BP and solar power – a missed opportunity

I worked for BP for most of the 80s, first as an economist, then in mergers and acquisitions and finally in business planning in Paris. I had a great experience over the years and learned a lot that stood me in good stead in later times. So, much as the company is reviled for its hydrocarbon production and investment these days, I retain an interest in what it is doing. I mention this as context for my story here.

I read recently that Lightsource BP – a joint venture in which BP has a 50% stake – had just delivered its first solar project in India. A good thing, I’d say, whatever you think of the wider company. But it also made me chuckle, and ponder on what might have been,  because of an experience that I had back in late 1984, or maybe 1985. The memory is hazy about the date, but not the experience.

At the time I was in the HQ economics team in London. In the City, not far from Moorgate tube station. I was the economist for East and South Asia, amongst other things. In 1984/85 it was agreed that we should make a trip to India, to explore its investment potential – especially in the area of solar power. I was 25 (or maybe 26) and very excited about this. I’d been to India – Mumbai and Goa – once before, but the chance to discover new places and to help BP pioneer solar power in the country, was a wonderful opportunity. Plans were made, interviews and visits arranged, hotels booked. It was taking shape.

I went out and bought myself a lightweight suit. Not a colonial beige, but a light grey Prince of Wales check, double breasted, baggy in the style of the time. One of my friends later said I looked like a spiv in it, but I thought it was cool. It would work for India and back home. It was going to be so good!

And then the message came down from the Chairman’s office – the trip was off. I heard – second hand, so who knows what was really said – that the Chairman didn’t give a f*** about India. He was getting BP to concentrate on its core business after a period of diversification, which included the purchase of an American dog biscuit company!  He also instituted some cost cutting in head office, which included getting rid of the tea ladies, who brought round tea/coffee and biscuits (Penguins once a week) in the morning and afternoon. We were gutted. And I was gutted about the cancellation of my trip to India, though the suit got good use for a few years before it went out of fashion. The tea ladies were redeployed to the canteen, which survived for a few more years. Still employed, but they looked sad there – there had been a bond with all of us when they came round the office twice a day.

So I never got to India with BP, though I did later have fascinating trips to South Korea and New York; and, in my last job at the company, work in Paris for a year or so.

But what an opportunity BP missed all that time ago to pioneer investment in renewable energy in a country that, in its vastness, with many of its rural areas not linked to electricity grids at the time, was perfect for a new approach to energy provision.

The world is paying the price for all the missed opportunities of the past: some wilful, some because of the laws of capital, in which short term profit and shareholder value trumps all. Big energy companies aren’t run by bad people, but they answer to demands – from shareholders, from all of us, with our cars, our plastics, our energy needs – that haven’t yet adapted to the needs of the planet.

So, the new investments by Lightsource BP must be welcomed; but what a shame that the biscuit-denying chairman of BP decided he couldn’t give a f*** about India all those years ago!

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The Heavy Heavy at the Louisiana, Bristol, 30 November 2022

The Heavy Heavy are a Brighton-based band playing retro rock with a modern twist. They are fronted by Georgie Fuller (vocals and keyboards) and Will Turner (vocals and lead guitar). Their sound evokes the rock music of the late 60s and early 70s – think all those West Coast Laurel Canyon bands, British rockers like Fleetwood Mac and the Rolling Stones, and even the likes Lynyrd Skynyrd. In my pre-punk youth I was a great fan of Skynyrd, Free, Bad Co, the Stones and Led Zep, but hated all that Californian soft rock (though I did, of course, make an exception for Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours). I’ve changed over the years though, and love a lot of it now. Joni Mitchell and Neil Young led the way, but I even sneak a listen to the Eagles from time to time these days! 

I was ready for The Heavy Heavy.

I first heard the band earlier this year by chance on a Sunday morning, when I was listening to Cerys Matthews on 6 Music. Her show is well worth a listen if you haven’t heard it, spanning music from across the globe, genres, eras. This song with a rolling rhythm, infectious melody and classic guitar solo came on and it grabbed me instantly. It was Miles and Miles by The Heavy Heavy. Naturally the next thing I did was to check out what they had on Spotify, which was a seven track EP called Life and Life Only. That was a delight too – full of the riffs and the harmonies from those 60s/70s bands. But not just a tribute band – The Heavy Heavy had stamped their own personality on that classic sound.

