Billy Bragg & Joe Henry @ The Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury

Billy Bragg & Joe Henry @ The Marlowe Theatre, CanterburyOn a day when it seemed the world had gone mad and America (well, around a quarter of Americans) elected a racist, sexist, homophobic self-publicist to be their next President, what better way to soothe the soul than to spend a couple of hours in the company of one of the UK’s most outspoken socio-political commentators?

Billy Bragg is touring the country with Joe Henry, the American singer-songwriter he met in New York 30 years ago where they bonded over a shared love of Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and Leadbelly. Tonight they’re at Canterbury’s Marlowe Theatre – deep in Kentish pro-Brexit country – with their collection of US railroad songs collated and recorded during a 2,700-mile train ride from Chicago to Los Angeles.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen Bragg live over the years – Red Wedge, Artists Against Apartheid, Glastonbury’s Left Field Stage – and tonight I took along my 22-year-old daughter. Also a huge Bragg fan, I’d found her crumpled on the sofa in tears at 5.30am that morning, unable to believe that Trump had beaten Clinton to the White House. She was hoping to hear Help Save the Youth of America amongst tracks from the pair’s ‘Shine a Light’ album, and she wasn’t disappointed (though even that brought a tear to her eye).

Bragg’s inevitable commentary on the day’s events was surprisingly optimistic. He returned to the stage alone after the interval to profess that the majority of Americans didn’t want Trump any more than most Brits wanted Brexit – and neither result should be viewed as an indictment of such.

Cue ‘Between the Wars’, followed by ‘Help Save the Youth of America’ and ‘Accident Waiting to Happen’, before a topical cover Anais Mitchell’s ‘Why We Build the Wall’ and the unifying anthem ‘There is Power in a Union’.

Bragg was on form tonight, admitting he and Henry were wired after a day spent soaking up election news and declaring himself “genre fluid”. Tonight’s audience certainly seemed to confirm the fact that he can’t be pigeon-holed – an eclectic mix of teenagers, forty-somethings and comfy shoe-clad folk fans.

So what of the material we’d really come to see? Bragg’s love of Woody Guthrie is well documented with his Wilco collaborations – beautiful arrangements of songs such as ‘California Stars’ and ‘Way Over Yonder in a Minor Key’.

But this collection is more stripped-down, the only connection between the songs being references to the great American railroad. The Carter Family’s ‘Railroading on the Great Divide’ and Lonnie Donegan’s ‘Rock Island Line’ share a stage with Hank Williams’ ‘Lonesome Whistle’ and Guthrie’s ‘Hobo’s Lullaby’.

The pair’s voices make a comfortable mix, although Bragg’s baritone efforts on a couple of numbers seem almost comedic, and their warm on-stage exchanges ensure the evening strolls along at a gentle pace.

The stories are as entertaining as the music – especially the one about the train line on the Mexican border where the towns on either side of the track appear decades apart.

John Hartford’s ‘Gentle on my Mind’, a 60s hit for Glen Campbell, is a touching encore and Bragg leaves us with the mantra “Don’t moan – organise”, emphasising the strength and power of community.

An uplifting end to a demoralising day.

Mark Morriss releases new album, A Flash of Darkness


A Flash of Darkness by Mark Morriss
A Flash of Darkness by Mark Morriss


Mark Morriss can’t resist the temptation to dip into the Bluetones bag of tricks once or twice for his latest solo offering ‘A Flash of Darkness’.

A full six years after 2008’s ‘Memory Muscle’, the former Bluetones frontman must be hoping it makes a bigger splash than the finely crafted solo debut that sparkled but never really shone.

As his publicity blurb expounds, Morriss has “the ability to sieve poetry from the colander of everyday life”.  So what does this kitchen sink drama have to offer?

The album opens with the title track – a flamenco-tinged nod to the Bluetones’ ‘Return to the Last Chance Saloon’ – and is followed by the stand-out ‘Consuela’, a bitter-sweet melody about a deceitful lover that name checks Jersey detective Bergerac.  Trademark Morris lyrics stick in your head.  Red eyes, white lies, bye bye.  He writes it like it is.

