lovelondonscenes – 122 – Views from Lambeth Bridge

It’s about 5.30, Friday evening. I’m on my way to a leaving do at the brilliant Zeitgeist bar in Vauxhall. On the Black Prince Road. Excellent German beers. It’s a wonderful evening, seeing and talking to so many good people.

As I walk over Lambeth Bridge from my office on 30 Millbank the sun is losing its power. Not quite setting. But there’s a lovely glow to the views either side of the bridge. I’m on the upstream side, so the photos here are more focused on that. But, you know, I never tire of the scenes of the river. Our glorious River Thames.

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Emily Barker at King’s Place, 16 February 2017

On Thursday I went to Kings Place to see Emily Barker play with her new band and with her new songs. She’s spent time in Memphis and the Sam Phillips studio recording a new album, “Sweet Kind of Blue”, which is inspired by the sounds of that city: country, blues, soul. It’s a step away from the more Celtic folk sounds that characterised most of her work with the Red Clay Halo. The music that first got a hold of me, from the moment that I saw Emily singing “Pause” at the Lexington in 2012, strumming the electric guitar, while the Red Clay Halo laid down the most beautiful harmonies.

Since then the music of Emily Barker has occupied a special place for me. Part of that beautiful/sad sound I called Duende in my book, “I Was There – A Musical Journey“. She was one of a trio of artists who have soothed me and moved me more than most in recent years. Whose music I have returned to constantly. The other two, of course, being The Staves and Lindi Ortega (though I would now also have to include Daisy Vaughan).

It was disappointing when Emily and the Red Clay Halo broke up in 2014, just after they’d made their most complete album, “Dear River”, and Emily’s most heartfelt. A love letter to her homeland, Western Australia, but also to her new home in England. The sweet pain of the exile. I’ve listened to “Dear River” a lot. It was already looking to the sounds of America – it felt like Bruce could have been an inspiration. “Letters”, the story of her ancestors in a war torn Holland, with its rousing guitar bridge, is up there with “Pause” as my favourite Emily song, but both might just have been edged out by the tenderly wistful “In the Winter I Returned” – all the choices I have made lead me to this place. That became a bit of a mantra for me, a reason to rejoice in the present, never to regret the choices of the past.

And so to the show tonight. King’s Place is a modern and rather impressive arts centre tucked under the Guardian building in Kings Cross. The music it hosts is normally classical or jazz, with just a bit of folk. None of yer rock’n’roll riff raff. Leave that to the Scala, just down the road. Emily and band were playing in Hall No 1, all wood panelling and comfortable seats. The acoustics were excellent. All a bit polite though – lots of people my age nodding appreciatively and applauding politely after every song. Seems to be the way with folk concerts. I felt like it would be wrong to take any photos for this blog. Would have been frowned upon – and an attendant might have ticked me off. So I conformed. Give me a load of youths leaping around at the Scala any day!

But the music… that was great. A nice mix of new songs and a few old old favourites. Emily entered the stage on her own and sang a gospelly piece, “Precious Memories”, unaccompanied. She carried it off superbly. The band came on and they launched into new single, “Sister Goodbye”, another soulful piece. Then we had “Dear River” and “Letters”. So pleased about that! The new songs ranged around those Memphis sounds – a couple that I particularly liked were “Blood Moon” and “No 5 Hurricane”. The new album comes out in May. Should be good.

Inevitably, the highlights for me were a few of the old favourites: not just “Letters” and “Dear River”, but “Little Deaths”, “Disappear”, and, for the encore,  lovely versions of “Nostalgia” and ” The Blackwood”. Her band – Pete Roe (who also played an excellent support set) on guitar and keyboards, Lukas Drinkwater on bass and double bass, and drummer Rob Pemberton – were slick and subtle and added some rich harmonies. This was an Americana band, with added celtic soul.

