Monday, 19 August 2013

Green Man 2013: The Legends Strike Back

These annual Green Man reviews get about four or five times the number of readers than my normal blogs so I feel a certain pressure to say something different and not merely state what I've said for six of the last seven years: specifically, that the Green Man remains the unchallenged highlight of the festival summer and the musical event of the year.

So let's get that one out of the way quickly: on an atypically largely sunny weekend at Glanusk Park in the Brecon Beacons, the festival retained its eminent status comfortably.  It's probably useful for this reviewer, however, to be able to report that this year's experience was somewhat different.  While the festival normally delights in its propensity to sate my thirst for brilliant new and exciting bands, it must be said that the highlights of Green Man 2013 were often provided by more established artists.

There's an emotional element to all this.  The fact that I can at some point die having seen Patti Smith perform 'Redondo Beach' and Roy Harper deliver 'When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease' will mean the descent into my cold, cold grave will now follow a life a little less forlornly lived.  Add to that John Cale's effortless rendition of 'Pablo Picasso', Jon Langford laying into 'I Love A Millionaire' and Edwyn Collins giving us 'Blue Boy' and you had the makings of an indulgent nostalgia-fest of some magnitude.  It was to the credit of all of these performers, though, that they delivered such timeless gems with a freshness that would scarcely have been exacerbated had they penned them only yesterday.

Speaking with seasoned veterans of the Patti Smith live experience afterwards, I was frequently told that, in a dozen or more previous encounters, they'd never seen the priestess of New York punk nail her lauded back pages anything like so magnificently.  With a sparse backing band and no drummer, and taking the stage for the last gig of a long summer tour, she displayed a remarkable energy that laughed in the face of her sixty-six years.  Her performance was loaded with emotion following the death of close friend and early songwriting partner Allen Lanier only the day before and the chill that went up the spine when she sang 'Elegy', the song the two composed for Horses. would be the first of many over the weekend, reflected in the 72 year old Harper's earnestly stated hope that he would meet his audience again before the next life and perhaps even trumped by the Friday performance of Edwyn Collins.

The Green Man programme proclaims that its main Mountain Stage had a unique atmosphere.  In fact, it's generally the worst atmosphere of the festival's seven stages, its ambience dragged down by groups of people who park their deck chairs (yes, deck chairs) in front of it all day in order to get a decent spec when the major performers turned up later on and talk all the way through the likes of the excellent Haiku Salut.  Collins transformed this atmosphere into, for once, a unified cauldron of respect and admiration for a performer who was at one stage unlikely ever to speak again let alone make appearances like this.  It wasn't just about the emotion of the occasion, though; amongst newer material, Collins and his band breathed vibrant new life into classics like 'Falling & Laughing' and the aforementioned 'Blue Boy' and ensured that the first action of this reviewer on returning home was to dig out my copy of You Can't Hide Your Love Forever.

Harper reminded us that, while there have been many excellent troubadours taking stages around the country since his emergence in the mid-sixties, no one has ever been able to match his ability to confront his audience head-on quite so brilliantly and make even the most liberal-minded among us squirm with acknowledgement of our role in what a shitty world we've allowed it to become.  He refrained from giving us his finest expression of this, 'I Hate The White Man', but his delivery of classics like 'Men & My Woman' and particularly 'One Man Rock & Roll Band' more than made up for the omission got us all right between the eyes, minds and hearts with his unique combination of precise polemic and disarming charm.  

It would be wrong to say it was all about the veterans, though.  Performers of far more tender years added much to the occasion, as they always do.  There were magnificently noisy performances throughout the weekend on the Far Out Stage, where I spent even more of the festival this year than usual, from the likes of Thought Forms and Trwbador while Girls Names emphasised their thrilling transition from promising guitar band to chugging, rhythmically driven indie maestros who've, for once, attained musical sophistication and got even better while doing so. Landshapes (above, left) showed a similarly impressive progression in their performance in the Walled Garden; the former Lulu & the Lampshades can now take their place firmly in the gene line that began with The Slits and The Raincoats and to which are not a footnote, but a worthy addition who add much to one of music's most engaging musical evolutionary threads.  Moon Duo provided, as expected, one of the stage's highlights, with a groove that might well still be reverberating around the empty Glanusk Park for the rest of the summer.

