Sunday, 29 April 2012

Mirth, music, misery and 'monica

A stool, a box of harmonicas, two guitars and some mikes
 Sorry for the contrived alliteration of the title to this post but last night we were entertained mightily by a great gig at the Stirling Tolbooth by James Grant, frontman for Scottish band Love and Money, songwriter, guitarist and collaborator with, amongst others, Karen Matheson of Capercaillie. I've been a fan of Grant's work since 1988 when Love and Money released their "Strange Kind of Love" album which I regard, to this day, as one of the most perfectly conceived and performed sets of songs in modern popular music. I have probably listened to that album more often than to any other over the last 24 years. So, as you can imagine, a chance to see him playing live in our wee venue in Stirling would be enough of an attraction in its own right.

However, while we saw him perform a great solo show last time he came here in November 2009, this time he wasn't travelling alone. He was joined last night by a long-term musical collaborator (and clearly great friend), harmonica player and virtuoso Fraser Speirs, a fellow Glaswegian who has played on many of Grant's and Love and Money's recordings over the years. I mumble along badly on the harmonica and, indeed, have played for several years with a bunch of folk in that very venue (in a back room rather than the stage, I hasten to add) and have wanted to see Fraser Speirs playing live for a long time. So, the chicken's entrails read well for an auspicious evening (a bit tough on the chicken though)...

A solo set of three numbers by James Grant before...

Speirs and Grant in full flow

I won't review the night song by song but this was a much more varied set than the last time we saw JG play here. There were old Love and Money numbers (including one of my favourites, "Walk the Last Mile"), many tracks from his solo recordings, including, after some cajoling and banter, some fun audience chorus singing on "The Scarecrow Song", and some great covers (e.g. Angie, Tom Waits' Clap Hands and others). One great thing about James Grant's live performances is his funny (some would say dry) chat (definitely from the Glasgow school of mirth). I remember a TV interview with JG, maybe in the early 1990's - I can't recall its name - but I remember the discussion of the influence on his writing of a belief that most people live their live in a kind of quiet desperation. I now know that was Henry David Thoreau that said it first but a sense of that still percolates many of James Grant's more recent work. He claims the misery and gloom that are the usual subject of his material demands that he tries to amuse us between songs. But it's mostly gentle, and often self-deprecating, stories and he has a great rapport with his audience, many of whom (maybe most last night?) have been coming to his shows since the late 1980's. I guess it's part of what makes for a pretty intimate experience, one that's probably easier to foster too in a wee venue like the Tolbooth (150-160 seats, tops?) and we both came away last night feeling like we'd been part of something special (actually, that's not uncommon for gigs at the Tolbooth in our experience where you sit so close to the performers and we were in the front row).

Oh, and did I mention that Grant is an exceptional guitarist - one of the things that attracted me to Love and Money in the first instance was the sheer varied musicality of his guitar lines, whether rhythm, picking or lead parts. And his style of playing and singing is complemented extremely well by harmonica.

For a wee flavour of last night's show, here's a recording of Grant and Speirs live, taken from Youtube, a performance of a Love and Money classic, Lips Like Ether, which they also played last night:

Fraser Speirs giving it large on the moothie last night...

This is what a proper harmonica player's gig box looks like!

In case you've never seen or heard Fraser Speirs playing harmonica (although he has played with so many artists that you will almost certainly have heard his playing without realising - check out his remarkable discography on the appropriate tab here), here's a wee treat for you, with Speirs playing a version of 'Lost John' for the audience at Edinburgh Folk Club, The Pleasance, in January 2008 (and with a nice chatty intro too):

Was there ever an instrument more designed to mimic the sound of steam trains? I doubt it. As I said before, I play harmonica (but badly!) and I can tell you there is amazing layer upon layer of technique and breathing control in this performance, and clever use of the mike! Oh and it's great fun too...

And to round off this excitement-fest, in case you've lived a blighted existence and haven't heard Love and Money before (you poor old sod), here's a vintage performance (was this a promo video for the single? I don't know) from 1991's "Dogs in the traffic" album, a track which also features Fraser Speirs, "Waiting for Angeline":

Incidentally, James Grant's own website is here (where he has generously shared the chords and lyrics for all of his L&M and solo work), and Fraser Speirs website can be found here, including a harmonica tutorial.

A machine of magic

Yesterday's Guardian newspaper carried an obituary for one of Britain's great old cycling writers, Albert Winstanley, who had just died, aged 95. His contribution has been described thus, that it: "evoked his lifelong love of touring on his bicycle in a series of articles that stand comparison with the very best writing about the outdoors."

He seems to have been a remarkable character, who kept cycling until the age of 92, managed to remain living in his own home until his last year of life, and was still attending Bolton Wanderers football matches in his final weeks of life. We can only speculate to what extent his active cycling life helped him to maintain his admirably active older life (but it does seem likely to have helped, doesn't it?).

The title for this blogpost comes from a quote from his writing, used in the Guardian obituary, and a wonderful piece of prose. Reading this the day after two major cycling mass-rides (Pedal on Parliament in Edinburgh and The Big Ride in London), campaigning for better, safer cycling facilities in Britain, I'm sure this lovely prose will ring a (bicycle) bell for many:

"To me a bicycle is a machine of magic ... taking me on to the ways of satisfied happiness; giving to me the good friendship I enjoy with others, and to share with me the delights and ecstasies of the outdoors. It gives to me the pleasures of mingling the past with the present ... always discovering ... always learning. Above all it gives to me also, memories to cherish and store inwardly, as I wheel my ways on joyous days ... such a day has been today.

Cover of a Winstanley classic

A great title for a cycling book!

Sunday, 15 April 2012

For those in peril on the sea...

Last June, I blogged about a local link to the Titanic disaster, namely a sign on a fence at a house around the corner in the King's Park area of Stirling, marking the former home of the ship's Sixth Senior Engineer, William Young Moyes.

The date of that blog post, in June 2011, was the 100th anniversary of the launch of RMS Titanic from the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast. After several months of fitting out the ship, the Titanic's maiden voyage ended in disaster and tragedy following a collision with an iceberg in the North Atlantic on 14th April 1912, the sinking of the supposedly unsinkable vessel by the early hours of Monday 15th of April resulting in 1517 deaths among the passengers and crew, including Stirling's William Young Moyes.

I find it sobering to think that, had the Titanic run head first into the iceberg, rather than steering around it and receiving a fatal blow to the side, she might actually have survived, with fewer of her watertight compartments ruptured, even although she was travelling at her top speed (was it 22 knots?) at the time. According to the Wikipedia article about the sinking, liner collisions with icebergs weren't uncommon. Indeed, in 1907: "SS Kronprinz Wilhelm, a German liner, had rammed an iceberg and suffered a crushed bow, but was still able to complete her voyage." And that ship wasn't being claimed as unsinkable.

I've posted another photo of the Moyes memorial sign above, taken this week, with floral tribute. We'll raise a wee glass tonight to the memory of Mr Moyes and all the other poor benighted souls who perished 100 years ago today.