(Planet Me)
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


Sunday, March 11, 2018
 
EDITORS Violence

Album six from Editors is the visceral, uncompromising “Violence”, that – from the cover image on- expresses a clear identity : the new lineup, and addition of a permanent keyboardsmith five years ago, has expanded their palette and allowed them to fulfil their full potential. The band are a different beast from what they were – a thoughtful, pulsing band that marry a propelling groove to a dramatic and powerful vision ; if anything, the band sound like they are pushing hope uphill in a rainstorm, in a constant battle between determination and dreariness.

The band that made the miserable jangle-pop of “Munich” are gone, near enough. They’re not forgotten or overlooked, but they aren’t here anymore, and this is not that band. The songs are denser, wider, older and smarter. They are old beyond their years, and in songs like “Cold” and “Nothingness” the band are painting with all the colours and using the whole alphabet of sound.

There’s an element, albeit brief, of retrospection – in so much as 2010’s oddity “No Sound But The Wind” is represented here in a completely rethought way ; it’s the same song, but utterly different.It’s a triumphant record, in so much as not only do the band still exist, and are still true to themselves, but also that age and time will not dull the blade.

There is no band whose path I am reminded of more than New Order. The absence of a key member, a new musical direction, and a confident growth into age is perhaps one of the strands that’s made Editors a band that have grown with me.

I’ve seen some disparaging comments about how they’ve gone pop ; because the band have changed, because they’re not a 2005 era Indie Pop band sealed in formaldehyde, endlessly eating their own creative tail. We change. Bands change. The world changes. We move on. We grow up. We grow into ourselves. Editors are always in a state of becoming, in a state of evolving, always looking for the next step, the next move. “Welcome Home”, is a key refrain from the closing song – “Belong” – and this is perhaps a key theme. In everything they do, Editors are trying to find their home. This is another solid, powerful album by an under-rated band you should love more than you do.


 
MOBY Everything Was Beautiful And Nothing Hurt

His third album in two years, “Everything Was Beautiful And Nothing Hurt” sees Moby return to the style for which he is best known. The past two records – a brief dalliance under the name The Void Pacific Choir – were rampant, generally fast, cheap rackets that betrayed a bedroom Moby with a budget punk rock band, and songs that seemed shallow, quick, and short-lived, and this, is perhaps much nearer the Moby you might recognise. Still, everything was beautiful and nothing hurt, is perhaps the most disappointing Moby record in a long while ; it lacks the urgency of some of his other albums. You can argue that no Moby record is compelling, but here, this is easily the least urgent, the least demanding record he has made in ten years. The styles tend to veer to a mid-slow paced ambient drone, a relaxed sadness.

Whilst highlights are probably “Motherless Child” and “The Sorrow Tree”, this is by no means a record worth picking up : as an avid and loyal Moby fan, one who even stuck around during the dated nostalgia rave wasteland of 2008’s disappointing “Last Night”, this is a sadly serious cliffedge drop level in effort. Moby himself doesn’t even seem bothered or passionate by this, and its the sound of boredom – the sound of someone making music because he needs something to do with his days and his time, experimenting with a vast array of technology and coming up with nothing compelling. Hell, if the artist isn’t appearing that interested, why should I?

If you want something that sounds like the last few songs of “18” ; a knackered and generally exhausted melancholy then sure, you could go for this, but why? There’s already something like 22 Moby albums : you don’t need another one.


Wednesday, February 07, 2018
 
THE WEDDING PRESENT - Tunbridge Wells Forum 02 February 2018

Less than two months after I last saw them, and everything has changed and nothing has changed. The Wedding Present continue on, unstoppable, and now they are pretty much the last of their type. The Fall – the nearest living comparison to them – have become The Fallen : The Wedding Present, lead under the stewardship of David Lewis Gedge with an often rotating cast of other musicians, have a new lineup – and have changed 95% of the setlist – in the past two months.

Danielle Wadey has moved from bass to guitar (and was I think, on keyboards the first time I saw her in the band). Terry De Castro is back on bass after seven years off. Charlie Layton is still on drums. Gedge is, as always, on vocals, and guitar. The band are also back at the Tunbridge Wells Forum for the sixth or seventh time since 1996, and maintaining the usual tradition of a different lineup every time they play here. Nothing changes, everything changes.

Also, given that between The Wedding Present (and Cinerama, who share the lineup, but a different style), there’s something like 21 albums and around 300 songs to choose from, it’s superb and refreshing to see a band change their setlists frequently. You can’t rely on the band playing even one song in the setlist : and, they’ve played three albums in full in the past four months alone. There’s none of the … predictability… of knowing the last hour of the set has barely changed in 25 years. Of knowing that THAT song is always at the end of the main set, and THIS song is always at the start of the encore, and that song is… yawn. The Wedding Present are always moving forward. Even if they are playing a 30 year old album in full, it’s played in chunks through the set and not as a lump. Newer material is scattered around the night : from the obscure – such as the 28 year old b-side “Box Elder”, to the glorious and brilliant “Two Bridges” from the much, much under-rated ‘Going Going’. (though Gedge’s banter is somewhat predictable, as a member of the band lipsyncs one line of a song introduction.. and gets a big laugh)

It doesn’t take long : by the time the band are roaring through “The Queen Of Outer Space”, Tunbridge Wells has a sizable human sea of largely middle aged men in Wedding Present t-shirts, with at least a 46% glasses ratio. I, of course, am one. And there’s a lot of jumping and pushing and wonderfully offkey singing. There’s also – in “Suck” – one of the finest love songs ever written. Even if perhaps the song feels buried under all the feedback, roaring, and sound, it’s the kind of song that, in other hands, would be cheap, or even syrupy, but just as loving and romantic as anything anyone has ever written, ever. Despite the latter heckles from the crowd – when Gedge describes himself as ‘lovable’ and someone [not me] declares “Not according to the songs!”

Whilst it is a little strange to see the band playing “Tommy” in full – but spread out over an hour – it also keeps the tempo and shape of the evening alert. The risk of playing a lot of old b-sides is that the night might flag, but really, these songs aren’t A- or B-sides, more the first selection of songs they wrote that had to be divided into singles and EP’s because they hadn’t yet got an album sized budget. And, even though Gedge was growing as a songwriter, some of the earlier songs have lyrics as good and as powerful as anything he wrote later.

The final lap of the gig is a masterclass : after a thirty year wait (since I first bought “Nobody’s Twisting Your Arm” in 1988 for 50p on 7” from Hobdays in Selly Oak, next to the hospital where I was born), they finally play “I’m Not Always So Stupid” for just the 8th time since 1990. To follow it up with “Brassneck”, and then conclude the show with night with “My Favourite Dress” and a transcendent and brutal “Take Me!” is climatic : “Take Me!” often exceeds ten minutes, with a punishing, and meditative middle section where the band hit a riff, and repeat it endlessly for several minutes. In the middle of this I hit my personal nirvana – the moment at a show where everything goes away and the mind drifts and the groove teaches you and I forget it all. It’s the hit, and it’s my drug.

