Tuesday 28 February 2017

Mega 2016 Catch-Up - Amazing Amsterdam!

Just a few photos from my trip to Amsterdam last May with my mates Glenn and Rob. As mentioned in a previous post we were mainly there to see The Dandy Warhols but we also managed to spend a few days seeing the sights of the beautiful Dutch city. Here are Glenn and I posing in front of the obligatory canal with the equally obligatory bicycles...

More canals and more bikes...
And, of course, trams...
We were staying a 20-minute tram ride from the city centre and they were definitely the best way to get around. And when we got to the centre we found such lovely places as these:
The Royal Palace in bustling Dam Square with added middle-aged Punks

More lovely buildings and waterways

Above is the stunning Rijksmuseum. We didn't have time to properly investigate this huge museum / art gallery / cultural centre but we had a great time wandering around its grounds and just generally hanging out in the neighbouring park and gardens...

( Who let this idiot get in the water? )

 We met a familiar face outside the Van Gogh Museum...
And, of course, Rob had to mess about in the fountains :-)

We had a look around the train station, much to rail enthusiast Glenn's delight...
"Trains!" ( Double-decker ones at that... )

And from the train station we headed down to the waterfront ( not a cue for a Simple Minds song )

I was very tempted to hop on board this ferry and investigate the other bank but we didn't have enough time. And there wasn't enough time for this either:
The infamous Red Light District was certainly eye-opening!
And here's a friend I made at the hotel who helped me eat my breakfast.
All too soon we had to head for home but it had been a fantastic long weekend in a truly beautiful, friendly, laid-back city. It was my first trip abroad for 9 years so I really appreciated the experience and the great company. Hopefully I'll be able to take Sarah there sometime  -  Amsterdam is just too awesome to keep to myself!

