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pravda - a fleet street comedy - birmingham repertory theatre, 03/10/2006

simon gray - 2006-10-03, 13:09:04

First written and performed in the mid-80s, Howard Brenton & David Hare's Pravda is a newsroom satire, focussing on both the journalists themselves and their newspaper proprietors; it's not hard to see at the front of the authors' minds was the still-relatively-recent takeover by Rupert Murdoch of The Times, and the concerns many had about that of whether he would send it downmarket in the direction of The Sun

The story proper opens in the editor's office at the Leicester Bystander, with the staff, in the middle of trying to put the paper to bed being sent into turmoil at the news they are about to be bought by South African media magnate Lambert LeRoux (Roger Allam). Our 'hero' Andrew May (Oliver Dimsdale) is immediately promoted to editor, and LeRoux marches onwards. 

As a journalist reviewing a satirical play, one almost feels on slightly dangerous ground when the play is a satire on journalists - especially when one of the cameo characters in the play is the drunken theatre critic who writes his review without actually seeing any of the performance! It's analogous to the situation of those who write letters to the paper prefixed with the comment "I know you won't print this but I'm sending it anyway", in order to try to shame the editor into printing it. By being critical of a play critical of journalists, you're almost inviting a response of "well you would say that, wouldn't you". 

And, I have to say, I wasn't that impressed with the play. Sure, it had its amusing moments, but the satire was no near as biting as it was in Drop The Dead Donkey (which surely must have taken some inspiration from Pravda). There were dodgy accents abound, with Michael Begley's Eaton Sylvesterbeing just about the worst attempt at Australian I can remember for a long time, and although John Woodvine demonstrated his acting skill by playing a number of small roles throughout, it did set the audience up for confusion, because we couldn't be sure when other actors appeared in a different scene whether or not they were going to be different characters - especially when their accents slipped! At times the action became confused, either because things happenned too fast or because a new character's equally speedy introduction and departure wasn't properly explained. Most surprisingly, given the impressive CVs of nearly all the cast, some of the movements were a little on the wooden side, and right from the opening scene I was reminded of the school play instructions to never turn your back on the audience. 

Perhaps that paragraph above is a little over-harsh, though maybe not as harsh as other reviewers were during its run in Cheltenham, and although I couldn't recommend it I certainly wouldn't say it's not a fun night out. My thinking is perhaps best summarised by the words of a former colleague I bumped into on the way out - "I'm not sure what I was supposed to be learning from it". 

I can't say whether I would have thought it funny or relevant had I seen it in its day, but 20 years on, I don't think it has dated particularly well.

#birmingham #reviews #theRep

In group Birmingham

chicago - alexandra theatre, 28/09/2006

simon gray - 2006-09-28, 13:02:41

Go and stand on New Street holding a clipboard and ask passers-by if they could name any composers of musical, and the chances are, depending on their age, the overwhelming replies would be either 'Rogers & Hammerstein' or 'Andrew Lloyd-Webber'. If they're a discerning shopper they might reply 'Stephen Sondheim', but if they were that discerning they'd be more likely to describe his work as opera rather than musical anyway. 

Alternatively, if you asked them to name any musicals themselves you would likely get quite a few saying 'Chicago'. But curiously, if you asked them if they could name any musicals by John Kander and Fred Ebb pretty much most people would just give you a blank look in response. Somehow, despite being responsible for two of the best-known musicals of the late-20th century,Cabaret, and Chicago, the names of Kander and Ebb themselves seem not to trip off the tongue of the Man on the Moseley Omnibus the way others do. 

Since the revival of the show in the late 90s it's barely been off the stage, and now makes a welcome return to the Alex. 

It's the classic story - girl meets boy, girl fills boy full of lead, girl does what she can not to swing for it. A classic story needs classic lines, and "I gotta pee" has to win the Award for the Most Classic Line After a Murder. 

Unlike many musicals, Chicago does actually have a reasonably strong plot, backed with a solid score, and dance routines (originally choreographed by Bob Fosse) which are integral to the telling of the story rather than merely being eye-candy. The show is broadly satirical, not only sending up the format of musical theatre itself, but also a satire on the cult of celebrity - especially the pseudocelebrities who are famous not for actually achieving anything, but just famous for being famous. Remarkably prescient, for a musical which premiered in 1975, based on a play dating back to 1926!

