Monday, 29 September 2008

Love Albert Road Day @ Albert Road, Southsea, Portsmouth

Over the last two decades, the UK town and city centre has become an identikit place, formed from corporate culture that is sucking away any true diversity and choice you have left.

Back in 2002 a report entitled Ghost Town Britain revealed some staggering facts. In the UK between 1997 and 2002 specialist stores like butchers, bakers and fishmongers shut at the rate of 50 per week. The country also lost one third of its bank-branch network – leaving nearly 1000 communities across the UK with no access to a local bank. Twenty non chain pubs were closing every month.

And what was causing and replacing these closures ? Large corporate identical chain stores, with shop fronts of steel and glass, aggressively positioning themselves in our town centres, offering the attractive illusion of more choice, a fantasy shopping experience. And that’s all it is. An illusion. The appearance of another chain store in your town is the death of choice. All you can do now is to buy the same things that everyone else is buying.

And this is why the remainder of our independent retailers, pubs and restaurants are so important. If you value true independence, if you value choice and if you value towns that have a sense of identity and soul, then the status of our remaining independents must be maintained.

This is what Love Albert Road Day is about. In my hometown of Portsmouth a group of independent shopkeepers grouped together and came up with the idea of promoting their street and giving something back to the local community. Albert Road has largely managed to avoid the influx of large corporations, even if a small Tesco supermarket exists in one particular unit, but the retailers struggle against the nearby chain stores, even although many of them offer unique and better value products. So Love Albert Road day was born. With one mile of the road shut off for the day and glorious sunshine beaming down, an estimated 40,000 people came out for a big community street party. Frankly, if Portsmouth’s chain store centre the Cascades had organised a similar event, I can’t imagine that people would have been so willing to support it. There was a real feeling of celebration of the more alternative shopping centre of Portsmouth.

Musicians and DJ’s performed everywhere; on roofs of buildings, in bars, on the street and on two main stages, and whilst enjoying the sun, the shops, the atmosphere and other entertainment I also managed to catch a couple of sets. The B Of The Bang played on the back of a lorry converted into a stage. I wrote here about this bands eclectic sets and great dark songs, but today their magic is behind a cloud. Unfortunately their set is shockingly bad, marred by a huge number of technical difficulties including out of tune guitars, random unwanted rave beats firing from their keyboards and a terrible sound mix that does the band no favours. “If you want professionalism, there’s another stage 200 yards down the road,” announces lead singer Chris Whitear.

A few hours later however I catch them playing another set at The Wedgewood Rooms and it is a totally different tale. This time their music sounds, huge, wide screen, epic and gut wrenchingly good, guitars howling with real aggression, the presence of two drummers power pounding in perfect symmetry adding depth and beefiness with songs like Lung and Alaska being given the sound treatment they deserve. It’s not all rocking stadium sized songs though; opening song Last Day On Earth provides a possible first for the venue, with the band armed with their skittering and folkish banjos and ukuleles on the dance floor, playing without microphones before marching on stage to amp up the sound and finish the song. A risky but great way to start a set.

Before The B of the Bang, another Portsmouth based band also impress massively.

Holdfast display a very different side to the normal dirty sounding rock they play, with female fronted vocals from lead singer Roberta laying somewhere between Siouxsie Sioux and P.J Harvey over a stripped down two acoustic guitar acoustic arrangement. The lack of noise brings focus to the songs which seem to be strangely more adventurous, rewarding and occasionally ethereal than their brasher fully amped up brothers and sisters. Probably the best two bands in Portsmouth right now on the same bill.

Not everything at Love Albert Road day is however quite so serious musically. A set by The Bog Rolling Stones is funny, and the tunes are spot on as far as tribute bands go. Watched by a huge crowd, there are people hanging out of windows and sitting on the tiles to catch a view, including one brave soul who performs a series of backward flips on a roof to great cheers from the crowd below. “This festival is the only one you can go home with an antique,” quips ’Mick’ before adding “and I don’t mean you Keith.” Later he dedicates a song to the curry houses of Albert Road, thanking them for saving the drunk people of Portsmouth. And of course, even although they don’t look anything like the real thing, they do sound very good indeed and wheel out all the hits to a street of smiling faces against a backdrop of people.

