The Union Forever

I only became aware of the first night of Lewes’ Union Music Store’s monthly residency at the newly refurbished and under new management the Lansdown Arms from a tweet. For that, I should be grateful to Twitter and my recent attempts to get to grips with this peculiarly codified means of networking. Still, along I went and shuffled into a seat alongside many of the Union’s regular punters, who do more than walk past in the morning before it opens, and again in the evening when all others are abed and stare longingly through the window at the collection of 12-strings, banjos and ukes. (www.unionmusicstore.com).

The Lansdown Arms, now under the management of Viv and Ben, is fairly crowded as the first act, Stella Homewood kicks off. Sometimes her light, fluting voice and strummed, nylon-string, parlour guitar has trouble cutting through the babble, but for the most part she punches it out enough to satisfy the faithful gathered round with her warm tone poems of stillness and nature. At the end of one song, she promised that on the album, “Ordinary Day”, a full swell of instruments swept up at the end to push the song along to its conclusion, but here, there is space to breathe around the words. It is a gentle start, but filled with charm. (www.stellahomewood.com).

What follows creates a shift in mood and atmosphere that gets feet stamping and heads nodding. Lloyd Williams, more normally the leader of Autumn Red, comes armed with his banjo and astonishing, hard picking virtuosity to deliver a set of tracks that remind me, not a little, of the bluegrass, metal covers of Hayseed Dixie who I saw at Kingston’s Ram Jam Club seven or eight years ago. The energy that Lloyd transmits is enough for one older member of the audience, resplendent in his straw cowboy hat to shout out “yeehaw!” – at the Union c*untry is not a dirty word, and you can even buy the t-shirt.

Where Stella’s songs sung of England or at least a very English pastoral, slim, handsome and charismatic Lloyd’s songs of wishing wells and devils at the door seem closer to Steinbeck’s dust bowl and there are delivered in the evangelical bark of a frontier preacher. It’s an intense and dynamic set, and what it lacks, perhaps, in variety and subtlety in makes up for in the propulsive character of its playing. (www.myspace.com/autumnred).

Finally, and headlining I suppose, although the atmosphere is more collective and communal than that term might suggest, is Laish, a multi-piece collective from Brighton, led by singer/songwriter Daniel Green (www.laishmusic.wordpress.com). Before they kicked off, I heard someone say that they were influenced by a traditional, folksy sound and looking at Green, who has something of the troubadour about him, and the cross-legged disciples sitting on the floor around them, this felt right; however, the first song came over a little Port O’Brien in the fusion of folk and indie reference points. After the first couple of songs, the band is joined by Martha Rose, who adds extra, elegant harmonies and folksy violin to the mix, her vocals lending depth to accordionist Emma’s, in support of Green’s slightly nasal lead – I kept thinking of Anthony Newley/Bowie/Nick Drake/Mark Chadwick, but there are probably better comparisons out there.

It turned out that Laish had to miss the Pells Pool party earlier in June and offered up “I Am Enraged”, a song about moving to Lewes at the behest of a loved one that culminates in the refrain “you can go on your own” by way of a skewed and funny “apology”, much to the delight of the locals. If I’d heard it six months ago, well, who knows…?

At the end of the set, another member of the congregation leaned over and said that it reminded him of 1967, the summer of love and all that “English psych.” He could have been talking about Laish or the evening as a whole, which certainly felt like a love-in.

And yes, I loved it too. This sort of thing will, I suppose, always be hit and miss on occasion, but the sense of community that the Union Music Store has created already, and which this night supplements, is a credit to their enthusiasm and knowledge of the Americana, folk and roots scene. The next gathering is on Sunday, 4 September. I suggest you put it in your diary and pop along. Oh, and don’t forget to take some change along for the tip box.

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Bespoke First Date

It isn’t everyday that a middle manager, approaching middle age with early onset middle-aged spread finds himself in the middle of a tailors being measured for a bespoke suit. But that’s where I found myself yesterday, being measured in a most gentlemanly fashion by Mark Jenkins, manager and proprietor of Hugo Morris in Brighton’s Lanes (www.hugo-morris.com and www.hugomorrisonline.com) while his daughter took notes and family friends popped in and out, exposing the shop to the marvellous music, though less than marvellous singing, under way outside Donatello’s Italian restaurant through the swinging door.

