A bit of culture

Over the past few weeks we’ve been busy soaking up a bit of culture

The Thursday of my week off work we had tickets for a production at the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick. We’d planned to combine that with a lower level walk in the Borrowdale Valley, but plans had to change after J sprained her foot. Luckily she’d recovered enough to have a look around Keswick before a pre-theatre meal in the Fellpack restaurant

Our theatre tickets were for a performance of The Ladykillers, a play based on the 1955 Ealing Comedy a favourite film of mine that starred Alec Guinness, Herbert Lom and Peter Sellers. The play is based on the film, not the other way round and it had first been produced back in 2011 at Liverpool Playhouse, starring Peter Capaldi.

The plot followed that of the film, with a few differences. As with previous visits to the Theatre by the Lake we enjoyed the production. Is was well acted, particularly Dominic Gately as the Professor, who brought a real comic touch to the role. Devesh Kishore wasn’t as sinister as Herbert Lom as Louis – who could be – but I thought Luke Murphy made more of the part of Harry than Peter Sellers.

This week the weather mid week has been awful with heavy rain (we didn’t get it anywhere near as bad a further east and south, mind). We had tickets for two events – a play at the Royal Exchange on Wednesday and a musical performance at the Halle’s small venue in Ancoats on Thursday so we braved the rain and drove into Manchester two days on the trot.

Another pre-theatre meal, this time at Mowgli’s in the Corn Exchange

Light Falls a new play by Simon Stephens, with music by Jarvis Cocker, at the Royal Exchange, has had good reviews and was almost sold out, even on a wet Wednesday evening.

Connecting five relatives in five disparate English towns, from Blackpool to Durham, LIGHT FALLS is a richly layered play about life in the face of death, about how our love survives us after we’ve gone – and about how family, community and kindness help the North survive.

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As with just about everything we’ve seen at the Royal Exchange it was a good production with some excellent performances by the cast. Mind you, the first half in particular really lived up to the saying that “it’s grim up north”. It started by somebody dying before moving round the north of England to “visit” her husband and offspring who all had their own problems. Things resolved themselves a little at the end at the funeral and the ending was a little more optimistic.

Thursday evening and we were back in Manchester to see a performance by a young Polish pianist Hania Rani ( short for Raniszewska) at the Halle St Michaels venue, a converted church, in Ancoats. I’d come across her via Spotify, which has a “Discover Weekly” feature, where tracks are suggested based on your playlists. One week it had included one of her piano pieces from her recently released LP, Esja, and as I liked it I followed the link and explored the LP and some of her other music, including her LP with cellist Dobrawa Czocher.

Looking at Hania’s website I spotted that she was performing in Manchester at the start of a European tour so decided to get along. I had to buy the tickets online and was surprised to see that the start time was given as 7 p.m., which seemed rather early. Turned out that it was! We arrived in Manchester just after 6, parked up and walked across the city centre and Northern Quarter towards Ancoats, stopping off for a drink in a bar. We arrived at the venue at about quarter to 7 to discover that they were still conducting sound checks and that the doors were not due to open at 7:30. An apology would have been nice but the guy on the door seemed indignant that we’d turned up early (as had other people). So, a little dischuffed, we went back to the Northern Quarter for another drink.

I really enjoyed the concert, though. It’s a small venue, rather like the Liverpool Philharmonic’s “Music Room”, but it was pretty full. Hania played a fairly long set – about an hour and 20 minutes, without a break. I recognised many of the pieces from her LP but she also included a number of other pieces including 3 songs.

Hania is originally from Gadansk but now shares her time in Warsaw and Berlin. Her label, Gondwana Records, is Manchester based, which is why her tour was starting there. I think that her style is best described as minimalist classical – rather like the music of Michael Nyman, Philip Glass and Max Richter – with jazz and other influences.

Here’s a couple of her pieces, both from her LP

and here’s a piece performed with Dobrawa Czocher

Haarlem Jazz

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Our visit to Haarlem coincided with the annual Jazz Festival which started on the Wednesday and ran through until Sunday. We’d hoped to catch some of the music on the Wednesday and Thursday before we headed for home on Friday. On Wednesday evening, however, it poured down more or less continuously so after spending some time watching one of the acts on the opening night, we decided to call it quits and retreated to Tierney’s bar! The next night was much better. It didn’t rain and we were able to sample some of the music and atmosphere.

