Thursday, 31 March 2011

'La Cage Aux Folles' at Longacre Theatre

I've seen the latest production of 'La Cage Aux Folles' at the Chocolate Factory in London and then again in the West End but I've never seen it with Harvey Fierstein on Broadway. Harvey wrote the book for the play back in 1982 so it was a performance not to be missed.

When I saw the play in London a couple of years ago I thought of the songs from the show (like 'I am what I am') and the acrobatic and threatening tranny chorus but seeing Harvey in the play he wrote and performed nearly 30 years ago made me more aware of its place in time and the passage of time. It was obviously quite a brave production for the early '80s, and a show depicting a gay couple who brought up a child together would still outrage some stupid groups today, particularly since the gay characters 'win' over the straight couple. Or, rather than gay, should that be one homosexual and one transvestite? It was noticeable at the half time break in the bar that the audience was dominated by white, middle aged men who probably remember the '80s all too well.

The production is basically the same as the original Choccy Factory production, the same set and the same costumes. Harvey has added an almost Frankie Howerd-like face-pulling trait to Zaza that didn't always work with me but seemed to amuse the audience. George was played by the understudy, Chris Hoch, who I thought was excellent and very believable and who gave Albin a big snog at the end.

Some of my favourite scenes in the show are with Les Cagelles, the dancing trannies with amazing choreography and I can't help but wince when they do the splits and land heavily on the stage. They were very athletic but I think I preferred the London Cagelles - the New York ones were a bit too thin and dancery (is that a word?) rather than the more rough 'n' ready London lads who seemed to me to be more 'real'.

The bad guy in the show is M. Dindon, the right-wing politician who gets a suitable come-upence at the end was played by Mike McShane. Remember him from 'Whose Line Is It Anyway?' I haven't heard of him for years but he seems to be carving out a career on Broadway so good on him. I'm afraid to say that he doesn't look very good in a silver and white lame outfit but I'll say no more.

A nice addition to the show is the tranny who meets punters at the entrance to the theatre and then moves inside to sit on the stage and banter with the audience - she was great fun and a nice way to start the show. My advice is to get there early so you can grab a drink at the bar (served in a La Cage decorated tumbler - hint: they do generous measures of red wine) and then take your seat to enjoy the pre-show performance - I didn't catch her name but she was excellent and well worth seeing. Enjoy!

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Fra Angelico in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Part of my trip to New York last week included visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see its Fra Angelico paintings. It has two paintings on display and you're allowed to take photos (without flash) so I did.

The first is 'The Crucifixion', about 2' x 1'6" with a gold background. It shows Christ being crucified but has some unusual touches as well as the angels flying in the background and human contingent on the ground. It shows the Good Brother experimenting with foreshortening, showing people bending down so you don't see their full face, showing a man with a hairy chest (not sure I've ever seen a hairy chest in a Renaissance painting) and it has what is thought to be his name painted on the bridle of the horse at the front of the group. The painting shows some damage with some of the paint being scraped off from the gold but its simple beauty remains. It's thought to be an early Fra Angelico from when he was still an apprentice and had just taken holy orders but it still shines with his purity.

The second painting is small, about 6" square, and is a head and shoulders of a saint. The sign in the museum said it was 'A Saint Bishop' but if you look online it refers to the painting as 'Saint Alexander'. It's a simple portrait of a bishop with a grey beard - might this be the same grey bearded man who looks out of Brother John's painting of saints in the National Gallery in London? Rather strangely for such a small painting, it's hung over six feet high on the wall and that makes it difficult for most people to see.

It's always a joy to see Fra Angelico paintings and that's two more to add to my list.

Poly Styrene - 'Generation Indigo' Track By Track

Here's a nice interview with Poly talking about some of the tracks from her new album, 'Generation Indigo' along with some samples of some of the songs. The video's been around for a week or so but I wanted to listen to the album first, rather than just snatches of songs.

It's a great album and Poly's on top form both lyrically and musically and she sounds great. It's a mix of styles, with pop, dance and thrash, and with some reggae thrown in for good measure. I made a point of listening to it from start to finish in the right order rather than dipping into the tracks on shuffle and it works both as an album with effective sequencing and as a collection of songs to dip into and sample.

I got my merch bundle yesterday that included the album in 'book' format, with a lyric booklet and five limited edition prints along with a Poly Styrene signature pin and a tote bag - not sure what I'll do with the bag but I'll wear the pin with pride (and take care not to lose it!).

