Wednesday, 2 May 2012

He Don't Live There Any More

Gloucester Cathedral, comfortably the dominant building on the skyline of  the city in which I dwell (if you can ignore the hideous monolithic Police Station and monstrous Royal Hospital) is in the local headlines. It transpires that the many visitors who pass through its doors donate an average of 55p for doing so. There is no obligatory charge but the suggestion is that you should donate £5 each.

It's a dilemma this one.I must first declare myself, despite time spent as an Anglican choirboy and even fleeting membership of the school Christian union, as an atheist. Aggressive atheist I put on Facebook,which is not to say that I go round walloping people "of faith". Yet nor do I grant them an easy ride. In my eyes formal religion has contributed at least as much harm as good to the state of humanity and if I can be bothered I like to goad them into explaining why their Imaginary Friend is such a cool dude. Of course proper Christians should be doing that all the time. It's their duty to spread The Word for, if they don't, well I might not be saved and that's hardly a fair crack of the whip, is it? I could elaborate, but that's not the purpose of this post. Another time, perhaps. What is at issue is whether the clerical hand-wringing provoked by the apparent stinginess of Gloucester's tourists is appropriate.

As an atheist my thoughts might be irrelevant, but I believe that the dominance of the building and its proprietors' decision to have a public whinge about the situation allows me to comment.

One answer would be to enforce the £5 fee. Chances are that that would reduce visitor numbers so significantly that takings would fall further. That's exactly what my reaction was when first faced with an entrance fee for a cathedral (Ely). I gave it a miss. Would have been vaguely interesting to see what lay within, but moderate curiosity is a long way from the burning desire that would persuade me to pay entrance to the National Portrait Gallery for example, to which admission is actually free.

In a predominantly secular society which has seen the need to go to church diminish over time, it is clearly no longer viable for the church-goers themselves to foot the bill for maintaining their antique buildings. They are too few. Ironically, with this as a background I am aware that splinter groups continue to form, insisting that they are Christian but want to worship in their own (not Cof E) way. One such has opened a new church in what used to be a corporate social club on the outskirts of Cheltenham. They have done so with a view to the "church" building serving as a general community centre when not being used for worship. I've no idea whether this will work, but it does seem more positive than watching your debts grow while praying for a subsidy or a generous patron.

In fairness, the Church of England has shown willing to make its buildings available as venues for the arts and commercial ventures, up to a point. Back in the mid-seventies German electronic band Tangerine Dream played well-received "gigs" at York Minster and Liverpool and Coventry cathedrals. Last year Laura Marling played at Gloucester Cathedral and every three years the Three Choirs festival is held there and tickets are not only pricey but sold out. It has hosted art installations by Anthony Gormley and others, but these events are the exception, not the rule. The acoustics are probably not ideal for rock music, although modern sound engineering achieves remarkable feats so perhaps it shouldn't be written off. Of course the building's administrators prime concern will be to conserve it as a place of worship for the aforementioned minority, but I'm not sure they can afford to have it all their own way.

Historically the construction of Cathedrals to glorify God, as tribute, in gratitude or whatever superstitious pretext you care to name, was an impressive architectural achievement which continued in this country into the 20th Century with the two Liverpool cathedrals and the post-war re-construction of Coventry. It continues still in Barcelona where the completion of Gaudi's masterpiece will last for decades to come. These recent efforts are my favourites artistically, but inexplicable folly nonetheless. They stand largely empty for most of the time while occupying prime real estate, and the art they exhibit is, however impressive, largely aimed at true believers.

Churches - the buildings rather than the institutions - are of immense significance to our heritage,our national history. I am not, therefore suggesting that they be sold off to the highest bidder for redevelopment into shops, offices, clubs and hotels, but their use does need to be re-examined. Communist rule in Russia saw many former places of worship used as museums, party headquarters or whatever, but sadly this was usually done without much regard for history and what remained was a vandalised shell. Yet the principle was not so bad in itself. The French architect LeCorbusier used to say that "A house is a machine for living in". So, I would argue, God's house (if you must call it that) should also be lived in. There are Christians who already recognise that a stone built edifice is unnecessary to worship. Those who have inherited such an edifice need to consider whether they can afford to confine its use to its original purpose or whether they should have a more inclusive agenda, encouraging its use by those outside their religion

Monday, 25 April 2011

...and now for the weather.

It's a Bank Holiday here in the U.K. but it's not raining. Indeed it has barely rained for ages. This is unusual, doubly so for April. Few people are complaining, though, and the BBC is forecasting light rain come the Royal Wedding on Friday, so the earth is not about to spin off its axis just yet. Nevertheless, every time we have "unseasonably" hot/wet/cold/dry weather these days, dark mutterings about climate change will follow briskly behind.

