The New Jersey Turnpike to the Newtownards Road

I was down the Newtownards Road tonight for a community discussion on the history of Ballymacarrett in East Belfast. There were many rich, funny, poignant, and shocking stories shared by those present about the area’s heritage. Van Morrison was mentioned a few times as an East Belfast man who referenced the area in some of his songs. During the evening I kept thinking back to the American singer-songwriters I love, and how they have romanticised their hometowns to such an extent that millions of people travel to these places as a result. How are American artists so much better at this?

Twice in the past 18 months I’ve travelled across the New Jersey Turnpike on the East Coast of the US – referenced in so many popular songs by performers such as Simon & Garfunkel and Bruce Springsteen. Stopping at a service area it felt like just another road, and a badly pot-holed one too! I think the Newtownards Road could hold just as much mystique if done the right way. Some novelists have managed it with Northern Ireland as a setting, maybe its time for musicians.

There’s a Dr Feelgood video at the top of the page because I watched a brilliant documentary about them on the BBC iPlayer last week called Oil City Confidential. It’s everything a rock documentary should be – fast-paced, gives a social context, doesn’t take its subject matter too seriously. Anyway, the members of the band talk at length about how, inspired by American blues music, they wanted to create a romantic image of their home town Canvey Island as the “Thames Delta” using the oil fields of the estuary as a backdrop. It worked, as fans of the band travelled there from all over the world based on the scene that they created.

What stories and places from where you live would make a great song? Scrabo would be a good one.

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I still owe money to the money to the money I owe

“The things that you mis-hear put yourself into it more”

I’ve misheard a lot of lyrics in The National’s High Violet album but just got used to singing them that way. Interesting to hear that Matt Berninger the main singer and songwriter mention at the beginning of this clip he actually hopes that will happen. It’s a curious point to make but a correct one – the songs with lyrics I can’t make out I do tend to play more, and then become more attached to them.

Wilco play Belfast for the first time

10 September 2010 at the Open House Festival – does not get much better than this!

  1. Ashes Of American Flags 
  2. Bull Black Nova 
  3. You Are My Face 
  4. I Am Trying To Break Your Heart 
  5. One Wing 
  6. A Shot In The Arm 
  7. Country Disappeared 
  8. Impossible Germany 
  9. Why Would You Wanna Live 
  10. I’ll Fight 
  11. Passenger Side 
  12. Handshake Drugs 
  13. At Least That’s What You Said 
  14. Jesus, Etc. 
  15. I’m Always In Love 
  16. Via Chicago 
  17. You Never Know 
  18. Hate It Here 
  19. Walken 
  20. I’m the Man Who Loves You 
  21. Hummingbird 
  22. Encore:
  23. California Stars 
  24. The Late Greats 
  25. Heavy Metal Drummer 
  26. Red-Eyed And Blue 
  27. I Got You (At the End of the Century) 
  28. I’m A Wheel

If they’d chucked in “Misunderstood” and “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” it would just have been too much for me. Custom House Square has had a hard time this summer with gigs eg. David Guetta, Florence and the (relentless) Machine – so this was a perfect show to end the holidays with!

Recently, someone who read my blog entry on Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as album of the decade asked me to contribute to a radio programme on student radio in Washington DC called Re:Stacks, based on people’s experiences of the album. It was all very random but fun, and exciting to hear the finished product here.

Latitude festival: Saturday

Had a bit of a lie-in on Saturday morning. Then spent a good portion of the day at the comedy tent where we had got a good spot. The girls brought portable chairs and I found a coffee table to sit on. I had never heard Ardal O’Hanlon’s stand-up before and it was gentle, surreal stuff. He was followed by Josie Long, who after a shaky start reverted to some old-fashioned tory-bashing, which was fine by me…not with everyone in the tent though! Jimeoin was hilarious…almost spoiled though by a group of women in the corner who had set down a picnic rug in the corner and yah’d annoyingly through his whole set.

After lunch we went to see Corinne Bailey-Rae at the main stage – a great set of smooth tunes, even her newer darker material sounded great in the sunshine. The Pimms was out in full force all around us. After that it was back to the comedy tent for Angelos Epithemiou – recently known for appearing in Shooting Stars with Vic and Bob. It was a bit cringy, and a bit Kaufman-esque, specially for those who had never heard of him. What’s in your bag Angelos? Back over afterwards for James at the main stage in an early evening slot.

Lisa has been a big fan of this band, and I guess I knew a fair few of their hits, but their performance was one of the highlights of the festival for me. Not (actually, never) the most fashionable band, but they seemed totally comfortable in their skin as they announced their intention to play a greatest hits set. Everyone round was smiling as James delivered one hymn to life after another. There’s a real sense of goodness about their music and the way they deliver it. I came away a massive fan! Pity they didn’t have longer as they drew a massive crowd, and would have made a worthier headline band than Belle and Sebastian.

Back to the comedy tent for a bit of Rich Hall…from waaay at the back as it was packed. I arrived just as he was telling some obnoxious kid to f**k off. I was with him on that, couldn’t believe the acts that parents let their kids listen to during the whole festival, despite warnings from comperes and acts themselves. I’m not in their position but it seemed a bit selfish to me. after that we took it easy in the evening. I dandered back into the arena for a bit of Belle and Sebastian but I’ve always found their fey act a bit calculated and snobbish. Headed for campsite soon after that to get some rest in advance of a busy final day.

