Monday, April 30, 2007


Sunday, April 29, 2007

Bill Callahan

It's the dancing you remember.

Bill Callahan has been making music for many years now, generally under the name of Smog (or, in an act of obfuscation typical of the man, as (smog)). He's much admired by those who know his work, but there aren't that many of them. However, the massive attention that's been paid to his current beau Joanna Newsom means that inevitably some more light is shining on his corner at the moment, and maybe his time is finally coming. There's been a change in the Callahan method, bringing a new album released under his own name, which features songs presenting a demeanour that might be described as cheerful. Fortunately this doesn't seem to have compromised the quality of his work, so we take ourselves to the Queen Elizabeth Hall to hear how this newly lighter mood transfers to the stage.

Last time I saw him he was on his own with his guitar, and although this time he's brought a band with him, all the songs at their core retain that aesthetic. Although he's linked with the "lo-fi" movement, that label doesn't really do him justice. His sound might broadly be described as "countrified Velvet underground", but he seems to draw from a deeper and older well, the same feel you get when you listen to old scratchy blues records from before the war, of something rooted in an ancient past. He's not one for stage banter, his quiet demeanour contrasting incongruously with an audience that applauds the opening bars of most of the songs in the way you might expect at a Barry Manilow concert (incidentally, this audience seemed to spend an awful lot of time standing up and going to the bar, although maybe it just seems more obvious because it's a seated venue with the bar outside the hall?). He stands upright and rigid, strumming his guitar and intoning his lyrics, deadpan and impassive. Which makes it all the more strange, his penchant for suddenly twitching, his legs writing and kicking occasionally, rather in the manner of a slow-motion Elvis as impersonated by Max Wall. The music is hypnotic, soulful, occasionally terrifying in its intensity, and seems utterly at odds with these curious movements. And yet afterwards, on long reflection on what I've seen and heard, it comes to seem absolutely right, the man's movements as singular as his music.

He doesn't say much to us, although at one point he does announce, "I feel good tonight". And it seems a simple, honest thing to say, that at the same time suggests something more profound, merely alluded to.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Mstislav Rostropovich 1927-2007

Tortelier was the cellist of choice in my household when I was small, so it wasn't until later that I discovered Rostropovich, which coincided with my discovering Shostakovich. Rummaging through my parents' LPs, I discovered Slava's recording of Shostakovich's First Concerto, and it made an immediate impression, not just the music, but the extraordinary personality of the soloist that leapt out of the speakers, a boisterous, extrovert earthiness that contrasted sharply with Tortelier's Gallic nobility. I was hooked, and began to seek out any recordings of his I could find, and my admiration grew as I discovered just how much of the cello literature of the past 60 years came into being through and for him. His status as a man without nationhood after his exile from Russia seemed the noblest of stances, and he came to stand for much more than being simply a very fine musician.

Of course, it's very easy when someone has just died to paint them in saintly colours, and it would be dishonest to deny that he was far from flawless as a man. And I have to say I thought he was an awful conductor. But he opened up worlds for me as a child, and I don't see that anyone could hear a few bars of his performances of the Beethoven cello sonatas without being struck by the sense of being in the presence of a great, generous and very human spirit.

Monday, April 23, 2007


I was thinking of Elgar, whose 150th birthday falls this year, and this came up.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Things I saw this week when I did not have a camera to hand

A black swan.

A heron pause on the bank of a river before taking flight.

A horse underneath a motorway.

My uncle's remains lowered into the ground.

A baby's smile.

The sun on the water.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Basquiat Strings with Seb Rochford

I've had a vague desire for a long time to be Miles Davis, or maybe John Coltrane, although apparently not a strong enough desire to get up off my arse and actually learn the trumpet or sax. The cello always seemed, well, just not a jazz instrument, really (I did contemplate trading up to the bass, but have you seen the size of those things?). I did see someone playing jazz cello once, but it didn't really convince me. So it's very gratifying to hear this splendid album by Basquiat Strings, an ensemble led by cellist Ben Davis and allied to the F-IRE collective, and hear just what I could have done if I'd had the imagination.

Davis studied with Miles Davis alumnus Dave Holland, and the album's very much in that sort of vein (there's even a version of "In a Silent Way". It's also rather slinky in its rhythms, in a way that brings Piazzolla to mind. If you've heard any of the other bands in F-IRE (Polar Bear, Acoustic Ladyland, etc) and enjoyed them, you should enjoy this, so stop dawdling and buy it.

Two Wheels Good

I cycled to work for the first time today. I feel inordinately smug about this. I'll draw a veil over getting hideously lost in Maida Vale.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Xanadu falling

The unusual situation of a gloriously sunny bank holiday is a good excuse to cycle along the Thames pathway from Abbey Wood to Greenwich. Of all the things in London, the river is the one that most consistently makes me glad I live here, and the route takes us right alongside the water for most of the journey.

We round the Greenwich peninsula, and circle the Millennium Dome. I thought at the time, and still do, that the building itself is an impressive looking structure, hamstrung by a lack of purpose. The problem with it always was that they built it and then wondered what to put in it, precisely the wrong way round to go about it. So it ended up filled with tawdry, empty baubles, and now sits forlorn, empty and surrounded by decay, a beacon of broken promises and disappointment, an apposite monument to Blair's government. I reflect on Tony Blair, the man who was so desperate to be liked by everybody, and who ended up being liked by nobody much at all.

Friday, April 06, 2007

En vacances

I've been on holiday. Here are some pictures. Happy Easter!