Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

Enthralling, magnetic, enraptured, captivated, mesmerised, riveted; just a few of the words that spring to mind when describing Nick Cave’s performance.

Tightened security and flimsy organisation led to a massive queue snaking its way outside Manchester Arena and around Victoria Station, and the start was delayed by a half hour, supposedly to allow everyone to make it inside on time. Ominous and familiar sounding notes could be heard emanating from inside as we traipsed around the outer ring attempting to descend various stairwells to the standing area and being repeatedly redirected in confusing and frustrating chaos.
We finally descended the correct steps just as Nick Cave came onstage to the last lingering and foreboding notes of “Three Seasons in Wyoming” (played on tape) as they drifted away and seamlessly melded into the opening song.

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ new song from their Windrunner score shares the style and theme of The Bad Seeds’ latest effort, the wonderful, dark and haunting Skeleton Tree which featured at the top of many a best-of list with rave reviews and critical commendation. The setlist obviously drew heavily upon this last album, playing all but the shortest of its 8 songs, with a smattering of 2013’s Push the Sky Away interjected with various classic cuts from albums past.

They kicked things off with an opening triple salvo from Skeleton Tree starting with the menacing rumble of “Anthrocene” skittling and thrumming around the expectant and bated crowd, punctuated and offset by the oft-recurring choir-like sigh atop the four soft piano notes. An interesting choice for an opener but it somewhat set the tone for what I now know a Nick Cave concert to be like: a reverent appreciation of one of music’s greatest performers. There’s a certain cult status that comes with listening to Nick Cave and it borders on near-religious and fervent adulation: a quiet and powerful awed respect that permeates the air. Clad in classy black suit and white shirt, dark long hair slicked back in that quintessential Nick Cave look, he opened up standing at the mic gesturing and giving life to his enigmatic and vivid poetry. “Anthrocene” quickly morphed into the eerie “Jesus Alone” with its disturbing persistent wail leading us deeper into our hushed awe as Nick took our minds away with the song’s single-line chorus:

With my voice,
I am calling you

He then left his standing spot at the centre mic stand and eased into his typical stalking and pacing of the stage, arms gently flailing as the song grew and morphed into a strong, slow and controlled cauldron of noise, with the drums hitting notably hard and jarringly in a particularly gratifying and fitting manner. The gentle piano of “Magneto” brought that soon-to-be familiar stillness, but if the crowd were so zealously quiet, Nick was all but so, growing into his groove as he stared the front row down, miming out his lyrics and drawing laughs for lines such as It was the year I officially became the bride of Jesus which he delivered with usual aplomb, staring down and teasing the audience as he whispered it hoarsely. He swayed with the yearning lines of the chorus, seeming to urge us to sing it one more time with feeling, and returned to vintage and casual Nick Cave with lines like Oh, the urge to kill somebody was basically overwhelming before dancing to the dark ballad and let me tell you: no one dances like Nick Cave dances, exuding a mystical silky sexiness long lost in today’s frontmen and recalling the sex appeal of frontmen of old like Jim Morrison or Robert Plant. I wonder where Thom Yorke got his moves from…

And then it all changed with the “Higgs Boson Blues”.

A short perfunctory hello Manchester brought with it the first notes and subsequent cheers, and then came the madness. Nick Cave is an absolute mad magician of a conductor, a hypnotic and prophetic presence onstage, never still, jittery and restless as he stalks left right and centre, toying and playing and teasing the crowd, grabbing their adoring and outstretched hands, letting them touch him whilst wildly rambling about Robert Johnson and the devil in increasing hysteria, and taunting the front row between his lyrics with cries of “come on” as he urges them onwards with his arms and ramps up the frenzy with the first of his many ecstatic whoops. It’s a powerful enough song on its own but this rendition alone was worth the entry fee, as he tantalisingly upped the ante, raising and raising the whole atmosphere, leaning and jumping into the crowd. He produced one of the most awe inspiring moments in live music that I have ever witnessed when he leaned into and let himself fall over the crowd as he whispered can you feel my heartbeat? and hands stretched and reached towards the organ in question from every which way, before he made a gun with his hand for the coarse and hushed power of the next line:

It goes boom boom boom

And yet despite this alluring and incredible persona, another wonderful aspect of Nick Cave the artist is his ability to disconnect from it as he told the band to dumb it down so he could exchange banter with “a guy with an iPhone” (he says play-mockingly bringing huge cheers from the arena) who wouldn’t stop going on about his purple socks, and whilst acknowledging freedom of speech, he kindly told him to “shut the fuck up” before picking up the broken pieces of their heart with a “I still love you though”. And then the persona was back.

Take this depiction and image of Nick Cave, and apply such moments to nearly every single song of the set, bar the new album or the quieter ones, and you get a general idea of how a Nick Cave concert unfolds. And so it proved, with older bona fide Cave songs in “From Her to Eternity” with its meagre macabre piano line and spooky chorus – rendered more disturbing sung by such a big crowd – during which it was revealed that Warren can equally go just as mad trashing about on his violin or guitar (and smirking approvingly at one point at Nick’s antics), and whilst Nick may act as the audience’s conductor and orchestrator, Warren proved to be the band’s own orchestrator and conductor: the very heartbeat of it. Bleak grey images of windswept tress in a desert landscape then appeared on the screen as the jagged guitar riff of “Tulepo” rang out, and Nick finally sat down to tinkle away at the piano, only to be back on his feet a few seconds later to resume his habitual antics: literally kicking the air with every explosion. I remember feeling a certain sense of fascinated unease in watching and hearing Nick tell us: Oh go to sleep little children, the Sandman’s on his way, all the more since he’d brought this young kid (10-12 years old) onstage, complete with Bad Seeds t-shirt, singing out all the lyrics and not in the slightest bit intimidated as Nick Cave held his hand and pulled him across the stage in fearsome duality, young and old, united in Nick Cave’s persona.
Afterwards, just like the set-changing “Higgs Boson Blues”, a fast and powerful “Jubilee Street” came rushing out of nowhere, taking us by storm, upping the tempo after a mere verse and a half like a bubble growing bigger and bigger threatening to burst into a wonderful explosion of aggressive fast-paced pleasure and gratifyingly complying. Nick struts his stuff more restlessly than ever, sits down at the piano to boogie away before lifting off the chair in record speed to grab the mic again and give voice to the whole jam, I’m transforming I’m vibrating, look at me now!, before chucking the mic away to sit back down at the piano for the few last lines. Unstoppable. And this description in no ways does it justice.

We’re treated to a most delicate and tranquil lull in the setlist with the next four songs, starting off with “The Ship Song” and its peaceful chorus: the perfect platform for one of the set’s highlights and most anticipated moments in “Into My Arms”. Continuing at the piano in his most static stage of the whole night, Nick takes a moment to wipe his face with a towel and humbly acknowledge what a privilege it is for all of us to be gathered there on that night. One of the most magical and wistful moments of the evening ensued and proved that despite all the dark musings and sinister tones and gruesome lyrics and stories, Nick Cave can still write one of the most beautiful ballads on planet earth, taking centre stage on the grand piano and urging the crowd to sing along to the longing chorus.

Into my arms, oh Lord, into my arms

They then returned to the familiar sound and anguish of Skeleton Tree with “Girl in Amber” and its lilting sighing choir coupled with forlorn lyrics above synths that would not be out of place on Lynch’s Twin Peaks. There was time to pull even harder on everyone’s heartstrings with the deeply aching “I Need You”, Nick’s voice an absolute conduit of tender pain above a hypnotic drumbeat and more prolonged sighing moans, as Nick changes lyrical tact from one song to the other: And if you want to leave, don’t breathe to I need you, just breathe, just breathe as if urging himself on to not completely give up on everything. One of the most moving songs of the night, if not his catalogue.

A filthy groove starts echoing around the walls of the arena as “Red Right Hand” gets under way, and Nick is back to his maniac best, swaggering across the front line and flaying his arms all devil-like as he toys with the crowd in the build-up to the eponymous lines, with a whoop and bell crowning it all. A snakingly gnarly guitar solo struts its way around as Nick conducts the crowd in his prophetic manner before rushing to the piano for the inevitable explosion, and back again in time for the bell. Mesmerising. Words cannot describe the powerful performance of every single song.
A budding “The Mercy Seat” keeps the momentum going with its hasty and imminent vibes building and building into hectic fury with its repeating final lines transmitting a sense of impending doom and nervous anticipation made all the more powerful by the following choice of song in “Distant Sky”. It was not a song I was expecting and I found it slightly perturbing having the whole screen dominated by a video of Else Torp singing her parts of the song, wondering why they didn’t bring a replacement singer along for the tour. But it did grow on me in its pure ethereal quality and sincere tones, instilling a chilling and respectable silence. Nick then chose the perfect set closer in Skeleton Tree’s eponymous and adequate closing song that was, to put it simply, a most wonderful break to proceedings and a single relaxing moment of admirative peace and quiet.

