Friday, 26 November 2010

Review: Fela!, National Theatre, London

The theatre musical is not top of my list of ideal nights out. Cheery tunes to keep the spirits up and uplifting story lines with happy endings do much to please tourists and families but personally I've found them to be a thoroughly dispiriting experience unleashing my inner cynic (and I'm sure I'm not alone). OK, so there are exceptions (I did enjoy Avenue Q) but it would take a fairly unique series of circumstances to get me along.

Amazingly that unique series of circumstances has manifested itself in Fela! A stage musical based around the life of Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti. Firstly, it focuses on an artist whose music I love. Second, the sheer size of Kuti's musical entourage allows for justifiable ensemble pieces. Third the subject matter is dark and racy (How would they deal with excessive marijuana use, prostitution, police intimidation and the frankly depressing outcome of the death of not only the main character but also his mother?) The show has already been a huge hit on Broadway and now arriving at London's National Theatre I had a deep desire to see it.

For those who don't know, Kuti was born in Nigeria in 1938 and following a radical upbringing and time in the UK and the USA he created his own fusion of American and African sounds to create a new hypnotic sound called Afrobeat. His relationship with the existing military regime in Nigeria upon his return became increasingly difficult as he spoke out against industrial corruption and exploitation of the people. This tension culminated in a raid on his compound by over 1000 police officers in 1977 which resulted in his mother being thrown from an upstairs window and killed. Kuti is fascinating on many levels - as a musical innovator, as a political radical, as a consumate lover (he notoriously married 27 women) and arguably as a bigot as he was strongly homophobic (this last angle perhaps unsurprisingly not covered in this particular production). Over a million people attended his funeral in 1997. Clearly this was a life full of incident and worthy subject matter for such an examination.

I'm pleased to report that the production is like the man himself - vibrant and uncompromising. The audience is drawn in immediately with Fela's posse congregating in the stalls and drifting through the audience before taking to the stage to perform a series of increasingly impressive dance routines. The first hour goes by in a blur as the stage is awash with colour and sound. The energy of the cast is electrifying and the blur of tap dancing, booty shaking, twirling and shadow boxing is a joy to behold.

Everything about the production is played to perfection. The set (a combination of Shrine memorabelia and black historical icons) is beautiful as are the primary colours of the costumes. The script is well paced and despite the need to pack in a wide range of subject matter, the narrative arc works well. The dancing, as already mentioned, is out of this world. The real highlight though is the performance of Sahr Ngaujah in the title role. Watching him you find yourself momentarily forgetting that this isn't actually Flea himself. The visual resemblance is uncanny and his ability, like Kuti's, to hold a crowd is captivating. There are also excellent supporting performances from Paulette Ivory and Melanie Marshall as his American lover and his mother respectively.

The first half of the production is particularly good. There is an excellent segment on Fela's voyage of musical discovery through listening to Tubby Hayes and John Coltrane while in London to his politicisation in America and these factor's contribution to the evolution of Afrobeat. The second half is inevitably darker with the focus on the police raid on his home following his writing of the classic Zombie and the death of his mother. Fela retaliates by placing her coffin on the steps of the Government building.

The show isn't flawless - there are a number of angles touched upon which aren't fully explored (most interestingly the conflict between the Afro-American and black Africa's own vision of Africa).  Aficionados of Afrobeat would also be critical of the cutting down of 15 minute long songs to about 5 minutes in order to keep the story flowing therefore sacrificing the opportunity to suck people into the hypnotic quality of the music. However, these issues are understandable - the show is almost 3 hours long as it is - to dig any deeper would be impossible if the broad story of Kuti's life is to be told. Those who love Afrobeat would be better served going to see one of the numerous Afrobeat bands (Femi Kuti's Positive Force or Antibalas for example) but this production will expose the wonderful legacy of Kuti to a much wider audience.

Any quibbles though are minor. This feels like a landmark production in both subject matter (to have a National Theatre audience giggling about sharing spliffs and inspecting shit feels strangely subversive) and performance (the sheer energy  and audience engagement transmitted is utterly captivating). This is a show worthy of the man himself and praise doesn't come any higher than that.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Inerview: Andrew Phillips, Grasscut

1 inch/1/2 Mile might just be one of the most interesting releases of the year. An album that is at once somehow familiar and yet undeniably new. This Ninja Tune duo (Andrew Phillips and Marcus O' Dair) are a world apart from modern British dance music, their electronic industrial rhythms and ambient broadcasts evoke the pits of South Wales, the hills of middle England and the immense landscapes of Scotland.Grasscut, like say Boards Of Canada or Aphex Twin, understand the need for humanity and nature in a world of machines. Using field recordings and recycled 78's they evoke a certain historical dimension, yet this is no retro trip with some of the most cutting edge sounds of the year in tracks such as Old Machines or Muppet (see below). I was fortunate to catch up with Andrew Phillips in advance of live dates across Europe. 

