Mabe Fratti at King’s Place, 21 April 2021

Mabe Fratti is a Guatemalan cellist and composer, based in Mexico. Last year she released a wonderful, entrancing album called Sera Que Ahora Podremos Entendernos. I first heard tracks from it, of course, on BBC 6 Music: Mary Anne Hobbs, Lauren Laverne, Tom Ravenscroft on what was then called 6 Music Recommends – it was all or one of them. Nadie Sabe, the album opener, was my introduction. From there I explored the whole album, and was quickly hooked. I made it No 10 in my albums of 2021, but really, it could have been a lot higher. It was like nothing else I listened to all year. I said this in my review of the the albums of the year:

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.

And so, when I saw she was playing King’s Place in April, I leapt at the chance to get tickets. I persuaded my wife, Kath, that it would be interesting; and King’s Place is a great place to see any artists, musical or spoken word. It’s near King’s Cross station, sharing the building with the Guardian newspaper, and the two halls have comfortable seats and good acoustics. What’s not to like?

Events got off to a slow start on the night, with the 8.30 start pushed back further. A brief support performance was provided by Australian artist Laila Sakini. The music was mostly pre-recorded, though she played a bit of piano and chanted a little. There was no introduction, so we weren’t sure whether this was part of Mabe Fratti’s set; but it ended after about twenty minutes. After a short break, Mabe came on, accompanied by a guitarist and two keyboard/synth players. Together, I think they were Concepion Huerta – Mabe has made an EP with them recently, called Estatica.

A little confusing; but once the band started up, that was entirely forgotten. The concert was captivating from start to finish. Mabe’s cello playing was amazing, and her voice floated beautifully over the wildness, the rawness of the music. Meanwhile, the guitarist conjured up some extraordinary, meandering sounds, which complemented the musings of her cello. The synths added further layers to the soundscape. It was truly immersive. I couldn’t tell you what they played, though I think there were a few from the 2021 album – if not my favourite, En Medio, as far as I could tell. That’s the one which really brings to mind the Cocteau Twins. Estatica had a full rendition in the second phase of the show. I know this because Mabe told us!

A fantastic concert, an entrancing sound. You don’t need to know the tunes beforehand to find them engrossing. Mabe Fratti herself is visually quite understated, but musically, incredibly powerful. I’ll certainly be looking out for her next visit to these shores.

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King Hannah at Oslo, Hackney, 20 April 2022

King Hannah are a four piece band featuring, on vocals and rhythm guitar, Hannah Merrick; and on lead guitar and occasional vocals, Guy Whittle. They are Liverpool-based, though Hannah is from Wales. Theirs is not the typical Liverpool indie sound though – all those jangling guitars and Beatles-inspired melodies. This is music from the dark heart of America, meshing with Hannah’s droll reflections on daily life.

I first came across the band last year at Green Man. They were second on, on the Sunday in the Far Out tent. Always a rather soporific time at the festivals, as people recharge their batteries after the excesses of Saturday night. The programme notes for the band referred to America’s big open spaces, to Mazzy Star and Lana del Rey. And it said that they had just released a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s State Trooper – a song from his album Nebraska, the bleak but brilliant acoustic album that came out in 1982, after The River and before Born in the USA. It sounded like a good prospect.

And it was. I loved the performance. The songs were mostly quite long, starting dreamily, with that Mazzy Star sound very much in evidence, especially through Hannah’s singing. A touch of Velvet Underground too, in their slower moments. And then Guy’s guitar would be unleashed, and we were into Neil Young/Adam Granduciel territory, with the distortion pedal in full effect. Think Cortez the Killer or Cowgirl in the Sand, or War on Drugs’ Thinking of a Place. This was absolutely my thing! And they played State Trooper – at a slightly higher tempo than Bruce, with the bonus of a rasping solo at the end. My top discovery at Green Man in 2021.

At Green Man, August 2021

Of course when I got home I checked out the back catalogue. Just a couple of singles and a six track EP called Tell Me Your Mind and I’ll Tell You Mine, as well as State Trooper. The EP included the first two singles, Crème Brûlée and Meal Deal. Both terrific songs, with the deadpan vocals and soaring guitars. Crème Brûlée rapidly became my favourite. It’s a song about yearning, and doesn’t mention the fabled French dessert at any point!

The band played the Lexington on Pentonville Road in the autumn, but I couldn’t make that; so I was pleased to see that they had a tour to promote their first album, I’m Not Sorry, I Was Just Being Me, this spring. I wasn’t able to persuade any of my friends of the band’s merits, so made my way up to Hackney on the Overground last Wednesday to see them myself. I like Oslo: there’s an excellent bar/restaurant on the ground floor and the music room upstairs is a nice size. I’d say you could get 300 plus in there. Just right for a band on its way up. I got there in time to see the support act, Hussy, named after the singer (real name Sophie Nicole Ellison). She played guitar and was accompanied by another guitarist with an impressive mullet! I wasn’t familiar with their music, but enjoyed it – some of the guitar work took them into similar territory to the main act.

Hussy – Sophie on the left

Which brings us onto King Hannah. The set was based around the new album, of course, but the sound was familiar from Green Man, though more powerful and direct in the smaller venue. Hannah for a while adopted the insouciant/nervous pose, with no introductions: but she succumbed after a few songs, to express her gratitude and amazement at the number of people there. They are quite a humble band – their Instagram account suggests that they are genuinely taken aback by the numbers of people coming to see them. And it’s well deserved: the show was excellent, with some astonishing guitar from Guy adorning every song. Visually the two of them are chalk and cheese: Hannah elegant and seemingly aloof, New York indie style; Guy, in his plaid shirt and beanie, straight out of some mid-west Americana band. But they complement each other perfectly, just as the brooding melodies blend so well with the searing riffs and solos.

After opening with A Well-Made Woman, one of singles from the album, it was straight into State Trooper. What a great version it is – I wonder if Bruce has heard it? I’m sure he would approve.  The Sea has Stretchmarks from the early EP followed, before a deep dive into the new album. Highlights? Every solo! Credit, too, to the drummer and bassist who laid down a very solid – and subtle – beat that allowed the songs to build so effectively to that point where Guy let rip, with Hannah’s rhythms embellishing the wall of sound. We liked that one, she smiled after one particularly raucous wig out – it might have been Big Big Baby. To cap it all, the main set finished with the masterpiece: Crème Brûlée. Magnificent.

I would have gone home happy at that point, but we were treated to a generous encore of Meal Deal – which counts as an old favourite – and It’s You and Me, Kid, on which Guy shares the vocal duties. A fitting end, as they really do work so well together.

So, if you haven’t heard King Hannah give them a try. And try to catch them live, where the power and majesty of their songs is fully realised.

Riffing at the speed of light!

 

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The War on Drugs at the O2 Dome, 12 April 2022

The War on Drugs are a band that I liked from the first time I saw them, at Latitude in 2012, and have loved ever since they released their fourth album, Lost in the Dream, in 2014. In 2012, not knowing the band, I immediately took to their big, spacey sound, a combination of  Americana and grunge. I likened them to Pearl Jam in that regard. But the roots of this band lie most of all in the classic sounds of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, with Neil Young, Freebird Lynyrd Skynyrd and Dire Straits inspiring the solos of Adam Granduciel, the main man, singer and lead guitarist. Lost in the Dream was an album that reflected its title: lost, in love or despair; hoping, dreaming of better times. Springsteen themes, for sure, but sung with a fragility and tenderness that made them less defiant, more forlorn. Instead, the most uplifting moments often came from the sounds of Adam’s guitar –  in the words of Bill Nelson of Be Bop Deluxe, crying to the sky.

There was something else that lifted the songs; a pounding motorik beat that seemed more European than American. German, to be precise. Never was that more so than on Lost in the Dream’s flagship tune, Under the Pressure. A nine minute anthem bookended by a flickering, shimmering build-up and a gradual, abstracted fade. In between a triumphant piano motif and relentless Euro-beat as Adam lamented being under the pressure. A universal feeling, but also one tied to a fragile relationship, it seemed. But in this song, the hurt of the words was overwhelmed by the sheer grandeur of the music. It was a song born to be the War on Drugs’ signature tune for all time.

