Duke Garwood at the Lexington, Pentonville Road, 26 February 2023

Duke Garwood is a multi-instrumentalist, best known for his languid, bluesy, atmospheric guitar. I first came across him on a Sunday afternoon at Latitude in 2015. Perfect music for the occasion. I was blown away by his guitar playing that day, the richness and warmth of it, the sounds he was conjuring from reverb and tremolo. I was getting hints of Robin Trower over a base of JJ Cale. He was the discovery of the festival that year.

Latitude 2015

Over the years he’s made a few albums, the best of which, for me, are 2015’s Heavy Love and 2017’s Garden of Ashes. The song titles are straight from the early 1970s: Honey in my Ear, Sweet Wine, Snake Man, Heavy Love, Days Gone Old, Blue. Not to mention the earlier classics, Jesus Got a Gun and Mellow Trucker Lady! Surely, you would say, this man is from the deep American south. But no, he hails from Kent. He’s in his early 50s, and in recent times has collaborated with Mark Lanegan on a couple of albums. His latest solo album, Rogues Gospel, was released last year, though I must admit it completely passed me by. I’ve caught up with it now, and it’s broadly more of the same – perhaps a little more instrumentation, a harder blues feel than the sleepy mellowness of, say, Heavy Love.

I saw Duke play at Nottingham Bodega in 2017 – and then, as far as I could tell, nothing. He does communicate on Twitter from time to time, mostly elliptical musings. I saw no evidence of live performances in this country, until I saw something on social media a month or so ago that suggested he was touring. A quick check and I found that he was playing the Lexington on Pentonville Road. Monopoly fans will know that one – it’s up the hill from King’s Cross, on the way to Islington. The Lexington has a good pub downstairs and a nice venue upstairs with the capacity for around 200 people. I’ve seen some great shows there in the past. It’s where I first came across Emily Barker; and I won’t ever forget the brilliant Wilko Johnson gig in 2011. So I got myself a ticket and suggested to my friend Shane that he might like to come along too. A couple of pints and some mellow blues sounded like a good way to end the weekend.

And that’s exactly what we got. Duke was back to a three piece, after having an additional guitarist back in 2017. Checking my 2015 Latitude photos, I think they may well have been the same drummer and bassist. Didn’t catch their names, I’m afraid, but they laid down a nice simple groove, over which Duke wove his musical spells. The finest Louisiana blues, straight from the garden of England! Or maybe the Thames marshlands gave him a taste for the sounds of the Mississippi delta and the Floridan everglades. Whatever, I love the sounds that he draws from his guitar, caressing the strings, fingers sliding up and down the fretboard, a flip of the tremolo arm. And the fuzz, the reverb – sultry, swaying, seductive, soporific. The swamp blues.

They played for an hour and a quarter, and that was just fine. There’s not a huge variation in melody or rhythm – with one exception towards the end of the main set, when Duke picked up the maracas and raised the tempo of his voice while the bassist powered the song along with a relentless, strident rhythm. It was quite rousing! It got the biggest round of applause. But soon we were back to our familiar groove, nodding gently – to the beat and in appreciation of a master of his craft.

Shake those maracas!

A very satisfying evening – a helping of Duke Garwood takes you to a better place!

Thanks to Shane for this one

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The Murder Capital at the O2 Forum, Kentish Town, 23 February 2023

Second concert of the year, and one I was really looking forward to – the return of the Murder Capital. They had an amazing 2019: a brilliant debut album, When I Have Fears, which I made my No1 of the year, and a string of sold out concerts and triumphant festival appearances, which included the best performance we saw at End of the Road that year. Power, passion, swagger, emotion – the Murder Capital were the new sensation. I saw them again at SWX in Bristol in February, and, if anything, they were even better. Couldn’t wait for what they would do next.

And then the pandemic hit. And they went to ground. Making new music I hoped, but not much sign of it. They weren’t one of the bands that defied lockdown with online performances, new singles, even albums. They re-emerged in July 2022 with a single, Only Good Things. And a few more followed until the second album was finally released in January this year. It’s called Gigi’s Recovery, and reveals itself as a bit of a masterpiece after a few listens. There are no outright rockers as there were on When I Have Fears, but I had a sense that songs like Return my Head and Ethel would be powerful live. In fact, as the album revealed its layers, I felt that it would all be pretty dramatic onstage. There’s a subdued energy about it, some interesting twists and turns, a grandiosity.

And so it proved, because this was a sensational concert. The band look quite different now: more casual, more flamboyant; less of the menace that they had in 2019. But still the swagger. When I say they, I do mean all of them, but mostly I mean singer James McGovern, who struts the stage with a real charisma and connection with the audience. He looks more like a poet than a bouncer these days, but he remains a captivating presence. The set included pretty much all of the new album, interspersed with highlights from the first, and so had some quite long periods, mainly in the middle, where the songs were slow and building to a climax. That’s quite risky in a live show, when a large part of the audience might be there for the rockers, but it worked – or it did for me, and looked like it did for the crowd. And that, in the end, was down to James’s holding their attention. He is an engrossing performer.

The set began in the same way as the new album, with the atmospherics of Existence and Crying, before upping the tempo with Return my Head. Then they unleashed the crowd – and themselves – with two great favourites from When I Have Fears: More is Less and For Everything. This band knows how to rock out! From there we entered a long phase of slow burners, mostly from the new album, though there were also powerful renditions of Green & Blue and Love, Love, Love from the first. Highlights for me included The Stars will Leave Their Stage and the title track Gigi’s Recovery, both of which have so many layers, so many beautiful touches. These are the songs which I most find myself comparing to U2. There are others, like On Twisted Ground from the first album, which didn’t get an airing tonight. The comparison with U2 is intended as a genuine compliment – they are one of my favourite bands of all time. There’s a bit of late Bowie in their music too; and I think James might just be an admirer of Nick Cave. Such antecedents tell you just how good the Murder Capital are – and how good they were tonight.

And then we had the last four songs! If anyone was lulled by the slower tunes, then they were jerked to their senses by the denouement. This was when the music got brutal: Feeling Fades, Only Good Things, Don’t Cling to Life, and finally Ethel, which held its own with the rockers from the first album. An exhilarating finish, James spending half his time surfing the crowd. It sent everyone away buzzing.

I thought the band paced the set really well tonight: a taste of rock power early on, a few familiar tunes amid those slow building new songs, and then the blast of rock’n’roll at the end. All the time played with poise and confidence; James a dynamic frontman.

Two brilliant albums, fantastic live: the Murder Capital are one of the best bands around. Can’t wait to see them again at Latitude in July.

James in Johnny Rotten pose!

And Morrissey!

Cathal Roper, guitar and keys; Gabriel Paschal Blake, bass

Diarmuid Brennan, drums

Damien Tuit, lead guitar

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Jockstrap at the Rescue Rooms, Nottingham, 10 February 2023

On Friday I went up to Nottingham to see Jockstrap at the Rescue Rooms. I found out about the tour a bit late and the London gig had already sold out. I know Nottingham quite well, as my son Kieran went to university there, and have been to the Rescue Rooms once before, to see Honeyblood, back in 2017. I like the venue – it doubles up as a nightclub called Stealth and has a capacity of 450. A good size. Beware the nightclub combination if you go to see a band there though. Normally you’d expect the headliners to come on about 9 o’clock, but in this case Jockstrap were on just after 8.15. Fortunately my hotel was on the same street and I popped by at 7.30 to check on the timings as I couldn’t find them online. Good job I did!

Jockstrap – terrible name, tongue-in-cheek, I’m sure – are a duo: Georgia Ellery on vocals, guitar and violin, and Taylor Skye on keyboards and sound effects, of which there are many. Georgia Ellery is also a violinist with Black Country, New Road, and acted in a very good film called Bait, which is about the culture clash between the second-homers and locals in Cornwall. Both studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and their musical pedigree is evident in the bewildering array of sounds in their recorded music. They released their first album, I Love You Jennifer B, last year. I really liked it, and made it No 7 in my 2022 albums of the year. Since then I’ve been listening to it even more, and I’m loving it. There’s so much going on, from folky melodies, to cinematic soundtracks, to poppy interludes, to electronic noodling, to thumping dance beats. Quite often in the same song! It repays multiple listens.

