Tag: music

Review of Ivan Campo at the Harris on 14th February 2020

Have you ever walked into a gig and felt calm and inspired, even before the music begins? Even when you’re an ancient prog-folk-rocker like me, and even before you’ve sat down? Well, that’s what happened when I went to see Ivan Campo at Preston’s Harris Art Gallery on Valentines Day 2020.

Firstly, the location was gorgeous. I’ve been to the Harris many times before but never to an event, so my assumption was that the concert would be held in a suite deep within the building: somewhere dull and bland with flat acoustics and plenty of audience space. I couldn’t have been more wrong. When we arrived, the band were setting up in the space just behind the lobby’s glass doors. In front of the small stage we could see a chic collection of bistro style chairs and tables.

It was then that I realised this was to be an intimate gig of maybe 50 attendees, yet the space was vertically massive. The ‘concert hall’ was three storeys high, and the band’s tuning-up sounds floated around the tables and up, through the art galleries, into the stunning ceiling cavity. When the doors opened, we accepted a free glass of Prosecco, then sat ourselves directly in front of the stage.

Ivan Campo has a seemingly simple set up: Adam on lead vocals and guitar, Will on keyboard, guitars, backing vocals and glockenspiel, and Ben on guitars, bass, percussion, clarinet and backing vocals. But Ivan Campo’s sound is anything but simple. Of course, they utilise many elements of folk music, particularly in the vocal harmonies, but the band exhibit elements of pop and choral music too, as the band’s musical influences are multiple and complex.

Each person listening to their music would be aware of different influences, but I found myself hearing Nick Drake, early Crosby Stills, Nash and Young, The Beatles, The Trees, Mellow Candle and even early Genesis. I even detected elements of The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, though these are rare! In ‘Darling Diva’ , there’s definitely a Bonzo feeling to the enunciation and of the verses in particular, and with its near-muted backing voices, the lead voice floats.Whatever their influences, Ivan Campo’s musical talents blend together in a cohesive whirl of gorgeous sounds.

I didn’t stop smiling the entire time, as watching and listening to Ivan Campo transcended pleasure and became unaccustomed joy. Yes, it was certainly connected with the quality of the musical performance, but also with the music’s feel. It exuded positivity and optimism – particularly ‘The Bloodhound and the Fox’ with its gentle organ sound and powerful lyrics, and in the bouncy harmonies of ‘Roll On’ with its staccato guitar and enticing foot-tapping rhythm.

This gig showcased some great music that moved between genres. ‘Forgetful Fredrick’ had a great reggae/calypso sound with its snappy, syncopated guitar and jolly glockenspiel. Incidentally, the whistling in this and in other tunes is an unexpected pleasure that’s simple but so effective. More jolliness arises in ‘Lotus Eater’ – a feel-good song with an early-Beatles skiffle feel, that changes to The Everly Brothers when they sing ‘Every day, gets a little stronger’. Taking a totally different tack, ‘A Chancer’ incorporates reggae-sounding rhythm guitar and a gorgeous lead guitar in this understated piece. Taking another direction, ‘Roller Disco’ tells of waking up in 1959 wanting to go to a roller disco. With its delightful hand shaker, doo-wop backing vocals sound and bass, it is funny, sweet and very feel-good. Weirdly, ‘Local Dealer’s catchy piano reminds me of Billy Bragg’s ‘Waiting for the Great Leap Forward’!

Ivan Campo have a wonderful percussive sound, especially as there is no drum kit. Everything is percussive! Consider ‘Season of the King’ with its gorgeous, rolling piano and motifs, with a tune that particularly suits Adam’s voice, and is brought into another dimension with the clicked-fingers percussion, shakers and syncopated rhythms. Also, in ‘The Mirror’ , amidst the gorgeous seemingly-complex harmonies of a tune that seems too pure to have arisen in our cynical times, the timings are satisfying and tight, assisted by sonorous clarinet notes and the clicking of clarinet keys for percussive effect.

The harmonies and the way the voices merge together are just mild-melting. In ‘The B&B’ the lyrics are great ‘ I know I’ll survive only if I try’, ‘A real reverie.’. ‘Wouldn’t you agree?’ ‘Was it all just a dream?’ My particular favourite part is the ‘It’s difficult. Impossible to see.’ There’s something astonishing about how those harmonies are delivered and how the words are articulated with a beautiful use of silence. In ‘Invisible Man’, the simple effective guitar picking is topped with almost-whispered singing of ethereal harmonies, and the simplest of keyboard accompaniments. ‘Crome Yellow’ presents us with such a Kinks-like feel at the beginning (Kinks but darker), with rich folk harmonies, and syncopated rhythm guitar. In ‘One Minute War’, the articulation of the word ‘Suddenly’ is gorgeous.

Not every band is able to use sparsity to the best effect, but Ivan Campo does. They use a chugging guitar sound on ‘Hurricane Ivan’ to start, and this is reflected by the singing style. As the song progresses, the tune becomes more lyrical, though the sparseness of the arrangement is effective. In ‘Blind Spot’ the harmonies and lyrics are exceptional especially on the lead up to the chorus. Even the chorus is pretty sparse, but so beautiful as a result.

