Friday, 25 February 2011

"'NOW WE ARE REVOLUTIONARIES..."


Amal Bagaigis of Benghazi, Libya, commented "we started just as lawyers looking for our rights and now we are revolutionaries. And we don't know how to manage. We want to have our own face. For 42 years we have this kind of babarianism. We now want to live."
Conversely, Colonel Gaddafi has claimed the protests to be caused by al Quaida spiking young people’s drinks with hallucinogenic drugs. (Reuters) As yet, this theory does not seem to enjoy widespread support among independent analysts.

Many commentators in the West have wished for the uprisings to spread to Iran. (Which, to some degree, they already have.) Ahmadinajad, conversely, has predicted they will spread to Europe and the US, claiming “the world is on the verge of big developments. Changes will be forthcoming and will engulf the whole world from Asia to Africa and from Europe to North America... it’s a wave that’s coming.” (Yahoo News)

For once we can hope both sides are right...

Thursday, 24 February 2011

RICHARD THOMPSON (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES CONTD.)

Brighton Dome, Thurs 3rd Feb (Photo below by Anthony Pepitone)


It’s not strictly true to say that Richard Thompson was the first act I ever saw live. For one thing, it was during the days of Richard and Linda Thompson. For another, they were playing first support to Fairport Convention at the Cropredy Festival, to which I went with my Dad sometime near the start of the Eighties. So my first band was either Fairport themselves, or one of the long-forgotten second-supporters who filled that summer’s afternoon. (We watched them whilst eating sandwiches out of the tupperware tub usually reserved for holidays. But I digress...)

Since then I think I may have seen him at the evenly paced rate of once a decade. Performing solo in the Nineties, then doing the Thousand Years of Song thing a few years ago. But since that long-gone Oxfordshire field, this is the first time I’ve seen him with a full band.

With a back catalogue rivals would swap eye teeth for, Thompson casually announces the whole first half of the set will be given over to the new album, ’Dream Attic.’ I have, I will confess a patchy knowledge of his oeuvre, having flitted between the commonly accepted peaks. (Well there are over twenty albums to catch up on, even if you exclude the Fairport stuff, the collaborations and the soundtracks.) So this may be the equivalent of reaching in and pulling out a random disc for trial... If so, his average is pretty high indeed, for it held my attention right the way through. I could well have believed it to be some 'best-of' selection.

It transpires that this new album was actually recorded live. (I doubt there to be many live albums of entirely new songs.) Though the stated purpose of this was to avoid too much rehearsing the live effect was curiously almost the opposite of Patti Smith’s – as tight as she was loose. Perhaps through having toured the US first, the band were as well-rehearsed as anything you’ve ever heard, you could have set your watch to them. They’d just been learning on the job.

Record shops like to slot his wares neatly into the ‘folk’ section of their establishments. Essentially smallholders themselves, they picture him staking out his turf with a picket fence. (And indeed, for my part, I will doubtless give this write-up a ‘folk’ tag-word prior to posting.) But Thompson himself clearly spies the musical landscape more like a paraglider, floating across it to wherever the wind and his fancy takes him.

The common denominator is probably a rootsy kind of rock, but the band race through styles and instruments as if oblivious to all distinctions. ‘Big Sun Falling In the River’ is like a sequel to the Kinks’ ‘Waterloo Sunset.’ Another number turns out to have a folk reel nested within it, like the yolk running inside an egg.

Yet, for all that, what Thompson is truly the master of is duende. This Spanish term is sometimes translated as “soul” but a better definition might be “exquisite sadness.” It seems peculiar indeed that we lack a direct English word for the feeling I associate more with English folk, that everything is bound up with it’s opposite, that joy must always border sorrow and vice versa. More than once I wondered if I was hearing a love or an anti-love song, before realising that was the very point.