Love Albert Road day was a huge success in its delivery and attendance. Let’s just hope that it reaps long term rewards for its traders, for without them Portsmouth will have another layer of its soul stripped away.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Howard Jones @ London Indigo O2

The name Howard Jones may not be familiar to younger readers of this blog, except for my article about a certain DJ Hojo Hits a while ago, and for older readers probably brings back memories of bad eighties haircuts, a mime artist called Jed and synth pop. But for Breaking More Waves, the music of Howard Jones has probably had more influence on my life than any other. Whereas those with so called musical credibility may claim that Dylan, The Beatles, Jeff Buckley or Nirvana influenced their lives, I am happy to announce that I really don’t care about credibility and am happy to stand alone on this one. Yes, the man who sang in his first ever hit the line “Throw off those mental chains,” probably made me do exactly that. Jones has made me think more about my philosophy to life than any other artist. From his lyrics of “Challenging preconceived ideas,” to “Thoughts and actions, words you've spoken write the scripts of life and open up the possibilities,” his themes of change through positive action, and that of taking risks and taking responsibility for my own individual world to influence the world at large struck a deep chord. “Changes in the heart of just one, will affect entire nations,” Jones sang, and this ripple turning to a wave effect is something that I have absolute belief in. Jones is not just a singer but a mini philosopher, albeit one with spiky blonde hair and a lot of keyboards.

So from those early hits of the eighties Jones has continued to write and record to the present day, releasing albums on his own independent label dtox records. He also still plays numerous acoustic and electric shows.

Now, after twenty five years in the music industry, Jones has decided to celebrate, and has put on a special 25th anniversary concert at the ultra modern, superbly functional Indigo 02 in the Millenium Dome, London.

The gig clocks in at around two and a half hours with over twenty five songs in two sets. And it starts with this video....

Then Jones takes to the stage at the piano, accompanied by Robin Boult on acoustic guitar, with a pitch perfect string section being added as the show continues. The sound is excellent throughout, every word Jones sings having clarity; one of the advantages of a state of the art purpose built music venue. Jones shows his conviction to keep moving forward by playing several new songs including Ordinary Heroes which celebrates ordinary people doing incredible things in their everyday lives and Straight Ahead, a song which lyrically talks about having hope even through bad times. The second half, after a short interval, is fully electric with Howard blasting out the hits such as What Is Love, Pearl In The Shell, New Song and Things Can Only Get Better on his synth, joined by a plethora of musicians including backing vocalists, live drums, bass, brass and guitars not too mention a crowd who are happy to revel and dance in a nostalgic trip back to the songs of their youth.

A variety of special guests are also introduced; Nick Heyward from Haircut 100 joins Jones after just 2 songs and announces him as “The Neil Diamond of synth pop,” before playing his hit Fantastic Day with him and later there is a huge round of applause as a now very bald Nik Kershaw arrives on stage to perform Wouldn’t It Be Good. For hardcore Jones fans probably the biggest and most appreciated surprise is when Duncan Sheik appears to play, the first time they have ever performed live together in the UK. Here is Duncan on guitar and Howard on piano for the ballad Someone You Need.

At 53 years of age, Howard Jones’ singing voice is actually better now than it was 25 years ago, stronger and more resonant; and of course he is an incredibly accomplished keyboard player. But despite the spiky blonde hair, catchy synth pop songs and elements of nostalgia to the gig, what comes across most is that through his relaxed persona and friendly way that he interacts with the crowd and his band, Howard Jones is genuinely one of the nice guys.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Cassie and the Cassettes - New Waves @ Breaking More Waves

Ah cassettes. Remember those ? They were big in the eighties. Like sweatbands, big hair and men wearing too much make up. But unlike the aforementioned, cassettes were actually really useful. You could record a compilation on one and decide on the order of the songs as you went. No deciding play lists in advance before burning. And rather like the object they take their name from, Cassie and the Cassettes are really useful; especially if you are a fan of Belle and Sebastian, hairclips, cute cardigan or spec wearing girls and boys and all things twee.

