Wednesday, 20 December 2017
Review of 2017: Part 2 – Live
I'm not blasé about how lucky I am to have the job I do, to live in London, and to have just enough money to go to some incredible events (provided I don't go on holiday, and shop at Aldi quite a bit). In 2017, I've strolled around the Royal Albert Hall auditorium laying out Santa hats as Chrissie Hynde sang '2,000 Miles', gone for an extended drink with the Pern team after a day of filming with Christopher Eccleston, Paul Whitehouse and Nigel Havers, met Billy Bragg (straight in at #1 on the Nicest Celebs spreadsheet) and been to a celebration of Joe Orton featuring his sister Leonie, Kenneth Cranham and John Lahr. I've seen Allison Anders talk about Gas, Food Lodging, Bruce Robinson and Richard E. Grant discuss Withnail & I, and Kazuo Ishiguro reveal a deep love of screwball comedy. And through jobligations and a fast finger on the F5 button, I've been fortunate enough to go to the BAFTAs, Oliviers, the London Film Festival and the athletics world championships, and to see John Grant interview Elizabeth Fraser. It's been a bit daft.
That's everything that doesn't fit into my rigorously regimented Part 2 of the Review of the Year, which is split into Gigs, Shows and Exhibitions:
12. The Best of Elmer Bernstein (June, Royal Albert Hall) – A fantastic concert showcasing Bernstein's pioneering work in everything from epics to comedies, Westerns to romances, and nature documentaries to sweaty, cynical, claustrophobic fag-end noirs. It was cosy, conversational and emotionally overwhelming in turn. Bernstein’s rhapsodic homage to/pastiche of classic Hollywood music – evoking the very history of Hollywood and composed for a ‘60s TV show called Hollywood and the Stars – was a revelation, captivating me with its sweeping, Steiner-esque beauty. Full review.
11. Martha Wainwright and Ed Harcourt (February, The Roundhouse) – An often brilliant evening in the company of one of the 21st century’s most compelling performers. Her new record is patchy, but she is such a mesmerising performer that she can wring brilliance from almost anything, her hips rotating sensually, her foot coming off the floor and her knee up towards her chest again and again in a mannerism that seems both inexplicable and inevitable, as much a part of her act as her easy humour, constant between-songs swearing and that unapproachable voice, racing over the octaves, blasting the roof off the Roundhouse or staying husky, deep and disgruntled somewhere in her larynx. Leonard Cohen’s 'Chelsea Hotel #2' is the highlight: among the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen or heard, at a gig or anywhere else (even after a false start in which she leaps straight into the second verse). At one point she’s crouched on the floor, her voice somewhere in the rafters, her heart somewhere in Hell. There are versions of it on YouTube, one from 10 years ago, another when she started doing it again live in December – clutching a lyric sheet, skitting around the tune – but nothing will ever come close to the way she sang it that night in February. It was revelatory. Full review.
10. The National (September, Hammersmith Apollo) – The best band since Suede (it's true, check your paperwork), and one of the most viscerally exciting live acts around. After three solid years of touring Trouble Will Find Me, they seemed keen to get away from it, delving further back into their catalogue and playing nearly everything from their new record, Sleep Well Beast. Highlights were a blistering 'The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness', a hushed, harmonised 'Dark Side of the Gym' featuring support act This The Kit, and a brass-backed take on that stuttering, syncopated hymn to escapism in a hellhole, 'Fake Empire'. My only quibble is that Matt Berninger, one of the most gifted lyricists of his generation and a dynamic stage presence, can't sing in tune live. It's not that hard.
9. Jens Lekman (March, Oval Space) – Glorious. Imagine how good he is when he doesn't have the flu. Full review.
8. David Ford's Milk and Cookies (December, Bush Hall) – Every Christmas, the protest-singing multi-instrumentalist puts down the economics textbook and plays a covers show for charity. Milk and cookies are on sale from a table at the back. This was the first time I'd been (though I've seen Ford live twice before), and it was a total joy, Ford effortlessly judging the mood as kicked off with 'Free Fallin' ', put his heart into a Whitney cover ('Didn't We Almost Have It All'), and played a joshing bromantic duet with Tom McRae (John Waite's 'Missing You'), between self-penned classics and randomly generated 'requests'. At one point, he asked the audience to sing a succession of notes, then used them as the synths for an inspired take on 10cc's 'I'm Not in Love'. What a treat. See you next year. I've put up a setlist (from memory) here.
