Tuesday 6 December 2016

Kula Shaker's Back, so put the freshness back... (Crispian Mills' magic carpet cleans up a treat 20 years later)

For the last twenty years 'K' has remained a guilty pleasure of mine. Crispian Mills' concoction of Eastern mysticism and prog rock influences may have been dismissed by the critics as the self-indulgent project of a posh-kid with showbiz connections, but I loved it in 1996, and I still loves it now. Mills has grown up and is now a father to two children, has held true to his Krishna beliefs, and survived the badly-handled early press reaction to his comments about swastikas (the symbol was originally used as a Sanskrit symbol for 'good luck' or 'good fortune', but mischievous journalists tried to imply that Kula Shaker were somehow guilty of right-wing Fascist alliance through their adoption of it). When the '20th Anniversary of K' tour dates were announced back in June I immediately bought a ticket for the Norwich show. 

Six months on, and the novelty of these 'classic album' shows is beginning to wear off. In the last few weeks I have seen no less than five other bands performing 'anniversary' revival shows, and whilst I have enjoyed them all there is a danger that the old adage 'Nostalgia isn't what it used to be' could begin to ring true. And, besides, I am gutted that I am missing Kate Tempest's return to Norwich for her show at The Waterfront. But is there not some meditation technique (or failing that, hallucinogenic drug) that would provide an out-of-body opportunity to attend both gigs simultaneously?

Support for the entire Kula Shaker tour comes from three musicians from Folkestone, plucked from obscurity by Mills and given the chance to impress with their stampy blend of swampy blues-rock. Unfortunately, Rudy Warman & The Heavy Weather, use the opportunity to alienate me, not by their music (which is great), or their appearance (crusty eco-warrior), but by their arrogant between-song comments. Now, I have the utmost respect for those who hold strong beliefs and choose to follow an alternative lifestyle, but I feel slightly condescended to when it is assumed that, simply by being part of tonight's audience, I do not understand the issues at Standing Rock, or wish to continue to be carnivorous. And if I want to dance to your music, I will. I don't need Smart-Alec comments like 'There seems to be a lot of mud out there, 'cos your feet all seem to be stuck to the floor' any more than I need you to take your shirt off as some kind of evidence of the benefits of a vegan diet. You wouldn't like it if I took my shirt off to counter-demonstrate the effects of my pie and Adnams diet.

Rudy Warman & The Heavy Weather

Crispian Mills, by contrast, is as genial and as welcoming as one could hope for. After opening with a cheekily hi-jacked 'Kula Shaker's Crazy Hearts Club Band' (borrowed from a certain Fab Four) they give us Let Love B (With You) the new K.2.0 album, before getting on with the business in hand. Mills asks us to think of tonight's show not so much as a journey back in time, but as opening a door in time and bringing the past to the present. He reminds us of the ticket's promise to hear the 1996 'K' album played in its entirety, then playfully produces a vinyl copy of the album and a portable turntable. 'So, we will all listen to it together', he playfully teases, 'and then discuss it at the end'.

The atmosphere has already been prepared. Incense sticks have been burning atop Mills' ring of monitors, full length drapes featuring the 'K' logo and album artwork hang from either side of the stage, and above the drum-kit three projection screens synchronise kaleidoscopic imagery of Hindu deities. A lighting rig that reminds of the front half of a Louise Bourgeois sculpture straddles the back of the stage, whilst spotlight banks look on from the sides. Crispian Mills sense of the theatrical is certainly well-tuned after his directorial experiences.

The sound is joyously familiar as we work through the first half of the album. Bassist Alonza Bevan remains from the original line-up, as does drummer Paul Winterhart. Together with relatively new recruit Harry Broadbent on Hammond organ and keyboards, the re-creation is as perfect as one could hope for. Mills is suitably energetic in his performance, striking the obligatory poses but looking at times rather too much like Gareth Keenan from 'The Office' for comfort and total credibility.

