Posted in SHOFT on Monday 18th June 2012 at 11:06pm
The Old Fruitmarket is a bit of a revelation. Entry is through the overbearing civic frontage of the City Halls, and then via a fairly anodyne, typically minimalist 'arts centre' type space. But buried within is an impressively cavernous, high-vaulted hall. There is a sense of the old times here - all uneven flagstone floors and curious dark corners, with fading names of fruit traders around the walls. A balcony runs high around the building, and weirdly my first thought is of the secret synagogue buried behind 19 Princelet Street. Tonight, the hall is laid out cabaret style - an odd touch perhaps but I always get the sense that organisers don't quite know what to make of Fence events - beard-stroking folkniks, or spirited outbursts of dancing? In the event tonight we were going to get a little of both. But it's important to remember that tonight had a purpose - namely in kicking off Scottish Refugee Week - and to this end the show was interspersed with short films on the themes of 'Spirit' and 'Courage'. These were understated and affecting, and managed to convey the reason that we were all, in fact, here without damaging the celebratory atmosphere. Aside from the unusual surroundings and these more down-to-earth concerns, this was a rare chance to see some of the gems of the East Neuk here in the city, alongside one of Glasgow's own finest exports. It promised to be an interesting night...
It's going to be very difficult to add to the almost fawningly fulsome praise I've already heaped on Randolph's Leap in these pages, but once again they pulled off that difficult trick of opening the show while still stamping an impression on all those present. They appear to do this by launching full tilt into a set of riotous, stomping gleeful pop which gets better with every chance to see them. Airing a number of tracks from "The Curse of the Haunted Headphones" along with some welcome new pieces, perhaps the winning bit of the formula for me tonight is their two-piece brass section, which given the space and opportunity to really belt out their accompaniment to Adam Ross' compositions has transformed the band the last couple of times I've seen them. As ever, the sporadic outbursts of irrepressible on-stage dancing and collective sing-alongs get the audience irresistibly involved in the tiny but affecting dramas at the heart of Ross' songs. During the set Adam announces that there will be a Randolph's Leap EP on Fence soon, which makes a sizeable contingent in the audience sigh with relief that they snapped up their subscription to the forthcoming "Buff Tracks" series. The band leave the stage all too soon, to a warm reaction from the audience. From the closing notes of the now traditional final tune "Crisps", it's clear some hearts have been won here tonight.
It's my first opportunity to see The Pictish Trail performing with his band tonight, and it's something of a surprise to hear how they manage to mutate Johnny Lynch's often plaintive and fragile solo efforts into hulking rock anthems. Some of the new material which will form an EP and album release later in the year is aired, not least "The Handstand Crowd" which has turned from a wistful stream of memories in St. Andrews to a chugging pop-rock epic here tonight. There's a brief electronic interlude where Johnny presses buttons and operates machinery through a cloud of dry-ice while live drums are expertly combined with the beats remarkably effectively. But ultimately there's no shying away from the big solos and crashing powerchords here as Alex Supergun and Bart Eagleowl hammer away on guitar and bass respectively on the closing pair of tracks - a punky storm through personal favourite "Ribbon" and a soaring, stop-start grind through the previously delicate "Words Fail Me Now". Overall the set feels like a success, and the band appear to have thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Johnny's stage chit-chat didn't quite land right tonight - and what would have been a two-way conversation between performer and audience in Anstruther Town Hall felt a bit more one-sided here in The Old Fruitmarket. But, musically at least, The Pictish Trail unmistakably connected with the audience via their punished eardrums and plucked heartstrings.
I'd been excited about seeing King Creosote playing something other than "Diamond Mine" for a while - despite an enduring love for that forlorn paean to East Fife. Mostly, its the thought that Kenny Anderson's vast, untapped back catalogue and the stash of new songs which surfaced on "That Might Be It, Darling" hadn't had a fair crack of the whip for a long time. Tonight, the band numbers eight - including stalwarts like Gummi Bako on guitar, Uncle Beesley on bass and rakish headgear, and Captain Geeko The Dead Aviator thumping frantically on his djembe mid stage. Add to this the additional vocals provided by the almost impossibly lovely Bam Bam and as he surveys the stage it's clear the King is in his element. The set spans his recent career, from the very recent big band reworking of "Doubles Underneath" - an irresistibly catchy, stomping affair which gets the audience shuffling in their chairs, to a spirited and acid-tongued "You've No Clue Do You?" - a much darker affair than the polished recorded version.
