Wednesday 26 April 2017

Calan on Tour - and there's Some Welsh Folk in Town

It's been a busy day, and I have had to process a quick turn-around in order to get down to Norwich Arts Centre in time for tonight's appearance from Welsh contemporary folk ensemble Calan. I've been over at the University of East Anglia to take some pictures of Anthony Gormley's recently installed 'Another Time' figures, and then spent the afternoon invigilating at this year's Norfolk and Norwich Open Studios taster exhibition at The Forum. It's been a funny old day. I have been snowed on, hailed on and rained on, and this is the last week in April. But neither weather nor tight schedules is going to make me miss this gig. If these five youngsters can endure the journey across from Wales to Norwich the least I can do is clamber onto my motorbike and drive the six miles to the Arts Centre.

I arrive just as opening act, Dan Wilde, is performing his first number. Although now living in Cambridge, Dan arrives in Norwich as support act to Calan on all English and Scottish dates for this tour. However, it is clear that many of tonight's audience are familiar with Dan's music, remembering him from the Cambridge Folk Festival, or from appearing with The Willows last year at The Portland Arms.

Dan Wilde

Casually dressed, and delivering a set of personal and honestly written songs, Dan appears relaxed and at ease with tonight's seated audience. Each number is preceded with an introduction that contributes a few more insights into his back story and experiences. There are songs about life's setbacks - like getting a £50 parking ticket after spending all day delivering telephone directories ('Abusing My Position'); there are songs inspired by his wife's literal translations of native Russian expressions ('Windy Head'); and there are hearwarming stories of meeting his two-year old niece for the first time. There's even a story about how his grandmother met her grandfather ('Hammersmith Palais'), although even he is now unsure of its voracity.

There has never been a shortage of guitar toting folk singers, but few do it with the charm and sharp observation of Dan Wilde. Not surprisingly, Dan is doing a brisk business on the merch stand during the interval as I make my way to the bar to get a beer.

My grandparents used to live in Swansea, and I remember what a long journey it was as a child, making our way from Lowestoft on the epic journey to reach Wales. Half a century on, and the roads may be slightly better, but it hard to think of a music venue further away from Calan's spiritual homeland.

Five youngsters who met originally whilst students at Cardiff University, Calan have released three albums since 2008, and are now touring to promote their fourth, 'Solomon', released less than two weeks ago. Their blend of traditional Welsh folk music, played on a mixture of accordion, guitar, harp, welsh bagpipes, fiddles and pipes, and supplemented with gorgeous vocals and displays of step dancing from accordion player Bethan Rhiannon, brings folk music bang up to date with rock and hip-hop influences from guitar player Sam Humphreys. Harpist Alice French gives her instrument an almost rock and roll credibility wearing it slung from her body via a shoulder strap, and Sam beats out hip-hop rhythms on his guitar body that are then fed through a loop. Yes, this is contemporary folk at its best.

But then Patrick Rimes produces a traditional Welsh pibgom, a reeded wooden pipe grafted onto a bull's horn, and switches from bagpipes to fiddle to whistle, all within the space of one song. Fiddle player Angharad Jenkins rues the fact that there are no Welsh speakers in tonight's audience, but includes a moving extract of poetry written by her father Nigel Jenkins that beautifully describes the Welsh landscape and culture. I instantly feel proud to claim my grandmother's Welsh lineage sown amidst my East Anglian roots.

There's a medley of tunes called Ryan Jigs, dedicated to Wales' success in last year's European Championships, beautiful lullabies dedicated to a friend's baby, stories about being held in a cell at Chicago airport, breathtaking step-dancing, and a tragic tale of a young Welsh girl taking her own life rather than bring shame on her family - sung beautifully in Welsh by Bethan. Her voice reminds me of Annie Haslan, from the seventies classical prog-folk fusion band Renaissance, and the rounded vowels and fricatives are as contemporary as, but smoother than, Cery Matthews of Catatonia.

The only slight criticism of tonight's performance was the absence of any space to get up and dance. Somehow, hand-clapping alone cannot not deliver sufficient or adequate expression in response to the energy of Calan's playing, and whilst many of tonight's audience would not have wanted to give up their seats, it was also clear that many felt constrained by the inability to get to their feet.

It was nice to see the members of the band happy to chat and sign CD's at the end of the show, and once again sales seemed brisk. Calan certainly won Norwich over tonight. Hopefully we will not have to wait too long for a return visit.