There is a brief interlude between sides one and two, during which two B-sides are performed - Under The Hammer and the George Harrison tribute Gokula (containing a sampled riff from the Harrison song Skiing) as well as the single from Peasants, Pigs & Astronauts, Shower Your Love.

Side two features a further two singles, Tattva and Grateful When You're Dead, and the set ends with the Joe South cover, and hit single, Hush. By now we realise that one huge track from the album, the mighty Govinda, has been omitted from the album running order. Fear not. With the theatrical expertise of old pros Kula Shaker have kept the audience baying for more, and kept the best back for last. After an encore run through of two new tracks from K.2.0 we are duly given our chance to join in with the chanting of 'Govinda, Jaya, Jaya' until we are ready to leave for a higher plane. Or, in this case, the cold and foggy campus of the UEA.

Monday 5 December 2016

Low. And Behold. And, it's the final Sonic Youths Showcase of the Year

It has been a busy start to December. Goodness knows how people with jobs still find time to put up Christmas trees and go out buying Yuletide gifts for folk. I seem to have attended rather a lot of 'Classic Album' gigs of late. It started off with Sam Duckworth's new project Recreations and The Magnetic South performing his Get Cape, Wear Cape, Fly album 'Chronicles of a Bohemian Teenager' in its entirety at the Arts Centre. This was followed with similar performances of The Fratellis' 'Costello Music' at the Nick Rayns LCR, Terrorvision's 'Regular Urban Survivors', and Big Country's 'The Seer' (both at The Waterfront). And tonight I return to the LCR to watch Kular Shaker re-create their classic, 'K'. All of these albums are being toured to celebrate key anniversaries of their original release, ranging from 10 years for 'Chronicles of a Bohemian Teenager' to an amazing 30 years for 'The Seer'.

After so much 'classic' music (revived with varying degrees of success, and with varying percentages of original band line-ups), it was good to have some up and coming artists to sample, via the final Saturday lunchtime Sonic Youths Showcase of the year, in the café-bar at Norwich Arts Centre. If you include the various festival outings during the Summer, the 2nd Birthday Party show, and the appearance at Norwich Sound and Vision, that makes a total of thirteen Sonic Youth events curated this year by the legendary Annie Catwoman. But, before I pass on my events of Saturday lunchtime, let me just say a few words about Minnesota band Low's return to the Arts Centre earlier in the week.

Once again I am forced to put up my hand and admit to being relatively unfamiliar with the work of husband and wife team Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker and their band. Formed in 1993, and gaining attention for their striking vocal harmonies, downbeat tempos and minimalist arrangements, Low have released a total of twelve studio albums. But it is their 1999 Christmas EP, an eight track mix of carols, seasonal classics and original songs that seems to have taken a place in the fans' hearts. At the time, even the NME called it "quite possibly the best Christmas album in the world… ever".

Low's Christmas shows appear to have become something of a tradition here at Norwich Arts Centre, and this year's visit has been sold out for months in advance. Together with Steve Garrington on bass and keyboards, and with opening support Erik Koskinen guesting on slide guitar, Alan and Mimi certainly worked their magic on tonight's audience. From where I was watching, there was an almost devotional air, bordering on pietistic reverence. Personally, being a fairly non-religious person, I found some of this slightly intense, to the point of deflecting my attention from the actual performance. The second half of the show, though, featured a selection of less spiritually doctrinal material, leaving me able to fully appreciate Low's vocals and musicianship. However, some of those present later wrote with high praise indeed, one describing it as 'possibly their best NAC gig ever'. Horses for courses, I guess.


