Saturday, August 19, 2017

Mellow Vibes

I have stopped rubbing my eyes when I see who's playing at the De La Warr Pavilion, these days; such is the venue's ability to attract artists - Television, Public Image Limited, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Nelly - who seem at odds with the image of Bexhill-on-Sea as a seaside retirement town, that I am no longer surprised when the likes of Nashville alt-country legends Lambchop roll in to town. Kurt Wagner's loose collective were a distinctly country outfit until the Nixon album of 2000 earned them critical acclaim in this country and the addition of that audience-broadening 'alt' prefix (man, how I hate that 'alt' abbreviation in the current political climate).

Last night, Lambchop were not so much a collective as a trio with Matt Swanson on bass, Tony Crow on piano and wisecracks ("He's from Kansas." "I'm not in Kansas anymore!") and Wagner himself on occasional guitar, drum programming and vocals. On the sleeve notes of last year's album, FLOTUS (not Michelle Obama but an acronym of For Love Often Turns Us Still), one of Wagner's credits was for 'vocal processing' and many of the tracks featured a treated version of his tender voice. Most of the set last night was taken from FLOTUS and the vocoder was much in evidence; it fits perfectly with Lambchop's current sound, which has developed into a repetitive laid-back groove that could be termed soul but would best be described as unique.

Opening with Writer, the set also featured Old Masters and a truncated version of superb eighteen-minute album closer, The Hustle. There were treats from other albums, too, including 2B2 from 2012's Mr. M with it's wry observation, "Yeah, I think it's England/ the dogs they bark at no one". It was an evening of gorgeous mellow vibes and they returned for two more songs by way of an encore. Wagner asked for requests and refused Up With People ("no chance of that until we get a new President") but granted My Blue Wave from Is A Woman, their best album according to my mate, Dave. As if to doff a baseball cap to their soulful antecedents, they finished with an intimate cover of Prince's 1980 song, When You Were Mine.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Courgette Cornucopia

A few years ago, a friend of ours started to behave strangely. Towards the end of the summer term, she would hover around the gates at school pick-up time searching out faces she knew and then thrusting packages into their hands. We would often open our front door to find these packages left, unbidden, on our doorstep. In the summer holidays, even our kids would return from playing at her house with her children, laden down. We would catch sight of her in the village 'cooeeing' friends from a distance as they scuttled into homes and shops. People started avoiding her. We started avoiding her. The thing is, you can only have so many courgettes - and we had enough of our own. What our friend had done was start a vegetable garden at home and, being a novice, plant twelve - yes, twelve - courgette plants. Unable to keep up with the courgette cornucopia, she had been pushed to the brink in trying to find good homes for her produce.

It is a familiar feeling for even experienced home or allotment vegetable growers. A glut is always a risk in a good growing year and courgettes, in particular, have become something of a standing joke. However, getting the plants up and running is not always straightforward. Courgettes can sometimes suffer from germination problems but, providing seeds are not too old and are not subjected to extremes of temperature or moisture, it's hard to fail at this stage. So already there are too many plants and the temptation is to plant out more than are needed to insure against failure. Poor weather, especially high winds in May, can damage young plants and dry spells present difficulties, too: courgettes require plenty of water as well as sunshine to succeed. Pollination can also be a problem when honeybees are not as active in bad weather. One year, I had to hand-pollinate my courgette plants by rubbing the pollen-bearing anthers of a male flower into the centre of a female flower; I didn't know where to look.

This year, we may think we are having a rubbish summer because of the poor weather of the past few weeks but we had a warm May and a flaming June and above average rainfall in both and, as a result, courgette plants are thriving: we currently have a continuous crop from the three plants in our vegetable garden that is just about right for a family of five - but it still feels like we are eating a lot of courgettes. Regular harvesting and consuming is the key and, to get the full benefit of the fruit's flavour, courgettes should be picked when they are not much bigger than a Mars bar. We stumbled across a recipe book by Elaine Borish a few years ago called, What Will I Do With All Those Courgettes?, which has proved invaluable. At the moment, we are eating a lot of vegetable curry, which utilises the courgettes and some of our second early potatoes and also takes care of that other glut we are trying to manage: runner beans.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Postcards With An Edge

Vintage postcards seem to be a thing these days: no bric-a-brac stall or antique shop is complete without a box of random postcards from the second half of the last century to thumb through and intrude on the past life of people we have never met; Tom Jackson's Twitter account and recently published book, Postcard From The Past, features a series of front images, each accompanied by a very funny Victoria Wood-esque sentence - "Went to see Connie in her new bungalow", "The sight of my box made me homesick for you", "It's all lager and cigars here", etc - from the message on the reverse; and now, tucked away in the first floor gallery at the De La Warr Pavilion, is Roy Voss's delightful exhibition of postcard collages, All The World's A Sunny Day.

