Monday, November 26, 2007

Seasick!

On Saturday night I celebrated my 32nd birthday exactly two months late. The delay was down to my bicycle accident back in August, when I fractured my jaw in two places, rendering me unable to party for a while. Having been such a long time coming, and being my first big social occasion since the accident, the sense of anticipation was stronger than for the average party – I was excited and nervous, not least because I had no idea whether my stamina would last out the night. But despite sporting ridiculously high-heeled boots in which it was virtually impossible to walk - let alone dance - and a restrictively tight corset that led to several light-headed episodes, I had a ball! All my friends had risen to the challenge of the theme (Seasick!) with admirable imagination and enthusiasm, making for an impressive array of costumes and characters, and a fantastically silly atmosphere. Some live folk music from The Unisexuals, a misfortune telling booth, a tattoo parlour, and some ‘Stick It On’ type DJ-ing, all helped the night go off with a bang, and by all accounts, a good time was had by all - especially me.


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Music is the New Religion: Iron & Wine at St George's

A couple of weeks ago I went to see Iron & Wine at St George's church in my local village of Kemp Town. This still functional place of worship also serves as one of the best live music venues in Brighton - used regularly by top promoters Melting Vinyl to showcase an eclectic offering of alternative bands and artists. As well as boasting an amazing acoustic, thanks to its beautiful barrel vaulted ceiling, the church affords an unrivalled atmosphere that can turn a great gig into an almost spiritual experience. I'm pretty confident that the place never attracts such a prodigious crowd in respect of its primary religious function (other than possibly at Christmas), and I personally find it pleasing that in a time of widespread spiritual apathy, this lovely building has found another means to inspire the masses. Perhaps the most memorable moment of the gig, and a testament to the warm-fuzzy feeling engendered by the surroundings, was an amusingly middle-class and unusually friendly heckle between songs, when someone shouted: "This is brilliant, thanks" - a refreshing change from the typically inarticulate, and often disparaging cries, to which any regular gig-goer will have become accustomed. And it was certainly a most justified exclamation, judging by the collective whoops of agreement, which included my own enthusiastic seal of approval.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Hurrah for the Underdog

Last night I went to see Wicked for the third time - a Halloween outing organised by the lovely Neel, and a (very) belated birthday treat from me to Jo. I shall refrain from waxing lyrical about the show itself, as I have already blogged about it excessively, but I wanted to give well-deserved a nod to Cassidy Janson - the current Elphaba understudy - who was standing in for Kerry Ellis last night. Much of the cast has changed since Wicked opened in the West End just over a year ago, when the awesome Idina Menzel stole the show in the leading role. I was delighted to witness in Janson much that was lacking from (Menzel's successor) Ellis's execution of this intimidatingly demanding part - most notably a refreshing humility which suited the underdog nature of the role. Ellis had seemed too self-consciously starry when I saw her earlier this year, and also irritated the hell out of me with her grating Americanisation of the songs. Janson managed to avoid this trap, into which many British performers seem to fall these days - for which she scores huge brownie points in my critical eyes. Her diminuitve physical presence was more than made up for by a natural stage-presence that brought the necessary weight to the complex character of the wicked (or is she?) witch. So, hurrah for the underdog... or in this case, the understudy!




Cassidy Janson singing No Good Deed from Wicked

Monday, October 22, 2007

Middle Farm Apple Festival 2007

Having been absent from the party circuit for over six weeks now, it is with some trepidation that I have started re-introducing myself, and so The Middle Farm Apple Festival seemed the perfect non-threatening event at which to gently dip a toe into the social pond. I am a big fan of Middle Farm anyway, and a regular customer at their famous cider barn, which houses the National Cider & Perry Collection, as well as an impressive selection of real ales, fruit wines and liqueurs, and most importantly, pretty much every type of mead one could hope for. Their annual Apple Festival is a family-friendly event with local bands, fair-rides, food stalls, sheep-racing, Morris dancing, and gallons and gallons of cider. After popping into the Blind Lemon vintage fashion fair in Brighton on Sunday morning, I arrived at Middle Farm just in time to catch Carnival Collective, who describe themselves as: “a thriving group of musicians, dancers and artists...[combining] break-beat percussion, reggae, funk, house and other dance influences - played on traditional Brazilian instruments - with a rocking brass section, funky dancers and unique costumes and visuals.” This tres Brighton set-up brought the enthusiastically appreciative audience into a dancing frenzy - where it was heartening to see yummy mummies, crusties, kiddies, scarily blacked-up Morris Men (hmmm) and other random cider-fuelled red-eyed punters bopping happily together in the hay.

After a spot of fantastic people-watching and general mooching about in the sunshine, I spotted some friends and hooked up for the rest of the afternoon to watch Django Spears and the Mountain Firework Company. It was also good to have company in the heaving cider barn, where I purchased some Gregg's Pitt Hertforshire cider, apparently a rare find, and certainly extremely pleasing to my own critical taste buds. I also took a chance on some parsnip wine, which I have yet to sample, but am looking forward to sharing with Ant when he returns from his weekend away. Spotting a huge queue of traffic heading back towards Brighton on the A27, I turned left out of Middle Farm and took the scenic route along the coast via Alfriston and Newhaven. This also afforded me a prime view of the stunning autumnal sunset, rounding off the day beautifully.


Thursday, October 18, 2007

Nothing to Blog About

It's now been over six weeks since I fell off my bike and fractured my jaw, and I'm still off work, cursed with sleepless nights due to ongoing pain and discomfort. I haven't been blogging, largely because I've had nothing to blog about, being stuck at home. You'd think that having so much time off work would have encouraged me to do something creative - read all those books that have been piling up; learn how to use the swanky new camera I'd just been bought; start writing that novel I've always talked about. But no, the sad truth is, I have done NOTHING for the last few weeks. Well, nothing meaningful anyway. So, what have I been doing when I've been doing nothing? Sleeping, mostly... Since the accident I have yet to sleep through a night, being woken by an assortment of aches and pains – jaw, teeth, head, ears (they just decided to get in on the act in the last few nights), and so I've been laying in most days, and dozing during the day. I have also lost many hours to the various DVD boxed sets with which my good friend Tim supplied me – and am now a firm convert to the compellingly silly '24', in spite of my better judgement. I guess that however bad life feels for me right now, Jack Bauer probably has it worse, as he frantically fights fends off yet another earth-shattering threat to humanity – which rather puts things into perspective! I've done a little bit of work from home, keeping up to speed with my emails, so at least I don't have to face an overflowing inbox on my return. There's been a steady stream of visitors – including my darling 3-year-old nephew Isaac and his daddy (my brother), who came to stay overnight for the first time in ages. This reminded me how restorative the presence of children can be in times of crisis. Unlike my grown-up visitors, Isaac had no real conception of my maladies, and continued with his toddler demands and needs – a refreshing change of focus away from me. I much enjoyed winning the little boy's favour by introducing him to the indulgent joys of watching TV in bed (not something I ever do, but our spare room where he sleeps does have a TV & VCR), at which point any wariness he may have had about his auntie immediately evaporated, as we cuddled up under the duvet watching The Clangers and Bod.



