Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Glasgow Ordeal I - The Genesis Convention

I attended my fourth Genesis convention this weekend. Genesis conventions aren't like Doctor Who conventions, much. You might get the occasional early drummer, or solo project musician hanging around to sign albums or draw the raffle, and there'll be a token pretence of video programming and a quiz, but they're really more like indoor music festivals, with no real passion being evoked or displayed until the tribute bands take to the stage in the evening.

Despite a ticket that boasted "doors at noon" or something, I showed up late afternoon on Saturday, to the Renfrew Ferry, a floating nightclub on the Clyde that hosts gigs, and sells beer. And chips. I had ample time to say hello to a couple of friends and also make evil eyes at people who have annoyed me in the past by behaving like arseholes at gigs, or abusing the English language on their execrable vanity websites.

I'd gone early to make sure I didn't miss Doug Melbourne and Tony Patterson who used to hold the keyboard and vocals spots in the UK's first Genesis tribute, Regenesis, who I first saw in 1994. Their current party piece is to perform a half hour of Peter Gabriel solo material and they did so very well, announcing a CD they'd just realeased of slightly more plugged in versions, which I picked up after emptying my turn ups of small change.

Then I read Christopher Brookmyre's "A Tale Etched In Blood and Hard Black Pencil", for about an hour, until the first band proper of the evening, G2 came on. I've only ever seen them at conventions, this being the third time, and they've been consistently good, focussing on sounding like late-seventies Genesis, which featured Phil Collins singing songs Peter Gabriel had originally performed. The choice of material, delivery, and techincal presentation were all excellent, and my mood survived the realisation that there was quite a low turn out (the venue was emptier than when Genesis tribute bands had played individually) leaving a large Golden Circle in front of the stage, where the organisers and their mates could do their thing.

"Their thing" entails intense periods of connection with the performers, alternating with wandering off to get more beer, talking loudly about how much you love the music you're interrupting, and standing with your arms around the person next to you. When memorable stanzas are sung from the stage, you turn to the person next to you and hold you arms out, palms upwards while mouthing the words as if to ritually endorse their eternal veracity.

G2 were tremendous. I actually found myself musing that if this were the only band I saw this weekend, I'd be quite satisfied. Which was just as well really.

Next up were Face Value, whose niche is the post-1978 three-man Genesis' repertoire. They have the most technically demanding job on the Genesis trinute circuit, as the music is dependent on electronics, and they rely on sequenced parts, having only one guitar player. Their front man does a Stars In Their Eyes-perfect Phil Collins, and on a good night, I've heard they're very slick. Unfortunately, I've never seen them on a good night. The first time, in 2002, they were plagued with terrible sound. Oh, and with not having rehearsed enough. "Tonight Tonight Tonight" made the Tay Bridge disaster look like leaves on the line, the first time I saw them. The second time, they attempted to deliver "No Son Of Mine" despite their drummer's click track being inaudible to him, so that the snares were just as deadly as to the song as any are to wild game. I had to take my leave of the room as "Land of Confusion" threatened to live up to its name, and returned as "Throwing It All Away" did exactly what it said on the tin, thanks to a sequenced bass part that didn't.

Third time lucky, I thought. They were bound to have it nailed by now. So it was a pity that they were taking an excruciating time to set up, and a final revised estimate of their time on stage was given as 10:30. I would have to leave at 11:00 for my last train back from Glasgow to Edinburgh, but I hung around just to hear their first half hour, or at least extract some gratuitous pleasure from any recurrence of their convention curse.

At 10:40, the "American Beauty" soundtrack that Genesis have been using this year as walk-on music started up, and I began to hope that they'd kick off with this years opening medley, which I was sure they could do justice to. Sure enough, the drummer counted in at the right tempo for "Behind the Lines" to cue the trademark wall of sound, at which point there was an undignified "phut" and all the power to the stage blew. I quietly doubled up in laughter. No one else seemed to. They hadn't let me down - a third convention appearance and a third technical disaster. After watching cable-wallahs scurry for five minutes, as the band drifted off stage, I made my excuses and left.

