Agent Philby & The Funtans – Half Simpletons, Two Thirds Gods

Agent Philby & The Funtans

If Flight Of The Conchords are correctly described as New Zealand’s fourth most popular ‘guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo’, then Agent Philby & The Funtans are surely the south west of England’s premier ‘dysfunctional pop-rock-indie-seasick-alien-disco-blues’ band.

Like many bands, they have an interesting and at times convoluted history, with tales of previous outfits, an original drummer who’s now a surgeon, the loss of a core member over the decision to focus on original material, a disputed infant school connection, and a succession of past keyboard players called Jon.

‘We couldn’t find anyone else called Jon who played keyboards,’ says singer Phil, ‘so we’ve been without keys ever since.’

The current line-up has been stable for about 5 years, and includes an artist, a social worker, a GP, a teacher, an NHS Manager and a former UK breakdancing champion. It consists of: Phil Kelley (vocals and melodic), Jim Cumpson (vocals and harmonica), James Nunn (vocals and guitar), Annie Coppola (violin), Charles Plummer (bass) and Darren Stradling (drums).

It is this line-up that recorded the ‘&’ EP and, most recently, the band’s debut album ‘Half Simpleton, Two Thirds God’.

If bassist Charles just about manages to remember the line-up, he finds my question about the band’s style and influences even more challenging: ‘That’s a really tricky one,’ he says, ‘because there’s Jim with his love of American blues and soul, there’s Philby with his modernist interest in very current stuff and very eclectic taste which he always references in his songs, and there’s Annie’s classical background. Then James is into The Smiths, and I’m into the Clash, XTC, and those sorts of influences. Darren is the Topper Headon of the band, in that he knows every style. He’s a really good drummer, a rock drummer at heart, and he holds everything together. And then there are things we all love, like Tom Waits, who I think gets channeled a lot in our stuff, in different ways.’

It all makes for an interesting melting pot. How would I describe them? Well, musically and lyrically Agent Philby & The Funtans are an astonishingly unique amalgam of diverse and educated influences, characters and experiences. They are sophisticated nutty boys (and girl), capable not only of mixing styles but of blending serious reflections on life with quirky and sometimes quite dark humour. With the Funtans, to use the affectionate shortening of the name by which they’re more commonly known, anything is possible and little is as it seems.

Take their name, for example – a conjunction of the way guitarist James saved singer Phil’s number in his phone (after a chance encounter at a party to which James wasn’t invited), and the definition of the term ‘funtan’ offered by Viz character Roger Melly (I’ll leave that to your imagination for now). And then compare these laddish affectations with the origins of the album title – Gustav Mahler’s description of Anton Bruckner, on hearing Bruckner’s Mass No.2 in E Minor, as ‘half simpleton, half god’.  ‘Bruckner was a simple, uncomplicated soul occasionally touched by genius,’ explains James. ‘We really liked this,’ says Charles, ‘but there was disagreement about lifting it wholesale, so we made it not add up.’

Clearly, to crib a line from Bob Dylan’s latest work of genius, the Funtans contain multitudes – multitudes that merit further exploration and a bit of unpacking. In keeping with the times, their debut album has just been released on Spotify, iTunes, Bandcamp and a range of other online platforms, so what better way to explore than via a track by track run through of the unusually diverse set of simple, and not so simple, songs that have been subjected to the Funtan treatment, or ‘funtanned’, if you will.

‘Half Simpleton, Two Thirds God’

The Funtans - Half Simpleton, Two Thirds God album coverRecorded and mixed by Chris Turtell over three weekends at Plum Towers, the album boasts 10 tracks, 4 of which were released on the ‘&’ EP (which I reviewed at the time for Über Röck)  but which appear here in slightly remixed forms.

Charles and I discuss the diversity of the material, and I note that some of it, and particularly his own songs, remind me of bands like The Housemartins and the Beautiful South, who feed you sugar-coated pop music that, lyrically, is quite acerbic.

‘Yes,’ he says, ‘I agree with that. There’s that Tom Waits quotation: ‘I like beautiful melodies, telling me terrible things.’ I think that kind of sums up our approach.’

‘Concrete’

Opener ‘Concrete’ was one of the first songs the Funtans wrote together, building on Phil’s idea and lyrics. Lyrically it attempts to capture what Phil calls ‘a generalised, ambivalent malaise, the stifling relentlessness of white-collar working life and the redemptive effect of love.’

‘I write musically basic songs to explore things that bother me,’ says Phil, ‘and the Funtans turn that into something vaguely listenable.’

‘James often adds a lot of the musicality,’ says Charles, ‘putting in a middle eight, an intro and a breakdown and in this case the wild guitar thing at the end. Rhythmically, ‘Concrete’ just came out as this kind of skippy thing.’

When I reviewed the EP I said it was ‘paradoxically light and fleet of foot, conveying, as it does, something of a quaint Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci vibe, with rather fetching violin and split gender vocals (female voice courtesy of Becky Cumpson), and a rousing finale that is again reminiscent of Cool Cymru’s finest.’  I see no reason to revise that description, though Phil notes the coda’s ‘transcendent and climactic’ reinforcement of the redemptive themes of the song’s final verse.

