Latitude 2019

Latitude No 8 for me; No 9 for my friend Jon G. We were a smaller group this year, but Jon’s daughter and son, Connie and Louis were with us, along with another friend of mine, Shane, and Jon’s friends Rick and Adrienne. We set off quite early and were pitching tents by 3.30. But not in the same place as the last few years – a huge area normally used by ordinary campers (ie, the ones only paying £200 for a ticket) was fenced off for the use of camper vans and caravans and families. Festival Republic have obviously decided that they can make more money from these groups, so to hell with the rest of us! We were able to secure a reasonable spot, but it got very cramped as everyone poured in. I suspect this will be the dominant theme in the customer surveys this year, and hopefully the organisers will have a re-think. Never a good idea to take your core customers for granted.

But the music – the reason we were there – was as good as ever, if not better. It seemed more varied than ever. There was plenty for the pop fans and youngsters – George Ezra, Loyle Carner and Sigrid, to name three – but so, so much more. Some old favourites, some new favourites and some great stuff that was unknown to me before Latitude. Which is exactly how you want it.

So, is what happened at my Latitude. Which, as I’ve said before, is different to others’ Latitude. And my Latitude didn’t include George Ezra, so sorry if you are a big fan of his, as many people are. Not my bag. We’ll take it day by day as usual. Not much to say about Thursday, so let’s go straight to Friday.

Friday 19 July

The first band I saw today was The Teskey Brothers. They were on the Sunrise Arena, and played to a pretty big crowd. They are an Aussie band – the first of many – and play good old-fashioned 60s soul and blues. They do it very well; the singer (one of the two brothers) has a great soulful voice, in the Otis Redding/ Sam Cooke mould, and some of the guitar had a real BB King feel to it. All good! From there it was over to the re-named BBC Sounds tent for Kero Kero Bonito, a young band from London, who played bouncy pop-rock. I then went solo for my one excursion this year to the Speakeasy to see the poet Luke Wright, a Latitude perennial. Fresh from touring with Dr John Cooper-Clarke, a kindred spirit, he was his usual mixture of trenchant social observation, sharp humour and dramatic delivery. His poem where the only vowel allowed was “u” was amazing – really clever and crudely funny. It’s fair to say that “u” may be the most guttural of the vowels! There was some sentimentality too, about his son, now eight, whom he doesn’t see enough of, post-divorce and being on the road a lot. He wears the hurt on his sleeve, and in his writing. He ended on his brilliant defence of prententiousness, “ Embrace the Wank”. His delivery on that one is extraordinary. I recommend seeing Luke perform if he is ever in your vicinity. You don’t have to be a poetry geek to enjoy it. It is the performance that brings the words alive.

Teskey Brothers

Next up was Anna Calvi, on the Obelisk, the main stage. For some reason I’ve never really heard her music. But I was hugely impressed, especially by her guitar sound, very raw. The songs live, were visceral, and the bass lines pounded. It was a tour de force, and I will definitely be giving her back catalogue a proper listen. After that it was back to the BBC Sounds tent for Jenny Lewis. She’s an American singer, much admired in the music press. She sang with a band called Rilo Kiley for a while. They made some great music. West Coast rock, but with some astute lyrics. They made three or four songs which have pride of place on my Car Songs playlist, along with one of Jenny’s solo pieces, “Just One of the Guys”, which I love. I’m less enamoured with her new music, which I think dominated the show. It was good but not great, and I moved on before the end, to catch something completely different…

Anna Calvi

Bloody hell, Crows! Sunrise Arena. What an utterly awesome noise they made, and what a show too. Singer, James Cox, spent half his time in the audience. Pile-driving riffs and ear-splitting distortion. All played with a smile, too. Not sure I’ll spend too much time listening to the records, but live, I will definitely want to see them again. One of their last songs was “Chain of Being”, which Louis ranks as one of the songs of 2019. I can see why. One of the most exhilarating performances of this Latitude.  And if that wasn’t enough, next up was The Murder Capital, who had been so impressive at Citadel last weekend. The smaller Sunrise stage, cramped their movements a little, but they still had that aura about them. This lot really mean business. I prefer the faster, punky songs – there was one rather tedious dirge midway through the set – but the show as a whole was once again very powerful. And if I want to, I can see them again at Green Man and End of the Road. I expect I will.

Crows

The Murder Capital

The variety of Latitude then came to the fore, as the next thing on the agenda was Freya Ridings. I know it came out in 2018, but “Lost Without You” is one of my favourite songs of 2019. It’s so beautiful – a tried and tested theme, but sung so movingly. Because of that song, which was a big hit last year (unbeknown to me) the BBC Sounds tent was packed to the rafters. She was overwhelmed by that, quite emotional. The whole set was immaculate. “Castles” and “You Mean the World to Me” were other standouts, but of course “Lost Without You” was the one.  I had a tear in my eye as Freya began, though the mood was soon punctured by a group of young lads who moved in front of us, talked and jousted, took a video and then buggered off! Thanks lads. Festival life – you deal with it.

It was early evening and getting a bit chilly, so I went back to get my jeans on, and a fleece. I got back to the Obelisk to catch the last few songs of Loyle Carner. As I arrived he started up “Loose Ends”, a recent single which I really like. Jon and I saw him in the afternoon at Field Day a few years ago, and it was a bit repetitive. He’s much slicker now, and really had the big crowd on his side. The youth were out in force for him, including the young kids, many of whom bounced up and down on parents’ shoulders. Made getting a decent photo impossible, but it was a lovely atmosphere, even in the rain which had crept in. Like Stormzy at Glastonbury, he declared it the greatest moment of his life. He finished with one of his first ever songs, “No CDs”, harking back to the days when it was a struggle to get anyone to listen. A touching moment in a triumphant performance.

And then, to finish the evening off, another remarkable performance. Primal Scream in the BBC Sounds tent. This was an hour of pure joy – a greatest hits show by a band that was pioneering in the 1990s and also really knows the meaning of rock’n’roll. They kicked off with “Moving on Up” and followed that with “Jailbird”, and you just knew this was going to be special. The band were tight, and Billy Gillespie looked cool in pink suit and shirt. The performance of “Loaded” midway through the set was epic, and gave me a shivers-down-the-spine moment. The great songs just kept coming: “Higher than the Sun”, “Swastika Eyes”, “Country Girl”, “Rocks Off” and an imperious “Come Together”. Just magnificent: best show of a terrific first day; one of the best Latitude shows ever.

Oh, and Connie said George Ezra was fantastic!

Saturday 20 July

What a day! And it started with the band that I love more than any other these days: Honeyblood. Stina and Co were playing the Obelisk at 12.15. I bored my gang into submission and they all came along. I did wonder how many people would turn up, and I so wanted them to be a success. No worries – there was a decent crowd and they responded enthusiastically to a set which gave the first album, “Honeyblood” a good airing, as well as putting the emphasis on the rock’n’roll. Stina and the band looked great and played with real confidence. “The Third Degree” got a positive reaction from my lot, and the consensus was that the whole show was pretty good. “Sea Hearts” got things off to a rousing start. Early songs “Biro” and “Anywhere but Here” were nice additions to the set they played at Citadel. New songs “Glimmer” and “She’s a Nightmare” showed their live worth; first album classics “Super Rat” and “Killer Bangs” went down really well and there was the storming finish you always want to see: “Babes Never Die” and “Ready for the Magic”. A perfect start to the day. And there was a bonus round the corner…

We stayed on at the Obelisk to catch the stars of Sunderland, The Futureheads. I’ve always quite liked their jerky indie beats. “Decent Days and Nights” was a good song, and their cover of Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love” was a quirky delight. They started the show in good form; but after three songs the music stopped. An electrical storm was approaching and there was a power down. I used the opportunity to wander down to The Alcove, with the intention of seeing a jazz-funky duo called Project Karnak. I’d heard a really good track called “Temple” on Latitude’s Spotify playlist. On the way down there was something close to a hailstorm. In the Alcove I hung around for about half an hour before a band called Heron Dance came on. They were good, but not Project Karnak! I never did see them.

