Music Reviews

Reviewing can be the toughest thing to do, particularly if you’re a fan. Keeping a level of detachment isn’t always easy but it can be harder to explain why an event exceeded expectations than why it was dreadful. There are more examples of my reviewing on the Comedy page. Most are for The Herald.

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Blondie
O2 ABC, Glasgow
Thursday, August 28, 2014 

Announced just weeks ago, tickets to see a Blondie gig in this smaller venue didn’t hang around, despite the fact that they have toured pretty regularly since 1999. This makes this part of their career significantly longer than the first, but it’s hard to shake the word “comeback” when that first part has been so extraordinary.

The material recorded since the true comeback record, No Exit, has reflected their maturity while still embracing the bright, sparky pop that made them break-out superstars of CBGBs. This year’s album, Ghosts of Download, was released with an album of re-recorded greatest hits, which gives a better reflection of the live performance now. Debbie Harry might not have the vocal might that was once there on Atomic, and Picture This is absent from the set, but what she lacks in power she makes up in superior technique developed throughout her solo years.

She is an extraordinary presence on stage, the definition of charisma, with a style that is truly unique and much imitated, but never bettered. Glasgow has always been a Blondie town, with the 1979 Hogmanay show at the Apollo broadcast live on the Old Grey Whistle Test, and the outpouring of love for the surprisingly diminutive blonde is remarkable. She responds to every wave and displays spectacular bouquets that had been delivered to her, reading cards to thank individuals.

Clem Burke said recently that this tour might be their last, with Debbie fast approaching 70. If it is the last time we’ll see them, it was a glorious goodbye. There weren’t too many teenagers in the audience, but it was clear that watching Debbie, Chris, and Clem makes them feel that way.

Rewind Festival
Scone Palace
Sunday, July 20, 2014

SUNGLASSES on. Check. The first day of the Rewind Festival in the grounds of Scone Palace may have been blasted by a downpour, but a sea of dazzling Day-Glo fairly brightened the proceedings.

In its fourth year here, this is a festival that knows exactly what its audience wants, and delivers it with a flamboyant lacy bow.

Unashamedly retro, the audience, which isn’t exclusively fortysomething, can arrive dressed as anything from Like A Virgin-era Madonna to one of the Ghostbusters squad, knowing that no-one is going to look at them askance. In fact, high fives are more likely.

With 30,000 in attendance over two days, campers arrived on the Friday to a site large enough to deliver the food, drink, and fairground rides that are part of every festival experience, but has the additional benefit of superb cover acts in the bar tents and a bit of karaoke for a break from the main stage if one of the acts was not part of the collection of 12-inch singles beside the hi-fi.

With only two days to programme, the festival manages to attract much of the best of the era, and anyone who recalls the 80s as simply Stock, Aitken and Waterman and the Kids from Fame is in for a pleasant surprise.

“When this music was made we all thought it had a shelf life of 30 minutes,” says Midge Ure, who played a storming late afternoon Saturday slot.

“Now, it’s being rediscovered and part of that might be the resurgence of vinyl. There’s a real age range here.”

With sets ranging from 15 minutes (Dr and The Medics – probably 10 minutes too long) to the headliners Billy Ocean and Hall and Oates (too short at even an hour) the bands are given enough time to pump out the hits and nothing else – festival perfection.

Sets from acts as diverse as The Sugarhill Gang, The Selecter, Heaven 17, The Boomtown Rats, and 10CC gave a good representation of the decade’s diversity.

The surprising aspect of even the short sets is the amount of hits that have disappeared in the mists of time – and that everyone still remembers the words to.

How many Johnny Hates Jazz hits can you name? It matters not, but they filled a pretty decent 15 minutes.

Rewind organiser David Heartfield says the demand grows every year and has added another festival in the north of England to join Scone and the original Rewind at Henley.

He’s also looking to expand the line-ups, with bands like Simple Minds a target.

“Music is memories really, isn’t it?” Says Nick Heyward, another big crowd pleaser on Saturday, backed by his son and a full complement of musicians who were born long after Heyward stopped tucking his jumpers in.

