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June 2017 – upcoming English gigs – the return of Pram with the immersive ‘Under the Blossom That Hangs On The Bough’ event in Birmingham (June 3rd); Zarjaz Baby and Jon Slade/Night of the Comet in London (June 3rd); Arthur Russell’s ‘Calling Out Of Context’ revisited in London (June 7th)

23 May

Some shows and events to start June off. In Birmingham, experimental dream pop/post rock band Pram (one of the most original and charming groups ever to work in either genre) have resurfaced and are taking over an Edgbaston park for a very different kind of performance. Back in London there are opportunities to catch up with Zarjaz Baby (one of the wilder characters from the original wave of British post-punk) an acoustic set from Jon Slade (who’s navigated his way through a heap of scenes from art-punk to Riot Grrl to a thousand indie DJ nights); and a recreation of the cello/pop songs of Arthur Russell, one of the darlings of the 1980s New York loft music scene.

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Pram: 'Under The Blossom That Hangs On The Bough', 3rd June 2017

for-Wards, MAC Birmingham and Pram present:
Pram: ‘Under the Blossom That Hangs On The Bough’
Martineau Gardens, 27 Priory Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham, B5 7UG, England
Saturday 3rd June 2017, 4:30pm
– free event – information here, here and here

“Composers and sonic artists Pram have been exploring south Birmingham with the help of local community groups to uncover the sounds of the locality. The results are both familiar and surprising.

“Let Pram take you on a journey through the city, a sound trail through the four wards of Birmingham’s Edgbaston district. Hear the world from the perspective of a bee as it flutters and forages. The snuffles of a tiny baby become the snores of a lion, the gurgle of a stream a mighty cataract. Come along and follow the woodland trail, bring a picnic and settle down for a performance inspired by the sound of the city as you’ve never heard it before.

“Set in the magical surroundings of tMartineau Gardens, ‘Under the Blossom that Hangs on the Bough’ is an installation and performance by Pram, celebrating the sounds of Edgbaston. It will take place at Martineau Gardens on the afternoon of Saturday 3rd June, concluding at 6.30pm with a Pram performance inspired by sound recordings made in the wards of Quinton, Harborne, Edgbaston and Bartley Green. Free admission if you register at Eventbrite…”

This isn’t quite the same Pram that charmed us and subverted pop for a surprisingly long stint in the ’90s and noughties across a string of albums which included ‘Dark Island’ and ‘Sargasso Sea’ and a sound that seemed to be part child’s murmur, part clinking post-kosmische stroll and part friendly haunted house. Most obviously, singer and lyricist Rosie Cuckston (she who used to mount her keyboard on an ironing board at concerts) is absent, having moved on into academia and a more direct form of the social activism which the band’s eclectic inclusiveness and tendency to take philosophical side roads only hinted. That said, the rest of the band’s original creative core (multi-instrumentalists Matt Eaton, Sam Owen and Max Simpson) are all present, having spent the interim years of Pram downtime working with wonky loops as Two Dogs, creating film and theatre sound and making sonic art out of books with the Sound Book Project.

This also isn’t the first time that the post-Rosie Pram’s reappeared. Earlier in May they made an appearance at Imaginary Musics in Switzerland, playing a “music for Kopfkino” audio-visual set in a festival dedicated to “cinematic, recomposed and fictional musics”, and it seems as if losing Rosie’s quiet reflective voice and cocooned lyrics has shifted them further over into the areas suggested by Matt’s sound design and by Sam and Max’s live sound art. On-spec, it seems as if they’ve succeeded in becoming a kind of “post-band”, with a foot in their old live work, song-structures and performance coherence, but leaning towards something far more abstract and ego-free. ‘Under the Blossom That Hangs On The Bough’ sounds as if it will be something fascinating to be immersed in – an urban psychedelic afternoon stroll with the family, an aural refraction of Birmingham through leaves, greenery and company.

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Zarjaz Baby + Jon Slade, 3rd June 2017

Zarjaz Baby + Jon Slade
The Horse Hospital, The Colonnade, Bloomsbury, London, WC1N 1JD, England
Saturday 3rd June 2017, 7.00pm
information

“An existentialist extravaganza featuring a solo acoustic set from Zarjaz Baby (Freakapuss and former Tronics). Zarjaz will be performing dark atmospheric songs, full of imagery, with jazz, blues, early ’60s beat and pop influences, with live performance artists, in a style not seen since the basement and candles days of Beatniks.

“Also featured on the night is a solo acoustic Love-Rock revival set from Jon Slade/Knight Of The Comet, incorporating songs from his former bands Huggy Bear and Comet Gain, plus a Fire Department number, some Electric Bull re-workings, as well as songs he wrote with Wolfy Jones.


 
“’60s European pop music in between sets, Francoise Hardy, Brigitte Bardot, Gillian Hills. Expect sombre girls dressed in black and boys in Breton shirts.”

For more information contact incoming@freakapuss.com

For more on Zarjaz’s chequered life and career, have a read of this interview he did with ‘The Quietus’ three years ago, featuring accounts of brushes with mental illness, of releasing surreal post-punk songs with titles like Shark Fucks, of arguing with ‘2000AD’ over his stage name, and of having his image ripped off by Sigue Sigue Sputnik.


 
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Arthur Russell: 'Calling Out Of Context', 7th June 2017

XOYO Live and Milestones present:
‘Arthur Russell – A Classic Reinterpreted’
XOYO, 32-37 Cowper Street, St Lukes, London, EC2A 4AP, England
Wednesday 7th June 2017, 7.00pm
– information here and here

“It’s been said that “Arthur’s songs were so personal that it seems as though he simply vanished into his music.”

“Twenty-five years after Arthur Russell‘s death, some of the most exciting, forward-thinking faces in music are set to present a unique rendition of Arthur Russell’s timeless album ‘Calling Out Of Context’. A posthumous album that brought together twelve incredible tracks from across two previously unreleased LPs, ‘Calling Out Of Context’ represents Arthur in his prime. Two decades later and the music sounds as contemporary as ever – a huge inspiration for those performing on the night. We’re very excited to hear this new rendition.”

Bringing together elements of electropop, classical minimalism, post-disco, hip hop and singer-songwriter work, the ‘Calling Out Of Context’ songs span twenty years of Arthur’s composing and creative history while he was battling to fuse the parallel New York worlds of dance culture and art music between the late ’70s and the early ’90s – a pioneer of the freewheeling musical eclectism which today we pretty much take for granted. Take a look at this salvaged 1987 interview feature from the ‘Melody Maker’ for more on the topic, featuring reflections from Arthur and others on Indian music, the pulse shared by formal minimalism and New York dance clubs, and the social and cultural challenges of the time regarding blending “high” and “low” cultures.

The band for this London performance consists of Ashley Henry (keyboards), Midori Jaeger (cello), Alica Higgins (vocals), Sam Gardner (drums) and Joe Downard (bass).