Latitude festival: Feeling poor on Friday

Note to self: tent walls are not actual walls. Ours was probably a quiet enough part of the campsite but there was still too much loud guffawing from the hoorays camped across from us. One of them tried to steal a peg from our tent right in front of us the day before….privileged sense of entitlement and all that. In fact on Friday I realised just how poor(!) we were compared to most of the rest of the campers.

Leaving our pocket of deprivation for a drippy shower (they would get better), the early morning sunshine was reassuringly windless – thankfully the weather would remain hot and sunny for the rest of the weekend. There was a huge queue of people waiting to get into the arena..and once we were in we realised just how big the festival was. All of the venue tents seemed full to bursting. Festival veterans complained afterwards that the festival had gotten too big and I could see what they meant. Deciding to ease ourselves into the day, we went to the literary tent to hear the story of a former celebrity who ended up interviewing the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. Uncomfortably funny and shocking.

After lunch I headed back to the literary tent for a discussion on English identity with Billy Bragg, Mark Thomas and Jez Butterworth. It was bunged but I managed the not to be repeated trick of sneaking in under the side of the tent, almost losing my camera in the process. I got to ask a couple of questions and ended up being asked a few myself by the panel, which was pretty cool. Afterwards I was able to meet Billy Bragg which was great as I’m a big fan of his music, and politics. He remembered some specifics from his last gig in Belfast and we had a brief conversation about that.

Afterwards I caught myself on and remembered I was primarily here for the music. Caught the set by Hockey at the main stage, forgetting my age  by jumping into the politest mosh-pit ever. There may have even been a blanket on the ground. I was really there to see Spoon. They’re from Texas and have never toured Ireland, so this was a rare opportunity to catch them, Pity they were on at such a strange time and venue..I was surrounded by drunken regatta boys and teenage girls in wellies who had no interest in them at all. In the end it felt like a strange sort of private gig to me, and I wondered whether I came across as either (a) an obsessive fan singing all the lyrics on my own (b) a bit scary. I suspect it was a bit of both. Laura Marling was next but I find her quite boring.

Made my way back to wife and friends in the comedy tent for the end of Tommy Tiernan, who was hilarious. I thought the Irish comedians all weekend were the best. We sat in the tiered seating during Empire of the Sun, as the crowd gathered for Florence and the Machine – who will never be more than 6 metres away from you all of this summer. Just before she came on I made for the Word Arena with my sister just as Richard Hawley was finishing his set to get to the front for The National.

This is an awesome band. They have got better with every album, and they seemed like a different group from the ones I saw in the Spring and Airbrake in 2007. The whole band seemed to feed on the energy of the crowd to create one of the most compelling and intense atmospheres I have ever experienced at a gig. Every song sounded, and was treated like, an anthem by the crowd – most of whom seemed to be male and about my age/height.  It was like Joy Division only with the joy.

After The National we passed the main stage where the dog days were still not over. The National have five albums compared to Florence’s one – yet her set started before The National’s and ended after it! I think the poor girl needs a rest.

Latitude festival: Thursday

We took the plunge this year and went to a music festival, opting for Latitude near the coast of Suffolk. The line-up promised a varied mix of music, comedy, film, and literary-related entertainment. Given where it was situated, getting there was tiring – involving a plane journey and several trains/buses. We arrived mid-afternoon on Thursday,the day before the festival began properly. It was dry weather, but 50 mph winds made putting up the main tent nigh-on impossible and thoughts of home started to linger. Three hours later a slightly mis-shapen camp was finally set up in preparation for the rest of our group arriving later that evening.

Campers around us were an odd mix of older couples, sixth-formers, students. Plenty of families with young children were in a specially designated camp site. What these groups had in common though was that they all seemed quite posh – plenty of Maximuses, Mollies, Lucians and Tobys.

There wasn’t much on entertainment-wise on Thursday night. Nigel Kennedy was performing somewhere, and Tom Jones played his entire new album on a secret stage…not too secret though as we couldn’t get in. However for us the rest of the evening involved getting our bearings, relieved that the tents finally went up.

Idlewild at the Stiff Kitten, Belfast

The music of some bands tends to stick with you over the years, even if you don’t realise it. My (unexpected) expectancy at seeing Idlewild live and subsequently saturating car journeys, walks to work, and runs with their music brought this home to me.

It looks their career has petered out quite a bit. I was a relative latecomer to their music – only catching up when “The Remote Part” was released in 2002 to commercial acclaim and the seeing them supporting Coldplay on an arena tour that year. Now that was a great night at the Odyssey for a change – two young bands on an upward commercial and critical curve – very rare!

Now its a different scene – facebook diaries directly updated by the band, fan-financed albums, and touring via Ryanair and Travelodges. These are circumstances faced by many new touring bands, but still surprising for this group that seemed to be on such an upward trajectory. You’ll not even find their albums on sale in HMVs across Belfast.

Yet Wednesday night’s gig was triumphant. Roddy Woomble’s lyrics have progressed from “sixth form poetry” (which I think is often the BEST poetry) to enigmatic, cryptic wordplay drawing heavily on modern American and Scottish (sorry!) fiction. After progressing from their punky beginnings Idlewild were unfairly labelled as REM copyists but their last two albums have seen them break into a uniquely Scottish sounding band. Their melodies sound folkier but just as heavy. It’s difficult to describe – but I love it when a band tries to bring their own hometown influences into their music. You can inhabit your own places and history with just as much romance. Why does New Jersey sound so romantic when Bruce sings about it? Too often we end up having “contracted American dreams.” (from American English)