‘Reg’

‘Reg’ is the first of Jim’s songs, and blends a heavy guitar riff (and some great soloing) with a ska rhythm à la Fun Boy Three.

Jim says: ‘It was written a few years ago when I was reminiscing about school days with friends. Reg was an old Polish barber who turned half of his shop into a sweet shop. He not only sold very dodgy sweets but he also sold the local school kids cider in old yogurt pots for 2p, 3p or 5p. He wore thick glasses and had snuff stains all up his sleeve. He was a character and we would always give him a wave when we went past.’

I mention that the two tracks on the album with the heaviest guitar riffs both take the same unexpected rhythmic turns, and that the conjunction of heavy rock guitar and ska rhythms is quite unusual.

‘Yeah it is,’ says Charles, and I think it’s because we’re quite conscious of not wanting to have songs that just carry on in the same way. There’s got to be light and shade. It’s something we’ve learned as we’ve evolved, that we’re not really a rock band and so we try to build contrast, light and shade, into every song.’

‘Dogs/Bones’

‘Dogs/Bones’ is perhaps the first track on the album where you get that sugar-coated pop thing really happening, though even the band’s sweetest and poppier-sounding songs sometimes build to an unexpectedly raucous or cacophonous climax.

The Funtans rehearsing‘‘Dogs/Bones’ is probably my favourite track on the album,’ says Charles. ‘I think it’s just beautiful and it’s got so many contrasting bits in it. It’s got lovely melodies and it’s also got the vocal breakdown bit which was my fucking idea [an ‘accepted and well known’ fact, apparently, and not the controversial claim the expletive might have one suspect – Ed]. It was chugging along at the same pitch and tempo and I thought let’s have a vocal breakdown with intertwining vocal/choral bits. I wanted it to be bigger than it is, but we didn’t have much time and Pippa Weaver came in and just did this beautiful vocal’.

Lyrically, the terms ‘sweet’ and ‘beautiful’ probably don’t apply. It’s described by its writer, James, as being ‘a song of reckless perfidiousness, the subsequent disappointment and the diminishing returns of libidinous conquest’. It is described by Charles as ‘pure filth’.

‘Velodrome’

‘Velodrome’ is classy, meaningful pop and one of my own favourites on the album. Another reference point, for those who may not yet know the song, is the Difford and Tilbrook type feel to the melodies.

Charles is pleased with the comparison, though again, there is serious lyrical intent behind the catchy and accessible tune:

‘I wrote this as a commentary on the rise of anti-semitism on the Left, having Jewish family, and becoming aware that those who you thought would defend and protect you can’t be relied upon. Relatives warned to always keep a bag packed in case you had to make a quick escape. This nightmare came closer to reality when Jeremy Corbyn nearly became PM.  The song examines ‘the horseshoe effect’, when you go so far to the Left, you nearly join up with the Right, and they end up being indistinguishable. Losing friends who couldn’t see it, or didn’t want to see it, or indulged in casual anti-semitism themselves, is the hardest part. The title is an oblique reference to the Nazis holding rallies in the Berlin Velodrome, and there’s another reference to ‘peddling for our lives’.’

‘Musically, the chords are simple, but Annie’s violin – especially the solo verse/chorus section at the end, gives it a musicality that I never dreamed of. It’s a dark topic but my dark topics always get turned into three-minute pop songs once they get the Funtan treatment. By this point it had become a bit of a band joke that this happens, and hence the pseudo-Beach Boys type outro. We’re playing it, and they’re looking at me with my very cross face just laughing their heads off.’

‘The News Where You Are’

‘The News Where You Are’ is an intense, heart-rending, countrified track that wouldn’t be out of place on Dylan’s ‘Self-Portrait’ album. Once again, the pathos of the violin adds so much, and it’s another of those tracks which builds to a wall-of-sound like ending.

The Funtans - Phil singingIt’s one of Phil’s songs, which he describes as ‘a song about not facing up to your responsibility, hiding behind various fronts and excuses, and not having the courage to speak authentically with your own voice before finally mustering the necessary strength to do the right thing.’

‘Musically, it’s really, really simple,’ says Charles, ‘so we have to work with light and shade again, and having a big build-up that just falls away at the end has become a bit of a feature of the way we do things. I think Annie’s classical background has brought that in, the dynamics. Music’s not just about notes, pitch and rhythm; it’s also about ‘piano’ and ‘forte’.’

Lyrically, it’s peppered with references to a range of other songs and influences, including Leonard Cohen, Velvet Underground, Ricky Nelson, Bob Dylan (again), Country Joe & the Fish, and even Rebel MC – hours of reference-spotting fun for all the family.

‘Haircut For Texas’

‘Haircut For Texas’ undoubtedly is my favourite Funtans track. When I reviewed the EP, I said it ‘oscillates confidently between the artistic fineries of Dylan and Waits’ as it ‘broods along in edgy and convincing fashion.’

