andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Category Archives: reviews

Falling Between 4 Stools: Auntie NHS and her Ultra-Super New Poo Test

Swedish Glace Dairy Free Heavenly Chocolate

If you don’t appreciate your humour on the scatological side, this isn’t the post for you. If you’ve never been sure what ‘scatological’ means, safer to look it up first…

As some of you will know, I turned 56 recently. I know! Well, I’ve had an easy life, that’s the secret of those boyish good looks. The National Health Service, incidentally, turned 70 this year, which means it’s 14 years older than me, and, of course, that I’ve lived with its benefits all of my life.

14 years. That makes the NHS like a  youngish auntie to me  (I don’t know why I’ve assigned her a female gender, really, apart from the obvious one of all that caring and nurturing being, well, something more commonly associated with the distaff side).

Fortunately, even though I’ve rarely paid my auntie much attention, having visited her as little as possible over the years, she still remembers me, and is there for me when I need her. More, since I turned 50, she’s been sending me some quirky but useful presents on my birthday. Only once every two years, mind, but nevertheless, thoughtful of her. Well, she’s getting on a bit.

Anyone in the Scotland of a certain age will know what I’m talking about: the bowel cancer screening kit you get sent on your 50th birthday, and then every two years until you’re 74 (after that, you need to have enough mental furniture to contact them and ask for another one).

And here’s the good news: auntie’s biennial present just got a whole lot less difficult to use.

The kit used to be a more elaborate affair: you had to collect samples on four different visits  to the loo for a Number 2, apply them, by means of little cardboard sticks, to little windows in the kit (itself a piece of cardboard, a bit like a cut-down advent calendar). In other words, it was kind of like paint by numbers. Except you only had one kind of paint, and it was pretty lumpy.

Let’s be honest here. Doing this test pretty much breaks some of the most fundamental social conditioning we’ve all got, at least in the so-called developed world. From the earliest session of potty training, we’ve all been taught that what comes out of our back botty is the dirtiest thing in the world, which we should never ever touch, except via the medium of toilet paper, and which should be flushed down the china receptacle in our bathrooms (the toilet, obviously, not the other china receptacles) as quickly as possible.

With this test, though, you not only didn’t flush it straight away: you retained it long enough for you to get up close and personal enough to create a little advent calendar out of your poo. On four separate visits to the china shrine. You could, in theory, line the toilet bowl with paper to catch the, er, raw material for this, but frankly I never trusted the paper to keep it clear of the water, which, the leaflet advised, would contaminate the sample. So my method was – and remains – catching it in an ice cream box. A used one, obviously, which I’d eaten the ice cream out of first. It is the most counter-intuitive thing I’ve ever done. Pooing in a box, I mean. The ice cream eating’s pretty much hard wired in.

One reason the test was previously difficult was that thing of the four samples. That meant you had to keep the kit for at least a few days; I kept the advent calendar out in the garage while it was a work in progress. I certainly wasn’t going to re-use the ice cream box, so you needed a supply of them, bagging up each one and disposing of them every time.

However. This year’s present from Auntie was much less of an ordeal. A gizmo shaped like a USB stick opens up to reveal a little plastic dipstick, which, well, you’ve guessed it, you use to dip. Then it’s a simple task to replace it in the rest of the USB stick, screw it up again, and shove it in the reassuringly easy-seal envelope provided. Crucially, you have only to do this once.

Why am I writing a blog about poo? Because, dear reader, there’s a very serious intent to Auntie’s little pressie. The leaflet this year tells you that, if caught and treated in time, bowel cancer has a 90% survival rate. The leaflet doesn’t hit you with the sucker punch that I also read recently: that if it’s not caught in time, that rate drops to 5%.

No brainer, huh? Well, you’d think. But at least one colleague of mine has said she doesn’t take the test because it’s just ‘too disgusting to do.’ So, if you’re over 50 in the UK and feel the same way, here’s a wake up call. Your poo is your friend. The test can detect, in time for treatment, if you have the beginnings of bowel cancer. And it just got a whole lot easier.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Below here, there may be some adverts. Almost definitely not related to the post.

 

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Show Us The Boogeyman: A Review of Hereditary

To our local multiplex, then, for Hereditary, a first feature by writer-director Ari Aster which has, to say the least, been attracting polarised views, from ‘scariest thing since the Exorcist’ (various newspapers, in a nutshell) to ‘worst film I have since in a very long time. Not even worth 1 star’ (anonymous Odeon review). Having seen it, although I enjoyed it greatly, I can see both sides now (which is quite appropriate, as the eponymous Joni Mitchell track is the outro music for the movie).

