Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The UK should not increase its military role in fighting ISIS

For what it is worth, this was my contribution to the tens of thousands no doubt unread submissions to Jeremy Corbyn's consultation on what stance he/Labour should take on Syria/ISIS etc:

“Extending the UK's role in the air war against ISIS has no clear legal basis nor is it likely to make the streets of the UK safer. Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq today have a significant Al-Qaida and/or ISIS presence despite (or partly because of) the UK's active role in western military intervention in these countries. The 7/7 attack on London was facilitated but not determined by training acquired in the territory of a functioning state, the UK/western ally Pakistan. There is no strategy for countering ISIS in Syria and Iraq that has a realistic prospect of convincing Sunni Arabs that these countries can be stitched back together with political and security guarantees for their community that lessen the appeal of violence as a tactical weapon. The (western allied) Sunni Arab-led Gulf states have not the will, capacity or political interest in putting themselves in the service of this community's ambitions in these countries - they are focused on obliterating perceptible Iranian allies in Yemen. Iran, Russia and even France to a degree are prioritising a Shia interest in Iraq and in Syria - as a strategic asset in the Iranian and even Russian case, and a lesser evil than ISIS in the eyes of France. There is no UN Security Council Resolution or No 10 plan that can overcome such deep-seated differences of interest on the ground or among the regional and international players in the conflict. Make sure that the UK does not increase its role in essentially sectarian territorial struggles of local actors egged on by comparably narrow regional interests, all in the misguided belief that the particular "evil" of ISIS somehow makes this war, this time, different and that our tools of choice will somehow, this time, have a different impact.”

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Comments made via The Guardian website, including on Songs about Crowns

Click here to review comments I have occasionally made since 2005 on the website of the UK newspaper The Guardian. My latest was made on 13th November in response to their invitation to readers to nominate songs with the word "crown" in the title or about, or lyrically concerned with, crowns etc.

I nominated Elton's "Chasing The Crown"....natch.

Monday, October 5, 2015

HFG's Gecko Gig Broadens the Horizons

On Friday the Hastings Independent Press (HIP) published my review of the Hastings Friendship Group (HFG) gig in support of Horizons Community Learning as "Hastings Friendship Expands Horizons" (subtitled 'Quality Music for Everyone and All for Charity'). The previous week the Hastings Observer published a similar review by me under the title "Gecko Groove in Local Good Cause".

I have reproduced the HIP one below, including the picture of performer Jack Apps as used in the newspaper. I have also posted up pictures taken by Valerie Grove on the evening plus a couple (Vincent Turner and Trevor Webb) taken by me.

Hastings Friendship Expands Horizons
- Quality Music for Everyone and All for Charity

Please note that this article originally appeared on page 19 of the October 2nd 2015 edition of the Hastings Independent Press

Hastings Friendship Group (HFG) showcased a range of local musical talent at the Gecko Bar in St Leonard’s on Sunday (September 20) in aid of Horizons Community Learning.

Horizons provides free adult education and personal advice in Hollington, St Leonard’s and in Sidley near Bexhill. It relies on grants, donations and a highly dedicated team of volunteer and paid workers. HFG was founded by Hastings councillor Trevor Webb. HFG has hosted 40 gigs over two years, raising over £3,200 for 20 charities in the process.

Among those performing were Oksana Kirjuskina. She sung two ballads, one in her native Latvian, the other sung in English. Although her version of Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting” was excellently performed, the song made me wish she was still singing in Latvian. Oksana competed in the southern heats of the TV talent show “Britain’s Got Talent” and will hear in December whether she is through to the next round. Judging by this performance she will be.

By way of contrast, Jack Apps (pictured), growled and menaced his way through some self-penned, loosely Americana-style, songs. 

Jack Apps - mean and moody
The bravest performer of the evening was probably the youngest: Vincent Turner, who sang and played acoustic guitar. Playing only his second ever solo gig, Vincent writes his own songs and, like many of the performers, sometimes had to battle to be heard. Vincent also plays bass guitar in the alt-rock Hastings band, Liquid Chaos. Dan Wahnon did urban/RnB unplugged before performing an acoustic cover of the timeless rock n’ roll standard “Johnny B. Goode”.

The best covers performer of the night though, and the hardest working (he played three times), was singer/keyboardist Saspirella Sam. Sam performed jazz and blues grooves, including a rousing “Minnie the Moocher”, a song made famous by Cab Calloway.

Ghostfingers are Mike Guy on vocals and acoustic guitar, and Patrick McGurr on keyboards. They are unassuming but impressive. Their melding of “La Bamba” and “Twist and Shout” got the sometimes distracted audience engaged. Nick Warren played some nice covers, including songs by Tom Waits and Loudon Wainwright III, and performed an impressive version of the Python Lee Jackson/Rod Stewart classic “In A Broken Dream”. The evening was brought to a close by Saspirella Sam. Some £87 had been raised for Horizons.


