Tuesday 30 September 2014

David Thomas Broughton

Last week, in a tiny subterranean bar, I attended my third David Thomas Broughton concert in five years. It was by turns funny, scary, touching, confrontational and beautiful, but above all it was, as always, a unique experience. Part singer-songwriter, part performance artist, Broughton treats his songs as raw material, to be dissected and reassembled at will, looping his voice, his guitar and various electronic gizmos, while incorporating any inanimate objects that come to hand. He wanders off mic and off stage, singing on the move, in the middle of the audience, even from half way up the staircase leading out of the venue.

Broughton's sonorous baritone (think a 21st Century Jake Thackray) is currently complemented by The Juice Vocal Ensemble, with whom he has recorded one of 2014's finest albums, 'Sliding The Same Way'. Over Juice's often unsettling, aural backdrop, Broughton's clipped Northern diction tackles dark themes on the LP, sometimes using very blunt language. 'I will glass every one of you pricks in this bar', isn't a line you'll find anywhere in the Folk tradition and was delivered with such mesmeric conviction during last week's concert, that I'm sure I wasn't alone in shifting uncomfortably in my seat. An essential album and an essential live performer.

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Version City #33 - The Boss sings The King

In June 1981, I caught the final show of Bruce Springsteen's six night residency at Wembley Arena, it was my first Springsteen concert and much of the evening is still vivid in my memory. The tiny drum kit sitting in the middle of that vast stage, little more than a snare, floor tom, bass drum and a couple of cymbals. The opening song, 'Born to Run'....'Born to Run'! He started with 'Born to Run'! The joyous audience participation during 'Hungry Heart' and the tears during a whisper-to-a-scream-to-a-whisper 'Point Blank'. Seven covers (if you count the Detroit Medley as just one), a couple of songs he wrote but gave away and nothing from 'Greetings...' or 'The Wild, The Innocent...'. 31 songs in total, again counting the Detroit Medley as one.

What's left of my ticket after I left it in my pocket and it was savaged by the twin-tub.

Elvis Presley's influence on proceedings was particularly noticeable that evening. Springsteen offered a sombre early reading of his own 'Johnny Bye-Bye', which would remain officially unreleased until 1985 and deals, in part, with the death of Presley. In addition, two of the aforementioned covers were associated with Elvis. 'Can't Help Falling in Love' came towards the end of the final encore, but a largely re-written 'Follow That Dream' appeared early in the set. Bruce has sporadically revisited the song in subsequent years and here's a one-off performance from a show in Switzerland, during 1988's Tunnel of Love Express Tour.

Happy Birthday Boss.

Saturday 20 September 2014

Frank and David

I left school with precious little to show by way of qualifications, but, thanks to the deft intervention of a teacher who saw some potential in me, I managed to land a job in a large insurance office. When I arrived for my first day at work, I was socially out of my depth and felt very much like a boy in a grown-up world - even the junior clerks of a similar age to me appeared to have somehow achieved a level of worldly experience, gained by a few months spent in an adult working environment.

Fortunately for me, my desk was positioned between those of Frank and David. Frank and David, much like the other experienced staff in my section, seemed very old to me at the time. In reality they were only in their early 40's. They'd both been with the company for 10 years at that point and had no doubt already realised that, in all probability, they would see out their working lives behind those very desks. It was a job for life, if you kept your nose clean. They, unlike some of our more earnest colleagues, were also wise enough to realise that the job. and indeed life, were not things to be taken too seriously, all of the time. They helped me to do my work well, but they also encouraged me laugh, treating me as an equal, rather than a new kid on the block.

Inevitably, when you're in a close-knit working environment, a little micro-language develops, full of tics, catchphrases and regularly-used terms. Occasionally after work, I'd catch the same bus home as David, sometimes with our favourite conductor on board, who would, more often than not, go into hyper-mode as the evening rush hour progressed, chanting 'Cheers, cheers, ta,ta,ta, thank you, cheers, cheers, ta...' at ever increasing speeds as he charged up and down the packed bus collecting fares. David could gently mimic the guy to perfection, often reducing me to tears at my desk after I'd passed him a file or folder he'd requested. 'Cheers, cheers, ta,ta,ta, thank you, cheers, cheers, ta...', he'd jabber ad infinitum, as I struggled for breath.

Frank was a mischievous sod too, forever the joker, frequently causing gales of laughter to spread among the desks, only becoming serious when his wife, who worked in the same building, descended the escalator from the floor above. As she came into view, his eyes lit up and he'd smile the smile of a man who was utterly content with his lot and deeply in love.

