Car Seat Headrest at Gorilla, Manchester, 24 March 2017

Car Seat Headrest are a band based in Seattle, inspired by the 90s Seattle sound, though they look more like Vampire Weekend than, say, Nirvana. The main man is Will Toledo, who has been making music for a while, but took a step up in 2016 with the album “Teens of Denial”. It was in my top 10 for the year. By the time I realised they were touring the UK, they had sold out the Electric Ballroom in Camden, so I looked to see where else they were playing. I decided on Manchester and booked a day off so I could have a proper look round the city on the Friday and Saturday (that’s another story). I got a ticket for the show at Gorilla, just before that sold out too.

And so, on a Friday, after wandering around the city, and seeing an old friend, Andy, for a beer and a pizza, I went to Gorilla. It’s a restaurant and club that also hosts gigs.  A bit like Oslo in Hackney, but more central. It was a good space – room for a few hundred people – and a relaxed, studenty vibe. That’s a recommendation!

There was a real sense of anticipation as we waited for the band. And we were not disappointed. It was a brilliant show – mostly songs from “Teens of Denial”, but with a few older ones. The “Teens of Denial” ones made the show – they are more dynamic and have bursts of riffs that absolutely get people going. They played all my favourites, starting with “Fill in the Blank” (the most played on Spotify) and “Vincent” which burns slowly, then rocks. “Destroyed by Hippie Powers” was a wild bit of noise. And the highlight was the sequence of “Drunk Drivers/ Killer Whales” and “1937 State Park”. “Drunk Drivers” starts as a mid tempo, melodic piece, before bursting into its killer whales chorus and guitar wig out. I was impressed to see how the audience knew all the words – for the drunk driver bit Will could have done one of those turning the mic to the audience things. Except he is way too cool to do that. And as soon as we reached it doesn’t have to be like this… total anthem. I have a feeling that the band may be surprised how it has caught on. Perfect festival music from a band who don’t look they were made for festivals. And then “1937 State Park” rocked like Nirvana rocked (with a bit of Strokes thrown in). More crowd jubilation.

Strangely the main show then ended with two more subdued, less familiar songs (possibly it was one with different parts). But Car Seat Headrest aren’t the sorts to do the obvious thing. Not all the time, anyway. They came back for an encore of “Connect the Dots (The Saga of Frank Sinatra)”, which is a metal /punk thrash and was perfect for the occasion.

Yeah, this is a band who know they are good. The songs (especially the lyrics) aren’t your average rock’n’roll, but they have the melodies and riffs to work brilliantly live. Readers of this blog will know how good I thought Thee Oh Sees were live at End of the Road last year. Well, I got the same feeling about Car Seat Headrest at Gorilla. They were that good.

And they are at a End of the Road this year!

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Leaving London – just for one day

London, Euston Station, Friday morning 24 March. Waiting for my train to Manchester. From one great city to another. Going to see Car Seat Headrest tonight. I’ve been to Manchester quite often, but only on work trips or stag-dos. I’ve never had a good look around. Hope to today – I say “hope” because, as I write, the train is stationary in a place called Kings Langley, 15 minutes from London. Some incident ahead, which has required the police and ambulance staff. Been here for an hour now.

But as I sat in Euston, watching all the people waiting for their trains, people on the go, people coming into London on just another day, I thought back (again) to the horrific events on Wednesday, when people were killed and maimed by a deranged individual who ploughed his car into them on Westminster Bridge before he stabbed a policeman to death at the gates of Westminster Palace. The heart of democracy, a place always heaving with tourists, as well as people going about their business. A senseless act by a convicted criminal who presumably believed his act was an act of war in a holy war. It would be absurd if it wasn’t so tragic.

It was an incident close to home for me. I’m often in the House of Commons meeting MPs and sometimes being grilled by them in select committees. Three of my colleagues were caught up in the lockdown, ending up with a few hours in Westminster Abbey. I could have been there – I had been invited to go to the meeting they were due to attend. But I decided I had better things to do. Close call.

Watching the TV news last night was a moving experience. The tributes, the family stories, the defiance. There was even solidarity with London from other parts of the country. That’s rare. London does stand out and is resented, of course, for its wealth, its perceived arrogance, its accrual of power, it’s expensiveness, and maybe its diversity and openness. Its difference. London is a world city. It welcomes, absorbs, constantly evolves. There is poverty, violence, anger, exploitation, signal failure on the underground, outrageously costly accommodation, empty homes owned by money laundering foreigners; but there is life. Endless life. Endless opportunity – which is why so many people want to come and live here. People from the rest of the UK, the rest of Europe, the rest of the world.