 

May 2017 – upcoming London classical gigs – polygender opera with ‘Binary Optional’ at CPT (May 25th & 26th)

21 May

One of the month’s more interesting London opera events…

'Binary Optional', 25th & 26th May 2017

Oedipa & Lucia Lucas present:
‘Binary Optional’
Camden People’s Theatre, 58-60 Hampstead Road, Euston, London, NW1 2PY, England
Thurday 25th & Friday 26th May 2017, 9.00pm
information

From the press release, spliced with a little more research:

Oedipa collaborates with the extraordinary female baritone Lucia Lucas (Wuppertaler Bühnen, Deutsche Oper, Chicago Opera Theatre) on an evening of song in transition: from masc to femme, classical to queer and oppression to freedom.

“A freelance opera singer based in Germany (who has previously held full-time contracts with the Badisches Staatstheater, Kalsruhe, Theater und Orchester Heidelberg and the Deutsche Oper, Berlin), Lucia Lucas is a strong dramatic baritone specializing in Verdi roles, and has sung roles including Ford in ‘Falstaff’, Iago in ‘Otello’, Escamillo in ‘Carmen’, Le Grand-Prêtre in ‘Samson et Dalilah’, Jochanaan in ‘Salome’, Alberich in ‘Das Rheingold’, Thoas in ‘Iphigenie en Tauride’, Figaro in ‘Le nozze di Figaro’, Leporello and Giovanni in ‘Don Giovanni’, Mephistopheles in ‘Faust’, Don Pizzaro in ‘Fidelio’ and Nick Shadow in ‘The Rake’s Progress’.

“Beyond this, Lucia is one of the small but growing number of transgender woman performing significant operatic roles (a list of singers which includes Breanna Sinclairé and Emily De Salvo, whose own unusual range covers baritone to soprano). As Lucia commented in an interview in ‘Slipped Disc’ a couple of years ago, “I am performing all of the same things. Still singing angry old men on stage, but fringe projects have also started appearing as possibilities”. ‘Binary Optional’ is one such project – singing Bizet, Britten, Wagner, Purcell and Adams, flirting with Sarah Vaughan and ‘Rocky Horror’, Lucia draws on her experience singing classical repertoire across the world to tell her incredible story and celebrate the fluidity and plurality of gender in opera.


 
“Oedipa is the alter ego of writer/director Finn Beames (who’s dedicated himself to working “against the male perspective”) and a diverse range of varying collaborators. As Oedipa, groups of artists create and produce live performances in theatre, opera and related forms, often with an emphasis on music.

“Based in London and working internationally, Finn won the 2015 Genesis Future Directors Award at the Young Vic for his production of Man: 3 Plays by Tennessee Williams in the Clare theatre. He also holds the 2015 Lina Bo Bardi Fellowship, granted by the British Council for research into the eponymous Brazilian architect and the creation of a piece of theatre. For his own company, bodycorps, he recently directed a sold-out run of a new opera about depression, funded by The Wellcome Trust and ACE. Finn has commissioned further new work for bodycorps, including a musical based on The Sorrows of Young Werther. In 2014 Finn wrote, directed and designed a new music theatre work for the London Sinfonietta with composer Gavin Higgins, which they are currently expanding into a triptych. Finn is a director/librettist on the Jerwood Opera Writing Programme at Aldeburgh Music, and a member of the Young Vic Directors Network and Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab in New York.”
 

November 2016 – upcoming London gigs – electro-poetryscapes with Jeremy Reed & The Ginger Light at the Horse Hospital (5th)

3 Nov

They might be performing in Bloomsbury , but their heart’s in Soho. You can’t get away from it.

Jeremy Reed & The Ginger Light, 5th November 2016I once started writing a set of time-travelling stories about Soho, and one day I may go back to them. If so, it might be difficult not to write Jeremy Reed into them. Poet locum and unruly novelist, with fifty-odd books behind him, both his work and his person is soused in the atmosphere, possibilities and ramifications of this particularly disobedient district of London. For my lifetime and his, it’s been the haunt of artists, drunks, liars, king-queens, agreeable rascality and disagreeable visionaries. Even in its current state of snarling retreat, slowly losing a civil war against the clammy, sterilizing encroachment of central London gentrification, chain shops and absentee renting, it’s still the part of town where you’re most likely to see an inexplicable marching band or dishevelled unicorn.

A Firewords Display presents:
Jeremy Reed & The Ginger Light
The Horse Hospital, The Colonnade, Bloomsbury, London, WC1N 1JD, England
Saturday 5th November 2016, 7.30pm
information

Dating back to 2012, The Ginger Light is a collaboration between Jeremy and Itchy Ear, a.k.a. Covent Garden loftbird Gerald McGee: an electronic music producer, film buff and keen, self-starting soundtracker who adds spectrally-energised EDM and electronica backings to footage from the likes of brutal nightmare-noir ‘Kiss Me Deadly’, Jean Genet’s steamy men’s-prison reverie ‘Un Chant d’Amour’ and the differently-dreamy 1903 film of ‘Alice In Wonderland’. Working live from a laptop, Gerald complements Jeremy’s word salvos with sound layers too detailed and active to be described as simple backdrops.

Like the poems they lift and wreathe, Gerald’s soundscapes are multilayered time-travel textures: archaeological digs pulling up mongrel music memories from London’s strata of music and broadcast history. Ladbroke grove dub-echoes, Carnaby pop and basement jazz; psychedelic acid-rock distortions from the UFO or Portobello Road. Ominous Throbbing Gristle reverberation and corrosive washes from the old Hackney squats. Floating ghostly sound effects, like snippets of radio drama caught on a forty-year rebound.

As for Jeremy, he plays his own role to the hilt. Blurring confessor and transgressor, impressionist chronicler and flagrant charlatan, he’s a figure of arch and wasted glamour, as if Quentin Crisp had woken up one morning transformed into Jim Morrison. A Soho fixture since the mid-’80s, he’s a onetime protege of Francis Bacon; hailed as the real poetic deal by past literary titans (Seamus Heaney, J.G. Ballard and Edmund White – two of whom compared him to Rimbaud and one to Bowie’s Thomas Newton, the Man Who Fell to Earth) and by living pop-poetry shapers (Bjork, Richard Hell, Pete Docherty).

He delivers his own poems in a voice like London sleet – a heavy-lidded, lead-cadenced drone; lisping and compellingly monotonous, burnished by rich and antiquated RADA tones and by a seething incantatory Peter Hammill flair. In the psychic autopsy of talent’s fragility in ‘Soho Johnny’; you can detect echoes of the Beats and of the exploding perspective of the ‘60s; in his calling-up and collaging of spirits including Derek Jarman and Jack the Ripper, those of cut-up broadsheets and psychogeography; in his accounts of shoplifters and dissidents adrift in the changing junk-raddled backwash of city trade, commerce and exploitation, there are looming narcotic Blakean myths.

