A weekend in London (aka Wilco @ O2 Academy Brixton)


When the 12.40 from Glasgow rolled into London Euston at 5.05pm it meant two things:  1) Remarkably for a Virgin service it was arriving several minutes early, and 2) we were heading straight into rush hour on a Friday evening in the capital.  Within minutes I was telling myself that I hate London as hundreds of commuters were fleeing in every conceivable direction around me.

That was a very rash statement to be making in my internal monologue and I immediately accepted that I was being foolish.  I’ve been travelling to London for nigh upon fifteen years, and while there has been the ocassional falling out it is easily the longest relationship I have ever been in.

All it ever takes is one ride on the Tube and I know that everything is going to be alright. Even a simple journey to Covent Garden (changing for the Piccadilly Line at Leicester Square) is enough to set my loins ablaze.  Maybe I just have a fetish for underground transport systems, but there is little makes me feel more alive than planning out a journey from A to B via C (and sometimes D and E) and then completing it.  The tap of an Oyster Card, the stoic announcements asking you to “mind the gap”, the rush of an oncoming train; it’s all so exhilirating.

My purpose in London this time was fourfold:
1)  To see Wilco play for the first time since they played Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall far too many years ago (that is to say that I can’t remember how many years it has been)
2)  To attend the Fulham vs Sheffield Wednesday game at Craven Cottage
3)  To have a beer at The Harp, the best bar in London and maybe the world
4)  To find a suitable bar to watch the Celtic game

In a manner which is absolutely contradictory to the way in which lists traditionally work I completed these tasks in reverse order.  The abforementioned trip to Covent Garden was a means of striking #4 off my list as it had been recommended that Philomena’s was the ideal location to watch the Kilmarnock vs Celtic match.  This turned out to be the least Irish “Irish pub” I have ever drank in, and despite the fact that there were three or four different games showing on various screens I’d venture to say that it barely qualified as a sports bar due to the constant assault of nineties disco classics on the ears at the expense of commentary from any of the sports on TV.  It was almost as though they were trying to appeal to three different audiences at once:  the drinker, the sports fan and the dancer.  As The Killers might ask:  Are we sports fan or are we dancer?

[Sidenote:  I’ve never been entirely clear on what qualifies a bar as being ‘Irish’.  Is it the name?  The decor?  The content?  ‘Irish pubs’ are everywhere, in every big city, but I’ve never found out what distinguishes them from any other bar selling Guinness.  I’m not saying that they should be filled with dancing drunk leprechauns cheerily greeting you at the door, but you know, maybe for a little added authenticity?]

It’s difficult to be too harsh on Philomena’s, however, because their table service ensured that I always had a pint of Peroni in hand and that I didn’t have to miss a minute of Celtic’s arduous 1-0 win against Kilmarnock.  So thanks for that.

The Harp, now there’s a bar with an Irish sounding name that has no pretences of being ‘Irish’.  I’ve enjoyed many a good night in here and it was my pre-game boozer of choice on Saturday, with it being a short walk to Embankment station and the District Line train to Putney Bridge (see how exciting planning can be?)  This place is a classic old style pub with no loud and overbearing pop music, no distracting televisions and loads of old men discussing world affairs around pints of Suffolk ales.  Though in this bar, given its proximity to the heart of London’s theatre district, they were likely discussing all things thespian, but the point stands:  These old dudes know what’s going on, and they talk about it over pints of fine English ale.

It was with a bit of a heavy heart and a hint of a stagger that I left The Harp, however I had underground stations to travel through, lines to change and a journey to Brixton via Craven Cottage to navigate; an opportunity to truly engage my love for planning transport routes.  This was tested even further by the suspension of the Circle Line.  And while I had no intention of riding on the Circle Line on Saturday anyway, I felt it was worth celebrating my success in travelling from Putney Bridge to Brixton without the use of the yellow line on the Tube map by dropping in to The Craft Beer Co. for pre-gig beers.

This chain of London bars is a haven for hop lovers with 30 keg and cask taps of various beers (the Covent Garden branch has over 45.)  Though with hipster craft beer enthusiasts comes procrastination, and it is often the case in these bars that bearded beer drinkers will take as long deciding what to order at the bar as they will drinking their pint.

