Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Live Music Review - Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - London O2 26/02/2012

I wonder if in Liam Gallagher's rare quiet moments he wishes he had been a bit less of a dick to his brother.  After all, once Noel decided he had enough of Liam's rock n' roll cliches, his solo career hasn't exactly set the world alight whilst his brother's has gone from strength to strength.  To ram home the point tonight Noel walks out to a sell out crowd at London's O2 whilst Liam has to be content with the humble Shepherds Bush Empire.

It is clear that Noel was desperate for a clean break from the dysfunction of latter day Oasis and has emerged artistically reinvigorated with a new five piece band (only sometimes keysman Mike Rowe remains).  Shrouded in blue light and kicking off with old Oasis B-side  (It's Good)To Be Free you feel he is making a point.

New song Everybody Is On The Run shows Noel's ambition towards a fuller more adventerous soundIt gets the full symphonic rock treatment, the 30 piece Crouch End Festival Chorus Choir adding a bit of Rick Wakeman ostentation to proceedings.

Dream On shows Noel still knows his way around a melody with its chugging Beatles piano chords giving it a vintage sound.

Noel has always been the most laconic of performers.  Maybe its nerves but  he stays pretty quiet at the start of the set, slowly warming up as the evening progresses.

"What's happening in London? Nothing".

His sense of humour is as dry as the Serengeti.

If I Had A Gun is a good as a song as he has written with its soaring middle eight.  Live it sounds more fleshed then on record with some nice southern rock harmonies.

The Good Rebel is The Byrds meets The Beatles with its shuffling Ticket to Ride backbeat and jangly guitars. Noel delivers a short solo that Roger McGuinn would have approved of.

Ever the musical magpie Noel even references his own records. The Death of You And Me is a kissing cousin to The Importance of Being Idle. The beer throwing, bare chested morons that tend to populate Oasis gigs are completely at odds (but not alientated) by this more sophisticated sound. Mr Kite wants to benefit from having his horn arrangment returned though.  As ever Noel manages to weave disparate musical influences into his own image with superb results.

Despite the high quality of his solo output, as to be expected the biggest cheers are reserved for the old Oasis numbers. Supersonic benefits from a paired down acoustic interpretation complete with bar room piano. I actually prefer it to the original. The mass singalong shows what a great songwriter he is.

Noel dedicates AKA...What A Life to Mario Balotelli and gets angry when he is roundly booed.

"He is worth more then all of you put together"

Its rolling piano, four to the floor rhythm and psychedelic organ perhaps a hint at what we might expect to hear from his forthcoming "farout" collaboration with Amorphous Androgynous.

Talk Tonight, originally recorded in Austin, is beefed up from the normal acoustic version and sounds more transatlantic then ever with the help of American guitarist Tim Smith (who Noel openly encourages the crowd to boo).  It is obvious that Noel has neen listening to a bit of Fleetwood Mac.

By now the crowd is in the palm of his hand

"I love you more then David Beckham."

shouts one largered up punter in the front row who I would love to believe had his tongue firmly in cheek.

To finish of the set proper we get a couple of  thumpers in Soldier Boys And Jesus Freaks and (Stranded On) The Wrong Beach which you could classify as classic Oasis rockers with the corners smoothed off and filtered though a mild psychedelia.

For the enccore we are treated to the classic Whatever. The soundtrack to my first year at univeristy will always have a place in my heart. Some lovely piano courtesy of Mike Rowe and backed by the choir it really makes for the perfect singalong.

Noel's Little by Little is dedicated to daughter Anais who told him it was her favourite song.

"Listen to the lyrics. It's a wonder she didn't turn into a fucking goth". 

The Importance Of Being Idle is the song that brought the curtain down on the old Oasis sound and set the wheels in motion for Noel's more versatile direction. Mike Rowe's carnival Hammond adding a sonic mood that is about a million miles from the likes of Roll With It as you can get.

We finish with a rousing chorus of Don't Look Back In Anger, complete with The Crouch End Festival Choir, a song that made it alright for working class lads to put their arms around each other and sing without fear of being called "poofs".  If Noel really wanted to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony he continues succesfully in his calling.

