Category Archives: Music reviews

Review: Xiu Xiu play the music of Twin Peaks

In many ways, the Howard Assembly Room is an appropriate venue to stage an interpretation of the Twin Peaks soundtrack.  Rather like the fictional town, the Howard Assembly Room has a dark past, spending time as a ‘dirty cinema’ for a period in the 70s.  It’s now restored into its original form as a long, wood-panelled hall: a cavernous space, allowing sounds as quiet as a whisper to echo around it at will.

Continue reading Review: Xiu Xiu play the music of Twin Peaks

Culture Vulture: Group Inerane / Flower-Corsano Duo

Published 5 December 2011 on Culture Vulture

Howard Assembly Room, Leeds

Saturday 3 December 2011

Sonic intensity: that’s the Flower-Corsano Duo.  Known for his collaborations with Bjork and Richard Bishop of the Sun City Girls, Chris Corsano is a visually fascinating, technically brilliant and highly experimental drummer.  Watching him incorporate violin strings, Tibetan singing bowls, mallets, bows and hybrid thrash-jazz into his performance knocks you for six, making you wonder if he has some secret, additional arms growing somewhere else.

He’s joined by Leeds’ own Mike Flower from the drone ensemble Vibracathedral Orchestra, who has at his hands a shahi baaja, a fascinating instrument that’s a type of Indian zither, amped up and overdriven to the point where it’s not that far away from heavy metal.  Add a dronebox into the mix and the set becomes an explosive mix of sonic rises and falls, the sound soaring upwards towards a white-noise peak – then slowly, gradually falling again into a calming drone.  Exhilarating.  Cleansing, even.  Think of Lightning Bolt, then turn it up a notch.  Leeds should be proud that one of these brilliant musicians is from this city.

Group Inerane are from Agadez in northern Niger.  With two electric guitars, bass and drums, the Tuareg music they play is instantly danceable, similar to the music of the slightly more famous Tinariwen.  Their music is part of a musical revolution originating in the Libyan Berber refugee camps in the 1980s, with the guitar substituting the rifle as a political weapon.  Unfortunately, Group Inerane have been forced to change their lineup since their first album was released in 2007, after their second guitarist, Adi Mohamad, was shot dead during the recent Tuareg rebellions in West Africa.

This electrified Sahara sound is, essentially, amazing party music.  It’s a shame that the Howard Assembly Room has seats tonight, but nevertheless people are dancing in their chairs, the balcony and the aisles – the rhythm shuffles and syncopates so much that you’ve just got to move your body somehow.  If there’s one criticism, it’s that this evening seemed a bit short, but perhaps that’s because the music was so engrossing.

Leeds – more gigs like this please!

Belle and Sebastian review in the Leeds Guide

Originally published on Thursday 16 June 2011 at http://www.leedsguide.co.uk/review/live-review/belle-and-sebastian/18747

“Well, it’s been a while, Leeds”, Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch announces by way of introduction. The sea of bodies at the O2 Academy is not hesitant in agreeing, as sections of the audience begin to shout, confusingly at first, “1998! 1998!” “I suppose that some of you might not have been born back then,” he replies, forlornly. “I’m always the oldest in the room”.

1998 wasn’t long after Belle and Sebastian released their debut, Tigermilk, as part of a low-key project at a Glaswegian college. Although they’ve achieved global success in the intervening period – picking up a BRIT Award and a Top of the Pops appearance on the way – they’ve always managed to remain refreshingly at odds with the mainstream chart, making music as if the horn-and-string-drenched sunshine pop of the 60s never faded away.

Tonight is the last night of a long world tour in support of Write About Love, their first album in four years. Before they arrive on stage, there’s a tense atmosphere: will they be spent from several months of solid touring, in locations more exotic than this fine metropolis?

No, is the answer. They’re fantastic, and boldly kick off with some new ones, including the delightful ‘I’m Not Living In The Real World’. Here, guitarist Stevie Jackson teases a little audience participation out of the room, carefully highlighting the song’s four key changes by asking the crowd to sing the melody line in four different ways. This is achieved with a surprising measure of success.

