Monday, May 04, 2009

Morrissey vs Ultravox - Belfast Waterfront Hall

Morrissey has always enjoyed an iconic position in popular music, buoyed by an army of loyal fans, some of whom were observed passing letters and gifts to their idol as he showcased his new album, Years of Refusal at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall on Saturday night.

At one point, a particularly ardent fan seized the microphone and gushed about how thankful he was that his idol had come to see us all and save us with his songs. Morrissey nodded smugly, shook another hand and received another letter.

Strutting and flailing beneath a blown-up image of a bare-chested sailor, chomping on a cigar and flexing his muscles, Morrissey sang his way through a selection of his back catalogue, interspersed with the occasional tune from his days in The Smiths.

Nothing beyond recent single, I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris, stood out from the new album. Songs from Morrissey’s previous (better) album, Ringleader of the Tormentors, were wholly absent, while tracks from You Are The Quarry dominated the rest of the set. The highlights of the evening were an energetic rendition of The Loop and the mournful, Seasick, Yet Still Docked.

Although Morrissey and his band delivered his solo material with aplomb, older tunes seemed to drag, without the mellifluous guitar of Johnny Marr. This Charming Man, Girlfriend in a Coma, Ask and Some Girls are Bigger Than Others were robbed of their delicacy and instead became translated as plodding pub anthems.

There’s probably a section of the audience that expects this old material, although I feel Morrissey’s performance would be improved without it. Such songs might be better realised either stripped down as acoustic versions or transformed by modern production techniques; but these days, Morrissey seems too rooted to the traditional garage-band format to attempt anything that might develop his talents in a more interesting direction.

Things were altogether different the following evening, when Ultravox took to the same stage.

Never having been a big fan of Ultravox, I only decided to attend the gig when I found out they were playing Visions in Blue. It was the only Ultravox seven-inch single I possessed as a youth, mainly due to the robotic, electronic section that formed its second half. Besides, Ultravox were one of the panoply of bands that lit up a childhood spent dazzled by practically anyone on Top of the Pops in the early 1980s.

My earliest memory of Ultravox is of them performing their best-known track, Vienna on Top of the Pops in early 1981, with singer, Midge Ure resplendent in leather fetish hat, white vest and pencil moustache.

For this reunion performance, Ure was bald and barely recognisable behind dark glasses. Vienna, though, sounded just the same with its stabbing white-noise, spooky synth washes and Billy Currie, melancholy on the violin.

Accompanied by stark blue lighting, cold spotlights and a pulsing backdrop, the entire effect was akin to an old episode of Blake’s 7. The dystopian-future mood was invoked by the proto-techno of Mr X, The Thin Wall and Your Name (Has Slipped My Mind).

Alas, the science-fiction air of doom and alienation wasn’t to last and the rousing guitar-driven hits, Hymn, The Voice and Dancing With Tears in my Eyes had the audience on its feet, clapping and hooting.

Unlike Morrissey, Midge Ure did not receive letters or gifts from his followers, and when one overjoyed fan rushed to the front of the stage to dance, two tuxedo-wearing bouncers emerged from either side of the arena and politely guided him back to his seat. I had the distinct feeling that the gushing Morrissey fan from the night before, along with his myriad companions, would greatly disapprove of the entire experience.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Enormous Turnip Awards - Chronicles of Long Kesh

Martin Lynch's Chronicles of Long Kesh, which finishes its debut run at Belfast's Waterfront Hall this evening, should perhaps have been subtitled Carry On Up The Kesh, such was its jokey tone and lack of any intellectual or political depth.

I'd never seen a Lynch play before, so I had nothing to measure it against, although it was hard not to be reminded of Steve McQueen's 2008 film, Hunger, which told the story of the 1981 Hunger Strikes on a painfully stark canvas. While McQueen explored the tensions between the main players, underlined with brutality and political self-determinism, Lynch resorted to folksy sitcom.

It might be unfair to compare The Chronicles of Long Kesh with Hunger, but it speaks volumes that the former was produced by a black Englishman, while the latter seemed to have dropped off the local Arts Council-funded conveyor-belt populated by the same old writers with little new to say.

Lynch is clearly a populist, but there is something deeply unsatisfying about reducing the story of Long Kesh to a series of cliched and comedic set-pieces that would not have looked out of place in an episode of EastEnders. Republican and Loyalist prisoners were presented as cyphers, despite the best efforts of a decent cast, and women were portrayed as needy housewives.

