July 20th, 2018


This is an extended version of my Royal Concert Hall review for the Nottingham Post. It isn’t online, so I can’t nick their photos or link to it here.

David Sedaris isn’t a household name unless your house is constantly tuned to Radio Four, but the 62-year-old humourist’s ascent is remarkable. He writes essays and diaries for the New Yorker and public radio. I’ve been reading his stuff for twenty odd years but hadn’t taken in how successful he’s become. His latest book has been number one on the New York Times bestseller list for six weeks and counting. From North Carolina, he now lives, with his husband, Hugh, in the South Downs, where his hobby is collecting litter (he has a refuse truck named after him, according to my +1 and that’s ”better than a tram’. ‘No, it isn’t,’ I replied). His work strikes a nerve here, too. So much so that he has graduated from filling the Playhouse on his last visit to packing a venue three time the size tonight. Two thousand tickets at thirty quid a time is serious money, even after the venue’s cut. I never made that much in a year back when I wrote best sellers, some time last century.

Tonight is, essentially, a reading, but a theatre show is, traditionally, at least 90 minutes long. How will one guy fill such an expanse of time and make us feel like we’ve had value for money (oh, OK, I didn’t pay)? Easily, as it turns out.

Sedaris wears a long pale mac, a white smock and tie, black leather slippers and a huge pair of Japanese trousers, all of which he describes to us while standing behind a large wooden lectern. He warms up with a monologue called ‘In My Humble Opinion’. It’s rather like stand-up comedy where one’s allowed to read, making the jokes better written. His ad libs are fine too, though. At one point, we’re told how he didn’t graduate from university until he was thirty, having dropped out at twenty due to a drugs problem.

Variety is key. Sedaris tries out an essay about walking in cities that’s due for The Guardian next week, confessing at the end how much he writes – pages every day – and rewrites, and that he still has to cut a hundred words. The evening’s tour-de-force is a long essay based around his sister’s suicide. It’s funny, moving, occasionally profound and superbly structured.

A frank, funny commencement address (with a joke about priests that I’m tempted to repeat) and a bunch of diary extracts please the packed house. 75 minutes fly by with plenty of rude jokes and dark humour, including a few choice words about Trump (nothing on Brexit). The closing, 15 minute Q and A is, effectively, the encore. To extend the band metaphor, it has a few patchy solos and the odd good bit, entirely dependent on what the audience calls out for. I’ll bet the signing queue was massive, but fair play – he’s a class act in a long line American humourists, and one who has made surprisingly few compromises to reach this pinnacle. You can’t begrudge his success.

Sedaris is a couple of years older than me an a few years younger than the great Loudon Wainwright, who has a not dissimilar sense of humour, so have a song from him, from 1971.

Loudon Wainwright III – Suicide Song


Public Image, John Hiatt and George Clinton

July 13th, 2018

I was going to call this post ‘Three Lions Gigs’ but you can’t do strikethroughs in headings on WordPress, so I’ve gone for basic info. The purpose of this post is mainly to archive my Public Image review for the Post, who also did a nice piece about the Sex Pistols trial in Nottingham. I was editor of the university newspaper at the time, so we reported on it (indeed, my then head of department defended the use of the word ‘bollocks’ in court) though I didn’t attend. The Post had a good interview with Lydon too.

Useful for PiL that there was no football that night. The following Tuesday I went to Stamford Bridge for a thirty year delayed encounter with John Hiatt, who was playing all of his best album, Slow Turning. Back in 1988, my partner Sue and John Harvey – poets both – looked at the cover of this album, which I’d bought on the way back from work. They decided, before they listened to it, that they would jointly write a pamphlet of poems using its titles. The result was Sometime Other Than Now, which was the one title they both used. Good luck finding a copy, it goes for a small fortune. Oh, here’s one.

The venue was great (apart from confiscating my water when I walked in, during a heatwave. ‘What about my journey home?’ I asked. ‘You can buy water inside’ I was told). And friends had saved me one of the few seats for the football match which preceded the gig, for which I was very grateful, having done a lot of walking earlier. However, when Columbia equalised and it went to extra time, Hiatt came on stage, determined to play his full set before the 11pm curfew. We thought England were doomed and Hiatt was so good that, halfway through the gig, when someone shouted ‘yes!’ it took a moment to realise what it must mean. ‘You through?’ the laconic Hiatt asked. ‘Penalties?’ And then he continued with the entirely terrific show. When I got home, not long after 2AM, I watched the extra time highlights and penalty shoot out before I went to bed.

