Emily Barker, Holly Macve & Jade Bird – St George’s Hall, Bristol

Sunday 22nd July, 2018

Another gig in the River Town series. An all female line up. A blend of country, blues and folk. In the beautiful St George’s. Of course I was going to this gig.

Jade Bird was first up and as she came on wearing a bright red boilersuit, which she admitted was probably a mistake in this heat. Before she had even played a note she’d won most of us over with her charm and humour. A youngster who “likes country and blues music” who has a voice that can gently move you or holler like a good ‘un, well she is alright by me. There are a few of her tracks on Spotify, I recommend checking them out. The country influence is there in the storytelling songs, the cheating and the dastardly men. The blues is there in the delivery. Something American, Furious and a new track 17 were highlights. The final track, What Am I Here For? wouldn’t be out-of-place on First Aid Kits latest I thought. If you are a fan of their modern country pop indie then I think you would like Jade Bird. She is funny,engaging and has a staggering voice for someone at the start of their career.

I have always been honest in this blog. I try to be constructive and positive but it would be impossible for anyone (even me) to like everyone they saw play live. I didn’t enjoy Holly Macve’s set. There was polite applause from me and the rest of the audience, but that was all. I found her songs to be very samey (which, if you do it well enough is grand), all blending into each other with no differential between them. There was little to no attempt to engage with the audience (perhaps Holly is very shy?) and I found her voice  did nothing for me. Given that the write up for this gig pegged her as having “devastating emotional delivery” and that she has had airplay from Jo Whiley and 700,000 streams of a track on Spotify, perhaps it was just me. Or she had an off night.

The mood had been up and then down again so Emily Barker had a bit of a job to do to lift it back up. My initial impression was good, especially as she has Lukas Drinkwater playing with her. What a lovely surprise to see him again. He also plays in duo Jacob & Drinkwater who I loved last year and am seeing again in September.

Emily is one of those genre crossing, therefore defying, musicians that I love. There was a wide variation in the tracks she played, from gospel to blues to folk to country to soul. All there and all brilliant. Sister Goodbye, written in tribute to Sister Rosetta Sharp (who if you don’t know, look up immediately) was mournful and sorrowful, More was groovy soul, No 5 Hurricane romantic & forlorn, Over My Shoulder and Dear River full of longing and sadness, Sunrise hip and groovy. All sung with a voice sharp, clear and beautiful. Get yourself copies of her albums. See her play live.

I went into this gig not knowing any of the three artists and walked out wanting to hear more of two of them. That’s not at all bad for £16 is it now?


The Barr Brothers – Thekla, Bristol

Thursday 17th July, 2018

A random ticket buy. July/August are slim pickings for gigs so you take what you can get in terms of bands in these months. This gig fitted in terms of date and price and I’ve a pretty good track record of random gigs – my instinct is good so I thought I’d take a chance on The Barr Brothers. This was part of River Town, a festival of Americana music, and as I love a bit of country I figured I’d probably be on safe territory with this gig.

Due to Colston Hall’s refurb (hurry, I miss you) this gig, which would probably have been in the Lantern (I really miss you) was hosted by Thekla instead. A gig venue on a boat, what’s not to love about that? I’ve had some cracking gigs onboard the good ship so I boarded with reasonable hopes of enjoying tonight.

I am glad I got there nice and early as the support band came on at 7.30pm to a very small crowd (I think 13 at the start!). Mt Joy they were called, a debut album of the same name was released earlier this year and it worth getting hold of. I liked them. A lot. By about the 3rd track I was thinking that I’d had my money’s worth out of this gig already. A young American 5 piece, they played a sort of mixture of late 70’s soft rock (not usually a genre I like) with country and soul. They turned their track Julia into a cover of Aint No Sunshine and did it justice. Astrovan was probably my favourite track.

