Monday, 2 December 2013

Review of Cate Le Bon at Bush Hall in Shepherd's Bush, London, on November 27, 2013

Cate Le Bon has got hair like Joey Ramone, a voice like a cocktail of Maddy Prior shaken with Nico and a live sound that mashes up Ivor Cutler, clarinets and £4 cans of cold Guinness.

She stepped straight out of the singer-songwriter Sixties and on to the stage of the beautifully bohemian Bush Hall and coolly plucked off the tracklist from new album Mug Museum under the dripping chandeliers and a cloak of deadly nightshade.

As Welsh as Welshpool, Le Bon stared us down straight through the fringe and defied us not to admire her nimble fretwork, her mastery of folky indie pop and her bearded drummer. And admire them we did, drowning under the art deco alabaster and wishing she'd damn well quit the too-cool-for-school routine and give it some real welly.

She almost, almost got going, and we got to our feet like refugees from Manchester Poly and watched and waited to see if she would. But apart from the bit where she forgot the chords and had to start again with a winning chuckle that hinted at the true spirit of her band, it never quite kicked off like the YouTube videos which tempted us to miss Man City v Viktoria Plzen in the first place.

If you ask me, and I know you didn't, Le Bon's live sound is too polite, a mish-mash of styles that lacks distinctiveness and enough decent hooks. It needs to break free, smash through the birdcage like a cuckoo through the walls and kick some ass. To misquote Joey, we don't wanna be sedated.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Review of Jude Law in Henry V at the Noel Coward Theatre in London, November 23, 2013

It's telling that this production is at its best when Jude Law is playing Henry the man rather than Henry the King.

As the King, Law lacks the big-voiced bravado and brio that you expect from Shakespeare's battle-hardened Henry V. But as the Man, Law is charismatic, convincing and winningly human.

That's the main reason why the second half of Michael Grandage's production is so much more enjoyable than the first.

True, Shakespeare loads the first act with so many bishops blathering on about the politics of the day that it's more like a challenging history lesson than a drama. All Law and the sell-out audience can do is sit, watch and wait for the action to start - Law from his throne at the very back of the sparse, white-washed wooden stage, the rest of us peering down the alarmingly steep drop from the top of the old-school Noel Coward Theatre.

When Law is finally called upon to be kingly he seems a bit uneasy, maybe like the young king himself. Even now I'm always amazed at how Shakespearean actors so brilliantly memorise such complex poetry but on this first preview night Law seems in a bit of a rush; "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, " in the midst of Agincourt fizzes past without quite capturing the epic grandeur of the moment.

The Happy Few scene, in contrast, is very nicely done. Law's pre-battle rallying cry starts with his older courtiers scattered around the edges of the Globe-style semi-circular set. By the end he's encouraged a passionate huddle of fighting men with their arms around each other like pre-match footballers around the centre circle: "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers."

But it's in the second half that Law and the rest of the cast really hit their stride. Confidence visibly grows and the audience comes alive. The undoubted highlight is Law's wooing of Jessie's Buckley's charmingly resistant Princess Katherine after his defeat of the French. He paces around her like an agitated teenager desperate to win her first kiss; teasing, cajoling and pleading in pigeon French until he finally faces her on his knees and wins the day just as her father walks in to great comic effect.

Law, now 40, oozes easy Hollywood star quality ten years after that Oscar nomination for Cold Mountain. This is his finest seduction since the clinch with Cameron Diaz in The Holiday that almost won him the MTV Best Kiss Movie Award back in 2006.

The direction feels solidly and traditionally authentic and the play still has resonance; the nationalistic rows between stereotypical Welsh and Scottish characters - complete with one Welshman's victim being forced to bite into a leek - strike a chord in a Britain on the brink of a Scottish independence referendum.

Shakespeare himself could have wandered in straight off St Martin's Lane and felt right at home. And that's good enough for me.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Review of Depeche Mode at Manchester Arena on November 15, 2013

Clifford the big brown dog
I lost track of him during the first number, Welcome To My World. Dave Gahan had just twirled on to the stage like a leather-bound spinning top. Manchester had roared. A fleet of space ships hovered above the stage spurting light and the Depeche Mode logo all over the arena:  > ⋀ ⋀.

I looked round to share a witty remark with him, but he'd vanished. Must be a bladder infection or something, I thought. He'd had to keep nipping to the gents between pints at the Wetherspoon's and the grimly contemporary Mitre pub near the cathedral. Why else would he keep going?

They say you've got the face you deserve when you get to 50. Dave Gahan is 51. He doesn't look four years older than me. I vividly remember the cherubic, chubby chap from Essex grinning his way through Just Can't Get Enough on Top Of The Pops. He's weathered the storms well. The drugs, the years, the bladder tumour. The countless feasts laid at his feet. From Epping to Manchester via world synthrock domination. Try walking in his shoes.

Still no sign of him after that singalong anthem. No text. No tweet. No nothing.

Why do bands seem to lose the joy of living when they get older? Would DM always have sounded like this if Vince Clarke hadn't created such cheerful melodies in the 80s? Would they look and sound plain daft jigging along to New Life thirty years on? That's what they were doing when we paid 80p to see them at Fagin's down the road in '81.

Now they make brooding, angsty, gothy noise - close your eyes during Angel and you could be listening to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Nobody's going to tweak a replacement hip joint dancing to that one. You sway, yes, you think, yes, but you don't dance, no. One Movember victim next to me conked out half-an-hour in. Splat. "Medic!" Carted off by his own personal Jesus.

Still no sign of him.

Maybe Enjoy The Silence marked the start of the DM transformation from kindergarten to autobahn. What a superb song that is. A magnificent closer on the night. Their gotterdamerung key to immortality. Just look around at the thousands of blackened souls living every word and drumbeat of it.

I didn't like the Martin Gore solo bit. No doubt that's because I just don't get enough, I'm not a proper fan, I'm mean-spirited and spiteful. All possibly true. But I paid my £65 plus booking fee to stand there after a Friday afternoon train rattle from that London and I'll say it: he looks sunken-eyed, spooky and unhappy. He makes me sad looking at him. Bring back Dave with his twirling, his Marc Almond showmanship and the happy evidence of a lifetime of sit-ups. Everything counts in large amounts.

