Coventry Carol

Well, that’s work done now until the New Year and I’m just beginning to feel Christmassy.

Here’s a modern take on an old carol

Merry Christmas!


Synthesisers and Brass


Saturday evening, the start of what was a busy long weekend, saw us driving over to Liverpool for a concert at the Art Deco Philharmonic Hall. We had tickets to see a concert – a double header with Hannah Peel’s Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia and Tubular Brass’ arrange ent of the classic “Prog Rock” album from the 70’s, Tubular Bells, arranged for a brass band.

These days, I’m a regular listener to BBC 6 Music and I’d heard selections from the Tubular Brass album and the single released by Hannah Peel in advance of the album. I enjoyed both enough to buy tickets to go and see them performed live.

Now Prog Rock has had something of a bad press these days, the cliche being that it was about pompous, overblown tracks by self indulgent musicians. There’s an element of truth in that but I that isn’t the whole story. As a teenager, like many other six formers, I was a fan of bands like Yes, Pink Floyd, Genesis and the likes and before they started to take themselves too seriously, I think they produced some good music – even if it did mainly appeal to male sixth formers and students!

The audience was  mainly well over 50 with a scattering of younger faces. Probably made up of an interesting mix of brass band aficionados, prog rock fans of a certain age and others attracted by the plays on Radio 6.


Hannah Peel was on first and played the whole of her album that had been released only the previous day, although she had performed it at some festivals over the summer. It’s a 7-movement odyssey composed for analogue synths and a full 29-piece colliery brass band and tells the story of an unknown, elderly, pioneering, electronic musical stargazer and her lifelong dream to leave her terraced home in the mining town of Barnsley, South Yorkshire, to see the constellation of Cassiopeia. It’s seems a crazy idea mixing synthesisers and brass but it worked. Hannah was on stage dressed in a silver trouser suit behind a bank of instruments, bringing back memories of the likes of Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson, accompanied by the musicians of the Tubular Brass ensemble and with swirling visuals projected on an overhead screen.


Swooping stellar synths combining and merging with the more down to earth brass and finishing with a recording of Hannah’s grandfather from Manchester Cathedral when he was a young choir boy at the end of the final movement The Planet of Passed Souls.


After the break it was time for Tubular Bells scored and arranged by Sandy Smith who first encountered the Mike Oldfield album as a teenager when it was released in the mid 70’s.

The original vinyl album was central to our frequent Saturday night house parties, especially as the night drew late and a combination of fatigue and the effects of early experiments with alcohol took hold. It is almost impossible to convey to those not around at the time the seismic impact which the release of Tubular Bells had on young, enquiring musical minds.

The original album consisted of two pieces of music, each taking up a whole side, made up of several sections of multitracked instruments played by Mike Oldfield himself. In the Tubular Brass version the music was played by different combinations of brass instruments. Hannah Peel joined in, introducing the instruments at the end of the first half, originally done by Viv Stanshall on the original album and contributing some synths during the second half. I thought the brass arrangement really worked and, if anything, worked better than the original.

To end the performance the ensemble played 3 prog rock pieces, finishing with a brass arrangement of ELP’s version of Fanfare for the Common Man.

Two great performances. Brass and synthesisers – what’s not to like?

PJ Harvey at the Victoria Warehouse


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.


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.


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.

Kate Rusby at the Bridgewater Hall

It seems to have become a Christmas tradition for us – going to watch Kate Rusby. It’s the third time we’ve been the South Yorkshire folk singer’s Christmas show. The first time in Warrington 3 years ago. We missed out last year due to my jolly to Australia but this year made sure we got tickets for the show at the Bridgewater hall in Manchester last Monday.

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”. Apparently the tune was written for this carol by someone from Kent, and it was only later adopted for the Yorkshire national anthem. In fact she performed 3 versions in all of this well known carol, all set to different tunes. This is another one

She played with her band – two guitarists (one her husband), an accordionist and a double bassist, plus a five piece brass ensemble. The brass band gave it a real northern Christmassy feel.

As previous years, 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!

About the Young Idea


I was the right age to be a punk. However, although I liked some of the music, the aimless anarchism of the punk movement never appealed to me. But punk did achieve something significant– it renewed and refreshed popular music, taking it right back to the basics. Later, this allowed new bands to emerge, rediscovering older styles, but with a more contemporary twist. One band that did this was the Jam. Their music and style inspired by the Who, other 60’s Mod bands and the soul of Tamla Motown and Stax. And they adopted a retro, 60’s Mod style too. Now that was something that did appeal to me.


So when I was down in London and had a few hours to spare the morning of the second day, rather than hide away in my hotel room with my laptop working, I decided to take some “me time” and visit the exhibition about the Jam which was taking place at Somerset House.

