The night I ate dinner (aka Ryan Adams @ Usher Hall, Edinburgh)

It occurred to me as I was leafing through the menu at The Beer Kitchen on Edinburgh’s Lothian Road that I would shortly be eating my first proper dinner of the week – assuming that regular people still aren’t considering a cup of dry roasted nuts a proper meal.  It’s not that I have been avoiding food:  I have eaten the occasional portion of chips at a couple of bars, and I did once enjoy a delicious breakfast at the Art Cafe in Dublin.  It’s just that generous servings of food aren’t really compatible with pre-gig drinking.  That is to say that I often forget to eat.

I have been wanting to dine at the Innis & Gunn owned Beer Kitchen for some time and made a point of remembering to eat on this night of the tour, given that the restaurant is but a stone’s throw away from Usher Hall if you have a really strong arm and a precise aim.  I would consider it to be a stone’s throw followed by a few paces.  I had made a reservation for 7.30 and in keeping with that I was directed to a table in the corner where I was seated as the hostess began to clear away the second place setting in a manner which was considerably more emphatic than I would have hoped.

I sat with the palm of my hand drumming on my knee under the table – not to any particular beat or rhythm, I just didn’t know what else to do with my hand as this table for two was transformed into a table for a single person.  The hostess gathered up the side plate, the cutlery and the empty water glass in a fashion which suggested she had done this before.  Then a knife fell from the side plate in her arms and clattered against the table, making what was surely the loudest sound ever to have been made in that particular restaurant, certainly, and perhaps anywhere ever.  It felt like every eye in the place darted towards my table.  Why couldn’t she just leave the cutlery where it was?  At least that way people might assume that I am waiting for someone:  a friend, a date, even a Tinder date.  I appear anxious enough for that.

She muttered an apology and once again picked up the knife.  She asked me if I would like a glass of water and I intimated that a pint of beer would be fine.  Even if she had left the place setting as it was so that I could look over at it longingly every so often, then at my watch, and then again at the lone place setting, as though I had been stood up.  At least then I might get sympathetic stares rather than glances of pity.  I wait for my beer to arrive and consider resting my denim jacket over the empty chair opposite me so that it might appear that I am anticipating company returning from the bathroom, but I quickly realise that ruse would be quite ridiculous when I am still waiting an hour later without a hint of concern on my face as to why my company still hasn’t made it back to the table.  Has she done a runner on him?  People would naturally think.  I wonder what he said to make her lock herself in the toilet for more than an hour?  I bet he made some really laboured play on words and he was on his final warning for it.  They would speculate in hushed tones.  He probably listens to Ryan Adams.

A pint of Innis & Gunn promptly arrived at my table and I ordered some food as a small tealight candle flickered like a beacon drawing attention to the fact that a single man was sitting and dining by himself.  I pulled my notebook and pen out from my pocket and placed it on the table next to my right hand, as though to suggest to anyone happening to notice that I could at any moment open it up and write some words of world-changing significance, rather than the reality of it being some pun I had thought of.

The Ryan Adams set proved to be a unique night on this tour when his pedal board malfunctioned after three songs and he suddenly decided to ad-lib a mini acoustic set of five songs while engineers desperately tried to solve the technical difficulties.  That he was able to do this off the cuff and to such a high standard was most impressive and it allowed the Edinburgh audience to hear what will surely be the only performances on this tour of Ashes & Fire and Jacksonville Skyline, which was worth the price of admission alone.

Bars visited:
The Advocate – 7 Hunter Square
Brewdog – 143 Cowgate
Shakespeare – 65 Lothian Road
The Beer Kitchen – 81-83 Lothian Road

Next stop:
The Sage, Gateshead – Sunday 17th September

Elvis Costello @ Usher Hall, Edinburgh

With only six guitars and a piano for support and wearing an outfit not too dissimilar from a wise guy in the prohibition-era series Boardwalk Empire, Elvis Costello’s generation hopping journey through his sprawling back catalogue was as intimate an affair as you can get in a sold out hall of over 2,000 people.

A two-and-a-half hour setlist which covered everything from Veronica to Oliver’s Army and Watching The Detectives to his most recent song, The Last Year of My Youth, was punctuated with humour and reminiscence, as Costello explored the working class roots and styles behind his own brand of music.  He fashioned us with personal stories of playing his first gig with his orchestra singer father and of his grandfather’s life as a musician on the vast cruise ships of the twenties – “the Olympic, the Majestic, basically all the ic’s” – before the Great Depression struck.

