Thursday, 11 November 2010

Electric Gig by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

I had the absolute joy of experiencing an Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark concert on Sunday (7 November 2010) at the Hammersmith Apollo in London, something the 16-year-old me would have killed for in 1982 in the States when MTV first brought these amazing ‘new’ artists to my attention. I struggled to the concert on a Sunday (ie The Day of Sleeping Transport) excited but feeling that I should not announce with pride who I was going to see lest I be set upon by a set of youths, as somehow some people think OMD is no longer fashionable.

Frankly, they’re wrong. Look at the charts and playlists today and you’ll see that they’re full of acts influenced by, if not practically imitating, the sound of OMD. To paraphrase what Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys said in an interview, if everyone else was going to be imitating the OMD sound, then OMD might as well be making that sound, too. This was not just one of the many reformed 80s bands (not that I’m complaining) out on a greatest hits tour, either. OMD have a new album out, and it has been received well by critics as well as fans, with most saying it sounds just like the OMD of yore but fresh. Which surely, in the circumstances, is exactly what you want.

I have that album but, like the other dozens I have bought over the past few months, have not had time to sit and listen to it, so I raced through samples of it quickly before running for the train/replacement bus service to make the concert. And it does contain some wonderful OMD material. In fact, the first single, History of Modern Part I, is delightfully catchy synth pop with a wonderfully memorable keyboards riff. The next single, Sister Mary Says, was spoiled for me on first listen by the new video, as it reminded me too much of the stress of the everyday English news (bring back Joan of Arc riding Clydesdales into the winter night after playing chess with OMD in a beautifully warm cottage, I say), but without that is another good pop tune, which some feel nods towards their early hit Enola Gay.

These new songs were greeted with just as much relish by the Hammersmith Apollo crowd as some of the slightly lesser known old tunes at the concert on Sunday, which caused amazing bassist Andy McCluskey to remark upon it, saying to Paul that something worrying was happening in that it was a London crowd and they even liked the new tunes, so it was safe for Paul to come out and sing his first song of the night, (Forever) Live and Die. Indeed, the generally more blasé and harder to please stiff London crowd rose to its feet the second the four early members of OMD took to the stage, and they remained there until after the encore, roaring and cheering, clapping to the beat without much encouragement, and adoring the people on stage.

I’ve never seen Andy McCluskey in person before so I don’t know how he tends to walk down the street, but no doubt it was this madly adoring mob before him that turned him into the astonishingly energetic, incessantly bouncing Tigger of a bassist that he was, bursting with a beam of glowing snow white teeth that joined his white shirt to portray some surely deceptively angelic vision before us. My friend and I, at 44, were constantly commenting on where a man of 51 could possibly find that much energy, but it was breathtakingly joyful. He raced about the stage, sometimes playing bass, sometimes waving his empty arms about histrionically, always interacting closely with the audience, and regularly shaking hands or whacking the many extended ‘high fives’ that were desperate for his attention. Obviously a heartthrob, he had to call the roadies out to clear away the lingerie that fans had flung onto the stage so that he could dance safely, after Humphreys suggested that we must be hinting that they should open a lingerie shop, assuming and hoping that the donated underwear was new and unused.

McCluskey joked about forgetting loads of lyrics during the performance, which didn’t show, and thanked us for sticking with the band despite loads of technical problems in the first part, which weren’t remotely noticeable other than his mention that he could not hear his voice through his earpiece, which just makes it more remarkable that that beautifully familiar, painfully emotional voice could emerge so perfectly. The light show was fine, the films behind them were enjoyable literal depictions of the songs (such as clips of silent film star Louise Brooks during Pandora’s Box, images of Vietnam during Bunker Soldiers and World War II planes for Enola Gay, thankfully instead of showing the result of their handicraft).

The show kicked off with an impressively high-tech feel intro with two Blade Runner-like hologram heads appearing above us and singing to the great techno music being played as the band snuck onto the dark stage below. There were some additional recorded sound snippets played into some songs, which I normally would frown upon as I believe that live should mean live, but they consisted simply of such things as the ‘No, no, no!’ from the beginning of Tesla Girls, which is effectively part of the percussive beat, and when you’re dealing with synths, it’s okay to play these things as notes on the keyboard. Similarly, it was okay to leave the synth switched on and playing for us even after the band had left the stage before the encore. The real vocals were always fresh and outstandingly impressive, notably so on the chorus of (Forever) Live and Die, on which Humphreys sang the lead vocals while bassist McCluskey took the controls of his synth, but joined in on harmonies in the chorus to show that the two former teen friends’ voices blended mellifluously. I mention that example as I had assumed it required quite a bit of electronic treatment to accomplish the sound on the record, but no, their singing just really sounds that great.

Throughout the show, Paul Humphreys presented the calm, friendly figure one would expect, but oddly the pair rarely acknowledged behind them the presence of still life artist and multi-instrumentalist Martin Simpson, who usually sat concentrating on his keyboards but occasionally blasted a sax, and drummer Malcolm Holmes, whose hairy appearance would look more at home with a Free revival than this oft stylish band that came out with cropped hair and ties. I confess that, in the early days, I thought the band comprised just Humphreys and McCluskey on synth, which means I must have assumed the synth was sufficiently magical to produce such realistic bass, sax and drum sounds. It was marvellous to have the full band before us.

But this was just meant to be a quick note before presenting the set list to those of you who are interested in such things; instead, I’ve accidentally added a bit of my usual stream of consciousness mental meandering. A full review of the concert, or my play-by-play account of everything that happened, will shortly appear on my website . I’ll include more photographs there, although I have few since we were back in Row U, the lights were often dark, I never used a flash, and Andy in particular was, like some wildlife, too wriggly for me to capture without a flash and tripod, particularly through the constantly up-stretched, waving arms of the oddly dancing girl in front of me.

I believe the clearly crowd-pleasing set was as set out below, but as I decipher my scribble when writing up the full review on my website, I may well discover something I’ve missed…..

Setlist – Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark at the Hammersmith Apollo on 7 November 2010

1. New Babies/New Toys
2. Messages
3. Tesla Girls
4. Bunker Soldiers
5. History of Modern Part I
6. (Forever) Live and Die
7. She’s Leaving
8. Souvenir
9. Joan of Arc
10. (Joan of Arc) Maid of Orleans
11. New Holy Ground
12. Green
13. Talking Loud and Clear
14. So in Love
15. Locomotion
16. Sister Mary Says
17. Pandora’s Box
18. Sailing on the Seven Seas
19. Enola Gay
20. Walking on the Milky Way
21. Electricity

I could only have been more thrilled by the energetic experience if they’d played two other songs I adore: Telegraph and Was It Something I Said? (I particularly love McCluskey’s hurt, embittered growl on the line in the latter ‘Don’t you even have me on your mind!). But their omission genuinely did not affect the show being the most ecstatic and electric experience I’d enjoyed for ages, and I have strong, and I hope realistic, hopes that there will be a next time.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Neil Finn at the Jazz Cafe - Setlist (24 October 2010)

I intend to write a full review of tonight's Neil Finn concert at the Jazz Cafe and post it to my About Last Night website, but for now, I thought I would post here the email to other Finn fans that I composed on my phone on the way home. I'll clarify and/or correct anything in the morning!

Well, as I missed my train by two minutes as I was foolishly yet understandably too weak to leave the Jazz Cafe while Neil Finn was singing Don't Dream It's Over, I might as well post the set list as I sit in this darkened station until midnight when I might execute a Plan B (or Z) for getting home. Add to that general worry the painful knowledge that I might as well have stayed in the Camden club rather than rush out and possibly miss another song. If he sang more, please tell me in a really convincing way that it was awful. [I understand now I missed nothing else.]

Off the top of my head:-

-Highlights: Neil joined on stage first by son & birthday boy (21!) Elroy, then Johnny Marr. And of course Neil's singing and rapport with the audience. And he was thankfully 'tache-less.

