Chris Simmons live from his house

Friday 20th March, 2020

My second live gigcast of the evening! Chris is a singer/songwriter who I saw supporting Gaz Coombes a while back and I’ve kept an ear out for him ever since.

This was a simulcast on both facebook and instagram, go Chris. Just him and his guitar belting out an hours worth of tunes and good humour. The sound was decent enough and Chris’ voice sounded great. There were plenty of new songs and ones I’ve not heard Chris play before, with a sprinkling of ones I did, something to keep everyone happy I think.

Being able to share in music again, like this, while we have nothing else, is helping. Thank you.

James Walsh live from his living room

Friday 20th March, 2020

The world has changed for many of us. We are living through extraordinary times. A pandemic illness for which we currently have no cure and not especially effective treatment for is sweeping the globe, killing thousands. A lot of us are anxious. A lot of us are scared. A lot of us are grappling with new normals. In the UK we are not in full lockdown as yet, but we are encouraged to stay indoors as much as possible and events have been cancelled. How do we face this uncertainty? How do we maintain social contact while distancing? How can musicians and music fans stay connected?

Many artists have answered by broadcasting live from their homes. Instagram and Facebook are full of online gigs. Everyone is at it, from megastars to locals. This was to be the first one I tuned in for. James Walsh is Starsailor’s lead singer and guitarist and they are a band with a very special place in my heart. I happened to see James announce that he would be playing for us all and it lifted me. I messaged some of my old Starsailor mates to say I was thinking of them and would they be watching too. Some were able to, others not, but at least it kept us together in each other’s thoughts and that is precious enough right now.

James had an impressive jigsaw on the table in front of him, so he is clearly keeping busy! He opened, in fine voice, with Good Souls and also played Fever, Four to the Floor and a few others, including some of his solo stuff. It was short and sweet, over in about half an hour, but it made me smile for the first time in days. For a little while I was back in the world of music and its community, albeit remotely. It was a lovely way to reconnect and feel part of something positive.

The world now feels very small and scary, confined either to homes or only essential movement (on foot in my case as I don’t drive). There is no possibility of a mass gathering like a gig for months, which for me is a very hard thing to contemplate. Last year I went to 103 gigs, or an average of 2 per week. Knowing I will be without the thing that means most to me, after my son, in the whole world, for that long. Well, it is hard.

Knowing that many of the wonderful people I’ve met along the way, the musicians, the road crews, the band management and office staff, the fellow fans, will be ill, lose their livelihoods, possibly their lives, is frightening. To everyone, everyone I have known through music, stay inside as much as you can, wash your hands, look after yourselves and look out for others. When this is all over we will need you, more than we ever have, to celebrate the good things with.

Until we can gather together in person again, please, where you can, keep gigcasting. It made me feel less alone. Other than my son, I may not have contact with another human in real life until June. I need music now more than I ever have, and records and the radio are wonderful, but there is no substitute for live. Even if it is one man with a guitar in his living room.

Now wash your hands, don’t go outside unless you have to, don’t buy more than you need and be kind. We will only get through this together, if we think of others as much as we do ourselves.

 

Welsh National Opera – Marriage of Figaro, Bristol Hippodrome

Thursday 12th March, 2020

Having waited three years to see another opera, I wound up seeing two in a week. On consecutive nights, the same theatre and the same opera company. WNO play a season at the Hippodrome every year and they alternate between a couple of operas over the short run. The cheapest seats are £13 and although that does means sitting in the Gods, it is an affordable way to see great opera. You could always chance your arm and sneak into an unoccupied seat lower down in the interval if you were feeling brave (not that I have ever done this, you understand. Wink).

Having seen Carmen the night before I had a handle on the subtitles this time and even managed to follow sections without. The staging and costumes were period this time, we were firmly in an 18th Century setting. Somehow that both helped and didn’t make a difference. The whole company were excellent, but the stars really did shine. The whole thing was a farce of epic proportions and I had a good chuckle at all the misunderstandings and subterfuge. The duet between Susanna and Marcellina contained burns of the highest order. Their irritation and annoyance with each other, escalating into insults and put downs as fresh and modern as anything Kathryn Ryan could come up with.