My nephew, Isaac, with Natalie's little boy, Reggie in Queen's Park

I've indulged in a little well-needed pampering, courtesy of Ant, who treated me to a massage for my birthday. Then today I went for a haircut, and decided to change my style completely – a symbolic new start for my imminent return to civilisation. Despite my ongoing grievances, I am planning to return to the office next week, not least to preserve my sanity. It will be a long while before I am 100% back to my old self, as I still have much dental work to get done, and this has to wait until my jaw is fully healed, but being back at my desk and seeing my colleagues again will hopefully give me some semblance of normality. Meanwhile, I still have five more days to try and do something constructive. Or I could just finish season 2 of 24....

Saturday, September 15, 2007

A Smile Mourned

Just over two weeks ago I lost my smile. I left it in the road somewhere just off the A27, along the familiar cycle route that I take every day to work between Brighton and Lewes. I suppose I'd always taken the ability to smile and laugh for granted, never realising how much I used or valued it, until suddenly I was flying over the handlebars, hitting the road chin first, in a slow-motion catastrophe moment that will haunt me for the rest of my life. As I lay staring down at my shockingly blood-spattered clothes, spitting bits of my own teeth into my hand, the gravity of the situation started to sink in. I wasn't going to get up, brush myself down and get back on the saddle. I was going to need an ambulance. This was bad. As it turned out, I had fractured my jaw in two places and had damaged or lost several of my previously immaculate pearly whites (not so much as a filling in 32 years). So yes, my smile is literally broken, compromised, lost - at least until my jaw heals and I get my teeth fixed up. But I'm not only talking about the obvious physical damage - about which I am inevitably self-conscious - or even the prohibitively painful act of attempting to raise a grin with a broken jaw. The emotional impact of losing one's dignity in this way is enough to banish the desire to smile for some time. And now that I'm stuck at home convalescing, I have plenty of time to dwell on things, to sit feeling sorry for myself, thinking about everything I'm missing out on, and wondering if I'll ever feel the same again. Everyone keeps telling me it could have been worse, that in a way I'm lucky. The stoical side of me agrees with them. But even so, I can't help missing my old smile. I wish I'd appreciated it more when it was just effortlessly there.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Green Man Festival 2007

I can't imagine better compensation for enduring relentless downpours and trudging through endless mud-slicks for an entire weekend than being treated to some of the best live musicaround in one of the most magical settings in the country. Last weekend was my second time at the Green Man festival, and this year was even better than the last - which was pretty damned good! We arrived lateish on the Friday night, driving straight from work, and so missed most of the Friday acts. Though we were just in time to see Tunng, an affable 'folktronica' set-up, whowere attempting to raise people's waterlogged spirits by appearing in Hawaiian shirts and throwing beach balls into the crowd. Last time I witnessed a band attempt this kind of stunt at a festival (The Levellers, Glastonbury 1997), they were repaid with heartless mud-slinging! But Tunng kept the audience happy with their Kings-of-Convenience-meets-Captain twiddly-pop-folk, and the occasional comedy rock-out moment. Anything had to be better than the alternative on the main stage – the incensingly contrived Joanna Newsom – and it seemed most of Tunng's fans agreed. I actually overheard one guy say to his friend - who was departing to catch the last of the grating harpstress's set - (in a simultaneously sulky and jeering voice) “Go on then, enjoy your warbling...”.



Tunng in the Folkey-Dokey tent

After a deliciously reviving Saturday brunch at the Thali Café, we watched the Moon Music Orchestra before popping down to Crickhowell (the local village) to replace my wellies, which had unfortunately split just as the rain decided to settle in for the day. After lunch we saw the distinctly forgettable PG Six and the crowd-pleasing Broken Family Band, during which I spotted a fellow Brightonian in the audience – a friend of a friend who I've met a couple of times at parties. In true festival spirit I bounded over and introduced myself, much to his and his companion's bemusement. But once we'd established the connection, we got chatting and agreed to meet up later. Feeling pleasantly invigorated by this point, I fancied a boogie, so we decided to give the DJ tent a go. Peter Fowler was playing a mad mix of prog-rock and happy-house, and we threw ourselves into the throng with gusto, managing to take photos and dance at the same time! Justin Spear (of Freakzone fame, and son of the Bonzos Roger Ruskin Spear) was up next on the decks, and continued with an appropriately eccentric set, of which some uber-cool French lounge sticks most in my memory.



Dancers in the Rumpus Room

70s folk-legend Vashti Bunyan provided the perfect wind-down after all that dancing, and we sat on the hillside letting her soothingly ethereal vocals wash over us. Earlier in the day we'd spotted a mammoth bonfire being built in a tucked-away field, and this provided the perfect escape from the cringe-makingly cheesy Robert Plant, who was headlining the main stage. Eagerly soaking up the warmth of the now roaring fire, we sat listening to a guy nearby lecturing his genuinely enraptured friends on the secret life of bees. This set the tone for a wonderfully sociable evening of surreal banter, raucous laughter and plenty of spontaneous entertainment. There's something so primal about sitting with friends, or strangers, round a campfire. It seems to bring out one's tribal instinct, and in this case, enhanced the already convivial atmosphere of possibly the friendliest festival I've ever attended. Michael and Steve (the Brighton boys we'd bumped into earlier) joined us, making the experience all the more special - forging new friendships in such a magical context is a rare pleasure indeed. 4am rolled round before we knew it, and most of our gang decided to knock it on the head, leaving Michael about to get in on some energetic drum-jamming that was going down - and apparently he stuck it out til sunrise – respect!