If Sunday was a little more subdued than usual, this probably had something to do with so many peaks having occurred earlier than usual on the Friday, the excellence of so many late night performances and the woozy effects of the sunshine to which Green Man regulars are so unaccustomed.   It possibly had something to do with the 99 (that's 99) real ales or ciders on offer this year, provision with which the festival didn't merely respond to one of my criticisms from last year but surpassed expectations by an almost unfathomable difference.  It was Darren Hayman who stepped up to reclaim the atmosphere with a performance infused by the kind of dexterity and wit that makes him such a national, indeed international, treasure.  Following him on the Walled Garden stage, Public Service Broadcasting more than stepped up to the mark and offered a large and willing audience a festival performance of typically idiosyncratic brilliance.

Elsewhere, I've no doubt that the Green Man Rising stage was a well-meant addition to the festival.  I visited it at some point each day, in the generally forlorn hope that there might be an interesting new band on there.   Too often, sad to report, it was frequented by bands whose idea of 'new' was geared towards replicating the works of easily discernible influences.  The only band who bucked this irritating trend were Laurence Made Me Cry, a band whose album I already loved and played tracks from in my Dandelion Radio show earlier in the year.  Live they reproduced their beguiling, intricate melodies brilliantly.  More of this from Green Man Rising, please, or don't bother.

My favourite 'stumbled upon' performance this year was when I meandered into the Cinema Tent at one point to find Argentine band Los Cripis (left) in there, playing spiky indie pop with an energy that seems to have breathed welcome new life into so many practitioners of this genre of late.

I might well have gone for Smith as the festival's best performer, had it not been for the one glitch of throwing in a cover of John Lennon's god-awful 'Beautiful Boy', a song of such saccharine sentimental gush that no performer, even one as masterful as Smith, could rescue it.  Because of that, I've going to say that the magnificent Fuck Buttons edged it.  Having witnessed their remarkable debut at the Green Man in 2008, hopes were high anyway, and they were easily superseded as their hour long headline performance on the Friday night of the Far Out Stage dragged the festival's best crowd along on the enigmatic hooks of unremitting powerhouse electronics and battered yet unsubmissive rhythms.  It's tempting to proclaim that the performance found the duo at the height of their powers but the most exciting thing is they continue to sound like there's plenty left in the tank and they'll somehow, incredibly, get even better.

Green Man 2013 - A Personal Top Ten

1. Fuck Buttons (Friday, Far Out Stage)
2. Patti Smith (Thursday, Far Out Stage)
3. Moon Duo (Friday, Far Out Stage)
4. Roy Harper (Saturday, Mountain Stage)
5. Landshapes (Friday, Walled Garden)
6. Edwyn Collins (Friday, Mountain Stage)
7. Darren Hayman (Sunday, Walled Garden)
8. Los Cripis (Saturday, Cinema Tent)
9. Laurence Made Me Cry (Sunday, Green Man Rising)
10. Public Service Broadcasting (Sunday, Walled Garden)

You can still hear my Green Man 'preview' in my Dandelion Show throughout the rest of August.  My October show will include, among other things, several of the highlights mentioned above.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Burning Condors - Love On The Rocks/Folsom Prison Blues

To survive in this territory your vocals have got to be rawer than anyone else's, your guitars louder than anyone else's and your approach meaner than anyone else's.  Yes, Burning Condors inhabit that ancient land of rock and roll, broad and uneven terrain filled with competing tribes of varying qualities; population: practically anyone who ever picked up a guitar.  But those who mark out the true parameters of this territory are loan wolves, men without a country, existing outside of those tribes and in some mean no man's land of their own creation.

