Wednesday, 22 July 2015

This Must Be the Place - Glastonbury 2015 Highlights

A first for The Northern Chords - today's entry is a guest piece, written by a Mr Aiden Hale, with his highlights from the Glastonbury Festival 2015. It is presented here, unedited, with minor formatting changes. Warning, there is some strong language featured. Please enjoy.

Glastonbury. The undisputed world heavyweight champion of the festival world; and due to recent difficulties to actually obtain a ticket, the holy grail for festival goers everywhere. This was my third successive year in attendance at worthy farm and just like the previous two, over a week has passed since it all came to a close and still all I can find myself doing is talking about it! So I've took the decision to put my compulsive rambling on the subject into physical words (wish me luck).

The 2015 line up had divided opinion, even before a chord had been struck. Yes there was the whole riff-raff behind the booking of the controversial but undeniably gifted hip-hop maestro that is Kanye West and the idiots who started a petition which all it looked to me screamed “HOW DARE THEY LET BLACK MUSIC HEADLINE OUR FESTIVAL!”. But without getting carried away on that particular issue, people seemed to have reservations with the line up as a whole. Even on the coach journey down to Somerset I could hear conversations that all followed the same theme that this was the “worst line up in years” but how the £220 ticket is worth admission to the psychedelic wonders the lie beyond the (in)famous “super wall”. While I completely agree with the latter, the former puzzled me. For me it was as good as it’s ever been and I even had to deal with the bittersweet agony of multiple stage clashes throughout the weekend. My personalised line up on the iPhone app was full of overlaps, artists I already adored and ones who I was looking forward to discovering. Without trying to sound so cliché, at Glastonbury there really is a bit of something for everybody. Even with the heart breaking withdrawal of Dave Grohl's busted leg and the rest of his Foo Fighters (this event ultimately ended up being quite serendipitous to this list), narrowing my favourite acts of the weekend to a mere 5 was frustratingly difficult. I was tempted to do a top ten but let’s face it; we don’t have all day here, so I digress. Right, before I start I’ll state the obvious; this is strictly my personal opinion based on who I ended up seeing. I didn't see most of the acts that played, not even all the ones I wanted to, it’s just not possible at a festival of this gargantuan scale. So without further ado and trying my best to not sound like an annoying chart narrator, let’s get the countdown started!

5 – Jamie T (Sunday, Other Stage)

“We normally play in tents when we come here, what the fuck’s going on?” said Jamie in his swaggering yet clearly humbled cockney charm at the front end of his Other Stage slot on Sunday evening. Jamie T seems to be the patron of that old saying that people always miss you more when you’re gone, as during his 5 year hiatus where he seemed to drop off the face of the earth his cult figure seemed to only grow as us early twenties lot began reminiscing on our early teen years in the mid to late noughties. But Jamie as with the rest of us has grown up. Gone are the days of a snapback and chain wearing Jamie T and he relays this with his new dare I say more sensible indie-rock sound in his new album Carry on the Grudge. And this Jamie T came out firing. He was a man on a mission to prove that his 5 years in the abyss were worth the wait and that he was worthy of his relatively big slot.

Jamie T performing on the Other Stage at Glastonbury 2015 
He and his band were playing fast and flamboyantly in what seemed an attempt to get this Sunday evening crowd which might be low of energy at this stage as every bit pumped as they were. In the first half of the set the classic Back in the Game and the new banger Rabbit Hole were both gratefully received by the crowd. But what got this performance into my top five was the final leg of his set where he had purposely left tune after tune. From the first lines of Sheila and If You've Got the Money you would think you were watching a chart dominating pop sensation by the diverse audiences’ shared knowledge of every lyric. The set was then concluded with the crowd jumping in tandem to the lively Sticks ‘n Stones and Zombie where both Jamie and the crowd didn't want it to end. But end it did and the result was a triumphant return of Jamie T to the Glasto scene.    

