Wednesday, July 25, 2007

'Much Ado About Nothing' by William Shakespeare

25 July 2007

When your neighbours have got a troupe of travelling players performing Shakespeare in their back garden it would seem churlish not to support them – so on Sunday we made our way through the deer park to Woburn Abbey to watch the outdoor production of 'Much Ado About Nothing' by Chapterhouse theatre company. In this period of 'extreme weather' we expected the worst but, amazingly, the clouds cleared, the sun came out and we enjoyed a beautiful evening. There are quite a few companies touring open-air Shakespeare productions each summer and it always appears to be a very testing proving ground for young actors. Apart from coping with the full range of weather conditions, your projection has got to be very strong to reach the back of the audience and you have to be able to ignore numerous potential distractions – such as the flock of geese that flew across the Woburn Abbey gardens on Sunday, closely followed by a lone heron. The Chapterhouse cast coped well and gave a solid, engaging performance. Not quite as inventive in their use of the available space as the 'Romeo and Juliet' we saw last year but extremely enjoyable nonetheless – with particularly strong performances by Nicola Weeks and Simon Michael Morgan as Beatrice and Benedick. Their tour of England continues to the end of August - details at

Labels: ,

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Blockheads

23 July 2007

It's Easter 1992 and we're in the Swan Theatre in Stratford watching a great Royal Shakespeare Company production of John Gay's 'A Jovial Crew'. But we're distracted from the action by a small, stooped figure wandering around the back of the auditorium, selecting a series of vantage points. As he passes the back of our seats, Jeannie turns round and pointedly asks him to be quiet. We reach the interval and the lights go up and suddenly a queue is forming to shake hands with the small, restless man. If I had stopped to write a list of all the people he might have been (which I obviously didn't as I was in a hurry to get an ice cream) the list would have had to have been many pages long before it would have occurred to me that we were being disturbed by rock star and poet of punk, Ian Dury. (Though had I just spent the interval reading the programme I would have discovered that he and Mickey Gallagher had written the songs for this production of 'A Jovial Crew'.)

Fifteen years later Dury is sadly no longer with us but his band, The Blockheads, are celebrating their thirtieth anniversary. So, on Saturday evening, we made our way to The Pitz in Milton Keynes for an evening of 'Sex and Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll'. The remaining original Blockheads may have aged but showed no signs of losing their enthusiasm, musical skill or drive. Augmented by a couple of younger recruits they played a high-energy two hour set and were obviously really enjoying themselves. The Blockheads were one of those punk bands who weren't really punks - mixing a variety of musical styles including reggae (as did The Clash), Latin rhythms and funk. Their strolling bass lines sound a lot like their contemporaries Squeeze. The presence of the amazing saxophonist Gilad Atzmon took a lot of the numbers into the realms of jazz funk – at times The Blockheads sounded remarkably like Weather Report – not really my kind of thing but very impressive. Their unique selling point is still Ian Dury’s wonderful lyrics – witty, playful, hard-hitting, brutal and very funny. It was great to see a packed audience singing along to every word. Also interesting to reflect on Dury’s gentle, natural, rhythmic spoken delivery: he was rapping in 1977 – well before Mike Skinner of The Streets was born. On Saturday the Blockheads were joined for the last few numbers by the comedian Phil Jupitus. Almost unrecognisable (if it were not for his distinctive body shape!), clean-shaven and dressed in a giant red checked jacket and bowler hat (“sponsored by Home Pride”), Jupitus delivered the lead vocals with due reverence to his legendary colleagues – and was clearly a big fan. He is due to join The Blockheads for a full thirtieth anniversary tour later this year – well worth catching. And as we pogo-ed into the night shouting “hit me with your rhythm stick – hit me – hit me” I’m sure there was someone looking on from the back of the auditorium and smiling.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Boban Markovic Orkestar

17 July 2007

Since I first discovered the peerless Serbian brass band - the Boban Markovic Orkestar – after reading a review in Songlines magazine at the beginning of 2003 they have only played one UK date – in May 2003 which I missed as I was flying back from Italy at the time. So when I heard Boban was to play another one-off concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London last weekend I leapt at the chance to see the band live for the first time. They didn't disappoint. Dressed in white shoes, white trousers and round-necked, long-sleeved white t-shirts the 11 members of the Boban Markovic Orkestar looked like an unlikely collection of male nurses preparing to assist in complicated surgery on our eardrums. In front of the band, Boban and his son Marko were the epitome of cool on a sweltering evening. Marko – now in his early twenties – is a rock star with a trumpet. He stands with his feet firmly planted to the floor, his head bent forward to ensure his trumpet gets as close as possible to the microphone, his long black hair tied tightly back in a ponytail and his hips gyrating to the groove. His father constantly prowls the stage – directing the band, instructing the sound engineer and casually slipping into bursts of virtuoso trumpet solos. Boban's medium-length hair is tousled as if an elderly relative has playfully ruffled it. The back of his light blue shirt is soon drenched in sweat. His shoulders are permanently raised in a perpetual shrugging 'whatever' and a satisfied smile plays around his lips.

For me, the Boban Markovic Orkestar are the classiest, slickest, funkiest exponents of the Balkan Gypsy brass sound. They avoid the tendency of many similar bands to demonstrate their virtuosity by making everything extremely fast and frantic – preferring to vary their programme with stunning, unexpected changes of tempo and rhythm. And their rhythms are amazing – complex syncopations supported by five tuba players and three percussionists. There are no clarinets or saxophones here – just tubas (of varying sizes) and trumpets. The sound is absolutely deafening – and even louder when Boban and Marko come out from behind the microphones and play directly without amplification from the front of stage.

There is clearly a great mutual respect within the band. At the end of each number every player acknowledges the audience's acclaim by raising an arm to gesture across the stage towards one of their colleagues to suggest, modestly, where the applause ought to be directed. When the gesture is reciprocated each player turns to honour another member of the band, creating a series of white-clad musical statue tableaus with arms outstretched.

Balkan Gypsy brass is party music but with the Boban Markovic Orkestar it is a serious party. By the time they left the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall – having over-run the scheduled finish by an hour! – everyone was on their feet: an unforgettable experience.

Labels: ,

Thursday, July 12, 2007

'The Magic Numbers' by The Magic Numbers

12 July 2007

Last weekend, our friends Jan and Dave suggested we go to see a band in a pub. Regular readers may have noticed that this is not something we do very often but the novelty of a smoke-free pub was quite appealing and Jan and Dave had seen the band before and recommended them. So on Saturday night we made for the Prince Albert in Bradwell Village, Milton Keynes, to see '1 Nite Stand'. Discovering that they were a 'covers band' eroded my enthusiasm as I anticipated an evening of the same old 1960s and 70s standards. When they started, however, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that their choice of covers was much more interesting and inventive. '1 Nite Stand' ( were really good. Most of their repertoire was from the 1990s (including songs by the likes of James and The Wonderstuff) or more recent (such as The Kaiser Chiefs and Nerina Pallot). I was particularly struck by a number of songs that were new to me, including one by The Magic Numbers. When I wrote here (in February 2006) of my enthusiasm for Arctic Monkeys, Sioned suggested I try The Magic Numbers but I'm sorry to say I hadn't got round to them. So this week I picked up a copy of their eponymous 2005 album (for just £6 - sometimes delaying your purchase pays off!). It's a 1960s West Coast sound (and I don't mean Aberystwyth!) - cheerful, toe-tapping, catchy tunes with strummed guitars and backing vocal harmonies - a soundtrack for summer.

Labels: ,