Though the notoriously dour tone of his songs sometimes turns to the bleak (a running joke to fans and performer alike), they are never defeatist but instead defiant or even transcendent. There’s quite often humour, though normally of the blackest hue. (Confuse duende not with Sixth Form whingers such as Radiohead!) This is perhaps most evident in the timbre of Thompson’s voice, which is tremulous without ever sounding affected. (Sandy Denny is generally thought of as “the voice” of the Fairport crowd, eclipsing the value of Thompson’s.)

So strong, in fact, is the new album that when weakness hit it was in the second half. Thompson is of course known as a singer, songwriter and guitarist. Fairport were famously taken up when Joe Boyd heard a Thompson solo. So solos are something to expect. And, though I have a post-punk disdain of solos, I don’t normally find Thompson’s too annoying, too show-offy. But, letting their hair down towards the end of the evening, the band indulged in the anathema practise of relay soloing! It was like too many buses turning up at the same time, after you had already walked the whole way and spied home.

Despite his dour subject matter, Thompson cuts an avuncular stage presence. At one point he boasts cheerily of his first solo album being the worst-selling in Warner’s history. “But are they laughing now?” he asks us. “Yes,” he reassures. “They are.” His career arc went from such stalling beginnings to national treasure stage without necessarily having the success bit in the middle. He’s regularly given slaps on the back instead of sales, he was recently given (no, really!) the Order of the British Empire and the new album is up for a Grammy.

The venue is near full, as it has been for previous decades. But his audience seems confined to a demographic. I don’t often feel younger and less middle class than the average gig attendee, and I am not at all sure I like the feeling. Perhaps I am only here due to my Dad’s efforts, in taking me to that Oxfordshire field back in the old times.

Perhaps that is the downside of having an OBE pinned on you, younger folks feel that at most they need doff a cap in your direction. The Patti Smith gig had a notably broader clientele. And yet musically Thompson could not be a better antidote to the notion that folk is all old codgers whining into their real ale about things not being what they were. Though I was yet to go and see Blyth Power (more of them anon), surely there is space for some audience crossover there.



Coming soon! Some gig-going adventures...

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

PATTI SMITH (GIG GOING ADVENTURES CONTD.)

(De Le Warr Pavilion, Bexhill, Fri 28th Jan)


There’s nothing you could possibly compare Patti Smith gigs to except each other, so we may as well get started. True to form, each of the three times I’ve seen her has had a character all it’s own, not just been a greatest-hits set-list in a rejigged order. Each of these has had its ups and downs, but then things are better that way.

First time, now nearly a decade ago, she played a hungry, ballsy set, which grabbed you by the lapels to announce “I’m back!” Her determination to take things forward, like she was burning up her back catalogue for fuel, was sometimes a little constrained by the pick-up band struggling to keep up.

Next she was reunited with many of her old cohorts (Lenny Kaye, Tom Verlaine and all), a gathering of the great and good to the point where there could have been a Masters At Work sign hung over the stage. This was a sight to behold indeed, but like any coin had its underside. At times it became indulgent in the wrong way. There were a couple of covers in particular which, delivered in singalong fashion, became not crowd-pleasing so much as luvvyish - like a bad episode of Jools Holland.

And then there was this most recent bash...

Like many, Smith is as significant for what she didn’t do as what she did. A classic example must be the long break she took from music-making, releasing but one album over a fifteen-year period, and not upping the frequency till she felt like it again. Such indifference to careerism seems innate in her. When a heckler asks her when the new album’s out she takes mock umbrage. (“What am I, Nostradamus? You sound like my record company, man.”) ...which is of course partly why we’re here – we’re here because if she is, it means she wants to be!

It was notable that the most referenced period was around this impasse, as if the non-years merely compressed in her mind. Yet the gig seem mostly based around the (for want of a better word) ‘come-back’ album, 1996’s ’Gone Again.’ This wasn’t just the most visited, the acoustic line-up reflected it’s softer tones and more spiritual themes. (Rather than the harder sound and more political lyrics of subsequent albums.) It would be hard to determine whether the sound determined the set-list or vice versa, though I’d guess at the second.

