The Genius of J.S Bach: Figo Baroque Ensemble & James Gough – Clifton Cathederal, Bristol

Thursday 28th June, 2018

Another Clifton International Festival of Music event, this time of a composer and a style I was slightly more familiar with, in a venue I wasn’t. I’ve admired the brave, modernist architecture of Clifton Cathedral from the outside before, but have never been in. That was almost reason alone for purchasing the ticket. That and it being a Baroque Ensemble, a style I have come to like recently. That and leaving present gift vouchers burning a hole in my pocket.

Walking into the Cathederal was fairly awe inspiring, natural light flooding in to the open and welcoming space, highlighting the repeated hexagonal and triangular patterns and making the concrete almost shine. The smooth, coolness of the material, with the makers lines evident, was soothing and calming. It was a relaxing way to start a concert.

Although I know a little bit of Bach and I’ve heard some other Baroque trios and quartets before I still wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, so it was a relief to have an introduction where the musicians and host admitted they didn’t really understand some of the terminology either. It was also lovely to have the musicians on our level, not raised up on a stage, but with us, almost among us. It felt intimate, even on this grand scale.

We started with Jacob Garside on solo cello. Oh. I liked. The melancholic, low bass sounds were a surprise. Perhaps I’ve just not heard enough cello up close in magnificent surroundings (the acoustics *kisses fingers*) or perhaps this is a fine example of both composer and player. Then Jacob was joined by Sergio and Simone and the trio talked us through how they not only play baroque style music, but that they play it on baroque style instruments. Strings made from sheep’s intestines and bows that curve the other way. Sergio played a continuo, of which I’d never heard before, but looked amazing. Together they took us through Violin Sonata in G major (if you know what any of this means, they played in baroque tones with different tuning than modern players would use). All I know is that my ears and my heart liked what they heard. It was moving and graceful and was over far too quickly.

During the interval I had a brief look round the Cathederal. What a space. I could have begun to be a believer, save for the pro life propaganda (leaflets proclaiming “safe spaces” outside abortion clinics were a bad thing). All the openness and light and being together in God’s love falls somewhat by the wayside when women are treated as objects of men’s control. All women should have the right to make choices about their bodies, that’s being pro life. I retook my seat feeling slightly off kilter as result.

The second half began with Simone playing solo violin, Sonata in A minor. Oh. If I had liked the cello. Well. This was something on another plain. It was delicate. There was a sweetness and a softness to the sound, the tones were simply beautiful. Simone was using his whole body to play, at times on tiptoes, giving us his all. I was moved. I may have cried. It was wonderful.

Our final piece was to be on the organ. James Gough performing Passacaglia in C minor. The organ, like the building is modern, the music is not. It is a beast. James worked his way round every knob and switch he could I think. It struck me that these are just the medieval equivalent of an effects pedal for a modern electric guitar. Bach to the White Stripes. I wasn’t expecting that as a connection this evening! What can I say about this piece of music? It was thrilling. Thrilling. I had goosebumps on goosebumps and it sent shivers through me. Every time I thought it couldn’t get any more tense, the spring was wound even tighter until the music exploded. I was left breathless. It was a stunning end to a brilliant concert, that left me left hungry for more baroque and more Bach.

You know how sometimes music leaves you almost punch drunk? This was one of those. I sort of floated/staggered out not knowing where I was.

The Genius of J.S Bach, I should coco.

 

Lennox Berkeley:Music for the Piano – St Paul’s Church, Bristol

Sunday 24th June, 2018

There were so many unknowns for me going into this; I’d never heard of the Clifton International Festival of Music, nor been to the venue, didn’t have a clue about the composer or pianist. I booked the ticket anyway because I like discovering new things. It was less than a tenner and I had some gift vouchers waiting to be used so I thought why not?

St Paul’s Church is beautiful, late 19C I would guess from the Art Nouveau style altar art, mosaics and stained glass. It felt welcoming and as I was early I thought I may as well sit at the front. Not that it was a big church, or full. It was a fairly small crowd and I felt out of place in the sense that all the chatter was sounding very knowledgeable about classical music. As I’ve said before, that has not been my world. Neither at home or school. Since I started #40gigs last year I’ve been to more classical concerts than you can shake a stick at, and I’ve developed something of a liking for baroque chamber music. However, I still have no idea what I’m listening to most of the time, the etiquette of when to clap (and most importantly when not to), the terminology or even the names of the composers, or instruments. Like hip hop, I lack the language and terminology to describe what I am hearing. The programme notes for tonight’s concert mention tonality a lot. I do not know what this means. Ditto what a mazurka is.