Fearless Vincent Turner

Oksana wows 'em
Dan plays it cool

Ghostfingers - spirited duo
Nick Warren - quietly impressive
Saspirella Sam - the hardest workin' man in (local) showbusiness
Trevor gets it on to Ghostfingers

Sam (centre) with Horizons staff and supporters

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Poetry, politics and song with Ragged Trousers and Hastings Friends

The Ragged Trousered Cabaret (RTC) and Hastings Friendship Group (HFG) came together for a gig at the welcoming Owl and Pussycat Lounge on Sunday to raise funds for HFG and to reflect on contemporary popular struggle.

RTC has a long history of cultural and political engagement, inspired by the famous book by the one time Hastings-based writer Robert Tressell and by the anti-trade union mood of the 1980s. Members of the print union Sogat originally formed the cabaret group in 1984 in Sutton, and subsequently famous names like Mike Myers and Harry Enfield trod its boards. In this collectivist spirit Ann Field began the evening with a long, and somewhat stern and pedagogic, talk about trade union struggle. Ann was mindful of the possible new beginning the day before with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, and spoke of the latest Conservative legislative proposal to “reform” the unions. Ann though was much more preoccupied with her scheduled talk on the Wapping print dispute. It was fascinating to be reminded of the context and detail of that mid-1980s conflict. However, as there were few in the room not old enough, nor I suspect not engaged enough, to remember it well, Ann was preaching to the converted. Still, it was all in a good cause: for HFG and for remembering an emblematic setback for organised labour.

A poem by poet Tom O’Brien continuing the same broad theme was read out by Warren Davis. Not for children or the faint-hearted, it was sweary and simplistic and went down very well. 

Songs mostly in the spirit of workers' struggle were performed by HFG regular Tom Cole. He sang great interpretations of numbers by Woody Guthrie ("Ain’t Got No Home In This World" and "Pretty Boy Floyd"), Ewan McColl ("My Old Man") and Billy Bragg ("Between The Wars"). I am more familiar with Ian Dury’s “My Old Man”, an altogether less maudlin and less precious take on his working class father. “Between The Wars”, inevitably perhaps, did the business for an audience in no doubt as to where its allegiances, political and cultural, lay.

Tony Peak followed. He has a poetic slant on struggle too. The inspired “Bottle Alley” tells of poverty and misery in a renowned Hastings street. Tony disparagingly referred to his own daily writing of sonnets, but chose to perform some in song. His ode to the late local Labour leader Jeremy Birch, was equal parts Sixth Form and Shakespearian.

Pete Donohue, literary editor at Hastings Independent Press, is a lively performance poet. He poured through loose sheaves of paper, sometimes performing one before literally discarding another. Pete brought to life many of the street characters familiar to those who live in the area. He is also not afraid to “do dark” either, whether the audience could cope or not. 

Paul Crimin, a HFG stalwart, largely avoided the theme of the day. In fact, singing “I Don’t Want To Talk About It”, a song originally performed by Crazy Horse but made famous by Rod Stewart, was a surreal counterpart to the worker-orientation. However it’s a wonderful number. Paul introduced the equally powerful Tears for Fears’ song “It’s A Mad World” as reflecting how he felt after Corbyn's election i.e. the (welcome)“Alice in Wonderland”  mood that Tony Peak referred to earlier. Given the choice, many present and outside the room would probably prefer the possibly bumpy ride of a Jeremy Corbyn prime ministership to yet more wars of intervention under either a Tory or a Neo-Blairite administration.

"Song for Jeremy" was the second number performed in memory of the new Labour leader's namesake: the late, great Jeremy Birch. It was sung at his memorial service and many joined in on this occasion too (see picture below).

Sue Johns was for me the highlight of the night. An avowed Cornish speaker, feminist, shop girl, and, most importantly, a brilliant declaimer of her own verse. Sue’s poems alternated between the exquisite and the very funny. I wondered why she isn’t much better known, but that is probably just my ignorance. She appears to have had many works published after all, and has been in a number of anthologies, including one, “The Poems of Labour”, which contains, she noted, an introduction by Roy Hattersley, that cultural doyen and former Labour deputy leader. 

JC is arguably a return to the days when cultured people were at, or near, the top of the party, as opposed to the Blairite acolytes who engineered the tacky and downright dangerous takeover of our high streets by bookies and pay day lenders. A cultural reassertion would be no bad thing among those who wish to better the lot of labour rather than serve it up patronising estuary English and a professed love of pop and football. 

Sue works in a department store in the Kings Road Chelsea, a job that once, she said, saw her narrowly avoid an encounter with Lady Thatcher. The final line of the poem, “Shop Girl”, references her employer and her status, “Shop girl: never knowingly understood.” Another poem told of her desire to go down on Kirsty Wark whenever she sees her on Newsnight, whatever death, destruction and misery she is talking about. Sue’s final poem on the night, "Before The Pussy Riots", quoted the Quran, the Hindu text the Manusmriti, and Tennyson’s 'Charge of the Light Brigade' in a highly emotional account of honour, marriage and violence.

Patric Cunnane of RTC lightened the mood somewhat with his often hilarious poetic observations. One concerned a Cuban man employed by the state to put granny specs on the life-size John Lennon statue in Havana whenever tourists want to pose next to it. He then takes them off the statue in case they get stolen. 

