Saturday, November 10, 2012

Diane Cluck at Eras of Style

There's this place on the outskirts of Bexhill (of all places); you ought to go there. You'd probably never stumble upon it by chance, but if like us, you love nothing more than combining vintage furniture browsing with delicious cake eating of a weekend, you'll love Eras of Style. It's a converted station that's been transformed into an antiques warehouse, with its own rather splendid cafe, with Art Deco sofas and excellent coffee. We tend to pop in whenever we're over that way, although we've never actually bought anything other than refreshments.

A few weekends back, we took my sister and her family there and the four year old was entranced by a room full of old fairground bits and bobs, including some walzter carriages that had been converted into sofas (I know, I would have if we had the room). While we were there I noticed some posters for a couple of upcoming gigs in the cafe, and made a note to check them out. I knew I recognised the name Diane Cluck from somewhere, and although I couldn't find her on Spotify (usually a good sign), I realised I'd first heard her music on a Green Man Festival sampler from 2007, and more recently on Freakzone. Both good signs.

Thursday night events in Sussex are always a bit tricky, as Ant has to make it back from London, but I booked tickets anyway, feeling optimistic. The night rolled around and public transport was not kind to my date. He missed two excellent support acts and the chance to claim one of the vintage armchairs that had been arranged as seating, but thankfully he arrived just in time for the headliner.

Accompanied only by her own guitar, and talented young cellist Isabel Castellvi, Diane Cluck filled the intimate space with charm and warmth, and no small amount of musical accomplishment. Her poetic, heartfelt lyrics weaving effortlessly through complex time signatures and quirky cadences, she kept the audience spellbound. It made such a refreshing change to be at a gig where everyone was completely silent and respectful during the performance - not something you experience very often in Brighton, except perhaps at St George's.

Although her style is very much her own, we found certain pleasant similarities with Laura Veirs, Jesca Hoop and Natalie Merchant - all much loved artists in this household. I was particularly captivated by a song about Saint Sara, who Cluck apparently discovered and become fascinated with on a trip to France. The magic felt by the artist carried contagiously through her singing, and a haunting chorus of "Sara-Kali-Ereshkigal-Sara" sent shivers down my spine. She writes more about the story behind the song here.

At one point, the cellist put down her instrument to come and sing in unaccompanied harmony with Cluck, revealing a talent for more than just strings. Their perfectly intertwined voices in that cosy setting was a truly lovely experience, and as I felt him relax into the evening, I hoped that Ant's stressful journey had been worth it. If you get the chance, I highly recommend seeing Diane Cluck live; she's one of those people to whom the recorded form doesn't do full justice.

Eras of Style proved an unexpected delight of a venue - it felt like a private performance in an eccentrically decorated living room, complete with wonky standard lamps in place of stage lighting. In a few weeks I'll be back for Liz Green, for which you can still buy tickets here. These charming events are being put on by Music's Not Dead, a little independent music shop in Bexhill that you should definitely visit, too.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Barcamp Brighton 2012 (Podcast)

A couple of weeks ago I went to my first Barcamp, at the Skiff in Brighton. A Barcamp, for those who don't know, is an alternative knowledge-sharing conference where there is no pre-defined agenda and every participant runs a session. The schedule starts as a blank grid on Saturday morning, and gets filled with cards on which people write the details of their talk or workshop.  There are usually three or four sessions going on at any one time, and they can be on literally anything - from coding to sewing to quantum mechnanics. It goes on all weekend, and includes evening socialising and gaming that usually continues into the wee small hours.

Having never been to a Barcamp before, I was a little nervous about getting up to present, and had no idea what I would talk about. So I decided to cheat a little, and run my session as a broadcast of recordings that I'd make over the course of the weekend, hacked together into a podcast with whatever level of quick editing I could manage in the time. This meant that I was reliant on others being willing to talk to me, and getting enough good material to make it interesting. Having played around with podcasts at a few other geeky events lately (FSC Hack Day, Mobile World Congress and Maker Faire), I was fairly confident that it would work. Thankfully my instinct was right, and I had a whale of time doing it.

