Monthly Archive: September 2014

World Premiere: A Time and Place: Musical Meditations on the First World War @ The Town Hall, Birmingham, 17 September 2014

This year marks the centenary of the start of the First Word War. 100 years ago in a totally different world, that it so many ways we can’t relate to.  The first mass produced cars (by Ford) only started in 1914, the telephone (as in landline) was still new technology, radio even newer and the first national broadcasting service – the BBC was 8 years away from formation. News was through newspapers or cinema screenings. But the very real human stories of the time still resonate today and tonight are shown through a powerful musical project: – A Time and Place: Musical Meditations on the First World War.

British folk singer Sam Lee (whose 2012 album Ground Of Its Own garnered a Mercury Music Prize nomination for Album Of The Year) undertook extensive research for A Time And Place earlier this year by discovering wartime songs and stories from rural communities in the south-west of England. Sam’s joined on stage at by north-eastern singer-storytellers Rachel and Becky Unthank – who have set new music to First World War poetry and more – along with band-mate Adrian McNally who has arranged all of the above for an 11-piece ensemble including string quartet and brass.  And all this takes place in Birmingham’s 180-year old Grade I listed Town Hall. And if this wasn’t enough – this performance will take place against the striking visuals from Birmingham video designer Matthew J Watkins (Gorillaz, Beat13, Live_Transmission: Joy Division Reworked).

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As we take to our seats birdsong and country sounds play out over the speakers, dry ice wafting gently over a backdrop of three tombstone shapes, on which there is projected a beautiful sunset sky. You can even hear bees buzzing around. It eludes peace in the beautiful setting of the Town Hall. And as the lights go down, the ‘camera’ drops from the sky to the ground and a cave, and the musical cast take to the stage. Tonight’s music is traditional folk inspired, and as the trio of singers chant cathedral windows rise across the screens. “We’re here because we’re here…” goes the chorus. And then a voice, an old woman relates the how boys from her town were taken to war. She asked one boy after the war which village he came from. He didn’t like to say. He was the only one who returned. He couldn’t face the others’ mothers. A staunch and poignant thought – how could we relate today if only one of the men from our village returned from such a war?

The performance is already beautiful, perfect balance of imagery, vocals, musicians and the poetry and words from that moment in time. This song’s theme is about enlisting, the naivety of what young men and boys were walking into – today – social media and 24/7 news would give us a damn good idea. But then? They really didn’t have a clue of the horrors that would unfold. ‘Bideford Bridge’ relates the stale of enlisting and the journey to the trenches – with the chilling end of chorus line “but all of them died in the May.” And then a song with an occasional drumbeat as the men are sucked into the trenches.

And a mention of Empire. In 1914 the  British Empire covered 1/5th of the World population at the time – over 450 million people. And those people too were sucked into the War – not only across Europe but across the World as the British and German Empires fought over territories. Another song – a mother’s epilogue to a fallen son “rotting in No Man’s Land…” as she remembers bathing him as a young child.
‘Bold Privateer’, a Devonian song, is sung beautifully. ‘Wargirls’, quite upbeat, about the women taking on the responsibility of tackling jobs once done by the men – a moment in time as the world began to change for women as a whole. And then a haunting song, as The Unthanks are joined by another woman from the ensemble to give us ‘Socks’ – a song of hope –  as they pray that the men will survive.
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The we have a two parter if you like. A soldier, Roland, writes to his sweetheart whilst in the trenches. He seems to know his fate and encourages a brighter future for her and that she should move on. And then his sweetheart, Vera, writes back, a poignant response for this brighter future. Within a month of writing his letter, Roland was dead. He died in 1915. And their words are projected onto the screens behind as this emotional song is recounted.

And a quick breather and a break as we take in the stories we have heard.

As we take our seats for the second part, the birdsong is ringing out once more. And then as the ensemble take to the sage Lee conducts the strings in a musical disarray of the meltdown of war. Another song: comments from a “simple soldier boy” on his experience in the trenches.”Breakfast whilst shells scream overhead….” and then the bugle sounds. A call to go ‘over the top’.