Some of the band’s ‘greatest hits’ make a much-appreciated appearance, including ‘I’m a Cuckoo’, ‘Sleep the Clock Around’, ‘Get Me Away From Here I’m Dying’ and their “top 15 smash” (Stevie’s words), ‘Legal Man’. All are immeasurably enhanced by organs, pianos, a trumpet and a string quartet, with most band members swapping instruments at least once.

Three lucky fans are invited up on stage during ‘The Boy with the Arab Strap’, and all proudly display massive grins as they dance idiosyncratically about the stage. As the song ends, Stuart presents each fan with a medal and a handshake by way of reward, which seems to be entirely appropriate. Any other gesture would seem deeply wrong. A fourth medal is bestowed on someone Stuart spots at the front, who “has come to every gig on our tour”.

This crystallises the essence of Belle and Sebastian. Unlike so many other big acts, their music and performances don’t seem at all forced: they are genuinely delighted to be around their fans, who in return are equally delighted to be around them. In fact – and this is in the nicest possible sense – they seem to revel in a wonderful sense of nerdiness. And they make excellent music, too.

As evening draws to a close, Stuart takes the time to introduce and thank every single member of the crew and band, before a splendid encore of ‘Me and the Major’. Then, they politely wave, bow and exit. Lovely. Here’s hoping Belle and Sebastian make a return visit – hopefully before another 13 years go by.

Belle and Sebastian played the O2 Academy on 3rd June.

Belle and Sebastian

Friday 3 June 2011

O2 Academy, Leeds

★★★★★

“Well, it’s been a while, Leeds”, Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch announces by way of introduction. The sea of bodies at the O2 Academy is not hesitant in agreeing, as sections of the audience begin to shout, confusingly at first, ‘1998!  1998!’  “I suppose that some of you might not have been born back then”, he replies, forlornly.  “I’m always the oldest in the room”.

1998 wasn’t long after Belle and Sebastian released their debut, Tigermilk, as part of a low-key project at a Glaswegian college.  Although they’ve achieved global success in the intervening period – picking up a BRIT Award and a Top of the Pops appearance on the way – they’ve always managed to remain refreshingly at odds with the mainstream chart, making music as if the horn-and-string-drenched sunshine pop of the sixties never faded away.

Tonight is the last night of a long world tour in support of Write About Love, their first album in four years, and as I wait for them to appear onstage, I begin to worry they’ll be tired out from several months of solid touring, and in locations rather more exotic than this fine metropolis.

I’m wrong, of course.  They’re fantastic, and boldly kick off with some new ones, including the delightful ‘I’m Not Living In The Real World’.  Here, guitarist Stevie Jackson teases a little audience participation out of the room, carefully highlighting the song’s four key changes by asking the crowd to sing the melody line in four different ways.  This is achieved with a surprising measure of success.

Some of the band’s ‘greatest hits’ make a much-appreciated appearance, including ‘I’m a Cuckoo’, ‘Sleep the Clock Around’, ‘Get Me Away From Here I’m Dying’ and their “top 15 smash” (Stevie’s words), ‘Legal Man’.  All are immeasurably enhanced by organs, pianos, a trumpet and a string quartet, with almost all band members swapping instruments at least once.

Three lucky members of the public are invited up on stage during ‘The Boy with the Arab Strap’.  All display massive grins on their faces as they idiosyncratically dance about the stage.  As the song ends, Stuart presents each one with a medal and a handshake, which strikes me as entirely appropriate.  Anything else would seem, for reasons I struggle to place, deeply wrong.  A fourth medal is bestowed on an audience member Stuart spots at the front, whom he notes “has come to every gig on our tour”.

I think that this crystallises what I enjoy most about Belle and Sebastian.  Unlike so many other big acts, their music and performances don’t seem at all forced, and they seem genuinely delighted to be around their fans, who in return are genuinely delighted to be around them.  In fact – and I mean this in the nicest possible sense – they seem to revel in a wonderful sense of nerdiness.  And they make excellent music, too.