Saturday was a night for bearded, plaid shirt wearing hipsters in Brixton with American alt. Rock band Wilco playing their final show of 2016.  The Chicago sextet churned out riffs like the Craft Beer Co. poured pints, and the Academy audience drank it up.  Their set was as unpredictable and powerful as a citrus infused IPA, from the wild drum assault on Via Chicago to Nels Cline’s imperious showcase of the electric guitar on Impossible Germany.  Perhaps the only thing more remarkable than Jeff Tweedy and co’s command of the stage was the sight of a mass brawl breaking out in the stalls – twice.  I can only speculate as to what middle-aged men have to fight over at a Wilco gig, and if I had to guess it would be combover techniques or tweed.

Fortunately I wasn’t wearing tweed and so didn’t get caught in the midlife crisis melee and my love of London was reaffirmed by a weekend of rock and roll and trains.

A different day at the football

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Walking through the idyllic Bishop’s Park on the banks of the River Thames from Putney Bridge Underground station to Craven Cottage yesterday afternoon inspired a not entirely unexpected realisation.  As the amber Autumn leaves rustled underfoot and young children played ball games in the brisk November chill against the backdrop of houses with an average selling price of £746,709 and terraced properties valued at £1,659,934 I thought to myself how different this was to walking through the Gallowgate as I do any other Saturday to reach my footballing paradise.  There was no-one stumbling from darkened doorways in search of cigarette butts; no slurred requests for change.

Large groups of away supporters mingled amongst the Fulham fans in a sombre procession to the ground without a police officer sporting a body camera from the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act 2012 collection in sight.  I tried to imagine swarms of Hearts fans walking up London Road alongside 50,000 Celtic fans without so much as a “fuck the Pope” being uttered and it seemed very unlikely.  This was like a different planet.  Perhaps it was.

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Craven Cottage is quite unremarkable from afar.  It is, quite literally, a cottage nestled in the middle of a sleepy residential area – unlike Celtic Park, which dominates the skyline of Glasgow’s east end.  Upon squeezing through the impossibly small turnstyle and entering the ground there is immediately another indication of the different planet of football you are now on as you encounter a series of carts offering cold beer.  Guinness and San Miguel on tap before you even enter the stadium.  You’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.

There’s nothing particularly remarkable about enjoying a pint of San Miguel.  But when the choices inside a Scottish football ground are Bovril or something vaguely resembling hot chocolate then a cold pint of San Miguel is like an attractive blonde woman at a Donald Trump rally:  it is bound to be grabbed.

Of course, the addition of a beer to the standard half-time fare of a pie was all the more welcome and made the ten minutes spent in line that bit more rewarding than at Celtic Park – especially when there was an actual pie at the end of the line.  To enjoy this with a riverside view as opposed to the bi-weekly struggle to find a spot around the monitors to glance at the half-time scores whilst fishing through hundreds of tomato ketchup sachets to find a lone brown sauce was a real treat.

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It is reasonable to suggest that going to the football at Fulham was a gentrified affair.  The atmosphere in the home stands was largely generated by those abominable clapper contraptions that seem the craze in modern football, unlike the boisterous support offered up by the travelling Sheffield Wednesday fans.  There was an ocassional cry of “come on whites, movement!  Movement!” from the gnome-like gentleman in the row in front of me, but none of the scathing abuse that greets any misplaced pass in Glasgow.  Even the referee, whose decisions certainly seemed to favour the away side, was spared accusations of being an orange bastard or questions pertaining to his masonic tendencies and merely faced the suggestion from a woman behind me that he might have travelled south on the Sheffield Wednesday coach.  I’m not sure whether it was an accusation of bias or of austerity, both of which are likely to be looked down on around leafy Richmond.

A late Fulham equaliser meant that both sets of fans left the Cottage into the early evening darkness in good spirits, though with the eerie quietness that is more speculation than it is a statement.

Calling Festival 2015 @ Clapham Common, London

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It has been two years since Calling Festival lost the Hard Rock sponsored monnicker and moved out from Hyde Park to Clapham Common, with the formerly weekend spanning event being curtailed to two days in 2013 (where it spent a year at the site of the Olympic Stadium) and now to a single sunny Saturday in 2015.  It would be tempting to suggest that the inner-city festival has fallen on hard times (sic); an event which can boast of past headline acts such as Bruce Springsteen (3 times), Neil Young, Aerosmith (twice) and Paul McCartney was this year struggling to sell tickets – even with the assistance of £10 “flash sales” – with Noel Gallagher’s name on the top of the bill.

Not that any of this was on the minds of the 15,000 folk who elected to spend their fourth of July on the couldron like Clapham Common, in spite of distractions elsewhere in London such as AC/DC at Wembley Stadium, the Wireless Festival and Andy Murray’s bid for a second title at Wimbledon.  The site, on the southside of Clapham Common, baked in an unrelenting heat – the sunshine like an extended guitar solo from the Gods.

