Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Olden Days

Martin Simpson
Folk House, Bristol
3 April

You know that bit, just before the last song of the first set, when the performer mentions that there are copies of his latest CD on sale at the front? Tonight, Martin Simpson used that space to point out that we are all agreed that all the politicians on all sides have, this time around, been more corrupt, useless and dishonest than ever before, that it is incredibly tempting to say that they are all the same, but that people died to get us the right to vote, and that if we don't use our votes on May 6th there is a real danger that the BNP will get in.

I don't necessarily share all their politics or all their religious views. But over the last few weeks I've increasingly felt that old guys with guitars in poky little venues are the only people left who talk my language.

There is a rumour going around that the BBC are going to rename the Radio 3 Folk Awards "The Martin Simpson Awards". This year he was nominated for Best Singer, Best Musician, Best Song (twice), Best Traditional Song and Best Album.

Quite unaccountably, the actual prize for best song went to Show of Hands' obvious bit of ranting about not liking politicians and bankers very much, rather than to "One Day", Mr Simpson's hauntingly delicate song of grief and healing. Simpson's songs have an absolute knack of changing direction half-way through: almost like a well wrought joke, except that the result is tears, rather than laughter. His most famous song "Never Any Good" (winner, Best Song, 2008) appears to spend six stanzas writing his his father off as a wastrel, before suddenly revealing how much he owes to him in the final stanza. (Come to think of it, the lyric doesn't identify who the song is about until the penultimate verse, where it is revealed almost in passing: "If you had been a practical man / You would have been forewarned / You would have seen that it never would work / And I would have never been born".) "One Day" takes this a stage further. As he explains it, his friend Martin Taylor wrote the opening, heart-breaking stanza's about the suicide of his son Stewart. Taylor wrote "You rode like a king and you sung like an angel / but it brought you no pleasure, it brought you no joy" and Simpson turns the song round with the inspirational "One day I'll hear hoof beats and not grieve for the rider / and the songs that you sung will bring peace and not pain." He absolutely proves the old rule that the most specific is also the most universal: a song full of reference to gypsy customs and snatches of Romany language, it will speak to anyone who has ever lost a loved one.

Although the new album is called "True Stories", Simpson isn't really a story teller in the way that Chris Wood and Martin Carthy are: these are songs expressing feelings and (very often) places.

I think this gig was the first time I've properly understood what it is he does with his guitar: over and over again his hands are playing a different tune to the one his mouth is singing. Counter-melody is probably the polite term. Which is, I imagine, physically very difficult to do. He doesn't have the world's greatest singing voice: the complexity of the guitar and voice arrangement is greater than the sum of its parts. Louise said that it often sounds as if there are two guitarists playing together.

The set contains a good mix of his American bluesy material English traddy stuff and his own songs. I have to say I'm not convinced by his Patrick Spens (which actually did win the award for Best Traditional Track) but that may be because I prefer June Tabor's versions of practically everything on general principles.

He finishes with two pieces on an electric banjo, complimenting the audience for not running from the room when such a monstrous device appears. Everyone agrees that Stag-o-lee was, all things considered, a Bad Man. Woody Guthrie has him hanged, where Peter Seeger has him going to the electric chair, but Martin tells us that "Stag-o-lee shot Billy in eighteen ninety five / Billy's in the grave yard, but Stag-o-lee's still alive" which is both a better line and closer to what actually happened.

I believe that if you are a proper French Gourmet, the correct answer to the question "What was the best meal you ever ate" is "The last one." I am told by people who know that Martin Simpson is one of the greatest acoustics guitarists in the world; I think he's certainly the best musician I have heard.

Oh, and he sings "Come Down Jehovah" better than Chris Wood does. Sorry, but it's


Which reminds me. Chris Wood complained about sound engineers who play unrelated CDs before and after the main act comes on. So was there some obscure ironic vengeance in Mr Wood's raucous Cold Hard Haily Night blaring out over the PA only a few seconds after Martin's delicate encore of Boots of Spanish Leather had faded away?

Robin Williamson & John Renbourne
South Bank Club, Bristol
12 April

After Dylan, the Incredible String Band's "Big Huge" was the first folk album I bought. The first bars of Maya bowled me over with their overwhelming strangeness; self indulgent, certainly, fey, possibly; long rambling songs which contain several different melodies; lyrics which make no sense at all and one track that lasts exactly 20 seconds. Yet it all seemed to hang together in some kind of vision. All very child-like and English: where John Lennon's controlling muse was Alice in Wonderland, theirs was clearly Winnie the Pooh.

So while the Band itself are (I believe) not on speaking terms, I feel incredibly –seriously– privileged to have heard Robin Williamson perform live on three separate occasions. He has matured from the archetypal hippie to the archetypal ageing hippie, in an entirely positive way: white beard, long hair, wise, whimsical, charismatic, yarn-spinning, the chief bard of the order of celtic-something or other. His primary instrument is the harp; but in the course of the evening, he also pulls out a recorder, a whistle, a mandolin, and does some drumming. John Renbourne, an equally venerable 60s veteran, sits to his right, looking like your slightly bemused grandfather, doing his guitar thing content in the knowledge that he invented jazz folk (arguably) and doesn't need to show off.

There was a minor glitch at the venue. Everyone marched into the downstairs bar where the music usually happens, and found that this time things were being set up in the upstairs bar, which wasn't quite ready. This had the neat effect that the people who arrived first had the last choice of seats. Two of the haven't-been-to-a-concert-in-years fraternity kept opining that this was a poor show given how much we paid for the tickets. (Two members of the same club became rather agitated at the Martin Simpson gig because the venue's doors remained closed until the, er, "doors open" time.) I refrained from saying that the really surprising thing was that one could get into the presence of these demigods for less than fifteen pounds. I mean, seriously. Does Bob Dylan play church halls in Southville? Next month, the Colston Hall will be asking £40 to hear Don McClean. (I thought American Pie was a clever song until I heard Desolation Row and realised where it came from. Forty pounds!)

