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Friday, 28 June 2013

Gigs - Lucinda Williams - Liverpool Philharmonic

Star rating - 9/10

You never quite know what to expect from a Lucinda Williams gig - but on this tour she is definitely 'Happy Lucinda', seemingly content in her own skin at the unbelievable age of 60, and thoroughly enjoying herself.  And this was gloriously reflected in her performance, along with Doug Pettibone on guitar, and David Sutton on bass, the Liverpool Philharmonic crowd were given a real treat.

The first part of the set consisted of some of her most fabulous acoustic songs, which she introduced in an open and entertaining way with little vignettes of information about them: Car Wheels On A Gravel Road - which she described as photographs of her childhood while travelling round the south with her parents; Greenville with its haunting pedal steel accompaniment; and Pineola - about a gifted young poet friend of her family who committed suicide.

She proved (as if she has to...) what a top class songwriter she is with a wonderful new song called When I Look at the World - written to remind herself to see the glass as half full. And of course the audience favourite Drunken Angel, which was actually written about one of her 'beautiful loser' friends Blaze Foley. He was a talented musician and larger than life Texas character who hung about with Townes Van Zandt. (And if you are not familiar with his songs, I urge you to check out the magnetically beautiful Clay Pigeons for starters.) Foley came to a sad end, hence the song, which Williams admitted could just as easily apply to Gram Parsons or to  Townes himself.

Then rocking Lucinda came out with an electric guitar section including a cover of the old Skip James Delta Blues song Hard Time Killing Floor Blues. Williams has never been afraid to confront her personal demons and dark experiences in song, and she also used her set to remind us that this song about hard times is just as relevant today with the current economic climate, as it was when it was written back in 1931. And she has just re-recorded a version of Joy for the West Memphis Three campaign. These are three Arkansas men who were convicted of murder and released after 18 years in prison, who are fighting to clear their names.  And Essence , her spellbindingly dark love song was just brilliant.

For her encore she played a couple of great songs that have been made famous by other people - Passionate Kisses, recorded by Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Over Time, by Willie Nelson. It was a good reminder of how high an esteem she is held in - she is pure song writing royalty. She also did a touching cover of Bruce Springsteen's Factory.

It was a real joy to see her happy and showcasing her remarkable back catalogue in such a positive and relaxed manner. And reminding us that she is still going strong with some new material. She thanked all her crew by name, but the real thanks go from us to Lucinda Williams, for her treasure trove of songs, and a wonderful live performance. I'm sure she will rock the stage at Glastonbury!

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Theatre - The Kite Runner - Liverpool Playhouse

Star rating - 10/10

It is always with a certain degree of trepidation that I approach an adaptation of a beloved book, either on film or stage. And Khaled Hosseini’s 2003 novel about the fate of two Afghan boys, and how it is linked to the wider fate of their country, is certainly up there in that category. Marc Forster's 2007 film version was for me something of a disappointment, unable to capture the magic and depth of the original.

So I didn't have particularly high hopes for the new stage version directed by Giles Croft, and wondered how he was going to span the years, and indeed continents, as well as capturing the tense and threatening political backdrop. But I think I can honestly say that I have never seen a more powerful, mesmerising tour de force on stage as The Kite Runner, now playing at Liverpool Playhouse after its Nottingham run. 

The set is fairly sparse but immediately the two boys, Amir and Hassan begin to play together, it is magically and absolutely transformed into a the garden of a wealthy Kabul household before the Russian invasion. And no matter that the actors playing the boys are actually adults, Ben Turner as Amir and Farshid Rokey as Hassan, are mesmerising from the start. Turner's performance is nothing short of spectacular, as he is also the narrator of the whole story, retelling the painful events from across miles and continents as his adult self in California. 

And yes, of course the novel is fantastic source material, but as has been shown by the film version, that alone is not enough to produce a great play. And make no mistake, this adaptation by Matthew Spangler is a truly great play. The whole cast are stellar, with Nicholas Karimi giving a terrifying personification of evil as the abuser and bully Assef. I don't want to spoil the story if you have not read it, but it deals with big issues of class, caste, oppression, guilt, and redemption. Educated and privileged Amir lets the devoted and illiterate Hazara son of his father's servant, Hassan, be brutally assaulted. He does nothing to help him, and indeed tells no-one afterwards - with terrible consequences. 

This personal tragedy is played out against a backdrop of political oppression, first by the Russian invaders, then by the Taliban, who seek to revolutionise the country in a quite different and fundamentalist way. This play is gripping from the start, very cleverly designed, and brilliantly directed. It deserves to have a West End transfer, it would certainly pack audiences out, as word of mouth about its spellbinding power surely spreads. I can't say I enjoyed it - that is entirely the wrong verb - but I came out of it entirely captivated and stunned. I can't praise it highly enough. 

