Monthly Archives: April 2010

Listening to Food….

Food has/have been around for a good long while now and have just issued their sixth album, ‘Quiet Inlet’, their first for ECM.  I read a comment somewhere to the effect that Food are almost a quintessential ECM band and that it is surprising that it has taken them this long to get together.  Whatever the case, it is a union that has been well worth waiting for, if only because ‘Quiet Inlet’ is probably the most impressive Food album to date.

These days, Food seems to have stabilised around founder Iain Ballamy and Norwegian percussionist Thomas Strønen, for whom Food is just one of several outlets.  Humcrush, Meadow and Parish (sounds like a firm of lawyers) are 3 other groups who benefit from Strønen’s input – mainly centred on the eclectic Rune Grammofon label, for whom Food themselves previously recorded between 2002 and 2007.

Where Strønen is concerned, it is as well to emphasise his role as a percussionist rather than merely a drummer as ‘Quiet Inlet’ is filled with rattling, jingling percussive effects that are some way removed from conventional jazz drumming.   Ballamy meantime produces layers of multi-tracked saxophones that evoke Weather Report-era Wayne Shorter to name but one influence.

Food have become what you might call ‘an augmented duo’.  Strønen and Ballamy have added collaborators over the span of the group’s discography – notably trumpeter Arve Henriksen and bassist Mats Eilertsen –  but for this latest release the Austrian  Christian Fennesz who supplies guitar and ‘effects’ plus nu-jazz ‘guru’ (if we may refer to him as such)  and trumpeter Nils Petter  Molvær.  ‘Quiet Inlet’ is a hugely satisfying album in many ways, building on the band’s previous(and considerable) achievements and taking the whole thing to new levels.  Of course, there are strong echoes of Molvær’s own repertoire here and ‘Quiet Inlet’ will definitely appeal to Molvær fans as well as to those who have enjoyed Arve Henriksen’s recent albums.

Thomas Strønen and Iain Ballamy : a tasty duo

The overall tone ranges from stately to skittish with mournful interludes so beloved of Scandinavian nu-jazzers but each track features imaginative arrangements that display each of the participants to their best effect.  Ballamy is one of the few outsiders to have established an ongoing liaison with the new breed of Norwegian jazz musicians and after a lengthy apprenticeship going back to Loose Tubes and taking in Billy Jenkins, Mike Gibbs, Django Bates and Bill Bruford, he seems to have finally hit his stride with Food. 

Today Thomas Strønen’s website remarks that the duo(with Fennesz) are en route to play at the Cheltenham Festival, a gig that will apparently be broadcast by the BBC.  Now that’s one to look forward to….

Lost in translation….

I’ve always rather admired Jose Mourinho’s insouciant charm as a person.  Of course the Football Media in this country are completely and bizarrely obsessed with him to the point of  Gary Neville/Paul Scholes homo-erotic slobbering.  Chelsea fans are, of course, also besotted with him and given his history with their club it’s easy to see why.

However, Mourinho’s qualities as a football coach are less easy to admire.  It would be wrong to dimiss his ‘default’ style as entirely negative, but his teams do tend to favour attrition over flair and that was clearly demonstrated last night as Mourinho’s Inter Milan ground out a second leg Champions League semi-final victory over Barcelona, the darlings of football romantics everywhere. 

In Catalunya, Mourinho is routinely derided as ‘The Translator’, a reference to the role he fulfilled whilst acting as Bobby Robson’s assistant at Camp Nou in the late 90’s.  That has clearly stung Mourinho, whose comments about Barcelona in the days leading up to this widely-anticipated match had the same effect as  throwing petrol on a bonfire.  Massive amounts of whistling and jeering greeted Mourinho as he joined his players  on the pitch whilst they warmed up last night, but he seems to be able to harness all the antipathy and convert it into an Alamo-type mentality among his players.

The match itself will not live long in the memory.  It was like one of those Attack v Defence exercises that clubs sometimes use in training.  Barcelona prodded and probed and passed but could not get past Inter’s defences until former United centre-back Gerard Pique swept through them like an ocean liner doing a three-point turn in Southampton Water and by that time you sensed it was all too little, too late.