The Danish Quarter, or Danish bar as we call it, arrived a couple of years ago when Carlsberg took over from Tuborg as monopoly supplier of lager to Latitude. It’s all there is, so you drink it. The bar itself is a good meeting point and there’s a great atmosphere in there at times, especially late at night, when people get dancing. Luke Wright had earlier had a dig it it as a tipping point in the commercialisation of Latitude, for it ousted the Poetry tent, which was merged with the Literary tent and re-named the Speakeasy. The Speakeasy is excellent, but the number of poets getting a chance to perform at Latitude has dropped dramatically. That is a real shame. But the Danish bar delivered a real treat for me today, as Stina from Honeyblood played a solo set at 4.30!  I’d seen her do this before, at Leith Theatre in Edinburgh last year, at the Hidden Doors festival. Her songs work well in the context. As Stina put it, the angry songs – and there are plenty of those – become sad songs. The set overlapped with the earlier full band show, but we had a couple of different ones from the first album: “Bud” and “Fall Forever”. That first album obviously means a lot to her; and its rawness and simplicity is ideal for live performance. It was an intimate set, especially once the security guard had relented and let us move close up – at Stina’s request. The place was full and she received a great reception. She looked delighted to be doing it, which was good to see. And she is talking about taking the Lonerblood show on the road. Hope it makes it to London.

I then dashed over to Solas, in the woods opposite In the Woods, and by the lakeside where the pink sheep graze. It’s a chillout area with a small stage, which puts on up-and-coming and a few left-field acts. Shane, Jon and I saw one of those late on Friday night, which was an absolute shocker – the Intergalactic Republic of Kongo.  Avoid at all costs, unless you like being abused for not dancing by a man with a Messiah complex! I’ll say no more. But I was at Solas on Saturday afternoon for Maisie Peters. I was rather hoping the power down earlier might have delayed her show a little, so I could see all of it, but I don’t think it had been, and I caught half of it. I’ve been listening to her songs a lot recently, having been put on to her by Line of Best Fit magazine earlier this year. They are simple love songs mostly, lost or found. Maisie herself describes them as emo girl pop. They aren’t exactly written for people like me, but she has a beautiful voice and they are lovely tunes. She’s getting pretty popular and sold out the Scala recently. I had a ticket for that, but didn’t go in the end, which I rather regret now. Anyway, she was just singing her most recent single “Favourite Ex” when I got there, and I did hear my favourite song “Feels Like This”, which is up there with Freya’s “Lost Without You” for me. The sound was a bit thin and I felt her vocals weren’t mixed up enough; but it was good to see how she performs live. A bit to develop, but she has the advantage of some very good songs that speak to her generation.

 

On the way to the Sunrise for a couple of shows, I stopped off at the Lake stage, to catch a bit of Hull punk band Life. They were lively, and Nadine Shah, who had been on in the BBC Sounds tent earlier, guested on the last song. Seemed like an unlikely combination, but she was having a lot of fun. I wished I hadn’t dawdled around Solas for a bit after Maisie Peters as I think I might have enjoyed seeing a bit more of Life.  Over to the Sunrise, first up was Ider, who are fronted by two music graduates, Megan Markwick and Lily Somerville, from Falmouth University, which I have an interest in as one of my daughters is going there in September.  I’d not heard of them before, but really liked their sound. It’s essentially modern dance-pop, enhanced by some pounding basslines and some rousing choruses where the excellent harmonies of the two really come to the fore. My predictions of who is going to be big are rarely right, but I see a successful future for Ider. Hope it’s not the kiss of death! One of the discoveries of this Latitude.

Life ft Nadine Shah!

Ider

And then it was more noise. A very big noise, generated by the awesome Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs, or Pigs x 7 as they are commonly known. They make songs – songs? – that resemble the architecture of their native Newcastle: dark and foreboding and with a certain magnificence. A big blast of raw power, with singer Matt Baty howling over the riffs. God knows what he is singing. They come from the school of Black Sabbath, bulked up for the modern age. As much punk as metal, but a brutal combination of both. Like Crows, but even heavier! And so it proved live. It was a phenomenon. At times it feels like the chords are being wrenched out, like having a tooth extracted with no anaesthetic! At first I thought it was a bit ponderous (like Sabbath can be) but by the end I was won over. They finished with “A66”, which I know and rather like. It’s about a road up north. Any more than that I can’t tell you. It was pretty wild. An experience I may repeat at Green Man and End of the Road – if I can take it.

Reeling from Pigs x 7, we staggered back to the Danish bar for a drink, then went up to the Obelisk, to see the first of the two headliners, Stereophonics. They stepped in to replace Snow patrol, two of whose members have neck injuries. I’d not seen Stereophonics before, so was quite looking forward to it. They’ve got a fair number of songs I like, without my ever having been a big fan. And they put on a good, slick show. An hour and 40 minutes tested my patience a little, but I enjoyed the acoustic interlude, which included an excellent “Handbags and Gladrags” (which I remember principally as a Rod Stewart song, though his was a cover version too). And all the hits were there: my favourites being “Have a Nice Day” and “Just Looking”. Jon got his favourite, “Dakota” right at the end.

For us, Stereophonics were just the warm up though: because now it was time for Underworld. One of the great electronic groups of the 90s and 2000s. Core members Karl Hyde and Rick Smith. I particularly loved their 90s albums, “Dubnobasswithmyheadman” (great title), “Second Toughest in the Infants” and “Beaucoup Fish”. And of course they are responsible for the great British anthem “Born Slippy” with its infamous cry of lager, lager, lager! I’d not seen them live before, but was expecting great things. And I was not disappointed – it was truly amazing. An extraordinary confluence of massive beats and dazzling lights, washes of synth and huge drops. The place, under the night sky, was ablaze. The crowd, silhouetted against the lights, arms aloft. Karl Hyde pranced around, submerged in dry ice, his vocals as disembodied as ever. “King of Snake” was a highlight, but the moment of moments was at the last, of course. As soon as the opening motif of “Born Slippy” echoed from the speakers, the place went ape. And lager, lager, lager truly was a spiritual experience! More shivers down the spine throughout. At the end we were all exhilarated, on a high. This was as good as the live concert experience can get, the moment when the Obelisk, which is often so annoying – with all the picnickers, people talking, showing off, paying scant attention to the music – came into its own. A large scale arena for a large scale phenomenon. There was only one thing to do at the end: go back to the Danish bar, drink some lager and talk about it!

Sunday 21 July

No chillout at the Sunrise to start of the musical day this year, so we went along to see Let’s Eat Grandma in the BBC Sounds tent. They’ve changed a lot over the last year or so. The new album is a lot more mainstream dance-pop than the first, though it retains some quirks. And when they came on stage they actually spoke! Which they continued to do throughout the set. That first album and the tracks that got us all interested, like “Deep Six Textbook”, “Eat Shiitake Mushrooms” and “Rapunzel” have all been axed, but there were some interesting moments; and the tribute to their friend Billy Clayton, who died quite recently, was touching. They played along to a track of him singing. I enjoyed the show, mainly because it was interesting to see a young band developing musically. But I missed the earlier originality.

