andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Category Archives: reviews

Marlene Dietrich, me and Camille: a review

The Famous Spiegeltent is a portable device, a bit like the Tardis, that appears magically to host performances of all kinds in all sorts of places. Built in 1920, it apparently, in the 1930s, hosted Marlene Dietrich singing ‘Falling in Love Again.’ A few years ago, when I was still doing a mix of spoken word and music, I was lucky enough to perform in it in three separate years as part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s evening series, Unbound. Then it disappeared.

Well, not really. It was still somewhere in this space-time continuum, hosting great performances. However, it wasn’t in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square, because the owners of the gardens which the Book Festival took over every August (no doubt for a fee) had decided having all these common people tramping over their grass and enjoying themselves was de trop and banned the Spiegeltent.

Yeah, I know. I’ve still to go to the Book Festival (that’s next weekend) and see what, if anything, has been allowed in Charlotte Square or if it’s restored to its rest-of-the year humdrum nature in full – there’s talk of most, if not all of the EIBF events being staged along nearby George Street.

Image result for charlotte square edinburghCharlotte Square, sans book festival

However, in the meantime, good news! The Spiegeltent has beamed down to the Meadows, that fine piece of common ground on the south side of Edinburgh’s city centre. And, in keeping with its tradition of hosting brilliant chanteuses (I’m definitely thinking Dietrich here, not yours truly) it’s the venue for Camille O’Sullivan‘s latest show, Where Are We Now?

SpiegeltentThe Spiegeltent empty

Saturday night was Camille’s second performance of a run that goes on until 24th August, and, in recognition of this, it and the night before were cheaper. However, any glitches in the performance were due, not to Camille or her excellent three-piece band of guitar, keyboards/piano and drums, but to the nature of the venue and its surrounds.

The Spiegeltent is a fantastic space to perform, or watch a performance, in. I must admit I’m glad now I didn’t know quite how historic it was when I did my shows in it, or I’d have dropped my guitar at the prospect. However, it does have one drawback – despite all the wood, mirrors and brocade, it is, when all’s said and done, a tent. And that means sound bleed.

When it was located in Charlotte Square, that wasn’t such a problem – any book festival events still ongoing are some distance away and tend to be just authors droning on about their stuff. The only thing we had to try to do was time the half way break to cope with the fireworks at the Castle which signalled the end of the Military Tattoo (of which more later). In comparison, in the Meadows, the Spiegeltent has a bustling inter-venue bar outside, and a big blue circus tent type affair with other music shows ongoing about fifty metres away.

That might not be a problem for some shows. However, Camille’s performances range from full-on rockers to, to take an example from this set, an a capella version of a Jacques Brel song. She is a dramatic, dynamic, performer, who takes you on a musical odyssey through the full gamut of emotions with carefully-chosen dark materials from some of the great songwriters of the last 70 years or so. In other words, the perfect performer in many ways for the Spiegeltent – if it wasn’t for the sound bleed.

As it was, O’Sullivan spent much of the early part of the show making a single-finger gesture at the back of the audience – a plea for the sound guy to turn her monitor, the guitar, the keyboard, everything, up. It was a pity, because the performance was otherwise up to her usual brilliant standard (this was the third time I’d seen her). However, the best  songs were, inevitably, the louder ones. Bowie dominated the early part of the set, and there was a great version of ‘Rock n’ Roll Suicide; Nick Cave’s ‘Mercy Seat’ got a barn – or tent – storming interpretation too.

Good as those were, my personal favourites were The Leonard Cohen covers she did towards the end: opening with a snatch of ‘You Want It Darker,’ from the master’s eponymous final album, she segued into ‘The Future,’ an older song apposite for our troubled times. My absolute favourite, though, was Cohen’s ‘Anthem,’ a fitting, uplifting, closer to a musical commentary on where we are now: ‘There is a crack, a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in…’

Not even the post-Tattoo fireworks (which seemed to have more than one go) could interrupt. A two-song encore, including old favourite, Nick Cave’s ‘Ship Song,’ and she was gone into the night. Camille will have less distracted performances than this: but the material is strong, and her performances of it as incendiary as ever.

Next time, just cancel the fireworks and beam the Spiegeltent to our back garden, eh? The neighbours are really quiet.

Image result for camille o'sullivan

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Journeys Deep in the Land of Bruce: a review of Cory Branan’s Adios

I’ve not listened to nearly enough music in my near 55 years on Earth. I mean, even my CD collection – which seemed at one point big enough to cause stress on the house foundations, or at least make an indelible dent in the carpet – is a tiny, tiny, fraction of the rock, country, soul, blues and what d’you may call it committed to tape since I was old enough to know there was something rum about Gary Glitter.

And in case I didn’t realise how ignorant I was, there are magazines like Mojo and Uncut to rub my nose in my own vacuity. Here’s a typical example of the type of review I read as I attempt to navigate my way through the roiling rapids of new music, and pick out something I might drop a few quid on and actually listen to:

‘David Barbe is best known as a producer for the Drive-By Truckers, Deerhunter and other local and national acts… “Why You Gotta Make It So Hard?” recalls the weirdo pop of the Elephant 6 Collective…’

Ok. I know Drive-By Truckers: that’s who Jason Isbell used to be with, and I’ve even heard a couple of their tracks. Deerhunter? I feel I should have heard of them. I’m sure I’ve read about them, in Mojo and Uncut. Elephant 6 Collective? Nope. No clue.

I know. I should be ashamed of myself. To be fair, most of the time, I will have heard of the bands these reviews reference. It’s just that, were I put in front of a firing squad of musos and told to whistle one of their greatest hits, I might be hard pushed to even make a start before the vinyl collectors pulled the trigger.

So this review is proceeding from a state of ignorant, if not bliss, acceptance that I will never, ever, be able to reference someone obscure. Full many a flower may, indeed, be born to blush unseen, musically speaking, and, as a matter of empirical fact, waste its sweetness on the desert air. I’m afraid my time to surf Youtube for all these mute inglorious Miltons is, well, pretty limited by other stuff.

