3 October 2015

The Crazy World of Arthur Brown at the Borderline was another fantastic gig from the youthful God of Hellfire

I last saw Arthur Brown in concert almost exactly a year ago, and then I had to travel up to Leamington Spa to do so.

Thankfully this mini-tour started with a London gig and there was never any doubt that I would go to it. Even the prospect of watching England losing at rugby union or the last-minute offer of going to the theatre with an actress that I admire greatly were temptation enough to keep me away.

I was not sure what the timetable for the evening was going to be, other than the doors opened at 7pm and there was a 10:30pm curfew, so I played safe and went early. The memory of arriving late at the Borderline for a Stackridge gig still haunts me, then the band started promptly with no support act.

Travelling through Richmond was likely to be slow because of the England v Australia game at Twickenham that evening so I left home slightly before 6pm. The buses were not kind to me and I walked just over 1km before an empty bus caught up with me (a full one drove past without stopping for more passengers) and I then bailed out about 1km from Richmond Station when the bus hit almost stationary traffic.

The train coming into Richmond was billed as "Full and Standing" so I stood on the platform where I knew the crowds for Richmond would be getting off to be sure of being able to get on. I had to stand all the way to Waterloo but I always do when commuting so that was no hardship.

I had the time to do so, so I walked up to the Borderline from Waterloo Station, mindful that I was still short of my 14k step target for the day. It was only 1.5km or so, I did not take the most direct route, and the main problem was trying to avoid the worst of the crowds of tourists. After a couple of deliberate and accidental detours I arrived safely at the Pillars of Hercules just after 7pm which allowed me time for a leisurely pint of Wainwright before crossing the road.

A poster on the door of the Borderline told me that there would be two support bands and Arthur would not be on until 9pm. I could have gone back to the pub but I thought that I would give the support bands a try and pay more for beer that I liked less.

Motorcycle Display Team opened the evening. They were a loud and bouncy power trio who played familiar sounding but original rock songs. They did nothing wrong but were not really my sort of thing. Still, they passed the time well enough and I have heard plenty of support bands that failed to do that.

The Slytones were the second support act and were something quite different. The first clue was the black and white face make-up that they all wore, which unintentionally mirrored the Zal Cleminson t-shirt that I was wearing. They looked to be a cabaret style band and they were.

There were, I thought, also some prog rock touches to their music and one tune that I heard seemed to come straight from Tales from Topographic Oceans. Again, not really my cup of tea but they were fun to watch and the music was OK.

Around then Angel Flame came into the audience, presumably to look for friendly faces, and I was the happy recipient of an extravagant and extended hug. Peter wondered what was going on until he recognised Angel and then he got his own hug.

We were running a little late by then and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown hit the stage about 9:15pm. That stage was suite sparse this time with no totem poles or other exotic props. The band were arranged in an "L" shape across the back of the stage and on the right side; across the back were Nina Gromniak Guitars and colourful face paint), somebody whose name I did not get (drums) and Jim Mortimore (bass and long dress) and on the right edge was Matt Guest (keyboards).

That left a lot of space centre and left stage for Arthur and Angle Flame to move in. This was in market contrast to other bands that I have seen at the Borderline, notably Space Ritual, who find the stage somewhat small for their large cast and their many instruments.

This was a familiar line-up for The Crazy World, with the probable exception of the drummer who had been playing with The Slytones, and they were obviously very comfortable with the music and with each other, even with Arthur's antics which included carrying the keyboard around the stage while Matt was trying to play it. I remember Nina telling me that she had been very nervous at the QEH gig in 2011 as that was her first and was a large stage to debut on but now she was part of a solid and confident unit.

The setlist contained a lot of favourites that Arthur had been playing for a few years, songs like Kites (always a great favourite of mine) and Spell on You, though Devil's Grip was missing.

The surprise, though it was trailed in the tour announcement, was the inclusion of two songs from the seminal Kingdom Come album Journey from 1973. This album has been important to me ever since then and I remember clearly the joy of finding a copy of the album in WH Smith in Southampton, Until then I had had to make do with various tape recordings from John Peel shows.

