Sunday, 29 January 2012

Mcrae Weaves his Marvellous Musical Magic.

Okay, cracking on then as time is ticking and I don't want this year to be out before I've completed these reviews. I will try and keep the ones that follow somewhat shorter as I have a number of other things I'd like to write about. I will soon be posting a review of The Squirrel That Dreamt of Madness by Craig Stone. I finished reading this just over a week ago and have been having withdrawal symptoms since. If you sit there from day to day doing a job that makes your brain dribble out through your nose then this book is for you. Even if you're not one of the people who belong to that particular group this book is still for you. Everyone MUST buy this book! Please check it out by clicking on the link (the title above) and read the reviews already posted. Be sure to put on your sunglasses (anyone else realise nobody refers to them as shades any longer? When did this come to pass? I don't recall receiving any memo) before you do or you may be blinded by all those sets of 5 stars. Then you wouldn't be able to read the book and your life would suck beyond all manner of previous suckyness (I know, a made up word but hey).

3.) I was incredibly excited about April's gig and it was the first time I'd been to The Junction in Cambridge, a much smaller venue than I was expecting. This only added to the beautiful intimacy of this particular Tom Mcrae show. At one point he even joked about the fact it was his first ever sold out Cambridge show. Sold out to about 75 people although I believe it was actually more than this.

Instead of playing alongside the obligatory two Ollys (on piano/keyboard and cello) or the full band as on the 2010 Alphabet of Hurricanes tour, this was a special event with a Four String Quartet.

Tom is undoubtedly one of the best singer songwriters out there today and has built up a truly loyal fan base over the past decade with his evocatively poignant tunes of a predominantly melancholic nature. Yes of course I'm biased having followed him since my first gig in November 2003 after the release of his second album Just Like Blood. Each album seems to progress in a slightly different direction rather than stick to the same rigid formula like many artists can do. Even the fourth offering King of Cards, which I recall him denigrating at a 2007 gig following its release, had some truly breathtaking songs. The album overall may have been slightly less well received than its predecessors but my world would be a darker place without it. I remember when I first heard One Mississippi on the album I wasn't overly struck like I tend to be with most songs but then hearing it live at this 2007 gig I was actually blown away. I mean this literally as Tom was singing out the words they were generating a ten ton wind which blew right at me lifting me over the Atlantic to Mississippi like the world had actually spun on its axis. It's now one of (many, it is almost impossible to pick out a few favourites as I end up choosing most songs anyway) my particular favourites.  Thinking back I also recall he had a cold at this time and yet sang perfectly with absolutely no impairment to his show or the sound in any way at all.

The latest album, Alphabet of Hurricanes was something new yet again with Tom and the musicians he collaborated with in recording it adopting some totally different sounds to add to the usual mix. This meant that although Tom's true literary soul remained demonstrated by the eloquently constructed lyrics the album felt fresh and new. Something different from a master of his craft.

While Tom does have a trademark for writing depressing songs (as he admits himself), it's his mixture of such delicately beautiful written words, the unique talent of his voice combined with the serene strumming of the guitar which makes every show a distinctive and pleasant experience. Even when singing about the air slipping from his lungs in Walking to Hawaii I can't help but hang on to every note as if my life depended on it. He sings with such a gusto there's something infectious about it. Infectious in the most positive sense of the word in that the art being played before you entering through your ears is only the beginning. The vibrations complete their journey down the auditory canal on their barge of expression to resonate within the brain attaching themselves to the relevant parts of your mind the lyrics have meaning for. For each individual it may be something completely different thanks to the personal touch Tom gives to his audience at each and every show.

All of the above is not even taking into consideration the graceful elegance added by the Four String Quartet. Sublime. Perfection. Wondrous. Heavenly. These are just four words I'd use to describe this combination. Tom's songs and style very much lend themselves to this kind of arrangement and I feel truly blessed to have had the experience of hearing and seeing this show. He commented himself during one of his many asides about this being how the songs sound in his own head which he can never manage externally without the aid of such a quartet. I beg to differ. For me personally every time I listen to one of his albums I hear it in just this kind of way. Perhaps these elaborate strings aren't actually present but there's something in the way the music touches me which allows me to hear them nonetheless.

