Damien Jurado – Colston Hall presents at St George’s, Bristol

Sunday 23rd February, 2020

I picked up the ticket for this in the Bristol culture flash sale I think, on the basis that if my two favourite venues were involved I would probably like it. Colston Hall are continuing to put on amazing gigs, either in their foyer, or by working with other venues and as I trust in their output, especially in left-field contemporary music, I scour their listings with as much fervour as ever. St George’s sound is so perfect that I am not surprised it was used for this gig. It is interesting for me, on many levels, to see my musical worlds interacting in this way.

I have to confess that I didn’t really feel like going out at all and the atmosphere was strange. None of that was helped by walking in and being sat directly behind a couple for whom the phrase “get a room” could have been invented. Snogging that enthusiastically should only take place privately, thank you. He had his arm draped round her all night, like she was property, stroked her arm, her hair and whispered in her ear. It made me feel queasy. I suppose I could have brushed it off at another time, but my heart remains fragile.  It isn’t bitterness at seeing others happy, more that it reminds you of all you have lost. Bruises take time to heal.

I knew nothing of Damien’s music beforehand. Sometimes I play the artists a little to see if I like them and other times I’m content to have a surprise. Both have worked wonderfully and I’ve rarely failed. My tastes are broad enough to encompass and enjoy most things and even when the random gig generator has failed (rarely) I’ve found something in the experience to enjoy.

I also knew nothing of Dana Gavanski. She was so softly spoken that I couldn’t hear her talking between songs. Which is a shame because she was an engaging singer, gentle and warm and I would like to hear more.

Damien, wearing a red knitted cap, giving him a fisherman on a day off vibe, came onstage so quietly you could have missed him entirely. I felt his shyness, anxiety and vulnerability and that made me uncomfortable for him. He warmed up over the course of the long set and began to talk in lovely rambling sentences about his love of Marks and Spencer and trying to start not just an inter city conflict between us and Birmingham, but an inter continental cheese beef. It took me time to warm up too, as he felt more comfortable onstage, I felt more comfortable in the audience. I closed my eyes as a way to block out the couple in front and that helped, but I was still unable to let myself fully feel. It must be self preservation, my heart simply not allowing itself to open up in full. Guarding and protecting me from feeling too much right now.

Damien has a really gorgeous, honey toned voice, gentle and soft and perfect for a Sunday night gig like this. The term sensitive singer songwriter gets thrown about a lot, oftentimes for people for whom real emotion seems to have escaped, but Damien genuinely is one. You can hear and feel the lived experience of his inner emotional life in his music and when I am ready to hear and feel again I think I could really like him. I write listening to the artists I’m reviewing and on record, with more than just an acoustic guitar, the sound is fuller and I prefer it.

This wasn’t the right gig at the right time I think is what I am trying to say. I hope that I will eventually get my gigging groove back, but for now, while it is lost, I am enjoying music still, I am just not loving music with the intensity and passion I once had. Things have dimmed, they will glow again one day.

 

 

 

Pavel Haas Quartet – St George’s, Bristol

Friday 21st February, 2020

One of the legacies 40 gigs left me with was a new found love of classical music and I now look for string quartets and orchestras in listings with as much excitement as I do folk, jazz and indie. It was one of the joyous surprises of that year; that music I thought of as stale and snobby was anything but. St George’s has one of the finest acoustics, not just in Bristol, but in Britain and a rightly justified reputation for its classical output. All of which is what led me to the Pavel Haas Quartet and their programme of Tchaikovsky and Dvorak.

