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The Life of P

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Musically Connected

Stepping OutAbout a month ago I joked that musically, if nothing else, this year works. I realised in a recent conversation that because, entirely by coincidence, a bunch of friends and acquaintances are all releasing new albums this year, I probably sound far better connected than I actually am. I fully expect the number to drop to zero next year. But for now, I have three album releases to bring to your attention.

I have mentioned jazz singer/pianist Anthony Strong here before, though arguably not as often as I ought. Recently signed to French label Naive records, his new album Stepping Out is fantastic. Quite aside from the fact we have known each other since primary school, the album’s quality has now been independently verified after the reception it received at Keggfest. Meanwhile Lauren and I can both attest that the launch party at the Hippodrome casino was a roaring success, requiring some remedying the following day!

Georgia Train of Bitter RuinWhilst they have continued to play regular live shows, honing their sound and exploring new ways to increase their exposure, it has been several years since Bitter Ruin released a full-length album. Now Georgia and Ben have turned to Kickstarter to fund their new album after some calculations revealed it would be cheaper to build their own studio than to pay for the studio time they need. Having put up the first £10,000, they needed another £20,000 from Kickstarter. They need not have been apprehensive given the overwhelming support they received, with the entire sum being pledged within 12 hours. They have ten days left to go, and further funds will help with session musicians and the like, as well as securing you some cool merch. Give it a look, if only for the brilliant animated video that charts the pair’s history condensed to a couple of minutes. Personally, I am rather excited to see the end results of the full canvas paintings Georgia has been working on for one of the higher reward tiers.

Jaz Delorean of Tankus the HengeFinally, although I have seen Jaz Delorean play solo sets on  regular basis, I had neglected to see his band Tankus the Henge, despite the fact I am hardly in a position to fault their nocturnal habits (routinely going on-stage around midnight). The release of their debut album seemed like an ideal opportunity to rectify this oversight, with a brilliant launch show at The Lexington. About as difficult to categorise as Bitter Ruin, Jaz describes his gravelly vocals as “like a younger Tom Waits” which is “crossed with Madness” once you add the full band. With smoke billowing out of an upright piano adorned with piping and dials as their fans cavort in steampunk attire, their live shows are certainly quite a sight. You can catch them all round the UK this summer.

Couple these three with finally seeing Sigur Rós in February and Voltaire in May, and you can see why I am suitably content to rely on music to see me through the year, if nothing else will. Any other recommendations are welcome as always.

Musically Sociable

Today I am plugging a couple of musical selections linked predominantly by their social effect on my life. First up is a new music video from jazz singer/pianist Anthony Strong, For Once In My Life from his Delovely EP. Anthony is an old school friend of mine (as in we went to school together, not that he is old school). Anthony is the sort of person whose talent would be infuriating if he were not such a lovely, unassuming chap. He was also responsible for my initial introduction to some of London’s top burlesque performers, while he performed on that circuit. That has certainly led to a few of the more memorable nights out in the past few years. Unfortunately we seem to have reached a point where his releasing a CD or video is what reminds me that we are long overdue a drink. Therefore it is terribly important that you support him so that he can keep making great music and I can remember to catch up with him.

Next up, Amanda Palmer is again using Kickstarter to crowdsource funding but this time it is a little more ambitious: raising funds outside of a label to produce and promote her new album and an accompanying artbook, and to embark upon a worldwide tour with a new band. Any donation above a dollar nets a copy of the album, and backers have access to the first single now. This return to a patronage system (albeit a distributed one: people have donated anywhere between $1 and $10,000 each) is, she proclaims, the future of music and I am inclined to agree. I am always fascinated by the varied fans she has hidden amongst my friends, who crawl out of the woodwork whenever I mention her, whilst the crowds at her gigs are amongst the easiest to strike up a conversation and connect with if I find myself there alone — after all, at least half of them are guaranteed to be Neil Gaiman fans too. This summer she plays a sold-out London gig the day Jenna and her family arrive. Having been able to witness Jenna’s first real gig experience back in New Orleans (it was A Perfect Circle), accompanying her to her first London gig is almost as enticing a prospect.