Words like violence break the phone silence. A tweet: "Object of ridicule after I lost track of u. sloped off. C wot happens when u hit the north?" That's the Policy Of Truth, alright - another riffy winner on the night.

By now I'd threaded my way to the back to take in the widescreen view of Manchester loving every magical minute of the slow-burning Personal Jesus. The space ships descended and ascended spectacularly. The video screens offered HD proof of the passing of time and claustrophobic lady contortions. Melancholy but stirring nonetheless.

In the gents before the encore one fan, plastic beer glass in one hand something else in the other, was loudly hoping for See You, his night ruined if it wasn't played. He'll get over it.

A tram ride through the drizzle and I found him back in the Wetherspoon's, an unexpected pint of Guinness waiting for me. The drink suited the gig. Dark, roasted, creamy head. Bit too cold.

Monday, 11 November 2013

My Big Fat Culinary Week

For one week, I set out to cook each Dinner Tonight by Lindsey Bareham in The Times. The mystery factor of not knowing what ingredients I needed until I looked in the paper each morning was both exciting and irritating; I couldn't buy anything in advance which called for a daily trip to Waitrose and a steely determination to walk past the ready meal aisles. There were four of us doing the taste test every night. Was it worth it?

Haddock Risotto

Monday: Smoked haddock and parmesan risotto
Haddock Recipe

An immediate challenge on Day One. Everyone knows that risotto takes forever to cook, dribbling bits of stock on fussy rice a third at a time while stirring constantly, and we've all eaten botched, stodgy versions. The amount of haddock Lindsey recommended also seemed a bit stingy so I bought more which pushed up the cost a bit. As it turned out, it was quick and simple, blowing the risotto myth out of the water. And the dinner table verdict - satisfied Mmmmms all round.

Delicious. Smokey, creamy, tangy and very satisfying. Served with a French Sauvignon Blanc for extra sharpness.

Cost of ingredients: £18
Haddock Bill

Aubergine Linguine

Tuesday: Linguine with aubergine, mint and ricotta
linguine recipe

Aubergines, eh? Sounds bland, but the rest of the ingredients looked tasty - chilli flakes, mint, celery, a big dollop of Ricotta cheese. And everybody loves a bit of pasta on a Tuesday. Let's give it a go.

Disappointing. Aubergine too chewy - I think I should have cooked it for longer - sauce too thick with no juices for the linguine to absorb. 
Chilli flakes and mint were kick-ass flavours but we couldn't taste the ricotta cheese. Might have another bash at this one because I'm sure it should taste zingier than that.

Served with Chilean cabernet sauvignon.

Cost of ingredients: £11
Linguine bill

Wednesday: Lancashire Hot Pot
Gah! The Times recipe was for another veggie dish - Pan Haggerty. Didn't fancy another day without meat for dinner so I opted for another traditional British dish using this recipe from The Guardian. I thought it was unusual in calling for lamb chops to be thrown in the pot complete with bones - surely that would result in a big faff for everyone eating it.
It took about three hours to cook in the oven: it was good but a bit over-cooked: I forgot Grace's piano lesson and had to keep it warm for half an hour which made it a bit greasy with dried-out sauce. Nobody enjoyed picking the bones out of it but the meat was deliciously flaky. 
Served with steamed cabbage and leaks.
And a bottle of excellent Jaipur IPA followed by one of their Swan Pale Ales.

Lancashire Hot Pot

Cost of ingredients and beer: £23:
hot pot bill

Thursday: Ginger noodles with sesame white fish

Now this is more like it. Really enjoyed this one. Very simple to cook, fresh and tangy taste, fish tender and flakey. Again, bought more lemon sole than suggested because the amount in the recipe seemed a bit stingy. The sesame seeds did tend to pop everywhere during the frying and there wasn't a lot of liquid for the noodles to absorb. Joe complained that none of the dishes this week had enough sauce. I blame the cook, not the recipe.
Forgot to buy any soy sauce and had to settle for non-black sesame seeds. 
Cost of ingredients: about £18.50.

Fish noodles recipe

Fish Noodles

Here's the receipt:
Noodles Bill

Friday: Eating Out!

So was it worth it? 
Yes it was. It was a satisfying exercise and added variety to the usual weekly menu. But the daily trip to Waitrose became a pain. Better, I think, to plunder a few recipes from the archive and cut the checkout visits to a couple a week.
With the haddock risotto I've discovered a new favourite but I won't be troubling the guys at Masterchef just yet.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Review of Steve Mason at The Ritz in Manchester on November 2, 2013

There can be few better ways to celebrate Manchester City's first top-flight 7-0 win since 1968 than by enjoying a couple of cheeky Unicorns at the Briton's Protection before heading to The Ritz for some soulful Scottish rabble-rousing.

Steve Mason's face-punching new album, Monkey Minds in the Devil's Time, is almost certainly the only one this year to feature quotations from both Dante and Tony Blair. It hints at dark political arts, hypocrisy and a sinister establishment squeezing the pips out of Britain until it honks.

As poetic as Elbow and as strident as a student sit-in, Steve's lyrics scuff with snout and paw while his melodies drift along like Beta Band lullabies. He's at his best when he's bobbing like Boz, tambourine in one hand, bongo stick in the other, piano chords plonking away stage right, urging innocent bystanders to, "Get up and fight them back, with a fist, a boot and a baseball bat."

Some of the more wistful album tracks may have killed the vibe a bit when played live but not for long when there's Steve's Fight The Power shipyard rhetoric between songs and killer melodies like Come To Me to tingle-up the evening with kitchens full of distinction.

Colin kept hoping Steve would surprise us with an impromptu version of Beta Band favourite Dry the Rain, Marco kept telling everyone it'd get going in a minute (one drum kit too few for him) but Guy and I had a great nodding along to a hugely original 90-minute set.

Alarmingly, Steve left it to Blair to have the last word on the night with the sample on gig-closer Fight Them Back: "The thing about Libya, it's potentially a goldmine of a country."

