Sunday, January 19, 2020

In contrast to last week's rather quieter report, this bulletin seems to be obsessed mainly with music - live, local, and exhilarating!
Roots Sessions at the Grain Bar on Wednesday featured solo singer-songwriter Leander Morales, and six-piece band The Hoodoos, with both acts enjoying appreciation for their intimate audience interaction as well as splendid performances. Hoodoos do a particular good version of the 1973 hit 'Long Train Running' which really suits their hi-energy impact style.

Friday evening brought another exciting double-bill to a crowded house, this time the Bennett Centre where Chesterblade Hills featured The Pagan Gospel Groove Machine aka Ed Green's band, followed by Jaz Delorean with cabaret-style songs on piano. The 4-piece band has a mellow mood reminiscent (for me) of the seventies: I loved the repeated chant ... at the end of the night, the moon fades away and the sun comes up in the sky..... In contrast, Jaz is best known as front man for Tankus the Henge, which is a popular festival dance band.

Another mood change on Saturday for the Frome Punk Festival, an eight-hour fiesta, for anyone staying throughout, of punk bands classic and contemporary on the main stage of the Cheese and Grain.
The main attraction for me was The Raggedy Men who always deliver a brilliant performance and get people up and dancing too. Also very good, though earplugs recommended, were The Lonely Goats who perform their own songs -you can check out Elvis on Mars here.

Saturday's stirring music continued till late not only in Frome but also down the road in Bruton where mutant new wave / post-punk trio Invisible Eyes were featured guest at the Bruton Castle open mic night - you can listen to a sample here.
Sunday also provided an afternoon of excellent live music at The Three Swans as Paul Kirtley's acoustic club provided its usual mix of folk, rock & jazzy pop, though sadly there are no images for this as your reporter had to default due to another winter ailment.. sigh.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Chaos, with some music and a moon

And yes, this bulletin should have been posted before double-figure dates made saying 'Happy New Year' distinctly passé but seasonal celebrations and seasonal ailments all conspired to delay it.
So let's launch off with the cultural stuff. Books! Frome's indefatigable Hunting Raven bookshop-wiz Tina Waller has initiated a book club with a difference: when you join the Proof Pudding Club, everybody gets a different book in a brown-paper wrap, no title visible (they are all pre-publication 'proof' copies) and once a month the club meets upstairs at the Cornerhouse for a feed-back sharing session, which also informs Tina as to which books to stock post-publication. And the pudding bit? After the reviews are discussed, we all have a pudding. (It was sticky toffee, with custard, this month, if you're interested - with a gluten-free, dairy-free, low-sugar alternative, obviously, we're not savages.) Thanks Denise Hunt for this snap of our group as Andy talked about his enjoyment of Losing Eden by Lucy Jones - sounds like one to look out for. This was my first session and I'm now hooked. At another wordy group meeting, Frome Writers Collective celebrated the new year with a game session at The Three Swans - no image for this, scrabble requires concentration.
Black Swan Arts first exhibition of the year is χάος - Chaos -created by Barry Cooper and curated by Hans Borgonjon, whose vision and input the painter insists is a crucial element: 'It is his concept and vision for my work which has produced something which is truly 4 Dimensional,' he says. The six major canvases each represent a violin sonata written by Eugène Ysaÿe, with other paintings exploring aspects, and the artist aims to 'reach beyond the visible to an imagined fourth dimension: length, breadth, width, and time.' Barry works often in 3-D with stone and wooden carvings and has strong connections with the Greek island of Paros: 'The way that I work is through internal conversation,' he says, and all these elements seem to join the music in this creative converse. Our regular writing workshop in the Long Gallery was ably led by Dawn Gorman with a focus on chaos of life - an appropriate topic for 2020, I feel. 

Less music than usual to report in this bulletin as this has been a time of mostly private (and fabulous) parties, but Nunney Acoustic Cafe led off the year with feature guests The Marianas, 'synth-drenched alt pop', a band whose total ages combined probably barely reach mine. We also had other excellent musical sets and a soupçon of saucy words from me - thanks David Goodman for the image.

So now as storm Brendan batters the UK and media news is daily more dire, take heart from the words of Bob Dylan: Everything passes and everything changes, just do what you think you should do. I'll leave you with an image of the Wolf Moon rising over Frome, as seen on return from snowdrop hunting in Nunney.

