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grand union orchestra - the call of paradise - symphony hall, 11/11/2002

simon gray - 2002-11-11, 00:48:13

n a nutshell, far too many people missed what was definitely one of the best jazz-world concerts the city has seen for a good few years. 

since those first experiments in the 60s, a number of people have worked on the fusion of different musical cultures in the small band setting, mostly with some success even if often a little derivative. the grand union orchestra have succeeded in doing so as a big band with a flair which in a just world would earn them at least a page in any half-decent history book on the development of contemporary music ! 

the work they are currently touring is 'the call of paradise' (by leader tony haynes), taking much of its vocal texts from various diverse religious sources. it describes itself as 'a kind of musical journey - but through emotions rather than a literal one', & as well as showing us how religion is linked to much of the world history's misery & violence also reminds us of its inspiration of so much beauty, using texts which speak of love & devotion as well as of warfare & hate - opening with a passage from the old testament's 'song of solomon' (or 'song of songs'); if you thought the bible had a bit of a downer on love & sex, think again & go & read that passage ! 

the music well knew when to do the 'fusion bit', & also when not to - the big band sound worked well, & in moving into the quieter, more straight-ahead sections the tabla was integral & essential - & if you didn't know otherwise, you could be forgiven for thinking that a saxophone is just as much a traditional indian instrument as the sitar, it blended so eloquently.

the second part of the concert was what a cynic might describe as 'the community music bit', with grand union being joined on stage by the birmingham conservatoire jazz orchestra, the vocal ensemble aa'shiq al-rasul performing qawali inspired by sufi mysticism, basil gabbidon & friends, & the babatunde live african drumming group.

throw your cynicism in the bin, because every one of these groups were worth a concert in their own right. each one of the groups showed us what they could do on their own, as well as the whole stage being united in performing together for a couple of pieces - which was remarkable enough even if you didn't stop to think about how little opportunity for full rehearsal together they must have all had. i was disappointed to not see any birmingham conservatoire staff in the audience - not only would it have been nice for them to have been supporting their students give an outstanding performance, but they might have learned something themselves from the experience... 

the only niggles i had about the show was a sense of unbalance - the first half was much longer than the second half (indeed, the length of a full concert in itself); my feeling was 10 minutes could have been shaved off the main work & it would have still have said what it needed to say & made the programme more balanced. also, the end of the first half was a bit of an anticlimactic "oh, has it finished then ?" - the closing contemplative sitar could have been a few minutes longer to wind us down better, i thought, & maybe actually having the two halves of the show swapped around. but these really are niggles on an otherwise outstanding performance ! 

there were far too many empty seats in symphony hall for this concert - make sure you're there next time they tour, & in the meanwhile, go & buy the cd's from the website !

#birmingham #reviews #SymphonyHall

In group Birmingham

The Divine Comedy - Birmingham Academy, 30/09/2002

simon gray - 2002-09-30, 00:42:37

'courageous' is probably the best adjective to describe the divine comedy. 

where many other successful british bands seem to be content to rest on their success & stick to a nice safe line-up playing the same nice safe songs in the same nice safe style, the divine comedy can always be guaranteed to take risks, to keep their listeners on their toes, & to rarely play safe neither with line-up, set list, nor sound. 

indeed, i've always considered them to be very much just as much a "musician's & poet's" band as an "audience's" band - if you're a musician & you're neither inspired by them to keep at it nor so blown away you want to give up, you're not really a musician; & likewise, if you're a poet & aren't moved by neil hannon's lyrics, your very soul itself must have been stolen. 

tdc's gig at the academy last night was, in the taking risks department, no exception. but.. erm... i'm sad to say it, but i don't think they shone as much as they should have done. sure, neil as lead singer rather than taking the traditional ego-position in the centre spent much of the gig at the side of the stage, simon played double bass rather than bass guitar for i think the whole gig, & rob had his drumkit on the opposite side rather than on a riser at the back - 'rock ensemble' might be a better description than 'rock band' ! 

i spent much of the evening with the nagging feeling that something wasn't quite right. were the musicians themselves bored ? no, once i'd got closer to the stage i could see from their faces that they were surely enjoying themselves as much as they must have done the first time they played together. was i put off by the number of people behind me who spent most of the gig jabbering loudly rather than listening ? well yes, but that wasn't really it. was it the sound spoiling it ? true it didn't help; you could properly hear neither neil's conversation between songs, nor the lyrics of the songs themselves - which, for tdc, is much more fundamental to 'the point' than most bands. but that wasn't really the problem either.

they started off well - few bands can open a gig with a purely instrumental track ('here comes the flood') & get away with it, & they got away with. second up was 'national express' - the song so well known that all the 'missing' parts were filled in so well by the crowd that you wouldn't have realised it was just a quartet on stage ! 'charge' was so-so, but it was 'alfie' which i think worked the least well - it actually sounded more like a band doing a cover of a divine comedy song than tdc themselves. & 'sunrise', arguably one of the most moving songs there are, just completely fell flat due to being unable to make out a single word. 

the poppy songs, such as 'national express', 'the happy goth', 'bernice bobs her hair' (which had ben folds, who was the support act, join in on drums), & 'a drinking song' did come over the best, but much of the rest was sadly lost in the crowd. ironically, i think perhaps the best performance came in the encore with neil & ben doing a duet of 'raindrops keep falling on my head' ! 

by the end i realised what was wrong - it was just the wrong venue for the band to show themselves off in. had they had an orchestral backing, symphony hall would have been the ideal location, but this line-up would probably have been lost in there too; really, with such an intimate ensemble, they really needed to have been playing in an intimate venue such as the adrian boult hall, or the midland arts centre theatre - but there you find the problem all successful 'thinking' bands get sooner or later, of outgrowing the size of venue they should play in purely because of the number of people who want to see them. "a great gig, struggling to get out" is perhaps the phrase which best sums up the night.

#birmingham #reviews #BirminghamAcademyIn group Birmingham

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