Trainspotting Live|Review

January 31, 2018

First published on CultureHubMagazine.co.uk

 

Trainspotting Live | Theatre Review

Waterfront Studio Hall, Belfast • Tuesday 30 January ’18

By Elizabeth McGeown

Staff members offer around earplugs just before audience members make their way into In Your Face Theatre’s production of Trainspotting Live and if this is your first clue that tonight is going to be loud, you really haven’t been paying attention. Loud is the least of your worries anyway. Wristbands are glowsticks which colour code us for the evening, green banded folks breathing a sigh of relief when they get taken to chairs set back from the ‘stage’ that divides the auditorium down the middle: a rave where each cast member chews their face to the sounds of Bronski Beat and Baby D perfectly in character. We’re in a rectangular, black space, a bare-mattressed single bed at one end and a sofa complete with duvet at the other. Nothing else until we glance behind and realise we’ve been placed in front of the ‘Worst Toilet In Scotland’. It’s rude to move when you’ve actually been deliberately placed in your seat by a heroin addict though, so everyone stays put. We’re not completely sure who is who yet, apart from Sickboy’s recognisable shock of bleached blonde hair everyone else could be… anyone until one climbs a platform behind us menacingly and roars a garbled spout of obscenities and we know instinctively that this is Begbie. He spits. This will not be the last time he does so.

Red glowstick folks are less lucky, or perhaps luckier, depending on your way of looking at it. They’re taken to benches either side of the rave, perhaps one foot off the ground and huddle up for comfort and protection, body language becomes tighter when it becomes clear that ‘In Your Face’ literally means any character could be in your face at any moment, making eye contact, seeking assertion, a kiss or simply the correct answer which will make Chris Dennis’ Begbie put away his flick knife. No-one is completely safe though, both red and green spaces are invaded with abandon as the cast weave in and out, narrating each other’s actions.

Harry Gibson’s stage adaptation of the Irvine Welsh novel has been cut from a Godfather-esque two hours and 40 minutes. Artistic Direction team Adam Spreadbury-Maher and Greg Esplin have whittled to create a frantic race of a play, a 75 minute disorientating blur that speeds up as it approaches the climax. It’s a series of vignettes, each one slightly less comic than the last until death and intravenous drug use are depicted on stage, the cast moaning and scrabbling around for their next fix. But the comedy is glorious, Frankie O’Connor’s Renton washing himself after an unfortunate nocturnal emission gives us that theatre rarity: full frontal male nudity made even more lascivious by his hip-thrusting wriggle that’s not strictly necessary when drying after a shower. “Eyes up!”, he admonishes a man in the crowd and we laugh in sympathy, not knowing where the person’s eyes were but knowing it could be any of us next time. We’re in a hostage situation.

Those expecting a carbon copy of the film will be disorientated in other ways. The character of Spud is not present at all, his most memorable moments are divided between Renton and Finlay Bain’s Tommy; the job interview showing Tommy’s innocent first use of speed which helps to highlight his rapid descent into heroin later on. Andrew Still’s Sickboy is reduced to a grinning, leering ghoul, often trailing behind Begbie. This makes his high emotion on his daughter’s death in the latter half of the play less moving for the audience, although no less excellently-acted. Music – which was almost a character in itself in the movie – is incidental and not as powerful in this stage adaptation, choosing to focus more on dialogue and viscera except for perhaps the most powerful scene soundtracked by Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’ when Tommy’s demons march vocally behind him in the strobe-lit dark, reducing him to a shell.

Irvine Welsh has said he was “blown away” by the production. Maybe you will be too. Take our advice though, and don’t leave your drink where someone can wash their faeces-stained fingers in it. Trainspotting Live runs until Saturday 3 February.

 

First published on GiggingNI.com

Chairs are laid out in neat rows for today’s afternoon show and it’s two years to the week when Hazel O’Connor last played Belfast’s Black Box, also as part of Out To Lunch Festival. That time wasn’t with Cormac de Barra but with her bandmates Clare Hirst (saxophonist with Bowie and The Communards) and Sarah Fisher (keyboardist with Eurythmics). She’s been gigging in these two guises for a number of years and right now sees her beginning two separate UK tours as well as being on crutches for what she describes in interviews as a foot “reshaping”, an operation she has apparently been needing since birth. Today we’re here for the ‘See You Again’ tour – named after her 2017 album – with harpist de Barra who is probably most famous for working with Moya Brennan in her own band and joining Brennan’s Grammy Award-winning Celtic-inspired family band Clannad for their 2007 reunion. O’Connor tells us she met de Barra in 1993 in “a theatre below an art gallery” doing a Yeats play and they’ve been playing together sporadically since. She tells us a lot of things, in fact. This isn’t going to be one of those minimal interaction shows. From the moment she throws her crutches off after the first song and exclaims “Like Lazarus!” (less excitingly, because they restrict her from using her hands to gesture) we know we’re in for something interesting.

