Four concerts: Catherine McGrath, Soccer Mommy, Jack Grelle and Rews

The concerts stacked up again last week. Four in six days. All incredibly enjoyable, in their different ways.

First it was Catherine McGrath at the Camden Assembly on Monday. A pub with an upstairs venue, not far from the Roundhouse. DC did the honours and of course there was a magnificent Sushi Salsa at Camden Lock first. When we finished that there was still a bit of time to kill, so we went to a pub to watch the first half of Crystal Palace v Man Utd. That, and having a second beer, meant we ended up cutting it a bit fine, and Catherine had just started when we got there. She was half way through “Just in Case”. Hope we didn’t miss anything else, but I fear she might have come on slightly earlier than advertised. I guess I’ll never know!

I’ve waxed lyrical about Catherine McGrath on many occasions since I first came across her at Latitude last year. Suffice to say that, in her first ever headline concert, she was excellent, and played quite a different show. The main difference was that there were a few new songs – forerunners from the first album, due in May. They were good – punchy and melodic as ever. She played the lovely version of the Rascal Flatts song “Ellsworth” which I previously saw her perform at the Cambridge Audio music centre near London Bridge.  And, of course, a few of the songs which have become her “classics”: “Hell Would Have To Freeze Over”, “Cinderella” (still the heartstring tugger) and the making-your-way song, “Talk Of This Town”. That was the last song, and was greeted with great enthusiasm by the capacity crowd. People really know the words to her songs. Throughout she was expressing her delight that this, her first headline show, had sold out in 24 hours. It’s not a massive place, but it must be so exciting when you are just starting. She has sold out the bigger Bush Hall too, on 2 May. Definitely going places. I’ll be there!

On Tuesday, it was over to Hackney, and the Moth Club, for Soccer Mommy. My good friend, Jon G, had bought the tickets and invited me along. Then he had to drop out because of work commitments. A friend from work came along in his place. The Moth Club is a funny old place. I saw Amber Arcades there before. It’s a veterans’ club, which has realised the commercial potential of a decent sized venue, which presumably is normally the bar and dance hall. They’ve decorated it in a completely over the top way. Glittery golden ceilings and a shimmering gold and silver foil backdrop. I’m sure there was a disco ball the first time I went there too.

Soccer Mommy is Sophie Allison and band, from Nashville. She/they have made two albums, “For Young Hearts”and new release “Clean” and a few EPs, which have been compiled into another album called “Collection”. I knew the name, but hadn’t heard the music until I did some homework before the gig, on Spotify. I immediately liked it: a combination of lo-fi indie and some lovely ballads. Sophie has a beautiful voice, and apparently the same sort of wistful outlook on life as another recent favourite of mine, Faye Webster. (Soccer Mommy are a lot better known – the Moth Club looked sold out). Did I say another there? Well yes, because after a great concert, I’ve been playing those three albums on rotation!

Even as recently as Tuesday, I was struggling to put names to songs, though new single “You Dog” and “Cool” from “Clean” stood out in that regard. But it didn’t matter, because every song was good. She and her band gave the guitars a bit of oomph at times, and that complemented the stunning renditions of the ballads, often delivered solo by Sophie. Best of all was the encore, which I now know is “Waiting for Cars”, off “Collection”. What a lovely song! It is my new favourite.

So, thanks Jon G, for getting those tickets. My first great discovery of 2018. I’ve no doubt there will be more; and I hope we see Soccer Mommy on the festival circuit this year.

Then, on Thursday: from the veterans’ club to the Conservative club. Oh no! How could this be? Well, a couple of weeks ago I got one of those annoying unsolicited ads on my Facebook feed. It was for a country music artist who was appearing at “Westfield House” in South Ealing, about ten minutes’ walk from where I live. He went by the name of Jack Grelle, from St Louis, Missouri, and had a very impressive-looking beard! It looked like he’d got some decent reviews and only cost £11, so my wife, Kath, and I decided to go along. There was a support act called Ags Connolly. I assumed that was a woman’s name until I read more. Ags is a country/folk singer from the West Country, although his music is very much in the American mould. Kath also pointed out that Westfield House was actually the home of the local Conservative Club, but I decided not to let that deter me. In the event it was a lovely place – like a giant living room, with flock wallpaper and, of course, a portrait of the Queen. I didn’t see a picture of Margaret Thatcher, but there must have been one somewhere. The beer was cheap too, which is always welcome!