I did ask myself whether, if this was the first that I had ever seen of Emily, I would have been quite as struck as I was that time at the Lexington in 2012. Maybe not – what she is doing now is classy, but not necessarily as distinctive as her earlier work – but I’d still have liked it a lot and would have followed it up. Artists all have to move on, grow. And Emily is growing into an accomplished country soul singer, on a journey into Americana. I’ll be travelling with her!

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lovelondonscenes 121 – Tate Modern

Went to the Tate Modern yesterday to see The “Radical Eye” (Elton John’s early C20 collection of modernist photos) and Rauschenberg exhibitions. Liked the photos – Man Ray the highlight. Rauschenberg a mixed bag – liked the collages; the rest didn’t do much for me. But interesting. All art is interesting, if only to imagine what the artist is trying to achieve.

It was a chance to take a look around the new building, Switch House, including the viewing gallery on the 10th floor. That is pretty stunning, even on a grey day like yesterday.  In fact, the grey light brings a softness and beauty to the city landscape, I find.

Took a few photos and played around with a few in black and white. (Inspired by Elton’s collection? Maybe.) See what you think.

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The glory of Prague

“As a concept of cultural history, Eastern Europe is Russia, with its quite specific history anchored in the Byzantine world. Bohemia, Poland, Hungary, just like Austria, have never been part of Eastern Europe. From the very beginning they have taken part in the great adventure of Western civilization, with its Gothic, its Renaissance, its Reformation – a movement which has its cradle in precisely this region…”

Milan Kundera, in conversation with Philip Roth, in 1978, in an Afterword to Kundera’s brilliant novel, “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting”.

Kundera goes on to talk of the region as a source of Western Europe’s modern culture too, and how the Soviet invasion caused western culture to lose a vital centre of gravity. It was, in Kundera’s pessimistic vision, possibly the beginning of the end of Europe as a whole. This was of course 11 years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Revolution”. Little could he imagine that Wenceslaus Square, rather than being overrun by Soviet tanks, would now be overrun by shoppers, sampling the delights of Nike and Marks and Spencer.

And this is what Prague is all about. The story of Western Europe. From the start to the present day. A place, which, in the 70s, as a teenager, I simply thought of as part of the Soviet bloc, with quite a decent football team.

This was my first trip to Prague. The third limb of my Austro-Hungarian empire tour – after Vienna and Budapest – made over the past 25 years! It was the tail end of January and absolutely freezing – about minus five, which is colder than cold for us Londoners. But the culture, the beauty, the food, the beer, the night music, was warm (well not the beer), alive. Truly exciting. I’d like to share a few photos of the city’s architecture here; in a later blog I’ll say more about the culture Kath and I experienced while we were there.

Where to start but the Old Town Square? With the double spire of the Church of Our Lady before Tyn looming large.

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The clock tower is the other main landmark.

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Then on to another of the great landmarks, the Charles Bridge, with its rather spooky statues all the way along. And splendid views of the Castle area and St Vitus cathedral rising in the background.

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Looking down the steps from the Castle grounds.

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And over Prague.

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St Vitus from the side.

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Darkness falls…

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The statue of Jan Hus and his followers in the Old Town Square. Day 2 so the sun had gone. The Hussites, 15th century religious reformers, are central to the history of Bohemia and Prague.  But the bird knows nothing of this!

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Scenes from the Old Town.

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Wenceslaus Square from the top. Imagine the crowds for the Velvet Revolution…

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On the Castle side, the Little Quarter, on the way to the Kampa Czech modern art museum – which is superb. See future blog.

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Outside the Kampa museum. An important message, especially in a country that has endured Nazi and Soviet occupation in the last century.

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A special city, and one to which I really want to return.

