Monday, 29 March 2010

Peter Gabriel Scratch My Back with New Blood

An artist of the stature of Peter Gabriel is often caught between a rock and a hard place. Even his post Genesis solo repetoire extends back to the 70s with so many massively popular songs it is inevitable that when you try something new your stalwart fans may initially be a bit puzzled. Equally, just rolling out the back catalogue you run the risk being criticised for not offering something new! His latest venture combines the two in an inspired way and manages to deflect either opinion.

His latest 'Scratch my Back' project takes other artists songs (who will, in return, record their version of a PG song) arranged for a full 54 piece orchestra (no drums and guitars!) delivered in a format that is far more akin to a classical music recital than your usual stadium rock approach. The first half comprised ALL the tracks from the CD album in the same track running order whilst the post interval 2nd half saw the orchestra playing arrangements of PG's own songs.

The songs, or pieces, were all supported by simple yet stunning 'arty' graphics which included some video elements (on an array of LEDs rather than projection screens) the focus was clearly the music, with conductor  Ben Foster at the helm, supporting vocals from Peter's daughter Melanie with a charismatic Norwegian lass, Ane Brun and a brilliant pianist Tom Cawley. The opening was David Bowies 'Heroes' which started with one of the LED screens obscuring the orchestra displaying very sparse graphics totally synchronised to the music which eventually raised to reveal the orchestra and PG himself stepping onto the front part of the stage.

As mentioned, the set list followed the running order of the Scratch my Back album, check out the player on my blog here. Highlights were the whole drama of the opening with 'Heroes', the starkness of 'Boy in the Bubble', 'The Power of the Heart' and 'Book of Love' which had a witty and self deprecating sequence on the displays killing off any thoughts of sentimentality! PG found his stride in 'The Power of the Heart' with a passionate and committed vocal performance that drew the most applause in part one. Gabriel fans are very respectful so although the response could not be called rapturous, it was polite even if sometimes puzzled.

For me personally I found it immensely stimulating and inspiring yet very much with the classical music concert similarity to the fore. Often attending classical recitals you are not as familiar with the material, so it is an adventure which may not always be delightful and can sometimes be quite arduous. The lack of familiarity, at times, didn't make for easy listening, not a bad thing in my book, regardless John Metcalfe's arrangements and orchestration throughout were brilliant! I would say the 'high brow' factor placed it somewhere twixt Classic FM and Radio 3 with PG's grace and gifts building an accessibility bridge to the essentially Radio 2 audience.

The genius was saving the familiar material, albeit with the previously unheard orchestral versions, as the whole of the second half. Again the arrangements were stunning and gave new textures to the Gabriel catalogue, with the extensive suite of texture and dynamics an orchestra can deliver new facets of PG's songs appeared. This time it was the audience who found their stride, clapping along, cheering, mimicking PG's gestures and even standing in appreciation!

'Solsbury Hill' was the clear 'clapometer' favourite and along with 'In your Eyes' plus the pre-encore set closer 'Don't Give Up' being my own personal 2nd half highlights. Selecting 'Don't Give Up' felt significant, whether by design or default I don't know. The whole of the 'Scratch My Back' CD is very much a Lament for the world (more on Steve Stockman's Blog here), where we have screwed up environmentally, ecologically, tribal / civic wars, corruption, terroism, ethnic cleansing, shock and awe etc. Therefore including 'Don't Give Up' so brilliantly gave hope and encouragement for the future.

To be nitpicky I cannot say it was all perfect. The orchestra was not tight, it did not groove and or have the feel that PG's band excels at, the sound was a bit harsh and sometimes some cues were missed. Equally these points are much more noticable in an orchestral format so overall it did not tarnish or diminish my enjoyment. I am so glad I was able to go and experience this firsthand, a very special and memorable eve. If you get the chance, there are not many dates left and only in North America, don't miss it!

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Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Art, Music and falling short on Godpod

So goes the quote from Rita's mother in the wonderful film 'Educating Rita' which formed part of the discussion on the latest 'GodPod #53' which I stumbled across the other day. The main topic was principally on the subject of art by guest artist Charlie Mackesy. The quotation above, which Charlie drew attention to, was actually directed to church music, particularly so called modern worship music. Interestingly the conversation did not draw conclusions other than the rather easy cop-out about personal taste and preference despite promptings by host theologian Graham Tomlin asking whether their should be 'rules' to govern scope.