And then the song is over : the noise is replaced with a ringing in my ears. And everything is perfect, and nothing is real, and the real world is back again, knocking at my door. And one song at a time, the world is a better place. I hope this never ends. I didn’t chose to love music. I was called. I was chosen. We all were.

Corduroy
Two Bridges
Gazebo
Suck
Go Out And Get Em Boy
The Moment Before Everythings Spoiled Again
Once More
Box Elder
At The Edge Of The Sea
The Queen of Outer Space
What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted?
Living And Living
This Boy Can Wait
You Should Always Keep In Touch
Felicity
I’m Not Always So Stupid
Brassneck
Never Said
Every Mothers Son
My Favourite Dress
Take Me!


 
FRANK TURNER, Dover Booking Hall 19th January 2018

There are two – or three – artists known as Frank Turner. On one hand, there’s the endlessly touring folk rock anthem singer who, alongside his band The Sleeping Souls, has been driving and flying all over the world the past 12 years playing to increasing audiences. There’s the singular, individual songwriter who plays as just one man and a guitar a dozen or so times a year. There’s also the wonderful, rampaging vocalist and chief screamer who ploughs a glorious hardcore racket (firstly in Million Dead, and then latterly in Mongol Horde). All three co-exist at the same time, and all three are great in their own way. On the eve of finalising his seventh solo album (since announced as “Be More Kind”), Frank took to a small 4 date tour, including the Dover Booking Hall : a converted railway station booking hall (unsurprisingly) that is now a room, a stage, and a bar.

Much as I love Frank Turner’s songs, I much prefer the solo shows – the rawer, more vulnerable side of his songs, and the heart of it. Some bands work best in creating a sound as well as songs, where the arrangements, the delivery, the passion, all combine to create something that is more than the sum of the parts – or sometimes to hide the perhaps and occasionally slight nature of some of the songs. Some songs though, work better stripped of all accompaniments, where the song itself exists naked and bare and strong enough to stand alone.

Whilst The Sleeping Souls are the best band that could deliver Turner’s songs ; and they are built on the tradition of a backing band around a leader, such as Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and Billy Joel as a near democracy, with a Prime Minister and the band being the cabinet – these songs feel more effective to me alone as a man and a voice. It’s just a matter of taste though. A song such as “Smiling At Strangers On Trains” is just as good as a breakneck hardcore screamathon as when Frank pulls out the song out by its skeleton and plays it with just an acoustic guitar.

In the meantime, and sold out in about three minutes, tonights show is a glorious but rare opportunity to see him alone and in a relatively tiny room. He scatters four songs from the new album – some of which have been barely if ever performed before – as well as the usual clutch of well known songs. And it’s not inaccurate to suggest some of these songs have made my life much more bearable on difficult days. When life weighs ten thousand tons.

I remember very clearly, on the 13th November 2013, listening to the acoustic version of “Recovery” and knowing I had to change my life. The very next day I resigned from my job.

I changed my life in many ways – I wanted to live the resistance and fight in the song when I was in danger of folding after many years of endless (and unwanted) professional battle – and I’m not sure that, without that song, I would’ve made the decisions I did, which turned out brilliantly now.

Each of us have stories that sit with so many of the songs. You’ve all seen someone singing every word to a song and clearly something important inside them is happening. You might be in Brixton or Hebden Bridge, but you aren’t there anymore. You’re somewhere inside – and outside – of yourself at the same time, at a time that is not now, and maybe never existed. The best songwriters communicate – and even if that is something as elusive as an emotion, or a feeling, or a memory – something that can never be touched, or seen, or tasted. Art is communication between humans. Trying to make sense – and add some kind of structure – around what is random noise, random reality.

By the second song, “Get Better”, it does that to me. There’s a line – May I always see the road rising up to meet me and my enemies defeated in the mirror behind. And whilst I hate to say I have ‘enemies’, because I just like almost everyone – I know it’s not mutual. I know some people can’t stand my guts, and hate me. I’m not sure why. Even if I did, I’m never going to change who I am. I have to live with me for the rest of my life, and look in the mirror and know who I am and live with that person.

I’m Marmite. But I can’t be anyone else.

Isn’t it funny what something so simple, so small, as a song can do? And up there, unaware (and rightly so) or any of this going on in my head is Frank Turner singing songs. There’s also quite a few people who think they are seeing Def Leppard in Sheffield in 1993 judging by their behaviour. This isn’t the gig to take your mates glasses off his head, or rest a beer can on your hair, or try to kick off a mosh, or go to the bar during the penultimate song and come back with shots. This isn’t a night with Poison in 1989, mate.

This is the night you lose yourself in the music. It’s a bloke and a guitar : don’t going be a twat now.

There’s all the old songs. And there’s new ones : “1933” in particular is the kind of song that needs to be shouted from the rooftops. There’s an eternal battle between the scientists and the stupid ; between people trying to push mankind forward, and those wanting to hold us back. Those who can only feel rich by making others poor, and those who are trying to conquer inner and outer space. It’s an eternal battle. And “1933” captures this : ...dammit, we already did this!

There’s rare airings for “Mittens” and “Tattoos” and a cover of The Levellers “Julie”. I get the impression that Turner could sing almost any song he’d ever written (and many he hasn’t) if you gave him 5 minutes warning. Whether he would I have no idea. Some people don’t like some of their old songs. I definitely don’t like some of the old ones I wrote many years ago.

The new songs are equal as any he has written before. “There She Is” is an unashamed, romantic song. And like Frank, oh, how I have stumbled on the way to where I am today. There’s no shame in love, none at all. There never will be. To see the best in everyone, and hope. Hope is a superpower. And this, all of this comes from a song. And there’s another 14 left to go.

At the end of it, he is one of the best songwriters in Britain with no sign of any dimming of the creative flame. Album 7 (or 11, depending on whether you count Million Dead, Mongol Horde and Buddies), is likely to be as good as anything else. The great thing about most really great artists is that they grow old as we grow old ; their songs reflect the march of time through life, and both we – and them – grow old together, seeing ourselves in each other. Great artists make life better. And that is the most I can ever hope of anyone. That life gets better. Because we’re not dead yet.

Get It Right
Get Better
If Ever I Stray
1933
The Road
Four Simple Words
There She Is
Tattoos
Redemption
21st Century Survivalist Blues
Recovery
Mittens
Julie
To Take You Home
Rivers
I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous
The Opening Act Of Spring
The Ballad Of Me And My Friends
The Way I Tend To Be
Photosynthesis
I Still Believe


Wednesday, January 10, 2018
 
PETER HOOK AND THE LIGHT : Camden Roundhouse 18 December 2017

I’ve long been a vocal – and possibly outspoken – critic of Peter Hook’s touring of Joy Division albums. His current band, The Light, are effectively Monaco, and whilst he’s managed to play near enough every song recorded by Joy Division and New Order from 1977 to 1987, The Light have still managed to release absolutely zero original songs in their seven years together. It’s a shame to be damning, but I miss the songs that could have been written, the albums I could have heard, and the new material that would pull Hook away from a comfortable self-reverence to continuing to be a valid artistic identity. Taking a mild break from his two year tour of Joy Division/New Order’s “Substance” albums, tonight he reverts back to an evening of Joy Division. Ish. Revisiting Joy Division so prolifically still feels a bit… unclean, even if Hook – and the other members of the band – are right to be proud of the work they achieved then. If say, Krist Novoselic was to sing an evening of Nirvana songs, would that be … palatable? But then, I always feel very uncomfortable about monetising the work of someone in such acute despair.