Someone forgot to take off the Slaves backdrop!

After that we wandered up to watch a band called Palace on the Obelisk. It was a lovely sunny day, after the mixed weather of Saturday, and the music of Palace chimed with the mood. Jaunty indie-pop, with chiming guitars and some nice solos. I heard elements of Two Door Cinema Club and Vampire Weekend in the sound, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Another band to explore further.  They were followed by a real discovery on the Lake stage. Both Louis and I were enthusing about a song called “Bad Blood” by Working Men’s Club. I’d heard it a few times on 6 Music. The Fall clearly an influence, but guitar motifs which were more out of the Only Ones’ or Strokes’ songbook. Live, the look and intonation of the singer Sydney Minskey-Sargeant was definitely Mark.E.Smith, but the music was extremely varied, some of it heavily electronic, some guitar thrash and one that had strong undertones of Joy Division. We were all pretty excited about this band. Looking forward to hearing more from them.

Working Men’s Club

Back to the Obelisk next for Pale Waves, one of Connie’s favourites. They are a Manchester band, with an interesting look. Singer/guitarist Heather Baron-Gracie and drummer Ciara Doran both favour Goth, while the bassist and guitarist are classic indie boys. The music, with its big choruses, reminded me of a lot of 80s stuff – Cyndi Lauper sprang to mind for some reason – and Heather’s voice had a warble which was similar to the sadly departed Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries. The songs were classic teenage angst and in my notes I wrote Goth pop. It got a great reaction from the crowd – this is clearly a band going places.

Afterwards, in the BBC Sounds tent, I watched a little of Sons of Kemet, one of the high tempo jazz bands that are a bit of a trend at the moment. Sons of Kemet featured the obligatory wild saxophonist and a tuba player who was in effect playing the bass lines. Louis was enthusiastic about them. I was so-so, but another of the ilk was to come later. Read on. I got myself some food and sat on the grass/dust by the Lake Stage to eat it. At this point a soul singer called Celeste came on. She sounded good. After I’d eaten, I ventured forward and caught her show properly. She and her band were excellent. She had a great voice and the band played a cool accompaniment. It reminded me a lot of the music I used to love in the 80s and the 90s – the likes of Anita Baker, Erykah Badu and, yes, Sade. Two songs near the end stood out for me: “Love is Back”, which had a great sax solo, and a lovely balled called “Strange”, with just Celeste and the pianist. There was a lovely, simple lyric which I noted down: Isn’t it strange, how people change, from strangers to friends, from friends to lovers, and to strangers again. Check out Celeste – she has soul.

Sons of Kemet

Celeste

And that brings me to one of the shows I was really looking forward to. Julia Jacklin in the BBC Sounds tent. I love her new album “Crushed”, as I did her first “Don’t Let the Kids Win”. I was so looking forward to her playing “Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You”, my favourite track of the year so far. And she did, five songs in, just after Louis had left! But Rick was there. I loved it – such a beautiful, moving song, and two wonderful guitar solos, which I just wish were longer. Then it could be a real Neil Young-style epic! Julia likes to start her shows with something downbeat. Not sure why. So it had to be “Body” from the new album. I was OK with it – it’s a great song. I wonder about the uninitiated. The set was a nice mix of old and new, with plenty of her higher tempo songs like “Pool Party” and the new track “Pressure to Party” which is about feeling obliged to have fun after you’ve just split up and would rather wallow in your misery. A classic Julia Jacklin theme, which also features in the song that followed “Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You”, “Turn Me Down”. It’s a song of two parts, and in the second there is a real cry of anguish. It takes a lot of singing I should think, and is really affecting. Those two were one of the highlights of my Latitude, for sure. Another of the top songs from the new album, “Head Alone”, had the added interest of a guest vocal from fellow Aussie Stella Donnelly. And the two of them reappeared during the next show at the same venue, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever.  I like their music on record; a rumbling Americana, which has some resemblance to The War on Drugs. Live, I found it lieable, but a bit samey. So halfway through I went off to get myself some more food, before another of the shows which I was most looking forward to.

Julia and Stella with the Rolling Blackouts

Yes, it was time for the very wonderful Chvrches. They were on the Obelisk, second on the bill, just like in 2016 when they played one of the greatest shows I have seen at Latitude. Since then we have had a new album in 2018, “Love is Dead”, and a lot of the songs came from that. I’d put it third amongst their three albums – it’s a very accomplished electro-pop piece, but with less of the edge and variety of the first two, particularly the debut “The Bones of What You Believe”. My two favourite songs, “Lies” and “Tether”, have long been ousted from the set, though “Sink”, “Recover” and “The Mother We Share” survive – the latter always one of the closers. The show was a dazzling display, with Lauren Mayberry wearing a translucent dress that almost looked like a wedding outfit. You wouldn’t wear the black platform boots down the aisle though. Unless you were a Goth, I suppose. “Get Out”, from the new album, was a great opener, and set the tone for most of the set. They had obviously thought about the audience and said, we’ll play all our dance tunes. And it worked a treat – but left me wanting a bit more light and shade. I loved “Clearest Blue”, and “The Mother we Share” is always an uplifting moment. And I won’t quibble – you have to play for the moment. So, a triumph; but I’m looking forward to seeing them in Princes Gardens in Edinburgh on 11 August. Back in Scotland – will they go back to their roots a bit more? I hope so.

We skipped Lana del Rey on the Obelisk and Slaves in the BBC Sounds tent (seen them twice now, which is enough) and headed down to the Sunrise Arena for the headliners there, The Japanese House. (Except there was a late night show too…read on). Connie went off to the Lavish Lounge, also in the Woods, to see a not-so-secret show by Pale Waves, given that Heather had announced it at the Obelisk earlier! Japanese House are Amber Bain and band. She played in the BBC 6 Music tent in 2017 and I enjoyed that. Back home I downloaded all her EPs. They were mostly mellow songs with electronic beats and twin-tracked vocals. So I expected more of the same in the darkness of the Sunrise. In fact it was more guitar-based and Amber Bain, who is the Japanese House really, shared the vocals with her keyboard player to give the echoey effect. The show had a nice vibe. Amber was very grateful that we were there rather than at Lana del Rey and at one point played a little tribute to “Video Games”, which segued into “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac. Unless it was actually her own song “I saw You in a Dream”, I’m now saying to myself. Well, whatever, it was good! As was the whole show, which had a dreamy quality despite the prevalence of guitars. A chance to chill before what was coming next…

The Comet is Coming! My God, they were amazing! We all knew “Summon the Fire” from radio plays, but live, what a performance! I was amazed there were only three in the band. Keyboard player Dan Leavers, drummer Max Hallett and saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings. They make such a big noise. Over the hour I don’t think there were more than three or four pieces, but what is not in doubt that “Summon the Fire” was early on and was incredible. The beats pumped out by Dan were awesome and Shabaka’s sax was just a force of nature. Coltrane squared! The whole performance was an intense experience: the flashing lights, the hardcore techno beats and the rampant sax. It was the jazz Underworld! How Shabaka kept going, given the breath you have to put into the sax, I don’t know. Dan went crazy on his keyboards, and Max had his mega drum solo near the end. An hour was enough, especially so late on, but wow! It was brilliant, and summed up the wonder of Latitude. The press write about the Obelisk headliners, but meanwhile this stuff is going on. All those comments about genteel middle class Waitrose shoppers are so much bullshit if you acknowledge the whole experience. Mine is focused on music. Others go for the spoken word, film, comedy, cabaret, whatever. It isn’t just about George Ezra, Stereophonics and Lana del Rey, though there is nothing wrong with them. They are crucial, and give us all the space to enjoy what we like.