I'm no meteorologist (although that is one of those many careers that I wish had occurred to me as possible before it became unattainable), but I know there is a difference between weather and climate. So because it doesn't rain for a bit, or snows like dandruff for weeks, we haven't experienced a change in climate until that has become a repeated trend or even the predicted norm. Still, there are wiser heads than mine that have been convinced that climate change is occurring. Hands are duly wrung and gloomy forebodings are rife, but when it comes to doing anything about it we do seem a bit slow on the uptake.

There are quite a few wind-farms dotted about the place and I saw an experimental wave-powered generator bobbing up and down a couple of years ago, but they represent a tiny proportion of the energy even this little country needs to remain prosperous. There are reasons for this, not least of them being money, but also at work is a natural human tendency to sort out a crisis when it arises rather than prevent it. A notable example of this has been the nuclear crisis in Japan that followed the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami a few weeks ago. 20/20 hindsight is barely necessary to make the wisdom of building multiple reactors on a fault line questionable. But there they were, and are in California for that matter. Of course the earthquake was worse than anyone could remember, but geologists seemed pretty confident that it was going to happen sooner or later. Happened to be sooner. Woops.

Climate change has a similar feel to it. It's like that homework you put off until it became an essay crisis. The rattle you didn't get fixed until the car broke down. Unlike the essay or the car, though, the climate may not be something we can sort out once the crisis point is reached. It's being so cheerful that keeps me going...

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Percy Pulls It Off

To the Birmingham Symphony Hall last night to see Robert Plant & The Band Of Joy.

I saw "Percy" as he was once known, at the Cropredy Festival in the early 90's, performing not in his own right but as an unadvertised guest of Fairport Convention, whose festival Cropredy effectively is. He sang for the best part of an hour on the Saturday night, with Fairport backing, a selection of Led Zeppelin material. For me, this was quite wonderful, as however much I might enjoy a few of yer folkie tales of blood thirsty noblemen and their wenches, I had long regretted my failure to see Led Zeppelin. Not entirely my fault: the trip to Earls Court from Cheshire in 1975 at the age of 15 was a non-starter, and what proved to be their last hurrah at Knebworth in 1979 was scheduled to coincide with my summer holiday. Fairport's members at the time included a couple of musicians who were and remain in demand as sessioneers more than capable of emulating the instrumentation of Zeppelin at all but their heaviest. If anything Plant's voice at that time was stronger than it had been in '79 as evidenced by the Knebworth DVD that emerged several years later. Some of the more traditional finger-in-the-ear afficionados were less impressed, grumbling that Plant had hi-jacked Fairport's set, but as Fairport were given to dragging on for four hours on a Saturday night, in my book he did them (and me) a favour!

Since then Plant has released a steady stream of solo work, as well as collaborations with Jimmy Page and, less predictably, bluegrass star Alison Krauss. He's absorbed influences from African and other "world" music. (I hate that term - someone needs to think of a better one). His most recent work, entitled "Band of Joy" after his current group of musicians, contains blues, gospel and folk influences and while never as heavy as Led Zeppelin at their zenith, it probably belongs in the "rock" category of HMV's dwindling selection.

The band is not the lavish travelling circus which Plant could probably call on if he wanted to. Two versatile guitarists, bass, drums and a diminutive, decorative backing singer/duetist. A set up which reminded me of some of Richard Thompson's touring bands which have called upon a few multi-instrumentalists rather than the semi-redundant excesses that bigger stars can afford to finance. And that feminine decoration which male artists of a certain age seem to engage in case their grizzly old visage is likely to frighten the horses. Arguably necessary in this case, as Plant wanted to use some of the duet material from the relatively recent Alison Krauss album, but not essential. Certainly the other, male, members of the Band of Joy had not been subject to any kind of aesthetic vetting. Gargoyles 'R' Us !

But I digress. What did it sound like? An extension of the record, I suppose, in that the primary influence was blues with american country overtones. The Zeppelin catalogue was not overused,and with the exception of "Tangerine" and a stonking encore of "Rock and Roll", significantly re-arranged from the original versions. A traditional gospel song mutated briefly into "In My Time Of Dying", while "Gallows Pole" enjoyed a more subtle, spooky sound than on record. Otherwise the bias was to the new-ish album and recent material rather than paying much attention to earlier solo efforts (I was hoping for "29 Palms" myself). The band was slick as you could wish for and Plant's voice is still gripping, any limitations coped with by the aforementioned re-arrangement of material and shrewd choices of what to cover. Still a voice that makes you think "you lucky bastard!" when you hear it. And if I look like him when I'm 62, which given the current lack of long blonde curls seems unlikely, I'll be happy. Craggy in a good way.

Definitely worth the price of admission (significantly cheaper than some lesser shows, I'd say). I can imagine Plant & Co. going down a storm at Glastonbury, but in the meantime the Radio 2 sponsored Electric Prom on Friday is to be broadcast on radio and red button, and while it will only provide a taster, I commend it to the house.