It’s as if the band has fully orchestrated, then stripped right down to only what was essential.

And it is this musical self-awareness that made the band so special. These guys were not afraid of using their instruments and voices unpretentiously. ‘Liquor Mountain’ was sweet and reminiscent of something in the long ago past, and ‘Obscene Dream’ was glorious with its descending and ascending sweetness, and of silence. And again, reminiscent of a time gone by with its gentle, almost-whispered singing, ‘Rat Race’ begins in the manner of one of those brilliant busking tunes that cheers you as you walk past. But soon it becomes a hush little baby style version of something Beatles-like. How could such a thing be described in mere words? In ‘Could the Devil be a Gentleman’ I was instantly reminded of the Orkney and Shetland folk I adored in my teen years. I love the clarity of the fingerpicked guitar and the sound of the voices, especially the line ‘By the thoughts of a restless day’ which gives me tummyache and brings tears to my eyes.

This was one of the best gigs I have ever attended. Perhaps the best.

Acoustic music is often considered to have less breadth and depth. Not so. Of course, the grandeur and echo-chamber effects of the venue added to the atmosphere. But it was all about the band and their pure music. I purchased Purchased four Ivan Campo EPs on my way out – and have been listening to them ever since. This will definitely not be my final Campo gig.

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A Few Old Book Reviews

Recently I was going through some old note books and discovered a few comments on books I’d read perhaps 20 years ago!

First, ‘Last Orders’ by Graham Swift, a book which focuses on the relationships and the death of Jack, just as he was about to retire from his butchers shop, his ‘adopted’ son, Vince, and undertaker Vic. The characters all have their own chapters which explore the past, their relationships and feelings, but the present day story is one of a group of men sprinkling Jack’s ashes in Margate. As a whole, the book is a bit difficult to follow and disjointed but I suspect this was due to the speed I was reading. Nevertheless, I didn’t really care about any of the characters, which is never a good sign, and I was glad when I got to the end. The only question I wanted answering was ‘what did Ray do?’ Did he give Amy his winnings so she could clear Jack’s debts. Did he get back with Amy years after their affair had ended? This book won the 1996 Booker Prize, so is obviously well-regarding, well-written and worthy, but it left me feeling like a philistine. Maybe this is a bloke’s book, but it definitely left me feeling cold and not all that keen to read another Graham Swift.

Next, just a few notes on ‘Fight Club’ by Chick Palahniuk. I found it a really enjoyable book which included much of the dialogue that was used in the film – I always like it when an author does that! To me, he book had the same kind of feel as ‘Requiem for a Dream’ – not with regard to the drugs, but with regard to the dysfunctional relationships and psychological disturbances. I’d certainly consider reading it again, especially as it is so short. But, despite being short, a lot is packed in, and the split personality element seems easier to guess and understand in the novel as opposed to the film.

Next, a music book: ‘Emerson, Lake and Palmer (The Show that Never Ends)’ by George Forrester, Martyn Hanson and Frank Askew. This book is the first ever biography of ELP who reached a height with the 1973 high-concept album, ‘Brain Salad Surgery’. They were a phenomenon till they split in the late 70s, and returned in the 90s. “Forrester, Hanson and Askew are acknowledged experts on ELP and after five years of research, they have produced a gripping and fascinating document of one of the great rock bands of the 70s. George Forrester also provides an erudite study of the band’s complex and challenging music.” This book begins with the childhoods of the members, takes in their musical history and moves towards the ups of the 1990s. There is also a large section of musical analysis track by track which reminded me of A level music as a lot of the analysis has a classical bar-by-bar breakdown. This whole book really re-encouraged a long-held interest in the band. Even though it is detailed, it isn’t dry or dull. I well remember the tiny room that was my teen bedroom, listening to ‘Karn Evil 9’ and feeling like nothing in the world had prepared me for the total madness, or later in life, listening to Greg Lake’s solo work and his quirky contributions to ‘Works’. Or even watching some huge Carl Palmer drum solo on the ‘Whistle Test’ (Old Grey). The music completely blew me away, and the book got me in the mood to dig out the vinyl again, so it must have been a good read!

I also, at the time of originally reading these books, had access to a large number of review copies, and one that stood out was a picture book of ‘Peter and the Wolf’ by Sergei Prokofiev (adapted by Migeulanxo Prado). There is such a bright quality of light to the pictures, wonderful facial expressions on the grandfather, Peter and even on the faces of the animals. It doesn’t matter that there isn’t much text. Surprisingly for me, I loved it nonetheless with all the vivid blood reds and the bright whites of the light and gunfire. The delightfully rustic look belies the strength – it doesn’t pull any punches, so has a macabre feel despite the mossy look to the pictures. Prado is famous Europe-wide for his ‘acerbically observant’ comedic stories and other graphic novels. Now one of Europe’s pre-eminent comic artists – versatile style-wise (from satire to realism, to black and white line art and the soft illustrations in this book). I loved this book. One for all the family.

