29 July 2007

Soft songs sung loud

Aimee Mann, Indigo2, 27 July 2007

One of the major benefits of living in London is that you get the chance to take in great acts that you've been waiting years to see in the flesh. Last time around in 1998 I was able to see the top-notch American songwriter John Hiatt perform with zest and soul at the Shepherd's Bush Empire - a chance that would probably never have arisen in faraway New Zealand. This time, I jumped at the chance to see another first-rate singer-songwriter: the impeccably-voiced Aimee Mann.

I was first attracted to Aimee's songs by a recommendation by Elvis Costello in the pages of Q Magazine. He hurled superlatives at the opening verse of her song '4th of July', a key moment on her 1993 debut album, Whatever:

Today's the 4th of July
Another June has gone by
And when they light up our town I just think
What a waste of gunpowder and sky

Costello wasn't the only one to recognise Mann's talent early on: on Whatever there's a guest appearance from Roger McGuinn on 12-string (I think) on the beautifully Byrds-y Could've Been Anyone.

But it's not just the lyrics - it's the voice behind them too. Mann is no miserablist doom-and-gloom merchant, even though her lyrics tend to focus on regret, breakups, and wrong-headed relationships. The songs are carried along with her powerful razor-sharp vocals, which are delivered with power and versatility that permits Mann to shift effortlessly from delicate falsetto to warm lower octaves. And in style Mann is definitely a devotee of power pop, lavishing rich guitar harmonies and booming bass guitar to melt over a wall of churning Hammond organ or Moog synths. She also chooses her band wisely, ensuring that her singing is expertly supported by a layer of deft male backing vocals.

Striding on-stage like a platinum-blonde version of Emmylou Harris, long silk scarf brushing her knees, Mann grins and thanks the English audience for loaning the Beckhams to America. With a new album out soon, the night's setlist is sprinkled with recent songs in the traditional Mann mold - big choruses and chiming guitars to the fore. If anything, the new material's warbling synthesiser undertones seemed to hark back to Mann's earlier incarnation as a synthpop star - her group 'Til Tuesday had a US hit with the moody Voices Carry in the mid-80s.

But it's the crossover songs the crowd are most anxious to hear - the songs she wrote that director Paul Thomas Anderson liked so much, he built the superb film Magnolia around them. One song, the delicate and yearning Save Me, won Mann an Oscar nomination for its perfect concoction of hope and vulnerability:

But can you save me
Come on and save me
If you could save me
From the ranks
Of the freaks
Who suspect they could never love anyone

Save Me gets an airing tonight, as does One, a perfect Beatlesque meditation on loneliness; the delicate resistance-is-futile release of Wise Up; and the rarely-played tongue-twister stomp of Momentum, which sees a tangled-up Mann re-starting the song midway, to good-natured laughter on-stage and from the audience.

Later, in the encore, 4th of July gets an airing to an appreciative crowd, and by then everything in the world is just right. We can rest assured that Aimee Mann is still at the top of her game - having eschewed the easy trappings of fame, she's lucky to be the owner of one of the best voices around in music today.



Earlier, Mann's opening act was 25-year-old New Jersey singer-songwriter Jenny Owen Youngs, who displayed a folky girl-and-guitar flair with commendable zest - an American KT Tunstall in the making, if you will. Her whimsical sense of humour also impressed, as after a five-song set from her solo album Batten The Hatches, intertwined with snappy mic banter, she launched into her party piece, an entertainingly daft cover of Nelly's pop-rap hit, Hot In Herre (sic.) - ain't nothing like a bit of white-girl rapping to break the ice in foreign lands. (She also invited the audience to come and 'speak English at me after the show - it's just ... dreamy'). One to watch in future.

Jenny Owen Youngs: MySpace
Youtube: Hot In Herre (Performance with band and possibly ironic cheerleader skirt)

24 July 2007

Auld Reekie

The view from the hotel in Edinburgh that I stayed at for work last week. Yes, the bagpipes were going all day to remind you that you were in Scotland.

The memorial to Walter Scott:

Looking down the Royal Mile:

17 July 2007


Day 1 - To Reykjavik

After attending the Concert for Diana at Wembley with Richard I dashed home to do some final packing, but I failed to get any sleep before my alarm dragged me off the inflatable mattress at 2.55am. Shouldering my trusty Fairydown pack, I hiked down Sanderstead Road in the inky darkness. A passing vixen was the only other inhabitant awake at that hour - she dashed, tail bobbing, into the undergrowth at the sound of my approaching footfalls. Down on the main road I caught the night bus - the insomniac's friend - to East Croydon, and from there a train out to Gatwick.

Fatigue set in straight away, mainly because I had to spend 37 minutes queueing to drop my bag at the British Airways desks. The queue was a mammoth snaking affair, mainly because at 4.30am (which is rush-hour for the early-morning departures) they only had two desks open. But at bang-on 5am seven more desks opened, and the queue shrank quickly.

Finally I was able to board the 7.30am flight to Keflavik airport - an older 737-400 with those ancient blue British Airways seats and no inflight entertainment, despite the flight being 3.5 hours long. The teenage guy next to me was a heavy metal fan who chose to snooze while blasting tunes through his tinny earphones, which naturally echoed across to me in the next seat. It sounded as if a thousand tiny machineguns in his head were busily annihilating his brain.

