Monday 20 July 2015

Latitude - "like a Guardian readers' convention"

This year marks ten years of the Latitude Festival. Having gone yesterday, I can say that I've been, in part or in whole, to half of them (the other four being 2008, 2009, 2012 and 2014). It's changed a bit in that time - it's a bit bigger, with a few more stages, and a bit more corporate (yurts sponsored by Pepsi Max, anyone?) but essentially remains the best (and most manageable) multi-disciplinary festival. I've changed a bit too. Now I know that going on your own isn't the ideal way to experience a festival but that was also the case in 2012 and 2014 as well, and did I enjoy myself as much yesterday as I have in previous years? No. Were there moments when I wished I was somewhere else? Yes. Did I, as on every previous occasion, leave last night with a burning desire to buy an album or a book by someone I hadn't heard/read previously but had discovered as Latitude? No. So, will I be going next year...? Probably not...but you never know. Depends who the headliners are. Anyway, whilst not reaching the heights of past glories, my day in the scorched dustbowl of Henham Park was still a good one. Here, in the best tradition of my old festival diaries, is what I saw.

    Nina Conti, vent, at Latitude 2015
  • Nina Conti : Cabaret stage. The only time all day I couldn't get in somewhere, so I watched Nina through a tent flap. As I might have written before, I'm a big fan of Nina and whilst her vent sidekick Monkey is where she's most comfortable, the biggest laughs of her set were reserved for making puppets of a whole family, strapping them into prosthetic mouths and them giving them all distinct voices. I know I haven't described that very well, so if the distant pic of Nina doing this with the family's mum comes out okay I'll add it to this post later so you can see what I mean.
  • Cobain: Montage Of Heck : Film & TV Arena. It might seem like a wasteful use of precious festival time to spend over an hour and a half watching a film but I missed this at the cinema and was keen to catch it whilst I could. And what an excellent film it is, making extensive use of rich archive material, interspersed with animated versions of Kurt's notebooks and interviews with most (though not all - Dave Grohl is largely absent) of the key players in this tale. Mum, dad, stepmother, girlfriend, wife - they all get a chance to have their say, and deflect blame from themselves. My only slight issue was with the use of animation based on Kurt's notebooks and doodles, specifically that there was no indication that the source material was contemporaneous to the issue it was being used to illustrate.
  • Eddie Argos : Poetry Arena. Lead man with Art Brut, Eddie's show was called something along the lines of How To Make It In A Band, but it was really just a stream of consciousness series of anecdotes about being in lots of bands, and having a mild whiff of success. It was quite funny in places though.
  • Bob Geldof at Latitude 2015
  • The Boomtown Rats : Obelisk Arena. Fair play to Sir Bob and the boys for not just delivering a greatest hits set. Unsurprisingly though, those hits were the only songs to really energise the crowd - the less well-known material, at times, veered too close to self-indulgence. But fair play, again, to Bob for suitably Geldofian crowd interaction: having drawn attention to his "pretend snakeskin suit", he proceeded to lambast the audience for their "crap t-shirts and weekend shorts", concluding that we were "dressed liked cunts". And I can't deny, he had a point.
  • Too Much Information : Wellcome Trust Hub. On my way to the smaller of the Greenpeace tents for the best value tea and cake on site, I popped into the Faraway Forest and found the Wellcome Trust Hub (you see, so corporate) and listened to some academics talk about stress and how information overload is contributing. It was shady, quiet and uncrowded - I felt my own festival stress drop away. I also learnt that extreme childhood trauma creates a trajectory for higher stress response throughout life, so how you handle the rough stuff isn't just genetic, it's a product of your early life. So early, in fact, that pregnant mothers exposed to extreme stress are unknowingly skewing the stress response of their as-yet unborn offspring, making them less able to deal with it. Who knew?
  • Young Fathers : BBC 6Music stage. I went to see these on the strength of their description in the festival programme and implicit 6Music endorsement, but I knew this wasn't for me within half a song. Shame.
  • Susanne Sundfør : i Arena. Having bombed out of the 6Music stage much earlier than expected, I stumbled off into the woods in search of something interesting. And I found it: Susanne is from Norway, has a superb, soaring voice and an endearing stage presence. At first I wasn't overly enamoured with the synth-pop backing - it seemed a little too strident - but I persevered, moved a little bit further back into the trees, and listened to Susanne's entire set whilst collecting my thoughts.
  • Jason Manford : Comedy Arena. I'm not a huge fan of Manford, but as I was passing I stuck my head in. Latitude has learnt its lesson from years gone by, and the Comedy tent is now massive - gone are the days of as many people listening in from outside as there are in the tent. Anyway, part of the reason I didn't warm to Manford is that he seems a tiny bit too pleased with the success he's had - I lost count of the subtle references to DVD recordings and how a tented festival show is very different to playing large theatres or doing television. His best material came at the end - whilst hardly original, he got big laughs, even from your curmudgeonly reviewer, from the rich comic seam of his young children, and his successes (and failures) in parenting them.