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Duke Garwood at the Bodega, Nottingham, 9 February 2017

Unusually, on Thursday, I went up to Nottingham to a concert – the guitarist Duke Garwood, whom I’d first caught at Latitude in 2015 (see my piece on the Sunday shows). I really enjoyed his show then – those slowly rumbling songs, embellished by a warm, expressive guitar. Nothing flash, but some searing solos that reminded me of the sounds that Robin Tower ekes out of his guitar to this day. Both indebted to Jimi Hendrix, though in different ways. Duke Garwood’s take on the blues is a rolling, creeping thing, which evokes the atmosphere of the Louisiana swamp (or my image of it – I’ve never been there). On record, you hear the sound of JJ Cale and things can be quite subdued. Live the guitar really comes to life.

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Duke has a short UK tour to promote his new record, “Garden of Ashes”, which has been well-received. His date in London, at Oslo in Hackney, is on 16 February, and I’d commend it to you. I can’t make it as I’m seeing Emily Barker that night. But I didn’t want to miss this rare chance to see the man play that guitar. Nottingham suited me because it’s also where my son is at University, so we had dinner before I went on to the Bodega. He declined the opportunity to come to the concert!

The Bodega had a good atmosphere to it – quite small and with a friendly feel. It’s a popular place for clubbing, I’m told. There were probably about 200 people there, maybe a few more. The wonders of Duke Garwood are still known only to a few. He played unaccompanied: mostly songs from the new album, but others thrown in, apparently at random. I couldn’t quite tell whether Duke was still a bit unprepared for the tour – he has a wry sense of humour, which leaves you not knowing whether he really did forget to play certain tracks off the new album until right at the end. He also mentioned his drummer going off to India to join Hare Krishna. I did wonder whether this was actually true, as the two guys who played short support sets were, I think, part of his band. Second on was John J Presley who shared the same approach to the guitar as Duke – with just a bit more of a howl in the solos, and, indeed, his singing. I’d have happily watched a bit more of him.

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I’m no expert in the Duke Garwood catalogue, even having bought a couple of the earlier albums. So I can’t tell you exactly what he played, except that it was an hour or so of that slowly rumbling groove, hypnotic and uplifting, when the guitar began to echo and sway. The sound was less Troweresque this time – maybe because he didn’t have the band anchoring his runs. Or maybe the slightly more subdued groove fitted the new album. This is music that locks you into a dream, immerses you. One song ends, another begins, the groove slides on. Slide is a good word – the guitar runs often sound like they are coming from a slide guitar, with emphasis on the bass strings. But they aren’t – it’s a combination of Duke’s technique and the distortion pedals.

The show got a great reception from the people there and Duke seemed pretty chuffed about it. He seems a modest guy: maybe used to playing in the shadows, in other people’s bands (he’s worked a lot with Mark Lanegan in recent years). He quipped during the show about being way out of his comfort zone. And maybe it was true. A man of great talent who is a bit uncomfortable being in the spotlight.

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Yeah, I loved this show. It wouldn’t be for everyone, but it was worth the trip up to the East Midlands. Another artist I hope we’ll see at the summer festivals. Enveloping us in his slow-burning, gliding, sliding blues.

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Sportsthoughts (156) – Dimitri Payet and West Ham: love turns to betrayal

In January, Dimitri Payet, West Ham’s one time hero, refused to play for the club. This is a man apparently on £125,000 a week – football persists in describing salaries as a weekly amount. £6.5 million a year. Refusing to play for the club because he wanted to leave and the management wouldn’t play ball.

Of course West Ham relented and ended up selling him back to Marseille, for £25m. Not bad business when he cost just under £11m in the summer of 2015. The profits covered the purchase of a couple of decent Premiership players, defender Jose Fonte from Southampton and midfielder Robert Snodgrass from Hull. But what a shame it turned out like this.

In the 2015-16 season Dimi was a revelation. I wrote an only slightly jokey tribute to his genius. He was the most skilful, unpredictable, exciting player to wear the West Ham shirt since Paolo di Canio and Joe Cole in the early 2000s. He inspired West Ham to their best season in ages, as Slaven Bilic took over as manager and released us all from the yoke of Sam Allardyce’s depressing football. After a faltering end to the season we came 8th, but there was a lot of optimism at the beginning of this season.

