Sunday, March 29, 2009

Start Spreading the News...I'm Leaving in 25 Days

In just under a month's time, I shall be going on holiday to New York and San Francisco - my first ever visit to the States and a much-needed break after what's been a hugely enjoyable but knackering first few months in the new job. I'm stopping off in New York first to visit my friend Erika, who's a native Californian, but is currently studying midwifery at Columbia. It'll be almost exactly two years since I last saw her here in Brighton, so there's going to be a lot of catching up, and undoubtedly a fair few cocktails, on the cards. Meanwhile, Ant will be over in Vegas, wearing his BBC hat at the NAB conference by day, and no doubt living out the Rat Pack/Gangster movie fantasy after dark. We'll meet up in San Francisco for the proper holiday bit - starting out in Marin County for a quiet few days of walking and whale watching (hopefully) before heading down into the city to wear flowers in our hair (metaphorically speaking of course).

Ever in pursuit of the perfect place to stay, we faffed and procrastinated over accommodation until it was getting worryingly late in the day. We've often stayed in hostels on European city breaks, but even those with private rooms generally lack the intimacy one desires on an extended 'romantic' break, and hotels in SF are - with current exchange rates especially - prohibitively expensive. We looked on Craigslist for self-catering apartments, but even those were on the steep side. I quite fancied the idea of bombing around the Bay Area in a retro campervan but soon discovered we'd have difficulty finding somewhere legal to park it in town. Then I came across a really cool website, AirBnB.com, which matches people's spare rooms with travellers looking for lodgings - and sounded like the perfect solution to our problem. Briefly tempted by one apartment listed as '4600 Square Foot of Rad', we eventually went for a more sensible sounding room offered by a couple of a similar age in a desirable area between Mission and Noe Valley. It not only saves us money, but will hopefully be a much more personal and enlightening experience than any hotel or B&B could offer.

Now that the flights, accommodation and car hire are sorted (phew), all that remains is to plan some adventures for the trip. Ant is already mapping out all the recommended coffee bars in the city (he spends most holidays high as a kite on caffeine), while I am highlighting vintage clothes shops and record stores. We're unlikely to do any of the famous touristy attractions (read my post about Venice if you need to know why not) but are definitely open to suggestions from those with local knowledge; preferably for activities of either the edible or photogenic variety (or both).

Photograph of American Flag cupcakes
by Ginnerobot on Flickr (Creative Commons Licence).

Friday, March 20, 2009

Joe Gideon and the Shark, Ice Black Birds - Freebutt, Brighton

Isn't it nice to see a brother and sister getting along? It's especially touching to witness a creative collaboration between siblings that doesn't descend into the realms of the gimmicky or twee. The hotly-tipped brother-sister act Joe Gideon and the Shark played an electric set at Brighton's Freebutt last Wednesday night (apparently their first ever headline gig), proving that it is possible for a band to be talented, hip and related. A definite familial chemistry crackled off the pair as they rocked out the intimate dive venue with their haunting anecdotal country-tinged post-rock epics. 

Blessed with the sonorous vocal chords of Johnny Cash and the wistful delivery of Leonard Cohen, Joe's half-sung, half-uttered renditions are toe-curlingly cool. Younger sister Viva, aka "The Shark" (pictured) excels on both percussion and keys (sometimes both at the same time), whilst also twiddling various looping/fx trickery knobs and providing backing vocals. Plying their talents with equal parts precision and abandon, the dramatic duo held the small but appreciative Brighton audience in thrall throughout the set.

A youthfully enthusiastic support band, Ice Black Birds, had got us going with some Jon Spencer Blues Explosion-inspired high-energy blues-rock. Good value photographically, their exuberant stage moves reminded me of that other (excellent) arseless boyish ensemble, Foals. Natural successors to the Brel/Beefheart/Cave tradition of brooding cabaret art-rock, Joe Gideon and the Shark's darker, subtler offering proved the perfect contrast, though no less energetic in its own way. Comparisons with The White Stripes are inevitable, and not entirely unfounded; both bands exude a certain kindred cliqueyness that shines through in their music, both use lo-fi techniques to make big brash rock 'n roll noises. The stand-out track of the night for me was Kathy Ray, the (allegedly) true story of an ageing backing singer, dripping with the sultry deep-South sentiments of Tony Joe White's High Sheriff Of Calhoun Parrishor Bobbie Gentry's Fancy, but with an unexpected psychedelic twist. Spangly, stirring, inspirational stuff.