I mention to Charles that it was the first time I heard a really strong Tom Waits influence on their music. ‘Well, it comes from Jim’s American roots sensibilities,’ he says, ‘and his vocal style is not dissimilar. He has that growl. And the subject matter is also something that could be off ‘Swordfish Trombones’’.

Jim explains: ‘Haircut For Texas’ was actually written in Texas. I was driving across the USA on a road trip in 2014 with some friends and spent quite a few days criss-crossing the State. The background to the song is that of a Mexican farmer making his way in Texas and coming across gunslingers terrorising local towns. When said gunslingers killed the townsfolk they would dress them up in their open coffins – with new haircuts and ‘limes on their eyes’ – and parade them in town as a warning to others. The music was a collaboration with James.’

‘I always argue that we should start with it when we play live,’ says Charles. ‘Just hit them with it. I think it’s a brilliant, brilliant song. And the way it just kind of waltzes along. I love it. Love it!’

‘Life Of Crime’

‘Life Of Crime’ is another of Charles’s songs: ‘Lyrically, it was inspired by a care-leaver I worked with as a social worker. I made many trips to various Young Offender Institutions around the country to see him before he eventually ‘settled down’. He told me the incredible story of how his dad – a career house burglar – would take him and his younger brother house-breaking at night from the age of six, because they were small enough to be passed through open windows.’

The Funtans - Darren‘Musically, this was one of my first songs written with The Funtans – hence the slightly unevolved post-punk vibe. It was a musically raw, three chord sequence and it was James who had the ideas to develop it. During the recording, we researched weird offences for Jim’s voiceover bits, like ‘Operating on a cow while intoxicated’ and ‘Entering Parliament in a suit of armour’.’

Personally, I love the dirty, heavy riff and frantic rock of this track and the lapses into the ska rhythms of the chorus. It’s also proved to be the perfect jogging track! (Which probably tells you more than you need to know about the way I run.)

‘42’

I must confess, ‘42’ always stops me in my tracks, and I don’t really know what to make of it. I love the bass intro and the violin but overall find it both compelling and unsettling. It’s one of Phil’s songs and it has the most incredibly personal and intimate lyric. You can hear the emotion in his vocal delivery. You can’t hear it and not react. You can’t just let it wash over you. You have to form some kind of relationship with it.

Charles, however, is in no doubt. ‘It’s my second favourite track on the album,’ he says. ‘It had a difficult musical birth until Darren and I found the rhythm, and the bass line that repeats like a train on the tracks. I think this song is carried by the violin. I think it’s so beautiful. It’s probably one of the sparsest songs on the album, and I really like that. It moves me to tears.’

‘I wrote ‘42’ in 2014,’ says Phil, ‘as I was going through a horrible redundancy-cum-sacking at work, 42 being the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy’s absurd answer to the ultimate question of ‘life, the universe and everything’, and the age I was when I wrote it. It originally emerged from an attempt to play Bowie’s ‘Rock n Roll Suicide’, hence the lyrical nod to ‘time smoking’, but I couldn’t work out the right chords. It originally had the same 3/4 rhythm, but in rehearsal Charles and Darren spontaneously hit a different 4/4 time and that stuck.’

In keeping with Phil’s general songwriting style, there are a wealth of allusions to other lyrical influences, including a reference to metaphysical poet John Donne.

I comment that when you start unravelling the Funtans songs, it’s often pretty cerebral stuff.

‘Yes,’ says Charles, ‘it is cerebral. I think that because we’re the age we are, and because we’re reasonably educated, that’s just what comes out. We joke about being a mid-life crisis sort of band, and I think that’s who we appeal to, if we appeal to anyone other than ourselves! [Laughs]  There’s lots of stuff in our songs about how our lives have turned out, and kids, and I think that’s alright. Why does rock music always have to be angry? I mean, there is a lot of anger in there, but why does it always have to be about the anger of youth? It’s ours too.’

‘The varied frames of reference in the songs, from real life, from literature and from the last 40 or 50 years of popular culture, are inevitable,’ says James, ‘if you throw together curious, reasonably well-educated people with, between them, a very broad experience of life. As with everyone, there’s personal triumph and tragedy along with the inevitable accumulation of interests and knowledge. Because of the stage of life we’re all at, it’s not surprising that our songs take on subjects like the long haul of relationships, parenthood, lost youth, love and the ghosts of our pasts.’

I remember once reading a description of heavy rock as being ‘music made by middle-aged men for young boys’ and joke, somewhat mischievously, that in contrast the Funtans are essentially (with apologies to Annie) middle-aged men making music for middle-aged men.

‘Yeah, though I wouldn’t say just men,’ says Charles earnestly but to much laughter. ‘Lyrically, I think our music would appeal to all people who get the references and understand them.’

‘The King Of Nothing’

‘The King Of Nothing’ is the last of Charles’s songs, and, perhaps, the exemplar par excellence of that poppy but acerbic Housemartins vibe – it’s jaunty ‘dysfunctional pop’!