Jennifer Ellison, best known to television audiences for being Emily Shadwick in Brookside is the archetypal wannabe Roxie Hart, and Dawn Spence slinks around the stage as the Vaudeville old-hand Velma Kelly; both ably supported by George Asprey as slippery smooth-talking lawyer ("Let's just say, if Jesus Christ was in Chicago today and he had $5000, things would have been different") Billy Flynn, and Katy Secombe as the miss fix-it head warder Mama Morton; after the 2002 film of the show it's difficult to imagine anybody other than Queen Latifah in the role, but Secombe does a fair job, though unless you know she's a warder rather than a prisoner already it's not so clear here. 

The current production has the fairly innovative step of putting the band not down in the orchestra pit as usual, but right there on the stage in the middle of the action. This could have led to two problems - a much-reduced space for the actors to perform in, and a much greater need for amplification for the singers. In the case of the former, it wasn't a problem at all, and the sound reinforcement for the singers was perfectly tasteful and unobtrusive. Katalin's performance of her famous Hungarian rope trick didn't quite have the impact it might normally have, but I wonder if given news events of earlier this week it was toned down a little on grounds of taste. 

All in all, definitely a quality night out, and have fun annoying your colleagues with regular outbursts of "& all that jazz" the day after!

#birmingham #reviews #AlexandraTheatre

In group Birmingham

senser - bar academy, 13/09/2006

simon gray - 2006-09-13, 12:57:37

Before there was Cypress Hill, before there was the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, before there wasThe Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, there was - in the UK at least - Senser

It's probably pushing things a bit to say they invented the genre of angry intelligent hip-hop with a strong musical underpinning, but they were clearly influential in its development. 

It was in the atmosphere of Thatcher's Britain that the band formed in the late 80s - the Criminal Justice Acts of the time, the Battle of the Beanfield, the Poll Tax, and raves on the beach and in warehouses. Mass rioting in the streets was common, and even many in 'the establishment' agreed that police violence and corruption was out of hand. 

Although Senser disappeared from the mainstream public profile almost as quickly as they entered it, despite some line-up changes they've only really had a few of years of not working together. Clearly from the audience last night, their following comprises fans from the whole period of their existence. 

When they started the show last night, I was initially struck by how fresh and relevant their sound was, not at all sounding as if it had been forged 15 years ago - and the energy was certainly still there.

But as the night wore on, I did find myself thinking I'd heard everything before - the songs, whilst definitely good and all that, did start to sound the same as each other after a while. 

Similarly, although initially I thought the political content of the songs seemed still relevant today, by the end I realised: we don't live in Thatcher's Britain any more; we don't have riots of anything like the scale of then, and - recent high profile raids and shootings aside - the police aren't nearly the right-wing private army they'd become then. To be sure, we have many problems with our current government and the erosion of civil liberties just as then, but we need a new artistic discourse of protest, not a rehash of the old arguments. 

So eventually I have to admit I was starting to get bored with being there, and left 10 minutes before the end. 

Don't get me wrong - it was a great gig, and if you are a hard core Senser fan you'll have had a great time; and I'm still just as likely to play my copy of Stacked Up whenever I'm in the mood every now and again. 

But that was then, and this is now. Maybe I've just grown up a bit more than I thought?

#birmingham #reviews #BarAcademy

In group Birmingham

david garside + band - ceol castle, balsall heath, 16/08/2006

simon gray - 2006-08-20, 12:50:10

in my experience, there are two kinds of bands you're likely to see in a pub. 

firstly, there's the band which is designed to appeal to 'the crowd' - they'll typically be loud & impressive, with lots of guitar solos in practically every song (with the lead guitarist taking at least three axes with them onto the stage) and the obligatory drum solo in the last one, guaranteed to get all da chix cheering along. 

then there's the band which not only the crowd will like, but also any musicians in the audience too. not for this kind of band are the easy wins, the rock clichés. the muso's band relies on quality of performing and originality of songwriting to impress. it is into this category which david garside & band firmly fit. 

the band is basically an acoustic band - acoustic guitar & electric piano (Nick Wiley) being the mainstay, but although it's an acoustic band the sound is still a big sound, ably assisted by drums from Danny Howes & the electric bass of Matthew Cheale.

the actual music is just precisely the kind of songs i always like to hear; not your textbook verse chorus verse chorus dullness, but individual, unique songs in which each one tells its own story, and the music just as integral to the telling of the story as the lyrics (which unfortunately i couldn't hear last night) - think pulp or the divine comedy for the kind of thing i mean. it was also clear that the songs would work equally well whether they were performed as solo singer + guitar, with a band as in last night, and even with a full symphony orchestra alongside the band, if david ever feels that way inclined. 

the nature of the material also means it would work equally well in a variety of venues, be it a pub, the academy, or the theatre at the mac. though i would say there's a potential pitfall for promoters, as the contrast between this band & the loud straightahead clone rock band which followed showed neither in their best lights. 

no review of the concert would be complete without referring to david's trousers - as a piece of advice, just don't try this at home, kids... 