The night finished, I am told, with a rousing musical performance by Rob Johnson. Following the sound of my stomach sadly meant that I had left before Rob started performing. Next time I’ll bring sandwiches to HFG’s sometimes quite long shows.

  • The next HFG gig is this Sunday (September 20th) at the Gecko Bar, St Leonard's at 4pm. It is in aid of Horizons Community Learning. 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Corbyn threatens to unleash activists on elected Labour MPs

If I was remotely waivering about NOT voting for Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader, the latest pronouncement of the man has clinched it for me. Corbyn is threatening to discipline elected representatives of the people (i.e. MPs) with the pressure of un-elected activists if Labour MPs don't back him as leader. 

If this sounds familiar it is partly what the neo-Blairites thought they could achieve by setting up the registered supporters scheme a couple of years ago. It is absolutely what Benn unleashed in the 1970s and '80s. 

Remember "extra-parliamentary action"? Benn used it, and the force of his acolytes and Troskiyite fellow-travellers in the Party, to try and force his way into the leadership of the party against the wishes of many elected Labour MPs and of the then party leader Jim Callaghan and then Michael Foot (both far greater men than JC could ever dream of being). 

It was Foot who, as leader, told the Party Conference in 1981 that "Labour Party democracy" has to be a marriage of what the members want and what the Parliamentary Labour Party wants. Foot knew his history - Labour history and British democratic history. The semi-Burkean in him didn't believe that MPs were elected by the public to be told what to do by party activists accountable to no one but themselves.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Faith and Good Vibes in St Leonard's

Councillor Trevor Webb, a veritable musical impresario in his spare time, runs the Hastings Friendship Group (HFG). He delights in giving a platform to local musical talent. Especially, he says, if they’re young, old, or female (or maybe two of the three, but you don’t have to be any of these things).

The latest HFG benefit gig was held on Wednesday night at Gecko’s, the St Leonard’s seafront bar and eatery. The cause this time was the Hastings Inter-Faith Forum (HIF). HIF brings together the diverse traditions of the area in dialogue and mutual support, and its head was present to thank people for their backing (otherwise known as throwing money into a bucket).

Trevor’s line-up this week included singer and guitarist Joanna Turner who, after a nervous start, soon found her feet and impressed with her vocal delivery. She showcased some of her own songs as well as a few pop/RnB covers. 

Joanna was followed by Dave Williams. Dave was likewise armed with just an acoustic guitar and, also like Joanne, hasn’t played that many gigs before. Dave told me beforehand that his live performances are normally confined to Church. He bravely opted to tackle some rock classics. These included The Who’s ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’. (As Dave played I kept wondering which Labour leadership candidate would be the most appropriate target for Pete Townsend’s lyrical attack on would-be political bosses masquerading as those who would deliver radical change).

For my money Dave’s best moment was saved ‘til last when he brought out his ukulele and sung Sting’s ‘Fields of Gold’.

Tony Peek performed only his own songs, including ‘Bottle Alley’, a number that formed part of a Hastings musical that once toured the country. The song movingly references a renowned Hastings street to tell of past and present suffering. Tony was at his best when his barbed lyrics focused on such social observations. By contrast, I found some of his overtly political lyrics a bit jarring. Tony has a very distinct, and appealing, singing style. It reminded me a little of a solo Syd Barrett minus the astral subject matter.

Michael Stoggewl’s wife told me that her husband has been drumming for many years, but that his musical partner on the night, Eric Harmer, hadn’t sung in public before. Eric, who is retired, clarified that in fact he had played in public three times already! For me Eric and Michael were the best performers of the evening. Unassuming but effective. Eric’s almost scratchy sounding acoustic guitar gelled with Mike knocking out the rhythm on an amplified empty wooden speaker cabinet. 

Opening up with ‘Riders on the Storm’, if you can pull it off, is always a good move. ‘Whatcha Gonna Do About It?’ (the Small Faces’ song of that name, I think) concluded their set. As he took the stage, Eric observed that a few drinks were needed in preparation. Well, it didn’t show, other than perhaps to encourage a pleasingly relaxed vibe. Paul Crimin then treated us to some early Beatles’ LP tracks, including ‘No Reply’ and ‘This Boy’. And very good he was too.

I had to depart to the wilds of Crowhurst before Vincent Turner, the headline act, took the stage. I understand he went down well, despite being a little nervous. Apologies to Vincent. My loss not yours. 

(This is a shot of Vincent performing in a different local venue)