A career-long celebrator of the transgressive, ignored and cast-aside, Jeremy’s becoming not only a poet locum for Soho, but something of a genius loci: declaiming the neighbourhood’s crumpled, contemplative, spontaneous amorality like the last pub-bard standing. In consequence, he himself seems to be succumbing to being fixed in time, representing qualities being swept away as Crossrail opportunities and predatory investment force them out. Like the Wood Green soiree happening the previous night, he’s edging towards becoming one of those fragile something to enjoy while you still can. Here he is, rouged and alert, alongside Gerald and delivering a Ginger Light performance earlier this year: keeping the vision breathing.


 

June 2016 – upcoming gigs – three peeks into Durham’s Empty Shop – As Ondas,Year Of Birds and mystery guests (14th); Heir and Rebekah Fitch (15th); Captain Chaos, Chrissy Barnacle and Mama Lips (20th)

12 Jun

Being a Londoner might well give a person readier access to a wider day-to-day world than someone in a smaller British town (and you can read the same for anyone in a world city anywhere), but it also allows that person to become ignorant in the finer closer details, closed off from the simple knowledge that people in quieter places still come up with, or strive towards, interesting things. Part of what I’m doing with myself this year is actively trying to shed some of those blinkers, looking around outside the slew of London gigs I post about to find out what’s going on elsewhere.

Despite hearing about a longstanding enmity between “town” and “gown” in the city, I hadn’t made the necessary connections between Durham, economic poverty, commercial collapse and underground culture; probably because I’ve only previously swept through the town on the East Coast Main Line en route to Newcastle or Edinburgh, admiring the cathedral and the university castle from the insulation of the viaduct. (Like I told you. Londoner. Just plain ignorant.) If at some point I’d got my complacent arse down to street level and asked around, I might have found out more. Behind the mediaeval heritage prettiness and pleasant prospects there are indeed the same kind of economic problems which worm through the country as a whole and gnaw the north-east in particular. There are businesses failing and boarding up, and people becoming reduced to relying on food banks; there’s a sense of community which might dissolve under hunger and the decay of opportunity and moribundity; there are people whose lives might just peter out into a broke greyness; and none of this can be solved simply by proximity to a couple of World Heritage sites.

This is where the Empty Shop organization have come in during the last decade, making a local attempt to address the problems. They’re non-profit, aiming to make enough money to sustain a lively local arts culture and provide the platform for it to thrive. They also aim to make a thrifty, practical use of existing facilities instead of splurging on showcase showoff developments: their concerts, theatre and film shows, exhibitions and other events are housed in buildings which have fallen silent or empty, thereby ensuring that those places don’t fall into decay or become a town centre like a strip of dead teeth. Their gig calendar, too, is littered with events which raise collections for food banks: benefit shows which don’t sell themselves as such, since benefits don’t have to be special events but can be living, breathing regular exchanges of community resources, part of the fabric of being connected.

I’ve got three of this week’s upcoming Empty House gigs listed below – a punky sandwich with a surprisingly plush pop middle. I’m sure they’ll be the first of many which I’ll be flagging up in the future. For what it’s worth, both of the Equestrian Collective shows (the punkier ones, with perhaps a broader DIY communitarian ethic to suit) are food-bank all-age events.

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Equestrian Collective presents:
As Ondas + Year Of Birds + t.b.c.
Empty Shop HQ, 35c Framwellgate Bridge, Durham, DH1 4SJ, England
Tuesday 14th June 2016, 7:30 pm
– more information here and here

As Ondas/Year Of Birds, 14th June 2016As Ondas‘ press release is essentially just a mass of pop-culture fibs, which tells me that they don’t take a complicated reputation seriously and that they’ve got one eye on the possibility of jamming themselves into evenings of campery and frills. Buried in the waffle is the phrase “no-wave-surf, trilingual indie band”, which will do, although it doesn’t convey their touch of fun. They’ve got a little lava-lamp shimmy as well as clean punky lines and a surfboard twang; they’re bouncy and lounge-y in the same way that Os Mutantes were, with an elusive, mercurial intelligence in their approach.


 

Middlesbrough punks Year Of Birds make a few fibbing pop claims of their own (they wrote a third of the songs on Gabrielle’s ‘Rise’… yeah, hmmm…), Instead I can hear bits of West Coast pop, German motorik and a broader psychedelia in their short-order songs. There’s the cyclic two-chord pulse of early Teardrop Explodes for instance (albeit a Teardrops who gave their work a couple of extra spins in a dirty cement mixer) and there’s Syd Barrett – or Robyn Hitchcock – in their precise English diction behind their frontman’s faraway, heavy-lidded baritone and its megaphone distortions. On top of that, they sometimes slip into a discoloured version of that chromium early-Neu! chug and have fluctuating taste for cosmic synth twitters. While none of that makes them Gong-family caperers or dedicated autobahnauts there’s no way that they could hold a bored English punk anomie for more than a few seconds without cracking an eye-twinkle. Their cover of Donna Summers’ I Feel Love (delivered in what’s best described as an ecstatic tannoy monotone) is a small piece of smogged-up Yorkshire wit and Space Dusted joy.


 

There’s another band on, apparently. There’s no word on who they are. There are rumblings about them having invented fuzzy-felt. If that’s a clue, it belongs to a story or a joke which I’m not in on. Sorry. Show up and see for yourselves.

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Heir/Rebecca Fitch, @ Empty Shop, Durham. 15th June 2016

Empty Shop presents:
Heir + Rebekah Fitch
Empty Shop HQ, 35c Framwellgate Bridge, Durham, DH1 4SJ, England
Wednesday 15th June 2016, 7.30 pm
information

How long have Heir been hiding in Leeds, and where did they find a place to hide and do their growing up so secretly? Their debut EP’s only been out since March, their debut single’s barely a year old; but it seems as if they’ve arrived fully matured.

Heir are one of those enviable pure pop bands that covers virtually all bases. Accomplished sophisti-pop recombiners, they’re universal enough to hit Radio 2 playlists, to soundtrack summer picnics and sell bucketloads of records in supermarkets, but they’re still tuneful and dynamic enough to disarm and win over sharper tastes. There’s plenty of quiet-storm emotiveness in those finely-crafted, deceptively simple songs; clever feather-soft steals of space and atmosphere from trip-hop; and there are lessons well-learned from upper-drawer pop-soul, with hints of both Smokey Robinson or Commodores. Best of all are the gorgeous fraternal bursts of bell-like man-harmonies which back up and refract Tom Hammond’s sweet-and-sore lead vocal, right when they’re needed. (Think the Finn Brothers, or Francis Dunnery; but always bring it back to that soul source, of men stretching and basking in the sweet spot between church and itch.)


 

Sure, enough, the support slots and the BBC Radio plays are already coming their way. Of course, it could all go horribly wrong. Heir might follow a substantial path along the past lines of Elbow (the band whom they most resemble in their gusty Northern blueness) or Deacon Blue. On the other hand we could be seeing them at an early peak before rapid success and co-opting buffs or Barlowises that clear edge and talent; drives it down into frictionless sleekness, into something transient to lube the gaps between acts on ‘The X-Factor’. They might end up putting out no more than a couple of albums before going their separate ways, following many a fine performer in slipping invisibly behind the scenes to write toplines for anonymous r&b stars.