With that in mind, I was keen to see the band live again. Previously I’d just seen them at festivals: the first time at Green Man in 2019, and then Green Man again in 2021. On the latter occasion I thought they were a bit self-indulgent; but now I can see that they were experimenting with the music and the beats that would form the basis of the album. I did attempt to see them at End of the Road in 2022, but they were performing in a ridiculously small outdoor space, which didn’t cater for their growing popularity, and I couldn’t even see them. I gave up and went to see something else. This tour provided the chance to put that right.

I caught a bit of the support act PabloPablo – one man and his sound deck – and nursed my beer during the break as I tried to make sure I had a reasonable sightline of where Georgia would be singing from. I did – for a while – then a young man with a good head of hair shifted slowly to his left and partly obscured the view. Such is concert life when you are standing!

They came on amid the glaring lights, assumed their positions and started with the album opener Neon. There was no between-songs patter, just a few smiles and thank you’s. Georgia looked elegant in her long dress; Taylor almost dapper in his shirt and tie – auditioning for Kraftwerk, perhaps? The sound was excellent, the lights inventive, enhancing the show. They played for an hour or so, the set focused on the album, although there one or two older tunes, notably The City towards the end. That song is a real pointer to what would come on I Love You Jennifer B.

Highlights for me, and I think the audience too, judging by the reaction, were my three (current) favourites from the album, which have all been singles. Glasgow, with its engaging melody, Georgia strumming her acoustic guitar, was a real crowd celebration, people singing along. One of their more conventional pop songs – except it has swirls of sixties film music and a few other bells and whistles. She’s not going to Glasgow by the way! Concrete over Water might be their most popular song – it’s the most streamed on Spotify for now – and is a rather lovely ballad at heart, that reveals Georgia’s voice at its best. Its refrain had the crowd in full voice again. And finally, of course the last song of the set, the techno banger that is 50/50. That had the crowd actually dancing – it’s impossible not to. And those bass lines – wow! Even through my recently acquired proper ear plug, you could feel the vibrations drilling into your ear drum. And of course it isn’t a straight techno banger – there are all sorts of weird and wonderful things happening as the song progresses, veering it off course and bringing it back again. Meanwhile Georgia chants something about 50/50. In a way, it took me back to some of Deee-Lite’s finest moments in the early 90s – with extra bass.

And as soon as 50/50 was over, they smiled, said thank you again, and were off. Leaving a well-satisfied audience – there was a buzz about the place.

Who knows what Jockstrap will come up with next. Will they even stick together for long? Whatever Georgia Ellery and Taylor Skye come up with, it is bound to be interesting.

A few more photos – just iPhone quality from near the back this time.


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The Orchids at Kew Gardens

Kath and I went to Kew Gardens today to see the Orchids exhibition in the Princess of Wales Conservatory. It opened on 4 February and runs until 5 March. It’s an annual show, but it was the first time we’ve been. The plant life in the conservatory is amazing at any time, not least the cactii and the tropical gardens; but with the additions of the orchids, it was truly stunning. So many types, colours and shapes – extraordinary. This year – maybe all years, I don’t know – the focus was on the orchids of Cameroon. There are around 450 documented species in the country, and no doubt more that are unrecorded. The exhibition included some interesting information about the eco-system of Cameroon, its wildlife and society, embellished with photographs of village life. And I discovered that the name of the country is derived from the Portuguese for prawns!

But the orchids were the stars of the moment. Here are a few of my favourite photos from the visit. One or two aren’t orchids, but I liked the colours!

My camera lens in the tropical area was steaming up, especially for this one.

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Amber Arcades, Hater and Thala at Paper Dress Vintage, Hackney, 1 February 2023

1 February and my first gig of the year. It should have been the second, but the intended first, a free show at Old Blue Last in Shoreditch featuring Gretel Hänlyn, ended in disappointment as we couldn’t get in. That was despite turning up at 8pm for the four band show, thinking that at most we might miss a bit of the first band, Ciel. It was ticketed, and we had tickets, but it transpired that this didn’t guarantee entry. A bit of a shambles.

This time it was a paying show, but another early year showcase, with Amber Arcades headlining, supported by Swedish band Hater and singer songwriter Thala, who is from Berlin. Amber Arcades, as readers of this blog will know, are from the Netherlands. The band is the vehicle of singer and guitarist Annelotte de Graaf. I’ve seen the band a few times live before, having first seen them at End of the Road in 2016. I liked their debut album Fading Lines so much that I made it my album of the year in 2016, ahead of Radiohead’s superb A Moon Shaped Pool.

There was a second Amber Arcades album in 2018 called European Heartbreak, which was a more subdued, less guitar-orientated album than Fading Lines, but had a lovely melancholy about it. And then, after a tour to promote the album, Annelotte and the band faded from view. The pandemic lockdowns didn’t help, of course; but as far as I’m aware, Annelotte didn’t make any music for public consumption during that period. No kitchen or bedroom concerts. I assumed that maybe that was the end of Amber Arcades. But no, here we are in 2023, after a few new singles have been released and with an album due at the end of this week.

I did a bit of prep for this gig, not knowing Thala’s music at all, only being vaguely aware of Hater’s, and having not listened to Amber Arcades that much recently. I put the back catalogues of all three on a Spotify playlist and had a good listen for a couple of days before the concert. I concluded that I liked all three and so should make an effort to get there for the start. I was going on my own, so there was no temptation to go for a beer somewhere else first. I hadn’t been to Paper Dress Vintage before, though I knew about it. It’s just over the road from Hackney Central station and Oslo, another music venue. By day it is a vintage fashion shop. By evening the ground floor becomes a bar and the first floor a music and dance venue. Capacity upstairs is 180, I read. I liked the place – it had a nice, friendly, relaxed vibe. The concert was a sell-out, but people weren’t crammed in. Top marks all round – the organisers of the Gretel Hänlyn fiasco take note. Just one criticism: given that there were three bands, starting at 8.30 was a bit late. I found myself looking at my watch quite often during Amber Arcades, given that I had to get back to west London. Their set ended at ten past eleven – if there was an encore I missed it, as the 11.22 from Hackney Central beckoned!

Thala was first on. She had an album called Adolesence in 2021. A dreamy indie sound, little bit of Mazzy Star. All good in my book. Tonight was a bit different, perhaps because she didn’t have a full band, just an accompanying guitarist Joel, who also controlled the backing rhythm track. They had a few sound problems at first, and Thala seemed a bit nervous, apologising for there being lots of sad songs. But it was really good. Stripped back, the sound was more in the indie-folk mode of favourites of mine like Indigo Sparke, Julia Jacklin and even Phoebe Bridgers. I think a lot of the songs may have been from a forthcoming EP, rather than Adolesence. They tended to start slow and then rock out at the end – in that respect, a song like Julien Baker’s Turn out the Lights comes to mind. I’ll definitely be looking out for what she does next.

With a name like Hater, you’d expect a punk or metal act. In fact Hater play a melodic, again quite dreamy, shoegaze type of indie guitar rock. They’ve been around since 2016, and have released three albums, the most recent of which was Sincere in 2022. I’ve only heard a couple of things on 6 Music in the past, but liked their sound a lot on my pre-gig playlist. Live the sound was harder-edged, punkier, with less of the dreamy melodies, though that may have been partly because the small room didn’t really cope with the loudness of the music. Singer/guitarist Caroline Landahl’s vocals were a bit lost in the mix, I thought. But I really liked the performance. The band were tight, there was good energy and a real sense of enjoyment. Very engaging. I’d like to see them again in a bigger venue, or maybe one of the festivals.


And that left Amber Arcades. Annelotte looked quite tense before she started, and quite different to before, too. Hair shorter, darker; generally a bit more sombre. The band was different, apart from her loyal lead guitarist, who, if I recall correctly, is called Manuel. I read somewhere that the set would showcase the new album Barefoot on Diamond Road; but in fact it was a nice mix, mostly of Fading Lines and the new. Nothing from European Heartbreak, strangely. They started with two of their most popular songs, It Changes and Come with Me. Both upbeat and played with gusto. That set the scene nicely for a really enjoyable set. It was quite a short set, but I was delighted to get Fading Lines (the song) midway through the set and, to my surprise, given there were no keyboards, the epic Turning Light at the end. Manuel really rocked out on that, and I founded myself reminded of Hawkwind’s Silver Machine at one point! Hopefully there’ll be another tour soon where they can play a longer set; and in the meantime I’m really looking forward to giving the new album a good listen.

