Wednesday, October 05, 2022

"He had an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time"

Sports photographers are less often celebrated as master craftsmen than the likes of Don McCullin and John Downing, who routinely put their lives on the line in pursuit of a picture. But it's clear from the warmth of the tributes paid to the late Eamonn McCabe that the Guardian's former head of photography was held in extremely high esteem by peers and colleagues alike.

His best sport photos are exceptional - an airborne Maradona felled by a West German slide tackle, table tennis player Li Zhenshi staring up at the ball in apparent awe and anticipation as though it's some kind of celestial orb - and he evidently made good use of his knack for perfect timing in his later portrait work, as well as an innate ability to put his subjects at ease.

McCabe may well be best remembered for chronicling the unfolding horrors of the Heysel disaster in 1985, but he captured triumph more often than tragedy, and it would be a shame if those pictures cast a shadow over the rest of his work.

Monday, October 03, 2022

Bear necessities

Pop into a pub in a Carmarthenshire market town and you're unlikely to expect to find a menu with a distinctly Asian flavour that is also entirely veggie/vegan. But then Llandovery's Bear Inn is a bit different from the norm. Buzz review here.

Sunday, October 02, 2022

Self-preservation society

As Ian Winwood sets out in Bodies, the music industry "has long allowed abnormal behaviour to become normalised, even celebrated", which very often takes a terrible physical and mental toll on those working within it. The book was no doubt written with a view to not only drawing attention to the scale of the problems but also providing a catalyst to do something about them - so he will have been pleased by recent developments that have seen a number of musicians deciding to step off the treadmill, even if only temporarily, to allow themselves some much-needed decompression/downtime.

Writing about this welcome trend for the Guardian, Laura Barton spoke to Winwood, as well as James Smith of album chart-toppers Yard Act, who decided they had to take some time out before they totally crashed and burned - but who even then couldn't help but feel ungrateful and even foolish for turning down opportunities.

Barton argues that "there are two factors at play here: a growing willingness among musicians to talk about mental health struggles and the demands of their profession, and an industry desperate to spring back to life after a devastating pandemic, with turbo-charged touring and promotional schedules to make up for perceived lost time".

In relation to the first, Sam Fender - whose rise has been even more meteoric than Yard Act's - deserves great credit for pulling the plug on his US dates with Florence + The Machine and spelling out his reasons: "It seems completely hypocritical of me to advocate for discussion on mental health and write songs about it if I don't take time off to look after my own mental health." 

Meanwhile, the second factor was very much behind Santigold's decision to cancel her US tour - something announced since Barton's article published. In her statement, Santigold sets out how the "new reality" looks post-pandemic, and all of the attendant stresses and strains, and declares flatly: "I will not continue to sacrifice myself for an industry that has become unsustainable for, and uninterested in, the welfare of the artists it is built upon."

Of course, there will inevitably be wankers who brand the likes of Fender and Santigold "woke snowflakes" for being unable to hack the pressure - but their difficult and bold decisions, plus the commendable public explanations that have followed, can only be a positive in terms of helping to make the music industry a less toxic working environment. Ultimately, it should be more important to look after number one than to look for a number one.

Saturday, October 01, 2022

Endnotes

Over the last few years, I've taken great pleasure in gradually building up a (very) modest collection of photobooks - so it's disappointing to read Grant Scott of the United Nations of Photography arguing that "the golden era of the self-published photobook may be coming to an end".

The reasons he suggests are legion, but all are ultimately (and inevitably) related to the current economic crisis: a probable reduction in the number and size of Kickstarter contributions, likely cuts to arts funding, the acute shortage of paper, the increased cost of printing, difficulties with distribution (both in terms of rising energy costs and Brexit red tape). It's hard to see how any one of those factors won't have a detrimental impact, let alone all of them in combination.

Scott acknowledges that the advent of digital publishing has been largely positive in democratising the process, but he refuses to dwell on the doom and gloom, concluding his article on a note of cautious optimism: "The future may look bleak ... but it may also force us to consider new options of dissemination. I have long believed that the so-called 'golden age' of photobook publishing has seen too many books published with too little reason for them to exist. Perhaps this will be a forced re-start, and the beginning of a new age of publishing. Only time will tell."

I take his point - but I do also hope that the self-publishing model, and small indies like the brilliant Bluecoat, are able to weather the storm.

Friday, September 30, 2022

"I'm not the kind of person that talks about myself at all, so it was weird"

Any book in which the author enthuses about Low and The Jesus & Mary Chain is bound to be right up my street - even more so when the author in question is Stuart Braithwaite.

With the publication of the Mogwai man's autobiography Spaceships Over Glasgow yesterday, White Rabbit continue their mission to utterly bankrupt me. Forget the cost of living crisis - there's a cost of keeping up with their publication schedule crisis.

The early reviews have been glowing, with many commenting on the way the book's pages are infused with its author's infectious and relatable passion for music. But you don't have to rely only on second-hand opinion to get a flavour of the contents, with both the Guardian and Rolling Stone publishing excerpts to whet the appetite.

In the former, Braithwaite raves about The Stooges ("druggy, dumb and completely primal") and recounts the experience of going to see Iggy Pop at Glasgow Barrowlands in 1991 ("A unique frontman laying everything on the stage, performing as if it was his last night on Earth"), as well as recalling discovering the delights of solvent abuse.

In the latter, he gives a colourful insight into the madness of Mogwai's five-month-long tour of Europe before the release of Come On Die Young, featuring interpersonal tensions, serenading NME journalists with renditions of Madonna's 'Frozen' while off their boxes on prescription drugs, and hobnobbing with Aqua behind the scenes of a French chat show.

As part of the promotion for the book, Braithwaite spoke to the Guardian's Emily Mackay, admitting (in amongst chat about long-term allies Arab Strap, Scottish independence and UFOs) that "raking over some things that happened that are painful wasn't the easiest thing". The reviews certainly suggest that putting himself through that process was worth it.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

"I like my pictures to be dark and I like being in the dark"

Reading his memoir Aperture, you get the impression that the late photographer John Downing was rather relishing the opportunity to recount his escapades in various hellholes around the world over the years. There's an element of male bravado about the many tales of tight scrapes and near misses, and he seems to have been able to blank out the terrible scenes he saw and captured on film, or at least to switch off in between assignments.

Not so Don McCullin, who in this interview with the Guardian's Stuart Jeffries comes across as genuinely haunted by his experiences in such places as Northern Ireland, Beirut and especially Vietnam. "Wherever I go", he says, "there seems to be violence and death."

He also appears to be painfully conflicted about the fact that he's made a career as a war photographer: "I certainly feel guilty. I'm constantly persecuting myself with thoughts that make me uncomfortable. They snatch away the joy I could probably have enjoyed." By contrast, such concerns don't seem to have troubled Downing greatly - or at least they don't receive much of a mention in Aperture.

Like Downing and David Hurn, McCullin was fortunate to work during the golden age of photojournalism, before the circulations of daily newspapers plummeted and when photographers' work was still seriously valued. Understandably, his blunt declaration "There is no photojournalism any more" has attracted criticism, perceived as the view of an arrogant dinosaur ignorant of or belittling the work of those who have followed in his footsteps.

It's not true, of course, and what Jeffries doesn't point out to his interviewee is that photojournalists have long been fascinated by the supposedly mundane, trivial and/or frivolous; contrary to McCullin's claim, this is not a recent development. Indeed, McCullin himself took to referring to his close friend Hurn's subject matter as "tinsel society" in the 1960s without necessarily implying that Hurn was any less of a photographer as a result. Perhaps, then, the statement is best understood simply as an old man seeking to crudely mark out his own remarkable legacy.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

"There are entitled arseholes everywhere"

If this extract is anything to go by, Lush vocalist/guitarist Miki Berenyi's forthcoming book Fingers Crossed: How Music Saved Me From Success will be a perfect companion piece to Luke Haines' Bad Vibes: Britpop And My Part In Its Downfall

Like Haines, Berenyi is nicely spicy on the subject of Britpop, unafraid to name and shame the most odious individuals during a period when music was "hijacked by elitist dickheads", infantile behaviour ruled, there were ego-fuelled rivalries between bands and the only recognised measure of quality/success was record sales.

