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www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - Images of Birmingham on the home page

simon gray - 2013-02-13, 17:43:08

Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here.

One of the issues which has caused a fair amount of discussion amongst colleagues internally is the matter of images of Birmingham on the home page.

There’s a strong view that as well as being a gateway to the services the website and the council as a whole offers, the home page should be used to market Birmingham the city, particularly by means of having pictures of Birmingham on the home page.

We’re not automatically opposed to this idea on principle – but we are indeed unsure about it as a direction to go in, partly because we want to ensure the home page is as focussed and uncluttered as possible, and partly because we don’t think people come to the council website with a particular interest in looking at pictures of the city; residents will already know what the city looks like, and visitors and potential visitors will always find a richer source of imagery of the city from sites such as Flickr.

There’s also the more pragmatic question of what images to use to promote the city? Selfridges has been a favourite iconic image since it opened here in 2003, but 10 years on it’s perhaps time to think of other iconic images. The Council House is another oft-used image by ourselves – but fine building as it is, is the organisational centre of the civic administration the best image to use to promote the city as a whole? We like to promote our canals in Birmingham, but actually there aren’t many canal vantage points which are both highly photogenic and at the same time clearly uniquely Birmingham rather than canals anywhere.

We’re all getting quite excited about the opening of the new Library of Birmingham this coming September, so we’ve chosen to use a highly de-saturated image of the building’s cladding as a background image windowed across the home page’s six segmentation boxes.

Looking at other councils’ websites, I picked a random sample of six different home pages and was surprised to see actually none of them featured images of their localities:

Comments from original article

  1. Daz Wright says:

    February 19, 2013 at 10:58 am

    I’m not a big fan of putting images on the front page. I don’t think people will stumble across the site and decide to visit/invest in Birmingham based on images.

    There is a great advantage in ensuring that the entry page is devoted to function. This is a page that we will expect residents to visit many times if this is going to be their principle channel for engaging with the Council.

  2. Stuart Lester says:

    February 19, 2013 at 8:43 pm

    I guess from a residents perspective you want to get to the information you need fast, so images not needed. Having said that I wonder if people outside fo Birmingham would prefer a “prettier” introduction page.

    I would try to understand the distribution of current users of the website and apply a bit of guess work as to what they want from the site.

    Alternatively pick up their location and adapt the front page accordingly (if it is possible to pick up html5 geolocation form the final solution?).

    Images with news items can cover both cases, makng the iste look less bland and drawing the eye to the news item.

    • Simon Gray says:

      February 20, 2013 at 10:08 am

      A responsive solution – interesting! There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be technically possible in the final solution, although I wonder if people might get irritated by the browser asking them if they agree to share their location when they arrive on the page?

  3. Marc says:

    February 20, 2013 at 3:39 pm

    Have you considered using a large background image? If done correctly is doesn’t interfere with the UI for residents but can ‘sell’ your city.

    See to http://www.devon.gov.uk/ or http://www.scambs.gov.uk/

    • Simon Gray says:

      February 20, 2013 at 4:27 pm

      They’re both good examples, yes, and represent quite nice, ‘clean’ designs also.

      I think if we were to go in this direction, an image of Edgbaston Reservoir might be a good choice.

  4. Colin Stenning says:

    February 20, 2013 at 7:06 pm

    A sense of place and locality are important. Websites are visited by people from all over the world who are curious to find out where somewhere looks like – even if there is no desire to visit. A Council website should focus on service delivery, but should it be devoid of images? I think a happy balance is more important…

  5. Victor says:

    May 14, 2013 at 8:45 am

    The choice of six screengrabs is very interesting as they all look pretty much the same.

    I’d love to know your thoughts on a site such as Manchester’s.

    I am not one for always comparing Birmingham to Manchester, but their site “gets it”. No clutter, simple, obvious, and a lot more likely to achieve channel shift than anything else Birmingham is trying to do.

    Has any consideration been given to buying something “off the shelf”, or at least cloning what they do? It is even cleaner and simpler than the Government’s decentish efforts to reform the web!

    I just fear this is another reinventing the wheel exercise, that will leave BCC with egg on its face, as the 2009 “revamp” did.

    Cut the jargon and nonsense pages, use simple clear logos, order them in priority based on proven demand, and we will have a site to be proud of.