So, a great start to this year’s gig-going. Not sure I’ll go to as many as last year, but I’ve got some good ones lined up. Next is Jockstrap in Nottingham on 10 February; then The Murder Capital at the O2 Forum in Kentish Town on the 23rd. And I’ll be looking out for future concerts from all three artists I saw this evening.

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Tom Verlaine 1949-2023

I was sad to read late last night that Tom Verlaine, the great singer and guitarist with New York new wave band Television, had died, aged 73. Television shone only briefly in the mid to late 70s, but how brightly they shone. Their 1977 album Marquee Moon is one of the classics of the era, and remains one of my favourite albums of all time. I return to it frequently, and especially the epic title track.

Naturally I wrote about the band and the album in my book I Was There – A Musical Journey. It followed a piece about Velvet Underground – hence the reference at the start.

There was some of the Velvet’s epic quality in a band that jumped out of the New York new wave in 1977 with an album that was truly different, truly original.  It was one of those albums that sounded like nothing that came before and hasn’t been matched, even by the band themselves, since.  Plenty of bands have been influenced by it – notably The Strokes in the US and early Razorlight here in the UK – but no-one has ever come up with quite the same sound as “Marquee Moon” by Television. The band were part of the New York punk scene, supported The Ramones at CBGB’s, featured Richard Hell for a while, etc, etc.  So where did this music come from?  It wasn’t punk: no two minute three chord bashes here.  It was a set of fragile, intense songs, anchored by the title track, a ten minute epic of swirling, filigree guitars and anguished vocals, driven along by a metronomic, jerky bass line.  The metaphors that come to mind are all about delicacy but also sharpness: shards of glass, diamond edges… cold and pristine… but on the edge of breakdown. 

 The singer, writer and lead guitarist was Tom Verlaine. Good name – that French touch seemed right for the music. I don’t know how he was feeling when he made this album, but it could have been intensely happy or intensely sad.  Or both.  But intense, sensitive, raw – it wasn’t just the day job.  That guitar sound had to come deeply from within.  The only sound which I think is comparable, and might have been an inspiration, is the epic soloing of Neil Young on songs like “Cortez the Killer” and “Like a Hurricane”. They have a richer, deeper guitar, but have the same visceral quality, and the same layering of sound, like a meandering river in search of its destination.

 Each song on “Marquee Moon” felt like a lament, or an argument, or just bewilderment.  Fragments of icy guitar intertwined with anxious vocals, leading nowhere in particular. Songs without resolution, hanging on a nervous ledge.  Songs on the edge.  “Torn Curtain”, “Venus”, and my favourite, after the title track, “Elevation”.     

“Marquee Moon” was ecstatically received in the NME.  The great Nick Kent wrote the canonising review.  Television were the new heroes… until the next album.  “Adventure” was given the classic build-‘em-up-knock-‘em-down treatment.  Julie Burchill was brought in to bring it down, to destroy the myth.  Television were no longer the untouchable heroes.  And the truth is, that second album wasn’t great and the band didn’t do much after that.  Tom Verlaine released some decent solo albums where the guitar runs occasionally reached the heights of “Marquee Moon”; but it looks like genius touched Tom Verlaine for just a short while.  Enough to make one of the great albums, an album like no other, a diamond amongst pearls.  But just the one.

Tom Verlaine was born Thomas Miller in New Jersey in 1949. He went to a private boarding school, Sanford, in Hockessin, Delaware, where he made friends with Richard Meyers, later Richard Hell, who is often credited with starting punk’s ripped clothes and safety pin style. They formed a band called the Neon Boys in New York in 1972. It didn’t last long, but Television emerged from the ashes. Richard Hell soon left, to be replaced by Fred Smith. Another guitarist, Richard Lloyd also joined the band. I discovered after I wrote my book that Richard Lloyd was responsible for a lot of the intricate guitar-playing on Marquee Moon. I also didn’t mention their first epic song, Little Jimmy Jewel. Like Marquee Moon itself, it is an amazing, discursive track, quite sinister. The two songs are Television’s masterpieces.

I had the pleasure of seeing Tom and his band play at the Roundhouse in November 2013. It was a wonderful concert, the only time I saw the music of Marquee Moon played live. They did Little Johnny Jewel too. You can read my review here.

Roundhouse, November 2013

Tom made a number of solo albums in the 80s and beyond. I remember Words From The Front with affection – there were some good solos on that! He collaborated with all sorts of artists along the way, including Patti Smith, David Bowie and Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth. But he will be remembered most of all for Marquee Moon, the album and the astonishing ten minute track. As Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite, no stranger to long guitar workouts, tweeted on hearing about Tom’s passing:

Tom Verlaine was a true great. His role in our culture and straight up awesomeness on the electric guitar was completely legendary. Name 10 minutes of music as good as Marquee moon. You can’t. It’s perfect.

Rest in peace, Tom Verlaine.

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A Thames Journey: (10) From Westminster Bridge to London Bridge

View from Victoria Embankment

For this, the tenth stage of our Thames journey, we travel quite a short distance – 2.3 miles along the north side – but one that takes us through the heart of London, old and new. We ended last time at Westminster Bridge. This time we journey to London Bridge, first heading north and then bending around to the east, and heading straight on. Both sides of the river are walkable along this stretch, though the south bank is best for the pedestrian, with no roads and only one diversion off the river – and an interesting one at that.

We’ll start on the south side, because that soon brings us to one of London’s best known landmarks these days, the London Eye. It was erected in 1999 to mark the Millennium and opened to the public in 2000. At the time it was the tallest Ferris wheel in the world, though it has been overtaken since. It is the UK’s biggest tourist attraction, which is evident when you walk along this part of the river! It’s not the only attraction in the vicinity – the old County Hall building, once the home of London’s local government, now houses the Sea Life Aquarium, Shrek’s Adventure and the London Dungeon, as well as a hotel and various restaurants. A place to pass through quickly, unless you are visiting one of these attractions. To be fair, the London Eye is not only a brilliant addition to the skyline, but is absolutely worth having a trip on. The views of London are stunning and there is something remarkable about reaching the top of the cycle, suspended in mid-air, feeling like you aren’t moving at all.

After the London Eye, you walk past Jubilee Gardens and reach Hungerford Bridge. I’ll come back to that once we’ve taken a short trip along the north bank, the Embankment. This is a Victorian construction, the work of Sir Joseph Bazalgette. Prior to the 1850s, the Thames still lapped onto the shores of Westminster, as well as the opposite bank. Both areas were prone to flooding. The Thames was also an open sewer, and smelled so bad that during the summer of 1858, MPs considered leaving Westminster. Bazalgette was commissioned to find a solution, which was to construct a network of underground sewers in London which are still used today. The problem was essentially shifted downstream, to Beckton and Crossness out in the east. Sewage pipes were laid along the Thames shore and then built over – the Victoria Embankment. Similar schemes were applied to the south side, up to Vauxhall – the Albert Embankment – as well as in Chelsea. At the same time on the north side, the District Line tunnel from Westminster to Blackfriars was constructed. Remarkable ingenuity, from which we still benefit.

By Westminster Bridge stands the statue of Boadicea (or Boudicca) and her daughters on a chariot, ready to resist the Roman invaders no doubt. It’s the work of the Victorian artist and engineer Thomas Thorneycroft. It was placed in its present position in 1902. Despite its grandeur it’s quite easy to miss in the tourist throng around the bridge.

Just along the Embankment, past the Millennium pier, are the Battle of Britain monument  and the Royal Air Force memorial, unveiled in 2005 and 1923 respectively. Across the road, in the Whitehall extension of Victoria Embankment Gardens are a number of other war memorials, commemorating the Chindit special forces who served in Burma (now Myanmar), the Korean War and more recently those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fittingly, the Ministry of Defence building looms over them.

