Saturday, 9 June 2018


Brighton Dome, Sat 2nd June

Time was, when Smith was most decidedly retired and my chances of catching her live were nil. Now I’ve seen her so many times (most recently here) that her son Jackson, who used to stand out as the token young person of the band, now blends right in. I didn’t even know who he was till Mom introduced him. And though those gigs have often varied widely in nature, they’ve one constant…

What should be a staple feature of seeing an artist live, being in a room crammed with other devotees, gets turned up to eleven. There’s more audience euphoria after each track than most artists can muster for a finale. One voice cries out “marry my Dad!”, while pointing furiously at the seat next to his. Other artists might have clocked up more hits, but there’s things you can’t buy in the shops.

One caveat, however. When Smith returned, with 1996’s ‘Gone Again’, she defeated expectations by bringing out new material which matched the old. But it’s now been five years since the last, ‘Banga’. And this is very much an oldies set, featuring nothing more recent than from ‘Gone Again’ and merely merchandise on the stall. Moreover, barring the covers, there’s precisely one track which didn’t appear on the retrospective ‘Land’.

True, the setlist is changed from gig to gig. But it does suggest Smith’s work has become something of a set canon, when once it was an ever-evolving mercurial force. The songs are still played powerfully and purposefully, not subsumed by the rock heritage industry just yet. But it suggests things are post-peak, that we’re dealing with a system not just closed but sorted, delineated.

Then again… the one song I didn’t know, a highlight of the show, was back-announced as a Midnight Oil cover. Employing the little grey cells I figured this must be from the one album of hers I don’t have, the all-covers ‘Twelve’. On arriving home the internet informed me two thing; the track’s ‘Beds Are Burning’ - and it doesn’t appear on record anywhere. Hopefully it will show up on something one day. The strength of it may be the way Smith bends it to her own purpose, much as she did with ’Gloria’.

As said after earlier gigs Smith’s music has the power to ascend, and the instrumental break in ‘Beneath the Southern Cross’ was nothing less than soaring. Curiously then, the only weak link was another cover. Lennon’s ‘Mind Games’, which does a whole lot of soaring itself, should be a natural for her. Yet somehow it was leaden, with Smith reading the lyrics from paper. (The only other skippable track, a Velvets medley with the band swapping vocals, seemed designed to give her an off-stage break.)

Things finished on ‘People Have the Power’, a song with a strange history. Released in 1998, on one of her less liked albums, it was written as a dream of what’s to be. But at the time, in the cultural and political desert of the late Eighties, it still felt like an out-of-touch rock star trusting things to “the kids” they hadn’t met lately – less dream than fantasy. Yet now, with all the upheavals in America, it’s proven uncannily prophetic.

“It didn’t go like I planned”, she says at the end, “but it was better”. Something she could say after every gig she’s done, I’d imagine. After an earlier encounter I commented how, after losing so many greats, it was good to know we still had Patti Smith. And since then Mark E Smith and two guys from Can have been added to the list of the lost. But we still have Patti Smith.

Proof I wasn’t making it up about ’Beds Are Burning’ (from Dublin)...

The Greys, Brighton, Wed 6th June

The dark folk of Cinder Well is centred round Amelia Baker’s mournful voice, strong yet undemonstrative. Songs often start off with just that voice accompanied by her guitar, or a foot-powered drone device. (Which may or may not be called a shruti box.)

The strings work their way in slowly, at times merely providing punctuation, but at others filling up into their own section. While they can be richly melodic, they never seem to quite leave behind that original drone sound. The way tracks are song-like but come in sections, and the way they can jump in scale between intimate and epic... for a rough comparison think of A Silver Mount Zion without the klezmer.

I suspect I’m always saying that the good folk music doesn’t sound old-timey but timeless. And this feels true for Cinder Well in two senses of the term. Remorselessly slow-placed, and accumulative, it imposes its own sense of time upon you. But it also feels untied to any era. All those times in popular music you’ve heard the new thing exultantly described as “so now”? I don’t suppose anyone’s ever said that of Cinder Well.

At some point or other, folk music crossed over into singer-songwriting.Not always, I’ll concede, with ill effects. But what was once a collective form of music came to concentrate on the self. Here, even though the band are clearly a vehicle for Baker and her songs, there’s a universalism to it. Songs refer to “everyone neck deep in their heads”, like peoplehave becomeprisoners within themselves, selfie-snapping their solitary confinement, when once human experience was considered something common.

Also, much folk music seems concerned with preserving what’s been. Again, not necessarily a problem, but something we all too often see the downside of. Whereas Cinder Well often flip the picture, focusing on the ineradicability of the past, the weight of memories. 

An approach which ironically always seems closer to your actual, original folk songs, always more likely to involve murder or damnation than a computer programmer in a smock trilling “nonny nonny no”. The track which seems to set out their mission statement (“Do not look for me where birds sing/ You will not find me there, my beloved”) turns out to be… well okay, not a folk standard penned by “Trad” but from a poem dating back to 1911, commemorating a factory fire in Manhattan. (The Grenfell Tower of its day.)

Their choice of “haunting” to describe their sound… for folk circles, that might seem generic, but it actually works very well. The dilapidated timber house on the cover of their CD is an effective image for them, illustrating the title track (‘The Unconscious Echo’) which conceives of our craniums as haunted houses.

From what little I was able to construe, Cinder Well are less a regular outfit than a pick-up band from the musical chairs of Baker’s circles. (She mentioned a year’s gap between recording the CD and these live performances.) 

