Gigs of the year:
When I wasn't reading, writing, working or being stabbed in the kidney by that surgeon I mentioned, I've mostly been at gigs. I've seen Knopfler, Clapton, Mariah Carey, the Lake Poets, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Michael Giacchino and three nights of film scores at the Royal Albert Hall, old favourites David Ford, June Tabor (with Oyster Band), Bjӧrk and Kate Rusby, thrilled to Topic Records' 80th Anniversary show – which introduced me to Emily Portman and Lisa Knapp – and celebrated the long-awaited return of folk hero Ruth Notman, who's been busy in the interim training to become a nurse. And then there was that weird event where I went to an 'immersive screening' of Ghost World, and found myself watching more than an hour of ragtime jazz performed by director Terry Zwigoff and mad sexist Robert Crumb, punctuated by rants about political correctness. Yay!
But here are the 10 gigs that meant the most to me in 2019:
10. The Milk Carton Kids (Barbican) – I’ve got a bit of a thing about Inside Llewyn Davis, the wintry film in which the Coens brothers shrug off their arch, aloof smugness, and burrow into the psyche of their sullen anti-hero, a titular traditional singer wandering freezing Greenwich Village as the folk revival approaches. I can only play four songs on the guitar and three of them are from this film. So when I heard there was a spin-off concert film, Another Day, Another Time, I thought I better see it. And that's how I discovered The Milk Carton Kids, and a lot more besides. The duo's deceptively complex songs at first seemed frozen in time and genre – almost a pastiche of early Simon and Garfunkel – but over time they've diversified and gone deeper, pain and fear bringing not weariness but grace. Their biggest show so far, at London's Barbican, was a fast-paced treat mixing frenetic flatpicking, heartbreaking close harmony and the best between-songs badinage since the Manics stopped saying awful things for attention.
Yes she was, and yes I did.
9. Ariana Grande (The O2) – I liked Ariana Grande, the gay-friendly feminist who became a hero to my home city of Manchester, but I can’t say I liked her music. Then a friend played me ‘Into You’, that intoxicating blast of dance-y horniness, followed by ‘thank u, next’, the sad, wise title-track of her fifth album, and I stopped being a stupid dick who doesn’t know anything. A lot of rubbish gets talked about middle-aged men who spend more than a hundred pounds to go and see Ariana Grande live by themselves, but to me I am a legend. While the O2 isn’t the best place to see any kind of show – it’s essentially a warehouse in which the atmosphere simply evaporates, and everything is just too far away – Grande is a great performer, and when she isn’t also dancing (which takes the edge off the majesty), she has an insane set of pipes. Some songs I loved already (‘Into You’ was spectacular, ‘Fake Smile’ exuberantly misanthropic), and others came to life in concert: the knockabout ‘Be Alright’, the desperate ‘Breathin’’, though the numbers utilising the walkway that looped towards our section of the arena both raised the spirits and underlined just how good it would be to see Grande in a smaller and less antiseptic space. As she ripped through ‘thank u, next’ for the climax, she and the dancers skipped around it, waving Pride flags.
Lily! Martha! Certainly-one-of-the-Thompsons,-not-sure-which-one!
