Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Don't Faint - It's Laura Marling at The Waterfront

Almost the first thing that Laura Marling comments on is the temperature inside the Norwich Waterfront. 'Isn't it warm in here?', she quips, before adding, 'At the last gig, in Exeter, four people fainted. I didn't know what to do, so I just sang louder whilst they carried them out'. She goes on to implore that we all drink plenty of water, and proceeds to check on our well being throughout the set.

No disrespect to The Waterfront, but many folk round here were surprised when Laura Marling announced that she would be playing here as part of a short tour prior to playing a month of dates throughout Canada and the United States. The ceiling is low and those iron pillars mean that anyone more than two or three rows back is required to align themselves carefully, as well as avoid standing behind a tall person. And even if you do achieve a direct view of the stage you will in all probability only manage a head and shoulders view of the band. No, The Waterfront may be a great venue for dancing and moshing, or for listening, but not necessarily the fans' choice for actually seeing the act.
If a good view was a priority, then you might have been better off booking seats at The Apex, a few miles down the road at Bury St Edmunds, just six days earlier. However, for those lucky enough to get through the doors in time to claim those coveted best positions this was a rare chance to enjoy Ms Marling up close and personal, and performing a solo set which included material from the recently released Semper Femina.

As she picks a guitar from the three already tuned up and waiting on their stands, she launches into Wild Fire, the third track off Semper Femina, and we know that we are in for a Jeckel and Hyde roller coaster of a ride in Marling's fair hands. For someone who exudes such an outward impression of sweetness and light - she always introduces herself to audiences with a cheerful  'Hello, I'm Laura', there are some deep and soul-searching questions being raised about relationships and the nature of friendship. Nouel continues in this exact same vein before we switch to the earlier Goodbye England Covered In Snow, about running away from a relationship. Even though we know these songs, the sheer power of hearing them sung unaccompanied and with such passion is strangely unsettling, albeit in an intensely good way.

And so we continue. Other songs from I Speak Because I Can are intertwined with tracks from A Creature I Don't Know, Once I Was An Eagle, and another couple from Semper Femina. Marling even deviates from her own setlist when she chooses to perform Paul Simon's Kathy's Song instead of her recent cover of choice, Leonard Cohen's Avalanche. Oddly, the one song that gets a proper introduction is Daisy, from the Short Movie album. The Daisy in question is Daisy-May Hudson, who Marling refers to as 'Amazing Daisy'. We are urged to seek out and watch 'Half Way', the crowd-funded documentary that Hudson made after her family were forced to move into a hostel within a former army barracks after being made homeless when their landlord decided to sell their flat.

Daisy also turns out to be the penultimate song of the evening. Marling reminds us that she does not do encores, so Rambling Man becomes her final song, after which she leaves the stage and the house lights come on. Throughout the entire set the audience have been rapt. Mobile phones have been conspicuous by their absence, and I feel almost awkward when I take the camera from my pocket to snatch a couple of discrete photographs. This has, without doubt, been one of the most special gigs that I have attended for several years. Even those who had to stand further back are raving about it. I just consider myself very privileged to have been able to have witnessed the whole show from the front row. Laura Marling is a true star, and the most powerful and beguiling force to see live.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Friends May Come, and Friends May Go (but my NME's have never deserted me) - The NME Awards Tour Returns to Norwich with Blossoms, Cabbage, and Rory Wynne

Back in my teens most of the remaining earnings from my Saturday job that didn't disappear that night on underage drinking, petrol for my moped, or a packet of nine Players No6 (one ciggie missing in order that the two-bob vending machine didn't need to be sent away and reconfigured), would be earmarked for vinyl, and also my Thursday trip to the newsagent to collect the latest copy of New Musical Express. Melody Maker was a bit too clever (albeit essential reading for musicians and songwriters), Sounds was OK, and Record Mirror was way too 'singles' orientated. No, for any self-respecting prog-rocker it had to be the NME.

Then I went to college, and punk happened. NME cleverly re-invented itself, pronouncing that all prog-rock bands were 'dinosaurs', and that the future lay in just two guitar chords, both preferably played badly. As I embraced what was happening right outside my window in the Kings Road the NME was with me every step of the way, guiding me through the Streets of London that Ralph McTell dare not tread, and introducing me to venues where I first saw The Clash, X-Ray Spex and The Adverts.

But the tables had turned, and suddenly the magazine was bigger than the bands that it had once sycophantically praised. Suddenly the NME had the power to make or break a band, and the record companies held their breath as the likes of Charles Shaar Murray and Nick Kent offered their praise or unleashed their venom on the week's new releases. From that moment on I became a 'detached' reader, buying it just to get the cover mounted cassettes, and later CD's, or to check on tour dates.