The opening set is New Order’s “Movement” album, in full, and in order – which Hook hasn’t done in three years. Unfairly disowned by the band after around 1986, it’s a good album that sonically and stylistically is the awkward transition from Joy Division to New Order, with lyrics that just don’t match the material. On stage, these songs are stronger and better than the recorded versions – and it is a rare treat to see songs like “Doubts Even Here” live : songs New Order themselves haven’t played in a long time. With the benefit of time, the songs are better than history might tell you. Not great, but few bands make a debut album as promising, even if those songs are a debut, and, at the same time, the last breaths of what was left of Joy Division the band were learning to grow beyond. This set also fits the mood of the show, which is not so much a celebration than a remembrance.

After a short break, we move to the history : Hook performs “Digital” from 1978, then Joy Division’s “Closer” ; again in full and in order. What is perhaps most obvious to me is that Joy Division held in their hands an alternate future which was, and will always be, unknowable, but verged on a greatness that comes along once in a generation. For a long time I avoided these Joy Division-themed shows, because they felt wrong and somehow prematurely monetising the past – ten years on, with Hook over sixty, and having seen a few of the New Order-themed shows, I’ve relaxed a little, but to me the New Order shows are better. New Order are a band I remember from the time, a band I have genuine nostalgia for, and a band whose music, and sonic invention, I enjoy more. Joy Division are a great band, but they are a history lesson, and not a memory. Joy Division songs also, for their strength – but which is also a weakness – lack light, and present nothing but shade. The only joy in the band was in their name. By the time to you get to side two of “Closer” it feels like an audio apocalypse of despair. Not a celebration ; Songs like “The Eternal”, “Wilderness”, “Decades”, are recitations, not celebrations.

It’s a long way from Joy Division though. The passion and intensity that that band exuded from stage (on the basis of what I can recall from old VHS tapes, and, of course, the LP’s) are not here : there’s something different, more measured, and Hooky is dedicated and proud of his work with that band – and rightly so – but he’s not the same man he was then, let alone the same presence anyone else was. His voice is similar – and nearer – to Ian Curtis’ than Bernard Sumner, so it sounds sonically very close, but … and there will be a lot of buts in this… The Light are not Joy Division. The band play the material precisely, and faithfully, but it misses the spark that lights the flame. This show is a slow burn, and not a forest fire. And that’s not to criticise. We’re older, wiser. We can’t be the same. Everyone and everything changes. And playing around 100 3 hour shows a year can be a big task by any standard.

What is undeniable is that in three years, two albums and a handful of singles, Joy Division achieved more than some of their peers ever did in a lifetime. And Joy Division never devalued their early promise by turning into the bloated and irrelevant Simple Minds of 2017. The Light are probably the closest and most authentic recreation of Joy Division you can ever experience now, but they’re not the same. And in some ways, Hook knows it – even though at one point he says “Back when we were called Joy Division…”, implying that The Light are the same band. They’re not.

The band then rampages through Joy Divisions debut “Unknown Pleasures”. Given that this is only the fourth time the band have played most of these songs this year, and they can play 106 songs with little rehearsal, it’s no surprise than occasionally they get a bit wrong : such as they do when “Day Of The Lords” falls to bits. Proves its live.

This is less a recreation of the live Joy Division – which was all fighting to be heard over the suburban din as a great rock band – and more of the records which are more deft, considered, and timeless. By the time we get to the encore, it’s Mark Lanegan singing for “Atmosphere” and “Dead Souls”, which is unexpected, and his voice is gloriously rich on these songs. Those two songs were the high watermark of Joy Division, and I’ve been watching New Order, and their component members, perform these songs for 20 years now – and its never not important and powerful.

The final two songs are perhaps, the ‘hits’ as such. The under-rated ‘final’ Joy Division song, of “Ceremony”, and a final, expected, lighters-in-the-air romp through your Frank-Sinatra-gone-punka-singalong of “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. It’s a powerful and keen three hours that sees the band perform three whole albums, and six additional singles. By the end though, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is a song I don’t think I need to hear at every show. Good as it is, it felt whilst this was probably the closest you can ever get to experiencing a modern day Joy Division, it wasn’t in any way a substitute, but a momentary glance inside of what it might have been like.

This is a glimpse.

“This is not the greatest song in the world – yeah. It’s a tribute.”


Saturday, December 09, 2017
 
THE WEDDING PRESENT - "George Best 30" - Dover Booking Hall 06 December 2017

It’s been many cities, many years, and many lineups : tonight for me, is “George Best” for the last time after 30 years. Coming from one of the hardest working bands in music, the band are still playing it – just. There’s three more performances after tonight, culminating in Leeds where the album was born, and then it’s all over.

I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with ‘album in full’ shows, and I’m still not. But a huge chunk of that comes down to my approach to art ; I’ve been living in the present day – the here and now – all of my life, and I don’t want to look back, and I don’t want to pretend that it isn’t today, I don’t want to live in the past. Good as old songs are, I do also miss the current place bands I love are, and with last years “Going Going”, The Wedding Present made an album as good as anything they have ever released.

Over the past year, the line up have solidified into a glorious noise that makes me very very happy. It’s the sixth lineup I’ve seen of the band in near enough as many years, but while Danielle Wadey (on bass, who also played keyboards before she moved to bass last year), and Marcus Kain on guitar aren’t my favourite configuration of the band, they effortlessly make a glorious racket of feedback and noise that sounds like a bunch of angry chainsaws and this band certainly still is The Wedding Present.

The opening half hour sees the band offering a neat and compact precis of their work – not a greatest hits, because you could easily moan about the 20 or so hit singles they don’t play in favour of relatively unknown, but still fucking brilliant, songs like “Deer Caught In Headlights”, “The Girl From the DDR” and “Broken Bow”. Unlike many many bands, Gedge still writes great songs as good as, and often better than, anything he’s written, and is still trying new ideas – including this years instrumental release “Home Internationals”. To an extent, the lack of newer material is frustrating and seems to come from a near endless supply that shows no sign of drying up.

But what about the gig? The Booking Hall is fast becoming one of the my favourite venues in the world – a small, intimate converted train station booking hall at the edge of the sea, that refreshingly specialises in no nonsense live music. If a band can’t cut it here, they can’t cut it anywhere and they shouldn’t be playing. The crowd is refreshingly keen, even sporting middle-aged crowdsurfing and a full on mosh pit, matching the band’s fierce sound.

By the time “England” comes to a close, the band move into the “George Best” set ; as an album, “George Best” shows that The Wedding Present started off as a band with a very very good songwriter – but still on the edge of what could be achieved. By his own admission, this is Gedge’s least favourite Wedding Present album, trying to achieve something and failing, and almost juvenile in approach. After this album, the band hit their stride with a formula of tempo shifts, key changes, and depreciating lyrics that are criminally under-rated, rather than “George Best”s focus on speed and power.