When did you first really get into your music?

I was in choirs and orchestras as a kid, got into songs and making ambient tapes as a teenager, worked as a film and TV composer after university.
How did Grasscut come about?

Marcus and I were on tour with another band, and I started making field recordings and tunes on my laptop, responding to things we were seeing around Britain. We got offered a couple of gigs off the back of those early tunes and it snowballed from there.
What's the vision behind Grasscut?

It's important that the music feels unfamiliar, experimental, not generic, and also emotional. I wanted to use a variety of voices from the past and present, to keep the sound changing.
You clearly have a sense of Englishness in your work. Is that a conscious decision?
Well all the songs are about Britain really - Sheffield shopping centres, Welsh mountains, Sussex Downs particularly. It's not conscious, as such, it's just where I spend most of my time. Not the shopping centres, actually.
You achieve a fine balance between nostalgia and innovation - which is most important in what you do?
I don't think using sounds and voices from the past is necessarily nostalgic - I always think of nostalgia as a bit self-indulgent, as though you're trying to revisit or recreate the past in some way. In Britain our past is everywhere - it's an old country, but at the same time, we're living with an unprecedented speed of change. For me, putting those old sounds and voices in a contemporary electronic musical context just feels right. It feels like now.

How do you work in the studio? What kit do you use?
Lots of live instruments and mics - harmoniums, pianos, gongs, drums, synths. I use an old version of Logic, Ableton, lots of little bits of software, max msp. And I use my phone a lot for vocals, or street recording.

The cover art is lovely - is that important to you?

Thank you. Yes, incredibly important. We were fortunate to work with Pedr Browne, a designer and all round renaissance man, who did the artwork, and helped design the walk map within. It really sets the right scene for the music.

How do you perceive reaction to your work?

We had almost universally lovely reviews of the album in the press and were delighted. I think sometimes it takes people a few listens to get it, and we don't expect everybody to like it, but if most people who hear it get it in some way as you intended it, that's great. 
I see you're doing live dates - how's that working out?

Gigs are really fun - quite hard to take something so layered out live initially, but we've come a long way already, and had some great gigs - we have a full video show that accompanies  the music too. we're playing lots in Europe and really enjoying it.
What next for Grasscut?

We've got some British shows coming up, and are going to Holland and Prague in the next few weeks. I'm working on the next album already, and we're touring in France next January February and March.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Hidden Gem: Red Light Don't Stop - The Elektrons

Masters At Work, The Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk, Bassment Jaxx...there is a rich history of house duos who have been able to snatch sounds from across the dance spectrum to become the defining sound of their city and generation. Manchester's Unabombers (Luke Cowdrey and Justin Crawford) are arguably worthy of the same comparison. Their Electric Chair night became renowned not only for its hedonistic spirit but also its eclectic music policy. Theo Parish, Mr Scruff, Gilles Peterson and many more guested at the night but it was the Unabombers themselves who ruled the roost. They were soon releasing compilations and mix Cd's and playing festivals around the world.

As with many DJs who find such fame, they turned their hand to production. They took on the moniker of Electrons and released their debut album in 2007. Red Light Don't Stop was certainly ambitious; combining house, disco, hip hop, dance and bass sounds to create a reasonable attempt at encapsulating most of the predominant dance floor sounds of the previous couple of decades. These were certainly tracks that worked on the dance floor (I had an immensely good evening dancing to most of the album when Luke played a set at London's Cargo just prior to the album's release) but the album holds up surprisingly well as a home listen too.

Opener Get Up sets things up nicely - using tasteful hip hop beats to create the sort of track that would get people dancing in a bar. Its no surprise that Greg Wilson contributed a re-edit of the track. Next up is a dance floor monster - Dirty Basement which recalls exactly that - a grimy crowded basement at 3am with everyone in the zone. The bass line is irresistible while the female vocal is both soulful and urgent. Another highlight is Classic Cliche - this like many tracks reveals a pop sensibility at play. Its interesting to note that this was my five year old niece's favourite song of the year! This tune and others lead one to wonder why this record didn't really crossover - while rooted in club culture there are enough strong melodies to appeal to even the most casual listener of urban music. My sense is that the media was fixated on the next big thing- be it glitch house or dubstep - judging that this sound had already peaked with Bugs In the Attic and Bassment Jaxx a few years earlier. In doing so, I think they missed a really good record.