Set List
(It’s Good) To Be Free
Mucky Fingers
Everybody’s On The Run
Dream On
If I Had A Gun..
The Good Rebel
The Death Of You And Me
Freaky Teeth
(I Wanna Live in My Dream In My) Record Machine
AKA…What A Life!
Talk Tonight
Soldier Boys & Jesus Freaks
AKA... Broken Arrow
Half The World Away
(Stranded On) The Wrong Beach


Little By Little
The Importance Of Being Idle
Don’t Look Back In Anger

Friday, 24 February 2012

Film Review - The Muppets

I have to say the original Muppet Show only holds a vague and distant place in my memory along with Corona lemonade, the Adventures of Mr Rossi and Space Dust so I haven’t been salivating at the prospect of the sock puppets being dusted off for a technocentric, post-internet world. Yet, somehow, I was drawn to see this movie despite the fact that I think nostalgia is overrated.

But how you make a franchise relevant after an extended period out of the limelight?  Dear reader have you not heard of the plot device known as the "reunion"?

Jason Segel plays Gary a small town innocent with, for reasons unexplained, a Muppet for a brother. They make a pilgrimage to the now decrepit Muppet Studios only to find out the place is about to be torn down by evil oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper). In order to save the studio they need to raise $10 million and realise the only way to do this is to get the old gang back together for a telethon.

They track down the remaining Muppets whose fortunes have varied since their heyday, like Vietnam vets acclimatising to civvy street. Fozzie Bear is languishing in a Muppet tribute band called “The Moopets” , Animal is in anger management classes “Animal in control” and Kermit lives in a dated mansion with an 80’s robot tending to his needs like Sly Stallone in Rocky 4.

The Muppets is certainly not a film for the cynics amongst you. I had an old guy sitting next to me who spent the entire film huffing and puffing about elements of the plot and some of the cheesier lines. For a few minutes as I peered through the gloom I thought he might actually be either Statler or Waldorf who had clambered down from the balcony as part of some new interactive audience experiment. For God sake don't go expecting to see Lawrence of Arabia.

Do expect some great musical numbers courtesy of musical supervisor and one time Flight of The Conchords’ Ryhmenoceros Bret McKenzie who pens the sublime “Life’s a Happy Song” and the Oscar nominated “Man or Muppet”. You have no soul if you are not able to raise the smallest of chuckles at a bunch of Muppet chickens clucking away to a cover of Cee Lo’s “Forget You” during the telethon.

As is Muppet tradition do expect some unexpected cameos in the shape of Dave Grohl, Jack Black, Zach Galifiankis and Sarah Silverman amongst other who compliment the real stars of the show.

Do expect some genuinely funny moments courtesy of co-writer and real life Muppet obsessive Jason Sigel who manages to pen a tongue in cheek self referential script without sacrificing the classic Muppet slapstick.

Statler: "If I didnt know better, I'd say you just recited some important plot point."
Waldorf: "I hope so. Otherwise I just bored the audience half to death."
Statler: "You mean half the audience is still alive?!"

Yes, there is more then a whiff of Camembert during the “never give up” denouement but there are plenty of laughs along the way and the end is saved by another life affirming song and dance number that if you are not humming on the way of out the cinema shows you are a little dead inside.

British director and co-creator of Flight of The Conchords James Bobin should be given credit for his light touch and ability to keep the story moving whilst retaining the innocence and surrealism at the core of the original Muppet philosophy.

In short The Muppets have been given a post-modern makeover that references their 70’s heyday whilst retaining their timeless charm. Now at over 35 years old they truly are a phenomenon…

(Everbody) Mah na mah na! Doo doo do do do….

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Live Music Review - Michael Kiwanuka - Komedia Brighton 15/02/12

Tonight’s gig stimulated an interesting debate about credibility in music. Can an act be "relevant" or "credible" if they have created their art from the safety of a nice middle class upbringing or is only true music forged from the fires of adversity?

Judging by the genteel demographic of the crowd at Brighton's Komedia the only argument you are likely to have is who should be served first at the bar (No, I insist you were here before me) as Michael Kiwanuka's well behaved fans are not bothered by these existential dilemmas.

Such is the transient nature of the music industry Michael Kiwanuka has gone from nobody to Radio One's sound of 2012 in the last 6 months due in small part to a barrel load of hype. His retro brand of folksy soul is at odds with the beats and bleeps that are de-rigueur if you want to break into the Top 40 in 2012. Much like The Artist sweeping the board at the BAFTAS the public is crying out for some simplicity in these complicated times and has taken to Kiwanuka's "realness".

Downstairs at the Komedia they are more familiar with handling drunken office parties and stand up comedy then up and coming musicians. The low ceilings and wooden floor give off air of student common room rather than gig venue but do lend and intimacy to proceedings which suits Kiwanuka's tender songs.