The consensus was very much that there shouldn't be such rules yet this is where I think things fail bigtime although I would prefer to use the term 'Absolutes' , I do have sympathy with the negative sense of rules! I certainly think this issue is worth a good listen as Charlie's contributions are excellent and, despite, generally, clergy being weak on the subject of music, Graham, as clearly a man of good taste (liking one of my fave bands 'Mumford and Sons'!) and author of the excellent book 'Provocative Church', would, if pushed, have had more to contribute on this subject.

However, the notion that something should be 'better' is profound, particularly concerning music played in churches. For many this seems a simple issue of old versus new and therefore it is just a matter of preference to 'enjoy' worship in your own comfort zone. Whilst there are clearly issues of old v new which has warranted a good few discussions the situation is much more interwoven than that. I would suggest that a lot of the time it is exactly one of how it could be better, so let's have a quick look at a couple of areas to consider:

Interestingly David Byrne has recently delivered a TED talk on the environment that creates music (styles) and refers directly to how certain church music developed because of the building space it was set in. In fact, BBC4's series Sacred Music highlighted how much of the early chants were an effective sound reinforcement system to project the liturgy to the corners of large churches and cathedrals. David Byrne also stated how music becomes 'auditory mush' when a style is played in a space that simply does not match.

One of the big problems with modern church music in the worship music genre is that it is generally 'not very good' to quote Martyn Joseph. The reasons for this are varied and include the church selling out to singer - songwriters, the development of a revenue earning business model and the fact that most so-called worship leaders (and record companies) lead conferences to train more leaders, thereby perpetuating the same mediocrity. Sadly Holy Trinity Brompton, on which even the edgy GodPods reside, is deeply guilty of this!

As far as more traditional music is concerned many of the same issues apply, however, it is more glaringly obvious when there are errors in tuning and choice of music. Church choirs and organs represent an earlier sell-out by the church when the West gallery musicians, usually blokey blokes who were still a bit tipsy from playing at a Saturday night party, were ousted out to make way for the more solemn and staid sucessors. Many say this was a contributing factor to there being a much lower percentage of men in the church.

To expand the 'not very good' aspect we have to realise so many of the singer/songwriters are not naturally gifted musicans (and/or authors). There are many instrumentalists that are pretty good but often they are playing in a style that is not appropriate and encourage the narcisstic issues surrounding the worship leader. Most great songwriters (in the real world) are teams, usually a double act where one focusses on music whilst the other concentrates on creating lyrics that at least rhyme, have a regular metre and are poetic :-) The latter point, hymn or song lyrics, was certainly discussed on GodPod #53 and, thankfully, on this the contributors were more decisive in their critique.

So I strongly feel we have to consider that there are 'Absolutes' as far as church music is concerned. It seems there is no common sense guidance to get people to think that what they do is to enable congregations to worship rather than be the worship, to serve rather than perform, to be special with a committment to excellence (yet ideally not necessarily perfect!) and try to be distinct rather than presenting a poor copy of world culture. The 'Absolutes' approach helps form strategies so that appropriate styles would be considered, standards of music and lyrics adhered to and that the musicians and singers have a greater understanding of music, basic theology and even why they are there in the first place.

Oh, yes, I have so much more to say on this...!


Saturday, 20 March 2010

Jeff Buckley - BBC Soul Music

UPDATE: Newer post includes 2nd half of this BBC Radio's Soul Music broadcast with Sarah Connolly, Jeremy Summerly, Alison Moyet and Philip Sheppard on Jeff Buckley's amazing interpretation here

BBC Radio 4's recent edition of 'Soul Music' which featured Dido's Lament turned out to be really special! It always gives me enormous encouragement (and pleasant surprise!) to hear top notch classical maestros admitting truths that most of their colleagues would consider heresy.

The program moved from a fairly conventional start covering thoughts from the mezzo soprano Sarah Connolly and the view of the conductor of the band at the Cenotaph for Remembrance Day.

Jeremy Summerly, the big boss of the Royal Academy of Music and a renowned conductor, issued the first challenges to conventional thinking about the approach to singing the piece. He asked how would anyone know how 17th Century singers would sound and then introduced Alison Moyet's version, praising her approach, the clarity of her timbre and the fact that every word is intelligible. For someone of Jeremy's stature in the classical world to say this is really something, especially as he stated that Purcell's masterpiece is 'the great tune of the 17th Century'.