And their methods may be more DIY than limelight. The CD doesn’t even mention a label, suggesting DIY production, while one of the few YouTube films of them (not the one below) is from an environmental protest camp. The upside of which is that there’s no-one to regulate or mediate what gets made. Whereas the normal downside that things too easily pass you by. Then at other times, the stars align and you end up seeing a great band in a small pub…

From a barn in Washington state...

Coming soon! Blog hols...

Saturday, 2 June 2018


Yes, more Brighton graffiti. Alas the Old Market is another graffiti zone we've recently effectively lost, as some new development's now gone up there as well. Corporate hell awaits! As ever, full set over on 500px...

Saturday, 26 May 2018


The Barbican, London, Fri 18th May

This double serving of the contemporary string quartet Kronos kicked off with ‘A Thousand Thoughts’, a “live documentary” film with co-director Sam Green narrating in person as they played live. It looked back over the ensemble’s history, dating back to 1973.

This was at points gimmicky, prone to some Californian philosophising and the live presentation made Green more central a figure than he needed to be. But it did possess a good-humoured style, and the good sense to locate their origins in Seventies New York through verite footage of streets and subways rather than the usual cliched images. (Reagan, check… punk rock kids, check… Studio 54, check… they come up like clip art on a bad business presentation.)

The biggest takeaway… Though the ensemble are not themselves composers they have an active working relationship with their composers, many of whom have written especially for them and many of whom (including Philip Glass and Terry Riley) are interviewed herein. Which was probably just the way music worked until comparatively recently, when ‘classical’ became a heritage industry.

The biggest highlight… the quartet playing along to a film of a throat singer becoming more and more unhinged, until she finally broke off laughing to a spontaneous round of applause.

The greatest surprise… such passing reference to their reworking of Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’, which always seemed their crossover ‘hit’ at the time. Certainly it was the first I heard of them, and at the time I’d no idea they’d already been going for well over a decade. Perhaps they now see it the way Hawkwind do ‘Silver Machine’, as something of an albatross.

The second half was a collaboration with the Malian group Trio Da Kali. Not having heard the album, and perhaps still half in mind of the contemporary-meets-traditional soundworld of Xylouris White, I was surprised to the degree that the quartet merely sat in with the trio - more companions than collaborators. They often played in unison, a highly unusual thing for a string quartet to do, underlining Hawa Diabete’s vocals. Not, you understand, that was any kind of a drawback...

The Trio perform Griot, which is some combination of history, storytelling and praise singing. Though the programme spoke of their sound being “as wild as possible”, in fact they were measured and calming, with some elegant yet understated melodies. The nearest Western equivalent would be Gospel, albeit not the Gospel that led to Soul. The programme also mentioned Mahalia Jackson.

Though the programme also spoke of the Quartet having the words translated to aid their playing, I always enjoy not knowing. It’s the glossolalia effect of words sung in a language you can’t comprehend, which always feels like they’re singing of things otherwise beyond expression.

The only downside was too many solos on the Balafon (a kind of marimba), which seemed to jar with the otherwise collective spirit. But then I am a curmudgeon when it comes to solos.

Brighton Done, Thurs 24th May

Then, completely by luck and not in any way by clever planning, I was hearing more Malian music less than a week later. Only this time it couldn’t have been any more upbeat.

Les Amazones ranged between desert blues, with a trio of women singers delivering some mesmerising choral vocals, and energetic, uplifting Afro Beat, where they’d more take turns to sing lead.

Music always feels more involving when it seems spontaneous, not in the sense of improvised but of happening in the moment. It comes across as organic rather than mechanical, and minimises any sense of separation between performer and audience. You’re hypnotised into thinking you could just step up and join in. (Fortunately for all, I didn’t act on this impulse.)

And this was underlined by the way the singers casually swapped hand-held percussion, seemingly as the moment took them. The finale ran through a bunch of staggered endings, like they didn’t want to leave the stage any more than we wanted to see them go - the equivalent of when a friend gets up to leave but falls into a cycle of saying “I’ll be off then”.

I can sometimes be a little cynical over seeing African music in a setting like this. Too many middle class white folks convinced they’re doing something terribly, terribly multicultural. Too much generic approval for anyone who looks like they fit the ‘African’ part. But then there’s times when the thing just works.

From Jools Holland (but really, don't let that put you off)…

Saturday, 19 May 2018


St. George’s Church, Brighton, Thursday 17thMay
Part of the Brighton Festival

As the above image might suggest, Xylouris White are an odd-couple duo. Jim White’s the drummer from the Dirty Three, who now looks like Steve Pemberton playing the part of a rock drummer. George Xylouris looks like an old Greek guy with a beard and a Cretan lute, which is exactly what he is.

But perhaps the magic of the thing is that it’s not self-conscious fusion food. ‘All music is music’ seems like one of those platitudinous statements like ‘all religions are one’, it might sound fine but doesn’t get you very far in practise. Except, every now and again, it does.

Xylouris, originally taught traditional-style by his uncle, doesn’t seem to modify much what he’s going for the rock duo format - but it all fits anyway. White doesn’t play beneath but alongside him, fully occupying the place he sits on stage. His free-flowing, exuberant drumming seems to mostly be called “avant-rock”. In fact, having played together for five years they’ve become like old-style travelling troubadours, seemingly only deciding what to play from one track to the next, sometimes by playing snatches at each other.

