Thursday, 30 December 2010

'King Lear' at The Donmar Warehouse

Last night we went to see my last play of the year, 'King Lear' at the Donmar Warehouse. Now, shocking as it might seem, I've never seen 'King Lear' on stage or (and it's at this point my shame rises and blushes my cheeks) read the play - I am a virgin when it comes to Lear. We'd booked tickets to see Derek Jacobi in 'King Lear' back in the summer and it was nice to finally have it come round at last, especially since we were in the second row of the stalls.

I have history with Mr Jacobi. Yes, I watched 'I Clavdivs' when it was first broadcast (I did Latin at school y'know). I saw him on his tour with 'Hamlet' in 1977 or 1978 . I've seen him on stage in supporting parts a couple of times and in the audience at the Donmar and elsewhere - it's nice to see an actor that actually likes to be part of the audience for live theatre as well as it being his profession. But I've not seen him with the weight of an entire play on his shoulders since 'Hamlet' 30-odd years ago and, last night, he excelled.

'King Lear' is not a one-man show, of course, and, as well as Derek Jacobi in the title role, we also had the excellent Gina McKee as Goneril, Justine Mitchell as Regan and Ron Cook as the Fool, as well as a dozen other characters. It's the first time I've seen Gina on stage (but have seen her loads on telly) and was most impressed with her cool portrayal of Goneril in comparison with the almost manic playing of her sister and rival Regan. Cordelia was played by Pippa Bennett-Warner in, what I think is her first big role, and she was very good, a nice, subtle performance. I was also impressed by Michael Hadley as Kent, Paul Jesson as Gloucester and Gwilym Lee as 'young' Gloucester, spending much of the play in loincloth and dirt but delivering a subtle performance. It's a quiet joy to see a cast with such consummate acting skills playing off one another and clearly putting so much into their performance.

At some point in the first half I remember thinking that this was both excellent writing and excellent acting, bringing Shakespeare's thoughts to life in front of me on a bare stage. It might be quite a bleak play but the writing and intent are clear and easy to understand and that's partially what gives the play it's power and why it's still regularly performed. It must give the actors headaches though, trying to pitch that level of emotion for every performance. There were no frills or fancies, simple costumes, a stage empty of props most of the time and the direction led to a speedy play, bringing it in in under three hours.

The final scenes are, of course, full of blood and death - it's a tragedy, after all - most of which is off-stage. Lear dies on stage at the end of the play, an excellent death scene by Derek Jacobi, not over-played or over-long, but which, for me, was trumped by the last words from the Duke of Kent as he holds Lear's dead body, "
I have a journey, sir, shortly to go; My master calls me, I must not say no." After the way he's been treated by Lear throughout most of the play it's odd to think that Kent still wants to follow his liege, but this suggests there are years of friendship before the play begins to warrant such devotion. It was very touching and excellent craftsmanship.

If you get the chance to see this production then do so - it's a reward to see it.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

'Cinderella' at Sadlers Wells

My pre-Christmas treat was to see Matthew Bourne's 'Cinderella' at Sadlers Wells. Seeing one of Matthew's productions has now become a firm Christmas tradition, heading up to Sadlers Wells to inspect the Christmas tree and mingle in the always over-crowded foyer bar, wondering what sights were ahead of us and whether it would hold the imperceptible magic of his other Christmas treats.

The performance starts with the cast watching a short newsreel about the London blitz that places the show in time and space and then we shift to the house where a grey and speccy Cinderella lives with her family, disabled dad, odd collection of siblings and the ultimate Cruella De Ville step-mother. The first act is an extended introduction to the characters through dance and a few small props, and ending with the family all going to a ball at the Cafe De Paris except for poor little Cinders. Until her guardian angel intervenes.

The second act opens in a blitzed Cafe De Paris, with people and tables strewn across the stage in the bombed out wreckage of the Cafe, and then the angel dances back time and the glitzy Cafe takes shape before us and the colour explodes to wipe away the grey drabness of the first act. A glammed-up Cinders and her RAF pilot dance the night away until Cinders must rush off and is caught in the blitz, picked up by first aid workers and leaves a shiny glass slipper behind.

The third act tells the tale of the wounded RAF pilot searching for his Cinders in bombed out London, through the rent boys and prostitutes haunting Oxford Circus tube station and the toughs and posh people down on the Embankment. Eventually he ends up being taken to the same hospital as the now grey again Cinders. The nasty step-mother tries to kill Cinders for some reason, is caught and led off, the pilot and Cinders are reunited, get married and say farewell to her family in a train station in a small tribute to 'Brief Encounter'. It is also at the train station that the angel finds his next charge, another lonely young woman to help.

Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed this show. The chronology was a bit odd but it's the characterisation that I love. The brother with the shoe fetish going round trying to sniff ladies shoes, the other brother who's gay and meets a random soldier in the Cafe who turns out to be Mr Right that he then says goodbye to at the final railway station scene, the haughty and nasty step-mother (boo!), the soldier coming down the steps in the Cafe doing up his flies, the menacing toughs on the Embankment - great story-telling through dance. I wasn't too engaged by Cinders and her pilot since you know what's going to happen to them, it was the minor characters I watched. It was also touching to see the woman at the train station waiting for her love who never arrives and she wanders off to be found sitting alone at a table at the end when the angel walks up to her and touches her shoulder and you know that a new story is about to begin as the lights go down.

It's the little touches that Matthew Bourne devises that I love and that pull at the heart strings or the comedy bone, like the Swan and his Prince looking through the window at the end of 'Swan Lake' or the characters going round licking each other in 'Nutcracker'. His mass dance scenes are excellent, with every couple dancing their own dance within the whole rather than a load of people doing exactly the same dance, each having their own characters and movements. And, as has happened a couple of times before, Mr Bourne was out in the foyer chatting to friends and supporters as the audience left at the end of the show.

There's something rather magical about walking up to the Angel tube station after seeing a Matthew Bourne production on a freezing winter's night with Christmas lights in the air, speculating on what happens next in the world I've just glimpsed and why this character did this and that character did that, and then the long ride home mulling it all over. That means it must be Christmas...

Friday, 24 December 2010

Advent 24 - Merry Christmas Everybody

What could my advent song possibly be on Christmas Eve but the classic 'Merry Christmas Everybody' by those Lords of Noize, SLADE. I loved it instantly back in 1973 and bought it the day it was released. I still love it and bought it again last weekend with a great live version and Noddy shouting out 'merry Christmas' to the audience.

And with that, all I can say is, Merry Christmas!

Advent 23 - Christmas Wrapping

One of the most original and fun Christmas records, 'Christmas Wrapping' by The Waitresses - I can't find a video of the band performing this song but this is quite fun. Whenever this pops up on mu iPod it puts a smile on my face and a jaunt in my step but I can never keep up with the words...

Viv Albertine - 'Home Sweet Home (...at Christmas)'

I'm very pleased to have found this new song just in time for Christmas, Viv Albertine's 'Home Sweet Home (... at Christmas)', available to download from Viv's website for the grand total of 0 pence - go and download it now. Apparently it's a re-working of a song that will be her new single in the new year, 'Confessions of a MILF'.

I didn't know that Viv had started making music again - how are you supposed to find out about these things? For the last 28 years or so since the demise of The Slits Viv has been a film director and artist but released her first four-track EP earlier this year, 'Flesh', and has a cover of 'Letter To Hermione' on the latest David Bowie tribute album. And, delightfully, both are available to download from Amazon and iTunes. If you liked The Slits or just like alternative takes on what music could sound like, then go on and download Viv's songs - I'm thoroughly enjoying them.

