Have you Heard? – (77) The latest from James Blake and Frank Ocean

I’m talking about “The Colour in Anything” by James Blake and “Blonde” by Frank Ocean.

I’ve been meaning to review James Blake’s “The Colour in Anything” for ages. It came out in May, at about the same time as Radiohead’s “A Moon Shaped Pool”. I had to focus on Radiohead first and it was such a good album that I hardly listened to anything else for a while. I didn’t forget James Blake though. Frank Ocean’s new album “Blonde” is a more recent release, finally appearing more than four years after his brilliant debut “Channel Orange”. Its appearance has been much anticipated – and hyped – and it was preceded by a film of the music, or some of it, called “Endless”. I’ve yet to bother looking that up.

After the first couple of listens to Frank Ocean’s album, I thought, this is in the same mode as James Blake: understated, dark melodies, with those breakouts of weirdness. Maybe I could write about them together. On further research it turns out both artists were involved in the other’s album. That makes sense, and it makes writing a review of both even more sense!

I’ll start with James Blake, as he came first…

“The Colour in Anything” is James Blake’s third full album. The first, “James Blake” came out in 2011. It was an amazing piece, immediately establishing him as an artist with a sound of his own. Simple melodies, fragments: mournful, bewildered, with spectacular bass-heavy outbursts of sound. In my book, “I Was There – A Musical Journey”, I pondered that quite a few of the songs were about introversion, an inability to connect, and the electronic outbursts were like the emotions of an introvert, who finally lets it out. Or maybe they were just the beats that reflected his background in the London dubstep scene. And it all worked brilliantly live. He and his guitar partner may be static on stage, but all those extraordinary diversions, made even more bass-heavy, create an amazing atmosphere, even on a sunny Sunday afternoon at Latitude. James Blake makes music for the night, but it envelopes you at all times.

And the new album continues the theme. All the themes. Its tone is dark, introspective, anxious even. The interludes are less bass-heavy than that first album, but more pronounced than on the second, “Overgrown”. It’s one of those albums to listen to as a piece – a symphony – though it is pretty long. Slowly but surely the layers reveal themselves, different things lodge in your mind. I’m still in discovery mode after all these months. As I listen now, I’m taken with the spirit of Stevie Wonder that infuses the album. Two consecutive tracks, “My Willing Heart” and “Choose Me”, feature first a lovely Stevie-esque melody and then one of those inspired never-ending choruses which punctuated “Songs in the Key of Life”.

Other highlights, so far, include the opener “Radio Silence” which could easily have been on the first album; “Love me in Whatever Way”; “Timeless”; the jittery “Put that Away and Talk to Me” (which would be perfect on the last few Radiohead albums); and “I Need a Forest Fire”, which features the ubiquitous Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. But it’s all good, all entrancing –  not music to dance in the streets to, but to put on in the evening, when you are feeling reflective. Even though the music of James Blake can also work brilliantly in a sunlit field because it is so interesting sonically.

An album which is definitely worth your time.

That word reflective. Frank Ocean’s “Blonde” is nothing if not that. Every time I listen to it, it just makes me start to think about things. There is something very introspective about it which just affects you. To me it feels like a dark album – with its quirks – but essentially a work which must reflect the rather tortured state of Frank Ocean’s mind. Maybe I’m reading too much into it; but when you have taken four years to make a record, I can only assume you are putting a lot of yourself into it, and maybe become just too perfectionist, to the point that you aren’t really sure what you want to say any more. “Blonde” feels a bit like that, and it is fascinating for it.

Like James Blake, Frank Ocean made a genre-changing debut, with “Channel Orange”. When I first heard it (courtesy of my son, Kieran) it brought back memories of some great 90s soul/jazz albums from the likes of Maxwell, D’Angelo and the less well-known Urban Species. And I could hear Prince all over it. But it soon became clear that this was the work of a true original.

“Blonde” isn’t initially as distinctive as its predecessor, but like “The Colour in Anything”, each listen reveals new layers. After three or four listens, I was really taken with the soulfulness – and angst – of “Self Control” and “Seigfried”, even though the former has effects like you’d expect on a Kendrick Lamar album. I can’t help but mention Stevie Wonder – 70s Stevie, of course – again.  And why shouldn’t his spirit be lurking, in albums made by people who have been steeped in soul music?

Other early notables are the opener “Nikes”, which could have been on the first album – or Kendrick’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” – and two songs which sample melodies from unlikely sources. “Close to You” overhauls the lyrics and distorts the tune, but is based on “(They Long to Be) Close to You” by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, which was made famous by The Carpenters in the 70s. And I thought I could hear The Beatles in “White Ferrari” half way through. It’s “Here, There and Everywhere”. That’s the thing about an artist like Frank Ocean. You can put him in a soul/R&B/ rap box, but he defies genres. And that’s what makes him so interesting.

But what makes him so affecting is that melancholy which suffuses the album. Like James Blake he must be grappling with a fair few demons. Music allows them to be expressed, sometimes obliquely, other times pretty directly. Their melodies are mostly wistful fragments of soul, simply expressed. But the music they surround them with, the excursions, are intriguing, ground-breaking, captivating. Music that makes you think as well as feel.

And definitely reflect

Two of the best albums of 2016, no doubt.