By the end of the whole thing, the experience became suspended somewhere between The Full Monty and the denouement of The History Boys as we got a singsong and a roll-call of the eventual fate of each character. In short, Chronicles of Long Kesh was theatre-by-numbers.

Martin Lynch, step up to the podium and accept your turnip.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Simple Minds - Odyssey Arena, Belfast

Prior to going to see Simple Minds at Belfast’s Odyssey Arena last night, I’d imagined the band’s fans to fall into two distinct categories: those who thrilled to the pre-1982 fusion of electro and funk that championed Simple Minds as princes of the new wave, and those that shook their fists to the lumpen stadium rock that came with later success.

As an older and heavier Jim Kerr and Charlie Burchill arrived on stage to the strains of Waterfront, the fists were raised across the arena and middle-aged dancing commenced. My initial bewilderment soon turned to smug satisfaction as the thunderous aplomb of their 1983 hit gave way to the electronic pulse of 1980’s I Travel and the stadium fans sat down. I’d have danced, but I would have been on my own.

This was the last date on Simple Minds current tour, celebrating thirty years as a live act. I’d come to see their 1982 album, New Gold Dream, which was played in its entirety. As Someone, Somewhere in Summertime segued into Colours Fly and Catherine Wheel, it was as if a completely different band had claimed the stage. Even the bombastic light show shimmered to a cool, sophisticated purple, in harmony with the spectral synth washes and fluid bass lines.

It was a brave move for Simple Minds to incorporate this landmark album into the middle of their performance; at times, it seemed as if they were in danger of losing the audience. A line of stadium fans sitting behind me went to the bar during the sublime Big Sleep and Somebody Up There Likes You.

Normal service was resumed as the Eno and Byrne-inspired King is White and in the Crowd gave way to Up on the Catwalk and Don’t You Forget About Me. The people in the row behind me returned to their seats and it was all fists punching the air again.

Even the cloying sentiment of Belfast Child failed to deter the acolytes. As with Van Morrison’s Gloria, offered by way of a gift earlier in the set, they hooted, stamped their feet and sang along.

“Some day soon, they’re gonna pull the old town down,” Kerr sang, before assuring, “No chance!” The crowd roared its approval. Though, coming in at two hours and twenty minutes, and delivering a performance that would shame bands half their age, I reckon Simple Minds deserved the applause.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Ladytron - Live at The Stiff Kitten, Belfast

If they had been around back in the early 1980s, Ladytron would have been the kind of band you would have fallen in love with on watching them perform their latest hit on Top of the Pops, sandwiched between The Human League and Adam and the Ants.

With their infectious blend of electro-pop and fuzzy post-punk, Ladytron exist in the tradition of those few bands that are best characterised by a string of glittering and perfect pop singles. It’s therefore a shame that none of their songs have so far been able to make any significant impact on the pop charts.

Looking as if they had been styled by a Teutonic Mary Quant, Mira Aroyo and Helen Marnie appeared on the Stiff Kitten stage like parallel universe versions of Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. The hausfrau image sat perfectly alongside the bubbling electronics and squalling guitar. The on-stage roving spotlight that settled on one band member before gliding away to gaze on another cemented the Nuremberg-chic.

We were informed that Mira had broken her ankle that morning, and so remained seated at her keyboard, looking at times as if she was weeping. There would be no blank-faced, Abba-esque back-to-back singing then, which is how I imagined Ladytron would present themselves to a live audience.

Opening with Black Cat the set list mainly concentrated on songs from the last two albums, including Ghosts, Season of Illusions, High Rise, Soft Power, International Dateline, Seventeen and current single, Runaway. The four-members of the band were supplemented by two others, including a live drummer, who provided added punch to the sequenced percussion. At times, the vocals seemed too far back in the mix and much of the top-end sounds were lost amid the thundering bass. It was as if My Bloody Valentine had descended on the sound desk.

Fighting in Built up Areas, with Mira intoning in Bulgarian and Helen on breathy backing vocals, demanded to be immortalised in a stylish horror film, in much the same way that Bauhaus had electrified the opening scenes of Tony Scott’s The Hunger. The spotlight was replaced by a flickering strobe, which sparkled like a million flashbulbs over the attentive audience.

Due, I imagine, to the broken ankle, there was no encore. The performance ended with Ladytron’s best-known single, Destroy Everything You Touch. It’s the sort of song that should have gone to number one and stayed there for weeks; yet, in a world where Top of the Pops has been replaced by the mucky horrors of X-factor song contests, such crimes are to be expected.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Advertising Standards Authority vs Free Presbyterian Church

The Advertising Standards Authority has this week ruled that The Belfast News Letter was in breach of The Committee of Advertising Practice Code Clause 5.1 in publishing a full-page advertisement from Sandown Free Presbyterian Church.

