Friday, May 30, 2008

My Grandma Is Johnny Cash

The latest addition to Brighton's thriving music scene, XVII The Hangman, played their debut gig last night upstairs at the Prince Albert, supporting the skinny-jeaned Dirty Socials. Declaring itself "the most Rock n Roll pub in Brighton", the distinctly divey Albert can certainly claim to have played host to more than a few future luminaries in its time. And based on last night's impassioned performance, there's every reason to believe that XVII The Hangman will be the next proud notch on the pub's metaphorical musical bedpost. The 'sounds like' section of the band's obligatory myspace page reads: "A bit Cave a bit Waits a bit Doors a bit Ceefax music... and some gypsy type jazz tango things thrown in because we can" which is exactly how I would have described them, had I got in first.

I was there in the capacity of official photographer and friend to the lead singer, Nick Sheldon (formerly of Low Frequency Dive - pictured right). When I asked Sheldon afterwards how he felt the gig had gone, he seemed uncharacteristically ebullient, gushing: "I've never felt more alive. I will die happy one day, and tonight has helped me towards my cause of smiling my arse off when I'm dead." He then tried to palm me off with some feeble Lark Trap about the band members having met and bonded in the dark during a power cut, but it actually transpired that they had found each other using community website Gumtree. By this point, a sizeable crowd had gathered outside, led by the inevitable smoking contingent, and there was a real post-gig buzz in the air. Throwing myself into the throng with notebook in hand, I asked a few of the punters for their first impressions of XVII The Hangman. Here's what I got:

"Dirty, dirty and a bit sort of gritty, but definitely dirty. Absolutely." Vicky

"I nearly wet my pants." Erin

"A big bleached cake-hole." Anonymous

"They were great - black and gold like a duracell battery" Lee-Roy

"The Dirty Socials - they're the ones." Moxie

"Orgasmic!" Harriet

"Awe-inspiring. I'd like to hear more." Dylan

"No comment." Dan

"I hate hypocrisy." Mat

"The first time I've seen the real Nick Sheldon on true musical form." Brian

"I didn't even see them." John

XVII The Hangman will next be playing at the (free) Shoreham Beach Dreams Festival on Sunday 8th June. Sadly, I won't be able to make it, as I'll be rehearsing for my own musical comeback - a charity concert at Hailsham Pavilion which will take place later that same evening. But if you have the luxury of motor transportation, there's no reason that you can't do both. Oh, and if you want to know the significance of the post title, you'll have to ask Mr Sheldon.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Missed It? Missed Out!

Brighton Festival is done and dusted for another year, leaving some of us with the faintly smug sensation that follows protracted cultural indulgence, while others (most of my friends included, it transpires) kick themselves for having let the entire thing pass them by for yet another year. We always try to sample offerings from all across the cultural board during the festival, and the 'drama' box was ticked on Friday evening, when we squeezed into the upstairs function room at the Open House pub for the excellent Power Lunch - a twisted sexual comedy by the writer of American Beauty.

The Sunday before, we'd popped to the Charleston Festival for a literary event with one of my favourite writers, Jonathan Coe - who joined the founder of Virago Press, Carmen Calill, to celebrate 30 years of that esteemed publisher of women's writing. I had lugged along my well-read copy of What a Carve Up! to be signed, only to become stupidly star-struck upon meeting its author, forgetting to take it out of my bag. I did buy two new books at the event though - a Rosamond Lehmann novel with an introduction by Coe, and his own most recent fiction offering, The Closed Circle, both of which he did sign.

No festival is complete without a good old nose round your neighbours' houses under the pretence of looking at art - so in between planning, enjoying and recovering from Saturday night's party; a sociable Sunday lunch at The Dover; and a doomed comedy show (which I shall shortly come onto); we also managed to squeeze in some Artists Open Houses at the weekend. The highlight of these was 'Preparing for Emergencies' on Bentham Road - a slightly tongue-in-cheek response by a group of artists to an arguably paranoid government initiative.

Sadly, our final official festival outing yesterday was something of a let-down - quite literally in fact - when we found ourselves being hurried out of a suddenly deflating venue. The 'Udder Place', an inflatable dome next to the soul-less Udderbelly, is possibly the worst performance venue I have ever come across. Basically an upside down bouncy castle, it requires continuous air compression, a noisy process over which the performers struggle to be heard. Someone apparently described the experience of seeing a show there as "like trying to watch Doctor Who while your Mum's hoovering", which is pretty accurate. As if this wasn't enough to contend with, The cast of The Ornate Johnsons were also cursed with technical problems and failing radio mics from the start of their Sunday night show. The dramatic collapse and resulting evacuation of the venue only ten minutes into their set was the nail in the coffin of an already uncomfortably painful show.