  6. Simon Gray says:

    November 18, 2013 at 5:45 pm

    Interesting comments about home page design generally from Jakob Nielsen – http://www.nngroup.com/articles/homepage-real-estate-allocation/

#localgovdigital #localgov

In group Public / Third Sector Digital

The High Street is dying. Did The Internet kill it? No, it took its own life

simon gray - 2013-01-11, 08:35:28
It was another sad day for our town centres as it was announced, after going into administration a few days earlier, all 187 Jessops photography shops would shut at the end of the day, with the loss of 1,370 jobs.

Back 15 years ago, when I used to be considerably more into stills photography than I am now, Jessops on New Street in Birmingham was my favourite shop; they had knowledgeable staff, catered well for both digital and chemical photography, but best of all, they had a massive front window stacked up with a wide choice of second hand cameras, lenses, and other equipment, at a good choice of price ranges.

Then the New Street branch closed, to be replaced around the corner by the Jessops ‘World Camera Centre’, which curiously with a doubling of floorplate space had a fraction of the stock – and big second-hand front window being replaced by a small second-hand glass case.

More recently over the last year or so, whenever I’ve gone into the Jessops World Camera Centre I’ve found the customer experience incredibly frustrating. The print-it-yourself machines not working, the lack of basic stock available, the immense difficulty of attracting the attention of a shop assistant, and when that attention is finally attracted, the shop assistant not having the faintest idea what I’m talking about (“what’s a flash bracket?”), or the most usual response “oh, we don’t have any in stock right now – we’ll have to order one in”.

And it’s not just Jessops where I’ve had that experience – that’s become my default experience from most shops which sell products I merely want rather than such as food and clothes actually need. Tech shops, camera shops, book shops, record shops (well, such as there are any record shops left), DIY shops, jewellery-making supplies shops, whatever – you name it.

When considering goods which people don’t need but want, the value of a shop over the internet is three-fold – the hope that the customer who needs advice can be advised by somebody more knowledgeable than themselves, the possibility that an impulse decision to want something can be satisfied immediately, rather than having to wait several days for it to be delivered, and the ability to handle the goods in advance of purchase – to check for oneself that the product on offer is indeed the product one wants.

But if the person in the shop knows less than you do, if the person in the shop says ‘sorry, we’ll have to order it in for you’, or if – as in the case of many bookshops these days – the product is sealed and shrinkwrapped so you can’t actually verify its suitability in advance, then what is the point in going to the shop to pay a third more than you could have paid shopping online in the first place?

It’s a curiosity that in the olden days when the owners of shops dictated what we could buy by their monopoly on the shopping experience, they still went to great lengths to ensure the shopping experience met our needs and encouraged us to buy from them, whilst nowadays the response of the High Street to the threat of the Internet is to just give up and blame the Internet for stealing its customers.

Our High Streets are indeed dying. Rather than blaming The Internet, it’s time our shop owners responded to the challenge it presents by shifting to business models which improve on the Internet’s offer, rather than just moaning about the fact of the Internet being better at selling things than they are.

#economy #technology

www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - Project product map

simon gray - 2012-12-20, 15:54:26

Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here.

As part of the iterative and agile process we’ll be working under, I’ve put together the first draft of our project map, identifying the various ‘products’ which will need to be developed as we go along:

As the project progresses we’ll be colouring those red boxes yellow and green, and adding more boxes along the trees, and of course adding new boxes and branches as new products are identified.

#localgovdigital #localgov

In group Public / Third Sector Digital

www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - Developing the sub-projects

simon gray - 2012-12-03, 18:05:21

Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here.

In order to make this whole project manageable, we need to split it up into a number of (initially five) sub-projects, from which our agile / Scrum series of products will emerge.

The sub-projects can be broadly grouped into three categories – content strategy, infrastructure, and governance. So far we have these:

Information Architecture

This is how people will navigate through the site – not just by the menu structure, but also A-Z, related links, and search. It will be looking at how content fits into the six top levels, identifying where the possible points for confusion lay, and mitigating that possible confusion.


Relating to Information Architecture, we need to perform a content audit of the existing site and determine what pages we will need on the new site – the first pass being to establish what each page will cover, with subsequent passes being to actually write the new content based on matching and amending existing content to bring it in line with new content guidelines – which also need to be developed as part of this project stream.