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End of the Road festival, 2016

 

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This year, my friend Jon G and I decided that we should try a second festival after Latitude. We chose End of the Road, which, as its name suggests, is one of the last big festivals of the season (Bestival, in the Isle of Wight, is next weekend). It’s in its 11th year (just like Latitude) and always has a good looking line up, with indie, Americana and rock’n’roll in all its forms at its core. The fact that Rough Trade records and Uncut magazine are closely associated with it tells you where it is coming from. There’s a strong comedy line up too, and all sorts of other entertainments, of course.

The festival is situated in and just outside Larmer Tree Gardens, on the Wiltshire/Dorset border. The nearest biggish town is Shaftesbury and it’s about 15-20 south west of Salisbury. The gardens were created in the late 19th century by General Augustus Lane Fox, who inherited the Rushmore Estate in the Cranbourne Chase – an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – on the condition that he changed his name to Pitt Rivers. The Larmer Tree was an ancient elm, where, amongst other things, King John used to meet while hunting.

The gardens themselves are lovely, full of typically 19th century follies, and I’m rather surprised they agreed to locate a modern music festival there. But they did, and one of the main stages is bang in the middle of the gardens. The main areas are on grassland outside the manicured areas, but the whole setting is picturesque – at least until 11,000 people descend on it!

So there’s about a third of the number of people who go to Latitude, but the vibe is familiar. It’s friendly, maybe a touch more alternative and a bit older, as the school kids are going back this week. Plenty of students though, and quite a lot of families. So Jon and I fitted in well and didn’t even feel that old!

One of the nice touches is that there are a couple of excellent acts performing on the Thursday evening. I’ll describe who this year below.

When I was looking at the line up beforehand, there were plenty of familiar names – Joanna Newsom, Bat for Lashes, Teenage Fanclub, Scritti Politi, Animal Collective, Cat Power, Thee Oh Sees, to name a few – but even more unknowns than Latitude. But I suspected that a few would soon become favourites, and I was so right.

I thought about doing a top ten, but when I started listing who they might be, I quickly got to twenty. So I may as well do the narrative. But I do want to highlight four acts briefly. These were the four where I felt genuinely moved by what I was seeing and listening to. It got me thinking afterwards, what triggers that reaction? And I think the answer lies in the things that I love most about the live experience. And what are they? Well, one is the sheer excitement of a great rock’n’roll band – when the riffs get going at full, awesome volume. That’s probably the best feeling of all. Then there is the sound of beauty – that beautiful melancholy that I have written about many times. And then there is the pure celebration of a band, a sound, you already love. An affirmation. Thee Oh Sees and The Blind Shake gave me that first feeling; a duo called Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker had me experiencing the second; and for the third, Teenage Fanclub had me singing along with joy in the last official show of the festival. I’ll come back to all of them.

But let’s start at the beginning. This may take a while…

Thursday

We got to the site at about 4 o’clock and set up the new mega-tent which Jon and I had bought, the previous one having finally given up the ghost at Latitude. It looked rather large for two people – but you could stand up in all of it! And then, after some food, it was time for the entertainment.

It started with the excellent Teleman, on the Woods Stage, which is the main stage. It’s on the edge of some woods rather than in them. And it was close to the campsite – you could hear the sound checks in the morning. Teleman are real favourites of Marc Riley on BBC 6 Music, and it’s clear why. This is indie at its best. Sharp beats and rhythms, some good distorted guitar workouts, good tunes (important, that!). Jon and I saw them at the Koko in Camden (the old Camden Palace, he sighs) earlier this year. They were at Latitude too, though I missed them there. A really good band, who should become bigger.

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Then we had The Shins, on a rare visit to the UK. They are a great band, led by James Mercer. Their key album, for me, is “Chutes Too Narrow”, which came out in 2003. It’s pop, indie, Americana, Beach Boys rolled into one. So many brilliant melodies and then off-kilter moments, like the acapella bit in “Saint Simon”. I’m glad to say they played “Saint Simon” and many other favourites. “Chutes Too Narrow” formed the core. So I was happy.

After that we went up to the food and drink area and enjoyed a couple more beers. End of the Road is well known for its real ales, and I can say the reputation is entirely justified! Hoppy IPAs – British and American – are the order of the day, and that is OK with me.

Friday

We started Friday early with one of the talks in the Garden Library – an open air but roofed area surrounded by tress. Rather serene. The talk featured Brix Smith, who was in The Fall and married Mark.E.Smith, The Fall’s main man. That all ended badly, but she then got together with violinist Nigel Kennedy and had fun meeting the rich and famous. That didn’t last and she went through difficult times. But she is back now, with a new band, The Extricated – a dig at the Fall’s album, “Extricate”, which she contributed to, before leaving the band. She spoke about a lot of this engagingly, though not really about Mark.E.Smith. Sounded like an interesting book.

Our first band of the day was Amber Arcades on the Garden Stage. The band features Dutch singer Annelotte de Graaf on dreamy vocals and guitars. I really liked their sound. It’s hard not to lapse into clichés here, but there was a European-ness to the melodies: familiar, but infectious. There was a wooziness to it that conjured up My Bloody Valentine a bit. Maybe even Nico-era Velvet Underground. Or maybe The Delays (remember them?). Definitely one I shall research further.

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We then caught a bit of Slow Down Molasses on the Woods Stage. Earnest Americana, didn’t really do it for me. We moved on to Lail Arad in the Tipi tent, which apparently has been extended from previous years. She sang quirky songs about London life. Good, but something I thought you might get in a cabaret or comedy arena. Not really for me, but our neighbours on the campsite loved her, we heard the next day.