So I’ll come right out and say it. Jason Isbell and Cory Branan sound a lot to me like Bruce Springsteen.

To be fair, I’m not the only one to make the connection. Isbell was described as ‘Springsteen-endorsed,’ in his recent interview with Acoustic Guitar; Uncut’s review of Branan’s new album, Adios, explicitly references the Boss.

Let’s start with Branan. I first heard a song of his a couple of years ago, as the standout track on one of the taster CDs of new music you get with these music zines. It was called ‘Survivor Blues’ and there was one line in particular, ‘leaned, and lit a cigarette,’ that I especially liked for its economy. I then promptly failed to put in the hard yards online to hear more of his stuff.

It was only recently, when I saw the review of Adios, that I got my act together and ordered up a copy online.

For me, it’s a truly great album in the fine traditions of the best work of Bruce Springsteen. Some things are obvious musical Springsteen references: the honking sax on ‘Imogene,’ for example; the pounded piano at the start of ‘Blacksburg,’ or the Roy Bittan-like keyboard sounds on ‘You Got Through.’

The Uncut review specifically compares Branan’s style to Springsteen’s 1980 classic ‘The River,’ and the musical similarities are there for all to see. The meld of soul, folk and early rock n’ roll (‘Only I Know,’ for example, with its Buddy Holly-style chord progressions) has the same roots as the Sage of New Jersey.

There’s another link, which only became obvious when the recent reissue of ‘The River’ sent Brucie on the interview trail: country. Springsteen described listening to the likes of Hank Williams to get that sense of ‘three chords and the truth’ into his songwriting.

Now, I’ve described before how I came to country late. When I was a teenager, that whole glitzy, teeth n’ sequins commercialism seemed alien to me, a kid from a place where (arguably too much the other way) the emphasis was on telling things as they really were, no matter how grittily depressing that might be.

(I’ve never thought of the connection up to now, but you could say that as much about the traditional Scottish folk songs as you could about punk. The guitars are different, obviously.)

It was only as I grew older that I realised that country was exactly about telling things as they were, and the plastic smiles and rhinestones of the big country stars that reached our TV were a long way from Nashville’s darker heart, and the likes of Willie Nelson. I still can’t stand that production line alternating bass figure you get on a lot of Johnny Cash songs, and too much plaintive pedal steel turns me off, but I get it, I really do.

Apart from the ones previously mentioned, there are three particular favourites for me. ‘Don’t Go,’ a story of a life long love ending up with the wife’s death, walks the fine line between mawkishness and tugging at the heart strings and, for me at least, makes it to the other side of that canyon unscathed. ‘My Father was an Accordion Player,’ is another (it would seem) personal family tale of a father-son relationship which is bittersweet but funny. My favourite of all of them, though, is ‘The Vow,’ a tribute to Branan’s late father that combines affection with realism in a truly touching way.

Branan is his own man so far as lyrics go, and all the better for it. Take these lines from ‘the Vow,’ as an example:

‘I said, well I just thought, and he cut me off, and said that’s what you get for thinking,

I remember thinking, that’s probably not the best lesson for a kid,

And although that was just something he said,

And when I see where I get with my thinking,

I get to thinking that there may have been some kind of genius in the effortless way

He just did…’

I’ve not even mentioned some of the other superb songs on this album: the bluesy ‘Cold Blue Moonlight;’ the protest song against the shooting of black civilians by police, ‘Another Nightmare in America,’ the rambunctious ‘Visiting Hours.’ I have listened to this album again and again, and got new pleasures from it each time.

As for Isbell, well, I’ll keep it short, as I’ve already headed north of a thousand words and tried your patience. In addition, I’m hoping for a guest review of his latest offering ‘the Nashville Sound,’ shortly, so we’ll see then whether his run of solo work starting with ‘South Eastern,’ and moving through ‘Something More Than Free,’ continues at the same level or not.

So for the sake of brevity I’ll offer as evidence of Springsteen influence just one track from the latter album, and that’s ‘Speed Trap Town.’ Protagonist with a conflicted relationship with his father? Check. Reference to State Trooper? Check. Storyline involving busting out of small town, and driving till the sun comes up? You bet. Moral complexity? Spades of it.

I appreciate this type of music won’t be for everyone: any synths in evidence are strictly in service of the guitars, and there is no word, anywhere, of whether or not it’s a rainy day in Manchester. The guitars are crisp, and generally, undistorted. Many of the songs extend past the three minute mark. Despite all that, it behoves you to listen.

Unless you’re way too busy with the Mute Inglorious Miltons’ back catalogue, of course. In which case, crack on, and do come back to me with the highlights.

You Should Totally … a (p)review of various things

Drink South African

South African red wine’s a bit of an enigma for me. Every so often I come across one that’s a cracker: and then I can never find it again. The Holy Grail for me is the wine region of Robertson, which I’ve never had a bad bottle from.

However, most South African supermarket reds in this country seem a bit, well, so-so. Not bad, but not outstanding. Unfortunately, the recent triallists aren’t breaking that trend for me, but they’re worth a try – and not just because the Proteas are over here to give the Poms a damn good thrashing in the Tests. Although that’s as good an excuse as any.

Both wines are from Morrison’s: first up, Beyerskloof Pinotage Reserve, reduced to £6.50 from £9. A hefty beast, this, that went particularly well with curry. I wouldn’t pay full price for it.

Maybe a bit more accessible is Leopard’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon, currently £5 down from £6.50. This is a long term favourite, and well worth snapping up for its damsony, blackberryish fruit (woah, just went a bit Jancis Robinson on you there!)

