Friday 17 September 2010

Paloma Faith - Cheltenham Jazz Festival - 3rd May 2010

Fortunately, the Polar Bear concert ended in time for us to rush next door to be seated in readiness for the closing concert of this year's Cheltenham Jazz festival. It was a coup for them to acquire the services of 2009's hit-maker , Paloma Faith and a master-stroke to match her up with Guy Barker and his orchestra.

As he elonquently explained before the concert, their collaboration created a concept entailed " Down On Lonely Street" allowing her the backdrop of a story to sing a variety of torch type songs. After a suitably strong orchestral opening to set the film noir theme and appreciative ( and surprisingly older than I expected) audience were thrilled to see the star of tonight's evening run through the auditorium before breathlessly arriving on stage.

For a radio concert we were treated to a nice set of a settee, light and phone re-creating a flat where this unfortunate young lady re-lives her lost lovers. Having set-up this interesting scenario the onus was now on messrs Faith and Barker to produce something remarkable. and boy did they succeed! The stage was set for them to select to select the most suitable songs from the standards repertoire and from her hit album " Do You Want The Truth Or Something Beautiful?" Amazingly, they blended together with " Black Coffee" ." Heartbreak Hotel" , " Cry Me A River" seemlessly fitting in with the title track and " New York, New York".

Of course, none of this would have worked without the sublime talent of Paloma Faith. Her album showed she is a fine singer with a distinctive voice but tonight proved she was equally at home with classics, torch songs, blues and up-tempo numbers like " Upside Down". The latter may not have fitted into the style of the evening but it certainly brought the house down and was deservedly reprised as her encore. Her only sign of nerves came from her constant referral to her song sheet in front of her although throughout the ninety minute set she was constantly supported by the wonderfuly Guy Barker who showed his trumpeting roots by busrsting into an impromptu solo.

I thought last night's Jamie Cullum gig was impresssive but tonight Miss Faith stole the festival deservedly gaining a standing and tumultous reception.

Roll on the 2011 festival.

Thursday 16 September 2010

Polar Bear - 3rd May 2010 - Cheltenham Jazz festival

Having stumbled upon their great album " Held On The Tips of Fingers" by accident I was a little disappointed by their live performance at Cardiff University a few years ago. However any opportunity to see Sebastian Rochford live should not be wasted and so we were in the front row of the Jazz arena to witness our second sighting of this great drummer this week-end.

Any fears that our ears would be deafened by our proximity to the four musicians were quickly dispelled when the sound system proved capable of perfectly balancing clarity with volume.

Normally at concerts it is the familiar pieces that have the most impact but today was a rare exception. Although I love the tracks from their Mercury nominated CD I was particularly impressed by their newer songs. Driven by the rhythmic of Mr Rochford's idiosyncratic style
but never dominating with the two saxophonists, Mark Lockheart and Shabake Hutchings
and double-bassist Tom Herbert allowed to show their individual talents, the group were completed by the virtuosity of Leafcutter John.

Showing exceptional electric guitar skills he coupled this technical wizadry of extracting extra-ordinary noises from a lap-tap, not to mention his mastery of that much overlooked instrument, the balloon. On paper this shouldn't work yet somhow all the elements produced a sound unique at this present time.

The other advantage of sitting so close to the front was watching their eye contact, essential in true jazz groups. Although sitting behind the two saxophonists it was great to see how they all inter-reacted intuitively.

Obviously the Cheltenham Jazz festival can be hard work as the man to our right somehow managed to fall asleep and missed a great night. Can't wait to rush out and buy " Jeepers".

Monday 13 September 2010

Jamie Cullum 2nd May 2010 - Cheltenham Jazz Festival

There is no doubt that the star of UK Jazz this century has been Jamie Cullum. His rise has been so meteoric that at the age of just 30 he has already been accorded the honour of Guest Director at this year's festival.

Not surprisingly he sold out the Town Hall quickly and an excited audience eagerly anticipated his appearance. Accompanied by 5 excellent musicians he started with a storming version of Cole Porter's " Just One Of Those Things" before proceeding with a combination of newer songs, from his latest album " The Pursuit". This included an impromptu duet with the composer of " These Are The Days" , his own song " Twenty Something" and more standards " Not While I'm Around" , "What A Difference A Day Makes" etc.

These were of course performed in that true Cullum style, bouncy piano playing with equally lively support from his band. Showing complete confidence in his ability to entertain an audience both musically and just by chatting to them he showed a great sense of humour. I was particularly impressed by his versatility and producing a beautifully simple but emotional version of " I Get Along Without You Very Well" before changing tempo and suddenly standing on ( and jumping from ) his piano.

Just when it seemed as if the audience couldn't get anymore involved he then moved his entire
group to the centre of the auditorium so "people in the cheap seats" could have a closer look and bop along to his take on " Cry Me A River".

Soon, though it was encore time and a wonderful show was brought to an end by a sublime solo rendition of " Gran Torino" , his theme song for Clint Eastwood's recent great film.