The band then went offstage before the encore and I’d like to take this moment to commend The Bad Seeds on their incredible backing of their charismatic frontman, enabling his every mad whim and frantic performance. Special mention to longtime collaborator Warren Ellis who truly acted as a perfect conductor, organising the ups and downs and breaks and stops whilst still having the time to trash around on various instruments and become maniacal himself.

There could hardly have been a more perfect encore (except maybe with an extra “O Children” thrown in there…or “Lyre of Orpheus” or…) and they kicked it off with a dark and brooding “The Weeping Song” that extended and extended as Nick ventured off into the crowd, climbing up on chairs and through people, getting selfied by enthusiastic fans, being helped up and down the rows, singing and teasing them, swatting away their phones and encouraging “proper” clap-alongs – berating the crowd for not clapping the right way – thanking a member of the audience for their thoughtfulness in (appropriately) handing him a tissue, and then finally succumbing and handing that “guy with an iPhone” only one of his purple socks.

Then came undoubtedly, and I know I’ve used this word before but bear with me and trust in the mad performance that is Nick Cave, the ultimate highlight of this crazy evening. The bass started it off with its brooding groove, before single dark piano notes rang out and lingered into the abyss as the drums sounded off hard and menacingly over our heads. Nick danced. Nick knelt. Lifted a woman onstage. She danced. Like a mortal facing a higher being. Then Nick knelt. Brought up the awesome kid from earlier. Gestured towards the side of the stage at some security guys or something. And then Nick started singing with the wonder-kid magnificently mouthing off the opening lines.  By then a streak of people were continuously coming onstage, all grooving and dancing and doing their best Nick Cave impressions as he narrated the dark and gruesome story of “Stagger Lee”, pointing and flaying and raging his way around, enticing and teasing the crowd, onstage and off, pointing, screaming, shushing the crowd as those onstage reverently took up the background and left him the requisite amount of space he needed to perform his magic. And then the massive party began and exploded when the cacophony of noise that signalled the end of the song erupted from the Bad Seeds, and what a sight it was to see up to 30 people rocking it out onstage to the monster jam and figure that is Stagger Lee. But where the normal song should have ended, Nick brought it back down for a last bonus verse featuring none other than the devil himself facing up to Stagger Lee. I need not reveal the outcome.

Here come the devil, said “I’ve come to take you down, Mr. Stagger Lee”

Final screeches and wails of noises like banshees burning rung out into the night for what could have been the perfect ending party but they once more chose an absolute pearl of a closer in Push the Sky Away’s eponymous final song, only after making all those onstage sit down obediently behind him though, except the kid, as the prophetic choir lines of the title were echoed back by a mesmerised and awe-struck 20 000 obedient fans. Nick Cave had already won us over but he’d now turned us upside down, inside out, shaken us head to toe and bewildered us into awestruck admiration, even more so when he took the time to give a sincere and heartfelt repeated thanks, coming across as a most humble and thankful person as he shed Nick Cave the persona and once more became Nick Cave the mortal.

 

(Manchester Arena, 25th of September 2017, Manchester, U.K.)

Advertisements

The National

I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees

Who knew The National now actually had “hit” songs. Who knew massive crowd sing-alongs to The National even existed, let alone were possible. I have never quite experienced anything like it.

Like the vintage sight of Matt pouring himself a glass of wine, The National have only got better with time. From gracing many a headphone with soothing baritone, irony-laced, sad, melancholic and melodic musings, to selling out the biggest concert halls (I never thought I’d end up having to tout a ticket because of leisurely waking up an hour too late to find tickets were sold out…) and becoming Indie Rock’s darlings and now on the cusp of headlining major festivals (trust me on this), their rise has been well-documented – and well deserved – and getting to see them at Manchester’s O2 Apollo allowed for a glimpse into their handling of it all. Because if 2007’s Boxer was their critical breakthrough, 2010’s High Violet their commercial “wider-audience” breakthrough, then 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me further cemented their place as everyone’s new  favourite Indie Rock band. With most of those albums receiving rave reviews, the pressure was on to deliver yet another stellar album.

Their latest effort, 2017’s Sleep Well Beast, was described by many as their heaviest to date, with angular noises, riffs and actual guitar solos, but underlying it throughout is a soft underbelly of piano, laying the foundation for one of their most subtle works yet. However, although they have most definitely learnt and evolved as a band and even embraced their newfound position, ultimately, they really haven’t done much to alter their formula: rather, it seems like dogged persistence has just finally led them to a wider audience who’ve slowly come to embrace their slow, thoughtful style and wittily self-depreciative lyricism. The new songs bear all the hallmarks of classic National songs with the interplay of the Dessner brothers’ guitars and piano, Scott Devendorf’s driving bass and the dark swagger of Matt’s voice tied together by Bryan Devendorf’s rolling drum rhythms. But a strong twinkling of piano has come to permeate their songs and a smattering of guitar solos – even duelling brothers! – to add more oomph and, dare I say it, sexiness, or to use a less disturbing word, flair. Without mentioning Matt’s stage presence as he readily stalks the stage, in and about, out and around, leaning, crouching, screaming, slow dancing his arms about as he lilts his new songs into the mic, eyes closed, lullabying the enraptured crowd into blissful dreamland.

‘Tis in such a fashion that he began the night with new album opener “Nobody Else Will Be There” easing the crowd in before launching straight into what may well be their most upbeat song to date, to which I, for one, can’t help but groove and sway along to – which is called “dancing” (dancing to The National, who’d have thought!) – with lead single “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” complete with that new jagged guitar sound and first proper, uplifting solo of the night from Aaron Dessner as Matt almost ironically repeats: I can’t explain it, any other way.

With that quick one-two of differing The National styles and vibes, the stage was set and they continued with their latest LP with “Walk It Back”, complete with atypical electronic intro before Matt’s deep vocals return the track to familiar territory. As the speech segment comes on, Matt starts stalking around the stage, circling behind the drum kit and getting into the mood as he sings familiar themes of don’t want to fuck it up. No danger there Matt. They follow up with the popular “Guilty Party” that slowly builds like many of their songs, progressively, drumbeat increasing in intensity and complexity and the indispensable horn section adding just the right touch of magic to the song, à la The National, as the song grows but then steadies itself before the expectant end, a feature typical of the last album as they tamper and play with the expected but inexistent explosion present on previous offerings.

They break the succession of new songs with “Don’t Swallow the Cap” off High Violet which, with its quick rolling rhythm, hopeful lyrics and bonus Dessner guitar outro bravado providing the perfect platform for one of the night’s biggest highlights in the increasingly adored “Bloodbuzz Ohio”.
I’d never imagined I would get to hear thousands of people sing The National lyrics together in harmony and what a most stunning thing it was to both belt out those lyrics with all one’s heart and vigour and also be a part of and bathe in: a moment to close one’s eyes and marvel at how far The National have come from their early days. It’s safe to say the older songs drew a few more sing-alongs – yes, there were more! – with “Afraid of Everyone” continuing the wonderful trend

I don’t have the drugs to sort it out

 before it was back to new territory with the pleading rosy-sounding “Empire Line”, before a rip-roaring – I cannot skip the chance to use that word to describe a National song – rendition of their heaviest song to date, “Turtleneck”, as Matt writhed and contorted himself into all sorts of anguished cries and screams, to the obvious delight of the crowd who, may I say it, impressively responded to every bated offering of adulation such as the above or Aaron and Bryce’s forays to the edge of the stage.

Although the list is growing, the number of songs that could be labelled “hits” by The National is relatively short, but amongst them is an unlikely yet characteristic song in the wistful “I Need My Girl” which had all the couples lovingly cuddling up. They backed it up with the lilting guitar slides of “This Is The Last Time”, remorseful lyrics and quiet tone prompting the crowd to make themselves heard. The National then returned to their roots somewhat with one of only 3 songs from seminal album Boxer with “Apartment Story” that they appropriately dedicated to a certain Bernie who’d hosted them on her floor in Manchester during previous visits. The warm fuzzy blue and rose-coloured light-show – which was excellent throughout – adequately mirrored the lyrics in conveying the warm cosiness of being nestled in a sofa at home with loved ones (a most welcome change and remedy to my incessant mumbling of that very song as I waited outside in the cold beforehand). We’d have gladly stayed in the cosy Apollo until way past curfew.