Tom played a number of songs with the quartet to begin the show. Opening with For the Restless (from third album All Maps Welcome) they went on to perform Karaoke Soul and Walking to Hawaii (see video below for the latter). The rendition of Vampire Heart was nothing short of perfect. The sounds from the quartet seemed to blend in so effortlessly with Tom's guitar playing and the haunting yet beautiful timbre of his vocals. 

The quartet then took a break while Tom sat himself down near the front of the stage to entertain us with an acoustic interlude. He kicked off with Human Remains leading into Alphabet of Hurricanes. What can I say? There really aren't words to describe the emotion these bought out. Although the title of the previous album Alphabet of Hurricanes didn't actually feature on it, which is a terrible shame given the beauty of it. I only hope it will make the forthcoming album due for release later this year. If not I must ensure I get a video of the entire song if it's on the set list at the next gig. We were also treated to a truly acoustic number when shortly after beginning Bloodless he pulled out the amp lead continuing to play and sing as he walked around the room. It was like being in his lounge on a Sunday afternoon following a fine roast dinner. This was the after dinner entertainment all that was missing were the After Eights. A looping vocal version of Draw Down the Stars also demonstrated his ability to hold the audience all on his lonesome by offering something old in an interesting and new way.

Upon their return Tom introduced what he promised would be a traditional Eastern European folk song he'd picked up on his travels but after a grand beginning from the strings this actually turned out to be a cover of Duran Duran's Hungry Like the Wolf. The audience were in stitches realising we'd all been sucked in by his introduction but he performed it nevertheless with his usual commitment.

They finished the show off with ever the crowd pleaser (and typically the song that closes most shows) The Boy With the Bubblegun, a tale that conjures up visions of a masked rider on horseback taking aim and finally Language of Fools, with strings that pierced my heart.

I've seen Tom play live six times now in various arrangements and each time I leave with a thirst for more.

Check out for lots more information. There's also a forum here for his dedicated followers.

Music of the moment: 

1.) This Heart's Built to Break by The Scholars - eagerly awaiting the debut album.

2.) Another band I've discovered thanks to Twitter, One Cure For Man. Just bought their EP.

Book(s) most recently added to my 'to read mountain': 

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Raianiemi.


Thursday, 26 January 2012

Levelling the Land One More Time

So, I have actually made it to a third entry. I’d originally planned to write up this review (review is perhaps not the exact word to describe the rambling) of 2011 gigs as one entry but due to my incessant rambling it is only fair on your poor eyes and time constraints that I break it up somewhat. My own time constraints aside....Oh yes that's right.... Valerie (the banjo playing badger) has just reminded me that with my time machine I shouldn't have any kind of time constraints at all. Thank you Valerie. I can always trust him to stick his snout in. I don't recall asking for his opinion on the matter. I can hear the banjo now, which can mean only one thing - he has some song of wisdom to sing at me. Speaking of wisdom I’ve got to have one of my wisdom teeth out in a few weeks. What, may I ask, is the point in us still having these teeth when the majority of adults have to have them removed due to the issues they cause?

Valerie will disagree but I smell conspiracy at work here. All of these wisdom teeth being extracted. All that wisdom gathering together and plotting the downfall of humanity or some such....What's that?......I suppose you're right there. Valerie just said that humanity needs no help from inanimate teeth.....Nice tune.....I do so enjoy the sound of a banjo, a banjo being played by a badger even more so. It is, as you can imagine somewhat unique.

Where was I? Oh yes, wisdom teeth. They're gathering on mass somewhere out in the wilderness until their numbers are great enough for them to connect together forming as to like a huge figure tall and terrible. Imagine it!! A twenty foot tall monster made out of all the wisdom teeth removed over the last hundred years or so. Several (or more) of such wisdom teeth monsters all chattering towards you. They would have some pretty nasty looking teeth wouldn't they? And don’t even get me started on the five mile radius bubble of halitosis wafting out in all directions. Right, enough!! After that vivid dream where I was being chased by zombies last night without the aid of cheese or any zombie related media I don't think it’s wise to conjure up the image of an army of wisdom teeth monsters this close to bedtime.

