Monday, 10 April 2023

Recent gigs: Weyes Blood, Underworld and The King & I (?)

 One blog post, three contrasting nights out in the fair city of Bristol.

Night One: Weyes Blood at SWX ( 09/02/23 )

Night Two: Underworld at the Marble Factory ( 19/03/23 )

Night Three: The King & I at the Bristol Hippodrome ( 31/03/23 )

I'd first heard Natalie Mering aka Weyes Blood on one of those Best Of Year compilation CDs from either Mojo or Uncut magazine at the end of 2022. The song was It's Not Just Me, It's Everybody  -  a smoothly beautiful, queasy-listening song with a very '70s vibe and some strange undercurrents. When I heard Mering's In Holy Flux Tour was coming to Brizzle I immediately asked my good friend Tom if he'd be interested and he ( even more immediately ) snapped up a couple of tickets. Leaves fell from the trees, pages were ripped from calendars etc. and February rolled round, like it usually does, often soon after January. Tom picked me up and we headed off for an apparently uneventful trip to Bristol. I say "apparently" because he found out later that he'd fallen foul of Bristol's new Clean Air Zone and had to pay a whopping fine. Oops!
We found a handy parking spot, just near the site of the late, lamented Bristol Bierkeller, and joined the throng inside SWX. The support act was country / folk singer Sam Burton who specialises in an early-'70s-style, Laurel Canyon throwback sound, reminiscent of the likes of James Taylor or Al Stewart. He went down well with the audience but I found his songs a bit dull and his vocals monotonous. By contrast, Burton's co-vocalist / harmony vocalist, Lady Apple Tree ( aka Haylie Hostetter ) stepped up to sing her own single Didn't Want To Have To Do It and completely overshadowed him. One to watch.

 And then it was headliner time. Weyes Blood came out onto the stage with Natalie Mering looking positively angelic in a long white dress. The first song was the aforementioned It's Not Just Me, It's Everybody which seems, like much of her And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow album, to be about the pandemic or more precisely the post-pandemic experience. When Natalie sings, in her beautiful voice, we can all relate to the mixed-up emotions in this song: "Living in the wake of overwhelming changes / We've all become strangers / Even to ourselves"

And, what a voice! Her vocals have a deep, rich, mellifluous timbre and are perfectly enunciated. I did wonder if Mering could pull off the smooth sound and loooong notes of the first song but she did that perfectly and continued to do so for the rest of the set. The band, too, were excellent, hitting a very laid back FM radio/AOR groove which seemed appropriate on the day we heard the king of easy-listening, Mr. Burt Bacharach, had departed for that glitzy supper club in the sky.
More wonderful, baroque pop followed with Children Of The Empire and Something To Believe before a set highlight of the beatific God Turn Me Into A Flower ( Tom's favourite ) stunned us all with its ethereal otherworldliness. 

Alongside all this high-falutin' musical loveliness, Natalie Mering was also frank and funny in her repartee with the audience. Like most artists I've seen since the winding down of the pandemic, she talked about her happiness to be back out performing again and wittily acknowledged that she knows she talks in a goofy manner on stage and then plays melancholic, strange songs. Of course, that's fine with us. I've described her style as "Karen Carpenter singing a David Lynch movie" and I'll stand by that. After more fantastic songs massaged our ears  -  The Worst Is Done ( more pandemic comedown blues ), the almost-mainstream pop of Grapevine, and the crowd-pleasing Andromeda, Mering finished the set with the haunting Hearts Aglow... with her heart literally aglow:

Okay, it was some kind of prosthetic heart underneath her dress and my photo doesn't really do it justice, but it was a beautiful effect and was a perfect touch for a collection of songs so full of heart.
After a couple of encore songs she was gone like a spectre in the night but we all knew we'd just witnessed something very special.

