A 2021 musical sampler: 20 + 40

I published a piece on my top twenty albums of 2021 just before Christmas. I said then that a lot of the songs that I’ve enjoyed most this year aren’t from albums. Some are on EPs, some are just singles; all are available on Spotify.

So, I’ve put together this playlist, which has one tune from each of the top twenty albums, plus another forty tracks. And, let me tell you, it was hard to narrow it down to that! There is such a lot of great new music out there – as there always is. I rely a lot on BBC 6 Music to get wind of new music these days. I still read reviews, of course; and the festivals always direct you towards some new favourites. But a lot of the singles and EPs I’ve first heard on 6 Music, especially the four weekly episodes on BBC Sounds which are called New Music Mix these days. The DJs responsible for them most of the time are Steve Lamacq, Lauren Laverne, Mary Anne Hobbs and Tom Ravenscroft. Between them they cover the musical waterfront, other than the pop mainstream – though Lauren Laverne touches on that. So I’m afraid there is no Adele or Ed Sheeran on this list, but there is a lot of great music, including some pretty hardcore rock’n’roll or punk – call it what you will. Has it been a good year for that, or am I just more receptive, reaching back to my youth? A bit of both probably. There are some beautiful songs, a fair number of swirling guitars and a bit of jazz and R&B. There’s a small amount of electro – probably not as much as there should be, if the list reflected what I have been listening to over the year. But the tunes are often quite long and repetitive, and I’ve tried to keep most of the songs on this list reasonably short. My Electro playlist, which is updated quite often, is publicly available at my Spotify address – johnsills.

Best track of the year? Hard, really, to single anything out; but if I had to it would be one of  Chaise Longue by Wet Leg (the festival rock’n’roll highlight), The Right Thing is Hard to Do by Lightning Bug (pure shoegaze bliss), or Her by Logic1000 (joyous techno from a Berlin-based Aussie). Best ballad probably Bedroom Walls by Etaoin, though right now I’m really loving Going Where the Lonely Go by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss (Alison lead singer on this one). Best noise is Sibensko Powerhouse by JOHN (good name!), though I’m enjoying some of the metal riffing on Turnstile’s album Glow On at the moment, notably Don’t Play and Blackout. Metallica collides with the Beastie Boys.

It’s all good! Check out the list on Spotify: 20 + 40 from 2021. There’s also a longer version of my 2021 favourites, running to around 160 tracks, simply called Best of 2021. The Director’s Cut…

And while we celebrate the passing year’s music – if not the passing year! – here’s to all those new sounds that await us 2022…

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My Top Twenty Albums of 2021

It has been another great year for music. We didn’t get live music back until the second half of the year, but a lot of artists had clearly been using their time productively during the lockdowns in 2020 and the first half of this year, and we’ve seen that come through in the number of excellent albums, EPs and singles. This review focuses on albums, which I’ve acknowledged previously doesn’t tell half the story these days; but they still lend themselves to a good list!

1 – Promises by Floating Points, Pharaoh Saunders and the London Symphony Orchestra

My top choice, no contest this year. A glorious electronic jazz symphony. A thing of great beauty, atmospheric and dramatic in equal parts. Composed by Sam Shepherd, who records under the name of Floating Points, in collaboration with jazz icon Pharoah Saunders and the LSO. Pharoah Saunders’ sax playing is a thing of wonder, while the gradual emergence of the LSO’s strings halfway through the piece, rising to an unnerving crescendo, never fails to enthral. The first thing you hear is a simple seven note motif played on some kind of keyboard. It is ever-present through the album, a point of stability that is soothing and haunting at the same time. Around it the sounds ebb and flow, erupt and subside. It is an epic journey – to appreciate it fully you have to listen to it from start to finish. An astonishing piece of music, a true work of art, which took five years to bring to fruition. It was worth the wait.

2 – Echo by Indigo Sparke

I stumbled upon Indigo Sparke’s music through Spotify’s algorithm. I’d been playing some Julia Jacklin and when that ended, a song called The Day I Drove the Car Around the Block came on. I liked it so checked out the artist – and made my acquaintance with Echo. It’s a beautiful, sparse record – no surprise that the album cover features Indigo in what I take to be the Australian desert. File under folk, I guess, but there’s an echo and space in this music reminds me a little of a favourite from a few years ago: Light on Our Limbs by Daisy Vaughan. Songs like Carnival and Colourblind are amongst my most played of the year, but the whole album is completely captivating.

3 – Man Made by Greentea Peng

Greentea Peng is the stage name for singer and songwriter Aria Wells. I first heard her when she released a song called Used To, back in 2018. It was jazzy and soulful and sultry – Erykah Badu came to mind, maybe even Grace Jones. Since then, and before the album, she’s released some great singles like Ghost Town, Soulboy, Mr Sun and HuMan, which draw on reggae and dub and hip hop as well as jazz and soul. A potpourri of the sounds of the London streets. Man Made builds on these foundations. It has an audacity and a swing about it that really comes through on the stage. There’s a strong reggae vibe to it again, with some wonderful dub sounds. The bass lines have a groove that make it impossible not to want to dance – or sway. It’s a celebration, but also a protest against the oppressors. Aria Wells is not the first person to sing fight for our right to party, but when she did during Jimtastic Blues in the closing show on the Sunrise Arena at Latitude, it felt like a call to arms. Militant dubwise dance music – maybe that’s a good summary of Green Tea Peng and Man Made.

4 – Bring Backs by Alfa Mist

Alfa Mist, as a teenager in east London, cut his musical teeth as a producer in hip hop and grime. But he loved the jazz music he was hearing and taught himself piano and has become a master of his craft. This is his fourth album. It’s cool, cool jazz, infused with hip hop and soul – those sounds of London again. His keyboards lay the base for his fellow musicians to flourish – guitar, trumpet, sax, with guest vocalists Lex Amor and Kaya Thomas-Dyke (who plays bass too). A poem about roots and the sense of belonging in a new city weaves its way through the album, adding to the sense of contemplation. His recent concert at the Barbican revolved around this album and is possibly the best I’ve seen this year.

5 – Visions of Light by Ishmael Ensemble

Ishmael Ensemble are a collective from Bristol, led by saxophonist and producer Pete Cunningham. You may have read my review of their brilliant gig at the Jazz Café in November, part of the London Jazz Festival. It’s jazz but not just jazz – there is a strong element of that great Bristol sound of the 1990s, the sound we call trip hop. When Holysseus Fly is singing on songs like Feather and Empty Hands you are transported back to Elizabeth Fraser on Teardrop. This album is in a place where jazz, dance and electronica intersect – fusion at its best.

6 – Collapsed in Sunbeams by Arlo Parks

2021 has been an incredible year for Arlo Parks. She released this album in January, having already built up a strong following through a series of mellow, catchy singles with heartfelt sentiments. Some of those songs, like Black Dog and Eugene, made it onto the album; the newer tunes continued to address the challenges faced by her generation in today’s harsh world. There’s a disarming openness about her lyrics, aligned to soulful, jazzy beats with an indie streak – she has covered Radiohead’s Creep. She has become something of a voice for her generation – the super sad generation in one of her signature tunes. It was recognised when Collapsed in Sunbeams won this year’s Mercury Music Prize.

7 – Californian Soil by London Grammar

When this album came out in April, I listened to it a couple of times, concluded it was more of the same with a few more dance beats than before. Nothing as memorable as Strong or Rooting for You from the first two albums. But before I went to see the band at Alexandra Palace in November I put it back on a few times and I realised what a good album it was. Yes, the beats are a little more uptempo than usual, but what still gets you is Hannah’s voice. A thing of great beauty, tinged with sadness, even when she is singing against a dance rhythm. London Grammar albums don’t come round very often – this is the third in eight years – so Californian Soil is something to treasure.

8 – For the First Time by Black Country, New Road

How to describe Black Country, New Road? Avant-garde post-punk? Jazz-prog rock? All of this and more. For the First Time seemed like a bit of a placeholder at first, as it has only has six songs, two of which, Athens, France and Sunglasses, had been around for a while. However, both have been significantly re-worked. I particularly like the new, fuzzy guitar intro to Sunglasses. And it’s still as bonkers as ever. What’s so good about this album is that there is so much going on that every listen reveals something new. Singer Isaac Wood sounds like he’s on the verge of some kind of breakdown. Georgia Ellery’s violin and Lewis Evans’ sax contribute hugely to the richness and unpredictability of the sounds. This was shortlisted for the Mercury Music, and if the judges had been feeling adventurous they would have won it.

9 – Blue Weekend by Wolf Alice

This one was shortlisted too, but they won it for their last album, so it was not that likely they could do it again. Blue Weekend sees Wolf Alice take another step towards polished pop, though they haven’t embraced dance beats yet as so many do. It was another album that grew on me, after an inconclusive initial reaction. I missed the guitar riffs that were such a great part of My Love is Cool and, in a different, 70s rock way, Visions of a Life (the Mercury winner). Smile is the standout rocker; Play the Greatest Hits is a bit weak. But as the essence of the songs emerged I began to appreciate a grandiose beauty in many of them, and none better than the solicitous How Can I Make it OK? and the anthemic The Last Man on Earth. The latter will be Wolf Alice’s lighters out moment for years to come.