At the final whistle, Mourinho raced across the pitch to share the moment with his players and with the small group of Inter fans who were perched up on the umpteenth tier of the Camp Nou, probably in a different postcode to the pitch.

Mourinho celebrates as Inter go through….

Inter will now play Bayern Munich in a final that few expected and that few outside Lombardy and Bavaria will relish too much.  Mourinho now comes up against another of his former mentors, Louis van Gaal.  Mourinho has said that whilst Bobby Robson taught him about motivation, van Gaal taught him about preparation and defensive organisation.  Doesn’t sound too promising, really, does it?

Of course, the reason all this concerns me more than a little is that Jose has been widely touted as Sir Alex Ferguson’s eventual successor at United.  In some way, it would be a perfect fit – Mourinho is a serial trophy winnner wherever he goes, he inspires fierce loyalty among his players, he’s a media megastar and his ‘Us against the World’ philosophies are akin to those Sir Alex has used for years.

However, at the root of all Ferguson’s grumpy demeanour is a romantic who is in love with the power of attacking football and its ability to redeem just about everything.  Fergie has been a perfect fit for United for precisely that reason, picking up on Matt Busby’s attacking philosophies which are now seemingly hardwired into the club’s DNA.

Last night, aside from the Inter/Barca affair, I also caught the highlights of the United U-18’s away game versus City at Platt Fields.  United’s reserves under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have already won their League and the U-18’s under Paul McGuinness are strongly placed to do the same, with City nonetheless hot on their heels.  City took an early advantage in this one, with 2 goals in as many minutes in the first half, but that commitment to attack was to surface again as United struck back in the second half with a magnificent goal from the increasingly-impressive Paul Pogba, followed by two – a snap shot from 20 yards and a towering back-post header – from Josh King, the latter coming – as is now traditional in games against City – in added time at the end of the game. The  U-18’s have certainly reaped the rewards of their adventure, because any kind of win away to bottom-placed Bolton on Saturday will ensure that they win their section of the Academy Premier League.

It was a thrilling fightback, so typical of United and I do question whether Mourinho is really the right man to succeed Fergie if only because his first instinct is always to defend, not attack.    A lot of United fans will be wondering if a Mourinho team would take the same risks and be as committed to attack.  But before we get too carried away we should perhaps recall  United’s 2008 semi-final first leg  against Barcelona (a  0-0 draw), that was every bit as dull as last night’s game, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to judge Mourinho.  As managers are prone to say, they are in the results business and few Inter fans who are today enjoying the prospect of  their club’s first European Cup Final since the 1970’s will be over-concerned about how they got there.  And with such a prize at stake, who’s to say that United’s fans would be any different?

Josh King and Paul Pogba – two hopefully destined for the top

The Last Luddite comes in from the cold…..

Mobile Phones or Cellphones  if you will….a boon or a curse?  Discuss….

Apparently, I am the last person in the developed world to start using a mobile.  I have been pointed out to young people as a curio, as much a  relic of a bygone age as steam trains or the woolly mammoth.  Apparently I am the only person to observe how these wee beasties have killed the art of conversation rather than promoting it.  Climb on board a train or a bus these days and you will immediately see what I mean.  Passengers get on and sit down.  Perhaps they will take in the view or their immediate surroundings for a few seconds, then out comes the phone and they are immediately absorbed in the prestidigitating routines of SMS texting.  Even if they actually make or receive a call, the conversations are usually mundane in the extreme……‘Yeah, I’m on the bus….yeah. should be with you in about 20 minutes….’   

As a long term non-mobile person I have inadvertently eavesdropped on one half of a thousand conversations and to be quite candid I’ve yet to hear anybody discussing anything of much substance.  On the train, on the bus; ‘parish pump’ affairs are very much to the fore….where they are, how long they’ll be…eyes down and watch those thumbs fly across the keyboard – at least it removes the likelihood of any unpasteurised contact with a complete stranger….. 