The road crew bought out a lap steel guitar (oh yes, hello there, we are in for a good time), double bass (ditto), trombone and trumpet players appeared (now this is getting interesting), some sort of voice box/mic (hmmmm), a huge array of guitars and effects (what am I about to hear?) and then the band.

Oh wow. The best drummer. A solid bass. The brass. THE LAP STEEL GUITAR. The lead singer who could make sounds come out his guitar as if it were singing or howling. He made noises I did not know you could make, in ways that were as silly and creative as I’ve seen (piece of sting anyone?).

The lap steel is one of my favourite instruments and one that isn’t played live as often as it should be. To be inches away from it, its gorgeous noises hitting my ears, was such a treat. It just does something to me. Add it to the glorious mix of all the other very talented men on the stage and you had a heady brew. Blues, rock, country all thrown in together and stirred until music came out that moved my mind and my body. I couldn’t help it, the rhythm got me. Right at the start of this gig I gave myself permission to just move. I stand out like a sore thumb anyhow, short blonde hair, big glasses, green dress., no point attempting to blend in. Just let your inner weirdo out I thought to myself. Be free, enjoy the music and what it does to you.

Imagine mixing Fleetwood Mac, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Abbey Road era Beatles, Dr Hook, Muddy Waters, BB King add a touch of Springsteen, Talking Heads and They Might Be Giants and you might get a flavour of how I felt listening to The Barr Brothers tonight. Man they can play. There was a guitar/double bass face off that was like a howling wolf and sounds emanating from a beaten up acoustic guitar that shouldn’t have been possible. And the drummer. Everything from gentle brush strokes on cymbals (frigging huge ones at that), bells enhancing the brass, to Animal from the Muppets rock n roll and everything in-between. This drummer didn’t just keep the time, he added flavours and colours to the music to take it all to another level. The brass was understated and superb (it was the first time they’ve had them on the road with them) and any bass player who can easily alternate between electric and double bass knows what they are doing. Despite having a set list I can’t really tell you which ones I liked because I loved them all.

Towards the end of the set a different mic stand, covered in lightbulbs, was bought into the middle and we were treated to a couple of stripped back numbers with beautiful harmony singing. It was unexpected, quirky and lovely.

As they’d overrun somewhere earlier on (having too much rocking out I suspect) the encore song was cut, so we had a sort of strange ending but nonetheless this was a gig I absolutely loved.

Sometimes when I leave a gig I want to savour it, trying to hang on to every delicious morsel. Sometimes I want to rush home to get these words typed so I can share how fantastic it was. Tonight was both. Random ticket purchasing strikes gold again. I shall almost certainly regret the dancing tomorrow, my feet and back are already aching and my ears are ringing like crazy, but for a few hours tonight I got to be young, free and soaring again. We all need to feel vital and alive, music, live music, done like this, makes me feel all of those things.

Handel, Hendrix & Kahlo with a side of football


Saturday 7th July, 2018

Tom was off with the Ubers to see Ride at Hyde Park so I had a Saturday in London to myself. Bliss.

Having nabbed myself a National Art Pass on a special offer recently (£10 for a 3 month membership) I had built a wish list of the places I wanted to use it. I decided to start with the Handel and Hendrix museum, which is just round the corner from Bond Street. A couple of centuries and a wall kept the men apart in life, but they are now both commemorated in this fine double museum. I started with Handel,  he was first after all. I had no idea he had lived, and indeed died in London until today. With the Hanoverian Kings, it of course made sense for a successful German to come to London at that time. He wrote most of his music here too, and standing in the room he composed in was pretty thrilling. They had some beautiful vintage instruments on display, which is how I discovered how the harpsichord works and that it is more like a guitar (plectrums!) than a piano. There was a small opera recital in the house on the day I visited and so I was accompanied by the gorgeous sounds of baroque opera as I walked round.There is a replica of his bed, the one in which died, in the room in which he drew his final breath. A rather fabulous marble bust of him looks over the room. Having recently discovered a love of Baroque music I really enjoyed this little glimpse into the world of Handel.

