Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Long Goodbye

When the Brooklyn-based band Augustines announced recently that they were splitting up after six years together, my reaction was one of regret and gratitude. Regret that a band who have produced three great albums of poignant and impassioned rock music would no longer be around, but gratitude for the fact that I had a ticket for the sold-out first date of their farewell British tour in Brighton on Sunday night.

Already renowned for their intense live performances, in these circumstances, it was always going to be an emotional evening. At the start, lead singer and guitarist Billy McCarthy seems in danger of being overwhelmed by the occasion as his powerful voice hits the soulful and fitting peaks of The Avenue - "I wanna try somewhere new/ Where open land meets the sky/ And I can feel new" - but he is soon into his genial stride between songs. We are treated to wisecracks about bacon sandwiches and the band opening a bakery - "crumpets and trumpets" - and multiple thanks for the audience's support over the years.

Midway through the set McCarthy and multi-instrumentalist lynchpin Eric Sanderson are joined onstage by their friend Tom Zovich from their previous band, Pela. Drummer Rob Allen gives way to Zovich and they rattle through Waiting on the Stairs and Trouble With River Cities, songs from the old days. The reunion is clearly an affecting moment.

The presence of a trumpeter adds an extra dimension to the trio's sound in the same way that brass complements the live sound of The National and British Sea Power. But it is the huge soundscapes they create that make me think that Augustines deserve to be the biggest stadium band in the world. Not that I would wish that on them, as it's a largely perjorative term in my book; much better to see this band in a small, sweaty venue like Concorde 2.

There are so many anthems in the band's repetoire that there is little breathing space from the relentless passionate pace: Are We Alive? and When Things Fall Apart from the most recent album, Philadelphia and Chapel Song from their debut as We Are Augustines, Rise Ye Sunken Ships. But it is 2014's eponymous album that provides the majority of the arms-aloft singalongs: Now You Are Free, Nothing To Lose But Your Head and Walkabout have the audience bellowing in unison. It is a long goodbye as audience and band seem reluctant to be parted but the set eventually concludes - after an incredible two and a half hours - with the trio of Weary Eyes, Landmine and Cruel City. Even then, the audience stay in place singing the final song after the band have left the stage. They will be missed.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Down the Pub

Sitting in the warm glow of my local pub last Friday, chatting with a group of friends about subjects as diverse as music, food, racism and allotments, it struck me that I could not remember the last time I had done this. Usually when I am in a pub – and it is not that often these days - it is for either a meeting or a pub quiz; never without purpose, never just to relax, never only to drink and talk. And I realised that it is a shame, because there really is no better way to spend your leisure time.

One hundred years ago there were 99,000 pubs in Britain; now there is half that number and it is declining at a rate. Nearly 30 pubs close every week in this country and if that were to continue, there would be none left by 2050, That, of course, will not happen but the sharpest decline has been in the past ten years and it has been faster in rural areas than urban.

Home drinking has long been killing pubs but there are a number of other social factors involved in the waning of the local: a change in attitudes towards alcohol has seen less being consumed now than there was a dozen years ago (a fact I find hard to believe), there has been a significant shift in tastes away from beer (a fact my own experience supports) and the UK smoking bans of a decade ago excluded a significant group of pub-goers (a fact I am ambivalent about).

Then in the wake of the smoking bans the recession turned up; the subsequent austerity-driven real terms fall in wages reduced the amount of disposable income being spent down the pub and, together with other factors such as duties, taxes and planning regulations, this terminally affected the economic viability of many pubs. But this was not just confined to chains that would ruthlessly close any uneconomic pubs and sell them for development: closures have been split equally between the corporate and independent sectors.

Fortunately, in the ten years I have been living in East Sussex, I have not known any of the pubs in my area to close permanently. However, I do recall driving around with a group of work colleagues on a freezing Sunday night in February a few years ago trying to find a pub that had not closed for the night due to lack of customers.