Stay inside our rosy-minded fuzz, for days

They continued with a few rare gems starting with the tour debut of “Hard to Find”, one of the quietest songs of the evening that silenced the room to a gentle hush as we were further cradled in the warm lush tones of the piano coupled with Matt’s baritone. They followed that with the double High Violet whammy of “Lemonworld” with its cooing “doo doo” echoing around the room in mingled opposition with the preceding lines of dying in a lemonworld. In this respect, The National have a certain gift in suffusing many of their songs with undertones and murmurs of hope despite the palpable darkness, as evidenced here on “Lemonworld” or with the subtle trumpets of “Guilty Party”, that offset Matt’s feelings of uselessness with lines such as Nothing I change changes anything in “Walk It Back”, or this song’s And I’ll try to find something on this thing that means nothing enough.
The biggest surprise came next with “Conversation 16” featuring the beautifully bizarre eargasm of hundreds of people belting out the bridge

I was afraid I’d eat your brains, cause I’m evil.

They returned to pastures new with the soft and stunning “Carin at the Liquor Store”, a ballad to rival any of their work as a tranquil hush descended on the audience who bathed in such still elegance and gracefully demonstrated the band’s new status as every ear was tuned in and attentive, every mouth muted, and everyone’s gaze, will and mind enraptured and riveted.
It’s a foregone conclusion nowadays.

The yearningly hopeful notes of their ode to this country rang out to huge cheers as “England” grew and grew in energy and life before culminating in the stalling bittersweet outro capped by Matt’s desperate longing to push the night away. The art of raising and lowering the mood and tempo seemed to be second nature to them as another swaying rhythm on the toms signals the upbeat sound of “Day I Die”, the opening arrogant lines recalling “All the Wine”, before the end of the chorus brings with it that exuberant and wackily happy guitar riff to which we gleefully (stupidly) sang along with.
One of the biggest cheers of the night is reserved for a Boxer classic as the opening piano lines of “Fake Empire” are drowned out but then the noise is returned in kind when the horn section work their magic with aplomb to an overwhelmed audience thunderously applauding the performance as the band wander off for a short break.

I ecstatically ramble on about how many and which potential songs they could play for the encore before they throw my erratically yet thoughtful propositions out of the window with another new song in “Born to Beg” with its gentle electronic hum coupled with piano building into that limbo state of catharsis that they’ve perfect on Sleep Well Beast. They then brought out the acoustic guitar for an oldie and fan favourite “Slow Show” before delving even deeper into their back catalogue for their only pre-Boxer song and live show staple from 2005’s Alligator: “Mr November”. There was a wonderful irony during the song’s quieter bridge in hearing Matt singing of being carried in the arms of cheerleaders as I saw one lucky soul crowdsurfing over the barrier into the waiting arms of the security personnel, before Matt exploded at every corner of the stage, as every repetitive and louder chiasmic cry brought his yearning and hopeful words closer to reality:

I won’t fuck us over, I’m Mr. November,
I’m Mr. November, I won’t fuck us over

Lullabies and gnarly guitar solos, soft piano ballads, lead singer chucking glasses to the balcony, soft deep singing and throat-wrenching scream, we’ve been pulled every which wonderful way.
They had time for one last song and amongst a wealth of options opted for “Terrible Love” as its ragged opening guitar rang out and echoed in the lovely, expectant and satisfied air of the Apollo.  The song lingers through its first verses and chorus until the urgent guitar riff starts the slow crescendo, followed shortly by Matt’s baring admission to needing help to sleep is joined by the rush the quickening hi-hat hits that add to the nervous anxiousness. There is a lull as Matt sings about trying not to break, playing with our heartstrings and toying with our emotional lilt, before the song enters its final climactic pull leaving us with us drenched and soaked and bathed in the last of Matt’s words and sweet aftermath of the storm we’ve just weathered, a cleansing and cathartic storm of emotions.

It takes an ocean not to break

 

(O2 Apollo, 22nd of September 2017, Manchester, U.K.)

The other Manchester One Love concert.

Yesterday, Sunday 4th of June, thousands crammed the tramlines, masses crowded the streets and droves of excited, worried, scared and brave souls homed in on Manchester’s Trafford borough.

Millions, nationwide and further tuned in to watch Ariana Grande and the all-star studded slew of famous pop musicians take to the stage to cement and celebrate Manchester as a city united, in what must have been a bittersweet and joyous deluge of emotional tears and smiles.

I wouldn’t know though because I was a few miles away in the centre at a different, not last-minute, multiple-band gig. At the O2 Ritz, from 4 till 10, a few bands took to two different stages and rooms in the lead-up to the “headlining” slot by Chicago’s breezy 2016 breakout band: Whitney.

I was there for Whitney but had the pleasure of making it in time for Bill Ryder-Jones who was on just before for a solo “acoustic” set. “Acoustic” because I thought the wording was funny considering he used an electric guitar. So no piano to perform certain tracks from the only album I knew, 2013’s “A Bad Wind Blows in my Heart”.
He really took me by surprise though, shuffling onstage unexpectedly and so so casually joking and fooling around with himself and the crowd. A very far cry from the image I’d created in my head of a soft, frail, short and dark-haired (don’t ask me why…had to picture him somehow), skinny piano guy with the softest and graceful of voices, slow and somehow low-key and relatable. But he proved a bubbly character between and during songs, interrupting them ad lib to comment on something or someone: basically just coming across as a friendly and cool guy-next-door dude, as if he’d just walked into the living room to play some tunes. Having not prepared a setlist, he took people’s requests but he had kept a certain song for the closer as he played a ripping and gripping cover of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” to full approval of the audience.

It’s the third gig I’ve been to since that awful attack and just like the other two, this one was still instilled with a certain sense of unity and fellowship that transcended the music.

Whitney came on a half hour later with the softest of intro’s showcasing drummer and lead singer (a peculiar and somewhat spellbinding sight) Julien Ehrlich’s flawless and impeccable high, falsetto-like voice.
They performed most songs off their excellent and critically-love debut Light Upon the Lake, starting with “Dave’s Song” and including the wonderful “On My Own” and “Golden Days” before highlights “Magnet”, an energetic NRBQ cover, and new song “Rolling Blackout” which swirled in various buoyant directions and beckoned bright, shiny and pretty new things were on the horizon, promising more of the summery, relaxed window-down road trip music we’ve come to love. I could be imagining it – or wistfully wishing for it – but I thought I noted a hint of maturity and perhaps an ever so slight bump in intricacy. Their set was so satisfyingly and revitalisingly enjoyable, easy and pleasant, short an sweet, different: the singer’s drum platform taking centre-stage, 3 band members not too obscured behind him, some tight drumming, gusty solos, animated pianist, three-way soloing between guitarist, pianist and the excellent trumpeter, some jamming and with their only album clocking in at just 30 minutes, some refreshing 2 and 3 minute light-hearted songs. They ended with their dreamy “No Woman” to a singalong before the DJ or music-guy or whoever, quickly blasted out some music before they’d hardly left the stage completely.

I started fuming once more to my friend but before I had time to repeat my earlier rant of hating the post-performance music as a disrespectful invasion of musical privacy that should be banned to allow the viewer/listener to bathe in the aftermath of the performance they just witness; before I had time to angrily go on about it, before all band members had fully disappeared from sight, my ire was quenched by one the most beautiful sounds that exists to my ears which is the sound of voices blending into a single powerful voice as they sung Manchester’s newly-adopted, post-attack musical emblem “Don’t Look Back in Anger”.

In the blink of an ear, we were singing along to the famous “soooooooooooooo Sally can wait” chorus from our perched balcony heights, standing up on the couches as the lads a few metres down were swaying, shirtless, belting out the hit, to add to the ground floor’s huge medley of raised arms and heads, mouths agape and eyes and faces beaming.
So quick was the transition that the pianist, looked back (in hesitation, not anger), and decided he’d jump in and join in, raised aloft in the arms of Manchester.
The music-guy was making amends and wasted no time in following that up with another Manchester-themed tune, second time during the night, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. So we ran down and joined in the celebrations of one of the things that makes Manchester what it is, and we danced and we sang and there we were having a party in the O2 Ritz, guy in a park flaying his limbs around and shoving his phone in our faces to film it all, balcony couples dancing away and big making-the-ground-shake crowd we were part of just euphorically singing, jumping and dancing away.
All that was left was to follow a Joy Division tune with a New Order one, “Blue Monday” and to continue the partying. Well, until they switched that off…to little avail as we took it up again for a while until the glum-faced security personnel (seriously, why??) ushered us out.