They start with a long blues number, Sometimes I Just Can't Keep From Crying. Then John Renbourne picks out a long, delicate instrumental which becomes a tub thumping gospel song. He and Robin Williamson sing together. They are arguably not singing quite the same tune, but it doesn't really matter. "Thank God I can sing this song of his love / I know some day I'll be singing above." The last time I heard Robin, it was in the basement (one could hardly say crypt) of an evangelical church in Clifton. He seems to be one of those hippies who takes a little of this and a little bit of that from the different religions of the world, as happy singing "Keep to the sunny side of life" as something all Celtic and mystical. Or maybe he can just enter into the spirit of whatever song he happens to be singing. Later on, they do a country and western number called something like "You keep me stoned on your love baby" which Robin described as corny and mawkish and sang without a trace of irony. He tells us that Bob Dylan once described the Incredible String Band as "quite good" and then sings "Where are you tonight, sweet Marie" on his harp. I don't know whether it was intended as a send up of Dylan, or whether slowing down and articulating the words simply allows us to see what funny, witty lyrics the master wrote. John did "Lord Franklin" (which, as we all now know, mutated into Bob Dylan's Dream) sounding unbelievably sad and unbelievably ancient. Robin told us that real life cowboys were nothing like John Wayne, but more likely to have been Mexicans or Irishman, and then did an arrestingly different version of Buffalo Skinners, which he thinks probably gives an accurate picture of what cowboy life was like: "Well then our season ended and the drover would not pay / You've ate and drunk too much, you are all in debt to me." A strange artefact; a bluesy version of a song more associated with the Oakie tones of Woody Guthrie, accompanied by an ethereal harp. It works.

We finished on some daft Irish musical hall whimsy. Robin is enjoying himself so much that he sings the last verse twice, and the audience join in the chorus. "Her lips were like the roses / Her hair was raven hue / By the time that she was finished / She had me ravin' too." He relishes the daftness; the cod Irish accent; the silly jokes. Yet there is no incongruity of going from heavy blues (he loves to play blues on an actual harp, instead of a "blues harp") and "Buckets of Rain" to wondering where on earth the blarny roses grow. This song, just as much as the hymn or the country ballad, is worthy of his respect.

He said that the man who made his steel whistle was the closes thing he'd even met to a Hobbit; yet it was hard to avoid thinking that this old, bearded, whimsical, wise hippy was the nearest thing you'd ever seen to a leprachaun.

Godlike. No, seriously: God like. And for fourteen quid.

Jim Moray
Jazz@Future Inns, Bristol
April 14

"This is a song about beating your sister to death with a stick and throwing her body in a river".

Last week, Martin Simpson told us the story about how a young man met two sisters and gave the younger a gay gold ring (and didn't give the elder anything). This week, Jim Moray tells us how a younger sister was given a beaver hat (the elder sister, she didn't like that). In the first version, once the younger sister had been murdered by her jealous sibling her body is fished from the river by a miller, whereupon "a fiddling fool" cuts up her body and turns it into a violin, as you do. "But the only song that fiddle would play was 'oh, the dreadful wind and the rain' ". (Martin Carthy does a version in which the ghoulish instrument, more helpfully, identified the older sister as the murderer.) In Jim's version, the dead girl floats down the river. The miller fishes her out. And then he takes the rings off her fingers, and throws her in again.

There is probably some kind of a message here, both about millers and about folk songs.

The first time I heard Jim Moray (at the Folk on the Oak festival) I was a little underwhelmed: he seemed to to be singing a lot of old standards which hardly any one else would touch (Barbara Allen; Early One Morning) with electrical beats which mostly drowned out his voice. However once I'd listened to his albums, especially the superlative Low Culture, I decided that I had totally misjudged him. He has a sweet singing voice and uses a range of electronic sounds to put genuinely clever twists on (mostly) familiar old songs. Not all of it works, but when it fails to work it fails to work interestingly. ("Lucy Wan" is a charming folk song about incest and murder; the Daily Mail complain a lot about how nasty black people's music is violent; so the notion of alternating the traditional verses of the song with a modern, how you say, hip hop interpretation of the same story is extremely clever, even if I don't care to listen to it very much.)

So I was decidedly intrigued to hear that he was doing a purely acoustic set – grand piano and guitar only – in the Jazz club beneath the hotel in the new shopping centre.

He certainly knows and cares about his folk music, and, to my untrained ear, he can play the piano very well and the guitar well enough. He opens on the piano with a rather good Dives and Lazarus ; his plinky plonky guitar version of the Raggle Taggle Gypsies had Martin Carthy written all over it. The more raucus songs survive the acoustic treatment best. Lord Willougby is loud and dramatic (the recorded version depends mainly on Jim's keyboard, I think); and he makes Oh Don't Deceive Me, Lord Never Leave Me sound almost sinister in such a way as to banish all memories of Frank Spencer! He seems like a nice, self effacing chap – and frankly, he's a big enough "name" that he doesn't need to be playing this tiny venue – but has no real stage presence or "patter". Some of the songs outstay their welcome: Lord Bateman can seem interminable at the best of times.

On record, he has a rather interesting voice – words like "cheeky", "naive", "boyish" and "innocent" all entirely fail to describe it. Tonight he was, I think, getting over a cold: that thing where your voice changes from low to high half way through the line was probably happening more than he meant it to. On the CD, "Gilderoy" is a really, really, poignant ballad: listen to that giggle or twinkle he puts into the word "rakish" in the line "he's such a rakish boy". He carried the song off well enough on the piano tonight, but that detail didn't seem to come across.

All credit to the guy: his massive reputation depends on sticking two fingers up at sacred cows and singing Early One Morning with a drum machine, but he's still prepared to come to a venue that seats 50 and let his songs and his pleasant voice speak for themselves. He's not a natural story teller like Martin Carthy or Chris Wood and he's not a brilliant musician like Martin Simpson. He his, however a man with an absolute genius for iconoclastic recordings of familiar songs. And Low Culture is a superlatively brilliant album.

