Category Archives: music

Eurovision 2016

imageIt’s that time of year again. The night of the biggest entertainment show in the world with an estimated 200 million global audience, which this year will air live in the USA for the first time. China will tune in again for the 2nd year running. Tonight the final 26 of the 43 original entrants will battle it out to win the Eurovision Song Contest. This time last year I was in Vienna to experience my very first event live and what a great experience that was and I would have been in Stockholm tonight if I’d thought to book earlier before things got ridiculously expensive. So what to expect of tonight’s show? Well, be prepared for a seismic change.

There has been a HUGE change to the voting system. The votes each year are the result of the combination of the expert 5-person Juries of all the competing countries and the public televote but we never usually know how the juries voted versus the public. This year we will. The voting will be announced in the usual way after all songs have been performed but only the jury results will be announced. At the end of this process we will appear to have a winner. AHA! Then comes the sting in the tail. The public votes will be amalgamated so all the votes across Europe and Australia for, say, the U.K. will be added together and so on and then finally the public amalgamated vote for every finalist will be revealed meaning the public vote may well undo the rankings of the jury vote and we won’t know the true winner until the end of the show. Confused? Me too TBH.

OK, so before I reveal my Top 10 picks for tonight – and I’ve got to say this has been the hardest year ever to do that because the standard is so high, a word about the real star of what you will see: the stage. Sweden will provide one of the most hi-tec stage settings ever and the artists who make best use of it will do very well and two will in particular. OK, so on to my picks.

Cyprus

imageHeavy rock is not my thing at all and this was not on my radar until I saw their performance in the semi-finals. 5 man band Minus One will rock the stage tonight with a song called ‘Alter Ego’. It’s a dark, heavy performance but delivered with such driving confidence that you can’t help but pay attention, even if this isn’t your thing. Guaranteed to get top marks from Greece, of course, but don’t bet on others not scoring this highly too.

The Netherlands

imageIn complete contrast to the Cypriot rockers, the Dutch have gone for Country & Western with a song called ‘Slow Down’ sung by Douwe Bob and his band who, refreshingly, will all play instruments when they perform. I liked this from the very first hearing and was embedded in my Top 10 even before both semi finals when the bookies and pundits made it a 100/1 rank outsider. A stunning semi final performance reversed those odds and now this is tipped as a dark horse destined to do well and I would agree. It’s a toe-tapper, happy feel song with a refreshing message for our manic lives: “you gotta slow down brother, slow down brother, slow down if you can’t go on…”. This is the only song of its genre tonight and for that reason will stand out from the crowd.

Israel

imageUnlike the Dutch entry, this one was not on my radar at all and I was pretty dismissive of it as were most pundits…until the Stockholm rehearsals where singer Hovi Star quite literally brought the Globe Arena to a complete, awestruck standstill. This guy has one of the best voices in the contest and clearly has the respect of many of his competitors who are wishing this song well. The song is called “Made of Stars” and follows in the traditional ‘power ballad’ style that has done so well at Eurovision over the years.

Sweden

imageThe host nation and six times winners were a reluctant last in my top 10, narrowly beating Hungary, which will do very well. Why did it make my top 10 then? Well…it’s Sweden and you can never underestimate them. Don’t be fooled by the fact they are the only Nordic country to make the final because the fact they are means the other 4 Nordics only have one Nordic to concentrate their votes on and that’s potentially 48 points in the bag before he’s sung a note. That said, it’s a pleasant song and a completely different genre which I’m not hip enough to categorise. Sung by Frans, the youngest competitor in the contest who has a British Nigerian father and Swedish mother – and when you hear him he could be from any corner of London. This will not give Sweden their 7th win to equal Ireland’s record but could well make the top 10. Oh…sorry. Almost forgot. The song’s called ‘Sorry’. Sorry.

Austria

imageAs with Israel, I dismissed this one on first hearing but it’s proved to be as much a grower as it is a shower, so to speak. This is one of two entries that maximizes on the technical brilliance of the stage tonight. This is a feel good song called ‘Loin d’ici’ or ‘Far from here’. It’s the first time Austria has presented its entry in French. It’s also one of only 3 non English language entries this year and the first time ever a song sung entirely in French has qualified from the semis. Apart from being a memorable performance as it is, Zoe will take to the stage 3rd from last and will be the entry immediately preceding the UK. If for nothing else, you will remember her as that girl and the flowers come voting. You’ll see what I mean.

