GospelbeacH and Danny George Wilson at the Betsy Trotwood, Clerkenwell, 1 March 2020

On Sunday I went down to Clerkenwell, early evening, to see a gig at the Betsy Trotwood pub which had been organised by a friend of mine, Paul. I think I’m keen on music, but I’m absolutely not worthy in comparison to Paul. Neil Young and Grateful Dead are his benchmarks, but he has a wide range of musical tastes, including Americana, Americana and… Black Sabbath!

There were two performances yesterday. First Danny George Wilson, recently of Danny and the Champions of the World, but before that Grand Drive, one of my favourite bands of the late 1990s/early 2000s. Yes, I loved the music of Grand Drive, after being introduced to their first album, “Road Music” by a colleague in the civil service in 1999. I gave them a good write up in my book, “I Was There – a Musical Journey”. (Available on Amazon!). They made five albums. The first three were the best, full of wonderful, often wistful and always melodious tunes. The reference points were REM, the Beatles, Neil Young, maybe Teenage Fanclub, Bob Dylan – great reference points. While the last album, “Everything” wasn’t quite in the same league, it did have a song, “Talking in Your Sleep”, which I played to death on my iPod, walking into work from Green Park at one point. Memories!

After Grand Drive I saw Danny play a couple of times. Once at Bush Hall in Shepherds Bush, when he was promoting his album “Hearts and Arrows”. I think you could call this his Bruce Springsteen phase. And second, in 2013 at Leyton Working Men’s Club in the East End, when, with a full band he played a scintillating show which reminded me of Van Morrison at his best, Graham Parker and even Steely Dan, with its jazziness. Great stuff!

But yesterday was the first time since then. Danny was opening for GospelbeacH and played for about three quarters of an hour. He opened, to my delight, with “Love and the Truth”, a Grand Drive song from their fourth album, “The Lights in this Town are Too Many to Count”. On the album there’s a murky electric guitar threading its way through the song; at this show it was a stripped-down acoustic affair with some Dylanesque harmonica. A real tour de force and the first of four songs that ran into each other, with occasional bursts of that harmonica. Later on, he brought on a fellow singer called Robin Bennett for a couple of songs, before finishing with a lovely version of Grand Drive’s “Firefly” from their third album “See The Morning In”.

So yeah, this was a nice bit of updated nostalgia for me, but also an encouragement to see Danny perform again, with more time. I’ve made a note to do so!

GospelbeacH, the headliners, were new to me, but I did a bit of mugging up on Spotify before the show, taking in their debut album from 2015, “Pacific Surf Line” and recent release “Let it Burn”. I liked the sound: classic Americana with a Californian west coast tinge. A sound rooted in the 1970s (if not the 60s) but constantly updated. I really liked some of the guitars – without Paul’s compendious knowledge of Americana I was hearing a bit of the Allmans, the Byrds, maybe just a touch of Lynyrd Skynyrd, but most of all, within my fairly limited listening in the genre, the Jayhawks. By that I don’t mean copying, but just in a similar vein.  I can never resist describing bands I haven’t heard before in terms of bands I do know!

What I can say is the set that GospelbeacH played last night was really enjoyable. Uplifting. It felt like a celebration of that Americana sound. The opening song, “Sunshine Skyway”, set the tone. It was also the name of a very nice IPA of the same time which was on tap at the bar. I enjoyed three pints of it!

The singer, acoustic guitarist and main man is Brent Rademaker. He was accompanied by Matt on electric guitar and Jonny on keys. There was a bit of that west coast jauntiness, but also some lovely, wistful songs with mellifluous guitar solos from Matt. “Get it Back” and “Bad Habits” were two examples, both from the new album.  They are the sort of solos I associate with the likes of the Allmans and Skynyrd; I have a feeling the Grateful Dead would be more accurate, but to date, I’ve resisted Paul’s invitations to delve into that band. I think it comes from my 70s punk aversion to hippy music…

I also really enjoyed one of the last songs, “You Ain’t Going Nowhere”, a cover of the song by Bob Dylan and the Band, which is on “The Basement Tapes” album. A real singalong song, which got the assembled throng going. And an indication of the roots of this music, I think.

So thanks to both acts, and to Paul for getting it together. A great evening.

