Lindsey Stirling at 013 Tilburg, Tuesday 4 November 2014

Alex found Lindsey Stirling on YouTube back in 2012, and got the whole family listening to her infectious pop violin. She was touring in support of her first album, and for Christmas that year I got us tickets for her gig at 013 in Tilburg on 16th January 2013.

I don’t remember if it had been snowing that day itself, but the country was white and cold. Alex, Fiona, and I bundled into Turty late in the afternoon and drove around the Amsterdam ring to Breukelen, where we picked up Abi from the station. We stopped off for some food at a McDonalds on the way, and got to Tilburg in time for the concert, but not in time to catch the support act. The place was packed — unpleasantly so, I thought. We struggled to find a spot at the back of the hall with a moderately unobscured view.

The gig itself was great. Lindsey played all of the key songs from her album. She had a keyboard player and a drummer on stage with her, and the act was full of energy. Fiona had been to see the Barenaked Ladies at the Mountain Winery with us in 2010, but it was Alex’s first pop concert. We loved it and resolved to catch her whenever she played near us again.

That day was last Tuesday! The concert at 013 in Tilburg again (after originally having been scheduled for the Klokgebouw in Eindhoven). Not wanting to run the risk of Turty’s exhaust dropping off (again) on a long trip with a time-critical component, I hired us a bigger car for the drive this time. I picked it up at lunchtime, and we set off on the journey at about 17:30. Just as before, we circled Amsterdam and picked Abi up at Breukelen. No snow this time, just lots of traffic jams.

We got to the centre of Tilburg just before 20:00, parked, and queued to get in. The place was packed again. We tried to get in to the downstairs area, but couldn’t even squeeze through the doors. A friendly usher told us that there was still space up on the balcony. It was better up there, but the sight lines weren’t great. We bought merch, lots of merch. We caught the second half of Mike Tompkins’s opening set, which was energetic and nicely produced, but not quite my thing.

Lindsey Stirling came on at 21:00, and the difference from last year was clear straight away. She still had the same keyboard player and drummer, but she was joined on stage by two dancers for many of the songs. The set was more elaborate, the lighting better, and the choreography was more elaborate. In the pauses between songs, she seemed more self-assured. Her second album, Shatter Me, came out earlier this year, and so she had more material to choose from. Everything was bigger, brighter, and more polished. Fiona was utterly entranced. Alex was somewhat pained by the sheer volume of the music, but enjoyed it too.

Lindsey Stirling at 013 Tilburg

(I confirmed my suspicions that the iPhone 4’s low-light performance isn’t as good as the Nexus 4. And the Nexus 4 is not that great.) Long drive back afterwards, and we didn’t get home until after midnight. Alex and Fiona had brought neck pillows and duvets with them, so they curled up in their seats and slept some. I was up early the next day to get the car back before 08:00. Very worthwhile trip.

Mixed Media, Sunday 5 October 2014

(Disclaimer: I received a promotional copy of Exo from Tor Books.)

I love Steven Gould’s Jumper series. Jumper itself is a classic “what if?” story about Davy Rice, who discovers that he can teleport himself to places he can see, or has been to before. Reflex takes Davy and his wife Millie into much darker territory when a shadowy organization kidnaps Davy and tortures him into working for them. In Impulse the story follows Davy and Millie’s daughter Cent as she comes to terms with her own abilities while trying to fit into a new school.

All of the books take a classic science-fictional exploratory approach to teleportation: they take the fact of it as given and explore the consequences, reactions, and workarounds using smart, likeable protagonists who are propelled into unexpected adventures. They’re brilliant. To say I was excited about Exo is an understatement.

It doesn’t disappoint. In Impulse Cent figured out that teleportation implies control over her velocity, and she learned how to fly using ballistic speed boosts. In Exo she takes the next logical step: can she reach space if she boosts upwards fast enough? How can she survive in a vacuum? And what will she do when she gets there?