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Early acts on the site’s two stages found themselves playing to sparse crowds who often seemed to have had the misfortune of a rock show intruding upon their picnic, but that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of Elle King, whose bluegrass stylings and big voice evoked comparisons with Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes.  Over on the second stage young English rockers Vant proved to be more photogenic than musically memorable – although that may be enough to get them onto the cover of the NME.  Sunset Sons, meanwhile, offered a pretty fantastic slowed down version of the

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The layout of the arena and the stage timings meant that – if you wished – you could see all fourteen acts on the bill.  With bar queues growing through the day in accordance with the rising temperatures I elected to linger in the vicinity of the main stage, securing prime spots as the main support acts began to appear.

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First up were Echo & The Bunnymen, Ian McCulloch swaggering onto stage with a tumbler of bourbon in hand, bowing to the sweltering conditions as his trademark black trenchcoat made way for a suit jacket and a zipped up jumper, his first act to demand a packet of cigarettes from a roadie before launching into Lips Like Sugar.  This was a stagger through one of the finest back catalogues in recent British music, performed through a cloud of smoke and a haze of whisky with a certain – earned – cockiness from the Liverpudlian.  Statements like:  “You can sing along to the chorus of this one – the only way you won’t have heard it is if you were in prison” while introducing Bring on The Dancing Horses; proclaiming The Killing Moon “the greatest song ever written” and The Cutter as the second greatest.  On this evidence, though, there could arguably be some truth in those claims.

There was no shortage of self-assurance in the next set either, though with The Hives a certain amount of it is undoubtedly showmanship.  The Swedish five-piece produced an outrageously energetic and enthusiastic set, their pristine white suits no match for the blazing mid-afternoon heat and their desire to bound and karate kick all over the stage.  The Hives put on a show quite unlike anything I can recall seeing, finally turning the picnic on Clapham Common into a bold rock and roll concert.  Despite being absent from the mainstream psyche for some time, songs like Walk Idiot Walk and Tick Tick Boom have endured.  They held a swelling audience in the palm of their hands with an entertaining blend of humour and hits, compelling an entire field of people to squat on the grass before bringing them to their feet in a frenzy with the opening chords of Hate To Say I Told You So.  It was quite a sight to witness.

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Modest Mouse were amongst my most anticipated bands of the afternoon, having never seen them before.  Unfortunately they were somewhat of a letdown – to me, at least.  I’m not sure whether they had simply drawn the short straw by having to follow the extraordinary Hives or if I was becoming distracted by the prospect of Ryan Adams – or if it was perhaps down to the story that they were playing on borrowed equipment with their own still stuck in France, but they were a little underwhelming.  Certainly their eclectic blend of styles is appealing, and Float On was a real highlight of the afternoon, but I left this set with the lingering feeling that it could have been so much more.

Though, as mentioned, the looming appearance of Ryan Adams on the main stage may very well have been occupying my thoughts.  This was the 20th time I have seen Ryan perform and I am convinced that he is on the best run of his career.  His new band The Shining click perfectly with him, and he seems so much more at ease now as the frontman than he did shouldering the burden of a solo acoustic tour.  This was a slick and professional set where Ryan’s guitar playing really shone.  There were moments – particularly on Dirty Rain and Peaceful Valley – where his solos produced actual gasps from people around me in the audience.  He was that good.  Kim and Shakedown on 9th Street – a Heartbreaker song I’ve been hoping to hear live for twelve years – have been recent additions to his set since the early Spring UK tour, while Come Pick Me Up (even minus the female backing vocal) remains a highlight.  To hear a good number of the 15,000 crowd singing along to the chorus of the harmonica-led Heartbreaker classic is something I never thought I would experience.

Fresh from their debut album charting at number two and a critically acclaimed set at Glastonbury, Wolf Alice found themselves top of the bill on the second stage, occupying the 45 minutes between Ryan Adams and Noel Gallagher.  A generous crowd forwent the bar queues and crammed into the tight area in front of the stage to see what the fuss was about the much hyped North London alt-rock quartet.  There’s no doubt that Wolf Alice have a captivating sound, alligned perfectly with the charisma of lead singer Ellie Roswell.  The comparisons with Garbage and Hole have some merit, and it’s easy to see that they have the potential to go far.  Bros and Moaning Lisa Smile ae genuinely big songs. They’re touring the UK in September and are simply must-see in a smaller, more intimate setting.

