Sunday 9 October 2022

Regrettable Records

One of the joys of digging through second-hand shops, charity shops and antique centres is finding some seriously strange old vinyl records. Nestled amongst the crumbling Tom Jones, Mantovani or James Last albums you can often find bizarre offerings like these. Sarah is now becoming thoroughly tired of me charging past the racks of old tat to cry "Look at this!" and show her yet another horror show of an album cover, often featuring some deranged-looking "stars" of yesteryear. Quite often my main thought is "Who the hell thought this was a good look?" Anyway, Dear Reader, I hope you enjoy these vinyl vagaries from the fringes of good taste and sanity. The last one is dedicated to my old blog buddy, David Rose, of Gig Diaries fame  -  I never knew he had a recording career :-)


Soundtrack: New York by Lou Reed ( no, it didn't really fit... )

Monday 3 October 2022

Overdue gig reviews: The Mission, Robyn Hitchcock, St Vincent & A-ha

 At the height of the pandemic and the lockdowns, the things I missed most from the pre-Covid world were seeing friends, browsing in book and record shops, and going to the cinema / gigs. With the slow return to ( a kind of ) normality I've come back to all of these things except for gigs. Being in a venue packed with sweaty strangers drinking and jumping about seemed a recipe for disaster. Apart from seeing The Skids at the Gloucester Guildhall last year ( which was nerve-wracking enough ) the last two years have been a live music drought for me which has been very tough. ( Okay, I know a lot of people have suffered *much* more than this and it's inconsequential really but bear with me. ) But a while back I thought that as most people had now been triple-jabbed and we were heading out of the Winter it may be safer to do that sort of thing. I had a ticket to see EMF at The Fleece in Bristol a couple of months back, was all set to go, and then - guess what? - I caught bloody Covid! Yep, after two years of avoiding it the damn virus caught up with me and Sarah. We were both pretty rough for a couple of days with flu-like symptoms and then just generally felt tired for a while. ( So glad we've been vaccinated, it could have been a lot worse. ) Unfortunately the very last day I tested positive was the day of the EMF gig so I had to miss it. Gutted.

Aaanyway, a few weeks later my mate Glenn asked me if I wanted to go and see The Mission in Bristol  -  he'd got on the guest list for the support band, The Rose Of Avalanche. I'd never been a fan of The Mish ( or any Goth bands really, except The Cure ) but I thought it could be fun... plus, free tickets...    :-)

So, on a balmy Thursday night I went straight from work to pick up Glenn, Cliff and Pob ( don't ask ) from Pob's crack-den  flat in Stroud and we headed down the M5 to Brizzle. It felt strange but exciting to do the old, familiar route into Bristol to the O2 Academy -  even the perennially piss-scented Frogmore Street car park felt like a welcome place to walk through... whilst holding your nose. We got to the venue and Glenn ushered us in because he didn't want to miss The Rose Of Avalanche. Fair enough. But the one thing I did miss was food ( we'd planned to get something to eat on the way but didn't ) so the sound of my grumbling stomach almost drowned out the bands. Almost.

TROA ( as nobody calls them ) came across as a bunch of middle-aged blokes who work in a local branch of B&Q but like to rock out at weekends when there's no football on the telly. They made a decent sound but were lacking in chemistry or stage presence, apart from the lead guitarist who merrily pulled Rawk shapes stage-left and probably wished he was playing with the headliners. The almost-epic LA Rain was the best song in the set and its Lou-Reed-goes-Goth bite hinted at the less-mannered band they probably were once.

As the venue began to fill up we headed up to the balcony where there was a bit more space. I've always been one for getting down the front at gigs but the spectre of Covid had kind of put me off being a part of the mosh-pit ( at least up to that point ) and I was quite happy to watch the show from above, even though it meant my usually-blurry gig photos are even worse than expected. The Mission came on stage to a rabid response, instantly setting out their stall with the atmospheric intro of Beyond The Pale and, by the time they'd moved on to the windswept singalong of Hands Across The Ocean, I was hooked. I'd always thought The Mish were a bit corny but the unabashed, strictly non-ironic melodrama of their songs was actually irresistible and I soon realised that I'd been too snobbish in my assessment of their abilities. It was Epic Goth Rock and it was huge fun.

They brought out the big guns as Butterfly On A Wheel, Wasteland and Deliverance finished the main set. Returning for some deep-dive encore songs for the faithful, The Mission finished with a huge singalong of Tower Of Strength ( of course ) and I shouldn't think a single black-clad urban cowboy or girl left the venue disappointed. As a proper return to gigs this had been a fun experiment, far more enjoyable than I'd expected, and made me think that, yes, I could get back to this stuff...

Looking at the above photo you may be thinking "Another gig, another old guy in a flowery shirt" and you may well be right... except this old ( not that old ) guy was the legendary Robyn Hitchcock. Yep, The Man Who Invented Himself was back in the UK for a brief tour and  -  hooray!  -  was playing my home town of Gloucester. And the venue was my home-from-home, the Guildhall Arts Centre. All in all, a no-brainer, a must-see. The last time I had seen Robyn was way back in the PPE ( Pre-Pandemic Era ) year of 2015 at Bristol's Fleece, the review of which can be perused here ( should you wish to of course ) so it was great to catch him again. After heading into the main hall and discovering it was, unusually, a seated event ( the only seated gig I'd seen there before was a very subdued Lambchop performance many, many years ago ) I sat myself down to watch support act, Jessica Lee Morgan...