As fate would have it, this is among my favourites of her albums. Though starting out as a punk rocker, Smith always had a voice for acoustic music. It has a tremulous quality which seems ready-set for the open tunings of folk; just listen to the way she pronounces “I”s. (Most obviously on the chorus of ’Gloria.’)

Two ad-libs from different gigs end up epitomising their differences. With Lenny Kaye, after receiving another rapt round of applause she explained “I been practisin’.” This time she introduces ‘Gloria’ by saying “we didn’t rehearse this next one much. Matter of fact, we didn’t rehearse anything very much!”

Frankly, it sounds under-rehearsed – but not necessarily in a bad way. Smith’s songs tend to be about transformation, taking place in a world in flux. The boy is less likely to get the girl than turn into a bird. (Unless he does get the girl but in so doing they both turn into horses. Or rivers. Or the like.) Her fondness for extemporising live, for eschewing fixed versions of songs, must be related to this.

Nothing tonight bursts into flows of free-form improvisatory words and music like it might have in the old days. But the songs are open, loose-jointed, of the moment. Dammit, the word for the way they sound is ”live!” We’ve just got un-used to live music sounding that way. With her daughter on piano and band member Patrick Wolf “picked up in London” it feels less like a formal concert than a night round Aunty Patti’s place, where the feeling comes over everyone to see if they can remember the old songs.

Too much rehearsal, just like too much musicianship, can pack-drill a song into submission, make it a mechanised simulcara of itself. “Recitals” are supposed to belong to classical music, but rock bands sometimes just don’t want to confess to the name. Yet under-rehearsed isn’t automatically a good thing either – it can just mean that people end up not very well rehearsed. And we get some of that too...

The end result is a thing thrown to extremes, working very well indeed then the next minute barely functional. ‘Wing’ winged it in just about every sense of the word. During ‘Birdland’s celebrated “go up” sequence, there’s no way any of us remained in our seats – we really did get swept up with the greased tractors, ravens, UFOs and all the rest of that stuff. But ‘Paths That Cross’ was more walk-through than flight, as if the band were too focused on their fretboards and getting through it to start looking up.

After first seeing Smith I commented: “Live, she comes across a somewhat double-edged character. Partly the brassy NY punk poetess of legend, bashing at guitars and putting down hecklers. But she’s part mischievous child, all wide eyes and impish grins.” (I’d paste the link but it’s from Lucid Frenzy’s Olde Print Days.) To reduce it to rather crude terms, the punk pioneer is also half-hippy. Huge fan of ’Gone Again’ as I am, served live it did throw the emphasis on Smith the wide-eyed visionary. At which point I find I rather like both characters co-existing.

I have to confess to not being entirely sure what to make of this feeling. Are ‘punk’ and ‘hippy’ labels for elements which only become a useful substance in combination, like hydrogen and oxygen producing water? Or is one or the other just like a substance which is best taken in dilution, like lemon squash? Whichever, I find the two have to co-exist somehow. An acoustic, ‘visionary’ set followed by an electric ‘punk’ one wouldn’t do it at all.

Whichever, I did find the less adulterated hippyness to at times draw out the cynic in me. In an admittedly off-the-cuff remark, after playing ‘Ghost Dance’, she exulted that Hopi indians have a name with “hope” in it. Well not in theirlanguage, the language that is actually endangered! (It is quite possible years of Brighton life, dodging dreadlocks and didgeridoos, have given me a hair trigger for hippyshit.)

In short, of the three times I’ve seen Smith the last might be the least. Yet at the same time it’s great that she’s stuck to her guns in giving something I’ve not seen her do before, and if it had it’s ups and downs... oh, you know! The highpoints could keep me going for years – or until the next time she’s around. (Of course I’d see her again in a heartbeat.) Any Smith gig is a stellar event. After the deaths of Ari Up and Captain Beefheart, it’s heartening to see some legends are still living.

