Thursday, April 17, 2008

Five Years Later, Low Still Rock

One of the first gigs I went to when I officially moved to Brighton was Low at St George's Church. Five years and several hundred bands later, it still ranks among my best-ever gigs. As I mentioned in my post about Iron & Wine, St George's is a super-atmospheric and acoustically blessed venue, particularly good for anything mellow or folky. Back then, Low were pretty much the epitome of 'Slowcore', they may have even invented the genre. Apparently the band members don't actually like this term, but it does quite accurately describe their distinctive combination of minimalist arrangements and slow soothing tempos. The last couple of albums have moved away from this format slightly, with the rockier and more upbeat 'The Great Destroyer' and some experimental dirgey electro in the latest offering, 'Drums & Guns'. I was intrigued to see how this evolution would translate into their live shows, so when I saw they were returning to Kemp Town, I knew I couldn't miss it.

For me, what stands Low apart from other similar bands is the amazingly consonant voices of founder members Sparhawk and Parker (pictured above), whose haunting close-harmonies embody the unique intimacy of a married couple, to neck-prickling effect. The audience at St George's last night - packed in right up to the rafters - were absolutely rapt as they were treated to a slick set of old and new material. Even when encouraged by the band, heckles were hesitant - everyone was clearly too awe-struck to articulate their feelings, or too middle class and British perhaps. I'd purposely left my camera at home, so that I could enjoy an undiluted gig experience for once. Sparse lighting in the church makes getting a decent shot without flash virtually impossible anyway. The inevitable encore was passionately demanded and gracefully delivered - I was only disappointed that Sparkhawk didn't make use of the church's baby grand this time. But in every other way, it was the perfect gig, and I came out feeling inspired and becalmed.

A big thank you to Steve for organising the outing, and to him, Michael and Ant for being jolly good gig cohorts as always - Ant's man-flu wobbles notwithstanding. Depending on wireless availability in Hódmezővásárhely, this might be my last blog post for a while - as I'm off to Hungary tomorrow for
the first of my dental trips (wish me luck!). I'm looking forward to experiencing some authentic Hungarian folk music during our stay, as well as the Guinness World record sheep-shearing contest, coach-driving competition, wrangling, horse-gymnastics, dáma horse exhibition, horse games (?!) and pig catching which will all be taking place as part of the annual agricultural festival. The mind boggles.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Meeting Sulu's Fag-hag

Living in Brighton, I've become accustomed to being surrounded by a host of eccentrics, freaks and weirdos - the colourful characters are a big part of what I love about the town. But Lewes - where I travel to each day for work - boasts a much deeper strain of eccentricity that has none of the Brighton affectation about it. Proper dyed-in-the-wool 'local' fruitcakes line the quiet streets of this quaint historical town, and sometimes you over-hear the strangest things.

Today, in Lewes Post Office, I was waiting in line with an increasingly frustrated queue of customers - all visibly staring daggers at the elderly lady being served at the counter, who was clearly in no rush to be on her way. "Do you know who this letter is going to?" she asked the long suffering clerk, who raised his eyebrows in a polite but bemused "No, but I'm sure you're going to tell me" sort of way. "George Takei" she proudly announced. "He was Sulu in Star Trek. It's his birthday next week". And then, as if to clarify that she was a genuine acquaintance, and not just a random geeky stalker: "Oh yes, I know him. He always sends me a Christmas card. Lovely man. Him and his boyfriend...Yes, boyfriend... Oooh, didn't you know, he came out three years ago?" Clearly she was hoping to provoke some sort of response, but sadly I couldn't hear the clerk's half of the conversation to discover if her revelation had the desired effect (although based on the above picture, I wonder that anyone was ever particularly surprised). I had been served at a different window, and was on my way out the door, and she was still in full swing. I hope I am as mad and annoyingly verbose in my dotage - this little episode really brightened up my lunch hour.

