Thursday, 31 May 2018

Josh Rouse at The Garage, London - 25/04/2018

With a career spanning 20 years, Josh Rouse is an artist who continues to stylistically evolve with each new release. Originating with the alt country rock of 1998 debut Dressed Up Like Nebraska, his experimental creative approach has formed a catalogue that covers a multitude of genres, notably the 70s inspired pop/soul of 1972, Spanish influenced El Turista, and the atmospherically cinematic arrangements of Bedroom Classics Vol. 2, to name but a few.

However, Love in the Modern Age – Rouse’s latest offering, may be his bravest transition yet, with an overriding 80s electro sound that is worlds apart from the rootsy, thought provoking, and at times, poetic aspects of previous release, The Embers of Time. Drawing inspiration from bands such as The Blue Nile and Roxy Music, the 80s influence is very much present throughout on Love in the Modern Age, from the keyboard and synth focused arrangement, right down to the Bryan Ferry-esque album artwork. On a side note, the album is reminiscent in places to the self-titled She’s Spanish, I’m American EP that Rouse released as a side project with wife Paz Suay in 2007. Suay also appears on Love in the Modern Age, providing background vocals that further enhance the authentic 80s vibe of the album – perhaps to most effect on the title track, which is also noteworthy for its impressive sax solo.

At his recent gig at The Garage, Rouse performed seven of the nine songs that comprise Love in the Modern Age, in addition to a solid selection of tracks from previous releases. The electronic 80s sound of the new album was most successfully conveyed by Rouse's band on the breezy synth-led 'Salton Sea', and perhaps more surprisingly on 'Businessman' – a track that sounds overly brash on record, but seemed to translate more fluently in a live setting. A further highlight of the new material was the dreamy 'Tropic Moon', while the uplifting vocal harmonies of 'I’m Your Man' seemed to evoke a sense of euphoria among the crowd.

Rouse offset the new material with a satisfyingly varied mix of classic tracks from the first half of his catalogue; my favourite song of the night was a full band version of 'Under Cold Blue Stars' – a song that has proved somewhat of a rarity during previous tours, but slotted in perfectly amongst the 80s theme of the new material. Other standout tracks came courtesy of the 1972 and Nashville albums - 1972’s title track in particular, sounded as timeless and sublime as ever, while Rouse later embarked on an encore that featured a solo acoustic version of 'Sad Eyes', that, midway through, progressed into a dynamic anthem when his three fellow band members re-joined him on stage. The equally addictive 'Love Vibration', the final chorus of which prompted a rapturous call-and-response exchange between Rouse and the crowd, drew the set to a joyous close.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Steely Dan at the O2 Arena, London - 29/10/2017

“We are a little different from what we were a few months ago. But I’ve got to live with that,” Donald Fagen told the audience a few songs in to Steely Dan’s first UK gig in just under a decade. This reference to the recent passing of the band’s co-founder, Walter Becker, was accompanied by a poignantly placed empty mic stand that remained centre stage for the duration of the 90-minute Bluesfest headline set at London’s O2 arena.

Despite an understated onstage entrance, perhaps made more evident following The Doobie Brothers’ electric opening set, “The Steely Dan Organisation” – a term Fagen used in acknowledgement to his 12-piece band – kicked off the performance with the rousingly upbeat ‘Bodhisattva’. The irresistible funk groove of ‘Black Cow’ was an early highlight, while ‘Hey Nineteen’, the intro of which is so instantly recognisable, set the crowd momentum soaring. It would have been difficult to top this opening trio of songs, had it not been for Fagen then proceeding to surprise the crowd with ‘New Frontier’ – a track from his 1882 solo album, The Nightfly. Arguably a bold decision so soon in the set, albeit one that pleased long-time fans.

