17 March 2008

Going out

"If you want to go out
If you want to go out
Read it in the papers
Tell me what it’s all about"

- Supergrass, ‘Going Out’, 1996

Over the past few weeks since my return from Andalucia there’s been a lot of activity to report.

I’ve been to two gigs, both of which were excellent. On 28 February I went to the O2 (formerly known as the Millennium Dome) with flatmate Deb’s pal Jude, an inveterate concert-goer, for a massive indie billing at the NME Big Gig. It was a great chance to see some top-notch UK guitar bands play, and a party atmosphere permeated the huge venue. Most of the crowd were painfully stylish young things, so it was important to try to blend into the background, as I’d just come from work in my suit!

I hadn’t arrived in time for the first act, the Cribs, which was a shame because it turned out that former Smiths member and all-round guitar legend Johnny Marr is now playing with them. That would’ve been something to see. Next up was the kohl-eyed art rock of the Klaxons, who impressed with their lively nonsensical histrionics. Following them there was the taut indie clarion call of Bloc Party with the distinctive yelping voice of singer Kele Okereke. They put on a frenetic performance and got the stadium jumping with a crowd-pleasing dip into their promotional budget to pay for two sets of spectacular indoor fireworks and a bright green laser show to pierce the smoke in an electro-disco number near the end of their set. Then came the up-tempo anthems of the superb Kaiser Chiefs, with frontman Ricky Wilson who shares the same name as a former member of the B-52s. Like the B-52s, the Kaisers love a good tune and a bit of a knees up. ‘I Predict A Riot’ and ‘Everyday I Love You Less And Less’ from their first album shook the rafters with everyone singing along.

Finally, the lights were dimmed for the headliners… the mighty Manic Street Preachers, straight outta Wales and as loud as ever. Playing a punchy skirl, a mass pipe band ushered the Manics onto the stage, and then they launched into a set covering the highlights of their nearly 20-year career. James Dean Bradfield’s razor-sharp voice can still slice and dice all the best notes, and the group's guitar-work has never slipped. Personal highlights included the old favourite, ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’, a guest appearance from former Catatonia singer and fellow Welsh patriot, Cerys Matthews to sing ‘Your Love Alone Is Not Enough’, and the superb top ten hits from the mid-90s, ‘A Design For Life’, ‘Everything Must Go’, and ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’. Somewhat more whimsical was the cover version of Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’ – Bradfield reported that dress-wearing guitarist Nicky Wire had cajoled the band into performing it. A rare ill-judged moment from an otherwise excellent set. (For more coverage, see this review from the Independent and some BBC pictures of the gig and the awards ceremony that preceded it).

A couple of days later I took the bus from work to Koko in Camden to see Canadian identical twin sisters Tegan & Sara play. The audience was even younger than the NME gig, and it took ages to get into the venue with nearly everyone in the queue (except me) having to be carded. First up was the support act, the New York-based white-girl rappers, Northern State, who were good fun and reminded me of Luscious Jackson a little. They do a nice straight cover of Radiohead's 'No Surprises' and one of their singles has been produced by Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys, so they might be bound for greater things. Then it was Tegan & Sara’s turn, and the mainly female crowd went rather mental. T&S are dab hands at perfectly crafted three minute indie guitar tracks, some thoughtful and quieter but most loud rockers. Each sister writes and sings her own material, and the other provides backing vocals. I’d bought and enjoyed their 2002 album ‘If It Was You’, particularly the sterling single ‘Monday Monday Monday’ and the folksy pop number ‘Living Room’, and I was pleased to see them live and hear the perfect harmonies and choppy guitar chords in person. (Here’s a good Guardian interview with them if you’d like to hear more).

I’ve also attended a couple of recording sessions with Felix and Gavin recently. On the South Bank we went to a recording of The Book Quiz, hosted by newsreader Kirsty Wark, and at the BBC Recording Theatre we went to see two episodes of the high-brow music quiz Counterpoint, featuring music expert Paul Gambaccini. Both programmes were pitched at an admirably high level – there were some questions that those of us with fairly regular tastes could answer, and a larger number requiring specialist knowledge, so the process of answering them was interesting and informative.

Last weekend I ventured into Oxford Street and took a detour to visit the Wallace Collection, a small museum and gallery in quiet Manchester Square. I was particularly impressed to find a Nottinghamshire alabaster relief of Jesus and chums, as discussed by Dr Jonathan Miller on the radio programme ‘The Museum of Curiosity’ that I attended in January. Upstairs in the galleries resides the Wallace’s most famous artwork, the genial portrait known as the Laughing Cavalier (1624) by Frans Hals. (I visited the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem in 1997). And despite several of the arms and armour galleries being closed for refurbishment, there were also a wide range of medieval weaponry and armour on display, including well-preserved equestrian armour and massive ‘hand and a half’ swords from Germany.