7. Mike Heron and Trembling Bells (August, Cafe Oto) – As I said in the books review, my summer was commandeered by a burgeoning infatuation with the Incredible String Band. Robin Williamson's show at a Putney pub was distinctive and enjoyable, but ISB-free and dragged down by his wife's tuneless vocals. That felt in keeping with his character, and so did Mike Heron's hits set, backed by Glasgow folk-rock outfit, Trembling Bells. After support by a bad poet and a good young folkie, they took the stage for eight Incredible String Band numbers, including mesmeric versions of 'Douglas Traherne Harding' and 'A Very Cellular Song', probably the best thing Heron ever wrote. Pushing 75, he couldn't take a lead on all the numbers, so a backing singer unconvincingly deputised on 'Maya', but his voice has held up pretty well, and there's no questioning the enduring, singular quality of the material, nor the talent of his polished but flexible ensemble. He ended the show by duetting on the ISB rarity, 'Bright Morning Stars', with his daughter. Immediate reaction.
6. Yasmine Hamdan (March, Scala) – Every time I see her live, Lebanese electro-grunge pioneer Yasmine Hamdan features in this list. She topped it in 2014. The crowd was full of people farting and petting, but the performance itself was packed full of Hamdan's easy sensuality, instinctive creativity and megawatt charisma. The aftermath was somewhat spoiled by Yasmine not remembering me (we once hung out for like three hours) and then proceeding to offer me a fist-bump, which I misjudged and shook hands with. I can hear you cringing from here. Full review.
5. Susanne Sundfør (October, Union Chapel) – For me, one of this year's happiest musical discoveries, along with my numbers 10, 7 and 1. I saw her at the Scott Walker Prom in July (more of which later), and quickly became besotted. Y'know, musically. This show at London's most tranquil, atmospheric and welcoming venue (though the pews aren't ideal if you're a handsome 33-year-old press executive with a bad back) leant heavily on her new record, Music for People in Trouble, and its stylistic siblings: songs like 'Walls' and 'The Brothel', introspective, teasingly extroverted synth-folk ballads a world away from the stomping electro-pop of 2015's irresistible Ten Love Songs. Occasionally the show dipped into plonky nothingness, but there were stand-out moments from 'Reincarnation' to Paul Simon's 'American Tune', and when Sundfor rips the lid off that extraordinary voice for 'Trust Me' (a heart-stopping version) and the year's best song, 'Undercover', there's simply no feeling comparable.
4. John Grant (May, Union Chapel) – My first ever visit to Union Chapel was to see Review-of-the-Year stalwart John Grant, staying true to his reputation as rock's nicest genius with a charity show (to fund a kidney transplant for his friend Oleg) full of rarely-aired fan favourites ('Global Warming', 'You Don't Have To') and definitive versions. His 'Glacier' was the greatest I've ever heard, and I've seen him duet on it with Kylie. Full review.
3. Seu Jorge (May, Royal Albert Hall) – I loved The Life Aquatic from first sight, and one of its great joys is the Seu Jorge soundtrack: Portuguese-language covers of Bowie songs that give it so much of its poignant, perfect atmosphere. This year he toured those songs for the first time, pitching up at My Office for an intimate, conversational show. It was uplifting, unique, but deeply moving too: speaking very personally to the sell-out crowd, many of them sporting those iconic red beanies. “I am glad to see so many members of Zissou Team here,” says Seu. (A Team Zissou member calling Team Zissou 'Zissou Team” is the most Team Zissou thing ever). When a hidden screen comes down and his backdrop is The Life Aquatic and you realise that though it’s only 13 years, it’s already 13 years, and that the passing of time set to music is a rhapsodically poignant thing. Full review.
2. Prom 15: The Songs of Scott Walker: 1967-70 (July, Royal Albert Hall) – Perhaps the best show I've ever seen at work, a stunning reinterpretation of Scott Walker's early solo work from four of the most distinctive musical voices of later generations. Backed by Jules Buckley's impeccable Heritage Orchestra, each brought something different to the show, representing a different facet of Walker's mercurial persona: John Grant power and eloquence, Richard Hawley an urgent, tuneful melancholy, Jarvis Cocker a stage presence in place of the voice required to do Walker's songs justice, and Susanne Sundfør the insolent sensuality and super soaraway top notes. I'd come for Walker and Grant, but left as a Sundfør superfan. I first saw her in the soundcheck, doing something strange to 'The Amorous Humphrey Plugg'. By the end of the song I couldn't wait to hear more, and when she stepped out to sing it in Bond-theme style that night, I was just a foot away. It damn near lifted me to the ceiling. You can watch it here.
1. Father John Misty (November, Hammersmith Apollo) – In which the psychically tortured confessional artist puts on the most joyous pop concert of the year. Full review.
