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Monthly Archives: August 2011

If you’re anything like us, you’re always on the lookout for events that are in some way outside of the ordinary. Which is why, as soon as it was announced, Hey! After Hours was something we were looking forward to. Designed as a response to Projections: Works from The Artangel Collection, Hey! Manchester and Whitworth Art Gallery clearly put a lot of thought into the composition of the night’s proceedings. The result was an illuminating evening, very much of the “once in a lifetime” ilk.

Upon arrival, the Royal Northern College of Music’s Prism Quartet were spread throughout the building, with each individual performing seemingly disparate pieces that, once you reach certain points, come together to form a highly impressive whole. As far as classical music is concerned, it is always the string section that sets our pulses racing, and the Phillip Glass pieces Prism Quartet perform are particularly impressive examples of the art form. Sometimes taut and dramatic, sometimes quiet and restrained, the players provide the perfect backdrop for the evening.

As far as the Artangel pieces are concerned, Atom Egoyan’s Steenbeckett immediately stands out. 2000 feet of film is spread around a darkened room, constantly in motion, and the sound it makes is somewhere between rainfall and the quiet nighttime hum of a refrigerator; the overall effect is mesmerising. The technology-obsessed drawings and paitings of Tony Oursler capture our attention, and Catherine Yass’s High Wires – through which the artist explored the practically dystopian 20th century phenomenon of thirty-storey blocks of flats being envisaged as the future of housing provision – is also striking, with four large screens being used to depict high wire walker Didier Pasquette’s ultimately failed journey between two wind-beaten towers. It’s definitely worth making a special journey to the Whitworth to check out this exhibit.

In the midst of this setting, the ambient soundscapes of Jason Singh are quietly haunting, the sort of music that inhabits your headspace if you give it half a chance. It takes you over, takes you out of the room, and evokes moments or memories rescued from forgotten dreams: soundtrack music of the best possible kind.

Liz Green, pictured above, starts her set with just her bluesy holler and handclaps, although this introduction is something of a misnomer, as once she picks up her guitar it’s the folk influence that shines through most brightly. She seems comfortable playing in front of a room filled with fans and soon-to-be-devotees, cracking a Tom Waits-themed joke and introducing one song as “Homer’s Odyssey from the perspective of Penelope.” Her music suits the environment down to the ground, and it is quickly clear that her debut album – due out this November – is one to look forward to. If Green is able to live up to all her promise, it’ll be one to cherish, too.

We came away thoroughly satisfied with everything we’d seen, and that sensation hasn’t worn off yet. If only all art and entertainment were this affecting.

To some the Cornerhouse bookshop may seem an intimidating place. Making a choice from amongst all the sparkling items can seem like a multiple choice test. Well, to me at least.

And whatever you do, do not lean on the magazine racks. They will fall down.

But for all its sheen and wobbly fixtures it’s a fantastic little shop (and indeed, a fantastic venue), and as the good folk of Belle Vue point out in issue #4, once the Cornernhouse has relocated it needs to be used, or else we’ll lose it.

So, without further ado here are the purchases I made on my last visit, with a little discussion as to why I liked them, and why you might like them too:

Fire & Knives: A quarterly magazine on the topic of food

One for your library rather than your kitchen shelf. Edited by Tim Hayward, Fire & Knives comprises some of the best writing on the topic of food to be found anywhere. This month brought together features on the lost course of ‘savories’ by Tom Parker Bowles, A Scotch Egg Manifesto by David J. Constable, and the curry confessions of Mel Fenson. The publication is printed on thick A5 card, and each article is rendered onto the page using flavescent tones and unique illustration.

Fire & Knives is an absolute feast. Each article is like a delectable word-truffle, consumed though your eyes, digested in your mind, and nourishing to your relationship with everything edible. At £9.50 an issue, it is a bit dear, but quality journalism is worth paying for, and the ticket price covers the publication costs rather than making anyone a profit.

Belle Vue #4: A Manchester-centric zine

I cannot claim to be down with the kids and to have known about Belle Vue for sometime. In fact, almost as soon as I discovered this zine I found out it was to cease publication for a little while, as two of the founders are upping sticks, heading to New York and Australia respectively. This is a shame, not least because I’ll only be able to get my hands on one back issue (#2) when I go to their vinyl night at An Outlet on the 26th August.