Battle of Britain memorial

In the next part of the gardens are a rather odd selection of statues. First there is William Tyndale, a leading figure in the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. He translated the Bible into English and opposed Henry VIII’s annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He was living in exile when he was seized in Antwerp in 1535 and imprisoned near Brussels before meeting a grisly death at the stake in 1836. Clearly a major historical figure, unlike the other two: Henry Bartle Frere, a 19th century colonial administrator, and Sir James Outram, a general in India in the same century. I’m surprised those two haven’t become part of the statue culture war yet. Still, there’s a river nearby if they need one…

The gardens run up to Northumberland Avenue. On the other of the avenue is Embankment tube station and a supporting infrastructure of shops and bars. Villiers Street takes you up to the Strand, with Charing Cross station on its left. The Strand is so-called because it used to be the shore of the river, before Bazalgette and others transformed the area. Note to people unfamiliar with the tube: there is no need to get a tube from Charing Cross to Embankment. You can walk faster.

Beyond the tube station Victoria Embankment Gardens return, with another varied collection of statues, including the Scottish poet Robert Burns, 19th century social reformer Henry Fawcett, a monument to the Imperial Camel Corps (which fought in the first world war) and Richard D’Oyly Carte, the theatre impresario and hotelier who built the Savoy theatre and the adjacent Savoy hotel. It’s an appropriate location for him, as the hotel backs onto the gardens.

Savoy Hotel, river side

The name Savoy derives from Count Peter of Savoy, who was the uncle of King Henry III’s wife Eleanor of Provence. He was made Earl of Richmond and granted land by the river to construct a grand palace in the mid 14th century. The Palace was burnt down in the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. In the 16th century, at the behest of Henry VII, a hospital for the poor was constructed, but it soon gained a reputation for “loiterers, vagabonds and strumpets.” It lasted until 1702, after which part of it was used as a military prison before falling into disuse. Enter Richard D’Oyly Carte…

On the river bank is another monument, Cleopatra’s Needle, with accompanying sphinxes. The needle dates back to 1450 BC and was moved to Alexandria in 12 BC by Queen Cleopatra, to form part of a temple honouring Mark Antony. It was gifted to the British by the ruler of Egypt and Sudan, Muhammad Ali, in 1819, as thanks for British victories against the French in the Battles of the Nile (1798) and Alexandria (1801). The obelisk didn’t arrive in London until 1877 and almost sank in the Bay of Biscay on its journey over. It has a twin, which is in Central Park, New York. It’s a bizarre sight on the banks of the Thames, with the cars roaring by. Arguably, it would better back in Alexandria.

Monuments over, let’s double back to Hungerford Bridge, on which the railway from Charing Cross crosses over the river – first stop Waterloo station. On both sides of the railway bridge there are walkways which afford wonderful views of the river, upstream and downstream. Until I started doing some research for this piece, I’d completely forgotten that these walkways were only opened in 2002, for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. There was something before that – just a narrow path on one side. The original Hungerford footbridge, designed by Brunel, opened in 1845. It was named after Hungerford Market in Charing Cross, on the site that is now the station. It was replaced by a railway bridge in 1864, to connect the new Charing Cross station with the rail network south of the river. Parts of the original suspension bridge were used in the construction of Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol. The rail bridge did initially have walkways on either side, but over the years one or other was closed as the rail bridge was widened and refurbished. A happy balance between trains and pedestrians now exists.

You are never far from an Uber Boat on this part of the Thames!

View from Hungerford Bridge upstream

View downstream

The bridge takes you from Embankment station to the South Bank, and one of the great arts and entertainment complexes to be found anywhere, a jewel in London’s crown. The 60s brutalist buildings may not be to everyone’s taste, but within they are home to music, art, drama, cinema, you name it. The Royal Festival Hall (including the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room), the Hayward Gallery, and beyond Waterloo Bridge, The National Theatre and the British Film Institute. Not to forget the skateboarders arena! The whole area along the river is pedestrianised; there are bars and stalls restaurants all around, a food market behind the Festival Hall, second hand booksellers under the bridge. A place where Londoners and its many visitors can promenade. And all the while the river rolls by, conducting its business in the background. One of my favourite parts of London? Of course it is!

National Theatre

One happy memory for me is from 2020, as we tentatively came out of the first lockdown. It was June. The first time I headed back to central London was to the South Bank. I took a train from Brentford to Waterloo and headed for the river. Where else would I want to be? It was still fairly quiet. I bought a beer from a stall outside the BFI and walked down to the river wall, and just took it all in. The National Theatre, Waterloo Bridge, and further downstream Blackfriars, St Paul’s and the City. The human elements slowly coming back to life; the river its usual relentless self.

Rarely have I enjoyed a pint of lager in a plastic glass so much!

The first Waterloo Bridge was designed by John Rennie, and opened in 1817 as a toll bridge. It was made from granite. Like so many of London’s bridges, it suffered from erosion and what turned out to be unsuitable design – see previous blogs! It was replaced in 1942, but not fully opened until 1945. It is the only London bridge to be damaged by bombing during the war, which is surprising. It’s a pretty functional and unexciting construction, but these days it’s nicely lit up in the evenings, with a streak of purple light. And who can forget the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset? Monet, amongst others, liked to paint the scenes here too. A different bridge, a different world; but there is something that draws you here.

View from Blackfriars in February 2019

Waterloo station sits just behind the South Bank. It’s the busiest station in the UK, serving the south and parts of the south-west of England. Primarily it’s a commuter station, serving the south-west suburbs of London and Surrey and Hampshire. I briefly had to use it in my early days in London, travelling in from Putney and changing onto the London & City underground line to Bank. What a depressing experience that was! Pinstripes and briefcases, all queuing in precise diagonal lines, waiting for the doors to open. Heaven forbid that anyone should break through the queue. Much tutting would ensue. This was 1981.

I took these photos in February 2019. Seen from above, we all turn into Lowry-esque figures

I love the walk beyond the National Theatre up to Blackfriars Bridge. On this side of the river, the gleaming tower that is One Blackfriars is an impressive sight, with the Oxo Tower in the foreground. But the views that take the prize are those of St Paul’s Cathedral and the City, coming ever closer. At low tide there’s a bit of beach that you can walk down to, and get even better views. There’s something exhilarating about being on a beach, with the Thames running by, surrounded by all these spectacular views.

Maybe that’s why the woman in this next photo chose such an unusual place to sit and have a look at her phone (in March 2019). Maybe she was waiting for someone. Maybe she was a friend of the guy doing the digging. Or maybe it was just the sense of freedom, and the restless sounds of the river. I painted a picture of the scene, which I called Girl with Phone. (Took an artistic decision to leave the guy out!)

Back on the north side – which it now really is, as the river is heading east – just after Waterloo Bridge, we come to Somerset House. This has had a varied existence since it was first constructed by the Duke of Somerset (Lord Protector to the young King Edward VI) in the mid-16th century. The Duke never got to see the final product, as he fell out of favour with Parliament and was executed on Tower Hill in 1552! The building came into possession of the Crown and served as a residence to Queen Elizabeth I during the reign of her half-sister (Bloody) Mary. During Stuart times, it was used by the Queen Consorts, with a brief interlude during the Civil War. In Charles II’s reign it was viewed as a centre of Catholic conspiracy. After the Glorious Revolution in 1688 it fell into decline and in the mid-18th century was demolished and rebuilt by Sir William Chambers, with the intention of using it for government offices. This was its main purpose until the 1980s. It was particularly associated with the Inland Revenue (now HMRC). For a time in the 19th century it was also home to various Royal Societies, including the Royal Academy of the Arts (now in Piccadilly). The artistic connection revived following an act of Parliament in 1984 which paved the way for it to become a centre for the arts. The Courtauld Institute moved in, in 1989, bringing with it its amazing collection of Impressionist art. That remains to this day, and is free to see. It’s the equal of the collection in the National Gallery. A bit of a hidden treasure. Today Somerset House is also home to all sorts of creative organisations, hosts a popular ice rink in winter, and holds an acclaimed series of concerts in the summer.

Somerset House, river side

The front courtyard

Soon we come to Temple tube station, then a rather odd monument signifying the boundary of the City of London, and then the Temple itself. This is the home of London’s legal profession, in particular the barristers’ chambers. It’s a tranquil spot in the middle of bustling London, with Fleet Street at its northern boundary, and the Royal Courts of Justice just down the road at the end of the Strand. The area was the home of the Knights Templar in the 12th century, but by the 14th royalty had their hands on it, and the lawyers moved in. Temple Church dates back to the 12th century. The area remains largely accessible to the public, so you can wander around, though most of the buildings are private. It always seems to me like a larger version of an Oxbridge college. There’s a pattern here: you go to a top private school, then Oxbridge, and then are “called” to the Bar, take “Silk” when you become distinguished enough, and spend much of your time in Temple and the Royal Courts of Justice. Seamless. The architecture barely changes.