Mawkin: Causley
Theatre Royal Bath
April 16th

Mawkin: Causley is the result of a coalition between Mawkin, a folk instrumental band, and Jim Causley, a folksinger. They have been described as a folk boy band, and there is certainly a general sense of boyish naughtiness in evidence: a sort of camp rivalry between band and singer. You never quite forget that this is a team up between two acts, rather than a single entity. ("I wrote this song," says Jim "And then I gave it to Makwin, and they did what they always do..." "Yeah," says the guitarist "We threw it in the bin.")

There's a pleasant variety to the evening: Brothers Dave and James Delarre (who say they learnt their trade as buskers) do a guitar and violin set together; the whole of Mawkin does a set of hornpipes without Causley; Jim straps on a piano accordion and sings a comedy song with Alexander Goldsmith, the real squeeze box expert. (I was aware of the song which warns young married men about the dreadful consequences of allowing German musicianers to tune their wives' pianos, but I hadn't heard this one, in which a German clock winder winds up a married ladies clock. What is it about these Germans?) And no-one can restrain Jim from taking to the stage by himself to recite, with voices, Roahld Dahl's version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. You can honestly only get away with this kind of self-indulgence if your music is stunningly good.

Which it is.

There are some weird musical jokes. The traditional North Eastern song "Greenlanders" is presented in a cod Spanish arrangement – because Dave once met some Geordies on the Costa Del Sol. (The Greenlanders were Geordie miners who spent the winter on whaling ships. "I know that's not very popular nowadays, catching whales," says Jim. "But it's better than catching crabs.") But mostly it's just clever, beguiling arrangements. The absolute stand out is "Jim Jones in Botany Bay". The band create a complicated changing sound scape around the piece, particularly notable for Dave using the guitar almost as a percussion instrument. ("A bit like Voodoo Child" he says, which leaves me unenlightened.) But the arrangement never seems to swamp the original song -- although perhaps Jim can't quite do "angry" in the way that the last stanza requires.

One bijou problem, by the way, is acoustic: in the songs where the whole enemble is together and Mawkin are getting into the groove it can be quite hard to hear Jim's voice over the instrumental; which doesn't matter too much in something like The Cutty Wren -- which is more or less giberrish anyway -- but a bit of a shame in something like George's Son which has a good story to tell.

If the Radio 3 people had followed my plan and given Martin Simpson the prize for "Best New Foksong" then they could have given Mawkin: Causley the "best traditional track" prize for "The Cutty Wren". I don't think anyone knows precisely what the song means, although it has something to do with the Peasants' Revolt, but this arrangement manages to make the repetitive lyrics positively sinister. Jim confides that one day when he sings "oh where are you going said Milder to Molder" it's going to come out as "said Mulder to Scully".

Jim's introductions take the mickey out of all his songs – and out of other singers, and folk music scene in general. ("Some other, more...mature...singers on the folk scene also take a long time to tune their guitars.") Yet he knows where his traditional songs were collected, and the one song he wrote himself ("The Keeper of the Game") is derived from a volume of Anglo Saxon riddles that he just happened to be reading. Given the subject matter, Mawkin naturally decided that the arrangement should have a reggae vibe about it. There is something self consciously over the top about the performance, which tempts one to say "camp" -- as if they are trying to put the songs in quotation marks. But it's less showy and anarchic than Bellowhead. Jim apologizes for the number of depressing songs he's singing: the little drummer boy who dies at Waterloo; the soldier singing about all the places he's seen action – which actually turn out to be the names of London pubs and brothels; the psychotic sea captain who has killed his entire family and means to starve the passengers on their way to Americee. But in fact it's a funny, joyful, sing-a-long evening. They finish with a drinking song ("Let union be with all it's fun / For we will join our hearts in one") and then top it by doing "Cropper Lads" as an encore. There is a huge sense that the band is having a good time and sharing it with the audience.

"The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again..."

When the hated Blair regime seized power 13 years ago, the Daily Mail (The Paper That Supported Hitler) fairly wet itself with joy because he said that the free ride was over, and that he would cut unemployment benefits for those who refuse to work. ("We'll make them work" was the headline.)

This morning, the Daily Mail ("Hooray For the Blackshirts!") is fairly wetting itself with joy because David Cameron has said that the free ride is over, and that he will cut unemployment benefits for those who refuse to work.

It need hardly be said that it has always been a condition of claiming unemployment benefit that the claimant can prove that he is making a reasonable effort to look for work, and that he doesn't turn down any reasonable job offer. It should also be said that unemployment benefit -- £60 a week -- is (rightly) calculated as the very minimum that anyone can be expected to live on, so if you were really going cut people's benefit, you would, by definition, be creating more homelessness and crime.

But the scary, scary, scary thing is that both parties, to appeal to the Daily Mail continue to make laws, or at any rate, policies, intended to slay fictitious dragons: fictitious schools which have fictitiously banned competitive sports; fictitious human rights laws; fictitious health and safety laws and fictitious legions of lazy unemployed people living in luxury during the kind of recession when there are thousands of and thousands of jobs for them to take, even though the fictitious hoards of fictitious immigrants have come over here and taken them all. British jobs for British workers! Hooray for black shirts! Vote for nobody!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Very good interview with Matt and Karen in this month's Sci-FI Now, I thought. Why, the interviewer asks very much the questions that I might have asked myself....

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Fish Custard

5:1 The Eleventh Hour
5:2 The Beast Below

You're like Father Christmas, the Wizard of Oz, Scooby Doo, and I love you very much...

This is going to be difficult.

