Two great English bands in concert – British Sea Power and Blur

The last two Saturdays have been concert days. On 13 June it was British Sea Power at the Roundhouse and yesterday, 20 June, Blur headlined in Hyde Park.

Both bands have a distinctly British – or English – feel. They use the tools and sounds of rock’n’roll, they certainly rock at times; but not in a rock’n’roll way. Their musical bloodline feels like Beatles, Kinks, Bowie, Pink Floyd, and a bit of old English folk, rather than say, Elvis, the Stones, blues, metal, Zeppelin. A quirkiness, a certain detachment, but a pride in this country, their England. They are pretty different bands, but you just know when you hear them that they couldn’t possibly be American.

I saw British Sea Power in April 2013 at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, when they had just released their new album, “Machineries of Joy”. (I blogged about it at the time). I wasn’t that familiar with the music, but really enjoyed it and scooped up most of their albums afterwards. This time the band were playing the whole of their first album, “The Decline Of British Sea Power”. And very good it was too. It shows that BSP can write a good melodic indie song that gets everyone singing along to the chorus, but also that they insist in throwing in a ten minute guitar wig-out just to make sure that people realise they aren’t about to become a pop band. This may explain why they haven’t become massive, although they are still pretty popular – the sort of band that attracts a loyal core of fans.

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After “The Decline of British Sea Power”, the band played for another hour, with mostly songs, where they were recognisable, from 2008’s “Do You Like Rock Music?”. And only BSP could finish the set with an instrumental about a large seagull, “The Great Skua”, and get an ecstatic reaction from the audience!  We had the usual intervention from a large bear, of course; there was a man in a pith helmet running around banging a drum; and as ever, there was a plentiful supply of foliage on stage.

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Great concert.

A word for the support band, Bo Ningen, a Japanese quartet with impossibly long hair, who make a noise which I can only describe as thrash metal dirge. I’m not sure I could cope with much more than the half hour we were treated to, but boy, were they energetic! A bizarre form of punk, almost. Credit to them for the show they put on.

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Blur’s commercial peak was in the 1990s, when they were one of the key Britpop bands. For a while, the anti-Oasis. But after their triumphs with the brilliant “Parklife” and the big-selling “The Great Escape” (which was just a bit too shiny and contrived)  they re-emerged with a grungier sound for “Blur” and then moved increasingly away from the pop mainstream, experimenting more and more with sounds from all over the world. They broke up in 2003, with singer Damon Albarn and guitarist Graham Coxon – the two main creative forces – unable to work with each other. Damon Albarn explored all sorts of other music and art forms, and had a major success, of course, with cartoon rappers, Gorillaz. The band reformed towards the end of the noughties and from time to time have performed some big one-off shows, including at Hyde Park before, and Glastonbury, to general acclaim.

So this show was just the latest of those big events. They have also released a new album recently, called “The Magic Whip”. I bought it without expecting too much from it. But after a couple of plays I started to think, this is really good! The songs are strong; the sounds keep on reminding me somehow of late 70s/ early 80s Bowie: some of the stuff on “Scary Monsters” and “Let’s Dance”. There’s even a song – “Ghost Ship” – which reminds me of Steely Dan!

So with a good new album and a great back catalogue, I was really looking forward to seeing Blur. There was a cast of supporting bands, including The Horrors and Metronomy, but the weather was pretty poor, and my friend Tony and I decided just to focus on the main event. We saw a bit of Roots Manuva on the second stage, playing his excellent London rap-reggae; but it was all about Blur, really.

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And they were brilliant! Exceeded expectations. From the moment they kicked off with “Go Out” from the new album – one of those Bowie-esque beats – they were awesome. Second song was their early guitar classic, “There’s No Other Way”, one of my absolute favourites. Fourth in, “Badhead”, another. And so it went on, with so many old favourites, interspersed with the new ones, which already sound like Blur classics. Highlights included a heartfelt singalong to “Tender”, with the stage screen showing the refrain love’s the greatest thing in countless language. A lovely, not corny, touch. “Beetlebum” was all Beatles “White Album” distortion, as ever. “Thought I Was A Spaceman”, from “The Magic Whip”, was spacey and the lighting entrancing. The crowd went ape to “Song 2″; and “Parklife”, with Phil Daniels on stage to deliver those cockney lines, had a huge, engaging energy. And of course “Girls and Boys” provided a great finale, with “For Tomorrow” and “The Universal”.