Each song has a story and we’re treated to those tales. “Who Will Care?” inspired by the 16 year old O’Connor finding a friend who’d taken an overdose and calling the ambulance, “Runaway” about her being a runaway, leaving hometown Coventry at 16 for Amsterdam. “One More Try” a George Michael cover illustrated by a story of their friendship in the early 80s because they lived near each other and, O’Connor alluding to their difficulties with their respective record companies: “We had the same lawyers”. Friends and family who are no longer with us are a theme and it’s clear to see why the album is called ‘See You Again’, the title coming from the song “Rebecca, When Will I See You Again?”, another tribute to a deceased friend. The by-product of dealing with such raw emotion is, at times awkwardness in lyrics and slightly predictable greeting card lines the result of trying to put grief as plainly as possibly into rhyming couplets. The harp elevates songs like these, songs where a concentrated effort to just study the lyrics would leave the pieces wanting. On other occasions the harp shows up gaps, audience favourite “Decadent Days” comes out thinly without the punk shouts and synth layers that usually shelter it.

Some songs of course, come together beautifully with the harp and naturally, these tend to be the ones written specifically for it. “Could Be With Me” is one, the backing vocals suit rather than just being for the sake of it and O’Connor’s lyrics are at their best when questioning the possibilities and absences of romantic relationships with a wistful tone. O’Connor’s voice has always had a crack running down the middle of it and this has increased with age and requires careful strategising. It suits a speak-shout monotone or a plaintive whisper rather than straight-up singing and this is the difficulty, as many of the songs require singing and she has a liking for the American soul sound, especially when finishing a song with a flourish. But the harp saves the day again, as the more Irish-inspired songs bring with them a fierceness in her voice, an embrace of the gruff Irishness of drinking songs.

“I’ll See You Again” is one such traditional Irish song, the lyrics fitted around a piece of music written by blind harpist Turlough O’Carolan who lived in the late 17th and early 18th centuries and the harp fully comes to life, the progressions a kind of baroque trad. “Farewell To Music” written by O’Carolan two weeks before he died lets de Barra come to the fore, creating chimes and rhythm which he weaves in and out of, playing the harp almost as piano, creating strong melody lines rather than the stereotype of the Oirish waterfall of pleasant-sounding notes that are musically meaningless. It’s also startlingly poppy on a cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”.

As the end of the show moves into sight, Roger the saxophonist is introduced and while the harp creates some foreboding sensations the sax makes “Big Brother” an altogether smoother experience even though we know Roger is only warming up for “Will You?”. When “Will You?” finally appears O’Connor is right, it’s really just a song about pulling but it cuts right through the superficial aspect and gets to the intense heart of hopefully wondering what will happen, the famed saxophone solo at the end the stuff the song could absolutely not do without, acoustic show or no.

“Eighth Day” begins unexpectedly and it’s a false start when an audience member loudly calls “Oh, here we go!” and everyone laughs. Taking time to start again gives O’Connor a chance to mention Trump (who she’s already referred to as the Antichrist) and the chilling allegory the song has become. The 62 year old’s voice understandably has to drop an octave for the “Amen”s that were shrieked in 1981 but it’s not a huge loss and what we gain in the 37 year gap is the knowledge that the far-off futuristic nightmares are beginning to come true. It’s the first standing ovation of the day, people assuming the show is over but O’Connor – not quite being able to disappear backstage and reappear in a hurry with crutches – stays on stage and announces the encore, teaching us snippets of choruses to join in. Then leaves, or rather takes her place to sell CDs and sign autographs at the merchandise table, for which there is a solid queue; showing that after two standing ovations, the audience are willing to stand for her a third time.

 

Alison Spittle | Review

January 24, 2018

First published at http://culturehubmagazine.co.uk/

Alison Spittle ‘Worrier Princess’ | Review

Black Box, Belfast • Wednesday 24 January ’18

Out To Lunch isn’t just a cute name for a festival, chosen because a lot of their events take place at exactly that: lunchtime. Although the festival – now in its 13th year – now has its fair share of sold-out, cabaret evening events the heart is the daytime, that 1pm-2pm slot and the reason behind the name is the fact that Belfast’s Black Box provides you with a free lunch, complete with canteen queue, ladles and choice of meat or vegetarian. And it’s this free lunch comedian Alison Spittle mentions first when she takes to the stage because, as she remarks, it’s not very often you do comedy, some of it even daring to mention that most risque of events: the Ann Summers party in front of an audience munching happily away on their mushroom stroganoff and bread rolls.

It’s not just about the food though, there’s a show to be getting on with and Spittle announces: “For those of you who haven’t seen me before, prepare to be dazzled!” She’s here on her first national tour with her show Worrier Princess. For those of you at the back who misheard, it really is ‘worrier’, not ‘warrior’ and anxiety and self-esteem are touched on lightly as the show continues. Lightly, but repeatedly. From an appearance on Brendan O’Connor’s round table RTÉ talk show Cutting Edge when a delightful wit on Twitter tweets RTÉ (yes, the whole channel. Not just Brendan. Doesn’t do things by halves, this chap) asking why O’Connor had invited Spittle on the show, referring to her as ‘that fat bitch’ and this is really the starting point of the show. Spittle, realising that having her own – co-written by Simon Mulholland – six part sitcom Nowhere Fast on RTÉ will probably signal an emergence of all sorts of internet trolls, starts seeing a therapist to get herself TV-ready. Or fame-ready. Or beach-ready, as she calls it. The stories we hear for the next 50 minutes or so are the stories she told that therapist. Before firing her. For a financial disagreement that led to a lost 70 Euro and… the stories spill like this. Easily. From one to another, overlapping just slightly enough that they aren’t complete non-sequitors. There’s a brush with a ouija board and a musing on the sadness of ghosts, a shockingly endowed inflatable doll whose modesty needs to be covered with her cardigan which, she assures us, she doesn’t remove lightly, moving on to the subject of body image but then dipping away again before it stops being comedy.