The songs are somewhat one dimensional and lack the finesse and shade ; but the potential is still there, and songs like “My Favourite Dress” and “Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft” edge on to the maturity, restraint, and utter glory they tipped over to mere months after that album was finished.

At the time, it felt like the band came up with snappy titles first then wrote songs afterwards, shoehorning the joke into the song, but that’s uncharitable. The Wedding Present do have some of the best song titles of all time, and that’s pretty much the end of the debate. But here, the band are a determined machine delivering some of the finest songs there are. But like any band, the dynamic is between listener and band, creator, and audience, seeing the communicate between each other, each seeing themselves in the audience.

Always the same, always changing, even if its yer granny on bongos and David Gedge, it’s The Wedding Present, but more importantly than that, the band have become one of my favourite bands of all time over the past few years, and more than that, one of the best and most unpredictable live acts I’ve seen, with endlessly varied setlists that have seen the band play near enough every song they’ve ever recorded at some point in the past few years, and sets where there is not one song you are guaranteed they will play at every show. They set an example to the rest.

Once More
Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah
Corduroy
Broken Bow
Deer Caught in the Headlights
The Girl from the DDR
No
England
Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft
What Did Your Last Servant Die Of?
Don't Be So Hard
A Million Miles
All This and More
My Favourite Dress
Shatner
Something and Nothing
It's What You Want That Matters
Give My Love to Kevin
Anyone Can Make a Mistake
You Can't Moan Can You?
Bewitched
Kennedy (not on printed setlists)


Sunday, December 03, 2017
 
DEPECHE MODE London o2 Arena 22 November 2017

There’s a feeling somewhere in the middle of “Useless”. A sense that.. this is final. That this is near the end. An idea that this is the last time round. They’re all in their late fifties now, and I’ve been seeing this band since I first saw them on this very day, twenty seven years ago, on 22nd November 1990.

Everything changes. Nothing changes. Everything counts. Nothing counts. It’s just music, of course. But in this age, music has become part of identity. We align to bands are artists because we see some of ourselves in them – at whatever level that might be. Some of us might grow out of this, or perhaps not align so closely to the music and the concept of sound-as-identity, but all of us look in the mirror, we see who we are, and what has made us – and whomever we were at the age we first found this – music, sport, whatever – is something that can never be undone. We all came from somewhere. And we all like a good night out.

27 years since I first saw them, Depeche Mode have settled into an artistic holding pattern – what they offer are songs, not innovation – and it’s a consistent and interesting approach, with songs addressing the who what where and why of here and now and also the what next? But also, it feels very much like Depeche Mode have decided to drop the pretence of a ‘new album’ and instead give people what they want. There’s a shamelessness about accepting your role as both artist and at the same time entertainer, around knowing what people want, and giving it to them.

The new album ‘Spirit’ is about eight months old, and the songs from it are already being regulated to the subs bench. At best, they played less than half of this live, and tonight, only 23% of their latest album is in the setlist. Normally this band are quite forward looking and stick with too many new songs, but tonight, despite playing more songs than you might expect from their past – only one song in the whole night wasn’t a single – tonight feels like both a Greatest Hits show, and not at all. If I mentioned that, say, “Wrong”, “I Feel You”, “Policy of Truth”, “Behind The Wheel”, “Just Can’t Get Enough” aren’t played, you might also, justifiably think how could this be a hits show? And then, at the same time… how could it not be? You still get “Where’s The Revolution?”, “Precious”, “The Pain I Am Used To”, “Barrel Of A Gun”, “It’s No Good”, “Useless”, “Home”, “In Your Room”, “Walking In My Shoes”, “World In My Eyes”, “Enjoy The Silence”, “Personal Jesus”, “Never Let Me Down Again”, “Strangelove”, “A Question Of Time”, “Stripped”, “Everything Counts” and more. It’s a surfeit of glory for the band, in one respect, they have too many hits – and at the same time – they always play the same old ones. The last time they played “People Are People”, Justin Bieber’s mum was 12. That’s how long ago some of these songs are.

Depeche Mode are two bands – and have been for a long time : a trio in the studio, and on stage a five piece band ; both lineups of which have been stable now for 20 years, and have become fluent, and conversant with each other. Dave Gahan, once a frontman who was just a voice for anothers vision, has become his own artistic identity. Martin Gore, who wrote almost every song for the first twenty years, seems more at ease now, whilst Andrew Fletcher is still the laziest man in rock and seems to do absolutely nothing all night long. On stage, the engine room of Christian Eigner on drums and Peter Gordeno on keyboards, vocals, and bass drives the show ; it feels like a synthpop AC/DC that rampages tirelessly through the hits. Alan Wilder, who left the group 22 years ago, shows no sign of returning – and this then is Depeche Mode, and has been for a very long time.

The first half of the set is, despite the small number of songs from the latest album, still newer material from the past 20 years – and it still feels like a greatest hits set. The latter half largely concentrates on the hits from 1983-1993, and offers a number of great moments from music history. Certainly, having seen Depeche perform “Stripped” something like 30 times in my life, it does get quite boring [what more can you add after 30 repetitions of the same joke?], but for people who don’t see bands with the same tedious stubbornness I do, it’s probably great to get your every-four-years dose of “Stripped”. Thankfully, Depeche don’t tend to stand still – they rearrange the songs, add new intros and elements, and keep the songs fresh (of a sort) ; presenting the songs as they might if they wrote them today and not thirty five years ago. So “Everything Counts” is the same song its always been and yet its different and new and I don’t feel young, or old, or male, or female, I just… feel. And dance a bit.

In the best way as all music does, everything outside of the heart slips away ; money, work, health, it all disappears. There’s just the song, the idea, and sure, the moment. But it’s an unstoppable juggernaut of great songs, from a resurrection of “Strangelove” after being largely absent from setlists since 1990 to the most recent single “Cover Me” – which has a heartbreaking moment where he sings “I dreamt of us in another life / One we've never reached” – which is a song that means more than many of us would ever like to admit ; what if we’d turned left instead of right, up instead of down, spoken to him one night instead of her? … All points inbetween, there’s hits and well, its just music, but also, somehow all this is around how we see the world, the world in my eyes. And Depeche Mode aren’t trying to plug a new album anymore, but just be shameless entertainment, owning their role as the nearest thing to an electronic-rock version of Queen, with a bucketload of self-loathing, hits, and danceable navel gazing. They are who they are, and we all know it. Sometimes it takes your life to find out who you are, and why not dance and sing whilst you are finding out?

Going Backwards
Its No Good
Barrel Of A Gun
Pain That I’m Used To
Useless
Precious
World In My Eyes
Cover Me
Insight
Home
In Your Room
Where’s The Revolution?
Everything Counts
Stripped
Enjoy The Silence
Never Let Me Down Again

Strangelove
Walking In My Shoes
A Question of Time
Personal Jesus



Tuesday, November 28, 2017
 
U2 Songs Of Experience

In a late career rebirth, U2 appear to have become keenly aware of the passing of time. Three years between albums is a long time – but also – it’s the shortest gap between U2 records since 1988-1991, and the band have also toured most of the world twice since then ; not, this time round, four year gaps of absolute silence. Maybe they’ve been listening. Maybe they can stop navel-gazing endless mixes and variations, and just feel, not overthink.