A superb, uplifting couple of hours. So glad I went.

A reminder of what a great band Blur were, and confirmation that they still are.

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(These four photos are all cropped shots of the pictures on the big screens nearest us. At top, Damon Albarn in his best skinhead bomber jacket and bassist Alex James with trademark fag hanging out of his mouth. At the bottom, Dave Rowntree on drums and Graham Coxon on guitar).

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lovelondonscenes – 98. Regent’s Canal from Little Venice to Camden Lock

On Saturday I went to see British Sea Power at the Roundhouse. Beforehand, I had a stroll along the Regent’s Canal,from Little Venice, just north of Paddington, to Camden Lock. It’s a lovely bit of hidden London. Soon after Little Venice you have to come off the canal for a bit, and wander round the back streets; but you get back at Lissom Grove and it’s all by the water after that. with a route round the top of Regent’s Park and London Zoo. The Aviary prominent. All very beautiful until you approach Camden and it gets a bit scuzzy. That’s Camden, basically. Where young tourists come to do things they aren’t allowed to do in their own countries, like swigging beer from a bottle along the promenade, or blazing out the punk or dance music. Innocuous stuff, really. In London, it’s no big deal. We absorb and move on.

Some photos.

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Have You heard? – (65) “Madder Rose” by Madder Rose

I’ve been driving up and down the M1 today with my son, Kieran, to pick up his stuff from the house in Nottingham where he lives during the university term. It’s summer hols now – three months! Ah, to be a student again…

Anyway, as I drive, I can stick one of my iPod mixes on in our new car and enjoy the sounds. Most of the journey today we had an “Indiemix” on: 700-odd tunes from the early 80s to the present day. One that came up today I hadn’t heard for a while: rather forgotten it, even. But what a good tune tune! I got it on a CD compilation that NME used to put out every year in the 90s of some of their singles of the week. This was from 1993, and the song was “Madder Rose” by Madder Rose. It’s just a quirky, catchy bit of Indie, with some languid slide guitar. The band was from New York and the singer was called Mary Lorson. I remember buying one of their albums on the strength of this track, but it can’t have made much of an impression. I loved this one, though.

As ever, YouTube obliges with a recording. From this it seems the single first came out – presumably in the US – in 1992.

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lovelondonscenes – 97

Richmond, down by the river, this Sunday just gone. A lovely sunny day. Brings everyone out.

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Sportsthoughts (134) – #SlavenIsAHammer!

So West Ham have their new manager. It’s Slaven Bilic, who played for the Hammers in the mid-nineties and has had an impressive managerial career so far, notably when managing the Croatian national team – his team.

I’m really pleased about this appointment. Bilic was a very good centre back in his time and was excellent for West Ham, for a couple of seasons, before Everton poached him. Not only was he a quality player, but he was passionate. He got a few red cards in the cause, but the fans really took to him, because he cared.

So he understands the West Ham way. This is often mocked. Alex Ferguson dismissed it – West Ham was always a fixture he says he looked forward to. Ie: we would be easy to beat, playing attacking football, leaving open defensive spaces. And yes, that was a problem for the Hammers over the decades. But at least, when we tried tried to play good football, the fans were entertained and remembered the beautiful side of the game. If it was just allied with some defensive steel, it could be quite successful. 1986 was the best ever example, when we came third in the First Division (now the Premier League). There were hard men at the back – Alvin Martin, Tony Gale, Ray Stewart. And a brilliant goal keeper, Phil Parkes. Up front we had Frank McAvennie and Tony Cottee banging in the goals.Out wide the buzzing Mark Ward and legendary Alan Devonshire – Devo. In centre-midfield, Alan Dickens did a decent impression of recently-retired Trevor Brooking. It wasn’t built upon, unfortunately, but it is a season we old lags will always remember.

Can Slaven replicate that, as we prepare for the move into the Olympic Stadium in 2016? I think, if he gets a budget for players, he can. He has the passion, the understanding, the intelligence, the commitment to good football. And as a fine player himself, as well as being an outstanding international manager quite recently, he will have the respect of the players.