8. Rufus and Martha Wainwright: A Not So Silent Night (Southbank Centre) – The siblings in London together at Christmas for the first time in a decade. The older generation may no longer want to travel, but their own was out in force, including half-sister Lucy Wainwright Roche and their cousin (and personal favourite), the marvellously-monikered Lily Lanken. This all used to be about roots music and family, but Rufus is now the artistic brains behind these jamborees, and he’s made the whole thing so incredibly gay. It’s delightful. Among the guests were Dan Gillespie Sells, Neil Tennant and Sophie Ellis-Bextor, alongside various members of the inter-connected Thompson clan, Guy Garvey and Jenni Muldaur. The show was intended to celebrate the festive season but also the work of Kate McGarrigle, the matriarch who made her last public appearance at the previous London show in 2009. Being in a packed house watching Ellis-Bextor act her way through Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s ‘First Born’, a deep cut from their second record and a song that’s very personal to me, was a surreal experience – as was hearing a second live version of ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’ this year; that’s the signature song of my musical idol, Sandy Denny. Lucy Wainwright Roche’s vocal here was better than Olivia Chaney’s, but she didn’t have half of Fairport behind her. Chrissie Hynde’s contributions may have been tuneless, but the rest of the show was scintillating, especially Martha’s Janis Joplin-esque ‘Mary Had a Baby’, her duet with Lanken on Jackson Browne’s left-wing atheist carol, ‘Rebel Jesus’, and Rufus’s ‘O Holy Night’, sung a capella and in French. I went in as a Rufus agnostic, but left as a fan. My affection for Martha Wainwright, you can take as a given. This was just about the perfect Christmas evening.
7. Rhiannon Giddens (Southbank Centre) – An extravagantly gifted performer, whose vocal texture, range, expression and timing is of the sort that most people can only dream about. This show saw her collaborating with Sicilian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, his self-deprecating patter and exceptional tambourine solos providing the perfect counterpoint to her spiky lectures on African-American experience and full-lunged outpourings of empathy and collective grief. The shade is balanced by the light. When you know what it’s about, ‘At the Purchaser’s Option’ is as gruelling as beautiful music can ever get, but her uproarious cover of Ethel Waters’ ‘Underneath Our Harlem Moon’, which reinstates the author’s original, unsanitised lyrics, is an uproarious, swinging showstopper, and the Celtic folk of ‘Molly Brannigan’ showcases the facility with a quickening vocal line that made me fall in love with her in the first place.
6. Johnny Marr (Southbank Centre) – I grew up as a huge Smiths fan (thanks Dad), but it had never really occurred to me that I might go to see Johnny Marr live. Then I heard him on the Adam Buxton podcast, asked for his book for Christmas, and ended up buying a ticket to his Meltdown show on the night itself. An encore of ‘Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me’ and ‘There Is a Light That Never Goes Out’ will do me, though I was surprised how much I liked his solo stuff – especially the obscenely catchy ‘Easy Money’. I think this show gave me more simple pleasure than any other this year. And Marr himself is so easy to like, which isn’t something one can necessarily say about all the members of the Morrissey-Marr songwriting partnership.
5. 33 Revolutions Per Minute (JW3) – This was such a magical night: an event inspired by Dorian Lynskey’s history of protest songs (which I wrote about here), featuring a gallery of gargantuan contemporary talents. Ayanna Witter-Johnson got the biggest ovation of the evening for her captivating ‘Redemption Song’ – accompanying herself on stand-up cello – but it was one of a string of highlights, from Kathryn Williams’ clear-throated cover of ‘American Tune’, to David Ford’s explosive takes on ‘John Walker’s Blues’ and the ‘Fixin’-to-Die Rag’, and a climactic, unexpected and thoroughly incongruous ‘Up the Junction’ from a very late Chris Difford. It was that kind of night. A few months later, I saw Williams hosting a Daylight Music show at Union Chapel, she and Ford doing a few numbers of their own, and spotlighting various protégés, including Phil Langran, whose ‘Time’s Dark Wing’ is simply one of the finest songs I’ve ever heard.
4. Richard Thompson: 70th birthday party (Royal Albert Hall) – A once-in-a-lifetime show, for those who incline towards folk, with virtually every existing luminary of the British scene coming to pay homage. It’s an embarrassment of riches, and an eclectic one, with guests typically doing one song of theirs and then one song of his. Surprises include Bob Mould’s chugging, punkish ‘Turning of the Tide’ (above), Thompson, his son Teddy and Maddy Prior duetting on a heightened ‘Grey Funnel Line’, and Loudon Wainwright’s ebullient ‘Swimming Song’, alongside more expected treats, like the birthday boy’s own ‘Beeswing’, delivered with a delicacy befitting its title. There’s also Kate Rusby returning to ‘Withered and Died’, half of Fairport Convention’s classic Liege & Lief line-up backing Olivia Chaney on ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’, and Harry Shearer alienating the half of the audience who clearly haven’t seen Spinal Tap with an in-character (and interminable), ‘She Puts the Bitch in Obituary’.