Exhibitions - Chagall - Modern Master - Tate Liverpool

Star rating - 7/10

The major new exhibition at Tate Liverpool takes a look at the work of Marc Chagall, who combined influences from his Russian Jewish heritage, with the modernist style, to produce a distinctive body of work. This exhibition focuses specifically on the period before and after the First World War, when his experiences of Parisian culture, and the fervour of the Russian revolution,  were reflected in his paintings.

One of the most striking features of his work, like that of Matisse, is his use of bold, vibrant colours, for which Picasso was a great admirer. I and the Village, painted in 1911 and usually hanging in New York's Museum of Modern Art, is a spectacular example of this, with its interlocking dreamlike visions on a large canvass in vivid colours. And Paris through the Window from 1913, from the Guggenheim Museum, New York is another huge piece crowded with emblems of modern Paris which to Chagall represented artistic and personal freedom.

Following the outbreak of war Chagall returned to his native Russia, to his native town of Vitebsk, now part of Belarus, and his works from this period show the bleak and drab conditions, in stark contrast to the glamour of the French capital at the time. The Grey House from 1917 is a great example with its poverty and lack of any vibrancy. Over Vitebsk from 1922 shows a snowy scene with huge man floating above the village like a dark cloud. 

Cubism is a clear influence on Chagall's work, but he puts a different twist on it as he was 'seeking liberation' rather than the usual realism associated with the genre. Some of his paintings are also more naturalistic, like the lovely  The Strawberries from 1916, which shows his wife and daughter sitting at the table with bright crimson fruit and a matching coloured dress.

He also did a lot of work for the theatre, and one room shows some great vast, dreamy  murals he created for the State Jewish Chamber Theatre in Moscow, before he left Russia again in 1922.

Chagall continued as a prolific and celebrated artist up to his death as recently as 1985. So this exhibition is really just a small taster of his work, but within its limited confines of a short period of his artistic life, it is really very interesting, and his use of colour very bold and striking.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Films - The Stone Roses - Made of Stone - directed by Shane Meadows

Star rating - 8/10

This is not an objective documentary about The Stone Roses - it can't be, as director Shane Meadows is one of their biggest fans. It's more of a love letter from him to them, and therefore is more a celebration of their brilliance rather than an expose or an in depth analysis of them. They're not really that sort of band.

And as their first album is one of my all time favourites - with every track a classic - I'm a bit biased too. But this is a really delightful film about how the Manchester band they reformed last year, and treated still adoring fans to a free concert in Warrington. Some of the best bits are actually from fans desperate to see their idols, builders leaving jobs half finished, men who to this day have their hair modelled on Ian Brown's, and just manic, mad dashes to get their hands on a precious wristband to gain entry. 

There's great footage from the early days too. Only Ian Brown would have the audacity to make super 8 films of himself going about town on his scooter before he was even famous. He knew he would be, he was, and so the footage is priceless. My favourite part is an early interview with Brown and guitarist John Squire with a very stupid interviewer whose questions are so banal she could hardly have been surprised by their short impish answers. 

It covers the bust ups in passing, one of which happened during the making of this film, but does not really explore them in any detail. It climaxes with their triumphant home coming gigs at Heaton Park last year, of which the aerial night-time shots are fabulous.

The Stone Roses don't think they are the best band in the world, they know they are, and this film captures their swagger, audacity and arrogance brilliantly. And of course there are all those wonderful tunes....

Monday, 17 June 2013

Books - Pink Mist by Owen Sheers

Star rating - 9/10

There's something about the medium of poetry that brings the full horrors of war into sharp relief so well. The brilliant First World War poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, for example, are some of the most poignant and tragic verses I have ever read. 

And now Welsh novelist and poet Owen Sheers has chronicled modern warfare in Afghanistan in the same gut wrenchingly electric way in his new book of poems Pink Mist. But rather than separate poems, it is a book telling a tale in verse - the story of three young Bristol lads - friends who sign up by a mixture of accident and design. It is a very short book - around 80 pages - of the most honest and heartbreaking words you will ever read.

There are different reasons for Arthur, Hads and Taff enlisting - a poorly paid apprentice plumber's job; a hunger for some excitement; or just because the other two had. And the terrible outcomes for each of them are very different too. 

Taff sums up the horrifying phenomenon of being killed by someone from your own side in stark terms:
They used to call it 'friendly fire',
but not any more.
Too close to the bone.
So no, it's 'blue on blue' now.
That's the words they use,
to describe what happened that night.
Blue on blue.
Blue on blue.
Blue on blue.
However much I say them though,
they don't.

This is a stunningly well written and memorable book. It does not carry a blatant anti war message, but it does lead to much pause for thought about what we ask these young men and women to do in our name, what becomes of the ones who return, and the effect it all has on their loved ones. Highly recommended - even if you don't do poetry, I assure you, you will do this one.