In the same way that Video Killed The Radio Star, the internet finally nailed the coffin lid shut on Melody Maker (Sounds and Record Mirror having gone through their death throes years earlier). It briefly merged with New Musical Express which had escaped by the skin of its teeth, although by now I was mostly consulting the NME website rather than handing over cash for hard copy. For the occasional WH Smith indulgence I was more likely to pick up the glossy, though more expensive, monthly magazines like Q, Uncut or Mojo.

Finally, in 2015 the NME threw in the towel and became a free weekly disposa-rag available from branches of HMV. To be fair, despite its tendency to now put big name photos on the front cover, and include lots of fashion content on the inside, it still champions new artists that also tick the right boxes on its new agenda - bands like Years & Years and Christine and The Queens certainly benefited from the exposure given.

But one thing that the NME did, and always did well, was their annual live Awards Tour that would piece together a number of bands and venues for a mixture of breaking names and established acts. It would always call in on Norwich, quickly selling out the Nick Rayns LCR at the University of East Anglia, and we scrambled to get a chance to see bands like Arctic Monkeys, Florence and The Machine, Franz Ferdinand and The Killers. Then, in 2014, Norwich got missed out, and was again omitted the following year. And last year.

But fear not. In 2017 it was back, with latest indie darlings Blossoms as headliners, Cabbage as support, and with teenage newcomer Rory Wynne as opener.

Interestingly, Norwich appeared to be the only date on the thirteen city tour that had not sold out in advance - £20 tickets were still on offer at the door as I checked in with my VR-coded e-mail print-out.

Rory Wynne

Rory Wynne kicked off the evening, leading his three piece band through a set of songs that included all four tracks from his debut EP What Would Rory Wynne Do? Strangely, the stage set-up left Rory displaced to stage right, leaving him appear more like band vocalist than solo singer with backing band, but he didn't seem to mind. Too much. His confidence and swagger was perhaps bordering on cocky ('Let's hear it if you think I'm great'), and some of his poses were straight out of a Guitar Hero tutorial, but he managed to win over more of the crowd as he progressed. His Stockport background, and Liam Gallagher vocal style, gives a clue as to what to expect, but I also detected elements of John Lennon and I Am Kloot's John Bramwell jostling to be heard.


I missed Manchester's Cabbage when they rocked last year's Norwich Sound and Vision at the Arts Centre, so this was my time to make amends. With two dynamic vocalists in the shape of  Lee Broadbent (still recovering from a pelvic injury, but now able to stand for most of the gig) and lithe guitarist Joe Martin, Cabbage sing with pith, wit and venom about subjects ranging from the political to the taboo. Describing themselves as neo-post-punks, the influences of the classic punk bands like The Clash, The Sex Pistols and The Stranglers are all residing beneath a veneer of individual and distinctive songwriting, and they are very much about the present. Uber Capitalist Death Trade screams at our political system, and whilst Necroflats in the Palace lays blame for the state of our NHS at those holding the purse-strings. Meanwhile Dinner Lady re-invents classic American Pie humour with a savoury twist in Dinner Lady. Even the drumkit pokes fun self-deprecatingly at their own literacy with the band's name spelled as 'Cabij'. It rhymes with baggage. Definitely Not 'Cab-bage' (which rhymes with 'Farage').

It rhymes with Baggage, not Farage

The reason for Rory Wynne and his band, and also Cabbage, to be crammed to the front of the stage is fully revealed when the black drapes are removed, revealing three feet risers for Joe Donovan's drumkit and Myles Kellock's keyboards behind the bank of lights. In front of them the remainder of Blossoms - Josh Dewhurst (guitars), Charlie Salt (bass) and Tom Ogden (vocals and guitars) now seem to have acres in which to operate. From the opening bars of At Most a Kiss to the final bars of Charlemagne the Stockport band give everything in order to make this a show to remember. Watching Ogden control the centre stage whilst the band serve up a perfectly balanced platter of sound to the sides, behind and above him, it is hard to believe this is the same band that tentatively headlined on the Arts Centre stage a mere eighteen months ago. And this certainly does not seem like a play-everything-we-do performance oft witnessed from one-album bands thrust suddenly onto the large stage. Each and every song seems to sit perfectly alongside its neighbour, even allowing newer tracks from the extended version - songs like Smoke, Across The Moor, Fourteen and Polka Dot Bones to grow wings and fly. The lighting is perfectly executed and cued to the songs, using backlights, spots strobes and banks to create an arena-style experience. And then, as if to emphasise their grass roots appeal and refusal to be sucked into diva-dom, Ogden follows up his acoustic version of My Favourite Room, dedicated to the cruelly dumped Lizzie from the audience, with a sing-along medley that seamlessly morphs from Oasis' Half The World Away to Wham's Last Christmas. Brilliant.


