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Entries in brighton (13)


Patti Smith and Bob Dylan's 'Tempest'

I'm running out of superlatives for Patti Smith. I haven't seen her play a better show than the glorious couple of hours she delivered at Brighton's Dome last night.

She and her band have been on the road for several months now, on the back of their excellent Banga album. The musicians are tight, assured and powerful - and anything but jaded. She is supremely confident and self-aware, singing and moving superbly, seemingly relaxed and in her element. As the show progresses, she switches easily between communicating girlish glee - in telling a host of stories from her seaside stay and then upstaging Lenny Kaye's Nuggets medley by sitting on the edge of the stage swinging her feet and waving to the audience - and delivering a series of mesmerising performances.

She ranged widely across her back catalogue, with some older, obscurer selections like 'Distant Fingers' and 'Free Money' mixed in with new material like 'Fuji-San' and 'Banga' - the latter featuring her son Jackson reprising the dog noises he contributed on the record. And there were extraordinary readings of a series of classics - 'Redondo Beach', 'Pissing In A River', 'Because The Night', 'Gloria' and finally - and unbeatably - 'Rock 'n' Roll Nigger'. She spelled out Pussy Riot's name at the end of 'Gloria' and returned to their cause in the electrifying climax of the set - convinced and convincing in her determination that people do indeed have the power 'to redeem the work of fools'.

Heading home happily I couldn't help reflecting on an afternoon spent listening to Bob Dylan's Tempest. He is five years older than Patti, but there is a gulf now which feels an awful lot wider.

His is an old man's album: a perfectly decent and listenable one, but with nothing particularly new to communicate, and a fair amount of padding and verbal clumsiness in amongst the one-liners and flashes of wit, which remind us of why we're still listening to him. Inevitably, it isn't quite as good as some of the 5-star reviews suggest: it is an unavoidable fact that Bob does not sing or write as well as he used to. I certainly do not dismiss late-period Dylan and I love the fact that he is still out there doing his thing. But I can't say I return to his recent albums that often, despite some classy playing and treasurable moments, and I no longer rush to get tickets to see him live.

In contrast, I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that Patti, at 65, is an artist in her prime, vital and compelling. I'm already wondering when I can see her again. A US tour with Neil Young? Hmm...


The Black Twig Pickers, Brighton, 10 July

Just when I was feeling regretful about not heading up to Stornoway for this year's HebCeltFest, another distinctive, vibrant and immersive folk tradition comes a-calling here in Brighton...

The Black Twig Pickers brought their irresistible, stomping Appalachian songs and tunes to Sticky Mike's Frog Bar last night and it was, as I commented afterwards to the band's fiddle/banjo virtuoso Mike Gangloff, as if the Anthology of American Folk Music had come to town. But don't be put off: this is no dry musicology, but the living, breathing, dancing, real thing.

The trio come from a corner of Virginia 'where West Virginia is north and North Carolina is south', as Gangloff helpfully explained. For this tour Sally Morgan (fiddle/guitar/dance-calling/slapped legs, etc) joins Gangloff and Nathan Bowles (banjo/percussion) because third core member Isak Howell couldn't make it.

They reeled off two sets' worth of fine music with an endearingly casual stage manner - and some winningly appalling jokes (like the corduroy pillow that is making headlines - you have been warned). The explanations of how they had come to learn (or, in some cases, write) the songs revealed their deep immersion in the local music - like links with Henry Reed's musical family including twins Gene and Dean, now in their eighties but still harbouring a grudge because a birth certificate mix-up had allowed one to retire from the power plant 12 months before the other...

A couple of numbers featured fiddlesticks: Nathan beating out a rhythm with chopsticks on Mike's fiddle strings as he played. it was the first time I'd seen it done and it works really well, as part of a regularly shifting dynamic of instrument changes and solo spots. They even managed to get a segment of a smallish but very enthusiastic audience square dancing.

Two hours and a thoroughly deserved encore later, Mike took time to show me his fretless banjo when I asked about it. Talented, charming, authentic, friendly: don't miss them if they're in your town.


Great Escape 2012

Three days of music in the halls and clubs and pubs and nooks and crannies of Brighton. Hundreds upon hundreds of bands. Good, enthusiastic crowds. A well attended industry convention in parallel...