Displayed in linear fashion around three walls, Voss's postcards have had a single word cut from the message, and then reversed, so that it appears at a seemingly random point in the front image. Sometimes the word relates literally to the picture, as in 'long' on a postcard of the world's longest pier at Southend-on-Sea, and sometimes a pair or series of cards form a more allusive narrative. I enjoyed the humour of the words 'trip' and 'fall' on postcards of the Matterhorn and Snowdon, respectively, and because of its local interest I was drawn to the dark edge given to adjacent Beachy Heads with the addition of the word 'on' at the cliff top on one, and 'off' at its foot on the other. In fact, Voss seemed to favour prepositions with 'up', 'down', 'over' and 'out' appearing on several images in the exhibition.

As Voss has used postcards from 1960 to 1980, the images had a youthful familiarity for me and I may be guilty of rosy nostalgia for a means of communication that seems to be coming to an end; but the exhibition also resonated less happily with me because of the memory of having to force out every single word on those postcards I was made to write to relatives on childhood holidays.

All The World's A Sunny Day is at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea until 8th Ocober 2017.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Engels in Eastbourne

In August 1895, the ashes of Friedrich Engels, co-author of The Communist Manifesto with his friend Karl Marx, were scattered into the sea from the top of Beachy Head at Eastbourne. This may seem surprising given that the philosopher, writer and businessman is more associated with Manchester, having lived there between 1842 and 1870, broken only by a five-year European spell in Paris, Brussels and Cologne.

Engels, born in Germany in 1820, was the eldest son of a textiles manufacturer. His wealthy father sent him to England to work in one of the family factories with the hope that exposure to the world of business would rein in some of his liberal political views; it had the opposite effect.

In Manchester, he met a young working class woman, Mary Burns, whose radical opinions were to be an influence on Engels. Burns was his guide to the slums of the city and enabled him to write The Condition of the Working Class in England. Published by Marx in 1845, it exposed the grim effects of capitalism. Engels and Burns stayed together until her death in 1863. They never married as they were both opposed to what they saw as a bourgeois institution.

In 1870, Engels relocated to London where Marx already lived and the two worked on Das Kapital, the masterpiece of Communist philosophy. It was in this stage of Engels’ life that his association with Eastbourne began. The two friends were great enjoyers of the Victorian seaside and they visited many resorts. Margate, Ramsgate and the Isle of Wight were all regular destinations but Eastbourne was where Engels holidayed for extended periods during the summers after he had retired from business. He often stayed at 4 Cavendish Place, just opposite the pier, and it was here that he spent the last few weeks of his life on doctor’s orders before briefly returning to London to succumb to throat cancer. Of all the places Engels had lived, Eastbourne was his favourite and his last wish was that his ashes be scattered there.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Woodlanders

In the summer of 1969, a young Sussex filmmaker took up residence in a van in a wood at Swanbrook, near Chiddingly. He was there to film a family - the Pages - who lived in an isolated and ramshackle house that had no electricity or running water. The head of the family was Mr Page, a gnomic man in his seventies, who lived with his four grown-up children - two boys and two girls - and earned a living repairing old farm machinery with his sons. His daughters kept house, such as it was, gardened and played musical instruments.

The 65-minute documentary that Phillip Trevelyan finally completed in 1971, The Moon and the Sledgehammer, offers a fascinating glimpse into a way of life that was already long dead when Trevelyan befriended the family having heard of them through an acquaintance. The film is shot using natural light, which gives it a magical, otherworldly quality; it has no narrator but is instead voiced with the family members’ answers to Trevelyan’s interview questions. However, Mr ‘Oily’ Page is its star and it is his expression of his rejection of modern technology and loyalty to traditional tools and mechanics that provides the film’s title – the first moon landing was a contemporaneous event.

The family’s self-sufficiency and woodland life seems idyllic and the film has acquired a cult following for its back-to-the-land ethos but there is a sense from some of Oily’s children that life was passing them by and they longed for escape. After Mr Page and his eldest son had died, the daughters were moved into social housing in the 1980s, leaving the remaining son to cling on in the wood. What has become of them now is not known; it is thought that, just like their simple existence, they have not survived into the 21st century.