Five weeks later, I was back in Bristol again, this time in a very different venue for a very different type of gig. I'm often guilty of hearing that a particular band is touring but not being quick enough in getting tickets. Not in this case. Once I'd heard legendary dance duo Underworld were playing the first night of their tour in good old Brizzle, I was straight on the case and snapped up two tickets. I'd wanted to see Underworld for years but they tend to mostly play festivals so I hadn't caught them before. The venue, The Marble Factory, was new to me so I was interested to give it a go.

Sarah and I found our way to one of the less well-known areas of Bristol which seems to be a wasteland of demolished factories and warehouses waiting to be renovated. On the plus side it meant there was free on-street parking but, give it a couple of years, and I'm sure gentrification will mean plebs like us won't be welcome. The Marble Factory itself is a very cool venue, a huge industrial slab of concrete and brick, formerly a skate-park ( very Bristol! ) but now an events space which hosts the club, Motion. It has a capacity of 1600 people and it was easily at capacity on that Sunday evening. I mean, it was rammed. You probably couldn't get a glow-stick between the bodies of the ravers down the front. Sarah and I wormed our way into the edge of the crowd and then Rick Smith and Karl Hyde came on stage to the burbling synth pulse of new song Gene Pool. Well, I assume they came on stage: we couldn't actually see them or really much of anything but the rapturous response from the crowd clued us in that something was indeed happening. As an opening number its spacey, hypnotic groove was a great start to the set, reminding me of The Chemical Brothers circa Surrender, with a hint of a melody from the Bunnymen's The Cutter occasionally surfacing.

From there on, the boys were off and running with a hugely welcome airing for the evergreen Juanita, which I'd been subjecting Sarah to on the drive down the M5. This was actually Juanita 2022, a slightly tweaked version of the original which had recently been released as two separate mixes, showing Underworld never rest on their laurels. In fact, nobody could rest that night as they pumped out one dancefloor banger after another. A monumental Mmm... Skyscraper, I Love You was followed by another new track, Denver Luna, a four-to-the-floor, ravetastic future classic, which had everyone bouncing.
We'd climbed up onto the balcony by this point where we had a slightly better view, even though Karl Hyde was still mostly obscured, as he spent a lot of time dancing behind Smith and his decks. The sound though was fantastic as we were in line with the PA and the music cut through the dry ice like a knife.
Actually, the dry ice and packed conditions were a bit too much for Sarah who ducked outside for a while after another couple of songs. I stayed inside but kept going out to check on her. It's often difficult at gigs when she feels overwhelmed by it all, especially when seeing bands she doesn't know too well. I found myself at the back of the hall by the mixing desks and actually got a half decent view by hanging off a rail (!) and somehow managed to groove along to a piledriving King Of Snake and the one!two! punch of Rez / Cowgirl. ( "Everything! Everything!" ) Sarah had luckily come back in at this point and was in time for the set-closing Born Slippy NUXX which was epic! It had been a cracking gig but I'd like to see them again and actually see them.

Our next trip to Bristol was last weekend when we went to the beautiful Hippodrome to see a performance of The King And I. ( Yes, this show was really for Sarah, but I was happy to go along. ) The 1956 movie version, starring the immortal pairing of Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr, is one of Sarah's all-time favourite films, so this new production starring Helen George ( of Call The Midwife fame ) had a lot to live up to. After a drive down to Bristol in some torrential downpours we got to the Hippodrome and climbed up the mountainous stairs to the upper circle. The view was pretty good, considering how high up we were, but the bench seats were torturous. I've got a dodgy back at the moment ( the old, reoccurring lower back pain ) and this wasn't the best thing for it really. Oh, well!

