(Planet Me)
Tuesday, August 14, 2018
 
PET SHOP BOYS - "Inner Sanctum" - London Royal Opera House 26 + 28 July 2018

As the two year, 92 show “Inner Sanctum Tour” comes to a close, Pet Shop Boys return to where it started with a reprise. The show (and oh boy, is it a show) has demonstrated the band have become that most unlikely of things ; a compelling live act. It may be, to all intents and purposes only two people (One of whom does not leave his keyboard all night) but if you think of them as constant anchor points, the rest of the show is a bold, outlandish exploration of pop music that glows and shimmers. Taking a cue from seaside pantomime hall tradition, “Inner Sanctum” is a celebration of near enough everything and a representation of all of it – joy, sadness, heartbreak, and 808’s – as a day-glo childs version of the world.

It’s probably the last time in a long time I get to see them, because the tour only has three shows left after this – and it’s been rolling on for over two years to almost everywhere in the world. Before the first show, and the world was very different.

The past two years have seen the world change beyond all recognition – then, neither Brexit nor Trump had happened. Now, of course, they have. There’s no acknowledgement of any of this in the stage design ; but then should there be? Some artists think you shouldn’t mix art and politics (which can be a nice way of saying they are.. OK … with whatever is happening). Others over do it. On the other hand, Pet Shop Boys have a different approach ; the art has stayed, but we have changed. The world seems angrier, ruder, and harder than it did two years ago. But that is not here. Tonight is a show that is bookended by “The Pop Kids” as a song and a philosophy, a selection of the best bits, and where, thankfully, the Pet Shop Boys know what people want and aren’t afraid to provide it. Sure, you can’t get every hit single they have ever done, because they have so many of them (60 or so, over the past 32 years), but also, all the songs you could reasonably hope for are here. Also, unlike many bands, the selection of songs offers something from near enough every period of the bands career. There’s no revisionist rewriting out of history a certain mis-step. Even 2002’s first major shocker in “Home And Dry”, and the less than adored album “Release” which saw the band moving away from their strengths to produce a more guitar based pop tone, is represented – albeit in a form that resembles the more minimal ‘ambient’ mix from the 12” single and evolves into a selection of bouncy remixes – makes the song sound more contemporary and modern.

The staging, as such, is minimal, but also, wonderfully irreverent. The band take the stage with two huge disco balls that rotate and carry projections, before the walls collapse, extra musicians appear, weird circles fall from the ceiling, lights flash, video projections encompass the arena, and on my god, more lasers than an 80’s Pink Floyd stadium show. And a fleet of dancers in flouroscent inflatable suits dancing like huge, sentient disco jelly babies. It’s glorious, and never boring. And of course, the sounds match it.

What it is, from the opening “Inner Sanctum” to the final arms-aloft-disco-frenzy of “Always On My Mind” is a modern resetting of the bands work over the past three decades. By careful juxtaposition, songs like “Vocal” become a manifesto about the nature of pop music, popular culture, and most importantly, as with all great art, communication of common sentiment between people. I like the singer. He’s lonely and strange. Every track has a vocal, and that makes a change.

Even opening with “Inner Sanctum” works as a declaration ; here is a look inside the machine, here is an insight into a life made of Pop and Art. To some extent, this feels like the bands Super Tour, but also, an Ultimate tour. They might never have been more Pet Shop Boys than they are being right now. And whilst on the face of It, a 64 year old singing songs of heartbreak starting in 1983, and a 59 year old former architect plugging away at a huge keyboard rack sounds quite dull, the band stay the same in the heart of it all, like a Disco Gilbert & George, as the world – a huge lightbulb if you like – changes around them. And, perhaps surprisingly, everything comes out of those boxes live ; eagle eye punters on the final night will have seen the bands engineer/technican/general Yoda, Pete Gleadall, fiddling with boxes and reloading programmes and sequences in “Love Is A Bourgeois Construct” – and you wouldn’t’ve noticed. The narrative structure of the show, which opens in a search for hedonism, finds love, and ends in heartbreak and redemption, sounds corny, it works as each song sits next to the other in a way that makes sense. “Love Comes Quickly” sounds enormous and beautiful, and then “Love Etc.,” comes, and makes you realise that oh yes they did this song as well! And then another… And this one! And it’s all gorgeous and fun. And eminently danceable.

It’s not a perfect show ; I’d rather they play some different songs – but everyone has a favourite they don’t hear. Especially when the band have 35 years on vinyl across several hundred songs, 16 albums, 5 remix compilations, 2 concert sets, 3 greatest hits albums and 2 B-Sides Box Sets. To keep it fresh, after all, the band rebuild and redesign their songs as well ; always the same, always changing. Like a lovestruck disco version of The Fall.

And on the face of it, the bands universal appeal is that they know what it is like to be an individual in an identikit world full of individuals. As a confused 14 year old stuck in a life that never fit my soul, not sure who I was or what or how to make sense of the world there is no way to explain how "It's A Sin" helped me become myself in 1987. Songs pursue the element of identity and expectation, from the cornerstone “It’s A Sin” to “Go West”, both of which deal with the need to belong, and the trials and tribulations of being true to yourself in a world that demands conformity. To an extent, the bands visual identity has often addressed this ; from the use of uniforms and disguise, to rub out the individual in a self-constructed identity of ones own marking, which is a way of both revealing and concealing at the same time. Little is known about the personal lives of the band – which is, as it should be, mostly – but what this does is allow the band to become who they choose to be ; Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs prime pillar of self-actualisation – instead of who the world forces us to be or who nature makes us to be. Complete self-control.

After these shows (filmed for commercial release), the Super Tour comes shortly to an end. The Royal Opera House is a perfect venue for the band to end their headline run before they finish with a handful of festival shows. The audience have travelled far and wide – replete with pointy hats, silver suits with angel wings replicating old stage costumes, and other similar acts of dedication – and it has been rewarded with what I regard as my favourite Pet Shop Boys tour so far. The show ends with a reprise of “The Pop Kids”, and the curtain coming down on the evening. It’s a perfect ending : classic, traditional, yet utterly unusual for the pop format the band work in. Unlike so many of their peers who saw their powers visibly wane with time, Pet Shop Boys again stated – as if it were ever needed – their supremacy over the medium that propels them from mere musicians into artists dabbling in all mediums, and somehow making it all work as a cohesive whole, a self-contained artistic statement. It’s a Pet Shop Boys world, and tonight we lived in it.

Inner Sanctum
Opportunities
The Pop Kids
In The Night
Burn
Love Is A Bourgoeuis Construct
New York City Boy
Se A Vida E
Love Comes Quickly
Love Etc
The Dictator Decides
Inside A Dream
West End Girls
Se A Vide E
Home And Dry (ambient mix)
Vocal
The Enigma
Sodom And Gomarrah Show
It’s A Sin
Left To My Own Devices
Heart
Go West

Domino Dancing
Always On My Mind
The Pop Kids (Reprise)


Sunday, August 12, 2018
 
THE CURE + FRIENDS - London Hyde Park - 07 July 2018

CURES! THAAAAASANDS OF THEM!!

The Cure. Ride. Interpol. The Twilight Sad. Goldfrapp. This Will Destroy You. Slowdive. Kathryn Joseph. Pumarosa. Pale Knives. Look at that bill. I’d pay good money to see almost every band on this bill on their own, let alone all together. And whilst for some, it’s too big, too fucking hot, too many people, this is a unique event – a near enough hand-curated bill of Robert Smiths favourite bands, but also, the strongest single day bill I have seen in decades.

Of course, the day I saw that bill I had two immediate and conflicting thoughts : The first I have to go to this! And the second… Oh shit, I’m seeing Roger Waters in Birmingham that night.

I can’t have both. So I buy tickets, and worry about it later. Certainly, the first thing I notice is this is also the only British Summer Time Hyde Park gig where the section in front of the stage isn’t sold for twice as much as everywhere else. Sure there’s expensive tickets, but they are only for a smaller section to the right. If you want to get right under Robert Smiths face you don’t have to pay more, unlike every other gig that very clearly has a Second Class option.

It’s an exhausting, exhaustive day : I manage to see at least a bit of every band on every stage. And over the twelve hours (from the moment we all tend to convene at 10.30am, to the last dying notes of “Killing An Arab” 12 hours and 4 minutes later), it’s an assault course of music, interspersed with randomly bumping into at least thirty people. To start with, there’s a somewhat informal Meeting of ‘The Cunts’* [that is, Twilight Sad fans who have flown long distances to be here] at 10.00am. A couple of hours later – and with too much alcohol in us – we flock to Hyde Park.

[* "A Greeting Of Cunts" is the self-appointed name for a plural of Twilight Sad fans : like a murder of crows, but listening to miserable pop music.]

