Suede – Wolverhampton Civic Hall 1/11/94

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A young family prevented me from swooping into the Britpop explosion. Early Oasis, Pulp, and Blur all came and went. But I did catch Suede, although perhaps just a couple of months after their high- water mark. The good news is that it was on the “Dog Man Star” tour in 1994. The bad news was that it was just after Bernard Butler had left.

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I liked their debut album, a bit rough, but with some great songs. But “Dog Man Star”, their second, was a different package altogether. It was ambitious, musically complex, sounded lush, but still with the energy, albeit refined, of the first album. It was Butler’s flawed masterpiece. He had walked out during its recording leaving songs incomplete, there were arguments over arrangements, production and song length- but somehow the results are glorious.

Live, Richard Oakes, then only seventeen years old was hired to play Butler’s guitar parts which he learned note for note. Incredibly, it worked.

The band could have folded, instead they, and in particular lead singer Brett Anderson, emerged defiant. Wiry, sinewy and sedulous, he combined flamboyance with an instinctive understanding of what a front man should be . Setting himself apart , and distinct, from the likes of Liam Gallagher, Jarvis Cocker and Damon Albarn.

The Wolverhampton Civic Hall is a great traditional rock venue with a large standing floor area, wide stage, and seated balcony. The acoustics are fabulous. It was an ideal showcase for the band with wiry frontman Brett Anderson prowling the stage, as fey as Marc Almond, as arty as David Bowie, with the moves and energy of Mick Jagger.

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The set was as good as it would ever get. The high energy “Animal Nitrate”, teenage crie de couer “So Young” combined with the epic sweep of “Stay Together” and “Asphalt World”. They played pretty much all of the “Dog Man Star” album, “Introducing the band/ We Are The Pigs” the obvious powerful opener.


After the second album they drifted away from the edgy, arty, energetic sound in favour of a more commercial, pop one. They became a pop band. Without Butler’s inspired song writing that was inevitable – most thought that Butler’s departure would be the end for the band. But it wasn’t, and “Coming Up” the third album had no Butler songs whatever, but did include the catchy, if lightweight “Trash”. Surprising many, including me, they have survived, endured and prospered through a combination of ability, hard work and determination.

That night it was obvious that the band were something special, but often in pop it is for a moment, when the stars collide, and then tastes move on. But also, there are times when you see a band live and you have caught them at a special moment. Musically, I suspect that a show with Butler would have been better, but that tour caught them at a crossroads, where defiance and determination triumphed over loss and introspection. What a night it was.

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If We Could Talk to the Animals

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Cannock Chase Trekking Centre Owner Lisa Gregory

I am fascinated by means of communication which transcend our known understanding. Plato spoke of Universal Knowledge. Scientists wrestle with epigenetics – the transfer of knowledge from one generation to another, physicists ponder quantum physics, are there multi-universes? Is everything happening at the same time simultaneously in parallel universes?

 
On a more mundane level there is animal communication between species, and across species. That it happens is a given, the diversity of how it happens little understood.
Beyond that there is communication between humans and animals. They seem to understand us, much better than we understand them.

 
Over twenty years ago I started to ride at the Cannock Chase Trekking centre, based in Brocton back then, but now at fabulous stables at Teddesley Coppice. I rode with my daughter Sarah, then aged nine. It was where she learned the joy of free riding rather than the drudge confines of a riding school. Lisa Gregory, the owner, made an immediate impression. Vivacious, intelligent and personable, she was also clearly an outstanding horsewoman. I have been able to ride to a high standard since childhood. She personally reignited by enthusiasm for riding out, prompting Sarah and I to ride as regular customers.

 
Sarah loved a pony called Banner . I was never bothered about how nominally good or bad, slow or fast, temperamental or placid my horse was. Instinctively, I could just communicate. I remember several occasions when awkward customers complained about the shortcomings of their mount so persistently that Lisa would swap mounts, giving the complainant hers, and taking the allegedly troublesome horse herself. Miraculously, the troublesome horse became the best horse on the ride, and her own mount played up the complainant something rotten!