Monday 24 April 2017

Getting Ready for Summer with Quarantine and Norfolk and Norwich Festival

Quarantine present 'Summer. Spring. Autumn. Winter.' at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival - May 13th and May 14th, The Space, Roundtree Way, Norwich.

I have always loved May. And not just because when I was working full-time it meant two Bank Holiday Mondays. In fact, as anyone who works in pharmacy will tell you, we end up doing exactly the same amount of work in those weeks, but in one day less and with twice the stress. No, the reason I love May is that it truly acknowledges that Summer is on its way. The days are longer, the air is warmer and life somehow just seems more wholesome and special.

Four years ago I walked out on my job as manager of a community pharmacy, and for the first three or four months I simply concentrated on getting my head together. Then, at a friend's suggestion, I decided to volunteer to become a part of the 120 strong stewarding team that assembles each year to assist the smooth running of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival (NNF). It is an annual arts extravaganza that can trace its beginnings way back to 1772 when it was suggested as a fund-raiser for the original Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. It is now one of the largest annual arts festivals in the country.

During that first year, what I thought would be a standard stewarding and signposting duty turned into an almost life-changing experience. Not only did I throw myself enthusiastically into every shift that I was initially offered, but I ended up doing extra shifts, and attending as many of the shows and performances as possible. It sowed the seeds not only for my return in future years, but for other festival duties, and led to my becoming an all-year-round member of the volunteer front-of-house team at Norwich Arts Centre, and also a writer for Outline, the local listing and review publication. How I ever found time to hold down a full-time job is now a mystery to me.

Whilst many of the volunteer team at NNF are happy to work behind the scenes as driver or runners, or to watch the performances from the sidelines whilst doubling up as stewards, I am always on the look out for opportunities to become more involved with the shows and projects themselves. In my first year, back in 2014, I helped out with the construction of a giant model of St Peter Mancroft church tower made entirely out of cardboard boxes. 'The People's Tower', designed by French artist Olivier Grossetete, was finally assembled underneath the canopy of The Forum in Millenium Plain, before being ceremoniously demolished in front of a huge audience.

2014 - The People's Tower

In 2015 I became a 'firefighter' in theatre company Periplum's outdoor interpretation of the Ray Bradbury book Fahrenheit 451, a spectacular show complete with music and pyrotechnics and performed by the river on a redevelopment site behind St James Court.  I also helped create chaos on the streets of Norwich as part of French company X-TNT's 'De-Driving Code', a slightly anarchic interpretation of our own Highway Code as well as an antidote to rules in general.

2015 - Fahrenheit 451

2015 - 'The De-Driving Code'

Last year, 2016, did not throw any opportunities in my direction to participate in productions, so I threw myself instead into seeing as many shows as possible, in between my stewarding duties. The highlight was undoubtedly festival director William Galinsky's production of William Shakespeare's 'The Tempest', performed in the historic Hippodrome Circus at Great Yarmouth, a show which I was able to see not once, but twice, having been charged with escorting audiences in coaches on the trip from Norwich.

2016 - The Tempest

And so to 2017. The volunteer rotas have been released, and I am really excited about being programmed to steward a selection of events, including Theatre Fragile's 'We Meet In Paradise'; IOU's 'Rear View', a moving (literally) show which is part-viewed from the back of a specially-converted double decker bus; and the jazz concert at St Andrews Hall from the Brad Mehldau Trio. I will also be present for both days of the free 'Garden Party' entertainment which is once again taking place in Chapelfield Gardens. 

And I have made sure of my place at the unique chance to see musical legends Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson on stage together at the Theatre Royal. Yes, I have actually bought a ticket for that one! Wild horses were not going to drag me away from the chance of seeing two of my all-time musical heroes perform live in Norwich.

And then there was the small matter of  'Summer. Autumn. Winter. Spring.' This is an epic 7-hour production from acclaimed Manchester theatre group Quarantine. Performed as a quartet of four seasons, it looks in turn at Life in the now, reflections on Life, preparation for Death itself, and finally the potential of New Life. The call-out for 50 volunteers to come forward and participate in 'Summer' was accompanied by a search for 15 willing women in the various stages of pregnancy prepared to be involved in 'Spring'. Obviously I was ruled out of the latter, but being on stage with a whole bunch of strangers for an hour and a half during 'Summer', without any idea of what to expect, kind of appealed to me, so I threw my name into the hat.