And like Haines, she admits to being embittered, because Lush, like the Auteurs, predated Britpop but found themselves unwittingly sucked into it and swept along by currents they couldn't control.

For Berenyi, though, the biggest problem was the "constant, relentless sexualisation" she experienced at the hands of journalists, photographers and other musicians - a reminder that Britpop, far from being a progressive force, went hand in hand with the rise of lad culture: "The claim that Britpop celebrates sassy women in bands is a veneer."

It's worth quoting the last two sentences of the excerpt in full, just to savour them: "So: sorry for being a party pooper, I know a ton of you had a blast, but I fucking hate Britpop and I'm glad the whole sorry shit-fest ended up imploding. I just wish it hadn't done so much damage while it lasted." You and me both, Miki.

Friday, September 23, 2022

Magic Eye

The Workers Gallery has form for taking artworks out to the people - but it's currently bringing a snapshot of the Eye Festival to the Rhondda Valley. The exhibition A Look In The Eye, which runs until 30th October, features images by some of those scheduled to speak at this year's event in Aberystwyth, including Matt Black, Melanie Friend, Anita Corbin and organiser Glenn Edwards.

Last night saw Edwards - a former UK Press Photographer Of The Year - in conversation at the Workers with his one-time teacher/mentor and now friend David Hurn. The pair inevitably talked about Hurn's documentary photography course in Newport, and particularly its practical focus on learning how to make a living out of taking pictures. When Hurn asked Edwards what motivated him to go into a profession that pays so poorly, he recalled stating in his application form that he wanted "to show people what they want to see - but also what they don't".

Edwards revealed how he got his big break through serendipity; a school visit to photograph some pupils learning to play bowls alongside pensioners while he was studying at Newport led indirectly to a number of trips to India to capture the voluntary work of a Welsh doctor. Dozens of foreign assignments followed, frequently with NGOs, as he racked up experiences that many people can only ever dream about. If there are two key qualities you need to become a successful photographer, he would argue that they're an inquisitive nature (or the more blunt term he prefers, nosiness) and an ability to network effectively.

Hurn and Edwards might have different working methods and approaches to making the job pay, but both bristled at the suggestion that photojournalism might no longer be relevant. That said, Hurn readily accepted that he was fortuitous to live and work during a golden age for the profession, and that times have changed. These days, he sounds rather despairing of the younger generation, arguing that they seem more interested in themselves than in the world beyond them, that they don't have enough creative/inspirational ideas for pictures and projects (or certainly not the sort he would want to steal), and that everyone now considers themselves a photographer simply because they have a camera phone in their pocket.

Edwards admitted afterwards that he hasn't taken any more pictures for his A470 project - not least because he's been working on a forthcoming book, Yucker's Year, for which he shadowed a Newport-based boxer for 12 months in the run-up to a British heavyweight title fight, back in 1983 during his final year as a student. Some of the images are currently on display in the Workers' window, and a full exhibition opens at Ffoto Newport on 30th September.

Organising and promoting the Eye Festival also takes up a considerable amount of Edwards' time, and some of the talk revolved around the various challenges involved - particularly securing funding and generating interest and ticket sales - as well as possible options for the future. To stay in the present, though, here's hoping that this October's event is a success. Like the Workers itself, the Eye is a gem that deserves enthusiastic support.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Going underground


With a nine year old obsessed with archaeology and after a lockdown spent devouring old episodes of Time Team, it was inevitable that we would be itching to get our hands dirty as soon as the opportunity arose. So when we heard about CAER Heritage's summer excavation at Trelai Park, we seized the chance to go along, learn more and pitch in.

Here's my Buzz report on a dig that turned up some remarkable discoveries.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

"There's something about being open and vulnerable that is conversely very powerful, maybe even transformative"

It shouldn't come as much of a surprise to any fan of Nick Cave - and especially any regular reader of his site The Red Hand Files - that he should be an eloquent interviewee on difficult, heavy subjects. And yet this excerpt from new book Faith, Hope And Carnage, published today by Canongate, is astonishing even by his standards.

In it, Cave talks to journalist/friend Sean O'Hagan about the tragic death of his son Arthur, the "terrible beauty of grief", the creative/healing process, the nature of religion and the fact that songs can be mystifyingly and disturbingly prescient - "little dangerous bombs of truth".

One revelation that caught me off-guard was that 2019's Ghosteen - an incredible album that Cave describes as an attempt to communicate with Arthur, "to not just articulate the loss but to make contact in some kind of way, maybe in the same way as we pray" - was recorded at the Malibu studio owned by Chris Martin. I never thought I'd be grateful to the Coldplay frontman for services to music, but there you are.

Monday, September 19, 2022

Never a Dulli moment

So many interviews see musicians being asked about the same old things - which is what frequently makes Stereogum's We've Got A File On You features a fascinating novelty. As they put it, the articles represent an opportunity for artists to "share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc".

This interview with the Afghan Whigs' Greg Dulli is a perfect case in point, covering everything from playing the voice of John Lennon in Backbeat, being the sole contributor to the Foo Fighters' debut LP other than Dave Grohl and signing to Sub Pop, to performing with Usher at SXSW and living with Mark Lanegan. (I wouldn't have had Lanegan down as a reliable cat-sitter, to be honest.)

And what of the new Whigs album How Do You Burn?? Well, it's not as good as Pitchfork's Stuart Berman makes out, but there's still plenty on there to justify recommending that you give it a try. Opener 'I'll Make You See God' is not only "Hommeage" (to borrow Berman's splendid term) but possibly the best-titled song of the year, and the LP's strength does arguably lie in its commitment to diversity rather than consistency.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

The great indoors

Time was when Reading and Leeds over the August Bank Holiday weekend marked the end of the festival season. First, it was extended by End Of The Road. And now there's Camp Good Life in Hawarden, which looks to be a much more palatable version of Alex James' Big Feastival and has been taking place this weekend, playing on the fact that we're on the cusp between summer and autumn.

From here on, the festivals just keep coming - though, understandably, they move indoors. For instance, Brighton's Mutations, on the first weekend of November, has a seriously eye-catching line-up including Black Country New Road, Squid and Pip Blom and boasts an incendiary closing party featuring Bob Vylan, Benefits, Grove and Scalping all on the same bill.

Closer to home, we've got Swn and the Festival Of Voice here in Cardiff on consecutive weekends at the end of October. The former features Sea Power, Sweet Baboo, Plastic Mermaids, The Lovely Eggs, Grove, bdrmmm and Obey Cobra among many others, while the pick of the bunch at the latter has to be the Cate Le Bon/Black Midi double bill.

Perhaps most intriguing, though, is Cwtch, which will see a host of acts descend on St Davids as October draws to a close. The Magic Numbers headline on the Saturday night, and Peaness, Penelope Isles and Sister Wives are also on the bill. But over the course of the weekend, there's a strong Welsh presence, with Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard and Adwaith performing together on the Friday, and Melyn Melin, DD Darillo and The Gentle Good also scheduled to appear. My concern is whether the festival will find an audience - will there be enough people already in the area or willing to travel and pay for accommodation to be able to attend?