If you happen not to care about music then, aside from the fact you have no soul, you may wish to check out the following:

Pure Ending

Pure Reason Revolution got their hooks into me from the moment I first heard them almost five years ago to the day. There are only a handful of bands that I feel compelled to see live repeatedly, and PRR I have seen every single year but one in the intervening period. Through auspicious timing they were also the band that initially got me into gig photography. So it was a strange experience to find myself holding an understated ticket for Wednesday’s gig which read simply “Pure Reason Revolution – Last Ever Show”. Part of me wondered illogically whether, if I didn’t go, it would mean they kept making music. Of course, they had announced earlier in the year that, after three studio albums and two EPs, the band was coming to an end with a farewell tour in November. And Heaven seemed a remarkably fitting location for their final performance.

It was the first time I have been to a gig knowing it will be the last time I ever see a band play, the last time I will hear each song live, which gives the whole experience a very different edge. They played two one-hour sets including their seminal album The Dark Third straight through in its ethereal entirety. Hearing an entire album live is a rare treat and there is no better way PRR could reward their fans — it was as close to a perfect aural experience as I can imagine. The only slight issue was that the sets arguably were the wrong way round. After leading with what is generally considered to be their finest work there was simply no way to top it, even when selecting the best tracks from the rest of their catalogue. Overall, however, it was a stunning send-off and I thoroughly deserved the complaints I received from my neck muscles for the following two days.

Every time I see PRR I bump into Jon, usually with Ian, Philly J and James in tow. Breaking with tradition, this time we met up intentionally beforehand: good practice since Jon and I will have to start making real plans to see one another in future… or find a new band. In the meantime, excuse me while I relive the Scala gig with this live DVD.

Bitter Ruin: Costume Change

GeorgiaFor those who don’t really care about the words that follow, here’s a gallery of photos from two Bitter Ruin gigs.

My overtly eclectic taste in music means that, while I certainly like some artists more than others, I have never been fanatical enough about a single band to become one of those dedicated few that follows the entire European leg of a tour, a permanent front-row presence that the band starts to recognise. While I wouldn’t trade the spread of music for a narrower focus, I always felt like I was missing out on some part of the fan experience. So it took me slightly by surprise when, during another band’s set at Bitter Ruin‘s Underworld gig, Georgia spotted me in the crowd and waved. Having accidentally discovered the band together, Romina and I now meet up every time the band play in London as a kind of sibling bonding ritual. Enough, certainly, that the band know whom we are and will even have the odd drink.

BenUnusually this meant seeing them play twice this month, both times in Camden: once at the Underworld at once at Proud. Seeing them twice is hardly a chore, but the second show was made more unique as the band were debuting both a new music video and new stage costumes, replacing the ones which had been their signature look for the past two years. Discussing the unveiling of the latter with Ben at the earlier Underworld gig, he seemed slightly confused by my apprehension, but given the theatrical nature of Bitter Ruin’s live performance, their fans have become so comfortably familiar with their stage appearance that any change was as unnerving as it was exciting. Naturally we need not have worried, their updated appearance creating a similar vibe with a more mature sensibility. I suspect Georgia was relieved to lose the heavy (if incredibly evocative) eye make-up, with the strange result that she looks younger while dressed older. The choice of song for the new video, the softer A Brand New Me, surprised many but looks as gorgeous as expected (if filthier), directed again by Mark Withers who also helmed the excellent Beware video. Meanwhile the band continue to take to the stage with increasing ease, Ben quipping, “When we say, ‘Any requests?’, what we mean is, ‘Can you guess what song we’re going to play next?'”

Weird Life Goals

On 30th March 2005, at a Nine Inch Nails gig at the London Astoria, I stumbled upon a small theatrical two-piece band from the US called The Dresden Dolls as they broke into the UK music scene. While their short support set blew me away at the time (and arguably outperformed the headline act) I probably didn’t realise the lasting impact they would have. Sadly I never had another opportunity to see them live before they split up.

One half of the Dolls is Amanda Palmer, who is regularly mentioned here as she routinely tours the UK. And so, a few years after I first saw them, I was able to have her sign my Dresden Dolls album. Drummer Brian Viglione, on the other hand, remained in the States and never graced our shores with his presence. It seemed increasingly unlikely I would ever get the album fully signed but it sat there, an unfinished work in progress, and it gradually evolved into a Weird Life Goal eventually to complete it.