Somewhere in the middle of Kenny's set, something strange happens. Up to now there have been sporadic outbursts of dancing, not least from the now dangerously inebriated Edinburgh Bill who gesticulates and throws wine over himself in evident awestruck delight in the bands. But suddenly, a couple of youngsters who are hear with the Refugee Council break through the shyness barrier and start to career wildly in front of the stage. The floodgates open, and suddenly there is a miniature moshpit. True, these kids don't seem to know all the words like some of us old stalwarts do, and they haven't quite grasped the rhythm of the much more delicate "John Taylor's Month Away" as they clap along, but they're loving every single second of this. And so is the band - smiles are exchanged, lyrics are subtly changed to pay tribute to the dancers, and now even Bill is somewhere in the mess of bodies swaying dangerously around and incurring the interest of the security guy who thought he was up for a quiet night until a few minutes ago. We're treated to energetic versions of the defiant "Coast On By" and a gleeful dash through "Single Cheep" with its reportedly "unforgivable" guitar solo delivered intact. Finally, the reins are handed to Gummi Bako as the sprawling, rocking "Little Man" is given a thunderous and triumphant airing.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about King Creosote and friends is how they can take that atmosphere and spirit which starts in a tiny hall in a coastal town or around a beach bonfire, and transport it here to the middle of Glasgow on a Tuesday night. The warm, open-hearted and conspiratorial nature of the Fence Collective is a welcome opposite to the usual closed-shops of music scenes and arts movements. If there is one theme which runs through tonight's proceedings and ties it to the underlying purpose of this event it's perhaps exactly that - no matter where you end up, how you got there or why you made the journey, there's a welcome in this music which is hard to resist.
Posted in SHOFT on Monday 18th June 2012 at 10:06am
Regular readers will know that I make this trip on a near regular basis, which accounts for the disproportionate amount of Scottish music featured here. However, this time around things felt a little different - with the switch from England to Scotland much more marked as we crossed the border. No trace of the Olympics, of the Jubilee, no tattered bunting flapping from the buildings or grubby flags attached to car-bonnets. Nationalism here is a much more serious business, in the face of which the cartoon image of face-painting and "God Save The Queen" is just a bit silly really! In the midst of this the vibrant cultural scene continues to churn out surprising amounts of new, interesting music which is ably chronicled by the likes of Scottish Fiction - a blog and podcast which displays far tighter quality control and dedication than this one, and which is branching out here into promoting gigs with the first Scottish Fiction Presents... night, sitting neatly in the middle of the West End Festival and dovetailing perfectly with the Gibson Street Gala earlier today.
Descending into the bowels of Great Western Road once again, Barrhead six-piece Saint Death cram three guitarists on the Captains' tiny stage, standing at a diagonal tilt to the audience, rather like a modern day Shadows, just to squeeze in. But that's where any comparison with sixties instrumental groups most definitely ends. Initially discordant and brittle, the opening and somewhat epic piece ramps up into a sort of spaghetti-western-meets-horror film soundtrack. The doom-laden drums and portentous bass are overlaid with a rather lovely twanging solo. Its almost unclear if there is a break here, or whether this is a second coming of the initial song, but the punishingly loud piece throbs and pounds dangerously. There are vocals here but they're buried, like a distant howl. Submerged melodies and ear-splitting layers of noise are piled onto each other. It's full of false crescendos and heart-in-mouth crashes. Next up is a more traditionally constructed post-rock track which benefits from melodic keyboard interludes and which spirals into something beautifully noisy and shamelessly indulgent. It eventually collapses into itself gracefully enough, the keyboard returning to see it off with dignity. Finally "100 Times" shimmers in, an initially shoegazey drift with confident, if rather sombre vocals. There's a final, truly sinister vocal interlude before an apocalyptically chugging sludge-rock ending. Saint Death have been something of an eye- and ear-opener tonight and remain a highlight for me. Surely no band needs three guitars? But if you've got them, this is very clearly how to use them.