#birmingham #reviews #CeolCastle

In group Birmingham

paradise dreaming - a city fairytale, by hamfisted - chamberlain square 23/06/2006

simon gray - 2006-06-23, 23:09:18

it's difficult to know where to start with this performance; billed as it was as 'a contemporary performance of shakespeare's a midsummer night's dream', celebrating the wedding of 'helen' and 'dominic'. 

certainly when one arrived at chamberlain square to pick up your ticket (a buttonhole plastic flower) you were given the impression of something promising - if you had seen the setting up of the space in paradise gardens down in front of the conservatoire, you would have seen the potential for something magical. the staging around the chamberlain square fountain was less impressive - but that's ok, because most outdoor performances of amnd i've seen have been minimally staged for the first half; it's all part of that suspension of disbelief, innit? 

in the warm-up before the performance was scheduled to start at 8:30 a number of schoolchildren came in to the space, showing off their circus skills with diabolo, clubs, and unicycle, and did a show comparable with some of my older, hippy, friends. nearer the time a few members of the company started circulating, working to get the audience into our character as wedding guests ("so how do you know the groom, then?"). as a warmup, it was quite good. 

unfortunately, things started to go downhill before the performance proper had even started... 

at around 8:15 the music, by composer and musical director ian chapman, started coming through the pair of speakers either side of the stage. by 8:30, after i'd heard the same four bars of not-particularly-well-executed guitar riff go over and over and over and over again i was losing my initial good mood about the production. 

suddenly, something happenned - we heard the strains of the wedding march start up, and eventually looked behind to see a white rolls royce deliver the bride and groom to us. the wedding party promenaded to the stage, with an enormous train behind the bride's dress which, over the course of getting on for ten minutes (with no dialogue, no other apparent visual action, and four bars of a new incessant riff blasting out of the speakers) was slowly spread out as being the covering for the stage. it was an amusing idea, spoiled by being drawn out like home-made toffee. 

for another five minutes or so (again with no dialogue, action, and the same four bars repeated over & over) the photographer (graeme rose) spent time arranging the wedding party into their photograph. eventually the deed was done, and he revealed himself in a seemingly improvised speech to be puck (or should that have been pcuk in a contemporary setting?), set on making a merry night of mischief. he threw a handful of fairy dust over the father (greg hobbs) of the bride, prompting a change of riff to yet another repeated four bars sounding like a year 7 music class's interpretation of 'spooky' and causing the father to embarrass himself with his improv speech. that out of the way, some more fairy dust was thrown over the mother (sandra hall) of the groom, with the same effect. the bride (rachel priest), suitably upset by the affair, ran off in tears and we were treated to the earlier four bar riff for a while. the groom (paul edwards) looked confused and shouted out "has anybody seen my wife?". it was difficult to resist the temptation to reply "behind you". 

we were then invited, according to the colours of our buttonholes, to follow the flags of the bride and groom down into paradise gardens - one down the spiral staircase in front of the library, the other down the steps outside the conservatoire.

there was no apparent dramatic justification for this, but granted it was quite a clever device to shepherd a large number of people into a smaller space as quickly & efficiently as possible. 

now i had hoped that after this half an hour of scene setting the action would pick up fairly swiftly and we might then get on with the actual play. hope, as they say, springs eternal, and instead there was over ten minutes of watching some musicians, led by a vicar on stilts, parade around and around and around and around the garden doing what i think might have been a year 8's interpretation of 'native american chant'. 

by 9:15, with still nothing having happenned and no sign anything was going to happen in the near future, i'm afraid we decided to cut our losses and go home; on the way down into the gardens we bumped into a friend who had seen the production the night before coming out of the conservatoire, who informed us the second half was even more tediously drawn out than the first. we left wondering whether it was supposed to have been a performance with a defined start and finish, or whether really it was supposed to be an installation which you wander around for five or ten minutes, think "that's very nice", and then go off to the pub. 