Thank you Poly - this is a great return and a great present to all of us. Get well soon!

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

'Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark' at Foxwoods Theatre

Thursday night so it must be time for 'Spider-Man' at the surprisingly large Foxwoods Theatre. Now, like everyone else, I've heard that there are problems with the show but, in a way, that's what made me want to see it – see the original production before it changes too much. Something made the rest of the sold out audience want to see it as well, and I suspect it was ole Spidey himself judging from the pre-show comic book discussions going on everywhere and the smell of bubblegum in the air.

To say the show is spectacular is an understatement. Something changes on the stage every few minutes, props lowered from the ceiling or parts of the stage rising, the hydraulics must cost a fortune and its carbon footprint must be huge. But it's well worth seeing.

The first half is Spidey's origin tale and the second half is some nonsense about Arachne turning off all the power in the world and the Internet – and I do mean nonsense. There's a group of geeks acting as a Geek Chorus (yes, that's what they're called) who are designing the ultimate Spidey comic and they take us through the first half, coming on inbetween the action to set up the next action sequence. The second half has no such mechanics, but builds on the theme of Arachne who was turned into a spider by Athena several millenia ago and has decided to create her perfect consort – cue Spidey. The second half doesn't work at all really, but the action is superb.

The music is famously written by Bono and The Edge and you know that as soon as the music starts – it's clearly U2 and, clearly, the music is important since there are two guitarists at the side of the stage throughout. I quite liked the up tempo songs but the slow ones did me in, as do all slow U2 songs (they never work for me). The music couldn't be by anyone else and if it was you'd know it's a rip-off. And that's part of the problem really – it's a U2 album on stage to the theme of Spidey, with no real light or shade or relief from the relentless U2-ness of the thing.

The action is excellent, with Spidey, the Green Goblin and Arachne flying around the auditorium on a complex system of wires (rather thick and obvious ones, passing as Spidey's web). It was surprising that they didn't collide, but they didn't, even during the aerial fight sequence. The only trouble came in the penultimate fight sequence when the machines ground to a halt leaving Spidey and Arachne stuck on stage and unable to move for a couple of minutes. This gave parts of the audience plenty of time to cat-call and jeer, slow-clap and shout out witticisms, and then the action started again. Spidey was especially great, landing on platforms at the front or the circle (renamed the Flying Circle) and balcony with great precision (and loads of practice, no doubt).

The only actor I'd heard of in the production is Luther Creek who played Woof in 'Hair' in London and gave me beard love. I'd also seen the actor who plays Mary Jane who was in 'Next To Normal' last year, not a high recommendation but her singing voice was much better in 'Spider-Man'. The other thing worth commenting on was the sheer amount of merch on display around the theatre and available to buy in the shop – yes, the theatre has it's own merch shop. Every kind of tee shirt and top, hats, mugs and even jotters were available, everything except a soundtrack album. Judging by the crowds buying stuff, they must be raking it in – and every penny will be needed to pay for the spectacle in the auditorium.

All in all, it's not the greatest theatre but if you want a fun night out and view some spectacular stage effects, then go and see it if you can. I hear it's being re-written even as I type so who know how long this version will play.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

'Driving Miss Daisy' at the Golden Theatre

On Wednesday night we went to see 'Driving Miss Daisy' at the Golden Theatre, with Vanessa Redgrave, James Earl Jones and Boyd Gaines. It's a short play, lasting about 1:40 hours with no half time.

The play opens with Miss Daisy's son, Boolie (Boyd), trying to persuade her to hire a chauffeur since her driving is getting worse against her continued refusal to do so. He then hires Hoke behind her back and imposes him on her, and so we have a battle of wills, with the amiable Hoke trying to win over his employers' mother and convince her to let him drive her to the shops. It's quite a charming tale of two old people getting to know one another and their foibles set against a backdrop of the 50s and 60s in the South, social unrest and the civil rights movement.

I quite liked the play, a gentle introduction to Broadway and the madness outside with hailstones and snow, the seething masses of Times Square and endless honking of traffic. It was a masterclass from Vanessa on the art of aging on stage, quite strange to see that happening right in front of you as I watched her shoulders gradually rounding and her stooping slowly becoming more pronounced, an excellent performance. They were all excellent, with James Earl Jones giving us a blend of amiable old man and someone who's tired of being talked down to and Boyd Gaines providing the movement of the show as the son (I saw Boyd in 'Gypsy' a few years ago). The performances were all excellent but I found the play a bit picaresque, with lots of short scenes that never developed. It seemed like as soon as the characters were comfortable in a new scene it ended rather than going somewhere.

