Thursday, 31 December 2009

Best of the decade: music

It's December, so everyone's suffering from listitis. Top tens, top hundreds, top thousands, top trumps, Top Gun. Lazy writing but so enjoyable to browse through. This decade has seen my musical tastes change and diversify - there's no point in even trying to remember everything for a "top 10" so here, in no particular order, are a few of my favourite things of the decade as far as music is concerned. By the nature of the piece, I will no doubt use a few too many superlatives and lashings of praise: from a literary standpoint I apologise, from a musical one I don't - these moments are worth it. I write this as the last day of the decade whizzes by on a five hour tran journey...

Lambchop
Kurt Wagner's Nashville outfit have been around for years, but some of their work this decade has surpassed even their previous output. Lambchop are everything that a great band should be - timeless, consistent, challenging. Wagner's idiosyncratic singing (and unique lyrics) sum up the band - nowhere better than in their 2006 LP Damaged which Wagner wrote following a cancer scare. The Guardian's review compared it with Marvin Gaye and Joy Division in the first sentence; it's an extraordinary listen. If that can be surpassed, however, it's the wonderfully uplifting "Up With People" from 2000. Jockey Slut described the Zero 7 remix as "making something perfect even better". I'd say stick with the original; perfect's good enough for me.

(Isn't it a great video!)

The first Sunday Afternoon at Dingwalls reunion, 2006
I was far too young to go to Gilles Peterson and Patrick Forge's original Sunday Afternoon at Dingwalls club sessions in the late 1980s so when I heard that there was to be a one-off revival in the original venue, it was inked into the diary. The room was packed with sweaty, now mostly 40-something dancers going ballistic to Miles Davis, Johnny Lytle, Airto Moreira, Sahib Shihab and much more. The jazzdance bangers played early on were in nosebleed territory; as the "night" went on, we got more and more anthems. Several hundred people singing along to "Skindo Le Le"? I never thought I'd experience that.

Kurt Elling - Man In The Air, 2003
The man can do no wrong. Elling is the undisputed king of male jazz vocalists at the moment, with all due respect to Jose James. His peerless album from 1997, The Messenger, is an all time classic already and after a couple of middling efforts, one could be forgiven for wondering if he would reach those heights again. With Man In The Air, Elling notched up a far more ambitious, and ultimately equally satisfying album as The Messenger. There are few original tunes; instead, Elling's vocalese takes centre stage, on a range of tunes from over the years, accompanied by a trio plus top vibes man Stefon Harris, who's a safe bet for top tunage. He takes on Weather Report, Herbie Hancock and Grover Washington originals with thought-provoking, often ambiguous lyrics; while the title track, an original tune, is strong modal fare. There are two highlights of the album, however, which elevate it to premium status. Firstly a stunning anthem in opener Minuando - a Pat Metheny original which after a shimmering 3-minute start lets rip with a glorious hook..."Already been as high as Kathmandu - ready to go as far as Timbuktu." The tempo increases, the solos fly by and Elling's countertenor returns for a jubilant final chorus. Then his boldest move of all: to cover "Resolution" from John Coltrane's legendary A Love Supreme. It's a bold jazzer who takes on any of the tracks from this LP but Elling, a man at the top of his game, proves he is more than worthy of the task. A wonderful album - now WHY have I still not seen the man sing live?


Zero 7 - Simple Things, 2001
When all's said and done, this edges it as my album of the decade. Maybe it's the memories I associate with it (first year student hangover music) but when my friend Duncan burned me a CD copy of this I was hooked straight away. It's a perfect blueprint for an album: there's consistency and direction throughout, with the tracks hanging together beautifully as a collection, but with outstanding individual tunes: "I Have Seen", "Destiny" and "In The Waiting Line" are as good as anything we've seen this decade. The choice of vocalists is important: Sophie Barker and Mozez blend in perfectly with the lazy-days production. But perhaps the finest moments on the album are from Sia Furler, who contributes vocals to "Destiny" and the heart-wrenching "Distractions". Bugz In The Attic did their best to ruin the latter track with a horrible remix, but forget that one - stick to the original.


Matthew Herbert Big Band, 2003
"Maverick" is a word that will always be used to describe Matthew Herbert, but I prefer "restless". Once merely a leftfield electronic innovator, he experimented with more and more techniques of musical production that put him in in a post-Cageian category. A techno anti-hero, his music varies from sublimely relaxed electronica (Bodily Fuctions LP) to unlistenable (The Mechanics Of Destruction). Chris Morris himself would be proud of the ridiculous genres (microhouse, anyone?) that have been invented by over-eager journalists to describe Herbert's work. But his talent - under whatever moniker he decides to use next - is past debate.

When I first heard rumours of a "Matthew Herbert Big Band" project, my tail started wagging uncontrollably. When the album dropped, I was ecstatic. Words cannot describe how I felt the first time I gave it a listen.