Joe Gideon and The Shark's Debut Album, Harum Scarumis just released. They'll be back in Brighton for the Great Escape Festival in May - don't miss it!

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Balkaneasca: A Club Night at Komedia, Brighton

A new addition to Brighton's ever-growing alternative nightlife scene is Balkaneasca, a gypsy-flavoured night launched at Komedia last Friday. Also the home of several other groovy club nights including Vive La Fip, Born Bad and Dynamite Boogaloo, Komedia is an ideal venue for those of us who cringe at the prospect of the seafront club strip. Having had mixed experiences at Brighton's other 'world music' club night, Carnivalesque, I was eager to see if the Balkan Beats guys could pull off a better version in this preferable setting.

After a rum-fuelled pub crawl that took in the Thomas Kemp, St James Tavern, the Colonnade and the Basketmakers, Angell and I rolled (not literally) around the corner to Komedia, eager for a dance, and not expecting to be faced with a lengthy queue. Usually I would turn my nose up at this eventuality ( I LOATHE queuing), but in the absence of a decent alternative, we decided to wait in line with the others, and thankfully it wasn't for long. Downstairs in the airless basement, things were already getting wild and sweaty, as frantic Klezmer beats blared out, accompanied by live-jamming musicians.

Apart from the inevitable ageing nutjobs- who always show up at anything vaguely 'alternative' - the general demographic was younger than expected, and with a significant Polish/Eastern European contingent. Unlike Carnivalesque, there wasn't really a dressing up element, in fact I felt (pleasantly) overdressed in my sparkly frock. As we danced our socks off to an endless stream of energetic Eastern-European dance beats, I was reminded of the wedding scene in Black Cat, White Cat - and kept expecting to see a pig devouring a Trabant in the corner. The sweat was literally pouring off the ceiling and it was essential to take frequent breaks outside with the smokers, which was also pretty much the only opportunity for conversation during the evening. As is the tradition, we attempted to engage our fellow revellers with random questions, which were greeted with surprisingly confessional answers.

Back downstairs in the mosh pit, the music was taking a turn for the worse - cool Klezmer being replaced with dodgy (vaguely gypsy) Drum 'n Bass. Angell found himself being forcibly flung around by a crazy woman (I think she thought they were having a romantic dance), while I was fighting off advances from my very own weirdo, and having the classic chat up line: "excuse me, but I find you attractive" growled into my unwilling ear. Usually it's us doing the perturbing, and we're not accustomed to being out-freaked by even bigger oddballs than we are. The tables had turned and there was only one thing to do: scarper. 

It had certainly been an interesting evening, but I'd like to have seen more flamboyant dressing and ideally some proper live music, rather than just a few musicians jamming along. Also, if it's that toasty in the Komedia basement in March, I hate to think what it's going to get like come the summer. 

Photo of Balkaneasca DJ taken from the Balkaneasca myspace album: www.myspace.com/balkaneasca

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Monday, March 16, 2009

Witches of Eastwick, Congress Theatre Eastbourne

When I saw that Witches of Eastwick the musical starring Marti Pellow was coming to Eastbourne, I knew I must organise an excursion, and it didn't take much persuasion to muster a gang from amongst my more theatrically-minded friends. Seven of us - three gay guys and four girls, rocked up at the Congress last Wednesday night, all strangely giddy in anticipation. All apart from my mum, everyone was of an age to recall Pellow's superstar peak as lead singer of Wet Wet Wet, and though none of us were even particularly big fans at the time, they were one of the biggest home-grown groups of our impressionable childhood years.