Still, it was an enjoyable first play of this trip and we made the discovery of a new trend for Broadway shows, apparently picked up from theme parks - when you get a drink at the bar you also buy (as part of the price) a plastic tumbler with marketing on the side (either the name of the show or of the theatre group) and a 'non-spill' lid. This means the bar staff can say you get a discount when you go back at half time to fill it up again. Why this has been introduced is a mystery but it's another souvenir of the theatrical experience I suppose, along with the free playbill, but it's odd walking through the streets back to the hotel with snow drifting down and clutching an empty plastic beaker in freezing fingers. I now have a small collection of those tumblers.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee' at The Donmar Warehouse

We went to see the 'Spelling Bee' at the Donmar on Tuesday night, a new musical based around the characters taking part in a 'spelling bee' competition (I've got no idea why a spelling competition is called a 'bee' and that wasn't explained). It's a straightforward tale of the hosts and competitors telling their stories in-between the spelling competition, with four members of the audience being invited onto the stage to take part as well. This leads to lots of ad libs by the two hosts at the expense of the audience members.

It's quite short, at just over 1:35 hours (so no interval), with a bit of exposition, a song from each contestant about their past and hopes for the future, and some spelling (I suspect they'll change the words regularly to spice it up). One by one the children spell a word incorrectly and leave the competition and the stage, whittling it down to the last two and, of course, the last two are lonely teenagers who become friends and more as Olive makes a silly mistake and the boy (whose name I can't remember) has a chance to win – she looks at him and says 'I don't mind' and he wins. In the finale each of the characters tells us (through song) what they go on to do in the future.

I suspect this play is a bit like Marmite and you'll either love it or hate it. I loved it and would happily see it again. I thought the players were excellent (and no, they weren't really children, one of the boys looked like he's started going bald), getting that adolescent competitiveness just right, uncertainly about themselves and their futures and the commentaries on their home lives. Some of the songs were over-long but I can forgive that. Katherine Kingsley was the hostess and previou spelling bee winner and enthusiast and Steve Pemberton played the word reader, coming in with a nifty line in patter for the audience members and a nice sarcastic twist to the definiations of the words. Well done to all and, if you get the chance, I'd recommend seeing it.

And yes, I am still on the aeroplane while I write this... another five hours to go.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

'The Children's Hour' at The Comedy Theatre

On Monday night Chris took me to see 'The Children's Hour' with some big names in the cast, most notable Keira Knightly. We were up in the balcony – the front row – because of the silly prices theatres seem to think they can change because a big name is in the show. I never read reviews so rarely have any idea what is going to happen in a play I've never seen or read before, but after about half an hour I realised I'd seen a remarkably similar film years ago ('The Loudest Whisper').

It's the tale of a couple of school teachers who run a small girls school. The first half is largely introducing the characters and relationships and is dominated by the girls gossiping and bullying each other, particularly Mary who is the ringleader. She wants to get away from school and tells her rich grandmother that she'd seen the teachers kissing and that one of the teachers' aunts had called her 'unnatural'. Word soon gets round as the grandmother feels morally obliged to warn the parents of other girls that the teachers are lesbians.

The teachers go to court to clear their name, lose the case, and the second half shows us their lives after the court case, hiding away from the town in the school, waiting for something to happen but nothing does happen. One of the teachers is due to marry (Keira's role) but that is painfully called off. In the end, the other teacher admits to loving Keira “in that way” and shoots herself. The shock of her death is immediately followed by the grandmother appearing begging forgiveness, having learned the truth and realised that her grand-daughter has been lying. Too late.

The first half is dominated by the girls but the second half belongs to the adults. I didn't know what to expect from Keira Knightly, having only seen her in the 'Pirates' films and in 'Atonement' but I was impressed by her controlled performance as she slowly broke down in a spiral of paranoia. Her fiancée gone and her marriage called off, scared to leave the house, her friend admitting she does have feelings for her and then committing suicide, and all because of a stupid lie told by an unthinking and vindictive little girl. Elizabeth Moss was also good as the friend, both of them reacting to each other nicely. Ellen Burstyn played the grandmother and Carol Kane played the aunt. It felt uncomfortably long and slow in places but well worth seeing.