I've heard quite a bit of praise for Queen Jane in recent times, and exactly as predicted they managed to take up the baton of good, old fashioned Glasgow guitar pop and carry it forward into a new generation. It's angular, gleefully urgent stuff which explodes with melodies and ideas. Scratchy, complex guitar work and an almost furtively slick rhythm section keep everything tight - when the band pauses, they stop on a sixpence and the dramatic tempo changes kick in effortlessly. Meanwhile the staccato vocal delivery harks back three decades to another era of Scottish music entirely. The lyrics though are wistful, and seem to ache for a not-so-distant past where things were just, well....better somehow. Within the space of just their first track Queen Jane are brave enough to throw in a drum solo, a little calypso interlude then a searing burst of noise to end things. "Romance" sets off on a post-Postcard jangle, jittering and careering through frenetic choruses towards an all-hands-on-deck chanted break in the onslaught. When they set their minds to it, these four unassuming gents can make a heck of a noise, but it's always controlled and delivered as an integral part of the absurdly infectious pop tunes. Next up, "Confession" packs all this together with regret-laced vocals, reverb drenched shimmers of guitar and deftly delivered and dizzily complicated rhythms. Recent EP lead track "Denver" is propelled in by a clamour of keyboards before a stomping, pop anthem kicks off. It works through chorus after chorus of stirringly energetic yelping before a choppy, helicopter-blade bass brings in the closing assault. Saving something of their best for last "Fighting Man" is a wistful closer. Altogether gentler, the vocals take a more central role and showcases James McGarragle's talents in reaching for the emotive high notes. The drummer slips back behind his kit for a frenzied close with military beats and bugle-call guitars which befit the title of the track. I can see exactly why people are tipping Queen Jane for bigger things on the strength of tonight.
Decked out in oversized football strips provided by hyperactive drummer and surrogate frontman Niall McCamley, Edinburgh's much vaunted The Spook School bound on stage and rip directly into their urgent, layered punk pop. It's scrappy, gloriously unkempt and delights in its sharp edges, stupidly catchy hooks and sudden off-kilter interludes - in fact I'm pretty sure I just heard them sing "Would you ever trust a band who think Matt Damon's really cool?" to which the correct answer was an emphatic and unanimous "No!". The rhythm section is solid and pounds relentlessly away while duel guitars skitter and scratch, before emitting swathes of feedback and eardrum bursting noise. There's just a hint of The Only Ones in the jagged but soaring guitar melodies and chugging rhythms. A ukelele is broken out for a brief and strangely woozy sea shanty, then an acoustic guitar arrives for the intelligent, clever pop of "Devil Of Mine'. Benefiting from multiple vocalists, The Spook School create a sort of twee-with-bared-teeth call-and-response dynamic which is infectious and probably as much fun to play as it is to watch. During a discussion of their attire, the band explained that one shirt was a Barcelona strip, another a rare Team Canada jersey - but Niall sported a white shirt with "I am footballer" crudely scribed on in permanent marker. With razor sharp wit an audience member asked "Is that not Rangers new top?" to a riotous reception. They close things triumphantly with their recent single "History" in all its urgent, tangled and discordant glory with its perfectly choreographed 'lalala' ending and guitar-hurling exit. It's been a good night for The Spook School and to celebrate Niall is off into the audience, taps aff and wanting to swap shirts or to exchange CDs for sweaty hugs. Somehow he's like the older kid who led the young 'uns astray. But if this is what it leads to, long may it continue.
Opening with a foot-stomping Spanish-influenced number, Michael Cassidy might seem a little out of place at the head of a noisy bill like tonight's, but his cosmopolitan and wide-angle take on the singer songwriter gig lifts him head and shoulders above similar acts. His strength lies in the sheer range of approaches to his material, which veers from scuzzy delta blues to more formal ballads. These switches of style are effortless - Cassidy's guitar playing creating a sparse but atmospheric web on which his heartfelt vocal gently rests. Another of Cassidy's strengths is his inter-song engagement with the spirited audience. He's not afraid to engage, to rib us a little and to draw people into his songs. The audience, annoyingly young and fresh-faced and hyped up by three noisy acts remain surprisingly quiet and respectful, and when they do break into a fit of giggles, Cassidy is on it straight away with wit and charm. It makes for a celebratory atmosphere which fits the sense of occasion perfectly. His closing tune "Fifteen Years" is plaintive, lyrical and strangely upbeat given the unrequited ache at its core - and it garners a rapturous reaction from the audience too, who are calling for another tune the second he takes his guitar off. Initially, I questioned the wisdom of putting the 'acoustic singer-songwriter' guy on last, but having seen Michael Cassidy's way with an audience, it made a good deal more sense.
So it's out into the night for the wander home, with a little light still evident in the western sky. It's nights like this that reaffirm my faith in music and remind me that however dull and uniform things can seem sometimes, there's always a crop of new and interesting bands about to appear from left-field to surprise me and confound my expectations. It'll be a sad day when I'm too old and jaded to appreciate that. Long may Neil of Scottish Fiction keep flagging these artists for attention too. I know from personal experience it can be a thankless and sometimes frustrating game - but tonight is testament to exactly why it's important.
