Denis Jones

As I stood in the shadows on the balcony of the newly renovated Band on the Wall I felt as if I was witnessing something special.

Denis Jones likes the sound of his own voice; as each lyric is looped in a tense but rhythmic circle with each loop gaining strength, picking up bass, brass, and acoustics. The execution of his live work is impressive, and his music verges on the manic on more than one occasion. However, it is quite a sight to watch him perform, the remnants of support act Nancy Elizabeth’s performance still visible when she took to stage with four members of her band, which created a united front of ethereal backing singers, a trumpeter and percussionist. Elizabeth is a beautiful performer to watch, matching a sweet but complex voice with witty northern banter between songs, which lulled the audience into a peaceful state ahead of Jones’ performance.  ‘Feat of Courage’ begins with howls of maracas and trumpet, which lends Elizabeth’s music a cinematic quality not too dissimilar to the Tindersticks; but with less of a powerful punch than a gentle meander to the end. Elizabeth’s music has a melancholic feel to it and as she ends with a harp-infused song that is delicate and subtle; reminiscent of Beth Orton if she had lived in Yorkshire.

If one performer soothed the crowd, the other enveloped the room in layer upon layer of technical tension. As Jones performs his one man show he initially seems strangely isolated amongst the redundant instruments surrounding him. The focus is firstly on him, and then on the room shattering noises he creates. The repetitive loops are both interesting and unsettling as it can sometimes sound like his voice is in conflict and arguing with himself, which only adds to a feeling of uneasiness.  However, tension soon turns to admiration as everyone’s eyes seem focused on Jones’ electronic performance. ‘Clap Hands’ is executed here in a slower but no less orchestrated approach and showcases Jones’ great voice which is his most powerful instrument, essential in holding all of the contrasting sounds together.

It is quite a feat for a performer to almost expand or contract a note, a sound or lyric at will to emphasise a point; and Jones’ voice lingers in the air long after the song has finished. In more stripped down songs such as ‘Beginning’ Jones’ commanding but intricate voice really comes across and behind the electronic trickery and dexterity of his technical application he has a gentle and evocative sound that is both comforting and unique. It also confirms that Jones is a great standalone singer/songwriter. ‘Beginning’ was a good choice to end the performance on, bringing the audience full circle from ethereal singing to being engaged in a plethora of sounds and back again to somewhere quiet and gentle. It was interesting to view these two sides of Denis Jones: the folk singer and the musical artist, sometimes fighting for centre of attention on stage but it certainly made for a memorable experience.

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Looking kind of like Romanian gypsy singers in this image but it belies the coolest under 20’s I’ve come across. A quick preview on Kitty Daisy and Lewis ahead of their forthcoming gig on Wednesday.

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Transcending everything you have ever been told about pop music and the shades of indie/electro/folk inspired music of our time; Kitty Daisy and Lewis are about as far away from anything you are likely to hear on commercial radio.
The group, who produce a sound so thrilling and different that it screams old school, old movies and old glamour, are as enticing as they are surprising because when their eponymous debut album was released in 2008 you could be forgiven for assuming they were ardent 50’s rockabilly s rather than three siblings from London all under the age of 20.

Kitty’s smoky lead vocals can and does carry off most musical genres, and while their first album had boundless potential it also had a headache- inducing amount of variety. Their forthcoming appearance at Night and Day will be a chance to see if the band have refined their musical influences and if they are still pulling off Beatboxing/Blues/Country/Hawaiian Rock and Roll and Swing  with staggering aplomb. This is a band that can change instruments as quickly as they take a breath; and is an opportunity to catch a gig that is promising to be a jaw dropping, head turning, feet stomping night to remember.

This will be the first of many music reviews as I try to combine work, blog, work.

Stylishly ambivalent and wildly dramatic in equal doses, Theo Hutchcraft and Adam Anderson are worlds apart from northern indie bands near-compulsive modeling on the Factory’s output; or the glow stick dance revivals that have dominated the charts in recent years. Their emergence has signaled a steady change in the direction of the UK indie scene, and it is a testament to their dulcet tones and all-encompassing energy (or that of their record label) that they were regarded as one of the BBC’s Sound of 2010 bands before they played a single gig.

