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Monday, April 30th, 2007

Subject:James - Live @ Manchester Evening News Arena, 28/04/2007
Time:1:32 pm.
Music:James - Why So Close.
"We are James, and we have come home!"

Wow. I really have been neglecting this thing, huh? There's a simple reason - there hasn't actually been much in the way of worthy music to analyse. I've been to a couple of gigs since I last updated (Sigur Ros, who were weird, and KT Tunstall, for whom you can just re-read the old review, because it was for all intents and purposes the same gig); and bought a few CDs - although it was mid-March this year before I bought a new album. Which says it all, really.

However, this is James. And they deserve a little bit more of a write-up.

A quick recap, for those not so up on the trials and tribulations of these buggers - after the phenomenal success of Sit Down and Laid, a Best Of album in 1998 romped to the top of the charts and sold umpteen thousand copies to people who heard the other sixteen tracks and thought "Oh, is that a James song?". Two albums later, internal tensions and the conclusion of their record contract finally tore them apart and, following a final tour in 2001, Tim Booth (lead singer) left the band.

Then everything went a bit quiet. Booth trod the boards, released another solo album and appeared in Batman Begins. Several other band members were released to start their own solo projects, and James were a defunct entity in all but official statement. The reality, as it turned out, was even weirder - founder member from way back in 1981 Jim Glennie (bass) and former member who left in 1995 to start a business making furniture and returned in 2001 for what was popularly regarded to be a farewell tour Larry Gott (guitar) took up residence in a warehouse in Manchester and spent the next five years jamming. (Nobody officially writes James songs - basically, they'd all piss around and jam for a bit, and Tim would talk random shit by way of improvised vocals, and before they knew what was going on they'd have an awesome song called Tomorrow. When they left this approach, and tried to write songs in The Proper Way, it resulted in the much-maligned Millionaires - a great album, but possibly a little too tightly constrained and subsequently virtually disowned by the band; the setlist shown below includes nothing from this album and is, apart from the recorded jam sessions that resident loony Brian Eno turned into Wah Wah, the only album in their catalogue not represented.)

Anyway, Tim reportedly turned up for one of these jam sessions in late 2006 and things seemed to work (time heals all wounds, yadda yadda), and a couple of phonecalls later they'd managed to find another three band members, resulting in the same sextet that recorded the legendary Laid album back in 1993. They planned a tour, and on January 26th at 9am a hundred thousand tickets went on sale. And sold out in half an hour.

I know this seems like a lot of backstory for what is supposed to be a gig review. But one of the reasons I enjoyed this concert so much is the fact that, at one stage, it looked like it was never going to happen. This is, however, the time of the reunion, with every ex-band ever deciding to put their differences aside to milk the cash cow one last time.

And so to the gig. Because the album they're hocking is a two disc 33-track complete singles retrospective called Fresh As A Daisy (in all good record shops today, folks - although not SportCity Asda, they've run out), there's a few really really ancient tracks and odd album pieces in the mix alongside thirteen of the usual suspects from that Best Of. Those are probably the tracks I enjoyed the most, simply because they're rare beasts on the live set - because that Best Of was so successful, a lot of people at these sorts of gigs don't actually know most of the other work, so those tracks can fall flat very easily. Happily, that didn't happen here - the old tracks were welcomed warmly, and the new tracks (Who Are You, ace; Chameleon, even more ace; and Upside Downside, very good if clearly unfinished) also received rapturous attention. It's still the classics that get the arena jumping, of course; Sit Down and Laid were the last tracks before the encores and were met as would be expected, Sometimes featured Tim dancing around on the safety barriers, he spent most of Say Something in the middle of the crowd, and by Johnny Yen (not on the Best Of, but an absolute staple of the live set) he was writhing around on his back in the middle of the stage. Weirdo. The slow-burning Out To Get You becomes an epic as a live track, and a beautifully stripped down She's A Star propelled the concert to an excellent finale. It all bodes well for the future of a band who, in 1988, were so broke that they had to submit themselves for medical experiments to get some cash. How times change.

Support: The fucking Twang, fucking who fucking had fucking a fucking insistence fucking on fucking saying fucking "fucking" fucking every fucking other fucking word. Fucking not fucking much fucking cop, fucking either.