The four classical types of narrative conflict are “man against man”, “man against society”, “man against nature”, and “man against self.” Exo introduces a fifth: woman against expectations. (I suppose it’s a variant of man against society, but it sounds better.)

Cent, as a young woman, spends the first half of the book butting up against, and systematically battering down, all the misapprehensions, underestimations, and objections the world throws at her in her quest to build her own space programme. It’s glorious. The second half gets a bit engineer-y with a lot of technical details, and the action sub-plot involving the mysterious Daarkon Group feels rushed. It still left me with goosebumps, and a burning desire to find out where the series will go next.

syro

In the last few weeks I’ve been mostly listening to the new Aphex Twin album Syro, and A New House by Deacon Blue.

Deacon Blue - A New House

Deacon Blue’s last two albums didn’t move me very much, but A New House is a fantastic return to form – their best since Fellow Hoodlums. It’s fresh and upbeat, full of catchy hooks and big choruses: a great pop album. Unfortunately all of their UK gigs I could conceivably get to for the rest of the year seem to be sold out. I’d love to see them live.

Finally, in last week’s New Music Monday at work, one of m’colleagues dropped Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” into the playlist, and I’ve been kinda obsessed by that as well. I downloaded her album Red yesterday, which has been gaining me approving nods from Fiona. We listened to it this afternoon as we were making some stuffed felt Minecraft plush heads together.

Taylor Swift - Red

Maxïmo Park at Melkweg, Amsterdam, 11 February 2014

Maxïmo Park at Melkweg, Amsterdam, 11 February 2014

I’ve loved Maxïmo Park since their stunning debut album A Certain Trigger in 2005. I had heard thay are great live, and I was sorely disappointed to have missed them when they played Utrecht on their National Health tour in 2012. (I had actually–giddy with excitement–bought a ticket before I realized that I was going to be in Scotland with the kids for their autumn break that week.) But yesterday evening I finally caught them at Melkweg in Amsterdam. For the second time today, I’ll note:

Holy. Shit.

As usual, I got to the Melkweg way early. (Since missing the first ten minutes of The Tragically Hip in Glasgow a few years ago because I’d foolishly thought that 20:00 on the ticket meant I still had plenty of time, I don’t trust venue schedules any more.) At 19:50 the place was practically deserted. The balconies were blocked off, too, which probably meant there was going to be a relatively low turnout. (Melkweg has a capacity of about 1500.) On the plus side, this meant I was easily able to bag myself a great spot close to the stage and up one step, to help me see over the heads of the inevitably tall Dutchies. Also, right in front of one of the massive speaker stacks. Yuss.

His Clancyness came on at 20:00 and played a nice set. More people arrived, and at 21:00 the lights went down and the sound came up. A haunting electronic drone, throbbing with promise, building and breaking in complexity, played over a blue-lit stage for about five minutes while the sound guys stage left made final adjustments, and finally covered up the glowing apple logos on their MacBook Pros.

The the band came on and launched into Give, Get, Take, the opening song from the new album Too Much Information. Paul Smith was dressed in a natty checked suit, white shirt, Doc Martens, and his trademark hat. Right from the start he was electric, dancing around the stage, posing, jumping, and shaking his hips. His voice was so pure and clear, and so like the recordings that I wondered if he was miming, but no: his live delivery is just extraordinary. The first four tracks they played were all loud and hard and fast to get the audience moving.

Sometimes hearing a favourite song live for the first time can be a disappointment. But when they played The National Health, it was just as powerful as I’d hoped. Locking eyes with the audience, shaking his finger for sharp emphasis, Paul Smith put so much power and emotion behind the words that it made me shiver.

Unfortunately the middle part of the set was plagued by technical issues. Lukas Wooller’s keyboard died during A Fortnight’s Time, and even the replacement keyboard didn’t work straight away. It took him and the techs a good twenty minutes to get sound out of it again. In the meantime, Smith was very apologetic, asking the audience for suggestions of songs they could play that didn’t involve a keyboard. Graffiti was a popular shouted choice, and they shuffled the set list around to accomodate the disruption. I’m sure it would have been even better with keyboards, but Graffiti was never going to be anything but a huge crowd-pleaser.