Inside the enormous park – and the snaking line of admission – there are queues everywhere. Queues to buy t-shirts. Queues for food. Queues for water. Queues for … everything. Queues to get in. Queues to get out. Queues to… eventually we enter the main stage arena, and catch the first band – Pale Waves – opening on the enormous stage. It’s fair to say that the band aren’t quite used to reaching the back of the crowd, yet. Next up, it’s a solid walk 7 minutes up the field to the stage that houses Pumarosa. Their dense blend of Siouxsie-esque sound and rhythms is growing on me, but it sounds oddly like Sunscreem covering Nico. At this point, it’s already hotter than the surface of the sun, and I’m on my second application of suncream.

In the usual game of indie Tag, as soon as Pumarosa come to a close, Slowdive start at the other end of the field seven minutes away. I make it in time for this band, who I’ve never actually seen before. On record, Slowdive are a shimmering, untouchable monster, gorgeous, yet somehow not quite tangible, and the music sounds like instruments – but not quite. On stage, the band are a muscular, powerful beast, with a flex and power that isn’t on the record. The sound is strong, and the band assertively state their case with a set that is forward looking ; with songs from last years “Slowdive” standing next to quarter century old classics from the age of cassette singles, blending seamlessly in a context where the older songs become better by the new ones standing next to them, and recontextualising then and now. After their full set, it’s another run up to the top of the field, for a rare live appearance by This Will Destroy You. Burrowing deep in a beautiful post rock furrow, the genre is crowded and impenetrable to some, but ultimately staggeringly rewarding, if you open your heart and feel. Sure, you may know Sigur Ros and Mogwai if you’re lucky, but go deeper, and bands like this move far beyond the normal emotional position into something beyond words, something like music and sound, but more. This Will Destroy You make a face meltingly beautiful noise, and it’s the band that come on after them on the same stage are even better than that.

It’s another sunsplashed run down the field to catch Editors who are strongly in support of their sixth album “Violence”. As a record, it’s a gruelling, scartissue run of emotions that pulls no punches. As a band, Editors are fluent in their sound. I’m baffled by idiots who lament the loss of their earlier jingle-jangle era : good as it was, the depth, maturity, and evolution the band have brought reminds me of no one so much as The Cure, who grew far beyond their initial promise into something even better than that. Songs like “Violence” itself, “No Harm” and “Cold” are coiled snakes of intelligent emotion, the band burning with a knowledge of things you have not seen, a mastery of their craft that few achieve, and an ability to wield open wounds into essential pieces of art. The tension/release dynamic the band now work on is a glorious thing, the songs becoming dramatic, but not histrionic, and the material being refreshingly honest. Editors were in danger of painting themselves into a creative corner at the midpoint, and now have a second wind of creativity that sees them exploring and evolving with every song. Sadly, given the clashes of timing, Editors finish the second near enough my favourite band in the world start on another stage, so I have to leave Editors mid song to catch The Twilight Sad.

And this is probably the biggest crowd that band have ever played to. Being the first announced show of their short summer tour, it’s also the one with the highest attendance of Cunts* Travelling A Very Long Way To Greet In Public. The band appear briefly and soundcheck half a song, then reappear shortly to play a compelling 40 minute set that feels a bit like having your grieving heart ripped out and put back in your soul so it works a little better.

Oh, such hyperbole. But the songs are such fluid things – built on coiled and rising pulsing grooves, “Last January” means something different to everyone here, but there’s a couple of people lines for me, when James Graham voice rises and the lyric cuts through you are too old to fare on your own, which means something to me.There’s two new songs – the pounding “VTR” that is already one of the best songs they have, and “Arbor” which is a delicate shimmer. Alongside a Greatest-Hits-From-A-Band-That-Hasn’t-Had-Hits (Last January, Don’t Move, There’s A Girl In The Corner, And She Would Darken The Memory), there’s also a final cover of Frightened Rabbit’s “Keep Yourself Warm” that is, once again, powerful and emotional. The history of the two bands seems tightly wound each other, with each band egging the other on to succeed. With the loss of Scott, it’s almost as if The Twilight Sad have become more determined to continue in an act of defiance. Depression is a motherfucker,and living with an invisible monster that is inside your head and often can’t be seen until it strikes is a cruel battle. A state of constant war that one never knows is being fought, and so is always being fought. The emotions aren’t as high and hard as Leeds, but there’s a cathartic wave that seems to spread over the crowd during this song, an acknowledgement of a certain state of affairs, that somehow, the monster came and took one of our own, and we have to keep surviving. I’ve seen The Sad a lot over the years, and this felt like the peak of a small mountain, a victory on a battlefield, an ascent to a plateau where you can see not only where the band have come from, but also where they are going. The small rooms won’t be big enough for this band for much longer. Certainly, Robert Smiths fostering of them has brought them to peoples minds, but – and this is the crucial point – it’s the greatness in the band themselves that will keep the band in our minds. The songs speak for themselves.

I’m practically incapable of speaking after that, so Goldfrapp are a huge wrench in emotional flavour and I’m not really capable of being where Goldfrapp are, even if I wanted to be. In fact, I’m trying but not really ready for Kathryn Joseph playing in a tiny bandstand at the foot of the field.

Interpol are the main support, as such – being the penultimate band just before The Cure. They’ve been through a lot over the years, and changed. They are very good at what they do, even though they are all clad in suits and ties and appear to be the only people on the planet who aren’t capable of sweating when its hotter than the surface of the sun. Ultimately what they have doesn’t quite reach where I am today : the music is more rational, more logical, more reserved, and in some respects almost like a discourse on emotion, and it doesn’t reach me today. The band are clearly well versed in their skills, and strong. The new stuff they play is also amongst the best they have ever written. Now though, I am saving myself for The Cure. It’s been a long day, and there’s still a lot to come.

On the top of the field, Ride have firmly conquered their initial victory lap : a standard career mode, as such, is for a band to return, coast on a set of past glories, remind us how brilliant they once were, and then – sometimes inevitably – issue new material that isn’t quite as good. For Ride, the band have become business as usual quicker than some reunions – and whilst being an ongoing concern and a valid creative entity is important, there’s no sense of occasion as such. Ride blast through muscular, solid greatest hits from their body of work and many great new songs, but to be honest, my mind is on the band that take the stage in a few minutes, and thus, I leave before Ride are done to get a strong vantage spot for The Cure.

Thankfully, The Cure have suffered no dulling of the blade over the years. The recent “Curætion” show at the Festival Hall was a deep dive through the bands darker moments. This is the bands 40th Anniversary Birthday Show, marking 40 years (is it really that long?) since their first appearance as The Cure at the Crawley Rocket in 1978, yet also serving as an effective, in-front-of-your-eyes greatest hits reprise of the finest moments of their lives. Whilst the past ten years have seen the band retreat from new releases thanks to a combination of inertia caused by a significant and painful lineup change in 2010, the end of their record contract, and a desire to focus on music and not marketing, The Cure still don’t feel like a touring museum of music. The lineup has remained basically solid for a quarter century with only Reeves Gabrels as a ‘new’ addition at a mere seven years in the band. As such, it’s a definitive Cure show ; though, frustratingly, lacking in anything post 1993, apart from the singular “The End Of The World”.

In technical terms, the band play a show as good as any I have seen. The songs are also dispatched with the deftness of touch, and precision you expect from The Cure. I’ve never seen a bad Cure gig (though there are, occasionally off nights – Brno in 1998 was notoriously bad), but few have been as much fun. Some Cure gigs are really very very long indeed, and some feel even longer than that. Much as I love The Cure (over 25+ years, 8 lineups, and about 80 hours seeing them) there can on occasion be too much of a bad thing, and when the band are playing – say – “If Only Tonight I Could Sleep” at sunset on a Saturday – the main thought I have is that I can have a short break from something I love to recharge. The Cure rarely, if ever, leave you wanting more, and often play two shows in one, with a range of emotions, moving between one and the other fluidly. Set pacing is, and always has been an issue, as the odd summery pop single gets the entire crowd dancing and laughing, before it swiftly gets dispatched by the ten minute doomfest of “The Same Deep Water As You” (not aired tonight). Even a short set, by their standards can be forty six songs, and over three hours, long, with an encore longer than many bands entire gigs. Tonight, thankfully, its pure, undiluted Cure, with little in the way of the moments where you can obviously feel the audience and band drifting apart. A celebration of everything this band has done and how far they have come and what we have won by having them.

Perhaps the biggest issue in this celebration is the sheer size of the night : it’s nearly the biggest crowd I have seen them play to, and Robert Smith will never be Bono. If The Cure are playing to 800 or 80,000 people you get the same experience. And even though we have managed to get into the front enclosure, it still feels like standing at the back of Wembley Arena. The video screens have to pick up the slack, but they don’t : instead they act as an extension of the bands visual identity rather than reflecting the show back to the punters at the back of the huge field. While the band are rampaging through the first live outing for “Jumping Someone Else’s Train / Grinding Halt” in many, many years, most people are looking at poor quality VHS footage of the Brighton to London train journey from 1976 being projected onto video screens twice the size of your average block of flats. At one point, the screen is so big the band have six singers, six bass players, five keyboard players, five drummers, and five guitarists.

