low, Shephard wanders around with a casual air of menace and didn’t miss a beat.
Spoonman is one of my favourite songs and to hear it live again was joyous, and my only criticism was that by confining themselves to one album they were compelled to play the handful of place-holder songs instead of raiding the band’s excellent back catalogue. 
But as the dusk arrived and the rain threatened – hooray for British weather! – it was time for Black Sabbath, who hit the stage at 8.45 with Ozzy peeking round the corner and the air raid sirens preceding ‘War Pigs’ cranking up the volume.
The huge set and wonderful AV came into play  now, vast screens playing a montage of Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, George W Bush and Kim Il Sung and images of war and conflict as the band blasted it out like a jet engine. New drummer Tommy Clufetos makes them sound like a rocket barrage and has breathed new life into the old dogs.
‘Into The Void’ followed the opener and the clear difference from seeing them in December and now was that Ozzy’s voice was stronger and in tune – the benefit of not ending a tour having thrown everything you have into it.
After Tony Iommi’s fight with lymphoma, he looks happier and more centred than ever, mugging with Ozzy and smiling like a child given free chocolate.
And after the sang froid of Ben Shepard came the focused hammer punch of rock’s greatest bass player, Geezer Butler, the king of cool.
Watching Osbourne, Butler and the incomparable Tony Iommi play is a tonic for the soul - and the new material from 13, especially Age of Reason, stands up well enough against the classics which landed one after another: Iron Man, NIB, Behind the Wall of Sleep, Fairies Wear Boots, Snowblind…… the time Children of the Grave and Paranoid brought the show to an end at 10.30am sharp, the vast majority of the 60,000 crowd were ready for home – dazed, deaf and happy.


26 Nov

Whatever happened to the heroes?

It would be a stretch to call Hugh Cornwell a national treasure but the lead singer/guitarist on the first ten Stranglers albums is iconic to us ‘men of a certain age’.

 Even in his mid-60’s and in a suit, blue open neck shirt and resembling a fashionably dishevelled accountant he retains strong hints of a submerged menace – at one point lasering in on a guy laughing at a story which wasn’t funny and asking him why. Rather him than me……

Cornwell left The Stranglers in 1990 and his extensive solo catalogue gets aired tonight via the device of a song from every record.

But it’s ‘Goodbye Toulouse’ from sublime Stranglers debut Rattus Norvegicus IV opening the proceedings as Cornwall prowls around a big circular Persian rug on centre stage, rattling his acoustic guitar and punctuating his chronology of songs with understated anecdotes.

In their heyday the Stranglers were genuinely scary, terrifying the then-powerful music press by relentlessly targeting hacks foolish enough to give them a bad review. Little of that was on show in the vignettes about songs, venues and events from the mid-70s onwards, as Cornwell shed light on his song writing craft and the stellar producers he’s worked with.

And starting his set with ‘Goodbye Toulouse’, ‘No More Heroes’, ‘Nice and Sleazy’ and ‘Nuclear Device’ reminds us that this guy wrote some of the most significant music of mid and late 70s, even at a time when innovation and creativity were stellar.

Supported by one-man orchestra Dave Ford, Cornwalls tarted at 9 and played solo for an hour and 40 minutes, successfully striking a balance between well-known cuts and his more obscure offerings.

‘Deca-dance’, ‘Story of He and She’ and ‘Nerves of Steel’ were compelling, as was unlikely but heartfelt tribute to Robert Michum, ‘The Big Sleep’.

As my (reluctantly attending) wife pointed out, this was a set for enthusiasts and not passing observers but nevertheless, where else do you hear songs about Leon Trotsky’s ice-pick, Lenny Bruce and the Premier of Queensland who sold part of his territory to Japan?

Gig Review: Paul Weller, Hammersmith Apollo, 19 October 2013

21 Oct

Paul Weller and Ronnie Wood on stage @ Hammersmith

Paul Weller at the Hammersmith Apollo: a sell-out home town gig on a Saturday night, last show of the tour and Ronnie Wood on stage with him. That should have been a special gig but it just…wasn’t.

Cherry and I left disappointed so I’ll get the whining over to start with. Far too much mediocre paint-by-numbers rock, an overload of newer material, very little rapport with the audience and only playing for an hour and 40 minutes.