Michael, Steve & Ant, bonding by the fire

Sunday brought a welcome end to the rain, and a fitful lie-in, during which I kept catching bizarre snippets of conversation, such as: “we've had a gazebo incident” outside the tent. Another hearty breakfast (this time from the Chai café) improved our mild jadedness no end, and set us up for a day of more outstanding musical exploits. First up were Soft Hearted Scientists, followed by the unsigned, but excellent Laughing Windows, who impressed with some mesmerising psychedelic prog-rock in the Do Make Say Think (but with vocals) mould. I'd been looking forward to introducing Ant to Misty's Big Adventure (who Jen and I had loved at last year's festival), and was pleased to see that they'd graduated to the main stage this year - where their infectious exuberance was given more room to breathe. We bundled right up to the front to get the full force of the Misty's experience, and so that I could take some snaps on my newly purchased Nikon D40x (geek alert!).



Misty's Big Adventure

A crazy mix of jazz, pop, klezmer and general madness, Misty's are perhaps the closest thing we have to the Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band on the contemporary scene. With amusingly acerbic lyrics and freak-out catchy choruses, complete with trippy stage dancing from the Blue-Meany-esque mascot Erotic Volvo, they were the perfect Sunday afternoon reviver, and a welcome antidote to many of the more downbeat folksters. Not that there's anything wrong with downbeat folksters, as The Yellow Moon Band proved with their softly meandering prog-outs. Man of the moment Malcolm Middleton provided the soundtrack to Ant's afternoon nap on the hillside, while I happily people-watched and snapped away with my new toy, soaking up the mellow atmosphere and laughing at kids rolling down the hill and giving each other presents of mud-cakes.



Excellent people-watching

The indisputable, and unexpected, highlight of my festival was delivered by My Brightest Diamond, whose lead singer Shara Worden oozes the kind of effortless rock 'n roll sex appeal that most artists can only dream about. Her arrestingly eerie rendition of Edith Piaf's Hymne L'Amour sent shivers down the collective spine of the audience, and left me visibly breathless and incapable of meaningful speech for a good while afterwards. Defying comparison, MBD mix elements of opera, cabaret and rock to astounding effect. Currently on tour in Europe (for dates/venues see: http://www.mybrightestdiamond.com/) - I strongly urge you to go and see them for yourself – you won't be disappointed!



The strikingly sexy and talented Shara Worden

After such an exhilarating performance, I was in need of something a little less intense, and John Renbourn provided the ideal tonic for my (pleasantly) battered senses. The jovial old-timer was on form as he captivated a packed-out tent of appreciative fans, young and old, with some classic old-school folk. Up at the Green Man Café (a paved area with a bar, reminiscent of Edinburgh Festival's Pleasance Courtyard), Canadian songstress Jill Barber coaxed the crowd up with friendly banter, to appreciate her pleasant Martha-Wainwright-ish ballads. The one act I had been dying to see, Devendra Banhart, turned out to be a bit of an anti-climax in the wake of my earlier musical epiphany. Certainly he has charisma, and plenty of rock 'n roll attitude, not to mention an impressively luxuriant mane, but I found much of the material he chose to perform with his band rather bland in comparison with the more acoustic folky stuff I've grown to love. Thankfully, what he lacked in musical impressiveness, he more than made up for in photogenicality (is that even a real word?) and I snapped some of my best shots of the festival during his set – which was also our last gig before driving home, shattered but replete. It had been a memorable weekend of musical discovery and sensory stimulation – great food, genial company, stunning scenery and an outstandingly mellow vibe (not a sniff of aggro, or a police officer to be seen, all weekend), all went a long way to ensuring that Green Man is a cut above the average festival, and I sincerely hope it stays that way for many years to come.



The Green Man: Devendra Banhart

LINKS
The Green Man Festival
Green Man - a Flickr photoset




My Brightest Diamond at Green Man - video on YouTube

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Burgers & Barbituates

If Elvis and I had ever had the opportunity to meet, I would have been a small, bald toddler (I didn't grow hair until much later) and he a fat, drug-addled middle-aged man. We wouldn't have had much to say to each other. But today, on the 30th anniversary of his death, I feel inspired to pay tribute to The King in my own small way. To me, the music of Elvis evokes memories of dancing with my dad at family parties - these were rare moments of intimacy between us, which I treasure deeply. It's been a while since I've seen him up the dancefloor (my dad, not Elvis), but I'm sure he still has some rock 'n roll left in his soul, even though he's now in his 70s. I've never learned to jive myself, though that is something I plan to rectify since getting into the whole rockabilly scene at nights like Toot Sweet at Bethnal Green Working Men's Club and Born Bad down in Brighton - where I find myself totally in awe, and consequently unusually self-conscious about my own free-form dance moves.

Today the radio has been awash with Elvis - bringing back happy memories for me, though not so popular with my boss (sorry Mel), who finds him 'repulsive' - a sentiment also shared by my own better half.
But whichever camp you fall into, there is no question that he is still very much alive in spirit, and apparently growing in popularity with a new generation of fans (thanks to BBC Breakfast for that gem). Personally, I find the idea that he died fat and undignified, and yet remains such a revered icon, strangely comforting... Burgers and barbituates all round, then?

Photograph: Elvis the Girl at Vavavavoom's Tiki night, Komedia, Brighton
(c) Jaded Lady - www.flickr.com/photos/rowstar