10 – Sera Que Ahora Podremos Entendernos by Mabe Fratti

Mabe Fratti is a Guatemalan cellist and composer, based in Mexico. The album title in English is Will We Be able to Understand Each Other Now? That sense of unease permeates the album as Mabe Fratti’s wistful vocals float over a soundscape of juddering and looped cellos, synths, discordant guitars – and a bit of birdsong! There’s a strange beauty to it, which occasionally brings to mind Kate Bush or even the Cocteau Twins, but really I haven’t heard anything like it before. Another discovery courtesy of 6 Music.

11 – On All Fours by Goat Girl

More skewed rock’n’roll from the south London post-punks, with less rock and more roll than before. In lockdown Goat Girl have embraced electronics and dance sounds, never more so than in the lead single Sad Cowboy, which shifts gear near the end and goes all techno. The trenchant views on life and politics remain, but Goat Girl are a very different band to the one I first saw supporting Moonlandingz (A Fat White Family offshoot) at Village Underground in Shoreditch in 2017. Slicker, less punky, more mature. And just as intriguing.

12 – As the Love Continues by Mogwai

I only really got Mogwai in 2019, after seeing them play at Latitude. Those slow-building sweeps of guitar transformed from dirges to epics in the live arena. They were even better this year at Green Man, under the night sky, with the Black Mountain in the background. As the Love Continues probably isn’t that different from most of its predecessors, though it almost goes pop with Ritchie Sacramento – which has singing on it! It reminds me of Slowdive. Ceiling Granny rocks like Smashing Pumpkins; but really there’s no-one else like Mogwai. Just let the waves of sound wash over you.

13 – Good Woman by The Staves

It’s six years since the Staves’ last album, If I Was, which was produced by Justin Vernon. In that time there have been break ups, their mother died, and one of the sisters, Emily, had a baby. On the recent tour it was just Jessica and Camilla, with a backing band. Good Woman is a reflection on all those experiences: quite subdued lyrically, but defiant with it. The trademark harmonies are more restrained, but as lovely as ever. This is a mature, melancholy album that soothes you as it moves you.

14 – A Color of the Sky by Lightning Bug

Lightning Bug are a New York band, led by singer Audrey Kang. I’d not come across them until I heard the single The Right Thing is Hard to Do on 6 Music. I loved it: a slice of dreamy guitar-laden pop, with a lovely melody and Audrey’s delicate vocals floating on the breeze. In fact I liked it so much that it turned out to be my most-played song on Spotify this year. The band’s sound has been described as shoegaze, and I suppose it is, but there’s a stronger folk element in it than most of the music in that category. It’s simply gorgeous, from start to finish: music to wallow in.

15 – In Your Hands/ In This House (2020) by Lewsberg

Lewsberg were another 6 Music discovery this year. The first song I heard was Through the Garden, off In This House. It was the most Velvet Underground-like sound I’d heard since what? The Strokes? Jonathan Richman? The Feelies? And there was a guitar solo at the end that had me thinking of Television. They must be from New York, I thought. And then a couple of months ago, I heard an even better tune, Cold Light of Day, with some brilliant guitar again. I looked up the album, to find it was from 2020. And yes, listening right through it was like listening to the Velvets (especially the 1969 live album); but it wasn’t parody, it was clearly love. I noticed that there was a 2021 album too, In Your Hands. It had less of the guitar, but more violin. Dreamier – Pale Blue Eyes rather than Waiting for the Man or White Light White Heat. Put them together and you have a great double album. Oh, and they’re not from New York, they’re from Rotterdam in Holland!

16 – You Signed Up For This by Maisie Peters

I’ve been listening to Maisie Peters’ music for two or three years now, ever since I read an article in Line of Best Fit declaring that she was making the best observational pop of 2019. I’m not sure I’m an expert on observational pop, but I liked what I heard, principally the songs on a 2018 EP called Too Nice for a Jacket. That included a lovely ballad called Feels Like This, which still features in her live show. Since then she has released a string of singles and EPs, with unfailingly catchy melodies and yes, those acute, often wistful observations. She has built up a loyal following and made a triumphant appearance on the main stage at Latitude this year. You Signed Up For This feels like the culmination of this stage of her musical journey. It’s very polished, with the inevitable dance beats lurking in the background. There’s surprisingly little from the back catalogue, and for me, it doesn’t have quite the same depth or quality as some of her earlier songs. But it’s still a very good pop album, with the singles John Hughes Movie and Pyscho the highlights. The latter is a dead ringer for Carly Ray Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe. A pointer for things to come?

17 – I Know I’m Funny Ha Ha by Faye Webster

I first saw Faye Webster supporting Julia Jacklin at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in November 2017. I liked what I heard and loved her self-titled album of that year, her second. It was country-pop with a nod to Rumours era Fleetwood Mac. Alone Again was a real heartbreaker. The next album Atlanta Millionaire’s Club was lush, but didn’t have quite as memorable songs, apart from the lovely Kingston. This latest album is even more sumptuous, has better songs and… she seems happy. I think she has found love, and this is captured wonderfully in the song In A Good Way. When I first heard that in 2020 it was on repeat for a while – it was so beautiful! You make me wanna cry, in a good way… The steel guitar is as mellifluous as ever, the violins sigh, the piano swoons. There is variety in the album – Cheers is almost rocky, Both All the Time has a hint of Dylan’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door. But mostly you get to wallow – in a good way.

18 – How Long do You Think it’s Gonna Last? by Big Red Machine

Big Red Machine is a collaboration between Aaron Dessner of The National and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. They started working together in 2016 and released a debut album in 2018. With the pedigree of those two, you know what you are going to get. I’ve not heard the first album yet, but this one is a journey through Americana, with some modern production touches. The opening song sets the tone. A lovely vocal from guest Anais Mitchell, a chorus with a touch of Springsteen and Justin Vernon’s falsetto taking it higher. There are guests galore on this album, including Taylor Swift on two songs, Birch and Renegade. No surprise there, as Aaron Dessner was instrumental in the making of Folklore and Evermore. It’s a long album, at over an hour, but it maintains a coherence despite all the different participants – even Ben Howard and This is the Kit get a look-in. I’m still quite new to this one, and suspect it will be getting a lot more airplay.

19 – Colourgrade by Tirzah

I’d always thought of Tirzah as a soul/R&B singer, albeit a leftfield one. With Colourgrade the soul gets twisted and turned and the leftfield emerges victorious. It’s no surprise that one of her collaborators is Mica Levi, whose band Good Sad Happy Bad made one of the best albums of 2020, Shades. Singer and DJ Coby Sey is in the mix too. There’s a lot going on throughout this album, and sometimes very little at all. There’s a lot of space in the sound; the beats are insistent but often quite ponderous. It has an eerie, dream-like quality. I can hear a bit of the Bristol sound in there – Tricky perhaps – but if you speeded it up I suspect you might be moving into grime territory. I’m all over the place on this one, which I imagine is the intention. Its closest relation on this list is probably Mabe Fratti. Weird, for sure, but fascinating.

20 – I Don’t Live Here Anymore by The War on Drugs

I’ve loved the last two War on Drugs albums, particularly 2014’s Lost in the Dream, which remains one of my favourite albums of the 2010s. And Thinking of a Place, from 2017’s A Deeper Understanding, has some of the finest searing guitar you could hope to hear. Singer and guitarist Adam Granduciel is not one to look on the bright side of life, but he shares his pain in an affecting and uplifting way. The latest offering, I Don’t Live Here Anymore, might suggest a moving away from old habits, but musically it’s largely more of the same. From the first, gentle bars of Living Proof you are Lost in the Dream (the song) territory, with a delicate guitar solo at the end that adds to the poignancy. Next up is Harmonia’s Dream, which chugs along in the manner of Red Eyes and Burning. And so it continues, in an ultimately very satisfying way. Americana at its most epic.

Honourable mentions

There are many of course. Often because I haven’t quite got listening to them properly yet. Or perhaps they aren’t quite good as I would have expected – see Kacey Musgraves, Snail Mail, Chvrches. Or maybe they are just really good in parts, but don’t sustain over a whole album.

So, in no particular order, album name first:

Beta – Beige Banquet; Going to Hell – Lande Hekt (singer with Muncie Girls); Cheater – Pom Poko; Bright Green Field – Squid; Alternate Endings – Snowy Band; Going Going Gone – Mild High Club; Uneasy – Vijay Iyer; Screen Violence – Chvrches; Star-Crossed – Kacey Musgraves; Valentine – Snail Mail; Flora Fauna – Billie Marten; A Common Turn – Anna B Savage; Behave Myself – She Drew the Gun; Raise the Roof – Robert Plant & Alison Krauss; Jubilee – Japanese Breakfast; Monument – Portico Quartet; Rare, Forever – Leon Vynehall; Yellow – Emma Jean Thackray; Glow On – Turnstile;  Comfort to Me – Amyl and the Sniffers; The Mutt’s Nuts – Chubby and the Gang.  

EPs, singles, tracks

As I noted at the beginning, albums only tell half the story these days, if that. There are so many good EPs, singles and tracks off albums that don’t make the selection that have been real favourites this year. I’ll return to this subject after Christmas.