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Ladies dancing and a happy new year

The eighth day in the carol is ladies dancing though I never remember where you start counting from, but the highlight of an absolutely brilliant gig at the Old Bath Arms from Back of the Bus was The Eighth Day The link here is to Hazel O'Connor's version, but it gives some idea of the impact from this amazing hi-impact septet. All of us in Frome are so lucky to move into the difficult year ahead in an egalitarian town that bubbles with live music!

And now after a week of those traditional seasonal celebrations of eating, drinking, walking, dancing, quizzing, and sneezing, it's time to start on another year, still box-fresh and unsullied - let's see if we can keep it that way. To finish the old one and start the new, here's a story and a poem.

Growing up post-war, Little Women was staple re-reading for me, along with my absolute favourites The Secret Garden (unloved little girl turns out to be adorable) and A Little Princess (unloved little girl turns out to be adorable).  Of the four sisters in Louisa M Alcott's tale, tomboyish Jo seems most favoured, with practical Meg in second place while Beth is clearly far too angelic to survive and Amy is selfish and vain - but as the reader is invited to disapprove of her, she's the closest to an unloved little girl so I preferred her to Jo who was too much like Worrals (the female version of Biggles). Jo in the movie doesn't come across like that although she does literally rewrite the book, and it's all visually entertaining with some excellent acting (especially Meryl Streep) and a charming Laurie, although the girls all seem a bit hefty for their ages & era and the time-jumps are a bit confusing. It's been criticised for focusing on the lives of white characters but that's what most girls' books in the 19th century were like, and at least we had the eye-candy of all those pastel puffed-up skirts at the parties like massed macaroons. Nostalgia encouraged me to revisit my mother's copy of the story dated 1917 and published by the Religious Tract Society of London who appear to have economised on their cloth covers as the binding is in shreds: the colour plates by Harold Copping are still glowing though so here's Amy from this book, being vain, and Timothée Chalamet as Laurie in the movie, being the fairest of them all.

So here's hoping your 2020 will impossibly good, and some helpful words from Brendan Kennelly.
Begin again to the summoning birds
to the sight of the light at the window,
begin to the roar of morning traffic
all along Pembroke Road.
Every beginning is a promise
born in light and dying in dark
determination and exaltation of springtime
flowering the way to work.
Begin to the pageant of queuing girls
the arrogant loneliness of swans in the canal
bridges linking the past and future
old friends passing though with us still.
Begin to the loneliness that cannot end
since it perhaps is what makes us begin,
begin to wonder at unknown faces
at crying birds in the sudden rain
at branches stark in the willing sunlight
at seagulls foraging for bread
at couples sharing a sunny secret
alone together while making good.
Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
that always seems about to give in
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Wicked queens, naughty nuns, and more lights & music

I don’t go so often to Tobacco Factory Theatre since the whole area became a permit-parking-only zone, and the promotion image for this version of Snow White didn’t entice me, but luckily a friend tipped me off I was missing a treat so on a dark and icy afternoon I plodded the 40 minute trek from Temple Meads Station and was opulently rewarded. This is a fabulous production - not, though there is fair bit of audience interaction, a pantomime but a great classic story, spiced gently and entertainingly with environmental and social values. New International Encounter, here in collaboration with Cambridge Junction as well as Tobacco Factory Theatres, has a reputation for superb, accessible, story-telling - inventive, succinct, and with lively musicality. The four musicians are on stage throughout: they carry the narrative thread, create the spirit of the magic mirror, and enact the seven dwarves with (mis)calculating insistence about their number. This happy band of social misfits have all left stressful jobs to live an alternative life-style, growing seven kinds of onions and serving vegan stew in a non-gender way. They do their incompetent best to take care of Snow White, but the wiles of the wicked Queen initially wobbles the community into frightened calls for "locks, keys, fence, wall - 42 feet high, with barbed wire! and a buzzer… We’ve got to take back control!" Luckily they quickly decide,  No - this is not us. Love is what matters - an open heart.  But clear personal boundaries! 
All this is fun but doesn't distract from the Grimm focus in the tale on the wicked queen and her terrible plans.  Stefanie Mueller in this role is absolutely fantastic, swinging from near-recognisable family stuff at the start - the exasperation over teenage defiant fibs - to demonic obsession with her appearance and evil plots to kill her step-daughter (I got the blame for that, actually - one of the dubious delights of a front seat in an interactive show!) But even she is allowed a small, thought-provoking, voice when she laments, I was told I had to be 'the fairest,' nobody told me that just 'fair' would be enough. Multi-talented Ms Mueller also designed the set and costumes. This is genuinely an all-age show and it's on till 19th January - a great antidote for dark days ahead. Images Mark Dawson.