Fingers crossed it works out - it would be nice to see more events like this, Focus Wales and Ara Deg springing up around the country for the benefit of those outside the capital.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Hard to stomach

Back in the mid to late 00s, I was a regular at Abergavenny Food Festival. It felt like there was no better way to spend a September Saturday than by snacking and sampling your way around the stalls, as just one of many attendees attracted by the market town's transformation into a foodie paradise. The sun always seemed to shine; one year, somewhat surprisingly, one of the sponsorship partners was the record label Domino, which meant excellent freebies; and it's where I tasted a cheddar so spectacularly good that I still remember it vividly more than a decade on.

So it was disheartening and disillusioning to read this piece by former chief executive Aine Morris setting out how, in her behind-the-scenes experience, the festival is a total shitshow (or, at least, had become one by the time she left in 2019). As she describes it, the problems are/were legion: stuck-in-their-ways bosses; unacceptable employment conditions; non-existent production systems; slashed budgets; unpaid guest speakers; and a broken relationship with residents, sick of their town being inundated by English visitors drawn to an event catering only for those with deep pockets, and no effort to repair it.

Morris acknowledges that had she laid bare these issues soon after her departure, it may well have been "dismissed as an angry takedown by a disgruntled ex-employee" - and indeed it still might be. Publishing the piece on the eve of the festival may also strike some people as cynical, designed to be as explosive as possible. But the fact is that it shines a spotlight on alarming and precarious practices behind what is (on the surface) a well-run and well-regarded annual institution, and on the physical and mental toll on the organisers. If the problems haven't been fixed since Morris left, then there's much work to be done.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Mclusky do Cardiff - twice

MCLUSKY / JARCREW, 8TH SEPTEMBER 2022, CARDIFF CLWB IFOR BACH

MCLUSKY / JOHN, 9TH SEPTEMBER 2022, CARDIFF CLWB IFOR BACH

As residencies go, Mclusky's two-night stand at Cardiff's Clwb Ifor Bach is hardly Prince's three-week sojourn at the O2 Arena in 2007 or Kate Bush's 22-date Before The Dawn run at Hammersmith Apollo seven years later. But its significance lies in the fact that it sees the band - reformed and reinvigorated, with an infusion of fresh blood - back where it all began. As Andrew "Falco" Falkous observes in the run-up to the first show, the view from the stage of Clwb's upstairs room was pretty much the only one he knew prior to 2003. That's probably as close as he'll ever get to misty-eyed nostalgia.

To ensure it's just like old times, though, Mclusky have invited some Cardiff contemporaries and compadres to open up. Jarcrew don't play very often, so this represents a rare opportunity to see them in action. Kelson Mathias notes that this is actually the first date of their tour, with the second and final one in Newport next month: "We're middle aged and lazy. Minimal travel!" Later, demonstrating the twisted sense of humour that meant he slotted straight into the early line-up of Falco's post-Mclusky project Future Of The Left, he urges the audience to take a step closer to the stage: "We've all tested negative ... but not for herpes!" Somewhat alarmingly, Mathias is now a dentist. As Falco commented when Mathias made a guest appearance with Mclusky in this very room three years ago, "If you let this mad cunt near your mouth, then you're a braver man or woman than me."

Back in the early to mid-00s, Mclusky's influence reverberated loudly around the city. Everywhere you turned, it seemed, there were bass-heavy noise-punk bands whose hooks packed a punch and who refused to take themselves too seriously. Jarcrew were very much a case in point, their particular brand of punk making them too weird and warped for classification other than, perhaps, as a six-fingered cousin of Les Savy Fav. But enough of the past tense - Jarcrew are once again a going concern, and there are new songs to savour tonight and thus the tantalising prospect of a return to the studio.

By contrast, Mclusky are relying solely on their back catalogue - but when that back catalogue includes the Steve Albini-produced Mclusky Do Dallas, a record whose reputation rightly continues to grow two decades after its release, no one's complaining. The ambling, sardonic self-loathing of 'Fuck This Band' gives way to the shortsharpshock intensity of 'Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues' - imagine your skull is a walnut and the song is a wrecking ball - and we're off.

Drummer Jack Egglestone is a gurning blur behind his kit (Falco: "He doesn't know how good he is. If he did, he wouldn't be here - he'd be off playing with anyone ... The Lighthouse Family."). Snake-hipped bassists Damien Sayell - on long-term loan from The St Pierre Snake Invasion - asks a barefooted chap at the front "When's the last train back to the Shire?" and limbers up between songs with a shoulder-shrugging move he christens "the Del Boy" (Falco: "You look like you're getting ready to steal some Doritos from a child"). Meanwhile, Falco himself - Kelly Jones possessed by the demon spirit of Henry Rollins, wearing a black T-shirt presumably out of respect for our departed monarch - is cast in the unlikely role of peacemaker early doors, intervening to calm an overzealous bouncer agitated by the liveliness of the moshpit, but otherwise dishes out trademark wit so caustic it could clean a student's oven, savaging everything from Eric Clapton and The Pigeon Detectives to "maverick clapping".

Guitar tech Andrew "Bernie" Plain joins for one song, taking them up to what Falco claims is the maximum acceptable number of shorts-wearing members for the music to remain good (two); a punter interrupts proceedings by wandering onstage to take a photo of the crowd; we all enjoy a good old-fashioned singalong to the line "Our old singer is a sex criminal" ('She Will Only Bring You Happiness'); and before you know it, an hour of musical violence and lyrical absurdity has passed.

"We've got two songs left", Falco announces. "'Freebird'!" a voice cries immediately. "We've got one song left, and you can blame that guy. Find him and skin him. Actually, don't do that. I forgot we're in Cardiff - very suggestible crowd." 'To Hell With Good Intentions' follows, and we leave with riffs and obscenities ringing in our ears. I'm sure it's what Her Maj would have wanted.

24 hours later - after a (semi-ironically) noise-interrupted night's sleep at Cardiff Queen Street Travelodge and a bizarre encounter with "some old blugger" at Roath Park Lake claiming that selling ice cream in the wake of the Queen's death "wasn't patriotic" - and Falco's back at his spiritual home.

Tonight's support act announce themselves in trademark fashion ("I'm John, he's John and together we are John") but in reality need no introduction, having performed warm-up duties at those Mclusky gigs here in 2019 and then headlined themselves a year ago to the very day.

John Newton prepares for action by removing his glasses, like E from Eels performing a Clark Kent move or Louis Theroux bracing himself to fend off an aggressor after an overly intrusive interview question. The power with which he pounds his drums is astonishing given that he's also on vocal duties. Johnny Healey, meanwhile, looks ceilingwards as though summoning the wrathful gods of guitar to rain vengeance down upon our skulls. These two bulls would not only wreck the china but raze the shop - though they're actually at their best when they ease up slightly on the head-down thrashing, making mild concessions to melody and sounding like No Age pumped on steroids.

A set heavy on material from last year's excellent Nocturnal Manoeuvres LP - which showcased greater range and dynamism than before, without sacrificing much in the way of force - receives the seal of approval from a pair of metalheads with Pantera backpatches who plunge eagerly into the pit. Newton also lets us into a bit of a secret, revealing that Mclusky are "lovely people, even if you're scared of Falco. He's like a Ferrero Rocher - soft on the inside. Don't try to give him a hug, though."

The ensuing Mclusky show seems even more unhinged than the previous night - perhaps partly due to a crowd high on Friday feeling (and craft beer) and the absence of any security at the front of the stage. 'Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues' descent into wordless gabbling is paradoxically more articulate than most bands' entire oeuvres; on 'Dethink To Rethink', Falco screams "DANNY BAKER!" like an apoplectic caller to 606 apparently actively trying to burst a blood vessel; 'Collagen Rock' is the Pixies in total meltdown; the opening lines to anti-inveterate bullshitter anthem 'Gareth Brown Says' ("All your friends are cunts / Your mother is a ballpoint-pen thief") remain as brilliant as ever (even if Falco admits to being bored by the rest of the song); and 'Alan Is A Cowboy Killer' stakes a serious claim to being the finest five minutes of live music I'll experience all year.