The music doesn’t just have a sonic range, but seems able to operate on different scales, from close and intimate up to rising flights which grow more expansive and ever-higher, like a bird catching an updraft. They’ll go into extended wig-outs, with no muso egoism.

Support act Daniel Blumberg had one of the most “have they started yet” starts I’ve encountered in recent years. And it wasn’t long after I realised they had started, then over the tapping and scraping of instruments and harmonica wails the guitarist started to sing. At that point, had he hurled himself through a hoop of fire, I’d scarcely have been any more surprised.

As things went on it swapped between some Neil Young style ‘country blues’ and free-form instrumentals, but rather than switching it ebbed and flowed between them. Plus the instrumental sections were quite unpredictable, from stray lines it was left to you to join together, to a great sonic wallop. The Festival says he “weds an improvisational, free-music ethos to raw emotional songwriting”.

Not from Brighton (like that’s something unusual)…

The Spire, St. Mark’s Chapel, Brighton, Wed 16th May
Part of the Brighton Festival

Dubbed by the Festival as “a show as lively as electricity itself,” Robbie Thompson’s electro compositions were synched to a Tesla coil which would “audio-reactively” emit flashes of electricity in time to the music.

From this description, I’d expected some full-on affair, designed to stir that coil into greater and greater action, an electronic version of bear baiting. Yet the music was quite varied, seemingly requiring two laptops and a synth. It included swooshes, stabs, blasts, beats and even a ‘space lounge’ mid-section. At its most effective, it would manage to lay one of these elements on top of another.

And this proved both to be its success and its weakness. At points it scattershot, particularly in the opening section, feeling it’s way rather that striding ahead. And, with some smart sound design at points, it was a shame not to have had quadrophonic sound.

The event was billed as an audio-visual “spectacle”, with the coil placed centre stage. And, placed just before the Chapel’s altar, it did make for a perfect setting, like something out of Seventies science fiction. It was even miked up, so as well as reacting to the sound it contributed to it. 

But it seemed a somewhat reluctant leading act, and even when stirred sparingly you soon got used to the electrical shots. It may not be an entirely fair comparison, as the scale of the events were so different, but Stockhausen’s ‘Cosmic Pulses’ at the Barbican was a more effective inducement of synaesthesia.

I did wonder if, rather than inspiring the piece, the coil was hit on to overcome the standard “nothing to look at complaint” made of electronic music. And, assuming that’s something which needs a fix, it’s true the coil’s taking things in the right direction. Narrative visuals, anything that smacks of a rock video, always seem to re-familiarise this music, take away its unique energy. 

And different lighting effects were used on the Faraday cage it was placed in, to some good effect. Though this was taken further by Conrad Shawcross’’Slow Art Inside a Cube’ work at the Hayward’s ’Light’ exhibition, which moved a light source around a cage to play with shadow effects.

But ultimately that fix has to be about getting away from the staticperformer/audience face-off, creating an environment for people to pass through as they feel like. Last year’s 'Siren’ 
isn’t really a direct comparison, as that was more installation than live performance, but it might still serve as a guide.

Skip past the irrelevant support band in this (not from Brighton) clip...

NB I have no idea how I ended up reviewing two X bands in one go, but as Yo La Tengo were last time presumably we're working backwards through the alphabet so expect a profusion of W's next week....

Saturday, 12 May 2018


Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, Falmer, Brighton, 9th to 12th May
(, for the fleet of foot, still on tonight!)

The Brighton Festival programme describes this play as “trac[ing] the lives of” Marc Chagall “the 20th century’s most influential Jewish artist and his wife as they navigate the Pogroms, the Russian Revolution, and each other.”

Kneehigh’s production is perhaps faultless. The dialogue’s sharp and memorable without being showy. The two leads, particularly Audrey Brisson as the wife Bella Rosenfeld, are strong. The active physical-theatre style conveys the feeling of Chagall’s artwork, where everything feels free-floating, as if in some grand dance, without resorting to mere mimicry. Different lighting styles and some minimal props cross a simple set, aided by two on-stage musicians, propelling the drama along.

Under the hood, however, there’s some problems...

Chagall is characterised as an idealist innocent, too unworldly to kiss his future bride on their first date, yet also possessed of a child’s innate selfishness. He’s given the look of a silent film star, a Harold Lloyd hat above a hapless white face. I know almost nothing of his personality, and it’s quite possible he was something like this – a naive man whose medium was naive art. But in dramatic terms it seems a somewhat cliched way to portray an artist.

Moreover, the elliptical structure might have been necessary to span the story but serves to make his frequent acts of selfishness towards Bella seem consequenceless, a character quirk, a fact of life to be accepted.

The play starts with a critic on the phone, feeding Marc vast chunks of verbiage in the earnest hope he’ll simply agree. Nonplussed and unengaged he lets the phone dangle to show the audience a photo of his home town of Vitebsk. A town, he explains, largely destroyed by Nazis in the War. Later he expresses frustration at the notion there’s a “mystery” to his art.

The inference of course is that his art is rooted where he was rooted, in Vitebsk, and so the phone is not just asking him the wrong questions but the wrong sort of questions. But this doesn’t lead into perhaps the central question about Chagall. To create his folk image of Vitebsk did he need distance from the physical Vitebsk, that his heart might grow so fond? He once said “my homeland exists only in my soul”. And ironically given his evocations of home his art was always most appreciated outside of Russia, where his cows and fiddlers seemed exotic.

