Chilly Gonzales @ Cadogan Hall

Chilly Gonzales live at Cadogan Hall.

Auteur pianist, rapper, surrealist piano teacher, comedian and vaudeville entertainer, Chilly Gonzales is a fairly unusual proposition. Born Jason Beck, the Canada-raised, Europe-residing musician has collaborated with the likes of Peaches and Feist, and has recorded a dozen albums under numerous pseudonyms in various styles. While mainstream success has eluded him, two albums stand out: ‘Solo Piano’ from 2004 was exactly that, a record that demonstrated his exceptional skills as player and composer, while last year’s follow up ‘Solo Piano II‘ built on that reputation to greater acclaim.

In the grand surroundings of Chelsea’s Cadogan Hall, Gonzales strides on stage dressed like an outré Noel Coward in monogrammed dressing gown and slippers, looking out from under slicked hair curled in ringlets. Mockingly soaking up the applause, he arranges himself at the sleek black Steinway standing alone on the stage’s bare boards and opens with the gentle caress of ‘Rideaux Lunaire’, moving in quick succession to ‘Othello’ and ‘Kenaston‘, three of the finest and most delicate pieces from ‘Solo Piano II’. Looming large above the stage is a screen upon which a camera projects the piano’s keyboard from above, allowing the audience to see in monochrome Gonzales’ gnarled hands flying over the keys. Sometimes the speed of his fingers gets ahead of the camera, producing a choppyness that seen alongside the piano accompaniment gives the impression of watching Metropolis.

If the audience thought this was to be a straightforward classical recital, they must be unfamilar with Gonzales’ work. Between peices Gonzales entertains with impromptu music theory lessons, asides, and anecdotes from how the music was written. Introducing ‘White Keys‘ – played with a venom not heard on the album, the left hand notes growling louder, ringing out under the beat of his feet on the floor – he explains: “When composing I sometimes have a problem I want to solve, or a solution I want to avoid” – in this case using only the white keys, as a challenge. An explanation of major and minor keys before ‘Major vs Minor‘ sees him giving renditions of relentlessly upbeat pieces like ‘Happy Birthday’ and ‘Frère Jacques’ in the style of funereal fugues. He recalls the day he realised that minor chords were the tones of the underdog: “Minor is Warsaw 1942; only kings and fascists use major chords.”

The stand-up comic in him dies hard – a lengthly aside on how arpeggios are a lazy man’s musical harmony turns into digs at Sebastian Tellier, Jools Holland (“no one wants to listen to boogie woogie”), Daft Punk, and that if you don’t like rap “…that’s fine. You can just not like rap, and be racist.”

On rapping, no Chilly Gonzales gig is complete without it (“I took my inner Larry David and exaggerated it”), and he delivers ‘Supervillain Music’ and ‘Beans’ from 2011’s ‘Unspeakable’ album in which he riffs in a chamber-rap fashion on the classic hip-hop themes of repping his skills and making mo’ money. Breaking out of the fouth wall, a woman from the audience accompanies him on ‘Bongo Monologue’, with hilarious results.

Gonzales’ mix of classical talent, sharp observation, Jewish chutzpah and a sense of the absurd provides a compelling two hours of music and sillyness. It’s not something you’d necessarily think to take your Chopin-loving grandma to, but judging by the rapturous applause, standing ovation and not one but two encores, she’d probably enjoy herself if you did.

 

Words and pictures first published in Clash Magazine issue 87, June 2013.

CSS @ Village Underground

Lovefoxx and the rest of the Brazilian five piece still have the same sense of fun after four albums as they did way back in 2006 when they released ‘Let’s Make Love And Listen To Death From Above’, and when Death From Above 1979 were actually around.

 
[Pictures originally published at Clashmusic.com]

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Adam Ant @ The Roundhouse

Adam Ant live at the Roundhouse, London, May 2013. Photo: Rachel Lipsitz
Adam Ant live at the Roundhouse, London, May 2013. Photo: Rachel Lipsitz

Adam and the Ant’s huge hits in the early 1980s – at one point he had eight records in the charts simultaneously – are indelibly burnt into anyone who remembers them. Children remember the flamboyant costumes, over the top videos, catchy choruses. Those old enough remember the hard-edged post-punk sound finessed with a touch of the new wave, the overtones of deviancy and sexual experimentation, the arch lyrics and the extremely fine cheekbones of the handsome Mr Ant (born Stuart Goddard).

