Category Archives: Publications

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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Interview: Jess Clemmons

 
Jess Clemmons first came to the attention of British music fans a couple of years ago with the release of Here We Go Again, her debut album with The Bandits and one of the most exciting country rock albums we’ve heard in recent years. Many of the people who now count themselves fans first heard of her when her version of “Wichita Lineman” was played by DJ Terry Wogan, who afterwards declared it to have been even better than the Glen Campbell original. Praise indeed.

Since then she’s been a regular visitor to the U.K., touring all over the country and winning a large following. Last year her second album, Smoke and Mirrors was released. It was selected as one of the highlights of 2017 by Country Magazine and the lead single “Sister” received extensive airplay from the BBC.

She’s back on tour in the U.K. in February, kicking off at Fruit in Hull on February 6th and if you’re a fan of top notch country music then we’d highly recommend a trip to the north bank to catch the show. We got to talk to Clemmons about music, marriage and the perspicacity of small dogs, and we started by asking about the distinctive change of sound on the material on the new album.

idp: Let me start by congratulating you on Smoke And Mirrors. I’ve been listening to it for a couple of weeks now and it’s an excellent thing. It has a distinctly different sound to Here We Go Again. A little less country rock, a little more pop and gospel. Was this a deliberate decision or did it just happen, like a natural progression?

Jess Clemons: It was absolutely deliberate. The last thing that we ever want to do is to try to recreate something we’ve already done. There’s a kind of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix” it trap and some performers and bands fall right into it. It’s easier but it also means that you don’t grow as an artist and you don’t give the audience something new. Making a big change to your sound involves taking a chance and that’s why we spent a whole year working on the songs for the new album to try to get the best of both worlds – still recognizably the established Jess And The Bandits sound but with plenty of the new in there as well.

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idp: Did it feel like a risk?

JC: Well there were certainly lots of times when I was in panic mode because much of this was so different from anything we’d done before but that was mostly before I’d really started living with these songs, sharing them with friends and colleagues. Gradually it came to feel less strange. I would take the old album and choose a song to play at random, and then I’d play one of the new ones and I came to realize that there was a coherence between the songs – a big similarity in the body of work, which is exactly what you want. I wanted to find a way to tie all the songs together because when you’re in a club playing live you don’t want it to sound like you’re performing songs that don’t belong together. So I’m really glad that I went with my gut and that my management team supported me and I decided to take a risk and go for it.

idp: There’s a lot of gospel influence on the album. Is that something that you grew up with? You seem to drop into the groove very easily.

JC: I did grow up singing in the choir and the gospel feel as always been a part of me. It used to hurt that whenever I would get a solo in church I was always given the gospel part and I used to say, “I want to sing the pretty little songs,” but soon I decided that I’d embrace it. When I decided to use the gospel sound on the new album it felt really good because I felt I was getting back touch with the gospel tradition within myself that I had not made use of for a long time. It was like I was going back to my roots and to being a little girl again.

idp: There’s an extensive list of writers who contributed to the album, many of them working with you as co-writers. Do you enjoy collaboration?

JC: I love it and I got to work with some fantastic writers on Smoke and Mirrors. Femke Weidema, who co-wrote “Sister”, is actually the producer of the album and it’s great to work with a producer who is also a songwriter because you can see a song go from it’s very beginnings to being almost complete in just a few hours. Having her as a producer with such gave me such an advantage. And there’s Emily Shackleton as well. She wrote “Every Little Thing”, which was a big hit for Carly Pearce and she’s fantastic to work with.

idp: So you work in Nashville but you live in Houston?

JC: I’m in Houston now and I think I have been here for longer than I’ve ever been but I’ve taken full advantage of the downtime including getting married. I’m Mrs Peavey now. I’m getting used to that but it still feels a bit weird writing it down. I’ll get used to that soon.

idp: I understand that your dog told you that he was the right one.

JC: Unfortunately my puppy died a couple of months ago but he was always very protective about who was around me. He was just a little dog but he was one of those little dogs who think they’re very big dogs. But when Chris was around he would just cuddle right up and I thought that if I hadn’t already figured out that he was the one then maybe I should just pay attention to the dog.

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idp: I think you were also hit by hurricane Harvey.

JC: Oh yes that was precisely why we had to postpone the U.K. tour last year. It was scheduled and I had been in the U.K. for a month getting ready and everything was all set and then I got the word that my parents home and been severely affected. It was the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed especially from thousands of miles away. I spoke to my mum and she said, “Do what you have to do,” but I could have hear the pain in her voice so I asked, “Do you want me to come home?” and she just burst into tears and said “Yes.” I said, “Right I’m going home, people will understand.” She’s okay now. She’s back in the house and it’s coming together slowly. They don’t have a kitchen yet but they do have a bedroom and a bathroom.

idp: You also issued an old fashioned Christmas CD which has lots of U.K. country performers on it and a song by Gary Quinn. What do you think of the current U.K. country scene?

JC: I’m a big fan. I’ve been touring the U.K. since 2016 and I’ve seen the country scene develop so fast. I love the way a lot of U.K. country artists are using their own heritage to make authentic British country music. It’s not just a question of copying the U.S. music anymore.

idp: Are we expecting a mixture of new material and old when the tour comes round?

