Widowspeak at Studio 9294, Hackney Wick, 15 November 2022

The gigs keep coming this November! After the Pitchfork Music Festival, I had Monday off before venturing out east to see Widowspeak at Studio 9294, a new venue for me. I’ve been to Hackney Central enough times, to see bands at Oslo and the Moth Club, but Hackney Wick was new territory. It’s just on the other side of the River Lea Navigation channel from the Olympic Park, and efforts have clearly been made to create a new centre for arts, restaurants and bars. Hackney Wick station on the Overground is bang in the middle, so it’s easy to get to, though we did need to work around some “severe delays” on the night.

Jon and I met in one of the craft beer bars that now populate the area, in what used to be an industrial yard, by the looks of things at night. I need to explore it during the day! The bar was called Howling Hops, and I really liked it. All in the modern vogue of bare brick walls and long tables; and with a line of metal tanks of beer behind the bar. Don’t be deceived by the House IPA, which usually means a good session beer. It’s excellent, but it packs a powerful punch, at 6.9%. I dropped down to the Tropical Deluxe IPA at 3.8% for my second pint, a refreshing little number.

Beer sampling over, we made our way to Studio 9294. We got there at 8.45 – plenty of time for a 9-9.30 start, we assumed. Wrong! Security – one person – was asking everyone to empty their pockets (under instruction I’m sure) and a queue had formed. The inspections became a bit more perfunctory as time passed and we found our way in just after nine. The place was heaving and the concert had just started. There was no prospect of getting a beer, though after that first one at Howling Hops that was no great loss. We managed to find a reasonable view at the back and focused on the music.

Widowspeak are from Brooklyn, New York, and have been around since 2010. The core duo for most of that time has been Molly Hamilton (vocals and rhythm guitar) and Robert Earl Thomas (lead guitar). Including The Jacket from this year, they have made six albums; but I only came across them when they released an EP last year called Honeychurch. It featured a track called Money (Hymn) which I absolutely loved. It took me back to the sound of Mazzy Star, with Molly’s vocals dreamy like Hope Sandoval’s and the guitar sound very much in the Mazzy Star vein too. I played that song a lot – Spotify Wrapped told me it was my seventh most streamed song in 2021. But I liked the rest of the EP too, especially two covers: Dire Straits’ Romeo and Juliet, which Molly’s voice turned into a languid haze; and REM’s The One I Love, which was more of a straight rendition.

I didn’t summon the energy to go through the whole back catalogue at that point, though I did listen to 2020’s Plum a couple of times. A faster version of Money, with a country twang, was on the album, but it didn’t really register – I guess I just preferred the hymnal take and forgot about the original. But they were a band that definitely interested me and I was keen to catch a live show, if they toured the UK. And it came to pass that they did in 2022, as well as releasing an excellent album, The Jacket. The song that jumped out at me – or maybe sidled out, given the Widowspeak vibe – was The Drive. It ambles along in mid-tempo, as Molly’s voice once again drifts wistfully over the melody. It’s not about cars or travel, though there is a mention of the open road. It’s about not moving on, not having the drive even if you think you should be doing more. It’s an admonition, but a gentle one. And musically it changes gear about two-thirds of the way through. It starts to rock! And my reaction was, this is going to be great live.

And yes, it was. To my relief, it wasn’t the song half way in when we made it into the venue. That was The Jacket, another highlight of the album of the same name. The band – five of them – were crammed onto the small stage, but one could sense a real togetherness and enjoyment about them. Given the Mazzy Star – and hence Velvet Underground – feel about their sound, they were surprisingly effusive in between songs. A band comfortable in themselves. The concert had a slow burn to it, just like most of their recorded music. It feels good, and then it feels better, as the melodies, the subtle twists reveal themselves. And Robert’s guitar was a revelation. There were moments of jazziness, and yes, that Mark Knopfler sound; but then he’d let rip, ramp up the distortion. By the end I felt I’d witnessed a masterclass.

Tracks from the new album naturally featured strongly, and that was good for me, as that is the only one I really know! There were no REM or Dire Straits covers, but the spirit of both bands was there in the music. It’s made me think again about Dire Straits. I liked their early music, notably Sultans of Swing. But when they became yuppie coffee table favourites in the 1980s – Money for Nothing, anyone? – I went right off them. I reluctantly went to a Dire Straits concert at Wembley Arena at some point in the 80s with friends, and it was one of the most boring – dire, indeed – that I ever attended. But having said that, I always liked Romeo and Juliet, which has the feel of an early Springsteen epic. Perhaps it’s time for a full reappraisal, courtesy of Widowspeak.

So, I started by appreciating this concert, and ended up loving it, not least because the last track of the main set was Money, the speeded up version. I really liked the way they treated the song, which I thought was a new development, having forgotten that it started that way. It rocked more than the album version though, with Robert’s guitar in full flight.

An evening of discoveries. A new venue, a new area to explore for beer and food and interesting interiors, and a band that revealed a whole new dimension to me tonight. Look out for The Jacket by Widowspeak high in my albums of the year, coming to you soon!

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Pitchfork Music Festival at the Roundhouse, 13 November 2022

 

Pitchfork, if you don’t know, is an online music publication, founded in 1995 by writer Ryan Schreiber in Minneapolis, as an independent music blog. It’s grown from those beginnings and is now based in New York and owned by Condé Nast. If you want in depth reviews of new music, it is probably the best place to go. It has been sponsoring music events for some time, particularly in the US. The London festival first took place in 2021, and this year there have also been events in Paris and Berlin. The festival takes place over five days in a range of venues and has involved over 50 artists. Jon and I went along to the Roundhouse on Sunday afternoon, a couple of weeks ago, to see a line-up of eight bands, all led by women. The main attractions for me were the first and last acts of the event: Gretel Hänlyn and Courtney Barnett. I also got to see Big Joanie, Samia and Cate le Bon.

The concerts were held in two venues at the Roundhouse: the main hall and the Roundhouse Studio, which I’d not come across before. I think it’s probably used during the day, for drama and other arts – there’s an extensive educational and development programme at the Roundhouse. Gretel Hänlyn was first on in the Studio at about half past five. I’d say it holds around 200, and by the end of the show it was full. Gretel’s EP Slugeye, released in May this year is one of my favourite records of the year. It’s got seven tracks, and is full of great rock’n’roll riffs and catchy melodies, the best of all being the infectious Motorbike. There’s a touching ballad too, Connie, which brings out the best in Gretel’s distinctive, deep voice. A recent single, Drive, continues the high standard.