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Thoughts Like Bubbles

You know those days when you just wake up feeling down for no apparent reason - at odds with the world, out of sync, anxious - and yet you don't really know why? I had one of those mornings on Saturday - perhaps the subconscious effect of a bad dream, or buried tensions from the week bubbling up through the release of the weekend. Whatever the reason, I was off-kilter. Often it can take the littlest thing to dislodge a disquieted mood – an unexpected phone call from a friend, a smile from a stranger – but there are times when I have to consciously steer myself out of it. One way I do this is to latch onto those little moments going on around me, borrowing from other people's joy to feed my own. So, as I was sat waiting my turn in Barber Blacksheep on Saturday, feeling a rising tide of unexplained melancholy washing over me, I decided to distract myself by making a list of things around me that raised a smile... A grinning dad with a newborn in a sling; reading the superman comic strip on the pants of the skinny gay hairdresser in front of me (and wondering if Superman wears gay hairdresser pants); Someone quite clearly thrilled with their new haircut and proudly prinking in the mirror before paying; a glamorous old lady on the street with a flamboyant scarf and huge retro shades... These little observations, combined with the vanity boost of my own well-needed shearing, started to put me back on track, and in turn led me to accept a last-minute party invitation on a whim, when I had intended to stay home and wallow. I was glad I did. Just as a black mood can descend without warning, so a spontaneous adventure brings unexpected mirth. Piling into the back of Nikki's car, with some of my favourite people also in tow, I began to shed the earlier gloominess and let the spirit of summer fun take over. Trying not to think about the bit where I'd have to sleep on the floor with a bunch of strangers later in the night (not something I really do these days), I embraced the opportunity that mingling with strangers can afford – the chance to reinvent oneself, with the conspiratorial collaboration of one's own 'gang' - and to observe, influence and record the interactions and dynamics of an unfamiliar social circle. Interactive People-Watching! Continuing in the observational bent, I also felt compelled to complement the usual photographic evidence with some written notes of the night's proceedings, the highlights of which I shall share here – make of them what you will...

Heard & Spoken


“You can tell you lot are from Brighton, you look...alternative.”


“You can't get a haircut like that in Maidstone...”


“There were 19 badgers trying to eat my map of Surrey”


“The Amish beard is dead to me now”

"Are you married? Because you make a great cup of tea."

“What happens to those lost thoughts that evade one mid-sentence to float away and burst like bubbles? Do they sit in a corner, depressed because no one is using them, or do they just disappear forever?”

“The word 'jaded' sounds far more beautiful than the thing it describes"

“I tell you what is the great anomaly – the duck-billed platypus”

Mis-heard, Mis-spoken

“Drugs are SO Tacky”

“I was reberellious once”


“There's a cruel space between the walls”

“The friendly gay with a guinea pig”

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Losing Myself

I'm stir crazy, stuck indoors - staring mindlessly out of rain-streaked windows on another waterlogged weekend. It should be summer, but the rain just keeps on coming... I'm thinking back to 3 weeks ago when I was in Brazil. It seems longer, but the memories are still fresh... I've been keeping them safely stored away for a rainy day... A depressing, grey-hair inducing, soggy, nothingy rainy day, just like today... I'm closing my eyes just for a moment, reaching for that far-away place...

...I'm sitting in the trendy Ritz cafe on my first day out in Sao Paulo. I'm eagerly awaiting my lunch - the much-hyped Ritz quiche. Ezinda's having a berry caipirinha, but I'm still jet-lagged and am sticking to coke for the time being. We're joined by Ezinda's charming Brazilian friend Decio, and a giggly, gossipy lunch lingers on well into the afternoon. The quiche is delicious, and deserving of Ezinda's praise. I'm feeling excited, and full of anticipation about the coming weeks, wondering what this adventure will hold in store...



...I'm on the beach in Maresias, the first stop on our magical mystery tour. We've got pretty much the whole beach, and an excessive number of attentive waiters, to ourselves. Working our way through goodness know how many bottles of Bohemia weiss beer, we sit - reading, contemplating, zoning out, until the sun begins to set, and the waiters are packing up the chairs around us. Feeling all my stresses and worries drain away, I soak up the sound of the sea, the sensation of sand between my toes. I'm blissed-out, relaxed, and restored...



...I'm on the back seat of a jeep, on the island of Ilhabela, bumping along on the way back from another beach-slumming, inebriated afternoon. We're both listening to our own music, lost in the magic of the mata, and marveling at the lush greenery all around us, not to mention the handsome waiter in the front passenger seat, with whom we are too shy to make conversation...



...I'm wandering the historical, cobbled streets of Paraty, popping into little galleries, craft shops, cafés and cachacarias. Back at our charmingly quirky and wonderfully atmospheric pousada, I stop to fuss one of the many handsome cats belonging to its eccentric landlady. There are humming birds around the trees in the courtyard. It is evening now - Paraty is even more beautiful at night - and we're getting rather tipsy on an excellent bottle of Chilean wine at Banana da Terra, the best restaurant in town, according to the Rough Guide...


Pousada Gerainos

....I'm looking out of the bus window on the way to Rio. It's a never-ending postcard scene - a feast for the eyes. Filled with fluttery expectation as my arrival in this revered and notorious city looms, trees and mountains finally turn to buildings, traffic and bustling streets, and the occasional glimpse of Jesus looking down from his famous perch. Sampling Rio's legendary nightlife, we're knocking back caipirinhas in Lapa - a lively suburb with a vibrant music scene. Tom Do Brasil are up on stage, and we're doing our best to keep pace with the locals on the dancefloor, impressed and a little intimidated by the seemingly effortless samba and salsa going on around us...



...I'm people-watching on Copacabana, walking barefoot along the sand, all the way to Ipanema...



...I'm being watched by cheeky little macaque monkeys, their inquisitive faces looking down from the trees in a nature reserve in Espirito Santo. Inside the forest, I'm overwhelmed by the density, size and variety of trees and lianas (wooded climbers). Ezinda is translating admirably as our guide takes us through the woodland trail, pointing out interesting plants and trees, and telling us not to worry about the family of leopards that live here, as they only emerge at night...



...I'm sitting on a sand dune on a grey, windy day in Itaunas - a tiny, quirky place in the middle of nowhere. We're both feeling peaky from a bout of sickness the night before. But the bleak weather and my fragile state seem to enhance the experience somehow, as if the dunes demand an element of drama to be fully appreciated. I have the urge to walk and walk, to be lost here in this strange and exhilarating place, but instead we hobble back to our creaky treehouse-like pousada, hypnotised by the presence of dozens of eagles circling about above us...



...It's my last night in Brazil, and back at Ezinda's apartment, I'm drinking one of Peter's passionfruit caipirinhas. Looking out of the window at Sao Paulo at night – a seemingly endless metropolis - I'm floating between all kinds of longing. Soon I'll be home and all this will just be a memory...



