A Thames Journey: (1) From the Source to Cricklade

Sweete Themmes, runne softly, till I end my song.

(Edmund Spenser, 1596)

Old Father Thames at St John’s Lock near Lechlade

One of the things I’ve missed most in this time of lockdown is being able to walk along the banks of the River Thames. I’ve whiled away many an hour of my retirement strolling along the river, mostly stretches between London Bridge to the east and Richmond to the west.  It’s good for the body and great for the soul. Fascinating, invigorating, soothing and inspiring in equal measure.

But if you can’t have the real thing, then the memories, the photos offer some sort of compensation. I have a lot of pictures, particularly of London, but also of the walks that my wife, Kath and I embarked on with our friends Jon and Maggie between August 2015 and April 2019, covering the length of the river from the source to Erith in Kent. With a bonus excursion to Canvey Island! I’ve been picking out the best of the shots for a photobook recently, at the same time as reading Peter Ackroyd’s magnificent book Thames, Sacred River. It got me thinking that it would be interesting to write about that journey, pausing along the way to reflect on other experiences that are related to the Thames in one way or another.  I hope it might be interesting to read too.

We didn’t do the walk in geographical sequence, upstream or downstream, but I thought I’d make this literary journey wind its way from the source to where the river opens out into the North Sea. From the bubbling stream of rural Gloucestershire to the oil refineries of Canvey Island.  From a trickle to a cascade, swelled by the waters of numerous tributaries, twisting and turning through country and town, ebbing and flowing with the tide as it reaches the capital.

The Thames in and above Oxford is often referred to as the Isis. Nowadays that word has an association with terrorism, but it is also the name of an Egyptian goddess. The Thames has been compared with the Nile for the fertility of its surrounds and its centrality in the country’s history and culture, and early Christianity did incorporate elements of Egyptian mythology. Some think that the story of Mary is in part derived from that of Isis, another mother figure. Who knows? The ancient names for the river seem mostly to have been variants of Thameisis. Peter Ackroyd suggests that the first half could derive from the Celtic word tam, which means smooth or wide-spreading.  Alternatively, it could be the Sanskrit tamasa, which means dark. The Thames has often been described as the dark river; and in its most polluted days it was positively black in London. And the isis bit might be a reference to the goddess, but it could also be a derivation of the Celtic word isa or esa which means running water. The Ouse and Exe rivers derive their names from the same source. So Thameisis could mean dark river or smooth running water. Throw in the goddess and it gets very complicated. Or maybe it’s simple: Thames just means river.

Just as unclear is where the Thames actually starts. There is a consensus these days it is at what is known as Thames Head, not far from the village of Kemble, which is near the ancient Fosse Way. But there are competing theories. One is that it emerges from the Seven Springs, just north of Cirencester. These feed the River Churn, which joins the Thames near Cricklade. So: is the Churn a tributary, or is it really the Thames? We will never really know.

Anyway, let’s assume the source is at Thames Head, in a field called Trewsbury Mead, near Kemble – the official version. That’s where we start this journey. It wasn’t where we started time-wise: that was in Erith – the other end. Let’s not worry about that. We found ourselves in Gloucestershire, in the middle of nowhere, on a beautiful, sunny, crisply cold day on 29 December 2016. We’d taken a taxi from Kemble station. As we walked across a ploughed field, the stalks of whatever crop had been there crunched under foot. The sun blazed, but it was freezing. It was a combination that made you feel truly alive.

We made our way down the slope towards a scraggy wood. Just in front of the wood was a small mound with a headstone and a small hole, encircled by rocks. The source of the Thames! Is that it? No water to be seen. A signpost saying 184 miles to the Thames Barrier. I could see, further across the meadow, evidence of a stream. We wandered down there. It was the emergent Thames, steam seeming to rise from it. I guess the kinetic energy of the water passing over the rocks made it warmer than the freezing air above it, creating moisture. It was something you’d expect in a rain forest, not a field in Gloucestershire!

Yours truly

The path briefly took us away from the stream through some lovely countryside, tinged with sparkling frost in the bright sunshine.