After all, pre-warVitebskmayhave been historic and picturesque but it was not the rustic village hiswork sometimes made it seem. He describes it as having two cathedrals and numerous synagogues, and even today it’s Belarus’ fourth largest city.

The question’s not a simple one. His style first developed when he went to Paris. Yet he was back in Vitebsk between 1914 and 1920, and painting prolifically. Though he only stayed home so long because the outbreak of war prevented his return to Paris.

Bella, it’s revealed, was a writer and actor in her own right. (I’d previously seen her only as a figure who showed up in his paintings, so I suppose I’m no better than the Incels.) But the play seems divided over how to treat her. In the Festival quote above, it’s clear that “each other” is saved for last because it’s the most important, that the Pogroms and Revolutions are like sudden gusts of wind which blow their relationship this way and that. At it’s heart, this is a love story.

When Marc was first developing his art in Paris Bella remained home. Later, in a cruelirony, just like Vitebsk the war killed her. (She got an infection, which would have been curable had medicine not been in short supply.) All of which suggests she was a metonym of Vitebsk for him, personalising all it meant.

Yet she describes them as opera glasses, looking at the same things in parallel. When they are forced to leave Vitebsk, she says they should pack their memories like suitcases. In this way she’s not his muse or subject, but they are companion eyes.

It is of course entirely possible that this division isn’t the plays – that Marc saw their relationship one way and Bella the other. But then that would make for something to explore. There are some stabs at this. When Bella briefly resumes acting she fills with life, while he essentially sulks in a chair. Yet these aren’t quite sufficient. As Marc and Bella navigate each other, the view turns most towards his opera glass.

Brighton Dome, Wed 9th May

This double-headliner was due to Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier having been commissioned by contemporary ensemble Stargaze to score a reworking of Fugazi’s classic ’In On the Kill Taker’. Introducing the night in his customary angsty outsider artist persona, Saunier was keen to stress that the whole notion was preposterous – he’d no idea how to transpose from hardcore punk to classical instruments, he’d never even heard the album before and besides that he’d be scoring each number for a solo instrument.

The last one might have been a chess move too far. It’s true that a single instrument score isn’t the same thing as a rock solo. And even when, for the most part, you couldn’t work out which track was being cited, the point of the exercise was to change things not reproduce them. But while Fugazi might have contained great songwriters, what really made them stellar was how well they worked as a unit – they gelled, like few others.

And in fact it was the few, brief ensemble sections which worked the best. The solo pieces sounded fragmentary. It was as if we were hundreds of years hence, where only snippets of the original had survived, perhaps from some almost unplayable LP, so we were effectively trying to reconstruct an ancient culture from some broken bits of pot.

I can go for this sort of thing, whether it’s Steve Reich reworking Radiohead or Phillip Glass channelling Bowie. But this was perhaps an example of the problem of postmodern art, where all things are supposed to be of equal value, and exchanging them seems the best way of conveying that. Whereas all that happens is that everything is made to seem equally valueless.

I wondered how Deerhoof’s lo-fi aesthetic would fare at the far-from-intimate Dome venue. And their characteristic on-stage line-up, screwing with the heraldic rock formation by actually lining everyone up, including the drummer, looked stranger still on the large stage. But the illfittingness actually fitted. There were several technical hitches, including Satomi Matzusaki’s vocal mike cutting out at an inopportune moment, causing her to break into an impromptu dance routine while Saunier sang into his miked-up snare. 

But it all just added to the ramshackle exuberance of the thing. It felt almost like going back to the early Sixties, before dedicated music venues, where bands just played wherever they could.

There’s little more to say about their sound, which is going further in the same direction as their last appearance three years ago. For both better and worse, they’re becoming more of a band. Real rock licks break in at times!

For the encore, they were joined by four of Stargaze’s wind players. Which worked so well you only wished they’d done it for more of the set. For the first, slower number their contribution enriched the melody, like fizzy sparkly pop has been transubstantiated into fine wine.

As ever, not from Brighton…

Royal Festival Hall, London, Fri 4th May

“37 record store clerks feared dead in Yo La Tengo concert disaster”, ran the Onion headline. 
And the band are seen by some as the eptiome of suburban indie, music for the self-styled sensitive souls who read Nick Hornby books. There may not be an entire absence of truth to this description, they even crack a joke about playing for themselves while in the interval a few trainspotters rushed to the front to check out the equipment.

Yet it’s more to do with having a handy example to attach to a phenomenon. And it’s probably made easier by the band’s music being much less pindownable. Since 1984 they’ve been producing, in Wikipedia’s words, an “eclectic combination of folk, punk rock,shoe-gazing, long instrumental noise-jams, and electronic music.”

This night kicks off with a spacy drone which builds into a motorik trance-out, with double drumming despite the band only being a trio. Always a good way of getting my attention. And the first half’s set was mostly devoted to unadorned melodies, the percussion on one track being no more than the odd tap on the bass.

True, every now and again it does start to sound like easy listening for snowflakes, as if the magic potion failed to kick in. But for the majority of the time songs tasted like home cooking, made from a handful of simple ingredients but leaving a lasting taste. Free-form instruments surrounded the songs, sometimes brief interludes allowing band members to switch instruments, sometimes longer. One psychedelic number effectively combined both.

