Saturday, June 13, 2009

"Rowstock" Summer Mix Tape

This was going to be one of those scathing posts about yet another disappointing cabaret that I went to see last week. The cabaret in question was undeniably shambolic, but I had a hilarious evening anyway, and it seemed a shame to tarnish the memory with a disparaging tirade. So I decided for a change to let the offending performers off the hook and write something positive instead.

So in a more upbeat spirit, and in the absence of anything else to write about this week, I offer you my Summer playlist - a video 'mix tape' of music that I've been listening to repeatedly these past few weeks as the sun has been gracing us with its presense. It's a fantasy festival line-up of spirit-warming tunes, all of which go extremely well with a glass of Pimm's and a cucumber sandwich.

The highlight, and my top Summer listening for 2009, is the first track, from Tim and Sam's Tim and the Sam Band with Tim and Sam, whose invigoratingly euphoric post-folk lights up the room and everyone in it. Whenever I have played the 'Put Your Slippers On' EP in the company of friends, they have invariably asked "what's this? It's lovely." without any prompting. I hope you'll feel the same. I'm also particularly fond of track two - Charlie Darwin by The Low Anthem - which is so hauntingly harmonious it makes me cry (but in a good way).

I could easily go on, because they are all lovely - but the proof is in the pudding as they say. So tune in, kick back, grab that Pimm's and enjoy...

Monday, June 08, 2009

Antony & the Johnsons and other Bristol Adventures

After our fleeting but fun-filled trip to Hay-on-Wye, the bank holiday adventures continued with a visit to Bristol and yet more cultural exploits. The last time we'd visited Bristol was to catch up with a friend who was working in the Revolution bar, and we spent most of our time hanging out there with her. I don't think we saw the best of the city from that perspective, so it was nice to go back and get the tour from some other friends who recently moved there (though are thankfully not working in bars).

Our very picturesque and sunny drive took us down through the Welsh mountains, and we arrived with our hosts mid afternoon. After the obligatory cup-of-tea-and-catch-up, we wandered down to the waterfront for a drink and some people-watching. By early evening it was still scorching hot, and the world and his wife were lining the streets and bar terraces.

Apart from catching up with friends, the other main purpose of the Bristol visit was to see Antony & the Johnsons live at Colston Hall. Tickets for the Brighton show had sold out before I’d heard about it, and Bristol was the next nearest - so I’d suggested it to Shaun and Morwenna and they’d been game.

I’m not used to sit-down gigs, and this was in a proper theatre, with proper seats. We had an excellent view from one of the side galleries, which when I tell you about the support act, you will realise was both a blessing and a curse. Rather than get an up-and-coming band to warm up for him, Antony had chosen instead to employ the talents - and I use that word derisively - of a ‘contemporary dancer’.

This ‘dancer’ appeared on stage in a disturbing mutated animal costume and proceeded to flap her arms around to grinding industrial music. There was no ‘dancing’ of any sort, and this bizarre and entirely unmoving spectacle went on for what seemed like hours. It was in reality about 15 minutes. Which is actually a long time to sit and watch someone flapping their arms. Ant whispered to me that he was going to his ‘happy place’ while I continued to gape open-mouthed, recoiling in horror when the rest of the audience actually applauded, presumably out of relief rather than appreciation.

Finally the band appeared on stage, at least we presumed it was them - the lack of lighting meant we couldn’t be sure. But when that unmistakable voice soared out of the darkness, we knew it was Antony’s, and the horror of the travesty to which we had just been subjected began to melt away. By the end of the first song, darkness still prevailed. Someone wailed from the audience “when do we get to see you?”, to which a shy voice replied “just a minute”. Gradually the lights did come up a bit, but it still felt more like a dingy basement than a 2000 seater concert hall. Presumably this was intentional, and it certainly didn’t detract from the power of the performance.

I think I must have been the only person in the audience to have actually listened to the new album (it’s good), because everyone else seemed totally fixated on the material from the (ahem, Mercury winning) I Am a Bird Now, clapping at the start of songs whose opening chords they recognised. I found this odd, and rather rude behaviour. It’s like saying “I don’t care about your new material, I only want the ones that were on TV”. But a forbearing Antony took it on the chin, gracefully indulging their mainstream appetites.

Occasionally he would talk between songs, revealing a little of the man behind the voice. A quirky, droll and somewhat sheepish individual, he is clearly more comfortable singing or spinning fanciful stories than engaging in the sort of idle banter employed by most musicians. I found this trait utterly endearing and it made the music even more affecting. The singing voice itself - at once tender and powerful - is a strange and beautiful thing which I have grown to love dearly over the years. To hear it full-blast and up-close was truly magical - and I think all four of us were unexpectedly moved by the occasion.