JLM captivated the audience with some wonderfully melodic acoustic-indie-folk tunes and a warm, conversational onstage persona. Assisted by her partner, Christian Thomas, on bass and occasional vocals, she sang some impressively affecting songs of love and female empowerment in her clear, richly-toned voice, and told some surprisingly confessional stories of the music business, mental health and her experiences of lockdown. Definitely worth seeking her out again.

And then it was time for The Man With The Lightbulb Head himself, Mr. Robyn Rowan Hitchcock.

Robyn was on fine, mischievous form  -  slightly more chatty than the last time I'd seen him and clearly happy to be touring in the UK again. Happily, he started the set with two of my favourite songs, the lovely Raymond Chandler Evening ( from the excellent Element Of Light album ) and the macabrely* funny My Wife And My Dead Wife ( "Am I the only one that sees her?" ), then went straight into the bracing Soft Boys classic Only The Stones Remain. ( Non ) hit after ( non ) hit! Great stuff!

( *Is "macabrely" a word? It is now. )

Things went alternately dark ( The Abyss ) and nostalgic ( I Often Dream Of Trains ) and Robyn even got his old harmonica out for a blast  -  referencing Dylan as ever, Robyn remarked that His Bobness always sounded "ineffably sexy" when playing said mouth instrument, "which is where we differ." For the second half of the set, Robyn's old band mate from The Egyptians, Morris Windsor joined him on stage for a few songs, including a spine-tingling take on The Lizard. ( Apparently Morris lives in Gloucester so there was some banter about this particular corner of the West Country, especially about the legendary Wall's Ice Cream factory and the quality of choc ices over the years. ) Jessica and Christian also joined in for the triumphant last two songs, Brenda's Iron Sledge ( of course! ) and Queen Of Eyes. I spoke to JLM at the merchandise stall after the gig and asked her how much fun it was to play those tunes  -  she confirmed it was a blast, and then she flogged me her CD, Forthright ..."because it's my fourth, right?" Well, I couldn't say no because her music's great and she's just charming. I also bought Somewhere Apart, a collection of Hitchcock's lyrics, so, a great night all round.

Moving on to July now, and what is probably going to be my Gig Of The Year ( I really can't see anyone else beating it )  -  the amazing St Vincent at the Oxford O2 Academy!!! ( !!! )

When I first heard St Vincent was touring I thought it would be great to see her but none of the venues seemed affordable or practical for me, but then a low-key warm up to the tour was added in Oxford  -  result! I contacted my mate Tom who was equally keen to head to the city of dreaming spires for some '70s-inflected art pop. I picked him up outside some public toilets ( steady! ) in Burford and we headed to Oxford, had a quick drink in a local Bohemian watering-hole then, after dealing with an annoying ticket mix-up found ourselves in the steaming-hot venue formerly known as the Oxford Zodiac. The support was a French comedienne (!) whose name I sadly can't remember, and due to a combination of poor sound and the millennial-targeted patter I didn't hear or "get" much of her act. Sorry. There then followed a seemingly-interminable wait until the strains of Jermaine Jackson's Daddy's Home heralded the arrival of Annie Clark and The Down & Out Downtown Band. Annie sauntered onto the stage in a waitress outfit and raincoat... or did she? This was actually a lookalike who moved over to the keyboards before the real St Vincent ( if there is a real St Vincent ) appeared, looking archly puzzled. This fun piece of theatricality reminded me of a similar stunt I saw Jarvis Cocker pull at a Pulp gig many years ago and set the tone for the night...

The Daddy's Home album had been inspired by the '70s music Annie had heard her father playing when she was growing up, so it had a smooth, Steely Dan / FM rock sound, far away from the more electronic sounds we've come to expect from St Vincent. And, of course, that was the sound she was going for on this tour, right? Well, not really. After the set-opening, funked-up take on Digital Witness things got brutal as bruising versions of Down and Birth In Reverse pummelled our ears and it was clear this was going to be a heavy, heavy monster sound with some serious "axe" duels between Annie and multi-talented guitarist Jason Falkner. I think this was a level of sonic heaviosity that Tom wasn't prepared for but I think he still enjoyed it. Me, I was hooked.