As we did every night, we went back to our tents via the Co-op, with its disco music blaring – I’d love to see this happening in the South Ealing store! –  and bought provisions, usually including some South African white wine.  Then we sat around chatting about our days until it got cold and we felt tired. It was a lovely end to each day, and something we will always remember.

Was the music of Latitude 2019 the best ever? It feels like it right now, but you need time to reflect and place it in the canon. But for sure Underworld, Primal Scream, Honeyblood (x2), The Comet is Coming, Julia Jacklin, Chvrches, Ider, Maisie Peters, Freya Ridings, Celeste, Working Men’s Club, Pigs x 7, Crows and The Murder Capital will be making the case, along with all the others I’ve enjoyed this year.

We’ll be back in 2020!

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Citadel Festival, Gunnersbury Park, 14 July 2019

This weekend, Gunnersbury Park, a large park close to the A4 and the North Circular as they meet at Chiswick roundabout in West London, played host to the Lovebox and Citadel festivals. Put simply, Lovebox is rap, soul and dance, while Citadel caters largely for indie tastes, including the mild-mannered millennial sounds. There’s a bit of dance thrown in via the DJ sets, but Lovebox is the one if that’s your main interest. Both shows have mostly taken place in North and East London, but they made their way to Gunnersbury last year, and returned this weekend. It’s all down to local authority attitudes and finances. Anyway the new location suited me just fine, as I could walk to the site in 15-20 minutes. Citadel was my selection, as you could predict if you follow this blog. I couldn’t go last year, as the festival coincided with Latitude; but Latitude is next week, so a line up that included Honeyblood, Fontaines DC, Murder Capital, Dream Wife, Squid and Tiniwaren seemed too good to resist.  Headliners on the main stage were Catfish and the Bottlemen and Bastille. Both highly popular bands, who attracted large crowds and ecstatic support. But neither are really my thing, so don’t read on if that is what you are hoping to read about. There’s nothing more about them! Oh, OK, here’s a photo of the Catfish and the Bottlemen show, from a distance. I stayed for three songs, before I decided to go home to catch the highlights of the World Cup cricket and the Wimbledon men’s tennis final. Both amazing events.

So let’s now go back to the beginning. I’m just writing about the bands I watched all or a decent chunk of. I caught bits and pieces of others, but nothing to spend time writing about here. And there’s one band I can’t feature, because of a really annoying clash. Honeyblood and Fontaines DC were on at the same time. They were the two bands I most wanted to see. I’ve never seen Fontaines DC, but love their debut album “Dogrel”. Definitely a contender for my 2019 top ten. But I couldn’t bring myself to miss Honeyblood, even though I’ll be seeing them again at Latitude in a few days time. My favourite band, simple as that. I’ll catch Fontaines DC at End of the Road later this summer.

At the start I was there with Jon G, his daughter Connie and son Louis, and Louis’ friend Gabrielle. We got there early, to catch Inhaler on the Main Stage at 12.30. One of three Dublin bands to feature – the others being Fontaines DC and Murder Capital. Inhaler are a young band, playing lively rock which reminded me a little of early U2. And the singer resembled the young Bono too, as I remarked to Louis. I sent a photo to a few friends on WhatsApp, and DC replied that Bono’s son was in the band, and was in fact the singer. So, there you go – I had no idea! Anyway, they were pretty good, and have a promising future, as long as they don’t fall foul of the anti-U2 brigade in the media. Being in the pro-U2 brigade, I wish them luck!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next up for me was Banfi, in one of the two tented stages, the Communion stage. I think all the bands on the stage may have been part of the same music label, or promotional organisation. I didn’t know anything about the band, but the blurb on the Citadel talked about off-kilter indie, which sounded interesting. I enjoyed their sound – a melodic indie, with bursts of guitar, which sounded very much as if they might be from the Liverpool area. A little post-event research tells me that the singer guitarist is Joe Banfi and he is from Chester. So, another correct hunch! I’ll definitely give their recorded music a listen.

Then it was over to the DIY tent (aka the Big Top) for Squid. They have been creating a bit of a stir on 6 Music recently. The music is pretty bonkers – a mixture of riffing, noodly bits and a fair bit of screaming. Their song “Houseplants” is, in a bizarre way, really catchy. And the show confirmed all of these elements. The drummer, Ollie Judge, is also the main singer, though a couple of others do some semi-spoken bits. I guess if you wanted to categorise the sound, it’s an updated 80s post-punk. The spirit of the Fall and the Gang of Four is in there, but maybe Talking Heads too, especially lyrically. And they are there in with Pom Poko in spirit, amongst up-and-coming bands. I have to say the performance made me smile a lot, too. It combines the daft and the brilliant. What is really going on there, I don’t really know. But it is a hoot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We stayed in the DIY tent for the next act, the Murder Capital. Another Dublin “punk” band, but not really punk. There’s rather more to them. Their debut album is out soon, and, to be honest, I’d heard more about their reputation than their music. But I was impressed, as soon as they appeared on stage. They were dressed as if they could be in Reservoir Dogs, and had a real stage presence. The music had a real power. Think of Shame, to take a recent band, and add a bit more melody and a bit more threat. I didn’t stay for the whole show, as I needed to catch Dream Wife; but I shall certainly be back to see them again at some of the other music festivals I’m going to over the summer.

Dream Wife were on the Main Stage. That meant their effect was diluted a bit – the perennial problem of playing in the sunshine in mid-afternoon – but they did a good job of engaging the crowd and getting people to sing along to the choruses of songs like “Somebody”: I am not my body, I am somebody!  Singer Rakel Mjoll was her usual ebullient self, and the riffs were sparky. I’d have preferred to see them in one of the tents, but, in fairness, they got to engage with a lot more people being on the Main Stage, and the reaction was enthusiastic. Good for future sales.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then it was time for the one I cared about most. Honeyblood in the Communion tent. I got there with about 15 minutes to go, with the sound checks still going on. There weren’t many people around at that point, and I just hoped that plenty would turn up. They did – the place was pretty full as the show got going. It was only half an hour, and Stina obviously decided to go for broke and play the rock’n’roll. Makes sense, and it went down really well. What was good to see was a lot of young people down the front dancing and singing the words. Like they do for all popular bands; but this was one of those occasions where I really wanted the band to do well, and not be relying on plaudits from oldies like me. It’s an issue for any indie band that draws its inspiration from the music of many decades – you might end up with an audience a fair bit older than you are. I always wonder how that feels.  Grateful for the money and the support, I’m sure, but wondering what happened to your own generation.  Anyway, it was the perfect short set: the singles from the new album “In Plain Sight” and the no-nonsense classics from the first two albums. Real high energy, and Stina and her band looking like they were enjoying themselves. For anyone who loves Honeyblood, this was the setlist as I recall it: The Third Degree – Super Rat – Glimmer – Killer Bangs – Sea Hearts – Babes Never Die – She’s a Nightmare – Ready for the Magic. You can’t get much better than that!