4 – Hot Chip (Friday, West Holts)

At number 4 we delve into what seems an even bigger noughties obscurity than the last entry. Friday night came along and I just didn't quite fancy a Florence headline slot (for what it’s worth if Foos had played I would have seen Flo). So I ended up heading to the West Holts stage to do my only solo viewing of the weekend and I didn't really blame anyone for not coming with me. I myself was one of those annoying fans who were only familiar with the singles, but something in me told me that Hot Chip would put on a weird yet thoroughly enjoyable show. Boy was I right! As soon as the lights came down and unveiled their classy stage set and on walked the band dressed in a mixture of bright boiler suits, white nightwear and tropical beachwear I was sold. The set began with Huarache Lights a number from their new and difficult to label album Why Make Sense which has elements of house and techno fused into the unmistakeable weird indie-pop sound of the Hot Chip of old. The crowd was a mixture of people who all seemed to be there for the same reason; to have a good time. This lead to one of the liveliest dancing crowds of the weekend and by the time the band had performed the classics One Life Stand and Over and Over early on in the set, the party had started. I didn't care that I was dancing, jumping and singing along with thousands of strangers, it seemed only fitting that I watched this unconventional band in an equally unconventional surrounding with these people. Being a headline set meant that Hot Chip had a longer set to fill, but I needn't have worried about getting bored during runs of songs that I wasn't familiar with as Hot Chip succeeded with keeping the tempo up and the crowd on their side through album songs old and new. 

Hot Chip performing on the West Holts Stage at Glastonbury 2015
Towards the end of the set the fan favourites Ready for the Floor and I Feel Better were deployed and received rambunctious crowd participation in both singing and dancing. However this meant that they were destined to finish with a song unfamiliar to most…. Or so I thought. For the last song on walked the members of Caribou to help out in a cover of the universally loved Springsteen hit Dancing in the Dark. It was mayhem on stage and amongst the audience. It was improvised, uncoordinated and encapsulated the true Glastonbury spirit. The set came to a close with guitarist Al Doyle who is the same Al Doyle of LCD Soundsystem teasing whatever possible LCD fans in the audience (me being one of them) to a few lines from the defining LCD hit All My Friends. This finish was enough to send me back to my tent all giddy and trying to explain to the rest of my group exactly what they had missed out on that evening.

3 – Chemical Brothers (Sunday, Other Stage)

Along came Sunday night and there appeared to be a straight split between where the older and younger sections of the audience spent their evening. I respect The Who and appreciate their musical influence but I think what applies for me applies to many others of my generation and it is that I simply wasn't going to see them for the sake of seeing them. This was everybody’s last act of the weekend and we wanted to go out with a bang! So we chose The Chemical Brothers. I believe that headlining the Other Stage is the biggest slot capable of dance acts at Glastonbury. Apart from the highly unlikely booking of Daft Punk headlining the Pyramid I believe we are a long way from ever seeing DJs in that sort of position, so this is as good and as big as it gets for a dance act at Glasto. The Chemical Brothers also realised that this wasn't their usual Ibiza or nightclub gig where people had bought tickets specifically for them to do their thing, it wasn't their typical dance crowd; it was Glastonbury. They wanted the crowd on their side from the word go and obliged by kicking things off with the 97 classic and DJing favourite Hey Boy, Hey Girl. The rave had begun; flares were being set off, those bad stereotypical dance moves that seem to be nothing but jerking hand movements were all the rage and the stage set lighting was easily the most spectacular of the weekend (even better when a friend had brought a few pairs of light diffracting glasses). It didn’t matter that it was the late hours of Sunday evening; this crowd was going to muster whatever energy they had left by any means to party until the bitter end.

The Chemical Brothers performing on the Other Stage at Glastonbury 2015 
The Bros were in their stride; performing the repetitive yet addictive Do it Again and the new single Go which could be seen as homage to the iconic Galvanize. But these songs were not played as we knew them, no. The Bros had been given their platform and were here to showcase just how skilled their abilities on the decks were and refused to simply just press play on singles such as these. Instead what we saw was a ballet of twisting knobs and dials that resulted in these songs crashing at you at all speeds. It was unpredictable and kept you on your feet (quite literally). The set was a rollercoaster and seemed to fly by as such and towards the end the Bros didn't forget where they were or who they were playing to. You could see it on their faces that they knew they had smashed it, but they also knew what this crowd was waiting for and treated their patience to a finale of Galvanize (probably the purest version they have played in many years) and Block Rockin’ Beats which had the crowd carrying on the singing all the way back to their tents.