The songs they played from Journey were Time Captains (labelled Time Captives on the album), which was the obvious track to choose, and Gypsy. Time Captains starts with a distinctive drum beat backed by whirling electronic sounds and the crowd erupted with joy when they heard this.

The album may have been 42 years old but it was well known and loved. The song ends with a few simple lines like "Ahhh-ahhh-ahhh-ahhh" which were repeated more than on the album and we were encouraged to join in by Arthur waving a microphone at us. I needed little encouragement.

The biggest surprise of the evening was Arthur himself.

He wore the now traditional multi-coloured face paint and the familiar salmon suit under a black coat but this time he also started with what looked like a blue dress under his jacket. Then, like Bowie in the 70s, he changed costumes several times including this one on the right with colourful fibre-optics and the one above with the god-like silver and white poncho which threaten to outshine Angel's wings above that.

To make time for these costume changes some of the songs were extended, again reminding me of how the Spiders from Mars played on when Bowie left the stage. I liked the longer versions as I have always though if you have a good musical idea then it is worth sticking with it for a while, people like Neil Young have always done this.

They closed the set with Fire Poem and Fire which had us all joining in again with shouts of "Fire" at the appropriate moments. It was a higher note to end on in a set that had lots of high notes.

I knew that Arthur Brown was 73 years old but it would have been very easy to forget this as his voice was as strong and his movement as frenetic as it always had been. If there was any concession to his age it came in the breaks for the costume changes.

A Crazy World of Arthur Brown gig has everything, good songs, a fine band and a stupendous front-man. All this made for an absolutely thrilling evening that was rapturously appreciated by the packed crowd. Once you've seen an Arthur Brown gig you want to see an other one and to tell your friends to go too.

The end of the setlist was reached just before the 10:30pm curfew and the band walked off after taking lots of bows. The cheering continued and they were persuaded back on for one more number which they seemed to choose there and then. They were rewarded with more cheering and shouts of "Arthur. Arthur.".

I was on a high after the gig and it was good to be able to share this with some of the people there who I knew from other gigs before heading back to Kingston to take advantage of the Willoughby's friendly opening hours.

17 September 2015

Outrageous fun with Kinky Boots at the Adelphi Theatre

Despite going to musicals quite regularly I would not have gone to see Kinky Boots if not for an offer through the social club at work. I had heard of the show and had heard of the good reception that it had but I prefer my musicals in small venues, like the Union Theatre, and I tend to avoid the West End blockbusters.

Price is a factor in this. Offers abound for group bookings etc. but the headline prices for the best seats are over £100 these days and I can go to Glyndebourne for that (almost!). It is the perceived value that annoys me. I'll happily pay over £100 to see something a Philip Glass opera but somehow it does not seem worth paying that for a trashy musical.

That's where the social club discount swayed the balance and I paid just £20 for my stalls seat.

Though I had heard of the show I had not head that much about what was in it so the story came as something of a surprise to me, but clearly not to the many gay men and middle-aged women in the audience who were clearly there to see Lola/Simon and who whooped with delight every time he flounced on to the stage. I grew up watching acts like Danny La Rue, Dick Emery, Les Dawson and, more recently, Little Britain, and also films like Charlie's Aunt, so men in frocks was nothing new but Kinky Boots did the drag queen thing with a lot of panache, exuberance and sheer fun.

There was a lot more to the show that drag queens though the story of how two different boys grew up and the relationships with their fathers seemed more designed to cynically pull the heart-strings than to add any real depth.

The main story of a shoe company falling on bad times and trying an innovative route to survival was fine even if the ending was telegraphed from the beginning. The main love story was telegraphed too though it took the characters longer to realise that they should be together than it took the audience. My star of the show was Lauren, the female half of the love story, who behaved just how a young woman falling in love should behave with much embarrassment to herself and amusement to us.

The other workers at the show factory were significant characters in the story too and that helped to lift the show above being a one-trick pony. Their relationship to their new boss had its ups and downs as the fortunes of the business changed and not all of them felt the same way about the proposed changes. The richness of the supporting cast was one of the show's big strengths.

Kinky Boots is known for its music because it was written by Cyndi Lauper famous for her pop hits in the 80's. The biggest of these, Girls Just Want to Have Fun, would have been ideal in this show but she did not write it. I thought that the music was fine too, if unremarkable.