It’s not all fun. Put 80,000 people in a field all day with alcohol and sunshine, and there’s always going to be short tempers, punches thrown, and a bit of stupidity. We back away slowly from a man in a bad hat with a big mouth and someone else who stepped on his foot by mistake during “Push”. Nothing comes of it but we’re close to see something almost did. But its there, under the surface, growling for the rest of the night. Music may make all of us friends, but not always for long. Go Go Go, Push It Away. The joy with which this album deep cut is received tells us that The Cure aren’t just a band with people who ‘like’ them. Sometimes, The Cure go deep, and it doesn’t come from the number of people who like them, but how far into the soul that like goes. The Cure are a band that inspire a fervent devotion that some other bands could never achieve. Some other bands simply aren’t good enough.

That said, the band are solid, delivering almost all of their major songs in a ruthlessly efficieint, passionate way, exchanging the sly glances and injokes that only a long established group can make. This band have grown up in public, and with each other, and part of the glory of this is seeing The Cure become old and still retaining the same qualities they had when much, much younger. By the time of the encore, the band play 10 hit singles in a row. Just when you think you’ve had enough, BAM!, comes another, and another, and another, and you get to the end and you still wonder why they didn’t play “Mint Car” or “Lets Go To Bed”, or “Lovecats”, or “Primary”. And then, as the band are playing “10.15 Saturday Night” – seven minutes late at 10.22, clockwatchers – it’s fairly clear to me that when I was younger, I made the right choices. I fell in love with the right bands. I bought the right records. I’m in a field, with loads of my friends, happily playing air guitar and singing out of tune, and knowing that these, these are the moments. I’ll never get to my death bed, and think, I saw too many gigs. I’ll get to my death bed and know that This was a life I was blessed to live. Just like heaven.


 
ON WRITING

Over the years, I’ve managed to annoy a few people with my reviews and commentary. Some of them play on records you probably own.

So lets make clear what my writing is, and isn’t.

It is for me. It is about how I respond, relate, and react to art, music, live performance, and my experiences. It is what I want to say, how I want to say it, to the best of my abilities. It’s not for you. The purpose of a review is for the writer to give you their honest response to what they experience. We’ve been thrown off other sites years ago, for not writing asskissing reviews that would keep millionaires happy and keep the site getting free guests lists and access. We buy our own tickets, have our own opinions, and do this for love of music. We’re not going to tell you something is good if we think it isn’t. You lay your money down on this stuff ; you deserve an honest steer on whether we think whatever it is is good.

It isn’t to please you. It isn’t to get yet another English degree. It isn’t to gain clickbait, or to troll you. If you think what I write is to get impressions and clicks … you won’t believe it isn’t. This isn’t a revenue generating site. No ads. No click throughs. No Amazon links. Nothing. This costs us money.

I am not a machine. Last time I checked I was a living, breathing human with emotions, pets, and a need for both food and sleep (not necessarily in that order). The way I think and write reflects my personality and who I am. There is no contract between the reader and the author on this site. You aren’t paying me. I am not for hire. I owe you nothing. I write what I want, when I want, how I want, and I put it up here. If you like it, that’s up to you. If you don’t that’s up to you too.

The writing I do is not to pass an exam. I’m not going to tolerate you sending it back to me with green pen and notes about fronted adverbials. I don’t give a fuck if you think my writing style is not to your taste, or not technically correct. I’d rather be an imperfect Leonard Cohen than a precise Celine Dion.

Remember the above. There is no contract between us here. If you are rude, obnoxious, insulting or otherwise unpleasant I have no obligation to engage with you. I may say things you don’t like – that is your right not to like, or agree. It’s not your god-given right to be rude to me. I can withdraw, block, disengage. That’s my right to. I don’t have to be drawn into your discussions around, amongst other things, the ‘correct’ use of language or whether you are right and I am wrong. Just because you can @ us on Twitter doesn’t mean I owe you a fully researched essay with sources on my opinion. I owe you nothing.

Any situation you cannot leave is a prison, and we do not tolerate prison.

What is the purpose of art? It is to communicate ideas between humans. To show, illuminate, or enlighten. To make someone see the world a slightly different way. Sometimes you want art that makes you cry your heart out. Other times, you want it full of explosions and popcorn on a Saturday night.

As a fan of a brand, a director, a band, a writer, whomever it is, I am under no obligation to like anything or everything they do. Liking their past work does not mean I have to – not should it – have unquestioning acceptance of every part of their work without reservation.

Art that is never seen isn't art. Art exists when two things happen : when what is created is received and is then interpreted. Everyone decodes it on the basis of what they see and know. The artist controls what they create. Not how it is received. The majority of the time most people have the common vocabulary to create a broadly similar meaning – generally this is a consensus reality.

If art is product you don't get to tell people what it means to them. An artist gets to control the message being transmitted. Not the message received. Meaning exists in the mind of the audience. And if what the artist is communicating is being misinterpreted, that might be where the artist isn’t as successful at communicating as perhaps they intended.

Entitlement issues go both ways. Some artists seem very … touchy to criticism. Including imaginary criticism that only exists in their heads. The view from the stage is very different to the view of the stage. I’ve had performers wonder if I was at the same gig I was, and whilst factually I was, my experience is very different from theirs. My expectations of art might be different from theirs. The relationship between art and consumer involves two intellects meetings ; the creator making, and the viewer decoding what it means to them. There are facts, and there is truth, and the two are sometimes miles apart.

The world is a big place. It is entirely possible for different viewpoints to co-exist in this world. I write about how art, music, etc., affects me. How it makes me feel, what it does to me, how I see how it interacts with my reality and my soul. Nothing less. Nothing more. I am not a service industry. You aren’t my customers. I don’t owe you anything. You haven’t paid me. I have no obligation to you for you to like what I do.

In short ; I am not your bitch.


Wednesday, July 18, 2018
 
ROGER WATERS “Us + Them” London Hyde Park 06 July 2018

At this advanced stage, Roger Waters has become, to all intents and purposes, the public face of Pink Floyd. It was all so very different 25 years ago ; Pink Floyd then were an active operation, with Roger Waters skulking in the background like a furious ghost. Now, with the Floyd inactive and two of the original five now sadly deceased, Pink Floyd have become a memory – and if you want to experience even the vaguest glimmer of what it was to have seen them, well, here it is.

Two years after it began in the desert, the “Us + Them” tour comes finally to Europe : and it unambigiously restates the Pink Floyd legacy. Having seen Floyd, David Gilmour, and Waters in many incarnations over the past three decades, what this is, is a confident reclamation and restatement of what the work – both in and out of Pink Floyd was – and is. Whereas Gilmour was all about feeling, emotion, and some kind of non-specific evocation of feeling, Waters is a precise, pointed, and political show. It covers much of the same ground musically, and the films, animation, and staging are often very similar – making it clear it wasn’t musical differences that caused the band to separate – the difference sits all in the context. From an opening, and accurate “Speak To Me / Breathe”, the majority of the first half of the show covers most of the first half of “Dark Side Of The Moon”, and ties together the through line that runs through all of Rogers work. In the space of this, “Welcome To The Machine” is the first song that really shows the breadth of the show : it introduces a huge silver ball on screen, that then reappears at strategic points throughout the rest of the show, symbolising some kind of authority, some kind of machine, some kind of control. Other imagery repeats throughout the rest of the show – Battersea Power Station, pigs and animals, a prism of colours – each ascribed a new meaning, and combining together to create a powerful presentation of the music as something much bigger than it once was, with unconnected songs tied together by visual imagery and political themes.

As the tour is now two years in, there is also a changed lineup, and an unexpected new record – the pounding and vibrant “Is This The Life We Really Want?” – so the show has been reconfigured to provide several songs from it. These songs sit more than comfortably as the equal of some of the classic era Floyd songs : “Picture That”, and “Smell The Roses” for example, sound like they could always have been on a 70’s Floyd record. In one, particularly important transition, “Us + Them” itself pauses with a new ending, and then “Smell The Roses” slides in seamlessly. The only difference between say, Amused To Death and a Pink Floyd record is, in many ways, the name on the front of the record.

Visually, these newer songs offer a powerful, and unexpected interpretation of the entire body of work. During the middle of “Smell The Roses” the view suddenly changed to the interior of a corridor and a woman sitting on a beach – reversing the same view used as an ambient backdrop before the show itself began, and it recasts the whole show as the fever dream of thoughts running through the mind of a political prisoner ; and if you’re paying attention, it’s a cutting and brutal realisation. Is This The Life We Really Want?

In the meantime the frankly surreal setting sees Waters don an animal mask, a huge inflatable animal float over the crowd, and a nearly life-size Battersea Power Station rises up to tower over the venue, which becomes a space station, alongside some undoubtedly offensive imagery that shows the current President as, amongst a great many other things, a child in a KKK mask. It’s also during “Smell The Roses” that a huge silver ball floats over the crowd, the symbol of authoritarianism that sees over all of us. The show moves into ”Eclipse/Brain Damage.”, further tying together all the visual themes of the rest of the show into a single whole : as a laser pyramid opens up over the crowd, and a prism of light flies into the distance. You’re only seeing the cover of Dark Side Of The Moon come to life in front of your eyes. (And given that tonight sees 90% of that album played live, it’s also key to see how important this album is to Waters in his body of work.)