What Antmania can be resurrected 30 years later? He slipped from among the most creative new wave popstars into irrelevance, battled mental health problems later diagnosed as bi-polar disorder that saw him arrested and sectioned for his own health, and disappeared. After 17 years away Ant returns with the sprawling 17-track album ‘The BlueBlack Hussar Marries The Gunner’s Daughter’, a bizarre, unruly, and sometimes inspired beast.

Playing the Roundhouse for the first time since supporting X-Ray Spex in 1978, tonight Ant sports the full regalia expected of him; gold-braided hussar’s jacket, feathered bicorn and various dangly adornments. Older now, with thick black-rimmed specs and a more weighty appearance than in his whip-thin youth, he could almost be a history teacher at a fancy dress party.

But he still has the spirit for it; leaping on stage he launches into the bluesy ‘Marrying The Gunner’s Daughter‘, before stepping straight into ‘Dog Eat Dog‘ – and back to 1980. The band bring a more ‘eavy metal sound to the music, while still delivering the characteristic tribal-style drumming, with two kit drummers just as he used to. He doesn’t hit every note, but in moments such as yodelling the chorus to ‘Beat My Guest‘ he sounds as vigorous as ever.

Over two hours with scarcely a break to talk Ant powers through new numbers like the ‘Hardmentoughblokes‘, a bewildering attack on faux film hardmen, the electronic-tinged and clearly personal ‘Shrink‘ which seethes with a sub-Nine Inch Nails intensity, and the smokey BMRC-esque ‘Cool Zombie‘. And there are the classics: ‘Stand and Deliver‘ sets the mood early on in the set, the crowd’s roar clearly audible. ‘Whip In My Valise‘ is still delicious, the spacey, flanged ‘Zerox‘ is searing. “I’m asked if I’m going to play my classics,” he deadpans. “’Course not, you want dubstep remixes don’t you?”, before tearing into the call to arms of ‘Antmusic‘.

But tonight is all about the crowd. Three heavily-set balding punks pass around a bottle of poppers, each eye adorned by a mascara cross; not one is under 50 years old. Another sports the kind of flour-and-water spikes last seen on grainy BBC footage from the 70s. In every direction are serried ranks of middle age, trussed in Napoleonic shirts and tunics, ribbons and hats. They know the words, they know the dance moves, they leap about and sing as lustily as any Regency highwayman. To be among such fans, all so far beyond the all-important 18-35 market segment, dressed to the nines bellowing “RIDICULE IS NOTHING TO BE SCARED OF” is to be humbled, and cheered.

Gallops + Portasound @ The Lexington

Prog is back, armed with better synthesisers, more effects, and the most mental drummers on Earth. Gallops, Portasound and The Physics House Band tear the roof off The Lexington.

 
[Words and photos originally published at Clashmusic.com]

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Palma Violets @ The Boston Arms

Palma Violets
Palma Violets

This energetic South London four-piece’s reputation saw them on tour supporting Savages, 2012’s most hyped Joy Division impersonators, then get signed to Rough Trade without so much as a demo. Tonight, tickets marked for Steve Lamacq are among a pile of industry passes at the door; the venue is sold out. What have the Palma Violets got to explain the hype?

It’s garage rock – cacophonous drums, insistent bass, reverb-a-plenty and shrieked two-part vocals. Pete Mayhew’s organ offers respite and aspires to a broader sound some would call psychedelic, but too often here it’s lost in the mix. On stage Sam Fryer (vocals/guitar) and snarling, floppy-fringed Chilli Jessen (bass/shouting) bounce off each other, launching a blitz of guitar and strobe through a thick pall of smoke and reverb. It’s gleefully reckless; they don’t hit all the notes, they chuck themselves about. Fayer’s voice resembles Ian McCulloch in tone but without the Bunnyman’s finesse; every song arrives laced with whoops, yelps and screams.

Single ‘Best of Friends‘ has a winning chorus, Will Doyle’s catchy drum clatter of ‘Tom The Drum‘ stop-starts to raucous effect, while ‘Last Of The Summer Wine’ could be The Modern Lovers, whose more boisterous organ and bass-driven moments the Palmas sometimes echo.

The gig descends into entertaining chaos: articles of teenage clothing are hurled at the band, a shirtless girl clambers onstage and barely retains her bra, full scale stage incursions ensue, and Jessen indulges in some reverse stage diving by walking into the crowd to be raised aloft and thrown back onstage.

Nothing different then, just a classic recipe executed well with the infectious energy and unshakable faith of the young. These four are living the dream right now. Let them.

