Lisa Knapp sings solo in King’s Heath – a Birmingham review

It’s a long time since I reviewed a gig or a concert on this moribund blog, but lately I’ve attended a few events here in Birmingham. Christie Moore, no less! And last night, in an uncharacteristic burst of peripatetic glee, I hauled across the city on a Number 50 to see Lisa Knapp perform at the Kitchen Garden Cafe in the People’s Republic of Kings Heath. I’m no stranger to Lisa’s music, having first encountered her on social media several years ago.
I bought her first album, ‘Wild and Undaunted’, and thought it was a massive breath of fresh air in a music scene I’d abandoned years before, because I thought it had all gone horribly stale. I instantly loved her clear, soaring, bell-like tones, with a hint of vibrato at the top of her vocal range. Best of all, I didn’t know most of her repertoire, and it made a change. You can only listen to ‘Rose of Allendale’ so many times in the upstairs bars of dingy pubs before wishing to commit ritual seppuku with a blunt knitting needle. Or worse.

I was new to the Kitchen Garden Cafe. Being somewhat lazy it’s always seemed like a long city jaunt, but I wasn’t disappointed. The venue is cosy and compact. ‘Bijou’, someone called Alan said under his breath, though I don’t know that that means, but it smacks of ‘French’ cafes in the 70s. This place is better.

While waiting for Lisa to sing, a couple of us commented wryly on her pre-gig background music, gleaned from that cult film, ‘The Wicker Man’. We nervously hoped things wouldn’t culminate in a firey ritual sacrifice. Personally, I would have settled for curry and chips. On a surreal note, the man sitting next to me had actually met, and nearly dated, Britt Ekland. ‘I wasn’t ready’, he said. What are the chances?

Lisa themed most of her gig around, ‘Till April is Dead – a Garland of May’, an album she released a year ago to booming critical acclaim. It was well deserved. I have a copy, and it pops the lid on the month of May, uncapping a foaming wellspring of celebratory seasonal madness, combined with Lisa’s trademark music box electronica. She employs looping effects, vocal layering and simple virtuosity with raw passion, taking her audience on a truly delightful musical voyage.

I wrote, ‘simple’ virtuosity, but it’s obvious that Lisa has worked extremely hard to perfect her very eclectic style. I’ve lost count of how many instruments she plays, but they include violas, harmoniums, clàrsach and others. Not to mention the mind-warping, tangled spaghetti of cables she nestles in during solo outings. As an aside, I’ve seen Brian Boru’s harp in Trinity College Dublin, and I found it impossible not to think of it when I saw Lisa’s clàrsach. They are fundamentally similar instruments. Talk about plugging into a tradition!

May, according to ‘Knapp’s Seasonal Baedeker‘, is a beautiful but uncomfortable season, suggesting that renewal can walk hand-in-hand with ritual sacrifice, death and destruction. Her rendition of the murder ballad, ‘Lily White Hand’ shed some light on this, ‘Till April is Dead’ included snatches of multi-lingual Mayist proverbs, while ‘Don’t You Go A Rushing’ is a thinly veiled warning to young women to closely guard their fragile virtue. Fertility is great, as long as it’s not unscheduled. This could easily embody an idea handed down from romantic poetry: that every rose contains a thorn. ‘The worm in the bud’ or, as William Blake would have it, ‘The invisible worm / That flies in the night’.

Lisa said that most seasonal celebrations have religious origins, but May is a law unto itself and isn’t like that. This had never occurred to me, but it’s an intriguing idea.

It’s lovely to watch a musician you already like grow in stature, and Lisa played a stunning version of ‘St Anne’s Reel’ on her fiddle – or was it a viola? A revelation, as I hadn’t heard her play such an accomplished fiddle tune before. She also performed a captivating version of the Orcadian Child ballad, ‘The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry’ in Scots dialect, while managing to avoid any hint of a mannered approach or cultural appropriation. I could have cheered.