Try if you can to get hold of issue #4, as it contains possibly one of the best profiles I have ever read (of architect Norman Foster written by Phil Griffin, since you ask). The introduction and framing device used is expertly deployed with a lightness of touch. I came to the end of the piece surprised I’d taken so much enjoyment from the profile of a man whose area of expertise I know very little about.

Other highlights include a discussion of Manchester’s relationship with Fallowfield, and a funny article drawn from a presumptuous “fifty books you must read before you die” display in Deansgate Waterstones. At £2 this zine is a bargain.

Mistress Quickly’s Bed #1: A literature zine

Named for the inn keeper of Shakespeare’s Henry IV parts one and two, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor, Mistress Quickly’s Bed compiles poems and short stories from new and established writers. A particular highlight was Fred Voss’s poem Dropping the Needle of the Blues and S.Kadison’s short story, Demobbed.

Not being as adept at literary criticism as I would like, I chose this zine hoping to remedy this to some extent. I enjoyed Quickly’s on the first read, and find myself returning to its blue covered pages when opportunity presents itself on buses and lunch hours. Also priced at £3.50, for an enthusiast of the written word it is a good investment, and an introduction to an area of writing I’d like to become more familiar with.

An ongoing series documenting our search for the best beers available in Manchester.

Given the stigma attached to the likes of Carlsberg Special Brew and Tennent’s Super – extra-strength beers that are less about enjoying a nice cold one than about inducing unconsciousness – it’s somewhat surprising that in recent years, stronger ales have been growing in popularity among aficionados. BrewDog have arguably been at the forefront of this, offering a number of beers that either push or exceed 10% ABV, including the ridiculous-for-more-than-just-its-reductive-name Sink the Bismarck!, which clocks in at a staggering 41%. Still, however you feel about their attention-grabbing antics, this approach has helped the brewery achieve nationwide recognition in a comparatively short space of time, whilst introducing a significant number of drinkers to the joys of higher percentages.

Of course, this isn’t an entirely new development. Dating back to at least the middle of the 20th century, the word “tripel” has been used as a banner term to indicate strength. Brakspear’s Triple represented our first foray into this arena, and we’re happy to report back that it was a complete success. Upon pouring, the colouring immediately catches your eye, as dark clouds swirl around the top of the glass before settling. The depth of flavour is initially disarming, and this intensity takes a few sips to get used to. Once your palate has adjusted, however, you’ll start to appreciate the wonderful complexity of this drink, and its balanced notes of toffee and fruit.

Later on in the week, a brief stop off at Port Street Beer House was as fruitful as it always is. Augustiner Helles is one of the only lagers we drink these days, with good reason. Sometimes you crave nothing more than a clean, crisp, refreshing beverage, and Augustiner’s flagship brand more than delivers on all of these fronts. We spent a fair amount of time in Berlin last year, during which we proved that it is pretty much the perfect session beer. Its increasing prevalence in Manchester is something to be grateful for.

We were also happy to partake in a Summer Wine Brewery offering that was new to us. The pump clip for The Benz promises an aromatic black, and the drink certainly delivers that. Blessed with a wonderfully deep black colour, it’s the kind of beer that lights up the senses before the first drop has hit your mouth. The taste is pitched somewhere between a stout and a porter, with hops very much to the fore, which the fruity malts complement perfectly. Another unqualified success from Summer Wine!

To round the week off, we opted for Hook Norton Brewery’s Old Hooky. A golden brown colour gives way to a deep, woody taste that dominates the beverage, lingering on the tongue to a far greater extent that the subtle hint of fruit. Slightly more complex than your average beer, it’s light enough that it goes down easily, but certainly isn’t for session drinking. Definitely one to add to the hypothetical beer cellar.

Whilst we’re probably not the only ones hoping for a quieter, more uneventful seven days, that doesn’t mean we won’t want to be out and about. This week’s highlights include a diverse range of free events, exhibitions, and film screenings, and Port Street Beer House celebrating the work of Manchester’s own Marble Brewery.