The next day we went for a hearty breakfast at The Boston Tea Party, followed by the grand tour of the city - including a boat trip and a walk along the famous Clifton Suspension Bridge. Still buzzing from the gig, and enjoying the good company of friends, it was the perfect end to a lovely anniversary weekend.


Photo: Banksy street-art in Bristol by Heatheronhertravels on Flickr

Monday, June 01, 2009

Jane Birkin at Hay Festival (and a Yurt!)

Ever since my days of PR-ing at the Edinburgh Book Festival, I've been pining after a yurt. These magnificent Mongolian tents were then used (possibly still are) as the green room area for authors and their entourage in the pretty setting of Charlotte Square gardens. I remember most fondly lounging back on the cushions and rugs, chatting away to all manner of verbose and vivacious scribes, and enjoying the free Glenmorangie and Danish pastries. Certain local authors, who weren't even appearing (you know who you are), would pop in to avail themselves on a regular basis; and who can blame them, because it was a really funky and irresistible little sanctuary.

So when I saw that boutique camping company Tangerine Fields was setting up at Hay Festival this year, I quickly booked a mini-yurt for me and Mr M. It's impossible to get a hotel in Hay unless you book months ahead, and we'd only decided to go when we discovered quite recently that Jane Birkin was appearing, so the yurt was the perfect solution. It was also suitably romantic to fit the bill for our fifth wedding anniversary.

I hadn't been to Hay Festival since 2004 (the year we got married), and never purely as a punter - so it was a totally different experience this time around, with no authors to look after. Also, the site had moved from the school in the centre of town to a field a mile or so down the road, which meant less time mooching around secondhand bookshops and more time people-watching on the grass between talks. After checking into our splendid little yurt - which was carpeted and everything - we hopped on the shuttle bus down to the site just in time for Jane Birkin's packed-out talk. Sometime squeeze of the late French pop legend (and hero of mine) Serge Gainsbourg, Birkin is perhaps most famous (or should that be 'infamous') for her contribution to the risque late 60s classic 'Je T'aime... Moi Non Plus'. She's also appeared in a number ofcult films
and is these days a tireless activist for various causes.

For an OAP with a genuinely Rock 'n Roll history, Jane Birkin is in amazingly good shape, and still sparkles with childlike wonderment when recounting her mis-spent youth. Philippe Sands acted as interviewer, but in reality little prompting was needed to get Birkin to open up, and even if you weren't remotely interested in French music or the Swinging Sixties, you couldn't help but be charmed by her stories.

With a twinkle in her eye, she told of the night she first went out with Gainsbourg - how he took her to all sorts of wacky Parisian clubs and eventually back to his hotel. Fearing she had been too quick to accept his advances, she stalled for time in the bathroom and was relieved upon re-emerging to discover Gainsbourg passed out on the bed. He was so drunk that he didn't hear her sneak out of the room and back in again with a 7" single of 'Yummy Yummy Yummy I've Got Love in My Tummy' - which she tucked between his toes before creeping out again, virtue and dignity in tact. This was apparently the first of many such romantic gestures between the two as love blossomed into a 13 year relationship and creative partnership that also produced a daughter - the acclaimed French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Later the same evening, after a pub dinner at the Three Tuns, we returned to the festival site to see Jane Birkin perform. Although she has written and recorded a significant catalogue of her own music over the last forty-odd years, this particular show was largely dedicated to former lover Serge - who clearly still holds a special place in her heart. The same ingenuous allure shone from the ever-smiling starlet as she lent her own distinct husky charm to many a Gainsbourg classic. The set also had its more serious moments - with a movingly heartfelt call to action over the Burma situation, in particular the imprisonment of Aung San Suu Kyi, against which Birkin is a high-profile campaigner. This earnest outpouring only made the audience love her more, and even though we all knew we'd miss the last bus back to town, an encore was demanded. There followed a chilly, starry walk back to Tangerine Fields and the yurt, where some of the neighbouring Tipis were quietly buzzing with young literary buffs discussing the day's offerings.

As a special anniversary treat for Ant, the next morning I'd booked us tickets to a lecture by the Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, which I actually enjoyed a great deal too. He talked in a most accessible and often humorous way about the possibility of life on other planets, and answered some of the more painfully nerdy questions with surprising grace. I had wanted to ask him who or what had first prompted his interest in the stars, but the microphone never came my way. After a picnic lunch from the festival foodhall, and a final round of people-watching, we said goodbye to Hay and our lovely yurt (which sadly was too big to sneak into the boot) and took the scenic route down to Bristol. But if you want to know what happened in Bristol, you'll have to come back another day because I'm saving that adventure for its own post...