Eventually the coast of Iceland hove into view out the starboard windows. A rugged cliff-strewn coast ringing dark lava fields and sombre-hued moors, the Reykjanes peninsula where the airport is located is liberally adorned with cracked and broken lava covered with dark brown moss. Coming into Keflavik it truly feels like you're landing on the surface of the Moon.

The Flybus into the city treks for about an hour through blasted volcanic terrain flecked with stolid apartment-block suburbs - dwellings built for winter warmth. There are no trees in sight until we pass the city parks closer in. Eventually I'm dropped at the youth hostel, about 2km from the city centre. It's a modern, well-run place; the four-person dorms each have an en suite and thick curtains to block out the midnight sun. After an hour of welcome dozing on my bed I meet my room-mates for the night - a chatty Flemish nurse from Brussels and her teenage son.

It was warm (19 or 20 degrees) and blue-skied as I ambled along the waterfront into Reykjavik, which is home to about 40 percent of Iceland’s total population of just over 300,000. Most of the city turns its back on the harbour, fearing the winter lash of the churning seas, and the main streets are a few hundred metres inland. The main shopping boulevard is Laugavegur, a long straight and narrow (often single-laned) strip of low-rise buildings housing quirky boutiques and tourist shops. Courteous Icelanders driving slowly down Laugavegur always stop to let pedestrians cross in front of their cars.

I detoured to the south near the university to visit the National Museum, which provides an excellent overview of the thousand years of human inhabitation of Iceland. The outline on the floor showing the average size of the 9th-century ships that brought the Norse settlers to the island reminds you how dangerous their open-boat crossings of the North Sea would have been. Much of Iceland's history has been recycled or lost, but the precious artefacts that have survived illustrate the struggle it must have been to wring a meagre existence from the harsh Icelandic soil.

Afterwards I took my first tentative steps into the perilous world of Icelandic dining, which is renowned for its remarkable expensiveness. The shawarma I enjoyed (Kr890, or £7) in a dockside kebab joint was filling and tasted surprisingly good. Over dinner I leafed through the free English-language Reykjavik Grapevine, a newspaper for expats and tourists, full of interesting local adverts and fun tangential pieces contributed by students.

After walking all the way back to the hostel - the bus is expensive - I shopped at the 24-hour convenience store for supplies. On the way back I met a friendly black and white tomcat who was out patrolling the street by the hostel on Sundlaugavegur - he was roaming through the area, taking advantage of the summer evening sunshine. By the time I turned in at the hostel it was still bright outside at 10.30pm.

Day 2 - The Golden Circle

I was up bright and early for an 8am start for the Iceland Excursions coach tour on the Golden Circle route east of Reykjavik - the most popular way to see the countryside. It was another warm day - shirtsleeve weather - and started clear but later ebbed into overcast skies.

The first stop was half an hour east of town. We took in a panoramic view over the 7km gap between the European and American continental faults - two low ranges of jagged mountains with a highly active geothermal field in between. Another lunar landscape, but this time it's punctured by steam vents that send billowing plumes high into the blue Icelandic sky.

We visit the Nesjavellir geothermal station on the floor of the valley, which provides all of the Reykjavik area's hot water and 120 megawatts of electricity as well. Here they inject traces of sulphur into the hot water to de-oxidise it, which explains the sulphuric tang to the hot water when it emerges from the shower-head in the morning.

We pause for a photo alongside the stunning springwater-fed lake Thingvallavatn, which shows off its crystalline beauty to good effect. Then it's a short drive to historic Thingvellir, the site of the world's first national parliament, the Althing, which was founded by the Icelandic chieftains in 930AD. We walk down a sheer-walled ravine, which is where the Norse corralled their cattle during the annual gatherings, and then sat on the slope of the Law Stone, with its dramatic backdrop of a vertical cliff that acted as a stony amplifier for the voice of the wise Lawspeakers, who recited the legal codes of medieval Iceland so that all knew the boundaries of right and wrong. We pass the purest of calm streams in old volcanic rents in the earth, the floors of which are now seeded with thousands of silver coins from tourists who enjoy seeing them flutter their way slowly to the bottom. It must be particularly cold water, or some enterprising Icelandic youths would have dived in to score a life-time's supply of pocket-money.

Next stop is the impressive cataract and waterfall of Gulfoss, Iceland's own mini-Niagara. It tumbles 32m in a series of impressive leaps, jetting an enormous amount of water into the air and sending spray hundreds of metres.

I was certainly glad to see it in summer rather than winter, because the wind often comes from the mighty Langjokull glacier that looms above the shark-toothed mountains to the north like a vast frozen cloud on the horizon. (But even Langjokull’s massive 953 square kilometres is dwarfed by the leviathan-like sprawl of eastern Iceland’s Vatnajokull, which is eight times larger). Near the overpriced café, which I avoided, a corral of diminutive purebred Icelandic horses waited to take a party of riders on a trek. These sturdy creatures – only 14 hands but definitely not ponies, I was assured – can be guaranteed as purebreds because it is illegal to import horses into Iceland or to interbreed species. And once an Icelandic horse leaves the country (to wealthy buyers in America, Europe or the Middle East), it can never return, for fear of bringing unfamiliar equine diseases back into the country.