These anecdotes are all really casually laid out, too. There are no grand pronouncements, it’s a normal conversation and Spittle checks in with us; if we’ve ever used a ouija board, if we’ve seen The Muppet Christmas Carol, why some of us decided not to plump for bread rolls in the canteen queue. We nod and occasionally call out and she responds with the occasional stumble – because talking non-stop for an hour with just a few sips of cola is tough – and it’s just a normal lunch with a friend, right down to her gigglesnort when she thinks of the thing she is just about to tell us. It’s lunchtime, and she doesn’t have the time or the nerve to tell her “worst joke” while we’re eating, but if we want to hear it, well, we’ll have to see her again. If it’s worse than the ‘eating crisps from the clothed crotch of a relative’ joke, we will prepare to be dazzled. Maybe it was ‘warrior’ after all.

 

Out To Lunch Arts Festival runs to Sunday 28 January.

 

GLEN HANSARD | REVIEW

December 16, 2017

First Published on http://culturehubmagazine.co.uk/

Ulster Hall

By Elizabeth McGeown 15 December 2017

He’s not as regular around these parts as, say, Santa would be this time of year. But you’ll be hard-pressed to find a run of more than two Belfast Christmases in the past decade where Glen Hansard hasn’t made a seasonal appearance, usually in The Ulster Hall. He almost suits the setting, his timeless troubador look fitting the Victorian interior and if he ever felt upstaged by the Mulholland Grand Organ, he’s giving it a run for its money this time with a full band including three person brass section [trombone, trumpet and saxophone], string trio [sometimes quartet when the bassist Joe Doyle – also of The Frames – switches to double bass], pianist, drummer and long-term collaborator The Frames’ Rob Bochnik on guitar, mandolin, backing vocals and ready, encouraging smiles as he watches his friend blossom onstage.

 

And it is a kind of blossoming. ‘Return’, like many of the songs in the first phase of the show, the string phase, begins quietly and suddenly bursts into bloom, violin strings released like petals expanding as if in a timelapse photo series of a flower. ‘One Of Us Must Lose’ and ‘Winning Streak’ are a mellow pairing, easing us gently in to the evening, Hansard cradling his acoustic and belying the complexity of what’s to follow, ‘My Little Ruin’ with its lush pizzicato strings reminiscent of raindrops heavy with intent.

 

Each song has a personalised introduction, of course. ‘Bird Of Sorrow’ for his Mother, ‘Shelter Me’ for a young man sleeping at Apollo House [a Dublin building occupied by activists from the charity Home Sweet Home and used to shelter homeless people over the Christmas period in 2016]. “His words stayed with me, so I rhymed them.” And every song has a bittersweet note like this. A joke, sometimes with a jibe, sometimes with a longer tale to tale. It’s a Billy Connolly style of rambling storytelling, a punchline found five minutes later, or an hour later. Woody Guthrie’s ‘Vigilante Man’ is played on ukulele and Hansard speaks of visiting Guthrie’s old house, finding pages of lyrics written by Guthrie about his landlord who turns out to be none other than the father of Donald Trump and expresses his modern day desire to incorporate these lyrics into a song by… incorporating them into a song, ‘Vigilante Man’ becoming a Trump anthem for the decades, interspersing lyrics about the KKK in Guthrie’s time to Mexicans in the present day ending in an audience roar when the lines he read in Guthrie’s book come back to us full circle: “What I wouldn’t do to him if I thought I could get away with it.”

 

There are moments of pin-drop silence, of course. But what there is more of – even from the start when audiences are usually too shy – is singing. The beat-behind vocals of the festive reveller chase Hansard throughout the evening, lovingly ramshackle. ‘When Your Mind’s Made Up’ from The Swell Season project is a glorious example of this, the choir led by Hansard, the red-faced, bearded sailor of screaming effort ducking his head bashfully and the audience redoubles their efforts. Wearing your heart on your sleeve is a woefully overused expression when it comes to performance and it’s not exactly right here. Hansard doesn’t so much as wear his heart on his sleeve as rip open his cuffs and sleevelessly share every hurt ever experienced by him.

The band all have their chances to shine. ‘Didn’t He Ramble’ turns into an extended jam, Appalachian harmonies provided by Bochnik as the two duel their electric guitars. The strings come and go, taking breaks off stage and returning when a timeout is needed from the raucousness. Ruth O’Mahony Brady steps in for piano and Marketa Irglova’s famous vocal on ‘Falling Slowly’ which is met by a chorus of: “Awwww!” followed by a chorus of shushes. The brass is back in full force on ‘Wedding Ring’, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes taking a step out to the front of the stage to share lead vocals and get some personal applause, staying at the front for ‘Lowly Deserter’ and doing a trombone solo, the rest of the brass letting loose with the audience, who know the end of the night is approaching. ‘Her Mercy’ was always going to be a party, a slow-building epic that curves around snippets of other songs and then restarts again, a verse or two of ‘Star, Star’ appearing isolated in the middle and then cut away again, just as the first audience tears begin to fall. Hansard is a mater at these kinds of interruptions and shrill strings again pierce ‘Her Mercy’ for the discordant ‘Pure Imagination’ from Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory (1971), a long-time favourite of his coupled and when he utters the magic words: “It’s all yours Charlie, the whole chocolate factory, I’m leaving it to you.” segueing straight back into – you’ve guessed it – ‘Hey Mercy’ the audience are with him totally, hands raised in answer to Hansard’s own raised hands.