Sometimes music finds you and sometimes you find it and sometimes the timing isn’t quite right for either. I found it very difficult to switch off my busy mind during this concert, a ridiculous array of thoughts and memories spilled through my brain like some weird internal home movie that wouldn’t stop. When this happens, it is almost always more about me than the music and I wish I could make it stop. The really sad thing about this evenings concert was that the music was hitting some strong emotional spots and more than once I found tears spilling out. There was one moment, during the third movement of the Tchaikovsky, when I had my eyes closed and one enormous teardrop rolled out of my eye and all the way down my face with no hint of it building up; it felt like a damn bursting out. And yet I could not allow myself to fully let go and become completely immersed in the music. I do not know why. Perhaps it was self preservation, perhaps the polite atmosphere of St George’s was forcing me to “stiff upper lip” and retain composure, I wish I knew. The Dvorak in the second half was equally as stirring and emotional and played with brilliance by the Quartet and Boris Giltburg on the piano. Tears were more easily shed then, but overall I was not carried away like I can be.

When the world is as confusing and difficult to navigate as it is right now, with new emotional landscapes and an avalanche of things to be sad/angry/aggrieved with I look to music to be my balm. Searching for and seeking the right medicine for the right time is an ongoing process and when I find the right thing at the right time it is glorious. There used to be more successes than failures, that has been reversed of late. It is me, not the music. I am struggling to find my way. When the world is literally on fire and you walk in it alone, I guess it is easy to take a misstep at times. There I am stumbling about, trying to make sense of all that I see/feel/hear with music as my guide. I think I needed different music is all.

My relationship with music is as intense and powerful as any other form of love. Timing is everything. Some things work out and others don’t. In the words of Ariana Grande, thank you, next.

 

 

Sam Lee – St George’s, Bristol

Wednesday 20th February, 2020

My gig buddy Janine had taken me to see Sam Lee a few years ago, without telling me what his music was about for fear of putting me off (this was before 40 gigs and all the ways in which it changed me) and I was entranced by this handsome and talented man, singing the oldest of songs. Many, many gigs have come and gone since then, but my love of folk music has deepened and grown so of course I was going to say yes when Janine asked if I wanted to see Sam Lee with her again.

St George’s, rightly described by Sam as “one of the finest rooms to make music in, in the whole country” was as warm, welcoming and stunning in its acoustics as ever.

The first thing that stuck me was how loud Sam was amplified. That may seem silly to anyone who has not experienced how beautiful the acoustics are at St George’s. Last time Sam sang here acoustically and with minimal support, he and the room didn’t need more. Tonight though was Sam Lee plugged in, turned up and amplified to another level. The depths and richnesses revealed in his voice by doing so were wonderful.  The drumming and double bass had a jazz flavoured tinge that I loved. There was sensitive violin and piano, sitting understated, underneath everything else, holding and supporting the rest of the music and Sam’s wonderful baritone voice. The music was like a beautiful birds nest or protective cocoon inside which Sam’s voice could rise and soar.

He is a fantastic storyteller and at heart that is all folk music is; stories in song. It is why I love them, the deceptive simplicity reaching across the centuries and moving me just as they have countless others through countless years. There is great comfort in feeling part of the human continuum through music. It really is the tie that binds. Long before I was here, and long after I am gone, there will be music. There will be folk music and there will be versions of these songs. The same notes, the same words, they have and will ring out down the centuries. How incredible is that? How beautiful and needed is that?

Sam is a song collector. I like to imagine him with jars like the BFG, roaming around the UK learning and saving ancient folk songs, often from travelling gypsy people. Some of them are incalculably old, hundreds of years, with verses that vary from place to place, telling stories of land, sky and sea. Of tales as old and as modern as time itself. All reworked and rescored into new arrangements for our times. Songs of environmental destruction, loss of habitat and wildlife, of lost love, finding your way home in nature and how we have lost touch with ways of life that ebb and flow with seasons and tides. These songs may be ancient, but they have never sounded so vital and modern as in the hands of Sam Lee.

Lullabies of apology for environmental destruction and destitution were heavy and deep, as they should be. There were moments that made me shudder in dread. There were also moments that made me shiver with joy, goosebumps flying all over me during refrains of songs I recognised from my childhood. However urban my upbringing was (concrete at every turn), my mothers ancestors were Scottish highlanders and my fathers Irish travellers, somewhere very deeply buried were fragments of music. Tiny pieces of hidden memories, weathered like pebbles on a beach, growing ever smaller and fainter with the tides ebb. Sam dredged at them, brought some of those fragments back to life within me. I’ll never make a singer, but I can live vicariously through Sam’s recorded voice pressed into vinyl. I am listening to his new album now, “Old Wow” I suggest you get a copy. Immediately.