And now I can say that I shop at the same Post Office as Sulu's Fag-hag. Awesome.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

La Vie En Lis

Last week I watched La Vie En Rose, a biopic about the troubled life of legendary French singer Edith Piaf (left). Despite the relentlessly gloomy plot and a sometimes confusingly random timeline, I really enjoyed the film. Not least because of the musical element. Piaf was the original French popstar, and an unquestionably massive influence on the distinctive canon of artists that followed - right up to contemporary French starlets, and current favourites of mine, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Camille.

Seeing the film got me thinking again about the whole Chanson tradition, which I have touched on here before. Literally translated, 'Chanson' means simply 'song', but it has come to be associated with a certain style of singing, characterised by passionate performers such as Piaf. The songs tend to be lyric-driven, often recounting a story or a moment in time, rather than being just a general exclamation of emotion. They also tend to be rhythmically determined by the lilt of the language, rather than a prescribed time-signature.

There's little that can be compared with this style of singing in the English-language musical tradition, especially not these days. Let's face it, most of our songs - even the good ones - are repetitive, trite and shallow. Long before I became aware of Chanson, I'd always loved a song that tells a story, and have been compiling a mental list of them over the years, with the intention of eventually making a mixtape. So far the list includes 'Fancy' by Bobbie Gentry, 'Pinball Wizard' by The Who, 'Paperback Writer' by The Beatles, 'Parklife' by Blur and something, as yet to be decided, by Joni Mitchell (there are quite a few options in her case).

Another great example of storytelling songwriters are Squeeze frontmen Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford, whose cheeky slice-of-life pop songs nearly all had some kind of narrative hook. I happened to see Chris Difford live this week, as he was doing a joint set with Boo Hewerdine (pictured here) at Komedia . I never miss a chance to catch Boo if he's in town, and although I had no idea what to expect from Mr Difford's solo material, I've always enjoyed a bit of Squeeze. Difford's new album is co-written and produced by Boo, and it's an interesting pairing. As well as the new stuff, he played lots of old favourites, including 'Cool for Cats' and 'Up the Junction', both of which are contenders for the ever-evolving song-as-story playlist. Hearing these old classics again also made me realise how much Lily Allen (and other lesser wannabes) owes to Squeeze. Then I found this YouTube video of Allen covering 'Up the Junction', which seems to confirm my theory:



I think I prefer the original, but I'm not averse to Lily Allen in her own right. In fact I applaud her for bringing this type of anecdotal ditty back into fashion. Now, how on earth did I get from Edith Piaf to Lily Allen in five paragraphs? That's what happens when you embark on a musical rant without really knowing where you're going with it. Still, I'm nothing if not eclectic.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Beautiful People, Half Decent Photos

My transition to digital photography has been a fairly recent one, and it's taken me a good few months to start getting to grips with all the possibilities that my Nikon D40x offers. Sometimes I miss the simplicity of my old OM10, but regular practice, experimentation, and an excellent evening class (sadly now finished) have all helped me feel more at ease with the digital beast. I'm also now fully kitted out with flash unit (the built in flash is fairly limiting), remote flash cord and tripod, all of which make a big difference. I'm finally getting to the stage I used to be at with film, where my pictures actually come out like I imagine them in my head when I'm composing the shot. I was really rather pleased with this set of photos, taken at Carnivalesque on Friday night, which have had hardly any editing.




I love capturing people in full swing - taking non-static portraits that tell you something about the person and who they are being, or trying to be, in that particular moment. What a fabulous bunch of photogenic punters these guys were, and very obliging to me - the annoying photographer in their midst. All I need now is an elegant camera bag that won't look out of place on the dancefloor.