Right now, though, Heir are honed and treasurable. This will be an intimate acoustic show (fine with me, as long as they cheat and keep the Rhodes switched on) and at this point you can still get close enough and persuasive enough to reassure them that they should never swap the joy of singing to people for the staleness of singing to a demographic. Or, if you’re aiming to be a bitter old git, you could go in order to stockpile memories of that time you saw Heir when they still really had it.


 

Taking the support slot, Rebekah Finch (originally established in Belfast, but developing in Durham) offers her own pop songs. Though she cites Lana Del Rey and Florence + The Machine as influences, both her Hosanna single and various demos suggest a talent that’s both more slippery and more direct, pitched as it is between airy flights of positivity and the quick jabs of doubts and home truths. Well, that often worked pretty well for Stevie Nicks, whose mixture of tenderness and steely force Rebekah seems to be leaning towards; and whose gravel-and-honey tones she sometimes echoes amidst the dabs of soul and gospel. Promising.



 

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Equestrian Collective presents:
Captain Chaos + Chrissy Barnacle + Mama Lips
Empty Shop HQ, 35c Framwellgate Bridge, Durham, DH1 4SJ, England
Monday 20th June 2016, 7:30 pm
– more information here and here

Captain Chaos/Chrissy Barnacle/Mama Lips, 20th June 2016On the second of the two Equestrian nights, Captain Chaos –a.k.a Plan It X records boss Chris Clavin – headlines. A folk-punk legend, he’s played in more bands than it’s fruitful to list and his particular talent has outlasted all of them.

As he always does, he’s hauled a battered acoustic guitar, a hatful of gawk and a bag of witty, off-kilter songs all the way from his Indiana home and over state lines and seas, to touch down somewhere where he knows he’ll have an audience to share and play with. His songs are shaggy dog tales, or carefully honed stand-up routines in melody and verse with little zingers at the end, or comically gonzoid rearrangements of personal quirks. You’ll laugh at him and with him; you’ll want to buy him bar snacks; you’ll want him to come back.


 

Glasgow “song weaver” Chrissy Barnacle is still young enough to be showing plenty of influences – in particular Bob Dylan in the propulsive clawhammer fingerpicking and the densely worded lyrical shambles, and early Joanna Newsom in both the efflorescent femininity of her tumbling trains of thought and that yawp in her voice. But give her some more time – starting with some of your own. From what I can hear, she’s still a talent in development; taking a little longer to shake off her first roots, a bud who’s pushing hard to emerge in full.

What’s emerged already, though, already impressive. I just think that there’s going to be a moment in which all of those influences finally come into alignment, something clicks into place and they become integrated rather than transparent. That moment might even be this coming Monday. I guess that I’ll have to keep checking in.



 

Durham’s own Mama Lips sometimes went under the name of Andrew and mostly writes comics; but she also pens and performs upfront, supportive anti-folk songs for the queer of all kinds and especially the transgendered (as well as for those who empathise with them). Her brand new “Fairy Godmother’ EP is about “surviving in our identities, and our fairy godmothers who take care of us,” and she clearly doesn’t give a fuck about anyone who might sneer at her failure to prioritise bitchiness, snark and irony, since there are more urgent things to concentrate on first. Apparently she has other, raunchier songs in the bag, and if we’re good she’ll teach us about the hanky code. (I was impatient, so I cheated…)



 

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As I said, I’m sure that I’m going to be looking up more Empty House Durham gigs in the future, but there’s enough here already to make me wish that I’d gotten off that train earlier.
 

Upcoming London gigs in early June – A Formal Horse & Ham Legion; Olga Stezhko; The Spiders of Destiny play Frank Zappa; a Bowie Night in Soho

29 May

Here’s some quick info on upcoming gigs in early June which I’ve heard about – all of them in London.

Over the last couple of years, Westminster Kingsway College has established itself as one of the capital’s finest homes for quirky art-rock – by which I don’t mean student hobby bands thrown together for campness or for ironic prankery, but a rich, complex, committed electric music spanning the range between gutter-punk and flouncing prog via metal, jazz, folk, avant-gardening and anything else which gets melted down into the stew. Here’s one of those gigs that proves the point.

A Formal Horse, 2015

A Formal Horse + Ham Legion (Westminster Kingsway College, 211 Gray’s Inn Road, London, WC1X 8RA, Tuesday 2nd June, 6.30pm)

A Formal Horse is a new progressive rock quartet based in Southampton. Although the band’s sound is difficult to pinpoint, their dense instrumental passages are reminiscent of King Crimson and Mahavishnu Orchestra, whilst Francesca Lewis’ lead vocals evoke the whimsical surrealism of the 1970s’ Canterbury scene. Wonky melodies and serene vocals over a brutal sound – their music keeps you on your toes. However, A Formal Horse go beyond simply regurgitating the music of their predecessors. With influences as diverse as Bartók and Bon Iver, the band prove that there is still much territory to be explored in the field of British progressive rock.

In June 2014, the band released their debut EP, which was recorded by Rob Aubrey (IQ, Transatlantic). They went on to perform at London’s Resonance Weekend alongside Bigelf and Änglagård, and were described by Prog Magazine as a “festival highpoint”. Since, they have shared stages with Knifeworld and Lifesigns, cementing their position at the forefront of the British progressive scene.

Ham Legion spent 2014 honing their sound and developing a storming live show. You can expect a collision of beaming up beat power pop, grinding metal outbursts, dramatic changes of mood, sudden passages of twistingly epic prog then moments of restrained delivery and somber reflection. They are striking out in 2015 with the release of their debut album towards the end of the year.

Tickets available here – £6.00/£5.00

Olga Stezkho: 'Eta Carinae'

Olga Stezkho: ‘Eta Carinae’

Olga Stezhko (the far-thinking Belarusian classical pianist whose ‘Eta Carina’ album impressed me so much last year) has two London concerts coming up in the first fortnight of the month. The second’s likely to be an all-access crowd-pleaser. Given its charity fundraiser status, I’m not sure whether the first is likely to feature or indulge any of Olga’s intriguing conceptual preoccupations with Scriabin, Busoni, cosmology and early twentieth century consciousness, but even if it isn’t it’s a great opportunity to see a fine musician at work in a grand location.

Olga Stezhko charity piano recital in aid of Friends of the Belarusian Children’s Hospice (St Pancras Parish Church, Euston, London NW1 2BA, Thursday 4th June, 1:15pm – 2:00pm)

Programme not revealed – free admission, donations requested.

EC4 Music in aid of The Prince’s Trust (Barbican Hall, Tuesday 9th June, 7:30pm – 9:30pm)

The choir and orchestra of London-based EC4 Music return for their seventh fundraising concert in aid of The Prince’s Trust with a stirring selection of music from both sides of the Atlantic.

Programme:

Leonard Bernstein – Overture from ‘Candide’
Aaron Copland – Appalachian Spring
George Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue
Vaughan Williams – Serenade to Music
Leonard Bernstein – Chichester Psalms
Eric Whitacre – Water Night
Hubert Parry – Blest Pair of Sirens

Performers:

EC4 Music Choir and Orchestra
Tim Crosley – conductor
Olga Stezhko – piano
Claire Seaton – soprano
Roderick Morris – countertenor
Thomas Herford – tenor
Adam Green – baritone

Tickets available here – prices from £10.00 – £35.00 plus booking fee.

