Friday, February 24, 2017

Leroy Hutson, Union Chapel review – sweet but short

Back on more familiar ground for me, with soul legend Leroy Hutson in town. A cult name on the rare groove scene of the late 80s and early 90s, his 70s soul-jazz hits, such as All Because of You, Lucky Fellow and Lover's Holiday, encapsulated the midtempo soul style known as two-step, before UK garage gratuitously stole the term in the late 90s. More melodic than funk, but less muso-y than jazz-funk, two-step got its sound from the likes of Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield (a mentor of Hutson in Chicago) and carved out a niche of smooth, lovers-friendly music that you could both dance or smooch to depending on how your night was working out. Hutson himself wrote and produced a good few tunes for other people, including stone-classic The Ghetto for his friend Donny Hathaway.

It was a nice gathering of the blue-eyed soul tribe at the Union Chapel, a few more pairs of loafers than you see on an average night out, and that suburban London twang that you don't hear so much of any more. A room full of Robert Elms-es is basically what it was, lots of people dressed like they were going out to Dingwalls in 1987 – and everyone I spoke to was very friendly and relaxed.

A post shared by Sandra Roberts (@mrchoops) on

The band came on and launched straight into All Because of You, and, sporting a spectacular blazer and sunglasses, on came Mr Leroy Hutson, as the MC kept referring to him. The soundman took a while to get a hold of the levels, and the band took a while to find their cues. "Can you believe we only rehearsed for the first time yesterday?" said Mr Leroy Hutson at one point, to which the only answer was: "Yep." Still, he didn't mess about, giving us three of his best tunes straight off the bat, before leaving the BVs girl to sing a couple. Then the band did a funk workout, at which point the suspicion began to arise that we were going to hear more of a London session band than we had necessarily signed up for. A decent band, obviously, but, you know, not £35-a-ticket decent. But back on stage Mr Leroy Hutson came, twiddling from time to time at a Korg keyboard at the front to no obvious effect, to do a few more classics.

The sound improved, and you got to hear a bit more of his vocal, which sounded in pretty good shape. The band did another funk workout, this one more impressive as they found their feet. Things cut a bit looser after the encore, when the soul massive clambered out of the chapel pews to dance happily to the finale, after which Mr Leroy Hutson cut loose himself, getting off the stage with indecent haste, the clock barely hitting the hour mark. It's been a while since I've seen someone do the absolute bare minimum at a show, and it left me a bit cold, I'll be honest. I know he's 71, and has an earned a few easy paydays, but it's always nice when they give you a little extra. Especially as the sound had been sorted, and the crowd had warmed up and was right for it. I'd have been content just to hear All Because of You again, but it weren't to be.

Truth is, we're lucky he's still alive, cos so many of them aren't – this the day after another soul legend, Leon Ware, died. And, at 71, Mr Leroy Hutson can still hold a tune, and what great tunes they are.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Maurizio Pollini, RFH review

If you ever, as I once did, discover a love for Chopin's piano pieces, you will inevitably find yourself listening to Maurizio Pollini. Along with Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Martha Argerich, he'll turn up in your YouTube searches soon enough, although, it turns out, he ranges farther and wider in the classical realm than good old Fryderyk Franciszek.

Anyway, I was surprised to hear that he is still alive, and booked a ticket for a recital at the RFH, exactly my cup of tea, just a piano and an audience, and someone to play it, in a nice room. No microphones and all that modern jazz. Not modern jazz, modern ... stuff. But not modern jazz either. Chopin, my favourite.

Since I haven't, in the few weeks since the Daniil Trifonov concert, added anything to my threadbare understanding of classical music, my critical insights remain no better than mundane. This guy has the knowledge, if you're interested. But still, you know, I'm having a crack.

