Monday, October 2, 2017

Dubai déjà vu all over again

I took the Dubai Metro for the first time, past hundreds of towers, many familiar, some not, standing proud like brazen priapic shrines to pure power. When I last visited here three years ago, the Metro was still under construction. It is better than I thought it would be, and would be a thrilling ride, I thought, at night when the megalopolis is all lit up and passengers can cheaply gawp at the utter presumption of it all.

I was messaging my oldest friend about the changes and trying to convey the wonder of it all, although she’s been back more recently than me. We lived here for a couple of years about a decade ago (when I began this blog), and so the Metro seemed to me like progress indeed. Yet inside I still felt a certain dread. I couldn’t really believe that just getting to the nearest metro stop to the hotel would make life that much easier, not when it’s 100 degrees in the shade and I have a long track record of getting directions or locations wrong. I was also busy reliving some of the worst moments from when I lived here, and not just transportational ones.

I was a long term resident of Deira’s Hotel California, from where I frequently checked out and, after many false starts over three to four months, did finally leave. The visceral feeling I was getting now was about powerlessness, and this goes very deep and has been the product of some therapy in recent years. This time round though the transport hassle at least would be different, no? 

I mean, just outside the new metro stop is a taxi rank. After waiting in the blazing sun with many other people and with few taxis passing by, I think let’s at least get the bus part of the way. Warned by other passengers of the full force of the authorities’ power to give on the spot hefty fines for those lacking a pre-paid ticket, I get off the bus at the next stop, despite being weighed down with luggage. This must surely have helped get me closer to a hotel located, Google tells me, somewhere in al-Mankool near Bur Dubai. The latter was the area that my friend and I eventually ended up living in when the work visa finally came through via a circuitous route that involved frequent buses to Abu Dhabi’s National Media Council. Laysh? Don’t ask.

I got off and walked on in the direction of Satwa, breezing, well by this stage stumbling, past Mankool before eventually realising I had gone too far and that was why Google Maps was telling me the distance was in fact getting greater. A taxi driver pulls up after I reverse direction. I am literally dripping. He is a pleasant guy, Iranian...but no can do, he’s finished his shift and he’s heading home, well not quite, but back to his accommodation, in the other direction, the one that I was previously heading in. He gives me exact, and believable, directions for the hotel. No distance at all in most international cities, but out here, even in early October, it ain’t easy. 

Arriving at the desk I am embarrassingly making the counter very wet, periodically mopping up after myself in between sips of the smallest complimentary glass of fruit juice I have ever been given. Turns out I am at the wrong hotel. Right name but not quite the right location. I am actually meant to be staying in the one in Bur Dubai. Oh yes. I remember now. I mean I didn’t book it, but the conversation about the area that we knew well comes back to me. I then remembered leaving the metro stop, al-Faheedi, and seeing the sign for Bank Street (Khaled bin Waleed St that is) outside the once (and still probably) notorious York Hotel, whose bar was the location of the most brazen female whores I have ever seen, anywhere in the world. I remember thinking ...hmmm, Bank St…..then the faint memory connection was gone...the wires fizzled out.... Google Maps was telling me "no"…and I didn’t seemingly have the ability to focus on the instincts. I am told that it’s a mark of victims of abuse that they’re often in a constant and very heightened sense of alert. Sadly this doesn’t seem to apply when they’re broiling and getting instinctive messaging about their location.

So the receptionist in the wrong hotel gets a guy out front to hail a taxi and we head off back to the metro stop and take a right opposite the York Hotel, and a short way down, walkable, even in this heat, if I’d checked with the hotel before arriving. As the taxi cruises past, in order to do a U-ee (how do you spell that?) I wanted to cry, not for the first time today. Ten years ago I used to just get angry, usually with taxi drivers who couldn’t fight back. Now I just turn on myself. Perhaps quite rightly. I mean I did fuck up, didn't I.

Before Mohammed and I have completed our tour of the numerous facilities of my compact but actually very pleasant room, I fess up to him (having furtively checked my wallet before we got in the lift) that I have no (small) notes. He really doesn’t care. I’ll remember to find you, I said, after shaking his hand for the second time before he'd finished his routine. And I will, and maybe he really isn’t that bothered. Not everyone does everything just for the money. He takes pride in his job, as does the “boy”, for that is what they call them in these parts, who later came and brought a sheet, changing it for the thick duvet that all 4 and 5* hotels all over the fuggin’ world give u, even when the AC isn’t necessarily turned up to polar. He too takes pride in his work. When I complete mine, I tear it apart. Another classic symptom, they say.