In the meantime, I hope your circumstances allow you to enjoy the festive period. There is always music to help you through.

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Alfa Mist at the Barbican, 4 December 2021

Last Saturday Kath and I went to see Alfa Mist and his band play a sold-out concert at the Barbican. Based in the City, near Moorgate, the Barbican Centre is not so far away from where Alfa Mist grew up, in Newham, east London. He began, as a teenager, in hip hop and grime, but discovered jazz and taught himself piano. He is now firmly established as a jazz pianist, but remains a musician who draws on those musical roots in his compositions.

I first saw him in 2018, when he played the Sunrise Arena at Latitude. It just before six o’clock on the Friday, and I’d just had my ears pummelled by a very angry band on the Lake Stage called Lower Slaughter! I thought a bit of cool jazz would be just the thing to chill out to after that. And so it was. The music flowed. The piano was central but not dominating. There was space in the music, room for virtuosity, underpinned by a solid groove. The beats felt fresh, attuned to the sounds of modern London, while nodding to the 90s acid jazz movement. The set was based, I think, around his 2017 album Antiphon. It’s a fine album, featuring songs like Keep On, Kyoki and Breathe. Kyoki was the first song of his that I’d heard – on 6 Music, of course. I loved the combination of the mellow piano motifs, which could have come from Steely Dan’s classic album Aja, a burst of guitar out of the jazz rock songbook, and a drum sound that reflected his hip hop roots. Music to sit back and relax to, with a cold drink in your hand… but music that also commanded your attention, as it flowed in unexpected directions.

Latitude 2018

Fast forward to 2021, via 2019’s Structuralism – another excellent collection – and a new album Bring Backs, which again fused jazz, hip hop and soul, but perhaps with more of the hip hop than previously.  I saw it described somewhere as a love letter to London, and the District Line even features in Mind the Gap! That song also features the voice of Lex Amor, singing in a style that reminded me a little of Martina Topley-Bird in Tricky’s 90s masterpiece Maxinquaye. What is not to like?

2021 has also allowed artists to start touring again. (Let’s not even think about the prospects of going back into lockdown, even if it is beginning to feel like it is around the corner as I write.) Alfa Mist began a UK and Ireland tour in November, with the Barbican show his biggest – as well as an extraordinary homecoming. Apparently he does all this without a conventional promoter too. The continent beckons in the New Year, regulations allowing. I can imagine him going down a storm in places like Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague and Paris.

And he went down a storm at the Barbican. I have had the good fortune to see some excellent concerts recently, Nubya Garcia, Vijay Iyer, Ishmael Ensemble and Kelly Lee Owens amongst them. This was up there with all of those, and may have been the best of all. The quality of all the playing was astonishing. Alfa Mist’s keyboards suffuses the music with an understated mellow vibe which gives the other musicians the opportunity to show what they can do. The beats were perfection – from drummer Jas Kayser and bassist and occasional singer Kaya Thomas-Dyke. A rhythm section that always had you wanting to move – even as you sat in your comfortable Barbican seat! Trumpeter Johnny Woodham, saxophonist Sam Rapley and guitarist Jamie Leeming took their turns to solo, and were clearly taking inspiration from each other. I loved the tunes that began with one of them improvising, often using echo to enhance the atmosphere, before the rest of the band came in. Bass, drums, Alfa Mist himself on a conventional piano, also had their turns. And that wasn’t all: a lot of the songs were further embellished by the wondrous sounds of the Amika String Quartet. Taking things to another level. It was such a good demonstration of the collective. No-one stole the show, not even Alfa Mist himself. He strikes me a determined but very grounded musician. Self-effacing even. His playing complements the whole, and that sets an example to everybody. They all shine, but they shine together. You could feel the respect. I really liked that.

There were thirteen songs – to use the term loosely – spread over two sets. Nine were tracks from Bring Backs – in fact the whole album was played over the evening. Keep On and Breathe made it into the set, as did a song called Door, from Structuralism, with Jordan Rakei on vocals. He was one of three guests. Before him we had, I think, Lex Amor for Mind the Gap (minus the District Line announcement!) and Barney Artist on a tune called Where’s Your Soul At? As ever, it’s thanks to Setlist FM for that information. It comes from a Barney Artist album from 2014 called Bespoke. Guest keys from… Alfa Mist.

Lex Amor guesting on Mind the Gap

Jordan Rakei on “Door” near the end

This was my last gig of 2021. It’s been good to get a few in in the last couple of months. I’ve got a few lined up in the first few months of 2022 too, lockdowns permitting. But Alfa Mist was a great way to see out this year. Music of the highest quality, music to luxuriate in. Beats that work their way into you. Solos that evoke a sense of wonder. Sounds that flow – and all you have to do is release yourself into the current.

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Kelly Lee Owens at EartH, Hackney, 2 December 2021

I first came across Kelly Lee Owens at End of the Road in 2019. A late night show in the Big Top, which I got to about half way through. All was darkness, except for the glow of the stage. A silhouetted figure danced by a couple of keyboards, with a swirl of images and light behind her. The beats boomed out of the speakers, deep bass lines challenging you not to move your feet. And a dreamy voice drifted across the sonic blast. Let it go…

Let it Go was Kelly Lee Owens’ latest single at the time, backed by another piece of infectious electro called Omen. I discovered that and her back catalogue when I got home after EOTR. The centrepiece was an album, Kelly Lee Owens, from 2017, which combined the dreamy soundscapes with all sorts of punchy bass-laden beats. I loved it, though I didn’t play it enough to get to know the names of the individual tunes. It was a journey in sound, like the landscape rushing by when you are on an inter-city train. You didn’t need names, you just took it all in.

I was looking forward to another album, but first, in December 2019, we had the treat of a collaboration with the brilliant Jon Hopkins called Luminous Spaces. An appropriate title, given the shared spaces they occupy on the musical spectrum. Then covid struck and we went into lockdown, but Kelly’s new album, Inner Song, emerged in August. And what a great album it was, from the moment that Arpeggi revealed itself to be a cover of Radiohead’s Weird Fishes/Arpeggi. Deconstructed, but still reverential. It was an album I listened to a lot – and still do. I made it No2 in my top twenty of 2020, pipped only by Taylor Swift’s Folklore. Both albums reflected the times: they were introspective, but uplifting with it. Very different sounds, but not so different origins. Kelly’s publicity suggested that the album was written at a time when she was recovering from a break-up; it was also deeply concerned with climate change. Not a mass of words decrying environmental catastrophe, but sounds that evoked her despair, and maybe her hope too. Abstract expressionism, you could say. Again those dreamy soundscapes mingled with bursts of heavy bass rhythms – the drop on the dancefloor. And there was interesting guest spot for fellow Welsh artist, John Cale – he of Velvet Underground fame amongst many other accomplishments. He sang, or more accurately intoned, to a piece called Corner of my Sky.

The rain, the rain, thank God, the rain…

Now all we needed was some live shows, to experience this amazing music in three dimensions, to feel those bass lines rumble against our ribcages!  A tour was announced, around the same time as the album was released. I bought a couple of tickets for the show at EartH, in Hackney. Scheduled for April 2021.

You know what happened to that. At least the tour wasn’t abandoned, just postponed. The new EartH date was 2 December. A long way off and who knew what regime we’d be under by then.

Of course things here started to relax soon after April, and some of the summer festivals were able to go ahead. Kelly Lee Owens was on the bill for Green Man, in her home country, in August. Another late night show, in the Far Out tent. I was there, eagerly awaiting. It turned out to be even later than planned, as she hit a technical hitch after the first couple of numbers, which led to a half hour break. She resumed and gave us a spirited performance, with all the usual elements; but the edge had been taken off it – and the festival crowd does like a good natter during songs, especially after a few beers.

I was looking forward to the December show to provide the real thing. Slightly worried that it might be hit by another sudden lockdown, especially when the new variant emerged, but it went ahead. Back to EartH, with my friend Jon G again. I was hoping it would be in the upstairs hall, a spacious theatre space, with the wooden steps used as benches. I could see the sound and the lights working really well in there. The April show had been planned for there; but it was not to be – we were in the basement. Quite a big basement, a decent concert venue, though the ceilings are quite low, and it is all standing. The latter exposes you to two obsatcles to enjoying the show fully: the tall blokes standing in your sightline at the last minute and, of course, the chatting. Both were present for much of the evening…

But despite those impediments, what a show it was. About an hour and ten minutes. Paced very nicely, opening with some of the slower pieces, and slowly building to an absolutely thumping climax over the last half hour or so. The show opened with Arpeggi – what else? – and flowed into the lovely Re-Wild, the most explicitly environmental piece on Inner Song. Through the show, we had a nice mix of the two albums, with occasional bursts of those techno beats to keep people on their toes before we went into full overdrive at the end. I guess On marked the point where the beats became relentless. That song is in two parts: a gently anthemic melody at first and then a lurch into jagged electro. The pulsating Night followed that and we were off. Through Jeanette – a tribute to her mother, and a crowd favourite – Evolution* from the first album and then the mighty Melt!, which shook the place to the core, while the flashing lights compounded the assault on our senses. Kelly rocked as she manipulated her keyboards, hair flying around her. The final tune was Kingsize*, which followed Melt! in bludgeoning us into submission – in a good way!