The principle is: take a large big band directed by Pete Wraight and including stellar individuals (Dave O'Higgins for example, whose album in collaboration with Jazzcotech, Fast Foot Shuffle, deserves a mention here); add Herbert's compositions and arm him with a sampler (his self-governed "PCCOM" prohibits and lazy sampling, however, and all samples are naturally occurring); throw in a few top vocalists (Dani Siciliano, Arto Liondsay); put them in a cauldron, add a hefty dose of magic, and serve. The result: a heady blend of soulful big band horns, with offkilter drums and noises (typewriters, books being closed). The lazy opener "Turning Pages" is a highlight, as is hypnotic closer "Stationary"; however, for me the star turn is that of Jamie Lidell, who contributes "Everything's Changed".

I made the trip up to Newcastle in April 2004, ostensibly to see my girlfriend, although "coincidentally" the MHBB were playing live at the Newcastle Opera House (a lovely warm, velvety building). Front stalls seats were a bonus. The band were nicely dolled up and Herbert himself appeared through a hole in the floor kitted out in full white tie and tails. The gig was pure theatre: from the opening moment where Herbert drank a cup of tea, then struck the cup with his teaspoon, sampled the sound and away we went with the sampler - to the inevitable politics where Herbert sampled the sound of newspapers being ripped up: "I normally to this with the Mail, but today I've decided to go for the Daily Express" (the Express had just confirmed their support for the Tories that day).

The Big Band's repoertoire includes a version of Herbert's sublime accordion-led "Cafe de Flore" - deservedly his only crossover success and to be found on many an Ibeefa-chillout album - a live version of which from the QEH I include below. There was another album in 2008 and the band still perform gigs, including a date at the Roundhouse earlier this year - but nothing can compare to that initial magic when the concept was first born.

Oh, and forget Robert Downey Jr: Matthew Herbert is the spitting image of Sherlock Holmes.



Sufjan Stevens
Another unique musical brain. Ambitious, too: my money's against him creating 50 albums, one for each state of the US, but moments like "Illinoise" and parts of the Christmas album justify Stevens' inclusion here.


Mumford & Sons, 2009
Sigh No More was an album I hadn't even heard of until I started a new job in October this year; with the luxury of Spotify in the office, we heard it a dozen times a day at its peak. A brilliant example of thunderous folk-rock, every track is memorable enough to be called an anthem while "Little Lion Man" was perhaps the best tune of 2009. Can't wait to see them at Shepherd's Bush Empire in the spring.


Berlin Philharmonic at the Proms, 2006
I managed to blag sitting in the Queen's Box (only plebs call it the Royal Box!) for two Berlin Philharmonic concerts, for nothing. Given that, at time of writing (December 2009) the Berlin Phil's two RFH gigs in 2011 are complete sell-outs, this was a blag indeed. Simon Rattle conducted an orchestra whose playing is so lush and perfect that at times I almost cried out for a little more edginess in the Mozart, but Brucker's seventh symphony, and works by Colin Matthews and Debussy, were sensational. Not for every day, but playing of this quality is out of this world.

Lily Allen
A performer on top of her game. Surprisingly, my highlight of Glastonbury 2009, she is the queen of British pop music and has the confidence to match. Her catalogue includes a whole host of irresistibly catchy, sunny, quirky, sample-heavy reggae-ish hits. With that slightly anti-establishment attitude, trashy dress sense and great looks, she's got the whole package and is a true star. Oh, and she is the ultimate example of what the internet can do for musicians.

A ropey Youtube video this one, but I thought a little slice of that electric Glastonbury performance was worth including. Believe me, at the point where it went all drum & bass (about 2 minutes into this clip), the Pyramid Stage arena went nuts!


Brian O'Kane, from 2006
Young Irish cellist who I had the privilage of being able to watch on multiple occasions in the last few years. His technique was raw to begin with but his musicality outstanding; last I heard, his tone was much more polished, but the energy and depth of his playing were unaffected. His Bach playing shows the signs of maturity of top musicians thirty years his senior; his performance of the Rachmaninov sonata is electrifying. Watch out - this guy is up with the very best I've heard.

Messiaen's Saint-Francois d'Assise, Edinburgh Festival 2001
I've loved Olivier Messiaen's music for years so the chance to see his rarely-performed opera Saint-Francois d'Assise played live in concert was a dream come true. There's a reason it's rarely performed: the resources required are vast, and it's not exactly a crowd-puller. The whole conception is on an enormous scale - it kicks off with a five-minute chorus of birdsong, played on about ten xylophones, and this grandiosity is typical throughout the five hours.

Messiaen's later work is difficult to listen to, and Saint-Francois is challenging too - the coimposer's unparalleled attention to detail and ambitious structures mean that it's a complex work throughout, but with the religous fervour, spiritual ecstasy and profundity typical of Messiaen. It's impossible to describe without using sweeping generalities. At times the tempo almost grinds to a halt - there is a half hour passage where time itself seems to be suspended. The piety of the saint, brilliance of birdsong choruses and power and love of God are interspersed throughout, with several leitmotifs used. The final chord - an attempt to portray the glory and power of God in one note? - goes on, and on, and on, gaining in volume until you think it might make the whole hall explode. A very special moment.

I visited Westinster Abbey for the first time in 2008, Messiaen's centenary year, to see an Ascension Day service with Messiaen's glorious L'Ascension performed. It's a work whose accessibility takes nothing away from its beauty and it's astonishing to think Messiaen was 23 when he wrote it.