2 – Kanye West (Saturday, Pyramid Stage)

This was easily the act I was looking forward to the most; in fact it wasn't even close. So I am as surprised as anybody to find that this isn't my number 1 choice. But that is not to say that this set wasn't outstanding because it was every bit as good as I was expecting. From listening to College Dropout while doing my paper round as a young’un to Yeezus I have loved everything Kanye has released throughout his career. Simply, I am a fan. And as such there was a very unique “perfect” set that I had in my own mind. However I had come to terms that my wishes were mere fantasy and that what would unfold before me was probably going to be a long way off. But it was close enough. I cannot remember ever hearing of a Glastonbury headliner having so much adversity and opposition before even taking to the stage. This didn't stop him drawing a huge crowd; however I imagine many in attendance still needed winning over. The lights came down and there was a brief silence before the storm. The storm was then ignited with the huge hitting Daft Punk sampled Stronger. The pyramid was in full voice and the man himself had yet to even show his face, lord only knows what this did to what was already considered the world’s most inflated ego. Then came Kanye; bouncing onto the stage dressed in more denim than I thought was humanly possible. He had the stage and the audience completely to himself and he didn't look fazed in the slightest. The beginning of the set was a hit filled bonanza with Power, In Paris and Black Skinhead all being dropped in the first fifteen minutes. The crowd could barely keep up, so I could only imagine how on earth Kanye was! After a run of famous hip hop covers which were graciously receipted by the pyramid audience (who would have thought it? Glasto love hip hop after all) came arguably the two strongest songs from the critically acclaimed Yeezus, New Slaves and Blood on the Leaves. This wasn't traditional hip hop, this was the unique dark style that Kanye had moulded himself and what ultimately raised him to the biggest musical platform of all.
Kanye West performing on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury 2015 
Perhaps realising that he was on a stricter time limit than what he’s used to and aware that he had a back catalogue of hits to get through, Kanye then began to tick off song after song on a whim, not following a set list and not even playing full songs at times. I was lost in the performance, I had lost track of what he had played and had literally no idea what would come up next. Each song was a lottery and I felt like I was winning every time. The impromptu arrival of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon sent me into overdrive. Because of Vernon’s influence on Kanye’s recent albums he was the one special guest that I had wished for and my wish had been granted. Kanye then treated the old school fans (and from the number of people singing along there was many) to the classics Jesus Walks and Diamonds from Sierra Leone” before embarking on the journey that is Runaway. I must say it was quite the sight seeing over one-hundred thousand people "have a toast for the douchebags". Then the beautiful tribute to his mother Only One before Kanye jumped onto that crane of his; probably just so he could get a better view of the crowd that he now had in his pocket. Typically this coincided with his songs Touch the Sky and the feel good anthem Good Life.  Eventually Kanye briefly came back down to earth to then perform a surprise cover of Bohemian Rhapsody (I imagine that rubbed a lot of the older TV viewers up the wrong way). For those who were there it was a sensational moment to be a part of. He began to run out of time citing that he only had 7 minutes left. But that didn't stop Kanye from disrupting the start of his most well-known tune Gold Digger in order to proclaim that we were watching the “greatest living rockstar on the planet”. Watching the audience submit to this as probable fact he even leaked a sly smirk. The set came to a close with the debut album single All Falls Down and given the current political climate in the US was a surprisingly humble and undeniably poignant end to an unforgettable set.          