Soulwaxmas @ Brixton Academy

Soulwaxmas. Photo credit: Matt Wash
Soulwaxmas. Photo credit: Matt Wash

Soulwaxmas – the name hints at the calling-card humour of Stephen and David Dewaele, the globetrotting Belgian brothers behind electro-rock live act Soulwax and mashup artists 2ManyDJs.

It’s been 14 years since Soulwax’s breakthrough electro-tinged rock album ‘Much Against Everyone’s Advice‘, and 10 years since 2ManyDJs pretty much invented mashup with their genre-blending album ‘As Heard On Radio Soulwax Part 2‘, in which they went to extraordinary lengths to clear more than 40 tracks with copyright holders, creating an album-length mix of snatches of records cut up and stitched back together.

Now in its sixth year, their annual Soulwaxmas festive European tour sees the boys dispense a heady Belgian brew of techno, electro, and full-on party madness from both their guises, with support from fellow traveller James Murphy of DFA Records, Erol Alkan, and Hellmix among others.

Dressed in their signature immaculate suits for the occasion, as Soulwax the brothers are joined by Stefaan Van Leuven on bass and drummer Bent Van Looy to bang out an hour of percussian-heavy, bass- and keyboard-driven electro rock.

The electro-madness of the naughties seems a century ago now, when biting saw waves seemed to be present on practically every record, and Soulwax fall into the group that includes Death From Above 1979 that mix the rockist with the danceable. Maybe there’s a sense that this wave has passed as the fifth jagged electro build-up in a row ripples out across the crowd who leap about illuminated in the searchlights and lasers, hands in the air as the beat returns. But the band constantly reinvent and bring new twists to their tracks, as they did on their dance-erized ‘Nite Versions’ remix album, and big hitters like ‘Another Excuse‘ have the crowd gladly admitting: “It’s a mistake that we’re making/that we’re making”.

Erol Alkan keeps things lubricated between sets, but it’s when they return as 2ManyDjs that Brixton Academy really takes off.

Armed only with their consoles, a considerable back-catalogue of extremely intoxicating dance remixes, and a video projection backdrop that announces the record using cartoonish animated versions of record sleeves, 2ManyDJs step forth to drink the festive crowd under the table. The opening cocktail of acid house classics ‘Humanoid‘ and ‘Mentasm‘ (complete with vast, grinning aceeed face above the stage) leads through Mr Oizo’s techno hand-puppet Flat Eric wearing a fez, Bowie’s ‘Rebel Rebel’ accompanied by undulating naked cartoon Bowies, The Rapture, walking Eiffel Towers, and the inevitable and roof-raising Soulwax Remix of MGMT’s ‘Kids’.

Dashes of one record are dropped into another, setting up the best flavours of both and mixing up memorable stabs and hits to create something new that is neither one nor the other. It’s a great trick, and it keeps on working.

With a final salvo of Run DMC’s ‘It’s Tricky‘ the brothers bid us a happy Christmas, and an explosion of glitter, confetti and broad smiles burst out across the auditorium. As the first night after the predicted apocalypse predictably failed to materialise, Soulwaxmas still shows us how to party like there’s no tomorrow, even when there is.

 

[Originally published at Clashmusic.com]

The Gold Bar re-opens, again

Stoke Newington Church Street is a fairly busy thoroughfare with shops that do a good trade, but there are one or two buildings that seem to keep falling through the net. One is the Gold Bar, at least that was its most recent incarnation, which was open for less than a year before shutting last year after, apparently, a fire.

I noticed while having a pint at the Lion on Tuesday that it is due to become the Baby Bathouse, after its alma mater in the City. So we can all expect nipple tassels and pasties with our pasties in terms of food and drink on offer.

UPDATE: The Hackney Citizen carried the story in the same edition of this month’s paper that reported how Hackney council has banned strip clubs and sex shops in the borough, while allowing those that exist to stay open. Actual sex establishments, ie saunas, massage parlours and the like will be unaffected. Hmmm. So, establishments that allow women to charge for getting naked will be banned while the Baby Bathhouse and it’s ilk, where people pay to see women getting naked, open without comment.

This is sadly typical of the vastly irrational, tribal and ultimately harmful debate that surrounds what have become wrongly known as ‘sex encounter establishments‘, and the result is rarely anything than pointless gesture politics, Victorian throwback morality policing and, all too often, increased danger or even harm for the women working in the industry. The rise of burlesque as a supposedly acceptable alternative only serves to highlight how reasoned argument flies out the door the moment the bras come off.

Jack London, 1903 and 2003

Whitechapel, 1902. Credit: Huntington Library, San Marino California

When we try to imagine the conditions of the British poor during the industrial revolution it is the words of Dickens, Owen or Engels that provide us with the imagery to convey the cramped squalor and terrible poverty they endured.