Whilst we like the design we’ve created in broad terms and think it stands well against other council websites, we know there is still work to do on it – we don’t want it to look good within its own sphere, we want it to look good on the web as a whole. We know there are tweaks here and there to do with spacing which need making – which is a coding issue – but we also know the the colour scheme needs serious attention by those more qualified to design colour than we are! And of course as well as minor tweaks, we’re aware that there may need to be more fundamental changes made in the light of feedback we receive.

CMS Technology

Whilst this project is overwhelmingly a content project rather than a technology project, there will of course be technology aspects we will need to address, including possible changes we might need to make to our content management system – Fatwire – in order to realise the work on our site proper, including changes to the HTML templates and the addition of possible new functionality such as widgetised sidebars and RSS feeds.


As well as changing the content of our website, we also need to change how the content actually gets on our website! Currently we have a wider pool of approximately 300 web editors of differing skills and amount of content to manage, dispersed according to the council’s directorate structure. The governance project will look at how best to create and manage content in the future.

#localgovdigital #localgov

In group Public / Third Sector Digital

www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - Project outline, scope, goals, and outcomes

simon gray - 2012-09-14, 15:43:58

Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here. This is the first post, which outlined what the project was actually about:

The Alpha project, inspired by the same methodology the central Government Digital Service has used as it redevelops https://www.gov.uk/ and Shropshire council’s Project WIP (http://shropshire.gov.uk/projectwip/), was conceived in March / April 2012 as a separate website on which we can develop and trial innovative developments in how we deliver services on birmingham.gov.uk in the future. Permission to proceed with the project was granted in early May, with the purchase order for the web hosting necessary for the work being sent to Service Birmingham on 7 June, with Service Birmingham delivering the development environment hosting on 4 July. Much of the background and preparatory work has been carried out over the course of time since summer 2011, including at various GovCamps, and work-in-earnest started on 12 September 2012.

Alpha has been conceived and designed from the ground up to facilitate an agile, iterative development process, allowing full consultation to take place and feedback to be received from key stakeholders – including members of the public – to show full transparency in our thinking, and provide an evidence base for work which will in due course become the main site.

Alpha will be the place where new designs, navigation, and content is developed and tested with customers and other stakeholders before migration to the main site, in order to allow

  • The programme of website improvements to be made clearly visible to customers, council officers, and members rather than hidden away in the respective sections of the site,
  • The programme to be a rolling, gradual series of improvements showing a constant work package delivered within an agile framework, allowing for change and evolution as requirements change in a fast-moving technology landscape,
  • Ultimate transparency in consultation with customers, officers, and members, where in addition to proposed developments being shared publicly before being adopted, the rationale behind those developments will also be shared with stakeholders being encouraged to feed back on the proposals, and
  • The minimum level of disruption caused to the main existing site whilst the development takes place.

Segmentation Portal

The proposed starting point of the alpha project shall be a new home page, building on good practice already pioneered by Liverpool.gov.uk but leading to a radical new approach in local government website architecture.

Current thinking describes 80% of our customers being interested in only 20% of our content, leading to a pressure for as much as possible of the remaining 80% of content to be culled. This however is a flawed view of who are customers are and what is important to them, and also ignores the legal and moral requirements for much of the content which is deemed to be uninteresting to the majority of customers to still be available to them in order to preserve the essential democratic accountability of the council.

Taking a quantitative analysis of access statistics rather than a qualitative one ignores the possibility that the reason some pages are accessed rarely might be because they are so poorly presented in the menu structure of the site and are so poorly optimised for search that the customers who are interested in that content simply fail to find them. Other pieces of content – such as, for example http://www.birmingham.gov.uk/transum – which might be rarely accessed by customers might indeed not be intended to be anything other than rarely accessed, but still need to be present as archive documents for the stakeholders to access at any time rather than having to make phone or email contact with the council to retrieve them. Lastly, some pieces of content might only be accessed once a year, but if the person who is trying to access that content is the chair of the Local Enterprise Partnership responsible for the allocation of millions of pounds worth of investment in the city, their inability to find that content reflects badly on the council. Regardless of the reasons some rarely-accessed content might be rarely accessed, with website access statistics of the period 1 June – 1 July 2012 being 3,134,725 page views of 2,317,162 unique pages by 460,608 unique visitors visiting the site 731,470 times, it is clear that even a removal of 50% of the site’s content, let alone 80% would lead to the removal of a significantly measurable amount of content which if not there would lead to the reverse channel shift of customers needing to make a phone call, send an email, or visit a customer service centre in order to get hold of.

