PJ Harvey at the Victoria Warehouse

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On Thursday we went to see PJ Harvey performing at the Victoria Warehouse in Manchester. I was rather a latecomer to her music. I’d always liked some of her songs but it was the release of Let England Shake 5 years ago, with it’s socially aware and political lyrics about Britain’s role in war from Gallipoli to Afghanistan, and effects on people – combatants and civilians –  set to simple but imaginative music, that got me interested in her work and which led me to exploring her back catalogue more thoroughly. She continued the political theme in her release earlier this year The Hope Six Demolition Project, with songs inspired by visits to the Middle East and Washington DC.

The audience was made up of a real mix of ages, with quite a high proportion of “oldies” so I didn’t feel out of place.

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PJ was accompanied by a band of 9 accomplished musicians, including long time collaborator John Parrish and the show started with them marching in line onto stage beating drums and playing saxophones for the first song, Chain of Keys from Hope Six Demolition Project. This led into a theatrical performance comprising songs from the last two albums with a few older numbers. They moved from one song to another without pausing to introduce the numbers. They only stopped for Polly Jean to introduce the band members (a mix of nationalities – she’s not a Brexiter) towards the end of the set.

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The performance was dominated by Polly Jean, a tiny, incredibly skinny, figure dressed in black with long trailing sleeves.

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It was an excellent show which I thoroughly enjoyed, reinforcing my admiration for a talented artist.

Fortunately we arrived early. The venue, as the name implies is a former warehouse, a large open space, standing only. We were stood within 10 metres of the stage, close to the front, and had a decent view. However it wasn’t the same for everyone. There was a barrage of complaints from people who arrived later and were stuck at the back and whose view of the stage was blocked by other people. Some tweeted that they couldn’t even get inside the main room.

The venue have responded

“In response to suggestions that this event was ‘oversold’, we would like to clarify that ticket sales were within our licensed capacity and the promoter was working strictly to our guidelines in this area. The safety of our customers and staff is always our main concern. The issues that have been flagged up are operational ones.

“Although this was a very popular gig, there was in fact room for all ticket holders, with space available towards the middle and the front of the crowd. This has been confirmed by feedback from patrons situated in these areas. However, because there was no support act, there was little movement once people had found some space to wait in.

“The Victoria Warehouse loads from the rear, which meant that as more people arrived and the initial crowds remained static, there was a concertina effect that lead to a very busy area towards the rear bar. Those caught up in this have understandably interpreted it as ‘overselling’ of the event. We sent response teams into the crowd to try to move people forwards but with little success.

I don’t think that’s good enough. It is the venue’s responsibility to manage the crowd. By their own admission they clearly failed to do this and the result was that a lot of people were disappointed and their memories will be of these problems rather than an excellent performance.

I have to say I was not impressed by the venue management. I’d contacted them earlier in the week as I wanted to check on car parking near the venue. Once they realised I wasn’t enquiring about parking for the hotel on the site, they clearly weren’t interested and didn’t have the courtesy to respond. So the bad crowd management seems to confirm that the management are only interested in taking the money from their customers and once they have that customer service goes out of the window.

A concert of two halves

 

On Friday evening we went to see the Michael Nyman band perform at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. I've been a fan of the composer ever since we saw the Draughtsman's Contract many many years ago. I have several cds of his work. So I was very much looking forward to the concert.

His band comprised 11 musicians – a string quatet, an electric bass player and brass section (saxaphones, trumpet, trombone, French horn) plus Nyman himself on the piano. They played a selection of his well known works, many of which he had composed for the films of Peter Greenaway.

I have to admit that I was disappointed with the first half. The instruments were all miked up and amplified. The sound balance was wrong with the brass completely overpowering the strings and with the barritone sax too loud in the mix. And I thought that the overall volume was too high making it feel like a “wall of sound” at times and difficult to appreciate some of the subtelties of the music. I noticed that a few people had left at the interval, unless they'd moved to different seats as the large hall was not completely full.

Fortunately things improved dramatically in the second half. I don't know whether they had made some changes to the set up during the interval or whether it was just the particular pieces they were playing were less affected, but in any case I enjoyed the second half and so came away happy enough.