Italy

imageI went with Italy as my first choice last year and they ended up 3rd. I don’t think this one will do as well but it’s another I liked on first hearing. The Italians are passionate about Eurovision and were the inspiration behind its creation with the original format based on the San Remo Song Festival, which still takes place today and from which this year’s entrant, Francesca Michielin, was selected. She will sing in her native Italian, bar one chorus in English. The song is called ‘Nessun grado di separazione’ or ‘No degree of separation’. I’ve heard her sing this ‘unplugged’ with just her singing and playing the piano and if only she’d gone down that route tonight I’d put money on her winning. This one polled well with the 43 international Eurovision fan clubs pre the contest and that’s a strong indicator of how well or not a song is likely to do.

Spainimage

The choice of this song caused a national outcry in Spain and reached the no.1 global trend spot on Twitter because for the first time ever Spain will perform their entry entirely in English. It’s a funky dance number called ‘Say yay yay yay’ or I guess ‘Decir si si si’ en Español, so I guess she made the right choice in defying national fury and insisting she will sing in English. This is the best shot Spain has had in winning for decades and singer Barei will deliver it with high energy and a quirky dance that has itself already gone viral across the globe.

Australiaimage

After what was supposed to be a one-off last year, Australia are back again now they have secured permanent affiliated status with European Broadcasting Union. There is still a host of moaners around mocking their participation but this year’s singer, South Korean born Dami Im, will certainly shut mouths. This is a stunning entry performed by a singer with an amazing voice. Prepare for the roof to be blown off. Ironically, the song is called ‘Sound of Silence’. It’s another ‘power ballad’ and this may well see the Aussies improve on their impressive debuting placing of 5th last year.

Russia

imageOK, this is the one to watch out for. You will never have seen a performance like this ever in the history of Eurovision. It makes full use of the technical brilliance of the stage and reviewers in even our own sceptical national press have described this entry as ‘jaw dropping’. The strength of the entry is not just based on gimmickry. Singer Sergey Lazarev is a confident performer with a powerful voice and among the best eye candy of the night, whether you are male or female. The song is called ‘You are my only one’ and topping it all – it’s a very good song. Sergey will perform this mostly on his own bar the mysterious appearance and disappearance of 4 male backing singers. Oh…and watch out for the only female cast member and her (literally) two seconds of fame.

France

imageAnd so to my choice for the evening. France have kind of followed in step with Spain to submit their first ever entry in English. Well, half of it but a huge step for a nation that fights passionately to preserve francophone culture. This is a real feel good, happy, toe tappy song delivered with every ounce of Gallic charisma by French-Israeli Amir Hadded. The song is called ‘J’ai cherché’ or ‘I’ve searched for’ and this actually won the combined Eurovision fan club vote topping Russia by a considerable margin. I’d take the results of the fan clubs with considerable pinches of salt given that they base their votes after endless pouring over the entries whereas 99.99% of voters tonight will judge on first impressions and this guy is the master of making a good first impression. I’d be very happy for the show to come from Paris or preferably my favorite French city, Nice, next year.

And finally a word on the UK. Pundits and bookies place Joe and Jake in the top 10 tonight but I just don’t see it. If they make onto the left side of the results board they’d have done good. If we get zero points then just watch that be politicised into the Brexit debate.

Angel

imageSee that’s the problem with me and music. I get caught up by a melody, performance, amazing vocals or emotion every time. I seldom stop to think about lyrics and the meaning of things.

This morning through a sleepless night I stumbled across this song embedded deep down in my iTunes collection and played it over and over. Then I began to wonder what it was about. So I researched and basically found two conflicting main opinions: drugs or suicide. I guess that makes me really shallow and not how my mum raised me. She always paid attention to the lyrics and meanings of things first.

imageWhat a shame – such a beautiful song though in light of my discovery, I can sense the longing for release from deep pain or turmoil that is frighteningly too familiar. UK viewers who may not have known the song before may remember it as the song sung by the winner of this year’s ‘The voice’ talent show, whoever she was. You know, the blind Northern Irish girl that nobody can now remember. She did a good job, but could not hope to deliver it like its original singer and composer Sarah Ann McLachlan:

Spend all your time waiting
For that second chance
For a break that would make it okay
There’s always some reason
To feel not good enough
And it’s hard at the end of the day

I need some distraction
Oh beautiful release
Memories seep from my veins
Let me be empty
Oh and weightless and maybe
I’ll find some peace tonight

In the arms of the angel
Fly away from here
From this dark cold hotel room
And the endlessness that you fear

You are pulled from the wreckage
Of your silent reverie
You’re in the arms of the angel
May you find some comfort here

So tired of the straight line
And everywhere you turn
There’s vultures and thieves at your back
The storm keeps on twisting
Keep on building the lies
That you make up for all that you lack

It don’t make no difference
Escaping one last time
It’s easier to believe
In this sweet madness
Oh this glorious sadness
That brings me to my knees

In the arms of the angel
Fly away from here
From this dark cold hotel room
And the endlessness that you fear

You are pulled from the wreckage
Of your silent reverie
You’re in the arms of the angel
May you find some comfort here

You’re in the arms of the angel
May you find some comfort here

Songwriters
MCLACHLAN, SARAH ANN

Don’t know the song? Listen here.