I also like the potted biography of Viv on the home page to her website (such as Joe Strummer taught her to tap her foot and play guitar at the same time) so click on over for a read!

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Advent 22 - Black Christmas

The message went, 'Poly's back!' and lo and behold, Poly Styrene did emerge with her new single, the free download of 'Black Christmas' and the angels did skank along to it. And what a return, Poly and her daughter, Celeste Styrene giving us a different take on Christmas.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Advent 21 - We Three Kings

Blondie's 'We Three Kings' was last years' winner in the 'new song' category of the Plastic Bag Awards and it justly features in my Advent Calendar. Play it loud and bounce around the room!

Monday, 20 December 2010

Ray Davies at The Royal Festival Hall

My pre-Christmas gig this year was seeing Ray Davies at The Royal Festival Hall on Sunday night, accompanied by his chums over the last couple of years, the Crouch End Festival Chorus. I saw Ray at the Royal Albert Hall back in May and, before that, last Christmas, at Hammersmith Apollo. So he's fast becoming a Christmas tradition.

The format of the gig followed the same format as when he played Hammersmith, opening with Ray and guitarist doing an acoustic set and then the band joining in followed by a half time break. After that, the Chorus joined Ray on stage for versions of Kinks songs from the 'Kinks Choral Collection'. Ray was on top form, happily joking, exhorting us to clap and sing along, telling tales of the old days and improvising every now and then, responding to shout outs for the audience and launching into a rendition of 'Harry Rag' and then of 'Father Christmas' (how does he remember the lyrics?). When you've got a back catalogue like Ray's it must give him tremendous scope to play with songs and, in a way, that's what he does in his acoustic set.

Ray opened with 'This Is Where I Belong' despite saying later that when he saw Chuck Berry at the Royal Festival Hall ten years ago that he swore he'd never play in the place - I know what he means, though, it's not the most rock venue in London. We then had lovely renditions of 'Dedicated Follower Of Fashion', 'Dead End Street', 'Autumn Almanac' and band joining the acoustic duo on stage to fill out the sound.

The second half kicked off with the Chorus taking their places, followed by the four-piece band and then Ray. We were treated to most of 'The Kinks Choral Collection' and particular favourites were ' Celluloid Heroes', 'See My Friends' and 'Working Man's Cafe'. It was great fun to listen to Ray explain how he'd written 'You Really Got Me' and how Dave had invented the classic guitar riff. The set closed with a great series of songs: 'Postcard From London', 'Days' and 'Waterloo Sunset', a trilogy of songs that worked really well. And a single encore of 'All Day And All Of The Night' which had everyone on their feet and loads of people dancing down the front of the stage. My one disappointment was no 'Lola' - how is that possible?

It's great to see Ray and it's great to see him re-interpret and re-present his old songs, but you know what I'd like? I'd quite like a straight rock gig - he proves he can do it every time I see him, letting the band rock out and Ray singing on top of the wild rock sounds. He's a great performer and has nearly 50 years of showing us how to respond to his gigs - long may he continue!

Martha Reeves & The Vandellas at The Jazz Cafe

Last Thursday we went to see the marvellous Martha Reeves & The Vandellas on the last night of their short residency at The Jazz Cafe up in Camden. I first saw Martha and her sisters Lois and Delphine at the Jazz Cafe so it was nice to see them on that little stage again. Martha fills the stage with her presence let alone with her sisters and the band.

With Martha you're guaranteed a 'greatest hits plus' show with all the goodies from the '60s, 'Heatwave', 'Nowhere To Run', 'Jimmy Mack' and a host of others plus some gems like an extended version of 'What Going On' and a 'best of Motown' medley (I particularly liked the 'Sugar Pie Honeybunch' section). Martha's voice isn't what it was but it's easy to forget that when she's on stage - she's been around for nearly 50 years, for virtually the whole history of pop and soul music, one of the originals and still one of the best.

It's not just the songs, with Martha and her sisters it's all about the show, about giving the audience a fun time and sending us away with a smile. I love the way that Martha, Lois and Delphine still observe the old Motown rules of a low curtsy after every song and Lois in particular sticking to the old dance routines she's been doing since 1968 (Delphine's a relative new-comer, only joining the Vandellas in 1980). And what lovely, gracious ladies they are, giving us a show to remember.

One of the highlights was Martha singing 'No-One There' a song I've not seen her perform before and which got Chris excited, a lovely, gentle song. I also loved (of course) 'Dancing In The Street' which she preceded by listing some of the big names who've recorded it and ending with, 'but it's *my* song' and so it is. Another favourite for me was 'Nowhere To Run', with all the running round the stage as best they could in the small space.

It was a scrum to queue up to meet Martha afterwards, not the best organised of signings, but Martha sat there with a pint of Guinness happily signing whatever her fans gave her (including piles of records) and not just signing, but writing a message. She then passed them to Lois and Delphine to sign as well. They were there for ages directly after the show - I know, because we were there for ages, patiently waiting our turn to say 'hello' and 'thank you'. While Chris chatted to Martha I said a few words to Lois and Delphine, reminding them of the great show at the Bloomsbury Ballroom a couple of years ago at which these photos were taken.

Advent 20 - City of Christmas Ghosts

We're getting closer to the Big Day and that means it's time for the big Christmas guns to come out. And here are those nice Goldblade lads with Poly Styrene and 'City Of Christmas Ghosts', my Christmas joy in 2008 when it was released. It's not a high tech, high quality video, but what it lacks in slickness it makes up for in raw power.

La la la-la, Christmas Ghost!

Advent 19 - White Christmas

Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without some Bing Crosby and what could be more Christmasy than 'White Christmas'? I've chosen the music box version from the opening army scene in the 'White Christmas' film since the emphasis is on Bing's voice rather than anything else. Enjoy.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Advent 18:It's Christmas Time

With less than a week until the big day, here's Status Quo's 'It's Christmas Time'. It's only fair to let the old geezers have a look in at Christmas - they've been banging away with their no-nonsense boogie for over 40 years. It's taken them long enough to come up with a Christmas single and, y'know what? I like it!

Saturday, 18 December 2010

'The Glass Menagerie' at The Young Vic

Now, I have form with Tennessee William's 'The Glass Menagerie'. When I saw it in Toronto five or six years ago I was sitting in the front row right in front of a small table holding a glass menagerie of animals and... I fell asleep. Not snoring, falling over asleep, just nodded off from the warmth in the theatre after the snow and cold outside and a long journey to Canada. But still, I fell asleep. So, it was with trepidation in my heart that I braved the play again, this time at the Young Vic. And I'm pleased I did.

It's quite a depressing play with little joy in life, all the characters having failed to make the most of their lives or done much with their potential. The mother yearns to re-live the gentility of her youth, her son yearns to leave home and leave his life behind him and the gentleman caller yearns to better his life through evening classes. Only the daughter seems content with her life, hiding away at home with her menagerie of glass ornaments. Until one breaks.

It's a very intense play and this production brought that out by having a very shouty lead in Leo Bill with a more subtle performance by Deborah Findley as the mother and a very tender performance by Sinéad Matthews as the disabled sister. Kyle Soller played the young gentleman caller. I was most impressed by Sinéad who made me believe in her disability and complete shyness, her moment of hope and her magnanimity in defeat and accepting her fate. Her performance was very touching. Go and see it if you can.