Would you like some more? I've written about plenty of other shows, from Jackson Browne being pretty damn great to Angel Olsen being pretty damn poor, and Richard Thompson not really being arsed.
Extra bits: Here are the best three pieces I wrote for the Royal Albert Hall blog this year: - My best pun of the year headlines this piece about Elmer Bernstein's greatest hits - Go behind the scenes at the filming of Brian Pern: A Tribute - And, after the untimely passing of the great Tom Petty, I wrote about seeing him live in 2012
Yes, I like this sort of thing, what exactly is your point.
7. The John Wilson Orchestra presents Oklahoma! (August, Royal Albert Hall) – This counts, right? A semi-staged performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein's morally incomprehensible 1943 musical, in which the hero decides that a mentally ill love rival who owns pornography doesn't deserve to exist, and tries to convince him to commit suicide. Helluva show, though, powered by John Wilson's tight, exuberant orchestra, as a first-rate ensemble conjured Oklahoma from thin air with the help of a washing line, a couple of chairs, and impeccable song-and-dance smarts. Robert Fairchild was unquestionably the stand-out, but a mention too for Marcus Brigstocke. When I heard he was in it, I thought that was funny. It wasn't, but he was. I'd forgotten too how much great music there is in Oklahoma! I'll always prefer Rodgers and Hart to Rodgers and Hammerstein, but I prefer Rodgers and Hart to most things.
6. An American in Paris (March, Dominion Theatre) – An explosive, intelligent stage version of MGM’s 1951 masterpiece, direct from Broadway, which sags now and then in its book, but offers unmissable entertainment of a type rarely seen in the West End. It was the first night too, so Leslie Caron turned up to take a bow. Full review.
5. Girl From the North Country (July, The Old Vic) – A jukebox musical of Bob Dylan album tracks, allied to a Depression-era melodrama, and nearly as good as that sounds. Its greatest virtue was Shirley Henderson's performance. I've never been that taken with her, seeing her in films, but she had such a presence and physicality, flitting between pitiful and sensual, rabid and comatose, that I was transfixed. Though I tend to have a problem with portraits of mental disintegration which are big and tic-laden (as the journalist Tim Lott once wrote, a realistic piece of fiction about mental illness would just be very boring), this one managed to be funny, intelligently allegorical, moving and somewhat unpleasant, without traversing into unbelievability or hysteria, while her moments of lucidity unveiled an unexpectedly beautiful voice, shot through a Scandi-Minnesotan lilt. It was her, the songs and the atmosphere of quiet desperation that stayed with me, but mostly her. Full review.
Pennycooke as the dandyish Francophile, Thomas Jefferson.
4. Hamilton (December, Victoria Palace Theatre) – The top four could be in any order, really: I've been incredibly lucky to see four shows so thrilling and affecting in a single year. Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway sensation makes it to the West End in considerable style, delivering for an audience so hyped that they were whooping with barely-contained delirium when the lights went down. The writing is magnificent – two small moments that just blow me away are Lafayette's appearance in 'Guns and Ships' and "... we dream in the dark for the most time", a wail of impotence in the stand-out number, 'The Room Where It Happens' – and the staging and playing aren't far off. Rachel John (as Angelica) and Giles Terera (as Aaron Burr) are both incredibly classy performers, and there's explosive, pint-sized support from Jason Pennycooke. The West End audience seemed to retain its comfortable fondness for warbly show tunes (the cheesy if unquestionably effective 'One Last Time') over lightning-paced wordplay, but the atmosphere was something special all the same.
3. Angels in America (July/Aug, National Theatre) – The first half, Millennium Approaches, was astonishing: a clear-headed, literate and ambitious piece of art, lit by the NT's masterly, expansive stagecraft and a stunning ensemble. Part two, Perestroika, wasn't quite in my sweet spot, its abstract and metaphysical elements sometimes more confusing than compelling, but taken as a whole it was a vivid presentation of an extraordinarily ambitious, eight-hour play, with a sprawling focus but an enduring, unblinkered humanity. The performances from Nathan Lane (as Trump's mentor, McCarthyite lawyer Roy Cohn), Denise Gough and the relatively unknown James McArdle were absolutely terrific.
2. The Ferryman (August, The Gielgud Theatre) – What I always imagined theatre might be, and yet rarely is: both political and personal, with a specificity that gives it its universality, and a crackling, super-charged atmosphere that here buzzes with desperation, danger and the particular energy of unspoken love. Written by Jez Butterworth and directed by Sam Mendes, it stars Paddy Considine as a former IRA heavy whose tranquil farm life remains in the shadow of his brother's unresolved disappearance, setting up your expectations only to subvert them or – in the case of a moment of lucidity amidst the fog of dementia – time and heighten cliche with such effortlessness that it works just the same, before a descent into inevitable, ironic violence. Everything about the play is first-rate, but especially Laura Donnelly as the missing brother's wife. The play was based on Donnelly's own experiences, and her knife-edge performance is warm, tortured and erotic – sometimes all three at once.