In the confines of Hyde Park, the show works on the huge scale – and there’s 60,000 people here to divide Us And Them between. Previous shows have seen a huge screen dividing the crowd in two ; here there is no such device, but the “Us” are the full price tickets (at a staggering £89), and the “Them” are the very well off “Gold Circle” at the front that grows the price considerably to around £199 each. Of course, to one of the richest rock stars there is, this isn’t much. But to Us, the divide is more apparent. And financially more obvious. But The “Us” and “Them” is quite clear tonight. .

In another way, “Us + Them”, also reflects world politics ; the polarised planet, where the US sees the rest of the world as a lesser, dehumanised “Them”, not worthy of individual recognition. Who cares if it doesn’t happen in America, anyway?

The final song is a powerful, and necessary “Comfortably Numb”. In this context, it’s a song about who we are now – we’re comfortable, we’re numb, and what happens around us we don’t feel anymore. It’s a call to arms and a moment of release : is this the life we really want, indeed? And I’m stood there, and wondering if this is the last time I will ever see any member of Pink Floyd perform any of their songs? Waters is nearly 75 now ; this could be the last hurrah.

Speak To Me
Breathe
One of These Days
Time
Breathe (In The Air)
The Great Gig In The Sky
Welcome To the Machine
Deja Vu
The Last Refugee
Picture That
Wish You Were Here
The Happiest Days Of Our Lives
Another Brick In The Wall

(Intermission)

Dogs
Pigs
Money
Us And Them
Smell The Roses
Brain Damage
Eclipse
Comfortably Numb


Thursday, July 05, 2018
 
MOGWAI London Royal Festival Hall 21 June 2018

The passing of time is almost invisible ; sometimes. It’s been twenty years since I’ve first seen this band, and its been the same every time. The venues may be different every time but the feelings are the same. I don’t feel like the core of me has changed at all in that time ; that I have become refined and more tightly precise, but that is it. I am still me, just better. And a bit older. And a bit balder.

Perhaps sometimes, it’s the venue that makes the difference. Last year, I caught the opening show of the tour with the album, unheard by anyone, debuted live at sunset in Barcelona overseen by skyscrapers. Tonight, with a slightly different lineup (Martin Bulloch is recuperating from a health matter, with live drummer Cat Myers on stage instead ; though Bulloch returns for a mini set of 4 songs as the encore, including the live return of “Kids Will Be Skeletons” after a seven year break), there’s a very different feel. Where Mogwai have worked, have achieved, is in defining the slippery ; shorn of vocals, as such, the band are always working towards to trying to bottle sunlight, with huge and often long instrumental excursions that circle human emotion nonspecifically – that is, since the band don’t have hits as such, they have fan favourites, and they don’t have songs that they must play live as a result. No need, then, to slot “West End Girls” or “Wonderwall” into the set. If anything, Mogwai are the music you need to experience live for thinking, for feeling, for exploring. It’s music where I feel connected to the people around me, rather than connecting to myself.

We’re all sat or stood there, many of us, feeling, thinking, communicating. In my mind, I am not losing myself, or connecting vicariously to emotion, but instead my head is lazily exploring the sensations the music gives me, like a soft, relaxing aural shower, a meditative, peaceful state. You know the moment where you lie next to your lover, and your heart feels different, intimate, beyond mere words? Like that. It’s the kind of music that is much better when you stand quietly next to someone and hold their hand as waves of rhythm and sound batter you like waves.

For me, the highlight of this is a fierce, gorgeous “Mogwai Fear Satan.” It’s the first song I ever saw them play live, and it is one of the finest moments of any show, by anyone, ever. The rolling rhythms, the powerful percussive hits remind me of nothing so much as the unstoppable, fierce force of nature, the song hits, and keeps hitting and I’m lost beautifully, in my own head and in this world that exists, just now, briefly, for 2 hours, with the people in this room.

The room reacts slowly : standing, sitting, airdrumming, and just… there, in whatever world this is for them. We are part of this, happening, here, now, and recordings are just a fragment, a slice. Nothing can change what this was. This happened.

Every Country’s Sun
Party In The Dark
Take Me Somewhere Nice
I’m Jim Morrison I’m Dead
Rano Pano
Coolverine
Don’t Believe The Fife
Remurdered
Old Poisons
Mogwai Fear Satan

I Know You Are But What Am I
Kids Will Be Skeletons
Ex-Cowboy
My Father, My King


Saturday, June 30, 2018
 
CURÆTION-25 ; Robert Smith and Friends, London Royal Festival Hall, 24 June 2018

Though ostensibly billed as “Curætion-25”, a set that – for tedious contractual reasons requires this to officially be “Robert Smith and Curious Friends” – tonights climax to the 25th Meltdown Festival, curated by Robert Smith, is The Cure. The Curious Friends in his backing band are Simon Gallup, Roger O’Donnell, Jason Cooper and Reeves Gabrels - being the worst kept secret in music – and whilst some people hear clearly think it should be an evening of greatest hits, most of us know what we are expecting tonight : its been clearly announced as not a regular Cure gig, and full of “doom and gloom” for some time.

Supported by The Twilight Sad, Curætion-25 is a celebration and commiseration of the darker edges of the Cure’s catalogue. Thematically opening with a “From There To Here” and followed by a “…And Back Again” set, the band work their immense catalogue with one song from each album chronologically forward in time to the still unreleased “Scream” album, and then back again to 1979.

As The Sad – a band I love, even though some of you don’t – play a compact 30 minutes, they play their souls out. James Graham can audibly be heard from the balcony over the noise even when he’s off-microphone, lost in the moment. The band’s absence has been noticed, they have been missed, and tonight they play to a quarter full Royal Festival Hall with the same passion and energy as they do a full house at a headline gig. Half of the set is yet unreleased, with the new songs being “VTR”, “Arbor”, and the final, emotional “Keep Yourself Warm”. “VTR” is a beast that grows with power every time I hear it. “Keep Yourself Warm” is not as heartbreaking as last week in Leeds, as I’m up on the balcony ; but I am here, and I am in, which given that this is the smallest non-competition show The Cure have played in 15 years is quite something.

Finally then, comes Curætion-25 : and it is an evening of surprises. Offering a broadly similar theme to the NME gig ten years ago, the band play a set that runs, one song per album, chronologically from the opening “Three Imaginary Boys” to “It Can Never Be The Same” from the unreleased ‘Scream’ album . After a short break, the band return to play a similar reverse set – one song per album, running from “Step Into The Light”, and “The Hungry Ghost” from 2008’s 4:13 Dream to a final pop thrill of “Boy’s Don’t Cry”.

Pack your bag of deep cuts. It’s been a long time since the band represented their enormous body of work this fairly or this equally : even 1996’s career-killing “Wild Mood Swings” gets two songs.

The long promised imaginary accompanists, and the reinventions of Robert Smiths body of work are absent. The solo songs and guest vocals – such as “A Girl In The Corner”, or anything from The Glove such as “Perfect Murder” and “Mr. Alphabet Says” – aren’t played. There are no ex-Cure’s tonight. It isn’t quite as we were promised. But it’s still not enough of a Cure show to please some people.

In front of me, there’s a relatively casual fan : looking up Things To Do In Italy, how to cook Spaghetti Bolognese, and texting his girlfriend “well, that’s two hours I won’t get back, they’ve only played one good song so far”(At this point, the band are deep into their second set, and are pummelling their way through the somewhat hazy If Only Tonight We Could Sleep and thus Pictures Of You and High have been the casual fanbait hits in the set at this point). The casual disregard some of the attendees give the importance of this show is somewhat insulting to the band : for a band as loved as The Cure, and the distances some people would go for a show like this – such as flying from Germany, or America – and someone who has one of the best seats in the house to walk out because they are bored is quite unfair. It was never sold as a standard Cure greatest hits show, but as an evening exploring the further reaches of the band. Like any band, The Cure have to balance themselves between the accomplished peddlers of wonderful misery and the beautiful pop machine they are, and unlike most shows, where more than half the set is nothing but hits, tonight the world’s best Cure tribute band are beautifully miserable. It’s been a long time, if ever, since I have seen some of these songs – and even songs from 2004’s “The Cure” sell the darker reaches of the bands work as worthy of reappraisal. Certainly “alt.end” and “Us And Them” feel better now than they were at the time of release.

But The Cure are no longer a current band – having becoming a well established touring and nostalgia act – and having never fully recovered from their mid 90’s commercial slump. Every band has a 10 year peak at most of first success at the end of which most fans are 20-35. By the time people get to 30, most tend not to go to too many shows, often have kids, mortgages, and most bands have a tail off commercially in the second decade. Gig sales do slow down until the kids have grown up and the parents decide to go back to gigs again - i.e. 2009 (or thereabouts) where The Cure started to become a more prolific touring act.