--Low points: standing for over three hours before Neil even appeared, as the same 10 photos of Q award nominees flashed on the screens in front of us over and over and over to insipid music, which makes me never want to see Q magazine again. Though we must perhaps appreciate them as Neil did say that he was in London was not just to celebrate Elroy's birthday and to play this (Q-organised) gig, but to attend the Q awards tomorrow, where apparently he's up for an award, or a catalogue of his and/or his brother's work is, though Tim wasn't with him.....we shall see.

The songs Neil played:-

1. Only Talking Sense (Neil on electric guitar for the next few songs)

2. I Got You (fantastic, but then everything was)

3. Driving Me Mad

4. Private Universe, (which then morphed into:-)

5. Black & White Boy (with some high-pitched Revolution-style screaming at one point)

6. Faster Than Light (on grand piano now)

7. Tired Eyes (That's a total guess at the title; Neil said it was one of the first songs he wrote, aged 15, after getting high & seriously drunk for the first time and listening to Vaughan Williams on a theme of Thomas Tallis; I could hear the influence of the former, not the latter. It was lovely, contemplative). This followed a chat about how he'd always thought brother Tim was awesome and had encouraged young Neil, though Tim recently revealed in an interview it had been a psychological scheme to dominate him

8. Message to My Girl (to constant sound of loud glass clinking etc from the bar, which prompted Neil, when he finished, to ask the staff if they needed a hand with the glasses as they were making a meal of it, so they quietened a bit at last)

9. Into the Sunset (marvellous)

10. Wherever You Are

11.Last Day of June (requested by audience members then and earlier. How many stunning ballads have Finns brought into this world?!) During this song, a girl up front fainted and I thought many others would follow, but she got up shortly afterwards and I hope was okay. Neil was singing with his eyes closed at the far edge of the stage on the piano so wasn't aware.

12. Rocket Man (kinda. One possibly confused man shouted for it repeatedly, even after Neil pointed out later that he'd obliged with half the song, despite needing us to feed him the lyrics. Neil later said he played Elton John when he [Neil] was younger as he [Elton] did write some good tunes, and said Elton had sent loads of Dom Perignon to Crowded House's first LA gig after Don't Dream It's Over became a big hit). Later requests came for Bowie's Heroes, which Neil said might be an idea for a future gig, and Stairway To Heaven (which caught Neil out as he said 'Which one?' scrutinising his set list for that tune).

13. Try Whistling This (he was going to do something else I didn't catch--sounded like 'Call to My God!"--'til this was requested)

14. Gentle Hum (audience knew their part and hummed the chorus beautifully)

15. Silent House (son Elroy on acoustic guitar and harmonies, Neil back on electric guitar--after we sang happy birthday to Elroy, and Neil said he had hours of home movies of Elroy as a babe that he could show us. Neil also said he and wife Sharon used to turn his baby monitor on & off quickly to make a tune from Elroy's screaming, which he might release one day...I'll skip the talk of 'seeding Lady Gaga').

16.Anytime (still with Elroy)

17. Sinner (after which Elroy left to be replaced by Johnny Marr!)

18. Distant Sun (Neil on small acoustic guitar, Johnny on electric with the---chorus?--accidentally switched on the guitar so he later joked they should do it again. The audience was shouting along with this as though it was the biggest hit ever)

19. There Is A Light That Never Goes Out (only Neil singing--apart from audience. Grand!)

20. She Will Have Her Way

Johnny Marr left after both launched some extreme (deserved) praise about each other's genius.

Neil then pointed out the tricky logistics in leaving before an encore at the Jazz Cafe (stairs, platforms, long walks still visible to the audience...) so just stayed. He said he'd considered lying down instead.

21.Something So Strong (with a slightly different arrangement and slow, sweet, thoughtful tempo and delivery to the chorus [like part of Last Day in June], which he said was this song's original form, though he indulged the audience at the end with the chorus they love to shout along to)

22. Fall at Your Feet

23. One Step Ahead (bliss!)

24.Don't Dream It's Over ('that Susan Boyle song' someone kidded when requesting it')

....& then sadly some of us fled as it was past 11pm on a Sunday night, and public transport is usually off to bed about then. I'll elaborate on the above and correct things once I decipher my scribbled notes on my list, and will put the review and some more awful photos on my website shortly. But that's the set at least, and everything was outstanding (it just would have been boring if I wrote that after every song) and the audience was great (and patient!)

Many thanks to Patrick for the ticket; they were hard to get.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Travelling Town Crier

Sometimes, when Spring comes around, I feel a bit self-conscious and exposed once I’ve shed my winter coat. It seems to take a bit of adjustment in travelling to and from work, including the long walk to the station, the train journey into town, and then the walk to the office, in whatever outfit I’m wearing without the comfort of the cover of my coat.

And I don’t wear particularly remarkable outfits. They’re probably quite business-like and dull. It’s just a feeling I get.

But what if your daily work outfit was rather extraordinary, the type of thing that turns heads, and there was nowhere for you to change, so you just had to travel in that get-up? What if, for instance, you were the Town Crier? Perfectly respectable, certainly delightful in the right situation, but you might seem like a bit of a surprise in, say, a rail station.

That was the sight that startled me the other day at London Bridge Station as I tried to take the steps from the Charing Cross train platform to the Cannon Street platform in a single bound. At the top of one flight of stairs, I was dazzled by the unexpected site of a man standing there in an awful lot of bright red and gold, white stockings, pilgrim shoes and a big white feathery hat. The only thing he was missing was his bell, and he wasn’t calling out ‘Oyez, oyez!’ He was standing there silently, scrutinising the screens, waiting for information on his train to wherever needed a Town Crier that day.

I raced to catch my connection, it pulled away as I got there, and I just couldn’t resist going back up the stairs and getting out my camera (albeit the poor quality one that lives in my handbag). I didn’t want to be intrusive, plus I had to listen out for the next train, so I took a quick poor quality long-distance shot of him. But what I love is how, because we’re Londoners, no one else is batting an eyelid as he stands there amongst the other passengers. I love London for that bland acceptance of just about anything, and for the unexpected sights one meets every day. O yes, O yes.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

I Saw the Pope (But I Didn't Touch Him)

During the Pope’s recent brief visit to London, I managed to see him. I didn’t touch him or anything, and it certainly wasn’t an audience with him or an encounter where he greeted me with glee. I just watched as his fantastic popemobile passed by. Was it a moving experience? Not really. Not at all. It was kinda neat though.

I am not Catholic, and whilst I respect the comfort that their faith gives my Catholic friends, I have strong problems with many of the Pope’s preachings about, for instance, homosexuals, women, the use of condoms to prevent disease, the treatment of innocent girls who have been raped and don’t want their rapist’s child…and of course I am disillusioned by the past cover-ups of the abuse of children by priests who were then just moved to a new place of trust where they could abuse again. That sort of thing. So this wasn’t going to be a spiritual quest for me.

Nor any sort of quest. Basically, I stumbled upon his path. I had been in town for the Open House weekend, and at about 5.30pm was wearily headed for my train home from Charing Cross station, but decided to walk via Trafalgar Square in case anything interesting was going on. Indeed there was, in the shape of a sort of robotic-armed squid, or a metal Venus Flytrap that occasionally sprang to life, an installation called OUTRACE, designed by Clemens Weisshaar and Reed Kram for the London Design Festival from 16 to 24 September (this was 18 September). Apparently, OUTRACE ‘empowers the general public to take control of eight industrial robots on loan from Audi's production line’. Visitors and people on the web could book a slot to interact with the installation via the website, and somehow the vacuum-attachment-looking light-heads attached to the synchronised mechanical tentacles allowed users to create a light trace in the air of messages they wrote. A bit baffling, a lot slick.

Standing so near Admiralty Arch, it occurred to me that the Mall, just on the other side, might be decorated for the Pope’s visit, as I believed he’d travelled down it earlier. I popped through to have a look and found the Mall bedecked with alternating flags--union jacks and the yellow and white ones of the Vatican City, all with miniature jewelled crowns on the tops of the flagpoles. The enormous number of people lining the Mall down to Buckingham Palace behind policed barriers made me realise that the Pope had not yet passed by, and my smartphone revealed that he was due at 6pm on his way to his Hyde Park Vigil. I took a few photos and found myself on a bit of grass on a small slope by the National Police Memorial by Horse Guards Road and realised that, without any jostling or struggling with the crowd (I have leanings towards enochlophobia) lining the barriers, I had a relatively good look-out position, and surely even impatient I could wait for 15 minutes.