I don't know the origin of Frank's most used phrase, it was already well established by the time I appeared on the scene. Whenever things became overly stressful or too full-on at work, Frank would grin broadly, stretch out his arms and say 'Easy, easy', as a kind of calming gesture. The words quickly entered my lexicon and I still find myself reassuring myself with them to this day.                                                                        
I worked at the office for less than two years, but, without wishing to descend into cliché, I went in a shy, socially inept boy and left as a young man with enough self-confidence to work in a customer facing environment for the next 30 years. I'm sure I owe much of this confidence to Frank and David's early encouragement.

A few nights ago, I caught up with Frank again. He beamed that familiar smile as we talked and reminisced. When the time came to leave, I reflected on my first steps into the 'grown-up' world at the insurance office all those years ago and thanked him for the acceptance and friendship he and David had shown, that had meant so much to me. At this point, I confess I became slightly emotional and, spontaneously, I threw an arm around his shoulder and patted him warmly on the back. 'Easy, easy', he laughed.

David died in 2010, ravaged in his final years by escalating multiple sclerosis. Frank passed away a couple of years earlier, shortly after losing his beloved wife. Frank's visit the other night, came in the form of a particularly vivid dream. Our brief period of working together in the office was over 35 years ago, but rarely does a day goes by that I don't think of one or both of them.


Frank wasn't particularly into music, but David was and we would talk about it for hours, when we probably should've been working. He didn't 'get' much of what I was listening to, but was always interested to hear about the records I'd bought or gigs I'd been to. David's era was a little earlier and this was one of his favourites.

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Marc Bolan - 37 Years Gone

37 years? Can it really be 37 years? Here's one from (gasp) 43 years ago, featuring Marc, Micky and Steve, with a little help from Babs, Flick, Dee Dee etc, who kind of look as if they're dancing to a different song.

Keep a little Marc in your heart.

Sunday 14 September 2014

Gogo Penguin and Mammal Hands

Late last Wednesday, I was very pleased to learn that Gogo Penguin's second LP, 'V2.0', had been shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize, a thoroughly deserved nod. The evening after the night before, Gogo Penguin played in Norwich, opening for local outfit Mammal Hands, who were launching their own debut LP 'Animalia'. Both bands played out of their skins. It was a night that none in attendance, on stage or in the packed audience, will forget in a hurry.

I featured Gogo Penguin a few months ago (here) and their music has remained on regular rotation round these parts ever since, but was unprepared for the sheer force of their live show. They groove, they swing and, yes, they even rock, Mick Blacka throwing occasional Keef-like shapes with his double bass. The band stretch and push the recorded versions of their repertoire into seemingly uncharted areas before bringing it all back home and finishing each tune on a dime, without any noticeable nods or winks between the three of them. The performance of 'One Percent' was worth the price of admission alone. Totally thrilling stuff. This isn't too shabby either.

Mammal Hands are another three piece, who, like Gogo Penguin, are blessed with an extraordinary keyboard player and drummer, unusually though, they have no bassist. The line-up is completed by Jordan Smart on saxophone who was also group announcer for the night (apparently they take it in turns). Smart is very quietly spoken and, in tunes like 'Mansions of Millions of Years', demonstrates similarly delicate phrasing on the soprano sax. His range is huge though. During an extended tenor sax workout in an untitled new piece later in the evening, he tore the place apart, prompting spontaneous outbursts of applause from the audience everytime he took it up another notch. This was my first encounter with Mammal Hands, but I bought the album after the show and I'll certainly be back for more. Here's a version of 'Kandaiki, recorded last year.

Mammal Hands recorded 'Animalia' back in December 2013 and are clearly already looking towards album number two, in much the same way as Gogo Penguin are pushing forward to album three. It was a memorable night and I'm excited to hear what comes next from these terrific bands.

Monday 8 September 2014

The Aliens

Two gentlemen on a small boat out at sea. Chatting, reminiscing on old times. Perhaps they served together in the Second World War. So what year would that make this photo? Late 1960s? Early 1970s? What if I were to tell you that these men, if they are indeed the age they appear, were probably too old to have served in the First World War and that the start of World War Two was still 13 months in the future? The photo is scanned from a glass slide dated August 1938. A timeless image isn't it? I picked up around 150 glass slides at a car-boot sale last week, all housed in 4 long wooden boxes. I've only gone through a quarter of them so far, but the quality of the best is outstanding. More to come, I'm sure.