Finally, we were invited to join in with the ‘Padstow May Song’, and apparently we made a pretty good fist of it. So did you, Lisa. See you on the road pilgrim. This was not an evening I’ll forget in a hurry. Unite!


The plight of a homeless woman in Birmingham

I wrote this letter to my MP and Birmingham City Council. The situation for homelessness people in our towns and cities is desperate, and it is rapidly spiralling out of control:

Dear Sir or Madam – I’m genuinely furious. This concerns Birmingham City Council’s policy towards homeless people and rough sleepers. They are often one and the same, though housing professionals are careful to discuss them separately.

I know a rough sleeper. She’s called O*, and I see her sitting outside the ‘Briar Rose’ Wetherspoons pub on Bennetts Hill, just off New Street in the city centre. I walk past her, and she nods. Sometimes she reads a book, and occasionally she will say, ‘Hello’ and give me a thin little smile. She looks like she needs a year or three of square meals, a lot of hugs – and somewhere stable and loving to live. I’ll tell you what she gets instead of human kindnesses.

Yesterday evening at about 18:20 I walked by O* and saw a ‘Community Support Officer’ trying to move her along. She says this happens to her a lot. He was basically bullying her, but she has NO-WHERE TO GO. She does not have a regular postcode or address, or a bank account, so affording the £18 a night she needs to stay in a hostel is, to put it far too mildly, ‘difficult’.

Not long ago she had marks on her face and revealed that some thug decided to beat her up as she slept out on the street. I’m 53, she’s in her 20s, and I mention this because she is is young enough to be the daughter I never had. Forgive me, but this both moves me very deeply, and enrages me. No-one should face a similar situation in 21st Century Britain. I thought those days were dead and gone, but apparently not.

She is far too thin, is in no way aggressive, and it is crystal clear to me that the City Council is throwing every subsection of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 that it can at O*, and the growing army of similar people who freight the doorways, side streets and hidden corners of our city. This article is very instructive.

I want to see actions, not words. I want bullies with hi-vis vests and a remit from the City Council to cease and desist immediately. I do NOT want to read about O* in my local paper and understand that the worst possible thing has happened to her. And it will, if people simply walk away and do nothing. Or if someone hands her a leaflet in the guise of providing ‘Helpful community support’ just to tick a box on some bureaucrat’s spreadsheet. It’s not good enough, and it offends every sensibility I have. Birmingham can and must do better.

Signed, J


Something lovely this way comes

The rise of populism is certainly disturbing to those of us on the political left or, as populists like to call us, ‘liberals’. A pejorative word imported from the United States, implying a kind of wobbly and infinitely movable moral centre. Apparently liberals are the human equivalent of cushions, bearing the imprint of the last thing to sit on them.

Populism is not harmless. In fact, it has rapidly become synonymous with the so-called ‘alt-right’, althought I prefer to call them neo-Nazis. Suggesting this to people on the right usually meets with howls of derision, accusations of innate woolliness, or much worse.

Public life is currently alight with talk of ‘post-truth’ politics. Apparently, it is fine to tell naked lies in public provided this wins elections, garners extra support and serves to batter opponents into the dirt.

Linked to this is the far right’s widespread loathing of experts. Lacking intellectual clout themselves most neo-cons seem unable to refute even the most glaring scientific truths on the basis of knowledge or reason, so they revert to name-calling, irrational outbursts or physical violence. Sometimes all three. Either that, or they prefer to couch their views in obscure online tracts.

Scrub the surface of these and you will quickly discover utter nonsense: the gibberings of the unhinged or very stupid. We should not be surprised that the neo-con version of intellectual debate is generally indefensible. ‘It’s okay to hurt people if it serves the greater good of a few elites’. And naturally, the people pushing these ideas either belong to such groups, or they would like to. Brutal aspiration is the downfall of the many for the pleasure of the few.