And so it was on to the headline act of Calling 2015:  Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds.  After a full day of sunshine, beers and a fine collection of performances from the undercard, I would admit that I wasn’t particularly fussed about Noel’s biggest UK show to date; though it might be unfair for my lackadaisical approach to the headline set to colour the opinion of everyone else.  For me Noel is a decent songwriter (I disagree with Ryan Adams, who proclaimed him “the greatest fucking songwriter of our lives” during his own set) though his solo work will forever be overshadowed by his time with Oasis – and it was clear that’s what a sizeable element of the audience came to Clapham Common for.  They were in luck, as six Oasis songs made the setlist, most popular amongst them Champagne Supernova (which sorely lacks Liam’s vocals) and Don’t Look Back In Anger, which was the defining moment of the set.  In between times it felt like people were waiting for the next Oasis hit, and Noel, for all his charisma and arrogance on stage, comes across as a lacklustre frontman.

Calling Festival has changed drastically in its ten years and while Saturday – for me – ended in vague disappointment, it cannot be argued that the day wasn’t a great success.  The atmosphere was welcoming, the weather was exceptionally kind and there was a day full of quality acts on stage.  Considering that many venues were charging upwards of £65 for Noel Gallagher’s UK tour earlier this year, to see Ryan Adams, Modest Mouse, The Hives, Echo & The Bunnymen and Wolf Alice – as well as Noel – for the same price at Calling represented excellent value for money.  This was one of my favourite days in a long time.

Aerosmith @ Calling Festival, Clapham Common, London

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According to the festival line-up Thunder weren’t scheduled until 5.20pm, but with scorching sunshine burning through black clouds overhead it felt like it could come at any time.  It never did, but the rain fell in abundance through the afternoon, leading to the curious phenomenon of a shirt soaked right through and the onset of sunburn on my forehead.  Somewhere in Clapham someone was doing a roaring trade in picnic blankets and ponchos.

As advertised, Thunder arrived on stage at 5.20pm, the first of three big guitar rock acts.  Prior to the London-based five-piece we had the anthemic former Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora, who was preceded by brash Missouri punk outfit Radkey, who created as much noise with their arrogance as they did their guitars.

Thunder’s big eighties sound went down a storm with the arena gradually filling ahead of the headline act.  Hits like Dirty Love and Love Walked In were made for booming out to a large festival audience, and the recently reformed act were clearly having a blast in their hometown.

Even more impressive, however, were the hearty blues riffs of Joe Bonamassa – who was much younger than I expected him to be.  He gets a hell of a sound out of his guitar, and although his songs aren’t as instantly recognisable as other artists on the bill there was probably not a more musically perfect and impactful ten minutes or so than when he took us through The Ballad of John Henry.  It would be fair to say that the meandering nature of his solo’s didn’t quite keep much of the audience captive – but along with a backing band whose members seemed to have played with just about every name in the business, this was a set of the highest quality.

With the site having just about dried out from the afternoon’s rainfall, and the night slowly beginning to swallow the daylight, the glamour of the festival was about to be turned up several notches.  The video wall exploded into life with a montage of images mapping Aerosmith’s near 44-year career, before Steven Tyler walked out across the catwalk with his own personalised microphone stand, dressed more flamboyantly in leather pants, a top hat and a leapord print scarf than any 66-year-old man could rightly be expected to dress in public.  They immediately eased into Mama Kin and Eat The Rich and Clapham Common was rocking.

Throughout the hit-packed two hour set nine albums were covered in a breathless run through one of the finest back catalogues in rock.  Tyler oozes energy and charisma, making it near impossible to take your eyes off him at times and the rest of the band almost look to feed off his energy.  Just about everything you could want from an Aerosmith setlist was here; from Love in an Elevator and Cryin’ to Livin’ on the Edge, Rag Doll and Same Old Song And Dance.  The pace was unrelenting with not much between songs, perhaps only lowering for I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing – which was appreciated by the girls in the audience, at least.

They didn’t ease up for long, though, with a thumping set-closing trio of Beatles cover Come Together, Dude (Looks Like a Lady) and Walk This Way – enough to get even the most static person shaking their hips.  It was an epic finale to the main set – equalled only perhaps by the lusty singalong to Dream On in the encore.

Seeing Aerosmith perform live was a dream come true for me – perhaps the number one item on my musical bucket list; something I’ve been wanting for about 13 years since first seeing their videos on TV.  When you want something that long – and when Aerosmith are, frankly, in the twilight of their career – there’s always a nagging fear in the recesses of your mind that they might disappoint.  But that worry was blown away after about four minutes by a raucous performance of Mama Kin – the perfect set opener on this occassion.