Press button ‘B’ , dear………

Despite my reputation as an arch-Luddite, I don’t really have anything against mobile phones.  I can see their usefulness and have used them at times, particularly when travelling abroad.   However I have never really needed to use one regularly; whether employed or unemployed, I have effectively been home-based for the last 10 years and have therefore been readily accessible via landline.   But that’s me……..none of this can account for the behaviour of the Princess, who like most of her generation is welded at the hip to her mobile. 

Having become increasingly embroiled with Manchester Labour Students, a sort of pale pink New Labour student group based on Manchester’s 2 principal universities, The Princess was upgraded by her indulgent mother to a ‘Blackberry’, which is one of those hellish multi-purpose gizmos that not only makes phone calls and sends texts, but can access the internet, pick up TV broadcasts from Alpha Centauri and neuter your cats without running out of charge.  Clearly she spent much of last term Blackberrying  away (Roy Wood forgive me…), all of which resulted in a phone bill equivalent to the GDP of a small West African state.  On the whole I thought her mother took it pretty well, but it was clear that changes would need to be made to avoid a repetition.  Which is how I have become the last Luddite on the block to join the mobile revolution.

The ‘deal’ the Princess is on means that she can nominate a series of ‘magic numbers’ which are free calls as long as they are on the same network.  And, hey presto, the ultra-basic ‘Pay-as-you-go’ model which has been gathering dust on the shelf for the last year or so, is not only on the same network, but is also now charged up and ready for incoming.  Now she rings me on that for free instead of on the expensive landline..

I can almost feel  what Harold Wilson once called the ‘white heat of technology’ scorching the back of my neck as I haul myself into the 21st Century….

What is going on at Old Trafford?

Things at the Theatre of Dreams have taken a slightly surreal touch of late….

First of all, it’s Nev and Scholesy getting into some serious homoerotic post-goal celebrations (see picture from 18 April post)…

Now, Patrice Evra and Nani have introduced formation projectile vomiting on the pitch…..too many prawn sandwiches filched from the executive buffet trolley at half-time maybe?

Patrice Evra realises too late that a full Chicken Dhansak at half-time is not a good idea…

Speculation is rife that the final home game against Stoke in a fortnight will see Darren Fletcher taking to the pitch in a kilt and performing some Highland sword dancing plus a half-time medley of  sentimental Scottish songs in honour of the recently deceased Kenneth McKellar.

It’s all getting out of hand if you ask me….

Tom Bellamy Live Dates Spring/Summer 2010

Not posted much about Tom of late, but then, the boy has been away in New York for a while and has been busy with family stuff as well.  Things returning to normal right now so here are 3 confirmed bookings with more to come when he gets himself sorted….

13th May -Canteen, Bristol

22nd May – The Stokes Croft Festival, Bristol

  19th June – The Tower of Song, Cotteridge, Birmingham

Listening to Free….

I’ve spent much of the last week ploughing my way through ‘Songs of Yesterday’,  a 5-CD retrospective by British blues-rockers Free.

Free were yet another band emerging from the huge pool of talent assembled by Island Records in the late 1960’s and were given their name by Alexis Korner.  Free was not their first stab at fame; bassist Andy Fraser had already done a short stint with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, even though he was only 15 years old at the time.  The other members, themselves not much older,  had been involved in a variety of bands  in the London area, though only guitarist Paul Kossoff and Fraser were Londoners.  Kossoff was the son of well-known Jewish actor David Kossoff, who campaigned against drug use after Paul’s early death in 1976.

Like Led Zeppelin, who emerged at around the same time, Free had a very distinct style characterised by Kirke’s thunderous drumming, Rogers’ gravel-throated vocals and Kossoff’s flowing guitar.  Their first album from 1968 , ‘Tons of Sobs’ was at times a fairly ponderous blues-rock album.  What rescued the band from probable obscurity was the inclusion of one of the better tracks from the album – ‘I’m a mover’- on Island’s hugely successful and iconic sampler ‘You can all join in’. Free ‘joined in’ with the  famous mass photo taken in Hyde Park and their reputation was definitely enhanced by rubbing shoulders with the likes of Traffic, Jethro Tull and Spooky Tooth.

