Monday, October 29, 2018

Octocon Day 2

Octocon is the Irish national science fiction convention, which ran in the Blanchardstown Crowne Plaza hotel from 19 to 20 October this year. I have already written about what I encountered there on the Friday here.

Saturday morning saw me first of all working on the Octocon reception desk, where we dealt with registering convention attendees as they arrived. If you arrived at Octocon on Saturday morning then maybe mine was the friendly face that greeted you (or the surly jobsworth who couldn't find your reservation). I made friends with some pandas who had come to the convention to examine Octocon's Hugo trophy.

The morning also saw me make my debut as an Octocon panellist. As part of my efforts to promote the World Science Fiction Convention that is coming to Dublin next year I took part in a panel intended to drum up enthusiasm for volunteering at Worldcon. It turned out we were rather talking to the converted as almost everyone present was already volunteering for Worldcon, but this did allow us to gang up on the others. If anyone reading this is not a Worldcon volunteer then I encourage you to get involved, as volunteering is fun, a way of meeting people, a way of giving something back to science fiction and a way of seeing the inside of what will be the biggest science fiction event to ever come to Ireland.
More time on the reception desk and then my own interest in lunch meant that the next event I attended was the guest of honour interview by Octocon chair Janet O’Sullivan with Pat Cadigan, an American science fiction writer who now lives in England. I was not previously familiar with her work (which is more a reflection on me than on her as I am a slow reader and am unfamiliar with most writers). I found the interview fascinating, as any question would set Cadigan off on a stream of anecdote that would lead very far from the initial starting point. I particularly liked her favourable recollection of Robert Heinlein, someone who now is perhaps unfairly and simplistically pigeon-holed as a right-wing ultra, but whom she recalls as a very generous character. I was also touched by the particularly star-struck question from a member of the audience and Cadigan’s gracious response.

Cadigan also mentioned having previously attended some class of event called a relaxacon. I don't know what these are but I want to go to one.
As you know, this is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and with it the birth of science fiction. Octocon had an entire programming strand engaging with Frankenstein’s legacy and I now found myself attending a panel discussion on the Monster’s perspective. This got a bit “could it be that we are the real monster?” but I was struck by the discussion of consent issues (e.g. Frankenstein’s Monster badgering him to create a Lady Monster for him, taking for granted that she will want to be his mate). More general discussion of how a simple shift of perspective can make monsters appear like victims led to an interesting recollection by one panellist of a story they read once about people in the remote past fighting Trolls, where the reader realises that the Trolls are the last Neanderthals being hunted to extinction; it occurs to me now that another work of this kind is I Am Legend, the 1954 novel by Richard Matheson, where the book ends with the protagonist’s realisation that he is a monster to the vampiric new humans (I wish I had thought of this at the panel and established my remembering-things-about-books-I-have-read credentials by mentioning it). I was also reminded of various works in 2000 AD by Pat Mills, where his writing was very evocative of the non-human mindset of dinosaurs and other monstrous creatures.

Of the panellists' own works, Sarah Maria Griffin's take on Frankenstein, in which a brainy teenage girl attempts to build herself a boyfriend, sounds like it might have a Christmas present date with my niece.

The last programme item I made it to on the Saturday was the Vault of Horror. This is always a highlight of Octocon but it is also an event that is hard to describe in a way that does not make it sound a bit rubbish if you have never experienced it. The Vault sees John Vaughan playing snippets from a terrible film and drawing attention to the film's awfulness. He does this in a way that is actually funny rather than being some smug guy making fun of other people's attempts at making films. This year he reported that he has almost run out of terrible films but then he had found a terrible Gerard Butler vehicle called Geostorm with which to delight us. He also provided us with the sad news that due to a progressive illness he will not be in a position to continue serving up the Vault indefinitely into the future, but he will next year be bringing the Vault to Worldcon and presenting one of the most terrible of the films with which he has previously charmed Octocon. Are you coming to Worldcon? Then you will come to the Vault, you will.

I sadly ate so much food for dinner at this point (a recurring theme for me at Science Fiction conventions) that I was too disgustingly full to enjoy the Monsters Ball and left early, thinking that next year is definitely the one where I find some kind of easy cosplay outfit to wear.

Octocon day 3 report coming soon.

Putting the 'Irish' into An Irish Worldcon panellists image source (@jc_ie on Twitter)

See also:

Octocon website

Another view of Octocon Day 2, from blog name of Not Another Book Blogger.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Octocon Day 1

I recently attended Octocon, the exciting Irish national science fiction convention. Octocon is the other extreme to huge conventions like Worldcon, being an intimate affair taking place over a weekend rather than a five-day event involving thousands of attendees. If you have been to more than one Octocon you will recognise a lot of the attendees and panellists, with there being considerably more overlap between these two categories than might be the case elsewhere. The programme is multi-tracked but not massively multi-tracked. So Octocon is basically a boutique convention and would suit people who like neither crowds nor a surfeit of choice in the programming.