A fan provides uninvited guest vocals before a calamitous stage dive; Jack is temporarily rechristened Susan; Damien battles throat cramp to propose a tribute act called Red Hot Caerphilly Peppers and to claim that, like Prince Andrew, he doesn't sweat; and Falco observes "I think I've gone down a belt size up here". His default setting may be a manner and tone so acerbic it could melt through steel, but he can't disguise the fact that he's having a blast.

If, as closer 'To Hell With Good Intentions' has it, "we're all going straight to hell", then we're doing it with smiles on our faces.

(An edited version of this review has been published on the Buzz website.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

20 not out

As ridiculous as it seems (to me, at least), today this site is two decades old. Yes - 20 years of invective, opinion and nonsense. 8,093 posts.

Looking back, I was a relatively early adopter when it came to blogging. The world has long since moved on, blogs are considered quaint relics of the pre-Facebook/Twitter era, and a middle-aged man with a blog is now regarded as almost - or perhaps equally - as tragic as one with a podcast (been there, done that too...).

I may have other outlets for my writing these days (Buzz, principally) so posting has become a little less frequent, and I'm acutely aware of how blogging is at root an undeniably egotistical pursuit. But it remains both a personal compulsion and a genuine source of pleasure, so Silent Words Speak Loudest still has life left in it yet.

Friday, September 09, 2022

Speaking truth to power

I've written regularly on here about the various challenges threatening live music venues, but their resilience has been remarkable, with many managing to survive even through the enforced pandemic shutdown. The latest threat, though, may prove to be the most dangerous and deadliest yet: exorbitant energy bills.

In the last few months, the focus has naturally fallen on the cost of living crisis, as this affects everyone, but there's also a cost of entertaining crisis. As the Music Venue Trust (MVT) recently reported, one established venue recently received a bill that had ballooned by a staggering 646 per cent. Needless to say, even much more modest increases would be enough to render a lot of music spaces no longer financially viable, given that many are already operating on very fine margins.

As the MVT's Mark Davyd told Rolling Stone last month, a price cap for businesses was desperately needed to prevent absolute disaster. For once, the government has actually heeded a call for urgent assistance and introduced a cap. However, as Clara Cullen, the MVT's Venue Support Manager, points out, it's still not enough. The current cap is only temporary and should be made permanent, while there needs to be significant investment in ensuring an energy supply that is "affordable, reliable and sustainable".

We have a new Culture Secretary, Michelle Donelan, who surely can't be as clueless and spiteful as her predecessor Nadine Dorries - but with climate denier Jacob Rees-Mogg now responsible for our energy policy, the prospect of a progressive approach looks slim.

Thursday, September 08, 2022

Margin Walker


It may have escaped many people's attention, but WWE wasn't the only form of American entertainment in town on Saturday night. Amid the Clash At The Castle chaos, Clwb was a very welcome sanctuary, and the rich and protean music of Ryley Walker and his band a source of considerable succour.

Buzz review here.

Thursday, September 01, 2022

Progressive rock

While there's a lurking danger that the excellently named Ultimate Thunder might find themselves labelled and therefore pigeon-holed as a "disability rock band" (rather than simply a rock band), things such as this short BBC video piece are very much to be welcomed. It hints at the liberating and empowering aspect of making and performing music and at what those with learning disabilities can achieve if given the right funding and support.

Anyone whose interest in the importance of open access to music making has been piqued would be well advised to read Richard Phoenix's eye-opening Rough Trade publication DIY As Privilege: A Manifesto - which, for me, was a real eye-opener.

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Apocalypse then

There are those who claim to suffer for their art, and then there are frontline war photographers like the late Tim Page, who made his name chronicling the Vietnam War and sustained several injuries in the course of doing so. This Guardian gallery is a fine tribute to someone who helped to bring home the horrific realities of a distant conflict.

Saturday, August 27, 2022

Green days

We arrive for the week, armed with Settlers' Passes, in beautiful sunshine. Half an hour later, we're putting up the tent in the thick of a thunderstorm. Ah, Green Man - how I've missed you.

This is the sort of festival where attendees have bowls of fruit on their basecamp tables, go for morning jogs together and knit while listening to onstage chinwags between authors - but also where you can witness a topless trans woman romping chaotically through a 14-minute-long rock opera called 'Ladydaddy' at three in the afternoon.

Let's dip in...

Top of the pops

Last time we were here, three years ago, BLACK COUNTRY, NEW ROAD (Far Out Stage, Saturday) were a fledgling act playing on the Rising Stage, abundantly talented but with a rabbit-in-the-headlights discomfort at being the focus of attention. Much has happened since then: two critically lauded albums and, in January, just days before the release of the second, the departure of vocalist and guitarist Isaac Wood. True to their word, they've never played a note of that record (Ants From Up There) live since Wood left - a brave/risky move depending on your perspective, since it's an exceptional LP.

This, then, is an acid test for the material written in the last six months - and it's absolutely phenomenal. Where once they had one great singer, now they have three - and their sound has continued to mutate too, taking on strange and thrilling new forms. Post-punk has been left far behind; post-rock doesn't do it justice. One thing's for sure: there's no one quite like them.

Penultimate track 'Turbines/Pigs' begins with May Kershaw caressing the keyboard as her bandmates become an onstage audience, sat on the drum riser looking on, and ends about ten turbulent, dramatic minutes later with such rapturous applause that it delays them from concluding the set. Drummer Charlie Wayne in particular is unable to conceal his delight. If vindication of the decision to carry on were needed, then the Green Man crowd has given it in spades.

Great expectations

If Black Country, New Road astound and astonish at every turn, others spring significantly fewer surprises but are nevertheless immensely enjoyable.

PARQUET COURTS (Far Out Stage, Sunday), for instance, are in fine fettle, livening a late-night crowd with 'Wide Awake' and concluding a set of wry, wonky punk rattle 'n' roll with a run of tracks from now decade-old debut Light Up Gold - 'Master Of My Craft', 'Borrowed Time' and 'Stoned And Starving' - to leave us at the end of the festival dazed and deliriously happy. Par for the course.

ARAB STRAP (Far Out Stage, Saturday) are equally true to form, Aidan Moffat chugging his way through bottled beers while declaring "This song's about shagging" and "This one's called 'Fuck The Tories'". 'The Turning Of The Screw' - a classic Moffat brew of smutty desperation and poignant meditation on ageing and fate - starts a set that is then neatly bookended with 'The First Big Weekend' and its tale of youthful exuberance. But it's 'Screaming In The Trees' from 2001's career high The Red Thread that steals the show.

Feel good hits of the summer

From dark nights of the soul to bright summer sunshine. After that Monday thunderstorm and some early-week drizzle, the festival weekend itself turns out to be not only remarkably rain-free but unusually sunny. It's KATY J PEARSON (Mountain Stage, Saturday) who makes the most of the conditions, seizing the early-evening slot from Mdou Moctar and charming the crowd with her joyous amalgam of indie pop and Americana. One audience member pays tribute to 'Alligator' by dressing in an alligator suit and brandishing an inflatable alligator; H Hawkline (introduced somewhat dubiously as "the Robbie Williams of Wales") makes a guest appearance for 'Talk Over Town', standing significantly more still than he did when I had to try and mark him in 7-a-side football a few weeks ago; and not even security's confiscation of a giant beach ball can dampen spirits. "One of my favourite gigs ever", she admits later.

Super subs

Spare a thought for those who can't be present - Low, most obviously, who would have been transcendent on the Mountain Stage, but also Gareth Bonello aka The Gentle Good, who curated the Monday night Settlement Tent line-up but who has missed out due to COVID.