I've grown to love podcasting as a medium for recording live events, for a number of different reasons. Often the most interesting bits of this type of event are the conversations that go on in between the sessions, when everyone is fizzing with excitement and bouncing ideas around on the back of the talk they've just been in. And podcasting is a great way to capture that energy and immediacy of response. When it comes to interviews, a voice recorder is far less intrusive than a video camera, and people are a lot more relaxed talking to you, so you get a much more genuine snapshot. It's also a lot quicker to edit audio together, which means you can publish your interviews pretty much instantaneously. I even love the blunders, giggles and slips of the tongue that come through on this kind of unedited publishing, because again it feels wonderfully real.

Having this mission at Barcamp proved a great ice-breaker, and I talked to many more people than perhaps I would have otherwise. I tried to steer the interviews by asking everyone 'what did you learn?'. It's quite easy to go through an event like this sucking up all the ideas and information, without ever stopping to consider what you're getting out of it, so I also hoped that posing this question would force people to stop and reflect. The results were fascinating, and it gave me an insight into lots of the sessions that I didn't attend.

It was a hugely enjoyable weekend and I met loads of wonderful characters. When I wasn't interviewing other participants, I sat in on lots of the talks, including mobile apps for museums, open access archiving of academic papers, learning to make bunting, running a hack day for teens, and a presentation on working practices to name but a few. In the evening I participated in the hilarious Peacehaven the Bored Game, more about which you can hear in the podcast below. And I also discovered, from some of the late night interviews, that I get awfully posh when I'm drunk. 

Here is the result of my experiment, which has been refined slightly since its debut broadcast at the end of Barcamp Brighton 7. I hope it inspires you to go to a Barcamp near you...


If you like this Barcamp Brighton podcast, you may also enjoy the ones that I did from Maker Faire and FSC Hack day this year, so I've embedded them below, too.

 


 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Discovering St Leonards-on-Sea

Although I grew up in Sussex and have spent many happy days pottering around Hastings Old Town and Bexhill seafront, until recently I had somehow avoided that elusive bit in between, St Leonards. I'd always assumed there was nothing much there to warrant a visit, then by chance we picked up a brochure from a Bexhill vintage market, promoting the supposed cultural delights of the neighbouring town.

One of the quirky things I love about that general part of the world is the hidden higgledy piggledy steps that weave up through the steep streets, bringing you out in unexpected locations. You'll come across similar ascending (or descending, depending on which end you start) passageways in Montmartre and San Francisco, but the East Sussex ones have a distinct flavour that somehow evokes Saxon adventure and smugglers' getaways. On a sunny Saturday in May we found one of these going up from St Leonard's seafront (next to the oldest motorbike shop in the country) and made our way in through the back streets, peering nosily into houses as we went.

The brochure recommended Norman Road and the 'Style Mile' as a place to find vintage and hand made clothes and home decor as well as good cafes, so we explored around there first and discovered a strip of interesting shops, that were pedalling everything from customised upcycled clothes to extortionately overpriced bits of old fairground rides. At the end of the strip, in the rather unimaginatively named 'Shop', we found retro trifle dishes, slinky summer dresses and a sprinkling of G-plan furniture, before crossing over spend a good half an hour rifling through vintage clothes at Xanadu.

Surely the ultimate test of a place is its tea and cake, and in this department we were spoilt for choice, with several decent looking eateries on offer. We chose Little Larder, next to Xanadu, to refresh after Ant's slightly traumatic experience of trying on an ill-fitting woollen suit on a hot summer's day (yes, we had some of those in May). The cake and coffee did the trick, and we bounced off to see what else St Leonards had to offer. Beyond Norman Road the attractions were fewer and farther between, as the arty vibe faded into rundown high street of tatty looking shops selling tatty old stuff. We did see a rather nice Art Deco wardrobe in the shabby (but not chic) flea market, but it was part of a set and they wouldn't let us buy it on its own. And so our St Leonards adventure drew to a close. 