My friend, my resident classical music know-it-all, had warned me that Pollini was now too old and it was likely to be a bust, because who can really perform at 82 or whatever he is, and he'd seen him before and it had been terrible. But it turns out that Pollini is only 75 and, so far as my limited critical ability could tell, can still tickle those ivories in a roughly congruous manner. As I strolled up to the South Bank, feeling all cosmopolitan because for once I'm actually going out in London somewhere not the pub at the end of my road or some overpriced twat citadel in Hackney; as I walked up I was thinking, well, I know Chopin quite well, so it'll probably just be him playing Chopin and how transcendent can that be? I mean it'll be what it is. No surprises, I suppose, is what I was thinking.

And I was right, but also I was wrong, because there were surprises, and they weren't just related to having nowhere to sit in the bar beforehand, or how they made you buy a programme to find out what he was going to play, which you might have thought would be included in the price of the ticket, if you knew nothing about anything. No, the surprises were that despite listening to what I thought was quite a lot of Chopin, I didn't know Pollini's choices very well. So I got to enjoy fresh Chopin, while still enjoying Chopin, because Chopin is Chopin and whether nocturne, ballade or scherzo, operates in the same lilting, gorgeous register, streams of ethereal melodies and an endlessly interesting colour chords. Of all his choices, I most loved the Berceuse in D flat, a short, playful nursery-like dream that manages to combine meditative stillness with gobsmacking pianistic athleticism.

The thing with Chopin is that the tunes are so clear and well-articulated that it holds your (my) attention much more effectively than, say, the Debussy that Pollini played after the interval. It's possible to hear what's going on with Chopin, even as he illustrates and elaborates in all directions. With the Debussy – or some of the things Trifonov played – while it's all very nice, beautiful, spectacular, dripping with imaginations, whatever, I find I start to drift; the storyline is submerged, and my mind begins to wander. But with Chopin, I'm held, able to follow exactly his beautiful, lyrical, aching forays into romantic delirium. Towards the end of the Debussy, by contrast, I began aching for him to finish.

Pollini himself seemed in good health. He did look like an old man, with the beginnings of a stoop as he padded to the piano, and perhaps Trifonov's fingers were more emphatic, but there was nothing I could hear that suggested he wasn't up to it and he played more or less consistently well through two hours. He did take a lot of bows, for an old guy. Up after every piece finished and bowing round the great hall, which had added rows behind him on the stage. After the Debussy he padded off, then padded back on again to take more bows. He got a bit of a standing ovation at this point, but it was hard to tell if it was a real standing ovation or if people were just trying to get out ahead of the crush. Then he padded back off again, then back on again – possibly trying to get his Fitbit numbers up – and finally settled down to play an encore. He played three encores, each separated by a good deal of padding to and fro; by the third one the guy next to me was exasperated that he had to stay to listen to more music. But it was some more Chopin, so I was happy. And by the end, everyone joined in the standing ovation.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Daniil Trifonov, Barbican review

Away from the nascent fascism, rising global anxiety and a nice day out protesting against Trump, and to the Barbican, for a classical piano recital. I read about Daniil Trifonov, a 25-year-old wunderkind, in the New Yorker and, after watching a couple of YouTube clips and reckoning he looked the biz, saw he was in town and bought a ticket. Not even very expensive. And the cocktail bar outside is quite nice and not overpriced either.

Not really my usual haunt, though, and it showed. At the interval I tried to buy a cocktail, but the barman told me they don't serve them in the break. "Why?" I asked, witlessly. "Do people get too lairy?" "No," he deadpanned. "It just takes too long to make them." What he didn't say, and fair play to him, was: No, you cretin, this is the Barbican, not Croydon High Street. People who come to the Barbican to watch classical music don't get lairy on one too many cocktails.

Anyway, as this anecdote obliquely shows, I don't know a mouse's morsel about classical music, so if you're hoping for some kind of knowledgable review of proceedings, you are likely to be disappointed. The nuances of how good Trifonov really is, what choices he made on interpretation and so on – the kind of things you might want in a review – are not really available to me. (You can try two wildly different reviews here and here.) In the absence of intelligent things to note, I settled mainly for trying to come up with some good metaphors as I watched him – from up in the gods – wave his fingers in front of the keyboard, and, in the first half, coax the romantic airs of Schumann from the grand piano. And then, as the Schumann went on, moved from coaxing to a kind of conjuring.