‘Everyone Song’ is about the Christmas Day cease fire…. the briefest of reliefs from the distraction of the trenches; birds are flying, the song is soaring, the hope, the escapism, before it all melts away…. ‘They’ll Never Come Back’,  a modern day song by Tim Darling (New Rope String Band) , is as dark as it is serious.

Lee tell’s us when the time comes join in. We recognise the tune, sung beautifully, but in German. And now in English. And then we sing…”Keep the Home Fires Burning, While your hearts are yearning. Though your lads are far away, They dream of home….”

And then to the final song of the night. It’s Spring 1919. The war is over. The heroes return. They have memories to smother as they transfer from war to peace. And poppies appear on the screen. The flowers that remembers the generation of men and boys who died in the blood-soaked fields of the First World War.

The performance ends as we hear the old woman over the speakers once more.
“I hate war.
“I hate war.
“But I admire the soldiers.”

And we leave the screens are covered by little white crosses. In memorial to the millions who died needlessly in a terrible war.

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A Time and Place presents new material inspired by personal stories and arrangements to First World War poetry alongside original repertoire from the time against striking This event is funded by Arts Council England and PRS For Music Foundation and is part of the Imperial War Museums First World War Centenary. It’s  co-produced by sounduk, Barbican and Opera North in partnership with Town Hall & Symphony Hall.

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Pictures courtesy of Ken Harrison. Review for Gig Junkies and 102.5 The Bridge.

Avenue Q @ The New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham 16-20 September 2014

Avenue Q was a smash hit on Broadway, in the West End and worldwide and this award winning comedy musical comes to the New Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham from 16-20 September. Avenue Q UK Tour is brought to us courtesy of the Sell A Door Theatre Company who are on a mission to make live theatre attractive to the screen-addicted social network generation and is in the final weeks of a six month national tour.

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Featuring most definitely the naughtiest puppets you will ever see on a stage, the musical brought hilariously to life by an ensemble cast of 11 performers.  Tony Award winning, it tells the tale of growing up, dreaming big and finding your purpose in life.

Meet Princeton, a bright-eyed graduate who comes to New York City with big dreams and a tiny bank account. Soon discovering that the only neighbourhood in his price range is Avenue Q, he finds himself moving in with some truly quirky characters…

There’s Brian, the out-of-work comedian and his therapist fiancee Christmas Eve, Nicky the good hearted slacker and his closet gay Republican roommate Rod, an internet ‘sex-pert’ called Trekkie Monster and a very cute kindergarden teacher named Kate Monster, And would you believe that the building’s superintendent is one Gary Coleman (of ‘Different Strokes’ fame) ? Featuring hilariously funny songs including ‘The Internet is for Porn ‘ and “Everyone is a Little Bit Racist’, Avenue Q is hilarious musical with a truly warm (and definitely) fuzzy heart.

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Avenue Q may have opened Off-Broadway over a decade ago but the themes it deals with are still very real, and at times poignant, today. Think Sesame Street for adults, with some very naughty puppets – the plot takes us across a range of issues such as racism, sex, homosexuality, homelessness and a person’s purpose in life – all taken on with a quirky offbeat humour through some amazing puppetry skills. Brain and and his ‘oriental’ fiancee Christmas Eve are the only humans – all the other characters are puppets (operated by people who you soon forget are on stage) and you become enveloped into this bizarre but hilarious take on some very serious issues. As we follow them through their trials and tribulations (that you can associate with real life) we are also introduced to the VERY cute and VERY naughty Bad Idea Bears – who are like VERY naughty children goading Princeton and Kate Monster to misbehave, which leads to some disastrous results.

If you fancy a different experience – with that association of TV from days gone by (from Sesame Street to Different Strokes) and want to laugh and sing along to the catchiest of songs, superb puppetry skills and a night of true naughtiness than this one is for you. It’s on at the New Alexandra Theatre until 20th September 2014 – can them while you can.