Monday, August 14, 2017

Folkstack Lightnin' fire up The Rodmill

Folkstack Lightnin’ are a newly-formed electric folk and blues trio, specialising, as their name suggests, in English folk and American blues music. That in 2017 you can walk in to The Rodmill (Flaming Grill) pub in Eastbourne on a late Saturday afternoon, stumble down the opposite end from the football, and find singer Vanessa Grove, guitarist Kelvin Message and guitarist/singer Neil Grove performing songs as varied as ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’, ‘Dream A Little Dream’ and ‘The Lowlands of Holland’ is nothing short of incredible. These three are dedicated to their craft, preserving the best of what the British music scene has long discarded, affirming these songs’ value for the initiated, and, they hope, converting a few along the way. 
Kelvin gets it on
While the electric guitar-led RnB standards they perform were once the standard fair of aspiring white boy blues-rock bands in Britain, these days they’re rarely heard in pubs that put on live music. Their interpretation of ‘Dust My Broom’ fell somewhere between the Robert Johnson original and the more renowned Elmore James' cover. On many of the blues numbers a great interplay often ensued between the old pro Kelvin on rhythm and the solo pyrotechnics of young guitar gunslinger Neil.

Neil’s vocal delivery is maturing too, even if the salaciousness of some of the old bluesmen’s lyrical preoccupations can jar a little. An up-tempo song like Muddy Waters’ ‘Satisfied’ totally cut through though, especially when it allowed the dueling boys to get almost funky on the instrumental parts.

Neil 'Blues Boy' Grove

Vanessa: folk diva

Folkstack Lightnin’ also dusted off a few, more contemporary, folk-rock numbers: Jethro Tull’s ‘Mother Goose’, Horslips’ ‘Trouble with a Capital T’, and Fairport Convention’s sublime ‘Crazy Man Michael’. An unexpected, and impressive, jazz-inflected vocal detour occurred when they performed the 1920s song later covered by The Mamas and Papas, ‘Dream a Little Dream’. An inspired idea was to fuse Blind Willie McTell’s folk-blues take on ‘St James Infirmary’ with the jazz song, ‘Summertime’, performing the latter in a blues vein and with vocal duties passing from Neil to his Mum, Vanessa.  

The traditional folk songs the trio performed are hardly ever heard outside of the few folk clubs left in the UK, and even there it is unlikely that you would find them sung with such passion. On these numbers Vanessa essentially takes over the show, with the boys providing a relatively gentle accompaniment to her stellar vocals. Among the performances that especially stood out were ‘All Things are Quite Silent’, ‘Sheep Dog, Black Crook’; ‘Ramblin’ Sailor’, ‘The Shearin’s Not For You’, and, the performance that nearly took my breath away, ‘The Lowlands of Holland’. This song has an illustrious pedigree, interpreted by Sandy Denny and Steeleye Span among others. Vanessa sung it with force and no less feeling. Its popular folk theme of being forever wedded to a lover killed in their prime was somehow injected with fresh vigour, before Vanessa militantly ripped into playing the spoons as the boys played the song out. The penultimate number, this could have ended the show. It certainly got the strongest response of the set, with some clapping even discernible from among those who’d only come in for the footie.

They finished their performance with ‘(What shall we do with a) Drunken Sailor’ in an effort to reach those parts of the pub that other, less familiar, songs cannot reach. Now, if they were closing their set at midnight with such a rousing number, just imagine the audience response then.

For my profile of musician and guitar tech Kelvin Message, click on this link 

Monday, June 26, 2017

Lessons from Death Row

“The most precious thing you have is what you cannot hold in your hand” is a paraphrase of something Steve Champion (Adisa Kamara) wrote about the power of mind over circumstance. Philosopher, poet and resident of Death Row, San Quentin, Steve is one of the contributors to an exhibition of art and words at Sun Pier House in Chatham, Kent. In fact all the contributors are awaiting execution at the infamous Californian state prison.

I went along because my partner is curating an art and text online project on the subject of death and related matters. These guys though are trying to transcend the apparent horror of solitary confinement under a regime where every day could be your last – and many of them have been living this life for 20 plus years. Through art, poetry and philosophical observation they are finding calm, meaning, even redemption, to use one of Steve’s words about a fellow ex-Cripps gang member whose life was terminated ten years ago.

Some have found that an overt spiritual relationship with Christ has helped them come to terms with their daily struggle. Others, like Steve, have a looser, philosophical connection with Christianity, seeing themselves as on a journey of personal transformation that the emotional denial of their life on the outside made impossible but that solitary confinement makes necessary. This doesn’t mean that he thinks we need to junk all our past experiences. The things that cause us shame are part of who we are and we would not be the person we are without them. This resonated with me. It wasn’t saying that we shouldn’t feel that to have murdered someone is wrong – self-evidently part of his redemption was very much about accepting that. It does mean that if we have been wronged, been a victim, as many who go on to wrong others are, then this will have shaped us. For the most part the impact may be negative, perhaps, but we may also have found what he calls an inner light to illuminate our darkness (see below). I was moved by this, even if the light sometimes shines less than brightly. A wisdom engendered as a survival mechanism perhaps, but not less wise for that. 

