The Jacksons, Hammersmith Apollo

Purely joyous: The Jacksons perform at Hammersmith Apollo

Purely joyous: The Jacksons perform at Hammersmith Apollo Photo: Stephanie Paschal / Rex Features

04 Mar 2013

You might think there would be a ghost haunting this show, an inescapable absence at its centre, yet of all the Michael Jackson related tributes I have seen, the reunion of his brothers was by far the most purely joyous and entertaining.

It worked, in a way, because it wasn’t all about Michael. There were no excessively maudlin speeches, no hi-tech projections from beyond the grave, and none of the quasi-religious homages that make less obsessive fans queasy. There was just great music and dancing and a real spirit of fraternal togetherness, with Michael being celebrated as a part of this talented clan, as opposed to something completely other.

In truth, The Jacksons career never really recovered from the departure and phenomenal solo success of their most extravagantly talented member in the early Eighties. From 1984 on, all of their careers seemed to depend on his beneficence. A speculative comeback in 2009 was cut short by Michael’s death, and there have been various falling outs and disagreements, with indications that it took torturous negotiations to get four of the five back onstage (without youngest, Randy, who became a member at the tail end of their career). Yet there is no sense of conflict or compromise, apart, perhaps, from an unnecessary Jermaine solo section. This is a slick, fun, engaging, super well-drilled show in which the performers seem to be enjoying themselves as much as the audience.

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Liza Minnelli, Royal Festival Hall

Liza Minelli live at the Royal Festival Hall, London

03 Mar 2013

This was my first time seeing Liza (with a Z) in the flesh, and I felt quite virginal amongst the exuberantly camp men, single women and older couples who form her devoted audience. Cilla (with a C) was sitting a few rows down from me. Everyone I spoke to promised that I was in for quite a treat, although one older woman added, pragmatically, “if she can still do it at her age.”

I am happy to report that Minnelli can, indeed, still do at her age (66). Although exactly what she does is hard to define. She interprets melodramatic show tunes and other old standards with an almost hammy commitment to theatrical emotional veracity, the intensity of her vocal peppered with melodramatic gestures. Between songs she larks about, her persona one part wide-eyed child, one part wry old dame, peppering remarks with a hoarse, squeaky laugh. But as soon as the music starts up, she is absolutely in the moment and on song.

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Filed under: Review

Laura Mvula, Sing To the Moon

Orchestral soul newcomer Laura Mvula received a Brit nomination

01 Mar 2013

Strong, soulful British female singer-songwriters have enjoyed such amazing crossover success in recent years it sometimes appears that record companies must be scouring open mic nights in search of successors to Amy Winehouse, Adele and Emeli Sandé, snapping up every young chanteuse they can find with a broken heart and Grade 6 piano. On first sight, Laura Mvula might appear to be the latest candidate, easy-on-the-ear and eye, with a forthright vocal manner, unadorned beauty and copious melodious gifts. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the breadth of her talents and her bold commitment to creative individuality. Sing To The Moon is one of the most striking and original debuts from any British artist in many a year.

Pick any track and you find yourself groping to enumerate the musical multitudes it contains. Like The Morning Dew opens in a bright blast of choral ecstasy, before shrinking to a soft hum of acoustic bass and tinkling bells, then playfully breaking in to a stirring march. Is There Anybody Out There? advances with a stately strum and a vocal as poised as Nina Simone at her most querulous, before opening up with a flourish of harp. The ebulliently confrontational That’s Alright could be Billie Holiday in a Thirties flapper romp underpinned by Burundi percussion, Busby Berkley meets Adam Ant.

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David Bowie: The Next Day

David Bowie’s first album for a decade is bold, beautiful and baffling

5 out of 5 stars
David Bowie's new album, The Next Day, is 'an absolute wonder'

David Bowie’s new album, The Next Day, is ‘an absolute wonder’
25 Feb 2013

It is an enormous pleasure to report that the new David Bowie albumis an absolute wonder: urgent, sharp-edged, bold, beautiful and baffling, an intellectually stimulating, emotionally charged, musically jagged, electric bolt through his own mythos and the mixed-up, celebrity-obsessed, war-torn world of the 21st century.

Musically, it is stripped and to the point, painted in the primal colours ofrock: hard drums, fluid bass, fizzing guitars, shaded by splashes of keyboard and dirty rasps of horns. The 14 songs are short and spiky, often contrasting that kind of patent Bowie one-note declarative drawl with sweet bursts of melodic escape that hit you like a sugar rush. Bowie’s return from a decade’s absence feels very present, although full of sneaky backward glances.