Kirke, Rogers & Fraser front and centre with Winwood  & Capaldi  etc lagging behind

1969 saw the release of ‘Free’  (often referred to as ‘Free 2’) which featured stronger, more commercial songs and a more varied approach, with several acoustic and semi-acoustic songs giving the album a distinctly pastoral feel.  The following year saw Free make their big breakthrough with the release of ‘Fire and Water’, a more electric album that featured some of their most powerful songs to date. 

‘All right now’, a fairly undistinguished blues-rocker, was the big popular hit single of the summer of 1970 and propelled Free from semi -obscurity to being major pop stars almost overnight.  From  ranks of denim-clad boys grooving on Kossoff’s guitar work, Free suddenly acquired an audience of squealing girls who shrieked appreciatively every time Rogers thrust his groin towards the audience (which was fairly often).

Free; the classic line-up, from L-R, Simon Kirke, Paul Rogers, Paul Kosssoff, Andy Fraser

Free released ‘Highway’ late in 1970 and, looking back, it was probably their most coherent album, successfully blending the harder blues-influenced material with the acoustic songs in a way they hadn’t quite managed before.  Again, there was a distinct pastoral edge to proceedings, but  the bluesy follow-up single, ‘The Stealer’, though an infinitely better song than ‘All right now’, failed to make much impact on the singles charts.  At this point, it was possible to sense that the band had lost some of their original momentum; clearly they believed strongly in ‘Highway‘ and ‘The Stealer’ and the relatively poor sales of both seemed to have a negative effect on the morale of the band.

There would be more hit singles in 1971, but apart from a well-received live album (also 1971), Free seemed to lose their way and split up briefly, pursuing a series of largely undistinguished solo projects.  Reconvening in 1972, they produced two disappointing studio albums with augmented or amended line-ups.  The magic spell had been broken around the time of ‘Highway‘ and the band never truly recovered.

Paul Rogers on stage at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival

Over the years, Island have released numerous Free compilations on both vinyl and CD; ‘The Free Story’, ‘The Best of Free’, ‘Molten Gold’ and so on.  These are all fairly standard ‘Greatest Hits’ packages, but ‘Songs of Yesterday’ is rather different.  For a start, very little of the material on the 5 CD’s has been issued previously, being either unreleased live material from the gigs in Croydon and Sunderland that produced 1971’s ‘Free Live’, alternate takes or remixes of previously released studio material or unreleased/out of print tracks by the splinter groups like Sharks and Peace who formed in the wake of Free’s original split back in 1971.

This package is now out-of-print and on offer for seriously delusional sums in the Amazon marketplace.  It’s worth pursuing only if you are a serious Free fan.  If you are, there’s plenty here to keep you amused, though nothing that will surprise you.  The alternative versions and mixes are solidly entertaining and the additional live tracks still sound great today.  The band contrive a terrific live cover version of Robert Johnson’s ‘Crossroads’, very much in the style of  Cream after which the MC comes out to announce that, having played three encores,  the band are too exhausted to play a fourth.  In a dry Sunderland accent, he then tries to interest the crowd in the next band to play at the venue…Blodwyn Pig.  Unintentionally hilarious.

Picture of the Week: “Ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have fallen in love with?”

Oh dear, Gary……

I have a feeling that you’ll be hearing plenty about this little indiscretion…

Watching ‘Mad Men’……………

……or no longer watching ‘Mad Men’, to be strictly accurate as Series 3 of the best thing on British TV has just come to a jaw-dropping finale, with the Draper marriage and Sterling Cooper Advertising both falling apart. 

I am considerably relieved to discover that there will be a Series 4, with the principals  from SCA now operating out of a hotel suite and Don Draper moving back into the city as his wife files for a quickie divorce.  The narrative possibilities for the future are considerable as the mid-60’s, Beatlemania, Vietnam. flower power and men walking on the moon are  imminent.  All are likely to form part of the constantly scrolling diorama of ‘current events’ that acts as a backdrop to the parish pump affairs of the Sterling Cooper crew and their significant others. 

Betsy & Don Draper….the dream is malfunctioning

‘Mad Men’  is the work of the same people who came up with ‘The Sopranos’ .  To be honest, I wasn’t a ‘Sopranos‘ aficionado – by the time the word reached me  about what I was missing, I had missed too much of it to make jumping aboard a real possibility.  Same with ‘The Wire’….