Advent 17: Happy Christmas (War Is Over)

One of my favourite Christmas songs, John & Yoko's classic from 1972. I love everything about this song and it works for me, the words, the sentiment, the choir, the whispering at the start, the posters with the legend, ' WAR IS OVER! If You Want It, Happy Christmas from John & Yoko'.

Happy Christmas Yoko!

Friday, 17 December 2010

Advent 16: Christmas Time (Don't Let The Bells End)

The Darkness appeared, played some power chords, dropped a Christmas single with a fun video and then vanished. And here it is:

Advent 15: Yelling At The Christmas Tree

My 15th Advent song is a little known Billy Idol gem, 'Yelling At The Christmas Tree' with his rather modern take on Christmas and its association with booze. Billy recorded a proper Christmas album a few years ago which I haven't heard - it seems somehow wrong for Billy to sing the Christmas classics, but I don't have a problem with him creating new classics.

Amanda Palmer - 'Map Of Tasmania'

The important news is that there is *new* music from Amanda Palmer in the shape of a new single, 'Map Of Tasmania'. It is available to download now from Bandcamp and features the Young Punx, a mix of ukulele and tribal electronica (or Phat Beats in the parlance), a different sound that I fell in love with immediately. And, being from Amanda, are you surprised to learn that it's about her pubic hair? Of course you aren't. It also has rather fab cover art so download it and enjoy it if you know what's good for you.

And there's more... Amanda's new album, 'Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under' will be available in late January with 'Map Of Tasmania' and eleven other new songs. If they're anything like 'Map' then we're all in for a treat!

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Advent 14: 'Gaudete'

Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without Steeleye Span giving us some 'Gaudete'. I may be wrong but I think this is the only song in Latin to make it into the top 20 singles chart and I remember them walking onto the stage of Top Of The Pops holding candles back in the '70s.

This video is from a concert in 2004 and shows that they still have it. Maddy's voice is still pure and piercing and my one sadness is that they didn't sing the song when I saw them at Christmas last year, but I forgive that cos they were fab anyway.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Advent 13: We Need A Little Christmas

Advent 13 is an unusual one for you, but I like Angela Lansbury singing 'We Need A Little Christmas' from 'Mame'. The cast recording has a lot of joy and life imbued into it and the words say it all for me. This video is of Miss Lansbury a few years ago with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in a concert performance. Sit back and enjoy!

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Advent 12: I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday

One of my favourite Christmas songs is 'I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday' by Wizzard. It's such a happy and optimistic song that it deserves to be in everybody's top ten of Christmas songs.

The Human League at the Royal Festival Hall

Way back at the start of June when I was on holiday in Barcelona I bought tickets to see the Human League at the Royal Festival Hall. It's been a long wait but it finally ended on Friday when I saw Phil, Susan and Joanne once again, and closer than ever before since the tickets were in the fourth row.

The stage was covered in white flooring with three solitary white microphone stands and a black curtain hiding the rest of the stage, a clear sign that the Human League were in the building. The lights dimmed, the background music went quiet and then the first electronic chord started, the black curtain fell, the light show started and there they were, all dressed in black. Striding down a few steps in front of a video wall, Phil started pacing the stage while the girls went to their respective microphone stands and they belted out a new song, 'Electric Shock' from the new album due in March. And it works as a great opener, getting them moving but it was the second song that got the whole auditorium to our feet, singing, dancing and clapping along. And then we were granted wall-to-wall hits for the next hour and a half.

Phil never stood still, pacing back and forth across the stage; Susan was wreathed in smiles, flirting with the audience and having the time of her life; Joanne was all cool and aloof most of the time, breaking out into a big smile every time she forgot to be sullen, with both girls waving their hands above their heads, wiggling their hips and doing the little dances they've been doing for nearly 30 years, and they were perfect. The three-piece band created an enormous sound with their various synths and Mr Oakey even joined in at one point. The costume changes went from black to white to black again, all monochrome except for Joanne's flashes of red.

The time went by so quickly and before I knew it we were into 'Don't You Want Me' which always signals the end of the show. I can't pick out a few highlights from a gig that was full of highlights but I always like 'Being Boiled' and 'Empire State Human' with Phil on his knees, 'Tell Me When', 'Love Action', 'Mirror Man', 'The Sound Of The Crowd' and the great 'The Lebanon'. And , of course, a glorious 'Together In Electric Dreams'. They also played the new single, 'Night People' with a weird collage of Hitler and nuns kissing on the video-wall.

The Human League were, of course, magnificent, and they all looked very well indeed. Phil was whip-thin as ever from his endless pacing across the stage, Susan was looking slender and gorgeous and not over-thin, and Joanne has lost weight since I last saw her and is now looking well voluptuous. I (obviously) had to indulge in taking some photos and a selection are below, I even got a couple of Phil smiling.

If you get the chance to see the Human League in concert then don't miss 'em - they give great show and you'll know all the songs, oh yes you will.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Advent 11: Santa's Disco

Christmas is not just about sentiment, religion and presents, it's also about fun and being silly. Finally we have a Christmas song that is just plain daft and a little bit glorious. It is, of course, 'Santa's Disco' by The Superions (and yes, that is Fred Schneider). C'mon, let's party tonight!

Friday, 10 December 2010

Advent 10: Hey Mr Christmas

Christmas can bring out the best in people and this song proves it. I was never very keen on Showaddywaddy, those drainpipe wearing annoyances, until they did this song and I learned the valuable lesson that everyone has a good side. Even Showaddywaddy.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Advent 9: God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

It's time to celebrate some 'new' Christmas music and I'm enjoying the new album from Annie Lennox. When I heard about the album I was expecting something well produced and worthy with Annie's excellent vocals on top, but 'Christmas Cornucopia' is so much more than that - it's original and has some excellent re-workings of songs we're all familiar with. I like this version of 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen' and recommend you listen to the whole album.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Advent 8: Il Est Ne Le Divin Enfant

Siouxsie & The Banshees is probably a strange pick for a Christmas playlist except that they actually have a Christmas song recorded way back, 'Il Est Ne Le Divin Enfant'.Their version is the first time I'd ever heard that song, a song I've since heard by various other people. The only version that rivals Siouxsie's is the version by Petula Clark on her latest album.


Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Advent 7: Baby It's Cold Outside

Just because it is, I give you 'Baby It's Cold Outside' by Tom Jones and Cerys Matthews.

Advent 6: I'm Going Home

A couple of years ago Justin Lee Collins set himself the task of reviving the Christmas single and tracked down performers from the big Christmas singles of the 70s to help him - and this is the result. I watched the programme and liked it immediately, downloaded it from the Channel Four site and have enjoyed listening to it every Christmas since.

The song has a tremendous Christmas pedigree:

> written by Rob Davis of Mud (Christmas hit: 'Lonely This Christmas') who also co-wrote 'Can't Get You Out Of My Head' for Kylie
> sung by David Essex (Christmas hit: 'A Winters Tale')
> guitar by Dave Hill of SLADE (Christmas hit: 'Merry Christmas Everybody')
> drums by Don Powell of SLADE (Christmas hit: 'Merry Christmas Everybody')
> other musicians/vocals from Showaddywaddy (Christmas hit: 'Hey Mr Christmas').