Tonight showed that the current king of British Jazz truly deserves his crown.

Sunday 12 September 2010

Battle of The Beats - Cheltenham Jazz Festival - 1st May 2010

The very first concert we saw at the Cheltenham Jazz festival was Sebastian Rochford's " Fullborn Teversham" incarnation. Four years later it was his name that linked us to the late night " Battle of the Beats" at the Town Hall.

Having patiently waited for a loud club set to end ( drinking an ice-cold glass of red wine after asking for white and being told they only sold "normal wine") we were eventually lured into the venue by Schlomo. I had not previously been impressed by the little beat-boxing I had seen but he competely changed my mind on this modern phenomenon.

Any thoughts I had this was a dull one dimensional skill were dispelled by the range of his talents. He quickly won over the crowd with the control of his instrument ( his mouth) and then we hung upon his every utttering. As well as obvious club tunes he added that vital element of humour and threw in unexpected references to " Cars", " Can You Kick It" , " Walk On The Wild Side" and " I Want You Back" etc. He also provided a thorough demonstration of how to layer a variety of self-made sounds before getting the audience involved in a massive Beat-box inter-action ( sadly not qualifying for the Guinness Book of Records).

Soon, though it was the main event of the night, a battle between voice, machine, DJ Food mixing and scratching for al he was worth, and drums from the great Polar Bear leader. There may not have been a definitive winner but it gave an opportuntity for all performer to show their particular skills. Sadly, it was all over and an official set from DJ Fod sent us to our hotel, tired but happy.

Saturday 11 September 2010

Stewart Lee's Freehouse - Evan Parker & Friends - Cheltenham Jazz Festival - Saturday 1st May

Unfortunately, from my point of view the 2nd part of my brave Saturday picks at the Cheltenham Jazz festival was not as easy to digest as " Food" earlier.

When selecting this gig I allowed my admiration of Stewart Lee to overcome any fears I had of that most musical challenging word " improvised". I am always willing to try most things once and certainly couldn't fault the virtuosity provided by Evan Parker and his 7 musicians. But,
the product of these talented musicians wasn't to my liking. It started reasonably promisingly with trumpeter Peter Evans/ bass player Percy Pusglove and drummer Andrew Bain combining well and producing music both beautiful and horrible within a few beats of each other.

The balance between music and and strenuous effort was confirmed with Evan Parker and drummer Mark Sanders but I did find the final first half piece with a pianist , cellist Okkyung Lee and bass player John Edwards too frenetic and chaotic for my liking. On the plus side it did finally drive out 2 moaning gits in the front row who did nothing but loudly complain about each piece.

Obviously, this type of show does suit everyone ( although to be fair) it was clearly marked in the brochure what to expect and there were plenty more spare seats in the second half. Stewart Lee bounced back to announce this was the best concert of the festival before providing the 1st laugh of the evening by announcing his plan to change the billing in the future until his Freehouse pushed Jamie Cullum down the listings. He then stated the musicians would change combinations and proceeded to deliver three different sets which I found increasingly difficult to listen to. The repetitive sight of players trying to murder their instruments by blowing, plucking, scrapping and bashing them as hard as possible I ultimately found depressing and annoying.

For me the best part of this half was the persistent rain causing an impromptu appearance from a steward to leave a bucket to catch some unwelcome raindrops leading to the true embodiment of improvised jazz, with Evan Parker producing a series of bleeps in time to the rhythm beat of the rain which was soon followed by Peter Evans.

This was as good as it got for me although I did learn that free or improvised jazz is not for me. On the plus side though the Playhouse Theatre is a lovely old venue which despite a dodgy roof is worth returning to.

Friday 10 September 2010

Pet Shop Boys - Cardiff International Arena - 21st July 2010

For some reason I have always thought of the Pet Shop Boys like some favourite aunt. You don't particularly want to live with them but you enjoy their company when you meet them. So, when we heard they were making their first visit to Cardiff this century we thought it was time to make an effort to see them. Even though we don't possess any of their music their songs have been ever present in our lives for the last 25 years.

Despite the usual lack of atmosphere at the Cardiff International Arena Sophie Ellis- Bexter did her best to get the audience in the mood with her blend of disco and dance music. I can't say I am a great fan of her music but she certainly filled the stage with her personality and her legs ( boy is she tall).

Soon, though it is time for the dynamic duo to appear and we are quickly into Pet Shop Boys world. As ever Chris Lowe remains quiet (although he did have one brief amusing dancing moment) leaving Neil Tennant to dominate proceedings.

He quietly controls the stage with his voice, presence and commanding stare over the audience, controlled as his disciples. He does allow a variety of lithe dancers to provide a visual narrative to each song ,most strikingly ( literally) in a stunning version of Jealousy.

As always a concert is a balance between new songs (from the new album, in this case Pandemonium )and the more familiar tunes from their successful back catalogue. I must say Ididn't agree with the balance of the show as there was an undoubted sag in the middle due to a lot of new songs.