The BBC missed out on that one during their brainstorming sessions for old 60's Doctor Who. Think of the money they'd have saved on the props/costumes they ended up using for their alien designs. All they would have required would have been some glue to stick all the teeth together. *Note to time I'm in the early 60's stop by the BBC Doctor Who writing/production team and offer my services*

Anywho, let's get back to sanity (in theory) and crack on with the review before that apocalypse kicks off.

2.) Next up was one of my ultimate favourites The Levellers on their tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of the album Levelling the Land. This was the first Levellers album I was introduced to (as it is for many lifelong fans I expect) in 1997 so it was a real treat to see the band perform it in its entirety for the first time. 

I make an effort to see this band at least once each year (four times in 2010, twice in 2011 and now if I can get my time machine working I plan to nip back to 1992 & 1994 for those early Glastonbury appearances of theirs where the Boatman became the Spaceman) so I think I've seen them play each song from the album over the years. Their legions of loyal fans all come together at each gig like one mass blob of drool that's formed from many lesser blobs. All end up jumping up and down as if we're in an 80's pogo stick competition in some playground in Hackney (It's true (or maybe it isn’t). This moshing is in rhythm to the joyous guitar, banjo, fiddle and vocal sounds, ingredients which combine to make one tasty meal for our ears.

Standing at the bar waiting for a pint of beer I hear a loud drumbeat thud above the din of chatter cutting through the thick heavy fog of anticipation and excitement. The beat thuds again gathering momentum as it picks up the haunting sound of the harmonica. Sirens and horns! It sounds like sirens and horns all from one blow which then latches on to the violin's lament. The fidgety crowd are off immediately. That first drumbeat is enough to engage them. The chatter ceases as they take their places amidst the collective of the blob. All are now one with the band on stage. Needless to say the beer is forgotten as I rush to merge with the collective. Resistance is futile. One will be and is assimilated. I merge and become one with the moshing blob just in time for the vocals to kick in.

This is an iconic album with a clear message that still resonates loudly twenty years on (perhaps even more so in this post post modern era with added double dip recession*). Many will argue the album made and defined the band. I wouldn't agree completely as their first offering A Weapon Called the Word had many similar themed songs. It is true Levelling the Land fermented the overall sound of the band and the phenomenal success of it propelled them into the stratosphere of the music world. That said, they've always been shunned by the popular music media, something that never phases them and for which we as fans are more grateful than not. It has meant we keep our bunch of Levellers as they always were - owing their successes to their hard work, their loyal fans and the more savoury kind of people in the music business.

There really is only One Way of Life and all our friends in all their jobs, it's all a bloody waste. The words conjure visions of the rat race the majority of us find ourselves in just to survive. Mind numbing jobs just to pay the bills and feed our faces. The Game of life continues to play out while the girl from Fifteen Years ago has packed and gone away. I stand here looking across mountains and the valleys deep where I would take my weary feet and if I really could choose the life I pleased then there's little doubt I’d be a Boatman. Now, if only I could afford that barge. Alas, I like most others am not a freeman as there's one too many, two too many holes are getting bigger in the garden wall. If I'm not careful they're going to get to me, to take my Liberty meaning I'm likely to end up so Far From Home with no means of return. 

Whenever I listen to the Levellers, whichever album it might be and wherever I happen to be at the time I do feel like I belong to some ancient race. Yes I like to walk in ancient places (most recently the ruins of Rome and Pompeii) cause these are things that I can understand. The song Sell Out should be used to introduce every party political broadcast during elections or broadcast alongside them as an alternative. 'Your policies have failed the test of time, cause you sold them down the river - o.' So very true.