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Rockitmen rock Crowhurst

The Rockitmen hit Crowhurst last Friday night with a storming set that had half the village dancing. These guys could play anything, at least if it loosely fitted within the pop canon. Urban, RnB (in all senses), rock, soul. You name it, these (not so young) boys could do it. They make no bones about what they do either. It’s emblazoned on the banner behind them. “Professional functions party band” goes the no-nonsense description. They are cabaret and proud. Their website says they’ve backed The Real Thing, Cutting Crew and Andy Bell of Erasure. So no slouches then.
Sam Smith’s ‘Stay With Me’, the multi-million-selling piece of pseudo gospel that normally induces nausea in me, was sung with real feeling by the front man. Perhaps it helps being 40+ (to this particular 50+ person) if you’re trying to do plaintive, earnest and, yes, soulful. 
The band can play too. The keyboardist has feel, the guitarist rocks; they give it their all. At one moment it was as if the marquee was fuelled by something other than the Pimms or Harvey’s on offer at the bar. The rush as they piled through a medley of ‘Disco Inferno’, ‘Papa was a Rollin’ Stone’ and ‘I Feel Love’ was something to behold. ‘Are you ready?’ the singer teased as the band were about to hit a particular high point of the Donner Summer/Giorgio Moroder classic and the floor erupted once again.
Something that got this obsessive’s goat however was when the front man introduced songs by UB40 or Madness as these bands’ material. It helps for punter accessibility I guess. However people should be reminded that the incomparable Labi Siffre wrote and first performed ‘It Must Be Love’, and that ‘Red, Red Wine’ became a reggae number before UB40 covered it and after Neil Diamond wrote it!  
I sadly had to leave before the show ended way after midnight (!), although not before enjoying an inspired merging of ‘Twist and Shout’ and ‘La Bamba’.
If you’re getting married, divorced or planning a bar mitzvah, these are the boys for you. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Labour is doomed if Corbyn really is the answer

After last night's LBC Radio leadership debate I am starting to think that the UK Labour Party is doomed. Perhaps the best hope is the proposed party reform to trigger a new leadership election with a small amount of MPs' support (and possibly some members' backing too)....but only if the party thinks about the need to build a national (UK) coalition to win a general election and about who has the personality and intellect (gravitas even) to do it. This possibly means persuading/begging a few people to leave the back-benches/semi-retirement including Alan Johnson and David Blunkett. It certainly means thinking seriously about people like Hilary Benn. 

Corbyn "won" last night's radio debate because even a bearded prig from the old People's Republic of Islington (who like the other 3 hasn't had a real job in his life despite what they all claimed last night) can "do human". The other 3 forfeited their claims on this test, and confirmed that after the public revulsion at spin and expenses they still don't "get it", when they wouldn't answer whether they'd give Ed Miliband a job in the shadow cabinet that one of them will have to put together in 2 months time. 

I screamed at the radio at this point and almost voted for Jeremy on the spot. God help us (and I mean that).

There is a wider revolt going on and it's affecting the leadership election. The most democratic one ever (and perhaps that needs to be changed in the future too). Many of the new and old party members, quite a few of those who have bought their vote at £3 a pop in the appalling "registered supporters" scheme brought in by right-wing Labour lovers of US primary style elections, and no doubt a large number of the 50,000 plus trade union members (whose unions contribute to the Party) who are registering to vote individually, are in revolt. They are UK Syriza/Podemos/English SNP, and they aren't going to take it any more. And the three "serious" candidates still don't get it......

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Gecko rock in St Leonard's Hastings

Hastings and St Leonard's in East Sussex have a thriving music scene, and that's due in part to events like last night's Hastings Friendship Group gig. Held at Gecko’s, St Leonard’s in aid of Cancer Research, this was the latest in a series of charitable showcases for local acts.

Gecko’s Bar and Bistro is a regular venue for HFG events. It’s a nice place, seafront-facing and spacious. The beer is a bit pricey by St Leonard’s standards, but the food menu looked competitive. Full marks to Gecko’s for providing a platform for local musical and artistic talent (Paintings fill the main wall).

Tom Cole kicked the night off with a few nods to the Canada Day theme that Trevor Webb, the principal HFG organiser, was encouraging. His sensitive vocal and guitar style is well-suited to Neil Young’s ‘Heart of Gold’ and Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘Early Mornin’ Rain’ and ‘Steel Rail Blues’. His own tunes, including ‘Ramblin’ Man’, are pretty good too. However when Tom re-interprets the old gospel and blues standard ‘In My Time of Dyin’ his performance is lifted to another level. If the makers of True Detective were putting that broodingly atmospheric, deep south, swampy TV drama series together now, they could easily include Tom on the soundtrack. His version of ‘In My Time of Dyin’ would sit proudly alongside the contributions of the Handsome Family et al.

Tom was followed by Eddy Odel. As it was privately observed on the night, “Eddy is good and he knows it.” He did exquisite versions of Hank Williams’ ‘Lovesick Blues’ and other vintage country and folk blues numbers. Eddy’s version of ‘Mr Bojangles’ brought tears to my eyes.

Wendy White and Nelson King are The Goo Goos, named presumably after the one-time American candy bar rather than “good government guys”. I’m told that Wendy has sung with Stone the Crows. She doesn’t look old enough to have performed with the legendary 1970s act. Maybe she gets mixed up with the (much older) Stone the Crows’ lead singer Maggie Bell who is still touring. Wendy has a similarly earthy, almost ballsy, white blues voice. That, and her and Nelson’s fast and furious electric mandolin playing, were used to great effect on a cover of the Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want'. 

However we went from the sublime to the ridiculous when, being reminded of the loose Canada Day theme to the night’s proceedings, the duo covered Bryan Adams’ ‘Summer of 69’. Don’t get me wrong, The Goo Goos did it very well. However ‘Summer of ‘69’ is one of the most appallingly bad songs ever written. It carries as much conviction and emotional substance as a Lynx deodorant ad. Mr Adams has always been a highly antiseptic performer anyway, representing everything that rock n’ roll should not be about. Despite that musical low, The Goo Goos were undoubtedly in fine form on the night. Their reinterpretation of the Beatles’ ‘Come Together’ rocked, and Wendy’s vocals on ‘Whole Lotta Love’ were impressive. 

