19 December 2014

Orchestral Manoeuvres by Sparks

Sparks doing an orchestral version of Kimono My House to celebrate its fortieth birthday (!) was something that I was clearly going to be very keen to see. Sadly, but not unexpectedly, many other people thought the same thing and the Barbican website struggled to meet demand.

Having volunteered to get the tickets I sat busily, and increasingly desperately, refreshing the screen and trying to book seats only to find them gone when I moved to the next stage of the checkout. I thought that I would get no tickets at all but in a final act of desperation I went for three separate tickets in the Balcony, the top level of three, and managed to get them. I was hoping for better but going was far far better than not going so I was happy with that.

On the day there were a few spare seats in the Balcony, I hope that they had been bought by touts who had been unable to resell them, and I was able to swap B25 for A22 and a pretty good view of the stage.

Kimono My House was even better than I expected.

This was not Kimono My House performed by an orchestra (like Mantovani might have done) but a full orchestration of Kimono My House. The songs were familiar but noticeably different. Perhaps the most obvious example of this was the dark grinding coda given to Up Here In Heaven Without You.

Equator was my favourite track on the album and it was my favourite song on this night. It lent itself to extended play and that is what Sparks did, closing the first half of the set with the audience joyfully joining in with the chorus.

The second half was a greatest hits, many of which also featured in the Two Hands, One Mouth tours and it was nice to hear songs that had first been stripped to the bone then given full orchestral flesh. When Do I Get To Sing My Way was a particular favourite of mine (it always is) and it was good to here other regulars like Number One Song In Heaven and The Rhythm Thief get the orchestral treatment too. Let The Monkey Drive was a welcome surprise.

Constrained by the space and the demands of the music, there were fewer theatrics that usual though we did still get the Ron dance and Russell's unusual trousers (where does he buy them?). This show was all about the music and the music was brilliant. There was a long standing ovation at the end with Glyndebourne levels of applause.

Kimono My House may have been a risk, orchestrating a forty year old album for a relatively obscure band and putting it on in a large hall, but it was an undoubted triumph. So much so that they planned to do it all again the next day. And I'll be there for that too.

10 December 2014

BCSA "Get to Know You" Social (December 2014)

I usually describe each monthly BCSA "Get to Know You" Social as more of the jolly same but in December there were a couple of differences. Nothing that spectacular but differences just the same.

Due to another booking we were not in our usual room on the ground floor at the Czech and Slovak Bar and Restaurant but in the meeting room upstairs. This made little difference to the evening and the occasional walk up and down stairs to get beers was probably a good thing. It was also nice to have some different pictures to look at.

The other difference from recent socials was that I was able to work in London that day, rather than Reading, and that I meant that I could get there about quarter to seven instead of a quarter past. I know that the social does not start officially until 7pm but it is nice to get there before that to greet and prompt or early arrivals and, besides, the bar is open then.

I got my usual Pilsner Urquell from the bar before following the BCSA signs upstairs to the gathering. Despite being a little early I was surprised to find that I was not the first person there and so had somebody to talk from the very start.

The food was the same as usual and I have now given up any pretence that I might order anything other than Smazeny Syr. The only changes were the way that I composed the photo of my food and the filters that I applied to it. It was not really as red as that.

The food and the drink were pleasant enough (as always) but the evening was all about conversations and I had lots of them with regulars (e.g. Ruzena) and first-timers (e.g. Robert).

A large part of the evening was spent talking about what the BCSA could offer its members. This was part of a drive by new Chairman, Michael, who was there to have just those sort of conversations with the younger people that we sometimes struggle to reach as a society.

Of course it was not all business and we talked about all sorts of things, most of them soon forgotten as most pub conversations are. I do recall talking a little about places to go in Slovakia but that is not uncommon given my interest and the number of Slovaks in the room.

Despite the early start I was still there at the very end (10:30) and even hung around for a little while after the bar had closed to finish off the conversations that were in full-swing at the time. Conversations are hard things to end, there is always somebody who wants to add something (often me!), and so it was around 11pm before I finally left. Even then a group of carried on talking as we walked up towards the stations. In fact I was not left alone to listen to my podcasts until we passed Willesden Junction, which was all but home.

It was just another good night talking to various interesting people about various interesting things.

7 December 2014

Office Politics at Theatre503 was sharp, dark and funny

Office Politics described itself as "three darkly twisted and hilarious plays" which is right in my sweet spot so obviously I was going to be tempted. It was on at Theatre503 too, another good thing. The bad news was that the only night of the two that it was on that I could get to was the normally theatre-dry Sunday evening.