A young 5 piece fronted by the sweetly summery indie chanteuse Cassie Layton, they have only played a smattering of gigs including dates at this years Great Escape Festival in Brighton and at the Fistful of Fandango night at 229 in London. Despite their just out of school freshness, Cassie and the Cassettes have tip toe jazzy harmonies that will make you want to jig your shoulders and be nice to everyone. This is pure unrefined perfect pop.

Half of the band used to be in a terribly named funk covers outfit called The Funkbomb Detonators, but there are no such hideous elements on songs such as I Don’t Like You and Two Of A Kind, demo versions of which can both be found on the bands Myspace page. With no record deal as yet, things are growing slowly for the Cassettes. Despite their cute quietness their piano and guitar strumming chirpiness could make enough noise to find a strong fan base.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Why do Brits love music festivals ?

So the UK outdoor music festival season is over.

A few months ago I considered the health of the UK festival market and what the future would hold and wrote about it here. Now the summer is over its time to look back and reflect. My conclusions remain very much the same as they did at the start of the festival season. That this year there were winners and losers. That big names always help shift tickets. That punters are developing brand affiliations to particular festivals.

I was also unfortunately right that further festivals would be cancelled, over 40 in total this summer; and that the reasons for each cancellation would be due to variety of factors including the economic slowdown, market saturation, the poor summer weather, lack of experience of running and marketing such events, and weak or not properly thought through line ups. Each cancellation was largely due to one or more of these factors to a greater or lesser extent.

But despite these cancellations thousands and thousands of people attended music festivals this summer. The UK has more outdoor music festivals than any other country in the world, despite our terrible summer weather. So why is this ? Why do we love our festivals so much ?

This is an age where society is fuelled by mass media. We cannot get away from it; and like it or not, it influences the way we think and act. In the past, when I first attended festivals they were by and large events that existed on the periphery of society, away from the glare of the crass ‘everything is for sale’ celebrity culture that we now endure. But these days there is media saturation of the events. Television, the radio and internet have made festivals so accessible that for many people the choice has been taken away. We have become robots who simply must attend a summer music festival, because that is what everyone else is doing. The message almost seems to be that if you haven’t been to a festival there is something wrong with you. Everyone is doing it. Only last week an article in a popular women’s magazine ran a report on a well established UK festival, reporting solely on the celebrities who were there and what they wore. If celebrities are doing it, then we must do that next year seemed to be the message. Festivals, once the free spirited embodiment of alternative culture have become absolutely and totally mainstream.

But despite the influence of our mass media there are other reasons why the UK has more festivals than other countries. For instance, there is something built into the British psyche that just loves an excuse to be outdoors in the summer. Even if it is raining. Maybe we have some romantic notion of a great British summer, that actually doesn’t exist.

There has also been a resurgence in live music over the last few years. Society is becoming more insular, with many sitting at home, wired into their PC’s developing a new way of socialising through Facebook, Myspace and Bebo. Modern society is losing the ability or opportunity to truly experience something with a deeper emotional or social connection. Live music still offers this opportunity, and festivals are a natural extension of this opportunity.

Another reason why us Brits may love our music Festivals so much is that we are pretty good at putting them on. Whatever your thoughts on Glastonbury, the fact that 160,000 people manage to exist in happy union on a farm using temporary infrastructure whatever the weather is staggering. The extent of an event such as Glastonbury never ceases to amaze me. Some events I have personally attended this year such as Summer Sundae have been incredibly well put together, thought out and organised. They are an absolute credit to the people who run them.

So, for me personally, my love of festivals is a combination of my passion for music, my love of camping (I currently own three tents and next year am about to purchase my fourth which I hope will lead to tent envy amongst my friends), my love of the great outdoors and most importantly a chance to be in a place where I feel completely at home and feel that there are many like minded people surrounding me.

And as for my favourite festival this summer ? Well, since you’re asking, it was End Of The Road Festival, which was an absolute gem, closely followed by Summer Sundae.

So here’s to next years festivals. I’m busy planning what I’m going to attend already.

Lets just hope that next year we get a little more sun.