I’m not a fan of splitting gigs in half. It’s like putting an ad break in a film then not even showing any ads. But they use the two halfs to switch over, taking things in a more uptempo direction. Though tracks remained unhurried affiars, until the final few numbers. Whereupon the band who’d earlier mastered slow-tempo compositions suddenly transformed into a rock-out combo, instruments taking off in their hands like the Pink Panther clutching a raging outboard motor.

I was even able to cope with the guitar solos, partly because the rhythm section was more than merely the bread in the sandwich, and partly because the guitar would get genuinely unhinged. Only the extended guitar of the finale taxed my patience.

They had to huddle together before taking the encore, as if it had come as an unexpected development. Whereupon they covered the TVP’s ’Park Time Punks’.

Overall, colour me a record store clerk.

Not from London...

Saturday, 5 May 2018


This seems a year for anniversaries. As has been previously mentioned here, February was the centenary of the Russian Revolution. While this month marks the fiftieth of May 1968. But today – yes, this very day – marks the bicentenary of the birth of Karl Marx. (Here pictured in his current hideaway at Highgate. With one of his more disappointing sidekicks, hence the resigned expression.)

I have no idea how Marx spent his birthdays. Perhaps Engels stayed up the night before, valiantly attempting to gift-wrap the means of production for him. But today seems the time to remind people that he so often said the very opposite to what everyone likes to pretend. By which I don’t mean the alt.right goons, who make a meme of him saying “I like to sniff my butt” then imagine they have demolished the Labour Theory of Value. I mean people you’d generally think of as sensible. Many of the worst offenders, alas, think of themselves as Marxists.

Did Marx conceive of history as an overpowering, inevitable force, a train charging down predetermined tracks, on which we – you and me – were merely passengers? No, he didn’t.

“History does nothing, it ‘possesses no immense wealth’, it ‘wages no battles’. It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; ‘history’ is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.”
The Holy Family

Alternately, did he insist that if we want things to change then it’s up to us to change them? Yes he did.

“The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that the educator himself needs educating.”
Theses on Feuerbach

Did he think the masses so stupefied they required rescuing by a vanguard, like a damsel in some shoddy melodrama? Nope.

”In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.’


“The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.”
Both from the Communist Manifesto


“The emancipation of the working class must be achieved by the working class itself. Hence we cannot co-operate with those who openly state that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves and must be freed from above.”
Circular Letters

Did Marx see the individual as a problem, a nail to be hammered down so as to make Red Square parades run more smoothly? Um, no.

“The reality, which communism is creating, is precisely the true basis for rendering it impossible that anything should exist independently of individuals, insofar as reality is only a product of the preceding intercourse of individuals themselves.”
The German Ideology

Did Marx see Communism as central planning, where party dignitaries issued edicts and decreed everything to be for the common good? After which we got to cheer? Let’s allow his buddy Engels to answer that one.

“The state will inevitably fall. The society which organizes production anew on the basis of free and equal association of the producers will put the whole state machinery where it will then belong—into the museum of antiquities, next to the spinning wheel and the bronze axe.”
On the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

There’s two points where Marx is quoted accurately but misleadingly. Marx did refer to “the idiocy of rural life”, it was in the Communist Manifesto. But in context “idiocy” doesn’t mean “stupidity” so much as “idiosyncrasy” or “parochial nature”. Cities are always arterial, connected to other cities in a way villages are not connected to other villages. The drift to urbanism did not in itself socialise the world, but was a necessary step towards it.

Similarly he did call religion “the opium of the masses”, it was in his Critique of Hegel. But he didn’t mean religion was simply a confidence trick, used to stupefy the gullible masses, cooked up by scheming capitalists as they puffed on those fat cigars they always seem to have.

Of course, religion often is used as a confidence trick, but that is scarcely the definition of the thing. Opium was then widely used as a painkiller, and Marx means less “drug” than “salve”. It would in fact be much better if people had picked up from a phrase he used elsewhere in the same passage “the heart of heartless conditions, the soul of a soulless world.” Religion is the...

“...inverted consciousness of the world, because [we] are an inverted world…. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion… Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.”

In short, religion is the attempt to express what is currently inexpressible - the desire for the end of real suffering - so is inevitably driven towards mystical forms of expression. People are fond of telling you communism is just heaven re-labelled. But that actually works much better the other way around.

Marx was not a guru or a prophet. He said so himself many times over. The point isn’t that he can always be relied on to be right. No-one in their right mind would take a hundred-and-fifty year old document as a blueprint for action today, as if it could just be implemented unamended. Particularly one which says itself it shouldn’t be taken for such a thing. The point is that, at an absolute minimum, you can’t deal with what Marx said without looking at what Marx said. And far too many don’t do that, including – most egregiously of all – many of his supposed disciples.

Honestly, just read a bit of Marx. It’s the guy’s birthday, FFS!

Saturday, 28 April 2018


Brighton Dome, Tues 24th April

Roughly two and a half years after I last saw Gomez, they’re back. This time playing their first album, 1998’s ’Bring it On’. An album whose release is further proof that no-one should ever listen to me. If I’d been told beforehand that a bunch of white, middle class kids from Southport were going to make rootsy Americana I’d definitely have told them to put a halt to it. And when it came out lyrics about “Tijuana Ladies” meeting “mariachi desperadoes” slipped into trips to Manchester to play football, like this was a disguise which wouldn’t stay on.

Which is perhaps a widening problem. Too much music so self-consciously apes a style, it sounds like it’s being played through those white gloves they use on the TV to hold priceless relics. Which doesn’t keep that music alive, just undead. And that approach extended from folk and roots to all music’s branches, like some inexorable disease.