Seasons 3 and 4 were so bad, and the End of Time was so jawdroppingly shameful, that one is tempted to rave about Steven Moffat on general principles – to give him the Nobel Peace Prize simply because he is not George W. Bush. On the other hand, the degeneration from Dalek and the Satan Pit (as good or better than anything in the Original Series) to, say, the Stolen Earth (literally beneath contempt) happened so quickly that one feels one should err on the side of caution. Yeah, this time you gave us a funny, well-paced scene between the Doctor and Little Amy. This time you presented us with a moral dilemma that actually seemed to be a dilemma. Sure, for the last 72 hours I've been thinking about the line "...and then I'll change my name because I won't be the Doctor any more..." and grinning. And granted that Steven Moffat thinks that Doctor Who has more to do with fairy tales than with science fiction – and granted that the floating England is supposed to be dream like and impressionistic – then the Beast Below seemed actually to be a story in which most of the plot-threads were actually tied up by the end.

But that's only this week. You're just leading us on. We've been hurt too many times before. Next week you're going to kick us in the teeth.


The first thing to say is that Steven Moffat has done this story before. Twice. At least.

This is not to say that it is not a good story. In fact, the idea of a character who meets the Doctor when she is a little girl, and then meets him again when she is all grown up works much better in the modern era than in seventeenth century France. One suspects that this is the story which the Moff has always wanted to tell, and that R.T.D. persuaded him to shoe-horn it into an historical.

So: The Girl in the Fireplace the big controlling idea behind Doctor Who Season 5. We are going to see the Doctor through Amy's eyes, which involves seeing him twice. He's the fairy tale raggedy Doctor that had breakfast with Little Amy and he's the super-sexy complex man who Big Amy handcuffed to the radiator. And that double vision is not a bad reflection of what the programme has become: maybe what it always was. Doctor Who is both the programme you remember from when you were a kid; and it's the programme you are watching now, warts and all. It's both a children's fairy tale and a modern cool CGI soap. Both adults and kids love it, but in different ways. And maybe, in "the language of the night" the Doctor really is and only ever should be Amy's imaginary friend; and the monsters are really only her nightmares. Doctor Who is the kind of thing which lives in children's imaginations. R.T.D.'s Doctor was Christ in plimsolls, space-Jesus worshipped by the whole universe and commemorated in stained glass. Moffat's Doctor does indeed come in answer to a little girl's prayers. But the god she is praying to is called Santa.

It was, I think, cowardly to do all this from the Doctor's point of view. It would have been braver to do it from Amy's. We should have stayed with Amy for some of the years when people thought she was mad, and spent some time doubting with her if the Doctor was real. We should have been looking at the Doctor through her eyes, wondering if this new visitor was the same man she met all those years ago: not looking through his eyes wondering if the woman in the police uniform was the little girl he met five minutes ago.

The scenes between the Doctor and little Amy were really well done. They felt like something out of the Secret Garden or Bagpuss. The joke about the Doctor not knowing what kind of food Doctors's like best outstays its welcome, but it does give us the sense that the Doctor has spent a reasonable amount of time with Amy: long enough for him to actually be her Imaginary Friend. And it's very funny.

The most wonderful thing about Time Lords is I'm the only one.

(When was it happening? The TARDIS is flying over modern London (Millennium Dome, London Eye) but ends up in a cottage "12 years ago" – where 12 years ago is clearly "the olden days". Are we being subtly informed that the Doctor met little Amy "now" and grown up Amy "12 years in the future". I hope that the village where Amy lives will become a regular setting and that we get to know some of the characters. Just so pleasantly different from that generic London-Cardiff where everything used to happen.)

Even in the Christmas Invasion, David Tennant was very definitely not Christopher Eccleston. One could see the direction that his "not being Christopher Eccleston" was going to take, even if he was going to fill in some of the details as he went along. Matt Smith, I'm afraid, very definitely is David Tennant. Same buffer zone between stylish and geeky clothing; same arrogance; same habit of fast-talking his way out of problems. So far his unique selling point seems to be his child-friendliness. He made friends with Amy when she was a child: he keeps interacting with children and empathizing with children. Tennant would not, I think, have made so much out of the line about "when grown ups tell you everything's going to be fine..."

The beginning and the end of episode 1 were very strong. I didn't see either punchline coming. But the middle seemed to be in the very worst tradition of New Who. We have a monster which makes no sense whatsoever, but which the Doctor can exorcise using fast-talk and gobbledegook. Yes, the Doctor pointedly saves the day without his magic wand or his magic box: but in the end, he saves it with a magic computer virus and because these are the kinds of alien prison guards whose attention can only be attracted with a special magic alien guard attracty telephone. I don't think this particularly mattered – the story wasn't about the shape shifting criminal or the giant eye-ball. But it's interesting that when we need some kind of threat to act as a background to the Doctor and Amy getting to know each other, the new series still defaults to "puzzle aliens defeated by the magic internet" rather than, say, "men in rubber suits who want to conquer the earth".

Am I alone in finding it a little queasy that something which is explicitly constructing itself as kid-friendly includes quite so much innuendo? I understand that everyone else in the whole world thinks that the only notable thing about That Superhero Movie was that one of the characters used the word "Cunt". But That Superhero Movie was marketed as being for persons over the age of 15. Jokes about internet pornography and a lady not turning round when a gentleman is undressing seem a little... well... preferable to R.T.D. making toilet jokes every five minutes, actually.

The Beast Below I thought was very good indeed. The whole thing was driven by Big Red Buttons of the most shameless kind. There was really no way you could work backwards and imagine anyone actually building that space station. If you were leaving the earth because the earth's resources were running out, furnishing your schoolrooms with the kinds of desks that were obsolescent when I was at school would be rather more trouble than using modern ones, I think. (Do modern kids look at that scene and say "Oh, a rather traditional English classroom?" as opposed to "Why are those children sitting at funny tables?") And it's hard to see why anyone would say "Hey, make the surveillance cameras and the security robots look like seaside mannequins of the kind no-one can remember". But that didn't seem to matter, because we were clearly in the realm of Alice in Wonderland via The Prisoner. A dream/nightmare of England; a big floating metaphor. The imagery worked. I liked the idea of a spaceship where the transport tubes are still styled like the London Underground.