Years passed. Amanda continued to visit the UK. Brian did not. At a concert disrupted by the volcanic ashcloud, another small theatrical two-piece called Bitter Ruin stepped in to support Amanda, and my sister and I became instant fans. Earlier this year Bitter Ruin announced a March gig at the Underworld with the newly formed Gentlemen & Assassins, fused from several bands. Their drummer: Mr Brian Viglione.

Even as I dropped the half-signed album into my camera bag, I didn’t really think it would happen. And frankly seeing Brian drum was enough. His skill is in making precision seem effortless; instead the energy (and there’s a lot) all goes into infusing his performance and sound with character.

But after the gig he emerged — those who have met him will know he is the nicest guy, incredibly grounded — and was happy to sign everything from legs to ukuleles to, well, my album. If you want to know what a Weird Life Goal looks like, here it is. We chatted briefly, I mentioned seeing the Dolls play live with NIN (“At the Astoria?” he asked incredulously, “Wow.”) and it dawned on me just how long this moment had been in coming. The signed album was insignificant, but the breadth of time and experiences it represented were not. I grinned the whole journey home.

So I guess the point of this is post is not to give up on those Weird Life Goals, however unlikely or unnecessary they seem. What they represent is something else entirely, and from the other side they will always make you smile.

Apologies for the inexplicably low-quality thumbnail images in this post.

Pure Reason Revolution @ Scala

In hindsight it’s rather a shame I didn’t take my camera to the Pure Reason Revolution gig last night since it dawns on me that my first attempt at gig photography was at one of their shows, when I broke in my 50mm f/1.4 lens. Since I just purchased a new EOS 7D body, this would have been a fitting opportunity to try it out. Instead, you’ll see its results shortly when I head to the States.

On to the gig itself. I knew Jon and Ian would be there, and — adopting a high vantage point — managed to scout them out along with Philly J. They missed an eclectic couple of support acts. The newly formed Clean Bandit are a bizarre fusion of string quartet, electronica DJ and drummer, fronted by a hip-hop MC. And yet it works in an incredibly fun way, with a vibrant vitality on stage. Mozart’s House is a perfect showcase, with the title alone epitomising their genre-defying sound. I can’t wait for them to record more.

Next up were Losers, a three-piece sporting the increasingly common female drummer option. Rather than blending styles, Losers seemed slightly schizophrenic, channelling in turns like ambient Nine Inch Nails and The Prodigy. Also, electric guitar played with a bow. The final support were Welsh act The Last Republic. Though the most accomplished (by which I mean they’ve actually recorded an album) they were least interesting offering. They produced a decent rock sound, and conceiving a high pitched wail by singing into guitar pickups through a megaphone is undoubtedly novel. But novelty does not necessarily imply a successful result.

Pure Reason Revolution’s set was largely a mixture of their second album and their recent release Hammer and Anvil. Their slightly rockier third release hasn’t really grabbed me yet, though many tracks work better live. On the other hand I’m hesitant to rule it out so swiftly, since Amor Vincit Omnia took a while to grow on me. We agreed, however, the night was fully redeemed by an encore of old songs from their early releases. And, of course, thanks to Clean Bandit there was a string quartet on hand. That rendition of Bullitts Dominae will now be tough to beat. And apparently for pre-ordering at the gig, my name will appear on the sleeve of the live DVD they recorded. Which is a nice touch.

Incidentally the bouncers on the door were evidently pro-student protest. For my part I’m impressed by their tech savvy use of Google Maps to outmanoeuvre the police and evade initial attempts to “kettle” protesters. It seems the tools available to both sides are ever-improving.

Just One Evelyn

A volcano and Twitter brought me to you. Do you realise how beautiful that is?

-Melissa Auf der Maur

Evelyn Evelyn on Thursday night at KOKO may be have been the best ever gig that wasn’t. The quirky music of Evelyn Evelyn is performed by the fictional titular conjoined twins (or a musical and artistic collaboration between Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley, depending on your level of suspension of disbelief). Unfortunately one of the Evelyns (Jason Webley) couldn’t make it because she (he) was stuck in the US due to the volcanic ash cloud disruption. The result was a mess. And excellent.

