No place like Dome?

Brighton Dome

Who you callin’ intellectual? Gogol Bordello bring their rambunctious performance to Brighton in November

 

Ten years ago the New Yorker writer John Seabrook coined the term ‘Nobrow’ to define the merger and marketing of low and high art. No-one cares if anything is good anymore, Seabrook argued, the only meaningful criterion is ‘is it hot?’ If, like Seabrook, you lament the decline of cultural hierarchy, it must truly seem as if the world has gone to hell in a hand-basket. In an age where a 140-character tweet on Twitter is deemed as significant (if not more so) than a 2,000-word essay in the London Review of Books, one might be tempted to believe that the citadels of civilisation have indeed fallen and the barbarians are uploading evidence of their boorish behaviour on Tumblr.  

Not everyone sees it this way. I attended the launch of the Brighton Dome’s Autumn Season recently in the company of my good friend Nick Mosley, publisher of Brighton Visitor and general mover-and-shaker around Sussex. Nick is an unabashed populist and thinks the Dome’s season is too targeted at the egg-heads. I’m an unashamed elitist and don’t agree. I guess this means the Dome has got the programme about right.  

So what’s on it? The mainstream is well and truly represented with concerts from the Bootleg Beatles, Michael Bolton, Heaven 17, Gogol Bordello, Goldfrapp and OMD. The Heath Quartet will perform Barber’s Adagio for Strings, practically the theme tune of middlebrow classical music fans. New musical talent is showcased over two nights featuring Will and the People, Lauren Rebecca, The Watermelons, Alice, and When Monsters Walk. Then there’s Brighton Ukulele Day (December 18) featuring the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.  

Brainfood is served up during the Sussex Salon Series when academics and specialists will discuss ‘The expert patient’, ‘How new is the ‘new politics’?’ and ‘What difference have civil partnerships made?’ And during the Women Writers Festival the estimable Bonnie Greer will talk about her new book ‘Obama Music: some notes from a South Sider Abroad’.  

It’s the sacroiliac rather than the cerebellum that is the focus of Breakin’ Convention 10, a festival of hip-hop dance theatre featuring, among others, Sébastien & Raphael, Phase T and Jonzi D.  

With workshops on stand-up comedy, soulful singing and sonnet writing, the Dome clearly hopes to get people out of their seats and into the limelight.  

I think this represents neither success for the scholarly nor the victory of the vulgarians. But I do think that if you can’t find anything to do in Brighton this winter, you need a check up from the neck up. In anticipation, here’s a clip of Sébastien & Raphael in a genre-pulping slice of dance-theatre.  

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I have seen the future of the high street – and it works

Empty shop in Brixton

Board stupid: this need not be the fate of our high streets

 

Anybody who’s ever had their ears assaulted by a sub-Del Boy shyster flogging dodgy gear from a recently deceased shop must welcome the vision of Dan Thompson. If Thompson is right, the future of our high streets is not one of dystopian gloom as giant supermarkets suck the life out of independent traders; he believes they can be transformed into places of creativity, light and joy. 

This is not pie-in-the-sky utopianism. As he revealed when he spoke to the Brighton Future of News Group earlier this week, Thompson mixes an artist’s sense of imaginative possibility with the entrepreneur’s shrewd sense of a good deal. Ten years ago, in the course of a chequered career, he found himself in possession of the keys to a former bakery in Worthing. He set about turning it into a temporary art gallery and the empty shops network was born. His Revolutionary Arts Group has since overseen projects in Coventry and Carlisle, among other places. 

It’s all above-board – the empty shop initiatives must abide by a ‘licence to occupy’. Mostly, Thompson reckons, the owners are happy to see the outlets being used and cared for. No-one is happy with the gap-toothed appearance of too many of our town centres. 

Thompson said that the empty shop network chimes with the Conservative philosophy of the Big Society (if it can be called a philosophy). I’m not so sure. Thompson’s original idea would not have got off the ground without support from the then Labour government. But whatever the political stripe of the project, anybody wishing to develop and extend the idea is going to need sponsorship. There’s no point asking local government for the money. Local traders may be convinced to back a community project rather than see the surrounding area decay and die. 

At the end of the evening, to prove that action speaks louder than words, Thompson challenged to the assembled hacks and hackers to come up with ideas to use an empty shop in Shoreham – and to put those plans into action. I’ll let you know how we get on.

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Brass and bacchanalia

 The Big Meet in Durham, which takes place each year on the second weekend in July, is a characteristic North-Eastern blend of sweet music, serious drinking, sentimentality and the odd bout of fisticuffs.