Meanwhile 700 years ago in the real world no-one was having a good time in a society dominated by the draconian rules of sex-starved, sex-obsessed church officials. Based (surprisingly closely, though the dummy left for burial probably wasn't a mop&bucket) on the true story of a nun on the run, Breach theatre created Joan of Leeds - a lusty end-of-year romp with mirth, bawdiness and song, in keeping with the Yorkshire Medieval Players they claim to be, which sounded like a fun idea and worth a trip to New Diorama Theatre although central London isn't my patch for reviews. Medieval texts abound with explicit imagery of nuns involved in all kinds of activities not associated these days with holy orders - the penis-gatherer here is at least demurely clad - and Breach seized the opportunity provided by erotic visions for much scurrilous activity and scandalous costume. There was a short unconvincing attempt to evoke a parallel with the social struggle of lesbians in the last century, but the best bits by far were the lusty erotica and hysterical absurdity.

Another evening prowl in search of festive illumination, this time to Stourhead, didn't reward nearly as well as Longleat: the concept of blasting heavy colour on specific buildings and trees benefitted neither, and the elegant vista of the lake on arrival was obliterated by oscillating vividly-coloured bobbles. You don't have to be a cantankerous dendrophile like me to recognise that Stourhead is an elegant example its era's respect for the grandeurs of antiquity and the concept of beauty in nature, and fierce floodlights detract rather than embellish.

A blast of music now:
The 'Last Bones Gig of the Year' was at the The George at Nunney,  courtesy of manager Tania, and with the massed instruments & voices of the entire village, it seemed, especially for the finale version of Fairy Tale of New York which Bones leader Paul Kirtley reckons as good the original...  certainly more celebratory. I also liked the the guitar solos on Come on Baby Light My Fire, but it was all enjoyable - big appreciation to both Frome and Nunney gangs for a great gig, to the customers who contributed to Paul's charity bucket, and of course to the man of every Bones match, Paul himself. The sound was fantastic but historic buildings don't cope well with biblical-scale downpours so my images caught the convivial atmosphere rather than the event.
Back in Frome, we've had a goldrush of brilliant bands: amazing Purple Fish bringing classic rock to the Cornerhouse on Saturday, followed next night by the utterly awesome Pete Gage band with Craig Crofton on saxophone.. two sensational events from passionate professional performers - Frome pubs must lead the world for treating their customers to great gigs like these.

The Three Swans took over to fill the gap on Sunday afternoon with an all-afternoon session from the massed forces of several local bands as traditional folk musicians from various traditions joined up with singers and players in a variety of styles from swampy funk to 80's pop. This was a real party event, with all ages crammed into the upstairs room amid the rococo furniture and startlingly retro wall adornments.

Happy celebrations whatever you choose to do - see you after the flack has settled on a new year.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Lights, music, curtains...

Frome Festive Poetry Cafe on Monday evening had a focus on the community aspect of these bi-monthly-ish get-togethers at the Garden Cafe: we've enjoyed some fantastic guest poets at these events, and will continue to do so, but this time the metaphorical mic was given over entirely to the floor - or rather to the creative people who come as audience. Here's me somewhat randomly allocating the gifts donated by Hunting Raven Books and Merlin Theatre but the prize for everyone was a really lovely night, rich in imagery with poems ranging from poignant memories to witty word-play. Several 'debut poets' took the plunge, including a touching 'thankyou letter to Frome' from Chloe Rayburn, joining popular regulars like Mike Grenville (with a piece inspired by the current Black Swan exhibition you can read here) humorists Moira Andrew and John Christopher Wood, and John Payne, who read and distributed a moving poem from his current research on the workhouse in Bath, consulting leather ledgers in the Guildhall basement: They list the money spent, the figures, / but not the suffering / of children, elders, the mad, the sick./ We must hold them in remembrance ourselves.  Thanks David Goodman for the photos.
Next night's illuminating imagery was the literal kind, with an evening walk over the Wiltshire border into neighbouring Longleat Festival of Lights rewarded by an awesome scene of myths and legends in massive scale filling the park right down to, and including, the lake. This extraordinary spectacle is on until Jan 5th and it really is, also literally, fabulous: I've been critical of this costly 'spectacular' in the past for tacky cartoon figures and badly re-envisaged storybook characters, but this year's theme-envisaging is truly awesome - every mythic monster and hero from legends around the world is here, aesthetically beautiful as well as posed in thrilling story-telling moments - the illuminated tags beside each were being extensively used by visitors, I noticed, to succinctly fill the sad omissions in our 'education' system. There are hundreds of beautiful images there to enthral and photograph - I picked two that chime currently for me.