Sitting two rows from one of the true greats of British music was an incredible experience; a real joy watching the versatility of his craft as he went from acoustic guitar to piano and back again, even introducing an electric guitar in the second encore where (What’s so Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love and Understanding brought the entire hall to its feet.

The Flaming Lips @ Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Normally at a gig you would expect to see glitter confetti and giant inflatable aliens in some exquisite grand finale at the end of a set (you wouldn’t “NORMALLY” expect to see it at a gig at all, but you know what I mean) – but this was how The Flaming Lips opened their set at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall on Monday night.  Not only that, but they opened with The Abandoned Hospital Ship – a song they hadn’t played live since they first played this venue some 18 years ago.

The Flaming Lips aren’t like any other ordinary band, though, and their brand of euphoric, psychedelic rock is complimented beautifully by the multi-coloured explosion of lights, the glitter showers and the dancing inflatable cartoon characters that regularly roam the stage.

With his skin-tight crimson bodysuit and tinsel overcoat Wayne Collins is like a mad scientist directing a series of chaotic experiments in the laboratory of a stage.  From the anthemic Do You Realize?? and the irrepressible sing-along of Yoshmi Battles The Pink Robots Part 1 to the dystopian garage rock of Virgo Self-Esteem Broadcast – performed by Collins standing atop a fairy light strewn platform whilst cradling a baby doll – this was an exhilarating set with as many moments of musical brilliance as there were theatrical wonder.

Laura Marling @ Usher Hall, Edinburgh

It’s sort of difficult to put into coherent words and phrases just what it was like watching the recently nominated Mercury Prize artist Laura Marling perform in Usher Hall last night, the first of eight dates on her return to the UK.

This was a unique musical experience.  I’ve seen artists play solo acoustic shows before; I’ve seen them do it well.  But this was different, this was breathless in its beauty.  Laura Marling stood in the centre of the stage, a position she barely flinched from for 90 minutes, unassuming in her black leggins and white blouse, her blonde hair tied back.  The stage lights shone down on her as though she was heaven sent, and when she opened with the first trio of songs from Once I Was An Eagle that’s exactly how she sounded, too.

Everything about this gig was understated, and yet it didn’t feel like it.  For all the isolation of Laura on the stage – it was literally her and two guitars:  no fancy strobe lighting, no video wall, no guitar techs (“my show is now 15 per cent tuning”) no bass guitar or string section – the sounds she produced with that guitar could have been played out by four people.

Every note plucked from her guitar was like a heartbeat reverborating around Usher Hall, so clear and full of life.  Her rootsy voice elegantly transports you right into the midst of her lyrics and in that bittersweet moment you live her songs.  Be it the relatively up-tempo Rambling Man or the raw anger of Master Hunter, Marling’s honeyed voice is crystal clear and crackling with emotion.

There was just the right amount of humoured interaction with the audience to provide some relief from the heavy nature of things as she told us of the charming email she had received from an author asking permission to use the line “alas I cannot swim” in a book, only for Laura to confess that she had borrowed the line from someone else.

Even now, twenty-four hours removed from the gig, I am feeling goosebumps bristle on my arms just thinking about it.  There was many a point last night where all you could do was just sit back (five rows from the stage, perfect positioning), look up at this mesmerisingly angelic figure, listen to her voice and her guitar playing and just swoon and sigh.  Her talent is remarkable.

Jack White @ Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Expectations are a difficult thing to manage.  The greater they are the further they almost inevitably fall short.  This wasn’t a bad gig, but the tall expectation of a classic was swiftly hampered by an awful sound system which almost rendered Jack White’s vocals inaudible for large portions of the set.

In a picturesque setting just off Princes Street, with Edinburgh Castle perched high in the distance, this promised to be amongst the best gigs of the year.  Instead, the inadequate sound consigned it to being probably the worst.  Songs like Ball & Biscuit and Weep Themselves To Sleep, which I was particularly eager to hear, were almost unrecognisable with Jack’s vocals posted missing in what can only be described as an epic fail on the part of the sound engineers.

It wasn’t all bad, though, and there was a small saving grace in the tremendous country version of Hotel Yorba, comfortably the evening’s standout moment.  Steady As She Goes and Seven Nation Army were also successful in rising above the parapet and providing a glimpse of what this set could have been.

As it was the night concluded with both of Jack’s touring bands – The Peacocks and The Buzzardos – coming together for a performance of Goodnight Irene.  Rather fitting because I also couldn’t hear that when Bruce Springsteen attempted to sing it after the plug had been pulled at Hyde Park.