A narrow staircase takes you into what would have been Hendrix’s flat next door. The original staircase he would have used is still visible and even though I couldn’t walk on it, I did have the feeling of walking in Jimi’s footsteps. They use the small space well to tell you about Jimi’s sadly short life, with his jacket (he was tall and broad, I didn’t realise that), record collection, effects peddles and replica guitar. For one glorious moment I was stood between the two museums with the sound of a Handel opera in one ear and Purple Haze in the other. As a blend it was fabulous. As was the reconstruction of Hendrix’s bedroom. Many photographs and interviews took place in the room, and the Trust had help from Kathy Etchinham (who was Jimi’s girlfriend) they have managed a very authentic recapturing. My initial reaction was “wow” the colours and fabrics strike you as pretty psychedelic even now. The bed is low, the ashtrays are full and the detail is superb. The mirror is original and you are invited to look at your reflection in the same way he would have done. That’s quite charged.

As a child whose parents smoked B&H, stubbing them out in sea shell ashtrays, I can say I felt transported right back. It is a perfect little time capsule of 1968. The ha’penny taped to the arm of the record deck. The fan knitted teddy bear Jimi kept for years. The beautiful Victorian shall hung above the bed. It all came together to give a real feel for what it would have been like to visit there at the time. While the colour and fabric were pretty shocking, it was also wonderfully domestic and ordinary. You could see Jimi and Kathy sitting in the low bed, drinking tea, having a fag and watching TV, just like any other young couple. Some places give off a special aura or glow and just make you feel things.

What was the spare room (where among others, George Harrison spent the night on the sofa) next door, showcased Jimi’s record collection and guitar. I gazed out of the window, thinking about how many of the great, good and notorious would have looked at the same view.

I took another, slow look round both places, I almost didn’t want to leave. I picked up a memento, a red guitar necklace and headed out into the sweltering heat.

My next stop was to be the allergy and free from food fayre at Olympia. As a coeliac the chance to sample gluten free foods and pick up some supplies is always welcome, and the ticket was free and more crucially, they were showing the England game on a big screen. Gluten free chilli in my belly, christmas pudding and cookies in my bag, I made my way into the side hall where the football was on. It was quite surreal on a bright sunny day to be in a darkened room. Victorian grandeur mingling with modern technology (wi-fi projector and laptop, huge screen).

The crowd was great, really mixed, lots of other women, kids of all ages, people of all colours and faiths surrounded me. Even some brave Swede’s who were sat behind me. We shook hands before kick off, it felt like the sporting thing to do. And what Gareth Southgate would have wanted. The elderly Chinese woman sat next to me (with her Anglo Indian husband) was as excited as me, despite telling me “I don’t usually watch the football, but this team and this World Cup!” When the first goal went in, the place erupted. I’ve never really watched football like this, en mass, and I loved it. It was tense, with none of daring to dream that we could win, but we did. England’s men would be in their first World Cup semi final in forever. It was such a feeling of relief and joy. Enormous credit to the young team and the set up around them, they have restored many of our faith in the men’s game.

What to do with myself next?! Other than eat more gluten free things of course. I felt I’d earned the brownie with the stress of the game.

I had a ticket for the Frida Kahlo exhibition at the V&A, but that wasn’t until 8.15pm so I thought I’d head over to Trafalgar Square to see the Millicent Fawcett statue. Last time I tried to get there 10,000 anti Brexit marchers had gotten in my way! This time I had to contend with the ends of Pride and a lot of happy, glittery people instead 🙂 I arranged to meet up with Mark off twitter, who was quite merry from watching the game in a pub, and we had a good natter in the sunshine next to the statue. I asked him to take a picture of me with it, got into Rosie The Riveter pose and only later realised he hadn’t got the statue in the shot! Too many beers I suspect. I’ll have to go back another time. I liked the statue very much, Gillian Wearing is a great artist and she has done a bang up job. The texture in the cloth, the band of photos of other suffrage campaigners in the plinth, the hands – fabulous, strong and striking. Courage calls to courage everywhere held directly opposite the Palace of Westminster. Yes, sisters, yes.