Charles - bass player with the Funtans‘It’s a celebration of mediocrity,’ says Charles, ‘a celebration of comfortable underachievement, you know, I’m not going to set the world alight but I’ve done alright. That’s where it’s coming from. But unlike, James, Phil, or Jim I can’t quite break out of the verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, verse, chorus structure in my songwriting.  This is fatal!  James and Phil contributed the ‘Hey, Hey’ interludes, and the guitar solo that sounds disturbingly like the theme from Rainbow, the children’s TV programme – and when the backing vocals were added – whadaya know – we had turned my high-minded Dylan-esque paeon to mediocrity into another pop tune.’

I’m intrigued by this recurring theme in Charles’s songwriting. He knows when he’s been funtanned! I ask him whether he ever puts his foot down.

Charles - bass player with the Funtans‘Yes,’ he says, ‘We don’t play ‘King Of Nothing’ live. Hardly ever. Cos ‘you’ve ruined my song; I’m not playing that anymore’. [Laughs.] It’s become a joke. Most people I speak to who’ve listened to the album think it’s the best track on there, because it’s got that pop appeal and I think it stands out like a sore thumb from the rest. It’s a good song. It’s just not where I wanted it to go. I look upon it like an errant child. You know, didn’t quite turn out how I expected: ‘That’s not how I brought you up!’’

I mention a comment of Jim’s, that his role in the band is ‘to bring the deep dark sounds on the harmonica that can take any happy jolly song to the darkest of places,’ and suggest to Charles that he should write with Jim more.

‘Yes, I should,’ he says, ‘but, you know, we have done a Christmas version of ‘King of Nothing’ with different lyrics, and I think it could be a massive Christmas hit!’ This is probably utter fantasy but we could have a massive Christmas hit with that and then retire. [Laughs].  Hmm … but then I’d have to disown it. I’d have to sell it to someone else. Someone else could record it. I don’t want to be remembered for ‘King of Nothing’.’ [Laughs.]

‘I’m Off’

Album closer ‘I’m Off’ was one of the quartet on the EP, and it’s one of James’s songs.

‘‘I’m Off’ was a tune that I made up and played to the kids and used to make up stupid words about our family to make them laugh,’ says James. ‘Later I wrote the lyrics because I was missing London and, well, missing being younger. It comes across as a rejection of the city in favour of clean green country life, but the opposite is true. The final lyric about finding ‘somewhere that’s good to bury a dream/because I can’t remember what it was and the air here is so clean’ is supposed to be spat out in self-disgust. The refrain, ‘you know what I mean’ is something my oldest friend and I used to say to each other at school when we couldn’t say what we really thought. It was Jim who came up with the simple accompaniment on the harmonica in the chorus, and that’s what he and Annie build on throughout the song. Also this is my favourite bit of Darren’s drumming. The fill before the third verse is sick.’

James’s lyrics, though grounded in existential dilemmas, often tickle me, and I point out to Charles that James has a 100% track record on the album of including the word ‘whore’ in his songs.

‘So he has,’ says Charles, ‘that hadn’t occurred to me. He just writes filth anyway. It’s all smut, his songs. It’s shocking’.

Which brings us back nicely to the part Viz-inspired band name (in the fine ‘Badly Drawn Boy’ tradition) and Roger Melly (‘The man on the telly’)’s definition of ‘funtan’ as: ‘a short-lived healthy glow in the face of a gentleman following a spot of self-discipline’.

I tell Charles that I put a ‘now playing’ post on Facebook recently with a picture of the Funtans album cover. One long-time friend, John, a guitarist, responded: ‘What a great album title!’ Another friend, Joe, a drummer who used to play in a band with John and who has subsequently become a vicar, commented: ‘And what a great band name!’

How familiar Joe the Vicar is with Viz, I’m not sure! However, I do know that he is still smarting from the rejection of his suggestion that his and John’s band should be called ‘Cliff Rescue and the Helicopters’. It was the 1980s, and we all wore CND badges and worried endlessly about nuclear war. It wasn’t what the band were looking for. In the end they called themselves Four Minute Warning.

Charles grimaces at the ‘Cliff Rescue’ suggestion. ‘I’m getting a wedding band sort of vibe there. That’s what I worry about with our name. It gets shortened to The Funtans, which is okay, but I’m not sure it’s in keeping with what we’re really about.’ [Laughs]

Funtans on stage

‘The Joy Of Six’

For The Funtans, as everyone else, the pandemic lockdown has meant virtually zero live music and, with people preoccupied with other matters, less space for creativity. ‘But before that happened we’d been working on lots of new songs,’ says Charles. ‘We’ve got a long list and we’ve been talking recently about booking a weekend, recording four songs and eventually working things up into another album.’

‘There’s ‘Homebird’,’ he says, ‘which is a very early Funtans song which we did record for the album but weren’t happy with. Then we’ve got four of James’s songs, five counting ‘Homebird’, two of mine, two of Phil’s and one of Jim’s. And then there’s one Darren has written about a bingo caller.’

It’s drummer Darren, indeed, who was the former UK breakdancing champion with ‘The Fresh Rock Crew’. He was also a holiday camp worker in his youth, and his song ‘Shake Your Balls Up, Dougie’ is about a bingo caller who Darren frequently had to sober up or cover for.