Not bad, eh? Give it a listen!

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Advent 5 : Christmas Was Better In The 80s

Day 5 in my advent calendar and it's a song that hasn't even been released yet, 'Christmas Was Better In The 80s' by The Futureheads. This is fab and will be my first Futureheads record when it's finally released on 19 December.

Let's get something straight here, Christmas was not better in the 80s - Christmas is always perfect for all times. I recall long, five - seven hour coach journeys to Newcastle for Christmas with the family before I could afford train tickets. I also remember trying out my first Walkman when my neighbour in the next seat let me listen to Bowie's 'Let's Dance' on his Walkman and I was amazed by it.

I recall Christmas Eve in the Cricket Club and then going again at lunchtime on Christmas Day, a tradition that continued largely unchanged, although with fewer in attendance, until my Dad left us. We also got one of those new-fangled video recorders in the early 80s - doesn't technology change quickly? And, of course, we had Band Aid that revived the Christmas single.

Other decades brought similar highs and lows but I'm happy to include this song in my advent calendar.

John Waters at Queen Elizabeth Hall

On Friday evening we went to see John Waters speaking at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the Southbank. Of course, at this time of year the Southbank also hosts the Christmas market so that was an added bonus. The setting was a reading by Mr Waters followed by an interview with Philip Hoare who immediately annoyed me with his long and rambling introduction about how he first met John years ago (please note that when I go somewhere to hear someone speak it's them I want to hear, not the interviewer - short questions, long answers please).

Once the interview got going it was great fun, with John telling us stories about his past, the people he knew and the situations in which he met some of them, all based loosely round his new book, 'Role Models'. He has a story for every situation and knows the most weird people ever invented, real or imaginary and, in his case, all very real. It must be very strange being John Waters but he has a nice take on fame and recognition, noting that the only people who would possibly recognise him in the street are the people he'd be happy to be recognised by.

After an hour and a half we said goodbye to Mr Waters and left to join the queue for the book signing - Chris had bought the new book so, naturally, wanted it signed. Dawn and Toby were ahead of us in the queue so once they'd had books signed they popped back to gloat (which is rather unattractive). Mind you, it took an hour to get to the front of the queue so any interlude was welcomed. John was happy to sign things, shake hands, have photos taken, the whole fan thing, which was good of him.

The Polite Snowman

It is with deep sadness that I report the demise of The Polite Snowman. No, not the thawing of the snow, but rather the absence of the snowman from the Christmas lights on Streatham High Road. For the last few years, The Polite Snowman stood at the top of streetlights flashing on an off and, whenever I passed, would raise his hat. He was a very polite and gentlemanly Snowman. I say 'was' because it seems he is no more.

The Christmas lights were switched on yesterday so I wandered through the slush and ice up to the High Road to see Santa outside the Odeon cinema along with (for some reason) a stilt-woman, a fire eater and a steel band. There was a goodly crowd and it's nice that we still make a bit of a fuss about Christmas. Lambeth is clearly cutting things though, since the lights only seem to go from Streatham Hill Station to the Odeon rather than continue down to St Leonards and beyond which they usually do, and the lights seem to be more spaced out which means fewer of them, but at least they're there. There's no sign of Christmas trees yet, but there's still time.

But I mourn the passing of The Polite Snowman - he always brought a smile and a twinkle to my eye. I will keep watching out for him since you never know, he may well appear by himself as a result of the magic of Christmas ... I believe.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Advent 4: Fareweel Regality

The fourth song in my advent calendar is 'Fareweel Regality' by Rachel Unthanks and The Winterset (now re-named The Unthanks).

It's not so much a Christmas song as a winter song, conjuring up images of frost and log fires as you leave home for an uncertain future away from all you know. It was written by Terry Conway but I love this version by Rachel, Becky and friends. The chorus goes:

"We'll cry fareweel Regality
And cry fareweel the Liberty
To honest friends' civility
To winter's frost and fire
And there's nowt that I can bid ye
But that peace and love gan with ye
Never mind wherever call the fates
Away from Hexhamshire"

The setting for the song is Hexham, a county town of Northumberland which in olden days was a shire in its own right with areas called the Regality and the Liberty, and with a lovely old abbey. I grew up about 15 miles from Hexham and used to visit it every so often. My mother was in and out of Hexham hospital for many years and my older brother lived in Hexham for a few years. It's just up the road from Corbridge, with it's old Roman fort of Corstopidum, built on the banks of the Tyne, a mere juvenile river that far up from the sea. It's a lovely area - or at least is in memory since it's years since I was last there. And that's part of the power of this song, evoking old memories and bringing them to life again, along with images of loss and leaving, but also with hope, on a freezing winters day.

I had the pleasure of meeting both Rachel and Becky Unthank last December after their gig at Shepherd's Bush and they're a nice pair of lasses, lovely pure voices and an aptitude for story telling. And clog dancing.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Advent 3: December Will Be Magic Again

It's still snowy and icy out there so it's appropriate for the third window on my advent calendar to open with Kate Bush and 'December Will Be Magic Again'. This early snowfall has certainly made it more festive with the snow covering the ground and bowing down the trees, brining it's own magic.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Advent 2: I Believe In Father Christmas

It's time to open the second window on my personal advent calendar and I've found Greg Lake's 'I Believe In Father Christmas'.

I've loved this song for 35 years, since I bought the single when it first came out in 1975, but I've never been too keen on the video that went with it. The words and music make me yearn for snow and sleigh rides, not the deserts of the Middle East. This isn't a particularly good quality version of the video but it's still worth watching and, most certainly, listening to. And I do believe in Father Christmas.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Advent 1: Postcard From London

To celebrate the festive season and the snow lying outside my front door, I thought I'd post a video each day in the run-up to Christmas to get into the seasonal spirit. This is my own advent calendar.

I'm starting with the lovely and sentimental 'Postcard From London' by Ray Davies - what could be more appropriate? It has scenes of Carnaby Street with it's swinging '60s themed Christmas decorations, grand old Regent Street, a glimpse of Piccadilly Circus and Chrissie Hynde on vocals.

From me in London, to you in the World, I give you 'Postcard From London'...

Monday, 29 November 2010

'End Of The Rainbow' at The Trafalgar Studios

On Friday we went to see 'End Of The Rainbow' which, as you might guess from the title, is about the final days of Judy Garland. I don't know an awful lot about Miss Garland other than a few films and some songs, and this play didn't really fill in the background.

The play opens with Judy's pianist in London tootling away on the piano in her hotel suite when she arrives in London to play her residence at The Talk Of The Town in the late 60s, accompanied by her new fiance and manager who is 20-odd years younger than her. The play then alternates between her hotel suite and the nightclub, with a few songs followed by depressing scenes and then another song at the nightclub. We gradually see Judy's dependence on pills of one sort or another grow and her performances become more chaotic and shambolic.

Tracie Bennett's portrayal of Judy was great stuff but I was less convinced by anyone else in the play. At one point when the play faltered I remember wondering whether I was watching an impersonators show, with someone doing a good Judy, someone doing a poor Brooklyn accent and someone else doing a rather camp piano player. I found the play rather hard work and couldn't quite see where it was taking us and then I realised it wasn't particularly taking us anywhere. It was a series of set pieces - Judy at the Talk of the Town, Judy wanting pills, boyfriend bellowing, camp pianist being camp, etc etc - rather a particularly strong narrative. The most annoying bit of the play was when the gay pianist tells the boyfriend that it was the gays who loved Judy first and would keep her memory alive - did he really say that in 1969 or is that hindsight? Eh?