This year’s guest speaker was Ken Livingstone and I was disappointed to miss it, not least to see how Ken’s nasal Lambeth twang went down with the Mackem crowd. I did make it last year whenI went to the one hundredth Miners’ Festival Service. It was a moving spectacle as brass bands from Layburn, Easington, Huddersfield, Dobcross, Westoe, and the National Union of Miners led their banners into the most beautiful cathedral in the world.

Tonight and tomorrow night, as part of the Durham International Festival, a new film about the history of coal mining in the north-east – and the important role of the brass bands – will be shown in the cathedral. Created by Bill Morrison, and Jóhann Jóhannsson, the film contrasts the harsh realities of pit work with the transcendental beauty of the music. The evening will include a live performance by both classically trained brass musicians and brass band players from the NASUWT Riverside Band.

Here is the NASUWT band playing at the G20 March in 2009:

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Making a song and dance

Van Morrison

Rock n roll legend

 

Around this time last year, I wrote a piece for The Guardian about words and music. In the article, I gave the cultural commentator Greil Marcus a bit of a pasting over his lumpy prose and pretentious views. Undaunted, the good professor is back with a new book ‘Listening to Van Morrsion’.   

It’s not half-bad. Granted, if you come looking for a listing of who played what, when, and how often, you’ll go away disappointed. The book gives an impressionistic account of the effect Morrison’s music has on the author and why this matters. It probably helps that I agree with Marcus on the strange sepulchral beauty of Astral Weeks – though there are people who take a very different view.   

Significantly, the most enjoyable parts of the book are the least conjectural. There’s a fantastic description of Morrison’s appearance at ‘The Last Waltz’ concert in 1976, looking “like a grimy Cinderella in a purple stage suit: a spangled bolero jacket, sausage pants with contrasting lace up the crotch, a green top with a scoop neck that produced what could only be called cleavage. God, you thought – where did he get this thing?”   

Elsewhere Marcus’s penchant for verbiage is given full throttle and the result is anesthetising: “The tyranny of tying anything an artist might do or say to his or her own life, to give it the weight of the real, and switch off the lights on the weightlessness of the imagination – a philistine fear of art that found its most spectacular form in the JT Leary hoax, which only seemed to convince people that while taking fiction for autobiography remained the highest form of understanding, it was worth making sure that the person whose autobiography one was plumbing actually existed – was summed up all too well by John Irvine in 1979.” Is there an editor in the house?   

The best quote in ‘Listening to Van Morrison’ – and the one which truly captures the experience – comes from Dr John: “To me Van Morrison got the most house, of anything. I was checkin’ the gig… and it was, like, the whole gig, it got the house. ‘Cause mostly, you know, it’s like famous people… But nuttin’ was like that. Nuttin’ got that much house. That was way above everything else. That was a hard act to follow.”   

That’s all there is.   

Five great books about music   

1 Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: pop from the beginning by Nik Cohn.   

Published in 1970, this one of the first, and still the best, books about the origins of rock n roll. Cohn chronicles the visionaries and crazies whose assault on the ghastly good taste of the 1950s and 60s changed the world.   

2 Tricksta: life and death and New Orleans rap by Nik Cohn.   

Thirty-five years later, our hero, poorer and none-the-wiser, pitches up in Louisiana and decides to launch a career in the New Orleans ‘bounce’ scene. Published before Hurricane Katrina devastated the area, the book is an unsettling account of lives that have always been lived on the edge of oblivion.   

3 The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross.   

The seemingly intractable course of 20th-century ‘classical music’, from Mahler to minimalism, is charted in crystal-clear prose. The associated web site is also a treat.   

4 The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos.   

Hijuelos’s novel explores the lives of two Cuban brothers (both musicians) in search of sex and success in 1950s New York.   

5. Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000, by Whitney Balliett.   

The incomparable jazz critic for The New Yorker wrote in a style as elegant and thrilling as the sound of his heroes.

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Off the wall – and into the gallery

Female nude

Girl on the edge of the bath by REQ

 

Banksy’s mural of snogging coppers, painted on the side of a pub near Brighton station, has become almost an established part of the city’s tourist trail as the Royal Pavilion and the Brighton Pier. What began life as a piece of subversive street art is now such a valuable commodity it is encased behind protective Perspex. “Poor Banksy,” reads a scrawl of graffito nearby, “they put you in a frame.”    

 It’s more than 30 years since Joe Strummer sang “You think it’s funny/Turning rebellion into money” and the transition from art-guerrilla to gallery-fodder is now a well-beaten path, as demonstrated by two Brighton-based artists, Ryca and Req, whose work is featured at the Ink_d gallery this month. Of the two, Req’s is probably the most mainstream approach – day-glo icons rendered in Warholesque garishness. Like the Pop Art they imitate, Req’s paintings are perfect for today’s time-starved gallery-goers who like to get in and out of an exhibition without being held up by anything deep and meaningful. Like a microwaved lasagne, this stuff slips down easily and doesn’t invite you to linger.    