A wonderful, cathartic and adrenaline-raising ending to this most charming and cheerful of evenings.

And the music-guy had redeemed himself.

P.s.: this is assuming there is an actual “music-guy” and not just a “Manchester playlist” that came on at that point, or a random playlist which just so happened to play those 3 songs in that order.

Seu Jorge

What a voice.
Deep, rich, creamy and full of emotion.
The next best thing to seeing Bowie in concert.
I want to move to Brazil. I want to learn Portuguese. I want to dress like a sailor in a funky red hat.
He’s given me an itch to learn his lovely language and to discover his original music and sing it in my deepest, velvety voice and to learn how to play some samba and play it on a hot Brazilian day.
All these thoughts coursed through my head at the end of his brilliant set.

His name is Seu Jorge and one day, he received a call by none other than Wes Anderson. The rest, as they say, is history.

Casually strolling on stage, cup of tea in hand, looking like he’d just walked into his living room – the absolute embodiment of “chill” – he launched into “Ziggy Stardust” and from the moment he opened his mouth for that opening cry, I was hooked. During a week when the only voice consuming my mind was that of Chris Cornell, he provided me with a welcome distraction and reminder that many other beautiful and different voices still grace us the world over. It proved a refreshing release and re-invigoration.

What’s more, Seu was full of casual banter. After the opener, he described the scene when he first got that famous phone call: playing PlayStation as his then-wife picked up the phone and nonchalantly answering Wes Anderson’s questions. “Yes I know Bowie”, “blond guy?”, “two different coloured eyes?”, “sometimes I confuse him with Billy Idol…”.
Had it not been for that single phone call, Seu Jorge’s renown may not have strayed so globally to such a teeming hive as Manchester. And so it came to be that Seu Jorge was cast as one of the crewmen in Team Zissou, the crew of Steve Zissou (longtime collaborator Bill Murray) in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Playing a few Portuguese-language covers of David Bowie songs in the film itself, he then released a soundtrack with up to 15 of these covers. During the gig, stories of the shooting of the film were commonplace between some of the songs and he really got the crowd charmed and laughing cheerfully, and was given an enthusiastic response after each and every song.

After “Changes” and “Oh! You Pretty Things”, he revealed how tough it was to change the rock’n’roll songs of Bowie into the samba style he was used to and recounted how he pretended to Wes Anderson that he had his version of “Rebel Rebel” ready but needed 15 minutes to “concentrate” before filming the scene. Cue a mad rush for some inspiration.

And so it went on, performing “Rebel Rebel” before a really lively “Starman”, revealing the lyrics he sings were coined by a different Brazilian band. “Lady Stardust”, inspired by Cate Blanchett in the film, was followed by “Rock’n’roll Suicide” and then a terrific “Suffragette City” which stayed in my head long through the night. “Quicksand” and a “Space Oddity” dedicated to all those wearing hats ensued (he was dressed in his Team Zissou uniform from the film, as were members of the staff at the venue and a few in the audience had either brought their own red hats or bought them at the merch stand).

A thundering “Five Years” was of one the highlights: how he instils the songs with such power I’ll never know but in his hands they sometimes become even more potent in their stripped-down setting with where his voice truly shines with vigour, strength and emotion.

One last story to tell concerning David Bowie’s death and that of his father, a few days apart and how he was convinced by his ex-wife (the same one?) to do something in tribute to them and after mulling over it came up with the idea to tour and play these beautiful song to people around the world. And so he dedicated the next song to Manchester and those affected by the recent bombing.
A rousing “Life on Mars” was performed with soul, sweetness and feeling with a devastating final cry of the title lyrics, to a standing ovation and teary eyes from performer and audience members in every corner of the Albert Hall.

He finished with the simplest of elegances in “When I Live My Dreams”, gracefully acknowledging the crowd one last time before peacefully making his way offstage to leave us with minds appeased to watch him one more time in a special screening of Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic.

(Albert Hall, 25th of May 2017, Manchester, U.K.)

Chris Cornell

It’s been a week to the day since I woke up to the news that Chris Cornell had unexpectedly died.
After a week of listening to Audioslave – Soundgarden – Cornell – Temple of the Dog, I’d like to celebrate the life of this most talented of artists.

I remember being about 13 years old and sat at our single family desktop computer in our spacious living-cum-dining room, in one of those now commonplace black swivelling office-like chairs. Responsible and conscious teenager that I was, I opted to not blast out the rock music I was about to play from the high-grade speakers we didn’t have but instead chose the premium super-headphones that probably came with the desktop years before.

Not that I was audibly-proficient enough to notice, but sound quality did not bother me back then and would not even have mattered a jot anyhow because what I was listening to transcended mere sound quality and its own excellency shone through and seeped from my eardrums through my brain and right to the very core of my soul or whatever part it is in your being and essence that makes the hair rise on your arms and your body tingle.

I remember wondering how music, mere sound waves, could give such physical and tangible pleasure; wondering where it all came from, how it came to be and I remember most of all the clear and precise purpose it instilled within me: to be able to give and create such a wonderful feeling in other people.

Is it irony or fate (urgh) that the very title of the song to have set the future course of my life from then on was “Show Me How to Live”? Probably just random chance but that’s exactly what Chris Cornell’s baritone voice did to me that very day during the first verse of my favourite song – a verse I’ve tried to replicate countless times since – up until the explosive chorus kicked in. I could go on about that specific song with its deep humming intro groove, the phased-out and fluttering wah wah and tremolo solo by Tom Morello or the staccato-like outro cry by Cornell (or the awesome car-chase music video!) but I digress from the topic at hand, namely: a eulogy to mine and many more people’s favourite singer, songwriter and frontman.

Audioslave

To me, Chris Cornell has always meant first and foremost Audioslave. Often referred to as RATM + Chris Cornell (or the three instrumentalists from Rage with the singer dude from Soundgarden) for their first album, they were nonetheless well-received and liked by fans and critics who noted how well the musicians blended and how they fit and stood out in the rock and alternative scene at the time. Many people’s favourite songs will probably be found on their self-titled and debut album with its heavy hitting blazers like the aforementioned “Show Me How to Live”, opener “Cochise” (with Morello’s random and innovative use of a pencil to make a helicopter sound, as you do) or “Shadow on the Sun” and its mellower and softer “ballads” (if you can call them such) “Like a Stone”, “What You Are” or “I Am the Highway”.

But if that album does somewhat feel like an amalgamation of the members’ previous bands – in absolutely no way whatsoever is that a bad by the way in my humble opinion – their second album Out of Exile did find them with a style and feel of their own. It still possesses the heavy hitters, the crunchy riffs and the guttural Cornell screams but it’s a lot more balanced out with a softer, more varied and alternative sound. Perhaps a fair way to put it might be that the songs are generally less one-dimensional and that as a whole album, it flows together more effortlessly, mirroring their gelling as a fully-fledged band. Opener “Your Time Has Come” is just as visceral as previous songs but with a lighter groove but is then followed up by the marching drums of eponymous “Out of Exile”, the wah-wah-heavy solo from “Be Yourself” and the absolutely smouldering and blistering one from easy-going “Doesn’t Remind Me”; you’ve got the lilting arpeggios of the sweet “Heaven’s Dead”, the futuristic loopy bass intro to “Yesterday to Tomorrow”, the poppy and self-descriptively-sounding “Dandelion” and album closers “#1 Zero” and “The Curse” which sound more like what Audioslave should sound like than any other songs.

Third album Revelations has its strong moments like the title track or first single “Original Fire” but is generally more lacking in oomph and guile and tended to be a bit too repetitive, especially in songs like “Somedays” or “Jewel of the Summertime”. But again there was some evolution and they were definitely developing the “Audioslave sound” with songs like “One & the Same”, “Sound of a Gun” and another great closer in “Moth”. The album does have a certain cohesion and overall funkiness to it though and one can just wonder what would have come of future albums or a reunion.

Audioslave is the perfect showcase of Cornell’s talent and evolution as an artist as it not only shows his heavier past with his deep voice, lengthy screams and explosive vocal strength but also the softer side with his low baritone, falsetto backed by acoustic guitar or even piano. But it’s not enough to truly appreciate his influence and range as an artist.

