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The Low Anthem – Vicar Street, Dublin 8jan10

My friend Brian recommended The Low Anthem to me a few weeks ago and lent me ‘Oh My God, Charlie Darwin’. It’s a mix of beautiful and barnstorming folk and I hadn’t even listened to the whole thing when I noticed, entered, and WON! a ticket competition in the last edition of Le Cool. Le Cool is a great e-zine that highlights interesting things happening in the city* every week. Or, as they more eloquently put it, “a free weekly cultural agenda and alternative city guide”. It works really well on the iPhone, too, with the pages sliding over to the side.

* It’s published for Barcelona, Madrid, Lisboa, London, Istanbul, Moscow, and Budapest, too.

The gig was in Vicar Street, having been moved from Whelan’s due to a large demand for tickets. The whole ground floor of Vicar Street was packed with 20s/30s cool people and older cool people. There were beards and checked shirts in abundance. We had our customary Jameson & Cokes in the bar. I thought it was more of a longneck beer night, but Brian has a predilection for that particular combo which wouldn’t be staved off and I joined him for auld lang syne. It’s a while since we saw each other and so we managed to miss the support act but we wandered into the main venue shortly after nine and contemplated where it would be best to stand. Having found the perfect spot that managed to suit our very different physicalities, we awaited the band’s arrival on stage. Tom Waits played over the PA system…

Photo taken using Hipstamatic iPhone app

At about twenty-five past nine they came on, looking just right. The lead singer said they’d be playing three types of songs: songs from ‘Oh My God, Charlie Darwin’, some new songs they’d been working on for the past six weeks, and some old American songs. I’m afraid I didn’t even bother trying to keep a setlist because I don’t know any of the titles and figured I’d have a hard time finding the names of two-thirds of the set anyway. Plus, it’s pretty nerdy to be tapping away on the iPhone during the gig!

It was all pretty chilled out for the first handful of songs and we were treated to the beautiful array of sounds they had brought to play for us: an old reed organ sat on the left of the stage; an upright bass, an electric guitar (Fender Mustang, maybe…?), a less-than-full-size acoustic; a lovely bits-and-pieces drum kit which comprised a proper marching bass drum, a snare drum, high hi-hats that wobbled about satisfyingly when they were played, and two great-sounding cymbals. In one of the early songs, a home-made shaker was produced. The girl interested me most (yeah, yeah, settle down…) as she played clarinet, bass guitar, electric guitar, sang, and played a set of crotales with a bow. Generally doing the kind of multi-instrumental shenanigans that I do 🙂 Her clarinet tone was lovely and I really liked the way she played – using a wide vibrato for the slower, more sonorous songs, rising up on her toes slightly for the higher notes, not shying away from some lovely high lines up at the top end of the instrument’s register… In one of the last songs she and the reed organ player did some sweet harmonies, the sounds blending beautifully, as you’d expect.

When they let rip (on tracks like ‘The Horizon Is A Beltway’), we were riveted for a completely different reason. I was really drawn in by their committed, raw performances. One of the stand-out songs was something about whiskey and women driving you insane (sorry, rubbish not to have a title, I know…!) and on each climax of the chorus they held a chord for *just* a bit longer, the girl going up to the next harmony until they literally couldn’t hold it any more. It’s this kind of thing that makes a live performance trump a recording every time. (If the artists are prepared to take those risks…)

Another lovely moment was in a song where three of the four musicians played wind instruments: the girl’s clarinet being augmented by another and also by a brass band-style horn (i.e. not a French horn). On the last horn break the singer took out two phones (he’d tried to explain this to us, but we didn’t really get it until he did it). He called one with the other and put them on speaker, whistling into them, causing feedback. It made a ghostly, theremin-like noise throughout the crowd (some people had copped on what to do…).

This person got some really good footage from up near the stage. On this song, ‘This God Damn House’, you can hear that lovely clarinet vibrato and then the mobile phone thing from 3’56”.

Here’s a clip of ‘Cage The Songbird’ that I recorded. You can hear the bowed crotales well from about 0’22”.

Here is Damien McGlynn’s review and much better photos than mine, from state.ie.

Question:

  • Since you all change instruments so much, how do you decide who plays what in each song?