The Big Terrible Secret felt kind of like a lift from Ursula Le Guin but it was genuinely big, genuinely terrible and genuinely secret. I thought that the moral dilemma really worked nicely. I thought that the confrontation between the Doctor and Amy, though it came a bit too quickly, was convincing. I thought that the Doctor and Amy having the hearts-to-heart looking out into space was way too much like the End of the World. I thought the final pull-away at the end was much too much like the final pull-away at the end of Girl in the Fireplace: only there wasn't much point in it because we'd already been told about the whale.

It's a real problem that Doctor Who is now so much about the Doctor (as opposed to being about the places he goes and the people he meets). This is maybe why Smith is so much like Tennant: Tennant has so redefined the role - not the mannerisms, but what the Doctor is, that if Smith wasn't like Tennant he would run the risk of not being the Doctor. Only two stories after the regeneration, and it is already all about being old and sad and the only one of your kind. And this would not be so bad if Moffat didn't feel the need to lay it on with a bloody trowel. The Giant Space Whale, apparently, is old, and sad and the only one of its kind, but therefore it is kind, specifically, kind to children. At the beginning of the episode, we see the Doctor being kind to a child, and his whole relationship with Amy is based on having been kind to her when she was a child. This is extremely unsubtle.

But at the climax of the story, Amy has to explain that the Whale is old and sad and the only one of its kind, and therefore kind, especially to children, the camera pans to the Doctor and soppy music plays – as if the comparison was too obscure and buried for us to work out by ourselves. And then, at the end of the episode, Amy goes through it all over again. The Whale is old, and sad, and the last of it's kind, unable to decide what it wants for breakfast. "Sound a bit familiar?" Yes, fine, we got the message, could we move on now?

In the old days we knew that the Doctor was either a fugitive or an exile. But only rarely did he meet characters who were fugitives and exiles, and if he did, he didn't feel the need to say "Oh,did I mention? I'm a fugitive and an exile myself".

So: to over praise because they're not RTD, or to under praise because we don't want to set ourselves up for another disappointment? It's only a TV show, after all. It's not like I'm breathlessly willing it not to suck and can only really watch it properly on the second viewing. Let's go for a qualified, but still quite enthusiastic thumbs up.

Fanboy says new Who "quite good", shock.

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Sunday, April 04, 2010

"There is a stage in a child's life when it cannot separate the religious from the merely festal aspect of Christmas or Easter. I have been told of a very small and very devout boy who was heard murmuring to himself on Easter morning a poem of his own composition which began ‘Chocolate eggs and Jesus risen.’ This seems to me, for his age, both admirable poetry and admirable piety. But of course the time will soon come when such a child can no longer effortlessly and spontaneously enjoy that unity. He will become able to distinguish the spiritual from the ritual and festal aspect of Easter; chocolate eggs will no longer seem sacramental. And once he has distinguished he must put one or the other first. If he puts the spiritual first he can still taste something of Easter in the chocolate eggs; if he puts the eggs first they will soon be no more than any other sweetmeat. They will have taken on an independent, and therefore a soon withering, life."
C.S Lewis "Reflections on the Psalms."

This quote is apparently the most controversial and obscure thing I have ever reproduced.

Mr Lewis is not saying "Without a belief in the resurrection, the practice of giving sweetmeats at Easter will soon be abandoned" or "The reason that we give each other sweets is because we believe in the resurrection" or "Ha-ha you say that you are an atheist but you eat cream eggs ha ha so you must believe in the resurrection really, atheists are silly." (I have heard clergymen argue the latter, though not in quite those words.)

Lewis has written extensively on, e.g how the traditions of Christmas are widely practised among non religious people; and how the tradition of church going survives among non Christian people.

The context of the quote is a discussion of "praise" in the book of Psalms.

To precis:

Having talked about death and curses in the psalms, I'm now going to talk about joy and beauty in the Psalms.

King David danced before the Ark of the Covenant: his wife didn't approve. Most Anglicans would have been on the side of the Queen. Our worship is quiet, respectful, even clinical. The Jews, in that sense, were more like pagans.

David's dancing might not be as holy as a great mystic's visions of god; but it was a lot more holy than a churchgoer just "saying his prayers" out of duty (although that's good too if it's the best we can manage.)

This "joy" was focussed on the temple.

By the way, don't make the mistake of thinking that the Temple was to the Synagogue as the Cathedral is to the Parish Church. The Temple was the place for sacrifice. The Synagogue was a meeting place for prayer and study.

It would be strange to us that the Jewish temple, like the Parthenon, was a holy abattoir, but bare in mind that it was also a holy barbecue, smelling of cooked meat.

The Jews didn't "do" philosophy in the way the Greeks did. If you'd ask David to distinguish between "enjoying" God in a spiritual sense and enjoying the festivities of the temple, he wouldn't have understood the question.

Think of a modern Christian farm labourer enjoying harvest festival: he's really thanking God for a good harvest; he's really pleased that the work is over; he's really looking forward to harvest supper, and he's really enjoying the old hymns. To ask him "how much of your enjoyment is in praising God, and how much is in singing an old song that your dad and grandad sung?" would be meaningless to him.

c.f The little boy with his easter egg.

It didn't occur to the Psalmist, then, to separate "religion" from "agriculture" and "festival": they were all one. (QUOTE: "This assuredly laid him open to spiritual dangers which more sophisticated people can avoid; it also gave him privileges that they lack.")

When the Psalmist talks of "seeing" God, he is, in fact, talking about things which have happened in the temple. (QUOTE: "The fatal way of putting this would be to say 'they only mean that they have seen the festival'. It would be better to say 'If we had been there, we would only have seen the festival.'")

If a modern Christian could, in fact, have seen the ancient Jewish worship, he or she would see the dancers, the musicians, the priests, etc, and might in addition have "felt" the presence of God. The modern Christian would be aware of that duality. The ancient Jew would not.

Once you can make the distinction between the "rite" and the "vision of god" then there is a danger that the rite becomes a substitute for a rival to God.