Also, by 1996 they were a band that had been going 20 years, and the next few albums weren't hugely poppy, as well as a lineup change ; hits started to dry up, so they went from 4 nights in London arenas in 1992 to 1 at the end of 1996, and went from 2 nights at the NEC to a 5,000 half-sold-out show there in 1996. By 1996 they were also two big movements past (Grunge + Britpop), the fans had grown up, and they got little airplay beyond "Mint Car". They were 'put away' like childhood toys, commercially, to the point where Robert said he'd much rather play 4 sold out shows in sunny France, than a half-full shed in Sheffield.

Most people don't go back to seeing bands loads once the kids have grown up. The demographic of fans is massively overlooked. Bands fans get older, and have kids, and don't go to gigs anymore - and that's what kills off most bands. Few bands have managed to ride this crucial shift by appealing constantly cross-generationally : sure, U2 fans rang from 7 to 70, but can you say that of some other bands?

This lineup of the band has – despite existing for six years – not released one note of new music. And whilst Smith, Cooper, Gallup and O Donnell have between them, played near enough solidly for long over 20 years together (and with 124 years in the band between them), with Reeves Gabrels as an excellent second guitarist who is, to some people, a terrible choice, we have to be wary of nostalgia in this respect. Some people want other lineups of the band, but like any relationship, you wouldn’t stay with the same people you knew when you were 14, would you? Generally not, anyway. I understand the need to want the band to keep the same lineup as the day you first heard them, because that was your version of the band, and the band meant something to you then, but surely part of the joy of this is.. growing older with the band through time? On the face of tonight, given a unique setlist and a powerful, uncompromising performance that rewarded the faithful with a trainspotter setlist, The Cure have a future in front of them as well as a glorious past. But you can’t ignore the passing of time, and with some members in their sixties now, The Cure aren’t a young mans band, but clearly nearer the end than the beginning. The Cure are undoubtedly Roberts lifework. But if you have to pour your life into your work, there’s few better things that what they played tonight.

At the heart of it, it was also one of the handful of shows the band where staples such as “Lullaby”, “Lovesong”, “Friday I’m In Love”, “Just Like Heaven” are not played : that hit of hands in the air ecstasy is two weeks from now at Hyde Park . The Cure have always walked a tightrope between the miserable stadium band and joyous pop, and, at the same time, been both constantly and equally. Tonight isn’t, nor was it ever, presented as a Cure show, but an evening of oddities. The hits weren’t missed by people familiar with their work ; it showed just how good, and adept The Cure are, and were, at encompassing almost all emotions, and how they would still be one of the most important and reliable artists of their time without the pop hits.

Three Imaginary Boys
At Night
Other Voices
A Strange Day
Bananafishbones
A Night Like This
Like Cockatoos
Pictures Of You
High
Jupiter Crash
39
Us And Them
It’s Over
It Can Never Be The Same
Step Into The Light
The Hungry Ghost
Alt. End
The Last Day of Summer
Want
From The Edge
Disintegration
If Only Tonight We Can Sleep
Sinking
Shake Dog Shake
100 Years
Primary
A Forest
Boys Don’t Cry


 
MANIC STREET PREACHERS / THE ANCHORESS - "Meltdown25" - London Royal Festival Hall - 19 June 2018

At this stage, I can’t even remember how many Manics albums there are (let me think about that, 13) ; and you probably wouldn’t miss a couple of them if they never existed. After last years underwhelming greatest hits shows, which also underlined the bands lack of creativity, this is a one-off out-of-tour headline show in the midst of a run of dreary outdoor festival shows, and tonight is specifically at Robert Smiths request.

And whilst at least half – if not more – of the onstage players are not official members of the band – and that feels weird and all kinds of wrong - Nicky Wire is back on bass after a bereavement,though understandably subdued and not as … loud as normal. There’s a new, and staggeringly redundant, third guitar player, and the band of six is twice as large as the last time I saw them play a truly brilliant show (the half-new/half-old Futurology/Holy Bible double header at Rough Trade East).

Support comes from the only show of the year by The Anchoress, who confidently delivers a compact halfhour of promising cuts. Like every act here, you can see why Robert Smith chose her. There’s a mysterious, indefinable factor of compulsion and talent.

But more than that, The Manics may still be mostly a nostalgia act, but there’s also five songs from the new record, and a special one-off performance of The Cure’s Inbetween Days, which is taken from the album The Manics used to listen to in their childhood bedroom as teenagers. It’s an important way of showing, marking, being in touch with who they used to be and where they once were. It’s easy to forget how you got here, and the steps you took to get here, and your path through history. So easy to think that where you are – be it a stadium or a club – is where you always deserved to be. Humility is important. Some bands lost that, and they lost us. We never forget why we fell in love, or how, and how we got here. Some bands forget the fans still struggle, still live month to month, day by day, sometimes holding on by the fingernails to whatever reality they can tolerate.

But also seeing a band grow older with us. There’s five songs from the frankly average "Resistance Is Futile", with “International Blue”, “Distant Colours”, “Dylan & Caitlin”, “Hold Me Like A Heaven” and “People Give In”. There’s some of the lesser songs from their former catalogue – “Tsunami” and “You Stole The Sun” from the frankly tepid "This Is My Truth" – and some gems the band have overlooked, such as “Motown Junk” which is only being played for the second time in four and a half years. And it tears your face off.

I’m not quite sure why the person next to me is here though, they are so obviously bored, sitting down and reading the internet, and spend the big hits filming them, and the rest of the time looking thoroughly miserable. Why leave the house?

At this point, though, the Manics are a mid level rock pop powerhouse, simultaneously at a career plateau like The Charlatans, never to be huge or small again, but a small business, and one that concentrates on trying to be the best they can ever be – even if that isn’t to everyone’s taste – and never ever being boring or average (though obviously your mileage may vary). Most bands are average, and the Manics will never be that. Even if they do leave me cold, and sometimes they do, they’re trying to be their own kind of interesting, and they never stop looking. It’s written in every note of tonight – the quest for greatness which may never be achieved, but they will always try. That’s so much more than so many bands.

International Blue
Motorcycle Emptiness
No Surface
Distant Colours
Inbetween Days
You Stole The Sun
Little Baby Nothing
Dylan & Caitlin
Everything Must Go
Motown Junk
If You Tolerate This
Faster
Welcome To The Jungle / You Love Us
Walk Me To The Bridge
Hold Me Like Heaven
Slash N Burn
Kevin Carter
People Give In
Tsunami
A Design For Life


Wednesday, June 20, 2018
 
THE TWILIGHT SAD - Leeds Brudenell Social Club - 16th June 2018

A summer Saturday at a working mens club in a suburb in Leeds doesn’t sound like much : but for the few, this is everything we needed. A headline show for The Twilight Sad has been a rare event recently – this is the first one in 20 months, and their first since 2015 in the UK. Having only three headline shows in the past few years (two in the US, one in Madrid) alongside nearly a hundred shows in support, as well as an 18 month gap from live shows to work on a new record, this is first chance I have had in too long.

Since first encountering them in 2014, they’ve fast become one of my favourite bands. And 32 years, and 1,253 gigs after I first started seeing bands in small rooms and big rooms, I’ve rarely had shows as good as this. I would go so far as to say that every time I see a band I’m hoping for the best gig of my life, and tonight was in the top 10 shows ; if I ever rank them.

In the afternoon, for example, I walk down a corridor past the soundcheck : and the band are playing “The Wrong Car” to an empty room. And the hairs on my arms stand on end. I’ve never know that happen before in just a soundcheck. It’s a sign. Something will happen.

Any why is that? These aren’t just songs. There’s something more… primal about it than that. The best art has at it a core that it the song must exist, it must be written. It has at the heart of it an unfakeable compulsion that it must have been made, even if only at the point of conception. Some bands lack sincerity, or perhaps exist as entertainment and as a job. Some bands, there’s a sense that this music of theirs was a calling, and that they did not choose this, but that they were chosen to be the antenna for the song and somehow are merely scribes of songs that always existed somewhere in the air waiting to be caught.

These songs have kept us warm on cold nights of the soul and sit beside us on bad day. The lineup has – with the exception of new drummer Sebastien Schultz – been broadly the same for several years, and on stage the band are a tight, and fluid machine. There’s plenty of old songs, and three from the untitled, yet to be announced, next record ; all of which are as melodic, and as essential, as anything else they have ever done. “Dennis Hopper” is a driving thing which feels like I have heard it a dozen times before – instantly familiar and alien. “Arbor” is a delicate, brittle song that grows with age. Best of the bunch is “VTR”, which is a pounding, compelling monster that is a spiky, hurt beast, laden with more hooks than velcro and a more choruses than some bands entire career. I swear the chorus hits with the lines “running away doesn’t feel so bad”, before its just a bridge to the actual refrain.