We join the Graham family just as they’re burying Granny, Ellen, a ‘secretive woman with secretive rituals.’ Dad, Steve, is trying to mansplain his way out of the whole thing; meantime late teenage son, Peter, is diverting his grief by way of the occasional bowl of hash in school break times, and trying to get off with the girl in the row in front of him. As you, frankly, would at that age.

It’s the distaff side that’s are more of a cause for concern: there’s clearly something not right about Charlie, the early teens daughter, who, when she’s not drawing disturbing portraits in her notebook or fashioning what appear to be voodoo dolls out of assorted bric-a-brac, is making strange clucking noises.

And then there’s the central viewpoint character, Annie, Ellen’s daughter. Let me say right at the outset that Toni Collette deserves an Oscar for her portrayal: the camera lingers on her, much of the time right up in her face, and it’s a masterclass in conveying, micro-expression by micro-expression, the shifting levels of guilt, anger, despair, and plain bewilderment that the death of a dominating parent has brought.

She won’t get an Oscar, though, because this is a horror movie, and they don’t get Oscars. No award likely either, then, for the set designer who created the rambling wooden house the increasingly-dysfunctional family play out their claustrophobic psychodramatics in; nor, indeed, for the sound guy, whose capturing of every creak and groan the house makes (almost an extra character in itself), not to mention the supernatural effects that insinuate themselves around the auditorium, helps to ramp up the tension by the spadeful. Not to give too much of the plot away at this stage, but when you hear that clucking noise seeming to come from behind your ear, you’d better hope you shaved the hairs on the back of your neck pretty damn close before you joined the popcorn queue.

Really, there is so much that’s good about the movie. You’re absolutely rooting for Annie, even as she snaps at her husband’s well-intentioned interventions, and allows herself to be drawn into some home-made juju that you just know is going to make a bad situation ten times worse. There’s a truly, truly, memorable scene where, by way of the second plot complication, a horrific accident happens, and its aftermath is stretched, and stretched, and stretched, and left taut as a bowstring, ready to fire the blazing arrow that skewers the rest of the story’s dark heart.

For a long time, the subtle visual and auditory jolts build the atmosphere towards what promises to be a white-knuckle climax. And then…

Okay, so SPOILER ALERT, don’t read any further if you don’t want to have the plot explained here. As with so many horror, supernatural, or such like movies, eventually the story has to nail its colours to some sort of belief system, and show us the bogeyman behind all this ratcheting tension. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Zombie? Vampire? Ancient undead demon who says Zool when you open the fridge door? William Rees-Mogg?

And that’s the first disappointment. The weird little words like ‘Satany’ scrawled on the wallpaper earlier on were a clue. (As an aside, what’s up with that? Satany? Does Beelzebub get out of bed of a morning and say to Mrs B, ‘Ooh, I don’t know about you, darling, but I feel a bit Satany this morning. Let’s go and char-grill some Jesuits for breakfast’?)

Because yes, it’s your garden-variety secret devil-worshipping cult, prostrating their middle-aged wobbly bits to a tin can idol that looks like a cross between Worzel Gummidge and one of the Flower Pot Men, gone a bit evil. As another aside, always with the naked? I mean, don’t devil-worshipping cults evolve, and like, get to wear some sort of leisurewear at their occult ceremonials? Honestly, it’s not a good look unless you happen to be young and hot. Which, let’s be honest, most of your average devil-worshipping cult members aren’t. Image result for britt ekland wicker man

(Britt Ekland in Wickerman apart, obviously: after that scene where she rubs herself along the wallpaper outside Edward Woodward’s room, I’ll never look at anaglypta the same way.)

 

 

 

Gratuitous opportunity for image of Britt Ekland

The second disappointment is more understandable, and indeed forgiveable. I’m guessing Ari Aster doesn’t quite have the directorial financial pulling power of a Spielberg or a Scorsese, whether or not they still have Harvey Weinstein on speed dial (what, too soon?) so the special scary effects in the denouement are slightly south of impressive.

I mean, when the central character you’re rooting for is hanging from a beam in the attic, trying with some success to take her own head off with a hacksaw, and you’re laughing, something has gone wrong somewhere, either with you or the film. And whilst I might normally think it’s the first of these, I certainly wasn’t the only one in the cinema laughing.