There were epic tunes aplenty on Lost in the DreamRed Eyes, Burning, Eyes to the Wind, An Ocean in Between the Waves – but the two ballads were the ones that hit home for me most of all. The title track was a sumptuous Dylanesque lament, straight from the Blood on the Tracks songbook; Suffering was about lost hope, but had a musical backdrop of languid beauty, cracked at the end by a tremolo guitar, a whisper of sax and a cry from Adam that pierced the soul. I had a bit of an epiphany with this song once, walking over Ebury Bridge in Pimlico, gazing over the railway lines with their snaking trains coming in and out of Victoria Station, and a hazy Battersea Power Station looming in the background. With that moment in mind, the song made its way into my novel, The Decision, as the hero, Charlie, had his dark night of the soul before the act that would launch him and his rebel group to prominence.

So yes, the War on Drugs became an important band for me. They played a sublime show at Latitude in 2014 at the end of a sequence of amazing bands – Parquet Courts, Eagulls, Fat White Family, Augustines  – which probably still ranks as my finest memory of the festival. I saw them too at Brixton Academy in 2015, Alexandra Palace in 2017 and All Points East in 2018. Each time they were awesome – and each time they failed to play Suffering! Maybe it hurts too much to sing. Adam has been candid over the years about his struggles with depression – maybe it was a song too far. But Under the Pressure was always there, always a highlight, wherever it featured in the set.

Latitude 2014

The follow up to Lost in the Dream, A Deeper Understanding, came out in 2017. More discursive than its predecessor, it took me longer to appreciate fully, but it stands the test of time. My favourite two tracks are Thinking of a Place, which may have Adam’s finest guitar moments, and Pain, which rivals it on that account. You can tell from the song titles that Adam’s themes hadn’t changed, and the melodies on both those songs are the height of wistful. Lost in that dream.

It was four years until the next studio album I Don’t Live Here Anymore in October 2021. Nearly two years taken out by the pandemic, of course. I’d settled into listening to the songs I’ve mentioned above on various playlists, and not much else. I completely missed the fact that a live album had been released in 2020. When the new album came out I was surprised at how much promotion it was getting – billboards around London, in tube stations. And it was surprising to see that the London leg of the UK tour was at the O2 in the Dome, the largest indoor arena, I think. Had they become this big? When did that happen? I feared the worst – was the new album an attempt at larger audience, which would almost certainly mean commercialising the sound? More dinky beats, uptempo tunes and less guitar? Not my War on Drugs at all. My fears weren’t realised. There was more of a pop edge to some of the melodies, the production was a bit shinier, 80s style. But it was still discernibly the War on Drugs, with song titles like Victim, Old Skin, Wasted and Rings Around my Father’s Eyes. They hadn’t exactly gone happy-clappy.

Jon E, not previously a known War on Drugs fan, suggested getting some tickets for the O2 show. And so we were there last Tuesday. For various reasons, including wanting to watch Real Madrid vs Chelsea  – a mystery to me, that one – Dave, Tony, Shane, Jon G and Louis all couldn’t come in the end, but Gab did, so we were three. Great seats, quite near to the front, to the left of the stage. The top tier of the O2 was closed and the seats were about two-thirds occupied; but the standing area looked full, and the atmosphere was tingling as the lights went down. The support band, Lo Moon were excellent. Based in LA, with some New York roots, they have a big sound in common with the War on Drugs, but it errs towards Coldplay and an element of shoegaze. I liked it a lot.

Lo Moon

And so to the main attraction. First song, Old Skin, starting slow but building to a crescendo. And from there into Pain, truly magnificent. Already this felt like a level above what the band had done before. The sound, the lights, the solos. Every song seemed to soar. Around us, there were ecstatic fans, celebrating at the end of each song. It felt triumphal.

The set revolved around the last three albums, though we did also get Come to the City from Slave Ambient, the album featured at Latitude in 2012. The songs from the new album were prevalent of course, and they sounded fresh and sharp – those commercial elements worked really well in the arena. Which is what they were designed for, I guess: I Don’t Live Here Anymore, I Don’t Wanna Wait, Harmonia’s Dream – the new anthems. But the beautiful ballad got in there too: Living Proof, the album opener. This is unlike most War on Drugs songs, in that it doesn’t feel long enough. A lot of them meander to the finish. In contrast, Living Proof ends abruptly after a wonderfully delicate guitar solo. You really want another chorus, but it doesn’t arrive. A lovely song though, with that plaintive intro brings a tear to the eye.

In the first half of the show we had an Ocean in Between the Waves and Red Eyes from Lost in the Dream and The Strangest Thing from A Deeper Understanding. Each one infused with emphatic beats and embellished by the soaring solos. It reminded me of the Latitude show in 2014 when I thought to myself, it’s like Freebird in every song. The band are really tight, and Adam just lets rip with his guitar over the rich foundation they provide. Things peaked, of course, with Under the Pressure, third song from the end of the main set. As soon as those electro beats started ticking, the sense of anticipation rose. And this was the best I’ve ever heard it. A immense, immersive sound, the stage bathed in metallic light. And that relentless, driving beat. Sensational. I, for one, was filled with a sense of wonder – lost in the dream.

That may have been the peak, but there were more delights to come. I Don’t Live Here Anymore and Occasional Rain, both from the new album, completed the main set brilliantly. And then the encore exceeded all my hopes. First a magisterial Thinking of a Place; and then, for the first time on this tour I think, Lost in the Dream. A moment of pure joy. And that wasn’t even the end. To round things off we were treated to a version of Neil Young’s Like a Hurricane – an acknowledgement of where this band have come from.

I think the War on Drugs are now operating at a level above anything they have done before. When I first saw them I wondered whether their more delicate songs could translate to the stadiums. There’s no doubt now – this is a band that fills the arena, the stadium with a huge sound, a triumphal sound, but one that can still tug the heartstrings. Inevitably, as time advances, we will see and hear less of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young and others of their generation(s). Adam Granduciel and the War on Drugs are one of those bands that stand ready to keep the flag flying.

 

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Enola Gay at the Windmill Brixton and Caroline at Cecil Sharp House, 6 and 7 April 2022

This last week I’ve been to see two up-and-coming bands who, it is fair to say, are on opposite ends of the indie spectrum. And that’s indie in its broadest sense. Both have support from 6 Music, both are selling out their gigs; both, in their different ways, are uncompromising. And both their shows were brilliant.

The bands are Enola Gay, who played the Windmill Brixton on 6 and 7 April, and Caroline, who played Cecil Sharpe House, near Regent’s Park on 7 April.

Enola Gay

Caroline

I went with Jon G to Enola Gay on the 6th. I’d not been to the Windmill before, which is surprising, given that it is the place that so many indie bands have made a name in recent years, including Fat White Family, Goat Girl and Shame. It’s a pub, but one devoted to music. There’s no separate room for the gigs. I liked it – a proper music venue. We got there for the support act, Yinyang (aka Lauren Hannan) from Belfast, like Enola Gay. She sings about the tribulations of life over bass-heavy hip hop beats, which on Spotify reminded me occasionally of some of Billie Eilish’s early music. It was her first ever live show apparently. She did well, but it’s just her and her laptop – I’d suggest she teams up with someone – Sleaford Mods style? – so that there’s a bit more to focus on.

Yinyang

And then Enola Gay. Wow! Theirs is a brutal, relentless sound. On 6 Music I was particularly struck by the song Through Men’s Eyes, but all their songs combine hard-hitting lyrics – if you can discern them – with piledriving riffs and rhythms that are either punk or hip hop, and sometimes both. Live it was awesome, especially in such a small venue. Half way through I moved to the side at the front to get a better view of the guitarist and drummer, and was grateful for the ear plug I brought along to protect my good ear! I don’t use it that often, but it was essential tonight.

There are plenty of bands making punk/hardcore sounds: and hip hop infuses a lot of rock these days – Turnstile an excellent example.  But there is something about Enola Gay which stands out. There is no compromise. They are in your face, and they are serious. Down to earth too. They were at the front supporting Yinyang, and enjoying talking to fans at the merch table afterwards.

If you like noisy rock’n’roll with a political/social context, watch out for Enola Gay.

How to describe Caroline? The fact that they were playing at Cecil Sharp House, the home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, tells you something – the music is rooted somewhere in the traditions of folk music. But folk music from everywhere, not just England. Throw in Black Country New Road, some monkish chanting, avant-garde jazz and some scratchy Captain Beefheart guitars and you might be able to get an idea of what they sound like. Best thing to do is just go and see them. They really are a fascinating, engrossing band. There’s a little singing, notably on the medieval-sounding IWR, which is rather lovely. There are trumpets and saxophones, cellos and violins, as well as guitars, acoustic and electric. Sometimes the sounds flow; other times they are eked out of the instruments, a good example of this being the tune Skydiving onto the Library Roof. Your guess is as good as mine what that’s all about, but the music is strangely compelling.

