Friday, 28 September 2012

Richard Hawley at the O2 Academy, Newcastle – 27/9/12 – A Review

Hawley churns out his classic crooner ballads from his last four LPs interspersed with plenty of towering guitar moments.

The beautifully husky, Irish voice of Lisa Hannigan – formerly Damien Rice’s backing vocalist – provided a great to start the evening. For quite a minimal outfit that consisted solely of percussion, ukulele, guitar and vocals, the trio produced a sound, that at times, belied their numbers. The harmonies between Hannigan and her accompanying guitarist, whose voice in its own right was excellent, were wonderful and produced some touching moments. At other times, the effortless speed at which the ukulele strings were plucked were a joy to behold and this was most noticeable on their penultimate track, Knots. Theirs was a warm performance in which the players’ personalities were heaped generously on the audience who in turn received them very warmly.

As my fellow gig-goer for the evening mentioned to me as the venue started to fill up, a Hawley gig is definitely an occasion at which it is not considered poor form to be sporting a “proper” beard; upon the evidence of the light bouncing off bald patches and the ‘hi-vis’ reflective strips that line cagoule jackets, this assertion would appear to have been validated. Seemingly in recognition of his core audience demographic, Hawley chose to toast the crowd with a fine glass of claret and grumbled archaically about the decline of the 7” single and the rise of mp3 downloads which he described in his traditional Sheffield twang as akin to “buying a bucket of steam!” Give over and put yer slippers on, Richard.

Gig demographics aside for the moment, Hawley began with the title track from his most recent album, Standing at the Sky’s Edge before playing a selection from his last four albums. Hawley graced the stage with his mandatory humour and delivery of wicked sarcasm. The latter could be exemplified no better than when he barked: “you must be rich up here....because you can afford to talk through this concert,” when addressing the audience at the back of the venue - a strange mixture of awkward and hearty laughter spread around the venue. Other highlights included telling us how an episode of kite-flying with his son inspired him to write Don’t Stare at the Sun: pretty mundane, except that he was off his face on acid.    

Midway through the set, the massive Leave Your Body Behind You had enough energy to get many a reserved head nod and possibly even a vigorous foot-tap (me included) going. This really was the highlight of the gig and reached a musical climax that I don’t think was ever exceeded after this point. The strong pulsing drums were mirrored by lead guitar at the start before Hawley, with his great technical proficiency, floated above all this as the song built and built. You could sense before it came: cutting loose into an enthralling extended guitar solo; Hawley was in his element.

In many ways, the highlights of the set were the tracks from Standing at the Sky’s Edge; an album where Hawley has veered away from the ballads that have perhaps exemplified his previous 3 albums (Truelove’s Gutter, Lady’s Bridge & Coles Corner) instead targeting atmosphere, reverb and of course, perhaps his greatest strength as a musician: his outstanding ability as a guitar player. There were moments in the long, protracted codas in which the sound reminded me of the Verve’s Catching the Butterfly and their A Northern Soul years in the mid-nineties – to me, no bad thing.

This is all well and good but I was still left at the end with a mild sense of dissatisfaction because, despite these punches of towering guitar brilliance, the set was padded with Hawley’s seemingly ubiquitous ballads. Disappointingly, from a personal perspective, the Coles Corner-esque crooning that won him so much critical acclaim simply failed to seduce me in a live setting. It all merged into one long and tedious waltz that dragged and never deviated from either 3/4 or 12/8; it was all rather predictable and washed over me. You could see even the lead guitarist getting a little bored in a particularly indulgent rendition of Remorse Code  as the set was drawing to a close.

In all honesty, despite the good moments it was a just-above-average and overall quite dated performance; if the slow ballads do it for you then I could see people really enjoying the gig, and this was clearly the case for quite a number of people present.
Set List
1.        Standing at the Sky's Edge 
2.        Don't Stare at the Sun 
3.        Hotel Room 
4.        Tonight the Streets Are Ours 
5.        Seek It 
6.        Soldier On 
7.        Leave Your Body Behind You 
8.        Before 
9.        Open Up Your Door 
10.     Remorse Code 
12.     Down in the Woods 
13.     Lady Solitude 
14.     The Ocean 

Monday, 11 June 2012

ITV trailing in the BBC’s wake

Tonight’s matches in Group D of Euro 2012 have only served to accentuate the ever-increasing difference in quality of television coverage between the BBC and ITV. The latter, in my view, having earned the coup of covering the group’s flagship fixture (England v France), failed to capitalise upon this opportunity. Unlike England, who rather surprisingly put in a semi-respectable performance this evening, ITV’s performance aroused feelings that we usually associate with our national team at major tournaments: disappointment. 

