Thursday, October 30, 2014

Elvis Costello/Georgie Fame and The Blue Flames

30 October 2014

Growing up in Manchester, Leigh-born Georgie Fame was a local musical hero, frequently appearing as a guest soloist with some of the local youth bands and orchestras. Last time I saw Georgie Fame, he was playing in Van Morrison's band at a concert at the Royal Albert Hall some years ago. This week he was again accompanying Van Morrison at the Albert Hall on Tuesday but I saw him there on Wednesday, with his band The Blue Flames, as part of the London Blues Fest, sharing the bill with Elvis Costello. Georgie Fame's band included Alec Dankworth on bass (who I performed with many years ago – but that's another story) and the excellent Guy Barker on trumpet. Georgie Fame is now 71 years old but his distinctive voice is still fantastic – a mellow vocal trumpet.

I'm a big fan of Elvis Costello but this was the first time I had seen him live. Rock stars who have been around for decades typically face the dilemma, in their concerts, of whether to play the old familiar favourites or to try out their new material. Too often, these days, technology allows bands to reproduce the precise sound of their recordings in live performance, leaving you wondering why you didn't just stay at home and listen to the album. Refreshingly, in his live performances, Elvis Costello explores his extensive back catalogue, including his biggest hits, in new ways, never sounding like the original recording. This was a mostly solo performance, Elvis accompanying himself on guitar but being joined by his long-time collaborator Steve Nieve on the grand piano for some almost classical re-workings of songs including 'Accidents Will Happen' and 'Pills and Soap'. Elvis Costello was an enthusiastic performer, an entertaining raconteur and a dapper figure in dark grey three-piece suit, white trilby and pointed purple shoes. He said he had intended to choose a programme on the themes of love, lies, deceit and infidelity but then realised he had written more than 400 songs about love, lies, deceit and infidelity so that hadn't helped to narrow down his choice! It was fascinating to hear Elvis singing songs he originally wrote for other people, such as 'Almost Bue' (written for Chet Baker) and 'The Comedians' (for Roy Orbison). And to hear his interpretations of other people's songs, including 'She' (by Charles Aznavour and Herbert Kretzmer), 'Walking My Baby Back Home' (written in 1930 by Roy Turk and Fred E. Ahlert) and a Mose Allison song (for which he was joined on stage by Georgie Fame). It says something about the depth of his repertoire that Elvis Costello could perform for almost two hours and still manage to save for the encore 'Shipbuilding', 'Oliver's Army' and '(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding'. He finished the evening with the microphones switched off for an unamplified performance of 'Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4', a beautifully haunting song from his 1991 album 'Mighty Like a Rose' (which Costello and Richard Harvey adapted for Alan Bleasdale's epic TV drama serial 'GBH'). It was a brilliant concert and a real privilege to be there.

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Monday, October 27, 2014

'The Bone Clocks' by David Mitchell

27 October 2014

A new novel by David Mitchell always feels like an event and 'The Bone Clocks' (which I've just finished reading as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Jessica Ball, Leon Williams, Colin Mace, Steven Crossley, Laurel Lefkow and Anna Bentinck) did not disappoint. Mitchell is one of my favourite contemporary novelists and I have read all six of his novels. His last work 'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ (reviewed here in August 2011) felt like an epic, but 'The Bone Clocks' is even longer (the audio version lasting 24.5 hours). Having lived in Japan, David Mitchell is a big admirer of Huraki Murakami and it seems too much of a coincidence not to suppose that 'The Bone Clocks' might have been influenced by Murakami's recent mammoth novel '1Q84' (reviewed here in April 2012). '1Q84' opens with a young woman climbing down the emergency stairs from a Tokyo expressway and entering a surreal parallel world, while in 'The Bone Clocks' a teenage girl runs into an underpass beneath a dual carriageway in Kent and observes a gateway opening to another world. The fact that this happens in 1984 is surely not a coincidence. 'The Bone Clocks' is David Mitchell's most 'Cloud Atlas'-like book since 'Cloud Atlas. Both have an episodic structure with sudden leaps from one section to the next, each with a different first-person narrator (the different points of view being very effectively emphasised in the audio version by use of a new reader for each section). Both books span centuries and extend into the future, entering science fiction territory. But 'The Bone Clocks' is more of a single story, compared to the loosely linked narratives of 'Cloud Atlas'. And that story is the tale of Holly Sykes, a teenager living in Gravesend when we first encounter her in 1984, whose life will become inextricably linked with the survival of the planet. Like Haruki Murakami, David Mitchell creates a meticulously believable real-world narrative into which he inserts aspects of magical realism. But, unlike Murakami, Mitchell tends to tie-up the loose ends and 'The Bone Clocks' very satisfyingly explains and resolves its fantastical elements. David Mitchell is also a very playful author – his novels all contain disguised references to each other and 'The Bone Clocks' continues this tradition as well as incorporating a major character from 'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’. Mitchell even goes so far as to make one his characters a writer so that he can quote a review of one of that writer's novels which says “The fantasy subplot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look ... What surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?”. This is very entertaining meta-fiction (though David Mitchell has had to deny rumours that his fictional author Crispin Hershey is supposed to be Martin Amis). 'The Bone Clocks' is a state of the world novel, dealing with Iraq, climate change and the perils of our dependence on declining reserves of fossil fuels. It is also a fantasy novel, featuring pre-cognition, telepathy and battles between warring factions of immortal 'superheroes'. It's a complicated, enthralling, hugely entertaining epic novel – highly recommended.