Posted in Railways on Saturday 16th June 2012 at 7:39pm
Considering the number and scope of the rail journeys I undertake, I really have a pretty trouble-free time of it. I know that some people experience minor disruptions as bigger issues because they travel less, but really I don't find myself feeling concerned very often. Some of this is down to expertise and knowing my way around the system, some of it is to do with a fairly easygoing approach to travelling. But today, the system confounded even me with its oddness! The plan was simple - as ever I'd break my trip to Scotland on the first day, to enable a more useful arrival time and meaning I could make a gig later that day. I'd settled on Preston some time ago as it promised a decent hotel at a good price, and a pleasant, sociably well-timed run into Glasgow on a Sunday morning. I'd also noted during the week that this would provide me with the chance to sample a new bit of Metrolink line in Manchester.
But it almost cost a lot more than planned. From the moment I woke, it was pretty clear the 05:48 wasn't going to run. This train is pretty reliable in fairness, and I was surprised when it wasn't reinstated before departure - but in the end it stayed cancelled and I was forced to travel on the 06:55. The guard did some enquiring and found out a member of staff had failed to show. He was sure my reservation on the 07:00 would be honoured later though, even after I described issues with CrossCountry I'd experienced. The CrossCountry guy at the Bristol Temple Meads gateline was equally sure. Get the ticket endorsed with the cancellation details, he'd seen my Season and knew why I'd booked from Bristol. Onto the 08:00, strangely enough into my booked seat too. Couldn't settle until I'd been gripped though... Eventually the train manager arrived. She listened to my tale and looked dubiously at the ticket, and my season. I told her that her colleague had advised this approach as she said "Well, he shouldn't - this is from Bristol". I reminded her about the combination rules for Seasons in the conditions of carriage, and asked why on earth I would double-pay the section of route my season covered. She still insisted she should charge me for a new ticket. At this point I lost my cool and pointed out that it wasn't my fault that the first train was cancelled, and that it was the railway's current ticketing practice which was making people split journeys anyway. She looked rather taken aback at this but backed down slightly. After working her way up the train issuing a few Penalty Fares here and there for people who were obviously trying it on, often with Railcards, she'd been forced to think about this one. Eventually she passed me to travel, but not before I'd managed to get seriously rattled.
I didn't really settle for the rest of the trip, expecting trouble with the new TM from Birmingham, but he really wasn't too interested in tickets from down south. So, I managed to settle a little into the journey via Stoke and Stockport despite my frustration. Even with an hour lopped off my time here, I'd still have time to spare - so losing only my planned coffee stop I headed down to the Metrolink. The plan was to get a Bury tram to Victoria then travel on to Oldham Mumps, using the former rail line which closed back in 2009 in a flurry of tour activity. But, no Bury tram arrived. The platform filled, endless Altrincham and Media City services passed, but no Bury tram. Eventually over 30 minutes later it arrived and the punters piled on. Lots of them! More squeezed in at Piccadilly Gardens. It was a warm morning, and none too pleasant on the tram, so I elected to hop off at Market Street - the first potential change point. I'm not keen on this stop, set in the middle of a busy shopping street, looking over the crowds of shoppers - but it would serve today. Extracted myself and let the tram leave - followed by three out-of-course Bury trams which were all but empty! Finally an Oldham Mumps service arrived and I joined, covering the familiar route to Victoria and the Bury lines, before curving away using a former railway alignment around Monsall. Running on this section was swift and sure, with the impressive Central Park station with it's slanted disc of a roof the only major feature. Leaping over the heavy rail lines, the tram tracks descended beside Newton Heath Depot, giving excellent views of the DMUs stabled. The left-hand line of the pair here is still a heavy rail access to Dean Lane Waste Transfer station and it's run-around loop, meaning trams bottleneck into a single line here. It didn't slow things much and we were soon onto the route of the former Oldham Loop line proper. Nearly all trace of the former rail line is gone - signal boxes demolished and tell-tale signs removed. This was particularly true of the temporary station at Oldham Mumps - a vast swathe of concrete occupying the site of the former platforms. It's temporary because eventually the tram will veer off before Werneth Tunnel, running through the streets of Oldham before regaining the rail corridor to Rochdale further north. The concrete pad for the turnouts onto the street are already laid - it's only a matter of times before the rails leave this bit of Oldham forever.
Retraced my steps to Victoria on the same tram, and made it in time for the 13:22. Once an Adelante, this Blackpool service is not a rather tired Northern Class 150 - but it was at least fairly lightly loaded. The run out to Preston was sleepy, and I noted the rain closing in as we headed into Lancashire. I ended up making a dash through the heavy, slanting downpour to my hotel for the night - watching the bluff northern blokes strutting around in t-shirts, pretending it wasn't raining. Preston is an odd place, and it had been a pretty strange day.