‘The Fall did a song about a bingo caller, ‘Bingo Master’s Breakout’,’ says Charles, ‘so it’s a theme, it’s an acceptable subject.’ [Laughs] Darren’s song is actually number 2 on our list of songs to record, after ‘Homebird’.’

I ask if the songs are stylistically similar to those on the first album.

‘Yes, I’d say so,’ says Charles. ‘Obviously I don’t know how it’s going to sound when we do it, but I think lyrically, structurally, musically, it’s all coming from the same place. You know, no one’s got into synth pop or anything. Our recording plans are currently vague, though, due to ‘the rule of six’ and the new lockdown restrictions.  In fact ‘The Joy of Six’ is the working title for the album.’

The working title? I ask, amused but a bit surprised.

‘Well, admittedly it’s a very recent development,’ says Charles, ‘the law only came in yesterday!’

The Funtans performing

Agent Philby And The Funtans: ‘Half Simpleton, Two Thirds God’ is now available on a wide range of online platforms, including Spotify, iTunes and Bandcamp.

‘It’s even available in Russia,’ Charles tells me. ‘It’s freely available in the former Soviet Union, which is very exciting’.

For more information on the Funtans, go to: http://www.funtans.co.uk or check their Facebook page.

Many thanks to Charles, Phil, James, Jim, Anne and Darren.

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Trinity Live 2014

 Trinity Live 2014 flyer

 

So, what started as a planned short tour with The Reasoning, Touchstone and Magenta turned into a special charity gig at Leamington Spa Assembly Rooms on 18 May 2014 with a greatly expanded and quite mouth-watering line-up.  It promised to be a great day – and with an auction, a raffle, assorted donations from the great and the good, a VIP lounge and a guest appearance by artist Rodney Matthews mooted, I was sure it wouldn’t disappoint!  And so it was that I took my good self off to the inaugural Trinity event for a birthday weekend treat with Messrs Woodley and Brew.  Here is my review.

Trinity Live - Leamington Spa Assembly Rooms

Kicking off proceedings is former Pallas man, Alan Reed,  who, aided and abetted by prog whore Mark Spencer (sorry Mark, couldn’t resist), produces a set of engaging, accessible and thought-provoking tunes. Apparently he’s a BBC journalist now! The set consists primarily of solo material with Pallas’s ‘Sanctuary’ (a song about Auschwitz) thrown in for good measure. The highlight, though, is a superb version of Twelfth Night’s ‘Love Song’, for which Reed and Spencer are joined by Kim Seviour of Touchstone.  It hits all the right buttons for the occasion. They keep things relatively simple and uncluttered, giving the voices and words room to breathe. Sadly the world still needs the light cast by the words and music of the late Geoff Mann. Moving stuff.  Post-performance, I pick up a copy of Reed’s First in a Field of One for good measure.

Trinity Live - Reed Seviour Spencer Love Song

Reed, Seviour, Spencer – ‘Love Song’

Matt Stevens is fast developing a reputation, not only as a gifted and original guitarist, but also as possibly the nicest man in prog. That means that he plays his ‘one man and his guitar’ (oh, and a loop pedal) set to a receptive and supportive audience that responds well to his unique brand of energetic and inventive music. Those who’ve not done so should check out Lucid, his recent solo album, and Spooky Action by The Fierce and the Dead.

Matt Stevens - Photo by Tim Laurie

Lucid moments – Matt Stevens entertains. (Photo by Tim Laurie)

Motorway traffic has delayed the unfortunate Heather Findlay, so an impromptu change to the running order sees an earlier than expected performance from Magenta.  The presence of vocalist Christina Booth delights everybody in the audience – it was, after all, her cancer treatment that inspired the Trinity event in the first place. She looks and sounds fantastic. It’s an impressive set with the band rocking surprisingly hard and material from latest offering, The Twenty Seven Club, standing out.  The highlight of the set, however, is again a cover, with Alan Reed joining the band for a very emotional version of ‘Don’t Give Up’, the Peter Gabriel/Kate Bush duet. (There’s a version knocking about on You Tube and Facebook, if you want to seek it out – check out the audience response!)

Trinity Magenta - photo by Ali Brew

Christina Booth and Magenta – photo by Ali Brew

When Heather Findlay does finally hit the stage she’s resplendent in a flowing white, sparkly dress, a veritable prog princess, whose powerful and striking voice delivers a shorter than planned six track set to a rapt and attentive audience. Joined by guitarist Chris Johnson, particularly impressive are the gentle and folky ‘Yellow Time’, and the classic (Mostly Autumn track) ‘Evergreen’. It really is a flying visit though, with Heather only able to stick around for half an hour or so before she’s off again. Bloody motorway traffic, eh?!

Trinity Live - Heather Findlay and Chris Johnson - photo by Ali Brew

Heather Findlay and Chris Johnson – photo by Ali Brew

Lost in Vegas are the band of Assembly Rooms owner and Trinity organiser Chris Lynch. They sound like my kind of thing – full-on hard rock. However, the unavailability of food in the venue (which doesn’t have a licence to serve food, apparently) means we’ve got to go out to eat sometime – and just a track or two in I leave with the others to feed my aching hunger.