It’s a short drive from Gulfoss to the geothermal area made famous by Geysir, the explosive thermal vent that gave the world’s geysers their name. For those unused to the dangers of scalding water, our guide Ragna issues stern cautions to the tour participants, and once we disembark I can see why: the ropes cordoning off Geysir itself are only 30cm high, and several tourists are standing right next to its crater rim, looking down at the bubbling cauldron below. If Geysir erupted – and it still does, now and then – these tourists would be broiled alive. Geysir is pretty quiet these days, but its smaller brother Strokkur is much more reliable, erupting every eight minutes or so and showering harmless warm water and sulphurous steam up to 30 metres in the air, often soaking onlookers who forget which was the wind is blowing.

We fit in a brief stop at the bishopric of Skaholt, where the fugitive last Catholic bishop in Iceland was beheaded in the name of the Reformation in 1550, along with his two sons. Then it’s back to Reykjavik, and a quiet night with a salad and the superb ‘Northern Lights’ by Philip Pullman at the hostel.

Day 3 – To Stykkisholmur

In the morning I chatted to my two new roommates, a pair of Swedish lads just out of school, taking a week’s cycling holiday in Iceland. I was pleased to learn that despite their common linguistic heritage, the vagaries of Icelandic linguistics meant that they only understood as many phrases as I did, which is not very many at all.

I walked into town again, snapping a good picture of a mother tern hovering above the town’s civic lake, spying for minnows in the water below. She would flit in circular orbits some five or ten metres above the water, pausing every minute or so to observe, and occasionally spearing herself in a crash dive underwater to catch her prey. When she caught a fish she hurried across the lake to deposit the meal with her brood, before returning to the hunt.

Then I wandered up to the Culture House (the mouthfullish Thjothmenningarhusith) because it’s free on Wednesdays, and took in its exhibits on Iceland’s heritage. In the medieval manuscripts section there was ample proof of Iceland’s status as perhaps the most literary society in medieval Europe, including a darkened room displaying the ancient Icelandic saga in which historians discovered the tale of Leifur Eiriksson’s exploration of North America a thousand years ago, nearly five hundred years before Columbus. There was also an excellent floor devoted to the fiery birth of the Icelandic volcano island Surtsey in 1963, which featured floor-to-ceiling film projections of the close-up film recordings taken from the air as the island burst dramatically from the North Atlantic.

Afterwards I had a traditional Icelandic lunch: pylsur, or common-or-garden hotdog, from the same wharf-side stand where Bill Clinton ate when he visited for a summit. He looks a little guilty in the photo the owners have pinned up. Breaking the diet again, Bill? In any case, the hotdog was a much better prospect than the two traditional Icelandic delicacies I’d read about: svith, singed sheep’s head, don’t forget the eyes, and hakarl, cubes of Greenland shark that have putrefied underground for six months. And along with the still-current state monopoly on alcohol, until 1989 beer was actually illegal in Iceland. The mind boggles.

A few hours later my scheduled minibus took me and a handful of other passengers northwards towards my next destination, the small fishing port of Stykkisholmur on the Snaefellsness Peninsula. As luck would have it, I managed to sit in front of an authentic Icelandic mental chap. He made strange hissing noises in a dark road tunnel underneath a fjord, and then persisted in chatting to an unaccompanied girl of about nine, who wasn’t fazed by the conversation, but would’ve much rather been listening to her iPod. Half an hour later he bade the driver to pull the minibus over in the middle of a wide plain of farmland and strode down the road, back the way we’d come. It was at least 10km to the nearest town. As the minibus drove off, the driver shook his head in puzzlement and the little girl burst out in fits of giggles.

After winding through some bleak mountain terrain to reach the north side of the peninsula, we arrived at Stykkisholmur, population about 1200 – none of whom were at large. As I walked the few hundred metres to the hostel, I saw no-one else aside from a few 4WDs heading out of town. The hostel was slightly mysterious too – unlocked, but no staff in sight. So I selected a bunk and eventually Old Magnus, who doesn’t speak much English, turned up and took my money.

As day turned to daylike night, I narrowly avoided sharing a dorm with a party of four French girls, one of whom was already asleep in her bunk and emitting the most astonishing snoring, as if a tribe of malevolent hippos were all simultaneously dying up her nose. I hurriedly found a bunk in another room, and wasn’t surprised when I saw the girl’s three non-snoring friends in the common room, waiting out the onslaught. They gave me sheepish grins and apologised for the noise, and explained that their poor friend had even tried having an operation on her sinuses to reduce the monstrous blast, but to no avail. I told them there was no need to apologise, and thought them impressive friends to be able to put up with such a racket every night without going mad. Perhaps she knew the man in the minibus.