We had our first proper rehearsal on Saturday morning. Just as the shops in Castle Mall were beginning to buzz with customers, the volunteer cast members for 'Summer' were assembling in an empty shop unit within the mall. A couple of people I recognised from previous NNF campaigns, but the rest were, to me, completely new faces. Not that I needed to worry. Richard Gregory and Renny O'Shea, Quarantine's two artistic directors, together with Sonia and Kate from the company, and Tanner and Becky from the festival team, made us all feel very welcome and, once the formal introductions were completed, we all began the important process of the rest of us getting to know one another.

And that seems to be an important factor in being part of the cast for 'Summer'. For the production to work successfully we will, over the next couple of weeks, need to learn about each other in a way that will allow us to function as a cohesive unit, yet leave us with the freedom to behave and perform as individuals. Part of this familiarisation process involves us just chatting informally, including over food - each rehearsal provides the chance for us all to eat together. Richard then leads us in a series of basic non-verbal floor routines that begin to get us accustomed to behaving as a team - one in particular reminded me of the manner in which a murmuration of starlings will form, and change leader, direction, and shape as they amass and swarm in the evening sky.

We have another three rehearsals this week, and then another three in Castle Mall before heading over to The Space, in Roundtree Way for final preparations and then performances on May 10th, 13th and 14th. I do believe that, as I write this, it may still not be too late to apply to join the cast of either 'Spring' or 'Summer'. Anybody interested should get in contact 'asap' with Otherwise, put the dates in your diary and buy a ticket to come and see what will surely be an extraordinary piece of work about living, dying and our relationship with time.

To buy tickets go to , or telephone the box office on 01603 766400.

'Summer' - photo from The Stage

Tuesday 4 April 2017

Haley Bonar Beats my Tuesday Egg and Chips into a Corner without a Fight

It's easy to get set in your ways. Especially where music is concerned. Like what you know, and know what you like. Well, I'm sorry, but even as I prepare for the inevitable approach of my 60th birthday I refuse to accept this maxim, any more than Shirley Valentine refused to comply with chips and egg only being served on a Tuesday.

And tonight is a Tuesday. I could have had a night in. There were eggs in the fridge and a bag of spuds in the cupboard under the drainer. I could have justified cancelling the chance of seeing Canadian-born Haley Bonar perform at Norwich Arts Centre. No one would know, and even if they did I could have blamed my dilatoriness on a surfeit of gigs in the preceding seven days.

But I didn't.

So I am now back home, head and brain still buzzing after experiencing one of the most invigorating and revelatary evenings of new (to me) music in many a month.

It is not even as though Ms Bonar (pronounce it to rhyme with 'honour' - it is a variant on the traditional and honorable Scottish surname Bonner which goes back many centuries) had not been on my musical radar for several years. I just had not appreciated her fully before tonight.

Haley Bonar released her first album in 2003. But it was Last War, in 2014, that first drew Bonar to many people's attention, mine included. As a lover of edgy alt-folk acts from across the pond, Last War caught my attention, but inevitably faded off the screen when surprisngly few in the UK seemed to get on board.

Fast forward then to tonight when, stirred from my lethargy, I make my way to the Arts Centre in St Benedicts Street in time to catch her perform.

I kid you not. From the opening bars of Jealous Girls I am immediately energised by this singer and her band. Her style bridges decades, one moment re-kindling iconic imagery from the era of Debbie Harry and Molly Ringwald, throwing in a pinch of Beach House, then managing to sound like Justine Frischman's Elastica, one step ahead of closing with an encore that sounded as contemporary as Courtney Barnett or as enigmatic as Jenny Lewis or Angel Olsen . And each and every song is filled with lyrical portraiture, strong melody, driving rhythms and a persistent strong beat.

Virtually every track from the new album is showcased, together with selected highlights from 2014's Last War.  And for what more is there to ask? She manages to bring alt-country and punk-rock together in a manner rarely achieved by anyone else I have experienced (with the possible exception of Elvis Costello). And whilst there may be a touch of misanthropic anguish in some of her lyrics, we are escorted through  Impossible Dream to finally reveal a sense of discovery and personal positivity. There is a rock and roll acceptance and empathy that  builds as the set continues, and this is my endearing memory that persists long after this gig has ended.

Thank you, Haley, for making my Tuesday complete.