The composer's music is very distinctive, built on repetitive riffs or “ground bases“. The strings being frequently used as a rythymn section, playing incedibly energetically. By the end of the concert one of the violinists bow strings were badly broken and the chellist was obviously suffering from cramp as I noticed him shaking his hand several times during the concert. The female viola player was playing particularly energetically. The works often start with the strings dominating with the volume building as the brass sections take the lead.

The concert started with two favourite pieces from the Draughtsman's contract, Chasing sheep is best left to shepherds and An eye for optical theory. The poor mix became particularly noticeable on the latter and became particularly bad during the two pieces from A Zed and Two Noughts that followed, probably partly because these are not the most melodic of his compositions.

Michael Nyman is keen on football and a fan of Liverpool football club. The piece with which the band started the second half – Memorial – was written in the aftermath of the deaths at the Heysel Stadium during the European. Cup final in 1985 and will be reinterpreted as part of his Symphony dedicated to the Hillsborough disaster which will be performed for the first time at Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral on July 5th. It's a moving piece. The half ended with three melodic pieces from his Water dances, the last of these, Splashing being particularly beautiful.

The band received extremely enthusiastic applause from the audience, a large section giving a standing ovation. And we were treated to three encores, the last a solo piano performance by the composer. For me, it turned out to be a good night, but, to borrow a footballing cliche, very much a “concert of two halves”

 

Christmas Starts Here

Last year we went to see Kate Rusby perform in Warrington the week before Christmas during her annual Christmas tour. We really enjoyed the concert so this year got in early to book tickets for her performance at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester that took place last Tuesday, managing to get tickets towards the front of the the stalls.

I finished work a little early and we managed to get on a train to Manchester just before ten to five, do we arrived at Victoria about 5:30, which gave us a good 2 hours before the concert was due to start. We ues this as an opportunity to saunter through the Christmas market.

It’s massive, extending all the way from the Corn Exchange through to Albert Square with stalls packed into all the pedestrianised areas. We weren’t buying – even if we’d wanted to we didn’t want to be carting anything into the concert – but we had a good browse. However, we did end up buying some cheese off one of the stalls having been tempted by a sample.

We made our way to Albert Square which was very busy even at 6 o’clock. It was the original location for the Christmas Market which has expanded outwards over the years. There were lots of stalls selling food and drink of various types and nationalities so there was plenty to choose from and choose we did.

After eating we strolled through the final part of the market and then made our way over to the Bridgewater Hall, arriving at 7. So we had time for a coffee (for me) and mulled wine and a minced pie apiece (adjusting my insulin shot accordingly!)

And then it was time for the concert. We enjoyed it enormously again. Kate Rusby is an excellent singer – a beautiful voice – and she’s such a cheerful character, with a big smile permanently on her face.

She has a band – double bass, guitar, bouzouki (a traditional Yorkshire instrument?) and accordion –  who were supplemented by a small brass ensemble of 5 musicians. Her Christmas concert is based around old traditional versions of carols as sung around the pubs in South Yorkshire (a tradition that’s probably died out by now). Some of the songs were well known carols but sung to a different tune – for example While Shepherd’s watched sung to “On Ilkley Moor B’aht ‘at” (one song to the tune of another – if you ever listen to “I’m sorry I haven’t a clue” on Radio 4 you’ll know what I’m referring to). The brass band really make it feel Christmassy.

The concert was in 2 halves, finishing, after the encore, at 10. So they were on stage in total for over 2 hours, but it didn’t seem that long. So another enjoyable night out. And Christmas starts here!

The Hallé at Jodrell Bank

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Although the Autumn Equinox is a few weeks away, for me, the 31st August effectively marks the end of the summer. This year we celbrated it by attending the concert by Manchester’s Hallé Orchestra that took place at Jodrell Bank, the site of one of the massive Radio telescope, which is part of Manchester University’s Department of Astronomy. The concert was part of a series of one day concerts, Live from Jodrell Bank: The Transmissions, that have taken place there for a number of years. Previous Transmissions events have featured concerts by The Flaming Lips and local band (well fairly local, they’re from Bury) Elbow. This year there were two events. On Friday night there was a rock concert headlined by the Icelandic band, Sigur Rós, with the Hallé concert on the Saturday.