On the whole though this was a highly enjoyable evening from a group who combined visual and musical excellence to thrill a devoted audience.

Monday 6 September 2010

And the Killer Is ..- Chapter Arts Centre - 2nd August 2010

For the last ten years " Big Brother" has become a mainstay of British television and life, whether you think that is a good or bad thing only you can answer). But it will soon depart our screens for good.

This is the starting premise for Dan Mitchell's new play " And the killer is". To avoid copyright and possibly legal issues he changed the show's title to " Spy House" and concentrated upon how the producer/host and stars would cope now their " cash cow" was over.

With the theatre audience doubling up as the pre-show studio audience Dan Mitchell cleverly allowed local Mike Bubbins to warm up the near-capacity crowd with a hysterical set. We were
then all plunged into the drama of the piece with the discovery of the murdered body of the last series winner, Clint. It was now who-dunnit time with Taylor Glenn ( as the Davina McCall type host) becoming chief interrogator of the suspects.

After the interval the audience were now allowed to ask questions of the characters to uncover the culprit. This was the part of the play that I thought might cause the structure and pace to flounder. Instead thanks to the brilliance of the cast to improvise according to the (mainly) unexpected questions I actually enjoyed the second half more.

After the clues and the questions had been completed the audience then completed a slip of paper stating who they thought the killer was. The murderer duly revealed themself , the winning guesser awarded a bottle of champagne while the remaining audience left rewarded in the knowledge that they had witnessed a highly enjoyable play.

More please, Mr Mitchell.

Sunday 5 September 2010

Scorched - Old Vic Tunnels - 3rd September 2010

Not a good start as I broke the unwritten role of theatre-going, arriving late. To be honest it wasn't my fault as I arrived in plenty of time but found the Old Vic Tunnels almost impossible to locate ( even a local taxi driver was no help). I had actually given up hope of reaching the venue but I hate being beaten and gave the less than entrancing area one last circuit.

Completely by luck I stumbled upon the box office and some helpful young staff helped me to negotiate the dark underground complex to find a seat after missing the opening fifteen minutes.

My first impressions weren' t favourable. Crammed into narrow squeaky seats while trains noisily and regularly hurtled by overhead distracted me from events on stage. Obviously missing the start of a new play on opening night doesn't make the plot easy to follow. I was plunged straight into a foul-mouthed boxer's rant after his mother's will asked him to find his father he thought was dead and a brother he didn't know he had.

Next it was a monologue about polygram mathematics before we were in a flash-back about a doomed love story. Gradually all these disparate details came together and we were drawn into a riveting world of bewildered siblings trying to understand why their distant mother had gone silent for the last five years of her life. This led us into a traumatic war, unnamed but probably in Lebanon in the 1970's.

This harrowing drama worked thanks to the vital inter-action between playwright, actors, director and vitally in this case, the space. The claustrophobic, eerie ,unexpectedly noisy, rumbling, crumbling and drippy surroundings hauntingly created the unsettling Middle-Eastern atmosphere that the main elements of Wajdi Mouawad's piece invoked.

Ultimately, a highly recommended theatrical experience, but make sure you set off with plenty ot time and good instructions of how to find it.

Medea, - The Foreigner - Bridewell Theatre - 4th September 2010

After the disaster of ariving late at the Old Vic's Tunnels yesterday I was determined to arrive on time at the Bridewell Theatre. In fact I was so early nothing was open & I walked for a while to find some pre-show food and drink.

The pre-show publicity advertised a multi-medi interpretation of Euripides - Media. The opening premise was intriguing with actress and co-creator Nicole Pschetz bemoaning the intolerance of locals to foreigners , certainly a topical subject. Her anger and frustration was vented through the combination of words and dance.

She was then joined on stage by Pete Picton in a purely acting capacity as the father of the bride shortly to marry her ( presumably ex) husband, played by Andre Amalio appearing only on a videoscreen. Although he wants to exile her immediately due to threatening behaviour she appeals to his better nature and he foolishly agrees to allow her to stay for another day. This being a Greek tragedy he later lives to regret this decision.

Unfortunately, this reviewer finds this method of presentation less than riveting and my mind began to wander. I may have missed some plot but suddenly Medea was exclaiming she had murdered her children and frantically ran around the stage dramatically ripping up the paper screens. And that was that.

I can't fault the effort and intensity provided by the two performers, ably supported by Cellist Nina Plapp who provided atmospheric music when required. This may have been a success in Lisbon but, unfortunately, it didn't translate to a Saturday matinee audience with just a handful of paying customers. It only lasted forty-five minutes, seemed longer and failed to hold my attention.

To do justice to this tragic subject I felt it needed more than the performers involved and definitely more reasons for her actions. Similarly, the interesting and relevant story of foreigners being ill-treated was never really explored leaving me to feel this was a production of missed opportunities.