A mention too for Justin Adams & Juldeh Camara, a support act well above the average who provided an intriguing half hour of blues fused with african instrumentation. Those members of the audience who sat out their performance in the bar missed a treat.

P.S. Much as I enjoyed the show, I managed to buy the seat next to a self-important muppet who spent most of the show reading and writing e-mails on his Blackberry. Not Richard Branson or David Cameron, but clearly a Very Important Person. Now, I admit to using a digital camera (flash disabled) briefly (and mostly during the encore, during which the audience was on its hind legs and not really paying attention to more than its ability to sing "Bin a long lonely lonely lonely lonely time" at the top of its collective lungs). But this is not the same as waving a highly luminous screen around for the whole performance. One of those occasions when I wished I was built more like a boxer and could whisper a sinister threat with conviction.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts 2010

They were damping the ground. Deliberately pouring water on it to stop the dust rising. This in the same fields that have hosted some of the great mudbaths of recent decades! A pinch yourself moment!!

I suspect that Glastonbury 2010 may be remembered as much for the scorching weather as the performances, which is not to say that there was a shortage of top quality entertainment. Over the last year a number of people have told me that Glastonbury is too expensive at £185. A ridiculous amount of money. Yes. Ridiculously low. To see as many bands of repute as I did, let alone as many as I could have done if I enjoyed exemplary fitness and stamina, in any other context, or more properly, variety of contexts, would have cost many times that amount. And that's despite the non-appearance of U2 whose top price tickets last year exceeded £250. Furthermore, the sound quality at every stage I visited at Glastonbury, from the Pyramid down to a tiny outside rostrum in Shangri-La, is exemplary. Not so for U2 at Cardiff last summer, despite their much hyped stage and paying a three figure sum to worship at their altar (albeit much less than the maximum referred to above).

A drawback this year was the last of Ingerland's group matches in the World Cup which fell on the Wednesday and meant that the majority of ticket holders were at Worthy Farm that morning. I had an unavoidable appointment that afternoon and in any case, more than four consecutive nights on a half inch mattress would not be compatible with me being able to stand upright for the next month! What this meant was that despite arriving at 7 a.m. on Thursday after a 5.30 a.m. start, I found myself struggling to find a space big enough to pitch even my one-man micro-tent. I did it, though, this time on the edge of a main thoroughfare. This meant too many people walking past during the night, but also that it was easy to find in the dark. Last year's pitch was in the middle of a sea of bigger tents and involved a nightly search to track my bed down! Anyway, with the aid of some foam earplugs I managed 5 hours sleep each night except for 3 on Sunday when I elected to leave at dawn,making it home for 7.30 a.m.

Although the festival "proper" doesn't start until Friday, there was far more to see and do on Thursday than last year. After a brief meet-up with my god-daughter and her mates, I tramped over to Shagri-La, a sort of Cyberpunk/Blade Runner dystopian slum, to watch Nik Turner, a founder member of Hawkwind, billed as the only survivor from 40 years ago performing in 2010. I'd seen him with Hawkwind a couple of times in the mid '70s and with his band Inner City Unit in the 80s. Apart from collecting a few more wrinkles he hadn't changed much and pleased a modest crowd with an encore of Hawkwind songs. The performance started an hour late, unusual for Glastonbury and blamed squarely on the previous act's "technical difficulties" aka crap equipment. Consequently it went on past 11p.m. and after a half hour walk back to my tent the pedometer I'd been wearing showed I'd done 38000 paces that day, which may explain why I was knackered!

Friday saw the Pyramid stage opened by the legend that is Rolf Harris. I dutifully waited on the front crush barrier from about 09.30 and was duly rewarded with the best place in the "house", at least once the press pack cleared off, having taken as many pictures of the crowd as of Rolf. I was particularly amused by the photographer with the pass reading "Czech Radio". Well, perhaps the Czechs have their own Radio Times.

Rolf was ailing a bit, having lost his voice earlier in the week, but you wouldn't have known. He lapped up the adulation and played most of his hits bar Jake The Peg, which may require too much balancing skill for an octogenarian. He fluffed the words on Two Little Boys but gave a reasonable explanation - about ten rows back were two people in full kangaroo costumes complete with spring blades so that they could jump several feet into the air. This put him off briefly, which was fair enough.

With Rolf wrapped up I struggled to get round to The Other Stage to meet an old school friend, TC, and  quaff some much needed cider. I drank five pints of cider that day and five litres of water, which seemed about right, although a gauge of how hot it was is that I paid only a couple of brief visits to the legendary festival loos, so that was a result in itself!

I hung round with TC to watch the Stranglers. I'd seen them supporting The Who at Wembley Stadium in 1979 when, stubbornly insisting on playing their disappointing Raven album, they had ignored the hits with the result that most of the crowd ignored them. Older and wiser, their first appearance at Glastonbury saw them play nothing but hits for an hour, which is exactly what a festival crowd seems to want and expect. Shortly afterwards TC and I went our separate ways intending to meet again, but thwarted in that by the temperament of my 'phone battery. Hoping to bump into someone in a crowd of 150,000+ just ain't going to happen.