A word for support act The Staves who prompted our credibility debate. They are three attractive sisters who reek of private singing lessons. For me music is music and although they be Straight Outta Suffolk this should not be to their detriment. Their delivery may be prim and mannered but blessed with heavenly voices I can't help but be taken with their brand of sensitive, close harmony. They are like an English version of the Secret Sisters crossed with Simon and Garfunkel. Admittedly some of the songs are so light they just float away into the ether but on Mexico, the title track on their latest EP there is enough sonic invention take make me think you might hear them sound tracking Dawson's Creek (or similar) in the near future.

As Kiwanuka doesn't release his debut album until March I have been brushing up on his back catalogue via Youtube videos and the Tell Me A Tale EP. Normally he plays solo accompanied by a bassist and little else. Today we are graced with a full and funky band which actually adds a welcome dimension to his paired down sound.

Need Your Company for instance is much more dynamic then what we are used to on record. It has a groove that makes it sound like B-side to Marvin Gaye's Mercy Mercy Me with funky lead guitar scratches that compliment Kinawuka's honeyed baritone.

Kiwanuka is a slight chap and at only 24 looks every bit the wide eyed debutante with his charmingly humble mid-song patter. He remarks how he is

"..still surprised that people come to my gigs"

The comparisons with Otis Redding and Bill Withers are obvious (black guy + soul voice + guitar) but slightly lazy. There is a strong country tilt to his music and in Always Waiting's clip-cloppy rhythm you could be sitting by the camp fire chowing down on beans and franks under a starry sky.

As this is Brighton, a town with an above average percentage of weirdoes and oddballs, some of the early birds have decided that instead of standing they will sit crossed legged at the foot of the stage. This is great for me as I have an uninterrupted view and adds to the last day of school vibe at the gig.

I'm Getting Ready has Michael in troubadour mode with its warm 70's vibe and spiritual lyrics. Think Jack Johnson if he grew up in Mississippi instead of Hawaii.

On Tell Me A Tale Kiwanuka goes blaxplotation as the song descends into an old funk jam with guitarist Miles James wigging out with the rest of the more then capable band who are on top form. It shows Kiwanuka to be a versatile performer.

He dials it back down a notch with Worry Walks Besides Me a sombre song about some intangible problem he has faced, its moody Hammond solo echoing the downbeat lyrics.

"Coming all over and under my skin
Say if I follow I will die like a king
I'll be doin fine if you just leave me behind"

Bones is old fashioned soul by the numbers and the chilled out Rest brings out the ghost of Otis Redding complete with shaky egg. Whilst comparisons are inevitable Kiwanuka has the knack of creating that classic sound without aping the great masters that have gone before.

Kiwanuka tells us that his most of his songs start with him alone in his room with a acoustic guitar and to emphasise this he sends the band off and does a couple of numbers in the buskers style. As he hums his way throughAny Day Will Do Fine you can hear a pin drop.>
Title track on his new albumHome Again is a modern classic and has some understated melodies to balance the world weary voice. It sounds like an old John Martyn number.
If Kiwanuka ever tires of the Bill Withers comparisons he only has himself to blame. He finishes the set proper with a rollicking version of I Don't Know from 1972's Still Bill. It is hellafunky and I can't help thinking he is mining the same field as Aloe Blacc and that hasn't done him much harm. The audience all get involved and for a few minutes we all succumb to transcendental power of music. the band even bang on some Becks bottle together for percussion. It is absolutely fantastic and Kiwanuka admits that it is the first an audience has stamped their feet for an encore.

It is a bit of an anti climax after that barnstormer but we are treated to as yet unheard new song, the lullabyThe Sand. Whisper it but it sounds a bit Tracy Chapman. Not necessarily a bad thing.

All in all Kinwanuka looks like a man enjoying his new found success backed by a band playing with the brio of a group on their first tour. Plenty of time for them to all grow jaded and complacent in years to come.Kinawuka later remarked on Twitter that:

"The night will definitely live long in my memory."

If you want a flavour of the gig, courtesy of Youtube, you can pretend you were there. Just imagine a few student types sitting cross legged in front of you and feel the good vibes.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Live Music Review - D'angelo - Brixton Academy 04/02/2012

Forget a Rainy Night in Georgia it was A Snowy Night in Brixton and entirely apt that a man who makes a habit of not going by the book would pick the depths of winter to come in from the cold.