Guitarists Peter Williams and Steve Avery had only played a couple of numbers when I had to leave. I’ve heard Pete and Paul Crimin (who played later) on one other occasion and like their vocal and guitar styles. From what I heard last night, Pete and Steve complimented each other nicely. Mike Guy was also scheduled to appear. Perhaps there was a further nod to other great Canadian songsmiths. After all, four-fifths of The Band were Canadian, and there is always Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and…. Justin Bieber.

I look forward to the other HFG gigs lined up throughout July and August. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Labour leadership contest - a battle of the nice, the bland and the mostly unqualified

Yvette Cooper, who is seeking the Labour leadership, has ministerial experience and been an MP since 1997. Tom Watson, candidate for deputy Labour leader, has been in parliament since 2001 and has ministerial and top flight select committee experience. They're both absurdly overqualified and should withdraw now. Obviously people who've only been an MP for 5 years and only held junior shadow ministerial jobs are the ones to be taken seriously.

In the end though it will be Burnham or Cooper who come out on top, with the seriously unqualified Liz Kendall coming in a strong third. Caroline Flint might get the deputy leader job. Her campaign email emphasises her apparently impeccable proletarian credentials, always popular among the comrades, and then belatedly goes on to talk about the Party's need to connect with people of all backgrounds. Oh yeah Caroline. Any ideas on how to do that? Andy gives us "aspiration"; the buzzword everyone echoed as soon as Labour lost.

The only member of the Labour front bench with gravitas, passion, and the intellectual heft to face up to the dire state of the party after one of its worst performances for 80 years, is Hilary Benn. And he's backing Andy Burnham.

Benn obviously assumes he wouldn't win. A calculation perhaps based on him unsuccessfully challenging dear Harriet's assumption as deputy leader in 2007, and popular dislike of political dynasties. Or maybe, like another very able "might have been", Alan Johnson, he doesn't really hunger for it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Hastings Friendship Group - a platform for local musicians and good causes

Hastings Friendship Group is the brainchild of Trevor Webb, who, together with fellow local Labour councillor, Nigel Sinden, and other supporters, puts on fund-raising music events for charity. In doing so they draw on a welter of local musical talent. This week’s very worthwhile cause was the Bohemia Counselling Centre, which for 21 years has, by word of mouth, brought together therapists and those in need of help. It’s very much in that cooperative spirit that musicians and enthusiasts gathered at the excellent Armenian restaurant and wine bar, CafĂ© Relax on Marine Court, St Leonard's on Sunday evening.

First up was Jack Apps, a grizzled singer of “nobody else’s songs”; a fact that he underlined mid-set and in conversation afterwards. Jack is a comic too, but when he told me he had been waiting 40 years to be an oversight sensation, it was partly said in earnest. His gag routine, to which I was treated to a personal performance, took me into an imagined alternative Royal Command Performance at which there “isn’t a dry seat in the house” and he has the audience “rolling in the aisles” (gedditt?!!?). More poignant was his opening song, ‘Love The Person Inside’. Perhaps you can’t properly love someone if you don’t love yourself, or if your feelings for another are only skin deep.

Next up was someone from the other end of the age spectrum. Tom Cole is a man who plays covers, but does so very tenderly. He also performed what sounded like an original, and impressive, take on the gospel and blues standard, ‘In My Time of Dying’, stripping it back to its roots in a refreshing rejection of the Led Zeppelin bluster with which it became associated in the 1970s. Bravest performer at the gig perhaps was acoustic guitarist and singer John Bushbridge. He began hesitantly but gained in confidence with each song. Covering ‘Nights in White Satin’ is no walk in the park. 

Paul Crimin has a good voice and performed some interesting material. I may never know what the song was that he said he had never performed before as he, sadly, couldn’t pull it off on the night. Bashfully, he said he should have saved that one for the bedroom.

After what had been a stream of acoustic guitar playing singers, a change in pace and style was welcome. Dan Wahnon and Nina Nicola blended contemporary RnB, pop and rock; at one point in the very same song when they fused Rihanna's ‘We Found Love (in a Hopeless Place)’ and White Stripes' ‘7 Nation Army’. Nina had the voice to carry it off and, as she put it, to wake us up (and drown out some of the less considerate punters).

Sassaparilla Sam is apparently a regular on the Hastings circuit. Big in personality but not in stature, the fedora-wearing guitarist belted out a cover of Irish folk tune ‘Star of the County Down’ and made Van Morrison’s ‘Real Real Gone’, ordinarily a fairly forgettable number, come to life. However Sam’s party piece was Leonard Cohen’s ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’, for which he increasingly furiously tapped into its Yiddish overtones in a cranked-up klezmer cum hoedown style. Now the whole audience were engaged.

I chatted with guitarist John Hobden later. He is a mere 80 years of age, first picked up the instrument at the tender age of 73, and first performed in public just 18 months ago. I hope to see him play on another occasion.