Hints, references and echoes of the past abound.

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Kanye West, Hammersmith Apollo

In his solo show at the Hammersmith Apollo, Kanye West was weird, extraordinary and oddly disturbing

Kanye West performing at the Hammersmith Apollo

Kanye West performing at the Hammersmith Apollo
Neil McCormick

25 Feb 2013

There was a moment towards the end of Kanye West’s solo London shows when I thought, this is the future, and it is even weirder than I would have imagined.

A lone figure is standing in the midst of an arctic wasteland, wearing a white designer sci-fi straitjacket, a glittering, skin-tight crystal bondage mask obscuring his face. He is singing into an autotuned microphone set to maximum distortion, his digitised voice bending and fluctuating like a robot choir. Single icy synth notes blast out over a sub sonic bass more felt than heard. A crowd of thousands stand rapt, filming him on mobile phones, as the sounds grow ever more twisted and distorted, circling around and constantly returning to a beautiful, tortured melodic refrain, in which he sadly lists his all too human flaws and urges loved ones to “run away as fast as you can”.

This was not some obscure, left field electro art rock performance. This was one of the biggest pop stars in the world right now.

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Filed under: Review

Thom Yorke: why should we care?

Atoms For Peace: Amok (XL) review
Conflicted: Thom Yorke fronts Atoms For Peace

GMT 22 Feb 2013

Before Your Very Eyes, the opening track of Thom Yorke’s latest side-project, cascades from the speakers in thrilling style, interweaving a jittery, propulsive afro-rhythmic bass with hi-life guitar, fizzing futuristic electronica, shuffling percussion and one of those ethereal, floating Radiohead melodies that seems to be moving at half the pace of the rest of the track, crossing the up-tempo groove with a ghostly sadness. As it segues from a rumbling, subsonic bass note into the nervy, morse-code synth rhythm and desperate, yearning melody of Default, the sinuous mix of electronic and analogue sounds suggests Yorke has found a new way to mesh rock’s visceral live attack with the shiny, digital beats of our computer world. Young musicians should grab a hold of an album with enough ideas to launch a hundred bands. But over the course of nine tracks, familiar problems start to manifest. Like: what is Thom Yorke singing about? And why should we care?

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Filed under: Review

Dave Grohl’s Sound City Players, The Forum, Review

Dave Grohl and Rick Springfield of the Sound City Players

Dave Grohl and Rick Springfield of the Sound City Players Photo: Getty Images
20 Feb 2013

“I can’t believe we’re back at the Forum,” gasps Dave Grohl, before adding, comically, “We used to play really big places!” The 2,300 capacity Kentish Town venue was packed from the front of the theatrical stage to the beer-sloshing bar with rock fans drawn by the prospect of seeing superstars up close and personal.

By the end of a two and a half-hour, 30-song gig, Foo Fighters were on stage with representatives of Nirvana, Cheap Trick, Queens of the Stone Age, Fear and Masters Of Reality in a messy celebration of rock ‘n’ roll fraternity, in which bald, bearded, overweight men commemorated their rebellious youths. The audience seemed to be enjoying themselves too, even if not quite as much as the musicians.

Former Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighter leader Grohl has made a movie about LA’s Sound City studio, where a lot of classic US rock albums were recorded. It’s a friendly, baggy documentary which had its UK premiere on Monday, and Grohl’s superjam band have been popping up to drum up publicity. The London show is only their fourth gig and actually their least starry. America got Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty and members of Rage Against The Machine. We got Grohl’s old Nirvana bass partner Krist Novoselic and “Rick f—–g Springfield!” as Grohl repeatedly describes the American pop rock icon in tones of comical reverence. Or “Rick who?” as the girl next to me inquired of her mother.

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Beyonce at the Super Bowl: a cross between the Can Can & a military assault

11:27AM GMT 04 Feb 2013

Beyoncé promised that she would sing live at the Super Bowl. And she did, sort of, belting out an aggressive, loudly mixed lead-vocal over layers of backing vocals, which may or may not have been pre-recorded. Meanwhile, her husband Jay Z watched proudly from the stands while his voice boomed out of the speakers in an act of virtual ventriloquism, rapping the opening to Crazy In Love. It is the modern way. With a band of on stage musicians adding parts to pre-recorded backing tracks, who can really tell what’s live or not anymore? And does anyone really cares? After all, the controversy over Beyoncé’s miming at the presidential inauguration, she was greeted with rapture at the New Orleans’ Mercedes Benz Super Dome, where her brand of flashy, sassy, pyrotechnical, over-the-top r’n’b perfectly chimed with an event that (to the untutored eye, anyway) appears to be more about advertising American power than an actual sporting occasion.