There are two pubs in my village: one has just had a facelift, which can only be a good sign, and the other has been closed intermittently between landlords but now seems to be in a period of stability. I was in both of them last week: the former for a Wednesday night allotment committee meeting (rock ‘n’ roll, I know) and the latter was the scene of my purely social Friday night. Sadly, on both nights, the number of customers struggled to get out of single figures. My own culpability in the neglect of a key feature of the community made me feel guilty and I vowed to regularly support my local boozers. And more of us need to do it because, before we know it, they will be gone forever.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016


When Charles M. Schultz popularised the idea that happiness is a warm puppy, and John Lennon supplanted it with the parodic notion that Happiness is a Warm Gun, they were both wide of the mark. What the Peanuts cartoon strip and The Beatles' White Album shied away from is the universal truth that, in autumn, happiness is a full log store.

I have been filling my own wood store throughout the summer, just in case that dubious coldest-winter-ever story one mid-market tabloid newspaper has been running annually for the past four years, finally comes true. I have mostly stocked up with sweet chestnut, which spits a bit but that doesn't matter in a wood burning stove, and beech from a local sustainably managed woodland. Like ash and hawthorn, beech is one of the best firewoods: slow-burning with a steady flame and gives out a good amount of heat.

I had hoped to get some apple but the wood that has been seasoning for a year at the fruit farm where I rent my allotment has still not been cut up for sale; with the apple picking now in full flow, I am not sure the farmer will get around to it just yet. Although he mixes his loads with some alder - a poor wood that burns too quickly - it is a small price to pay for the fragrance of smouldering applewood throughout the house.

As our wood burner has a back boiler that heats our water and radiators, we burn a lot of wood during the winter. I did at one time try to reduce our wood consumption by buying a contraption that makes briquettes from old newspapers; but the process was such a faff it made more sense to simply recycle the newspapers. And, of course, burning wood does not release any more carbon dioxide than if it were to biodegrade naturally on a forest floor; this makes it a carbon-neutral fuel, provided it is obtained from a sustainable source.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Music Therapy

Friday evening, and after a hard week back at the chalkface, I was in need of a lift. With a few quid left over from the summer spending money and new albums out from Nick Cave, King Creosote and Pictish Trail, I headed down to Bexhill’s stellar record shop, Music’s Not Dead, for some – and I know it’s not a nice phrase - retail therapy. But as so often with Music’s Not Dead, you don’t just get to pick up the albums; there is always a warm welcome and sometimes you get to have some of the tracks played to you live by the artists themselves: music therapy.

Last night it was the turn of Isle of Eigg-based Johnny Lynch, AKA Pictish Trail and head honcho of the Lost Map record label, to perform in-store to promote his beautiful new album, Future Echoes. Supported on bass and keyboards by Suse from Lost Map band, Tuff Love, he delivered a short but diverse set, mostly from the album. The first song from Future Echoes was Until Now, a traditional and haunting number which highlighted Lynch’s voice at its tender best. We were also treated to Half-Life, the centrepiece of the album, with its nagging refrain of “we will always decay”, and the funky shuffle of Dead Connection which name-checked his label name throughout.

Using acoustic guitar, keyboards and backing tracks, Lynch is something of a sonic genius; it is this mixing of a folk sound with electronics that makes Pictish Trail stand out and, with the slow beats of Far Gone, he introduced us to Scottish hip hop, or ‘shop’ as he playfully branded it. I first saw Lynch at last year’s Green Man festival with Sweet Baboo, producer of Pictish Trail’s previous album Secret Soundz Vol. 2. They were something of a comedy duo on that sunny Sunday evening on the Walled Garden stage and Lynch was no different last night. His despair at the political climate in the wake of the EU referendum and his realisation, on seeing young people off their faces at Bestival, that he is not seventeen anymore had us laughing a lot.

It was a wonderful evening: ensconced in the shop, listening to great music and watching the surprised faces of passers-by in the twilight street outside. We got to have a quick chat with Johnny afterwards about the weather at Green Man, getting Sweet Baboo to come to Bexhill and his forthcoming Brighton gig with a full band. Then I was home in time to carry out my usual Friday night ritual: falling asleep on the sofa.

Pictish Trail play the Green Door Store, Brighton on Monday 10th October.