But as early as the mid-19th century, the new medium of photography was being used by journalists and social reformers to reveal the plight of the working classes.

In 1890 the Dutch journalist Jacob Riis published How The Other Half Lives, his photographs of New York’s Lower East Side slums where 340,000 people lived crammed into a single square mile. In 1902 the American author Jack London came to London and, spurred on by the socialist instincts his difficult upbringing had inspired in him, pursued a similar project.

Jack London and Bert, a cobbler, in 1902. Credit: Huntington Library, San Marino California

Posing in a common man’s clothes as a runaway American sailor, London spent six weeks in the slums of the East End, living with and suffering the same privations as her inhabitants. His experiences became The People of the Abyss, published in 1903, a searing journalistic portrayal of the conditions of the urban poor.

A Salvation Army breakfast: “A motley crowd of woebegone wretches who had spent
the night in the rain… the skin of their bodies showing red through the holes in their rags.”
Credit: Huntington Library, San Marino California

Less well known are the photographs London took of the workless, homeless poor – the workhouse, the doss-house, the Salvation Army barracks, or “carrying the banner”; tramping through the night half-starved looking for food or shelter, prevented by the police from stopping on the street, only to resume the futile search for work the following morning, whether or not sleep had been snatched in a doorway or park bench.


Green Park, 1902: “In Green Park, at one in the afternoon, I counted scores of the
ragged wretches asleep in the grass.” Credit:Huntington Library, San Marino California

The remarkable images show frankly and without sentiment the drawn faces of men queuing for a free meal, women huddled in all their clothes on park benches, or the pitiful sight of figures sprawled across Green Park, soaked to the skin and exhausted. They could be dismissed as images from a different age with different values, until one stops to consider that such sights are not uncommon today.

“On the benches was arrayed a mass of miserable and distorted humanity…
A chill, raw wind was blowing, and these creatures huddled there in their rags.”
Credit: Huntington Library, San Marino California

These and many photographs from London’s other travels have been hardly seen in a century, but are collected in Jack London: Photographer, published by the University of Georgia Press last month. One of the book’s authors, photographic archivist Philip Adam – a native of San Francisco like Jack London – experienced his own brush with homelessness after being laid off in 2003.

“They had hired me ‘without benefits’ – not as full-time staff, without the protections that provides,” Adam said. “There were homeless people sleeping in our doorway – you’d literally walk over bodies to get to work in the morning – so I started photographing the homeless people in San Francisco. I was a working professional without security, and I thought, there but for the grace of god go I, because there’s not much difference between someone working like that and someone homeless and down on their luck.”

Having lost his studio with the job, after 30 years in San Francisco Adam left town. “I’ve been homeless ever since, though friends and people who know me have been very generous, so I’ve not been out on the street,” he added.

In an effort to make San Francisco’s chronic homeless problem less visible, the city council are to criminalise loitering on park benches or doorsteps. With the echoes of the punitive measures taken against the poorest and most desperate members of society in 1903 still ringing in 2003, a century after London’s photographs were taken the precarious nature of work and the capricious attitude of governments toward the unfortunate remain powerful dividing forces between the haves and have-nots.

 

[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, November 2010]

 

A new Standard? Geordie takes the reins

 

“Ah, the competition is here,” says the editor of the Evening Standard ushering me into his office, all smiles, warm handshake, sit-on-my-sofa. I hadn’t thought of London’s thrice-daily paper and The Big Issue in quite that light, but considering how the streets throng these days with people hawking papers, free or otherwise, he may have a point.

“We’re all competitors,” he laughs, “and while we’re extremely happy to be on the street opposite some competitors like The Big Issue, there are others we wish we weren’t.”

Geordie Greig, 48 and father of twin daughters, has spent nearly 30 years as a journalist; cutting his teeth in Deptford, serving time on national tabloids and broadsheets, five years a US correspondent in New York, and finally 10 years as editor of Tatler. But his new role in charge of the Standard, he says, “is the most exhilarating job you can have.”

“The tempo of the paper, that’s the most incredible thing. You can see your paper come out during the day before your very eyes and you can see events change – and be changed by – the paper.”

The cool, calm office three floors above Kensington High Street in Northcliffe House is far literally and metaphorically from the offices of the South East London & Kentish Mercury where he began.

Greig, Eton and Oxford educated, had on one hand forged connections with high movers while at school. Personable, softly-spoken but persistent, he wrote to leading lights of the arts including Lucian Freud, Damien Hockney, Ted Hughes and, er, Poly Styrene from punk band X-Ray Spex.