That Mozart was a musical genius almost goes without saying, sometimes we overlook those known as being the greatest (or like me, wonder what all the fuss is about), but he clearly was a prodigy. The musical flourishes and accents sprinkled throughout were such joy. Anytime you can hear a full orchestra play like this is a wonderful experience.

The Marriage of Figaro is a great farce and it was easy to trace a line from it to the Whitehall Farces of the 1950’s and beyond. Secret identities, people hiding in cupboards, plummeting out of windows, pretending to be someone else, wearing masks and big reveals are staples of comedy and indeed soap operas now.

This was by far the easiest to follow and most fun opera I could have gone to. If you would like a way in, this is one worth seeking out. New York’s Met Opera and the Berlin Phil are making operas and classical music performances free to view online right now so it is an ideal time to try out something new.

When the pandemic is over and I can get out again to hear music live, I plan on finding more opera. It may be long, very long in Figaro’s case, but that just means you are really getting your money’s worth. Nearly three and half hours of live music and theatre for less than £15. Yes, thank you very much, WNO, I will take that.

Welsh National Opera – Carmen, Bristol Hippodrome

Wednesday 11th March, 2020

I went to my first, and until this, only opera as part of 40 gigs in 2017 and vowed I would see another. It may have taken 3 years but I finally got round to going again.

Carmen would be a lot jollier a prospect than La Boheme I thought, and it was, even if there was still death and jealousy and rage.

The orchestra were fantastic and the singing excellent, but I found the 1970’s costumes and set a bit jarring. I can see where there were coming from but it didn’t really work for me. Or maybe it was just my lack of opera knowledge showing. The subtitles were welcome and gave enough to follow without being a word for word translation, although it did take me a while to get the hang of reading them, listening and watching the action. I did try to do without them a couple of times, but found myself confused. What also helped was knowing quite a lot of the music, I didn’t know I did, but a lot of the movements are so famous that even if you think you don’t know them either, I bet you do. It was stirring and passionate and lifted me.

The Welsh National Opera are known as some of the best in the business and as a way into opera they are very, very good. If you have never been to one, when we are allowed out again, maybe give it a try. Or stream an opera, many of the great opera houses are making performances available online at the moment. I plan to find a few in the coming weeks.

 

 

Wicked – Apollo Victoria, London

Saturday 7th March, 2020

The world has changed much in the past two weeks. It hasn’t felt right to write this and yet I need to keep writing. I need that part of my life to continue.

Remember the beginning of March? The sun was shining. A virus had appeared in China a few weeks before but although we talked of it, it was far away and not something we were frightened of. Perhaps we should have been. But at that time we were all carrying on as normal. And I had been gifted tickets to BBC 6 Music Festival, train travel to London and a hotel. Which I had taken excitedly and enjoyed thoroughly. I took myself to the Steve McQueen exhibition at the Tate and then decided to treat myself to a show. I have wanted to see Wicked since it opened in 2006.

I am a HUGE Wizard of Oz fan (I even own the special edition Monopoly set for goodness sake). It is an expensive show to get tickets for and I thought I would try for a standby seat while I was in London and managed to score one. This weekend trip felt like it was meant to me. Now, I look back at is a last hurrah, but I couldn’t have known then what was going to happen. I was just taking the opportunity to enjoy myself.  Having lived with inclement health for most of my life, I do not take chances for granted. A lesson previously healthy people are now having to learn as we all socially distance and isolate.

I was thrilled walking into the beautiful art deco Apollo Victoria theatre and really looking forward to what I was about to see.

I left the theatre bitterly disappointed, wishing that I had seen this show many years ago, before I had the knowledge I do now. Wicked annoyed me! There is a gaping plot hole at the end that spoils the whole show. That the two heroines fall out over both loving the same man is a tired and boring trope. That the disabled characters are feeble, helpless and indeed wicked is abelist and lazy stereotyping. That the beautiful, blonde, in all her duplicitous privilege gets to bathe in all the glory just wound me up. That Elphaba would have fallen for the vain, shallow man is pathetic. More than anything though the songs weren’t very good! How has this won numerous awards? Generic, bland and uninspiring. The performers delivered well, the staging, lighting and costumes were good, but there is only so much you can ever do with a script and story this poor isn’t there?