Remaining at the Other Stage I saw most of Phoenix's set . They're French but sing in English and were a bit Kaiser Chiefs-ish. Pleasant but forgettable, I watched them on recommendation, and also because I hadn't the energy to go elsewhere and then come back for the next act, La Roux, who aren't French at all. I wanted to like them and they were entertaining as a one off, but I wouldn't bother again.The singer (Elly Jackson) has a very shrill and slightly abrasive voice, while much of the music owes too much to the synth-pop of the 80's to be taken seriously as ground-breaking. You can dance to it, of course, but I'm not sure why you would choose to when the world is full of  more exciting fare. Ms Jackson pointed out that her parents who had never attended a festival before, were sat at the mixing desk halfway back in the arena. Very proud they looked too, but I think their daughter might be better producing records for other people. Still, what do I know?

Next up were Florence & The Machine to whom I've already devoted a separate piece. Not just my highlight but I assume the two blokes I saw separately with tears in their eyes during the performance were quite impressed too!

The downside of a huge festival is that you can guarantee that there will be scheduling clashes between acts you want to see. Everyone had (rightly) recommended Florence, but that meant I missed Mumford & Sons in the John Peel tent (which would have been like taking a particularly malodorous sauna), and most of Dizzee Rascal, just making it back to the edge of the Pyramid arena to see him duet with Florence like he did at the BRIT awards. The crowd were certainly "up for" Dizzy.

Gorillaz (who had been recruited to cover for U2 after Bono hurt his back lifting his wallet) were a few minutes into their performance when it seemed clear to me that the tactic last used when Kylie Mynogue's illness prevented her appearance, of promoting the second name on the bill to headliner, might have worked better. Gorillaz put on an impressive show in that they have bespoke animations for most of their songs and had persuaded all the guests from their records, even Lou Reed, to perform live. Live but not spontaneously. The films set the speed of the performance as rigidly as a metronome, and having been at the front for Rolf I was now nearly at the back, where the sound was very clear, but no longer in synch with the visuals due to the distance. There didn't seem much to be gained from this situation over watching a recording (and the BBC coverage didn't make me feel I missed much), so I set off on another wander. From the top of the Pyramid field there is a fabulous view over towards Glastonbury Tor and also right across the festival site. In the far corner (had to be, didn't it?) I could see plumes of flame shooting up and I remembered that one thing I'd missed in 2009 was the fire show in Arcadia. By this time (10.30 p.m.) though, my feet and back were making themselves known, so I set out to find the "Bourbon Street" Jazz & Blues bar, a new feature for 2010. This I did, and flopped for half an hour in front of another pint of cider and a competent if unremarkable blues band who looked like they were still at school. Maybe they were.

Then I set off on the trek to Arcadia. This is a relatively small area of the site,but expanded from 2009, devoted (at least while I was there) to what I believe are known as "Bangin' Choons". Well, there was plenty of banging anyway, earsplitting volume and hardcore trance music which I have some affection for, although it gets a bit wearing if you're sober and disinclined to dance. The main DJ booth was situated in a tower several stories high, equipped with vents that shot plumes of flame outwards and upwards with varying strength in some sympathy with the music. Not sure how eco-friendly it is, unless Mr Eavis has been bottling his cattle's bi-products, but it was certainly memorable. Just as crowds were flooding from the more orthodox arenas into the nocturnal corners of the site, though, I recognised again the unmistakable feeling of fall-asleep-standing-up fatigue and plodded back to my tent.

Wish I could say I saw the full show illustrated in the video, but my lack of stamina let me down - I'd guess these pictures were taken at about 2 a.m.!

Saturday might normally be considered the "big" day of the festival, but I had been unimpressed by Muse as a choice of headliner. Despite my best efforts and the exhortations of two customers who are also fans, I've found myself unable to like them. All was not lost, though, as there are always plenty of alternatives available. Most obvious were the Pet Shop Boys who I've seen before and who certainly put on a show, but I've seen the DVD of their current tour and I (rightly) guessed that they would be performing a cut down version of that show. More tempting was George Clinton's Parliament & Funkadelic, but I'm getting ahead of myself. There was a whole day to fill first.

An unexpected discovery in 2009 was the Blazing Saddle stage in a corner of the theatre area. I came upon it completely by accident while attempting to find a toilet that didn't make me want to retch (which I successfully did. Hurrah!). Purely by chance, the stage was hosting Dance Wave, a samba band from Scotland. I thought they were wonderful, although my elation may have stemmed in part from my relief at discovering the alternative to Portaloo Hell! The band is comprised of students for the most part, so presumably has a rolling membership, although I certainly recognised several faces when I caught them again this year. Given the weather, a welcome aspect of this relatively minuscule stage is that it casts a very convenient shadow for much of the day, so I happily started Saturday reading the paper while waiting for Carnival Collective and then Dance Wave, both samba bands. By the time I'd enjoyed them both, wet my whistle and had a smackerel of something, Jackson Browne, third act of the day, was on the Pyramid stage. Californian easy listening in the blazing heat, an ideal combination and in fairness, much better than I'd have expected.