JC: Absolutely. It’s good to be starting in Hull because Fruit is an excellent venue and we’re hoping for a good crowd. I’ll try and put in the songs that people really love plus some from the new album and hopefully people will have had time to get to learn some of them and sing along.

idp: I’m sure they will. Have a great tour and we’ll look forward to seeing you in Hull.

The Flaming Lips: Zebedee’s Yard, Hull – live review

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The Flaming Lips
Zebedee’s Yard , Hull
25th May 2017

Hull’s newest music venue is Zebedee’s Yard, close to the quayside. a car park by day, hemmed in by the backs of Victorian warehouses and office buildings. It might sound unglamorous but in practice it works just great, and while it’s probably destined to be a one summer only thing for the City of Culture celebrations it would be nice if it could continue to be used for the future because the city needs an pop up venue like this.

It certainly makes a great and slightly disorientating backdrop for The Flaming Lips,a band for whom great and slightly disorientating are the rule rather than the exception and they give us a show that certainly makes it into my top ten ever, an explosion of music, colour and joy whose psychedelia is only enhanced by the venue’s anachronistic red brick bowl.

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Everybody’s favourite young fogeys, Public Service Broadcasting, are the main support, equipped with tech and traditional instruments in equal measure and dressed as if they knew the yard’s buildings when they were young.

It’s the first time I’ve seen them live and I’ll admit to sometimes harbouring grave suspicions about bands that play computers on stage. I’ve vented them in QRO reviews on occasion, so I’m ashamed to admit that I have relatively low expectations of PSB. In my defence I’ll just say that it takes about fifteen seconds to realise that they aren’t what I’m expecting at all. No crouching over the decks gesticulating like they’re communicating in some sort of sign language for the constipated. No dancing on tables. None of the shouting “Come on Hull make some fucking noise” which usually passes for literacy for players of the Apple Mac and related instruments.

Their complex weaving of live music and samples is completely thrilling and even if I’m not dancing, (which puts me very much in the minority), I am completely mesmerised. No good asking me about the first few songs because I’m busy with cameras but I spend the rest of the set getting my head round their sound, which takes some time.

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It’s not until The Other Side, which deploys samples from the Apollo 8 mission, that I start to pick the threads from the complexity sufficiently to understand what’s going on. It’s a great track with the tension rising throughout,like a hundred heartbeats woven into one until it reaches a massive crescendo.

Favourite tracks are hard to call because it still all felt very new but Everest, which closes the set, is incredible and when Public Service Broadcasting leave the stage I have a new favourite band.

And then we’re all set for the main event. As a prequel nets filled with huge balloons are manoeuvred into the gangway at the side of the stage but so bijou is Zebedee’s Yard the crew are unable to get them past the scaffold structure. After several minutes of effort, filled with the sound of popping rubber, they give up and the balloons are distributed to the crowd by way of a human chain. It’s an impressive piece of work.

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It’s my first live encounter with The Flaming Lips, a band whose shows have achieved legendary status. The previous night they were at Glastonbury, closing things up on the Park Stage. Tonight it’s a car park in Hull. It might seem like a bit of a come down but you have to remember that this year Hull is the official UK city of real, proper culture, and Glastonbury is, as ever, the home of middle class beardy weirdy wannabe culture.

It’s difficult to know how to approach a Flaming Lips review. If you’ve seen them before you won’t need a description. If you haven’t then you probably won’t believe me.

The balloons having been pretty much eliminated by the end of Race For The Prize, Wayne Coyne, dressed in crimson velvet, is joined on stage by several large inflatable manga characters for a glorious Yoshimi. For the first time ever I miss loads of shots because I am too busy singing along. When There Should Be Unicorns trots in Coyne rides a ten foot luminous equine monocerous into the crowd. It’s a dangerous thing to attempt and the only safety gear with which he is equipped are some inflatable rainbow wings and a pair of fluffy green crocodile feet. If it all sounds a bit predictable then all I can do is promise you that it’s great. The unicorn completes a full circuit of Zebedee’s Yard and Coyne dismounts.

After that it all gets a bit weird.

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The hamster ball comes out for a strangely poignant Space Oddity and there’s a giant rainbow, more confetti cannons than you can shake a stick at, and a large inflatable Fuck Yeah Hull sign which has a much more pleasing symmetry than the previous night’s bottom heavy Fuck Yeah Glastonbury.

What’s most important though is that at no point in the whole bizarre process does the quality of the performance ever slip below fantastic. There may be a lot of nonsense in the air but it isn’t allowed to compromise the music.

The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song is a huge singalong and Coyne seems pleasantly surprised at how many people are able to join in with verses as well as chorus. The show winds up with a storming She Don’t Use Jelly and a tender and lovely Beatles tinged Do You Realize, which has the crowd singing as they leave.