I have previously described Amanda Palmer gigs as being “Amanda and friends” or, in this case, Amanda and whoever she dragged through the ash cloud. Luckily for us this included the sublime Bitter Ruin. A small band from Brighton, this twosome features the incredible voice of Georgia Train, by turns equally powerful and delicate, coupled with the Spanish twang of Ben Richards’ guitar. Be sure to listen to Trust and Soldier (and if you only click one link, make it that one). I find myself already eagerly anticipating the May release of their full album. Also supporting were the disarmingly enthusiastic Robots in Disguise (who may actually be robots in disguise) and the assured Melissa Auf der Maur (who may grow on me).

In a creative solution to the missing Evelyn, the gig was punctuated by a scripted fake webcast with Jason on plane to the UK, projected on a giant screen at the back of the stage, through which he could chat to Amanda and play a couple of songs with her. To explain the extent of the range of music experience that evening I could mention the country song about Icelandic volcanic ash clouds, but it really requires just three words: ukulele Radiohead cover.

Amanda seemed to flag a little (likely through exhaustion) by the end, but returned for a superb second encore with an energetic Girl Anachronism followed by a sort of Sex Pistols karaoke, with the lyrics to Anarchy in the UK projected as the crowd sang along, the front row (and Neil Gaiman) danced up on stage and Amanda Palmer crowd surfed. A fantastic closing given that it was conceived that very day when Amanda and Neil sat in a café as Malcolm McLaren’s funeral procession passed. Touring issues be damned, (record label) freedom clearly suits her well.

The Disgruntlement Factor

When I first came across the facebook group trying to subvert the pre-determined X Factor Christmas #1, I will openly admit I thought they had no chance of even making a dent, let alone headlines.  It turns out that I was wrong. Their push for Rage Against the Machine’s Killing In The Name hit BBC News after pulling ahead of this Joe chap from the show in digital downloads. I still suspect their efforts may be in vain as the physical version of Joe’s single is only released today and will undoubtedly cause a spike in sales.

Simon Cowell’s (unsurprisingly) massively egotistical response labelled it “cynical” and “stupid” and he then proceeded to explain it was all about him. Sorry Simon, it’s not. It’s a retaliation against the whole commercialised package that uses an entire TV show as a glorified advertising campaign to buy/”fix” the Christmas #1 in much the same way as these chaps are attempting. Whatever Simon may argue, both are equally “cynical” and “stupid” if it’s supposed to be about music. People are welcome to buy the X Factor single and if another bunch wish to express their views with their wallets in an alternative direction, surely that’s exactly the sort of audience participation Simon usually endorses…

The great irony is, of course, that Sony BMG wins doubly out of any competition since both songs are released under their label. The strongest argument against the campaign is that they’ve rallied around an old song (albeit one I rather like) rather than something new which they feel isn’t being given a fair chance against the X Factor machine. But what better than Rage in an attempt to take on the system? It’s no wonder Tom Morello approves. All I can say is I certainly know which song I’d prefer you buy. Call it my Christmas present. It would certainly be a moment to be remembered in music chart history.

Amanda Palmer @ Union Chapel

Mobile PianoChatting to people queueing for the gig, we all agreed that explaining to friends what we were doing over the weekend was an impossible task. To those unfamiliar with Amanda Palmer it is difficult to convey how much more than the average gig her concerts tend to be. Event is a more appropriate word, as evidenced by the large number of elaborately garbed fans that made many of us feel horribly underdressed. On Saturday evening I saw amorous puppet replicas of Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman, a mobile piano mounted upon a bizarre pedal-cycle contraption, and upon Amanda’s arrival, the top being set alight as she proceeded to play a flaming piano. Bear in mind this was all before we had even entered the venue. The photo gallery will give you some idea.