The good triumphed over the bad, rather easily, and I went.

I got to Clapham Junction in time to walk to the theatre (the Health app on the iPhone 6 makes you want to walk everywhere) and to get a pint in before climbing the tricky stairs up to the theatre's waiting area in good time for the 7:45 start.

I got my usual middle of the front-row seat and while I took the usual photo of my view I decided not to use it as it was for the set of the panto and had no bearing on the plays at all.

The three plays followed one after another, rather like a sketch show but with much longer sketches that usual.

In the first two opposites collided in a lift. One was posh and a little late for his interview, the other was working class and very early. Then the lift broke down. Then they started to annoy each other with their habits. Then they learned that they were going for the same job. It did not end well. The confession from the posh one that he was from Richmond added an extra smile.

In the second a young lady was in a waiting room, presumably in a police station, where she went through the events that might have led to her being there. These were delivered in the non-chronological order that the brains connects things. The main theme was her unrequited love for somebody in the office who preferred, instead, the obvious shallow charms of another. Then they went on an adventure trip together. It did not end well.

In the final story two young men hit the town in a blur of J├Ągerbombs, cocaine and lap dancers. It did not end well.

Office Politics was what it claimed, three darkly twisted and hilarious plays, which was just the thing to brighten up a dull grey evening. Once again Theatre503 had delivered the goods.

6 December 2014

The Thin White Duke get it together at the Fox and Duck

There are few nights that are as much fun as The Thin White Duke playing at the Fox and Duck; the songs are brilliant, the band are good and there is always a great atmosphere in the pub.

I have seen The Thin White Duke play several times now and I think that I enjoy them more each time.

I made a slight mistake this time and assuming that they would start around 9:30, as they had previously despite the billed 9:00 start time, I turned up at 9:20 to find them already playing and the pub already buzzing. They were on their fourth song, The Man Who Sold The World. A good start.

I had to push fairly hard through the crowd to get to the bar to get my beer and then back towards the door again to join some friends who had grabbed a good spot there.

This spot used to be against the back of a bench but the two benches that used to divide off that section of the bar had gone in the pub's ongoing improvements, which also included a proper raised stage for the bands. I liked that changes as it made it easier to see the band and created more space for dancing. Not that I ever dance but some people do.

There was another surprise with an unknown bassist playing in the band. Just to fool you the picture above was taken in the second half of the set when the original bassist was back with the band. I spoke to him afterwards and he explained that work commitments meant that he was leaving the band and the new bassist was gradually taking over.

There was no surprise with the set-list, though they did sneak in two songs that were new as far as I am aware, The Stars are out Tonight (from The Next Day) and Stay (from Station to Station).

You just have to look at the set-list to understand how good the evening was. I was soon singing, then swaying and finally (against my better judgement) dancing. The Thin White Duke know what they are doing and they structure the set well mixing in some (possibly) less well-known songs like Diamond Dogs as well as a good selection of the hit singles. The last four songs were out and out belters and everybody in the pub was singing along and most of us were dancing too. It was wonderful.

The Thin White Duke had a well deserved break somewhere in the middle and then played until the midnight curfew, so not only was it a fun evening it was a delightfully long one too.

The evening was greatly helped by seeing so many familiar faces there, some local faces and also a few know from other music venues and pubs. I dread to think how many times Ralph has been in the same room as me!

The Thin White Duke are due back at the Fox and Duck on 25 April. It's in my diary.

5 December 2014

Loving Mouse Guard by David Petersen

I had been tempted by Mouse Guard for some time, and even bought the first volume as a gift, but had never found the time and the opportunity to read it before. Then I bought it digitally.

The problem with paper comics is that you have to be near a comic shop when you want to buy one (or succumb to the devil Amazon) and you have to be near the comic when you want to read it. With digital all you need is an iPad to do everything and I always have mine with me.

As is increasingly the case, the spur to buy Mouse Guard was a ComiXology quick sale (yes, I know they are owned by Amazon now but needs must), which had the first three volumes at £2.99 each instead of the usual £7.99. That worked out at about 50p a comic and was far too great a temptation for me to resist, so I swiped and touched the glass a few times and they were mine.