Monday 15th August to Sunday 21st August

Ernest Rutherford: Father of Nuclear Physics at the Museum of Science and Industry

Manchester has a long and storied history of being at the forefront of scientific and technological revolutions. This free entry exhibition celebrates Ernest Rutherford, whose work established the nuclear structure of the atom and the nature of radioactive decay, earning him global recognition in the process.

Monday 15th August to Saturday 20th August

Leo Fitzmaurice: Post Match at the Cube Gallery

With the football season now well and truly underway, this free entry exhibition is particularly timely. Over the course of ten years, Fitzmaurice has crafted around 800 miniature football kits using only discarded cigarette packets; the result is a vibrant, thought-provoking journey through the histories of two industries with particularly tarnished images.

Tuesday 16th August to Sunday 21st August

Manchester Week at Port Street Beer House

Port Street’s Manchester Week was planned in advance of last week, but given the events which unfolded, the timing of it couldn’t be much better. It’s largely being held as a tribute to Colin Stronge, the brewery production manager at the superlative Marble Brewery, with several other fantastic local brewers also represented.

Wednesday 17th August

Eyebrow Cinema at An Outlet

The free entry world and independent film club is screening Precious on Wednesday, and if you haven’t seen it yet, it’s well worth checking out; it’s not quite as strong as some critics made it out to be, but it’s still a compelling piece of cinema.

Friday 20th August to Sunday 22nd August

Platform 4 Festival at Piccadilly Gardens, St Ann’s Square, and Castlefield Arena

A free event that spans across the city, incorporating aerial and circus shows, music, dance, and street theatre, Platform 4 Festival sounds both ambitious and unique. The acrobatics of the Spanish Atempo Circus at Castlefield Arena should be a particular highlight.

Friday 20th August

Hey! After Hours at Whitworth Art Gallery

Conceived as a response to current Whitworth Art Gallery exhibition Projections: Works From The Artangel Collection, Hey! After Hours promises an evening of highly cultured music, including the Prism Quartet performing Philip Glass, and a set from Liz Green ahead of the long-awaited release of her debut album.

Saturday 21st August to Sunday 22nd August

A Game of Consequence at Piccadilly Gardens

The Contact Young Actors Company bring an old-fasjoined medicine show to Piccadilly Gardens free of charge; however, as the name of the performance suggests, every choice has its consequence. It’s directed by Cheryl Martin, who has already made a number of lauded contributions to the Manchester theatre scene.

Saturday 21st August

Chad VanGaalen at the Deaf Institute

Diaper Island is one of the finest albums released this year, a definite leap forward from a guy who has been making great music under the radar for what seems like forever. The fact that support comes from New Hips (three-quarters of the sadly missed Deaf to Van Gogh’s Ear) is the sort of added bonus that means this is one we’re very much looking forward to.

The basement safe of Incognito Gallery on Stevenson Square seemed an uncomfortably small space in which to view the latest artwork of the troubled yet endearing artist, Daniel Johnston. Especially since the opening of this exhibition, which runs until the 7th October, had drawn crowds ranging from established fans to hairspray-addicted hipsters to curious passers by.

However, Story of an Artist, with its characteristically naive, felt tip, comicbook aesthetic, transports you into the mind of a man plagued by mental disquiet, and seems an apt location in which to view the private thoughts and exuberantly disturbed illustrations of this much loved man.

The work on show comprises a collection of hand-drawn posters tacked to cork boards around the 10ft by 10ft metal container. Untangling the colorful, character-driven imagery reveals concern over the contradictions of life in a world driven by commercialism and war, with a longing for the innocence, liberalism, and romance of a bygone era.

We might not have braved the launch of the exhibition, and the large crowd it was sure to attract, had it not been for the suggestion that the man himself would play a short set. Upon arrival, we were told that it would be happening at around seven; however, seven came and went with no sign of him.

The minutes flew by without further word, and as we stood outside to escape the heat of the packed gallery we watched as the organisers became increasingly harried. Once eight o’clock rolled by, it seemed doubtful that he’d be turning up. We had all but given up when he finally appeared, threaded his way through the maze of people both outside and indoors, picked up the guitar that had been provided for him, and played a trio of songs for an audience who were clearly delighted to have been there.