WORLD PREMIERE: A Time and Place- Musical Meditations on the First World War at the Town Hall, Birmingham

And as we reflect on the centenary of the First World War, a powerful new music project featuring Mercury Prize folk artists Sam Lee, Rachel and Becky Unthank will receive its world premiere on Wednesday 17th September at Birmingham’s Town Hall.

This project,  co-produced by sounduk, Barbican and Opera North in partnership with Town Hall & Symphony Hall,  is an incredibly powerful performance that marks the centenary of the First World War by connecting the creative landscape of wartime England circa 1914 to contemporary Britain in 2014.

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A Time and Place presents new material inspired by personal stories and arrangements to First World War poetry alongside original repertoire from the time against striking visuals from Birmingham video designer Matthew J Watkins (Gorillaz, Beat13, Live_Transmission: Joy Division Reworked). This event is funded by Arts Council England and PRS For Music Foundation and is part of the Imperial War Museums First World War Centenary.

British folk singer Sam Lee, whose 2012 album Ground Of Its Own garnered a Mercury Music Prize nomination for Album Of The Year, undertook extensive research for A Time And Place earlier this year by discovering wartime songs and stories from rural communities in the south-west of England.

Sam will be joined on stage at Birmingham’s 180-year old Grade I listed Town Hall by north-eastern singer-storytellers Rachel and Becky Unthank - who have set new music to First World War poetry and more – along with band-mate Adrian McNally who has arranged all of the above for an 11-piece ensemble including string quartet and brass.

Following this world premiere, the show will continue in London and Leeds. This event will surely bring history, creativity and talent into one unique experience. For more information visit The Town Hall & Symphony Hall website.

Follow the performance on twitter: #timeandplace

 

Roland Gift + John Simmitt @ Hare & Hounds, Birmingham, UK – 3 September 2014

So way back in the 80’s, as one classic Brum band ‘dissolved’ another one was born. This new band did rather well, worldwide success, and a couple of platinum albums beckoned before they too went their separate ways. But no matter, as tonight, in an exclusively snug venue, their lead singer plays in his own right, playing the old and new – it is the immense vocal talent of Roland Gift, of Fine Young Cannibals fame.

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Fine Young Cannibals were two former members of The Beat (David Steele and Andy Cox) and Gift on vocal duties. After appearing on the infamous Channel 4 music programme ‘The Tube’ performing ‘Johnny Come Home’ they got their break as labels battled to sign them. Said song appeared on their debut album along with a over of Elvis Presley’s ‘Suspicious Minds’ – but it was their second album ‘The Raw and the Cooked’ that went multiple platinum and truly global, with Fine Young Cannibals winning two Brit Awards. After then the band drifted and went their separate ways.
Gift continued in solo vein, releasing ‘It’s Only Money’ in 2002, and more recently performing with Jools Holland. Acting also beckoned – an appearance in the Hanif Kureishi penned British movie ‘Sammy & Rosie Get Laid’, acting with the Hull Truck Theatre Company and appearing in and writing music for the Barry Levinson US movie ‘Tin Men.’
So to get an opportunity to see this reclusive singer in all his vocal glory in an intimate venue like the Hare and Hounds, we are indeed lucky peoples tonight. This is part of a  handful of selected dates around the country including Hull Freedom Festival, Gateshead Sage and Raindance Film Festival at London’s Café De Paris. Why these particular locations?

“Each date on this outing has a particular significance. Birmingham is where I was born, Hull where I moved to and started playing music, Gateshead is across the river from where FYC got our break on Tyne Tees TV’s The Tube, and London is where I now live. Playing the Hare and Hounds is like coming back to my roots.”