Despite these two criticisms, I thoroughly enjoyed Hereditary. The first three quarters gave genuine chills: and if it ended with chuckles, well, that can be good too. Cracking script, great performances, shame about the special effects. Is it ‘pants-wettingly scary,’ as The Verge claimed after its Sundance premiere? For me, only if you have a pre-existing bladder control problem. But then, one man’s Exorcist is another man’s Friday 13th Part II, as I discovered years ago when I went to see both with my best pal Nicky and we each found the opposite one scary.

For me, it was the Exorcist, by the way. Hereditary isn’t that, but in case I’ve misjudged you, pack an extra pair of pants. Or as they say in America, pants.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Finding Sunshine Amongst the Snow Squalls: Edinburgh, April 1st

‘APRIL is the cruellest month,’ TS Eliot said, ‘breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain…’ this being his epic poem, The Waste Land, he chunters on for a fair amount longer, but we get the gist and, frankly, that’s about as much as anyone remembers (I’d forgotten the bit about the dull roots and all that, to be honest).

Anyway, I’d like to say I was meditating on modern classic poetry yesterday as we wandered round the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens yesterday, but I’d be stretching it: the day before we’d shuddered in and out of charity shops in Morningside, as sleet tried very hard to turn itself into snow: today, the snow is making a proper go of it in our corner of the Scottish Lowlands. What is this crazy weather?

Yesterday, by comparison, it was just dry and cold, wind whipping across the sandstone faces of the nearby tenements as we exited the agreeable coffee shop quarter of Stockbridge (like Morningside, a village within the city that, as economic downturns come and go, still maintains the fur coat part of Edinburgh’s ‘fur coat and nae knickers’ image).

To the Botanics, then, with its outstanding internal and external views.

 

One of the real pleasures of the Gardens at this time of year is the rhododendron collection beginning to brust into flower. The severe winter seemed to have taken its toll on some of the plants, with evidence of frost damage. Nevertheless, there was the start of some sort of colour to be had:

It used to be, of course, that you could go into the tropical and other glasshouses for a heat: but now they charge for that, so we stayed out! Fortunately, the little alpine glasshouses are free.

This alpine collection, sheltered from the recent storms, was really the highlight of the whole Gardens yesterday, and Edinburgh’s Botanics-visiting classes buzzed round them like puffa-jacketed bees.

We totally need to go back later in the Spring. The rhoddies will be really quite spectacular in a month or so. Still not sure what they’re doing to the great long herbaceous borders at the moment: they seem to be a work in progress; but the massive series of rockeries that climb towards the southern boundary are always worth a wander round. Oh, and the trees. Lots of trees of every description.

For now, though, the alpines were the ones putting on a show.

 

(Later, our excellent local, John Leslie on the South Side, provided a warming atmosphere. TS Eliot may have been right about April, but they serve Deuchar’s right through the month!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

…and the bit about Leslie’s is as close as you’ll get to an endorsement from me! Other people’s endorsements below here.

In Another Life – the Effortless Album

Some of the greatest, most effortless-sounding albums were a weary long trauchle (to use a Scots word) to make. To take one example, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours took over a year, and yet sounds to this day as if the whole thing happened spontaneously over a sunny LA weekend. Apparently they took three days just to agree over the tuning of a piano; only Christine McVie’s classic song ‘Songbird’ was done and dusted in the course of a night, and that took a truckload of champagne to get it over the line, so the story goes.

Of course, the French Prosecco was kind of the least The Mac were doing in the course of the Rumours sessions; and then there was the small matter of them all breaking up with each other at the same time. In comparison, and with all due respect to their rock n’ rollness, I can’t really imagine Norman Lamont and the Heaven Sent using much more than a strong brew of Tetley’s during the making of In Another Life.

According to the man himself, the original intention was simple – create an album using a small multi-track recorder in a living room, with the whole band playing live, and minimal overdubs. That, however, was in late 2015, and over two and a half years later, at least three different recording spaces, a producer, a cover designer, and a pro master wizard later, the album is finally, officially out. And yet it sounds effortless!

Norman has described the overall style as ‘pop,’ and I guess, in some ways, it may serve as the gateway drug to some of his darker material, such as ‘Fingerpuppet,’ or ‘The Last Man to Touch You,’ on the album before this, All The Time in Heaven. Nevertheless, bright and breezy folk-rock like In Another Life’s opener, ‘End of Tears,’ is hard to make sound as effortless as this. Similarly, the way Norman leans into ‘Well, I’m the type of guy…’ on the next track, ‘Green Lights All The Way,’ sounds as easy as the narrator’s lucky life, but, as I can personally testify, it takes talent – and time – to sound that easy.