It was interesting to see a very different Paul Smith during those unrehearsed, slightly panicked moments after each song ended, wondering if the keyboard was ready yet. When he’s singing, he’s mesmerizing; when he’s thanking the audience between songs, he’s charming. But in the face of equipment malfunction he seemed shy and vulnerable. He’s a brilliant performer, but not a natural raconteur. (Puns about “sourcy” behaviour backstage notwithstanding.)

Her Name Was Audre was a great little guitar-and-drums punk tune to end the interruption, and things were properly back on track for I Recognise The Light, a funny track from the new album that I hadn’t properly appreciated until then. The sound quality at Melkweg was fantastic yesterday evening, with the vocals definitely leading the mix. As well as bopping up and down, I spent a lot of time listening to the lyrics, and hearing and interpreting them in a different context. I usually listen to music as a background to other activities, but at a concert I’m right there, doing only that: listening. I didn’t used to like Write This Down much, but the live performance completely changed my perception of it. Likewise, I hadn’t found anything special in Drinking Martinis from Too Much Information until the live experience transformed it for me.

Smith introduced By The Monument by saying that they were playing it at the request of Emma who had contacted them, at which point the woman standing next to me went into a squealing fit of utter delight. I can only assume she was Emma. The Undercurrents, another of my favourites from The National Health was glorious. Girls Who Play Guitars had the crowd in a frenzy. And finally, Midnight On The Hill, one of the most emotional tracks on the new album, gave them a truly shining exit.

The encore was playful. The last track on Too Much Information is Where We’re Going, and it starts with a simple strummed guitar and the line: “I don’t know where we’re going.” Someone in the crowd shouted, “Going Missing!”, which was the obvious response. Paul Smith interrupted the song with a laugh and told us that we’d get there soon enough. Big roar of approciation. So they finished Where We’re Going, a delightful, simple song about uncertainty and anticipation, and then segued straight into their big finale, the much-loved Going Missing.

To everyone who told me that Maxïmo Park are a must-see live band: you were right. So awesomely right.

Set list:

  1. Give, Get, Take
  2. Our Velocity
  3. Signal and Sign
  4. The National Health
  5. Brain Cells
  6. Hips and Lips
  7. A Fortnight’s Time
  8. The Kids Are Sick Again
  9. Graffiti
  10. Lydia, The Ink Will Never Dry
  11. Leave This Island
  12. Books From Boxes
  13. Her Name Was Audre
  14. I Recognise the Light
  15. My Bloody Mind
  16. Write This Down
  17. Drinking Martinis
  18. By The Monument
  19. The Undercurrents
  20. Girls Who Play Guitars
  21. Apply Some Pressure
  22. Midnight on the Hill

Encore:

  1. Where We’re Going
  2. Going Missing

Neko Case at Paradiso, Amsterdam, 19 Sep 2009

Middle Cyclone album coverI was somewhat miffed when I discovered that Neko Case was playing Amsterdam in February this year by checking her web site a few days after the intended gig, and finding that she had had to cancel it because of an illness. On the one hand, I had missed seeing her; but on the other hand I would have missed seeing her anyway. Hmm.

Fortunately, her autumn tour brought her back to the Netherlands, where she played Paradiso on Saturday 19th September. Abi and I managed to wangle babysitting for the evening, so we could both go. It was a lovely Saturday, and we cycled in to town and had a burger at Burgermeester before the gig. We had a delightful evening, but as concerts go it wasn’t that great.