Next, though was Seasick Steve, for whom my initial expectations were higher, and happily they were well founded. I've liked what I've seen (mostly on Jools Holland) and heard (mostly interviews) of Seasick Steve and for all that he has achieved a kind of stardom in the U.K., he still seems quite bewildered by, if genuinely grateful for, the situation. Perhaps one day some hack will prove that he is a former Wall Street banker, but as things stand I was happy to accept his barely-more-than-a-hobo shtick at face value and enjoy the humour and skill in his performance of very basic blues.

"Basic" is a word that might also be applied to the next act, Jack White's "The Dead Weather", but in a less positive way. Easily the worst act I sat through, and down there with the worst I've seen any time anywhere. A true case of The Emperor's New Clothes. Mr White, aside from the White Stripes has also enjoyed success with The Raconteurs for whom I have some affection. Unfortunately he now seems to feel that any noise he chooses to make is worthy of release to a wider audience. The Dead Weather played song after song that were little more than shapeless rants, the tunes simple to the point of ignorability and the lyrical content heavily reliant upon the shouting of a meaningless phrase for the umpteenth time. Perhaps it was exciting and experimental. I just thought it was lazy and crap.

Happily Shakira was able to dispel the gloom thus generated with a bright and breezy if ultimately lightweight sequence of songs which roughly alternated between English and Spanish. She is one of the world's great wigglers but where other acts seem to recognise that there's something special about playing Glastonbury, she was slick, professional and fulfilling her contract.

Sing ho for The Scissor Sisters, who were all the things the Dead Weather were not. Tuneful, humorous, entertaining and, of course, very camp. Just as The Dead Weather had seemed to suck the lifeblood out of the arena, the Scissor Sisters established a party atmosphere within seconds and built upon it until the arrival of their special but not very secret guest, Kylie Mynogue. She came on and proved that she can do camp as well as anyone (and Jake Shears & Ana Matronic take some matching!). A slight drawback to the performance was my situation on the crush barrier that runs halfway between the stage and the sound tower. This plays host to some largely superfluous security guards who spend most of their time supplying cups of water to the overheated multitude, but also a cameraman. Hence, as my friend JT put it, my 15 seconds of fame courtesy of the BBC, who transmitted several shots of me waving my arms like a loon in synchronisation with those around me. Mildly embarrassing, but not a crime!

Which brings us back to the headliner dilemma. In the end I decided to make for West Holts and Funkadelic by way of the Bourbon Street bar. Parliament/Funkadelic sounded great for a while, although starting with a drawn out melancholy guitar solo in tribute to a recently deceased former member was probably not the finest piece of stagecraft I've witnessed. As is the way with Da Funk, though, it can become rather repetitive. At one point George Clinton was joined by his granddaughter who squealed an extended song of praise for weed ("Something smells like a skunk and I want some" went the chorus), and shortly thereafter I thought I'd go and try and catch the last couple of Pet Shop Boys songs. Got the timing wrong on that one though, as I reached the Other Stage just as they left it. At this point I realised that I hadn't really eaten anything since breakfast, so I went back to the celebrated Jerk Chicken stand where a team of men barbecue a constant stream of spiced fowl. Very nice it was too. So nice that I had some more the next evening!

Sunday dawned sunny. Again. This is a mixed blessing if you are under a single layer of  tent fabric as the first you know of it is when you realise that the condensation is running down the walls and that yesterday's socks are trying to run away on their own. I'd established a routine by now, involving extensive tending to the whims of my feet. Still managed to get some blisters, but nothing like as bad as last year.

Then time for breakfast, a bacon and sausage baguette and double espresso. I returned to the same vendor each morning on the basis that they hadn't poisoned me before so probably wouldn't this time. Nevertheless it was interesting to note that as the festival wore on and the staff became more exhausted by their twelve hour shifts, my breakfast was slung together with increasing abandon / economy of effort. Can't say I blame them - the ambient heat enhanced by the constant operation of industrial cookers made the working conditions very unpleasant to say the least. It was noticeable that, for all the sunshine, nerves were becoming increasingly frayed in some quarters. I heard barely a crossed word in 2009, but this time there were a few stand-up rows to eavesdrop on (like you could avoid hearing them), the most spectacular of which took up a large tract of the Other Stage arena while I was having Sunday breakfast. The couple were fifty yards from each other but bellowing enthusiastic abuse for all to enjoy .A few hours later I might have assumed it was street theatre, but not at 7.30 a.m.!