The far right’s dislike of reason is extremely counterintuitive, given Donald Trump’s love of social media. ‘Trump’s unholy tool’, wrote an Irish friend. I agree, but it would be very hard to create such a platform without expertise or access to a huge collective repository of knowledge. It seems that populists do not practice what they preach. Either that, or they are aggressively disingenuous. In other words, they do not believe their own lies.

It is tempting to stray into speculation at this point. In fact, I plan to do so. Post-truth politics, a visceral disrespect for socially progressive actions and an irrational hatred of human knowledge can be seen as the early death throes of an old, and very stubborn, order. One that will die with the acidic Mr Trump and his misguided hordes of stunned looked disciples. Of course, it will not disappear completely, but shall shrink back into the shadows from which it emerged, waving its ugly tentacles.

We are entering a new era of human endeavour. One which will eventually take us to the stars. I will not list the technologies involved in this, though that is not completely beyond me. I would rather write that coupled to this, we could rapidly see a huge backlash from those of us who value positive human attributes. What are these? Love, compassion, healthy communities, common ground, empathy … the list is very long, because the story of what it means to be human is similarly lengthy. Good for us!

I hint at a second Renaissance. Technological advances are not the whole of humanity, and we should remember that these can be coupled with leaps forward in the Arts. I hear the sound of hooves – can you? Something lovely this way comes.

Dear London Midland …

Train travel is not so much a journey, but a personal insult you pay for. I wonder what happened to customer service?

Dear London Midland

Storm Doris caused severe disruption across your rail network, and on 23 February between 17:30 and 19:30 I foolishly tried to use your dysfunctional service to get home from Coventry, to my home in Birmingham.

It was quickly obvious that no trains were running, but this was not reflected in the information you provided on electronic timetables, and even Network Rail’s smart phone app was no good. You seem to have reinvented the English language so that ‘Delayed’ means ‘Cancelled’, and vice versa, causing massive confusion and deep distress to commuters.

As a gesture of courtesy you might have laid on a replacement bus service, to help the thousands of travellers you casually stranded across your West Midlands network, but clearly this was not an option for you. Have you no manners?

I have used your dreadful, quasi-militaristic, broken-down excuse for a set of cattle-trucks for 13 years now, and I can clearly see you coming from many miles away. If anything so much as sneezes on your fragile network of foolery, it breaks down. If anyone complains about it, you do nothing. If passengers, the people who pay your salaries, so much as look at you, you run away screaming like a gaggle of wet-knickered hockey-footed Hell-bitches.

One day we will part company. I shall be happy, but you will not notice my departure. Ironic, given that your so-called profession depends on both arrivals and departures: two basic things you fail to get right on a daily basis.

I will not ask you for compensation, because you cannot afford the bill. Please do not acknowledge this letter in any way. I do not speak to idiots.

Yours disdainfully, J

Folk off and live …

It’s easy to forget that the British folk scene which I’ve dipped in and out of for many years now, has at least some historic and emotional links to the African-American Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s.

This is not the whole story, of course. People with even a cursory knowledge of music scenes will acknowledge how incredibly complex they can be, and how stubbornly they defy description. I will not get bogged down.

There is, however, a metric mega-load of difference between a traditional musician and a folk performer. Folk is something we can adopt for ourselves. A conscious choice, like buying a new coat or a bucket trip to Slovenia.

Traditional performers do no such thing. They seamlessly grow up with their music, absorbing it from the communities they were born into: a luxury few of us have in our deeply fractured world.

A fish does not simply swim in an ocean. It is in some sense the ocean itself. When it dies the ocean remains but the fish returns to it, helping to generate biodiversity. This is an apt analogy for a life well lived. Something I call ‘folk-ways’: an authentic, joined-up existence. ‘No ocean, no fish’ is very logical, but how about, ‘No fish, no ocean’? It’s a less common perspective, but one relies on the other for its existence.