As the band draws the gig to a close, Stuart takes the time to introduce and thank every single member of the crew and band, something I’ve never seen before.  Finally, following a brilliant encore of ‘Me and the Major’, they politely wave, bow and exit.  Lovely.  Here’s hoping Belle and Sebastian make a return visit – hopefully a bit sooner than in another 13 years.

Review: Her Name is Calla

Originally published on Weds 30 March 2011 at http://www.digyorkshire.com/HighlightDetails.aspx?Article=1183

Left Bank Leeds

Sunday 27 March

★★★★

There’s a huge building in Leeds that, I think, is well on its way to being a legendary music venue.  You might not know about it – it’s not highlighted as a tourist attraction, nor is it in the trendiest part of the city.  It’s also a church.  And no, it’s not Halo…

Welcome to Left Bank Leeds: formerly the St. Margaret of Antioch church, a huge, Gothic-style building, constructed at the turn of the 1900s for the mill-workers of Hyde Park.  Looming over the chimneypots of this modern-day student metropolis, the austere brick structure strikes an imposing sight when approaching it in the dark.  Step inside, and you’re treated to something that’s more akin to the inside of a cathedral than a church: vaulted arches, huge columns and a giant stained glass window at one end.

The story of Left Bank Leeds begins in 1995.  Faced with a dwindling congregation, a decision was made to close the church, which remained abandoned for over a decade.  Fast forward to 2008, and a group of dedicated local people began the task of restoring the building, giving it a new lease of life as a performing arts centre and community space.

Tonight’s pretty chilly, and Left Bank has seemingly little in the way of heating, but that’s not stopped a good hundred people or so turning out to witness a performance of atmospheric, brooding music.  The stage is set on what I imagine was once the altar, with a scattering of seats and tables in place of pews before it.  The venue and the music couldn’t be more ideally suited – there’s a five-second natural reverb in the building, the arches and columns adding a real atmosphere to the ghostly whispers to opener Alicia Merz, aka Birds of Passage.

Hailing from New Zealand, Alicia plays guitar, keyboard and occasionally goes off to twiddle with a laptop.  Her voice is scarcely a whisper, sounding a little like Vashti Bunyan, but that’s where the similarity ends.  I’m not sure how she’s doing it (and I don’t wish to sound like a granddad by calling it ‘new-fangled electronic trickery’), but over a few minutes she carefully introduces layers of sound on sound, each layer blending gracefully into the next – the reverb slowly rising, creating an eerie barrage of faded chord fragments.  This is the sort of music that I think would be impossible to not sound good in a church building, as it is inextricably shaped by the fascinating acoustics of the space.

After a break, and a trip to the bar for a joyously warm cup of tea, the hotly-anticipated Her Name is Calla take to the stage.  Although signed to the German Denovali label, the six-piece come from a combination of Leeds, Leicester and York, and are tonight beginning an epic tour of Europe with Birds of Passage.  They play a range of instruments – with a trombone, banjo and violin all popping up – shifting from delicate ambient musings  to explosive ear-splitting cacophony without warning, unfolding a series of vast aural soundscapes through crashing guitars, booming drums and haunting vocals.

Hailed by no less an authority than Drowned in Sound as ‘one of the UK’s most daring and unconventional bands’, I found their set to be not so much a performance but an experience – the waves of sound multiplying and bouncing around the old church walls before cascading down with an epic crash of cymbals and noise.

In conclusion, then: ‘twas a cracking night.  Expect to hear great things spoken about Her Name is Calla very soon indeed.

  • Her Name Is Calla’s new album, The Quiet Lamb, is out now on Denovali Records.