Just to show off, I'm writing this on a Continental Airlines B757 on my way to New York for art, shopping and more theatre. Well, it helps to fill in the time on the flight. I'll post it when I get internet access again.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Treasure Island

After reading the fascinating 'Under The Black Flag' about the real history of pirates a month or two back I decided to re-visit Robert Louis Stevenson's 'Treasure Island' and what a tremendous read it is. I haven't read it since I was about ten years old and have it fixed in my head as a children's book, but it's a thoroughly enjoyable read irrespective of age, a real adventure yarn. All you need is an imagination and you're part of the adventure with Jim Hawkins, the good doctor and that wily old pirate, Long John Silver.

The book is the source of much of our pirate lore - pirates with parrots on their shoulder, buried treasure and maps with an X marking the spot - and a template for adventure stories. The characters are memorable and deftly drawn with a few phrases or descriptions and there they are standing before you.

Next will be a viewing of the Disney film from 1950 with Robert Newton as Long John Silver. I shall count the number of times he says 'Ar, Jim lad'.

The book must have something going for it since it's been around for over 100 years, been re-published umpteen times and made into films and TV series'. I read it on my Kindle but now I'll be on the look out for a nice hard copy, preferably with period illustrations.

"Fifteen men on a dead man's chest,
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!"

Saturday, 19 March 2011

'The Most Incredible Thing' at Sadler's Wells

Last Thursday we went to see the first ever public performance of 'The Most Incredible Thing' by the Pet Shop Boys and Javier de Frutos at Sadler's Wells. It's a new ballet based on Hans Christian Andersen's story of the same name in which the King offers half his kingdom and his daughter's hand in marriage to whoever comes up with the most incredible thing.

It's a show of three halves with two intervals. The first half introduces us to the kingdom and the characters with loud thumping electrobeats opening the show and reappearing every now and then with some slower, more romantic music for the princess and our hero to dance to as they fall in love. It included the rather odd device of including a talent show in which people attempted to demonstrate the most incredible thing. The second half was an extended visual extravaganza while we saw the most incredible thing demonstrated. The third half saw the baddie steal the thing, marry the princess and imprison our hero and then all was put right again and the lovers wed.

Since it was the first night then I assume there'll be changes and improvements. The producer walked on stage at the start to say that if anything didn't work they'd stop the show and start again but, luckily, that wasn't needed. I liked the staging, I liked the scenery and costumes, I liked most of the music (not too keen on slow PSB songs). The only bit I didn't really get was the whole of the second half which was dedicated to the extravaganza viewing of the most incredible thing through a clock. It reminded me of the musical interlude section of a Madonna concert, where there's great video effects and every now and then a few dancers appear. I looked on thinking, 'wow, that's spectacular' but it didn't really go anywhere or add to the story.

Still, I enjoyed the show and it was nice to be there for the first ever performance. At the start of the third half I noticed that Neil Tennant was sitting at the end of the row in front of our seats. At the end, after the bows from the stage, he got his own ovation as he stood up to leave, which was nice. The CD of the music was also released that day so it'll be interesting to listen to it with the spectacle in front of me.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Lorraine on the bus...

I've mentioned in this blog a few times my general dissatisfaction with the lack of belief in 'causes' these days, and even the first stirrings of radicalism - the student marches in the autumn - not being about big issues, but rather about self-interest and money. Whatever happened to radical politics? Or even simple belief?

This evening I was up at Highbury and outside the tube station was a stall selling Socialist Worker newspapers - I've not seen a Socialist Worker paper in a decade or more, but there was a small group selling them and talking to people. And then when I got home I found this video in my Twitter timeline, a lady called Lorraine on the 109 bus handing out leaflets and encouraging people to support the demonstration on 26 March. As a sometime user of the 109 I have to approve.

Well done Lorraine, whoever you are, for having a belief in something and the guts to stand up on a bus and talk to people about it. I won't be there on the 26th but I wish you all the best. And if I see you on the 109 handing out leaflets I'll gladly take one.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

'Clybourne Park' at Wyndham's Theatre

Last night we went to see 'Clybourne Park' at Wyndham's Theatre in the West End and I'm very pleased we did. It won the Olivier Award for best play last week, so it was nice to find out what the fuss was about.