Jon and I saw her play her first headline show at Bermondsey Social Club in May. That was excellent, and this evening’s was even better. For a start, the sound quality in the studio was really good – for once I could hear the lyrics clearly throughout the show – helped I’m sure by knowing quite a few of them.  All the main songs from Slugeye featured, with the title track kicking off proceedings. It’s the Future Baby and Apple Juice were singalong highlights, and Connie was greeted warmly by the crowd. Drive had a frenzied power, and there were two or three new songs which really rocked. And then there was Motorbike, closing the show. A great celebration, indie rock’n’roll at its best. Gretel Hänlyn got the festival off to a brilliant start.

That was the last time we saw any of the artists in the Studio. When we gave it a try midway through a set by Fake Fruit (which sounded quite punky) there was a big queue of people waiting to get in. I would have liked to see Léa Sen, a French singer who has worked with Joy Orbison amongst others, as well as releasing her own material – Hyasynth is a good song – and doing a lovely cover of Bowie’s Golden Years for a tribute compilation called Modern Love which came out in 2021. No matter, there was an enjoyable run of artists in the main hall. We caught half of Big Joanie’s show – some good rocking there. I liked Samia a lot – classic melodic American pop/rock with some country-tinged melodies and some lively dancing from Samia herself. For some reason I had it in my head that she was a jazzy soul singer; later I realised I had listened to her 2020 album The Baby when it came out, having heard some tracks on 6 Music.

Big Joanie

Samia

Next up, and one of the best known artists in the line-up, Cate le Bon. I like her music – a jumble of folk, psychedelia and pop. I particularly enjoyed her 2013 album Mug Museum, featuring the tracks I Think I Knew and Are You With Me Now? To be honest though, I didn’t really get a lot from tonight’s show. Maybe it was the sound, but I found it a bit samey. Jon was more impressed and she got a good reception. So, just something that didn’t work for me on the night.

Jon had to go after that. I was briefly tempted, having had gigs five of the six preceding days. But I’d only ever seen Courtney Barnett in the broad daylight at Latitude, so I thought I should stay. I’ve always liked her music: a fairly traditional rock sound, but with interesting, discursive and self-analytical lyrics. Her best album is probably 2015’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit, which featured two of her best songs, the rocking Pedestrian at Best and the wistful, folky Depreston. Her biggest tune is Avant Gardener, a song about getting a panic attack while gardening – you get the picture! You can find that on the 2013 Double CD called A Sea of Split Peas, which has my favourite Courtney Barnett song on it, Canned Tomatoes Whole. It has a driving beat and a great guitar workout. I’ve slightly lost touch with her music in recent years, though I did like her 2017 collaboration with Kurt Vile, Lotta Sea Lice.

Well, I’m glad I did stay, because she and her band were terrific! A three piece, keeping it fast and loud for the most part. I didn’t recognise all that much of the set, but I loved the rocking sound, and Courtney’s guitar playing was really punching. Depreston midway through was a moment for the crowd to sing along, and towards the end, Pedestrian at Best was incendiary – the highlight of the show for me.

A fine evening of music, with rock’n’roll to the fore. Memorable sets from Gretel Hänlyn and Courtney Barnett, and some enjoyable moments in between. Let’s hope the Pitchfork festival is here to stay.

***

Some more photos.

Roundhouse view

Gretel Hanlyn

Big Joanie

Samia

Cate le Bon

Courtney Barnett

 

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The Staves celebrate “Dead & Born & Grown” at the Barbican, 22 November 2022

L-R: Emily, Camilla, Jessica Staveley-Taylor

It was ten years ago when I first came across the Staves, three sisters – Jessica, Emily, Camilla – from Watford, who sang the most beautiful harmonies. I was looking through my Twitter feed and saw a post from the DJ Bob Harris – Whispering Bob as he is affectionately known – enthusing about a YouTube video of a song called Mexico, by a new group called the Staves. It looked interesting so I gave the video a try. And loved it: the simple, bassy acoustic guitar, the dreamy melody – and those voices. The Staves were en route to becoming one of my favourite groups of the last decade.

I first saw the band at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill in May 2012, and soon after at Latitude – my first – in July that year. Each time those harmonies were astonishing, especially on the acapella start to a song called Wisely and Slow. That song became the opening track on their debut album, Dead & Born & Grown, which came out in November 2012. It brought together a few of the early singles, including Mexico; some lovely acoustic tunes like Facing West and In the Long Run; a pointed put down of men who don’t listen in Pay Us No Mind; and some songs near the end of the album that verged on the prog folk of the late 60s/ early 70s: Winter Trees and especially, Eagle Song. Over the years all those songs remained staples of the live set, with Eagle Song often a rousing finale.

At Latitude, July 2012

We’ve had two more albums over the decade: If I Was in 2014 and Good Woman in 2021. (There was also a collaboration with yMusic in 2017 called The Way is Read.)  In 2021, promoting the new album, Jessica – the main instrumentalist – and Camilla toured without Emily, who had recently started a family. By now they were also supported by a full band, which was great, but did tempt them towards more upbeat versions of their songs. The harmonies weren’t lost, but they did have more competition.

And so to the show at the Barbican, one of two to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Dead & Born & Grown, with a performance of the whole album from start to finish. I only just managed to get tickets, as this first show quickly sold out when it was announced in July. The seats were right at the back of the circle, but central – a perfect position in fact. Shane came along with me – he’s long been a fan, after I persuaded him to come along to that first gig in Notting Hill. The stage was simply lit and the three sisters walked on, made a few jokey remarks and launched into Wisely and Slow. Just those three voices, as rich and affecting as they have ever been. They finished the song at the point when the recorded version introduces the drums, sounding a bit like Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk. Tonight it was just the three of them, accompanied only by Jessica’s and Camilla’s guitars and occasionally, ukulele. And, yes, they ran through the album, in sequence. It was an absolute dream – hard to single anything out, as it was all so good. But Mexico did bring back the memories of how it all began for me. Jessica told an amusing story beforehand about how she’d studied music at university, and one day Paul McCartney came in to hear the students play and to give them advice. Jessica played him an early version of Mexico. He liked it, but suggested a different ending. Jessica ignored his advice!

