Erasure: Hull City Hall – live review

So City of Culture year has been and gone and what a year it was. From my point of view it meant Jeff Lynne, The Flaming Lips, Ocean Colour Scene and lots more. The question now is whether or not Hull can continue to attract big names, to the new Venue, or the football stadium or my special favourite Zebedee’s Yard for open air gigs and, of course, to the amazing Victorian pile that is the City Hall.

Early signs are promising – maybe the City of Culture can do attitude is still around – and we have the likes of Orbital and Chase & Status and local hero Calum Scott lined up for the summer. The year’s major musical events start out with a sold out show from 80s pop legends Erasure at the City Hall.

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Support comes from up and coming nu-disco star Bright Light Bright Light who is making his second visit to the venue, having played last year’s LGBT rights festival night. He’s got some great catchy songs, a style that’s midway between classic pop and musical theatre and a nice line in restrained ironic showmanship. Plenty of the crowd at the front are obviously fans already and it looks like he’s made a few more by the end of his set.

The stage set up for Erasure is a surprise, with the duo separated from each other for most of the show, Andy Bell performing in the narrow space between the front of the stage and a large ziggurat constructed from scaffold and fluorescent tubes atop of which is Vince Clarke with his keyboards and a guitar. There are two dancers and singers who initially occupy frames, also fluorescently defined, on either side of the stage but their contribution is pretty minimal. All eyes are on Bell who dominates proceedings by sheer charismatic presence although Clarke descends from the gods towards the end of the set it almost seems like a one man show.

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But what a great show it is. Even though I’ve been playing Erasure tracks all week I’m amazed by the strength in depth in their back catalogue. The set kicks off with an eerily gorgeous Oh L’Amour and heads for a climax with Sometimes and Respect but along the way are Stop, Drama, Blue Savannah and a variety of Love related matters including Chains Of, Victims Of and Who Needs It Like That.

Tracks from the new album World Be Gone are interspersed throughout and on tonight’s showing it’s a strong piece of work. All around the City Hall it’s pretty much a non stop dance-a-thon, from the main hall to the steep galleries and what more perfect way could there be to celebrate some of the most elegant and romantic pop music ever than dancing the night away.

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By the time Clarke descends for the last couple of songs you’d imagine that people would be exhausted but of course they’re not and the final Respect is a triumphant statement of the power of great pop music to unite people in joy. Fantastic stuff.

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Interview: Reggae legend Ali Campbell

As founding members of Britain’s biggest reggae band UB40, singer Ali Campbell, second vocalist Astro and keyboardist Mickey Virtue topped the UK singles chart on three occasions and sold 70 million records as they took their smooth yet rootsy musical blend to all corners of the globe. Now with ‘A Real Labour Of Love’ the trio give us a fresh take on the legendary series of albums, putting the focus primarily on reggae tracks from the 1980s.

We got to talk to Ali and we started out by asking him about the inspirations behind the new album.

idp: First of all congratulations on a fine new album. It’s got the real classic UB40 feel – a bit cheeky, a bit sly, a bit chilled, a bit romantic. It’s going to be very popular with the fans, I’m sure of that. And it sounds like you were all having a lot of fun in the studio.

Ali Campbell: Well yes, we loved it. It’s a delight to go into a studio to record songs that you already know and that you love. That’s why we called them the Labour of Love albums. We’ve called this one A Real Labour Of Love just to differentiate it but they were very successful albums. We sold more than 21 million of them and some of our biggest hits came from them including Cherry O Baby, Kingston Town, and Red Red Wine.

What made you decide that the time right for a new version and what’s special about the songs on this one?

They’ve been asking us for a long time to do another one so we thought that enough time had passed and we should give it a go. The songs that we cover on this album are all over thirty years old now. They’re the songs that we listened to when we were on the road with the first Labour Of Love album. When we made that album we were we were just covering the songs we grew up listening to – the songs that made us love reggae in the first place – whereas this one takes us into the 80s. These are the songs from when I was in Jamaica.They’re all classics and big hits in the reggae world and we’re trying to bring them to a new audience.

I’ve spent a long time on YouTube and elsewhere tracking down the originals of some of these songs and it has reminded me just how powerful great pop can be. How were the songs for this album chosen and did they bring back a rush of memories for you of the time when you first heard them?

Well most of them are reggae classics that I was listening to in the 80s like JC Lodge’s Telephone Love and Strive by Shinehead which is a great record. And then of course there’s She Loves Me Now by the great Dennis Hammond which is the first single from the album. There’s a really nice and funny little film to go with it and you can find that online. These are the sounds that made us love reggae in the first place and when me and Astro sat down and started to draw up a list we were like all we got to have some Dennis and we’ve got to have some Gregory. It really is a joy to do these albums. It’s always nice doing your own material but it’s a lot easier and more fun to cover songs that you love. It’s only what The Beatles did and the Stones and The Who but they loved blues and we love reggae. Their hero was Bob Dylan and mine was Bob Marley.