The raucous audience reaction suggests that Kinky Boots is becoming a phenomena like Rocky Horror where the audience knows exactly what to expect and joins in heartily. I am not going to go that far but I am glad that I saw it and I was hugely entertained by it.

12 September 2015

The Thin White Duke made it another great night at the Fox and Duck

I think it's fair to say that of all the bands that play at the Fox and Duck that The Thin White Duke consistently pull in the most people and get more of the audience singing and dancing. They are one of the few bands that I make a point of always seeing and one of the even fewer that I get there early enough to catch their full set, rather than just the second half which is what I normally do.

I said of another band recently that they suffered from covering a band I never particularly liked and not sounding too much like them either, to which a friend added they also do not look like them. The Thin White Duke were the exact opposite, I have loved Bowie since Starman (everybody who saw it remembers that TOTP performance), they sound like Bowie whether it is the Bowie sound of Life on Mars, Fame or Heroes, and David Cull makes a good job of looking like The Thin White Duke himself.

I managed to find myself a spot next to the bar close enough to be in the thick of the action but not close enough to get mixed up with some of the more energetic dancers right at the font. It was the ideal spot for my gentle swaying.

The mood was infectiously buoyant and right from the start everybody was singing along loudly to (most of) the songs. It has long-since stopped surprising me just how many people of how many ages know the words to how many Bowie songs, and not just the hit singles either. The one exception was the title song from 2003's Reality, his last proper album before returning unexpectedly with The Next Day in 2013.

Even that virtually unknown song was well received so you can imagine what the reaction to the closing Starman and Heroes was like. I am very glad that I was there to be part of it.

Kingston Heritage Open Days 2015

The Kingston Heritage Open Days (HODs) are a major event for the Kingston upon Thames Society and this year I volunteered again to guide people around The Guildhall. "Guide" is probably too strong a word as I did little more that usher them from one room to the next and I relied on the objects to tell their own stories, luckily most of the exhibits on the walls were well labelled.

There were several parts to the short tour. The Guildhall was built in 1935 and is typical of that period. Kingston Council has maintained the period features over the years, I suspect more because they did not want to spend money updating the building than because they wanted to retain the heritage, and so the building itself was a significant part of the tour.

One of the rooms I took the visitors was the Council Chamber where the historical crest combined nicely with the ceiling light.

The main part of The Guildhall tour was the visit to the Mayor's Parlour. This was a room steeped in history, including the ceremonial mace, and interesting objects gifted to the Council over the years. We also had the current Deputy Mayor, Councillor Mary Clark, as our host and the official Mace Bearer, Brian, as our expert on the history of the Council and all the objects in the room.

Brian's talk and explanation of the objects brought the history of the Royal Borough to life. It was fascinating even though I had heard it before.

In the grounds of The Guildhall was the Coronation Stone which commemorates the crowning of Saxon kings in Kingston. The stone probably does not date back to that time but it is old.

Pictures inside The Guildhall show the stone in its original location a few meters away in what is now the middle of the main road. At first people and horses could easily move around it, then it became a mini-roundabout and finally the increasing volume of traffic meant that it had to be moved to its current location.

Before The Guildhall was built the Town Council (as it was then) met in the Market House which survives as the centre-piece of the Ancient Market. Looking down on the market was the golden statue of Queen Anne.

Kingston owes its existence to river crossings and when John Lewis was being build just over 25 years ago evidence of a previous bridge was found just downstream from the current one. John Lewis Partnership have been good custodians of the remains and these were open to the public for HODs.

The former Bentalls shop (now the Bentalls Centre) was designed by the same architect, Maurice Webb, who designed The Guildhall and he took Hampton Court as his inspiration. When the Bentalls Centre was build the original facade was retained, and it is easy to see why.

Out of Order is Kingston's most famous work of art and probably its most famous landmark. It is often used as the symbol for the town on postcards etc. I love it.

Aviation played a large part in Kingston's history and Sopwith had his main factory just north of the town centre until the company moved about a mile north to Ham. Sadly both sites are now housing (I live in one of them!) but some of the ancillary buildings survive. This one is in Canbury Park Road and is now the home to the marvellous BalletBoyz. It's a wonderful space put to wonderful use.