Although Neko was in fine voice, she looked tired and unhappy. Kelly Hogan, the second vocalist in the band, did all the talking between songs, occasionally throwing a line to Neko only to be rebuffed with a shrug. It was only towards the end of the set, when the end was in sight, that she even cracked a smile and started to engage a little with the audience. I know that she had had to cancel at least one gig earlier this tour because of illness (Edinburgh), so it’s possible she still wasn’t feeling right. However, the overall vibe I got from the stage was aloof and reluctant, which was disappointing.

Having said that, the actual performance was good. Neko’s voice is one of the modern wonders of the world, and Kelly Hogan’s provides a great accompaniment. The band was clearly comfortable playing together, and Jon Rauhause, hunched in intense concentration over his banjo and steel guitar, was a special treat.

They played through most of the new album Middle Cyclone and a helping of favourites from earlier albums. “Maybe Sparrow” was a definite crowd-pleaser early on, but the songs from Blacklisted were the ones I liked best, with “I Wish I Was The Moon” in the middle of the set being my personal highlight. It seemed to me that “The Train From Kansas City” right at the very end was where the band really seemed to shake loose and enjoy themselves the most. It’s just a pity that they didn’t light up earlier on.

Neko Case European Tour Fall 2009 Print

Set list:

  1. Things That Scare Me (BL)
  2. Maybe Sparrow (FCBTF)
  3. People Got A Lotta Nerve (MC)
  4. Fever (MC)
  5. Hold On, Hold On (FCBTF)
  6. I’m An Animal (MC)
  7. Middle Cyclone (MC)
  8. The Pharaohs (MC)
  9. Margaret vs. Pauline (FCBTF)
  10. Deep Red Bells (BL)
  11. I Wish I Was The Moon (BL)
  12. Polar Nettles (MC)
  13. Red Tide (MC)
  14. Prison Girls (MC)
  15. The Tigers Have Spoken (TTHS)
  16. Alimony (Harry Nilsson cover)
  17. That Teenage Feeling (FCBTF)
  18. This Tornado Loves You (MC)

Encore:

  1. Vengeance Is Sleeping (MC)
  2. Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth (MC)
  3. Train From Kansas City (TTHS)

MC = Middle Cyclone, FCBTF = Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, BL = Blacklisted, TTHS = The Tigers Have Spoken

Malcolm Middleton at Paradiso, Amsterdam, 14 Sep 2009

Growing up Limburg in the 1980s, Paradiso in Amsterdam held a special musical mystique: it’s where all the cool bands played when they came to the Netherlands. Whenever pop radio or TV shows rattled off gig listings, Paradiso was top of the list. But Amsterdam was the big city, two and a half hours away by train, and I was such a nerdy teenager that making a pilgrimage northwards to see my favourite artists was practically unimaginable. So I’m glad that my first visit — at age 37, and now living within cycling distance of Amsterdam — was suitably awesome.

Malcolm Middleton, with his introspective and self-pitying lyrics, was an appropriate choice given how I was feeling that day. I had had a traumatic operation to extract a wisdom tooth the week before, and I had been back to see my dentist that afternoon to find out how the gaping wound was healing:

Me: Is it normal for it still to hurt this much after a week?

Dentist: Dude! I can see your jawbone right through the hole! No wonder you’re in pain. Here, let me squirt some ice cold saline solution on it.

Me: Aaaaauuuugh!

I had taken a healthy dose of ibuprofen before I left the house, but by the time I got to Paradiso my jaw was still throbbing painfully. Still, the buzz of excitement in line for the doors lifted my spirits. Most people seemed to be there to see The Jesus Lizard, who were playing the main stage later that evening, but all the 30-something Scottish ex-pats were clearly there to see Malcolm upstairs in the “kleine zaal”.

Because I had got lost a couple of times on my cycle ride into town, Johnny Lynch (The Pictish Trail) was about half-way through his warm-up set already. Malcolm himself was selling CDs and merch at the back of the room, and I got myself a “Happy Medium” T-shirt and a copy of Secret Soundz, vol. 1 before slinking off to the bar for a beer to help numb the pain.

