Last week I had the unusual experience – at least outside Latitude – of going to four concerts in six days. Quite varied and all good in their different ways.
First up was The Staves at the Roundhouse. This was the biggest of the London concerts that I have seen so far. The place was sold out. The band are really going places. They are a different band now. We still get the beautiful harmonies, but the sound is fuller, rockier, geared up for the live experience and bigger venues. I have to say they get better every time I see them. This time they had a violinist in tow, who really added to atmospherics of the sound, and a trombonist to add further nuances.
Not surprisingly, the main feature was songs from the latest album, “If I Was”, but we had lovely versions of “Winter Trees” and “The Eagle Song” (which works so well live) too. And a speeded up, rocky version of “Mexico” which kind of worked. Worth a try, but I felt the wistfulness of the original was lost a bit in the beat. The highlight was the combination of “No You, No Me, No More” and “Let Me Down”, which was sparkling in its intensity and featured some astonishing vocal pyrotechnics. A few effects were added towards the end of “Let Me Down”, which gave you the sense that they might be about to launch into “Bohemian Rhapsody” at any moment!
“Steady” was a melodious opener, “Blood I Bled” its elegant self, with a hint of prog, and “Horizons” was at a new level. The main set ended with “Damn it All” where part two of the song allowed the band really to rock out. And “Teeth White” in the encore was truly upbeat, American and probably a pointer to the future. It sent everyone home happy.
A seriously good show.
The next day I was back in Camden, at a bar/venue called the Forge. A nice spot with decent beer on tap. We were there to see an Oklahoma folk singer called Samantha Crain. I heard her for the first time on BBC 6 Music earlier this year. The songs was a lovely track called “Kathleen”, from her recent album “Under Branch & Thorn & Tree”. I’d recommend it, along with her previous album, “Kid Face”. These are songs about struggle, about people trying to make their way. And lost love, of course. Perhaps the most gripping song is “Elk City”, a story of a woman who means to escape said city with her lover, falls pregnant and stays. And never leaves, although she dreams of it all the time. Her daughter grows up, does well at college and does leave Elk City. The woman is proud of her, but also bitter that she never managed it herself. Samantha tells a good story when introducing her songs and she says that this story is based on a conversation she had with a woman in a bar. The woman sat next to her and just told her life story, unprompted. Some of us may well have made our excuses pretty quickly, but Samantha Crain listened, wrote it down later, and now it’s a song. It’s fair to say it’s one that Bruce Springsteen might have written, and I guess that is part of her appeal to me.
She was accompanied by another guitarist (also acoustic, but playing most of the runs) and a drummer. It was a good sound. Quite simple but refined, solid playing. Honed by many a live show, I’m sure. Music from the heart of America.
The next venture was at the Bulls Head pub in Barnes, an attractive bit of South West London, nestling along the Thames. I cycle past it all the time. Four of us went and had a rather good meal first in the pub restaurant. That might account for the fact that half way through Alan Price’s first set, I felt rather tired and looking around at the audience, most of whom were even older than me, de-energised. This was despite the fact that the musicianship was excellent and so many of the songs familiar pop favourites. Alan Price, of course, was in The Animals and went on to have a successful solo career. I’m no stranger to nostalgia shows, but this time I just wanted to feel some youthful energy somewhere. No criticism of Alan Price and his band, who were all highly talented musicians with some pretty impressive CVs. And in the second half, which was less about the old pop favourites and more about some hard-edged R&B, before a finale which included “House of the Rising Sun” I revived. So, a quality show, with some amusing, deadpan storytelling from Alan. He plays at the Bulls Head once a month if you fancy seeing it for yourself.
And finally, the day after the tragic, atrocious events in Paris, I was at the Barbican for a sell-out show headlined by young jazz superstar Kamasi Washington. He’s known, amongst other things, for his sax playing and arrangements with Kendrick Lamar on his epic album of this year, “To Pimp a Butterfly”. Talking of epic, Kamasi Washington’s 2015 album is called “The Epic”, and no wonder. It’s about three hours long and just awesome in its scope. When I first heard it, I thought how can I ever listen to all of it? It felt like every track had everything but the kitchen sink on it. But as I listened before the concert and then afterwards, songs began to reveal their depths to me, the individual performances started to make their mark. It’s an extraordinary piece of work and the live performance reflected that. But Kamasi allowed all of his band members to thrive. Not just playing the traditional jazz solos, but each taking the lead on a particular song – driving it along.
This was one of those shows where you think, these guys are playing at a different level to most people. Brilliant musicianship, songs that took you everywhere on the jazz spectrum, and a tremendous sense of togetherness. Spectacular, but not in a showy way – just in the enormity of it all. Kamasi was humble, deeply indebted to his fellow players, all of whom seemed to be close friends. He even had his father, Rickey, up there, playing flute on a few pieces. What a wonderful thing to do, that.
The show was compered by the great Gilles Peterson, and the opening band Go Go Penguin were excellent too. They played some lovely atmospheric pieces, and for the last, “Veils” teamed up with a dance troupe, choreographed by Lynne Page. New Jazz/ New Dance! Loved it. The best in fusion.
So the whole thing was an uplifting spectacle. Couldn’t stop those thoughts about Paris, but it was a reminder of the beauty and power of music. Which is why, of course, the terrorists are so frightened of it that they targeted people at the Bataclan simply enjoying the hard rocking of Eagles of Death Metal. But they won’t overcome that beauty and power – and love. It is so much bigger than they can ever be.