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It sound like you’re still as passionate as ever about making music.

It’s the best job ever and i think I’ve got the hottest reggae band in the world right now. I think this is the best thing we’ve done in 25 years.

How does your approach to a covers album differ from making an album of original material? It must be important to avoid doing anything like a note for note copy.

If there’s a secret to it, it’s that you have to stay true to the melody because that’s why you liked the song in the first place but then we do our take on it and we try and make it more accessible to a pop audience. That’s all we’ve ever tried to do really, When we started the band in the first place my main idea was because I loved reggae music I wanted to promote reggae music.

Just like I loved dub and I wanted to spread the word about that. There’s a song by Goldie Lookin Chain and one of the lyrics goes “I wouldn’t know what dub was if it wasn’t for UB40” and hearing that for the first time was one of my proudest moments. The first dub album we did was our third album I think. Present Arms had gone in at number two and we thought this is the perfect time to do a dub album and show people what it’s all about. A lot of people brought the album and then took it back to the shop saying it was faulty. No vocal and some strange echoey sounds. But if you look all around the world at pop music today so much of it is informed by reggae beats. People like Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande even The Script. I saw them the other day doing a reggae track. The Sly Dunbar beat, the Bogle beat, that’s what contemporary dance music is at the moment. So reggae is more influential now than it’s ever been which makes me happy.

There’s some excellent artwork with the album and you’re auctioning some of it for charity. It’s nice to see performers taking an interest in the music as an artefact for a change. We used to love reading the album sleeves and looking through the racks at the record shop but now it’s all electronic, living in download world as we do.

It can be a bit soul destroying when you spend a year or two of your life making an album from its inception to the point where it’s finished and you spend all that time and all that money and all that effort and then you see people listening on little white headsets coming out of their phones. It’s like why was I worried about getting the bottom end to sound just right and trying to marry the bass drum and the bass guitar perfectly; it all seems a bit futile but it’s what we do. When you go back and you’re re-recording tracks that you remember as classics they always seem a bit rougher than you remember them. So it’s nice to go in and do a clean version and try and reduce it as best I can.

You act as the producer on the album. Is that something you’ve always done.

UB40 have always produced their own around music and I like to be there at the mix because there’s nobody else who knows better than I do how I want it to sound. We had Sly and Robbie mix for us but even though they’re geniuses and we love them it’s never been exactly what we wanted out of our own music. We believe we’re the ones who know what it’s meant to sound like.

Any particular favourite tracks on this album that you’d recommend we go listen to?

I think people should go and have a look at the funny little movie that goes with She Loves Me Now. It’s a terrifying thing to follow in the footsteps of Dennis Hammond I felt the same way when we did Many Rivers To Cross. It’s a tall order. I had a lot of sleepless nights and worry because he’s one of my favourite singers. It’s a bit like taking on Stevie Wonder. That’s got to be one of my favourite tracks on the album because it’s one of my favourite songs of all time anyway.

You’ve got lots of festivals lined up and an arena tour as well so you’re going to have a busy few months.

We’re doing mostly festivals in England and Europe this year. I still love touring and playing live. As I said I’ve got the hottest reggae band in the world at the moment we’ve we’ve had Morgan Heritage play with us, and Inner Circle and and Jo Mersa Marley. Raging Fyah too, they’re one of my favourite bands of the moment.

Well thanks for the chat, congratulations again on the album and we’ll hope to catch one of your summer festival shows.

Thank you.

Jess & The Bandits: Fruit, Hull – live review

Last September, just as Jess Clemmons was setting out with The Bandits on a UK tour in support of her new album, the gospel influenced Smoke And Mirrors, Hurricane Harvey struck her hometown of Houston, Texas, causing extensive damage to her mother’s home and necessitating the cancellation of the tour. Five months on and she’s back with us, kicking off the rearranged tour at Fruit in Hull and proving to the doubters (if there were any) that the change of style hasn’t diminished her ability to create some of the finest cast iron ballads and torch songs you’ll ever hear.

Opening the show is up and coming Glaswegian country pop artist Kevin McGuire, who is also on a roll at the moment with the release of 2017’s debut EP Foreign Country leading to performances for the BBC and at the Nashville Meets London Festival.

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Highlights of his set include the new single Late, 3am which is an unusual up tempo break up song written from the perspective of a rejected lover who now unwillingly finds himself in demand again, and the last song of the set, Alright Tonight, which I’d recommend checking out soonest you have the chance. McGuire is one of a growing number of home grown country performers who seem confident enough to produce authentically British country music without the need to slavishly follow US music, although he is clearly influenced by the likes of Rascal Flatts and Sam Hunt.

