Tuesday, October 24, 2006

'Burlesque' by Bellowhead

24 October 2006

There are exciting things happening in English folk music. My latest enthusiasm is for Bellowhead - the folk 'big band' created by two of the stars of the new wave of folk musicians, John Spiers and Jon Boden. I first encountered Bellowhead through their showstopping performance at the 2005 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. I saw them live at WOMAD in July 2006. Now I am enjoying their first album, 'Burlesque'. In Bellowhead the fiddle and accordion of Spiers & Boden are augmented by a host of musicians including a great brass section featuring that quintessential English folk instrument, the sousaphone! Their take on a range of traditional tunes is fast, furious and funky - great stuff.

Labels: ,

Monday, October 23, 2006

'Past Half Remembered' by NIE

23 October 2006

We nearly saw the play 'Past Half Remembered' at the Edinburgh Fringe in August where it was well reviewed. Last Saturday we got another chance as its tour reached the Hat Factory in Luton. 'Past Half Remembered' is the tale of a 100-year old Russian woman reflecting on her life - including experiences of the First World War and the 1917 revolution. But the show is more about how the story is told - as 6 actors compete with each other to act out the tale. The company, NIE (New International Encounter), specialises in bringing together actors from across Europe and this production was performed in Czech, French, English, Norwegian and Russian. The multi-lingualism is seemlessly done and extremely entertaining. The playful approach to storytelling - with great slapstick, live music and hilarious crosstalk - is extremely theatrical. A really enjoyable evening - added to by being serenaded into the theatre at the beginning after we had been plied with complementary vodka and Russian tea poured from a samovar. It was just a shame there wasn't a bigger audience: this was very much an Edinburgh fringe show - close, intimate, with a minimal set and lasting just over an hour - but out of the fringe context it seems difficult to draw sufficient audiences for this kind of work. If you have a chance to catch the current tour please do.

Labels: ,

Thursday, October 19, 2006

'Kafka on the Shore' by Haruki Murakami

19 October 2006

I first discovered the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami through David Mitchell whose novel 'number9dream' (a favourite of mine) was heavily influenced by Murakami's 'The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle'. I've just finished reading Murakami's latest novel 'Kafka on the Shore' (translated by Philip Gabriel). Like most of his books it centres on a young protagonist in contemporary Japan (in this case a 15-year old boy running away from home to try to escape an oedipal prohecy) but the modern, urban, commercial setting is gently invaded by hints of surrealism, magical-realism or maybe the spirit-world. There are many explicit and hidden references to popular and classical music as well as elements of Greek tragedy. Two apparently disconnected plots gradually (and satisfyingly) converge with a strong underlying momentum of fate and destiny. I can see why Murakami is seen as a hip, cool writer but I also find him compelling, immensely entertaining and very funny. He creates some wonderfully quirky comic characters - bits of this novel reminded me of Douglas Adams' 'Dirk Gently' novels. I love Murakami's style, playfulness and mystery - even if I'm not sure I always understand him. 'Kafka on the Shore' is 500 pages long but I would have liked 500 more!


Monday, October 09, 2006


9 October 2006

I've had a really enjoyable few days in Helsinki at the European Forum for the Arts and Heritage conference - my first trip to Finland. Helsinki is a wonderful city - beautiful buildings, a harbour right in the centre of the city, fishing boats selling herring on the quayside, a wide tree-lined esplanade, a mixture of Russian and Scandinavian influences, and polite, helpful people. Culturally, the towering figure of Jean Sibelius (one of my favourite composers) seems omnipresent: as I came up the escaltaor at the Central Railway Station (itself an amazing cultural icon) I gradually became aware of the faint strains of a busker playing something vaguely familar on a recorder - by the time I reached the top I realised it was the slow, gentle Finnish folk tune that Sibelius used in 'Finlandia'. At the conference we were treated to a performance by a local choir representing Kassandra - an organisation that brings together immigrants to Finland from different cultural backgrounds. The choir sang in a wide variety of styles including Bulgarian and South African songs which it had learned from members from those countries. Finally, in Helsinki Airport awaiting my return flight I picked up a DVD of my favourite Finnish folk/rock group, Värttinä. I'm looking forward to returning to Helsinki for a longer visit sometime soon.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

'Overtaken' by Alexei Sayle

4 October 2006

I had read and enjoyed Alexei Sayle's first book of short stories, 'Barcelona Plates' and was looking forward to this, his first novel. Having finished it I'm not quite sure what to make of it. The setting (a group of thirtysomething friends in the North West of England in the early years of the 21st century) and the style had me comparing it with Nick Hornby or John O'Farrell but Sayle takes us into darker territory: violence, revenge and grotesque characters. But there is also some really interesting stuff on the power of art, the nature of friendship, addiction, grief and guilt. He also has some great wordplay and running jokes which are subtle and easy to miss. Though there was humour he seems to have backed away from comic set-pieces. I read it very quickly and it held my attention but I felt a little disappointed at the end. I'm not sure whether the ending was a fantastic coup-de-theatre which I haven't yet understood or just a running out of steam. Intriguing, thought-provoking and unpredictable.