Monday, May 27, 2013

Bank Holiday Bumper Music Weekend

Level of conviction in own genius: 7
Amount of creative activity achieved in last 24: 2
Listening: to ME
Hair Day: floppy and sun-kissed, post-swim

I crammed a lot of live music into 48 hours this weekend. We started off on Friday late afternoon outside Aldwych underground station on The Strand, these days of course unused apart from as film sets for drowning Keira Knightley or for go-getting contemporary music promoters... We were there for the first part of the London Contemporary Orchestra's Imagined Occasions series, which is spread throughout the year, and seeks to create 'immersive, site-responsive' experiences. In front of us was Thomas Ades, who had a piece being played, and who seemed to have trouble getting into the event, arf.
I have to say, I think the LCO were missing a trick or two; reading the hyperbolic preview in The New Statesman, it seemed we should have had our tickets checked as if we were heading into the Tube as commuters of a distant past; were to be handed newspapers about the event; and were to feel as if we were milling about in the main vestibule among other ghostly travellers. There was, I'm afraid, none of this. Andy and I had been on a tour of the station last year, so there was no novelty of being down there for the first time, and we wanted An Experience, dammit! One of the singers, friend-of-juice Cheyney Kent, delivered the most dramatic pre-concert health-and-safety announcement I've ever heard, and seemed to be setting the scene for a theatrical promenade. But instead, pieces were simply presented separately, and between them, we were led by stewards who simply told us where to move, getting us to shuffle awkwardly along a platform to stand in front of a film. It felt like really what the whole thing needed was a narrative of sorts, a performer who would lead us around the spooky tunnels and up the crumbling steps on a dreamlike journey in which there was no relaxing or chatting between pieces.

There were some lovely moments, and most of the actual programming was great: my favourite was the twelve singers with headlamps (including aforementioned Cheyney and Sarah-juicette) deep in a dank tunnel, singing Jonathan Harvey - although why the audience were then placed on a side platform where they could hardly see them I've no idea; the Stockhausen film with the Brothers Quay images on a wall slimy with mould and dirt was evocative, though again, almost impossible to actually see; I enjoyed sitting in an old tube train watching a quartet, though their performance again felt very untheatrical; and my favourite piece was the 'cello, viola and tubular bells trio which sadly again, few people could actually view. The Claude Vivier piece around which this performance centred was beautifully staged on the rail tracks and stopped startlingly (it was the last piece he was working on before he was murdered), but at £35 a pop, it didn't do enough for me, and I think needed a theatre director overseeing the whole shebang. Creases may have been ironed out for the second performance of the evening; at least Jon Snow and Jonny Greenwood made positive tweetings about it.

We made off into the rain, slightly underwhelmed by the experience, and to Cecil Sharp House for Lisa Knapp's gig. I'd never seen her live, though have long been a fan of her glorious voice and inventive arrangements. She played two sets, her feet going crazy clacking away on the foot-pumped harmonium, or delicately plucking a fiddle, or wheezing a shruti box. Her man Gerry Diver would swoon away on viola or add samples, and she was further complemented by shimmering hammer dulcimer, string bass and occasional drums. She played many of her 'May carols', my favourite being 'The Pleasant Month of May', long-sung by The Copper Family, which in Lisa's version, builds up from a simple pulsing bassline into a joyous carnival or hay-making and yelling. Lovely stuff, and I'm looking forward to her second album in the autumntide.

We were blessed miraculously with no rain at Field Day on Saturday, and tramped up and down Victoria Park looking for flashpan bands to whoop at. We kicked off first in the Caught By the River tent, which I'd have happily stayed in all day, had it not been pummelled by several sound systems around it, therefore somewhat destroying its embrace of all things field recording-related. Still, I saw a discussion with Chris Watson, London Sound Survey peeps and others which made me want to grab a massive microphone and head into the woods pretty sharpish. We caught Stealing Sheep, three wide-grinning lasses who did a charming turn in three-part harmony and indie-folk. We then dashed over to catch the last few songs by new punks Savages, as short and sharp as a jab in the arm with a penknife; their last one had the singer simply yelping viciously: 'Hus-BANDS Hus-BANDS Hus-BANDS'. It shouldn't be exciting in 2013 to see a band of four girls dressed in utilitarian black shirts, rocking the hell out of their short, nasty songs, but it IS. I'd love to see them in a proper gig, though I expect it would only be about 20 minutes long, given how quickly they stalked offstage here. We gave Ginger Baker's Jazz Confusion (pedestrian) and Django Django (djangly) short shrift, and got ourselves right at the front for Everything Everything. EE, clad in styled outfits that made them look like ASOS-loving bus drivers, were energetic and fun, with a singer delighting in his falsetto, and an array of clever guitar licks. We stayed put for Bat For Lashes, who made it all worth it by sashaying beatifically on in an outfit that made her basically the sexiest rainbow you've ever seen. Her set was all thrumming pop with electro sprinklings, added 'cello and theremin, and she had a cracking voice. Neither EE not BFL were exactly ground-breaking, but were certainly Good Solid Fun. Four Tet played fairly 'meh' techno-lite fare as the sun set, and Animal Collective's experi-indie was perhaps a little too noodly to headline, but it was a Fab Day. Hurrah!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Birds, Lobsters and Honeybees