Next thing was to see them live, an opportunity afforded to me a couple of months later at End of the Road. They played the lunchtime slot on the main stage on the Saturday, not necessarily a great time to get the crowd going. But they absolutely did. There was such energy and joy in the music and the way they played, that most people in a good-sized and growing crowd were dancing, swaying, toe-tapping. A highlight of that show was a cover version of Janis Joplin’s Piece of my Heart, with Georgie really giving it some on the vocals. Sensational, one of the best moments of the festival for me.

The Heavy Heavy at End of the Road

So when a UK tour was announced I had to see them again. Only problem was, I already had a gig on the date of their London show. No matter, that was another opportunity to pop down to Bristol. Kath came along with me – she’s a fan of Bristol too. They were playing the Louisiana, like Indigo Sparke just recently. This time the venue was sold out. It’s not massive – 140 in the space above the pub – but there’s a good atmosphere. We caught about half of the support band Hunny Buzz. Fronted by the charismatic Lydia Read, they played a lively pop-punk that reminded me of a band like the Beths, even my old favourites Honeyblood. They set things up nicely for the main act.

Hunny Buzz

The Heavy Heavy came on around nine o’clock to the Rolling Stones’ Can’t I Hear You Knocking? – a fine choice! –  and launched into an instrumental. I’m not familiar with all their songs just yet, but the harmonies of their most-streamed song Down by River were unmistakeable a couple of songs in. It’s such a joyous song, brimming with that feel of the late 60s. As well as Georgie and Will, the other guitarist and the bassist joined in some of the harmonies, which really made them resonate. They bounced around the stage too – there’s a wonderful danceable rhythm to The Heavy Heavy’s music.

They played for about an hour. We would all have liked more. There was no Piece of my Heart this time, though Georgie gave it her all on a couple of other songs, including Sleeping on Grassy Ground, which is on the EP. There were a couple of covers, which just happen to be their last two singles: Real Love Baby (by Father John Misty) and Guinnevere, which has just been released. Tellingly, the original was by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. That’s a pretty dreamy number; they tail-ended it with some riffing which is the sort of thing Black Midi would do.* Miles and Miles came late in the show, which ended with another instrumental. That was interesting – shows the band have a lot of confidence in what they are doing and how the audience will react.

It’s not surprising that The Heavy Heavy have already become popular in the US, with another tour already lined up for 2023. There’s a huge market for nostalgic rock’n’roll there. It might be a slower burn here in the UK, but I think the strength of their songs as well as their influences, will attract a decent following. Georgie paid tribute to Christine McVie, who’d died that day, during the show. Her band, Fleetwood Mac, one of those influences.

The Heavy Heavy’s music is rooted in what many would regard as the golden age of rock music. They are taking it to new generations, as well as providing a joyous reminder to those of us who might have experienced it first time around, or second, or third… Music is always recycling and evolving – that’s why I still love being on the journey.  

 *Setlist FM has an entry for the show which looks pretty authoritative. It doesn’t include Guinnevere, but I’m pretty sure they not only played it, but introduced it, which they didn’t do for many songs. In the words of Radiohead, I might be wrong!  

 

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London Jazz Festival: Sun Mi Hong Quintet and Ant Law/Alex Hitchcock at the Purcell Room, 17 November 2022

The Sun Mi Hong Quintet

The London Jazz Festival ran from 11-20 November this year. Kath and I went to a couple of events; I would have liked to go to more but already had an unusual number of concerts lined up in November. The first was Chicago x London at the Barbican on the 12th. A coming together of artists from those two cities, mainly Chicago. Turned out to be a bit of a mixed bag, the highlight being the solo guitar of Jeff Parker, who was first on. He’s got an enjoyable album from 2021 called Forfolks. On the night a highlight was his interpretation of Frank Ocean’s Super Rich Kids. Ben LaMar Gay and band were interesting, avant-garde, percussive with some afro-beats. Wouldn’t mind hearing more. Angel Bat Dawid was spiritual, but musically it was a bit of a mess, and Theon Cross on tuba didn’t get much of a look-in. And, disappointingly, London’s main representative, Alabaster Deplume, got off to a terrible start with a ridiculous hippyish rant which rather coloured the rest of the show for me. He had a large band too, which never really got to contribute much. Shame, as I’d been looking forward to seeing him after hearing a few of his tunes on 6 Music. Another time maybe – he’s a regular at the festivals.