Much as I enjoyed Tracie Bennett's singing as Judy I was quite frankly stunned by the instant standing ovation at the end. Was I in America, I wondered? The play is manipulative and tugs all the right strings but overdoes the Judy-as-the-drug-fueled-madwoman, boyfriend-as-evil-manipulator and pianist-as-gay-friend bits. It was all terribly one-dimensional and false. Still, people seemed to be enjoying it so maybe I'm just a bit jaded? Or maybe it isn't a good play but has the right level of populist moments with a great lead to make it work.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Christmas Lights

This evening I sneaked out of work early for dinner at the Soho Pizzeria followed by a viewing of the Christmas lights on Carnaby Street.

In recent years Carnaby Street has won the Christmas lights competition hands down. The designer has flair and imagination, taking a risk and seeing what works. My favourites are the giant Christmas tree lights from around 2005 and the giant snowmen from 2008. Last year was a little bit ho-hum (other than the lovely pink reindeer) but it's back to form this year with a solar system theme, with Santa in a space suit floating in the sky and colourful planets, asteroids and meteors strung across the street.

The lights on neighbouring Regents Street with its boring net of lights across the street and film adverts (same as for the last few years) and Oxford Street with its bright Christmas presents wrapped in lights (same as last year but still quite good) add brightness on these gllomy, cold nights, but don't really add any fun or thought. Carnaby Street at least tries to take a different view on traditional Christmas lights and I'm pleased it does. Here are a couple of photos taken with my phone (sorry for the poor quality) to give you an idea...

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

New Christmas Records

It's always difficult getting the Christmas Laws right. One of my Christmas Laws is that I can't listen to Christmas music until 1 December. That's when I get out all the CDs and load them onto my iPod and can start listening to some old favourites again. I also like to discover new favourites and every year brings a few new Christmas records. This year I've got four new Christmas albums to get to know and enjoy.

The first one is 'Destination ... Christmas' by The Superions. For those of you who've never heard of them before then you need to know that Fred Schneider is the singer and co-writer of the songs and Fred is, of course, the voice of the most wonderful B-52's. Fred's involvement means the songs are quirky, electronic, a bit daft and not quite what they seem. I think my favourite is 'Fruitcake'...

There's a new record from the Indigo Girls called, 'Holly Happy Days'. The packaging is great, with a cardboard ribbon wrapped round it and three card baubles inside - a lot of thought and design has obviously gone into it as well as into the songs.

Another new record is Annie Lennox's 'A Christmas Cornucopia' with Annie singing traditional carols and I'm pleased that, today, 'This Is Christmas' by Petula Clark was delivered. This is another record of traditional songs with a couple of new ones written by Petula. I've listened to just a few tracks from each record (I'm saving them for December) and I already love Petula's version of 'Il Est Ne, Le Divin Enfant' in her impeccable French. Mind you, I also love Annie's more upbeat version with some big drumming and harmonising.

Bearing in mind the Law Of Not Listening To Christmas Music Before December I haven't actually listened to all these albums yet. I've dipped in and played a few songs - just to make sure the CDs work, of course - so I still have a lot of unheard music to enjoy next week.

Of course, the big Christmas news this year is the free single from Poly Styrene (and Celeste Styrene) 'Black Christmas' - needless to say, I love it.

What new Christmas music have you discovered this year?

Monday, 22 November 2010

The Human League - 'Night People'

The wise one's know that The Human League are stirring and have a tour in the diary over the next month and a new album due out early next year - and a single released NOW.

'Night People' is the latest slice of dance synth-pop from the Human League in advance of the new album and it sounds mega tres fab! It has all the makings of a classic League single with it's repetitious lyrics and foot stomping insistant electronic beats. It sort of feels a bit like Petula Clark's 'I Know A Place' in a (very) odd way because the Night People know where to go. Of course they do, and we'll be heading to the Royal Festival Hall on 10 December to see the Human League in all their splendour. I can't wait!

You must download it now from your downloady site of choice - it's 69p on Amazon so grab it now! And take a look at the video - very night people!










Saturday, 20 November 2010

'Fela!' at the National Theatre

This week we went to see the new musical in town, 'Fela!', the Broadway production transferred to the Olivier stage in the National Theatre.

I enjoyed the show on Broadway and it will always be associated with the freezing cold of Snowmaggedon on the streets with the heat of the Eugene O'Neill theatre as the setting for Fela's nightclub in Lagos, Nigeria, The Shrine. And I'm pleased to say that they've taken the same approach with the staging of the London show, with the theatre decked out in posters, strings of lights hanging from the ceiling, paintings on the doors, decorating it like The Shrine.

'Fela!' tells the story of Fela Kuti, Nigerian musician and political activist who invented Afrobeat (especially in it's 20 minute extended version!). The show is loosely set around his last performance in The Shrine in the late '70s and tells us how he went to London to go medical school but really how he discovered the music that would eventually emerge as Afrobeat and how he was politicised in America by the Black Power movement of the late 60s. The second half of the show is darker, with an extended dream sequence of him on a trip to the underworld and a chilling sequence about the invasion of his compound and the abuses his extended family suffered at the hands of the army.

That precis doesn't give you any idea what the show is really like. It throbs. It is hot. It sweats. It is sex. It is ebo (marijuana). It is cake. It is loud and proud and in your face with dancers gyrating and thrusting in your face and groin, non-stop, and they're all over the place - on the stage, in the aisles, in the balcony and on the walkway around the top of the stage. There is no escape so don't waste your time even trying. The dancers were magnificent and must be the fittest people in London at the moment to sustain the almost non-stop movement throughout the first half. I was weary within minutes just watching. They really are impressive.

All credit must go to Sahr Ngaujah in the role he originated on Broadway as Fela, and won all the awards last year. He controlled the show and controlled the audience, including numerous ad-libs to shout outs from the audience. He got us all - and I mean all - on our feet to do the clock after only half an hour. Has that ever happened in the National before? The clock is a series of hip and crotch thrusts aimed at the stations of the clock with the most blatant being 6 o'clock and midnight. And we did it, it's great fun (just watch out if you've got a bad back).

I'd also single out Paulette Ivory for a name check who played the American Black Power activist who has some great songs, both solo and with Fela, and who has a great voice and great moves. And, of course, I can't fail to mention Jacqui Dubois who played Miss Brown, the hat seller ("international styles, local prices") in 'The Harder They Come'. She didn't have a very obvious role but it was nice to see her anyway. The band also deserves a mention, being on stage and playing before the show starts and during the half time break.

The alternate Fela is Rolan Bell, who played the lead in 'The Harder They Come', our rebel hero Ivan, so there's a nice link with one of my favourite productions. I'd quite like to see 'Fela' with Rolan in the lead just to see what he does with the part.

If you get the chance, go and see it - it's a great night out, you'll learn something and you'll see some incredible dancing. Do the clock!

I Have A Life Too...

You might think we're heading into the season to be merry, but I think we're in the season of the reality game show. We've had 'Strictly Come Dancing' and 'X-Factor' for a few weeks now, and we've just seen the start of 'I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here', three prime-time telly programmes designed to keep us occupied on the long, cold and damp winter nights. Personally, I'm enjoying Sue Perkins and Giles Coren in 'Live The Good Life' which has some genuine originality and humour at its core.

