Sebastian Plano – Beacon Foyer, Bristol

Monday 11th October, 2021

It would have to be someone very special to tempt me out on a night when my boy is with me, I’ve never left him home alone and gone out for an evening before. He is nearly 15 but it has been just the two of us for 12 of those years and we are both, well, not quite like other people, so we are closer than most mothers and teenage sons. Close enough for him to understand what music means to me and that sometimes Mum’s need to escape a little bit. He encouraged me to go and not just so he could eat cereal and biscuits whilst playing online games with his mates, because he does that when I’m there.

I am still nervous about going out when people don’t wear masks and social distancing has gone out of the window. But I know the Beacon and its staff, I knew they would keep air flow moving and that they would help me if I began to panic. I also knew the foyer wasn’t likely to be busy, a Monday night, for a bit of a niche act, so I would be able to distance myself from others easily. That was true, I found a spot at the end of a row, with no one next to me or in directly in front, but still with a cracking view of the stage, near gig goer extroadinaire and friend, Jeff. Seeing a friendly face and being able to talk with someone who just gets it made all the difference. We all need to feel we belong and Jeff and I both belong in and with live music.

The last time I saw Sebastian Plano play here was a transcendental experience, at the end of which I could only stammer “I have no words” to Sebastian and he replied, hugging me, “that is why we have music.” It was one of those special moments between two people who understand each others language – music. He could read my response without words. His music had transported me and taken me not only out of myself, but out of reality itself for an hour. That is something magical and special and I wish all the world could feel it like I can. That is how special an artist has to be for me to leave my son home alone.

Support was from Tom Adams, who has a fine voice on him and a guitar style that reminded me of 80’s Lanois and Jeff of Jeff Buckley. Reaching falsetto notes with gentle, meloncholic songs and a slowcial media approach he is an artist worth keeping an ear out for.

Sebastian. Oh. He is all the brilliant words you can think of and then some. Innovative, exciting, creative, charismatic, charming and talented. A cellist who stands to play. Who has effects, keys, electronics on his cello. Who sings through the strings. Who dances with his instrument and makes it look like he is bonded to it. You know those musicians who just feel like they belong in total harmony with what they play, that they were born together and should never be parted? He’s one of them. Sensuous, gentle but also startling sounds appear from bow, fingers, effects, loops and man, all in harmony. Together transporting us all away from reality and into other realms. He wrote his latest album, Save Me Not, in lockdown as a way to explain/escape into and away from worlds. His music exists in the space between. In the liminal limits of time, space and imagination. In the realm of the divine. In the spaces I exist. It is beauty made sound. It is extraordinary and very powerful.

The sound and lighting crew were on super form, white stars shone across the stage, shafts of light swam through Sebastian’s hair and everything sounded exactly as it should. It helped me become completely lost in the music, swimming in the air, gasping with joy and wonder at all the beauty I could see, hear and feel. When you can close your eyes and see music dancing in shapes and colours it is the most beautiful thing in the world. Sebastian’s music takes me there. Live it is so much more powerful, the resonance of strings sets my synapses on fire like almost nothing else. I would describe it as a trance, but it is so much more powerful than that, it’s like being taken into space, seeing the entire cosmos in one go. It is having your soul soar so far up and away that you can see all the beauty and possibility and hope there is in the universe. Is is very, very powerful. Heady, intoxicating, incredible.

It took me some time to come back down to earth at the end, I sat speechless, wiping away tears for a few minutes. I’m glad I waited because I got to see and hug Sebastian again (physical contact with adults is rare in my world) and tell him that I think he is the Willy Wonka of cello playing. He is. I’ve never before or since seen or hear a cello played the way he does. And I cannot be alone in wanting to be that cello.

Last time hadn’t been a fluke or a one off, Sebastian Plano live really is special. On record he’s pretty good too, so stream, listen and buy his music. Next time he tours the UK you’ll find me wherever he plays, he is one I will never miss because the way his music makes me feel is too special. Thank you Sebastian for coming back to Bristol and for your music. While it exists I have a home.

John Grant – The New Theatre, Cardiff

Tuesday 5th October, 2021

It was never my intention to take so long to write this, this is the third time I’ve sat down to find words to describe just how brilliant and special it was to see John Grant again. The problem with feeling things as deeply as I do is that transitioning back to reality after you’ve been soaring among the stars is quite difficult. The juxtaposition too great. After all. what goes up must inevitably come down. I was too emotionally exhausted from this gig to have written about it quickly.

John was magnificent. He is magnificent. Something in him, in the atmosphere, in the crowd, connected in a way it hadn’t in Bath. And I was there, part of it, up close and personal through my zoom lens, to witness and partake. I was given pretty much free reign of the theatre and allowed to photograph as I wanted. If Bath had been a dream come true then I’m not sure how to describe being given the freedom to photograph from where I wanted and basically for as long as I wanted as long as I didn’t get in the way. Heaven I suppose.

I started at the front and side of the stalls, as close as I could be without getting on the stage itself. Christ alive, what a privileged place to be. To see John’s smile, which is genuinely one so filled with warmth it may as well be a lamp, through the camera lens was just all the things. I moved around a little and decided that rather than sitting in my guest stalls seat I would spend most of the gig esconsed in one of the boxes. Cheeky I know, but it tucked me out of the way and allowed me the freedom to enjoy watching one of the best live acts I’ve seen at his full power. John Grant live is John Grant on record squared, multiplied by 50 and added to 3000. He may still get tangled in wires and claim he’s learnt no stage craft, but to watch him work a crowd is just magical. The playfulness, the dancing, the cheekiness, the emotion, the generosity, it’s all there with John and that’s why I love him. No-one else can make me laugh and cry and dance in the space of one song like he can. He’s just a magnificent bastard and I love the bones of him.