Babies are brilliant

A fascinating video (about fifteen minutes long) of psychologist Alison Gopnik talking about how babies are the best learning machines in the universe.  I have been working with very young children quite a bit over the past few years (through music) and, while it was never hard to appreciate that they are amazing beings, I never quite made the leaps that Ms Gopnik lead me to consider:

  • She points out the importance of experimentation, that babies are little scientists.  Why do so many children give up at music?  Is it because they aren’t given the chance to experiment (…with the guidance of someone who understands music)?  I don’t think people need to be ‘musicians’ to play musically with their kids but there’s a discomfort associated with music play that isn’t there if it’s colour play or shapes or building blocks.  How can I, as someone who understands music, best help children experiment with musical sounds and rhythm?
  • Experimenting isn’t telling somebody something!  We all learn loads of stuff at school but the vast majority of it, I’d say, we don’t really understand.  We know about gravity not because we learned about it in school but because we played with it as children.  By the time we get to school our experimentation has to be more efficient – the best teachers are always the ones who lead you to the answer, who let you experiment (materially or mentally); importantly (and efficiently), they guide you.
  • Yes, when we start school, we have to practice skills to get to be as good as possible, be that writing, typing, drawing, singing, long division or shooting baskets (i.e. “hoops”).  Ms Gopnik reveals the staggering notion that children are the best masters of counter-factual reasoning: they aren’t merely learning to understand what is, they are learning to imagine what could be.  How can music play encourage and broaden a child’s imagination?

A method that’s often used when playing with children, from the earliest smiling, is mirroring.  A friend of mine who works a lot with autistic children showed me the great effectiveness of this as a means of self-expression for the children he saw every week.  I have a little fifteen month old cousin who lives next door and the other day he was over with his Mum and I produced some tuned hand bells to play with.  Initially I gave him one (a ‘B’) then, after a few minutes of him getting used to it (showing it to everyone, ringing it constantly, pausing to taste it of course…), I got another (a ‘G’).  So we were making a nice, harmonious major third sound (I told him this, but I don’t know if it meant anything…).  We played for a good while with the bells – a high point being when he had the G and B and I had the A and C.  He would ring, I would copy and this – because of the choice of notes – sounded good.  We started experimenting and I followed his lead, setting the bells in front of me as he had done.  He chose one, I did the same.  He took one of mine, I took one of his, etc…  Great fun 🙂

My overqualified brain had to go and ruin things, of course, by introducing too many more bells (some were desk bells that are struck with the palm, not rung, and these confused the issue) until the cacophony became too overwhelming.  When I gave him a little glockenspiel it was just too abstracted and he couldn’t ‘see’ the individual notes as clearly as he’d been able to with the hand bells.  The mistake was in presenting too many possibilities.  Too many toys.  Like in House when he sends the team off to test for everything and they potter off glumly to the lab to face a night of haystack-needling.

Tadhg and I playing with bells
Tadhg and I playing with bells (photo by Jenny Wilson - click to visit her Flickr photostream)
Experimenting with bells
Experimenting with bells (photo by Jenny Wilson - click to visit her Flickr photostream)

Can’t wait to play some more – you should try it!

warming up the pipes

The triennial Pipeworks festival is in full flow at the moment – the Great is coupled to the pedals and all the stops are out (or something). I don’t really know a huge amount about the pipe organ but what little knowledge I do possess leaves me in awe of really good organists. I’ve had the privilege of witnessing a number of really excellent players – usually it’s difficult to actually see what’s going on because they’re up in the organ loft, obscured from the vision of those below. (I just had a random image of Superman III – you know the big computer they build to take over the world? Now I’m not saying that such megalomaniacal tendencies are lying dormant just below the surface of organ designers/players but just compare…)

The picture on the left is the magnificent organ at St Giles cathedral in Edinburgh (city of my alma mater) and the image on the right is, of course, the aforementioned supercomputer from Superman III.

Anyway, there are lots of chances left to experience the rare pleasure that is the skilful and artful manipulation of the manuals, stops and pedals of a top-class pipe organ. This year is also the centenary of the birth of Olivier Messiaen, perhaps the most important composer of organ music of the twentieth century. A synchronicity of cosmic proportions such as this should not be overlooked. Here’s what’s available for your listening pleasure:

tonight (thurs 26jun) 9pm Saint Patrick’s cathedral: David Leigh plays Messiaen’s Livre de Saint-Sacrement

fri 27jun

  • 1.15pm St Mary’s pro-cathedral: David Leigh plays Messiaen’s Les corps glorieux
  • 8pm National Concert Hall: symphony orchestra plays Messiaen’s L’Ascension, Poulenc’s Organ Concerto (with soloist Thomas Trotter), and Faure’s Requiem (with the choirs of St Pat’s and St Mary’s). This is a hugely talented bunch of musicians gathering to play really fantastic music.

