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Posts Tagged ‘Billy Bragg’

Contemporary Music

I’d never heard of Joe Henry until his field recordings of railroad songs with Billy Bragg last year, and I only heard that record a few days before their lovely concert at Union Chapel, which took a side-trip to include some timely protest songs, and a surreal ending when they were joined on stage by Chas & Dave!

Opera & Dance

I wasn’t keen on the music of Lygeti’s Le Grand Macabre when I saw a staged production at ENO eight years ago, but with the superior LSO, on stage, under Simon Rattle, the LSC in the auditorium aisles (flouting fire regulations!) and a fine line-up of soloists and instrumentalists popping up all over the place in the audience it was rather thrilling. I got the humour which I missed last time, though I’m not sure I got Peter Sellers’ Chernobyl staging (which the composer took against when this version was first staged in Salzburg 19 years ago). I still don’t understand it, but now I’m not sure I’m supposed to!

Les Enfants Terrible, a ballet-opera by Philip Glass, was only partly successful for me. I liked the music, played by three pianos, and the design was good (apart from an unscheduled break when a screen refused to move!) but I’m not sure Javier de Frutos’ choreography with multiple dancers for the two principal roles really worked; it was a bit too fussy.

Film

January is always a busy month in the cinema as all the Oscar contenders are released, and so it was……

Passengers was a bit far-fetched, but quality SciFi nonetheless. Worth seeing for Michael Sheen as an android barman!

A Monster Calls is a highly original and deeply moving story of a young boy coping with his mother’s death from cancer. Young Lewis MacDougall was extraordinary.

Manchester by the Sea took me by surprise. It has a very un-Hollywood authenticity and emotionality; it feels very much like a European film. Sad but beautiful.

La La Land had so much hype it was never likely to live up to it and so it was. Though I enjoyed it, the score, singing and dancing all weren’t good enough to make it an Oscar winner, though it probably will as it’s Hollywood’s love affair with Hollywood.

I adored Lion, so heart-warming and beautifully acted. Based on the true story of a lost Indian boy adopted by a Tasmanian couple, it ended beautifully and movingly with film of the meeting of the real people on which it was based.

Jackie was a big disappointment, despite a fine performance by Natalie Portman. A film about a very interesting woman and a very interesting period turned out to be ever so dull.

I’m not sure it was a good idea to make T2 Trainspotting; I found it a bit disappointing. It was a film of its time and maybe it should have been left that way.

I greatly admired Denial, the very gripping story of the defamation case brought by holocaust denier David Irving against an American academic. It unfolded like a thriller and had a superb British cast.

Art

Dulwich Picture Gallery discovered another old master, this time 17th century Dutch landscape artist Adriaen van de Velde. His pictures might be landscapes, but they have lots of people and animals in them, and there are beaches, sea and boats too. Sadly, there were only 23 finished paintings, less than half the show.

William Kentridge‘s six installations at Whitechapel Gallery were fascinating and playful. I’d seen individual works by him before, but this combination of machines, video, music and tapestry really showed off his inventiveness.

Malian photographer Malick Sidibe‘s exhibition of B&W photographs at Somerset House was a revelation, such an evocative representation of Malian society since the 60’s, and the accompanying soundtrack of Malian music was the icing on the cake.

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Contemporary Music

I couldn’t resist the two seventy-something Celtic Knights as part of BluesFest. Van the Man and Jones the Voice at the O2 Arena both proved to be at the top of their vocal game. They each played great one-hour sets with their respective bands and seven songs together, three at the end of Van’s set and four at the end of Tom’s. These collaborations were under-rehearsed, rather random and disorganised affairs but they came out charming. The contrast between Tom’s extrovert showmanship and Van’s introverted cool was extraordinary. A real one-off treat we’re unlikely to see again.

Blood & Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl at the Barbican was another of those themed compilation shows which proved to be a delightful evening featuring his wife Peggy Seeger, folk royalty like the Carthy’s, Unthanks and Seth Lakeman and a whole load of MacColl’s. I have to confess I knew few of his songs, so much of it was a bit of a revelation, particularly The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face. When his son read out the names of those who’d covered this, you realised the family was probably still living off the royalties!

Billy Bragg’s concert at Union Chapel was by and large a return to the solo electric style of his early years, with much of the material coming from this period, though there was a pedal steel guitarist for part of the show. It was lovely, helped by being in my favourite concert venue and the attentive audience. He included his anti-Sun protest song which made me realise he’s about the only protest songster left!

I’m not sure what I was expecting of Lulu – Murder Ballad at the Linbury Studio, but what I got was a Tiger Lillies concert; a song cycle with superb projections and a dancer, but it didn’t add up to good storytelling and was actually rather dull, so much so that I left at the interval.

Opera

A concert performance of Handel’s opera Tamerlano at the Barbican by new (and young!) kids on the block Il Pomo d’Oro got off to a tentative start but soon found it’s form. Just twenty-five singers and musicians making a beautiful noise.

