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Doctor Who and the gender question

Well it has been a while. The blog did die something of a death, largely because maintaining it kept getting pushed to one side by other demands on my time. It hasn’t been for want of things to say, it’s just that there have been other ways to say it. However I’ve suddenly got a few things to get of my chest and one of these is the recent casting decisions around the BBC’s flagship science fiction show.

As we all know the lead role will shortly pass to a woman for the first time; Peter Capaldi’s Doctor will regenerate into Jodie Whittaker. And unlike too many people I don’t have any problem with that at all. It is a bold decision, possibly one that won’t work but I’m happy to give the new Doctor a chance – and if she doesn’t work out the sword of Damocles is always dangling over her character anyway. But given her track record (and that of the writers) I’m sure she’ll be great.

But in all the fuss over who the new Doctor would be and the eventual revelation there was a fairly important question that remained unanswered; what happens to the main supporting role of the Doctor’s (previously invariably female) companion.

Well if the rumours are true we now have our answer; Bradley Walsh, 57 year old comedian, quiz show host and actor is reported to have been cast in the role. It should be noted that to the best of my knowledge there is no official confirmation of this. I am acutely aware that I am going to jump the gun here as we don’t know exactly how Bradley Walsh will be cast. I should also add that I have nothing against him personally and I’d probably be making the same post if another actor of similar age and background had been cast instead.

However my worry (and I’d be reasonably happy to be wrong on this) is that Bradley Walsh’s companion will be a bumbling sidekick to a feisty female doctor. And here we come to the crux of the problem; a female doctor wouldn’t miss the point but such a casting combination would.

The Doctor is a centuries old alien and as such has always had something of the bumbling professor about him, even when played by Matt Smith. Every incarnation has their own quirks but ultimately the Doctor is the same character. And here comes the rub; the companion is not the same character although, again invariably, the role of each companion is very similar.

Since the series was revived in 2005 the Doctor has had six full time companions; all women living ordinary lives until their path collides with that of the Doctor and their life changes forever as a result. And there are other similar plot devices that connect each companion; how many times has the companion been the emotional anchor when the Doctor fails to consider the human angle? More critically the companion ultimately ends up being the heroine of the overall plot arc. The idea of a female Doctor correcting some sort of gender imbalance is a red herring; all fans will have their favourites and not so favourites but Rose Tyler, Martha Jones, Donna Noble, Amy Pond, Clara Oswald and Bill Potts have all been terrific role models for any girl (and a few boys as well).

And another point; with the exception of Donna all of these characters have been YOUNG women. Also, again with the exception of Catherine Tate who was an established actress and comedienne prior to her casting, the companion has always been played by a relative unknown who enjoyed a major career boost as a result.

Which takes me back to the rumoured casting of Bradley Walsh and why I’m so annoyed about it. When a female doctor was confirmed I thought there was an equally groundbreaking opportunity for a youngish male companion. We could have (for example) a newly demobbed soldier adjusting to civilian life in the Tardis, or a long haired emo type juggling his band and his studies with being whisked off to deal with Daleks and Cybermen. What a chance for the series and what an opportunity for a rising young actor (the young cast of the recent Knock Knock episode did well for example – perhaps one of the lads could step up like Karen Gillen did from an early appearance). But no, a female Doctor means we need an older male companion who will probably (not definitely – he could be a hard bitten veteran of the first Iraq war for all I know) play the part of the comic relief.

In the revived series there have been male supporting companions; Wilfred Mott (veteran actor Bernard Cribbins) memorably stepped up to the guest companion role and Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) got his own spin off show. However the only real male breakout within the series proper has been Rory Williams and even he was a babbling wimp in his first series before they realised Arthur Darvill was being wasted as an actor and gave him something to stick his teeth into.

And finally, the elephant in the room. Gender and more specifically gender stereotyping. On the surface Doctor Who does appear to present a male lead/ female sidekick dynamic which could suggest that the man leads and the women follows. If the companion was presented as a screaming bimbo forever having to be rescued by the dashing male Doctor then that would rightly be unacceptable in the 21st century. However I have shown above that this is not the case as far as Doctor Who is concerned. In fact they often go the other way by presenting another stereotype; the girl is the gutsy hero while the man is a useless buffoon (and let’s face it, the Doctor often is a buffoon on occasion). Times have changed and women are rightly presented as both the leader and the heroine. Jodie Whittaker’s casting reflects that. So Doctor Who makers, if you’re reading this, give us a male companion and hero to remember (and make some lad a star while you’re about it).