I know from my love of art that knowledge isn’t always essential, but it can enhance. You can know what you like by ear or eye, yes, but to engage the head as well you do need some framework of understanding. As I lack that I can only ever go by my emotional reaction to the music. Which as we all know from previous entries can be quite strong at times! It wasn’t this evening, which isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy it, or that it was safe, just that it didn’t reach into my heart and gut and move them.

Douglas Stevens is clearly very passionate about Lennox Berkeley’s music. He has written a PhD thesis about it for a start, and recorded the entirety of his works (some of which have not been recorded before) and was prepared, despite being shy and nervous, to play this recital for us this evening. His love of the music did come through, especially towards the end when he was more animated in his playing style.

It certainly wasn’t gentle, wafty, background classical as there were shifts and jumps that were amusing. It wasn’t dramatic or emotional either though. So I’m left feeling a bit bemused if I’m honest. It was a pleasant way to spend a Sunday evening and I do feel quite relaxed. Nothing more though. Not stirred, not inspired, not astonished. I guess I am so spoiled, musically, in being those things more regularly, that a perfectly pleasant evenings entertainment leaves me feeling cheated!

I am still glad I went, things have to be tried to know if they suit, and learning what does and doesn’t is an ongoing process. I’ll keep trying new things and experiences.

 

Daylight Music – Union Chapel, London

Saturday 23rd June, 2018

I love Daylight Music. It’s such a brilliant idea, live music in an iconic venue, pay what you can afford, CAKE and tea. What is not to love about this? Whenever I have a free Saturday and can get a cheap coach ticket (today cost me £12 return) I pop in to Daylight Music. They run most Saturday lunchtimes, with a break in the summer, and you always get 3 main acts plus someone playing live to fill in the gaps. The suggested donation is £5 and there is always someone worth listening to on the bill. Why not go? Only one more week left this season, but they are back in the Autumn. I hope to see you there at some point.

I had planned this trip up a while ago, not knowing (or caring to be honest) who was on the bill. Through Lauren Laverne’s excellent show on BBC6 Music (and if you aren’t listening to that, then you should be) I had made contact with Ian. He had tweeted in looking for someone to go to a gig with, I said anytime he was in Bristol or I was in London I’d gladly go with him, but also encouraging him to go alone. I go to gigs on my own all the time, better to see and hear great music alone than to miss out. Through the power of music, the radio and twitter we made a loose plan to meet at Daylight Music.

Come the actual day and I’ve forgotten Ian’s twitter name (please don’t take offense, I forget my own!) and having been on social media holiday for a few days I figured he wouldn’t show up. I was early and sat in the small park outside enjoying the sun. When I got into Union Chapel, which really is as beautiful as everyone says it is, I decided to go upstairs. I’ve never done that before and I was interested to explore and see what the sound was like up there. Well, the view was spectacular and the sound pretty top notch.

The first act was Malin Anderson, who has just put out her debut album, Follow. Buy it. She has a beautiful voice, plays lovely gentle guitar and has the confident stage presence of a much more seasoned performer. As Ian said “she has the full package.” Why she is more known is a mystery to me. She was worth showing up for alone.

I had instragmmed a photo of my view, which I’m glad I did because Ian was there and came to find me! He insisted on buying me a slice of gluten free beetroot red velvet cake (how was I to resist that?) and I moved back downstairs to be with him and his friend Magda for the rest of the gig. The cake was pretty good. Ian assured me the other 3 types of cake he had already eaten were also very good. Yes, he had 4 slices of cake. This is why Daylight Music is so brilliant, it is really relaxed and chilled and there is cake. Seated gigs at sensible times with cake. Why aren’t they all like this? 🙂

Our next act was Alisha Sufit who sang, what she accurately described as “traditional folk songs that I wrote last year.” I liked her, her voice was clear and high and rang out across the pews. My favourite was one she wrote in response to a too polite piece on Women’s Hour about internet trolls. It was angry and very funny. Playful, vicious lyrics sung in a lilting harmony and an upbeat melody, it was shocking and hilarious. I’d quite like a gif of it to send to mansplainers, trolls and abusers.