Arriving later, the following day, having enjoyed Doug and Tony's CD, and electing to be the one person present not wearing a Genesis T-shirt, I was in time to watch some of the real Genesis's recent concerts on video. This gave me the opportunity to earwig on two punters making friends nearby. The telling exchange was "What album did you lose interest at?". I love this. Younger bands fans ask each other how early they discovered the music, but with Genesis, the sign of respect is how early you judged their output to have declined beyond worth. They went on to concur that the tribute bands were giving the real thing a run for their money. Later events that day would, I feel, contradict this.

I'd been looking forward to seeing The Carpet Crawlers open the evening, and was quite happy to expect to miss much of the headliners In The Cage, because I'd never seen the former, and unfortunately had seen the latter. To describe In The Cage as patchy would be generous. It's an acceptable description of mobile phone coverage in the Outer Hebrides, but not of the heat shield on a reententering space shuttle. Or indeed of a band who've been going for eight years now and really ought to be much better. Worse, G2 had bagged the headline slot.

On they came, with the first of many songs that G2 had played 24 hours before, and furthermore played far better. After a false start, the opening chords of "Watcher of the Skies" rasped out from the genuine antique Mellotron (Why? WHY?), and singer Trevor ambled on in a shabby Peter Gabriel costume and half-arsed greasepaint, before singing with a voice he hadn't warmed up, which inflections that indicate he can listen and sing, but not necessarily at the same time. Everything about In The Cage is rough about the edges. The individual musicians know their parts most of the time, but not all, with their neophyte Mike Rutherford being the worst offender. Their instruments bolt from their control too often, as guitar parts die off where they should sing, and the pantechnicon-filling vintage keyboard rig reedily struggles to be heard when newer sample racks and a week or so's programming would nail it. The mix is arbitrary, with emphasis placed on counterpoints and harmonies, overpowering root notes and melodies. They limped through a set which blatently repeated over half of G2's from Saturday. It was like seeing a tribute band's own tribute band, a ropey analogue second-generation copy.

And the singer was wearing odd socks.

I must admit, that despite being smug to the point of insult about the quality of my life improving now I'm off the sauce, seeing In The Cage is one of those experiences that was far far better when full of cider. They are in every sense a pub band, embodying the "That's nearly there. It'll do - they'll all be pissed" approach to quality. Has no one had the courage to tell them to prepare more?

Announcements from the stage about the arrival time of G2 were optimistic, and as I realised I wasn't even going to see their opening number, so I blew away home. I was glad I'd gone to support the event, but I really wished I could have seen G2 again.

If I was still a boozer, and had been staying overnight in Glasgow, it would have been a great weekend. As someone who's now definitely there for just the music, and who likes an early night with a cup of cocoa and a good book, it was a bit of a trial.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Of Cows and Cathedrals

There was a time when I would attempt to take an entire week off work to take in as much of the Edinburgh Festival fringe as possible. It was hard: comedy stops being so funny when you're panicking about being too drunk, not drunk enough, whether you'll need the loo before the end of the show. So, aside from a few evening comedy shows on school nights, we attempted to pack in as much as possible into a sunny Wednesday, yesterday. We had a pre-booked rendezvous with king of the fringe Stewart Lee that evening, and an empty canvas beforehand. A bit of perusing, browsing and booking filled in the day with four other appointments, and we were off.

First, to the Edinburgh University's Bedlam Theatre to see Shakespeare Bingo: A Comedy of Errors. It was an abridged version of reputedly the Bard's worst play, with tea, cake and bingo cards handed out to the audience. You crossed off each square as a staple of Shakespearean comedy came up, the first to shout "Bingo!" receiving an unspecified prize. It was full of witty, anachronistic asides, and very enjoyable. Oh, yes, and the genders were reversed, so the predominantly male dramatis personae, were portrayed by lovely young women. Bingo, indeed.
As if that weren't enough, we were adjacent to a hugely fat man on the front row. We were in velvet-covered tip-up seating, and just after the play finished, his seat could support his mass no more, and he noisily fell to the floor as it collapsed. He wasn't the most entertaining audience member though: they were a family of three from the midlands, Mum, Dad and pre-teen son, all proudly bedecked in Spamalot T-shirts and baseball caps, and boasting Adrian Chiles accents. I have never seen a less affected or cool group of people, and salute their ability to enjoy themselves, which they did, noisily, thanking the front of house staff. Bostin.