Come Home
Waltzing Along
Ring The Bells
Hymn From A Village
Destiny Calling
Who Are You
Play Dead
Chain Mail
Out To Get You
Upside Downside
Getting Away With It (All Messed Up)
Sometimes (Lester Piggott)
Johnny Yen
Sit Down
Say Something
Gold Mother
second encore
She's A Star
How Was It For You?
Comments: Read 1 or Add Your Own.

Monday, February 27th, 2006

Subject:Beth Orton - Live @ Manchester Academy 1, 22/2/06
Time:10:46 pm.
Music:Beth Orton - It's Not The Spotlight.
It's dawned on me that the first four live reviews in this thing are Jem, KT Tunstall, Katie Melua and now Beth Orton; only Dido is missing from the list of British Female Self-Indulgent Soloists. (I clearly need to go to more gigs.) So now's a good time to compare them.

In my last review, I moaned at Comfort Of Strangers for losing Beth's Thing. But Things are not reserved for albums; there's a certain element needed for a live performance too. Jem has the mania. Tunstall has the rampage, the music and that song. Melua has a voice that could fill football stadia, never mind arenas.

So what's Beth's Live Thing?


The sheer unbridled love of the performance.

Beth is not a showwoman, by any stretch of the imagination; her genre just doesn't allow for that. But she clearly takes a lot of pleasure from playing live; how else do you explain a 17 song set, with another eight songs spread over two encores? It's just not done. And even when she knows that some of the material isn't cutting it ("Here's one of my older ones, so you should like it"), she still keeps going, telling the compulsory rubbish joke ("Q: What's E.T. short for? A: He's only got little legs!"), skipping around the stage like a loon and loving every minute of it.

Of course, that sort of joy is inevitably going to be carried over to the performance, and so it proves; while most of the new material goes down like a lead balloon (drawing massive amounts of conversation from the audience...), it's still delivered impeccably. Worms and Heart Of Soul reamin the standouts, as would probably be expected; they're the tracks that demand the best performances.

But it's the eleven early works that really get the crowd going. Stolen Car is fast becoming her Sit Down, a song so loved by the fans that she has to keep playing it differently to try and reclaim it for herself. I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine remains as beautiful as ever. And the requests, which constitute most of the encores, show the breadth of knowledge of those few fans who do like more than three tracks.

So. While KT may be trying to steal the live crown, and Melua has the voice for it... just remember, it means nothing if you don't feel it too. This is one particular mountain that Beth still rules.

Support: Clayhill are a mildly entertaining bunch. The guitarist looks like a slightly constipated David Gower, and I've never seen such a bored lead singer (he didn't take his hands out of his pockets all night), but the prize has to go to the poor sod who played the double bass - and any other comedy instrument sent in his direction, including a plinky xylophone and, for the track Beard, a pair of scissors. I shit ye not.

This isn't the exact order (my memory failed me), so this is more to illustrate the range of tracks played.

Heartland Truckstop
Someone's Daughter
Stolen Car
Shadow of a Doubt
Heart of Soul
Safe in Your Arms
Comfort of Strangers
Shopping Trolley
God Song
She Cries Your Name
Pieces Of Sky
Feel To Believe
Sweetest Decline
A Place Aside
second encore
Best Bit
I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine
City Blue
(the first half of; she couldn't remember the rest)
four attempts to remember Sugar Boy (she couldn't)
It's Not The Spotlight
Comments: Read 3 or Add Your Own.

Thursday, February 16th, 2006

Subject:Beth Orton - Comfort Of Strangers
Time:8:56 pm.
Music:Beth Orton - Absinthe.
Poor, poor Beth. Four years ago, she was riding high on the back of the critically acclaimed (and brilliant) Central Reservation, lady of all she surveyed, hobnobbing with the Chemical Brothers for the extra cool points and a bit of electronic edge, and alone on the top of her mountain. Folky electronica was her Thing.

Then came Daybreaker; an overly programmed, turgid mess, music to be hung over to, and ultimately pretty dull. That mountain got pretty small pretty fast, and a throwaway Best Of the next year, bye bye Heavenly Records, and she disappeared for three years.

And now she's returned with Comfort Of Strangers, to reclaim that empty mountain. Unfortunately, that mountain isn't empty any more; it's now populated by people called Katie, with their own Things; Tunstall's musicianship and Melua's earth-shattering vocals are the new darlings, winning Brit Awards for fun (Tunstall - Best Female; and while we're talking Brits, why on earth did Coldplay get Best Album for what basically amounts to 45 Minutes Of Coldplay Sounding Exactly Like Coldplay? Wank, wank, wank).