Morgen und Abend was more of a soundscape than an opera. A very impressionistic piece with an entirely off-white design and an off-the-wall sound. I’m not sure it sustained its 90 minute length and I think I’ll probably forget it fairly quickly, but is was original and something refreshingly less conservative at Covent Garden.

The first act of Opera Rara’s Zaza was a bit of a mess. There was so much going on and the comedy sat uncomfotrably with the love story. The remaining three acts were musically glorious, with a stupendous performance from Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho in the title role and terrific turns from Riccardo Massi and Stephen Gaertnern as her love interest. An impulsive outing to the Barbican which turned into a treat.

Art

The World Goes Pop at Tate Modern was rather a disappointment. It set out to show Pop Art wasn’t just a US / UK phenomenon. The trouble is, most it was second or third rate stuff and made you feel it probably was a US / UK phenomenon!

The Ai Wei Wei exhibition at the Royal Academy is one of the best contemporary art exhibitions I have ever visited. The combination of imagination, craftsmanship and the political statements being made is simply overwhelming. Wonderful.

Eddie Peake’s The Forever Loop was one of the most pointless and dull installations to grace Barbican’s Curve Gallery. Not even two naked dancers could liven it up!

Film

The transition of Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van from stage to screen is a huge success. Maggie Smith is sensational, Alex Jennings is superb as Alan Bennett and it’s great to see almost the entire History Boys cast in supporting roles.

Spectre was generic Bond, though with a return to the tongue-in-cheek humour that has been lost in the last couple. The set pieces were superb and it sustained its 2.5 hour length. It’s also a Who’s Who of great British actors, with Ralph Fiennes, Rory Kinnear and Ben Wishaw in supporting roles.

I was surprised that Steve Jobs only covered 14 years or so, but I learnt so much about what made him tick and I was captivated by it. Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet were both superb.

Brooklyn was a gorgeous piece of film-making. I loved everything about this tale of Irish emigration to New York set in the year I was born, and I blubbed!

Carol was a beautifully made film, the 50s again looking gorgeous, and the performances superb, though it was a bit slow for me, particularly in the first 30 minutes or so.

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Contemporary Music

Billy Bragg is the antidote to people who don’t give a shit and his value-for-money (£22, half price for the over 60’s!) 2.5 hours set was passionate, covering his whole career but majoring on the excellent new album Tooth & Nail. The new band sounded great and there was a mini-set of solo stuff too. There are few singers or bands left with this much integrity and respect for their audience and we repaid it in quiet engagement and warm response. Kim Churchill, a barefoot man from SE Australia with hair that looked like a straw hat, played an excellent set in support. He told us that he’s been busking around the world for four years when he got a gig at a festival in Canada and needed a lift for the 45-min drive from the hotel to the venue. Billy came to the rescue and there he was nervous but elated on the RFH stage. Dreams come true, it seems.

The Albion Band‘s Christmas concert at Kings Place was a bit of a punt that turned out to be a delight. A combination of songs, carols and readings, with an egg dance thrown in for good measure, it was a charming combination made into an occasion by the presentation of the English Folk Song & Dance Society’s Gold Badge to band founder Ashley Hutchings.

Seeing The Bootleg Beatles in Nottingham was a surprise until an hour or so before and it was a huge treat. They split the show into two halves, each with two sections, so we got the moptops, film period, psychedelia and the endgame. The resemblances and mannerisms were uncanny, but it was the brilliantly played songs that sweep you away, roll back the years and get you singing along, with the occasional dad dance (well, uncle dance in my case). Brilliant.

Opera

How the Whale Became at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio is an opera for children, particularly those whose parents prefer to take theirs to the politically correct rather than to the panto. With music by Julian Phillips and a libretto by Edward Kemp, it’s based on Ted Hughes stories about the creation of animals by god. It’s not the easiest musical ride (particularly for children) but the production is very inventive and the performers (and musicians) very engaging. A worthy attempt rather than a full-on hit, I think.

Classical Music

The Britten Sinfonia with the Choir of Kings College Cambridge provided my penultimate Britten Centenary event at the Barbican. The timely Ceremony of Carols, just boy’s choir and harp, sounded lovely and Saint Nicholas provided a more rousing second half. As much as I approve of audience participation, I have to confess I didn’t really appreciate the audience drowning out the beautiful choirs during the two hymns for audience participation! I’d never heard Arvo Part’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten and it proved to be the perfect opener, with John Tavener’s The Lamb also a timely opening to part two and a taster for my Tavener weekend in January.

I’d never heard Britten’s three Cello Suites so it was nice to end my centenary with something new to me. They are more to be admired for their virtuosity than aural beauty and they were played with extraordinary skill by Dutch cellist Pieter Wispelwey, who gave each one in an informative, charming and entertaining illustrated introduction.