Due to unpleasantness Octocon this year has moved to the Crowne Plaza Hotel, just beside the Blanchardstown Shopping Centre. The location suits it as Blanchardstown Shopping Centre is itself a strangely artificial place, like something out of a JG Ballard novel; in the near future, we will all live in Blanchardstown Shopping Centre. The hotel meanwhile felt like a pretty swish spot, with well-appointed function rooms and a large open space that served as a light and airy dealers’ room. I don’t know what the two birds in the lobby made of the Octocon attendees but they probably see all sorts.

A cat issue meant that I was late out on the Friday and missed the opening ceremony. I did however catch The Trance Mission Diaries, which was a performance piece by O.R. Melling with electronic music by Cha Krka. This was something of a work in progress as the goal is for it ultimately to include considerably more advanced elements like holograms and singing as well as the projected visuals and electronic music accompanying Melling’s narration. I enjoyed it but found the narrative difficult to follow, which I think was as much down to my own tiredness and it being the first thing I encountered at the con. Nevertheless, the narration and music worked well together and I look forward to seeing how this work develops.

Following that I attended a film-related panel featuring John Vaughan and Robert JE Simpson comparing and contrasting the 1960s gothic horror films of Hammer with the contemporary oeuvre of Blumhouse. The contention was that the business model of the two companies is similar: spewing out somewhat trashy films made on relatively modest budgets but hoping for at least some mainstream success, perhaps throwing in an occasional more serious film to gather some critical respectability. I was at something of a disadvantage here being almost entirely unfamiliar with the works of Blumhouse, and the big unanswered question for me was whether that studio has developed any kind of consistent aesthetic in the way that Hammer did. I was also left reeling by the panellists’ anti-Hereditary comments, which did remind me of some reviews that suggested it was a horror film for people who are not true horror fans.
For me Friday ended with a panel on how we as fans deal with things we like that have changed, particularly when the change moves things on from what we liked about them in the first place. This kind of thing is sometimes framed negatively (i.e. discussions of butt-hurt racists saying that they will never watch a Star Wars film again now that an Asian actor has appeared in one or people moaning about the Doctor becoming female). However, I think that there are times when fans are right to abandon a property (while obviously being wrong to harass persons involved in its production); e.g. two of the three Star Wars prequels were completely terrible and anyone who saw them and decided that they were done with Star Wars was making a reasonable decision, while no true Trek fan should waste their time with the recent Star Trek films. Also, people do just grow out of things sometimes.

The changing canon panel also had me thinking about how much a thing has to change before it is no longer the same thing. The panel discussed whether the character of Iron Fist should have been portrayed by a white or Asian character in the recent adaptation of the comics (in which Iron Fist is white but playing a character that in our enlightened times might perhaps be more appropriately presented as Asian). I have no familiarity with Mr Iron Fist but I was reminded of the periodic discussion of whether James Bond could be played by a black or female actor; my own view on this matter is that in this case such changes would so far deviate from the core of the character as to essentially make it an entirely different one with the same name (though I must add that I do not give a shit about James Bond and his misogynist antics and would be happy for the character to be played by Leslie Jones, edgily re-imagined as an American ophthalmologist).

For me though the most fascinating thing that came out of the canon panel was C.E. Murphy mentioning the Kirk-Drift theory, this being the idea that the popular conception of original series Star Trek's Captain Kirk as an alpha male dipshit shagger is essentially a mass delusion. Further investigation brought me subsequently to Erin Horáková's development of this idea and its consequences in a piece she wrote for Strange Horizons, which I encourage all readers to investigate.

That was my Friday evening at Octocon… come back soon to see what I experienced on the Saturday. For another view of Friday at Octocon, see this post on the Not Another Book Blogger blog.

image sources:

Whose Canon Is It Anyway panel (@Frazerdennison on Twitter)

James T. Kirk (Wikipedia)

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

film: "Matangi/Maya/M.I.A." (2018)

This is a documentary about popular musical artist M.I.A., with the title being her real name, an abbreviation of her real name used by her family, and her stage name. She is something of a documentarist’s dream as before her musical career took off she was interested in pursuing a career in documentary filmmaking and was filming herself obsessively before this was something every young person was doing. She also appears to have grown up in a family that liked recording itself. So there is plenty of “before she was famous” footage and indeed lots of home video footage from after she became famous, such is her interest in self-documentation. The film uses all this footage to good effect, combining it with more standard musical artist footage to present a fairly conventional version of M.I.A.’s musical career and life, from fleeing Sri Lanka as a refugee (partly thanks to anti-Tamil riots, partly thanks to parents’ involvement in the shady Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), growing up in a London council estate, going to art school, becoming a musical sensation and then becoming mired in controversy.