The blurb for the concert told us that it would be

A concert inspired by the stars will feature Jupiter and Mars from Holst’s The Planets, classics by Strauss, Mozart and John Williams, as well as a selection of out-of-this-world film music such as Star Wars, Independence Day, E.T., Apollo 13, Close Encounters and more.

We had planned the day as a family outing a few weeks ago and had our fingers crossed that the weather would be fine, especially after a good summer this year. We weren’t disappointed. Although it had turned cooler, with a fairly strong wind, it stayed dry, with only a few minutes rain towards the end of the concert. And as there had been relatively little rain in Cheshire over the summer the ground was dry – so no wellies needed!

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Although the concert wasn’t due to start until 8 o’clock, we arrived about 4 o’clock. There was music – a DJ playing “cosmic music” interspersed by live performances by songs from Musicals and the James Bond films. There was also a talk by Professor Tim O’Brien from the Observatory who told us about the history of the telescope and played sounds it had been recorded going right back to when it tracked the Sputnik launch in 1957. There was also a Science Arena with lots of hands on experiments and  demonstrations of scientific principles by students from the various science departments from the University. So there was plenty to keep us amused. And the telescope was a towering presence in the background.

We’d packed a pic-nic with sandwiches, crisps, Doritos, cheese, biscuits and treats from Marks and Sparks. Some people had really gone to town with x bottles of sparkling wine, food and candles laid out on portable tables. We’d taken a couple of folding chairs and a pic-nic blanket.

8 o’clock soon came round and the Hallé came on stage starting with the introduction from Also Sprach Zarathustra. The acoustics weren’t anywhere near as good as the Bridgewater Hall, the orchestra’s usual home, but the setting , with the stage in front of the giant dish of the telescope, made it a great spectacle.

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Part way through the first half, as the light was beginning to fade, the dish, which up until now had been facing away from us, began to turn around until it was facing directly toward the audience.

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And it became the ultimate big screen as images were projected onto it’s surface.

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The dark drew in and during the interval  a film about Sir Bernard Lovell, the founder of the telescope who died, at the age of 99, last year. Fittingly, Saturday would have been his 100th birthday.

At several points during the film a giant image of the dish was displayed on the real thing.

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During the second half of the concert, the dish really started to come into it’s own as images were projected on to it to accompany, and complement, the music being played by the orchestra.

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It kept dry too, except for a short burst of rain. But even that added to the experience as it came down at a point when searchlight beams were being shone out into the audience and the raindrops were scattered by the light creating their own dramatic effect. It was almost as if it had been planned.

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And at the end of the concert, the finale – what else but the theme from Star Wars – was accompanied by a firework display.

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And then an encore – the Doctor Who Theme – accompanied by more fireworks.

A great end to the night.

As I’d expected, getting off the site and the car park was a rather chaotic experience and so although the concert finished at 10 we didn’t get home until after midnight. But it was a memorable night. A good concert with music we all enjoyed and a great experience too.

The Spaghetti Western Orchestra at the Lowry

On Friday I went to the Lowry in Salford to watch a performance by the Spaghetti Western Orchestra. They’re a group of Australian Musicians who’d featured as the novelty act at the Proms last year. I don’t normally watch the proms, but caught their performance by accident when it was shown on BBC4 one Friday Evening and enjoyed it. I’m quite a fan of Spaghetti Westerns – especially Sergio Leone‘s “Dollars Trilogy” and Once Upon a Time in the West (one of my favourite films) and their scores composed by Ennio Morricone and enjoyed their novel interpretation of the music

I got the ticket for the Salford show as a Christmas present from my daughter and I went along with her and my son. It took place in the Quay Theatre, the smaller of the two auditoria at the Lowry and started at 5 p.m. – almost a matinee performance. There was another taking place later in the evening but it had sold out and so they scheduled a second show at the earlier time, which also sold out. I guess their tour had been set up earlier last year when they weren’t well known and so they went for the smaller venue, and their performance at the Proms has boosted their popularity and ticket sales.