 
I happened to catch the following contemporaneous blog from Lisa about a recent incident of communication between human , and horse. I share it with you verbatim, and if you want a magnificent ride out on Cannock Chase look no further than Lisa Gregory and the Cannock Chase Trekking Centre:

 

 

23rd October 2018/in CCHT News, Our Horses /
THE BOND OF FRIENDSHIP
“Despite spending all my life working with horses there are still moments that give me goose bumps and catch at my heart strings.

 
Often those are moments that leave me reflecting on the bond of friendship that exists between ourselves and these beautiful and sensitive animals that share our lives.
I experienced one of those moments recently here at Cannock Chase Trekking Centre. It might seem trivial to some but it was something that really left me amazed. I will tell you the little story and you can judge for yourselves.

 
As followers of our Facebook page know, I am currently training our new arrival, a beautiful Andalusian mare called Nymeria. She is quite sensitive and a little bit challenging so I often work her in the arena in the evening when it is quiet with fewer distractions.

 
I had worked her and then turned her out. The rest of the herd were long gone so, with Nymeria loose, I walked up the field to open the gate and let her through.
Unfortunately she spotted them through a gap in the trees and became fixated that she should go the wrong way. With no lead rope or head collar I was stuck and could not persuade her to follow me through the open gate.

 

She was getting a little agitated when I had an idea and approached my good friend Capulate, who was grazing in the next field. As my blog readers know from when I wrote about him, he was one of the most challenging horses I have ever trained. We spent many, many hours together and as a result we have a special friendship. I love him, he loves me, simple as that.

 
We had a little chat and a cuddle that evening and I explained my predicament. Then I did some of my natural horsemanship join up technique and he left his grazing to follow me into the other field where Nymeria was still fretting. I really had no clue what would happen next.

I watched in delight as Capulate went straight to her and stood with her for a few seconds. Then he turned, and with Nymeria following closely behind, he led her through the gate and escorted her to her friends before resuming his grazing.

 
I closed the gate behind them and stood in quiet amazement. I am left with more questions than answers. How did he know what I wanted him to do? How did he understand? How did he communicate with the mare?

 
All I do know is that he is my beloved friend. I had a problem and he fixed it. The rest must just be magic!”
http://www.cannockchasehorsetrekking.com/

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A Voyage for Madmen -Peter Nichols, book review

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I was at junior school when this competition was raced, the name Robin Knox Johnson has endured ever since. At the time, it was marketed as one of the last tests of human endurance, a billing was heightened by the space race, and the imminence of man landing on the moon. New frontiers were opening up. This is the story of nine men who took up the challenge to become the first men to circumnavigate the globe, single handed, without stopping or outside assistance.

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The victorious “Suhaili” in full sail

It is a story of stoicism, bravery, foolishness, vanity , incompetence and skulduggery. A story of mountainous seas, self doubt and determination, of flimsy boats and mighty oceans. All the ingredients of a great story. Yet although the narrative is Homerian in content, author Peter Nichols’ prose is not.

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The victorious Robin Knox Johnson

Nichols is an experienced seaman. Too often it feels as though we are poring through a ships lo when we should be feeling the salty spray on our faces, and the wind clawing at our frail human frames. He tells the story of each of the nine contestants, but with varying degrees of conviction. There are no first person interviews, just stories and supposition gathered together from contemporaneous accounts.

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The Tragic Donald Crowhurst and boat

The book draws to a close with Knox Johnson’s victory and Crowhurst’s apparent suicide. Both feel unsatisfactory. There is an old sales adage “ Don’t sell the sausage, sell the sizzle” and his accounts of both have the texture of a factual news report, not the breathless account of an eye witness. The most compelling story, that of Bernard Moitessier, who instead of claiming first prize, kept on sailing is frustratingly sketched. It is the ultimate vindication of the saying that it is better to travel than to arrive.

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Bernard Moitessier – the man who kept sailing

For anyone wanting to appraise themselves of the Golden Globe race, its protagonists and events, this book does the job well. Anyone who wants the spirit of the race, and why the men did it, will be disappointed.

Bernard Moitessier sailing his ketch rigged yacht 'Joshua'

“Joshua” Moitessier’s boat.

However the tale does bear telling. An era before satellite phones, GPS, ship mounted radar and reliable weather forecasts. When boats could be out of contact for months – but remerge from the vast oceans intact. When men were tested to their limits, and sometimes found wanting.