3. Bob Dylan; support: Neil Young, Laura Marling and Cat Power (Hyde Park) – At a time when seeing Bob had begun to feel more like a duty than a treat, he came roaring back. Full review here.
2. Big Thief (The Roundhouse) – In January, I saw Adrianne Lenker on-stage in a church (London’s Union Chapel), performing wistful acoustic folk ballads behind a thatch of fringe, murmuring awkwardly through the void in her teeth. Three months later, she’s had a buzzcut, got a replacement tooth and is just screaming, amid a maelstrom of noise in a beer-soaked Roundhouse. This has been a big year for Big Thief, the most exciting band on the planet, ending with two albums in most ‘best of’ lists, and this was their biggest show to date. They can do it all, and at the Roundhouse they did: the hush and whimsy of ‘Spud Infinity’, the apocalyptic squall of ‘Not’ (the year’s best song?), the pure release of ‘Masterpiece’. No-one is writing more interesting material than Lenker’s tortured, introspective, pastoral alt-folk, nor delivering it with such exquisite abandon. The band, though, are not merely a vehicle for one woman’s genius, there’s a chemistry there: the fleet-fingered flat-picking of crooked-grinned Buck Meek, James Krivchenia’s lolloping, long-armed beats, Max Oleartchik... playing the bass (look, I don’t know much about music). I saw them again at Bush Hall in October, premiering new record Two Hands, and it was another experience entirely: every bit as vital, the band still figuring out the songs, groping towards greatness and frequently finding it. Next year I’m going to follow them on tour.
1. Robyn (Alexandra Palace) – Total catharsis, Robyn-style: the sexiest, saddest songs in the pop canon, battered across with the ultimate in quicksilver charisma, clad in white knee-length boots. I’ve never seen a performer with greater stage presence, a firmer grasp of a show’s necessary theatricality, or better dance moves. During ‘Dancing on My Own’, a celebration of jealous, heartbroken melancholia that represents some kind of peak, 10,000 voices join hers, and Robyn bursts into tears. Then it’s a wall of noise – an outpouring of love, and gratitude, for the returning queen of chilly Swedish electro-pop, doing her first UK shows in nine years – that goes on and on and on.
Theatre of the year...
... is probably a stretch, as I only saw 10 plays, and there were definitely more than 10 plays out there. Because I'm extremely clever, I didn't end up seeing anything I didn't broadly enjoy, though my tolerance for the annoying affectations of musical theatre (as opposed to the most naturalistic and intimate musical film) seems to be shrinking. While Come From Away (Phoenix Theatre) built to a rather lovely climax, fashioning something largely feelgood out of 9/11, Dear Evan Hansen (Noel Coward Theatre) dealt with its own subject – teen suicide – in a less than humane, intelligent way, though it had some fine moments. Hansard (National Theatre) broke no new ground, and largely recycled its audience's own liberal prejudices, though it was highly entertaining and extremely well-acted by Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan. The Lehman Trilogy (Piccadilly Theatre) went the other way, struggling to get ahold of its themes across three theatrically inventive but rather exhausting hours.
These were my favourites:
6. Anna (National Theatre) – Ella Hickson, who wrote the best play of 2018, returned with this gimmicky thriller, which was about itself and not much else. The audience was complicit in the surveillance state of East Germany, strapping on headphones and hearing only what the heroine heard, as she tried to survive in an atmosphere of spiralling paranoia (and, if we're being very literal about it, in a soundproof box with the rest of the cast). After The Writer, it felt like a slight comedown, but it was neatly conceived and made the most of its quirk, with some neat twists and a couple of great jump scares.