The ITV studio team -

Even before touching upon the actual quality of coverage, ITV’s Euro 2012 title sequence, featuring disturbing models of European legends past and present, set to the backdrop of a somewhat odd rendition of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, is just bizarre, and ultimately quite tacky. In fact, I think it is uncannily reminiscent of ITV’s overall performance.

Whilst not saying that every aspect of their coverage is substandard – the commentary, on the whole, is good – the bread and butter of the core studio team is being left in the wake of Gary Lineker & Co. Admittedly the BBC pundits had a little more to talk about tonight with the headline-grabbing performance of Shevchenko in Ukraine’s 2-1 win over Sweden, but there just seems to be a studio rapport and a level of easy class that ITV just cannot live with. The exemplification of this is the gulf in class between Gary Lineker – a broadcaster who has grown into his role wonderfully over the years – and the rather hapless, and I am sorry to say, hopeless Adrian Chiles who just seems out of his depth (his ceaseless bothering of “Emiliano from Milano” in the café build-up to yesterday’s Italy – Spain match gave off an unerringly cringeworthy stench of the tactless and embarrassing Brit abroad).   

Chiles was not helped, however, by the quality of his company. ITV’s post-match interview with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was a rare gem by comparison to your average footballer interview. The young Arsenal winger expressed himself articulately and earnestly but when prompted to respond to this impressive debut (for me, a refreshing and actually interesting talking point), Jamie Carragher could only respond with the generic, cliché-ridden incoherence that would usually be reserved for the interviewee.

The BBC’s coverage, by comparison, is going from strength to strength. They have a wealth of talent in their substantial pundit armoury which has been bolstered by the excellent Clarence Seedorf. The evergreen Jake Humphrey is showing everyone that he can excel in yet another area of broadcasting and continues to openly declare how much of a lucky bastard he is! But above all, BBC’s first choice studio panel of Lineker, Hanson, Dixon and Shearer presented for the England game tonight exude a level of comfort with each others’ company no doubt borne from their lengthy experience together. ITV cannot boast similar strengths and their analysis has tended to be awkward and disjointed with Chiles having to noticeably prompt his nervous, unforthcoming and uninsightful guests. If the fumbling Chiles’ is the lynchpin of their coverage, then ITV really are clutching at straws.


Saturday, 26 May 2012


So as to address the transatlantic imbalance, the next two LPs that are exciting me at the moment come from the US. Both affiliated with the wonderful Bella Union record label (as it is known in the UK) which has been a recent hotbed for outstanding alternative music, Beach House and The Walkmen look set to produce amongst some of the most influential records of 2012; that is if all the anticipation has been anything to go by. First of all, a review of Beach House’s Bloom...  

I like what the duo from Baltimore, Beach House, stand for. Their musical representation is minimalistic with their central tenet of song construction being that of simple, yet exquisite texturing of synth, drums and cyclical guitar and piano hooks. With these basic ingredients, the archetypal Beach House track will incrementally build before culminating in their other-worldly sound which has earned them so many admirers. Rather akin to that of their abstract expressionist American counterparts – Rothko; Pollock; Newman – Beach House continue to produce music that spins the listener into a centrifuge of abstraction leaving behind only that intangible negative space which is what every Beach House fan has grown to love.       

Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand of Beach House have been forthcoming in raising their concerns surrounding the maintenance of an “artistic integrity” in the modern music industry. In an environment where artists come under such high degrees of media scrutiny it is easy to see why these two are cautious to disclose too much personal information and uphold a healthy scepticism of social media. If they had it their way, Beach House would use their music as the sole means by which they connect with their audience; even in their live performances they play hard-to-get with their phlegmatic demeanour and monochrome set and dress sense. This all paints rather a dull picture; shouldn’t they be doing more to win us over? Well – not at the moment, at least. What the pair believe is at stake for them is the loss of their mystique that has been generated from their last two albums and not only would this detract from what they do best, but would in fact erode their artistic ideology. This way of thinking could be perceived as being a little bit “too cool for school” from some quarters but I suspect that it is genuine and even a vague attempt at being showy would be considered gratuitous and would force them firmly out of their comfort zone.