Having stepped in for Spiritualized at Bluedot earlier in the summer, PUBLIC SERVICE BROADCASTING (Mountain Stage, Friday) valiantly attempt to fill the Low-sized hole/crater as the sun sets, showing their class by beginning with a tribute to Mimi Parker. It's another opportunity for J Willgoose, Esq to acknowledge the warmth and generosity of the people of South Wales during the making of 2017's Every Valley, but in truth that album's material, very good though it is, has sounded better before - particularly 'All Out', which is too polite and insufficiently ferocious. In some ways, the songs from latest LP Bright Magic make them an ideal warm-up act for Kraftwerk - but it does also become abundantly apparent quite how much they've cribbed from the headliners. Nevertheless, 'Blue Heaven' is headrush pop perfection, and the heart-in-mouth tension of 'The Other Side' is amplified by the scale of the crowd.

Meanwhile, it wouldn't be Green Man without THE WEDDING PRESENT (Far Out Stage, Sunday) answering a late call-up - on this occasion, to fill the void left by the implosion of The Long Blondes. Three years after the Bizarro anniversary tour, they remain rejuvenated, with 'Brassneck' and 'Kennedy' as brilliantly barbed as ever. This year, they're repeating their 1992 project of releasing a new single every month - and February's effort, which rejoices under what David Gedge refers to as the "very me" title of 'I'm Not Going To Fall In Love With You', is right up there with anything else they've ever done.

Guitar gods

"Not blowing my own trumpet", Gedge says at one point with a smirk, "but you won't see guitar playing like that anywhere else this weekend." He's got a point - the extended codas to Wedding Present songs are perennially thrilling.

In the six-string genius stakes, though, he's trumped not once but twice. First by Mahamadou Souleymane aka Niger-based and now Matador-endorsed Tuareg guitarist MDOU MOCTAR (Mountain Stage, Friday), whose psychedelic desert blues style - each song gradually increasing in pace to a frenzy, underpinned by a stupendously good rhythm section - is mesmeric. A protracted version of 'Afrique Victime' to finish is cruelly if only temporarily upstaged by an enormous, practically silent and extremely low-flying plane that has me briefly wondering whether it's Kraftwerk's 3D projections or the early-afternoon pints that have kicked in early.

However, swooping in to claim the crown almost right at the death is TY SEGALL (Far Out Stage, Sunday). He may open as part of a folk duo, facing fellow guitarist Emmett Kelly across the stage, but the amassed amps and as yet unoccupied drumkit hold the tantalising promise of more raucous fare to come. And so it proves with the appearance of the Freedom Band, featuring Segall's Fuzz colleague Charles Moothart on drums and regular collaborator Mikal Cronin on bass. There's no point in attempting to put into words what follows given that Stevie Chick has already done such a sterling job of doing so in reviewing their gig in London the next night. "Ricocheting between gnarly guitar solo excess and splitting the heavy-rock atom with perfect pop"? That sums it up nicely. One Green Man regular will subsequently tell me it's the best thing he's ever seen at the festival.

All for show

Most natural born performer of the weekend? No contest. It's the aforementioned ALICE LOW (Rising Stage, Saturday), formerly a karaoke artist but now backed by a full band, channelling the spirit of Iggy Pop and David Bowie and belting out 'Ladydaddy' in a pair of leather trousers so excruciatingly tight they must have been sprayed on.

Credit too to THE MURDER CAPITAL (Far Out Stage, Sunday), who throw absolutely everything at their set. Until recently cursed to live in the shadow of Fontaines DC, they could well end up benefitting from their fellow Dubliners' attempts to branch out beyond post-punk on Skinty Fia. Why have two of the five members styled themselves on Harry Enfield's Scousers, though? Your guess is as good as mine.

Speaking up and speaking out

Arguably the two most political voices on the bill are both non-binary - but there, largely, the similarities end.

KAE TEMPEST (Mountain Stage, Friday) has quietly grown into a seasoned, critically acclaimed artist - a passionate preacher who has the audience in the palm of their hand with even their spoken-word songs. On set-closer 'People's Faces', Tempest looks beyond divisions and rifts and instead talks of hope, empathy, respect and faith in humanity as a means of healing a disunited kingdom. It's one of the most powerful and poignant moments of the weekend.

GROVE (Far Out Stage, Friday), by contrast, is a rising star, a fierce ball of fury and lust as spiky as their neckware (though nice as pie between songs). Like Tempest, the Bristolian also extols the virtues of togetherness, urging tenants to join a housing union - though only after leading a rabid crowd in a chant of "FUCK YOUR LANDLORD!" (This being the resolutely middle-class Green Man, there are no doubt quite a few of them present, cowering.) Grove and partner in crime EJ:AKIN also rampage through a gleefully fucked-up version of Girls Aloud's 'Sound Of The Underground' that doesn't feel out of place amid the grime and dancehall.

Parental advisory warning

Grove isn't the most inappropriately potty-mouthed performer of the festival, though. That accolade goes to Andy Fung of the semi-shambolic NO THEE NO ESS (Settlement Tent, Monday). On the very first night of the child-friendly Settlement days, and after indulging in some amp frottage with his guitar, he cheerfully exclaims: "Let's get fucked up! Oh no - there's kids here. Well, they can get fucked up on sugar."

Local heroes

There has been grumbling in some quarters about the public money that Green Man receives, with the suggestion that the festival could and should be doing more to promote Welsh culture. But it isn't the Eisteddfod, and in any case No Thee No Ess and Alice Low are just two of the many homegrown acts to grace the various stages.

I miss out on seeing Adwaith and Melin Melyn, both of whom receive rave reviews, while the Tuesday evening triple bill of Welsh-language indie bands - YR EIRA, Y CLEDRAU and CANDELAS (Settlement Tent, Tuesday) - is largely uninspiring. The latter rouse the prosecco mums and arrhythmic Shiiine On dads to their feet, but do so by borrowing rather artlessly from Vampire Weekend and Arctic Monkeys, among others. Better are PAPUR WAL (Walled Garden, Thursday) and their languid heat-haze pop rock, followed closely - literally and metaphorically - by EL GOODO (Walled Garden, Thursday), a winsome, whimsical Coral.

CARWYN ELLIS & RIO 18 WITH THE BBC NATIONAL ORCHESTRA OF WALES (Mountain Stage, Sunday) certainly sound like the result of misguided but well-intentioned arts council funding: an extremely white, extremely Welsh man taking Brazilian rhythms and bossa nova and reducing them to bloodless easy listening. The sun-dazed audience laps it up and the incongruous J Mascis lookalike on drums is an entertaining watch, but the sweet, brassy soul of URAL THOMAS & THE PAIN (Walled Garden, Sunday) is much more the sort of Sunday service I crave.

Right place, wrong time

While, like soul veteran Thomas, some artists/bands find themselves in a timeslot that suits them to a tee (see the aforementioned Katy J Pearson, Public Service Broadcasting and Parquet Courts, for instance), there are others for whom it doesn't quite work.

Instinctively, you'd imagine that the woozy reveries of BEACH HOUSE (Mountain Stage, Saturday) would make them ideal after-dark entertainment. But they're on so late (Victoria Legrand talks about how they've spent the day wandering around watching bands and trying not to get drunk) and feel so remote, visible only as silhouettes, that their crowd noticeably dwindles as the set drifts on. Perhaps people have been enticed away by the prospect of more engaging acts elsewhere, or, after Kraftwerk the previous night, have simply had their fill of static main-stage headliners (more on them in a moment).

CATE LE BON (Far Out Stage, Friday) is welcomed as one of Green Man's own, but there's also a discernible restlessness at the mellow vibes of her complex art pop. Her cause isn't helped by a lackadaisical guest appearance from Gruff Rhys (who else?) for what I later gather is an encore of Todd Rundgren's 'Healing, Pt. 1' - once his mic is actually working, he reads his lines with hand in pocket. The energetic metallic dance rock of SCALPING (Walled Garden, Friday) proves to be much more of the moment.

