Saturday, 29 June 2013

Amanda Palmer at Glastonbury 2013 [Part 1]

This is Glastonbury weekend, the biggest music festival in the world, and most of the talk is about The Rolling Stones playing tonight. I'm more interested in Amanda Palmer playing her first Glastonbury yesterday afternoon with The Grand Theft Orchestra. Not much has emerged yet about her set but here's a short video of her introducing the show and explaining that their stage costumes and instruments have gone missing after flying in from America:

Amanda tweeted a photo before she went on stage yesterday showing that she'd written 'YES' across her stomach. She also tweeted before going on stage that she'd met Liam Gallagher and explained the plot of her song 'Oasis' to him and said, 'he was amused'. I'll bet!

There are a few photos of Amanda on stage that indicate she had a 'wardrobe malfunction', but I'm sure that won't upset Amanda. Oddly enough, the 'malfunction' is what was picked up by the press in the shape of the Daily Mail (see here) which, in typical fashion quoted her age and said she was bisexual but failed to mention her music or that she was married. The headline, 'Making a boob of herself' indicates how little the journo knows about Amanda... but at least it published four photos which is a good thing.

Amanda's supposed to be playing with Billy Bragg in the Left Field this afternoon so, hopefully, we'll see more of her.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Alela Diane - 'About Farewell'

Alela Diane has a new album due out in July and this is the title track, 'About Farewell'. She's given us a beautiful sadness, looking straight into the face of a relationship that's run its course and saying farewell.

The album is supposed to be mainly about Alela's recent divorce but also explores her relationships over the past ten years. The sound goes back to the simplicity of her first album focusing on voice and guitar with an emphasis on words - always listen to the words in an Alela song.

I first came across Alela in 2007 and saw her at a little club in Kilburn called The Luminaire, just her and another guitarist. I think that's when I fell in love with her voice and her words, the simplicity of the music of her storytelling. Since then I've see her at the Roundhouse and at Shepherd's Bush and looked forward to each new album.

If you get the chance, see Alela play live and listen to her music.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Yoko Ono's Meltdown 2013

The annual Meltdown festival takes place on the Southbank in London every summer, between June and August, and each year is curated by one of the great and good. Previous Meltdown's have been curated by David Bowie, Morrissey, Anthony Hegarty, Ray Davies, Patti Smith, Richard Thompson and a range of other artists over the years. 2013 was the turn of Yoko Ono.

Yoko was a guest at Patti Smith's and Ornette Coleman's Meltdown festivals so it was about time she had her own festival and what a festival! She, of course, had to include political activism and brought over two members of Pussy Riot from Russia and Peter Tatchell to do a talk, she gave us the Silent Disco (DJs played music into wireless headphones for the dancers to groove along to while we looked on puzzled and guessing what songs were being played), Peaches re-created Yoko's 'Cut Piece', the John Lennon Educational Bus was there and a host of other events and performances as well as the big shows. The other morning Yoko tweeted us to join her on the roof of the Queen Elizabeth Hall at sunrise to enjoy the birds singing.

This year I attended more shows than in previous years. I saw the Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band open the festival (and I treasure my Onochord), saw Siouxsie and Viv Albertine twice, saw the powerful 'Battleship Potemkin' with a soundtrack by Pet Shop Boys, Patti Smith give us an evening of words and music, and Marianne Faithfull and Boy George both did gorgeous singing and talking. Ten days and nights of art in all it's various forms, all down to Yoko.

It culminated with a show I didn't see, a live recreation of John and Yoko's 'Double Fantasy' LP with music provided by Sean Ono Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band and guest vocals from Peaches, Patrick Woolf, Lene Lovitch, Patti Smith, Boy George and Siouxsie amongst others. The encore was Yoko and Siouxsie singing 'Walking on Thin Ice'.

All I can say is wow, what a festival! It wore me out so I hope Yoko is going to have a break when she finally gets home. She was tweeting links to videos of the shows this morning so she's still being active. She also tweeted Boy George this morning to say he's looking much younger than she remembered and asked if he was in love. I really love it that Yoko can ask questions like that. She's a treasure.