Myspace and the internet music revolution
Myspace. iTunes. Spotify. MP3s. Musical blogs. Filesharing. Youtube. Message boards. Suddenly music is global again - anyone can listen to anything, regional boundaries are transcended. Phenomena like Lily Allen need no comment from me. Talking of message boards...

Brownswood

What started out as a bunch of jazz and techno geeks and Gilles Peterson groupies extended into one of the most lively places on the internet for musical - and all kinds of - discussion. If you don't know the board, don't read this, just go there; it's a unique place. Record collectors and fans with a voracious appetite for music chew the fat over all kinds of music, with no holds barred. I've been an active member since the (fairly) early days and have made loads of friends and met people to go to gigs with. The Fun Your Ear sessions, an irregular night where Brownswood heads play tunes to each other (don't call it a club night!), are the stuff of legend. Other special moments included one contributor's (Ade P) 40th birthday party, in a scout hut on Hastings beach, which started out as a kids' party (complete with goulash) and slowly morphed into a full on raveathon by the seafront (complete with banging techno, and a techno/disco set from Luke Skyywalker which if released would be among the best mix albums of the decade. Talking of mixes, Weegee's Voices mix is superb - definitely worthy of inclusion here.

Cinematic Orchestra - Everyday, 2003
2003 was the year when discerning musical heads began to realise there was a difference between naff tippy-tappy Compost electronica-lite nu-jazz, and a breed of heavyweight producers driving the boundaries in a way not seen since the electronic revolution of the 90s and probably since New Wave in the 80s? The Cinematic Orchestra were among these heavyweights. Their Everyday LP is universally revered so little comment is required from me; perfectly judged arrangements, beats and tempi, along with not a little compositional talent from Jason Swinscoe, make up the album. However, while many critics saw the whole album as universally good, I felt that the flag-waving "All Things To All Men", with UK hip hop godfather Roots Manuva delivering an unusually excellent turn, stood head and shoulders above the rest of the LP. I'd go further than that now: it's one of the tracks fo the decade. Bar none.

It's a shame that the Cinematics weren't more prolific at delivering work that lived up to their moniker, but their soundtrack to Dziga Vertov's extraordinary1929 silent film Man With A Movie Camera is enough to leave me hungry for more of the same. It contains fragments of some of their finest previous work, with a lot more new material besides. It complements the celebration of the Soviet industrial revolution perfectly.


So, this is The Man With The Movie Camera. About 2'30" in, it segues nicely into a little bit of the Cinematics' remix of Nils Petter Molvaer's "Vilderness".


The jazz revival of the 90s continues...
The revival of the 1990s, from the Young Lions to M-BASE to innovators like Kurt Elling and Stefon Harris, already mentioned, took jazz out of the 1980s doldrums; in the new century, the quality of new music has increased exponentially. To mention a few: Esbjorn Svensson's (RIP) trio E.S.T (I turned down the opportunity to see them in tiny Henry's Cellar Bar in Edinburgh around the turn of the century; a few years later they were playing the 2000-capacity Usher Hall in the same city; a fears after THAT, Svensson was dead); Robert Glasper, making jazz cool to a hip hop generation again - particular mention should be made of his mashup of Radiohead's "Everything In Its Right Place" with "Maiden Voyage"; and Jose James boldly taking on the mantle of spiritual jazz supremo (with apologies to Dwight Trible). Special mention must be made of Jane Bunnett, one of my favourite jazzers, who produced several good albums, highlights of which included two tracks in particular: the raw "Conga Blue" and beautiful "Black Is The Color". As an aside, having brought up Radiohead cover versions, I should also mention Pete Kuzma & Bilal's brilliant version of "High And Dry", another highlight of the decade.

Back to the jazz, though, and it's in the UK that the best innovations have come. Andrew McCormack, Matthew Halsall, Acoustic Ladyland, the Polar Bear collective, and Robert Mitchell have all made jazz fresh and exciting. Other influences are apparent throughout: classical, dance music, hip hop, the nu-jazz movement and club scene. But the jazz shines through.

Two pianists, in particular, rise to the top. Neil Cowley - who I praise elsewhere in this essay - has a brand of Michael Nymanesque rich minimalism which is at once accessible yet deep. His Loud, Louder, Stop album contains ten consistently excellent tracks, with the single "His Nibs" the best of all (click the link to hear some samples). King of UK jazz though is surely Gwilym Simcock; the classically trained pianist writes music that is challenging and deep, but beautiful at the same time. His suite performed at the Proms in 2008 with the BBC Concert Orchestra, was perhaps the best example yet of the usually unhappy marriage of true jazz with true classical music. I only heard it on the radio, but a great concert.

Jazzanova - "L.O.V.E and You and I", 2001
The German producers were responsible for some of the great remixes of the decade (Heritage Orchestra, Shaun Escoffery, Masters at Work), a patchy, sprawling album, and an internationally successful sound and label. The "Compost sound" sold records by the bucketload across continental Europe, with scores of imitations of their "jazzy" (ugh) loungey sound. With few exceptions (Truby Trio - "High Jazz", Koop - "Summer Sun"), these imitations were atrocious.

