Sunday, 18 January 2015
Le Vent de Nord: Misses et Messieurs
The first half of Thursday night's gig (the second was the reconstruction of GRIT) featured a number of Celtic Connections artists contextualising Martyn Bennett's work: by performing covers of his songs, or the originals that he'd sampled. The odd-one-out was Le Vent de Nord, a Québécois quartet whose close harmonies and infectiously joyful playing won us over immediately.
So last night we made our way to Glasgow's Old Fruitmarket to see the group's headline set with a festival twist: the four Messieurs were joined by seven Misses, each virtuosos in their own right from the Scottish folk scene.
I'd seen only one of them before: Emily Smith so it was unusual to be at a unique gig listening to musicians I didn't know singing in languages I couldn't understand (French and Gaelic). The underlying music however was delightful, as were the expressions on the faces of the performers. A particular highlight was when one member of the string quartet took to the centre of the stage to accompany the others on tap.
Tonight's performance is another that the BBC recorded, so look out for it on iPlayer Alba in about a fortnight.
Friday, 16 January 2015
There are two things most people comment on when reviewing Martyn Bennett's album Grit. I deliberately didn't, but you need to know them to understand tonight's opening concert of the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow. First, Grit is full of samples. The lazy description is to say it's Scotland's answer to Moby's Play. (Indeed some of the samples were collected by the same folklorist as Play: Alan Lomax.) Secondly, GRIT was Martyn Bennett's last record. He produced it while suffering from the advanced stages of Hodgkin's Lymphoma; it's said that he was too weak to play instruments himself, which led to the heavy use of samples and layered textures.
On a technical level Greg Lawson's arrangements succeeded. As the first bass notes of Move rumbled through the Royal Concert Hall my jaw dropped. I don't think I closed my mouth again until the standing ovation. There were a few rough edges, but the musicians did the work proud, highland pipes, plainchant choir, narrated stories, epic strings, brass, percussion and all. Of particular note was Fiona Hunter's forceful vocals riding high above the cacophony. Just about the only thing lost in the mix was the Piaf-esque chorus of Nae Regrets.
But this gig couldn't be judged on pure musicianship: something else was going on. It soon became apparent that this was a long awaited final goodbye to a much admired friend. It was hard to tell who was having more fun, the audience or the performers.
At the back of the stage was a roadside GRIT bin. Part stage dressing, part percussion instrument it also served another purpose: in a BBC documentary about the making of the album, Martyn Bennett springs out from one of these bins. Tonight it remained symbolically shut.
The gig closed with Paisley Spin, a track that Bennett didn't get time to complete. Its sole vocal, sampled from an old Jerry Rafferty track, provided the sing-along cathartic moment to round out a remarkable evening: "To each and every one of you I say 'Goodbye, farewell, adieu.'"
Nae Regrets is being shown on BBC 2 Scotland later this week, and should be on iPlayer soon after. I highly recommend watching it (also check the documentary and the BBC Arts article), although suspect nothing can come close to the experience in the Hall. This was one of those times that you really had to be there.
Saturday, 10 January 2015
Martyn Bennett: Grit
The album I enjoyed most in 2014 was originally released ten years earlier. I'm surprised it's taken me so long to discover Grit.
There are a few elements which seem to be required in reviews of Grit. I want to avoid them and focus on the music, so look elsewhere for comparisons with other albums or comments on Martyn Bennett's life.
Layering Romany folk singers, storytelling, poetry, highland pipes, gaelic chanting, a Psalm and some Hindi over hard industrial beats Grit is something like a Ceilidh from the Western Islands infused with the spirit of a 21st century Glasgow night.
What I love most is that the record challenged me. The vocals are very stylised, so even now after nine months of listening to it I'm picking out new phrases ("no eastern kings came bearing gifts" sings a traveller as they describe the community's reception on the opening track Move).
The standout track is Blackbird, a song recently used to tremendous effect as the soundtrack to the short film The Ridge, the soaring strings being the perfect match to the epic Cuillin Hills depicted in the film.
The 2014 reissue of Grit rounds off with Mackay's Memoirs, a track commissioned for the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. It's a real tour de force.
It's not all straightforward listening, and a couple of tracks should come with a parental advisory warning, but all round it's tremendous.
Here's to finding more challenging music in 2015.
Thursday, 8 January 2015
It shouldn't need an act
Hooray for Alan Duncan MP!
It doesn't stand a chance of becoming an Act of Parliament, but his Internet Communications (Regulation) Bill warms my heart.
The Bill has one purpose: to finally eliminate frankly pointless verbiage that finds its way onto the bottom of emails from most companies. His speech at the bill's first reading puts the point quite well.