For a band that became renowned for their well-crafted and precise studio work, the entire set, which mostly comprised songs from Aja and Gaucho, translated fantastically in a live setting – an especially impressive feat in this instance, given the size of the venue. The skilled complexity of the onstage musicianship was most evident during Aja’s jazz-infused title track, in which a flowing tenor sax solo by Walt Weiskopf effortlessly intertwined with Keith Carlock’s extended drum breaks to perfectly offset against a more spacious keys section. Aja’s other highlight of the evening came by way of ‘Peg’, in which Fagen’s vocal – always confident in delivery, if at times gritty in tone – showed no sign of becoming lost among the bright four-piece horn section. The song was further elevated by Jon Herington’s incredible guitar solo.

Although the set leaned heavily on Steely Dan’s later work, glimpses of the early catalogue shone through to add some diversity to a performance that had potential to be a lot more varied had the band not been restricted to a 90-minute slot imposed by the venue’s 10:30pm curfew, a restriction that didn’t go unmentioned by Fagen – "We'd play a bit longer if we got permission from the substitute teacher". Key moments from the early albums included a soulful rendition of Can’t Buy a Thrill’s ‘Dirty Work’, in which lead vocals were provided by backing trio The Danettes, while later in the set, the band returned to the upbeat funk for ‘Kid Charlemagne’, from 1976’s The Royal Scam, complete with another of Herington’s remarkable guitar solos.

Upon reflection of the gig – my first experience seeing the band live – I could not have been more delighted with the setlist. As a Gaucho fan, I was particularly thrilled that this album was so generously represented; the sublime shuffle of ‘Babylon Sisters’ followed by the rhythmically tight ‘Time Out of Mind’, brought an overriding sense of euphoria that lingered right through to the climactic encore of ‘Reelin’ in the Years’.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

John Mayer at the O2 Arena, London - 11/05/2017

John Mayer’s recent two-night consecutive run at the O2 Arena marked a long-awaited return for the musician, who last performed at this same venue three years ago. Mayer’s current tour is in support of latest album The Search for Everything – a project that was released in two gradual ‘waves’ as four-track EPs, followed by the arrival of the complete album last month. With a keener emphasis on pop and soul, the twelve tracks that comprise The Search for Everything indicate an evident shift from the folk/country sound that has dominated previous releases, Paradise Valley and Born and Raised, though the country influence still lingers in places.

The Search for Everything tour is structured in a chapter format, accompanied by scenic onscreen visuals and stage lighting which provided a cinematic quality that was unlike any past Mayer gig I had attended. After opening the first of the O2 gigs with a solid rendition of ‘Heartbreak Warfare’ from 2010’s Battle Studies, Mayer and his band launched straight into the new material, kicking up a steady funk groove on ‘Moving On and Getting Over’ and ‘Rosie’ that rivalled the lighter, R&B tones of the album versions. Drawing this first chapter of the gig to a climactic close was an acoustic version of ‘Blues Run the Game’ that evolved into a dynamic, full band-led ‘Queen of California’.

Mayer opened Chapter two’s acoustic set with the heartfelt ‘Emoji of a Wave’ — one of my personal favourites from the current album and a definite highlight of the gig. While Mayer’s vocals were in top shape throughout the concert, his range showed most strength and consistency in this segment, accompanied by minimal instrumentation. The fine acoustics of the O2, probably the best I have experienced at this venue, further complemented Mayer’s soulful voice.

The standout tracks of the evening came by way of the John Mayer Trio set that formed Chapter three. Having never previously seen the Trio perform, it was an absolute treat hearing 'Vultures' and 'Who Did You Think I Was' played by this bluesy line-up; the musicianship and on-stage chemistry between Pino Palladino, Steve Jordan and Mayer was electric. On a side note, the documentary chronicling the Trio’s return that played prior to the band’s set, proved the perfect build, prompting further excitement throughout the crowd, while the onscreen visuals accompanying the actual performance were among the most inspired of the entire concert. With only three songs included in this chapter, and given the Trio’s eclectic repertoire, my only gripe was that the set wasn’t longer.

The full band returned on stage for the final chapter with ‘Helpless’, the track on The Search for Everything that, along with the aforementioned ‘Rosie’, bears most likeness to the Heavier Things era of Mayer’s earlier catalogue. The energetic, rock-driven song transpired fantastically in the O2, and succeeded in maintaining the momentum gained from the Trio’s epic performance. However, of the current material, 'In the Blood' had the strongest emotional impact; the song’s powerful lyrics and moody arrangement conveyed a deep sense of poignancy that was well received by the crowd.