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Abigail’s Party – Derby Theatre

Abigail’s Party – Derby Theatre
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I saw “Abigail’s Party” when it appeared on television in 1977, the year it was written, some forty one years ago, watching as a teenager. It received generous reviews. I loved it. I also found it very uncomfortable watching. It shone a bright light on the world around me, one of aspiration amidst a crumbling economy. Played out on a single, period set, it is about five characters, and their place in North London suburbia. An exploration of manners, people, and their foibles.

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I was curious to see how well it had survived approaching half a century on. This revival is a co-production between Derby Theatre, Queens Theatre Hornchurch, Wiltshire Creative and Les Theatres de la Ville de Luxembourg.

Thankfully, Director Douglas Rintoul does not re-invent the setting, dialogue or conceit. The production depends upon its cast who rise to the challenge admirably. Beverly is the star turn, beautifully, and spikily, played by Melanie Gutteridge. Blonde, and sassy, dressed in a slinky halter neck print long evening dress, and fashionable again wedge heels, she is the pulse of the production, her brash pronouncements a wafer – thin veneer for her underlying vulnerability. Her extended solo presence at curtain up imposes her physicality on what is to follow.

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Lee Newby’s stage set perfectly captures the 1970’s as much as the detail of Mike Leigh’s script verbally remembers a bygone age of Mini’s and Bacardi and coke. Christopher Staines infuses Beverly’s husband Laurence with a touch of Leonard Rossiter, and a dash of John Cleese, as he balances Estate Agency, and a high maintenance wife with a low level intellect. Amy Downham has less luck than Melanie Gutteridge with the Wardrobe Department, sporting a garish, short dress, and mustard tights which Gok Wan would not approve of in the 21st Century. She does however have the most room to develop her character from a skittish ditsy airhead to a woman whom you can rely upon when it counts. Her husband Tony, played by a gloriously statuesque Liam Bergin, is all facial and body expressions, with lines so sparse they were surely learned over breakfast.

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The most interesting and problematic character is divorcee Susan, mother to the eponymous Abigail from whose house party she is escaping. Susie Emmett imbues her with a quiet desperation as events unfold before her. Is she watching on disdainfully? Or is she a victim too?

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Rights issues have caused the music to be altered from the original, but is nonetheless satisfying, and faithful to the era. The sounds of Demis Roussos conjure the slow dance, the Sex Pistols “God save the Queen” rumbles from fifteen years old Abi’s house party beckoning in a new musical hegemony.

At a hundred minutes running time, the play does not outstay its welcome and prospers as a revival, rather than a reinvention. It continues until 20th October, before completing its tour at Salisbury Playhouse and Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg.
Gary Longden

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Allan Jones – I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down. A book review.

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As a fifteen year old I did not anticipate that I would be reviewing professionally forty five years later. Newspaper journalism was tedious and dry, with the exception of Clive James. Popular music was both incredibly popular, and largely uncovered by the serious press. This offered an opportunity to those young men and women writing for the music weeklies, Melody Maker, New Musical Express and Sounds . That writing was off beat, irreverent and sometimes experimental. Amongst it, Allan Jones was the best.

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Allan Jones

The title is an Elvis Costello song title, and Elvis features quite frequently in this series of contemporaneous interviews and reports. There is not one album or live review, instead a series of encounters. He writes about people, the Police on tour in India, The Clash on tour in America, Neil Young in a plush London hotel suite, Bowie and Lou Reed falling out in a restaurant.

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Lou was not the easiest dinner companion

His skill is making you feel as though you were there. I read most of these pieces when they were written. As a teenager his writing connected me to these stars, for better or for worse. His judgement on the pomposity of Sting and the Police was prescient, his disdain for Black Sabbath irrational, although it is unclear whether his mockery caused his beating by Tony Iommi, or whether it was a result of it. I still recall a live review in which he compared Ozzy Osbourne’s vocal skills to that of a braying donkey, with the donkey finishing ahead.