After 2014’s “Songs of Innocence” which was parachuted into your iTunes library, and therefore avoided the need to count chart positions, they now have to work – and are risking meeting the same low sales that everyone else has to live with. U2 are now back at working hard for this. And “Songs Of Experience” was always described as the older brother of that preceding album – and it is all in here.

Cleverly, the band take existing motifs from a small number of songs from that album (lyrical themes, brief moments), and expand on them ; the closing lines of “Iris” are reprised here in “Lights Of Home”, and one that will clearly pull a link between both albums. A throwaway line in “Volcano” becomes the chorus of “American Soul.” The chorus of “Song For Someone” becomes the closing reprise of “13”. And the end of “Walk On” is practically reprised with new lyrics for “The Landlady”. It’s a clever move that ensures this album is not just connected to, but an integral part of a wider whole. In effect, they are designed to work well together ; you could also argue that Bono has run out of lyrics.

Whereas 2014’s “Songs of Innocence” was the best album U2 had made in a long time, this may just better it. “Innocence” was all around the context of then, and now, tracing where we came from to where we are now. Looking back, in your fities asking… Well, How Did I Get Here? This seems a different beast, focused on Now and not Then. It’s easy to be lost if you don’t know where you came from. Songs like “Get Out Of Your Own Way”, “American Soul” and the brooding “Blackout” are subtle evolutions of the U2 template ; and lyrically seem far less insular, more outward facing, connected to the wider world and the divisive politics in it. Well, Now We’re Here… Where Next?

“Experience” also draws on mortality : the march of time drips through every moment, including Bono’s 2014 hospitalisation following a cycle accident and another, unspecified 2016 health incident. The shadow of what is coming sits heavy here. From the opening line of the second song - I shouldn’t be here, I should be dead – to the last, “Songs Of Experience” is a tougher, more mortal, beaten up band. It’s less abstract, and sees the band writing fearlessly rather than with an eye on not-being-embarassed as such. A straightforward love song like “You’re The Best Thing” would always have been hidden in bluster and irony years ago, and its refreshing to see the band being sincere but not being tediously preachy about it ; as well as having some of the best riffs I’ve heard from Edge in years.

On the downside, there’s a lot of mid-paced, airy rock with lots of backing vocals ( some of it that sounds a lot like Coldplay, to be honest), and a couple of songs that could, in years to come, be seen as lightweight filler. Time will tell. Certainly “Book Of The Heart” is b-side level, and “Summer Of Love” is somewhat forgettable ; but considering the inessential choices they have made for some of their albums, this is a better strikerate than they have achieved consistently since 1993.

Deluxe Edition fans get an extra four songs, including an unexpected reappearance for “Ordinary Love” (making it the biggest gap between first release in 2013 and first studio album appearance four years and six weeks later), and a handful of alternate mixes and versions.

Overall, “Songs Of Experience” is certainly the best and most consistent album U2 have made – with the possible exception of “Songs Of Innocence”- in the past twenty years, and no band at this late stage, really tries as hard as U2 to be really good. U2 have been guilty of complacency and indulgence on record in the past ; not here. The end is coming – and it may even be here. But this isn’t clearly the result of a hard battle to stay in touch with their artistic vision. The future is now. Where next?


Tuesday, November 21, 2017
 
U2 Trafalgar Square 11 November 2017

Falling less than a month after the final show of the Joshua Tree 30 Tour, U2 have slipped straight into what feels like a slick but efficient ploy to launch their next album “Songs Of Experience” that they birthed (mostly) in 2016 during a tour break. “The Joshua Tree 30 Tour” already feels like a somewhat cynical restatement of their history as a reminder of who they once were, built on the fact that they have – for the first time in a decade – have an album to sell (rather than one to give away). After 2014’s “Songs of Innocence” which was parachuted into your iTunes library, and therefore avoided the need to count chart positions, they now have to work – and are risking meeting the same low sales that everyone else has to live with. U2 are now back at working hard for this.

Therefore, a Saturday night in London sees them at Trafalgar Square : the free show – which sees entrance by competition winners to a 55 minute set – also doubles as a video shoot for upcoming release “Get Out Of Your Own Way”. It’s a cold November night, but U2 are - and always have been – canny businessmen, and combine this with a show played to mostly hardcore fans, as well as a later MTV broadcast of at least part of the show. We are fools, and travel down to London from 9am in Somerset where we were at a gig the previous night. We arrive at Trafalgar Square at 2pm, in time for a hurried fish and chips at Chandos, and catch U2’s brief six song soundcheck that was visible from the street : “Get Our Of Your Own Way” was played twice, alongside “You’re The Best Thing About Me”, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, “Beautiful Day” and “Get Out of Your Own Way” was played again.

We break for coffee, join the GA queue at 3pm, and are let in around 5pm ; and oh boy, it’s very very cold. After an hour-and-a-bit of waiting, U2 take the stage at 7.15 to a short and punchy set that reprises the bookends of their most recent tour, and replaces the middle with new songs from the album out in three weeks.

Up close, and with less screens, less lights, less tricks, and so forth, U2 are simply a really bloody good rock band. I’ve seen thousands of bands over the years, and well over a hundred in 2017 alone, and these four guys have been playing together for 41 years now without a break or a lineup change – and simply, they know how to do this. There’s nods and grooves, and a confidence that comes from assured, knowledgable ability. It’s good – and refreshing to see U2 as a band, not just a huge corporate entity. The fact they are 4 guys making a racket with planks of wood and computers shouldn’t be underestimated. Everyone is here for the music, and everything else is just wrapping and magic. There’s no big screens, there’s no choreographed speeches (as such), just four people and a stage and some lights and some sound.

They open with “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Pride”.. These two songs might be, overall, overplayed by the band with nearly a thousand performances of each of them over the past thirty years, but they are played as if they are fresh. (I’ve heard and seen some performances of “Pride” which have felt tired, and even, a little bored – tonight is not one of them). They are stalwarts of music, as much in the air as hayfever, and its hard sometimes to think there was a time when these songs did not exist. There was a world where “Beautiful Day” didn’t exist – and I remember it. There’s a greatest hits period near the end, where the band play proportionally the largest number of ‘newer’ songs they have in recent memory, with “Elevation”, “Vertigo”, and “One” in quick succession. Even though “One” is now, staggeringly, 26 years old, it is still as fresh as it ever was. In the meantime, there’s also two new songs – the first European live performance by the whole band of “You’re The Best Thing About Me”, and a first-time-anywhere-in-the-world for “Get Out of Your Own Way.”

It’s great to hear U2 play a simple, honest love song. Most of their material is so densely thought through, that sometimes, you need to say what you know but have forgotten to say. To strip back the arch doublethink, and cut straight to the matter at hand. What is more important than love? Why are we here, if not love? What will survive us, but love?

After the summers determinedly retrospective, nostalgic “The Joshua Tree : 30th Tour”, the new songs are necessary in moving U2 away from a novelty act, necessary to show that the band are still doing new things. Sure, there’s an element of pop, an element of still trying to be relevant. But U2 here shouldn’t be followers, but leaders, showing the way, marking the path in being old yet new, in addressing what it is to be old, and mainstream, yet also, kicking back. Asking questions.

