My relationship with Laura Marling might be best described as being “one-sided”, in that only one of us considers there to be a relationship, or indeed even knows of the others existence. I’m content for it to remain that way, though, because as it is there is also only one of us who knows that there is no chance of any romance blossoming between us.
I almost missed my date with Laura Marling last night. In fact, there’s a part of me that wonders if I maybe did miss it and the rest of the evening took place in some fanciful dream. I fell asleep almost as soon as I checked into my hotel room around 6.45; I had only intended on sitting down for ten minutes but the next thing I knew it was 8.57 and I had no idea how that was possible, aside from the obvious explanation that the minute hand kept ticking around the clock as normal.
I’ve been sleeping so strange at night of late, almost as though I have forgotten how to sleep. Or at least how to stay asleep, because I keep being returned from slumber at various points through the night as the gerbil running the wheel in my mind refuses to take a comfort break.
It’s frustrating, because how to sleep is one of those things that nobody ever taught us to do, we learned it for ourselves. Like crying and sneezing and procrastinating. It just happened, and I’m not sure how to begin teaching myself to sleep properly again. I went into a branch of Waterstones in Glasgow this morning hoping to find a book in the self-help section which might offer some guidance, but I couldn’t find anything on the subject and I felt unsure as to whether I could ask the shop assistant for help finding a book in the self-help section, so I left.
After a brief moment of startled panic and frustration at having missed the Laura Marling gig, I realised that my hotel was but a stone’s throw away from the ABC and that I could still make it if I wanted to. I stumbled out of my room in a daze, nothing felt real. I withdrew some cash from a nearby ATM, only to open my wallet and realise that I must have done this earlier. As I climbed the stairs into the venue I could hear the unmistakable sound of live music and I assumed that I had maybe missed the first song or two of Laura’s set. Fifty minutes later the show was finished and it transpired that it was Friday night and the ABC becomes a club at 11pm, so rather than missing two songs I had actually missed forty minutes.
The entire experience felt like a dream, a discombobulated product of my weary unconscious. On stage Laura Marling was dressed in a heavenly white gown, the microphone stands were adorned with flowers and shrubbery and she had a band. I have never seen Laura Marling play with a band; it was surreal.
I could tell from the way that she wasn’t looking at me that our romance wasn’t going to progress on this occasion, but her beautiful voice made up for that disappointment. It is difficult to be sad when there are musicians like her around. If this was a dream it’s the nicest one I’ve had in some time.
Manchester has a great history of producing legendary musical acts, from The Smiths to Oasis and Joy Division to James and New Order. The list isn’t endless, but it is substantial. So it seemed only fitting that I should see one of my personal Gods of emotionally tinged sad music, Conor Oberst, at a converted church in this city.
The Albert Hall was originally built as the Methodist Central Hall in 1908 and was designed with Baroque and Gothic elements. Its Chapel Hall was unused from 1969 until its renovation as a concert venue in 2012-13. That’s more or less all Wikipedia tells us about the building, which is a quite beautiful and atmospheric venue, ideal for a gig like this.
Getting there was somewhat less beautiful, however. Ordinarily any day which begins with your weak and weary eyes taking in the surroundings of the easyhotel in Glasgow can surely only get better, but the cold which made the football barely tolerable the night before was in no mood to let me cling to that hope. A three-hour train journey to Manchester seemed as palatable to me as the beef and ale pie I would later attempt to consume at a Wetherspoons on Oxford Street.
As I sat in my seat on the train awaiting its departure and listening to my playlist of sad emo songs by Conor Oberst in an attempt to brighten my outlook, a large older gentleman hobbled slowly towards the seats at the opposite side of the table from me. He spilled into both of them in the manner I’d imagine a bowl of jelly might and it became clear that he had purchased two tickets for them. I observed him as he emptied his bag of shortbread and chocolate and his wallet and a diary and various other items, before proceeding to tear up several sheets from his sticky pad and attach the pieces to his belongings. It was a curious thing to witness, and sadly the most interesting sight of the entire journey.