Middle Temple Hall on left – it’s got a jolly nice canteen

The Temple Church

Inner Temple Gardens

Blackfriars Bridge first opened in 1769, having taken nine years to build. The designer was Robert Mylne, and the style was Italianate. It was originally called William Pitt Bridge, after the Prime Minister (the Elder) but that didn’t catch on, and it took its permanent name from the Dominican monastery which once stood nearby. Of course the original didn’t stand the test of time, and it was rebuilt in the 19th century, opening in 1869. A tram line was on the bridge from 1909 to 1952. It’s a bridge I often find myself crossing, coming out of the tube station, heading for the Tate Modern, a little way downstream on the south side. Like all the bridges in this part of London, there are great views all around.

The Black Friar pub

Blackfriars railway bridge is close by. It now has a Thameslink station on it. Running alongside are some red pillars. They belong to the old bridge, opened in 1884, which carried the London, Chatham and Dover Railway.

Blackfriars railway bridge with the platforms on top

Crossing over Blackfriars Bridge, we take the steps down to the Thames Path and head along to the old Bankside power station, now the Tate Modern. Standing below the railway bridge you can frame a lovely view of St Paul’s on the other side of the river.

The indestructible cathedral – or maybe not. The current, iconic building, designed by Sir Christopher Wren in the late 17th century, survived the German bombs in World War Two; but its predecessor, a Gothic construction, fell victim to the Great Fire of London in 1666, just as its predecessor, an Anglo-Saxon cathedral, was destroyed by fire in 1087. The cathedral is situated on Ludgate Hill, the highest point in the City of London, and so it still holds its own against the mighty towers of the financial district. I think planning laws have also ensured that this remains the case. St Paul’s is the seat of the Bishop of London, and is the location for many nationally significant events: funerals of prominent politicians (including Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher), thanksgiving services for the Queen’s major jubilees and, of course, the wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981. The poet John Donne was Dean of the cathedral from 1621 until his death in 1631.

June 2020 – just coming out of the first lockdown

Misty day in February 2017 – view from Tate Modern viewing gallery

I’ll come back to the City in the next instalment of this journey, but let’s continue now to the Tate Modern and the nearby Millennium Bridge. Two more icons of modern London. The Tate Modern houses one of the world’s largest collections of modern and contemporary art. It officially opened in May 2000. The Bankside power station had closed in 1981 and was at risk of being pulled down. It’s a striking building from the outside; but inside it is a marvel. The huge Turbine Hall, which occupies the central space is an awesome site, cathedral-like. It has been used over the years for some mind-boggling exhibitions. The two that stand out in my memory are Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds in 2008 and Olafur Eliasson’s extraordinary Weather Project in 2004, in which a large sun-like object radiated yellow light through the hall, reflecting off the large mirror covering the ceiling. We all lay on the floor to take it in – and see ourselves reflected in the throng. At that moment you understood why ancient civilisations worshipped the sun.

View from the Blavatnik viewing gallery

Turbine Hall from the side entrance

An extension was built which opened in 2016. Initially known as Switch House, it is now the Blavatnik Building, named after the Anglo-Ukrainian billionaire who contributed to the cost of the extension. As well as galleries it houses an excellent members’ café – which has sadly remained closed since lockdown restrictions were lifted – and has attracted controversy for its viewing gallery on the 10th floor, which allows views into the apartments of some of the nearby high-end residential blocks.

Of course, it’s the art that makes it such a vital part of London’s cultural riches. As well as the numerous galleries of the permanent exhibition (which is free) there are so many fantastic exhibitions, including the wonderful Cezanne show at the moment.

Now on!

The Millennium footbridge is another amazing construction, though it had a wobbly start – literally. Designed by Norman Foster, it opened in June 2000, but was soon closed, as it shook when large numbers of people walked across it. Apparently we have a tendency to walk in lockstep with others and this caused the swaying. So it was the pedestrians’ fault! The bridge had to be redesigned before it was reopened in 2002. No-one calls it the wobbly bridge anymore – they are too busy marvelling at the views, which include the straight line up to St Paul’s.

Bridges galore!

The Shard begins to dominate

June 2020 again

Next to the Tate, we come to the Globe Theatre, once the home of William Shakespeare’s troupe, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The original Globe was built in 1599, partly using timber from another theatre in Shoreditch – without the owner’s agreement! It burnt down in 1613 and was rebuilt the following year. It survived until 1642, when it was closed down with the outbreak of the English Civil War. It never re-opened, and tenements were built on the site. The current theatre, which was modelled on the original, was opened in 1997 and has flown the flag for Shakespeare ever since.

We pass Southwark Bridge – the current version opened in 1921 – before taking a diversion from the riverbank which leads towards Borough Market and Southwark Cathedral. On the north side incidentally, you can take steps down to the river and along an alleyway to the Banker pub, which serves Fullers. Part of the pub is directly under Southwark railway bridge, and if you get a window seat you can watch the boats go by.

Southwark Bridge

Working river

Southwark railway bridge

Pop in for a pint!

Borough Market has existed in one shape or form since 1014, and quite possibly earlier. In the 19th century it was one of London’s most important wholesale food markets, owing to its position near London Bridge and the docks. It fell into decline in the late 20th century, until it was revived by turning into a retail food market. Today it is thriving and is a major tourist attraction. There is a wonderful array of fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, cheese and all sorts of specialities. There are numerous food and drink stalls if you fancy a snack, as well as some excellent restaurants. The smells of all the produce are wonderful. Not the cheapest of places, but the quality is high.

Approaching Borough Market on right – and Southwark Cathedral ahead

Inside Borough Market

Southwark Cathedral is nestled between Borough Market and London Bridge. Between 1106 and 1538 it was an Augustinian priory. With the dissolution of the monasteries under our old friend Henry VIII it became a parish church, St Saviours. For centuries it was, strangely, part of the diocese of Winchester, then from 1877, Rochester. It only became a cathedral in 1905, with the creation of the diocese of Southwark. It retains a lot of its 13-15th Gothic origins, though the nave was rebuilt in the 19th century. The gardens around it are a peaceful place to take a breather from the bustle all around.

And so we reach London Bridge, at the very heart of old London, but alive with the new. The current bridge, which is not the most beautiful, opened in 1973; but there has been a bridge here at least since Roman times. The first bridge may have been constructed around 50 AD (or CE if you prefer). From that point a small settlement called Londinium sprung up. And the rest, as they say, is history. The bridge may have been destroyed in the Boudican revolt of 60 AD, but another was built. The bridge fell into disrepair with the end of Roman rule in the early 5th century, but was rebuilt in the 10th century, possibly by Alfred the Great. It was destroyed again in 1014 by King Olaf of Norway, whose navy tied ropes to the bridge’s supports and pulled the whole thing down. This is thought to be the origin of the song, London Bridge is Falling Down. William the Conqueror rebuilt it after the Norman Conquest in 1066. It was destroyed again, this time by fire, in 1136. The last wooden bridge was rebuilt under King Stephen, one of our least well-known monarchs.

King Henry II commissioned the construction of the first stone bridge in the 1160s. It wasn’t completed until 1209, but by then houses were already being built on it. This bridge, with various alterations over the centuries, lasted until 1831, and became world famous. There were houses, shops, pubs and all sorts of artisans and traders. It became one of London’s main shopping streets, and a centre of much revelry, which resulted from time to time in people falling off the bridge and drowning. The numerous arches supporting the bridge made the currents either side particularly treacherous. On the south side of the bridge there was a gatehouse and drawbridge, which was pulled up at curfew, stranding people who had visited the taverns and theatres of Southwark. They had to rely on the waterman to ferry them across the river. A gruesome tradition sprung up from the early 14th century of displaying the heads of traitors on spikes by the gatehouse. The first recorded head was that of the Scottish leader William Wallace in 1305. Other unfortunate luminaries over the years included the rebel leader Jack Cade (1450), Thomas More (1535) and Thomas Cromwell (1540). There were fires on the bridge from time to time, but by 1666 there was a firebreak that prevented the Great Fire of London spreading to Southwark.