What ever happened to the girl with golden hair?

agYou could not have put two guys more unlike each other into one room than me and my University roomie, Jeremy Robinson. I got into college last minute after better than expected exam results. The only way to guarantee a place in one of the Halls of Residence was to state that I would be happy to share a room with a complete stranger  prone to several attempts at suicide on the application form. OK, I didn’t know Jez was going try and kill himself 3 times while I lived with him but I guess that’s the effect I have on people. Any casual visitor could sum up our room in one word: schizophrenic.  On the walls on one half of the room were posters of Jimmi Hendrix, The Doors, Led Zep and Janice Joplin.  On the other a map of Greece and a poster of Annifrid Lyngstad-Anderson and Agnetha Faltskog-Ulvaeus – the female half of the supergroup ABBA. Guess my half.

ABBA, as everyone knows, was and still is the most successful act ever to come out of abba1the Eurovision Song Contest other than Riverdance. I never saw their famous win in Brighton in 1974 as it was way beyond my bedtime, but ABBA was later to become to me the only music group or artists I can ever say I became a fan of and I was a fan in the very real sense.  I bought books about their lives and on vinyl had a very large percentage of their albums in English, Swedish and Spanish even going back to their solo efforts before they all got together and some after they split. When ‘ABBA – the Movie’ was released around their phenomenal tour of Australia, I remember standing in the queue for ages with friends and family wearing ‘I love ABBA’ badges I had made and forced my wincing family to wear.  OK, not a cool admission but you get my point. I was a fan.

abba2While everyone knew that the creative talent behind the band were the ugly boys, Bjorn and Benny (oh come on – there can not have been a living guy around who was not incredulous at how two such geeky guys hooked two such stunning babes) they were tolerated because while the band was together, everyone got to ogle the girls, or more particularly Agnetha (pronounced ann-yet-tah).  Forget Pippa Middleton, in her day Agnetha had the most photographed and ogled at bum in the whole world.  All Australia got into a lather over it as was brought out in the movie, much to the discomfort of Agnetha. There is a line in their iconic song ‘Thank you for the Music’ that goes: “I’ve been so lucky, I am the girl with golden hair…” and to this day any ABBA fan recalling those lyrics will see in their mind the stunning blonde bombshell that was Agnetha Faltskog-Ulvaeus.

I first picked up on Agnetha’s fragility under the spotlight in the movie. It was clear way AbbaVoulezVous
back then that she was insecure with the band’s spectacular fame (370,000,000 albums sold globally) and was a home girl. She was not comfortable speaking any other language than her native Swedish and after the band split it is reported that she never spoke a word of English publicly again.  The marital stresses that both the couples in the group (Annifrid – or Frida as we know her – with pianist Benny and Agnetha with guitarist Bjorn) were being played out not only in the media but in their music of the time and I remember seeing them in concert near the zenith of their career at Wembley.  It was 1979, my most favourite year in living memory and it was a birthday present. I was not far at all from the stage. They had just released the album ‘Voulez Vous’. At one point in the show Agnetha took to the stage alone.  This was just as her painful separation from Bjorn was the meat of gossip columns at the time. The couple were to divorce the next year. I remember her sitting down at the piano, all alone on stage, and she accompanied her solo voice singing a song I still remember to this day called “I’m Still Alive”. She never recorded the song and I tried for years after to track it down. Whether she has done since I don’t know. My own priorities have changed and I don’t ‘celebrity watch’. You could have heard a pin drop in Wembley Arena at that moment. Everyone in the audience knew of her pain but here we actually witnessed it. She composed the song herself.

abba4Agnetha’s fear of the limelight developed to the point that she started not being able to face the Super Trouper stage lights without a shot or three of whiskey. She told a friend:  “No one who has experienced facing a screaming, boiling, hysterical audience can avoid feeling shivers in the spine. It’s a thin line between celebration and menace.”  Coupled with her growing fear of stardom and her rising reclusive tendencies, she encountered two incidents while travelling that were to make it almost impossible to make it to global band concert commitments.  in 1979, the band’s private jet was caught up in a terrible storm on approaching Boston, Massachusetts, that shook Agnetha up so much that she thereafter would only travel by road.Then in 1983 she was caught up in a road crash in her native Sweden and was hurled out of a coach window on to a frozen ditch.  Agnetha has rarely travelled anywhere since and this explains much as to why she was the only member of the band missing when the smash hit theatrical production of ‘Mama Mia’ opened in London in 1999.