The atmosphere was initially peaceful and somehow warm (in the ‘and fuzzy’ sense). There was a young family across the road cheerfully waving Vatican City flags even though there was no sign of the Pope. There were loads of foreign tourists from all sorts of backgrounds who seemed, like me, to have just wandered onto a potential spectacle. Others were middle-aged intellectual types or cyclists who seemed to have stopped to soak in the view. It was a glorious sunny day (I wouldn’t have braved it in the pouring rain) and everyone seemed happy, patient and a bit excited. A murmur of cheerful conversation filled the air, even from those who were on their own as they were chatting on their phones, telling people they were waiting to see the pope. Everything was delightfully pleasant and comfortable until the couple who’d been lying sprawled over each other on the grass behind me decided to force on everyone around them their hideous booming ‘music’ that seemed to be of the Hip Hop Bangra ilk, which I gather wasn’t to anyone else’s taste given the many hateful looks they were given, which I think added to their own pleasure. I sound like an old fogey, but with so many great headphones these days, and given that no one could easily walk away as they were waiting for something specific in limited space, I have little patience for forcing one’s noise on unwilling others. It turned the previously soft yellow-filter type atmosphere rather crusty and unpleasantly surreal.

We suffered that for quite a while. I kept my eyes on a vertigo-inducing high platform nearby that held a television camera and crew, noting that the cameraman, who would surely get a cue when the Pope was on his way, was relaxing in a chair some feet away from the camera.

The Pope was due at 6pm, and 6pm came and went. As did 6.10pm, 6.20pm…..I thought as I had just been passing, I wouldn’t wait much longer, but it became like waiting for a bus, where you fear that as soon as soon as you walk away, it was bound to come. So I continued to wait, struggling with the dreadful ‘music’, watching time tick past slowly on the clock tower housing Big Ben that I could see in the distance. I eventually said some things in my head that I’m not proud of like ‘Damn you, Pope, get on with it!’ for which I shall probably be struck by lightning.
Eventually, the police helicopters that had plagued London with their constant Pope-protecting din all day appeared overhead, which was a sign. I checked the towering telly platform, and the cameraman was leaning over his camera. Four police outriders drove past (the Pope’s no David Cameron, wisely) followed by—not the Pope—but a racing Jag then Range Rover. After that burst of excitement, we all had our cameras ready, and….nothing. More shameful grumbling in my head. Still nothing.

It seemed that another hour passed, but I suppose I was just frustrated that my initial plan to devote a casual 10 minutes to glance over this Papal parade had become an hour of my time, standing doing nothing, clutching heavy bags. Worse, people were now encroaching on my space. I got that frustrated feeling I get when I’ve queued for aeons at Marks & Spencer’s only for them to open a new till at last, enabling people who just walked up to be served before I could get there. Silly, but real. I felt the need to protect even an inch of my vastly diminishing potential view. I’d visited Princi’s on Wardour Street on my way there and loaded up with cannolis, cannoncinis and some pumpkin and feta salad, which had cost a rather startling amount, but I decided to risk sacrificing that fine food by placing my bag by my feet to prevent someone standing directly in front of me and blocking the view I’d been protecting for a while now. Happily, no one kicked my pastries away, and I later enjoyed pigging out on my goodies.

Finally, finally, finally, I could see down the road past the Horseguards Parade that a motorcade was heading our way. I’d imagined it would race past us and just be a papal blur, but it had clearly been acknowledged that it meant a lot to people just to see the Pope, so it crawled along, making sure that many could. Another Range Rover type of vehicle moved in front of the papamobile, and on its roof was what looked like two giant eye-like round webcams facing opposite directions, presumably enabling security to spot any potential assassins in the crowd. Several men in identical navy suits and ties, who looked more like church ushers than security, walked alongside the Pope’s vehicle.

The Popemobile was remarkable. It was a modified white M-class Mercedes sport utility vehicle, licence plate SCV1 (standing for both the Italian and Latin names for the Vatican City State, eg Status Civitatis Vaticanae), which might have been like an American pick-up truck with a camper shell, but instead there was a tall, clear rectangular bubble rising over its rear area. Sensible, as Pope John Paul II was shot four times in 1981 by a sniper when he was paraded around St Peter’s Square, exposed in an open-top car. Amazingly, he survived (guess he was blessed!), but people learned a lesson. Now the Pope was safely encased in a bullet-proof bubble, his throne a plain, plastic-looking white chair (which apparently rises into the glass ‘room’ by hydraulic lift after the Pope climbs aboard). It struck me as something like a Barbie’s Dreamboat vehicle, with a Barbie doll propped up inside on display.

Two ‘papal aide’ men were seated in the bubble, facing the Pope (I couldn’t have that job or I would be vomiting all over the pontiff, riding backwards like that, and I expect one would be shot for that or at least banished to hell), and he gave the impression of being a sweet little old man, waving cheerfully to both sides of the road, almost glowing in his white gear.

Naturally, as he came near, all the men up front who were over six feet tall suddenly lifted their children on their heads, becoming 10-foot tall obstacles, and everyone naturally held up their phones and cameras directly where I supposed the pope would be, and others wandered behind the row of people trying to get photographs, all of them blocking my way and my plan to get pictures myself. Ah, so standing on the slight hill rather than trying to fight my way towards the barriers was not as good an idea as it had initially seemed, but I did get to see the Pope as he slowly passed by. I just didn’t get a good photo, as you can see. The close-up ones are crops of distant photos and thus are low-definition blurs. But it’s enough to remember him by, in case I forget.

As the papal motorcade travelled down the Mall towards the Palace, it no doubt touched the lives of the many more people who were cramped against the barriers on that route, and my elevated cameraman carried on working as the rest of us started to disperse. Nearly everyone got on their phones again, saying in several different languages: ‘I’ve just seen the Pope!’
I warned before that this was never going to be spiritual for me. I did not feel touched or moved. But it indeed was kinda neat. This was the first visit to London by a Pope in 18 years, and I was there. I only needed a few minutes of it to make me smile. And despite my typical lack of patience, even the overlong wait standing amidst people full of the same anticipation on a lovely end-of-summer’s evening in London was in itself rather agreeable, apart from the cacophonous music that seemed a symbol of the rudeness and lack of respect of the yoof of today (but I know I am making too much of it). And hey, I stumbled upon two Barry Flannigan hares in front of the British Council building, which I never realised were there (I go to the Palace rarely these days!).

Later that night, I saw a few minutes of the televised mass being held in Hyde Park, which I wouldn’t have bothered to look at if I hadn’t seen the man in person a few hours before. In fact, I’d said to colleagues about how I would never ever have stood for the treatment of those people who had attended the mass in person and who, amongst other rules, were required to be in place several hours before the Pope was due to arrive—though at least they were allowed to sit, unlike the schoolchildren who were not allowed to do so as they’d waited hours for his visit that morning. (The Hyde Park vigil information said that Pilgrims must be prepared for a very long and onerous journey to the celebration and home again; well, we all must make sacrifices. And hey, an ‘outstanding range of official merchandise’ was on sale as consolation.) My main thought, watching him administer communion to the pilgrims, was wouldn’t you feel cheated if you went to take communion and ended up on the left side when the Pope was only doing the right side, so you had just some ordinary priest (or monsignor, but still). I guess that’s not very Christian of me. But I bet I wouldn’t be the only one thinking like that.

I was interested, the following day when I was passing through Hyde Park from Horseman’s Sunday at St John’s en route to Berkeley Square, to see how massive the papal mass area had been, which I had to manoeuvre around. What made me smile was the huge toilets sign, as even that had a little prayer of sorts beneath it. (Although I later learned that the ‘prayer’ was the theme of the Pope’s visit, the motto that Cardinal John Henry Newman, whom the Pope beatified during his visit, chose for his coat of arms). The giant sign in Hyde Park read: ‘TOILETS. Heart speaks unto heart.’