 

‘Grace Beneath The Pines’ begins the encore and Hansard challenges the audience by standing at the front of the stage, completely off-mic so they have to be their quietest selves to hear. They succeed, and their pride and pleasure at being a part of such a moment is palpable. ‘Song Of Good Hope’ and ‘McCormack’s Wall’ follow, the latter an aimless, lazy drinking song about foolishness which turns, suddenly, into a hoedown and the whoops when people realise this are joyous. A completely a capella version of ”The Rocky Road To Dublin’ animatedly follows, Hansard seemingly surprising even himself with his song choices. Everyone departs the stage once more only to return for his ode to Belfast, Van Morrison’s ‘Into The Mystic’. And then it’s out into the icy night for everyone, the cameraderie experienced making the temperature just a little less chill.

 

 

First published on GiggingNI.com

It doesn’t happen often that a band precedes their appearance onstage with an advert for wristwatches. If this has happened to you before, it’s likely you’ve gone to see Depeche Mode where half the crowd whoop and cheer – probably for the ad soundtrack and the fact that something will clearly happen soon onstage more than for the Hublot range of Depeche Mode wristwatches, to be fair – and the other half are mildly perplexed. But the ad makes it clear that proceeds will go to a charity for clean drinking water in developing nations called, simply ‘Charity: Water’ so this is by no means your average product placement. It’s part of their revolution, their 2017 album Spirit revolution, the leading single “Where’s The Revolution” revolution, the bleakest spot in a bleak album wondering what we’re doing with our privilege, with our voices, with our lives.

And this is the Global Spirit tour. Unlike many other bands that formed in 1980 who release by-numbers new albums but rely on the classics to power them along, Depeche Mode are here to say something with this one. Sure, it’ll be interspersed with older greatest hits material but that doesn’t detract from the greatest hits; it adds to them. On a playing field as sophisticated as this, everything here can realistically earn that moniker as it’s not about passage of time. This is quality control.

Blackness onstage and The Beatles’ “Revolution” is piped out of the speakers. A paint-splotched Pollock of a backdrop fills the giant screen [visuals throughout the night by their Visual Creative Director Anton Corbijn] and the band appear, the man of the next two hours and fifteen minutes, Dave Gahan, playing around on a hidden staircase both in front of and part of the screen. For audience members moving either left or right of stage centre, the staircase divides the screen causing dissonance with later visuals of farmyard animals, for one. A dissonance that fits with the band’s aesthetic so the people who don’t have the pleasure of a central viewpoint probably don’t even realise the picture is meant to be one. Gahan descends the steps in attack mode, coming straight to the front for “Going Backwards” and we’re off. It’s not a flat-footed, heavy attack though. He flits lightly throughout the night, removing his jacket for Ultra double bill “It’s No Good” and “Barrel Of A Gun” and removing his only hindrance, from then on a waistcoated coiled spring of boundless dark energy, releasing it in fists-clenched, arms-horizontal spinning every few songs, when not making love to the audience with eyes and the wave of a hand and a baritone blessing. He’s occasionally seen making his way off stage though, sweaty head wrapped in a towel and it’s at these points Depeche Mode’s main songwriter Martin Gore takes us through some softer hits, his voice eerily similar to Gahan’s but with a more rounded, cabaret edge, the simplicity of the piano-led “A Question Of Lust” belying the fact that his voice is just as strong. He walks the length of the catwalk during “Home”, bringing the audience with him emotionally until they carry on singing after he’s finished, longer even than they themselves suspect they will. It’s Depeche Mode’s “Hey Jude” moment and they seem to feel it as much as the audience do.

After the closest we are going to get to an acoustic set, things power up again with “Where’s The Revolution”. A power that’s masked in what seems like quite a minimalist album is unleashed live, Gahan’s angry pleading over the driving synths that laser through the arena makes even the on-record quite twee “The train is coming” bridge a powerful premonition. Later, sparse synths bleat abstractly until they are filled in and become “Enjoy The Silence”, lit perfectly in purple because, if we’d been asked to name a colour for that song, it always would have been purple.

They’re known for long encores and our five song treat is no less than we expect. Some might be disappointed that the cover of Bowie’s “Heroes” played in other venues is not present here, but we get what they don’t: Gore again lullabying us with “Strangelove”, the much-appreciated if audience cheers are anything to go by “Policy Of Truth” and as we all try to cram in the last moments of enjoyment before the 3Arena’s 11pm curfew, the chuffing gasps of “Personal Jesus” unite everyone.