My next big thing was Dilly Dally, in the Big Top stage. This is a pretty large tent, not quite as big as the 6 Music tent at Latitude (or Reading, which uses the same tent). The great thing about the tents is that bands can use a light show during the daylight hours. And of course, you don’t get wet when it is raining! Dilly Dally are a band from Toronto who you’d have to call grunge. Two women to the fore – a theme of End of the Road this year. They hit all my Pixies, Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana buttons. We are entering a 90s revival era and Dilly Dally fit perfectly into it. The first of many bands who knew how to rock!

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I then caught the second half of Eleanor Friedburger’s set on the Garden Stage. She was half of Fiery Furnaces. She was folkier than I expected, but that may reflect where she is now living, near the Catskill Mountains, which are quite a long way from New York City. Another to explore further.

We then went back to the Woods Stage for some serious country music, courtesy of Margo Price. Her new album has been released by the label owned by Jack White of the White Stripes. She was excellent, and hit all the country buttons. The first song we saw was called “Desperately Depressed” – do you need to know more? I really liked her – her voice was almost as good as Lindi Ortega’s and in that Dolly Parton mode. (And why isn’t Lindi at any of our festivals by the way?)

Next was Blue House in the Tipi Tent. I really liked them. They were fairly lo-fi, but with some good chugging guitars, some distorted excursions, and, importantly, some catchy melodies. They are Ursula Russell and James Howard and band. I got a bit of Talking Heads – and Teleman, and inevitably some Velvet Underground. James has a good sense of humour too, as he introduced the songs. And they did an excellent version of Bowie’s “The Man who Sold the World” in a similar style to Kurt Cobain, on his MTV Unplugged album. Another band to look out for.

One I knew quite well, though I haven’t heard their last album, was Field Music. We saw them back at the Garden Stage. They play sharp, jagged, funky rhythms that for me, inevitably recall Talking Heads and especially XTC. It’s a sound a few north east bands have adopted and Field Music are the best. The sound, like most things over the weekend, was excellent. The main men in the band are Peter and David Brewis. They both play guitars and drums, and share the vocal duties. Quite unusual but it works. They were playing with quite a lot of other people’s equipment, as their van had broken down on the A34, but you wouldn’t have known.

Over to the Woods Stage, afterwards, for Savages. The easy description of them would be modern Goth. I quite like them – I have a couple of albums. Don’t listen to them much – they are a bit overwhelming all at once. Jon and I got there when the set had started and stayed quite far back. At first it seemed good but no more. Goth to the fore. Getting a decent reaction though. But then it upped a gear. The songs got faster, and singer Jehnny Beth really started to work the crowd. There was serious moshing and she did some amazing crowd surfing, even managing to stand on people’s hands/shoulders for quite a while (though not long enough for me to get my act together and take a photo!). From then on it was captivating and high energy. They were all dressed in black and there were only white lights. It all made sense. A no compromise image and performance, culminating with a song called “Fuckers”. For all the people who’d had a bad year/week/day, Camille said. One of the festival highlights, and an unexpected one.

I then popped in to the Big Top to see the second half of Shura’s performance. I’d seen her support Chvrches at the Albert Hall. There her music was quite dreamy electro. It seemed quite different here. More uptempo and dance-orientated. Quite a rare feature at End of the Road, where the guitar prevails. A packed tent and good reception – I expect most of the younger people at the festival were at this. My guess is that she is destined to be pretty big, so watch out for her.

Last act of Friday for me was Cat Power. A bit of the blast from the past – I really enjoyed her album “The Greatest” from 2006, which included the wonderful song “Lived in Bars”. She didn’t play that. What she did play was a set of sultry torch songs. Her voice was superb. The band were slick. It was a bit one-paced, but it went down well. A nice one for the Garden Stage I guess. So civilised – until Sunday…

Saturday

We thought that it was going to rain a lot on Saturday, and it sure did! Until about nine in the evening. So the headliners got away with it, but not many of the others on the outdoor stages. But, you know, it didn’t detract from the proceedings very much at all. And it was probably the best day overall – of three top days.

First up was Younghusbands, billed in the blurb as following in the footsteps of Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine. And I could see why – more the melodies than the guitar distortions. So a lighter version of those two, which actually took them into Teenage Fanclub territory at some points. This is a good thing! An excellent band, worth looking out for.

Next was Laura Gibson on the Woods Stage. She was described as a kind of sensitive folkie from New York. And that was true, but there was a bit more to her. She had a full band and played electric as much as acoustic guitar. The songs were rooted in folk, but had an urban feel. Her voice had that modern twang or warble – neither are quite the right word, but think Ellie Gould, or George Ezra, or Ben Howard. I really liked her songs and definitely will be looking up her music.

So, two good bands to start – and then it got even better! Over at the Garden Stage it was Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker. Josienne on vocals and Ben on acoustic guitar. The songs were essentially English folk – from trad to covers of artists like Nick Drake and Sandy Denny. Josienne had the most strikingly beautiful voice. As she sang Ben played gentle, weaving guitar. Wonderful stuff from start to finish. I will admit to a tear in my eye about their music – I just loved it. It goes with those artists like The Staves, Daisy Vaughan and Emily Barker, who I adore, and listen to more than anything else. Josienne was also very funny as she introduced the songs, making light of the dark tones of most of them. Maybe all of them. Duende. The discovery of the festival for me.