This festival has had its issues in the past under the Hard Rock Calling banner.  I was there when Springsteen and McCartney were cut off during their historic first performance together – Hyde Park was always a problem for the promoters with the wealthy residents in the surrounding areas.  Last year’s move to the Olympic Stadium was deemed a flop, but yesterday’s first day on Clapham Common was a resounding success:  well-organised, clean, efficient and easy transport.  Even £5 for a Tuborg wasn’t enough to dampen my enthusiasm.  Seriously, TUBORG??!  For a fiver I’d expect someone to pour that stuff down my throat, too.  The line-up lower down the bill provided the perfect appetiser for Aerosmith, who produced a big headline performance.

The Thunder didn’t come – but this was an electric day from beginning to end.

Notes on London

  • We’ve had fantastically hot sunshine over the last two weeks like the rest of the country, but stepping off the train at Euston on Tuesday was like being hit by a wall of heat, as though walking into a furnace.
  • I don’t think I stopped laughing for any notable period of time during The Book of Mormon.  It’s by far the best stage show I’ve ever seen.  The thing about it is that while on the surface it could appear to be completely offensive to the Mormon religion and probably to the entire continent of Africa too, it is actually the opposite.  Sure, it pokes fun at Mormons, and it certainly paints a crude picture of Africa, but beneath the surface the story has a heart of gold and has a warm message.
  • That said, I can’t get the spooky Mormon hell dream out of my head.
  • I spent a little time on Wednesday morning watching as Leicester Square was prepared for that nights premiere of the new Alan Partridge movie.  It was quite interesting watching how much work goes into what you eventually see in your magazines and on television.
  • Did I mention that it was hot as hell?
  • I forget how much I love Camden sometimes.
  • I have this unflinching ability to firstly get myself lost, and then somehow I seem to develop an amazing sense of direction to get myself out of it.  When planning how to get to Village Underground on Wednesday night I saw that the options were basically tube to Liverpool Street or overground to Shoreditch.  For reasons which are unknown even to me, I used the previously unconsidered third option:  tube to Old Street.  I immediately realised the gravity of my error upon arriving at Old Street station and being confronted with, I think, 9 different exits.  So I picked one seemingly at random and, realising that I was not entirely sure of where to go next, I searched for the safety net of Google Maps on my phone.  It wouldn’t work.  So I picked a direction and started walking.  For some reason it felt wrong after a couple of minutes, so I backtracked and walked in the opposite direction.  I checked one of those handy street maps and I couldn’t find Hollywell Lane, the location of the venue, so my urgency was heightened and I was beginning to consider flagging down a taxi.  But I did see Shoreditch High Street and I decided that heading in that direction would probably be a good start.  So I did and, long story short, I found the venue without too much drama.
  • Incidentally, it turned out that Shoreditch High Street station was literally across the road from Village Underground.
  • Something about the street performers at Covent Garden really creeps me out.
  • I read something in today’s Times about how a “true Cockney accent” is more likely to be found in Essex these days than it is in East London.  I actually mentioned something similar to a friend via text on Tuesday, and now I think back on it I can’t recall hearing a single Cockney accent.
  • There were, however, a lot of Irish accents.  Both in London and in Glasgow.
  • The excitement over the birth of the Royal baby portrayed by the media wasn’t that palpable.  I encountered a trio typically middle class folk discussing names at the bar before The Book of Mormon, but that’s the only baby talk I recall hearing.
  • It embarrassed me how much of a hot Scottish mess I must have looked compared to the almost entirely impeccable majority of underground passengers.

Josh Ritter and The Royal City Band @ Village Underground, London

“I’d like to dedicate the final verse of this song to how hot it’s going to get in here,” smiled Josh towards the end of his third song, Good Man.  It wasn’t a wildly bold prediction, given that this was a compact underground venue in London in the midst of the country’s most prolonged heatwave since 2006, but it was accurate nonetheless.

Having opened with a solo version of Bruce Springsteen’s The River, the following hundred minutes would draw from all angles of his seven record career, all performed with an impossibly infectious smile which defies Josh’s divorce and near-death experience of the last few years.

There’s an electric energy and enthusiasm to the set.  Even songs from current album The Beast In Its Tracks covering Josh’s divorce, such as Hopeful, are cheerful and uplifting, while Joy To You Baby wishes “joy to the many.”