At other points he crouched over the piano like a teenager on his computer, and I, tired from staring down, moved my gaze to the rafters and instead of listening to the piano, just listened to the room. In a way, a room like the Barbican hall, with its exceptional acoustics, becomes the instrument, or at least an extension of the unmic-ed piano. Being January, however, the acoustic melange included a fair amount of coughing, and I suffered a few minutes wrestling with my tickling throat. (An important lesson for classical newbies here: always take a bottle of water.) And when I gazed back down to the stage, it suddenly looked as if Trifonov and his Steinway were a tiny musical box sitting on an oak table.

After the interval the programme shifted to 20th-century Russia (I know this because I bought a programme at halftime) and some of Shostakovich's preludes. A friend who is familiar with such matters had told me that this part would be hard work, and – the extent of my critique – I did find myself drifting, although that might have been the interval G&T. Before the second half began, someone had taken a mic to tell us that Trifonov would play an extra prelude – this brought gasps of excitement from the people next to me, which seemed a bit excessive – and it was good that he did, because the final one seemed to bring a new power and dynamism out of him. Suddenly, instead of conjuring, he was writhing, almost birthing the music through some long, complicated and exhausting labour. With this, and the Stravinsky that followed, Trifonov became more of the classical classical pianist, a whirl of technical prowess and bombast, nicely contrasting with the subtle grace of the first half.

I wouldn't say it was exactly wasted on me, but it was definitely partly wasted on me. Couple of the metaphors were alright though.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The tone of voice that sonnets call to arms

The tone of voice that sonnets call to arms
Is much too fine for me
Too regal and too well-mannered
It doesn't llow for getn spannered
And speech's clarity

Let's chop the legs off words and cut their hearts
So rhythm flows through all our poem's parts
Let's hack away, let's prune, let's turn around
Let's smash our words into the ground, let's tune
their resonance to suit our needs
Let's untie them from what they usually mean
Let's clean extraneous parts
Let's bite heads off, chop out the guts
And add more when there's not enough

For words are words and we're their masters—
Don't let them tell you otherwise
They're cheeky little bastards

Friday, February 10, 2017

Praia da Zambujeira do Mar

The seething, scalding, whirling, churning morass of break and spray
Coursed in with all the rage of boiling lava
Lines of white foam horses strode on to the sun-stroked sands
And lashed the ground with thundering hooves of swirling phosphorus

As I approached, amongst the frothing clamour
As constant crash and passion sloshed my ears
The wrath of rushing planes blew out my idle —
and deafened me to my unceasing thoughts

Praia da Carvalhal

As the sun packs down and the heat goes out
And the shadows run from the lazing light
The beach dwellers gather and make their way
Like litter thrown on the evening winds

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Fleabag review – on twists and shouts


One big spoiler, so get yourself over to iPlayer and watch it first – it's only 3 hrs

Let's get the good bit out the way first – Fleabag is brilliant. It's a brilliant, funny, truthful, poignant, modern, bold, frank sitcom that follows the eponymous heroine (creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge) as she crashes through her life, reverses over the bodies and sideswipes passersby, veering from random sexual partners to ex-boyfriend to failing cafe to acid-evil stepmother and disloyal father to neurotic sister and lascivious husband to flashbacks of her dead best friend and back again in a kaleidoscopic whirl of grief, casual sex and alienation. It lightly skips the abyss between cutting truthfulness and absurdist satire as and when it chooses. And it talks about the corrosive effects of grief with a beautiful clarity. It's fucking brilliant and if you haven't seen it, you shouldn't definitely watch it before I give away any more about it.

Go on, go and watch it

Last chance. Don't say I didn't warn you.