Thank you, Yoko, for a great Meltdown that brought so many of my favourites to the Southbank to play. I wish I'd met you to say 'thank you' personally. I tied a wish to one of your wish trees at the Serpentine Gallery last year and it came true, for which thank you. You've raised the bar for Meltdown - that's going to be a challenge for whoever does it next year!

Thank you, Yoko!

Boy George at Meltdown 2013

Boy George played at the Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of Yoko's Meltdown 2013 festival. His was the penultimate show with Yoko's 'Double Fantasy' show at the Royal Festival Hall closing the festival (just as she'd opened it ten days earlier with her Plastic Ono Band) in which he was also planning to sing (which explained the early start to the show).

I've seen George a few times over the past decade when he invariably wears his BeRude clothes, almost always a black suit with giant scarabs crawling over it or shiny skulls. It's nice to see he's moved on and great to see the new slimmed down George with his cheeky little beard and he looks much younger too. He's a great advert for a healthy lifestyle.

With a five-piece backing band and three backing singers, George strode on stage, the very picture of confidence, an artist who knows what he's doing and can do it with consummate ease. Instead of the greatest hits show I, and probably everyone else there, was expecting, he launched into a series of new songs, of three minute pop songs, and they sounded good. They're from his new album that will be released in, I think, November 2013 and what a great way to hear them first. The two that stick in the memory after a first listen are 'My God Is Bigger Than Your God' and 'Death of Samantha' (his cover of Yoko's song).

We did, of course, get some of the hits as well, including 'Do You Really Want To Hurt Me' and 'Karma Chameleon' (will he ever be allowed to stop playing those two?) along with 'Victims', 'Church of the Poisoned Mind', 'Everything I Own' and 'Satan's Butterfly Ball'. His voice was on top form and he moved about the stage with such ease, laughing and joking with the audience. It was a delight to see him happy and enjoying himself, telling us about the new album and a tour to be announced in the next day or so. I'm looking forward to both.

I don't know how George knows Yoko but it's great that she invited him to do Meltdown and it was lovely to see Yoko tweet him today commenting that he looks much younger and asks if he's in love? I smiled at that.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Marianne Faithfull at Meltdown 2013

Marianne Faithfull, accompanied by Bill Frisell on guitar, played at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last night as part of Yoko Ono's Meltdown. Marianne did talking and singing and Bill did guitar playing and miscellaneous guitar fanciness. No band this time.

Marianne had a rapturous welcome and launched in 'Broken English' to open her show. She was on for about 1.5 hours and it was very much a songwriters set with Marianne name checking the writers of the songs and a few words about them or her response to them. It was nice hearing her talk about the songs she sings and mentioned an album due out next year that she's making with Bill and with Steve Earle.

She sang three songs from 'Broken English' and the rest were from the 80s onwards with two exceptions. She sang her first hit from 49 years ago, a song she proudly said was written for her but not who wrote it (although we all know), 'As Tears Go By', and she gave us a touching version, almost of a mature woman looking back at her younger self. I couldn't help but think of her with her hair cut short for the video of 'We Love You' while she sung that song.

She also gave us 'Rich Kid Blues', a song she said she has only recently come to terms with since it reminded her too much of her bleak years as a heroin addict living rough in London. For some obscure reason mentioning being a heroin addict brought cheers from some misguided people at the back of the hall - Marianne certainly wasn't proud of it and looked pained.

At one point she lit up a cigarette on stage (which also brought cheers) because she needed it and then realised she had nowhere to stub it out so dropped it in her glass of water. She said it was due to the emotion of the show and I believe her. She also said that she hates being disapproved of by Yoko for smoking so she pretends she's given up smoking when she's with Yoko. Cat's out of the bag Marianne!

People were shouting out the songs they wanted to hear and that annoyed me. Marianne has probably spent weeks deciding on just the right running order so she's hardly likely to drop all that planning and practicing with Bill to play the song you want. So why do it? And why do people turn up late for gigs with clearly advertised start times? And by late I mean an hour late. What's that about? Get a watch!

Favourite songs were 'Vagabond Ways', 'Crazy Love', 'As Tears Go By', 'Tower of Song' and 'Strange Weather' (which was the encore). I also liked 'Boulevard of Broken Dreams', 'In Germany Before The War' and 'She'.