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Ozzy Osbourne after reading Allan Jones’ latest live review

Music journalism as it evolved into the late 1970’s degenerated into narcissistic , nonsense, in much the same way as Prog Rock had a few years before. The Face and Smash Hits magazines would not have prospered otherwise. But Allan Jones, broadly, stayed the right side of the line. Opinionated and cock sure yes, but self -deprecating and self- effacing too, Crucially his writing made me laugh – it will make you laugh too.

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The Pistols signing for  a hippy record company – what could go wrong?

Always well written, it is a joy to read, and a nostalgic trip down memory lane for those who remember the 1970’s and early 80’s from which this material is culled. It captures a fin de siècle too, before MTV, before multi format packaging, when the record companies needed the artists almost as much as the artists needed the record companies. The panic at Virgin when they realised what they had signed, and the despair of their A&R department, as the Sex Pistols landed in all their filth and fury, is worth the cover price on its own.

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Jane McDonald – Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

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Jane McDonald has crept up on me. As for many, my first glimpse of her was on the original “Cruise” documentary. It was immediately apparent that she was a star turn, glamorous, saucy, with personality, and crucially a very good singing voice that was at ease with a variety of musical styles. She is no overnight sensation, with her cruise career predated by the hard slog of the club circuit. A grounding that defines what she is.

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This was my first live show, the last night of the 20th Celebration tour. Securing tickets very late in the day was not easy. Memorably my “contact” at Wolverhampton Grand had told me “ there is sold out, then there is Jane McDonald sold out “, but where there is a will, there is a way. I was expecting a slick, professional show, with bags of personality. That is exactly what she delivered.

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A full house, the last of the sold out tour, greeted her like a home coming queen, big hair, big dress, big voice, and she didn’t relax her grip throughout the two hour show. The material was eclectic, diverse and exceptionally well performed. The night took off with “Downtown” and musically hit its peak with a Bacharach/ David medley. Three gorgeous female back-up singers also strutted some pin sharp dance moves, and were perfect for the call and response requirements of Bacharach’s songs.

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Jane is a performer comfortable with her audience, she pauses the show to read out some birthday/ anniversary greetings, there is a bit of comedy, and plenty of banter with her fans. She is also smart, promoting the date of her 2019 Grand show, June 6th, to an audience who would probably all have signed up again that night. The Grand is a perfect venue for her. The acoustics are superb, the 1200 capacity large enough to provide her with a handsome payday, but intimate enough to retain a cabaret/ music hall character to her show.

 

 
What struck me was how much her band seemed to be enjoying the music and the performance and how skilled a performer she is. The vocals never faltered, the hand gestures flourished, her hips shimmied playing to all three levels of the auditorium. She is in the tradition of Petula Clark, Cilla Black, Shirley Bassey, Lulu and Kylie, borrowing a little from each one.
The first half closed with “You Are My World”, the second with “Never Enough”, then a 70’s style disco romped brought the curtain down on the night, and the tour.

 

 
Her own material is strong, but she has secured a place in an elite level of performers who can sing the material of others, yet claim an audience because they are singing that material, not because the audience have come to see a specific repertoire performed.

 

 
She was given a standing ovation on arrival, after many of the songs, at the end of the first half, at the end of the second half and had the entire theatre on its feet for the close shaking our groove thing, “Amazing Grace” thrilled the older of her older fans, Bob Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight” was the unexpected delight of the evening.

 

 
A faultless performance, great songs, a palpable connection with her audience in a fine venue was a fitting end to her tour. Catch her live when you can.

Gary Longden

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All Shook Up – Lichfield Garrick Theatre

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I was too young to appreciate Elvis in his pomp. Yet his music, and celebrity, is ubiquitous, and a little distance is no bad thing, providing context and time for balanced appreciation. When he burst onto the scene he was an enfant terrible, now his country and gospel roots make him seem decidedly mainstream. An integral part of the story of pop.

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A jukebox musical, “All Shook Up” was first performed in Chicago in December 2004, before transferring to Broadway the following year. It did not last the summer, and has been largely forgotten. But Sutton Coldfield Musical Theatre wisely reasoned that with the greater acceptance fourteen years later of the jukebox genre, an iconic popular star, a rich songbook, and plenty of rock n roll dancing, they should revive it.