1 – Mark Ronson (Friday, Other Stage)

When looking at everybody who played over the three days this is probably a surprising number one. Well it’s probably surprising for those who didn't witness it, because for all those who were there this was a set to remember.  I was already a huge fan of Ronson and his work before this set and had seen him perform with a full band before, but this set well and truly blew me away. The show was propelled into life with Feel Right a song more on the hip hop side of things from his new album Uptown Special, which even though has not been released as a single is already a popular and well known track. The start of the set carried on with the hip hop theme with Ronson and the help of his two energetic MCs busting out the old school track Ooh Wee from his debut album Here Comes The Fuzz a track that even if you didn't know it was by Ronson, you know the song (this seemed to be the case for lots of the audience). By this point the sun was shining, the crowd were drinking, dancing and singing. Yet things were just getting started. For the rest of the set a revolving door or cameo appearances had swung into the motion, starting with MNDR who took her role in the popular single Bang Bang Bang from Ronson’s last album Record Collection. Then, without introduction came the forgotten man Daniel Merriweather to perform none other than the first single from Ronson’s breakthrough album Version and Smiths cover Stop Me. Merriweather’s vocals were particularly on point for this one and there didn't appear to be any disgruntled Smiths fans in the audience (you know what they’re like) so a good performance all round. The band arrangement seemed to change by song but the ever present Ronson stood, calm yet eye catching throughout; even without providing any vocals to the production. He was there and this was his set, there was no arguing that.

Mark Ronson performing on the Other Stage at Glastonbury 2015
Alongside a couple of BMXers came Kyle Falconer of the view for his feature in The Bike Song, one can only imagine Mark had to search deep into his vast contacts for that one too. Shortly after came the first big name arrival to the stage and one who really rivalled Ronson’s title of coolest member of this ensemble and that was Kevin Parker of Tame Impala. Parker, Ronson and co. then blasted out the hypnotic track that is Daffodils that had the audience revelling in awe. Up next was the gangly, brightly dressed figure of Andrew Wyatt of Miike Snow to perform an unorthodox yet very pleasant Calypso enhanced version of the Miike Snow single Animal. For those familiar with the Record Collection album it was obvious what was to unfold next, but for those who didn't expect it I can only imagine their surprise to Boy George’s arrival to the stage, dressed in full Culture Club attire and all. George and Wyatt then harmonised magically for the performance of Somebody to Love Me. Wyatt then gracefully departed the stage and it was time to get the whole crowd singing again, and what better way to do so than with the Culture Club classic Do You Really Want to Hurt Me. However for the next track there were no special guest as Ronson and the whole of the Other Stage gave tribute to Ronson’s close friend in a stripped down yet beautiful version of Valerie. At times the crowd were out-singing the track and Ronson was visibly taken aback by it all. Glastonbury has lacked many guest appearances in recent years and Mark Ronson seemed to be trying to make up for them all in a single set, especially in the final song of his set which was none other than the inescapable infectious chart topping hit of Uptown Funk. Firstly no, Bruno Mars didn't make an appearance however this was overcome by the introduction of the legendary Grandmaster Flash on the decks and vocals provided by Mary J Blige fresh from her outstanding Pyramid stage performance earlier that day. Finally Ronson paid homage to this funk inspired single and album by bringing on the proclaimed “Prime Minister of Funk” George Clinton. I don’t think me or the rest of the crowd in fact, could compute the unique collection of artists that were performing to us from that stage. It really was a once in a lifetime show.

This post was written by Mr Aiden Hale, who can be contacted via Twitter on the handle @HaleAiden. He can often be found in various bars situated around Liverpool and Leeds, and is a veteran of multiple Glastonbury appearances. He also wishes to state that he popularised his current haircut before it was cool.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Gig Review: Taylor Swift @ British Summer Time, Hyde Park, London, 27.06.15

It’s hard to dispute Taylor Swift’s power in the musical world right now. Riding high from all the conquering eighties throwback of fifth album 1989, which cemented her transition from deeply personal country pop with a girl-next-door charm to stadium-filling bubblegum electronica, she forced a u-turn from Apple Music over royalties in recent weeks, lifting her even further in the adoring eyes of her legions of fans (known as Swifties) and earning the respect of her peers and savvy financial types. Her recent singles are running amok across the Bilboard 100 in the US; last time such dominance was seen was when a denim clad Bruce Springsteen was churning out hit after hit thirty years ago.