This did, in fact, happen in later Judaism, and it is what the prophets complain about.

When the sacrifices became distinguishable from the meeting with God, they don't necessarily become less important: they may in fact become more important. (QUOTE: "They may be valued as a sort of commercial transaction with a greedy God who somehow really needs large quantities of carcasses....Worse still, they me regarded as the only thing he wants.")

However, we already know the ways in which ritual and sacrifice can be abused. and don't need to dwell on it. The good thing about the praising Psalms is that they remind us that this need not be so: that there is a time or a state of mind when the Temple was the "living heart of Judaism" which the singer longed for.

This joy is less like "love for God" than it is like "appetite for God": the singer wants to live in the temple and sing songs to God, but he doesn't think that these are pious or merit-worthy feelings.

It wouldn't be a good idea to try to bring this kind of exuberance back into the church of England. Firstly, we're British and bad at it. More importantly, the concept of the Atonement was not present in Judaism: there's a "tragic" element to Christianity. You can't dance before the ark so unaffectedly once you know what your salvation cost.

In the following chapter, I will continue the theme of joy and talk about why the Psalmist feel that the Torah is "sweeter than honey."

Can I go, now? Please? There's some TV series people keep asking me about.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Complete Doctor Who blogs 2005 - 2010
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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Olden Days (5)

Spiers and Boden
Queen Elizabeth Hospital Theater
12 March

OK: I know this is heresy, but I'd rather hear Spiers and Boden being Spiers and Boden than being front men for Bellowhead. Jon Boden doesn't feel the need to go quite so far over the top when it's just the two of them, and the focus is naturally more on the songs than on the arrangement. There's a real glee in the way he introduces the story of Will and Earl Richard without revealing the "twist ending". And no-one else can work an audience in the way that he does: where other performers are happy to suggest that you join in the refrain Boden spends minutes rehearsing us, tellling us to go for volume, not accuracy and not to bother with consonants.

There's a goodly dollop of irreverence: the Morris tunes are played much too fast to dance to, and introduced with an implausible story about the small village with three different Morris sides (each of which hates the other two). But they care a great deal about The Tradition. I doubt that the Outlandish Knight who drowned six king's daughters but was drowned by the seventh is really old enough to have been represented in cave paintings, but it's a nice thought. I'm quite prepared to believe that the daft song about the knight who kills the hag's spotted pig and cuts off her head when she demands his horse and his hound and his fair ladee in recompense really is related to Norse mythology.

Not sure if the QEH space did them a lot of favours. It's one of those small, in-the-round theatres; they'd put some tables in the stage area to create a cabaret feel, but that had the effect of making it hard for the front row to see the performers: for those of us in the fixed seating, the very small venue felt less intimate than it could have done.

And it could be that their set has become a bit fixed: we always have Earl Richard, all-along-and-down-a-lee, one song from the floodplain and finish with Innocent When You Dream. (Tom Waits is now officially so old that his songs count as traditional.) Although I grant that I may only be noticing this because I've heard them four times in the last eighteen months and would happily hop on a train tomorrow to hear them again if they were in Bath or Cheltenham.

A fiddle, a squeeze box, a lot of attitude and some great songs. It's probably a cliche to say they're my favourite act.

Folk House
19 March

ABCDEFG (album)
No Masters Collective

There is a slight air of the shambolic about tonight's gig. One half of the support act has gone down with food poisoning, and takes to the stage slightly late after settling her stomach with neat vodka. (It works, apparently.) The twenty foot photo of Woody Guthrie that was supposed to preside over the proceedings won't fit on the stage. One of the amps adds a high pitched improvisation to some of the songs. Lou has a sore throat, and leaves the talking, of which there is slightly too much, to Boff. He manages to skip an entire verse of "The Day The Nazi Died", and the irritation from the stage is palpable.

And you know what? It really doesn't matter at all. They may have mutated from a punk dance band into acoustic (not infrequently acappella) folkies; but they are still anarchists. Possibly situationists. Set lists are more guidelines than rules; Boff is quite free to pause between songs to tell an amusing story about what just happened to him in the Gents. ("I hope you weren't expecting these little anecdotes to have punchlines.") The slight sense of chaos rather suits the mood.

Well, maybe once or twice it goes a bit too far. "Charlie" is a wonderful witty singable tune, all close harmony with occasional interventions from Jude's flute: a sort of secular rationalist Lord of Dance. ("In between the platypus and perfect Aphrodite / Charlie come with opposing thumbs to question the Almighty"). When the song references (for no very good reason, it must be said) Chumbawamba's greatest Hit, and the audience reacts, Boff takes it as a cue to embark on a rambling anecdote, which doesn't help what's a very tightly constructed song.

Very different audience from last year's gig at the old site: possibly only hard-core fans were prepared to travel out too the wilds of Southville, but more casual listeners are prepared to venture on to Park Street to see if they are still singing the famous one? Last year's crowd were stamping along to "The Day the Nazi Died" before the band got to the first line; this year's are laughing at lines from "Add Me" as if they'd never heard them before.

Chumbawamba deal in sweet, catchy melodies with light, often frivolous lyrics – which address big, heavy subjects. Their folk songs come from the musical hall rather than the village green. "Singing Out the Days", which could pass for an authentic World War I marching song, leads into a few lines of the traditional "I Don't Want to be a Soldier" ("I don't want a bayonet up me arsehole / I don't want me bollocks shot away"). Perhaps too many of the melodies are easy, marching jingles of this kind, where the last line of every stanza is slogan, and the final repeat is sung at half speed to make sure you remember it. Only rarely do the lyrics make a penetrating or original point, or even present an argument. Their stock in trade are tiny little incidents which seem to illustrate some bigger point. Martin Simpson once remarked that some people treat the Folk Tradition as sacrosanct and want to preserve it unchanged: "Well, that's not music, that's pickle." It's very doubtful if Chumbawamba's song adds anything to this bon mot. ("Preserved and safe on a high up shelf where soiled little fingers can't mess / catalogued labelled and rarely played / polished and pure and posessed") It's doubtful if it's meant to: but it's a sweet, sweet song and a good excuse to make the audience sing "Pickle! Pickle!". The story of the Alzhiemer's patient who was once an opera singer – and who retains a few bars of Madam Butterfly after the rest of her personality has dissipated – has already been told (as the song acknowledges) by Tony Harrison. The story of the concentration camp survivor who protested against a performance of Wagner in Israel is a pretty naïve cry against fascism but also a metaphor about the power of one little guy with a football rattle to disrupt a whole hall-full of stuck-up concert goers. The horrible story that James Hetfield is pleased that Metallica's music was used to torture suspects in Guatanamo becomes a swinging show tune in which the band imagines tying him up and forcing him to listen to Chumbawamba records.