The band were on fire as they cranked up the noise and funked up the, er, funk of the likes of Sugarboy and ( my favourite ) Los Ageless. Each member got their chance to shine and the Supremes-like backing singers in particular were fantastic. Before a sassy, sensual shimmy through Pay Your Way In Pain, Annie introduced the band as "fucking motherfuckers who can throw down in any way, shape or form and are good fucking people, man." Indeed. There were a lot of f-bombs to come as a visibly overcome and very hot Annie ( wiping her cleavage down with napkins - swoon! ) went on to say:

" I wanna give a 'Hello' and a special 'Thanks' to everyone here who's male, female, non-binary, trans, queer in any way, shape or form, all of you  -  we love you! I feel very lucky and I don't mean that in a fucking corny-ass fucking Instagram 'hashtag blessed' kind of way ( let's put that out there ) but, man, I'm fucking lucky that I get to do this thing and play music for everybody. I know there's a bunch of fucking writers and musicians and artists in this crowd and to you I say: just fucking go for it, man! Fucking do it, do it, we need you."
After fully introducing the band she went on to say "When I was young I admired people who are smart and now that I'm... 23 ( *laughter from crowd* ) I admire people who are fucking kind."
After all the shit the world's been through in the last few years this speech, coupled with the realisation that, yes, we can get back to our lives ( those lucky enough to still be here ), well... it was very moving and so good to hear some positivity.
The set climaxed with a smoking hot take on The Melting Of The Sun, and we really were melting by this point. Annie and the band finished this tribute to her musical heroines with a beautiful acapella outro ( which you can watch below ) and then they were gone. Just a stunning gig, easily one of the best I've seen in many years, if not ever.

How do you follow that slice of awesomeness? Well, how about some retro Norwegian synth-pop in a Welsh castle?

Before I met Sarah, when she was a teenager and just before her weekend-Goth years, she was a huge fan of Norway's A-ha... yes, the band who did that song, you know the one, they only had the one hit didn't they? ( Of course, I'm being facetious here: that tends to be the reaction most people have when you mention A-ha. ) She had kind of moved on from the band but, when I heard recently that they were on tour, I convinced her that we should go and see her former teen idols. They were scheduled for a few gigs in the UK earlier in the year but lead singer Morten Harket contracted laryngitis and they had to cancel some dates. We were concerned their Cardiff gig ( in Cardiff Castle itself ! ) might also be scrapped but luckily he had recovered by that point. So, we headed down the M4 for a couple of days in the lovely Welsh capital.
Cardiff Castle is a fantastic venue for outdoor gigs and we were lucky that the weather was perfect too, see photo above. After nabbing a spot as close to the stage as we could we listened to a DJ spinning a few '80s choons ( mostly of the non-shit variety luckily ) before support band The Christians came on.

We hadn't been sure there would even be a support band as there'd been no publicity prior to the gig. The Christians were one of those MOR '80s pop groups that I'd quite liked at the time but hadn't really thought about in the millennia since then. ( I think that's right? ) Anyway, they turned out to be a fine live act, still pretty slick but with some socially-conscious bite in their lyrics and a nice line in dry, Liverpudlian wit from front man Garry Christian. I'd forgotten just how many pop-soul bangers they had in their repertoire: Hooverville, Forgotten Town, Ideal World and When The Fingers Point all sounding fresh and inspirational. And then, just as the sun went down, it was time for the main event:

A-ha ( the band plus backing musicians ) came on stage and began playing the ( fairly rocky for them ) Sycamore Leaves and then.... Morton! Morton was here! Hundreds of middle-aged women began to lose their minds. I said to Sarah: "Look! He's real!" She was too busy happy-crying to kick me up the arse but she probably should have.

A-ha ran through a compelling set of melodic synth-pop, concentrating on their debut album Hunting High & Low but dropping in other songs from throughout their career, and even including a cover of Carole King's Crying In The Rain. ( They have a lot of meteorological songs of their own, often dealing with rain, which is probably why we Brits appreciate them. ) 

There were some massive singalongs to Cry Wolf ( "Awooo!" ), a haunting Hunting High & Low itself and a set-closing, Bond-tastic The Living Daylights. Morten was fairly taciturn throughout, letting one of The Other Two handle most of the interaction with the crowd, but he was a calmly charismatic figure and his voice was on top, almost operatic, form -  hitting some crazily long notes which hardly seemed possible for somebody who had recently beaten laryngitis.

After an encore of a hugely crowd-pleasing take on The Sun Always Shines On TV and a for-the-real-fans I've Been Losing You, the band finished with, of course, The Song...
Yep, a seismic shockwave hit the centre of Cardiff as the assembled masses of A-ha fanatics sang, shouted, cried and wailed along to Take On Me, while the iconic Steve Barron-directed video played out behind the band. It was a lovely moment and a perfect ending to a great gig, not one I would have expected to enjoy as much as I did... but I really did. Sarah, of course, was over the moon at seeing her teen idols in the flesh and at rededicating her life to the church of A-ha. ( Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating here. I know  -  who would have thought it? ) The band returned to the fjords ( probably ) and we returned to our hotel, after a quick junk-food fix somewhere on the mean streets of Cardiff. It had been a great day, a fun and surprisingly emotional gig, and the weather had been beautiful. In Wales no less!

That's me all caught up with my gig-going from this year so far ( apart from catching my old Borrowed Time mates playing a charity gig on the back of a lorry in a field ) and it feels like it's taken half the year just to write it all down. Hopefully, if Covid doesn't rear its ugly head too much over the next few months, I should be able to get to a few more gigs and witter on about them on this 'ere blog. Fingers crossed!


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