Gordon Anderson (brother of Kenny, a.k.a. King Creosote) was a founding member of The Beta Band, writing the magnificent 'Dry the Rain' from their debut EP, among others. Anderson left The Beta Band in 1997 after a period of ill health, going on to produce a series of wonderfully adventurous releases under the Lone Pigeon moniker. Following The Beta Band's demise in 2004, Anderson reunited with two former members, John Maclean and Robin Jones, to become The Aliens, who issued two fine albums, before dropping off the map in 2009. 'Boats', originally a stripped down, solo Lone Pigeon tune, was re-recorded by The Aliens to glorious effect and issued on LP number two, 'Luna'.

Saturday 6 September 2014

Version City #32 - Laughing Gravy sings The Beach Boys

I haven't eaten meat for nearly 25 years, but I refuse to become one of those irritating, 'holier than thou', vegetarians who make exaggerated gagging noises if someone dares to eat a ham sandwich within a hundred yard radius of them. Indeed, personally, I'm far more repulsed by the thought of a plate of mushrooms landing on an adjacent restaurant table, than a big juicy steak. There is, however, one regular misconception about vegetarianism that rarely fails to wind me up. The fish thing.

Our local pub re-opened late last year. It was purchased by a resident of the village who has put a great deal of time, effort and money into the establishment. The decor is clean, the staff pleasant, the beer well kept and I'm happy to report that business appears to be booming in the old place. As I perused lunch menu on my first visit to the newly re-opened hostelry, it appeared that veggie lasagne was my only option. Not a problem, but I thought I'd double check with a member of staff. 'Is there just the one vegetarian option on the menu today?' I asked. 'Oh no sir, we have fish and chips or salmon as well' came the very polite reply. 'But I'm a vegetarian' I said. 'Oh, but some vegetarians eat fish' she said. I sighed inwardly. A very deep sigh. I thanked her and left it at that.

The veggie option

About a month later, I dropped into the pub again, intending to grab some lunch. The staff on duty on this visit were different, though just as polite and helpful, but the conversation was virtually identical. 'Some vegetarians eat fish' said the lady. 'They're not vegetarians then,' I replied with a smile. 'Oh yes,' she continued, 'I've got a friend who's a vegetarian and she eats fish...' I sighed inwardly. A very deep sigh. I thanked her and left it at that.

I'm reluctant to make a fuss. I worked in catering for over 10 years and know what a demanding job it is and just how demoralizing a seemingly awkward customer can be. Also, I don't want to be perceived as one of those vegetarians. I did, however, feel that I ought to give a little feedback, so I emailed the Manager of the pub, congratulating him on the staff, service and quality of the beer and, rather than complaining, merely enquired if there were any plans to expand their selection of vegetarian offerings, explaining that there was only one such item available on each of my previous visits. A couple of days later I received a very pleasant reply from the manager thanking me for my comments and pointing out that the pub also offers a range of fish dishes that are suitable for vegetarians! This, I have to say, floored me and I immediately drafted a terse response, explaining the definition of vegetarianism at great length and how it differs from pescetarianism. But, as I said, I hate to make a fuss. So, after a few minutes, when I'd calmed down, I decided not to send the email. Instead, I sighed inwardly. A very deep sigh and left it at that.

Mind you, this doesn't look particularly appetising. Anyone fancy a salad?

As if that wasn't bad enough...... A couple of weeks ago I paid a return visit to our local Medical Centre, to get the results of some recent tests. Previously, my blood pressure was a shade high, but this time it seemed normal. The nurse expressed some concern, however, at my cholesterol levels. My 'bad' cholesterol is a bit high apparently and she urged me to cut down on red meat and fatty foods. I explained that I've been a vegetarian for 25 years and although I used to consume mountains of cheese sandwiches and veggie pasties, these days I virtually live on salad and fruit, with any variance from this diet (such as on chip night) being regarded as a bit of a treat. My 'good' cholesterol, however, appears to be a bit on the low side. I asked the nurse what steps I could take to improve the situation. 'Eat more fish' she said. I reminded her that I've been a vegetarian for 25 years. 'Oh,' she said, 'don't you eat fish? Some vegetarians do you know'. I sighed inwardly. An extremely deep sigh. I thanked her and left it at that.

Here's Dean Torrence (Dean from Jan and Dean) trading as Laughing Gravy (vegetarian gravy, natch), with an interpretation of 'Vegetables', released just one month after The Beach Boys original, in October 1967.

Tuesday 2 September 2014


As I believe I've mentioned before, I possess an inordinate number of left feet and am consequently a confirmed non-dancer. Last Tuesday evening, however, in a darkened room full of strangers, I found myself unconsciously cutting, what can only be described as, a rug. It probably wasn't a pretty sight, but blame it on Tinariwen. Standing still just wasn't an option. (Read a great review of the concert here.)

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