“Revisiting these songs after such a long time is really refreshing and you can see how much they’ve meant to so many people.”

Hardy music fans can stand a bit of the wet stuff and Sunday brought a battering mid-afternoon but blue skies returned to round off the night.

Sniffy types who prefer their music obscure can look down on this event, but they’re missing the point.

Put it this way, even the biggest Paul Weller fans wanted to hear a few more hits in his T in the Park set last week.

Of course it was a bit of a mixed bag, inevitable with 24 acts, but festivals should be a celebration and great fun – Rewind is exactly that.

Super Furry Animals
O2 Academy, Glasgow
Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Six years is a weird amount of time for a band to lie dormant. Too short to make any shows a comeback and too long to take advantage of momentum. However, like the best old pals, seeing the Super Furry Animals on stage feels like not a moment has passed. That’s not quite true actually. There appears to be a new found enthusiasm for the songs that made them the most inventive British band of the 90s and noughties.

Arriving on stage in white “clean” suits, an expanded line-up is suitably stark against an ever-changing backdrop. With a dazzling light and laser show manage to merge 60s psychedelia and 90s techno, this 25-song set is a staggering assault on the senses that only The Flaming Lips can rival. There’s even a three-piece horn section in there for goodness sake, adding texture to Demons and Northern Lites and serving Mariachi band punch.

From the Beach Boys loveliness of (Drawing) Rings Around The World, through to absolute favourites like Ice Hockey Hair, Hometown Unicorn, and Golden Retriever right through to The Man Don’t Give A F*** with its Steely Dan sample and a selection from Welsh language album Mwng, it’s a night that proves once and for all that melody and the avant garde are not mutually exclusive.

Of course the members have been active in SFA’s absence, Gruff Rhys and Guto Pryce the most successful in their own projects, so they’re all still in match condition. But even they couldn’t have been prepared for an audience reaction that turned the Academy into the Hydro with the singalong volume on Fire In My Heart. Joyous stuff.

Average White Band
Fat Sam’s Live, Dundee
Thursday, May 7, 2015

Although there isn’t a single Dundonian on stage, this feels like something of a home gig for the Average White Band. Alan Gorrie is the closest, as a Perthite and former Duncan of Jordanstone student, but there is an extra connection with the city tonight. Gorrie lets us know that it would have been the 65th birthday of the original drummer Robbie McIntosh, a Dundee boy, who died in 1974.

Whether it was in tribute or just a particularly good night, this current line-up of AWB seemed to have an extra heap of fire and funk, with a performance that managed to be simultaneously the tightest and most relaxed I’ve witnessed. The grooves of Atlantic Avenue, Cut the Cake, When Will You Be Mine, and Work to Do, are interspersed with soulful balladry such as the sublime A Love of Your Own.

Gorrie and Onnie McIntyre, as original members, have attracted the cream of session talent for the shifting line-ups over the years, but this AWB is a particularly tasty concoction, with special mention to vocalist Brent Carter taking ownership of songs that are ingrained in the soul psyche, and drummer Rocky Bryant who managed to not only maintain interest in the drum solo, something that can kill a set stone dead, but actually added another layer of passion.

Dundee gig tradition is for AWB to be joined by a previous Gorrie bandmate, and tonight it’s vocalist Drew Larg, who effortlessly leads the tribute to the late Ben E King. With a beautifully planned encore of Let’s Go Round Again and Pick Up The Pieces, it was a night of massive smiles and sore feet. Job done.

AWB play Glasgow’s O2ABC tonight.

WHILE it’s true that Glasgow audiences are generally pretty “up for it”, rarely has a band received the rapturous reception given to Daryl Hall and John Oates. The entire set had the celebratory feel of an encore, starting with an immediate statement of intent in Maneater. This was an outright hits show.

Drawn from albums reaching back to 1973 (She’s Gone) right up to Out of Touch from the mid-1980s, with only a couple of well-known album tracks breaking up the singles, this was a celebration of pop songwriting at its finest.