As we rejoined the river, it started to widen a little, bolstered by the input of other streams and rivulets.  It wound its way past Kemble and Ewen, both settlements dating from Celtic or Saxon times. Kemble means boundary; Ewen the source of a spring. The upper Thames was, in Saxon times, the dividing line between Wessex and Mercia. Whether the name Kemble denoted that, or simply the demarcation of local territory, I’m not sure. We didn’t divert to either – the daylight hours are precious at this time of year, and we needed to make it to Cricklade. On we walked, marvelling at how this unassuming river could be one and the same as the mighty beast that snakes through London.

Peter Ackroyd quotes from a poet called Thomas Love Peacock, who wrote a piece in 1810 called The Genius of the Thames. It’s apposite:

Let fancy lead, from Trewsbury Mead,                                                                                          With hazel fringe, and copsewood deep,                                                                                  Where scarcely seen, though brilliant green,                                                                                Thy infant waters softly creep,                                                                                                          To where the wide-expanding Nore                                                                                            Beholds thee, with tumultuous roar

We passed through a pretty village called Ashton Keynes, where the Thames resembles a well looked after canal. There are three villages in the area with Keynes in their names. It comes from a French baron, Sir Ralph de Keynes, who owned much of the area in the times of King John.

The banks became more manicured in the village centre

Soon after, as the sun began to descend, we found ourselves amid the gravel pits of the Cotswold Water Park, as the path briefly diverged from the river. There were some beautiful scenes as the trees glowed red in the sunset, reflecting on the water of the lakes. It was nature as art.

The mist began to fall now, adding to the beauty as we reconnected with the river. But it started to cause us concern, too, that we wouldn’t make it into Cricklade before darkness fell. None of us had brought a torch! Jon was reading his map with the light of his phone. The question was, where to come off the river and find our way into the town? Would fences or hedges bar our way? We ploughed on with fingers crossed and reached civilisation in the nick of time, through a farm if I recall.

Where are we?

How glad we were to walk into Cricklade! It was time for a celebratory pint and to reflect on a stunning walk along the infant Thames.

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Graceland – the Book and the Place

This is a blog I’ve been meaning to write since last year.

One of the many pleasures of the End of the Road festival are the interviews that take place in the mornings and early afternoon in the literary tent, tucked away in a secluded part of Larmer Tree Gardens. Last year one of the talks featured Bethan Roberts who had written a book called “Graceland”, a fictionalised account of Elvis Presley’s early life and, in particular, his relationship with his mother, Gladys. They were very close, but of course as Elvis found fame she began to lose her hold over him, for all sorts of reasons, not least all the girlfriends and the ubiquitous “Colonel” Tom Parker. The story begins and ends as a tragedy: Elvis was a twin, but the other baby died at birth; and Gladys turned to alcohol quite early in her life and died from heart failure at the age of 46 after suffering from hepatitis.

Bethan’s novel is beautifully written and captures the lives of Gladys and Elvis – and father/husband Vernon – with insight and compassion. She is herself the mother of an only son, which will have given her some of that insight. There is a lot of sadness and anger in the novel, but also a vivid narrative of Elvis’ journey in music, starting with his singing in the church choir with his first love Magdalene and his love for the music of the black musicians in his hometown of Tupelo, Mississippi, especially the trombonist Ulysses Mayhorn. In her talk Bethan described how she grew up in an Elvis-loving household and retained an affection for his music, which eventually led to the writing of “Graceland”.  In the Q&A session I asked her what her favourite Elvis song was. The first she mentioned was “Mystery Train” which I thought was an excellent choice. I too love those early, raw, bluesy rock’n’roll sounds. Elvis at his most primal – and revolutionary.

I was reminded of all of this when I recently listened to a Word Podcast with Bethan Roberts on my daily walk around the nearby park during our lockdown. The subject was again “Graceland”. The podcast is hosted by Mark Ellen and David Hepworth, and features talks about music and literature with a musical theme. The Word magazine was an indispensable music publication until it fell victim to online competition in 2012; but Mark and David have kept its spirit going with the “Word in Your Ear” talks, usually in an Islington pub, and the podcasts. Bethan’s interview is podcast number 314 from 18 February this year if you want to listen to it.