Saturday, 4 September 2010

South Africa Landscape in London's Bloomsbury

A while ago I went into town to photograph some of the elephant sculptures in the Elephant Parade, which was in aid of the conservation of Asian elephants, as I wanted to catch them in their ‘natural habitat’, ie the various places they’d been placed across London before they were lined up together as a giant herd on the lawn of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. I’ll post those photos later, but I made one diversion that day to an elephant-free zone that, oddly, was the one area where you might have more realistic expectations to see an elephant in that it was a South African landscape in London. (Mind you, these elephants were Asian and not African, so perhaps not.)

Kew Gardens annually transforms the forecourt of the British Museum in Bloomsbury into a different landscape, and this year they chose one depicting South Africa, given that at the time, the nation was looking forward hopefully (if not foolishly) to a successful, exciting world cup performance in that country.

Although it was raining and out of my way, I thought it would be an intriguing diversion, and I’m glad I stopped by. I was initially slightly disappointed as I anticipated towering rainforest trees and an elaborate landscape one could get lost in on the way to the museum’s steps, when instead there was a small section of the forecourt representing the semi-arid rugged desert-like terrain of South Africa.

My grand visions were an ambitious, if not ignorant, expectation, and there was still plenty to enjoy. There was a certain pleasure to be derived from seeing cacti (well, tree euphorbia) and quiver trees in front of 19th century Greek Revival architecture. Many of the smaller plants took a bit more inspection to realise they were something extraordinary, and not the usual daffodils or dandelions. The bird-of-paradise flower, African lily, restios, and aloe were a delight to behold.

I did come across an elephant after all. Not one of the large brightly painted sculptures that formed part of the official elephant parade, but—in addition to the elephant’s foot yam plant and elephant grass on display, there was a sample of African rock art with an elephant on it.

The South Africa landscape will be in place at the British Museum until 10 October, and it costs nothing to visit (the museum is free as well, so you might as well pop in there for some additional enlightenment whilst you’re in the area.) On the day I went, few people were wandering into it, the mass groups of foreign students choosing instead to flock on the museum entrance steps, so crowds were not a problem and I could meander peacefully, leisurely through. Stop by for a pleasantly subdued, unusual experience, a bit of Africa in Bloomsbury.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Tim Finn Live at Scala, London - 8 August 2010

This is probably unwise to do in the wee hours of the morn with no sleep, but I'm back from a remarkable Tim Finn gig at London's Scala in King's Cross, which I very nearly didn't go to, an insane near-tragedy. I will post my formal review with photographs to my AboutLastNight site [actually, I've now done so; see the Tim Finn page], but I meanwhile sent out an email with the setlist and some general comments that sprang to mind as I was typing that out. I've decided to go ahead and paste that in here, for those of you who have an interest in what was played. I'll write it up more coherently when I get a chance this week. For now, here goes:-

...I’m thankfully home safely after a last-ish minute decision to see Tim Finn despite Sunday travel being impossible and my elderly crippled back refusing to attend all-standing venues. But a message reminded me that I was insane not to go, and my trains were unusually running on a Sunday (ish), and I have strong painkillers. While other people liked Donny Osmond or David Cassidy in their teens, Tim Finn was the person I had a huge crush on and whose music I adored, and always have adored. I still fully admire and enjoy his talent, and how could I miss this chance? Even after I struggled into town and arrived not long before Tim took the stage, I still might have missed out as my ticket wasn’t waiting at the box office, so I had to buy another (thank goodness it wasn’t sold out). It was surprisingly uncrowded actually, but I know of other people who would have come were it not a Sunday, people who have worse journeys and earlier starts on Mondays than I do, so that’s a shame, although Tim said he loved doing Sunday gigs. It was certainly superb and I thank goodness I didn’t miss it; that would have been tragic.

I’ll write it all up formally for my long neglected website as I have some time off later this week, and will post a few blurry photos (lots of this will be on YouTube as peeps were filming on their cameras). But for now, I wanted to provide the setlist:-

1. Straw to Gold [I was too excited with Tim & band bursting on the scene to remember much about this]

2. Won’t Give In [wonderful, uplifting song always, and very catchy]

3. My Mistake [so exciting to relive the joy of hearing this very old Split Enz song (1977!)…I think I bought it on my first ever trip to London about 30 years ago. Gosh, I’m old. The tune wasn’t that recognisable at first.]

4. Chocolate Cake (this always works better live than it did on record. He updated the words from Tammy Bakker to ‘Barack Obama has a lot on his plate’]

5. Invisible [lovely poignant sad song surely about his mother, lyrics: ‘This is the end of knowing her, you’re going through her things…but you can’t find her there’….’All the ties that bind us are invisible’. This sort of song means a lot to those of us who are also struggling with the loss of a close loved one like a parent]

6. Luckiest Man Alive [from sad poignancy over loss of loved one, to the joy of a birth of a loved one, as he said he wrote this when his daughter was born, for the woman who made it all possible. He still sings it so jubilantly and speaks of his wife with such pure love, I am thrilled that he has truly found The One, as so few people do. He puts it into such simple but perfectly arranged words here to convey that.]

7. Dead Man [a bit of a rock-out chorus. He said he wrote the song after the Split Enz reunion show in 2000 in Auckland—the last performance that his mother saw, and a song was played on the PA/tannoi system called April Sun in Cuba by an Antipodean band called Dragon, and he’d just been listening to music by their singer Mark Hunter who had died not long before that….and a lot of things came together. At the end, he sang what I take to be some of April Sun in Cuba..., and the Kiwis cheered]

8. Persuasion [went straight into that after the last one. Breathtaking.]

9. Dirty Creature [the bass was so different, the song was unrecognisable at first, but it was fine, although Tim stopped after a few lines and chastised the bassist for doing it wrong, but then blamed himself and his jet lag when he realised how harsh it was to single out one player and make him re-do everything like he was the dunce in a classroom. Though he still said it wasn’t right then and so Tim started the song off on Take 3, and it all fell into place. But then he made it up to the bassist later in the song by letting him go wild with a remarkable bass solo that would make Mark King faint with envy. The guitarist got to add his own solo later but thankfully kept it sensible, not like an 80s 20 minute thing where we all would nod off but for the noise. They and the drummer were really impressively outstanding talents.]

10. Charley [always awesome. Started this one again, too; this time the guitarist was blamed as I think he missed his cue. In order to demonstrate that he wasn’t being as harsh and demanding as it might seem, Tim reminded Brett that Tim had f**ked up earlier as well when he was out of tune, and he turned to us to say ‘put that up on YouTube and be damned!’ with a smile]

11. Couldn’t be Done [‘a can do song’]

12. It’s Only Natural [he hushed the band to let us sing this from the beginning, though he thankfully joined in, too, shortly afterward; we weren’t that good. This song always lifts my spirits.]