Much has been said of the nu-jazz scene but, while responsible for some bossa-lite guff courtesy of Nicola Conte and his cronies, this clubbier sound found its way to Finland where live outfits like the Five Corners Quintet came out with driving dancefloor jazz reminiscent of the very best of the Blue Note sound.

But back to Jazzanova. The In Between LP, while inconsistent, had its moments, including some great remixes by others (Bugz In the Attic transforming "Mwela, Mwela" into a pounding club anthem, Domu's brilliant knob-twiddling on "Soon", various housey versions of "That Night"). But the opening track, "L.O.V.E and You and I" set the tone for the whole decade of music to come with some outstanding use of sampling combined with live electronic and acoustic sounds. The Five Stairsteps' "Something's Missing" is the most prominent sample but there are others in the track, plus great keyboard work on top of a hip hop beat, with a David Friedman vibes solo to finish things off. The result: a masterpiece and while I'm not a fan of sample-remix culture, this track, at least, shows me that not ALL sonic thieves are talentless.
.

In fact, "Summer Sun" should have a section to itself...here it is. A genuine anthem.


Fertile Ground - Black Is..., 2004
Pete Collins' Baltimore collective have been consistently excellent since their inception, with their particular brand of energetic power soul/jazz. Navasha Daya's idiosyncratic vocals add something extra. Black Is... is a strong LP - every one of the six tracks a winner. From the driving soul of "Another Day" and "A Blues For Me", to the ultratight funky afrobeat of "Spirit World", it's a top album - but the stunning closing track, the spiritual jazz of the title track, clinches it to make it one of the albums of the decade without a doubt.


THIS! @ Bar Rumba - the nights when Irfane - "Just A Little Lovin" was new... (2002)
I had heard about the That's How It Is! club sessions at Bar Rumba before I was a student, in the days when I first heard Gilles Peterson's Worldwide sessions. When I went as a first year student, I had some of the hapiest nights of my life. I was new to all the music and it opened up new worlds for me. The packed, dark, sweaty club was throbbing until 4am every Monday night, with Peterson, Ben Wilcox and Raw Deal layng down a mixture of top quality Latin beats and uptempo jazz-housey sounds with hip hop, drum & bass (there was always a "drum & bass half hour" at peak time), techno, and some mellower soulful sounds to finish with.  had some killer nights there around this time, dancing to tunes like DJ Gregory - "Damelo" and Masters At Work feat Roy Ayers - "Our Time Is Coming" (Jazzanova remix). But one evening, a new tune was dropped. And rewound. And dropped again. And dropped a third time. It was an instant winner. A killer vocal sample (which later transpired to be Sarah Vaughan), some wickedly simple production work which gave the track its unique "skipping" sound, and...that's it. 3 minutes of instant dancefloor mayhem. It was huge on the radio, it was huge with the DJs (only bootlegs ever appeared, until a watered-down official version was released without the sample), but most of all, it was huge at THIS! Some folks turned up their noses at it after it was hyped so much, but that takes nothing away from it when it was fresh.

Older heads nod sagely and say "I was there" when talking about the Paradise Garage and Electric Ballroom backintheday; I'm proud to say I was a THIS! disciple when it mattered.


The Heritage Orchestra
A monumental project which must have had some mean fundraising and dealing to achieve, the Heritage Orchestra is a frustrating project that could achieve mighty things that could be laid down as classics for decades to come, but seem too often to make wrong decisions and get caught up in mediocre affairs. The concept of a full orchestra playing jazz-classical-beats fusion is a winner from the start. After what seemed an age, an album appeared - it's not quite the classic it could be, but in "Sky Breaks" and "Tell Me Stories", the only two vocal tracks, they have two of they anthems of the decade. Jazzanova's remix of "Sky Breaks" sees the German masters back to their very best, stripping out the orchestral sounds and doing their own thing.

Live, they have been tangled up in some dodgy projects. The Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra by Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of...) was well conceived but poorly executed - it's a very, very dull composition, and I was frustrated in that first half at the Scala. In the second half, however, the Heritages turned to something rather different: taking on the Warped sounds of electronica masters Plaid. This was what they were made to do: lush, full instruentation, gorgeous melodies, fantastic. Next year's Southbank gig, with John Cale of Velvet Underground performing his Paris 1919 album in full, already has "gig of the year" stamped all over it. I'll be there.


UK female soul generation
Echoing the sounds of Erykah Badu et al from across the pond, a new generation of female soul singers with lush, honeyed voices started to sprout in this country. Tawiah has delivered great things; there's the gorgeous Andreya Triana (who managed to upstage headliner Jose James at Cargo: she was brilliant live); but queen of the scene is Natalie Williams, whose Secret Garden LP, with plenty of crossover appeal, is a real winner, including top tracks "Butterfly" and "This Girl". Her finest moment, however, came in collaboration with the top drum & bass producer of the last few years, Nu:Tone, with a killer track entitled "System". Drum & bass isn't QUITE dead yet!