With recent northern bands such as Delphic and Everything Everything referencing their fair share of 80’s synths and coordinated harmonies, Hurts could be categorised in the same genre of emerging bands reinventing the synth-vocal harmonies perpetuated by early 1980’s groups such as Ultravox and Blancmange; but they have reinvented a tried and tested sound to emerge simultaneously familiar and refreshingly new. On first glance, the duo certainly lives up to that clichéd indie band image of indulgent self-consciousness in skinny jeans covering even skinnier bodies. Even the name Hurts screams self-styled seriousness but as they come to stage at St Phillip’s church they seamlessly weave that arty pretension and darkness into their performance and it is a fitting place to announce their arrival.

The opening song ‘Better than Love’ sets the tone for the rest of the evening, and as their lyrics grip the audience as Hutchcraft attests ‘and every minute more brings you closer to God’, they’re barely one song in and it feels like they are already on the cusp of notoriety. The song is reminiscent of early Depeche Mode; Ashcroft’s David Gahanesque voice is the perfect accompaniment against a razor-sharp electro backdrop. It is a slick production of a song and reflects the way the band has emerged– prepared, self-assured, marketable, and memorable.

When Hutchcraft sings ‘Wonderful Life’ the attitude and styling makes sense and throughout Never give up, it’s such a wonderful life’ the seriousness of their image and the venue is polarized perfectly with the early Pet-Shop boys energy of the song. Although this has been their first performance they have a refined quality to their music with a handful of decent songs as well as two future played-to-death radio hits.

Hurts referred to their gothic surroundings but they also rebelled against it. While the audience retained a somewhat respectable and focused attention on the band throughout the gig, I especially liked how Hurts used hymn- sheets alluding to their religious surroundings, standing resplendent in monochrome costumes, asymmetrical haircuts and distant stares. You are aware that you are a spectator watching a real performance, composed of not just musicians but a formidable electro pop sensation and by the end of the gig I am a Hurts convert. The church used to be a place of worship but tonight music, and this exciting duo has irrevocably taken that position.

I took myself to the Double Magazine launch party at Islington Mill on Saturday and hate to say but it didn’t live up to the hype – there weren’t many people there and it lacked atmosphere and energy, which is in stark contrast to many amazing nights I have spent there. I love Islington Mill and the space is often occupied with talented artists and musicians and unusual events, and although Ten Bears played an enjoyable electro set – reminiscent of The Rapture; the subsequent band – The Coolness – were a bit of a car crash. If you were their friend you might tell them to have a word with themselves, their name isn’t really doing them any favours. But, although I don’t think they are the most talented band out there, they may be to someone else’s taste.  And in spite of the music, I actually couldn’t stop watching them; especially the front man – a vision of tight leopard leggings, wiry hair and gurning jaw, as he jumped into the crowd, nearly knocking a girl to the floor. He was resplendent and really irritating in equal measures. And he was pretty entertaining. Unfortunately, much more entertaining than the music.

Having parted with the last of my savings on a flight to San Francisco I am faced with the realisation that I don’t have any money to spend while I’m there.  Not being the kind of person who can budget on holiday, I prefer (or can’t help) to throw caution, sense and overdraft to the wind of cocktails and indulgence, while putting to the back of my mind the horrible depression and sizable debt that will be waiting for me at home. This abusive cycle of save – spend – save – spend has come to an end. This time I have a plan! Although it does involve a little garmentry binge and purge.

As a beacon of efficiency, I am supplementing my sensible saving by freeing myself of my worldly goods and offloading anything of value on ebay. My history with ebay is not quite that of an old friend, its my barometer of desperation. I have cycles of systematic ebay bingeing; winning items that look ok online but along with their arrival comes the cold realisation that I most likely paid over the odds and can’t remember why I was so frantically bidding on said shoes/wallet/boots that are always inevitably underwhelming in reality.

However, I keep coming back to ebay for two reasons: I like playing the game, the adrenaline kicking in when I feel close to a grift. I never stick to my pre-agreed limit and I am never sure of how it’s going to end. Afterwards I do realise any small sense of achievement is outweighed by a gnawing feeling of  stupidity for allowing myself to become stressed in a bid for something I didn’t even realise I wanted or needed 24 hours earlier.  I often emerge on the other side cold and clammy, that little glimmer in my eye – that Mulberry purse or Prada boots just out of reach; and the dream of owning some stranger’s unwanted goods fades.

Is the me I imagine – relaxed, affable, more interesting and 3 dimensional than the clothes on my back, with a magpie eye for unusual things  more realistically –  just a compulsive shopper?  All that controlled excitement, that sparkle, is actually the dripping of mascara in my eye when I break out into a cold sweat because I let my emotions get the better of me in a fit of obsessive online shopping?