All of their four albums to-date directly descend from this sense of uncertainty and caution about the world and Bloom, to me, represents an albeit measured progression along this same line. Legrand’s plaintive and fragile vocals really come to the fore on this album and she has become a master of those deliberate, slightly off-pitch notes that hold so much sway with the listener. Whilst there are no tracks on this record that are quite as immaculate as Zebra (Myth does come close), the record fits together more seamlessly and is awash with yet more of those hooks and dreamy synth that we have come to expect. It is certainly a more accessible record than Teen Dream; tracks such as Lazuli have an instant impact with Scally’s gorgeous guitar melody over which Legrand’s vocal, “like no other you can’t be replaced,” grows in significance with each repetition at the song’s climax. New Year is but another example of how Beach House reel one catchy hook after another off their seemingly endless melody by numbers production line.

It is a strange irony with Bloom being released in springtime - a period of optimism and when this part of the world is almost fully in blossom –  that the duo were quick to dispel these positive sentiments. Instead, they are keener to focus on the more sinister aspects of the word; the organic and most human of notions that nothing is permanent; everything comes in cycles; everything has its time. From the micro-scale loops and repetitions that underpin a Beach House track through to their wider reliance on the same basic elements for song and album construction, Beach House are themselves, a cyclical entity. Perhaps Bloom – their most manicured and most accomplished record to-date – represents the ultimate distillation of their musicianship. Perhaps Bloom does in fact represent them coming to the end of a cycle?                

So as Beach House bask in what they might unashamedly express as their Indian summer, they will inevitably have to make some difficult decisions. It is unquestionable that they are very good at what they do – there is perhaps no one better – so why, one might ask, should they change anything? Wonderful though Bloom is, there is only so much repetition of repetition that one can take and I fear that a similar progression for a fifth record could start to alienate even the most ardent of fans, like myself. I fear they may have to step out of their comfort zone somewhat to find a new musical direction. Given that they acknowledge their own “bloom”, and given their talent and thoughtful, introspective nature, I have little doubt they will be able to succeed in doing so.

Thursday, 17 May 2012


Hundreds turned out for this cycling tour event as the riders took to a slippery, cobbly and certainly very undulating course on the leafy avenues of west central Durham. For what the 1.4 km course lacked in length, it made up for in terms of terrifying hairpins and precipitous slopes; and all in an initially very compact field. This made for an exciting spectacle at the low point of the course where Crossgate and South Street converge (pictured below) acting as the honeypot for crashes and collisions. You certainly get a real sense of how much balls these athletes have!  

The cyclists hurtling down Crossgate at frightening speed before turning virtually at right angles and ascending the agonisingly steep South Street. 

From here the competitors tackled the cobbled South Street. In one of the most affluent areas in the city given the outstanding and unhindered views of the cathedral, the cyclists could perhaps admire the scene to their left as they climbed - or perhaps not!

The cyclists then veered right into the realm of Durham School which marked the completion of one lap. With laps completed in a matter of minutes, and once the field had spread considerably, this made for a steady stream of cyclists which kept the crowd involved. The event MCs did a good job of enthusing the crowd for the hour that the race was run, occasionally providing the odd humorous moment which included confusing the race leader as to how many laps he had left to ride. The eventual winner, Kristian House, did not seem pleased when the bell didn't ring for what he thought was his final lap.   

The British-born Texan, Kristian House (pictured above left and right) ended up winning the event by the proverbial country mile. The chasing pack were a good half a minute short of the pace. And of course, with cycling being a team event also, the Endura team earned the accolade for the best collective effort. This was a fun event in a lovely setting; and all right on my doorstep.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Summer 2012 Releases - Part 1 

These watery months that lead us into the first vestiges of summer are a reminder that festival season is fast approaching; an exciting time for any music lover and one that will thankfully, yet shamefully, be my first. But what makes this time of year doubly exciting from a personal perspective is the vast array of new releases from artists that have been sprung into the spotlight upon the back of their previous LP successes. There are four new releases, however, that are grabbing my attention the most. For the sake of symmetry and fairness, there are two from each side of the pond. From Britain: throwbacks from a bygone era and from the US: two emerging heavyweights of the popular alternative music scene. 

First up, Richard Hawley’s Standing on the Sky’s Edge that was released on Parlophone records last Monday 7th May. One could seek criticism in this overtly grandiose and wistful album title but it appears that the Sheffield crooner has gone back to his real strength – his guitar playing. With what Hawley has described as his “angry” record, it has earned rave reviews from far and wide and looks set to gain more admirers following headlining performances at festivals such as Latitude this summer. Whilst I didn’t enjoy this record as much as I thought I would (I had incredibly high expectations), I can still see tracks like Leave Your Body Behind You going down a treat at festivals with it’s anthemic and northern wall of sound qualities.