Vote of our lifetime

Yesterday (Saturday 20th February) David Cameron called a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union for June 23rd. Whatever the outcome there is little doubt that this is an era defining moment and certainly the key moment of Cameron’s tenure as Prime Minister.

Obviously there is a relatively long time before the referendum itself and a lot could change. However I suspect that the result will be close; I honestly don’t know which side the coin will come down on. This blog isn’t so much about my own views on the referendum question but my mind is unlikely to change. I will be voting for Britain to remain a member even though, perversely, I’m not sure that’s the outcome I want. To explain;

We have been here relatively recently, or at least those North of Berwick Upon Tweed have. Just eighteen months ago Scotland voted to reject independence after a debate that was passionate and heated but proved a glorious street party for Scotland and a great boost to their economy. For better or worse, at least the rest of the UK is going to get some of that.

The Scottish referendum is key here because as we all know the side that lost the battle won the war. The SNP failed to convince Scottish voters of the case for independence but swept 56 of 59 Scottish constituencies in the general election that followed. Scottish voters shied from taking a step into the unknown but decided they wanted the most patriotic, pro Scotland party to represent their interests within the union. Nothing wrong with that.

The parallel with the EU referendum isn’t quite exact. The `out` campaign hasn’t coalesced around a single leader in the way that `Yes` in Scotland was always going to be about Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. There is going to be division between those who want to exit the EU as a pragmatic, libertarian decision (I’ll be generous and include Johnson, Gove, Duncan-Smith et al in this camp) and those who will make it a matter of tub thumping, intolerant nationalism (step up to the plate Nigel Farage who has of course been waiting for this for a long time and is unlikely to miss his moment). However the `in` campaign can hardly be complacent as David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn are hardly going to share a campaign platform.

Let’s envisage a scenario on June 24th when the UK has narrowly voted to remain in the EU. One can pretty much imagine the speeches from both sides. After all, we saw it in Scotland so very recently.The `out` campaign will be well placed to criticise every mis-step the EU makes and will be quick to pick up on broken promises when they occur. It’s in the lap of the Gods who benefits. Boris Johnson becoming the heir apparent to a lame duck David Cameron is the lesser of two evils. Nigel Farage is already as close to power as his French counterpart Jean-Marie le Pen was in 2002 and if he succeeds in dressing himself in the Union Jack he may be unstoppable. It is NOT improbable; Alex Salmond was once best known for being an occasional panelist on Call My Bluff and he rose to become First Minister of Scotland.

So in some ways a Brexit may almost be the progressive option. Cameron’s position would be untenable and somebody (most likely Johnson) will have to reshape a new UK within the Union. Labour may actually be able to position themselves as the genuine voice of progression.

Either way 23rd June 2016 won’t be the end. It will just be the beginning.

A final point. We are having a referendum because David Cameron promised one in his manifesto. He didn’t expect to end up in a majority government and having to deliver it. For keeping his promise he deserves some respect. But membership of the EU is not the most important issue in the political landscape. Far from it. The real national debate should be about the people struggling to earn a living wage and put food on their table. The scandalous geographical inequality in education. The vast estates in the North that have been devastated by thirty years of social neglect following de-industrialisation. What are the odds that these won’t be discussed at all (except of course when the SNP want to claim that they’re Scottish only issues as usual – couldn’t resist that)? I for one know the answer.


Omega Era – CD and gig review, 360 Club Leeds 18/9/2015

If anybody bothers to check this blog regularly you will have noticed that the number of posts has dropped dramatically in recent months. At the same time I made a pledge that I would review every gig I went to in 2015 and I WILL do that, even though some of the reviews are now six months overdue.