That also reminded me that I’d never written anything about my trip to Graceland in May last year. I wrote about Nashville soon after getting home, but never got around to Memphis and Chattanooga. Graceland was a pretty extraordinary place. The house itself is big but not massive, although there are extensive grounds. The delight for me was some of the décor – classic 70s kitsch. The indulgences of a wealthy man. There are some lovely photos of the family and the young Elvis in the house, and then, as you go outside, you reach the graves of Elvis and his mother and father. He was always a family man, even if it was a troubled family.

The other delights of Graceland are in the museum complex nearby – you get a minibus between the two. I met some very friendly people from Birmingham, Alabama on the bus. They were interested in where I was from and extolled the virtues of their home state. I decided it might be best not to describe the profound effect that the National Museum of Civil Rights in Memphis had had on me the previous day. We lost touch in the house and the only time I saw them after that was briefly across the floor in one of the diners in the complex. But it was good to meet them and was just one example of the friendliness that I encountered in all three Tennessee cities I visited.

The museum exhibitions were sometimes amusing – the over-the-top collection of cars  and the stage costumes for example – but also inspiring. They were a reminder of what an incredible performer Elvis was and about the revolutionary effect he had on music in the 1950s. This in turn inspired many of the great bands of the 60s and 70s and set off the musical journey that I, amongst others, have been on ever since. I think anyone who loves rock’n’roll music should try, if they can afford it, to get to Graceland one day. And they should read Bethan Roberts’ “Graceland” too.

A few photos from my Elvis experience in Memphis, Tennessee…

The House

Gladys, Elvis and Vernon. Vernon had problems holding down a regular job in Tupelo, and spent some time in prison for altering a cheque.

The Museums

Baby’s got a pink cadillac!

The favoured outfit of Elvis impersonators everywhere!

The primal Elvis. Imagine the impact…

Elvis’ debut album in 1956, featuring “Blue Suede Shoes”. Note where the Clash got the design for “London Calling”

I like the honesty and the commitment of this statement.

Of course Elvis had his own fleet of planes!

Sun Studio, Union Avenue, Memphis

Sam Phillip’s Sun Studio is the place where Elvis made his first music. Songs like “Mystery Train”. It’s in an area called the Edge, which lies adjacent to Downtown. Sam Phillips was a blues man first and foremost and he wasn’t convinced by Elvis at first; but he saw the light. The studio closed down in the early 60s and lay dormant until the 1980s when it was reopened for tours and recording. U2 were one band who recorded there – so the Edge was recording in the Edge! They left a set of drums which are still on display.

The Fab Four at Sun Studio: Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash.

 

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Moses Boyd at the Electric Brixton, 12 March 2020

Moses Boyd is a leading member of the new generation of jazz artists who have been causing a bit of a sensation in recent times. His new solo album “Dark Matter” ventures far and wide in its musical influences, but is rooted in modern jazz and, dare I say it, jazz rock. Moses himself plays the drums and plays them with real style, subtly driving the music forward. I saw him play with his band Exodus at End of the Road last year and was bowled over. It was one of the best shows of the three days.

He played the Electric Brixton on Thursday. Oddly I’ve never been to that venue before. The Academy many times, but never the Electric. I liked it: a nice size, similar to the Scala and Koko I’d say. My friend Annabelle and I stood up on the top balcony (near the bar!) and got a great, unimpeded view. And what a show!  One of the best I’ve seen for a while. An hour and forty minutes of musical bliss. The core band was sax, guitar, keys and Moses on drums. There was a guest singer for, I think, “Shades of You”, so it might have been Poppy Ajudha, who sings on the album.  And at the beginning and end, a team of drummers added to the percussive drive. I’d only listened to “Dark Matter” a couple of times so I’m not sure about the song titles, although the first piece was “Stranger than Fiction”, which has been a single and received a lot of airplay on 6 Music. Live though, it was truly awesome. The build-up to the central tune was electric (no pun intended!). And atmospheric: the epic quality of the music was enhanced by some clever lighting – quite simple but very striking. Light and shadow, silhouettes, black and white morphing to full colour and dry ice, and for the second song a barrage of flashing, which had me looking away a little.  Tried and tested techniques, but done with imagination and subtlety (apart from those flashes!).