I couldn’t really afford to do it and I had no bag to keep them safe in, but I purchased all three of Sam’s albums anyway. By some miracle the rain held off all the way home, I journeyed on the bus clutching them tightly to my chest. Thank you for signing them all, Sam, and for all the hugs. I would apologise for milking that, but I don’t have a tremendous amount of adult human contact. Sometimes I go for weeks without sharing touch with another, so when an artist I admire hugs me and picks me up I am going to ask for extras! Forgive me?

I had been yearning and keening for live music to move me and stir me again, clearly what my soul needed was a journey along a folk road in the company of Sam Lee. I felt the music deeply in my bones as it stirred at my soul. You can’t really ask for more than that, thank you, Sam.

Smoke Fairies – Rough Trade, Bristol

Saturday 8th February, 2020

A Saturday night where I had nothing else to do. A band recommended by a friend whose taste in music I trust. A female band when I am trying to support more women in music. A venue I like, that is friendly. What else was I going to do but get a ticket for Smoke Fairies?

Rough Trade have put themselves firmly on the Bristol map in the time they’ve been open and whether you want to browse for records, have a coffee or a beer or catch live music, they have it all. They were really brilliant about getting me a chair, even asking where I wanted to sit and positioning me so close to the stage that I may as well have been on it! Against the wall for back support and made to feel as if this was no trouble at all and all done with a smiling welcome. Thank you.

Support came from John J Presley. He has a great rock voice and can shred a mean guitar but it wasn’t to my taste, it was too heavy for me. There was one track I liked more, well at least the start of, because the drum rhythm was different and more interesting, but it then reverted back to the standard boom, boom, boom rock pattern and lost me as a result. Talented but not for me is the conclusion.

I will confess, that not having listened to Smoke Fairies beforehand, they were not what I was expecting. This is no bad thing as I like to be surprised. A pair of complimentary and harmonised voices was the folk influence I was prepared for. The bluesy rock I was not, but then I should have paid attention to their name. Or listened to the record. My bad.

There were elements I really liked and the time passed quickly by (always a good sign) but this was a gig to like, rather than love. Left To Roll was probably the track that stood out for me, it was quieter and slower paced with deep vocals and lyrical content that I felt and I also liked Out of the Woods and that they were selling candles on the merch desk, to chase away darkness.

I guess I am still finding my gigging feet this year, for various reasons I am not feeling the music as much as I used to. It will come back, with time. If blues tinged rocky guitar music with cracking vocal harmonies is your bag, then Smoke Fairies will very much float your boat and be worth investigating.

 

Anna Meredith – Trinity, Bristol

Thursday 6th February, 2020

Another artist I discovered through both BBC 6 Music and Radio 3. Any artist at home on both of those alternative stations (I listen to late night Radio 3 – the weird bits) is also at home in my record collection. I was reasonably excited about seeing Anna live, her mixture of electronica and orchestral is the sort of genre blending stuff I love.

After having trouble standing at Trinity last week, and not having the best of weeks with my health, I emailed asking if I could have a seat and Trinity were happy to help. Colston Hall, whose banner this gig was under, and Trinity are both keen to open up access and for this evening a section at the front was barrier-ed off for those of us who needed a support. I wasn’t the only disabled patron. I am not the only disabled patron at most gigs, but it takes confidence to ask for help from a venue and not all venues are as accommodating or helpful as they should be. An awful lot has been done to open things up, but abelism is so ingrained in society that there is still plenty to do.

There was excellent support from Grace Lightman, who has a great voice and whose slightly off kilter electronic pop was a great choice of warm up for Anna. I would really happily see her play again.