It's brilliant, but I've got a lot to say ... So, there's a big twist in the last episode – as you know, because you've watched it. It turns out that it was Fleabag's betrayal of her best (and possibly only) friend Boo that brought about Boo's suicide/accidental death. But, as much as I loved the show, the twist left me cold. 

It is a good twist; it reveals something unexpected about her character, something that her unreliable narration and supposed confiding in the audience had not. And it's not that I haven't, in retrospect, come to accept it. I mean, I can see that it would be, just about, possible that, despite all the flashbacks of her and Boo being BFFs, Fleabag could have done the great boyfriend-shagging betrayal. I mean, she could have – she might have been jealous, and worried about losing her BFF to him, perhaps, but it's a lot they didn't show. And perhaps the night Fleabag spends wondering the streets in guilt and grief is because she knows we the viewers – who she has confided in all along – have found out; I mean, obviously, she must have already known the truth, so being reminded by her sister wouldn't have pushed her to that existential climax, would it? And I guess that her sister could have only brought it back up in anger after Fleabag's revelation about her husband almost pushed her to divorce – I suppose, but it seems weird after the show built up so much love between the two of them. But what I'm saying is: I can do the mental gymnastics to make the twist plausible, but it's hard work, it doesn't trip off the mind, and I think that they sacrificed a lot to get the twist in, and I think it was probably a mistake.

For the TV writer, big twists are basically the equivalent of a line of high-grade cocaine – they give a great, unexpected, exciting jolt, but can be deleterious for your character. The balance between plot and character in fiction is so fraught that a huge plot twist can take the character right off the page with it, and this, I think, is what happened here. 

But perhaps it's to do with me. Perhaps I'm resistant to the twist because I really liked Fleabag's character and didn't want to deal with her horrible betrayal, or perhaps I'm jealous of the accomplishment of the sitcom and want to take it down a peg, or perhaps because I've struggled with the same problem of twists – and considered more or less than same twist, revealing an unreliable, unlikable and guilty narrator, I wasn't as surprised as I could have been – I don't know. I definitely had the experience of creating a character as isolated as Fleabag, and faced the problem of why, if they're likeable enough to be a main character, they are so isolated. And the two main reasons I came up with are both in Fleabag: grief and guilt, although the show does a great job of adding the further level of hideous supporting characters, which I didn't manage.

I'm not sure they telegraphed the twist enough to make it work – putting in enough pointers to her true character early enough – but they may have done, and I may have just missed them. In the end, I think it's more that I was loving the way they built such a touching portrayal of grief in the guise of comedy, and I was disappointed they threw that away at the last for the sake of a big shock. 

There's so much great about the last episode; when Hugh Dennis leaves the cafe after her outburst, without giving her the loan she needs – but then, when you're gasping for it, he comes back, to give the bit of good news that you, and Fleabag, desperately needs. And the story is, in the end, about redemption and forgiveness – we all make mistakes, it says. Quite a Christian topic, and I watched it on Christmas Day, so it was like my very own Archbishop's speech. But, if that was the case, it might have been more honest to have brought the guilt in earlier, rather than save it for the big reveal. And that's the trouble with a big twist: it's a bit grubby, a bit of a manipulation, and when something was as truthful and brilliant as this show, it deserved better.


Why can't I live
in the kind of place
Where everything makes sense?

When will I stop
blaming myself
That I can't understand

This world's chaotic and frenetic
frenzy of disorder?

Thursday, February 02, 2017


Suddenly we're trapped between two sounds
Tried Ladbroke Grove – if anything it's worse
The only way is through the throbbing crowd
Riding a ragga sound, the tune is building

I've folded up the chair, she's got the baby
We push on through the throng as women taunt
That children's day is Sunday not today
Which isn't helping our predicament

We're by the speaker stack, tune fit to drop
The crowd is thick strung, strong and poised to rave
I push on gingerly apologising
As yet another woman curses us

And then a hand reaches, grabs hold of mine
A big man by the speaker, licked with weed
'Blessings,' he says to me – I squeeze his hand
His lighthouse guides us through the treacherous seas