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.

Synthesisers and Brass

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.