I milled around a bit after Honeyblood. Bought myself a bratwurst and another tinny lager and basked in the sun, listening to the techno sounds belting out from the Blu Stage for a bit. Watched a little bit of Jade Bird then wandered back to the DIY tent to catch the Korean indie band Hyukoh. The blurb claimed they were the hottest band in Asia right now – in the indie world, I assume, given that there are K-Pop bands selling out Wembley Stadium. There was a decent crowd, and a very enthusiastic core of fans upfront, shrieking with glee at the start of every song. The music was pretty good – jagged riffs and guitar workouts combined with some incongruous melodies that came from a more traditional pop base. The band were deliberately low profile with no histrionics. A deliberate indie insouciance. Interesting.

I’d had a fair bit of ear-bashing by this point, so thought I’d try out something a bit more mellow, in what had been the Sunday Papers Live tent, featuring comedy in an enclave in between the main stage and DIY tent. It was a Sofar Sounds production, featuring a band called Montrell. Sofar Sounds put on informal gigs around London in all sorts of different spaces. You can sign up to their mailing list and get wind of what is going on. I’ve not been to one yet, but friends who have been have loved them. The nature of the shows is that they are acoustic or electric with the sound kept at a subtle level. A bit like those guest appearances they have at the BBC base camp during Glastonbury. Montrell were just right for the vibe. Tuneful, a little bit jazzy, gently rolling beats. Perfect for chilling out. Interrupted at first by the excitement across the way in a bar with a TV showing the cricket, but it was a lovely way to wind down a little.

I stayed longer than planned at Montrell, so I missed the first half of Tiniwaren, headlining the DIY stage. But the second half: wow! I know the band, have listened to a bit of their music, but had never seen them live. They were extraordinary. They look extraordinary, for a start. Dressed for the Sahara – they are Tuaregs from Northern Mali. But the thing that really hooked me was the sound of the guitars. There’s a kind of drone in the background, and the guitars – there are a few – jangle and soar over that. Sometimes with a heavy distortion that Jimmy Page would have been happy to emulate. The desert blues. Some years ago, I really liked the music of Ali Farka Toure, also from Mali. Tiniwaren are following in his footsteps, but with a bit more of a rock feel. I felt a shiver down the spine at one point listening to those guitars and the insistent chants that accompanied them. It was the revelation of the festival for me.

And that was it. I watched a couple of Catfish songs, marvelling at their popularity, and how everyone seemed to know the words. I briefly halted on the way out to watch a DJ set putting dance beats over pop classics in the Sweet Spot tent, with loads of people dancing – refugees from the indie guitar on the main stage, I guess. Everything else was finished. And I got home in time to watch England winning the cricket World Cup against New Zealand in the most bizarre way, and Roger Federer losing the men’s tennis final to Novak Djokovic in an epic five set struggle.

Quite a day. Latitude next!

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Kylie at Hampton Court Palace, 21 June 2019

KYLIE! Our favourite Aussie pop star is back in Europe for a tour, which recently took in the Legends slot at Glastonbury, as British and Irish readers may have seen on the BBC. I still haven’t watched that show on the iPlayer, but I did see her back in June, when she played a couple of nights at Hampton Court Palace. It’s a lovely place for a concert, surrounded by the historic buildings and grounds. The place seems to glow as the sun goes down if the weather is kind, as it was when we went to see Kylie. We had the added benefit of drinks and dinner as part of a hospitality package, courtesy of my good friend Dave. All in the beautiful grounds, with the sun shining, and then the tapestry-walled halls that date back to the time of King Henry VIII. Not my normal preparation for a concert, which is usually a couple of pints in a nearby pub – except of course when we go to the Roundhouse, when a visit to the magnificent Sushi Salsa by Camden Lock is obligatory! We like a bit of luxury in our old age!

Kylie burst onto the pop scene – having starred in Aussie soap “Neighbours” –  with the Madonna-lite single “I Should Be So Lucky” in 1988. She was in the vanguard of the Stock-Aitken and Waterman takeover of the pop charts, with shiny, tinny, bouncy dance tunes. At the time they seemed like the evil empire to me; but you couldn’t really dislike Kylie. She was just so nice.

Two things really increased my appreciation of what she was doing. First she upped the tempo, introduced some harder rhythms and made some of her best songs, like “What Do I Have To Do?” and “Shocked”. The NME, with only a hint of irony, dubbed this her Sexkylie era – mainly because of the accompanying videos. Second, my wife Kath and I saw her in Paris in 1990, in a smallish venue in Montmartre, either La Cigalle or the Elysee Montmartre. She’d initially been scheduled for a much bigger venue, but obviously hadn’t sold enough tickets for that. I can imagine some artists either cancelling or sulking through the show. Not Kylie! She put on the full show, really gave it her all. It was brilliant. I always respected her for that.

She then went a bit indie, and inevitably her sales dropped. You grow up, want to be taken more seriously, and your audience doesn’t all move with you. A familiar tale. There was a revival in 2000, when Kylie sang at the Sydney Olympics and released “Spinning Around”. That was followed in 2001 by maybe her greatest song, a genuine dancefloor classic, “I Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”. Still love that tune.

Since then I’d struggle to name a song I really liked, but I haven’t listened to that much. She had a well-documented battle with breast cancer, in which her dignity and determination was an inspiration to many. And now she tours from time to time, makes well-reviewed records, and is just a bit of an icon.

Which brings us to the show at Hampton Court. The weather was fine, but we were in the covered area, just in case. It’s slightly further back than I’ve been for previous concerts, so the photos are taken from a longer distance.  But what a great show it was! All the hits, a total celebration. Everyone stood up from the first moment, and stayed up for the whole show. Much swaying, tapping of feet, nodding of heads, clapping, singing along. Not too extravagant – the average age was middling! But a total joy.

It was the early hits that received the greatest acclaim. “I Should be So Lucky”, early on, was a bit of an anthem, as was the once-excruciating duet with Jason Donovan, “Especially For You”. “Do The Locomotion” near the end was another.  My favourites were a bit underplayed, especially “What Do I Have To Do?”. Not that it mattered very much; it was all just a lot of fun. The sets were elaborate, there were loads of dancers, and Kylie went through a fair number of costume changes. All very elegant. All part of the mature artist, still drawing on her past, still exuding the energy and sheer enjoyment of those great pop songs, but adapting it to the present. A masterful transition.

“Spinning Around” ended the show. A fitting finale. A song you just have to love. And an artist you just have to love too, as her reception at Glastonbury showed. Joyous pop – you always need a bit of that.

A few more photos.

Kylie enters!

 

K-Y-L-I-E!!!

 

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lovelondonscenes 162 – the City in black and white

A week or so ago I had an afternoon stroll through the City. I got off the tube at Holborn and headed east, down High Holborn, over Holborn Viaduct, along Newgate Street and Cheapside eventually to Leadenhall Street, where most of the most spectacular towers lurk, either on that street or nearby. From there I made my way down to St Katherine’s Dock and Tower Bridge, which was heaving with tourists – a contrast to the near-deserted City on a Saturday afternoon.

The architecture of the City is a rather brutal pleasure, but I enjoy the angles, the reflections in the glass walls and the juxtaposition of old and new. It’s all a bit of a mess – no Cartesian planning in London – but that mess throws up all sorts of interesting contrasts. Here are a few of the photos I took – converted to black and white for the contrast, and just the hell of it!

This one’s looking down Farringdon Street from Holborn Viaduct.

Old Bailey, with One Blackfriars in the background.

It’s all over the place down by Bank. Royal Exchange in the foreground.

Cheesegrater on the right. Nat West Tower on the left used to be the tallest when I worked in the City in the 1980s. No longer!

Opposite the Cheesegrater we have the Scalpel.