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And it kept being great! The Big Moon in the Big Top were terrific. An all-girl band, playing grunge/punk. Some top notch riffing and catchy choruses. Yes, the Breeders come to mind, but this was fresh and today. They covered a Madonna song, but I still haven’t worked out what it was. They had a nice ending too. All the posties – who were delivering letters from one festival goer to another, not quite sure how – stood behind them leaping about. A band who know how to enjoy themselves – see later.

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By the time I came out of the tent the rain had started. I met Jon back at the Garden Stage, some way through Meilyr Jones’s set. He sang grandiose ballads with Morrissey-style lyrics, and it was hard to engage with them in the rain at first. But by the end I was enjoying them. Think Scott Walker, updated.

We stayed on at the Garden Stage for Jeffrey Lewis and Los Bolts. Our campsite neighbours had strongly recommended them. And it was obvious why. Jeffrey writes what you might call observational songs, laced with humour. But while I might sometimes baulk at this (as I did a bit with Leil Arad) I absolutely didn’t with Jeff. I loved the observations, with their New York slant, and really liked the way he played guitar. He had an acoustic with spray piant all over it, plugged in to the effects pedals. So he could do just about anything with it – and did! Towards the end we got what can only be described as a Hendrix workout. He and his excellent band would probably have an affinity here in the UK with people like The Streets and Kate Tempest. They don’t have the same sound, but they have the same attitude.

And he had a song about how much he loves English food – and it wasn’t ironic, not really. So big up to the man!

Still in the rain, it was over to Lost Natives on the Woods Stage. They are a good band, a cross between Americana and Coldplay. So it should work well on the big stage. Strangely, I prefer it on record, when it isn’t quite so overblown. It went down really well with the crowd, but I didn’t really get into it.

Then we moved out of the rain into the Big Top for Cat’s Eyes. They featured Faris Badwan, main man with the Horrors, in a duo with Rachel Zeffira, singer and multi-instrumentalist. I didn’t really know what to expect, but thought it would be interesting if Faris Badwan was involved. And it was. I’d call it dreamy French-style pop/cinema music with the occasional burst of rock. There was a four-woman choir too. They looked like schoolgirls to me, but probably weren’t. It was interesting, but not that engaging for me – and I had M.Ward to go to. Jon stayed to the end.

So, yeah, next was M.Ward on the Garden Stage. Still raining! A real quality show. What would you call it? Americana, yes; the sound of Paul Simon, yes; the quality of melodies and playing of Steely Dan, yes. Josh Rouse’s “Nashville” was a link for me. There were rock’n’roll instrumentals, sad songs, quirky songs. I’ve never bought any of his albums before, but I think I will have to now.

Jon and I split for the last show of the evening. He stayed at the Garden Stage for Ezra Furman, and he and many other people we talked to on Sunday agreed it was an amazing performance. But I wanted to see Bat for Lashes on the Woods Stage. Natasha Khan and her band. Her latest album, “The Bride” has a rather morbid theme – the groom dies on the way to the wedding – and it formed a big part of the show. But the songs are beautiful. It’s impossible for me not to compare her with Kate Bush. And she’s not the only headliner I’ll do that with. She has a vision which could just be described as quirky, but which I think is bigger than that. Just like Kate. Natasha wore a wedding dress and veil for the show. Pretty weird, but fitting for the new album. She took the veil off towards the end. She sang some of her signature tunes from earlier albums too. For me the highlight was “Laura”, which was really beautiful, echoing through the night air. One of the moments of the festival for me.

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There was a nice, personal moment near the end, Natasha brought on two friends, and the man proposed to the woman. She accepted of course. Natasha jumped up and down with glee. In her wedding dress. Bizarre, but heart-warming. The crowd loved it. I read a Daily Telegraph piece which was sniffy about it. Get real mate, this was genuine friendship in action. I hate such casual cynicism, which is sadly so prevalent in the media.

End of the Road has a number of surprise shows late on. Mostly they are bands in the Tipi tent who have been on somewhere else before. But Jon and I got in to one on the Big Top after we met up again. It was Wild Beasts. The tent was packed – not because of the rain, because that stopped around 9 o’clock. We watched a bit – took us a bit of time to work out who it was. We even thought for a moment that the singer was Ricky Gervais! We didn’t stay long. Instead we headed over to the disco area, next to the Gardens. It was badged as a Bat for Lashes miserable disco, featuring The Cure, Bowie, etc. Which sounded good! Eventually Natasha Khan turned up and hit the decks. Which was a great touch. It was all conventional 70s and 80s stuff though. Jon left earlier than me, but I eventually went to the Tipi tent to see what was going on there. And I caught The Big Moon again! Love them. Stayed till the end at then retired to bed about 1.30am. There was another band on, but Latitude told me this year that unless it’s amazing I need to make something like 1.00am the limit. It’s my age, you know!

Sunday

Sunday was drier, I’m glad to say, though it started to drizzle in the evening. We began the day with another talk, this time from the journalist Barney Hoskyns, who was talking about his book “Small Town Talk”, a study of the music that came out of Woodstock – not just the festival, but the place. Starting with Bob Dylan and The Band and moving right through to the modern day. It was an enjoyable discussion. Hoskyns seems to have been able to talk to most people – if they are still alive – and had some interesting anecdotes. I’ll read this one when it comes out in paperback.