And you know, in that last half hour, people stopped talking to each other and actually watched the show – and danced. Kelly Lee Owens had taken back control!

The lights stayed dimmed and it felt like there was going to be an encore. Kelly came out again, to acknowledge the applause and express her gratitude. No music – she explained essentially that it was pre-programmed. But her emotions were real. Again and again she had to stop and wipe away the tears. It clearly meant a huge amount to her – a common theme in the shows I’ve seen in the last month or so. All that creativity, all that emotion suppressed as the world of the arts was shut down. And now back to life, sharing their creations – and their feelings. Catharsis.

Kelly Lee Owens’ music – and especially the live experience – does catharsis very well.

*As so often, I have to thank Setlist FM for allowing me to piece together the sequence of songs, especially those from the first album. The train was rolling…

A few more photos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Both my little digital camera and iPhone were rather discombobulated by the lighting and ever-morphing images. Still, I did mention abstract expressionism earlier! And I didn’t even have a drink while I was there…

 

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A taste of the London Jazz Festival 2021

This year’s London Jazz Festival ran from 12 to 21 November. It took place in locations across London, ranging across the genres associated with jazz and in locations as large as the Royal Festival Hall and the Barbican, to pubs and clubs around the capital. I managed to see three concerts, which captured that variety. It should have been four, but unfortunately the pianist Brad Mehldau had to pull out a couple of days before his Barbican show on 21 November due to illness. We’re hoping that show will be rearranged for some time in 2022.

Katriona Taylor Quintet at the Bull’s Head, Barnes, 13 November

A few of us went down to the Bull’s Head, which looks onto the Thames just downriver from Barnes Bridge. It’s one of London’s stalwart jazz pubs, with bands playing most days. Of course, that all stopped during lockdown, but all is now in back in working order. There’s a dedicated music room out the back of the pub, which can take maybe a hundred people. I’ve been there a few times before. The pub itself is a nice place to stop for a pint if you are out walking, and the food is decent too – we ate there before the show tonight.

I’d not come across Katriona and her band before, but the prospect of hearing 60s and 70s pop and soul classics played in a jazzy style sounded like a nice thing to do on a Saturday night. And so it proved. The band were all accomplished players and Katriona herself interpreted the songs with imagination. If anything her voice is a little high and pure for this kind of music, but she carried it off with style. She has released an album this year called Blind Passion, which is a tribute to blind or partially sighted songwriters. Katriona is partially sighted herself. This meant we got three Stevie Wonder songs in the first set: Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing, Master Blaster and My Cherie Amour, which was alright by me. Inevitably there were moments when I couldn’t help but be reminded of some of those international hotel bars I have sat in in years gone by, listening to mellow jazz standards being crooned in the background. I’ve always enjoyed that vibe, and of course it also reminds me of one of my favourite films, Lost in Translation!

The band circulated in the audience in the interval, which was a nice touch. We had an interesting chat with the keyboard player. Playing in the band is not the day job, but most of the band have been together for a long time and there was a clear affection for Katriona. The second set took a few more risks, notably a reconstructed version of the Bee Gees’ Night Fever which was barely recognisable. It was all good though, with some funky Latin touches at times.

So yes, a very agreeable evening, and as ever, we all agreed we should do this sort of thing more often. Time will tell!

Vijay Iyer Trio, Queen Elizabeth Hall, 14 November

Second concert of the weekend, and quite a contrast to the first, both in size of venue and musical pallet. The Queen Elizabeth Hall, part of the South Bank Centre, is a perfect venue to sit and soak in music of the highest quality. The seating is comfortable, the views excellent thanks to the relatively steep banking, and the acoustics superb. That was all just right for these three accomplished musicians: Vijay Iyer on piano, Linda Oh on double bass and Tyshawn Sorey on drums. I can’t say for sure what pieces they played, but my guess is that at least two of the five that spanned a good hour and a half were from the 2021 album,  Uneasy, which was a collaboration between the three of them. I’ve been listening to it a lot since the concert and really like it – a cool and inventive set of jazz numbers, including a nearly ten minute version of the old standard Night and Day. Improvisation is the name of the game, and that was very much the case on the night. The first two numbers both lasted for around half an hour. That induced a variety of reactions: while you marvelled at the musicianship, and wondered where the tune would go next, it was also quite easy to drift off a bit and start thinking about what you needed to buy at the supermarket tomorrow. Having said that, time flew by, because the sheer quality of the playing was absorbing. I could happily have listened to more. And the first thing I did when I got home was put the new album on.

One slight criticism would be that the drums were a bit high in the mix. Tyshawn is an absolute master, and with a very spare kit, but the snare sound was overwhelming Vijay’s improvisation on the piano at times.

On a side note, this was the first band I’ve seen in recent times who have all been wearing masks. Some of Vijay’s comments suggested he was a bit fearful of catching something while he was in London. And the band have been whizzing around Europe by the sounds of things. Whether things are any better in America, I wouldn’t know, but I guess you feel more comfortable in familiar surroundings.

But to get back to the music, I would love to see Vijay Iyer play again someday, and I bet it would be very different to tonight.

Ishmael Ensemble, Jazz Café, Camden, 17 November

This one brings the music right up to the present, with a mix of jazz, soul, electronica and hip hop. The present, but also the 90s, another time when all these genres collided to produce an explosion of creativity. And one of the places that was central in the 90s, as it is now, is Bristol – from where Ishmael Ensemble hail. That Bristol sound, the sound of fusion, with Massive Attack, Portishead, Tricky amongst the principal players. And now Ishmael Ensemble are very much part of that tradition, while adding new dimensions, jazz dimensions.

The band released an album called Visions of Light in August this year. It follows 2019’s State of Flow. Both are highly recommended. Tunes from Visions of Light formed the core of the set, which was a joy from start to finish. They were bathed in red or golden light much of the time, and their music was made to match: atmospheric, hard-edged, soulful, funky and wild. Not all at the same time! Unavoidably the sounds took me back to Massive Attack’s Mezzanine album, especially when the music built to a crescendo, with guitar and sax blazing. Likewise those soulful moments, adorned with the beautiful vocals of Holysseus Fly. Memories of Elizabeth Fraser singing Teardrop! Let’s not overstate the likenesses though – this was vibrant jazz music, with Pete Cunningham’s sax a constant source of wonder.

The band came back for a much welcomed encore and went back to their beginnings, with a piece called Song for Knotty, which was the title track of their first EP. A fitting finale to a performance which showcased the new, but celebrated their Bristol roots too.

I went to this gig with my friends Jon and Shane. We all came out of the Jazz Café knowing that we had seen a very special band. They must be nailed on to play some of the festivals next year – can’t wait to see them again!

 

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London Grammar at Alexandra Palace, 12 November 2021

London Grammar are a trio – singer and occasional guitarist Hannah Reid and multi-instrumentalists Dan Rothman and Dominic “Dot” Major. They’re Londoners, but formed at Nottingham University. Their debut album, If You Wait, was released in 2013. That was followed by Truth is a Beautiful Thing in 2017 and just this year, Californian Soil. A stately progress, which reflects the stately nature of their music, which, at least until the latest album, has been characterised by a beautiful, sparse melancholy that is at its most pronounced in Hannah’s singing. She is one of the best around in my view. In the slower songs, there’s a real sense of sadness, that duende that I’ve written about many times before. When they do stray into more up-tempo territory, there’s a strain in her voice, a venturing outside the comfort zone. The melancholy never quite goes away.

Californian Soil does take the band’s sound into more of a pop-dance zone than its predecessors. I guess that’s inevitable – there isn’t much in the pop world today that doesn’t have some kind of electronic dance beat attached to it. Got to move with the times. Further, that sound seems to reflect a change in attitude. In interviews accompanying the new album, Hannah said that she had assumed more of a leading role in the band and was asserting herself against the prejudice and misogyny in the music business, having been close to quitting in 2019. Well, I’m glad she stuck around, because Californian Soil is a fine album, which grows on you with each listen. And it was great to have them back on tour after all this time.

There were two shows at Ally Pally, on Friday and Saturday just gone. That means around 20,000 people made the trek to North London to see them. That’s not bad, and it meant a lot to them. Dan Rothman made the point during the show that he grew up ten minutes away from Ally Pally – this was a real homecoming. I went on the Friday, with friends Shane and Jon. We figured they’d be on stage around nine, so stopped for a couple of beers near Alexandra Park station. It’s another ten minutes’ walk up quite a steep hill after that, and we ended up getting the timing slightly wrong. Despite the fact that there were a lot of people still in the food hall when we got there, the band had started. I figured by checking previous set lists – thanks to Setlist FM as ever – that we had only missed Californian Soil and part of Missing, for which Hannah was wielding an electric guitar. It was reassuring to hear Hey Now after that – not only is it a wonderful song (from the first album) but, unless they varied the set each night, it was only the third of the set.