As for the music, it was excellent. Ags sang trenchant songs about lost love, his love of American music and more besides. He was good and had a nice, self-deprecating wit. Jack Grelle though, was different class. Strangely, they shared the same guitar. It may have been that Jack’s equipment was en route to another venue – he is supporting another act called Pokey LaFarge around Europe. But whereas Ags bashed out the chords (by his own admission) Jack caressed the strings, and made it sound like a completely different instrument. He had a mellifluous voice too. Similar subject matter, but somehow sweeter in tone. He was pretty dapper too, in classic country singer attire, including the shoelace tie. And that beard. Quite an image. Both Kath and I liked the music a lot. I shall most definitely check out his albums, once I get over my current Soccer Mommy fixation.

That leaves one last show, Rews at the Lexington, on the Pentonville Road. It’s a great venue above a good pub. Holds about 200 at capacity, I’d say; maybe a few more. This time I went with my mate Shane. Kath and I saw Rews by chance about 18 months ago at the 2016 Hanwell Hootie, a great event in Hanwell, West London, where all the local pubs host bands, many of them from the area, for free. And make a fortune on booze if they organise themselves. It’s an event which has grown in popularity over the year; last year there were a couple of new open air stages, which took a bit of pressure off the pubs – and the punters. Anyway, Rews – two Northern Irish women who know how to rock – were excellent; and I’ve been watching their progress ever since. They played Glastonbury last year, and their first album, “Pyro”, came out last November. On album you could describe them as tuneful rock’n’roll. Not stunningly original, but pretty energetic. Live though, they are terrific. They absolutely give it some. Shauna Tohill, on guitar and lead vocals really knows how to deliver a good punky riff, and shakes her hair very impressively! Drummer Collette Williams lays down some piledriving beats and sings a lot too. They are a band who clearly love what they are doing. There’s always a smile on their faces. It would take a real killjoy not to enjoy a Rews gig, even if it’s not really your music.

Now, just to keep DC happy here’s my obligatory Honeyblood reference! There are obvious similarities between the two bands: two women, guitar and drums, know how to rock’n’roll. I’d say Honeyblood’s songs have more depth and variety, a wider range of emotions (they are the best band in the world, after all) but you come out of concert by either of them feeling uplifted, by the timeless spirit of rock’n’roll.

A double bill of Rews and Honeyblood. How good would that be? Their record labels should talk!

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Sounds of London

A while back I put together a New York songs playlist. Well, if New York, then why not London too? Two of the great cities – very different and very similar. And one of the similarities is that they are hotbeds of music. All sorts of music. Every sort of music. They are cities of music.

This list is just a few of the songs that remind me of London. In some cases they are about London. In others, they somehow encapsulate the sound, the meaning of London. Some are about the inner city, conveying a sense of night time, unease as well as beauty. Others are about life in the suburbs. Songs of yearning, hope and sometimes hopelessness. Some are about attitudes: anger, love, wheeling and dealing, making your way, or just having a good time, dancing.

Mostly I’ve limited each artist to one song, or maybe two. But I had to make an exception for The Jam  and The Clash, both with four. Two of the greatest punk bands, one articulating the frustration of surburban London, the other, the swaggering heart of the inner city. Bands that will always be central to my teenage memories.

So stick on this playlist (60 and growing) and immerse yourself in London. And let me know if you have any favourite London songs which I have missed. Do not suggest Ralph McTell’s “Streets of London”!

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lovelondonscenes 142 – A walk along the Thames from Battersea to Hammersmith

As we freeze in the UK in temperatures and snowy conditions we’re just not used to – Canadians or Scandinavians would scoff at our woes – it’s nice to look back to a walk I did a couple of weekends ago. It was a lovely sunny Saturday afternoon. Mild for the time of year. I’d been out late at a leaving do the night before and felt the need for a good long walk to shake off the cobwebs. I took a tube to Gloucester Road, walked down to Battersea Bridge and headed west. Ended in growing darkness at Hammersmith. Took about two and a half hours, including a refreshment stop in a pub on the Wandsworth stretch.

