Kate Rusby at the Bridgewater Hall 2018

Last Wednesday afternoon we travelled over to Manchester. We called into the City Art Gallery to take a look at the Martin Parr exhibition currently showing there, then had a look around the Christmas Market. But our main reason for the visit was to see Kate Rusby’s Christmas concert at the Bridgewater Hall.

Kate Rusby is an award winning folk singer from Penistone in South Yorkshire, very well known on the folk circuit, who’s had a number of albums that have sold well and made the album charts. Her Christmas concert is based around old traditional versions of carols as sung around the pubs in South Yorkshire . 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”. She performed 3 versions in all of this well known carol, all set to different tunes. Other songs  included the familiar carols, “O little town of Bethlehem” and “Joy to the World”. 

She played with her band – a guitarists (her husband), a bouzouki player,  an accordionist, a double bassist (who also played a Moog synthesiser) and a drummer, plus a five piece brass ensemble. The brass band gave it a real northern Christmassy feel.

For someone who isn’t so tall (!) she has a big stage presence and twinkling eyes and a smile almost as wide of the stage and chatted away between the songs. She really did seem to be enjoying herself, a true performer. 

As with other of her Christmas shows we’ve seen, 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!

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”

 

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.

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.

SuzyV at the Lowry

We went to see Suzanne Vega at the Lowry on Monday. It was her first theatre performance of her UK tour, although she had played at the Isle of Wight Festival the day before and had driven up north the day before.  It was a good performance – she was on stage for about 90 minutes, including two encores.  There was a bit of banter with the audience, which made the show seem quite intimate even though the main theatre in the  Lowry is a reasonably sized venue.  Saying that she thought she was in Manchester, she obviously hadn’t been briefed about the relationship between Manchester and Salford! She announced that her husband was in the audience, but he didn’t mind her singing songs about her ex-boyfriends so long as they died at the end!

She was supported by Duncan Sheik, a singer-songwriter from New Jersey. He played a solo set but was supported for a few numbers at the end of his set by Suzy V’s guitarist. He had a good voice. Most of his songs were, to put it mildly, downbeat. There was one song about somebody buried alive and another about someone committing suicide on stage!

Suzy V performed a strong set, starting off with “Marlena on the wall“. Somebody posted a video of her performing this song at the Isle of Wight festival the day before the concert at the Lowry on YouTube. Here it is

She included a good number of her better known songs including “Luka“, “Tom’s Diner”  and “Caramel“. She also included some I’d not heard before. (Of these, “Frank and Ava” was one I particularly liked). She might be 50 now, but she still has a fine, clear voice. You can hear every word she sings. The volume of the band – just a guitarist and bassist, both very competent musicians, – was mixed at the right level so it didn’t overwhelm the delicate singing. There were some good guitar licks and the bassist was excellent on “Left of centre“.

We were right at the back (only one row behind us) and to the right of the stage. But the Lowry is well laid out so you can see the stage wherever you sit. Its big enough for a good atmosphere, but not so big that you’re ridiculously far away from the act you’ve paid good money to see (although I’d have liked to be closer – book earlier next time!) I much prefer the Lowry to the Arena in Manchester. Smaller venues are definitely best. Reminds me of those I used to go to when I was in my teen such as the good old Free Trade Hall.

After a good set she was called back for two encores . Her final song was “In Liverpool” – perhaps not the best song to play in Salford! – but one of my favourites. A great finish to a great concert.

(For the set list and some photos from the gig click here)

Wilko at the Citadel

The Wilko Johnson Band on stage at the Citadel

While browsing on the web yesterday I found out that Wilko Johnson’s band were playing at the Citadel in St Helens that evening. Wilko is one of my all time “guitar herose”. He used to be the lead guitarist in Dr Feelgood, who tasted success for a short while in the 1970’s  with their raw version of R & B. He has a very distinctive style, managing to combine lead and rhythmn guitar.

I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see his band and after several attempts I managed to get through to the box office on the phone and, luckily, was able to sort out one of the last tickets. Wilko does have a loyal following but I guess his current tour has had more interest due to the release of Julien Temple’s film about Dr Feelgood, “Oil City Confidential” that I saw at the cinema in February and which was recently shown on BBC4.

The Citadel is a relatively small venue and over 200 people (mainly middle aged men reliving their youth, with a smattering of females) packed in. There are some seats on the balcony but downstairs it’s standing room only – on this occasion a middle aged “mosh pit”.

First up was the support band “the People’s Republic of Mercia“, a band from Birmingham playing raw R & B, mainly self penned. They played a good solid set very much in the style of “Dr Feelgood”. They weren’t exactly a handsome bunch, but had a good stage presence – particularly the lead singer/rhythm guitarists and the bassist.

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Wilko’s band features Norman Watt, formerly of Ian Dury’s Blockheads, on bass and Dylan Howe, the son of Steve Howe (of Yes) on drums.

Wilko was the centre of attention, strutting round stage in his own inimitable manic style, with his eyes staring into middle distance, just like he used to in the Feelgoods. At times pointing his guitar at the audience as if it was a machine gun. The crowd lapped it up. He look different these days, 30 odd years on. His mop top has disappeared – he’s now bald, and his face shows his age.  He also plays a Stratocaster rather than the Telecaster that was his trademark in the 70’s.

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Wilko acted as vocalist. He always sang a few numbers with the Feelgoods, but he’s no great singer – almost tuneless. The band really good do with a good vocalist but I guess that anyone he recruited would be compared with Lee Brillaux, the amazing vocalist from the Feelgoods and the comparison would, inevitably, be unfavourable.

Norman Watts is also quite a character. Bald on top, but with long hair at the back and sides, he has distinctive teeth and strange stare, crouching over his instrument, he reminded me of a zombie from a Hammer horror film.

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Dylan Howe is younger and normal looking! He works away hard at the back of the stage, out of the limelight providing a solid platform. Nothing too flash – and he only took a very short drum solo towards the end of the set.

The music was solid R & B, a mixture of Dr Feelgood number including “Sneaki’n Suspicion”  “Roxette”, “Back in the Night” and “She does it right”,some songs from Wilko’s later career and a few R & B standards .  Wilko’s lead/rhythm guitar overlying a solid rhythm section.

It was a great performance and a great atmosphere. A good night out.

To see a video I shot of “Roxette”, click here.