Art

A few hours on the South Bank delivered a bumper crop of exhibitions. First up was Go Away Closer, Dayanita Singh’s B&W photos of India presented in books and museum panels. I loved both the material and the presentation. Downstairs at the Hayward Gallery, Ana Mendieta’s Traces was harder to swallow until her obsession with making ‘art’ using her own body gave way to using the environment instead / as well; a bit too conceptual for me. In the project space, a small exhibition of protest art was nostalgically enthralling – all those anti-war posters and copies of IT. Finally, in the RFH, the annual exhibition of art by offenders, secure patients and detainees (the tile gets longer every year) called The Strength & Vulnerability Bunker was as awe-inspiring as ever; it was the last day, so most of those for sale had gone otherwise there were a number I would have happily bought and hung on my walls.

I adored both Australia and Daumier (1808-79): Visions of Paris at the Royal Academy. The former was a 13-room, 200-year review of the art of a whole country, and I only knew one of the artists! From aboriginal art through colonial landscapes to wonderful Australian impressionists to the present day, this was a real feast. The latter was pretty revelatory too, containing his trademark caricatures but also very high quality paintings and sketches. The two together constituted one of the most enjoyable visits to the RA in a while.

At The Photographers’ Gallery, Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood & Identity wasn’t the easiest exhibition to view, but given that it sets out to challenge the sentimental view of motherhood, that’s not a surprise. The quality of the photography, rather than the subject matter, is what I enjoyed most. At the same gallery, the 1920’s B&W photos of French amateur photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue were charmingly homespun but technically accomplished. I have to confess I enjoyed it more.

The latest Curve installation at the Barbican, Intervals by Ayse Erkman, is a series of theatrical backdrops which you have to navigate as you walk through the gallery whilst they rise and fall. Even though it only takes 10 minutes to get through, the fact you are occasionally trapped means it irritates (well, impatient me, anyway). It is a very original idea, though and another great use of this space.

A Sunday afternoon in Trafalgar Square was a feast of art, starting with Facing the Modern: the Portrait in Vienna 1900 at the National Gallery, a great taster for my Christmas trip to that very city. Wonderful works by Schiele and Klimt plus lots of artists new to me. I went to the NPG for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition, as wonderful as ever, and Elizabeth I & her People, which was a whole lot more interesting than I was expecting, but there were rich pickings in the displays too. Passable portrait sketches by Bob Dylan, Benjamin Britten’s life in photos, William Morris’ wife and Pre-Raphaelite muse Janey, Michael Peto photos of famous people of the late 20th century, Vivien Leigh photos and film posters, terrific Jonathan Yeo paintings and the imaginary portraits of Derek Bashir!!! Room 31 (post-war Brits) may be my favourite room in any gallery anywhere and the NPG my favourite gallery!

It’s extraordinary how quickly erotica can become dull. The 17th-20th century Japanese pictures in Shunga at the British Museum are technically accomplished and often beautifully coloured, but ever so samey. I’m afraid I became bored ever so quickly. Fortunately, the gold and ceramic pieces from ancient Colombia in Beyond Eldorado at the same venue made up for it. This was a beautifully curated exhibition packed full of fascinating items which told a stories of ancient civilizations.

A couple of hours between kids opera and kids theatre enabled me to catch London Transport Museum’s celebration of 150 years of tube posters and it was a real treat, with lots I’d never seen before. The range of reasons for and themes of posters was extraordinary. The space was too cramped but thankfully there weren’t many people. Just as cramped as the space in Somerset House that I then ventured to in order to see Stanley Spencer’s Heaven in a Hell of War, on a short tour from Sandham Chapel during restoration. They are wonderful and I now can’t wait to see them back in the chapel with the three they couldn’t remove without damaging them.

Film

The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug was a lot better than the first installment, visually stunning with terrific 3D, but it’s a still just a journey drawn out to three films – albeit an exciting journey (mostly).

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This is the first play at the Wellcome Collection and takes place as a promenade performance in the galleries. It unfolds over three stages – a home, a pub and a church – with Billy Bragg and his band providing a musical commentary from a fourth stage. It’s part of their ‘identity’ project and follows an exhibition which explored its various aspects.

The death of an old soldier exposes the tensions between the post-war values of a welcoming and open Britain and sets these alongside the more recent attitudes of a working class feeling threatened by immigration, ignored by government and recruited by nationalists like the BNP. The successful son, returning from the US for the funeral, is horrified at the racism. His brother, about to stand as a nationalist candidate, is outraged at the righteousness of someone who has escaped what he perceives as threats.

It’s a very personal story, yet it makes its points very successfully with an admirable sense of balance. It seeks to explain rather than preach and I left both repelled by the racism but more understanding of how we got there.

Playwright Mick Gordon and director Christopher Haydon have done an excellent job. Designer Tom Scutt has created a space which allows you to follow the story as if you’re actually peering through the windows of these places. There isn’t a fault in the casting. It seems somehow appropriate that Barking boy Billy Bragg  provides the music with added commentary (and instructions) and his charm means he just about gets away with!

For the second time in a few days, an intelligent and important state-of-the-nation play. GO!

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