One possible reason I haven’t blogged as frequently is that the four local bands I was so passionate about in 2013 have slipped a bit off the radar; Pips are on hiatus, Four 45s don’t play as frequently and aren’t quite the same band and Strangers In Paradise always seem to play on nights I’m doing something. And the fourth band; Recovery; the ones I had a 100% attendance rate at one time …

Recovery never split as such but the band ground to a halt and further set of personnel changes left Jonathan Skinner as the sole founder member and Gav Ramsay went from being the new boy to the second longest standing member. It was a good time for a change of name to The Omega Era and for a fresh batch of songs. As to whether Recovery and Omega Era are the same band it is debatable. For those of my generation (born early 80s) it’s not entirely dissimilar to the question of whether Megatron and Galvatron were the same person. Or, for Only Fools And Horses fans, a bit like the question of Trigger’s broom.

There are reasons why Recovery didn’t lead straight into the Omega Era. Jonny Skinner was of course busy with a solo single (I’ll come back to that) and residencies at The Den and 10 Devonshire Place. However during this time he and Gav recruited Ryan Jones on guitar and James Dye and set about forming a band.

Perhaps it was this relatively long rehearsal period that set Omega Era apart from Recovery. The earlier band were a group of mates who gigged without much though before realising they had something special. Omega Era, by contrast, have spent months honing their sound and getting the EP ready to go before hitting the gig scene in earnest. The craft showed.

The CD launch formed part of a showcase for various Harrogate bands at the 360 Club, one of many live music venues in or around Leeds City Centre (I think it’s about the fifth I’ve been to in 2015). If the truth be told it was far from my favourite, being strangely claustrophobic although the acoustics were good. Omega Era were the second act on the bill, behind PseudoNympho and just ahead of Hellfire Jack. The latter, while not entirely to my taste, are always a difficult act to follow but Omega Ema made it look easy. Put simply, they’ve not only had the practice but have perfected a strangely complex sound that takes repeated listen to fully unravel. Gone are the poppier moments of Recovery in favour of a sound that hops on the border between rock and metal with Skinner’s imperious voice frequently vanishing into the murk but always to emerge again.

I’ve since heard that Jonny has scaled back his other musical commitments to concentrate on the band. If there is any criticism of the EP (entitled Alpha and being given away at the ridiculously generous price of £0.00) it’s that it doesn’t reveal the dimension that the frontman, at least, is capable of – it’s a shame that the stronger Recovery songs like Modern Army and Sunrise might be gone for good and quieter numbers (not just Keep The Candle Burning but also the brilliant 2013 piece Drive) would complement Omega Era’s distinctive rock sound nicely.

However that’s just a nit pick. The bottom line is that, unless Strangers In Paradise put out a new EP before the end of the year, the Harrogate rock scene is unlikely to see a better release.


Firstly I’m sorry I haven’t blogged for ages but other things keep getting in the way. It’s not for want of new music to write about.

Some of you may know that I’m a commentator on the excellent Popular blog that reviews every number one single, even if the knowledge of many of the commentators is so strong I often end up looking like the class clown. Anyway, the blog has now got as far as Hear’Say’s Pure And Simple and the dawn of the X Factor era. As part of the discussion I’ve compiled a list of the top reality TV chart acts; however as the blog owner prefers commentators not to mention future number one artists until their time comes I’ve posted the list here.

The list follows the old Guinness Book of British Hit Singles in ranking artists by weeks on the single chart, although it should be noted that the average chart run increased in length in the download era. This list was compiled on the 23rd of September and several of the acts had current chart singles at this time. It does not include appearances on charity conglomerates.

Finally for the chart stats I am indebted to another excellent site

1 Girls Aloud 262

2 One Direction 256

3 Olly Murs 236

4 Kelly Clarkson 207

5 Will Young 177

6 Leona Lewis 154

7 JLS 136

8 Gareth Gates 113

9 Little Mix 106

10 Alexandra Burke 99

GIG REVIEW – Relics, Dead Frequency, My Favourite Runner Up, Colt 45 – Milo Leeds 21/5/2015

They didn’t call this gig Four Faces Of Rock but it would have been apt. The venue was Milo on Call Lane in Leeds, not far from Oporto where I attended a gig earlier this year. There were four bands each representing a very different style although how deliberate this was isn’t clear. First up were Huddersfield band Relics who are very much in the metalcore category. This particular genre isn’t really my scene but it seemed very well done.