13. So Deep [After threatening they’d take their shirts off, and discussing why they shouldn’t practically in a Three Bears style—eg ‘I’m too hairy’, ‘I’m too flabby’, ‘I’m just right’--and toasting his father Richard Finn who is 88. Neat to hear something from Big Canoe; wonder what made him choose this over the others. Done to a slower tempo, obviously toned down backing vocals without a choir of loud women, a bit more sensuous—but maybe I shouldn’t use that word when describing a song with this title lest someone think it’s pornographic! Quite atmospheric. Nice to hear the line ‘eating chicken curry with English tea’ now that it makes more sense to me as a Londoner; I was in the States when my father brought me this album from NZ.]
14. Stuff and Nonsense [my second favourite song by anyone of all time; couldn’t believe he played it. Used to think I’d like it played at my wedding, which may be why I’m happily single. Obviously reworked for guitars vs piano, a bit too upbeat perhaps for those of us who worship the original, but I was just thrilled to hear it, and it probably needed updating to travel well, though nothing ever needs slide guitar added. This tune started after a long discussion of accents and cities where people wanted him to play; he said if we bought 1,000 copies each of his album, he could do a national tour; someone pointed out that releasing the album would help, and he said it might be out in May or June next year]

15. Six Months in a Leaky Boat [All singing—badly again--with Tim working hard on the whistling bit, even restarting that as he said he was out of key, jokingly pointing at someone’s camera and saying ‘put that on YouTube and be damned! At the end, he wore a tongue in cheek delightful ‘aced it!’ expression fitting of Spinal Tap. No Pioneer-ish bit of ‘Da da da da’ etc bit at the end, stopped like a rock song]

Encore One (off stage for perhaps 20 seconds—great not to keep us waiting)
16. I Hope I Never [My number one super top favourite song ever of all time. Whenever MTV showed that video , I melted. This was what it was all about for me, and it makes me melt every time I hear it, which is rarely live. Again, a slightly different version given the lack of keyboards, but still lovely, still gentle and slow, and Tim’s voice was incredible, spot on. Moving stuff]

17. Forever Thursday [prefaced by a tale of meeting his wife—on a Thursday--who loved the song Tin Soldier, and he kept the lyrics in his back pocket…or something like that. He was surprised when we didn’t laugh but I think we were a bit lost and enjoyed the tale, but didn’t see anything ha-ha about it…..just sweet.]

18. I Got You [I’ve never heard Tim sing this song other than as part of the painting on the wall in the video….I wouldn’t say it shows that the Finns are exactly interchangeable, but it worked great. I thought he might have switched a couple lines at the end but I probably imagined it.]

Encore Two (this time they were off stage for a whole 4 mins)
19. Unsinkable [after a long story about how Harper loved the book Titanic so much that he took Harper to the 3D version of the film The Deep (actually it was Ghosts of the Abyss) about raising it—and Tim had a panic attack when he put the 3D glasses on; maybe he has labyrinthitis or something—and Harper said on the way home that he wished they could all go down together ie when the time comes so no one is left sad behind, which moved Tim to write this song. The song didn’t grab us as much as all the others, and went on a bit long with sound effects, but it’s amongst tough company, and the audience was still happy]

20. Shark Attack [a sort of calmer version that picked up, but even now Tim didn’t race about the stage like a man possessed. It’s not just that the boy’s grown up; he’s now a refined gentleman!]

21. History Never Repeats [another Neil Finn Split Enz track. Intriguing that he chose two of them, but they both worked well and I suppose it makes a change for him. The loveable guitar riff was altered to something a bit heavier, more fuzz, not so good—but the rest was wonderful]

He played from just after 9pm to 10.50pm, an impressive set. And stopping even a few mins later would have meant that many of us would have had to choose between leaving early or being stranded, so that was welcome. Tim was in fine voice and I love his choice of songs. (I’ve only just realised there was no Weather With You. I’ve often thought they should skip that for something wonderful like Stuff and Nonsense or Time for a Change and, whilst it’s a terrific song, I’ve never gone as gaga for it as the rest of the audience usually do.) He wasn’t that chatty at the beginning and then got into it a bit more, even stopping his band from moving on to the next song once, saying ‘repartee!’ to remind them that he needed to add some. And whilst he couldn’t help but do some of these scary eyes and histrionic hand gestures during Dirty Creature, he mainly stuck to strumming his acoustic guitar and walking in tight circles during instrumentals—no push ups, no mad dancing. Still delightful; it would have been destructive on that small, equipment filled stage to rush about, and just stomping knocked over his water behind him, which sent a roadie rushing out to remove it before any of our beloved musicians were electrocuted, and it gave Tim an excuse to have some whiskey brought out.

I think the young and enormously sharp band were Brett Adams on guitar (looks a bit like Eddie Vedder), the fantastic Tony Buchen on bass/harmonica ( I never found bass or harmonica so exciting before, and the rest of the time he spent smiling and loving where he was and what he was doing), and Carlos Adura on drums, who seemed to have something more like mini-kettle drums than snares built into his kit, and he often seemed to be playing the air, til I realised that he had shakers attached to his drum sticks and sometimes shook them without hitting the drums. ) I also might throw in here the random comment that is most unlike me and of which I will later be ashamed that Tim really is a slick silver fox now. I don’t mean I was standing there drooling over him, but really, he beats Ralph Lauren and looks just as moneyed and tailored, with a sharp grey suit and snazzy haircut (still on the longish side but not quite so mad—just lovely). It added to the whole experience that this was a quality show.

Even if you worry that you won’t be able to get home afterwards or if your back is in agony and you can’t stand for long, go see Tim if you get the chance. I did it (and there was an older woman with a cane at the front!) and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. We all left ecstatically happy.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Crowded House Live in London (and Live on USB)

Although the days are long gone of my arriving home from a concert at 1am and immediately writing a play-by-play account of it and uploading that with my photographs to my website ( ) before going to bed, I do hope to write up the detailed reviews of the Crowded House concerts I delighted in seeing at the Hammersmith Apollo this week in the next few days. Meanwhile, I thought I would at least post here the gist of the emails I sent on my way home to the 'Frenz of the Enz’ related discussion lists for Finn fans, setting out the setlists. The joys of the digital age mean that details of the concerts are not only quickly widely known, but people could get home and actually listen again to the concert they had just left without doing any surreptitious recording. The wonders of technology mean that the merchandise stalls offer more excitement than just a selection of t-shirts, programmes and the album of the support act.

Crowded House hasn’t even released yet the album they’re currently promoting, Intriguer, which is out in the UK on Monday, and it’s difficult these days to earn money from CDs or albums in any format. There was a time when a concert was the way to push up your sales. What better way to address the limitations of the modern music industry than to let people pay (£15) at the venue for a USB drive that they collect a few minutes after the concert finishes. On the USB drive (or more appropriately called memory sticks in this situation in particular), which have environmentally friendly bamboo casing, is multimedia material: photos, links and things, plus a live recording of the concert from the sound desk, divided into tracks (although a few are wrongly labelled).

One day, I’m sure I’ll look back at this and sneer at how basic and old-fashioned it seems, the way I do when I remember being the envy of the neighbourhood in the States in the 1970s when we were the first family to get Pong, a game that you play on your television set! (Yes, you control the paddles and actually hit the ball on your screen!!) But on Tuesday, I was quite impressed and salivating at the prospect of collecting my USB stick afterwards. It’s not just that I want to relive the joy of a fantastically gripping Crowded House concert, with varied setlists covering a huge catalogue of superb songs and the wit of Neil Finn and the others interacting with the audience and keeping everyone laughing when they’re not cheering. More than that, I seem to have an inbuilt need to be an archivist, and I just like records of things. I want to play these new versions of old songs and the new songs that haven’t yet been released (many of which I already love), but I also just want to preserve the concert long after my memories blur a bit and fade into the background behind my chaotic life that is too focused on dreary work and postponed dreams.

Sadly, on that first night, 8 June 2010, the concert at the Hammersmith Apollo didn’t finish until after 11pm, which meant I had to tear out of Hammersmith in a desperate bid to make my last train, and then have a nerve-wracking journey home amidst scary nightpeople on the train and deserted streets between the station and home. So no memory stick, although my kind friend stayed behind to collect both of ours, and I look forward to hearing it. The next night, on 9 June, I didn’t even buy one as I figured it would be handing over £15 for nothing, since my friend and I would have to leave early because neither of us could cope with a repeat of our respective hellish journeys and three hours sleep before work. Even though the band thankfully finished slightly earlier (a funny thing to be grateful for, and they still played for two hours), I wouldn’t have been able to wait for the USB stick to be produced and handed out. So I ordered it online today as well as a recording of tonight’s gig, which I’m missing (and which a friend has texted is a completely different set list again). Numbers of these sticks are claimed to be limited, but that makes little sense and it’s a way for the band to make some money to supplement the modern reality of poor album sales (though presumably bad people can just copy the memory sticks for friends), but if you want one yourself, order it here: . The North American shows will be available in July, so it’s an opportunity for us all to lose a tidy sum. An excellent idea.