Image result for beyerskloof pinotageImage result for leopard's leap cabernet sauvignon 2015

Read Mac Logan and Kevin Scott

I’ve just read the first of Mac Logan’s Angel’s Share thrillers, Angels’ Cut. It’s a tense, pacy thriller with a sympathetic hero. I’m looking forward to the next one.

Angels' Cut (The Angels' Share series Book 1) by [Logan, Mac]

Also well worth a read: my Thunderpoint stablemate Kevin Scott’s first novel, Dead Cat Bounce. Two brothers with very different life trajectories, one a charming loser, the other a seemingly successful London futures trader, have to combine to find a missing coffin, the one with their late stepbrother in it. This being Glasgow, there’s gangsters and black humour involved, but Scott cleverly subverts the more obvious tropes and comes up with a surprising conclusion.

Dead Cat Bounce by [Scott, Kevin]

Listen to Cory Branan

A more extensive review coming, but Branan’s latest, Adios, is just great. Here’s a taster, one of my favourites from the album, Imogene.

 

Have been at the Voodoo Rooms to see Callaghan/Jesse Terry

Where were you all a couple of weekends back? Edinburgh’s inaptly named Voodoo Rooms (they’re about as voodoo as a palatial, slightly glacial, Victorian drinking salon can get, I guess, unless they mean the dark magic used to spirit your money away with frankly supernatural bar prices) was half empty to hear these guys. Jesse Terry is a fine, mainly acoustic-guitar-based singer-songwriter: his cover version was Don McLean’s ‘Vincent,’ which fitted well with his own material. He is also, as I discovered when I went back to chat to him after his set, a really nice bloke worthy of your attention.

As for Callaghan, I’ve blogged about her and her ability with a good tune and a great voice before. Her covers on the night were The Drifters standard,  ‘Stand By Me,’ John Denver’s ‘Annie’s Song,’ and, as an encore, ‘Over the Rainbow.’ I know, right? Not exactly my natural musical habitat, either, and my heart sank when she announced the last one as her encore. And then she sang it.

Oh. My. Actual. [insert appropriate deity]. What a set of pipes that woman has. I mean, I knew her voice was special, even when put through the digital music equivalent of a meatgrinder that goes to produce the universal burger we call an mp3. But live? Just stunning. Stunning. She could sing ‘Baa baa black sheep’ and I’d still turn out to see her. If the angels in heaven sing half as well, it might be worth me thinking about giving up all this sinning stuff after all.

Image result for callaghan singer

Go see Martin McGroarty

My friend, colleague and fellow musical traveller Martin McGroarty is pretty much gaining the reputation round here of hardest working man in show business. We saw him at the Ship Tavern in Anstruther at the end of May, and the only thing wrong with the gig was we’d committed the schoolboy error of being the closest to sober in the whole place.

But boy, did he get the joint a’jumpin’ – and he now has such a following, any pub booking him can be guaranteed people travelling from as far away as, say, Dundee to see him! I see that he’s due to play there again on Saturday, June 24th, and I know it’s one of his favourite venues.

For a list of his gigs after that, go to his site.

That’s all for now, folks – more detailed musical recommendations coming soon!

Springtime for Red Squirrels: Or, The Art of Poetic Garden Avoidance

To the Scottish Poetry Library on Saturday, for the launch of three new books by Red Squirrel Press: Diana Hendry’s new short story collection ‘My Father as an Ant;’ Stephen Barnaby’s new story pamphlet ‘I never realised it was as bad as that;’ and Kevin Cadwallender’s new poetry collection ‘Polishing Demons.’

There are multiple reasons for not making it to a book launch. In Scotland, for 6 months of the year at least, these are often weather-related: snow, hail, that icy rain that gets into the gap between your collar and the back of your neck, high winds closing the Forth Road Bridge, yada yada. On Saturday, as Sheila Wakefield said, the opposite was true: the unseasonably warm spring weather made it hard to leave the back garden, especially when there’s a lot to be done.

Still, there were firm motivations for me to shoehorn myself into the 11.25 X59, packed as it was with fellow Fifers seeking their poetry, one suspected, in Marks and Spencer; to then, using advanced ruck and maul techniques not learned on the playing fields of Eton, blindside the scrummage of early-season tourists heaving towards a pushover try in the tartan shops of the upper Royal Mile; and then, as the crowds thinned out around the abandoned Avengers film set on the lower reaches of the Mile, to find my way at last to the SPL, reflecting as I did so that it and its sister institution across the road, the Scottish Storytelling Centre, could be the last spasm of Scottish cultural architecture for quite some years, whatever political colour’s in charge at the bottom of the hill in Holyrood, that other modern architectural landmark (remember all that fuss about how much it cost? What was that about, then?)

Image result for scottish poetry libraryScottish Poetry LibraryPublic entrance at the Scottish ParliamentThe Parliament

Image result for scottish storytelling centreScottish Storytelling Centre

One such motivation was Stephen Barnaby, whose speciality on the spoken word scene is mini-epics of 50 word fiction (the last paragraph could fit three of those in, just so you know!). I’d shared a stage (or corner of a pub with a mike) with Stephen on a number of occasions, and I’d always enjoyed his work. This time, though, his short story pamphlet had allowed him to stretch out a bit, and to good effect: the story he read, A Country Walk, concerned a visit to a friend in a psychiatric hospital, whose idea of a country walk was along the side of a motorway. Treading the fine line (literally) between humour and some pretty dark material, it was a perfect example of how Barnaby wraps up serious topics in a layer of charm and wit, and then roasts the two so the juices run into each other. Of course, his considerable performance chops don’t hinder.

My second motivation came next. Again, I’ve known Kevin Cadwallender as a fellow member of the Edinburgh spoken word scene for many years now. A much-garlanded performance poet and slam champion, he opened his account by telling us his new collection didn’t have any funny poems in it. He then proceeded to read a succession of funny poems – not laugh out loud, exactly, but full of that wry Geordie humour that we’ve come to expect from him. A poem like A Cynic’s Guide to Proverbs, with lines like ‘The wicked seem to rest quite a lot,’ clearly aren’t meant to be served up po-faced.