I don’t know what the last song was in Lynch’s set, but it was a belter — it started off quiet, and built up an insistent electronic beat to a thrashing crescendo with synthesized bagpipes skirling away in the background. The sound system is enormous for such a small space, and my ears were ringing when he finished.

I love loud music — like, really loud. There’s something about having my eardrums assaulted by the supercharged amps of a live band that fills me with euphoria. (I get the same feeling from extraordinarily hot food.) For some reason I had got it into my head that this gig was going to be a quiet affair — Malcolm alone with an acoustic guitar plucking away at acoustic versions of his quieter songs — but this opening act (as well as the drums, keyboards, and electric guitars sitting around on the stage) made it clear that we were in for a full-on experience.

And sure enough, when Malcolm took to the stage with Johnny Lynch back on guitar next to him, he opened with two songs that positively bathed the audience in sound. It was as if all the oxygen had been sucked out of the room and replaced with pure music. “Crappo The Clown” started slowly, its slow beat plodding on inexorably, rising in power with every verse, eventually crashing down in a tidal wave of wailing guitars. “Choir”, a song I had never thought of as particularly loud before, took on a pulsing new intensity played live.

By this point, I didn’t care about my toothache any more. The painkillers, the beer, and the CPR-strength bass frequencies had blasted me into a state of bliss where all I could do was sway to the beat and let the guitars flush out my head.

“Subset of The World” was the first of four songs they played from the new album Waxing Gibbous. Malcolm’s performance was controlled rather then energetic, his face intense and concentrated even on the frenzied “A Brighter Beat” when the drummer got his chance to go wild. Johnny Lynch’s light vocals, also present on the new album, are a good fit live, never more so than on “Don’t Want To Sleep Tonight” which they played as a very brief encore. I hadn’t made an emotional connection with that song before the gig; now it is one of my favourites (even if they did fluff the ending).

It was all over too fast. There was another act on later that evening, so they were under a tight curfew, and were only on stage for an hour and a bit. (Also, I think they wanted to catch The Jesus Lizard next door.) I drifted out of Paradiso on a cloud of contentment, my face plastered with a silly grin. As cycled home through the centre of Amsterdam, bustling with nightlife even on a Monday evening in mid-September, I was struck by how beautiful the city is…

…and I didn’t think about my toothache until I got back home an hour later.

Set list:

  1. Crappo the Clown (514)
  2. Choir (ITW)
  3. Love Comes In Waves (SOH)
  4. Subset of the World (WG)
  5. New song? “Sitting on my fat arse on a Tuesday”? (See also Manic Pop Thrills)
  6. Zero (WG)
  7. Stay Close Sit Tight (ABB)
  8. **? Another one I didn’t recognize, but really liked.
  9. Box & Knife (WG)
  10. Blue Plastic Bags (SOH)
  11. A Brighter Beat (ABB)

Very brief encore:

  1. Don’t Want To Sleep Tonight (WG)

WG = Waxing Gibbous, SOH = Sleight of Heart, ABB = A Brighter Beat, ITW = Into The Woods, 514 = 5:14 Fluoxytine Seagull Alcohol John Nicotine

Radio Sunpig 2008 – The Seeds Of Something Better

Around 2006, we were operating at a local maximum; 2007 was the big disruption. If you look back at Radio Sunpig for 2006 and 2007, you can infer some of this from the music I was listening to. In 2006, I was featuring songs like See The World by Gomez and Use It by the New Pornographers. 2007 was much darker, with harder riffs, melancholy chords, and a significant dose of Malcolm Middleton. The cover I made for Radio Sunpig 2007 captures a lot of my state of mind for the year: not so good.

2008 was still not great, but at least it showed promise. Hence the title for Radio Sunpig 2008.

Radio Sunpig 2008: The Seeds Of Something Better

As for the fact that I’m posting this at the end of August 2009, well. I did actually put the compilation together in December 2008 — it has just taken me some time to write about it.