Imagination and sublety. You could use those words to describe Moses Boyd’s drumming. He caresses those snares and cymbals. It’s intricate and intense, and smoothly powers the music along. It’s a mystery train. Listen to the song “Y.O.Y.O” on “Dark Matter” to get what I’m talking about. That one certainly featured in the show. He played a solo three songs in which was a wonder to behold.  The musicianship generally was amazing. There was plenty of opportunity for all of the players to show what they could do and it really was breathtaking at times. When the guitarist got going we were in definite jazz rock territory – I’m thinking of favourites from the late 60s/early 70s like Miles Davis’s two classics “In a Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew”, and Santana’s “Caravanserai”.  It was a journey through the genres: dance, Latin, ballads, the jazz of Miles and Coltrane, Caribbean, the pulsating modern jazz sound with that rhythmic saxophone attack. As Annabelle said at one point, “This is just beautiful”.

Yes, beautiful, captivating music the whole night through. Inspiring me to listen to “Dark Matter” on the way home – and ever since! – and to go back to those jazz classics I mentioned above.  The rebirth of cool.

 

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BBC 6 Music Festival – the Roundhouse, 8 March 2020

The BBC 6 Music festival was held in London this year – Camden, in north London, to be precise. Tickets for the three day event sold incredibly quickly, but I managed to get a couple for Sunday for the main stage at the Roundhouse. The line-up looked excellent: Nadine Shah, Jehnny Beth, Anna Meredith, Kim Gordon and Kate Tempest. All women, in honour of International Women’s Day. But, as Nadine Shah said, that shouldn’t be so unusual.

Nadine Shah

I’ve always liked Nadine Shah, since she made her first album, “Fast Food”, in 2015. Her sound is sometimes described as post punk – a reflection of the fact that it shares the sharp-edged guitars and sometimes rather grandiose melodies of that early 80s indie sound. Two of my favourite songs from “Fast Food” – “Fool” and “Stealing Cars” – are good examples of that. “Fool” made it onto the seven song set on Sunday and was a highlight. The guitars were strident and the beats pounded. Three of the songs were from the 2017 album “Holiday Destination”, including the catchy title track. There was a preview from the forthcoming album “Kitchen Sink” called “Ladies for Babies” which keeps up Nadine’s reputation for trenchant social commentary. It’s done with a smile though – she is an engaging performer who takes the trouble to talk to the audience.

Another highlight of the show was a short jazz standard called “There’s No Greater Love”, which she used to sing with Amy Winehouse when they both lived in Camden. It was a nice touch in an enjoyable show, my second favourite of the day. The best was next…

Jehnny Beth

Jehnny Beth is best known as the dynamic singer with Savages, one of the most full-on punk/Goth/hardcore bands around. I was converted when I saw them play live at End of the Road in 2016. They were awesome and Jehnny was truly remarkable. The energy, the presence. Living the music.

It’s disappointing that they seem to have come to a halt after two albums, the last of which, “Adore Life” is a genuine classic. The hiatus seems to be the result of Jehnny’s need to explore her other interests. Jehnny is multi-talented: not only a musician, but an actor, poet and author. I saw her in a fascinating conversation with the new Poet Laureate Simon Armitage at King’s Place in 2018, discussing the relationship between music and poetry. “Adore Life” drew some of its force from poetry.

At King’s Place, venturing into poetry with an established poet, Jehnny was self-deprecating, even nervous, as she read some of her verse. But when she plays music she comes alive and takes no prisoners. I was thinking this show might be mellower than the typical Savages set, having heard the new single, “Flower”. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The set was as in-yer-face as any Savages performance. And when Jehnny gets going, she energises the place. There was the obligatory crowd-surfing, which I think might have taken some of the older members of the audience by surprise. “Flower” did feature, but it was more strident than the recorded version; and the other recent single “I’m the Man” rocked. It was a brilliant, exhilarating show. Jehnny Beth is a true entertainer.