Day 4 – The Isle of Flatey

A blissful snore-free night’s sleep in the bank, I awoke in the morning and had a quick chat with an American chap in the dorm who was complaining about having been issued an on-the-spot US$350 speeding ticket by the Icelandic traffic police for driving at 100mph (160km/h). The speed limit in Iceland is 90km/h, and I could just imagine the phlegmatic response to the Yank’s argument that “in the States I drive to work at 100mph every day!” Lucky that policecars carry wireless eft-pos terminals these days, I thought.

Keen to start a day’s exploring, I trotted down to the Seatours building near the docks to hire a cycle for the day, as my Lonely Planet outlined. But it swiftly turned out that the brand-new Lonely Planet was wrong: cycle hire was no longer available. Damn! Mulling over my options, I hiked up to the top of the rocky islet that shelters the Stykkisholmur harbour, to take in the sweeping views of the pristine beauty of the windswept Breithafjorthur bay.

As the morning’s overcast skies cleared up, I decided to take a ferry ride 30km north across the bay to the tiny islet of Flatey. Once inhabited by monastic Icelanders, now the island is home to a few wooden houses and about a million zillion birds. As there are no trees, the birds nest amongst the long grasses, and as it was nesting season the violently territorial arctic terns were out in force, threatening any human silly enough to walk down the island’s few footpaths away from the main road. (I wasn’t silly enough to go anywhere near their nests – they have a fairly expansive idea of their territorial possessions). Sensing strength in numbers, the terns gather in flocks of 10 or 20 and take turns making shrieking dive runs at intruders’ heads. Very Alfred Hitchcock. As there are no stray sticks on the island, it pays to wave a long switch of heather above your head to stave of a potentially scarring head-piercing encounter. This looks and feels remarkably silly, until you consider the alternative: one Icelandic gent I photographed being dive-bombed later showed me the cruel peck-marks in his scalp. I emerged unscathed though.

The scene on the north side of Flatey was much more sedate, and as the calm sea lapped the rocky shore I was able to photograph dozens of pretty puffins floating near the shore, returning from their day’s hunting for fish in deeper waters.

As I waited for the ferry back to Stykkisholmur, along with a dozen German birdwatchers carrying their special Swarovski telescopes over their shoulders, I pondered the reasoning of one retired Icelander on the island who had driven his car down the bumpy track to the jetty. Why had he brought a 2-litre Toyota Avensis capable of 180km/h to an island with barely a kilometre of road, none of which would support a speed higher than 30km/h? Nice airconditioning, perhaps.

Incidentally, I looked up Flatey’s latitude when I returned to London. So I can now lay claim to having travelled as far as 66 degrees 22 minutes North. To do the same in the southern hemisphere, I’d have to visit Antarctica.

Day 5 – Borgarnes

Awoken by a clan of elderly Icelandic hostel-stayers who crashed around in the kitchen and violated the early morning peace and quiet with their jabbering, I set off for the petrol station for my bus back south. Locals were awaiting the 8am opening of the station, leaving their engines running with their doors open when they popped inside for their cigarettes and newspapers. Re-tracing my route south to the town of Borgarnes, the minibus driver adopted the policy of keeping the white line beneath his steering wheel (there’s not much traffic in the Icelandic back-blocks), and the radio played Penny Lane as the volcanic mountains fled past the drizzle-smeared windows.

On first and second impressions, Borgarnes seemed even quieter than Stykkisholmur. I walked from the bus depot at a service centre of four petrol stations out to the converted farm known as Hotel Bjarg to dump my pack and admire my room for the night. Walking into the centre of town, again there was virtually no sign of life, although a sign in a playground took my fancy: ‘no headless dogs allowed here’, obviously:

The town’s one main attraction is the splendid and modern Settlement Centre, which tells the story of Iceland’s early exploration and colonisation, and the local drama attached to Egil’s Saga, the pleasingly amoral and often murderous tale of the fierce and Viking poet Egill Skallagrimsson, and his wars with King Eirik Bloodaxe of Norway and his own father, Skallagrimur Kvelddulfur, who was equally formidable. The centre’s multimedia approach to story-telling is quite special, and now I know what a Viking scorn-pole looks like. Who’d’ve thought you could mock-up a completely realistic decayed horse’s head on a spear?

After a quick shopping expedition to a small mall on the outskirts of town – the only mall I’ve ever seen with a shop selling horse-shoes – I came back to the service stations and selected the least cram-packed one to dine in: it seems the locals all head to one of the burger joints attached to the petrol stations on a Friday night. It was standing room only. Then I retired to Bjarg to watch a bit of TV, including an episode of Sharpe (Sean Bean) set in India in 1817.

As I had napped earlier, I was awake at midnight – so I was able to take a photograph of myself outside in the midnight sun. It was strangely peaceful, with all the animals asleep and not a breath of wind to stir the quiet waters of the Borgarfjorthur.

Day 6 - Back to the capital

In the morning I saw a bit of Live Earth from Sydney on my little TV at Bjarg. I like Toni Collette, but after seeing her sing Children Of The Revolution I think she should probably stick to the acting. And she definitely shouldn’t shout ‘Peace!’ at the end of her performances, either.