For the rest of the week Frome seems to have been wall-to-wall music. Raggedy Men at the Cornerhouse were a perfect choice for Friday, with dancing from the start and lots of shout-along moments to great songs from Jonny Rotten and The Clash - classic smashing punk, but with riffs! Andy, Bugsy, Carl, and drumming dervish Pat - you were just what we all needed.

Dancing-from-the-start at Cornerhouse again next night for amazing Bristol band Flash Harry, who claim to be a folk rock-balkan-cajun band but it's not that simple (!) to describe them - they can sing&play at fast-forward, make a sea-shanty sound like Deep Purple, make a hoe-down song jazzy or the other way around, and have a penchant for hamsters. I can't find their wonderful Get Out Of Bed song online but here's a sample of their style from a Bristol gig.
Sunday afternoon Acoustic Club in the Three Swans, co-ordinated by Paul Kirtley, was a pleasantly casual affair, with a series of enjoyable performances including a great set from Mountain Speaks Fire who were joined for their version of Where Did You Sleep Last Night by guest singer Anna Callan making an early debut. (I always thought this was a Nirvana original, but it's actually traditional, first recorded in 1939 by Lead Belly)
And the tempo stayed relaxed back at the Cornerhouse for Graham Dent's Sunday jazz night, this time with Caroline Radcliffe as guest singer with Graham's regular Piano Trio and John Plaxton on trumpet.

As this is primarily an arts blog, there will be no comment about what also happened last week and I'll leave you with a seasonal poem from William Yeats: The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spirtus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man
 A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
 Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
 That twenty centuries of stony sleep
 Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Monday, December 09, 2019