Sunday 19 February 2017

Mega 2016 Catch-Up ( Gigs ) Part Three - Bruce Springsteen and various others

To prevent these 2016 catch-up posts spreading into 2018, I'm going to quickly run through some memorable gigs from last year. First up is my second visit to the Ricoh Arena in Coventry to see the mighty Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band on their River Tour, 03/06. ( Photo above courtesy of Backstreets.com )
After major traffic problems on the M5 I got to the gig extremely late ( after also dropping Sarah off at a hotel in Coventry )  -  meaning I'd missed 11 songs (!) including two of my absolute faves, Sherry Darling and Hungry Heart. In fact, I could hear Bruce playing Out In The Street when I was Out In The Car Park  -  not good. When I finally got into the arena he was bashing out some good ol' River rockers in Crush On You and You Can Look ( But You Better Not Touch ) which got me in the party spirit. Although maybe not the best performance I've seen from the E Street Band, there were still plenty of gems: a vicious Murder Incorporated, a spine-tingling take on The River, a beautiful Drive All Night ( the first time I've heard this live and miles better than the recorded version ) and a rip-roaring cover of Creedence's Travelin' Band being highlights. After some old favourites ( Badlands, Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, a full-band Born In The USA and, of course, Born To Run ) the set finished with a wild, exuberant cover of Shout and a lovely solo-Bruce encore of the majestic Thunder Road to send us home with a warm glow. And here's a photo of my view of the stage. showing just how far back I was after arriving so late:
By complete contrast, the week before going to this 50,000 capacity venue, I'd gone to see the wonderful Slow Club at the Lantern in Bristol with my good friend Tom alongside only a couple of hundred other punters. The Lantern is a small venue within the Colston Hall and is ideal for more intimate gigs. And this certainly was intimate as the core duo of Slow Club, Rebecca and Charles, had dispensed with their touring band and were giving a very stripped-down performance. Playing songs from their new album, One Day All Of This Won't Matter Any More ( clunky title! ), plus some more familiar tunes, the low-key format meant we could focus more on the words and their beautiful singing voices. It really was a treat to hear these two sing live again and to enjoy their warm, onstage banter with each other and the audience. Great gig, great company.
Of course, I've recently posted about my trip to beautiful Amsterdam to see the Dandy Warhols last May. Two weeks after that they were again playing in Bristol, so I couldn't resist the chance to see them at a more local gig :-)
Glenn and I carried on our sordid mission to stalk the band, but this time dragged along Sarah and Glenn's partner Beki as well. It was another cracking gig from Portland's finest, maybe not quite as special as the one in Amsterdam, but good fun none the less. They played all the usual faves, including probably the best version of Good Morning I've yet seen from them, absolutely haunting. And we yet again met some of the band after the gig  -  this time the terminally cool but friendly Courtney ( vocals ) and the ever-smiling Brent ( drums / vocals ) who were hanging out in the Hatchet pub, just over the road from the venue. Dandy's Rule OK!
Moving on to August, Sarah and I went to Gloucester's Sport Beat 2016 festival. This strange combination of music and sport ( the clue's in the title! ) has been running for a few years but we've always somehow missed it before. I was determined to go this time because the lineup seemed very cool in an '80s / '90s revival kind of way. Even though it was bloody cold and wet, hundreds of people turned out with the intention of partying to some bangin' choons ( as I believe they're called ) on a muddy sports field. After some fine modern pop-Metal from the up-and-coming Coasts we were treated to the spectacle of the masked DJ known as Jaguar Skills mashing up dance classics and retro TV theme tunes, whilst spraying the crowd with confetti  -  loads of fun... with added Chuck Norris!
After all this technicolor lunacy the focus shifted to stately Gothic blisspop as the legendary
Echo & The Bunnymen took to the stage in a fog of dry-ice. Although I've never been that familiar with the Bunnymen beyond their big hits I've always wanted to see them play live and they certainly didn't disappoint. Not the most dynamic of live bands, they make up for this with a wonderfully all-encompassing sound and the stratospheric personality and still-solid voice of Ian McCulloch. It was fantastic to hear such Goth classics as The Killing Moon, Seven Seas and The Back Of Love washing over the crowd. And the highlight of the set for me was an absolutely jaw-dropping version of The Cutter  - proper shivers down the spine! I'll definitely have to see them again.
We moved from Liverpool to Madchester for the headline act as the irrepressible Happy Mondays came out to mess with our heads. The 24 Hour Party People may only party for 23 1/2 hours these days and then head home for their cocoa and slippers but they put on a hell of a show for the muddy Gloucester audience. Shaun, Rowetta and Bez were on fine form  -  bickering, dancing, singing and rapping like some strange, E-flavoured sitcom  -  while pulling out classic tune after classic tune. Hallelujah, Kinky Afro, God's Cop, Loose Fit and, of course, the mighty Step On had the crowd up and dancing... "mad fer it" in fact. A delirious ending to a mostly great day.
I was sad to hear that one of my favourite bands of recent years, The Sunshine Underground, were calling it quits so I made sure that I caught them on their farewell tour last October. On a boat...
This was Bristol's famous floating venue, the Thekla. I can't believe I'd never been there before so it was high tide... sorry, "time" that I got on board. And it's a really cool place too. Sarah and I had seen TSU a few years ago at the Gloucester Guildhall and loved them so it was good to see them for one last time. Their euphoric dance-pop was just as exciting and invigorating as before and I can't believe they want to split up. There was certainly no feeling of these gigs being any kind of wake as the band put 100 % into the show and their brilliant songs had everyone dancing, with Finally We Arrive, Don't Stop and Something's Gonna Happen being the stand outs. Without a doubt one of the best gigs we've been to in recent years and quite bittersweet when it was over  -  let's hope for a reunion!
I can't finish this series of posts without a mention or two for our favourite venue, Gloucester's fabulous Guildhall. I saw some great gigs there last year, starting with The Beat ( bloody fantastic as always ) last February. Unfortunately I don't have any photos of that one  -  I was too busy dancing to the red hot ska sound! However, I do have some pics of the following:
From The Jam
( June ) Yet another stop-over in Gloucester for FTJ  -  they seem to be constantly touring! A cracking set of Punk-Mod tuneage as ever. I dragged Sarah along to this one and she enjoyed her first brush with the Setting Sons...
The Damned
( August ) I was really in two minds about this one as I've been put off The Damned by a few lacklustre performances in recent years, as well as Captain Sensible's sour-grapes mutterings about the Pistols and the Clash, and some appalling treatment of support bands that I've heard about, and of fans that I've witnessed. Anyway, as they were celebrating their 40th (!) anniversary, I thought I'd give them one last go. And I'm glad I did because it was a great gig! They were very tight and energetic, had lots of banter with the crowd and played a fine selection of classic songs  -  including the groovy Disco Man, which compelled me to leave my mate Caz behind ( sorry Caz! ) and head down the front to get crushed. As I say, a great gig, but I'm probably going to part ways with the Damned now and let them go out on a high...
( November ) Another blast from the Britpop past! Dodgy were one of those second-tier '90s bands that I somehow never caught at the time. So, when they rocked up at the Guildhall I thought "Why the hell not?" And so did Sarah, Glenn and Cliff who came along too for some sparkling, Who-influenced, muscular pop. A very enjoyable set, a bit slow to start but they eventually pulled out some crowd-pleasing anthems like In A Room, Staying out For The Summer and Good Enough  -  with the title track from their new album, What Are We Fighting For, boding well for the future too.
( December ) Great to see one of my all-time fave live bands back at my fave venue! That's a lot of faves! This gig had been rescheduled from back in June (!) so it had been much anticipated. Ash never disappoint and the set was a perfect mixture of old faves ( there's that word again! ) and material from their last album Kablammo! In fact, a lot of their new songs ( like Let's Ride, Cocoon and the beautiful Free ) stand tall in the company of classics like Kung Fu or Girl From Mars. The band played with their customary good humour and exuberance ( and volume! ) and finished with a note-perfect version of The Undertones' classic Teenage Kicks  -  a lovely tribute from one great Northern Irish band to another.