Musically her solo work is a logical progression post-Dresden Dolls. Her former band was already a stripped down two-piece affair (most arrangements were for piano, drums and vocals), describing their genre as “Brechtian Punk Cabaret”. Her solo work is arguably less Brechtian, but the punk cabaret and bare-bones sound remains in full force. It really lets the colourful wit of her sometimes playful, sometimes intense lyrics shine. Although the content of her songs may seem at odds with a church, the interior of the Union Chapel, with its gothic Victorian architecture, stunningly lit in blues and purples, was the perfect venue.

Amanda PalmerPolly Scattergood offered a good supporting set despite the limited material she has released so far. Most interesting to me was actually a stunningly honest unreleased song which suggests she has plenty more ground to cover in future albums. Amanda began both her main set and encore with a capella renditions that showcased how tightly impressive her voice can be, particularly in the emotionally charged cover of Tori Amos’ Me and a Gun. The rest of the set covered her solo album and several classic Dresden Dolls songs, as well as requests from the audience and even dipping into classical piano (mostly as a challenge to herself). All the while an artist was painting a large canvas at the back of the stage, the resulting artwork auctioned off at the end of the gig. Such was my enthralment with the entire night that I very nearly ended up spending £350 on it (it went for £450 in the end).

It was broken up by “Ask Amanda” segments, a Q&A via written questions dropped in a box before the gig. Her genial responses covered her experiences of the English and the unfairness of dating Neil Gaiman — catching up on each other’s careers meant she handed him 3 CDs to listen to, while he passed her two large boxes of his collected works. Speaking of Neil, he was travelling with her too and took on singing duties for a tongue-in-cheek “hymn” that contrasted comically with our surroundings as the entire audience broke into (slightly nervous) laughter. Her gigs inevitably feel like “Amanda and friends”, drawing in all the interesting creative people she has recently met. It is a testament to her generous spirit that her immediate desire is to share these talented individuals with her fans, and that is what makes her a beautiful person and her performances a joy to attend.

For those interested in the music, here are Spotify links to full albums by Amanda Palmer and Polly Scattergood.

Music and Bats

A year into working life, I’m not entirely sure where the time has gone. These 6-month trainee seats seem to fly by and, we collectively discovered, it’s with some apprehension we suddenly find ourselves no longer first years and instead expected to help out the new crop. I’m moving into a litigation seat, a department that seems incredibly busy and is likely to cut down on my free time significantly. While I shall endeavour not to disappear entirely, at least you know why in advance…

To be honest I didn’t “get” Spotify at first. I thought it was trying to replace Last.fm but without its “scrobbling” feature which tracks the music you listen to and suggests others, as well as comparing your tastes with friends and letting you see what they’re listening to. Eventually I caved and gave it a whirl about a month ago. I swiftly realised that Spotify wasn’t competing (out of the box it supports Last.fm, scrobbling everything to which you listen) and has much loftier goals: nothing short of a paradigm shift within the music industry. In fact, quite how it got away with it remains a mystery to me. After downloading the client music player (which is simple, vaguely reminiscient of iTunes) you have access to a vast library of music for free. While there are still notable gaps at present, every single album recommended to me by someone in the past month has been on there. That’s quite something. For licensing reasons Spotify isn’t available in the US yet, but they are working on it. The service is ad-supported but a subscription fee of £9.99 per month will remove them. With an iPhone App just released for music on the go, this really could change how people acquire their music. I highly recommend everyone with the remotest interest in music signs up to both these services: I’ll probably start mentioning more albums now that linking to a Spotify playlist is as simple as providing a URL.

Batman & JokerMy bank holiday weekend has been equally split between having friends round the the flat each day and playing through Batman: Arkham Asylum. Eschewing the usual film release tie-in model, they have instead crafted a game that stands wonderfully in its own right, feeding off the entire comicbook back-catalogue. By setting the game in Arkham, they are able to wheel out any Batman villain they want, since virtually all were incarcerated on the island at some point. All its required mechanics work wonderfully — stealth, combat, gadgetry — and it looks stunning to boot. Mark Hamill turns in a deliciously gleeful performance as Joker that really pushes the game forward. Probably the year’s best game so far, you don’t even need to be a particular fan of Batman to enjoy it, and I recommend people pick it up before the inevitable “holiday season” crush of new titles begins.

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