Review: Jesca Hoop

Originally published on Weds 23 March 2011 at http://www.digyorkshire.com/HighlightDetails.aspx?Article=1176

Jesca Hoop / Elijah at Sea /Me and My Friends

The Cockpit 3, Leeds, 23 March 2011

★★★★

“It’s like playing in an air raid bunker in here”, Jesca Hoop announces from the stage, as I struggle to find space to stand in The Cockpit’s tiny third room.  I’m inclined to agree – the low, metal-clad semicircle roof adds a certain Anderson shelter quality to the place.  I can imagine too how I wouldn’t last long in such a setting: peering over rows of heads in a vain attempt to see the stage, I find myself fighting off the urge to cause harm to a tall youth behind me, who has had cause to intermittently clap with deafening velocity through her last few quieter songs.

I suspect that Jesca is used to performing in more pleasant surroundings.  Last time I saw her was at the Hebden Bridge Trades Club, a cosy, guitars-and-ale sort of place, where she performed a terrific folky-jazzy-rock set with a full band.  Tonight though, it’s stripped down: Jesca and her guitar plus a backing singer (whose name – I’m sorry to say – I can’t recall) are performing tracks from her new album, Snowglobe.  She’s comparable with Regina Spektor – not simply because she’s a solo female artist, but because of their shared love of bare chords, an intense lyrical emotionality, and striking vocal creativity.

Raised by a Mormon family in Northern California, Jesca recently swapped her native, warm surrounds for slightly rainier Manchester.  Since doing so she’s received heaps of critical acclaim  – including from Tom Waits, no less – but, sadly, there’s something missing this evening.  Perhaps it’s the room, or the aforementioned clapping youth, but she doesn’t seem to be firing on all cylinders.  In fact, I think she’s been outshone by the support acts on this measure.

In particular, I find myself leaning towards the possibility that tonight’s openers, Me and My Friends, have stolen the show.  With a combination of reggae-infused folk combined with a hint of bossa nova and jazz, they’re the sort of band that you usually only find in a festival tea tent at 4am.  Between them, there’s a congas, clarinet, cello and, as they huddle on stage, it’s just about possible to make out lead singer and guitarist Nick Rasle, a man with a lovely gentle voice reminiscent of Devendra Banhart.  Listening to them is musical sunshine: just as the artist John Ruskin once remarked that ‘one cannot be angry when one looks at a penguin’ – it’s also true that one cannot be sad when listening to Me and My Friends.

Elijah at Sea have to cram on stage even more, with seven or possibly more members in various states between standing and crouching over their instruments – but the result is some fiercely energetic shouty alt-rock.  (I never thought I’d write that).  Not particularly my cup of tea, but I do appreciate the dramatic posing of the rhythm guitarist during the set.

At the end of the gig, Jesca announces that she’ll be with the full band in Manchester on Friday 26th March.  I’d recommend that you check her out again there – to me, at least, that’s how she sounds best.

My writing portfolio: an update

Since November 2010 I’ve written reviews, previews and events listings on the cultural website digyorkshire.com.  Here’s a portfolio of my work so far.

For the latest, I’d recommend that you subscribe to my site via RSS using something like Google Reader – it’s dead easy.  Watch this video for tips on how to do it.

You can find this page in the writing section of my site, too – take a browse!

Coastival

Review: Musicport Day, Coastival

Coastival

Musicport Day, Coastival
Scarborough Spa, Sunday 20 February 2011

★★★★★

Originally published on Tuesday 22nd February 2011 at http://www.digyorkshire.com/HighlightDetails.aspx?Article=1133

“Would the owner of a silver estate car parked outside the main entrance please move it immediately. It is about to be swept away”. So announces our glamorous compere, as the roaring waves crash over the sea wall and sweep across the road. As I gaze out of the Spa’s aptly named Ocean Room, I begin to wonder if the Victorians hadn’t pondered building it a bit further back.

Being balmy February, it’s the ideal time for Coastival, a magnificent festival with hundreds of things happening across town. There’s art installations, gigs and even sword dancing workshops. Friday’s opening night saw the Levellers kick off proceedings, followed by comedian Count Arthur Strong on Saturday.