Req is after something more understated. In a chequered career, he has painted a portrait of John Peel on the side of the Albert pub (near the above-mentioned Banksy), decorated the walls of Infinity Foods, recorded for Skint Records and Warp Records, produced albums for the painter and rapper Kid Acne and played a number of  gigs in France. Phew – no wonder he now wants to slow down. His ‘spray-paint realism’ aims to marry renaissance naturalism with hip-hop brio. It’s an ingenious idea. His subject is the female nude and he ably demonstrates how subtle flesh tones can be brought to life through spray paint. Req’s paintings are lovely to look at, but in his rejection of modernism is he anything more than the Norman Rockwell of the North Laine set?    

Expect darker and more disturbing visions next month when the gallery features the work of Lidia de Pedro.

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Do it yourself

Pub Gig

Fire and Water kick out the jams at the Rose and Crown in Low Hesket, Cumbria. Photo credit: Linda Mellor

 

Whatever happened to the punk ethic ‘Find a guitar, learn three chords, form a band’?  

These days, aspiring musos seem to aim no higher than aping the mannerisms and melodies of their heroes. Inspiration plays second fiddle to imitation in the line up of tribute bands across the nation.  

 I thought the definition of ‘tribute’ was ‘a gift or compliment given as due or in acknowledgment of gratitude or esteem’ not a ‘shoddy knock-off job’, but it seems I was wrong. From No Way Sis to The Fab Faux, appalling puns are only the start of the dreary experience that these puppets on a guitar string are intent on inflicting.  

Like a lot of objectionable trends, the roots of the tribute band can be traced back to Australia. Given the lack of bands willing to haul their gear across the world for a two-night stint in a Sydney pub, it fell to locals to recreate the magic of heavy rock, showbiz schlock and sixties cheese. Following in the wake of Neighbours, INXS and Russell Crowe, these bands eventually imposed their gifts on the world at large.  

Look a likes

Shaz and Ozzy drop in for a quick half. Photo credit: Linda Mellor

 

North Cumbria has much in common with the land of Oz. The scenery is beautiful, the people have an uncomplicated view of life and there is hardly anywhere for thespians, musicians and other aesthetes to test their talent. During a visit to Penrith recently, I met up with my friend the photographer Linda Mellor and her family and we caught Fire and Water (Free meets Bad Company meets whatever) doing their thing at the Rose and Crown in Low Hesket. Not a natural environment for a night of musical mayhem, you might think, and you’d be right. It wasn’t so much bad as surreal. For a start the crowd had more energy than the band; the lead singer suffered from terminal shyness; and the backing track was doing all the work. If you are going to copy a band, I think you should at least form the original line up. Listening to some guys with a guitar and mix tape isn’t a concert, it’s karaoke.  

By way of coincidence, I happen to part of a team organising a night of open mic, karaoke and other live shenanigans in Brighton later this month. If you are in the area, bring your talent and earn yourself a few cocktails. Be your own tribute.  

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All things bright and Bendayfied

  

Roy Lichtenstein

Roy Lichtenstein

 

Finding myself in Milan on business recently, I took the opportunity to duck out of the garish carnival of the city’s street life to take in an exhibition featuring one of the few artists who can out-dazzle a Milanese fashionista: Roy Lichtenstein

The title of the show – Meditations on Art – is surely the curator’s idea of an in-joke. There is nothing pensive about these big, beautiful and bright compositions. They bring you the modern world as it is – loud brash and exhilarating. 

Washington Crossing the Delaware II

Washington Crossing the Delaware II

 

Lichtenstein had one idea early on in his career and it lasted him his entire working life. It was, though, a very good idea – modern media is so saturating and enervating that we crave for it to be lampooned, turned into burlesque, and transformed into ironical high art. As early as 1951, he was sending up American artists in works such as ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware II’ which satirises the painting of the same name by Emanuel Leutze. But it was when he changed his aim from pompous American history painters to the no-less affected creators of modern comic books that he truly struck gold. The Benday dot pattern which Lichtenstein made his signature style was also appropriated – it is a process invented by a printer named Benjamin Day which uses the four process colours – cyan, magenta, yellow and black – to create subtler shades through precise repetition. 

The reiteration of a single attitude, no matter how novel, can grow wearisome. I most enjoyed the sculptures in this show, where the light-headed comic book themes are rendered in clunky slabs of bronze and gold. 

As I made my way around the gallery, it occurred to me that a final irony of Pop Art is that it shoved aside the comic book art it from which it stole, rendering the artists not piratical pioneers but the very emblem of mainstream cool – the ‘anti-aesthetic’ has become the only aesthetic, pop culture the sole culture. As Lichtenstein might put it: ‘Wham!’

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