And yet in Gomez’s case the result is such a great album I could put aside my normal dislike of gigs which run through records in track order. Perhaps, with three songwriters in the band, it never sounds particularly restrictive – it’s not an album which sounds like one album. As Alexis Petridis said in the Guardian: “The music flits about, as if trying to cram the band members’ entire record collections into a single album: grinding guitar noise, primitive drum machines, psych-y vocal interludes, blues riffs, shambling funk rhythms.”

And perhaps genuinely timeless music simply reprises easily. The band sing themselves at one point “Why do you keep running around like that/ Sit back 'cause this is gonna take a while? There's no shame in going out of style”.

’Bring it On’ went on to win the Mercury prize, and seems to be one of those albums which cemented itself into the popular consciousness. Which may mean, at least in terms of public interest, the band peaked at the very start. Not only are they playing a bigger venue than last time, this and most subsequent gigs of the tour are sold out. And in fact when I go home and check my CDs, the three Gomez albums I possess are the first three. I guess that’s proof of the pudding.

Not a recent gig but the album’s opener…

The Hope + Ruin, Brighton, Sat 21st April

Frontman of the Adverts, and later the Explorers, punk stalwart TV Smith has in recent years taken to playing solo gigs armed only with an acoustic guitar. 

Which would be fine, there’s no need to treat punk as a fixed style. Nor does everything played acoustically need to sound like Nick Drake. However, he’s still writing strident, anthemic punk songs as if he just happened to forget the band and amplification, and decided to go ahead anyway. It’s true the change has come about through necessity, he’s openly said he simply wasn’t earning enough to feed a whole band. But then necessity is often the mother of invention. By, you know, necessity.

All of which is compounded by his continuing adherence to punk dress, and mildly bizarre insistence on continuing to strike rock guitar poses. Truth be told, when I saw him some years ago with the (briefly reunited) Adverts it worked a whole lot better.

From York…

Coming soon! An anniversary...

Saturday, 21 April 2018


The Barbican, London, Sat 14th April

After seeing the Thurston Moore Group in Hove last year, I was most taken by the longer, slower, self-weaving pieces. Not least because they took things the furthest from the Sonic Youth days. (Who were great, of course. But all the more reason not to want their blundering zombie corpse.) But mostly because, as I put it at the time, they were “expanding beyond the usual range of guitar rock.” And in fact, listening to the ’Rock ‘n’ Roll Consciousness’ album, I’ve found it’s the longest track, the extendedopeningof’Exalted’ which is the most memorable.

And this gig in many ways picks up from there, ditching the group format altogether for a line-up of twelve twelve-string guitars. For the first half, titled ’Earth’, they playedacoustically.The accompanying film-show mostly featured abiogenesis (shooting, sprouting, blooming and the like), but the appeal of the music was that it wasn’t linear in the same fashion. With’Exalted’there’s an inevitability that it willbuild up into something, the guitars willget louder, the vocals willkick in.

Here, things could take their own course, with less emphasis on an overall structure and more on each passing moment. With just one instrument, albeit multiplied by twelve, sonic range was limited. And changes happened slowly, often passing across players like fronts in aweather system. (Changes communicated by numbers from a held-up notepad, suggesting a modular system of composition.) Which meant you needed to listen more closely than at a rock gig. But once you got there it was mesmerising.

’Sky’, was for a similar number of electric guitars. But anyone expecting the sight of jack plugs and amps meant a return for more familiar territory would have been confounded. It had one of the most “have they started yet” starts I’ve experienced in some while. I think they started at… you know, the start but suffice to say it took its own time to build up.

For the first half of the piece not a chord was played as strings were plucked by multiple fingers, struck with sticks, scraped and screwdrivered. It produced the most ethereal of sounds, where sight unseen whole sequences would never have seemed the work of guitars.

It then slowly built up into a melodic pattern something like pealing bells, before some of your actual guitar riffing finally emerged. As this grew more and more powerful I assumed this time things would end on a crescendo. But instead, in time-honoured fashion, twelve guitars were turned against twelve amps. Rather than the squalls of feedback, this produced a rather aum-like hum. From there the piece took a palindromic structure, passing through an abbreviated form of the earlier sections before diminishing to nothing.

Which is, I think, significant. Despite what the title might suggest, itwasn’t really about blasting off. It more took life in the weightless expanse of space, getting drawn into a gravitational field but then floating free of it.

Moore’s far-out comments in the programme first seemed a bit hippy-dippy, yet in retrospect they seemed almost earned. While the two pieces hit my senses as something fresh and new, at the same time theyseemed on a trajectory that made sense to me. It’s not the Eighties any more, and we don’t need to stay stuck in them. My musical tastes have widened over the years, and the rock track no longer has primacy. So the people I was listening to in the Eighties, particularly those who were even them pushing against the limits of the rock track, why shouldn’t they be moving forwards in the same way?

Theseclipsmay not stay up for long, knowing the Barbican…

Con Club, Lewes, Thurs 12th April

The Mekons had the short and volatile history you’d expect from a punk band formed in 1977. Their first single was rejected for distribution by Rough Trade, haven of the DIY sound, for sounding too DIY. Until the NME made it Single of the Week, and the decision was soon reversed. They then signed to Virgin records, from where they were unceremoniously dropped after one album. But now, as we’ve come to expect from this sort of thing, they’re back.