I will always love the 'Broken English' album which I remember buying on cassette way back when and she sang three songs from it - 'Broken English' opened the show, 'Working Class hero' which she said she'd better get right because it was Yoko's Meltdown, and 'Ballad of Lucy Jordan' which closed the show - her version of the song is perfect, a vision of bleak loveliness, sadness and hopefulness.

By the end of the show she seemed to be more relaxed and welcomed the standing ovation. I look forward to seeing Marianne play live again, hopefully next year to promote the new album.

Patti Smith at Meltdown 2013

Patti Smith returned to the Meltdown festival this week at the invitation of Yoko Ono (who was in the audience). Patti played in the Purcell Room in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, a small, intimate gig of words, music, chat and giggling. Patti's band were her daughter on piano and son on guitar and she played guitar and food-tapping (a much under-rated form of percussion). The signs outside said 'no photography' so I didn't but lots of other people ignored the signs. I sometimes do as I'm told.

We were treated to Patti reading some of her poems and extracts from 'Just Kids', her book about her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe. She read a few passages from the book, including the letter she wrote to him that he died before reading. My favourite passage was Christmas night in 1969 when they walked up to Times Square to see the big poster saying, 'War Is Over if you want it, Happy Christmas from John and Yoko' since Yoko was in the audience sitting a few rows in front of me. Patti ended by saying they knew the 70s would be their decade and it was.

Patti sung some of her songs as well, with the stripped back sound of just piano and guitar which made them sound quite different to the driving rock sound we're used to hearing from her. She sang, 'Beneath The Southern Cross', 'Pissing in a River', 'My Blakean Year' and others. Before singing the mandatory 'Because The Night' (as her son said, it's her 'hit') she told us the story of waiting for her boyfriend - Fred, before they married - to ring her long distance and while waiting, she listened to the tape given her by Bruce Springsteen and wrote the lyrics to what became 'Because The Night' ("waiting for the telephone" makes sense now!).

We had a big sing along to 'People Have The Power' and to 'Banga' but my favourite was 'Ghost Dance' seeing Patti shake her hands as she shook out the ghost dance. It was eerie and almost shamanic seeing her put herself into the song and live it as she sang.

We also had her chatting to her children, reminding them that she would always have the upper hand since she changed their diapers. There was a short question and answer session and, when someone asked whether there was anything left that she wanted to do she replied by saying have you ever been in a library? There are millions of things she still wants to do, books to read, smiles to see, even shopping... and then she stopped and said, 'well, maybe not shopping' which brought out laughter from around the room. She's a really funny and giggly thing when she's given the space and it was lovely to see Patti in that mood.

Thank you Patti - until next time!

And here's *my* photo of Patti, taken three years ago at her signing of 'Just Kids' in Foyles on the Southbank. She was very gracious and patient that day with the hoards standing in line for a few seconds to be with her. And yes, I did ask if I could take the photo.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Pet Shop Boys at The O2 Arena

On Tuesday we went to see those Pet Shop Boys and their new 'Electric' show at the big barn that is the O2 Arena (it was called the North Greenwich Arena during the Olympics). The lads have a new album out in July (also called 'Electric') so it was a chance to hear some of the new music before it's released. A ever, they delivered a spectacular show and had an astonishing light show.

As is often the case at the O2 we were seated miles from the stage so saw little people moving around and it was easier to see the close ups on the video screens. Chris, of course, stood behind his keyboards while Neil traversed the stage, usually accompanied by dancers. The lack of sight was made up by the spectacle of the show and it seems like the lads have re-discovered lasers in a big way since we were treated to some spectacular visuals. The sound was excellent and the new songs have a banging beat going on that made my foot tap tap tap which is encouraging for the new album.

There were some odd sequences with dancers (and, at one point, PSB too) wearing horned head-dresses that I assume is something to do with the new album but it made little sense to me. Some of the other costumes were more fun, especially Chris coming on wearing a glitter-ball as a helmet and sending shards of light around the arena and Chris wearing a mirrored bowler hat that didn't work as well as Chris's. Both are obviously influenced by the mirrored top hat of Sir Noddy Holder!