But anyway. Those Things. After Daybreaker Orton seemed to realise the need for a rethink, and the rethink has cost her her Thing. COS is so stripped down as to be virtually acoustic, and it means the songs lack any bulk. The first five songs are gone in just twelve minutes, and while two-minute blasts are wonderful for grunge, punk and virtually any other genre you can care to name, it simply isn't good enough for acoustic music. They get lost and run together; I struggle to tell those tracks apart.

It gets better later on. Conceived is great, Heart Of Soul succeeds by trying to sound different, and Pieces Of Sky, the closer, is the brilliant standout. And guess what? It's the only one with anything resembling electronic touches.

But these days, she needs to do better. The young 'uns are coming. You know what she should have done? Released these two albums the other way round. This would have been a great album in 2002, and Daybreaker would have truly stood out from a crowd today. As it stands, this is a fairly average album.

Ah well. You live and learn.

/ 10
Comments: Read 1 or Add Your Own.

Tuesday, January 31st, 2006

Subject:Katie Melua - Live @ Manchester Evening News Arena, 27/1/06
Time:12:49 am.
Music:Katie Melua - Nine Million Bicycles.

Please note that due to the intimate nature of tonight's performance - there will be no admittance to the arena bowl until there is a suitable applause break."

That's the text of a sign that was blu-takked on pillars all around the MEN, and it perfectly illustrates the problem with Katie Melua. She's huge. Yes, she's very friendly, safe Radio 2 fodder, but she's got a massive following with it. Which means she's a highly marketable product. Which means the way to make as much money as possible off her is to stick her in 18,000 seater venues; and I'm sorry, but you will never, ever be able to be intimate with an audience in a venue that size. The 6,000 seater Apollo, maybe, but she'd need to do two nights to make that work; and she's only 21 and needs to be in bed by 11pm.

What this all means is that the subtler, better, more introspective tracks better suited to her "honeyed" tones and listened to in quiet bedrooms are completely lost when stuck through an ear-shattering PA system to fill colossal arenas. Everyone was there for The Closest Thing To Crazy (obviously), and it just doesn't sound (or, more importantly, feel) right when it's amped up.

Conversely, her odd few bouncy tracks (there are some there, believe me) work fairly well. An inspired version of Bobbie Gentry's Fancy was probably the true standout of the night, and Halfway Up The Hindu Kush bopped along well enough.

As for the big vocal belters... ughhh. Turning up the microphones for subtle tracks like Blues In The Night is going to result in chronic earache when she hits the big note in the otherwise brilliant Spider's Web (new single, note; she's recording versions of it at every venue to pick a B-side). And it again illustrates the problem. While Katie's voice is big enough to fill arenas, her music really isn't.

Finally, no analysis of Katie Melua is complete without a review of the bizarre array of covers on show. More than enough eyebrows were raised when people found The Cure's classic Just Like Heaven on her latest album. I've already mentioned Fancy; but we were also treated to Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds (it could have been worse; it could have been The Shat), 19th Nervous Breakdown (not bad, although helped (as is so often the case) by the fact that I didn't know the original)...

... and Babylon Zoo's Spaceman.

Opinion is divided as to whether this was any good or not, and again it depends on your feelings on the original. Personally, I found the original to be a piece of shockingly awful commercialistic crud that nobody would have given half a shit about if it hadn't been attached to a pair of jeans; so Melua is due some credit for being able to find some sort of heart and meaning in the otherwise nonsensical lyrics. Alternatively, you might like the original for being shamelessly daft and moan at Melua for trying to create meaning where there needn't be any. It's up to you.

One more word on sequencing; I wish artists wouldn't wreck things with vanity projects. The Corrs' Talk On Corners would be an even better album if they finished it with No Good For Me instead of The Song That's More Important To Them, the Chieftains collaboration Little Wing; and Melua faces the same charge, wrapping up with the Eva Cassidy tribute Faraway Voice. At least The Closest Thing To Crazy was last song before the encore.

Ultimately, I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed. Without the intimacy Melua becomes little more than an hour and a half of music, which for the entrance fee (£27.50?!?) isn't really good enough. Take it somewhere smaller next time, girlie.

Support: Alex McEwan, or One Man And His Mate Who Drums. Fairly bland, predictable fodder coming soon to an O.C. soundtrack near you.