I arrived back in Reykjavik in mid-morning, with plenty of time to check out the weekend flea-market. There were dozens of stalls selling second-hand clothes and old records (I bought a CD of remixes of songs by Wendy and Lisa from 1991 for about 70 pence; it will likely be dreadful but it was worth a go). There was also a stand selling cheap beanie hats adorned with heavy metal slogans: Slipknot, Korn, Metallica… and Harry Potter.

I spent the rest of the day wandering around town, checking out the shops and rather pseud-y art galleries. In the end I decided to buy myself a super-warm hand-knitted woolly hat for the English winter. I stayed at the Salvation Army hostel in the middle of town, which was a bit decrepit in comparison to the youth hostel in the suburbs, but it did afford me the opportunity to check out a rumour I’d heard: Icelandic phone-books are organised by first name only, because Icelanders adopt their father’s (or sometime their mother’s) given name as their surname in the form –son or –dottir. But I wonder how Icelanders know if they’re related or not?

Given the brevity of Day 6’s report, it might be worth mentioning that the Icelandic language has two extra letters that used to exist in Old English, but have long since been abandoned. There’s eth, which is pronounced with a hard ‘th’ sound, and resembles a curving letter ‘d’ with a crossed upstroke, more or less like this: đ. And there’s its sibling, the letter thorn, which is pronounced as a soft ‘th’ sound, which resembles a double-handled letter ‘p’ with both up- and down-strokes, like this: Þ.

Day 7 – Back south

Getting up early for the bus to the airport, I only had time for a couple of brief conversations with fellow travellers – a girl from Taiwan who was bowled over by the frightening cost of visiting Iceland on a tight budget, and a retired Danish gent whose grandson is studying at Victoria University in Wellington. It was a long but pretty flight back south to the rest of the world, bisecting Scotland and skirting the coast of Cumbria on the way back to Gatwick.

Having seen only a small corner of Iceland, I know there’s plenty more waiting to be explored… but I think if I come back I’ll definitely wait until next summer, rather than trying to visit in the bleak depths of the never-ending Icelandic winter!


13 July 2007

Concert for Diana

Wembley Stadium, 1 July 2007

On a gleamingly dry summer Sunday evening an army of 63,000 pop fans descended on the revamped Wembley Stadium for a lavish musical celebration of the life of Diana, Princess of Wales, on what would've been her 46th birthday. And as luck would have it, they even let people in who didn't really like Diana! This meant that when a pair of tickets became available due to a pal's trip back to NZ, it meant that two mere New Zealanders from the wilds of Purley (i.e. Richard and me) could attend this global spectacle, broadcast to an estimated umpteen-squillion TV viewers in quite a few countries indeed.

The new Wembley is a remarkable crucible of sport in the northern suburbs of London, and a fantastic venue for a historic gig like the Princes' own little Woodstock. The soaring stands induce vertigo but ensure everyone has a splendid view of the stage - or, perhaps more importantly, the gigantic stage screens. The stage is a mammoth affair. Even the small 'island'-like stage moored out in the middle reaches of the audience for lower-key performers was occasionally hard to locate amidst all the hubbub of the swooping crane cameras, orbiting crowd Mexican waves, and a galaxy of camera-phone flashbulbs.

After Princes William and Harry's introduction, in which Harry sent his best wishes to his cavalry squadron in Iraq, the performances were interspersed with heart-felt and only mildly vomit-inducing tributes to the departed Diana, after which it would be entirely possible to believe that the woman was truly a saint. And what star-power the Princes lined up for the video tributes: Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, and Tony Blair. In fact the crowd greeted the appearance of the recently-departed Prime Minister Blair with an ever-growing chorus of booing until he started his effusive praise of Diana's legacy and skill as a mother, at which point the boos rapidly turned into cheers. (O fickle fate!) Such was the luminescence of the assembled great-and-good, we were half expecting Mother Teresa to stage a Lazarus-like appearance from beyond the grave to honour St Diana.

In person there were a high-profile set of worthies to introduce the musical acts, displaying a slightly strange American bent given the Englishness of the occasion. Actress Sienna Miller was accompanied by... powder-blue suited burned-out legend Dennis Hopper! Kiefer Sutherland came on not once, but twice. Ryan Seacrest, Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell, the three judges of American Idol were trotted out Boris Becker (okay, not American) and John McEnroe (ah, back on track) - because Wembley is such a well-known tennis venue?

But it was the English presenters that symbolised the endearingly ramshackle nature of British celebrity. Gillian Anderson, formerly of The X-Files and now resident in London, pops along to introduce Bryan Ferry. Patsy Kensit introduces R&B wunderkind Kanye West, pointing out that as well as being jolly talented, he's also "quite fit". We enjoy the bizarre spectacle of lisping telly chef Jamie Oliver introducing rap bad-boy P Diddy. And late in the evening the crowd goes frankly mental when squeaky-voiced starman David Beckham ambles out to usher in the re-formed and resurgent Take That.

But the main reason everyone's at Wembley is for the frankly stellar line-up:

Sir Elton John can't go wrong with Your Song. Still classy after 37 years. Just think - when he recorded that track, 37 year-old music came from 1933!