 

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Fontaines DC at Brixton Academy, 25 February 2020

Dublin band Fontaines DC have had a pretty meteoric rise over the past year, powered by their terrific album “Dogrel”. Anyone who has any liking for punk and indie must surely find “Dogrel” irresistible, and that was reflected in the fact that BBC 6 Music and Rough Trade, amongst others, made it their album of 2019. I had it fourth in the end, but it could easily have been top three. And it is still growing on me. The rockers – upbeat in sound though not necessarily in tone – hit you straightaway, with the joyous Ramones-style “Liberty Belle” the best of a great bunch. I love the philosophising of singer Grian Chatten at the beginning of “Chequeless Reckless” too: an idiot is someone who lets their education do all of their thinking. But in time the greater subtleties of songs like “Television Screens” and “Roy’s Song” reach into you. There’s a bit of celtic wistfulness in those pieces. And then there’s the Pogues dead-ringer “Dublin City Sky” to give it the finishing touch, and root it in the band’s home city. The album is an uplifting listen every time.

The band have developed a strong live reputation too. The front rows mosh energetically to “Big”, “Too Real”, “Liberty Belle”, “Boys in the Better Land”  and “Chequeless Reckless”, while “Sha Sha Sha”, “Television Screens” and “Roy’s Tune” are just asking to be sung along to.  As is “Dublin City Sky” when they play it. I saw them live for the first time at End of the Road last year, in a packed BBC Music tent. Didn’t have a great view, but it rocked. No “Dublin City Sky” on that occasion. It whetted my appetite for a full show.

And so to a sold-out Brixton Academy on Tuesday. In the seats with Jon G, looking forward to being able really to take them in. That didn’t quite work, as everyone stood up for the whole show! And we couldn’t see any of the audience below, just hear them. But we could see the band, and it was a chance to reflect on how they go about their business. The focal point is very much Grian Chatten. He is known for patrolling the stage with a kind of restless strut, adding to the music’s sense of agitation. There was a bit less of that at Brixton – maybe he is just becoming more relaxed with experience. Overall though, it is a fairly static performance – the music does the talking. Certainly Grian doesn’t. There are very few between-song exchanges with the audience. That was a bit of a shame because the band have taken the opportunity offered by headlining a big show to introduce quite a few new songs. Six at my count. Not new as in just off a newly-released album, but new new. None are on Spotify, for example, though I did hear an interesting Rough Trade podcast with the band a while back in which they referred to some new tracks which were on a vinyl EP.

They started with a new song, which Setlist FM tells me was called “A Hero’s Death”. Then it was “Chequeless Reckless” and “Sha Sha Sha”, before another new one, “Televised Minds”. That was the pattern for much of the show. It was good to have an hour and a half, and it is always interesting to hear how the music is developing, but the dynamic of the show was disrupted by the alternation between “old” favourites and the unfamiliar. The new ones were also mainly mid-tempo. If they indicate where Fontaines are heading then the energy rush of “Dogrel” may prove to be a one-off.

It all came together at the end as the band piled through “Boys in the Better Land”, “Hurricane Laughter”, an anthemic “Dublin City Sky” and then the double delight of “Liberty Belle” and “Big”. I rather wished I could have seen the front rows’ reactions for those two!

So it was an enjoyable concert for sure; but the sound was a bit murky and they do lose a bit of pace with the guitar tuning and noodling in between songs. The sound issue, I think, might be because the Academy’s speakers are really very powerful, maybe too powerful for the space. I contrasted that two days later with the excellent sound for Big Thief at Hammersmith Apollo, a similar sized venue. The convex hanging speakers at Hammersmith were at best two thirds of the size of those at Brixton. But there is also a need, looking ahead, for a bit more of what my friend Dave would call stagecraft. It’s something that their compatriots The Murder Capital exude, and it really does add to the music. Maybe Fontaines will always let their music do the talking. In that case they need better sound to maximise their impact.

I’m well aware that I’m just an old geezer in the seats – not exactly Fontaines’ target audience. And people were definitely buzzing at the end. But I’d like to see the band go on to even greater things.  “Dogrel” is such a great start. A little more of that stagecraft will help them go a long way.

 

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Two kinds of Indie: The Murder Capital at SWX Bristol; Gengahr at EartH Hackney

I’ve been to two concerts this week: one incredibly good, the other a bit disappointing. It’s prompted the thought: how many indie bands were at their best with their first album? All those ideas that built up over their youth channelled into that first full expression of what they are about. All the energy and passion that comes with having something to prove. And then the confidence builds, more people come to see you, you get better equipment, even your own roadies! And you go into the studio again… and you spend more time refining the sound, you sing about the trials of tribulations of being on the road, of fame and depression. And sometimes it’s better than the first album, but quite often it’s lost a bit of that original spark. The so-called difficult second album – which is sometimes followed by that difficult third album, before you then declare that you are going back to your roots. And so on. In fact, a lot of bands have disbanded by then – they shine brightly for just a short while, and we remember that burst of creativity, unsullied by the challenges of reinvention (or repetition), with affection.