It is accepted that there is redundant, out-of-date, trivial, and vanity content which serves no obvious purpose – for example, it is doubtful that any driver habits will been changed as a result of a driver happening to visit one of the pages linked to from http://www.birmingham.gov.uk/road-safety/driving-safety ; on the other hand the single page http://www.birmingham.gov.uk/highways-works-programme which at first glance appears to be a set of dry policy documents upon further analysis becomes essential information which if intelligently re-purposed and placed more sensibly in the menu structure and turned into a series 12 well-designed web pages could become a genuinely useful resource for the citizens of Birmingham, improving the reputation of the site and council itself, and contribute to channel shift by reducing the need for residents to phone up to find out when their road is due to be resurfaced.

The segmentation portal solves the problem of rarely-accessed content and frequently-accessed content competing with each other for attention in the same information space, allowing rarely accessed content which is necessary to survive by separating that content out from one single, large site into separate sites determined by a series of defined customer profiles:

  • The ‘standard’ customer – the 80% of our customers who are accessing the 20% of the content,
  • Students, graduates, and young professionals,
  • Business leaders, executives, and inward investors,
  • Small – often family – business owners and operators,
  • Politically and civically active citizens,
  • ‘Hard-to-reach’ groups,
  • People requiring care in some form, and their carers,
  • Parents,
  • Visitors and potential migrants to the city,
  • Members and council officers seeking relevant information.

From this we can extrapolate six distinct segmented sites:

  • My local area – a site not only responding to the emerging localism agenda, but also providing other information about services directly in, around, and related to the area in which the enquirer lives,
  • Residents – where the bulk of the 20% content will be,
  • Business – for both the small family business owners and the leaders and executives,
  • About the city – transcending all the defined customer profiles containing information necessary to all, including transport information, history and demographics of the city, and information relevant to potential investors,
  • The council – for the citizen activists, members and council officers, and to a certain degree the inward investors,
  • What’s on and leisure – similarly to About the city, containing information which transcends the uniquely defined customer profiles.

At the heart of the six chosen segmented sites lies the principle that the customer must not be made to feel like they have been segmented according to a customer profile, rather that whatever informational or transactional need has brought them to birmingham.gov.uk site they should be able to immediately see in which of the six segments their need will be fulfilled.

The global navigation of the Local Government Navigation List will be dispensed with entirely, however a form of global navigation – successfully adopted by the bbc.co.uk website estate for a number of years – will be preserved in the shape of the links to the six segmented sites appearing in a horizontal bar at the top of each page, with traditional local navigation on the left hand side, curated service-related cross-sell links appearing where relevant at the bottom of each page (eg the page giving information about cycling in Birmingham under About the city containing a ‘see also’ link to the Cycling Strategy policy document in The Council, or information about premises licenses which have been applied for under Residents linking to information about how to apply for a premises license in Business), and targeted channel shift and marketing and communications links in a column on the right hand side.

Design principles

There are two major principles which need to underpin the design of a new site – (a) the need for absolute simplicity, whether the audience is a digital native or a nervous computer user, and (b) the need to deliver a modern, fresh look unencumbered by the complexity of the conflicting needs and demands of the various diverse stakeholders.

By starting off with a simple, bold, and accessible home page, which should scale gracefully to fit any screen regardless of it being desktop, laptop, tablet, or phone, the customer can instantly see that their needs will apply to one of the six chosen segments, and follow through with their task without being confused by the presence of information which is irrelevant to their needs. Aesthetically, the design will need to be simple, bold, elegant, and uncluttered; a combination of the modern with the timeless principles of Swiss design – big headings, finger-friendly for touchscreen devices, and bold iconography.

Planned approach

The timescale for the complete package of work, from first release of the starting point of the proposed alpha designs to the completion of the work with all the old content and designs having been replaced by the new content will be up to two years.