Soundgarden

Cornell rose to fame with the previously mentioned Soundgarden, part of the so-called “Big 4” of grunge along with Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Alice in Chains. Although Nirvana’s Nevermind was undoubtedly the album to have launched grunge into the mainstream stratosphere, Soundgarden are often regarded as the first band to bring recognition to the genre. They released 5 albums during their first stint with third album Badmotorfinger, released in 1991, the same year as Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s debut Ten, garnering praise with songs such as “Jesus Christ Pose” (with its intense drumming and awesome gloomy riff), “Rusty Cage” and “Outshined” (whose unexpectedly shiny and contrasting chorus shall forever surprise me). It prepared the terrain for their breakthrough album Superunknown which featured their biggest hit, the haunting “Black Hole Sun”, along with “Fell on Black Days” and the groovy “Spoonman”. Their next album Down on the Upside continued the trend of critical and commercial success with “Pretty Noose” and “Blow up the Outside World” proving popular picks. Amongst those bands, Soundgarden were noted for their heavier, at times even sludgier, sound and especially their weird time signatures in many of their songs (take “Rusty Cage” for example which switches from 4/4 to 7/4 to 9/8 to 19/8…) which also often featured alternative tunings. Cornell became famous for his huge vocal range which he was able to let loose on many of Soundgarden’s songs that often stretched further than 5 minutes, from quiet to loud and back again like “Slaves & Bulldozers” or “Like Suicide” or in the short punkish songs like “Face Pollution” or “An Unkind”. They were definitely the most experimental band of those famous during that era and pushed the boundaries with their eclecticism but as tensions in the band grew, they disbanded in 1997 and Cornell went on to pursue other endeavours.

They did reunite in 2010 though and released a new album called King Animal and I had the opportunity to see them perform live in Paris in 2012. Aside from some technical difficulties (bassist Ben Shepherd was fuming and quite close to walking off…) and generally pretty bad sound, it was both heavy and intense and fun and breezy. Each band member had their very own stage presence, their aura or character shining through with Ben Shepherd, giant of a man, with his very low-hanging bass stalking around the stage, Kim Thayil a wise immovable object doing the weird stuff he does so exquisitely, Matt Cameron with his friendly face all smiling throughout just getting on with his awsome drumming and Mr. Cornell wailing and hitting those high notes and amicably chatting to us between songs.

Chris Cornell gave off an impression of pure humble friendliness, of being an earnest person as well as performer, sincere in manner and words. What he may lack in charismatic and entertaining stage persona, he more than makes up for in genuine grace and kindness, casually addressing the audience and breaking the physical and intangible barrier between artist and fan.

Temple of the Dog

An important moment in Chris’ life and grunge’s as well was the death of his good friend and roommate Andrew Wood, who was the charismatic frontman of wave-making band Mother Love Bone. His untimely death by overdose just days before the release of their debut album shook many of the musicians of the scene at the time and Cornell decided to approach two of the members of the band, Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard, to record some songs he’d written for Andrew. The project quickly grew and a few songs became a whole album: a tribute to Andrew Wood called Temple of the Dog from lyrics in one of Andrew’s songs.

Additional members Matt Cameron and Mike McCready were brought on as well as guest vocalist Eddie Vedder and in one fell swoop, Cornell was responsible for the future creation of Pearl Jam. Together they recorded an amazing and worthy album, softer than Soundgarden and showcasing the balance Cornell would come to achieve later, that stood the test of time and is now considered amongst his best work. It opens with the elegiac centrepiece “Say Hello to Heaven”, in memory of his late friend, but also the 11 minute monster “Reach Down” and the graceful “Call me a Dog” or “All Night Thing”.

Another perfect introduction to the talent that is Chris Cornell.

Solo Career

Between leaving Soundgarden and joining Audioslave, and vice versa, Chris Cornell released a few solo albums, from 1999’s Euphoria Morning, to 2007’s Carry On before what many consider his biggest mistake with the Timbaland-produced Scream in 2009 and culminating in 2015’s Higher Truth. If we can divide his career in three stages, we’d have the heavy experimental side first with Soundgarden and his debut Euphoria Morning, spectral grower of an album that would please most of the old crew with its unusual chord sequences and changes, dreaminess and ethereal feel.

Second album Carry On corresponds nicely to his more straightforward alternative rock period with Audioslave, containing the hallmarks of a solid rock effort, albeit with Cornell’s unique ethos permeating it. His solo records really do not sound like anything else out there. One might be tempted to point to Jeff Buckley (to whom he dedicated “Wave Goodbye”, on his first, after his death) or possibly Nick Drake with his latest record but it’s difficult to categorise him.

Chris’ solo career has been solid if unspectacular and many would point, rightly so, to 2009’s Timbaland-produced Scream as his lowest point, yet even that record, for what it was, a pop record typical of the times (and typified by Timbaland, go-to producer of those dreadfully forlorn pop years) was not the disaster many claim it to be. The title track is as catchy a Cornell tune I’ve ever heard, and although the rest are lacking, they still feature his inimitable voice and are a different breed when played acoustically.

And then came 2015’s excellent Higher Truth, an acoustic treasure of an album, complete with all sorts of intricate arrangements, instruments (mandolin!) and tunings that proved a bedrock to earnest and heartfelt lyrics laid above soft fingerpicking and seamless chord changes.
As with many of his albums, you need a few listens to properly appreciate and pick up on the many hidden facets, the nooks and crannies and the secret snippets of genius scattered throughout but you’ll be rewarded with records quite unlike any others that would comfortably sit alongside many great songwriter albums.

The basis for his Higher Truth came from the acoustic tour that preceded it, and from this tour came the magnum opus that is Songbook. It’s a 2011 live album based on this tour and acts as a sort of intimate acoustic greatest hits collection, where the setting really allows his spirit and voice to shine through. With songs from his whole vast catalogue, from Soundgarden to Audioslave, through Temple of the Dog, along with solo cuts and topped off with two covers of which a fantastic cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You”, there’s neither a better epitaph nor a better initiation to the sweet and incredible talent that was Chris Cornell.

I was fortunate enough to catch his last performance in the U.K. at the majestic Royal Albert Hall in London where he only played SIX covers, from Prince to Michael Jackson, the Beatles to a mash up of U2 and Metallica.

He was an extremely well-loved figure in the music industry, amongst both peers and fans and he always come across as a genuine lovable character in documentaries such as Pearl Jam Twenty, Hype! for example. If Dave Grohl is considered the nicest guy in rock then Chris can’t be far behind, just peacefully biding his time in the corner. With all the poignant tributes pouring out for him, I just wanted to add my own to the long list and thank him for his perseverance and for having had such a positive impact and influence on my life.

I’d like to dedicate to him the very song he himself wrote for his late friend Andrew Wood.

Say hello to heaven for us Chris.

Broken Social Scene

It’s May 23rd, the day after a terrorist attack at Manchester Arena and you’re opening your tour in that very city, what do you?
Why not kick things off by bringing onstage, straight from the off, a born and bred legendary Manc in Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr? Yeah, that’ll do nicely.

Not sure anyone in the crowd could even have begun to suspect something like that from this sizable and ever-changing collective of Canadian musicians. But as the 9 members of Broken Social Scene waltzed onstage, they wasted no time at all in bringing him on for the surprise opener and big favourite “Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old”.
I for one did not expect them to open with my favourite song but so sweetly beautiful was it with Emily Haines’ soft and syrupy voice repeating those cherished lines during the bridge that it felt like its own standalone introduction, a taster, a teaser, an presentation to the opener. With its hauntingly delicate and cosy melodies, it just bathed you in its velvety glow.
It was timeless.

                    Park that car, drop that phone, sleep on the floor, dream about me

Not quite the sort of song you’d associate with Johnny Marr but he did stay on for one more as various of the (semi) permanent members shuffled off stage or swapped instruments. So then they “properly” opened the show with another live favourite “Cause = Time” which upped the ante and got things rolling with all 6 men feeling their way into it, Marr singing along, all smiles, and by the end they were confidently rocking it out together as one, louder and louder as the song climaxed. There was still a certain element of shock at Johnny Marr’s mere presence but guitarist and crowd alike enjoyed it and vociferously acclaimed him after his short, welcome and inconceivable cameo.
He left the stage echoing frontman Kevin Drew’s – who looks like Eddie Vedder’s long lost brother – thanks and his urge to stick together for Manchester.