His closer, Ishtar on the No. 35 Bus, showed Cadwallender’s depth of vision, however. A much longer poem, it documents life on Easter Road, one of Edinburgh’s more mixed areas (and I say that as a life long fan of its most well-known occupant, Hibernian FC). The lines are grittily realistic, and yet uniquely beautiful: the Road’s ‘elephant hide’ a recurring theme throughout. Again, Cadwallender’s performance skills came into play: in the relatively douce surroundings of the SPL, he didn’t need to ramp it up as he would at a poetry slam, but, instead, peeled away the layers of meaning in this brilliant piece of work subtly and expertly until, at the end, there was that moment, that electricity in the room, you get at the end of any performance, spoken word or musical, when the collective breath is taken away. Then the applause.

I wasn’t so familiar with Diana Hendry’s work. However, she shared with the others that northern English sense of humour that, like those of the Scots, always has a dark edge to it (if we do go for independence, we totally need to move that border down a bit. Just saying). Her story, about a lady of mature years being ‘rescued,’ was more conventional than the others, perhaps, but no less enjoyable for that.

All of that, and then time enough when I got home to get the grass cut anyway.

You can buy all these fine volumes from Red Squirrel Press. And if your appetite’s whetted for literary events, my own novel launches are coming up next month: follow me here, on Twitter (@andrewferguso4) or sign up to the novel’s Facebook page for more details.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Gie it a bit more Aldi? A wine (p)review

There are some things in which the Redoubtable Mrs F and I are right up to the minute (no,really!); in others, I’m afraid, we remain defiantly old school. In the latter basket is our continuing refusal to embrace the digital age as regards our daily newspaper, which we still have delivered in pulped-wood format by a half-asleep teenager at some indeterminate time in the morning. (One motivation – or excuse – now is our own half-asleep teenager, Daughter and Heiress, studying journalism).

But which newspaper, I’m sure you’re agog to know? Well, during the week, we subscribe to that bastion of bleeding-heart liberalism, the Guardian. However, on a Saturday, we take a lurch to the right in newspaper-buying terms and take the Times. What? Donate our hard-earned shekels to that hard-to-like family, the Murdochs? I like to tell colleagues that it’s because, after a week at the day job, I’ve lurched so far to the right I’m just about ready to invade Poland: but actually, it’s all about the columnists – Caitlin Moran, Giles Coren, and Jane MacQuitty, more specifically.

The last of these is probably of most use to us in a practical sense: even the legendary Coren family wit is unlikely to persuade us to travel 500 miles to eat in a London restaurant, whilst MacQuitty’s wine recommendations have often stood us in good stead. However, last weekend, she let me down, she let the Redoubtable Mrs F down but, of course, most of all, she let herself down.

It all started so promisingly: an article about wines our heroine had been tasting from the two German discounter supermarkets, Lidl and Aldi. I’ve previously waxed lyrical about some of Aldi’s bottles, in particular, so was looking forward to what Jane had to say.

Unfortunately, she focused on the very wines we’d be least likely to buy: whites, mainly, as well as a couple of clarets. Now, I know Bordeaux’s meant to be the best wine region in the world for red wine, but I suppose I’ve never shelled for an expensive enough bottle to really get a taste for it. So, unfortunately, it was a case of reading between the lines in MacQuitty’s article: she liked the Lidl Spanish and Italian ranges as well as the Bordeaux, she said, but didn’t specify which ones. Similarly, whilst mentioning fizzys and clarets aplenty, she only hinted at what else was good: Aldi’s Exquisite Collection ‘continues to please,’ she opined, as well as ‘its finest, beefed-up limited edition Lot series,’ before citing a Chardonnay as an example.

We decided to try Aldi first, given that we had a bit more to go on. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot of the Lot series to be seen. In fact, not a jot. Fortunately, there was some of the Exquisite Collection, namely: the Aussie Shiraz (£5.79); Argentinian Malbec (£5.99); and a New Zealand Pinot Noir (£6.99).

First up was the Shiraz: Exquisite Australian Shirazinitially tasted last night with one of my chicken curries – no chilli heat, but lots of spice to cope with, in a creamy, yoghurty sauce. We generally find an Aussie Shiraz pretty good to go with this dish, and the Aldi version was up against a strong rival, in that there was a glassful left of Yellow Tail, a Ferguson house favourite in the same vein.

It stood up well – plenty of flavour, hefty amount of alcohol but carrying it fairly easily, good, long finish and as good a match to Chicken Panch Phuran as you could ask for, really. Great value, too.

 

 

 

Exquisite Argentinian Malbec

 

Next came the Malbec. Unfortunately, not up to the same standard as its Aussie stablemate: nothing wrong with it, really, but just a bit dry, a bit flavourless, a bit meh.

 

Exquisite New Zealand Pinot Noir

The New Zealand Pinot Noir was a bit more like it. We tasted it with my roasted salmon, lemon tomato and garlic dish (recipe: slice lemons and put at the bottom of a flattish casserole dish; ditto tomatoes and garlic; put salmon fillets on top; lob on salt, olive oil and a bit of paella spice, and stick in the oven till the salmon’s done) and it wnet well with that. A lighter red than we usually drink, but good for fish dishes.

So there you are – the Shiraz is the star!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Through a Lurgi Darkly: Elbow at the Usher Hall, March 13th, 2017

To the Usher Hall, last Monday, for Elbow. They’re not my all time favourite band, but I kind of fell for them when they helped me while away an hour or so of a long flight to Oz, 8 or 9 years ago, by watching a documentary of them. Since then, they played a key part in my nephew Dave and his wife Gill’s wedding ceremony (One Day Like This, along with Cave’s Ship Song, being their ceremonial music of choice – how cool was that?) and their Glasto appearance a couple of years ago had confirmed to me that, without necessarily really knowing any of their songs, or indeed any of their lyrics beyond that great line about kissing him when his lips are thin, they were good enough value for a family outing to see them when their current tour rocked up in Edinburgh.