Things would get better, eventually, with a beer. Don’t they always? Fortunately there is a BrewDog bar adjacent to the Albert Hall where I could enjoy pints of Dead Pony Club in the company of several other flannel clad fans of misery. On the downside I was only capable of drinking three beers, which was due to either the man flu sweeping my body or the fear of missing the 7.19 train back to Glasgow the next morning. Whatever it was, this was the most sober gig I’ve been to in some time.
There is something inherent about a church, I feel, that makes a person cough. That was one facet of my cold that was missing, right up until I entered the Albert Hall. Then I found myself clearing my throat and coughing incessantly, and I wasn’t alone. The difficult part was trying to find an appropriate point during these poignant acoustic songs at which to let them out. It felt like being nine-years-old again and at mass on a Sunday morning trying to stifle a cough – usually brought on by the incense – because the priest was still delivering his important reading,
This venue still looks much like a place of religious gathering, with its stained glass windows and beautiful terracotta decor, the organ resplendent at the back of what would once have been the altar and is now a stage. Its acoustics capture wonderfully the emotion in Conor Oberst’s voice; the sharp sorrow of his harmonica. The show leans heavily on his most recent release, Ruminations, which was recorded over three days in New York City with little more than the equipment seen on stage last night, making this feel as though we were being brought right into the album. You could almost taste the liquor on Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out, a song about the NYC bar “that saved my life.”
Uncanny was preceded by an apology for America and “the orange rat” and an impassioned plea for human beings to stick together. We’re probably going to hear a lot more of this at gigs over the next four years, or until Trump is impeached, whichever comes first.
The triumvirate of Bright Eyes songs that closed out the night were the undoubted highlight, with Phoebe Bridges almost stealing the show on Lua; her voice was flawless and haunting. At The Bottom of Everything was a lively, foot-stomping finale, with its final line stating that “I’m happy just because I found that I am truly no-one” seeming somehow fitting.
When the 12.40 from Glasgow rolled into London Euston at 5.05pm it meant two things: 1) Remarkably for a Virgin service it was arriving several minutes early, and 2) we were heading straight into rush hour on a Friday evening in the capital. Within minutes I was telling myself that I hate London as hundreds of commuters were fleeing in every conceivable direction around me.
That was a very rash statement to be making in my internal monologue and I immediately accepted that I was being foolish. I’ve been travelling to London for nigh upon fifteen years, and while there has been the ocassional falling out it is easily the longest relationship I have ever been in.
All it ever takes is one ride on the Tube and I know that everything is going to be alright. Even a simple journey to Covent Garden (changing for the Piccadilly Line at Leicester Square) is enough to set my loins ablaze. Maybe I just have a fetish for underground transport systems, but there is little makes me feel more alive than planning out a journey from A to B via C (and sometimes D and E) and then completing it. The tap of an Oyster Card, the stoic announcements asking you to “mind the gap”, the rush of an oncoming train; it’s all so exhilirating.
My purpose in London this time was fourfold:
1) To see Wilco play for the first time since they played Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall far too many years ago (that is to say that I can’t remember how many years it has been)
2) To attend the Fulham vs Sheffield Wednesday game at Craven Cottage
3) To have a beer at The Harp, the best bar in London and maybe the world
4) To find a suitable bar to watch the Celtic game
In a manner which is absolutely contradictory to the way in which lists traditionally work I completed these tasks in reverse order. The abforementioned trip to Covent Garden was a means of striking #4 off my list as it had been recommended that Philomena’s was the ideal location to watch the Kilmarnock vs Celtic match. This turned out to be the least Irish “Irish pub” I have ever drank in, and despite the fact that there were three or four different games showing on various screens I’d venture to say that it barely qualified as a sports bar due to the constant assault of nineties disco classics on the ears at the expense of commentary from any of the sports on TV. It was almost as though they were trying to appeal to three different audiences at once: the drinker, the sports fan and the dancer. As The Killers might ask: Are we sports fan or are we dancer?
[Sidenote: I’ve never been entirely clear on what qualifies a bar as being ‘Irish’. Is it the name? The decor? The content? ‘Irish pubs’ are everywhere, in every big city, but I’ve never found out what distinguishes them from any other bar selling Guinness. I’m not saying that they should be filled with dancing drunk leprechauns cheerily greeting you at the door, but you know, maybe for a little added authenticity?]