Chanting on IWR

I saw the band at Green Man last year, on the small Rising stage, tucked away in the trees behind the main stage. What struck me then was first, the togetherness of the band; and second, what an enthusiastic following they had. Both those things were evident on Thursday too, though the concert also had a bit of a campfire feel, with the band assembled in a circle, and the crowd – all around – mostly sitting on the hard floor. Mainly young folk too – why weren’t they up on their feet and giving it some? Maybe this is what they thought you are meant to do at a Caroline gig. It reminded me of something I heard on the Word podcast recently, when David Hepworth and Mark Ellen were discussing how a lot of the iconic live shows of bands like Led Zeppelin and the Who in the late 60s and early 70s were in university venues where everyone was sitting on the floor. The Who’s classic Live at Leeds album is one such example. The sitting down was a bit of an issue for me and my friends – Jon G, Shane and Tony tonight – with our creaking limbs and aching backs. (It’s sometimes hard being a gig-goer in your 60s, but it has to be done!) Eventually we made our way to an area near one of the exits where people were standing – and found ourselves a good view too.

From the floor!

So, what I’d say about Caroline is that you don’t have to be wedded to any particular genre of music to appreciate them. Like Enola Gay, though in a very different way, they have a bit of an aura about them. You can leave your musical prejudices at home and just go with the flow.

Two great gigs that confirm that music is ever-evolving and always fascinating.

Some more photos, starting this time with Caroline.

And Enola Gay.

It’s all too much!

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This is the Kit at the Royal Albert Hall, 8 March 2022

 

This is the Kit is a band that plays what you might call alternative folk. It’s the vehicle of the multi-talented Kate Stables, who sings and plays guitars and banjo, with core members Rozi Plain on bass, Neil Smith on lead guitar and Jamie Whitby-Coles on drums. Folk is certainly at the core of the sound, but there’s jazz, some world beats and lyrics that could be part of the psychedelic era.

Neil on left, Kate in black, Rozi in red

I first came across the band in 2015, courtesy of Marc Riley on BBC 6 Music. The song that caught my attention was All in Cahoots, which must have been a single at the time. It was off their album Bashed Out, which was their third, and their most polished by far (as I discovered when listening to its predecessors). Some big hitters connected with Aaron Dessner of The National were involved in the making. All in Cahoots summed up the appeal of This is the Kit to me: a wistful melody, beautifully sung, an insistent guitar strum, some gentle brass and lyrics that that did and didn’t make sense. Let’s call them abstract – you make of them what you will.

Bashed Out became one of my favourite albums of 2015. In fact, I made it No 3 in my Best Of that year. Here’s what I said in my review:

Fronted by singer, banjo player and guitarist Kate Stables, This Is The Kit play the most beautiful, wistful folk, with a modern and occasionally quirky touch. There are hints of John Martyn when they go electric – that really comes out live. Favourite tracks include “In Cahoots”, which is the one that introduced me to the band, and the lovely opener, “Misunderstanding”. That one echoed through my head during our summer holiday in Antibes. It felt right in a place I where had so much time to think and imagine, sitting on the balcony on balmy evenings. This is a wonderful, rather moving album from start to finish.

I’ll still go along with that, especially with the reference to Misunderstanding. I think that remains my favourite This is the Kit song, though there are plenty of contenders.

I first saw the band play at Latitude in 2015, on a stage called Other Voices, along the lake. It was a one-off for that year, Latitude’s tenth festival. The band had almost missed the gig because of a massive traffic jam along the A12 that year – Rozi Plain had a solo set that went by the wayside. They were still a bit flustered when they took to the stage, but soon settled to play a beautiful set of songs. It was then that I realised how powerful Misunderstanding was live, when Neil let rip on the echoey guitar at the end. Very much in the spirit of John Martyn.

Latitude July 2015

I’ve seen the band a few times since: at the Scala, King’s Cross in November 2015; at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in January 2018; and End of the Road in 2018 on the Garden Stage in the sunshine, straight after the metal/punk thrash of Amyl and the Sniffers! A wonderfully soothing comedown that one. All the shows were really satisfying. There was a real quality to the playing, exemplified by Kate Stables herself, switching between acoustic and electric guitar and the banjo.  A new album, 2017’s Moonshine Freeze, took centre stage in those 2018 concerts. It was a bit more upbeat musically and jazzier than Bashed Out, but the quirky lyrics hadn’t gone away – from Nits on Bashed Out to Riddled with Ticks and Solid Grease on Moonshine Freeze. What was Kate trying to say? The funny thing is that if you didn’t pay attention to the lyrics, all three of these songs were just lovely folk tunes.

And so to the Albert Hall, a couple of weeks ago. The concert was originally planned for 2021, as part of the Albert Hall’s 150 year celebrations. The pandemic knocked it back to 2022, and probably allowed for more ticket sales – I didn’t get mine until this year. On the night it was pretty full, if not sold out – it’s a big place for This is the Kit to headline. Kate made that point more than once – she was living the dream being there.

There was another album to accommodate in tonight’s show: 2020’s Off Off On. I must admit, that after a couple of initial listens, I rather dismissed it as more of the same, after the previous two. But I gave it more of a listen beforehand, and started to appreciate it more. And that applied especially to the closing track, Keep Going. It’s a long piece, with some lovely guitar. And a message that resonates in these troubled times. It had to play a part in the night’s proceedings…

We – my wife Kath and I – had great seats, right at the front at the first tier above the stalls. We got there in time for the support act, Jessca Hoop. I’d seen her at Latitude a few years ago on the Sunrise Arena. I like her recorded music, and tonight I thought she was very good, if a bit obsessed with her monitors and the sound. Some wry Californian humour thrown into the mix. She came back for a duet with Kate during This is the Kit’s set.

And then the main attraction. More musicians than ever, with a full brass section, who really did the business. But some lovely solo Kate too – just her and her banjo. Songs mostly from Off Off On and Moonshine Freeze, but Bashed Out still got a look in, with the title track (part of the encore), Silver John and, to my delight, Misunderstanding, as atmospheric as ever. Bullet Proof, from Moonshine Freeze is up there with Misunderstanding for that wistful beauty; and Moonshine Freeze, Hotter Colder (encore) and This is What You Did provided that more upbeat groove, incorporating sounds from around the world. And yes, Keep Going provided a fitting end to the main set.

As with previous concerts, it was a performance of the highest quality. Retaining that essence of folk, but exploring so many other genres, and doing everything just right. On top of that, Kate’s joy at being there was so palpable, and was clearly shared by her bandmates. For them it was a real celebration, and so it was for us, the audience, too.

A wonderful evening of music and celebration. This is the Kit always leave you feeling good about the world.

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Tony Visconti’s Holy Holy at the Barbican, 13 March 2022

Last night was a night of nostalgia, the best sort of nostalgia. A celebration of the music of David Bowie, performed by Holy Holy, a group put together by the great producer Tony Visconti, who worked with Bowie on many of his finest records, from the Man Who Sold the World in 1970, to Bowie’s final album before his death in 2016, Blackstar.

The concert, at the Barbican, was originally scheduled for 2020. Since then Woody Woodmansey, the drummer from the Spiders from Mars, Bowie’s legendary backing band in the early 70s, has dropped out – over covid vaccination issues, according to the press. Last night’s band comprised Visconti himself on bass, Steve “Smiley” Barnard on drums, guitarists James Stevenson and Paul Cuddeford, Janette Mason on keyboards, Visconti’s daughter Jessica Lee Morgan on acoustic guitar, sax and backing vocals, and finally Glenn Gregory on vocals. Glenn made his name as the vocalist for the brilliant 80s electro-pop band Heaven 17, whose hits included Temptation and (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thing. Classics, both.

Holy Holy have been playing Bowie songs since 2014, though I must admit I hadn’t come across them until Dave asked if we fancied going to the Barbican show. Their website asserts, “We are not a tribute band; we are the real deal.” Well, maybe they are both: a really good tribute band, but with authentic Bowie connections, primarily through Visconti. And they are all very accomplished musicians – the quality of the performance last night was astounding.