Level of conviction in own genius: 6
Hours of creative activity achieved in last 24: 1
Watching: Mike Leigh's 'Another Year'
Hair Day: Bit dank, post-swim

It's not hard to miss New York (see previous post) and it's gum-chewing, get-on-with-it insouciance, but, as my friend Dannie yelled gleefully last week, 'London's GREAT!', and I shouldn't forget it. Sometimes it's good to get oneself to another city, where - as you're on your hols - you throw yourself into everything that the relevant Time Out issue can offer, to remember that you can do EXACTLY the same thing back home. Minus the comradely banter between strangers, of course. That would be INSANE.

We took ourselves off to Dalston's (London's?) loveliest dancing club, Passing Clouds, for our burlesque champion/stylist/glamourpuss mate Char's birthday last weekend, for a night of silly music and big grins all round. Oh, and, as it was promoted by 'Badgerfest', most people were dressed up as woodland animals. Hurrah! Andy and I did our best with a limited dressing-up box palate and went all birdy - in more impressive efforts from other punters, we boogied amongst glittery frogs, fishnetted badgers, onesied squirrels, and terrifying Donnie Darko-esque rabbits. The first band was a classic Passing Clouds outfit: the sextet Sea of Mirth, appearing to comprise 18th-century pirates, who banged out a set of funk/stomp/ska/sailorfolk-tinged music that I can only class as shantycore. They had a song about a wrestling match with a crustacean, in which the hulking melodica player (looking very easily like an extra from 'Pirates of the Caribbean') dived offstage to tussle with a small man dressed in a massive lobster costume. Brilliant!

Alas, I had to get home a bit early due to my morning appointment as occasional pop hymn choirmistress at The School of Life's Sunday Sermon. This weekend, it featured writer Jon Ronson discussing his latest research subject, humiliation, and recounting delightful stories of the familial and human minutiae of life in his slightly giggly, wetly witty style. I leapt up, with Matt Dibble as trusty keys man, to lead the sold-out congregation of Conway Hall in singing Britney Spears' 'Oops I Did It Again' and Carly Simon's 'You're So Vain', before limping home to Brockwell Park to snooze and cold-swim in recovery for lack of sleep. I've STILL GOT IT.

THIS week saw me and DOLLYman bassist Lucy Mulgan head up to the Beeb's Salford headquarters to record for BBC Radio 3's 'word cabaret' show The Verb, as fronted by Ian McMillan, the poet whose radio voice is as claggy and scrumptious as Yorkshire pudding. The Verb had asked me to write a new You Are Wolf song for their bee-themed show, so I drew upon a few black-and-gold nuggets of beelore for a wee song that included drunken vocal buzzing and double bass 'prepared' with tissue paper. I was also interviewed a bit, got to listen to wonderful poet/beekeper Sean Borrodale and poet Jo Shapcott, and performed my song 'Cuckoo' at the end too. Ian fed us apples and honeycake (with almondy bees atop it) and told me about Barnsley FC's Greekly dramatic end of the season. Happily, my 'honeybee' song was also chosen to be on Radio 4's Pick of the Week, so a double radio whammy for me this week! You can hear it for the next week here on The Verb and here on Radio 4 (at 33 mins).

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

New York City, YEAH!

Level of conviction in own genius: 6
Hours of creative activity achieved in last 24: None
Reading / Watching: Brilliant book on New York's essential five years of genre-making music, 'Love Goes To Buildings On Fire' by Rolling Stone writer Will Hermes / Back in Blightly, getting our Brooklyn fix with the second season of 'Girls'
Hair Day: Under a hoodie. Best kept out of sight.

I've had a wondrously fulsome two weeks flitting about North American cities - initially solo while Andy worked his book publisher chops. It was a whistle-stop tour to Toronto, home of my early childhood (I was there ages 3-5), and thus I had a proper heart-pang when I saw the CN Tower spike perforating the wide blue sky. Rather than a suburban house on Bayview Avenue, this time we stayed in the uber-cool Drake Hotel. I didn't have time to investigate much of the town as all-new, grown-up Kerry, but Queen Street West was one long hipsterdream of vintage shops, boutiques and places selling raw carrot cake with maple syrup cream cheese icing and mushroom lattes. YES! The waterside was lovely, and I came across my ideal exhibition at Powerplant: Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop And Aboriginal Culture -  contemporary responses to Native Canadian traditions/mythology, featuring custom-made bikes, light installations, massive murals, and THIS very cool Cree/English/video/speech/song piece (intro only here):

To a week and half of neck-craning, eating and gig-going in New York! I made a concerted effort NOT to do all the obvious sights, but to absorb the city through a lot of street-pounding, and general hanging out. Here are some highlights:

Ginger potato hash at haute-Indian Devi with Andy's lovely workpals; crunch-and-melt falafel from a stall in Central Park, where we talked to the English football-obsessed server; divine Ukranian pierogi, borscht the colour of an East European vampire-bite and stuffed cabbage at my favourite East Village hang out, Veselka's; decaf lattes by Brooklyn Roasting Company, fresh from the grinder in Dumbo, home of Girls actress/writer/director/producer all-round heroine Lena Dunham!; polenta, poached eggs and home fries for brunch at Olea's in Fort Greene; a garlic wurst on rye which stared me down at Katz' Deli (Harry, Sally, etc).

