Monthly Archive: June 2012

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain @ Town Hall, Birmingham, 28th June 2012

Birmingham’s Town Hall built in 1834 for ‘just’ £25,000. In 1996 it closed for a £30m+ refurbishment, re-opening its doors 11 years later. This iconic building in the centre of Birmingham, with it’s beautiful interior, has played host to a multitude of legends over the centuries from classical writers like Charles Dickens to rock gods Led Zeppelin. And here on this Thursday evening – a Hawaiian and a folk twist – welcome to the world of that is The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. 

So that’s a potted history of the venue and tonight’s ‘Ukes’ performance, specially commissioned by the Town Hall / Symphony Hall, celebrates Cecil Sharp, who in the late part of the 1800 into the twentieth century made it his mission to ‘collect’ folk songs from across the UK, Europe and America. He was a man with a notebook, ‘recording’ the songs and the people, who performed them, in middle of fields – “a bit of a strange thing to do.” But without him, many songs would have disappeared and many would have not been re-interpreted into music we recognize today.

And so to the ‘Ukes’. A band of brothers and sisters, all singing, all strumming, using instruments brought with loose change, who believe that anything is up for musical interpretation – as long as it is with a Uke. The Ukulele is, apparently, of Hawaiian descent – after being inspired by similar stringed instruments taken there by Portuguese immigrants. And they come in different sizes of commonly four tones: soprano, concert, tenor and baritone.

The ‘Ukes’ formed in 1985 as a bit of fun. Well since then, their journey has took them all over the world – “a world tour with only hand luggage”; their music used in films, plays and commercials and including collaborations with Madness, David Arnold, The Ministry of Sound, Yusuf Islam (aka Cat Stevens) and The Kaiser Chiefs to name a few. The ‘Ukes’ are Dave Suich, Peter Brooke Turner, Hester Goodman, George Hinchliffe, Richie Williams, Kitty Lux, Will Grove-White and Jonty Bankes.

Tonight’s exploration of The Cecil Sharp Songbook: ‘Waly Waly on the Ukulele’ is sold out. On the stage are seven seats, which are taken up by the seven members, in full black tie dress – six playing ukes, one on a double bass.  And introduction to tonight’s event: “This is a one off occasion to see the show…. we’ll do the show…. even if you don’t like it…!” First up ‘English Hornpipes in Slow 3’ from 1693, followed by ‘The Tree in the Wood’ – notable for appearing in the film ‘The Wicker Man’. Sung by George, it has the round-robin effect of ‘I knew an old lady who swallowed a fly…’ –   “Gawd-blimey” as George gasps for breath after the rounds of repetition.

Joke: “How many folk singers does it take to change a light bulb?” Answer: “ Four – one to change the light bulb – three to complain it’s electric!”

‘Bonnie Lightmore’ is from the Napoleonic wars. Next up, from 1918, a ditty used by Fairport Convention and notably the same melody as The Animals’ ‘House of the Rising Sun’. Many of these songs have multiple names and multiple interpretations and multiple versions – but you do recognise so many. ‘The Princes’ has an Elizabethan vibe and we get a rendition of a track that has again morphed into many variations including ‘Scarborough Fair.’

The next one – ‘Butchers Boy’ is akin to Napalm Death (!) or maybe early Sabbath (?) – well note quite sure about that one – but it is a dark song, about hanging and coffins (many of these folk songs have a dark fairy tale side) performed appropriately darkly by the ‘Ukes’ – a song Nick Cave would appreciate. The next sing is indeed the basis of The Blockhead’s ‘Sex and Drugs and Rock n’ Rock’ to which the Ukes morph between traditional and Dury’s lyrics.

An ‘interlude’ for the interval and we’re back in for the next batch of songs. Christmas carol ‘Down in Your Forest’ (which has nothing about Christmas in it) is clearly the inspiration behind The Stranglers ‘Golden Brown.’ The ‘Huntsman’s Delight’ or ‘The Keeper’ was banned ‘cos it was so rude – Sharp ‘cleaned up’ the lyrics – “more like Carry on Hunting!” – but you know this one – found myself singing along “Hey down, ho down, derry derry down, Among the leaves so green-o…”

‘The Unfortunate Lad’ or ‘St Thomas’s Hospital’ (a leper hospital) – could be said to be the tune behind The Velvet Underground’s ‘Venus in Furs.’ ‘Blackbird’s and Thrushes’ about squatters (no – these squatters could live in property if they built it on common land between dawn and dusk, and by dusk had smoke coming from it). A ‘William Shatner’ moment – this song is spoken rather than sung. ‘Waly, Waly, The Water is Wide’ has been interpreted by U2;  ‘Hold on Hold’ is clearly ‘The Magic Bus.’ And we complete with ‘Edward’ – “it’s all about… Edward.”