Anna Meredith

I’m not that familiar with Anna Meredith’s music, though I’ve heard it a few times on Mary Anne Hobbs’ show on 6 Music. She has a classical music pedigree and ventures into avant-garde electronics now and then. Her 2016 album “Varmints” was highly acclaimed, and she has a new record, “FIBS” out now. The show was very percussive and dynamic, with a band that included a tuba and cello. Anna spent a lot of time banging out the rhythms on a pair of timpani drums, as well as manipulating the electronic beats on the keys. Towards the end things went into dance mode, and the crowd responded really well to that. There was something upbeat and engaging about it all – a real sense of enjoyment. Maybe not the sort of thing I’d listen a lot to at home, but fun on the day.

Kim Gordon

Now Kim Gordon has a hell of a history: she was bassist in the epoch-defining band Sonic Youth. Formed in the early 1980s, they were post punk, alternative, hard core, grunge and more besides. Not often an easy listen, but intriguing (in small doses). I bought quite a lot of their CDs, especially in the 1990s, because I thought I needed to know how they sounded. And I liked a few tracks (notably “Youth against Fascism”) a lot; but mostly it blended into an artful noise. I never saw them live, though I did see Thurston Moore, the singer and guitarist, play at End of the Road and didn’t stay the whole set!

Kim also wrote a really good autobiography called “Girl in a Band” which was published in paperback in 2016. The title says it all: she describes the challenges of being a woman in a hardcore rock band. There were many! And she documents the break-up of her marriage to Thurston Moore. It is bleakly honest.

She released her first solo album in 2019. It’s called “No Home Record”. She played the whole of it on Sunday, mostly in the order of the album. (I hadn’t heard it at the time.) What I got from it was a sense of intensity and power – and alienation. There was no interchange with the audience until right at the end. It was full-on noise. Pretty impressive; but not overladen with tunes. There was a big video screen playing a kind of road movie – an image of endless travel through the American badlands. Fascinating viewing, but uncomfortable listening. A lot of shade, but not much light. The crowd was respectful, but tentative in its response.

I’m listening to the album as I write this, and I’m getting it. The sheer noise didn’t really let a newcomer like me do that on Sunday, though there was a fascination about it, partly because of the visuals. Looking back, the most thought-provoking of the shows.

Kate Tempest

I saw Kate Tempest last year at End of the Road. I really respect what she does. She’s a great modern poet, with her finger on the pulse of today. On record, the music enhances the words. Live it tends to drown them out. So you get the electronics, and the beats, and the cadences of her words. But the lyrics are submerged, the subtleties lost. It crossed my mind as I watched and tried to listen on Sunday, that Sleaford Mods have a similar problem. Except they have a few more chants that people know. Of course this all depends on how well you know an artist’s work when you go to see them. If it is familiar, you find yourself playing the song you know in your head, even as the live version is overwhelmed by distortion or the drum beats. What I would really like to do is go to a Kate Tempest show that had no music, and just relied on the rhythm and the detail of her words. That’s where the real power – and musicality – lies. Her lyrics, her poetry. They are resonant, heartfelt, a sign of her inner struggle and a sign of the times.  For me, all that was rather lost on Sunday, although the show was engaging. So I watched about half of it and started to think about getting the tube home on a Sunday…

An excellent evening anyway, and credit to 6 Music and all the performers for putting on such a great event. Did I mention how good the sound was? BBC class, as ever. Do not let this government touch this national treasure just because it doesn’t always tow the political line. It is a massively important part of our culture; and 6 Music, which has just turned 18, is one of its most vital offspring!

A few more photos, starting with Nadine Shah.

Jehnny Beth

Anna Meredith

Kim Gordon

Kate Tempest

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lovelondonscenes 168 – Sunshine on the Canal – or is it the River?