So, I’m succumbing to summer optimism, before, no doubt, it all goes horribly wrong when the season starts! Or maybe not…

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lovelondonscenes – 96

Sundown in W5. From the bedroom window. iPhone 5, no enhancements. An ice cream sky.

Modern art, be jealous. Nature is ahead of the game.

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Three great but different concerts: The Beat, Nils Frahm, The Replacements

Over the past few weeks I’ve seen three concerts: all quite different, but very enjoyable in different ways.

First was a real step back in time: The Beat, who played at Chelsea’s Under The Bridge club.

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I saw the original Beat a frightening 35 years ago, at the height of their commercial success. They had a string of hit singles in 1979-81, with an album called “I Just Can’t Stop It” that was one of the very best of the Two Tone movement. A movement based on the rhythms of Ska, played by the kids of black and white communities; especially, for some reason, in the Midlands.

The time I saw them was an incongruous affair. It was the University College, Oxford Ball in 1980. My good friend Jon was JCR president that year (essentially the student voice for the college) and was heavily involved in the organising committee for the Ball. He played host to members of the band before their appearance. One member was Rankin’ Roger, who provided supporting vocals, with an element of the Jamaican toasting style. He was 19 and nervous. Jon says that while he waited he said something like, “I’m bricking it, having to go out and sing before all those fucking penguins”. Yes we were all in black tie.

Fast forward to 2015 and Roger was fronting the band. Lead singer, Dave Wakeling has a different Beat. Not sure why. “Musical differences”, no doubt.

It was a wonderful concert in an intimate venue. Roger, resplendent with long dreadlocks, sang most of the hits; but there was a young lad supporting him – playing the old Rankin’ Roger role – who turned out to be his son. What a great thing that is: father and son in the same band, sharing vocal duties.

Almost all of the great hits were played – the likes of “Mirror In The Bathroom”, “Hands Off She’s Mine”, “Tears Of A Clown”. It was a great sight to see loads of fifty-somethings skanking to full effect. No inhibitions. Just a total celebration. One of the best receptions of the night was when the band played The Clash’s “Rocking The Casbah “. Memories, memories.

One thing so evident on the night was the importance of the bass. A central feature of any reggae or ska. As they say, give me a little bass line… all else revolves around that foundation.

A great gig. Nostalgia and a reason to skank. One love.

A week later, it was Nils Frahm, German keyboardist, at the Roundhouse. Much anticipated. He was brilliant at Latitude last year. His music is entrancing, and live, he really branches out on a whole load of keyboards. But this is not 70s prog rock. It’s ambient: looking back to classical piano, forward to electro, taking in the looped patterns of the likes of Philip Glass. It’s fascinating, soothing, exhilarating.

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The concert was a wonder, and incredibly well-received. Interestingly, the audience was quite young – and hip. The predominant character was the twenty/thirty something bloke with a fashionable beard.

I said the music had its soothing moments. Two of my four compadres succumbed to a snooze at points in the concert. Quite a lot of Asahi beer and white wine had been consumed in Sushi Salsa beforehand!

On record – at least the ones I’ve heard – Nils focuses on the piano, the organic sound. Live there is much greater variety, some amazing electronic soundscapes. I hope some of this will be captured on record soon. It will be awesome.

And then, just yesterday, back to the Roundhouse for The Replacements.

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A hardcore US indie-punk band whose heyday was the eighties. Somehow they passed me by at the time. Maybe it was because the eighties were when I focused on reggae, dance, jazz, funk, world, rap. Didn’t give up on rock’n’roll, not at all, but an American follow up to punk may not have been my priority.

Anyway, my friend Osama was keen to go, so I went along.

And it was good – very good. The essence of punk, of rock’n’roll, was there. The faster the songs, the more that The Ramones crept in, the more I liked them. There was a decent amount of rocking in the crowd, given that this was probably a forty-something gathering, although I did spot quite a few youngsters.

Yeah, it was good stuff, and I need to listen to a bit more than the greatest hits album.

Three great concerts. All different, but all with the same essential spirit. A love of music, which transmits to the audience.

One love.

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