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My freelance writing can now be found at mikeatkinson.wordpress.com.
Recently: VV Brown, Alabama 3, Just Jack, Phantom Band, Frankmusik, Twilight Sad, Slaid Cleaves, Alesha Dixon, Bellowhead, The Unthanks, Dizzee Rascal.
On Thursday September 17th, I danced on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.
Click here to watch, and here to listen.
Friday, July 13, 2007
The Gossip, Nottingham Rock City, Wednesday July 11.
(An edited version of this review originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.)
One of the more perplexing musical trends of the past few years has been the rise of the band with no bass guitar. White Stripes, Black Keys, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and now The Gossip: all of them have elected to survive on the sound of voice, lead guitar and drums alone. It’s a bold and uncompromising move, and yet not without its drawbacks. For when all is said and done, rock music – and especially live rock music – needs bass. It’s as simple and as inescapable as that.
That said, guitarist Brace Paine did an admirable and at times uncanny job at fleshing out the band’s sound. More often than not, he had the knack of simultaneously combining lead guitar riffs with funky basslines, in a way that left you wondering just how it was done.
Given such a minimalist backing, the vocalist’s job is rendered all the more difficult, and in many respects Beth Ditto rose to the challenge admirably. Beneath the fashionable punk-funk trappings and the in-your-face attitude, she has the voice of a classic blues-rock shouter. Lurching around the stage in her lemon yellow mini-dress, she may have given the impression of barely controlled chaos – but the delivery remained gloriously pitch-perfect throughout.
Perhaps the biggest problem lay with the band’s material, which essentially consisted of minor variations on the theme of their breakthrough hit (and instant classic) Standing In The Way Of Control. Unless you were intimately familiar with the songs – and plenty were – there was something inescapably one-dimensional about their sound. It was telling that, despite having three albums under their belts, the set only clocked in at a miserly fifty-five minutes, including the encore. Perhaps such a tightly restricted range simply couldn’t have been sustained for longer.
(My interview with Brace and Hannah from The Gossip will be appearing here in the next few days.)
Armistead Maupin, Nottingham Waterstone’s, Tuesday July 10.
(This article originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.)
Nearly eighteen years after the publication of Sure Of You – the sixth and final instalment of Armistead Maupin’s celebrated Tales Of The City series, which detailed the lives and loves of a disparate and sometimes dissolute group of San Francisco residents – most of the main characters have been brought back to life in an unexpected yet welcome addition to the canon, entitled Michael Tolliver Lives.
Earlier in the week, and a full twenty years after his last visit, Armistead Maupin returned to Nottingham for a promotional appearance at Waterstone’s on Bridlesmith Gate. In front of a 150-strong audience of faithful devotees, he read from the new book, answered questions, and signed our hardback copies. “This is by far my favourite part of the job” reads the claim on his official website, and the 63-year old Maupin certainly seemed in relaxed good humour, radiating an easy, sincere charm which sat well against his ready wit and frequently hilarious anecdotes.
For the uninitiated, Michael “Mouse” Tolliver was one of the best-loved characters in the original Tales series: an essentially good-natured and well adjusted gay man, whose sexual adventurousness was tempered by a pronounced romantic streak. As the encroaching shadow of the 1980s AIDS epidemic began to fall over the carefree frolics that characterised the earlier novels, so Tolliver also suffered agonising loss, eventually being diagnosed HIV positive himself. For a whole generation of gay Americans, Tolliver was perhaps their closest approximation to an Everyman figure.
Now in his mid-fifties, and a long-term survivor of the disease, Michael has long since ceased to be staring imminent death in the face. For the first time, he is given the narrator’s role, telling us his story in his own words. As this story progresses, we gradually re-encounter many old friends, such as Michael’s former housemate Brian Hawkins and his former landlady Anna Madrigal. Characters whom we last saw as children are now fully grown adults, such as Brian’s daughter Shawna, a sex-blogger (“Grrrl On The Loose”) with a book deal, whose own frankness and sense of adventure makes even the formerly libidinous Michael – now ensconced in a blissful if not fully monogamous new relationship – squirm in embarrassment.
Maupin opened by commenting upon an Anglican bishop’s claim that our recent floods were “God’s wrath against us for being lenient towards homosexuals”, wryly noting that the torrential rain seemed to have followed him and his partner Christopher all round the country. “As the tour progressed, the rainier it got!” he chuckled, apparently ready to bear full responsibility.