  • Pippa Evans : Cabaret stage. As an antidote to the One Show comedy of Manford, Pippa's "There Are No Guilty Pleasures" show was a comic delight. Comedy, songs... comedic songs, Pippa does it all. And gets out into the crowd to absolve the audience of their guilty pleasure sins at the end of the show. Recommended.
  • Nicky Wire and GOT banner at Latitude 2015
  • Manic Street Preachers : Obelisk Arena. I wonder how often the Manics play a festival but aren't the headliners? Whatever, this was the reason I had chosen Sunday for my day ticket, so it is with a degree of reluctance that I report the Manics were okay, bordering on really good, but no better. Dare I even say that their set and performance seemed a bit perfunctory at times? They rattled through plenty of hits (opening with Motorcycle Emptiness, closing with Design For Life, and Everything Must Go, You Love Us and lots more in-between. Sure, James and Nicky bounced up and down a bit, but it just seemed a bit... MSP by numbers. Maybe I should have got nearer the stage, it might have seemed a bit different. Side note - I watched someone make their way from the back of the arena right to the front, during Motorcycle Emptiness, holding a banner that read "You know nothing Jon Snow." Any ideas, anyone?
  • Mark Billingham and My Darling Clementine : Literature Arena. What happens when you mix a popular crime novelist with a country and western duo? This is what happens. Mark was reading from his latest, and it was interspersed with songs from My Darling Clementine. C&W isn't really my thing, but I've read a disproportionate amount of Billingham's output, and this was pleasant enough. It didn't make me want to seek out the new book though, if that's what it was, primarily because it didn't feel authentic - in a departure for Billingham, here he's writing about the US, not the UK, and he just doesn't know it enough. Casual references to Walmart and "having a soda" just seem a bit...obvious? Tired? Clichéd?
  • Roni Size Reprazent : Film & TV Arena. Now this is not my usual cup of tea, which is ironic given that I only happened upon Roni et al whilst queueing to get a cuppa. The tent was rammed, and lots of people were watching through the open doors because the energy that was pouring forth was palpable. So too was the effect the music was having on the crowd inside the tent, for it was simply a sea of writhing limbs, pulsing under a kinetic light-show. Quite incredible to behold, and more than enough to make me overcome my Pavlovian response and stop to listen. A real bonus.
  • Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds : Obelisk Arena. With a pleasing symmetry, my drive to the festival had been accompanied by Noel's Desert Island Discs on Radio 4, during which I was impressed not only by his taste in music but also by how affable he has become, and how thoughtful too. Measured, almost. I can't say I've bought either album by The High Flying Birds, so I was intrigued to read the most recent is the UK's best selling album on 2015 so far. And actually, on the basis of this show, I can see why. I was also surprised to see kids who weren't even around at the time singing along to old Oasis tracks. Like their contemporaries, Blur and Pulp, it seems that Oasis really have entered the collective national consciousness in a way that might have seemed unlikely in the mid Nineties. Even so, it was mostly people my age bellowing along with Champagne Supernova, Half A World Away and Masterplan. Even Digsy's Dinner got an airing. Set closer Don't Look Back In Anger was the highpoint though, as set closers usually are, and I don't regret staying to hear every note. Noel was funny too, engaging really well with the audience, and knowingly mocking Latitude as being "like a Guardian readers' convention". Which, of course, it is. Anyway...Noel and his Birds flew higher than I'd expected, and were by far the best thing I saw all day.
Noel Gallagher at Latitude 2015
Noel adopts his best Pete Townshend pose
And that was that. Because I stayed for every last note, I was far from the first person back to the car park, and so set a new personal worst (1 hour 20 minutes) for getting out. But that's okay. I caught up with a bit more Radio 4 before switching to Janice Long on Radio 2. God, I'm just a Latitude programmer's dream, aren't I? Which makes it all the more surprising that I'm not sure if I'll go next year. Sure, I still cannot think of a better festival, genuinely. But either this year's programme wasn't as good as in years gone by (maybe because there are just so many festivals these days, and not enough quality acts to go around?) or I've lost a bit of my festival mojo... come back next July to find out which.

Monday 13 July 2015

Oh, I'm sorry - did I break your concentration?

The last time I had a birthday party, I think I was six. I can certainly picture the cake in my mind's eye (thanks Mum). But I didn't have any kind of bash for my 16th, 18th or 21st. In fact, for my 21st I was mostly sitting at home with a broken face, but that's another story. I haven't had shindigs for any other landmark birthdays either, no 30th, no 40th.