Despite being familiar with its star, I didn't know the show at all, and can't remember having seen the 80s film version, though I feel I must have done at some point. The plot didn't exactly hold any big surprises, but it was an entertaining couple of hours nonetheless. After a spirited and colourfully-costumed opening chorus number, the three leading ladies drew us into a magical mood with the spookily wishful 'Make Him Mine'. Conjured by the trio's accidental summoning, Pellow appeared soon after as the self-assured sleazemeister Darryl Van Horne - a character that clearly comes easily to him. Compared to the three 'witches', all of whom were excellent, Pellow's performance seemed conspicuously stiff, and his dialogue often gabbled. But songs such as 'Dance with the Devil' proved that the boy can still belt a tune, and he bounced around the stage with an admirable amount of energy. He certainly got the seal of approval from the gay contingent of our party, as they mock-fanned themselves, mouthing "I would" to each other; even one of the girls (and no, it wasn't me) professed to having developed a crush by the end. Though he doesn't really do it for me, I have to admit he's in pretty good shape for a middle-aged ex-junkie.

I wouldn't put Witches of Eastwick up there with my all-time favourite musicals (e.g. Sweeney Todd, Wicked, Hedwig), but it was a good fun night out, and nice to be back on home turf with some of my all-time favourite people. Let's do it again soon, Ladies.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Emiliana Torrini Live at St George's Church, Kemp Town

"I always shit myself at hometown gigs" confessed a cheeky Emiliana Torrini to a packed out audience at last night's Kemp Town live show - part of an epic worldwide tour to promote the new album, Me and Armini. The Icelandic singer-songwriter has lived in Brighton for the last five years and judging by the reaction of the crowd, has endeared herself greatly to the locals in that time. It seemed half of those present were either her personal friends or (as in my case) friends of friends - making for an affectionately generous atmosphere to which she rose with equal warmth and gratitude.

I first discovered Emiliana from reading a review of her 2005 album, Fisherman's Woman, which became one of my most listened to of that year. Since then I've delved eagerly back into her career to Love in the Time of Science, Crouçie d'Où La and Merman, as well as other rarities from her early days in Iceland, but this was the first time I'd seen her play live. It was a treat to do so in the familiar surrounds of my favourite Brighton venue, St George's, inside whose walls I have seen such luminaries as Low, Iron and Wine and Lambchop perform, as well as belting my own lungs out there at Midnight Mass for the past few Christmases. It was the perfect choice for Torrini's raw-silk vocals and poetically intimate lyrics to shine, and shine she most certainly did.



Despite fighting a nasty chest infection, which could occasionally be detected in her speaking voice, Emiliana's hauntingly honeyed vocals remained on top form. A tight backing band propelled her through a compelling hour or so of mostly more recent material from the last two albums, moving easily between an eclectic mix of influences and styles. From the ska-inspired title track of the new album to the more trademark folky ballads like Sunny Road - each song was delivered with polish and conviction. The sweetly bashful between-songs banter revealed an approachable, refreshingly un-starry personality, which was further observed during an uproarious karaoke session at the after show party later that night.

Having been gently unravelled throughout the evening's offerings, I was eventually reduced to sobs by the parting number, Beggar's Prayer - a melancholy ballad which ends: "Mamma said, lift your head from the sieve of your hands. Mamma said eventually this hurting will end." I can distinctly recall my own mother offering such comforting words in times of heartache, and from the number of sleeves being used as tissues on the way out of the venue, it seems I wasn't the only one with whom the song struck a chord.

The next leg of Emiliana Torrini's tour takes her to North America then Scandinavia, but she'll be back in the UK for the summer festival season and a few more dates around the country later in the year.



