lovelondonscenes 165 – White Cube Gallery, Bermondsey

A week ago I went down to the White Cube Gallery in Bermondsey to see a few exhibitions that were about to finish. The principal one was “Remains to be Seen” by Mona Hatoum, a Lebanese/Palestinian artist. The theme of the show was upheaval, disorder, dislocation, oppression. The exhibits were stark – mostly black against the white expanse of the White Cube. Some were monumental and it’s two of those that I concentrate on below.

This exhibition is over now, but I recommend the White Cube as a place to visit. It’s a beautifully designed space, and the the exhibitions are always interesting. It’s a ten minute walk from London Bridge station.

Outside, as I left, the first signs of darkness were appearing. Over the top of the buildings, the ubiquitous Shard began to gleam.

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Honeyblood at the Garage, Islington, 31 October 2019

Honeyblood are on a UK tour at the moment, and last night they played to a lively crowd at the Garage in Islington. It was Hallowe’en of course and could have been our last day as a member of the EU. Thankfully that’s been put off for a bit longer, so last night we could just concentrate on enjoying the show. This was the first time that the songs from this year’s album “In Plain Sight” featured strongly, aside from the three singles “The Third Degree”, “Glimmer” and “She’s a Nightmare”. Back in April, when I saw them in Leicester, there were outings for “Gibberish” and “Turn the Wheel” as well, but we’d never heard them before and the sound was a bit murky. Stina was also getting used to her new backing band, I thought. Now they are a very slick machine and last night they played with real zest and a sense of fun. They’d donned their silvery sci-fi gear which featured on their recent single “Bubble Gun” and were in a festive mood. Stina has written on social media that after this tour she plans to take some time out from touring, so this was maybe the last opportunity to see her perform for a while. If it is, she is going out on a high.

I loved the set, which was longer than usual. They played 19 songs, with 8 from “In Plain Sight”, 4 from “Babes Never Die” and 6 from the first album, “Honeyblood”. Plus “Bubble Gun”, which is a real glam rock stomper. All the “old” favourites, like “Babes Never Die”, “Sea Hearts”, “Ready for the Magic” (a rousing closer for the main set, as ever), “Super Rat” and “Killer Bangs” were there. And it was nice to hear “Walking at Midnight” again – the perfect song for Hallowe’en.  I enjoyed hearing songs like “The Tarantella”, “Touch” and “A Kiss From the Devil” live for the first time, and “Gibberish” had emerged from the Leicester murk to become a real rocker. They opened the set with “The Third Degree”; “Glimmer” and “She’s a Nightmare” came towards the end and are now up there with those old favourites as staples of the set. Great rock’n’roll songs.

The encore was interesting. First Stina came on alone and played “Bud”, from the first album. That’s one she’s favoured when she has played her solo sets. Then the band came back and they played one for the aficionados, “No Spare Key”, again from “Honeyblood”. Stina is drawing a lot on that debut album – it clearly means a lot to her personally. Her musical roots. “In Plain Sight” is a slicker, less raw (in sound) album than its predecessors, although the lyrics remain very personal. And the songs from it are really flourishing live.  I hope it won’t be too long before we see Stina, with or without band, on stage again singing all these wonderful songs.

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lovelondonscenes 164 – Kings Cross and Camden by the Regent’s Canal

Today was autumn’s collision with winter, as the clocks went back. But it was also a lovely sunny day and not too cold. A respite after rain, rain, rain. I took the Piccadilly Line up to King’s Cross and walked from there back to Paddington along the Regent’s Canal. The walk, which is not that long, takes you through Camden, Regent’s Park and Maida Vale, including Little Venice. The photos here, turned into black and white, are from the stretch between King’s Cross and Camden, starting around Coal Drop Yard.  A lot of it is relatively new development – this is an area transformed. A place you want to come to rather than avoid. Urban beauty.

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Pom Poko at the Scala, Kings Cross, 23 October 2019

Pom Poko, a Norwegian band who can only be described prog-punk, are playing their biggest UK tour yet this month. They released their debut album “Birthday” in February and this performance at the Scala in Kings Cross was the third time I’ve seen them this year. The first was at the Lexington, just up the Pentonville Road from the Scala, in April; and the second was at End of the Road in September, where I thought they were one of the highlights of the whole weekend.

