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.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Review of The Magic Of The Bee Gees at Cromer Pier, Norfolk, July 21, 2013

I'm surprised they didn't write I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside. They wrote pretty much everything else. A couple of hours at the end of fabulous Cromer Pier at this tribute show is enough to convince you of that. Islands In The Stream for Dolly and Kenny? Check. Chain Reaction for Diana Ross? Yup. Guilty for Barbra Streisand? With pleasure. It's 31 years since they revived Dionne Warwick's career with Heartbreaker. And those are just songs for other people.

Of course, it wasn't the three bearded blokes on stage in the very cool little Pavilion Theatre who wrote that superb pop music. Not Reluctant Robin, the stationary man in the middle clearly wondering what he was doing there. Not Musician Maurice, the man on the pre-programmed Roland driving the whole show with a smile and a hat. Not even Showbiz Barry, by far the best lookalikey on view with his lion's mane hair and open-neck shirt revealing a chunky medallion resting on a hairy chest, his love of a guitar solo evident whenever possible.

But of the real Gibb brothers only Barry remains. And while he's selling out shows at arenas round the country this autumn, those of us who can't get tickets can be happy to enjoy this bracing revue.

For the first half they dressed as 80s Bee Gees, all long black leather coats and shades, note perfect with You Win Again and Night Fever. What they lacked in dynamism they made up for with the sound. Shut your eyes and it really could be Barry's falsetto up there.

After the ice cream interval it was classic 70s Bee Gees; white flares, shiny silver shirts - only the dance moves were missing, restricted to an occasional synchronised right arm raise. The guys on stage left the sizzling Sunday night fever strutting to the ladies in their prime on the left of the stalls and a handful of free spirits on the right.

The best stagecraft of the night came from the other tributees: a superb Streisand who nailed every note of Woman In Love while Barry was glancing down at the words; a foxy Dionne all in black for All The Love In The World and back again in long black wig and red sequins for Diana's Chain Reaction.

Up in the excellent circle we swayed and tapped and sangalong and enjoyed every authentic minute of it. People around us were genuinely moved when the boys dedicated a sparkling performance of Words to the lost Gibbs - another example of the astonishingly prodigious output of my fellow Chorlton-cum-Hardymen.

After the encore we walked out onto the boardwalk, the North Sea rolling beneath our feet, Cromer twinkling in front of us, and enjoyed another great thing about watching tribute bands in seaside towns: no mad dash for the last tube home and no blokes selling knock-off tee-shirts on the pavement. We've got nothing to be guilty of.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Review of the Rolling Stones at Hyde Park, London. July 13, 2013

That's it. I've seen the Rolling Stones live. Never before and probably never again but I've done it. I'm pretty sure it was them, too. There in the distance, the snake-hipped guy with unbelievable energy, delighting a massive crowd with sheer rock 'n' roll presence from first song to last. The older-looking guitarist with the shock of grey hair and blue headband. The trim-looking grey-haired drummer in the green t-shirt crafting every rhythm with the minimum of effort. The younger looking guitarist with the spiky black hair. Yep - that's them.

Confirmation came on the big screens, massive like everything else at Hyde Park. A skyscraper-screen behind the band, two house-sized screens either side of the fake-oak tree-fringed super-stage, other jumbotrons stretching into the distance from Hyde Park Corner to Marble Arch. That stage was stunning; Mick suggested Mayor Boris should make it a permanent part of the London landscape.

The fear with outdoor gigs on this scale is that being a quarter of a mile away from the stage will kill the joy of being there. Not with the Stones, though. From our chosen vantage point, to the right of the no-man's land which separated us Tier Three hoi poloi from the Tier Two hobnobs, we had full sympathy with Jagger's devil. It helped that we were the other side of six foot tall, mind. I had sympathy with the five-footers around us - the screens and their raised smartphones were their only window on that honky tonk world.

There is something thrilling about hearing licks and riffs that are part of the national psyche being played live, something exhilarating about seeing the ageless, strutting legend from the TV stomping around in purple in the flesh, something epic about being part of the roar that greeted the opening chords of Satisfaction (1965!), Jumpin' Jack Flash (1968!) and Street Fighting Man (1968!). These are the songs on which all British rock 'n' roll is based.

The whoo-whoo refrain of Sympathy For The Devil was the abiding musical memory of the red hot day and night. Long before we'd allowed Jagger to introduce himself, the baying thousands and thousands and thousands were whoo-whooing between every song. When it finally came it was a triumph. Only the sensational Gimme Shelter came close, with Paint It, Black up there with the best of the rest. Mick the showman, an amazing 70 this month, disappeared and reappeared, sporting a fluffy black-feather shoulder warmer one minute, a white 60s mac the next, a black long-sleeved t-shirt when it got even hotter.

Keef left the astonishing end-to-end stage movement to his thinner half, sometimes seeming to zone out after another legendary chord sequence announced the start of another national treasure. When they gathered at the end, arms round each other and bowing as fireworks soared into the summer sky, it felt like we were paying our respects to friends who'd filled our heads with their music since the day we were born.

The show lasted just over two hours, the scorching 80-degrees day lasted more like nine for us. I went with 15-year-old Joseph. It might be his one and only chance to see the band that were having hits even before his ancient dad was born.