A gorgeous walk through the sunshine past the back of the castle took us to St Mary's Cathedral for a free lunchtime concert by Guy Newbury (Piano) and Danae Eleni Pallikaropoulos (Soprano). Out of the sun, in the stone cool of the cathedral, their mixed programme of classical and romantic pieces, plus an ambitious modern suite by the pianist was a fantastic contrast to the bustle of the streets. Terrific.

Time for a quick lunch at another fringe venue, and on to the Assembly Rooms, for some theatre, a one-man adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's book Private Peaceful, a first person account of being an under-age volunteer in the Great War. Alexander Campbell gave I think the very best stage acting performance I have ever seen, delivering his intense addresses straight into my eyes. It was an unsentimental but moving picture of the injustice of war, and is, as Morpurgo's pedigree hints, actually suitable for children.

A quick stroll up the mound, now, for some street theatre, specifically a New Zealand circus performer called James, who held a big crowd with all the usual stunts you would expect from a man who can juggle burning clubs atop a 20 foot unicycle. Great stuff. This is where all the day-trippers from Glasgow seemed to congregate. It would enforce the worst kind of social prejudices were I to observe that many watching appeared to be wearing white sportswear, Burberry headgear, ostentatious sovereign signet rings, and facial scars, while consuming off-license alcohol and smoking. Street theatre is now the only part of the fringe where smoking is legal, booze is cheap, and entertainment is free. Long may it reign.

Back to the Assembly for another one-man play, American Mark Soper in his own play, An Age of Angels, which concerns an incident at a high school in LA, depicted through the independent testimony of ten different participants. I thought it was great, despite the first two personae being extreme and challenging (a tall man in his fifties playing a prepubescent schoolgirl is all a bit Anthony Perkins), so I was disappointed at the handful of walkouts. He deserved to be heard.

Next stop, the Udderbelly (a vast purple inflatable cow). We chose (stupidly) to take the bus and were accosted at the stop by an elderly gent who looked like he may have been a retired Lance Corporal, and had seen better days. He had certainly seen the bottom of a few tumblers of whisky, and since quite early in the day, I surmised from his bearing. His bearing down upon me, as it happened. He was very chatty, and with Hackney Carriage diplomacy swung his barely coherent conversation to the sticky topic of immigration in under a minute. Our intense relief as our bus hove into view was tempered by the discovery that it was Lance Corporal Johnny Walker's bus as well. Guessing the stairs would prove a bridge too far, we took the upper deck, and passed the journey listening to him lambaste all and sundry. Terrifyingly, he disembarked at our stop, yelling a few final insults at the driver, and we scuttled to the venue.

It was now seven in the evening, and the comedy crowd here was a completely different beast to the meek theatregoers we had shared the day with. Beer monsters, London Types, pretty girls, and a smattering of people, whom I assumed were dressed in deliberate tribute to Nick Frost in Spaced, Nick Burns in Nathan Barley, or Noel Fielding in real life, with their DJ headphones, unnecessary shades, and retro sports bags slung diagonally over their lanky frames. Or maybe they were just all phenomenal twats. A quick drink, and into the cow for an hour of Stewart Lee, who has refined his act to perfection. There is no waste or slack in this most confident of performers, who is deservedly loved.

Outside afterwards, who should I see, but the Lance-Corporal, inquiring of a Pretty Girl whether she had been to see anything. "Stewart Lee", she mumbled back, and I would have died on the spot a happy man if he'd responded "That Heathen!" but he just staggered off leaving her to relate the encounter to her boyfriend.