Except nothing is so straightforward here. The band actually reformed in ‘84, originally as a means to perform benefits for the striking Miners. But a move to America heralded a new rootsy sound, claimed by some to have invented alternative country. And they’ve been going ever since, with me seeing them in London last year. So the original Mekons have become a second head, hence that ‘77’ suffix.

The difference in the sounds is accentuated by that London gig being an acoustic performance in a Church, and by for this gig band member Jon Langford supporting with the Four Lost Souls – who are in sound the New Mekons in a more stripped-down format. Alas for some perverse reason they played support to the support band, so I missed the start of their set. Still, I did hear the one about the Gospel star staging a comeback despite death.

And the difference was accentuated again by only two members being common to old and new versions, Langford and Tom Greenhalgh. And Langford then abandoned his pole position for the drum stool, for all but one number. Many rivers have been crossed since 1977, and the two lead singers now bear a striking resemblance to Morecambe and Wise. To the point where I wondered if one would do an encore without telling the other.

Which actually became kind of fitting. If they were a political band, with the opening number only semi-jokingly introduced as a Marxist critique of economics, they were also possessed of an absurdist sense of humour. Songs can be about fighting the cuts one minute (still relevant, as they ruefully point out) and Dan Dare in space the next.

Musically things ranged from three-chord jabs to longer, darker, more expressionist pieces. It’s similar to the way old hippie bands such as Gong would alternate between short, sharp numbers and spacey jams, the variation accentuating the unique taste of each. Not au fait with the early Mekons I don’t know if the longer numbers came slightly later, or are even still to come. (Some tracks are recently written, and a Mekons 77 album is “anticipated”.)

Both Leeds-based bands, back in the day the Mekons were fellow travellers with Gang of Four. And if they sound quiet different they have a similar advantage. In retrospect the problem with punk wasn’t so much the often cartoony politics as the way the insurrectionary rhetoric soon became kind of reassuring. (People gonna rise up? I’ll watch out for that.) It was a problem which started with the Clash, and reached it’s risible nadir with the likes of Conflict. Whereas the Mekons were always simply too awkward for that.

As the Four Lost Souls stopped to tune their two guitars, one of the singers commented she preferred music which allowed her to go “left of tune”. Later, the assembled Mekons echoed the sentiment, figuring a left-of-tune sound went with left politics. Amen to that.

Their second single,’Where Were You?’...

Friday, 13 April 2018


...though, as said last time, this may be the last load for this location. (However, more graffiti pics from other parts of Brighton to come.) As ever, full set over on 500px....

Saturday, 7 April 2018


Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, Falmer, Brighton, Thurs 29th March

Onetime member of acerbic electronica post-punks Cabaret Voltaire, Chris Watson has embarked on a solo career you could never have predicted but still seems entirely fitting. He captures the sounds for David Attenborough and other nature docs, while releasing his field recordings in his own right. (If anyone from Kajagoogoo is now doing something so cool, I wait to be told about it.) He’s now providing a “spatialised audio journey of the imagination”, where you hear one of his sound art creations in sensurround. (And still on until Sunday the 8th!)

Sight seems very much the dominants sense in our culture, we casually use phrases such as “I see what you mean”. Sound is very often reduced to signifiers – car horns, alarms, you’ve got mail – the merely incidental or even the intrusive. The sound of the town gets treated as just noise pollution, which means we conceive of nature as effective silence, the “peace and quiet” of the countryside.

But consign sound to the edge and it becomes associated with that edge, with the liminal and uncanny. Soundtracks become more significant for horror or science fiction flicks than any other kind of film, more necessary for the atmosphere they’re evoking. Cabaret Voltaire, I’m afraid, are another subject I know little of. But what I’ve heard doesn't depart from post-punk’s Dadaism, a wrench thrown in the mechanism of music. Whereas his field recordings are more similar to Surrealism, which treated art as a springboard for a voyage of personal discovery. Surrealists were always collecting found objects, such as strangely shaped pebbles, for that reason.

The event’s title effectively references all that. As we sat or lay in the centre of a near-dark room surrounded by speakers, it became almost like that scene in jungle films, where the white expeditionary force sit around the campfire, hearing the strange cries all around them.

Smartly, Watson starts his sound journey on Brighton beach, where it’s easy enough to attach images to the sounds (I can never feel too far from home if I can hear a seagull.) But he soon dispenses with those handy tags and departs for shores unknown. The blurb explains the journey “takes the listener from the edge of Brighton’s beach and out with the ebbing tide… on a trackless voyage around the planet from the ocean floor.” Which I’d read but happily then forgotten, so discovered in real time that this trip would be taking us beneath the waves.

Someone watching our reaction, with most people sprawled out on the floor, might have thought this was no more than a bliss-out exercise, a sonic massage. But it actuality illustrated the distinction between atmospheric and evocative. Even though I knew Watson’s only contribution to the sounds was to edit them, it was impossible not to hear what happened as a composition. While, much as you listen to music more closely when the words are taken away, there in the dark you listened to the strange sounds quite intently indeed. (And in their own right. A sign on the wall chronologically listed the sources, but I think most attendees didn’t consult it until afterwards.)

I’d watched a section of a filmed conversation between Watson and Attenborough before the show, and by chance they’d talked about the effect of sound on the pre-born. And aquatic sounds similarly seem to trigger some buried memory of womb states, with the sounds you hear simultaneously entirely unfamiliar and comforting.