Friday, 11 February 2011

THOUGHT FOR TODAY


"There's something greater than you when there's a bunch of you assembled. That idea of a spirit moving through a group. It's not just a bunch of dudes playing guitar solos – something that can't be named happens. That's kind of the prize."
- David Parry from Arcade Fire, interviewed in The Guardian.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

THE STICKS/ COLD PUMAS/ DRUM EYES (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES CONTINUED...)

Fri 27th Jan, Prince Albert


This was the one night I was able to make of the ‘Sea Monsters’ min-festival, “five nights of the most crucial Brighton bands”, laid on by the good folks of One Inch Badge Records.

I was alas unable to prise myself away from the sofa fast enough to catch the opening act Speak Galactic. (Though rumour has it that, despite their name, they are not actually fronted by Galactus.) But that still left three acts for your money...

From previous sightings The Sticks have been more numbersome, but were this time whittled down (geddit?) to a duo. This development did not seem to go down very well with The Sticks themselves, deriding one of their own numbers as “skinny” and finishing another with a loud raspberry. Perhaps this slimmer choice was less aesthetic than Hobson-like.

Far be it from me to claim to know more than the outfit themselves, but this self-criticism seemed strangely misplaced. For one thing, they were surely made to sound skinny - a pared-down drum kit as though only half-arrived through the installment purchase plan, straightforward guitar lines as if lifted from a play-in-a-day book. They are not called The Trunks for a reason, after all.

Their sound harkens back to the shimmering days of simple Sixties garage pop, as if played in black-and-white on a mono Dansette. But their take is so pared down that it veers towards the minimalist. Imagine an alternate universe where Steve Reich joined The Shadows...

Being something of a comics fan, I cannot help but compare musical lines to drawn lines. So I started picturing their music as drawn by a soft B pencil. (Don’t go confusing them with no H pencil!) The actual lines are defined and... well, stick-like, but they’re surrounded by resounding reverb like a pencil line’s edges turning to blur and fuzz. It sounds shimmering, warm and cold at the same time.

So, in short, this reduction in numbers had little negative effect on music quality. There may be one caveat to the story, however. As any artist knows, restrictions enable. But restriction can be contrary, one day it can turn on you and just restrict. The Sticks are one of those bands who are about their sound, the individual numbers exist just to demonstrate it. And it is indeed a great sound. But once you’ve got it, what then? Does it have the mileage to make the outfit long-lived? Soft B pencils blunt sooner than do H ones, after all...

This is them as a trio, at a different Brighton venue...



If I have less to say about Cold Pumas, that’s probably to do with me having less neat little analogies for their sound – in short, it’s not them, it’s me. The show blurb praised their “extended, mesmerising pulse”, which probably works better than anything I could come up with. Their tracks tended to pick up a head of steam and then make a bolt for it. Numbers didn’t advance from A to B in neat little diagrams but surged forward, took on lives of their own, merged into one another...oh wait, that’s what I said about Drum Eyes last time. Oh well, the point still stands.



Okay, back to Drum Eyes. This is the third time I’ve seen them now, and each time isn’t so much seeing them again as seeing them anew. Most bands are like films, you can go back for more but you’re just re-living the experience. This isn’t so much of a shift as was the leap between my first and second viewing - they still have the same two pounding drum kits, and Krautrock-like love of skewering riffs. But there’s still a definite sense of movement – a line-up shift produces a violin, a dub influence appears on some new tracks.

It all starts to remind me of a story from the old Liverpool punk scene. Punks would habitually paint band names or slogans on the back of their jackets. But Pete Wylie would only ever chalk his, insistent that the scene moved forward too quickly to get tied down anything else. Drum Eyes, I reckon, would appreciate that sentiment.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

EXPOSED: VOYEURISM, SURVEILLANCE & THE CAMERA

(aka Is Blog Short For Backlog Part 3?)

Profuse apologies for the continued lateness of posting here, which was never what you might call timely to begin with! Things might stay laggardly for a little while longer as I wrestle with DIY culture of a more literal kind. Once the new flat is in a state closer to habitable-ness we should be back to regular-late rather than late-late...