Thursday, October 23, 2014

'Love is Strange' by Ira Sachs

23 October 2014

On Thursday evening I was at the Glasgow Film Theatre for a screening of Ira Sachs' new film 'Love is Strange', presented as part of both the Luminate Festival and Glasgay! Alfred Molina and John Lithgow play George and Ben, an elderly gay couple who have lived very happily together in New York for 39 years. But when they decide to get married, their world begins to fall apart. George loses his job teaching in a Catholic school and they can no longer afford their apartment. While they search for an affordable alternative they have to sleep on the sofas and bunk beds of friends and family. The pain of living apart from each other after so many years together is evident. And the strain of living in other people's homes is cleverly depicted. 'Love is Strange' is a delicate, subtle, intelligent film. Much is said without the need for words, with numerous close-ups of unspeaking faces telling you much more about the characters' feelings than the dialogue does. The film is beautifully shot, with the trees, streets and skyline of Manhattan becoming part of the cast of characters. There's also a lot of Chopin – sometimes deliberately obscuring the dialogue (though it was very distracting to have two scenes where different characters were shown playing a piano they clearly weren't playing – why bother showing the hands in that case?). One beautiful scene sums up the best aspects of the film: Ben's nephew's wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) is trying to write a novel in her living room while Ben is innocently chatting to her, oblivious to the fact he is constantly interrupting her work. Kate grows more and more frustrated – we can observe the strain growing on her face (unseen by Ben) and we are waiting for the point at which she is clearly going to snap at him. But before this comes Ben's chatter turns into a moan about how annoying it is when Kate's son Joey thoughtlessly interrupts Ben while he is trying to complete a painting. Kate's frustration dissolves into a smile without a word. As Ben says: “When you live with people, you know them better than you care to”. 'Love is Strange' is gentle but powerful, incredibly sad but ultimately uplifting. It will be on general release from February 2015.

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'Every Picture Tells My Story' by Hugh Campbell

23 October 2014

On Thursday afternoon I was at the Haining Centre – a nursing home in Falkirk – for 'Every Picture Tells My Story' – a Luminate Festival event. Haining resident Hugh Campbell had created a noticeboard depicting the story of his life through text and photos, and talked us through some of the key episodes. Hugh was an entertaining raconteur and it was fascinating to piece together the personal history of the man sitting in front of us. We learned about Hugh's childhood: he was brought up by his grandmother and aunt as his parents couldn't cope with rearing six children. He saw active service in the Second World War and, after an apprenticeship in a local foundry, Hugh went on to enjoy a 30-year career as a bus conductor, getting to know his regular passengers well, including the young midwife who he went on marry. He told us about his love of ballroom dancing, the music of Daniel O'Donnell and Mediterranean cruises. In telling his story, apart from an occasional lapse of memory, Hugh was very sharp and I was genuinely amazed to discover that he is 95 years old: he seems at least ten years younger. He clearly still has an eye for the ladies and took a lively interest in one young woman in the audience who was a mere 65 years his junior! At the end of the session she had her photo taken with Hugh to provide another addition to his notice board. Hugh's key message was that he doesn't feel old, he feels like he is getting younger rather than older, and he's not finished his story yet.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