After a 10 yr sabbatical much of which is discussed here
the anticipation for this gig was about as intense as I've known. These days D'angelo is seen as a mythical figure in the R&B world and this return was a genuine second coming.

As support act and stand up comedian Kojo astutely pointed out, most people at the gig irrespective of their love for R&B had a morbid curiosity to see if D'angelo had turned into the musical equivalent of Marlon Brando, a genius tormented by demons who ended up fat and washed up.

I am happy to confirm that rumours of his demise have been exaggerated. What does he look like? Well before he had the physique of a point guard. Now it looks like he could bench press the shit out of you.

And what of that marvellous and unique voice? Has 10 years of abuse dulled its glory? Good news is that he could still read you his shopping list and make it sound like a marriage proposal.

D'angelo wasn't helped by the fact that the sound at Brixton Academy is habitually terrible. If there are more then three instruments playing at once the bass splatters out like a greasy turd and the mid-range sounds like its been played through crumpets.

First up is Playa Playa featuring D'angelo's new band The Testimony featuring long time collaborators Pino Palladino on bass and guitarist Isaiah Sharkey. In the gloom it takes a while to realise that D'angelo is keeping everyone waiting an extra song as he sings his parts from back stage. When he come out he is dressed in what seems to be a direct homage to Tina Turner in Mad Max. Leather bin liners are all the rage apparently. Its not quite the impact of the gothic entrance of 2000 when the whole band came out in black hoods to the sound of ghostly chanting.

If I'm perfectly honest the first half of the set was slightly anticlimactic compared to the barn storming 2000 gig. This is due partly by the bar being set incredibly high, partly to the sound gremlins and partly to the introduction of new songs like Ain't That Easy, an up tempo guitar based number that by D'angelo's standards is fairly conventional.

Its still great stuff though. An urgent funked up version of Feel Like Makin' Love its about as far from the Roberta Flack original as you can get without being a different song. Devil's Pie includes snippets of Sly Stone and sees D'angelo in full rock mode. Live he has come so far from the laid back cat hiding behind his Fender Rhodes during his first tour. On Chicken Grease D'angelo gets to Jump Back Jack with Sharkey bashing out an incessant Papa's Gotta Brand New Bag lick. As funky as a box of frogs.

New song Charade will undoubtedly bring comparisons to Prince sounding like a B-side to Around The World In a Day with its Fairlight keyboard counter melody. It improves with multiple hearings.

Next up an inspired cover of perverts anthem I've Been Watching You (Move Your Sexy Body) from Parliament's The Clones Of Dr Funkenstein. It's dirty as hell and was supposedly the direction D'angelo was heading with new album James River. The truth isn't as easily pigeon-holed. Confirming D'angelo conversion into Jimi Hendrix type showman he harmonises a guitar solo with lead guitarist and ex-Time axe man Jesse Johnson who from a certain angle is a dead ringer for Prince.

The chord structure segues perfectly into a 20 min long half tempo version of Shit, Damn, Muthafucka complete with extended band solos. It seems his 80's collaboration with Mark Ronson on Glass Mountain Trust has rubbed off on him as there are some retro keyboard sounds in the mix. There is a bit too much noodling for my tastes and the world really doesn't need another 5 minute drum solo.

Next my favourite part of the show. D'angelo ditches the band and sits alone at a raised piano and starts to play snippets of songs in much the same vein as Prince did during his residency at the 02. We get jazzy versions of Brown Sugar, Jonz In My Bones, Spanish Joint, Me And Those Dreamin' Eyes, Cruisin', One Mo' Gin and Lady with D'angelo harmonising with the crowd who sing along in the background. There are no distractions, no frills, just some back to basics piano. It sounds amazing. He ends with a verse of How Does It Feel? and the crowd go wild as he stands up and threatens to recreate the X rated video. He sensibly sits back down and he is hilariously wheeled away like a contestant on Blankety Blank.

For the encore we get a couple more new cuts. Another Life starts off sounding like an old Donny Hathaway track but goes all operatic with its unusual scales and ascendant chords. It can be filed as "experiment succesful". My pick of the new tracks is Sugar Daddy / where D'angelo lays down a gospel groove with some funky piano chords a-la-John Legend. It's like being in church and clapping away with one hell of a funky minister. Not that I go to church. But I have seen Sister Act. Only with lyrics about taking your panties off.

To end we get a demented version of Brown Sugar speed up to a tempo that James Brown would approve of especially as it contains elements of The Payback. JB's spirit is alive with about seven false endings

"You want some more? You want some more? You want some more? Good God!"