Highlights? Can I possibly pick every song and the whole night? Marz was lit so beautifully that despite wanting to leave the camera in its case and just be a fan, I couldn’t resist picking it up and taking some shots. Queen of Denmark, where again I couldn’t help myself from taking more slightly illicit photos, as John worked the stage and the crowd like a total pro and where he and the crowd gleefully exchanged lines. The beautifully dedicated TC & Honeybear in the encore. GMF which will forever and a day make me chuckle, the wit and humour in John’s songs is lyrical perfection. Glacier, I have no new words to describe how powerful Glacier is. Pale Green Ghosts, which manages to be heavy and joyful at the same time, with drum loops, synths and strings building a creepy atmosphere that makes every fibre of my body want to dance. Mike and Julie, haunting and beautiful. Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, bleak but weirdly uplifting. Boy From Michigan for one line alone. Every other song he played. Just all of it. If I could bottle a gig to keep forever, I would keep every second of this one. It was one of those very special gigs where the feelings were so strong that they burned images, like photographic negatives, into my consciousness. If I close my eyes I can see, feel and hear them all again.

I GOT TO PHOTOGRAPH JOHN GRANT and watch the gig from a private box in a theatre where I got to FEEL ALL THE THINGS. It was a special night, an incredible experience and I am very lucky to have experienced it. I remain humble and grateful to John’s team for allowing me the opportunity to be there. I don’t take nights like this for granted, I never did and I never will. They are precious and powerful and I can’t thank you enough, John. Thank you.

John Grant – The Forum, Bath

Saturday 2nd October, 2021

This one was and will be emotional. I adore John Grant. I’ve seen him live more than once, each time he has made me laugh and cry in equal measure, usually while dancing. His music is confessional, witty, honest, raw and filled with love. He remains the only one of my musical heroes that I’ve not met and a part of me wants him to remain mysterious and fascinating, another wants to squeeze him in a bear hug and thank him over and over for making music that makes life meaningful. In a way we meet musically, I live in the music he makes, which is so autobiographical that it could only be his. We connect, collide, in shared pain and redemption in that music.

It has been two years since I photographed a gig. I’ve never photographed at The Forum, or John Grant before. The nerve damage to my hands has affected my fine motor skills; my hands shake, I can’t grip and I’ve lost strength. I have almost permanent pain in my neck, shoulder and arm. The spinal cord damage is likely to progress, although at what rate and to what end no-one knows. But I picked up my camera and I set off to Bath by train. I’ve not been on a train since June. I’ve not been to any event of this size since, March 2020. You would expect me to be highly anxious and nervous, but I wasn’t. I knew I would be in safe hands with John. Musically at least. His music, his voice, his lyrics, they are places of safety and love. I knew it would all be alright. And it was. The staff at the Forum, everyone connected to Bath Festivals and John Grant, were so lovely, welcoming and kind that I felt right at home.

I always photograph the support act when I am lucky enough to have a pass, it helps ease me into the lighting and set up of a venue. Plus its polite. Teddy Thomson was excellent. Funny and with a beautiful voice. A solid support act who I would happily pay money to hear again. He’s playing in Bristol at St George’s next February, so I might see you there.

There was a moment when I looked through my camera and I saw John Grant’s face and I cried. JOHN GRANT, I AM PHOTOGRAPHING JOHN FLIPPING GRANT ran through my mind for a brief moment before the muscle memory of being a photographer kicked back in and I considered lighting, angles, shutter speed, focal points and all the other micro decisions you have to make before hitting the shutter button and hoping you have captured the shot, the moment of magic. It was genuinely a dream come true to be there photographing a man who’s music I love so deeply. I can’t sing, I can’t play or read music, I am not talented in that way and I am in awe of people like John who are. I can take a decent picture and I can write; those are my ways of being connected creatively to the music and the people who make it. It is an intimate thing taking a photograph, even when, like this, at The Forum, you aren’t in a photo pit, and you are shooting from the back and the sides using a zoom lens. You are still in a privileged position of being closer to the artist than the rest of the crowd. It has been such a long, long time, since I got to be there and it was magic. I can’t thank John’s team enough for indulging me.

After my three songs shooting, I went to take my seat in the stalls and by luck there was no-one sat either side of me or behind me so I felt comfortable to sit and chair dance whilst silent singing along to Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, which I am feeling all the more acutely now myself. Marz was made all the more perfect by a couple of wildly enthusiastic fans, reminding me of how live music is a communal experience; its why listening at home will never, ever be the same. You have to share it for it to have meaning. As much as this music means so very much to me, I know I am not alone and gigs connect me to others, however fleetingly. Seeing that fan in rapture makes me fill with joy. Hearing someone else explode in laughter at one of John’s lyrics makes hearing it again all the sweeter. Their joy becomes mine, becomes theirs, becomes ours, in a symbiotic and symbolic moment. Those are the moments I live in, where I am truly free.

I was having to closely watch the time as the last train home was earlier than usual so I moved to the back of the stalls so I could leg it out the door at the last possible moment. Almost as if he knew, John introduced the next song as being for us, always for us, Glacier. Sharp intake of breath because I knew I would be overcome. And how. All the emotions. Pouring in. Pouring out. It is a breath-taking piece of music. Written by a man who has felt deep, deep pain, shame and rejection and who has put all of it into this song, which is so filled with love and hope, and put it into the world, not to appease his own hurt, but to help others survive whatever they have faced. It is beautiful and it makes me weep and weep and weep. The long, held notes, the lyrics, the stirring strings, the piano outro, its just a marvel. Hearing it played live, being in the room as the resonance of John’s yearning voice hits your ears is one of the most perfect musical experiences I’ve ever had. For that one song alone, everything is worth it. There is my place of safety and security, my home. Right there in that moment. In that song. In that place and time everything will be alright; John makes it so. That’s why I love him.