Then some middle-aged blokes from Birmingham came out and started playing Duran Duran songs. Oh wait, it actually is Duran Duran! Is it my hazy memory, or did Simon Le Bon dedicate Wild Boys to Princes William and Harry? Surely only the latter, really?

Next it's the trans-atlantic singer-songwriterly smarm of James Morrison, who has an angelic voice and no soul whatsoever. Perhaps he might be the next James Blunt, which is no good thing, unless you're the Chancellor of the Exchequer and are mostly concerned with the UK balance of trade figures.

Lily Allen bounds out in a smart blue dress and plays LDN and Smile, as you knew she would. It clarifies the pattern (until it's later wrenched out from under our unsuspecting feet) that younger, newer acts get two tracks, while older, established fatcats get three tracks, unless they're Elton. (...John, not Ben...). Allen's classy pop numbers go down well, but I think I'm mature enough to admit that I mainly appreciate her because she is, well, just remarkably cute.

Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas struts onto stage and perches atop a white box with her dancers, with an eye to impressing the massed TV audiences. She gets two numbers to impress, but her performance is marred by sound troubles. Later rumours circulate that she was miming the choruses. Say it ain't so!

Without the next band, The Feeling, the concert would've completely ignored British indie music. Which begs the question, was Diana more Blur or Oasis? Or perhaps she preferred a bit of Echobelly, who knows. In any case, The Feeling distilled a blazing hook-laden rockshow into two songs (Fill My Little World and Love It When You Call). More please.

Then came Pharrell Williams, prestigious producer and member of the N.E.R.D. space-age R&B collective. Sounded like young persons' music to me, harrumph. Good though.

Nelly Furtado the Canadian songstrel next - with the silliest and therefore best dance moves from the backing Limbs & Co troup behind her, stalking around like berserk slinkies. She manages to break the 'two song' rule, extending her stay to three with Maneater after a reworked I'm Like A Bird, which seems to graft in guitars pinched from Slipknot.

Oh no! Actual culture. The English National Ballet comes on to perform a famous excerpt from Swan Lake, because Diana just adored ballet. And you know, the dancing is impressive and pretty painless to watch. But girls! No-one will ever take you seriously in those ridiculous tutus. Have you ever considered going Goth? You know it makes sense.

The biggest cheer of the night so far greets perennial stadium-dwellers, the devoutly middle-aged professional jean-wearers Status Quo. Unsurprisingly, they don't perform Pictures of Matchstick Men. Unsurprisingly, they do perform Rockin' All Over The World. Surprisingly, that's all they play. Which is the cue for thousands of middle-aged concert-goers to all exclaim at once, 'but they gave Nelly Furtado three tracks - why do Status Quo only get one!?'. Sorry folks, life ain't fair, and US TV ratings are even less fair than life.

Youthful West Country soulstress Joss Stone wafts around in a hippie dress and belts out a power-ballad pairing of her own You Had Me and a cover of Queen & Bowie's Under Pressure. In Wembley itself the the performance had a tendency towards overblown vocal histrionics, but on TV it might've come across as more of a scene-stealing affair, who knows.

Next up an old duffer on day-release from the Home For Senescent Soft Rockers – Roger Hodgson, the high-pitched vocalist from 70s supergroup Supertramp. Now, in a bid for so-naff-it’s-cool counterculture status I can claim to own a Supertramp album and actually quite enjoy listening to it once a year or so. It appears Diana was a big fan, because Hodgson is given time for a Supertramp medley, bunging together Dreamer, The Logical Song and Breakfast In America, and an extended singalong version of the brainlessly cheerful and big-hearted Give A Little Bit. Gotta love that strumming.

Despite American band Orson being big in the UK, I can’t tell you much about their rocky two-song set consisting of Happiness and No Tomorrow. Why? Because I went to use the loo. Impressive hand-dryers in Wembley, I can report. It’s like being in the centrifuge in The Right Stuff, I swear.

Not many pensioners can claim to be with-it, but Sir Tom Jones at least has a vigorous stab at it. He also takes the prize for the most inventive set-list. Eschewing his top-notch 60s-era gold like It’s Not Unusual or Delilah, he kicks off with the Prince-written pop hit Kiss (‘Uhnn! Think I better dance now!’), and follows it up with the commendably brave selection of the Arctic Monkeys’ recent smash, I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor. The Welsh rock knight is ably accompanied on guitar by Joe Perry of Aerosmith, and for his third and last song, Ain’t That A Lot Of Love, he brings out Joss Stone again for a dual-pronged vocal attack of mighty stentorian bellowing. It’s surprisingly good bellowing, though.

Oh no, Pop Idol winner Will Young is on next! Actually, he’s not that bad really, and he’s only on for Switch It On, and then he’s switched off.

Quirky-voiced purveyor of intelligent pop songs Natasha Bedingfield is up next, to perform a reworked and extended version of her hit Unwritten, while gigantic hand-scribed missives float past on the video screens flanking the stage. Bedingfield is more successful than Joss Stone in injecting some subtlety into a strong singing performance.