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The story loosely draws upon “Twelfth Night”, but in truth the narrative is Much Ado About Nothing, apart from the music – which is what the audience have come to see and hear, and is where the show’s strength and power lies. It is like watching one of Elvis’s own movies, but live and in colour with glossy production values, and songs just bursting to be sung. There is a lot of music to cram in, an Elvis fan pleasing 30 musical numbers, including reprises.

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The links between the songs are that Chad stops by a small town to get his bike repaired. While there, he shakes up the dreary lives of the town’s citizens, reprising the theme of Synge’s “Playboy of the Western World”. Soon everybody is falling in love with someone who loves somebody else. But not so irrevocably that a song cannot come to the rescue, and all the couples naturally find happiness in time for the finale.

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A strength of the show is that this is not an Elvis showcase, with its success dependent upon an Elvis impersonator. Chad, the lead character, is a sexually-charged, leather-jacketed motorcyclist. But there the familiarity stops in a shrewd piece of casting by Director Elisa Millward. Adam Gregory has light, not slicked back black hair. He has plenty of verbal swagger, but much of it is comic, and he plays the part in a self-deprecating, self- effacing manner. Confident and assured, he allows others around him plenty of space to shine, performing the songs as himself, not in Elvis imitation. It works, much credit is due to Millward and himself for pulling it off.

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Opposite Chad, Lucy Surtees plays love interest Natalie/ Ed whose slender good looks have to be concealed until the final scene. She convinces as Ed, as well as Natalie, having to move from awkward tomboy, to awkward teenage boy, to bombshell beauty at the close, doing all with consummate skill.

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Two comic parts provide the evening with some essential levity, Tony Orbell delights as gawky, gangly nerdy Dennis, and sideman to Chad. Louise Grifferty has the most fun as the kill-joy Mayoress in a portrayal which wickedly mixes Miss Hannigan with Cruella de Ville, and ends with a liaison with her security which will have been familiar to anyone watching Jed Mercurio’s Bodyguard on BBC1.

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Sheila Pearson has done a tremendous job as Musical Director. It has been adapted for musical theatre, choral parts, and female leads, without neutering the spirit of the original arrangements. Her ten- piece band is so accomplished, Elvis himself would surely have engaged them, a four piece brass section combining with the wood stage to produce a gorgeous, rich, timbre.

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An advantage of amateur productions is the ability to produce large cast numbers at relatively little cost. Pearson draws out some powerful chorus work, while choreographer Maggie Jackson has a field day with Rock n Roll dances galore, plenty of flared skirts, and an unusually sharp front line, which sometimes was part of an all singing, all dancing, forty strong ensemble. The lead vocals are liberally shared with not a weak link in earshot.

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The score is commendably eclectic. Of course we hear “Jailhouse Rock,” which opens the show revealing an impressive jail set pleasingly realised by Production Manager Paul Lumsden and vibrantly lit by Steven Rainsford. “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Teddy Bear,” “It’s Now or Never,” “Love Me Tender,” “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” and “Burning Love” follow, but the song driven narrative requires some quirky selections to develop the story. Thus, we are also treated to lesser known material such as “Roustabout,” “Follow That Dream,” and “I Don’t Want To,” from the Girls! Girls! Girls! soundtrack.

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Acting demands are slight, if in doubt say it in a song, and they do. The set up for “It’s Now or Never” is so cheesy that every one of the audience could have had an omelette, yet it is done with such panache by the cast that it evokes a smile not a groan. By contrast, the fairground dance sequence is razor sharp, economical, and straight out of Grease, I could have sworn that Olivia Newton John was up there somewhere! However ” C’mon Everybody” is the night’s big production showstopper half way through the first half.

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The enthusiasm, vim and brio of cast and musicians swamp the auditorium, by the end the contagion is complete, with no chorus not sung along to, no foot not tapping, no hands not clapping along. Above all, it is great fun, a lavishly, brightly costumed, show which does great credit to all involved. “All Shook Up” was Elvis’ biggest chart record , inspired so it is claimed by a shaken up bottle of Pepsi. Glass bottles of Pepsi may be a throwback now, but the music lives on in this production, leaving cast, musicians and audience – all shook up. Runs until 22nd September.
Gary Longden

 

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