The following night, THE UTOPIA STRONG (Walled Garden, Saturday) play to next to no one, suffering from the fact that by the time they start, the vast majority of their natural audience - vinyl-obsessive prog dads - have long been tucked up in their sleeping bags.

Somewhat surprisingly, it seems that late-night revellers have also swerved OPTIMO (Far Out Stage, Saturday), preferring the frenetic drum 'n' bass being spun by DIPLOMATS OF SOUND DJS (Chai Wallahs, Saturday). It's fun for a while, but I'm far too old for that kind of shenanigans, so toddle off back to the tent to rest aching limbs.

Reality bites

If some acts are the unfortunate victims of scheduling, others are guilty of either misselling or overselling themselves.

For an example of the latter, see PSYCHEDELIC PORN CRUMPETS (Far Out Stage, Saturday), whose name alone has drawn a sizeable crowd and who have the audacity to blast out 'Nessun Dorma' as their intro song. The Aussies' undistinguished nominally psychedelic rock is destined to disappoint, paling in comparison to that of compatriots like King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard.

For an example of the former, see COLA (Far Out Stage, Saturday), who feature former Ought men Tim Darcy and Ben Stidworthy and who, the programme notes, have described their ambition as being to write "something like a Chicago house track that sounds like a band in a room". My interest well and truly piqued, I'm there early in expectation of music reminiscent of LCD Soundsystem, !!! and Turing Machine. The reality is rather different: street-smart and literate post-punk not a million miles from Parquet Courts. Not as billed, then - though not a wasted trip either.

(Un)just desserts

By contrast, the programme is spot on about BESS ATTWELL (Walled Garden, Friday), mentioning her in the same breath as Sharon Van Etten and Big Thief - coincidentally two of the biggest hitters last time we were at Glanusk Park. Unfortunately, though, unless you've had the forethought to station yourself front and centre, her big-hearted romantic songs are largely lost amid the animated chatter.

Meanwhile, YVES TUMOR & ITS BAND (Mountain Stage, Thursday) gives it their energetic all - the MGMT and Prince comparisons aren't too wide of the mark - only to be rewarded with a relatively muted reception, at least from those gathered on the banks of the amphitheatre.

Thankfully, other acts do get the response that they deserve. Dutch quartet PIP BLOM (Far Out Stage, Thursday) - a wholesome indie-pop Hole - are honoured to be headlining a stage and humbled by the reaction they get in doing so.

Semi-legendary 70s outfit WITCH (Far Out Stage, Friday) - who, let's face it, had me at the name: We Intend To Cause Havoc - may now be a patchwork of original members and young recruits from Bulgaria and the Netherlands, but they soon succeed in winning new converts to the delights of Zambian garage psych. The shout-outs for The Beatles, Black Sabbath and Tom Jones don't do their cause any harm.

Comprehension test

METRONOMY (Mountain Stage, Thursday) may be warmly received, but after all these years I still fail to understand their appeal. 'The Look' inevitably gets even my toes tapping and Anna Prior is evidently a great drummer - but the way that they refuse to fully commit to anything (funk, indie rock, pop) remains a source of frustration.

Meanwhile, DRY CLEANING (Far Out Stage, Friday) - back on the site of their first ever festival performance - would be a fairly run-of-the-mill post-punk outfit commanding far fewer column inches if it wasn't for Florence Shaw's deadpan spoken-word vocals. And when you find those USP vocals irritating (and the sound isn't sharp enough to pick out many of her lyrics), then they're not a band you're likely to swoon over. They've got a new song called 'Gary Ashby' about a lost tortoise, in case anyone's interested.

Dividing lines

When it comes to Dry Cleaning and Metronomy, I'll readily admit that I seem to be very much in the minority. But there are other acts that polarise opinions far more evenly.

Which brings us, belatedly, to KRAFTWERK (Mountain Stage, Friday). Theirs is without doubt the most talked-about set of the weekend, but there seems to be no clear consensus. Is it a wonderful, life-changing experience, or is it a bit like watching your gran trying to compose a text on an ancient Nokia (bless her)? I err towards the latter, not least because for much of the set I don't have a pair of 3D glasses (so don't join in with the mass "woo" of excitement as a spacecraft flies directly out of the screen during 'Spacelab').

Grumble about the Germans' idiosyncratic approach to live performance and you run the risk of seeming churlish; after all, we all knew exactly what we were going to get. And yet however admirable the staunch anti-rock 'n' roll ethos behind it is, for a semi-fan it's simply not very engaging to watch. Like many others (it transpires), I stay until the end more out of respect for the godfathers of dance music and a strange sense of duty than genuine enjoyment.

Opinions are split even more sharply, among our group at least, by RHODRI DAVIES (Walled Garden, Thursday). While I loosely align myself with the chinstrokers who nod in approval at a man who appears to be hoovering the stage with an electric harp, my companions - a couple who I've dragged along based on the programme's promise of "the Hendrix of the harp world" - find themselves celebrating their tenth wedding anniversary with a bottle of champagne while sat next to the bins and having to endure one of the worst things they've ever heard. He's going on tour to the US, I say. "Let's hope he stays there" comes the reply.

At least we can all agree that ALEX G (Mountain Stage, Saturday) is unmitigated shite. "Americana written by AI", "the worst songs on a Soul Asylum album" and "magnolia and beige" are just three attempts to describe his crimes against music as we flee up the hill. "I done some bad things", he caterwauls. Yes, and you're doing some now.

Variety and inclusivity are the spice of life

Alex G's presence on the bill can perhaps only be explained by the fact that Green Man's commitment to diversity extends to the quality of the acts.

Joking aside, though, the festival has taken great strides in vastly expanding the range of performers booked. Friends recall going to a Green Man not so long ago and feeling the need to cue up a Public Enemy CD before leaving the car, knowing that they were about to spend a weekend being starved of music by artists of colour and would be in desperate need of a palate cleanser. Now, female, black, queer and trans/non-binary musicians are generously represented wherever you look, and - importantly - are not ghettoised on smaller, more peripheral stages.

Take BCUC (Far Out Stage, Sunday), for instance - a semi-traditional Soweto-based band sandwiched between white guitar manglers The Wedding Present and The Murder Capital. Had I not been hanging around for those two, I would never have witnessed BCUC's invigorating rhythms and a ridiculously high-energy performance that leaves the frontman's yellow T-shirt so soaked with sweat that it's changed colour. The anti-Kraftwerk begin with a solemn vow to "bring it", pause for a moment's silence mid-set "to remember those we have lost" and conclude with a collective chant of "There ain't no party like a Green Man party". They're right - there ain't.

It's true that this particular party's attendees remain overwhelmingly white - and occasionally embarrassingly so (see the African drumming workshop that takes place during the Settlement days). However, if the organisers maintain their sensitivity to diversity when it comes to programming, that will gradually start to change.

Talk talk

Green Man provides a platform for a huge number of female artists, and women's experiences are frequently the focus of the Talking Shop interviews in the Babbling Tongues tent, curated by Laura Barton, to which I find myself regularly drawn (and not just because of the neighbouring cider bar).

While I miss Vashti Bunyan speaking about her unconventional memoir Wayward, SINEAD GLEESON (Babbling Tongues, Saturday) does a good job of selling it. The Irish author is actually here to talk about how the stars aligned for This Woman's Work, the collection of essays she recently edited with Kim Gordon, and how wearying it is as a female music journalist to continually have to prove yourself in a world in which all too often only the male voice is perceived as authoritative. 