Music… sound art, whichever you prefer to call it… always seems at its most effective when it doesn’t just change the way you hear music but they way you hear the world around you. And waiting before the bus home by the busy A23, I realised I was hearing the whirr of each passing car as a phased note in some industrial symphony. Once you’re tuned in, it takes a lot longer to tune out...

Watson interviewed by the irrepressible Graham Duff on Totally Radio here.

From an earlier, different version of ’No Man’s Land’...

The Haunt, Brighton, Sun 25th March

Alas, fate may have pinned A Certain Ratio to the mast of a misjudged but brief fashion statement. In the (unashamedly mythologised) history of the Factory records scene, ’24 Hour Party People’, their only appearance is in order for them to sport some khaki shorts on stage. Notably, they’re not in such attire today.

Let’s jump to the first encore track. A slow, sparse keyboard motif launched the number, which was then not replaced by but combined with a frenetic, pummelling groove. Notably, the main singer has the same dry, intonatory tones of New Order’s Bernie Sumner. While the second main singer (well, she’s more than a backing vocalist) emits rich, soulful tones. And when the band are working is when they manage to make those two things interlock.

Which may sound like a euphemistic way of saying we’re dealing with a mixed-race band. Something which surely shouldn’t be worthy of comment in this day and age. But there is more to it than that. Formed back in ‘77, ACR are generally thought of as part of the post-punk scene. A feature of which was white folks being influenced by contemporary black music in ways which wasn’t merely imitative, after seeing earlier imitations which had ended up as watered down and second rate.

Hence we have a white-boy, suit-and-tie take on funk, dubbed “funk noir” by Simon Reynolds. It’s restrained to the point of being clipped. The band’s name even comes from a Brian Eno lyric. The clarinetist, for example, plays not at all for much of the time. And when he does play he doesn’t play much, the briefest snatches, like he’s constantly thinking where and when to make his mark. But this white-boy funk, soon as invented, is recombined with the get-down world of black funk, cool colliding with cold. If it was a foodstuff it would be a sweet’n’sour.

But often the two don’t align so much as merge, and then they get along together too well. Which ends up as... well, a funk band. A very good funk band, admittedly, but one which hints at so much more. There’s no let up in quality to speak of, but there is one in originality.

It might seem a peculiarity of music history that ACR were one of the most prescient of post-punk bands, yet not one of the best remembered. (The Haunt’s packed out, but confined to us oldsters.) They were channelling a black American influence before New Order, despite both being Factory acts. They were serving up dance music via a band format some way before the Happy Mondays. Yet while I’ve quoted Simon Reynolds’ post-punk account ’Rip It Up And Start Again’ up above, he only really mentions them in passing.

But the answer may lie less in the ill-judged shorts than in a rephrasing of the question. The point of post-punk was to be awkward, to resist categorisation, to repel pigeon-holing, to become nail that couldn’t be hammered flat into the face of musical history. There remains to this day something inscrutable about the Fall and Joy Division, which makes them endlessly fascinating. Whereas ACR worked too well, too neatly.

Or perhaps the problem’s time. I’m woefully ignorant of the band’s history, but the thought occurs they may have sorted themselves into more of a regular funk band as time went on, their edge progressively blunted. Perhaps significantly, their first release, ’The Graveyard and the Ballroom’ was divided into ’Graveyard’ and ’Ballroom’ sides, yin opposing yang yet becoming it. Those more knowledgeable than me are welcome to comment...

Not from Brighton, despite the date YouTube gives it…

Con Club, Lewes, Sun 1st April

Almost a year after last landing in Lewes, 
the longstanding space jazz ensemble return, still honouring the memory of their now departed main main.

“If we came from nowhere here, why can’t go somewhere there?” runs one of their manta-like lyrics. And over the course of a nigh-on two-and-a-half hour set, they take in nowhere here (somewhat standard loungey jazz), somewhere there (places you’d neither been nor knew existed), all points between and – perhaps most bizarrely – both at once. It frequently felt like attending a cocktail party on Mars.

Not only that, but the whole gig seems programmed on shuffle, leaving you with no idea what would happen next, or where you’d find it on the scale between banal and sublime. There were sections I essentially took as the intermission between the features. But at other points I even found myself adapting to relay soloing, something I normally find anathema.

It’s actually less maddening than that description might make it seem, not least because of the ensemble’s cheery assurance that there’s a method somewhere in all their madness. As said last time “it's not chin-stroking music to chew on, it's joyous, exuberant and energising. If it doesn't quite teleport you to Saturn you can almost feel your feet lifting from the ground.” Band leader Marshall Allan, despite now being in his Nineties, really does lead, directing the ensemble and joining in himself. In their brightly coloured costumes, they even come across like some cosmic form of showbiz. Ensemble members leap into the audience from time to time, still playing, encouraging us to sing along.

In fact so strangely random was the set that with the two stand-out tracks, each came not as an opener or finale but at the mid-point in each of the two sets. One sung of angels and demons, and I would be hard pressed to describe it now. While the other was their anthem, ’Space Is the Place’. Except entirely different. 

In today’s bids for pseuds’ corner, imagine the recorded version as like being in the midst of sub-atomic particles, fragments ceaselessly turning and orbiting one another, according to some system clearly operating yet whose workings were inscrutable to you. While this version was based on a pulse. Over which the brass would at times line up and blast in unison, like birds along a telephone wire, and at others fly off in flurries.

Coming soon! Gig-going adventures will come again...