Who cares? I don’t. The second reason why I like ebay: I can just re-sell things, that’s what ebay is there for, isn’t it? With its bright logo and enticing photographs, luring me in with the false promises of big wins at low prices. And shopping online isn’t even like spending real money! Except I do spend the money, receive my win, realise it’s rubbish, pay my ebay fees and decide to relive the whole nightmare again by re-listing the win, hoping to sell it to a similar idiot to myself – at a loss. This probably makes me sound as though I don’t have a job, a life, or any friends.

For every shopping binge I have an innate ability to forget the bad times and move on, telling myself it won’t happen again. Then comes the purge, the wardrobe cleanse.  The bad memories fade to a little dark place in the back of my mind, with the rest of the ebay defeats, as well as a little dark space at the back of my wardrobe.

I apply the thought tidy house equals tidy mind to my dwindling finances. Culled wardrobe equals a fat(ter) wallet. It is a selfless sacrifice to share my past-season offerings with the world and help my holiday cause. And this time I’m avoiding the trap of browsing ebay for ‘research’ purposes and buying even more junk before I’ve had the chance to offload mine. This might be a sign of the beginning of a gambling addiction but I’ll worry about that after my holiday.

Out with the old…

In with the new…And swap the playsuit…For the scenery…

The inexorable rise of social media has quietly permeated into our everyday lives over the past two years. It serves as a space to re-unite with friends, promote events, and an immediate news source. It is through the vector of social media that the world initially learned the fate that met Lee Alexander McQueen. Within minutes of the statement being announced, a Google search overflowed with news coverage from around the world, sources increasing by the second.

McQueen’s work has long provided a visual commentary on excessive elegance, a glimpse at the darkness simmering underneath the steady composure of everyday life. McQueen’s designs speak to our vanity as much as our core; the marriage of theatre and function acting as the thread that binds its recipient in a powerful and protective layer.

From humble East End beginnings to Saville row, the front row and beyond; McQueen transcended his mentors, rivals and admirers, and now – the pressures and rewards his talent has afforded him. McQueen was as adept at grabbing headlines as he was a finely tuned craftsman, his early shows so excessive and engaging that you could not ignore them – or him.

From the shock-inducing early shows that confirmed his inauguration into the fashion elite, a raw but formidable style and persona emerged.  McQueen’s collections have garnered many awards, winning Designer of the Year on four occasions and awarded a CBE in 2003. Such accolades also mark his ascent from his Saville Row apprenticeship, working for Gieves and Hawkes; to his position as Head Designer at Givenchy in October 1996. It is here a friendship with Tom Ford arguably provided the necessary intervention that saw Ford as nurturer and patron. McQueen’s subsequent tenure at Gucci allowed him the time and space to concentrate on his eponymous label. The man whose work is often referred to as body armour seemed protected himself for a time by Ford’s unwavering support.

While McQueen displayed infrequently in the UK, he is strongly identified with British fashion. The highlights of his career are undoubtedly his live shows; they are his triumphs in communicating emotional and often pertinent social messages through design.

McQueen’s legacy has long been cemented as an iconoclast for British fashion.  The narrow silhouette cultivated at McQueen’s shows , once deemed too severe off the catwalk has long since pervaded throughout the high street, and on virtually every street McQueen’s influence as vanguard for pioneering British fashion is apparent via the popularity of skinny jeans, studs; and iconic McQueen imagery such as the skull and cross-bones motif. There is a prevailing sense of beauty in McQueen’s designs, even if on first encounter stronger emotions are evoked. The complexity of McQueen’s oeuvre is best exemplified when he sewed ‘I am a cunt’ into the lining of a coat designed for Prince Charles, or feelings that emerged after he commented of David Beckham: ‘That man is vainer than the veins running through my dick’. Even when one is faced with a powerfully aggressive style, it is that of a staunchly northern directness draped and balanced in carefully constructed beauty.

McQueen’s imagination and boundless creativity are epitomised at a show that took place in a disused Parisian school when the show opened to an empty catwalk and the chilling and unmistakable noise from a woman’s heels, a reference from Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’.  The sound increasingly grows louder as the figure in the shadows draws closer.  The effect results in a cinematic moment of McQueen’s embodiment of the quiet and sometimes horrifying emptiness from which beauty can still grow.