First band we saw was The Leaf Library, on the Woods Stage. The band were one of two “application bands” at the festival. Each year the festival organisers invite bands to apply to play, sending in examples of their music. A good initiative, that. The Leaf Library got through. I liked their sound, which was a kind of dreamy pop that ventured into leftfield electro territory, with some saxophone incursions at times. The singer sat at a keyboard, so they lacked a bit of stage presence, even though there were seven of them. Stereolab came to mind and even Roxy Music when the sax got going. They should be pretty successful.

Over to the Big Top, we went to see Feels, another punk/grunge band. They were late, due to problems getting over from the continent. We went off for a beer at the nearby Bear Tavern – a very fine tavern. Interestingly, they were still accommodated in the schedule – I suspect Latitude may have been more ruthless. And I’m glad they were, because they were good. Sonic Youth were no doubt an influence and the noise verged on metal at times. Three of the band were women. A real theme of the festival. The closer – I’ve no idea what it was called – was awesome. And they heralded more awesome sounds in the Big Top…

Yes, The Blind Shake were next. Simon Taffe, one of the founders of the festival, mentioned them in his welcome note in the festival guide: they will blow the damn roof off. And, metaphorically, they did. Three guys in black, playing sharp, hard, hugely energetic riffs. They were amazing from the opening bars. For some reason I couldn’t help but think of Dr Feelgood – not because the sound was similar, but because the attitude, the style and the rock’n’roll essence of it was like watching a couple of Wilkos who’d decided to turn up the volume and put more distortion through the amps. But the spirit was the same. A celebration of rock’n’roll. Truly inspiring. See them if you can in the future.

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After Feels and The Blind Shake, Bill Ryder-Jones on the Garden stage felt a bit light, but he was good. And he played some excellent guitar. He’s an ex-member of The Coral, and he has collaborated with the Arctic Monkeys. You could hear something of the latter in his sound, but it was more that melodic late 80s/90s Mersey sound personified by The La’s and the less well-known Shack. Some of which flowed through to the Stones Roses and even Oasis. Guitars jangled in a Byrds style. I really liked the two songs he did solo, with just his electric guitar, too.

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It was then back to the Woods Stage for some rock’n’roll in its purest sense – the sound of rockabilly and Elvis updated, with JD McPherson. He’s from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and used to be a school teacher. He looked like an unlikely rock’n’roller, with his neat hair and his demin jacket buttoned up. He had the cowboy boots though. And he and his band really knew how to conjure up that swinging sound. This was the only show I saw where loads of people were dancing. The rock’n’roll beat was so infectious and you just couldn’t help getting into the spirit. Pure fun, this one.

Pure fun was not how I’d describe the next thing we saw. Arrows of Love in the Tipi Tent. We’d started watching Broken Social Scene on the Woods Stage, but it felt like that was all going to be a bit overblown, and the blurb on Arrows of Love sounded good – thrashing, flailing and kinetic energy. And yeah, it had that. And four of the five band members had great, clichéd rock looks too, especially the bassist with the blue hair. They played an anarchic, rambling hardcore rock. There was something of the Stooges and punk in it – pretty basic but challenging and very visual. They could have been brilliant. But actually they became unlistenable – because of the singer. He is probably the creator of the band and the songwriter. But he was awful. His shriek drove me crazy – it was hurting my ear! And he seemed about ten years older than the rest of the band. I can hardly be judgemental about that, but it didn’t work in terms of the image the band could have conveyed. So on one level they were terrible, but on another brilliant. We left half way through because the sound really was hurting, and we wanted to see Thurston Moore, but I left with the feeling that it was a fascinating band with one huge flaw – its creator!

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There was also an amusing moment which somehow summed it all up. The girl with the blue hair picked up a bottle of red wine and lit a cigarette while she sang one slow dirge. Classic images. One of the stewards wasn’t having it and came on stage and made her put out the cigarette. Which she did. Rock’n’roll, eh?

Thurston Moore on the Garden Stage was a bit dull, I’m afraid, and we only stayed for a couple of songs. Reminded me I only ever really liked my Sonic Youth in small doses. Jon and I split up for a bit. I got into King Gizzard and the Wizard Lizard in the Big Top– only just, as five minutes later there was a massive queue outside. I know this because I left after five minutes! Not my thing. I wandered down to the Wood Stage for Divendra Banhart. On record, I like his stuff, but the bit I saw felt a bit lightweight. It was very well-received by a big crowd though.

So this was all a bit unsatisfactory, but it didn’t matter, because the very best show of the festival was about to happen! Yes, it was Thee Oh Sees on the Garden Stage. Funny it was on that stage, which had mostly been used for the more subtle sounds. No moshing possibilities on the nice lawn. Well, all that went out of the window with Thee Oh Sees. They are an LA band, led by John Dwyer, on vocals and machine gun guitar. Marc Riley has been championing them on his 6 Music show, which is why I had to go to see them. On record the sound is, like the blurb said, garage rock, and a bit psychedelic at times. John Dwyer sings in a rather reedy falsetto. But live, bloody hell! A totally awesome, high energy, punk rock rock’n’roll sound that just bulldozers everything in its way. helped by the fact the fact that they have two drummers, who play in amazing synch. It was exhilarating from start to finish. By this time the rain was coming down quite hard and you didn’t even notice. Of the shows I saw, only Savages had as much moshing. An inflatable blue shark was being tossed around. Relentless, pyrotechnic, a show that you totally immersed yourself in. If you ever get a chance to see them live, take it. It may be the best rock’n’roll show you have ever seen.