So with Bambi ringing in our ears, we scuttled out into the Manchester drizzle and headed back to the pub before sleeping with the flowers in mile and miles of Albert Squares.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Review of The Wedding Present at Shepherd's Bush Empire, London, on November 1, 2013

I used to love The Wedding Present. I played their wonderful George Best album all the time when it came out in 1987. The combination of desperately bittersweet lyrics and three-chord guitar riffs created some of the best indie pop love songs ever written.

When I was asked to write the weekly Rock On column at the Telegraph & Argus in Bradford in '88 I upset the city's majority of heavy rock fans by insisting on featuring a David Gedge story every week. It didn't help that they were from deadly rivals Leeds down the M606 but that was close enough for me.

Their albums and single after single were great, but their live sound was even better - fuller, feistier and less timid than the recorded WP. One of the happiest, joyful, grin-daft gigs I ever saw featured the band jumping up and down in a circle on stage at the Academy in Manchester to the magnificent chorus of Brassneck. I even went to see their roisterous Ukrainian incarnation somewhere in the ever-dimming past.

I also had the pleasure of interviewing wry, spry David a few times. When I once unwisely complained that they'd run out of Large tee-shirts at one gig he told me to lose some weight and buy a medium. Wise words.

So what a treat to see the band just down the road on Friday. This was the Hit Parade tour, the chronological playback of the dozen singles they charted in 1991. By then I'd left the newspaper and was busy getting married so I wasn't paying full attention to their oeuvre. It was a joy to hear it, see it and feel it lifting the burden of years off the grown-up indie kids in the crowd who came to London but never forgot how to hit the north. There were plenty of Large and Extra Large tee-shirts on sale this time - the George Best version looks even better now than it did then.

Gedge is still the coolest indie kid on the block, Katharine Wallinger is the best bass guitar singer currently wearing a dress and the bonus live addition to the Hit Parade of Brassneck still raises neck hair (all that's left for a lot of fans) and beckons goose bumps from first chord to last.

I'd watch them every week if I could.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Review of Bryan Ferry at the Lowry Theatre in Manchester, October 25, 2013

It all seemed a bit of a nuisance to Bryan last night.

He'd spent the afternoon tweeting from Manchester art gallery during the afternoon while the rest of us dodged the Salford thunder storms and sipped Old Speckled Hen in the theatre foyer.

Then he sent out his seven-piece, black-tied jazz band for 15 minutes to play Jeeves and Wooster versions of some his best-loved songs. So we got novelty 1920s arrangements of Do The Strand, Slave To Love and Avalon with no sight nor sound of the man we'd paid to see sing them. Very irritating.

Eventually out he strolls, lean, weary and resplendent in a flowery dinner jacket and loosely fastened bow tie, with an understated nod of acknowledgement to the Lowry's packed and purple audience.

He approaches the microphone centre stage and opens his mouth. But, horror, what comes out is not the rich and creamy sound of Roxy Music, but a frail and fragile whisper, barely audible above the band, so wheezy at the high notes that it sounds as though the microphone might have a loose connection. It didn't improve much as he ploughed through an uninspiring set list.

For such a veteran professional, he also spent far too long with his back to the crowd facing his lady drummer, as though this was the soundcheck rather than the performance. Then he walked off stage in the middle of one of many horrible and hairy guitar solos, abandoning us to suffer its unwelcome duration on our own.

Things got  worse when Bryan returned with a misjudged tribute to Charlie Parker. We all sighed and sank in our purple seats wishing he'd done a tribute to more Bryan Ferry songs instead.

We did get his version of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and a crowd-pleasing Oh Yeah - lots of groaning at the end - before he sent everyone off to the interval toilet queues whistling Lennon's Jealous Guy.

It was all a bit flat, not helped by the killjoy Lowry usher in the red tee shirt who urgently wobbled over to instruct a paying customer to stop pointing her mobile phone at Bryan, a quaintly Canute-like stand against the digital tide.

Things did warm up a bit in the second half, his two-and-a-half backing singers dancing a joyful charleston in sparkling green, Bryan sneaking on stage to sit behind an electric piano, until finally the stalls crowd rose to its feet for the triumphant Love Is The Drug and Let's Stick Together, with its glorious one-note sax-blast opening.

But where was the between-song banter, the warmth, the joy of playing to Manchester's Ferry faithful? It was a 
messy, soulless, disconnected gig rather than the "Evening With" promised on the ticket.

At the end he waved and blew kisses and returned to the mic to quip, "So i guess I'll see you again tomorrow."

Not if I see you first, Bryan.

On stage: 8pm
Interval: 9pm for 20 mins
End: 10.25pm after a one-song encore.
Stalls ticket: £67

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Review of Johnny Marr at The Roundhouse, London, on October 18, 2013

"Make way, make way, classic indie riff coming through," and there it was: the roaring, teeth-clenched bitterness of Bigmouth Strikes Again exploding all over the Roundhouse like an IED from the 80s. Sweetness, I was only joking when I said you should be bludgeoned in your bed, the strumming as big and bold as brass, bouncing of the assembled bald heads bobbing like apples in a bucket.

Can you believe it's 30 years since I saw Johnny Marr for the first time at the Hacienda? I was supposed to go with Des, but he turned up at The Salisbury in Oxford Road and announced he'd finally got Margaret to go on a date with him. So I went on my own. This Charming Man with Johnny's breathtaking fretwork had been released hours earlier. I grinned from blistering start to gladioli-garlended finish, knowing that nothing would ever be the same again. Months later at another brilliant gig in the more mannered venue of the Free Trade Hall, Des mournfully regretted his choice of evening. It was his only date with Maggie.

Those now crow-footed grins were back at Johnny's second song last night - Panic, a triumphant denigration of England's suburbs from a time when Humberside still existed and we all wondered if life really ever would be sane again. I eventually found a job on those Leeds side-streets that we slipped down. Heaven knows...

Then it was Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want, that magical Marr mandolin shimmering underneath a classic Morrissey lyric. The lazy luddites who called him and them miserable just didn't get it.