...I open my eyes and I'm back in Brighton. It's still raining outside, but behind my eyelids there is a place I can go....

www.flickr.com/photos/rowstar

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Ben Parker at the Greys and Antibalas at Komedia

When questioned about my musical tastes, I tend to reply "eclectic", and am pleased to say that this claim can now be validated via my musical profile on Last.fm – an excellent music networking site that logs and charts the music you listen to on your computer, shows what your friends are listening to, allows you to make recommendations and find people with similar tastes to you, as well as generating weekly and rolling charts of your most listened to tracks and artists. As both an online geek and passionate music lover, this was a natural addition to my (some would say, excessive) online activity, and I’ve been intrigued to see how my own charts have progressed from week to week, and to discover who are my most musically compatible friends. It came as no shock to see Boo Hewerdine permanently topping the overall list of favourite artists, closely followed by current favourites Arcade Fire, but the rest has been more of a surprise. I have taken to using the ‘generate similar artists’ function as a great way to expand my musical horizons. One of these sessions threw up a track by Antibalas, who I had come across before, on some compilation or other, and liked, so it was a welcome reminder. Then a few days later, I happened to see that they were playing at Komedia, and jumped at the chance to see them live.

At first listen, one could be forgiven for presuming that Antibalas are a classic Africa-funk band, in the Fela Kuti mould. So I was genuinely surprised to see a predominantly white American line-up when they walked on stage, and a middle-aged geeky looking bunch at that. The exception being the lead singer/bongo-player, who obligingly fulfilled the expected cliché, with tribal make-up, dreadlocks and a flamboyant suit. The African vibe certainly dominates the band's overall sound, but there are other, subtler influences which give them an edginess sometimes absent from the more straightforward funk genre. I spent most of the gig possessed by a dancing frenzy that also appeared to have seized the rest of the crowd. It’s impossible not to at least tap a foot along to their infectious rhythms, and the atmosphere was positively banging (not a word I use lightly) as the rambling, fevered funk tunes maintained a consistently contagious pace, keeping everyone on their feet, and grinning manically.

In complete contrast to Friday’s sweaty funk-fest, Monday brought a much gentler evening of live music from the newly solo Ben Parker, formerly one half of cult acoustic duo Ben & Jason. Alongside Boo Hewerdine, Ben & Jason afforded some of the most significant and enduring music of my early adulthood, accompanying and enhancing many of its defining moments - packing my bags to leave home, the first time my future husband told me he loved me, mourning the death of a dear friend - they were always there, providing a soundtrack that was both comforting and challenging, soothing and uplifting. An equally defining moment was the day I heard that B&J were to split - and will happily admit to shedding real tears at their farewell gig at the Jazz Café. I have since maintained an active interest in their respective solo projects – Jason as a successful comedy writer and Ben in his various musical exploits. Now going it alone, with a slightly more mainstream sound, Ben Parker is currently re-establishing his presence on the circuit, with intimate gigs in various pub venues. I was lucky enough to catch one of these at the lovely Greys pub in Hanover – a tiny but well-respected establishment, famous locally for its impressive selection of Belgian beer, and an eclectic live music programme that includes a regular Monday night Folk club.

Ahead of Ben’s headline slot, two local bands – The Boy Who Kicked Pigs and Red Feather – set the tone nicely with mellow folk tunes and friendly banter. The little pub was packed out by the time the man himself came on stage, and there was a buzzy, anticipatory atmosphere among the 30-something, coupley crowd (a distinct departure from the Greys’ usual beardy-fleece-wearing-old-school-folk clientele). Mr Parker had the audience immediately enraptured with an intensely passionate, foot-stamping rendition of Angels & Demons – a catchy pop ballad with folky undertones - and certainly the stand-out track of the night for me. Then suddenly the back of my neck was prickling as Ben demonstrated the true power and quality of his vocals - ditching the microphone and belting un-plugged for a moment during the bittersweet love song Survive the Rain. The combination of that familiar, affecting voice, and some elegantly poignant lyrics had me welling up all over again. I did miss the droll repartee that Mr Hazeley used to bring to the proceedings (no wonder he ended up in comedy), but Parker has certainly proved that he has the necessary to go it alone, and I for one wish him all the best in his burgeoning solo career.

Links
www.last.fm/user/Rowstar
www.antibalas.com
www.myspace.com/benparkermusic
www.myspace.com/theboywhokickedpigs

Recommended Listening



Still mulling over Brazil...

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Ride of My Life

Life has been so hectic lately that I hardly know where to start with the backlog of potential blogging material that has accumulated. Adventures in Brazil, training for (and successfully completing) the London to Brighton Bike Ride, a spate of live music exploits, a growing addiciton to Crackbook, er, I mean Facebook, writing freelance music and book reviews for various websites and magazines, as well as holding down a 9-5 job, has meant that my self-indulgent 'life journal' writing has been put on a bit of a back-burner, which I plan to try and rectify this week. But while I'm still buzzing from yesterday's big bike ride, I shall share a few thoughts about the day...

As most of my friends are well aware, I managed to avoid, and indeed consciously spurn, any kind of meaningful exercise for the best part of 30 years - unless of course you count the drunken flailing that happens when I hit the dancefloor. So when I decided to start cycling 8 miles to work in Lewes last year, the result was something of a revelation. I surprised myself by actually enjoying it! After several months of two-wheeled commuting, I found myself bursting with energy and several dress sizes smaller. My friend Mat also cycles to work - about 6 miles - and we both thought it would be fun to put our calf muscles to the test by doing a sponsored ride, so the London to Brighton seemed the obvious choice. As well as cycling, we both also share a passion for dressing up, and couldn't resist the opportunity to show off in front of thousands of fellow cyclists, not to mention the many appreciative spectators:



Me and Mr Smith as Penelope Pitstop &the Hooded Claw


Having opted for the earliest start time - 6am - we stayed over with friends in London the night before, and were up and raring (well, almost) at 4.45am. There was a bit of a queue at Clapham Common, and we finally got away around 6.45, after an hour or so of jolly banter and people-watching. The first couple of hours was slow-going, with narrow country lanes causing several bottlenecks, and less able cyclists struggling with some tiny hills, holding us all back. Eventually the roads opened up, and the riding became more pleasurable, especially with the beautiful Surrey and Sussex scenery rolling past. We made a few 'comfort' stops at various official refreshment points, and eventually cruised across the finish line at about 1pm, feeling smugly triumphant as a crowd of well-wishers cheered us in. Mat had cause to feel extra pleased with himself, as he managed to cycle up all of the notoriously steep and lengthy Ditchling Beacon, where most people choose to get off and push. I got about half-way and was seized by an unfortunate cramp in the groin, so I reluctantly joined the walkers, jumping back on for the last 100 yards or so to the top, where Mat was sat on a bank, having a well-earned rest and enjoying the lovely views.