Shy Boy
Nine Million Bicycles
Blues In The Night
Spider's Web
Belfast (Penguins And Cats)
Halfway Up The Hindu Kush
Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
Just Like Heaven
Thankyou, Stars
My Aphrodisiac Is You
Call Off The Search
Piece By Piece
19th Nervous Breakdown
On The Road Again
Crawling Up A Hill
The Closest Thing To Crazy
Mockingbird Song
Faraway Voice
Comments: Read 1 or Add Your Own.

Thursday, December 8th, 2005

Subject:Jem - Live @ Manchester Academy 2, 4/12/2005
Time:12:19 pm.
Music:Garbage - So Like A Rose.
Your First Ever Tour is always going to be problematic. Typically, your entire output to date amounts to one 42-minute 11 track album and three singles spread over six discs with about 15 remixes between them. Consequently, your set is basically going to consist of the album and a couple of highly random covers.

Jem is no different. Well, except that she even managed to omit one of the album tracks (Stay Now).

Of course, the live stage does allow for a lot of other random oddments. Gigs aren't just an opportunity for a few hundred people to turn up and shout along to Just A Ride (the only song that most people seemed to know); you're there for the artist as well as the music. And despite looking about 19 in most of her videos, it's important to remember that Jemma Griffiths is actually 30 and got her big break by hocking an EP around America. As such, she's got a lot of tales to tell about how Flying High (the lovely ballad that closes the album) was actually written while she was plastered on gin, and how a polite enquiry in Washington about if there's any areas in the US where people are renowned for fornicating with sheep resulted in an impromptu performance of Sweet Home Alabama.

When your output to date is so light, this sort of padding becomes essential; a 42 minute album can therefore take an hour to perform, which is a vaguely respectable length for £14.

As for the set itself... well, Just A Ride set the crowd on fire, there was a surprisingly acceptable cover of Coldplay's In My Place, and the main two songs I was there for (Falling For You and 24) got played back to back just before the encore, ranking it right up there with my favourite concert moments. Much of the rest went by without incident; the hugest songs got picked out for the singles which means a lot of the audience didn't have any clue about album tracks like Save Me and Missing You (although she did manage to sell the latter one fairly well).

Talking of 24, Jem's band are bonkers. Seriously, the bassist and guitarist could teach Busted a few things about the fine art of jumping around like a dickhead on stage. It's clear that they all get along very well socially as well as as musicians, which is why everybody also got to sing Happy Birthday to the keyboardist. Who promptly stole the show by singing Sweet Home Alabama, and playing They directly from Jem's newly acquired copy of "Jem" Finally Woken: For Piano, Voice And Guitar, seemingly without irony. By their own admission it was threatening to turn into a pantomime; and it probably would have if more of the crowd had picked up the answering cry of "Oh no it isn't!".

So yes. The first review I ever read of Jem described her as what would happen if somebody told Beth Orton to cheer up; both musically and in her performance, it shows.

Support: Mattafix were a strange bunch, but I've heard a lot worse. I'd skipped their contribution to my copy of Now! 62 (Big City Life) based on it's title, but it seems they deserve a bit more of a chance. It's certainly the first time I've seen a kettle drum and a laptop on the same stage; and also the first time I've seen the support act have to take their own stuff off stage...

Come On Closer
Save Me
In My Place
Just A Ride
Finally Woken
Missing You
Wish I
Sweet Home Alabama
Happy Birthday
Falling For You
Flying High
Comments: Read 1 or Add Your Own.

Wednesday, October 19th, 2005

Subject:KT Tunstall - Live @ Manchester Academy 1, 16/10/2005
Time:12:42 am.
Music:Shiri Maimon - The Silence That Was Left.
Anybody who knows anything at all about KT Tunstall knows that her entire career is built on her live performances, and one song in particular.

My favourite KT song is, and will likely remain for a while, False Alarm. It's nice, it's quiet, it's introspective, it's the sort of song you listen to on your own in a dark room when you're feeling sad. It is, in short, not what you're there for when you go to concerts. You're there for the huge tracks. You don't go to U2 concerts for One, you go for Where The Streets Have No Name. You don't go to a Coldplay concert for The Scientist, you go for Yellow.

And you don't go to see KT Tunstall for False Alarm. You go for Black Horse And The Cherry Tree.