The story of Mouse Guard is fairly traditional anthropomorphic fantasy that sits somewhere between The Wind in the Willows and Lord of the Rings. It is both very cute and little dark. Some of the scenes are just beautiful, bringing back thoughts of people like Beatrix Potter and Tracey Helps (though not as twee as either of them) while in other scenes heroes die. There has been at least one significant death in each of the tales that I have ready so far.

The story does enough to entertain but it is the art work that has won Mouse Guard its reputation, as I hope this cover from the second volume shows. The owl, injured in an earlier encounter, had deadly intent in its eyes while one of the Guard stands small and defiant before it.

Mouse Guard is a sumptuous comic and I am loving it immensely.

3 December 2014

LIKE Christmas Party 2014

I have been a member of LIKE, the London Information and Knowledge Exchange, for several years because it's a good group of people with a shared passion for managing information.

The business meetings are instructive and fun and the social meetings are even more fun, and a little bit instructive too.

So it was no surprise that I was quick to put my name down for this year's Christmas dinner at The Marquis in Chandos Place on the south-west corner of Covent Garden. I arranged to work in London that day and had a pleasant forty minute stroll down from Kings Cross to get some exercise and build up an appetite.

I also built up a thirst so my first stop was the bar before negotiating the steeps curving steps up to the function room.

Once I had collected my glass of bubbly and name badge, my first job was to find a spot for my £1 Secret Santa. There are no pound shops close to Kings Place so that lunchtime I had a pleasant walk to Camden to do my shopping. I also had to buy a Christmas bag to put it in, which strictly speaking took me over the £1 limit but that is the price you pay for leaving things so late. The present was left somewhere near a window and I claimed my seat on the far side of the room.

There was much chatting, or networking as we like to call it, before we were asked to sit. Without any planning I found myself sitting with Martin, Andrew and Sarah, two of whom I'd spoken to several times before and one of whom was a new connection (now formalised on LinkedIn).

Our first task was the Christmas Quiz set by a fiendish librarian. Actually the questions were pretty far, the fault was in our knowledge; we really should have recognised more of the lyrics from Christmas songs. I still think that the picture of Batgirl looked more like Hit Girl, though I have to concede that Batgirl (Barbara Gordon) was a librarian while Hit Girl was not.

After the quiz came the food. I started with a soup and then a very impressive mushroom wellington. I had not gone there for the food but having food as good as this was a help.

The food came and went but the conversations continued, and they were the real reason that I was there.

At some point some people started to leave and that generated a little space for the rest of us to move around a little and talk to other people. It was good to catch up with Jennifer, for example.

I had arrived at the pub soon after 6pm and was on the verge of being thrown out almost five hours later, still chatting and still having a great time. Even by the high standard of LIKE events this was a glorious evening.

2 December 2014

Piranha Heights at the Old Red Lion Theatre was delightfully weird

I was vaguely aware of the Old Red Lion Theatre having been to the pub downstairs (prior to a visit to nearby Sadler's Wells) but had never been there, or had a particular reason to do so. Then a chance conversation at another Philip Ridley play at the Arcola alerted me to Piranha Heights.

The Old Red Lion is conveniently close to Angel tube and that made it fairly easy to get there, despite being forced to work in Reading that day. I even had time to eat in the pub, a vegetarian Bombay Burrito, though I did get a little nervous over how long it took to arrive. It all worked out in the end.

The theatre was upstairs but the box office was downstairs, in corner of the bar, and I was able to swap my email for a ticket while waiting for my food.

More or less on the dot of 7:30 we were summoned upstairs. It was a rather orderly rush and my years of training for such events meant that I was among the very first up and so was able to bag the front row seat that I wanted.

My first thought was it was rather like the White Bear Theatre, but much bigger, with a rectangular stage surrounded on two sides with seats in an L-shape. The size, but not the shape, were similar to Pentameters. Or, to put it in other words, this theatre in a pub was similar to other theatres in pubs that I had been to.

The stage was set as a somewhat dated living room. Here we met a middle-aged man waiting for somebody. That somebody was his younger brother who, it transpired he had not seen for a some time. We also learned that they were in their Mother's flat, that she had just died and they both had designs on the flat.

Then, much like a JG Ballard novel, the normal became strange and then outright weird.

An awful lot happened and it would be difficult and unhelpful to try and describe all of if; so here are just a few highlights. The younger brother had brought along a young woman and a baby who he had just met and who we wanted to have living in the house. The young woman had an exuberant young man in tow, not the baby's father. She spoke Gibberish. The older brother's teenage son arrived, he was weird in his own right (he spoke to an invisible Jiminy Cricket character). The son and the boyfriend met with a series of whoops and discovered a shared passion for violence and each other. The baby ...