My previous employer added more than 200 words spread over 25 lines to every outgoing message. I've always held that I'd voluntarily include legal disclaimers in email when I see them on headed notepaper.
It shouldn't need an Act of Parliament to persuade companies of the folly of their ways.
What's surprised me is the backlash in comments on The Register's news report on the story. The general gist is that there may be some legislation that pushes companies towards including these abhorrent appendages to all outgoing messages.
Maybe it does need an Act after all.
Paul Bennett _ onewhe firstname.lastname@example.org | elgood /|\ twowhe \_/ elsbad
Next step: stop "pithy" quotes or "Sent from my iPhone" in email signatures. Then again, back in the early '90s I was guilty of worse: unicycle ASCII art.
Perhaps an Act could've saved me from myself.
Sunday, 14 December 2014
Regular visitors will know this happens from time-to-time: I've fallen behind with the blog again. It took a new acquaintance asking me whether I had a blog to remind me that I've three months of write-ups to complete.
I will endeavour to catch up before Christmas. There's lots to tell, but I suspect the story might be told by a staccato voice in order to get any words out.
Saturday, 8 November 2014
Stanley Odd: A Thing Brand New
Stanley Odd reach new heights musically on A Thing Brand New. Lyrically, they continue to explore insightful territory and demonstrate that they've things to say beyond calling for a "Yes" vote.
But somehow there's nothing here that really grabs me. Nothing too challenging. Nothing new. Don't misunderstand: it's a great introduction to the band, but I can't help but think I've heard it all before.
Saturday, 18 October 2014
Jo Mango: Transformuration
I'll not waste any time: the remix album isn't up to the quality of the original, but is it really fair to compare them?
Each track from Murmuration is present, remixed by a different artist. Some are quite similar to the originals, while others are more daring. Two tracks are instrumentals. The favoured treatment of the hushed vocals appears to be to add masses of reverb, a trick that seems a little clichéd after a while.
There's still much to enjoy here though, and it's always good to find a new perspective. But every time I listen to Transformation the abiding thought is that I must return to Murmuration once more.
Friday, 26 September 2014
Deacon Blue: A New House
Released just before the Referendum, Deacon Blue's latest album is a marker in time.
"Tell me once, tell me twice how it is that we begin again," is the opening lyric, "do we start by clearing up the mess or just forgetting?" Two weeks ago the songs sounded like a series of questions about a future independent Scotland. Today they seem to say just as much to a continued Union "I guess a miracle's the only thing that's ever going to work here."
A New House is the best album Deacon Blue's released since their reformation. Full of optimism and tales of new beginnings, this may well eventually join Fellow Hoodlums as my favourite release of theirs.
Saturday, 20 September 2014
North Berwick Law
Live for the Moment
With the air suddenly clear we couldn't help ourselves: one last walk, one hill to climb as the sun set. It was the perfect decision.
North Berwick Law isn't a particularly high hill, but like Iona's Dun I its isolation in an otherwise expansive plain provides stunning views.
From the top we could see almost everywhere we've walked this week. To the east and south: the high cliffs of St Abb's Head, the nuclear power station at Torness, Barns Ness Lighthouse, Dunbar, Tantallon Castle, Bass Rock. To the west, Cockenzie power station, endless golf courses, Portabello and Leith. Other places we've come to know were visible too: the bulk of Arthur's Seat rising in Hollyrood Park, the latticework of the Forth Bridge. To the north we could make out Aberdour from where our coast walk will continue next year around the Kingdom of Fife.
Painted on the triangulation pillar at the summit is the phrase "Live for the Moment". Indeed. If you have time to do just one walk in East Lothian, make it North Berwick Law.
Aberlady → Leith
Today's walk has been slightly surreal. Almost dreamlike.
Some snapshots and two sketches:
A boat called "Mr Grumpy".
A disheveled man with a cigarette hanging limply from his mouth taking his monitor lizard for a walk.
A treatise posted on a bus shelter that described why Devo-Max proponents should vote Yes instead of No.
The sound of bagpipes drifted in the air was we passed Cockenzie power station. In the shadow of this behemoth Jacobite and Government troops gathered, ready to re-enact the Battle of Prestonpans, a key moment in the Uprising of 1745. The image is bursting with potential analogies: the referendum, the battle, the crumbling industrial past.
In 1994 I visited Portabello, Edinburgh's beach. On holiday by myself and about to graduate from university my head was full of possibility. I'd been reading about Windows programming and spent the evening looking at arcade games. I slept in the car and dreamt about my future. After telling Emma this story she said she'd have whispered into the ear of that 23 year old, "It's OK. Your life will work out."
So here we are. In Referendum Week we've walked from England to the seat of the Scottish Government. We've finished the 100th map of the walk so far and have less than 100 left to go.
We're feeling our way forwards into the future. Same as everyone.