After a wonderful version of Eagle Song, the band went off briefly, then returned to play a few more songs from the last ten years. They started with an early track, Icarus, which surprisingly didn’t make the album. It has a wistful beauty, and has always been a favourite of my mine. They continued with an EP track, America, about life on the road. And then a real highlight of the evening: an unadorned rendition of No Me, No You, No More from If I Was. Perhaps the best example of their ability to interweave their voices to such astonishing effect. A 2020 single, Nazareth followed; and finally the title track from Good Woman, which they dedicated to their father. Earlier they had paid tribute to their mother, who died in 2018. That had hit them hard and put a hold on their career for a while. Throughout the show they were relaxed and humorous; still close, though their lives are obviously diverging as time passes. They clearly have great pride in what they have achieved, but are still rather amazed about it all.

It was a real pleasure to witness this celebration of their first steps. Dead & Born & Grown remains my favourite Staves album. The beginnings are the essence of any group, and tonight we heard that essence in all its joyousness: the stories, the melodies, those voices. Those harmonies – the best around.

These postcards were on all our seats when we arrived, with a lovely message on the back. A nice touch.

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Wilko Johnson, 1947-2022

We got the news that today the great rock’n’roll guitarist Wilko Johnson had died, aged 75. For people like myself whose musical development was transformed by punk in the 1970s, Wilko played a crucial role, with his band of the time, Dr Feelgood. They pre-dated punk, and get classified as pub rock, but they re-acquainted many of us with the three minute rock’n’roll song, after a few years immersed in metal and blues rock – or even worse in some cases, prog rock. For me Dr Feelgood, along with Eddie and the Hot Rods, paved the way for punk, and that, in turn, opened a lot of doors, not least to reggae.

Wilko left Dr Feelgood quite early, in March 1977. He was replaced by John Mayo, and the Feelgoods had quite a lot of success after that. They have been through endless permutations ever since – singer Lee Brilleaux died in 1994 – and are still going. They retain a hardcore fan base and have an annual Dr Feelgood weekend in Canvey Island, from whence they emerged in the early 70s.

The band made three great albums in the mid-70s; Down by the Jetty, Malpractice and the live album Stupidity, which took them to No1 in the charts. Down by the Jetty will always be my favourite, with She Does it Right one of the great rock’n’roll songs in my view, Wilko’s staccato rhythms driving the song along. The cover photo for the album, taken on Canvey Island, is a classic, conveying the essence of the band. From then on, second hand jackets and thin ties were de rigeur!

L-R: Wilko, John B Sparks (bass), The Big Figure (drums), Lee Brilleaux.

I saw the band for the first time in, I think, 1976 at Leicester de Montfort Hall. I was still at school not far away from Leicester at the time. I can’t remember all that much about the evening now, other than the wild-eyed presence of Wilko, those riffs and the duck walk, adapted from the likes of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddly. And his electrifying partnership with singer Lee Brilleaux, growling out the lyrics and doing unspeakable things with his microphone. One of the great rock’n’roll duos.

Wilko pursued his own musical career after leaving the Feelgoods, and played with Ian Dury for a while in the early 80s. A few of us saw him at the Lexington, on Pentonville Road, in February 2011 as part of a series of concerts sponsored by Word magazine. He was brilliant, of course, still banging out those choppy chords and doing his version of the duck walk, wielding his guitar like a machine gun. And he still played a few of the old Feelgood favourites, including She Does it Right. A couple of years after that he announced he had terminal cancer; but fortunately, after a few operations, the cancer receded, and he was able to carry on doing his thing.

This photo isn’t at the Lexington, but is from around that time.

Something I didn’t realise until now was that Wilko appeared in four episodes of Game of Thrones in 2011 and 12 as a mute executioner, Ser Ilyn Payne. Prior to that he appeared in a Julien Temple documentary, Oil City Confidential, in which he shared his memories of Canvey Island and Dr Feelgood. Some of the production on that was a bit florid, but it is good viewing.

In 2016, Kath and I, with Jon G and his wife Maggie, had a walk around Canvey Island. It got pretty gruelling by the end; but the highlight was on the beach front, where there was a mural in honour of Dr Feelgood. It’s why Jon and I wanted to go – to pay homage to this rock’n’roll band that changed our teenage lives.

So rest in peace, Wilko. You were one of the greats, and inspired so many of us. A true embodiment of the spirit of rock’n’roll.

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Julia Jacklin at the Roundhouse, 11 November 2022

Julia Jacklin is an Australian singer-songwriter in the indie-folk vein, who I’ve liked ever since I first heard her debut album Don’t Let The Kids Win in 2016. We caught a glimpse of her show at End of the Road that year in a packed out Tipi Tent, as the rain hosed down outside. It was enough to pique my interest in her music, and Don’t Let the Kids Win became one of my favourite albums of that year. A wonderful combination of indie-pop and bluesy folk. Music you could move to and weep into your beer to – not at the same time! Over the years since I’ve seen her play more than most – eight times, when I looked back at previous reviews on this blog. One of many great concerts was at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 2017, which she headlined. It was also the evening that I discovered Faye Webster, third on the bill that time, and another favourite ever since.

Don’t Let the Kids Win was followed by Crushing, another terrific album, in which Julia explored a broken relationship, her emergence from it, and her feelings as a woman in a male-dominated environment. A powerful, vulnerable and moving statement. And the source of maybe her finest song, Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You, a bluesy lament, with heartfelt lyrics and a couple of searing guitar solos. A highlight of every live show ever since.

This year she released her third album, Pre Pleasure. I found it quite subdued at first, a product of lockdown perhaps. But the songs have grown on me, and it has its rocking moments, notably I Am Neon. And beautifully sung, as always.

And so to the Roundhouse. Kath came along with me to this one. I thought she’d enjoy the music, the sentiment of the songs – and the seats! I was right, because it was an outstanding show – and we had a great view. As you do from most parts of the Roundhouse; it’s probably my favourite London venue. The concert began with Julia onstage on her own, for a rendition of one of her best-known songs, Don’t Let the Kids Win. Received warmly, if not rapturously, by the crowd. Maybe because it was quite a young gathering who aren’t that familiar with the first album? Who knows, but being able to fill the Roundhouse does suggest that she is gaining a new fan base, and that is likely to come from the more recent recordings. Interestingly, Faye Webster sold out Islington Assembly Hall the day before (when I was at Sigur Ros) – a much bigger venue that I have seen her play before. I was wondering whether both artists attracted more followers during pandemic, when their reflective, self-absorbed lyrics might have had a strong appeal.