Speaking of which, we make sure we’re back in time to catch the eagerly awaited return of The Reasoning, now a  six-piece with Robert Gerrard replacing Tony Turrell and giving the instrumental passages a new Purple-esque feel (that complements the guitar work of Keith Hawkins) and a new vocalist/acoustic guitarist in the form of Sebastien Flynn-Goze. It’s a storming set. Opener ‘Dark Angel’ sets the tone, followed by ‘The Thirteenth Hour’ . ‘Fallen Angel’ features a great vocal performance from Rachel Cohen, and two killer solos from Keith – such an important part of The Reasoning’s sound these days. ‘Awakening’ features a Bach-influenced organ intro from Robert, with the epic ‘Adventures in Neverland’, ‘A Musing Dream’ and, yes, crowd favourite ‘Aching Hunger’ drawing the well-chosen, career spanning set to a rousing conclusion. The band is currently working on a new album – and the vibe and performance auger well.

Trinity Live - The Reasoning

The Reasoning – the new look line-up rocks Trinity Live!

Touchstone are a band I usually want to like more than, in practice, I do. They have some very good moments, for sure, but despite the odd exceptional track, they’ve never quite done it for me. Until tonight that is! From the first note to the last, this is Touchstone with a BIG sound – more exuberant and confident than I’ve seen them before. Indeed, this is the first time I’ve seen them looking so ‘at home’ and using the full width of the stage to maximum effect. For me this is the performance of the day. I suspect they draw the biggest and most enthusiastic audience of the day too. Here is a band seemingly growing in stature before our very eyes, and it’s great to see. Though ‘Strange Days’ remains my personal favourite, it has to be said that with John Mitchell’s help they deliver a stunning cover of ‘Mad World’. You could be forgiven for thinking that they wrote it themselves!

Trinity Live - Touchstone

Touchstone and John Mitchell – powerful and persuasive!

That’s not to say that headliners Arena are in any way off the pace. They deliver a solid, enjoyable and highly-competent set with moments of genuine excitement. With Clive Nolan (and his rotating keyboard), John Mitchell and Mick Pointer in the ranks, it’s quite a line-up, and on this occasion Kylan Amos picks up bass duties in the absence of John Jowitt. Vocalist Paul Manzi is one of the most flamboyant front men I’ve seen in a while – nineteenth century dandy meets 1980s’  hair metal rock star! But there’s no doubt he has a good, strong rock voice, and visually he demands attention. Those untroubled by last trains and Monday morning work demands remain appreciative throughout and are well rewarded with a full-blooded and gutsy set. It’s a strong band performance and an entertaining end to a wonderful day.

Trinity - Arena Paul Manzi and John Mitchell

Headliners Arena – Paul Manzi and John Mitchell

A word too about the charity auction and raffle. An extraordinary number of bands donated all sorts of weird and wonderful paraphernalia – including Rush, Yes, Peter Gabriel, Steven Wilson, Marillion, The Pineapple Thief, Roger Glover, the Summer’s End Festival, The Reasoning, Steve Hackett, Touchstone, Flying Colors and Gordon Giltrap, to name a few! Artist Rodney Matthews even turned up to auction some of his own prints, including the ‘Heavy Metal Hero’, one of his favourite pieces. The biggest money was splashed on the Rush, Flying Colors and Steven Wilson items in particular, with my friend Ali delighted to secure The Pineapple Thief bundle!

 

Trinity - Rush Auction

 

The event apparently raised £12,000, which after operating costs enabled the Trinity Team to provide Breakthrough Breast Cancer, Cancer Research UK, and Brain Tumour Research with donations to the tune of £3,000 apiece.

There are plans to do it all again on 9 May next year, with work on assembling a killer line-up already underway. Make sure it’s in your diary!

 

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HRH Prog/AOR 2104

HRH Prog Panic Room - Gavin Griffiths and Anne Marie Helder

Spring 2014 turned out to be real Progfest, with both the Trinity Live charity event and HRH Prog coming along in quick succession.

The latter featured a stunning line-up that included the likes of The Flower Kings, Focus, The Enid, Purson, Panic Room, Fish and The Pineapple Thief (to name a few). With a number of ‘must-see’ acts over the AOR stage too – Tigertailz, Graham Bonnet and headliners UFO – it turned out to be a blissful 3 days of fabulous music and great company in the beautiful setting of North West Wales.

If you’d like to know what happened, check out my full review on the Uber Rock website.

Prog ‘n’ roll!

Prog Crew

HRH Prog Crew – all present but largely incorrect! Photo by Fiona Boubert

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Robbie Cavanagh: ‘The State of Maine’ Album Launch

 Robbie Cavanagh album launch

I’ve made no secret of my admiration for Robbie Cavanagh’s solo debut The State of Maine. (Check out my Über Röck review, for example.)

The announcement, therefore, of a series of three album launch gigs in Manchester, Liverpool and London sounded positively mouth-watering. Irresistible, in fact. And so it was that Jess and I rushed through Friday afternoon as quickly as we could, trading Welsh hills and Roman Baths for a small Baptist Church in Hampstead, London.