With a "Goodnight Brixton" the crowd file out into the frozen streets warmed by the fact although D'angelo may not be the hardest working man in show business he certainly is Mr Dynamite.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Live Music Review - Boyz II Men - Brighton Concorde 2 27/01/12

When I told people I was off to see Boyz II Men friends of mine openly laughed at me. Despite being the most successful R&B group of all time with 20 years in the business and shifting over 60 million albums they are about as fashionable as a pair of flares.

This goes some way to explaining that instead of playing the 02 they are playing at the Concorde to a crowd of 600. But music is music right? I've never been a slavish follower of fashion and could not give a monkeys about musical "trends" so was prepared to give them a fair hearing.

What is instantly noticeable as they roll a preliminary video montage of their achievements over their 20 year career is a complete lack of instruments on stage. There is no long-haired roadie with his arse hanging out of his jeans checking the sound. No backing band, no drums, no guitars, no keyboards, nothing. Boyz II Men will be singing over a backing track. I'm sorry but this is inexcusable. It’s like going to see Shakespeare with the dialogue performed by robot actors.

Right, so if the show is going to be all about the vocals then they had better be pretty damn special. There can be no argument that Boyz II Men deliver on this front. Shawn Stockman and founder Nathan Morris are as smooth as a cashmere codpiece and in Wanya Morris they have a vocalist that on occasion is as good as Stevie Wonder. There can be no greater compliment in the world than that. He can take average material and make it soar.

Sadly that is where the similarity with Stevie ends as Boyz II Men lack Mr Wonder's musicality, innovation and variety and have seemingly been content to plough the same schmaltzy furrow for the last two decades.

The ballads come thick and fast starting with On Bended Knee from the II album where the guys do a sort of vocal relay passing vocal duties from one to another throughout the song, Wanya’s powerful voice milking every last syllable.

Shawn does the pre song banter and thanks Brighton for "showing a lot of love" and sticking with their brand of baby making music but to me it sounds like artifice.

As befits a group who are not playing instruments they need to do something else with their hands so the crowd are treated to some odd choreographed dance moves. Whilst a few synchronized hip thrusts start off as amusing eventually they just end up looking a bit silly. Middle aged men should not try and bust a move. Unless their name is Prince.

Four Seasons Of Loneliness is another mid tempo ballad by numbers with Hallmark lyrics and midnight lover shtick. It is instantly forgettable.

New song More Than You Ever Know from new album Twenty is a hard rocking political number about the financial crisis featuring a Slash style guitar lick and a rap by Common. Only joking. It's another Babyface type ballad about loving your woman which is only saved from a saccharine hell by Wanya's fantastic vocals.

Next we hear Doin' Just Fine from the 1997's Evolution album and suddenly I'm 15 years old and it's 01:55 at my local sticky floored nightclub and everyone is desperately scanning the dance floor for a lady to grind up a against. As I am with a male friend I pass. Is this 2012 or 1988? I'm confused.

Pass You By has some nice eastern cadences and Water Runs Dry has some good harmonies but the lack of tempo is starting to send me to sleep.

I come to as I’m nearly hit by a flying rose that the guys are throwing out to the audience during I'll Make Love To You and whilst a classic song I have to stifle a laugh. It feels like a comedy sketch featuring Theophilus P Wildebeest. Do women still go for this schmaltz? Perhaps that is why I'm single.

A Song For Mama and there are more "wave your hands in the air" requests as the twee sentiment washes over us. Nathan starts to to talk to the crowd about about “real music” the sort that influenced the band and I’m ready for one of their great covers from their Motown themed Hitsville. No such luck. Instead they give us one of their own songs and perhaps the pinnacle of their career, End of The Road which galvanises the audience into a mass singalong.

Songs about God should always be approached with caution but new song One Up For Love shows promise and a rare break in style proving they can deliver more than just ballads. Its driving rhythm with elements of gospel and Wanya's sky scraping vocals are a revelation after what has come before. It shows how great Boyz II Men could be if they jus ditched a bit of the cheese.

They follow this up with the classic new jack swing ofMotown Philly and the crowd finally get a chance to shake a leg. Even Wanya gets to do the running man. But they inexplicably don't do my favourite acapella bit live and leave that to the crowd.

It really is a shame that over the years their reliance on Babyface/Pendegrass influenced balladry and lack of musical invention overshadows their obvious vocal talents. If only they would inject a bit more rhythm and variety into their set they would be back to playing bigger venues than this.