Jess Clemmons has changed the line up of her band since I saw them last. They’re still bandits of course, but they’re different bandits, better suited to her new sound, on display on the fine new album, Smoke And Mirrors. There are still plenty of high powered country rock grooves of course, she hasn’t gone all wimpy on us all of sudden, and the show kicks off with My Name Is Trouble straight out of our favourites playbook before swinging into love Like That, another favourite and I’m Not Going Home, whose power shows the close connection between both sets of songs old and new.

Vocally she’s in fine form voice is in fine form – she’s as good a country singer as I’ve ever heard live – capable of a wide range of emotional colour plus considerably more out and out charismatic sexiness than one person really ought to possess. It’s not fair really it isn’t.

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The set is a mix of the best of the two albums with highlights including The World’s Still Round, whose brooding verse explodes into some great rock and roll, White Lies which slows things down a little but has a classic broken lives and shattered dreams feel to it, Gone Girl for which Clemmons channels her inner Dolly Parton and Nitty Gritty which has the whole room singing.

By tradition the set includes a couple of covers – on this occasion it’s Mama told Me not To Come and Bonnie Raitt’s Love Sneaking Up which is followed by the outstanding track from Smoke And Mirrors, the gospel anthem of empowerment Sister.

And of course the show ends with some of real favourites – bring the house down rocker Ready Set, the emotionally supercharged Fault Lines and to round it all off Single Tonight.

A fine show from one of our favourite performers and if I get the chance I’ll try to catch another show later in the year. If you get the chance you should too.

The Damned: O2 Apollo, Leeds – live review

As I made my way from the car park to the Academy for the show the night air was filled with rain and the sound of bells. Ringing in the damned.

The original goth punks were rumoured to be on good form, with a new album in the works, a single getting plenty of attention and the return of Paul Gray on bass and there was a long queue waiting to get out of the drizzle.

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First up one of the best surprises I’ve had in a long time. Usually before I set out for a show I check to see who the support are but on this occasion I forgot, so it’s a real pleasure to find that it’s no less a personal hero than Slim Jim Phantom, Stray Cats drummer and rockabilly guru playing some of the rawest rock and roll you ever heard. The other two places in the trio are a movable feast, (I believe Captain Sensible and Dave Vanian sometimes appear), but on this particular night the top class sidemen are James Walbourne and Nick Wilkinson, whose day jobs are as guitarist and bass player respectively for The Pretenders.

Their set takes in classics spanning the history of rock and roll from Carl Perkins’ Matchbox and The Womack’s It’s All Over Now to a terrific That’s Alright Mama that sets off at a slouching amble before bursting suddenly into a run and reminding us all just what it was that made rock and roll great in the first place. They tie things up with the Cats very own contribution to the rock and roll classic song book – Rock This Town.

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And so on to the main event and the Academy was pretty much full for The Damned who open with All Messed Up, Lively Arts and Silly Kids Games, representative of a set that’s heavily weighted towards the band’s glory days from the late 70s until the early 80s.

There’s a great British tradition of looking for the clay in the feet of our musical heroes and as such I feel like I ought to say at this point that The Damned weren’t a shadow of their former selves. We don’t have Johnny Hallydays in England.

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In fact The Academy crowd is treated to a great show with the band on excellent form, having a fine old time and revelling in the sheer joy of making some very loud music in company of several thousand like minded individuals. What more could you ask?

Front and centre Dave Vanian is bathed in Hollywood light as he struts his stuff with his retro mic and long black coat, while over to stage left The Captain finds himself a little pool of purplish darkness in which to hop and bop and twist, leaning over his guitar like a tangled marionette and offering occasional pithy comments. Paul Gray dances almost non stop and even Monty manages to escape his decks for a few brief moments of electrifying dad dancing during New Rose.

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Highlights include an anthemic Stealer Of Dreams, a raucous Elouise and the new single Standing On The Edge Of Tomorrow, featuring some ringing guitar riffs but what was most noticeable was how adeptly the band switches styles, one moment full on punk, next moment Vanian is transformed into a Neil Diamond style crooner. At one point he’s a fire and brimstone Old Testament prophet conducting a chorus of Woah ah Ohs on Devil In Disguise, next he seems to be channelling the spirit of The Housemartins.

The show closes with a mixture of old and new including Generals, Evil Spirits, (again the forthcoming album sounding like a good thing) and the classic Smash It Up before the band responds to the appeals of the assembled company by returning for a final cover of the Elton Motello classic Jet Boy, Jet Girl.

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