It’s difficult to be too harsh on Philomena’s, however, because their table service ensured that I always had a pint of Peroni in hand and that I didn’t have to miss a minute of Celtic’s arduous 1-0 win against Kilmarnock. So thanks for that.
The Harp, now there’s a bar with an Irish sounding name that has no pretences of being ‘Irish’. I’ve enjoyed many a good night in here and it was my pre-game boozer of choice on Saturday, with it being a short walk to Embankment station and the District Line train to Putney Bridge (see how exciting planning can be?) This place is a classic old style pub with no loud and overbearing pop music, no distracting televisions and loads of old men discussing world affairs around pints of Suffolk ales. Though in this bar, given its proximity to the heart of London’s theatre district, they were likely discussing all things thespian, but the point stands: These old dudes know what’s going on, and they talk about it over pints of fine English ale.
It was with a bit of a heavy heart and a hint of a stagger that I left The Harp, however I had underground stations to travel through, lines to change and a journey to Brixton via Craven Cottage to navigate; an opportunity to truly engage my love for planning transport routes. This was tested even further by the suspension of the Circle Line. And while I had no intention of riding on the Circle Line on Saturday anyway, I felt it was worth celebrating my success in travelling from Putney Bridge to Brixton without the use of the yellow line on the Tube map by dropping in to The Craft Beer Co. for pre-gig beers.
This chain of London bars is a haven for hop lovers with 30 keg and cask taps of various beers (the Covent Garden branch has over 45.) Though with hipster craft beer enthusiasts comes procrastination, and it is often the case in these bars that bearded beer drinkers will take as long deciding what to order at the bar as they will drinking their pint.
Saturday was a night for bearded, plaid shirt wearing hipsters in Brixton with American alt. Rock band Wilco playing their final show of 2016. The Chicago sextet churned out riffs like the Craft Beer Co. poured pints, and the Academy audience drank it up. Their set was as unpredictable and powerful as a citrus infused IPA, from the wild drum assault on Via Chicago to Nels Cline’s imperious showcase of the electric guitar on Impossible Germany. Perhaps the only thing more remarkable than Jeff Tweedy and co’s command of the stage was the sight of a mass brawl breaking out in the stalls – twice. I can only speculate as to what middle-aged men have to fight over at a Wilco gig, and if I had to guess it would be combover techniques or tweed.
Fortunately I wasn’t wearing tweed and so didn’t get caught in the midlife crisis melee and my love of London was reaffirmed by a weekend of rock and roll and trains.
In some respects there are no words which can suitably describe the magnitude of seeing the iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE tour – U2′s first arena tour in over a decade – first-hand, but then that would make for a pretty terrible blog post. Besides, there is SO MUCH to be said about these shows. So I’ll get the easy words out of the way first: This is the best gig I have been to in twelve years of attending live musical performances. Without question. There is no debate. It isn’t even close.
This was almost more like a West End theatre production than it was a rock concert, so meticulously choreographed was the show. Everything is so measured and precise as a narrative is woven through the night taking us from the band’s youth in North Dublin to their present day form as one of the biggest bands in the world in the second part of the set. From innocence to experience, with an enormous screen bridging the two timelines.
The gig starts out normally enough. The arena lights dim as the volume on the PA system cranks up a couple of notches and Patti Smith’s People Have The Power plays out. After several minutes Bono emerges onto the ‘e’ stage, little more than a spotlight acknowledging his arrival. He begins the tribal call out of The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone) as he strolls up the long narrow walkway which spans the entire length of the arena floor to the traditional stage, where the rest of the band have assembled and the guitars and drums kick into action. This is a great opening song. I’m not so sure it would be effective anywhere else in the set, but as an opener it sets the tone perfectly.
The first four songs threaten a concert of pure balls to the wall rock and roll. The stage is minimally lit with fluorescent tubes whilst a giant lightbulb hangs above the band, presumably resembling Bono’s childhood bedroom. Both nights followed a similar formula with Vertigo and I Will Follow forming a fierce tandem in songs three & four. The countdown at the start of Vertigo still sounds like such a dumb U2 quirk, but it is such an effective arena rock song. Friday night’s surprising The Electric Co. was subbed out for Gloria on Saturday. The message was that this was U2 at their most youthful exuberance. It was loud, brash and very well might have fulfilled Bono’s promise to turn The Hydro into the Barrowlands, with him having noted that Saturday marked 35 years since they first played the historic Glasgow venue.