The only thing more astounding was the setlist. It was unbelievably good! They have a fantastic back catalogue to draw upon of course, but this really was a dream. The best thing to do is just list it – any Bowie fan will immediately just go, wow!

The Width of a Circle – Lady Grinning Soul – Ziggy Stardust – Time – Quicksand – Changes – Ashes to Ashes – All the Madmen – a medley of: Wild Eyed Boy from Free Cloud/All the Young Dudes/Oh You Pretty Things – Boys Keep Swinging – Space Oddity – The Man Who Sold the World – Starman – Heroes – Rock’n’Roll Suicide – Life on Mars – Moonage Daydream – Encore: Where Are We Now? and Rebel Rebel – Second encore: Suffragette City.  

A strong emphasis, you can see, on the early 70s albums, and some good rocking too. Funnily enough, the only one of these that Visconti produced exclusively was The Man Who Sold the World. In previous incarnations Holy Holy have performed the whole of this album. We – Dave, Jon, Tony and me – were kind of expecting that to be the case last night. It would have been interesting, as long as there were a few hits afterwards. But when Glenn announced Lady Grinning Soul after the darkly rocking Width of a Circle, we knew we were in for a night of pure entertainment. I’ve loved Lady Grinning Soul from the moment I first heard it on Aladdin Sane when I was 14. It is such a beautiful, jazzy tune, with a typically strange Bowie twist. It spoke of things I knew nothing about, but I could imagine what they might be. That applies to a lot of Bowie’s great work in the 1970s. As a teenager living in Suffolk and then the East Midlands, I was so far removed from the world that Bowie inhabited. But I, and millions of others, could inhabit it through his songs.

The crowd, unsurprisingly, tended towards the fifty-pluses, but it wasn’t long before a decent number of people were up on their feet, encouraged by Glenn Gregory. So many anthems! I was interested to see how well Boys Keep Swinging went down. It has a great beat, if it isn’t one of Bowie’s best known. Naturally Ashes to Ashes was an early highlight; and All the Young Dudes has truly been reclaimed from Mott the Hoople. But for me, the very best of all was the sequence which began with an eerily beautiful Space Oddity, continued with The Man Who Sold Who Sold the World, with that wonderful guitar motif; took in a sublime Starman, the song that introduced so many of us properly to Bowie; and finished with Heroes, forever a song of hope as well as a moment of defiance and celebration. Like many in the audience, I’m sure, my thoughts turned to the people of Ukraine and what they are going through right now. I wanted the stage to be bathed in yellow and blue light at that moment. Heroes for a lot more than one day.

How could you top that? Well, the band certainly did their best to match it for the rest of the show. Glenn introduced Rock’n’Roll Suicide as the song he most likes to sing. He told us a story about how, when Tony Visconti invited him to join the band after an encounter at Abbey Road studios, he said that Glenn’s voice had a little bit of Bowie in it. Of course it did, Glenn said to us. Every pop singer in the early 80s, especially in a cutting edge band like Heaven 17, was going to have been hugely influenced by David Bowie. And that dramatic song was followed by another, perhaps the most dramatic, Life on Mars. Another one that stirs so many teenage memories! And then the guitars cranked up for the last song of the main set: an awesome Moonage Daydream. James Stevenson had Mick Ronson’s Gibson Les Paul sound off to a tee throughout. Wikipedia tells me he was in the London punk band Chelsea, then Generation X, then Kim Wilde’s band. He later became a member of Gene Loves Jezebel. Steeped in rock’n’roll.

There was a lovely touch in the encore, when we fast-forwarded to Bowie’s penultimate album, The Next Day (2013) for a rendition of the lead song from that album, Where Are We Now? At the time it came out I found it a bit depressing – it might have been the video, as well as my resistance to songs about growing old (I’ve got over that!). Now I find it a beautiful, wistful tune, which, of course, now has an extra touch of the elegiac. And all those Berlin references strike a chord too. There was a lot of love for Bowie in the audience at that moment.

It wasn’t going to end with that though. The band changed gear and we had a rousing version of Rebel Rebel. Just fantastic. A timeless song, but one that also takes me back to hitching lifts home from school in Oakham on Saturday afternoons in 1974. Yes, we did that sort of thing in those days.

And that, we thought, was it. But no, Tony took centre stage to tell us a couple of Bowie stories, the first about his time in Berlin with Iggy Pop, the second about a time in Switzerland. At that point Glenn whispered in his ear that if they wanted to do another song he’d better get on with it. Good call! The story was wrapped up and the band reassembled for another punch-the-air rock’n’roll celebration, Suffragette City. Truly, the band that keeps on giving!

Tony tells a story

Like their website says, Holy Holy are the real deal. Catch them if you can.

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Concert catch up: Wolf Alice, Big Thief, Butch Kassidy/Legss, Echo and the Bunnymen

Ellie Rowsell of Wolf Alice

With the senseless, barbaric invasion of Ukraine by Russia dominating our thoughts, one sometimes wonders what the point of writing about pop music is. But I guess that while we are lucky and privileged enough to do so, it remains worth doing. It remains a brightness amid the surrounding gloom.

I’ve been surprisingly busy on what can only be described as work over the past month, and haven’t managed to get around to writing about the concerts I have been to. So this is a bumper edition of four such outings. It started small with Butch Kassidy and Legss at the Old Blue Last in Shoreditch, went retro with Echo and the Bunnymen at the Roundhouse, was triumphant with Wolf Alice at the Hammersmith Apollo, and finished magnificently if slightly perplexingly with Big Thief at Shepherd’s Bush Empire. A fifth concert which I was really looking forward to was Good Sad Happy Bad at Corsica Studios near Elephant Castle, but one of the band members contracted covid, and the rescheduled date clashes with another event. Such is the nature of these things.

I’ll take them in turn.

Butch Kassidy and Legss at the Old Blue Last, 5 February

I wouldn’t normally venture out to Shoreditch on a Saturday evening – it’s the preserve of the youngsters, the party people. But I made an exception to see Butch Kassidy, who were second on a three band bill, upstairs at the Old Blue Last, a pub on Great Eastern Street, on the edge of the City.

Why? I hear you ask. Well, it just so happens that I know a couple of the band, singer/guitarist Ffion and bassist Tom. They are good friends from schooldays of Jon’s son Louis. They were with us at Green Man festival last year, and Tom has been to End of the Road with us too. I saw the band in a previous incarnation at the Hanwell Hootie in 2018, when they were called My First Moustache. They put on an excellent show then and looked like a band who could go places. That applies equally to Butch Kassidy, and they are getting plenty of gigs on the London indie circuit now. I’d not been able to get to any of their recent shows, but was keen to see how they were doing, so dragged myself out of the armchair and headed for Liverpool Street station on a drizzly, rather chilly evening. Ten minutes or so to the Old Blue Last from there.

I was greeted with an ironic smile from the security man at the entrance to the pub, and I soon knew why. The ground floor pub was heaving – full of twenty-somethings, wielding cocktails and dancing to Abba’s Dancing Queen at 8.30 in the evening. For me – once I’d wiped the steam from my glasses – it was a vision of hell. Let me out of here! I looked around and saw a doorway leading upstairs, where the concert was happening. I pushed my way through the dancing, chanting throng and headed up to the music room. Relief! A decent space, good ventilation, a bar. Half full at that point – filled out later. People of similar age to downstairs, but totally different. I joked to my son Kieran later that all the misfits, the punks, the students were upstairs – my sort of people! A forty year age gap, but no matter. I got myself a beer and found a good viewing spot near the back. Louis and his friend Gab arrived soon after; Jon would have been there I’m sure, but was on his way home from France. We chatted a bit to Ffion and Tom before the show started – they watched the first band with us.

I’ve forgotten the first band’s name and they weren’t that good, so let’s move on to Butch Kassidy. I really enjoyed the show – a brisk half hour. They have just the one song on Spotify at the moment, which is called Heath. It’s ten minutes long, goes through various phases, and I said to Ffion at Green Man that I could hear a bit of classic Black Sabbath in there. They didn’t play it! I daresay that some observers would say they are in a similar mould to Black Midi, but I was most reminded of Mogwai. Except, in amongst the washes of doomy guitar there are bursts of punk riffing, which got the moshers going. In that respect they got the best reception of the night. Fingers crossed, it won’t be too long before they get a slot or two opening at the summer festivals. I think they would go down well.