I’m proud of London, love living in London. The world city.

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Chuck Berry 1926-2017

So another great rock’n’roller leaves the planet. One of the greatest – the man who wrote the songs that the Beatles and Rolling Stones and many, many others were inspired by. I was too young to get Chuck Berry until I heard others play his songs, and that didn’t really happen until the mid 70s, first with Status Quo playing “Bye Bye Johnny” (aka “Johnny B.Goode”) and then Dr Feelgood playing rock’n’roll like Chuck Berry played. The reality is that the first time I ever became aware of Chuck Berry was when he had a No 1 hit with the truly awful “My Ding-a-ling” in 1972. His only ever No 1. Hopefully it made him loads of money for later life.

But, of course, as I discovered more music and delved back in time, the centrality of Chuck Berry to rock’n’roll, and therefore much of the music I love, became clear. And you just have to remember how revolutionary it would have sounded to the teenagers of the late fifties, including all the great sixties bands. Just like my generation reacted to punk – except it was an even bigger step for them.

So here are a few You Tube videos to celebrate the pioneering, jiving spirit of Chuck Berry, who died yesterday, aged 90. A good innings (as we say in England).

First the man himself, from 1958, the year I was born!

And then the Rolling Stones, whose first hit was a Chuck Berry song, “Come On”.

The Beach Boys could never have made “Surfing’ USA” without Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen”.

One of my favourite rock’n’roll tunes ever is Johnnie Allan’s version of “Promised Land”.

And Jimi Hendrix took “Johnny B. Goode” to its limits,  as he took everything to its limits.

And Chuck Berry’s songs have never stopped being the the bedrock of so many other rocking classics. Because he IS rock’n’roll.

RIP Chuck Berry, 1926-2017. Your music will live on. It’s in everything.

 

 

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lovelondonscenes 124 – The BT Tower from Marylebone

From Dorset Street, at the junction with Baker Street, to be precise.

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lovelondonscenes 123 – Edgware Road, evening falls

Last Saturday, after going to see the Paul Nash exhibition at Tate Britain, I walked through London – north to Marylebone and then west to Paddington, where I caught a train home. Had my camera and took some nice shots. I’ll share a few over the coming days. When you look carefully, there is so much that is interesting. These two are towards the end, on the Edgware Road. It’s an area that features loads of Arab establishments – and I noticed today, not being in a hurry, lots of guys smoking something from big pipes. It was very open, so I assume it’s not illegal.

These photos though, are just the city at dusk.

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Prague – the culture

In my first blog on Prague, I quoted Milan Kundera about the centrality of Czech culture to that of Western Europe. We experienced some of that in our three days in the city, focusing on the art and that historical anomaly, Soviet (Russian) domination. A traumatic episode, but one that, in the end, did not destroy the true culture of the Czech people.

And of course there is beer. That’s very central to the people of Prague as far as I could see! In our parlance, it’s lager, but in many varieties, dark (which is a bit sweeter) and pale, and sometimes unfiltered, which takes away much of the fizz and makes it a bit more like an ale. Many of the names are familiar – Budweiser (the proper beer, not the American variety), Staropramen, Pilsner Urquell, Lobkowicz, Kozel – but there are many great local brews too, often brewed (or finished off) on the premises. We stopped at one such example not far from the main station, which was called Ferdinanda – the brew was Ferdinand. Near to where we were staying in the north of the Old Town was a pub called Lokal, which served frothing pints in heavy, behandled glasses. There was a huge restaurant attached, which was jam-packed on a Friday evening – the place was jumping. Another pub I liked had been recommended by a friend, Simon, who knows his beer. It was called Jama and was just in the New Town. The walls were covered in photos of rock stars and posters advertising gigs. It gave the place a good vibe, and the music complemented that. Good food too – we ended up having a burger there, which was top notch.

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Prague is the only city I’ve ever been to which has organised pub crawls (though I suspect they’ll have them in Dublin too – I’ve just never noticed). There were loads of young men in green shirts (over their coats!) touting for business. They were getting customers too, especially all the Chinese/Japanese who were over there, and were maybe a bit less familiar with pub culture. This is not a problem for us Brits!