We are in the presence of a legend – Bryan Ferry appears! Overdosing on the glam, twenty leggy models clad in black stalk out during Slave To Love, prowling the stage and using the minor stage as a catwalk for an impromptu fashion show, while flame-wreathed shapely silhouettes reminiscent of a James Bond opening credits sequence flicker on the video screens. Next Ferry detours into quieter territory with Make You Feel My Love, which was perhaps ill-advised given the lively mood in the stadium. But he soon fixed this with a hugely popular extended version of Let’s Stick Together, complete with perfect saxophone parping and harmonica solos.

Oh dear, opera. And not even proper opera – it’s pop opera time. Diana loved Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, and what with his TV talent quest Any Dream Will Do being insanely popular in recent months, it made sense to feature the oeuvre. Maybe just not this much.

First up, American singer Anastacia belts out Superstar from Jesus Christ Superstar. Then pretty Connie Fisher, herself a victor in a TV talent quest to choose a Maria von Trapp for a West End revival of The Sound Of Music, turns out a classy rendition of Memory from Cats. Blind Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli is led out to stage front to intone The Music Of The Night from The Phantom Of The Opera. Sassy middle-ager Sarah Brightman accompanies American heartthrob Josh Groban on All I Ask Of You, again from Phantom. And to top it all off and truly seal the camp credentials, not one but three former and current Josephs emerge to rouse the hallows with Any Dream Will Do from Joseph. Donny Osmond! Jason Donovan! And curly-haired current TV winner Lee Mead, who sings ‘sing’ as ‘shing’. Mead gets to wear the silly coat, which must’ve irked old-timers like Osmond and Donovan. ‘Cuh, upstarts!’

You might’ve heard of Rod Stewart. To be honest, I preferred him when he was with The Faces. But still he’s something of an icon, and can put on a grand show. Part of the fun is checking out his band: the gorgeous mandolin player who he drags to the mic for a duet during Maggie May, and the Amazonian blonde saxophonist bopping in the background, who must surely be in line to marry Stewart at some stage, if history teaches us anything. After Baby Jane, Stewart rolls out his own personal Let It Be, the schlocky but popular Sailing, the bastion of many school assembly singing sessions. During this he boots footballs into the crowd for souvenirs, displaying the traditional midfield accuracy with the long ball for which he is justly famed.

Sporting a natty white suit and red tie, innovative R&B hero Kanye West then takes the stage and rips into a medley of five tracks, including the spartan strut of Gold Digger and the heavy-metal tinged Touch The Sky.

He’s followed by the even-famouser P. Diddy, who used to be known as Puff Daddy - because during his school days he used to puff up his chest to appear bigger to deter bullies - but one day decided that his name wasn’t silly enough. And do gangsta rappers start turfwars over wardrobe selections? Because just like Kanye, Diddy is wearing a natty white suit. A good idea for both of them really, because the huge stage is a swathe of black for most of us, so it helps to stand out. We are treated to an puffed-up rendition of his Police-reworking hit I’ll Be Missing You, which tonight is dedicated to Diana, who was P. Diddy’s favouritest princess, it seems. So we are treated to the bizarre spectacle of a song originally devoted to honouring the memory of renowned gangsta rapper and generally unpleasant type, Biggie Smalls, being redirected towards Diana, Princess of Wales. Gee thanks, you shouldn’t’ve.

Now, Take That were a big deal in Britain. For a good while their ex-member Robbie Williams was miles bigger than them, and for years they faded into the pop background. But they’ve re-formed and scored more hits, despite not being as pretty as they used to be. Their likeable new hit Shine is another Let It Be-style epic, and is accompanied by a massive stage prop staircase and a couple of dozen peacock-tailed dancing girls strutting about.

…And there we had to leave Wembley, to get back to Victoria for the last train home! But I can report due to the wonders of Wikipedia that after we departed, Take That ran through Patience and the classy pop of Back For Good. Then Ricky Gervais came out to entertain, but had to stretch and stretch his material due to delays in the programme. And finally Sir Elton John appeared to belt out Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting, the crowd-pleasing singalong of Tiny Dancer, and the surprising choice of Are You Ready For Love to close the show. But thank the deities for small mercies though – he didn’t subject the world to the awful Goodbye England’s Rose. That would’ve forced me to flee the stadium, despite having left already.

BBC concert report & pictures

Sense and Sociability

Here's some good people I've caught up with lately:

Stein Dando, at The Champion, Fitzrovia, 17 June 2007

Mike, Raewyn and Fiona, at The Taybridge, Clapham, 23 June 2007

Tom Pidgeon, at The Dove, Hammersmith, 9 July 2007

Rebecca Foley with Baby Otene, Sanderstead, 12 July 2007

01 July 2007

Sing like a bird released

Crowded House, The Magic Numbers, Siobhan Donaghy, The Thrills, The Tiny Dancers (Indigo2, London, 28 June 2007)

A corporate rock fest! Where bands swan around in private lounges liberally stocked with designer cocaine blends on silver trays borne on the heads of tuxedo-wearing dwarf butlers. Where megastar guitar gods communicate with the audience solely via Blackberry. Who could possibly enjoy that?