Which takes me on to Dead Frequency who – as Colt 45 have already had a write up on here – are the band I want to focus most on.

Dead Frequency (from Daventry, Northamptonshire) describe themselves as Glam Punk. Given how much Ziggy Stardust reset popular culture in 1972 and the enduring legacy of Freddie Mercury it’s curious how much performance and fantasy has dropped out of mainstream rock in recent years. I still feel a defining moment was when Oasis unexpectantly beat Suede to the top of the Britpop pile and the initially thrilling music of the Gallagher brothers gave way to a chugging blokeishness that produced a long slipstream of music that was at best beige and at worst thuggish and ignorant. Of course all acts are defined by their era (Mick Jagger put on a pink jacket during the glam years) and the Oasis effect meant that the Manic Street Preachers put socialism before eyeliner and even Elton John’s creative rebirth in 2001 saw the eccentric costumes of yore discarded in favour of singer songwriter earnestness.

It perhaps didn’t help that pop and rock diverged at a similar point (Pet Shops Boys and Erasure could hardly be called rock acts) and – something I was a bit hesitant to throw into the mix – maybe the one downside of a more tolerant society is that certain things aren’t as rebellious as they used to be.

But back to Dead Frequency who are Glam Punk and not afraid to flaunt it, right down to the cover of Ballroom Blitz. From the off they were looking to win over the audience and remind them that rock is about having a good time. Suffice to say that by the time a cannon of confetti was sprayed over the audience (Colt 45’s singer getting the brunt of it) they had succeeded. As a regular gig goer there are two marks of a good band and the first is how much you want to see them again (I’ll reveal the second shortly). I’m hoping Dead Frequency return to this neck of the woods soon.

Next up were Aberystwyth band My Favoruite Runner Up whose contribution to the evening was pop punk influenced. This band have two EPs and a full length album to their name and, while perhaps not offering anything out of the ordinary, are well worth investigating. I downloaded the Crossroads album tonight and there are some strong songs on there.

Which takes me on to Colt 45 and obviously I was fired up for seeing my favourite band of the moment again; judging by the enthusiasm of some other audience members I may not be alone. There wasn’t a tremendous difference between this show and the one they offered at the Royal Park so there’s little point in repeating what I said two blogs ago. Suffice to say it’s always a privilege to see this band and with Salt Water, I Thought I Knew Best and Chasing Yesterday (among others) present and correct it’s a case of great song after great song. Obviously Colt 45 offered a fourth sound of the night after metalcore, Glam Punk and Pop Punk and that sound was the brutal roar of simplicity and reality. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; there’s no great gimmicks with Colt 45 – they play and write songs better than almost all other bands.

Oh yes and the second mark of a great band? Well this only becomes apparent when a show overruns it’s scheduled times and it’s whether the band are worth missing the last train home for. Colt 45 definitely passed that test.

Take That, Newcastle Metro Radio Arena, 18/5/2015

I made a promise at the start of this year to review every single show I went to. I’m currently a little bit behind but I promise that McBusted and Gretchen Peters will get the write up they deserve. In the meantime I’ll try and stay topical.

This was the third time I’ve seen Take That although the second time around (Amsterdam 2011) wasn’t entirely comparable due to the presence of Robbie Williams and his solo set halfway through. That was the Progress tour, which of course was a career defining moment for all involved. It was always going to be a comedown for Take That after that and indeed they themselves acknowledged it; `I’m Gary, I’m Mark, I’m Howard and we’re what’s left of Take That`. That said Robbie’s presence was always a glorified guest spot and Jason Orange’s role was relatively minor.

Post Progress Take That were almost in the same position Abba occupied in the late seventies, that of the pop band who people liked even if they didn’t dare admit it. However the III album was a relative disappointment with no real stand outs and a slightly samey effect across the whole album. The most interesting thing about it was the lack of guest spots which might possibly have been an attempt to disguise who was missing. However in the four years that seperated Progress and III both Gary and Mark have released solo albums (one reigniting his solo career and the other stuck as a cult concern despite far superior material) so there may also have been a desire to emphasise the group element. Credit where credit is due III sounds as dissimilar to Beautiful World (a fine album in its day but slightly dated now) as that album did to Take That And Party.