Prague is well known for its jazz clubs too. Kath and I tried one, called Jazz Republic, on Saturday night. It was down in a basement (of course) and had a really nice atmosphere. It was hot – all those winter layers had to come off. There were piles of coats and jumpers and scarves everywhere. The entertainment was provided by a guitarist called Roman Pokorny and his band, Dark Side of Blues Royal – a bit of a mouthful. The music was bluesy, but straddled the genres, and Roman, in his scruffy plaid shirt and jeans, was a real ace. A master of his craft. I particularly loved his version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing”.  I noticed that a lot of the jazz clubs were advertising blues bands – maybe that appeals more to the average tourist – and I guess tourists will make up at least half the audience in most places.

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One of the highlights of Saturday was a trip to the Museum of Communism. A colleague at work had recommended it, and I will do the same! It’s near to Wenceslaus square, and situated above a McDonalds and next to a casino. It advertises itself as such – the irony is enjoyed. The museum is a mix of Soviet artefacts, propaganda, socialist realism art and all the rest. It’s amusing, instructive – and shocking. You keep on asking yourself, how did this happen? What happened to humankind? To an extent the Czechs overcame the worst of Communism with humour, a sense of the absurd and detachment. But there was huge suffering and loss still, and the trauma of the 1968 invasion. Czechoslovakia almost lost its soul, but its strong culture saved it – just. And its revolution in 1989 was Velvet. There was relatively little violence – the regime simply capitulated. The imposters ran away. The poet, Vaclav Havel, became President. A beautiful moment – a triumph for decency and culture. It’s all there in the museum. It’s a bit more knowing, wry, than, say, the Stasi museum in Berlin, but no less fascinating for it.

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Interrogation room

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And so to the art, as in painting. We couldn’t see everything in such a short stay, but experienced some of the richness that is on offer. On the Friday, we wandered up to the castle and St Vitus cathedral, and then spent a couple of hours in the Sternberg Palace, which houses part of the Prague National Gallery collection, from the Renaissance to the Baroque. The international flavour of the collection reflected Bohemia’s position in the Holy Roman and Austro-Hungarian empires. There were a lot of what I think of as Maria col Bambinos, the description which stuck in my head from my first trip to Italy back in the mid-80s. Familiarity combined with fatigue from being up since 4.30am started to get to me, until I had one of those moments when your body jerks you back to alertness. I was almost falling asleep on my feet in a museum full of great treasures which was practically empty – we must have seen less than ten other customers. What a contrast to the heaving masses in most of London’s art museums at the moment.

On Saturday we took in the Kampa Museum of Modern Art, situated on the site of an old mill on the banks of the Hvlata river, on the castle side. It’s a haven of peace and beautifully designed. There’s a collection of mainly post-war Czech and other central European artists, featuring the likes of Frantisek Kupka and Otto Guttfreund. I can’t claim to have known any of the artists previously, but the art was striking – vivid, abstract, pretty wild at times: reflecting, I guess, the times in which they lived, under the Soviet yoke. Art was an expression of angst, anger, defiance. And it was tolerated to a greater extent in Czechoslovakia than most of the Soviet empire, it seems. No doubt viewed as a harmless pressure valve. Really fascinating though, and highly recommended if you are in Prague and have time to wander just a little off the beaten track. Not far – it’s ten minutes to the Charles Bridge.

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But the highlight, the most exciting place, was the National Gallery’s Museum of Modern Art in the Trade Fair Palace, a 1920s “functionalist” block situated over the river from the Old Town/Jewish Quarter. It’s a residential area – looks like one for Prague’s well-off citizens. Reminded me of bits of Paris out towards Bois de Boulogne. Not quite as flash, but in the same vein. The building was ugly from the outside, but was impressive inside. There was an inner ring of contemporary works, and then through the doors into vast rooms full of great art from the 19th century onwards, from all over Europe. There was so  much of it, that we couldn’t take it all in; but as well as all the key Czech and Austrian artists, there was an impressive collection of the French impressionists, of Edvard Munch, Picasso, Braque, Miro and more.