The atmosphere all day was generally friendly and excitable, with only a few 'serious' cyclists seeming to resent the rest of us 'amateurs', grumpily speeding past and ignoring the Marshals' instructions to"keep to the left". I felt proud of my body for holding out, and especially for not hurting too badly today. In fact my legs and bum are fine - bizarrely, it's my shoulders and upper back which are suffering most. But despite the mild discomfort, I can really understand how people get addicted to this sort of thing, and am already thinking about what my next bike adventure will be. Perhaps a cycling holiday rather than another sponsored event, at least for a little while. My friends and family have been very generous in their donations, and it would be rather cheeky to ask them to cough up again too soon! In fact, I exceeded my £100 target by £115, raising £255 in total. So, a big "thank you" to everyone who sponsored me. Anyone else who would like to contribute, can still do so at: http://www.bhf.org.uk/sponsor/rowstar


More photos of the event can be seen at my Flickr page: www.flickr.com/photos/rowstar


Brazil blog coming soon...

Monday, May 21, 2007

Great Escape Festival 2007

Having spent the last few days indulging in one of my favourite hobbies - jumping up and down to live music - I am positively itching to blog about all the brilliant (and some awful) bands I've seen. But as I am off to Brazil in three days, and have a sales conference at work for the next two, it's unikely that I'll have time to write anything halfway decent. So instead, here is a photo-diary of my favourite bits of the festival...



One of the first bands we saw, ZZZ - from the Netherlands, were an eccentric mix of jazz hammond and hard rock drumming/vocals. Brilliant for stomping about to in my big green gig boots, and getting me well and truly in the festival spirit.



Wiflully kooky Icelandic songstress Hafdis Huld is produced by the delightful and hugely talented singer-songwriter Boo Hewerdine - and the influence shows in her witty lyrics and catchy melodies.



The very pretty guitarist from Californian rock band The Airborne Toxic Event. This was one of those fortuitous accidental gigs - we had expected to see someone else entirely - but they turned out to be really good. Definite shades of The Arcade Fire, but rockier and less tender.



There were various 'secret' gigs organised throughout the festival, for those subscribed to the text message info service. One of these was Foals, which kept being postponed due to weather conditions, and finally kicked off at Horatio's - a seedy karaoke bar at the end of the pier. Despite the odd choice of venue, there was a brilliantly spontaneous vibe about the gig, which complemented the youthful band's amazing energy and physicality. I spent the entire set dancing on the back of a sofa - trashing the furniture in true rock 'n roll style!



The Magic Numbers were one of the biggest names at a festival largely dedicated to 'new' and 'upcoming' bands. We hadn't actually intended to see them, but had bagged ourselves a good spot at the previous gig (Captain) in the same venue, and so decided to give them a go. Having been largely underwhelmed by both their (arguably over-produced) albums, I was pleasantly surprised and enthused by their infectiously ebullient and impressively rocking live performance.



Possibly my favourite shot of the whole festival, this shows one of the members Benni Hemm Hemm contemplating some sort of wacky home-made persussion instrument. This was at our final gig - part of an Icelandic music showcase at the Duke of York's - and a wonderfully mellow end to a rather frantic few days.

Loads more photos of The Great Escape, and other Brighton Festival happenings, are on my flickr page at: www.flickr.com/photos/rowstar

Friday, May 11, 2007

Heavenly Bodies

The Caesar Twins, Udderbelly, Brighton Festival Fringe, 10th May 2007

Last year’s La Clique at the gloriously decadent Spiegeltent was undoubtedly the highlight of my 2006 Brighton Festival (see my previous blog Beautiful Freaks), and remains the subject of fond reminiscences among the group friends with whom I went. The combination of a uniquely atmospheric venue and a quirky mix of sideshow cabaret acts - all held together with a mutual sense of twisted eccentricity – appealed to my theatrical heritage, and sparked an interest in the Burlesque scene, which has since led me onto other events such as Lost Vagueness. Sadly, both the Spiegeltent and La Clique are conspicuously absent from this year’s festival - the former being replaced by a giant upturned purple cow, The Udderbelly, which is currently dominating the Steine gardens along with a collection of smaller animals. One of the acts appearing at this unusual venue is The Caesar Twins – a Polish acrobatics outfit (& yes, they are really twins) who have previously toured as part of La Clique (though not when I saw it), and were recently described by the Brighton Argus as: “like seeing a whole circus but with just two performers”. After all the hype - including an interview on the oh-so-glamorous BBC South Today - I was keen to judge for myself, and braved the elements last night to meet some friends in the Asahi Pasture (the official Fringe bar) ahead of my first festival outing of 2007.

The atmosphere in the beer tent beforehand was somehow enhanced by the inclement weather outside - as the usual festival suspects huddled together round the gas heaters, leaving it ‘til the very last minute to dash across the muddy gardens and into the colourful bovine arena. Rather letting down its strikingly wacky exterior, the inside of the Udderbelly is disappointingly underwhelming – especially in comparison to its lavish predecessor. This may partly account for the general lacklustre vibe of the show itself. It’s amazing how much the context can contribute to the overall experience of a performance – and this was a prime example. The acrobatic feats themselves were indisputably astounding, even at times arousing, but as a production it lacked the drama and atmosphere of La Clique. Theatre critic Lyn Gardner put her finger on the problem when reviewing the show for the Guardian last year, rightly observing that: “what has a big wow factor in small doses in cunningly produced shows such as the knowingly naughty La Clique, looks mighty thin when stretched to 80 minutes in a traditional theatre”.