I must mention Hannah who was the inbetween act today. Daylight Music always have eclectic ‘filler’ acts (I’ve seen a toy piano for starters) but Hannah was brilliant. I’m not sure the 1877 organ has ever been used to play Sweet Child O Mine before, nor the Emmerdale theme tune, nor Bon Jovi. All of which were as bonkers and fantastic as they sound. There was something apt about hearing Livin’ On a Prayer played on a church organ. I don’t know why it worked, it just did.

Our last act was to be San Soucis Experience. This was a stripped down version of the band, lead singer on guitar, bass and 3 backing singers. Oh boy was it good. Shimmering, summery, feel good music with amazing bass and a lead vocal that was both jazz and soul all at once. It was like a secret spice blend, all the ingredients just mix together to make something special. They’ve released an EP recently and I’d recommend getting it. An album will follow I hope.

Huge thanks to Ben and the team of volunteers who put on Daylight Music, it must be a total labour of love, but you do a great job. I appreciated it being another all female line up too, thank you for championing female musicians and others on the margins of the industry.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if you are in the vicinity of London on a Saturday lunchtime when Daylight Music is on, go. This was my fourth visit and I’ve found music to fall in love with each time. I even made some new friends this time!

 

Sensory Symphony – Colston Hall, Bristol

Sunday 10th June, 2018

Less a gig, more an event. A chance to say farewell for the time being to Colston Hall. Although we do not know what it will be named when it comes back, of course. Today was the last day, the last chance, to see the hall before the 2 year project to transform it begins.  I was emotional going in. Colston Hall, in particular The Lantern have been such an integral part of my life over the past 18 months. I honestly do not know what I will do without regular trips there. Like many Bristolians, and after almost a decade here I hope I am allowed to call myself that, have many wonderful memories of Colston Hall.

I have only every known it with the shiny new extension, opened not that long after I moved here. It made the space open, welcoming and full of light. I think the first gig I saw was The Manic Street Preachers, who are always worth seeing live. They told stories about escaping out of windows and sneaking on to trains to get to gigs at Colston Hall as teenagers!

The first time I went to The Lantern (which remains one of my favourite venues in Bristol for somehow managing to combine intimacy and spaciousness) was to see Saul Williams. Or Peggy Seeger. I can’t remember which came first, but they demonstrate the range and diversity of acts you can see  at Colston Hall. Many of #40gigs took place in The Lantern. Wonderful gigs. Memorable gigs. I have cried, I have danced, I have shared and I have been alone. Always I have enjoyed myself. The plans for the Lantern are ambitious, bold and beautiful. Windows will be reopened, seats installed and capacity increased. The designs look incredible. I can’t wait!

The plans for the main hall also include increasing capacity and building new balconies, which are needed as the acoustics suffer in the current design. It will be glossy and modern and reflect Bristol’s place as a cultural leader for music.

I was nervous about today’s event, an audio visual, immersive experience. Would it be overwhelming? We all know what an emotional creature I am with music. We were ushered in and onto the stage. Now there is a treat right there! To know my feet have trodden Colston Hall’s boards. Standing on the stage gave a real flavour of what it would have been like to be a performer here, a new perspective for me as a fan. I looked out at the hall in front of me and remembered some of the amazing gigs I have seen here. Michael Kiwanuka on his 30th birthday, Nils Frahm (be still my heart), Mogwai giving it everything plus the kitchen sink, Penguin Cafe bringing so much joy and love,  The Bootleg Beatles and the singalong Hey Jude making me smile, Ezra Furman showing the world how to be unafraid & unashamed, 6 Music Festival which was one of the greatest weekends of my life and the first time I saw John Grant who was simply incredible. All on this stage, the one I was now stood on. I was already emotional and we hadn’t even begun!