All of which is fine. The primary reason I've not had a birthday party is the thought of a party in my honour makes my skin crawl. I am the introvert's introvert, and the thought of trying to be a garrulous host and enjoying myself...well, that's not something I can picture. But I do like the idea of getting people together. An old friend of mine once told me that the greatest thing about getting married was that all his friends and family came together for the day, just for him and his wife. Probably not a view he shared with his wife, although since they are now divorced, who knows? But anyway... to bring people from the different strands of my life together, without having a party? Step forward OurScreen, an initiative that basically lets your crowdsource cinema screenings. You pick a film (from their list - sadly, you can't just have anything), select a participating cinema, pick a date and time and pledge to buy the first ticket. Then you advertise it like hell to all your mates, colleagues, family, social media acquaintances, passing strangers, anyone. They can all pledge to buy tickets too. And if the cinema's ticket threshold is reached before a certain deadline, everyone's pledges get taken and the film is screened.

Sounds good, doesn't it?

So, to loosely tie in with my imminent 45th birthday, I am hoping to celebrate the fact that Pulp Fiction will be 21, by organising a screening of it at my local art house cinema. I'd love it if you came, and so would you because it's a damn good film. Here's the link you need:

At the time of writing this, I need another 25 ticket pledges in 55 days. If you need reminding how good Pulp Fiction is, here's an old trailer:

Oh, and I'll be having a drink or two in the cinema bar beforehand, probably wearing the 45RPM t-shirt I've just ordered for the occasion, as designed by London Lee. See you there?

Friday 10 July 2015

About the young idea

Promotional picture of The Jam from 1977
Two weeks ago, I was down in the Big Smoke to see The Who do their thing at Hyde Park. It was a terrific day, as Pete and Roger defied their age to perform a terrific set, and the undercard of Paul Weller, Kaiser Chiefs, Johnny Marr and Gaz Coombes all delivered too. The weather was lovely, lots of odd mods in Fred Perry shirts gave the event a celebratory feel, fathers sang along with sons... not even muddy sound could spoil the day.

Excellent though all of the above was, I want to talk about what else I did on the day. Because the 26th of June was the first day of a new exhibition at Somerset House that I simply couldn't resist. About The Young Idea is a lovingly curated retrospective of The Jam, some 40 years after they were gigging their way out of Sheerwater Secondary Modern in Woking. Brilliantly, all three members of the band – Paul, Bruce and Rick – the Weller family and music archivist Den Davis have opened up their archives, especially for the show, so the wealth of memorabilia on display in incredible. Rick's target jumper is there, there are some Shelly's shoes (easy to find in this Internet age, impossible for me to find in sleepy rural Kent in the mid Eighties), tour posters, so many photographs, some iconic guitars (including Bruce's black Rickenbacker that wasn't a Rickenbacker), Rick's drum kit, lots of old vinyl (all of which I have in my collection, though sadly I am missing a few picture sleeves), fan club items from around the world, even some very early recordings to listen to, from when the band were still a four piece. And more, much, much more. If you're a fan, this is an essential exhibition, just on the basis of what I've already described.

The Jam in action at The Marquee
There's more though. Best of all, for me, are the artefacts from Paul's school days. Poems and lyrics that he'd written in notepads and the back of exercise books. Doodles where he is designing sleeve art, not just with a picture but with a band logo, and the back of the sleeve too. Here is a schoolboy who has no doubt that this is what he's going to do. There's a poem where every line something happens to the narrator that reminds him of a Paul Weller song. The last line is something along the lines of "And I turn on Top of the Pops and - WHAM! - it's a Paul Weller song." And there are hand drawn cartoons, not least "The Adventures of Paul the Mod", which tells the tale of a young parka-ed Paul, with his wall covered in Who pictures, imagining himself scootering off to the coast and being arrested. The influence of Quadrophenia (the album - this predates the classic film) is clear. Is it any wonder that Weller made it, and is still making it now, forty years later, with that level of conviction so early in his life? Bizarrely, this put me in mind of an appearance on TFI Friday by the Spice Girls. I know, that's some leap, right? But 90s Chris Evans, a very different beast from today's One Show version, was doing his usual schtick of trying to embarrass guests, playfully on the face of it but really not so playful. For each Spice Girl, he revelled in showing pre-fame video clips - he got to Mel C, and showed a video of her at an early-teen dance class. The teacher was demonstrating the moves and whilst most of the class looked a bit glazed, little Melanie Chisholm was instantly repeating every move straight back at the teacher. Is it any wonder that Mel C made it, with that intensity, that certainty, so early on? Where are the rest of that dance class? Nowhere, I'm (respectfully) guessing. So it really is about the young idea - Weller and Chisholm, so far apart musically - both had it, far more than you, me or their peers.