I’m a huge fan of George Clinton’s 70s work but delayed buying a ticket for his Nottingham show until I knew that England weren’t playing that night. Though, as it turned out, the Brazil game was pretty compelling too. His big band started well and I was set up for a good soul revue. OK, Clinton wasn’t singing much, but I’ve seen plenty of older singers, from Leonard Cohen to Andy Williams, and they need to warm up. However, pretty soon Clinton sat down. He stopped participating beyond waving his arms and urging us to do the same. The sound mix was dire, with virtually no bass (this, from a band that used to feature Bootsy Collins!). When two women sang, you could hardly hear them. Sue thought it was painful and left after half an hour. My mate Greg and I stuck it out for 75 minutes, when three consecutive generic rap songs tested our patience too far. By then, most of the atmosphere had drained from the room. Evidently they played for another 75 minutes, and some people claim to have loved it. I would have liked to hear him do One Nation Under A Groove, but something tells me that, even if I had, I’d’ve been disappointed.

‘This is the town where I earned the right to use the word Bollocks’, John Lydon announces  before launching into the exuberant show finale,
Rise. The hard core push to stage front and pogo energetically. Mid-floor, a fight breaks out in front of me. ‘Anger is an energy,’ Lydon sings. Indeed.

On a hot, football-free night, a comfortably full Rock City has come to celebrate Pil’s 40th anniversary. ‘This is a party tour,’ Lydon tells us before opening with into ‘Warrior.’ His three piece band are intense, with crunchy yet melodic guitar, solid, thumping bass and fierce drums. Great dynamics. ‘Memories’ takes us back to their finest hour, Metal Box.

Lydon, in white shirt and black waistcoat, looks not so much like a punk so much as a mildly demented, bespectacled, Germanic conductor. There are several new songs for which he has to use a lyric book. To the far left of the stage a thin, smart, middle-aged man shuffles from foot to foot, regarding the audience, occasionally flicking back a strand of black hair from a high forehead. His only role, it appears, is to take away the lyric book at the end of the show.

Death Disco and This is Not a Love Song get powerful interpretations but, for me, the strongest number in the main set is Flowers of Romance, delivered with chilly intensity. This is a band who play with utter commitment and demand the audience’s full attention.

The brawlers make up in the encore break, one getting the other water from the front. A fantastic, faithful version of debut hit Public Image, gets much of the floor joyously pogoing. An elongated Open Up, leading into Shoom, closes the show. Lydon introduces the band and we all say hello to his wife, Nora, at the back. A memorable party.

PiL photo by Laura Patterson for the Nottingham Post where the review above first appeared. One thing I learned from the PiL song below, though. Don’t dive into the most pit when you’re wearing sandals.

Public Image – Public Image

John Hiatt – Sometime Other Than Now


Sheryl Crow – Nottingham Royal Concert Hall 22.6.18

June 25th, 2018

Sheryl Crow forgets a singer’s surname*, then blurts it out mid-song. ‘Aging: you get all this great wisdom, but can’t remember any of it.’ She’s 56, she reminds us, yet looks fantastic, in a white ‘Give Love’ singlet and spangly jeans.

It’s 25 years since Sheryl Crow’s hit debut album Tuesday Night Music Club and her first Nottingham visit, to Rock City. Tonight, we’re host to the last of three of shows before she plays the Isle of Wight festival on Sunday.

Crow’s six-piece band hit the ground running with debut hit, All I Wanna Do, jumbo guitar strapped behind her back. A storming A Change Will Do You Good next, then, sans guitar, a terrific My Favourite Mistake. In case you had any doubts about this being a Hits tour, Leaving Las Vegas comes next.

She explains how a cover of First Cut is the Deepest lengthened her career, then the hits keep coming: Can’t Cry Any More, Every Day is a Winding Road, you name it, with a sprinkling of newer songs and a few caustic Trump references in the middle.

Crow’s work blends country and blues with a pop/rock sensibility. Crisp guitars turn crunchy when they need to and Audley Freed has some sweet solos. Her songs have a strong sense of lived experience, with no clichés. She also does delicate, with a voice good enough to ape classic sixties girl singers on a sublime Home and a gorgeous Strong Enough. Change Your Mind, where she takes a harmonica solo, and encore Real Gone are satisfyingly Stonesy. A rousing If It Makes You Happy and the joyful bubblegum of Soak up the Sun close the main set.

She concludes final encore, I Shall Believe, at the keyboards, with a touch of gospel. Two excellent hours.

Setlist and photos by Laura Patterson here. Photo above by my +1, Terry. * It was Brad Shelton, whoever he may be. Given the current heatwave, this seems the only apposite Crow song to accompany the post above.


Two Reviews of Belly

June 19th, 2018

I only post occasional reviews that I write for the Nottingham Post – they have their own website, after all and it used to be easy to find everything I’d written for them. However, yesterday, when I checked to see what I’d said in my review of Belly at Rock City less than two years ago, I found that that review, along with loads of others, had gone. Nothing before October 17, which means nine years of reviews gone. I don’t know if this is connected with a recent change of policy, whereby only gigs likely to attract a high number of clicks get reviewed. Which also means that this is probably the last time I’ll review a Rescue Rooms gig*. Pity.