We started in the Village Hall tent with James Bay, a tall-hatted singer-songwriter from Hitchen via David Gray. Next up in the steamy Theatre, Valerie June, a snake-haired beautiful bluegrass singer from Memphis. Then it was a stroll across the parched yellow grass to see some Irish fiddle-de-dee popsters called Hudson Taylor on the main stage in place of Tom Odell. Tom's drum kit had made it, Tom hadn't.

We were lured back to the big oak stage after refreshments by the promising phone-app description of Manchester newcomers The 1975. They didn't sound much like Manchester to me. More like The Script.

You know who Jake Bugg reminds me of? Buddy Holly. Next time you hear some of his beatier ones, singalong with the words to Rave On or Peggy Sue and you'll know what I mean. He's great. Can you believe he's only 19? That's only four years older than Joe and a few more older than me.

The always hilarious Cuban Brothers - comedy LatAm wigs, big shades and snug underpants on show as usual - kept us entertained on the Carnival Stage as we queued for delicious £7 plates of paella and buffalo burgers, washed down with £4.50 Theakston's bitter, £2.50 Cokes, £1.50 bottles of water and £5.50 pints of Heineken when the walk to the bitter bar seemed just too far. A Rio-style costume parade and a Queen Bee procession melted in the heat.

At 1.30pm a pint was yours in a minute. By 6pm, it was a ten-minute wait and a chance to talk to friendly strangers - all white, all ages - about why we'd made the pilgrimage. Judging by the multitude of vintage tongue-and-lip tee-shirts, many people had made the journey many times before.

No doubt many will do it again, given the chance. The Stones have been doing farewell tours since 1982, but when you still look and sound like that, and when tens of thousands of people are willing to pay a £100 and up to see you keep doing it, you Don't Stop.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Review of The Human League at Kew Gardens, July 10, 2013

Here he comes, the Mirror Man. He looks like a Hollywood-movie spook these days. Trim and toned in a long black coat, black leather gloves, dark shades, pale grey suit and a skinny tie. No more half-head of jet black hair cascading over half a made-up face. Now Phil Oakey is shaven-headed and lipstick-free. He means business.

But if it seems he’s not the one we used to know, an old friend left behind long ago, just look at the swifts scudding in the vanilla sky above Kew Gardens and listen. What a voice. Rich and deep one minute, powerful and urgent the next. The voice that changed everything. Instantly familiar. 

And when it hurts you know they love to tell you. Until then it was all pounding drums and guitar solos for me. After that it was Roland synthesisers and metallic drum machines all the way.

She was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar back then. Now Susan, like Joanne, is 50. They're still dancing their gloriously uncoordinated dances, thighs out, arms in the air, as energetic as though they were still on the pull at the Crazy Daisy nightclub in Sheffield in 1979. But even then they knew they’d have a much better life. They gave us one, too. Not just at Kew but on and off for the last thirty years. Everything would have been just a bit duller without Open Your Heart, Being Boiled, Fascination and The Sound of Crowd.

The live show is slick, between-song banter kept to a minimum. This is no rose-tinted nostalgia fest. The songs sound as good now as they did then. The pared-down stage of white synthesisers on a white plinth as clean and crisp as the iconic cover of Dare in 1981. 

Three large portrait video screens behind them show images to complement the music, the best a black and white stills montage of world leaders' faces from history merging into one another behind Sound of the Crowd. The Lebanon never made much sense but the Middle East catastrophes of today make it as current affairsy as ever.

But they’re only Human, a song that Phil, gloves and coat now discarded, introduced on the night as a band-saver. In the States and on the rocks in 1986, the League turned to those R&B dudes Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. They come up with a song that went to number one in the US and top ten in the UK. Not their greatest by any means but memorable for another spoken bit, this time from Joanne. I forgive you now and ask the same of you. While we were apart I was human too. You can take a girl out of the cocktail bar but you can’t take the cocktail bar out of the girl.

The greenhouse windows wobbled to the singalong throng when Don't You Want Me closed the show. And just as we were wondering what was left for the encore, Phil, now 57, proved again what a visionary he has always been. In a summer when Daft Punk have taken over the world with a sound inspired by Giorgio Moroder, the song Moroder wrote with Oakey in 1984, Together in Electric Dreams, brought the Palm House down.

So we danced on our picnic blankets, kicked over our half-full plastic glasses of cava, trod in what was left of our M&S snacks and remembered what it was like to be surprised by someone’s lies, however far it seems. We oohed and aahed at the fireworks at the end and threaded our way through the gardens to Kew Bridge swigging what was left in the bottle.

Yes, Phil was right all along. Distance heals the strongest pain. Things are much better now. Not even a nagging doubt remains.

Here's a link to the 12-song setlist.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Video Review of Bruce Springsteen Live at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London. June 30, 2013

With Deborah O'Driscoll, Geoff Byrne and Graham Evans. Featuring The Flamin' Groovies, Alabama Shakes, The Black Crowes and The Boss. All part of Hard Rock Calling. Tickets sourced by Kevin Bishop. Tuborg Lager? Really?