Alter Bridge, Volbeat, Gojira: Leeds arena – live review

Who is the best vocalist currently working in rock music? We could argue that one all day. It’s the kind of debate music fans love and of course we’d never get a definitive answer. But we can be pretty sure that if it came to a vote then Myles Kennedy of Alter Bridge, a man who was twice considered for Led Zeppelin duties and doubles up as vocalist for Slash’s touring band, The Conspirators, would be near the top of the poll.

It can’t be very often that the pre-eminence of Kennedy’s vocals is given a run for its money but at the Leeds Arena on Friday, December 2nd, we’re treated to a magnificent display of power and technique from not just one but two vocal greats, with Kennedy’s crown coming in for some serious pressure from Michael Poulsen, lead vocalist of Danish rockabilly metal outfit Volbeat.

It’s a 6.30 start and I’ve no chance of making it for hard rockin’ kiwis Like A Storm (subsequent YouTubeing indicated that I missed out, and I’ll be keeping an eye open for them in future) but I manage to catch the second half of a superlative set from Gojira. The Frenchmen certainly know how to put on a show and many critics tip them for superstardom. On this showing that sounds perfectly reasonable and they certainly know how to whip a crowd into frenzy – the ferocity of their performance being matched on the night only by a particularly terrifying circle pit.

Volbeat wear their influences on their sleeves. They reference Johnny Cash early on at the opening of Sad Man’s Tongue and later welcome Barney Greenaway of Napalm Death for a rousing Evelyn. As you’d expect the set is dominated by tracks from their most recent album, 2016’s Seal The Deal & Let’s Boogie (there can’t be many better ways to start a set than The Devil’s Bleeding Crown), but the highlights come when they rifle through the back catalogue a little for a captivating Lola Montez and Still Counting, for which they bring about half the audience on stage to sing backing vocals. Poulsen’s vocals are riveting throughout, particularly on the inspirational Let It Burn, for which phones and lighters (remember them?) are out in force.

Alter Bridge arrive quietly, sneaking onto the stage in the dark and launching into The Writing On the Wall. Their schtick throughout is to play down the grandstanding and showmanship in favour of being four ordinary guys playing some music. That’s not to say they don’t play a great show – they assuredly do – but it does mean that they put their energies into the performance, not into playing ‘Look at me, I’m famous,’ and they’re all the better for it. A little bit of modesty can be very endearing at times. With Kennedy on vocal and guitar duties he can’t roam the stage like some do, so he has to make up for some visual riffs in favour of musical ones – he’s a pretty good guitarist too, although he did seem happy to be released from instrumental duties and to interact with the front rows on Metalingus.

Alter Bridge are anthem rockers at heart and they have a knack for coming up with great melodies that give Kennedy something to really lean into. On songs like Ghost of Days Gone By and Farther Than the Sun Kennedy gives it that unique blend of passion and controlled power that made him famous back in the Mayfield Four days, but it’s on Blackbird that he really shows just what it is that makes him the best in the world with an extraordinary blend of power and emotion, accentuated by Mark Tremonti’s guitar work. On Waters Rising Tremonti takes the vocal duties while there‘s a moving solo acoustic performance from Kennedy for Watch Over You. Among the many highlights were a hard driving Addicted To Pain and the anthemic Rise Today, which closed the show and sent the fans home happy.

On this showing Alter Bridge are definitely shaping to be one of the major arena rock bands of the next few years with Volbeat not far behind and you should definitely catch both of them if you get the chance.

Art Brut: New Adelphi, Hull – live review

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Art Brut
The New Adelphi, Hull
29th September 2013

Classic rock band Art Brut barnstorm their visit Hull’s New Adelphi.

My first time at the New Adelphi in Hull. I’d been told it was tiny but it’s much smaller than that, one of those proper little rock and roll venues the are disappearing fast. It’s basically an end terrace with the downstairs rooms knocked into one, bright blue and pink walls, a mural at the back of the stage and an array of lights hanging from the ceiling that look like they were made out of catering jam tins.

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There are concrete beams in the roof, one of which passes directly above the front of the stage, causing lead singer and extreme ironist in chief Eddie Argos to raise a hand to ascertain its location at the start of each song before essaying one of his trademark pogos. As a six foot fourer who has had to wear a stupid looking collar on three occasions as a result of low ceilings I worry for him.

Openers on the night are local guitar and drum duo The Glass Delusion whose set is made up of great, fast, loud one minute songs about literature, the importance of not being buried alive and their disdain for tribute acts. Great fun and I’m nominating them for a special award as the band who sound least like their web material when you hear them live. Following on are La Bete Blooms, usually a five piece, tonight playing as a four, harmonic post punk tinged with some delicate pop sensibility. It’s a great bill put together by Screaming Tarts who bring a lot of good music over to the east coast where god knows we need it.

Having arrived at the gig knowing that I liked Art Brut what takes me by surprise when they arrive on stage is how much I like them. They manage to go from being an amusing band that I rather like and approve of to being one of my favourites in the space of the set. I think this is because I’d mostly though of them up to now as ironists. I hadn’t really appreciated what a good noise they make and what a barnstorming over the top show performance we were in for.

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On CD the band are almost subdued, mostly present to service the lyric but live they are tight, wild, disciplined and raucous, not by turns but all at the same time which is a tough combination to pull off. Proceedings are inevitably dominated by front man Eddie Argos, who delivers his lines with the accompaniment of an impressive repertoire theatrical gurning and gesticulation.