Posted in Railways on Saturday 9th June 2012 at 11:06pm
It's around this time of year that Railtour operators seem to turn their attention to the South West, and when we become a destination rather than a starting point. This has it's advantages - in that some tours can then be picked up at sensible times of the day, fairly locally. Of course it also means lots of tours are mostly jollies for 'normals' - trips to the Eden Project, or steam-hauled excursions. Neither of these being of particular interest to me, it was good to see this trip appear. It did eventually fall prey to it's ambitious itinerary, and as predicted the Moorswater branch with it's very little used connection from the mainline at Liskeard was a casualty. The requirement to detrain, bring the stock into the short branch platform and re-embark proving a hugely time consuming task and interrupting the now very well used local service. How about letting the passengers stay on around the tight curve? No way it seems! So a tiny section of connection and the stub to Moorswater are now the most significant bits of track undone west of home I think. In any case, I'd decided not to take the late start and make more of a day of this trip. Some judicious planning and a decent advance fare meant I could get to Cheltenham Spa comfortably by getting the first train to Bristol as usual. This was populated by a young family with two screaming babies they didn't seem keen to shut up. Not sorry to get off and get breakfast at Temple Meads, but then amazingly they decided to travel in the same 'Quiet Coach' as me on the 07:00 service. I can imagine that didn't go down hugely well later in the trip. I however hopped off at Cheltenham, changed platforms and waited for the tour to arrive. Having done some checking online, I'd noted there were only two Class 37s on the train due to poor availability. As I boarded, I noticed the usual moaners were already complaining about the route and loco issues. I kept an open mind at this point, and sat back to enjoy the day. After pick-ups at both Bristol stations we sped south, coming to a grinding halt just outside Highbridge as we caught up with a local stopping service. Some slow running to Taunton, but we'd kept time. Not taking the booked operational stop at Exeter St. Davids put us roughly half-an-hour ahead and we arrived at Plymouth for an extended break in the sunshine. Chatted and watched the front loco run around to give us a top and tailed formation for the branch to Parkandillack, which had replaced Moorswater as the Cornish target. Once underway, I relaxed and even snoozed a bit - I didn't need the branch, but I was keen to see it's strange china clay related moonscape once again. The weather began to cloud over and rain began to spit down, but that just added drama to this very queer area with its pits, piles of white dusty soil and huge quarried absences.
We headed back along the branch and onto the mainline, pausing briefly to collect stocks of excellent pasties from Pearns of Par. Then, a little short of Bodmin we began to slip and stutter. With just the front loco hauling ten coaches and a dead Class 37, the greasily damp rails were proving a challenge. The driver coaxed the train as far as he could, but with time slipping by, the decision was taken to fire up the rear loco. We were soon away and heading back into a damp Plymouth for more loco changes. Here, the 37s both returned to the front, and 66156 which had come up from St.Blazey was tagged on the back. This would draw us back from Heathfield, and ensured that the vast majority of the tour was still 37 hauled despite the lack of a third loco. The run over the South Devon Banks was swift and sure, and only about 14 late we crept into a much sunnier Newton Abbot. Here, after a bit of a wait, we took the branch curving north around the racecourse. The bed of a former canal owned by the GWR appeared immediately beside the railway - with evidence of locks, long since dry but still to be seen. The branch reminded me of the Buckfastleigh line - a near neighbour - with its tree-lined climb towards the moors. The log loading area was very evident - with piles of freshly cut trees waiting for next week's train. Teigngrace station followed, and then more evidence of the canal which petered out before the platforms at Heathfield. Clearly substantial and mostly intact, the recent First Great Western charter allowed passengers out here! Almost unheard of on a modern-day railtour, but perhaps the reward for enduring those Class 142s on the trip? We pressed on though, through the station and onto the run-round loop used by the timber train empties. We came to a halt at a point where the driver reported the remaining rails disappeared under water! It was pretty close to the end of this once very well used line, and an excellent result.
Returning south, several folks disembarked at Newton Abbot for London-bound services, and left us to have a quiet and very speedy non-stop run to Bristol in the evening sunshine. We halted at Parson Street Junction to allow 66105 and 001 to take the High Output Ballast Cleaning train onto the Portbury Branch, the possession being opened and closed for the works train to pass. Then we slipped into Temple Meads where I hopped off. Some folks dashed for the late-running 19:53 home, but I'd planned to linger for my usual 1C27 which meant I got to watch the storming departure of our train northwards for Crewe, roughly at its booked time. I settled down for a coffee and a peaceful run home. It had been a successful day, and despite the changes to the plan I'd got new track, an unexpected new Class 66 and had an interesting and relaxing day out. That, after all, is what it's all about.
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.