Then it was just the band. Just the 9 of them that is: like a chaotic yet cohesive indie rock version of Snarky Puppy I’d seen 3 weeks prior. They chose that opportune moment to play one of their newly released songs from upcoming album Hug of Thunder and delivered a powerful performance of “Halfway Home” that fit in seamlessly with the rest of their material and kept the wave of synthesis we were slowly cresting on the rise. A wave we fittingly crested and became one with on the next aptly-titled “7/4 (Shoreline)” which grew and burgeoned once more – and not nearly for the last time that night – into a wall of discernible sound that emanated good ecstatic energy and culminated in the two-man horn section sneaking up onstage for their indispensable part in the outro.

Relax and breathe and release the shackles. Everything felt better, felt alright.
They chose not to let up yet with a pulsating and wonderful “Texico Bitches” before switching singers for the next song. The one I’d been labelling “the old man in the band” took the vocal reins and started “Stars and Sons”. Turns out this sprightly grey-haired and high-kicking bassist of the previous songs was none other than founding member Brendan Canning whom I knew of only in name. I did him great disservice because he was the most lively member during the gig, enthusiastically animating the crowd and jumping around and cutting loose. And he played some great bass, although the brilliant bassline to “Stars and Sons” was played by another member of the band. Don’t ask me who.

It was time for a Feist-less “Hug of Thunder”, their beguiling second release from the new album, and Ariel Engle proved an able, cute and lovable deputy in her absence, even when fumbling a high note. But it was adorable and t’was not a night to hold grudges. As opposed to “Halfway Home”, they hadn’t quite nailed it down yet but they grew into it somewhat and have a whole tour left to find its perfect little niche in the set. Not that the lovely crowd seemed put off by anything anyways but they followed that up with the hugely popular “Lover’s Spit” dedicated to the lovers out there and wonderfully capped with a heartfelt and pleading rant of advice to keep those “things” – *mimics handheld appliances* – away from us, especially from the bedroom where we don’t need 756 likes, and to find love and comfort in human touch and togetherness, be it in just a single person, or two, or even yourself. On a bed of lovely music, a speech from the heart to make your soul ache with agreement and guilt.

Kevin Drew cut a charmingly friendly figure on stage, engaging the audience pleasantly, casually and simply, intervening with mid-song banter or chatting away before the next one, he was a great watch throughout and an admirable frontman. The gig served as a cathartic reminder of the power of music to join people together, transcending the physical barrier between artist, audience and outside world as he inspired us into a soul-purging and cleansing outpouring of any and all emotions by screaming as loudly and as long as we could on the count of 3 as the noise level flourished to a new high.
He steadily got rid of all of the tension, theirs and ours during a special evening, joking around during the next song “Fire Eye’d Boy” sung by guitarist Andrew Whiteman, exclaiming he’d changed a lyric around and the chemistry in the band was clear to see as they all harmoniously jammed off each other, exchanging smiles and pleasantries along the way. It really is a great and comforting sight to see a band so at ease with each other’s presence.

They then performed two new and never-heard-before songs in “Protest Song” with Emily Haines with a great self-conscious and self-deprecating chorus about the long line of protest songs. One of the highlights of the night then ensued as new song “Stay Happy”, sang by Ariel, drifted into noise and jam land and then blended into “Sweetest Kill” for a while as Canning and Ariel traded different song lyrics and twisted and turned the tune into a beautiful cacophony of controlled music. It was a marvellous concoction of new and old, drawn-out instrumentals with repeated and climactic vocals soaring to elation.

They rounded off the night with another new song called “Skyline” and a vibrant “Ibi Dreams of Pavement (A Better Day)” enthusiastically roared on by the gleeful crowd to whom Kevin admiringly gave his sincere thanks for making it out and standing together with them on that special day before they slipped offstage. But within a heartbeat, Kevin was back with an acoustic guitar and invited Emily on for a stripped down, tender and graceful rendition of “Backyards” with Emily’s somehow husky-soft chorus so evocative and soothing. Band members then steadily came back onstage, one by one, to add their voices to the outro’s amplifying lines before hushing it down completely until the only sound resonating through the airy space of the magnificent Albert Hall was the sound of a few hundred enchanted souls singing together, in unison, as one.

                                              It’s a heart parade, just be courageous

A fitting end indeed but also pleasantly not the case as they came back on one final time for their customary closer “KC Accidental”, to the immense delight of the hall, and its stop/start rhythm did nothing to lessen the audience’s emotion as we jumped and bounced around all the way to the loud, thrilling and joyous end, satisfied smiles on the faces of every single person, band and crowd, as we all took our time to leave by savouring the special moment.

There’s something so purely heart-warming and jubilant about watching this group of people play, proving that Broken Social Scene are anything but what their names implies.

(Albert Hall, 23rd of May, Manchester, U.K.)

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan can do what he wants.

That’s was my prevailing thought leading up to the gig. If he doesn’t want to play guitar anymore, OK. Only piano? Alright. Change the keys or vocal arrangements to every song? OK. Record five albums worth of American songbook covers? Yeah ok. Ban taking pictures and videos at his gig? Be my guest. Not utter a single non-lyrical word during the entire performance?  Fine by me.
But this is not to be a debate about a performer’s role on stage, what he should and shouldn’t do, but rather a retelling of the wonderful performance the lucky Merseyside crowd were privy to by none other than one of the world’s last living legends of modern music: still at the top of his game, albeit on a different peak.

If Bob had wanted to play a whole set of acapella Kate Bush covers with his back to the audience whilst sipping margueritas, I’d have been more than happy to sit back and enjoy the show. Because why the bloody hell not. If anyone’s earnt the right, he has.

On the cusp of his 76th birthday, as the guitarist in his excellent backing band strummed some western cowboy-like introductory chords, Bob took to the Liverpool Echo Arena stage right on cue, bedecked in suave suit and white fedora hat, surprisingly small – but sprightly – even from 200 yards away. As the guitarist switched tunes with nary a second’s break, Bob went straight to the piano and with barely a moment’s adjustment or hesitation launched straight into the appropriately-titled “Things Have Changed”. Whether deliberate warning or blunt statement, there’s no denying the implication of the title line “I used to care, but things have changed”. Although the latter part of the chorus is undoubtedly true, the first part could be debated considering the Newport Festival, Dylan going electric and just his general attitude overs the years and once more my mind harkened back to that ever-pervading thought: “Bob Dylan can do what he wants”. More than this though, it felt like he was giving us some advice to do likewise and not expect the young guitar-toting, politically-driven Dylan of yesteryear and, in a way, just “not care” and come to terms with the facts that things have indeed changed and we should accept this new present-day version: both the old school sultry crooner or the awe-inducing grizzled-voice relic.

If this concert is anything to go by though then this Bob Dylan is far from done and testament to this was the fast-paced rolling rhythm of most of his own songs and his quick-fire invigorated singing, from the opener all the way to the beguiling closer. The soft cover songs from his latest releases acted as tranquil counterpoints to his own upbeat songs by slowing the rhythm down and letting his voice shine out more melancholically. But just as soon again he’d be fidgeting, stooping over the piano during one song, then sitting at it for the next one and before you know it, strutting his way over centre stage to grasp the mic stand and lull us all again with his deep and raspy yet sometimes clear voice.

From a strummed, rich and fuller “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” complete with more instruments and more experience, sounding more like a wise elder than a young troubadour, Dylan slips into a bubbling and shuffling “Highway 61 Revisited” that rocked and rolled like the tough ole rocker still lurking beneath Dylan’s skin. Most of his songs carried on in the same vein of newfound grit and roughness that seeps from his voice with its deep seasoned resonance into the very bowels of the song and its lyrics. This vocal weight and the pulsing rhythm infused and darkened many of his songs, rendering the already sombre ones all the more enticingly sinister, like 2009’s “Beyond Here Lies Nothing” or “Pay in Blood” and “Early Roman Kings” from his last album of original material Tempest.

Another aptly-titled song was the first cover of the night, “Why Try to Change me Now” by Cy Coleman and brought an automatic, unexpected and uncontrollable smile to my face as soon as its first calm notes reverberated around the venue. The perfect contrast to his originals with their soothing melodies, a slick and mellow “Melancholy Mood” (Frank Sinatra) followed shortly after and seemed crafted specifically for his time-worn voice.