However when you have the hits and the history you don’t really need the new material and Take That have plenty of practice at putting on a show. The decision to play indoor arenas this time around allowed for more ambition with the staging even if there wasn’t anything as spectacular as a giant robot making its way through the audience. In some ways it was a retread of The Circus tour with a similar theme. Without the Robbie distraction the set list was largely similar to that tour with the better songs from III replacing the supporting numbers from The Circus.

Seeing Take That reduced to three members did bring into focus how this all came about. Gary Barlow was the lad who used to make music in his local studio, Mark Owen was the teaboy who became his mate, Howard Donald and Jason Orange were recruited primarily as dancers and a sixteen year from Stoke On Trent was brought in to make up numbers. You could be cynical and suggest that the band was now Gary Barlow accompanied by a tea boy and a dancer. However this would be an injustice to Howard Donald who was always involved in the musical side even in the early days and a definite slur on Mark Owen whose solo career I’ve blogged about previously.

Gary Barlow did himself no favours when he fought to keep Robbie Williams from stealing the limelight in the nineties and it’s ironic that he may still pull rank (listen to The Circus and marvel at how the magnificent Owen led Hold Up A Light never got a single release while the stodgy Greatest Day did) but there could be little doubt that there was always a lift in the show when Mark Owen came to the fore. Let’s face it, latter era Take That is better when he’s in the ascendency and yet he still seems like the teaboy who got lucky.

Nineties era Take That was relatively unrepresented with only five songs from that era, two of them covers, and even Back For Good felt like an awkward insert. However they served as a reminder that you weren’t just watching a superbly performed and choreographed show but that the Take That story featured four years of super stardom nobody thought could last, ten years as the butt of cruel jokes and a comeback that defied expectations. Some things are great just because it was never really supposed to exist and Take That 2015 is one such thing.

Colt 45, Royal Park Leeds, 11/3/2015

This is going to be a lengthy post, largely because it’s effectively three blogs rolled into one. Two of the blogs I should have written last year but due to other constraints I didn’t. However the time has come to talk about two of the best gigs I’ve ever been to (and another one that’s up there), two of the best records I’ve heard for a long time and a band who – if there was any justice in the world – should be massive.

It began in January 2014 with an impulse buy. I read a positive review of a record by a band called Blitz Kids, liked the stuff I checked out then saw they were playing Leeds Cockpit and decided I’d go along. In one of those little moments that one’s life hinges upon, when the night came I had to dash for the train and literally got on just as it was arriving. Had I missed it I would have made Blitz Kids but not the support band who were literally coming on stage as I arrived. That band was Colt 45.

Obviously I go to a lot of gigs and – contrary to the impression I sometimes give – I’m not that easily impressed. I may nod along and applaud but it’s very rare that a band has me absolutely transfixed. But Colt 45 put me in mind of Jon Landau’s famous reaction on seeing Bruce Springsteen for the first time. I can honestly say that I’ve never been confronted by such power and urgency that I saw on the Cockpit stage that night. Not only was the band’s sound terrific but they ripped from song to song and each one sounded great. As soon as the show finished (Blitz Kids incidentally were well worth the ticket but didn’t come close to the support band) I snapped up a copy of their CD.

That CD was Coughing Up Confessions which was already slightly out of date in terms of the band’s set and more pop punk orientated than their subsequent release. Like most independently recorded CDs it’s a bit ragged in places but judged on its own merits there are songs any band would be proud of, from the rage of Everyone Will Let You Down to the more introspective I’m Drowning, Not Waving. However there were two songs that raised Colt 45 far above the opposition, one on each half of the record. Those two songs were Happiness Is A Dying Art and Chasing Yesterday.