The show itself was very good: the performances, costumes, sets and music were all excellent, as we'd expect from any show at the Hippodrome. Sarah loved it and was over the moon that it hadn't been a let down after her high expectations. To be honest, this kind of show isn't really my thing and I certainly don't have the attachment to the story that Sarah has, but I definitely enjoyed it, and was impressed with Helen George ( who has a fantastic singing voice ) and Darren Lee ( the King of Siam ) who exuded all the charm, authority and charisma the role demands. After the show we went for a late night pizza then headed back to our hotel. We were staying in the Marriott Royal which is a sumptuous Victorian hotel and was a lovely place to hang out in. After checking out the next morning we had a day in Bristol and, luckily, the weather was kinder to us. A good day. Here's Sarah, outside the hotel:

I just need to start booking more gigs now :-)

Friday, 3 February 2023

Avatar: The Way of Water and other films from 2022

I haven't posted anything about movies on here for ages so I'm going to do a quick rundown of the films I saw at the cinema last year. There were a lot of anniversary screenings of old classics in 2022, probably as a way to get bums on seats again after the empty cinemas of the bloody pandemic days, and also maybe an attempt to get Netflix-junkies off their arses. It was such a joy to get back to the cinemas again after all the uncertainties of the last few years. As Empire magazine put it, 2022 was "the year the world woke up". In the time-honoured, but pointless, tradition of TGW-S I'm going to talk about the movies I saw in reverse order, starting with the biggest and wettest blockbuster of the year:

Avatar: The Way of Water

James Cameron finally delivered his sequel to Avatar ( The Biggest Movie Of All Time!!!  etc ) and took us back to the paradise planet of Pandora, where Jake and Neytiri  - 10 years after the original story - were now raising a family and looking towards the future. Unfortunately that future included hordes of "sky-people" ( or humans as we're also known ) returning to Pandora for some payback after their previous ignominious defeat. The Sullys were forced to flee their arboreal home and head to the coast to try and join another tribe and fight off the mechanised might of the human invaders. 

As ever with Cameron movies, the plot and themes weren't much more advanced than the average Disney cartoon but... the spectacle... oh, the spectacle! Seeing this in Imax 3D was just jaw-dropping: leaps and bounds ahead of the ( still bloody impressive ) first movie, Cameron now took us underneath the seas of Pandora to find a whole new aquatic world. Properly immersive as very few 3D films actually are, this movie made the audience feel totally surrounded by all the new fauna and flora that swam, swayed and darted throughout the frame. Every inch of the screen seemed to be filled with detail, with colourful creatures, with hidden dangers. And also with emotion, as Cameron piled on the agony and joy for the Sully family, even risking the demise of a newly-introduced but engaging character. It was all very string-pulling, mainstream entertainment... but no less wonderful for that. Sarah, Sophie and I all really enjoyed the movie and completely bought into the world that seemingly bubbled around us. A lot of people have been very snobbish about Avatar but I thought it was a monumental piece of film-making, a fantastic showcase for what cinema can be, and definitely something worth getting off your arse to go and see.

The Thing ( 40th anniversary )

From 2022 we time-warped back to 1982 and John Carpenter's masterpiece of paranoia, terror and dogs whose heads split open. As we all know, 40 years ago another, more cuddly alien ruled the box office ( "ouch!" ) and Carpenter's shape-changing monster movie was mostly dismissed as being too grim and downbeat. Of course, it's now regarded as a classic and it was cool to see it on the big screen again. ( I actually saw it back in the day as part of a double-bill with another remake, Paul Schrader's Cat People. Quite a night out! ) We've seen the movie countless times but it still hasn't lost its tentacled grip, and the restored picture was sharp enough that you could see every bodily fluid and gooey substance sprayed across the screen. "Whatever it is, it's weird and pissed off."

The Lost Boys ( 35th anniversary )

Another anniversary screening, another cult classic. The Lost Boys is of course the late Joel Schumacher's camp vamp movie starring a mullet-wearing Keifer Sutherland and other lesser lights of the Brat Pack era, as well as the always-excellent Dianne Wiest. It was one of the first films Sarah and I saw together ( in 1987! ) and remains a non-guilty pleasure to this day. It's silly, cheesy fun with endlessly quotable dialogue ( "You're a goddamn, shit-sucking vampire! Wait 'til Mom finds out!" ), some seriously homoerotic undertones, and a cast that are having a ball. We went to see this on Halloween and ran into Michael Myers who actually sat about two rows behind us. ( I think he'd probably seen Halloween Ends about three times that day and fancied a break... )