On the Wednesday there was only one stage, set up in the Grote Markt, but the next night three more stages opened up. 2 other stages around the Grote Kerk – on Oude Groenmarkt and Klokhuisplein – and another venue at the Pletterij , on the outskirts of the town centre.

From what we saw there wasn’t much jazz being played at the Jazz festival, which is why it’s actually billed as Haarlem Jazz and more. On Thursday the main stage was occupied by a couple of performers playing / performing electronic dance music, which is very big in the Netherlands. Not my scene at all, but clearly loved by the audience of mainly young adults.

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The other two stages around the Grote Kerk seemed to be devoted to soul music. Looking at the programme the “real” jazz seemed to be playing at the Pletterij .

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Soul Six on the Klokhuisplein stage
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We spent most of our time listening to a band on the smaller stage in the on Oude Groenmarkt . Uncle Sue are a local band and with a female singer and a horn section who were performing Stax style soul music. They were a good live act and much more up my street!

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“Do you have some Blues in you?”

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I came across this gentlemen at his stall on Hebden Bridge market when I was there a few weeks ago. He made up cigar box guitars and after spotting them I had to have a closer look.

He greeted me by asking me “have you got some blues in you?” Well I have – a little anyway! He spotted my Lancashire accent but despite this (!) I got chatting with him about how he made his hand built guitars and I had a go at playing one – they’re meant for playing slide or “bottleneck” style and it’s not something I’d really attempted before.

He told me that he had Parkinson’s disease (he had the characteristic hand tremor) but still persevered in building the instruments. I thought they were quite reasonably priced (probably worth more) and would have been tempted to buy one if I wasn’t just about to set out for a walk on the moors.

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Vishtèn at the Phil

Last Saturday we went out for the second evening on the trot, having been to a concert by the St Petersburg Philharmonic at the Bridgewater Hall on Friday. Almost unheard of these days! This time we drove into Liverpool for a performance at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall’s Music Room by the Canadian Arcadian folk band Vishtèn. We hadn’t heard of the band before I saw the advert for the concert, but having checked out their website I thought they looked like a good bet for an enjoyable evening – I wasn’t wrong!

Wikipedia tells us that The Acadians 

are the descendants of French colonists who settled in Acadia during the 17th and 18th centuries, some of whom are also descended from the Indigenous peoples of the region.

They were expelled from Canada by the British, and some migrated to Louisiana forming the Cajun population in the USA. But some managed to hang on in Canada.

The trio comprises multi-instrumentalists Emmanuelle and Pastelle LeBlanc from the Evangeline Region of Prince Edward Island, and Magdalen Islands’ native, Pascal Miousse……. Together, they pay homage to their traditions and to the historic and strong musical connections between their two island Acadian communities (Band’s website)

Their music is a mix of French, Irish and Scots influences, including energetic reels and lively balads sung in the Acadian French dialect. There were some similarities with Cajun music which I like.

Pastelle, the male member of the band played fiddle and guitar while the two female members, who are twin sisters, played various instruments, including keyboard, accordian, mandolin and tin whistles. They also provide percussion, with their feet! They efffectively tap danced while they were sitting down playing their instruments.

I really enjoyed the evening and have been following up the concert during the past week listening to a CD I bought at the concert and via Spotify. I’d certainly go to see them again if I get the chance.

Double Fantasy – John and Yoko

Last Saturday evening we watched John And Yoko: Above Us Only Sky a documentary film on Channel 4 which tells “the untold story” of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. The film also “explores how the art, politics and music of the pair are intrinsically entwined.”

I was particularly interested to watch the documentary as only a few days before we’d visited an exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool – Double Fantasy – John & Yoko – which covered much of the same ground. 