Another Man's Cause brings a lump to my throat each time I hear it. The message is clear and not aimed at the service personnel but at those in power who make these terrible, seemingly endless and (in most cases) pointless (not including their thirst for oil and/or dominance) wars.

This is a band that has been with me through everything in my adult life. A band whose music I can always rely on to entice the smile back to my face when I'm feeling down so by the end of even one song I'll be itching to jump about like a loon. They continue to provide me with inspiration helping to nurture my creative side, something I am eternally grateful for.

As with ALL of their gigs I've attended over the years this was more like an evening in the company of friends. A sweaty beer filled evening, admittedly but one of complete enjoyment. At the end of each gig I always find myself saying, ‘Bring on the next…’ I’ve seen them in a number of places around the country yet never in my original hometown of Birmingham.

Who knows where I’ll see them next (probably at least at their own Beautiful Days festival) but with a new album due soon I’m looking forward to it.

*at the time of writing it has only been forecast the UK may be heading into that dreaded double dip recession so if it doesn't actually happen this asterisk thing means you can't sue me for incorrect information and all that bollocks. A double dip recession sounds a bit like a new rollercoaster to me (and not metaphorically so).

To follow: Tom Mcrae with String Quartet.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Band of Banjo Playing Horses

Well all the travelling through time and space aside I almost lived up to the challenge I set myself last January to get to at least one gig every month throughout the year. I didn't manage it each and every month but with some months including two gigs and the Beautiful Days festival in August I'm happy with the achievement.

1.)  Kicking the year off in tremendous style were the formidable Band of Horses. Undoubtedly one of many bands from Seattle that seem to possess something special although quite what it is the musicians from this city have is unknown (perhaps something akin to the ‘Pick of Destiny’ from Tenacious D? Or could it be the rain in Seattle is actually some kind of magical music dust that inspires such greatness?).

Amazing doesn't come close to describing their performance at Birmingham's O2 Academy. Like many bands I become a fan of, I saw them first the previous year on BBC2’s Later with Jools. The venue was totally packed so I couldn't make it near the front like I prefer to but it didn't matter too much because Ben Bridwell's vocals poured inside my ears inducing a feeling of standing right beside him onstage. 

This is precisely what I wanted to do even just to check out his incredibly spiffing beard. In between songs when I had a few moments to compose my own thoughts I found myself contemplating whether or not I could pull off a full beard like his (I have thus far been unsuccessful as I tend to resemble a tramp if I let it grow uncontrollably). Then I’d gladly get lost amidst the harmonious melodies of the next song forgetting my feet were actually on the ground. 

Yes floating effortlessly on a cloud listening to angels play these songs on harpsichords is how I’d describe myself feeling by the end of favourites like The Funeral, Is There a Ghost and The Great Salt Lake. Then it struck me! Like the angels had led me to an epiphany. Most of these musicians from Seattle do have very spiffing if sometimes wild beards. Perhaps there’s something in Seattle with which they can cultivate these beards. No ordinary beards are these. No, these are beards with muse like qualities. 

Anyway, I digress again (you were warned). If you’ve not heard of this band before what is the matter with you? Buy one of their albums now!! You won’t regret it. All three albums are superb and I’m unable to pick one out as a favourite so why not buy all three! Then please beat yourself with a stick until it really hurts for not already having them. 

The name Band of Horses is an engaging concept don't you think? It conjures up a band of actual horses in my crazy mind. Admittedly their hooves are not exactly conducive to strumming stringed instruments but I'm sure they can improvise. There's always a way as they say (who they are I do not know, the cat's mother perhaps? Valerie the banjo playing badger? Who knows? Answers on a post card please to PO BOX 99 but please don't phone it's just for fun!). If improvisation fails they still have woodwind and other such instruments they can play using their mouths. Let us also not forget they could quite easily play one of those large pianos you find on mats (I'm sure these exist but for kids). 

The Funeral:

Cigarettes, Wedding Bands:

Sunday, 15 January 2012

And so it begins...