The Stone Roses, The Strokes, Arctic Monkeys, Kaiser Chiefs, Royal Blood, Jesus and Mary Chain, Glasvegas, Foals: just a few of the bands I’ve liked over the years which fit the description. And amongst current favourites, Chvrches may not surpass “The Bones of What You Believe”, and likewise Wolf Alice with “My Love is Cool”. Honeyblood bucks the trend with the second album, “Babes Never Die” looking to be Stina’s masterpiece, though arguably the first, “Honeyblood”, captures the essence of her songs most authentically.

Of course there are many exceptions – take Radiohead as an exemplar of constant and successful reinvention. And it also depends on when you discover a band, of course. If you are there at the beginning, then what attracted you to them initially sets the bar. If you come to them later, you might see that as the essence and the earlier stuff as a journey to that point. The joy of discovery is a big part of enjoying music and live performance and it is often hard to better that moment.

So what I’m about to describe in respect of the two bands I saw this week – The Murder Capital and Gengahr – is probably as much about where they are in the cycle of discovery and development as anything else.

The Murder Capital – SWX Bristol, 19 February

The Murder Capital were my band of 2019. The best live performers and makers of my favourite album of the year, “When I Have Fears”.  The dark, brooding power of the album translates into an intense and exhilarating live show. There’s a sense of theatre about the band’s performance, in particular the singer James McGovern, who delivers his words with menace and swagger.

I saw the band three times last year: all at festivals, culminating in the awesome performance at End of the Road. I thought that would be hard to beat, but at SXW this week I thought they were even better. They are on the upward curve still, basking in the glory of an acclaimed first album and a sell-out tour, growing in confidence and proficiency. They crashed into the show with a blistering “More is Less”, followed by an excoriating “For Everything”, with James inviting the willing crowd to sing the chorus. We then moved into the suite of slower songs, bristling with that power and menace in “Slowdance 1 and 2”, poignant and glowering in “On Twisted Ground”, “Green and Blue” and “Love, Love, Love”. To think I thought “Slowdance” was a bit of a dirge at Latitude! Now, with the benefit of familiarity, I find it captivating, especially the astonishing guitar work in part two, which was spine-tingling at SWX. “On Twisted Ground” was beautiful, with James and bassist Gabriel Blake spotlighted against the darkness. It’s the song that most reminds me of U2. Its poignancy was heightened by the dignified speech James made after “Slow Dance 2” lamenting the UK’s departure from the EU and calling for togetherness. He had the audience with him on that.

And then, after the brooding and reflection, the boosters were put on again for the final two songs: “Don’t Cling to Life” and “Feeling Fades”. Pure exhilaration. A sense of celebration. A band at the peak of its powers.

But is it the peak? It’s hard to imagine in the case of the Murder Capital. I’d venture they have a lot more to say. And you know, they could be the next U2, without quite so much of the bluster. But even if this is their best shot, “When I Have Fears” their finest album, it will really be something to remember them by.

Slowdance 2

Gengahr – EartH Hackney, 21 February

It hurts to say this, but Gengahr might be fitting the first was best description to a tee. For me that is, because they have just finished their most successful tour to date with a sell-out show at EartH. Local territory for the band – it must have been a wonderful homecoming. They have their most successful single ever, “Heavenly Maybe”, on the Radio 1 playlist, as well as on 6 Music. I’m very pleased for them – they deserve it. Only trouble is, for me, that I’m not so keen on their new album, their third, “Sanctuary”.

Let’s start with the positives, though. I loved their debut, “A Dream Outside” and it was my top album of 2015. There was something different about them: lovely but slightly off-kilter melodies, Felix Bushe’s distinctive falsetto and, best of all, John Victor’s bursts of incandescent guitar. The song that first drew me in was “Powder”, but the whole album was a delight, especially signature tune “She’s a Witch”, the rumbling “Heroine” and the wistful “Lonely as a Shark”. Album two “Where Wildness Grows” in 2018 was a bit of an overblown beauty. Layers and layers of sound, but with those guitars still busting out, especially on the magnificent “Carrion”. Strangely they didn’t seem to tour that album much, though I did catch them playing a small show at All Points East which absolutely rocked.