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The multi-media exhibition covers John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s relationship from when they  first met in November 1966 at an exhibition of Yoko’s work at a London gallery right up to John’s death in December 1980. Like the film, it tells their story in their own words, but also includes personal objects alongside art, music and film produced by both John and Yoko drawn from Yoko’s own private collection, and which

explores the personal and creative chemistry of this iconic couple and their ongoing Imagine Peace campaign (exhibition website)

In many ways John and Yoko were an unlikely couple. John a famous popular music star from a lower middle background from a working class city in the north of England, and Yoko a Japanese avant-garde artist from an upper class background. But they clicked with John, perhaps, seeing in Yoko what he really wanted to be (a cosmopolitan avant-garde artist, not an upper class Japanese woman!). The exhibition shows how they influenced each other’s work, with Yoko perhaps having a bigger influence on John than John on Yoko.

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For many Beatles fans, Yoko was not popular, to say the least. Many of them blamed her for the breakup of the band. John took her with him to recording sessions and she, allegedly, offered her own musical suggestions and tried to join in on some of the songs. This certainly didn’t go down that well with other members of the band and probably widened rifts that were already starting to open.

My own view is that Yoko’s input probably accelerated what would have happened in any case rather than being the primary cause. It’s rare for a creative partnership to last forever and the Beatles were already starting to drift apart as they developed their own interests. Yoko was, for many, an easy scapegoat, and some of the antagonism was no doubt because she was Japanese. There was an underlying racism and the memories of WW2, which only ended just over 20 years before, meant that many people had a dislike of the Japanese.  Attitudes have mellowed over the years, but probably hasn’t completely gone away.

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The exhibition was chronological, taking in all the key events of their relationship from their first meeting at Yoko’s exhibition illustrating them with artefacts, works of art and song lyrics, a rolling programme of films and music videos and a music room, overlooking the Mersey, with tracks from albums playing and featuring album cover art. 

Exhibits included costumes they wore at their wedding

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Art works by Yoko and reproductions of drawings by John

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handwritten drafts of song lyrics

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Their politics were really rather naive, but well intended and their Bed-Ins for Peace protests in Amsterdam, not surprisingly, featured prominently in the exhibition

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The story of the music that John created after he left the Beatles, in most cases working with Yoko, featured heavily. It was an opportunity to reappraise what John had achieved after he had left the Beatles. Inevitably not everything was a classic (and that’s true of every act, including the Beatles) but there were some songs which were as good as anything he had created during his partnership with Paul McCartney,   –  Mind Games, Jealous Guy, Watching the Wheels, Woman, Happy Xmas (War is over)  and, of course, Imagine

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Spiro and Leveret live in Liverpool

The week after our trip to Amsterdam the “Beast from the East” arrived bringing freezing cold weather and heavy snow. Much of Britain was paralysed as we aren’t geared up to deal with it. A concert by El Brooke’s at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall was cancelled as she was stuck somewhere down south in the snow. But the same evening we drove over to Liverpool for a different concert at the Phil, in their smaller venue, the Music Room. We had tickets for a concert by Two instrumental folk bands, Spiro and Leveret, the first date of their national tour. The north west was lucky in that although it was bitterly cold, we only had a smattering of snow. So our journey over to Liverpool was uneventful. Less so probably from the bands who’d driven up from the south (Spiro are based in Bristol) and the next date of their tour, in Settle in the Yorkshire Dales, had been cancelled due to the snow over there.

I discovered Spiro when a track of theirs was played on the Cerys Matthews show on BBC6 Music and since then I’ve been a fan. So I was keen to see them live.

In Liverpool they were on first, with their minimalist take on traditional tunes. The four piece – fiddle, mandolin, accordion and guitar, take a traditional tune as a starting point then weave complex riffs and melodies around it. Although the accordion player largely stays seated occasionally standing up, the other three prowl around the stage, at times duelling musically with each other.

Leveret are also accomplished musicians who play traditional tunes. A three piece – a fiddle a squeezebox and an accordion – staying seated throughout their set, they’re much less animated, except for the fiddler whose legs move almost like he has ants in his pants! Their approach to the tunes is different than Spiro, more traditional.

Both sets were excellent and I especially enjoyed seeing Spiro playing live.

As an encore both groups returned to the stage to play together.

A thoroughly enjoyable evening’s entertainment. We stepped back out into the cold. Some snow had fallen while we were inside the venue but hadn’t stuck on the road. Driving home down the M62 and M6 it started to snow. But we got off lightly. It had gone by the morning when I had to drive to Chester.