The controversies are both interesting and at times surprisingly funny. M.I.A.’s sense of herself as a Tamil and a refugee seems very important to her and her work often references both a sense of Tamil oppression (and fighting back against that oppression), a more general struggle against oppression, and then the refugee experience. Her lyrical concerns touch on global issues, particularly with reference to the global South, rather than purely with the marginalised First World experience more commonly seen in hip-hop. Her breakthrough in the USA with her second album, Kala, unfortunately coincided with the brutal end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, when the Sri Lankan army crushed the Tamil Tigers but used such levels of indiscriminate violence that non-combatants were killed in enormous numbers. In interviews, videos and social media posts M.I.A. attempted to push back against this and bring the horrific levels of human rights abuses taking place to a wider audience. For this she became something of a hate figure to members of Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese community, both there and in the Sri Lankan diaspora, as they saw her as an apologist for the terrorist Tamil Tigers spreading calumnies about their country. I found that instructive with regard to the elusive nature of truth in civil conflict situations.

What seemed a bit more unsavoury was an interview and long profile piece the New York Times did with M.I.A., where she was dismissed as a faux radical playing with Third World revolutionary slogans from a position of First World privilege (the New York Times made much of the father of her child and then fiancé being the super-rich heir to some big fortune). That seemed unfair, as M.I.A. had been sticking her neck out attempting to raise awareness of the massacres taking place in Sri Lanka, which are actual terrible events and not some kind of yeah-man facile cause célèbre du jour. Yet I can almost see where the New York Times was coming from – although M.I.A. was the child of refugees, grew up in a South London council estate, and had people spitting in her face and killing her a Paki, her self assurance and media savvy make it easy to see her as being in some way inauthentic and mysteriously privileged. That may say more about the New York Times' prejudices, however, as it amounts to thinking that the offspring of real refugees can’t go to art school and are only authentic if they remain picturesquely poor and inarticulate.

Those controversies are downers, but more roffletastic was the one that ensued when she performed with Madonna in the interval of the Superbowl in 2012. At some point she gave the finger to the camera, which then turned into a monumentally big deal because America is full of uptight crazy people. The film presents a montage of television commentators talking about how outraged they are by this terrible occurrence, lending support to the idea that right wing Americans are all butt-hurt man-baby snowflakes (and also dipshits, particularly the guy who started moaning about how Madonna should have picked American musicians to perform with). At one point the NFL was demanding some $15,000,000 from M.I.A. in a lawsuit arising from the incident, later offering to settle for 100% of any further income earned by her should her lifetime earnings ever go over $2,000,000 (her then manager, Mr Jay Z, apparently advised her to accept this). The suit was subsequently settled on terms that have not been revealed but the whole episode was an astonishing exercise in people taking things way too seriously (something that I fear may be America’s national past-time).
My liking for the film is not however without reservation. While I salute M.I.A.’s attempts to raise awareness of human rights abuses perpetrated against Tamils in Sri Lanka, I found her uncritical support for the Tamil Tigers deeply troubling. The Tigers were an unsavoury bunch whose supposed struggle for Tamil rights led them to their own acts of indiscriminate violence against Sinhalese civilians and were led by a sinister figure who constructed a personality cult around himself. I think the film could have interrogated her beliefs in this regard. It should be possible to oppose the widespread large-scale massacres of Tamils that took place in Sri Lanka without falling into the trap of supporting terrorist violence against Sinhalese civilians: I do not think either justifies the other.

That is little more than a quibble, and I would still say to see this film, particularly if you can see it in a cinema. The music in it is great (obv.), not just the M.I.A. music but also some storming footage of Elastica that appears early on (in the Britpop era M.I.A. somehow fell in with Justine Frischmann and was at one stage shooting footage of Elastica for a possible documentary about them; in the film M.I.A. talks about how this was a miserable time for her as Frischmann’s bandmates all hated her). The other great thing about the film is that M.I.A. looks amazing, by which I do not just mean that she is rowr (of course she is, she’s M.I.A.) but that that she oozes charisma and is always wearing cool clothes. Her moves are great too and if you want big M.I.A. moves you need to see this on the big screen.