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Oh my God, after that, we needed to come down, and Joanna Newsom, headlining the Woods Stage, did the trick. She of the lovely harp playing, the discursive songs, the quirky voice which reminds you of Kate Bush (again). And, you know, after a while, it all made sense, and became one of the examples of true beauty at the festival. She was a surprising headliner, really, but it worked – beautifully.

Just one thing left after Joanna, and that was Teenage Fanclub in the Big Top. I love this band – their album “Grand Prix” is up there amongst my all-time favourites. Wonderful melodies and jangling, soaring guitars. And they gave us what we wanted – a set laden with their favourites, including “Don’t Look Back”, “About You”, “Verismilitude” and “Sparky’s Dream” from “Grand Prix”. I just loved it. Sang along more than I’d done at anything else at the festival – there wasn’t much else I was so familiar with. After all the beers and the sheer adrenalin rush of Thee Oh Sees, and the beauty of Joanna Newsom’s sound, I felt incredibly moved by this show. A culmination, a celebration. It was such a wonderful way to end a fantastic festival.

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Yeah, Jon and I have agreed we will be back! And maybe getting a few more along…

 

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Have you Heard? – (75) “Where Boys Fear to Tread’ by Smashing Pumpkins

I’m on the tube, coming back from a few beers with my good friend Paul D. Music a big topic of conversation through the evening. He is a massive fan of Neil Young, Grateful Dead and Americana, as well as metal and some old punk and rock’n’roll. Knows way more than me about the music he loves.

I’ve got a playlist on my iPod – a Nano, as my Classic has problems – with 2,500 of my favourite tunes. Needless to say, it is brilliant. But occasionally, rather than rely on the random choice, you want to pick one out. And when I want an upbeat, piledriving tune there is nothing better than “When Boys Fear to Tread” by Smashing Pumpkins. It’s off the classic double album, “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness”. It rocks hard. The riffs pummel; the drums bulldoze – it is irresistible. It took me a while to discover the song; but since I did it has always been one I resort to. Meeting you don’t fancy? Put this on beforehand. You are ready to take on the world.

Is this metal or grunge or rock? I’d say all, and it doesn’t really matter. It is just awesome.  Check the Youtube video, which hopefully plays where you are. Otherwise, check it out somewhere else. If you want a full-on rock statement.

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A Walk around Canvey Island

Last weekend, Kath and I and our friends Jon and Maggie took a train to Benfleet in Essex, on the Thames estuary, and walked over to and round Canvey Island. Why? you may ask – if you have heard of Canvey Island. The answer is the great mid-70s rock’n’roll band, Dr Feelgood, who hailed from Canvey Island and, in my view, paved the way for punk.

Their first album – their classic – is called “Down by the Jetty”, and I’m pretty sure that the photo on the front cover was taken on a windswept Canvey Island. The photo below is of my vinyl copy of the album (taken in the evening, hence the light blurs) which, you will notice, has a Spanish subtitle. I bought it in an Oxford second hand record store in 1977, a year or so after its release. But I knew it off-by-heart by then, having listened to it so much at school when it – and Eddie and the Hot Rods – caused some of us to move away from metal to three minute rock’n’roll roll songs. That left us ready for the Pistols, Damned, Clash, Jam, Buzzcocks and all the rest.

Left to right: buzzsaw guitarist, Wilko Johnson; bassist John B Sparks; The Big Figure on drums; and singer Lee Brilleaux.

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Canvey is an island, but only just. There’s a creek that separates it from the mainland, which is pretty narrow in places. In the photo below we are on Canvey, looking across to Leigh-on-Sea, which comes just before Southend, as you travel east. The tide was out for all of our time on the island, so it could be a bit more watery at other times.

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We stopped for a cup of tea here, just as the cafe stopped serving breakfasts on a Sunday. That worked out well later – see the black and white shots.  The Old Git, whoever he is, must surely be a Brexiteer.

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Canvey Island is known for its industrial landscapes when in fact it is mostly rural or suburban. The views you capture tend to be not so much of the island itself but of the scene looking out from it. The big beaches, sea, sky – and those refineries.

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Canvey Island’s favourite band is celebrated in this mural on the sea wall.

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Holiday caravans and industry exist side-by-side on Canvey Island.

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On the southern coast there is a seaside area which was actually rather attractive and full of people on a sunny day. The black and white effect takes you back for sure…

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This was a very good cafe where we had lunch – the Labworth.

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The Lobster Shack is the current name for a pub which was previously known as The World’s End and featured in Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” as a place for smugglers.

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In the early 70s a new oil refining development was constructed, complete with vast jetty. But it was never opened and the jetty, though built, was never used. It sits there, still, today, a magnificent white elephant.

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We never did locate the jetty that was in the “Down by the Jetty” photo. We think we may have walked under it early on, thinking it would be where all the main industry was.

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The sea birds have made good use of this structure.

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More views away from Canvey. Thames estuary at nearly its widest point, at low tide.

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Beyond the Lobster Smack, on the western side of the island, you found yourself on a dyke above the channel separating it from the mainland. This is one of the clearer bits – it was the most difficult part of the walk as it wasn’t cleared and later on there was a lot of undergrowth. The walk overall, turned out to be about 18 miles. Some tired legs at the end!

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We caught a train back to Liverpool Street from Benfleet and had what was one of the most refreshing pints I’ve had for a long time – two in fact. Brooklyn lager of all things. Much needed!

To finish, back to that mural. Me (right) and Jon, in front of the boys.