Throughout, Norman’s intention to get things as good they can be shines through. ‘The Ballad of Bob Dylan’ is probably the song Norman’s known best for: but here it gets a radical treatment that keeps the core shaggy dog story front and centre whilst mixing up pace and instrumentation all around it. A modern classic!

Whilst the overall sound is what I’d describe as folk rock, or maybe acoustic rock, there are a couple of departures: the jaunty spirit of ‘In Another Life,’ is such an earworm that I can forgive him for reggae, one of my least favourite genres; and ‘Damn Grey’ and ‘Goodbye Song’ both exhibit jazz influences.

The other highlight, unsurprisingly to long-term Norman-watchers, is his facility with words. The music may sound easier than it is, but the lyrics are at all times smartly turned out, and on occasion have a hidden bite. ‘You Made Me Do It,’ with its refrain of ‘You made me this way,’ leaves the listener in no doubt who the narrator holds responsible. In another context, ‘Damn Grey’ deals with the weighty topic of depressive illness.

Favourites? Surprisingly perhaps for a fellow devotee of the Cohen/Cave dark axis, I’m really drawn to the upbeat stuff! Those sly vocals in ‘Green Lights All the Way,’ with its earworm of a tune, for example. ‘End of Tears,’ is another stand out.

Incidentally, if you go through Norman’s website to sign up for this, you get an incredibly generous package of stories behind the songs, videos, and bonus tracks. Strongly recommended, it emphasises the care, love, and sheer blood sweat and tears went into the making of the album.

It’s just that it sounds so effortless.

P.S. You can also get a deal on the launch gig, which is next Thursday, 22nd March, at the Voodoo Rooms.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adverts be below here. Not Norman.

A Tale of Two Guitars

So, when I was reviewing the two amplifiers I use recently, I mentioned I was planning to review my two main guitars, to compare and contrast, and I’m a man, at least in this regard, of my word.

I suppose before I start I should confess these are not my only guitars. The others that I own (I had a gorgeous Danelectro 12 string on loan from Mr Brutal for a while, but he’s borrowed it back at the moment) are: a Kiso-Suzuki copy of the Gibson J200, which I think I may have mentioned before, with a bridge so cracked it would cost more to repair than it’s worth; a Freshman Acoustic 12-string which these days is tuned to Open D and used exclusively for slide guitar; and a blues box guitar, picked up in a Black Friday sale at the Works bookshop, of all places, a couple of years ago.

Which leaves me with my two main guitars: A Lâg Tramontane T100 ACE; and an Epiphone EJ200CE.

Prices first of all, just to see we’re comparing like with like. I bought the Lâg a few years ago, but it currently retails at around £350 – £360 (although I found it quite tricky to track down in this country now; a lot of the sites were American). The Epiphone is currently on Gear4music.com at £360, so, in other words, they’re pretty much both firmly in the mid-price range for acoustic guitars, not being the cheapest by any means, but certainly not up there in the stratospheric levels you can shell for a bit of wood and six strings.

Looks? Well, here they are together.  Both, to my mind, beautiful in their own way: the Lâg, at least so far as I know, not trying to copy any other maker’s guitar, and with that distinctive headstock and the wee Knights Templar stylee cross at the soundhole.

The Epiphone, of course, very definitely is trying to copy another guitar, namely the Gibson J200, a fabled model that’s been used by Elvis, Dylan, Lennon, Harrison, Jimmy Page, Emmylou Harris, etc, etc. Like the Lâg, it’s available in a range of finishes, and I was very tempted by the sunburst version before plumping for the all black model: a mean looking machine, indeed. (Gibson have 20 more facts about the original J200 if your curiosity isn’t sated).

As an aside, I’ve never quite understood how, or why, guitar makers put up with others making copies of their models: in any other context, you’d think the original makers would be suing the copyists’ asses just as quickly as they could make it to the patent office. However, every other guitar you see is a copy, often of famous models by either Fender or Gibson (Stratocaster, Telecaster, Les Paul, Hummingbird, etc etc). Time was, back in the 70s and 80s, when most of the copies were made in Japan (for example my Kiso-Suzuki); then, Korea became the cheapest place; these days it’s more likely to be China.

In the case of the Epiphone, it was originally a company in its own right. Originating in Turkey with a Greek owner, in 1903 owners and company relocated to the US where, by the 50s, it was a main rival to Gibson for archtop guitars, at which point it was taken over by Gibson’s parent company. However, far from being bought up to be closed down, the two companies were run separately. Epiphone guitars continued to have their own name and reputation – the Beatles used them, before inevitably, trading up to the bigger cachet of the Gibson name.