Domu
I'm not really in a position of authority to comment on Domu, since I know many people who know the man personally and all the ins and outs of his work over the years, whereas I'm merely an armchair dabbler. What I can say is that of what little I've come across myself, he shines brighter than any other electronic producer out there. For me, the broken beat scene was all about twisting rhythms until breaking point and Domu did exactly that. The highlights for me: the 2004 Enter the Umod LP - in particular the midtempo syncopation of "Tromboline"; and his remixes (particularly the vocal one) of the rather mediocre original of Jazzanova's "Soon" from the aforementioned In Between  LP. Since the broken beat movement waned Domu produced slightly more conventional soulful house sounds, ran a label and was an insightful commentator - but his exploration of beats music with almost no on-beats, and liquid electronic sounds from the height of the broken beat scene which, in its heyday, contained someof the freshest sounds of the decade. Latterly he wrote a blog which was highly regarded (I never checked it) but recently became disenchanted, and to my knowledge has stopped both producing and writing. A great loss.

Three great oldies that got a revival through sampling
Locksmith - "Far Beyond" [Basement Jaxx - "Red Alert"]







Johnnie Taylor  - "What About My Love" [Shapeshifters - "Lola's Theme"]

Labi Siffre - "I Got The..." [Eminem - "My Name Is"]


Leonard Cohen live at the Pyramid Stage, Glastonbury, 2008

[the following is taken from a post I wrote on the Brownswood message board in 2008. A bit raw, but I decided to leave my enthusiasm unedited]

It hit me properly on waking up. I woke, sweating and uncomfortable, surrounded by strewn underwear and sodden waterproofs, when the sound of a female voice came from a few metres away:

“…no, that wasn’t Nostradamus, it was Sigmund Freud…”

And I knew I had arrived, and dozed off again. Where else in the world could you wake up in the middle of a field at 8am and overhear a conversation like that?

This was my first experience of a festival of ANY sort – and I was told “if you go for the first time, make sure it’s Glastonbury” with knowing smiles. My mate and I stocked up the car – 120 cans of lager between two of us to last four days, plus wellies (titter: Microsoft Word autochanges “wellies” to “willies”) and a wheelbarrow – and picked up a couple of girls we’d recruited over the internet (bit of an early result here as they were (1) great fun and (2) quite easy on the eye).

Nobody’s interested in the journey down so suffice to say when we arrived, I was overwhelmed. The place is VAST. It’s not a festival at all; it’s a city, completely devoted to people having a good time in WHATEVER way they please. It caters for absolutely everything. All ages, shapes and sizes (though not colours: on many an occasion I looked around my field of vision and observed that there were NO non-white people anywhere to be seen. I would say AT LEAST 99% of the punters are white). The only thing in common was the fact that everyone wants to have a great time in some sort of way – more often than not, this incorporates getting completely smashed.

Heavy rain on Thursday night gave us the mud experience which just isn’t fun, no matter what anyone tells you. It’s a bloody ordeal. Caught the Levellers who put on a good show although, due to the fact that it was the only big gig on that night, plus the rain, meant that the tent was dangerously overcrowded which was nasty. Also wandered into a small chilled tent called the Elemental Tent and caught the lovely Hannah Atkins who plays various instruments, mostly piano, and sings, sampling herself and building up multi tracks, a la Andreya Triana. Very nice, although not massively memorable. She was then joined by two other girls on vocals (and a shoddy drummer) and this was better (not sure what they call themselves as a band). A wander round Shangri La with another wasted mate and I got to bed at a sedate 4am.

To all you hardened festival goers this is all old hat, but getting into the swing of a place that literally parties 24 hours a day (with a lengthy overlap period between people going to bed and getting up) takes a bit of getting used to. But get used to it I did. Routine: stagger blindly out of tent at a very early hour, queue at length for revolting toilet, get back to tent circle, root around in the detritus under the gazebo for a half-opened tube of Pringles from two days ago, consume Pringles – augmented by chocolate and cereal bars – realise that it’s 10am and getting a bit late, reach out hand in opposite direction and crack open can of nasty session lager, stock up bag and pockets with cans to punish liver therewith, and head outwards with boldest foot forwards.

It takes a while to realise the true essence of Glastonbury: if there’s one thing Glastonbury is NOT about, it’s music. We listened to Radio 1’s highlights show afterwards, playing “all the best new bands” and commented that this doesn’t present a representative view of the festival in the slightest. Not only is there more to life than a load of rock and indie bands, but actually you could have an incredible time without hearing any music at all, such is the variety of performers and experiences on offer. Some of the street performers were brilliant/bizarre: a couple of blokes sitting in the sunshine, giving Test Match Special-style commentary on passers by; a 12 foot kilted giant, with giant dog; a madman with briefcase which emitted bloodcurdling growls at intervals, scaring kids and monged-out ravers alike.

So, the music: once you realise that it’s impossible to even scratch the surface, that you’re going to miss a lot of great shows and that it’s better to be having fun with people you like at an average show than gritting your teeth on your own and battling through crowds to a show you want to see but nobody else does, then you get along fine. I kicked off with the Cuban Brothers who were great fun (I’d seen them before, but my mates were Hermanos Cubanos virgins). Chilled out for a bit to escape the rain serenaded by Horsemeat Disco DJs – great stuff, loved it. Caught a tiny bit of KT Tunstall, who is pretty tidy, but the music’s a bit, well, I can’t actually remember any of it so it was either the fact that I can’t work my ears and eyes at the same time or that she’s just a bit dull. Caught the Sons & Daughters after that. Now maybe I’m showing my age and the fact that I don’t listen to guitar based music any more, but do all indie bands at the moment sound exactly the same? The sound du jour seems to be upbeat 4/4 pop songs with irritating harsh guitar riffs. Horrible, horrible. To be fair, the Sons & Daughters were pretty good as a live outfit.