A familiar scene, the Grand Union Canal – and the River Brent. The two become one on this lower stretch, which leads at Brentford into the Thames. After two days of incessant rain and most of the news being about coronavirus, it was great to get out into the winter sunshine and stretch my legs. I walked down to Boston Manor Park, crossed over the wooden bridge there onto the towpath and walked north and west to Hanwell. It was pretty flooded in places, which was no surprise, but it was all passable in walking boots – you wouldn’t want to muck up your fancy trainers though. The whole walk ended up being about 7 miles, which blew out the cobwebs nicely.

A few photos below, taken with the iPhone.

From the wooden bridge at Boston Manor park, near the A4.

Clitheroe’s Lock, with a Brent River loop.

The lovely M4!

Crossover bridge.

This is parakeet territory, though they moved quickly away when I tried to take a snap. The bright green troupe are a bit of an anomaly in the West London woodland, but they must have escaped from somewhere, and now seem to be thriving.

The other end of that loop. There’s a lock nearby which is called Osterley lock, though it’s nowhere near Osterley. Elthorne Park is nearby.

This is where the River Brent parts company with the canal, or alternatively, where they are about to come together. The West London mangroves!

Going under the Uxbridge Road, water still dripping down. Still, this place is sometimes completely flooded.

The Wharncliffe Viaduct, from Brent Meadow. Built in 1836-7, designed by Brunel. Still a railway bridge.

Finally, the Brent looking lively. The canal absorbs it and slows it down.

It’s good to have this lot on your doorstep.

 

 

 

 

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Big Thief at Hammersmith Apollo, 27 February 2020

Big Thief are one of my favourite bands at the moment. I love their combination of folk, Americana and indie with an off-kilter element which reminds me a little of Radiohead. Singer Adrianne Lenker has a fragile but versatile voice which works beautifully with the folkier tunes and contrasts delicately with the moments of wild guitar that break out of some of the songs. The music is strangely conventional and unconventional. Last year the band released two albums: “UFOF” and “Two Hands”. I really liked “UFOF”, which was their gentlest album yet, but still rocked out with songs like “Jenni” and “Contact”, and had a lot of that Radiohead feel, especially on the title track. “Two Hands” didn’t do so much for me at first, but after a few listens songs like “Not” and “Forgotten Eyes” made their mark. I saw them play a couple of times last year too: first at SWX in Bristol in May, and then at Green Man, on the main stage, in August. I loved the Bristol show, which felt like a real celebration. Green Man, in the open air, with Adrianne wearing a silly wig and moustache, was good, but inevitably lacked the intimacy of the indoors.

So the show last Thursday seemed set to be kind of familiar, but also different, as the band change their set around quite a lot from show to show and they had a new album to promote in “Two Hands”. And what we got was a pretty perfect mix of the new and the old, over 19 tracks, including a rather short encore. The show started typically perversely, not with a rousing favourite or flagship new song, but two Adrianne solos, a song called “Zombie Girl” (according to Setlist FM) and the lovely “Orange” from “UFOF”. But then we got a run of Big Thief classics – “Masterpiece” (the song that first caught my attention), “Capacity” and “Shark Smile”, which rolls and rumbles after its rasping electric intro. We were all set up!

Other highlights were “Real Love” and “Not”, both of which featured some epic guitar, mostly from Adrianne; another old favourite, “Mary”, where Adrianne sets off on lyrical streams that feel like poetry; and of course the new old favourite, “Cattails” from “UFOF”, which verges on being a hoedown. Let’s say it has a bluegrass beat. With “Shark Smile” it’s the most danceable song in the set.

Credit too, to the people responsible for the sound (which must include the venue, as well as those on the mixing desk). It was really crisp and clear. I could even understand some of the words! The key, I think, was that it was loud enough to fill the space, but not too loud to distort the whole thing, which so often happens. It meant we were able to appreciate fully the excellent musicianship of the band.

So my best Big Thief experience yet.  Next up, End of the Road this September…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Fontaines DC at Brixton Academy, 25 February 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

The Murder Capital – SWX Bristol, 19 February

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

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

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

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

Slowdance 2

Gengahr – EartH Hackney, 21 February

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

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

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

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

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

You can’t win ‘em all!

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Angel Olsen at the Hammersmith Apollo, 11 February 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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