My first appointment of the day was The Yeovil Town Band on the Pyramid stage, cranking out jingoistic favourites like The Dambusters, Jerusalem and The Great Escape in anticipation of Ingerland's doomed second round match that afternoon.

Next the Blazing Saddle and another performance by Dance Wave. My enthusiasm for them stems partly from the fact that I'm a sucker for a bit of drumming but also that they look like they are having a great time. If they were somewhere more convenient than Scotland I'd be tempted to try and join up! Again, the shade during the late morning hours before the performance was a welcome relief.

I did watch a bit of Paloma Faith's performance on the Pyramid. She came on in a harness attached to two over-sized helium balloons and it went downhill from there. She'd like to sound like Amy Winehouse but doesn't quite manage it, not helped by being made to look ridiculous before she warbles a note. Sack your management, love!

I missed most of Norah Jones, but the last couple of songs were pretty enough, as was she. Not an ideal festival choice, though.

As  the crowd thinned slightly while the over-optimistic and inebriated left for the two fields showing the football, Slash came on to the Pyramid. The material was largely unfamiliar but sufficiently formulaic to be accessible at once. And loud. A man of few words, most of them beginning with "F", Mr Slash allowed most of the banter to be delivered by his hired-hand vocalist. He concluded his set with Sweet Child of Mine & Paradise City and that was as much as anyone wanted or expected. Nice mindless rock'n'roll. Full marks.

Slash bade his audience give some love to Ray Davies, erstwhile Kink and national treasure, and that they did. Starting off with just another guitarist at his side, he then introduced a conventional band before going all out with a full choir. Hit after hit came and went, an advantage of three minute songs being that you can fit an awful lot of them into an hour, although he did grumble that he wasn't allowed to perform his full set. Meanwhile England were being crushed by Germany in South Africa, but only blind faith would have told you otherwise.

The Ray Davies singalong was followed by Jack Johnson, my cue to take break before the evening's top acts. Nothing against Mr Johnson, but just not my cup of tea.

Penultimate Pyramid act was Faithless, who have been on my must-see list since they were announced, this enhanced by TC who had seen them at Glastonbury before and assured me that Maxi Jazz has great stage presence. Which, indeed, he has. Sister Bliss scowls at her keyboards throughout, but the front-man keeps smiling as they go through a catalogue of songs that you know without necessarily remembering the titles. Insomnia and God is a DJ are particularly memorable, but so too are songs from their latest album The Dance which I downloaded on my return. I wouldn't expect to "get" Faithless live, as I've never been much of a dance fan, but lyrically they can hold their own and there's no question that, while swollen in anticipation of Stevie Wonder's arrival, the crowd were very much impressed. I thought Maxi Jazz looked relatively old, so it's a relief to find that he is three years older than me rather than unwell.

Stevie Wonder is ten years older than me, but as with Bruce Springsteen last year, you wouldn't know it. I saw him at Birmingham's NIA a couple of years ago on a comeback from the break he'd taken on the death of his mother. At that time, while the show was professional and full of wonderful music, I was disappointed to find that he seemed somewhat subdued as if still brooding on his loss. If that was the case, he's recovered by now, as his entrance, playing a portable "keytar", testified and his sense of humour had recovered too.In the course of encouraging world peace and so forth he observed that "If I wasn't blind I'd be spending a lot of time kicking ass". You'd be forgiven for forgetting that he is blind but for a brief moment when he seemed to lose a button on his equipment and needed a roadie to sort it out for him. Another great singalong selection, concluding with a presentation to Farmer Eavis and a rendition of Happy Birthday which proved that he should stick to agriculture and organising festivals! And that was Glastonbury 2010 for those of us who couldn't face an even later night wringing the last penny of value from the Dance Village or Arcadia. For me, there was that rendezvous with the jerk chicken I'd promised myself, before three hours sleep and a weary tramp through fog-filled fields to the car and a swift blast up the M5 to my own kitchen.

The weather will almost certainly be less good next year, but if I can get a ticket, I'm there!

Monday, 5 July 2010

Going with the Flo

This is turning into more of a fanzine than a diary, but as I spend many of my waking hours listening to music, perhaps that's to be expected. Anyway, this is a shameless and belated plug for the very wonderful Florence and the Machine who I had the pleasure of seeing at Glastonbury about ten days ago.

I had owned the album "Lungs" for a few days before the festival, more out of curiosity than commitment. I saw Florence performing at the Brits with Dizzee Rascal, and must have heard the singles on the radio. My younger nephew had expressed enthusiasm, but I couldn't really say I was a fan. An hour in their presence sorted that out.

I am pretty jaded about new artists these days, and some old ones for that matter. I took great pleasure in ignoring Muse's headlining performance at Glastonbury because to my ears they are just recycling styles proved more successfully by various forbears, rather than producing anything genuinely new. Florence Welch, on the other hand, while she inevitably owes debts to other artists, struck me as a one-of-a-kind. Her relatively deep voice shares something with Siouxsie Sioux and as "The Scream" remains one of my favorite records after over thirty years, that's a good start.