Despite my artistic reservations, I couldn’t say I was ever actually bored during the performance. There were some interesting (if not particularly well executed) ideas in place, and I found the whole set-up intriguing from a psychological perspective – closely contemplating not just the (frankly, fucking hot) bodies of Pablo and Pierre, but the intricacies of their twin-ship, and the way in which it evidently affects their onstage relationship - both physical and otherwise. This was reinforced by various photo and video montages of their lives together – from childhood gymnastic tournaments, right up to a near-fatal accident in which Pablo fell 40ft from the ‘Wheel of Death’ during a live performance in 2002. These more serious elements were balanced out by some welcome moments of humour, such as a cheeky stunt in which one of the twins cunningly flicked off his trousers mid-backflip, whilst bouncing on a giant inflatable mattress (kind of like a bouncy castle without sides). This saucy manoeuvre had most of the girls in the audience instantly shedding layers of clothing and fanning themselves, while the menfolk shuffled in their seats, self-consciously contemplating their paunches. A torrent of giggling girls in the ladies’ loo afterwards was testament to the rousing effects of this dextrous duo – perhaps best summed up as the thinking woman’s answer to the Chippendales…

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Djinn of the Tin

In between drinking gallons of ale (my new favourite tipple), buying a purple steston and some matching converse trainers, grooving to swing at a working men’s club in the East End, and making several abortive attempts to complete the Guardian crossword with a hangover this bank holiday weekend, I have also inadvertently become a virtual spiritual guide to a complete stranger. Allow me to explain… During the first instalment of Bank Holiday Indulgence (or BHI for short), I was in The Basketmakers with some friends - reading, as you do, the various scribblings stashed within the vintage tins that are nailed to its walls (see my previous blog ‘Brighton’s Best Pubs’). Some of these notes are mildy amusing observations, others barely legible drunken scrawlings. At the same time, Ant was handing out his shiny new Moo cards, and I was suddenly inspired to leave my own diddy calling card (I had them first!) in one of the tins, just to see what would happen. Of course I accepted the fact that I might gain a stalker, or that my image would be torn up and used as roach material by some grateful stoners, but my adventurous streak won over and, egged on by Damien, I picked a suitable tin – fairly high up the wall – in the hope that someone equally adventurous would find me. Two days later, whilst slumming around recovering after another night of BHI with friends in London (see my Flickr page for photographic evidence), I received a photo text of the tin in which I had left my card, simply saying: ‘found u in this tin’. After a few seconds hesitation, I playfully replied: ‘I’m the genie of the tin, you have three wishes… Be careful what you wish for!’, hoping that my finder would be on the same wavelength, and join in my little game. Maybe it’s something about living in Brighton, and the sense of eccentric affinity that exists between many of its residents (particularly in lovely ‘locals’ pubs like The Basketmakers), which made me pretty confident that they would - and my instinct proved right when the following text exchange then took place:

‘Djinn of the Tin, my first wish would be to meet you in the flesh’

‘Ah, but since I am non-corporeal this may prove somewhat problematic.’

‘Ok, ethereal states it is! In that case may my first wish be the privilege to text you at any time as my non-corporeal spirit guide offering astute guidance! Hehe’

You may call upon my infinite wisdom as requested, but beware – I shall not be accountable for the consequences of any advice so bestowed…’

‘Your disclaimer is duly noted. I shall not squander the wish that you have granted. Just about to take my first steps into a giant purple cow!’

‘Oh Genie of the Tin, my second wish is to have permission to keep the card that I discovered, rather than returning it to whence it came.’

I shall grant this wish, but on the condition that after your third wish, you become the genie and leave your own image in the tin for the benefit of another lost soul.’

‘Oh Genie of the Tin, I will honour the wish that you have granted. I would now call upon your infinite wisdom to ask, are all love stories the same? And what should I serve for dessert this evening?’

‘All love stories have definite similarities, but differ according to the lovers’ individual experience. Personally I favour lime & chocolate cheesecake.’

‘I am most grateful for your words of wisdom this evening. I think we each choose our own paths through each experience life has to offer. Lime and chocolate cheesecake sounds delightful. I shall not disturb you again today.’

I still don’t know whether my wisher is male or female, or anything else about them for that matter, but I am enjoying my new-found status as a virtual spiritual guide, and am rather tickled by this spontaneous/anonymous exchange. I wonder what their third wish will be…

Monday, April 23, 2007

Glastonbury - I'm So Over It

Glastonbury may be considered the apogee of the UK music festival circuit, but personally I find the whole set-up all rather too intimidating these days. Even when I last went in 1998, it had become self-consciously commercial, boringly mainstream and knackeringly vast to negotiate (especially in the mud). This year's prohibitively convoluted ticket-buying process then served to drain any remaining dregs of enthusiasm and sentimentality I may have had for Mr. Eavis's legendary West-Country shin-dig. Happily, there is no shortage of alternatives now on offer, with new festivals popping up all over the place every year – so many in fact that it's becoming increasingly difficult to choose. So here are own humble suggestions – an entirely subjective selection, based on personal taste and anecdotal evidence, and as always open to further recommendations from fellow festy enthusiasts...

Great Escape, 14th-17th May, Brighton
As Brighton resident, Great Escape offers me the chance to take in 3 days of top bands in my home town, get a good night's sleep in my own bed, take a hot shower every morning, and even pop home to use the loo without having to wade through muddy fields to do so... ah, bliss! So I had to include this
civilised urban festival option which, even if you don't live in Brighton, has much to recommend it. You could stay in one of hundreds of cool, kitsch or traditional hotels, B&Bs or hostels, and enjoy the general buzz of the city-by-the-sea in May, when the now massive Brighton Festival is in full swing. This year I'm particularly excited about seeing Nouvelle Vague, CSS, Archie Bronson Outfit, Hafdis Huld - and of course will be on a mission to discover new bands amongst the diverse line-up.


Latitude, 12th-15th July, Henham Park, Suffolk
Billing itself as 'More Than Just a Music Festival', Latitude started in 2006 and was widely praised for its alternative take on the usual festival set-up - offering a variety of activities beyond the standard music and stalls combo. Set in the bucolic surroundings of the historic Henham Park in Suffolk, Latitude promises a relaxing rural vibe in which to take in these eclectic diversions, which include literature, comedy,
theatre, cabaret and children's activities as well as an impressive bands line-up – this year topped by the hottest hipsters of the musical moment, Arcade Fire. Having been bowled over by their performance in London last month, their presence alone would be enough to tempt me Suffolk for a second sampling, but I have a feeling that ‘The Fire’ will just be the icing on what looks to be a very tasty cake of a festival. And if AF is the icing, then Dylan Moran, who I have just heard will be playing the comedy arena on the Saturday, will be the shambolically sharp Irish cherry on top.