Nope ( which was what I said when I saw Michael Myers coming up the escalator! )

After being hugely impressed by small-screen viewings of Jordan Peele's first two movies, Get Out and Us, I knew I had to see his next offering at the cinema, no matter what. Nope had been preceded by an enigmatic ad campaign which suggested it was a "UFO movie" but not much beyond that. It was certainly tantalising and knowing that the UK's own Daniel Kaluuya was one of the stars made the film an even more exciting prospect. So, was it a "yep" or "nope" for Nope? It was certainly a visually stunning movie, Jordan Peele making the most of every inch of the widescreen frame, with some excellent performances. Kaluuya and Keke Palmer played brother and sister partners in a business which supplies horses to Hollywood movies and really made you believe in their relationship, often fractious but always loving. The Hollywood aspect was crucial as the film had a lot to say about people's appetites for spectacle, for getting that "perfect shot", and for what happens to people on the margins of the movie business, especially people of colour. The biggest problem was the pace. The film was often deathly slow and could have done with some judicious editing and maybe a bit more action. But, what was there was often breath-taking: the eerie sight of *something* darting through clouds above a deserted valley, a literal rain of blood, a primate TV star destroying a studio set and its occupants  -  so many indelible images. I'd still say Us is Peele's most successful, most affecting movie, but I'd give a qualified "yep" to his latest. I can't wait to see what he does next.

Robocop ( 35th anniversary )

Back to 1987 again, and this time also to a near-future Detroit to meet the future of law enforcement in Paul Verhoeven's Robocop. The same director's Total Recall is one of *the* quintessential 1980s movies and, while not quite on the same insane level, Robocop is still a lot of over-the-top fun. Savagely satirical ( "I'd buy that for a dollar!" ) and simultaneously gloriously stupid, Robocop remains hugely entertaining in its gonzo, balls-to-the-wall fashion. Lashings of the old ultra-violence, weapons-grade swearing, enough flying glass to re-glaze Crystal Palace and hilariously cynical villains. Oh, the villains. Robocop is a film that's in love with its bad guys: top 1980s character actors ( Miguel Ferrer, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith ) all vie to outdo each other as the meanest, nastiest hombres on the block. Scenery-chewing has never been such fun. All of which leaves the lead characters, played by Peter Weller and Nancy Allen, somewhat side-lined. Weller gives as good a performance as possible under his armour and prosthetics, trying to portray a good cop outrageously manipulated by the system into becoming a dehumanised walking weapon, but it's never really the focus of the film.

Thor: Love & Thunder

Another day, another Marvel movie. Although the young, 1970s version of me who grew up reading Marvel comics would have thought a seemingly-endless supply of movies based on those characters would be nirvana ( or Asgard ), the 2023 version of me is starting to get bored of them. Heresy, right? For the most part, no. Most of these MCU films have become so generic in terms of plot and character, and the overwhelming CGI slug-fests lose their charm after the first dozen or so. I really enjoyed Taika Waititi's last Thor thilm... sorry, "film"... Ragnarok, which was broadly spectacular, stuffed with great moments and lines, and had exceptional villains in Cate Blanchett's Hela and Tom Hiddleston's Loki. This latest adventure, while featuring a sterling performance from Natalie Portman as an arse-kicking female thunder god, suffered from a surfeit of lame, would-be-ironic humour which undercut any drama or excitement and just became irritating. Thor himself is now a parodic shadow of the original movie character and, although Chris Hemsworth's charisma just about saves it, maybe it's time for this Nordic demi-god to shuffle off to Valhalla...

