Tuesday, June 28, 2005

U2 come home

On Friday I fulfilled a life long ambition. After years of waiting and too many failed attempts I stood in Dublin to witness the home-coming of U2. As the rain fell I stood with my brother in Croke Park watching the greatest band in the world play the greatest gig of them all. This review is in Hot Press by Neil Murphy. He pretty much sums it up.


Once more with feeling: we’re at a place called Deja Vu. The location, the weather conditions (light summer rain), the local hero bill (The Radiators as little punk rock bugs from another planet, Snow Patrol as a stadium Husker Du) and festival atmosphere could be a virtual replay of the last time U2 played a full set at Croker when they were surfing the Joshua Tree swell.

Eighteen years later they’re home on the back of the Atomic Bomb boom, and the whole city feels like it’s being sucked into a flux whose epicentre is located in the north side superbowl (mind you, the toilets are squeaky clean compared to last time).
Even the band’s entry seems as informal as it did on that occasion when they snuck on and segued with the ‘Stand By Me’ intro. Beaming down to the sound of Arcade Fire’s ‘Wake Up’, they get stuck into the opening triptych of ‘Vertigo’, ‘I Will Follow’ and ‘Electric Co.’ with a marked lack of – in U2 terms at least – pomp and circumstance.

They look and sound pumped but unfrazzled, jagged Edge-d, the rhythm section tending towards swing rather than sequenced rigor mortis, Bono’s body language boxer-bolshy, ad-libbing snatches of the Pumpkins’ ‘Bullet With Butterfly Wings’ and The Who’s ‘I Can See For Miles’.

But once ‘Elevation’, ‘New Year’s Day’ and ‘Beautiful Day’ have established a secure beachhead, something unscripted happens. They give ‘Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses’ a shot and get lost in its twists, thrown out of sync, stuck in a middle-eight they can’t get out of before the last chorus provides an emergency exit. Big bands just aren’t supposed to busk it like this.
But U2 are never going to be Babyshambles. When they plug the big screens in, the lenses get switched from grainy verite to magic realism. ‘City Of Blinding Lights’ is the best thing they’ve done lately, a self-conscious but nevertheless champagne-eyed reworking of old school ‘Unforgettable Fire’ panorama-lama. Later, Edge takes a solo verse in ‘Miracle Drug’ in a set that often sees him assume a back seat to the newly extroverted Clayton’s catwalk moves, and the last third of ‘Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own’ has Bono singing his insides out in an act of white soul exorcism that makes the skin go goosefleshed.

To their credit, U2 haven’t surrendered to their own back catalogue a la The Who or The Stones, even if they’re prone to plagiarising their younger selves. They remain, as ever, a complex organism. After Zoo TV, U2 gigs became as much about the brain stem as the nerve endings, and it’s been impossible to attend subsequent tours without looking for multiple meanings and sub-texts within sub-plots. As ‘Love And Peace Or Else’ gives way to ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ and a bloodshot ‘Bullet The Blue Sky’, you start wondering about Baghdad bunker and Abu Ghraib allegories (Bono on his knees, blindfolded, muttering off-mic and slipping in snatches of ‘Please’), while a monkey-voice in your ear says, 'chill dude, it’s only rock ‘n’ roll'.But ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ finally makes sense not just as a show-stopping set-piece but a song. Heard in the shadow of an imminent Live 8, it seems to rewrite itself as an old-fashioned pantheistic hymn to God’s other country.

Tonight it’s impossible to resist the tune’s Spielbergian scale.House lights full on, Mr Hewson looks like he’s being borne up by 80,000 voices. Sure the guy has a God-complex, but I like that in a rock star – nobody ever castigated Jesus for being God with a man-complex. Mind you, the Knights Templar crusade of ‘Pride’ always makes me hanker for the Zoo and Popmart funhouse mirrors whose double images and contradictions are a far more artful means of propogating the virus of dangerously good ideas.But then, it’s the privilege of a free westerner to be able to read the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights on a big screen and ponder its place in a rock ‘n’ roll show when you’re not confined to house arrest or stuck in a malarial hole in the ground.

The Vertigo show doesn’t reconcile the two U2s; it alternates them. It’s a different band that returns to play an encore of ‘Zoo Station’ and ‘The Fly’ before ‘With Or Without You’ (Bono looking like a leather-fetish bullwhip cop patrolling the beat for white meat), and to be honest, it’s a band I like better – dirty, furtive and doubtful.

They quit with ‘Vertigo’ reprised, and when you get to the bottom you go back to the top of the slide, the beginning being the end, the end the beginning, round and round like Jimmy Stewart falling into the vertiginous whirl.

Like I said, Deja Vu: 2.



Monday, June 20, 2005

Smog gets in your eyes

I went to see Smog in Belfast a week ago. I decided to write this review in capital letters to see if it would look any different. What do you think?