And there’s the thing for me. Every guitar band you see on the telly these days are either toting Gibsons or Fenders and, contrary chap that I am, that just makes me all the more determined to play something different. Plus, of course, the Gibson equivalent of my guitar costs £5,000. Yes, that’s £5,000. Could it sound nearly 14 times better than my Epiphone? No, I really don’t think so either.

Because the Epiphone is a beauty in every sense. As you can see from the photo, it’s a big beast of a thing (the J, dear reader, stands for Jumbo) so it wouldn’t be for everyone (interestingly, Emmylou has her own smaller equivalent made by Gibson, the L200. Do hope the L doesn’t stand for ‘lady’). Played acoustically, it’s surprisingly quiet, with an even, pleasant, but unremarkable tone. Indeed, in the shop it nearly lost out to the Epiphone Hummingbird. And then I plugged it in.

Where the EJC200 really wins out is in the quality of its electronics. With an under-saddle and under-bridge pick up, and nanoflex technology (no, I don’t really know what it means either) it sounds just fantastic when amplified. The Lâg, in contrast, sounds great played acoustically, but its electronics are, well, a bit french. So much so, that when I’m recording with it these days, I mike it up rather than using pickups. That’s not so easy live, and the best I can get from it is using the Vox amp, as described in the review of the amps.

Bottom line? I’m really pleased to have both of these. For finger picking and the generally quieter stuff I do with Tribute to Venus Carmichael, the Lâg is a superb instrument. For playing in the house, again it’s a pleasure. Its tone is gorgeous.

Which is not to say the Epiphone doesn’t get played in the house too. Although the Lâg isn’t hard to play, the bigger guitar is particularly easy: someone said it plays like an electric, and it actually is as easy as that to knock out chords on. Plug it in, though, even with a loud electric band, and it comes into its own.

Here’s a wee instrumental I’ve put up on Freesound, the excellent sound sample site. It’s basically a song that didn’t make the cut for my next album lyrics-wse, but I’ve put a bit of both the Epiphone in strum mode, and the Lâg in finger-pick mode. I’ve not done anything clever effects-wise in the production process, deliberately: just a bit of light reverb to take some of the dryness out. On other tracks, though, I’ve used the Epiphone much more extensively because, with its dual inputs and better electronics, it produces a very handy, malleable signal for tweaking.

If I had to have only one of these guitars, I’d have the Epiphone. But I don’t, and for my purposes at least, they’re a near-perfect complement to each other.

Finally, should you wish to hear more from these guitars, a Youtube review of each:

The Epiphone review’s long, but I love Topdazzle’s no nonsense approach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ignore the adverts below here. Actually, I have a plan for adverts on this page…

A Tale of Two Amplifiers

Ok, let’s talk amplification, people. I’m talking about the means by which guitars – and in my case, almost exclusively acoustic ones – are made louder than they naturally are.

Three reasons why I decided to do this. First, Vox have just brought out a new range of acoustic amps and, being Scottish, I thought it was a good time for you to look again at the previous lot as they’re likely to be on sale in a guitar shop near you soon. Secondly, since the original post I did about my first acoustic amp, the Vox AGA 30, I have splashed some cash on the Marshall AS50D and I thought, after a good year or so of use, it was time to compare and contrast the two.

The third reason is pretty shameless, really. Week in, week out, month in, month out, year in, year out, that Vox amp review gets hits. It just keeps on trucking as the most visited post I’ve ever done. Honestly. I might have written the most brilliant literary works of fiction, the most penetrating gig reviews, the most acerbic Dorothy Parkeresque jeu d’esprits, and none of them would have done as well as that amp review, according to the WordPress stats.

Any of you who’ve read the original review of the Vox will know it was pretty positive. So why buy a second amp? To explain, I have to tell you a little about my musical life, so any of you that know this already, you can scan on. I play with two bands: my own acoustic duo, Tribute to Venus Carmichael, and my mate Mark Allan’s country punk outfit, Isaac Brutal. As far as Venus was concerned, my motivation was to make us self-sufficient for small pub back rooms, having the additional option of more inputs should there be a bit of backing vocal needed, or even just another place to jack in another guitar.

And as for Isaac Brutal, well. The current line up consists of  drums, bass, two electric guitars, singer and me. Frankly, the little Vox wasn’t quite up to being heard above the racket. So I had me a little tour of Amazon’s warehouse deals section, and found myself a good bargain of a Marshall AS50D in a very natty racing green.