A White Rabbit author like Bunyan and Gleeson, JUDE ROGERS (Babbling Tongues, Sunday) has expressed much the same view elsewhere. Her book The Sound Of Being Human reflects on the intensely personal, visceral connection we have with music, especially in our formative years, and it's very revealing that her acknowledgement of the emotional appeal and impact of particular artists, albums and songs was characterised as "too female" for "proper" music writing. She ventures that the main reason that anyone becomes a music journalist is to meet their heroes (in her case, Michael Stipe), recalls giving a young Alex Turner "a proper Welsh mam dressing-down" for being rude to her in an interview and agrees with her interlocutor Pete Paphides that "dopamine pathway" would be a great title for a Mercury Rev song.

Of all of the revelations that emerge from Paphides' earlier chat with BOB STANLEY (Babbling Tongues, Sunday), arguably the most surprising - to me, at least - is that women were the principal purchasers of records in the earliest days of popular music because it was their responsibility to furnish the household with song, and that as a result record shops were also largely staffed by women. As Alexis Petridis has said, if Stanley's Yeah Yeah Yeah was "a completely insane undertaking", then its follow-up Let's Do It: The Birth Of Pop "feels even more ambitious". My takeaway from his chat is that figures whom rock 'n' roll has taught us to view with disdain and derision as sentimental, conservative old crooners were actually far more interesting (and modern) than we give them credit for. For instance, he paints Frank Sinatra as a music-obsessed influencer eager to promote others, and Bing Crosby as a cutting-edge innovator who not only pioneered the use of mics but also gave substantial financial backing to a US start-up instrumental in the development of tape recording technology.

Fine dining

All this zigzagging from stage to stage is bound to make a man ravenous, and thankfully the catering options at Green Man are plentiful, if not always kind on the pocket.

My first two choices of the festival proper are disappointing: salt and pepper squid garnished with a few gratings of carrot and called Vietnamese, and a chilli dog from Piggie Smalls whose nacho cheese oozes onto the napkin surrounding it, making it practically impossible to avoid getting a mouthful of soggy paper.

But Cardiff's Oasis can be relied on to turn things around, and sure enough their mezze box - a bunch of falafel, a generous dollop of hummus and a shedload of fresh salad - is a gamechanger. Thereafter, it's hit after hit: crispy momos from Taste Of Tibet, fish and chips that is every bit as good as I remember it being three years ago, and what is becoming the traditional Sunday evening tartiflette and sausage stodgefest from La Grande Bouffe.

Big shout out too to Urban Indian for the samosas that kept us going during the Settlement days, and Crickhowell butcher Cashells for being on site to supply some properly hefty smoked bacon.

Team effort

No review of Green Man would be complete without mention of the stewards, volunteers and staff: helpful, hard-working and cheery, whether greeting punters at the gates, entertaining hyperactive kids in the Little Folk area, talking engagingly about their work in Einstein's Garden, or making sure the long-drops are permanently stocked with toilet roll. Bar service is swift, litter is minimal and overall it couldn't be more sound from an infrastructural perspective. Woodstock '99 this is not.

Regrets, I've had a few

As the effigy of the Green Man goes up in flames to mark the end of the festival, inevitably I start to ruminate on regrets.

That I've missed the opportunity to see loads of great artists (even if that has often been due to clashes) and meet up with a handful of friends.

That I haven't taken more (and better) photos for fear of rinsing my precious phone battery.

That I downed too much wine than was strictly sensible before Ty Segall.

That I never got a burrito from Puravida, and left it so late to get a dosa that they'd sold out of the massive bonus bhajis.

That I didn't do better at crazy golf.

That I blathered on at Tilly and Sam of The Bug Club without letting them getting a word in edgeways. (What was that Pete Paphides and Jude Rogers were saying about the rookie journalist error of talking too much because you want your interviewee to like you?)

That I arrived at the Far Out Stage too late to witness The Wedding Present cover Low's 'Canada'.

That I didn't carry out a citizen's arrest on the guy performing a truly criminal version of 'Folsom Prison Blues' on the open mic stage.

But most of all, that we didn't come last year. Here's to 2023.


Thursday, August 25, 2022

Riot acts

"'For the love of Grohl,' I asked myself while watching Netflix's Trainwreck: Woodstock '99, 'where is the three-part documentary on Leeds Festival 2002?'" So begins JR Moores' latest article for the Quietus - notable, personally speaking, because I had that very same thought myself.

While I can't quite compare notes (this site lurched into life a month after the festival took place), Moores' descriptions of the carnage that unfolded on the Sunday evening definitely ring bells: Portaloos inverted and incinerated, lampposts toppled, exploding gas canisters, police intervention. The chaos was frankly terrifying.

And yet, despite it all, like the two Beavis and Butthead interviewees from Trainwreck, I can't help but look back on it as one of the best weekends of my life. Just look at the line-up, for fuck's sake.

Moores is spot on about how electrifying The Icarus Line's set was, and also about how quickly it became evident that The Strokes had been prematurely promoted to main stage headliners, turning in a listless, lifeless performance. (He's right, too, to pick up on the way that the organisers took sick pleasure in serving up the likes of Daphne & Celeste in 2000 as sacrificial lambs to be slaughtered by baying Slipknot fans.)

Where we differ, though, is on the 2002 festival's biggest coup: the exclusive appearance of Guns 'N' Roses. Yes, the "washed-up sleaze rockers" finally showed up two hours late due to Axl Rose's ludicrous demands and gargantuan ego. Yes, visually they were a comically rag-tag bunch featuring only one original member, a guitarist with a KFC bucket on his head and former Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson wearing some trousers that were offensive even by golfbro standards.

But the anticipation and excitement around the site was palpable, and not only among the punters - ... And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead admitted they were hurrying through their set so as to be able to watch. And if you closed your eyes as they performed nine of the twelve songs from Appetite For Destruction, it sounded pretty much perfect to a twentysomething for whom that album had been formative influence.

And that's not even to mention how it felt to be front and centre when the reformed Jane's Addiction played 'Three Days'...

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Service with a scowl

Reviewing Philip Balantini's film Boiling Point in May, I mentioned that the pressure-cooker atmosphere is created at least in part by the fictional restaurant's "demanding, unappreciative and disrespectful" clientele. Follow a few restauranteurs on Twitter, as I do, and it soon becomes clear that entitled customers are a major contemporary scourge of the catering industry and those who work in it. Faced with such behaviour, there must be an enormous temptation to lose your cool and answer back.

Nevertheless, I can't condone the concept behind Aussie chain Karen's Diner, where serving staff are actually employed to be actively rude to punters. The Guardian sent Helen Pidd to experience the Prestwich restaurant - if only they'd let Jay Rayner loose on it instead.

Of course, this whole idea begs a couple of questions. Presumably employees there are at risk of losing their jobs if they're NOT sufficiently rude? And how many customers complain that the level of service hasn't been insulting enough, thereby flexing their sense of entitlement in the opposite direction?

Either way, a masochistic dining experience isn't for me. Call me vanilla or old-fashioned, but I'd rather be treated courteously by staff whose wages I'm helping to pay.

Friday, August 19, 2022

Escape artists

At first glance, Cosey Fanni Tutti's new book Re-Sisters seems like a bit of a stretch, bringing together her thoughts on electronic pioneer Delia Derbyshire and medieval mystic Margery Kempe as well as on her own life, artistic outlook and creative endeavours.

And yet, in conversation with Fiona Sturges, she does a good job of selling the concept: "These were women struggling to be themselves and find their place in the world, and who did not give up whatever life threw at them. What links all three of us is that we didn't want to submit to what was laid out for us. We wanted to find a way out."

That much is certainly true of the author, whose steadfast refusal to conform to expectations of any kind - whether social, sexual or artistic - is well documented, not least in Other, Like Me, the BBC's documentary about COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle.

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Fire festival

Netflix's three-part documentary about Woodstock '99 is called Trainwreck - but Complete And Utter Clusterfuck might have been even more appropriate.

