Friday, 20 May 2011

Impossible Soul: Sufjan Stevens live at Manchester Apollo 19th May 2011

He begins by lulling us into a false sense of security.  Just him strumming a banjo and with lights down low, Sufjan Stevens croons the opening of Seven Swans to a hushed audience.  The first clue to the adventure that lies ahead comes about halfway through the song when he unveils a pair of spectacular white feather wings which he has somehow tucked away behind his back.  The tone for the night is more accurately set by the industrial clamour of Too Much followed by The Age of Adz and I Walked, each accompanied by much neon and synchronised dance routines.  The latter particularly, which on record is a sweet and quiet electronic lullaby, is transformed into a powerfully beat-driven techno extravaganza. 

The evening isn't entirely focused on his most recent album (also called The Age of Adz).  Every few songs Stevens' backing band take a break and he performs acoustically.  REM's The One I Love becomes a sparse and plaintive cry, Sister from his fourth album Seven Swans is performed along with a call-and-response of "duh duh duh duh's" from the audience (after some rehearsal).  There is also a beautiful piano rendition of The Owl & The Tanager from his recent All Delighted Peoples EP. 

But it is during the hectic electro-pop from The Age of Adz that he really seems to enjoy himself and let rip.  Despite the music sounding more upbeat than past albums, the lyrics still belie a yearning and fragility at the heart of his songwriting.  I Want To Be Well, with it's repeated refrain of "I want to be well... I'm not fucking around" is as heartbreaking as it is danceable.

The culmination of the performance is an epic 30 minute version of album closer Impossible Soul.  Featuring acoustic folk, drum and bass breaks, R&B-influenced pop, hip hop and a joyous horn section all within one song, and performed while wearing George Clinton-style dark glasses and helmet and multi-coloured neon wings, it's a breathtaking statement of intent.  I feel quite exhausted as glitter cannons fire and he and band take a bow and exit stage left.  But...

... it's not quite over yet.  Two hours after he first began playing Stevens appears back on stage, day-glo catsuit and wings abandoned in favour of jeans and t-shirt.  When he plays the first few notes of Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois, the first track from his hugely acclaimed folk-pop masterpiece Come On Feel The Illinoise!, the audience (cliched but true) go wild.  When he then launches into Casimir Pulaski Day I think the middle aged man near me actually cries with joy.  This song brings one of those magical gig moments that are remembered forever.  Appropriately for the lyrical content of the song ("Tuesday night at the bible study/We lift our hands and pray over your body") there have been people quietly singing along throughout, not so loudly to be annoying but just enough to give a hymn-like, almost prayerful quality to the song.  And then, spontaneously and as one, the entire audience (apart from me and Richard, who have issues with audience participation) suddenly sings the "duh duh duh" refrain along with Stevens.  It's so totally unexpected and beautiful that it moves me almost to tears.

Finally, a riotous version of Chicago brings the house down, and multi-coloured balloons down from the ceiling.  I walk out into the night caring not a jot for the 2 hour drive ahead of me, just feeling immensely glad to have had the chance to experience something so special.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

On the wall # 2

Song lyrics

You can't go wrong with a bit of Morrissey, and this line from Handsome Devil also neatly sums up my attitude to life.  It lives in a room lined with books and I see it every day as I walk out of the front door.  As with anything that you've lived with for a while, most days I look straight past it, but on the days I notice it it always makes me smile.

Printing blocks

I have a passion for typography and text: an extension of my love of reading, I guess.  I found these vintage printing blocks in Spitalfields Market and managed to knock the seller down to £20 for the five.  They spell out my mother's maiden name, an unusual Afrikaans surname that my cousins all have while my brothers and I have to make do with 'Brown'.  It's a special name because my maternal grandpa was well known in South Africa as an anti-apartheid activist, and it's always bugged me a bit that I don't get to share in the famous name. 


I do have some normal stuff up on the walls in amongst the pharmacy labels and statues.  These black and white photographs are from the 30s, 50s and 70s and were scavenged from my parents photograph albums.  I think my favourites are the one of my paternal grandparents wedding (her gorgeous 1930s silk wedding dress being the main attraction) and one of my mum on the beach in Durban when she was 3 years old.  So cute!

Monday, 16 May 2011

On the wall

I don't feel truly at home in a room unless it has two things in it: books on a shelf and pictures on the wall.  Although 'pictures' is slightly misleading: anything on the wall would be more accurate. 