He seemed just a touch uncomfortable during the first song, but settled into proceedings; even so, it was more of an “I was there” moment than a revelatory performance. For us, the artwork on display was the real highlight of the evening, and the short set was more of a warmup for his Sound Control appearance the following day.

Comicbook artist Jack Kirby heavily influences Johnston’s  work, along with The Beatles, for whom Johnston has a longtime reverence – even going so far as to nickname his brother Sergeant Pepper, on account of his mustache.

Western politics appeared to be commented upon in one image, which features a disillusioned Captain America overlooking the signing of a Bill of Rot by two ducks dressed in SS-like uniforms, while a blank faced, buxom woman looks on and a pink cat rejoices at his secret Nazi plans. In this image, Captain America concludes that seeing as how it appears that no-one can be bothered to resist anymore, and no-one seems to care, he might as well read a “girly magazine.”

In other pieces, characters display their allegiance to fascism and peace in similar ways, against backgrounds of disembodied red and yellow heads, some crying, and often accompanied by speech bubbles. The Blue Meanies of Yellow Submarine popped up again and again, often in conjunction with a green man, who reappeared in a variety of states, always looking muscular but often with missing limbs.

Drawing definite conclusions from Johnston’s art seems pointless – these pieces can be taken as social commentary, as a subversion of the naive aesthetic, or simply as the musings that enter into his mind, for which he finds catharsis upon a blank page. Whichever way you choose to interpret the work, it certainly plants ideas that the mind masticates over for some time afterwards.

A regular series discussing albums unearthed in Vinyl Exchange, Manchester’s legendary second hand music store.

Fans of The Clash may want to look away now, because I’m about to say something you may well not agree with:

Sandinista! is the band’s best album.

Let me qualify that. Sandinista! is the album on which The Clash’s wonderful spirit of experimentation comes to its most perfect fruition, the album on which the disparate influences that informed the band’s music from the very start are best realised. Don’t believe me? Then let us consider their oeuvre in more detail.

The Clash is an essential punk record, one of the key drivers behind a pivotal music scene. It boasts a fair few fantastic songs, but the UK version also has its share of skippable tracks, and standout moment “Police And Thieves” is a cover. The US version, which featured the likes of “White Man (In Hammersmith Palais)” and “Complete Control,” was essentially a compilation album, and thus doesn’t enter into the discussion.

Give ‘Em Enough Rope has more heart (see “Stay Free”), but nothing matches the incredible opening track “Safe European Home,” and you’d be hard pressed to describe it as a great album.

London Calling is undeniably superb. But the back half doesn’t quite match up to the front half. Upon release, “Guns Of Brixton” ended the first LP; before that, the listener was treated to “Spanish Bombs,” “Lost In The Supermarket,” “Clampdown,” the title track, and plenty more besides. On the second LP, “Death Or Glory” and “I’m Not Down” are almost-but-not-quite classics (and also kinda similar to one another), and whilst “The Card Cheat” and “Train In Vain” are excellent, not everything matches those high standards.

Combat Rock is in many ways a fantastic record. “Rock The Casbah” and “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” are a hell of a lot of fun, and “Straight To Hell” is quite possibly their greatest ever song. But compared to the two albums that preceded it, it remains a minor classic.

And finally, aside from “This Is England,” Cut The Crap is staggeringly awful.

Which leads us back to where we started. Whereas the album that preceded it was an essential document of seventies England, Sandinista! is American through and through, in terms of sound, themes, and the atmosphere it evokes. It opens with “The Magnificent Seven,” which along with side three cut “Lightning Strikes (Not Once But Twice)” represents the first time a (mainstream) white rock band tried their hand at rap. The track also puts down a marker for what’s to follow: an exhilarating journey through musical history, with just about every genre represented. Reggae, dub, jazz, pop, gospel, and disco all inform the record, which plays like one of the greatest mixtapes ever compiled.

One of the album’s greatest strengths lies in just how evocative it is. The Apocalypse Now tribute “Charlie Don’t Surf” and another anti-war statement, “The Call Up,” call to mind battlefields past, present, and future; “Lets Go Crazy” is the sound of the carnival, and suggests that at least one member of the group was a fan of tropicalia; and “Broadway” is a magnificent piece of jazz-piano balladry that transports the listener to a seedy dive bar they’ve never even visited.