All the favourites are there – including Formed A Band, Emily Kane and My Little Brother but best song of the night is the newest Arizona Bay, a nod in the direction of Bill Hicks which has a great deranged swagger to it. The spoken interludes and commentaries which last only a few seconds on CD become extended monologues lasting several minutes in some cases. During Modern Art he steps down from the stage and out into the crowd, having everyone sit or crouch down while he leans over them and exuberantly narrates the story of his visit to the Van Gogh Museum like a particularly enthusiastic nursery teacher trying to whip some enthusiasm into story time.

The irony is still a big part of the show of course – not just the straightforward stuff either but a special kind of multilayered reflexive irony which has always been present in their work -‘This is my real singing voice, I’m not being ironic’ Argos declaims on Formed A Band.

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During his Modern Art soliloquy he explains to the audience that he has lost the thread of the story and has improvised himself into a corner he doesn’t know how to get out of, only to admit a few moments later when the laugh has been won that in fact he knows exactly where he is headed because the impression of spontaneity is of course an artifice and the same monologue, including this bit, can be found word for word on the CDs available (at remarkably good prices) on the table to our left.

Most importantly the band look like they’re having a great time. Argos points out that they have two new members on board and he takes great delight in confounding them by departing from the set list for what appear to be unrehearsed songs. ‘Play one the drummer knows’ someone shouts from the back during a moment of confusion. Argos enjoys it too and repeats it in case anyone missed out. It’s my favourite heckle at a gig in ages and all the more enjoyable because of the sneaking suspicion that maybe nobody shouted it at all and Argos just made it up and it’s part of the regular show.

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Art Brut can be found at their website and at their Facebook, Twitter and MySpace pages.

La Bete Blooms are on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.

The Glass Delusion are at their website and at their Facebook and BandCamp pages.

Bill Callahan: Dream River – album review

Bill Callahan: Dream River (Drag City)
CD/LP/DL
Available now

Dream River, the new album from Bill Callahan, the artist formerly known as Smog, is a fascinating patchwork of whispers of joy, intimations of mortality and rumours of trouble scattered through eight spare, wistful, meditative songs that sometimes sound more like notes for future works read into a voice recorder than completed compositions. idp listens to a fine new work from one of the best song writers in the world today.

All the songs on Dream River are delivered in Callahan’s wise young uncle baritone, conversational almost, seldom straying close to anything that would usually be considered singing. Daniel Durchholz famously described Tom Wait’s voice as sounding “like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.” Bill Callahan‘s voice doesn’t sound as thoroughly abused as Waits’ but it does sound as though it’s been polished nicely and then forgotten about and left in the garden for a few nights.

Although it’s not as upbeat and musically liberated as some of its predecessors the album features some nice splashes of violin, accordion, flute and guitar, (sometimes evoking memories of Mitchell and Pastorius) but they’re just for colour; this is very much a solo vocal album with incidental music. The songs are often fragmentary and opaque and at times it feels almost like listening in on private thoughts spoken accidentally aloud. When applied to song writing the adjective ‘personal’ is often code for ‘not the artist’s best work’ but these are songs where the personal nature of the lyric is what raises them above the mundane and into the realm of the exceptional. It’s tempting to label them poetry but that’s too glib. The truth is that these are songs – just very complex and subtle songs that take a lot of teasing apart.

The whole album is heavy with a restrained emotion (restraint is one of the things Callahan excels at) that sounds at first like guilt or grief but gradually reveals itself to be passion. Despite the veneer of calm these are deeply carnal songs.

“All I really want to do is make love to you

In the fertile dirt with a careless mind”

…. he sings on Spring which feels like the centre piece of the album. Spring is not a good time of the year – Callahan is with Elliott on this one – breeding lilacs and looking like death warmed over.

So constantly present is carnality, or the promise of carnality, or the recollection of carnality this may well be Callahan’s refractory period album. A large measure of transient tristesse colours the lyrics – these are not songs of the sadness of a man who cannot find anyone to love, rather they are the songs of a man who having found a transcendent other is consumed with the fear of their loss or of his own failure to match up. One sometimes hears of suicides who take their lives because they are so happy they cannot bear the thought that anything might change. This album is probably how they feel. It can be hard work always seeing the skull beneath the skin.

On Javelin Unlanding he says of a sleeping lover –

“You looked so peaceful you scared me.

Don’t die just yet

And leave me alone on this journey.”

And Ride My Arrow opens with the straightforward – “I don’t ever want to die.”

These are the songs of a man who knows that happiness is not permanent, that good things come to an end, loves or lovers die, Summer turns to Autumn. In The Summer Painter a hurricane descends suddenly on a coastal town, marking the end of an idyll. Callahan is frequently an acute observer of the natural world and here he summons what is probably the album’s best line –

“The rain ripped the lips of the mouth of the bay.”