After the opener, the band came on and the emphasis in the first half of the show was on songs from the new album, interspersed with a jaunty Pool Party and Body, the opener to Crushing, and one of Julia’s most intensely personal songs. The band were excellent, including the tall guitarist, whose name I still don’t know, but who has been playing with her for some time. He had his moment in the sun towards the end! I like the new tunes, though I’m still getting to know them. During one, Love, Try Not to Let Go, Kath whispered that the music sounded like Fleetwood Mac; and yes, I get that. A similar sense of melody and pop sensibility to that band during the great Rumours era.

So, it was all good; and best of all were the final four. Starting with Don’t Know How to Keeping Loving You. I love that song so much! So tender and then so exhilarating as the guitar lets rip – enter the tall guitarist! Two solos, inspired by Neil Young I’m sure. The highlight. I hope Julia always plays this song. It’s not typical of her music, but it many ways it is now her signature tune. The tempo then upped with I Am Neon from the new album; and then, as Julia wryly announced, the hits. Head Alone and Pressure to Party. The rock’n’roll – with a downbeat lyrical twist or two, of course.

She came back for a superb version of Hay Plain, from the first album. The sparse, bluesy beginnings, the build-up and the anguished climax. One of the songs in her repertoire that Indigo Sparke, recently reviewed here, might best relate to. A nice surprise that she chose that one for the finale. An uplifting end to a very satisfying concert, perhaps the best I’ve seen her perform. I certainly don’t intend it to be the last!

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Sigur Ros at the O2 Academy Brixton, 10 November 2022

I’d like to start this review with the piece I wrote about Sigur Ros for I Was There – A Musical Journey, which I published in 2016.

Bjork was first, but the band that epitomises the sound of Iceland must surely be Sigur Ros. And my first encounter with them just sneaks into the 90s. That first encounter is the one that lasts, the ultimate Sigur Ros experience: “Svefn-g-Englar”, the leading track from their 1999 album, “Agaetis Byrjun”.

How to describe that track when I first heard it, and hear it still? Its magnificent otherness? Its outlandish beauty? Well, a week or so ago, I jotted some notes when I was reminding myself of the Sigur Ros experience. It’s as well just to transcribe them here, unadorned…

Sounds at the start like the dolphins, whales, swimming in the swirling oceans. Sonar blazing. Like waves breaking on jagged rock faces, like the wind driving through snowdrifts, like seagulls swooping for the catch, like the cloudy sky sending down a hailstorm, like the geysers sending up a blast of hot water. Like nature. And like the angels descending on the broken body of Christ and lifting him to the heavens…

Blimey, where did that last line come from? It’s real, fuelled by some glasses of Chardonnay, I’m sure, but heartfelt. And I stick by it now, in sober reflection. There is power and inspiration in the music of Sigur Ros, and “Svefn-g-Englar” is the ultimate.

I’ve used the words magnificent, cinematic, hymnal, sweeping, to describe other songs in this story. I’ll use them again before I finish, no doubt. But there isn’t much that gets near “Svefn-g-Englar” for all those qualities. Simply an extraordinary piece of music.   

The title, translated to English, is Sleeping Angel, or maybe Sleepwalker. Could be having those dreams, just like my notes.

“Agaetis Byrjun” is a very fine album. There are one or two tracks that get close to “Svefn-g-Englar” in their scope, and others which get mellow, simple, and convey a sense of stillness, fragility and maybe loss. The singing, the wonderful falsetto of Jonsi Birgisson, is fragile, but also mysterious, and not just because it is all in Icelandic. Sigur Ros’s songs are mood pieces, often very long – “Svefn-g-Englar” stretches to ten minutes. There is space always to make up your mind about what the song is all about. A challenge to the imagination. And then there is the awesome power of the bowed guitar. The bow of a cello or violin applied to the electric guitar. Pioneered by Jimmy Page on “Dazed and Confused”. Another epic.

I’ve bought a few more Sigur Ros albums in the 2000s. They are all good. Some strive for the same magnificence as “Agaetis Byrjun”; others are more subdued, introverted almost. All have an element of mystery as they are sung in Icelandic. But all have that same connection with nature. It is no surprise that the music of Sigur Ros has been used frequently in TV programmes and films. It is soundtrack music.

And yet I think of it as a humble sound. Respectful of nature and humankind. Grounded.

What is the name of the band all about, for example? Well, Sigur means victory and Ros means rose. But more importantly, Sigurros was the name of Jonsi’s sister, born just after the band was formed.

Sigur Ros is the sound of nature and the sound of human relationships – of family. Abstract, but profound – and lasting...

Well, there you go. What more is there to say? Maybe something about the concert!

I’d rather lost contact with the music of Sigur Ros over the years, apart from occasionally having a blast of Svefn-g-Englar. And I’d never seen them live. So when I saw they were touring the UK, I thought this would be a good chance to put that right. I hesitated when I saw that the tickets were over £50, but asked my usual concert-going friends whether they fancied it. Jon G and Shane were enthusiastic, so I took the plunge.

To coincide with the tour, a remastered version of ( ), often known as Untitled, was released recently. It’s twenty years old this year. Along with Agaetis Byrjun, and Takk from 2005, it’s the music of Sigur Ros that I’m most familiar with, and is arguably their best album – although Takk might be the most popular. The song Hoppipolla from Takk is the band’s most streamed tune on Spotify – around 67 million – with Svefn-g-Englar second on a mere 31 million.

It was a tube strike day, which made getting to Brixton a bit more complicated than usual, but the three of us managed to meet for a couple of beers at Canova Hall before the 8pm start – early for a main act and a sign that we would be treated to quite a long set. There was a huge queue at the Academy when we arrived at ten to eight, snaking around three sides of the building, but it moved quickly, and we were in our seats just after eight.