The band that helped make the whole evening possible were a three-man Latvian act: singer, keyboardist and electric guitarist, Midnight Cats. The keyboard player doubled up as sound man. The Cats were a little slick for my taste, but their professionalism went down very well on the night.

The fine-voiced Pete Williams, a veteran of these events, performed toward the end of the evening, including a sweet version of 'Streets of London'. Sadly though, I missed Paul Crimin returning to the stage to sing an emotional version of a highly emotional song, 'The Green Fields of France', which recalls the horrors and, for many, pointlessness of World War One. He sung it in honour of Jeremy Birch, the much lamented local Labour leader who was a great supporter of HFG and who, at only 63 years of age, died very suddenly just over three weeks ago. Jeremy had helped Paul, mid-performance at an HFG gig, to remember the words of 'Waltzing Matilda', a song whose original lyrics are famously critical of the WW1 battle of Gallipoli.

  • Hastings Friendship Group has held 26 charitable gigs in the 12 months since it began such events. In the process it has raised nearly £2,000 for 15 national and international charities, including many that focus on children. For showcasing local talent for such good causes, it deserves all the support it can get. Trevor Webb is also involved in organising the annual St Leonards Festival, which takes place 10-12 July.

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Conservatives are the natural party of government

Labour has never been the “natural party of government” in this country. Harold Wilson’s claim was based on only one resounding election success under his leadership. Tony Blair, like him or loathe him, was perhaps a natural prime minister, the only Labour leader who was able to reach out beyond Labour’s comfort zones and into the socio-economic parts of Britain without which you cannot command a sustainable majority. Even in the face of his Iraq horror show, Blair led his party to its third comfortable election success.

Scotland is now pro-nationalist, and even perhaps willing to vote for independence in a year or two’s time. It has long been another country in political terms too. While it was revolting over the poll tax, England considered the mild radicalism of a Welsh Labour leader and, shyly, voted for John Major’s Conservative Party. Yesterday the Tories got a majority after hurting poorer “hard working” families for five years while those not in need of in-work welfare benefits feared that the Labour Party would somehow jeopardise the flimsy certainties of what, statistically at least, is an economic recovery.

The NHS is the exception to the rule, the last surviving nationalised industry and one that, broadly speaking, is popular. Labour may have won the 1945 election because its promise to introduce socialised medicine was the most believable, but after only six years in office it was out for another 13. Labour’s two election victories in 1974 were barely deserving of the name. The Labour government that lost office in 1979 had essentially been a minority one for most of its rule.

Now Labour has to consider whether a more authentically social justice and home rule message in Scotland and Wales will remotely help it in England (where Westminster elections, after all, are decided). To paraphrase Neil Kinnock, if you think that that is right, then go into the semi-detached homes of people struggling to pay their mortgage in the south of England and “tell it there, tell it there.”

The United Kingdom is under threat, and the very self-serving economic reasons why we joined the Common Market are increasingly being seen in England as not being upheld by the EU today. What will Labour do next? A lurch to the left will this time definitely consign it to the dustbin of history. There will be no electoral reform to save it, while Labour has lost Scotland (and its parliamentary support) whether it becomes an independent sovereign country or not. To be elected and then to govern in England will be impossible for Labour without being able to both appeal to aspiration and not somehow abandoning its so-called electoral base. In the 2015 election Labour absurdly pandered to that base without offering anything more than half-hearted apologies for past errors and an unconvincing line on deficit and debt reduction. The outcome was its third worst General Election result since 1935.

The recession was a fork in the road. In this election Labour tried to plough down the middle by refusing to say it had overspent in the last government whilst claiming it would reduce the deficit faster, but somehow more fairly, in the next. Electing a new leader who mouths the same (and, ironically, non-inclusive) platitudes about hard working families will not cut it, in England or Scotland. Something major needs to be tried. Reaching out to everybody, right across the Union, is an even taller order right now. Perhaps more honesty would help. If Scotland hasn’t already left the building by the time of the next Westminster election, tell voters that you will work with the SNP precisely to save the Union, that we should stay in the EU for the sake of jobs and, yes, for the sake of political stability across Europe, and that ever-expanding health and welfare budgets are not the answer. Otherwise, just carry on regardless.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Stag in Hastings hosts a Jack in The Green jam

This was the scene in The Stag Inn, a beguiling ale house in Old Town, Hastings on the first night of the Jack in the Green Festival. We arrived early and supped pints before the musicians arrived. A serial monologist was regaling the barman with tales of his indispensable part in folk and rock history.

We were seated at the musicians' table, so made our excuses when a female mandolin player dressed as an orange dragonfly arrived. On the next table a bodhran player and singer from Eastbourne was modest about his own abilities, but full of tales of the skill and wonder of other musicians. He also told us of the legendary Jewish storyteller Shonaleigh who still treads the boards, the last of a long line of Drut’sylas. I felt like part imposter, part musical groupie; though in conversation I could nod in the right place and had conducted my first pilgrimage to Sidmouth Folk Festival when I was 17.