Monday, 15 September 2008

End Of The Road Festival @ Larmer Tree Gardens, Dorset

The Library In The Woods @ End Of The Road Festival

If the End of the Road Festival were a film it would be Juno. That is, it feels resolutely lo-fi, independent, slightly hip, folkish, American but European at the same, of high quality and good taste. And it even has Kimya Dawson. It is the last festival on the UK circuit and one can rightly use the cliché that in terms of festivals it was saving the best to last.

This is the third year of the events running, and the first time it has sold out, which must be a relief to Simon Taffe, the organiser who sold his house and moved his family into rented accommodation to finance the first festival.

The mandate for this festival is simple. It is all about the music. There are no over hyped bands. No flavours of the month. Just acts and artists that all have integrity and can really play. Add to this a range of quality food, decent drinks including luscious hot spicy cider and a great organic lager, staff and security who show respect, not one single corporate advertising hoarding, a really friendly chilled 5000 capacity crowd who all chat to each other, good infrastructure with plenty of toilets and water points, mysterious goings on in the woods with a library and a piano, and a beautiful garden type setting and End Of The Road Festival produces what is virtually my perfect festival. I say virtually because unfortunately on the Friday there was some rain, which did lead to part of the site becoming quite muddy, although it was nothing like the biblical mud floods of Bestival the previous week. Certainly the main open stage, known as the Garden stage remained fairly dry all weekend.

The music itself was also in many places astounding. On Friday things got started nicely with Laura Marling playing a strong set in the afternoon in the Big Top to a really appreciate crowd. Later as the night closed in Dirty Three let loose their free spirited feral noise, before ‘Mr Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst took to the stage attempting to confuse people by announcing “Hello we’re The Decemberists”, and then letting his guitarist sing the first song. However once Oberst’s Larry the Lamb warbling was under way there was no denying that the man has a way with a tune, particularly on his simple gentle solo acoustic numbers. Oberst seemed to be enjoying himself announcing through the set “Hello we’re called Arcade Fire and we’ve come all the way from Canada to play for you tonight.” Then later “Hello we’re called The Killers and we’ve come all the way from Las Vegas to play for you tonight.”

Saturday and Sunday were even better. Bon Iver aka Justin Vernon was my highlight of the whole weekend. The album For Emma, Forever Ago is almost guaranteed to be in my Top 10 at the end of the year but I couldn’t see how an album as quiet and delicate as this could be reproduced on an outdoor festival stage in the middle of the afternoon. Surely it was an album to curl up at midnight to with a blanket by a camp fire ? Luckily I was wrong. I have never seen such a large crowd stand in absolute silence, totally absorbed in the music as during Bon Ivers set. Justin was obviously gob smacked by the reaction, every song greeted with applause that almost refused to stop. “This is one of the most beautiful days of my life,” he announces and there is no doubt that he truly means it. For the first time this year I have what the media like to describe as ‘A Festival Moment’. Here is a clip of Bon Iver, which doesn’t really do him justice, I think it was one of those you had to be there moments to appreciate the atmosphere.

But that wasn’t the end of the great performances.

Other highlights were Kimya Dawson who proved that she is witty, intelligent, funny and probably the coolest indie folk mum ever. Playing a low fi scratchy set which includes a number of children’s songs from her new album she manages to get the whole crowd to make daft animal noises as if we were kids in a nursery and it seems the most natural thing ever. Renaissance rocker Billy Childish, a man who sticks resolutely to his roots and has been name checked by Jack White, brought military uniforms and the coolest moustache to the Big Top with retro guitar joints that were surprisingly accessible. Essie Jain produced breathtakingly beautiful minimalist stripped down songs with a voice of that raised goose bumps on one of the smaller stages, The Local. There may be a plethora of female singer songwriters being pushed into the public domain right now, but if there is any justice, when her second album The Inbetween is released later this year this real talent will be allowed to grow.

I could write a novel on the musical greatness I saw, but enough to say the Noah and the Whale, Richard Hawley, The Wave Pictures, The Young Republic, Sons Of Noel and Adrian, British Sea Power, Absentee and Mercury Rev all delivered strong sets and there were many more.