Despite the complexity of some of Josh’s lyrics they have a poetic resonance and the foot-stomping Lillian, Egypt provides a lusty sing-along, while Wolves sees him lead the audience in a chorus of wolf howls.  It was a surreal moment, but it gave birth to an epic climax to the song.

There were softer moments in the set, where Josh’s smile gave way to a more dramatic serious demeanour.  The lights in the cave-like venue were dimmed for the museum love affair in The Curse, while The Temptation of Adam and Folk Bloodbath exhibit the full extent of Ritter’s artistic prowess.

The pace of the set quickened again as the lights returned and the heat rose in a “misty, sexy smell”.  Kathleen, one senses, was the song everyone was waiting to sing, and its words can’t fail to tug on your emotions, even with Josh teasing the final verse with a tangent about buying a red van to go and look for his baby.

To The Dogs or Whoever was a fitting instrument drenched finale, with three men violently thrashing the drum set, piano keys pounded wildly and Josh rhyming off lines like he was Jay Z, slowing down only to demonstrate his beating heart at the “did I mention how I love you in your underwear” line.

Ordinarily the idea of being crammed into such a small cave-like venue with a mass of hot, sweaty arms and legs would seem like a nightmare. But at Village Underground with Josh Ritter and his band it was a joyful experience.

Ryan Adams (with band) @ Royal Albert Hall, London for Teenage Cancer Trust

 

  • Ryan’s first show with band in over four years
  • Benmont Tench on piano, introduced by Ryan:  “We’ll be playing some songs from Heartbreaker tonight, but this man is a real fucking Heartbreaker.”  Don Was on bass, Cindy Cashdollar played pedal steel, Jeremy Stacey was on drums and, naturally, Ethan Johns was on guitar.
  • I’m not sure how long the band have been playing together, or if they ever will again, but they sounded tight as fuck.  Like this was their thousandth performance with Ryan, rather than the first.
  • I liked how the new songs were tweaked and given a new personna.  Do I Wait was played electric and had this great Crazy Horse vibe to it.  Don Wass nailed the double bass on Invisible Riverside and Tench did this beautiful little water fill thing on Dirty Rain.
  • The old songs were brought back and given new life, too.  Nobody Girl was an unexpected treat and Ethan pulled off this fucking incredible solo at the end of it which totally rocked.  Even Fix It was enjoyable, and I loathe Cardinlology.  I think Ryan funked it up a little with his solo.
  • They played a couple of new songs from the proposed Autumn album.  Where I Meet You In My Mind (possibly) was a beautiful track with a pretty little riff. It reminded me a LOT of early Dylan with Ryan doing a kind of soft talking blues thing where the words almost run into each other over the lines
  • The other, more a 50’s diner or a Twenty-Nine sound. Think it was called Shadows, or In The Shadows Again. He introduced it by asking us to “imagine you are a vampire and you’re driving across town to kill this werewolf, or something.” About sums it up.
  • Sometimes I’m not sure if the improvised songs are truly improvised. Like last night, as he often does, he mis-heard a call from the audience as “loaf of bread” which, naturally, led to a three minute ballad called Loaf of Bread. The band picked it up almost immediately – which was either because it wasn’t truly improvised or they’re really fucking good. I did kinda like the line “our love turned to rust, I always told you I like to cut off the crust.”
  • It wasn’t all band and he did a couple of solo songs too, including the most magnificent performance of English Girls Approximately I think he’s ever given. His vocals were superb, and I think their impact was greatened by some deftly understated guitar.
  • I think I expected a bit more from the setlist. Too much Ashes & Fire and not enough Gold or Whiskeytown. I thought there might have been a bit more variety than at the acoustic shows the last two years. But that’s being picky, because this was a really, really great gig. The band were incredible and the new album sounds promising on the evidence of the two tracks showcased here. Praying these guys play with him again.

Conor Oberst @ Barbican Centre, London

“I don’t know why you guys sit and listen to this shit,” joked Conor at his self-deprecating best as he mused over popular culture and how he’s never really fit into it.  We all knew why we were sitting there, of course, but by the end of a startlingly beautiful and intimate two hour set there could be no question that not being popular doesn’t equate to not being good.

The Barbican isn’t a small venue by any means – it is Europe’s largest multi -arts centre, in fact –  but this felt like the most intimate of shows.  For large parts of the set Conor was on stage alone with his guitars and wine and beers.  You get the impression he likes it that way.