'Love Me Do' by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran

21 October 2014

On Saturday evening we were at Watford Palace Theatre to see 'Love Me Do', a new play by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran. Set in 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, the play focuses on a young American woman stranded in London, wondering whether she will ever see her husband and children again. Making playful use of physical theatre techniques, and with a cast of five actors creating a host of colourful characters, Co-Directors Brigid Larmour and Shona Morris evoked early 1960s London as an entertaining and slightly sinister foreign country. Marks and Gran cleverly avoided the period drama trap of giving the characters knowing hindsight from a contemporary perspective by using two Americans adrift in London to point out the outdated idiosyncrasies of English life (eg "Yellow Pages?" - "they don't have them here yet"). But, for me, there wasn't quite enough plot and a few ideas seemed under-developed. Calling the main character, who is desperate to get back to Kansas, Dorothy might have had more impact if the 'Wizard of Oz' reference hadn't been blatantly pointed out by one of the characters early in the play. Nevertheless Sara Topham and Robert Curtis made a believable odd-couple thrust together in a crisis - in the manner of a classic Hollywood screwball comedy.

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Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

21 October 2014

In 1982 the Scottish trumpeter, John Wallace, gave the premiere performance of Malcolm Arnold's 'Trumpet Concerto' at the Royal Albert Hall in London. John Wallace's 1984 recording with the Bournemouth Sinfonietta is still the only time this short but fiendishly difficult concerto has been recorded. So it was very exciting, last Saturday, to have the opportunity to perform Arnold's 'Trumpet Concerto' at the Derngate in Northampton with John Wallace. The Northampton Symphony Orchestra, conducted for the first time by John Gibbons, had been invited to open the ninth Malcolm Arnold Festival with a morning concert of works by Arnold and other 20th century English composers. As well as the 'Trumpet Concerto' we played Arnold's 'A Flourish for Orchestra' and his mighty 'Peterloo Overture' (which was commissioned by the Trades Union Congress to mark its centenary in 1968). Our programme also included the beautiful 'Rhapsody, A Shropshire Lad' by George Butterworth, Ralph Vaughan Williams' 'March Past of the Kitchen Utensils' from 'The Wasps', and the wonderful suite from the 1936 film 'Things To Come' by Sir Arthur Bliss. Between these pieces young musicians from the Malcolm Arnold Academy performed the movements of Arnold's rarely heard ‘Miniature Suite'. But the highlight of the morning was undoubtedly John Wallace's brilliant performance of the 'Trumpet Concerto', accompanied by the Northampton Symphony Orchestra (in which Malcolm Arnold himself played the trumpet in his youth) and finishing with a glorious, stratospheric major third between the soloist and NSO's Principal Trumpet, Nick Bunker.

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

'Me Talk Pretty One Day' by David Sedaris

16 October 2014

The American humourist David Sedaris is now such a familiar figure on BBC Radio 4 it is hard to read his essays without hearing his voice in your head. I've been reading his collection published in 2000, 'Me Talk Pretty One Day'. It's a good sample of the David Sedaris style – a neurotic, sarcastic, self-deprecating collection of personal experiences. I know his writing is not to everyone's taste – his amusing observations of foreigners can sail close to racism and he sometimes succeeds in his attempts to persuade you that he's not a very nice person. But his prose is beautifully constructed and can be incredibly funny. I liked this opening to 'The Learning Curve' in which “a terrible mistake was made” and the recently graduated Sedaris was offered a position teaching a writing workshop:

“The position was offered at the last minute, when the scheduled professor found a better-paying job delivering pizza. …. Like branding steers or embalming the dead, teaching was a profession I had never seriously considered. I was clearly unqualified, yet I accepted the job without hesitation, as it would allow me to wear a tie and go by the name of Mr Sedaris.”


Tuesday, October 07, 2014

'Everybody Down' by Kate Tempest

7 October 2014

It's not often that a rapper is featured on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, but Kate Tempest is not your average rapper. Last month, the day after her new album 'Everybody Down' was shortlisted for the Mercury music prize, Kate Tempest was selected by the Poetry Book Society as one its Next Generation poets. The 27-year old from South East London studied music at the Brit School and poetry at Goldsmiths College. Intrigued, I thought I would listen to 'Everybody Down' but I have to admit that when I first played the opening track my immediate reaction was that hip-hop really isn't my kind of music and I very nearly gave up on the album. Something persuaded me to persevere and I decided to reserve judgement until I had listened to the whole thing. I realised I really needed to give my full attention to the words and treat 'Everybody Down' like a radio play, written in verse, with background music – rather than thinking of it as an album of songs. The 12 tracks form a single continuous story with excellently drawn characters and I found myself rooting for Becky as her family and friends pull her into a world of criminality, drug-dealing and violence. There is some wonderful word-play:  