Of course with any festival there are bound to be a few misses, but there were very few at End of the Road. Mountain Goats suffered from a poor mix and a set that lost many peoples attention, which is a shame as for many they were one of ‘the bands to see‘. Also Low’s set on Saturday evening was marred by their guitarist stupidly hurling his electric guitar violently into the middle of the crowd. It was fortunate that no one was hurt or even worse.

But these events aside, End Of The Road was simply the best festival I have been to this year.

It was so good that it has made me come home and think about music in a different way. My only problem now is next year do I return to End of the Road, or go back to Bestival which unfortunately next year have been scheduled for the same weekend ? Although this year Bestival wasn’t at its best due to the weather, it does retain a real musical diversity, which End Of The Road doesn’t, and a sense of playful childishness which appeals to my happy soul. End of the Road does however have a tranquil beauty and less full on atmosphere with a smaller crowd that makes it really easy to enjoy.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Orphans & Vandals @ Portsmouth Drift Bar

“Christopher I’m leaving for the coast, those southern seaside towns I love the most,” intones Al Joshua, lead vocalist of Orphans & Vandals at the start of his bands set. The lyrics couldn’t be more perfectly located tonight, in this very southern seaside town.

I first came across Orphans & Vandals at Summer Sundae Festival earlier this year, where their stark poetic beauty touched and engrossed me. Tonight at Portsmouth Drift Bar they do the same again. This is a band who with just a hint of the Velvet Underground use a minimalist mix of harmonium, violins, saw, guitars, xylophones, mouth organs and drums to create ghostly mesmerising music. Through their almost classical sound they produce a romantic stream of bed sit consciousness that flows from the spoken word of lead vocalist and philosopher Al Joshua. His poetry reminds me a little of Gerard Langley from early 90’s band The Blue Aeroplanes.

The bands music is sparse and often delicate, rising and falling in soft shudders. The band themselves occasionally border on arty pretension, with songs that are anything but your standard three minute pop song; and they are all the better for it. There are eight minutes of chiming guitars during Mysterious Skin with its sad imagery of Paris and lovers, it verges on perfect, only spoilt by a sound system that cannot give the clarity to Joshua’s narration. Without a word in between the songs to the audience except for a single “Thank you” at the end of their set, Joshua remains aloof and it suits the bands style perfectly.

Their music is way beyond the musical mainstream and this should be fully celebrated. The encore they get tonight is fully deserved.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Bestival @ Isle Of Wight

Bestival mud

One has to feel slightly sorry for Rob Da Bank, head honcho of Bestival. He must have pulled so much of his hair out this year. Following the problems with lack of camp site space and car parking at Camp Bestival, he was probably thinking that he was back on safe ground with Bestival. Now in it’s 5th year, it has an established track record and sold out in its quickest time this year. Rob may have considered that he could sit back, relax and know that everything he and his team had learnt from the previous four years of running the event would make Bestival 2008, on the Isle Of Wight the greatest ever.

Unfortunately mother nature had other ideas.

Torrential rain swept across the Isle of Wight on Friday night, causing floods in many areas. Around 50 flood-related calls across the island were made to the I.W Fire and Rescue Service at the height of the deluge, mostly between 5pm and 8pm. Combine this deluge with 30,000 people stomping around the valley site and very quickly Bestival became the wettest and muddiest festival I have attended since Glastonbury 1997 and 1998. In a similar fashion to Glastonbury 1997 many acts were cancelled and stages were shut down as rivers of mud quickly turned the place into a dirty brown welly sucking nightmare. Yes this really was the year of mud at Bestival.

However this is not to say that Bestival was a complete wash out. The organisers have to be given massive credit for working round the clock to try and save as much as the Festival as they could, building up new roads above the mud and laying temporary coverings over the main stage area to make it safe. Toilet trucks had to be pulled by tractors through the mud to empty the portaloos.

Main stage area covered with temporary sheeting

The punters played their part as well. Although some people found the conditions just too overwhelming, and left as early as the first night the vast majority of the Bestival crowd retained a good humoured and happy party vibe, dancing and smiling their way through the whole weekend. As normal there were plenty of fancy dress costumes for the annual parade through the site. This year many attendees dressed up as king prawns, octopi, nemo’s, the titanic, submarines, jellyfish and scuba divers for the theme of 30,000 Freaks Under The Sea which added a much needed dash of colour against the grey skies and thick gravy mud.