Downloading seems just as far from 'killing music' as home taping was in the seventies. Just as Edinburgh in August can only give you confidence in the energy, creativity and commitment of young people determined to make drama, there's much to savour in the Great Escape's showcase for new music. Of course the quality can be variable, and of course a lot of the participants are never going to make a paying career out of what they're doing. But sitting here on the morning after, with tired feet and faintly buzzing ears, it seems time well spent and worthy of celebration.

I managed to catch sets or songs from 21 acts, barely scratching the surface of all that was on offer but taking in a range from hip hop to folk and krautrock to avant-garde jazz. And acts from Finland, France, South Africa, Denmark, Sweden, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Spain. Oh, and the UK.

Let's start with some bands I already knew.

Things ended on a high last night with a quirky, energetic set from Beth Jeans Houghton and the Hooves of Destiny at the Pavilion. I saw her a couple of years ago, supporting Stornoway, and she's really come on well. I've got her recent album Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose and the songs translated well to live performance. Only niggle was the sound - from the side of the room I couldn't make out any of the talk from Beth or the band and some of the subtler violin and trumpet textures didn't really come through.

After Jonquil's set at the Prince Albert on Thursday I've gone back to their recent album, Point Of Go, which had initially disappointed me. They are great musicians: stuttering, highlife-inflected guitar; a bit of an afropop flavour in the drummer's oblique fills too; a strong, melodic bass player doubling on trumpet; keyboards; and a second trumpet cum electronics and percussion. I'm less sure of the vocals - a lush, almost New Romantic, style, overfond of falsetto... But when they're playing live you're caught up in the energy and melody of the music. There was a lot of dancing and a very warm reception that they fully deserved. And now I'm hearing those strengths more in the record - and managing to ignore some dodgy lyrics.

Otherwise, a few headline disappointments. I made no revelatory new discoveries - people I'd never heard of that I'm going to rush out and buy albums by and hunt out their next live moves. I was underwhelmed by Shabazz Palaces - billed as a 'hip hop collective', they turned out to be two rappers with a laptop and some percussion (by that token I guess Simon and Garfunkel were a 'folk collective'). Their words were almost completely inaudible: slickly done but unengaging. And I missed out on the Alabama Shakes, when they cut off the queue about 15 people in front of me...

Overall judgment from three days: there is generally more interest and distinctiveness in the playing than in the singing and the singing is usually far better than the quality of the songwriting. Too many lyrics are hackneyed, clumsy, over-earnest or perm some combination of those three.

It's unfair to single them out, but I had to squeeze my way out of a packed Avalanche City set when this musically talented NZ trio - nice fiddle, excellent harmonies - followed up a dull seaside vignette ('hope filled my sails'), with a frankly implausible recollection of leaving city life behind ('we threw our cellphones out of the window") and then left their frontman alone to intone a ponderous ode with a frequently repeated chorus (in full: 'You're beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful.') which his beloved may have appreciated, but I afraid I didn't. I'm obviously in a minority, because they were going down a storm, but there you go. Or there I went.

Straight into a set from Swedish duo Friska Viljor which really cheered me up. Apparently, they vowed when they started never to write a song when they were sober. The regime seems to be working: lots of original (and sometimes off the wall) subject matter delivered with energy and humour. ('We don't always play like this. Sometimes we play with a band. Then we sound different. That's all I want to say.') They have an attack which suggests familiarity with louder instruments and the harmony choruses lurch engagingly into a dodgy falsetto roar, suggestive of a youth spent listening to Led Zeppelin. And their lyrics put a lot of native English speakers at the festival to shame - 'Tell me what I've done to make you sad/Forgotten your birthday again?/I'm not myself when I am drunk...' I'd like to see them again.