Clearly, for two years worth of work to be carried out entirely in the background with no public deliverables along the way – even with full public consultation on the work in progress – would be unacceptable. Therefore, a phased release approach will be necessary:

  1. Suggested main home page and segmentation home pages, with links from those home pages to existing pages delivered in alpha,
  2. Prioritisation of detailed content by service area to be determined, balancing the need to show visible improvements to what are objectively the most popular service areas with what are subjectively the worst areas of the current main site,
  3. Development of initial new top-level content in alpha,
  4. Creation of seven new sites (six segments plus extra Webteam site) in Fatwire as beta.birmingham.gov.uk
  5. Detailed content development to take place in alpha,
  6. Phased migration of content from alpha to beta,
  7. Final cutover from beta to www.birmingham.gov.uk

Although the above depicts a sequence of events, in actuality much of the work will be done using an iterative approach with some tasks been carried out simultaneously with others; a detailed timeline will evolve during the course of the project.

Transparency and consultation

Fundamental to the project is a desire for the whole process to be carried out in the open, allowing internal stakeholders and external customers access to the work in progress in order to comment and shape the developing work. As well as the alpha site being a publicly accessible site, there will also be the facility on the site itself for customers to offer feedback, both in free text format and through structured questionnaires. In addition to online consultation, offline consultation will also take place by way of focus groups, userlabs, and service location specific activity (such as eg consulting on library pages in an actual library). Further transparency of the process will be ensured by the process itself being blogged along the way – again, on the alpha site itself.

#localgovdigital #localgov

In group Public / Third Sector Digital

Bullring Open Market, 1154-2010, R.I.P.

simon gray - 2010-08-31, 14:47:51

Today I officially pronounce the Bullring fruit and vegetable market to be dead.

It had a good innings – nobody can complain about a run of 856 years and it being curtailed; I remember when plans to demolish the 1960′s market and shopping centre area were being consulted on how most of the traders predicted the market wouldn’t survive, but – the soul having been ripped out of the place notwithstanding – most of the stalls made it through that redevelopment.

Then there are the current fears that the move of the Wholesale Markets from right next to the Bullring Market will cause major hassle – Jon Bounds has commented on the silliness of the image of traders wheeling trolleys full of cabbages half way across town half way through the trading day, but there’s the very real concern of how produce will be then transported, coupled with the new uncertainty surrounding when the move will actually happen.

But to me, what has finally killed the market is the combination of the serious drop in quality of the produce on sale, combined with the scourge of the man from the weights and the measures, the Poundabowl.

Now don’t get me entirely wrong – where the typical shopper might think more in terms of a number of items rather than a weight of items, there’s nothing wrong with it; but it still makes price comparisons difficult, because you don’t know how much you’re getting for your pound from different traders – you may well even be getting a different amount from the same trader each time you buy!

Until recently, produce from the market always tended to have what supermarket fruit and veg well and truly lacked – flavour. I still remember like it was yesterday my reintroduction to the market (after being horrified by reading Felicity Lawrence’s supermarket exposé, Not on the Label) and rediscovering that an onion is an actual real vegetable with a texture and a flavour, rather than some white thing which goes in the dinner for I’m-not-really-sure-what-it’s-adding. The market produce was the blemished, funny shaped stuff which the supermarket bland-o-matic rejected as being Not Possible To Bland.

But of late I’ve noticed that the flavour is less noticeably different from the supermarket, but more critically, the quality has gone right down the pan. It’s no use buying four or five peppers for a pound rather than three or four peppers for £1.50 if you only get to actually use two of them because the rest have become a putrifying blob of mush after a couple of days. I already decided a couple of weeks ago to stop getting my onions from the market because basically half of them were rotten even on the day I bought them.

Today, when I went to my usual stall for getting peppers, I was saddened to see they too have gone over to poundabowl. Rather than hand-picking the precise peppers I wanted (ie, the ones which looked the least off) I would have been forced to accept the ones in the bowl. I usually get a mix of colours, but these bowls were all monochrome – when I asked the assistant for a mix, her reply was “no, I’m not allowed to do that”. So I walked away and found another stall.

The other stall was also poundabowl, but at least when I asked if he could do a mix he said yes. When I checked in the bag to see how mixed he’d done it (just one red to five greens – I wanted three reds and three greens), I saw that two of the peppers were a putrifying blob of mush already.

