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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.
 

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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