In another room was an exhibition on Kingston's aviation history that was packed with informative display boards, evocative photographs, models and paintings, and enthusiastic people. Kingston's aviation history is something that people are interested in and want to learn more about. The exhibition deserves a permanent home.

Kingston Heritage Open Days were a lot of fun for me and I was pleased to see so many other people taking part. I guess we will be doing HODs again next year.

8 September 2015

Another fantastic evening with FFS (Franz Ferdinand Sparks) at the London Forum

One of my life's simple rules is if Sparks are playing in London then I go to see them. And that rule applies even when they are part of super-group FFS and if I have seen them play recently.

I saw FFS at the Troxy in June when they played just a few dates in the UK and then they came back in September to play some more dates, having been across Europe and Japan in the meantime. It was obviously not just me that thought that the concerts were fantastic, they had got rave reviews and were sold out so it was not too surprising that the came back for more.

I have seen Sparks play in all sorts of venues across London and this time they were back at the London Forum where I had seen them twice in two days in 2009 when it was called the HMV Forum.  This is not that far from our London office but I did not want to go there wearing a suit and carrying a bag so I worked at home instead and late afternoon I took the London Overground from Richmond to Gospel Oak, my first time there, and walked that last stretch arriving just as the doors opened at 7pm.

The queue was not that long and I was not faced with the prospect that I had had on a previous visit there when I was not sure if I would get in before Sparks started. Not only was the queue shorter and moving faster this time but there was the prospect of a support band too so FFS were not going to be on stage for while.

I had a nice and, sadly, brief encounter with Anonymous (sorry, I've forgotten her name) in the queue. She had recognised me from this blog and came back to say hello. I had sat next to her at Sparks at the Barbican last December and we, with Peter, had had a long chat about art and things in the comfort of our stalls seats.

I was not that close to the front of the queue and so I was a little surprised to get a place to stand so close to the front. All the spaces next to the rail were taken but I was able to stand just right of centre behind three young women you were delightfully not very tall.

The next two hours were a combination of waiting and enduring the pretty painful support band. At least I had my phone and could read Twitter to keep myself sane.

Then FFS came on stage and all the pain of the travelling and the waiting was forgotten. FFS put on an absolutely stunning show at the Troxy and they did it again at the Forum.

Franz Ferdinand and Sparks  had worked on their performance and there were a lot of nice things to appreciate. The simplest presentation had Russell and Alex singing and dancing as a duet while the rest of the band played bouncy music. It struck me that Alex moved like a doll, or an Action Man if you prefer, with straight arms and legs. The military effect was strengthen by his cavalry trousers.

Ron did what Ron does, including the Ron Dance, and other members of the band had turns in the limelight. Even the shy bassist Bob Hardy had a go at the front playing the keyboards on one song. He was soon joined by three others, including Russell.

One scene I loved was the introduction to No 1 Song in Heaven where Ron played the theme and everybody else played drums. It was the many little things like that which made the show such fun to watch.

Then there was the actual music, of course.

FFS played their brand of bouncy pop with a lot of aplomb and a touch of swagger. The set was much the same as the last time, understandably so since they had only done one album, though they did Sherlock Holmes as a band for the first time. Little Guy From The Suburbs again stood out from the new songs and When Do I Get to Sing "My Way" from the old ones. But these were just the icing on a very delicious cake and every song was a treat and I quickly abandoned dignity to swing with the music, I'll not flatter it by calling it dancing, and to sing a few choruses.

I think I enjoyed FFS even more the second time around and that may have been because I knew what to expect and so could just enjoy it rather than try to understand it. Anyway, whatever the reason this was an exceptionally good concert and I can only hope that FFS come back to London soon, perhaps to promote their second album.

5 September 2015

Sabbatage are a welcome addition to the Fox and Duck rota

Normally when I go to see a band at the Fox and Duck on a Saturday night I do not bother to write a review and when I do write one it normally begins with an admission that I did not get to the pub until 10:30pm and so missed the first half of the band's set. Not this time. Black Sabbath were a big and important part of my musical youth and so I was in the pub by 9:15pm to hear Sabbatage play some of their songs.