It's the same with the dunderheaded speed-readers who've been so quick to denounce Mozzer's Autobiography this week. The melodramatic memories of his miserable Manchester schooldays are comic masterpieces. Like Smiths songs, his unique style mocks the mundane horror of everyday life and makes each household appliance sound like a new science. Man In a Suitcase, Belle and Sebastian, Ron Ely's black and white Tarzan on TV - anyone who lived through it will recognise it with a grey-haired sigh and get moist-eyed at the fact they've escaped almost intact.

Take us back, Johnny, to a time when our quiffs were still colourful. And he did it again, brimmed black hat on jet black hair, trim and bouncing-fit in drainpipe black jeans, the first gutteral, chuntering chords of How Soon Is Now? spinning us in a Tardis back to a holiday caravan on Anglesey in '83, drinking too much with Des and Paul and listening to a Smiths Peel session on the radio. What the heck was that sound and how did he do it? He was doing it again last night amid the roars.

And he can sing alright. But didn't every single person in the Roundhouse wish Morrissey would appear from nowhere fast, that son and heir of a shyness that was criminally vulgar, and tell us he'd already waited too long? But all our hope went long ago.

On he goes, the future classics from his Messenger album ably filling the gaps between the songs we still carry fully-loaded in our sage and ancient heads. First he surprised us with Getting Away With It, that odd collaboration with Barney from New Order and one of the Pet Shop Boys, an unlikely super-group from the days when Jimmy Saville was still allowed on Top of the Pops despite our worst fears and suspicions.

Then Stop Me if you think you've heard this one before, but it's true - I do still love you, not even slightly less than I used to. And then the mighty, mighty encore. If a double decker bus crashes into us, to die by your side, well the pleasure and the privilege is mine. There Is Light That Never Goes Out, another joyous song created by that guy right there on the stage, a song that a million unhappily-divorced indie couples danced to in front of their weepy friends on their wedding night, vowing an eternity that fizzled out like a vinyl record's final, crackle-popped fade.

It's undeniable: Marr picks better Smiths songs to play solo than Morrissey ever did. Why don't they just boot the grime of this world in the crotch and get back together before it's too damn late?

At last and too soon, Johnny jumped a McCartney-style skip and a gave us a See Ya, Camden. We crept out of the old tram shed, ten-ton trucks convoying in our heads, the past alive in our hearts, the future as uncertain as ever, the present a pot-luck voyage on the Northern Line.

I wonder what Des is doing now?

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Review of Brian Appleton at Leicester Square Theatre in London, October 7, 2013

Brian Appleton is a bitter man. And with good reason. Time and time again he’s been at the forefront of a musical revolution only for someone else to steal his Thunderclap Newman. He’s been dumped on from a great height by the music biz more than once and he never tires of telling anyone who’ll listen.

Around 70 sympathisers gathered in the lounge of Leicester Square Theatre to listen to Brummie Brian’s tales of broken promises, broken dreams and a broken heart. This is the singer-songwriter who paved the way for The Moody Blues, The Rolling Stones and The Smiths only to end up whistling his own unrecorded tunes in the staff toilets of a clingfilm factory in Nuneaton; tunes that a fellow factory worker called Howard Jones stole as his own and turned into some of the biggest hits of the 80s.

So instead of a life on the nostalgia pop circuit, the Leo Sayer-lookalike has been forced to sell his guitar effects pedal to buy washing powder and take a job as a Staffordshire-based touring history lecturer, a subject that allows him to combine his love of darts and music in a unique interpretation of our island story since 1066.

His lecture is interspersed with musical examples of the genres he pioneered without acknowledgement; a prog rock parody as pitch perfect as his pixie voice, a musical biog of scandalised John Profumo and, the highlight of the night, It’s My Turn To Be Poorly, a homage to man-flu written weeks before Morrissey unleashed an uncannily similar brand of deadpan pop misery on an adoring student body. 

Bitter: Brian
Like that other eccentric touring musician John Shuttleworth, Brian is brilliantly obsessed with the ordinary and the banal; the exact location of Crawley, the power of the pomegranate and the genius of darts legend Eric Bristow. His acoustic songs of loss and pain have more than a whiff of Jilted John’s seminal post-punk lyric about that big puff Gordon the moron and share the Britishness of the poetry of Philip Larkin.

Appleton’s self-deluded misery makes for a thoroughly entertaining evening at his expense. It would be even better if he ditched the general history lesson and focused solely and soulfully on his and our musical heritage. But as comic creations go, he’s right up there with the bitterest of them.

Brian Appleton's website and tour dates can be found here.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Two Naked Ladies, Three Points For City, Ten Things Learned

Manchester City 3 Everton 1

1. The Crown and Sceptre in Shepherd's Bush has standing-room only for non-QPR fans on match days. Don't even think about sitting on one of those empty stools. They're for some bloke who'll be there in a minute. Best you can hope for is to watch the 12.45pm kick off on the mute big screen surrounded by straining hooped shirts, loud hubbub and the smell of scorched Thai food.

2. The young Rangers fan stood next to me in the baggy cap and bushy beard told me he'd put a fiver on Lukaku to score the first goal at 8-1. His was the loudest cheer when Joe Hart let another one under his right arm for Everton's opener.

3. Aguero could have had a first half hat-trick. His goal was another brilliant finish but what a shame he put that other one wide after the slickest City move of the season. One of my wife's favourite things in the house is the signed photo of Aguero on the wall upstairs. Performances like that one today are why it's there.

4. I was the only person in the pub who punched the air when he scored.

5. If you jog part of the way you can make it from the Crown and Sceptre to The Raven on Goldhawk Road during half-time. No Rangers fans in there, just a big screen with BT Sport on it, a Chesterfield sofa with my name on it and a bar serving the sensationally citrusy Naked Ladies from Twickenham Ales. One for each second half goal.

6. Fernandinho is still way off the pace. Will he ever get on it? At the moment he's a yard behind everyone else on both teams.

7. If David Silva stays fit and on form, City will win the title. He was man of the match by a mile today; quick feet, extraordinary vision, deadly accurate passing. Sterling etc.

8. Former ref Mark Halsey is a good addition to BT Sport's commentary team. It was refreshing to hear him calling it like it is and saying how poor referee Jonathan Moss was. There were never nine yellow cards in that match.