Everything Everywhere All At Once

While I'm on the subject of Marvel movies, one of the better examples of this recently was Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness. This hasn't made my list because I watched it on Disney+ but it was a worthy sequel to the first Doc movie and at least went a few more interesting places, courtesy of director Sam Raimi. One thing it didn't really accomplish though was to show us a convincing multiverse, mad or otherwise. Luckily, true multiversal madness could be seen in Everything Everywhere All At Once, the latest movie from Daniels, aka directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan. This starts off as a relatively mundane, but engrossing, story of an Asian-American family ( the legendary Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan and Stephanie Hsu ) dealing with the immigrant experience, income tax, divorce and the generation gap. But then it gets weird. Really weird. Yeoh's Evelyn is contacted by an alternate version of her husband who claims she's really a powerful warrior who must unite other versions of herself to save the multiverse. As Evelyn is forced to find her place in this new universe, and find a way to both pay her taxes and save her marriage, the film warps from absurdist comedy to all-out action thriller to a moving meditation on love and family. It's a mind-boggling, dazzling journey, quite unlike anything else I've seen for a long time. Michelle Yeoh gives the performance of her lifetime, making Evelyn a multi-faceted, living, breathing character who convinces as much as a down-trodden laundrette owner as she does as a kick-ass heroine. It's certainly refreshing to see a middle-aged Asian woman taking on such a role in a Hollywood movie, and now she's Oscar-nominated too, which is excellent news. Definitely my film of the year... but... where's the UK DVD?

The Northman

Another film I'd eagerly anticipated was Robert Eggers' follow-up to The Witch and The Lighthouse, both fine, idiosyncratic movies which made a big impression on me. Unfortunately, The Northman wasn't in their league. Eggers' Viking epic, loosely based on a legend that inspired Hamlet, was big, brash and brutal and often boring. The trailers had promised an action-packed revenge saga, but had looked cliche-ridden and I'd hoped for some twists or nuance to counteract the hackneyed situations. That didn't happen. Alexander Skarsgard rampaged his way through the film, fighting, killing, burning villages, burping and farting, but I really couldn't care about him or his quest. It all just felt hollow. The film certainly looked impressive with some beautiful cinematography, courtesy of Jarin Blaschke, but the movie was, to quote Macbeth not Hamlet, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The Godfather ( 50th anniversary )

50 years? Crazy. Any chance to see The Godfather on the big screen has to be taken so, in this case, I drove over to Hereford to meet James and we hit the local Odeon. He'd never seen the film at the cinema before and, like I'd been before, he was blown away by just how masterful Coppolla's magnum opus looks when viewed as originally intended. The Godfather still stands as my favourite film of all time and it was great to share the movie experience with James. I wrote about my last big screen visit with the Corleone family way back in 2009 which you can read here, should you want to, of course. It's not an offer you can't refuse. Nobody's going to put a horse's head in your bed. Honest.

Wednesday, 25 January 2023

Anti-Nowhere League / Borrowed Time at The 100 Club, London 13/01/23

 I really hadn't expected my first gig experience of 2023 to include a trip in a cramped tour van to the world famous 100 Club in that there London town. But that's what happened the Friday before last ( trust this ol' blog to be up-to-the-minute ). My friend Glenn has been asking me for years to come to the Resolution punk festival in London but I've never made it until now. His band, Borrowed Time, have played The 100 Club nine times now and I thought it was time I made the effort. If there's one positive outcome of the pandemic, it's that many people like me are now grabbing opportunities they may have passed up previously  -  the lockdowns and restrictions showed us how empty life was without shared experiences with others. It's time to get out there! And getting out there, in this case, meant seeing crusty old biker-punks The Anti-Nowhere League. ( Yes, they're still going. ) Not a band I was ever into or was really bothered about seeing live but, hey, it looked like fun and I was on the BT guest list, so why not?