More M.I.A. action.

image sources:

M.I.A. (Irish Times review of film)

M.I.A.'s middle finger (The Globe and Mail)

Still from Born Free video (jenesaispop: El mensaje de M.I.A. en ‘Born Free’)

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

FILM: "Gimme Danger" (2016)

And now a review of a film from some time ago. Directed by Jim Jarmusch, this one deals with popular band The Stooges. It tells the story of their relatively short career through a combination of interviews and archival footage. Iggy Pop, their lead singer, proves to be a particularly engaging interviewee. The film takes an interesting approach, focussing more on the music than on the more colourful aspects of the band's behaviour (i.e. Mr Pop's tendency to pop out his lad on stage is barely mentioned, Ron Asheton's habit of wearing an SS uniform on stage is covered almost in passing and the band members' prodigious drøg habits receive scant attention). Some have criticised this, accusing the film of missing the point by adopting a reverential approach to the band. Perhaps so but the more garish aspects of The Stooges are so well known that focussing on them would have meant the film dwelled overly on material with which there is broad familiarity.

I suspect many readers know a lot more about the Stooges than I do, but I was surprised to learn that Mr Pop had a pre-Stooges musical career as a drummer, playing with various local blue bands and filling in onstage in other outfits. He says that one reason why he gave up drumming was that he got fed up of looking at singer's arses (though once said arse was that of Mary Weiss of the Shangri-Las, which he admits was not so bad). I was also struck by how his family background appeared to be relatively functional, while modest, and not the boo-hoo poor me broken home background of many other larger than life rock stars. Generally though his thoughtfulness and erudition was very striking, a world away from the cartoonish image he may have built for himself and acted out in his wilder years. He was also strikingly generous with regard to the contribution to the Stooges' success of the other band members and also other bands, notably the MC5, though he was dismissive of much of the music of the late 1960s, which he saw as bullshit attempts by The Man to co-opt youth culture and head off revolt (political and aesthetic), with Crosby, Stills and Nash particular offenders here.

Some odd features of the film were its decision to merely hint at some big issues in the Stooges history, such as the reshuffle on the third album that saw Ron Asheton moved to bass and James Williamson recruited to play guitar. Iggy Pop just describes this baldly as having happened with no explanation, though I understand from my colleague Mr W— that there were Issues behind this change. The film also hints without stating directly that said third album, Raw Power, is the duff one. I cannot judge this myself, not having heard it, but I think its being credited to Iggy and the Stooges rather than The Stooges is a warning sign, as its tendency to appear in new remastered and remixed editions every couple of years. [People have since claimed to me that actually Raw Power is the best Stooges album, but they would say that.]

I was also interested by the detail that it was the film Velvet Goldmine that provided the impetus for the reformation of the Stooges back whenever they reformed. Mike Watt put together a band to play Stooges songs in the film, which featured Ewan McGregor as an analogue of Iggy Pop, and this somehow morphed into a touring band for Iggy Pop with Mike Watt then encouraging the reformation of what was left of the original Stooges. Fascinating. That James Williamson (now a retired Silicon Valley executive) was recruited once more to replace Ron Asheton when the latter died was both an amusing and poignantly ironic twist of fate.

The other thing I learned about the Stooge more from people talking about the film than the film itself is that ladies love Iggy Pop. I mean, I had always had the idea that he had more muffs than I've had hot dinners (and I've had a lot of hot dinners) but I reckoned that was in the general sense that music performers often find that their musical prowess opens romantic doors. But no, it seems that women really like Iggy Pop, with it apparently being quite common for ladies to dress up when going to see this film in the cinema, on the basis that you need to look your best for Iggy. God bless him.

image source (Guardian: Gimme Danger review – Jim Jarmusch plugs into Iggy Pop's raw power)

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Worldcon comes to Dublin

Next year the World Science Fiction Convention is coming to Dublin. This is the first time Worldcon has taken place in Ireland, which makes this an exciting event. But what is this Worldcon? Well, Worldcon is a science fiction convention that takes place in a different city each year. The first Worldcon was in New York in 1939, taking its name from the World Fair of that year. After taking a few years off for the Second World War it has been running continuously since 1946. Worldcon moved outside the United States for the first time in 1948, when it took place in Toronto, and made its first trip away from North America in 1957 when the first London Worldcon took place.

The first Worldcon saw just 200 science fiction fans meet at the Caravan Hall in New York. Since then the event has expanded enormously. The 2017 Worldcon in Helsinki had an attendance of just under 6,000 while the 2016 Worldcon in Kansas City had some 4,600 people attending. There will most likely be numbers of that magnitude attending Worldcon next year in the Dublin Convention Centre.