“Poly Styrene embarrassed me terribly. I had 200 boys who’d paid 50p to see her speak and she didn’t show up – twice. You can’t rely on a punk, as I found out the hard way,” he laughs.

He has kept this up throughout his life, meeting Ted Hughes only after 25 years of exchanging letters, and going on to publish the then poet laureate’s last poems in the Sunday Times.

It is an somewhat unreal feat, especially in these times where men of letters are rare. “It’s about recognising those with whom you do have a connection and keeping it going,” Greig says. “I wrote to Lucien Freud for years, and when we met we liked each other. He’s one of the best conversationalists I’ve ever met, with memories going back 50 years – meeting Picasso, hanging out with Francis Bacon.”

This, on the other hand, is a world away from Greig’s experiences as a reporter in south London: crime stake-outs, a week in the Falklands after the war in 1982 and notorious gang land bosses.

Greig recalls: “I had lunch with Charlie Richardson and ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser once, a lunch that it soon became clear I would be paying for. Frankie said to me: ‘Geord – can I call you Geord?’ I told him, ‘You can call me what you like, Frankie.’ He said he’d mentioned me in a codicil, an addition to his will. ‘I’ve left you my pliers,’ Frankie said.”

He adds: “Actually I got a call from a reporter on the Standard at the time when Charlie was released from prison who said, you know, help us out here, because you might want shifts on the Standard one day.”

Coming full circle from occasional shifts to the editor’s chair, Greig takes the helm at a difficult time not just for the Standard, but for newspapers in general. Magazines and newspapers are folding, and around 2,000 journalists have lost their jobs in Britain in barely a year as circulation and advertising rates plunge. In London, the Standard is caught in a damaging circulation war with the London Paper, London Lite, and Metro freesheets.

Greig was tipped for the job when his friend, former KGB officer, diplomat and billionaire Russian Alexander Lebedev, bought the Standard in February. But their first act took many by surprise – posters around London proclaimed ‘Sorry’; for losing touch, for being negative, for taking you for granted.

What were you apologising for? Was this about shrugging off the shackles of previous owners, the Daily Mail and General Trust?

“For every perception that was damaging to us we wanted to say to readers, look again, it’s not real,” Greig says. “We talked to many Evening Standard readers and there was a sense that they all wanted a paper more celebratory, more supportive, more listening, and more broad-based in its political approach to London.”

Under former editor Veronica Wadley and editor-in-chief Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail the Standard had adopted a somewhat doom-laden Mail-esque style, and its aggressive line towards Ken Livingston during the Mayoral election campaign in 2008 polarised readers.

“It is no reflection on the great qualities of every journalist here,” he qualifies, “but like being in a relationship, if you want to make things better you have to apologise for things that aren’t perfect. It was that candour which we needed to demonstrate.

“Also,” he says, more practically, “we had to face up to the fact that the Standard had been losing circulation in last five years, and that if we reengaged with readers that had stopped buying it we could reverse that.”

Latest circulation figures report the decline has been stemmed, for now at least. The idea of filling a paper with ‘good news’ has been mooted before, but the twitching hard noses of journalists – and readers – simply find shock-horror more appealing. Does Greig see it as a local paper that should contain more local London news?

“London is like a separate country, and we are that country’s paper. By definition we are London’s local paper, but by instinct and by influence and by significance we are a cosmopolitan, world-class paper,” he argues.

The paper seems very nationally or internationally focused, despite a full-time City Hall reporter covering Mayor Boris Johnson. If readers hoped the paper it would tackle issues in Town Halls across the 32 London boroughs as their respective local newspapers struggle to stay afloat, the paper has yet to demonstrate it.

Can journalism survive the death of newspapers? Will the Standard be around in 10 years? “Yes.” In 20 years? “For at least 20 years,” Greig says, looking momentarily less sure of himself, “Even if it’s an electronic version. Look, we’ve gone from pigeon to post, from fax to emails to Twitter – soon it will soon be brainwaves. Sending messages hasn’t gone out of fashion.”

But Greig’s pedigree as a newsman, his intellectual leanings, recognition of the need for wit and humour and ability to weather the storm should not be underestimated – former boss Andrew Neill said Greig “belonged” in newspapers, not magazines.

“I feel very lucky to be in what is one of the great jobs in journalism,” Greig admits. “Maybe I am lucky. I hadn’t intended to become a journalist, and I don’t think of my letter writing as purposeful pursuit. I’m just interested in people that have done something interesting, something that alters the world.”

 

[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, May 2010]