And so to “Sanctuary” and the show at EartH, in which it featured heavily of course. I have to admit that I was a little underwhelmed by the album. It seemed blander, more mainstream indie-pop than the previous efforts. I likened it to Two Door Cinema Club and Bombay Bicycle Club – likeable but, for me, rather lightweight bands. Music for a different generation – both are really popular with indie-loving 20 and 30 somethings. It struck me that Gengahr were adapting their sound in a bid for a wider audience. Absolutely nothing wrong with that – good luck to them. Getting onto Radio 1 gets you a much wider reach and a younger audience. But most of those magnificent guitar breaks have gone and none of the tunes have really got into my head (not yet, anyway).

That feeling translated to the show at EartH. For me, it never really took off, apart from a brief burst of energy with “Heroine”, until near the end with “Carrion” (though the sound was rather muddied) and “She’s a Witch”, which oddly felt a bit out of place. Perhaps I was just a bit jaded by then; but its status as the signature tune seems to have been usurped by “Heavenly Maybe”, which was kept back for the encore. That one certainly got the most joyous reception from the crowd. It’s a catchy, quite funky pop tune. Not the first time they’ve employed the funk – there’s a bit of it on the first album. But as they have made a breakthrough with that sound, I guess it will feature more in future. Not much chance of “Powder” getting an airing!

As I sat down to write this piece, I reappraised the gig in the cold light of a new day. Had I been a bit harsh? Was it because I enticed my mate Dave along with a promise that Gengahr are ace live – great guitars (as well as the prospect of some excellent tapas at Escocesa in Stoke Newington) and there weren’t many fireworks? Was it because they have moved on and I haven’t? Or have they just blanded out in the search of a wider audience? All of the above, I think.

You can’t win ‘em all!

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Angel Olsen at the Hammersmith Apollo, 11 February 2020

Angel Olsen is an American singer-songwriter with a bit of edge who knows how to rock. I first came across her music when she released her 2016 album “My Woman”, which met with a lot of acclaim. I liked her voice – a combination of vulnerable and defiant – and the guitars. The song that I really loved was “Sister”, a seven minute epic which built slowly and ended with a guitar workout that had a lot of Neil Young at his most raucous in it. Around that time I bought a ticket for one of her concerts but then realised I was going on holiday at that time, so missed her. I didn’t listen to her music all that much after that, except “Sister”, which made it onto quite a few of my playlists. But I had a lot of respect for what she was doing.

Last year she released “All Mirrors”. It’s another album about a relationship break up and is  pretty hard-hitting. It was in a lot of top tens and twenties in the end-of-year lists. But I struggled to get into it at first. I’m not sure what it was – maybe a bit overblown sonically, and a lot of violins, which sometimes rings alarm bells for me. But I bought a couple of tickets for her show at the Hammersmith Apollo, and Jon G took up the other. I gave it another few listens before the show and thought, I’ve underestimated this a bit. It could be good live.

And you know what, it was amazing! It was such a good show. There was a real power in the music, an intensity and beauty too. And those violins (in fact one violin and one cello) were great, adding an extra dimension to the music. Angel’s voice was scintillating and at times very moving. There was an anthemic quality to a lot of the tunes, especially those from “All Mirrors”, which took up the first half of the show, with a couple of slower ones at the end. Jon suggested a connection which hadn’t occurred to me, which was the Cocteau Twins, a Scottish duo whose heyday was the 1980s. They too had a big sound, with Elisabeth Fraser’s vocals floating rather ethereally over it all. Angel Olsen’s sound is a bit sharper and harder, but I got what Jon was thinking about. The title song “All Mirrors”, which was second in the set, was perhaps the best example.

I was reminded a little, too, of Sharon van Etten, in her new, rocky mode. But Angel was less flashy and a bit deeper. She was also genuinely pleased and even overawed at playing the Apollo. Highlights for me were “New Love Cassette” and “All Mirrors” at the beginning; “Lark” (which opens the new album); a rather lovely, almost solo, keyboard piece called “Tonight” which Angel dedicated to me; the feisty “Shut Up Kiss me” off “My Woman” which was greeted ecstatically by the crowd; and… I’m so glad… “Sister”. What a version! A true epic. I loved every minute of it.