First published on giggingni.com

We’re pretty sure what we’re seeing isn’t the Olympia Theatre’s usual curtain. The top half of Alice Cooper’s face fills the space, spider pupils sit on webbed sclera. Even his eyebrows have a hint of hirsute arachnid about them. Lit from behind in white, his twin orbs suddenly glow and we are invited, welcomed and threatened, informed that we will walk the line between guests and victims. The curtain is torn away by gasmasked individuals and in a shower of green sparks, our first glimpse of Cooper is every Hammer horror vampire ever, standing upright, moving slowly, a cloak wrapped tight around him like a bat’s wings at rest. He springs to life, grabs a cane and we begin.

That cane doesn’t last long, however. Perhaps the length of one song and it gets discarded; a gift for the audience. Then the next cane meets the same fate. Much of this night is Cooper wielding a prop. After all, in a career spanning five decades you’re bound to get things down to a fine art. During the night he wields in turn canes, a whip, a conductor’s baton, a mannequin, and his own head post-faux-decapitation. A band member gives it a kick as it rolls past, discarded. “Billion Dollar Babies” brings with it an épée, notes from the Bank Of Cooper skewered along its length and distributed throughout the audience which leaves Cooper free to display a few fencing moves. Of course, with prop changes come outfit changes counting roughly three tail coats, a bloody Doctor’s coat, two top hats, three sleeveless leather jackets, two with studs and one decorated with knives, one of which seems real enough when he spears the stage with it and it stays upright.

Guitarist Nita Strauss is the gymnast of the night, seemingly everywhere at once from monitor to atop speaker stacks to mic and then obscured between smoke jets coloured orange to look like flame, very convincingly to the casual eye. Recently ranked #1 in Guitar World Magazine’s ’10 Female Guitar Players You Should Know’ at just thirty, it’s pretty much the top rank in the world, although disappointing we’re still gendering musicianship in this way. Influenced by seeing Steve Vai as a child, she prowls around the stage eliciting screams from her cool grey Ibanez her main moment begins in darkness as she climbs aboard the aforementioned speaker stacks and shreds the audience’s tiny minds away. It’s a solo that goes on and on, ending with her bathed in a spotlight centre stage bringing a strange beauty and originality to the familiar intro to “Poison”. And every band member gets their time in the spotlight, “Halo Of Flies” brings Glen Sobel lit red relentlessly punishing the drums [and that classic rock staple: the cowbell] in an awe-inspiring display of almost robotic timing… While juggling his drumsticks. Despite this solo time though, don’t assume this band aren’t a well-oiled combination. They weave around each other as if they’ve walked these paths many times before and when standing as a unit [when Cooper dons a top hat and conducts them like an orchestra, for example] their poses are not uniform but complementary. Bassist Chuck Garric arches while his stage left buddy lead guitarist Ryan Roxie [who, during “Only Women Bleed” plays a twelve string and six string double neck guitar] crouches, their poses en masse like a leather clad Mighty Morphin Power Rangers photoshoot.

If you thought throwing one knife to the ground was the height of the theatricality though, you’re thinking of the wrong act. With “Feed My Frankenstein”, skeletal minions carry on a smoking, upright table to which Alice is willingly strapped and, clouded in the smoke, reappears as a bald-headed, bolt-headed giant, running around the stage. “The Ballad Of Dwight Fry” with its horribly convincing raspy screams of “I’ve gotta get out of here!” – Cooper’s strongest vocal of the night – brings a straitjacketed [but still holding a microphone] Cooper to battle with a high-kicking, floor-rolling, knife-wielding nurse who leads him eventually to the guillotine to a military march. The audience don’t get involved as much as expected, preferring to get that classic Alice Cooper beheading moment on camera. Later, the same nurse is outroduced as Sheryl and it’s hard to tell beneath the white face paint and grimaces, but we’re pretty sure we’ve been visited by Cooper’s wife.

There’s never any doubt of an encore as after the ‘last song’ we are plunged into blackness. The evening ends much as it started, with pyrotechnics but a few extras, like giant balloons filled with confetti and more of those Cooper bank notes and… a bubble machine? Any earlier audience nonchalance is overcome and everyone is united under “School’s Out” with smatterings of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall, Pt. 2”. The band are introduced, a nod to this evening when Cooper jokingly states lead and rhythm guitarist Tommy Henriksen is from Dublin and the crowd love this obvious lie. And then it’s over. Guillotine gone, no more blood-stained clothing and we try to do as we have been instructed: “Have sick, twisted nightmares. Goodnight!”

First published on Giggingni.com

It’s a rare treat this Sunday evening in Belfast: a seated concert in the Ulster Hall. It’s a space that, when seated, is usually reserved for the finest of delights: the Ulster Orchestra, perhaps or a jazz quartet but this evening we’ll be able to kick back and relax for an electronica show. Alison Moyet’s 35 year career having traversed many different paths including jazz covers and pop is going back to her electronic roots on this, ‘The Other Tour’ celebrating 2017 album ‘Other’.

First though, we have the support act for the Cork-Dublin-Belfast leg of the tour, Banbridge’s own Pat Dam Smyth. Two spotlights cross and shrouded in the shadow of the peak of his hat, Smyth and his guitar set the not-quite-mournful tone he’ll continue to mine this evening. The rest of the room is dark, save for the occasional torch of an usher showing someone to their seat. Between-song… not banter exactly, but a kind of bashful conversation is provided, Smyth seemingly embarrassed that he wrote a song imagining what his famous actress neighbour – “Emily” – gets up to but it’s a poignant piece, deft storytelling mixed with yearning. He moves to keys for the plaintive “Juliette” and the ‘Could hear a pin drop’ cliche is present, has been present all set, in fact. Clearly delighted at playing the Ulster Hall – something he mentions repeatedly throughout – he leaves the stage after 40 minutes but not before taking a selfie with the audience behind him, the audience rewarding him with warm applause.