The Klimts attracted a lot of interest. I watched two women striking poses – for the selfies of course – in front of the paintings. I wondered why at first, and then realised they were recreating the scenes in the pictures. It’s art. It’s inspiring. Why not? There was room to do it. The place had a decent number of customers, but it wasn’t overwhelmed. Actually, it would be hard to overwhelm, it’s so large.

So, if you enjoy art from the 19th century onwards, including the more radical stuff, then this is definitely the place to visit in Prague, even if it is slightly out of the way.

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Happy Communists.

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Yeah, Prague is definitely a place I’ll be revisiting. More to see – and much to see again.  More beer to drink, pork knuckles to consume and jazz to groove to. My kind of place!

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Julia Jacklin at the Scala, 2 March 2017

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I first came across Julia Jacklin at the End of the Road festival in September last year. The programme gave her a good write up, describing her music as a cross between alt. country and grungy lo-fi. I read about her love of pop music too, so her gig in the Tipi tent seemed worth checking out. Unfortunately it was the day that it pissed down with rain, and it was packed when we got there. We stopped for five minutes peering right from the back and decided to go somewhere else.

But I didn’t lose interest. I bought her debut album, “Don’t Let The Kids Win” and enjoyed it. Enough to put it in my top ten for the year. And we saw her again at Koko supporting Whitney. She only played a few songs, but I loved the sparse beauty of them. I needed to hear more.

Meanwhile, the album just grew and grew on me. And it was the ballads, the slow ones, that really did it for me, though I loved the whole lot. It started with “Motherland”. One day, just listening on the tube as I went into work, I had one of those moments when you realise how brilliant a track is. It was the way Julia’s voice slowly built over the music. It had that flow that just hits you, takes you with it. I was hooked. And with that, the beauty, the duende of some of the other songs became clear to me. This year, it has been an album I can’t stop playing. The one I turn to when I’m in a reflective mood. Songs like “LA Dream”, “Don’t Let the Kids Win”, “Same Airport, Different Man”, ”Hay Plain” are right up there with “Motherland”.

Julia’s ballads all have a musical simplicity, where she strums an electric guitar and there’s a sparse back beat. It’s the melody and her vocals that colour in the picture. Her voice has a vulnerability, but it’s not fragile – it’s expressive, it rolls. I’m influenced by my current reading here. Keith Richards’ “Life”. A fascinating and funny book, and most interesting when he talks about his philosophy of music. He is a disciple of simplicity, leaving space, letting the music breathe and express itself, without being overloaded. He is inspired by the blues masters. When it comes to rock and roll, he is about the roll, the groove. And this is what I get from Julia Jacklin too. Nothing is overdone. The music is stripped down to the essentials. But she has feeling.

And so I was really looking forward to last night’s concert at the Scala. I couldn’t persuade any of my friends that she was too good to miss, so I went on my own. It was sold out, the audience mostly in their twenties, early thirties, I’d say. I’m always interested to observe the demographic that someone attracts. I prefer it when the place is not just full of people like me!

Yeah, I’m biased now, but it was wonderful from start to finish. First song was “Hay Plain”, which is a lo-fi grungy thing which starts slow and builds up into a solid thud by the end. “Lead Light” – one of the poppier numbers (think “Rumours” Fleetwood Mac) – came next. And then we were into “Motherland”. Oh yeah! Julia’s voice completely captivating. There was a new song next and then “LA Dream”, where the band went off and left Julia alone with her electric guitar and voice. It was awesome.

And so it continued. Most of the album was played, plus another new song, which I think was called “Eastwick”. It built like “Hay Plain”.

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Two of the more upbeat (and most popular) songs, “Coming of Age” and “Pool Party” came towards the end and got everyone going. But last song was the lovely, rather sentimental, “Don’t Let the Kids Win”. Again, this was Julia solo. It’s a song about keeping your family ties. The title is deceptive – it’s not anti-kids, it’s let them learn, support them. If you want to hear the song try this.

Julia and the band came back for one song, which was a cover of the Strokes “Someday”, done quite differently. I wouldn’t have minded Julia solo again for “Same Airport, Different Man”, but you can’t have everything.

I just loved this concert. A singer making her way, chuffed at selling out the Scala. Getting bigger. She’s doing the UK festival circuit this year, and I’ll being seeing her at Field Day and End of the Road. Still hoping she’ll be added to Latitude. Music I never tire of. Give the album a try and go and see her!

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