The album is excellent – a mass of screeching riffs and solos, pulsating beats and endless time changes. Nothing is ever the same for long. On top of this near-chaos, singer Ragnhild Jamtveit’s high-register vocals veer from the sweet to the quirky to the slightly crazed. It’s heading for a spot in my top ten of the year for sure – and it won’t sound like anything else in there.

Live is even better because this band are just so much fun! I don’t think I’ve seen many bands who seem to be enjoying themselves so much. And this is personified by Ragnhild, who bounces around the stage at every opportunity with a smile on her face. She does stern too, but it’s only for show – she is loving it. The rhythm section of Jonas Krovel and Ola Djupvik are incredibly tight and handle all the time changes with aplomb. But the genius of the band is guitarist Martin Tonne, who gets so many great riffs out of just the one guitar, as he stands to one side in his blue boiler suit. The sound is deeper and dirtier than on record – and it rocks! It’s pretty relentless in fact – there’s really only one song, “Honey”, where they slow down for long, and even then it’s not exactly a ballad. But Ragnhild needs some rest from all the jumping around.

Yes, Pom Poko are one of my discoveries of the year without a doubt. And as a live act, despite the complexity of their music (by pop standards) they are a full-on slug of rock’n’roll with one of the most charismatic singers around. Pure enjoyment from start to finish.

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The She Street Band at the Clapham Grand, 18 October 2019

Another year, another She Street Band concert! Last year in October it was at the Scala in King’s Cross. This time it was at the Clapham Grand in south-west London. First time I’d been there and I liked the place. Another old theatre/cinema that is doing the business as a concert and club venue.

For those of you who don’t know, the She Street Band are an all-woman outfit who play the songs of Bruce Springsteen. And they do so joyously. It’s the next best thing to Bruce himself. Some people think Bruce Springsteen’s music is boys’ music. I can see why – the lyrics are nearly all from the perspective of men. But the She Street band prove that the music itself is for everyone. Music of hope, music of despair, music of defiance, music of celebration. Rooted in rock’n’roll, in soul, in folk, in the music of America.

The band was formed by bassist Judy Orsborn in 2016. They are from America, the UK, Ireland and Sweden. The vocals are shared around, Judy included. There’s another bassist who steps in for her at times when she is singing. Rhythm guitarist Mara Daniele takes the lead vocal on a lot of the songs, especially the earlier ones – the great first four albums. Last time I saw her, at the Scala, she had blonde-red hair; this time it was jet black. She often has a smile, always a joie de vivre, as she sings, like she knows she is singing some of the greatest songs ever written. And that is the thing about the She Street Band: it is a total celebration.

The core of the set, as before, was from what I think of as the second phase of Bruce’s great albums: “The River” and “Born in the USA”. And they are mostly the uptempo songs, although one of the delights in this set was when the keyboard player Lynn Roberts took centre stage for “Stolen Car” from “The River”, a beautiful and sad ballad which I have always loved. Another song which bucked the trend of rockers was “Tougher than the Rest”, which opened their second set. All the band, save for the lead guitarist – Isabell Lysell, I think –  stood at the front and sang an acapella version, with just that low key strumming in support.

My memory is a bit fuzzy already about which songs were in the first set and which were in the second. But for those of you who like your Bruce Springsteen, these were all the songs played, as far as I can recall:  Growin’ Up – Rosalita – 10th Avenue Freeze Out – Thunder Road – Born to Run – Because the Night – Badlands – Prove It All Night  – Darkness on the Edge of Town – Out on the Street – Sherry Darling – Stolen Car – Two Hearts – The River – Hungry Heart – Glory Days – Bobby Jean – Cover Me – I’m on Fire – Dancing in the Dark – Tougher Than the Rest. What a set list!

“Sherry Darling” opened proceedings, and allowed saxophonist Yasmin Ogilvie a moment in the spotlight. She had a few of course. The best? Maybe “Thunder Road”. Memories of the big man, Clarence Clemons.

The whole show was a celebration, but the last four took it to another level. “Dancing in the Dark” and “Badlands” to end the second set; and then, for an encore, “Bobby Jean” and, of course, “Born to Run”. Like I said earlier, the next best thing to Bruce himself. If you love the music of Bruce Springsteen you should catch this band.  It is an uplifting experience!