So I’ll paste below what you’ll hear on the recordings, as I know people are usually interested to know what was played, particularly when it’s an outstanding band like this who, like Van Morrison, plays much of the set by ear....picking songs from their vast impressive catalogues and, in the case of Crowded House, reacting to something shouted out by the crowd or flown to the stage as a message in a paper aeroplane.

On these nights, though, the set was more polished, the band well-rehearsed, and everything was sharp, with no time wasting. So there were fewer attempts at songs the band couldn’t really recall, in a kind attempt to indulge an audience member (though that has happened elsewhere on the tour). They did the big hits, as Rick Astley (who was in the audience on Tuesday) mentioned when promoting his own new single on BBC Breakfast the next day, but they also mixed in some of the rarely performed but much loved mid-classics, subtly splicing in several of the new songs, most of which left us breathless for the album rather than bored with unwelcome delays to the hit machine. Neil Finn was in incredible voice and he and Nick Seymour were as delightfully fun as ever, and the ‘new’ drummer, Matt Sherrod, was just amazing, playing powerfully, and drummers aren’t normally on my radar

Incidentally, 80s star Rick Astley wasn’t the only ‘name’ there; Ed O’Brien and Phil Selway of Radiohead, who worked with Neil on the Seven Worlds Collide project/album, were spotted, as was the BBC’s Jeremy Vine, and members of Marillion. I’m sure there were many others in the crowd of tremendous fans.

For the first night, the dreamy setlist was:-
1. I Feel Possessed
2. Don't Stop Now
3. Fall at Your Feet
4. Either Side of the World (new one, growing on me)
5. Saturday Sun (new single, odd choice as there are better songs, hate the vocoder)
6. She Was in My Dreams (ie ad libbed song whilst tuning 'like Todd Rungren meets the Carpenters' where Nick Seymour worried he’d given Neil his cold as they shared a mike, just before Neil revealed his 'controversial' hatred for Steely Dan, even singing a smarmy line from Ricky Don’t Lose that Number when prompted by Nick playing the bass line)
7. Mean to Me (television cameras were filming 5, 6 & 7 for the Hey Hey It's Saturday show in their native New Zealand, or for a training video for Auckland Roadie College, Neil said)
8. Amsterdam (probably my favourite of the new songs that I’ve heard)
9. Not the Girl You Think You Are
10. In My Command
11. Inside Out (very mid-60s, with a ‘guitar chorus’ comprising Neil’s younger son Elroy, the support act Connan Mockasin, and Connan’s guitarist)
12. Say That Again (still with Elroy on guitar)
13. Archers' Arrows
14. Message to My Girl (surprise and loved particularly by the woman, a touching Split Enz love song)
15. Four Seasons in One Day
16. Pineapple Head
17. Don't Dream It's Over (faultless)
18. It's Only Natural (with Harriet from the audience on tambourine, as she had shouted out a request at the beginning of the show to play tambourine with them; glad she didn't demand to play banjo or lap steel guitar—though sadly Mark Hart added the latter at times in the set)
19. Distant Sun

20. Locked Out
21. Weather With You
22. Elephants (loved this in Bush Hall but consider it ruined by lap steel guitar)
23. Moonage Daydream (thrilling cover of David Bowie original, with support act Connan on guitar)
24. Happy Birthday to Hadley (another Neil interlude in response to a paper aeroplane that Nick had picked up as they’d left the stage earlier. Hadley was 'conceived during a Crowded House concert' and her mother’s water broke at a Crowded House concert, etc etc)
25. When You Come [I think they’d originally planned Recurring Dream; this was a treat]
26. Better Be Home Soon. (I think they’ve settled on this as their permanent closer, understandably)

It was an outrageously brilliant set from about 8.50pm until 11.10pm (causing a tricky home-by-public-transport conundrum, but hard to complain!). In addition to son Elroy, Neil’s wife Sharon joined them at different times unannounced (Sharon sang backing vocals in the back and in profile; perhaps scared to face the huge audience?). They leapt, polished, straight into each song, though still gave us glorious Neil banter.

For the second night, 9 June 2010, the set Crowded House played was:-

1. Recurring Dream (excellent opener!)
2. Saturday Sun
3. Either Side of the World
4. Fall at Your Feet
5. Don't Stop Now
6. Private Universe
7. Inside Out (again with Elroy, Connan M etc)
8. Love This Life
9. Nails in My Feet
9.5. (brief funk interlude, bit of Hot Chocolate You Sexy Thing...somehow ends up as Age of Aquarius for a sec)
10. Whispers and Moans
11. Isolation (with Sharon Finn on backing vocals)
12. Archers' Arrows (still with Sharon)
12.5 . From Guernsey to Hammersmith (lovely spontaneous ad-libbed travelogue-ballad on piano)
13. Pour le Monde (quite a lovely new song)
14. Four Seasons in One Day
15. Don't Dream It's Over
16. Distant Sun
17. Something So Strong (marvellous, long time no hear)
18. Fingers of Love
19. Weather With You
20. Twice if You're Lucky (like this new one though it sounds a bit like Love This Life at times)
21. Moonage Daydream (Bowie cover with Connan Mockasin again, lively)
22. World Where You Live (delightful treat from the first album)
23. Better Be Home Soon

On this night, Crowded House started at 8.50pm but finished at 10.55pm, which made all the difference to many of us transport-wise and maybe to them if they're charged for playing past an 11pm curfew. The fantastic evening was complete with more creative ad-libbed songs, much meowing and Nick's odd owl-dog imitation, Elroy appearing occasionally, a brief private dancer for Neil on stage (a Peter Tork-like 'prize winner' for being first to stand and dance, so he was invited on stage to do so, though his dance comprised walking and clapping his hands), and a free sauna for us all. I adored the woodsy set, with loads of big night lights in the shape of mushrooms, geese and other figurines for children, looking like Chinese lanterns--all very moody, charming and Kiwi (or so I imagine).

I must admit that my favourite set was the first night, although most will probably disagree (I’m more one for the short, sharp songs with stunning lyrics, and I lose patience with the lengthy stretches of guitar solos or endlessly repeated rhythms without melodies, and Together Alone, whilst it has merits, will never be my favourite album whereas I always feel it’s what brought the rest of the audience to see them), but I loved every bit of both nights—apart from the fact that the tallest man in the Apollo was seated in front of me on Wednesday so I could only see Crowded House in a sort of halo around the edges of his ginormous head. And normally I like tall men, but it turns out not in this setting.

Of the new songs played on Wednesday, I missed Amsterdam, which I think would be a better single than Saturday Sun really, but there's probably a rule that their singles must refer to suns, weather, seasons, dreams, stopping time...tide.... (It's no wonder they're drawn to MOONage DAY-DREAM).

I must say I Love this Life when this is a taste of it. I am sad to miss tonight’s final London concert (there’s only so much credit card space, energy and time one can commit to putting massive smiles on one’s face) but these fine memories will do me for a while!

I will put my usual style of hugely detailed reviews on my website at as soon as I can, with the photos I took (albeit from a distance without a flash, so they’re not too impressive), and of course there are many clips of the concert available on YouTube already. If you ever get the chance to see these masters of live performance, take it. You won’t be sorry.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Guitar-playing Zebra Finches....Music to My Ears

On Friday, I tried to swing past the Barbican Centre for one more visit to see those remarkable zebra finches imitate Jimi Hendrix, but I was foiled.

I’m referring to the Céleste Boursier-Mougenot exhibition, where a flock of zebra finches live in an exhibition space furnished with several electric guitars and bass guitars placed flat, perpendicular with the floor, on stands and plugged into amplifiers, amongst cymbals (the bottom of brass toned Paiste hi-hats). The birds frequently land on and hop along the strings of the guitars, and indeed sometimes drag a twig across them in an attempt to build a nest on it, which makes an extraordinary random sound punctuated by the occasional perfect strum. Or, as the Barbican literature describes it, the artist ‘orchestrates a magical promenade with distinct, yet overlapping auditory experiences.’ Yep.