As far as bands go, some bands inspire a deep devotion, a code, a secret language of shorthand, where the words “Sheepdug” mean a beloved single, and the words “Hippo” on a setlist are met with the anticipation that this might be a rare new song. Still, it’s not exactly the Tool or Pearl Jam fanbase, thankfully, but it’s not the size of the crowd, but the strength of the connection that matters.

On top of this, the band offer a unique atmosphere hardly any other act have ever captured, a euphoric miserablism, a cleansing sort of greeting* which is both joyful and heartbroken at the same time, a hope in a hopeless time. The lyrics themselves are obtuse sketches, open to interpretation and, at the same time, definitive and specific, chasing kitchen sink dramas. The words connect.

(*Scottish version - to cry and weep)

The Twilight Sad are two bands. At one point, five people who make an immense noise and on the other, two people who definitely don’t. Being one of Britain’s best bands – but also, for some reason, not enormously huge, the band tap into a vein of raw emotion, matched with a dense sound that mixes all their influences in something unique. There’s great songs that have been part of my life for years played tonight, but phrases like It Never Was The Same, Cold Days In The Birdhouse, And She Would Darken The Memory probably don’t mean much to but the few.

This isn’t logical, or reasonable. Music isn’t like construction. We don’t look at a song and think of it as a good set of 8,16,32 bars that will do the job, like a pipe, or a bit of good engineering. Music is all about emotion : these songs are tools to allow us to access who we are. If music is the key to our souls, then the doors are open.

And then there’s “Keep Yourself Warm”, a heartfelt tribute to the fallen Scott Hutchison. Emotions come flying out.

Because I lived.
Because I lived, and not everyone else does.
Because I made it.
Because I stood at the edge, and no matter how many years ago it was in terms of your calendar, it was still yesterday.
Because I close my eyes and it comes back.
Because I made it.
Because others didn’t.
Because it was the biggest victory I ever won was to just keep breathing.
Because survivors guilt can weigh heavy on you.
Because even though you may not have died that day, it can kill you in the end.
Because Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a thing.
Because I can’t use words.
Because I felt for a few minutes this enormous cleansing.
Because I cried in public and I felt everything, the joy and the terror.
Because seeing this band sing that song three feet from me was the most intense thing I have experienced in three decades of gigging.
Because 1,253 shows in, music still does this to me.
Because the weight left me and I wept like a child.
Because I needed it. To mark the moment.
Because I survived.
Because I lived.

Music is inherently selfish. If I can’t talk about how it affected me, I can’t talk about anything. I can’t discuss how I feel, I am a robot. We need to won our feelings ; these things true to us even if no one else, they are what we see, the world we only ever see, when the door opens. It’s only a song, sure. But a song is much more than just a song. A great song is a device we use to access our souls. And this band have many great songs.

Setlist:

That Summer, At Home I Became The Invisible Boy
Don’t Move
Dennis Hopper (Hippo)
Last January
I Became A Prostitute
It Never Was The Same
VTR
Reflection Of The Television
The Wrong Car
Arbor
There’s A Girl In The Corner
Cold Days In the Birdhouse
And She Would Darken The Memory
Keep Yourself Warm


Sunday, June 10, 2018
 
THE THE : Comeback Special : London Royal Albert Hall 5th June 6th London Brixton Academy 2018

After an 18 year touring hiatus, and two decades since their last song-based album, The The have returned to the stage with a short tour : and everything has changed, and nothing has changed. Despite the fact that 90% of the set comes from 25 years – or more – ago, The The feel contemporary ; the songs are ageless and eternal, but, the absence of new ones is obvious.

There’s a lot to process. A lot has changed since the last time I saw them, for all of us. I have changed dramatically, and who I was then is not who I am now. The band have changed too : circling around Matt Johnson, the lineup retains drummer Earl Harvin from their NakedSelf era, and rejoins DC Collard on keys and James Eller on bass from the Dusk/MindBomb era. Besides this, the new addition is Barrie Cadogan on guitar, who came personally recommended by Johnny Marr. It’s certainly the best recent touring lineup of the band, keen to honour the songs as we remember them, and not as they once were. The disappointing lineup I saw 6 times in 2000 is long forgotten, and this one is leaps and bounds ahead of the turgid past. So, the brazenly titled “Comeback Special” tour is exactly that : Matt Johnson reclaiming the bands name and legacy from fading into the history books, and restating again how loved this band was, and is. The The could have disappeared, and become a disappointment – or perhaps just a distant memory – but this is a show that keeps the band feeling fresh and supple, and rejoining their past with the now.

In short, this tour is what The The, and the fans, needed it to be. It’s a somewhat nostalgic relaunch, and reclaiming of his work back from history, and from common perception. And whilst The The have become a cottage industry over the years – releasing nothing but instrumental soundtracks and esoteric, unusual material that rebuts the songs and sounds like a lot of old B-sides in recent years, here it is clear that Johnson has suffered a dearth of creativity, not a lack of meaning.

As it stands, the presentation is very different : and whilst the choice of songs is strong and a reflection of the strongest parts of the bands catalogue (generally), the pacing is uneven : At the Albert Hall, the audience observes a recitation with a keen but reserved anticipation.. until the seventh song. Then we all stand up and dance a bit. And then most of us sit down again. And then wait until we get to the 19th song (“Slow Emotion Replay”). The song choices don’t seem to flow well into each other, and don’t always seem to rest easily as bedfellows. Some songs also stick out by their absence ; such as “Soul Mining” and “Giant”.

At Brixton, the audience are generally the rudest, most talkative, stupid bunch of dumb melonfudgers I’ve seen at a gig in decades. Sure, mate, some of us have only waited 30 years to see this band, please talk loudly during the songs.

I’m fairly sure that “Love Is Stronger Than Death” has never been the soundtrack to a huge punchup before : very clearly some yapping dunderhead with a INCREDIBLY LOUD VOICE was asked to um, not talk quite so loudly all the time. To which their response was probably a punch or two. And whilst Matt sings about his dead brother, a bunch of people are fighting.

In the meantime, Earl Harvin is still one of the best drummers I have ever seen. He displays his skills less on this tour, but that’s because this version of the band are playing to support the songs as the audience knows them. There’s no samples, so everything is appearing live before our very ears, and that means the band are recreating The The now but honouring the band as was. Earl manages to flesh out the complicated drum parts to things like “Infected” with what looks like an effortless ease. Barrie Cadogan meanwhile, is a perfect replacement for Johnny Marr, adding a deft and powerful touch to the songs and a note-for-note matching of the long oodly keyboard solo on “I’ve Been Waiting For Tomorrow All of My Life” like he wrote it. DC Collard also manages to execute the very, very long piano solo in “Uncertain Smile” exactly, and make it even longer. James Eller meanwhile underpins the band with a solid and effective bass presence which just serves to remind how much of a travesty the 2000 lineup was in solidly rubbishing the bands brilliance under the dull sludge of turgid rock.

And yet, when the band pick up “Bugle Boy” and “Like A Sun Risin’ Through My Garden” from the 1981 debut Burning Blue Soul, they make the songs sound long lost Syd Barrett classics born again. Utterly unexpected, and exciting.

Aside from the sound, the band are also playing under a huge and imprecise set of projections ; these take elements from The The’s recorded works over the years – films such as Infected and From Dusk To Dawn and The Inertia Variations – alongside old, and often unused artwork, out-takes and behind the scenes moments, old promotional videos and 8mm film of his childhood memories – that matches most of the songs core meaning, creating a impressionistic patchwork of footage that tracks Johnson from childhood in 60’s London to advancing age, and draws a line between all the work, which fundamentally has always been Johnson trying to make sense of the universe he lives in.

It creates a sense of the band as a life’s work, and – aside from what was a enforced intermission created by unsupportive labels, money and bereavement – the band now feel like they are entering Phase Three of their career, a return from the wilderness and exile, and wresting their history back as their own.

Global Eyes
Sweet Bird of Truth
Flesh & Bones
Heartland
The Beaten Generation
Armageddon Days
Inertia
We Can’t Stop What’s Coming
Phantom Walls
Love Is Stronger Than Death
Dogs of Lust
Helpline Operator
This Is The Night
This Is The Day
Soul Catcher
Bugle Boy
Beyond Love
Slow Emotion Replay
Like A Sun Risin’ Through My Garden
Infected
Waiting For Tomorrow All of My Life


True Happiness This Way Lies
Uncertain Smile
Lonely Planet


Wednesday, April 11, 2018
 
READY PLAYER ONE

Ready Player One is the worst Spielberg film since “The Mission” (the rarely seen 1985 45 minute short for ‘Amazing Stories’). And in “The Mission”, some crazy person in a World War 2 plane draws an imaginary set of wheels that magically appear so the plane can land.

As one of the greatest film directors in history, Spielberg has set the bar high. Sure, this is better than anything Uwe Boll has made. But then again, any episode of “EastEnders” is better than anything that Uwe Boll has made. But “Ready Player One” is one of the worst films I have seen in a long, long time.