Happiness Is A Dying Art is the song where Colt 45 decisively find their style; the verse opening with vocals barked out almost like gunfire before the chorus enters in a sudden blast of melody. Chasing Yesterday, the song whose first line gives the album its title, follows the same blueprint but also introduces another Colt 45 hallmark in its refrain, `You will make it through this and you’ll make it out of here.` In itself this is nothing grandstanding, indeed almost cliche but read on …

So who are Colt 45? The line up consists of Neil Harper (guitar, vocals), Gareth Jenkins (bass) and Adam Lewis (drums). One description which they seem quite fond of is of them as, `a trio of pissed off punks from Cumbria`. They give a long list of influences of their facebook page of which the better known ones are The Replacements, Manic Street Preachers and The Gaslight Anthem. Unlike a lot of bands they don’t broadcast themselves as anything exceptional. In terms of their sound; the odd chorus harmony aside they’re a straightforward riff – verse – chorus – repeat act. While very much a group effort the ace in the pack is frontman Neil Harper; he has a distinctive gravelly voice somewhere between Rod Stewart and Roger Daltrey and is the architect of the guitar runs that mark their best songs.

Having been blown away at the Cockpit and with the debut album a constant on my Ipod the next thing was to try and catch them again live. An opportunity presented itself in March 14 when they played Gullivers in Manchester (shout out here for my friends Larry and Jamie who allowed me the use of their spare room – still much appreciated). This was a slightly more low key gig supporting ska band The Hostiles; not an obvious match but it seemed to go well. To be fair this show didn’t amaze me the way the Cockpit show did, partly because the element of surprise wasn’t there and the acoustics weren’t as strong. However it was still impressive stuff.

In July 14 the band released their second album The Tide Is Turning which – and I’ll stick my neck out here – may be the best record of the decade so far. Am I exaggerating? Maybe, maybe not.

The opening trilogy is worth the money by itself; the enigmatic call to arms of Salt Water and the more straightforward first single, OK. Then comes the three and half minute blast of brilliance that is I Thought I Knew Best. There’s no substitute for hearing it but this song has everything a great song should have including mystery, almost every time I listen to it there are nuances I haven’t picked up on before. There is nothing about ITIKB that could be done differently for me. It’s a fantastic song.

The remaining eight songs on The Tide Is Turning are also killers. From small town tales such as 595 and Found My Home to slower numbers The Simple Things Are Working and I Remember When The Rain came down there’s no filler here; the weaker tracks would be standouts in most normal circumstances.

Where Colt 45 rise above the pack for me is howthey sidestep the petulance and fantasy that  characterises a lot of pop punk bands, even the better ones. They don’t write songs about sleeping in bed all day and lying awake at night thinking about girls, instead they talk about getting out there and making something of yourself. For Colt 45 life doesn’t suck because you can’t party as often as you like, it’s cruel because the odds are often stacked against you. Put simply most bands hesitate to punch a brick wall because they might injure their knuckles, Colt 45’s music is the sound of having to bleed sometime.

On one hand it’s nothing madly original. Stereophonics wrote about small town life on Word Gets Around, the debut never they never managed to top but that album was riddled with filler. On the Born To Run album Springsteen breathed similar lyrical fire to Colt 45 (breaking out while you can) and, it should be added, found his true greatness writing about those who got left behind. Colt 45 are following in an old tradition and it will be interesting to see where they go next; I’ll make a few suggestions in a bit.

Which takes me on to their first headline tour and a chance to see them at the Royal Park pub in Leeds. It was my third time but the first in almost a year and also the first when they weren’t the support act. I didn’t really need a reminder of how fantastic the band are live but I got one. Inevitably I Thought I Knew Best was the highlight but there was also a fine version of Shit Happens from Coughing Up Confessions; their punkiest song featuring call and response between Neil and Gareth. During the show the latter frequently strode out into the audience with his bass. They finished with a surprise cover of I Drove All Night; one of the first records I ever bought and still a favourite today; this was Roy Orbison’s wall of sound inspired version but I also love Cyndi Lauper’s more skeletal reading. However it didn’t feel like a cover, Colt 45 made it their own and brought a new dimension to it doing so.

So to finish. On the one hand for Colt 45 anything seems to be possible. Neil’s voice is so versatile that the band could easily expand stylistically without sacrificing anything of their sound, particularly if the right producer gets behind them. Will they follow the Born To Run of The Tide Is Turning with a Darkness On The Edge Of Town? On the other hand I have to be realistic. In Leeds they were playing to a few people in the upstairs room of an out of town pub. Hopefully at the very least they’ll keep making music and I’ll get to see them a few more times.

