Sunday, 28 April 2013

Review of Noah and the Whale at the Palace Theatre, London on April 28, 2013

The first of a Month Of Sundays series of gigs for Noah at the Palace Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, appropriately the current home of the Singing in the Rain musical for the rest of the week.

And there was moaning in the light drizzle at the end of it - because it's the first gig I can remember where a band didn't play my favourite song.

They found time for an 8pm half-hour of stripped back break-up songs - come on, Charlie, get over her for goodness sake - resplendent with a string quartet that was irritatingly drowned out by  the too-loud drums.

They then left the stage and made way for the lowering of a cinema screen: the premiere of Charlie's self-directed half-hour movie, Heart of Nowhere, was imminent. Turned out to be the dystopian tale of a teenage band who escape from an island where everyone's brain was being wiped of rebellion before being allowed re-entry into the urban wasteland of decent society. Served mainly to confirm the suspicion that all scousers really are selfish, foul-mouthed bass players. Noah's actual bass player, Urby Whale, is fabulous - currently sporting a haircut in homage to Dougal from the Magic Roundabout.

Time, next, for a 15-minute interval and a £4.50 can of Fosters.

And then it was back to our seats for an all-guns blazing second half: lights, music and nearly some on-stage action from Charlie - the man with songs like Lou Reed, looks like a trans-Atlantic cross between Hugh Grant and Sigourney Weaver and a rockin-out sound like Tom Petty with fiddles.

Lots of decent new stuff mixed with some familiar album tracks. At 10.15pm we got the first of the songs were waiting for: Five Years Time, the guitar riff played by Fred Abbott, the Goodies-era Graeme Garden lookalike from 40 years time ago, the signature whistle by virtuosos violinist Tom Hobden drowned out by the drums.

And immediately afterwards the other one: L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N. It started with a commotion stage left, and gradually the stalls in the Victorian splendour were on their feet swaying and joining in: on our last night on earth, we looked to the sky, breathed in the air and were done with our lives.

We knew the curfew was 10.30pm but surely there was still time for my favourite. Foiled. They bowed and left the stage. Surely an encore. Yes - here we go.

But no - another one, still no sign of The Shape Of My Heart, the glorious, horn-parping stand-out track from their first and best album, Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down.

So we trooped out into the drizzle, downcast and disappointed, like Jonah in the belly of the whale. Never leave your fans high and dry, Noah. Always send them out singing and dancing in the rain.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Review of James and Echo and the Bunnymen at Brixton Academy, London: April 20, 2013

He looks like a dashing pirate these days. Bald head, goatee beard, Indian-style baggy Buddhist trousers. With his flashing earpiece he even looks a bit like Borg-era Captain Jean Luc Picard of the Federation Starship Enterprise.

Yes, Tim Booth used to have a lot more hair than this. I remember that charity gig in the pouring rain at the Piece Hall in Halifax in aid of elephants or something back in 1989. He was more hirsute than Mark Ford then and that's saying something. Anything. Your silence is deafening. Pay me in kind.

And the uplifting, life-enhancing, breathtaking songs of that time are still James at their glorious, beautiful best. A blistering opening tonight, featuring a magnificent How Was It For You?, reminded every 40-something in the crowd that this is band that doesn't do gigs. They do shows. Dazzling, thrilling shows.

Hardened arteries softened gently as anthem followed anthem, Tim swaggering like a shaman and dancing like a marionette with its strings half-cut. Laughter lines deepened everywhere as he left the stage and walked aloft on the crowd. Like Jesus walking on the waves of Galilee. Just like Fred Astaire.

I believe in happiness. I believe in love. I believe he fell to earth from somewhere high above. How else can you explain such timeless showmanship from someone who was once so Whalley Range-poor he sold his body for medical experiments?

Yes, he lost his way with the new stuff half-a-dozen songs in. He even sat out the long dirgey one himself and let the electronic fiddler get on with it. (Bin that fiddle, boys, bin it.) Sure, the sound was badly mixed and over-modded. And of course his new stuff is going to be mid-life miserable compared to the world-conquering glory of the Millionaires days.

But what a reward we a got for our lumbago. Sit Down was a singalong piece of genius the day it was written. Add a handsome ten-person choir plus thousands of well-oiled Brixton voices and the message was clear: take that, Elbow, with your One Day Like This nonsense. We've been doing this better than anyone for years.

And what an encore. Sometimes - the most thrilling song about a storm every written. He put his ear to mine and I swear I can hear the sea. And Laid. You think you're so pretty. Complete with a handful of James children front of stage jumping joyfully up and down.

Here's a mirror with your name on, Tim. We're missing you now you've gone.