Evolution took us from the stage to Bono’s childhood home on Cedarwood Road as the giant video wall lowered over the walkway. This is where we moved from rock show to theatre as Bono literally walked inside the screen down an animated representation of the street. It was a spectacular visual and a triumph of technology, the pinnacle arriving during Until The End of the World when Bono’s larger than life image was projected from the ‘e’ stage onto the screen where The Edge was already playing, creating the image of The Edge playing guitar in the palm of Bono’s hand. This was a 21st Century arena show where artists are having to be incresingly creative to earn ticket sales to supplement the changing habits of music consumption. U2 have arguably long been the masters of this, going all the way back to the Zoo TV tour.
It wasn’t all about the awesome visual effects in the screen, though. Simple images of victims of the 1974 Dublin and Monaghan car bombs gave added emotion to an already powerful version of Sunday Bloody Sunday, with the closing caption of “Justice For The Forgotten”, while haunting footage from a drone flying over the rubbles of a Syrian city added weight to Bono’s plea over the refugee crisis leading into Where The Streets Have No Name. U2 are often criticised for being overly political and overly preachy; they are never going to change and on this occasion they were sharp and on point.
Following a brief section where the entire band played inside the screen – which had earlier exploded into a pop art replica of the Berlin Wall – as various images of their past selves were projected onto the wall, the show moved onto the ‘e’ stage where it really came into its own in terms of song quality. Mysterious Ways allowed Bono to dance with the female of his choosing from the audience – seemingly managing to pluck out the most attractive woman in Fife – and show off the fact that the shows were being streamed online around the world. Desire and Angel of Harlem were true highlights of Saturday night, replacing Friday’s equally satisfying version of The Sweetest Thing. This is the point in the night where it was no longer seating or standing sections: it was all standing.
There was an intoxicating atmosphere inside The Hydro. This had all the intimacy and exhilirating excitement of a gig at the Barrowlands or Tuts. It was sweaty and ripe for a sing-along, and the closing stretch from Zooropa on was laden with hits which allowed the sold out audience to stretch their vocal chords. Pride (In The Name Of Love) has long been my favourite U2 song and it was simply awesome in these shows, the chorus ringing around the arena from tier to tier. With Or Without You was predictably well-recieved, with the subtle white lighting proving just as effective as anything the large screen offered. Bono has always been quite self-conscious about his voice, but on some of the acoustic tracks – particularly Every Breaking Wave – he really excelled in reaching some of the high notes.
Having now looked at previous setlists it seems the encore on this tour has three combinations: City of Blinding Lights and Beautiful Day are staples, then you either get One, Bad and “40″ or I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. While I was aching to hear the Joshua Tree classic again, the former two combinations on Friday and Saturday respectively proved more than satisfying. Bad is such a terrific song, the performance which launched U2 into superstardom, and its refrain moved perfectly into “40″. It’s a song I hadn’t even considered them playing, yet it was an ideal conclusion to the tour’s narrative. It encapsulates the band’s journey and their message wonderfully, and the chorus “how long to sing this song?” was being sung long into the night along Argyle Street.
iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE was a terrific feat of technology. The dedication and preparation that has gone into this show is immense and its payoff is the most rewarding and immersive gig experience I’ve had. But it isn’t all about the impressive conceptual technology; this was a triumph of U2 as one of the best rock bands of their generation and inarguably the best live act touring today. They sound as good as they ever have and still have a great energy surrounding them. This was more than a music concert: it was personal and intimate in a large setting, it was an event, an experience. For all the hype and ego and politics that surround U2 they are still, underneath it all, a band from North Dublin, and on this tour they almost make you feel like it’s home.