Part of my motivation was out of appreciation that Elbow really don’t need to be playing venues as small as the Usher Hall. They’re pretty big league now, and could have done the same as most premiership bands do these days, by touching down in Scotland only for the time it took them to play the vast, soul-free void that is Glasgow’s SSE before pissing off south of the Border.

Instead, they had opted for the Edwardian magnificence of the Usher Hall. I’m not sure if Guy Garvey appreciated the irony of his toasting ‘some rich bloke’ who had endowed the hall with his pint of lager: Usher being one of Edinburgh’s great brewing and distilling families. When I was growing up, there would have been no question of such riff raff as a rock band getting on stage at the Usher Hall. However, needs must and, on the night, the grand old dame opened her skirts to, it’s fair to say, a generational mix of Elbow fans, including Daughter and Heiress and a pal down in the standing area, and The Redoubtable Mrs F and I in the upper balcony.

Our seat was great, I have to say, particularly as the lurgi which I’m only now recovering from had firmly taken a grip of me. We were at the centre of things, behind a stairwell with a good solid oak rail to rest one’s arms on; and the sound, for the most part, was great. However, this is where you should take this review’s lack of enthusiasm with a pinch of salt, because I’m concerned that my meh-ness about support band C Duncan‘s indie-poppy, guitar n’ synth flavoured set comes from hearing it through a fug of aforementioned lurgi (incidentally, if you’re looking up lurgi in Wikipedia because it’s an unfamiliar term to you, I mean the word for a flu-like virus first coined by the Goons, not that I was afflicted by a German chemical and construction company). Certainly, The RMF found their sound very pleasant.

Elbow came on with a strong set, and if I wasn’t exactly dancing in my seat at the start of the it, their meandering melodies and Guy Garvey’s great warm baritone was like the aural equivalent of a warm bath I could slip into and forget the viral firestorm going on in my bloodstream. There was a glitch mid way, though, with the sound, which appeared to reduce the band to playing on only onstage-monitors and amps half way through a song. This seemed to throw them slightly, and Garvey extemporised while, presumably, things were frantically plugged in and plugged out again to resolve the problem; but it broke the spell that had been building slightly, at least for me.

However, they got their mojo back as the set wore on. Again, in my over the counter medication addled state, it was the third last song of the main set, The Birds, that really took off (apologies for the pun – I hate when real journos do that!) so I’ve put a Youtube of a similar version they did at the Eden Project in 2014 at the bottom of this. It did what all the best Elbow songs do: building slowly, from deceptively simple chord progressions and some whimsical lyrics, to a rousing, anthemic chorus. It really, really cheered me up and made me forget myself.

The closer was, of course, One Day Like This, and Guy Garvey had us singing along – talk about a crowd pleaser. He even got us to sing the line about kissing him when his lips are thin all by ourselves.

After that, a brief encore and off into the night with all our viruses. At 45 of your English pounds, not a cheap gig, but I’m still glad I went.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Tale of Two Cariñenas

I should really start this wine recommendation, as indeed I should preface all my wine recommendations, with ‘I know what I like.’ In other words, I have no formal qualifications whatsoever as a wine expert. All I can claim is a limited and partial knowledge and interest in the topic, gleaned from years of highly motivated research.

Despite this, friends and colleagues, when we’re out somewhere serving the stuff, will almost invariably pass the wine list to me, saying, ‘Andrew, you know about wines, what do you think?’ What they really mean is, ‘Andrew, you seem to drink a lot of wine, so you should have it worked out by now, surely, ya lush?’

They may have a point on the quantity, although, dear reader, I’m not generally to be found on the floor of the bar at the end of the night grabbing at legs. Not these days anyway. I almost always drink responsibly (the Sambuca Shot Incident at Christmas being the exception that proves the rule) and so should you. Thing is, lightweight that I am, when I do drink anything at all I’ve found that wine, and red wine in particular, is the thing my system seems to tolerate best, particularly along with food.

Anyway, enough about me and on with the wine, I hear you say. Fair enough, dear reader, fair enough. Today’s lesson concerns a little-known wine region of Spain called Cariñena, which is geographically located a few miles south of the city of Zaragoza, and roughly half way on a line between Madrid and Barcelona. Baking hot in summer, freezing cold and harrowed by a wind called el cierzo in winter, the region is not without its challenges for its wine growers, even if it’s been cultivated here since Roman times.

However, despite its never having reached the upper echelons of La Liga in terms of Spanish wine regions, it’s one which I’ve always found, when it comes to supermarket reds, is a sure bet for a decent bargain. It’s a bit like a South African region called Robertson: although I know virtually nothing about South African wine regions, I know to grab a bottle from Robertson any time it appears because it’s always been a cracker.

So far as Cariñena is concerned, on the other hand, I know a wee bit more from my travels in Spain: that corner is between the big producing regions of Rioja and Catalunya, and like its neighbours, Campo de Borja and Calatayud, is a bit undervalued as a result. It’s not sexy like other northern areas like (especially) Ribera del Duero, and it’s not even got the industrial scale that other lesser regions like Castilla-La Mancha have.

So, when I saw a couple of bottles in Asda from the Cariñena region the other week, I reckoned they were both worth a go. They were Casa Luis Reserva, 2012 (currently reduced from £5.50 to a fiver) and Extra Special Old Vine Garnacha, 2015, reduced from a fiver to a mere £4.25. Here’s what they look like:

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Now, my finely honed drinking instincts told me the Casa Luis would be the better drop of the two. The gold string’s by no means a guarantee of quality, but the fact it was a reserva (the categories of ageing and length of relationship with the oak barrel in Spanish wine being tinto, crianza, reserva, gran reserva) suggested someone, somewhere in the winery had reckoned this one was worth the investment of time that the status requires.