It's really odd the way we seem to invest so much in people simply because they're on telly for a few weeks. I accidentally caught 'X-Factor' and saw the unfortunate Aidan get voted off and was astonished the following morning to see the vengeful anger on Twitter. People seemed to be angry and in tears about this boy who (a) couldn't sing and (b) couldn't talk but (c) could pull faces in answer to questions like 'how do you feel?'. I think it's quite easy to be able to tell whether someone can sing - it's called carrying a tune - and he clearly couldn't, but people still got upset. I don't understand.

I find myself getting really annoyed with the judges and their stupid comments about how someone who can barely hold a tune 'owned the stage', how we're finally seeing 'the real you' and how they've 'got it all and they 'are a star'. I think that's all just plain cruel. How many people from these types of talent shows go on to have a career? Very few. So why do these stupid judges build them up when it's plain as dish water that few of them can actually sing. As Damon Albarn said the other day, it's a karaoke coliseum - there's no originality or real talent, just a bunch of hopefuls singing other peoples' songs and if that's not karaoke I don't know what is. Cut back on the light show and the hoards of dancers and it might be a showcase for talent - but I doubt it. It's a marketing dream and is all about money.

I never used to watch 'celebrity' shows like 'Strictly' and 'I'm A Celeb' but they've developed a sort of morbid fascination for me and I now tend to watch the first episode when we meet all the s'lebs knowing that I'll be saying 'who's he?' and 'what's she famous for?' as they're introduced. There are too many soap and reality TV 'stars' taking their moment of glory before fading back into their character or obscurity (whichever). Still, at least they grab their 15 minutes and try to milk it for all it's worth.

Then there are some real stars and I can't help but wonder why on earth they are on these shows. There's the lovely Felicity Kendall demonstrating her flexibility on 'Strictly'. Now, she may not be the best dancer (OK, let's be honest, she's not) but she has 40 years behind her on TV and stage and even starred in a film about her own family back in the 60s. And she's incredibly bendy. There's also Pamela Stephenson who seems to be known as Billy Connolly's wife these days, but I remember her from 'Not The Nine O'Clock News' way back when. And she is a good dancer.

There are a few real s'lebs on 'I'm a Celebrity', like Nigel Havers and Shaun Rider but most mean nothing to me and, quite frankly, I'm not interested in any of them although it's nice to see those cheeky Geordie lads, Ant & Dec, on telly again. I do like a bit of Ant & Dec now and then. I only started watching 'I'm A Celeb' when a certain John Lydon went on it and got pecked at by ostriches or emus or something, and, of course, George Takei aka the immortal Mr Sulu.

I am weak and will probably watch on and off over the next few weeks - some things are inevitable...

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Poly Styrene - 'Black Christmas' Video

I've been hugging myself with glee over the new video for Poly Styrene's new single, 'Black Christmas'. The single is an excellent Christmas present from Ms Styrene and it's lovely to see her again in the video, along with her daughter Celeste (and doesn't Celeste Styrene look like her mam!). I last saw Celeste wigging out massively on the stage of the Roundhouse a couple of years ago when she joined Poly for the encore of 'Oh Bondage, Up Yours!' at the X-Ray Spex gig (buy the CD and DVD by clicking on the X-Ray Spex logo on the right >).

Poly looks in fine form and flashes the biggest smile in the world at the end. Welcome back Poly!


Poly Styrene - Black Christmas

Friday, 12 November 2010

Movember

It's amazing what you can come across by accident online and today I discovered Movember (and no, that's not a typo). Movember refers to a moustache in November - start the month clean shaven and grow a tache for the rest of the month so you become a walking advert for mens health issues, particularly prostate cancer. The Prostate Cancer Charity is the beneficiary of Movember in the UK and I quite like the strapline of 'A gentleman is, after all, still a man no matter how gentle he is'.

I grew my facial fur by accident three years ago and wouldn't be without it now so there's no way I'm shaving it off, but I'll happily let it grow and be styled appropriately to support Movember. I could always have a Salvador Dali-esque tache on my upper lip to demonstrate my support for this important work.

If you know someone taking part then please support them - if you're doing it yourself, then well done that man!

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Poly Styrene - 'Black Christmas'

The wise ones already know about the new free download from Poly Styrene, her Christmas single, 'Black Christmas'. If you haven't given it a listen then scoot on over to Poly's site, sign up for her email list and get an early Christmas present from Ms Styrene in the form of the mp3 download.

"I'm dreaming of a black, black Christmas
Black smoke blows against a midnight sky..."

It's punky reggae in the best traditions of 70s punk and it's got Poly's unique take on Christmas and her great voice. Go on give it a listen - I love it!

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Who Are You?

Hello, nice to meet you, but who are you?

I sometimes marvel at the number of people who look in on my blog, and the peaks and troughs of traffic (ie, you). Why do you look at some posts and not at others? You're still looking at my Jane Aire & The Belvederes post (for which, thanks) and even Jane Aire herself has commented on it, but I have no idea who you are. Of my recent posts, 'Whalesong' has been very popular but who reads poetry?

You rarely seem to read my last post, rather you read something older - I still see people are looking at my account of my hernia operation. Why is what I did last year of more interest than what I did last week? I am puzzled.

From the number of visits, I went off the boil earlier this year but have been slowly improving and I have no idea why. Would you mind giving me some feedback? Why do you like some blog posts and ignore others? I'd really like to know.

Love

PB


Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Poems On The Underground - 'First Contact'

I blogged a couple of weeks ago about a poem in the 'Poems On The Underground' series that I saw on the Tube ('Whalesong') that made me sit up and take notice, and I saw another one today, 'First Contact' by Hattie Grunewald. Hattie is another youngster penning interesting work.

The poem is self-explanatory really, but I like the hope that sits behind it, the aspirations and, ultimately, the let down. It reminded me of getting my first contact lenses and that the first thing I did once I started wearing them was to go out and buy a pair of sunglasses. Take a read and see what you think:

Well done, Hattie! She's 18 and is on Twitter as @madhattie so if you like the poem you should follow her. I am.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Ray Davies - 'See My Friends'

After a more-than-usual frustrating day at work I popped into HMV on the way home to get a couple of new records - 'See My Friends' by Ray Davies and friends and 'The Lady Killer' by Cee Lo Green. When I handed them over at the counter there was a momentary flicker across the face of the lad at the till almost as if he was thinking I was getting Ray because I'm old and was getting Cee Lo for my children, again, because I'm old. As Cee Lo would say, 'Fuck You' but I, of course, wouldn't be so verbal.

I think it's quite brave of Ray to release an album of cover versions of his own songs so soon after releasing a previous record of 'covers' in 'The Kinks Choral Collection'. I was rather dubious about the choral record but was won over to the new versions after a couple of listens, especially after being lucky enough to see most of them performed live last year.

Part of the risk with this album is that, with a few exceptions, we're all used to hearing Ray's voice in the lead, lending his north London accent to the songs and making them real for us. The arrangement of the music might alter or there might be a choir in the background but it's still Ray singing. This album is different in that he shares singing duties with his friends, so that top-line sound is very different and, on a first listen, I'm not sure it always works. For example, Jon Bon Jovi's contribution to 'Celluloid Heroes' is negligible and his singing style detracts from the carefully crafted words with his warbling (but I like the guitar work).