I knew Anna and her band had excellent costumes as I had seen friends photos of the gigs in Manchester and London (at least 8 people I know are also seeing Anna on this tour!) and had been assured it was a great show. That it was.

Combining brass, strings, percussion and electronics Anna and her band took the orchestra to a rave, danced together, fell in love and had musical babies. How else could you explain the music she composes? It is hard to type as I am chair dancing along. It is funky, groove laden, somehow apocalyptic yet also joyful at the same time, creative, inventive, fun and exciting. It feels like the sort of music you would play at the end of the world, to celebrate and mourn. It feels very now. If I had been well enough to be in the throng of the crowd, dancing and being carried away in musical celebration, I think this would have been an amazing gig. As it was, from where I was seated with plenty of space, it was still an amazing gig. There was a lovely sense of community in music as I could see people moving and grooving away near me, whilst being safely behind a barrier. It was the first time I’ve smiled in weeks. Anna Meredith made me happy and that was exactly what I needed. This gig did me the power of good. Music is the best medicine. For broken hearts and broken bodies. For a couple of hours I forgot about my pain and had fun.

Highlights? The exquisite cello of moonmoons, the wonderful brass of Nautilus and how can I forget the extraordinary pop cover mash up ending, please Anna do more Abba is all I can say. Call me maybe?

You want creative, clever music that makes you smile while the world is burning then pop on an Anna Meredith record I say.

This was Anna’s first headline show in Bristol and I sincerely hope it is not her last. Please come back again real soon.

 

KOKOROKO – Trinity, Bristol

Wednesday 29th January, 2020

While Colston Hall are completing their refurbishment they are working in partnership with other venues in Bristol, Trinity being one, so this was a Colston Hall Presents show. I trust CH’s judgement on music, they bring such vibrant and diverse music to Bristol how could I not?

I can’t remember if I picked up on KOKOROKO from 6 Music or Radio 3, it could have been either or both given that their music would fit as well on Freeness, Late Junction or on Mary Anne Hobbs or Giles Peterson’s shows on 6. Wherever it was I was pleased that they were playing in Bristol so I would get a chance to hear them play live.

Trinity is a great arts and community space, perfect for this sort of gig. With a DJ set by way of support it was pretty easy to get close to the front so that I could see some of the musicians on the stage. Even with my slightly stacked trainers on, I am very short so seeing anything of the performers is not a given!

Even with the jostling and movement of people back n forth, my little spot proved to be a good vantage point and I could see most of the stage. Result. As much as you are there to hear the music, it helps me if I can see the performers and watch the interplay between them, the way they move, how they get lost in the music and interact with the crowd.

It did take time to warm us up, it was a cold night after all, but there were pockets of dancing going on from the start. KOKOROKO are an afro-futuristic jazz octet. There were funky rhythms and grooves, percussion and brass going on, complimenting and not competing (jazz can seem like a sonic dissonance battle sometimes) and everyone on the stage seemed to be having a great time. Most of the rest of the crowd did too, I saw lots of happy faces and bodies moving in unison around me.

I was struggling. Both emotionally to be in a place that holds memories that are at the moment painful and physically as the standing wasn’t doing my nerve damaged neck many favours. I tried to keep my body as fluid as the music demanded (it is staying in any one position too long that tends to hurt) and even attempted a little bit of dancing, but it was all too much and after about an hour I needed to move away and find somewhere to sit down. This wasn’t easy, as the limited seats (1 small bench and 2 stools) were already occupied so I ended up sitting on the floor at the back! I don’t know what the solution to this is, by the way, but I wish venues could find one. I am finding that seated gigs with intervals are much easier to manage generally and standing ones are becoming increasingly ones I have to avoid. Perhaps it is time that I accept that age and illness are more limiting that I want them to be.

I left slightly before the end as I wanted to avoid any crowd crush and I as left the sounds of happy people and quality music filled my ears.

KOKOROKO are a great live band, making interesting and exciting music that speaks of African heritage and modern London that makes people smile and dance. That was worth showing up for, even if I was unable to fully join in.