This song has built up an astonishing reputation. As she reminded all at the concert, it was voted Best Song at the recent Q Awards; although beating U2's worst first-single-off-an-album ever, James Blunt and the Most Overplayed Song Of The Summer, Oasis's That Song That's Only Any Good Because Rhys Ifans Is Moderately Funny In The Video and Coldplay's latest attempt to remind us exactly how accurate Mitch Benn And The Distractions were, does slightly dampen the mood.

But I digress. KT's work with the now infamous Wee Bastard, otherwise known as an Akai Headrush E2 loop pedal, enables the signature sound. Allowing her to loop anything she wants, it basically means that she can record her own backing tracks live on stage. So, slap a guitar a few times. Loop that. Say "Woo hoo" a few times. Loop that too. Do some guitar work. Loop that as well. And before you know what's going on, you've got the nuts and bolts of a song intro playing around you without needing to do a thing. Then you can start really playing, and singing a load of weird lyrics about marrying a horse, and harmonising with yourself, and winning awards and critical plaudits left, right and centre.

Despite that reputation, Sunday night was the first time I'd ever seen a live performance of it. Sure, it turned up on Jools Holland last October (new series starts this week), but I missed it. It was live at the Mercury Awards, and I gave up on that after an American won it. Everywhere it's been it's completely destroyed the competition around it, blowing acts as legendary as The Cure clean off the stage. And it did the same on Sunday. People were cheering for the song before they even got to the venue, and after every single song there. The "woo hoo" hook sticks in the brain of everybody from age 1 to age... God only knows, and it's easy to sing it at every opportunity.

However, KT needs to learn something that a lot of people haven't cracked. Don't ever, ever pander to your audience. The set list was always going to consist of the twelve album tracks, a couple of B-sides and maybe a new song; a track that huge needs saving for the very, very end. Throwing it away a mere seven tracks in, while fleshing out the middle of the gig (the album has one or two clunkers, because virtually all albums do), means the latter half of the concert is going to end up a little flat; there is simply no way you can follow that song. And so it proved, the next five tracks virtually disappearing until she got to Suddenly I See, which woke everyone up again just in time for her to disappear before the inevitable encore.

The tracks that adapt best to the live stage are those which use the pedal a lot; so Miniature Disasters, Suddenly I See and co are your usual suspects. Heal Over is a very nice song, but live it got dragged out a little too much; False Alarm was sadly ruined by an overlong and unnecessary coda.

There were three tracks new to me; the B-sides Girl And The Ghost (pretty good) and Dirty Water (better, although a teetotaller like myself really shouldn't like so many songs about alcohol). The new track, One Day, was pretty handy, although I'll need to find it and listen to it a bit more before forming an opinion.

KT herself is a wonderful character on stage. The intimate setting of the Academy (capacity about 1800) makes it fairly easy to engage with the audience, telling stories about how her mother thought Black Horse And The Cherry Tree was actually about marrying a horse. "Oh, Mother! It's a metaphor! ... for EVIL!" And such, asking the front few rows how close they were to fainting and throwing her guitar pick (and drumsticks; yes, she was behind the skins by the end of Suddenly I See, and finished with a lovely version of Through The Dark with herself on piano) into the crowd, as is usual for these sorts of things.

So yes. Great concert, great songs, but one track blew everything else off the stage. Again. Unfortunately, this time, everything else was the rest of her set. Black Horse is in serious danger of becoming a bit of an albatross for the next album or so.

Support: Ed Harcourt is one of the better support acts I've seen, although he has the benefit of actually having a following already.

Other Side Of The World
Miniature Disasters
Under The Weather
Another Place To Fall
Universe & U
Girl And The Ghost
Black Horse And The Cherry Tree
Silent Sea
Dirty Water
False Alarm
Heal Over
Stoppin' The Love
Suddenly I See
One Day
Through The Dark
Comments: Read 2 or Add Your Own.

Time:12:33 am.
Music:Royksopp - What Else Is There?.
Welcome one and all to my new Blurty!

This is a slightly new departure for me. I've got another Blurty (cyril), which I use* for personal stuff; but I wanted to talk about another topic close to my heart.


For some years now I've been an armchair critic, bandying on about random musical crud and absorbing the Guinness Book Of British Hit Singles. Now I want to write about it. So this Blurty will function as a springboard, allowing me to review new albums as I get them, and concerts, and just generally comment on the state of the music scene in general.

If anyone wants to recommend anything to me, then this is my current list of CDs; it should be a fairly good start.
Comments: Read 2 or Add Your Own.

Blurty for Dave Robinson.

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