At the same time, some of the songs instantly work and add a new texture and flavour to the songs we're used to. In this category I'd pick out 'Lola' with Paloma Faith which works for me and it's nice to hear a woman singing a song about a Soho transsexual with her voice reflecting and complementing Ray's voice. I've also got a sneaking liking for 'You Really Got Me' with (and please forgive me for this) Metallica, 'Waterloo Sunset' with Jackson Browne and 'Dead End Street' with Amy MacDonald. I also like the version of 'All Day And All Of The Night/Destroyer' with Billy Corgan in which Ray does a re-telling of the story of 'Lola' in a rather fun way that you need to listen to to understand.

I think it'll take a couple more listens to firm up my opinion of the record but it's definitely in thumbs up territory. Well done Ray for taking the risk - now all you've got to do is get all your friends together at the same time for a gig! No pressure then!

I think this is one of those records with different tracklists for different releases and I vaguely think I've seen somewhere quoting slightly different songs on the European and American versions of the CD so I'll have to keep my eyes peeled on iTunes for 'bonus' tracks or whatever.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

'Company' at The Queen's Theatre

Last Sunday it was 'Merrily We Roll Along' and today it was another production in the Sondheim at 80 series, 'Company'. Again, it was a staged concert version of the musical with the Donmar cast reunited and staring the excellent Adrian Lester and Sophie Thompson. It was the same format as last week, with a production of the whole show without sets or costumes, the cast sitting in a large semi-circle on stage throughout just getting up and moving to lecterns for their lines and songs.

I haven't seen 'Company' before and was a bit surprised to find it all about marriage, the good, the bad and the accidental, set in a knowing New York. It strings together different scenes with various married couples who all know our hero, Bobby (Adrian Lester) who is the only single person in the show and who keeps saying he's ready for marriage yet somehow isn't married.

I'm sure there are people out there who will know the exact number of words in each Sondheim play but this one seemed very wordy to me, more words and fewer songs than usual. It also seemed to have a cast of actors who can sing rather than singers who can act. Adrian Lester is a fine actor and a charismatic centre for the production but he's not a singer ... or so I thought until the final song of the production, his song where he can let rip and let rip he did most excellently. And Sophie Thompson is a fine actress who did herself proud with 'I'm Not Getting Married' at breakneck speed. I also liked Haydn Gwynne's drunken 'Ladies Who Lunch', even spilling her drink with some expansive arm movements. There were some nice comic performances in what was otherwise a rather serious production but the audience loved it and awarded it a standing ovation at the end.

So, that's another Sondheim musical I can cross off the list. There are still more to come but that's four in the last few months: 'Into The Woods', 'Passion', 'Merrily We Roll Along' and 'Company'. Wonder what will be next?

SLADE Reunion

I've kept this a secret for far longer than I thought I'd be able to, but I must spill the beans before I burst - SLADE are getting back together next year! O yes they are, Sir Noddy Holder, Jim Lea, Dave Hill and Don Powell will stride across the stage again in 2011. I've decided it will be so and so it will be. I have faith.

SLADE's first hit was 'Get Down And Get With It' in June 1971 and their first Number 1 was 'Coz I Luv You' in October 1971 so, to celebrate their 40th anniversary, I predict a SLADE reunion in the second half of 2011. And I will, of course, be in the second row of the audience for the reunion gig.

Now, SLADE don't actually know it yet, but I've been planning their setlist and stage show. Much as I'm tempted for it to be old school with just the lads on stage giving it some heavy rock guitar and drums, I think I need to update the set with more modern lights and stuff. The banks of amps will still be at either side of the stage for Jim and Dave to climb up onto, but they will be glitter-encrusted and have a bank of lights focused on them to generate the right effects. Sir Noddy will, of course, use his mirrored top hat to manage the light show.

The show will be in two halves and the first half will include the current line-up of SLADE as well as Sir Nod and Jim. They've kept the band alive all these years and deserve some credit so will have a role to play in the reunion gig. Then it'll just be original SLADE in all their glory playing the big songs of yesteryear but including some of the 'B' sides they never did live back in the day. I'm so looking forward to hearing 'Take Me Bak 'Ome' and 'Mama Weer All Crazy Now' again.

And, of course, it will recorded for a live CD and a DVD that will be out in time for Christmas 2011 (so guess what will be in my letter to Santa?). It'll probably be broadcast on BBC2 at some point over Christmas (I haven't negotiated that bit yet) and be followed by a rare screening of 'SLADE in Flame' and a 'SLADE at the BBC' programme. Clearly my work schedule is going to be pretty busy if I'm going to have all this ready for next year. Still, it's got to be done.

Of course, work has already begun to get the spotlight onto the Lords of Noize with a Facebook campaign to get SLADE to the Christmas Number 1 again rather than an X-Factor dirge. You can show your support by clicking here and doing the right thing by joining the group.

Right. I'd better get back to my planning and wait for the phone to ring with the commission from SLADE's management.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

'When We Are Married' at The Garrick Theatre

Roll up, roll up! It's old pros season at the Garrick and what old pros they are! Rosemary Ashe, Lynda Baron, Susie Blake, Michele Dotrice, David Horovitch, Roy Hudd, Sam Kelly, Maureen Lipman and Simon Rouse - if you live in the UK you know at least half of these people, if not by name then by the characters they've played on telly, and what great fun it is to see them all on the same stage!

I actually didn't notice the cast when I booked the tickets a while ago - after seeing 'Time And The Conways' at the National Theatre a year or two back I decided I wanted to see some more plays by JB Priestly so I booked tickets to 'When We Are Married' when it was announced. And I'm very pleased I did.

It's a big daft farce about hypocrisy and class set in Yorkshire with three couples who were married together at the same time 25 years earlier and are now celebrating their anniversary when it turns out that the vicar who married them wasn't qualified to do so. So it's major shock horror in the Edwardian living room with the middle aged worthies who have to face some truths about themselves. I sat through the second half with the biggest smile all over my face as the play moved from problem to resolution.

It was great fun to see some of the actors in the flesh for the first time, with Sam Kelly getting the first great rise out of the audience and almost an ovation for simply breathing out after taking a swig of whisky - a marvellous comic moment. It was also a delight to watch Michele Dotrice in action. I'd always viewed her as the 'straight man' in 'Some Mothers Do Have 'Em' but her comic timing was spot on tonight with every little gesture and sigh timed to a tee, a great comic performance and she's gone way up in my estimation. And Roy Hudd, a grand old man of comedy, was excellent as a drunken photographer in full flow on the stage. Susie Blake almost turned into Maggie Smith every now and then with her shrill put downs and Maureen Lipman was, well, Maureen Lipman and well worth watching. Lynda Baron will always be Nurse Gladys Emanuel to me so seeing her playing a Yorkshire woman of firm views was spot on.

It was a great way to spend a couple of hours on a dreary November night and it sent me away with a smile on my face - what more can you ask? The women (particularly Michele) outshone the men and had the best lines. Go and see it and put a smile on your face. Cheers!

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Mary J Blige at the O2 Arena

Last night we went to see Mary J Blige at the O2 and, after seeing her on her last tour I knew to expect my soul to be wrung dry of all emotion and spilled on the stage in front of her in homage. Mary gives good show and, just to be sure we all heard our favourite songs, she sung approximately 273 songs in the 1:40 hours she was on stage, an exhausting repertoire dragging us into her world of pride, self-confidence and righteousness.