However, on opening the bottle initial signs were not so encouraging: the cork crumbled half way up and I needed to execute a delicate piece of surgery with the old sacacorchos to retrieve the bottom half. On inspection, the business end of the cork didn’t appear discoloured and didn’t give off any indications of the wine being corked (I’ve read that the red end of the cork should either smell of cork, or of wine, and if it smells of anything else, it’s corked). However, I still wonder if that was the problem with this particular bottle, because very disappointingly, it was undrinkable and had to be used up in my Southern French Chicken recipe.

The only problem with the Garnacha was rather more self inflicted as, somehow, the first bottle of it managed to knock itself off its coaster and only an act of couch-borne athleticism unparalleled in Olympic history on my part managed to save some of the contents from emptying themselves onto the living room floor. As it was, there was only a limited sample left for research without getting down on my knees and sucking it out of the carpet fibres, and even I have my standards.

Fortunately, other bottles were also available from the same retailer and I can confirm that it is, in fact, a belter. The label chunters on about 45-year old Garnacha vines: for those of you interested, I do have it on good authority from Bosi, my charming guide round the fantastic Cambrico winery I posted about last year, that old vines of that kind of age produce less grapes, but much more concentrated flavours: the balance for the winemaker, of course, is between volume and quality.

For those of you less bothered with specifics, fill your boots! This is a big, bouncy, fruity red that’s good with pasta dishes, spanish tortilla, and, I’d imagine, the usual red wine staples of red meat and strong cheeses. It’s a ridiculous price for wine of this quality.

Not so good as a carpet cleaner, but, well, that’s not what it’s for, is it?

The Undiscovered Self: A Profile of Norman Lamont, Singer-Songwriter

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A shorter, more tightly edited version of this profile appears on Norman’s own site here.

Does the creative spark flare brightest in early adulthood for all of us? Or for some, does the onset of, say, middle age create new impetus, new muses either spiritual or temporal?

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and especially since reading Norman Lamont’s comment on his website that he’s been writing songs for 45 years, but he didn’t start writing good ones till his 40s.

Of course, this is in many ways typical Lamontian self-deprecation – I’m sure his twenty- and thirty-something output contains fine material – but my own appreciation of Norman’s work is inevitably coloured by the fact that I first got to know him in early 2011, when putting together a tribute night to His Bobness called Dylan Uncovered. The format was for each artist to do two covers of the great man, plus something else inspired by his work. In Norman’s case this was, inevitably, ‘the Ballad of Bob Dylan,’ one of his best known songs – and written, by my reckoning, long before his forties. I’ll let Norman himself tell you the story of that one, but, for me, his whole performance was one of the highlights of the evening.

Partly I just wanted to steal him and his bandmates to be my own backing band! Although they’ve since mutated from the Invisible Helpers to The Heaven Sent, Norman’s fellow instrumentalists in both switch between that folk-rock mix of acoustic and electric bandwidths that, in my head, I mostly hear when I have an idea for songs. Norman’s output is eclectic to say the least, ranging from the folk and rock genres through jazz influences to ambient electronica, but at its core is a body of work that follows that golden thread of songwriting craft from Dylan, Leonard Cohen, through others such as Nick Cave (Norman and his band also played at my next curated night, Cry of the Cave People, and made the Grand Lord of Goth’s songs his own too).

Of course, many know Norman for his long held affection for Cohen’s work, and I was delighted to play a small part in his Third Tip of the Hat to Leonard Cohen in November 2015. This was one of a series of tribute nights to the now sadly departed Canadian singer-songwriter, and Norman’s recent post about his loss is not just a fitting tribute, but telling in small details on how much Cohen’s approach has influenced his own style. Cohen’s ‘humble’ performance in front of a sell out crowd, for example, ‘stuck with [him] as the right way to approach an audience.’

In the same post, Norman mentions where he was living at the time of various Cohen album releases, including Rotterdam, London, Manchester, Staffordshire, and latterly, thankfully for us east coast Scots, South Queensferry. He’s been a fixture on the Edinburgh singer-songwriter scene since 1990. I’ve now seen him perform several times, and been lucky enough to share a bill with him on a couple of those occasions. In person and on stage, what shines through, apart from superb musicianship and songcraft, is the charm, self-deprecation and wit. Characteristically, after the Dylan Uncovered night turned out to be a logistical nightmare for which I, as an inexperienced gig promoter, was totally unprepared, he took the trouble to write and thank me for asking him to play. It was much more than most of the rest of the bill did!

A typical Lamont song – if such a thing even exists – will often use storytelling skills to drive the lyric on, whether of the shaggy dog variety as in ‘Ballad of Bob Dylan’ or a tauter form, as in  ‘The Last Man to Touch You,’ where the telling detail of the sexual rival’s journey to meet the narrator’s lover ‘he checks his watch, he mouths a song’ unwraps the fierce emotions underneath. One of my favourites from his last album is ‘Not About to Fly,’ recounting an Ayrshire childhood, from the sound of it, well spent. How many other songs begin with a line like, ‘When I was a spy I stuffed some wires in a jam jar/ left it buried by the river bank where it’s transmitting still…’? Musically, the opening mandolin motif leads into some superb violin playing before the rhythm section of (acoustic) guitar and bass underpin the whole; but the song’s flexible enough that the band could perform it equally well with Norman toting his Stratocaster.

My perennial question for Norman when I meet him these days – apart from, ‘when’s the next album coming out?’ is ‘why in hell aren’t you far better known than you are?’ It’s a dumb question to ask any artist, but dumb questions can still be valid ones. Perhaps he doesn’t push himself forward as brazenly as it takes. Maybe it is that age thing – after all, if anyone’s going to grab attention in today’s overcrowded Youtube/Soundcloud/Bandcamp melee it’s probably not going to be a fifty-plus singer-songwriter who relies on strong melody and intelligent lyrics, and doesn’t generally pause in the middle to rap over a Limp Bizkit sample.