So as we enter the tiny venue tonight, it’s already warm, and will get warmer – tonight’s gig is sold out! The room in the Hare and Hounds is small – a max of 250 and is well cosy! ‘Support’ is a different mixture. To get us in the mood we have a couple of DJ sets that are intended to get you bopping and in the mood – courtesy of David Wright from Only After Dark and Maryanne Snape. From 80s classics and I mean the class hits from Bowie, Talking Heads, New Order and Tears for Fears the crowd are bopping and enjoying the atmosphere…

Then we get a comedian. John Simmitt. And as he quite rightly explains he’s a comedian not a singer. He feel’s he should have an introduction – and as there’s no one here to do it for him, he’ll do it himself, as he hides behind a speaker and announces his prescence. And as he (re)takes to the stage – ‘‘Here Comes the Hotstepper’ pumps out of the speakers and we’re are encouraged to deliver the “Nananannnannnaaa’s”.

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Self effacing and observant in his comedy style, he quips about being asked to do this gig, and then finding out it was a music gig. And then takes the mick out of the crowd’s age – we’ll be pacing ourselves during the gig then? And he INSISTS he’s edgy, honest. Until he was offered a gig by the BBC. Woohoo! he thought. And then it involved pre-school children and fluffy suits and a long term contract. Simmit maybe edgy, but he be cuddly too – because ladies and gentlemen – his alter ego is….. Dipsy. From the Teletubbies. Ker. Ching. As he said. Simmit is great fun, entertaining – if you get a chance – check him out. “Eh-oh!”

And then here we go for the main man. The Hare and Hounds is so small that the band walk from the back of the room, to the front to make it to the stage – and they sneak through the crowd.

‘What Do You Mean?’ warms us up nicely, and get’s cheers from the crowd. Gift asks us if we like punk rock… ? “Well here’s some reggae..” which starts of with the bridal march before delivering us ‘Ever Fallen In Love’ – and we’re singing. The 6 piece band are tight, Gift’s vocals true to form and this reggaes out version has a beat and we love it.
Gift points out, as we all know, “It’s terribly hot…” and requests a pint of lager from his manager. I’m by the bar – as the request is issued, the barmaid cheekily goes ‘No!” before delivering said order. Up next ‘Girl Like You’ before the classic track that gave him and Fine Young Cannibals their break.

‘Johnny Come Home’ is a stomping rendition. Wowsers. ‘It’s Only Money’ from his 2002 solo effort rolls and rolls – Gift and his band are slick and professional. Somebody shout’s ‘I love you…” – “I love you too baby.” Fascinating fact of the day: Gift was one a cover star of Rolling Stone and voted one of People magazine’s ’50 Most Beautiful People’…
It’s difficult to say what’s the best – but the classics are delivered impeccably – Gift’s voice remains truly unique and time hasn’t aged his vocal ability. He’s just pure talent. ‘Good Thing’ get’s us bopping more and singing – ‘Crushed’ starts off as a ballad – ‘beautiful’ shouts an audience member. Close your eyes – hear his vocals – he is indeed ‘crushed’ as you can here the emotion as his voice tells the story. The song rises and rises before be full stop. Elvis is not in the house (and probably not at the local chippy) – but Gift’s version of ‘Suspicious Minds’ equals and delivers – one of the biggest cheers of the night. ‘She Drives Me Crazy’ straight back in time – but as fresh as the day it was recorded to tape. ‘Broken Hear’ has the beat of ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go Now”…. but we’re still here. No going anywhere. “I’m Not the Man’ rolls on and we sing.

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And a break and here we go again – a ‘Beatles Encore’ – and there’s a grind as we go into baby it’s you – all psychedelic man – he’s a free man…. before a smattering of ‘Blue.’

The dizzying heights of all that success in the mid eighties may have gone – and maybe for Gift that’s a ‘good thing’. He seems somewhat shy, quite literally letting that voice do the talking. But for the 250 punters here tonight – a thoroughly enjoyable time – and a pleasure to close your eyes and take in the vocals and Gift took us on his journey. Is he the mans he used to be? Hell yeah. Johnny came home tonight.

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Review for Gig Junkies and 102.5 The Bridge. Pictures courtesy of Ken Harrison.