The Gherkin looms over St Andrew Undershaft church, which pre-dates the Fire of London. It survived that and the Blitz and is still hanging on.

The Walkie Talkie is never far away.

Lloyds of London from Lime Street.

The City from near Tower Bridge. Still a mess!

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Billie Marten at Islington Assembly Hall, 13 June 2019

I first came across Billie Marten last year. I was listening to 6 Music one morning and she was playing a session on Tom Ravenscroft’s programme, when he was covering for Lauren Laverne. I was immediately taken by the mellow beauty of her songs and her singing. It was sort of folky, sort of jazzy, very wistful. When interviewed she seemed a little understated, maybe shy. I liked all of that, and looked up her music on Spotify.  She’d released an album in 2016, called “Writing of Blues and Yellows”. But there were a couple of more recent tracks, too: “Mice” and “Blue Sea, Red Sea”, which I recognised as the songs she’d played on 6 Music. Since then, I’ve grown to love those two songs, as well as a fair few from the first album, including ”La Lune”, “Lionhearted”, “Emily”, “Bird” and “Milk and Honey”. She has also done a wonderful cover of Royal Blood’s “Out of the Black”, transforming it from a Metallica-style thrash to a lovely ballad. It’s all about the melody!

A new album, “Feeding Seahorses by Hand” came out earlier this year, and the current tour is obviously promoting that. It’s another lovely collection, marginally more upbeat in sound than the first, but essentially the same soothing concoction. When you delve into the lyrics a lot of them are quite dark. But the music, and Billie’s dreamy voice wash over you. It’s great music to relax to, as long as you don’t study those lyrics too closely. “Mice” and “Blue Sea, Red Sea” are both on the album. Other early favourites are “Betsy” and “Bad Apple”.

So, I went along with my friend Shane to Islington Assembly Hall last Thursday to see Billie play all those wonderful songs live. I was really looking forward to this one, and it did not disappoint. It was the first time I’d been to this venue, as far as I can remember. I liked it a lot. A nice size, airy, decent bars, a bit of space at the back, still with a good view, where we lurked. The crowd was almost entirely millennials. That was striking – there are usually quite a few of my generation dotted around. But very few on this occasion. Who knows what drives these things. Maybe it’s a bit too sensitive for most of the veterans, and not quite folky enough for the purists. They are missing out.

Billie and her band – bassist, drummer and keyboards/guitarist accompanying her – were tight and the sound was good. Billie’s singing came through crystal clear.  The set was simple, but rather homely, with the lampshades. They opened with “Mice” and “Blue Sea, Red Sea”, both played with a jaunty rhythm. And then “Betsy” and “Cartoon People”, two more of the standout tracks from the new album. “La Lune” followed, and was greeted as a real favourite by the crowd. Most of the songs played were off the new album, I think; though there were a few dips back into the older catalogue.

She played for about an hour and a quarter. It was another of those concerts that I didn’t want to end. Such beautiful music – on one level quite unassuming; on the other, absolutely subsuming. There’s a song by Keren Ann from 2007 which I love called “In Your Back”, in which she sings about diving in an ocean of pink tourmaline. I was never quite sure what that meant, though I felt like I knew. Google tells me that it’s a crystal that cleanses the body of destructive feelings. Quite how a crystal does that, I don’t know, but I think Billie Marten’s music might just have the same effect.

You may not have heard Billie Marten’s music, though she is able to fill a decent-sized venue like Islington Assembly Hall, so a few people have. But if you haven’t, I’d urge you to give her two albums a try. You may find that you agree it is some of loveliest music around.

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The Music of Nashville, May 2019

This May my wife Kath and I spent a week in Nashville, Tennessee (I spent a further week in the state, exploring Memphis and Chattanooga – more of that another time). It was something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. And for one reason in particular – the music. Country music. My love for country music grew over time, starting tentatively in the 1980s. I write about this in my book, “I Was There – A Musical Journey” in a chapter called Duende – the beautiful sound of breaking hearts. That title says it all really. For me country music is the sound of melancholy. Mostly about losing love, or not finding love, or being down on your luck. But at the same time, finding strength through the music. I’m not so into the uptempo stuff – I’d rather go straight to rock’n’roll for that. And I’ve found that pretty well all my favourite country singers are women. Why, I don’t know, other than feeling that there is something in their voices and their perspective that truly reflects that sense of duende – what Nick Cave once described as “the eerie and inexplicable sadness that lies at the heart of certain works of art”. I would add that there is, at the same time, something uplifting in the sound, when it takes the form of music. The beautiful sound of breaking hearts.

It was Elvis Costello, in the early 80s, who handed me the keys to country music, when he released an album called “Almost Blue”. That was a celebration of many of the great country artists of the past, rendered in Elvis’s inimitable style. Amongst others that that album introduced me to was Patsy Cline. There was a film about her tragically short life at around the same time, and the soundtrack to that became my second country album. Songs like “Sweet Dreams” and “Crazy” became favourites. Of course I had Bob Dylan’s ventures into country too, principally “Nashville Skyline”; while some of Bruce Springsteen’s more stripped-back music (think “Nebraska” or “The Ghost of Tom Joad”) had the dark soul of country at its heart. But I didn’t really delve deeper until the 2000s – dance, reggae, rap, soul and jazz, along with a steady diet of indie and punk, were my staples in the intervening period.

It was the discovery of singers like Laura Cantrell, Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch in the 2000s that reignited my interest in country, though none of them would necessarily be described as in the mainstream of the music. Lucinda Williams’ “Ventura” off “World Without Tears” from 2003 may just be the saddest song ever. Laura Cantrell’s “The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter” is another song I love to this day – a classic example of the strong relationship between all that melancholy and having too much to drink!  But it wasn’t until 2013 that I discovered the singer who remains my favourite country artist: Lindi Ortega. I was introduced to her music by her album of that year, “Tin Star”. She has everything that I want from my country music: a beautiful voice, heartfelt songs and a sense of defiance. She can also get a little weird at times with her lyrics, which keeps you free of too much schmaltz – the biggest risk in listening to country music. I loved “Tin Star” so much that I went back to her earlier albums, which are even better – notably the wonderful “Cigarettes and Truckstops”. And I’ve bought everything since, as well as seeing her a few times when she has come over to the UK. She’s a great performer, and mixes up the ballads with some hard-nosed bluesy rock’n’roll. She’s not huge in the country world, which baffles me, but she has a decent following and a lot of respect. That’s not bad.

The other singer I most like these days is perhaps more predictable, and that’s Kacey Musgraves. I’ve been listening to her since I discovered her first album “Same Trailer, Different Park” around 2015-16 – it came out in 2013. So many great songs on that one, but my favourite remains the wistful “It Is What It Is”. As with Lindi, I love the combination of sensitivity and feistiness, and a refusal to comply with the mainstream expectations while being rooted in the traditions of the music. Of course, with the success of “Golden Hour”, Kacey has crossed over big time into the pop world, and what a great album that is. My No 1 of 2018.  A brief mention for Catherine McGrath too, a young Northern Irish singer who made my second favourite album of last year, “Talk of This Town”. She makes country music with a strong pop sensibility – and the influence of Taylor Swift is obvious. She’s in Nashville right now, writing new songs, no doubt with input from some of those seasoned songwriters in the city who write hits for the stars. I’m looking forward to her next album, not least to see what direction she takes.

So yes, I’ve been ready for a trip to Nashville for some time. And music was at the heart of it. Some extraordinary history, great art, excellent beers and food too. But I’ll concentrate on the musical journey in this piece.