I am not the only disabled person who has issues with Wicked. Nessarose, a wheelchair using character, is treated as helpless and lesser than her contemporaries, until she is magically given the ability to walk (eye roll) and then her pent up bitterness explodes into anger and evil behaviour. I mean, come on. In the lyrics of Dancing Through Life she is described as “tragically beautiful” so the ableism isn’t exactly hidden! And I think it would be reasonably easy to read Elphaba as autistic, or in another way neurodivergent; her affinity with the animals, her sense of justice and wanting to do the right thing at all costs, her inability to fit in. At the very least she is disabled by the disfigurement of being green. She is mocked, vilified and ostracised for being different at every turn. Even her big song, Defying Gravity, felt flat.

It wasn’t her the little girls in the audience left wanting to be, it was Glinda. It is always the Glinda’s who win.

This was neither a deserving prequel or a very good show. I was sad that this huge mega-hit has been so lauded. I felt cheated. It was a disappointing end to what had been a spectacular weekend.

Do not waste your money on tickets for Wicked. Go and read disabled writers, campaigners and academics talk about ableism, learn and be better. Please.

 

 

 

 

Steve McQueen – Tate Modern, London

Saturday 7th March, 2020

I had been planning on seeing this exhibition later in the year, but seeing as I was somewhat unexpectedly in London and the hotel was right round the corner from Tate Modern it seemed churlish to not take the opportunity to go while I was so close by.

Steve McQueen has long intrigued me. I’ve not had the opportunity to see his work before, so the chance to see so much in one place and in one go seemed like a real treat. I had not been to the section of the Tate that the exhibition was held in before, either, and I really liked the Tanks, vast concrete spaces that held oil in the days when the building was Bankside power station but that are now used as gallery spaces for performance. They were empty when I went in, even of other visitors, who mainly popped their heads through the door and wandered off. I slowly wound my way round the insides of both, listening intently to the sounds of scuffled shoes as they echoed around inside the chamber and breathing in the dank smells of strange rooms. I can imagine they are very interesting spaces to fill with dance and music, maybe I’ll see something in there on day. I also really liked the winding, concrete stairs, huge windows and sense of grand scale and space in the rest of this half of the building. Finally, a part of Tate Modern I enjoyed!

The exhibition itself isn’t huge, but there is a lot of content within, and it is laid out in a way that you can dip in and out of many of the films as you wish. The open, yet dark layout partnered the art in contained well; I have nothing but praise for the curation of this. Plenty of seating options, well maintained queues and sound baffling inside the cubes that contained each piece beautifully so that you were suitably enveloped within. As I was there not long after opening time it was also blissfully not that busy, so I got to take my time and savour what was there.

As you enter you are assaulted, jointly, by Static and Once Upon a Time, and the swirl of the soundscapes of both are quite jarring. However, once adjusted to the sounds of glossolalia and whirring helicopter blades you can either train one eye on each piece or wander between them. They are both monumental in size and scope, huge screens projecting on both sides (a very clever trick), beaming out light into the cavernous dark room. I found Static to be both comforting and disconcerting and despite it being light on content (not of subject matter) it was impossible to not keep eyes affixed onto it as the camera circles round and round and round the Statue of Liberty. What you take from this would very much depend on who you are I guess, and it struck me as asking a lot of questions but providing no answers. How you see things, how you view, who you are as a viewer was the point. Of the whole exhibition, but this opening salvo really showed it to me.

Western Deep could have been an all senses assault, if the rest of the small audience had been less noisy. Beginning in complete darkness and with bursts of ear splitting sound, it is not the easiest short film to watch. Noisy, relentless, and hard, a perfect vignette. I was left disoriented and wondering about the fate of the men who worked so very, very deep underground.

Cold Breath and Charlotte were reliefs after that, and the way they were displayed, projectors on continuous loops in front of you, so that you could move directly in front of the lens, almost becoming part of the art, made clever use of tight space. I stood behind and then to each side of the cameras, taking in different viewpoints. Both pieces are surreal and reminded me of the Yoko Ono installations I’d seen earlier in the year (which I forgot to write about), but also with echos of Bunuel and Dali.