At quarter past the band walked on stage in their unassuming way, swathed in red light with thin beams fanning upwards behind them, and floating amoebas drifting by! Flickering dots of white seemed to float in mid-air as the music began. From a stately piano motif the sound built, as the band played the opening track of (), Vaka. They continued with the next two tracks from that album, Frysta and Samskeyti. Brooding, heavenly sounds, with Jonsi’s dreamy falsetto vocals adding to the sense of the spiritual. Music for cathedrals, I thought to myself. For some reason the gothic interior of Salisbury Cathedral came to mind.

iPhone version of start

Digital camera version

It was an engrossing start; and then it got better. A shiver down the spine as those sonar beeps that herald the start of Svefn-g-Englar began to emerge. A roar of recognition from the crowd, before Jonsi went into action with his violin bow. A magnificent swell of sound, conjuring all those images I described in my book. Wow! It was quite overwhelming – the  high point of the concert. And from there the music continued to enthral, enhanced by the dramatic lighting. The band, apart from Jonsi’s flourishes with his violin bow, were inconspicuous, humble in the shadow of the music they were creating.

The focus of the set was on the albums () and Takk, which provided 10 of the 17 songs. Oddly, as it seemed to be a greatest hits ensemble, Hoppipolla didn’t feature. Perhaps it doesn’t have a big enough sound; maybe it would have been a distraction.

The one mistake I thought the band made was to have an intermission, after about an hour and a half. It felt at that point that the show was nearing its end; instead the band played another 45 minutes or so. For a while I had a feeling of more of the same, which hadn’t been the case before the break. But that feeling was swept away by the last tune of the evening, Popplagio from (). The piece built slowly, the violin/guitar echoing, Jonsi’s voice resplendent, then pleading – and then came the guitar attack. A dramatic finale, and a fitting end to an absorbing evening.

At home, you can listen to Sigur Ros as background music, an ambient sound made unobtrusive by the unfamiliar language (which I now know is a mixture of Icelandic and words made-up by the band). Live, its full force is manifest. And you realise there is no-one else quite like Sigur Ros.

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Indigo Sparke at the Louisiana, Bristol, 7 November 2022

On Monday I took a trip to Bristol to see one of my favourite artists at the moment, Indigo Sparke. She’s an Australian indie-folk singer, currently based in New York. She released a new album in October called Hysteria, which was produced by Aaron Dessner of the National, who was involved, of course, in Taylor Swift’s Folklore and Evermore albums. I first came across her music last year, courtesy of the Spotify algorithm. I’d been listening to another Aussie indie-folk singer, Julia Jacklin, and let it run after the album was over. A couple of songs in a hauntingly beautiful tune played. It was The Day I Drove the Car Around the Block by Indigo Sparke. A prosaic title for such a striking song. Not knowing anything about her, I checked what else she had on Spotify. A 2021 release, the album Echo, stood out. A wonderfully spare, resonant collection, mostly just Indigo and her guitar, electric and acoustic. And yes, there was lots of echo. It felt like desert music, which the album cover reinforced. I loved the album, and made it No 2 in my albums of the year.

Echo was actually recorded in 2019, so Hysteria wasn’t really as quick a follow up as it might seem. It has a fuller sound than Echo, with a band backing Indigo on this one. And you can hear the influence of Aaron Dessner. But the beauty of Indigo’s voice and the melodies remain. As does the angst and burning emotion. It’s a captivating collection of songs, and is shaping up to be high on this year’s Best Of selection.

So, when I heard she was doing a short tour of the UK I knew I had to get to one of the concerts. Normally that would be in London, but she is playing the Pitchfork festival this Friday, and I already had tickets for Julia Jacklin – had to be her, didn’t it? – at the Roundhouse. I always like an excuse to visit Bristol, so I booked a ticket for her show there at the Louisiana, which is just down the road from Bristol’s M Shed museum, on the banks of the Avon. Had to catch a coach to Bristol as a rail strike had been planned for that day, although it was called off at the last minute.  All went smoothly, after taking 45 minutes to crawl from Victoria Coach Station to Earl’s Court and the A4!

The Louisiana venue is above a pub of the same name. A lot of up and coming bands play there. Indigo mentioned that there was a flyer on the wall of the “green room” advertising the National in the early 2000s. Bristol punk rockers Idles frequented the venue in their early days. It’s quite small – no more than 200 capacity, I’d guess. Intimate – the perfect setting for Indigo Sparke tonight. It was quite a small crowd, which gave people the opportunity to sit down at the front if they wanted to. She’s been supporting the National on tour in the US recently, so this was quite a contrast. A bit of a respite, I’d guess – she came across in between songs as quite intense and vulnerable – and she commented on how “warm and relaxed” the evening was. She mentioned that she wasn’t feeling too well and asked if the lighting could be turned down. That was fine, and she played a a heart-warming set of songs mostly from Hysteria, a couple of highlights being the Sharon van Etten-like intensity of Golden Ribbons, and the poignant, rolling melody of Sad is Love. There were one or two ventures into the past, including a wonderful rendition of Carnival, one of my favourite songs from Echo. It was mostly just her and her guitars, but there were layers of sound in her playing, and her voice soared, despite her illness. Maybe because of how she was feeling the set was less than an hour, but she gave it her all. She also talked very interestingly about the provenance of the songs, as well as her fears and insecurities. All in a humorous and engaging way. A lot of Hysteria was written during and after a difficult recent relationship, as she explained after she played Burn. The refrain on that song, don’t wanna talk about it, couldn’t be further from the reality!

She was accompanied on vocals for a few songs by the opening artist Jackie Smith. Jackie’s own set was a taster for Indigo’s, being just her and an electric guitar. It turned out she is also Indigo’s tour manager and good friend, providing her with reassurance when she needs it. You couldn’t help but find yourself rooting for them. Especially when Indigo talked about the parlous state of the music industry, and how much the musicians are being ripped off. They need the money from live shows and merch to survive as artists. Spotify introduced me to Indigo Sparke, but it barely provides her with a living, despite millions of streams.

After the show I bought a CD of Hysteria and had a brief word with her and Jackie. The Julia Jacklin connection goes quite deep – not only are they ploughing a similar musical furrow (Indigo a bit bluesier, Julia poppier at times) but they went to the same High School! Julia was in the year above. Right now Julia’s musical trajectory in the UK is more advanced, but I suspect that Indigo may get more traction in the end, especially in the US with the support of the National.