The scale of a Worldcon can be stunning to a first time attendee and Dublin 2019 will be no different. There will be thousands of science fiction fans attending, loads and loads of authors and hundreds of multi-tracked programme items. Worldcon attendees will have a vast range of events to choose from, including panel discussions (which I think of as the real meat of the convention though others may disagree), film screenings, author interviews, readings & signings, presentations by academics (brainy people saying brainy things about science fiction and fantasy), art shows and so on. There will be dealers selling books and other items and places for attendees to eat, drink and hang out. Some people will be dressed up as their favourite characters and the Masquerade event will see the most spectacular costumes compete against each other.

A key event at any Worldcon is the Hugo Awards ceremony. The Hugos, named after early science fiction editor and publisher Hugo Gernsback, are voted by Worldcon members and are the most prestigious prizes in science fiction (do not listen to disgruntled winners of other awards who have yet to receive a Hugo). In Dublin, awards will be given for works published in 2018, which will include categories for novels, short novels, short stories, films, artworks, and other things, with both professional and fan works being honoured. The Dublin Worldcon is also taking up the option of awarding Hugos for items published in 1943, to make up for there being no Hugo Awards in 1944. If like me you are not great at keeping up with contemporary science fiction you might find you have read more of the works nominated for these Retro Hugos.

Unlike some other conventions, Worldcon has no Mr Big behind it raking in the $$$$s. Worldcon is fan-run, with a chair and organising committee that changes each year. People who attend buy membership rather than an admission ticket. In fact, apart from the guests of honour, everyone at Worldcon has bought their own membership. George R.R. Martin attends every Worldcon and is probably the biggest author of science fiction and fantasy in the world right now, but he pays more to attend than a first-time Worldcon attendee.

At time of writing, Worldcon membership is €110 for a first time attendee. That sounds like a lot, but for that you are in for the full five days of the convention and get to attend everything at it – there are no hidden extra charges. That will also get you the Hugo Awards voter packet (digital copies of all or most of the nominated works, depending on generosity of the rights holders), whose value can be considerable. It is possible to pay by instalments and there a fund to support people who would like to attend but are unable to afford to do so.

Worldcon membership is due to go up in September, so buy now at the lower rate while you can. However I understand that the price increase will be only incremental, so if you do not get round to buying membership until next week do not think that it will have increased drastically to a completely unaffordable level.

More information on the Dublin Worldcon can be found here, with it being possible to join this important event here. If you are still curious as to what goes on at a Worldcon then I have a sadly incomplete series of posts about the 2017 Helsinki Worldcon here.

I hope you decide to join us. If you have any interest in science fiction you will not want to miss this.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

[film] "The Young Karl Marx" (2017)

This 2017 film tells the tale of German philosopher Karl Marx and his development of a materialist theory of history based on a synthesis of Hegelian ideas and the theories of various English and Scottish political economists. This year sees the 200th anniversary of Marx's birth, which has led to a certain revival of interest in his writings and those of his collaborator, Friedrich Engels. Drawing on this increased interest in the work of Marx and Engels, this film (directed by Raoul Peck) shows them meeting and becoming friends before developing their theories, ending with the publication of the first of their better known works. While philosophers are often seen as having their heads in the clouds and being divorced from everyday reality, the film shows how Marx and Engels developed their ideas through close observation of the struggles of the lower orders of society and their own involvement in radical politics.

The opening scene illustrates a key episode in the development of Marx's ideas. Some poor folk are shown gathering wood in a forest, before a load of uniformed bailiffs come and smash their heads in with sticks. In the early 19th century in Germany the rule of codified law was replacing customary rights that had built up over time. Progressive opinion generally saw this as a good thing, akin to the suppression of superstition and the embrace of rationalism. The issue of the wood gatherers ran counter to that; these people had previously enjoyed a customary right to gather fallen wood from privately owned forests and they earned their living by selling this as firewood. But now the men of property who held title to the forests had arranged for the passing of a law that gave them exclusive rights to the forests, annulling previous customary rights. As Marx outlines in a voiceover (quoting from an article on the subject he wrote for the Rheinische Zeitung), access to political power allows the naked self-interest of the forest owners to triumph over the rights previously enjoyed by the wood gatherers. Progress aids not all mankind but the already rich and powerful.