The new album finishes with a so-much-for-subtlety response to Nick Griffin's attempts to annex folk music to his white supremicist ideology. It's a just-this-side-of-parody Morris tune which eschews anger or refutation in favour of ridicule and silly rhymes: "His arms were stiff as cold lasagne / 'Cos all he knew was Rule Britannia / Dance, idiot, dance!"

These are songs about songs. Songs about people who respond to hatred with songs; songs about what life would be like if we all responded to hatred with songs; songs which are themselves responses to hatred. A white man in a rough part of New York is approached by a group of black people: he thinks they've come to mug him; but they've actually come to sing doo wop to him. George Melly sees off a knife-wielding mugger by reciting da-da-ist poetry at him. Soldiers sing "songs for our humanity in the face of inhumanity to demonstrate our sanity" and everyone suddenly bursts out singing when the armistice is declared. (This is literate music: references to Siegfried Sassoon, Wagner, Tony Harrison, Shostakovitch and Puccini and take their place alongside the Larkins and the Brechts on the previous album.) Darwin is a dancer and evolution is the dance he taught us about; a Mexican rebel survives the firing squad because of "the rhythm of life inside him".

The greatest ire is directed at people who misuse music – Catholics who thought that Satan could "get" you if you played the Devil's interval; communists who used it as state propaganda – and against any pretentious performer. A lovely ballad about a bored office worker ("Oh, I wish that they'd sack me and leave me to sleep!") is said to be a riposte to millionaire pop singers who dare to say that touring and making albums is hard work.

That's why, I think, these "political" lyrics contain so few arguments; why some of them seem almost deliberately naïve. The album; the concert; the act of making music and poems is the argument. The beautiful harmonies and terrible rhymes are offering us a model of a different kind of world.

I don't know if I believe it. I don't know if I believe "that words can save us." I don't know whether one guy spoiling a lot of people's night at the opera really does anything about the concentration camps. But that isn't the point. The little guy with the rattle is doing a small thing to re-assert his human dignity; just like the waitress who spits in the soup of the customer whose been leching at her and the soldiers who carry on singing until they're slaughtered. Maybe that's all we can do. The melody is the message.

Words is all
In the underground
and ticket halls
Declaring peace
Wall to wall

Back in Leeds
The news we heard
No one killed
No one hurt
Wish all the young men
Used only words


The aforementioned Martin Simpson is the next tenant at the folkhouse on Easter Saturday. He's more or less bound to sing "Never Any Good" and "One Day" which are two of the best songs written since, well, ever, and his guitar makes sounds that you didn't know a guitar was able to make. There appear to be tickets.


I realize you're all getting tired of positive reviews. I promise to find something to eviscerate before too long.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Olden Days (4)

Ashley Hutchings and Ken Nicol
Redgrave Theatre, Bristol
Feb 26th

Friday came down to a straight choice: Ashley Hutchings at the Redgrave, or Steve "Fifty per cent of Show of Hands" Knightly at Colston Hall. Apparently, everybody else picked Steve Knightly. You know things aren't too good when the usher asks if you wouldn't mind sitting near the front.

Ashley Hutchings is one of the founders of the aforementioned Fairport Convention; Ken Nicol performs with Steeleye Span, so together they account for both the folk groups I had heard of before I started listening to folk groups. (They've also been in the Albion Band, but then so has everyone else.) I know Mr Hutchings primarily as a producer and arranger of traditional music, particularly the Morris On series. (Black Joke from the Mother of All Morris album would almost certainly appear on my list of all time top ten folkie tracks (*)) Tonight, the focus is on their own, self-written music. There is, of course, a new album.

The pair don't seem phased by the relatively poor turnout. Much of the evening has a light, even zany atmosphere. Ken tells a long, punchline-free anecdote about meeting a professional regurgitator while queuing for an American visa. Ashley speaks of his enthusiasm for ten pin bowling, and then sings a song in which he imagines Francis Drake refusing to go up against the Spanish Armada until he's finished his coke and hotdog. There's a ragtime (it says here) number in which the birds and the bees ask the groundsman to leave some wild space for them on the cricket pitch (please make this corner a short boundary / for the sake of good grave, that's W.G) and a surprisingly sombre one about apprentices being sent to fetch stripy ink and buttonholes on April Fools Day.

But it's also quite literary. Before Ken plays a traditional Irish hornpipe ("written by me, in Preston") Ashley recites from memory a long passage about clog dancing from Arnold Bennet; a song about the Ponte Vecchio is introduced with some lines reminding us what Wordsworth felt about Westminster Bridge. 

The absolute stand out number is the reworking of Gypsy Davy in which the lady declines to go away with the raggle taggle gypsy but instead remains in her fine house -- but with just the slightest hint that she's going to regret it afterwards.

They look old, slightly weather-beaten, even dishevelled; as if they've been together for so long that making music no longer takes much effort. The evening opened with a haunting psychy piece called Prologue and ends with an identical song, this time called Epilogue. The temptation to draw Samuel Beckett analogies is overwhelming.

A funny, mellow, melodious evening. But I do start to think that 60s style folk rock may not really be my thing.