The songs off Tempest felt somewhat more bouncy and alive, perhaps due to their recentness, and Dylan breezed through the cheerful “Duquesne Whistle” as easily and contrastingly as he’d sneered through the ominous “Pay in Blood”, switching the lyrics to offer us timely reminders such as “life is short and it don’t last long” or “my conscious is clear, what about you?”, with the song just casually nestled between the two previously mentioned covers, adding to setlist’s careening lilt.
After Harold Arlen’s mournful “Stormy Weather” with its chill and foreboding guitar intro, Bob sped things up with a jangly and playful “Tangled up in Blue” to the delight of the crowd and then stood up at the piano for a bluesy “Early Roman Kings” that deftly showcased the backing band’s competence. “I ain’t dead yet” he sings after howling and drawing out the previous lines like some apocalyptic soothsayer. Definitely still not done.
A creamy “Spirit on the Water” with the fitting last lines of “you think I’m over the hill, you think I’m past my prime, let me see what you got, we can have a whopping good time” was punctuated with the most relaxing of musical breaks and then followed up with a simmering and poignant “Love Sick”.

Another Sinatra cover in “All or Nothing At All” was followed with a rapturously-received “Desolation Row” before a chirpy “Soon After Midnight” capped off this harmonious triplicate, and hardly a heartbeat later I was clicking my fingers along to the sprightly bass and twinkling cymbals of Johnny Mercer’s “That Old Black Magic”: one of the most smoothly upbeat moments of the gig with such a shifting and danceable jazz sound. Still toying with us and taking us places, they launched straight into a yearning “Long and Wasted Years” with its delicate swaying melody bringing another beaming and pleasant smile to my tired face. Once more Bob sounded vigorous and teeming with life on the more recent songs and properly rocked me to blissful dreamland with Yves Montand’s “Autumn Leaves” which was particularly and perfectly suited to his voice with its dark undertones. After a tiring day bathing in the Merseyside sun, I even allowed myself the luxurious pleasure of closing my eyes and slipping into slumber for a few heartbeats. Is there anything as sweet and surreal as being serenaded and crooned to by Bob Dylan?

Dylan’s typically unusual singing style and reinterpretation of his songs makes you wait with bated breath for that moment of recognition as a song kicks off and that proved to be the case as the band came back onstage with the sweet sound of a violin introducing the unrecognisable “Blowin’ in the Wind”.  The questioning nature of the original replaced with underlying tones of learned wisdom, as if Dylan knew all the answers and we were but pupils in his vast and insightful classroom, walking down a road he himself has trodden on for so long all the way to its very end wherein lies a secret only he has discovered.

Bob’s nonchalant effortlessness, chopping and changing songs seemingly at whim, cutting out verses, changing the lyrics, singing them differently, seemingly out of key and rhythm are a staple of what makes him so unique. And from my vantage point 200 yards or so away, with the absence of screens to properly lay my eyes on him and visualise this musical legend, this carefree and extraordinary musical aura only added to the timeless sensation I felt. Unable to make out any of his features as he strutted around the stage, I was only privy to a black-suited silhouette in the distance topped with white fedora hat who croaked and crooned his whispery, booming or languid voice around the respectful watchers. Uttering not the merest word of greeting to his audience, he remained a ghostly, mystical and intangible figure throughout, leaving me with this feeling of singular timelessness and luck at being able to enjoy such a personal performance.

I managed to gain some metres and close the distance as I left my seat to try and get a closer look at this legendary persona, diminutive in size but towering in presence. But even a mere 50 yards away as I lolled my head to gloomy and sombre highlight and closer “The Ballad of a Thin Man”, all I was able to glean was a mop of fuzzy grey hair as he took his hat off to bow with his excellent backing band and show his appreciation to the equally appreciative and respectful audience. And then he was off, disappearing as swiftly as he’d appeared, beguiling us and leaving me wondering if it had all been a crazy dream.

(Echo Arena, 8th of May 2017, Liverpool, U.K.)

Snarky Puppy

You’d be forgiven for wondering who the bandleader was when 9 regular looking chaps walked onstage at the O2 Apollo last Thursday. Only 3 saxophonists, 2 drummers, 2 keyboardists, a bassist, and a guitarist – without counting the number of instruments each of them switched between… I had to ask which one the phenomenally-named Michael League was to my mate who indicated the bassist as he opened the set off with the twirling bassline to “GØ”.

I was soon extremely glad I’d ditched the comfy looking balcony seats I’d had planned on sitting on to stand on the floor with my friends. “I’ll just peacefully enjoy and admire the professionalism and skilful, pinpoint execution on show from my elevated height” I had naively thought upon buying the tickets. Although possible and no doubt thoroughly enjoyable, I’d have been a fool and missed out on the intrinsic hip-shaking, finger-clicking urge that comes with the propagation of their brand of modern jazz.

As the title implies, “GØ” got the ball rolling as both the audience and band members eased and felt their way into it, until saxophonist Chris Bullock took it upon himself for the first solo and from then on, the tone was set. From sax to minimoog to guitar, the solos never stopped, each and every one to huge acclaim from the buoyant crowd, with the songs swaying one way and the other under the calm leadership of Michael League, who seemed content to take a back seat to proceedings, leaving the spotlight to the other members and their instruments as they swirled in and out of the songs.
That did lead to every small moment of magic from Michael’s bass being greeted with an even bigger roar of approval.

They followed the opener with two further songs from their latest effort, 2016’s Australian-pronounced Culcha Vulcha, starting off with setlist oddity – if such a band can be considered to have “oddities” in their catalogue – “Beep Box”, a slow and quiet jam morphing into slow but bouncy when the first synth line suddenly ghosts in out of nowhere and the bass bounds around with its descending line, all of it topped off with a flugelhorn (“a what?” I know..) solo outro. A quite surreal and otherwordly tune that only further showcased their eclecticism, if any doubts still lingered…
And then it was back to familiar territory and regular groovy business with “Grown Folks” with snazzy bass and guitar riffs to uphold another uncannily familiar horn riff.

For some reason, Michael felt the need to calm things down a notch for a moment by switching to some older songs that guitarist Chris McQueen got going with some beautiful arpeggios until the trumpets eased themselves in effortlessly to the tune. And when the conga came in, the “Flood” was well and truly on its way, with Bob Reynolds throwing out a surging tenor solo culminating in a booming cascade of tight drumrolls over a backdrop of looping piano and shimmering horns. If only for their length and diversity I’ll spare you the details and shan’t go into every solo that was performed but by the end, it was safe to say “Flood” hadn’t calmed things down even a smidgeon.

“Tarova” kept things going with a percussive intro grooving into a sexy late-night sounding soundtrack to some parallel bygone era of an intense and modern roaring twenties, complete with a mean ole dirty tenor solo by Bullock. A velvety “Gemini” then began with a soft but pounding bassline intro coupled with easy and effortless guitar and piano, calming things down to a serene calmness. A few backing vocals kept the mood flowing as the song bubbled its way along with the silky backdrop a welcome change in mood as Minimoog and Rhodes solos acted as the calm before the storm that was to come.

That storm was “Tio Macaco”.
Percussionist Marcelo Woloski started jamming hard on a pandeiro (“a what?”): how such a small-looking instrument can be made to sound so strong and powerful I’ll never know but Marcelo worked it like a charm during the intro (and afterwards!) until the horns kicked in, sounding once more like a song you’ve always known but never actually heard before. More wonderful solos ensued from the ever-reliable horn section and other instrumentalists but the highlight came towards the end with a double percussion solo-cum-battle between both drummers.

If I was already fixated on drummer Larnell Lewis before this – we had trouble deciding who our favourites were (it’s not a competition though is it?) – it did nothing to lessen my admiration of him or both of them as they swung one way or the other mimicking the other’s drumrolls, calling and responding or just ripping it up in tandem. It was a fantastic end to a great tune and a treat to watch them sweating it out!

Michael League got “Big Ugly” started with his rolling bass line and it settled into the now-familiar pattern of building a head of steam and then slowing things down before the big climaxing crescendo when the synth kicks in first, then the horns and finally Chris McQueen, letting it rip for one of the most euphoric and majestic solos of the night. I had a new favourite.

And then they unleashed the “hits” – if you can call them such from a band like Snarky Puppy – or fan-favourites from their “breakthrough” album We Like it Here starting with “Lingus”, stretching to 14 minutes and feeling fuelled on adrenaline and sweaty good vibes. The song incited the first handclaps to the song’s undeniably uplifting and catchy melodic vibes before Michael slowed it all down to introduce the band to unanimous applause – special cheers reserved for drummer Larnell Lewis and respected England-based keyboardist Bill Laurance who fronts his own similar iteration of the band with frontman Michael League. Having had the temerity to ask for some more Bill, we were duly treated to an insane and sublime prolonged solo from him as the song rose and crescendoed – or descended? – into madness  with the percussion following suit and providing manic backbone to it all . As “Lingus” resumed its “regular” course, Bill switched to the Rhodes piano for the outro, for some ethereal and intangible but truly funky vibes as the song kept climaxing to its bittersweet end.