birmingham alive! does actually have an editorial policy on bad reviews; we're much less likely to write and publish a bad one than a good one, working on the basis that ultimately they're up there doing it and we're sitting comfortably in the audience risking nothing. the circumstances for publishing a bad review basically are either 'has this poor performance actually taken away the opportunity for somebody else to have done something much better', or 'have people been ripped off by paying good money for rubbish'. 

now, the audience didn't have to pay anything, but the production itself clearly cost a lot of money - certainly thousands. this was money provided by sponsors and out of the public purse, money which could have been spent on some real quality community performing arts work, money which could have been spent on a really good outdoor performance bringing shakespeare to the modern audience. so much obvious potential ended up being so much down the drain. 

according to the back of the programme: "hamfisted! is a birmingham based, experimental arts company that produces live theatre, interactive interventions and visual arts projects, in conventional and unconventional spaces, in professional and community contexts, all with the aim of putting smiles on people's faces". i've seen some excellent community arts work and participated in some not-so-good professional work, but at the end of the day this performance had to be judged on the merits of what was presented - of which there were few. 

'experimental' should not be a synonym for 'unprepared'; 'improvised' should not be a synonym for 'unrehearsed', and 'community' should not be a synonym for 'mediocre'. the point of experimental arts and improvisation is that you spend time honing your craft and skills in smaller-scale workshop environments, and then when you know you can pull off experiments which will work you present to the wider public. when the experiment should obviously never have left the workshop, it gives the whole genre a bad name. i hope the result of this production is not that audiences and funders are put off experimental arts for a long time.

#birmingham #reviews #ChamberlainSquare

In group Birmingham

Jerry Springer: the Opera - Birmingham Hippodrome, 07/02/2006

simon gray - 2006-02-07, 23:03:46

Bill of Rights 
Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Such is the above extract from the constitution of the USA quoted on the first page of the programme for Jerry Springer: the Opera - which is widely interpreted as being the part of the constitution which guarantees the people the right to free assembly, to protest, to speak freely, and to enjoy and practice their religious beliefs (or lack of them) without interference or favour from the State. 

Of course, the USA constitution does not apply to us (no matter how much George W Bush would wish it to be so), but many of its principles are sound enough, based on the British legal system anyway. And, in fact, the British constitution protects freedom of speech and religion perhaps more vigourously - the constitution position in Britain is that everything is lawful unless there's a specific common or statutory law to prohibit it. 

During this past week, as the controversy over the publishing of the cartoons depicting Mohammed has escalated into deaths and the Government's Religious Hatred Bill passed into law (though significantly amended), we have ironically seen much more hatred coming fromreligion than directed towards it. So as I approached the Birmingham Hippodrome theatre for the show I did wonder what kind of reception would meet me outside; in the end, there was little more than a handful of Christian protesters outside, mostly singing songs with one man acting as a street preacher. During a short gap in his shouting I tried to engage him in discussion about his views, but sadly he didn't seem to have any of his own - always giving the answer "it doesn't matter what my opinion is, this is what the Bible says". I had little more success with the different set of protesters after the show - one woman I tried to talk to (who told me I obviously know nothing about religion) said she was "too busy to talk because I'm handing out these leaflets". You can't beat good dialague, eh? 

It has been agreed that nobody has the right not to be offended, though it has been said a lot recently that nobody has the obligation to deliberately cause offence. But is that truly the case? It is the job of satirists to 'prick the bubble of pomposity and hypocrisy'. By it's nature, satire cannot work unless it is offensive - tame satire is no satire at all, and pricks no bubbles and effects no change. The response of those who are satirised and offended should be to examine what it is about themselves which has prompted the satire, rather than to demand its removal.

Extreme evangelical Christians denounce the show as blasphemous; but to paraphrase another, what is the greater blasphemy - seeing Jesus in a nappy saying he might be 'just a bit gay', or abortion doctors receiving death threats, people in Northern Ireland living in fear of the gun and the mortar as a result of their allegiance (or otherwise) to the Pope, or gay people being harrassed, spat at, and condemned simply because of who they are? And there is the matter of the portrayal of Jesus himself; as co-writer Richard Thomas himself put it, "Evangelical Christians lost all right to object to ways in which Jesus is portrayed when Christian bookshops started selling nodding Jesus dolls to put on the dashboards of their cars". 