The talent of Mayer’s band was apparent throughout, though key moments included Isaiah Sharkey’s extended guitar solo on ‘If I Ever Get Around To Living’ and David Ryan Harris’ vocally impressive interpretation of Prince’s ‘The Beautiful Ones’, which effortlessly transitioned into ‘Slow Dancing in a Burning Room’. ‘Gravity’ — the third, and strongest track of the evening to appear from 2006’s Continuum, was a natural choice to begin the encore, after which Mayer made a final, solo return to the stage for self-accompanied piano ballad ‘You’re Gonna Live Forever in Me’.

At one point before the encore, Mayer took a moment to thank the enthused crowd. Upon doing so, he humbly reflected on the more intimately sized audiences of past UK tours, in which he "played for all the American kids" — a nostalgic reference to the fact that, until more recent years, Mayer has experienced the majority of his success in the US, while maintaining a somewhat modest fan base in the UK. As he progressed into ‘Why Georgia’, I glanced round the packed venue and reminisced on my own memories of attending those intimate shows in the early stages of my fourteen years as a JM fan. Though I miss the atmosphere of the smaller venues, it is great to see Mayer receiving the recognition he deserves and filling arenas like the O2 - a feat that truly reflects his ever-growing fan base here in the UK.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Is the Concept of "Selling Out" Relevant to Music in the Digital Age?

I am currently enrolled on Berklee College of Music’s Online Music Supervision Professional Certificate. This multi-course programme specialises in all the key areas of music supervision – a field which involves the synchronisation of music with visual media, notably TV, film, advertising and video games. Of the five courses that comprise the certificate, I have so far completed Music Publishing 101, Copyright Law, Music Licensing and Music Production Analysis, and I am just about to begin Music Supervision – the final and most vital module in this particular certificate.

As an aspiring music supervisor, I am fascinated by the avenues to which music is placed in TV and film, processes that are extensively covered in the Music Licensing module. A theme that was discussed in this course, is the one surrounding the concept of “selling out”, and whether such a notion is relevant in today’s digital-focused music industry. The course cites the unprecedented licensing of Moby’s 1999 album, Play – in which Moby turned to TV, film and advert placement opportunities when conventional promotional methods did not succeed in expanding his fan base – as a prime example of the shift towards a more creative and inventive approach to licensing. Play became the first album to have every track licensed, and in turn challenged conventional artistic standards in relation to licensing music commercially.

If I were an artist, I would embrace opportunities to have my music placed in TV shows, films or adverts. The music industry’s digital shift saw the physical CD lose its relevance as the main generator of income for artists, and as a result, the ways in which music is distributed have changed drastically. In today’s digital climate — in which most music fans/consumers are discovering new music through the internet, whether it be through streaming services or social media — placements are a much sought after opportunity for today’s upcoming indie artists, many of which are building their musical presence by way of a DIY approach through digital means. In this respect, the hype that can be generated through the use of a song in an advert, or popular TV show/film is especially invaluable for these types of artists.

On this basis, I believe the concept of “selling out” is, for the most part, no longer relevant, especially for these lesser known indie bands, for which every advert, TV show, or film placement, not only benefits the artist financially, but is essentially another opportunity for their music to be discovered by a wider audience. Furthermore, advancements in technology, including music recognition apps such as Shazam, have provided music fans with an efficient method for identifying songs they hear through placements. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been enthused over a particular song on a TV show or movie, and after identifying the song and band, have then subsequently gone on to become fans of the artist as a result of exploring their back catalogue and attending their live shows. From a fan perspective, there is something particularly satisfying about being turned on to artists via a TV show or movie — artists of which I may have never discovered had it not been for such kinds of placements.