Thankfully, we still have one event left this Friday, which I hope will serve as a more positive festival finale, despite falling outside its formal schedule. Bom Bane's the Musical takes place in the intimate surroundings of Bom Bane's restaurant, and consists of a three course meal interspersed with songs from 2007 Festival Award winners. The best things is that we've already paid up front for the meal, so it will seem like a fabulous free treat on the night!

For the benefit of the disorganised masses who missed out on this year's Brighton Festival, here are my personal highlights, so that they can see/hear/read what they missed, from the comfort of their own homes:

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

23 Bands in Three Days

One of my favourite things to do for fun is bounce around (or occasionally sit contemplatively) to live music. I'm not really into big stadium concerts at all (not since my rock-chick days of the early nineties anyway) - I prefer the intimacy of pub gigs, especially when it is a fairly un-heard-of band at the start of a promising career. Brighton is a brilliant place to do this, with lots of cool little venues putting on a wide variety of music, catering to all tastes. My regular gig haunts include Komedia, The Greys, Concorde2 and St George's Church in Kemp Town. We even have our own music festival - The Great Escape - which is predominantly about promoting new bands, and takes place in exactly those sorts of little venues all around the city.

Great Escape is more about broadening one's musical horizons than paying homage to existing favourites, and with that in mind, we embarked on our second year of this festival almost completely clueless as to what we'd like to see or even who many of the bands were. It worked out really well, and we saw a total of 23 bands over three days, which is not bad going, especially considering the other half was cursed with toothache (oh how I sympathise) on and off throughout. On the surface, Great Escape looks like a fairly bland indie festival, with bands 'du jour' such as The Wombats and Vampire Weekend topping the bill, but dig a little deeper and you can discover some surprisingly eclectic and esoteric artists. The sheer number of acts on offer means that if you end up at a duff gig, it's no bother to skip across to something better. We did this on a couple of occasions, but on the whole, the standard was pretty high.

One of my favourite moments of the festival was Rum Shebeen (top left), a skiffle/ska band who busked an acoustic set outside Horatio's bar between gigs, proving that you don't need fancy equipment and distortion pedals to make great music. A 'secret' gig from We Are Scientists (above, right) outside audio was massively over-subscribed, but we wangled ourselves a fantastic view from the Amsterdam bar next door. Other highlights included John & Jehn (who delivered an excellent set, despite infuriating sound problems) at the Parlure Spiegeltent, Peter Von Poehl (multi-instrumental Scandy-rock in the Tim Christensen vein - bottom right) at the Old Market, Turning Green (crazy chair-dancing!) at the Albert and Black Mountain (left) at the Old Market. I was gutted that Ant missed this last gig, when the toothache got the better of him and he ducked out before they came on for the headline slot. It would have been right up his street - psychedelic prog rock in the Hawkwind tradition, tightly executed and extremely moshable.

My overall experience of this year's Great Escape was a hugely positive one, but I should mention a couple of downsides. For one thing, they really need to sort out the often misleading, not to mention mis-alphabetised (you sort by surname, fools!), programme, which tried to be clever with (not very) witty copy, but didn't really tell you anything useful about the bands. And once again, there was the problem of those pesky industry types, rudely shouting to their mates (who were often standing right next to them) while the rest of us were trying to actually listen. Why do they even bother to come along? And why doesn't someone deal with them? You wouldn't get away with that level of disturbance at any other performance. Hopefully there won't be anyone like that spoiling Seth Lakeman's gig tonight at the Spiegeltent (part of the Fringe Festival). Fingers crossed, they'll have sorted out the problems with the PA too.

My complete Great Escape 2008 photoset on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rowstar/sets/72157605126440116

All photos © Rowan Stanfield - Jaded Lady Photography

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Rowan Likes To...

I picked up this rather amusing meme from the ever-entertaining Anna Pickard. The idea tickled me, so I've tagged myself (at her invitation), and duly followed the simple instructions, which are to type '[your name] likes to' into Google and paste the results. As my name is unisex - a fact that often causes confusion - I have taken the liberty of adjusting some of the results from 'he' or 'his' to 'she' or 'hers'. I'm guessing that most of these statements are from parents writing about their young children, which makes them all the more hilarious when applied to an adult - especially if, like me, you have a puerile sense of humour. I've also followed Anna's lead by adding my own comments - obviously, for I could never let Google have the last word.