Today’s highlight is Musicport Day, curated by Jim and Sue McLaughlin of the local Musicport Festival. Beginning in 2000, Musicport has become the largest indoor world music festival in the UK, held in nearby Bridlington each autumn. Today’s a taste of what you can expect to find, including people from countries all over the world, and fascinating music you’ve never heard before.

Three of the four bands appearing today are from Yorkshire. As world music is a bit of a niche, this is either an excellent indication of our region’s cultural diversity, or a rather exaggerated territorial claim encompassing several continents.

First up are The Everly Pregnant Brothers, a band of ukulele-wielding Sheffielders, who count among their ranks comedian Toby Foster. They’re a covers band, but specialise in that difficult subgenre of ‘Yorkshire’, subtly altering the lyrics of hits like ‘Sex on Fire’ to ‘Me Chip Pan’s On Fire’. That particular one’s been circling in my head for days, along with ‘No Oven No Pie’.

Next on stage are Rafiki Jazz, also from Sheffield, with heritage from countries including Brazil, Colombia, Gambia and Zimbabwe. The music drifts from serene Senegalese poetry to pounding global dance, held together by Mim Suleiman, a ray of human sunshine blessed with a powerful, soulful voice. Mixing steel drums with tabla, kora with guitar and berimbau with beatbox, Rafiki Jazz quickly fill the dancefloor with an amazing fusion of sounds that, in their words, “comes from a special place… over there!”

Following on are The Hut People, a two-man band consisting of former Beautiful South percussionist Gary Hammond and accordion player Sam Pirt. Despite being lower on members, they’re able to generate a huge, beefy sound that rivals Rafiki Jazz’s barnstorming set, veering from English morris songs to Finnish dances and clog dancing for good measure. “This one’s our drum and bass number”, Sam announces, shortly before Gary pounds a large stick adorned with beer bottle tops rhythmically into the floor. “A good activity to do with the kids”, he suggests, shortly before the dancefloor is rushed with scores of gyrating bodies.

To finish the night are Berlin’s 17 Hippies. As they arrive on stage, an announcement is made over the PA. “Don’t count!” Shock! There’s only twelve. This, of course, doesn’t matter, as they launch straight into a blazing Eastern European fiddle’n’banjo dance number that sounds like there could in fact be 117 hippies on stage. They’re huge in their native Germany and France, but seem to love the fact they’re playing in Scarborough. “In Berlin, we’re so far from the sea”, vocalist Antje Henkel says. “But here, it’s right there!”

Indeed, it is – and as I venture outside afterwards, I notice that it’s closer still. I’d forgotten how cold it was – the music had transported me to more exotic climes. Although the weather’s cold in Scarborough, it’s a cultural hotspot this weekend. But, as I look out at the approaching waves in the darkness, I can’t seem to pick out that silver estate car.

Stan Tracey

Review: Stan Tracey Quartet

Seven Arts, Leeds

Thursday 10 February

Originally published on Weds 16th February 2011 at http://www.digyorkshire.com/HighlightDetails.aspx?Article=1129

“It’s not very often that you get a full house at a jazz club”, remarks Steve Crocker, promoter at Seven Jazz and the man responsible for tonight’s event. “We’ve even had twelve returns, but now it’s completely full”.

There again, it’s not very often that a man known as ‘The Godfather of British Jazz’ comes to play. Seven Arts’ compact auditorium is packed to the rafters with folk clamouring to see Stan Tracey, 84 years of age and still going strong.

As resident pianist at Ronnie Scott’s in London during the early 60s, Stan’s career has involved working with some of the most famous names in jazz. His 1965 album Under Milk Wood is considered by discerning folk to be up there with the work of Miles Davis – a very unusual thing indeed for a British musician in a scene dominated by US stars.

Emerging to thunderous applause, Stan leads his band on stage, gives a brief nod to the audience and sits before the grand piano (made, incidentally, in Leeds). “A-one, two, a-one two uh uh” – the drums kick in with a crack, Stan hits the chords, the double bass booms and the sax blasts. I’m too young to have been at Ronnie Scott’s during the golden age of British jazz, but I imagine it sounded something like this.