This was a rare insight into the sprawling songbook of one of the most prolific and poetic songwriters of the 21st century.  Songs from across Oberst’s body of work were torn off like plasters from a wound and pieced together to form this mosaic of a setlist.  There was the futuristic Cape Canaveral from his solo record; Breezy with the Mystic Valley Band; Maps of the World represented the Monsters of Folk project and, of course, Bright Eyes featured prominently from early work such as Arienette from Fevers and Mirrors to the more recent Shell Games.

The intimate nature of the performance allowed the audience to hear every word clearly recited by the Nebraskan.  There was a hush as he wove complex stories through song; his voice contorted and aching, every strum and pluck of his guitar reverberating around the Barbican like a heartbeat, every nauseating flaw of the characters in his songs laid bare: the addicts and the heartbroken and the victims and the hopeful.  The extent of the beauty in his songwriting had never been more evident.

However, as captivating as the depth of songwriting was it was the addition of Simi Stone and her angelic vocals and haunting violin which created the evening’s standout moment as the duo collaborated on a breathtaking Lua.  I have goosebumps right now just reminiscing it, and the exclamation of “wow” from a member of the audience at the climax about captured it.  In ten years of going to gigs I have never experienced the feelings conjoured by Conor and Simi at that moment.

The final line in the final song of the night, Waste of Paint, has Conor announcing that “I have no faith but it is all I want, to be loved and believe in my soul, in my soul.”  On the evidence of the beauty and charm and intensity of his talent Oberst has every reason to have faith.  And if he still doesn’t, there were at least 2,000 in the Barbican Centre who believed last night.  Over the last 18 months or so I’ve become quite partial to these intimate solo acoustic shows, having seen Ryan Adams perfect them.  They are capable of showing an artist at his very best, bringing out the most delicate aspects of his repetoire often hidden amongst drums and bass.  Last night in London Conor Oberst excelled in this intimate setting.  If this wasn’t the best gig I’ve been to it was certainly very, very close.

Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band @ Hard Rock Calling, London

How many artists in the world could command 76,000 people to stand in a muddy woodchipped park for seven hours on a dull and wet London afternoon just to wait for his set to start?  A handful, maybe?

Alright – for how many of those artists would the increasingly swamp-like conditions and constant threat of rain be worthwhile?  Answer:  Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band.

In an era of digital downloards and X-Factor nobody does large-scale rock like The Boss.

Springsteen attracts an almost Biblical following; his worshippers spread out over Hyde Park in tour T-shirts from just about every era of his career, some even going so far as to re-create the classic bandana’d Born in the USA look.

The man himself is comparitively statesmanlike as he takes to the stage alone in a waistcoat and shirt combination.  He instantly defied all expectations of a repeat of 2009’s opener London’s Calling when his harmonica led us into a solo performance of Thunder Road:  just Bruce with his voice and harmonica and Roy Bittan on piano.  The guy from Brooklyn in front of me was moved to tears.  It was astonishing.

The jungle drums of Badlands introduced the rest of The E Street Band to the stage and Hyde Park, by now basking in sunshine for the first time, was ready to rock.

A brief de-tour into new record Wrecking Ball brought the title track, first single We Take Care Of Our Own and a guest appearence from Tom Morello on the angry, rousing Death To My Hometown.  The former Rage Against The Machine guitarist would feature frequently through the night, most notably on a tremendous version of The Ghost of Tom Joad.  Morello’s expertise on the electric guitar added several more layers to the song, which had been dedicated to the hundredth birthday of Woody Guthrie.

Morello’s wasn’t the only guest appearence of the night as John Fogerty joined Bruce and the band in a fine performance of The Promised Land.

Over the course of a career spanning in excess of forty years Bruce Springsteen has become reknowned for his willingness to interact with his audience, and this was again a prominant feature of his Hyde Park show when he took a sign from a man in the front row who had followed the band all over the world requesting the obscure song Take ‘em As They Come.  He didn’t hear it in Madrid, Paris, etc “but tonight in London, my friend, this is your lucky night.  We’re going to play this damn thing!”

Johnny 99 and the outstanding Because The Night became milestones of the concert as they signified the last songs to be played under the warm glow of a summer sun, and the rain returned with a vengeance prior to Working On The Highway.  Bruce left the stage and walked down onto the exposed catwalk in front of the audience barrier to revel in the falling rain.  “I love working in the rain!” he exclaimed, almost willing it to rain harder.  And it did.

What followed was a deluge of hits.  A young boy was lifted over the barrier to assist on Waitin’ On a Sunny Day; The River sounded epic as rain continued to pour from the heavens; The Rising prepared the crowd for the grand finale ahead.

It’s hard to imagine that there’s another band touring with the quartet of songs in their repetoire that Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band utilised to close this show.