It has been two years since Calling Festival lost the Hard Rock sponsored monnicker and moved out from Hyde Park to Clapham Common, with the formerly weekend spanning event being curtailed to two days in 2013 (where it spent a year at the site of the Olympic Stadium) and now to a single sunny Saturday in 2015. It would be tempting to suggest that the inner-city festival has fallen on hard times (sic); an event which can boast of past headline acts such as Bruce Springsteen (3 times), Neil Young, Aerosmith (twice) and Paul McCartney was this year struggling to sell tickets – even with the assistance of £10 “flash sales” – with Noel Gallagher’s name on the top of the bill.
Not that any of this was on the minds of the 15,000 folk who elected to spend their fourth of July on the couldron like Clapham Common, in spite of distractions elsewhere in London such as AC/DC at Wembley Stadium, the Wireless Festival and Andy Murray’s bid for a second title at Wimbledon. The site, on the southside of Clapham Common, baked in an unrelenting heat – the sunshine like an extended guitar solo from the Gods.
Early acts on the site’s two stages found themselves playing to sparse crowds who often seemed to have had the misfortune of a rock show intruding upon their picnic, but that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of Elle King, whose bluegrass stylings and big voice evoked comparisons with Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes. Over on the second stage young English rockers Vant proved to be more photogenic than musically memorable – although that may be enough to get them onto the cover of the NME. Sunset Sons, meanwhile, offered a pretty fantastic slowed down version of the
The layout of the arena and the stage timings meant that – if you wished – you could see all fourteen acts on the bill. With bar queues growing through the day in accordance with the rising temperatures I elected to linger in the vicinity of the main stage, securing prime spots as the main support acts began to appear.
First up were Echo & The Bunnymen, Ian McCulloch swaggering onto stage with a tumbler of bourbon in hand, bowing to the sweltering conditions as his trademark black trenchcoat made way for a suit jacket and a zipped up jumper, his first act to demand a packet of cigarettes from a roadie before launching into Lips Like Sugar. This was a stagger through one of the finest back catalogues in recent British music, performed through a cloud of smoke and a haze of whisky with a certain – earned – cockiness from the Liverpudlian. Statements like: “You can sing along to the chorus of this one – the only way you won’t have heard it is if you were in prison” while introducing Bring on The Dancing Horses; proclaiming The Killing Moon “the greatest song ever written” and The Cutter as the second greatest. On this evidence, though, there could arguably be some truth in those claims.
There was no shortage of self-assurance in the next set either, though with The Hives a certain amount of it is undoubtedly showmanship. The Swedish five-piece produced an outrageously energetic and enthusiastic set, their pristine white suits no match for the blazing mid-afternoon heat and their desire to bound and karate kick all over the stage. The Hives put on a show quite unlike anything I can recall seeing, finally turning the picnic on Clapham Common into a bold rock and roll concert. Despite being absent from the mainstream psyche for some time, songs like Walk Idiot Walk and Tick Tick Boom have endured. They held a swelling audience in the palm of their hands with an entertaining blend of humour and hits, compelling an entire field of people to squat on the grass before bringing them to their feet in a frenzy with the opening chords of Hate To Say I Told You So. It was quite a sight to witness.
Modest Mouse were amongst my most anticipated bands of the afternoon, having never seen them before. Unfortunately they were somewhat of a letdown – to me, at least. I’m not sure whether they had simply drawn the short straw by having to follow the extraordinary Hives or if I was becoming distracted by the prospect of Ryan Adams – or if it was perhaps down to the story that they were playing on borrowed equipment with their own still stuck in France, but they were a little underwhelming. Certainly their eclectic blend of styles is appealing, and Float On was a real highlight of the afternoon, but I left this set with the lingering feeling that it could have been so much more.
Though, as mentioned, the looming appearance of Ryan Adams on the main stage may very well have been occupying my thoughts. This was the 20th time I have seen Ryan perform and I am convinced that he is on the best run of his career. His new band The Shining click perfectly with him, and he seems so much more at ease now as the frontman than he did shouldering the burden of a solo acoustic tour. This was a slick and professional set where Ryan’s guitar playing really shone. There were moments – particularly on Dirty Rain and Peaceful Valley – where his solos produced actual gasps from people around me in the audience. He was that good. Kim and Shakedown on 9th Street – a Heartbreaker song I’ve been hoping to hear live for twelve years – have been recent additions to his set since the early Spring UK tour, while Come Pick Me Up (even minus the female backing vocal) remains a highlight. To hear a good number of the 15,000 crowd singing along to the chorus of the harmonica-led Heartbreaker classic is something I never thought I would experience.