The full set from Carnivalesque are on my Flickr page at:
http://flickr.com/photos/rowstar/sets/72157604411411517

Friday, April 04, 2008

A Little Slice of Brazil in Brighton

Cibelle, Komedia, 3rd April 2008

The first time I heard Cibelle was as a random recommendation on internet radio player Last.fm. I was immediately taken by her distinctive voice, and the chilled Bossa Nova vibe of the song Train, which brought back happy memories of Brazil. So when I saw she was coming to Brighton, I immediately thought of my friend and travelling partner Ezinda, who until very recently had been living in São Paulo, where Cibelle is also originally from. She was up for it, so we arranged to meet up beforehand for our first proper catch up since her return to the UK. Laughing about our Brazilian exploits last year, and planning (less exotic) adventures for the summer put us well in the mood for some nostalgic tunes. The husbands and some other friends joined us at Komedia, and we grabbed a table near the front, expecting it to be quite a mellow affair.

Having seen photos of the pretty Brazilian singer looking sultry in a 50s style floral frock, we were surprised to see her come on stage in a bizarre ensemble that can only be described as a (possibly non-ironic) tribute to Dexy's Midnight Runners - *huge* baggy T-shirt over garish leggings, accessorised with an excess of big scarves, and finished off with a trilby, perched jauntily on a mop of wayward curls. Sideways glances ensued between us all, as we waited to hear what sort of sound would come out of this eccentric looking creature. Glances turned to raised eyebrows as she launched into a totally unexpected experimental electronica intro, the like of which I haven't experienced since I sat open-mouthed and bemused at a Nobukazu Takemura gig at the Old Market a few years ago.

Mercifully though, the rest of the set was closer to what we'd been hoping for - an interesting blend of Latin beats, jazzy vocals and some well-executed live sampling. All credit to Ant for coming up with the phrase 'bossatronica' which perfectly describes the result. It was never quite upbeat enough to get up and dance (though a couple of drunken girls did manage it), but there was plenty of foot-tapping, and even some enthusiastic audience participation at various points. An initially wary audience seemed to warm to Cibelle as her set went on, and by the end we were all whooping for more.

Continuing the Brazilian theme to the evening, we all went for a post-gig caipirinhas at In Vino Veritas, a relatively new wine bar/bistro in the North Laine. There aren't too many places around that area that are open for late night drinking, so it's the perfect spot to roll onto if you're hyped from a great gig at Komedia, and not ready to go home yet. Even the Cachaça Queen herself was impressed at the standard of the cocktails, and especially the fact that the staff were happy to make off-menu drinks for us, so we'll definitely be going back there again.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The Art of the Lark Trap

Don't worry, this isn't a post about animal cruelty, or anything connected to the hunting or harming of birds in any way. As if! The only birds I plan to mention today are the imaginary ones that my dear friend, Let's call him 'Mr A', once convinced his young lady were the victims of an annual hunting event in the West Country. Not yet accustomed to her lover's mischievous sense of humour, the girl in question had been idly inquiring after some unusual looking pylons on the roadside, whilst driving down to his mother's house in Dorset. "Oh, those are the Lark traps", a deadpan 'Mr A' informed his trusting squeeze - going on to explain that the trapping of Larks was in fact an established local tradition. Perturbed by the very notion, she raised the subject later in the company of her future mother-in-law, and was mortified to learn that the whole thing had been an elaborate ruse at her expense. And so the Lark Trap was born.

Now in common usage amongst the friends and family of its original perpetrator, not to mention an increasing army of outside followers, 'Lark Trapping' as an idiom is a superior (in my opinion) and apt alternative to 'spinning a yarn'. Essentially the act of convincing another person with a plausible explanation for something clearly preposterous, it can also be applied to practical jokes in general. Whether or not 'Mr A' was consicously coining a phrase at the time of his original spontaneous yarn, we may never know. But I am happy to report that he continues to reel people in at any opportunity, and remains the undisputed king of the tradition to this day. So, rather than attempt some lame April Fool post, I decided that today would be the perfect occasion on which to pay tribute to the master fabricator himself, and maybe convert a few more Lark Trapping evangelists at the same time.

And while we're on the subejct of ridiculous avian-related stories, this BBC feature about flying penguins is worth forwarding onto your more gullible pals. Of course I never believed it for a second.