7th Nov. well, that was heavy and my mind has been spinning with all sort of questions ever since I walked out of this room. The stillness of the image contrasted with the dynamism of the audio, the scar across the top of Marcus’ head, laid out like he was on a slab at the morgue, but he is the surviving one of the tale, how he came about the gun, McQueen’s relationship with his cousins, what happened to Mum, all left unexplored, frustrated me greatly.  Yet it distilled focus so tightly on the words of the soundtrack that I can still hear his voice in my head now. Unemotional, detached, factual and also very powerful. Instead of the usual, standard documentary about such a tragedy, where racist tropes and biases would tell this tale so very differently, we were allowed to hear Marcus’ voice say Marcus’ words and develop an empathy with him, a deep sense of connection to someone very different to ourselves. It was about as human and humane a response to something so utterly tragic that I’ve ever seen.

I sort of boomeranged about after watching 7th Nov as I had found it so unsettling, so despite finding the subject matter of End Credits and Carib’s Leap fascinating, I was unable to engage with either particularly well. I found Ashes gently moving, and the way it was presented mused over mortality, senseless death, the fleetingness of life and the way we mourn. Ashes will forever be immortalised as young, carefree and handsome in this film, even as we watch his grave being prepared and decorated.

I am glad I left Girls, Tricky, until last as it left me smiling. As a Bristolian who loves her music, how could I not love this intimate and revealing portrait of Tricky at work?

All told I had been in this exhibition for over two hours and it would have been very easy to have gone away and come back for at least as long again. It felt as if I’d been there less than half an hour, the art was so engaging. My advice to you if you are going would be to allow an awful lot of time to linger, to go back, to wander and to think. You are going to need it.

It struck me, that with the exceptions only of the one still photograph in the exhibition, and the eye of Charlotte’s Eye (which is shot in red and huge close up, rendering it almost beyond colour in a way) that every single human image is of a black male. Steve McQueen has turned the lens on himself, literally in some cases, but metaphorically in others. Think about how often the black male is offered up in art. Not often, and certainly not often with this level of sensitivity and grace. There was and is huge power in that.

Steve McQueen’s work is eloquent and powerful. It has made me think a great deal since Saturday morning. I may even go and see this exhibition again. I will be listening to his Desert Island Discs episode again, that is for sure and I will seek out his feature films too. I was intrigued by Steve McQueen’s art before I went to this exhibition. I left more so. I liked very much the ways in which he challenged me, as a viewer, to see and hear things that were not always easy, but were incredibly engaging. I liked the ambiguity of many of the pieces, the surrealality, the sense of the absurd even. There was an otherworldly quality to a lot of it. Sometimes the clearest view of something comes from a very long way away, out of focus, drawn like memories, non-linear and jumbled. This is what Steve McQueen’s art did for me and I love any art that can make me think and make me feel. This exhibition achieved both.

“I’m interested in a truth” he has said “I cannot put a filter on life. It’s about not blinking”.

6 Music Festival:Nadine Shah & Brittany Howard – The Roundhouse, London

Friday 6th March, 2020

Oh now where do I start? I was offered free tickets and an overnight stay in a hotel on the Thursday night as my brother and his girlfriend were no longer able to attend. All I had to do was get myself to London. Which, given that my friend Ian had sent me his unused return train ticket in case I could make use of it, I absoloutely could! It felt like fate was conspiring and I had to say yes.

This was to be my second BBC 6 Music Festival, I had such a memorable and special weekend when they came to Bristol in 2016 that any chance to get to see anyone playing at this would be worth taking. I invited Ian to come with me. Apt as we met as 6 listeners! Thank you, Lauren Laverne, for bringing us together.

The line up had altered, Michael Kiwanuka was forced to pull out due to illness, get well soon Michael, so Nadine Shah was drafted in as a last minute super sub. What a sub to have on your bench, though. Her smoky, jazzy voice, bringing funky and socially conscious music is the sort of stuff I like very much. I’ve seen Nadine live twice before, so seeing as I had arrived late and had missed Black Midi completely, I decided to hang right at the back and simply soak up the atmosphere. I’ve had one of Nadine’s songs stuck in my head ever since, she was great.

