Bill Ryder-Jones – South Street Arts Centre, Reading

Thursday 26th September, 2019

I love Bill Ryder-Jones. There I’ve said it. He has the sort of vulnerable, fragile voice that just cuts through me and makes me cry. He makes wonderfully beautiful yet melancholic music and I love him for it.

The first time I saw him was in Sheffield, on a bill with Richard Hawley and John Grant (talk about a treat, that was a very special night indeed) where I had never heard of him and was knocked out by his achingly beautiful vocals, including a Welsh language Super Furry Animals cover. He also wrestled with a very long jelly snake sweet and cans of lager from a blue plastic bag. He was shambolic, funny and I fell a teeny bit in love with him.

Since then I’ve seen him play solo, with a full band, in an arts centre, a record shop and at a festival. His music is always brilliant, even if he is suffering with stage fright and/or over self medicating with alcohol. The tension inherent in the conflict in Bill’s soul, between being compelled to make and share music while being terrified of doing the same is something I in part understand and respond to on a very human level. I always want to cuddle him and tell him it will be ok before a gig (even if that would be weird) and Bill has been gentlemanly enough to let me give him a cuddle after a gig. It feels like the right thing, I can’t help but feel I want to offer him comfort. It is also a tiny gesture of thanks. I may not have lived Bill’s life but I have been affected by loss, grief and mental health problems. We almost all have. Bill writes about his, wearing his heart on his sleeve and baring his soul in his music. Who wouldn’t feel vulnerable in standing on a stage and sharing that with strangers?

Last years album Yawn, was full of those sort of beautifully sad songs and the reworking of them as Yawny Yawn as piano led tracks made some of them even more heartbreaking. This tour is to support that and as I’ve never heard Bill play piano I was prepared to trek out to Reading to hear them played live even when my other Reading gigs have been fairly disastrous.

South Street Arts Centre was really nice. Small, friendly and with a monkey hand stamp I liked the place. Even if I was expecting seats and it was standing. It was an intimate space, maybe only 100 of us in there.

Support was from Lucy Gaffney who is a singer songwriter from Belfast who has a cracking voice. Her short set included a brilliant cover of Linger (yes, you did it justice) and songs of love ending that seemed quite poignant. I would happily hear her play again.

Bill started with John on the piano. I love the ambiguity of this track, not knowing for sure if Bill is singing a Dear John letter himself to a lost lover, or putting himself in the shoes of a woman who is. It shouldn’t be striking to hear men singing directly to other men, should it? Yet is is.

Part of the idea of this tour is taking requests and Bill took one from a lad in the audience who looked about my son’s age (12) for Two To Birkenhead even though it meant setting up his guitar pedals. I bet the boy was thrilled – I saw him getting his T shirt signed at the end of the night and it gladdened my heart. Sadly the louder voices in the crowd (all male, unsurprisingly) drowned out my request (but it was ok he played the song I would have asked for later anyway). Seabirds made me cry. Ditto Lemon Trees and Wild Roses.  I don’t even know why I react with such strong emotion to songs, I just can’t help it. The aching and the longing and the sense of loss just climb into my heart and make me weep. Bill’s is the sort of voice that moves me and isn’t that what music is for? To connect us? To help us heal? In sharing the vulnerability and the pain, we know we are not alone and that is therapeutic. Well it is for me. In music I have a home, in music I am safe. I am wrapped in melody and sound like a comfort blanket and for those moments everything will be ok. Bill Ryder-Jones is one of the artists that make me feel like this.

Any man who can take the title of a tune from Grease and turn it into his own touching and challenging song about being a man who maybe, on occasion, likes to be with other men and wear make up and heels, is a man for whom I have a lot of respect. There are worse things any of us can do than go with a boy or two, that’s for damn sure. And it was fucking fabulous to hear Bill telling the young lad to ignore the ending of Grease for the way the female character became subservient – chaps this is how you become a feminist ally! Also please, Bill, agree with me that Grease 2 is a way better film? Perhaps a cover of Cool Rider or Reproduction would be in order one day. Or I Will Survive, that you teased us with on the piano. Ach, whatever you want to play is alright with me, Bill. Just keep playing with such openness and love and I will keep responding with the same. I’ll see you again next week in London.

 

India Electric Co – Folk House, Bristol

Sunday 22nd September, 2019

I was first introduced to India Electric Co by my friend Kate as part of the original 40 gigs challenge. They were gig 25 and sat between Elbow and improvised jazz in what was a brilliant little run of gigs that opened my eyes to new genres of music. They became the first revisited artists, the first act I discovered as part of 40 gigs that I went to see again. They now also have the honour of being the first act I have seen for a third time. That in itself should tell you how much I like them, as should the fact that I booked these tickets way back in April.

Bristol Folk House is fab, I’ve gone on about it before, but I will do so again. A friendly and quirky place, with great soft/hot drink options and cake, with either the cafe/bar performance area for intimate gatherings or the downstairs hall for larger gigs, always seated and relaxed, with excellent sound. The only thing to not love about it are all the stairs that make it inaccessible for some, but in every other way it ticks all the boxes for being a great venue.