A couple of weekends ago we returned in the evening to eat at the quite swish looking, and as it turns out, rather excellent St Clements restaurant, which is reason enough to venture to St Leonards, if my other accounts of the town have not been enough to entice you. It's one of those tucked away places that feels like a locals' secret, serving imaginative dishes at the more decadent end of Modern British cuisine. Although the vegetarian choice was limited, the elderflower and prosecco cocktails more than made up for it, as did the knee-tremblingly indulgent sticky toffee pudding for desert.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Great Escape 2012 - Tips for First Timers

It's almost time for the Great Escape Festival - my annual fix of musical discovery and quintessential Brighton jollity. This year I have completely failed to do any prep and find out what bands I might want to see (despite having access to Digby's handy Spotify playlist), which almost makes it more exciting, and means I have absolutely no preconceptions.

WATP, The Great Escape

It also means I can't offer you my hot tips for which bands are a must-see. But as a seasoned Great-Escaper, I can offer any first-timers some hints for getting the most out of the festival experience.
  • Don't ever queue. However much you want to see a band, there's always something else great going on elsewhere and queuing wastes valuable gig time. Even if it is a band you have wanted to see for ages, they will no doubt be touring again soon anyway, and queuing is not cool.
  • Enjoy the rest of the Brighton Festival. If you suffer from gig fatigue at any point, pop into some Open Houses to cleanse the cultural palate.
  • Use the free text update service. This hasn't been heavily promoted in recent years, but is a great way to find out about schedule changes and secret gigs, as well as helping you avoid gigs where there are queues. Apparently there's a smartphone app this year, too.
  • Always go to secret gigs - they can be the best kind of atmospheric happening and you might get to see some really exciting bands on their way up. We saw Foals in 2007 at a packed out, high-energy performance at the end of the pier and it was one of the best gigs of my life.
  • Don't forget to eat. Sometimes it feels like there's so much on offer that to spend an hour eating out is wasteful, but you must fuel up for moshing and trekking from venue to venue. I recommend Moshi Moshi and Pho as great, quick-but-not-fast-food central pit stops.
  • Take a notebook - because you will see a lot of bands and you won't remember who they were otherwise. 
  • Don't be put off by the venue. There are some real dives on the Great Escape circuit, but if the band is good enough, it will be a great gig. I saw Low Anthem in 2010 at the seedy Ocean Rooms, and they blew the walls off.
  • Enjoy hipster-spotting. Every year, all the hipsters in the world (or at least from East London) descend on Brighton for the Great Escape, with their resplendent ironic hairdos and over-sized retro specs. It is a feast for the eyes and an inspiration. If you want to join in and be one of the gang, visit Beyond Retro to stock up on vintage clobber
  • Don't shout stuff to your friend during a quiet folky gig (or any other gig for that matter), or I will punch you in the face.
That is all. Have fun. Say hi. Tell me how you got on.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Sinéad O'Connor Live at St George's in Kemp Town, Brighton

Ever since I was a surly teenager in Doc Martens, I have loved Sinéad O'Connor. Unlike many other, image conscious, pop stars, the striking singer has never been afraid to speak her mind, stick two fingers up to the world, or wear her heart on her sleeve - and has always been a great inspiration to me. Her first album, The Lion and the Cobra, came out in 1987, when I was 13. Back then her songs of angst and heartache spoke to my hormonal psyche, and I was drawn to her rebellious, free-spirited persona. I have bought every album since, and each has resonated with me at different stages of my life.

I went to see Sinéad live about 10 years ago, at the Apollo in Hammersmith. It was a memorable, if not very intimate show. Since then she has rarely been on the touring circuit, and her musical output has been sporadic. So when I saw on Melting Vinyl's listings that they had bagged her for a gig at St George's in Kemp Town, I was giddy with excitement. I've seen many gigs at St George's, mostly folky/acoustic acts that suited the serene surroundings. But this was the first time I'd seen a full on rock gig there, and it turned out to be a truly sensational experience.

After a mellow support act, Sinéad stepped onto the stage, rocking a leather corset that showed off her many tattoos. Still completely shorn, a sprinkling of grey was visible in the skinhead stubble that poked out from under her headscarf. As soon as she let loose that dazzling smile of hers, the room lit up with the promise of a special night. Her voice was on fine form as she sang a string of classics from the back catalogue, including No Man's Woman, The Emperor's New Clothes, This is the Last Day of Our Acquaintance, Jackie, and of course, her most famous hit, Nothing Compares 2 U. These were interspersed with songs from the new album, How About I Be Me (and You Be You), which came out earlier this month - her first release in five years. I particularly enjoyed 4th and Vine - a song about getting married that was introduced with a cheeky anecdote about altering the colour of the eyes in the song to match her changing boyfriends - and her fervent cover of John Grant's Queen of Denmark (which is on the new album).  