Through this the relationship between the brothers, and with their families, got more complicated too; such as the younger brother suggesting that his nephew loved him more than his father and that he (the nephew) was going to leave his dad and come and live with his uncle in the flat.

The story was fast and chaotic; probably like a ride on Nemesis if I was brave enough to know what that is like. It was exhilarating, thrilling and exhausting. And, like a theme-park ride, reached a natural ending, though this one left me thinking about what was going to happen next to the brothers and to the two young men. Perhaps it was more of a pause than an ending.

There was a question and answer session with the cast afterwards which I stayed for. This gave some insights to their approach to the production, such as doing some rehearsals without words to get the movements right (there was a lot of movement). It offered fewer clues as to what the play was actually about as the cast had different opinions, the brothers thought it was about them but the others disagreed.

It was certainly about the stories we tell each other and how many of these are not true and what that means. Did the son really see Jiminy Cricket, did the others mean it when they said that they believed that they did, and did he believe them when they said that they believed him? You get the idea.

Piranha Heights was a frighteningly deep and complex play which I was able to navigate safely thanks to the superb crew. The ride was a very rewarding experience.

30 November 2014

Space Ritual implode beautifully at the Borderline

Any Space Ritual concern is a special event and that was especially true in a year that I had not seen them at all (the last time was in December 2013) and this concert was made even more special by being billed as their last.

Their final concert was billed as The Space Ritual Implosion and was planned as a long event, running from 5pm to 10pm, featuring two support bands with Space Ritual members. Plans were changed late in the day as Nik Turner's Project 9 were dropped which put the start time back about an hour. That suited me as it gave me time to walk up to EAT for a snack and a coffee before the gig.

I got to the Borderline in good time to squeeze in to a spot on the front left before the other expected support act, Thomas Crimble's Inevitable, took to the stage. I also impressed myself by not getting the usual beer first.

Thomas plays keyboards for Space Ritual but here he was on rhythm guitar and lead vocals. The band's construction (lead, rhythm and bass guitars and drums) and Thomas' checked over-shirt suggested Neil Young and Crazy Horse, and the music did too, especially when there were songs about living on a farm. The songs were all original though and the band made a good noise playing them. Inevitable were the sort of support band that you paid attention to and enjoyed listening to, rather than talking through while waiting for the main act. They went down well.

After Inevitable we were treated to some jazz mixes from the decks of Sam Ollis. That was a good sign as he had a history of appearing with the band but had been missing from recent engagements.

As the rest of the band took to the stage it was clear that this was the Space Ritual A-Team with Nik Turner, Mick Slattery (lead), Thomas Crimble (keys), Terry Ollis (drums), Sam Ollis (more drums), Chris Purdon (noises), Gary Smart (bass) and, of course, Ms Angel (movement). Space Ritual have played with different and more people but this was my favourite line-up.

The set-list was a best of Space Ritual too, though this is Mick's copy and for some reason it had some songs missing from it. At one point Mick asked Ms Angel why she had come on stage and she said that it was for D-Rider which you will notice is not on the list. That mattered not, they played D-Rider and Mick joined in just as though he knew it was coming.

The music was typical, and wonderful, Space Ritual with familiar songs bent in to extended riffs before gradually returning to where they started. The thirteen songs were each extended from their original four minutes or so to about twice that. It was bouncy, funky, spacey, fun stuff.

Amidst all the familiarity there were a couple of things that I noticed. Gary Smart was so involved in the music that he spent a lot of time jumping on the spot as he played. That may have made him tired as he also sat down cross-legged for a couple of songs. Ms Angel had been shopping and had three outfits that I had not seen before (I last saw her with Arthur Brown). They were all sexy without being rude though a minor wardrobe malfunction on the gold outfit did show a little more that usual until she managed to fix it.

The place was very busy and the audience reaction was loud and enthusiastic. This may have been what tempted Nik to veer away from the "last gig ever" line towards "we'll see what we can do", which brought even more loud cheering. Obviously I hope that Space Ritual can continue in some form even if some of the current line-up are unable to continue.

Space Ritual's version of the Hawkwind legacy is different from the others who still carry the space rock torch and it's a sound that begs to be heard; and I'll be there to hear it if they do keep the magic going.