Sadly, folk-ways are easily (usually?) misunderstood, having been partially hijacked by well-meaning middle class liberals. This is doubly difficult for me, as I loosely belong to that group.

All the same, I know that ‘folk music’ (the phrase seems woefully inadequate), has its real roots in working class communities where people fought for self-preservation and self-expression every day of their lives.

I also know that ‘traditional’ can end up as shorthand for everything which real folk-ways are not. It sounds fusty. No-one wants to be a fogey, in the same way that no-one welcomes syphilis or bankruptcy into their world.

People might quickly conclude that folk music and its related traditions are completely irrelevant, having fizzled out years ago in remote rural communities. But this overlooks the rich vein of urban/industrial music which sprang from the desperate dirt of the Industrial Revolution, and continues its unexpected evolution to this day. We are not historians. There are no bones for us to exhume.

‘You thought I was dead’, whispers a secret voice, ‘But I’m part of you. You will eventually die, but I cannot vanish while there is something left to be said in the world.’ It feels truly mysterious.

All this brings me full circle. I’m making the point that in spite of outward appearances, the music I instinctively love is not white, middle-class or British. It is not Black, Asian or strictly regional either.

Instead it feels deeply ingrained, and as such deserves our respect because it belongs to all of us, and ‘folk’ is refreshingly free of copyright restrictions. These traditions come from the same source as ourselves, but they cannot thrive for long in a cultural void, a museum or someone’s grumpy little clique. You cannot bottle a storm, but you can sing one up. You can dance up a storm. You can become the storm.

Following folk-ways is unlikely to bring you much kudos in this wicked old world, but on a personal level it can hook you up with something older, wiser and infinitely larger than yourself. It’s called the Universe, and you may have noticed some of it on your travels. There is much more where that came from if you will only let it in.

A question. Would you rather stand alone on the shore of an ocean, or jump into it and feel that you are part of it for a while? Instead, you could live to be old and never get your feet wet. Most people make the latter choice. Don’t be most people.

Stock phrases

It’s everywhere, the ‘new speak’ of millennials. A vile mash-up of Americanisms, corporate language and what is laughingly and inaccurately called hipster talk. I find it about as hip as a well polished turd.

‘Like’ is an obvious target. The word drifted over the Atlantic on the Good Ship Facebook, and even 40-somethings use it now. Overheard conversations in public spaces are littered with what amounts to endless verbal ticks. ‘And I was like, “You should go out more”, like, and he was like, “I like, would, if I like, had more like money”‘. No, I don’t like it. I want my language back.

Literally is another one. In fact, it’s (literally) everywhere. I’ve lost track of people who are ‘literally on the bus’ or who ‘literally went out last night.’ Strangely, if the word is omitted sentences would still make perfect sense. Literally. I’m not talking about the apocryphal man in the street either. The last time I heard it was today, on a bus full of otherwise well-spoken university students.

‘In fairness’. I wonder why anyone would take pains to point out how fair they think they are compared to everyone else. It sounds vaguely aggressive. After all, do people use it to suggest that you have just been grossly unfair?

‘Yes, but in fairness …’ Perhaps there is a little-known crime in some obscure legislation, outlawing implied unfairness. If so, please convict me. I might get some peace in the slammer.

Linguists talk about discourse markers: words and phrases acting as conversational organisers and connectors. If I say, ‘So’ or ‘like’ I’m helping you to understand what I’m saying. Verbally reaching out and seeking validation.

It’s supposed to be pleasant and (cough) ‘normal’, but it isn’t. Instead, flurries of sos, likes, wells act as verbal fog, obscuring the very things people are trying to say. They are also downright irritating.

Guests on Melvin Bragg’s Radio 4 broadcasts, many of them scientists, regularly fall into the trap of littering explanations of tricky subjects with ‘so’. ‘So, so … string theory is hard to explain, but it’s like …’ Mother of God! I usually switch channels at this point or, better still, off. A pity, because I might learn something.