As Ian and I are both vintage gig goers (a polite way of saying older) we sat down against the wall at the back of the venue and had a damn good natter. Partly with Grace, who was interviewing for 6 (a clip of us was used on the Saturday morning, I am such a 6 Music slut). I would normally hate such a long gap between acts, but that’s the nature of a festival and tonight I was happy catching up with my mate.

Neither of us had heard of Brittany Howard but I fell in love with her sequined jacket and then her voice pretty quickly. We moved round a little, still at the back, where I could just about see over the rest of the, by now, pumped crowd. Brittany Howard bought the funk. Then she took us to church. Her own stuff was tight, funky, soulful and superb, but the covers, man those covers. It takes some balls to take on Prince and The Beatles in the same set, but Brittany did both. Well. Higher and Higher made me want to worship and praise. I was dancing like my life depended on it. It was so joyous, wonderful and life affirming. Nothing brings people together in a spirit of togetherness like great music and dancing “we are all brothers and sisters” yes we are, Brittany, yes we are. It was exactly what I needed. Sometimes, just sometimes, you are in the right place at the right time to experience something magical. Brittany Howard was that.

I saw Nadine Shah dancing away and told her she was great, earning a cuddle in the process and got to meet and thank Mark Radcliffe for turning me onto folk music at the festival in 2016. All round it was a brilliant night. Thank you universe for bringing together all the factors that made it so.

 

The Red Shoes – Hippodrome, Bristol

Wednesday 4th March, 2020

My first proper, grown up ballet. Created by Matthew Bourne. Based on a Powell & Pressburger classic. Set to the music of Bernard Hermann. In Bristol’s largest and grandest theatre. For only £13 (one of the few back of the stalls seats). This had all the makings of a wonderful evening.

I have loved dance, especially ballet, since I was a little girl who hoofed it at classes. I wasn’t always as clumsy or inelegant as I am now, between the ages of 5 and 10 I was a promising dancer; I passed every one of my exams at distinction level (yes, I still have the certificates, what of it?) and harboured dreams of growing up to dance for a living. Sadly that ended when we moved and I couldn’t find a class, plus I grew to only just above 5ft tall and that was the end of that. There was no way my parents could have afforded to take me to see the Royal Ballet “Up West” and anyway ballet is one of those art forms that seems only for posh people, not people like me. So I never got to see ballet live on stage. Until a few years ago when a friend took me and my son to one of those My First Ballet things (it may have been The Nutcracker) aimed at children. It meant I had seen a ballet, but I still felt alienated by it all. Plus it is usually really expensive (have you seen how much it costs to go to the Royal Opera House?) and I’ve been far too busy going to gigs to find the time to do anything else.

I knew that the start of this year was likely to be tough, I knew I was going to start 2020 single and would need distractions and new hobbies. I regularly scour venue websites, looking for music, and I’ve added in places like St David’s in Cardiff and The Hippodrome in Bristol as ones to check and saw that The Red Shoes was coming to Bristol. Even better there were a handful of affordable seats. Well, why not, I thought. Created by Matthew Bourne, a man who seems single handedly hell bent on making ballet more accessible, more open and more enjoyable. I don’t know the names of any other choreographers off the top of my head, do you? (No, the dancers in Strictly don’t count). He has entered the lexicon of popular culture thanks to the all male re-imagining of Swan Lake and everything he has done since.

The staging, lighting, costume and choreography were all superb, as was every dancer. I didn’t expect the moments of comedy, of pathos and the weight of emotion conveyed in human movement. Nor the flourishes of jazz in some sequences. Without words, the tale of obsession, jealousy, love, romance, compulsion and drive was so well told that even without the programme notes I would have been able to follow what was happening. The score! Oh my gosh, the score. Who knew the scores for Farenheit 451 and Citizen Kane contained music so perfect for a ballet? Bernard Hermann’s jarring, dizzying, sometimes difficult and very modern compositions were compelling and perfect for this tale. You could easily have believed they were written especially for this ballet, and not a slew of classic movies, they fitted the mood so well. Dressing the cast in period costume, right down to the shoes (not ballet slippers) gave an authentic and accessible feel. It made the transition between the backstage and onstage portions flow and the beautiful allure of the red ballet slippers all the more powerful. Who wouldn’t want to dance in them? Their crimson bewitching power, their scarlet ribbons laced tightly, binding the soul of the wearer to the maker and their deadly fate.