With his 68th birthday approaching, Hall’s voice might be slightly thinner at the top, unlike his lustrous locks, but the warmth of tone and the downright soul in still sets his pipes apart from anyone else in AOR. John Oates’s voice, which in any other combination would be a lead, has its roots in the Philly soul they played as teenagers, particularly on Back Together Again.

The duo have always been a draw to the finest session players and here the eight-piece band includes the likes of Eliot Lewis and Klyde Jones from the recent Average White Band line-up, Porter Carroll on percussion and their longtime band member Charles DeChant on saxophones.

DeChant is an important part of the set-up, but as superb as his playing is, the prolonged sax solo in I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do) was the only moment the crowd flagged slightly.

With their central position in the newly hip Yacht Rock genre, the audience had faces who were born after the hits stopped coming. With no filler, this bodes well for their headlining spot at the Rewind festival in a couple of weeks.

Usher Hall, Edinburgh
Tuesday May 27, 2014

Fresh from kissing the feet of Miley Cyrus and breaking the hipster hearts of a million Lips’ fans, Wayne Coyne is happy to wander on stage when the houselights are still up to put his tinsel jacket in position. You know, the one that matches the tinsel sporran attached to his, er, bright red body stocking.

The fact that all the Lips are wandering around, tuning up and placing their drinks is strange – a show as freaky-deaky as this merits the band members being flown in over the heads of the crowd on unicorns at least.

With a history of extravagant staging, the Oklahoma City collective has raised the bar pretty high, but this impressive collection of giant inflatable dancers, the cheesiest lighting outside of Blackpool Illuminations and an ever-changing kaleidoscopic backdrop is more mind-blowing than ever.

Oh, the music you ask? Far from being secondary, every song is treated like a finale. Even during the opener, The Abandoned Hospital Ship, the crowd is showered with silver tinsel. With only two tracks from last year’s The Terror, the set is a pretty balanced best-of-the-back-catalogue with She Don’t Use Jelly, Race For The Prize and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Pt 1 all featuring mass singalongs.

Stephen Drodz holds everything together quietly in the corner as Coyne changes into a shiny suit and performs atop a raised box. Never the greatest vocalist live, the cracked quality to his voice means lyrics can be drowned in the cacophony, but what a cacophony it is.

When it comes down to it, the Flaming Lips’ live experience isn’t really a gig – it’s a trip, man.

Perth Festival 2014

Alison Moyet
Perth Concert Hall

When Alison Moyet released The Minutes last year, there was almost universal praise for her return to electronica.

Since she first combined the warmth of that glorious voice with more sterile instrumentation in the early 1980s, there have been 20 million record sales, years of agoraphobia, and battles with a record company that wanted more of the same.

Like many artists who have great success but no appetite for the fame aspect of being a musician, she walked away and decided to follow her heart.

Tonight she is flanked by just John Garden and Sean McGhee. Individually these are impressive one-man bands, but together they provide her with a two-man orchestra. Her imposing 5ft 10ins frame is encased in a simple black shirt and trousers, with most of the subdued lighting on her face. There is little to detract from that voice and the songs.

Alternating songs from The Minutes with the hits was a masterstroke and testament to the quality of the new material, some infused with her Gallic heritage. It’s not difficult to imagine her as a chanteuse, walking over rainsoaked Parisian cobbles, until her broad Essex tones come in with a jolly “thank youuuua!”.

There’s no compromise in including the hits. Singles such as Is This Love? are given an update that never strays too far from the original with Only You given a slightly darker, bleaker edge that would never have been acceptable to the pop muffins of 1981. The final encore turned the concert hall into a 1980s disco with Don’t Go – a title that echoed the sentiment of everyone in the audience.

The Magic Flute
English Touring Opera
Perth Concert Hall

With Perth Theatre undergoing refurbishment until 2017, English Touring Opera has moved from its traditional Perth Festival home to the nearby concert hall.

It’s the first time the festival has used the hall’s orchestra pit; as it turned out, to great effect. The orchestra sounded rich and full and the music soared, but the hall’s superb acoustics had a downside. With a wooden set on several levels connected by stairs, there was a fair amount of clomping.