The production on "Lungs" might be described as lush, with lots of layers, but I'd be tempted to call it over-produced. Live, the sound was simpler, despite the presence of a string section and small choir of backing singers. This duly gave Florence's voice greater prominence, while the immaculate sound engineering that is such a remarkable feature of Glastonbury made the lyrics clearly intelligible.

The set included two unreleased songs including one from the soundtrack of the new Twilight movie, and a cover of Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain" which the crowd clearly enjoyed even if Q magazine later felt bound to turn up its nose at it!

Anyway, the energy and enthusiasm that went into the performance, not to ignore the fact that Ms Welch is quite easy on the eye, made it the standout performance of Glastonbury 2010 for me. There is likely to be something of a hiatus now while a second album is recorded, and I fear I have blown my chance of seeing Florence and the Machine in an intimate venue, as their return seems likely to be in theatres or even arenas. Nevertheless I plan on being there when it occurs.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Take Me Out To The Ballgame....

I wish. 'Tis the beginning of the 2010 Major League Baseball season and I have as much chance of seeing a game "in the flesh" as I have of being elected to Parliament. (No, I'm not standing, the British People don't deserve me).
All is not lost, however, as for a hundred of their American dollars, our chums in the former colony will let me watch every game on my computer in glorious high-def. Well, slightly jerky high-def sometimes, but it does the job. But why would I want to? Especially given that I have never been remotely hooked on Soccer or any of our other sporting religions.

I first watched baseball in the bar of a Howard Johnsons in Flagstaff Arizona in May 1992. We were on a three week roadtrip, had just seen the Grand Canyon and were "enjoying" the heaviest rainstorm they had seen in those parts for years, if not decades. I remember that the San Francisco Giants were playing but not who against. I had only a rough idea of what was going on, but remember seeing a bat get broken (an increasingly frequent occurrence these days, it seems) and liking the generally gladiatorial relationship that develops between batter and pitcher.

Fast forward to August 2006 and I'm slumped on a bed in a barely-large-enough-for-four-people "family room" at the Toronto Sheraton. The other three are all fast asleep (photographic evidence exists!) and I'm watching the Toronto Blue Jays (the only non-American team eligible to play in the World Series) struggle in Cleveland against the Indians. I've already watched parts of a game in the hotel bar and been down to the Rogers Center (the Jays' ground) to visit the club shop and get a proper baseball cap. Can't pretend I understand everything, but I'm beginning to appreciate how much more than a game of rounders for grown men (the popular view in the U.K.) this is.

When I'm really hooked is in October of that year when I realise that Channel Five is broadcasting the World Series - a best of seven games competition between the winners of the American and National leagues - live, and while I'm not mad enough to watch live between midnight and 5 a.m., I record the lot.

Five's coverage of the World Series was exemplary. Whilst carrying the feed of gameplay and commentary from the U.S., the frequent commercial breaks for changes of innings and pitchers allows the presenters in a shoebox studio somewhere in London to explain exactly what's going on to the uninitiated, and to present packages of background material on the history of the game, the food on offer at different stadia and anything else that might make the viewer feel involved. All too quickly, though, the Detroit Tigers fall to the St Louis Cardinals and the presenters bid farewell until the next season begins in April 2007. It's a long wait.

In the meantime, however, we've booked a visit to Mickey and friends in Orlando, coincidentally at the same tiome as our friends, the legendary Lurchees of Longlevens. The names have been changed to protect the innocent. It becomes apparent that halfway through the fortnight, Major League Baseball will recommence and that aside from the Florida Marlins based in Miami (too far from Orlando), there's another MLB team based in Tampa Bay, the Devil Rays. The Rays stadium is an aging dome in St Petersburg, across a causeway from the City of Tampa, which means we can't get rained on, so NL and I agree to check it out, booking tickets for opening day before we leave home.

A week of the Mouse and his mates and I'm really looking forward to something different.I could do without the drive, but it's easy enough, just dull. As is the tradition, I get us there way too early, but that gives us a chance to soak up the pre-game atmosphere. In the ring that surrounds the auditorium there are the inevitable bars and foodstands and the club shop selling everything from full replica team gear and accessories to almost anything else that you could stick a Devil Rays logo on. I get some more caps! There's also a batting cage and a chance to have the speed of your pitch measured, but it's an opportunity we forego. Suffice to say, pitching is a lot harder than it looks!

Coincidentally, the opening game of the season is against the Toronto Blue Jays, but I haven't brought that cap with me - not sure it would be good idea to be seen to be foreign and supporting the away team. I needn't have worried. The crowd turns out to be more like those you'd find at a cricket match - there might be banter if there were a significant number of visiting fans (there aren't), but the atmosphere is almost entirely positive. It's an evening game which may limit the number of children present. With first pitch at around 7 p.m. the game may not be over until approaching 11 p.m. and, as I later realise, the game goes on past the basic nine innings until there's a result, if necessary, so we could have been there all night!