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I’ve been searching all through the city,                                                                                              See you in the morning down by the jetty…

 

 

 

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lovelondonscenes 114 – Royal Academy

The latest sculpture in the courtyard of the Royal Academy, “Spyre” by Ron Arad, moves about and films proceedings in the space. Part of the Summer Exhibition, which I went to see for the first time this evening, two days before it ends! Might pop in again and then write something.

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Sportsthoughts (153) – Time for those Premier League predictions!

It’s that that time again, to try to predict the outcome of a Premier League which becomes more unpredictable with every season. Last year was the most extraordinary, with Leicester City, one of the favourites for relegation when the season started, winning the League. And deservedly so – they won in a canter by the end. You can’t just say it was some of the big sides underperforming – theirs was a sustained and superb achievement.

So the first question must be, can Leicester do it again? I haven’t seen a single pundit yet who has said yes. In fact most of them seem to be predicting that Leicester will be lucky to stay in the top half. Distracted by the Champions League, they say; lost key midfielder, Kante, to Chelsea. And weren’t very good anyway. I think the bookies’ odds on Leicester being relegated are narrower than those on them winning the League again.

I think they may surprise everyone again. Maybe not win the League, but make the top four. Yes, the Champions League will add an extra burden – but also an inspiration. They have only lost Kante, and have replaced him with a similar player, Mendy.  At least for now they have kept the two goal-scoring stars, Vardy and Mahrez. Vardy turned down Arsenal, and Mahrez is coveted by Arsenal, with the transfer window still open. But they are still there, as is the rest of the team that won the League. With, no doubt, the same spirit. Other teams will know what to expect this time, but they were a very good team last year and I can’t see why they should deteriorate markedly. So I’m going to say 4th.

The big changes in the close season have happened at the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea. All three have imported star managers: Mourinho at United, Guardiola at City and Italy’s Conte at Chelsea. Such are the spells they cast that the media can’t see beyond them for the title. Mourinho has a bit of a track record of winning the title wherever he is in his first season. It then falls apart from the second or third year, but it does suggest Man Utd are strong contenders. And they have bought big, with Pogba (absurd sum for someone who left the same club on a free transfer not so long ago) and Ibrahimovich (aging but quality and hugely confident striker). The defence has been bolstered too. But I’m not convinced at this point; I think the midfield still risks being a bit pedestrian, and the presence of Ibrahimovich and Rooney might block the progress of Martial and Rashford. But I’ll go for them coming 2nd.

For City, it’s all about Guardiola, still living off his reputation from Barcelona. He won things at Bayern, but not a Champions League. So there are questions. I wouldn’t say City’s purchases so far are that exciting, although I would love to see John Stones progress at centre back, for England’s sake. City was a slumbering giant last year. The same players are there, a year older. But the quality of previous League winners remains. If Aguero and Silva stay fit, if Yaya wakes up, the strength of the squad will win them a lot of games. The owners may prioritise the Champions League, but they’ll shell out for more players if necessary. So despite some lingering doubts, especially if Kompany stays crocked, I’m going to say 1st for Manchester City.

Chelsea had a dreadful season last year, with Mourinho parting half way through. The Italian manager, previously at Juve, Antonio Conte, has been drafted in. He will no doubt make a difference. But will it be enough to get back into that top four? With the competition, I’m not sure. Kante will undoubtedly strengthen the midfield, but Batshuayi, the other main purchase, remains a bit of a wild card. Will Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas awake from last year’s hibernation? Will the same creaky back four, another year older, be able to cope with pace any better than last year? I’m not sure. I’ll go for 6th.

And what of the glorious Arsenal? Every year I try to make a case for them winning it. They should have done, really, last season. But, as ever, they bottled it at key stages of the season. Why should things be any different this season? They have strengthened defensive midfield with the Swiss star, Xhaka. A good purchase. But at this point they are still too reliant on inconsistent Giroud up front and the defence is looking wobbly, with a lot of injuries before the season even starts. I have faith that they’ll stay in the top four through the quality in midfield, but 3rd is the best I can manage.

So, I’ve selected five of the top six places and still haven’t allocated Spurs, Liverpool and my own team, West Ham. Or indeed, the team that came sixth last season, Southampton. Just to deal with them, they have again lost a good manager and key players in the close season. I’m not sure they can keep on recovering from that. I suspect they’ll slip a bit this season, maybe to something like 10th.

Spurs had an excellent season last year, and looked nailed on for second place, until they ran out of steam at the end and were pipped by North London rivals, Arsenal. They play an attractive, pressing style, under Pochettino, but you do wonder if it is sustainable over a whole season – and the England players from Spurs were clearly wiped out during the Euros. Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp appear to have a similar philosophy. Hopes are high on Merseyside that Klopp is the man to take them back to greatness, but I don’t see the quality in the team yet to do that. So 5th for Spurs and 7th for Liverpool.

As for the Happy Hammers, we are happy under Slaven Bilic, and in our new Olympic Stadium in Stratford. The future is bright. And genius Dmitri Payet hasn’t left! But the new signings only seem to add a bit of depth to the squad without really raising the quality. So with the likely revivals of Chelsea and Liverpool, the survival of Leicester, and the power of the big spenders, I can’t really see how West Ham can break into the top six. Right now, I have to predict a slip of one place to 8th. Fingers-crossed I’m being unduly pessimistic. Well, not pessimistic – I think we’ll have a good season in a hugely competitive league. And, you never know, a decent run in the Europa League.