Certain motifs recur throughout. The weather, wind especially, silence, alcohol served in bars, travel. Flying is ever present. It’s a frequent subject for Callahan, but on this album it’s not just birds that fly. On Small Plane a pilot muses on his own good fortune to be flying home with his sleeping wife beside him, navigating without instruments and following the course of the river. Later, on Ride My Arrow an eagle uses the same river as it’s own map, while beavers build dams and seagulls fly.

It’s an album that repays frequent listening to get the best from the layers of imagery and the stories it has to tell. Album opener The Sing could easily be mistaken for a generic drinking song, narrated by an intermittently conscious hotel bar customer –

“The only words I’ve said today are beer and thank you.

Beer.

Thank you.

Beer.

Thank you.”

And yet the speaker feels that he is somehow “Giving praise in a quiet way” as a storm brews outside and the wind arrives back to ‘ping’ the fabric of the building. No explanation of the drinker’s decision to drink themselves in to oblivion other than a cryptic

“Mortal joy can be that way.”

The songs are so effortless it is easy to overlook the subtlety of their construction. There can’t be many rhyme patterns that have never been used before in popular song but the following is probably unique –

“The silence returns, high as scaffolding,

Until the wind comes back looking for something to ping,

All we’re looking for is a body. Or the way to make one sing.”

And that’s about the size of it. How to make a body sing. It’s tempting to think that perhaps on the evidence of this album Callahan spends too much time thinking about the answer and not enough taking practical steps to find it. Introspection like this is seldom the path to the careless mind.

But he does know how dangerous the search can be and he knows that even when one has found something truly beautiful that does not mean that one has reached the end of one’s journey or the end of the pain that beauty can bring. Human vulnerability is never far from his thoughts – described poignantly in Javelin Unlanding which dwells on the quiet moments in the night when his lover is asleep and they are “laying all twisted together and exposed like roots on a river bank. Bam bam bam! The earth off its axis.”

In Winter Road a truck driver meditates on the beauty and danger of the snow covered highway –

“Oh I have learned when things are beautiful

To just keep on, just keep on

The blinding lights of the kingdom can make you weep

When things are beautiful, just keep on.”

It’s probably good advice.

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Bill Callahan can be found at his record company’s website. He doesn’t use Facebook or Twittle. He just makes great music. This makes a refreshing change.

Joe Bonomassa: Manchester Arena – live review

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Joe Bonomassa
Manchester Arena
21st September 2013

Manchester turned out in force for Joe Bonamassa at the Arena and he repaid them with a dazzling display of guitar virtuosity which drew on a wide range of influences from across the range of blues styles, with an emphasis on music influenced by the classic British rock blues revivalists of the 1970’s.

The Arena was set up as an all seater and the show had very much the atmosphere of a recital. While several thousand people looked on in awestruck admiration at the outrageous bravura, nobody stood up and danced, despite the fact that up on stage Bonamassa was laying down some fine grooves. While it was a pleasure to sit and listen to a man on the top of his game putting a wide range of impressive looking guitars through their paces it would have been nice to see just a little bumping and grinding on the floor. Blues is the devil’s music after all, somebody should have let him in.

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Dressed conservatively in blue suit and shades Bonamassa is not a flamboyant presence on the stage. He rocked gently while playing, occasionally leaned back or paced the stage and although there were tricks and displays of virtuosity enough for several shows there was very little of that aimless noodling at the bottom of the finger board which characterises the solos of many rock guitarists intent on showcasing their skills. Bonamassa has a real commitment to the music – the song comes first and everything follows from that.

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Acting as his own opener he began with half a dozen acoustic blues numbers, either solo or with members of the band, including a dazzling cover of John Martyn’s Jelly Roll and a lovely version Athens to Athens with Tal Bergman on bongos and Derek Sherinian on upright piano that set the standard for the rest of the evening, which was to be electric in every sense of the word.

It was, of course, the promise of the electric set that drew the crowd and Bonamassa didn’t disappoint, opening with a blistering Dust Bowl followed by Story Of A Quarryman. During the course of this set there were many changes of guitar and style; Driving Towards daylight opened with the stage drenched in blue light and Bonamassa playing atmospheric licks that echoed round the arena before the band joined and the song uncoiled into a howl of anguish, Slow Train was a full power Led Zeppelin style rocker played very loud indeed while on Midnight Blues, a cover of the Gary Moore number, Bonamassa evoked not only the spirit of Moore himself but of that other British guitar legend Peter Green. Elsewhere there were touches reminiscent of the Altman brothers, Jeff Beck and Don Henley and show closer The Ballad Of John Henry was embellished with some fine flamenco.

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Bonamassa was generous with the spotlight on stage. Both Bergman and Sherinian got spots for extended solos, Sherinian summoning up the spirit of prog with his swirling organ motifs. The band was completed by bass maestro Carmine Rojas. Bonamassa also gave up the spotlight for young guitarist Eilidh McKellar who showed that there are young blues guitarists in the UK who could be snapping at the master’s heels in a few years time.

After nearly two and a half hours the show closed with crowd favourites Sloe Gin and John Henry – a fitting close to a fine display of virtuoso playing. Rumour has it that Bonomassa’s next album is going to have a lot more emphasis on blues and less on rock and that will make for an interesting listen but tonight’s show left the crowd happy and there are few people in the world today who can play guitar the way Joe Bonomassa can. Fantastic.