The comedy tent at Latitude 2006

The Green Man, 17th - 19th August, Glanusk Park, Brecon Beacons
Also set in a beautiful countryside location, Green Man is essentially a folk festival, but stretches the boundaries of this genre in its eclectic line-up - with everything from folkatronica to folk-rock on offer. Last year I discovered Archie Bronson Outfit (who are now one of my
favourite contemporary bands), and with 3 stages - all within easy walking distance - there is no excuse for not expanding one's musical horizons by taking a chance on new and unfamiliar bands. The general vibe is chilled and respectful, with lots of families - and children running about happily amongst the friendly, un-threatening crowd. A myriad of global culinary treats on offer puts the usual festival burger and noodle bars to shame, and the condition of the conveniences remained refreshingly salubrious in comparison to my distressing Glastonbury experiences. Reason enough to make the trek to Wales in my opinion…


Marshmellow, 24th-26th August, Somewhere in Sussex
I only just came across this low-key local festival, when a flyer was thrust into my hand whilst at a Rock Karaoke/Can Can night (don't ask) in
Brighton last weekend. I have no idea what it will be like, or even where it is as yet, but from what I gather so far, it seems to be aspiring to a Lost Vagueness type set-up - with burlesque cabaret acts appearing alongside local unsigned bands, as well as alternative therapies and other such hippy-stoner malarkey. Watch this space for further info if, like me, you are intrigued…


Bestival, 7-9th September, Robin Hill Country Park, Isle of Wight
The first thing that attracted me to Bestival was the massive fancy dress procession which takes place on the Saturday night, that and the fact that it has to be more appealing than the island's other uninspiringly mainstream festival earlier in the summer, which, frankly, left me cold last year. I've only heard positive things about Bestival from friends who’ve been, and I’m hoping to judge for myself this year. So far the line-up doesn't particularly appeal, but this will only force me to be more adventurous in my choices of bands, and hopefully come away with some new gems - always a big plus of festival-going in my experience.


All this festy talk is making me come over all giddy with anticipation – still, at least I’ve only got 3 weeks to go until the first one on my hitlist, and I don't even have to dust off the wellies for it... result!

Monday, April 16, 2007

Complicated Lives Seem Less So By Candlelight

“She knitted a jumper, it was child abuse…”

Nick Sheldon, 2007

If only I had been carrying a notepad with me in which to record the many inspired, insane and occasionally profound utterances of my friends over the last few days, I would have enough material for my own (admittedly, surreal) stand-up show. Not that there’s ever a shortage of witty banter amongst my social group, but this weekend’s spontaneous assemblage afforded some of the most quotable yet. I discovered Nick’s immortal words scribbled in my barely legible handwriting on a piece of paper in the garden this morning, having no recollection of writing them or indeed of the context in which they were spoken (perhaps Nick or Harry can help me out?).

It all kicked off on Thursday, when a quick drink after work resulted in accidental tipsiness and the drowning of sorrows between a few emotionally fragile friends, or as we’re now calling ourselves “The Fuckest-Uppest Club”. Then on Friday, Mat arrived back in Brighton with Erika, his visiting Californian friend - who shares with me a penchant for showtunes and sarcasm - and soon there was singing in the street and bonding over chocolate martinis. After a suitably robust hangover brunch in the garden on Saturday morning, the three of us spent the day soaking up the sun on the beach, catching up with other friends, and consciously staying sober (on my part, in an attempt to avoid a repeat of last weekend’s beer-bender-fuelled antagonisms). A highlight of the day was a tour of Embassy Court - the recently refurbished art-deco building on the seafront (previously referred to as ‘Sarajevo Heights’ - before its restoration) in which Mat’s friends Sue and Paul own a flat with the most amazing view over Brighton. Then I discovered that Erika had never tried (or even heard of) Pimms, and my desire to provide the complete British seaside town experience outweighed my not-drinking-until-after-7pm resolve. We sat out in the garden back at home, joined by Damien - who kindly brought with him the essential Pimms accoutrements – and so began another evening of jollity and inebriation.

A quick pint at the Barley Mow was followed by a session at the (not nearly so nice) Sidewinder, at which virtually everyone I know in Brighton, plus a generous supply of non-native weekend visitors, appeared at some point. Being such a balmy night, we took over the beer garden and sat bantering by candlelight until we were forced back inside (the perils of pubs in residential areas). I did feel for Erika, being parachuted into a melange of random strangers - a significant percentage of whom are currently sporting the emotional scars of recent romantic vexations (although one or two embody the exact opposite – you know who you are, lovebirds!). But in typically laid-back Californian style, she charmed her way around the assortment of casualties, distracting us from our complicated lives (thanks love!). An abortive mission to go dancing (we’d left it too late to get in anywhere) was substituted by a brief session on the beach, during which Matty Mo was on one of his bonfire missions. I’m still chuckling to myself at the mental image of him walking towards us with a 12 foot scaffolding plank, then enlisting the help of passing strangers in finding further kindling, including an entire tree – roots and all. Further hilarity ensued when one of these conscripts compared Matty’s fire-building determination to that of Frodo the Hobbit, taking the ring to Mordor (it’s not the first time Matty’s likeness to a Hobbit has been pointed out). Feeling chilly, and slightly nauseous thanks to the toxic fumes from melting tetrapaks, Erika, Mat and I left Matty/Frodo with his new-found friends and made our way back up Freshfield Road. In his intoxicated state, Mat rather endearingly described the sensation of walking uphill as “like walking along a flat surface, but with your head inclined at an angle”, or words to that effect. Also feeling pleasantly altered, I found myself physically attached to Erika the entire way, but luckily she was cool about it.

Sunday entailed the inevitable after-effects of over-indulgence, but was much improved by a decent brunch at Café 32, followed by paper-reading in Queen’s Park all afternoon - during which we were joined by Damien and his current (rather lovely) squeeze, Gavin. Mat & Erika deferred their reluctant return to London and stayed to partake of the roast dinner that I’d drunkenly promised Nick and Harry the night before - and a civilised start to the evening (vomit anecdotes notwithstanding - thanks Harry) descended into the expected rum-swigging session, and further noteworthy sound-bites (see above). My sorry physical state today is more than compensated for by an underlying sense of wellbeing brought about by the love, humour and kindness of those beautiful people that I feel honoured to call my friends. Photographic evidence of this lovely weekend, and those gorgeous folk who absolutely made it, is online at: www.flickr.com/photos/rowstar.