Took a few photos, of course. Here is a selection.

Starting with a view of Battersea Bridge from the Chelsea side, before crossing over.

Heading into Wandsworth.

A handy stopover for the birds. Species mingling.

Putney Bridge in the distance; the river vast.

Crossed over at Putney Bridge. In Bishop’s Park, Fulham.

Barn Elms sports ground behind the trees. Spent a lot of time there a few years ago, when my son Kieran was at the London Oratory school.

Nature does art very well!

More vastness, at Fulham Reach, near Hammersmith Bridge.

I like those streaks of light seeming to pierce the river.


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Alvvays at the Roundhouse, 23 February 2018

On Friday just gone, DC and I went to the Roundhouse to see Canadian indie band Alvvays. I first came across them at End of the Road last year. What stood out for me then, even when I was suffering from a bad back and feeling a bit sorry for myself, was the beauty of the melodies. Good riffs too, but the tunes and singer Molly Rankin’s voice rang out from The Woods Stage in early evening and captivated a massive crowd. Naturally, I had to get both their albums afterwards, and predictably, I loved them. Three songs went on every playlist I could justify: “Archie, Marry Me” and “Ones Who You Love You” from the first, self-titled album, and “Dreams Tonite” from recent release, “Antisocialites”.

The Roundhouse was sold out. The crowd mostly 20 and 30 somethings. I was surprised there weren’t a few more of my generation. After all, bands like Blondie and Elastica are clear influences. The band don’t mess around with their songs – most don’t get much beyond three minutes and solos don’t really happen. It’s all about the song. You could probably pin most of the melodies to something else from the past if you really tried, but they sound fresh, uplifting and exciting. This is just music to exult to.

And that’s what the concert was like. 17 songs in not much more than an hour. Everything from the new album, and most of the first album too. The punkier ones came first, with “Adult Diversion” and “Plimsoll Punks” standouts for me. But the second half of the show was where they rolled out the anthems, and oh, what joy! And, of course, “Ones Who Love You” and “Archie, Marry Me” were absolute highlights.  I reckon most people in the crowd were singing along to “Archie”. It’s a total celebration. One of the best concert moments I’ve experienced for a while.  DC particularly liked “Forget About Life”, which is the closer on “Antisocialites”. It’s a reflective song, with imagery straight from the Bruce Springsteen songbook. It’s a lighters (iPhones)-out moment live. Molly relinquished her guitar, the drums ceased, and her voice became the true star. And she has a lovely, plaintive tone, which gives the songs a sense of fragility amid the feistiness and anthemic choruses.

The encore included a cover of an Elastica song, “Blue”. That was on their first album, although it’s not one of the tracks that I remember well. But the choice of Elastica was interesting. The band only had one album of note, their first. But it was, as I said in my book, “I Was There – A Musical Journey”, the best British punk album since punk, when it came out in the mid-1990s. It combined the punk rhythms with a great sense of melody – in the same way that Alvvays, and that other great favourite of mine, Honeyblood, do.

It all ties together. Listening to Alvvays after End of the Road, I realised who Annelotte of Amber Arcades might have been listening to when she put together her wonderful first album, “Fading Lines”.

I’m delighted to see that Alvvays are playing Latitude this year. In the BBC tent. I shall be there!

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James Blake at the Roundhouse, 5 February 2018

Last Monday, James Blake played the Roundhouse in the round. All seating, which was the difference to usual. After all, the Roundhouse is round! It was a concert I just couldn’t miss, so I paid a bit over the odds for two tickets, as they sold out within 24 hours. My friend DC was the lucky recipient of the other ticket.

I really like James Blake’s music. It’s melancholy soul mixed up with arresting electronic diversions, including some pounding bass lines. It’s night music, but has succeeded brilliantly at Latitude in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. There have been three albums so far. The first, “James Blake”, remains my favourite, but the other two are great too.  It’s no surprise he has collaborated with the likes of Frank Ocean. They are both making innovative but recognisable music. Both full of that beautiful melancholy, which, I guess, characterises the music I love the most.