After that we had a succession of songs from the new album, culminating in the closest thing London Grammar have to a “banger”, Baby it’s You. The second half of the show stepped into more varied territory, starting with two favourites from Truth is a Beautiful Thing, Big Picture and Hell to the Liars, featuring one of Hannah’s most passionate vocals. Mind you, I was probably working from memory on the night – there was so much chatter going on all around that it was hard really to take in the more subtle elements of the show. I find it odd why people pay £35 to stand in a big hall and chat to their mates when they could do that down the pub for free, but that’s the way it is in these big shows. I was just about able to appreciate Wasting my Young Years, one of their signature tunes, which followed. A song I will always love, with the anguish of Hannah’s voice conquering the cavernous surroundings. The main set finished with America from the new album and another old favourite Metal and Dust, a suitably upbeat ending.

The encore was a triumph, with Bones of Ribbon followed by the London Grammar anthem, Strong, and finally Lose Your Head from Californian Soil. Strong is such a great song, as resonant now as when I first heard it back in 2013. I’d prefer it if Hannah sang the chorus rather than the crowd, but we were at a celebration of London Grammar, not a recital. Lose Your Head, rather appropriately, was also the moment when a fight kicked off just in front of us. Just some drunken lads, but this was a London Grammar concert. You don’t fight at a London Grammar concert!

So, ultimately, I felt a little ambiguous about this one. I love the music and especially Hannah Reid’s singing. But neither of those could come fully to the fore given the remoteness of the stage – a choice we made by standing at the back – the chatter and the inevitable reliance on the dance beats to fill the arena and keep the crowd energised. The screens were good and the light show and backdrops were imaginative, which enhanced the experience. There was a nice mix of old and new in the set, and I’m really pleased to see the band doing so well. So I’m glad I went, and it’s got me fully appreciating Californian Soil. Could be in the year’s top ten.

With luck we might see them again at Latitude next year – I could see them headlining the Friday evening. The perfect fit, as the stars begin to light up the night sky, the laser show dazzles, and Hannah’s voice echoes through the balmy air…*

Some more photos, the close ups off the screen.

 

(* As long as the rain doesn’t pour down that is!) 

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Three concerts: Arlo Parks, Nubya Garcia, Holly Humberstone

November marks an upsurge of concert-going for me – a combination of rearranged gigs, new shows and the forthcoming London Jazz Festival. The month got off to a flying start with the three shows reviewed here. Three artists whose reputations have flourished over the past couple of years despite the constraints of lockdown. That’s been based on the strength of their recorded music. Now they have the chance to take it on tour. I’m talking about Arlo Parks, Nubya Garcia and Holly Humberstone this time around. All three in the space of five days. It’s like those proverbial London buses…

Arlo Parks at the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, 4 November

Arlo Parks released her debut album Collapsed in Sunbeams in January this year. It won the Mercury Music prize in September. She’d been building a strong following through 2019 and into 2020 with a string of mellow, jazzy songs that spoke directly of the daily issues faced by her generation, which she called, in one of her early songs, the super sad generation. She played Latitude, on the Lake Stage, in 2019, but I didn’t know her music at that point and was at something else. Her music – mostly a mid-tempo groove which draws comparison with Sade if you are my age – and her reflective, sensitive lyrics were perfect for the lockdown mood. Black Dog, a beautiful song which is about a friend suffering from depression, but also about the friendship and care that helps them through, was perhaps the song that summed her up best. And while her music is predominantly in that jazzy soul/ singer-songwriter mode, her own musical tastes are eclectic. She presented a series of Artist in Residence programmes on BBC 6 Music where she got to choose the music she loves; all of them were great listening. One was devoted entirely to Radiohead, which was intriguing. And if you listen to a track like Eugene, one of her most popular songs, the bass lines sound like they might have been influenced by some of the tracks from In Rainbows.

I missed Arlo at the summer festivals this year. She was due to play Latitude, but had to pull out at short notice – covid-related I think. She did play End of the Road, but I missed that this year for similar reasons. So I wasn’t expecting to see her play this year; but a couple of weeks ago I was offered a spare ticket for one of the two the sold-out shows at Shepherd’s Bush Empire and thought, why not?

Two sold-out shows is pretty impressive for someone still very early in their career. It shows just how popular her music has become, especially in her own generation. It’s rare that I’ve been to a concert where almost everyone there seemed to be in the same age group – their twenties. I was a rare, greying exception, sat comfortably at the back of the level 2 seats! I got there at about 8.30, expecting to catch at best a couple of songs by the support act, Joesef. In fact, I think I saw most of his show – there had been another support, Lucy McWilliams beforehand. I enjoyed Joesef’s music – soulful with a good pop sensibility. It went down well with the crowd. He’s from Glasgow and already has a pretty strong following. One to watch.

Joesef

Arlo came on at 9.30 and played for an hour, including the encore. Felt a bit short to me, but one of my daughters back home begged to differ. That’s standard, she thought. I guess it depends how big your repertoire is. Arlo’s back catalogue is pretty extensive now, but she went through most of her most popular songs, both off the album and from previous singles, in that hour. She had a good, slick band – quite a few of them – and varied the pace of the songs nicely, so that Black Dog was slowed down a little, and became even more soulful as a result. Those Radiohead bass lines rang true, and the guitarist even got the chance to let rip towards the end of Sophie. The stage was embellished with plants and flowers – all part of that concern for well-being I guess. Hard to pick out highlights – there was just a mellow vibe all the way through, poised on the edge of dance music. Plenty to sway along to (if you were so inclined). And the crowd made an anthem of Super Sad Generation at the end of the main set. On the surface, an odd thing to celebrate. But then again, maybe an act of defiance, two fingers to the generations who have messed things up so royally.

We had had a poetry reading in the middle – the Collapsed in Sunbeams piece which introduces the album. And the encore featured Hope, which was a nice way to end: you’re not alone though you think you are. Evidence of the unabashed sincerity that permeated this show. Reciprocated by the audience. Something to make you feel optimistic about the future when it is in this generation’s hands.

This was a homecoming for Arlo – she is from West London. She made it clear how much the reception meant to her. Later on social media she wrote, this is dream fuel, this is full circle, this is being completely and absolutely alive. You can’t get much better than that.

Nubya Garcia at Electric Brixton, 7 November

If Arlo Park’s set was slightly on the short side, that wasn’t an issue for Nubya Garcia! She played for an hour and a half, and would have gone on a lot longer if she could have. She and her band were having a ball. And so were we. This was music, jazz music, of the highest quality. This was a vibe that you didn’t want to end.

Nubya’s debut album, Source, was released in August 2020, one of the many excellent recordings made by the new generation of jazz musicians over the past couple of years – another standout being Moses Boyd’s Dark Matter. Both albums featured in my top twenty albums of 2020. The music of Source lives up to its title, drawing on music from around the world, the sounds that have inspired Nubya’s own musical development. It’s an album that I liked from the first time I heard it, but it has also grown on me, as the layers, the sources revealed themselves with each listen. And live it provides so much scope for interpretation, reinvention, as great jazz music always does. That scope for reinterpretation is demonstrated by a new version of the album which contains a variety of remixes of the original tracks. It’s called Source # We Move. My friend Shane, who came to the concert with me, couldn’t resist buying the vinyl version from the merch table. A cool £25! When did the humble vinyl album become so expensive?

Nubya and her band had played in the BBC tent at Latitude this year, and were magisterial then. Tonight they were that, and more besides. Her band are all brilliant musicians in their own right: Joe Armon-Jones on keyboards, Daniel Casimiri on the double bass and Sam Jones on drums. You could focus on any one of them and marvel. They started with the track Source, with a wonderful reggae dub infusion underpinning the tune. Daniel’s bass lines reverberated through the hall, while Joe added the spacey echo from his synths. Meanwhile Nubya’s sax explored the possibilities of the melody. It was engrossing. It lasted longer than twenty minutes, but hardly seemed like it. It was much like that for all the songs. There were only five through the whole show, but within each one there were new stories, different directions. The Message Continues followed Source; it was equally magnificent, with Joe’s keys ranging far and wide, sometimes providing subtle backing, other times stepping out to lead the dance, over the solid foundation of the bass and drums, a joy in themselves. Daniel was given the opportunity to begin the third song, Pace, with an intricate few minutes of soloing on the double bass – completely captivating. Nubya gave the crowd the choice between two songs for the fourth: Inner Game and Before Us. The cheers for both were equally enthusiastic, so she plumped for the latter. Things finished with a new song – I didn’t catch the title, but it was another delight.

Daniel Casimiri runs that bass

The show ended at 10.45, close to closing time, but you could see she was itching for more. As with Arlo Parks, this was something of a homecoming, the chance to play her songs live in London again. She’s from north London and we were south, but that’s a minor detail! For so many artists, whose careers have been put on hold for 18 months, even if they have carried on recording music, there is a sense of catharsis as they return to the stage. All the frustration, all the love of what they do is palpable. Nubya’s performance tonight was an expression of love, no doubt about it. And the crowd loved her back. It was a privilege to be there.

Holly Humberstone at the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, 8 November

Back to Shepherd’s Bush Empire on Monday for singer-songwriter Holly Humberstone. Jon and I saw her at Latitude, in the BBC tent again, and were impressed. She combined heartfelt ballads – some with just an electric guitar, others with piano – with songs that combined anguished melodies with dance beats that work for the modern age. All played (or pre-recorded) by her – it took a certain amount of dashing around the stage to keep things going. And she had a great voice – tender, plaintive but powerful enough to hold the melody on the more upbeat numbers. I’d say there was a bit of folk/country influence in what she was doing, but it has been adapted to reflect a modern pop sensibility. Not unlike Maisie Peters in that respect, but overall a bit darker in feel.