So, I thought the concert would be good, but it was better than that. It was brilliant. Without ever being overstated, Angel Olsen and her excellent band made powerful, anthemic music. A classic example of the live performance really bringing out the best in the songs. A great start to my concert-going in 2020!

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lovelondonscenes 167 – from Canary Wharf to Islington

I went on a walk Friday before last with the main intention of doing the bit of the Regent’s Canal that I hadn’t done before, which was the stretch between Haggerston, and Limehouse basin, by the Thames. The most eastern and southern section, basically.

I took the tube to Canary Wharf to catch some of the sights I’d glimpsed just before Christmas on the Docklands Light Railway, from Greenwich to Bank. I do like the DLR – it runs through some really interesting urban scenery, old and new.

I’d been thinking of walking all the way on the Regent’s canal from Limehouse in the east to Paddington in the west, and spent a bit too much time dawdling in Canary Wharf and Westferry taking photos. So I just walked to Islington in the end. At that point, near Angel,  the canal goes into a tunnel for a bit, under Upper Street and a shopping centre – not that the shopping centre would have been there when the tunnel was first constructed. Why a  tunnel was deemed necessary, I don’t know. There’s another tunnel near Maida Vale in the west. Maybe they were judged more effective than a load of locks if the land rose, though there’s nothing dramatic in either place.

Anyway, here are some photos – in black and white, which suits the urban landscape, I think.

Starting in Canary Wharf and surrounds.

Limehouse Basin. With the ubiquitous DLR.

Onto the Regent’s Canal.

Approaching the Mile End Road.

An interesting extension.

Stretching out to dry. Inner city comorant.

 

Alongside Victoria Park, Hackney.

The end. (Of the walk, not the canal!)

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Dorset coastal skies

The sea, fresh air, bracing winds and big skies. These are some of the joys of escaping from London – much as we love it – and walking along the coasts of Britain. It works wherever you are – it just so happened we were on the Dorset and briefly Devon coast this New Year. Most days were fairly cloudy, but the sun made some heroic efforts to break through, and that gave us some of the most spectacular views. As for the sunset – in Seaton, Devon, it was spiritual, as golden light suffused everything. Hopefully the photos below capture a bit of that, but you had to be there, really.

Let’s start with the walk from Lyme Regis to Seaton. Yesterday I posted a collection of photos from the depths of the woods. These ones were taken mostly from the cliff tops, until we reached the beach in Seaton.

This first one, which was taken at about 12.30 in the afternoon, made me think, the aliens are landing! But why would they choose Lyme Regis? Don’t they usually land in America?

Axmouth Harbour.

The beach at Seaton.

The walk to Charmouth was bitty, as parts of the coastal path are closed because of the risk of landslips. Coastal erosion is a big issue in this part of the world, and always has been. The cliffs have a habit of falling away. But we had more aliens and the beach had a lovely bleakness.

The last few photos are of Lyme Regis. All but the last were taken on New Year’s Eve. The last one was on a rather misty New Year’s Day. In honour of Led Zeppelin, let’s call it the Misty Mountain Hop!

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The rain forest of Lyme Regis

Between 29 December and 3 January my wife Kath, friends Jon and Maggie and I stayed in Lyme Regis, on the Dorset coast – almost but not quite Devon. Lyme itself is a lovely town and there are some great walks in the area. Mostly very hilly! On our first full day there we thought we’d try the walk from Lyme to Seaton, which is in Devon. The walk is part of the South West Coastal path, which stretches for 630 miles from Minehead in Somerset around to Poole Harbour in Dorset.  Ours was only seven miles – a doddle, we thought. We were soon disabused of that notion…

Once we’d climbed up to the Undercliffs we were soon heading into the woods that cover much of the ground between the two towns. From time to time there are clearings that give you some spectacular views out to sea, but mostly it is in the woods. As we entered there was a sign saying the walk was arduous and could take up to four hours. For seven miles? Well yes, as we discovered. When you are walking up then down then up again, often through some pretty muddy ground, you do lose the spring in your step!

So it was hard work, but the reward was some beautiful scenery: both the views from the cliffs and in the woods. I called it the rain forest in my heading because it felt like that. So green and lush even when many of the trees have lost their leaves, so rich in different species of plant. An English version of the rain forest – no nasty bugs, or alligators or snakes lurking, although there was, no doubt, plenty of wildlife in there somewhere. A treasure trove of plant life – and photo opportunities. Here are a few that I took:

Bit of a cheat, this last one, as it was just outside the main woods. But I think it deserves inclusion!

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