We stayed downtown in a very pleasant apartment on Polk Avenue, surrounded by building works and a parking lot – two common features of central Nashville. From there it was a short walk down to lower Broadway, which is where we ventured on our first evening. Crazy place, and what a noise! The entire street was lined with bars with their windows open and bands playing. The streets were packed. Tourists, obviously, though from the rest of the USA mostly. Not so surprising, I guess, given the size of the country. For us in London, the comparable experience would be going down to Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus, something we generally try to avoid! But, as a tourist myself, I enjoyed Broadway. It was buzzing, the vibe was friendly, and all the music was very enjoyable, if you stopped to listen. Country-ish, but generally veering towards the rockier side. The spirit of Lynyrd Skynyrd lives on, especially in the noisiest establishment of all, Kid Rock’s place.

Broadway just before things get going at lunch time

Glad to say no Bud Lite passed my lips on this trip!

We settled on a bar that had two guys with acoustic guitars, who were playing the Allman Brothers’ “Rambling Man” as we walked by. We had a couple of drinks there and enjoyed their set. Not quite as in-yer-face as some, with no drums reverberating around the room. We didn’t hang around for too long, as we were pretty tired from a day’s travelling, but we did pop down to Broadway on a few occasions during the week, and it was always fun. At one point in the week we got talking to a local Nashvillian in an art gallery on 5th Avenue who absolutely hated Broadway, which I can understand; but it is a magnet for visitors and must bring in a lot of money, some of which will find its way to all the aspiring musicians in the city who play in the bars (mainly for tips).

One place that we had recommended to us was the Listening Room café, which sounded like a small place where we might see one or two artists close up. I liked the idea of that, although the reality turned out differently. We went twice, having enjoyed the first evening so much. That was on our first full day there, Thursday 9 May. The Listening Room café is in an area called SoBro – south of Broadway. Still downtown, and only about ten minutes’ walk from Broadway; but really, it looks and feels like you are in the middle of nowhere. And hardly anyone is on the street – everyone seems to drive. Kath and I didn’t hire a car; we walked when we could and otherwise got taxis or took buses. The latter were interesting – it’s fair to say that we were the only people like us on the buses we took. But, you see, walking and taking public transport is entirely normal in London, so we just did it in Nashville too. It meant we got to know the streets a lot better than we would otherwise have done.

Two shots on 4th Ave South in the vicinity of the Listening Room show you what I mean.

The Listening Room café turned out to be quite a lot bigger than expected, and was more a restaurant than a café; but the concept was a good one. Four different artists each sang four songs, taking turns song by song, rather than playing all their songs at once. Typically the singers were people who made a living writing songs in Nashville, and in some cases, were looking to make a name as performers in their own right. From what they said as they introduced their songs, most had been living and working in Nashville for a good number of years. On the first occasion we went there the singers were Hannah Bethel, JD Shelburne, Ryan Calhoun and Stephanie Owen (accompanied by guitarist) who was also the host. They were all pretty good. I really liked Hannah Bethel, whose sound and style was right up my street, and JD Shelburne had a hint of Bruce in his songs and delivery, which naturally appealed. I looked up Hannah’s music afterwards, and there wasn’t that much on Spotify; but she has just released a third track called “Rhinestone Rodeo” which she played on the night, as well as her second release “Train”. Hope she makes it over to London some time.

Hannah Bethel sings; JD Shelburne looks on.

The second time we went there, which was the second show on Saturday, it was all men. I’m afraid I didn’t note all their names and have now forgotten all but one. They all seemed to know each other and a few beers were consumed. The quality of the songs was high – all of them were songwriters for a living and obviously enjoyed playing their own songs from time to time. Three of them looked exactly how you would expect male country singers to look these days: denim shirts, jeans, baseball caps. One at the end of the line stood out: dressed in black, more indie in appearance than country. At first he also seemed slightly detached from the others, but that changed during proceedings. I fact it seemed like he was regarded as the senior figure amongst them. You could tell from his songs too: they had real depth to them. Two were called (I think) “Drinking about You” and “Don’t Call Me When You’re Drinking”, which gives you some idea of his subject material! His name was Matt Rogers. As it happened Kath found herself sitting next to his wife in an upstairs space where we were allocated a table. We got talking to her; she said Matt made a good living from writing songs and had no plans to go out on the road himself. Fair enough, though I do wonder, when you write such good songs, how you feel always giving them to someone else. We had a chat with Matt after the show. He was a really nice guy, very humble. I mentioned to Catherine McGrath to him, as she was in town. You never know!

Matt Rogers in action.

Of course, being tourists in Nashville, we had to have an evening at the Grand Ole Opry, the self-styled home of country music, and a place where every aspiring country artist dreams of playing. We went there on the Friday evening, having visited the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum during the day. The latter is just down from Broadway and opposite the Bridgestone arena, which is home to the ice hockey team, the Predators, as well as being a big concert venue. The museum was really interesting, well put together and very informative about the history of country music. At any one time, three or four artists are featured in depth. One such during our visit was Emmylou Harris. It reminded me that I’ve never really listened to her music properly, apart from some of the music she made with Gram Parsons, and that was a long time ago. And yet, I’m sure my favourite artists have been strongly influenced by her. I was also reminded that I really ought to give a bit more time to some of the greats, like George Jones, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and the rest. One day, one day! I was amused that there is now a Taylor Swift Education Centre attached to the museum. Or maybe that should be impressed rather than amused. She is obviously putting something back into the place that she started from.

Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, 5th Ave South

Me and Taylor!

The Grand Ole Opry is about half an hour’s bus ride out of town, next to a large shopping mall and a theme park called “Opryland”. And yes, we took the bus out there and back. Very cheap too! Unlike the tickets and the drinks at the Opry, but that is to be expected. Going to the Grand Ole Opry is an experience. Again, mostly tourists I would guess, but very, very American – white, middle class American. The show too, was everything you’d expect – very slick, very self-referential; and highly enjoyable. The show is recorded live for radio, and there is still announcer who sounds like something straight out of some kind of 50s talk show and gives corporate sponsors endless plugs. The music, of course, was what mattered, and that was great. There were twelve different acts, divided into four half hour segments. Each segment had a host who also sang a couple of songs, along with each of the other acts. There was a tremendous variety, within the context of country music, from rootsy blue grass to the latest Taylor Swift style country-pop. That was reflected in the age range of the performers too. The youngest was a singer called Tegan Marie, who was 15, though she looked older. She obviously had the marketing men behind her, and was in the Taylor mould. Oldest was Jesse McReynolds, who was still holding his own in his bluegrass band at the age of 87. From time to time the music veered into that middle-of-the-road schmaltz – at one point I had a frightening vision of watching Val Doonican in his comfy sweaters on family TV in the 1970s – but there was some really good stuff too. Highlights included the vocal harmonies of The Isaacs, and the high speed bluegrass of veteran Ricky Skaggs and band at the end. Their technique on both acoustic guitar and electric mandolin was astounding.

Yes, even if most of the music wasn’t really my thing, this was an event to be remembered, and a highlight of the visit.

Jesse McReynolds is the dude in the white jacket.

Tegan Marie

The Isaacs

Ricky Skaggs centre stage with the mane of white hair!