Holly is from Grantham, in the East Midlands. Not a town that stands out, even in the East Midlands, though it is notable for one of its previous inhabitants – Margaret Thatcher. I spent a bit of time there as a teenager, as I lived on an RAF station called Cottesmore, which is not too far away. We used to go shopping there. I remember nothing about it except that it had a decent record shop, where I bought records by the likes of Led Zeppelin and Robin Trower. We are talking pre-punk mid-70s here. Holly has an ambiguous relationship with the place – she escaped it, but like anyone, will still feel the tug of her roots. She spoke about that before the first of two songs in her encore. It was called London is Lonely. You’ve made it out of the small town to the big city. It’s exciting, but intimidating, and yes, sometimes lonely. It’s a feeling I experienced myself when I first came down to live and work in London in 1980.

Holly’s sound is pretty different to that of Arlo Parks, but they do have things in common, and not just their age – they are both 21. They both like Radiohead for a start – just as Arlo has covered Creep, Holly has tackled Fake Plastic Trees (which she played at Latitude, but not tonight). Above all, both are very honest about their feelings – their self-doubt and frailties. If anything, Holly was more candid than Arlo in her between-song patter. Almost excruciatingly so at times. And she seemed genuinely overwhelmed by the size of the crowd at the Empire – everyone there for her. She struggled at times to get beyond how amazing it was, and possibly the nerves were getting to her. But when she strummed the first chord on the guitar or played the first notes on the piano, it all came together. My impression from tonight was that she finds it easier to express herself in song than in speech – on stage at least. That’s not unusual – we all know that music can express feelings that words alone can’t always articulate.

Thanks to Jon for this one.

The set ranged through most her songs released so far, including one called Thursday which she said was her first. (It’s not on Spotify). I think she said it was about her relationship with her sister, who had been going through difficulties. Another example of that candour which she finds it easiest to express in song. I like the songs when she picks up the electric guitar – there’s a connection with Julia Jacklin there, whose music I love. But the big songs, the ones that helped to sell out the Empire, are the ones with an infectious beat as well as a strong melody. Notably Falling Asleep at the Wheel, The Walls are Way Too Thin, and the new single Scarlett. Those three came at the end, and left the crowd on a high, even if the lyrical content is rather downbeat. The super sad generation again, celebrating the fact. But the country music tradition too. Sad songs are often uplifting – for their beauty, or their rhythms. And Holly Humberstone’s songs succeed on both counts.

Another quite short concert – under the hour. But really enjoyable. Fascinating to see how Holly was dealing with her surge in popularity – not just here, but in the USA where she has just had a successful tour. I had the sense that she was finding it difficult to take it all in, and that’s hardly surprising, especially after the enforced inactivity of lockdown. She found her release in the music and gave it her all. And received an ecstatic audience reaction in return.

 

Holly with Jack Steadman of Bombay Bicycle Club. He came on for one song

Just as with Arlo Parks and Nubya Garcia, Holly Humberstone’s show was a celebration of being back to enjoying this thing called music, which means so much to us. They have all broken through in the most difficult of times. And now they have been able to show what they can really do when they get the chance to connect with their audiences. It has been a huge pleasure seeing and hearing them do that so successfully these last few days.

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The Staves at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, 11 October 2021

On Tuesday I went along to Shepherd’s Bush Empire with my friends Jon and Shane to see the Staves. It was my first non-festival concert since March 2020. And it was the Staves’ first tour promoting their new album Good Woman which came out in February this year, although they did do a very good livestream from the Lafayette, Kings Cross on the day of release.

It occurred to me as we watched the show, surrounded by mainly twenty and thirty- somethings, that I have been following the band for ten years now. I first came across them through a tweet by the veteran DJ and presenter “Whispering Bob” Harris, which linked to a video for one of the band’s early singles, Mexico. I liked it and checked out iTunes – remember that? – where I found a collection of beautiful, wistful folk-tinged songs, embellished by the loveliest harmonies you could hope to hear. Some of the lyrics were pretty dark, but it was music to soothe the soul. Their sound today is poppier, and rockier, with a discernable American influence, but their gift for melody, wrapped around with those amazing harmonies, remains.

I saw the band play twice in 2012, first at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill, and then on the i-Arena stage at Latitude. That was my first Latitude, and the Staves were undoubtedly one of the highlights. I’ve seen them a few times over the years, with the show promoting their second album If I Was at Wilton’s Music Hall in east London in 2015 perhaps the best. After that I didn’t see them again until this year: first that livestream and then at Green Man festival in August. They were playing the main stage there in early evening. It was good, though the focus was, not surprisingly, on the more uptempo songs. And there were only two of the three sisters, Jessica and Camilla. Emily is taking some time out with her new baby. There was a full backing band too, a contrast with the early days when it was just the three of them and a drummer.

Latitude, July 2012

Wilton’s Music Hall, March 2015

Green Man, August 2021

Whether the line up was the same for the show on Tuesday I don’t know, though I imagine it was. But inside a hall, with the lights and more time, the Staves were able to explore the full range of their songs. And they did so superbly. I loved every minute of it. It was one of those shows that you don’t want to end. They played with dynamism and subtlety, with some lovely touches of cornet embellishing some of the slower pieces. The set naturally centred on the new album, which was played almost in its entirety. The show began with a selection of the more upbeat numbers, culminating in a past favourite, Black and White, from the second album. That was greeted like an old friend by the crowd. We then went into a lovely, reflective passage, with Jessica on keys for part of it. It included two of my favourite songs from the new album, Nothing’s Gonna Happen and Waiting on me to Change.  But we also had three more from the soul-soothing past: Make it Holy, Winter Trees and that first song of theirs I ever heard, Mexico.

I could have gone home happy at this point, but the set built from now to a rousing Satisfied and finally, a great version of Damn it All, with Jessica really rocking out on the second half. They were obviously coming back for an encore, with the crowd loving it, and not having played their new anthem, Good Woman. So yes, they came back and played Good Woman and then finished with a joyous rendition of an older anthem, Teeth White. An uplifting end to a heart-warming concert.

Looking back at my previous reviews of Staves concerts between 2012 and 2015, I usually ended with a comment about how they were going places, had a great future ahead of them and so on. They weren’t the only ones, in fairness. But I’m glad to say, that for the Staves at least, I got it right!

 

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A Thames Journey: (8) From Kew Bridge to Hammersmith Bridge

By Chiswick Mall, with Constable clouds

In the previous instalment of this journey – Hampton Court to Kew – I envisaged this piece covering Kew to Putney, a distance of around 6 miles on the river as it snakes through west London. The Thames Path in London guide gives the distance as 6 ¾ miles on the north side and 5 ½ miles on the south side.  That’s quite a difference – caused by the bends in the river, and some of the diversions off river in Chiswick and Fulham. I’ve walked and cycled this stretch of the river more than any other, and Hammersmith has become something of a home from home for me. Consequently there are quite a few photos and reflections I’d like to share. Too many to take this journey all the way to Putney. So this one will end at Hammersmith Bridge and we’ll move onto Fulham and Putney next time.

This is Boat Race territory. The race, pre-covid, had run from Putney to Mortlake since 1845, apart from during the two world wars. It started in Henley in 1829 and from 1836 there were a few races between Westminster and Putney. Moving the race upstream was designed to take it away from the heavy river traffic further downstream. While the race ends at Mortlake, the crews actually disembark at a boathouse on the other side of the river, in Chiswick, just before Chiswick Bridge. I’ve only ever been down to the river to watch the race once. It’s a scrum, with a lot of drink being consumed. And you only see the boats for a few seconds. I prefer to watch it from the comfort of my sofa!

From Kew Bridge there is a towpath all the way down to Putney Bridge on the south “Surrey” side, taking in Kew, Mortlake and Barnes, as well as the renowned Wetland Centre nature reserve, a place I visited regularly when the children were young. On the north “Middlesex” side, there’s a lovely walk along Strand-on-the-Green, but then it’s a mixture of suburban streets, narrow countryish lanes and the odd bit of towpath until you get to Chiswick Mall, on the border of Hammersmith. From there the walk down to Hammersmith Bridge might just be my favourite in all of London…

But let’s start on Strand-on-the-Green. Strand means beach in German, and it’s reasonable to assume it meant something like shore by the 14th century, when it was known as Stronde. Later it became Strand Green and Strand under Green. No surprise, as Chiswick, of which it is part, was once known as the “great garden of London”. Today it is one of the more desirable parts of London to live in, with house prices to match. Peter Ackroyd speculates that Chiswick may mean cheese farm, in the same way as Keswick in Cumbria. He adds that it is: “Now best known for Chiswick roundabout.” Harsh. Chiswick House and its beautiful gardens perhaps, or even the shops, bars and cafés of Chiswick High Road. Having said that, circumnavigating Chiswick roundabout can be a traumatic experience!