Rowan likes to take things she really likes and put them away so she can play with them later. This would require a degree of patience, a virtue for which I am not generally known. When I like playing with things, they tend to stay out where I can easily play with them any time I like.

Rowan likes to see that. Depends what 'that' is. I don't want to see that!

Rowan likes to think she is sadly missed by all, but she is probably mistaken. Strangely, I actually had this exact thought recently - when I was away in Hungary. I dreamed that all my friends had got together in my absence and signed a petition to not be my friend anymore. I blame the sedatives (prescribed for dental treatment, I should add) for making me even more paranoid than usual.

Rowan likes to ride her bike, but the bike was still at the house. A euphemism for my life, if ever there was one.

Rowan likes to watch dog shows on TV with her uncle Ron. I don't have an uncle Ron, but If I did, I'm sure I would be happy to watch dog shows with him.

Rowan likes to have books read to her, contemplates mobiles, and hates hippies. Should read: Rowan likes to have books read to her, contemplates hippies and hates mobiles.

Rowan likes to wear scruffy clothes, pick cues off the wall (or curtain poles) and beat people with them. Yep.

Rowan likes to create things to meet needs. Doesn't everyone?

Rowan likes to encourage integrity and fairness in all dealings. That'll be the Libra in me.

Rowan likes to talk...a LOT. No comment.

Rowan likes to quietly put her hand over her food so that you don’t take it. That's what it's like living with the Cookie Monster.

Rowan likes to play. True.

Rowan likes to be able to make the puppets do whatever she likes. I do try, but they always resist.

Rowan likes to think of herself as a member of the nattering, chattering classes. That famous sub-set of society.

Rowan likes to get rides down the hall in the laundry basket. I'm actually going to try this when I get home. I wonder if I could harness the cats to pull me along in it?

Rowan Likes To Brag! Never! I'm far too modest!

Rowan likes to pretend she's a 'titty with a dick'. WTF??

Rowan likes to pretend. She often says she's not Rowan...she's Daddy. There seems to be a pattern emerging here, which would imply that I'm some kind of kinky freak. Purleeese.

Rowan likes to eat gerbils. False. Rowan is in fact a vegetarian.

Rowan likes to eat a pancake for breakfast every once in a while. I do love a pancake, especially with maple syrup and ice cream.

Rowan likes to climb and then balance on things precariously. This usually occurs quite late and night, and invariably ends in tears.


And that's it. That's all Rowan does, apparently. Well, it made me laugh.

Now the obligatory tagging bit. I only recently tagged a load of bloggy friends with a different meme, so I won't risk annoying them with another one so soon - but anyone who's reading this, do let me know if you decide to follow suit. Do it! Do it! Go on... it'll make you giggle!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Monkey, Top Hat, Bicycle

This is my favourite snap from a weekend of cultural and social delights, that was also blessed with blissful uninterrupted sunshine. Part of the Le Scandal troupe, currently playing nightly at the Udderbelly, Trixie Little and the Evil Hate Monkey were by far the best act in the show. Billed as 'The Rock Star of NYC’s Burlesque Scene', Le Scandal is certainly a cut above many of the shonky 'Nu-Burlesque' cabaret nights that have been popping up all over the place lately, especially here in Brighton.

When it's done well, Variety can be a fantastic night out, unfortunately though it's all too often a disappointment these days. What you want is a selection of short punchy acts, offering drama, comedy, dexterity and titillation by equal measure. Le Scandal certainly ticks some of these boxes, but is let down by its compere - an ageing, addled showgirl who still insists on claiming the finale spot for her own pathos-inducing striptease. Imagine watching your own mother drunkenly undressing at a party and you will be pretty much there. I was reminded of the classic Clinton Ford/George Formby Song 'Fanlight Fanny' (click for lyrics), which she should have used as her backing music - at least then it might have been comical rather than cringe-making.

The other acts included a cocky fresh-faced juggler, a 1930s fandancer, an aerial acrobat trio, an escapologist/magic number-cruncher and a house jazz band. All in all it wasn't a bad show, but it did suffer from being staged in the soul-less Udderbelly. This type of vaudeville demands a certain conspiratorial intimacy that is never going to happen in such a big blank space. But it was worth seeing just for these two hilarious comic-acrobats - see for yourself on this YouTube video.

