Friday, May 24, 2013

Brothers in harmony - review of State of the Union (Boo Hewerdine and Brooks Williams)

State of the Union at Arlington Arts, Newbury, on Saturday, May 2

MOST people (or maybe it’s just me) will have a long-term fondness for one or two musicians/bands who are so deeply ingrained in their psyche that they forget that they’re not as well known to the wider world as they ought to be. For me, one of those musicians is Boo Hewerdine. His work as frontman of Cambridge-formed band The Bible must have had some Radio One play in the late ’80s (for that was all I listened to back then), but they remained mainly a cult band, with their highest charting single having a near-miss with the Top 50.

Probably his best-known composition is Patience of Angels, a hit for singer Eddie Reader in 1994, although I prefer Hewerdine’s warm, mellow version of it, as performed during a two-song solo showcase during State of the Union’s gig at Arlington Arts. The other half of the State of the Union duo, Brooks Williams, got his own moment in the spotlight in the second half, so it was perfectly fair.

Williams is an American-born, Cambridgeshire-based blues/folk guitarist who first teamed up with Hewerdine in 2011, with the aim of recording an album using vintage mics and equipment in five days. In fact, they completed it within two days. Not surprisingly, working at that speed, they have now brought out a second album (speed of recording not confirmed), meaning that they have an impressive number of songs to chose from for their live set.

What the pair have come up with is a blend of English pop sensibilities and raw Americana. Both musically and lyrically, their songs probably nudge the coast of the USA more than that of the UK, but there are still British roots to be found, such as in their cover of the Pet Shop Boys’ most yearning song, Rent, with slide guitar replacing the original’s synth instrumental.

What was surprising is how well Hewerdine and Williams’ voices fit together, blending in a way that would be more usually found arising from sibling harmony rather than the vocals of two men born and raised thousands of miles apart.

One day, I will see Hewerdine perform his two most beautiful songs, Graceland and Honey Be Good, with his band The Bible. But State of the Union were a pleasure to savour, and opened up a whole new avenue of Hewerdine’s work to me; confirming that such a prolific singer-songwriter can never remain rooted solely in a long-ago past when he reached the heady heights of the Top 60.

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on May 16, 2013

Monday, May 20, 2013

A Scilly day out

HAVING first visited the Scillies as a teenager, I have always been fondest of the island of St Agnes, with its magical landmarks: The Nag’s Head standing stone, Troytown Maze (created from pebbles, for reasons unknown), and Beady Pool, where the bead cargo of a 17th century shipwreck used to be found in their dozens in the shifting sands. There’s also the beach where generations of locals and visitors have stacked wave-smoothed stones into hundreds of oddly-balanced towers, making it resemble the seaside retreat of Makka Pakka.

Being a Scilly-hardened family - or so we thought - by our third visit, we used the fleet of small boats to take daily trips from the main island, St Mary’s, to the off-islands with as little thought as we would catch a train back home. But there would be one trip to St Agnes which would be unforgettable.

Half of the Scilly passenger boats are 70-year-old wooden launches; the others are more modern. At the time of our holiday, in 2007, only one had an upper deck. It was a sunny day, so naturally we (me, my husband, and son George, then five) plumped for the top deck, settling ourselves on the bench at the back for the best view. It was a little bumpier up there than down below, but we were enjoying the ride, until about halfway between the islands, a freak storm struck, and the gentle swaying of the boat turned to a violent rocking.

Almost immediately a boatman’s head popped up from below. “Stay where you are, and hold on,” he called. The other families, nearer the steps, responded to natural instinct and dived straight down. Sat at the aft, we were furthest away, and clung on tight. But George panicked, and screamed that he couldn’t hold on. I was gripping him, but with him flailing in terror it was hard to feel secure. We decided to make it to the steps.

Lashed with rain, we crouched and crawled along the deck, grabbing at the benches to keep us steady, but still being bumped around like rag dolls. At the steps, hands reached up to grab George, and then I followed, tumbling down in a most ungainly manner, to add to my catalogue of bruises. As passengers and crew checked we were all right, the boatman looked at me. “I told you to hold on,” he said, sagely. Within another minute  or so, the storm had passed, and the sea was calm once more.