Friday, September 2, 2016

A Different View

Before appearing at this weekend’s End of the Road festival, former Fiery Furnaces frontwoman Eleanor Friedberger played a Music’s Not Dead promoted gig in the cafĂ© bar at the De La Warr Pavilion last night. Over from the United States to promote her third solo album, this year’s New View, most of the set was drawn from this critically acclaimed album.

Recorded in upstate New York, New View is ostensibly a slice of 70s singer-songwriter soft-rock; however, it is an LP shot-through with strong melodies and infectious pop hooks, and this was particularly demonstrated last night on songs such as Because I Asked You and He Didn’t Mention His Mother. But what I really like about Friedberger – apart from her cool shoes and incredible voice - is her uncluttered guitar playing which gives the music a lo-fi slacker edge that makes it different from standard folk and Americana.

Despite being supported on tour by only two of the musicians who recorded the album, they are a comfortable and accomplished trio; at times songs effortlessly segued into each other and, for the uninitiated, it would have been hard to tell where one began and the other ended. The personal lyrics are mostly dense, past tense narratives and, on stand-out song Sweetest Girl – “sweet girl with a broken heart, stop crying so I won’t start” – heart-breaking.

There was also a version of the Fiery Furnaces’ Evergreen and, on the theme of colour, Does Turquoise Work? from the new album was put to the audience for their opinion (personally I thought no, but it was a split decision). Friedberger recommended the video for the latter song, a piece of animation by bassist Jonathan Rosen, and I do too. You can watch it here.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Lost and Found

A stifling hot afternoon in the dog days of August was probably not the best time to go for a walk to locate some of the lost and abandoned places in the countryside around the Sussex village of Hooe. It was probably less ideal to take two of my kids – hot, bored and fractious at home – but the promise of a missing village and a deserted prison were too much of a lure for inquisitive boys. One of them told me, excitedly, he had seen an episode of The Simpsons where Bart breaks into an old prison and sits in the electric chair. I told him I could not guarantee methods of execution or that we would even be able to get inside.

We parked up at the Lamb Inn outside Hooe and then had to play chicken to get to the other side of the very busy A265 to access the footpath heading south through Hooe Level. Marked on the OS map in gothic font to indicate a site of antiquity, Northeye village was an island when this area was not marshland but part of the sea. Northeye was overcome by the waves in 1260 and nothing remains of the village now except an incline in the flat landscape and some barely perceptible lines in the grazing fields where the foundations of buildings once stood. We discovered this after negotiating the winding path that crossed and re-crossed this wetland’s network of intersecting drainage channels. “There’s nothing here,” the youngest sagely observed.

More recently, the name of the village lived on half a mile to the north-east. HMP Northeye opened in 1969 on the site of a radar station and was a category C prison that used the original RAF huts to house prisoners. It was expanded in the 1970s but there was a serious riot in 1986 in which nearly half of the prison was destroyed after being torched by inmates. The complex then became a training centre for overseas students for a time but is now abandoned. Having gone back across the A265, this time further east, we skirted around the perimeter and could see ghostly buildings through the faded green chainlink fence. With high summer vegetation dwarfing some of the structures, there was more than a hint of Satis House about the place.

With the day at its hottest and most humid, we still had one more stop to make on our circular walk. Heading north-west, up through higher ground, we eventually found the church of St. Oswald’s Hooe sitting in splendid isolation amidst fields of burnished gold. Not lost or abandoned, this still-used Norman church was more a victim of relocation. Originally at the heart of the village of Hooe, sometime in the 14th century the church found itself left behind as the residents began to settle further north at what is now Hooe Common. Why this happened is not entirely clear but it is thought that the original village was burnt down as a result of the Back Death. In the still of the afternoon, with the only movement a slight fluttering of the St. George’s flag atop the square tower, the boys were happy to shelter from the sun against the stone cold east wall as I explored the churchyard.