I could go on, listing myriad ‘business balls’ speak. Going forward, blue-sky thinking and, that other pernicious Yankee import, ‘Grabbing lunch’. I don’t grab it, I sit down and eat it.

Words reveal our inner selves and psychological furniture, but a culture which ‘grabs’, ‘needs’ and ‘gets’ is greedy and self-serving. ‘You need to do this’. Oh no I don’t. You’re trying to manipulate me. ‘Can I get a coffee?’ Sorry, did I hear you say ‘please’? Thought not.

Perhaps the solution is to abandon my scruples and join in. So, I was like, Oh My God! I need to grab dinner and, like, you know … get out more. Well, in fairness, why not?

Birmingham German Christmas Market twatfest

I don’t blog much these days but sometimes I feel compelled to write about something. It’s cheaper than psychotherapy, and I enjoy writing when I’m in the mood. Increasingly, however, I don’t have time. I’m learning chess (badly), improving my guitar playing and I have a large mandolin. I also commute. Hot damn.

As I write, Birmingham’s annual (themed) Christmas market is in full spate attended by thronging masses of over-eager shop-whores hungry for polished rocks, cheap wooden toys and various incarnations of fried meat slurry and sugar. Repeat this formula hundreds of times, add glitter, noise, novelty clothes made in Asian sweatshops by enslaved women, and you can imagine the Bruegelesque scene.

The marriage between this and alcohol is a miserable pairing, leading to once-a-year drinkers puking in the street, and the looming threat of casual violence. Sometimes it’s a bit more than a threat.

I tripped over this witch’s tit of a situation last Friday while drinking in my local. Admittedly, I should have seen it coming and stayed well away, but I’m a creature of habit. There’s little point visiting a pub in central Birmingham during the season of good swill. They’re massively overcrowded and, not to put too fine a point on it, full of hideously stupid ‘revelers’* who can’t revel (and become unraveled) without getting tragically pissed. It compensates for a complete absence of social graces.

I was seized with the urge to pee, so a friend looked after my rickety (and hard to get) bar stool, but when I returned from the gent’s cattle shed, a blazing hooley had already broken out between him, a craggy looking escapee from Jeremy Kyle, and her shriveled git of a hubby. Yelling and screaming she took exception to our very being – for no reason I could see. ‘Get your fucking hair cut, ponytail man!’ she shrieked like a harpy on a sugar-rush. I ignored her.

That wasn’t what she wanted of course, so she grabbed my hair, releasing a cascade of washed-out blonde locks, eliciting howls of rage from me. ‘Call the police I’m being assaulted’, I implored the critically overworked and underpaid bar staff. They were flummoxed and did nothing.

Not that I blame them one iota for someone’s utter lack of basic potty-training. The climax to this bitter harpy’s wargasm was to sling her pint over my friend and I. He caught most of it in his mush, and I got the comet’s tail on my hair and clothes.

My hair is now shiny and manageable (Because I Deserve it!), thanks to a gratis beer shampoo, but pride and confidence in fellow H-Saps is somewhat tarnished. Downright rusty in fact.

To cap it all, her Hell-hubby asked me outside for a fight. I doubt he’d have played fair, so I graciously declined his offer to get myself killed. A group of nearby lads looked ready to start a fight, fueled by oceans of German lager and a massive brain deficit.

Happily, once the scumbag duo from Hades saw that things were unlikely to go their way they cleared off. Welcome to Christmas. Peace, love and joy to all beings. But not those twats thanks very much.

I’m unsure how Christ would have reacted to this birthday bash, but I suspect he would disapprove of the turn things have taken. ‘No, no, NO!’ I can hear him say in loud Aramaic, ‘Do I really have to go through all this crap again just so you can understand what I meant?’ Sense is wasted on the stupid. If he’d stuck to carpentry none of this would happen.

*My spell-checker thinks this should be 'revealers'. And indeed, much was ingloriously revealed to me that I'd rather not know.