So, why is this my favourite holiday memory? Well, clearly I would rather it hadn’t terrified George; but it is still special to me, because it is something we went through as a family. We disembarked at St Agnes, had a fun day in the sunshine, and caught the return boat with no fear of a repeat event. The wonderful boatmen of Scilly steered us safely through the freak storm, and it is a memory that will stay with us after those of sunshine holidays in further-flung locations have long faded.

  • Originally written for an travel writing competition. Again, I lost out to someone who had actually been abroad. Bit of a pattern emerging there. Also noticed that the winner wrote about a "nice" holiday memory. Mine was more "unforgettable" though, which was the theme of the competition. And I was clearly more deserving of the prize holiday by dint of the experience chronicled above.

How I learned to stop Dodgying and love the Olympics

I NEVER knew a festival could get me interested in sport. I only went to the London Live: Hyde Park festival (part of the city’s Olympic celebrations) so that my nine-year-old son could experience - and hopefully learn to love - my favourite band Dodgy playing live. My first attempt to convert him at Portsmouth’s Victorious Vintage festival earlier in the summer had been a quite literal washout. Not even the magnificent backdrop of HMS Victory could tempt him out from behind the hotdog van into the storm to watch Dodgy risk electrocution.

So my continued attempts at Dodgy-conversion brought us to Hyde Park for a free day of big screen sport and “fun” fitness activities. I couldn’t have been less thrilled. But then, unexpectedly, onto the stage, came four actual Olympic medalists - the British Gold and Silver-winning slalom canoeists. Suddenly, I was acting like a teenage Bieber fan. Throwing myself towards these poor men (the nearest I will ever get to an Olympian effort of my own) I just had to touch one of those medals, whatever body part belonging to their owners, or other crowd members, got in the way.

So yes - London Live managed to get me interested in sport, against the odds. And as for my son’s verdict on Dodgy? “They’re alright, I suppose...”

  • Written for TNT Magazine Blogs Competition, 2013. I was beaten to first prize by someone who had actually been abroad. Find it in its original posting at:

At arm's length - review of Chorus, by Ray Lee

Photograph courtesy of The Corn Exchange, Newbury

Chorus, by Ray Lee, in Newbury Market Place on Friday, April 26 and Saturday, April 27

THE LATEST presentation in The Corn Exchange’s Outdoor Programme sang in the new season with a more simple performance than many of its predecessors, as artist and composer Ray Lee brought his tripod-legged choir to the Market Place for six performances in dusk and night over the weekend.

As each performance began, speakers on rotating arms on top of the high tripods began to rotate, each emitting a pulsing drone at a different pitch, creating a changing and individual composition of sounds for the visitors who moved beneath and among them. The eye was drawn upwards to the rotating red LED lights on the end of each arm; all visually identical but made unique by their own tonal identities.

Unlike most past Outdoor Programme presentations, there were no fireworks, no live performers, and no real explanation for what was going on. And yet, it was mesmerising: the half-hour performance felt like five minutes, as the soundscape became immersive; so loud and all-pervading, yet surprisingly relaxing and meditative. Although moving between the structures created the most variety of sound, even standing still created its own orchestra, picking out the tones and pulses, each taking turns to come to the forefront of the overall wash of sound.

Chorus didn’t end with a climax, but with an eventual coming-together of the drones in a chord both atonal and harmonic, before each rotating arm began to slow, stop and fall silent at different times, and the Market Place fell back into stillness. It may not have been the most jaw-dropping of the Outdoor Programme’s series of performances, but it was provoking, transfixing, stunning in its starkness - and most certainly memorable.
  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, May 2, 2013

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The least-worst he could be - review of Robin Ince

Robin Ince: The Importance of Being Interested, at Arlington Arts, Newbury, on Saturday, April 27, 2013

PROFESSOR Brian Cox can be credited for many things that are good in the world, but his one achievement for which I give him eternal thanks is his transformation through enlightenment of Robin Ince from workaday observational comedian into comedyland’s biggest science enthusiast. It was Ince’s meeting and subsequent friendship with Cox that called time on his pointing out of the small things and to begin looking at the bigger picture with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of an informed layperson.