Echo and the Bunnymen were on at 7.40pm. It felt plain wrong to see one of the finest indie bands of the 80s crammed on the edge of the stage warming up for another. Ian McCulloch still looks and sounds great. Standing stock-still in donkey jacket-trench coat wearing those indoor shades and lighting up the occasional choker. Measure by measure, drop by drop, the crowd grew, warmed and remembered how good and daft The Cutter, Bring on the Dancing Horses and Seven Seas were. Ian provided the funniest moment of the night: "This is the greatest song ever written," he said. Up rose the first bars of The Killing Moon. Good song, but not even the greatest song about moons ever written. "Told you it was," he said at the end. Pound for pound and taking stock, £38 was worth every bean. Of all the treasure still unlocked, the love the Academy found must never stop. And at least Ian kept his shirt on - none of us are toned as we were in 1983.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Nine Bridge River Thames Walk

Nine miles and nine bridges along the Thames from Ravenscourt Park to Sloane Square.

1. Hammersmith Bridge
The king of London's bridges. Handsome, creaking, IRA-defying landmark for rowers and joggers of all ages and abilities. Green and gold up close; more often a dark silhouette against the sky and river.

2. Putney Bridge
Boathouses always bustling on the Surrey side; spruced up Bishops Park on the Middlesex side; a London bus always crossing the historic arches. Read Wolf Hall and forever associate it with Thomas Cromwell.

3. Putney Railway Bridge
Looks like a meccano tube. Good for jogging over. Steep steps at either end and a single-file width add to the challenge.

4. Wandsworth Bridge
Ugly and steeper than it looks. Refreshments available in The Ship on the south side. A Youngs pub that stocks guest ales - Wandle had run out but the Purity Gold was ok. New bartender served soda and lime with a record-breaking amount of square ice. Weird atmosphere; a load of totally sozzled twentysomethings half-asleep surrounded by empty fizz bottles. At 12.30pm.

5. Chelsea Harbour Railway Bridge
Pedestrians denied. Unwelcoming. Like most of the eerily-empty riverside apartments of the super rich. Doesn't Michael Caine live here somewhere? Like a millionaires' Malaga out of season.

6. Battersea Bridge
Goldie-looking bridge in blue plaque and posh houseboat country. See if you can cross the road without getting honked. Whistler points the way.

7. Prince Albert Bridge
Pink and ostentatious link from Cheyne Walk to the south side. Remember to break stride if you're marching over it with an army.

8. Chelsea Bridge
Sandwiches the Battersea Park daffodils with the Prince Albert and a spicy big Buddha dressing.

9. Chelsea Railway Bridge
The London Eye and the Palace of Westminster glitter beyond. Head inland past the Chelsea Pensioners to Sloane Square.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Where to eat and drink on a three-day Barn Owl hunt in North Norfolk

Curlew, Stiffkey
It may be the last weekend in March but it's finger-numbingly, eye-wateringly cold. Start at the Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve at Cley on Friday. Mid-afternoon and freezing cold. Give it an hour and a bit to walk round the perimeter under four layers of fleece. No owls but plenty of Shoveler, Shelduck, Redshank and Heron plus a couple of Little Ringed Plover, three Marsh Harriers, some Avocet and a massive flock of Brent Geese. They've stuck around all winter - probably as cold here as it is in their summer breeding grounds at Greenland.

Time for a warm at:

The George, Cley
Couple of pints of Woodforde's Wherry next to the stained-glass St George and the dragon window overlooking the 20mph coastal road stretch, the beer garden, the flood defence and the sea. Enjoy a packet of Seabrook salt and vinegar crisps, made in Bradford a few miles from where we bought our first house back in the 90s. Reluctantly drink up, remember your binoculars and walk on to:

Cley Smokehouse
Worth stocking up on some smoked mackerel and pickled herring here. You may need them later.

Nip into the local-food-packed:

Picnic Fayre Deli, Cley
For a dark and meaty Brays Cottage pork pie and a few scotch eggs to fortfify you for the late afternoon hunt.

Take a steady drive through Wiveton - if you fancy the excellent Wiveton Bell gastro pub book early; no tables for the evening by 12pm on Good Friday - then to Langham, home of the apparently up-for-sale Bluebell pub where half an hour on a Friday night can leave you shaking your head in admiration at the local vodka intake. Then wind your way down the country lanes of  Field Dalling and on to Bale - home of the historic Bale Oaks - and keep your eyes peeled on the way to Gunthorpe.