Earlier in the day, he had paid a visit to York Minster, where his maternal grandmother (a resident of Derby) had given “dramatic recitations” in her youth. “I communed with her spirit”, he explained, adding that she had been a prime inspiration for the character of Anna Madrigal. “So I was going back to the source this morning.”
When asked whether more Tales-derived work might appear in the future, Maupin’s answer was optimistic, if tantalisingly inconclusive. “Maybe. I don’t want to be held to anything, but I’ve been plotting on the train. It just popped up all of a sudden, and I think it’s going to be off and running again. I hope so!”
Since it has been seven years since his last novel (The Night Listener), and a further eight years between that and its predecessor, perhaps it would be best not to get prematurely over-excited.
During these lengthy gaps, Maupin has worked on various dramatic spin-offs. A film adaptation of The Night Listener (starring Robin Williams and Toni Collette) was released last year, and the first three volumes of Tales Of The City (starring Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis) were serialised for television. Dukakis has stated that the transsexual landlady Anna Madrigal has been her favourite ever role, and the Oscar-nominated Linney has declared herself ready to resume work on Tales at any time.
“So I’ve been busy, but not that busy. I’m not pathological. I’m not Joyce Carol Oates, who writes her next novel in the back seat of the taxi when she’s on a book tour. I’m not anywhere near that kind of self-discipline.”
As for why he decided to write Michael Tolliver Lives in the first person: “I wanted to have the experience of crawling inside Michael. I wanted to tell the story of a middle-aged gay man living in San Francisco who had survived AIDS – who had been “out” to his parents for a long time, and yet they were still voting for politicians that demonise gay people. We’re still very polarised over there, and I thought I had a perfect vehicle to dramatise this. And also, about three years ago, I fell in love in a serious way. It put a whole new light on my life. I wanted to write about it, and to celebrate it.”
Michael Tolliver Lives is published in hardback by Doubleday, £17.99.
See also: Armistead Maupin's blog.
Thursday, July 12, 2007
Michael’s Big Day With The “Creatives”.
Life in a medium-sized city does have distinct advantages. “Large enough to be interesting, small enough to be friendly”, that’s what I always say. And so, when some bright sparks suggested arranging a photo-shoot in the Market Square for all of Nottingham’s “creative” types (writers, artists, musicians, designers, and yea, even unto can-we-say-humble bloggers), word was bound to get through.
All togged up in the nice smart Gieves & Hawkes jacket that I wore to the Lowdham Book Festival, I toddled along to the square just in time to squeeze myself into the back of the shots. Within seconds I found Dymbel, who was soon introducing me (as “blogger extraordinaire”, gawd bless him) to various authentically rumpled, literary-looking types. (Those crisp, tailored lines were such a giveaway.)
“Hello, I’m Mike! I’m an integral part of the mass amateurisation and dumbing down of culture, which threatens to obliterate the last shreds of respect for an intellectual elite! And you are....?”
Well, I could have said that. You know, all waspish-like, for laffs. But instead I came over all Aaargh This Is A Networking Opportunity I Cannot Cope, and fled back to the sanctuary of the office.
First thing I did: Google for the guy that Dymbel first introduced me to. (“You must know each other. No? Well, maybe you move in different worlds.”) Oh crap, he was only one of the most senior and well-respected members of the Nottingham literary community. And I’d just shaken my head and blinked. Well, he hadn’t heard of me either. Cuts both ways, dunnit?
An hour or so later, loins duly girded and best face forward, I was over at the Broadway Cinema for the official post-shoot canapé-and-fizz bash, getting there just in time for the last few seconds of the last speech. Basically, this was a launch event for something called the Nottingham Creative Business Awards 2007, which you can read all about over here. All neurotic passive-aggressive snark aside, I wish it well.
Before long, I found myself talking to a couple of published writers: Clare Brown (who doesn’t have a blog) and Nicola Monaghan (who has two: a fiction blog and a “creative process” blog). Naturally, both conversations homed in on the bloggers-with-book-deals phenomenon, the are-blogs-for-writers-a-help-or-hindrance question, and so forth and suchlike. Most enjoyable.
While Nicola clued me up on the Bookarazzi website, another resource for bloggers with book deals, a familiar face sat down opposite. “Just relax”, he said, pulling out his pad and pen.
This wasn’t the first time that Brick had drawn a caricature of me – his splendid James Gillray pastiche (“All Broad Street trembled as he strode”), as commissioned by Dymbel and Dymbellina for my fortieth birthday, still enjoys pride of place in the cottage – but it was the first time that he, or indeed anyone else, had done so impromptu.