 

Getting to that point had been the subject of much google – if not soul – searching. I was like a teenager preparing for a first date. What does one wear to a tailors? As ever when searching such fundamental questions online, opinion varied and there was little by way of quality control. Some swore that suited and booted was the only way to go. If I had been toddling off to Saville Row on a workday, that is undoubtedly the way I’d have gone, but for Brighton on a Saturday afternoon, that seemed overkill. The minimum requirement, it seemed was to wear “the shoes”. In the end I opt for my best fitting M&S suit jacket, work shirt, jeans and brown dress shoes – and try not to worry that I might look a little like Jeremy Clarkson.

 

When you go from “off the peg” to bespoke for the first time, the number of questions is overwhelming: one button, two, three? Four is surely a faux pas, n’est-ce pas? How about the cuff buttons? How many of those? Do you want your lapels peaked? Well? Do ya? And that’s just the jacket. There is a similar range of decisions to be made around the trousers: pockets? Of course. How many and what shape? Wha-?

 

Fortunately Mark takes much of the mystery out of it. Within about 30 seconds, he has sized me up and given me some initial views on what people “like us” – for he too is a man with a good degree of middle about him – can and cannot get away with (two being the magic number where buttons are concerned). And then we move on to look at the options for cloth.

 

Here, at least, I have already come to a decision. I want herringbone, and my superior part has said that the herringbone should be somewhere between navy and dark blue. Surely here, at least the decision should be straightforward. After ten minutes or so, there are ten or twelve swatches laid across the counter. Mark has dismissed several others of insufficient weight “for me”. My eye keeps being drawn to the neat white sticker on each sample book which gives the prices for two piece, three piece and lone trousers. But this is a one off, or at least a once-a-decade off and I determine not to take any notice. Well, at least where the number has three figures and not four. That is not to say Hugo Morris is expensive. It isn’t – especially compared to London prices. But a bespoke suit is a serious investment.

 

I make my decision, a fairly broad, 5mm herringbone in navy. It’s from Huddersfield and I am reassured that it will be cut by a bluff Yorkshireman. Given that I have only five or six weeks before the suit will make its first appearance, I hope he is less Geoffrey Boycott, more John Hampshire. But Mark assures me that the suit will be ready and that the cloth will make a beautiful suit for me. With my daughter in mind, I boldly decide on a hot pink lining. In the event of a crisis of confidence, the jacket can always stay on.

 

Then comes the measuring. My M&S is removed and I stand facing a mirror, my back to busy Brighton while Mark stands before me and sizes me up. My years of amateur drama come to my aid as I stand easy, feet shoulders’ width apart, arms relaxed and slightly to the front. “Did you play tighthead?” The question catches me a little off balance. “Centre, or fly-half,” I say, reminded that much of the middle came after I stopped playing at school. “Ah well, your tackling shoulder then”.

 

It turns out my right shoulder sits somewhat lower than my left – a fact of which I was previously unaware but which will pop into my head every time I look in a mirror. That inequality, in turn, leads the right cuff of my jacket to fall some inch or so lower than my left, the cloth scrapping my knuckles and swallowing my whole hand from time to time. “I can fix that, for you,” the reassurance comes again.

 

Thereafter, more measurements, each relayed to Mark’s young daughter who has come by with the float and who stays to provide still more friendly and efficient service. I am glad that the numbers seem to be just that: numbers, as distinct from “sizes”. A few more decisions are required: will the waistcoat have lapels? Yes. Would you like the shoulders to more naturally follow the shape of your actual – uneven – shoulders rather than sitting square? What’s the difference? Then yes, please. Payment, a brief few minutes chatting about the business and finally, a graceful exit with more assurances that the suit will be both splendid and timeous ringing in my ears.

 

If a first visit to a tailors is indeed like a first date, then I think it was a successful one, even if my wallet is somewhat lighter. The second date is already arranged for 4 July. It may be considered forward, but I hope then to discover a soulmate, ready to live alongside me until my blood pressure peaks, my knees give way and, in the spirit of diabetics everywhere, my feet fall off.

The suit – an update

As promised, I collected my suit a few days before the wedding and Hugo Morris, thanks to a huge personal effort by Mark Jenkins, delivered. And yes, it is everything that might be hoped for and more. The suit has weight and structure, hangs in a way that flatters even me, is made of the finest cloth and has a lining that draws admiring comments from many. On relfection, I might need to revise my “once a decade” to “once every couple of years”. This really is the way to go.

Old Dogs, New Tricks?

Longevity in the music business is often eyed with suspicion, and particularly for bands still seeking to create new material, rather than reforming or touring extensive back catalogues, relying on familiarity and muscle memory to get you through. Some, of course, do this exceptionally well. The Rolling Stones’ material may be old, but their abilities as a live band, coupled with a still burning passion for the spectacular makes for events (you might hesitate to say “concerts” and still further “gigs”) that justify the steep ticket prices. But what happens when approaching your late 40s and early 50s, you still yearn to let the creative juices flow?