Come with me now on a journey through time and space………well okay maybe not quite a journey that exciting but come with me anyway and perhaps one day we'll make it to some distant planet. To a world populated with big elbowed aliens. Big elbowed aliens who can use their big elbows to all link together as one once a year for their own odd version of Auld Lang Syne (hands up anyone who actually knows any of the words to this drab excuse of a celebratory song? (Knowing the title does not count, people)). It really should be dropped by now shouldn’t it? It’s more of a national embarrassment than a part of our heritage. If indeed it is classed as part of our heritage then I think this is in need of a drastic rethink.

Anyway, I digress which is something you’ll have to get used to I’m afraid. I registered on twitter (where you’ll find much more digressing going on) a little over two months ago and I now feel completely hooked on this particular social network so much so that if it were taken away from me suddenly, my withdrawal symptoms would be unbearable. I'd always imagined the actual style of twitter would never suit me. I thought it was for those who were ceaselessly connected to the internet via an umbilical chord that was never severed in the form of a wireless router or smart phone. How wrong was I? Or perhaps I have become one of those people myself as I open my tired eyes in the morning wondering where my phone is so I can check through the night’s tweets. I find it almost mesmerising which is perhaps a little sad but I'm at a loss as to how else I can describe it. I've had some interesting and truly wonderful people start following me before I've even followed them. I don't believe it's a case of an ego boost with regards this but more of an 'OMG people must actually find me just a little bit interesting.' For some people anyway. Then there are the spam bots which I have to say are getting rather irritating. Although I did have one this evening that I clicked on just to check the 'person' and tweets. I was not expecting to be faced with detailed information on the most common of vaginal infections.

The need to tweet is infectious and I do have to hold back on just continually updating the multitude of thoughts that collide through my mind or I imagine my followers would start to dwindle, drastically. How long before our brains are interfaced with computers via the use of say, some microchip through which whatever we want to tweet can be instantly fed through to our account? Granted it will be some newer more highly developed social network by this time but with the same intent.

The help one can get from followers was demonstrated early on for me when I stated how in light of the New Year blues I was feeling the need to consider 2012 holiday destinations, citing Norway as somewhere I've always wanted to go. Lo and behold one of my followers replied advising tips of how to get there, what to do and where to stay. Needless to say these tips from someone who has been there and knows what they're talking about is invaluable. Tips I would never have received had it not been for twitter. Thank you goes to @michaelwailes.

I’ve also been introduced to the kindle app that was available for my smart phone thanks to being interested in the book of one author and another who mentioned the actual app. This is a book that everyone should read. Download it now. Do it today or your life will be worthless! (The Squirrel That Dreamt of Madness by Craig Stone) I’ll post a review once I’ve finished reading it and then you’ll see. Through that I’ve been followed and in turn follow a number of other e-book authors so my Amazon kindle wish list is growing at a phenomenal rate even before owning an actual e-book reader, my phone aside. Reviews and mentions will follow as they will for other books of note and interest.

And the sheer amount of new music I'm being introduced to. I thought my list of artists and bands I need to check out, buy albums and find gigs for was long but now I've actually had to start a whole new list. My desktop is covered in post it notes so much so they're in danger of totally obscuring the lovely background of Henry Cavill as the new Superman (which reminds me I had a dream last night in which I was actually Superman). Being into live music and particularly indie/rock bands and singer songwriters I’m overwhelmed with the number of new artists I’m now trying to work through. Before this I was getting worried at how many gigs I wanted to attend this year but twitter has almost doubled this already.

I urgently need some kind of cash injection to afford it all. Oh and time. I drastically require more time in which to do all these things. A towering and ever growing mountain of books (now with added e-books too) to read, two long lists of music to check out, a list almost as long of gigs to check and buy tickets for not to mention the novel I started writing last November. This was for National Novel Writing Month and it requires a lot of work before being anywhere near okay but at least after six years of thinking, planning and writing about it I’ve actually made a proper start from some kind of beginning to the story.

Okay, enough with the rambling I hear you say. I’ll get to work first of all by running through a quick overview of gigs I attended in 2011. This will follow shortly.