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Holly Herndon at the Barbican, 16 October 2019

Holly Herndon is an American electronic artist who lives in Berlin. She’s originally from East Tennessee and studied music in Oakland, California. She’s someone I’ve heard from time to time on BBC 6 Music – DJ Mary Anne Hobbs is a big fan – but have never really investigated. Nonetheless, I was interested in some of the publicity for a new album this year, “Proto”. Amongst other things, it featured an artificial intelligence which she and her partner had called “Spawn”. So when I read she was playing a concert at the Barbican I thought it could be interesting.

I deliberately didn’t listen much to her music beforehand. Or maybe just didn’t get around to it. Either way I figured this was the kind of concert that would be fun to come to without knowing too much, as anything could happen. Given that it was in the Barbican’s music hall, it had to be something that could fill the space. And it was going to have a lot of interesting beats, and more besides.

And it was an amazing show, though not quite what I’d expected. I was anticipating a pretty avant-garde display of electronica. Maybe quite discordant and challenging. But it wasn’t really like that. Holly said at one point that she had left Spawn at home; and the music was a lot more organic than I’d expected. She had five singers with her, all dressed in what seemed like mediaeval garb. Holly wasn’t so different herself. And the dominant feel of the music was choral. The voices were put through all sorts of effects and there were some pulsating bass lines that throbbed through the powerful speakers. It was a captivating show, musically and visually,  and felt like it would have been perfect echoing through the Gothic spaces of one of the great cathedrals – as long as the bass lines weren’t too much for the ancient foundations!

I listened to “Proto” again the next day. It sounded sharper and more robotic than the live rendition, though the voices were still dominant. I think I preferred the live version, but will give the album a bit more time. It could be worth it. There is something intriguing about Holly Herndon’s music which might just yield more of itself with a few listens.

It wasn’t the sort of concert to take a load of photos, but the encore featured a more high tempo techno sound than what went before, and most people stood up. All the shots are from that moment.

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Music and Landscape – a concert and album by Caoimhin O Raghallaigh and Thomas Bartlett; a book by Richard King

Music has always been connected to its environment, and to the landscape – or the seascape, the cityscape. Environment can shape the nature of music – is it to be played outdoors or in a cathedral, in a club or a car, or through headphones? But music can also evoke the sense of being in a particular setting, and reflect our feelings about those settings. Two things – a concert and a book – have reminded me of that just recently. The concert was by Caoimhin O Raghallaigh and Thomas Bartlett, violinist and pianist respectively. It was in the Purcell Room in the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank. The book is “The Lark Ascending” by Richard King, a renowned music writer.

I’ll start with the concert, which took place on Friday 27 September.

I’d never come across Caoimhin O Raghallaigh and Thomas Bartlett before. My friend Shane suggested we go along, with a couple more of his friends, Steve and Andy. Caoimhin O Raghallaigh is in an Irish band called the Gloaming, who Shane told me are very popular in their home country. Much as I love Irish music and that sound I’ve called celtic soul, the Gloaming had, until now, passed me by. Thomas Bartlett is a pianist from New York, who is also in the Gloaming, and has played with all sorts of people, including Yoko Ono, the National and St Vincent. Together they have recently released an album called “Zona Rosa” and this is what featured tonight.

“Zona Rosa” sounds like a good title for the concert too. It was one of those performances that took you into the zone: of contemplation, imagination, the landscape. I found myself moving between admiration for the musicianship and thinking about all sorts of other things. Some were music-related, like how their music evoked the same sense of place as the great Icelandic band Sigur Ros, although in a less dramatic way. But I also found myself thinking a lot about the book I’m writing, the follow up to “The Decision”. Working title “Hope Rising”. I’d spent a few hours on it that day and my imagination was still buzzing. The music complemented those thoughts. It conjured up a picture of the Irish landscape, but at the same time gave me space to think about other things. I think others in audience might have found it an opportunity just to shut their eyes and relax after a hard day at work.

Since the concert, I’ve been listening to that album “Zona Rosa” a lot, on Spotify. It is a beautiful, serene piece of work. Never extravagant, but always evocative of that Irish landscape, be it the cliffs and the sea rushing in, or the green hills and meadows. It seems to me that the violin represents movement – the blowing of the breeze, the soaring flight of the seagull (or indeed the kestrel, title of one of the pieces), the furtive movement of a small animal, people dancing. Meanwhile the piano provides the foundation: the cliffs, the rocks the plants, the rivers and bubbling streams.  Together they form an entrancing whole.