An annoying fake Italian meal later (table in a draught, tiny portions, Madonna playing, framed 10X8s of Sinatra, De Niro, and Pacino, and untippable service) we were on our way home. I'd hoped that the Lance Corporal or the beaming brummies might be on the bus, but they weren't. I cuddled up next to Helen with a promising read (Mother Tongue by Jon Helmer), looking forward to yoga the following morning.

Another day as close to perfect as I can imagine.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Phantom Ponytail - A Call For Commonsense

There are some image choices which cause my usual all-inclusive liberalism to crumble. Goths, for example, always make me snigger. Moustaches, on anyone other than a publican or cattle handler inspire my suspicion. Above all, men with ponytails earn reflexive contempt. I encounter them regularly in my counterculture life - both Unix administrators and sci-fi bookshop staff celebrate the ability to appear Sikh-like in their abomination of the barber's blade, yet affected enough to want to shackle their manes, as though they were trunks of fibre-optical cabling.

In the work environment, ponytails are found in the same sartorial forest of Keep Clear signs as comedy socks, novelty ties, and other borderline adherences to dress code (clue: when your empoyer asks you to wear a shirt and tie to work, he probably didn't mean a black shirt, or a bow tie, even if you're a professional conjurer).

Ponytails betray a lack of work/leisure hygiene: they belong to monomaniacal weekend hippies, who want you to ask them about themselves over the coffee machine.

I have today identified a still more risible phenomenon: The phantom ponytail, or hair stump.

This belongs to a male office worker who has been patiently growing his hair in the belief he will soon look exactly like Robert Plant, and as soon as it is possible, gathers it at the back in a borrowed scrunchie, or more likely an elastic band. There is so little hair that rather than hanging down around the nape of the neck, the resulting stump protrudes horizontally, diametrically opposite the wearer's nose. No barbering has been involved, and so there are loose ends flying out all over the place.

Although now appearing to have recently had a while-you-wait facelift, the owner now believes he looks like a woodsman, or some kind of fantasy knight.

Ponder this: In all the male models sporting archetypcal men's hairstyles from the Tony Curtis to the latest David Beckham you have ever seen in a stylist's window, have you ever seen one sporting a ponytail? No. It's the look that money can't buy and which has therefore been forced underground, where desperate men actually perform this misguided procedure upon themselves, often botching it with hideous consequences.

August Headlines

I'm still alive: thanks for all your concern. No, really. It's the thought that counts.

Work: Still on lengthy project at major client in Edinburgh. Late nights and weekend working temporarily in abeyance.

Home: Harmony reigns, as school summer holidays mean Miss is more relazed than in recent memory. Halls and stairways recently painted and recarpeted. Thus, no foreign holiday this summer.

Travel: Numerous long weekends in caravans on both coasts. We're finding these very relaxing indeed.

Gigs: Gabriel and Genesis both sublime. Latter felt more like a lap of honour than a resumption of business as usual. A dignified encore.

Writing: Heaved a sigh of relief as final Doctor Who television reviews and latest short story were submitted. The reviews seem to have been receieved well both by publishers and readers, and my services have been retained into the new administration.

Health and fitness: Took my first full week of work and succumbed to a heavy cold in early August. I feel wonderful afterwards and am now training towards the Glasgow half marathon early next month. Three pronged approach - speed, gradient, and impact.

Fringe: Kicked off on Sunday night with Janey Godley. She is astonishing. Lee, Herring, Nichol and Hegley to come. At the book festival Germaine Greer and Jon Ronson will provide some intellectual fibre.

Books: I've resolved to read at least one work of fiction (novel or collection) each week. I've been enjoying Rupert Thomson, Christopher Brookmyre, Robert Goddard, Colin Bateman, and Justin Richards (who he?) recently.

Music: The usual suspects. Need I enumerate? Obviously not.

Family: Enjoyed civilized visits to parents, sister and family, and civilized visits from numerous in-laws. I have a new niece on the way. Parenthood is quite awesome to contemplate. Avuncular duties are, sometimes quite literally, a walk in the park.