Other tracks fly by in a soulful summer haze until the album closes with the epic Joy. Rainforest rythms give way to a tasteful house beat and one could see this being a New York classic if it had been constructed by Joe Claussell and his Sacred Rhythm crew rather than two blokes from Manchester. I'm sure Red Light, Don't Stop probably didn't make its creators millionaires but they can be justifiably proud of one of the better dance records of recent years.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Odds and Sods: Round-up October 2010

I pondered for sometime this week over which of a number of new releases that I'd listened to I would write about. Having failed to make a decision I've decided to write briefly about each of them. Given that I have readers who like a whole range of genres I hope there is something here for everyone...

First up, the latest from the constantly excellent Fruits De Mer records - a label that specialises in psyched up modern versions of classic tunes. For release 15 they've focused on the tunes of Eddie Cochran with covers from Baking Research Station, Head South by Weaving and label faves Vibravoid. All three tracks are instrumentals and sound way more from 1969 than 1959 e.g. very psychedelic and strung out (in a very good way) All Fruits De Mer releases are vinyl only and limited edition so get in there quick from

Next up, off the back of my bemoaning the lack of decent guitar music recently I decided to check out the latest by current media darlings Arcade Fire. To be honest, this left me a bit cold, the subtleties of their debut Funeral seem to have given way to a slightly bombastic U2-esque anthems - there is material to enjoy here but one can't help but speculate that this is ultimately music for sports jocks in stadiums. Far more enjoyable in my opinion is the new release from perennial stoner scousers The Coral. Butterfly House is retro for sure but it manages to zip between the late 50's, the late 60's and onwards to 70's California to provide an enjoyable romp through rock history and never loses an ear for a good tune.

Another genre I've moaned about in recent months is hip hop. One release that certainly is worth checking out is the third album by East Coast rapper Homeboy Sandman The Good Sun. Homeboy's rhymes bring to mind a young Eminem and the production throughout is inventive and fluid. This one hasn't really been picked up by the music press but if you like your hip hop and want to hear something new you could do a lot worse than this.

I want to like Joanna Newsom in theory but I find her work a bit too baroque and  labour intensive over a whole album. I much prefer a release from earlier this year by Manchester based Jane Weaver. Her longplayer The Fallen by Watch Word is a great psych-folk concept album that manages to be ethereal without being twee and combinines a traditional folk sound with more proggy guitar tracks. Weaver is the partner of DJ legend Andy Votel and he's produced an excellent mix combining Weaver's songs with 70's folk rock classics.

I must take this opportunity to mention Robert Wyatt. I've always been firmly of the view that the one song that should never be covered is Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong. The original is so utterly moving with Armstrong's beautifully gravelly voice offsetting the sickly sweet strings. Wyatt (along with colleagues Ros Stephen and Gilad Atzman) has bravely taken the song on as part of a new album of jazz standards (he also covers In a Sentimental Mood and Round Midnight and At Last I am Free by Chic) and somehow he manages to carry it off. Wyatt has a sad, aged, tone to his voice which is at once full of beauty and of regret. Wyatt is still producing work of great invention (often using break beats as well as more conventional instrumentation) well into his 70's and he is a true one off. This album might not appeal to jazz purists (these are fairly conventional covers of jazz standards at first listen) but he carries the whole thing off through sheer force of personality and the emotion of that voice.

Finally - saving the best for last! I completely overlooked Hidden by Southend's These New Puritans early this year - dismissing it as indie nonsense. I should have known not to be so judgemental for this is undoubtedly one of the albums of the year. Managing to draw together classical instruments (oboe, trumpet, bassoon etc) with digital sounds and indie vocals this is a thrilling contradiction of classical and modern, indie and electronic, angry and sweet. For some reason it remonds me of Elbow's Seldom Seen Kid (as well as post Kid A Radiohead). Not because it particularly sounds like it (this is far more abstract) but it has that warmth of emotion so lacking in most modern british guitar music. I hesitate to call this guitar music as there is barely a guitar to be heard - you'll detect by now I'm struggling to describe it which is a very good thing - do yourself a favour and check it out - its very good indeed.