Of course, as he pointed out, the problem with looking at universal truths is that they highlight the ultimate futility of individual existence (Ince is a self-defined “liberal atheist”); however, fortunately there is plenty of satisfaction to be gained on our pointless plod through life from the jaw-dropping oddities of nature (“not the best possible design they could be, but the least-worst”) to two of the most excellent and inquisitive minds that mankind has produced: Charles Darwin and Richard Feynman.

Even Darwin’s very being, argues Ince, is proof against the concept of intelligent design - his bulbous nose nearly lost him his berth on The Beagle, as the captain was concerned that it suggested a weak constitution. Eventually he relented, and according to Darwin was “afterwards well-satisfied that my nose had spoken falsely”.

But it was not Darwin’s nose but his fascination with the humblest details of nature that has made his legacy so important. Thinking about it, Darwin would have been an excellent observational comedian: “Have you ever noticed that the earthworm eat their own bodyweight in soil every day?”.

Ince is so very interested in the world that the original running time of the show was four hours (the thought of most ultra-long shows, often performed by rock legends or Ken Dodd, fill me with horror, but I genuinely think that I could cope with four hours of Ince, if regular toilet breaks were allowed). Rather delightfully, although he’s pared it down considerably, he’s kept the discarded slides in his Powerpoint presentation, resulting in tantalising glimpses of other themes on which he would be able to propound at length given the opportunity.

Talking of which, the enormous projection screen at Arlington played its part wonderfully in illustrating Ince’s thoughts; although it will be a long time before I can get the image of a naked Richard Dawkins (represented in a caricature based on The Creation of Adam) out of my mind. But remember: the human male may not be the best possible design, but  it is the least-worst. 

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, May 9, 2013

Monday, May 06, 2013

Perfectly Jolly People - interview with Julian Tulk

LOCAL singer-songwriter JULIAN TULK is setting off an around-the-world trip in the summer - but before he goes, his gift to Newbury is a night of music at Ace Space. “People in Newbury are used to seeing live music for free down the pub”, he tells CATRIONA REEVES, “but they’ll be getting three bands for not much more than the price of a pint”.

HEADLINING the gig organised by Tulk at Ace Space on Saturday, May 18 will be The PJP [aka Patrick James Pearson] Band (pictured above), supported by Tulk’s new outfit, Horse Around Home, and PJP’s tour opener Harry George Johns.

Tulk first came across PJP frontman Pearson when working on his last album at the Devon studio run by producer - and former Newbury musician - Pete Miles, who suggested that he get Pearson involved in the recording. “PJP are based in Plymouth,” explains Tulk. “There’s a really thriving music scene down there; folk and punk, underground stuff, and Pat’s one of the best acts to come out of it.

“He’s an exceptional songwriter, keyboard player and guitarist. Many of his lyrics have an edgy protest edge to them, and it’s really emotional stuff. He’s a great performer, and he’s got a really energetic band around him. When you watch them live, you can’t help but pay attention.”

Tulk’s own new outfit, Horse Around Home, reflects where he feels he is currently at in his life; newly married with a young son, resulting in “quite a lot of family-orientated stuff; it still sounds like me though; good, straight-up folk-rock-pop songs. I sing it like I mean it.”

He may now be a family man, but Tulk isn’t exactly settling down; later this summer he’s due to set off travelling with his wife and son for a year or so, meaning that the Ace Space gig may be the last opportunity to see him play live for quite a while. 

Tulk has a word for those who may be procrastinating about buying tickets for the gig in advance: “People in Newbury are reluctant to commit to spending money because they’re used to being able to pop down the pub and see live music for free. But Ace Space is a great venue, and there’s nothing like going to a real gig, where it’s all about the music and everyone is there to see the bands.”

Tickets for The PJP Band, supported by Horse Around Home and Harry George Johns are £5 in advance from Hogan Music, Ace Space on  07905 590214 or from Julian himself. If your bulging social calendar means that you’re still reticent to commit by buying an advanced ticket, entry costs £6 on the night. Doors open at 7pm - be there early to see all three acts.

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, May 2, 2013