“If you haven’t enjoyed the show, don’t worry, you never see it again!” The audience response is positive – it has been all night!

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain are indeed a totally different experience. They’re fun. And chatty. This show was different to their norm, but still fascinating in a way to hear tunes of the past, brought to the present, interpreted on a Uke. The ‘Ukes’ are at their best – giving it some, singing in harmony. Dressed in black tie, they play this little stringed instrument – and they have become more than just a fringe freak – it is a balance between the serious and the hilarious. And these ‘Ukes’ have inspired a million clubs groups and individuals who have took up this little stringed instrument.

So if you fancy an alternative, alternative, night out, for something completely different – then go catch the Ukes. And as for that strange man with his notebook, without Cecil Sharp, music of today would be entirely different. We applaud him for doing something pretty outlandish all those years ago – because very possible without you – the world of music may have been a very different place.

Chris Cornell + Paul Freeman @ Symphony Hall, Birmingham – 19 June 2012

Review for Gig Junkies. Pictures: Bianca Barrett.

Dozens of rock fans make their way tonight to the delightful Symphony Hall for somewhat of a different rock gig. One of THE rock voices of the past twenty years is on stage, stripped down and laid bare – an entire acoustic set – tonight Chris Cornell brings his Songbook to Birmingham.

As the fans gather outside the hall around the bar, a few make the effort to see support act Paul Freeman. Young Welsh lad singer songwriter, acoustic guitar in hand, single spotlight on him, he sings and plays uplifting and rocky songs, that certainly get your toes tapping. He’s chatty, enquiring about the England score (the rest of the world is watching the England Euro 2012 heats match that we need to draw or win) and about to start a song he’s interrupted after a couple of bars by a fly, which appears to come from his mouth – “what was that?”  He’s got a new single out ‘Well Well’- check it out on his website.

Half hour interval and the auditorium starts to fill as 8.45pm approaches and eager fans wait for Cornell. And on he comes, dressed in hoodie and white jeans, a trim to his spiral locks, and waves to the crowd, who enthusiastically cheer back. “Shit this place is big… from the outside you would think it would have several rooms… smaller rooms for people like me…”  Picking up guitar: “I believe the England national team have a game….. Fuck! Not gonna ask anyone…. Maybe they’ll win… positive thoughts…” (This clearly worked – England won !) “….emigrated from here at some stage …. We (Americans) all did… – Now what I do is just play songs…”

Cornell’s Songbook tour is made up of songs across two decades, that little Seattle group formed in memorial; the grunge heroes; the supergroup and “just Chris”. First up is ‘Roads We Choose’ a song “which is famous for being the song never good enough to release on anything…” Cornell starts as he means to go on – ridiculously talented, great acoustic guitarist (something that he isn’t that well known for) and THAT voice. And it’s pure pleasure to just listen, as he rolls through track after track – ‘Ground Zero’ shows how stunning it is.

The stage is simple, Cornell is surround by a circle of guitars and amps, a chair bar stool, a smaller stool with an old analogue red telephone (we know not why). Audioslave’s ‘Dandelion’ written for his daughter “while she was in her mummy’s tummy… I did write songs for her after she came out! I just wanted to jump on it!”

He’s chatty and engaging, the odd anecdote – making the crowd laugh “You are very nice…. Soundgarden tour manager was from Birmingham….he was great…. He’d punch people and get into fights for us – seemed alright for us!!!!” (Tunes his guitar) “…met the members of Sabbath… expected them to be evil and want to kill you…. They were really lovely…”

Next up Audioslave’s ‘Wide Awake’ written for “the victims of Hurricane Catrina – and for people like Bush who weren’t there – thank God he’s gone…” (crowd cheer).  Track is truly remarkable stripped back – his raw scream emotes the pain of the lyrics.

“This is a song I wrote… after looking around and getting sick of people… it’s the ‘fuck you!’ that everyone doesn’t like me……this one is full of metaphors…” We get an unabridged version – full of swear words – telling everyone to basically fuck off – the crowd laugh – we all get it. This is his version of  Carly Simon’s ‘You’re So Vain’ – into the real version – ‘Can’t Change Me.’