Image result for Marshall AS50D

And on the first – and arguably least important – point of comparison, looks, the Marshall wins hands down. Just look at it! It’s like a vintage Aston Martin that’s been compressed into a rectangular box. Utterly gorgeous. And, while it shouldn’t matter, when you’re setting up for a gig and people see that legendary Marshall signature across the grill, it does look – well, a bit like you know what you’re doing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Vox? They’ve tried their best with a tan leather effect for the box, a vaguely tweedy cover for the speaker, and vintage-stylee ivory-coloured knobs, but it pales in comparison, frankly.

So, half a point maybe for the Marshall. On the other hand, I would give a full point to the Vox for relative weights – it’s light as a feather, whilst the Marshall, er, isn’t. Frankly it’s a big clunky bugger to lug around.

Yes, yes, you say. That’s all very well, but how do they operate in gig conditions, and how do they sound?

The first thing I’m going to say may sound unimportant, but if you frequent the kind of murky venues I do, and/or have less than perfect vision like mine, it’s kind of worth half a point to the Vox. Its knobs are on top, and a bit easier to twiddle as you go along as a consequence. Even if you have the Marshall on a chair, you’re going to have to squat down and peer at the controls in a way that’s frankly not terribly rock and roll.

On the other hand, as I found at an outdoor festival a couple of years ago, the fact the Marshall’s electrical inputs are tucked away under an overhang on the front elevation can be an advantage if it starts to rain. At that time, I only had the Vox, and it was buzzing in a way that didn’t give me a lot of confidence as to my future well being. I mean, literally dying on stage may be rock and roll, but I’m hoping to keep it to the metaphorical kind for a few years yet.

Controls-wise, they’re initially similar: both have two inputs, each with bass and treble controls, anti-feedback, and chorus and reverb options. The Marshall has a separate, more sophisticated two-knob chorus effect, whilst the Vox has a single knob that gives you reverb, chorus, or reverb and chorus. Since it’s mainly reverb I’m looking for, the difference doesn’t put me up or down, really. The Marshall also has greater sophistication regarding loop options and a DI socket, but, again, I’ve not investigated any of these options yet – either I’m using the amp as the sound source, or I’m DI’ing direct into the PA with the sound guy mixing for me. The Vox has a line out facility which was used to great effect at one early gig (see previous review). Both have a footswitch socket – which, interestingly, the new acoustic guitar Vox, the VX50AG, doesn’t seem to have, according to a recent review in Acoustic.

Sound-wise, there are differences. My main acoustic guitars are, firstly, a Lag ACE100 that I’d recently got at the time of the first review. Outstanding sound acoustically: unfortunately, the pickups are a bit rubbish. I need to get one of those LR Baggs ones some time for it! And secondly, my latest baby, which you can see me wielding in the picture above: an Epiphone EJ200CE, an absolute beast of a thing based on the original Gibson Jumbo model. I may do a comparison review between the two guitars at some stage, as they’re similar in price point, but perform a very different purpose for me: the Epiphone is actually quite quiet to play acoustically, but amped up, it sounds plenty sweet – and loud. (If you want a decent review of the latter in the meantime by a gigging musician, check out this one).

Here’s the thing. Up until Wednesday night’s gig, I would’ve said, (and indeed was saying in an earlier draft of this) if  I’m playing a small, intimate gig, as I almost always am (the stadium tour will have to wait another year or two, or maybe another lifetime) the Vox is the thing I want to plug into – especially the input which doubles as a vocal channel. It gives the Lag a lovely, honeyed sound, and the Epiphone, too – although she’s never quite going to match her older sister for tone. If the Lag were a Rioja, she’d be a Gran Reserva for all those gorgeous woody notes.

Image may contain: 3 people, people on stage and people playing musical instrumentsFull throttle Brutality. Pic: Kenny Mackay

 

On the other hand, I’d said, if I’m gigging with the Brutal boys (and girl) and I need to be heard higher up  in the mix (on those rare occasions where I’m playing the riff, for example) then the Marshall’s the thing I lug into the venue. Much more resistant to feedback, its 50 watts can be used to good effect for the Epiphone or – and here’s why I said almost always acoustic at the top of the review – the Danelectro 12 string that I have on semi-permanent loan from Mr Brutal himself. That Marshall crunch is there when you need it, but equally, its tone for the quieter acoustic stuff is there too.

So what changed the other night? Bear in mind a lot depends on the acoustics of the venue, the mikes you’re using for the vocals, etcetera. But last night, for whatever reason, Kelly’s vocals were sounding a bit muffled on the Vox, so I switched them over to the Marshall. I’ve never heard her sound better. And, while the Vox did its usual good job with the Lag (and my occasional backing vocals) the Epiphone, out of the other Marshall input, was sounding fantastic.