Telling the tale of how the festival spiralled out of control through archive footage and interviews with the key protagonists, the makers guide the viewer towards the conclusion that the fault lay with the organisers - principally promoters John Scher and Michael Lang. Their motivation, it is said on more than one occasion, was not the hippy ideal of peace, love and togetherness but pure unadulterated greed.

Everything that went wrong is essentially attributed to their decisions and financial corner-cutting - from the choice of site (a largely tarmacked former airbase) to the dangerous crowd conditions (due to a lack of security), horrendous price gouging (because they auctioned off the rights to provide food and drink to vendors, who could then charge what they wanted) and water supply contaminated with shit (due to the totally inadequate infrastructure).

A weekend that was supposed to evoke the spirit of 1969 quickly developed into a powderkeg situation and ended in chaos, with fires raging around the site, production staff barricaded inside their office and the intervention of state troopers. And all the while Scher and Lang stood up at press conferences and gaslit all of those present, insisting that everyone was having a wonderful time and pointing the finger at a tiny minority of bad apples rather than any infrastructural deficiencies.

The pair's refusal to accept responsibility even now is alarming and offensive, and the documentary makers' implicit line is understandable given the perception among many that the bands and punters were to blame.

And yet the bands and punters were guilty too. Limp Bizkit may have been booked by the promoters, but they seemed to relish the dangerously febrile atmosphere and the opportunity to incite destruction. Likewise, on the final evening, Red Hot Chili Peppers fanned the flames by electing to perform Jimi Hendrix's 'Fire' as the apocalyptic scenes unfolded.

But should festival goers have reacted the way that they did? One attendee makes the point that in the days before social media, there were limited means to express dissatisfaction at the conditions. However, does that really excuse the orgy of destruction and looting? How many of those partaking in the violence were doing so as a genuine form of protest, and how many were just whooping meathead frat boys pumped on Limp Bizkit's 'Break Stuff'?

And then there are the instances of rape and sexual assault. It's suggested that lax and insufficient security contributed to the situation, and that is no doubt true - but nothing can or should excuse the conduct of the individual perpetrators.

Ultimately, then, no one comes out of Trainwreck well. And I don't recommend watching it if you're about to go to a festival, as I am...

Monday, August 15, 2022

"Our original feeling was that anything was possible and now, once again, it is"

"The most revolutionary thing we could do would be to make a pop record", says Cedric Bixler-Zavala of prog-punk luminaries The Mars Volta, in conversation with John Doran for the Guardian. He's not wrong.

For partner in crime Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, the creative process seems to be driven by an active desire to alienate the audience rather than play to the gallery: "Losing 'fans' is baked into what we do. I don't know a greater happiness than losing 'fans'. A true fan is someone interested in what's happening now, and then there's everyone else trying to control what you do or project on to it. I have an aversion to that. That sounds like school. That sounds like the government. That sounds like the police. And unfortunately that's what a lot of people who think they're fans end up thinking like."

A statement like that deserves a bit of unpicking.

On the one hand, he's of course right that artists shouldn't feel (or be made to feel) creatively imprisoned by the expectations of anyone beyond themselves. Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez are clearly very wary of soullessly conforming and repeating themselves for cheap applause and easy cash. As was the case when they briefly revived At The Drive-In a few years ago, they were only comfortable resurrecting The Mars Volta if there was new material to perform. As Bixler-Zavala comments, "Omar said The Mars Volta can be whatever we want it to be, which was refreshing as it sets the parameters of us not being a heritage act that relies on old songs. We can redefine what we are and move forwards." In an era of bands reforming purely to trudge through the back catalogue for another pay day, that attitude is laudable.

And yet Rodriguez-Lopez's aggressive disdain and disrespect for those who have previously funded the band's existence is a little hard to stomach. Perhaps this is how a lot of artists feel but very rarely admit. Artists should be entitled to pursue whatever path they choose - but fans are equally entitled to choose not to follow them. Rodriguez-Lopez appears to relish seeing people fall by the wayside, but I'm not sure I believe in his ideal of a "true fan" who laps up everything an artist does with enthusiasm and an open mind. Perhaps he's just as guilty of imposing unrealistic expectations on others.

Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez are in many ways a classic creative partnership - frequently divided by personal differences and tensions, sometimes toxic (see the shared heroin and crack habit that in part brought At The Drive-In down), but continually drawn back together by the prospect of writing and performing anew. The fact that they declined to be interviewed together is intriguing - a sign, perhaps, that this reunion may not last long.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

The Ex files

Nice to see my old pal Rob - co-founder of football site The Two Unfortunates and host of the Sounding Bored podcast, both of which I regularly contributed to - back in the blogging saddle.

A recent move has taken him from the heart of Oxford's music scene, in the Cowley Road area of the city, all the way down to Exeter. It must have been a wrench to leave, but typically he's looking on the bright side and has taken inspiration from Oxford institution Nightshift in setting up a new blog to cover all things music related in Exeter. Bonus points for the name: Exe Enduction Hour...

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Family misfortunes


"Extraordinary" is almost certainly an overused adjective round these parts - but I make no apologies for reaching for it to describe Marieke Lucas Rijneveld's novel The Discomfort Of Evening. There's simply no other word for it - all the more so because it's the Dutch author's first foray into full-length fiction.

Judging it by its metaphorical cover, the winner of the 2020 International Booker Prize treads fairly familiar ground: the growing pains of a child narrator (ten-year-old Jas), confused by her own feelings and nascent awareness of sexuality and death; the tensions within a fractured family; the intense emotional and psychological strain experienced in the wake of personal tragedy.

But that tells only part of the story.

As finely drawn as the characters are, and as meticulously narrated as their descent into utter dysfunction is, the most remarkable thing about The Discomfort Of Evening is Rijneveld's writing. Sentences begin and you follow them, trepidatious about where they might take you, but compelled nonetheless. They twist, they turn and they end up somewhere you could never have expected. Many of the events that they describe require the reader to be of a robust constitution - not least because time and again the imagery is startlingly visceral and vivid.

Take, for instance, the following passage, about Jas' granny: "Just before she'd died, she'd made eggnog. Dad said the cream had curdled when they found her, that everything curdled when somebody died, unexpectedly or not, and for weeks I hadn't been able to sleep because I kept seeing Granny's face in her coffin, her half-opened mouth, eye sockets and pores beginning to ooze eggnog as thin as yolk."

Or this extraordinary (there I go again...) passage, which exemplifies Jas' habit of drifting into dark and surreal reverie: "For a moment I picture my father and Lien standing facing each other on the farm track, with his ears falling off like autumn leaves. We'd have to stick them back on with Pritt-stick. I'd rather put them in a little velvet box and whisper the sweetest and the most terrible words into them every night, before putting the lid back on and shaking the box so I'm sure the words have slid into the ear canal."

Rijneveld also has the knack of being able to express what feel like profound truths in novel ways. One chapter ends with Jas' observation that "Mum and Dad never cuddle; that must be because otherwise some of your secrets end up sticking to the other person, like Vaseline. That's why I never spontaneously give hugs myself - I'm not sure which secrets I want to give away."

Such passages aren't testament only to Rijneveld's skill, though. Mention must be made here of translator Michele Hutchison, whose name really should be on the front cover. To convey the richness and strangeness of the author's language must have been a significant challenge.

The novel may be a work of fiction, but it's animated with the intensity of personal experience. Like Jas, Rijneveld not only endured a strict Christian upbringing but also lost a brother in a fatal accident. Little wonder that the author's family are apparently "too frightened to read" this disturbing tale of deeply disturbed individuals.

Rijneveld has mined that personal experience for a book of poetry, Calf's Caul, too, so it will be fascinating to see what happens next, as he leaves the past behind and moves on.