However the film is not all philosophical theorising or people having their heads smashed in by lackeys of the rich. There are also plenty of roffles, not least through the blooming bromance between Marx and Engels (played by August Diehl and Stefan Konarske respectively), which sees their respective wife and ladyfriend very much relegated to second place as the two of them get up to the kind of pranks and japes that only materialist philosophers can manage. The Mythos Hoedown scenes where every 19th century revolutionary ever get together to party are funny if you are into that kind of thing. Likewise the scene where the staff of the Rheinische Zeitung argue about obscure points of principle as the cops are bursting down the doors will strike a chord with anyone who has ever dipped their toe into the waters of far left politics. I was amused by the French language joke about one of the first brainy books Marx and Engels write together while the film also mentions that old canard about an early draft of The Communist Manifesto beginning with a reference to a Bogeyman stalking Europe.

I should mention too that it the film is not a complete sausagefest either. Jenny Marx (Karl's aristocratic but radical wife, played by Vicky Krieps) gets a look-in but the real female star is Hannah Steele playing Mary Burns, Engels' lover and his entry-point into the world of the working class in Manchester.

Enjoyable as the film was, for me it ended on a sad note. We see Marx taking over the League of the Just, a radical organisation, transforming it into the Communist League. He and Engels write The Communist Manifesto and it comes rolling off the printing presses…. and then there is this strange montage sequence of images from their time to our own, set to Bob Dylan's 'Like A Rolling Stone', with the images meant to convey a sense of Marx's influence and lasting relevance after all these years. For me though they were like a cavalcade of disappointment. Marxism had its run and it failed as a principle for organising societies: Marx and Engels were great at critiquing the emerging industrial capitalism but Marxists never developed a working idea of how a better society could be organised (or if they did they kept this idea to themselves and did not bother to apply it in any of the countries that Marxists found themselves ruling). Far from establishing the continued relevance of Marxism, for me the montage more solidly rooted the ideas of Marx and Engels in the past.

image source:

Vicky Krieps as Jenny Marx, August von Diehl as Karl Marx, Stefan Konarske as Friedrich Engels (The New York Times - In 'The Young Karl Marx,' a Scruffy Specter Haunts Europe)

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Live: Shirley Collins in St. Michan's

Shirley Collins was playing as part of Tradfest, just as Dónal Lunny & Andy Irvine had been. And she was also playing in a church, but this time the church was St Michan's, located quite close to Panda Mansions. This is the church with mummified crusaders in its crypt: in the not too distant past one could apparently shake the mummy's hand while taking part in a tour, though I have not seen this done myself.

My beloved and I arrived down early to avoid any sitting at the back unpleasantness, which meant we had to mill around in the cramped foyer before they let us in. We were able to nab a seat pretty near the front but the relatively small size of the church and its width would I think have meant that most attendees would have a decent enough view of the performance, although I did hear from a friend that the flat floor caused them problems when they found themselves sitting behind a tall person.

The concert started with two blokes onstage playing bluegrass tunes on fiddle and guitar before being joined by Shirley Collins and the rest of her band, who appear pretty much to be the people who played on recent album Lodestar. The songs were mostly from that record too, a mix of sad English tunes about bad things happening to people and somewhat chirpier tunes, often from the Appalachians (that chirpy mountainous place). Collins introduced some of the songs with anecdotes about their origin or where she first heard them, though much of the chat was handled by Pip Barnes, who otherwise played guitar and assisted on backing vocals; I thought perhaps be because Collins, being old, wanted to rest her voice.

It was a quite magical concert, the unshowy talent of the musicians going well with Collins' voice. I was intrigued by her version of Child Ballad 286 (the one about the cabin boy who sinks an enemy ship after being promised a great reward but is then betrayed by his captain), as it does not appear on Lodestar and is separately one of the highlights of the Lankum album Between Earth and Sky (where it appears as 'The Turkish Reveille'). 'Death and the Lady' is also striking, this being a new version of the song Collins performed first many many years ago, with Ian Kearey's arrangements and guitar part being most impressive. Kearey is the musical director of the touring group and the producer of Lodestar. Bizarrely he appears to be a former member of both the Oyster Band and the Blue Aeroplanes… small world.

Her 'Cruel Lincoln' was a version of the 'Long Lankin' tale of brutal murder and revenge. While sometimes presented in a manner that leaves unclear why Lincoln/Lankin/Lankum bears such an animus towards the Lord's family, Collins presents him as a stone mason irked at not having been paid for his building work; if so his slaughter of the Lord's wife and infant child seems like a disproportionate response. It also made his almost supernatural powers a bit harder to explain away (though not the ease with which he is finally brought to justice).

At the end they finished with a song called 'Sorrows Away' (also known as 'Thousands or More') and invited people to join in with the chorus. And it was one I had learned at my first Unthanks singing weekend! Score. I was able to do an approximation of harmonies and everything.