For mainstream artists, the concept of “selling out” might prove a more difficult notion to escape from, on the reasoning that the success of these artists surely places them in a position for which they can be selective over the uses of their music. However, the status of these more established artists also places them in a position of leverage when negotiating licence fees, which in turn, most likely secures them a more lucrative deal. One could therefore argue that this is not “selling out”; rather, it is an alternative method of generating income in an industry where constantly evolving technologies, along with the decreasing relevance of the physical CD, has led to significant profit loss for artists as a result of illegal downloading and streaming sites — the latter of which does not provide much in the way of compensation for rights owners. This coupled with the fact that consumers now have the convenience of being able to download individual songs, without the need to purchase an entire album, has ultimately left the music industry with a lot to adapt to. In light of these notable changes that have occurred as a result of the digital age, I feel that placements are more valuable than ever, and that the notion of “selling out” is rapidly losing relevance within the music industry.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Bryan Ferry at the London Palladium - 20/04/2016

Bryan Ferry returned to London last week for the first of two nights at the Palladium. The gig was an especially anticipated event in light of 2015’s postponed Royal Albert Hall show, in which a throat infection caused Ferry to cancel the performance just moments before he was due on stage. However, the inevitable disappointment that was experienced by fans as a result of the abrupt cancellation was outweighed by concern, especially following news that the remaining leg of UK tour dates had also been cancelled. Fans were therefore both relieved and thrilled following the announcement that the Albert Hall show would be rescheduled by way of two dates at the equally iconic setting that is the London Palladium.

Ferry opened the set with the intensely atmospheric title track from current album Avonmore. This was surprisingly the only song — albeit one of the strongest — from the 2014 record to appear in the set, despite the current tour being in support of this latest release. The overall absence of Ferry’s recent solo material, however, was evident, particularly in the first half of the performance — which I found to be somewhat lacking, and could have benefited from Avonmore’s lead single ‘Loop De Li’, or the much loved ‘Reason or Rhyme’ from 2010’s Olympia. As it is, Olympia was completely absent, and much missed, from the set. That being said, Ferry did touch on the early Roxy Music catalogue, treating the crowd to classics such as For Your Pleasure’s ‘Beauty Queen’, while later in the gig delivering a greatly received rendition of ‘Virginia Plain’ from Roxy Music’s self-titled debut.

The second half of the set had a greater sense of fluency in terms of track selection, while Ferry’s vocals showed increasing strength and clarity as the night progressed, though were also further enhanced by backing vocalists Fonzi Thornton and Bobbie Gordon. A beautifully extended version of ‘Tara’ not only highlighted the fantastic musicianship of saxophone and keys player Jorja Chalmers, but also marked the first of a generous six tracks from 1982’s Avalon. With Avalon being my favourite Roxy Music album, I am probably biased in concluding that these songs were among the most enjoyable of the performance, however, the rarely-played ‘While My Heart is Still Beating’ and ‘The Space Between’, in addition to a full-band version of ‘More Than This’, were defining moments in the set, with the latter bringing the seated audience to their feet in appreciation.

Ferry and his band were on top form throughout the performance, and the acoustics in the Palladium could not be faulted, however, many of the songs were considerably shortened. While this technique allows for the inclusion of more songs, in this instance, it resulted in parts of the set feeling rushed and the lingering sense that many tracks were over before they had really begun. The reduction in song length is even more apparent when compared to Ferry’s last tour in support of 2012’s The Jazz Age — which featured a set that superbly transitioned from an orchestral-led performance to Ferry’s regular tour band, all the while allowing Ferry’s band to fully showcase the extent of their musicianship by way of spacious intros and guitar solos.