... so, on that note, let’s focus on a photography exhibition at the Tate Modern that finished in October. Some have commented that I treat exhibitions as texts, focus on the wood not the trees, the show rather than the artwork it contains. To which I reply that exhibitions do not arrive assembled, they have curators who cannot help but have angles and agendas. There is nothing inherently sinister about this, in fact it’s pretty much inevitable, but agendas are always better made overt. Don’t pretend not to be biased, admit how you are biased

This time, however, we’re looking at something with an explicit and specified agenda. It’s almost like an illustrated essay laid out in the form of wall-space. Combined with the time-lag in looking at it, this will result in a commentary which fixes on the through-line to almost complete exclusion of the individual artworks, simply because that’s what remained stuck in my mind these months later. So if almost complete treelessness bothers you, look away now.

Inherent Voyeurs?

So what is this agenda? To quote curator Sandra S Phillips “Exposed asks whether such invasiveness is inherent to the medium itself.” Or, as contributing photographer Kohei Yoshiyuki confesses, “I may be a voyeur because I am a photographer.”

Proceedings kick off with Jacob Riis’ reportage snapshots of New York tenement poverty from the end of the Nineteenth Century, with labels asking us to note the inherent voyeurism. It does feel a little disingenuous not to even consider the photographer’s intent, which was to expose not the lives of the poor so much as the condition of poverty. That individual, in their own threadbare clothes, at their specific downtown address, is there only to represent a general situation.

Moreover, at the time the technology of photography would have gone along with this reforming zeal. These were not studied oils of great men, but quick snapshots of a situation which could and should be made to change. Technology was both illuminating their poverty and offering a chance to escape it – a medium of the moment for a world in flux. Talking about these photos without acknowledging that is like suggesting Eisenstein made ‘Battleship Potemkin’ because he was interested in the history of shipping.

However, it’s equally true that the unique feature of photography is that there must always be a particular. Painting or drawing can be wholly symbolic, such as Constructivist images of the universal man, or even entirely abstract and still be saying something about the world. Photography must always present a piece of the world, to quote Phillips “capturing a split second of real life.”

As cameras became more ubiquitous, as we handled them more often, this sense of the particular is probably the conception of them which we absorbed. They became less an all-seeing eye, framing and capturing slices of the real, and more representing the self as an atomised citizen - not interacting with the scene but observing it. We have almost become cameras ourselves. This is quite notable at public events such as gigs or demos, where some spend as much time looking through a viewing frame as they do participating. It’s inherent to the concept of the voyeur that they are just observing.


 Making It Real

And of course as the private and unrecorded recedes to smaller and smaller zones, those unlit corners become more fetishised. Concealment suggests that the private is somehow inherently interesting, an idea at its nadir in the risible movie ’Sliver’. Everyone in an apartment block has their actions captured on a wall of secret monitors, and of course everyone is fighting or fucking, no-one flossing their teeth or idly watching TV while picking lint from their belly button.

The show claims “we can now see anything, virtually.” Yet is there not something self-fulfilling about this notion that everything is now on show? We’re made to assume that these days everything, or at least everything interesting, is automatically found by the camera’s frame.

Moreover, the camera’s visibility ray is almost held to have almost magic powers. Recently shortchanged in a supermarket, I complained to the manager. I was told that the assistant couldn’t possibly have palmed my money, as they were under constant CCTV scrutiny. I asked if that footage had been checked. Impatiently, as if speaking to an imbecile, she explained – no, the footage was never checked, there simply was too much of it and too little time. But the point was that the footage was there.

It is not that everything nowadays is recorded. The point is that the recording is no longer something secondary but confused with the incident itself, with anything unrecorded held as never happening. The act of observing no longer merely changes what it observes, instead it is held to instigate it.

This distinction is also used to enforce the doublethink we live through. While its established the police will film demonstrators from start to end of their route, on several occasions even following them afterwards, it was made illegal for people to film them. (One law the ConDems, for all their trumping about civil liberties, are notably not repealing.) Similarly, billboards went up recently in my area, asking us to shop anyone we saw looking at CCTV cameras as they would almost certainly be terrorists.