Whether the NME blossoms in its new incarnation remains to be seen. But one thing is clear. As sure as Spring precedes Summer, Blossoms from Stockport are here to stay.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Warming Up The Junction - Goldfrapp Play Cambridge

OK. It is hard to be objective when reviewing one of your all-time favourite bands. You desperately want so much for the gig / new album to be everything and more that you have hoped for. The anticipation builds, until the fear of disappointment and anti-climax begins to gnaw away at your soul. It's a bit like that huge pile of Christmas presents from your childhood that looked so inviting wrapped in the seasonal paper, ribbons and bows, but that somehow felt much less exciting once fully revealed and neatly piled up in your corner of the lounge. Hell, that makes me sound so ungrateful - like a spoiled brat from a comfortable home, with doting parents that obviously doted on me. But I'm just being honest.

When I last saw Goldfrapp it was an epic gig at the Royal Albert Hall in November 2014, the final live show following the release of the intensely monochromatic and emotional 'Tales of Us' album. Backed by the London Contemporary Orchestra, and featuring a guest appearance from John Grant, this was an elegant evening of beautiful songs, but lacked the fast-tempo synth-heavy electro hits capable of shaking a sedentary audience out of their comfortable seats and get them wanting to dance. At the end, Alison Goldfrapp announced that this was the last gig 'for a very long time'. Was this a coded message that, after six albums and a fifteen year partnership, she and synthesiser maestro Will Gregory were calling it a day?

Late last year teaser posts on the band's Facebook page hinted that new material was on the way. Images of the volcanic landscapes of Fuerteventura appeared, and finally in February the video for new song Anymore was dropped. It heralded a partial return to the days of Supernature and Black Cherry, but with throbbing synth beats and a fresh elemental sound that brought the formula bang up to date.

The new album, Silver Eye, is not released until March 31st, so for the capacity crowd at Cambridge Junction tonight would be the first chance to hear this new material live or otherwise. It is the second of three of warm-up gigs that kicked off the previous night in Oxford and then moves on to Sheffield ahead of a full show at London Roundhouse on March 27th.

There is no support act tonight, so this is a warm-up performance without a warm-up. Last minute adjustments to the drum kit seem to go on for ages, and even the tour manager begins to show signs of concern. But, after a delay of only about five minutes, the band take up their places followed a few seconds later by Alison Goldfrapp herself. As if to underline the metamorphosis inherent as a running theme in Silver Eye the set starts off with the two showstoppers that are often saved for much later - the operatic and breathtaking Utopia and Lovely Head from the debut album Felt Mountain. These are swiftly followed by the familiar driving beat of Black Cherry's Train before being introduced to Anymore, the first of seven tracks featured tonight off the new album.

The stage is mostly backlit, often with rich shades of red that augment Alison's choice of red cape and PVC trousers. It creates a scene that suggests volcanic fire, Faustian imagery and yet a touch of Red Riding Hood. The pre-show announcement requesting no flash photography, and the almost continuous shadowing of Alison Goldfrapp's face by the lights suggests that she may not yet be quite ready to fully reveal the transformation from blonde femme-fatale to raven-haired siren, though the view from the front row reveals a classic metamorphosis akin to the Gallic beauty of Isabelle Huppert.

But it is the music that we should really be commenting on, and in between the indulgence of faves like Dreaming, Number One and Slide In, we concentrate on new tracks like Ocean, Moon In Your Mouth and Ocean. The live performances may not yet be perfect, and the give-away glances of affirmation between band members during and between songs remind that this is a road test for them almost as much as it is for us, but Goldfrapp fans really are in for a treat when the new album drops at the end of the month. Think Supernature, but update it, apply contemporary relevances and a primeval appreciation of elemental forces, and you come close to describing Silver Eye. Gone is the pastoral and literal beauty of Tales Of Us, and in its place comes the return of the synth-driven melodic impressionists.

Ride A White Horse provides a suitably climactic finale before a stomping encore that teasingly saves Ooh La La and Strict Machine for after Black Cherry and the mid-tempo disco beat of Shiny and Warm. And warmed up we certainly are.