It has no heart. It has no soul. It has a set of popculture references like a goddamn checklist and its going to get all of them, from Chucky, to Duran Duran, to The Shining, to The Iron Giant, to Big Trac, to even self-referential elements like Back To The Future, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and Minority Report. It was like looking in a hall of ugly mirrors all pointed to a rose tinted past ; a cinematic version of “Being John Malkovich”.

Cinematically, the film has one of the most broken narratives I have ever encountered. It’s like someone wrote a film around the number of intellectual properties they could shoehorn in, and instead of wondering how they could tell this story, wondered how they could make a story from all of these random elements : how can you shove Jason Vorhees, Chucky, Freddy Kreuger, The Iron Giant, Rush, Wonder Woman, Alien/Aliens, Silent Running, Superman, Gundam, MechZilla, Joy Division, New Order, Dune, Atari 2600, Batman, The Joker, Star Trek II : The Wrath of Khan, Tron, King Kong, The Last Action Hero, Marv The Martian, Star Wars, “War of The Worlds”, Rosebud, Buckeroo Banzai, Battletoads, Goldeneye for the N64, John Hughes, Troma Movies, into a movie, and somehow make sense of it all? You can’t. Especially when you take the characters and make them do horiffic things that completely stand at odds with – and openly piss in the mouth of – the characters and the meaning they had.

Ready Player One is utterly tone deaf, completely abusive of the original films it slavishly copies, and has a stupid Old Father Time 'reality is so real dudes' anti-Internet message from a 72 year old who is a bit out of touch with what its like to be under the age of 50. It’s a complete bag of wank.

I hated it. Hated it, hated it, hated it. It overrode every piece of narrative sense to shoehorn another illfitting thing you used to like more than you like this. It's achingly retro, outdated cultural references seem embedded in the idea that the only good things ever were made from 1973-1983, and all that, utter Grandad Nostalgia, and well, you wait until the get to the Second Challenge.

The Second Challenge was utterly idiotic and at odds with the entire premise of the film it referred to. It was artistic vandalism. That film was not created to be a video game level hunt and kill.

The characters in this are all wearing retro T-shirts from bands 70 years prior. That’d be like me being into Jules Fucking Verne and Enrico Caruso. It’s utterly unrealistic.

Remember the last words of The Iron Giant? "I Am Not A Gun." Not anymore. The Iron Giants words are “Lasers and Bombs, Yay.”

This film is utterly myopic, narratively incoherent, and a useless circle jerk of pop culture references that serve only to remind you that this director has made much, much better films than this completely redundant, late period, catastrophically bad piece of insular crap.

I have written smarter shopping lists.


Monday, April 09, 2018
 
THE LAST JEDI

Deeply divisive, “The Last Jedi” is a great Star Wars film. But it isn’t your Star Wars. You’ll love it, or hate it.

Lets not muck about : Rian Johnson has done a phenomenal job here – and delivered the best official canon “Star Wars” film in a very very long time ; probably in 37 years. This film delivers surprises, it delivers what the story needs, and it delivers them with flair. But some of you really won’t like it.

The stakes are high. Major characters die. Mythologies are destroyed. What you think about Star Wars is only .. half of it. It’s all here though. It’s all on the surface, if you know where to look. The key lines, which are by no means subtle, are clear.

“We are what they grow beyond.”

“Let the past die.”

“This won’t go the way you think.”

If nothing else, “The Last Jedi” is not the Star Wars film you wanted, but the one you needed. The one that moves beyond the frankly insular world of the Skywalker family being the font of all things Forcey, and the film that opens Star Wars up to almost infinite possibility. The plot is straightforward, and the presentation generally unshowy, but it drives the film at a pace and frequently dodges either the obvious, or the lazy ‘surprise’, both so beloved of turgid plotting. This isn’t the poorly written nonsense of Damon Lindelof, but a dense, fully thought out tale of what happens when you cannot control other people. You think you know what you want from Star Wars, you think it’s a bunch of lazily plotted stop points like a James Bond film, but this film shows clearly that other people have different ideas. Even down to the fact that Kylo Ren takes a very different path from his parents, or Luke does what he needs to do and not what you think he should do, remember these characters aren’t at your service. They are doing what makes sense to them ; sometimes that is illogical, and sometimes it isn’t what you would choose.

The film opens speedily with a pacey and exhilarating setpiece as good as anything from the George Lucas era : it continues at pace with some truly eyeopening setpieces, including – about three-quarters of the way through, an incredible suicide mission that actually brought gasps to the audience. But more importantly, characters learn through the course of this film, and neither Leia, nor Luke, are the same people we remember from the original films ; they are older, wiser, and in some cases, have learnt from their previous mistakes that doing the same thing twice will only give you the same results. Would you do the same things at 57 you did at 22?

Poe Dameron is played cockily by Oscar Isaacs – and whilst you may have thought Poe was a hero, here he most definitely isn’t. Han Solo plied the same stock-in-trade, the arrogant flyboy with an ego his skills can’t cash. But whereas Han probably had The Force guiding him, and ignorantly ascribed his successes to being supermegaawesome, Poe keeps coming up with stupid, one-in-a-million-shots but they often blow up in his face. His opening salvo manages to destroy most of the fleet and is a moderate success, but his standard idea is always to run head first into battle against impossible odds and somehow it’ll work out. In this film, Poe is clearly a representative for the unthinking warhawk and tends to be out-gunned intellectually by everyone around him. It’s refreshing to see a lead whose approach of Bomb Everything You Can often goes dreadfully wrong.

Rey’s arc is more obviously a standard hero role, but even in this case, she is learning who she is. Makes her own decisions, and has her expectations and hopes dashed.

Perhaps the biggest surprise here is how Star Wars still operates ; rather than the pointless explanations we are used to in other franchises, here, the story is told simply ; we know what we need to know to tell the story. You might think you care about some of the back story – but you don’t really. And, as is shown many times, just because we think characters should behave a certain way doesn’t mean they will. We don’t necessarily need the backstory behind certain key parts of the Universe ; it won’t make the story better to understand how Han and Leia split up. We are where we are, and we need to navigate our way from here.

Luke tried to make the better world, and did a terrible job of it. Such a terrible job, that he retreated from everything for fear of making it even worse. Obi Want took a similar path, and Luke saw the effect that had.

I must admit, there are parts of this film I didn’t completely love : there’s probably 10 minutes of unnecessary material, and the part Phasma plays in this seems a waste. The sequence on Cato Bight seems to unnecessarily shoehorn in prequel slapstick and shininess where it feels like a poor fit for the rest of the film. Benecio Del Toro’s role feels miscast. They’re running out of opportunities to include Lando in this, where perhaps there was a prime opportunity for him to appear. The ending makes a sort of sense on an emotional level consistent with the characters as they find their paths and powers. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is the best Star Wars canon film in a very long time, easily better than the servile Fanfiction of The Force Awakens and its box of mysteries that had no answers : JJ Abrams facile storytelling in that is treated with the contempt it deserves, and the mysteries are easily destroyed ; Snoke, Rey’s parentage, Luke’s missing years, are all given the answers we need – not the ones we want. Star Wars is a bigger and better world now, and the new generation have grown up, become adult, and are starting to take different decisions to the ones we might have done. The elders have been grown beyond, and this isn’t going to go the way you think. The Star Wars universe is a bigger world now, and the future is wider : The Force doesn’t just inhabit the Skywalkers, and the mistakes of the past have been learnt. Bold, brave, unexpected, and exciting.

However, the big problem here is that the Star Wars Film Universe is much bigger than other peoples expectations of it, which is also what the other films are being hated for : "This Star Wars Doesn't Do What I Want!!!"

It isn't Your Star Wars, or My Star Wars, anymore. It belongs to everyone.


Wednesday, April 04, 2018
 
DEF LEPPARD - London Royal Albert Hall - 26 March 2018

This is almost as terrible as I hoped.

A one-off show for the Teenage Cancer Trust sees Def Leppard return to the Albert Hall for the first time since 1989, and their first (and only) show for months. After the past two years touring America endlessly, playing county fairs, car parks, and dull ampitheatres – hey, it’s a gig, after all – few bands seem to have fallen artistically so far or so hard as this band have.

On the face of it, the opening salvo of mostly new material includes such generally forgettable stodge as “Man Enough”, “Rock On”, “Dangerous”, “Lets Go”, and so, all sound like mid 90’s b-sides. The choruses are like all the ones on “Hysteria” but not as good. The lyrics come from the ip-dip-dog-shit school of rhyming, and as far as I can work out, have no meaning whatsoever, built up syllable-by-syllable, to sound like English. But this is phonetic rock ; it looks and sounds about right, but lyrically is very wrong. At the heart of all this bombast and blast is a void : there’s no substance, and Def Leppard are possibly the most brilliantly meaningless band of all time. Like an 80’s comedy, switch your brain off, engage 0% critical thinking and fire up your air guitar. It’s candyfloss rock.