Although it contains some of opera’s best-known characters, ETO’s production of Mozart’s final opera, in which librettist Schikaneder created a fantastical tale of the search for love and happiness, has succeeded through being an ensemble success. However, Wyn Pencarreg as Papageno deserves to be singled out for a rounded comic performance with excellent singing, while Samantha Hay’s Queen Of The Night aria is as spine-tingling as ever.

Perhaps it’s personal preference but the success of opera can be about context. This is a highly stylised production, with sumptuous costumes, although the choice of pale-green coats and orange wigs for the three boys is reminiscent of Willy Wonka’s Oompah Loompahs.

Although dark and clean, the set is designed ingeniously. The rich blue and soft lighting worked better with the more traditional Perth Theatre interior when the previous version of this production was there in 2009.

However, there’s little doubt the move for 2014 was largely a success, but if the auditorium of Perth Theatre is restored as well as is planned, it might still provide a better aesthetic setting for productions as rich as this.

Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra
Perth Concert Hall

There’s a scene in the 1980s movie 9½ weeks when Kim Basinger looks into Mickey Rourke’s wardrobe and sees multiple copies of the same suit and shirt.

It must be the same for Jools’s missus – black suits, black shirts. Nothing else. Tonight, like so many aspects of the show, his attire is no surprise. The fact my mind is drifting to Mr Holland’s wardrobe isn’t an indication that what’s happening on stage isn’t entertaining – it’s a hard-hearted soul who wouldn’t get caught up in the carnival atmosphere. However, there’s no fear of drifting off and missing something new. It’s harsh to say it’s formulaic – after all, what’s wrong with a formula if it’s what an audience is hoping to see?

The difference comes with the guest vocalists – at the moment it’s Marc Almond and Mel C.

There’s no big band Wannabe, and while Almond leaves Jacques Brel alone thankfully, he does give us Tainted Love and Say Hello Wave Goodbye, while C (ahem, Chisholm) avoids her sporty stuff but among her mini set is Never Gonna Be The Same and a stonking version of Stevie Wonder’s I Wish – where the horns really come alive.

Ruby Turner is back as Jools’s “queen of boogie woogie”, with the usual vocal histrionics of Peace In The Valley closing the main show. This show has become a staple of Perth Festival, with many people paying an annual fee to be a Friend of the Festival, allowing them to buy tickets for Jools before they go on general sale.

Crowd favourite Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think) didn’t make an appearance until the final encore, but no matter, it was a done deal by then.

After reviewing T in a much straighter way, the idea was to camp for the weekend (and not in the posh yurts) and find out whether it held any attraction for a fortysomething.

T in the Park at 20:
music lover’s treat gets better with age

It was an inauspicious start.

As the callow youth of a campsite security guard motioned to search my bag, he couldn’t have looked any more pleased if he had been asked to rummage through his granny’s knicker drawer.

“What’s this?”

“What’s what?”

“This.”

Between his thumb and forefinger, he held a hormone replacement therapy patch.

“It’s a prescription thing,” I said, hoping that would be enough. Blank look. “Ask your mum, she’ll know.”

And with that he dropped it like a scalding coal and motioned for me to go through, quickly.

The publicity shots from T in the Park feature teenage stunners with tumbling locks and perfect fake bakes, usually in the music festival uniform of denim cut-off shorts, aviator sunglasses and wellies.

As a 46-year-old female music fan dressing for comfort rather than style, the reality is, mercifully, rather different.

The girls are there, but this corner of Kinross-shire becomes the fifth largest town in Scotland over the weekend of T in the Park. And, dismissing the extremes at both ends of the population, it has pretty much the same demographic.

So what is the appeal for the, shall we say, more mature music fan?

With almost 200 artists over six stages starting at 4pm on Friday and finishing around midnight on Sunday, it’s highly unlikely music fans won’t be able to fill their days with an impressive programme.

As an old T hand, there was a noticeable improvement in atmosphere this year, not only due to the blazing sun, which makes everything better.

The number of families – usually mum and dad with teenagers in tow – gave a truly cross-generational feel to the event.