In the late 14th century there were as many as 140 houses on the bridge. The numbers shrank as people started building up – some buildings reached six stories. In the 18th century there were a number of fires. Houses were rebuilt, but quickly began to subside; eventually an act of parliament allowed all the properties to be demolished and the bridge’s structures improved. A temporary wooden bridge was constructed, but that was destroyed by fire in 1758, months after it opened! Supporting the stone bridge, a new “Great Arch” was created, but it weakened the structure, and hastened the bridge’s demise. It was replaced by another stone bridge, just upstream. Designed by John Rennie, it opened in 1831. By the late 19th century the bridge was the most congested place in London. It was also slowly sinking, the east side more than the west. It had to be replaced. In a bizarre twist, the bridge was purchased by an American entrepreneur, Robert P McCulloch, in 1968, and eventually reassembled in Lake Havasu City in Arizona. Its replacement officially opened in 1973 and  remains to this day.

London Bridge in the 20th century became associated with the drudgery of commuters, memorably in the lines from TS Eliot’s poem The Wasteland:

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,                                                                                            A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,                                                                              I had not thought death had undone so many…

Tragically, death, real rather than metaphorical, has returned to London Bridge twice this century, with the terrorist attacks in 2017 and 2019. Westminster Bridge too, was the scene of killings in 2017. We are reminded of this each time we cross by the concrete blocks which now separate the roads from the paths. Let us not forget the suffering of the victims and their friends and families as we also revel in the views from the bridge – upstream the Tate Modern and St Paul’s amongst others; downstream the Shard, HMS Belfast and Tower Bridge; to north the City. We’ll explore the City, the Shard and further downstream in the next instalment of this Thames Journey.

The Shard has been popping up in quite a few of the photos; here are a couple more from either end of London Bridge to whet your appetite for what comes next.

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My Top Twenty albums of 2022

Hysteria by Indigo Sparke – CD bought and signed at the Louisiana, Bristol in November

2022 was the year when live music made its full return after the lockdowns and disruptions of the previous two years. I didn’t make a conscious decision to go to more concerts than ever before, but that’s what happened. 43 gigs and 6 festivals – two weekenders, four one-dayers. Put together, I saw getting on for 150 bands over the year, in a variety of genres, and they shaped my choice of albums of the year in quite a big way. That was partly because I find myself listening a lot to playlists I’ve compiled on Spotify these days, and some of those are quite retro. It explains why Spotify Wrapped told me that my fourth most played band this year was The Clash! But it also meant that I didn’t listen to all that many albums all the way through until quite late in the year – when I knew I needed to do this list!

My top band on Spotify, by the way, was Turnstile. Their show at the Roundhouse in February was one of the best of the year – uplifting punk metal, with a few musical twists thrown in. And their Glastonbury performance was highly entertaining too. They were my go-to band for an energising dose of rock’n’roll this year. Big Thief and The War on Drugs were in the top five as well – again because of great concerts and being on one of my most listened to playlists, which pulls together a whole host of Americana and folk. The final artist in that top five was Indigo Sparke, the Australian indie-folk singer, now based in New York. I loved her 2021 album Echo – No 2 in my top albums – and as for her 2022 release Hysteria, read on.

Before I get to this year’s top twenty, I’d like to mention four albums from 2021 that I didn’t really get to know until this year. They would all have been strong candidates for last year’s list, and this year’s too.

Four from 2021

Glow On by Turnstile. This one got an honourable mention after I first came across it at the end of the year in some of the end of the year selections. As I said above, Turnstile make exhilarating rock’n’roll which draws on punk, metal and rap – I’m occasionally reminded of the Beastie Boys. Don’t Play and Blackout are two of my favourite songs of the year, with their air-punching riffs. But you also get the eerie Alien Love Call, and the almost poppy Underwater Boi. Just huge fun. And I haven’t seen a better live band this year.

Twin Plagues by Wednesday. The Spotify algorithm pointed me to this one, after listening to Big Thief. There are some resemblances in the sound, particularly when Big Thief rock out. The first song I heard though was a beautiful country lament called How Can You Live If You Can’t Love How Can You If You Do. That’s an outlier on an album that features a lot of tangled, searing guitar, a sound of angst and rage. I could hear some My Bloody Valentine – listen to One More Last One – some grunge, some shoegaze in there, as well as Neil Young when he lets go on the electric guitar. It’s an album I come back to again and again, especially the electrifying Birthday Song. The band are from North Carolina, led by Karly Hartzman. I really hope they come to the UK soon.

Space 1.8 by Nala Sinephro. This is an amazing piece of, yes, spacey, jazz. Eight tracks, Space 1, 2, 3, etc. Nala Sinephro grew up in Belgium, with roots in the Caribbean island of Martinique. She’s now based in London, and has worked with the likes of Nubya Garcia and Shabaka Hutchings, two of the stars of today’s London jazz scene. She plays piano, synth and other electronic instruments. It’s such a gorgeous album, especially to listen to late at night. But it isn’t just easy listening – there is always a surprise around the corner.

Vulture Prince by Arooj Aftab. This is another beautiful, atmospheric, album, infused with the sounds of the Asian subcontinent, with reggae dub, with jazz, with sounds from around the world. Arooj Aftab was born in Saudi Arabia, lived in Pakistan as a child, spent some time in London and is now based in New York. She sings mainly in Urdu, but you don’t have to understand the words to be moved by the feeling. I’m a bit late to this one; she did actually win an Emmy this year for one of the album’s songs, Mohabbat, and was nominated for the best New Artist award.

The 2022 Top Twenty

No1. Hysteria – Indigo Sparke

Indigo Sparke is an Australian, based in New York. You could call her music indie-folk, but that wouldn’t capture the richness and intensity of her sound. It is a classic example of the sad but uplifting – duende – captured best in the song Sad is Love, which is not only beautiful, but strangely anthemic as it builds. The middle eight still gives me shivers at times – and I’ve been listening to it a lot! In fact it’s my favourite song of the year – on my favourite album. Last year I made her album Echo my No 2. This year she goes one better. Echo was a sparse beauty; this one is a little fuller, with production by Aaron Dessner – he of The National and Taylor Swift’s brilliant lockdown albums, Folklore and Evermore. He’s had a hand in the songwriting too. I’m thinking he is seeing something in Indigo Sparke that is really special. And I agree! There was never any doubt that this was going to be my No 1 album after I’d listened to it a couple of times. She is a major talent.

No2. Slugeye – Gretel Hänlyn

Gretel Hänlyn (pronounced hen-line) is my favourite new artist of the year. Slugeye, a seven track EP, came out in May and is a wonderful amalgam of indie, pop and rock’n’roll. It’s joyous music, though of course the lyrics are somewhat darker than the sounds. Gretel is a distinctive singer with quite a deep timbre, which gives her melodies a real resonance. The record veers from the rock’n’roll energy of Motorbike and Apple Juice, to the catchiness of It’s the Future Baby, the twist of Slugeye and the plaintiveness of Connie. All of them already crowd favourites – I’ve seen her perform twice this year, the first time being her debut show as a headline artist at the Bermondsey Social Club. There have been two more excellent singles, Drive and Today. Gretel Hänlyn is the future, baby!

No3. The Jacket – Widowspeak

I love this band. The music takes you back – to Mazzy Star, Velvet Underground, REM… and Dire Straits. But it feels fresh, and live at Studio 9294 in Hackney Wick it was something special. It’s a wistful, rolling sound, with Molly Hamilton’s dreamy vocals recalling Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star, which is always a good thing in my book. Fellow band leader Robert Earl Thomas adds subtle guitar which rocks out just now and then. The key song on the album for me is The Drive which, over the lovely rolling beats, challenges someone who had aspirations, but never the drive. Sad or accusatory, I’m not sure. Maybe both. There are a lot of layers in Widowspeak’s music, which reveal themselves to you with each listen. Deceptively laid back – there’s a sting in the tail.

No4. Tableau – The Orielles

This is the Orielles’ third album in four years, and it’s a step change from its predecessors. While Esmé Dee Hand-Halford’s gossamer vocals and Henry Carlyle Wade’s crystalline guitars remain distinctive features, the songs are more discursive, ambient, than before. The band’s early epic Sugar Tastes Like Salt – always a highlight of their live shows – gave a hint that they might eventually head this way. The sound washes over you, envelops you. There aren’t any obvious singles on it, but there is so much to discover as you listen. A slow burn masterpiece.