She opened with 'MJB da MVP', her own tale of empowerment and then segued into song after song after song, one extended medley of her songs after another while she prowled the stage, never still, walking back and forth, crouching, springing, a wild creature whose mission is to set us free from ourselves and the crowd loved her. She was backed by a powerful band and singers, all on a raised set in the back half of the stage, leaving the front of the stage empty and clean for MJB to prowl. She was joined a couple of times by two hip hop dancing lads but only for a minute or so each time which meant she was, effectively, alone on the front half of the stage for the majority of the time. Such power has she, that I hardly noticed, eyes riveted on the woman commanding this vast arena with her own personality, voice and songs, a very impressive performance. And the time flew by, no sooner had she started than it seemed the show was nearly over with the big songs towards the end of her well constructed set.

She wore a skin-tight navy blue sparkly cat-suit, like a blond Catwoman in razor-sharp sequins as she prowled the stage before changing into a gold sparkly tunic for the second half of the show, that also included a short acoustic set - yes, MJB goes acoustic. There were two minor disappointments, very minor. Firstly, that she let the crowd sing most of 'I'm Going Down' - I want to hear her sing it - and the second was that she didn't sing 'Whole Lotta Love' from the latest album. I love her version of that song and if you're going to sing it anywhere it's in London at the O2 where Led Zep got together their reunion gig a few years back. I'd already imagined the pyrotechnics and light show as she screamed out the words... but not, as the case was.

The highlights for me were the biggies, as you'd expect. 'Not Gon' Cry', the joyous 'Just Fine' and the heart-wrenching 'No More Drama'. How on earth can Mary crouch down on the stage and still manage to jump up from the stage in that position? Is it humanly possible to jump and maintain that position? She's a very fit woman, obviously. And, suddenly, the show was over and the band was playing an outro as hoards of people streamed away to the exits. Feel free to come back any time, MJB.

MJB has a strange demographic going on with her audience - well, I was there for a start. The couple next to me must've been in their mid-50s and they were boogieing on with the best of them (I did my own trademarked shuffle). It was nice to finally meet David whose path we keep crossing but never actually meeting and, finally, we did as we discovered the oddness of the 'Blue Room' (or whatever it's called), an empty bar while the bars in the Arena have huge queues. I'll remember that for the next time.

Of course, as with virtually every trip to the O2 it's a problem getting home. The Tube strike didn't affect trains as far as Waterloo so we could've got the tube but I'd booked a cab, thinking I'd be clever for a change. Of course, the damn thing was 20 minutes late and then took the strangest route across south London, using every narrow, car-lined street the driver could find on the way home. Either I never learn or the O2 is cursed... probably both!

Monday, 1 November 2010

Obsessions and Addictions

I seem to go from one obsession to another at the drop of a hat these days. It must be something to do with the weather, putting the clocks back to GMT or, perhaps, there's just a lot of good news around at the moment?

No sooner do I hear about a new Christmas album from Fred Schneider and the Superions than I hear that Poly Styrene is giving away a new Christmas single with an album to follow in March next year with the excellent name of 'Generation Indigo'.

That's on top of the marvellous Dresden Dolls getting back together and touring in America - I obviously hope for a gig in London and a new record and I refuse to give up hope.

Of course, in the flurry of news about the above events I totally forget there's going to be a new Human League album - the album has been pushed back until next year but the new single, 'Night People' is released in 20 days. How do I know? Because Mr Oakey tells anyone who clicks in their new website here. Is it OK if I say 'wow' now?

All I need is another new Buffy Sainte-Marie record and an original SLADE reunion and my cup would well and truly make the place damp.

You see, I have a theory, especially after seeing Sir Noddy on telly the other night, that 2011 will be the year for the great SLADE reunion. It'll be 40 years since their first hit single and first No 1, the perfect time for a reunion. I predict late summer or autumn for the reunion gig that will be recorded for CD and DVD. By the way, watch out for me in the second or third row in front of the stage in the DVD, since that's where I'll be. Do you want me to predict the set list?

I *believe*.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Merrily We Roll Along

This afternoon Chris took me to see a staged concert version of Stephen Sondheim's 'Merrily We Roll Along' at the Queen's Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue as part of the Donmar's Sondheim at 80 productions. It was on the stage normally used by 'Les Miserables' so there was no scenery, no costumes or props, men in suits and open-necked shirts and the women in cocktail frocks. The interesting thing was that it brought so many of the original 1990 Donmar Warehouse production cast together, including the three leads of Julian Ovenden, Daniel Evans and Samantha Spiro.

I wasn't entirely sure what to expect but they seemed to play the musical straight, moving from microphone to microphone with their folder of music and lyrics, reading the lines between the songs as if they were playing them. Scenery and costumes would have added to the production but they fully told the story of the musical as it was without them, which is a credit to the cast and the play they were performing.

The play is made up of a series of scenes that go back in time from 1980 to 1955, telling the story of a group of friends who are successful in 1980 in literature, music and theatre and look at how they become successful, the sacrifices and compromises and how they started out as wide eyed and naive, hopeful of the future. The penultimate song, 'Our Time' seemed to sum up youthful hopefulness for me, looking forward and how we can change the world before cynicism and world-weariness spoils everything.

I've come across some of the actors before. The main character is played by Julian Ovenden who I saw at the Donmar in 'Grand Hotel' in which he played the flawed Baron whose songs made me cry particularly 'Roses At The Station'. I've seen Daniel Evans in a few things before, most notably Sondheim's 'Sunday In The Park With George' at both the Choccy Factory and at Studio 54 in New York. Chris reminded me that I'd also seen Samantha Spiro as the servant in 'A Winters Tale' last year, so she doesn't just do musicals.

It was great fun and a very thoughtful production. I'd like to see it 'properly' one day.

Happy Dresden Dolls Bandiversary

The Dresden Dolls, those lovable ragamuffins Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione, are ten today. They first met at a Hallowe'en' party ten years ago and are celebrating with a sold out gig in New York. They've been apart for a couple of years but now is the perfect time to get back together. They're also saying a big 'thank you' to you, me and the world by giving away copies of their very first album, a collection of live performances on the record, 'A Is For Accident' and you can download it here: http://bit.ly/aisforTHANKYOU .

My love affair with the Dolls began in 2005 when they were part of Patti Smith's Meltdown on the Southbank. They performed a couple of songs at the 'Stand Bravely Brothers' concert of Brecht songs at the Royal Festival Hall and then did a free gig in the ballroom area. After that gig I bought their first studio album, 'The Dresden Dolls' from the merch stand and Amanda signed it with a flourish of her gold pen. And I lost my heart. I've seen the Dolls on every visit to London since then and, in the last couple of years, Amanda's solo shows. I've even bumped into her by accident with Neil Gaiman and still been the happy recipient of a trademarked Amanda Hug.

I also went to see Brian when he played drums on the Jesse Malin tour a few years ago and was lucky enough to meet him after the show - of course, it was Brian I went to support, not some random American, and he was, of course, excellent. How many times have you been to a gig to see the drummer? Ah, but Brian is no ordinary drummer.

Sadly, I didn't make it over to Boston to see 'Cabaret' and I'm not in New York for the Hallowe'en show, but it's going to be filmed so I expect it'll be available somewhere at some point. The Dresden Dolls make me happy and will continue to do so. All I can say is...

PUNK CABARET IS FREEDOM!