Despite the title and release date unconfirmed, 2012 will most likely see the reappearance of a Manchester band who had been toiling through the doldrums until a combination of songwriting excellence and a fruitful collaboration with fellow Mancunians brought I am Kloot to the forefront of public consciousness. The culmination of this rise can be seen in The Sky at Night receiving a nomination for the 2010 Mercury Music Prize only to eventually lose out to The xx for their debut album. A recent tweet from Elbow’s Mark Potter – producer alongside Guy Garvey for both I am Kloot’s last and, we think, next LP – suggests that one of I am Kloot’s new tracks “will kick your balls in!” Perhaps not the first thing that would spring to mind when describing the impact of IAK track, but we get the sentiment! 

With what could appear - like Hawley’s - as a pretentious-sounding album title, one might hypothesise that they were setting themselves up for a large fall but with Potter and Garvey’s eye for the orchestral, IAK delivered a wonderful collection of tracks that were able to match the title’s grand ambition. Putting Elbow’s influence to one side for a moment, John Bramwell conjured some poignant moments and truly memorable lyrics; my favourite of which being from Fingerprints where the line “If heaven is a place upon your skin || That I may have touched from without to within” is so stunningly embroiled in pathos when Bramwell repeats the line at the track’s conclusion.

One suspects that Bramwell would have been wary of the criticism that would inevitably come his way with what one might consider rather syrupy album motifs like the homage to the north in “See the stars and constellations || Sit beneath their congregation” on Northern Skies. Equally obvious is the idea of radiation from distant suns falling over you as the dawn breaks on Radiation. However, The Sky at Night doesn’t come across syrupy at all; it is honest, unashamedly romantic and basically, just downright beautiful. Let’s hope for something similar when the new release comes around. 

Sunday, 13 May 2012

A belated springtime in Durham

After weeks of what has seemed like constant rain, the sunshine breaks through on a gorgeous Saturday morning in Durham. With the river levels exceptionally high after recent weather, the Wear is flowing rather vigorously over the weir just downstream of Prebends Bridge. 


Monday, 7 May 2012

Ronnie's final crucible appearance?

After delivering the most effervescent and brilliant snooker that we have witnessed in years from him, we are (yet again) left pondering the prospect of this great game without the most naturally gifted player to have ever graced the baize. Such is the enigmatic and capricious nature of Ronnie O’Sullivan, this latest of a series of retirement hints coincides tantalisingly with his best World Championship form since his 2008 victory.

Nothing is ever straightforward with the Rocket. Whenever he takes to the table there is always something inside me that is willing him to win, or at least to provide the kind of entertainment that to me, without question, can be considered one of most thrilling sights in sport. At his buccaneering best, an O’Sullivan century has been known to captivate even the most stoic supporters of the "if it doesn’t involve physical exertion, it is not a proper sport” brigade.

But for all his talent, O’Sullivan is an infuriating character. The class which he shows in abundance on the table does not necessarily always translate to the press room. Often contradictory and insecure, O’Sullivan gives the impression of a tortured soul who frequently – whether intentionally or not – manages to show a lack of respect towards a game that has treated him rather kindly over the years. His comments in the wake of his semi-final victory over Matthew Stevens were a stark reminder of this. Not only is it odd to announce on the eve of the final that this appearance at the Crucible may be his last (why not do a Hendry?), but with all the inevitable clichés that splurge out like verbal diarrhoea in situations such as these ( fitting an end it would be and what better way to bow out...etc), it is actually quite disrespectful to his opponent in the final, Ali Carter.

With these continual threats of prolonged breaks, sabbaticals and indeed, retirement over the last few years, it has been easy to become blasé about them; brushing them off as yet more hollow Ronnie talk. But perhaps Ronnie truly is out of love with the game and he has been waiting for that sacred moment when a majestic streak of form coincides with the game’s biggest stage - to use the cliché: the perfect way to end one’s career. The rare focus and determination that Ronnie has shown over the last seventeen days suggests that he has been in a solid place mentally; something that we have not been accustomed to seeing throughout his career but particularly in recent times. Whatever his mental state, his form has been exemplary and he has genuinely looked like he has enjoyed every moment of the championship.   

Whether Ronnie sticks true to his word and retires from snooker after the final remains to be seen. Like him or loathe him – or if you, like me, are somewhere in between – it is hard to resist the charm of watching O’Sullivan at the peak of his powers. Snooker will, without doubt, be left with a mercurial entertainer-shaped hole that, at a time when the place of such a slow game in a furiously fast-paced modern world is being called into question, may be too large for the rising stars of Judd Trump, Cao Yupeng and Luca Brecel to fill. My advice would be to watch and appreciate every single lusty delivery of his cue and every expert manoeuvre of the white as if it was his last tonight; but just don’t hold your breath.