So there you are. It’s horses for courses, frankly. If you’re in a folk-rock band, or indeed country punk, the Marshall is a thoroughly good amp, with a sweet sound and plenty of oomph when you need it. I’m not going to be retiring my little Vox any time soon, neither.

Tomorrow night’s a Brutal gig. The Vox is tucked up at home, safe and sound. The Marshall, though. The Marshall’s ready to get down and dirty in Henry’s Cellar Bar. And I know it’s got my back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Andy’s Seasonal Sluggers 2017

Confession time first. I’d love to tell you this blog is the result of tireless research: slurping and spitting through hundreds of hopefuls, until finally, finally, boiling everything down to four recommendations. But I’d be lying: we have a marvellous little woman to do all that bit for us.

Step forward Jane MacQuitty, wine writer for the Times. We found some years ago that, aside from a few faults (overuse of the adjective ‘burly’ to describe any red wine of heft; suspiciously keen on ‘new wave’ Spanish, especially riojas, which we’ve found means the wine’s not kissed the oak for nearly long enough) she is a damned good spotter of a decent wine at a decent price.

So, let’s raise a glass to Jane, and long may her liver hold out. In terms of which glass to raise:

Let’s start with a white: Wm Morrison Special Selection Godello, £8 or currently £6 each if you buy 2, has a label that looks like this –

– but if you’re a traditionalist when it comes to wine labels, don’t let that put you off! From north west Spain, it’s a bit like an Aussie sauvignon blanc, with lots of tropical fruit oomph. And Obama was snapped drinking Godello last year, so drink it if only to remember a time when we had an American Pres worth looking up to.

Reds are more our thing though. Aldi has the best of them: first up is 2016 Exquisite Collection Pinot Noir, Wairarapa – everything you’d want in a NZ Pinot Noir, to my way of thinking, at least at that kind of price. Astringent raspberry and all that. Great with lamb chops, and I’d imagine it would slip down well with roast chicken, or even turkey!

Exquisite New Zealand Pinot Noir

Great stuff. The winner for sheer heft though is 2016 Cairanne, Domaine de la Belle Estelle, Rhone – Aldi 7.99  – another MacQuitty find. This not a wine to take lightly: it’s 14.5%, a big beast of a thing that shoulders its way down your throat. But oh, it’s quality! Any of the extended Wright family reading this: this is what you’ll be downing at the forthcoming Diamond Wedding beano in a couple of weekends’ time. The Godello’s the white.

Cairanne

Last but not necessarily least 2015 Animus Douro, Vicente Faria Aldi £4.99  – cheap, and very cheerful. We’ve struggled to find good Portugese reds in the past – they’ve always promised much, but failed to deliver – but this is really good glugging stuff. Best thing for a fiver I know of in any of the supermarkets at the moment. Give it a go.

Animus Douro DOC

…and that’s it, really. The daily musical advent calendar thing is kind of taking up my blogging time at the moment, so I hope this gives you the essentials. Drink up!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Off-Grid Adventures in Northumbria: The Best Holiday Cottage Ever?

Me looking glaikit in front of the wood store. I wonder if they use the word glaikit in Northumberland.

When you go away for an October weekend in Scotland or the north of England with another couple, what do you look for? Comfortable accommodation? Decent walks/cycle paths for the more energetic? History on your doorstep? Wood burning fire? Easy access to a pub?

Coldburn Cottage, in College Valley, Kirknewton has all of these, apart perhaps for the last one. The nearest place of any consequence is Wooler, and that’s about ten miles away. However, there’s a great thing now called a supermarket, where you can buy your own food and drink, so if you’re prepared to do that, you’re sorted. They have them everywhere now too, not just Wooler.

The whole area is freighted in history. A couple of miles up the road, there’s the site of Flodden, a catastrophic defeat for the Scots in 1513 that left most of the Scottish nobility, including one of our greatest kings, James IV, dead on the battlefield. Also nearby is Homildon Hill, where in 1402 the Scots were soundly beaten again. If you think you see a pattern emerging, you’d be right: basically the one big battle we won was Bannockburn in 1314, and we’ve been banging on about it ever since.

Bannockburn’s much further north, of course. Here, at the modern Border, are what used to be called The Debatable Lands, where for centuries warring tribes identifying themselves as much by their clan names as much as whether they were Scots or English periodically knocked lumps out of each other.