Then it was off to the Ting Tings who I knew nothing about other than that there’s a lot of hype. So much so that the John Peel tent was completely packed and we had to listen from outside; the sound just doesn’t penetrate outside and they were hard to hear. From what I could hear, I thought they were great: entertaining and eclectic. Trotted off to the Jazz World stage to catch the Fun Lovin Criminals where I learned an important lesson: don’t go off to see bands you thought were great 10 years ago and assume they’ve still got it. It was a very, very plodding show, musically mundane, and they didn’t “get” the crowd. The hits were great, of course. Then it was off to the Dance Village to catch Roisin Murphy (cracking show, although the music was incessantly bangin’) and afterwards, Fat Boy Slim who was a bit of a guilty indulgence for me. I’d never seen him play before and had always wanted to. From the word go, the crowd went NUTS. He could have played anything he wanted; as it was, it was good oldfashioned thumping house and beats – nothing groundbreaking but all good fun. Hardfloor – “Acperience” got dropped at one point, which I spacked out to; and obviously, all his own hits got played in a capella form in one way or another (“Right Here Right Now” over “Born Slippy” for example; not subtle and I’m sure I heard that exact same combo in the radio years and years ago but sod it, who cares when it’s such a good show?)

We headed down to Shangri La again and found a few bars to drop into and explore. At 1:30 it was time for one of only three bands that I had written down in the “definite” category on my itinerary – Hayseed Dixie. They were terrific – country versions of heavy metal classics, as well as some of their own material. The rocked the house. Really funny banter too.

Went with a mate up to the Stone Circle to see the sunrise and realised we’d missed it – it was properly light. It’s supposed to be “the” place to go for the sunrise but all there is there is a load of crusties lighting fires, beating drums and getting monged. We looked at each other and said, “We’ve drunk 15 cans of lager each and we’re both completely sober. Let’s throw in the towel and go to bed.” So we did.

Up three hours later and after steeling myself for a #2 (you never forget your first time) and the essential Pringle breakfast (and winning a tin whistle jam session with one of our bunch: result) managed to drag quite a few people down early doors to the Jazz World stage for the Neil Cowley Trio. Very few people there – it was just too early, I assume – but we sat down with breakfast and chilled. I thought they were terrific, after overcoming early minor technical problems. Had a quick chat with Neil afterwards (top bloke), and got a t-shirt and CD signed (the album’s a need for anyone currently dithering). I wonder if they’d ever played a sound system even half as loud before? Very, very good set. Jazz for the 21st century, the improvisation isn’t there but the spirit certainly is. Rich and luxuriant harmonies, Michael Nyman-like, in a way (that’s meant to be a compliment!). If you like “Goldwrap” by Esbjorn Svensson (RIP) then you’ll love this. Technically brilliant pianist too, with a tight band doing some nice rhythmic stuff. From there, it was a long walk back to the car to stock up on more booze (note for next year: pay the extra tenner and get a heavy duty wheelbarrow that has the luxury of a tyre and a body that doesn’t break when you put any weight in there). Caught the tail end of the Raconteurs – solid stuff. Then in a large group we wandered round to catch Simian Mobile Disco DJs. We were a bit battered by this point and didn’t even notice that they were on until halfway through the set. Pretty disappointing – bland beats. I know this stuff is oh-so-now and played in East London twatteries everywhere but I thought it was wank, to be perfectly honest. After that it was off to the other stage for Hot Chip. We were battered by this point so judgement might be slightly affected, but we all thought they were a bit naff as well. Truth be told, we weren’t really listening though.

Then came the Great Decision of the weekend: to Jay-Z or not to Jay-Z? Rumours abounded about Beyonce and Coldplay turning up. In the end the group split. Those who went said it was a sort of seven-out-of-ten show. I opted to stay at the Other Stage for Massive Attack.

Massive Attack’s performance was epic and utterly brilliant. They made an iffy start by getting political: within seconds of walking on and with reference to competing with Jay-Z, they said “everyone says that hip hop shouldn’t be at Glastonbury…well that’s just a bit fucking racist.” Stunned silence: bitterness is not the order of the day at Glastonbury. From then on, however, the show was monumental. Blending their hits (storming versions of “Teardrop” and “Karmacoma” in particular) with some lesser known tunes, combined with brilliant visuals and all in all a tremendous live show.

Ended up with a mate wandering along when we picked up four random scousers – two blokes and two girls. They had no idea what to do so we tagged along together and went to Shangri La again. Wandered into loads of places; found ourselves stumbling into the Jungle Drummer live (ace) and then onto some tiny place where everyone was absolutely wasted. It was only there that I realised these guys were banjaxed on sweeties themselves; my mate disappeared so I ended up raving the night away with them, drinking all their alcohol which they didn’t want and talking to loads of caners. All good fun. I ended the night walking one of them back to her tent and chatting until 8am. Utterly, utterly twunted.