I checked the time, I had to go. Just as John launched into Pale Green Ghosts. The bastard I muttered, laughing, as he turned the entire atmosphere on its head in one move. That is also why I love John Grant. He takes you to all points on the emotional compass with his music. He is articulate, funny, heart-breaking, gentle, creepy, weird, warm and has the most amazing smile. Just as I couldn’t help myself from crying through Glacier, I couldn’t help myself from dancing to Pale Green Ghosts as I made my way out of the building. I wish I could have stayed, but any John is better than no John. And I got to photograph him. That still feels like a dream. And you know what, the pictures came out ok. I did good. The last shot I took, just as John was closing the third song, where he turned and smiled. I got it. I captured that moment. That feels very special.

Thank you John Grant for your music, it means so much. Thank you Bath Forum, Bath Festivals, all your staff were welcoming and wonderful. Thank you JG’s crew for making my dream come true. Forever I can say and know that not only did I get to hear John play live again, but that I got to photograph it. Thank you.

Paraorchestra & Hannah Peel – St George’s, Bristol

Friday 1st October, 2021

My first indoor foray into the hallowed Hall at St George’s since an aborted attempt in the summer where I had a panic attack. At that stage I wasn’t ready to return to the thing I have missed the most. I’m still filled with trepidation going anywhere. I wish masks were mandatory, or better yet, that people would just wear them because they care about keeping others safe, but while they don’t, I remain a bit nervy. I wasn’t one for crowds in the before times if I’m honest, so a year and a half of living alone save for a teenager has made being near even 5 people feel scary, let alone a couple of hundred. I was very firmly not going to go this gig. Even though it was the combination of Paraorchestra and Hannah Peel. Even though sections of the crowd were to be socially distanced. Then I changed my mind. About 50 times. I wasn’t even sure I was going to go on the night itself. Or when I set out to scoot my way there. By giving myself permission to change my mind, by being kinder to my anxious, overthinking mind, I got there.

There were only 3 single seats marked out in the distanced seating area so I tried them out to see which felt most comfortable and ended up sitting above the stage, overhanging the percussionist. I had no-one behind, in front, or either side of me, I was as distanced as could be. I also thought how very Paraorchestra it was to be sat above the stage, looking down on them, seeing the backs of most of the players. Even if I’d felt ok about sitting in the non distanced stalls, it wouldn’t have felt right sitting looking at them play in a conventional fashion. They are just not that sort of orchestra. I’ve danced with them on stage at the Old Vic and in the streets of Knowle West. I’ve raved with them in a warehouse. I’ve seen them deconstructed over the Beacon’s foyer. I couldn’t possibly have seen Paraorchestra play at St George’s any other way.

I could listen to Charles Hazelwood talk about music all day, so having him introduce the new works and chat to Lloyd Coleman about his new work which was inspired by algorithms and digital photography, made me feel at ease right off the bat. As did the music itself. A three part sound exploration that began gently with the resonance of a single cello and ended in a cacophony, well a gentle one. It all unfolded, like the petals of a flower, or the pixels of an electronic painting, or even the coding of an algorithm. An excellent opener.

Paraorchestra and Hannah Peel are both seekers of truth and love in their music so it seems obvious that they would collaborate, although that they have is still a wonderful surprise to me. Paraorchestra fill me with joy; I love everything they do and stand for. Hannah Peel is responsible for the most emotional reaction I’ve ever had to live music. I know I cry at pretty much everything, but she broke into my grief and pain, dragged it out until I was keening and couldn’t really breathe for tears. What would they combined, do to me?

The Unfolding┬átakes a cyclical journey from the very atoms of human existence and the awakening of life, through to our eventual re-folding back into the elements.” And it did. Gently, slowly, atoms began to form and group and build until life emerged and then that grew in aural swell until we reached a noisy and thundering place. To my ears it sounded as if we arrived in the age of Enlightenment and then into the Industrial Revolution and then our modern day world of technology. All achieved with a mixture of orchestral instruments, electronics and superb percussion. Perhaps it because I was sat right above her, but the percussionist was amazing. Everything from wine bottles to a vibraphone got a look in. Added to drums, cellos, wind, brass, electronics and the astonishing soprano voice of Victoria Oruwari, it was quit a powerful mix.

There was a section where it felt so powerful that I sat back, eyes closed, and allowed the music in to fill me with warmth and love and emotions, that, yes, did overspill out of my eyes. It felt like I was flying. A little later, when the crescendo of drums and percussion kicked in Hannah went woo and punched the air at the end, prompting spontaneous applause and laughter from the audience. From my vantage point I could see Hannah’s face and in it her joy and love of music; everything that connects me to live music. Everything I love about Hannah and the Paraorchestra. There is nothing greater in the universe.

I would have come to say all of this in person but the acoustics of the bar are nowhere near as beautiful as the hall, and the cacophony of chatter hurts my ears, so although I tried to stay, I had to go.

Thank you Paraorchestra for, well, being. Please keep making and sharing music in innovative, creative, exciting, beautiful, life affirming ways because I love all that you do so much. Thank you Hannah Peel, a gentle soul who makes powerful music that has taken me across time and space and now through the journey of human existence. Please keep being too.

Paraorchestra SMOOSH! – the streets of Knowle West, Bristol

Friday 17th September, 2021

I’d been invited to hear the preview of Smoosh! a while back and that experience, in the car park of a community centre, was joyous. So I thought I knew what to expect, but it was everything I could have dreamt of and more. So much more.

Every time I see the Paraorchestra I fall in love with them all over again. I can’t help it. Everything they do and stand for is about joy and love. They have truly reinvented what an orchestra can be and do. Every time I think they can’t be any more inclusive, they go and find a way to make what they do be more embracing, open and loving. A free music event played in the streets. In the streets of Knowle West. On a gloriously sunny Friday afternoon where all were welcome. No barrier at all between you and the music.