Clybourne Park is a district in Chicago in the late 50s, pretty houses full of middle class white folks but the house the play focuses on has seen tragedy and the son of the house has committed suicide following his return from the Korean War. The parents want to move away from the memories and it turns out that the family buying the house are black, the first black family to move into the neighbourhood. The neighbours want to persuade them not to sell and the scene is set for a drama of complex emotions. The second half is set 50 years later when a white couple want to move into what is now a black neighbourhood and re-build the house and we see a mirror of the discussion and arguments of 50 years earlier.

There's a lot more going on in the play than a depiction of racism in otherwise liberal folks. There' s a discussion about the gentrification of inner city areas, of personal integrity and of personalities. The first half is almost a comedy of manners set in 1950s American suburbs in which everyone is pleasant to each other as a matter of course until the father snaps and dares to swear, the ultimate taboo in polite society. Swearing in the second half is rife, with 'fuck this' and 'fuck that' being bandied about with gay abandon. There's a lot going on and I won't try to capture it all.

I thoroughly enjoyed the play with its mix of cringe-making awkwardness and the ribald laugh-out-loud humour. I never read reviews before seeing a play so wasn't aware of the rudeness of some of the jokes or, the killer joke, 'Why is a white woman like a tampon?'. I'll leave you to see the play to find out the punchline to that one.

The acting was superb, with the actors playing different characters in both halves of the play. I was particularly taken with Sophie Thompson who I've seen in a couple of plays before but she was masterful in this one. She was a delight as the 50s mother whose non-stop talking must have contributed to her husband's mental state. I'd also single out Lorna Brown as the servant in the first half and the community representative in the second and who mouths the killer joke. The accents were great and didn't drop once. All the cast were excellent, delivering totally believable performances and making the leap from the surface gentility of the 50s to the more relaxed 00s with ease. Well done to all.

Last night ended with a Q&A with the cast and director so it was nice listening to them talking about the play and their roles. Of course, we got the usual 'I'm going to talk for ages so you can see how clever I am' and the 'this can only possibly be of interest to me but I'm asking anyway' questions. I've yet to attend a Q&A that was worth it - because of the audience and questions - but hey ho, that's the typical Q&A.

If you get the chance, go and see this play. There's something in it for everyone, with a multi-layered script and plot and some really great performances. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Monday, 14 March 2011

'The Mikado' at The Coliseum

Last week we went to see Gilbert and Sullivan's 'The Mikado' at The Coliseum. Now, I'm not a great fan of light opera (or opera for that matter) but I fancied seeing some G&S and 'The Mikado' is one of their biggest so it made sense to see it. I remember my brother being in it at school - and, I think, they did 'HMS Pinafore' - but by the time I reached the Sixth Form we were too punk to do soppy G&S. Anyway, I'd sill like to see some more G&S.

I've only been there a couple of times before, but I quite like The Coliseum. It's a bit grand and a bit posh and that's reflected in the clientele, with a range of home counties cut-glass accents and mostly old fogies - we were probably in the younger third of the audience.

The curtain went up on a cream set that we had for the entire show, everything was cream coloured from the walls and floor to the limited furniture. It set a nice backdrop to the largely black and white costumes of the cast. That created a nice dramatic picture at first but as scene followed scene and everyone was still in black and white it lost it's edge a bit. The only thing that alleviated it in the first act was Nanki-poo wearing a brown striped blazer.

I also lost it slightly with the singing. Well, more than slightly. I should've taken the hint that it was playing at the home of the English National Opera so the singing would be full opera but I always seem to miss that detail. I'm not a great one for opera - mainly because I can't understand what they're singing about. That was definitely the case with 'The Mikado' when I spent more time reading the songs from the display above the stage rather than watching what was going on on stage. Some of the lyrics are very clever but I couldn't make out head nor tail what the singers were singing about, especially the women who seemed to have 'artistic warble' down to a T. Of course, we had Alfie Boe as our hero Nanki-poo so a goodly part of the audience was there for him.

I enjoyed the production (which is 25 years old this year) and it all seems great fun but rather too stylised in it's black and white glory and opera singing. I'd like to see it with the characters in Japanese costumes and with musical theatre voices where I can understand the words. As I say, I'd still like to see some Gilbert & Sullivan.