They’ve also appeared on Later with Jools Holland.

The show is a really a musical comedy act rather than a concert. The ensemble are made up in very stylised make-up as stock characters such as a bank teller and bar tender. The only one who speaks is the “Storyteller” who provides a running commentary and interacts with the audience. The show is slickly put together and choreographed. Based around Morricones’s music they incorporate comedy, mime, set pieces from Westerns such as a bar room brawl and unusual and novelty instruments such as a one stringed home made fiddle, beer bottles and a Theremin. A major feature of the act is the use of sound effects, some tunes played entirely using various movie “Foley” effects. This is consistent with the Spaghetti Western tradition as Morricone incorporated sound effects into his scores. One highlight was the  “gunfight soundscape” which included the use of cornflakes.

But the group are also very competent, trained musicians, and this comes across in their act. Between them they played double bass,  trumpet, bassoon, keyboards, vibraphone, mandolin, drums and percussion as well as the assortment of miscellaneous objects.  I was particularly impressed with their jazz rendition of Chi Mai, which started with the band playing on beer bottles

Audience interaction was encouraged and it was great fun to join in with a vocal interpretation of the Good the Bad and the Ugly during their encore.

After the show, as is usually the case at concerts, there were CDs for sale and two of the band, Graeme Leak (the Bankteller) and Jess Ciampa (the Lieteller) were available to sign the sleeves. I managed to snap them using the camera on my phone.

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Vivaldi, Jim, but not as we know it

On Sunday we went to the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall to see Nigel Kennedy perform Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and a selection of pieces from his new album “The Four Elements”, as part of his current nationwide tour. Nigel cemented his reputation about 20 years ago with his performance of Vivaldi’s Concerto, which he also recorded for a very successful album. For his current tour he is accompanied by his his Orchestra of Life – an ensemble of classical, jazz and rock musicians and even four vocalists. Nigel was dressed very unconventionally for a classical concert. No monkey suit and dickey bow for him – to go along with his well known spikey haircut he was wearing bondage trousers and an Aston Villa replica shirt underneath his loose jacket. It was pretty clear that this wasn’t going to be a traditional classical concert. I wondered what the older members of the audience were going to make of it.

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Picture source: Wikipedia

The musicians were predominantly relatively young and a high proportion of them were rather attractive young women. An article I saw in the Guardian a few months ago referred to his ensemble as Nigel’s “mid life crisis orchestra”. They were probably not far off the mark!

The first half of the concert was devoted to The Four Elements – three of the four movements (air, earth and water – he missed out fire) and the underture, a piece written as an overture but played last. According to the publicity for the tour,

the Four Elements is a highly descriptive composition, inspired by the elements of earth, water, air and fire, which takes the listener on a journey of exhilaration, contemplation and celebration.

The pieces were a fusion of styles – classical, rock and jazz, and included vocal sections. I enjoyed the music, although had some reservations about the vocals. I’d listened to the album before the concert by Spotify and didn’t think some of the vocals worked, particularly on Earth. However, I have to say, that they came across much better live.

The second half, after the interval, was devoted to the Four Seasons , with a couple of Bach pieces interjected between Spring and Summer. It was a very different interpretation. It started off more or less in a traditional classical style (even if rock and jazz instruments were being played) but as the concert proceeded through the seasons more rock and jazz elements were introduced and Nigel switched from his acoustic violin to his electric one. He used effects pedals and in some sections his violin could have been mistaken for a rock guitar. There was input from the vocalists and even spoken sections of poems. It was very different to a traditional interpretation.

I enjoyed the concert. It was a  little self indulgent and I thought some aspects didn’t completely work, but there’s nothing wrong with trying out new approaches. Without experimentation music would ossify. Nigel clearly enjoyed himself and lapped up the adulation.

As for the audience – I think he won over the overwhelming majority. There was sincere, enthusiastic applause at the end with a large proportion of the audience on their feet – and he came back to play three more short pieces. I think just about everyone went away satisfied by an enjoyable, if flawed, performance. It was a good night. And Nigel certainly can play the violin.