If I can’t even rely on what I buy being of merchantable quality on the day I buy it, I’m not sure I can be bothered going all the way down there to buy in the first place. So for that reason, I’m out.


In group Birmingham

Zakir Hussein and the Masters of Percussion - Town Hall, 02/07/2008

simon gray - 2008-07-02, 14:30:37

Mention the words 'Indian Music' to the man or woman on the Northfield Omnibus, and the chances are the first person who will come into their heads will be Ravi Shankar. Which is understandable really, since it's fair to say he above anybody was chief in popularising Indian classical music to western audiences. However, if you were to find a member of the world music cognoscenti and say those words to them, there's a good chance the thought will come back as tabla player Zakir Hussein

And rightly so - whereas Ravi Shankar is, as they say, a master, Zakir Hussein is the master. But more to the point, whereas Ravi Shankar in his high profile collaborations with western musicians has largely done his own thing bolted on to the side, Zakir Hussein has very much been much more devlopmental in the field of Indian / western musical fusion, going back as far as the 1970s with the band Shakti with John McLaughlin, through working with straighter jazz artists such as Airto Moreira and Pharoah Sanders, and through to the more techno sounds of Tabla Beat Science

After a vocal beatbox introduction by percussionist Taufiq Qureshi the concert proper opened with a blast from the Dancing Drummers of Manipur; the programme described them as 'dazzling and athletic', which was no word of a lie as gymnastic backflips were in full evidence - simultaneously to the actual business of drumming! The Dancing Drummers then left the stage not to return again until the very end of the concert, which did seem somewhat of a shame, leaving me feeling they were participating as some kind of token gesture rather than being properly included. 

After their stint Hussein and sarangi (a kind of Indian style violin) player Dilshad Khan took the stage for a traditional raga performance; Khan opened with the introductory alaap solo, then becoming the accompanying instrument for the rest of that half after first Hussein joined in for the jhor section, with then Bhavani Shankar (no relation) adding - often perfectly synchronised with the tabla - to the drumming mix with his sideways drum, the pakhawaj. There's the old cliché in the rock music world of 'boring us to death with a drum solo', but in the Indian music world, nothing could be further from the truth, especially with drums in the hands of greats such as these. And in an amusing twist to the bol, or 'tabla speech' (where the drummer speaks the rhythms as well as playing them - used as a teaching method rather than performance itself in its proper setting) feature which we are used to getting in concerts here, it was likened to a proper conversation: 'come in, sit down, enjoy the concert; dha ti-ki-taah tun ti-re-ki-ta dha ghe dha ghe KHAT!'. Well it amused us in the hall, anyway. 

As the first half was quite firmly traditional classical Indian music, knowing the performers' pedigrees I assumed the second half would be much more fusion-based, especially since all the way through the first half there was set on the stage a western drum kit (minus kick drum) left unused. But instead when then musicians returned to the stage the sarangi was replaced by a sitar, which this time continued to take the lead as the solo instrument in a traditional raga performance. 

Finally percussionist Qureshi joined the ensemble on stage, when I realised actually we were being treated to something more interesting than the straight fusion I was expecting. As Qureshi was clearly playing western (and African, as at one point he was playing a djembe simultaneously with the rest of the kit) drums but according to Indian tala principles it occured to me that for the second half we were getting neither traditional Indian music nor 'fusion', but something best described as Indian contemporary classical music - showing that the forms of Indian classical music can, and indeed have, developed over the years just the same way as western classical music forms have changed. 

Building through we had a fitting grand finale as the performers from the first half returned to the stage to close what was a fine concert - a concert where I didn't get what I was expecting, but instead was treated to much, much more. 

#birmingham #reviews #TownHall

In group Birmingham

Portishead - Wolverhampton Civic Hall, 13/04/2008

simon gray - 2008-04-14, 14:23:35

When Portishead first hit the record shops in the mid-90s, I have to admit I was initially a little underwhelmed. That all changed with the release of Roseland NYC Live (and the accompanying concert video) when I discovered just how artistic their music can be; if you're the kind of person who likes contemporary classical music as might be played by B.E.A.S.T. or the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, or alternatively if the arthouse flicks of the Electric Cinema might make that venue your second home, then Portishead are the band for you. 

