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cool cats singing in the night

It was last year, round about this time of year. I was living in London and so was, until the next morning, a wonderful Indonesian friend. We spent her last evening together, drinking coffee, wandering the cold streets of London, drinking hot chocolate and taking photos of her and river and us and the skyline along the river and talking, talking, talking.

While we were walking along the Jubilee walkway (that bit between Westminster Bridge and the Southbank Centre), I heard some music from up ahead that I really liked. I love street music and this sounded like a lot of fun. As we got nearer, all I could see though was a small CD player and a girl walking and dancing in front of it. We slowed down and looked and she approached us and asked if we liked the music and we said we liked it very much. She gave me a CD in a paper envelope, on which she’d handwritten a date and location and the name of the band she was blasting into the cold London night.

It was called Katzenjammer and she told us that she was ‘just’ a fan, doing this promotion by herself because she loved the band so much and not enough people knew about it – that’s some serious fan points in my book! Anyway, for some stupid reason that I cannot remember, I didn’t manage to go to the concert, even though I had really planned to go. And so I forgot about Katzenjammer.

Just last night, I was zapping through the TV channels after watching two really old episodes of Monk. I came across a concert that happened this summer at a big festival in Germany and I really liked the music and the look of the girls – so pretty and spunky and confident and feisty and funny. And that’s pretty much what the music sounded like as well. I quickly looked up the concert in the TV guide and – as you will probably have guessed by now – it was Katzenjammer.

They’re from Norway, and they’re an all-girls band who play about twenty instruments between them and the music sounds like a delicious, sweet and tangy and slightly naughty cocktail of rock, circus music, folk, the music of the better class of cabaret, with a good dose of ska rhythms thrown in, sprinkled with scenes from a French café and the last stand in at Mexican fort. I know,  that’s a crazy mixture! But it works. It definitely works. I’ll even prove it to you.

Understand what I mean?

P.S. I’m not sure what “Katzenjammer” exactly means in Norwegian, but I suppose it’s very close to what it means in German, which would be either, literally, ‘cats’ wailing’ (probably closely related to ‘caterwaul’) or, in the figurative sense, ‘hangover’. 🙂


even the darkness is made of love / Union Chapel, 25.11.’11

I remember this concert. Actually, I’ll never forget. How can you forget perfect happiness?
(This is yet another re-blog from my music blog as I’m merging both.)

Township Jive and the whistle of the train in the distance

Rolling Stone is streaming a live Paul Simon album (very nice mix of new and old material, by the way) and while I listen, half-dancing in my chair and singing along to most of the songs, I have pictures running in my head, the pictures of one of my most favourite music films ever: the Graceland concert in Zimbabwe in 1987.

Paul Simon's Graceland concert 1987

photo credit: Luise Gubb

I know I was only five years old when it took place, but it always make me nostalgic, as if I’d really been there. And how I wish I had. I love everything about it: the video footage of people going about their ways in front of the backdrop of soldiers and posters with extravagant praise of Mugabe (so bitter-sweet to see!), seeing the people flooding towards the stadium in the hot afternoon sun, almost as if they are on a pilgrimage. And then, once the concert has started, the faces, the dancing bodies, the people singing and hugging in the crowd, and the joy and mastery and craftsmanship of the artists on stage. And not least of all, the quiet Paul Simon, singing his songs, but fading into the group when someone else is the center, taking part in their songs as just another member of the band.

And boy, how that stage is just bursting with talent. There’s Paul Simon, who crafted all these songs filled with hooks and that lilting, tilting, vibrating guitar that just stays in your head hours after you’ve heard his songs. And then there’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who are so much fun to watch and to listen to, and who are impeccable in their timing and their harmonies. The musicians – Ray Phiri, Bhakiti Kumalo, and all the rest of them – are absolute first class. And then there’s the really big names: Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. Their contributions to that extraordinary concert make me laugh and dance and break out in goosebumps alternatively.

The concert is touching and vibrant and fun and beautiful, and really, enough said already. If you know this concert, indulge in its beauty yet again. If you don’t know it, you’ve missed out big time. And so that you can close this hole in your musical education, I’m posting the playlist of the full concert below (as far as it’s freely availabe on youtube). Just click play (or click on through to youtube) and let it play the whole wonderful Graceland concert for you!

fray, twist, skip and blaze / The Front Room @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, 20.11.’11

… re-blogging my posts from my music blog over here, in the efforts of merging them…

the serious game of growing up / The Garage, 9.11.’11

In the course of merging my other interests into this blog, as thought about in the last post, I’m re-blogging some of my own content over here:

even the darkness is made of love / Union Chapel, 25.11.’11

We’ve just come in from standing outside in the cold for almost an hour. They said the doors would open at 7pm and we were there early, because we didn’t have tickets and were banking on still getting some on the door. Needless to say, they didn’t let us in till 7.30. Shortly before that, I was close to turning to my friend and saying: “You know what? Let’s forget it and go see a movie.” Of course I didn’t. And now we’re inside, I’m deeply grateful that I disregarded my numb feet and frozen face – this venue is one of the most amazing I have ever been in, if not the most amazing.