Taylor Swift, at British Summer Time 2015
Her headlining show (part of the British Summer Time festival, and continuously referred to as a party in Hyde Park, London by the star) is the conclusion of a brief sojourn into Europe, where until three years ago, she had made nary a dent, in sharp contrast to her already large audience in her native homeland. Fourth album Red changed all that, and Swift’s meteoric ascent in the last three years, particularly across the rest of the world, is cemented here to a 65,000 sell-out crowd that only previous night’s headliners The Who have matched this summer. The atmosphere, under a sweltering summer’s day in the capital, is set to party, with masses of revellers (mostly teenage and female in large groups or accompanied by parents) crammed in, clutching homemade signs proclaiming their love for the Nashville singer, wearing custom t-shirts, and all on the verge of hyper-ventilating or crying or both. And she’s not even on stage yet.

She appears shortly after eight, following Fine Young Cannibals’ She Drives Me Crazy over the PA, to the OMD-indebted synth stabs of album opener Welcome to New York, surrounded by dancers, onto a set that draws heavy influence from Singing in the Rain, with lampposts suspended from the ceilings, to delirious screams. What follows is one hundred and thirty five minutes of solid entertainment, sometimes brilliant, not entirely original and on occasions, tiresomely nauseating and disappointing. It’s a contradictory show that suggests Swift may still not be fully sold on what she wants live performances to be.

Never being one for the charts, I discovered Swift through a series of collaborations with British rockers Def Leppard on the Crossroads programme in America (and their version together of Love Story is worth a listen if you’ve got a spare few minutes, ably reminding you that Leppard were purveyors of some fine cheese metal ballads in their heyday). Swift is well respected for her musical talent and her artistry in songwriting as well as performance – so to see her prancing down the catwalk to minimalistic electro-hit Blank Space and deferring vocal duties on multiple occasions to the backing track is both confusing and annoying: the former due to the fact that she’s going through no real dance moves of her own at that moment, the latter because when she does sing, she has a fine powerful voice that is by turns playful, arresting and emotional. It isn’t the first time and nor will it be the last that Swift defers to the recorded vocal, and it’s a shame – her elevation to pop mainstream has seen her cram the typical live show elements of elaborate staging, extensive dance and multiple costume changes to extreme levels. Thank God that she has the songs, or Hyde Park would have simply been witnessing an extended hi-tech fashion parade of old musical costumes amidst a spot of half-naked male dancing

And what songs. 1989 was one of the stronger mainstream hits of 2014, and backing track or not, there are very few dud tracks on it. Aptly named The 1989 World Tour, Swift drops its hits, its album tracks and its deluxe version numbers one after the other – over three-quarters of the set is drawn from it, but the crowd greets every track like an old friend, with mass adoration, hand waving and tears. How You Get the Girl and All You Had To Do Was Stay signal sing-alongs – her dancers move doors around the stage and down the long walkway that juts out into the middle of the crowd for escape song I Know Places. The staging itself is elaborate, verging between the musical-inspired – newest hit Bad Blood is accompanied by a West Side Story-esque wire frame and glass set up – and the ridiculous – Swift produces a piano that she’s knowingly aware of looking like some bastardised Star Wars craft and a figment of Matt Bellamy’s feverish dreams at one point. Her band is well tuned and fairly tight – they play the songs and they play them well, though there is, surprisingly for such a well-oiled machine, the odd flubbed intro and missed cue. Swift doesn’t chastise or get moody though – she simply gives a wry roll of the eye and flashes a disarmingly charming smile. She’s not a perfectionist, and that’s a quality that can serve well in the live music quarter.