Support was being provided by the excellent Jack Cookson, just as it had before. He is a very talented and lovely chap. It has been a real pleasure to see and  hear how Jack’s confidence and songwriting have grown in the past couple of years. Writing modern folk songs about how it is to be a man in the 21st Century, he is funny, warm and engaging. He regularly gigs in Bristol and Plymouth so go see him and buy his stuff on Band Camp.

India Electric Co are by their own admission sometimes folk, sometimes not, and I guess it really depends on how you describe the genre. To my, albeit new to folk mind and ears they are very much a folk duo. Singer/songwriters using acoustic instruments (guitar, accordion, fiddle) using their music to tell stories, sometimes ancient and other times modern. That’s folk, right? And great folk at that. Reworked sea shanties about the girls left behind, lyrics from WH Auden poetry, stories of being lost, far from home and longing for a new life and love. All folk. Throw in a magnificent Bruce Springsteen cover and you have all the makings of a wonderful evening of music. I am not the worlds biggest Bruce fan, but  boy can he write a tune. Cole and Joe covering it in their own style is shiver inducing. In their hands it becomes the sort of song that makes tears spring out of the corner of your eyes and the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. One of the things I love about seeing India Electric Co live is how emotionally invested in each song they are. Joe plays in just his socks to ground himself in his playing and when he wore glasses Cole used to have take them off and put them in his pocket when he sang this song. That they are unafraid to be vulnerable on stage. to share with us how affecting the music is partly why I love them.

Of their own music, the track I still love the most (and was my second most listened to track of 2018 on Spotify fact fans) is Parachutes. It sends shivers through me.

If you are looking for a way into folk music, or already like it, or just like really good acoustic music then I can highly recommend India Electric Co. This was the last night of their tour, so I don’t know when they will next play this way, but when they do I’ll see you there.

 

Anupama Bhagwat & Gurdain Rayatt – St George’s, Bristol

Sunday 8th September, 2019

Two years ago, as part of 40 gigs’ extension, I went to my first Asian Arts Agency concert, to hear Debsamita Bhattacharya play the sarod and was so moved that I have kept a keen eye on the listings for opportunities to hear more Asian music. Earlier this year I went to see Seyed Ali Jaberi with the Hamdel ensemble, opening up my ears to Sufi music for the first time. As I had so enjoyed both of those concerts, supported by Asian Arts Agency and St George’s, as soon as I saw this one in the listings I was keen to get a ticket. I am glad I booked early for it, as the Glass Studio was full, clearly Bristol has thirsty ears for Indian classical music!

The Glass Studio is in the new extension of St George’s, a wonderful addition to an already magnificent venue, allowing in light and space and a touch of modernity to the old place. The acoustics are excellent and the space feels intimate whilst also feeling spacious. Go visit – there are a range of Saturday afternoon concerts on in there this autumn that are well worth checking out.

Anupama Bhagwat is one of the worlds leading sitar players and was more than ably supported by Gurdain Rayatt on tabla. These are probably the best known Indian classical instruments, thanks in part to the Beatles and their lasting influence. However, I have not heard a sitar and a table played in a duo before and to see and hear up close the magical sounds they produce was a real treat. It matters not a jot if you have no prior knowledge of Indian classical music, the whole point of these relaxed Asian Arts Agency concerts is to act as introduction, to bring people in and make them feel welcome and at home. An approach that western classical orchestras could do with adopting if you ask me. Introductions were made and both Anupama and Gurdain talked us through their instruments and the music they planned to play. I loved the way Gurdain talked about the tabla having its own language, that he speaks when he plays. This is exactly how I feel about music. It has its own unique and universal language. We all use music in our lives to say the things we cannot say in words. Despite spending the best part of 3 years writing about music, I will never come close to the emotional communication possible through music. That relationship with music is even more powerful for me, when a great deal of other forms of human communication are a great mystery, I can understand and share understanding with music.

The raga or raag that they played was over an hour long, without break and moved from a slower more gentle rhythm upwards and onwards towards its conclusion. It was a mid afternoon raga, of course, given that this was an afternoon concert.  I was utterly transported and moved to another plain and place by what I heard, it was magnificent. Time utterly melted and I felt a deep sense of calm and peacefulness (not states I often find myself in), I was lost in music and unaware of my surroundings (in a good way), my senses, so often assaulted by overload, were becalmed and held down gently while my swayed in time to the tabla rhythm and wondered at the bending and blending of sitar notes.

It was a wonderful way to spend time on a sunny Sunday afternoon. The final question of the Q&A that followed the concert, met with rousing applause, was “how soon can you come back?” echoing how we all felt.

This was my third Asian Arts Agency concert and I am determined it will not be my last. Thank you for bringing such wonderful sounds to my ears again and for broadening my musical horizons.