The history goes much further back. Much of our journey south from Edinburgh was via the A68, which for some at least of its length is the route of the Roman road known as Dere Street, running north from Eboracum (York) deep into the Caledonian forests. The same road became the marching route for mediaeval armies: on the way back up we stopped at an excellent cafe just over the crest of Soutra Hill, where an ongoing  dig is uncovering some dark secrets from the former hospital that the Augustinians ran back then.

The cottage itself looks homely. If you’re looking for the latest crazy boutique/vintage/distressed decor, you won’t find it here – the owners have decorated and furnished it nicely, but conventionally, and none the worse for that. Highlights include the large dining kitchen, where you can cook, chat and drink all together at the same time; and the wood/coal burning fire in the living room. The bedrooms are up a slightly twisty, low-ceilinged stair so possibly not for everyone (and might prove a challenge if you’ve really been tanning the prosecco); there’s a bathroom (shower attachment on an old-fashioned bath; we stuck to baths, which were great) and a separate wee toilet.

The promo video gives you an idea of the place, although for some unconscionable reason it has a horror film soundtrack: for those of you who, like me, don’t entirely discount these things, the place had a really welcoming atmosphere – which is more than I could say for a couple of old cottages I’ve stayed in in my time. Although there is a proper axe in the woodshed should you wish to re-enact scenes from the Shining.

 

It’s the surrounds that really make this place though. I’d like to think that the residents of the area were left relatively untroubled by all the warring factions over the centuries, just because they were so fecking hard to get to: as you approach from the north, you see a giant’s huge, unmade bed of hills, which the main roads all skirt around. This is Northumberland National Park, and there’s a tricky enough drive along single track road for several miles, on past the car park where day visitors have to stop, and further into the valley, to reach the place. It’s just a few miles from the A1, but it could be half a country away. Here are some of the Redoubtable Mrs F’s photos (click on one to see the whole gallery):

What else can I say? Oh, just this. It has no mobile signal – you have to pretty much come right out of the Park and half way to the next town to get one. No wi-fi. No tv aerial or cable. There’s a tiny wee telly box that you could, in theory, watch DVDs on. We didn’t. We talked to each other, ate good food, drank good wine, walked, and talked some more.

I took my guitar and, while the others were still asleep, finished the lyrics to two songs I’d been blocked on for months. Then, unbidden, a really stupid third song in a country style about a guy that’s been trying to find a woman to dance to Dylan songs with him came to me, out of the sky. I don’t know if it’ll ever see the light of day, but it was fun to have its daft lyrics flowing out of me like a tap had been turned on.

There’s lots of research about the corrosive effects of blue light. I’m no scientist, but all I can say is a break from it was measurably good for my creativity. Actually, the valley has a few of these cottages available for short term lets, as well as a hall for performances, so it would be perfect for a songwriters’ retreat.

So, finally, here’s a stripped down version of one of the songs I finished (not the Dylan-dancing one: that can wait, possibly forever). I’d been experimenting with double-drop D tuning for a while (for non-guitar players, that’s when you tune the top and bottom strings down by a tone to produce a very mellow, low, droning effect) but I was struggling for words. I’d always been fascinated though by the story of the Roman Ninth Legion, the IX Hispana, who were stationed at York, and then disappeared from the records.

The legend – and some research – indicates they marched north to deal with those troublesome Caledonians, and didn’t come back. It may be why the Emperor Hadrian ordered the building of a wall right across the narrowest part between modern-day England and Scotland; again not far from where we were staying. Records don’t show whether he got the Scots to pay for it, but it seems unlikely.

There’s a place in the centre of York where, years ago, people saw ghostly Roman legionaries marching past, but cut off from the knees down, because of the change in ground levels. When we went there once, many years ago, we did the obligatory ghost tour, and, at the place where the legionaries supposedly appeared, I felt this almost overwhelming sense of sadness. Again, it’s up to you if you believe any of this stuff, but that’s supposedly one effect of the presence of spirits, I understand. That’s what the last verse is about.

Incidentally, when I say stripped down, it’s only because I’ve held back so far from going mad with the synths and sound effects. A ‘gone mad with synths and sound effects’ version may follow. I’m slightly worried I may have been channelling the spirit of Led Zeppelin, circa 1973, but then a chord change of D – C – G is hardly ever going to be the most original in the history of rock n’ roll, even in an alternate tuning!

Anyway, Coldburn Cottage, near Wooler – possibly the best holiday cottage ever! Take food, wine, and good company. And a guitar, obviously.

 

 

 

 

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

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.