Joe Bonamassa can be found at his website and on Facebook, Twitter and MySpace.

China Rats: Don’t Play With Fire – ep review

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China Rats: Don’t Play With Fire (Once Upon A Time)
CD/DL
Available September 30th 2013

Brash, cocky, likeable and loud, China Rats have taken the festival circuit by storm and now they have a new ep out and it’s well worth a listen.

With gigs at Leeds and Reading (and Bingley where I had the good fortune to hear them and where the nice pictures below were taken), a trip to SXSW and a surprise headline spot at Benicassim, Leeds based China Rats have had a good year and this new EP seems likely to cement their position as one of the best up and coming bands in the country. Although it’s only 5 songs long the rats manage to pack in a wide range of styles that show a wide range of influences as you’d expect from a band who have been compared to The Enemy, The Vaccines and The Arctic Monkeys to name but a few.

China Rats aren’t big on subtlety and this isn’t music for discussing politely or for debating meanings – this is big, riffy, noise pop with great hooks, made to be turned up really loud to annoy the neighbours, kicking off with N.O.M.O.N.E.Y., which has already received some mainstream radio airplay – a proper little rocker about just the things proper little rockers should be about – girls, being skint, girls, dancing and girls. It’s a big sound, fast and noisey and a bit Undertonesish and echoey as the bottom of a very big bucket – but the distortion suits the song so no problems there.

Deadbeat is full of Ramones style energy, Get Loose sound a bit like an early Kinks song and is an all together poppier proposition that could easily be an indie disco favourite. Reeperbahn opens the sound up until it resembles classic 60’s psych rock, great harmonies and I’ve not heard a tambourine that high in the mix for a long time and winding things up is Green Tears, whose vocal harmonies come straight from the Beatles but with a big ringing fuzz guitar solo laid over the top and drums that threaten to come out of the speakers at you.

Great fun.

China Rats can be found at their website and at their Facebook, Twitter and SoundCloud pages. Images from their set at Bingley 2013 are in the gallery below and further images from that set can be found here.

Marilyn Manson & Rob Zombie @ The MEN (October 2012) – live review

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So I’ve got a nice new blog but it feels a bit empty and I will miss some of my favourite old posts. So I’m migrating a few across, starting with Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie. There are no pictures of Marilyn Manson because he withdrew the passes at the last minute. Oh well.

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The ‘Twins of Evil Tour’ came to town and it was costume night at the Manchester Evening News Arena on Tuesday, November 27th.  There was plenty of pale skin and black eye shadow on display, a lot of leatherwear, several hundred bondage enthusiasts, a few sexy Nazi girls in full SS regalia.  A large contingent of the undead were in from somewhere near Wigan.  It was a sea of black and white (with the occasional cherry red hairdo for variety), but there weren’t any nuns.

Time was when a few nuns waving placards and sprinkling holy water on the concertgoers were an essential part of the build up to a Marilyn Manson show, but nobody pickets him anymore.  Nobody holds him personally responsible for any atrocities.  Nobody hates him.  This audience came for a night of pantomime grotesquery – they wouldn’t get another chance to break out these costumes again until the touring production of The Rocky Horror Show arrived.  The demographic was strikingly broad, both Manson and co-headliner Rob Zombie have a wide fan base, including plenty of grandparents and children.  There’s no doubt about it, Marilyn Manson has now officially been declared safe.

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Having spent many years complaining about being public scapegoat number one for a wide range of random atrocities, it ought to make a nice change to be a family favourite.  And there was always something endearingly vulnerable about him, the white face and eyestripe not the mark of a monster but rather the sign of the perpetual outsider – condemned to unjust vilification for the crimes of others.  You’d think he’d be pleased.

He didn’t look pleased however and there was precious little of the vulnerable Manson on show at the MEN.  He seemed to be taking the ‘Twins of Evil’ tag pretty literally and the set list was packed with his loudest and most abrasive material, opening with “Hey Cruel World”, “Disposable Teens” and “Love Song” and closing with “Antichrist Superstar” and “Beautiful People”, taking in “mOBSCENE” and “Rock Is Dead” along the way.  Each song was dispatched with relish, allowed to scream for a while before being finished off with a stake through its heart; Manson’s voice was in fine fettle, hysterical one moment, menacing the next.  There were, of course, lots of costume changes, several feather boas in a variety of colours and some fantastic light effects but Manson himself seemed somewhat distant; he engaged only occasionally with the audience, throwing a few angular shapes with the microphone stand and issuing a few booming obscenities.

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The audience screamed and punched the air during the rocking out numbers but their biggest reaction was reserved for the two cover versions that made up the middle part of the show, Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus: and the Eurhythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”.  For these songs Manson allowed the decibel level to drop just a little and it was here that he made best use of the deeper end of his vocal range, the sly and insinuatingly wicked vocal stylings which have always been a feature of his recordings, but which feature less in his live performances.  He ruthlessly dissected these small innocent songs and reassembled their still quivering parts into gothic inversions of themselves, teasing dark nuances from the lyric with irresistible relish, investing them with a menace that their authors surely never envisaged.