The first parade set off at 4pm and there were parents with kids freshly out of school waving flags and people stood on their doorsteps and in their front gardens watching, some slightly bemused and others dancing and singing along. I thought I’d be one of the few who would walk the whole route with The Band (which is what the local kids kept calling Paraorchestra and it fits) but I was among so many others who joined in the entire route. That alone was joy, a parade, a carnival of musicians and dancers moving together in rhythm and harmony and us walking/swaying/dancing along too. To hear Glorybox like that, played on brass and drums, a song that takes me immediately back to having my heart shattered for the first time at University, given new meaning, well it was one hell of a start.

Want to hear Kate Bush and Adele used as the backdrop to a West Side Story gang dance off that ends with one of the symbols of our times, the elbow bump? Then you needed to have experienced Smoosh! It was every bit as unexpected and brilliant as that sounds. And more. So much more.

When we got to the end of the parade, our last tune was Praise You and if hearing that played on brass and wind doesn’t make you want to jump up and down with joy then I don’t think you have a soul. I was smiling so much I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to stop.

Throughout all I saw was a sea of smiling faces. People enjoying music, dance, movement, together. As a community. As one. As a beautiful and joyous celebration of what music has the power to do; bring us together.

I had intended to go home at this point. But you won’t be at all surprised to learn that I got chatting with some of the musicians and ended up staying to watch the 6.30 performance as well. I mean, how could I not?

The second go round was even more joyous, people joined in more, danced along, sang, shouted MORE! and it started to feel like a Bristolian Mardi Gras. There were even more smiles this time and because the crowd was bigger and rowdier, or perhaps because I felt braver and more emboldened, I started to dance along on the road right next to the big drum. To feel it thunder through my chest as I walked right next to it. Heaven. I danced and I danced and I danced. Like no-one was watching, knowing everyone was and that it was ok. To be free, to feel, to express, while being surrounded by smiles and a feeling of warmth (and not just from the sun), well it was wonderful. There were happy tears from me, but they came from a place of deep joy and love. This time Praise You was performed in front of a Church, which made me laugh. Music is my religion and oh boy did I get to give praise and thanks last Friday night. I don’t think anyone wanted it to end. I know I didn’t.

Every single time I see Paraorchestra I am left feeling so full of love, light and joy and a sense of marvel and wonder that they do what they do. An orchestra of brass and wind playing Basement Jaxx in a moving street carnival in one of the most deprived areas, not just of Bristol, but all of England, to bring together a community of people united in love of music. Who else would even contemplate such a thing? Charles Hazelwood you are a marvel and I love you so much for bringing all this joy into my life. Emma-Jean Thackray what you composed and brought together was fantastic, I love you too. Tom Jackson Greaves and Beth Hinton-Lever you choreographed the dancers brilliantly, the symbiosis of music and movement, ebbing, flowing, arching, just makes me want to join in and I love you for creating that. Every musician and dancer who was part of Smoosh! I love you all. Every single bloody one of you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Paraorchestra are joy unbound. I’ve never felt surrounded by so much love and acceptance as when I have been to see and hear you. Every time you’ve welcomed me, made me feel a part of what you do. There really aren’t words for that. It’s why we have music.

Public Service Broadcasting – The Amersham Arms, London

Friday 10th September, 2021

A gazillion years ago I entered a prize draw via Passport Back To Our Roots to win tickets to this intimate gig. I forgot all about it. I’d entered never expecting to win, I cared about giving money to Save Our Venues, knowing venues would struggle to survive without income during lockdown. Then I got an email saying I was on the reserve winners list and I gulped. Was I ready to get on a coach to London and go to an indoor, non distanced show? I didn’t think I was, but I also knew the opportunity to see Public Service Broadcasting in a pub that holds 300 wasn’t one I was going to get every day. So I said yes. I calculated various Covid related risks, checked the price of the coach, how I would get around London and how much somewhere to stay would be. Then I looked at my dwindling savings and thought, sometimes you have to take a risk. A sensible, calculated one, but a risk nonetheless. Or an impulsive and ridiculous risk. Sometimes both.

I was so nervous about boarding the coach that I couldn’t and if it wasn’t for the very nice National Express staff at Bristol Coach Station I wouldn’t have even got to London. They let me transfer my ticket to a later time coach, and although I still didn’t feel entirely happy (please wear masks people is all I’ll say) I made it onto the coach after the coach after the coach I was supposed to be on and I was on my way.

Getting around London was easy-peasy and exhilarating thanks to scooters. I’ve been using them in Bristol, they’ve given me independence and confidence, I love them. The under 10 me, who lived in London, was thrilled and excited beyond measure to be bombing about on a scooter past Westminster Abbey, round Parliament Square and along the Embankment. However long it is that I’ve been away, and I love Bristol, I really do, the Thames flows in my veins and seeing it will always thrill me and make me feel at home. Actual home. So does the Docklands Light Railway, dinky toy trains I remember seeing being built as a small child and feeling like I was watching the future being constructed around me.

I’d found somewhere to stay in Limehouse (and yes, Mum, I pronounce the H), a Christian charity retreat/conference centre/B&B that also run a Yurt cafe and community centre; a weird little oddity just like me. It was calm and helped settle me and centre me back where I needed to be. I still wasn’t sure I was ready to be in a crowded venue, but I’d made it this far. Bit by bit, stage by stage, I found myself moving forward and then bam I was stood outside the Amerhsam Arms pub in New Cross. Deep breath, Emma, you can do it.