Still, whatever you may have thought of Low's 'A Christmas Show' it was infinitely more welcome than the orgy of commercialism and spending that is about to engulf us as the 25th approaches. After the city centre's illuminations ignition celebrations, complete with Ed Balls, fireworks and with Disney-style imagery projected onto public buildings, the feeding frenzy is certainly now in full swing. On Saturday, Mustard TV got in on the act, taking over Millennium Plain for a Christmas Party event, and even the Christmas Coca Cola lorry is being invited to park up outside The Forum on Friday 9th. Remaining suitably impassive, I made my way through The Lanes to St Benedicts Street, and the Norwich Arts Centre.

Three acts were introduced to us, singer songwriter Kayleigh Watson from Wymondham, jazz keyboards from Norwich-based Omar El Oakley, and a four piece rock band, Off The Wall, from Colchester. And all, crucially, fitting Sonic Youth's criteria of being musicians aged between 14 and 19. (The fourth artist due to appear, Breeze Redwine, was unable to perform due to other committments).

Kayleigh Watson

Kayleigh Watson was handed the baton to open the session, and did it with total aplomb. I had not heard her sing before, other than via her Soundcloud page, but was mightily impressed. Looking comfortable and at ease, she confidently introduced each of her chosen self-penned compositions, personal songs about love and honesty, and a moving one about her late grandmother. The voice is clear, strong and with a distinctive timbre. The melodies are well constructed, and the overall effect is sit-up-and-take-note attention grabbing. Look out for her name on future gig listings in and around Norwich.

Omar El Oakley

The charismatically named Omar El Oakley is a keyboard player with a beautiful line in blues-infused jazz compositions. Classically trained, and sometimes known to record as his alter-ego Gary Mozart, this afternoon he is Omar, sitting behind his Yamaha keyboard and letting his improvised jazz vibe fill the café-bar area. Dressed casually in black roll-neck sweater, and with a sixties Jacques Brel hairstyle, Omar would not be out of place in a cellar jazz club on the left bank of the Seine, let alone an Arts Centre in the Norwich Lanes. He is not given a microphone, so some of his introductions do have to compete against the noise from the coffee maker, and I would have loved to hear him play the Art Centre's baby grand instead of an electric keyboard, but he is undoubtedly another local talent that we need to watch out for.

Off The Wall

Last up, and providing yet another seismic shift in mood and style, is Colchester based Off The Wall, who despite their age have already been together since 2009. They have played regularly at Colchester's Waiting Room venue, as well as at The John Peel Centre and at Landslide Festival. Even though guitarist Albert Wallace left Colchester in the Autumn to start university the band are still together, and still performing when they can. Front man and lead vocalist Fin Clark has great stage presence and a really strong voice that is capable of making an impression above Adam Looker's energetic drumming, and alongside Sam Warner's bass and Wallace's guitar. Although they refer to themselves as an 'indie-rock' outfit, and there are some modern influences in there, including Arctic Monkeys, what impresses an old timer like myself is the 'classic' rock sound that they also seem to bring to the table. There are opening shots of Motorhead with their first song, and some early Zeppelin blues riffs creeping into their single release 'Marvel Superhero'. Thanks to Annie for finding these boys, and bringing them to Norwich.

And that is it for 2016 as far as Sonic Youths are concerned, although the net has already been cast for those interested in performing at the next showcase. Get your demos into Annie by January 7th for the next scheduled showcase on February 11th. 

Thursday 1 December 2016

Pony Up for some Pins and a pint of Honeyblood. Cheers!

I owe a debt of gratitude to Pony Up. Since February 2014 when they picked up the reins formerly held by local music promoter Twee Off they have introduced me to some pretty damn fine music. Pony Up quickly established an enviable reputation for booking new and breaking national names, and matching them to some exciting local support. The idea was to lay on an evening of top quality acts, but with a ticket price that anyone could beg, steal or borrow. They commissioned Jo Stafford, of Print To The People, to produce artwork for the gigs, and even gave away limited edition prints to the first punters through the door at each event. Over the last two and a half years Pony Up has introduced me to the likes of Young Fathers, Kagoule, Declan McKenna, Micachu and The Shapes, Menace Beach, and God Damn, as well as giving me a chance to hear local favourites like Teen Brains, Collider, Peach Club, Claws and even Let's Eat Grandma. So, to Pony Up, I say, 'Thank you'.