Some of London’s most active art-rockers are brewing up a free Zappa homage in Croydon at around the same time. Details below:

event-20150606spidersplayza
The Spiders of Destiny play Frank Zappa (The Oval Tavern, 131 Oval Road, Croydon, CR0 6BR, Saturday 6th June, 8:30pm)

Great googly moogly! On June 6th, nine-piece tribute band Spiders Of Destiny come to The Oval Tavern to play a marathon set of music by the late, great Frank Zappa. Featuring world class performers with a sense of humour from notable prog/alternative bands such as: Knifeworld, Perhaps Contraption, Pigshackle, Medieval Baebes, The Display Team, Hot Head Show, Poino, Spiritwo, First, A Sweet Niche and more. So polish up your zircon-encrusted tweezers, trim your poodle, learn the mudshark dance and join us as we propagate the conceptual continuity instigated by one of the masters of modern music.

More info here – this gig is FREE ENTRY but there will be a donations jug doing the rounds during the intermission.

book-bowiespianomanAnyone with an interest in David Bowie, rock history, cabaret, electropop and all of the other things that get swept up into Bowie’s art should head to Soho on Thursday 11th June for A Bowie Night at Gerry’s Club, at which pianist and writer Clifford Slapper launches his book ‘Bowie’s Piano Man: The Life of Mike Garson‘ (which also has its own Facebook page).

As well as readings and signings there will be performances of Bowie songs from avowed fans Danie Cox (from “flock-rockers” The Featherz), Ray Burmiston (of ’80s heroes Passion Puppets), club siren Katherine Ellis (Freemasons, Ruff Driverz, Bimbo Jones etc.) and acoustic singer Jorge Vadio. There’ll also be a performance from a longtime ‘Misfit City’ favourite – London balladeer, Brel translator and onetime ‘Pirate Jenny’s’ host Des de Moor, who’ll presumably be singing his Bowie-gone-chanson interpretations from his ‘Darkness and Disgrace’ show. (I’m particularly pleased to see that Des is back onstage. It’s been a long time.)

More on the book below, and more on Gerry’s Club here.

“It is pointless to talk about his ability as a pianist. He is exceptional. However, there are very, very few musicians, let alone pianists, who naturally understand the movement and free thinking necessary to hurl themselves into experimental or traditional areas of music, sometimes, ironically, at the same time. Mike does this with such enthusiasm that it makes my heart glad just to be in the same room with him.” – David Bowie

Mike Garson has played piano on sixteen David Bowie albums, including Aladdin Sane, with his celebrated piano solo on its title track, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, 1. Outside and Reality. He has also played live with Bowie on countless tours and shows, and remains his most long-standing and frequent band member.

For some time Clifford Slapper has been working very closely with Garson to write a book which explores the life of this extraordinary and eccentric modern musician. It documents in detail how as a pianist he was catapulted overnight from the obscure world of New York’s avant-garde jazz scene to a close and long connection with Bowie. In addition, Garson is recognised as a classical virtuoso, a jazz master and one of the world’s greatest exponents of improvisation. He has also recorded and performed live with other rock legends such as the Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails. All of this is covered by this first ever biography of Mike Garson.

Its starting point was several days of in-depth and frank conversation with Garson himself, and covers a wide range of themes which will be of interest to all Bowie fans, but also to anyone with a passion for music, social history or the process of creative inspiration. Input has also come from many interviews with those who have worked with him over the years, including Earl Slick, Trent Reznor, Sterling Campbell, Reeves Gabrels, Dave Liebman and many others.

event-20150611bowienight

Stumbling through 2014 – a year in flashes and in review (part 2 – the undercurrents)

28 Jan

I’m setting up for 2015 now. Part one of the review of 2014, the musical side, has been written and posted and is being read (if you’ve not seen it yourself, it’s back here). New singles reviews have been drafted and mostly written; blog navigation has been improved (look over to the right and down to see the reworked category and tag clouds); and the thorny matter of scheduling has been addressed. I’m looking into a Soundcloud page as well, for playlists and occasional sound postings. Technically, ‘Misfit City’ should be better this year.

But before that… I’ve got a confession to make.

Recently, I’ve been visualising this blog as a cartoon beachcomber – something gawky and distractable which blends its enthusiasm with pathos. Blundering along the foreshore to see what’s washed up this week, it jams its head into little rockpools to take notes about the small details, and loses track of time. Overhead, the real events roar and rumble in storms which are mostly ignored. Sooner or later, there’s going to be hail; and I’m going to be caught napping.

I’m not talking about me missing coverage on big releases, or failing to ride Twitter trends effectively. Both of these come with the territory of preferring more out-of-the-way artists with less immediate recognition; and also with intermittent blogging around real-life demands of family, work and life outside of music culture. Independent solo bloggers – unless they’ve caught a wave of interest or are particularly good self-marketers – are ultimately small creatures. We’re talented amateurs, in the most positive sense; people whom, if we’re fortunate or persistent, can make our little marks and (as in my case) maybe help a musician to be known and understood and moved a little closer to a potential audience. Small stone markers; pricked-up ears; a little bridge built for people to cross. Those kind of achievements.

What concerns me at the moment is culture-bunker syndrome – when a person hides within a habit of art, closing off the parts of the world which they don’t like (or wish to be disinterested about) by developing an obsessive focus on small creations. This could be external: an account or summary of someone else’s performance or crafted object. It could as easily be internal. Becoming obsessed with one’s own lively, assertive prose or photography, for instance; or with one’s ability to get the word out quickly – to be, for a brief and flashing moment, the medium, as well as simply making use of it. For music writers, some form of this syndrome often becomes habitual and unavoidable. It’s part of the excitement, to the point that you don’t recognise your writing as being a flash-bang which ultimately only explodes inside a very small box.

At the end of the first part of my 2014 review I mentioned that in spite of my initial feelings of having gone through a “shrunken” year, in retrospect 2014 seemed to have had remarkable musical richnesses; also, that the only thing that really seemed to be missing was me. What I meant by that was that however involved with the music I was (and even when I managed to turn out a decent, or even acclaimed, review), I had a parallel feeling of disengagement. None of this was the fault of what I was listening to. None of it related to what eventually emerged and was posted on the blog. Neither did it reflect the many things which I wanted to cover on time but didn’t (or still haven’t).

What it was like… well, imagine that, while you’re working away on a project, there’s something just over your shoulder, not quite peering and not quite looming. Something that’s… there. Perhaps it’s not actually over your shoulder: it’s just that that’s where you expect it to be. The half-recognised key or clue. The bit which you’ve missed. The missing chunks of the puzzle; the provider of the voice which carries the rest of the answer. You feel, sometimes, that you could turn around and take hold of it; slot it in, make a completeness. You don’t really understand what you’ll actually have once you’ve done it. There’s just an itch. An urge to include it.