1. Hamlet (April, Almeida Theatre) – Andrew Scott's Hamlet is the best I've seen − probing, philosophical, introspective and bitterly witty − and this intimate, innovative, cleanly modern production rises to meet him, keeping your attention rapt and your emotions engaged. He's also the first to whom I've felt a natural and personal connection, and it runs deep. He's groping in the dark, beset with an impotence of action from which he's trying to rip himself free, questing for self-knowledge, while praying for a relief from it. He's an existential Hamlet: thoughtful, melancholy, feeling deeply, a decent, anguished, emotionally tender Prince with an adolescent's loathing of hypocrisy and duplicity, a child's guilelessness, and a self-loathing born of immobility in the face of dishonour. In pegged black trousers and a collarless shirt, barefoot or in shiny black shoes, stripped to a vest highlighting his voluminous biceps, or dressed in cream and white for the graveyard scene, the wiry, wild-eyed Scott commands the stage, and all of your attention. Full review.
"The bees are getting suspicious." My favourite exhibition of the year is on until April: the V&A's wonderful Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic, which approaches its topic from the angle of E. H. Shepard's perfect illustrations. That was presumably through necessity, as Shepard's drawings are part of the museum's collection whereas the smaller number of Milne items are borrowed, but it offers a fascinating new perspective on the works, examining Shepard's preparation (sketches from life in the rural locations), his subtle tricks (lengthening Piglet's snout to bury it in a balloon, showing his ears streaming back in the force of a gale) and his genius, while celebrating a creative marriage of two forceful, remarkable talents that extended to the artistic layout of the text, which echoed and so enhanced the stories they were telling. Don't miss the little side-room which takes that one step further! The rooms are full of life-size recreations of the drawings, including a Poohsticks bridge with an electronic river, and of remarkable insights and artefacts. The best are the alternate, unused Shepard sketches, among 270 drawings that he donated the museum in 1973. What I also found fascinating, looking at a gallery of later Pooh editions illustrated by Shepard, is that it was only in his dotage that his colour portraits began to work. His watercolour paintings, at least in these reproductions, seem blocky and charmless, but when he returned to the subject in his eighties, his eyesight failing, he opted instead for simple washes over his old ink drawings, and it's those indelible editions (making Pooh's jackets red, where sometimes they'd been blue) which have become definitive – and rightly so. There are a few references to the abhorrent D*sney bastardisation of the books in the opening room, but otherwise we're fine.
Grayson Perry's small-scale offering at the Serpentine Galleries, The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!, made me very happy: a sly, self-referential and extremely funny collection, from a vase decorated with delicately hideous cartoons of the Brexit mob to a tooled up motorbike for his teddy bear and (my favourite), a pastiche of miners' gala banners that contrasts the vilified 'archetypes' of the contemporary working class with the hazy image of their forefathers' macho monochrome nobility.
I saw two great exhibitions at the British Library, as well as their enjoyable Harry Potter one: a collection of Jane Austen's teenage writings in the Treasures gallery, and a fine study of the failed communist experiment – already in tatters by 1920 – in Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths. The Imperial War Museum's People Power exhibition was impressive, multi-faceted and a little unfortunate in having to follow the V&A's Disobedient Objects, which is one of the best exhibitions I've seen since moving to London, and dealt with a similar theme: public protest.
If you like the idea of going into a warm hut and trying not to stand on some butterflies, then I'd really recommend the Natural History Museum's ever-popular Sensational Butterflies (seriously, it's terrific).
My favourite of the art exhibitions was Tate Modern's Soul of A Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, which had its philosophically impenetrable collections of twigs, but also works like Benny Andrews' provocative, 'Did the Bear Sit Under a Tree' – with its challenging, tactile 3D created partially by using an everyday zip for a mouth – and Betye Saar's 'Sambo's Banjo', its gaudy exterior covered in the infantilising, dehumanising racism of a blackface caricature, while its inside contains a black figure strung up for a lynching. Saar said, though, that the plight of the black man in America was not hopeless, destiny was in his hands, and so a sniper rifle lies within reach, waiting for him to free himself. I was less enamoured of the Rauschenberg exhibition, though it contained the greatest factual description of an artwork ever written, though American Dream at the British Museum got me thinking about the ways we see America, and the ways it sees itself.
Thanks for reading.