The depiction of a bird in flight through music, surveying the landscape below, is an opening theme of Richard King’s book, “The Lark Ascending.” I came across Richard, talking about his book, at the End of the Road festival this year. Each morning they have a number of talks in the Literature tent, hidden away in the woods. They are reliably fascinating. I listened to nine of the talks this year. Richard King’s was one of three that, in different ways looked at the relationship between man and nature. The others were Luke Turner, talking about his memoir “Out of the Woods” and Max Porter, describing his second novel “Lanny”. One of the things that all three authors had in common was a view that that relationship is necessarily always evolving. People are part of nature, an integral part. We shape our environment and the environment responds – and shapes us. Right now most of us are concerned that man has abused that relationship over the last century, and especially the last few decades, and that we are now beginning to pay the price. But the theme of the three authors was not directly concerned with those dangers. It was more about how the interaction can never be static. Luke talked about how the practice of “pollarding” (cutting back) trees in Epping Forest helped their healthy growth – a bit like pruning in our gardens, I guess. That has apparently been stopped now – when pollarded the trees can look quite ugly. But they are no longer growing in the same vigorous way. Richard and others talked about the strand of “eco-fascism” which harks back to a purer, halcyon age, which probably never existed. This was strong in the first decades of the twentieth century, and perhaps not surprisingly, some of its adherents also dallied with actual fascism. In “The Lark Ascending” he writes about how these back-to-the-country movements were also attracted to English folk music. And of course factions developed: again the purists versus the evolvers. Factionalism is clearly part of the human tradition.

I found “The Lark Ascending” a fascinating read, both in terms of how people’s interaction with the British landscape has evolved over the past century (partly through government interventions which either increased or prevented access) and how the author weaves music into this narrative. The musical choices on one level are pretty random and may just be some of the music he happens to like. But the choices also make sense: they illustrate his themes very effectively – and they introduced me to some music that I’d never listened to before. That included Stan Tracey’s jazz rendition of Dylan Thomas’s “Under Milk Wood” and the book’s opening suite: Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Rising”, a quintessential piece of English “classical” music, which I’d never knowingly listened to before. And yes, the opening violins conjure up that sense of flight, of swooping and gliding, in a similar way to Caoimhin O Raghallaigh in “Zona Rosa”. A little more mellifluous perhaps, possibly reflecting the gentler nature of the English countryside that Vaughan Williams had in mind.

For me, the most interesting parts of the book were the later chapters, which trace the development of free festivals and later on outdoor raves. Both were ultimately curtailed by the forces of law and order, often brutally. They were backed up by draconian legislation. You can blame this all on the conservative forces in society; but there is also an unfortunate logic to the growth of both festivals and raves, whereby they begin quite small and idealistic, become more popular, attract less savoury participants (and criminals), upset the local communities, clash with the police, get stopped. But what has then emerged are more commercial, better organised and safer festivals. The type of events all sorts of people go to – myself included! At End of the Road, the authors always appear at the Rough Trade tent at 12.30 to sign copies of their books. I bought “The Lark Ascending” and asked Richard how he viewed festivals like End of the Road and their interaction with the countryside they occupy. “They charge us a lot for it,” was all he said. I was disappointed with that response and didn’t pursue the conversation any further. I guess Richard is a believer in a more natural, organic relationship between music and the landscape which finds its expression in “alternative” cultures; but as he notes in other contexts, that relationship inevitably changes over time.

The last musical references in the book are to the Scottish electronic band, Boards of Canada. I enjoyed being reminded of their music, which has a pastoral, ambient feel to it, perhaps reflecting the location of their studio in the Pentland Hills, south of Edinburgh. I have a few of their albums from the late 90s and early 2000s. My favourite is “The Campfire Headphase”. The title says it all really. There’s an EP, too, called “In a Beautiful Place out in the Country”. Worth a listen if you haven’t come across them before.

Music and Landscape, I called this piece. Both evolving, both evoking feelings of awe which are sometimes hard to put adequately into words – though plenty of us try!  And where words might not always be up to the task in portraying the wonders of nature, of the landscape, music can capture an essence, an undefinable feel. In their different ways, Caoimhin O Raghallaigh and Richard King have done exactly that.

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