Manson has always been a master of image manipulation and there was plenty of that in evidence on stage – his guitar is equipped with a laser rifle sight which he played on the audience during “Slo-Mo-Tion”, inverted American flags featured widely, the stars replaced by a jagged fascistic arrow, and during “Sweet Dreams” a single lamp in a circular shade was lowered from the roof to hang just above Manson’s head evoking countless movie scenes of torture and interrogation, but at times the whole symbolic edifice seemed somewhat random and top heavy – particularly when two crew members manhandled a distinctly wobbly looking barbed wire tinseled pulpit onto the stage for Manson to mount and declaim “King Kill 33” Nuremberg Rally-style.  One began to suspect that perhaps Manson had taken his reputation for evil just a little too seriously – and recent events in the U.K. have shown that we can create plenty of evil of our own thank you, and it is more likely to be wearing a track suit and smoking a big cigar than sporting a gimp mask and red leather elbow gloves.

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If Manson’s set verged on the over serious the same cannot be said of his partner in wickedness on the night, the gloriously over-the-top Rob Zombie.  Having revitalized the Halloween franchise, Zombie now divides his time between music and filmmaking, but whichever he’s doing he seems to give it one hundred percent, and his set featured every horror trope in the playbook.  When asked how long he will continue making music he usually replies, “As long as it’s still fun” – and he certainly appeared to be having a great time this night.  Having emerged from a giant robot at the start of the show, Zombie delivered several numbers from behind a microphone stand surmounted by a six armed skeleton, before being joined on stage by an assortment of aliens, Halloween pumpkins and (of course) Satan, who put in an appearance late on looking remarkably like a man in a very tall Satan costume with a big head.  Film inevitably played a large part in the set – every available vertical surface was covered with panels which showed a nonstop montage of fragments from horror movies and cartoons, soft core porn, clips from the original Planet of the Apes, and snippets from The Munsters as well as a promotional trailer for Zombie’s new film Lords of Salem, which drew appreciative roars from the crowd and actually looked pretty good.

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But for all the horror imagery Zombie always appeared to be aware of the high camp nature of his enterprise – he swung his massive dreadlocks from side to side like a man with a head full of nunchucks (he was lucky not to have anyone’s eye out) and danced around the stage with his arms held wide and curved as if he were polkaing with an imaginary fat girl, but he also knows that even the most diehard fans of the genre need some occasional light relief.  His attempt to organize adversarial community singing with one half of the audience (“The ones on the right of that guy with the skull bandana” – definitely the best line of the night) chanting “Rock, Rock, Rock” while the other half countered with “Motherfucker, Motherfucker, Motherfucker” rapidly disintegrated into disaster, but later while guitarist John 5 played an exhilarating extended solo Zombie descended from the stage and completed a full lap of the arena with security men floundering in his wake as the crowd parted before him but then closed up just as quickly when he had passed.  In this context the arrival on stage of dozens of large brightly coloured balloons which Zombie and the band kicked out for the audience to amuse themselves with came as no surprise.  Much hilarity ensued.  “When you’ve all finished playing with fucking balloons perhaps we can get back to some serious business,” Zombie growled before launching into “Pussy Liquor”.

Zombie-0014There was an early nod to Zombie’s early career in the White Zombies with “Thunder Kiss ’65”, and then songs were drawn even-handedly from his solo albums – highlights were the infectious stomp of “Sick Bubblegum” fromHellbilly Deluxe 2 and “Meet The Creeper” from HD version 1.  The set concluded with Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” and then another on stage pulpit arrived, this one taking the form of a huge alien/dinosaur rib cage from which Zombie delivered everybody’s favourite goth rock anthem Dragula to close out a riveting performance.

As the leather clad hordes left the arena an elderly man and woman stopped to allow the motley collection of goths, vampires and assorted walking dead to pass in front of them.  They looked puzzled but not intimidated.  “What is it?” the woman asked.  “I think it must be some kind of concert,” replied her husband.  They don’t scare so easily in Manchester any more.

Elvis Costello & The Roots: Wise Up Ghost – album review

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Elvis Costello & The Roots: Wise Up Ghost (Blue Note)
CD/LP/DL
Available now

Another Elvis Costello album another collaboration. But this one is with alt hip hop outfit The Roots. That’s got to be something special right? Right.

What’s the first thought that crosses your mind when you hear there’s a new Elvis Costello album out? There’s a good chance that it’s ‘Oh yeah, Elvis Costello. Who’s he with now?’ He’s a serial collaborator is Elvis. The Brodsky Quartet, Alain Toussaint, Sophie von Otter, Burt Bacharach – no one can accuse him of musical narrow mindedness. He’s one of those people who is clearly in love with all kinds of music and with all kinds of musicians.

But while the results of this promiscuity are always interesting they’re not always his best work, sometimes it can seem like he’s trying just that little bit too hard. The really good stuff tends to come when he’s with a group of musicians he knows and trusts, typically The Attractions or Imposters or whatever they’re called nowadays. His last stone cold masterpiece was 2002’s angular, bitter When I Was Cruel; albums since then have included the distinctly dull piano ballads of North and the very ordinary roots of The Delivery Man. Momofuku was good though.