Butch Kassidy – Ffion left, Tom centre

The headliners were Legss. They’re from South London, and were described by Loud and Quiet magazine as an experimental London band in conflict with the capital. I didn’t get the experimental bit of that from the performance tonight, but I did enjoy it. A lot of new indie bands at the moment draw on the sounds of post punk – particularly Gang of Four – as well as XTC. I’d put Legss in that category, and they do have a good angry persona, which inevitably conjures up Clash references for me. Singer Ned Green dresses stylishly and wields his guitar a bit like Wilko Johnson of the Feelgoods. Give him a bigger stage and I’m sure he’d be doing a full Chuck Berry duck walk!

Legss

So yes, it was a good evening. Always good to see the next generation of bands – drawing on past sounds, but re-inventing them.

The evening wasn’t quite over. On the way home on the tube, I sat next to a bunch of young folk, being quite lively, who turned out to be French. I sat there, listening to some music and reading The Economist. One of the group, a woman, leaned over and asked, what’s the news? I was reading a leader on President Macron’s chances of re-election at the time. We ended up having a ten minute conversation about French politics before they all got off!

 Echo and the Bunnymen at the Roundhouse, 7 February

A blast from the past, this one. Echo and the Bunnymen’s heyday was the 1980s, particularly the first half. They had a grandiose, almost goth sound, and were inevitably compared with the likes of U2 and Simple Minds. They weren’t quite as successful as those two, but, perhaps for that reason, were afforded more credibility by the music critics. Being from Liverpool didn’t do them any harm, either. For me, they were one of those bands that I thought I ought to like, but never really got into. I bought the key albums, played them a couple of times, and filed them away. Meanwhile I loved U2, and still do. That may be deemed less cool, but it is where I stand.

This was one of those concerts that was originally scheduled for either 2020 or 2021, but got put back because of the pandemic. My friend Dave organised the tickets, but at the last minute had to pull out. Still, Jon G, Tony and Shane were able to make it. Jon G is the biggest fan amongst us – and no fan of U2. We agree to disagree!

One of the highlights of the evening was the return to our favourite pre-Roundhouse restaurant, Sushi Salsa, by Camden Lock. Jon E joined us for that. Two years since the last visit due to lockdowns – that’s still hard to comprehend, looking back – but as good as ever, I’m glad to say, though we missed the old manager, Andy. He was a real ball of energy – and gave us sake on the house from time to time! Hope he’s doing alright wherever he is.

As for the concert, it was ok. Until near the end it felt bereft of familiar songs, though Jon said afterwards that he did know most of them. I’ve probably got a lot of them sitting in my vinyl collection, long-forgotten. I found it all a bit gloomy. The lighting was deliberately low, singer Ian McCulloch prowled around in a dark overcoat, when he wasn’t winding up the London crowd, and most of the songs were pretty dirge-like. All very well played though – and well-received by the capacity crowd. It brightened up for me briefly when they played Seven Seas and then The Cutter at the end of the set. Killing Moon was a suitable anthem with which to end the whole show. They did know how to write a good anthem in their heyday, I have to say. No Back of Love, which was a shame, especially when the vast majority of people there would have come to celebrate the Bunnymen’s moments of glory in the 80s. A cover of Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side was a low, especially when McCulloch changed wild side to Merseyside.

Bunny gloom

In fairness, I should say that my friends all thought it was an excellent show. It was just one that didn’t quite do it for me. I’ll stick to U2 and Simple Minds when I want 80s grandiose!

Wolf Alice at Hammersmith Apollo, 19 February

This concert was postponed from 19 January, because of the band’s concern about continuing covid risks. It was a bit of a bonus when it turned out to be delayed by only a month – I was expecting a summer or even autumn date, given the band’s US commitments. It has been eight months since Wolf Alice’s third album Blue Weekend was released, and this is the first time they have been able to take it on tour, though they did play a few festivals last year, including Latitude.

I first saw Wolf Alice at Latitude in July 2015, soon after the release of their debut album My Love is Cool. They played in the 6 Music Tent, as it was then called. I was impressed. This is what I wrote in my review of Latitude that year:

They’ve got a bit of everything that makes a great indie band: screeching riffs, pounding beats, catchy melodies and choruses, rocking rhythms for the mosh – and a striking singer. Ellie Rowsell. It’s pop music. You can’t deny the importance of an iconic singer. Ellie Rowsell has that something. My notes say Siouxsie Sue meets Debbie Harry. And the sound: Horrors meet Blondie. Melodies and big riffs, which come across especially well live. This is a seriously good band.

The Guardian dismissed them as bubblegrunge at the time. Witty, but wrong, as the band have shown since then. Parts of that first album took a little while to grow on me – tracks like You’re a Germ and Bros were immediate – but then the riffs and the melodies really hooked me, and I still love it. 2017’s Vision of a Life veered towards 70s rock, but still had catchy tunes like Don’t Delete the Kisses and a scathing rocker in Yuk Foo. And then came Blue Weekend, a polished pop production, with big choruses and less of the riffing, though Smile and Play the Greatest Hits carried the flag for rock’n’roll.

And so to Hammersmith Apollo on a Saturday evening, with Jon G and Louis and Gab. Standing, but this turned out well – I’ve had some frustrating experiences at the Apollo in the past when standing, but it felt like maybe they don’t pack people in to quite the same extent these days. We had an excellent view, to the left about ten rows back. Shame I forgot my digital camera!

I make this my seventh Wolf Alice concert. Three Latitudes – 2015, 2018 and 2021. Kentish Town Forum in 2016, Ally Pally in 2017 and the Roundhouse 2018 (part of the Q awards). They’ve been consistently excellent – Latitude 2018 on the main stage perhaps the best before tonight. Because tonight, despite the high bar set by its predecessors, has to have been the best. There was a real sense of triumph tonight, of homecoming, and the realisation that Wolf Alice are now a seriously big rock band. Or should that be pop band? One of the things that became clear to me tonight was that so many songs from Blue Weekend, while still relatively new, have become real anthems for their fans. And there is probably now a younger cohort of fans than the indie crowd of 2015. The Last Man on Earth is the most obvious anthem – destined to be played on TV programmes for years to come. But songs like Lipstick on the Glass, Safe from Heartbreak and How Can I Make it OK? run it close. These, combined with a great selection of favourites from the first two albums, including You’re a Germ and Bros, and the evergreen Moaning Lisa Smile from early days, made it a set that pleased everybody.

Lead guitarist Joff Oddie

The band played with a confidence and swagger – without arrogance – that comes from knowing they have nailed it. They have just won a Brit for best rock band, beating perennial winners Coldplay. My slight reservations about the shift popwards and the fact that they seemed a bit tame at Latitude last year – admittedly after having had our senses assaulted by Chubby and the Gang! – melted away. I loved seeing the way the crowd sang along to so many of the choruses, and the screeching riffs and pounding beats I wrote about in 2015 were still plentiful. I guess it helped being in the crowd not too far from the front, rather than observing from the seats with beer in hand. That remains my preferred mode these days, but this was a refreshing change.

So yes, a glorious set, with the perfect encore of Last Man on Earth – lighters out time – and a rousing Don’t Delete the Kisses. I hadn’t realised how iconic that song has become for Wolf Alice fans.

This is a seriously good band, I wrote in 2015. Make that seriously brilliant in 2022.

Big Thief at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, 2 March

Big Thief are, like Wolf Alice, one of my favourite indie bands of the past few years. Indie in the sense of not being full-on rock, nor pure pop. They are from New York, and have some of the edginess you expect of New York bands, but they are as grounded in Americana and folk as they are in Radiohead.  You could say they are New York state as well as New York City. They have an off-kilter quality, which is personified in singer Adrienne Lenker. She has a beautiful, rather fragile voice, and her onstage persona is rather nervy at times. She’s frequently tuning her guitar – the most excessive being the solo show I saw her play back in January 2019 at the Union Chapel in Islington. Didn’t stop it being great concert, but at times you couldn’t help feeling, get on with it!