If you’re one of those people who comes over all self-conscious and coy whenever a camera lens is wafted in their general direction, then imagine having that feeling extended for ten minutes or so, while you try and make interesting conversation with nice bright creative types at a Networking Opportunity, with blues music blaring into your left eardrum, just loud enough to block out what was being said diagonally opposite. But I coped, really I did, maintaining both my posture (ooh, three-quarter face on the left hand side, the best angle!) and my brightest, most engaged smile.
An hour or so later, and we were on the top floor of Waterstone’s, awaiting the arrival of Armistead Maupin.
“Look at my new digi-dictaphone!”, I chirped to Dymbel and Dymbellina. “I hope it can pick him up from this distance.”
“Er, Mike, you do know that you’re not supposed to quote writers without their express permission? It’s not exactly ethical.”
I instantly rouged up. Call me naïve, but surely public events like these were, by their very definition, on the record? Evidently not. Well, too late to go asking around at the eleventh hour. I’d make the recording anyway, and then have a word at the signing session after the talk.
As expected, Armistead Maupin was pure delight from start to finish. (The article appears in the Evening Post on Friday, and on t’blog soon after that.) As the final applause died away, the woman to my right leant over. I’d noticed her looking over a few times, and had assumed that she was glaring at the digi-dictaphone, not so subtly wedged between my Pradas.
But no. This was K, a fellow German graduate of the class of 1985, whom I hadn’t seen for over twenty years – even longer than Armistead, come to think of it. With so much to catch up on, I didn’t make my way to the signing queue until perilously late in the day.
When Mike Met Armistead, then. It wasn’t quite the communion of souls that I’d hoped for. By this stage, over a hundred eager punters down, the great man was clearly flagging, and unmaskably disengaged from his immediate surroundings. I tried, of course – and in giving me his permission to quote him directly for the article, he was the very model of graciousness. Signatures were procured, for me and for sadly absent “fag-hag extraordinaire” MissMish (her suggestion, his dedication).
Ah, the creative life, how it takes its toll. The article took three hours, the recording just the right side of audible, the copy filed just before 1:00 a.m. Bloody difficult, but enormous fun. And I’m not complaining neither. It's turning out to be quite a week...
See also: Caricature Inc., Armistead Maupin's brand spanking new blog, Nicola Monaghan's write-up of the creative get-together.
Monday, July 09, 2007
Smokey Robinson, Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Sunday July 8.
(This review won’t be appearing in any of them thar news-papers, not never ever. Woo-hoo! Bring on the irrelevant asides, the superfluous adverbs and the gratuitous use of the first person! At last I am free, I can hardly see in front of me!)
Oh, the sweet relief of being unshackled from professional responsibilities. As the locally sourced string section trouped onto the stage (a particular feature of the tour, which could be seen as either a magnanimous gesture or a crafty cost-cutting ploy), I found myself automatically counting the number of players. Stop that! You’re here for pleasure, not duty! (Not that the two are mutually exclusive, of course...)
Thanks to some super-prompt ticket ordering manoeuvres, we had secured seats in the middle of the fifth row – so close that you have could have counted Smokey’s wrinkles, if he’d had any. My, but there’d been some work done: as Dymbel observed, the upper half of his face was all but frozen, setting off his weirdly perma-startled eyes. And oh, the outfits. Top Number One, a symphony in lilac, was so sheer that we could make out the Robinson nipples lurking beneath. There’s Up Close And Personal, and there’s Over-Sharing.
To be honest, I’d been worried all along by the cheese potential; worries that were scarcely allayed by the lovely lady backing dancers, both furiously channelling the spirit of Miss Anglia Television circa 1981 – or bearing in mind their relentlessly literal textual interpretations, perhaps it was more the spirit of Pan’s People circa 1973. For Quiet Storm, the duo pranced about in foxy rainwear, brandishing plastic brollies. For Night And Day, the lovely white lady wore a black gown and the lovely black lady wore a white gown… you get the picture? During the encore, an interminable “let’s divide you into two groups and see who can make the most noise!” excursion which was enough to put you off its central refrain (“I love it when we’re cruising together”) for ever and a day, I hissed seditiously in Dymbellina’s ear: “If Carol Vorderman and her mate come back in sailors’ hats, I might have to shoot them...”
However, it was the last violinist on the right who tickled me the most. Perched at the end of the row like a fair-haired Mona Lisa, she strived for impassivity, but failed to mask her distaste for some of the more flagrant cavortings. Classy classically-trained lady, I was with you all the way.