The 11-track offering includes a well-executed cover of The Shins’ ‘Pink Bullets’ and the forthcoming single ‘This Is A Lie’, a mere 120 seconds of sublime chilled-out reflection.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bts12boY3lg

A Flash of Darkness’ doesn’t hit you between the eyes on first listen, but rather wraps you in a warm glow that grows and grows.  It trots along at a gentle jog, speeding then slowing but maintaining its feel-good momentum throughout.

Morriss honed his song-writing skills through a raft of indie masterpieces such as ‘Slight Return’, ‘Sleazy Bed Track’ and ‘You’re No Fun Anymore’.  I challenge anyone not to recognise the Bluetones’ trademark sound.

Morriss says the title of this album is inspired by “that moment when you’ve just turned off the light and everything remains semi-lit for a split second”.  This time let’s hope the light doesn’t go out too soon.

A Flash of Darkness by Mark Morriss Tracklisting:
1. A Flash Of Darkness
2. Consuela
3. Guilty Again
4. It’s Hard To Be Good All The Time
5. Pink Bullets
6. Low Company
7. Life Without F(r)iction
8. This Is The Lie (and That’s The Truth)
9. Space Cadet
10. Nightcall
11. Sleep Song

A Flash of Darkness by Mark Morriss is released on 24 February 2014 via Acid Jazz.

The Wedding Present release new album, Valentina

The Wedding Present new album, Valentina
The Wedding Present new album, Valentina

If I was going to choose someone to sing me a love song, it might just be David Gedge.  With his north-east twang and tell-it-like-it-is lyrics, he beats the likes of James Morrison and Ed Sheeran hands down.

Since the early days of ‘My Favourite Dress‘ and ‘Nobody’s Twisting Your Arm‘, David Gedge has been crafting songs for the the rejected and the unrequited – all with the bitterest of twists and all swathed in the comforting sound of his unmistakeable chainsaw jangly guitar.

So what of ‘Valentina‘, The Wedding Present‘s eighth studio album that comes a lengthy four years after 2008’s ‘Del Rey‘ due to the band’s heavy touring commitments?

From the opening few drum beats of ‘You’re Dead‘ it’s like putting on a favourite pair of shoes – comfortable, familiar and heart-warming.  ‘Valentina‘ offers no surprises, there’s no great departure from the Wedding Present template.  Phew, thank goodness…

David Gedge ploughs a lone musical furrow.  He’s still churning out stuff that could happily sit alongside Wedding Present releases from the 80s, with his grouchy talk/sing delivery style and his ever-so-slightly-out-of-tune voice.  He’s played around a bit over the years (a swing version of ‘Brassneck‘ with a full orchestra???), but with ‘Valentina‘ he’s clearly acknowledged that the old format endures .

In an interview about writing this latest abum, Gedge said he just sang about things that people say to each other “against a backdrop of guitar carnage”. An inspired description.  That just about sums up the 10 tracks on ‘Valentina‘…

These are the tales of everyday love and attraction. “You’re not the one for me I know, but I just can’t seem to let you go.”  “I’ve realised that I don’t think I’m ever going to leave my girlfriend for you.”  Lyrics that will resonate in the homes of Wedding Present fans up and down the country (and with others too if they took the time to listen).

Admittedly there was little chance I wouldn’t like this album.  I’ve been carrying a torch for Gedge since ‘George Best‘. I loved Cinerama’s 2000 album ‘Disco Volante‘ and played The Wedding’s Present’s 2005 release ‘Take Fountain‘ to death.

But it’s not that I’m easy to please.  With Gedge I’m seduced by the poetry of his laconic lyrics, coupled with that guitar sound.  Anyone who feels the same won’t be disappointed…

The Wedding Present ‘Valentina’ tracklist

You’re Dead
You Jane
Meet Cute
Back A Bit… Stop
Stop Thief!
The Girl From The DDR
Deer Caught In The Headlights
524 Fidelio
End Credit
Mystery Date

The Wedding Present release ‘Valentina‘ on 19th March via Scopitones.

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Stand Upright In A Cool Place – Dodgy, album review

Stand Upright In A Cool Place by Dodgy
Dodgy - Stand Upright In A Cool Place

I have to confess I’m not a fan of the comeback.  Having witnessed the Jesus and Mary Chain’s return at Camden’s Roundhouse, complete with heartfelt thank-you’s and an encore, I’ve realised I’d rather live in the past than revisit it.