Well, if this blog persuades one more initiate into the cult of Norman Lamont, it’ll have been worthwhile. Let the world go to hell in a handcart – standing at the top of 2017, it certainly looks headed that way – if we’ve got Mr Lamont to help it explain it all, the journey there will seem that much less bumpy. And the good news for all of us is, the well’s showing no sign of going dry. ‘I’ve got so many to finish and so many unrecorded,’ he tells me.

Amen, amen, amen to that.

Footnote: when putting this profile together, I asked Norman a couple of questions – basically just to get a couple of quotes from the man himself in somewhere. Typically, his responses were so well written and witty they’re far too good to fillet, so they’re printed in full below.

When you’re recording an album, do you have a sound (whether it’s Dylan’s wild, thin, mercury sound or otherwise) in mind for the songs?

– On a song by song basis, yes I can pretty much hear it all in my head, a full arrangement. That’s about 60% of the songs. Not for an album, which is why my albums are such a patchwork of inconsistent styles. I just hear and create songs then try to shoehorn them into a collection.  That’s my pattern and I actively try to disrupt it now in a few ways:

  • taking a half-finished song or idea to the band and seeing how it ends up
  • starting a song on the computer from a drum track or a few chords, then trying to match some random lyrics from my notebook to it
  • in the case of the band album, using the same people and roughly the same intrumentation for every track.

I have to say none of these have been as successful, I don’t think, as the songs that are fully ‘heard’ in my head like I Started A Fire and The Last Man To Touch You. Often when I make them up I’m driving so they have to be quite catchy songs for me to remember them till I get home. By that time I’ve pretty much arranged them in my head. But I’m trying to persevere with the ‘disruptive’ methods. An example of that would be Song of Wandering Aengus from the last album where I had the backing track I’d made for a cover version of someone else’s song, but replaced the melody with a new one and Yeats’ lyrics.

Do you release groups of songs as albums as they come chronologically, as it were, or are there a lot of songs that you hold back till they find a right fit?

I have the recordings in half-finished states for years, dipping in and out until suddenly one night I’ll get a glimpse of what this or that one needs to make it good. I don’t really think about albums other than ‘have I got enough for one?’  I think those days may be in the past and I’ll just put them out as I finish them. I’ve got so many to finish and so many unrecorded.

Name something you enjoy about the recording process, and something you don’t enjoy so much.

I love arranging, throwing instrument after instrument on then taking them off again leaving maybe only a bar or two of this and and a trace of that. I hate the software. At first I thought it was Cubase that was playing jokes at my expense but now I realise it’s any software I use. They conspire among themselves to trip me up. They tune into my level of eagerness to get started and plan their malfunctions in proportion to my sense of urgency.  An alternative explanation is incompetence, but I don’t buy that.

You can also read my interview with Norman which formed part of my ‘songwriters on songwriting’ series right here.

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Falling Backwards for Christmas: a Kaleidoscopic Crescendo of Kula Shakerism

It wasn’t so much that your man couldn’t stay upright: it was more that he’d acquired a backward slant. So, no matter how hard he tried to jump up and down in the same spot with his larrikin mates, he always ended up falling backwards towards those in the audience stood behind him. Which, for a substantial part of the first half of the gig, meant me.

I mean, it wasn’t as if I hadn’t tried to cover this eventuality. Having taken up position before the support act front and centre, but a sensible modicum of distance back from the stage, I had covertly scanned those around me and satisfied myself that my immediate neighbours, like the vast majority of those there for Kula Shaker’s twentieth anniversary celebration of their debut album, K, had grown up with the band and were therefore now at a stage in life where staying reasonably sober and just nodding along to the music seemed like a decent plan on a school night.

However, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s actually me: because in the same way that those most anxious to find a surrogate mental health professional/drug counsellor amongst their fellow passengers on the bus seem to make a beeline in my direction, here were these guys, suddenly, right in front of us in the crowd and, in the case of your man, in my face in a very real sense.

To be  fair, 2016 has been such a shite year all round I couldn’t really blame him for wanting to escape the strict confines of reality for a bit. Continuing state and terrorist sponsored bloodbaths around the world, especially Syria; the refugee crisis; Trump, the impact of Brexit, however you voted (I’m obliged for legal reasons to say); the loss of Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen to name but three; on a personal basis, a lot of close family illness, some ongoing job discombobulation, and the technical problems around the Venus Carmichael album launch have all, in their varying degrees of significance, have made this year one of the easiest to leave behind ever.

In fact, one of the few bright spots had been conversion to the cult of Shakerism when the Kulas played Glasgow’s O2 ABC, back in February, at the start of their tour. So the prospect of ending it in the company of Mr Mills and his bandmates on the tour’s last night at the same venue was too good a prospect for us to miss.

And indeed, the signs and portents were encouraging: a damned fine blues-rocky support band called Rudy Warman and the Heavy Weather, then, amidst the interminable setting up process for the main act, the strategic placement of joss sticks at the front of the stage. Mind you, that was maybe just to distract any law enforcement present from the thick fug of exhaled cannabinoids coming from the crowd, and I’m not even just talking about the guy in front of us. All the while, a constantly evolving kaleidoscope of images featuring Ghandi, JFK and, bizarrely, Kevin Spacey, played on the backdrop.

If there was a criticism of what followed, it was mainly an inevitable consequence of the gig’s dedication to that twenty year anniversary of K: whilst a fine, fine, album, the band’s debut does have its weaker tracks. I mean, even Tapestry’s got ‘Smackwater Jack,’ right? Comparisons with February’s gig, which was essentially a greatest hits package comprising about 40% each of K and Peasants, Pigs and Astronauts, with the remaining 20% the best from the rest of their output, were somewhat invidious.