For too long, U2 have rested in creative paralysis. This is a necessary step ; feel more, think less, create more, and think less. Sincerity is nothing to be scared of. Embrace honesty. There’s no point chasing relevancy : chase brilliance and you will be relevant anyway.

Sunday Bloody Sunday
Pride
You’re The Best Thing
Get Out of Your Own Way
Beautiful Day
Elevation
Vertigo
One
Get Out of Your Own Way (encore)


Monday, November 20, 2017
 
MORRISSEY "Low In High School"

It’s difficult being a Morrissey fan these days. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to disentangle the creator from the created ; and I’m starting to feel like a fan of Indie version of the rightwing military-ball-playin’/pussy-gropin’/pantomime-capitalist rawk bands in recent years. Taking aside Morrissey’s questionably closed political views and everything that goes with it – including the cognitive dissonance that the man who penned “How Soon Is Now?” could then also say some of the things he has said, and where did that man go? Is THAT Morrissey still in THIS Morrissey? And if not, how do you know, where do they even go? Well I wonder – how could an artist that soared so high fall so dramatically?

Tombs are full of fools who gave their lives on command

“Low In High School”, Morrissey’s twelveth solo studio album (and including live releases, compilations, and The Smiths, his twenty ninth album in all) suffers from the same problem every aging artist has. Where do you fit? Are you relevant? Are you a dinosaur watching the world pass you by, or are you offering an experienced view upon a planet gone mad? Identity has always been at the core of everything Morrissey has done, even now. Who are you?

How does he sing? He sings as well as ever ; albeit his voice has changed and deepened over the years, he still croons with a melodic power unmatched by his then-peers. His lyrics? Oh my God. Lets not be blunt here ; the talent that recorded for the first fifteen years of his creative life has been cruelly and slowly replaced by a far less effective lyrical position. The artistry, the wit, the power and the deft turn of phrase that changed worlds is absent, and there’s no trace now it was ever here. Lyrically, these are the type of songs that Morrissey would have made, at best, b-sides in a previous decade. The insights here are somewhat banal, the rhymes are basic and the words are… my God, do they have to be dull? Every song has at least one line I pause and wonder “What were you thinking???”

Honour-mad cannon fodder
Honour-mad cannon fodder
Honour-mad cannon fodder
Honour-mad cannon fodder

Musically, it’s the same type of music Morrissey has been making for a decade ; since the departure of the deft Alain Whyte, Morrissey’s music has lacked a jaunty flourish, and instead his six piece band is now a powerful but unsubtle machine that paints in broad brushstrokes. His band are accomplished and capable, but there’s a sense that the music is almost always written to command, and bent to be subservient to the voice. Morrissey needs someone who pushes against him, to have a “No” man who forces him to work harder and better and sharper. He needs someone in his team that will tell him that no this will not do. By no means is “Low In High School” a bad record, but its an unexceptional late period Morrissey album – and lyrically some of it is obsessed with war, oil politics, but in an inarticulate, blunt, and uninformed way in a way that is almost embarrassing. The lyrics here are the type I would keep in my folder of bad poems. But it’s Morrissey’s name on the record, and a reflection of his vision, from the ill-advised cover art to the banal lyrics. Making no mistake of it, were the lyrics better, it would be a serviceable rock album made of midpaced somewhat pedestrian tracks, and what I am missing is the sheer Grab-You-By-The-Throat glory of old Morrissey, the sense that these songs absolutely must be written, and cannot and will not wait, the type of death-or-victory that encompassed even songs are relatively new as “You Have Killed Me”.

Ultimately, it’s just another solo Morrissey album, for good and bad, which sees a great voice matched with songs that don’t really deserve the voice, and lyrics that would not win a local poetry slam, let alone be the voice of a generation. But still, I am a fan. Oh well, I’ll never learn.


Tuesday, November 14, 2017
 
NOEL GALLAGHER'S HIGH FLYING BIRDS - London York Hall - 01 November 2017

Has there ever been a better time to be Noel Gallagher? Well, probably – Noel after all was in Oasis, and headlined Knebworth twice as often as Queen. But now, Noel Gallagher seems to be king of his world ; leading a solo band, unshackled from an abusive relationship with his brother, master of his own destiny and it seems happier than he’s been in a long time. Tonight’s show at the York Hall in Bethnal Green sees him premiering most of his new songs live, alongside around 7 older songs, at a competition winners event in a boxing hall in what is, I think, his only headlining show of the year.

It’s different from other gigs. Our phones are all locked up in snot green pouches to prevent bootlegging the new songs, and so the inevitable home release isn’t just full of idiots filming the show with their bright screens. The audience is somewhat less rowdy, and an introductory DJ set by David Holmes sounds like a broad and fascinating romp through the influences you didn’t get in Oasis : I can hear something of every song he plays in Noel’s solo songs.

OH SHUT UP MAN, TELL ME ABOUT THE NEW SONGS NOBODY ELSE HAS HEARD YET!!!

So, here we are : in tonight’s set there are five new songs, and two of them are played live for the first time. Noel and his band (occasionally expanded with a second keyboard player, a Scissors-Player, and various backing vocalists and hornspeople). Of the five songs – “Holy Mountain” is a rollocking, bright and breezy romp – all horns and sunshine and celebration – which sounds like a kid tumbling down a hill endlessly for four minutes and laughing his head off at how silly and great life can be.

Aw, bum, I’ve got to pseuds corner. There’s also “It’s a beautiful world”, which is the most positive song Noel’s put his name to in a long time ; it’s a straight up loveletter to the world. We all define our own reality, to an extent – and our happiness is as much in our own mind and our own perception as it is in the material. This is an instantly memorable song, which is almost predictable, but that’s no bad thing. There’s a few seconds heading into the chorus where you know you’re about to get buzzed by a jumbo jet sized adrenaline rush as the chorus hits, as it’s gorgeous.

We also get live premieres of “Be Careful What You Wish For” and “Black And White Sunshine”. The former is a more delicate and intimate song – and dedicated by Noel to his kids who are in the balcony, and who are … heartmeltingly… singing along to all the songs whilst simultaneously going ‘That’s my Dad!’. It shows you the inside of a life which looks very happy ; the kind of thing that no one sensible would ever begrudge another human being.

“Black and White Sunshine” is more difficult to describe, but to me it’s utterly unpredictable, and that is surprising and enjoyable to experience. One of the great joys of new songs is you’re seeing something new, you don’t know what exactly will happen next or how, and that’s wonderful.

Finally, of the new songs comes “She Taught Me How To Fly” which is a urgent, driving song, with pace and vision and accelerates to a speedy conclusion with a key change that sounds like a black vinyl orgasm.

(Hey, I’m not paid by the word – or paid at all. I just think these songs are really bloody good).