The Black Sabbath back catalogue consists mainly of album tracks with few hit singles but that was no problem as almost everybody there had clearly bought all the albums and had played them all a lot. My starting point was Vol 4 in 1972 and I worked backwards from there and forwards until Mob Rules in 1981.

Sabbath Bloody Sabbath was, and remains, my favourite Black Sabbath album so I was very pleased that Sabbatage played both the opening title track and also Killing Yourself to Live. The lyrics came flooding back and I was forced to sing along.

The best things about Sabbatage were that they played Black Sabbath songs and they sounded like Black Sabbath, especially with the distinctive guitar sound which it was important to get right. The vocals were slightly less successful but then I do not envy anybody who has to try and sound like both Ozzy Osbourne and Ronnie James Dio.

Sabbatage concentrated mostly on early Sabbath which was good as early Sabbath was heavy Sabbath with crunching guitars and harsh lyrics. I do like some of the later songs a great deal, songs like The Sign Of The Southern Cross from Mob Rules, but these have a very different sound produced by a different line-up so it would have been unfair to expect Sabbatage to play them too.

Black Sabbath had only one genuine hit single, Paranoid in 1970, which Sabbatage rightly kept back for the final run in to their set where it was joined by Iron Man which flopped as a single in 1971 but which was given international recognition in the closing credits of the film of the same name in 2008.

Given the lack of obvious hits to play with Sabbatage did a fine job with the Black Sabbath catalogue and were greatly appreciated by a busy pub who know their music. It was a good night and I hope Sabbatage will be back to give us more of the same.

4 September 2015

Ham: Know Your Place, another fine talk by Sir David Williams

A talk on Ham is always of interest to me and I had another opportunity to go to one thanks to Richmond Council's Know Your Place season of talks.

The Ham: Know Your Place talk was given by Sir David Williams with the subject Open Spaces in Ham and Petersham, Pictures, History and Management. This was the third time that I had heard Sir David talk this year so I knew that I was going to learn some interesting things, especially on the history of some of the places. One of his earlier talks, The History of Ham Riverside Lands, had covered some similar territory and that had been a fabulous talk.

But first I had to get there and I made bit of a Horlicks of the travel. I was working in Leatherhead that day and had made the mistake of buying a return ticket to Kingston. My first plan was to buy a single from Leatherhead to Richmond but the queue at Leatherhead for the one ticket machine there was far too long so I used my return ticket to get me on a train to Clapham Junction.

The second plan was to use one of the check-in Oyster card readers on the platform at Clapham Junction to start a new journey with my Oyster card. Unfortunately Clapham Junction does not have Oyster card readers on the platform, presumably because there is no interchange with the Underground there.

The next plan was to exit at Richmond using my Kingston ticket in the hope that it would let me out thinking that I was just ending my journey a little early. It didn't. Finally I showed my ticket to the person on the barriers and she let me out. A 65 bus from there, and a good walk from Sandpits Road got me to Ham Library at 6:50pm, in good time for the talk starting at 7pm. It all worked out well in the end.

Sir David took us on a logical journey through the major local open spaces from Petersham Park (part of Richmond Park) to Ham Lands via places like Petersham Meadows, Petersham Common, Great South Avenue and Ham Common Woods.

With words and pictures he told us about their history and their current status, particularly how they are managed. He talked about how the deer and cows help to maintain the vegetation in Petersham Park  and Petersham Meadows and how Petersham Common benefits from active management (funded by a Trust) while Petersham Copse suffers most from not being managed.

Management can be a mixed blessing and the recent major clearance works in Ham Common Woods had not been appreciated by a lot of people, myself included. Sir David was able to explain the context of these works which helped me to understand them even if I did not yet agree with them. The Woods had been an open space as recently as the 1920s and had been left to develop as a woodland rather than being managed and so there were some issues with dead and overcrowded trees.

There were many historical photographs to illustrate the talk and the one that made the most impression on me was of young girls dressed in their Sunday best outside of an orphanage on Ham Common, a building that was a hunting lodge and is now a collection of apartments.