While the new songs sound good it was the hits that got me (and most of the crowd) excited. We were treated to 'Opportunities', 'Suburbia', 'Integral' and 'Domino Dancing'. My favourites were 'Rent', 'Love, etc', 'It's A Sin', 'Always On My Mind' and a big version of 'Go West'. The encore was (of course) 'West End Girls' with a follow-up of 'Vocal', the new single.

It's a show designed to be filmed and released as a DVD. A lot of money has obviously gone into it so I expect a live album/DVD pack like for the 'Pandemonium' tour. I'll be disappointed if we don't get it!

Siouxsie & Viv Part II - The Return - Meltdown 2013

On Monday I returned to the Royal Festival Hall to see the second gig from Siouxsie who, once again, was supported by Viv Albertine.

Viv played the same set as when she played on Saturday, including the two new songs only available on her double vinyl version of the 'The Vermillion Border'. She played:

Don't Believe
If Love
The False Heart
In Vitro
Still England (short version)
Life's Too Short To Be Shy
Couples Are Creepy
I Want More
Confessions Of A MILF

Viv had the same band as on Saturday with the addition of a violinist whose name I didn't catch. Laura (aka She Makes War) was still bouncing around on bass. They make a great sound and it's lovely to hear Viv live with a five-piece band around her. I loved her introducing the opening love songs with a reference to the New York Dolls, 'when I say I'm in love you better believe I'm in love L.U.V.'.

After the gig ended and everyone was leaving I saw Viv in the bar and headed straight over to say 'hello' - how could I not? I mentioned that I'd seen her at the 12 Bar gig in January and that I'd bought the vinyl LP on Saturday. She was a bit surprised at that since she didn't know it was out and asked me if it was on red vinyl, to which I replied yes. I prefer to think of it as vermillion coloured vinyl. I then left her to enjoy her night out with friends but it was great to meet her. She's a lovely person.

After Viv it was time for the majesty that is Siouxsie. Siouxsie also played the same set as on Saturday - the whole of 'Kaleidoscope' and a hits section - but with the addition of a second encore with 'Spellbound'. Siouxsie played:

Happy House
Lunar Camel
Desert Kisses
Red Light
Paradise Place
Eve White/Eve Black
Arabian Knights
Dear Prudence
Cities In Dust
Face to Face
Careless Love
Here Comes That Day
Into A Swan

It was great to see Siouxsie again, strutting round that stage and pulling shapes, once again dressed in white vinyl. Some pathetic people down the front kept launching balloons at her for some reason and she ignored them but during 'Dessert Kisses' she leaned down to shout 'fuck off' at them and, when someone tried to climb on stage she simply kicked them off and kept on singing. That's Siouxsie! After the song she said, 'why do people always have to piss me off during a slow dreamy ballad?' adding that it was probably one of her family who were in to see her tonight. At the start of 'Skin' she said that this was the kind of song in which to piss her off!

She again picked up her guitar to play 'Paradise Place' and again took up her bells to add percussion to 'Israel'. During 'Careless Love' she picked up one of the hats that had been thrown on stage and wore it during the song. After an intense 'Into A Swan' Siouxsie and the band left the stage and the lights stayed down. This didn't happen on Saturday so what was happening? Siouxsie then came back out to give us an exhilarating 'Spellbound', thats what! What an exhausting evening that was!

Thank you Siouxsie and thank you Viv!

Two American Georges

I've been to exhibitions by two American artists I've never heard of in the last month or so. Firstly, there was a retrospective of George Bellows at the Royal Academy of Arts and yesterday I went to the exhibition of George Catlin's portraits of Native Americans from around the 1830s. The Bellows exhibition has already closed and the Catlin exhibition closes this weekend.

George Bellows is, we're told, famous in America for his paintings of boxers in the early 1900s and one of them featured on the poster for the exhibition. Not being a fan of men hitting each other in the name of sport it didn't do much to attract me but he did so much more than boxing paintings. He painted scenes of New York in the early years of the 20th Century, helping to create an image of what New York was all about, the hustle and bustle, the parks, snow and ice, queues of men waiting for work, the countryside of New York state and much more.