Some haven’t lost their sense of humour either. Gallows humour abounds in the available San Quentin cookbook, subtitled “Your Last Meal?”, the result of how inmates dreamt up ideas to “re-cook” or “re-present” the appalling food they are served up.

Some of the art seems to reflect the past lives of some of the inmates, voluptuous female figures are a repeated image. In part this is inevitable among isolated men, but there seemed to be more going on than that. 
Luis Maciel's artwork

Some of the art is highly skilled, like Keith Loker’s incredibly precise use of the stippling technique (millions of pencil dots) to evoke an American dream car. Another of his drawings, ‘A Mother’s Thoughts’, had the accomplishment of a professional illustrator. Perhaps he is the boy, depicted in the mind of this elderly looking woman, running on a beach. Another part of the depiction is a grave, her own maybe, or most likely his. Another Death Row inhabitant, Jerry Frye, wrote of his pride that his paintings were seen by his parents before they died. He presumably wasn’t.

A painting by Anthony Oliver
I recommend seeing this show. If you can’t, then check out the website set up by the charity ArtReach, which was founded by the artist Nicola White to promote the work of the inmates. It’s a beautiful space, Sun Pier House. The work and wisdom of these men is glimpsed either side of large windows affording views of swans swimming amidst the old dockyards. 

Sun Pier House cafe
Perhaps it’s fitting that the artists in residence on Death Row, San Quentin haven’t yet made it to the community centre’s official gallery, currently showing impressionistic slices of nature by Medway artists. The inmates’ work is positioned on walls next to dining tables and behind seating in the café. This is in keeping with self-taught artists whose work is from the heart, but it also sometimes made it difficult to fully appreciate the work amidst the mundane chatter of locals enjoying tuna sandwiches. This was also a very English problem of public displays of emotion (engendered by some of what you see and read), and wondering how others might judge you for it. 

In San Quentin, wrote Steve Champion, you daren't question somebody's "phantom face" (see his typed text below) because prisoner code tells you not to compromise another inmate's emotional space. We, however, are free to do so, but perhaps we don't dare either.

Steve Champion

Monday, April 24, 2017

Searching for Kelvin Message

My "Searching for the Old Folk Rebels" project has its own blog page, kicking off with a profile of Kelvin Message, musician, guitar engineer and tutor.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Jesus & Mary Chain psych out Bexhill

The Jesus & Mary Chain played Bexhill more than three decades after they launched their career  by provoking a riot in a London squat. Last night the De La Warr Pavilion was taking no chances. The sedate Sussex town’s premier entertainment venue was awash with bulky bloke security operatives. Gauleiters confiscated plastic bottles from unsuspecting punters, unless, like me, they were armed with a fictitious “medical condition”.  Otherwise they were instructed to present a lottery ticket after the show in order to win back their offending pre-bought soft drinks or home-bottled tap water. You have to pay for water inside, one of the many walkie-talkied heavies informed me, as if the explanation made this particular practice of coercive capitalism any more acceptable, or legal given that bars and clubs are obliged to give customers tap water for free.  

Before the sonic escapades of the JMC, a privileged-sounding, floppy haired young rock god by the name of Willow Robinson bored everyone shitless with his stupefyingly soulless appropriation of Free and country rock clichés. For once I understood why most gig-goers stay in the bar for the support act. Willow was accompanied by a Silent Bob-lookalike on bass, replete with sun-glasses and idiot hat, while an extra from the gym thumped the drums. I like the JMC, but if they signed-off on this public school, poodle-haired, ponce and his cod-rock posturing, not to mention a goon squad more suited to a UKIP rally, then they, and the DLWP, deserve a slap.

Jim and William Reid did their thing, backed by three other musicians and occasionally a female singer. Jim was typically, I guess, hard to see amidst a lighting arrangement suited to mystique and mind-bending. 

Their performance was at times as rocky as they actually became in the 1990s, but at others it almost reached the psych-goth transcendence of their early work. By definition this included excellent takes on ‘Some Candy Talking’ and ‘Just Like Honey’. In their second set – JMC don’t do encores – they totally kicked out the jams and took both new and old material to another level. They closed with what Jim said was a new song. Initially fairly normal by JMC standards, half-way through though they suddenly dropped down a few gears and the song morphed into a warped, feedback-heavy, slow-mo wig-out that decreased my heart rate by half. Amidst often intense red light and, I think, unintended, shadow projections (see pictures), the JMC had taken this punter on a trip, aided only by a plastic cup of Guinness.