Still a shame that Will Gregory chooses to stay at home these days rather than play on the live dates. I had hoped that after his appearance at the Royal Albert Hall he might re-consider his stance on touring, but it appears not to be the case. He is busy on other projects, which include his Moog Ensemble, and recently curated work on musical modernism for Radio 3 and Hull's City of Culture programme.

Goldfrapp now have a busy year ahead promoting Silver Eye and playing festivals around the world - one of which is our own Latitude at Henham Park on July 13th. I'll see you there.

Friday, 3 March 2017

It's Standing Room Only for Cara Dillon at Norwich Arts Centre

Checking back through my ticket stubs, I notice that it is eleven years since I last heard Cara Dillon sing at Norwich Arts Centre. That was back in March 2006, and was one of the last gigs that I ever went to before La Maman was diagnosed with her cancer, and consequently one of the last that the two of us would go to together. Looking back, I remember her mentioning something during the evening about feeling tired - it was a standing gig, and she went out and sat in the bar for the last couple of songs, blaming it on a long day at work. Four months later came the news that shook us to the core, and set us on the path that left two teenage children to finish their adolescence and their education without the benefit of the mothership to guide them.

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then, and next month sees the tenth anniversary of Jan's passing. Both children have since gained university degrees, and are both in gainful employment. I myself have regressed into early retirement, having allowed my pharmacist registration lapsed, but now volunteer at Norwich Arts Centre as part of the evening front-of-house team. It therefore seemed appropriate that I should spend yesterday evening at the Arts Centre, taking advantage of their generous policy of offering guest-list passes to volunteers, to attend Cara Dillon's show, part of a short tour of five dates as a trio with husband Sam Lakeman and Uillean pipe and whistle player Barry Kerr.

This was a seated show, although all tickets had been quickly snapped up by loyal fans. The rear of the auditorium, and the ramps at either side, were filled by those prepared to stand, and so I took my place behind the sound desk for what was obviously a much anticipated performance, and would be a potentially emotional evening for myself as well.

Cara Dillon was born in County Londonderry, although now lives in Somerset with husband Sam Lakeman, brother of Seth and Sean. Whilst her songs are hugely influenced by Celtic culture and folk music, she and Sam have never been afraid of stepping outside of the box. In between songs tonight, we learn that only last week Sam almost risked losing his hearing attending a Foo Fighters concert in Frome, staged to coincide with the announcement of the band's headlining slot at this year's Glastonbury Festival. We learn of their two children's excitement at visiting Euro Disney following Dillon's recording of 'Come Fly With Me', featured in the closing credits of Disney's 'Tinker Bell and The Great Fairy Rescue', and of  'Come Dream a Dream', the song now used in the closing ceremony each evening at Disneyland Paris. In between, Cara has sung on Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells III, and on a Judge Jules trance single.

It also appears that Cara and Sam recently agreed to sing at a small Somerset wedding, only to find Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan and members of The Corrs in the congregation. Yes, Cara Dillon may seem a modest and demure mother of two, but she and Sam are nowadays, in reality, almost folk royalty.

But what makes Cara Dillon so special is her voice. Lauded by everyone from The Guardian to Mojo magazine, and praised by contemporary singers like Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith, Cara's unique voice has a steely precision that is able to cut through an audience like a knife, yet is at the same time is as beautiful and sensitive as a summer breeze. Comparisons with a young Dolly Parton or with Eva Cassidy are merely an attempt to describe what is almost indescribable.

Many of the songs in tonight's double set are traditional in origin, others have been co-written by Dillon and Lakeman, or arranged by them. There are a couple of covers included - Shawn Colvin's 'Riding Shotgun Down The Avalanche' (which appears on Dillon's 'A Thousand Hearts' album), and Van Morrison's 'Crazy Love' and Beth Sorrentino's 'River Run', but in between 'The Maid of Culmore' and 'The Parting Glass' we are treated to the whole panorama of the Cara Dillon songbook, together with insights into Celtic cultural history, such as the Parting Wakes held for those leaving to seek a better life in America. Sam is allowed access to the microphone to share some genuine facts - did you know that the average American garage is larger than the average Japanese house, or that there are more saunas than motor cars in Finland? No, neither did I. Thanks Sam. Barry Kerr is subjected to gentle teasing from Dillon, but rewarded with a lovely solo spot during the second half where he treats us to a sad lament on the pipes as well as a reel.

We may not be able to dance tonight, but we all join in with the choruses on 'Never in a Million Years' and the chokingly moving 'There Were Roses'. All in all, this was a beautiful and memorable performance, and one that I will not forget in a hurry.