Finally, this has been a frustrating blog to write because words can’t really describe how passionate I am and how passionate YOU should be about this band. Words are wonderful things but with Colt 45 all you really need is the music.

The War On Drugs, 02 Academy Leeds, 26/2/2015

So three gigs across as many nights, each very different to the one that went before. Ironically the last gig along was actually the first set of tickets I bought. If I’d known Ryan Adams was going to return with a superb new album and play the night before I might not have bothered this show – and missed a treat as a result.

It’s a sign of how fragmented music has become these days that a band so acclaimed (their third album Lost In The Dream received ecstatic reviews and topped many end of year critics polls) and who can fill a fair sized venue like the Leeds O2 are relatively unknown.

For those who aren’t familiar with the band, The War On Drugs offer extended length tracks featuring glorious soundscapes and complex arrangements. At one level their music grabs you immediately but on another it is strangely hard to get into, with each listen revealing new mysteries. It’s fair to say that they are a band you have to take time to get into and time is a luxury that’s in short supply for many of us.

During the show what impressed me most of all was how closely the band were able to reproduce their studio sound on stage without sacrificing any of the live atmosphere. Frontman Adam Granduciel was the key figure but the performance was very much a band effort. The result allowed the audience to lose themselves in the beguiling sound. There was also a place for audience interaction; Granduciel appears to be one of rock’s good guys and a contrast to the pricklier artist (even allowing for the camera incident) I’d seen on the same stage just twenty four hours before.

One thing I’m finding increasingly with the blogging is that it’s hard to write about gigs without recourse to adjectives that are either obvious or bordering on the pretentious. I suppose the limitus test of any gig is whether it was worth the price of admission and how inclined you are to go again. For War On Drugs the answers are `yes` and `very much so`. In the meantime I hope I find time to give their unique music the hearing it deserves.

Ryan Adams, 02 Academy Leeds, 25.2.2015

Many years ago (okay 2001) there was an album called Gold by Ryan Adams which attracted some rave reviews. There were some very good reasons for this; the album was sixteen tracks long without a dud in sight and some truly brilliant songs within the sprawl. Amazingly it was Ryan Adams’ second album in as many years following on from the almost equally acclaimed Heartbreaker. For many people Ryan Adams, similarity of name to a Canadian soft rock icon nonwithstanding, marked a return to the days when the Beatles and Bob Dylan (the most frequent comparison) were pumping out near perfect records twice yearly. There were rumours that Ryan Adams was producing whole albums in his downtime that were being shelved solely because the record company couldn’t keep up.

Unfortunately Ryan Adams couldn’t quite sustain the momentum. Demolition, a compilation of offcuts, had its moments but didn’t do justice to the hype. He found himself at loggerheads with his record company when it rejected his proposed new record, Love Is Hell, for being too depressing. Rock and Roll, a straight up rock album produced as a sarcastic response, alienated some critics and fans. Love Is Hell itself, eventually released over two EPs and finally as a full album, proved a worthy follow up to Gold but also marked the end of his imperial phase. This was 2004.

2005 arguably saw overkill with three albums, one a double set. While there were some great songs buried among the sprawl the overall impression was quantity over quality and the casual fan found it impossible to keep up. That year Ryan Adams turned 30. The superstardom promised by Gold hadn’t materialised and probably he never wanted it. The decade ahead would prove less fertile with bouts of ill health caused by Meniere’s disease. There was a steady stream of albums, some of which (Easy Tiger, Ashes and Fire) hinted at a partial return to form – it’s fair to say that none of his records were actively bad but all dwelt in the shadow of Gold.

Last year he released Ryan Adams. At first there was little to suggest to me that this would be much different to what came before – until I heard the record and realised that in one respect talk of this being the best record since Gold wasn’t true. Ryan Adams was at least as good and arguably the record of his life; he’s certainly never risen higher than the opening blast of Gimme Something Good, the slow burning Kim and – best of all – the almost impossibly haunting Shadows which falls almost midway through the album and forms its centrepiece. Ryan Adams the album had me dusting off that old copy of Gold and rifling through the catalogue to see what I’d missed. When he announced a show in Leeds I decided to check it out.