I was in two minds about this exhibition. I saw a clip at the end of an episode of The Culture Show that fascinated me and drove me towards it, yet the wildlife-loving RSPCA member in me thought it was wrong to keep birds trapped in an art gallery ogled by strangers when they should be out in the wild. I knew that the birds’ welfare had been carefully vetted by ‘the relevant authorities’ but it still seemed wrong....until I saw it.

First, the birds aren’t creatures someone caught from the wild and imprisoned in the Barbican Centre. They have been provided by a specialist who provides animals for artistic projects, we are told, as though they’re from the same acting agency that provided Eddie the dog in Frasier. So presumably they were raised in captivity and are used to being in an aviary. I’m almost just repeating that to try to convince myself that it’s okay, and I hope it is. Second, I had pictured the birds being contained in a low-ceilinged section of a small room, with the crowd lined up on the other side of a glass partition, peering in as though at a cramped caged animal in a Victorian zoo. Instead, the birds fly freely around an airy, sizeable space with a roof perhaps 30 feet high, with the people walking amongst them, and although they could fly away from us if they wanted to, they were so used to people walking around them that they would fly right past our faces and even land on our bags—at least they did on mine (they have discerning taste).

The description of the exhibition describes this interaction as creating a different visit for everyone as the installation was ‘in a constant state of flux’ and ‘to be fully activated, the piece relies on the visitors’ movements around the space, which elicit counter movements by the birds, resulting in a subtle choreography.’ Well, I will say it was neat to be able to observe beautiful wildlife so closely, and fun when they sat for an age on my briefcase and later my handbag (and very kindly left nothing behind). I wouldn’t suggest I was tap-dancing with them, but an artist wouldn’t be an artist (and a marketing person wouldn’t be a marketing person) if they just said ‘there’re a lot of birds flying around and they be cute.’

Although the well-lit room was white and a bit sterile, there were sandpits on the ground in which arid grasses had been planted so the birds had plenty of natural things to grab and use when building nests, which they seemed to be doing with tremendous commitment. Although they clearly loved landing on the guitars, sometimes several birds doing so on one at a time, they were also quite happy sitting on the fire extinguishers, ‘break glass’ and exit signs. I was pleased to see a series of nesting boxes placed in a long row high above our heads on one wall, almost all of which were occupied by a female practically hidden by the nesting material. Apparently, a friend linked to the Barbican has told me, this was a result of a panic when one of the birds had laid an egg, I think on a guitar, forcing the staff to clear the exhibition of customers and close it down until they got advice from the RSPB or another ‘relevant authority’, who said they really should provide nesting boxes, so voilà.

But before visitors get to that room, we walk through a dark corridor (also with high ceilings; nothing is claustrophobic) with video projections of white-silhouetted ‘flying fingers’ playing electric guitars, against a black background. And you can hear electric guitar as well, albeit not in the style of Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page, but a random droning and, as I mentioned, the occasional impressive deliberate-sounding strum. The soundtrack is, of course, provided by the birds around the corner (or around the curve, as the exhibition is in the part of the Barbican aptly called The Curve). One can also hear crickets, stressing the feeling of night-time, but I think that was a recording unless we were crushing innocent crickets as we walked through the darkness.

It’s difficult to remember that this first bit is part of the exhibition. Everyone seems to see it as a corridor to rush through to get to the real things, the darkness perhaps helping your transition from the Arts Centre outside to the unusual experience you will soon meet, or perhaps discouraging the birds from flying out into the Centre and interrupting a play or a film or escaping into the City. It probably does that, but the (uh) flyer one can take (by ripping a printed page from a pad hanging on the wall that had a large sign containing a description of the installation and the artist, which I overlooked on the way in and only paused to read on the way out) explains that this first element is part of the ‘multi-sensory experience.’

Let’s face it; we’re all racing to see the birds. And they were no let-down. I’ve never seen or heard of zebra finches before, and they are stunning, a bit odd but truly amazing. Rather tiny, I realised when they landed on me, and they have deeply orange beaks that give them a tropical air, with a small white patch and black stripe by their eyes, then the males are mostly pale grey, with a light brown undercarriage and black and white tail feathers. The females are mostly white, but also with the black stripe by their eye. Just observing a living creature that is so unusual and beautiful in close proximity was a delight, and they just didn’t seem to mind us being there as they flew around and tried to build nests in Gibson guitars. Yes, they were guitars of quality. I wondered whether they were just toy plastic replicas so as not to waste the real thing on a bunch of wild creatures, but they were Gibson Les Paul models—about 10 of them. The artist apparently had tuned the guitars so that whenever a string was touched, it produced a clear chord. That was key; everything sounded impressive and interesting; never did we wince, even when different guitars were played by different groups of birds around the room at the same time.

Added to the random guitar sounds was a great deal of sweet chirruping, almost like quick high beeps, and the busy flutter of wings, which added to the delightful soundscape. I pressed record on my Dictaphone for a bit and came home with an amazing snippet of sounds. Most of the birds were paired off (so no solos) and quite dear. They had endless patience; I observed one fly up to a nesting box with a long, thick piece of grass that was about seven times his size, but after he landed in the box, the unbalanced long blade of grass would fall out, far below onto the floor. Without any look of scowling, rolling his eyes or cursing, the bird just flew down, picked it up again, flew all the way back up to the nesting box, again drop it back onto the floor because most of it was hanging heavily outside, and then he would fly down to retrieve it again. He did this several times until eventually another bird decided he’d rather like that ginormous blade of grass, and he swiped it the next time it was dropped before the first bird could return to the floor for it for the umpteenth time. Frankly, I was a relieved.

The environment was so soothing, I almost wished for a park bench so I could sit and write whilst enjoying the atmosphere, being surrounded by (and landed on by) happily chirruping unusual finches as though I were in a park in Australia or Indonesia, where they’re native. But then, benches would mean people would stay longer, and fewer people would then be allowed in. The Centre only let a few people in at a time, which was the right thing to do so as not to freak out the birds or spoil the experience (or invoke disturbing ‘choreography’!), although it meant there were always queues, particularly as people would usually spend at least 25 minutes in the company of these birds. We would smile at each other as we shared the experience, sometimes talking about how grand it was to be near such exquisite creatures, and I became a part of the exhibit when, as I said, a finch landed on my handbag and remained there for an age, which caused several people to gather around me and point (or maybe it was my Thatcher-like suit). Later, one landed on the top of my briefcase, which was slung over my shoulder, and I remember worrying a bit that I might accidentally leave with it, which partly sounded fun but then I doubt I could look after it properly, though I probably wouldn’t have to after my cats greeted it. So good thing it got bored and flew away to do some guitar-picking.

The birds eat grass seed and there was plenty of seed around. The cymbals weren’t being pecked as percussion but instead were filled with either water, where the birds sweetly splashed themselves in a rapid dance, or seeds that they scoffed happily. The floor (around the sand pits and arid grasses) was made of wooden planks with surprisingly no evidence of bird droppings, so the Art Centre must scrub it regularly. But no one did so while I was in there. There were only two attendants—one outside monitoring the numbers entering and leaving, and one inside covering the entire airy room.

That wouldn’t have been enough to prevent me from taking a photo, as he would have been unable to see me do so when my back was to him and he was chatting to people on the other end of the curve. But I’m a terrible goody two-shoes and the big sign outside prohibiting photography, which I had plenty of time to stare at whilst queuing to come in, weighed heavily on my mind. I hate myself for not stealing a photograph, which would have cheered me no end, allowing me to relive this pleasant experience as soon as I got home and to smile when it came up on my screensaver slideshow. Plus, I go to so many things and I get so little sleep, I always worry I will forget what I’ve been to altogether unless I have a photo for revisiting.... But nay, I’m a wimp and took nothing. A woman near me did get told off (very politely) for taking out her camera, but she must have got a shot, and that would be worth it. I hate myself, the same way I did when I was prevented by the South Bank Photo Police from snapping Ray Davies when he came out in a union jack suit, and I was in the second row with an unimpeded view. I should have just taken it; why didn’t I?