These first few shots were taken an hour or so after sunrise on a glorious day last December. Getting out and about by the river was one of the few remaining pleasures after we were plunged into the gloom of another lockdown.

The District Line passes over the railway bridge, heading down to Richmond

And here are a couple for the animal lovers.

The next selection is from the other end of the day, in October 2020 and January 2021. The wooded island is known as Oliver’s Ait (or Eyot). Legend has it that Oliver Cromwell escaped from Royalist troops using a tunnel connecting the Bull’s Head pub to the island. The Bull’s Head is one of a number of venerable pubs backing onto the narrow paths of Strand-on-the-Green. Another is the City Barge, which dates back to 1484. Its name comes from its role as a location for winter moorings for the barges of the annual Lord Mayor’s Procession up the Thames. This event took place for 400 hundred years, the last one being in 1857. A more gruesome fact about Strand-on-the-Green is that in the 1920s, over a hundred skulls were discovered. There were similar finds in Kew and Hammersmith. The skulls dated to prehistoric times. Presumably the land around this part of the Thames was as sought after then as it is now.

Oliver’s Ait

Kew Bridge was glowing in the sinking sun on this day.

Jumping over to the other side of the river, we have a few photos taken in recent months as I walked along the towpath up to Chiswick Bridge. This is quite a tranquil stretch, though popular with walkers (and their dogs), joggers and cyclists, especially at weekends. It’s also prone to swarms of midges at times in the summer – when I used to cycle along here I’d be spitting them out as I rode along!

The heron was lurking by some boats just below Kew Bridge.

Strand-on-the-Green from the other side

Another take on Oliver’s Ait

Chiswick Bridge from both sides.

Chiswick Bridge is a relatively recent construction, having opened in 1933. It was built to help relieve traffic congestion in west London – an even more vital role at the moment, with Hammersmith Bridge still shut for major repairs – it reopened to pedestrians and cyclists, but not motor traffic, in on 17 July this year. Just beyond the bridge is Mortlake and the old brewery. Mortlake used to be famous for its weavers, many of whom were from Flanders. A number of tapestries produced between 1619 and 1703 are now displayed in Hampton Court Palace. It was also famous for its beer. The brewery was founded way back in 1487. It was acquired by James Watney and Co in 1889. At some point the brewery became known as the Stag Brewery, one of the Watney brands. Stag bitter was still being served in central London pubs when I first came to live here in 1980. Thankfully we have moved onto better things, though sadly the brewery is no more. Having survived a number of direct hits during the 1940 Blitz it met its fate when it was bought by Anheuser Busch in 1995. It switched to brewing Budweiser, which never really caught on in this country, despite a lot of advertising and sports sponsorship. It staggered on for another twenty years until AB sold the site to property developers. Plans for a mixed use development – residential, offices and a school – were refused planning permission by the Mayor of London in July, so we wait to see what happens next.

Staying on this side of the river, we soon approach Barnes Bridge, one of my favourite features on the Thames. It’s a railway bridge, which the train from Brentford into Vauxhall and Waterloo passes over. There’s a pedestrian crossing too. I always enjoy staring out at the vastness of the river and the sky as we cross – different every time, according to the weather and the hour. The bridge too takes on many different appearances – I’ve included a few favourite photos here, from over the years.

Starting with a misty scene from 2011.

The rest of the shots are from 2021, except the one with the rowers, which is May 2017.

Barnes Bridge looks like a smaller version of Tyne Bridge in Newcastle and Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia, but it predates both by some way. Barnes Bridge opened in 1849, Tyne Bridge in 1928 and Sydney in 1932. From the bridge a raised path takes you along the river and above Lonsdale Road, also known as The Terrace in this section. It’s an attractive scene, though the traffic can be heavy. The composer Gustav Holst – best known for The Planets – lived in one of the old Georgian houses at the far end of the street. He also taught music at St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith from 1905 until his death in 1934. There are some decent pubs here too, notably the Bull’s Head (another one) which is a centre of the jazz scene in London. The food is good and it’s a nice place to stop for refreshments if you are walking along the river.

Some views from the bridge.

Just after the raised path ends the Thames path enters a tree-lined area which takes you all the way to Hammersmith Bridge. Clear views of the Hammersmith side are limited. I stopped cycling along this part of the path years ago, as it gets quite muddy, especially in winter. I prefer to bomb along Lonsdale Road – by my standards! – past St Paul’s Boys School with its vast playing fields, up to Castelnau, which heads up to the bridge. Except right now you can’t cross it in a car or a bus. A nightmare for local residents – the nearest road bridges are Chiswick and Putney. I remember my son playing rugby against a St Paul’s team in year 7. It was an utterly freezing February morning, in 2007. The icy winds whipped off the Thames. The boys who weren’t in the scrum were trembling in the cold. One boy had to come off because he was shaking so much. Good for the soul, no doubt.

Despite my familiarity with this part of the river, it was only in December last year that I discovered the Leg O’Mutton. Tucked away between the river path and Lonsdale Road is what used to be a reservoir and is now a nature reserve, with leafy glades and marshes. There’s a lovely tranquility about it all. The lake is shaped like a leg of lamb, hence the name. The water used to serve local residents and business, but no longer. It has been reclaimed by nature. My friend Jon, a resident of Hammersmith, introduced this to me as we walked from Hammersmith to Putney, Barnes and back to Hammersmith – the Thames and its environs never cease to delight.

Going back to Barnes Bridge and crossing over, we come to Dukes Meadows. The meadows extend from Chiswick Bridge to the edge of a private estate that leads past Chiswick Pier towards Chiswick Mall. The meadows are mostly given over to various sporting activities – there’s a big leisure centre, a golf course, Chiswick rugby club, various other sports grounds and a couple of boathouses, one of which is sited next to the steps down from Barnes Bridge. The civil service has a sports ground in the area – I’ve played in a few 5-a-side tournaments down there in the past. After the boathouse there’s a promenade with good views of the Terrace on the other side of the river. There’s some parkland here, with a couple of bandstands. It’s a nice place to stop and have a sandwich and a cup of tea, sitting on the grassy steps that lead down to the riverside path. The area is very popular with picnickers in the summer. The aroma of barbecues wafts over the summer breeze. The park was opened by Prince Albert, Duke of York (and future King George VI) in 1926, after local residents twelve years earlier fought off plans for the Brentford Gas Company to build a gasworks there. An early example of middle class nimbyism?

The picnic area – sometimes

Looking over to Barnes

Approaching Chiswick pier

This brings us to Chiswick Mall: the beginning of a stretch of the river which might just be my favourite spot in London. I think of it as Hammersmith, although the first half of Chiswick Mall (looking downstream) is still in Chiswick, and hence the borough of Hounslow. Last year, when lockdown eased a little, but there were still strict social distancing rules in place, this made a difference as a cyclist. In Hammersmith and Fulham cycling along the river paths was banned, with stewards enforcing the rules. There was no such thing in Hounslow, or indeed the borough of Richmond on the Barnes side.

At the start of Chiswick Mall, heading downstream, you will find St Nicholas’ Church, Chiswick. The oldest part of Chiswick developed around the church in the late 12th century. The tower was built between 1416 and 35; the rest of today’s church dates from 1882-84 when it was rebuilt with money from the brewer Henry Smith, whose Fuller, Smith and Turner brewery was nearby. In the graveyard, amongst others, lie artist, cartoonist and satirist William Hogarth (1697-1764) and American artist James Whistler (1834-1903).  Hogarth’s name is lent to another of Chiswick’s notorious roundabouts, which is located at the other end of Church Lane. From the tranquility of the church and the Thames to the snarling traffic of the A4 in a couple of minutes’ walk. Such is London.

St Nicholas’

A short walk along Chiswick Mall then brings us to Fuller’s Griffin Brewery, home of one of the finest ales to be found anywhere, London Pride. Not to mention the powerful ESB and many others. The brewery was founded in 1845, though beer had been brewed on the site since the 17th century. Fuller’s had long been a public limited company and extended its operations across nearly 400 outlets, primarily in the south and west of England, but the family-run brewery anchored it – until, in 2019, it was sold to the Japanese giant Asahi, Fuller’s retaining the pubs and hotels. We have seen what happened to the Stag brewery – will a similar fate follow for the Griffin? Already the house pub, the Mawson Arms, has been closed for good, following its initial closure in the March 2020 lockdown. Only a few days before that I and a few friends were there, watching the Cheltenham races on Gold Cup day. There was a valedictory feel to the afternoon – we knew lockdown was on the horizon. But it was a pub we loved to visit each year for what we call our virtual Cheltenham after breakfast somewhere in the City. And it was a place I’d pop into for a quick pint during a walk along the river. It was popular with touring groups who’d been to look around the brewery, and was the local for the brewery workers themselves. Where do they go now? Its closure felt like a gratuitous act, sneaked through in lockdown, just another small example of unfeeling capitalism in action.

The Mawson Arms, much lamented

Chiswick Mall creates a permanent sense of wonder for me. Not just the huge, grandly designed houses with their richly planted riverside lawns on the other side of the road, but most of all the spectacular demonstration of the Thames’ tidal scale. The difference between high and low tides in the Hammersmith area is around 5 ½ metres, or 18 feet. The difference is even greater further downstream. It’s something that never ceases to amaze me, and Chiswick Mall demonstrates it very well. At low tide, the river is virtually dry all the way up to the eyot in mid-stream. At high tide, Chiswick Mall is flooded. The water can be deep enough to make cycling impossible. The photos below give you some indication of the contrast.