In love, while her ex-husband Bjorn met and fell in love with an advertising executive to abba3whom he is still married (though there are reports that he is suffering from dementia and can not now recall his heady days in the band), Agnetha has not found the same happiness or stability. Both she and Bjorn were seeing psychiatrists at the time of their divorce. Agnetha retired from public life to a small island home outside Stockholm. She had a number of flings including with a Swedish Ice Hockey star, a fashion designer and her marriage guidance counsellor before finally marrying a Swedish doctor.  That marriage lasted a couple of years before she hooked up with a Dutch ‘stalker’ that she claimed to Swedish Police was threatening her life when it later turned out she and he had been having an affair. The Swedish public were not shy to show their anger at being misled.

abba5I’ve not done any exhaustive research before writing this post. I just Googled. I’ve not suddenly retroed back to my ABBA fan days. Agnetha came to mind again just this week when one of the Eurovision Song Contest fan sites posted that she was back and is about to release her first solo album in decades in May.  Sure enough that turns out to be true and Apple is reporting massive pre-orders of the album which is to be called simply ‘A’. I decided to write this post simply because Agnetha Faltskog-Ulvaeus was part of my most formative years. She was the poster girl this 18 year old dorky, geeky me chose to inflict on an unsuspecting Jeremy Robinson on the top floor at Earnshaw Hall in Broomshill, Sheffield all those years ago. When you get to Uni and before Uni changes you, you take with you your key life influencers and I guess for me at that time Agnetha Faltskog-Ulvaeus was one.

I will most probably download her album and it’s interesting she’s releasing it in May when the Swedish city of Malmo will be hosting the same Eurovision Song Contest (watched by nearly a billion people globally nowadays) that catapulted her to global fame. Rumours of an ABBA re-union at that event, though highly desirable, remain just rumours. None of the reports on this story I’ve read so far give anything away as to why Agnetha has decided to break out of her reclusion now but I for one am very glad that she has decided to do so.

Oh…and Jezza if by some freak of irony you are reading this – soz mate.  Oh, and also it was me who filled your gloves with Blu-Tac when I knew you had a phobia of the stuff….

jez

 

 

London 2012 cauldron

Caliban’s Dream

One of the most talked about and admired parts of the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics was the whole sequence leading up to the lighting of the giant Cauldron in the center of the Stadium.   Billions of viewers watched British record Olympian, Sir Steve Redgrave, bring what we thought was the lastTorch into the arena that would ignite the great cauldron.   But the ceremony had one final gasp-inducing twist no-one was expecting…the handing of the flame to a group of 7 unknown young athletes and potential future Olympians.

In the background, while the young 7 athletes  were running with the flame on a lap of the stadium toward its final destination, viewers heard a beautiful and haunting anthem sung by the electronic group ‘Underworld‘ accompanied by a choir of London’s children.    So haunting was the whole scene that it sparked thousands of global internet searches as people tried to find out where they could buy the song or read its lyrics.

Sir Steve Redgrave hands the last Torch to the athletes of the future

The complete musical score for the Opening Ceremony has now been released on CD and for download.   I bought it today just to hear this one track and I have played it over and over many times since.   The song is called ‘Caliban’s Dream’, written by Rick Smith from Underworld.  As the ‘Isles of Wonder’ pageant drew to its climax with this scene and its haunting melody, many may not have known that it was actually a throw back to the opening scenes nearly 3 hours previous.   British actor, Sir Kenneth Branagh, had taken to the ‘stage’ to read these lines from William Shakespeare’s great work ‘The Tempest’:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again. (Act 3, scene 2)

The words are attributed to the unsavoury and villainous character of ‘Caliban’ and speak of his dreams of glory and riches that remain ever out of reach and yet his fitful dreams persist to torment him.