The show itself consisted of five songs from Ryan Adams (surprisingly few for such a recent work) and three apiece from Heartbreaker and Gold, the rest being picked from across the lesser albums. There was also an improvised song, Concierge, made up on the spot after a mishearing of an audience request. Given that the resulting song would have made a more than passable album filler it’s no probably wonder that he produces records so quickly. Inevitably it was the better known songs that stood out, particularly the aforementioned Shadows and La Cienega Just Smiled which is my favourite cut from Gold.

In the queue ticket holders were asked by stewards not to use flash photography at the request of the artist. Further signs repeating this request were pasted across the venue. When Ryan Adams came on stage it was obvious that a fair few in the crowd either hadn’t heard the instruction and felt it didn’t apply to them. The man himself promptly repeated the request, explaining that it was due to a side effect of Meniere’s disease. Needless to say there was one audience member who still ignored the request prompting an understandable but extraordinary outburst (`that guy there who keeps flashing me, fuck him, I asked you nicely`). The result was slightly startled applause and I suspect that it will be the thing many who attended the gig remember. He was joking about it by the end – the songs immediately after were played with a stony lack of interaction – but artists have walked off stage for less. It will be interesting to hear if this was a recurring incident at every gig.

There was lower level aggro later when I overheard somebody (correctly) ordering those talking loudly during some of the quieter numbers to be silent. I must admit that I left musing on the relationship between performer and audience. Tickets weren’t cheap and one could argue that the ticket buyer (note this does not necessarily mean fan) was consumer and customer and thus entitled to their money’s worth. However I’ve long been of the opinion that people who insist on taking photos/ filming short snatches and talking during songs don’t really care about music. Would I have felt short changed if further flash photos had caused RA to walk off? Dissappointed maybe but not with the artist.

To be fair to everybody concerned Ryan Adams’ audience has always been slightly split between alt rock and singer/ songwriter fans and perhaps such artists suffer when they have to take their work out on the road and face the resulting melting pot. It may take Ryan Adams another thirteen years to produce his next masterpiece (although let’s hope not) but as somebody who follows his own muse without fear of the consequences he’s an artist music fans need to keep faith with.

Nothing But Thieves/ Darlia – The Wardrobe Leeds 24.2.2015

This particular gig began a trilogy of gigs for me on successive nights in Leeds (I’m a bit late with the write ups). The two that follow are by relatively established artists but this one was about chasing that fabled thing they call the future of rock.

It’s a well worn routine now. At the start of each year the media publish lists of their `hopes` for the twelve months ahead and the readers scurry to check out those who seem most likely to appeal to them. In 2015 it might well be that there is too much media and too many bands competing for not enough column inches. Certainly I find it hard to keep up these days.

Nothing But Thieves were the band I set out to see even if they were only the support act (a local band called Vitamin opened the show) having read about them in Q recently and enjoyed some of their stuff on youtube, particularly the haunting Graveyard Whistling. They appear to have quite a bit going for them, not least a singer who can actually sing and songs that might actually take a few listens to fully appreciate (remember when music used to grow on you – too few people do these days).

I hadn’t heard of Darlia until I bought the tickets which proves my earlier point about too many bands. It was obvious straight away that pairing with them with Nothing But Thieves was a clever move. While Nothing But Thieves take their lead from the more progressive elements of indie and pop punk Darlia’s sound falls firmly in the twin traditions of glam and grunge – BUT both bands speak a similar language. It’s clear that Darlia have picked up a frenzied following; I didn’t go in the moshpit myself but I was tempted.

There’s nothing madly original about Darlia but I suspect they’re not trying to be. This is rock music as a God somewhere intended, played loud and willing to raise two fingers if necessary. More to the point Darlia have some fine songs hiding behind the fuzz and attitude.

So for me; another night and another gig in search of the band who might change the world or who, at least, might change my life. Nothing But Thieves and Darlia aren’t there yet but for either band I’d say that a lot is possible.