Through the door I went, and Laura, one of the organisers, smiled broadly at me and asked if was feeling ok. I shook my head but said I was here now, so lets try. She helped me orient myself (and had been brilliant over email at helping me feel a lot less anxious about the event before I’d even set off. Small acts of kindness and understanding go a really long way). I spent too much money at the merch desk, got myself a drink and decided to find a little Emma shaped gap somewhere. That turned out to be in front of the tech desk at the side of the plinth (to call it a stage would be being somewhat generous) where I had clear line of sight to the band and space behind, in front and to the side of me. Some of the people in this corner were, like me, wearing masks, which also helped.

I’d missed the support completely (I’m sorry whoever you were) as I knew that the extra hour in the venue would have been too much and had a nervy 20 minute wait for PSB. They came out and onto the stage right behind and around me, I could not have been closer. Wearing all white suits like pure musical angels they took to the stage nervously but to a very warm reception.

I’ve seen PSB play the Royal Albert Hall and at a Castle, being this close to them and being able to see the nerves at the beginning and then the relaxation on their faces as the gig went on; being that close that the warmth of the smiles and laughter between them could be felt was rare and special.

All Out, heavy, angry and searing, helped me release a lot of pent up emotions as I danced and let out the feelings that have been bottle up inside. Progress served as a beacon of hope, Theme From PSB is a slice of musical perfection and a manifesto for who PSB are and why I love them and Blue Heaven sounded so very, very good, live. I tried to dance, I can’t help myself, my body moves even when I don’t want it to and at times the joyous connection of heart, head and body floated me into a different space of consciousness; the place of being where I am floating free of everything and can simply be. The place I call home. Music. Live music. I become one with it, pure and free and feeling everything and nothing simultaneously, where colours and shapes and sounds merge to overwhelm and drown me in a sea of utter bliss. All the things I’ve missed and thought I’d lost forever. All the things that make me feel me, alive and vital and connected. PSB are among the small circle who’s music can take me to those places.

I had to force myself to stop dancing, pain was shooting through my nerves and I had to stick my arm up under the straps of my dress as an improvised sling. I lent back against the wall and allowed synaesthesia in, seeing music in colours is something I wish everyone could do; its so beautiful.

Go! is my boy’s favourite song, it does things to him neither he nor I can explain. I video called him, propping my phone up on the top of the pubs piano. His face was everything, having that moment with him was everything.

I’m not sure when I began to cry, or if I stopped, I just know that a lot of tears were shed during this gig. It was a really emotional and overwhelming musical experience that I felt deeply, right into the marrow of my bones.

At the end I was in some sort of gig induced trance, fugue or fog of admiration; this is the best bit, when the world actually feels quiet to me, when the whirl of my too fast acting brain actually shuts down temporarily. It’s a little like being lost in time and space, it takes me time to re-orient and come back down. I guess I’m also trying to cling to it, to make the feeling last just a little longer. It is why I hang about at the end of gigs to thank the artists. It is why, and this bit still doesn’t feel real, I got to meet J Willgoose Esq in all his bow-tie wearing glory. I’ve not met any of PSB before, yet they have been incredibly kind to my son. He is taller and more handsome in the flesh, by the way. I had to supress the desire to ruffle his hair (Mum’s gonna Mum). The combination of the pain medication I’m on, the Archers & lemonade I’d drunk (classy to the last, me), how emotional I was feeling and the fact that I’ve barely spoken to an adult in 18 months, probably made me come across as even weirder than usual and I’m sorry for that J. Words can express so much, but I can struggle in the moment to make sense sometimes; its why I write, it helps me process. Music live and writing about it have been the things that made me feel alive and without them during the darkness I’ve been very, very lost. For a couple of hours last Friday night, PSB helped me feel I knew where I was again.

I’ve been a very lucky girl in the past and had some wonderful, incredible and emotional musical experiences. This is up there with the best of them. I wish any of these words were enough to actually express how it felt.

Thank you to the tall man who helped me get set list, thank you Matt on merch for looking after my goodies all night, thank you Laura for checking in on me and making sure I got to thank J personally, thank you J Willgoose Esq, Wrigglesworth, J F Abraham and Mr B. Public Service Broadcasting make public service music and I love you for it.

Hannah Williams & The Affirmations – Bristol Beacon, Bristol

Thursday 10th September, 2021

A socially distanced, seated gig with single seats that started early in my musical home of the Beacon, this had all the elements I needed to be able to start gigging again. Plus was part of Bristol Blues and Jazz Festivals series celebrating women in music.

I can’t say I wasn’t feeling a little trepidatious before setting out. This would be the first time I’d gone to an indoor gig alone in, well, forever.

Pre closure for refurbishment I used to joke with the box office staff they should set me up a camp bed at the back of the Lantern in the Beacon as I was there so often. The best acoustics in Bristol belong to St George’s but the place where I feel most at home is the Beacon; its love. Feeling comfortable in a place goes a long way to easing anxiety.

I thought I didn’t know Hannah Williams and that this would be a chance to discover some new music. I was both right and wrong. I knew Hannah’s voice, from The Voice, but I didn’t know her brilliant, original music. At this point it almost goes without saying that Hannah has a cracking voice; a smoky, bluesy voice that can bellow and whisper songs of heartbreak and disappointment at you that make you feel both seen and ashamed all at once. I felt Hannah was singing about me and to me at the same time; I’m the one who did her wrong and was wronged. The Affirmations provided perfect packaging around Hannah’s voice. I’m sold, basically.

Being an early gig, I was home and in my jim jams by 8.15pm. Seated, distanced, early doors, Beacon, fabulous music, I couldn’t have asked for much more to be honest. As a way to dip my toe back into the water of gigging alone, it was like a paddle on a clear beach on a warm night and it made me feel a little bit more confident about going out again. Thank you Hannah Williams, The Affirmations, The Beacon. Hope to see you all again soon.