I sit in a wooden pew, near the front, in the middle, pretty much where you want to be. My friend has gone to get us two cups of hot tea. I can feel people streaming in from behind me, surrounding me, hushed chatter rolling around the octagonal room, while above us the wooden, carved ceiling arches high, guarding the silence. It feels special to be here, in a church, a holy space and the place where so many great artists have performed wonderful concerts before. The air hums with expectancy and very soon all the places are filled up, and while people still move about, there’s many who watch the stage, talking quietly to their friends and neighbours, waiting. Music is played softly over the speakers, Greg Brown’s deep voice singing some of his more melancholic songs, and others I don’t recognize.

Suddenly a girl walks on the stage, young, red hair in two braids. She picks up a guitar and whispers into the sudden silence “I’m This is the Kit” and starts playing. The first line intrigues me (“tonight we are the same age”), and the many repetitions heighten my anticipation, but unfortunately there is no resolution. For the second song she takes up a banjo and, most endearingly, asks one of her friends, that she thinks she has spotted in the audience, if he could play the guitar part for this song. He comes up to the stage and they play the song ‘Easy Pickings‘ together. The whole set lasts only a bit more than half an hour. Overall, I think that This is the Kit is a very young performer that still has quite some growing to do. I like her voice, I like the way she plays the guitar, I like the melodies and she seems a very sweet person, but her songs lack impact. The lyrics are unsatisfying and less of the ‘ooh’-ing could be an improvement. All in all, it was very pleasant to listen to, but none of the songs stand out, and after the last note has sunk, nothing has really stuck with me.

We have about half an hour now. Most people get up and mill about. My friend gets us a hot chocolate to share, while I scribble down some notes and impressions and enjoy the atmosphere. The sound system is trickling … well, I guess it’s music, but it sounds like a guitar being tuned. Whatever it is, it’s slow and quiet and hypnotic. We exchange opinions about what we’ve so far heard.

Then, suddenly, quietly and modestly, Alexi Murdoch walks on the stage, picks up a guitar and starts fiddling around with the technical equipment laid out on the floor of the stage. Still standing sideways to the audience, he starts picking the guitar and fine-tuning the loop pedals. Nothing can be heard in the hush of the chapel except his guitar and the weird guitar-tuning sounds coming through the loudspeakers. At a nod from Alexi, those stop and he turns fully to the audience and starts playing over the looping guitar.

I’m not a fan of long standing. I have known his name for a while, I’m in love with ‘All my days’ and I like the juxtaposition of his first and last name (one so Greek-Russian-orthodox, the other so Scottish-dour-correct), yet the very first song makes me tear up. I sit there, staring at this unpretentious young man who seems to effortlessly reach inside me and touch my innermost self. The music does not need to wind through my ears and my mind – his voice simply removes all outer layers and speaks directly to my heart. I try to film or take pictures, but I simply feel too emotional, too overwhelmed to be able to concentrate on something as mundane as that. It is as if he is singing exclusively to me, and from the absolute stillness around me, I think that he has the same effect on everyone else. This is the most intimate performance I have ever had the amazing luck to attend. He seems to be equally impressed, whispering into the microphone: “This place is amazing. Where did you find it? Where did you all come from?”, then segueing immediately into the next song.

I’m impressed with is his musical virtuosity – Alexi Murdoch changes between guitars, and between guitar and other instruments easily and smoothly. He plucks a violin like a guitar, he plays a beautiful little impression on the piano, he uses a hand organ, something I have never experience live, and he employs another instrument played with his hands, which is a total mystery to me and looks more like a toy than a serious instrument. All of it is done with grace and naturalness. If it weren’t for the fact that I am totally in awe of him, and trying to deal with the raw emotions coursing through me, I would certainly be developing a most serious case of fan crush right about now.

A recurring theme in his songs is the sea. And darkness. All the pictures he draws are somewhat dark and while they certainly aren’t light and joy-filled, they aren’t sad either. They are as inevitably honest and as unchangingly real as the coming of night at the end of the day, or the ebb and flow of the tide. The stunning setting that he performs in tonight adds to the depths of his words. The sensation is quite indescribable when his quiet voice reaches up to the ceiling of the chapel, soaring in this beautiful building with the words: “there is no God, there’s only love”.