sat 28jun

  • 3pm City Hall: New Dublin Voices and three other choirs do a concert in the opulent surroundings (and lovely acoustic) of the city hall, at the top of Parliament Street. Each choir will do some music on their own and we’re also going to be joining together to sing some pieces. It’s free, so please come along and delight your eardrums for as long as you feel like 🙂

sun 29jun

  • 5pm Saint Patrick’s cathedral: the festival finale; “…the presentation of a Vespers in seventeenth century Lutheran manner. With massed choral forces, brass accompaniment and the glorious acoustic of Ireland’s largest cathedral, this event promises a rousing conclusion to the festival.” We’re singing at this, too. The Lutheran church in its hey-day was the absolute bees knees in terms of music and spectacle. Songs of Praise just doesn’t cut it compared to this! If the stones of the world’s cathedrals could talk, they’d ask for this kind of church service. Come along and rejoice with the stones of St Pat’s as they get a proper pampering session!

more info (prices, telephone booking numbers etc.) can be found at the Pipeworks website

Guillemots at The Academy, 12 June

I first heard the Guillemots when I bought The Sunday Times ‘Best songs of 2006’ compilation on iTunes – such a good idea, it’s a shame they didn’t do it again for 2007. sepia fyfeThe single We’re here was included in the collection and it grew on me with its interesting chord changes, wistful lyrics (“…the world is our dancefloor now – remind me how to dance again…?”) and Fyfe Dangerfield’s soaring vocals.

Here’s what they played:

Made up love song #43, Clarion, Through the windowpane, Falling out of reach, Last kiss, Standing on the last star, Words, Don’t look down, If the world ends, Get over it, We’re here, Kriss kross … Trains to Brazil, Sao Paulo.

I promised myself at the beginning of the year that I’d go to more gigs and have pretty much failed to go to *any* since then! This week marks the end of the drought, I hope. While I enjoyed the gig, I did think it was just too loud. It started to go downhill sonically during Don’t look down, where the second half of the song – on the album an interesting piece of programming that nods towards the band’s shared love of Bjork – became a noise fest. I realise it must be difficult to reproduce something live that is so crafted but I felt a bit short-changed by the reliance on noise. The single, Get over it, suffered from a similar dependence on noise; drummer Greig Stewart fairly melts the drums! and the kitchen sink

The last song of the set, the epic Sao Paulo saw every member of the crew on stage at the end brandishing a percussion instrument – Fyfe bashing a bin lid!bin lid I don’t know if they do this at every gig (this was the last night of their tour, so it may have been we’re-going-home exuberance) but it was just way too much and, for me, spoiled the night.

One thing I do like about seeing bands live is that it adds a visual element to your subsequent listening, for example there’s a great guitar riff in Clarion that really stood out when guitarist MC Lord Magrao played it in the gig – I hadn’t really noticed it on the recording but now I love that song because of my enjoying it so much at the gig. Thankfully it takes a lot more for a band to put us off a recording by doing a bad performance…

Another visual highlight was When the world ends, which was lovely. Magrao played some atmospheric bird/dolphin type sounds high up on the guitar as the others laid down a rolling 6/8 groove; shafts of light shifted on the stage giving it an undersea appearance which set the tone for more wistful lyricism.

we\'re here

We’re here was performed in a stripped down, slower solo version by Fyfe, playing a lovely big guitar with f-holes. good night

Radiohead at Malahide (6 June)

I travelled to the gig by DART, arriving a bit late due to faffing and dozing in the afternoon. As I sat in solitary silence on Dublin’s coastal train, practising my commuter nonchalance, I had a nagging feeling that I recognised the lady sitting diagonally opposite me. She was with her teenage daughter – who sported some coolly functional wellies – and a tall American guy with model good looks. The three of them chatted away: the girl voicing her concerns about how next year in school the pressure would be on to decide what she wanted to do and she wasn’t sure; the guy had been on some photo shoot that day; the girl was surprised at how far Malahide was…I caught a few more moments of shut-eye as we made our way to the end of the line. I lost them when we arrived in Malahide – greeted by a shower of rain – but, somewhere between the station and the arena it dawned on me that the lady was none other than Ali Hewson, wife of Bono, and the girl who I’d been sitting beside for the past half an hour was her eldest, Jordan. I did catch up to them just as we came within earshot of the arena.