So who’s he with now? None other than alternative hip hop pioneers The Roots with whose leader ?uestlove or Questlove he struck up a friendship after they had worked together on the Late Night With Jimmy Fallon Show. Jam sessions followed and then a plan for an album revisiting Costello’s back catalogue which gradually developed into Wise Up Ghost, a mix old new and reworked material. Clearly it’s a work that its authors want us to take seriously – it’s released on the prestigious Blue Note jazz label and arrives with a black and white text only jacket design in homage to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights poetry covers. Is there a message here? Is this Costello’s Howl? Certainly these songs are populated by enough grotesques and snapshots of urban despair to make the connection tenable even if there are no saintly motorcyclists or screams of joy.

It’s not a surprise of course that Elvis Costello should choose to cut a soul album – his first arrival in that territory was 1980’s Get Happy – an affectionate homage to the Stax sound – and he has revisited frequently. Questlove himself has a long history of collaboration having contributed to albums by D’Angelo, Fiona Apple, John Mayer, Christine Aguilera and Joss Stone to name only a few. From that point of view it’s a dream pairing but we know from past experience that dream pairings don’t necessarily produce baby pandas so it’s an album to approach with a degree of trepidation but from the opening bars of the first track it’s pretty clear that this collaboration is one of the success stories.

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A rhythm picked out on what sounds like an early digital telephone dialling system, some bleeps of computer noise, a Doppler shifted train horn followed by an urgent keyboard riff and we’re off, immediately drawn into a soundscape that’s urban and timeless, polite but always slightly threatening, with The Roots providing a tight and respectful 1970’s soul backing to Costello, who leans into the vocal with his trademark sly vehemence and who for once is happy to sound, well, just like Elvis Costello. Which is how we want him to sound. We never quite get the full on contemptuous sneering Elvis Costello but for most of the album he sounds thoroughly mardy, supercilious and rather unpleasant – just right then.

And contrary to rumour this is definitely not Costello’s rap album – the musical equivalent of Dad dancing – this is distinctively and recognisably a mainstream Elvis Costello album; for the most part Questlove and his boys seem content to take a deferential back seat and fulfil the role of backing group. And what a backing group it is. The drums always rock solid but capable of distinctly skittish asides along the way, some fine loping bass and then blasts of brass and keyboards which serve as punctuation to the lyric, Costello’s muse has seldom been so well served by a band.

There’s some archaeology to be done among the lyrics – whole chunks of earlier songs are incorporated into the new work – possibly this sampling and reworking is where the hip hop tradition shows it’s influence most clearly, although Costello has always been a bit of a magpie himself. Refuse To Be Saved is a new take on Invasion Hit Parade from Mighty Like A Rose, Wake Me Up runs together elements of Bedlam from The Delivery Man and The River In Reverse (from the album of the same name), (She Might Be A) Grenade takes it’s lyric from She’s Pulling Out The Pin (also from The Delivery Man) and anti Thatcher favourite Pills And Soap gets a lick of paint and a new identity as Stick Out Your Tongue. Do they all benefit from the radical revisioning? In most case the answer is yes, especially in the case of Bedlam, whose lyric, when pushed to the front of the mix and not smothered with percussion like the original, reveals itself to be one of Costello’s better later works. It’s not just his own back catalogue that Costello samples – snippets from songs as diverse as The Red Flag and We Wish You A Merry Christmas manage to insinuate themselves into the mix and I’ve no doubt that a diligent listen would yield even more borrowings. This is a knowing album that takes great pleasure in being just a little bit obscure. It has no intention of giving up its meanings easily.

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There are some good things among the originals too. Viceroy’s Row is a lyrically dense homage to places where they’re selling postcards of the hanging, Walk Us Uptown is a song to be sung on twenty first century protest marches until the guns open fire, Sugar Won’t Work offers a welcome to the end times and provides a catalogue of unnatural portents of doom straight out of Macbeth (Act 2 Scene 4), Tripwire drips with not entirely convincing compassion that sounds like a veiled threat and If I Could Believe (the album’s only ballad) is a world weary two fingered salute to credulousness. Only Cinqo Minutos Con Vos with its latin jazz stylings seems not to hit the mark.

The album’s highlight, and the song which will doubtless appear on several future Greatest Hits compilations is the title track Wise Up Ghost, which starts slow, the distant vocal accompanied only by strings, but gradually the vocal comes closer and the band arrive one by one as dystopic visions are piled high one on top of the other until the whole structure threatens to topple but never quite does. Here and on Tripwire are the signs that Costello’s verbose and cryptic lyricism and sure fire ear for a hook are both functioning at full power.

‘An old woman living in a cardboard shoe,

Lost so many souls she don’t know what to do.

So say your prayers

Cos down the stairs

It’s 1932.

Wise Up And Rise Up Ghost.”

Highly recommended.

Elvis Costello’s music is available through his his website and on his Facebook, Twitter and MySpace pages.

The Roots’ website is here. They are also on Facebook, Twitter and MySpace.