I concluded, eventually, that there wasn’t actually anything there. What was actually preying on my mind was a gap – something which I myself had allowed to grow, wilfully ducking the significance of why I’d let it happen in the first place. What I was missing was the rest of the world – and the reason why this was important was that the world was violently changing. Plugging my headphones in and looking away, I’d ostentatiously pondered music – going through recordings and concert track-by-track and song by song, meticulously tracing the emotional responses and the drawn-out meanings, and catching and writing down sparks triggered off in me by the listening. Meanwhile, the landscape which I was ignoring was darkening. Almost everyone whom we, as citizens, had put in place or allowed to prosper had at best failed us. At worst, they’d betrayed us or were predating on us.

To many people (including many bloggers and commentators) this is an old, old story, and doesn’t even exist as a dilemma. Protests and counter-action against the iniquities and inequalities of the modern world are already part of their long-standing, lifetime’s battle; and plenty of commentators on music who draw it into their perspective. At the very least, it becomes an integral part of their involvement with the world. In my case, this hadn’t happened for too long, and 2014 was the year when my avoidance of this fact finally cracked.

For me, perhaps, the evasions had been natural and habitual. I tend to feel that hitching music, on principle, to a particular political agenda (and dismissing that which falls outside it (or which fails to fit a particular set of value signifiers) blinkers the vision and creates an urge to provide answers first and then distort the art to fit them. I don’t join political parties for much the same reason that I don’t join churches. For a doubter like myself, the creeds are always too hard to swallow; too often an excuse to comfort and close the mind. There are other reasons. I was too young for the first wave of punk, and too disassociated (also, perhaps, too personally comfortable and accommodating) for the following waves. Also, when I started to explore beyond basic popular music as a teenager I found my way into weird mid-‘70s Vangelis albums, assorted textural boilings, bounding prog epics and post-punk blurrings rather than grinding riffs and blunter challenges. What I mean is that when I dealt with art, generally it didn’t look or sound much like a hammer. In retrospect, perhaps I should have schooled myself in delivering some more telling blows.

I can’t say that I don’t recommend the softer, more textured path which I took; but it was often short on the kind of immediate sociological content that spurs a person into asking certain questions. Having said that, a detailed reading of ‘Misfit City’ will reveal that I’m not exactly apolitical. There’s been coverage of LGBT artists and some outspokenly political musicians such as Ian Crause, Atona and Des de Moor, as well as certain sharper asides in other reviews. That “listening to women” tag which crops up in numerous reviews is also an example of the blog’s political grain – a quiet attempt to redress the male domination and thoughtlessness within the music industry by acknowledging and drawing attention to the women who strive within it as well (be they singers, writers, architects of sound, all three or more).

However, rather than being a good soap-boxer, I’m a good reflector… or an immersionist. Most of the time when I’m engaging with music I choose to gently unzip it and to clamber inside – to experience it through its innards and associations. As an excuse for other disengagements, I don’t know how well this works, but it’s how I’ve tended to operate. The problem is that – in its way – this approach is just as solipsistic or reductive as if I’d tied all of my tastes and my statements to a political stance, and it’s just as reductive. Blinding yourself to the world by hiding away in prettiness (or, indeed, fetishised ugliness) is ultimately not an answer. If you’re not careful, it can become no more significant than slopping some extra gloss onto the decorations.

I should also confess that another reason for my lack of fuller engagement with the world came from the conviction that an over-complex, diverse and dissenting world was impossible to summarise or act upon. Over the weekend, I was reading an interview with the documentary film-maker and audio-visual collagist Adam Curtis which refutes this. Among other things, he comments “I believe that it’s possible to make the world intelligible – however complex and chaotic it is. That is the progressive job of journalism. The other reaction – which is to say, ‘Things are just so complex and unpredictable that you can never make sense of them’ – is, I think, one of the main motors that supports the conservatism of our time.”

Though this statement briskly upends my own comfort zone, I’ve got to agree with Adam. In a national and global environment in which governments, businesses, the powerful and the assertive have rarely seemed so nakedly wicked and corrupt – at least during my own lifetime – my values (and, in many respects, my family) are increasingly threatened, and my stances are changing. Tipping point? Perhaps. All I know is that I feel that keeping silent on these matters leaves a hollow space at the heart of this blog, and that I need to do something about that.

If I am going to head in a more engaged and more political direction, it’s important that I don’t do so under the pretense of heroically filling any yawning gaps in musical and political writing. Even a cursory wander around the blogosphere will reveal the seethe and ferment of existing discourse, all of it surviving quite happily without me. During 2014, many of the hard questions and righteous ragings were already being covered by music-related writers much better suited to the task than I am – among them Neil Kulkarni, Lucy Cage and Taylor Parkes. Alongside the excellent, animated and eclectic criticism which has seen it rise to preeminence in the last few years, The Quietus’ has continued to provide broader reflections on the world. The vigorously argumentative, assertive and punk-spirited ‘Collapse Board’ seeks out debate on just about everything it covers or discovers. Forums blaze everywhere.

Steve Lawson

Steve Lawson

(As an aside, though – it’s debatable that punk culture should always claim the high ground in political and social debate. For several years now, Anil Prasad – the superb ‘Innerviews’ interviewer best known for conversations with prog, jazz and country musicians – has been delivering blistering critiques of the warped and exploitative practices within the record industry, and while he might not have the sheer acid bite of Steve Albini, he’s not that far short of it. Arguably the most continually politicised and socially articulate musician whom I heard from this year was Steve Lawson, best known for family-friendly spacey instrumental loop-jazz and eccentric fashion choices (plus the playful sense of humour that makes him the Ross Noble of virtuoso bass playing). In between releasing three albums, he kept up a stream of online posts and tweets this year which eviscerated inequalities, business hypocrisies both in and out of the music industry, Offline and onstage, wherever appropriate, he’d also put up rather than shut up.

Steve’s role as unlikely advocate (coming from a musical quarter from which few people are expected to have or to express streetfighting social opinions) was also a reminder that this year we lost Charlie Haden, the inspirational jazz bassist – a fearless musical advocate of human rights since the 1960s, and and from a current perspective as square-looking a gent as you could hope to meet. Self-satisfied pop theory be damned. Sometimes style and substance just don’t match up, and the former shouldn’t automatically take pre-eminence.)

End of aside.)

So, where does this leave me? This post could be a blip – just a lumpy expression of personal doubt and responsibility qualms before I pick up the usual threads and carry on as before – or it could be the start of something more involved. 2015 may see a darker blog, or I might simply continue to whistle against the darkness. The outcome partially depends on whether people keep sending me slabs of contextually blank noise music or self-entitled “look-at-me-and-make-me famous” rock gobbets. Speaking for myself, I’d prefer to have something to write about and around, rather than simply write on.

Yet ultimately I’m responsible for carrying out any kind of constructive re-engagement between the world and myself. I suspect that my 2015 is going to be full of missteps and stubbed toes, some of them self-inflicted in public. So it goes. It ought to be worth it. If I’m going to do this, it will have to come from personal effort and personal learning, something which leads towards writing which is more deeply grounded and more expansive than it has been before.

