Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Film Review: A Bigger Splash (dir. Guadagnino, 2015)


Luca Guadagnino's terrific A Bigger Splash is out in the UK on Friday. You can read my review from last year's London Film Festival here.  The film also made my favourites of 2015 list

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Theatre Review: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (National Theatre)


My review of Dominic Cooke's production of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom at the National Theatre is up at PopMatters. You can read it here

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Concert Review: Transatlantic Sessions 2016, Royal Festival Hall, London, 1st February




Now into its seventh year, the Aly Bain and Jerry Douglas-curated Transatlantic Sessions has firmly established itself as a tradition as it tours the UK at the beginning of each year: a reliable way of raising the spirits during the murky depths of British winter. As its name indicates, the project – which finds roots musicians from North America and the British Isles performing together in a relaxed set-up – is all about making connections: between Old and New World music, of course, but also between emerging and established artists, and between ancient and contemporary material. And it’s precisely that commitment to connection that makes these shows such invigorating and heart-warming experiences.

Last year’s show [reviewed here] found Patty Griffin, Rodney Crowell, Sara Watkins, John Smith and Kathleen MacInnes appearing with house band and regulars including Bain (fiddle) and Douglas (dobro), Phil Cunningham (accordion), John McCusker (fiddle), Danny Thompson (bass), John Doyle (guitars), Mike McGoldrick (pipes and whistles), Russ Barenberg (guitar/mandolin), James MacKintosh (drums) and Donald Shaw (piano) to form an “International Hillbilly Organisation” (as Griffin ingeniously dubbed them).  

This year sees US newbies Joe Newberry, Rhiannon Giddens (of the Carolina Chocolate Drops) and Californian indie folk duo The Milk Carton Kids (Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan) joining seasoned stalwarts Karen Matheson and Cara Dillon to take on material that ranges from the melancholic to the infectiously boisterous.

Sleek in a black suit with tartan sash, Matheson delivered mouth music and Gaelic songs, including a stunningly beautiful version of Burns’s “Yowes to the Knowes”, with her customary grace and elegance. Dillon contributed a passionate “Shotgun Down the Avalanche” and a captivating a cappella “The Winding River Roe” that reduced the house to pin-drop silence; her lead on a singalong “Bright Morning Stars” was a highlight of the second set. Bain and Cunningham, now in their 30th year as collaborators (an association that’s lasted “longer than our marriages,” as Cunningham fondly quipped), led tunes both tender and rousing, with typically dynamic work from McCusker, McGoldrick, Doyle and co.   

As always, those new to the fold brought wonderful fresh textures to the evening. Most obviously arresting was Giddens, whose sublime, fierce swamp blues double of “Julie” (a Civil War-set conversation between slave and owner) and “Waterboy” brought the first half to a spell-binding and dramatic close. Strutting and declaiming, Giddens lifted the show to a whole new level of intensity, and her versions of Patsy Cline's “She’s Got You” and of “Black is the Colour” in the second half were almost as electrifying. Newberry brought charming old timey spirit to an uplifting “Rocky Island”, a chugging “The Cherry River Line” and the appealing maternal tribute “I Know Whose Tears”.

Compared to Simon and Garfunkel yet actually closer to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’ brand of tranced-out duetting, The Milk Carton Kids played up their status as L.A. interlopers with wry humour, delivering sterling versions of their own compositions “Honey, Honey” and “Snake Eyes,” and then generating one of the most enthusiastic responses of the night for a stunning take on – yes – Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”. It was equally unexpected to find everyone pitching in on a great, ragged rendition of  “It Ain’t Easy” (the Glen Davies song covered by David Bowie on Ziggy Stardust).

Material by Bowie and Pink Floyd may have been the wild card up the sleeve of this year’s show, but its inclusion testified to the openness of Transatlantic Sessions as a beautifully democratic showcase in which no single voice or musician dominates and in which the emphasis is placed, instead, on sharing, support and  collaboration. From the funky to the plaintive, this year’s show once again did dynamic justice to traditional music in all its rich and exhilarating diversity.  

Reviewed for PopMatters

The 2016 Transatlantic Sessions tour continues in Birmingham, Gateshead, Manchester and Londonderry. Further details here

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

CD Review: Shelter From the Storm, Barb Jungr (Linn Records, 2016)



Barb Jungr’s rich and vibrant new album Shelter From the Storm follows directly in the footsteps of her last, 2014’s highly acclaimed Hard Rain, by taking a Bob Dylan song for its title; in fact, it’s the latest in a series of Jungr albums to pay homage to her favourite songwriter in this way. (2002’s Every Grain of Sand and 2011’s Man in the Long Back Coat, both comprised entirely of Dylan material, and 2008’s Just Like A Woman, dedicated to the repertoire of Nina Simone, are the others.)