9. Aguero should be credited with the goal from the penalty. He kicked and it went in the net. The deflection off the post and Howard's comedy beard wouldn't have happened if Aguero hadn't kicked the ball. Howard doesn't want it. Give it to Kun.

10. I almost subscribed to BT Sport but decided to spend their hilarious £15 "activation fee" in the pub instead. A wise decision.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Searching For The Taste Of The USA In The Drinking Heart Of London

Everyone knows that Americans make the best IPAs. Everyone except Evo. Despite the incontrovertible evidence of the Great British Beer Festival, he won't give up.

"I'm sorry, mate, I'm not having it. You can't beat good, British beers. There's no contest," he said while supping another Guinness in The Three Greyhounds.

Right, well let's see about that. The London Plane trees are still in leaf and summer is still alive. Time to seek out the ultimate taste of the drinking man's season - a deliciously big-flavoured mouthful of thirst-quenching, citrusy IPA from the USA.

We started at The White Horse in Newburgh Street, that great Nicholson's boozer surrounded by end-of-summer flower boxes just off Carnaby Street. This pump looks promising - Chinook IPA, a name conjuring images of Apocalypse Now choppers, complete with an American flag on the beer clip. Hold on a minute - turns out it's brewed in Walsall by the Backyard Brewhouse. A decent bitter but about as American as a trip up the M6. Conned!

Evo was already on the black stuff for some spurious reason so Geoff and I had a quick refresher of Liberation South Island from the Channel Islands. The magical hops in that one sound like a list of super heroes - Dr Rudi, Kohatu, Motueka, Green Bullet. Their super powers have created a jolly blonde beer that whetted the appetite for a proper IPA.

So off we cantered to The Ship on Wardour Street, a now over-rated and rather smelly Fuller's pub where you can sit next to an eye-level shelf full of ketchup bottles. But it does sell Wild River, a very un-Fuller's-like seasonal pale ale that uses those big-skied Red White and Blue hops - Liberty, Willamette, Cascade and Chinook (there it is again) - to create a fabulously grapefruity throat-pleaser. I love it. Tastes more like Sierra Nevada than Chiswick. Evo stuck with Guinness.

Geoff: "Guinness? You're having a laugh."
Next stop, the Coach and Horses in Greek Street, another one of those tatty Soho legends whose reputation is bigger than its beer range. It's got a scribbly new sign outside announcing its new status as a vegetarian pub but no sign of an IPA, so we settled for a pint of London Pride. Always reliably malty when the going gets tough.

No sign of it there
A few purposeful strides later we found ourselves in The Three Greyhounds, another beautifully wood and glassed Nicholson's pub. But wait, here's another joker in the hand-pump pack: what beer do you think of when you see the name Samuel Adams? I think Boston, Massachusetts. This one's from Faversham, Kent.

But Samuel Adams Blonde Ambition is brewed by Shepherd Neame from a recipe devised in conjunction with the Boston Beer Company using a mixture of US and UK hops. I'm not usually a big fan of SN beers - bit too sweet for me - but this one had a hint of that elusive grapefruit bitterness, even though it was a bit past its best. It was brewed to celebrate American Independence Day so maybe it was reaching the bottom of the barrel by the end of September.

So Evo remained unconvinced and bailed out, leaving me and Geoff to complete the day's quest at The Old Coffee House in Beak Street, the Soho outpost of the excellent Brodie's brewery in the East End. A quick scan of the bar and there it was - Old Street Pale Ale, Sim Coe and Citra hops all the way in their showboat American ale.

It was probably asking too much to expect a draft American IPA on a routine drinking day in Soho. A beer festival is much more likely to produce a result. But in the meantime let's salute in a General Stonewall Jackson-style the Brit brewers who are using US recipes and hops to create the taste of the States in the streets of Soho.

Two drinkers at The Three Greyhounds

Monday, 23 September 2013

Top Ten Lessons From Manchester City 4 Manchester United 1 Yesterday

1. That's me in the corner. That's me in the spotlight. Losing my Pellegrigion a split-second before that man-mountain Toure made it 2-0. My hair seems to be going a bit grey.

2. "Everyone's predicting a draw," said my dad when he met me off the tram in Chorlton. Not me. I rarely call it right but I told anyone who would listen in The Oddest Bar (ie nobody) that City would win 4-1. Maybe it was the Titanic Atlantic and the Acorn bitter talking. To be fair, my United-fan dad went for 2-1 to City.

Photo: V Hunt
3. The Punjab doesn't open on Sunday afternoons. We found out when Vince chauffered us to the Curry Mile in Rusholme. But the Kebabish - the Thrill Of The Grill - does a pre-match chicken jalfrezi of the very highest quality - even though it doesn't serve ale.

4. That new white City away shirt is a beauty. I'd promised myself I wouldn't waste my money on a replica jobby this season but couldn't resist its overpriced Nike allure when I saw it in the club shop before the match. It's my new lucky shirt.

5. That was the most exhilarating City performance I can remember in a derby and I've seen most of the previous 165. Power, pace, purpose, zippy passes - it could have been another six. I remember that time in 1994 we were winning 2-0 at half time in a derby at Maine Road and we lost 3-2. My United-fan brother had a good chuckle in the Kippax that day. He wasn't laughing last night. Just being mean on Twitter.

6. Nasri joins Dzeko on the Born Again list under Pellegrini. He was the official Man of the Match in the stadium and who could argue after his very French flick to Kolarov led to Aguero's opener and the assured side-foot finish for his own goal. We've almost forgotten his fiasco in the wall which led to Van Persie's free kick winner last season. Almost.

7. Nasri was run close for man of the match by Kompany. What a roaring performance. He won everything in the air, was first to every tackle and set the standard from kick off.

8. With the outstanding exception of Rooney, United were awful. I can't remember a more one-sided derby. "You'll never play for City!" chanted the City fans to Shrek. Shame he lost his nerve when he could have joined the revolution three or four years ago.

Vince celebrates in his burgundy away shirt
9. A man sitting on the track at Stone forced the 18:36 Manchester to London train full of Cockney Blues to divert via Stafford on the way home. Unable to confirm suggestions it was David Moyes. Too harsh to run him over? Yes, I think so.