A cover of Eddy Grant’s “Police On My Back” is the perfect companion to the band’s version of “I Fought The Law,” all powerful guitars and desperate vocals, a short sharp shock of a song, with a simple hook and endless replay value. “Something About England” is a beautiful ode to the titular nation, proof that although their outlook had become more global, they were still in touch with their homeland. And “Somebody Got Murdered” is a forgotten classic, highlighting just how great The Clash were at unfolding compelling narratives.

Sandinista! was largely derided upon its release, but the passage of time makes it clear that The Clash were simply a long, long way ahead of the curve. Not every moment of the 145 minute running time is golden, but it’s also never dull; even the more unsuccessful songs are interesting at the very least. This was the sound of the best band in the world showing off the size of their ambition and the breadth of their musical knowledge, putting their peers to shame in the process. An absolutely essential album.

There’s genuine optimism surrounding the Manchester music scene at the moment, and whilst this kind of buzz tends to build up every few years or so, this time it feels different.

After all, this isn’t The Courteeners breaking big with their brand of lowest common denominator British indie rock, inspiring drunken students to dance along to “Not Nineteen Forever” in 5th Avenue without any sense of irony as Liam Fray tells us to like it or lump it in his best Gallagher voice; this is WU LYF scoring critical acclaim across the world. Love them or hate them, they’ve certainly been instrumental in terms of pushing things forward, doing things a little differently, and getting people to pay attention.

As have Manchester Scenewipe. An ambitious operation from the start, they’ve taken the unique stance of focusing on the best music that Manchester has to offer without pretending that every band who heralds from the city is amazing. They understand that the American influence has become increasingly important, rather than yearning for the days of Factory and Oasis (people really need to learn to let go).

Manchester Scenewipe’s free nights at Fuel Cafe Bar serve as an opportunity to hear where they’re coming from, and having listened to the three acts lined up for their Friday 5th August show in the days before, the word that most readily sprang to mind was “Americana.” T.G. Elias has a touch of Devendra Banhart, a touch of The Tallest Man On Earth about him, but adheres to a more traditional interpretation of blues-folk than either. It’s certainly highly effective, ensuring that Elias avoids any easy pigeonholing, and his impressive stage presence and wonderfully arranged music keeps the crowd in rapt attention.

Next up was Jo Rose (pictured below). Calling to mind the more reflective moments of Whiskeytown’s oeuvre, and evoking a nostalgia it’s impossible to precisely place, the delicacy and craft of the ex-Fear Of Music frontman’s new music is on display throughout. Heart-on-sleeve-captivating in the best possible way, his songs never feel overwrought, just carefully considered and wonderfully executed. The guitar-and-vocals-singer-songwriter approach can be a hard sell these days, given the volume of practitioners, but Rose is a cut above the rest, and he earns rapturous applause when he finishes.

Of course, the upstairs of Fuel (small, dark, no stage) has always been perfectly suited to the lone musician, and the intimacy that entails. In our experience, full bands have had a harder time of owning the space in the way that live music demands of its proponents.

Headliners Walton Hesse (pictured first) suffered no such problems, however, creating a charged atmosphere with their brand of alt-country psych. This was due to two factors: 1) the folks organising the gig obviously put time, effort, and plenty of thought into getting the sound spot on; and 2) the band are very, very good.

The first seconds of their opening song – a lovely little number which sounded like The Besnard Lakes slowed down to half-speed – quickly enticed us back inside from our cigarette break, but was also something of a misnomer, because once they got started, the band were full of energy. Pitched somewhere between Sebadoh and Wilco, we quickly felt like we were experiencing something special. Blessed with an ear for a tune, perfectly judged keys lend proceedings a touch of The Hold Steady barroom bounce, and the end of their set seems to come all too soon.

Of course, that’s simply testament to how much both band and audience seemed to be enjoying themselves. Walton Hesse capped off a fantastic night, one which serves to highlight the breadth of talent Manchester is blessed with at the moment, in that three acts we hadn’t heard of just over a week ago are now deservedly eliciting comparisons to alt-rock legends from us. It’s more than that, though: they’ve taken their influences and created something positive, not derivative. Which is why we now rate all three so highly.

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