However, Jungr’s new release really sets out its stall via its subtitle: “Songs of Hope for Troubled Times.” “[T]his material is all about hope – and dreams – we need so much more of them now,” Jungr explains in the liner notes.  As such, the looser, more relaxed and upbeat Shelter From the Storm is a rather different proposition to Hard Rain which combined “political and philosophical” songs by Dylan and Leonard Cohen to brilliantly intense effect. The contrasting attitude is evident in the albums’ art work aesthetics: where Hard Rain pictured a pensive, sultry-looking Jungr set against a stark black background, Shelter From the Storm’s cover (photographed by Steve Ullathorne) finds the singer radiant and beaming in a verdant garden, eyes aloft and clearly anticipating that something a whole lot more positive than a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.  

Recorded during a sweltering July at Sear Sound studio in New York, Shelter From the Storm is very much a transatlantic project, and finds Jungr teaming up with some exciting new collaborators. This time, she’s joined by the award-winning Laurence Hobgood on piano and keys, Michael Olatuja on double bass and Wilson Torres on percussion. The quartet form a strong and sympathetic unit, as they tackle material that encompasses work by Jungr’s cherished ’60s and ’70s singer-songwriter icons, a pair of musical theatre classics, and several superb new compositions, too.

Each track is given its own highly distinctive identity, yet the album feels entirely cohesive, with Hobgood’s fresh, supple and sometimes boldly idiosyncratic arrangements often stretching the songs into delectable jazz jams. The vibe is spare yet textured; all the material, however familiar, feels new-minted; and there are fresh elements to notice with every play of the disc.

The live arena is, of course, Jungr’s natural habit, the place where, in an intimate cabaret setting, all aspects of her artistry combine through masterful vocal delivery, distinctive gestures and expressions, story-telling, and audience interaction. However, while Jungr’s power as a performer  may be strongly linked to the experience of seeing her live and “in motion”, Shelter From the Storm succeeds in doing justice to her multifaceted musicianship through vocals alone.

That’s nowhere more apparent than on the title track itself, a version which plays with metre and tempo to thrilling effect in order to dynamically capture the shifting emotions and responses of the narrator. Jungr’s vocals move compellingly from stridency to delicacy, the urgent to the languorous, declaiming and cooing in perfect harmony with Hobgood’s protean piano playing.

Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy” is treated almost as creatively, the song benefiting from a quirky “stop/start” rhythm and closing with Jungr’s gracious repetition of the lyric “We weren’t lovers like that”. A shimmering and funky re-working of “Woodstock” is another highlight, leading one to hope that Jungr will turn her attention to a full programme of Joni Mitchell material one of these days. And there’s no better evidence of Jungr’s elegant iconoclasm than in her seamlessly popping the verses of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” into a wonderful, taut and dramatic take on Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.”

The versions of South Pacific’s “Bali Hai” (which opens the album)  and of West Side Story’s “Something’s Coming” are both strong, and perfectly in keeping with the record's themes, but if Jungr’s excursions into musical theatre are a bit less revelatory for me, it’s perhaps because she’s so brilliant at refocusing others’ songs as stories that there’s a little less room for manoeuvre with compositions that already have built-in associations in the pre-existing narrative of a show. 

Jungr’s own compositions, developed in collaboration with Hobgood, are all gleaming gems, though. (I keep hoping that the amazing “Last Orders”, written with Simon Wallace, will turn up on an album sometime but she seems content to leave that as a treat for concert-attendees only.)  The elegant “Stars Lazy But Shining” joins her brilliant “Beautiful Life” as a further celebration of nature’s joys and the pleasures derived from close attention to everyday experience. “Venus Rising” is even better, building from evocative, carefully chosen images to a jubilant finale. And “Hymn to Nina”, a further homage to Simone, is perfectly disarming in its open-hearted candour. “I sing to a heroine of mine,” Jungr intones against Hobgood’s delicate piano. The simple scene-setting detail of “driving from Brighton, rain on my windscreen” beautifully grounds the tribute in the everyday, as Jung celebrates Simone for “bringing soul and song to everything,” and tenderly repeats her name as an incantation at the song's close.   