We were treated to a whistle-stop, greatest hits tour of Colston Hall’s recent history. The great, the good, the infamous, the influential, anyone of musical consequence has played Colston Hall it would seem. The audio visuals were spectacular, I got goose bumps and shivers and wanted to dance all over the stage. They did a great job, it can’t have been an easy brief. Sensibly they went chronologically, although we did seem to skip the last couple of decades as we got tribute to the ‘Bristol sound’ of trip hop in the early 90’s then steamed ahead to the end. Did nothing of note happen in the late 90’s or all of the 00’s I wonder?! Icons of British music history flashed before us, The Beatles, The Stones, Bowie, Elton John, Queen, Led Zep, Hendrix, all have played Colston Hall. All were included today. If these walls could talk! Well they sang today, with glorious memories of the Hall’s past. It was a fitting way to bow out. I lingered on the stage as long as I dared, not wanting to leave. It isn’t goodbye, it’s a partial farewell. For a much-needed refurbishment and makeover. I know when it comes back it will have been worth the wait, and we will all make memories afresh among the Hall’s walls.

It was difficult to leave. Colston Hall and The Lantern were such a part of #40 gigs that it isn’t hyperbole to say this place helped to change my life.

Good luck to the transformation team, you have a big job ahead of you. One I know Bristol deserves and will respect. Once you are back, in 2020, I’ll be there on opening night, ready to embrace the new with as much passion and vigour with which I have the old.

 

Jack Cookson/Alex Hedley – Festival of Nature, Bristol

Saturday 10th June, 2018

I’ve taken my natural history and animal loving son to the Festival of Nature every year since forever but didn’t know that there is a music tent until this year. And even then only because a friend who lives in Norfolk told me! Fen recommended I see Alex Hedley and it was checking the listings that I realised that me old mucker Jack Cookson was also playing.

I’ve seen Jack as a support artist a few times and he is such a lovely boy I knew it would be worth showing up to see him.

The set up was more eating chips in a tent vibe than serious listening to music vibe but hey, you take what you can get, right? I was late and so missed the first part of Jack’s set (sorry, hope the cake made up for it) but I enjoyed what I did hear. The songs I’ve come to know as well as a few covers. All went over well with the toddlers and their parents. The sound was a teeny bit too quiet so Jack’s delicate guitar was a tiny but lost but I’m still glad I went to see him play. He gigs reasonably regularly round Bristol and Plymouth (where he’s from) and I can recommend hearing him. Or buy his CD from his website, download his music on BandCamp or just give me a fiver so I can keep making him cakes.

I stayed on for Alex Hedley, seeing as Fen said I should catch him. And I was not disappointed. He has a cracking voice, rich in emotion and tone. I had to duck out before the end of his short set, which is a shame. I shall try to catch him again some other time.

An hour spent in a shady tent on a sunny day listening to talented singer/songwriters is an hour well spent in my book.

 

Amici – The Lord Mayor’s Chapel, Bristol

Funds are a bit tight at the moment so I can’t afford to be buying tickets to gigs. This, however, was a free performance in a Church and I had nothing else to be doing of a Saturday lunchtime so I thought why not go. All I knew was “free concert” at the Lord Mayor’s Chapel. Not who was playing or what they were playing until I got in. The Lord Mayor’s Chapel is the usually closed church at the bottom of Park Street that I had never set foot in until today.

You go down a few steps into a narrow chapel, with a stunning high vaulted wooden ceiling. There are lovely stained glass panels and crests of many former Lord Mayor’s of Bristol who are, I presume, buried beneath. A rather lovely looking organ was just visible at the back, but I wasn’t to hear that played today. No, it was an a cappella choir, Amici, from Norfolk.

Somehow this was to be my first choral concert experience, which given how musical a City Bristol is and how many of my friends sing in choirs, quite a surprise. I love the power of the human voice when harnessed together, there is something very beautiful and moving about group singing.

There were quite a few of them crowded together in the pulpit and choir at the the front and all had beautiful voices. They sang a wide variety of music, drawing on a huge range of historical texts to do so, from medieval music to more modern day pop songs. I think I would have preferred them to stick to one era, rather than jumping about. This was a 50 minute introduction of all they could do, when I would have preferred to hear one style to be honest. All of them were good, but it was quite jarring to go from French traditional folk to jazz via Medieval church music with a bit of Victorian poetry thrown in!

As lovely as the harmonies were on Deep River and Ezekiel Saw The Wheel I find a white choir singing negro spirituals problematic. Especially given where they were being sung. An old church, in Bristol, who’s very people and institutions gained financially from breaking the backs of other humans via the slave trade. Bristol’s past and present are still tainted by slavery, I felt it was insensitive.