Burning Condors are one of those bands.  Their recent single, consisting of 'Love On The Rocks' (their own composition, lest you're expecting some unwholesome trashing of the godawful Neil Diamond song) and Johnny Cash's 'Folsom Prison Blues' takes on every rock and roll cliche in the book, pummels it into submission and then rips the book to shreds. 

These Londoners are not some identikit garage four-piece who churn out press releases informing you they sound like Kings of Leon or any one of a thousand others.  The very fact they decided to cover the Cash song immediately tells you they're either out of their minds or brash and brilliant enough to take on rock and roll's canon and win.  There's no contest: the band have easily got enough about them to take on any material and batter it to within an inch of its life, transforming in the process into nothing other than a Burning Condors song. It's also available as a 7" single, which is only right and proper.

The release follows hot on the heels of their 'Dirty Girl Blues'/'What Your Mama Said' and 'Knockout'/'Riot On The Streets' singles and all of them are available via the band's bandcamp site.  Apparently there's an album in the offing, scheduled for a September release.  Can't wait.

I'm playing 'Love On The Rocks' in my Dandelion Radio show this month.  Join me, and remind yourself of what the true, raw spirit of no-holds-barred rock and roll sounds like with the cliches pulled out.  Through its arse.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

James X Boyd - James X Boyd & The Boydoids

It sneaked out in March via the James X Boyd bandcamp site.  They're from Brisbane.  I caught up with the release in June and it blew me away.  As Keats kind of put it, that is all I know and all I need to know.

I suspect that, had Keats tuned into my Dandelion Radio show this month, he'd have singled James X Boyd out as a particular favourite.  Of course, as he died almost 300 years ago, it's a safe bet that he's not among my listening audience.  But the reason I made this somewhat pointless and speculative observation is that James X Boyd occupies a pretty singular place among my current listening pleasures.  During much of this peculiarly warm English summer I've had the windows open and assailed the neighbours with what they now know as a familiar barrage of the noisy and abrasive, but, as those same neighbours will probably attest,  James X Boyd is different: he's got tunes.

And not only has he got tunes, they sit behind the kind of hazy, melancholic lines or first person narrative that Keats - were he to be alive today - would unquestionably want to nick.  The ten tracks on this album find the singer in an almost permanent position of romantic exclusion, a default scenario, perhaps, when the minor chords are as gorgeous as these are.  Guitarist Michael Fletcher joins the redoubtable Mr Boyd to play the kind of guitar lines you find so often in bands when they're still at a reasonably nascent stage of development and which too often get ditched when they get an ounce of fame and disappear up their own arses.  To be honest, I don't know whether this band is at an early stage or not but, if they aren't, they've avoided this ugly fate with some panache.  If they are, I beg them not to change.

James X Boyd & The Boydoids has been the ultimate album for this glorious summer.  While I'm a great fan of incongruity, I must confess to an odd feeling of happy serenity when I pause from bugging the rest of the neighbourhood with Them Wolves or the new Endometrium Cuntplow offering (which is magnificent, by the way) and put on James instead.  It kind of combines with the weather, with the pleasant tweeting of birdsong and with the occasional waft of the breeze.  Its opener 'Blue Apia' is a sublimely poetic, almost spoken word teaser and probably prime contender for getting nicked by a Romantic poet, but it's a false opening in many ways as the rest of the collection is determinedly musical and atop it all is James's voice, half-sung and half-stated but always staying on the more productive side of a bruised ego and imbuing highlights like 'Milk Bar Blues' and 'Brunswick Street Junkies' with an irresistible charm.

But it's the jangly, almost unfeasibly catchy 'Diamond On Your Own' I've chosen to play in my Dandelion Radio show this month.  As things stand, it's nudging me for a Festive Fifty vote and, as I find myself playing it at every opportunity, at the moment it stands a good chance of getting one.  

Perhaps in another 200 years English Lit. students will be studying this rather than Keats: do 'em good, I reckon.

Get it here and find 'em on Facebook here. 