After a gap of some 10 years since that album, the band have come together at last to release a new studio album, the imaginatively titled Third(released on 28 April 2008), together with a European tour to promote, which reached the West Midlands last night.

Unlike many rock reformations, where it feels like the spark had long gone and has barely been rekindled to pay an unexpected tax bill, the return of Portishead shows a group of true dedicated and accomplished musicians demonstrating as much skill and energy today as they did on the album which converted me. The opening track included loud heavy guitars demonstrating them to be so much more than the label 'trip hop' leads one to assume, but the intimate numbers are still there with the band gathering around close in to each other sitting in a huddle. 

Importantly, each song blended perfectly with the one preceding and following, and the sudden endings - a feature which often irritates me in a band - in this case were just 'right', an important part of the music rather than laziness. The Lalo Schifrin-esque melodies which wouldn't be out of place in a James Bond soundtrack are still occasionally there along with the live turntablism (I do often wonder, does it matter what records they're playing when they're scratching?), together with a more classic analogue synthesisor soundworld - I counted at least two Minimoogs on stage. 

Unless you can make a trip to Paris or Brussels early next month you've missed your chance in the UK on this tour, but if you fancy a Bank Holiday Eurostar trip you could do no worse. Hopefully we won't have to wait another 10 years to see such a truly great band.

#birmingham #reviews

In group Birmingham

Mahabharata - Alexandra Theatre 26/06/2007

simon gray - 2007-06-26, 13:21:46

If I were to use all the superlatives I'm minded to in writing this, you could probably be forgiven for wondering if I was related to a member of the cast. 

Mahabharata is, for Hindus at least, the 'Great story of India', at 100,000 verses the longest epic poem in world literature, and dating from at least 500BC one of the oldest. Alongside the Ramayana it forms one of the cornerstones of Hindu scriptures, and its scope is best summarised by one of its beginning passages - "What is found here, may be found elsewhere. What is not found here, will not be found elsewhere". 

In essence, the story centres around a family feud between two sets of royal cousins - the Pandava brothers and their common wife Draupadi, led by our hero Arjuna and the Kauravas, headed up by the villain Duryodhana. I say villain - the philosophy of the epic tends to present a universe where all are governed by destiny, unresponsible for their actions, and Duryodhana was "born to hate the world and all that is in it". In the west most people might be more aware of the Bhagavad Gita, the discourse within it where Krishna teaches Arjuna the nature of dharma, or duty, on the eve of battle as Arjuna has doubts about what he is about to embark on, ending here with the famous quote "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds". 

As with any great epic, there's love, deceit, and a great battle in which hundreds of thousands are slaughtered, with it being highly debateable whether there were truly any winners at the climax, and ultimately Draupadi, who is a perhaps surprisingly modern woman for the time the story is set (5000 years ago) makes the decision to end the pointless cycle of revenge and counter-revenge. 

Not every member of this cast could quite handle all of those aspects themselves, but all were highly capable in at least three of them each, and as an ensemble cast achieved the goal admirably, seemlessly integrating as they moved about all three dimensions of the stageset so you would be hard pressed to work out who was better at what.

Categorising the genre of this production is less than straightforward for those used to standard western performing arts; it is a piece of Kathak, which at its heart is a work of dance, but is so much more than that - a true Kathak performer must be able to dance, sing, act, mime, speak, play percussion instruments, and work puppets. 

Ensemble is certainly a key word to describe the production as a whole, in fact. Often in musical theatre or dance one is left with the impression that the creators of the choreography, music, and text will have occasionally spoke on the phone together, but essentially worked in isolation leaving it to the director to finally bring the components together, but in this production there was an overriding sense of genuine collaboration between all concerned, working together to produce a united whole as a production from the outset. On the credits page Nitin Sawhney was listed first as composer for his fine music, but perhaps an alphabetical credit listing would have been more appropriate. Amongst the musicians the ethereal bansuri (Indian flute) playing of Lisa Mallett must be given special mention as it floated throughout the theatre, and Natasha Jayetileke's Draupadi was every bit the strong-whilst-feminine woman of the story. 