I like his sort of chunky realism with blocky people filling his paintings. He liked crowds and he didn't like detail. He doesn't seem to really do faces but he likes lots of bodies to fill his paintings. Many of them are filled to bursting with people in different moods and poses. He also seemed to like horses but didn't quite get the hang of how to paint their heads.

One of my favourites was a painting of a busy street scene in New York with sky scrapers being built in the background and the foreground is full of traffic and people. He clearly loved his real subject - New York - giving over most of the painting to sketching out the buildings and helping to create that classic image of New York City.

He also liked snow and painted many pictures of snow in various guises, as the thing making you shiver waiting in line for a job, turning the Hudson River white, snowy landscapes and the winter fun of skating. He wrote, "I must always paint the snow at least once a year."

I liked this painting of ice skating on a frozen lake with skaters in the background and people standing round watching in the foreground. The colours of the clothes of the mother and daughter really stand out while the movement of the skaters behind them is mesmerising. The snowy hills in the background make me wonder where this is and where all the people have come from.

He also painted some painful paintings based on World War I propaganda designed to bring America into the war. Four of these were included in the exhibition and I couldn't look at them since they shrieked pain and woe. I immediately thought they represented his 'Guernica' moment and moved on.

In 1920 he wrote: "Try everything that can be done. Be deliberate. Be spontaneous. Be thoughtful and painstaking. Be abandoned and impulsive. Learn your own possibilities."

George died at the age of 42 in 1925 and his later works were starting to move towards a more dreamy, surrealistic phase so who knows what he might have achieved if he'd lived. He wasn't scared to experiment and push his art forward so it's easy to speculate but who knows? I'm pleased I've been introduced to Mr Bellows.

The second artist is also a George, this time George Catlin. He was active around the 1830s and specialised in painting Native Americans. His exhibition is called 'American Indian Portraits' and that's exactly what it is, lots of portraits of Native Americans in all their finery and a few group scenes.

The narrative around the exhibition (and the catalogue book) is that George was recording the culture of Native American peoples for posterity but towards the end of the exhibition we're told that he brought a troupe of people from one nation over to Europe to put on shows to entertain his rich patrons. That sort of moves him from the role of angel to exploitation so I'm not entirely sure what I think of him. But the portraits are fascinating.

His paintings are primitive (as befits a trained lawyer who wants to break out of his shackles) and, as the name of the exhibition suggests, he focuses on portraits - head and shoulders and whatever finery his sitters wore. It's all quite fascinating but when I looked into the eyes of the models I saw sadness. Their way of life has gone and who remembers their ways today?

The paintings are all heavily captioned with the name of the sitter, some of their background and which tribe they were from. This young man, for example, was called Wash-ka-mon-ya, or Fast Dancer, and was one of the troupe of performers Catlin brought to perform in London and Paris in 1844-45. I wonder what he thought about coming to Europe with its big, dirty cities, with the jewels of the rich and the grinding poverty of the poor. Did he like it or did he yearn for the open spaces of his home? There are dozens of individual stories behind these portraits.

It's a fascinating exhibition that I managed to catch just days before it closed. It's good to see those faces, those dancers and hunters, see the buffalo and those folks long gone who posed for George. When he presented his paintings he hung them close together, frame to frame, for impact and that's how they were hung in the Smithsonian and how 24 are hung at the National Portrait Gallery. It creates a great impact walking into that room and seeing all those faces looking back at you.

I wonder if any of them ever dreamed we would look upon their faces and muse about their lives nearly 200 years later? 

Friday, 21 June 2013

Patti LuPone - Leicester Square Theatre

This evening I was treated to a ticket to see Patti LuPone play a rare show in London, in the middle of the third row, no less. She's doing a short run of music and chat, singing her big songs and talking about her career with Seth Rudetsky.

I saw Patti in 'Gypsy' on Broadway in 2008 but that's really all I know about her, other than she's a big musical theatre star on both sides of the Atlantic. Clearly, I was in a minority in the audience since everyone seemed to know and love every song. She was interviewed by Seth who also played the piano for her songs and they work well together.