Fresh from their debut album charting at number two and a critically acclaimed set at Glastonbury, Wolf Alice found themselves top of the bill on the second stage, occupying the 45 minutes between Ryan Adams and Noel Gallagher. A generous crowd forwent the bar queues and crammed into the tight area in front of the stage to see what the fuss was about the much hyped North London alt-rock quartet. There’s no doubt that Wolf Alice have a captivating sound, alligned perfectly with the charisma of lead singer Ellie Roswell. The comparisons with Garbage and Hole have some merit, and it’s easy to see that they have the potential to go far. Bros and Moaning Lisa Smile ae genuinely big songs. They’re touring the UK in September and are simply must-see in a smaller, more intimate setting.
And so it was on to the headline act of Calling 2015: Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds. After a full day of sunshine, beers and a fine collection of performances from the undercard, I would admit that I wasn’t particularly fussed about Noel’s biggest UK show to date; though it might be unfair for my lackadaisical approach to the headline set to colour the opinion of everyone else. For me Noel is a decent songwriter (I disagree with Ryan Adams, who proclaimed him “the greatest fucking songwriter of our lives” during his own set) though his solo work will forever be overshadowed by his time with Oasis – and it was clear that’s what a sizeable element of the audience came to Clapham Common for. They were in luck, as six Oasis songs made the setlist, most popular amongst them Champagne Supernova (which sorely lacks Liam’s vocals) and Don’t Look Back In Anger, which was the defining moment of the set. In between times it felt like people were waiting for the next Oasis hit, and Noel, for all his charisma and arrogance on stage, comes across as a lacklustre frontman.
Calling Festival has changed drastically in its ten years and while Saturday – for me – ended in vague disappointment, it cannot be argued that the day wasn’t a great success. The atmosphere was welcoming, the weather was exceptionally kind and there was a day full of quality acts on stage. Considering that many venues were charging upwards of £65 for Noel Gallagher’s UK tour earlier this year, to see Ryan Adams, Modest Mouse, The Hives, Echo & The Bunnymen and Wolf Alice – as well as Noel – for the same price at Calling represented excellent value for money. This was one of my favourite days in a long time.
King Tut’s on Glasgow’s St. Vincent Street was last night transformed into an intimate garage in litle Lititz, Philadelphia as young twentysomething’s The Districts delivered a scuzzy and muscular set which at times felt like a coming of age.
Since they first played the city at last May’s Stag & Dagger, The Districts have been forced to replace their guitarist after Mark Larson decided to pursue an education rather than travel the road with a band, and this year they released their debut full-length album A Flourish and A Spoil. In contrast to that sparsely attended show at Broadcast, King Tut’s was packed out – The Districts are very much a word of mouth band, and thanks to exposure from BBC 6 Music the word is clearly spreading.
There are still some rough edges to their sound, and the lengthy tuning sessions and ambient washes between songs are something that will have to be smoothed out, but that doesn’t detract from the phenomenal sound they generate. This was rock and roll in its most primal, youthful form. Sweaty and energetic.
Lead guitarist and vocalist Rob Grote has a compelling stage presence, while his distinctive voice lends to the sound they’re curating. This is best showcased on Funeral Beds, the song which already looks like it is going to define this band. Originating from their early self-titled EP, this is the song the entire audience knows and had been waiting for. There’s the harmonica with echoes of Springsteen or Young, the heartbeat of Braden Lawrence’s drumming throughout and the galloping climax it builds to.
4th and Roebling, the opening track from A Flourish and A Spoil, is a made for radio rocker which firmly has its roots in the bands of the early 00′s these guys grew up on. The night ends on Young Blood, the 9-minute standout from the album, and it translates powerfully onto the stage. It is dramatic and dynamic, loud and punchy. The song has multiple layers, unravelling another just as you think it is coming to an end. It is the highlight of the set and a future rock classic.
This was garage rock brought to life on a grand scale. There are stilll improvements to be made, but once they are made and the word of mouth continues to spread The Districts are capable of going a long way