The rest of the set is well known ; there’s three Oasis songs (“Little By Little” and “Don’t Look Back In Anger”, as well as Noel’s take on the Liam-sung “Champagne Supernova”.) And the way they are treated shows that really, these are Noel’s songs, and he can do what he likes with them. They are still the same songs they always were. At the heart of all these songs is a hopeful cynicism, even down to the way most of the hall sings words like “Going to get away for the summer”, or perhaps in the ultimate example of Dad-rock in a line that has changed over the years from being told, to doing the telling, “Take that look off your face.” In Oasis, Noel’s use of common parlance was one of the best kept secrets, to take phrases we heard coming out of our Mum and Dad’s mouths, and make them new and fresh. Oh yeah, and the tunes.

There’s also three songs from the previous Noel solo albums, and they are like Oasis, but better. You may find it weird, but I prefer solo Noel to Oasis and am very happy that we get to experience both of the brothers as solo identities without having to compromise. Oasis was a fantastic vehicle, but Noel was the driver, and I’ve not seen a band compromise more than them.

Publically, the world is currently facing a Noel vs Liam battle that makes Oasis vs Blur look like peanuts ; in one corner, the assured songwriter who wrote some of the best selling albums of all time with his tenth album under his belt (and a Scissors-player), and in the other the foulmouthed gobshite (and estranged brother) who sang on some of the best selling albums of all time. For two grown men, it’s rather sad. Though, to be honest, it’s just one side having an endless pop like a spurned ex-wife, and the other side shrugging it off as bluster.

Nonetheless, at the release of the third album by him and his ever changing band called The High Flying Birds, Noel Gallagher has entered what I regard as the third act of his life ; beyond the rampaging bluster of early Oasis, the later, more considered post 2000 Oasis (which was effectively a different band with the same name), and now, finally solodom. In some respects, even though Noel wrote almost all the songs, it reminds me of the artistic evolution of an artist like Bowie, or of Pink Floyd – as people change, their songs change, and like everyone, we change over time, our relationship to the songs change, and to an extent, the songs artists play now also reflect the parts of them they feel close to now. With a Noel Gallagher gig, sure he may have written “Live Forever”, or “Wonderwall” or (well, you get the point). The point is, he doesn’t have to play them, and doesn’t feel the need to. There’s so much more to Noel than those songs.

Even if his band is 2/3rds of Oasis (Chris Sharrock on drums, Gem on guitar, and Mike Rowe on keys all first played with Noel in that band), this is the nearest thing to Oasis you can get these days. And it’s glorious fun ; at times it’s practically watching the later period Oasis do the bit where Noel sang his songs and the other fella had a fag backstage. But it’s better than that ; the worst thing about Oasis was respectively the then-singer who reminded me of the kids that bullied you at school, and half the audience, who also reminded me of the kids that bullied me at school. There’s none of that edge tonight.

We all bring our own baggage to a show, but I don’t think I’m unique in this assessment. As a night, it’s a celebration of being here now, not that you were there then – and from the arms aloft sing-your-heart-out of “Don’t Look Back In Anger” to the new songs, that Noel may be any one of a million things but he’s always looking forward.

p.s. I've borrowed the photos from the Internet, but since i) you couldn't take cameras into the gig and ii) I'm visibly in both the crowd shots, I don't mind using them.


 
PUBLIC SERVICE BROADCASTING Hammersmith Apollo 26 October 2017

This wonderfully British band cap off their biggest tour yet with their biggest headline show yet ; and it’s a work of art, with a 2 hour show of conceptual, danceable art rock and approximately 412 special guests. They play almost all of their latest album “Every Valley”, and get every guest from it on stage (with the exception of James Dean Bradfield from the Manic Street Preachers) for the show.

The nearest comparison I can probably reach with them, conceptually is a modern day rock Kraftwerk, effortlessly melding spoken word interview segments from history around a danceable framework of grooviness to create a sum more than the parts : for tonight, the set is constructed in such a way as to enhance and add to the existing material as much as it is to present the new stuff. From the first record, which was built around the struggle of war, and the next, around the innovation of space, the new one – “Every Valley” touches on something much closer to home – the nature of identity, work, and labour, using the closure of the Welsh pitmines forty years ago as the key in the lock.

Whilst watching these songs, the old footage of derelict Welsh towns I know well from spending many years in Wales, and feeling the same, nationwide loss from the time these are just songs about Welsh miners. They’re songs about my childhood as well – a world that no longer exists – a world where you could buy a house on a single income (or buy a house, at all), a world where the women did the house work and the men went to work, and the identity was in that, and where the books just about balanced and where Dad worked and Mum didn’t. This is the world that has been swept away by rampant capitalism, and a coldness that isn’t in the weather. Part of the songs though, now build a third level into the past – all of the industry is mankind, as a whole, building towards something – advancing technology through work at war, advancing mankind through conquering space, and advancing survival through energy.

As a show though it’s assured : the stage set is made of multiple projections, and two huge prop Steelmill turnwheels, alongside an assortment of suspended lightbulbs, to create an atmosphere, aided by a lively set of fluently executed instrumental rock that sounds simultaneously futuristic, retro, and utterly of the moment, whilst also reminding me of the best TV soundtrack theme tunes you never heard. It’s utterly Mark Catnip for me, and where the heck have that band been all my life?

The hits – if anyone has hits anymore – are all delivered authoritavely – in “Spitfire”, “Go”, “Everest”, “Night Mail”, “Sputnik” – as well as new songs that will become live staples in future. The show ends, surprisingly, with the Male Welsh Voice Choir (I think) performing “Take Me Home” – the albums finale, before the band come out and shake the hands of the front row in an emptying venue. It’s quite a victory really, for an act as determinedly singleminded of vision to slowly rise to this point as an autonomously entity, but it’s a better world for it, and a great night with friends new and old. Art communicates. It brings people together. It opens minds. It makes the world a better place. It cheers me up, and makes me dance. What more can you ask?

Every Valley
The Pit
Theme From PSB
The Now Generation
Theme From Korolev
People Will Always Need Coal
Progress
Night Mail
Spitfire
They Gave Me A Lamp
All Out
The Other Side
Go!
Lit Up
You And Me
Gagarin
Everest
Take Me Home


Monday, November 06, 2017
 
METALLICA London o2 24 October 2017

Good god, these tickets are expensive. But then, Metallica tour every 8 or 9 years. So I can kind of divide the year by the pounds. And, most years they only do about 50 or shows. When you're a band that are that big in near enough every country in the world, there's only so many shows left ; and too many cities. And whilst Metallica are still themselves these days, the thrash metal Rolling Stones, they're also a ruthless and efficient business. Like U2, Metallica have become far bigger than they actually are, and Metallica can put their logo on something and sell it to you, they will. If its a skateboard, a beer flask, a fridge, or even, god forbid, music – they will. And the music seems to have become, almost, irrelevant sometimes, or perhaps a small part of what the huge Metallica machine offers.

These tickets by the way, aren't by any standard the most expensive. You can spend £2,000 for a meet-and-greet. Or £300 for “The Whiplash Experience”, whatever that is. Presumably with sandwiches and a complimentary drink. Which is utter bullshit, but if peoplepay it, more fool them.