10. TV's John Stapleton slept right through the short delay in his first class seat. Great pro.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Why Manchester City Couldn't Beat Stoke City on Saturday

Stoke City 0 Manchester City 0

1. Pellegrini doesn't know what his best team is yet. Leaving Aguero on the bench was heart-sinking. Jovetic was invisible on his debut, Rodwell is an accident waiting to happen, Nasri is not the man you want in midfield against Stoke, Navas is too good to be saved for the last ten minutes.

 2. City were clueless. No organisation, poor passing, no width, no pace, no creativity in midfield, no Silva. Yaya is a shadow of the player that scored the winner in the FA Cup final against Stoke two years ago.

 3 City's players seemed distracted. This was an unglamorous fixture inbetween that truly awful international week and the first Champions League group match - and it showed. Significant that Aguero'a post-match tweet focused on the Uefa match.

 4. If he's even half fit, Aguero has to start. He came on after an hour and was the best player on the pitch. Superb balance, direct running, making Robert Huth break sweat for the first time in the match.

 5. Negredo was disappointing on his first start. He'd earned his chance but all we got was a couple of embarrassing fall overs and not a chance on goal.

 6. Pellegrini is struggling a bit. The fans haven't warmed to him and he's not helping himself by ignoring them with his hands in his pockets as they applaud him off at the end. Much is made of his happy dressing room. I'd rather have a miserable, winning one.

 7. Stoke were dull but should have won. Walters had a free header four yards out in the first half, Nasri gifted Jones a one-on-one that Hart did well to keep out and they went close in the second half. A typical Mark Hughes team. If Tony Pulis had been in charge they would have won.

 8. Stoke has two excellent pubs. The Glebe and The White Star about five minutes apart. Almost worth the trip on their own. Not a reason for the draw but worth noting.

9. City fans still like Stevie Ireland. And judging by his big grin and applause at the end, Superman still likes us.

 10. Javier Garcia did ok at centre half. Fair play to him. But it's a poor show and very bad luck that Kompany, Micah and the new bloke Demichelis are all crocked.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Review of Selena Gomez at the Hammersmith Apollo in London, September 8, 2013

It's the screaming that will stay with me forever. I've never heard anything like it. The very definition of ear piercing. Nineteen hours later and the delirium of three thousand teenage girls is still muffling my spider senses. It was like all the wild parakeets of west London had turned up together.

It must be stunning to be the cause of such wonderful joyfulness. The warning signs were there when a burly bloke wandered on stage to tune-up one of the support act's guitars. I thought The Beatles had shown up. I bet he doesn't hear that kind of reception at your average indie gig.

But this is no indie kid. This is the cute little girl that delighted a generation of Disney Channel eight-year-olds as Alex in the fabulous Wizards of Waverly Place. The kid who outgrew Mickey and now aged 21 is delighting those same kids who are older, streetwiser and with their own Spotify accounts.

Like everyone else, she's in a rush to grow up. This from Nobody Does It Like You: "I wanna be a bad girl, you bring out my wild side. Your sexy kind of slang the best I've ever had." They don't talk like that on the Disney Channel.

Last night she put on great, grown-up show with a voice like Betty Boop, hot pants like Kylie and a clinically efficient chart sound that mashes up pop, dance, and auto-tuned rap.

She dances pretty much non-stop, making sure everyone in the newly-refurbished art deco Apollo, grandly green and gold like the nearby bridge, felt like they got their own wave and their own smile. Two fabulously less petite dancers add to the energy in the essential hot pants and Selena t-shirts on either side of her. A DJ-style keyboard player stands mysteriously on a plinth behind her, the guitarist and rhythm section tucked safely away in the corner, leaving as much stage as possible for Selena to fill. And fill it she does, especially when she's bending over backwards with her long, black hair flailing all over the place to more and more delighted wailing.

The big video screen at the back of the stage was three-quarters hidden by the speaker stack from where we were sat - boo to that, Apollo - if it was a football match those would be "partially obstructed" discounted tickets. Selena used it to chapter-head the various show sections by showing herself looking like a Latino Alice in Wonderland in front a series of white doors. Which would she go through? Would we get street dance Selena, fairytale Selena with the spangly microphone, pop strut Selena, rocking Selena? We got them all by the end of the night.

There wasn't much chat, apart from the obligatory hello Hammersmith, I love you, and are you still with me having a good time (of course we were), but maybe we got a small insight into the young woman behind the wizard in her intro to my favourite, Who Says, a song treading the familiar teen theme of being yourself even when everyone's beastly to you.

"Sometimes when I've had a bad day and I wonder what I'm doing in my life, and I look at social media and see what people are saying. And I think, you know what, don't listen to anyone who says you can't do that, or that you're not beautiful, or you're a bad person. Who says that?"

Anyone who followed the Twitter outrage that followed Selena's break-up with little Justin Bieber will know that quite a lot of people say things like that, actually.

The 90-minute show ended with an encore of fans' favourite Slow Down and a hugely impressive shower of ticker tape. By then we'd forgotten the smell of fresh paint. But we had proof if proof were needed that Selena Gomez is the pin-up girl for thousands of young women all over the world and good luck to her.

She's also got a bath in her tour bus. A fact revealed by the infectiously confident front-kid of support act The Vamps. It was good to see the ukelele continuing its renaissance in his hands, sounding as Formbyesque as ever in punky pogo-pop covers of Busted, The Killers and Simon and Garfunkel. The foursome had been hanging out in the Gomez coach that very afternoon and were blown away by the bathroom: "A bath in her bus! How cool is that?"

Yep, that's pretty cool. Well worth a scream.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

14 Things We Learned at Manchester City 2 -0 Hull City

Anthem time: this season's is West Wing-stylee
1. The man in charge of Manchester's trams likes stroking tigers. There's a picture of him doing it on his Facebook page. I suggest Metrolink chief executive Dr Jon Lamonte grabs the city's transport tiger by the tail and lays on some extra trams on match day. There were 46,500 fans trying to get to the Etihad for a 12.45pm kick off and a tram from the city centre to the stadium only every 11 minutes. When they arrived at Piccadilly Gardens they were already packed like the old Kippax stand on derby day. When the marooned fare-paying fans voiced their frustration one hired goon in a high-vis jacket told us to stop slagging off the service - there'd be another along in a few minutes. Epic fail, Doc.