This was brought to mind listening, as I always do, to the Guardian’s Music weekly Podcast. As part of Singles Club, one of the presenters proffered Überlin, the first European single (though it’s getting difficult to keep track of what’s a single and what’s a pre-release taster of what’s to come) of their upcoming Collapse Into Now album.

Now, I’m a confirmed REM apologist, able to find saving graces even in albums as mundane and lacklustre As Around the Sun, and as shiny and forced as Reveal, but hopes were relatively high following what some called the return to form, but for me was more a return of energy, that was 2007’s Accelerate. Misgivings about Jacknife Lee aside, I have listened to the various releases, with the fervid interest of a fan.

Having heard about a third of the album, I’ll reserve judgement – REM for me are an albums band, and the key is how things hold together across the piece. They are, in some ways, not entirely for the iPod generation and the songs released as singles are often the least of the material put down: Wanderlust, Until The Day Is Done, or going back Superman, to name a few. But something did stick from the Podcaster’s generally feelings of “meh”.

To summarise, the general lack of enthusiasm was put down to Überlin sounding a bit like Drive (I can see that from the opening “Hey”) or Losing My Religion (not quite so clear on that – there are minor chords and acoustic guitars, but…). And okay, that’s personal taste and the opinions, whilst ones I don’t necessarily agree with, are perfectly valid. However, I find the judgement of a song by others within a back catalogue in review of fairly little value. Surely the key is: is the song any good?

I’ll give you a for example…

A few weeks back, the same Podcast reviewed January Hymn by the Decemberists. A beautiful song; and a strong album in The King Is Dead. The panel agreed, and pointed particularly to the strong REM influence (Peter Buck plays on three songs, in case you hadn’t heard), particularly on Down By The Water, with it’s One I Love Rickenbacker riffing and in Calamity Song’s Reckoning era twelve strong. It’s good stuff, and as one presenter noted the strong REM influence, Alex Petrides, ever wise in his criticism and champion of really interesting stuff from the mainstream to the margins, added “that’s no bad thing”.

Right or wrong in critical opinion, the question that prompts is: what if REM had made The King Is Dead? Would the extensive quoting of their earlier work (as with the Drive-ishness of Überlin), lead to a sense of “meh”? I think it might.

We all load our preconceptions onto the music that we experience, especially when we have invested in a band and lived with them for so many years. Bob Boilen on NPR’s All Songs Considered, discussing Oh My Heart from Collapse Into Now, said “here’s a band you root for.” In many ways, I cling to the hope that the album will be good.

Perhaps the issue for Collapse Into Now is that it delves back to a later period REM than The King Is Dead. Automatic for the People, Out Of Time, perhaps hints of Monster and New Adventures in HiFi, rather than the critical gold of Murmur, Reckoning and Lifes Rich Pageant; a time of great commercial success, but which many hardcore fans seem to see as a sort of chamber pop, MTV-led era of less value than the band’s touring heyday. Well, each to their own.

Automatic was the album that got me into REM, sitting on my first girlfriend’s floor, with her resting her head on my chest while we listened to her brand new copy on cassette. But it’s one I seldom listen to now. In some ways the singles spoil it for me a touch: Everybody Hurts is lovely, but hardly rocket science and done to death, Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight one of the silly, pop-rock songs that are great driving along, but a little saccharine lost in your thoughts on the commute to work. As a result, lovely fragments such as Monty Got a Raw Deal miss out. The REM album that I’ve been listening to most regularly is Live At Olympia, which invests old material with real energy and a sense of ramshackle fun.

So maybe when Collapse Into Now comes out, I’ll be one of those pining for a little more Fables and a little less Out of Time. But, I’ve made a pact with myself to try, as far as is human, to judge the new album on its merits. If I pretend it’s by a new band called MER then maybe I won’t think it’s so MEH after all.

Hadestown: Union Chapel

Hadestown: Union Chapel

Anais Mitchell’s folk opera has been reviewed widely enough that those who are interested in such things should be pretty au fait with her translation of the myth of Orpheus to a post-apocalyptic, depression era USA which has garnered praise far and wide. Prior to the performances here and in Glasgow, the Guardian ran an interview with her which will tie up the loose ends for anyone wanting to know more: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2011/jan/13/anais-mitchell-bon-iver-interview

On record, Hadestown bristles with a kind of folk/jazz energy, hard metallic guitar scratches and persistent, virtuoso bass that makes each song an individual delight. But best of all is the way these disparate parts strong together to create a cohesive whole that somehow feels both ramshackle and fully realised. Several years in construction, Mitchell appears to have chosen the perfect point to stop. And that point was recreated, song for song and arrangement for arrangement at the Union Chapel. The only addition was Jackie Leven, rambling through a few narratives between groups of songs to explain the story: helpful perhaps, but what I wouldn’t have given to see Leven add his unique vocals to the mix.