As a guitarist myself (of no acclaim, but still), there was much cooing over Paul's Rickenbackers. The pop art "WHAM!" is brilliant but most interesting of all is the ruby-glo Rickenbacker in which Paul carved "I am nobody" (unfortunately behind the young lady on the left, but there's a close-up below). Interesting that he should go from the confidence of youth to this more cynical mindset in so few years.
Maybe it was because it was the first day the exhibition was open to the public, maybe it was because of Weller and The Who's appearance in Hyde Park later that day, but the queue to get in was full of mods, and not all of a certain age either. Mod hairstyles, Fred Perry shirts, bowling shoes, tailored drainpipes... all of which contributed to the feel of the ninety minutes I spent there.

Anyway... if you are a fan of The Jam or Weller or mod culture, or just feel a bit nostalgic for the late 70s and early 80s, this is a must-see exhibition. If you're in the city, get yourself together and move on up to Somerset House (see what I did there?). And to paraphrase the song from which the exhibition and this blog post take their title, you better listen now I've said my bit-a!
The Jam at the end of their final live show

Monday 6 July 2015

From madness to sadness (or, the greatest album you won't buy this year)

Click to buy "A Comfortable Man" by Cathal Smyth
Cathal did not blow his Madness royalties on sleeve art

Cathal Smyth has taken a sabbatical from the day job to record and release a solo album. I say solo, since the day job in question is "being Chas Smash out of Madness". And whilst the voice is unmistakable (unless you mistake it for Suggs), the twelve songs on A Comfortable Man go beyond the maudlin end of the Madness spectrum - this may be heavy, heavy, but it is not a monster sound, nor is it one step beyond. But it is bloody good.

As an album, it very much wears its heart on its sleeve - Cathal separated from his wife in 2005, having been together since their teens, and it feels like A Comfortable Man is the product of ten subsequent years of pain. Here is a man of a certain age who, despite success on so many levels, is struggling to reconcile the fact that the fundamental cornerstones of his life have not worked out as he would have liked. As such, his debut solo album seems ideally placed to appeal to middle-aged men who cannot help but think that life has gone wrong, gone astray. And Cathal sings of this difficult period with heartbreaking honesty. Ten years is a long time, but this is still raw for the artist formerly known as Chas.

The album opens with You're Not Alone, and my immediate reaction to it was that it would be a perfect album closer - a serious lyrical topic and a sombre, piano-led tune that becomes increasing uplifting would be a perfect way to close. But I soon realised that half the album falls into that category. It also sets the tone perfectly, just in case any listeners hadn't got the memo and were still expecting something akin to The Nutty Boys.

Title track A Comfortable Man puts me in mind of Johnny Cash singing Hurt, but through a North London filter. Cash received plaudits left, right and centre for Hurt. Smyth's Comfortable Man will pass under most people's radar. It's a tough old world, but Cathal has learnt that already.

By far the most upbeat song on the album is recent single Do You Believe In Love?, which managed at least one airing on Radio 2. And whilst musically upbeat, even that includes the couplet "Do you believe in love? I don't believe it's true." This tiny flower of positivity is crushed before it can bloom though by the next track, Love Song No. 7. Here, more than anywhere, Cathal is, I believe, singing directly to his ex-wife, and there is a crack in his voice almost from the opening line. How he can perform this live without getting something in his eye I do not know (but he does). Here are the opening lines:

My heart is in pieces,
It's lying broken on the floor.
My days are so empty
Without you in them any more.
My senses, emotions, my feelings
Are all bruised and torn.
My mind is in torment,
My soul, it wears a crown of thorns.
My colours have all run dry -
There's no sun up in my sky today.

It's a beautiful, if painful, song, and Smyth is to be applauded for such honesty. This is how it feels.

That honest pain continues with possibly the best song of the lot, Are The Children Happy? Smyth again ploughs the divorce furrow in the song's verses but comes up for air in the chorus, which asks simply "Are the children happy living without me? How I wish we could have spoken honestly." In the same way that Elbow tapped into a market of middle-aged divorced men by singing about the seldom seen kid, I think Smyth's songs would really take off... if only they were more radio-friendly. And that's the only problem, really - I can immerse myself in Smyth's melancholia all day long but it is a painful, upsetting album in places and, as such, isn't for everyone. Consider penultimate track All My Loving - sample couplet: "My love for you with never fade. I give you all my love in vain." Definitely not for everyone.

In an album where two thirds of the songs would be good closing tracks, the actual final song, The Wren's Burial, does not disappoint. Except for me it hardly feels like a close, because I have had this CD on repeat play in my car since the day I bought it.

It's only July, so it's a bit early to call this as my album of the year... but it's going to take some beating. I'm going to see Madness in September. Chas Smash will not be there, but that's okay - I can live with that, when this is the spectacular compensation. It might not have been on your radar before this, but I urge you to invest in A Comfortable Man. I do not believe you will be disappointed.