As it was, the Devil Rays managed to grab a win on the last pitch of the ninth inning, having trailed for much of the game. Talk in the restrooms on the way out is all about how maybe this year it will be different. A relatively new franchise created in 1998, the Rays have almost become an embarrasment to their fans, having never enjoyed a "winning season" in which victories outnumber losses and only once crept above bottom of their five-team division. They are underdogs and look set to remain so, what with being in a division that includes the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, two of the richest teams in baseball. They can buy their way out of trouble while the Devil Rays' payroll, a relative pittance though still counted in millions, renders such a tactic impossible. It's like being Portsmouth set against Manchester United and Chelsea in soccer.

Where there is some hope, it transpires, is that the way professional sport operates in the United States is designed to even things out over the long term. The teams that do badly will then get first picks in the following year's draft of potential players from colleges and even high schools across the nation. They then try and agree terms with those players to nurture them in a "farm" system of professional Minor League teams affiliated to the Major League flagship. Sometimes, often, this comes to nothing. The prospective player may be unwilling to sign for the money on offer and even if they do, the majority will flounder at some point on the way through the hierarchy of Minor Leagues, never making it to the "Big Leagues" as MLB is known. A consequence of this is that the Devil Rays farms are filling up with promising talent for the future, but much of it still just looks good on paper. Still,on the strength of what I've seen, I decide I'll follow the Devil Rays from now on. At the back of my mind is that there is a lot more to be said for a repeat visit to Florida, at least on a family holiday, than there is for Toronto, which while interesting for a few days, does suffer from an inferior climate too!

Call it beginners luck or whatever, but by the end of the 2008 season the Rays, having dropped the "Devil" at the end of 2007, are Division Winners, then League winners and then..... and then they lose the World Series to the Philadelphia Phillies. O.K., it was a disappointment and for a moment I know for the first time what it feels like to see your team "let you down". But realistically it was a fantastic achievement, a complete reversal of fortune bigger than any by any team in decades. So after a slightly disappointing follow up last year (I'm tempted to blame injuries like a proper sports fan does), this year see a flying start, with the Rays the "winningest" team in baseball. Yes, that is a real word, coined by our cousins in the former colonies to describe the most succesful team. And as they would also say, GO RAYS!

Sadly, as a postscript I have to add that Channel Five cancelled their baseball coverage at the end of 2008, making the MLB's online service the best way of watching the game here (there is limited coverage available via satellite, but you can bet they wont show the game you want to see).

Monday, 7 December 2009

Band of Brothers....and Sisters

I drove to East London and back on Saturday. Seven hours in all, much of that courtesy of the city's south circular, reserved for those who find the M25 too relaxing. What brought on the desire to spend that long at the wheel of a far-from-luxury little car was the prospect of a few hours in the company of people I don't see often enough, including one I hadn't seen for 30+ years!

It was the latest in the inevitable crop of 50th Birthday celebrations that began a couple of months ago, and will run well into next year, what with the Class of '78 hitting that milestone in a spectacular burst of nostalgia-wallowing and resolute dysfunctionality.

I'm not one for re-unions for re-unions sake, although I still would have gone to see Led Zep at the O2 a couple of years ago if I'd only had a ticket. I'm listed as missing on my former college's website and while registered as an "alumnus" of my school, I ticked as many boxes as possible to minimise contact. In both cases this is partly because the institutions concerned will send regular begging letters otherwise, but also because if blood isn't much thicker than water, neither is shared history. Conversely, though, you choose your friends where you can't choose your family, and my largest surviving group of friends, however dispersed and rarely seen,remains my contemporaries from secondary school.

I suppose I'm dwelling on this because the Christmas card season is upon us, and I shall send and receive cards to and from people I have made little effort to communicate with in any other way for over a decade. Ex-colleagues from John Lewis and former university friends. Not that I wouldn't welcome a chance to catch up in principle, but in practice there aren't enough weekends in a year, and most are sufficiently far-flung to need a weekend, especially if it involves dragging the family along, be it mine to them or visa versa.

On Saturday it was just me, at least as far as Chiswick, where I picked up a passenger unable to get there under her own steam, and the two hours to get there were then matched by a further two hours to Lewisham. All my anti-metropolitan prejudices nicely reinforced there, anyway! But it was worth the effort. The main difference with a "gang" who were once so close, even if it was really only for a couple of years before we all left Chester for different lives, is that the conversation almost picks up where it left off, however long ago. I don't know why this should be. Partly it's pressure of time,the choice between small-talk and serious discussion without the opportunity for both. Also a sense that more can be "taken as read" - you know who I am so I don't need to explain myself. A very pleasant and relatively unusual experience, if only it could be repeated more often and without the intervention of the road system.