 

Beginning with the overpowering “April 10th” the audience is hit with a wave of poetry, much more oppressive than on record, synth punctuated and heavy and dare we say a little pretentious? We cannot even be sure if Alison Moyet is on stage yet, so drenched is it in purple. Moyet’s ‘That Other Singer On Tour’ blog tells us that when her tour arrived at Cork Opera House the crew there said they’d never seen the like of her light rig, likening it to Pink Floyd and it’s not hard to see why. The light and smoke is at times so dense it renders Moyet invisible, the mic stand seeming to lean with some ghostly power. Moving on to the steadily approaching threat of “I Germinate” the message is clear: this will be a serious show.

It’s said that after Yazoo broke up Vince Clarke paired up with Andy Bell to form Erasure because his voice reminded Clarke of Moyet’s and this might not be true but it’s certainly believable. Both voices carry an androgynous resonance and an emotional power although with Erasure this is sometimes hidden in playfulness. Moyet has embraced her power for decades [“This is a song I wrote 40 years ago” she says as she introduces audience favourite “Nobody’s Diary”] and is still extremely strong, the contralto range unusual in pop, especially current pop. Each word is lovingly pressed out on a heavy breath, there’s an artful quaver here and there. “Wishing You Were Here” has shades of Bowie in the slight twangs and held notes. Love song to her Mother and the love of language she instilled in Moyet “The English U” is a treatise on loss with lush synthesised strings and harp and her jazzy voice deals with the runs, replicating at times the curve of a saxophone wail.

It’s not a concert filled with movement. Three people stand on stage: her self-described Musical Director John Garden who switches between a variety of synths and a guitar and producer and writer in his own right Sean McGhee who also from his synth and laptop station provides delicious backing vocals. Both are mostly still, even instrument changes are smooth and small leaving it to Moyet to provide what at first doesn’t seem at all like kinetic energy. It soon becomes clear, however, that there is an art to stillness, to a tilt of the head or an arm draped over self as if in comfort. Because of this when she outright grins or steps from the mic stand holding it at arm’s length it is electric.

In the end it’s an effective showcase of the brand new, the depth of the new songs speaking for themselves and the bringing back of some old favourites, mostly bathed in pink light that contrasts with the mostly blue-lit ‘Other’ selection, co-produced by Guy Sigsworth who previously worked with Björk. The audience behave as they should: reverently listen to the new and whoop for the familiar, finally breaking free of their seated-gig bonds for the encore of “Don’t Go” which is a joyful affair for all concerned. Those expecting a greatest hits tour were likely disappointed. They got a few, no more than that. But this was never meant to be a greatest hits show, this was the unveiling and celebration of a new work that Moyet is proud enough to tour and, frankly, she should be. She’s been writing songs for 40 years and is just hitting her stride.

First published on Giggingni.com

Nottingham’s April Towers first hit us rather mildly, more mildly than we’re expecting from a King Kong Company support act. Oscillating synths trip lightly across the heads of the audience and elicit a smile with no real recognition. But it’s a steady build, their crystal clear sounds never drowned out by the audience burble begin eventually to dominate. Songs seem primarily mood-based and it’s the darker stuff which first demands attention, attention which then begins to feed back into the set as a whole. Alex Noble’s voice isn’t the strongest but a pleading quality to a voice isn’t a bad thing in songs of the lovelorn and on the whole, it’s a genuinely pleasant set that, whether it wants to be or not, is reminiscent of the 1980s.

Feeling a mild sweat break out on your forehead as you make your way closer to the front a venue before the support act have even finished means you know the crowd is going to be dense and enthusiastic. Kicking things off with new track ‘Involved‘, King Kong Company appear on stage in black hoodies and electronic visors but in the context of the rest of the night, this is nothing and we almost feel superfluous mentioning it. In terms of dressing up, this is the pre-warm-up.

Bands today don’t dance enough. Chris Martin doesn’t don a pair of wings and wiggle. This seems a massive oversight – although maybe not for Coldplay – but it’s an oversight that King Kong Company benefit from by making their personal dancer stand out all the more. Trish Murphy dazzles in a selection of costumes: first a yellow and black clad… motor racing firefighter with a lazer-gun-cum-fire-extinguisher and the only way is up from there, pointing with aplomb using a series of pointing devices: finger, flagpole. When a papier mache eyeball points at you, you don’t forget it. She achieves a kind of divine symbiosis with singer Susan O’Neill, standing behind her and raising those Chris Martinless wings with all the majesty of an eagle knowing they are being photographed by National Geographic while O’Neill gives us a clarion call to revolution. And if satisfaction is the word of the night, O’Neill is the mystery of the night, slipping on and off stage between vocal and trumpet calls, never being directly alluded to but embodying complete audience control while her voice is soaring during the stark bassline from The Cure’s ‘A Forest‘.