But ‘Mad Men’ struck a chord with me even before it started.  Given that advertising was one of the benchmarks of the 20th Century’s ‘mass media’, I could never quite understand how there had never been any notable movies or tv shows about it before.  The only ‘Mad Men’ I could remember from the movies were Robert Webber’s portrayal of a brash,but shallow Madison Avenue ad-man in Sydney Lumet’s 1957 adaptation of  the jury-room drama ‘Twelve Angry Men’  (“Let’s run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes!”) and Cary Grant’s  turn as the equally lightweight Roger Thornhill in Hitchcock’s ‘North by Northwest’ from 1959( “In the world of advertising, there’s no such thing as a lie. There’s only expedient exaggeration.” ) – and neither movie was actually about advertising at all.

Don Draper might look a bit like Webber and Grant with his sharp suits and saturnine good looks, but there is little that is shallow about him.  He is a dark and complex character and it’s sometimes possible to both admire and despise him within the same episode.  To all intents and purposes, Draper and his uptight blonde WASP-ish wife – plus three kids – are living the American dream out in Westchester County.  The intriguingly-named January Jones plays Betsy Draper with just the right amount of repressed  ‘preppy’ angst, but really starts to come into her own in Series 3.  Similarly, Don, who stalks Manhattan like a a feral Casanova in the first two series, is about to get his come-uppance from his wife, though not for the reasons that you might expect.  Series 3 is very much about the disintegration of the Draper marriage, whilst also following the increasingly byzantine goings-on at Sterling Cooper.  Having been snaffled up by a bigger (and British) fish in PPL, the busy boys & girls of the Sterling Cooper offices are about to find out that there are yet larger denizens of the deep.

Many people have remarked on how ‘well-dressed’ ‘Mad Men’ is.  The first series was notable for the fact that everyone seemed to be smoking, and pretty much all the time as well.  Now everyone talks about the fantastic clothes that are on show – particularly by the women characters.  The voluptuous Joanie, as played by Christina Hendricks,  is one of the clothes horses of the series and makes a welcome return to the fold at the end of Series 3.

Joanie knows best…..

Being ‘well-dressed’ is well and good, but the real strengths of ‘Mad Men’ are in the depth of the characterisation of its cast and the basis of that lies in its splendid scripts.  Quite simply, the quality of the writing in ‘Mad Men’ has just got better and better.  New viewers have about 6 months to catch up via the DVD Box Sets……

In the stillness of the morning……

Birmingham Airport is a fairly busy provincial airport; nothing like as important as the London airports or Manchester Airport, but on a weekday generating substantial amounts of traffic.  On most mornings, there is a steady rumble of aircraft passing through the airspace over this particular part of south Birmingham and during summer holiday/charter flight season, it can actually get quite oppressive.

Not right now, folks……

Today is a beautiful sunny morning, a little chilly, with that slight but constant north-west wind that is blowing clouds of volcanic ash from the eruption at Eyjafjällajökull over most of northern Europe.  The joy of listening to journalists try to pronounce the name of the volcano has, however, now been exceeded on the fun-ometer by the stillness here in the heart of the city.  Kings Heath has become a sunny enclave of gentle birdsong and little in the way of extraneous traffic noise and everything is now grounded until tomorrow.  Inconvenient for many but some of us are enjoying the unexpected peace.  We have friends who live on a farm in southwestern France which is totally off the main corridors of air traffic and in terms of traffic noise, this is akin to being at their place.  Blissful, if temporary…

“That’s..uhhh…Eya-fall…errr..Eryfulljokey…err…OK, the Icelandic volcano…”

Reading ‘Fatal Revenant’ by Stephen Donaldson

Way back in the mists of pre-history (well, 1980, anyway) before Corruption had poisoned the Land and long before I lived here, I interviewed Stephen Donaldson in an overcrowded office at the back of the Birmingham City Centre branch of W.H.Smith.  I was a bit starstruck really, which was weird as I was forever rubbing shoulders with scruffy rock’n’rollers up in Manchester, but Mr Donaldson was something else altogether.  He sat behind someone else’s desk and managed to make it seem like his own.  He was the very essence of a young, clean-living American collegiate professor, gesticulating and emphasising his ‘mots justes’ with regular jabs and waves of a pipe which seemed like a prop rather than something he actually smoked.