Tuesday, March 10, 2009

My Favourite Room

My bedroom as a teenager was a proper hippy den - an attic room, customised for occupation in true Stanfield set-building bodgit-and-scarper style by me and my dad and decorated in wacky colours (complete with oh so classy handprints) by me. Batik throws and an assortment of hangings and mobiles adorned the sloping ceiling, while one wall was completely covered in photographs of me and my friends in various states of inebriation. Incense would invariably be burning whenever I was in residence, as if the overwhelming smell of Body Shop White Musk perfume (at least it wasn't Mango) wasn't enough. I adored this small but cosy space, in which large chunks of my adolescence were dawdled away - listening to the Cure, Sinead O'Connor or one of many compilation tapes made in those days, writing my diary, reading trashy novels, daydreaming, or shooting the breeze via the now vaguely retro seeming medium of the land line telephone. Not much has changed in the bed half of the loft at my mum's house, and I always sleep up there whenever I visit. The photowall has been dismantled - with the intention of putting all those classic shots into an album someday - but many of the trinkets and decor remain. Even my old tabby cat still makes the hike up the ladder to sleep there with me.

I've never moved on much in terms of style since this formative period, and have always aspired to re-create the ultimate shabby-chic daydream den in the front room of mine and Ant's Brighton pad. I can't be doing with uber-designed living spaces that tell you nothing about the person who lives there; houses without books especially creep me out, because, honestly, how are you supposed to get the measure of someone without having a decent nose through their library and preferably stealing a book or two?

Ant is by nature a hoarder and clutter-freak, so our tastes have happily convened over the years to create a naturally evolved space that says a lot about us as individuals and as a couple. It's full of stuff we've picked up on our travels, inherited heirlooms and treasured gifts, as well as a decent combined library that is fast overflowing into other rooms. Other than the yellow paint on the walls (which we had leftover from our previous flat) we've never made any conscious design decisions about the space, and yet visitors often comment on how soothing they find it. Almost everything has a story behind it - from the box of percussion instruments to the two wooden cats - and it gives me great pleasure to recall the histories of all our bits and pieces - whether for the benefit of others or my own sentimental indulgence.

Every now and then, I get an evening at home alone in which to recapture my contemplative teenage years, and will sit and enjoy the comforting sanctuary that we have created. This evening I was doing just that when it struck me to compile an anecdotal itinerary of the room, to photograph it for posterity, as I wish I had done with my bedroom in Eastbourne before moving out. In the interests of authenticity, I didn't change or tidy anything, just picked up the camera (which is always handy) and started shooting. If you look closely, you will see that I have even caught one of the cats unawares and in a rather undignified pose.

So there you have it: the museum of me, the anatomy of a lounge, the entirely self-indulgent story of us as told by our front room. A bigger version of the above collage can be seen on Flickr; the stories, however, are kept in my head, ready to be served on demand along with tea and cake to our honoured guests.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

A Fond Farewell: Hettie Miller, RIP

Growing up is something I've mostly been trying to defer, but sometimes life just catches you by surprise and suddenly it can't be helped. Last week was one of those times, when we said goodbye to Ant's beloved Grandmother Hettie, aka Gaggy, who passed away peacefully at the ripe old age of 95. Having lost the last of my own grandparents some years ago, I'd adopted Ant's Gran (the last of his) as my own and had grown to love her as such over the last decade. The presence of grandparents always made childhood feel somehow more accessible, and the acceptance of adulthood now seems increasingly inevitable without them.

Final farewells are never easy, but unlike so many of the funerals I've been to - which mourned young lives cut short - Hettie's was a celebration of a full life well-lived. Of course it was still a sad occasion, but our tears were purely selfish; we felt sad because we'll miss her, not because her death was unfair. In this case, death came as a welcome relief from a life that had quite simply run out of steam. A mercifully short decline had given way to the kind of dignified departure to which most of us would aspire: surrounded by loved ones at home, ready and willing to go.

I'll always remember Gaggy as a gentle and inspiringly stoical lady, holding court at family occasions and never missing an opportunity to offer a wry opinion or crack a witty quip. Truly the grand matriarch, she was eternally proud and supportive of her three kids, eight grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. I was touched to witness two of my contemporary in-laws, both expecting in June, comparing bumps at the wake afterwards. Soon there will be another two little lives added to Hettie's generous legacy: one generation making way for the next as the circle of life continues. Dauntingly, this also means that our parents are now the oldest generation and we have moved up one branch on the family tree ourselves. It certainly feels like the end of an era, but quite what the new one holds in store, I have yet to determine.