Sort of ditto their rendition of Lullaby of Birdland, written about Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker and the jazz scene. “Jazz is black classical music” Nina Simone. Not white, middle age choirs from the Shires.

Towards the end they sang a version of Only You (yes the Yazoo song) which proves that a great song is a great song is a great song, whoever and wherever it is sung. The arrangement was quite nice and I left humming it.

Fundamentally my problem with Amici was that it was all very polite, very safe, very staid. Very English, uptight and repressed. Music, for me, is about emotion and release. It is about movement, it is about community and bringing people together. It is not polite and reserved. It is about celebration of the big emotions, love, laughter and loss.

The rest of the small audience seemed to enjoy it considerably more than I, although it is not being mean to say that I was the youngest person in there by a number of decades!

It was free, the singing was great, and getting to see the inside of a usually closed piece of Bristol’s heritage was worthwhile. Overall though, not really for me. I like riskier, more exciting music – even on a Saturday lunchtime.

 

Sona Jobarteh – St George’s Hall, Bristol

Ages ago, probably in the interval of another gig at St George’s, I was looking through the programme and this gig stood out, so I got myself a ticket. I’ve started to make a point of seeing more diverse artists (I mean, there really are only so many things a boy can do with a guitar. Unless he was Prince) and I want to keep pushing my boundaries.

Sona is a female Kora player. This is trailblazing, as it is an instrument traditionally only played by men. Therefore, immediately I liked her. An African woman, standing proud of her Gambian heritage and ancestry whilst simultaneously rewriting all the rules. That’s my kind of woman.

I have harboured a secret desire to travel to Senegal and The Gambia for years (the fear of flying and complete lack of funds somewhat hampering any attempt to make it a reality). All because of music. The roots of most modern music lie in rock n roll, The Beatles nicked Rhythm n Blues from Black America, and the roots of that music lie in Africa. Slavery stole the people of West Africa and all they had to take with them was their music. Call and response singing,  drum beats & rhythm patterns, jazz – it all comes from West Africa. Without West Africa there would be no RnB, no rock n roll. So I have long wanted to pay a pilgrimatic journey to West Africa to give thanks.

But what I haven’t done, until very recently, was listen to or see live any African artists. Tonight was part of rectifying that.

Sona and her band were superb. Groovy, funky, playful, soulful and moving. The Kora is an incredible instrument (it’s a type of harp), capable of delicate sounds and beautiful harmonies. Backed by a 4 piece Afro Beat group of drums, bass and percussion, and with Sona’s lovely voice, they played a dozen or so songs. All sung in a language I don’t speak, although I have learnt the Manding for love and woman this evening. It was an inclusive evening of music, making a political point, yes, but with love and warmth and heart. We were encouraged over and over to join in with the singing and with playful humour gently poked fun of for our very feeble first attempts until we were getting it right. Some songs were sad and mournful, about those we had lost, others celebratory about the power of love and of women and one brilliant one the nomadic tribespeople of West Africa. Sona is on a one woman musical mission to ensure the heritage of traditional playing and songs continues, but also moves with the times. I, of course, loved her.

Sona sparred with her percussionist Mamadou Sarr and that was pure joy to watch, each of them teasing and raising their game against and with each other to make sublime sounds. I was grinning from ear to ear. Any time you get to see talented musicians play is a joyful experience, they want to make each other better, raise each other up and take you with them.

As a representative of the school she founded in Gambia, to pass on to the next generation the skills needed to keep this music alive, Sona bought on her son to play with the band. It was a lovely touch. There was a mixture of professional and maternal pride on display that was very touching. He came back for the encore too, and took his bow rightfully with the rest of the band.

By the end there pockets of dancing had broken out in the aisles! At St George’s! Usually a staid and serious place of classical music and polite clapping. Of elderly, well educated white people. And some of them were dancing! It was wonderful. Music reaches inside you and makes you want to move. Dance. Jig. Groove. You don’t have to understand the language of the lyrics, you just need to feel. Feel connected, feel moved. Feel the rhythm, check the vibe. Let your backbone slip, you know.

I had no idea what the Kora would sound like before tonight. I hope I get to hear one played live again. There is clearly a whole other world of music out there that I need to start listening to. Thank you Sona Jobarteh for opening my ears.