No5. Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You – Big Thief

Big Thief are a prolific band, and this album runs to twenty tracks. Last time I listened to it, I thought, this is Big Thief’s version of the Beatles’ White Album. Long, meandering, quite raw in places. Erring towards their folkier side, but with the occasional outburst of razor-edged guitar. And still with an element of that Radiohead weirdness. It’s a fascinating, abstract journey through the imagination of singer and guitarist Adrienne Lenker.

No6. A Light For Attracting Attention – The Smile

Talking of Radiohead, The Smile are the next best thing while the mothership remains in port. Compromising Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead, and drummer Tom Skinner from Sons of Kemet, The Smile have conjured up a smorgasbord of sounds that stand on their own, but would stand up as part of the Radiohead canon too. I particularly like The Smoke, with its dub feel, Free In The Knowledge, which has the makings of a Karma Police anthem, and the wildness of You Will Never Work In Television Again.

No7. I Love You Jennifer B – Jockstrap

Jockstrap may be the worst name in music, but the duo of Taylor Skye and Georgia Ellery (who also plays violin in Black Country New Road) have made an album that goes in so many directions that you either get completely confused or say, this is amazing. I’m inclined to the latter. Nothing is ever as it seems. There are bursts of melody, folk even; and then there’ll be a weird diversion, a loopy embellishment. There’s dance, electro, dubstep, musicals. It’s ridiculous on one level, brilliant on another. Every time I listen to it I like it more.

No8. Preacher’s Daughter – Ethel Cain

I’m new to this album, having been led to it by the magnificent song Sun Bleached Files, but I seriously considered putting it straight into the top three. I was bowled over on the first listen. On one level you can hear the likes of Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker and Sharon van Etten; and there’s a bit of today’s soul-pop production in places. But it has an eeriness and a dramatic quality that goes beyond all of that. It’s reaching out to something that can’t quite be grasped. I’m beginning to think it might be a modern Darkness on the Edge of Town.

No9. Pre-Pleasure – Julia Jacklin

In Pressure to Party from her last album, Crushing, Julia Jacklin sings I’ll open up the door and try to love again soon. Pre-Pleasure is the sound of Julia tentatively making her way back into the world of love and relationships. It’s a fragile balance though – on the song Neon she muses, am I gonna lose myself again? The music fits this mood. More piano-based than before, it’s mostly subdued, reflective – and rather beautiful, as always. Julia is channelling her inner Fleetwood Mac at times too, notably on Love, Try Not To Let Go.

No10. Caroline – Caroline

In a record shop you could file Caroline’s debut album under folk, indie, world, prog, even jazz. It has elements of all these, and more. It’s an intriguing, and yes, challenging listen; but the more you do, the more it rewards you. And live, where the songs are bent, stretched, embellished in all sorts of ways, it is truly astonishing. An eight strong music collective from south London, Caroline are on a musical journey that could lead anywhere.

No11. I’m Not Sorry, I Was Just Being Me – King Hannah

King Hannah operate in a space where Mazzy Star meet Neil Young and the blues. Craig Whittle’s guitar playing is a thing of wonder.

No12. Big Time – Angel Olsen

Big Time is Angel Olsen’s coming out album, and she celebrates the moment by delving further into the sounds of country music than previously. A warm, affecting collection of heartfelt songs.

No13. Fear Fear – Working Men’s Club

WMC have always sounded like New Order were an influence, but never more so than on this album. Back to the 80s with some truly infectious beats.

No14. Se Ve Desde Aqui – Mabe Fratti

More beguiling sounds from Mabe Fratti, a Guatemalan cellist based in Mexico. Her music combines the cello with swirling synths, discordant sax, jagged guitar and juddering drums, as her voice, Kate Bush-like floats over it all. The title in English is It is seen from here. I’m none the wiser!

No15. Midnights – Taylor Swift

Taylor returns to her pop base after the more contemplative diversions of Folklore and Evermore. But those albums have left their mark, and she is still looking back and asking questions. Maroon and Karma are highlights for me, but there will more, I’m sure.

No16. Third Page: Resonance – Sun Mi Hong

I bought the CD of this album after seeing Netherlands-based Korean drummer Sun Mi Hong and her band play in the Purcell Room during the London Jazz Festival. It fits the avant-garde bill, but there are moments of real beauty too, especially on the poignant Letter With No Words, addressed to her father.

No17. Reflections – Alina Bzhezinska and the Hip Harp Collective

I saw Ukrainian harpist Alina Bzhezinska and her band play at King’s Place this year. The harp adds a lovely dimension to this collection, which has a Parisian sheen and pays tribute to the music of John and Alice Coltrane.

No18. Life and Life Only – The Heavy Heavy

This seven track EP – the band’s debut – is an unashamedly retro celebration of 60s and 70s rock, particularly as played on the US west coast. Live, the Heavy Heavy are an absolute joy. Highlights here are the rolling rhythms of Miles and Miles and the soulful Go Down River.

No19. We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong – Sharon van Etten

Tender and bruised, angry and defiant, with music to match, this album, billed as her reflections on life in the pandemic, covers all of Sharon van Etten’s bases. Intense and engaging as always.

No20. Hyper Dimensional Expansion Beam – The Comet Is Coming

The title says it all! Cosmic electro-jazz, powered along by the extraordinary saxophone sounds of Shabaka Hutchings – the master.

Honourable Mentions

Warm Chris – Aldous Harding; Blue Water Road – Kehlani; Remember Your North Star – Yaya Bey; Where I’m Meant To Be – Ezra Collective; When Everything Is Better I’ll Let You Know – Pip Millett; Could We Be More – Kokoroko; Feeding The Machine – Binker and Moses; 11 – Sault; Sometimes, Forever – Soccer Mommy; Congregation – Witch Fever; Skinty Fia – Fontaines DC; LP8 – Kelly Lee Owens; Loggerhead – Wu Lu; Conduit – Coby Sey; Blue Rev – Alvvays; Being Funny In A Foreign Language – The 1975; Same Moon In The Same World – Ant Law and Alex Hitchcock; Sorrows Away – The Unthanks; The Car – Arctic Monkeys, Cub – Wunderhorse; Tired Of Liberty – The Lounge Society, Autofiction – Suede; Void – Scalping.

There’s some great music in this list. In many cases the albums could easily be in the top twenty if I’d been able to listen to them more. But then again, what would I leave out? If jazz, funk and worldwide sounds are your thing, Ezra Collective and Kokoroko might appeal. If it’s jazzy soul, with hip hop and reggae influences, Kehlani, Yaya Bey and Pip Millett are recommended. Pip Millett is a favourite of my daughters. Erykah Badu and Amy Whitehouse are clear influences. Sault cover all of the above. Led, we now know, by producer Inflo, they released five albums on the same day in November! I haven’t had time to absorb them yet, but there are some lovely soul sounds on 11, reminiscent of 2020’s masterpiece Black Is. For some hardcore, driving jazz, try Binker and Moses. That’s the ace drummer, Moses Boyd. For a more mellow jazz experience, Ant Law and Alex Hitchcock, who I saw with Sun Mi Hong (No16 above) do the trick very nicely. Coby Sey’s album is darkly atmospheric, in the mould of Tirzah, in whose band he plays. And Wu Lu fuses rap with hardcore punk and rock. At its best – the song South especially – it is visceral.

There’s a variety of what might be categorised as indie records on the list. Very new to me is the angry punk sound of Witch Fever from Manchester. Lounge Society are this year’s sound a bit like Squid entry, with a bit of the Libertines in the mix. They’re good live. I love Alvvays but have only listened to Blue Rev once. It’s bound to grow on me. Soccer Mommy’s album is grungier than earlier efforts and worked well live. The 1975 took me back to, well… 1975. Suede’s latest is impressive and I’m looking forward to seeing them live next year. Wunderhorse occasionally fly too close to Britpop, but there are some epic guitars on the likes of Butterflies. Meanwhile, if you enjoy piledriving industrial beats, then Scalping might be for you.