So regroup, then just after dusk head through Melton Constable to:

The Hunney Bell, Hunworth
A beautifully converted barn in a miles-from-anywhere rural village, but no owls anywhere, either. Enter the cosy, real-ale pub at the front, grab a Wherry than take a seat in the restaurant and enjoy the warmth from the real, enclosed fire. The mystery grilled fish was delicious - love a fish when the skeleton comes out in one piece - with potatoes and leeks; the Binham blue cheese tart vanished in seconds; the plate of a massive Wherry-battered fish and loads of thick cut chips was quickly emptied and the burger and fries didn't last much longer. Save room for the creamy, crunchy-topped creme brule with raspberry sorbet or the chocolate terrine with shortbread biscuit. Great, smiley service and a bill of around £70 for four including a couple of rounds of drinks.

Retrace your route to Gunthorpe. Vow to get up early to try again. Fail.

Map from

You might be lucky with a five-mile mid-morning jog from Gunthorpe to Brinton then Sharrington and back. Not this time. Just snow flakes pinging you in the face and Wood Pigeon exploding out of trees. A feeble singing Yellowhammer lifts the gloom.

Md-afternoon, Saturday, at Wells-next-the-Sea. The windswept coastal path heading east from the harbour towards Warham Greens is a Barn Owl banker. Unless the vicious wind is slapping you in the face so hard you can't stand more than five minutes at the edge of the marsh. Forget it. Get back in the car and drive along the coastal road to:

The Red Lion, Stiffkey
If you're lucky you can get a table right next to the roaring real fire while you enjoy a couple of pints of gravity-dropped Wherry. Then one for the road. Lovely rural pub.

Still time for an owl. Keep heading east towards Salthouse Heath. Always a good chance here. Keep 'em peeled as the road moves inland towards the fabulous Georgian town of Holt. Nothing. So phone ahead to:

The Taste of India, Holt
Don't leave it too late to book. By 6pm opening time it was already half full with more huddled masses streaming in. A no-nonsense, classic Indian restaurant with thick gravy jalfrezis, thick cauliflower bhajis, thick chicken dopiazas and thick chicken tikka masalas. Thick naans, thin pints of ice-cold Cobra and full pickle trays complete the nirvana.

Leave by 7pm - vanilla sky dusk - and head west on the A-road through Letheringsett, scanning the fields on either side of the road. Turn left into Gunthorpe. We've seen them here before. Not today. Vow to get up for an early one, even if the clocks do go forward an hour at 1am. Fail.

Last chance today. Ask for some divine guidance while doing your Easter Sunday duties at the standing-room-only St Joseph's in Sheringham. Brave the cheek-stinging powder hail storm for a five minute ordeal on the seafront then retreat for an early lunch to:

The Two Lifeboats, Sheringham
Lovely, refurbished pub right on the seafront with views of people eating fish and chips on the edge of the icy grey sea. Classic Sunday lunch at £8 a pop. Choice of pork or beef, roast pots, carrots, Yorkshire pudding, stuffing. Wash it down with a couple of pints of Wherry before bundling up and heading up the high street. Foolhardy folk may want to risk a Norwich-made Ronaldo's ice cream. Honeycomb is a good, mad choice.

Try the road up through Upper Sheringham past the National Trust park. Then snake your way back to Gunthorpe and wait until dusk. Then go again. Up through Langham, left at the church, right through Cockthorpe - a good hunting ground past the old RAF training dome near the battery chicken farm - then straight on to the car park at Stiffkey Greens. Go west and walk along the coastal path towards Wells. When you're looking for Barn Owl every Little Egret and swooping Black Headed Gull looks likely. Keep going past the boxing Hares, Grey Partridge, Curlew and Pheasant in the ploughed, brown fields until you can't feel your fingers, then head back to the car past the taunting Linnet and Mallard.
Hare departing Cockthorpe
Time's running out but don't give up hope. Even if the Norfolk Riddle's tables are booked you can phone ahead for three takeaway fish, chips and mushy peas plus a chicken burger and chips. The 20-minute route under the frozen skies takes you past the owl-friendly priory ruins of  Binham - best place in Norfolk for a pint of Binham Cheer brewed on the premises at the Chequers Inn if time allows - then on through Hindringham - we've seen Little Owl on a barn roof here in the past - to Walsingham. Henry VIII made a pilgrimage to the national shrine to Our Lady here when he was mulling over his first divorce and no doubt looking for owls. You'll remember seeing a nice copy of the golden triptych shrine at St Joseph's in Sheringham.

Park up and pay your £22 for a the take-out, complete with vinegar sprayed on with one of those containers you see in garden centres. Then a final chance for the elusive owl. Clear the windows of chip steam as you wind through Thursford, past the home of the Christmas Spectacular. Still no luck. Very last chance past Gunthorpe Hall - perfect fields for owl hunting.

But not tonight. Maybe it's just too cold. Voles stay hidden in the undergrowth and their elusive predators huddle in their barns.

Console yourself with the fish supper in front of a roaring Chimney Cottage fire. And the knowledge that you live to hunt again next time.