As is usual after a gig, I scratched around Google looking for reviews. I was surprised to find very few, save for some rather toxic comments on a couple of websites. What each of these did was to compare it to the album. And yes, Jim moray is no Justin Vernon. No. He’s a Jim Moray, the clues in the name. And Martin Carthy’s deep ingrained Englishness was polar opposite to Greg Brown’s Iowa rumble, but hell! Why shouldn’t the king of the underworld be from Hertfordshire?

Each performer, Anais Mitchell aside, had essentially come together for only one or two performances, as talent has been drawn from the local folk scene. So, understandably, some needed closer reference to the words than others, and there were occasional slips and the odd bum note.

Individual performances, of course, do count for something and of those, Thea Gilmore stood out as a raunchy Persephone (she has such physical presence) and the three chorus singers, led by support act Wallis Bird, swaggered, and even gave themselves an excited round of applause at the end of “When The Chips are Down”. Carthy was occasionally a bit swamped, perhaps as much by the acoustics which swallowed his idiosyncratic diction, but on his solo “His Kiss, the Riot”, he owned the space, a hushed silence descending even on the young first daters directly in front of me. Moray too grew into his role as Orpheus, his voice filling the cavernous Chapel; his awkward gestures lending to the status of this as a gig and not a piece of musical theatre. If anything, the air was of a community theatre having an end of year party.

Anais Mitchell added much of this sense of community herself. Leaning forward to offer encouragement and gently ushering people in on cue for each song or after instrumental breaks. For her part, she was her usual, twitchy, jerky self, investing what is potentially the blandest character – romantic leads were ever thus – with a mix of hardnosed pragmatism (“It’s my gut I can’t ignore”) and lilting lyricism.

Finally, the congregation (and I think that is the word in this special venue), were dragged in for a communal sing-along on a reprise of “Way Down, Hadestown”, performed off mic and sitting along the edge of the stage. Not a bad way to pick out the true strength of individual voices and Gilmore again stood out as the soulful folk rocker she is, and the record buying public seem indisposed to recognise.

A fun evening, then. Perhaps it’s the Englishness in me that delighted in the whiff of amateurism, but to me this was a night well worth seeing, and one that, as it travels around, will never be wholly the same twice. And that, to me is a good thing.

Click your heels: Blood Red Shoes come home

Brighton Concorde 2

Last night Blood Red Shoes came home to Brighton’s Concorde 2 – a former Victorian tearoom or a former Hell’s Angel café, or both, my companion suggested. This homecoming followed, according to Facebook, about 130 gigs across Europe, Asia and the States this year and marked the point at which guitarist Laura-Mary Carter and drummer Steven Ansell, so they told us, would finally lay aside Fender Tele’ and brutalised drumstick and retire to their respective beds. The sell out crowd obviously knew this and joined in with fevered shouts in the frequent call and response choruses.

Notionally, I was also there to photograph the gig, but with the press pit crush, this consisted mostly of ferreting around and through the crowd, trying to catch glimpses through the gaps in arms and around or overheads. Results are here: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=585889&id=778715044&l=cba9023ce8

What the photography highlighted was the extensive use of backlighting which encouraged startling shapes, although gratefully free of rock posturing; strobes hammered out in time to Laura-Mary’s frenzied mix of rhythm and lead crunching neatly against – rather than bobbing over – Steven’s drum attack. Attack’s a good word for BRS. Each song started with Steven’s drumstick, held aloft before crashing down in concert with the first barred chord. Musically, BRS wear their influences on their sleeve: a bit of the Pixies here, some Polly Jean Harvey there, but none the worse for that. If you’re going to be influenced, be influenced by the best. On a night when Nick Cave smashed his Jag into a speed camera just down the road in Hove, ex-girlfriend PJ Harvey seemed a good place to start.

Subtlety is not BRS’s game live. Laura-Mary is as quiet between songs and she is dynamic during them, though Steve has an easy, direct banter. The backlighting pretty much obscured faces from view too. But then the opportunity to mosh, crowd surf and scream defiance on a school night more than compensated. Attack, immediacy and audience love – and from a few comments flying around a little lust. A heady mix indeed.