We happily saw that Oli, who we'd met playing with Laura J Martin in Oxford last week, was in town with his main band, indie-folksters Stornoway; he invited us to their secret rooftop gig in the McKittrick Hotel, abandoned in the 1940s and recently opened up by Punchdrunk Theatre. We caught James Blake at Terminal 5 in the mid-West Side - he was pretty cool, some nice rumbly bass, but I felt it was a bit samey... I crammed in four bands at the Mercury Lounge: the three gorgeously dewy girls of Paper Bird (bluegrass harmony/pop/folk), who deserve to be Mumford-famous; the slightly disappointing, given her comparisons to Joanna Newsom and Sufjan Stevens, Dana Falconberry; Empress Of, talked up as the new Grimes, mixing power-pop balladry a la early Madonna, ribcage-splintering bass and ebullient electro; and the silly Doldrums, who stoked initial excitement by using only a mic and a suitcase full of gizmos, but ruined it all with crap songs delivered in a needlingly whiny voice. We also caught a night at the Glasslands Gallery in Brooklyn, featuring some indie-doom from Creep, wonky-pop with a Frank Zappa-meets-Jarvis Cocker frontman from The Flinstones, and yowly gloom-electro from Exitmusic, headed up by the actress who plays Angela Darmody in Boardwalk Empire. Finally, I played my own teeny You Are Wolf gig in Williamsburg's Goodbye Blue Monday!
New York gives off a damn good indie bookish vibe, and, partly for Andy's work, we scouted many a fashionably literary temple, and dreamed ourselves around the tomes. Housingworks was the best; we went to a brilliant event called 'Ask Roulette', in which two people are divided by a screen. One asks the other a question about themselves. The other answers, and then gets to ask a new person, picked out of a hat, their own question. I got picked, got my hair compared to Grace Jones', and ended up telling 30 people how terrified I was of cows and once got stampeded by them. It's a brilliant wheeze - wordy, human, and witty. We want to do our own London version!

The Highline, of course; around the gorgeous Prospect Park on a hot sunny day; and an epic hike from Brooklyn's Greenpoint past the Brooklyn Navy Yard, through Dumbo, over Brooklyn Bridge, through Downtown to the West Village. I also popped to Washington D.C. to see my old university friend Stu, and tramped enthusiastically through the whole city catching the sights.

At least in Manhattan, and in complete contrast to London, many people really want to talk. They got the jaw-jaw good there.

On the subway, a man asked to take a photo of my Beastie Boys t-shirt - he said that they were his favourite band, and we chatted about MCA. He asked what I was listening to, predicting Pantera; he was a little disappointed when I let him hear my headphone, and said that Roy Ayres was far too mellow for him. A waiter in a Queens diner told me it seemed like yesterday that it was 1994 and he was dancing to the 'Sabotage' video. A guy who ran a bike shop said the Beasties were around when 'MTV was MTV, y'know?" We went to MCA Day in Brooklyn, which celebrated the life of Adam Yauch, who died a year ago. Check the kids' tribute gallery!
I played chess in Washington Square with one of the hustlers, retired 60 year-old Joe, who persuaded me to play two games with him, one without his queen. He still won $10 out of me. He was a charmer, who sat there every sunny day, or else went and watched action movies, and told me my husband must be a dream to have married me...
At the Mercury Lounge, I found myself earwigging next to a guy who performs with the Wainwrights at their annual Christmas show, who was chatting to country/folk star Anais Mitchell, who it was hilarious to hear say that her current project was singing British ballads that are all 'a bit too long'. Ha ha!

A guy in the lift up to the rooftop at the McKittrick's compared hair product notes with me, and said he wouldn't normally be seen DEAD in the Meatpacking District (it was OVER a decade ago), but that it was for a friend...

The ethereally calm St Paul's Chapel, next to Ground Zero, which has become a monument to the memory of the victims of 9/11; being invited in to a Raw Chocolate Party in Downtown; Andy busted into an art fair full of chained concrete babies and sheep with telephones for heads; the gloriously calm and unkempt community garden of the Sara Roosevelt Park; the amazing Pratt Sculpture Park in Brooklyn.

I'm pretty happy to be back in London, though this cold is just outrageously affronting. The city feels like the shorter, wiser, wittier, friendlier older brother to Manhattan's tall, gym-buffed younger sibling. I'm looking forward to getting stuck into my second chamber opera of the year - this time a wild-swimming themed affair to open the Tete a Tete Festival in August! MaJiKer has also being whizzing through the mixing of my You Are Wolf debut album, woo hoo!