In work news, this week we published our inquiry final report – you can read the press release here if you like. To celebrate, we had an enjoyable team lunch at the nearby Square Pig bar on Red Lion Square, which had worthwhile food – I had the wild boar sausages – but lost points for the execrable porcine pun on its hoardings: we’re supposed to refer to it as a “s’wine bar”. Here’s a picture of the happy occasion (L to R - Alex, Robert, Andrew, another Robert, me and Estelle):

On Thursday after work I caught up with Helen A, who was just back from a quick visit to New York, and we took in the Vanity Fair photographic exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Vanity Fair went under during the Depression and wasn’t resurrected until 1983, so there was a big gap in the middle years of the 20th century. I preferred the earlier photos from 1913-36, particularly the one of dancer Annie White (?) from 1932, a perky lass in a natty hat who I'm 99 percent sure was singing ‘vo-do-di-oh!’ There were many other superb portraits, including legendary screen vamp Louise Brooks, a double portrait of Douglas Fairbanks Jr & Mary Pickford, and superstar Olympic athlete Jesse Owens. The post-1983 ones were glossy but a little less interesting, although one of Sylvester Stallone and Brigitte Nielsen was surprisingly stylish, and a portrait of Julianne Moore as an Ingres odalisque was beautiful.

The next day was my last at the Competition Commission after 10 months of contract work. There was a lot to look at to ensure loose ends were tied up, but by the end of the day the reality my departure had really sunken in. I was lucky to work with a super bunch of people there, particularly my team-mates Estelle, Robert and Andrew, and the ever helpful married duo, Western Australians Alex and Philippa. I’ll certainly miss seeing them every day. I was particularly lucky to receive some lovely presents (which is more than I deserve as a contractor!) including a stylish photo frame, a book called An Introduction to Political Philosophy (good choice, Estelle!) and some vouchers from HMV. After work some of us adjourned to the nearby Cittie of Yorke pub near Chancery Lane for a few drinks and a yarn. It turned out to be a very nice evening.

I’ve recently become a bit addicted to the sitcom ‘Peep Show’ downloaded from the Channel 4 website, and am ploughing my way through the second series now. I can highly recommend it if you’ve not seen it before – the internal monologues and odd couple dynamics of comedians Mitchell and Webb work well, and the comedy of embarrassment is deployed to good effect. A friend at the CC went to Cambridge with David Mitchell and reports that he was very intelligent and quite remarkably like his onscreen character. Or it could just be method acting?

I’ve also recently noticed the young English singer-songwriter Laura Marling, who I saw playing a live set on The Culture Show a few days ago. She’s only 18, and the songs I’ve heard run the familiar gamut of failed romance and suchlike covered by other singers in the same age bracket like Kate Nash and Lily Allen, but the remarkable thing about Marling is the superb vocal ability she brings. Here’s a clip from a live performance late last year on Later With Jools Holland:

I also had a less enjoyable encounter with youthful talent this weekend. Taking the 493 bus back home from Wimbledon I happened to sit in front of a young black kid in a hoodie who was playing R&B tunes out loud on his mobile. This is quite common on London buses despite efforts to discourage this annoying behaviour. But this lad obviously wanted to make his mark on the crowded bus. Not only did he play the tracks as loud as possible – and believe me, it was low-rent sleaze-master Akon, so that’s bad enough – but he also sang along to the (neanderthalic, pornographic) lyrics. So the entire bus was treated to his rendition of the chorus, which entailed numerous repetitions of this stunningly crafted lyrical couplet:

“You got me so hypnotized, the way yo' body rollin' 'round and round, that booty keep bumpin', titties just bouncin', up and down”

Timeless stuff. I could feel my brain cells committing hara-kiri one by one to escape the torment. By the time I was able to clamber free of the bus I was so wound up with distaste and irritation that I felt like Victor Meldrew! But before you ask, no I didn’t consider asking him to stop ‘singing’ (oh yeah, his voice was rubbish too) and turn his music off. Don’t you know that hoodies all carry numerous flick-knives and are overjoyed to wield them at the least opportunity? Well, that’s what the dailies tell us, anyway…

On a more positive note, there’s plenty of excitement to look forward to. I’ve booked my tour to Russia with Steve and Fiona in July, and I’m just about to start a new short-term contract as a senior policy officer at Essex County Council. And over Easter I’ll be jetting southwards for a visit to Napoli, from where I’ll finally be able to visit the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which were devastated by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD. I’m looking forward to some Italian adventures and will report back with any news as soon as possible!

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