So, in summary, my top eight is:

  1. Man City
  2. Man Utd
  3. Arsenal
  4. Leicester
  5. Spurs
  6. Chelsea
  7. Liverpool
  8. West Ham

Elsewhere, I’d expect Everton to challenge for top eight or better under Ronald Koeman, enticed from Southampton. Crystal Palace have spent ambitiously and should be top ten. And of the promoted sides, I think Middlesbrough might make an impact. I suspect the other two, Burnley and Hull, will go down, probably accompanied by Watford, who have torn themselves apart once again. Hard to get away with it every season.

Anyway, kiss of death for City! Feel optimistic, Chelsea and Liverpool fans…

And please, Hammers, don’t mess up in the lovely new stadium!

 

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Two novels with jazz

I’ve read two novels this holiday in which jazz plays a part. Sometimes subversive, always arousing emotions, inspiring the writer. When I wrote about jazz in my book, “I Was There – A Musical Journey”, I described a music that could be many things, with improvisation at its heart. Another world to the one I usually inhabit. More subtle, mysterious, spiritual. A voice without words. A beautiful scream. But music you could dance to too, and music, because of its flexibility and its range was capable of some wonderful fusions with other genres. Think of all the times music is referred to as jazzy. It can mean so many things. It might be a mellow, sultry beat, or a time signature that is just that bit different, or something that is truly spaced out. All these things denote that feeling of jazziness.

And the jazz in the two novels, while rooted in the swing of the 1930s and 40s, brings out many of those feelings.

Both books have been sitting in my to-read pile for a while. They felt right for a holiday. Sitting on the terrace, overlooking the sea, or listening to the chorus of cicadas, a beer or white wine by my side, and maybe some music, even some jazz music, on the iPod. Not too loud to annoy anyone else.

The first book was “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac. One of those books you know you should have read. If it inspired Bob Dylan, you know you’ll get something out of it. I enjoyed it. Had I not known when it was written, I’d have assumed it was about the sixties. All the partying, the boozing, drugs and pursuit of girls seemed very representative of that hedonistic era. But Kerouac was actually writing about experiences mainly in the late forties. Just shows what affluence the USA already had , when most of the world was still in shock from the devastation of World War Two. I liked Kerouac’s portrayal of time and place – it made me want even more to visit some of those cities I’ve not been to, like San Francisco, Denver, San Antonio and New Orleans. But I got a bit bored with the endless desperate partying – basically lads on the piss by any other name. And while the central character, Dean Moriarty, was a life force, he was clearly also a selfish pain in the arse and in the end not that easy to sympathise with.

Dean’s empathy with jazz though, was wild and true. Jazz in “On the Road” is the music that sends the characters to new heights of frenzy and communion with the sound and the players. This was about a time that pre-dated rock’n’roll. The jazz that Kerouac celebrates is absolutely the music of black people, a music of the spirit, of losing yourself, of protest and the blues. For the white kids, no doubt, it was the music of subversion. Until Elvis came along…

The Czech writer, Josef Skvorecky’s novella, “The Bass Saxophone”, is about subversion of a different, and braver, kind. First published in Czechoslovakia in the sixties, it’s one of three pieces in the volume I read, all about Czech people living under the yolk of the Nazis. Skvorecky’s prose is fluid, discursive, quite hard to keep track of at times. Many a time a sentence will meander into a stream of consciousness before coming back to join up with the first part, which may have introduced a character, or a theme. But it’s a rewarding read. An introductory piece, “Red Music” writes of how, both under the Nazis and then the Communists, music like jazz was seen as a threat to the established order, an invitation to people to express themselves, think for themselves, and by definition, break free from the tyranny imposed on their daily lives. There’s an extraordinary set of regulations imposed on dance orchestras by one Gauleiter. This is number 3 of 10:

As to tempo, preference is to be given to brisk compositions over slow ones (so-called blues); however the pace must not exceed a certain degree of allegro, commensurate with the Aryan sense of discipline and moderation. On no account will Negroid excesses in tempo (so-called hot jazz) or in solo performances (so-called breaks) be tolerated.

You can bet your life that the Gauleiter, or his musical adviser, was a massive jazz fan on the quiet.

But you know, edicts like this weren’t exclusive to the Nazis. You can read similar pronouncements in the Stasi museum, in Berlin, today.

And so the theme in a love story called “Emoke” and then “The Bass Saxophone” itself, is about people finding escape in music, and specifically, in the latter, jazz, as the owner of the bass saxophone turns up late to a concert of traditional music in front of the assembled German dignitaries in a Czech town called Kostelec and blasts the inexplicable, plaintive, subversive cry of his instrument through the dross that went before. The author, a young man, has been standing in for him, in bizarre circumstances, on an alto sax – he can’t handle the magnificent bass machine. He is allowed to escape as the authorities take control. But he is there in frustrated spirit with the doomed bass saxophonist.

Music, and especially jazz, is therefore a form of rebellion against the totalitarian forces. In village halls across Czechoslovakia, bands subvert old-fashioned waltzes with swing and the blues. People come from all around to enjoy it. The music of black America, in a small way, helping people to resist, if only for a fleeting moment, the joyless oppression of the conqueror. And we know those oppressors like a little bit of that Swing themselves. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that…

The subversion in subjugated Czechoslovakia is of a different, deeper quality than the anti-establishment vibes of the youngsters in “On the Road”. But in both books, the power of self and communal expression that music – jazz – can create runs deep and true.

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