The concert began with James on an upright piano, playing four songs. The first was Don Mclean’s “Vincent”, an early 70s pop classic. Although I didn’t recognise it at the time, another of the songs was a Frank Ocean number: “Godspeed”. It was a lovely start to proceedings.

After that it was a mixture of new material – James told us we were “guinea pigs” – and some favourites. The favourites were spot on for me – mainly from that first album: “I Never Learnt to Share”, “Limit to Your Love” and, in the encore, “The Wilhelm Scream”. James dedicated the latter to his Dad, who was in the audience, and apparently wrote it. Other familiar tunes were “Retrograde” (last song of the main set), “Love Me in No Other Way” and “Timeless”. All given a bit of a going over with the bass and swathes of noise.

The new stuff seemed to hark back to his early days, before the albums. Rooted more in the dance culture where he made his name. There was one out-and-out dance number – all the 20 and 30 somethings, who made up most of the audience, stood up and moved to that one.

There were a lot of voice loops. On the last song, in the encore, it took him a bit of time to get it right. But it was captivating, and the repetition of the simple phrase stuck in my mind for the rest of the evening. Having said that, I’ve now forgotten what it was! Setlist FM says the song was called “Lul Bye”, but the word I still have in my head is Over.

The lights were simple, based on a flashing row of colour most of the time. But when they combined with the thudding bass lines and washes of sound it was a real sensory overload. I thought it was brilliant; DC was a bit out of his comfort zone. Did him good. Payback for Francis Dunnery!

I’m really looking forward to his next album. It could be pretty different to the previous ones. But he is in the zone occupied by the likes of Frank Ocean and Radiohead. Always challenging what they have done before.

Restless, creative minds = brilliant music.

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lovelondonscenes 141 – Heron Tower, City of london

I took these shots the Friday before last. I was on London Wall, near the place I’m getting some physio for my back at the moment. The sun was shining through the clouds, and the side of the tower positively gleamed. The photos don’t quite capture what I was seeing, which was a gilded tower. But they give a hint. The works of man and nature combined in harmony for once.

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Four concerts: Francis Dunnery, This is the Kit, Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker and Honeyblood

I had a great little run of concerts recently. Got the New Year going. All small-to-medium in scale and based in West London, and including Honeyblood. The best band.

The fun started on Sunday 21 January at Bush Hall in Shepherds Bush. Featuring a guitarist called Francis Dunnery, who used to be in prog/pop/metal band It Bites, in the 1980s. Not a band I ever listened to, but my good friend Dave, aka DC, is a fan and he’d agreed to come to Honeyblood, so I returned the compliment. Another friend, Tony, came along too. They were keen on a curry at the excellent Indian Zing in Hammersmith first, so we indulged in that, and had the excitement (not) of seeing ex England centre forward, now dire TV pundit, Alan Shearer there. Weighs you down a bit, curry before a gig, though. Especially when it turns out to be two and a half hours long, in an increasingly warm space. I have to say that, despite the prog aspects of the gig, it was very enjoyable. Francis is now a 60 year old northern geezer in a cloth cap, but he is an ace guitarist and has some very amusing patter in between songs. He is enjoying himself. His band were good, and his other guitarist, a young guy with long blond hair, had a very amusing guitar noodling duel during the encore. I can play faster than you! And he has a very enthusiastic fanbase. Mostly older types, but willing to join in the fun. Great atmosphere. Can’t knock it really, even if I didn’t rush home to listen to It Bites albums. No harm to get out of your comfort zone from time to time.

Next up, on Thursday 25th, it was This is the Kit at Shepherds Bush Empire. This was a concert postponed from September last year, as the band had been offered the support slot with The National on their tour. Of course they had to accept! I saw The National with This is the Kit at Hammersmith Apollo, as it happens. It was an excellent show, but I was a little distracted after an intense day at work and then in my role as a school governor – the school was undergoing an Ofsted inspection. I never got around to writing a review of that gig, but This is the Kit were a bit swamped by the Apollo on the night, I thought. At the Empire, they were in the perfect venue. A step up in size for them, but pretty well sold out. And they were really excellent. The focus was on new album “Moonshine Freeze”, which I would recommend to anyone. The roots of the sound are folk, but there’s so much more – it’s even a bit jazzy at times. The sound was superb, the playing and singing by all the band immaculate. My friend Jon G and I had seats in the stalls, and we sat back and just absorbed the vibe. A genuinely beautiful experience.