The show itself is a masterpiece, deserving the critical acclaim it has received. The first half presents a typical Jerry Springer show, complete with cheating husbands, gay transvestites, fetishists, white supremacists, and a somewhat over-eager warm-up man; you could be forgiven for thinking you're watching the real thing. Come the second half, and the action shifts to Hell where Satan has commanded (it's either that or barbed wire in an uncomfortable place) Jerry to put on a special edition of the show in order to try to extact an apology for his treatment over the millenia, concluding with Jerry's 'final thought' that good and evil are actually shades of grey rather than the black & white we normally see on his show. The music ranges from the usual broadway musical through to a duet which could have been lifted straight from Mozart's Don Giovanni, and the sets and costumes whilst not lavishly expensive are more than good enough to suspend your disbelief. The only thing which was a weakness in the performance was the sound balance - all the actors were amplified much too loudly, drowning out the band and leading to poor sound quality. 

It's fair to say that one doesn't necessarily need to have seen something in order to object to it - but if you're going to protest against something, you really ought to ensure you have the facts. All the protesters I spoke to admitted they had not seen the play, and were in fact basing their objections solely on what they'd read or been told by their pastors. This was very much evident by the innaccuracies in what they were claiming; for example, the last paragraph of the afforementioned leaflet saying "God is not the 'fascist tyrant on high' as Jerry Springer: the Opera mocks" - if the author had actually seen it, they would have seen the play does not portray God as any kind of tyrant, fascist or otherwise, completely the opposite, in fact; "It's not easy being me, millions of voices making all the wrong choices and passing on to me the blame" is his lament when he makes his visit to the Hell studio. Which is the ultimate irony - in actual fact, Jerry Springer: the Opera did not set out to satirise Jesus, Christianity, or even religion in general. The point of the play is to criticise the kind of society which has given rise to programmes such as The Jerry Springer Show and which laps them up like cats around a bowl of milk. If the protesters were to stop and think for a while, they might find they actually agree with most of it.

#birmingham #reviews #Hippodrome

In group Birmingham

Jansen Ensemble - symphony hall, 18/10/2005

simon gray - 2005-10-18, 22:59:28

the three baroque concertos (or concerti, if you really are an italian) from tuesday evening's concert all stem from the body of music which treads the line between chamber music & orchestral music; indeed, prior to the rise of the so-called 'authentic performance' movement would often have been performed as orchestral works. 

the jansen ensemble, led by violinist janine jansen, whilst not quite performing in the totally authentic camp were certainly well in the spirit of it - a single player per part, & the musicians all (where feasible) standing to play rather than taking it easy on the award-winning symphony hall chairs. 

opinion is still divided as to whether there is a right or wrong way to perform baroque music, but for myself i certainly prefer to hear it cut back to the minimum, in order that the baroque twiddly bits (which are, after all, the point of the genre !) can be heard, & you still get a 'big' sound. performing this way also assists in holding to the original baroque idea of a concerto which was more of a piece having a featured instrument(s) but with the rest of the ensemble being just as important, rather than the later concept of a definite soloist with mere accompaniment from the orchestra. 

in the first half of the concert we heard two bach concertos - the concerto in d minor (bwv 1052)& the concerto no. 2 in e major (bwv 1042)

to my mind, bach is, well, bach really; music students mimic bach as technical harmony exercises, & one of his most famous works, the collection of keyboard studies known as thewell-tempered clavier was written less as music to be listened to by an audience & more as a showcase for the great new tuning system he was wishing to promote. 

most of his concertos were recycled from one instrument to the other, often in a hurry to meet a tight deadline, thus establishing bach in his time as being more of a composer of library choons than the precious bohemian artist we usually associate composers with. 

so for the most part it's difficult for me to get worked up about his music - generally, people will either play it well or they won't, without as much scope for getting serious emotion in there as with later work.