Then we went for post concert drink in a pub that we heard would not be full on a Saturday night. And indeed it was not - partly because they had a guy playing a guitar and singing, whose music was being amplified through the whole pub at ear-splitting volume. "One last song!" called out Dennis, a wag, but the fellow insisted on delighting us long after we had been more than satisfied by his efforts. As a tolerant soul, I considered him to be not the worst thing I have ever heard in a pub but I could have done without his music being blasted out from speakers at us despite our sitting as far away from him as possible and in a different part of the bar. I think audible as background music would have suited his efforts far more than how it was served up.

image sources:

Mummies in St. Michan's vault (Smithfield Square)

Lodestar (Discogs)

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Live music: Maighread & Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill / Andy Irvine & Dónal Lunny

"Well that was fucking awful," was a harsh verdict I heard applied to this concert. Harsh but fair? I will let you be the judge. The concert took place as part of Tradfest, an annual festival of trad-like music that takes place in a various venues in Dublin. This saucy foursome were playing in St. Patrick's Cathedral, the olde cathedral in Dublin that is not Christchurch. It is actually a terrible venue for large-scale gigs and I fear this may have contributed to a certain dissatisfaction with the performance. The venue has the fundamental church problem of having a flat rather than a banked floor, meaning that you do not have to be very far back to start finding the stage hard to see. The problem is exacerbated by St. Patrick's being long and thin, so nearly everyone is back behind the cheeky line. From a purely subjective point of view, it did not help that that the venue boasts unreserved seating and that although we arrived down just as doors were due to open we still ended up sitting right at the back in the "probably shouldn't have bothered" section.

What of the performance? It began with the two Ní Dhomhnaill sisters, who come from Donegal. They do vocal stuff together while one of them plays on the piano. The piano and the perhaps over-deliberate singing style made this a bit too reminiscent of a recital rather than something from the world of traditional music, though if you know what you are getting yourself in for that it is not necessarily a bad thing. I was struck though by the strange sexual politics of some of the songs (something not uncommon in the lyrics of traditional music). One warned women against the dangers of slighting young men who express admiration, lest the man refuse the woman's advances should she subsequently fall in love with him. Another described a worrying encounter between a beautiful child on her way to school and a mysterious stranger who seemed to be intent on luring her away to a terrible end. Although the song has a happy ending (the stranger is revealed as the Devil himself, who then spontanaeously combusts), the endlessly repeated line about the beauty of the child disturbed me somewhat.

Dónal Lunny joined the Ní Dhomhnaills for a song and then as the sisters left Andy Irvine took the stage. As you know, Irvine and Lunny have been musical collaborators since their time together in Planxty. Their setlist was like a redux version of what you get at an Andy Irvine concert, focussing in particular on Planxty tunes but also delving into tunes from his solo career, including such favourites as 'A Close Shave' (the one about the miner who is swindled out of his gold and his clothes by a mysterious golden-haired lady of easy virtue) and his song about hanging out with other musicians in O'Donoghues in the early 1960s (the one featuring the shocking revelation that so-called true Dub Ronnie Drew is actually from Dún Laoighaire). I enjoyed the musical interplay between the two of them and their roffley chit chat, though I was thinking continuously how much more I would be enjoying it if I was not sitting a long way away from them at the back of a church. Irene pointed out that all the political songs seemed to have been excised from the set, with 'Never Tire of the Road' (Irvine's celebration of Woody Guthrie, which features Guthrie's own chorus of "All of you fascists bound to lose") being a particularly odd omission, given our troubled times and the fact that Irvine played it in the same venue a few years ago at a gig by the reformed Sweeney's Men.

Being at the back meant that we were able to get out quickly and make our way back home with despatch (which might just mean that we missed an unexpected encore of 'Never Tire of the Road', where we were greeted by a wet cat who regretted her decision to spend the evening out having adventures.

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Belle & Sebastian, live in Iveagh Gardens 20/7/2017

In times past I was big into the band Belle & Sebastian, regularly travelling off to exotic places (like Aberdeen) to see them play in concert. Then my engagement with the band fell away as their records started to interest me less and the Bowlie Forum around which my B&S fandom was based was shut down. With bands one has loved a lot sometimes it becomes the case that any falling off of affection leads to a weird kind of retrospective dislike where you forget that you ever liked them that much in the first place. So it was somewhat with B&S, whereby they seemed to disappear from my life and consciousness. So much so that when a Belle & Sebastian concert was advertised here in Dublin I was in two minds as to whether I would go to it or not. In the end I went for old time's sake, concerned about the cost and the fact that this was an open-air concert in a country that is famously unsuited for open air concerts and featuring a band who some might say have left their best days behind them.