He uses words with the same ease and lightness of touch that he uses his instruments. It seems to me that he writes songs the same way that the stonemason in the old story makes the statue of a lion by simply chipping away all the rock that doesn’t look like a lion. He seems to have a vision of what a particular song is supposed to sound like, and then takes away everything that is unnecessary until he reaches that sound. The fact that the songs still sound full and gorgeous and perfect is proof of his mastery.

On the records, his sound reminded me very much of Nick Drake – a certain quality of languid beauty, quiet desperation and overarching love is in both of them. Live, however, the songs are much starker, increasing the impact. There is no resemblance to Nick Drake left, instead I can hear a certain Irish-Celtic sound in some of the songs that I never noticed before. It’s not in his voice, but more in the way he sings.  It gives the music a deep wealth of connotations.

Towards the end, he engages in more talk, saying that he isn’t sure how much time he has left and that he always thought this whole encore-thing “a bit of a sham”, but since it makes him feel good, he will now play the last song, “if you know what I mean”. This ‘last’ song finally topples me over the edge that I have been hovering on since the first line of the first song and tears are rolling down my cheeks and breathing has suddenly become hard, because my throat has closed up and I have only ever once before felt like sobbing my heart out while at the same time being so ecstatically happy that I feel as though every cell of my body will explode with it. I am being blessed by music.

During the encore he shows his kindness, including a song that he forgot to play at the very earnest-sounding request of a fan. It’s another stunningly beautiful song, and while the words of the fan thanking him (“Thank you. That was cool.”) seem to me extremely inadequate, the emotion is clear and he accepts the thanks with a little nod, before playing the encore he had planned.

When people are filing out of the chapel afterwards, I linger, unwilling to break the spell. Talking is hard. And there is no need for talk anyway. Everything has been said.

the serious game of growing up / The Garage, 9.11.’11

How much do you bring to a song and how much is there already?

Maybe it’s because I’m grappling with this situation myself at the moment but the main theme of last Wednesday’s concert at The Garage seemed to me to be that of coming to terms with growing up, connecting the support and the headlining act in a very smooth arc. Maybe all that I heard was only my interpretation. Maybe it was there anyway. I’m not sure. What I am sure about is that it was another beautifully passionate concert by The Head and The Heart, with the support of Singing Adams, who set the mood just right and introduced me to some wonderful new songs.

Singing Adams 

Steven Adams, Matthew Ashton, Melinda Bronstein and Michael Wood have songs that extend from dancable to personal hymns. In the former category are songs like Injured Party, Good Luck or Building a Wall, while the latter holds I Need Your Mind, St. Thomas and my personal favourite, Sit and Wait.

All the songs have lyrics that in some way deal with loosing dreams, realizing that priorities are changing, becoming aware that personal ideals aren’t what they used to be anymore – in short, they deal with the transition from the adventurous, finding-onself part of adulthood to that part where things become more serious, where reality checks some of the wild ideals and first disappointments happen. Does this sound very sad and dismal? It’s anything but. The lyrics are witty, ironic, nice-at-first-glance-until-you-really-listen-and-have-to-laugh-from-surprise. The music is has driving rhythms (girl drummer, yeay!), solid guitars and the singing a cheerful, yeah-it’s-a-bit-tough-right-now-but-let’s-not-take-it-so-serious attitude. And at least two of the songs (I Need Your Mind and Sit and Wait) felt like hymns-in-the-making to me, the kind of hymns you sing at the top of your voice.

(this is from the actual concert)

The Head and The Heart

*sigh* What can I say? I love them. In my eyes they couldn’t do anything wrong. Even better, they didn’t do anything wrong. They delivered everything I expected: beautiful songs, a passionate performance, down-to-earth attitude and heaps of fun. There isn’t a TH&TH song I don’t like, but I do have some that somehow touch me more than the others,and Lost in my Mind leads on that, with Ghosts following closely behind. All of them, however, gave me chills, made me dance and some of them almost made me cry (Lost in my Mind and Josh McBride) . Chasing a Ghost, the first encore performed by only Jonathan and Charity, was almost painful in its beauty.

Drops of sadness:

a) Singing Adams didn’t hang around long enough for me to get the chance for a chat, while The Head and The Heart were beleaguered and therefore equally inaccessible (very sad!!!)

b) The London crowd’s disinclination to dance. It’s very boring/frustrating to dance to songs you love in a whole crowd of people standing still and giving you strange looks.

All in all – non-dancing crowd, but soul-freeing music in an interesting venue that I will check out more. A great evening!

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