The Human League - 'Never Let Me Go' (Video)

Here's the video for the Human League's new single, 'Never Let Me Go'. Someone's obviously been let loose with the video effects machine, but it's a great song and the album is only a week away.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Fra Angelico's Fiesole San Domenico Altarpiece

Yesterday I went to the National Gallery to track down the Fiesole San Domenico Altarpiece by Fra Angelico. It's in Room 53 in the Sainsbury Wing.

The altarpiece is in five parts: the outside wings on each side showing various Dominican worthies in black looking in towards the centrepiece of Christ Glorified in the Court of Heaven; with the middle left wing showing The Virgin Mary with the Apostles and Other Saints kneeling and looking towards the centrepiece; and on the middle right is The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs. The colours are gloriously vibrant and inventive and the golden background and haloes simply glow. Is this how Fra Angelico sees heaven? All five panels are on the National Gallery website.

I'd like to be able to read these paintings properly, by understanding the symbols of their sainthood, but I can't. I was particularly taken with the figure of one man who looks straight out of the altarpiece at the viewer, wearing a red and gold cap and holding a page of writing - does anyone know who this is meant to be and what the writing says? He's the only figure that looks at the viewer and as such is quite noticeable. I'd love to know who he is.

I'm regularly within a few minutes walk of the National Gallery so, now that I know where the altarpiece is, it'll be easy enough to pop in for a quick gawp and top up my internal store of wonder. It's a shame the paintings aren't available as postcards but you can order prints of all five pieces if you fancy it.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Now That's What I Call Nasty

Ms RightNasty is doing her international superstar DJ thang at The Retro on 19 March to, as she says, "play records ... Add N (to X), Cabaret Voltaire, Hercules and Love Affair, Lo Fidelity All Stars, The Fall and that kind of stuff. You can buy me a drink if you want."

I'll be joining the queue at the DJ booth to ask for the mandatory SLADE track and offer a diet Coke.

She really is an international DJ having played in New York last year. Mind you, even I've DJ-ed at that booth in the past so I'm not terribly impressed... Dear reader, you will, of course, remember my triumphant 1972 set from a few years ago?

Still, you might want to drop by and test her DJing skills by asking for a really obscure electro or Northern Soul track. In the best possible taste, obviously, and very supportive.

Beth Ditto - 'I Wrote The Book'

Take a look and listen to the new Beth Ditto single from her solo EP. It's a nice tribute and works for me. The other songs on the EP are just as good. And what a lovely voice she has.

Monday, 7 March 2011

1977 And All That

A casual bit of chatter on Twitter this evening made me realise that there are some important years that (potentially) change the courses of our lives. For me, 1977 was one of those years. It marked the demarcation between hippy and punk and all that that meant.

In 1976 I was 16 and had long hair. I spent the long, hot summer reading 'The Lord of the Rings' and books about the Celtic twilight and how tree-hugging made sense. I wore (and sorry for swearing) flares. The hair got longer ...

In 1977 my hair was cut off, my jeans narrowed and I played loud bouncy music, fast guitars and drums, slower reggae bass and beats and listened to John Peel. I had seen the light.

Most of my peer group at school kept the hair and the flares and played Led Zeppelin, Steve Hillage, Pink Floyd and all that stuff. In the 80s I've got no doubt that they appreciated bands like Dire Straits and joined the Thatcher 'me' generation. Punk does seem to be a dividing line - you either loved it or hated it (like Marmite) and that sent you reeling down through the years. I obviously loved punk and it has influenced me since those heady days way back when. It set me free to be who I am. I don't bounce and pogo much any more but I'm still me and that's part of the essence of punk.

I think there's something going on in my mind. Last year at this time I posted a blog titled 'Who Are You?' in which I talked about my 'punk sensibilities' that made me rebel against black tie culture. I probably ought to work my way back through time to find out why March throws up these soul-searching blogs.

The Unthanks - 'Last'

Anyone who's fallen under the spell of Rachel and Becky Unthank will be pleased to hear there's a new album out next week. 'Last' is an odd name for an album that isn't their last album, but it's a song written by Rachel's husband (and Unthanks pianist) Adrian McNally and it was chosen as the title song. There's a nice write-up about the album and background to it here.

I'm looking forward to this album with a mixture of longing and trepidation - the Unthanks lasses have recorded some beautiful music and, on their last two albums in particular, there's at least one song per album to bring tears to the eyes. Can they do it again?