For example, standing close to the barriers at Deacon Blue on Saturday, when it became clear the young teenagers beside me knew the set. We’re not talking about enthusiastic “wooh woohing” along to Real Gone Kid – this was word-perfect on Loaded, a more obscure single from an album released long before they were born.

That surprised keyboard player Jim Prime more than anyone: “I was amazed, hearing the crowd singing along to that.”

Conversely, the difficult Sunday 12 noon slot for Anderson McGinty Webster Ward and Fisher attracted several hundred to the Transmissions tent, where older festival-goers than me (yes, there were quite a few) were standing alongside teens and twenty-somethings, all looking to explore new music.

Quite an achievement for the Dundee band, considering Earth Wind and Fire were playing on the sun-soaked main stage.

The appeal is the diversity – the combination of the comfortable greatest hits sets with exploring smaller tents and taking word-of-mouth recommendations on up-and-coming artists.

One of the best examples of the progress of T was the appearance by Travis on Saturday night. They played the first T in 1994, headlined in 2000 and were back this year headlining the 12,000 strong King Tut’s tent, packed with punters looking for a singalong.

The experience is more than the music, however. For at least 60,000 the festival means a few nights under canvas.

The baking temperatures meant the entrance to the campsite was dry and dusty, but it was preferable to last year’s spectacular mudbath. Walking through the seemingly endless fields of tents, usually legs sticking out at awkward angles as the natives slept off the previous night’s excesses, festival camping seemed like a young person’s game.

The comparatively verdant Citizen T area was the destination, however. The tents are still pretty much cheek by jowl, but if you don’t have a personal space problem and hearing strangers snoring in the early hours isn’t an issue, then this could be the answer to braving the traffic to head home every night and return the next day.

Residents pledge to take their tents home and their rubbish away, be decent neighbours and generally behave themselves. The “neighbours” were Michelle and her crew, who lived up to all of those, even helping to assemble a stranger’s tent. A friendly group who are dispersed throughout Scotland, they had converged on T for the weekend.

The arena site is lined with stalls hoping to sell as many silly hats, T-shirts and peely wally burgers as possible, but the more mature music fan may have a more refined palate and need to head to the Healthy T area.

Porridge, crepes, wood-fired pizza, risotto and pulled pork on the menu shows a weekend doesn’t need to be fuelled by hideously overpriced chips.

The festival is still evolving and improving, in everything from the arena layout to facilities on offer for those who arrive to camp on Thursday.

From this mature music lover’s point of view, this might be the most successful T ever.

The future of Scottish popular music is in safe hands.

 If Perth Festival wanted to showcase the quality of our songwriting and live performance, the choices were spot on.

Admiral Fallow must be among the favourites for this year’s Scottish Album of the Year (Say) award with the sublime Tree Bursts In Snow, but are doing relatively few live shows this year in order to write the follow-up.

For this appearance, The Hazey Janes, from just up the road in Dundee, were invited to open. The four-piece embrace power pop and country rock, this opening set offered them all, plus exquisite harmony singing, particularly on In Shadows Under Trees, a slice of Laurel Canyon loveliness.

The six-piece Admiral Fallow are as sprawling in their musical ambition, but also encompass something of the traditional. It’s too simplistic to tag them as folk rockers. This is simply exceptional songwriting. True, it likes a tangent, but it always leads somewhere worthwhile.

Louis Abbot’s vocal style has an element of the Guy Garvey, particularly on Old Fools, but the dual vocals with Sarah Hayes add another texture to the set, and are particularly fine on Beetle In The Box.

The band are also so thoroughly affable that the lengthy changeovers between songs are forgiven. Technical difficulties are always overcome with quips. There is also room for a rousing “you sing it” moment during Isn’t This World Enough?

In both bands, there seemed to be a respect for what has gone before, coupled with a desire to forge their own way forward. No-one could feel anything but optimistic about Scottish music as they left. It was heartening to see how busy the merchandise stalls were at the end of the evening.

AND from the mists of time… two reviews that prompted hate mail…

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