Taylor Swift, at British Summer Time 2015
Songs don’t necessarily stay the same either – a slow, sleazy electro-stomp through I Knew You Were Trouble is accompanied by gyrating men with bulging biceps, exuding an inherent, almost commercialised sexualisation of camp that Freddie Mercury would be proud of but seems almost tame in comparison to other big pop shows . And therein lies another weakness – there are no game-changing elements to this performance that sets it apart from the rest. The half-naked male dancer is pop show cliché. So is musical-inspired elaborate staging. So is routines requiring a backing track. Swift borrows all, and then some, without much variation upon it. A spectacle it is, but Rihanna and Beyonce have been here before, for years too (Lady Gaga too, although her stripped down approach with Tony Bennett is winning plaudits). The redeeming grace note is that Swift, more often than not, appears to be entirely aware of the implausibility of it all and subverts it on occasion – but more often than not, it goes over the crowd’s head and its down to her personal charms to sway the rest.
At one point, she takes to the walkway (which elevates and spins round slowly over the screaming fans) and here again, it’s a show of two halves. No longer dancing, she delivers backing-less, superb vocals and shows off her musical skills, with an acoustic You Are in Love (complete with crowd chant) and keyboard-heavy makeover over of original hit Love Story strong points of the night. The true highlight of this little section is a gorgeous, somewhat emotionally desperate take on album closer Clean, a genuinely-affecting ballad that is accompanied by visuals of a woman turning into petals and water. It is starkly affecting and creates a real sense of emotion to the performance.

But it is preceded and followed by Swift’s monologues and musings on life. Most artists do this, whatever the show, but they usually keep it fairly short and snappy and appeal to the fans. Instead, the crowd is treated to four different sermons, coming in at a combined thirty five minutes. Whilst one – about being your own worst critic, and struggles with depression – is brimming with a genuine emotion, the rest ring somewhat hollow. Swift meanders on her love life and her musical success, but it feels far too scripted to be arresting. Her crowd lap it up – Swift is one of the leading lights of fan interaction, forming genuine friendships that she appears to treasure as much as the young women she connects with online over social media – but you get the distinct impression that she could read a grocery list and they would react the same way, or the receipt from a shop at B&Q.

Another gripe is the video inserts that accompany the changing of staging. Against a stark white background, celebrity pals such as Selena Gomez, Lena Dunham and the Haim sisters pay tribute to Swift. Whilst some testimony is amusingly candid (Dunham and model Cara Delevigne have a knowing awareness to what these inserts are), they are most likely meant to humanise Swift and broaden her appeal further – instead, they come off as self-congratulatory and a little sickening. Swift has never been one to flaunt her own ego excessively in the way of other pop stars, but by publishing these plaudits from other A-listers, she feels somewhat complicit to boosting it. It is underpinned by the hit Style too – famous friends, including tennis player Serena Williams and the aforementioned Delevigne walk the runway, the latter waiving a Union Jack, and it all feels a little too much like a taunting boast. Perhaps a montage of the common people, her fans from the crowd passing testimony, might have helped create a better connection – or perhaps not even at all. Swift is still at heart in possession of the cherub-like girl-next-door charm she traded on when younger, and at times it positively radiates and dazzles, but too often she feels like she is undermining her own generous warmth and showmanship with this.

Taylor Swift and friends, at British Summer Time 2015
Bad Blood is followed by a crashing hard-rock take on international breakthrough We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together that easily stakes a claim to the highlight of the show. Dirty riffs, played by Swift on an electric guitar, matched with an angered edgy vocal, it again gives a chance to showcase her vocal and musical skills – but the background visual is indebted to the video for The White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army and the smack of nothing truly new in its staging rings out again. A piano led mash-up of Enchanted and Wildest Dreams leads in the finale, a frantic, tingling take on Out of the Woods, possibly 1989’s strongest track, and lead-single party starter Shake It Off, during which Swift and her troupe of dancers return to dance (harnessed, thanks to Health and Safety restrictions) along the raised walkway again. It triggers a previously-unfelt release of tension in the crowd and leads to much dancing, the giant screens either side of the stage showing the beaming expressions of fans as the camera passes over them. The vocal for Woods again pulls on the heartstrings and there’s backing again for the final number, but the crowd obviously don’t car – there is euphoria and delirium as she makes her final exit and the lights go down. Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire starts pouring out of the PA as the fans slowly disperse, teenage girls yammering excitedly to one another. Swift certainly has put on an impressive visual spectacle tonight and her fans will be well-sated – but less backing, less pedestal raising, less talking and more originality could have helped elevate it to a consistent greatness befitting her charm and musicianship.

Rating: 3/5