The album is out on Monday 14 March so buy it and play it lots.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Alela Diane & Wild Divine

Out of the blue, there's a new Alela Diane album due for release on 4 April and a gig in London on 12 May (ticket has been booked, obviously). The album is called 'Alela Diane & Wild Divine' where Wild Divine is the name of her new band that includes her husband and her dad. If you head on over to her website or Facebook page you can get a free download from the new album, a song called 'To Begin'.

I've seen Alela three times in the last few years, both acoustic and with a band at Shepherd's Bush on her last tour. She has some lovely songs and is always worth seeing. I'm looking forward to the new album.

Amanda Palmer - 'In My Mind'

Here's a gorgeous new video for Amanda's 'In My Mind' from the new album, 'Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under'. It's an impromptu video filmed in about 90 minutes in Newcastle, Australia, in a dilapidated old ballroom above the venue for one of Amanda's gigs last month. 'In My Mind' is one of my favourite songs from the new album and features Mr Brian Viglione on percussion. It works for me. Enjoy!

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Kate Humble & Spices

I've just watched the final episode of Kate Humble in 'The Spice Trail'. Kate has been tracking down the origins of some spices to their exotic locations in India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Morocco and Mexico. I love travel programmes, seeing other sides of the world and bits of the world we might nor normally see, so in that respect, I'm part of the natural audience for a programme like this. Kate adds the charm and smile to the programme that made it irresistible for me.

Kate usually presents programmes on farming - sheep farming in the Yorkshire Dales spring to mind - so it's nice to see her in a different environment. Last week she was created as a princess on an Indonesian island and tonight she picked saffron from purple crocuses.

I've enjoyed the series and I hope to see Kate go on more adventures to track down the exotic and the glorious.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Jane Russell, Sex, Genitals and More Sex

Have I got your attention?

It was a surprise to hear of the death of Jane Russell this morning. I won't claim to be a fan or anything, and, to be honest, I didn't even know she was still alive, but it's sad nonetheless. I grew up with Jane appearing in films that were invariably shown on a Sunday afternoon so it was odd to hear the news reports starting off with the words, 'Sex symbol, Jane Russell, has died ...' or words to that effect. It made me think (and that's generally dangerous).

'Sex symbol' is an odd phrase. It sort of boils someone's life down to being a sack of flesh filled and bulging in the right places, nothing about talent or skill, just being born with the right shape. Of course, these days, the right shape can be bought, but not back then, or at least not easily. I think of Jane Russell as an actress with a sharp wit as well as big boobs. Not a great actress, but more than a sack of flesh.

That led me to thinking about my recent trip to Florence and being surrounded by nude statues and paintings all over the city when being naked didn't necessarily equate to sex. The human body can be beautiful without being arousing or sexual. Is there anything more beautiful than the human body?

Thinking about the array of statues I saw in Florence, all were carefully muscled and often presented in motion but none of them had sexual characteristics (for that read genitals and breasts) that were particularly noticeable. Oddly, almost all (if not all) of the men had rather small genitals and all the women had small breasts. Why is that? Is that odd or have we simply skewed our view of nakedness and sexual characteristics due to the availability of modern porn and generic advertising that relies on the body? Am I a victim of advertising?

It did make me start to wonder whether advertising is really affecting how we view the world and the people in it. Now, I don't really expect every woman to have breasts like Jordan but they all seemed so pubescent in the statues I saw - am I unconsciously assuming big equates to 'normal'? Similarly with the male genitals, or perhaps I'm just feeling superior in comparison.

Even I've got confused about what I want to say. But it gives me an excuse to post this photo of Hercules having his testicles grabbed during a wrestling match. Big body, small genitals. I don't know who he's wrestling or why it's acceptable to grab your opponent by the balls before he throws you to the floor, but I felt a need to share. I also felt a need to say 'ouch'.

I suppose what I'm saying is that it's sad for anyone's life to be boiled down to being a sex symbol. Jane Russell was 89 and was a sex symbol - as opposed to being an actress - for just a few years. Despite the nakedness of previous ages, we seem to have perfected the art of naked equating to sex. It doesn't, but it seems to be locked into our minds and that's sad. One of the most beautiful things in the world and we're not allowed to enjoy looking at it - the bodies of our fellow people. I won't include myself in that (you really don't want to see me naked, honest).