On Saturday we spent the day shopping for costume bits for an upcoming fancy dress party, and I treated myself to a proper top hat, which I then wore around town for about ten minutes before feeling far too pretentious/mad/hot to continue. We managed to get returns for Rider Spoke, an interactive media arts installation that sends you off on a spontaneous cycle tour of the city. You are supplied with a pocket computer and headset, and encouraged along by a soothing female voice, which tells you to find 'hiding places' in which to answer a series of questions. There is no set route - it is more about letting your emotions and reactions to the questions guide you. Previous participants' messages are also recorded for you to 'eavesdrop' as you go. I particularly enjoyed one guy's amusing account of a party at which someone had spiked the fondue with acid. I wish my contributions had been as witty, but all my questions were fairly serious ones, and I felt unusually self-conscious when recording my answers. It was the first time I had been back on my bike since falling off and breaking my jaw last August, and I felt in a celebratory mood afterwards, so we washed down our supper at Bill's with a rather lovely bottle of Breaky Bottom Kir Royal.

Sunday's cultural activities kicked off with a literary talk at the Old Market from my old friend and colleague Caroline Lawrence - the author of the popular Roman Mysteries series. Once she had finished signing books for an eager queue of fans, we headed to the beach for an ice-cream and long-overdue catch up.

Perhaps the most highbrow of all our festival outings was a Vaughan Williams anniversary concert at the Dome on Sunday evening. The good thing about classical music is that if you close your eyes, people just think you're getting really into it. I'm not averse to classical music in general, especially the choral or operatic variety, but this selection did nothing for me. The first half had its moments, especially when the choir was in full swing, but I'm afraid I found myself drifting off and thinking about the laundry and other domestic checklists throughout most of the second half. A gloomy music drama based on J.M. Synge's play about a grief-stricken Irish fishing community, I found it an odd choice for a concert performance.

To raise our spirits, and put a more jolly end to our fun-packed weekend, we popped into the Parlure Spiegelgarden for a drink on the way home, and bumped into a couple of friends on their way in to see Los Albertos. The barmaids were all kitted out in fantastic corsets and frilly pants, in keeping with the burlesque feel of the venue. Rather unfairly though (for me), the barmens' uniforms consisted only of a dress shirt over casual trousers. Surely they could at the very least have given them bow-ties, or ideally something along these lines, in tribute to the Spiegeltent's most famous show, La Clique. Just a thought.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Annual Culture Fix: Brighton Festival 2008

Festival season is well underway here in Brighton, and thanks to an uncharacteristically organised fit of forward planning on my part, Mr M and I are looking forward to three weeks of non-stop culture. We even managed to drag ourselves out of bed on Saturday in time to witness the colourful children's parade (snap from which pictured here) as it came onto Madeira Drive, marking the start of the city's festivities. This year's theme was 'children's games', which the local schools embraced with mixed degrees of imagination. Perhaps the most enthusiastic display came from the Steiner school, who re-enacted a medieval battle siege, complete with dragon. I'm not sure what game they were supposed to be representing, but it was ace anyway!

Last night we went to our first sit-down festival event - a debate on the future of media in the digital age, organised by Creative Brighton. The panel was made up of 'meedja' types from the music, TV and newspaper industries, and chaired by technology critic and BBC pundit Bill Thompson. On my way down to town on the bus for the talk, I spied the Spiegeltent in its new home next to St Peter's Church, and was suddenly infected with excitement. Geeky debates are all very well, but to me the festival spirit is embodied by this wonderfully theatrical venue. Sadly, the only event we have booked there this year is Seth Lakeman on 21st May, but perhaps we'll pop in for lunch at the Spiegelgarden café at some point too, just to soak up the atmosphere.

Tomorrow night we're going to see Le Scandal - America's answer to the fabulous La Clique -at the unfortunately not-so-atmopheric Udderbelly. Hopefully the show will have enough ambience of its own to make up for the shoddy venue - whose leaky roof and bland interior frankly failed to impress last year. On Saturday we'll be doing our usual tour of the Open Houses - in which cake, gossip and the admiration of kitchens and gardens seem to be as essential a part as looking at art. Then on Sunday, I'll be hooking up with my old friend, children's author Caroline Lawrence, at her talk in The Old Market, before heading down to the Dome for some soothing classical music from the City of London Sinfonia and Brighton Festival Chorus.

Heaven knows when I'm going to find the time amongst all that to write about my recent dental experiences in Hungary, but I will try. First I need to decipher the pages and pages of rambling notes I made whilst high as a kite on sedatives and painkillers. Should be interesting.