If you haven’t heard Echo or Hysteria, I’d recommended you give them a try. They are two of the most affecting albums I have heard in the last couple of years. And Monday’s show, performed against the odds – the concert in Glasgow the following night was cancelled – was a wonderful taste, I hope, of things to come. Indigo’s expecting to return with a band at some point, and that will be something to relish.

 

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Biig Piig at Hoxton Hall, 3 November 2022

Biig Piig is the stage name for Jessica Smyth. She was born in Ireland, lived in Spain for much of her childhood and moved to west London in her teens. Her music began as a jazzy hip hop fusion, but dance and pop elements have increasingly featured. I first came across her music early in the first lockdown in 2020, when I was listening to Lauren Laverne’s Recommends show on BBC 6 Music late one night. The track she played was called Switch. It was a catchy piece of indie with electronic beats rather than guitars. It had a great refrain: I had a dream, I was learning, then your love took it from me. I checked it out on Spotify, put it on my Heard on 6 Music playlist, and played it more than anything else for a while.

It was only in July that year when I properly explored the other music that she’d made. I’d put everything she’d done onto a playlist and listened to it during a walk through Green Park, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. The sun was shining and we were free to go walking where we liked again. It felt good, even if the world around us was a very uncertain place. And the music of Biig Piig that day suited my mood perfectly: enjoying life’s simple pleasures, appreciating nature, but still wishing for better times. There were three EPs, from 2019 and 20, imbued with that languid hip hop beat, and Jessica’s dreamy, rather wistful tones: Big Fan of the Sesh, A World Without Snooze and No Place for Patience. I played them all twice as I walked through the parks. The beats were familiar – there was certainly some Erykah Badu in there – but one thing that distinguished the music was that Jessica often sang part of the songs in Spanish, the language of her childhood. The tracks Roses and Gold, Shh, Vete and Perdida were outstanding examples. In Perdida she was, well, lost: I just wanna lay here, smoke my cig and drink my wine, I just wanna lay here, until my hurting’s done.

After those EPs, the music became more upbeat, first with Switch and then Don’t Turn Around, which felt very summery. Oh No and Liahr had a touch of Billie Eilish about them and Feels Right was full-on pop. In 2021 The Sky is Bleeding EP combined trip hop with something close to rock in American Beauty; while the excellent 405, a collaboration with Metronomy, sounded like, well, Metronomy.  This year the dance beats have kicked in for real, with Fun and Kerosene and the latest offering This is What They Meant, which could be Kylie.

All of which set us up nicely for the gigs at Hoxton Hall. Both sold out quickly, but I managed to get a couple of tickets in the presale. As long as I’d been aware of her music, Biig Piig hadn’t performed much live, so I was intrigued to know how she would come across on the stage. And would she just focus on her newer material with a few upcoming tunes thrown in? Well, from the moment she sauntered onto the stage in a fog of dry ice and blaze of lights, and began to dance, you just knew it was going to be good. Sensationally good, in fact. I enjoy most of the concerts I go to, in many different ways. But this one, it was just pure joy. So upbeat, confident, celebratory. So much energy. Sumptuous beats, languid when they needed to be, ramping up the bpms when she started to rock. She was accompanied by a multi-instrumentalist – keys, sax, guitar, bass – and a conventional drummer. It worked a treat: the sound was just right, allowing Jessica’s sultry voice to work with the groove and compete with the louder breaks. I was pleased to hear a few of my old jazzy favourites, like Roses and Gold, Shh (I think) and Perdida. Jessica gave a spiel before Perdida about how she had been at a low ebb and unsure about releasing music, but gave it a go and it came good. The message being that if you have something to share, do it. The worst outcome will be indifference. Those lyrics to Perdida had a lot of resonance with the crowd.

The poppier singles really sounded good in the live environment, with plenty of hooks for the audience to join in with. And towards the end the beats per minutes started to accelerate. We were in drum and bass territory.  One highlight – it had to be – was Switch. Not a typical Biig Piig sound, but a clear favourite with the crowd, who chanted along to the chorus as Jessica leapt around on stage. The set finished with Feels Right – and yes, it felt very right indeed. I didn’t really know what to expect tonight. I had quite high hopes, but this was something else. Yes, sensational was the word as I texted a few friends after the show.

Another concert in London is already planned, at Electric Brixton on 23 March next year. A much bigger venue, and clearly merited. It’s part of a short UK tour; she’s playing Ireland and some European gigs as well. I’ve got my ticket already!

More photos. I had a nice position at the back of the balcony with a largely unimpeded view, so have plenty to share this time.

 

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Four great concerts: Ravi Coltrane, The Unthanks, VS Funk Soul Orchestra and Caroline

I’m wrapping these four shows up in one review as I have a busy November coming up, with 12 gigs at the last count – and the start of the World Cup!

The concerts took place over the last three weeks. I saw Roxy Music in that time too, but that had to be a separate review as it was such a special event. (Click on the link above if you’d like to read it.)

Jazz, folk, soul/funk and abstract folk noise (or something like that) are all on the menu. I’ll take them in chronological order.

Ravi Coltrane at the Barbican, 11 October

This was a sensational two hours of music, led by Ravi Coltrane, the son of two jazz greats, John and Alice Coltrane. Ravi is in his fifties and told us that he had avoided playing his parents music all his life – until now. On the whole he steered clear of John’s best known pieces, though there was a version of Giant Steps, which I didn’t really recognise until near the end. I think they might also have played Alice’s Journey in Satchidananda – certainly the opening bars of one tune received a big cheer. It didn’t really matter what they were playing because the band was so good: Ravi on saxophones, Rashaan Carter on bass, Gadi Lehavi on keys and Elé Howell on drums. (I’m grateful to the website Marlbank for the band members’ names). The virtuosity of all the band was astonishing at times, particularly Elé Howell’s drumming. It was fascinating to watch him: elaborate, but always holding down the beat. Rashaan Carter’s bass – double and electric – was subtle and vibrant. Two pieces began with his bass solos – so warm and melodius. And Gadi Lehavi’s piano runs were breathtaking – think the best of 70s jazz rock.

And leading the way, Ravi Coltrane himself. Not trying to sound like his father (who died when he was two). But with a range of expression which was worthy of the great man. I particularly liked it when he played the soprano sax (the long thin one). An instrument that combines eerie beauty with journeys to the outer realms.