Which brings us to the album’s closer. (Well, kind of: the download version of the album also includes excellent versions of Springsteen’s “Long Walk Home” and Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now is Love” as bonus tracks.) Recording David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” in New York back in July, Jungr could hardly have known that the track would be released a mere month after Bowie’s death. The track’s inclusion here – in a superb arrangement that brings a beguiling fairground quality to the piece and also incorporates lyrics from “Space Oddity” into the song’s folds – is extremely poignant. The song inescapably links back to “Hymn to Nina” in this context, with its reference to “Wild is the Wind”, a composition covered by both Simone and Bowie.  “In the wild wind I hear you calling…”  Jungr sings to Nina, the sentiment extending to Bowie too. “You were here then you were gone/Your word lives on…”

Through her passionate, sensitive and intelligent reinterpretations, Jungr continues to ensure that the work of many artists “lives on” in vibrant and re-energised ways. Building connections across material, making old songs new again, “bringing soul and song to everything,” Shelter From the Storm stands as further testament to Jungr's ever-evolving powers as a performer. Be sure to catch her and Hobgood when they tour the album in the UK in March and April, and in the US in May.     

Shelter from the Storm  is released on Linn Records on February 19th and can be ordered here.  Tour dates here

Monday, 25 January 2016

Film Review: Youth (dir. Sorrentino, 2015)


Paolo Sorrentino's rather good Youth is in UK cinemas from Friday. You can read my review from Cannes 2015 here

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Theatre Review: The Rolling Stone (Orange Tree)

Fiston Barek and Faith Alabi in The Rolling Stone (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Winner of the 2013 Bruntwood Prize Judges Award, Chris Urch’s The Rolling Stone debuted last year at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, where the production was cross-cast with a new version of Anna Karenina. An exploration of gay desire in the repressive context of contemporary Uganda, Urch’s play gained mostly favourable responses, though some critics suggested that Ellen McDougall’s production would have benefited from a smaller space.

It gets it here. Transferred to the Orange Tree, as the first production in Paul Miller’s second year as Artistic Director, The Rolling Stone reveals itself, in the right-there intimacy of this auditorium, to be a nuanced, thought-provoking and – finally – blazingly intense piece that demonstrates an Ibsen-esque attention to the problematic intersection of public and private lives.

The title alludes to a Ugandan newspaper, a scurrilous rag which, in 2010, began publishing pictures of homosexuals and urging people to "out" any such deviants who are believed to be threatening the moral life of the nation. (The publications led to arrests, assaults and murders.) Church elder Mama (Jo Martin) sees the scare as the opportunity for some crowd-pleasing (and lucrative) fire-and-brimstone preaching on the part of the newly installed pastor Joe (Sule Rimi). What she – and Joe – are unaware of is that Joe’s brother Dembe (Fiston Barek) is gay, and involved in a relationship with Sam (Julian Moore-Cook), a doctor of Ugandan and Northern Irish parentage.  

Scooping a Bruntwood Prize hasn’t always been a firm guarantee of a play’s quality, but The Rolling Stone certainly proves its worth. While some of the banter between Dembe and Sam feels a little bit calculated in striving for crowd-pleasing comic effects, Urch’s writing is adroit where it counts, with the protagonists' attitudes to religion and sexuality conveyed through rich and robust language and cliché-defying characterisation. 

The play is undoubtedly a melodrama in terms of its construction. But it shows how impactful that form can be when approached with truth and sensibility, the drama building to a shattering finale that’s worthy of Arthur Miller at his finest. (In its concern with whistle-blowing and its presentation of the "outing" as a witch-hunt motivated in part by personal score-settling, Miller’s The Crucible is an evident intertext here.)  


 Fiston Barek and Sule Rimi in The Rolling Stone (Photo Manuel Harlan)


McDougall delivered a rather wonky production of The Glass Menagerie last year but shows total assurance in this venture. Staged simply and prop-free, with slightly overlapping scenes, and punctuated by stirring singing of spirituals, the production has pace and rhythm, and is boosted by terrific, heart-grabbing performances.

Jo Martin’s superb Mama blends manipulation and maternal concern to compelling effect, locating a strangely valiant and vulnerable core at the heart of a character whose actions and rhetoric are often reprehensible. Charismatic Sule Rimi brings heat to Joe’s preaching, implicating the audience as his congregation. Fiston Barek insightfully conveys Dembe’s oscillations between self-denial and self-belief. And Faith Omole and Faith Alabi maximise their opportunities as Dembe’s sister Wummie and his proposed paramour Naome, the former forced to make her own sacrifice, the latter seeking refuge in silence.

As potent as the play’s elements of social critique undoubtedly are, The Rolling Stone is generous and mature in its avoidance of finger-pointing, and in its refusal to demonise any of its own characters. The torn-from-the-headlines element charges the drama with an electric current of urgency. But Urch’s play finally transcends mere topicality, expanding into a more universal exploration of the complexities of family, loyalty and love. Not to be missed.  

Booking until 20th February. Further details here

Theatre Review: wonder.land (National Theatre)



My review of Damon Albarn and Moira Buffini's musical wonder.land at the National Theatre is up at PopMatters. You can read it here.