Patti talks about the shows she's been in - the successes and failures - and sings some of her biggest songs at random. She tells the story of her career in a series of memories prompted by Seth's questions, going off at tangents as she remembers anecdotes and experiences. She's got a nice line in name dropping patter.

The show isn't rehearsed (so we're told) with Seth suggesting songs at random and a couple of times Patti had to be reminded of the lyrics or held the lyrics as she sang. We had songs from all her big shows as well as some randoms from her cabaret shows, like 'I Regret Everything' from her Piaf show. Everyone seemed to get very excited about her singing songs from 'Evita', 'Les Miserables' and from 'Sunset Boulevard' but my favourite was a song from Sondheim's 'Company'.

Patti's second encore song was 'Ladies Who Lunch' at the start of which she was given a martini to sip on. She sang it slightly sloshed as a woman with too much money and time to kill, very believable and then, at the end of the song, she threw the contents of her glass over the audience in the front rows, including me! Patti LuPone threw her martini over me! Well, it was just water, really, but I'll remember it as martini. A rather damp me applauded.

Patti has an astonishing voice and the tales to go with it so, if you get the chance, go and see her. Who knows when she'll be back in London?

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Pet Shop Boys 'Battleship Potemkin' - Meltdown 2013

This evening I was lucky enough to see the 1925 film, 'Battleship Potemkin' with the Pet Shop Boys soundtrack at the British Film Institute as part of Yoko Ono's Meltdown. Apparently this was a world first to see the film with the soundtrack as a film, rather than as a PSB performance.

It opened with a 20 minute interview with Neil Tennant about how they came to write the soundtrack and stage it with a full orchestra, first in London and then in other cities around Europe. It sounds like an amazing challenge and he described watching the film on DVD for the first time with Chris Lowe at his home in Durham with the sound turned off so they wouldn't be influenced by the existing soundtrack.  Neil then took his seat in the audience and the film started.

'Battleship Potemkin' is a silent film from 1925 with a cast of thousands (literally). It is masterfully directed by Sergei Eisenstein and tells the tale of the rebellion of the crew of the battleship in 1905 in support of the first Russian revolution, their support by the people of Odessa who are cruelly mowed down by Cossack bullets  and ends on the high of the battleship sailing unharmed through the squadron of ships sent to end its rebellion. I've never seen it before but it was marvellous.

It's a powerful film with so much going on I wouldn't dream of listing all of it. So many film techniques were used in this film and have been copied ever since. Like the baby in the pram bouncing down the Odessa steps, the Cossacks marching relentlessly down the steps like Cybermen, close-ups of maggots in the meat and so much more. At one level a simple story and at another a metaphor for so much more. A tale of minor grievances escalating into nationwide revolution. I was mightily impressed.

At the BFI you get a printed A4 narrative about films and the cast as you go in and so I am pleased to name some of my favourites in the film. All probably long-ago left us, but their names and images live on.  I liked:

- Aleksandr Antonov as Vakulinchuk, the sailor who starts the rebellion on the battleship and whose dead body on the pier of Odessa starts the revolution in the city;
- Beatrice Vitoldi as the 'woman with a pram' who is shot down by the Cossacks on the Odessa steps and who looked like a young Siouxsie;
- Propkopenko as the mother of the boy who is shot on the steps and carries his body boldly towards the Cossacks only to be shot herself; and
- N. Poltavtseva as the teacher with pince-nez who encourages people to approach the Cossacks as brothers and ask them to stop shooting only to be shot down herself.

They gave some powerful performances and I want their names recorded in this blog. It is a film of terrible beauty and power.

And the music? Pet Shop Boys have done themselves proud, with the soundtrack adding another level to the film. My favourite section was when the revolution whipped itself up to the music of 'Nyet' which was instantly re-named 'Disco Revolution'. Another favourite section was when the battleship sailed out to engage the squadron of ships sent to capture it and the music slowly speeded up the closer they came to ultimate engagement... and I won't tell you what happened next.

Thank you to PSB for taking on the challenge of writing the soundtrack ten years ago and thank you to Yoko for adding this to Meltdown. I've had my eyes and ears opened. That's a good thing.