Jeff Parker

The second event I chose fairly randomly from the programme. The same night at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, in the same part of the Southbank as the Purcell, there was an interesting looking tribute to Joni Mitchell. But the description of Son Mi Hong’s background and music in the programme looked intriguing, and it had the virtue of being much cheaper! Son Mi Hong is from South Korea, but has been based in the Netherlands for the last ten years or so. She plays the drums. She’s been working with the same band members for a while: Alistair Payne on trumpet, Alessandro Fongaro on bass, Nicolo Ricci on tenor sax, and fellow Korean Chaerin Im on piano. It turned out she had a new CD due for release the day after the concert, called Third Page; Resonance. It was available on the night, and after a stunning show I had to buy it!

The support act was a duo, Ant Law on guitar and Alex Hitchcock on saxophone. They only had half an hour, but they made very good use of it. I really liked their sound, and the interplay between the two instruments. I loved Ant Law’s guitar playing: subtle, expressive and inventive. They played four pieces, and Sun Mi Hong joined them on drums for the last two. I bought their 2022 CD after the show too. It’s called Same Moon in the Same World, and it makes for great, relaxed listening. There’s a full band on the album, and it reminded me a little of an 80s duo I saw a few times called Morrissey Mullen.

Sun Mi Hong’s show was a revelation. The band were superb, so together. Lots of virtuosity, but always complementing each other. The interaction of the trumpet and sax was tremendous. Chaerin Im’s piano was understated, but so important to the groove. The mostly double bass sound accentuated that groove, while Sun Mi Hong’s drumming was sensational. There was no part of her kit that didn’t get brought into play at some point. Such variety: sometimes quietly underpinning a solo from one of her colleagues, other times driving through the beat with some complex rhythms. A fascinating visual as well as aural experience.

The music was pretty adventurous – this was not jazz easy listening. But there was one song of beautiful, affecting simplicity. It was called Letter With No Words and Sun Mi Hong introduced it with a story about her relationship with her father. Back in Korea he never said much to her, rather disapproved of her unconventionality. But then he started writing letters to her, expressing his love. In the Netherlands during the pandemic, she didn’t see her family for two-and-a-half years. That yearning to see them and reply to her father led to this tune, the letter without words. It featured a beautiful, lengthy trumpet solo by Alistair Payne at the beginning, which reminded me of Chet Baker’s trumpet in Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding. I found it very moving – the sound and the sentiment.

I took a bit of a punt on this show, but it certainly paid off. It was a wonderful night of music, and I’ll definitely be looking out for future performances of both Sun Mi Hong and her band, and Ant Law and Alex Hitchcock. I’d recommend both the albums I mentioned earlier – and, indeed, Sun Mi Hong’s second album, which I also bought on the night. It’s called Second Page: A Self-Strewn Portrait. I haven’t been able to find the first page on Spotify, but there must be one!

Finally, I should note that Sun Mi Hong’s show was also part of the K-Music Festival, London’s Festival of Korean Music. This is in its ninth year and is organised by the Korean Cultural Centre UK. Sun Mi Hong was effusive in her praise for the support she and her band had received from them. I’d not been aware of the festival before, but it’s one to look out for next year.

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Widowspeak at Studio 9294, Hackney Wick, 15 November 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pitchfork Music Festival at the Roundhouse, 13 November 2022

 

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

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

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

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

Big Joanie

Samia

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

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

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

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

***

Some more photos.

Roundhouse view

Gretel Hanlyn

Big Joanie

Samia

Cate le Bon

Courtney Barnett

 

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

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

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

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

At Latitude, July 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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Wilko Johnson, 1947-2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Julia Jacklin at the Roundhouse, 11 November 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sigur Ros at the O2 Academy Brixton, 10 November 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

iPhone version of start

Digital camera version

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

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

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

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

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Indigo Sparke at the Louisiana, Bristol, 7 November 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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