ARTIST: (SMOG)

VENUE: THE LIMELIGHT

DATE: 12 JUNE 2005


(SMOG), AS HE IS NOW KNOWN, HAS BEEN RANKED BY SOME AS ONE OF THE MOST
BORING PERFORMERS ON STAGE TODAY. HIS VOICE IS MONOTONIC, A DEEP GRUFF
SOUTHERN RUMBLE, HIS PRESENCE MINIMAL AND HIS INTERACTION
NON-EXISTANT. HIS RETURN TO FORM RECORD, A RIVER AINT TOO MUCH TO
LOVE, BARELY REACHES A CRECENDO AND IS BEST LISTENED TO WHEN TIRED, IN
THE DARK. WITH THIS IN MIND, I WAS SCEPTICAL ABOUT HIS ABILITY TO PULL
OFF A GIG TO REMEMBER.



AT 9.30, SUPPORT ACT ALISDAIR ROBERTS TOOK THE STAGE TO A HALF-FULL LIMELIGHT. THE WIREY GLASWEGIAN CAPTIVATED THE AUDIENCE WITH HAUNTINGLY PRETTY SONGS FROM HIS WILL OLDHAM-PRODUCED NO EARTHLY MAN RECORD. HIS TAKE ON SCOTTISH FOLK SONGS WITH INTRICATE GUITAR PLAYING AND UNUSUAL TUNINGS WAS A REFRESHING CHANGE FROM THE USUAL CROP OF
STERILE SINGER-SONGWRITERS. LATER ON, WEARING TIGHT BLUE JEANS AND A FADED CHECKED SHIRT, THE MAIN ACT ARRIVED ON STAGE ACCOMPANYED BY ELECTRIC GUITAR, DRUMS AND BASS.

ECCENTRIC FOR SURE, SMOG UNCORMFORTABLY WORKED THE MICROPHONE AND BECAME THE FIRST ARTIST I HAVE SEEN TO PLAY THE GUITAR WHILE SQUATTING. STARTING WITH HIS ACOUSTIC FINGER PICKING AND DRIVEN BY WONDERFUL DRUMS, HIS SONGS WOULD GRADUALLY BUILD. THE FORMULA WAS THE SAME FOR MOST SONGS BUT WORKED TO GREAT EFFECT. BY THE END OF THE NIGHT THE SPACE IN FRONT OF THE STAGE WAS CRAMPED AND SMOG EXITED TO CHEERS AND SHOUTS FOR MORE. NOT AT ALL BORING.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

An interview with Coldplay

With the release of their new album X+Y, Coldplay were looking for a bit of publicity. They found some time to tell me all about the new record.


COLDPLAY INTERVIEW

I remember watching the Glastonbury festival on TV one overcast Saturday afternoon in the early summer of 2000. Numerous long since forgotten bands cranked out their one-hit-wonders, but there was a different group who said “This song's called Yellow. We hope that a year from now you'll all be singing along” And you know what? We were. That band was, of course, Coldplay. Five years and two albums later, Coldplay are about to headline the same festival, and with their new record X&Y, they hope to conquer the world.

Coldplay have become a household name, the benchmark to which new indie bands are compared. Bono from U2 said that 'I think we own a sound now, that people can say is a U2 sound.' So do Coldplay. It's a sound that evolves from one record to the next but remains distinctive; keyboard led with intelligent guitar guided by Chris Martin's falsetto.

Their second album, the 10 million selling, A rush of blood to the head confirmed their place in the major league. Now expectation rests heavy on the London foursome. They managed to find some time to tell Alternative Ulster what it's like to be almost the biggest band in the world.

It's a daunting task to have cracked America, won multiple awards, and then try to make an even better record. How do you go about it? Lead guitarist Jon Buckland says “With lots of keyboards! It doesn't matter where it goes, as long as it's good.” Chris and Jon started the record immediately after the tour in 2003 but had numerous false starts. “It also sounded flat. There was no atmosphere, tension or dynamics,” says bass player Guy Berryman. “We hadn't played the songs together. We recorded individually so the result sounded like crap session players”. They left in their wake “enough discarded songs to go to Birmingham and back!”. Chris adds, “The album was meant to be done for Christmas, but it just wasn't good enough.” To regain some perspective they left the studio and Chris decided the album needed one last song. Inspiration came when he least expected. “I woke up in the middle of the night with a something in my head, went downstairs totally naked and wrote the final song, A Message,in four minutes. We went back and re-recorded it all in three months in London playing together like we were in Jonny's bedroom again.”

The new record was given the “three pronged title” of X&Y. “I'm fascinated by algebra,” explains Chris,“you see X is like an answer, but it's not an answer at all. Everything has an X&Y, a good and bad, a dark and light and X&Y is also like man and woman.”