It seems many people here are veterans of Sunflowerfest -where King Kong Company headlined the main stage on the Sunday night – as when a mention is given to the festival a roar of appreciation goes up from the crowd. As festival memories are notorious for their non-specificity, they can’t quite recall how this band gradually warmed them up from Sunday evening mud and light rain to a full-on rave, not caring about the weather conditions. The answer is revealed to be reggae. White man’s reggae, certainly, with some dubious accents employed for added faux authenticity but the Waterford act have the experience and style and musical nous to recognise their influences, borrow and yet completely reform what their source material might have been. This dub reggae has bite, gentle Groove Armada-esque trumpets recur again and again throughout the set but gradually make way for the driving beat.

The word of the night is “satisfying” and it almost seems unfair to try and unpick a synth from a vocal from a bass and praise one above all else as nothing overpowers, combining to make a balanced whole, a steady thrum of fullness. It’s not a quiet satisfaction though, by any means, all songs played here stand a good chance of an audience chorus of “Oy, oy, oy fucking oy”, ‘Scarity Dan‘ being both reminiscent of Alloy Mental at their most abrasive and everything you ever heard in the 90s. It’s no surprise that Neil McLellan of Prodigy-producing fame produced King Kong Company’s self-titled album as there are nods to The Prodigy all over the place, most notably in ‘Free The Marijuana‘ with lead vocalist Mark Graham actually singing the ‘Chase The River‘ sample from Prodigy’s ‘Out Of Space‘. There’s no speeding up frenzy here, but a sonic boom of a bass re-intro is – you’ve guessed it – almost as satisfying. There are also nods to simpler, happier pop, we catch a whiff of D:Ream, although this is a D:Ream Tony Blair would never choose to support his election campaign. This band are music fans to the extreme and everything is ripe for the picking down to a brass version of the Doctor Who theme in ‘Doctor Whom’ as the need for melody trumps any ridiculousness.

And the audience are with it all the way. People bring their own cardboard boxes and wear them on their heads, wandering off and getting separated from their friends because, well, they have cardboard boxes covering their peripheral vision. Glowsticks are thrown from crowd member to crowd member with joyful abandon and when asked to raise their left hand by lead singer, drummer, trombonist and ‘Donkey Jaw’ spoken word comedian Mark Graham almost all try to do so, with only a slight left versus right confusion getting in the way. As it ends, the last gorilla mask blows a kiss at us and raises a flagpole aloft, holding it like a gun and they depart in a hail of imaginary bullets. And we leave, the evening perhaps best summed up by two overheard gig-goers, one asking the other where he’d disappeared to: “Oh, I went for a smoke just after the dancing eyeball and couldn’t find you after”. “Aye,” said his friend, “Aye.”.

 

First published on Giggingni.com

We can’t be certain, but it’s a fairly safe bet that 14 months ago tonight wouldn’t be the huge deal on Belfast’s social calendar that it is. Tribute acts – popular as they are – have never been cool and have tended to attract an older crowd, a crowd that remember the singles first time round and want to spend a night happily reminiscing rather than take a plane and spend a small mortgage-worth to see a stadium show. You’d be stuck at the back, wouldn’t you? They grumble. Not able to see the whites of your favourite singer’s eyes. And so this would have been the crowd 14 months ago, people happy to remember for a discount price while the die-hard fans sought out tickets for Prince’s 2016 Piano And A Microphone tour.

But then Prince died on April 21st 2016 and along with the death of Bowie on 10th January that year, this changed the nature of tribute audiences. These artists were current, relevant. Their songs are played at indie discos, and not necessarily retro ones. We could recall them creating in our living memory. Could have bought tickets to see them. Watched them age before our eyes instead of being born into awareness with them already old, already old hat and old-fashioned. Recent screenings of the ‘Purple Rain’ movie in QFT helped to pique the curiosity. Will the fake Prince have that much energy? Will he ooze as much terrifying sex appeal? Will he jump off speaker stacks in heels? Of course, he shouldn’t do that as Prince caused himself lifelong back pain from too much jumping but… we’d quite like to see fake Prince jump, all the same.

A synth chord thrums loudly, resonating throughout the room. The 9 piece act appear and Jimi Love – our Prince for the evening – utters the words “Dearly beloved” sounding quite as much like Prince as you would expect him to, which is really quite a lot although more when speaking than singing. There really wasn’t any other way they could start. And it’s high energy right from the beginning. Upbeat song melds into upbeat song seamlessly, pauses for applause only occurring every three songs or so. ‘1999’ and ‘Controversy’ bringing the party in the first half hour but if anything, there’s a worry that it will be all party. Prince wouldn’t be Prince without a little mood and shade to balance the light and it’s not until ‘Little Red Corvette’ that we see it, a certain quiet moment and stripping back of instrumentation allowing us to hear that Love actually has a, well, lovely vocal tone. The stripping back we expect to continue in ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ doesn’t happen though, a little too much cheese with the saxophone making it a touch too much Michael Bolton rather than the understated Sinead O’Connor version we in the UK are used to. The crowd are delighted for a chance to karaoke though and they do so along with singer Emma Blakk who gets a chance to really express herself. In fact, the whole band get fair shots at everything, being regularly and repeatedly introduced and named by Love who welcomes them soloing and the crowd laps it up: trumpet, saxophone, tenor sax and bass alternately taking the spotlight and meandering across the stage at different points proving their musicality. At one point Love swaps places with Amanda Brown on drums so she can take lead vocals on a song while he proves himself a competent drummer.