Management came up again when talking about Ham Common and St' George's Field both of which suffered to some extent from the proliferation of signs and other urban clutter. I agreed with Sir David on that one.

The final problem area that he mentioned was the Thames Young Mariners site that all but divides Ham Lands, only the tow path connects the two sections. Surrey County Council own the site but make little use of it and had not been a good neighbour, as their major clearance of their land had shown a few years ago. That had caused The Friends of Ham Lands to be formed and me to join them.

It was, as I had expect it to be, a thoroughly entertaining, interesting and informative talk and it helped me to understand a little better the place that I have chosen to make my home.

1 September 2015

Lady Anna: All At Sea at the Park Theatre did Anthony Trollope proud

The Park Theatre at Finsbury Park has quickly established itself as one of my favourite theatres simply because it has so much going for it. The plays are obviously the most important thing with the performance spaces a close second but the front of house area matters too and so do the transport links. The Park Theatre excels with two stages seating 200 and 90 people respectively, two bar areas serving a good range of food and drinks, and it sits almost on top of Finsbury Park station with a bus station next to it.

Being one of my favourite theatres mean that I pay more attention to their listings which, in turn, means that I am more likely to go there. And so it was that I learned about Lady Anna: All At Sea and as it was an adaptation of Anthony Trollope's book Lady Anna I was quick to make a booking. I had been through a Trollope period and had read all of the Barchester stories and had a good idea of what to expect despite not having read Lady Anna itself.

I booked the theatre for a day that I would have been in London. That worked reasonably well though the Met Office got the forecast wrong and my 4km walk in light cloud meant that I got drenched in a very heavy shower. I had an umbrella and that protected my head but my suit and shoes took some serious damage. Luckily I cared for neither very much. Also the rain stopped after a while and continuing the walk was the best way to dry off.

I got to the theatre around 6:30pm which gave me plenty of time to eat and drink before the show. And to dry off some more. I started with a warming coffee and followed it with a spinach quiche and salad. I like their quiches and salads. Warmed and fuelled I got a Meantime Pale Ale to take in to the first half with me.

I had had some luck with the book as for some reason there were eight seats available in the middle of the front row when seats to the sides and behind them had been taken. I spent my £25 on seat A21. The stage was "U" shaped with a wide bottom and short sides and I was just right of centre.

The stage was raised with little legroom but plenty enough for me. The stage was bare apart from the books spread across it. It stayed that way and the books became seats and stepping stones, as required.

Lady Anna: All At Sea told two stories concurrently, the story of Lady Anna as written by Trollope and the story of Trollope writing the book while travelling to Australia on the steamship SS Great Britain, hence the All At Sea qualification.

The story of Lady Anna was a fairly simple one, as was usual with Trollope. An Earl had died and while it was clear who the title should go to the future of his fortune was less certain with two possible wives laying claim and whichever one won that would still leave the new Earl penniless. A marriage was proposed between the new Earl and the daughter of one of the claimants to reunite title and money but she loved a lowly man, a tailor, who would be significantly below her socially if her mother won her case.

From there Anna's story provided the backbone off which hung the characters and social observations that made it a Trollope story.

On the boat, Trollope set about his task in his usual way, writing nine pages each morning before breakfast. His wife the reviewed and corrected his writing. This style has been criticised for being more like an industrial process than an artistic endeavour but the proof is in the pudding and he wrote some very popular books.

Life on the boat also enabled us to understand the social observations that Trollope was making through the eyes of that time. For example, it was inconceivable to Trollope's fellow passengers that Anna, once a Lady, could possibly marry a tailor.

Trollope's story was told in the same style as Trollope told Anna's and the two stories meshed neatly. Helping them to mesh was the small cast that each played several roles. Princess pretty Antonia Kinlay understandably caught my eye the most as Anna in the story and Trollope's maid on the boat. It came as something of a shock to see her in the cafe afterwards to realise that I had been sitting next to her when having my coffee before the show. The other cast were excellent too as they brought the horde of characters to light.

The third story, which encompassed the other two, compared the social structures of England and Australia.

Lady Anna: All At Sea grabbed my attention from the start and held it effortlessly for two hours with stories of relentless charm and interest. It was a luscious experience that left me smiling broadly for a long time.