I bade farewell to Mark and headed over to the V&A. This has always been one of my favourite London museums, it is vast, eclectic and interesting. To access the exhibition at this late time, when the rest of the place is closed, involves the staff security hut and corridor. It felt a but like sneaking in, which sort of added to the thrill of the whole event.

I have always loved Frida Kahlo’s art. It speaks to me. Directly. Like an electric charge to the heart. Something in her work has always touched me, moved me, made me feel things very deeply. The first time I saw her work I knew very little about her life. I didn’t need to to have that direct connection, her art cuts into the very soul of me. Then I did learn about her life. And oh boy did that connection make sense. Another woman who had known deep, shaming, female pain, deep, deep into her bones. No wonder I felt so strongly as a reaction to her work. I understood her, she understood me. She explained and depicted the strength, courage and downright determination needed just to make it through the day. She did it with beauty, with such love and tenderness, that I find it impossible not to stare at her paintings for interminably long periods of time.

There was a major exhibition of Frida Kahlo’s art in London in 2005, at a time when I was ill, wracked in pain and not working. I went and still occasionally look through the gallery catalogue. Then I did not have my son, and did not think I ever would. So the paintings depicting Frida’s infertility and loss affected me profoundly. I spent so long in the exhibition, looking and looking, moving in and out of the paintings eyelines, that security had to ask me to leave as they were closing. At 10pm.

A great deal of Frida’s art is in private hands, or held in collections in Mexico (quite rightly) or the US, so when one gets the opportunity to see it closer to home, one takes it. This current exhibition at the V&A is of her whole life, including clothing, personal effects, photographs of Frida as well as her art. It is the first time much of this has been seen outside of Mexico, where it was fairly recently rediscovered. Her husband had her rooms sealed after her death and everything lay there undisturbed for decades. It is now in the public domain.

Once you are in the room containing Frida’s personal things, her shoes, plaster casts, medicine bottles, lipstick, nail polishes and so on, things get emotional. At least they did for me. Her little feet, they were so tiny. Just like mine. The shoes, specially shaped and stacked on account of her childhood polio, yet so very beautiful, the red velvet continuing to shine. If they had not been behind glass I may not have been to stop myself from stroking the fabric. They were ostentatious, embroidered and embellished. I want a pair. Next to them, the false leg, worn later in life, after an amputation. What could have been ghoulish or macabre seemed somehow triumphant. Frida hid her legs beneath the long skirts all her life, hiding those pretty shoes as a personal reminder to herself of her femininity. Now they are out for all of us to admire.

The plaster casts and spinal braces felt initially too intrusive, too personal, too open and raw in their pain to be shared. Spinal pain, nerve pain and spinal surgery are fuckers. It is no wonder Frida had so many prescription medicines and was dependent on painkillers. That she was able to create so much amazing, incredible art from her bed simply elevates her talent to another level. As someone who has known chronic and intractable pain I could only weep for the torment Frida endured and want to stroke her face and hold her body in recognition. Kindred spirits and souls can be found across time, space, continents, even death, in art.

The cosmetics were a joyous release, bright, bold lips and nails such a part of Frida’s look. That defiance again. That fight. That fire. My gosh she was an incredible woman.

In the final room, Frida’s clothes. Beautiful, bright, Mexican clothes. They were partly practical, the skirts hid her legs, the tops easy to put on and off over casts and braces, yet Frida took those factors (which could be seen as limiting) and made them spectacular, full of colour and pride in her Mexican heritage. Her jewelery was incredible, some made from Aztec stones thousands of years old. There was a necklace, silver, made up of tiny arms and legs all marching and waving, a wonderful slice of humour. In this room also a number of her paintings. Two of which I could take my eyes off. Both self portraits, one with monkeys, one almost a funeral cortege. I spent a long time in this room. Watching others look or pass by, standing close, moving further away, bobbing left and right, drinking in each painting slowly over and over.