About the Young Idea (the title taken from their single In the City) was

the first comprehensive exhibition about the extraordinary band whose music immortalised life for Britain’s disenchanted youth during the late 70s and early 80s. Through unseen material and fan memorabilia, the exhibition charts the trio’s journey from Sheerwater Secondary Modern in Woking to superstardom, (Somerset House website)

The exhibition explored the origins and  history of the band, the influence of Paul Weller’s father, John (it included a video tribute to him), their music and lyrics, their style, memorabilia and their relationship with their fans.

The first room looked at the origins of the band and included some interesting photographs of a young Paul Weller


and some drawings that he’d done


There were examples of their instruments (I can’t resist a good guitar!)



Clothing epitomising the Mod style


Records and record sleeves


and badges that would be worn by their fans (very popular at the time)


The band’s music was radical, many of their songs addressing social issues and progressive ideas. Many of them are still relevant today – The Eton Rifles, being particularly adapt when Old Etonians and other ex public schoolboys are ruling the roost.

Not surprisingly, examples of their music featured heavily being played on videos at the beginning


and towards the end of the exhibition


There’s only so far you can go  with a style of music and they split in December 1982 when Paul Weller decided it was time to move on, exploring different styles with the Style Council and as a solo artist. He’s still going strong.

Keep the faith

Wigan Casino, Station Road, late 70s.

(Picture source: Wigan World website)

All the hotels I’ve stayed in during my numerous visits to Ireland have had the main 4 British TV channels available. I was grateful of this last week when I wanted to catch an episode of BBC 2’s Culture Show. Presented by  Paul Mason, it explored one of the passions of his, and my, youth – “Northern Soul” and it’s mecca during the late 1970’s – Wigan Casino.

Northern soul was the label applied to black American music from the 1960’s and 1970’s influenced by the sound of Tamla Motown which became popular in the North of England during the late 1970’s. But it was more than a type of music. An underground “scene” developed  with it’s own fashions, energetic dancing and “All Nighters”. And many of it’s devotees, including me, were keen collectors of the music, seeking out, where possible, favourite rare records.

The “scene” grew out of the Mod movement in Manchester at the Twisted Wheel, a dance club in Whitworth Street in the centre of Manchester. Initially playing soul music which was popular with Mods, the club’s DJ’s started to seek out rare and obscure records, often dug up from warehouses in Detroit and other cities in the USA, with a frantic, uptempo beat and sung with raw emotion. “Motown with a rougher edge” as it was described on the programme.

When the Twisted Wheel closed in 1971, the baton was passed on to clubs including the Golden Torch in Stoke on Trent and Blackpool Mecca. But probably the most famous Northern Soul club of all was the Wigan Casino. Located in the former Empress Ballroom on Station Road the first All Nighter was held on 23 September 1973.

Paul Mason is Culture & Digital Editor for Channel 4 News, and was, until recently, Economics Editor for the BBC’s Newsnight. He’s a “lobby gobbler” (i.e. someone from Leigh, a town  five miles from Wigan) and, like me, in his youth was a regular visitor to the All Nighters at the Casino. Yes, I used to turn up at midnight, dancing all night until the final strains of the “three before eight” the next morning. And I have to own up to wearing the essential outfit, including the Spencer’s Bags – 40 inch bottoms (around each leg) with a 32 inch waist.

The programme celebrated Wigan Casino 40 years after the first All Nighter and as well as telling the story of the club included interviews with “soulies” past and present. One of my favourite quotes came from a regular at the Twisted Wheel, the punk poet John Cooper Clarke –

“There isn’t a bad Northern Soul record”

The Casino closed for the last time in December 1981. The local Council wanted the land for an extension to their offices the “Civic Centre” although that was never actually built. The building burnt down a few years and today is buried beneath the Galleries shopping arcade that has been built over Station Road (another example of a public street privatised and inaccessible outside of shopping hours)

(Image source Wikipedia)

But like many music scenes, Northern Soul still survives with original devotees, now in their fifties, attending events all over the country as there has been a revival in recent years. The programme showed that many of them can still “strut their stuff”. And Paul Mason himself, very gamely I felt, relived his youth by stepping out and attempting the dance steps of his youth. I don’t think I would have been so brave to try that on TV, but I have to admit to moving around the dining room at home (when no-one is watching!) while playing records from my collection and on the very rare occasions when I attend a dance at a wedding or event and the DJ spins a “blast from the past”.

These days my musical tastes are quite broad – including soul, rock, jazz and classical – but I still hold on to my collection of Northern Soul records and many of my favourites are included on my ipod and Spotify playlists.

But the Culture Show wasn’t the only programme on the BBC that week about Northern Soul. The previous Saturday I listened to a programme on Radio Four introduced by former Radio One DJ Anne Nightingale,  Shine Like Tokyo – Northern Soul Goes East! about the thriving Northern Soul scene in, of all places Japan.