Monday, 5 August 2013

Introducing: The Music of Ian Thistlethwaite

As so often, it started with an e-mail from Paul Foster, aka Dementio13, urging me to check out some great music.  I find this a particularly engaging trait of some artists: they're imbued with such honesty and integrity (which invariably comes out in their work) that they happily help me to find other music they suspect I'll enjoy, despite knowing that my shows are always attempts to cram about eight hours of great music into three and therefore running the risk of squeezing themselves out of the playlist.

As it was, I happily found room for a track from Dementio13's new album and something from Ian Thistlethwaite too, whose work it was that I was recommended to seek out.  As usually, my source was trustworthy.  Ian plays a brand of bewitching indie folk that manages to sound both timeless and contemporary.

Around twenty or so years ago, I had a habit of spending part of my summer checking out England's various folk festivals.   On one of these sojourns a member of my cohort sagely opined that to be successful in this area of music you either had to be a startlingly expressive musician or a brilliantly imaginative songwriter: without either of these, folk sounded unremarkable and ordinary.  I felt this was a sound judgement, which is probably why I still remember it today.  It struck me, however, that the really great folk artists had to have both, and Ian Thistlethwaite makes it into this extremely rare category.

His album Mocking Tudors, Not Turtles came out in June and can be purchased as Name-Your-Price from his bandcamp site.  It was this album I was directed to by Paul and from which I play a track in my August Dandelion Radio show.  I've opted for the mesmerising '(Dance Me To) The Mezzanine', partly because it kind of conjurs up memories of watching Blowzabella on a Saturday afternoon in Towerzy, in a performance that was so good it even made me forget to check the footie results (very rare, believe me), but mainly because it has an utterly singular quality that makes you discard such comparisons as soon as you've made them and realise that what you have here is something so magical it rises well above its loose ancient form and stands out very much on its own.

Since then, Ian has put out A Brief Introduction to Ian Thistlethwaite on that same bandcamp site, a compilation that, as the title suggests, collects together various nuggets from his past.  The compilation includes 'Up In The Attic (Yeah, Yeah)', which features samples from Dementio13 and 'Hey! This is Wim Oudijk', which features samples from, guess who?  Yes, Wim Oudijk.  That Ian has teamed up with such wonderful people gives something away in itself, not merely that he keeps very fine musical company but also some indication of how much he's committed to stretching the limits of the form in which he works.

Get the album, listen to the show (which contains much amazing stuff besides the artists mentioned here) and keep up with what Ian's up to on Soundcloud.   Many future delights are anticipated.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Them Wolves - German For Duke

As if we didn't already have enough to thank 2013 for, bewitching our ears, THIS arrives in my inbox, courtesy of It's Just Noise/Distorted Tapes.

Regular readers will know that it's rare I crash on the old Caps Lock key, but this is a band for whom a splurge of capital letters is most fitting.  'German For Duke' is an EP by Them Wolves on the aforementioned label and it's the kind of thing that's shaken me out of my habit of listening to music while the muted Ashes test match plays out before my eyes.

While the occasional Kevin Pietersen blast back over the bowler's head might provide rare synchronicity, generally speaking this is not music to watch cricket to.  Counteract magazine called it 'brain-frazzling'; Rock Sound deemed it a 'snarling monster'; Echos and Dust called it 'Deranged Rock Lunacy'.

For once, the so-called Rock press have a point.

For my part, I would merely add to these observations that what we have from this Birmingham-based outfit is nothing less than the aural equivalent of Spaghetti Junction exploding under an extreme noise barrage let loose after Black Sabbath went on a binge of suspicious waste from the Tyseley Energy Plant.  The EP spits and burns out of whatever you play it on (it's available as download or CD) and you'd better make sure whatever you do play it on is up to the job.

I'm playing 'The Wild Girl of Champagne' from the EP in my Dandelion Radio show in August, streaming at various times throughout the month.  It's probably not in my own interests to say this, but you don't really need to both with the airplay: just go straight to itsjustnoise and get yourself a copy now.