 As Bruno Bettleheim wrote in ’The Informed Heart’, “Among the worst mistakes a prisoner could make was to watch another prisoner’s mistreatment.... For example, if an SS man was killing off a prisoner and other prisoners dared to look... he would instantly go after them too. But only seconds later the same SS would call the same prisoners’ attention to what lay in store for anyone who dared to disobey, drawing their attention to the killing as a warning example. This was no contradiction, it was simply an impressive lesson that said: you may notice only what we wish you to notice, but you invite death if you notice things of your own volition.”

Imperfectly Real

One plus point of this exhibition is that it tangles head-on the fabricated image. The manipulability of the image has risen alongside its ubiquity. Once we said “the camera never lies”, now we have made Photoshop a verb.

One feature of this is the presence of the photographer. In Riis’ tenement poverty shots he is always absent,  “the Unseen Photographer”, part of the convention that we are looking at pure reportage, the untrammelled truth. Yet he starts to appear more and more as the years go by. Helmut Newton photographs himself (in a mirror) in the action of photographing a nude model, even capturing a bored-looking onlooker in the frame (who turns out to be his wife). Like an Eighteenth Century portrait set against an Expressionist psychodrama, the artist goes from the unseen eye to the focus of his own work. Perhaps we’ll end up with two-way cameras, set up to auto-capture whoever pressed their button. Or perhaps filming will become so ubiquitous the question will simply stop arising.

But it’s actually when the photographer’s presence is implicit or ambiguous that you most take notice. In two pictures by Lee Freidlander, we see a stumpy hand behind someone’s back, then a shadow of a head falling on another. I immediately lost all interest in the ostensible subject as I tried to work out angles and proportions, in case these indistinct stubs belonged to the photographer.

...which leads onto a trick of the trade which endures. For all our supposed suss about the manipulability of images, we are still in many ways suckers for imperfect images. Anything blurred or de-centered, our brains cannot help but associate with rushed or even surreptitious photography – which we label as ‘real’ and urgent. The show gives us several examples of how shots were deliberately staged to look that way, to simulate precisely that reaction, and we are unsurprised to hear of this. But there’s something in the imperfect image which still suckers us.

It’s similar to the juddery, hand-held camera look perfected by multiplex movies such as ’Monsters’ or ’Cloverfield.’ Or the way roughly recorded punk tracks are supposed to be more ‘honest’ than polished pop numbers. Distressed fonts, ready-frayed clothes... our modern lives seem full of these totems. Perhaps, in an age where the word “icon” became divorced from its original religious context to spread everywhere, the image is now too perfectible - and we rush to the illusion of its opposite, demanding designer imperfections.

To answer the show’s question, technology is never politically neutral and there is always a complex inter-relationship between it and it’s society. Our culture has undoubtedly become more visual to the point where blocks of text now look almost inherently old-fashioned, so it is no surprising that photography has become more totemic to it. Yet voyeurism is really little more than an eroticisation of alienation; concluding himself unable to become involved in events, the voyeur decides he might as well make the most of this by enjoying it. To that degree, this show is actively onto something. Yet there is nothing inherently voyeuristic to photography, any more than there is anything inherently cerebral to writing. The medium is not always the message.

To be fair, the show is not so simple-minded as to suggest there’s a single answer to its question. Though it leans towards an affirmative and has clear post-modern sympathies, it also discloses evidence for the other side. Two counter-examples remain in my mind. Every day for a month Vito Acconci randomly selected a stranger in a crowd, and followed them with his lens. The next day, there would be someone else. Yet also on show is Nick Ut’s famous picture of Kim Phuc, the naked Vietnamese child fleeing a napalm attack. We’re told that after taking the snap, Ut took the child to hospital, and since then the two have remained friends. Photography doesn’t mean participation. But it doesn’t rule it out...

This show did happen. It has been recorded.

Coming soon! More backlog...