Do I feel better having got that out? No I don’t.

Weller is one of the quintessentially great British songwriters. The Jam’s back catalogue overflows with songs seared in the collective musical consciousness of the UK’s forty and fifty somethings.

Eton Rifles, Going Underground, Town Called Malice, That’s Entertainment, In The City, Strange Town, A-Bomb in Wardour Street, Start!…….the guy had a seemingly inexhaustible creative wellspring and his output with the Style Council and as a solo artist still impressed.

30 years after pulling the plug on The Jam and despite that 3 decade solo back catalogue , Paul Weller somehow failed to do it justice on Saturday evening at Hammersmith.

The last 3 records were plundered for this set and it sounded like he was going for a Radiohead vibe. Who’d have thought this was the guy influenced by the Kinks, the Small Faces and the Who…..

Patches and flashes were still there: ‘Peacock Suit had the place bouncing, ‘Sunflower’, ‘Changing Man’, ‘Wake Up the Nation’ and ‘Floorboards’ likewise – but 6 or 7 songs in an hour and 40 minute set just isn’t enough.

The middle section sagged like a cheap camp bed and looking round the audience I wasn’t alone in thinking that. Cherry said it felt like he was playing in his living room and he wasn’t helped by the sound, which sounded like it was strained through a sock.

Too much bass, minimal high-end, vocals obscure and excess echo and reverb. We were centre stage about 25 feet ahead of the mixing board so – Lord help us – that was the house mix we were getting.

Weller’s daughter appeared to duet with him (pleasingly) on Wishing On a Star and it was joyous seeing Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood on stage, but it wasn’t enough to lift things.

Yes the band were good, even with a percussionist serving no useful purpose, but overall the gig had a disturbingly mediocre feel about it.

And no Paul, playing Start! And a Town Called Malice wasn’t enough.

Film Review: ‘Springsteen & I’

17 Sep


Hyde Park 2011 - I'm on the left near the front...

I wasn’t sure how a film composed of five minute interviews with fans of Bruce Springsteen was going to work, but it did. Ridley Scott put together something much more than the sum of it’s parts, not simply an hour and a half of Bruce fans from all over the world telling you how they’ve loved his music since (insert age) and loved X concert and Y record.

 Instead we had cameos from people sharing intimacy and connection: a twenty-something American-Asian truck driver with a Masters degree and a quietly stated belief that Springsteen spoke not only to but for her; the groundkeeper at Copenhagen’s Parken stadium, John, who saw the Tunnel of Love tour aged 9 and been a fan since; the Manchester couple with the woman interviewing her partner, him telling how he couldn’t really be bothered with the music, wanted the concerts to be shorter but went all over Europe because his wife was a fan; the fifty-something American man calmly describing how Springsteen’s music had been a part of his life for four decades and then breaking down as memory and emotion overwhelmed him; the young guy told his relationship was over the day before a gig, who held up a sign asking for ‘I’m Going Down’ and who ended up on stage with Bruce, being hugged…… revealing insights into the human condition as much as a film about Boss fans.

 Interspersed were precious clips of Springsteen and the E Street Band playing, mined from the Thrill Hill archives and a joy to watch. The film, seemingly, ended with footage of the man and his band across four decades, playing ‘Born to Run’ and as the credits rolled to ‘We Take Care Of Our Own’, some Witney cinema goers headed for the exit.

 What they missed twenty seconds later was ‘bonus footage’ of Springsteen & The E Street band playing half a dozen songs from Hyde Park in 2012, the concert where Paul McCartney joined them on stage for ‘Twist and Shout’ and ‘I Saw Her Standing There’.

 The cinematic scope and volume was akin to being there and the version of ‘Because the Night’ the best I think I’ve ever heard – and I’ve heard dozens. And there was more.

 The Epilogue featured four of the film’s participants brought together for a concert and meeting Springsteen and Jon Landau after. The guy from Manchester’s face was a picture, the overwhelming feeling of the whole film being a sense of connection and shared space: a guy from New Jersey who writes songs that speak to people across the globe and forms part of their lives.

 Yes the guy is a musician and yes, you can just like the music but for millions of others, including this writer, Bruce Springsteen is more than that. This film shows you why.  

Stephen Smith: writer

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