The closing section of the programme introduced Philip Sheppard, cellist and now composer. He spoke about how he was invited along to be part of the supporting orchestra for Elvis Costello's Meltdown Festival in 1995. One of the pieces was to be Dido's Lament which would be sung by charismatic rock singer Jeff Buckley. Although Philip had never heard of Jeff Buckley before once he heard him singing it had a most profound effect on him:
He seemed to screw every ounce of meaning out of the words and physically he looked like he was wracked with pain and anguish as he was singing it. But what was coming out was beyond ethereal his voice had this quality where it meant so much more than when I had ever heard it before.

But then when he sang it it seemed to be a Lament so much more and it really went beyond what I would consider to be classical music...and to date it's actually probably the greatest musical
experience of my life, in as much as it turned my world inside out.
As a result Philip had to admit:
I know NOTHING about music - at all!
Up to that point I was a musican who played through study rather than a musician who played through feel and now I have to say I seek out people to work with who do not necessarily read music who have their first sense is one of 'ear' rather than of 'technique'...
Philip then goes on to say how this became a pivotal moment in his career which helped him to become a composer, enabling him to move away from being 'a player who just repeated other people's music'.

Jeff Buckley died in a tragic accident just two years later in 1997, sunsequently his version of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah' reached number one in the US Billboard charts and is considered by many to be the definitive version.

Now Philip thinks of Jeff nearly every day and is ever grateful for the effect of the encounter, even though he only met him for around half an hour...

Listening to this has changed me forever, too, thank you so much...


Monday, 8 March 2010

To preserve or be preserved....

As I have already demonstrated I am an avid reader of Seth Godin's excellent blog... yeah, yeah, yeah, I know! This quotation from Andrew Carnegie in yesterday's entry struck me:
"Take away my people, but leave my factories and soon grass will grow on the
factory floors......Take away my factories, but leave my people and soon we will
have a new and better factory."
This can clearly be applied to the church despite, it seems, obsessional efforts made to preserve our crumbling edifices... so in some ways it is brilliant that a church would readily survive their building, however, I wonder if we should challenge ourselves to question how essential 'church' buildings really are? After all the first Eucharist was celebrated in a rented room... no faculty required for that!

Check this out for inspiration! Church from Scratch Video Diary h/t Jonny Baker

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Wednesday, 3 March 2010

What's making y'all tick...

Still can't help it... must be the music biz heritage!

Top viewed BanksyBoy Briefings February 2010:

1 Why modern worship songs are crap - my most read post ever!
2 Let me through I'm an Anglican... not!
3 The Digital Economy Bill - Oxymoronic
=3 Take me Higher - A Lent thought with the short film 'Sign Language'
5 All the Small Things really matter - Choirs and stuff
=5 From Candleford (to Lark Rise) with Love
7 Christendom or Christianity and the controversial T-Shirt
8 Pete Rollins on Insurrecionist Theology
9 A welcome return for the Prog Rock definition post!
10 Seth Godin seems to get it right every time - here he completely nails it!

All Time top views (since Dec 2009)

1 <> Why modern worship songs are crap - my most read post ever! New at No 1!
2 >1 Ashamed Anglican? Bravo Father Tim and shame on you Archdeacon of York - should have stood by your man
3 <> Let me through I'm an Anglican... not!
4 >2 One of After The Fire's youngest fans comes up with a brilliant CD design
5 >4 Angels from the realms of... er, Norway! Breathtaking and truly wonderful music
6 >3 Great tidings of joy in the Brit film Nativity!
7 >6 Brilliant article in blokes mag Esquire by Greenbelt Festival speaker Shane Claiborne
8 >7 Whilst we allow poverty through inequality we are culpable for disasters like Haiti - Thank God for cancellation of Haiti's debt since
9 >5 After The Fire becomes International Rescue as ATF ring tone finds mobile in snow drift
10 <> Mumford & Sons, music to mend and inspire!

Top referring blogs February 2010 - A new No 1 up from 10 last month

1 <10 (Joe Haward)
2 >1 (James & Maggie)
3 <8 (Archdruid Eileen)
4 <> (Richard Hall)
5 >2 (Revd Sam)
6 >3 (Graham Peacock)
7 <>
8 >4 (Phil Ritchie)
9 <> (Bishop Alan Wilson)
10 >9 (Madpriest)


Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Scratch my Back... Peter Gabriel preview

Peter Gabriel's latest project is a suite of cover versions recorded with an orchestra. Some of the songs are in a very stripped down style, giving huge emphasis to the lyrics. One of the joys of this is tracking back to some of the original versions, especially of some by lesser known artistes. All the composers are returning the compliment by recording a Peter Gabriel song themselves.

Check out a video mini documentary of Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon discussing their respective approaches to 'Boy in the Bubble' and 'Biko'.