However, when offered the chance to review Dodgy‘s first release in 16 years I felt a surge of nostalgia. I was there in 1995 when ‘Staying Out For The Summer‘ seemed the perfect Glastonbury anthem so I figured it was worth a listen.

Hmmm, where do I begin?  Dodgy? This stuff sounds more like Neil Young

Okay, so I should have been pre-warned by a press release that lauded a ‘deeper and more mature’ sound.  But what of the promised ‘BIGGER choruses’??  Bigger than ‘Staying Out For The Summer‘?  Bigger than ‘Good Enough‘? I think not.

Let’s be honest, Dodgy were always Britpop’s bridesmaids.  They surfed alongide the likes of Blur & Elastica, but they never hit the crest of the wave.  A handful of catchy tunes and a drummer with a hat, Dodgy were like the novelty act on the bill.

That said, they could always draw a festival crowd.  They knew their market. Which is why this new direction comes as a bit of a surprise. Examination of the accompanying press notes reveals a move to Texas for the album mixing and mention of Matt Pense who worked with Midlake.  That figures.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6KJwurzz2tI

There are definitely plenty of the promised ‘stronger melodies’.  But anyone hoping for a hint of Britpop should steer well clear.  ‘Stand Upright In A Cool Place‘ has borrowed more from folk music than any other genre and the sound is virtually unrecognisable.

Maybe I’m being a bit harsh on Dodgy.  After all, they’d look a bit lame if they returned after 16 years with re-hashes of their former hits.  At least they’re trying to be contemporary.  But this stuff just washes over me.

Singer Nigel Clark says they believe ‘the songs are good enough to win us a whole new audience’.  Think they’ll need one.

DodgyStand Upright In A Cool Place Tracklist:

Tripped & Fell
What Became Of You
We Try
Shadows
Did It Have To Be This Way
Waiting For The Sun
Raggedstone Hill
Only A Heartbeat
Find A lace
Back Of You
Happy Ending

Stand Upright In A Cool Place by Dodgy is released on Strike Back Records.

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Manic Street Preachers at Brighton Dome

Manic Street Preachers, Brighton Dome, 2 June 2009

If gigs were football matches then the Manic Street Preachers’ show at Brighton Dome was a classic game of two halves.  Forty-five minutes of the new album in track order, a swift half-time turnaround, then a second half packed with glossy hits.

I’m a huge Manics fan so for me there was little chance of disappointment.  But what a master stroke to compartmentalise ‘Journal for Plague Lovers’ so it could be heard in its purest form.

Much was made of Richey’s contribution to the album – he wrote all the lyrics and left them in a handwritten songbook for his bandmates just days before he disappeared.  It’s hard not to be touched by what an emotional journey the album must have been, and bassist Nicky Wire said it felt like the four of them were on stage once again.

“We never wanted to be a three-piece, we really didn’t,” he told a hushed crowd.

The angst-ridden lyrics are unmistakably Richey’s and most of the songs would fit more comfortably on ‘Generation Terrorists’ or ‘The Holy Bible’ than their successors.

Forget horns and strings, these are raw three-minute masterpieces built to be fired off at speed …though James admitted Richey’s lyrics were a bit of a mouthful to get his tongue round at full pace!

Most of the audience were clearly big fans of the Manics’ array of commercially successful singles.  ‘You Stole The Sun From My Heart’ was the audience favourite but for me ‘Little Baby Nothing’, ‘Faster’ and ‘Motown Junk’ were the highlights.

The Manics have been dogged by sell-out accusations in the post-Richie years and cynics might say their two-part set was like watching The Buzzcocks supporting Guns ‘n’ Roses.

I’ve got no problem with people who love early Manics and find their later offerings a bit too slick and polished.  But I hold no truck with the accusers who say they’ve sold out.

Twenty-odd years is a long time in music and, while their changing style might not suit some, surely no-one can doubt their integrity and motivation?

‘Journal for Plague Lovers’ might win back some fans of their early sound, but for me they can hardly put a foot wrong.