Friday 17 February 2017

Mega 2016 Catch-Up ( Very Brief Movie Reviews )

As we're nearly half way through 2017 ( Summer starts in February doesn't it? ) I thought I'd better post about the movies I saw last year before it's next year. If you see what I mean...

( These aren't all the films I saw from last year as I already reviewed The Revenant and The Danish Girl back before my old PC went to silicon heaven. )

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
A different view of the Star Wars universe  -  no opening crawl, no Skywalkers, no Jedi  -  which worked surprisingly well as a (wo)men on a mission movie. After the full-on return to the ST mythology in Episode VII, this film got down and dirty with the boots-on-the-ground grunts of the Rebellion who do the unsung fighting and dying. Some great action scenes, beautiful space and planetary vistas and some charismatic ( if slightly undeveloped ) characters. About as gritty as a Wars movie will ever get, it was interesting to see these expendable rebels allowed to live and die within one small corner of the saga. Maybe we will see some of them again in pre-prequel stand-alones?

Captain America: Civil War
Over in the Marvel Cinematic Universe ( turn left at Aldi, past the petrol station ) we found Captain America and Iron Man at each other's throats in a loose adaptation of the much-hyped comics series. They dragged half of the MCU characters into the story to take sides, with the Hulk and Thor not being invited to the party unless it was all decided in about two minutes.Team Iron Man were all about control and regulation of admittedly dangerous super-types, while Team Cap were all about freedom, baby... and protecting former Soviet drone / assassin Bucky Barnes from the rightly pissed-off authorities. The moral ambiguities of the story worked a treat, with Cap virtually becoming the villain in his own movie by refusing to toe the government line. The returning director team, the Russo brothers, did a sterling job in keeping all the plotlines and action concise as well as spectacular, and in giving all the characters in the sprawling cast something useful to do. Probably the most exciting thing about this movie was the introduction of Spider-Man ( at last! ) and the Black Panther ( yay! ) to the MCU... groovy times ahead...

Suicide Squad
In complete contrast, Suicide Squad was an object lesson in how NOT to handle a large cast of super characters... and, in fact, how NOT to make a decent movie. This was my first visit to the grim, gritty and edgy DC Universe since the grim, gritty and edgy Man Of Steel depressed the hell out of me and put me off seeing the grim, gritty and edgy Batman VS Superman. The film started off badly with seemingly endless, stodgy info-dumps to introduce the "characters" and then continued in a sludgy smear of poorly-lit action scenes, appalling dialogue and general laziness. None of the characters were remotely interesting, with some ( hello Slipknot! ) appearing and disappearing with so little fanfare they might not have bothered turning up. The much-vaunted Method performance by Jared Leto as some kind of Gangster Rapper Joker was just painful and Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn was sparky and cute but didn't have one single memorable line. And the less said about the generic, undeveloped Big Bad the better. Will Smith almost saved the day with his preternatural charisma shining through the predictable character-work of the assassin with a heart of gold... but it wasn't enough. Anyway, here's a totally gratuitous pic of Harley to brighten up this grim, gritty and edgy review:
 The Witch
I'm going to cheat somewhat here because this is a movie that came out in 2016 ( in the UK anyway ) but which I didn't see at the cinema. In a time of identikit teen-horror movies, first time director Robert Eggers has created a skin-crawling study in unease. Set in 17th century New England. Of course. A Puritan family are ostracised by their community for their extreme views and set up home on the edge of a dark wood, only to find Bad Things Are Happening.
I thought this was a fantastic movie  -  slow-burning, intelligent ( with dialogue from contemporary transcripts ), atmospheric and genuinely creepy. Excellent performances from Ralph Ineson ( Finchy from The Office ), Kate Dickie ( last seen being dropped out of the Moon Door in Game of Thrones ) and breakout star Anya Taylor-Joy, who was just stunningly good. Oh, and some hot goat action from the terrifying "Black Philip". Some felt the ending went Too Far but I thought it was a fitting, dreamlike finale to a great little film.