5. Present Laughter (The Old Vic) – Simply Noel Coward done well, with Andrew Scott having the time of his life as a vain, selfish, philandering actor who's making his entourage's life hell in '30s London. It wasn't deep, but it was riotously funny.
4. All My Sons (The Old Vic) – Classy adaptation of the early Arthur Miller play, with – and please excuse the banality – one of the handsomest sets I've ever seen: a quietly idyllic back garden in a small American town. Jenna Coleman couldn't hold her own among a heavy-hitting cast, and Bill Pullman couldn't project to the cheap seats, but he, Sally Field and Colin Morgan captured Miller's anger and anguish – tragedy on an intimate but epic scale.
3. The Starry Messenger (Wyndham's Theatre) – Space, adultery and adult education: this was none-more-Lonergan, with an exceptional performance from Matthew Broderick as a frustrated science lecturer trapped by the quietly festering American Dream. How it can be that, and make me laugh as hard as it did, is some achievement. Elizabeth McGovern, also billed above the title, had little to do until the final act.
2. A Very Expensive Poison (The Old Vic) – Lucy Prebble returned with this freewheeling, meta-textual romp through the Litvinenko tragedy – where, as with Dylan's 'Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll', perhaps the greatest tragedy happened after the killing. The material positively swaggers, throwing everything into the mix, but the right everything, at the right time, and no-one I can think of, in any medium, writes better off-kilter one-liners. Reece Shearsmith is perfect as a supercilious, bombastic and seductive Putin, at one point hanging out of a box to tell everyone to go home, as the story is clearly over.
1. Rosmersholm (Duke of York's Theatre) – Ibsen at his bleakest and most pointed, as influential former cleric Rosmer (Tom Burke) strives to understand his relationship with free-spirited Rebecca (Hayley Atwell) – and reconcile his friendship with smooth-talking hatemonger Kroll (Giles Terera) – as an election approaches, and the vultures of the press circle. This electrifying, overpowering adaptation saw writer Duncan Macmillan tease out the parallels with our current national binfire, played out by a note-perfect cast amid the light shafts and dust motes of an ancestral home that boxes in its characters as vividly as their political and personal dilemmas.
Other live stuff/exhibitions:
My favourite comedy set of the year was Stewart Lee's new show: Snowflake/Tornado, a succession of inspired, airtight routines about liberalism, Alan Bennett, Netflix, Fleabag, anti-PC campaigners and 'saying the unsayable', the last of which consists of him gurning, spitting, sputtering and striving to make noises for literally ten minutes. This show might be the best thing he's ever done. It's certainly the hardest I've laughed this year. He is simply on a different level to almost any other political comic working today, and probably the second funniest person in his house.
James Acaster's Cold Lasagna Hate Myself 1999 was often brilliant, but genuinely required a better working knowledge of shit TV than I've got to hand. It was also great to see Bassem Youssef doing his first English-language show, and to watch Daniel Kitson confounding a good portion of his audience by pretending for quite some time that his set would consist of him reading out a cabinet's worth of index cards listing his possessions. It didn't. Discovery of the year was Sarah Keyworth, who somehow emerged triumphant from a showcase at Union Chapel also featuring Sara Pascoe, Rose Matafeo and Phil Wang (and Arthur Smith).
And at work I got to be involved with Letters Live, one of the best nights of the year (even when Rory Stewart resigned from the Tory Party on stage and I had to work until 1am). Louise Brealey, pictured, – who can pack so much emotion, so subtly, into any material – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and (much to my surprise) Alan Carr were the stand-out stars.
Across the road, Dr Matthew Sweet, Pamela Hutchinson and David Benedict probed the Warner Bros canon in a lovely Proms Plus talk, and at the BFI Malcolm McDowell provided some insights and lols that turned out to be rather well-rehearsed when I decided to venture onto YouTube in search of further #content.
My favourite exhibition of the year was also the smallest,
Thanks for reading. I'll chat about films a bit in the next (and final) part.