Here’s what I wrote on July 19th two years ago, rescued from my previous computer:

It’s twenty years since Belly split. Twenty-three since their one Nottingham gig, at Trent Uni, as was. Their reputation has, if anything, grown. Tonight, their Rescue Rooms show had to be upgraded to Rock City. Especially welcome to have room to breathe on a sweltering night.

Belly were always poppier than Tanya Donelly’s previous band, Throwing Muses, and less cutting edge than her other band, The Breeders. Debut ‘Star’ was a huge success, but follow-up ‘King’ was less focussed. They packed it in after four years. In the 90s, bands didn’t stick around, the way most do now. They left unfinished business.

Tanya has had a varied solo career, while bassist Gail Greenwood joined L7, where she learnt to carry herself like a rock star. She does most of the (plentiful) banter tonight. Donelly, still stick-thin in a black T, is a more wry presence, but it’s her voice and guitar that hold it all together.

These are haunting songs at the melodic, jingle-jangle edge of grunge, with the odd country influence. Annoyingly, they skip their best ballad, Untogether, tonight, but this is made up for by a beautiful version of The Bees. The big numbers are carefully spaced out in a set that includes a brace of new songs, untitled. Gail offers to crowdsource names. Both sound strong.

Surprisingly, two-thirds of the way into a 90 minute set, they have an interval. ‘We’re our own support act.’ One song is introduced as having ‘grade A wanking’ by Gail, a term that guitarist Tom jokes defines their sound. They’re a lighthearted bunch these days, but when they hit form with songs as strong as Gepetto, Dusted and Super-Connected, they’re magnificent. Each is rapturously received by an audience who never expected to hear these songs played again, and deservedly so.

And here’s an extended version of today’s review for the Post, which can currently be read here.

‘In order of who you love,’ bassist Gail Greenwood asks, ‘is it your first born, your football team, then… Belly?’ The question gets a big cheer from a venue crowded with loyal fans. Nevertheless, tonight, Belly face two big tests. Two years ago their reunion gig had to be upgraded from the Rescue Rooms to Rock City and they stormed it. This time, they’re up against England’s first world cup match and have an album of new material to include.

Sensibly, the Rescue Rooms shows the football match on a big screen behind the band before they come on stage, and a late goal ensures a great, boisterous atmosphere.

Belly’s ex-Throwing Muses and Breeders leader, Tanya Donelly, sticks to business on stage. The banter is left to Gail, who, strangely, slags off the ‘shitty’ venue they played two years ago***. It is true that the Rescue Rooms suits them better than Rock City. Their joyous brand of jingle-jangle grunge derives more power from the intensity of a smaller space. The sound is superb.

The set’s split into two 45 minute halves, opening with Now They’ll Sleep. Strong arrangements of first album favourites Dusted and Gepetto fit between the new songs.

It’s the second half, opening with Seal my Fate, when things really take off. They have two terrific double whammies: first, Slow Dog and Feed the Tree, the biggest numbers from Star. The Bees and Super Connected, the best numbers on King, are outstanding.

Super-Connected would have been a great way to end the set but new ballad Human Child is the closer. For an encore, I’m hoping for first album ballad, Untogether, as covered recently by Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett. Instead the three song encore consists of new album bonus track Starry-Eyed and compilation-only tracks, Thief and Spaceman. Nice, but an odd comedown.

I know I mentioned their not playing Untogether in both reviews but missing it out does seem perverse (they played it when my brother saw them in Sheffield in 2016). That I had to look up where each of the encores came from tells its own story. But, hey, Belly are great and play what they want. The new album’s good. I’ve now seen the reunited band the same number of times as I saw the original (once, pre-Gail) band. I’d happily go see them again. And pay.

Belly – Untogether

Belly – Spaceman

*No Post photographer last night so the photos above are from my phone.

**As you could almost certainly tell.

*** On Twitter, after this review came out, the band insisted it was a joke, which I’m happy to clarify. The word ‘shitty’ was changed to ‘bad’ in the print version of this piece btw, but allowed online…

Holiday Reading

May 28th, 2018

A week’s break on a Greek island (escaping a kitchen refit) followed by a bank holiday weekend has meant that I could catch up on my reading, albeit with a stringent weight limit. And, unlike many of these blogs, where I read books I’ve saved up, most of the reading I did on Skiathos was guided by serendipity.

