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...