In many ways, it would have been better if they had split in late 1993, taken a twenty year sabbatical to eat tofu, go to the gym and drive cars, and then reappear as a glorious memory. Instead, the band stubbornly plugged on with um, not-good albums. If anything Def Leppard are the prime example of a band that was made redundant with the opening notes of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” But somehow never quite realised it. Who clung on like some kind of rock cockroach, stubbornly surviving every moment. Surviving simply through not dying.

At about the halfway point, the set jettisons any attempt at currency, as the last of the newer songs (that is, the ones recorded after Bill Clinton became President) is laid to rest. The audience clearly isn’t that bothered or interested in the new songs – myself included – despite having paid a considerable sum to attend. The audience clearly want the Def Leppard of their youth and to enjoy that fully. You’ve never more than 10 minutes from a staggeringly big hit – and that’s what the crowd want. In December, that’s what the crowd get when the band play Hysteria in full for its 31st anniversary. For now, Def Leppard are playing their most recent live album, in full in order (sort of), live in front of your eyes.

Sure, as a 15 year old who’d never spoken to a woman, they were fantastic. But what Def Leppard were, and what they thought they were, were very different things. Def Leppard could never have been a serious band ; that wasn’t their skillset. On the rare occasions they tried it – “Gods of War”, “White Lightning”, most of their risible attempt at artistic ambulance-chasing that was “Slang” – they fell flat on their face so hard you could hear the thud from the dark side of the moon. Def Leppard were, and should have embraced, their utter artistic shallowness. Its bubblegum rock, with next to no self-awareness, and whereas some acts both understood how ridiculous and funny their genre is – and acknowledged it – Def Leppard seem stuck to either being so sincere they are either hopelessly isolated from the world around them, or are method actors to outreach Daniel Day Lewis. In short, they don’t seem to know their limitations : that they can’t make serious art, and that their shallow rock is ludicrous. Good, but the musical equivalent of an average Transformers movie.

In the meantime, Rick Savage and Phil Collen and Vivien Campbell and Rick Allen and Joe Elliott pound away in spangly Union Jack vests, leather jackets, and generally look like a band of retired millionaire businessmen who joined a rock band of bored dads after leaving the rat race of Canary Wharf aged 48. I doubt anyone that has ever grown up has ever had hair that big (and I’m fairly convinced there’s a transplant or two on stage), or jackets so shiny. The stage looks, at times, like some kind of spangly science fiction musical. Around the stage, three video screens project fake speakers, or huge skulls : I look at it occasionally, and try to work out, what does this mean? I quickly deduce it doesn’t actually mean anything. It’s not that I’m not getting it. It’s that there’s nothing to get. I’m not trying to be harsh, but Def Leppard are the oldest adolescents in the world. Strip away the packaging and the bombast and there's nothing actually there but air and vapour. They're not even, on the face of it, artistically smart enough to be knowingly stupid, but more just not quite smart enough to be knowingly stupid.

I’m looking for something, but it isn’t there to be found. Def Leppard are entertainment, not artists, and they craft pop music with guitars, and my search is probably about as fruitful as looking for any societal allegories in the work of Pizza Express. You have to let go of any agenda higher than ‘Lets Get Rocked’, and embrace the noise. It’s great fun, with giggles and absurdity, but it isn’t anything other than that. Sometimes you laugh with the joke. Sometimes you laugh at the joke. Sometimes you don’t even know you’re the joke. Sometimes you just laugh anyway. That’s entertainment.

Won’t Get Fooled Again (over intro tape)
Let’s Go
Animal
Let It Go
Dangerous
Foolin’
Love Bites
Armageddon It
Rock On
Man Enough
When Love And Hate Collide
Rocket
Bringin’ On The Heartbreak
Switch 625
Hysteria / Heroes
Lets Get Rocked
Pour Some Sugar On Me
Rock Of Ages
Photograph


Tuesday, March 13, 2018
 
ELBOW and JOHN GRANT - London o2 Arena 07 March 2018

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a ‘support’ act wipe the floor with the headliner ; and in a sense, tonight feels like a handing over of the baton to the greater talent.

If nothing else, and this may sound a little harsh to some, John Grant is supporting, and in some respects, propping up Elbow. It’s also undoubtedly true that after a relatively quiet year working on a new record and playing the occasional show, John Grant is a big draw for many people tonight ; and for us, and many others, John Grant is playing with Elbow following on after as an extra. We actually debated if we should go home after him ; good as Elbow are, if John Grant is artistically as potent as powerful as absinthe or corrosive acid, Elbow are a cup of tea.

At 7.25 exactly, Grant comes to the stage with no sense that he is anything other than headlining ; there’s an assured self-belief coupled with a tight and fluid band that masters the material, and a confidence that only comes with the knowledge that he is in control of his abilities. Though it is a short 50 minutes – which means we don’t get some of his best material – each of the songs roars. The songs are laced with a passionate and acerbic snark, and self-loathing that strips away pretence and flowery language. There’s many of us who hear some of these words, and we’ve been there, and feel that he is one of us armed with a golden voice and a piano. His band whip up a sound that is, sonically, very similar to a blend of superior torch songs and John Carpenters pulsing, dark synth soundtracks from the golden age of horror, with Grant as the cohesive ringleader, and each song a self-contained story of terrible love and glorious humour : the natural human reaction to disaster is laughter and mockery, to combat the power of reality with a deflating smile. As much power comes from how we respond as it does from what happens to us in the first place.

The rarely played “I Hate This Town” is a song that I haven’t seen him play before, but also, one of the finest songs I’ve ever heard ; chock full of profanity, but also, the terrible fear that you have when you split up with someone – that you’ll see them shopping in the city centre months later when you have a broken heart. The song explains exactly why I left the Midlands.

Not long after he comes on, the venue is unusually packed ; and undoubtedly Grant being able to see out the Royal Albert Hall on his own has brought a lot of extra bums on seats tonight. It feels more like watching a short headline set than a support act – Grant and his band play like they own the stage and deserve to close the show. Certainly, the way the audience sings along with the lowkey verses in closer (and decade old album track) “Queen of Denmark” you wouldn’t know it wasn’t a huge number one hit in heaven. His new album is finished, and it may be that, in future, these are the stages he normally plays. I can hope so.

Grey Tickles, Black Pressure
Global Warming
I Hate This Town
Marz
It Doesn’t Matter To Him
Pale Green Ghosts
Glacier
Queen Of Denmark

After that, Elbow can’t help but be a mild comedown. On their night they can be a powerful band that encompasses many human emotions. But, barely a year after “Little Fictions” (and playing just two songs from it), and somewhat on the back foot creatively with a Greatest Hits album as an act of consolidation, and still somewhat embedding Alex Reeves as their new drummer, this tour feels like it could be perhaps the first stumbling sidestep in their otherwise steady ascendant. Of course, any band that gets to do this for a living and is still able to sell 20,000 tickets on a Wednesday can’t be doing so badly. Tonight feels a bit like a retrenchment, a confirmation, and a way of buying / obtaining some breathing space for the band, a reminder of their former status and a nearly cynical commercial move. That said, Elbow are also looking back. Like other bands, there’s a core of songs you might expect to see, and there would be trouble if they weren’t played, and they get played by and large. “One Day Like This”, “Grounds For Divorce”, “The Birds”, “Magnificent”, “Lippy Kids”, are all in the final salvo as a way of perhaps reminding us who they are. But sadly, “One Day Like This” overshadows almost everything they do. Whilst the rest of the set is strong and the songs themselves are strong, there’s little – at least in the early part of the set – that lifts the audience beyond passive observers. The last time I was here, three months ago for Depeche Mode, the set was paced and designed to create an evening of non stop miserable euphoria ; something Elbow simply cannot achieve. We’re sort of comparing apples and oranges here, two very different acts with two different audiences and two different approaches. But the O2 feels too big a room for Elbow to fill tonight.

Whilst Guy Garvey is undoubtedly a persuasive front man, who makes it looks effortless though it isn’t, the strength of a personality and charm itself can’t hide that not all the songs are deserving of a room this size. The songs are often smaller and more intimate, and also, erm, not good enough. Not memorable enough. And whilst perhaps in a room of 5,000 something like “Fugitive Motel” could be a fine treat, when you’re three hundred feet from the stage, it’s going to feel far more passive. There’s nothing as strong and as immediate as “Armageddon It” in the arsenal. Given that this is the last night of the tour – and the final Elbow show for some time – it feels more disconnected and alien than it should and less of a glorious closing of the door for a while. It’s a good evening of important music, but the room is too big and we felt too far away from it.

Elbow are closing their Greatest Hits tour and in some ways, closing the book on this phase of their life, moving from their glory years to the next stage of a steady existence. I wouldn’t be surprised if next year, it’s John Grant in the headline slot.

Starlings
The Bones Of You
Leaders Of The Free World
Fugitive Motel
Fly Boy Blue / Lunette
Tower Crane Driver
Any Day Now
Puncture Repair
New York Morning
Mirrorball
The Birds
Little Fictions
Lippy Kids
Magnificent
Grounds For Divorce
Kindling (with John Grant)
One Day Like This



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