Over the past few years I have amassed an odd collection of ephemera and objects that I frame and stick on the walls.  Some of my favourites are:


My hallway is lined with frames containing gig and theatre tickets and festival wristbands.  After a crappy day trying to get teenagers enthused about Shakespeare, it helps to be able to look  at these box frames and remember happy times.


This one, of my favourite part of South Africa (and my favourite place in the world), the Wild Coast, was courtesy of Bombus.  I did toy with trying to make one myself, but there is no way I would have got the heart shape neat enough to satisfy my craving for perfect symmetry.


Sick of constantly untangling the enormous collection of beads and pendants I have in an attempt to jazz up boring teacher clothes, I found these cute flower hooks in a local gift shop and they now not only stay neat, but brighten up a boring space between the fireplace and wardrobe in my bedroom.

I brought this slim, elegant wooden statue back from South Africa about 10 years ago but the base broke off in my suitcase.  After having it hanging around in junk drawers for a while, I finally stuck it into a frame when I moved house and it has been gracing the wall of my living room ever since.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Why Glee matters

I know I know, just hear me out!  Now I'm an unashamed fan of Glee.  I love the bone dry wit of characters like Sue and Santana (ok, the latter is less witty and more bitchy).  I love how clever and political the writing is, and the fact that it airs on Fox just adds to that particular pleasure.  I LOVE the songs, especially the showtunes (Rachel and Mercedes belting out 'Take Me Or Leave Me' from Rent even managed to make me not want to punch Rachel for screwing up her eyes on every high note). 

But most of all, I think Glee is really important in being so gay- and bi-friendly.  A lot of weeks lately my jaw has dropped watching things that I never thought I would see on a US TV show.  Sometimes I end up cheering at the TV, for example when Blaine finally realised he loved Kurt and they kissed (twice!).  Thinking of this going out on Murdoch's dollar makes me really happy.

The long-running storyline involving Kurt suffering relentless homophobic bullying by a (closeted gay) football player has felt wince-inducingly realistic and painful.  The recent spate of gay teenagers committing suicide in the USA and the fact that just days ago The Guardian reported on a rise in homophobic attacks in London shows just how important it is to have a show that millions of teenagers watch tackle these issues.

The Santana/Brittany relationship has been dealt with really well too, slowly developing from throwaway lines in season one to the realisation that they're in love.  Their performance of 'Landslide' a few episodes ago left me in tears: how on earth did the show pick the one song that meant so much to me and my best friend/girlfriend/confused bisexual partner when we were 17?!

Knowing what it feels like to be 17 and coming to terms with your not-straightness, and now teaching teenagers who go through the same difficulties, I realise how important Glee is, why it matters.  If the show makes just one kid feel less alone, less frightened and harrassed, then it's done more than most TV programmes.  To do all this and with killer tunes... well that's just spoiling us.

Monday, 2 May 2011

My latest obsession

Ok, I know this album came out almost a year ago and so I am waaaaay behind, but I can't stop listening to it lately.  I love The Shins but when James Mercer teamed up with Dangermouse to release Broken Bells' eponymous album, my reaction was 'meh'.  This was in part due to the fact that the first track from the album, The High Road, was a free iTunes download and after repeated listens I didn't think too much of it so never bothered to buy the album.

Fast forward to a month ago and I found it in Powerplay's closing down sale for something like £3, which seemed too good an opportunity to pass up.  And after a couple of listens it dawned on me what I had been missing.

When I say it sounds like The Shins, I mean that in the best possible way.  Vaporize particularly is remincisent of much from Wincing The Night Away.  But it also has many touches and moments that are utterly un-Shins like.  The Ghost Inside, with handclaps and falsetto, has crisp production and beats you would be unlikely to hear on a Shins album.  I have become a bit obsessed with the mournful Citizen, especially when Mercer cracks out the falsetto once more to sing "From the moment that we're born/Till we're old and tired out/Do we ever know?" 

What is so great about this album is that it seems to fit every mood well.  I noticed the uplifting refrain from The Mall & Misery one sunny day wandering cheerfully around Norwich, and the aforementioned Citizen is just the ticket when you're feeling a little moody and sorry for yourself.

Reading recently that James Mercer has disbanded The Shins for now (and is certainly unlikely to ever work with the three previous members of the band even if he records as The Shins again) felt less wrenching now that I have a new Mercer project to listen to on repeat.