For what is probably the last Pony Up of 2016, they change direction slightly, and bring back two bands that have played Norwich before. Both have each released second albums to critical acclaim, and, with all-female line-ups, have helped to challenge the status quo in a business that has a sorry history of being fiercely and protectively male-dominated. It was therefore a big welcome back to Norwich Arts Centre to PINS from Manchester, and Honeyblood from Glasgow.


PINS were formed in Manchester in 2011 by a fashion photographer, Faith Holgate, who enrolled cello-playing Anna Donigan to play bass, fellow guitarist Lois McDonald, and then persuaded Sophie Galpin to take up the drums. Later a fifth member, Kyoko Swan, would learn keyboards to complete the current line-up. The sound of their first album Girls Like Us probably owed more to Scottish rockers Jesus and Mary Chain than it did to the Manchester sound , but was then followed up last year with Wild Nights, recorded in America and showing a transition to a more open and wide-hued palette. They have played within our city walls at two Norwich Sound and Vision events, firstly in 2013 and then again last year at The Mash Tun. However, as is often the case with NS+V, there was so much going on elsewhere that I missed their set on both occasions. Definitely time to make amends.


PINS open with Trouble, released as one side of a 10" single earlier this year especially for Record Store Day. It is a dark and menacing number, a million miles away from the other 'Trouble' from nineties 'girl power' bubblegum pop band Shampoo. The Arts Centre stage is bathed in dark blue light, and the smoke machine is doing its business as Holgate's snarling refrain of 'Don't call me sweetheart' sets out their stall perfectly. The remainder of the set draws from both Girls Like Us and Wild Nights, the latter showing melodic touches that you could easily re-work onto a Beach House album, or in the case of the stomping Young Girls even give a contemporary country makeover to. Overall, though, they stylistically remind me a lot of The Horrors - moody and atmospheric, delivered with a huge amount of panache and style, but with occasional moments of pleasure-seeking sharpness. The one nod to their Manchester adopted home comes with a cover of Joy Division's Dead Souls, slipped in to the set without introduction or fanfare. Really impressed by PINS. Please, please come back and perform a headline set here before too long.

Glaswegian duo Stina Tweeddale (vocals, guitar) and Cat Myers (vocals, drums) have been together as Honeyblood since September 2014, although the band was originally founded in 2012 with Shona McVicar, who at the time was a dental student, on drums. The eponymous debut album was recorded before stick duties were handed over to Myers, and she had only just enough time to learn the songs before I first saw the band play at Epic Stuidios in Norwich in November of that year when they supported Superfood. (Incidentally, opening that night were local favourites Claws, my first ever time seeing them play live)


From a dark, packed stage with the five-strong members of PINS to a backlit projection screen and just a guitarist and drums combo placed on opposite sides seemed to leave an awful lot of space unfilled, and Tweeddale remains fairly static for the first couple of tracks, including Ready For The Magic from this year's 'Babes Never Die'. Even though the auditorium seemed almost full, and everyone seemed well up for a bit of a dance and a jump around (the Arts Centre had even obligingly put the safety barriers up ready for a bit of surge and bounce activity), the duo themselves seemed intent on a slow build. They featured mostly slow to mid-tempo numbers until about half way through when Sister Wolf  seemed to be the signal to raise the flag for a bit of audience calorie burning. From then on it was energy levels on high right up to the end, when Super Rat and Killer Bangs provided the seamless 'encore' - no walking off and coming back, just a warning that these really would be the band's final songs of the night.


Yet another blisteringly good Pony Up, although if I had to make the Sophie's Choice between the two bands I would probably go with PINS. That is not to say I would not make the effort to recommend, or go to see again, either of these two bands. I most certainly would.