The two high tide photos are from March 2014. You can see more photos in lovelondonscenes 50.

May 2017 – same spot as above

The next two shots are from December 2018.

This misty scene is from November 2011.

Some of those riverside gardens.

These last three are from this month.

At this point the river is approaching the top of a bend: a north-east flow shifting to south-east. Along the rest of Chiswick Mall to the Black Lion pub, along the promenade past the Old Ship and then into Upper Mall, with another string of fine, if somewhat more understated houses than Chiswick Mall. No riverside lawns here, either – the street is protected from the river by a high wall. Upper Mall leads into a narrow alleyway which houses one of the best pubs around – The Dove. It’s small and has a rather cramped terrace looking onto the river, but is always worth a visit. Fullers beers, naturally. On the other side of the alley are Furnival Gardens and a promenade which takes you up to Hammersmith Bridge. Two more popular pubs, the Rutland Arms and the Blue Anchor, line the way.

The Black Lion

Approaching the Old Ship

The Old Ship

The Dove from the other side of the river, zoomed in.

The Rutland Arms, with the Blue Anchor just beyond

View from Hammersmith Bridge

I love this stretch of the river, and not just because of the many hours I’ve spent in all of these pubs over the years. More than anything, it’s the views, especially as the sun goes down. The nature of the bend in the river is such that there are wonderful big skies to the west, and you can watch them turn yellow, pink, orange, purple, red, laced with the greys and blues of the clouds. The trees on the other side of the river and the boats on its surface are silhouetted against the glow. A good time to see all this is in the winter months, when the sun sets as early as 4 o’clock; but each season brings its own glorious perspective.

January 2016

Also Jan 2016. I think the boat might have been sinking!

The next two in the mist are from November 2011. Impressionism in nature.

Next three are from January 2019. There are more at lovelondonscenes 161.

Two from September 2019. I love the purple sky in the second. No enhancements – just the fact the photos were taken with an iPhone 8.

Onto December 2020.

Hammersmith is a place of many memories: of times spent with friends, of great restaurants and pubs, of walks and cycle rides, of music and drama (the Apollo, the Lyric, the Riverside, and, in the past, the Palais) and of learning (my daughters’ secondary school). It was natural that it should play a part in my novel, The Decision, and its successor, Hope Rising. They are part of a trilogy of futuristic political novels, though not quite as futuristic as I’d imagined at the time of writing, given our experiences in the last 18 months. In The Decision, the main character, the rebel leader Charlie, has to decide whether to go ahead with what is looking like a hopeless mission. He ponders the pros and cons while looking out over the river in – where else? – Hammersmith. In my imagination it was outside the Old Ship; the river here is a place for contemplation. The photo I used for the cover was taken slightly further downstream so I could get a closer view of the bridge.

Photo used for The Decision cover – in black and white

Charlie would have been standing with his beer around here

And so we come to the bridge itself. Battered and bruised; down but not out. It was the first suspension bridge to be constructed over the Thames. The first version was designed by William Tierney Clark, who was responsible also for the Thames crossing at Marlow and the great suspension bridge in Budapest, as I mentioned in part 5 of this journey. By the 1870s there were concerns about its ability to carry the increasing weight of traffic; and in 1882 it was damaged when a boat collided with it. A new bridge was constructed on the foundations of the first one – designed this time by the great civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette. It was opened by the Prince of Wales in June 1887. It has been the target of the IRA on three occasions: in 1939, 1996 and 2000. The only time the explosives detonated was in 2000; subsequently the bridge was closed for two years for repairs. It has been closed for repairs on other occasions over the years; but the recent problems seem to be more deep rooted. Cracks in the structure were identified in a major survey conducted in 2014 and the bridge was closed to traffic for a period. Further repairs were delayed by wrangling between the various bodies with an interest; but by 2019 the problems had become more serious, and the bridge was closed to motor traffic in April of that year. I can remember enjoying being able to cycle across the bridge undisturbed in the following period, but the closure to cars, buses and commercial traffic was a serious impediment to the daily lives of many people. Further structural damage was identified in 2020 after a heatwave, and the bridge was closed to all in August. The wrangling over the cost of repairs – between the local council, Transport for London and central government – continued; and it looked like closure could last for a long time. A ferry for pedestrians and cyclists was mooted; but then, seemingly out of the blue, it was announced that the bridge would re-open to pedestrians and cyclists in July 2021.

I went down to the bridge earlier this month simply to walk over it and back again. It was good to enjoy that simple pleasure which had been denied to us for many months. One of many things we took for granted until 2020, and now relish. But the pleasure – and the utility – is still only available to pedestrians and cyclists. The future for other traffic remains less certain: there have been various proposals, all with high costs attached, and no-one seems to have enough money. It seems to me that, given the importance of the bridge to the life of the capital city, central government should be stumping up the bulk of the money on an emergency basis; but of course that isn’t how it works. The latest progress, as far as I can tell, is in this update from Hammersmith and Fulham council. Obviously it is written from the council’s perspective, but it seems to have all the salient facts.

Let’s hope the bridge is restored to full functionality in the not-too-distant future. It is part of the lifeblood of west and south west London, as well as being a structure of great elegance and beauty as befits its Grade 2 listed status. It’s a gentle green in the daylight, it broods as the sun sets and the river sparkles below in the darkness.  I hope the photos below capture some of that. I’ve included a painting of mine too – taking a luxuriant summer scene as my inspiration.

From The Decision photo shoot in February 2018

Feb 2018 again

June 2018, from the Barnes side

January 2019 – same as the orange sunsets earlier

November 2018

In June this year, the bridge was still closed.

Earlier this month – accessible again.

In July 2017 I took this photo, which became a painting. Took a few liberties with the colour, as you can see.

The scene revisited, June this year.

So that’s it for this instalment. Hope you’ve enjoyed the journey. Next time we will head to Putney Bridge and beyond – to the edge of central London at Vauxhall Bridge.

Looking downstream from Hammersmith Bridge, September 2021

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Lovelondonscenes 172 – The Battersea Power Station station

On Monday 20 September an extension to the London Underground Northern Line opened. A short one, south of the river, travelling south-west from Kennington to a spot not too far from Battersea Power Station. With the one intermediate station, Nine Elms. This is an area in which a lot of development has been taking place over the last few years, primarily the construction of luxury tower blocks, many of whose flats are probably lying empty much of the time. They are investment opportunities, a safe haven for foreign capital, as much as somewhere to live. No surprise then, that in 2012, Boris Johnson, then London Mayor, described the Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea opportunity area as “the greatest transformational story in the world’s greatest city.” Donald Trump didn’t agree. In 2018, he described the location of the new American Embassy as “lousy”, “horrible” and “off location”. Ok, so it’s not exactly Grosvenor Square, but it’ll have a great view of the river, there’s a big Waitrose nearby – and now there’s a tube line!

More established residents of the area include New Covent Garden, the fruit and vegetable wholesale market, and, of course, Battersea Dog’s Home. But the main feature, around which an ecosystem of shops, restaurants and bars is slowly developing, is Battersea Power Station. The power station is one of London’s iconic buildings. Music lovers will remember it featuring on the album cover of Pink Floyd’s “Animals”, along with the floating pig. It wasn’t a functioning  power station for all that long. Construction began in the 1930s and was interrupted by the second world war.  It was completed in 1955, but was decommissioned in two phases, in 1975 and 1983, by which time it was a Grade II listed building. Over the years there were endless plans for alternative uses – including at one point becoming the footballing home of Chelsea FC – but none came to fruition and it remained empty until it was acquired by a Malaysian consortium in 2012. Since then, the structure of the building, which was in poor condition, has been restored and it is being redeveloped internally to house – guess what? – flats, offices and shops. Apple has plans to move in. The nearby waterfront and railway arches have already been revitalised. I can recommend Battersea Brewery under the arches, which serves excellent craft beers and unfiltered lager. We don’t have a pathway all along the river to Vauxhall Bridge yet, but hopefully that will come when the development is completed, which is due in 2022.

The tube extension is a key part of the redevelopment of the area. It’s the first extension of the tube since the Jubilee Line in 1999. We will have the delayed Crossrail 1 – the Elizabeth Line – soon. Next year? That will be our version of the Parisian RER, running west to east. A second line, north to south, has been shelved for the time being, for post-covid financial reasons – and, I’m sure, the Tories’ intention to starve London of future infrastructure funding as part of its “levelling up” programme. We still await signs of the positive elements of that programme – it’s mostly bluster at the moment.

But hey, we’ve got the Northern Line extension, and Battersea Power Station is nearly ready! Here are some photos from Tuesday. As you can see in one of them, I wasn’t the only one snapping away. As you can also see, the photographers were mostly men of a certain age… old geezers with time on their hands.

The internal architecture is very much in the style of the Jubilee Line extension. I like it.

External views.

Last, a few shots from the walk down to the waterfront, which takes about 10 minutes.

These last two from the waterfront.

 

 

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