Within half an hour the pub was rammed. Mandolin, banjo and penny whistles were soon outnumbered by female fiddlers and male melodeon players. The fiddlers in particular kept up a furious pace, periodically accompanied by unaccompanied singers whose songs drifted in like waves from a distant shore, but actually just the other corner of the packed pub.

"Thatcher's Heritage" flowed. As the aptly named cider slipped down all too easily, I got a flashback to Sidmouth in the early 1980s. It being an election, memories of the politics of that time passed through my increasingly addled brain as one singer told tales of workers by hand or by brain getting the shaft from the man. I thought I saw Michael Foot enter the pub disguised as a banjo player, quickly followed by the ghost of Pete Seeger. I wondered who would hold the audience for longer.

We were seated next to the musicians. Storytellers gathered there too, although the boozy musical revelry wasn't quite suitable for a performance by them tonight. The bodhran man gave us all a story in song though, unsteady at first but he soon rose to the occasion.

Regardless of the Festival, The Stag Inn often has music on. No frills, no hierarchy, just people playing their heart out. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Les Johnson and Me Live at Leytonstone What's Cookin'

‘Les Johnson and Me’ are a six piece, part rockabilly, part country, Scottish cum American roots music band. They played last Wednesday night at What’s Cookin’, one of the most exciting music happenings in the UK. It can be found most Saturday and Wednesday nights at the Leytonstone Ex-Servicemen’s Club in north-east London, and Sundays at the Union Chapel, N1.

“Les” is a 54 year old sharp-dressed crooner, pencil thin with dark baritone voice. Highly personable, he told me after the gig that he has been doing this for 7 years; he started when he was 47. His day job, he says, is running a Glaswegian charity. He and his band are a treasure. Check out the wonderfully named “Hitting the Small Time Big” via the band’s website. Listening to it again I get the Jim Reeves comparison that his website invites you to make. Especially if you imagine a previously unreleased Jim Reeves' track on a soundtrack to a Quentin Tarentino film not yet made. “Break My Heart”, also available to listen to, made me cry on hearing it again.

On the night “Les” (he did tell me his real name, but I had one too many Guinesses that evening) performed all his own songs with one exception, a totally unexpected cover of “Senor”. This was possibly the least successful performance of his set, but it still thrilled. It’s taken from what Les rightly described as a much underrated Dylan album, “Street Legal”.

Les’ band are, as I understand it, essentially the Shiverin’ Sheiks (also on Holy Smokes Records), who are more or less the same things as The Strange Blue Dreams…I think. Of particular note was the southern-fried lead guitar player, and the double bassist. Les and the young female backing singer dropped out after the interval; the rhythm guitarist took over vocal duties, a mandolin player was added, and The Strange Blue Dreams were born.

The Dreams had a more mannered take on their shared musical roots, slicker in a sense, but somehow less effecting. The singer is a talented guy, but he could not quite command the same amount of attention. Perhaps it’s an age thing, i.e. mine and many members of the audience. You’d probably be more likely to dance to the Dreams and more likely to weep into your beer to Les. As I get older it’s the weepers that get me.

John Martyn’s “Spencer the Rover” (Live at the Brewery Arts Club version); Shirley Bassey’s cover of “And I Love Her So” (from Live at Carnegie Hall) and Judy Garland’s version of “Smile” (as performed on the Ed Sullivan show) are right up there. Not that there’s anything wrong with dancing. When the Dreams were on stage, Les and his backing singer pulled some fancy moves, as did a lady from the audience who, sadly, was the only actual punter to tread the boards on this occasion.

Stephen and Ali Ferguson continue to present roots musical gems. I sure as hell wish I’d bought Les’ latest CD, “15 Hands”, on the night, but even better would be for Stephen to get someone to record some of these performances for a What’s Cookin’ “Live in Leytonstone” CD. He could have a classic in the making.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Neil Halstead, Pete Bruntnell and Danny George Wilson - Live at Hastings Electric Palace

Three sympathetic English souls have teamed up for a series of ‘In The Round’ singer-songwriter performances in the UK. Last night they arrived at a gem of a venue on the English Riviera: the Electric Palace Cinema in Hastings Old Town, Sussex. Danny Wilson initially got the most attention - by force of personality and sheer volume. For my money the subtler song-writing and performing charms of Neil Halstead and Pete Bruntnell had more to offer, however.

Danny, he of Danny and the Champions of the World and Grand Drive, is less suited to the unplugged acoustic vibe. After all his ‘Champs’ band is a full-throttle affair. Ironically perhaps, such was his vocal force that Danny could have been totally unplugged; it would have been more comfortable for all of us if he had. However Neil and Pete (pictured left and centre respectively; see below) kept an amusing comic routine going as they shared one mic stand between them.

Neil has performed with Mojave 3 and Slowdive, names familiar, like the Champs, from BBC6 Music. Solo, his sensitive but engaging vocal style, and measured, subtly powerful, songs, were perfectly able to hold this, admittedly small, audience. Initially he came across as the Nick Drake of the three; Pete, harmonica in tow, being the Neil Young (especially circa ‘Hawks and Doves’); with Danny as Bruce Springsteen. By the end of the evening all three had imposed their very distinct personalities and such comparisons had become (largely) superfluous.