A few awards to close:

  • best of the rest - probably Francois and The Atlas Mountains, a mainly French band featuring electronica and washes from two keyboards, with live percussion and guitar. A layered sound with space and subtlety, working up a real lift and energy. Their last number was almost house - a Balearic beat with dub-like echoey interludes. They were having fun, unfazed by their sampler packing up - distinctive and interesting. 
  • favourite musician - I haven't been able to track down his name, but the drummer in Furguson (a five-piece from Catalunya) was astonishing. I went to see them on the strength of their blurb in the brochure including a reference to krautrock and there are certainly elements of Neu's Klaus Dinger and Can's Jaki Leibezeit in his approach. But he can maintain that sort of motorik style at incredible speed and then mix in more polyrhythmic stuff. He seemed reluctant to pause and led the band straight from one number into the next - except once stopping to down virtually a whole bottle of water. He locked into a groove with an essentially chord-playing guitarist and there were also a couple of squelching keyboards and bass, but he was the mesmerising heart of the music. You'd fear for his health in a longer set.
  • best cover version - Australian singer-songwriter Ben Salter redeemed a set of rather worthy and ponderous compositions with a brilliant 'Tracks Of My Tears', which showed the strength and subtlety of his voice and his effective, understated guitar style to rather better effect.

The Great Escape - PS

An update on Alexander Tucker - he must just have been having a bad sound day when I saw him: I've been listening to his album Dorwytch and it's very good, with all the delicacy and beauty I'd been hoping for.

Top edenontheline tips from the Great Escape (assuming everyone knows all about Sufjan already):


  • Cloud Control - snap up the album and see them in small places while you still can
  • Brasstronaut - ditto. They're always going to be a bit more of a cult band, but it's a cult well worth signing up to.
  • Woodenbox With A Fistful Of Fivers - head for Stornoway in July.
  • Thus:Owls - Lynne Truss might not approve, but I do.
  • Woodhands - just to prove I wasn't making it up, have a look here...


Looking forward to next year.


The Great Escape - Day Three

A final day dominated by Sufjan Stevens' astonishing concert at the Dome, but with time to take in some new bands first at Canadian Blast's stage at the Komedia.

First up were Said The Whale with some roots-inflected indie. A confident and amiable bunch, with clever arrangements of some bouncy, poppy, but not - for me anyway - particularly memorable songs.

Then came Woodhands - who were anything but anonymous. Weird is the adjective. Seriously so, but weirdly compulsive. They're a keyboard/drum duo from Montreal, but the manic Dan Werb is rather more than your average keyboard player. He has a rack of three keyboards and synths by his side, a huge flightcase full of electronic widgets behind him and one of those Roland guitar-like keyboards slung round his neck. And he sings. And comes up with some of the most exuberant between-song chat I've ever come across. Then partner in crime Paul Banwatt explained that there'd normally be a lot more going on except Dan's looper was broken...

It was as if some nerdy lovechild of Keith Emerson - sadly no knives holding down keys yet, but it could still come - and Todd Rundgren (in his Utopia pomp) was taking his first solo holiday, and had chosen Ibiza in the nineties. 'Brighton - you're the shit!' Dan squealed memorably at one point. 'Congratulations for living here,' then adding, with classic Canadian even-handedness, 'and for visiting.'

It all left Hey Rosetta! looking tediously normal, but things were fine when they started playing. I only caught a couple of songs but the Newfoundland six-piece quickly played up a storm, deploying cello and fiddle to good effect. 

And so on to Sufjan Stevens, in a very different league. One of the most spectacular shows I've ever seen, with a ten-piece band (two drummers, two keyboards, two trombones, guitar, bass, two singers), amazing back-projected films, UV-responsive colours on everyone's clothes, movement, dancing, costume changes, ticker tape and balloons descending at the end of the marathon performance... wow and wow.

He opened by revisiting Seven Swans in silver wings and encored, gorgeously, with 'Chicago' from Illinois but the set in between was essentially drawn from his current album The Age of Adz and last summer's All Delighted People 'EP' (it's actually a vinyl double album). And the material is undeniably an issue. Possibly the finest lyricist of his generation isn't particularly interested in writing lyrics at the moment and wants to get away from the style he developed so brilliantly in the first half of the last decade. Fair enough - but he doesn't seem entirely comfortable about where he's at himself, giving lengthy, defensive, explanations of what he's currently about to a warm and sympathetic Dome audience.

Yesterday's Guardian gave him a four star review and that feels right to me - he's a five star artist giving his all but not quite hitting the sweet spot of his creativity. It's going to be really interesting to see what happens next - Sufjan Stevens does not do dull. It may be that the current patch will turn out to be his equivalent of Neil Young's Trans and Re-ac-tor in the eighties - interesting and well-realised experiments made in troubled times, but somewhat off the main track. Anyway, wherever he's heading next, I'm staying along for the ride.