Eye contact is a hard thing for me (I’ve learnt to look at noses, the space between eyes, eyebrows, lips so that you think I’m looking at you but I’m not) it is so intense it can actually hurt. When I do make that connection with someone (that I love and trust, generally) it is very intense and powerful. So for me to stand for minutes at a time, looking directly into Frida’s painted eyes, is revealing, tense, intense, emotional and overwhelming. Yet I am unable to look away. Something draws me closer, holds me. I find Frida Kahlo’s art spellbinding. It sends shivers down my spine and goosebumps up my arms. I feel such a deep sense of connection and belonging with her art. After some time with these works I went back to the start of the exhibition and began all over again. I couldn’t let go, I couldn’t leave. I wanted, no needed, more time with Frida. I found myself staring at the shoes again. Looking at the medicine bottles, working out which ones I had used myself. Everything was so beautifully curated and displayed that they were almost works of art themselves. I started to wonder if she were alive now, whether Frida would be doing this herself. Modern art, telling her life in another artistic way. I concluded that she may well, her art was always about revealing herself.

I returned to self portrait with monkeys and self portrait 1948 and wept in front of them both. The latter, displayed as it was at the end of the exhibition, next to the costume that was worn in it, with the face ruff/veil all round, like a crown of flowers on a death mask, made me cry for the tragically young age at which Frida died. 47. Only 6 years older than I am now. How that was a blessed relief, in a way, from a physical body wracked with pain, to a spiritual body that she very much believed in. I did not feel this was the end I wanted, nor that my relationship with Frida’s art deserved. I am still very much alive, hopefully with more than 6 years left. I wanted to leave with a sense of life, of joy, not mourning. Self portrait with monkeys 1943 would be my last and lasting image I decided. I took some final, long, lingering looks at the strength and audacity displayed in that face, closed my eyes and found the exit.

On my way out I realised why Frida Kahlo’s art has such a profound and lasting impact on me. She wanted to be seen. A disabled woman of colour. She wanted to be seen. Society and culture hide and render invisible women, people of colour and disabled people. Frida Kahlo was all 3. She wanted to be seen. She wanted to roar and rage her way out of the pain and the way others chose to not see her. She wanted to give them no choice but to look at her and hear her voice. And how she did. I hear her, I see her and in her I see parts of myself reflected, I see and feel understanding, acceptance and love. That is redemptive. And rare. And beautiful. It is powerful and heady stuff. When I look at Frida Kahlo’s paintings I see her. And she sees me. I see myself echoed in the paint, I see aspects of my life mattering, I see representations of female pain, anguish, fear and anger. I understand myself more. I feel. I feel so strongly and so powerfully that I am renewed.

I hope one day to be able to stand in situ with her work again, there really is no substitute for the real thing. As much as the exhibition catalogues and prints try to capture, there is no replication of the way it feels to stand and marvel at a painting or sculpture. Art is about explaining and exploring the human condition, it shows us who we are and what we can be. It transcends time and space, we can share in the emotions of artists dead for centuries, or ones who live round the corner. We can connect deeply to each other and ourselves in art.

Frida Kahlo’s art has always spoken to me. It continues to do so.





BBC Symphony Orchestra – Maida Vale, London

Friday 6th July, 2018

This will be the longest gap between attending the concert and writing it up since I started this blog. Partly because I don’t have a small, light, laptop for travel, and partly because life has gotten in the way. Parenthood, work and the England football team have all prevented me putting words down. And now I realise that I’ve lost the programme for the event. I’ll be working on memory here; this may not be a classic entry!