Fans but no trams
2. Jesus Navas doesn't know where he should be playing yet. He was the official man of the match yesterday and no doubt he'll be sensational when he settles down. He was signed as a winger but popped up all over the field - in the centre circle, on the left, behind the strikers. I want to see him with that cliche of touchline chalk all over his boots.

3. If you leave your season ticket on the mantelpiece in London the obliging ticket office staff will give you a paper replacement for the day. No charge. Excellent service. But don't forget it again, you idiot.

4. Tom Huddlestone should be playing for England. He was the outstanding midfielder yesterday - strong, energetic, great touch, great drive. He looks the part, too, with that quality hair-stack. He if can keep the weight off and stay fit he'll be brilliant for Hull and a big loss for Spurs.

5. Edin Dzeko is inconsistent. He was unplayable against Newcastle, less so against Cardiff last Monday and ineffectual in the first half yesterday before being subbed. Sometimes he just can't seem to get going.

6. We're going to have to put up with John Smith's bitter for another few seasons. City are delighted with themselves for signing a new deal with Heineken to provide all the drinks in the stadium. Good for business, bad for bitter drinkers. I know it's tough to care for proper beer but if music festivals and Lord's cricket ground can do it at weekends, so should the richest football club in the world.

7. Steve Bruce doesn't look well. The red-faced Hull manager is great - passionate, funny and with three Premier League titles as a player and two Championship promotions as a manager with Birmingham City he's no mug. But he needs to lose three stone and stop getting so worked up on the touchline or he'll do himself a mischief.

8. Joleon Lescott keeps making daft mistakes. For such an accomplished defender he's prone to what pundits call a lapse of concentration every so often that can lead to catastrophe. He almost cost us the title with that back header that led to one of QPR's goals in the Aguerooooooo match. Yesterday he misjudged an innocuous ball which led to Aluko's one-on-one with Joe Hart. We need to sign another defender tomorrow.

9. Sone Aluko is a handful. He fluffed that one-on-one but was a real pain all match. He's direct, he wins free kicks all over the field and he's quick. Robbie Savage laid into him on Match of the Day last night - unfair. He's a good player.

10. City fans want more from Yaya. Lots of moaning around the Colin Bell stand yesterday and he does seem to be cantering rather than galloping at the moment. But when he can deliver free kicks like those, he deserves a bit of leeway - that's two kicks, two goals. And he'll get fitter.

11. We're not sure what Manuel Pellegrini is up to yet. Are we playing with two strikers and a winger all season or going to mix it up? We looked much better in the second half with Negredo up front on his own - but I like us with two strikers. One of the many reasons I'm not a football manager.

12. Alvaro Negredo is a fabulous striker. We've only seen him as a sub so far but he's a proper old-school centre forward. He wears the number 9 shirt, he's powerful in the air, holds up the ball well and is quick, too. Great headed goal yesterday. He should start against Stoke next time.

13. Joe Hart still looks a bit nervy. Couple of good moments yesterday but in the first half he came out for one then dithered and then gave us all kittens in the second half with one of those drag-backs in front of an onrushing striker on his six-yard line. Stop it!

13. Phil Dowd spends too much time lecturing players. The ref has cut down on the chips, now he needs to cut down on the chat. Book them or play on. We don't want to sit there watching players being spoken to like naughty schoolboys - there's a match on.

14. The title looks a long way off. But it's going to be a great season and I fancy us to win it.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Things We Learned At The Great British Beer Festival 2013

1. If you go with a chap with unusual hair, you need to be someone who can enjoy the dazzling array of ales while retaining your sense of humour, tolerance and patience. The hair will be challenged - early and often, and not just by Armstrong and Miller. So-called normal-haired drinkers will approach to laugh, mock, covertly photograph and occasionally praise. This was at its best when a couple of Spurs fans wandered over for a chat near the American beers bar and at its worst when a giggling group approached with a handwritten sign saying "knobhead" on it and asked if it was ok if the chap with unusual hair held it for a group photo. I ask you, dear liberal-minded ale drinker - who is the real knobhead in that situation?

2. The atmosphere on Friday is very different to Wednesday. I've gone in midweek for the last ten years or more, but this year I had to go on what is usually the busiest day of the festival. There were a lot more large and loud groups of the sort of younger weekend drinkers you tend to find dressed as super heroes in Manchester city centre. I'm going on Wednesday next year.

3. Porters and stouts are still seducing the medal judges for some inexplicable reason. A thick, impenetrable ale seems to win every year - this year it was Elland's 1872 Porter (6.5%) from West Yorkshire. It seems the Camra top tongues are not content with their sensational success in turning us into a nation of real ale drinkers - they won't stop until we're all glugging nothing but chocolatey, roasted, black beer. Forget it. This is August and we should be raising our golden, citrus-drenched IPAs towards the swifts and swallows.

4. Don't bother queuing for the Champion Beer of Britain. Demand means it's rationed for certain key times - 6.30pm on Friday after being picked by the porter-pooters on Tuesday. The queue started around 6pm and snaked around Olympia. We dutifully joined it and got chatting to another festival-goer. He soon persuaded us we were wasting our time and should try something from the Tatton Brewery instead. Turns out he owned it. But the Tatton Gold at 4.8% was indeed backed by a robust hop character. Just didn't get his name.

5. IPAs are the kings of beers. The rest are dusty, backroom ne'er-do-wells in comparison. I love them. The American ones set the standard but their huge alcohol content means you have to approach The Spirit of Enterprise bar with extreme caution to go with your jaunty festival glass. The explosion of hoppiness is worth every percentage point - Sierra Nevada's Side Car Amber Ale (5.6%) made me laugh out loud and Stone Brewing's Stone Ruin Ten IPA (10.8%) - both from California -  was like getting tickled all over by a gooseberry.

6. Scribbled tasting notes made towards the end of the evening are tricky to decipher the next day: "I've got an Art Brew Monkey and a BG Sips. Fair dinkum." Meaningless.