The two hours flashed by. The sounds, the rhythms, they were all so absorbing. I think Dave, who was with me, would agree: we were lost in music.

The Unthanks at King’s Place, 15 October

The Unthanks are two sisters, Rachael and Becky, who make richly varied folk music that is rooted in their native North-east. They have core of band members, including Adrian McNally on piano and keys (also a songwriter and arranger), Niopha Keegan on violin and vocals, Chris Price on guitar and bass and Lizzie Jones on trumpet. Kath and I saw them at the first of two shows on the same day at King’s Place. Ours started at 4pm, and with interval, finished around six. Both shows were sell-outs.

I’d known about the band for some time before I really got into them with the release of their album Mount the Air in 2015. I particularly liked the dreamy Flutter and the more traditional Magpie from that album. The two sisters sing some beautiful harmonies, tinged with that north-east accent. They have just released a new album, called Sorrows Away. It’s full of tales of love and mystery, broken hearts – and disused coke ovens! It formed the basis of the evening’s music, though there were visits to their past, including wonderful versions of Flutter and Magpie. I think they said the latter was now part of a soundtrack to the Worzel Gummidge film.

The band was an eleven-piece for these shows, which lent itself to that rich variety of modern and traditional folk. The harmonies, often supplemented by Niopha Keegan, were a joy, though they strained at some of the higher ranges. A highlight was Lizzie Jones’ trumpet, resonant and wistful. Inevitably I thought of that beautiful, sad trumpet accompaniment to Elvis Costello’s song Shipbuilding. That could have fitted seamlessly into this set.

If you haven’t heard the Unthanks, do give Mount the Air and Sorrows Away a listen. You’ll find them a rewarding experience. This concert certainly was.

VS Soul and Funk Orchestra at Ronnie Scott’s, 20 October

Kath and I met up with Dave and Fiona for this one. It was another early show – 6 o’clock – with the band playing another set that night. Quite a common feature at Ronnie’s, Dave tells me. It was billed as a tribute to James Brown and Prince, so we expected it to be very funky. Dave and I speculated beforehand about what Prince songs they might play: maybe some of the earlier, less well-known material, where the funk ruled. Controversy, I Wanna Be Your Lover, that sort of thing. Wrong! They kicked off with an awesome Let’s Go Crazy, and then it got even better!

Twelve band members were crammed onto the small stage – and just off it, in the case of the strings. As well as strings we had brass – the full funky soul arsenal. It’s a great but slightly odd experience at Ronnie’s; you’re close to the band, a full on experience; but you are sitting at a table and quite possibly eating. I found myself tapping a toe to the funk while still working my way through my steak!

And what a show! The band were superb – they had everything to do justice to the great songs they were playing. Prince and James Brown alternated, with a few more Prince songs. The lead singer, Ashton Jones had a terrific voice and a personality to match. His rendition of James Brown’s It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World was out of this world. And the selection of Prince songs was a dream come true: 1999, Alphabet Street, Kiss and Sign o’ the Times, to name a few. I was really surprised (and delighted) to hear the latter. It was played faster than the original and with full horn accompaniment. A brilliant treatment.

It was so good throughout, but the last two songs deserve a special mention. Get Up (I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine) was so funky that everyone just had to stand up and dance, even in the confines of Ronnie’s. Such a groove! And then, after a brief pause, that guitar began… It couldn’t be could it? Yes it was! Not funky, just one of the all-time classics. Purple Rain. Blimey, I think there was a tear in my eye at that point. Guitarist Harry Greene is the mastermind of the ensemble. He stayed near the back and played the funk for the most part; but for this one, when it was time for the solo, he let rip. It would have done Prince proud. And it was such a loving rendition of the song that they even had that stately string outro. It was a nice touch, giving the string players a moment in the spotlight – the final say in fact.

VC Soul Funk Orchestra are a south London collective, I think. I’m grateful to Close Up Culture website for the band members’ names; if you read the review on the site, there’s a lot more detail. And if you love the music of Prince and James Brown try and see this band. I’d love to see them again.

No photos for this one – not allowed at Ronnie’s.

Caroline at EartH, 1 November

 

This was the third time I’d seen Caroline this year – the other two shows were at Cecil Sharp House (the home of English folk music) and at Latitude festival. Each time I review them I struggle to define their music. It’s rooted in folk, for sure, but the sound is deconstructed and reassembled, so it’s like nothing else you’ll hear. I went to the show with Shane last night. Afterwards we were thinking of descriptions. I came up with psychedelic folk meets avant-garde jazz; but I think I’ve just thought of something better. Cubist folk. Just as the art form takes an image, breaks it up and reassembles it, Caroline do something like that with music. Not in every song – IWR is a thing of simple beauty, like a medieval religious chant. Dark Blue, which ended the show, could be Mogwai. But then you have the staccato Skydiving onto the library roof – even the song title is Cubist!

I was pleased that the band played in the EartH upstairs theatre, where you can sit on the wooden tiers. Gets a bit uncomfortable after a while, but it gives you a chance to contemplate, to absorb, which is want you want with Caroline. This is engrossing music, best enjoyed in the dark.

The band released their debut self-titled album this year. It’s a superb piece of work – not overburdened with tunes, but constantly intriguing. The live shows are an extension of that, with the tunes elongated, stretched, embellished. Endlessly fascinating. And it’s evolving – it was noticeable that the two violinists are playing an ever more prominent part in proceedings, with Magdalena McLean also taking on some singing duties. There was some new material, including an embryonic piece in which twelve people were invited on stage, sat in a circle, all but one with an acoustic guitar, which they started to play as they picked up the chord sequence from one of the members of the band, Jasper Llewellyn. It went on a bit and didn’t develop much beyond a gentle chant; but it was a very Caroline thing to do. There’s a real inclusivity about the band, both within the ensemble and with the audience, even though they don’t do much talking. That said, one of the guitarists – Casper Hughes, I think – did briefly take on the role of spokesperson, expressing their gratitude for the year they’d had, the places they played. And this show, he said was the culmination of everything. That felt genuine and felt good. It was great to be there, to share in this celebration of music that challenges and enthrals. There really is nothing else like the music of Caroline.