The Unthanks album is a rich blend of folk sounds, old and new, with the voices of sisters Rachel and Becky beautiful as ever. Half of Aldous Harding’s Warm Chris is of the usual high standards, but I found it petered out a bit towards the end. Brilliant live at End of the Road though. Kelly Lee Owen’s LP8 conjures up a brooding atmosphere, but has one or two cringe moments. I’ve tried hard with Fontaines DC’s Skinty Fia, and Jackie Down The Line is good, but it’s just rather dull – as was their recent concert at Hammersmith Apollo. A rethink needed, I’d say. That leaves Arctic Monkeys. The Car has had some rave reviews. I thought they were very good on Jules Holland. But Alex Turner doing his David Bowie croon doesn’t really do it for me over a whole album. Give me I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor any time!

So, another great musical year, and I’m already looking forward to another in 2023. Already have a nice line-up of gigs in addition to the festivals, including Gretel Hänlyn, The Murder Capital ( back at last!) Gwenifer Raymond, Killing Joke, Biig Piig, Suede, a couple of jazz guitarists, Lee Ritenour and Matt Schofield, Alvvays, and then…. Turnstile! AND then…. Brooooooce!!! Hyde Park in July.

Which reminds me, I’ve completely forgotten to listen to Bruce’s soul covers album, Only the Strong Survive, all the way through. On the basis of what I have heard I think I can live without it.

Terry Hall, RIP

And finally, respect to Terry Hall, singer with The Specials, as well as Fun Boy Three and the Colourfield, who died recently. His droll but incisive delivery was an important part of The Specials’ appeal. As part of the 2 Tone label they played such an important part in bringing people of all backgrounds together for the love of ska and reggae music. And it was music with a message, notably on the classic Ghost Town – an indictment of the state of Britain in the early 80s, as the Thatcher government fought inflation (and the unions) with the most brutal of recessions. More than anything though, the best Specials music just made you want to dance. Gangsters, Message To You Rudi, Too Much Too Young, all wonderful. Of their time, and timeless. Rest in Peace, Terry.

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Sportsthoughts (171) – Reflections on the World Cup as England bow out

So now it’s 56 years of hurt (for the men’s team that is). That means in the 2026 World Cup it will be 30 years since Baddiel, Skinner and the Lightning Seeds first sang, thirty years of hurt. Thirty years since thirty years! That’s a lot of hurt – unless, of course, we win the Euros in 2024. I’m not counting on it.

But did it really hurt? For me, not really. Maybe it’s age, maybe it’s the lowering of expectations after all the near misses – or maybe it’s because England were good in this World Cup. They were brilliant against Iran, mediocre against the USA, decent with flashes of excellence against Wales and pretty impressive against Senegal, who were, after all, the African champions. We went into the France game thinking we had a chance, and played our part in an evenly-matched game, decided by France’s more clinical finishing and that penalty miss…

Fortune’s always hiding, as we like to sing at West Ham.

England have played in 16 World Cups from 1950, their first. They rather snootily refused to participate before that. They have reached 7 quarter finals including this one, two semi finals and, of course, won in 1966, since when the hurt clock has been ticking. Some good teams have been knocked out in the quarters before, notably the 1970 team and arguably the 2006 golden generation. They have also failed to qualify on three occasions: for the 1974, 78 and 94 tournaments. So going out to France in the quarter finals on Saturday was a kind of average achievement. But it felt better than that.

Why is that? I think it’s a mixture of things: goodwill, potential and the strange circumstances of this tournament.

First, the goodwill. The 2021 Euros, badly though they ended in the final – especially the behaviour of some fans – generated a good feeling about this England squad. A young, diverse, united team, not beholden to the old cynicism and rivalries. Led by an enlightened and articulate manager in Gareth Southgate. That all carried on into this competition.

Second the quality and potential of the team itself. It has weaknesses, of course, but there are so many exciting players, with more to give. Saka, Foden, Bellingham, Rice, Rashford to the fore. A steady defence, if a little vulnerable in the centre. A concern about what happens when Harry Kane isn’t fit. But strong foundations. I think we can be optimistic about the future.

Then there is this tournament. The circumstances in which Qatar won the bid. The human rights issues, the treatment of workers. It’s not as if World Cups haven’t been staged in reprehensible countries before, but with social media what it is today, this competition had a downbeat feel before it started. And for us in the northern hemisphere, it’s taking place in winter, and has disrupted our domestic leagues. It’s hard to be sure, but I think it has made us feel more detached from events on the field. Adults that is – the kids are as passionate as ever.

Put all this together, and it didn’t feel as bad when England were knocked out as it has in the past. And when you think about all the other top teams who have been eliminated early – Brazil especially, but also Belgium, Germany, Spain and Portugal – we are not alone. Early, of course, is relative to expectations. I think the Brazilians must be suffering most. The World Cup was theirs for the taking. There was hubris in the team selection for the quarter final against Croatia – essentially five attackers and just one defensively-minded midfield player in the front six of the nominal 4-3-3. It was more of a 4-1-1-4. Naturally the Croatians, an experienced and talented team, who got to the final last time, controlled midfield for most of the game. And they know how to take penalties.

So what now? France are probably the best team left, but I have a feeling that Messi might drag Argentina past Croatia in Tuesday’s semi-final and then light up the final. It’s his last chance. It would be a great story. But just as likely, it will be Mbappe and Griezmann – the best player in the England-France game by a mile – stealing the show. Unless of course, Morocco do what Greece did in the 2004 Euros.

It couldn’t happen, could it?

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lovelondonscenes 173 – A walk from Blackfriars to Hackney Wick in the winter sunshine

On Thursday it was chilly – 2 degrees at most – but gloriously sunny. Dave, Jon E and I had arranged a walk that started with breakfast at the Table cafe in Southwark Street, and ended in Hackney Wick, which I wanted to revisit in the daylight after my recent trip there to see Widowspeak at Studio 9294.

I took the tube to Blackfriars, and enjoyed the walk over the bridge, with the One Blackfriars tower glistening in the sun.

On the way along Southwark Street to the Table cafe you could catch views of the Tate Modern, a short distance away, by the Thames.

The Table is an excellent place for breakfast and brunch. Scrambled egg and smoked salmon, with a side dish of spinach, is a great start to the day, as far as I am concerned!

Coming out of the cafe there was a great view of the Shard to the east.

We headed past Borough Market, then down St Thomas Street, past London Bridge station and the Shard to Bermondsey Street, where we popped into the White Cube gallery to take a look at the Harland Miller exhibition.

Then it was along to Tower Bridge. The bridge was up, so we had a wait, but the views were enough to keep us occupied.

The walk from Tower Bridge to Limehouse is only occasionally right along the river, but one spot gives you this great view of Canary Wharf in the distance.

Just before going up to Limehouse Basin, we stopped for a beer at the Grapes, one of the pubs along the route which are among the oldest in London. The Grapes dates back to the 16th century. Later, Charles Dickens was a patron, and his novels and images line the walls.

Limehouse Basin is the end point of the Regent’s Canal and the River Lea Navigation, also known as Limehouse Cut at its bottom end. We took Limehouse Cut up to Bow Locks and Three Mills Island. A fascinating area – mostly industrial, but also a little piece of Bruges in East London.

From there it was along the Lea Navigation, past the London Stadium – the home of my football team, West Ham – to the White Post Lane bridge. Some great views of the stadium from the bridge.

From there it was straight into Queen’s Yard, an old industrial yard, now converted into a number of bars and restaurants. The Yard Theatre and Hackney Wick Overground station are close by. I was hoping to start in the Howling Hops, which I enjoyed before the Widowspeak concert, but it was closed for a private function. Fortunately there was an alternative in the same space, which I’d planned for us to visit anyway – the Crate Brewery. A converted print factory, I believe. Beer brewed on the premises, and top quality, as was the crispy pizza we shared.

It was a great place to spend a couple of hours. After that Jon left us for a Christmas party down in south London. Dave and I made our way to Bethnal Green and spent a few hours in the Renegade Urban Winery, under the arches near the tube station. They make their own wines, from imported grapes (and some from England). All really nice, quirkily given people’s names. In the course of the evening we sampled Janet, Alf, Sara and Courtney! The food – tasting plates – were good too.

8-9 miles of walking, endlessly fascinating and in splendid sunshine. Four excellent eating and drinking experiences, and a little bit of art on the side. A nice balance, you could say!





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