We only missed one turning. It just happened to be Junction 2 of the M4, and it set us back an hour. To our surprise and delight, however, we still manage to arrive before the gig starts – and boy was that lucky, with both support acts, Your Correspondent and Lovelace, turning in ‘not to be missed’ sets.

Your Correspondent, featuring Andrew D. Smith (vocals, guitar) and Edwin Ireland (cello), play without the violinist, drummer and backing vocalist who feature on their 4-track E.P. – not that you’d guess anything is missing from the assured performance and quality of the songs. Of particular note are ‘Watching the Storm’, ‘Spinning Globe’ and ‘The Violin Trees’. (The latter, about a man whose job it is to select the trees from which violins will be made, is given an added twist by the story of the band’s regular violinist owning an instrument made in 1751.)

Second act, singer-songwriter Lovelace, proves as quirky and engaging as the music she plays.  She seems to spend a lot of time in the USA – and regales us with tales of a songwriting trip to San Francisco that yielded just one track, and the Nevada festival that inspired the song ‘Burning Man’.  For the first time ever, it seems, Lovelace is joined on stage by three young vocalists – Ruth Corey, Hannah Murphy and Sian O’Gorman – who do a fine job replacing her loop station! It’s a veritable feast of melody, harmony and vocal gymnastics – hugely enjoyable stuff!

Robbie Cavanagh and Will RogersBut as good as the support acts are, within moments of him taking to the stage, all eyes and ears are on Robbie Cavanagh. He opens with ‘Deeper’, the first track of his album. It’s mesmerising – with the restrained drumming of brother Jamie and hummed backing of Messrs Brewin, Tosh and Rogers enhancing Cavanagh’s bleeding heart vocal and emotive guitar.

For this series of gigs Robbie has assembled nearly all the musicians who play on the album, namely Rick Brewin (percussion, bass, backing vocals), Rachel Shakespeare (cello), Melody Nairn (vocals), Jamie Cavanagh (drums), Will Rogers (guitar) and Drew Tosh (backing vocals). Keyboards this evening are provided by Liviu Gheorghe.

There is a warmth evident between the musicians, and, indeed, the contribution of the band to Robbie’s performance should not be underestimated. Rachel Shakespeare’s cello, for example, adds appropriate pathos, as on the enormously impressive ‘Heavy Heart’. Melody Nairn’s dreamy voice works particularly well on ‘1991’ (a personal favourite), the male/female vocal dynamic emphasising the significance and impact of the lyric. Group claps add percussive force to the flamenco-styled ‘Worn’ and contrast nicely with Robbie’s quieter guitar moments. The full band version of ‘Boy From The Fair’ is a treat. And ‘Choked Up’ is given an energy boost that has it sounding even more ‘countrified’ than on the album, the upbeat music clashing delightfully with the (relatively) dark lyrics.

The fact of the matter is that The State of Maine features some achingly beautiful and often delicate music. One of its strong points is its ‘realness’; the sense of ‘person’ you get from the songs. Seeing that same person perform the songs live reinforces this.

Cavanagh has presence but is unassuming. There is strength and emotion in the songs – he seems to feel every note and every lyric – but between songs his manner is gentle. He is charming but also modest.  “Thank you for clapping,” he says at one point, “it makes it better for us.”

He seems genuinely grateful for, and even surprised by, the enthusiastic response of his audience. His explanation for having chosen to play in a church is that: “You have to face the right way, and the doors are locked.” He is gracious towards the support acts with whom, he says, he has “fallen in love a little bit”.

This was an intentionally small and intimate gig attended by, perhaps, 50 people. (Apparently, he had half the cast of Channel 4’s Hollyoaks at the Liverpool gig.) Hopefully more gigs will follow. Check out the album, and if you do get a chance to see the man live, make sure you take it! As I said in my album review, here’s a musician, and a soul, on fire!

Robbie Cavanagh launch gig - stage shot

The State of Maine is available now on iTunes.

Physical copies are available from Big Cartel.

Check out Robbie Cavanagh’s Words and Music interview.

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The Threepenny Opera – Graeae Theatre Company

Graeae Theatre Company. "Threepenny Opera"

 

“SEX, VIOLENCE, DRUNKENNESS, BAWDY HUMOUR AND SOME CRACKING SONGS … ALL THE THINGS WE LOVE SO MUCH!”

Review by Paul Monkhouse

What, you may ask, is a review of a MUSICAL doing on the esteemed pages of Words and Music? Well, if your idea of musicals is something like Les Miserables (much better than the film), Grease (the film is much better than the musical) or even We Will Rock You (the band is much better than the musical) or, Heaven forbid, the truly awful Mamma Mia (the band is much better than either the musical or the appalling film)… then think again! Neither is it an opera, despite the title, but it has the style and bile so beloved of great artists such as Ian Dury and as such is a rare and fascinating feast.  Also … you, dear reader, obviously have both the class and intelligence to appreciate something a little different, something with superb lyrics and a superb musical score. Words and music … both sublime and THAT is what this site is called and is so passionate about.