So my only complaint about the exhibition was that I couldn’t take a photo or two, obviously without a flash. What harm would it have done? I wonder if the artist felt doing so would steal the soul of his exhibition or something. Immediately after I visited this exhibition, I went upstairs to the Ron Arad exhibition where the public were encouraged to take photos and post them on Flikr and link them to the Barbican website. And boy did I take photos, and I’ll add those here soon, but a million pictures of chairs—no matter how unusual—just aren’t as cute as a bunch of zebra finches, particularly ones playing Gibson guitars. (I did Tweet from the exhibition though, which I thought was rather fitting.)

Had I managed to return on Friday as I attempted, I might have tried to snap a quick shot of these adorablenesses, but I doubt it. Not with a big sign telling me not to be naughty. But I’ll never know. I didn’t manage to leave work as early as planned so got there at 7.15pm, and the gallery closes at 8pm, and there was a significant queue, which the attendant closed just as I arrived since all those people were unlikely to get in. It was a disappointment, given that the exhibition was to close on 23 May, but perhaps a second visit would have been less magical and ruined the memories for me. I doubt it though.

A small comfort is that there are videos on YouTube shot of other such installations, including one that appears to be the official Barbican clip (probably what I saw at the end of The Culture Show), although it wasn’t filmed at the Barbican as what appears is a much smaller space, more like the Victorian zoo look that I had worried about encountering. If it works, I’ll put the link below. Enjoy it, but if you ever get the chance to see such a thing in person (or in bird?), make sure you fly to the exhibition as quickly as you can.

(I've replaced the previous video, and if one doesn't appear below, try here: )


Thursday, 25 February 2010

Finsbury Circus RIP

If you live or work in the City of London, be sure to visit Finsbury Circus this week. It will be your last chance to see it in its original state, and your last chance to enjoy it at all for at least seven years, as it will become a building site for Crossrail from 1 March.

Finsbury Circus is the oldest and largest open space in the City. A short distance between Moorgate and Liverpool Street station, it is unusually a square in London that is in fact elliptical, covering 2.2 hectares. The Circus was once part of the Finsbury Manor Estate but was enclosed in 1812 to form a garden later laid out by William Montague. It’s our minute version of Central Park.

Crucially, it is a refuge, a tranquil sanctuary in the middle of otherwise busy streets raging with traffic, away from the nearby busy pavements that are covered by masses of work-focused people stomping past to the next chapter of their busy lives. This open-air shelter of sorts a short distance away is remarkably serene. I look around at the others sitting here, many taking photos in the knowledge that this little paradise is being lost, and everyone has that look of calm that the Circus inspires, which they will no doubt lose when they walk a few yards to Moorgate or London Wall or wherever to fade into the crowds and return to their bustling, busy lives.

There are, of course, bigger green spaces in central London if you have time to travel way across London to a royal park, for instance. But none so accessible to us City folk. If you just want to see some lovely flowers and gorgeous old trees, or to hear the happy chirp of birds other than pigeons, it’s a Godsend. Already, the Camellia bush beside me is in bloom (I am typing this from a bench in a quiet and somewhat forlorn Finsbury Circus) and behind me are the first crocuses and snowbells I have seen this year, already in full flower as if Finsbury Circus has some special gulf stream or simply magic that's sprinkled on its green inhabitants. This tiny touch of joy truly stirs my heart, particularly on this otherwise miserable rainy grey day. The flowers have gone to the trouble of finally bursting through, subtly and delicately presenting their brand new beauty ahead of most of their cousins, and yet they will be heartlessly yanked up and put on a tip somewhere in a day or so.

The existence of the magnificent Finsbury Circus has been threatened before by railway development. Apparently, in 1862, when it was only 50 years old, plans by the Metropolitan Railway Company to demolish it were considered, but it was saved by Alfred Smee, who considered it to be one of the most beautiful London squares. Where is its saviour now, I wonder, as it surely retains that impressive status 150 years later. The elliptical square was acquired by the Corporation of London in 1900 for public use, and has been maintained by the City for that purpose ever since. Until now, when the battle has been lost.

I feel at such a loss because, even though I don’t get to take a break as often as I should, I cheer myself with the thought of coming here, and I will always go slightly out of my way to wander through it if I’m near. If I’m simply strolling from Moorgate or London Wall to Broadgate or Liverpool Street, I make sure I cut through Finsbury Circus, and even just that quick diversion leaves me feeling warmer and soothed as a result. If I find I have even just a few minutes, I will get a Chai Tea Latte from one of the nearby Starbucks and go sit on one of the many benches and have a bit of ‘time out’ from the stressful day, just watching the sparrows and looking up at the sky through the stretching arms of trees, which is something I can rarely do as a City dweller. People with more time and money to devote enjoy a meal at the Pavilion restaurant there, which has a fun clubhouse-shack look with tables overlooking the bowling green, all of which I imagine will also be destroyed.

While this Spring will be an exception, of course, usually, as soon as the weather is warm, the garden fills with people reading, chatting, enjoying their lunch, sitting on the many benches that line the circle of the square, or the low stone walls, or the deckchairs provided by the bandstand, or just stretched out on the lawn. People are everywhere, sharing the joy of the gardens. During the City of London Festival each summer, the bandstand delivers bright live music, and I have enjoyed many a delightful lunch break during the festival whilst being wowed by impressive jazz musicians in Finsbury Circus, when somehow I’m not fond of jazz elsewhere. The atmosphere sells it, the rapture of the others around me, perhaps what the Irish would call the craic.

The gazebo, in particular, means a great deal to me as a symbol of a carefree time. Back in 1989, when I was in the UK for only eight months, a friend who was a professional photographer took photographs of me with my new fiancé and my future brother-in-law and his wife in front of the charming gazebo. Although I later, after an awful divorce, removed from the framed collages all the other photographs from that period containing the now ex-husband, I kept the ones from Finsbury Circus as they were always warm memories of a superb summer’s evening in a remarkable place.

In the centre of the Circus is a bowling green, and plaques citing former championship wins are posted on its edge. The bandstand is lined with plaques pronouncing the Square as having won awards as the best inner-city open space for some years. Or at least it was; I see those have been removed over the past few days given what feels like the impending apocalypse. There are palmettos beneath the surrounding canopy of beautiful plane trees, some of the oldest in the City (I hear the latter might be protected from the destruction; I certainly hope so). I understand the garden also contains the oldest specimen of the pagoda tree, Sophora japonica, so I pray that is also preserved. The Circus is surrounded by tall buildings with a Georgian feel that remind me of Bath’s Royal Crescent, and all sorts of little oddities pop up as you wander around, such as funny former drinking fountains from another century, benches installed decades ago in memory of 'old music hall artistes and song writers'. Everyone sitting in Finsbury Square seems to have an affinity with it, and we respect each other’s enjoyment of it.

So, get there while you can. There is barely any time left. Crossrail takes control of it from 1 March and will remove everything in the centre, although they will apparently in 2017 or so reinstate the little gazebo of which I am so fond and, I assume, the bandstand. They will presumably remove the Pavilion restaurant, the bowling green, the flowers, shrubs and many trees. They are storming in soon and I will have lost my refuge from the world, and I feel stressed already.

Ironically, I see that Transport for London have listed Finsbury Circus on its Open Garden Squares Weekend site, complete with a description of its marvellous attractions even though that weekend is in June 2010, long after this stunning sanctuary will be gone. I am offered as some insubstantial comfort the fact that Crossrail promises to reinstate Finsbury Circus when it is finished with it, at least seven years away. I am also told that we need this new railway, and I am not condemning progress. But I find myself devastated and depressed by the loss of this treasure, and totally lost as there will be nowhere to go so safe from the stresses of life with such amazing calming powers. I think on Friday, I may just cry, but I hope to race for one last glimpse and absorption of its gift of solace if I can manage it before an unmissable meeting. I’m already feeling dispirited to have to give up and leave now as it’s started to pour down rain, as predicted.

Go see Finsbury Circus now even if you’ve never been; it will warm your heart--if the bulldozers and diggers aren’t there yet. Nothing can replace it for me, my enchanted Shangri-La. I thank it for its many years of solace and diversion. RIP Finsbury Circus.