John Paul White – Bristol Folk House, Bristol

Friday 6th September, 2019

This was another ticket bought on a whim, based solely on the write up on Colston Hall’s website. I like country music. I like folk music. I like singer songwriters. With John Paul White I was promised all three.  I have learned to put my faith and trust in venues over the past few years and Colston Hall and the Folk House have rarely steered me wrong. This gig would have taken place in the Lantern I guess, but while renovations continue, was put on in partnership with the Folk House. No bad thing in some ways, audiences that frequent one do not necessarily frequent the other, so musical tastes get broadened and new venues get discovered.

Support was to be from Luke De-Sciscio and I am not entirely sure what I say about him. He took to the stage, disrobing as he moved, until he was in only a pair of shorts. It was at this point I regretted being in the front row as I was not sure where to look. Or not look as the case may be. The motivation “the only thing I could think of that would be more frightening than playing my music for you, was to do so without my clothes on.” I guess it could have been an attempt to fully reveal himself and create an intimate connection with us as the audience. Performance can be a pretty revealing experience, emotionally, so why not play semi naked I suppose? Except this was the Folk House, where the atmosphere is a lot more genteel and low key than avant guard performance art. The house lights are controlled by a volunteer who turns off the switch at the wall for goodness sake. Luke was also very intense, staring without blinking, and played some quite startling songs. His near nudity was a bit too much and if I was to offer advice to this young and nervous performer, it would be to concentrate on making a connection with the audience through the music. It was slightly disconcerting and unsettling and I was not entirely comfortable. Musically it was odd, jarring changes of vocal and songs that ended then didn’t made it not an easy listen, which betrayed Luke’s talent on guitar and his good voice. Maybe just take everything down a notch, Luke.

The nervous chatter in the interval seemed to indicate that I wasn’t alone in my feelings but this soon turned into welcoming applause as John Paul and his band took to the stage. I have forgotten the names of the guitarist and lap steel player who played with John Paul, but they were both excellent. I love the lap steel; it is one of my favourite instruments to hear played live. providing an unmistakably sound that does something to me. Tonight, it was understated and sparingly used, sparse and filling and rounding out the sound. As was the electric guitar and occasional backing vocals. Less can sometimes be more. John Paul’s plaintive and emotional delivery of sad time songs (I can’t think of a better way to describe them) was quite emotional. There were love songs of course, but also ones about loss, pain, grief, politics without being political (“we usually dedicate this one to our home State of Alabama, but I see you have your own troubles here”) and abusive relationships. All delivered with bucketloads of southern gentleman charm and an ease that comes from knowing your craft this well.

My love of country music was birthed as a child, by my late Mum, who would play Tammy Wynette and Crystal Gayle records on a Saturday whilst she did the housework. All the males of the family hated these records and made sure she knew it. They bought her a Walkman and all her favourites on tape in the hope this would stop her making them listen along to, only to be thwarted by her very loud and out of tune singing! She was a quiet rebel, my Mum. It has taken me decades to realise how much I owe her in terms of playing me country music as a child, sadly the realisation came altogether too late as she died nearly five years ago. I cannot thank her now for giving me a love of a genre of music that celebrates the lives of ordinary, working class people. Of women. Why she loved, and my Dad hated, Tammy, was for songs that spoke to and of women’s lives and experiences.

The ribbon of song that began with Don’t It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue and No Charge played to me as wee one, led me to love Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Karl Blau, the Bristol Americana festival and being sat at this John Paul White gig. Musical threads are ties that bind, even after death. Given that I lost my Mum many years before I actually lost her, Alzheimer’s is the longest of all long goodbyes, when John Paul teared up talking about Glenn Campbell and his illness, before playing James, a song from the perspective of a father living with dementia, you can only imagine how emotional I felt. Tears sprang forth.

The Long Way Home also had me welling up. There is a sort of delicious pain in every parting when you are in a long-distance relationship, I felt that song all too keenly. It was also refreshing, and unusual, to hear a man singing a song with sensitivity, from the woman’s perspective, as the Hurting Kind is. I cannot remember which song was introduced as “the saddest song I’ve written, and that’s saying something” but I think that gives you a real idea of the flavour of John Paul White’s music. It isn’t for dancing but it is real and it connects and it helps and heals and is important. It is the sort of music that grows and stays with you. The sort that resonates and moves. My kinda music. The sort I wish I could write, play and sing.

During the encore John Paul played solo, unplugged walking through the crowd. A proper troubadour moment. It was beautiful, affecting and humble. I loved it.

I wish I had taken the time to listen to John Paul White’s music before this gig as I think it would have really hit home if I had. I wish I had the opportunity to see him play live again, soon, as I think it would hit home even harder. Tom will, lucky duck, as John Paul is by happy happenstance, playing a gig in Berlin while he is over there next weekend. Represent me well, Tom, please.

If you have even a passing like of country music then can I urge you to listen to John Paul White? He has the sort of timeless voice that speaks directly to your heart.

I don’t always speak to artists after gigs, but I felt sort of compelled to meet John Paul and tell him some of this story. Thank you for listening and I hope you feel I have been kind in my words. Come back to Bristol real soon.