  1. The Bird And The Bee – Again & Again
    I first came across the Bird And The Bee by watching Dennis Liu’s delightfully playful video for Again & Again. The official video does a better job of capturing the 60s retro tropicalia vibe that suffuses the song, but nonetheless I will always think “Mac” whenever I hear it.
  2. Friendly Fires – Jump In The Pool
    Another slice of electro pop with tropicalia influences. The smooth 10cc-ish harmonies and keyboards give the song a laid-back background, while the drums and vocal exhortations to jump in the pool drive it forward. It shouts “summer!” — but in a cool and understated way.
  3. Los Campesinos! – Death To Los Campesinos!
    Jangly power-pop chaos! Rainbows! Unicorns! Kittens! Simply awesome.
  4. Mates Of State – My Only Offer
    I came across Mates Of State via The Yellow Stereo. They’re a husband and wife duo, and here they sing about a marriage that is not going so well. The insistent kick/hat drum beat and simple piano line walk the song forward at a brisk pace, while a glockenspiel drops tiny tinkles of sad tears along the way. Kori and Jason alternate vocals, playing the parts of the couple in question, dealing with the life they feel trapped in. Upbeat and poignant.
  5. Spoon – Finer Feelings
    Not my favourite track from their album Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (that would be the hauntingly sparse The Ghost of you Lingers, but the one that fits best here in this mix. This is comfortably mature indie rock – practiced, but not worn.
  6. Ladyhawke – Paris Is Burning
    The first Ladyhawke song I heard was the thumping Magic, which comes at you like a dancefloor zombie, relentless and hungry for synth. Paris Is Burning is a lighter track, but still bursting with shimmering disco flavour.
  7. Tegan And Sara – The Con
    A roiling song full of bitter lovesick emotion and heartfelt vocals, harmonizing and clambering over each other.
  8. Deastro – Light Powered
    I found Deastro’s album Keepers as a special exclusive on eMusic. 2008 was a bit of an electro-rock year for me, and I was blown away by it. Light Powered in particular sounds like a mad experiment from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. It would not be out of place as as the title music for a bizarre 70s BBC science fiction adventure, filled with classically trained Shakespearean actors, well-intentioned special effects, and lots of Welsh quarries.
  9. Boulder Acoustic Society – Does It Really Matter
    You’re not going to have heard of this, but it’s great. It won the Best Song award in the Americana category of the 7th annual Independent Music Awards. It’s a 3 1/2 minute slice of peppy fiddles, guitars and accordions that sounds like it belongs in a Pixar film. In fact, the track sounded so familiar to me even on first listen that I was convinced it must have been used in the credits for one of their animated features…but no.
  10. Of Montreal – A Sentence Of Sorts In Kongsvinger
    “I spent the winter on the verge of a total breakdown
    while living in Norway”
    If anything sums up Radio Sunpig 2008, this is it. Crazy sweet electro pop, with spot-on lyrics.
  11. We Are Scientists – After Hours
    Just a perfect simple indie pop song built up from a few simple drums and guitar layers, full of easy fills and hooks. The video has a great sense of fun that perfectly matches the track.
  12. Guillemots – Get Over It
    The common theme of MASSIVE POWER-POP SOUND is apparent here again. I loved this song from the first time I heard it. Fyfe Dangerfield’s shouty vocals are backed by a subtle but insistent drum groove that keeps up the pressure from the opening to the fade.
  13. The Futureheads – The Beginning Of The Twist
    This is the Futureheads in all-out rock mode. Great fun.
  14. Attic Lights – Never Get Sick Of The Sea
    Guitars, pounding drums, sweet Beach Boys harmonies, full of infectious energy. If this doesn’t put a spring in your step, nothing will.
  15. Elbow – One Day Like This
    This is a glorious sweeping finale for 2008. Sudden love revealed. The shock of remembering that beauty exists. Eyes wide open to the potential of the road ahead.