It doesn't make the show any better, of course. On the back of last years overall unexceptional “Hardwired To Self-Destruct”, the remove of a year has made those songs better : like many great bands, their material takes a while to unlock every intricate depth and flavour. At first listen, “Hardwired” felt like a backstep to the 90's era Metallica, where the band were straddled between thrash metal gods and standard hard rock megastars. With the benefit of a year on the road, “Hardwired” is a better record. And it shows : tonight the band play seven songs from it – more 'new' songs than any previous tour in 25 years – and none of those songs sound as if they don't fit.

It's also, resolutely, a fan-friendly set ; but not a set for the casuals. If you want “Until It Sleeps”, or “St.Anger” dream on. A large number of their hits are now in rotation ; that is played, but rarely. “The Unforgiven”, “Wherever I May Roam”, “Harvester Of Sorrow,” “Fuel”, “The Memory Remains”, or “The Day That Never Comes” - some of them get played some nights –but less than half . Not at all. Tonight, on the second night, the band bring out some of their rarer choices. As is often their way, Night #1 is the more conventional set and Night#2 is always for the rarer material. This lineup of the band can play probably 90% of their large catalogue with minimal rehearsal, aside from the handful of songs they've never played live.

Even in the enormous O2 – the largest indoor venue in Europe – Metallica make it feel intimate ; primarily by not standing at the far corner of the room, but by placing the stage in the centre of the room. Sure, there's huge chunks of choreographed and rehearsed moments ; a huge drum solo with all four members of the band on portable drumkits in “When We're Dead”, or a drone display during “Moth Into Flame”. Also, and perhaps more depressingly, the predictable between song banter contains 3 references to the 'Metallica Family' in the first twenty minutes, 3 references to 'being alive', and we're also asked 4 times 'Can you feel it, Lahndawn?”. There's also the usual flashpoints, lasers, and fire ; all of which exist to prove to you where your money has gone. There's also 48 mobile video cubes with 192 sides hanging from the ceiling that show a mixture of live footage, preshot film, and imagery. It's all slick and professional, and ultimately, quite surprising – yet not. Metallica are one of those bands that dogged powered through with energy and alcohol for about 20 years, and then slowly turned into a precise business surrounded by industry pioneers to become a practiced and determined money making behemoth. The band would have got nowhere if they didn't have the songs, though. They coulda been contenders, and coulda been as big as Great White if the songs just were terrible.

It’s a slick business operation and a ruthless one. Probably the only band that sells so much useless tat with its logo on apart from this lot are Kiss, and were The Beatles. They even have their own record pressing plant for all their vinyl editions.

Thankfully, Metallica aren't playing the same 18 songs in the same set order for 113 shows in a row. This time round, for example, we get “Leper Messiah” (10% of shows), “Confusion” (about 15% of shows), "Last Caress" (2% of shows), "Creeping Death" (10%), and the first time ever performance of “Spit Out The Bone” (1% of current shows). It may not sound like much, but keeping it fresh, changing the song choices around, and presenting something that feels different every night matters – especially in the age of instant broadcasts and accessibility via Periscope and Mixlr and Setlist.fm and YouTube. And since every show is recorded, mixed, and released by Metallica.com, it needs to be different. I love the idea of not knowing, of being surprised. That's why I avoided the Internet – I want to see what it is, and not to be able to predict every last moment.

As it stands, by playing much of the newer material Metallica inspire and annoy. The new record is as good as the others, but newer and not so loved. There’s also a dearth of ‘big hits’ ; with just a quarter of the set being radio hits mostly loaded towards the end. But Metallica aren’t really the kind of band that have hits these days (is anyone?), but instead a self contained, oblivious entity that doesn’t play the chat show game and knows its audience are secure and mostly found. They could play two hours of LP tracks with no huge hits and the audience would probably be just as happy. What’s strangest is seeing this band carry on – 35 years in now – without ever compromising musically [or, by and large, commercially] as a huge business and a huge band. I wouldn’t’ve thought this was where the band was going 30 years ago when I started listening to them ; but then, who was thinking about the future, in the past?

Given the overall scarcity of Metallica tours (this is just the second tour of UK indoor dates in 22 years), I may never see them again. I can’t say for sure if this is the end for me seeing them; probably not. But if so, they put a show as good as any of their past ones I have seen, and keep their reputation intact. Sure, they’ve changed, but the world has changed, we’ve changed, and we keep changing. Always changing, always the same.

The Ecstasy of Gold
Hardwired
Atlas Rise
Seek and Destroy
Leper Messiah
Fade To Black
When We're Dead
Confusion
For Whom The Bell Tolls
Halo On Fire
Last Caress
Creeping Death
Moth To Flame
Sad But True
One
Master
Spit Out The Bone
Nothing Else Matters
Sandman


Thursday, October 26, 2017
 
MANIC STREET PREACHERS - London Camden Roundhouse - 18th October 2017

Where do we go now?

The Manics are a lifetime into it now. The core faces on stage may have been the same for their entire career (mostly), but it's not the same, and the Manics have become everything they set out to destroy – a careerist rock band, playing nothing but old songs, to diminishing returns.

Ostensibly, this is to mark them winning the Q Award for being an Inspiration. But with only two songs in the set less than a decade old, and with only one new song released in the past three and a half years, the Manics aren't inspired. The past two tours have been nostalgic old-album-in-full shows, alongside a sproadic set of greatest hits shows this year in strange and relatively obscure places like Bingley, Overton, Penrith, Llangolen. What exactly are the Manics up to now?

They came out of the gates so hard, so urgently, so fast, that the state of the band today is almost the sound of artistic defeat : have they anything left to say? Do they want to say... anything? Every song here might be fabulous, and in some cases, rarely played, but there's too much looking back, too much coasting, too much resting on laurels, not enough artistry, not enough creativity.

So really, it's 'just another Manics gig' (and their first in London that is just the songs, and not an album-played-in-full retrospective in nearly four years), and whilst just another Manics gig is a glorious experience, this is also becoming long in the tooth. Staid. Predictable. Boring, even, with 93% of the set comprising their hit singles – near enough one from every album – alongside “No Surface All Feeling”, and, for the first time in Britain for 13 years (and only the eighth time ever), the wonderful “A Song For Departure.”

The old songs (and they are all old songs now) are executed with a familiar and practiced ability. The Manics have clearly become a very, very good band and have been for a long time. But they aren't the band they used to be, even if the core lineup hasn't changed in 28 years. Some of these songs are lifechanging, and by my standards, wonderful. But the Manics are fast falling over the horizon of relevancy. And for a band that, at one point to me, seemed directly hardwired into the spirit of the times, that they have become largely a hermetic, sealed and contained insular universe, is the beginning of the end.

It's not too much to expect a headline set to last over 65 minutes is it? Or to expect a band to have new songs? Unlike others, The Manics never went fallow, or had several years off, or split up, or had a falling out with an incompetent and useless record company : all that happened was that the muse has mostly deserted them. I can't keep going if they become a museum.

What a glorious past they have ahead of them.

Motorcycle Emptiness
Everything Must Go
Your Love Alone Is Not Enough
Walk Me To The Bridge
Kevin Carter
You Stole The Sun
A Song For Departure
Little Baby Nothing
No Surface
Tolerate
Faster (acoustic)
You Love Us
Tsunami
Ocean Spray
Show Me The Wonder
A Design For Life



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