So we all piled into the Borrowed Time tour bus ( cunningly disguised as a works' van ) and headed to the capital. We got to the 100 Club at about 6 pm and lugged the gear down the 33 steps of the treacherous fire escape and into... the legendary 100 Club! It's such an iconic venue and it was a fantastic feeling to finally be in the building where everybody who is anybody has played. ( Including the ANWL, as seen above, sound-checking. ) It was great to soak up the atmosphere and see all the framed photos on the walls of so many historic acts, from long-gone jazz musicians, through the Punk explosion and up to the modern day with people like the increasingly-mental Kanye West. ( Very bittersweet to see photos of the likes of Amy Winehouse and the recently-departed Terry Hall. )

And here are Glenn, Steve and Cliff in the glamorous green room backstage. ( Okay, it's a dump but still cool. )

( Glenn here pointing out that Borrowed Time have stencilled their name on the wall and somebody has helpfully added the word "Dildo" underneath... )

After BT had sound-checked, Glenn and I had an hour to wander down Oxford Street and find something to eat. It was lovely to be back in London again after so long even though it's still a culture shock after the bloody pandemic to be surrounded by so many people. After a quick plant-based burger we headed back to the venue, bypassing the queue at the front door with a swish of our wrist-bands. It's who you know, obviously :-)
Luckily the club was virtually full at 8:30 pm when BT hit the stage, which was great for them, and they went down well with the pleasingly diverse crowd. As I said, they've played the 100 Club on quite a few occasions and so are fairly well known to the Resolution faithful. They played a punchy, no-messing half-hour set, packed with BT faves like Under The Radar, Bad Stranger and Bridges with a couple of new songs thrown in. The sound and lighting were both excellent and all the band were on top form.
All together now: "I'm fucked up and I'm insecure / Needy and emotional"

The next band on were the Cockney Rejects-wannabes Knock Off. They're really nice guys and very good at what they do but the subject matter of their songs ( fighting, football, drinking ) leaves me cold. I was into that stuff ( if  only vicariously ) when I was 14 but it all sounds old-fashioned now. They also went down well with the crowd ( of course they did, with all the Lahndahn football fans there ) and were worth watching but I didn't take any photos. And then it was time for The League...

The ANWL came out to a rapturous welcome and kicked off with Can't Stand Rock 'n' Roll and the audience kicked off too. It was a proper old Punk gig, with pre-pandemic moshing, crashing about, falling over, beer-drinking and -spilling all making a comeback. Typically for me, I forgot all my reservations ( too crowded, don't know the band, everyone else is still in the green room ) and went Down The Front, often a dangerous place to be but usually the best place to be. And it was great!

The band were very loud, very tight and very entertaining. Although the lyrics ( what I could hear of them ) are confrontational and nihilistic, it's all very much tongue-in-cheek ( or tongue somewhere! ) and it's obvious from the joy the band displayed that it's not to be taken too seriously. Songs like I Hate People ( "and they hate me" ), Let's Break The Law and God Bless Alcohol are hugely fun to sing along to and kept a permanent grin on my face. The very rude So What and the Ralph McTell cover, Streets Of London, drew a rabid response from the crowd and you could tell that Animal / Nick was having a great time. Softly spoken offstage and reserved in the green room ( apart from a few warm-up exercises ) he became a full-on Rock 'n' Roll legend on stage. Similarly to St Vincent and Mark Burgess of The Chameleons ( and who thought those three would ever inhabit the same sentence? ) he thanked us for supporting live music and small venues and also told us that, as everything's fucked, we might as well have as much fun as possible and die with smiles on our faces. He may have a point.
After a final thrash through We Are The League and a "Thank you, brothers and sisters!" from Nick, the League took their leave. I wouldn't say I'm now a converted ANWL fan but, just for the one night, it was a pleasure to be a part of their leery, fuck-everything world.

After much faffing about and networking, the Borrowed Time boys packed up their gear and we lugged it all back up the 33 treacherous steps and into the van. After a luckily uneventful journey back to the Shire in torrential rain, I got home at about 04:00 am. Phew! Rock 'n' roll!
My next scheduled gig ( Weyes Blood in Bristol ) will very likely be a more sedate affair but this night of debauchery in the legendary 100 Club was certainly an experience to remember.


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