I was quite late in discovering Big Thief. They were at End of the Road in 2018, and I’d heard good things about them, so checked out their first two albums, Masterpiece (2016) and Capacity (2017). I really liked both, with standout tracks for me being Masterpiece, Real Love and Parallels from the first, Shark Smile, Mythological Beauty and Mary from the second. One of the things I liked was that a song could combine a tender melody with an outburst of guitars – Real Love being the best example. Shark Smile started wild then settled into a mid-tempo rock’n’roll groove – their most danceable song. Parallels rapidly became the song I played most – a slow build to an anthemic chorus, which went on for some time, somehow getting bigger and bigger. Weird lyrics: could be a song about love or the metamorphosis of a butterfly – or indeed both, one a metaphor for the other. Classic Big Thief: nothing is ever quite what it seems.

As it happens, I missed the End of the Road performance because of line-up clashes; but I rectified that with a trip to SWX in Bristol in May 2019. That coincided with the release of a new album, UFOF. Now, this one really did sound like Radiohead in places; but then it also had an enjoyable hoe-down called Cattails, which was already a crowd favourite by the time of the Bristol show. They played Green Man in 2019 and released a second 2019 album, Two Hands, in October. And that was followed by another tour in early 2020. I saw them at Hammersmith Apollo in February. Busy times… and then there was lockdown.

The band remained productive during the hiatus in live shows. Both Adrienne Lenker and guitarist Buck Meek released solo albums – Songs and Two Saviors respectively – and work began on another Big Thief album. That came out early this year – it’s called Dragon New Warm Album I Believe in You, a Big Thief title if there ever was one! It’s long – 20 songs – a double album in old language. The emphasis is on the more pastoral, folky side of their music, and is rather beautiful, with Change and Sparrow my two favourites so far. How lucky then, that Change opened the show at Shepherd’s Bush Empire and Sparrow was the encore. Spud Infinity is the new Cattails and went down well with the crowd. They played Cattails towards the end, after Adrienne abandoned the previous song Red Moon. That edginess again. Overall the emphasis was on the acoustic side, though the title song of Dragon was rocked up a bit and there was a blistering rendition of Not, which has become a staple of the set. There weren’t many of the older favourites, though Masterpiece got an outing, to great approval. I’m surprised Shark Smile didn’t make it, but I see from Setlist FM that it was played at the second and fourth of the four nights. An impressive run that – shows that they have a strong following these days. The emphasis on the new was such that they played a song that Adrienne had just written on the ferry over from Ireland! Would have preferred Parallels

So yes, it would have been nice to have a few more of the established songs, but that’s how it is with Big Thief – they like to mix things up. And why not? Makes life interesting. A great show; and I’ll be there for the next tour, wondering what they have in store for us.

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Walking the Wandle

The start of the Wandle Trail at Waddon Ponds

The River Wandle is one of those well-kept London secrets – unless, of course, you happen to live close by. For me, until recently, it was simply a river that flowed into the Thames in Wandsworth, in south-west London. And I was a fan of Samsbrook beers, including one called Wandle; I knew the brewery was situated by the river in Wandsworth. That was the sum of my knowledge about the river until the autumn of last year – after more than forty years in London!

Over the past couple of years I’ve been walking with my old uni friends Jon, Dave and Tony around various parts of London and environs. We always end with a nice meal somewhere and usual self-cater for lunch. Delicious pork pies, quality cheeses and a bottle of Malbec often feature. Fortunately steep hills rarely do, though we did clamber up Box Hill in Surrey on one occasion – before lunch, though after a brief stop at the excellent Denbies vineyard to sample a glass of fresh English white wine. One of the most interesting walks was along the River Lea – or more precisely, the Lea Navigation channel – from Waltham Cross down to Limehouse Basin, which adjoins the Thames in East London. The success of that walk made me think that the Wandle might be a candidate for a future walk. So I researched a little and found that the river appeared to have two sources: one at Waddon Ponds, near Croydon and the other at Carshalton Ponds, south-west of Waddon. Not a part of the world with which I am very familiar, though I have been down to Croydon for a few work conferences in the past. So, walking the Wandle – or at least the first section – was a journey into the unknown.

From the two sources the river heads north-west, between Mitcham and Morden, before curving northwards, where it takes in Merton and Earlsfield – Wimbledon is not far away – before arriving in Wandsworth and eventually the Thames. Estimates of the length of the walk vary, and depend on whether you visit both sources, but I’d say it’s about 12 miles from start(s) to finish. A nice length, though I haven’t yet done it all at once.

I didn’t know whether all of the river could be walked along, so in early October last year, I went on an exploratory mission to the mysterious world of South London. I took a train to East Croydon and then a tram – my first time on that line! – two stops to Wandle Park. I found a really helpful map of the Wandle Trail online. It dates way back to 2003, but is pretty accurate; and in combination with maps on the iPhone, helped me navigate the whole route successfully. It was a short walk to Waddon Ponds from Wandle Park; and so the journey downstream to the Thames began.

I’ll describe various features of the river later, with the photos. Just to say at this point that on that first trip, having started a little later than planned and reaching Wandle Meadow Nature Park (near Colliers Wood tube station) in fading light, only to find the meadow was flooded, I gave up and headed west to Wimbledon for a pint before I went home. I returned in early November on a lovely sunny day to complete the walk, and found that it was possible to skirt the flooded area and stay on track, as the photos will show.

Returning with my friends, we split the walk into roughly the same two sections. The first, longer stretch we covered in late October; the remaining five miles we did in late January this year. We’ve had very little rain in 2022, but even so, I was surprised to see that Wandle Meadow Nature Park was completely dry. I have to say it looked much better flooded!

Most of the photos are from the two solo walks, but there are one or two from Dave, which I will acknowledge as we go along.

So let’s start at Waddon Ponds, the first of those two sources. Photos two and three from Dave.

After passing through an industrial estate, the river flows by some suburban estates, narrowing almost to a ditch at one point.

The inevitable shopping trolley shot

The Wandle flows through, or alongside a lot of parks. The first is Beddington Park. On its edge is Carew Manor. From 1381 to some time in the 1850s, the manor was the home of the Carew family, who had close connections with royalty, particularly in Tudor times. Henry VIII used to visit the manor to spend time with Anne Boleyn, when still married to Catherine of Aragon. Later he used it for “secret assignations” with Jane Seymour. Unsurprisingly, Sir Nicholas Carew was one of the King’s favourites – until he wasn’t. He was executed for treason in 1539! The manor was popular with Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Raleigh too – they used to walk together in the grounds. Sir Walter also married one of Elizabeth’s maids of honour, Elizabeth Throckmorton, who was from the manor. He did so without the Queen’s permission, for which he spent time in the Tower of London. The marriage survived the imprisonment; and when he was beheaded by James I in 1618, wife Elizabeth claimed his embalmed head and kept it in a bag for the rest of her life. The head was reunited with the body in St Margaret’s Church in Westminster after Elizabeth’s death 29 years later, although local mythology has it that the head remains somewhere in Beddington Park.

The manor was lost to the Carew family in the 1850s due to bad debts. From 1866 to 1968 it housed the Royal Female Orphanage. It is now a school for children with special educational needs.

Carew Manor

Parts of Beddington Park can become flooded after heavy rain; and on both occasions I’ve done the walk the ground has been fairly heavy, so walking boots are recommended. Much of the rest of the Wandle Trail is paved or quite firm, other than the couple of places which actually become impassable as the result of flooding, requiring minor diversions.

On leaving Beddington Park, you walk along the London Road briefly, en route to the second source, Carshalton Ponds. The first branch of the river flows around the wonderfully-named Wilderness Island at this point. I think it’s inaccessible; it is certainly not part of the trail. You turn into a park called The Grove to get to the ponds, if you are walking. If you’re in a hurry you can take a short cut along Butter Hill to join the second branch of the Wandle further downstream, shortly before the two branches merge. But it’s worth seeing the source and then walking along the second branch to the confluence at the tip of Wilderness Island.

The main part of Carshalton Ponds

The river sets out from the ponds down this waterfall.

Some scenes around Wilderness Island, when the second branch flows by it, to where it comes together with its sibling. The Wandle meets the Wandle!

Confluence

The next stretch of the river is perhaps the loveliest and feels quite remote, even if at first there’s an industrial estate nearby. Thereafter, it runs along Poulter Park – not named after the Arsenal-loving golfer, as far as I am aware.

For the first half of Poulter Park you can’t see it, as you are below it, with trees and undergrowth covering the slope. Then a sign points you leftwards up the slope, away from the river. There is a path continuing along the river, which I tried briefly out of interest. it was very muddy with tangles of roots and branches to be navigated. I decided to stick to the official trail, which takes you past Tooting and Mitcham football ground. It’s a bit of a diversion, with a couple of roads involved, but doesn’t take too long.