A muddiness in the rhythm section makes certain songs lose something though. ‘Alphabet Street’ is almost unrecocognisable until the vocals start and ‘Gett Off’ is lacking some funk purely because of this. At times we’re left wondering if the bassist is actually playing until we see his fingers and realise he’s been left incredibly low in the mix, the drums too sounding a little suffocated. This provides startling clarity for Love’s excellently executed guitar solos, brass is as clear as it should be and the occasional keytar burst is like a shock of cold water on a hot day but we can’t help thinking what the party might have been with a more balanced mix.

As for Love, once we stop watching him like a hawk for discrepancies with the real thing we can see what he’s doing right. Looks wise he’s a little more Prince via Steve Guttenberg but his screams in ‘The Beautiful Ones’ and ‘Guitar’ are vocally challenging and seemingly effortless. He’s not as predatory or sexually upfront as Prince was, preferring a more lighthearted style and never quite taking himself seriously but he definitely sails safely past likeable and believable, maybe not as Prince, but definitely as our entertainer tonight.

So there were costume changes, replica guitars [the white Cloud Guitar from the ‘Purple Rain’ film, the purple Symbol Guitar for – what else? – ‘Purple Rain’ and most other songs played on the Hohner TE], band cameraderie, hit after hit and no, Jimi Love didn’t jump off any speaker stacks. But given that we know that didn’t do Prince any favours in the long run, it’s probably for the best.

So I did a Friday morning casual dress photowalk, where I explored the grounds of the castle. This is the ‘Poppies Wave’, an art installation dedicated to the WW1 dead. Or any war, really.

So, this is inside the walls of Lincoln Castle but it took a very kind Lincolnite to point out to me that it’s actually the Courthouse! From here on in, you’re not really going to get any photos without people in them. It just got busier and busier!

And I was hugely under the impression this was Queen Victoria until someone asked me who the man was and I Googled. It’s George III.

The early bird ticket buyers all got medals for their promptness [and the extra money they paid. Imagine my delight when I found out they all had a typo. A kind gent let me photograph his, as of course I never paid the extra for one. I’ll pay the extra for food, very little else.

This is really how Lincoln was. Normal streets, and then huge chunks of stone history. This is the Newport Arch.

Pub sign.

There will be a few selfies throughout, as I wasn’t sure if anyone would take photos of me.

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party! It was on my way to the party that I had the really horrible bus driver incident, and on the way back that a member of the public made fun of my clothes, but I don’t want to write more about that. The party was warm. So warm I was worried I hadn’t topped up my suncream in a few hours, I was worried I didn’t have a parasol or sunhat. They operate a sort of ‘musical chairs’ system where the Hatter calls something like “Everyone wearing purple, move tables!” in an attempt to get people to mingle. And it works, to an extent although there were an awful lot of people who said things like “My partner’s over at that other table!” I hung back for the first few tables and then began to realise nobody was swapping names! So I began to take the lead and ask around each table for names, amazed no-one else was doing this. Funny, Angie’s partner Glenn was there [he took my Cheshire Cat photo] and I spoke to him at the end when he was realising he didn’t get anyone’s names. I told him it wasn’t his fault, no-one was really giving names as they seemed to all live safely in partner-land. I’m pretty sure even if I had a partner I wouldn’t be so complacent but… Who knows?

Speaking of Glenn and Angie, I was beginning to realise they probably wouldn’t ask me to work the tea stall for them. They talked a lot of big talk and said we could hang out, have a dinner, I could even chill out in their close-to-the-centre hotel for naps if I needed it during the day. I did suggest coffee once or twice and there was an attempt on Sunday but… nothing turned out properly. Maybe for the best, who knows? I do more when I’m alone, I’m learning that and every trip reinforces it. When I wait for people, I lose part of my trip and part of myself. I felt a little sad though, especially after barely seeing Alice in Edinburgh.







I know the make-up isn’t amazing, but it was my first attempt and it looked better when I first applied it, and from farther away! I might rework it again sometime.

Friday night was my first volunteer shift at a magic show but I liked the other volunteer Roxy, we got on well and somehow when our shift was over and we could go in and watch the magic show… we ended up just talking to each other instead. John [the organiser] said he would introduce us to the band Experiment Number Q but when we went over they were talking business so Roxy and I sat with Kevin who was taking over from us to do the late shift and although Kevin seemed rather sombre at first, I realised he was just nervous, or was reacting to my stress. We had lovely chats, although they revealed that I had been supposed to pick up a volunteer form which should be signed at each shift proving you were there and handed in for your refund at the end of the weekend. I hadn’t known about this which made me worry I had been struck off the list without knowing [for internet rudeness maybe?! My internet conduct can be a bit weird when I’m upset], or I’d been marked as a no-show? I nearly cried, but decided I would go to event control/wristband collection the next day and fix it. I was worried about it being busy on the Saturday but it was my only option really. I emailed Jackie [the volunteer co-ordinator] when I got back to my room and she said not to worry too much. Which was nice, as I’d been quite a way down the road towards worrying too much. I got some salted chili pepper squid from the nearby Chinese takeaway and rested in my room until bedtime.