One of my Children’s Literature student lent me The Hate You Give, which recently shared the Children’s Book Award at the Nibbies with The Lost Words. This longish YA novel, inspired by Black Lives Matter (& Tupac’s THUGLIFE tattoo) has won numerous other awards. I was a hundred pages in and polished off the rest of it on the flight and the following morning by the pool. This is proper YA fiction: by which I mean it’s narrated by a sixteen year old, a black girl at a mainly white private school. She has a white boyfriend who she’s sleeping with but little is made of this. The story (slight spoiler) concerns what happens when her childhood friend Raoul is shot dead by a white police officer. The dialogue is authentic and the structure solid. Now and then, the morality issues around racism and gun crime are a little too on the nose, the narrator rather too articulate and mature to be entirely convincing, but that’s a perennial YA problem and barely a criticism: it’s a great read and a deserving winner. Thanks for the loan, Liv.

I had a couple of non-fiction books I planned to take, but then my order of A Hero for High Times: A Younger Reader’s Guide to the Beats, Hippies, Freaks, Punks, Ravers, New-Age Travellers and Dog-on-a-Rope Brew Crew Crusties of the British Isles, 1956–1994 came in at the library. It’s a vast tome, and in demand, so I only have three weeks to read it. Not finished yet, and there are parts I’ll skip (a lot of the background Ian Marchant gives for younger readers is, uh, over-familiar), but it was ideal for reading by the pool. I shall also be using it to escape from the kitchen fitters who currently occupy my house. Today’s their one day off, which is why I have the leisure to write this. Basically, it’s a history of the counter culture, based around interviews with a Zelig-like hippy who – in interviews sometimes conducted under a narcotic haze – claims to have been everywhere, met everyone and been the first person to… who cares if he gilds the lily from time to time (but, oh, come on, Saddam Hussein, really?). I can think of loads of people who will love it.

Talking of novels based on real lives, I’m not sure why I let Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time pass me by, but there it was in the hotel’s left behind books library. It’s a fictional life of Shostakovich, in beach friendly short sections, primarily concerned with how the composer managed a career under Lenin, Stalin and Khruschchev. As such, it follows on nicely from The Death of Stalin a graphic novel I read recently (the mostly faithful film is very good too). Barnes does this kind of thing very well. It’s a fast, economical read, and possibly his best since Flaubert’s Parrot, which in some ways it resembles. He’s at his best as a short story writer and those skills are in display here.

Sue passed on Owen Sheers I Saw a Man (lousy title, would have been better as The Man on The Stair, a title I nearly used for a book called Dead Guilty, which, like, the Sheers’ title, was inspired by William Hughes Mearns’ poem, Antigonish). This was a decent, well written read, a kind of airport thriller about grief, but I found it rather over-constructed and often less than plausible. It was rather over-shadowed by the next novel I read, which was also the most recent, Alison Moore’s Missing (bought from Five Leaves Bookshop when I went in to congratulate them on their Nibbie win for best Indy bookshop). One of her best, I think, it’s also about absences. Moore uses a naïve, allusive style that lets in life’s contradictions and uses telling, convincing details that bring her story to life. Her people feel real and are weird in convincing ways. This book moved me, and stayed with me.

My surprise read of the holiday was another piece of serendipity, one of a bunch of spare copies that Sandeep, director of our UNESCO City of Literature, offered round at our board meeting the day before I left. The publisher had sent it to us because we’d been trying to get the author for our Storysmash event. I’d never heard of Nick Harkaway, although he’s published four novels, and it turns out that he’s the son of a writer I love, but makes no play of this, so I won’t go into that further. I was tempted by Tigerman because of the Graham Greene comparison on the cover (I’ve read all of Greene and reread most of them, too). The situation is Greeneish: minor official left to represent British interests on a poisoned island off Africa that the Brits have officially left and which is now dominated by lawless cartels. The story gets wilder and more satirical than Greene in most modes, making it nearer Our Man in Havana than The Heart of the Matter  or The Comedians. And it’s also about a man who wants to be a father. A literary thriller, full of sharp writing, satisfying twists and with a strong ending. I’ll be seeking out more Harkaway and so, maybe, should you.

Finally, a nod to John Harvey, whose Body and Soul I planned to take before deciding a 15KG baggage limit didn’t allow hardbacks. He’s said that Body and Soul will be his last novel, not least because he is being treated for prostate cancer. John is doing the March for Men next month to raise money for research into this disease and you can sponsor him here. Instead of his new novel, I took a tiny, second-hand paperback of one he recently recommended by a great noir writer that he introduced me to back in the early 80’s, Ross Macdonald. It’s called The Way Some People Die, which tells you a bit about John’s sense of humour and a lot about his excellent taste. Macdonald is Chandleresque, less showy but just as well written, with convoluted plots that wind up making more sense than Chandler’s. And there’s more of them. I’m halfway through and already have another waiting for me at the library. All the best to John, whose eightieth birthday we look forward to celebrating in December.

2Pac – Bury Me A G


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