Star Trek Beyond
The third in the rebooted Star Trek series saw Captain Kirk and co. go, er, beyond. ( Beyond what I'm not quite sure. ) After the general disappointment with Into Darkness ( which I have to say I really enjoyed ), this installment of the Five Year Mission seemed far closer in spirit to an episode of the classic series. The Enterprise crew were stranded and separated on a strange alien world and had to contend with an enemy who had a grudge against Starfleet. Again.
There were some very impressive set-pieces, including the destruction of the Enterprise ( although this has been done before... ), a cool new character in female alien warrior Jaylah ( Sofia Boutella ), fun scenes between the bickering Spock and McCoy, and an extremely satisfying appearance of Sabotage by the Beastie Boys on the soundtrack. ( Also a poignant tribute to the late Anton Yelchin at the end of the film. ) But apart from all that the story was mostly just average, while the villain
( played by the overrated Idris Elba ) was underwhelming and not a patch on Benedict Cumberbatch's icy John Harrison / Khan. Let's hope for a proper appearance in the next movie from the Klingons and a meatier story...
And speaking of Benedict Cumberbatch...

Doctor Strange
James and I managed to drag Sarah along to this movie... mostly due to the charms of the estimable Mr. Cucumberpatch. Doctor Strange has long been one of my favourite characters ( super or otherwise ) and I was fervently hoping that Marvel wouldn't drop the ( crystal ) ball with this one. Luckily everything turned out very near to perfect, praise be to the Vishanti...
Benedict Cumberbatch was spot-on, both physically and personality-wise, as the Sorcerer Supreme  -  convincingly portraying the changing aspects of his journey: the arrogant surgeon, the skeptic and the magical novice who all combine to become the seasoned defender of our earthly realm. I liked the fact that, even after attaining cosmic consciousness, Stephen Strange still retained hints of his original sardonic attitude. Solid support also came from Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Eijofor and Benedict Wong although Mads Mikkelsen as the main antagonist was under-developed ( a bit of a recurring theme in superhero movies! )  -  ho hum.
The mind-bending, Inception-referencing special effects were suitably psychedelic and made a good fist ( whatever that means ) of duplicating the out-of-this-world comic book stylings of Steve Ditko, Frank Brunner et al. We saw this at the Cheltenham Imax which was absolutely perfect for this movie. Can't wait for the Blu-Ray!

The Wicker Man ( 1973 )
We saw this on a re-release at our fave venue, the Gloucester Guildhall, on the night of the Solstice which was very appropriate. This wonderful movie still stands up as one of THE great British horror movies and as the perfect example of the mini-genre known as Folk Horror. It was a lovely, sharp print, showing all the film's details in all their rustic glory, and was accompanied by a fascinating and very odd BFI short film about British folk customs. As always, I got to the end of the movie and hoped Sergeant Howie would escape his "appointment with the Wicker Man" but sadly he didn't. Maybe next time. ( It always amazes me that this movie originally came out on a double-bill with the equally fantastic Don't Look Now  -  another film with a shockingly down beat ending. Can you imagine seeing those two in a row? Not exactly ideal date material... )

Fantastic Beasts And Where To find Them
Sarah and I went to see this new installment in the Potterverse at Christmas and I have to say she enjoyed it more than I did. It was good fun in a light weight kind of way, with the expected great special effects and a lovely evocation of a magic-tinged Jazz-era New York, but I found the story and the main character very weak. I'm still not convinced by Eddie Redmayne in anything he does and I thought his Newt Scamander was far too passive, whereas the supporting characters were more interesting. Hopefully the projected sequels will delve deeper into this world and also into the lead character. The real star of the movie was the Niffler, the strange mole-like creature who had a liking for shiny things  -  I bought Sarah one of these for Christmas and it was definitely her favourite present... leading to such unlikely phrases as "I need to dust my Niffler..."

UPDATE ( 17/02/17 19:10 pm )
I'm absolutely gob-smacked that I've had over 700 page views for this post in the 8 1/2 hours since it first appeared. This is a first for me! Of course, my first thought was "something's gone wrong here"  -  maybe this is a sign that this 'ere blog is finally getting back on track...
( Of course, having Rogue One at the top of the post probably helps when it comes to Google searches )

By the way, here's a quick mention for my son James who has finally started blogging ( I've been pestering him for ages to have a go )  -  he's got a film review blog he calls ( far too modestly )
I Criticise Because I'm Not Creative. Check it out here for some damn fine writing ( I know I'm biased but I really like his style ) and some interesting opinions  -  3 1/2 out of 5 for Aliens?? Can't say I agree with that one ;-)


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