On the Sunday evening we went down to “The Gulch”, a somewhat soulless modern development of office blocks, restaurants and bars on the south west edge of Downtown,  to a place called the Station Inn, which specialises in bluegrass – the mountain roots of country music. On Sunday night they have a jam, where anyone can bring along their guitar or mandolin and play. I imagine there’s a core of people who do it all the time. Most of them looked like mates. They were mostly older, but there were a couple of young lads, who were in the thick of things. The place was very busy – we fortunately got there early as another bar we planned to have a drink in had closed at 4pm. 4pm! So we got a table and a jug of beer and settled in for a couple of hours. Most entertaining; the music a reminder that a lot of it came over from Ireland and Scotland in the first place.

On Monday evening it was back to Broadway, starting down by the river at a place called Acme Feed and Seed. My friend Paul had recommended we go and see a Grateful Dead covers band there – Monday night is Grateful Dead night! He’s a massive fan of the Dead (as it were). They’ve rather passed me by, but I have to say the band we saw were very good. All Nashville session musicians I suspect. There weren’t a lot of people there, but it was a pleasant hour or so. After that we went to one of the bars recommended in our tourist guidebook: Robert’s Western World. The place was rammed. The music was good and there were a few people dancing (not us!). Has to be done.

Roberts

The last musical experience came on Tuesday, our last night in Nashville. We went down to a place called the City Winery, which has a couple of music venues. This was the smaller venue, called the Lounge. We saw a Canadian country/folk act called Kacy and Clayton. They were pretty good. On Spotify they’d sounded a bit 60s-ish, looking back to the roots and also just slightly psychedelic. Live it was a bit more straight folk. They had a rather quirky between-songs banter that put me in mind of David Byrne from Talking Heads for some reason. Support act Dori Freeman (with a drummer called Nick Falk) was engaging too. The two bands were clearly friends, and supported each other’s shows. It was an enjoyable, unassuming evening, accompanied by some nice food and excellent wine. Only 40-50 people there, but the atmosphere was good.

L-R: Nick, Dori, Kacy, Clayton

After that we returned to what became our favourite Nashville bar, the Tennessee Brew Works, which was nearby.  Again rather in the middle of nowhere, right next to a highway flyover (probably called something else in America). Excellent range of pale ales and other beers, and a fairly young and probably local crowd. Some decent bands playing at times, too – there was one that reminded me of Little Feat. Check it out if you are ever in Nashville. Another bar we liked was the Flying Saucer, which was near the Frisk art museum and Union Station hotel. A superb range of beers from all over the world and decent food. There was a Flying Saucer in Memphis too, which I popped into while there.

Tennessee Brew Works on the right

A fine selection

And that was music of Nashville, one week in May. We didn’t get over to East Nashville, where all the cool people live apparently, and country musicians put on the occasional informal show. But I think we saw and heard enough to agree that Nashville deserves its title of Music City.

Rooftop bar over George Jones museum. Tennessee Titans football stadium on other side of the Cumberland River.

And to end, I must share this video of the song about Nashville that introduced me to Lindi Ortega. “Tin Star.  As Lindi sings, if the music wasn’t flowing through the blood in my veins, I might just walk away. But it is and she didn’t. And so many others are the same. The dreams keep coming and the music keeps flowing.

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Big Thief at SWX Bristol, 24 May 2019

Big Thief are a band from New York who play music that gets defined as indie/folk, although they don’t fit easily into any category. They are: Adrienne Lenker (vocals, guitar), Buck Meek (guitar, backing vocals), Max Oleartchik (bass) and James Krivchenia (drums). I first came across them when I was mugging up for End of the Road, where they were playing last year. The first song I heard was “Masterpiece” off their first album of the same name. I was immediately impressed. It was anthemic and delicate at the same time. The delicacy came from the fragile vocals of singer Adrienne Lenker. It was a good place to start my appreciation of Big Thief’s music.

As it happens, I missed the band at End of the Road, as I was watching Fat White Family then the Orielles, but I continued to listen to their two albums, “Masterpiece” and “Capacity” and really grew to like them. The songs are often quite gentle, but will then lurch into a jarring guitar break. The words are rather other-worldly, elliptical; musing on relationships, but not in a conventional way. The songs that emerged as favourites for me were “Shark Smile”, which starts with a screech of guitars and then settles into a rumbling, rolling rhythm, while Adrienne murmurs in a country style about the woman with a shark smile; and second, and most of all, Parallels”. I love that song – I’ve listened to it as much as any other in the past few months. For me, it’s the quintessential Big Thief song. It has a lost soul feel to it, that delicacy, and builds to a chant about parallels, which seems to switch key at one point. The lyrics feel like they are about a relationship, but they might also be about another dimension of space and time. The guitar drifts in and out. And caterpillars come into it at one point! This is all good. 

Elliptical, meandering, entrancing, jarring, other-worldly, lost, anthemic, beautiful. The words that describe Big Thief’s music are similar to the ones I’d use to describe Radiohead – think “In Rainbows” crossed with “The Bends”. That occurred to me more than once as I watched the band play at SWX in Bristol on Friday night. They are touring to promote their new album “UFOF”. It’s a lovely album, but you have to listen to it a few times to allow the essence of the songs to reveal themselves. It’s mostly on the subdued end of their musical spectrum, with fewer guitar outbursts (although opener “Contact” gets quite shouty at the end). “UFOF” overall sounds quite like Adrienne’s enchanting solo album from last year, “abysskiss”. 

The concert was terrific. I’d not been to SWX before, and liked it. Medium size, a few hundred, maybe a thousand. It was sold out, and the band got a great reception, from a mostly millennial crowd (with a sprinkling of older types, like me!). Looking at set lists from recent shows , it looked like the newer songs would dominate, but that it was unpredictable, as the set varied every night. And we got lucky: there was a great balance of new and established songs. In fact, almost all of my favourite songs got an airing, including “Parallels” about half way through. That was a bit of a bonus, as I hadn’t been expecting to hear it, going on previous set lists. “Shark Smile” was second song in and was greeted like an old friend. Their bounciest tune, though rivalled now by the bluegrassy “Cattails” off the new album. The crowd loved that one too. “Paul”, which might be their best known song, followed  “Shark Smile” – always good to start with some crowd pleasers. 

Perhaps the most popular song on the night was “Mythological Beauty” from “Capacity”, a mid-tempo beauty with characteristic lyrical twists. If not that, then it was “Masterpiece”, which was second last in the main set. What a great song! Last was “Mary”, which has the intriguing wordiness of The National, another band with which Big Thief have something in common. An uplifting end to the set. Huge applause, followed by a two song encore: two lovely tunes from “UFOF”, “Orange” and “From”. The first was just Adrienne and her acoustic guitar, though the band looked on. 

Big Thief aren’t a demonstrative band: there’s no leaping around, and few words in between songs. Not aloof, although they have a certain New York alternative cool about them. I think they are a pretty modest lot – they express themselves through the music. I was quite taken with the reception they got – I think the band were too. I thought that Adrienne wasn’t far off being in tears as she acknowledged the applause. I saw her solo show at the Union Chapel in January this year. She was quite nervy then, and re-tuned her guitar endlessly. There was less of that in Bristol – being one of four band members isn’t as exposing, even if you are the (reluctant) star. 

But modest or not, Big Thief are a band of real substance, who take some standard musical forms – indie, folk, Americana – and twist them into something quite different. They are clearly building quite a following too. Like the National, they might find themselves becoming pretty big without really seeking it. And that’s because they make music that intrigues you and draws you in. And surprises you. You hear new things all the time. If you haven’t heard them, give any of their albums a try, though I’d recommend going through them chronologically, starting with “Masterpiece”. Which is guess what…?

A few more photos (iPhone and cropped, to get rid of the head of the tallest man in the place, who stood just in front of me!).

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