The film and a documentary about its making are both available on DVD here.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Into the Blue

Stephen Black, otherwise known as Sweet Baboo, tells a very complicated tale of the opening number of his set at the Prince Albert pub: it was originally called Wild Imagination and was the title track of the new album; but Moshi Moshi hated it so much they wanted it left off. So Sweet Baboo retitled another song Wild Imagination, but he is playing the original on tour just to spite the record company. I can’t remember the new title of the original song but it was about trying to persuade Black’s three-year-old son to leave the house more and embrace the outdoors. Are you following this?

This deadpan comic explanation is typical of Black’s between-songs ramblings as he tells us about the space bongo - “people have been going wild for the space bongo” - played by multi-instrumentalist Rob Jones and how the band have slimmed down from a six-piece to three since their last tour. To compensate, he says, they have crammed the stage with equipment; as well as the keyboards and guitars Black and Jones have, there is another Jones - Paul - surrounded by more keyboards than Kraftwerk had between them at the Brighton Centre last week. When things go wrong - as they do a few times - it is all dealt with with good-natured forebearence and a lightning quick catchphrase, "ten years in the biz".

There are some excellent tracks played from Wild Imagination that show the sophistication of the arrangements, the simplicity of the sentiments expressed and the emotion of Stephen Black’s voice. The beautiful Swallows, with its plaintive refrain of “Oh, won’t you come back to me?”, is contrasted with the funk of Pink Rainbow; and songs such as Wild Imagination (the newly titled one) and Badminton capture the bittersweet essence of the Sweet Baboo sound from the previous two albums.

There is a trio of songs from those albums: the glorious Swimming Wild and If I Died from 2013's Ships and the sublime Walking in the Rain from The Boombox Ballads, the track that first caught my ear when I saw Sweet Baboo at the Green Man festival in 2015. However, the stand-out song last night was Clear Blue Skies from the new album. Formless and abstract, it rolls along, swelling and falling, with shimmering and mournful guitars underpinning a lyric of hope and sorrow: "let's rise/ into clear blue skies/ far from home/ clear clear blue/ let's not worry about tomorrow".

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Only Human

Gigs in big venues with prices to match are not where I usually find myself but, thanks to a spare ticket and the largesse of a good friend, yesterday evening I was in a very long queue to see Kraftwerk at the Brighton Centre. The anti-tout requirement for ID to verify named tickets, coupled with increased security searches in the current climate, meant the line snaked all the way to the rear of the venue; but it was a good-humoured queue and we ended up sharing bottles of Becks with a man from Hamburg and his grown-up kids. Very fitting.

A Kraftwerk performance is not an ordinary gig: seated in orderly rows, all wearing our 3D specs with faces raised towards the giant backdrop screen that dwarfs the band, when I glanced back we looked like a congregation come to worship. Calling Kraftwerk a ‘band’ hardly seems appropriate: arranged in a line across the front of the stage, the German quartet resemble operatives on a production line. And on the far left is the foreman, the septuagenarian Ralf Hutter, the only remaining original member since Florian Schneider stood down in 2008.

Having never seen Kraftwerk perform before, it was thrilling to experience those unique sounds in a live setting: the sub-bass was like a punch in the solar plexus and those familiar and much-sampled motifs from Trans Europe Express, Numbers and others were a joy to hear. I was delighted that all bar one of the tracks from 1978’s The Man-Machine LP were played: the title track, Spacelab, The Model, the beautifully evocative Neon Lights and The Robots make this, in my view, Kraftwerk’s outstanding album. Others will disagree, I am sure: there was a lot of warmth in the room for the quintet of tracks from 1981’s Computer World, if that doesn’t sound too oxymoronic, and Autobahn and Tour De France were greeted with cheers.

The 3D graphics were superb and when the curtain reopened for the first encore, The Robots, the band had been replaced by animatronic doppelgangers. Ralf’s, obstinately not programmed in the same way as the other three, stood motionless for the most part and only came to life sporadically to throw some limited shapes. When the curtain failed to close at the end of the track, we were treated to the sight of the showroom dummies being manually removed from the stage. It was a timely reminder that, for all Kraftwerk's automative imagery, they are only human and there are people behind this peerless music.