The audience was rapt when Sinéad despatched the band and sang I Am Stretched on Your Grave unaccompanied, revealing the true soul drenching power of her voice. At once fierce and fragile, she sings with eyes shut tight, entirely consumed by the words she is delivering. From this intense state, she relaxed easily into the inter-song banter, chatting and making jokes - keeping the audience engaged throughout. Usually I begrudge going through the motions of an obligatory encore, but in this case the riotous demand was justified. Having given a standing ovation to the final song of the set, the whole crowd remained upright for a bonus four songs - and loving every moment.  

Practically the whole audience (including me and Ant) piled into the Barley Mow afterwards, collectively raving about the gig as they knocked back celebratory nightcaps. Especially touching were the overheard words of those who had gone along with fairly low expectations and been happily blown away. It was one of those nights where everyone felt united by a shared happening of something rare and momentous. For me personally, it re-affirmed 25 years of admiration and, most importantly of all, put me back in touch with that boot-wearing adolescent who has been sadly dormant of late. Thank you, Sinéad, for reminding me who I am again.  


Saturday, January 14, 2012

Robin Hood at the Devonshire Park Theatre

As has been the tradition for the past few years, on Thursday I went to see the Eastbourne pantomime in the final week of its run, followed straight afterwards by the crew's spoof version. This year's show was Robin Hood, an unusual choice, and all the better for it. Apart from the first panto I worked on in 1992 (Robinson Crusoe), it's felt like a never-ending cycle of the three favourites - Aladdin, Jack and the Beanstalk and Cinderella, so it was nice to see something more original, especially written for Eastbourne.

Since the town started producing its own pantomimes a few years ago, a distinct culture has been fostered around the festive production that is largely to do with the familiar faces that keeping popping up. Regulars such as Martyn Knight, Carl Patrick and David Alder have built up a warm rapport with the local audience over the years, making for an intimate, conspiratorial atmosphere. This year's token TV celeb was Eastenders' John Altman, aka 'Nasty' Nick Cotton. 

Pantomime is by its nature formulaic. One expects and looks forward to the essential components: the 'he's behind you' scene, the slapstick chase, the soppy romantic bit, the duel, the songsheet, the transformation - all tied up with a good dose of bawdy humour and a sprinkling of innuendo for the grown ups. 

I can remember as a chid being genuinely terrified by the panto villain, with his or her over the top make up and ominous green lighting, and if anything was missing from this year's panto, it was the lack of a convincing baddie. Karen Mann did an admirable job in the supporting role as Nottingham's mother, but the main man himself was more grumpy than menacing. 

Tracey Penn was a textbook principle boy in the title role of Robin, belting out her numbers in a crowd-pleasing West End style. Some of the cast's other best singers, including David Alder and Nicholas Colicos, were disappointingly under-ultilised, but the choice of music was generally pleasing. I especially enjoyed Carl Patrick's rendition of The Lazy Song - a laid back reggae tune, nicely choreographed, that broke up the usual ballad/rock/ballad selection. 

Although we all know it's a filler to allow the big finale set change to happen, I thought this year's songsheet scene was a little uninspiring. As always, the kids that got up on stage were the funniest part of this section. One of the boys, when asked who his favourite character was, replied in earnest "Peter Pan", which greatly tickled the cast and audience. 

Overall it was an excellent production with plenty of laughs, that rounded off my festive season perfectly. The crew's Cod version - an institution that has grown from year to year - was, as ever, hysterical. Here are some little snippets to give you a flavour - though of course I appreciate it is funnier if you know the people involved: 

video


Next year's Christmas production is to be Sleeping Beauty, another less conventional choice that I hope will bring opportunities for more experimental elements. I would love to see some other more obscure fairy tales given the Eastbourne panto treatment in future years, too. If they wanted to be really progressive, the producers could even let the town vote on what the 2013 show should be.