In staging and set design, less is more was clearly the operative thinking - which is by no means to say it was minimal or sparse, but instead well judged, tastefully designed, and effective. The most complex visual effects were executed by means of pieces of cloth, lights, and mesh screens, proving that lasers and video screens are rarely necessary to create the magic of the stage. 

It may just have been because it was Tuesday night, but sadly the Alex seemed to be barely half-full - if you have no evening plans for any night the rest of this week, you could do little better than to catch it whilst you can.

#birmingham #reviews #AlexandraTheatre

In group Birmingham

misty's big adventure + restless list + kategoes... - jug of ale, moseley, 22/11/2006

simon gray - 2006-11-22, 13:15:28

If you like your popular beat combo concerts to feature fresh, genuinely original, and slightly off-the-wall music performed by bands who are accomplished musicians, composers, and songwriters, and where you can tell their reason for performing is the shear joy they feel in playing together and for you (rather than the band being a vehicle for satisfying egos, like so many rock-legend-wannabes), then last night's packed out upper room at the Jug of Alewas certainly for you, and certainly for pretty much everybody there as well. For me it was without doubt the best pub gig of the year, and almost certainly one of the best for a long time. 

Normally when reviewing I treat each band individually - and certainly each of these three bands could have made a good show if it was they who were headlining - but in this instance as well as credit to the acts, credit is also due to Arthur from the Catapult Club for putting together three bands which, each very different in their own way, complemented each other perfectly to make a show which was even greater than the sum of its parts. 

KateGoes... have only been together for about a year, were breaking in a brand new bass player last night, and are probably the youngest group of musicians I've seen play together since my youth orchestra days - and showed all the musical maturity and performance flair you would expect to see in a band on the main stage at the Academy. The stage look is quite (and I hope they're not cross with me for saying this - especially the blokes...) 'girly hippy', but the music combines elements of punk with primary school nursery rhyme with ballad with complex (for rock) rhythms and time signatures, incorporating instruments as diverse as a squeaky dog toy and a violin as well as guitars and keyboards. The songs were a perfect combination of funny with serious, and the occasional bit of sad, displaying the kind of child-like humour which if you're a fan of David Mitchell and Robert Webb will be right up your street. A nice touch was the way they set up the stage with living room / den paraphernalia such as beanbags, photographs, table lamps, and flowers - after a long tour, KateGoes... Home!

Restless List were last night a duo, having come all the way up from Brighthelm, Sussex on the Megabus (reminding me of one of my old band's fortnightly residency many years ago at the Sir George Robey in Finsbury Park where we travelled down on the train and the underground carrying the entire band's equipment in a shipping trunk!). Their genre is what used to be fiendishly difficult to pull off live (especially in a pub setting) but is now becoming gradually doable, electronica / 'laptop sounds' combined with live action, fully interactive rather than the karaoke you often get with this kind of thing. The pair of them between them produced a massive sound, crossing trip-hop without the hop (or should that be trip?) with the raw energy of The Prodigy, layered with the orchestral collages of a James Bond soundtrack. My only criticism of them would be that when they thought they'd fluffed a song, they didn't need to tell us about it - we didn't notice, and if we had we didn't need reminding about it... 

Lastly, Misty's Big Adventure, the band my friend in London has been urging me to see for getting on for two years - and like all her musical recommendations, turning out to be a thoroughly reliable one. The choppy rhythms and the sax and trumpet give them a bassline sound which recalls the ska beat of The Specials, but well updated for the noughties, but the tuneful sonorous baritone voice of lead singer Grandmaster Gareth recalls more The Divine Comedy; the comparison goes further with each of the songs being mini stories to be told, observations on life, the universe, and everything. Each song was relatively short, but in those 3 minutes nearer ten minutes of music were packed, with plenty of mayhem and jazz to be added to the lyrical melodies. Like Restless List and KateGoes..., any attempt to draw comparisons with other more famous artists just seems inadequate - really, they're in a class of their own. 

Finally a word has to be said about the sound engineer for the evening - every note of every instrument and every word of every song could be heard with total hi-fi crystal clarity; difficult enough at the best of times mixing keyboards with guitars with vocals where the words matter, but especially tricky with such complex multilayoured sounds from three entirely different bands. This was truly an artist of the sliders at work. 

I look forward to following the inevitable rise of all their careers in due course.

#birmingham #reviews #JugOfAle

In group Birmingham

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