When there’s serious lash to be had, however, there’s no time to be mucking about with sleep or feeling sorry for yourself, so within four hours I was up again, a bit disgusting as I’d fallen asleep on top of a half eaten peanut butter kit kat chunky in my sleeping bag and was minging. Voice gone, we grabbed some tea in the Park whilst listening to some dub in the morning sunshine (perfect) and got pissed again. Very pissed, very quickly. Caught Mark Radcliffe’s folk band, the Family Mahone, who were great fun. Most of the crowd were old and sedate; we were drunk and lairy. Much dancing was done. Amazing scenes.

We ended up at the Pyramid Stage where I ended up staying for the rest of the day – about 8 hours. Got the end of John Mayer (not bad, not my thing), all of Neil Diamond (cracking show), and then Goldfrapp who were chilled out to the point fo horizontal, and a bit vegan, but perfect in the circumstances. It’s amazing when you look at the programme of Glastonbury, you think “Eh?” to some of the programming on the major stages, but the programming is perfect.

Then came Leonard Cohen.

I’d had lots of great moments thus far but no Moments. Leonard Cohen was an hour-and-a-half long Moment. Quite simply put, it was the most stunning gig I’ve ever had the privilege to watch.The man is an absolute master (and the coolest man on the planet) – had the crowd eating out of his hand. The songs are gorgeous, he played them all super-slow with lots of organ backing and almost no drums, and as the sun went down and he went into "Everybody Knows", “I’m Your Man” and then “Hallelujah”, I broke down. I actually spent most of the gig looking backwards; it’s hard to put into words, but the sight of 50,000 people smiling is quite simply the most beautiful and wondrous sight I’ve ever seen. I spent all of “I’m Your Man” watching a grizzled, bandana-clad gent holding his braided 10-year-old daughter in his arms and they rocked softly from side to side and I just stood there with tears pouring down my face and no shame. Very, very special and a performance I’ll never forget. The man is so humble too – he greeted the rapturous applause at the end of each song with a simple “Thank you so much” that came from the bottom of his heart. A quasi-religous experience. Incredible.

This is, perhaps, the least satisfactory Youtube video ever - but sadly Cohen refused to allow any TV coverage of the gig, so clandestine filming from the audience is all that exists. Watch, in particular, the glimpses of sunset and smiling faces: some things lin life are priceless. This evening was one of them.

Edinburgh's Silver Man: why he goes into Room 101

Princes Street. Edinburgh. The most magnificent major shopping street in the world? Maybe, if you keep your neck turned so you constantly face southwards. Snow-covered volcanic rock with a castle growing out of the top, with anorexic faux-medieval buildings in support, all overlooking a green valley? Superb. Then someone shouts "watchwhiryirgawn" as, not looking where you're going, you crash into the crowd whiling away their time watching The Silver Man.

Edinburgh folks will know what I'm on about. The Silver Man is cut from the same stock as the human statues and squeakers that infest tourist traps the world over. But he decides to set himself up on the single pavement on Edinburgh's busiest street, and single-handedly create a bottleneck.

It's not his awful bleep-techno-lite CD soundtrack played from his stereo (it's better than the atrocious bagpipe music blasted out from the Sikh-run tartan "buy William Wallace's actual claymore here" shops that are the only places who can afford Princes street rents these days. It's not his once-you've-seen-two-minutes-you've-seen-it-all moonwalking writhing (c'mon, I'd outdance him in a heartbeat). It's the sad, patheric faces of tourists and pasty-faced besprogged teenagers alike, who think they're being entertained. So sorry, Silver Man, you get my bullet.

Oh, and did I mention the fact that it clogs up the bloody pavement?

Monday, 14 December 2009

Where has this sudden surge in female electropop come from?

I'm not really au fait with pop music any more (I haven't been since roughly 1999 to be honest) but after years of the charts being dominated by either awful, awful bling-clone hip hop with atrocious vocal hooks from the likes of Chris Brown, N Dubz and various Eminem proteges, or cheesegrater voiced tight-trousered indie bands with harsh guitar lines and two-step "jaunty" drums (hello, Arctic Monkeys; hello, Libertines), things have taken a rather abrupt turn in the last 12 months. Because the charts seem to be dominated by female artists, with an interesting edge to them, who can actually sing.

Lily Allen is the queen of British pop. I saw her at Glastonbury this year and she had utter star quality: a woman at her absolute peak, enjoying every minute of performing, with a hefty catalogue of wonderful, idiosynchratic songs, lyrically and musically some of the best we've had in the last decade. She is glamourous in the extreme - "alternative" without Camden griminess, just the right level of gobbiness, and a consummate performer. It was a wonderful gig.

But Allen has been joined by a rather trendier set of female performers who have taken pop music in a whole new direction with their brand of electropop. And it's a revelation.  Take Florence and the Machine for starters. Somewhere in between trance, disco, rock and operatic pop, it's a unique sound and my colleague reports that Florence's Brixton gig last night was tremendous. The Veronicas' wonderful "Untouched" - anthemic in a Calvin Harris sense but much more powerful - is easily one of the best songs of the last couple of years; the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' dancefloor friendly punky upbeat sounds are still all the rage and Little Boots is also on top of her game.