the jansens were definitely in the well department, though occasionally at times i did detect some of the ensemble playing go a little awry - it was then that i realised they were visibly playing less as a group & more as individuals playing together, without the visible interaction & playing (in the sense of a game) which separates the good from the great. this though could be excused with the knowledge that their usual first violinist was taken ill before the concert, replaced almost literally at the last minute by melinda madozzi

the second half of the concert was the main event - vivaldi's four seasons. commonly presented as a single work, it is actually four separate pieces which are themselves part of a body of 12 concertos collectively titled the trial between harmony & invention, catalogued as vivaldi's opus 8

this thus lead to the embarrassing moment at the end of the first concerto, spring, which a few members of the audience thought was the correct time to applaud - clearly though whether they were right or not, they gave in to the peer pressure of the majority keeping their hands to themselves for the rest of the evening until the very end. classical music applause etiquette does amuse me, especially given that outside white british culture audiences will generally clap whenever they feel the performance deserves it rather restricting themselves to the 'correct' time to do so! 

vivaldi has always been a baroque favourite of mine, & it was clear he's a favourite of the jansen's too - although some of the ensemble difficulties of the first half were still present, & some of the endings it has to be said were a bit sloppy, the interaction between them was much more evident, as was the joy of performing vivaldi's music. 

overall, janine jansen & her ensemble, whilst still having work to do before the artist-marketing-epithet "leading international performers" will genuinely apply, gave a concert which, though not life-changing, was definitely respectable & creditable. on leaving the hall i heard somebody behind me, in his early-20s so perhaps a music student, say to his colleague "technically: excellent, musically: very good". i think that's a fair summary.

#birmingham #reviews #SymphonyHall

In group Birmingham

the mexicolas + paperweight industry - bar academy, 22/09/2005

simon gray - 2005-09-22, 01:46:22

i have to admit to feeling a little sorry for the mexicolas after seeing them last thursday at bar academy. if the arguing about them, pro & anti, which took over the birmingham alive forum is representitive of real life, they've got a lot to live up to. 

now obviously a band can't control what people say about them in public, but when that discussion reaches the levels we saw here then you can't help but wonder whether their publicity machine has at least had a little involvement in it. it's a dangerous game to play, though, because when you create such a buzz about something, you've got to ensure you've got the product to match it - & sad to say, i don't think the mexicolas delivered. in any respect. 

in fact, when the previous band, paperweight industry took the stage, i actually mistakenly thought they were the mexicolas, as they had clearly brought a following with them - with audience members pressing right up to the front of bar academy's floor-level stage lead singerpaul ross was never more than a couple of inches away from his most adoring fans. i thought they were a band clearly with a lot of promise, but they need to do a lot more work right now, & maybe consider simplifying in the meanwhile - it's all very well having strong, distinctive songs (as they do), but if those songs are lost because the band has difficulties playing together & keeping their tuning together, & ending sloppily, there's not a lot of point really.

the industry finished their set, & on came the scolas themselves - with the audience drawing back a good few feet, & clapping politely. not actually hostile, since i'm sure everybody had turned up to listen rather than to heckle, but decidedly indifferent. the indifference of the audience was, to be frank, matched by the indifference of the band - they were just banging the songs out & barely making any effort to engage with us. 

apart from that, the songs weren't really anything special, to be honest. now don't get me wrong, i don't want to do them down by saying that - if i'd just turned up at a venue just to see a band or two, not expecting anything or knowing who was playing, i'd have probably thought they were alright. & i do admit for just three players they had a big sound which never thinned. but because i'd been led to believe i was going to see them before they became famous, my expectations were dashed & i was disappointed. 

perhaps they realise that themselves - as they left the stage vocalist jamie evans announced it was probably their last gig for this year, as they're "bored with playing the same shit over & over again". it showed, for sure. 

the mexicolas - www.themexicolas.com 
paperweight industry - www.purevolume.com/paperweightindustry

#birmingham #reviews #BarAcademy

In group Birmingham

against the wheel - flapper and firkin, 20/06/2005

simon gray - 2005-06-20, 01:42:57

i often see people complaining about the lack of a live music scene in birmingham. whereas there's some truth in it - there's not as much of one as there used to be - it's not really entirely true. you might have to look for it, but it is there to be found. 

i say you might have to look for it, but is the flapper & firkin really a hard to find on a monday night? many a band plays there to its gathered crowd of mates (& the other bands sharing the bill), but it seems not many people go out just paying 3 quid (just over the price of a pint in most city centre pubs) to see whoever might be playing on spec; to my shame i realise i've been a bit lacking myself in that respect of late. 