Statement of intent. Let’s see where it goes.

Meanwhile, the ‘Misfit City’ show continues. I’ve got some single reviews to be posted up in the next day or so. I’ve already had some other interesting reviewables come through. Some of them are suggesting questions and ideas which I might like to pursue – not necessarily the questions and ideas which you might expect from reading my musings above, but the kind of questions which at least put a shot of adrenalin into my weary mind and keep me going.

And – to end on a completely self-indulgent note – this is a fantastic-looking piano.
 

The Bogányi piano (photo © Támas Bujnovszky)

The Bogányi piano (photo © Támas Bujnovszky)


 
 
 
 

Des de Moor: ‘Water Of Europe’ album (“a cherubic smart bomb of chanson”)

1 Oct
Des de Moor: 'Water Of Europe'

Des de Moor: ‘Water Of Europe’

Like a cherubic smart bomb, Des de Moor has popped up whenever London needs a sniff of wicked European song. In his time, he’s helmed the Pirate Jenny’s cabaret club, fought for chanson and acidic cabaret old and new, or made a public case for tying together songwriters as diverse as Boris Vian, Georges Brassens, Martin Jacques of The Tigerlillies, David Bowie and The Magnetic Fields maestro of puckish gloom, Stephen Merritt.

When Des can fit in an album of his own, it’s recorded in bursts of enthusiasm in between all these other burst of enthusiasm. As with everything else he does, it bears the stamp of that sweep of songcraft and resistance he’s devoted himself to, as he elbows his way into his own niche and into the history of chanson. When “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” has become our most famous protest lyric, and our concept of resistance-in-song is measured by the PC-baiting and broody solipsism of Eminem, Marilyn Manson or Wu-Tang Clan, it’s good to hear a dash of genuinely sharp social writing – even if it comes couched in a musical language nearly a century old (which in turn suggests that we might have been missing a lot since we cut those particular stylings out of the popular consciousness).

‘Water Of Europe’ must’ve been recorded for tuppence, and sometimes sounds as if it was lashed together with parcel string. No Dagmar Krause big-budget political cabaret job this, all respectably outrageous and state-concert-hall friendly. It’s sealed and sold on the vigorous punky pocket-orchestra enthusiasm of the players – bumped guitars, cellos, pianos, snapping percussion, Daniel “Boum!” Teper’s accordion.

Des’ voice is the common key – a florid, unusual mixture of madrigal tenor and soapbox preacher; or a grown-up, apostate choirboy in the political thick of a pub argument. It sits at the heart of the de Moor way of working, and is as pugnacious and theatrical as his barbed lyrics. Each word is bitten into shape and flung out with flair. Although most of his music could’ve easily have strolled straight out of the 1930s (Des might have drawn on punk’s assertive spirit of questioning, but he clearly finds more verve and expressiveness in a mix of jazz, folk and cafe singalong), his lyrics are less time-locked. They dig into the dirt and humanity of yesterday, today and tomorrow, exploring themes of exploitation and injustice, politics and deception, war and its wounds, gay life and its hauntings.

Des de Moor: ‘Dirty Pictures’ (preview)

Skidding and acerbic, the punchy accordion tango of Dirty Pictures tears into public figures embroiled in the noisy scams of censorship and social decency, taking forthright aim at their implicit hypocrisy, their encroaching voyeurism and their lust for personal exhibition (“You’ve seen the camera, it’s seen you… / you’ve wanked in front of mirrors too.”) With a sarcastic zest, Des savages the double standard of class and education – “Let middle classes get their kicks: / subtitled sex in foreign flicks / can’t cause infection. / The masses, couch potatoes all, / whose dishes sprout from every wall: / they need protection.” He also spotlights broader horrors for which there’s less willpower for banning (“Pot-bellied children / rooting in rubbish / as food mountains rot; / The obscene, often-seen, / ultimate snuff scene / between have and have-not.”)

Des de Moor: ‘Heart Of A Heartless World’ (preview)

On a more mythological scale, Heart Of A Heartless World (which sounds something like a state-of-the-world take on Fairytale Of New York) takes on the compromised cultures of colonialism, famine relief and the points where they intertwine. Retelling a sweep of human history as a journey from a lost African paradise into a famine filled by suspicious prophets and priests (“vultures that pick at the corpse of the poor”), Des suggests that the journey has bequeathed us a present-day of false hearts, superstition and moralistic humbug where “priests and prime ministers pray for our sins / and mystics on telly guess lottery wins.”

Des de Moor: ‘Margins’ (preview)

Des’ words spit and crackle even when – Germanically – they cluster, fight and split the envelope of the tune. The magnificent Margins (just waspish accordion, Des in marvellously stroppy voice and the bitter backdrop of the Bosnian conflict) jumps out at you, laying waste to the complicity of media and state interests in the parceling-up and selective suppressions of a world in conflict. “Believe what you hear and believe what you’re willing: / a severed head here, and there a mass killing. / We’ll print it provided / it’s clearly one-sided / and something is left to the margins, / at the bottom of the page in the margins.” In this song, little escapes the de Moor tonguelashing – not the journalists who “roam far and wide collecting tales of atrocities / from regular soldiers and mercenaries” and not the conferences that re-order things, ratifying the mess the way the biggest powers want it. Certainly not the scapegoating stories that thrive “so long as they’re hearsay, undated, / uncorroborated / and blame the right side… / We’ve forgot the Ustashe and found the new Nazis / in Belgrade this time.”

A debt to the history of chanson and folk is paid via a handful of gutsy covers and interpretations. Terry Callier’s Ordinary Joe is one, boasting gloriously hooded trombone from Dave Keech and a guarded, evasive street philosophy – “Down here on the ground, / when you find folks are giving you the runaround, / keep your game uptight / – and if you must, just take your secrets underground.” A rough’n’ready, guitar’n’free-verse declamation of Brecht and Eisler’s To Those Born After (An Die Nachtboren) is another, exploring the crummier details of toiling in the revolution. “I ate my dinners between the battles, / I lay down to sleep among the murderers, / I didn’t care for much for love / and for nature’s beauties I had little patience… / Oh we, who wished to lay for the foundations for peace and friendliness, / could never be friendly ourselves… / In the future, when no longer / do human beings still treat themselves as animals, / look back on us with indulgence.”

Des de Moor: ‘To Those Born After’ (preview)

Most impressively, a new translation of Jacques Brel’s My Father Said polishes Des’ claim to be the best English-speaking Brel interpreter – in either sense of the word. The song explicitly links Britain and Europe: a legend of kinship, of severance by high North winds and high water (both brought to musical life by Kev Hopper’s magnificent solo on musical saw), and of humanity blown before the rough and beautiful forces of nature. “The earth was rent / between Zeebrugge and the cliffs of Kent: / and London’s left cut loose and free, / with the Bruges headland taunting the sea. / And London’s left to forever be / a suburb of Bruges, lost in the sea.”