Even when Kate Moss fell out of favour with most of the fashion world and commercial partners due to her cocaine scandal, a “We love you Kate” shirt featured proudly on the chest of the designer. Perhaps McQueen was drawn to the rougher side of every day life, not in some morbid fascination with darkness but because it shines a light on the normality, the stresses and problems that everyone encounters; that makes us human. The theme of darkness and ambiguity of emotion in McQueen’s work can also be viewed on a superficial level as the flaws he saw in life and within his own surroundings.  It is this ideology, coming from someone so inherently compelling, creative and intelligent that makes the loss of this icon of British design so tragic.

It came to the end of January and I was quite pleased I had managed to get through a financially tough month and only marginally slip into my overdraft. Then I decided to start a career-enhancing but money-sucking course.  I am still somewhat trying to stick to new year resolutions – less on frivolous, more on life-enhancing pursuits. And so far, so skint. Money landed in my account on January 28, rested a couple of days and by Feb 1 we were separated. Gone –

Not letting a lack of funds stop me, I decided to check out the best Manchester has to offer on a budget.  And well, you don’t ask you don’t get. Unsurprisingly, the city has a lot going on and many of the most exciting events taking place are free, or very cheap.

Every Monday, The Royal Exchange theatre offers people aged 26 and under the best available seats for £4;  and while I can still avail of this offer for one more month I managed to catch Blythe Spirit in its final week for a bargain price.  Having already head rave reviews since the show opened in December I was really looking forward to it.

Initially I just could not warm to the characters. Perhaps it is the adopted northerner in me, but the twee introduction of a upper-class 1920’s couple – writer husband and actress wife recount a heady period when they invite a psychic to their home for an evening as part of the husband’s research for his next book. None of the characters assume a very sympathetic role in the beginning and the couple along with their two friends appear to have joined in for the free food and non-stop martini chasing and chain-smoking, which left me wondering if the upper-class elite in the 1920’s were all bored alcoholics. And of course, in all the hilarity, the husband doesn’t bargain on his dead wife being resurrected in the process. The display of formal communication between the characters results in the audience being aware that such a stiff dialogue died a long time ago, and it’s resurrection here did feel a little staid and self-aware in the opening scene.

So Blythe Spirit doesn’t get off to the most auspicious start, but it is the dramatic introduction of hilarious psychic Mrs Arcati, played by Annette Badland, that really lifts the play from passable to surpassable in expectation. Badland’s presence enhances the emotion and the laughs;  and brought out the talents and comic timing of the other characters. Suranne Jones, of Coronation Street fame, once all manc-lite dialect and gold hoop earrings is incredibly deft and captivating as the hard-done-by wife . With a little patience on the viewer’s part, once the production hit its stride the production shines and is a real winner. If the cheap seats are not available or the theatre isn’t your thing then the eponymous film is excellent, shot like an Alice in Wonderland for adults – gothic, dark-humoured and captivating from first cocktail sip until the eventual demise of all concerned.

Alan Fletcher’s exhibition – 50 Years of Graphic Work and Play – previewed last Thursday at Cube gallery (free entry on preview night, £4 after).

Peter Saville opened the show with a heartfelt introduction to the work of Alan Fletcher the artist and an insight into the creatives’ relationship as friends. The show maps out Fletcher’s life in images, taking us from his early post- Royal College of Art posters, to the arresting work that grew out of his co-founded design agency Pentagram and on to later life as he produced work as Creative Consultant for Phaidon from his home studio.  Fletcher-poineering British graphic designer, originating a visual identity for brands as far-reaching as V&A identity maker,  indie band visualiser and Phaidon book cover artist, this show was a great triumph for Cube Gallery, as well as the North West.

Being perennially skint these days means my socialising/culture fix is confined to the North West, so it is a great coincidence that there are so many quality events to take advantage, and get more holla’ for the dolla’.  A new show at the Whitworth GalleryWalls are Talking: Wallpaper, Art and Culture (free entry) aims to challenge our sedentary view of wallpaper as the radio of the art world; a polite, non-demanding aesthetic but one that is often understated.  The show is divided in to four sections – subversion, commodification, imprisonment and sexuality.

Each room acts as a visual debate on whether wallpaper should be seen as design first, a game played with the senses of the viewer second. The artists exhibiting here, including Sarah Lucas, Damian Hirst and David Shirgley; seem to be more concerned with the latter.  Wallpaper is a strange, unpredictable art-form; it serves to cover and conceal people’s most private places such as their homes but paradoxically it can reveal so much about the person who possesses it. These artists have taken this idea and used the space to allow their realities to emerge from a fixed pattern and the exhibition demonstrates brilliantly when that freedom from a frame or plinth is used to its fullest extent we can appreciate wallpaper as a medium from a very different perspective.