The final leg, with all three of us flagging in the heat, took us back down the hill to the Lamb Inn. Presented with the choice of a drink in the pub or driving to Bexhill for ice cream, democracy defeated me. The youthful block vote deprived me of a restorative pint of cider but rewarded my wingmen with Mr Whippy.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

So Funny It Hurts

A year ago, I was convinced that Jeremy Corbyn was the person best placed to lead the Labour Party and I cast my vote in the election accordingly. One year on, when my ballot paper drops through the letterbox tomorrow, I am certain that I will not be doing so again. The writer and actor Alex Andreou has set out an eloquent and lengthy exploration of the causes of his own disillusionment with Corbyn. I won’t repeat his litany of the shortcomings of our leader, but Andreou’s reasons for his volte-face chime very closely with my own and it is well worth a read.

For Andreou, it was Corbyn’s performance in the EU referendum that was the final straw; for me, it was his refusal to stand down when his own MPs overwhelmingly delivered a vote of no confidence in him. I do not think it matters how The Coup started – it’s called politics - but the fact is that scores of young and talented left-leaning Labour MPs also lost faith in the leader of their party. I know that the membership is now deemed to have holy sovereignty but we are a party that seeks parliamentary power to deliver our socialist beliefs and MPs need to be a well-led and cohesive force.

I suspect that Corbyn would have stood down but for John McDonnell; if you watch Jeremy’s video plea to members at that time, when he blinks at 1:38 you can just see HELP ME written on his eyelids. And for all the faux outrage over The Coup, we seem to forget that Corbyn is leader as a result of his own coup: pleading for nominations from MPs to broaden the debate and then very efficiently signing up thousands of supporters to deliver victory (marginally more full members voted against Corbyn than with him last year, but amongst supporters it was a landslide).

If I am disillusioned, I fear that others are deluded. We have experienced a lifetime of losing on the left and Corbyn suddenly makes us feel like winners. Indeed, the mailshot I have just received from his campaign is branded with the slogan Winning Values; but these victories are all inward looking. Corbyn wins the right to automatically be on the ballot: victory! Corbyn defeats the legal action to make him seek nominations: victory! Corbyn’s slate is elected to the NEC: victory! New members win the right to vote in the election: victory! All this winning but there is absolutely no sign that the people – the voters - share the new-improved-size Labour Party’s love for Corbyn. His supporters point to some average mid-term election results but the pattern shows that Labour is in danger of becoming a metropolitan party: there have been some devastating council by-election losses in provincial areas as well as damning national opinion polls.

I do not think Corbyn is interested in becoming Prime Minister; what is important to him is leading a party of political purity: the means has become the end. I support his core ideas around employment, housing and transport but Owen Smith has done more to present how these will be realised in the past few weeks than Corbyn has done in the past year. A more effective and efficient leader will be able to communicate the policies that, up until now, have been hidden behind the person. The problem is, Labour has become ‘Just Jeremy’ and this is not entirely his fault.

The worst part of the mess we are in is what is being ascribed to Corbyn by those who follow him. If it wasn’t so tragic it would be funny - or do I actually mean that the other way round? My main reaction to recent events has been to find them incongruously funny – I cannot take Jeremy Corbyn seriously anymore. The more po-faced and humourless his adoring Momentum masses become, as they spiral towards electoral oblivion with their matching graphic design, the more hilarious it gets; and I keep being reminded of two comedy films from that most politically significant of years, 1979.

Whenever I see footage and images of the mass Corbyn rallies, presented as proof of just how popular Jeremy is, I immediately think of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Graham Chapman, playing the eponymous hero mistaken for the saviour, is pursued through the streets by a horde of persistent and devoted pilgrims that he cannot shake off – “Now, fuck off!” “How shall we fuck off, O Lord?” – and he has to fall back on his mum to convince his followers that “he’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!” And whenever I see Corbyn interviewed, delivering messages that a year ago seemed refreshing but now, with hindsight, seem rudimentary and ill-thought out, I am reminded of Peter Sellers’ character, Chancey Gardener, in the film Being There, where the statements of a simple gardener - “as long as the roots are not severed, all is well” - are taken for words of profound wisdom by the political class. Both of these films are perfect metaphors for what is happening in the Labour Party at the moment. I have no idea how this movie will end, if indeed it ever will, but once you have seen the emperor naked, there is no going back; you have realised the joke and it is very funny – but it is so funny it hurts.