 

 

 

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Roxy Music at the O2 Arena, the Dome, 14 October 2022h

Last Friday Jon, Dave, Tony and I indulged our tendency to nostalgia and went to see Roxy Music at the O2 Arena in the Dome. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of Roxy’s self-titled debut album. Fifty years of Roxy Music, and they’ve been on tour to celebrate the fact. They are getting on – aren’t we all? – with Bryan Ferry just turned 77, guitarist Phil Manzanera 71, saxophonist Andy Mackay 76, and drummer Phil Thompson 71. All featured on that first album. The missing member, of course, was Brian Eno (74). He left after the first two albums, but is still indelibly associated with Roxy Music, for those who were with them from the start, notwithstanding his remarkable achievements since, as a solo artist, a thinker, and producer with the likes of David Bowie and U2.

I was a bit slow on the uptake with Roxy Music in the early 70s. I liked their weirdness when I saw them on TV, but only really connected to the singles at first, Virginia Plain and Pyjamarama being the first two. The first album I heard all the way through was the third, Stranded, which had the single Street Life on it; but I didn’t buy a Roxy album until their first Greatest Hits album in 1977. That was brilliant, but it didn’t have anything from the first album on it. I made up for it later, when I was earning money – Roxy were one of the bands I splashed the cash on to get up to speed with their full majesty.

What was clear before that was that Roxy were hugely influential on punk – their style rather than the music itself – and the New Romantics. By the time of the latter, in the early 80s, Roxy, now dominated by Bryan Ferry, had moved on – or more accurately, had joined the mainstream, playing a mellow, almost jazzy music that earned the legend of coffee table. They were one of the best, of course, with the album Avalon a classic of the genre. But just a little off-kilter, with Ferry’s distinctive warble setting them apart from the pack. And the style: no-one had a better haircut, and no-one could wear a suit like Bryan Ferry.

The first three albums – Roxy Music, For Your Pleasure and Stranded – are absolute classics. An artful mish mash of rock, soul, jazz, psychedelia and, by the time of Stranded, grandiose balladry that sounded like nothing else before it, or since. Number four, Country Life, was pretty good too, and has grown on me over the years. The fifth, Siren, repeated old tricks for the most part, but did have Love is the Drug, that rhythmic ode to empty romance. Actually, a lot of Roxy Music songs were odes to empty romance – Bryan may have been trying to tell us something!

Those first five albums came out between 1972 and 1975. Roxy went quiet for a while after that, through Bryan released three solo albums, mostly his distinctive takes on old hits from the 60s and earlier. The band came back for a dance-orientated album, Manifesto, in 1979, before they hit full coffee-mode in 1980 with Flesh and Blood, and then the ultimate, Avalon in 1982. That was the last album badged as Roxy Music, though Ferry has regularly released solo albums since then, and Mackay and Manzanera have often featured. Since the early 2000s, the band has played a number of tours, while Ferry’s solo performances have usually been based on Roxy classics. An exception was in 2007, when he made an album of Bob Dylan covers, and toured those. It was pretty good – we saw him play at Hampton Court Palace on that tour. We saw Roxy at the O2 in 2010, while Ferry played the Roxy catalogue at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 2011 and again at Hampton Court in 2017. Each time we loved the early songs most, while large parts of the audience came mainly for the 80s songs. Both groups went home happy. Each time we’d remark how dapper Bryan still looked as he advanced in years – an example to us all.

And so to the O2 this time around. Anticipation was high – might this be the last time we would see Roxy Music play together? Well, if it was, we’ll have a great night to remember. The band were superb – and by band I mean the whole troupe, which included instrumental back up for all the original members and the three backing singers. The sound was excellent, at least where we were sitting, and the multiple screens added some arresting imagery as well as giving those far back in the arena a chance to see the band close up.

They came racing out of the traps with an urgent rendition of Re-make Re-model, the first track on the first album, and from there you knew it was going to be good. The early part of the show was a real treat for us oldies, with Out of the Blue, The Bogus Man, Ladytron, If There is Something and In Every Dream Home a Heartache featuring in the opening eight songs. So many highs there: that eerie opening to Ladytron, with Andy Mackay on oboe; Phil Manzanera really rocking out in the second half of If There Is Something; and Bryan Ferry imperious as he warbled his way through Dream Home, swathed in green light. Still able to sing about inflatable dolls with a straight face! Dave thought his voice was a bit weak; I didn’t really notice that. I guess I was just too engaged in the whole sound and vision to care.

Andy Mackay, Ladytron

Phil Manzanera, If There Was Something

Bryan Ferry, In Every Dream Home A Heartache

The middle part of the show catered for that ten years younger generation. We’d had While my Heart is Still Beating and Oh Yeah (aka On the Radio) earlier; but things really got going with the instrumental Tara, which is the closing piece on Avalon. Played beautifully by Andy Mackay on that oboe. The highlight, obviously, was More Than This – it’s a great song. The focus was on the Avalon album, though Dance Away made it in there. I like this side of Roxy – my attention didn’t waver – but when the opening bars of Love is the Drug kicked in, it was celebration time. That song unites both camps like no other. And then things got even better, a sensational version of Editions of You, with Eno’s synth madness executed perfectly by the keyboard player, and Manzanera letting rip on guitar. That segue between the synth and guitar solos is one of the great Roxy Music moments in my view.  And that was followed by Virginia Plain – glory be!

That was the end of the main set, though most of the band remained on stage and Ferry was soon back for Jealous Guy, the band’s only No 1 single, and a cover at that. A John Lennon song, you may recall. The crowd loved that one, and I imagine many would have gone home happy if that had been the end. But there was one more tune: an electrifying Do the Strand.  Strident and weird as ever: rhododendron is a nice flower! One of our favourites – the opening track on For Your Pleasure. The perfect end to a wonderful show.

I hope this isn’t the last time we see Roxy Music, or Bryan Ferry, perform live. There are some rumours that they might play Glastonbury next year. That would be a good way to bow out. But if we don’t see them again, then this show will be a fitting end. And we will always have their weird and wonderful music on record. For your pleasure, indeed!

(The full set list, courtesy of Setlist FM, is here. Dave grumbled that there were six songs from Avalon and NONE from the classic third album Stranded. That was a shame, but you can’t have everything – there are those two audiences to satisfy.)

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