I’m in a mess, I can’t help it
I just go round and round
I’m paranoid, I’m selfish
Push me, I clam up, I’m shellfish
We had a dream, I shelved it
That eats me up, that’s Elvis
Las Vegas era
I’m half bag lady, half Bagheera

And the more I listened the more I fell for the words, the characters and the story. I've since learned that Kate Tempest is working on transferring the characters from Everybody Down into a novel, due to be published next year, which will begin where the album ends and will also include characters from two of her three stage plays (one of which was commissioned by Paines Plough). Clearly Kate Tempest is a name to watch.

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Friday, October 03, 2014

'Colin Gray: a journey with his parents through love, life and death'

3 October 2014

While I was in Edinburgh this week I visited North Edinburgh Arts Centre to see an exhibition of photographs by Colin Gray, presented as part of Luminate 2014 – Scotland's Creative Ageing Festival (of which I am a Trustee). 'Colin Gray: a journey with his parents through love, life and death' is a selection of works documenting Gray's 34 year collaborative journey with his parents. It includes work from 'The Parents' series, which started in 1980; from 'In Sickness and in Health', photographs that explored his parents' older age and his mother's death; and a preview of new work from 'Do Us Part', his ongoing series of images of his father and daughter. Many of the photos are playful and funny – showing Gray's ageing parents retaining a childlike sense of fun. I particularly enjoyed the picture of them sailing down an imaginary stream in their garden in an old bathtub. In contrast, the pictures of Colin Gray's mother's final days are incredibly sad – including candid shots of her in a hospital bed and her corpse in the coffin. And the scenes of her husband grieving alone are painful and moving, including a close-up of his wrinkled neck enclosed by collar and black tie. But the exhibition ends with pictures of Gray's father with his granddaughter comforting him, providing a warm final image that shows continuity of life into the next generation.

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Baltic Cruise

3 October 2014

Our Baltic cruise on the P&O ship Adonia was a wonderful holiday. We sailed through the Kiel canal in North Germany and spent a couple of days in Kiel, during which we took a train to the pretty medieval town of Lubeck which I last visited with the Manchester Youth Orchestra nearly 30 years ago. Some parts of the town were familiar but I failed to find the bar in which the orchestra's leader Angela Ceasar wowed the locals, singing 'Summertime' with the house band. From Germany we sailed to Estonia, stopping at the beautiful island of Saaremaa before spending a day in Talinn. Talinn is a fairytale city – like a Disneyland version of a medieval European town. The architecture is reminiscent of Switzerland or Austria but more brightly coloured and with some clear Russian influences. We loved Talinn's narrow cobbled streets, high town walls and stunning central square. Our next port of call was St Petersburg – my first visit to Russia. St Petersburgh is an amazing place – intimidating and austere on the outskirts, with a magnificent city centre. Like Paris, the centre of St Petersburg was designed and built as a single project, giving the streets and buildings a consistency missing from most major cities. There are some incredibly impressive buildings, dominated for me by the Church of Our Saviour over Spilled Blood – an incredibly colourful, extravagant, onion-spired showpiece of a building. We also visited the Hermitage – an enormous museum which reminded me of the Louvre in Paris (and can be similarly crowded, though it wasn't too bad when we were there). We had a guided tour of the Hermitage and saw works by Rembrandt, Cezanne, Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh and Leonardo da Vinci. Our visit to Stockholm was also dominated by a fantastic museum: the Vasa Museum houses the preserved remains of a warship which sank in 1628. The museum gives a fascinating insight into the history of the period, through a series of displays all linked to the Vasa itself, ever-present as you walk around the four floors which provide a range of views over the huge ship. It's brilliantly done – one of the best museums I have ever visited. We were similarly charmed by the much smaller David Collection in Copenhagen which includes extensive displays of early Islamic art, beautifully presented with lots of background information about the history of much of the Middle East and North Africa. It was great to return to Copenhagen – one of my favourite European cities. Regular readers will be relieved to know that we finally managed to see the Little Mermaid. You can see a selection of my holiday photos at:

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