And that was after Dimi played a starring role for France at the European Championships in the summer of 2016, when Les Bleus got to the final and lost to Portugal on home soil. I say starring role – it was a couple of stunning trademark Payet goals and some outrageous skills that won the hearts of the French public. I got the impression he hadn’t fully integrated into the team. I remember Pogba, for example, not letting him take a couple of in-range free kicks – did the established players resent his sudden elevation?

So the future looked bright. But of course it all went wrong at the start of the season. It’s West Ham. The team didn’t settle at the new stadium and key players like Noble, Kouyate, Lanzini and Payet himself seemed to have lost their lustre. In the autumn we were hovering just above the relegation places. The nadir was the 5-1 home defeat to Arsenal in early December, which was just embarrassing.

Things got better after that. We drew away to Liverpool and won a few games against bottom half teams and made it to the comfort zone in mid-table. No great thanks to Payet, who was peripheral. Antonio has been our best attacking player this year.

And then the strike action in the January window. What went wrong? A combination of factors I think. First, the traditional jadedness of players who have had an intense international tournament in the summer. Second, the head-turning surge of fame as the result of his success at the Euros. There was talk of a transfer to Arsenal, Man Utd, Chelsea. Agents’ talk, no doubt. Third, frustration at the poor form of the team, though as the star player, it was his job to inspire his colleagues to do better. And fourth, apparently, his family were homesick. Fair enough, the family matters most of all, though football players get paid huge amounts to ply their trade, which sets them up for life.

Anyway, the family got what they wanted and Dimi was transferred back to Marseille. And since he stopped playing West Ham have been playing well, apart from another home embarrassment last Wednesday, a 4-0 capitulation to Man City. Today we had a good away win at Southampton, 3-1. I wasn’t expecting that. Mid-table mediocrity is ours. And Slav’s job seems safe, after the November/early December wobble.

But it all leaves a sour taste. Payet isn’t the only player to refuse to play because he wants out. Diego Costa briefly seemed to be doing the same at Chelsea, with Chinese money calling (a new threat). There are others. We’ve long since stopped expecting players to stay loyal to clubs, but refusing to play is something else. Where is their honour, their sense of giving something in return for all that money? And their love of the game? Don’t they love football? Don’t they want to be on that pitch for every single minute? Don’t they realise how lucky they are?

Players refusing to play makes me ask, has football finally lost its soul?

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Cabbage at the Lexington, 2 February 2017

Yesterday I went with my friend Shane to see a band called Cabbage at the Lexington on the Pentonville Road. I’ve a soft spot for this place. It is a good pub on the ground floor, and the concert room above it is where I discovered Emily Barker. That’s enough to give it a place in my heart.

Cabbage. What kind of name is that? Well, the sort of name an arsey Manc indie band that doesn’t give a f*** would give itself. And that is Cabbage. It was an amazing gig, played by a band that knows it is good and going places .

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I didn’t know the band at all well. I’d heard a couple of songs on Marc Riley on 6 Music, but that was it.

But, really, from the moment they began, I thought they were awesome. Like I said, they knew they were good. They had a real swagger about them. 6 Music DJ, Steve Lamacq, introduced them and suggested it might be one of those I Was There moments. I think he was right.

They rocked in all sorts of ways. Given their Manchester heritage, I felt they were the latest in a long line of supreme indie bands. In particular I got the attitude of Oasis and the sound of a Happy Mondays combined with the Fall. With a dose of South London renegades, Fat White Family, thrown in. These are all strong recommendations – this band really made me smile. Lots of charisma, brilliant rock’n’roll, edgy riffs. Just made you feel good.

So watch out for Cabbage if you like indie and rock’n’roll. They are going to be big. How can they not be?

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On Friday I checked out their recently released album “Young, Dumb and Full Of…” which brings together three earlier EPs. It’s good, but not impactful in the way the live show is, where the rockers really rock. So try to see them in the real!

I’m hoping they’ll be at Latitude and/ or End of the Road this year.

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