All three also deployed amusing on-stage, between song, banter, both with the audience and each other. The drollest was Pete, who came across as a more accessible Peter Cook. Sardonically introducing a song (‘Meet the Swells’) ‘inspired’ by building development issues from when he lived in Surbiton, he humorously toyed with the audience’s liberal sensibilities before launching into a typically passionate, intense, and empathetic performance.  Introducing ‘Tin Streaming Song’, Pete began to muse on the death of mining in Devon, before self-effacingly cutting that short and launching into his strongest performance of the night, which ended with a chorus that, for him, was untypically loud and demanding, but no less appropriate for being so.

Highlights of Neil’s contributions were ‘Tied to You’ , ‘Mighty Engine’ and ‘False Start’. There was no problem in tackling the latter. Yet, tired - he had driven his fellow musicians from the previous night’s gig - Neil struggled to remember the words for a couple of other songs in succession. ‘Elevensies’, he claimed, was used by US public service broadcasting as an anti-drugs song  - ironically, according to his website and to his comments last night, as he is rather fond of chemicals. Another song with which he struggled was a tale of love forlorn, but he was determined to nail it and, eventually, after two false starts, he did. The audience though, amused by his and Pete’s shoe-gazing musical sensibilities and seemingly stoned (or just knackered) disposition, didn’t care, in part because of the love they felt for these performers, whether already converted, or, in my case, getting there. These guys are no slouches either, to which their packed performance schedules, together and apart, testify.

I wish I could enthuse as equally about Danny George Wilson. He admitted to an overuse of ‘whoas’ in his lyrical range. He is not alone in this, it is this era’s favourite vocal tic. Danny uses it with more feeling than typical of much mind-numblingly moronic pop on which it appears, but generally he sounded like a man trying too hard. Sometimes his over the top sensibility worked – breaking, mid-way through one of his own numbers, into ‘Stand by Me’ was bold, inspired, and he got away with it. Other times songs that told tales of hitching to a gig with his Dad or of a love affair with Henry, a van that had once transported his band’s kit, were just cloying.

These are three great guys who, despite their musical differences, gel. They each added nice guitar and sometimes vocal touches to accompany the other. It was a shame though that they only truly shared singing and guitar duties on one song, the finale, and the one cover of the night, John Prine’s ‘At the Speed of the Sound of Loneliness’. This though was a sublime way to end the show.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Mike Hatchard's Crowhurst Breakfast Jazz - overeasy and sunny-side up

Mike Hatchard, jazz musician and singer, played a nearly two hour set this afternoon in the tiny East Sussex village of Crowhurst. Mike is a jazz and popular music veteran. As a young man he was Matt Munro’s musical director, he played with Barbara Thompson's Paraphernalia, and in recent years he has been playing up and down the English south coast with Herbie Flowers, former bassist with Sky and session man on many a classic 1970s rock album.

Those who came to Mike’s Jazz Breakfast at 1030 am on a Sunday morning in Crowhurst Village Hall were served bacon butties and coffee before he took to the electric keyboard, opened up with Sinatra's 'Come Fly With Me', and then provided the audience with a musical guide to some of the leading pioneers of 1920s jazz piano.

Mike plays with feeling and can sing often highly challenging and diverse material. A ragtime number associated with James P. Johnson and a boogie woogie tune popularised by Charles ‘Pinetop’ Smith were played with dexterity and gusto. Performing ‘Spain (I Can Recall)’) a Corea/ Rodrigo/Maren/Jarreau tune that Al Jarreau normally sings is not easy, but Mike carried it off. George and Ira Gershwin’s ‘Someone to Watch over Me’ was sung and played with great tenderness. 

More striking still was his take on  ‘The Dutchman’. The subject matter of this Liam Clancy folk number is a lifelong love ravaged, but not ended, by senility. Mike clearly loves this song deeply. It should have brought the house down. The audience were, I think, still taking it in long after he had moved on to the next number. 

Mike has great rapport with the audience, regaling them with tales from the road, which in his younger years was often traversed by bicycle. Such was the sympathy that Mike created, he even got away with an embarrassing ‘comedy’ number from a very different era: ‘Have Some Madeira, M’Dear’, a tale of an old man seducing an underage girl with the aid of fortified wine. 

At one point Mike brought on Crowhurst’s newest resident to play the trumpet. Paul Eshelby is a professor at the Royal College of Music. More importantly he is a sensitive as well as a virtuoso musician. I am sitting in a village hall with 50 people on a Sunday morning watching Paul play ‘My Funny Valentine’ to Mike’s skillful piano accompaniment and thinking that in many other Sussex villages this space would be reserved for amateur dramatics and the bingo. In fact the children’s club was scheduled to follow.

Toward the end of his set Mike picked up the fiddle and performed a couple of numbers in a swing style accompanied by Paul and Steve Savage, an accordionist.  The three musicians’ feigned exit through the audience brought very loud applause and many, well-deserved, shouts for more, to which Mike responded by switching to an acoustic guitar to perform a French gypsy jazz number with Steve.

A great show. Look out for Mike performing with Herbie Flowers at the St Mary's in the Castle in Hastings, and elsewhere on the Sussex coast.