Stephen Donaldson in the 1980’s

This was really the high-water mark for Donaldson’s career, though I guess none of us knew that at the time. His first three books; collectively ‘The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant’, had broken through the stockade that separated the geeks and weirdos of Science Fiction and Fantasy from the general fiction market.  There was even talk of a movie. 

These 3 bulky volumes  borrowed  a little from Tolkien, but then doesn’t every fantasy writer?  Personally, I’d say that Donaldson is just as influenced by writers like William Faulkner and Joseph Conrad.  Also, unlike Tolkien’s heroes, Thomas Covenant is a thoroughly modern man – a desperately conflicted character, dogged by self-doubt and moral ambiguity.  He refuses to even believe in the ‘reality’ of the ‘parallel world’ into which he is suddenly propelled even when his senses are telling him that he’s 100% not in Kansas anymore.  All in all, he’s a pretty difficult character to like….

Donaldson had managed to fuse the fol-de-rol of traditional fantasy writing with more modern concerns and somehow made it work.  The Covenant books had crossed over to the mainstream and Donaldson was in town to promote the publication of the first trilogy in hardback and also the paperback launch of the first book in a second trilogy.  This was called ‘The Wounded Land’  and as it worked out,  the Second Trilogy was a bridge too far where casual crossover readers were concerned and catered much more for Donaldson’s geeky core audience.  It was also rather hard to ‘warm to’ if the truth be known.  As is often the way with long-running science fiction or fantasy sagas, the complexities tend to build and build until the author  has to come up with a plot of such fiendish ingenuity that it acknowledges all previous plot twists and manages to encompass them in a storyline so labyrinthine that you need to lie down and rest after reading each chapter.  Alternatively the author has to break free of  the past and despatch his hero to pastures new until he figures out what he can do to resolve the granny-knots he has written into the plot.

This was the route that Donaldson took with his second Covenant trilogy.  The second and much of the third book take place away from the ‘Land’ of the first Trilogy and whilst some of the writing has an air of  ‘making-it-up-as-he-goes-along’ there are some passages that work equally as well as anything in the first Trilogy.  Without wishing to give the game away, Donaldson resolved the second Trilogy fairly handsomely, though without leaving too much scope for any further sequels.  I think he’d pretty much had enough of Covenant by the end of the sixth novel, ‘White Gold Wielder’  (Just rolls off the tongue doesn’t it?)

After that, Donaldson gave Covenant and The Land an extremely wide berth, though I think we all knew he would get back there in the end.  In 2004, he began a new Quartet called ‘The Final Chronicles’  of which I have just finished the second part,  ‘Fatal Revenant’.  As the name might suggest, when you’re a fantasy writer, you can pretty much make it up to suit yourself as long as you can drum up a plausible enough reason for bringing back characters that were supposedly dead. 

The main difference with the Final Chronicles (if such they are) is that the central character is Dr Linden Avery, who is both Covenant’s constant companion and his lover in Trilogy # 2.  In her own way, her initial vulnerability to events in the Land is slowly and inexorably eroded into the same kind of cynical detachment that characterises Covenant himself.  The scope of the first two books  is considerable as Donaldson propels his characters backwards and forwards through time and space in search of a resolution to the ills that afflict The Land.  I was actually considerably surprised by my reaction to these new books, having ‘moved on’ a bit from this kind of writing since 1980.  These days, I tend to read a lot of  non-fiction – mainly travel books and biographies.  Though Donaldson’s plotlines are frequently enigmatic and deliberately obscure in their intentions, I overcame  any initial irritation I might have been feeling and have enjoyed being back in the familiar surroundings of Revelstone and Andelain.  ‘Fatal Revenant’ ended – of course – on a suitably dramatic note and it’s now thumb-twiddling time until Part Three emerges in about 6 months time.

Hellfire’, as Covenant might have said….