Equally – and this was shared by most of the local string section, none of whom had met Smokey until that afternoon – she also found it impossible to suppress her delight at getting to perform with one of the truly great soul legends. Indeed, the delight fairly rippled round the room. His first ever UK tour? (No, really, it said so in The Guardian.) Just six dates? And one of them here in Nottingham, in the comparative intimacy of the Royal Concert Hall? How blessed we were.
At the age of 67, Robinson’s voice was as clear as ever, with none of the frailties that had affected Andy Williams’ performance last Thursday. Perhaps it was a little low in the mix at the start of the set, and perhaps both the performer and his audience needed to lose that initial stiffness, before getting their respective grooves on. However, if you are going to need a couple of warm-up numbers, then you can’t bank on much better than Going To A Go-Go, I Second That Emotion and You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me. With material of that calibre, we struggled through just fine.
Three songs in, I still feared that Smokey was going to be too much of a lightweight cabaret turn. Those oddly inexpressive eyes. That simpering, I’m-Motown’s-nice-guy smile, which has always slightly put me off the man.
And then, with the slow-burning ballad Ooo Baby Baby, it all turned round. Stretching the 32 year old song way beyond its traditional outro, Smokey embarked upon an extemporised coda which steadily increased in intensity, depth and emotional acuity. With eyes screwed up in concentration, he searched within and pulled out the night’s first evidence of true soul, as opposed to placatory showboating.
From that point, Robinson’s two sides – the showman and the soul man – co-existed in a more or less easy truce, which saw him reaching out to differing elements of his disparate audience, at different times and in different ways. For those that enjoyed being conducted in suspiciously slick “impromptu” singalongs, there was ample opportunity. For the soul-buff aficionados, there were enough off-piste song choices to keep heads nodding and mental check-lists ticked off. Even the extended plug for the new covers album (Timeless Love) passed without undue discomfort. Hell, even the Stevie Wonder impersonation made us chuckle; whatever it lacked in comic genius was more than compensated by the palpable authenticity of its affection.
The selections from Smokey’s demonstrably undervalued 1980s renaissance sounded particularly fantastic, the highlight being the deliciously easy-going Just To See Her (a Number 52 smash in 1987, and hence perhaps not the wisest of choices for another attempted impromptu singalong). Having already been performed in the same venue by Andy Williams last week, the song is a recent discovery and a current favourite of mine; it’s also one of Dymbellina’s personal favourites.
As the applause started up at the end of the number, Smokey’s smiling gaze fell in our direction. Smiling back, Dymbellina and I raised our hands upwards and outwards, nodding in appreciation. Our nods were returned with an equally respectful, somewhat courtly half-bow. It was a brief but luminous moment of direct connection – and in my case at least, unprecedented in thirty years of regularly attending live shows. As such, I suspect I shall always remember it with particular fondness.
During the statutory introduce-the-band section, one player – a magisterially impassive old fella in shades, with something of the grizzled blues veteran about him, who was contributing the loveliest of guitar licks throughout – was completely overlooked. What’s the story there, I wondered. Some sort of simmering backstage enmity? A silent, sulking stand-off, of Blair/Brown proportions?
Right at the end of the main set – which was fast approaching the two-hour mark – and accompanied by opening notes of The Tracks Of My Tears – which the grizzled old fella, now spotlighted, was repeatedly picking out on solo guitar – all was explained. This was none other than Marvin “Marv” Tarplin, resident guitarist for the Miracles all through the 1960s, and a co-writer and contributor to many other classic Motown hits. Thus revealed and warmly received, Tarplin led Robinson into the night’s most sublime, spine-tingling and unequivocally soulful performance. Who cared about the silly encore which followed? In the face of such awe-inspiring, oh-my-God-I-can’t-believe-we-just-SAW-that magic, it mattered not a jot.
An open thread for suggestions on how to improve Post Of The Week.
Maybe it's just the start of the summer lull, but I can't help feeling that, despite a continuing run of terrific winning posts, dear old Post Of The Week has got stuck in something of a rut. After six months of seamless consistency, which has worked pretty well until the last few weeks, perhaps it's time we that thought about making some improvements to the way that the site operates.
Perhaps it's a little impersonal, a little austere, a little predictable, a little underused, a little short on liveliness and surprise? If so, then what changes would you like to see? I'd really welcome some open debate and some positive, practical suggestions.
My box is at your disposal. (Again, please ignore the wonky comment counts, should they re-occur.)
Sunday, July 08, 2007
The Shaggy Blog Podcast: anatomy of a failure.