This isn’t just a production line West End show, with performances and emotions done by rote, but a living, breathing piece of musical theatre which (I feel) is possibly going to be one of the very finest and most unique shows that you’ll ever see. Full of fantastic songs, amazing performances, brilliantly simple staging and a heart that beats hard and true, this has much more of a rock/punk spirit and mixes not only social satire/commentary but a touch of Music Hall and a real, rebellious and righteous (in the best possible sense) core.

Graeae Theatre Company always brings a troupe that deftly incorporates both able bodied and disabled actors and musicians, all perfectly cast. In fact, the matching of The Threepenny Opera with Graeae is an absolutely perfect fit, giving the piece a reality and resonance that has an awful lot of both passion and compassion. Extraordinary, challenging and inspiring are just three words that start to describe their astounding adaption of the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill classic. Once again, the company have put on a show which is both wildly entertaining and breath-taking in its execution. Despite having been originally performed in 1928 and itself adapted from 18th-century English ballad opera, John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, the production is as bitingly relevant today as it was then.

Graeae Theatre Company  "The Threepenny Opera" - CiCi Howells as Polly Peacham and Ben Goofe as Jake

CiCi Howells as Polly Peacham and Ben Goofe as Jake

Diving straight into the dark underbelly of London’s underworld we meet a motley selection of criminals, prostitutes and corrupt policemen, all of whose lives intertwine as they conspire to thrive and survive as the capitol prepares for a royal coronation. When the notorious and brutal criminal Macheath marries Polly, the only daughter of ‘King of the Beggars’ Mr Peacham, the latter plots to deal with Mac once and for all by any means possible. There follows a tale full of sex, violence, drunkenness, bawdy humour and some cracking songs … all the things we love so much! With brilliant staging and a superb score featuring standards like ‘Mack the Knife’ and ‘Pirate Jenny’, The Threepenny Opera is a treat for the ears and eyes. To say too much of the plot and visual effects would spoil the surprises and is, quite frankly, lazy journalism. Rest assured though that you’ll be both gripped by the story and equally amused and surprised by the graphics.

Milton Lopes oozes a heady mix of charming charisma and danger as crime-lord Macheath, his voice having a ‘certain something’ in its gravel and unique accenting that proves irresistible to both those characters onstage and the audience off of it. Acting honours are arguably stolen by the always brilliant Garry Robson, whose Mr Peacham conveys even more cunning and manipulation than the Fagin-like character he first appears (also without the latter’s vaguely anti-Semitic overtones). As Mrs Peacham, Victoria Oruwari plays her character with a little more broad humour but there is most certainly steel behind her act and she has a beautiful singing voice. In other lead roles: Will Kenning (as corrupt Chief of Police Tiger Brown), Natasha Lewis (as Lucy Brown, one of Macheath’s more recent conquests) and Amelia Cavallo (as Jenny, Madam of the prostitutes and a key old flame of Macheath) are all outstanding, the latter having a particularly emotive and melodious voice. Special mention must go also to John Kelly, superb as the Narrator, always ready with a twinkle in his eye and a rough edged quip or two.

Graeae Theatre Company  "The Threepenny Opera" - Milton Lopes as Macheath and CiCi Howells as Polly Peacham

Milton Lopes as Macheath and CiCi Howells as Polly Peacham

For me though, one of the biggest revelations was the amazing CiCi Howells as Polly Peacham. Having seen her in the very physical but silent role of Cat in the New Wolsey Theatre panto (true!) at Christmas I had no idea of the voice she was holding down within herself. When she let rip, it was pure, gutsy, ‘rock chick’ with enough fire and emotion to strip the varnish off of the seating and set fire to the beer taps in the bar. Don’t get me wrong, there was pure animal passion there but also a subtleness and wellspring of delicate sentiment that gave her performance real colour. Rather ironically, it is Jude Mahon, who acts and sings who leaves another huge impression. ‘Ironically’ in that her main role as Sign Language interpreter is absolutely magnetic but almost always silent. It’s an eye opening revelation to see her sign some very suggestive lyrics in a way that’s even more explicit but beautifully poetic, physically speaking. Her shadowing the movements of Polly in ‘Barbara Song’ (known colloquially by the cast as ‘Knickers’ (sic)) is absolutely stunning.

It is a necessary evil of reviewing a show to mention certain people but truly, there isn’t a member of the superb twenty-strong cast who doesn’t get their moment in the spotlight and from the leads to the ‘supporting’ actors all the performances are uniformly excellent.

There is so much to see and hear in the show that it’s definitely worth seeing it more than once to take it all in. Visually arresting and packing a huge punch, directors Jenny Sealey and Peter Rowe have created a show that HAS to be seen.

You can see The Threepenny Opera at:

Birmingham Repertory Theatre
Dates: 27 March -12 April
Tickets: £15.50 – £27.50
Tickets on sale now: www.birmingham-rep.co.uk

West Yorkshire Playhouse
Dates: 24 April – 10 May
Tickets: From £12
Tickets on sale now: http://www.wyp.org.uk

 

Graeae Theatre Company  "The Threepenny Opera" - Garry Robson as Mr.Peacham

Garry Robson as Mr.Peacham

 

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