 Caliban
The lyrics of the song we all heard as the young runners ran and the children’s choir sang take take the form of a prayer, though not in the Christian sense. They speak of hope and aspiration of rising to good from darkness, something that remains elusive to the mal-intent of the hapless Caliban:
 
And the rain toss about us;
In the garden of the world
But a flame arrives to guide us;
Past the gold between the anvils of the stars
Watching over all the children in the rain;
 And the streets where I remember
Where the fire that lights a candle soars again;
 A flaring flame
Hear it call;
Through the darkness, hear it call to us all
And start again; It’s beating heart comes again
And the light drive out our fears;
And the joy drive out our pain
And the nations come to greet us;
 waving open arms of waves of golden corn
Ever hear us; Oh the spirit of the world; May your light be ever near us
Always lead us from the dark
Though we may fall; We will fly
And with love; Hear the call
 
If you missed the Opening, here’s a link to the final sequences in the Olympic Stadium.  The flame follows the raising of the Olympic flag or if the video has been taken down by the time you read this, then Google around ‘London, 2012, Opening, cauldron’ and you should, find some reference.
 
The complete soundtrack of the music from the ceremony is available on an album called ‘Isles of Wonder’ and is available on Spotify, iTunes and Amazon (£10).
 

 

Boston final 047

Sounds of New England

One of the best things about visiting a new place and staying with friends who live there is that you get to experience so much more than you would if you went as a novice traveller relying on guide books and the Internet.   The friends I’m staying with here in Boston are the same two with whom I stayed on my very first trip to Israel.  That trip left a lasting legacy with me right up to today and the way things have gone, I figure this one will too.

The free memory on my iPad has greatly decreased from the amount of photos I took over my stay but it has also decreased from a whole batch of new music my friends introduced me to, even taking me to see some of the artists in concert. When I play those songs again back in England I know my mind will instantly fill with memories of driving along the banks of the River Charles in Boston City or an intimate folk music club in the district around Harvard University or driving along Interstate 93 to the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  Anyway, here are my new musical friends, mostly all of them home-grown in New England.

The Guggenheim Grotto

Having said that, the first artists are not from New England but from Ireland.  That’s not surprising here.  Massachusetts is known as the western most county of Ireland and there is a huge Irish influence here. The Grotto are Kevin May and Mick Lynch. iTunes credits a 3rd band member, Shane Power, on percussion but the other two seem to be the driving force. You can check them out on their website but you really won’t find out much about them.  They’ve been around since 2003 and for the time being have settled in America while trying to rake up the funds for their next album.  There’s a little more about them on Wikipedia.  I fell in love with their music instantly. My friend Natalie was driving us downtown and their music was playing. She was about to switch it for music of the next artist I’ll mention, but I was so instantly caught up in the lilting acoustic melodies and rich voices that I asked her to leave it playing.  By the end of the day I had downloaded the album. Wiki describes their genre as ‘folk-pop’. Really great music to drive along to or just be inside your own head with.

Sample The Guggenheim Grotto here.

Lori McKenna

My friends took me to see Lori in an unplugged, solo concert at Club Passim in Harvard Square, Cambridge MA. This rather unremarkable, plain ordinary folk music club has quite a pedigree and history behind it. The concert room itself houses no more than I guess a 100 or so people, usually ardent folk music fans and past performers there include Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Tom Rush, Shawn Colvin, Suzanne Vega and Joni Mitchell.  Lori is a Massachusetts girl, a wife, a mother of 5 children and a professional artist and songwriter, spending much of her time also in Nashville, Tennessee where she is also a cross-over artist into Country music.  Loved her voice, though at times got a little worn about how many songs in her repertoire dig at how bad men are, but loved her music and brought some of it away with me.

Sample Lori’s music on her official website here.

The Parker Quartet

The ‘Parkers’ are Daniel Chong (Violin), Karen Kim (Violin), Jessica Bodna (Viola) and Kee-Hyun Kim (Cello).  All are graduates of the renowned New England Conservatory and Grammy Award winners causing a little bit of a stir in classical music circles it seems. We went to see them perform at the Shalin Liu Performance Centre, beautifully set in the small town of Rockport on the Atlantic coast where the performers play with nothing but a sheet glass window as their backdrop and so the audience can enjoy both the music and the ever-changing scenes outside.

Official website

Performance video

Mark Erelli

Marc is a local Massachusetts boy from Reading and another favourite with my hosts.  I liked his music as we drove the long Interstate 93 back from New Hampshire to Boston. Again, his music genre is folk but good stuff. Downloaded a couple of his tracks but don’t know enough about him (or any of the other artists) to say more other than they will be part of my memories of this visit.

Official website

Sample music

Ellis Paul

Ellis Paul hails from Maine but was educated in Boston where he is a favourite among small club venues on the folk music circuit. He seems to have been on the scene for a while and like Marc Ellis, for me he’s till one of the artist whose music I was introduced to over here that I still need some time to get into, though what I’ve heard so far I liked a lot.

Official website

Sample music