The songs on the new record tread along similar emotional themes. They dabbled with the idea of ironic or political songs but instead focused on “the things we were thinking about.” X&Y is an album “about love and loss and death and excitement and fascination with the unknown.” Success and Chris' involvement with the Make Trade Fair campaign allowed him to meet many powerful people. “It amazed me that they're all humans just like you and me. You know Leonardo Da Vinci was just a man. We're told we can't, but everyone can do it. Everyone is good enough.”

The first single, Speed of Sound unfortunately wasn't good enough to beat a certain crazy frog to the number one spot in the charts. The formula used is the same as the world-beating Clocks. It opens with sythn-keyboards and a piano riff before Chris' vocals and Wills tribal beats enter. Guy says “we felt it was a good first single, like a bridge between the last record and this one.” Its melodic but still represents a progression. “It was written in Chris' house in 2004 while listening to Kate Bush and trying to play guitar like Nick McCabe.” As a new father, Chris found that suddenly he was in awe of everything he had previously taken for granted. “The song is about recognising miracles which are all around you every day. It's about letting your self enjoy or be terrified by miracles and tragedies.” Will was unconvinced, originally hating the song, but then admits “I hated Clocks too, the first time I heard it.”

The centre-piece of the album is the tumultuous, Pixies inspired, Fix You. Starting with a Sigur Ros-like organ, and ending with a Jimmy Cliff style choir it is the song that “was the anchor around what everything else had to fit”. Lyrically it breaks new ground for Chris; “Quite a few people close to me have lost people” he confesses, “and it's a subject I've never addressed before. Everybody has to do it but nobody talks about it.”

About the first song, Square One, Chris says “Like all the best Coldplay songs I have no idea where it came from but I'm very grateful to have received it.” As the writer of so many hits, he compares his art to fishing. “You can have all the write equipment and know what you're doing but you have no control over the size of the fish or when it bites. Our best songs just arrive and all I have to do is reel them in. They just fall from the sky”

Talk is the only song written around a riff rather than the other way around. The riff is Kraftwork's Computer Love. “It was one of those moments when you hear a song and think, I wish I wrote that. But you can't, so the next best thing is to nick it.” Having been properly brought up, Chris sat down to write a begging letter in German. “All I knew to write was a pen-pal style letter I learned in school at 13. It went 'Liber Ralf, Ich bin ein Coldplayer'. And they said we could use their riff, so we freaked out and scrapped it!” At the last minute they saw sense and put it on the back on the record.

The album closes with a hidden tribute to Jonny Cash, Till Kingdom Come. It was recorded live in one take for Jonny Cash's fifth American Recording series with Rick Ruben. Chris sent Rick the song who liked it and recorded it but unfortunately Cash passed away before he could add his vocals. “It felt like the perfect song to close on.”



Monday, June 13, 2005

Woohooo!

My hit counter (see little box at the bottom of the page) has now registered over 1000 page views! Whilst most of them are probably myself, surely some are attributable to interested passers by. Thank you to anyone who has visited, and muchos gracias to anyone who has come back. Lets try for a thousand more.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Staring at pictures of you...

Some photos have started appearing from that weekend I mentioned earlier. I'll post them here. I've started with a particularly fine picture of the country gentlemen before the shoot.



And the lovely country ladies after the shoot.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Da Vinci overload

My professional writer brother has de-bunked the Da Vinci code and what it shows us about Jesus in a frying pan or an ultrasound scan and 21st century society. Well worth a read.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Christopher Rees

Artist Christopher Rees
Album Alone on a Mountain Top
Label
Red Eye Music

After spending two and a half years recording and refining his d├ębut album the Sweetest Ache, Christopher Rees retreated to the mountains of mid Wales to record the antidote. His aim was to escape from all distractions and make an album completely alone in just a week. And this he did recording, playing and mixing every note in a 200 year old welsh cottage.


The album track-list is in the order the songs were recorded; apparently picked at random from a stock of over 40 songs. Sonically, Alone On A Mountain Top is a distant cousin to his bombastic, orchestrated debut. This time the songs sound raw and fresh, showing a love of roots and blues, the music of Jonny Cash and Townes Van Zandt.

The record does sound natural, Heartbeat was written the night he arrived at his country retreat, but like The Sweetest Ache, Christopher Ree’s style is very subjective. He doesn’t whisper when he can howl. Rees possesses a strong voice and likes to let it go at all times. If this is your thing, then that’s fine, but variety is the spice of life, and some songs sound a little forced, tying a little too hard to be epic.

His influences are everywhere, ‘The Will To Live' nods in the direction of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, ‘Hold Me Down' knocks on Leonard Cohen's door and ‘Hold Off Goodbye' recalls Bob Dylan's electric transition. Winner of the best Welsh male solo artist, he still has some way to go before he reaches his heroes. It would be interesting to hear the album if he worked on the songs for twice as long. It’s not a difficult second album, it’s a great experiment, reminiscent of REM’s New Adventures in Hi-fi, but deserves to be received a little better.