All I need. This opened the set; I really like the piano clusters. A rainbow had appeared in the sky and, when I noticed the tall American guy noticing it, I remarked “that’s quite a trick to pull off: actually doing the concert *in* a *rainbow*!”. He looked a little taken aback at the weirdness of the stranger he’d awkwardly shared knee space with suddenly reappearing with lame witticism at his side. Jordan laughed, though, and I walked on ahead.

Anyway, the concert. I got to the arena, having compliantly handed over my plastic bottle top to the security people, as Radiohead struck up the next number.

There there. I’d arrived in my spot – to the right of the sound desk – by the end of the song.

The stage was flanked by huge screens, there was a long screen on the wall behind the band, and
the whole stage was hung with long light tubes.

Airbag.

“Hi, we’re Radiohead, pleased to meet you. Did anyone see the rainbow? That’s happening every night, you know.”

Bangers and mash. Thom played a second drum kit on this song that I haven’t got but recognised. Maybe they played it on the Scotch Mist film they released at the new year? I don’t remember.

15 step. This is an absolute cracker of a song, my favourite from the new album. I bought a t-shirt (made from between 3-6 recycled plastic bottles, apparently) with one of the lines from this song on it: You used to be alright. What happened?

Nude. Beautiful. The climbing vocal lines at the end of this song and the way the music just disappears like a vapour trail in a blue sky…

…a metaphor that the band might not appreciate, given their commitment to green issues on this tour. It made all the more poignant the steady flow of aeroplanes taking off from the airport that sailed by in the left of my vision all night.

Pyramid song. Thom took to the piano and Jonny Greenwood played his guitar with a bow for this song that delights the musician in me with its easily flowing rhythm that floats between the beats of the bar like a spirit.

“Cool beans. Thanks very much everyone. How’s it going? This is one we’ve got back into for a number of reasons…can’t remember what they are…”

Optimistic.

“Right, let’s see what happens now.”

Weird fishes / Arpeggi. A great example of Radiohead’s being at the top of their game as a band – the interplay of the various parts, the solid, logical, interesting harmonic movement, the effortless melody and the spot-on harmonies of Ed O’Brien. The lights were beautiful in this song – little beads hovering in the middle of each of the tubes, creating a gentle, oceanic swell.

<recorded> “I think the point Scarrie(?) is trying to make there is that this is euro time, and that goes for me…” (sounded like Colin Farrell to me, was it off the radio?)

The national anthem. The song they opened with when I first saw them back in Belfast in September 2001 – I still remember the feeling! Thom sang the horn parts.

<recorded> “…heart of darkness…Italians…” (didn’t catch it all)

Idioteque.

Reckoner.

House of cards.

Everything in its right place. The Tibetan flag-draped electric piano was brought to the front of the stage for this one.

Faust arp. Just Thom and Jonny on acoustics for this one.

Bodysnatchers.

Videotape. During the intro for this – Thom on piano – some people in the front must’ve tried to quiet chattering fans, because Thom said “Yeah, shush, this is serious business”. A song in the same kind of vein as Pyramid Song, I think, with the poignantly sad visions of heaven in both.

—–

The gloaming. I was at the merchandise stand for this song, being skipped in the queue by a skinny Northern girl who was asking the merchandiser if they did extra small t-shirts.

You and whose army. Thom sang this into the close-up camera, to great effect.

Myxomatosis. Powerful, all-over-the-road riff; “…my thoughts are misguided, I’m a little naive, I twitch and I salivate like with myxomatosis…”. Great song live.

My iron lung.

How to disappear completely. They kind of have to sing this in Ireland, what with the “…I float down the Liffey…” line. It did get a huge cheer and is, after all, apt to finish a gig with.

—–

Super collider. Thom played this new song, which had an interesting, shifting piano part, by himself.

Just. Brilliant – I love the climbing tension towards the chorus with its sheer release and the excellent guitar parts (which sounded a *little* bit as if the guys had played them every night for the last generation…but who am I to judge!).

Paranoid android. This is a tough vocal line that, after an entire evening’s belting, Thom didn’t quite nail. The vocals for the entire night sat clearly on top of the mix, which is one of the best I’ve heard.

“Nighty night”.

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