Just over a month after it went on sale, the supposedly "eagerly awaited" Shaggy Blog Podcast has sold a grand total of... wait for it... eleven copies. (Which is three fewer than the actual number of contributors, embarrassingly enough.)
OK, so you can't win 'em all. Nevertheless, I thought it might be instructive to conduct a post-mortem as to What Went Wrong, Not That I Am In Any Way BITTERLY Disappointed After Putting In SO MUCH HARD WORK, Oh Dear Me No, Ha Ha, Whatever Gave You That Idea, I Mean What Do You Take Me For, Some Kind Of Over-Sensitive Drama Queen?
Here's a list of every contributory factor that I can think of. If you have any thoughts of your own, then please let me have 'em.
1. Lack of publicity. Apart from a mention here on Troubled Diva, only six other blogs have mentioned the podcast, all of them fellow contributors. Which means that seven of the contributors haven't even considered it worth mentioning. This does perplex me, I must say.
2. Lack of push. Assuming, more than a little naively, that Everybody Reads Mike, I didn't send out an e-mail to the individual contributors, asking them to spread the word. Because, y'know, these things happen organically, right? Evidently not. Oh, the hubris!
3. Too much information. Perhaps I shouldn't have listed the names of the 14 contributors, making you all pay up to find out. And more significantly, maybe I shouldn't have offered a free two-minute preview MP3? Talk about killing the mystery.
4. Bad timing. By the time the podcast came out, it was already over two months after Red Nose Day, and the original release of the book. The hubbub had died down; the momentum had been lost; and did I hear someone say "compassion fatigue"?
5. The "I'll get round to it" factor. Of the 536 people who have viewed the ordering page, I'll bet that a darned sight more than 11 intended to buy the podcast, but never quite got round to it. All that faffing around entering credit card details and such-like; it's a pain, I do agree.
6. The "but we've read these pieces already" factor. Perhaps fresh original content would have shifted more units?
7. The "audio as less desirable medium" factor. Which of us has the time to listen to over an hour's worth of spoken-word content anyway?
8. The price factor. Is two quid too much to spend on an MP3? Or is two quid such a small amount that, from a charitable point of view, it scarcely seems worth bothering with? (NB. £1.60 from each sale goes to Comic Relief, which is a pretty favourable percentage.)
9. The Duff Product factor. Perhaps people just aren't that interested in spoken word podcasts. Which is a useful lesson to learn in its own right.
Any further thoughts? Let's have 'em. In the meantime, it really is an awfully good podcast, and so reasonably priced, not that I'm twisting your arm or anything, oh dear me no, what am I, the Bob Geldof of British Blogging, etc etc...
N.B. The comment counts on recent posts have started playing up, for which apologies. Unfortunately, my comments provider has gone into "zero-support mode", so there's not a fat lot that can be done about it for now...
Andy Williams, Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Thursday July 5.
(This review originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post. My mate Dymbel's review - uncannily similar in some ways, markedly different in others - can be read here.)
With less than five months until his eightieth birthday, Andy Williams is almost the last vocal artist of his generation still out there, performing on a regular basis. Even now, the first cracks and frailties in his singing voice are only just appearing. Strong as ever on the “big” notes, it was only during the softer, lower passages that you noticed any difficulties.
Looking trim and dapper in his dinner suit, and backed by a fine ten-piece band and four-strong chorus, Williams radiated a genial, assured charm, making it all look, as his old hit put it, “so easy”.
For those on a nostalgia kick, the old favourites were present and correct: a sassy, snappy Music To Watch Girls By, a tenderly yearning Home Lovin’ Man, and the evergreen classic Moon River, which drew a standing ovation. Can’t Take My Eyes Off You knocked spots off the version performed here recently by the Pet Shop Boys, and Smokey Robinson’s Just To See You set a high standard for the Motown legend to follow on Sunday evening.
While some covers worked better than others (Robbie Williams’ She’s The One was a bold but ill-advised choice), a thrilling rendition of MacArthur Park was the absolute musical highlight: adventurously arranged, and with Andy’s voice magically restored to full power.
The show ended with a historic announcement: not only was Nottingham the final date of the tour, but it was also Andy’s final tour. There had been something of the farewell lurking throughout the show – particularly during a slowed down Breaking Up Is Hard To Do – and now we knew why. With a minimum of fuss, Williams strolled casually off stage and, as Days Of Wine And Roses so poignantly put it, “towards a closing door, a door marked "nevermore" that wasn't there before.”
Postscript: Curious to know which other survivors from the pre-rock era are still performing regularly, I started this discussion thread on the I Love Music board. Turns out there are a quite a few...