Paraorchestra – preview of Smoosh!, Filwood Community Centre Car Park

Thursday 15th July, 2021

I didn’t think it would be 8 months before I wrote a word here, or that there would be such a gap between the event and the writing of this. The problems I have in my cervical spine have flared up very badly, one of the things that is painful to do is type. So as much as I wanted desperately to write this as soon as I got home, I have not been able to. If I’d been able to type within minutes it may have been more effusive, expansive and ebullient. I may have run out of superlatives to describe the experience of seeing Paraorchestra again.

How much do I love Paraorchestra? It might be easier to direct you to earlier entries of the times I’ve seen them perform. Desconstructed over the entire height of the Beacon’s foyer, the Nature of Why at the Old Vic or playing Kraftwerk at the Marble Factory. Now I was to see them in the car park of a community centre in South Bristol previewing their latest project, Smoosh! It was a hot walk to get there. Let us not talk of how dreadful Bristol’s buses are, nor of the safety of them without mask mandates. This was an afternoon about joy. Paraorchestra are all about joy. Everything they do is done with love, with joy, with a desire to connect and unite. That is why I love them.

I had been invited to be part of a preview of Smoosh! and however much pain it would cost me to be there (walking, standing and dancing are all painful activities), I was not going to miss it for all the world. I packed a bottle of water, donned a massive hat and slathered factor 50 all over and set off. Not knowing what I was likely to hear or see, but knowing that it would be emotional and powerful and incredible no matter what because that is who Paraorchestra are. A group of talented, boundary pushing, inclusive, brilliant musicians, composers, arrangers and dancers. I love them, all they do and all they stand for.

There was dancing, there was music, there was a sense of joy and fun and togetherness and of something intangible and magic. There were brass reworkings of Kate Bush, Adele and Fatboy Slim, slam dance take downs and just so much happiness. It has been such a long, long time since I heard music that made me want to dance and smile like this. And all I could see around me, socially distanced of course, were other smiling faces and moving bodies. We were united in movement and music. There were, of course, this is me, tears. But they were tears of joy. Of being back where I belonged. Of being who I am again. Of things I thought I had lost in the pandemic; I thought I had lost the emotional connection to music, that my senses had been dulled, that I had lost the way music can make me feel. You gave it back to me, Paraorchestra and I cannot thank you enough for that gift.

Every time I think Paraorchestra can’t get any more inclusive, they prove me wrong. Making events free, inviting you to walk among the musicians, being an orchestra of disabled and abled musicians, playing classical music in a nightclub, they’ve done all that already. Smoosh! will be free, outdoors, winding through the streets of working class Knowle West. They will be taking music to the people. Literally. I can imagine people indoors, hearing this weird mash up of brass instruments with tunes they know going “what on earth is that?” opening their windows and joining in. It will be a parade, a celebration, a conga, a carnival of music, open to anyone who happens to be nearby. There will be dancers, there will be movement and music and absolutely everyone is invited.

Smoosh! will hit the streets of Knowle West on Friday 17th September, a sonic street food event and I plan to be there to eat and drink in the music with the rest of the locals. Maybe I’ll see you there. I’ll be the one smiling, crying and dancing near the back. Thank you Paraorchestra for inviting me to experience the preview, and, well, for being you. I love you all.

Words.

The first words down are so important, they set your store, draw in your reader and sum up what you are going to say. Starting is always hard. Writing this, well, writing anything, has been extra hard of late. I’ve committed not a word to this blog, or in private, for almost three months. And it isn’t simply because I’ve not had anything to write about. Yes it is true that I have had no events; no gigs/concerts/exhibitions since Erland Cooper on the 10th October, but it is more than that. So much more. There were events I did go to that I didn’t write about before October 10th. I didn’t know how to write about them. Writing is a form of therapy and helps me process. There have been plenty of things to think about and process and yet, I haven’t known what to say or how to say it. The words they wouldn’t come.

Simply staying alive, keeping me and my boy as safe as I could, has taken almost all of my energy. Running a household alone, continuing to work, solo parenting a growing teenager, new health discoveries and diagnoses against the backdrop of a global pandemic didn’t see me feeling at my creative best.

Two of the Doctors I work for were seriously ill with Covid, one in ICU. Both thankfully recovered or recovering, but it was pretty worrying when they and around eight other colleagues became ill at the same time. It made it all feel very real and very close. I also had friends who were ill, with long Covid, in the first wave. I know people who have lost loved ones, father in laws, beloved Mum’s, a wife not much older than me and at work we lost one of our transport drivers, a man who had plenty to give for and who should have had more years to live. Covid has circled close enough to be something I’ve feared. Doubly true as an asthmatic with other chronic illness who has experienced both what it feels like to lose the ability to breathe (asthma attacks are frightening things) and what it is to lie in a hospital bed not knowing if you will make it through the night (Sepsis isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs either). Those experiences, plus many others, have left me with a form of medical PTSD. Covid scares the beejesus out of me. It should us all to one extent or another. My fears have not simply been for myself. That’s the thing about believing in society, in caring for others, even those who do not care for you. In a global pandemic, heck even when we are not, we are all responsible for each other. Any one of us could carry Covid asymptomatically and infect others, who in turn infect others and bam, without knowing it you’ve killed someone. Or changed their life forever with long covid. I don’t want that on my conscience, neither should you. That is why we distance, that is why we wear masks, that is why we leave windows and doors open, that is why we clean surfaces and wash our hands. That is why we cannot see friends and families nor gather together as humans have always done. Not just to protect ourselves, but to protect each other. For many it has been hard to understand how their individual actions make a difference, well, they don’t, but when all of us, enough of us, do them together, they make all the difference in the world.