The BBC give away free tickets to all sorts of things, comedy shows, discussion/panel shows, gigs and classical concerts. All you have to do is apply and keep your fingers crossed. I’ve never been lucky in securing Strictly tickets, but I have occasionally seen some BBC Radio 4 recordings in Bristol (Cerys Matthews In Our Time and Front Row). I applied for tickets to this when I realised that Tom and I would be in London for the weekend and that it was at Maida Vale. The iconic recording studio that the BBC are planning to leave very soon. I thought I had better take the chance to visit while I could, having never been there before. Besides when else do you get to hear the BBC Symphony Orchestra in all its glory, being recorded for BBC Radio 3, for free?

It had already been one heck of a musical day, starting with my final stint as the 5 before 6 DJ on Chris Hawkins early show on BBC 6Music (you send in 5 songs to be played at 5 to 6 in the morning). We visited Abbey Road and I posed on the crossing with 800 other tourists in homage to the Beatles. Then we popped in to see James Maynell at Soho Radio (he usually broadcasts on a Friday 2-4, have a listen) and I ended up live on air chatting to Alan McGee (as you do!) about Screamadelica. It was about as far from my ordinary Friday as it could get.

Having been lucky in the ticket draw we rocked up to Maida Vale nice and early and were grateful to be queuing in the shade. The relentless heat we have had of late made London (and the tube in particular) very sticky indeed. Once allowed in it felt fantastical and anti climatic all at once. I may well have been walking where the Beatles, Sir George Martin and Cilla had, but it was still a working BBC building with all its health & safety notices and business as usual air. We were in Studio 1, a vast hall with peach and cream walls and some baffling curtains covering nothing and doors that seemed to lead nowhere high up on the walls. It felt time capsule like, original features were abound giving it an air of faded, tired glamour. My initial reaction was “well I can see why they want to close down and move from here, its old, a pain in the arse to get to, how on earth you’d park large trucks outside I do not know and frankly I feel like I’m in a school gym circa 1954.”

The enormous orchestra trundled in (there seemed to be so many of them and yet they didn’t fill the space, it just seemed to go on forever) and our BBC Radio 3 host (whose name I’ve forgotten, but who’s voice I recognised from my occasional listening to the station) welcomed us in and we did some practice applause.

The wonderful thing about attending recordings for radio is that they introduce everything fully and so you have a bit more chance of understanding things you aren’t familiar with. Such as classical French composers. They opened with Berlioz’s overture to ‘Le carnaval romain’ which was pretty stirring stuff. Romantic and swirling, building climatically to an enormous crescendo it certainly kept us all awake!

After a short interval we came back to Liszt’s symphonic poem, apparently the worlds first, and there was a chat with the conductor afterwards (without the programme I’ve no idea of his name) about how French cello compositions have their own sound and how the use of piano to compose on isn’t the done thing in France, as it is in Germany etc. The composer “must think in his head” the sound he wants to convey. I’ve genuinely no idea what difference this makes, I’m no expert on any kind of classical music at all, but it was interesting to hear about from someone who did. This was a calmer piece, gentler and more ‘traditional’ romance.

The final piece was from Dutilleux, Timbres, espace, mouvement, which was inspired by the Van Gogh painting Starry Night.  I had Don McLean’s Vincent running through my head which made for an interesting mash up I can tell you! The motifs representing the stars (harp, wind) run through the piece, almost competing with the cellos of the earth to see who can shine brightest and feel more authentic. Ultimately it is both, creating a beautiful dance of natural wonder.

I may have started as a doubter, but as soon as the sounds of the orchestra hit my ears, I knew what every musician who has ever played at Maida Vale meant when they say the place is special. There is a warmth and depth to the sound, something very rich and wonderful that would be lost if the BBC were to move. I can still see the practical reasons they may want to leave, but my heart is now sold on them staying. I am very glad I had the opportunity to hear music played there, it is a venue off the bucket list that’s for sure.

It had been a magical, musical adventure of a day.