Des de Moor: ‘My Father Said’ (preview)

My Father Said stands as a counterweight to Des’ own Water Of Europe itself – another exploration of kinship. Here, Des places himself on a fantastical odyssey of his own, sending his thoughts out from Britain and around Europe. He finds first an island, and then a continent, locked in a common defensiveness and an ugly sense of purity. Each exploits “the Other” but denies them harbourage – “If they desire a water of Europe / it is the cold grey sea that divides. / Or the deep and inviolable water / taking and making sides.” Against this he calls on the forces and floods of history, hoping for the day when “truth decontaminates water supplies”, and “the fracturing chains of the workers of Europe / have strangled the boy with his thumb in the dijk.” Whips snap, castanets rattle, accordions and guitars throw punches. There’s going to be a party out there when the storm breaks.

Des de Moor: ‘Water Of Europe’ (preview)

Some of Des’ gestures aren’t carried nearly so well. However musical he is, he’s a man of words first and foremost, and this can mean that in his forthright sincerity the songs scramble across an imbalance of text and melody, like a flapping banner dragged by the wind. In the squabbling, tricky surveillance satire of Big Sister, for instance, his voice drowns in his densely-packed lyric: “More cameras than Hollywood, more tape than Scotch, / more logs than Canada, much more to watch… /I am your friend in the fight against crime. / Won’t you be safe when I’m there all the time – / minding your kitchen and minding your bed, / and, for extra security, / minding your head?”

Des de Moor: ‘Big Sister’

The Fairground Attraction swing of Grandmother Was A Hero, with its perceptive picture of human flaws, also should have been better as a standalone song. Over-pressured by words, it lacks smoothness and poise. Yet if you can accept that Des’ prime aim is to get his tales across, it has a lot to offer. Weighing up his monstrous grandmother’s peacetime behaviour, Des offsets it against her tireless protection and concealment of refugee Jews during wartime. “She didn’t have much wit or grace, / nor brains in large amounts. / But Grandmother was a human / and being human counts.” In telling her story, in a voice and lyric that build, ebb and resurge through a complex knot of anger, admiration and pity, Des finally arrives at solidarity, and presents his memorial:

“Just think how it must have been / as a hausfrau in poor Holland when the Wehrmacht goose-stepped in / With a husband that you hate, but there is nothing you can do: / It’s an emergency situation, and your man’s your comrade too. / In that fearful hunger winter when all your two kids have to eat / is potato peelings, pea pods and the snow from off the street – / and they’re handing out the yellow stars that one by one blink out, / and you know you have to help them, and there is no time for doubt. / Until the Gestapo knock on your door, and you find yourself alone / and in the settled dust you’re just a German widow / far from home.”

Des de Moor: ‘Grandmother Was A Hero’

Elsewhere, a loose trilogy about workers in London merges a realist’s acceptance with the strong protest of an angry survivor. In Avocado, Des examines the gritty detail of the kitchen worker’s desperate struggle between hopes and exhaustion – memories crumpled in the heat and hubbub, but not yet devoid of the sting of style. In doing so, he etches a picture of life of triumphs and traps. “Choose a plump, ripe avocado, just like on your first exam / at a college back in Glasgow. Stop the memories if you can. / Take that plump, ripe avocado, slice it with the sharpest knife, / Smile and summon your bravado: it’s a cold, raw kind of life.”

Des de Moor: ‘Avocado’

In Joey’s Dreams, Des delivers a rock song turned back into seething left-wing folk ballad, the story of a gentle working bloke who’s gradually ground into resentment by hard times and defeat – “a beast that’s pacing in a pen / at the edge of a feast for rather richer men.” He goes on to trace how resentment leads to poison, and frustration to an ugly fall, shading it into a larger picture of a caste crushed down from honour into malevolence. “Joey’s cramped contractor’s terms, / that force his crawl among the worms, / create a breeding ground for germs: / opinions that the world confirms… The clots of rot clog up each bend, / the queues for casualty don’t end. / You can’t believe in your MP – now Joey’s voting BNP.”

Des de Moor: ‘Joey’s Dreams’ (preview)

Beyond these small fierce sketches, there’s the fractured battlement of Sleaze City. Des takes an uneasy stroll through his beloved south-east London, past strangled docks and thriving bailiffs, sniffing and frowning at the muggy wind of corruption shrouding Westminster even as homeless beggars huddle in sleeping bags, a stone’s throw away over in the Strand. Throughout, a sweep of history – compromise, an age-old London scrabble and a sense of loss – provides depth. “At Surrey Quays, saluting the seas / sets flags bobbing. Along the shores ex-stevedores / watch gulls mobbing… /The last leaking hulks have long furled their sheets / at Woodpecker, Evelyn, Crossfields and Pepys…. / There’s whole careers / in chasing arrears, still shivers / though shirts are soaking. / Sleaze City’s choking / in the ozone.”

Des de Moor: ‘Sleaze City’ (preview)

For more personal struggles, there’s Sharp Contradictions and Last Orders Please. On the former, Julia Doyle’s double bass and David Harrod’s needling piano pick out itchy broken harmonies like the stab of toothache. Des anatomises the terrifying wonder of a fall into love, like an attacking scalpel or virus winding to the very centre of a person. “Alive and kicking, awake, aware / with a billion lights that sparkle and flare / in the brain above. / But put in the knife and start to twist – / the lizard hisses and lashes a fist. / The world goes runny when you get pissed. / And then there’s love.” Surreal spiraling rhymes paint the upheaval, with a dark coda of sombre feeling – “And it is the time I spend sinking / that sharpens and tempers my thinking. / And it is this feeling you give / that reminds me just how much I live.”

Des de Moor:’Sharp Contradictions’ (preview)

In contrast, Last Orders Please is a death song of the kind you get only in cabaret, filled with defiance and fear. It’s also the only outright gay song which Des has allowed himself for the record; overshadowed by the horrific harvest of AIDS, the hollowing, slithering sense of time passing too fast and too hard, and of youth becoming a strange, sinister and heartless territory. “Now I’m older, Death is a young man, not the skull-faced spook from ‘The Seventh Seal’ / but a bronze Adonis with eyes as blank / as a half-filled diary’s empty pages.”

Des de Moor: ‘Last Orders Please’

Yet although the song starts in a rumble of melodrama, it bursts into a fiery salsa – “At close of day, there’s burning rages / for a hundred loose ends, / for the lovers and friends, / for the wind into which we were pissing / when we never knew what we were missing, / for the might-have-been, could-have-been, never-was life we’ve been living.” Des has the energy – and more – to spit out a last rallying call for the scared and threatened: “We’ve nothing to lose in the trying. / If life is a bitch unless you’re fucking rich, / no wonder we’re frightened of dying.”

The bloodstream of folk music also harbours germs of resistance. Des de Moor’s very much part of that particular flow, provocatively pumping heart and all.

Des de Moor: ‘Water Of Europe’
Irregular Records, IRR038 (5036265000078)
CD-only album
Released: 22nd September 1999

Buy it from:
Irregular Records (or Amazon).

Des de Moor online:
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