It is hard to imagine this kind of thing happening at, say, the FA Cup final. If Wembley Stadium were temporarily taken over by what appeared to be a troupe of souped-up Burlesque dancers, flashing cleavage and thighs, while a pop star treated the occasion as a kind of homage to herself, the response of the UK’s gleefully irreverent football crowd would be enough to terrify any live television broadcaster. Beyoncé wasn’t leaving anything to chance, let alone the reaction of a sporting crowd. She appeared not to have only brought her own hi-tech stage, but her own audience, performing to front rows of young, screaming, dancing fans who looked a lot less like football fans than the kind of kids who used to fill up the Top Of The Pops studio. They were the uncritical conduit for viewers back home. Beyoncé’s performance, balancing energetically exuberant movements and vocals with a charming, smiling intimacy was, really, all for the cameras.

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Filed under: Blogs, Review

Can Destiny’s Child Still Fulfill Beyonce’s Destiny?

As Beyonce reunites with Destiny’s Child for a new track on the album Love Songs, can she still cut it as  pop’s top diva?

Destiny's Child, featuring Beyonce

10:15AM GMT 04 Feb 2013

Destiny’s Child: Love Songs (Columbia, £10.99)

Having enjoyed a year’s maternity leave from her position as pop’s head girl, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter is getting set to make a comeback. She has started 2013 with a salacious photo shoot in GQ, appearing, if not actually singing live, at President Obama’s inauguration and appearing at the Superbowl. Sexy mother and demure stateswoman: it’s an indication of how all-encompassing an ambitious modern pop diva has to be.

Her solo return is preceded by a reminder of what put Beyoncé in this position. Destiny’s Child, the girl group managed by her father, have briefly reconvened to aid their superstar frontwoman’s continuing bid for world domination. They have recorded one new track for a compilation, their first since disbandment in 2005. It’s a surprisingly light, understated groove and despite the title, Beyoncé never goes nuclear, delivering a subdued vocal, surrounded by gossamer-light harmonies.

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Filed under: Review

Double dose of Biffy

Biffy Clyro’s new album Opposites makes it hard not to admire the band’s ambition and chutzpah

Old school rock formats: Biffy Clyro

Old school rock formats: Biffy Clyro
6:30AM GMT 25 Jan 2013

For a scene repeatedly declared dead, rock still declines to lie down and be counted out. Scottish trio Biffy Clyro have been around for over a decade, slowly shifting from abstruse metal-flavoured prog punk to sleek arena anthems. Yet apparently poised for a major commercial breakthrough, they have opted to toss all their eggs in one great big basket, concocting that most unwieldy of old school rock formats, the double album.

Opposites presents two sides, 20 tracks and 78 minutes of loud, proud, in-your-face pop rock. I am not quite sure what the title represents because both sides are so much the same as to be virtually indistinguishable. Biffy don’t have the swaggering adventurousness of Muse or the arty pretensions of Coldplay but they’ve certainly got something. Every song punches its weight in terms of dynamics, energy and melody, adding up to a sleek anthemic rock positioned between the soft centre of Snow Patrol and the dark heart of Nirvana, with an underpinning of Celtic guitar riffing. It’s extremely effective yet there is something punishingly relentless about being hammered with the same blows over and over again. I am really not sure what Biffy hoped to say to listeners over 20 tracks that couldn’t have been said more effectively over 10. But then, I’m really not sure what Biffy are trying to say at all.

Vocalist, guitarist and principle songwriter Simon Neil hails from the poetic non-sequitur school of lyrics yet is blessed with the kind of raw yet tender voice that can wring improbable drama out of lines like “Where are you at?/ Is it trumpet or tap?/ Are you glued to the wall by this terrible snap?” What’s that all about? Yet somehow Trumpet or Tap is fantastically compelling, with a lean, syncopated verse peppered with cheeky backing vocals surging up to a fuzzy rock singalong chorus.

The album is chock full of this stuff and it is hard not to admire the band’s ambition and chutzpah. The problem is it doesn’t leave you longing for more, or pull you back in to savour a favourite moment. If you’re already a Biffy Clyro fan, Opposites might be your idea of a masterpiece. If you’re new to Biffy, it’ll just give you a headache.

via Telegraph