so perhaps that's part of the problem. if more people went out to see more bands they don't know, there would be more incentive to pubs to give more of their space over to live music - & the bands themselves get better with more public exposure & with a bigger crowd to support them.against the wheel at the flapper last night certainly showed they've been getting enough practice lately with roughly a gig a month so far this year, so they've had chance to refine their art - straight ahead loud, energetic, just polished enough to be a tight outfit, yet just still raw enough to have the edge of unpredictability & avoiding sounding safe. 

what i like best about them was the way they just got on with it - no apologising, no faffing about, no pretentious attempts to work the crowd as if it was the nec arena, & no having a different guitar for each song (which usually ends up sounding no different through the ropey pa anyway). i mentioned this to guitarist dan ratcliffe afterwards, & his reply was "yeah, we make it our business to turn up & just do our stuff - that's what it's about for us, we're all about energy". 

energy indeed - see them for yourself next time you can. 

website: www.againstthewheel.com

#birmingham #reviews #flapper

In group Birmingham

gilad atzmon and the orient house ensemble - cbso centre, 22/01/05

simon gray - 2005-01-22, 01:39:14

Under normal circumstances, if you went to a gig by a punk band at the Birmingham Academy on one saturday, you might be forgiven for being somewhat surprised the following saturday at a jazz concert in Birmingham's CBSO Centre to recognise the saxophone player in that gig from the one the week before. 

That's normal circumstances, but anybody who knows anything about band The Blockheads and saxophonist Gilad Atzmon knows that in this case, normal circumstances don't apply. The styling of The Blockheads as a punk band was always whilst in one sense technically true somewhat of an oversimplification - punk lyrics and attitude maybe, but always backed by a hard jazz-funk musical soundworld. An ideal setting in fact for Gilad Atzmon, perhaps one of the most creative musicians on the scene currently, to have his 'other band'. But The Blockheads was the other gig. 

Atzmon's stance is intensely political, and he uses his art, be it as a jazz musician or as the author of two short novels and numerous essays (readable online at www.gilad.co.uk), as the vehicle for his politics. He was born and raised as a secular Jew in Israel in 1963, and spent 20 years witnessing the suffering of the Palestinian people at the hands of the Israeli government and army, eventually moving to England to further his cause from here. Unashamedly outspoken, his book A Guide to the Perplexed was banned in Israel within weeks of being published, and although he strongly affirms the legitimacy and need for a Jewish state he considers his main band The Orient House Ensemble to be just as much a political anti-zionist vehicle as it is a jazz-world group. 

Of this there was no mistake - during the course of the evening we were treated to pieces with titles such as Rearranging the Twentieth Century (dedicated to 'the three most horrible people in the world today - Bush, Blair, & Sharon'), Liberating the American PeopleSurfing(interpreted for us this time by Al-Jazeera as an allegory about Tony Blair's government), andGeorgina and Antonella, about two prostitutes nearing the ends of their 'careers' down the docks.

The political messages were reinforced by the vocal poetry as part of the jazz line, ably delivered by Argentinian Guillermo Rozenthuler. Apparently the last time the Orient House Ensemble played in Birmingham a couple of years ago a number of audience members walked out during the Jenine, dedicated to all those suffering at the Palestinian refugee camp of the same name. That piece was reserved this time for the encore, and the emotion Atzmon feels is clearly genuine. 

Pre-publicity describes the Orient House Ensemble as heavily middle-eastern influenced, though as Atzmon himself said at the end of the concert "we seem to be dropping the Orient from our music; but then if the USA gets its way there probably won't be an Orient left soon anyway", and although there were hints of arabic scales to be heard and the occasional Chinoiserie as he sang down his saxophone, the overall soundworld was more a combination of eastern European sounds with straight-ahead contemporary jazz, though Italian Romano Viazzani's accordian added a very French spice to the mix. 

Although each piece was laden with complexity of sound, rhythm, and dynamic range internally the overall effect was more like the whole concert was less several discrete titles and more movements of a single greater work, with a single overall 'something's about to happen but I'm not sure what' sinister feel reminiscent of the German cabaret jazz of the 20s and 30s - a feel reinforced by a short interlude based on Mack the Knife from Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera

Do politics and music mix? Opinion will always be divided, especially as for the most part people will tend to feel that politics which match their own fit with the music they like to listen. But jazz will always be jazz, and good jazz is the best - and Gilad Atzmon is certainly a proponent of the best jazz, well worth hearing whenever the opportunity arises.

#birmingham #reviews #CBSOCentre

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