Arguably four of the best-known songs ever recorded, Hyde Park was transformed into the largest ever eighties retro bash as first Born In The USA – sang with the kind of passion that once again belied the common mis-conception that this is a song of unwavering patriotism – then Born To Run and Glory Days took us to the song that had everyone dancing upon woodchip and mud like they were Courtney Cox.  I don’t get the love for Dancing In The Dark, but it cultivated an outstanding atmosphere.

Had the show ended there it could rightly have been regarded as a great night by any standard.  But just as Bruce defied expectations three hours earlier he smashed them into tiny, sodden pieces when he introduced Sir Paul McCartney.  It was the first time the two men had performed on stage together, and Hyde Park went ballistic.

Beatles’ classics I Saw Her Standing There and Twist And Shout were performed in an historic duet between two of the most acclaimed musicians of the last fifty years with a spectacular firework backdrop against the canvas of a wet black sky.

Everyone was having a great time.  Bruce and Sir Paul were revelling in the history-making moment, and then….nothing.  Silence.  The sound was cut, the performers completely unaware as they valiantly tried to give the paying public one more song.  They couldn’t even say their goodbyes – nor were the audience able to properly show their appreciation of a special night and a special moment – because as it later transpired through social media, the organisers had decreed that Springsteen and McCartney had gone too far beyond the 10.30pm curfew set by Westminster Council for gigs at Hyde Park.  The gig ended at 10.41pm.

It was a distasteful ending to the night – especially considering that Bruce Springsteen was the only artist of the three headline acts this weekend to sell out his Hard Rock Calling show – but it was slight muddy spot on what was on the whole a great night.

The weather, the poor quality of the Hyde Park sound system and the concert organisers all seemed to have conspired against The Boss last night, but not even all of them could stop Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band from rocking like no other act in the world can.

The Gaslight Anthem @ KOKO, London

“A lot of people started listening to us after we played with Bruce Springsteen, but you guys have been with us since the beginning.  This one is for you,” said Brian Fallon as his band of bruised jukebox Romeos launched into a triumphant set-closing cover of The Who’s landmark Baba O’Riley, a fitting end to a night that was a celebration of the spirit of classic rock and the ferris wheel of young romance.

From the moment The Gaslight Anthem arrived on stage to a fanfare which surely threatened the very foundations of Camden’s KOKO the band ran head-first into a blistering set with Great Expectations, We Came To Dance and Casanova, Baby!  The pace was relentless, with the band offering a huge sound which produced little opportunity to catch a breather.

Fans had paid upward of £60 to scalpers for gold dust tickets in the 1500 capacity venue which had sold out barely minutes after going on sale, and both band and audience were going all-out to ensure that value for money was met.  Every song was a sing-along affair with not one of the twenty-five songs on the set list feeling like filler.  Even new singe 45 – not yet released in the UK – was recited by heart.

With their fourth studio album, Handwritten, set to be released next month, Monday’s gig in London was an opportunity for Gaslight Anthem to showcase the records which brought them to sharing a stage with Bruce Springsteen at Glastonbury.

Sink or Swim and The ‘59 Sound featured heavily in the early stages of the set, with songs such as I’da Called You Woody, Joe, Angry Johnny And The Radio, Old Lincoln and Even Cowgirls Get The Blues drawing slightly heartier participation than the other eagerly-met songs.  A cover of the Animals classic House of the Rising Sun bookmarked a venture into the more recent release, American Slang, where the title track and She Loves You were enthusiastically sang along with.

Brian Fallon didn’t need to talk between every song to have the crowd in the palm of his hand; he communicates through the passion of his songs, the infectious smile he flashes every so often and the regular use of hand gestures.  He struck-up a “we’re in this together” kind of bond with the audience throughout, never more so than when, unshackled by the addition of Ian Perkins on guitar, he disappeared off-stage between songs midway through the set, only to be spotted high up on the balcony above his raucous rock disciples.  He threw himself backwards from the architecture, landing safely into a sea of welcoming arms, crowd surfing his way back to the stage.

It was a significant moment in a night which emphasised a common energy between the performer and the audience which is rarely found in today’s music scene.  The Gaslight Anthem’s sound is huge, their performance is polished and at times it sounds like – dare I say it – they could be an arena rock band.

For much of their career The Gaslight Anthem have lived in the considerable shadow of their Jersey Godfathers, Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band.  On the evidence offered on Monday night they are finally ready to emerge from that shadow and stand alone as the natural successors to The Boss’s crown.