Besides the fancy dress one of the most appealing aspects of Bestival has always been the quirkiness and edge it has. In previous years you could stroll the site and find various random ‘happenings’ from impromptu DJ sets in a model village, to mass spontaneous hula hooping sessions by the main stage, to the slightly scary costumed ‘hells grannies’ driving round the site on mini mopeds. It may have been that I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, or the weather curtailed plans, but there didn’t seem to be as many of these oddities this year.

It was also noticeable that the event seemed marginally more corporate than the totally independent feel of the halcyon days of the first two Bestivals, with areas being sponsored by Rizla, Xbox and Red Bull. This I guess is a commercial reality in this day and age, if the festival is to be realistically priced and sustainable. However Bestival is still a huge jump away from just being another fully branded V or Isle Of Wight Festival that lacks any sense of uniqueness, originality or style. It still has a musical eclecticism that is only bettered by Glastonbury, and there are still plenty of things to do away from the music.

For instance there was a group of artists creating a sculpture of a fairy sitting on a mushroom out of wicker, 300 beautiful tall handmade flags adorning the site, a dukes box (3 men sitting in a tiny clear capsule - simply select a song and they play your tune), dancing lessons, a cream tea tent, the wonderful Bollywood and Black Dahlia cocktail lounges, one of which was serving a cocktail called The Winehouse invented specially for the weekend, the farmers market, ever present women’s institute tea tent and a DJ named DJ Hojo Hits who played nothing but songs by 80’s popstar Howard Jones; this man seemed rather familiar looking to me. In fact I suspect that he writes a blog called Breaking More Waves.

As always with Bestival the music policy was often cutting edge, often hip, sometimes funny and sometimes verging towards the mainstream with everything from hip hop to folk to indie to electronica being featured. DJ’s and bands are both represented, and there really is something for everyone. Of course many had come to see the car crash that is Amy Winehouse on the main stage, but I gave her a wide berth heading instead to Club Dada to rock out with DJ’s Bobby Friction and Nihal who played a fantastic set of dirty asian dubstep, electronica and manic beats. By all accounts Ms Winehouse was pretty tragic, keeping the crowd waiting for ages and then appearing to slur her way through her drastically shortened set.

However the other two headliners, who I did catch were fantastic. My Bloody Valentine were loud, atmospheric and colossal, pummelling the audience with a sound like a helicopter about to take off. Electronic dance legends Underworld also showed they were worthy headliners, with big hands in the air moments for Born Slippy and King Of Snake, huge inflatable multi coloured flashing columns surrounding them, and massive balloons fired off into the crowd.

The highlight of Saturday for many was the two secret guests who played on the main stage on the Saturday afternoon. After 25 years of not playing together, The Specials reunited. Minus founding member Jerry Dammers they launched straight into Gangsters creating a mad excited rush to the front of the stage. Their set was spot on, and despite not playing Ghost Town they left Bestival with everyone shouting for an encore. Later Grace Jones was revealed as the other secret guest and despite feeling somewhat anti climatic after The Specials still dazzled with a variety of costume changes, a great voice and real stage presence.

Away from the main stage many smaller acts also delighted. Rosie Oddie And The Odd Squad performed the best set I have seen her play in the four times I have seen her, her voice rasping like a white indie Macy Gray. One to watch for the future without doubt. Misty’s Big Adventure pulled a big crowd at the Bandstand in the village area of the site and got everyone dancing in the very sticky mud, and festival veterans Transglobal Underground mixed their asian and world influences with hypnotic dance rhythms in the Big Top.

Rosie Oddie

Any festival in the mud is never going to be as much fun as one in the dry. And maybe for me this year Bestival just lost a little of its original quirky charm. It does however remain as one of my favourite events of the year, and there is no doubt I will be back next year, but praying for the clouds to stay away. As no doubt will Rob Da Bank ! The one concern is with the devastation that the mud has caused to the site of Robin Hill Country Park, will the owners want Bestival back again next year ?