On Sunday the 28th, Jon and I and our wives, Maggie and Kath, went over to Twickenham, to a pub called the Cabbage Patch to see Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker. The pub has strong rugby connections, but also a concert space, which is often home to folk or blues nights. Twickenham is the home of blues music in London, dating back at least to the 1960s. Jon and I first came across Josienne and Ben at End of the Road in 2016. It was an astonishing concert, Josienne’s beautiful voice wafting over the Garden Stage early in the afternoon. One of the highlights of that festival for me. Since then I’ve seen them with a band, and that became a bit Radio 2 bland. At the Cabbage Patch they were back to a duo, and played two sets. Truly beautiful music: the purity of Josienne’s voice and the subtlety of Ben’s guitars. They didn’t play many of their trad folk songs – just a couple. But they were highlights. The first brought a tear to my eye. Mostly, the songs were more in the American singer-songwriter mode. I was thinking of Joni Mitchell quite a lot. A high compliment. A truly uplifting evening.

And then the big one for me. Monday the 29th.  The band that I love more than any other at the moment: Honeyblood. It was a one-off show at Bush Hall as part of Independent Venue week.  I expected to be going on my own, but ended up with DC and the two Jons coming along. It would have been five had Tony not lost his dog at the weekend. What an outstanding excuse! You’ll be relieved to know the dog returned safe and well. We dined at the excellent Defector’s Weld pub on Shepherds Bush Green and then hit Bush Hall. Saw most of support band Sick Joy (not a great name) who weren’t bad – but were very Nirvana. And then Stina and Cat. They played all of “Babes Never Die” except “Gangs” (not sure what is wrong with “Gangs” – a great and meaningful song) and a decent selection from the first album, “Honeyblood” too. But, as in Nottingham before Christmas, no sign of the new single, “Swell Love”.

It was an eventful show. It had a real raw punk energy at times, and moments of beauty, especially “Cruel” and “Walking at Midnight”. “Cruel” was almost slowed down to its pace on the album, and worked better for it. I was pleased to hear it again, as I thought I heard Stina say at Nottingham that it was being retired from the show. The energy, and a certain wildness, was fuelled by alcohol: there was a lot of beer being swigged, which I hadn’t seen them do before. And Stina got frustrated by the sound, especially the mix of her vocals, where she was getting feedback. The solution seemed to be to turn them down, so that the riffs overwhelmed them at times. I was hearing them still, I guess, because I know most of the words. The show was being streamed to five other venues: in Leicester, Edinburgh, Stroud, Ipswich and Brighton. I wondered whether nerves about that provoked the drinking.

Stina also messed up the set list towards the end. They made a joke of it, but there is some electronic programming for songs like “Love is a Disease”, so it wasn’t helpful to Cat, who deals with it. None of this made much difference to the audience’s reaction, which was really positive. My mates all enjoyed it too. But you could tell something wasn’t quite right.

It came out on Twitter the next day. A few posts, I would guess from Stina, which were very self-critical; and a retweet of a Laura Viers post about losing the muse, worrying your new songs weren’t up to the standard of previous efforts. That seemed to explain a lot: the drinking, the relatively shambolic performance (but very rock’n’roll) and the non-playing of “Swell Love”.  The tweets confirmed that the self-excoriating lyrics on parts of “Babes Never Die” are autobiographical. None of this is unique – all artists suffer from angst and self-doubt throughout their careers. Some suffer from depression, as Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography attests. I do hope Stina is “only” struggling with a temporary loss of confidence, and that she regains her inspiration and self-belief. I don’t know her obviously; and yet, having listened to her songs so many times over the last year, and related so strongly to the feelings in them, I feel like I understand what she might be going through. And I feel for her.

Phew! On one level it’s only rock’n’roll. On another, all artists let you into their world. And sometimes you realise what they are going through. They’re all human – ordinary people at the end of the day. So we should never expect too much from them. Just enjoy them for what they are.

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