It was wonderful. I loved my first grown up ballet so much that I have booked to see another, back at the Hippodrome later in the year. In short I loved The Red Shoes. Go see it if you can. 

 

 

Brooke Bentham – Rough Trade, Bristol

Friday 28th February, 2020

To celebrate the release of Everyday Nothing Brooke was playing this acoustic in store at Rough Trade. It was at 6pm so I asked my boy if he would mind if I went out for a couple of hours and he said “sure, Mum” so I plonked his dinner in front of him and ran off! Some modicum of freedom is allowed now he is a teenager, hurrah.

I had seen Brooke support Bill Ryder-Jones last year, and he produced this album (the boy has taste is all I can say) and knew she had a stunning voice, taking the chance to hear her in an intimate space was one I wanted to take. Big Jeff was there and it was really good to see him, cheers for listening mate, it helped a lot. We all need to be heard and understood and if anyone understands my love of music, it is Jeff!

Brooke sounded amazing, Rough Trade have invested in their sound system and it pays off. Thank you. I recognised Perform for You and Blue Light from when I had heard them before, they sounded even better this time. The yearning, high notes of the later are shiver inducing.

Of course I bought a copy of the album. It is fab. I suggest you also get a copy. Brooke is touring soon, go see her.

Beautiful – The Carole King musical, Hippodrome, Bristol

Thursday 27th February, 2020

Ok, so not strictly speaking a gig. Or a concert. And there was speaking between the songs. But. It is a jukebox musical and the songs do most of the talking and the subject is one of the greatest songwriters of the last century, so it is getting a write up.

The actress playing Carole was the alternate and if I have any complaints about her winning performance is that she was too good a singer! I adore Carole King, and secretly prefer her version of Natural Woman to Aretha (don’t @ me), but it is not the quality of voice that she is revered for. I love her slightly not in the right key/tune, raspy, nasally voice and to capture it must be very hard indeed. It was just too polished a voice for me. It was, however, a charming and winsome performance that interpreted rather than impersonated, no mean feat.

I was the youngest person in the theatre by miles. Everyone else there was probably around at the time! I came to Carole King via the Shirelles, via a Radio 1 documentary about girl groups in the early 90’s when I was a teenager and instantly fell in love with both. I was gifted a copy of Tapestry not long after and that was it, a lifelong love affair with the deceptive simplicity of pop and female voices was born.

Beautiful is as much the story of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann as it is Carole King and Gerry Goffin, rightly giving all four of them the credit for some of the best and most memorable songs of all time. The story of King’s life is a pretty remarkable one and deserving of the story all by itself and for an alternative take (if you can track a copy down) The Grace of My Heart (a wonderful and underrated film by Alison Anders), which was loosely based on Carole’s life is well worth a watch. However, the hanging of the tale around the magnificent songs was probably the only way it could be done on stage. The ensemble cast rotate through so many costumes it becomes dizzying and capture the flavour of each of the groups and the changing times so well.

Even as someone who is a fan of the era and songwriters, there were still songs I had forgotten were written by one or other of the pairings. There are simply so many of them! Every one brilliant. Despite the societal changes and advances we have made, I am sure that there are many, many women for whom Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? makes an awful lot of sense. We may have reliable contraception and abortion mitigating the risks, but the lies, the lead on’s, the promises remain the same don’t they?

Natural Woman and You’ve Got a Friend remain as beautiful as they ever were; great songs like these are timeless. They sounded wonderful and I left the theatre with a huge smile of my face, having had an enjoyable evening hearing music I’ve always loved but never thought I would hear live.

Beautiful may be sweet and full of old songs, but it none the worse for it, in my book. I loved it.