When you work in healthcare, you can’t escape illness and death, even if you work remotely as an administrator like I do. It is literally our business. Everything we do is about helping people to get the best outcome we can and we are all trained in infection prevention and control. I knew how to wash my hands properly pre pandemic! We are all also engendered with some sort of belief in helping others. Many of us could do our jobs in other industries or areas but choose to work in public service. You have to believe in society to work for the NHS, you certainly don’t sign up for the pay!

I’m unusual in being a frequent flyer patient as well as a member of staff within the NHS, so I often see things from both sides. I have had to risk assess so many times that it is second nature to me now. That aspect of the pandemic has been easier for me to adapt to than most; find information you can trust and rely upon, cross reference your sources, tabulate them together, decide what risks you are willing to take for yourself, your immediate circle and then wider society and make decisions from there. I have spent my entire adult life chronically ill one way or another and I’ve had to make decisions that weigh up the risks and benefits of drugs and surgery so often I can do it in my sleep. Give me info, give me stats, find me some graphs and figures and I can make a choice easy enough. Covid was difficult at the beginning because there was so much we did not know. Sources that were reliable and trustworthy felt harder to find, as speculation and conjecture filled the air. Slowly and then rapidly that changed, open source data made the geek in me very happy. Realising in early September that I was more likely to contract HIV than Covid made going on a few dates seem reasonably safe (at distance, outdoors, wearing a mask as risk mitigation factors). Of course, when things changed, which they did at an alarmingly rapid rate in Bristol, I ran new risk assessments and made different decisions based on those updated outcomes. As risks changed, so did my behaviour. I am still dating, but exclusively with one person, who lives alone and so we have been able to form a support bubble. For me, the benefits of adult company and companionship (including touch) far outweighed the risks. At this point and with the information available, of course.

I have adapted, as we all have, to our changed world. I haven’t thrived, but I have survived and that is enough. It is enough. In tough times you find out who you are, who those around you are and what sort of society you live in. I knew I was tough, I’m basically made of granite, but I have surprised myself with how well I’ve managed this year at times. I knew I had few friends or people who truly cared about me and the ones who have made an effort to stay in touch this year will not be forgotten. The ones who haven’t won’t be either. That the society around me has been deeply polarised hasn’t been much of a surprise either, leave/remain, Labour/Tory, Corbynites/AnyoneElse, vaxxers/antivaxxers, we’ve been heading down that destructive path some time. The arguments between those who believe in forms of collectivism and those who are individualistic is much older than I.

My escape, my home, my place of safety and respite has always been music and my challenge of 2020 has been coping with it all it has thrown at me without the one thing that steadies me; live music. And no, listening to records or the radio or even a livestream is nowhere near the same experience. This time last year I had been to 100 concerts. I had spent countless hours on coaches and trains travelling to gigs, tens of nights in cheap hotels. I managed 3 nights away before March lockdown (one of those on a sleeper train) and I snuck in 2 nights in London in Aug/Sept when Covid rates were a lot lower, but other than that I’ve spent every night of 2020 in my own bed. I’ve been on public transport so little that I am even missing, and feeling nostalgic about First Buses (believe me, this is really saying something). I live not far from Temple Meads and yet I cannot get on a train and have an adventure somewhere. Anywhere. Not even Bath or Cardiff or Oxford, all places I would day trip to for exhibitions and gigs. My world has shrunk to about a mile and half from my front door, distances that I can reach on foot as I do not drive. I have never wished I had a driving licence and a car more than I have in the last couple of months. I yearn, long, ache, to see the sea, hills, clifftops, mountains, countryside. What I wouldn’t give for a walk in the Mendips, or Cheddar, or to see Devon or Cornwall again. Yes, even in the rain and cold of winter. Waterproofs and thermals are all I’d need. I miss the swell of the sea and the ebb of the tide and the open expanse of nature. I miss being able to escape the City and all its infernal people! I love my local parks, I really do, but they are not the same and they are always busy. I need to feel sunlight on my face and wind in my hair somewhere a little bit wilder than a park. I also need music and art. If I cannot stand in a gallery and stare deeply into the eyes of Frida Khalo again, or gaze at a Cezanne for hours, losing myself in time and space, well, well I don’t know what will become of me. I need art. I need music. I need them like oxygen. Art is what makes us human. I need ballet, contemporary dance, opera, musicals, theatre and even panto. I need paintings and sculptures and installations. I need this stuff injected into my soul. And I fear that not only will it be months before I can, but that what I will be able to indulge in will be severely limited. When the arts return, they will have been decimated by Covid and by Brexit. In whatever shape they do return, I will be there, trying and failing not to cry, feeling all the things I’ve not allowed myself to feel this year. They will pour in and out of me and I will break down I am sure. I will weep at the ugly beauty of a Donatello again. I will fall to my knees in prayer to a God I’ve never previously believed in due to the power of an El Greco, I’ll stand in awe of Cezanne and Van Gogh like I always have and I’ll discover new artists and be changed by the way they see the world as I have been by Steve McQueen and Kara Walker and Mona Hartoum. And I will hold my hand behind my back to stop myself stroking the Rodin’s, however much I want to feel that beautiful marble beneath my fingers. I’ll discover strange museums and learn about all sorts of things, whiling away happy hours in gardens/ruins/stately homes/provincial art galleries and museums. I will.

I will also get to gigs again. I will get to sit in concert halls and stand in sweaty venues and share the experience of live music with a room full of strangers. I’ll get to gabble at the musicians afterwards and maybe, just maybe, I’ll get to hold hands with Nils Frahm or hug Guy Garvey or weep all over Erland Cooper or Hannah Peel again. I miss you all so much. I miss every single thing. Even the terrible toilets. I haven’t really allowed myself to think about how much I miss live music for fear of it being too sad, too upsetting. But a huge part of me is missing. I feel the loss of live music in the way most people are missing the warmth of their loved ones I suppose. I have no loved ones to miss. I would be spending Christmas alone anyway. There is me and my boy and that’s pretty much all I’ve had for ten years. I’m used to a level of loneliness. I am also used to having art and music there to fill the void. Without them I have felt lost, confused and even more lonely. I am made of granite, but even rocks need support.