Pull your head in, son. While on the face of it, the title of the 'AOL Summer Cooler at Indigo2' doesn't inspire confidence, in real life the buying power of a major internet corporation can pull in enough genuine authentic star-power to satisfy any demanding rock gig fan. Indigo2 is the boutique music venue located in the former Milennium Dome, with a capacity of 2350, compared with the big-name-pulling O2 Arena in the centre of the Dome, which seats 20,000. Twice a year, AOL pays the pounds to bring quality acts along to present bespoke rock shows to intimate audiences, and records the proceedings for later webcasting. Sure, they encourage as many audience members as possible to wear their rather naff sunhats sporting AOL logos, all the better to focus on during the camera's crowd reaction shots.

But all praise is due to the mighty AOL pounds when they purchase the services of such a talented line-up. The re-formed Crowded House, together again this year for the first time since 1996! The hairily poptastic Magic Numbers! The Thrills, who bottled Bohemia! And two others!

First up, and because of the early billing, only playing to a hundred or so early arrivals, were Yorkshire band The Tiny Dancers. With a mop-haired jumpy frontman, their short set was played to a small but enthusiastic audience. Their best-known single, Hannah We Know, formed the centrepiece of their set – a great chanting knees-up of a song.

Next came The Thrills from Ireland, with a third album out soon. Their melodic guitar pop sound was driven by lead singer Conor Deasy, whose talented lead vocals and popstar good looks brought to mind Orlando Bloom fronting the Waterboys. Highlighting the chiming hook-laden singles from their first two albums, including Santa Cruz (You’re Not That Far), One Horse Town, and Whatever Happened to Corey Haim? The latter contains the delightfully nonsensical vocal fill by Deasy: ‘Ooh! Girl I say ooh! Whatever happened [to] my friend, Corey Haim…?’ No-one’s sure why he needed to say ‘ooh!’, but then popstars are a funny bunch.

While the stage was set up for the next act, former Sugababe Siobhan Donaghy performed a brief telecast set of jazzy numbers from her new solo album, Ghosts. Her vocals and general all-round style impressed, particularly her outfit – which seemed to consist largely of a cat’s cradle of black string flung in the general direction of her torso. But it felt a little strange to watch a televised performance of someone singing only a few rooms away.

Having earlier watched The Thrills from the balcony, The Magic Numbers stepped onto the stage and immediately stepped up the tempo. Wisely eschewing the moodier sections of their first two albums, the band of brothers and sisters kept things poppy and loud. The beauty of a Magic Numbers live performance lies in the timeless combination of lead singer and lyricist Romeo Stodart’s chiming guitars, Michele Stodart’s pounding bass boogie, Angela Gannon’s sweet vocals and multi-instrumentalism, and Sean Gannon’s sure-footed drumming. But most of all it’s the tremendous harmonies that set The Magic Numbers apart from most other bands – particularly in the triple-layered interwoven lyrics of classics like Morning’s Eleven and Forever Lost, and the lilting vulnerability of Undecided from their second album, Those The Brokes. By the end of their set, when The Magic Numbers retreated from the stage and prepared to watch the headline act from the wings, the roof of Indigo2 had truly been raised by one of this decade’s most beguiling and appealing bands.

After the perfect build-up, and having performed a few days before in a Hyde Park festival with second billing to Peter Gabriel, the re-formed Crowded House took to the stage at 10pm, winning a tumultuous round of applause from the mixed audience of British and Antipodeans. Having set records with their wildly popular farewell concert on the steps of the Sydney Opera House in November 1996, the band has recorded a new album, Time On Earth, and immediately won coveted slots at music festivals throughout the US and Europe. Returning from that line-up, the core trio of Neil Finn, Nick Seymour and Mark Hart still fit together seamlessly. American drummer Matt Sherrod, who has recently worked with Beck, was brought in to replace the irrepressible Paul Hester, who sadly committed suicide in March 2005. And Neil’s son Liam, now a tall bearded figure like a Russian Guardsman, provides extra guitar, keyboards and vocals. Neil sported a shaggy mane of hair not unlike the barnet now adorning former Jam man Paul Weller.

Mindful of the wider audience via webcast, Crowded House included four or five numbers from the new album, including the pure-voiced Don’t Stop Now, which fits into the mould of the melodic tunes from the recent Finn Brothers album. One quieter number that built into a strong jamming outro was introduced by Neil Finn in a way presumably incomprehensible to non-New Zealanders: ‘This is a song about… oh, I’ve forgotten his first name. You know, Norm Hewitt’s brother. The guy in the wetsuit’.

Nick Seymour’s fluid bass style propels the band’s rockier moments, and he still quips along with Neil Finn’s inter-song banter, raising the humour quota. Studious Mark Hart, formerly of Supertramp, gives off a monkish air as he concentrates on perfecting his keyboard fills, but the audience detects a small grin here and there. New drummer Matt Sherrod, who didn’t know Crowded House’s music before he was asked to join the group, impresses with his enthusiasm and directness, which adds a forceful sense of gravity, particularly in rockier numbers like the choppy glam of Locked Out.

But the crowd wanted to hear the big sing-along singles most of all, and Crowded House didn’t disappoint. Don’t Dream It’s Over, Distant Sun and Weather With You all impressed and got the audience singing along. 'Sing like a bird released'? It was as if Crowded House had never really left us at all.