However, in respect of an extensive catalogue spanning both solo material and his career as part of Roxy Music, Ferry always succeeds in compiling varied setlists that include a healthy balance of both crowd-pleasing hits and rarities. While there was an obvious lack in recent solo material throughout this performance, the crowd were treated to unexpected songs from Ferry’s earlier solo work, such as Mamouna’s ‘The 39 Steps’ and the title track from BĂȘte Noire. Furthermore, it was a joy to hear so much early Roxy Music material in one set, most memorably a rousing rendition of ‘Do the Strand’, that was perfectly placed among the gig’s finale of fan favourites like ‘Love is the Drug’ and ‘Let’s Stick Together’. The excitement proved too much for one fan who invaded the stage during these final moments. An unfazed Ferry carried on as if nothing happened, before effortlessly drawing the night to a close with ‘Jealous Guy’.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

The Midnight Rambler - 'Tales From The Nightshift'

Reading-based band The Midnight Rambler, fronted by lead vocalist and guitarist Mike Lemin, offer up an eclectic mix of heavy blues and alternative rock on debut release Tales From The Nightshift. Though the album is wholly consistent in its delivery of infectious melodies and inspired lyrics, standout tracks come by way of the punchy, riff-driven ‘Shockwave', while ‘Nightswimming’ has all the key elements that contribute to a memorable album opener, with furiously fast-paced hooks and dynamic vocals that soar over an addictive chorus.

On the equally noteworthy 'Parallel', lyrics like “Somewhere / There’s another version of me / Living / The life I was meant to lead” are structured perfectly in a pre-chorus that fully succeeds in transforming the delicate, ballad-like simplicity of the keys-led verse, into a mid-tempo chorus that is complemented by a satisfyingly richer instrumentation. The song’s fine production and arrangement techniques, however, are qualities that are evident throughout the record. While the tracks mentioned here offer a strong overall representation of The Midnight Rambler’s impressively varied genre mix, the album in its entirety is a solid listen.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Brandon Flowers at Brixton Academy, London - 21/05/2015

In terms of venues, I have been spoilt by my last two live music events, both of which have taken place in intimate settings with strong acoustics, adding to my overall enjoyment of the gig-going experience. Although Brixton Academy boasts an impressive interior and thriving atmosphere, it is, at times, notable for its muddy sound, an attribute that was present, but didn't detract from the dynamic horns of Brandon Flowers' set opener, 'Dreams Come True' - the first track from latest release, The Desired Effect. Within moments however, any less than clear acoustics seemed to either subside or go unnoticed, as lead single 'Can't Deny My Love' gained full crowd investment and set the standard for a gig that fully embraced Flowers' solo work, while also touching upon a few Killers classics.

The release of The Desired Effect makes for a refreshing addition to Flowers' repertoire, and the eclectic feel of the 80's inspired songs were further enhanced in a live setting due to an impressive eight-piece band. Along with the set's opening two tracks, other key moments from the current album included the gospel / synth infused 'I Can Change' and 'Between Me and You', in which Flowers was joined on stage by Chrissie Hynde, with the pair also duetting on The Pretenders' 'Don't Get Me Wrong'.

Flowers' last tour - in support of 2010 debut Flamingo - seemed sparse at times, and with shows based entirely on the ten short but sweet tracks from that album, Flowers' turned to Killers songs and cover versions to fill sets. This time round, the set flowed more naturally, with the Flamingo material - 'Crossfire' and 'Only The Young' being the most memorable - generously slotted around the new songs. 

Though Flowers' solo work should be viewed as a separate entity, comparisons to the Killers are inevitable, and from a crowd perspective, there was a running sense of urgent longing for his band's material throughout the gig. While re-worked versions of Hot Fuss classics such as a stripped-down 'Jenny Was a Friend of Mine' and the Jacques Lu Cont Remix of 'Mr. Brightside' may not have fully satisfied fans who were solely in attendance for Killers material, Sam's Town's anthemic 'Read My Mind' more than compensated to became an overall set highlight.

The Desired Effect sets a fine balance which sees Flowers boldly evolving musically, without completely straying from the synth-led, stadium-rock that initially shaped the success of the Killers - a quality that not only suggests promise for future solo releases, but will most likely draw new fans as his career progresses, without alienating longtime Killers supporters.

'Dreams Come True'
'Can't Deny My Love'
'Hard Enough'
'Jenny Was a Friend of Mine'
'Lonely Town'
'I Can Change'
'Read My Mind'
'Swallow It'
'Only the Young'
'Mr. Brightside'

'Don't Get Me Wrong'
'Between Me and You'
'Still Want You'
'The Way It's Always Been'