Amsterdam walk

Abi and I took another long walk today. We set off from Oostzaan in glorious hot sunshine around 08:30 and headed South. Took the ferry across the IJ to Tasmanstraat, and continued to the Vondelpark, where we stopped for a snack at the Vondeltuin. Then onwards to the Amsterdamse Bos where I pondered the mild ridiculousness of having lived within walking distance of Amsterdam for seven years now, and never having set foot there before. It’s really nice. It was like visting Golden Gate Park last year for the first time, after having been a regular visitor to the Bay Area since 1991.

leaning trees of lomanstraat
The Leaning Trees of Lomanstraat
birth of change by Server Verheugen
YAY PUBLIC ART (Birth of Change by Serge Verheugen, just near one of the main entraces to the Bos)
family ties by serve verheugen
Family Ties, also by Serge Verheugen, just a little bit farther into the Bos. AKA the “Mo’ Creatures Mod

The walk came to 22.6km, according to my GPS tracking app. A nice distance.

Walk to Velsen Zuid

On Saturday Abi and I took a long walk from Oostzaan to Velsen Zuid. Our original plan had been to walk a bit farther to IJmuiden and then take the green “Fast Flying Ferry” hydrofoil back to Amsterdam, but unfortunately the service has stopped. It was shut down on 1st January because of low passenger numbers. Alex and Fiona went on it once a few years ago, but I never got the chance – pity.

We left the house around 08:30, and had amazing walking weather. Blue skies, temperature rising through the mid teens, and a very light haze that burned off later in the morning. Our route took us over the Den Uylbrug, along the north shore of the Noordzeekanaal, and through Overtoom and Nauerna. We took the Spaarndam-Buitenhuizen ferry across the Noordzeekanaal, and then walked through Spaarnwoude to the edge of Velsen Zuid, where we caught the 82 bus into Amsterdam.

I’ve played golf at Spaarnwoude, but this was the first time I’d explored more of the recreation area on foot, and it’s lovely. Towards the end of the walk, we took a detour from the direct path to visit an outlook point (on a hill — a hill!) and a signposted art object. This turned out to be the enormous piece “Klimwand en Schijf in Grofpuinheuvel” (Climbing Wall and Disc in a Mound of Rubble) by Dutch sculptor Frans De Wit.

It does exactly what it says on the tin: a free-standing public climbing wall (no entrance fee; just bring your own gear) in line with two massive concrete discs embedded in a man-made hill of rocks. There’s a narrow staircase betwene the discs, and when you climb it you can see that the climbing wall is exactly in line with the discs. It’s super impressive.

Between the Den Uylbrug and the Noordzeekanaal
Ships unloading in the Westhaven
Klimwand en Schijf in Grofpuinheuvel by Frans de Wit
Climbing wall
The stairs leading up between the two discs

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

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