The "sound of 2009" clearly pays homage to the new wave sounds of the 1980s. But there's more - the androgynous, polysexual aspect of new wave culture has returned - but with female protagonists. For Frankie, Annie and Chris Tennant, we have a new breed - perhaps invoking the post-punk spirit of Debbie Harry. La Roux, for example, the alterego of Elly Jackson, describes herself as "well androgynous" - her neutral face (alt.gorgeous? I think so) while Katy Perry's lyrical flirtations with bisexuality tapped into the current climate.

However, the queen of the hypersexual, polysexual electropop world at the moment is undoubtedly Lady Gaga. Her costumes - which Westwood, McQueen and Gaultier would be proud of - are spectacular and help create a unique performing persona which perhaps masks a rather simpler soft centre (on Jonathan Ross a few months ago she just came across as weird and not very bright). At the heart of Gaga's package, though, is a string of blisteringly good pop tunes - reminiscent of Cher perhaps, but more pop than electro. Catchy, feelgood, lyrical...a far cry from X-Factor generated dross. I get wound up by her attention seeking as much as the next person but...my God, the girl can belt out a tune, and at least she's turned music into a performing art form again. I hope burlesque artists can be inspired again.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Not even Diana Vickers’ huge Voice can save this abysmal production

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (Vaudeville) *

Last night nearly marked a watershed for me: I have never walked out of a theatre in my life, but the first half of the Rise and Fall of Little Voice was so excruciating that I thought I would cast myself from the upper circle in an effort to bring some dramatic action to the evening. But I stuck it out – and as a result, saw the star that gains this review its single star.

Little Voice is a simple Cinderella tale of an undiscovered girl living in an unnamed Northern town (the accents were so haphazard that it could have been anywhere between Watford and Hadrian’s Wall) whose voice moves all who hear it. So far, so cliché. In fact, the entire first half is a relentless stream of drunken drivel from the one-dimensional Lesley Sharp who plays Little Voice’s charmless mother, who lurches from one bottle and one-night-stand to the next. The point is hammered home with unending monotony: LV’s mother drinks and doesn’t form any kind of bond with her daughter. That is the entire action of the first half, although wonderful moments from Rachel Lumberg as the grotesquely obese Sadie almost steal the show – a theft of something less desirable I cannot imagine, mind.

Poor Diana Vickers spends most of the first half curled up in her bedroom listening to records – and I wondered if he had a connection, as we both had ample time to wonder to ourselves “what are we doing wasting our lives in this appalling production?” The 18-year-old doubtless jumped at the chance to be in a show which is essentially a platform for a young, talented singer. Which she is. She can belt out a tune from a Nina Simone-esque blues growl to the cutest Edith Piaf impression to some barnstorming soul singing. She can’t act on last night’s showing but to be fair to her, isn’t given the chance to for most of the time. As the show dragged on, I thought to myself – the girl should be doing a cabaret act for La Clique, not in this turd of a show...before drifting off to daydreaming about sucking her toes.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Incompetent, greedy RBS wasters need to get a grip on reality

So the RBS directors are playing hardball over bonuses. Now, I actually had a lot of sympathy for Fred Goodwin. He was turned into a national pariah for destroying the world which Gordon Brown had to go and save (ah bless). To be honest, in his position as the most hated man in Britain, I'd have taken all the pension I could muster and hopped off to Spain to enjoy the rest of my life, as well; it's not like he single-handedly ruined the financial system, although to read the papers, you think he did.

This is different. RBS want to pay £1.5bn in bonuses to investment banking staff. And the directors are throwing their toys out of the pram - threatening to quit if the government vetoes it. Sorry lads: you don't call the shots any more. You've had your opportunity to run things, and blown it. Now, it's a case of put up or shut up.

Vince Cable, as usual, has called it right. The government should accept the resignations of the directors. If ever there was a tainted CV, it was one which says "RBS Director" at the top. And that's what the whole issue is about: retaining talent.

Paying decent salaries in the public sector is most certainly an issue, because talented people can earn multiple times their salary by making a move to the private sector. So I can understand the BBC's massive salaries (for executives, not on-screen talent; moving from BBC News to ITV News is unlikely to get you a pay rise). But apart from a lucky few, all the banks are skint; and moving abroad is an empty threat. There are plenty of talented people who would jump at the chance to do twice as good a job as the current crop of bankers, for half the money. The goalposts have shifted; it's time the bankers had a good look at themselves and look up "bonus" in the dictionary while they're about it. A bonus is a reward for outstanding performance. Judging from the catastrophic mess created in the last few years, "outstanding performance" has been thin on the ground recently. The bankers can quit their whingeing and get on with their jobs.

Oh, and one final point: the amounts of taxpayers' money going into inept bankers' pockets put the odd thousand here and there claimed by Tory MPs for their duck houses into the shade. I wish the media would put things in perspective sometimes.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

It's a small world

Orwell would have been proud. If I write a little post like this, then those experts at Social Media Library will get a little bleeping noise in their inbox thanks to Google Alerts. In fact, this blog will doubtless find its way into the Social Media Library at some point...and then everything I write will be archived, analysed and rated. Powerful stuff.

Yes yes, of course I work there, but it tickles me that I can write a private blog post and hours later get an email pinging in my inbox telling me all about it.