But I cavil, merely. Once both sides of K were – all but – done, the boys obliged with some choice material, of which more later. And again, if the gig seemed to dip in the middle, that may only be my perception because, despite having moved some thirty feet back and left in the now thickly-packed crowd, I was gobsmacked to see my friend with the backward slant headed in my direction, like some bizarre drunk heat-seeking missile. Honestly! Oblivious to the tuttings and head-shakings all around him, and the rather more forceful prods of the thickset guy in the puffa jacket and baseball cap in front of me, somehow, somehow, your man was back, falling backwards for Christmas into my unwelcoming arms.

‘You need to try leaning forward more, you see, that’s your mistake,’ I offered in his ear.

‘Shnngggurglnn,’ he replied, nodding and smiling in a sleepy-eyed fashion. He had obviously ventured far beyond language.

And then – a Christmas miracle! – back up on stage, Crispian Mills hit a power chord, your man and his mates leapt for joy, beer went everywhere, and in a thunderclap of a song’s ending, they disappeared! I shit you not! One minute they were there, scattering eau de Tennents’ everywhere (but thankfully mostly forwards) and the next they were gone, leaving a three-man-drunk hole in front of us. If I had doubted the Power of Shakerism before, truly I came to believe at that moment.

More, they had ascended into the Rapture (or, just possibly, gone to the bar) at a perfect time, because Kula Shaker had finished with K and its associated B sides and were closing their set with the obligatory storming cover of Joe South’s ‘Hush.’ Cue massed singing of na-nana-na etc, handwaving, foot stamping, and general commotion amongst even the most douce sections of the crowd. Then a tumultuous encore: ’33 Crows’ and ‘Infinite Sun’ from K2.0, followed by my all time favourite, ‘Great Hosannah,’ with a tremendous, roaring segue into ‘Govinda,’ the track they’d held back from the original album. The second encore, listed on Setlist FM as ‘I’d Like to teach the World to Sing/Shakermaker medley,’ sent us home smiling.

It would have taken a man less emotional than me to feel unmoved, in the face of aforesaid shite year, by the lyrics of ‘Great Hosannah:’

If we stand here together
And we see the world as one
We may think there’s no future
But it’s the same for everyone
It’s like the world has lost its head
And it’s like all the prophets said
But will we arise to a new world…

But my transcendental experiences were not quite at an end for the night. As we faithful all shuffled to the exit, another drunk guy drew near (it’s not quite the animal magnetism I’d dreamed of as a teenager, I may say).

‘Flug log illegal,’ he said to me, nodding conspiratorially. I must have looked confused, so he tried again.

Flaak laak ineagle,’ he said. ‘FLAG LARK IN BEAGLE.’

‘Ah,’ I said, because suddenly, a blinding flash of illumination had hit me (it may have been the last of the stage lights popping). He was, of course, quoting from the Second Epistle of St Crispian to the Glaswegians (K2.0, track 1, verse 1). And in that moment of enlightenment, a strange transfiguration came upon me. For were we not all pilgrims travelling on the same route? And who was I to judge my fellow converts? Indeed, but two nights ago, with the administration of some office-lunch peer-group pressure-inspired sambuca shots, had I not been pretty much in the same state, if not of grace, of talking in tongues?

Yea, brother, I had been. Big style. Drunk as a monkey. So now I laid a hand on my fellow pilgrim’s shoulder, and together we intoned the Holy Word of Crispian:

‘We are one with the Infinite Sun,

Fly like an eagle…’

At least, that’s what I was singing. He was still chuntering on about logging being illegal. But the Spirit of Shakerism was moving within him, I could tell.

Footnote: If you’ve read this far down, well done, and thanks for reading – and listening – to my various creative outpourings over the year. If you have. Have a great festive period, whatever your belief or none, and a safe and prosperous 2017. It can only improve.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If there are ads below here, they’re not mine!

Andy’s Seasonal Solstice Sluggers!

The weather’s turning colder and darker here: so, despite the nominal tipping point of the shortest day having been reached, it’s not likely to turn into white wine weather any time soon…

So red it is! Here, drawn from Jane MacQuitty’s 50 top reds in the Times at the end of November, or, in the case of the winners, from other recommendations of hers, are the ones we’ve tracked down so far, and what we think of them:

2012 Cepa Lebrel Rioja Reserva, Spain, Lidl £5.49:

7/10. Damn fine Rioja. If you like it oaky, this one’s ok (see what I did there?)

2016 Taste the Difference Fairtrade Shiraz, South Africa, Sainsbury’s £6 till January 1:

5/10. Couldn’t taste the difference.

2016 Finca Las Moras Art Series Malbec, Argentina Sainsbury’s  £7:

6/10. Not that artful.

2015 Extra Special Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon, Australia, Asda, £6.98:

6/10. Not that extra special.

2015 Estevez Pinot Noir Reserva, Chile Aldi £4.79

No score yet ‘cos we’ve not tried it yet. We’ve a lot to get through! But MacQuitty’s star wine of the cheapos, so well worth a try.

Vignobles Roussellet Pinot Noir, Aldi, £4.49

9/10. I’ve recommended this before (as has MacQuitty) and I’m going to recommend it again. I’d pay twice the price for it. Honestly. but coming up on the rails:

Wine Atlas Corbieres 2014, Asda, £5.98

8/10. Terrible label for the traditionalists, great glug. Actually not that far away from the Aldi Pinot Noir geographically, as it’s also a Vin de Pays d’Oc, where the good news for non-traditionalists is that the French have relaxed their fussy wine regulations to allow winemakers to stick oak chips in their stainless steel vats. That goes against the romantic ideal of the wine laying down in hand-crafted, artisanal barrels of the stuff, but for a cheap glugger it does the same sort of job. Fill your boots with this easy-drinking, moreish, hefty yet sensitive red. It’s kind of the red wine equivalent of Bruce Springsteen.

Wine Atlas Corbieres

Enjoy! More solstician blogging in a couple of days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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