One book I read that certainly wasn’t suitable for the youngest members of our family, was ‘Rebus: The Early Years’ by Ian Rankin. The collection included ‘Knots and Crosses’, ‘Hide and Seek’ and ‘Tooth and Nail’. This is quality crime fiction at its best. ‘Knots and Crosses’ tells the story of a murdered child. The crimes all lead up to Rebus’s daughter Samantha. ‘Hide and Seek’ is a tale of squats and drugs. In ‘Tooth and Nail’ Rebus is drafted down to London to find the Wolfman – a serial killer. The best part of the story is a chase in a judge’s car. He apprehended the car with the judge still in the back! Great dialogue and stories, and I would happily read this again.

Finally, and I know I’m not going to do this justice, ‘The Name of the Rose’ by Umberto Eco. At the time of reading I agreed with my work colleague Robin Butler on this point – that sometimes ‘cleverness’ gets in the way of narrative. I’ve tried to read the book on a number of occasions (and failed) and was always put off by the exposition and historical bumbling in the first chapter, but once I got into it, I enjoyed it greatly. Re-reading though, it doesn’t resonate in the same way. I know it is an epic novel, but I don’t think I’ll read it again.

Music and Agatha Christie

I’ve been listening to The Enid’s 1976 album “In the Region of the Summer Stars” whilst lying on my bed, and am allowing myself to drift off into something akin to contentment.  I sit up and take my notepad from the side of the bed and I write in only just legible script “The brass calls out a cacophony call, and I hear dolphins and large bells as background atmosphere sound, but I see noises too.  Then rhythmic bass and proper cymbal percussion begins and it all gets faster and more crazy.  Imagine hundred of pixies doing a barn dance”.

In the morning I pick up my pad and wonder why I bothered writing that.  Why did I rise up from near-sleep to express my feelings about a piece of music I enjoy – and in such a waffly disjointed way too?  Would I also feel inspired someday to describe the scurrying of microscopic red spiders on the baking hot Summer flagstones, or the growth of algae on the front of my fish tank when it is placed in the glare of sunlight?  What makes music so special, and why do I feel this strong urge to analyse it rather than simply allowing it to wash over me and take control?  Perhaps because I studied music to A level standard, where detailed analysis is required.

It isn’t the first time I’ve wondered why I feel the need to communicate this madness with others – but even more interestingly, why I feel the need to make a record of it for my own needs.  What’s even more interesting is how I feel it is possible to describe the music as intense, rushing, chaotic or whatever.  And only I can possibly know what I mean.

I love how music has this amazing knack of making you see things in an individual way…  but also in a different way.  Consider a film and how the soundtrack can completely change your mood and opinion of a scene.  The Psycho shower scene to Benny Hill music… I think not!

And that’s why music isn’t just the audio soundtrack to our lives: it is also the emotional soundtrack.  And that’s also why, when emotions are too intense (perhaps when we’ve just experienced a bereavement or other life changing event) we seem unable to hear music properly for what it is and interpret it as pain.  Instead we plunge ourselves into less challenging experiences – perhaps easy-view television that grants comfort.  It is almost as if we can’t allow ourselves that little chink in our armour, for fear we will collapse inside.  Perhaps.

The Enid always gift me with introspection.  JS Bach grants intellectual clarity (I listen to him and Handel while working on my accounts!) and 1970s middle- of-the-road rock or progressive rock music are what I turn to when I am in need of comfort – like arriving home after a long journey.  But challenge my ears to piano with accompanying strings and I can’t help but yearn for something indefinable.  A type of hunger or thirst or discomfort or… how on earth can a person describe this, when it’s something you can only experience inside yourself?  Of course, you can try, but it’s not easy.  It’s even harder to describe colours, sounds and other experiences that can only be described with reference to something else that is equally impossible to describe.
On another point, and getting entirely away slightly from the whole thoughts and feelings thing, I settled down last night with an Agatha Christie novel.  I don’t know why I’ve never read this particular book before as I sure as heck have read all her others, and have seen most of the films and TV programmes too.  “The Secret Adversary” caught my eye because of this oversight but also because of a little note at the front in its latest edition (currently Book of the Month at my library) which read “To all those who lead monotonous lives, in the hope that they may experience at second hand the delights and dangers of adventure”. 

Being a hardened (or is that softened?) introvert, adventure to me is more a walk in the park than a balloon ride, so I was encouraged to take this book from the library.  It was first published in January 1922 and was Agatha Christie’s second novel, preceded by “The Mysterious Affair at Styles”.  I wonder how I will emotionally connect with it.  So far to me it feels stilted and contrived, but perhaps it is just a sign of the young writer finding her feet.  It’s down to earth and, in terms of emotional description or psychological analysis, it’s pretty lacking, but that’s what the reader expects from Christie’s novels.  They are about intricate plot and action, not about waffling description.

So I think that’s all I’m going to say for today.  Writing about anything as nebulous as emotions  and music is inevitably going to leave a lot to the imagination…