Midwinter high spirits in times of sleet and glitter

A Christmas Carol at Bristol Old Vic was never going to end with Tiny Tim saying God Bless Us Every One - like L.P. Hartley's past, they do things differently there. Yet despite burlesque overtones and operatic narration, this irresistibly engaging production stays close to the spirit of the storyline, though with the occasional intrusion of foodbanks and shopping trolleys, and even closer to the spirit of Dickens.  All the principle characters of the story are here: embittered Scrooge, his patient nephew, his loyal clerk with a small sick son, the warning ghosts and phantom-memories of loves and losses... but they're all a little bit unexpected. Bob Cratchit is a chubby deaf mute - so, uncoincidentally, is Mrs Fezziwig (Stephen Collins delightful in both roles) - and Tiny Tim and Ebenezer when very young are played by two children extracted for this purpose from the audience. This is particularly entertaining when Scrooge, observing ethnic diversity between himself and the shiny-eyed happy child he used to be, comments 'It's me! I remember the flat-top.' Our anti-hero's flair for impro is especially useful in the final scene, when he begs the audience to tell him how to make amends: on the night I was there, suggestions were focussed around drinks for all at the bar, until 'Come on you lot, this is the immersive bit!' was rewarded with the suggestion of a turkey, and the drama could move to its happy conclusion.
John Hopkins is tremendous in this central role, terrifyingly nasty until the ghosts take him in hand and the poignancy of his memories evokes a moving grief. Tom Morris's adaptation skilfully enhances the parallels with Dicken's own experiences, subtly emphasising how treatment of the poor and weak in Victorian days is emulated in our own society: it's significant that Ebenezer learnt his contempt for 'lower orders' and his desire to amass wealth when he was sent away to school, as so many of our current political leaders have been.
Historical and social relevance is fascinating but this is above all a strong story retold in a fantastically entertaining style, with great musicality, weird effects and scary puppets, funky costumes, lashings of humour and some weepy moments - everything you want from your favourite morality tale in fact. Massive credit to director Lee Lyford, designer Tom Rogers, musical director/composer/lyricist Gwyneth Herbert, and the ten superb actors - enthusiastically recommended for all ages, on till January 12th. (Images Geraint Lewis)
And another 'winter special' opened this week: Cinderella at the Merlin Theatre in Frome, also impressively re-envisaged, and also presented with masses of music and spectacular effects. Claudia Pepler, who writes and directs these shows, goes back to Grimm's tales - and indeed these original authors control the plot in their manifestation as pigeons, thanks to superb balletic comedy duo Dillon Berry and Pete White, who tell us 'We are the brothers, the brothers Grimm, we're story tellers, or disrupters, if you will - we fly from tale to tale...'
Here's the charming prince (Ben Jenkins) and his adorable Ella (Amy Maughan) watched by her wonderfully dreadful sisters (Tabitha Cox and Abi Holmes), with Victoria May as the stepmother tricked by land-grabbing Dave Merritt. This kind of plot embellishment, as well as Ella's environmental passion, brings the classic tale cleverly up-to-date while losing none of the fairytale quality - in fact Howard Vause's pumpkin-to-coach animation sequence is one of the highlights of a glittering show. This production is up for the Somerset Fellowship of Drama Cinderella Trophy, and so it should be!
(Images: Dave Merritt)
And now for something rather less visual: Writers on Radio, presented by Frome Writers' Collective, is broadcast monthly on Frome FM.  Each programme is a miscellany of information and entertainment on writerly topics, with a dash of music. The upcoming show also includes my short personal tribute to Jill Miller.  Jill will always be remembered for the cancer charity she founded but she was a writer too, and I was invited to share this aspect of her life. Here's the team at the end of the recording: Suzy Howlett, Jules Garvey-Welch, Sian Williams and Lisa Kenwright, with techie PJ - the show goes out Friday Dec 13 and is online here.

Next day saw me back at the studio for the On Air Book Group, broadcast live and online soon, a convivial session with Sheila Hedges at the helm: Books-as-gifts was our seasonal theme, with an overview from Tina Gaisford-Waller, queen of Hunting Raven Books, and a range of ideas from charity shop browsing to splendid editions, like Britain's Forest Story by Frome's Julian Hight. My other recommendations included the marvellous Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth - rapid-fire witty word-loops connecting origins with torrents of historical anecdote - Frome's bookshop will order you a copy for the logophile in your life!  Here's me with Tina and Pat Taylor talking to hosts Karen Stewart and James Ellis with Sheila Hedges - thanks Terry Stewart for the picture of us all. Our chat is online now here - number 37 (06/12/19)

Music report this week is thinner than usual, due to so much else going on: The Back Wood Redeemers at theCornerhouse on Saturday gave their usual stonking selection of dark specialities like Give Them A Good Death in a performance even darker than usual as the light bulb had been removed. So here's a snatched shot of fantastic Eddie Young abandoning his double bass and invading the dance floor - I forget what he was singing but it was awesome...

And a look back now at two ongoing projects in Frome both celebrating successful conclusion: Black Swan's boundary-breaking Listen - a Summer of Sound Art successfully signed off its final programme in a wide-ranging list of events and although contact with the town council and Frome FM to maintain new initiatives will continue, a wrap party seemed appropriate. So Sunday afternoon saw a very pleasant cava and cake party at Black Swan cafe, with a final word from organisers Mel Day and Helen Ottaway, pictured here with sound-wizard Michael Ormiston.

Finally for this week: way back in summer sunshine, a group of Vicki Burke's Fromie friends assembled with her in Rodden Meadow to dance around the big oak as part of Vicki Burke's Magic Money Tree - a campaign video for the project PIPPA (People in Positive Politics Association) filmed by Howard Vause. The preview was on Sunday at Frome's Granary, and as multi-talented Vicki is also a band member in Seize the Day, we had a rebel-rousing introduction to the showing too.
I'll leave you now to the contemplation of your hopes and trepidations for the week ahead...