Can’t quite remember now, but the first of these two shots was probably taken from the non-trail path before I turned back.

You return to the river at the start of the attractive Ravensbury Park. It’s a good place to stop for a lunch break, where the river briefly turns into a lake: man-made, I assume. On the first visit, on my own, I had tuna and cucumber rolls and a flask of tea. Second time, with the boys it was full pies, cheese and a tasty Catalan red wine! Photos 2 and 4 of this group are from Dave.

Not quite sure what the purpose of this was

This, however, was once a snuff grinder – there were snuff mills in the area

From Ravensbury Park, it’s over the road and into Morden Hall Park. It’s now National Trust property; but Morden Hall itself dates back to the 1770s. The Wandle trail veers from the river and heads north-west through parkland, past the wetlands and towards Deen City Farm on the other side of the tram tracks. At this point you are back along the river. However, if you take a diversion to the hall and the garden centre, with all the usual amenities, you can stay with the river. The wetlands – an area of marshland, teeming with hard-to-see wildlife – are well worth taking time to explore. There’s a board walk that takes you around the area.

Second wetlands photo courtesy of Dave.

When I first walked the trail, I was able to cross the tram tracks and head past Deen City Farm to Merton Abbey Mills. Second time around the path beyond the tram was flooded. It may have been passable with wellies, but not walking boots. So we had to walk along a path by the tram track until we reached Morden Road, and then cut back through an industrial estate, until we reached the river again, near Merton Abbey Mills. There was a nice pub there – the William Morris – with plenty of seating outdoors, so you can watch the fish rising to the surface of the river as you sup your pint. In medieval times, this area was the site of Merton Priory. Later it was a place of textile factories; today there is a craft market, with cafes and two pubs.

Merton Abbey Mills

Just beyond Merton Abbey Mills, the walking trail takes you a short distance east to an offshoot of the Wandle which is called the Pickle. It runs past a shopping centre and rejoins the main river at the beginning of Wandle Park (not to be confused with Wandle Park in Croydon!). We are close to Colliers Wood tube station (Northern Line) at this point. The park is mostly manicured, but if you enter it diagonally opposite the tube station, by a pub called the Charles Holden, there’s a path through some attractive woodland. I did this when I began the second half of the walk in early November. On the the two walks covering the first half we finished in Wandle Park. Over to Wimbledon after that – a walk of around twenty minutes to the station. Ten to fifteen more if you walk up the hill to Wimbledon Village, which we did on the group walk in late October. We went to a very good restaurant called the White Onion – highly recommended. Great food and wine, and friendly, well-informed service.

This one is taken from a bridge just as you leave Wandle Park

After Wandle Park, just before you come to Wandle Meadow Nature Park, you can walk along the river on the edge of a housing estate. I think it’s called Bewley Street. Nearby are the imaginatively named East, South and North roads. North Road gives you access to Wandle Meadow Nature Park. There is a wooden walkway over the river just below North Road, which takes you down to a meadow from where you can take a track through some bushes under North Road bridge into the nature park. In January it was closed – a paved path is being constructed, which will make the route easier.

The short walk along Bewley Street is notable for a blue plaque – not one of the official series – which commemorates the the day when Wimbledon footballer (now actor), the notorious Vinnie Jones, threw his almost as notorious colleague Dennis Wise into the River Wandle. No doubt a jape which occurred after a few pints. Both were members of the 1980s Wimbledon team which was known as the Crazy Gang. They won the FA Cup in 1988, beating Liverpool in the final. The club was only elected to the Football League in 1977, and rose to what was then called the First Division in 1986. They stayed in the top division until 2000, and after that things really started to go wrong. They’d moved out of their Plough Lane home in 1991, after the Taylor report recommended all-seater grounds for premier clubs, following the Hillsborough disaster. They shared Crystal Palace’s ground, Selhurst Park for a decade, but then the club’s owners announced a decision to leave South London and relocate to Milton Keynes. This was, unsurprisingly, deeply unpopular with the fans. By 2004 the club had been renamed Milton Keynes Dons. MK Dons play on, mostly in League One, the third tier of English football. Meanwhile, a new club, AFC Wimbledon, was formed by Wimbledon supporters. From lowly beginnings it has risen to the Football League and is now also in League One! In 2020 the club moved back into Plough Lane, completing the circle.

In October and November Wandle Meadow Nature Park was largely flooded, and impassable. It looks like a natural floodplain. However, you only have to walk briefly along North Road and then turn into Chaucer Way, which runs along the east side of the park. The views of the flooded meadows were rather lovely, and a variety of birds appeared to have made a home there. It seemed like the park’s natural state.

At the end of the park you come to a tunnel under a railway bridge, with signs pointing to Plough Lane, the home of AFC Wimbledon as described just now. Plough Lane is in an industrial area – from the river you can’t see the football ground. You’d need to take a short diversion if you wanted to see it. It’s not an opportunity I pursued!

Before you reach Plough Lane, there is a pleasant walk along a tributary of the Wandle, the River Graveney. After they come together, you are back on the Wandle again. There’s a handy viewing platform which overlooks the confluence.

The Graveney lies below the trees

Confluence – Graveney to the right

Back on the Wandle, heading towards Plough Lane

Things stay industrial for a while, and then the river flows through Garratt Park. I can’t say I really noticed this. Soon after, you are in Earlsfield, briefly coming off the river. A short distance along from Earlsfield railway station is the Wandle pub. We stopped for a drink there in January. The pub serves Samsbrook’s Wandle ale. So we were sitting in the Wandle, drinking Wandle by the Wandle!

This may be by Garratt Park!

From the pub, you walk along Penwith Road, over the river, before turning right/north into St George’s Park. This is the last of the parks on the river’s journey. It’s a long, thin park, carved by Kimber Road into two sections. It’s quite functional, but a pleasant open space. In the southern half there’s a school – Southfields Academy – on the west side. This may be why the river is fenced off – you wouldn’t want children falling in, or losing their bags on the way home. From here, as you move into Wandsworth, the river becomes rather overwhelmed by its surroundings, until a last flourish before entering the Thames. It suffers the indignity of disappearing underground for a while, as a shopping and entertainment centre have been built over it. It’s not the only waterway to suffer this fate in London. It happens to the Regent’s Canal, in Islington (shopping centre) and Maida Vale (housing); and of course the River Fleet was built over a long time ago. Only Fleet Street preserves its memory.

On leaving St George’s Park

Going underground

Re-emerging

After escaping the concrete jungle, the Wandle makes the final push towards its destination, the Thames. A short stretch skirts the Ram Quarter, once the home of Young’s Brewery and still the location for Samsbrook’s. The river then splits, divided by a causeway and industrial area. The causeway takes you to a bridge which all walkers along the Thames will be familiar with, and beyond that, a viewing point. The views out to the Thames are striking, especially as the sun sets. Downstream lies Wandsworth Bridge, and beyond that, Battersea on one side, Chelsea the other. Upstream lies Putney Bridge and just before it a railway bridge. The grounds of the Hurlingham Club hog the river bank on the north side of the Thames for a while. When the tide is low, small islands host an array of birdlife, including herons and cormorants. It’s a tranquil and inspiring scene to end the journey of this humble but fascinating river.

The Ram Quarter is to the right, beyond the housing

Causeway

A glance back upstream

First heron shot, this one on the Wandle

The Thames walkers’ route over the Wandle

The Thames comes into view

Thames, looking upstream, early October

Downstream – Wandsworth Bridge is being refurbished at the moment

Thanks to Dave for this one, from January

There is just one thing to do at the end of the journey – head through the rather soulless Riverside Quarter to the Cat’s Back pub. This pub has the distinction of being one of few in London which serve Harvey’s ales – another favourite of ours is the Royal Oak in Borough. Harvey’s is brewed in Lewes, Sussex. There are plenty of other decent pubs in Wandsworth, but this is our choice. If you are walking the Thames and heading west, next up is Wandsworth Park, followed by Putney. When I finally get back to writing up my Thames journey series, these will both feature in the next instalment.

The Cat’s Back

Harvey’s Best bitter

Cheers!

 

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Turnstile and Chubby and the Gang at the Roundhouse, 1 February 2022

Straight up: this was one of the greatest nights of live rock’n’roll I have ever had the pleasure to witness.