[*] Assuming that the Bible and Shakespeare are already there:

10: Birth of Robin Hood (Spiers and Boden)
9: Black Joke (Jim Moray / Ashley Hutchings)
8: King of Rome (June Tabor)
7: Muir and the Master Builder (Dick Gaughan)
6: Roots (Show of Hands)
5: World Turned Upside Down (Billy Bragg)
4: Little Pot Stove (Nic Jones)
3: Sovay (Martin Carthy)
2: Passing Through (Peter Seeger)
1: Grand Coulee Dam (Woody Guthrie) 

Chris Wood
Folk House, Bristol
27 February

Any attempt at objectivity must now go out of the window.

Since hearing Chris Wood for the first time at the Hatfield mini-festival last July, I have become quite evangelical about this performer. Given that his most famous song is an ode to atheism, this is perhaps a little ironic.

Or perhaps not. Wood says that he is a little uneasy about Richard Dawkins' endorsement of his "atheist spiritual", Come Down Jehovah. On the other hand he's rather pleased to hear about a choir-master who wants to re-arrange the song and perform it in church. "I don't have any more problem with Richard Dawkins than I do with any other fundamentalist," explains Wood. He doesn't like anyone who thinks they've arrived at absolute truth. He is the kind of atheist who counts English hymn-writer Sydney Carter as one of his heroes. Before Jehovah, he leads the audience in a rousing chorus of one of Carter's carols. (I'll crow like a cock, I'll carol like a lark / In the light that is coming in the morning!) [*] 

While I've greatly enjoyed his performances with the Imagined Village and the Handmade Life group, tonight's intimate performance – just the singer and an acoustic guitar – seems to me to be the Real Thing. He tells us that Cold, Hard Windy Night was taught to him by Martin Carthy, and you can hear it in every line.

I don't think any of the recordings capture the impact of Wood's stage act. For one thing, he talks a lot. He comes onto the stage pretty much as soon as the support act has left ("we don't want to be precious about this") and immediately starts moaning that the sound team have put on a random music CD in the gap between the performers. "You wouldn't go to Stratford and expect them to be playing fucking Alan Bennet on the way in..." His songs are lyrically dense and complex so in some cases they benefit from his explication. It may not be immediately obvious that Spitfires is a response to Nick Griffin's Euro-election leaflets; or that No Honey Tongued Sonnet is partly about the 11+ exam or exactly what it means to "watch the spuds chitting".

If you only know Come Down Jehovah from the version with Kathrine Polwart on Trespasser, you might be surprised by the humour which he brings to the song live: the way he looks up and pauses for a second before singing "my neck is terribly...stiff"; or the dripping sarcasm he brings to the Cottager's Reply ("this Cotswalds house that you call...nice...")

He has a bit of a reputation for being relentlessly downbeat, but in fact, there's quite a range of tones and styles. My Darling's Downsized a song about love and gardening in which every line is  funny but every sentiment entirely sincere – may perhaps invoke the very English ghost of Jake Thackray. There's perhaps a hint of Steve Tilston in Spitfires and a smattering of Billy Bragg in the more ranty political ones. (There's no more mandate for you soiled institution / we're all praying here for divine retribution / don't you go asking for another contribution. If Chris chooses to cast a satire about the MPs' expenses scandal in the form of a riff on Ballad of a Thin Man then who are we to ask why?) 

If he has a chink in his lyrical armour, it's slightly tendency to the sentimental, even the corny. (Louise observed that, like all cynics, he's a romantic at heart.) So three accutely observed vignettes about his six year old daughter lead to the not very profound observation that when she's with me / I get much more than I'm giving. It's notable that when Martin Simpson sings Come Down Jehovah, he omits the last couplet (if we've done our best / we'll be ready for a rest) to the over all improvement of the song. 

I hadn't heard the epic One in a Million before, although I'm told it was the best new folk-song of 2006. The lyrics (by an oral storyteller named Hugh Lupton) are like a modern Chaucer: they start with a realistic setting (a fish and chip shop) populated by absolutely naturalistic portraits of "stock" characters and only gradually allow you to realize what you are listening to is, in fact, a fairy tale. The melody creeps up behind you: in verse one, I might almost have said "this is pretty much a recitation; the words, not the tune, are doing the work" but on each repetition the actually quite jaunty verse and the almost dirge like refrain works their way into your head. It's a long, long, song – he's a demanding performer and you have to pay attention right the way through to see where he's going with his stuff. In the end it's the way the character's voices (speaking, as the fellow said, "the very language of men") merge naturally with the persistent melody that makes the song so heartbreaking. (She said Billy love I'm sorry / I never meant no harm /Oh you're kindly and you're comforting /And I love it when you sing / But in all the years I've known you/You never said a thing.)

I've bought all his CDs, but I haven't been able to listen to them. Not right through. The songs are too...intense? The chilling Hollow Point remains the only piece of music (the only piece of music which doesn't involve warrior maidens setting fire to themselves) which makes me cry ever time I hear it. I think that it was written with the Handmade Life band in mind, and a great deal of the song's power comes from the threatening instrumental heartbeat which gets louder and louder as through the hourglass the sand is falling / and there is nothing he can do. It's impressive that Wood can achieve the same effect on stage with his guitar alone. When I've heard something like that on my I-Pod I don't want  to -- I can't -- just go on and listen to the next track. I'm left feeling, as the other fellow said "that I need a brisk walk round the block, possibly pausing at a bar on the way back for a quick glass of perspective and soda."

He really is that good.

[*] My enemy's enemy is my friend, of course; but it's a little hard to see why someone who regards God as a perverted genocidal monster would be enthusiastic about a song which portrays him merely as a rather beautiful illusion. A goodly number of Christians would be quite comfortable with the line "Heaven is right here on earth, Jehovah: not tomorrow but right now today." (Wasn't that the burden of Honest to God?) And yes, as a matter of fact, I do know the difference between fundementalism and evidence based thingamijig.