And now he sits “seated like you…” and invites people to shout – “well that’s opened the doors…” and cheers from the different levels of the auditorium – upstairs – “sounds like they’re burning to death….” the alternating two side tiers “sound like fuckin’ lunatics!”

And now back in time – to The Temple of The Dog – conceived by Cornell as a tribute to his late friend Andy Wood (Mother Love Bone) “… a life ended short…” featuring Pearl Jam members including Eddie Vedder on vocal duties.  Mother Love Bone’s ‘Man of Golden Words’ beautifully morphs into Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’ followed by couple more Temple songs, a quip about two blokes leaving the audience to take a piss “… likeliness 45% doing coke; 42% puking after lunch…” and then into the classic ‘Hunger Strike.’

And now for Soundgarden –  from ‘Superunknown’ ‘Fell on Black Days’ followed by a phenomenal psychedelic version of ‘Down on the Upside’s ‘Burden in My Hand’.  And stuff backing tracks – Cornell has committed music to vinyl – played on stage on a player – to sing along to – ‘When I’m Down’ is soul and blues – Cornell devoid of guitar – walking round the stage – his voice is remarkable. Followed by a Timeraland-less version of ‘Scream.’

Daft question of the night goes to the punter who asked when Soundgarden are playing the UK. That’ll be a “couple of weeks ago at Download” and you are more than welcome to see them at Hard Rock Calling in Hyde Park, alongside Iggy and the Stooges on July 13th 2012.

And the songs keep coming: Audioslave’s ‘I am the Highway’, ‘ Doesn’t Remind Me’,  ‘Be Yourself’, Led Zepp cover ‘Thank You’ and the two hour set completes with Soundgarden’s ‘Blow Up the Outside World’ – deconstructed at the end with lopping voices, guitars overlaid both in and out of tune – a mesmerizing crescendo.

And now to the encore, and a quick snap of a couple of lucky punters fro him to tweet – “What shall I play?” – shouts from the crowd.  So we get class that is Soundgarden’s ‘Black Hole Sun’, Audioslave’s ‘Like a Stone followed by covers in true Chris Cornell style – The Beatles ‘A Day in the Life’ and Lennon’s ‘Imagine.’

The way Cornell achieves the vocal ranges is just truly jaw-droppingly incredible. And in some ways it was one of the oddest rock gigs I’ve been to. A place full of rockers – just sat, in silence, mesmerized by the performance. When Cornell was singing you could have heard a pin drop.  To see one of the best voices in rock, stripped bare, just acoustic, in a true venue fit for purpose is a pure treat. And Cornell is edgy – non-conforming – full of contradictions – from scary angst-ridden grunge to dance – he continually does the unexpected – and writes his own rules. It was a privilege to listen in and for all rock fans and aspiring rock gods – go take a look if you get a chance to see the Songbook. You will seriously be blown away.

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Setlist:

  1. Roads We Choose
  2. As Hope and Promise Fade / 2 Drink Minimum
  3. Ground Zero
  4. Dandelion (Audioslave)
  5. Wide Awake (Audioslave)
  6. Can’t Change Me
  7. Man Of Golden Words (Mother Love Bone) / Comfortably Numb (Pink Floyd)
  8. Wooden Jesus (Temple of the Dog)
  9. Call Me A Dog (Temple of the Dog)
  10. Hunger Strike (Temple of the Dog)
  11. Fell on Black Days (Soundgarden)
  12. Burden in My Hand (Soundgarden)
  13. Seasons
  14. When I’m Down
  15. Scream
  16. I Am The Highway (Audioslave)
  17. Sunshower
  18. Mind Riot (Soundgarden)
  19. Be Yourself (Audioslave)
  20. Thank You (Led Zeppelin)
  21. Doesn’t Remind Me (Audioslave)
  22. Blow Up the Outside World (Soundgarden)

 

Encore:

  1. Black Hole Sun (Soundgarden)
  2. Like A Stone (Audioslave)
  3. A Day in the Life (The Beatles)
  4. Imagine (John Lennon)

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Listening:

Temple of The Dog (1991)

Soundgarden: 

BadmotorFinger (1991)

Superunknown (1994)

Down on the Upside (1996)

Audioslave :

Audioslave (2002)

Out of Exile (2005)

Chris Cornell: 

Carry On (2007)

And just because this is totally worth a listen:

Temple of the Dog – Hunger Strike