Stan’s son Clark is a master of the drums, similar to the late Max Roach and equal to his dad in terms of skill, appearing on Stan’s records from the 70s onwards. On tenor sax is Bobby Wellins, collaborator with Stan on Under Milk Wood. He turned 75 earlier this year, but packs more energy into his performance than most musicians half his age, and is, like Stan, a legend. On double bass, Andy Cleyndert does a brilliant job of keeping the whole thing together with amazing dexterity, never once hitting a wrong note.

Among the highlights are ‘Starless and Bible Black’, Stan’s best piece from Under Milk Wood. A haunting, serene piece, Bobby’s sax lines gently float over the piano like a bird in flight. Bobby’s sax skills shine again with ‘McTaggart’, a blues number, drawn from a 1964 album. “I don’t know if I remember that one”, Bobby announces, looking slightly shocked. But he does, and it’s like listening to the record.

As Thelonious Monk’s ‘Bright Mississippi’ receives the Stan treatment, I close my eyes: I can’t tell if it’s Stan or the Monk who’s hitting the keys. I’m not sure if I’ll experience a gig quite like this again.

Review: Rangda / Emeralds / Howlin Rain

The Brudenell Social Club, Leeds
Wednesday 8th December 2010

Originally published at http://www.digyorkshire.com/HighlightDetails.aspx?Article=1056 on 16th December 2010.

I’m going to get hold of my instruments, go outside and set them on fire. Because, frankly, after watching these incredible musicians, I may as well give up trying. Experiencing these three purveyors of psych rock, ambient and free-jazz fusion left me awestruck and insanely jealous at the same time.

First up were Howlin Rain. Based in San Francisco, they looked like they’d stepped off the set of Easy Rider, circa 1969. They sound like they could have written the soundtrack, too. Vocalist Ethan Miller’s wailing voice, and equally wailing guitar, sound like early Grateful Dead material. Add into the mix some overdriven organ, electric piano, pounding drums and guitar solos, and the result was some first-class psychedelia-drenched West Coast rock. Although they rocked, it wasn’t really my cup of tea – but I put that down to not owning a Harley Davidson.

Following on from this were Emeralds, an incredible ambient drone band from Cleveland, Ohio. If you say ‘drone’ to most people, they might think of bagpipes or chanting, which couldn’t be further from what these three guys play. Their music could be described perhaps more accurately as ‘kosmische musik’ (cosmic music), a style inspired by 70s German electronica from the likes of Popol Vuh, Ash Ra Tempel and Tangerine Dream. With two synths, a guitar and shedloads of effects, they applied layer upon layer of astounding sound, creating waves of crashing, crescendoing music that sounded like it couldn’t possibly have been made here on planet Earth.

To finish the night were Rangda, a kind of weirdo-supergroup of incredibly good, yet incredibly eccentric musicians. The trio are comprised of some of the ‘who’s who’ of the US underground psych rock scene. On guitar was ‘Sir’ Richard Bishop, formerly of the Sun City Girls. Bishop is renowned for his Middle-Eastern and Gypsy-influenced playing style, reminiscent at times of Django Reinhardt. Joining him were drummer Chris Corsano, who recently collaborated with Bjork, and fellow psych-guitarist Ben Chasny.

I firmly believe that it is not physically possible for Chris Corsano to play drums like he did. He must have at least two other secret arms coming from somewhere behind his back. At times funky, and at times verging off into leftfield free-jazz territory, Corsano was the driving force behind the performance. One song consisted solely of one bended note played repeatedly by both guitarists, with Corsano thrashing around all the drums at breakneck speed. At quieter moments, the delicacy of Chasny’s psych-folk combined with Bishop’s gypsy style to create an eerie, haunting sound, conjuring up images of distant desert wanderers.

I left the gig feeling somewhat changed – it’s one thing to say you’ve seen some amazing musicians, but quite another to say that you’ve never heard anything like this before. A genuinely inspiring evening.