And I very nearly didn’t go. No-one else I usually go to concerts with wanted to go. There was an element of thinking this was going to be too loud and too wild at our age (and in this age). Some people just don’t like metal that much, and Turnstile definitely fit that category, as well as hardcore/punk.

But the more I listened to Turnstile’s 2021 album Glow On, and especially the songs Blackout and Don’t Play, I knew I had to be there if there were still tickets in London. The O2 Forum in Kentish Town was sold out, but the Roundhouse had a few seats left. No standing – that was all gone. Usually at the Roundhouse it’s the other way round: the seats are snapped up quickly. That told you something – people were there to rock! A seat suited me just fine – I was there to observe, tap a foot, relish the riffs, with beer in hand and camera at the ready.

I had never heard of Turnstile until last December, when the end of year Best Of lists started coming out. They featured in a few, and I liked the way they were being described. So I checked out Glow On, and thought, wow, there’s some good stuff on this. I then got hooked on two tunes, Blackout and Don’t Play, put them on my best of 2021 playlist and rather neglected the rest. Until the last couple of days when I decided to mug up on the collective works. There was a helpful set list for the recent Nottingham Rock City gig on Setlist FM which I thought would give me a good idea of what they were about to play (in fact it was the same set). And the more I listened, the more I thought, this is going to be awesome.

But there was a bonus in prospect – Chubby and the Gang were opening for them. Another great no-nonsense rock’n’roll band. They were terrific at Latitude last year, when they came on after the brilliant Wet Leg in the Alcove tent, and played forty minutes of high speed rock’n’roll – a cross between Dr Feelgood, early Clash and Motorhead. Jon G and I were blown away – we struggled to enjoy Wolf Alice afterwards on the main stage, because it seemed so tame in comparison, much as we both love them.

So, at 6.30, I headed out to Camden. Get there just after 7.30, have a beer, take my seat for Chubby at 8.15. Didn’t figure with London Underground. Piccadilly Line was suspended, Northern Line had severe delays. Both legs of the usual route gone. So bus to Ealing Broadway, Central Line to Bond Street, Jubilee line to Swiss Cottage. Twenty minute walk over to Chalk Farm, the Roundhouse’s location. Got there just before eight. Two hundred metre queue down the road. Aaaaagh! Covid pass checks slowing things down of course, though it was efficiently organised. London life…

I made it to my seat by 8.25, so got to see two thirds of Chubby’s show. Just as I sat down, one song ended and they started up on Lightning Don’t Strike Twice, one of my two favourites. Warmed the heart it did. Hundred-mile-an-hour rock’n’roll, with Chubby (who isn’t at all chubby) strutting around, bawling out the lyrics. Occasionally he gets the harmonica out – just like Lee Brilleaux did for the Feelgoods – but it’s hardly audible in the barrage of sound. The usual moshing going on just back from the front of the stage. Best avoided if you are over thirty, though there is always the odd old geezer trying to re-live his youth. And fair enough – I just do it more sedately.

The set rushed by entertainingly, and finished with their great anthem to West London, All Along the Uxbridge Road. Set us up very nicely for the headliners…

Bought a couple of beers at the interval, drank one, took the other back to the seat, and got ready to rock – in a manner of speaking. Lights dimmed, a bit of doodling, a blaze of light, and then the band piled into Mystery from the new album. Plenty of Nirvana in this one. Greeted by the crowd in the only way possible – fists in the air, chanting, and a lot of jumping around. Stayed like that for most of the show. It was fascinating to watch from above, as well as completely joyous to behold the antics of the band. This is music that makes you smile – it is just so exhilarating, so much fun. I haven’t studied the lyrics, they could be about anything. You can’t discern them much above the beats and the relentless power chords anyway – other than the signature chants, of which there are quite a few. But even if they are about lost love, or the end of the world – you know, your standard pop themes – it doesn’t really matter, because the whole show is a celebration of everything that makes rock’n’roll as essential today as it was when Elvis was driving teenagers mad in the fifties.

They played 21 songs in just over an hour – no messing around here. That’s very much the punk ethos. Not much opportunity for solos. But Turnstile are an accomplished band and demonstrated that throughout the set. They have been around since 2010, with their first album/EP Step 2 Rhythm released in 2013. There are all sorts of musical twists on the latest album, even a slow song! Alien Love Call was the lighters out moment in a sea of pounding beats, pile-driving riffs and lots of shouting. And while Glow On provided half the set, all their albums got a look in. I liked that – if you have crowd favourites from past albums, why not play them? A live gig is a time to entertain and celebrate, as well as showcase new material. Turnstile got the balance just right.

If I had to describe the music with reference to other bands, I’d say Turnstile combine the best of Metallica, Nirvana and the Beastie Boys. The latter is important: there are no rap tunes as such, but there is a feel and attitude about the band that relates to that music. No great surprise when they hail from Baltimore in the US.

Blackout and Don’t Play were highlights of course, but really, I loved the whole show. And what a great way to end, with TLC (Turnstile Love Connection) – a super-fast bit and then the power chords kick in and the chant begins: I want to thank you for letting me see myself. (See myself alternated with be myself.) A chant for the times, and a fitting end to an amazing show.

A bit of a photo dump follows. Some are a little blurry – it’s hard to capture people on the move as the lights blaze. But I hope they’ll give you some sense of the dynamics on an exceptional night of rock’n’roll.

Starting with Chubby and the Gang.

And then my new favourite band, Turnstile!

 

 

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Goat Girl at the Roundhouse, 18 January 2022

Last week I went up to the Roundhouse with friends Shane and Tony to see Goat Girl play in the round, one of a short programme of concerts which are all-seated, forming the best part of a circle around the stage. It makes for an intimate setting, with good views, though perhaps with a less raucous atmosphere than when you have a thousand plus people standing.

It was good to see Goat Girl headlining the Roundhouse. They have come a long way since I first saw them in April 2017, supporting Moonlandingz at the Village Underground in Shoreditch. I really enjoyed them that night, much more than the headliners, and I’ve been following them with interest ever since. Tonight’s show was the sixth or seventh time I’ve seen them – mostly at festivals, though there was also an excellent show at Koko in Camden in November 2018. That show mostly featured music from their debut album, Goat Girl; tonight the set was heavily based on their 2021 album On All Fours, just as it was at Green Man last year. (I missed them at Latitude as they clashed with Chubby and the Gang!) Both albums are well worth getting to know. You have to listen to them a few times to get the full benefit. Then the melodies lodge, snatches of the lyrics burrow their way in, you appreciate the whole. The first album was punkier, with a hint of rockabilly in the way the songs twanged. Reggae and even country were in there too. On All Fours had a more rounded, produced sound, but the quirks and the biting lyrics were still there. And leading track Sad Cowboy took the band firmly into dance music territory. It’s no surprise that it is now the set closer.

Goat Girl were an all-woman band with four members when I first saw them; tonight there were six of them, with three men. The usual drummer, Rosy Bones, was absent – I don’t think it’s permanent, but it wasn’t referred to on the night (unless I missed it). The band don’t talk a lot to the audience anyway, though singer Lottie Pendlebury (previously known as Clottie Cream) did actually say a few words at the start of the show. She said that the gig was a kind of homecoming, as they used to practise at the Roundhouse when they were fifteen. They came across as relaxed and very pleased to be there. The sound was good and the lighting subtly enhanced the show. There was a dreaminess to the harmonies, and the music generally, that reminded me quite a lot of American band Warpaint. I do miss some of the more raw sounds of their earlier songs, when the guitars let rip and you were never quite sure where the sound was heading next. Two tunes from the first album did make it into the set – Viper Fish and Cracker Drool – but they’d had the edges smoothed off, in keeping with the rest of the music.

The performance lasted for an hour and livened up towards the end, especially when the played Pest, the opener from On All Fours. And Sad Cowboy was greeted enthusiastically as the set drew to an end. Some people even stood up and danced! It was 10.15 when that ended, and momentarily there was hope they might come back for an encore. I would have loved to see them rock out to The Man and Country Sleaze. But it was not to be. I’m not sure why they have abandoned so many of their best songs so soon – they could play a really good hour and a half set with a mix from their two albums and some of the early singles. Maybe they just feel that that earlier sound doesn’t represent where they are now – a lot has changed for everyone over the last couple of years after all.

So, yes, I really enjoyed the show, and will continue to watch out for them. And just maybe hope that they rediscover the urge to rock and roll.

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