Coming across as a genuine Michael League popped back onstage alone for the encore to give a humble little speech about the importance of supporting live acts by encouraging to stay open minded support for smaller bands by buying their music and going to watch them perform instead of streaming their music which he bemoaned doesn’t cater to these smaller. “There’s a big difference between listening to music and supporting music”.

And then the first clear guitar notes of “Shofukan” rang out for their closing song. The Oriental-sounding horns quickly came into the fray, laying themselves over with their distinctive Eastern (yet Snarky Puppyish) sound. Justin Stanton treats us to a subtle and restrained solo, at times threatening to burst out but keeping it beautifully controlled. And come the song’s closing horn leitmotif, the last two minutes – and even when they’d left – of the song were heartily sung by the five thousand or so ardent fans in the venue, giving the audience the feeling of having been able to participate in the complex and jazzy Snarky Puppy recipe for good times.

(O2 Apollo, 5th of May 2017, Manchester, U.K.)

Neil Young + Promise of the Real

As two women, garbed in traditional farm-like clothing, throw seeds around the stage in keeping with Neil Young’s latest anti-agribusiness album, the man himself struts onstage in darkness with the lighting technician seemingly half-dosing and failing to pick up on his entrance until he’s already sat at the piano and launching himself straight into “After the Gold Rush”.

After flitting to the right to illuminate the empty organ, and then doubling back to the left to light up the piano, there we find Mr. Young, hat bent low and covering his face, timely opening with the songs first lines to huge roars of approval. No introduction, no frills, no messing about.
“Look at mother nature on the run in the 21st century” he sings, effortlessly and poignantly blending the old and new which is exactly what this new iteration of Neil Young seems to be all about.

From one classic hit to another, he then gets up, walks to the centre, grabs one of his guitars and goes into “Heart of Gold”. God knows he has enough hits to keep this up for a long time and nobody was complaining but I felt a certain urgency to this opening chapter, a “let’s get this over with” attitude that only relaxed after a peaceful “Comes a Time”, continuing the eco vibes,  the ever-emotional “The Needle and the Damage Done” and a slow stirring “Mother Earth” on the organ changed the pace and rounded out his solo opening set.

Then came the serious business. In other words, the Promise of the Real.

As gas-masked pesticide-spraying figures stalked across the stage for the final theatrics of the night, some young-looking boys also confidently strode onstage and got comfortable behind their instruments. This was and has been his latest backing band for a while and is comprised and fronted by Lukas Nelson, none other than one of Willie Nelson’s sons, with his brother Micah also joining them for this tour.

They started things off nice and easy with “From Hank to Hendrix” followed by a lovely “Out on the Weekend” as they eased into their stride. Gone was the urgency, replaced by a thorough and palpable enjoyment, from the part of the artists as well as the public. It was such a wonderful sight seeing a timeless relic of a generation past casually and pleasantly sharing the stage with these respectful and fully mindful youngsters – despite their family’s pedigree.
The bond was clear for all to see as he turned towards them to ask them if they had any ideas for the next song and they exhumed a wonderful togetherness in their playing that made it feel like they’d been at it for years! Neil’s voice still had all its youthful sweetness to it and his harmonica playing was as effortless as I’d always imagined it as “Unknown Legend” went into “Wolf Moon”.

The first sign of the magic came when Neil picked up an electric guitar for the brooding “Words” and started jamming and soloing the way only he can. The scene seemed to change just a little bit, gentle ease of the past songs shifting to a quiet and serious concentration to fit the songs’ mood, and Neil took centre stage with the young band members ever so slightly tilted in his general direction to follow his lead. We had our first (of many) trios and interchanges with Lukas getting in on the solo act, whilst they bounced in unison the rhythm as the song maintained its anxious intensity.

There was a newfound and more profound strength to their sound thereafter, as if “Words” had shown us exactly what they were all about and capable of. After a warm and united “Winterlong”, we were treated to a rare performance of “If I Could Have her Tonight” before a buoyant “Walk On”.

Then came the thunder.

It all started with a paltry 20 minute “Down by the River” (TWENTY!).  I remember wondering how long the song had been going on for, unable to grasp the notion of time in the barrage of triple wailing guitar solos swirling around my dazed and amazed mind. I’ll not attempt to break the song down for you, but one of their numerous jamming sessions culminated in one of my favourite moments in live music when Lukas Nelson, obviously unable to bear the hindering weight of his cowboy hat in the wake of the unrestrained explosion that was to place, in all of a second and single motion, stopped his playing, raised his arm, grabbed his hat and chucked it to the floor to rid himself of this cumbersome burden and allow himself full freedom and flow to headbang and rock’n’roll  in the explosive fury that was emanating from this fearsome foursome. All four axe-wielders huddled close, swaying to the rhythm whilst interchanging solos: simply and purely rocking out.
And then the storm subsided just as quickly as it rose, but the ante remained, higher than before. And the groove goes on, the calm is an illusion and we’re in for another round. Until before you know it, Neil’s back on the mic, reminding you that this is an actual song, with lyrics and not just a jam and it’s not the Grateful Dead, although on such evidence, one might be forgiven for thinking as much. “Be on my side” he sings: as if there were ever any doubt.

Unsure of what was to follow and by now not really minding, we were allowed some respite, a single song of it, in the form of “Powderfinger”, which gave us time to reflect on what had just happened and relax and drift back down to Earth with its light fun vibes.
Then it was on again for another epic jamming session with a 12 minute “Cowgirl in the Sand”, picking up where “Down by the River” left off with solos galore, each guitarist with his own style and sound, capped by a blistering solo from Lukas, as the band’s synergy shone in their collective playing, as if they were in some run-down garage in the middle of nowhere and not being watched and worshipped by 13 000 pair of eyes. It was the most wonderful sight to see, these musicians from different eras and generations not just sharing the stage but revelling in it and in their harmony.

Both Nelson brothers have to be commended for their assured and gratifying performances: bandleader Lukas as the effervescent and searing of the two guitarists and Micah as the jack of all trades, switching from piano to guitar, playing with feedback and generally taking a subtle backseat, with his demeanour and style reminiscent of Radiohead’s brooding genius Johnny Greenwood – as opposed to his brother’s more flamboyant Stevie Ray Vaughan style.

Equal special mention should also go out to the other band members: bassist Corey McCormick who did not stop hopping or smiling the entire gig, cap on head, grooving to the whole bonanza, and to drummer Anthony Logerfo who kept the whole thing going, even during two 20 minute songs, letting the guitars work their jamming prowess and solo magic to the overwhelmed crowd. Oh, and their percussion and conga guy as well, Tato Melgar, solid grooves.

A driving “Mansion on the Hill” came next before a 12 minute “Love to Burn” that sizzled just as much as its title implies. By now, Neil was making light of his age and proving his surname to be true, and the satiated crowd were cruising along with the band to their awe-inspiring ride. What was left was a rousing rendition of the timeless and massive favourite “Rockin’ in the Free World” – complete with a “Fuck Donald Trump” bonus line to a huge roars of approval. As the song blasted and bombed its way forward like the call to arms it is, Lukas urged the crowd to clap along before joining in the onstage antics once more: I can hardly think of a song that rocks as hard as this one does live.

All that was left was for a two song encore of the sweet “When You Dance, I Can Really Love” before properly finishing with the eponymously erroneous “Fuckin’ Up” with its urgent rush and decisive tone belying the recurring “why do I keep fuckin’ up?” refrain and oxymoronically leaving the audience feeling all the more fulfilled.

This was an absolutely breath-taking and mesmerising performance from one of music’s most enduring rock legends, still going more than strong at the tender age of 70, and keeping pace – if not out-rocking them – with his youthful backing band with whom he shares a palpable and refreshing bond, a mixture of respect and admiration.

As I ran full tilt to the train station so as to not miss the last train home, I could not wipe that smile off my face as I marvelled at the 2 hour and 45 minute virtuoso masterpiece I had just been privy to: well played Neil Young, well played.

(First Direct Arena, 10th of June 2016, Leeds, U.K.)