7. My favourites this year: Ramsbury Belapur (5.5%) IPA from Wiltshire - it's got everything, Jerry; Tyne Bank Southern Star (5%) from Tyne & Wear - a deliciously sharp and limey New Zealand IPA; Abbeydale Deception (4.1%) from South Yorkshire - stringent apples, pears and peaches; Great Heck's Yakima IPA from North Yorkshire - a fabulous, strong, 7.4% ballbreaker; Raw's Grey Ghost IPA - excellent 5.9% refresher from Derbyshire; Liberation Ale (4%) from the happily liberated Channel Islands - complex blackberry profundity; Greene King IPA Gold (4.1%) - sweet, crisp, vanilla.

8. Ones to avoid: Moorhouse's Black Cat mild from Burnley - weak, weedy and a bit vinegary; Sulwath's The Grace from Dumfries and Galloway - dusty and too damn sweet; Rother Valley's Smild from East Sussex - had us grimacing; Greene King's Belhaven Black - made me cough; Stringer's No. 2 Stout from Cumbria - tasted like roast chocolate caramels. That's it - no more black stuff until November at the earliest.

9. Don't lose track of time if you want to see Alvin Stardust play live. I've always liked his glam rock hits - My Coo-Ca-Choo is magnificent. He did two sets - one from his rock 'n' roll Shane Fenton years and a second from his better 70s days. We got to the Olympia stage just after the Fenton years had finished and didn't make it to part two. Shame. He's 70 and got more stamina than me.

10. This year's festival programme colour-coded the beers so you knew if they were dark, pale or inbetween before pestering the heroic volunteers staffing the bars. Great idea.

11. Olympia is a great venue for the GBBF. I prefer it to Earl's Court. It's a more manageable size, the bars are closer together and it's slightly nearer to my house. And this year it didn't leak.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Review of The Proclaimers at the Holt Festival in Norfolk, July 26, 2013.

"Good evening, Holt!" And there they were. The Proclaimers, one of the best song-writing duos Britain has produced, on one of the most picturesque, intimate, tree-surrounded stages in the land.

Under warm summer skies at the beautiful Theatre In The Woods at Gresham's School, they exploded like startled wood pigeons from the trees with their vivacious, life-affirming songs, Craig's right knee jerking away, Charlie's acoustic guitar soaring into the leaf canopy, and those wonderful Celtic harmonies making us all feel glad to be together in Norfolk with our Yetman's beer and our hog roasts and our Back To The Garden barbecued burgers.

Charlie and Craig have been celebrating love, joy, heartbreak, family and sunshine on Leith for more than a quarter of a century. The twins are 51 now, looking the same as ever in their short sleeves trademark specs, the hair not quite as red as it was, and they've never sounded better. Tonight theyd brought the full band with them, a tight-knit Hibs squad of drums, bass, keyboards and electric/slide guitar musicians.

"This first came out in 1987," said Craig three songs in, and the first chords of Letter From America prompted a dash from the seats to the mini-mosh pit. Take a look at the rail track, and there was a Norwich City flag held proudly aloft by a veteran fan who hadn't kept the weight off nearly as well as the Reid brothers.

Next up, I'm On My Way, that soulful journey from misery to happiness today, aha, aha, and we were on our feet, clapping and singing and joining them on that odyssey.

Then it was Let's Get Married, an anthem about getting old and staying together even better than When I'm 64. And then the ultimate Scottish folk-ballad, my heart was broken, sorrow, sorrow, but while I'm worth my room on the earth, Sunshine On Leith with its classic slide steel-guitar reprise is one of the finest songs about redemption you'll hear played under the stars in Norfolk or anywhere else on God's green earth.

In a flash, the defining Proclaimers moment was on us. I'm Gonna Be, that genius song about a thousand-mile love pilgrimage, is always one of the great festival moments. I saw them at T In The Park near Edinburgh a dozen years ago, sunburnt as lobsters, delighting a sell-out crowd with it. Now, thanks to Hollywood, not Holyrood, 500 Miles is thrilling a whole new generation of fans wherever it's played.

They rounded off a tremendous show with King Of The Road, the Roger Miller country classic they've claimed as their own Scottish-brogued theme song. No pool, no pets, but lots of mobile phones held aloft and a fitting way to round off the highlight of a very modern Norfolk festival.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Review of John Hegley at the Holt Festival, Norfolk. July 23, 2013

That's the first time I've been instructed to write a poem in an interval. Seriously, £16 a ticket to watch a poet and I have to write my own poem? Then listen to a bunch of audience limericks as bad as my own being read out for most of the second half?

Oh, stop being so grumpy. The whole point of John Hegley is to celebrate poetry as a shared experience relevant to us all right now, not just to dusty, long-haired, ivory-towered English literature lecturers with tissues and hand cream on their ramshackle desks.

He's the post-punk People's Laureate in the lineage of Gil Scott-Heron and Roger McGough. A brilliant wordsmith playing with our language, tapping out a rhythm with his plimsolls and baggy suit, nodding his bespectacled, greying head to the beat of his audacious rhymes.

And what rhymes. Dizzying seabird flights of fancy about guillemots, Auden in Iceland, needing you like an endless list of amusing similes and a couplet impresario pairing furniture with returnitt'yer.

I remember him from the John Peel sessions in the 80s. He's 59 now and at his most entertaining when playing along with a mandolin to his whimsical word pictures of growing up in Luton, worshipping his brother, missing his parents, being in love, being alive.

At times it felt like we'd wandered into a dry-iced poetry workshop in the theatre at the heart of Gresham's School, surrounded by an idyllic cricket ground, tennis courts, whispering trees and gelato ice creams on the lawn. I'd have preferred more Hegley and less uninspirational audience input, but the evening came alive when he split the almost-full theatre in three and had us waving our our arms like wings, our hands like fish and mumbling along about blancmange.

He was a perfect booking for the Holt Festival. The more short-sighted among us tapped along on our eye glasses as instructed, sipped Adnam's from our plastic glasses and headed home with a poem in our hearts and a slight sense of jealousy that our crap schools hadn't been a patch on the one we'd just visited. And it was only £5 a ticket for the kids.