By the date of the concert however a programme of B&S re-listening had hyped me up for the event. Sadly it had not engendered any spirit of organisation and I made no arrangements for prior meetings with those people I knew would be attending and plodded along on my own (after first running home from work to feed the cat (name of Billy Edwards), scoffing some speedily consumable food myself and then running back into town again).

It was odd going to the concert on my own. Aside from the fact that I have never previously seen B&S without my beloved (away in Georgia doing her singing), B&S concerts before had tended to be group affairs, either with gangs of Sini-Bowlies or Dublin B&S friends. This time though I was standing on my own, which was interesting in its own way. The crowd had a lot of people from what I think of as the age cohort of people who have been into B&S from way back but also there were younger people too, so they must be acquiring new fans. Maybe they will forever speak to disaffected but sensitive young folk.

And the concert was great, magical even. The old songs are as beautiful as ever. The ones from after I got off the B&S bus are pleasant enough in the live context. Several of the latter received strong reactions from the younger folk in the audience, suggesting that not everyone sees B&S as a heritage act. The interplay between Stevie and Stuart onstage is as entertaining as ever.

Stuart appeared to be the only one of the band who does not noticeably look a good bit older since the last time I saw them, presumably thanks to his habit of bathing in the blood of saucy teenage virgins. He and the others seemed wryly at ease with their not-as-good-as-they-used-to-be status, feigning surprise when people responded well to recent material and suggesting that as they were about to play a new song the bar staff would now be swamped.

One usually great thing about B&S was the way when playing live they would bring people up from the audience to dance onstage for a few songs. Previously that led to amusing spectacles like the time as Glastonbury when some bemused bloke found himself dancing onstage to some band he had plainly never heard of while waiting for the Prodigy to come on. This time the dancers all knew what they were there for and included a reasonable mix of genders (some had suggested that in the past young ladies were much more likely to be summoned to the stage). They were all from the younger end of the age spectrum. I particularly liked the young lady who was living the indie dream by dancing away while wearing an anorak.

Afterwards I did meet some B&S friends and repaired to nearby Devitt's for a shandy. Rash promises were made to re-investigate the post-slide albums by B&S. Overall though I was glad I came out, realising that I would have been very sad if I had not. B&S may not be the best band in the world and they may not even be the one I like the most but there is no other band that has ever meant as much to me, both directly through their music and indirectly through the friendships I have made thanks to them. With regard to the latter point I was struck by how although I did not know the people around me at the concert, they all looked like simulacra of my B&S friends from the past. I was also thinking of the B&S friends who are no longer with us, notably Liz Daplyn, Amy Longcore and Jan Jansen. Godspeed.

Belle & Sebastian are playing again later this month. They say you should not chase the buzz, but I will be there.
Stage invasion

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Lal and Mike Waterson "Bright Phoebus" (1971)

After deriving great enjoyment from blasting out the title track at the recent Unthanks weekend, I resolved to look for this record, finding it in Coda, the folkie record shop in Edinburgh. Together with their sister Norma, the Watersons were big players in the 1960s folk revival, mostly known for unaccompanied singing of traditional tunes. Bright Phoebus however is different, being newly composed songs performed with instrumentation, sometimes very sparse and sometimes more lush. It is an odd beast and I can see why it might have disconcerted folk purists when it came out. Some of the songs sound very much like extrapolations of the folk canon, notably 'The Scarecrow' and 'Fine Horseman', but others go in very different directions. The album opens with the jaunty 'Rubber Band', in which Mike and others sings about their being the fictional Rubber Band, making this the folk equivalent of the opener to Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (a record released by the Beatles); this jaunty tune sounds very far removed from the world of silver tankards and people singing shanties with fingers in their ear. Likewise 'Magical Man', 'Shady Lady' (reverse engineered country) and the title track. 'Bright Phoebus' starts off with just guitar and Mike's voice, but then more voices and instruments come in, with both arrangements and composition leading this away from the uncontaminated stream of pure folk music. Going back to Beatles analogies, the track could the Watersons' 'Hey Jude' (analogy does not work if you dislike 'Hey Jude').

Anyway, this is a great record, with the juxtaposition of the folkie numbers and the brash uptempo tracks giving the album an exciting feeling of expectations being shattered. Long out of print it is great to see it recently re-issued by Domino, now basking in the reputation of a lost classic. Sadly Lal and Mike Waterson are no longer alive to see their record attract a new generation of admirers.

image sources:

Bright Phoebus (Discogs)

Lal and Mike Waterson (Guardian: Bright Phoebus review)