I also know I’ve been lucky in so many ways. I have a job, I’ve been allowed to do that job from home, neither me or my boy have been ill, I’ve not lost anyone close to Covid (or anything else), I have enough money coming in to keep the heat on and food in our bellies. I have enough life experience of tough times to draw on to know that somehow I’ll get through this. I know all of that and I am grateful for it. I still miss the things that give my life meaning and make me feel what it is to be human, music and art. Without them I feel the colour has been drained from my life and I used to live in glorious technicolour. My life was saturated and now it is muted, grey and shrouded with mist. Wouldn’t it be just heavenly to dance in rainbow coloured rain again?

This is the trouble with not writing for months. Words, when they do come, spill and slip and I’ve meandered without finding a destination. I am not sure where any of this leads me, you, us. I know I needed to get some of these thoughts out of head and share them with someone, anyone. Thank you for reading, and maybe come say hello @EmmaIsAChampion on Twitter, or @EmmaChampion6 on Insta. Take care of yourself and those around you. This will end. None of us know when, but it will.

Erland Cooper – The Barbican, London

Saturday 10th October, 2020

My first indoor gig since March. The first opportunity most of the musicians on the stage had to play for a live audience in 7 or 8 months. A concert we did not know was going to be possible even as short a time ago as a few weeks. That may not in a few more. Where people came to gather and share, in small groups, at distance and wearing masks. Our lives, our relationships, to each other and to the world, have been altered.

Music has been my constant. My companion, my best friend, my lover, nursemaid; my home. Live music gave me a place to belong, and people to belong with. No livestream can ever replicate that, no technology, no piece of vinyl, will ever be as powerful as sitting or standing in a room with others hearing music performed live. Hearing and seeing performers pour out their hearts and souls on the stage in front of you. Being part of that. sharing in it, being connected by it, has been essential to my wellbeing. The only way I can explain how the past few months have been without live music is bereft. I know for many it has been being without friends or family, not being able to hold a loved one close, but for me it has been the shared experience of live music. That is my community.

There have been socially distanced outdoor concerts and I have loved them. There have been album listen alongs, live streams, Insta live events, and they have all been enough to keep me going. But nothing will ever replace, replicate or bear witness in the way an indoor, live music event can.

Erland Cooper was due to play all three of his Orkney albums, in full, with the LSO, at the Barbican in June. I was supposed to be there. On the 12th June, the day the concert should have happened, I sat at home and played Solan Goose, Sule Skerry and Hether Blether in full, allowing in the emotions this music stirs and I wept. Simply knowing music this beautiful exists gives me hope. I had to hope that one day I would hear it played live again. We have to hope. Our pandemic world is very different, but it will not last forever. There will come an end and although things may not return to the way they were, we will have been changed by this experience of that there is no doubt, there will be an end point at some time in the future. Not all of us will see it, but like old women who plant trees in whose shade they will never sit, there will be better times to come. Music gives me that hope. It is a rope to our pasts and our futures. Musical threads weft and bind us to ourselves and to each other.

I fell utterly in love with Erland Cooper’s music the very first time I heard it and it continues to entrance me. Music written, from the bottom of his soul, to calm his own troubled mind, privately and then shared with such love and tenderness. It is music so deeply rooted in place that it can act as an aural vehicle to transport you across land and sea to Orkney, whilst remaining universal, speaking to deep emotions of homesickness, loss and longing. There is a keening, a yearning, to Erland’s music that speaks to my heart and soul. I feel seen, heard and understood in his musical world. My relationship with music is as deep, mysterious and essential as any I’ve ever felt. There are not a lot of artists I would have made the journey from Bristol to London for in current times, but to hear Erland live I would have moved mountains.

There were so many expectations and emotions bubbling away inside me, the Barbican Hall, the musicians about to play, and the rest of the audience. I am sure it was an emotional experience for many. I cannot have been alone in my tears. There has been a deep, aching, longing, in me for live music like this. Erland’s music reaches those places that you cannot understand nor explain. It was the perfect way to reintroduce live music.

I had been prepared for tears, extra tissues had been packed in my bag just in case, but the depths and swells of the emotions I felt at the beginning of this concert were like no other. Haar makes me weep every time I hear it, those opening bars just melt me, and live it is that to a greater power. Live strings, in the hands of wonderful performers like Anna and Jacob (plus everyone else onstage tonight, I am sorry I do not know your names), are things of such beauty and steer us into the realm of the divine. They transported us through time and space, lifting and moving the Barbican from where it was moored, into Stromess Harbour and beyond. This is music that can take you to places unlimited by your imagination. It is beauty and it is truth and I love you for sharing it with us, Erland. Thank you.

The last time I saw Erland live he gifted me the feather he conducts with, and I have kept it safely treasured since and it is my tiny connection back to what was a very special live experience that I want to live in forever. That feather was safely tucked into my handbag for this concert, it needed to come home as it were. Well I now have another to join it. Erland graciously and ever so gently, passed me another feather as he left the stage. I will keep the pair of them safe, together, forever, Erland. They, and what they represent, will be safe with me. As will your music, in my heart. Music that brings me back, that takes me home, that makes me feel so much less alone.

I may have been sat in the Barbican, but I felt as if I were in another place, and of another time. The music was both safe harbour, storm and calm sea. It was wonderful, absolutely wonderful and I cannot thank everyone involved in bringing this gig into being enough.