Friday, April 14, 2017

Never Stop

Danny Baker never stops. Over three hours onstage at the Royal Hippodrome Theatre in Eastbourne last weekend, with his Cradle to the Stage show, and he barely gets beyond his primary school years and a handful of reminiscences about great comedians he came across in the 80s. But then he has never stopped: nascent scribblings for Sniffin' Glue, a stint at the NME, yoof documentaries, prime time television shows, comedy writing, ground-breaking radio shows and, most recently, autobiography and its subsequent sitcom serialisation. Transferring the raw material from his autobiographies to a stand-up show was supposed to be his swansong before he retires to the Florida Keys but another tour is already booked for next year so that, despite his many digressions ("Now, here's a thing..."), he can at least get onto his adult life proper.

Once he actually starts his routine - we have a very engaging half-hour preamble about why he's actually doing the show - Baker tells warm and funny anecdotes about his dad, Spud, and family life in Bermondsey. These are extensions of the excellent Cradle to the Grave TV show and are all told with Danny's familiar amphetamine delivery: never missing a beat, never drawing a breath. There are great stories about kids and fireworks, insurance burglaries and his dad's general resourcefulness in always chasing the next pound note to provide for the family. It all paints a picture of life on a south-east London council estate in the 50s and 60s which stays just the right side of nostalgic. But when he mentions his mum's jobs at Shuttleworths and Peek Freans, I can't help but feel a little sentimental: my dad worked at Peek Freans when I was a kid and, such were the employee perks, that I was a teenager before I saw what an unbroken biscuit looked like.

After the interval, when he does move on to his career, he attributes his breaks to "dumb luck" - being in the right place at the right time and having perfect recall. Working on The 6 O'Clock Show, his forensic knowledge of obscure past routines enables him to make instant connections with irascible comedians Spike Milligan and Kenneth Williams when the pros around him are floundering. His love of comedy shines through: he talks about Max Miller albums as being more important to him than the contemporary pop music he and his friends were listening to growing up, and he seems genuinely in awe of the fact that he is on a stage where Miller once trod the boards.

He is a marvellous raconteur and, despite claiming to be out of his realm of experience, a natural performer. In fact, his avowal that he is new to the stage is not true: the first time I ever heard of Danny Baker was reading an account in the August 1977 Sniffin' Glue of him jumping up onstage at the Vortex the night Elvis Presley died to berate the punks, who had cheered the news, for being disrespectful to a true rebel. Hopefully, we'll hear that story on next year's tour; but I'm not holding my breath.

Cradle to the Stage is at the Theatre Royal, Brighton on 30th April.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Still Shining

I first heard of the Jesus and Mary Chain in early 1984 but I didn't know it at the time. At a party in London, a Scottish hairdresser called Alan, who had recently moved to the capital from his home town of East Kilbride, told me about two brothers he knew of who spent most of their time in their bedrooms listening to the Velvet Underground and writing and recording songs. They hardly ever went out as even the littlest kids on their estate would shout abuse at them because of their black clothes, backcombed hair and sunglasses in all weathers; but, Alan told me, they had formed a band and, because they struggled to get gigs, they were moving to London. "They're going to be fucking massive," Alan said. If he told me their band name it didn't register; but the other details did - they sounded so appealing. And within a few months, another Alan had stumbled across them and by the end of the year - on the back of a wave of feedback and riot-strewn gigs - I, and everyone, knew the name of Jim and William Reid's band.

It's been a long and winding road from that controversial genesis to their current tour, which took in the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill under a warm April sky on Thursday night: a now-classic debut album that stayed close to their early principles; a follow up with melodic Top 30 hits; success in the USA in the early 90s; sibling hatred and a final album recorded on separate continents before an inevitable split as the millennium approached. Then, a live reformation in 2007 followed by a decade of intermittent and sporadic activity before an unlikely new album release this March, 19 years after the last. Damage and Joy may have been a long time in the making, and the new songs rub shoulders with tracks from 10-year-old side projects, but it all hangs together to make a cracking album.

The set opener, Amputation, is one of Jim's older songs, previously released online under a different title, but it could easily pass for mid-period Mary Chain, a time well represented here with seven songs from the albums Automatic and Honey's Dead. Jim takes sole responsibility for vocals and apologises in advance for his singing on Some Candy Talking as he finds it difficult. There is no need, as his deep world-weary tone sounds perfect. A man next to me complains that the vocals are being drowned out by the guitars. They always were, I say; that's the point. William spends the whole set bent over his guitar, his frizzy mop back-lit Eraserhead-style. With an additional guitarist in the line-up, they create quite a racket; it's loud but not loud enough the same man complains; this time I agree with him.

There is nothing from Stoned and Dethroned or Munki but the songs from Darklands sound magnificent, especially the hyperbolic gloom of Nine Million Rainy Days which starts off the encores; but the encores are all about Psychocandy with a quartet of songs from their debut kicking off with the peerless Just Like Honey. And then we end up where we started with the new album: War On Peace finishes a stellar gig as Jim Reid opines, "I once shone but now I'm old." They might be older but they're still shining.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Great Grandaddy

Jason Lytle seems a little grumpy: the leader of Californian alt-rock band Grandaddy isn't making much eye contact and he dismisses the audience's early attempts to engage him between songs with a curt, "we've got to get to know each other first." And standing behind his keyboard, which acts as a barrier squarely set centre stage and front, you would be forgiven for sensing an air of detachment; at one point he squats down and, still playing his guitar, completely disappears from view for a couple of minutes.

No matter; the music was outstanding at Concorde 2 in Brighton last night: the band's sound was full and rich and the selection of songs stretched from their debut album, Under the Western Freeway, to this year's Last Place. But it was two of the albums in between - The Sophtware Slump and Sumday - that provided tracks greeted most ecstatically by the crowd. Openers Hewlett's Daughter and The Crystal Lake prompted instant singalongs and, after an interlude of new material, He's Simple, He's Dumb, He's The Pilot enthused those there for trademark Grandaddy songs of grandiose emotional sweep, and Now It's On had the crowd bouncing along to its anthemic chug.

The new album, their first since the band split in 2006 before reforming again in 2012 to play some live dates, picks up where the band left off. Some reviews have levelled this as a criticism but I think the new material is excellent. Four of the stand-out tracks - The Way We Won't, Evermore, I Don't Wanna Live Here Anymore and The Boat is in The Barn - were aired last night. The latter, a heartbreaking tale of lost love - "getting rid of all of me is what I figured, delete deleting everything that had occurred, that's when I backed away and headed out without a word" - was one of two encores and the other, reflecting the twenty-year spread of material, was 1997's Summer Here Kids.

With a back projection of slow-filmed natural and industrial landscapes rolling throughout the set, it was a visual as well as sonic treat. And as the set wore on and Lytle's mood improved, it was clear that problems off-stage had been the cause. Whether it was the early curfew - he bemoaned the fact that Concorde 2 turns into "some sort of disco fuckfest" when the band have finished - or that something had been "fucked up", was not clear; but whatever it was, he was keen to reassure us that we "had been great." As had they.