The advertisement, published on 1st August 2008 and headlined 'The Word of God Against Sodomy' was timed to coincide with Belfast's annual gay pride festival and parade. It voiced its disapproval of homosexuality in typical Biblical vitriol.

Seven people complained to the ASA, who initially recommended that the complaints should not be upheld, although noted that a final decision would be taken by its Council.

The Council this week ruled out any consideration that the News Letter or Sandown Free Presbyterian Church acted to incite hatred but instead upheld complaints on the basis of CAP Code Clause 5.1, which notes that "Marketing communications should contain nothing that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence," and "Particular care should be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of race, religion, sex, sexual orientation or disability."

Commenting on the advertisement, Sandown Free Presbyterian Church quoted "God's truth," to mask its homophobia, while the Belfast News Letter noted it felt it appropriate "to express relevant views surrounding the issue, despite the fact that those views may be abhorrent to some," and that a refusal to publish the advertisement would have been "an infringement of freedom of expression on a matter of public interest."

The ASA has recommended that the advert should not appear again in its current form. The ASA has also informed Sandown Free Presbyterian Church to "take more care in future," to avoid causing offence and advised the church to seek a view from the CAP Copy Advice team before publishing future marketing material.

Since the ASA doesn't impose fines and holds no direct powers of legal censure, it seems likely that the Free Presbyterian Church will take little notice of its ruling. However CAP Code 61.8 notes that persistent offenders may be required to have some or all of their marketing communications vetted by the CAP Copy Advice team until the ASA and CAP are satisfied that future communications will comply with the Code.

CAP Code 61.10 goes further. It notes that if marketing communications continue to appear after the ASA Council has ruled against them, the ASA can refer the matter to The Office for Fair Trading for action under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 and the Business Protection from Misleading Marketing Regulations 2008. The OFT can seek an undertaking that the marketing will be stopped from anyone responsible for commissioning, preparing or disseminating it. If that is not given or is not honoured, the OFT can seek an injunction from the Court to prevent its further appearance. Anyone not complying can be found to be in contempt of court and is liable to be penalised accordingly.

This suggests that any further homophobic pamphleteering by Sandown Free Presbyterian Church could be directed back to the ASA, with the possibility of the church ending up in court.

At the very least, a warning shot has been fired. However, one wonders what happened to all those complaints to the police earlier this year, regarding Iris Robinson MLA's outspoken views on lesbian and gay people.

I recently attended a performance of DV8 Physical Theatre's 'To Be Straight With You' at London's National Theatre. During one scene, Robinson's homophobic ranting was played to barn-yard music, while performers in animal heads trotted around the stage. The audience hooted with laughter at the narrow provincialism described by the piece.

Such provincialism is the preserve of the Belfast News Letter. A newspaper of integrity would not have carried such an offensive full-page advertisement. Rather than engage in any significant journalism, the Belfast News Letter colludes with the rhetoric of fundamentalist loathing and echoes the spirit of a faded empire. I see nothing within the pages of that newspaper to convince me otherwise, although I hope it sees fit to print a full-page apology in one of this week's editions, along with a copy of the ASA's final adjudication.

To access the text of the full-page advertisement, as it appeared in the Belfast News Letter, click the image above.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Moron Moments - Corn Market Upgrade

The modernisation work on Belfast city centre's tired pavements is well underway. In the main, the results are impressive.

Yet, I'm surprised that no one thought to relocate the electricity box that stood beside the old bandstand in Corn Market.

Now that the bandstand is gone, the electricity box stands alone and incongrous in the middle of Corn Market, at the approach to the new Victoria Centre.

It would appear that amid the hysteria that surrounded the development of Belfast's flagship shopping centre, someone forgot about the little details.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Lou Reed's Berlin - Belfast Waterfront Hall

The last time I went to the Waterfront Hall in Belfast, I was greeted by a very lacklustre effort from Sinead O’Connor. Although I had higher hopes for Lou Reed, who brought his Berlin tour to the venue last night, I left disappointed by an average performance and bewildered by the audience’s hysterical reaction.

My main gripe was Reed’s tendency to sing the songs according to whatever lyrical phrasing that pleases him. Okay, they’re his songs and he can do what he likes with them, but I’d have preferred them to sound more like they do on the record. Surely that’s the point of presenting an album in its totality, live on stage. Reed’s delivery is generally conversational but I thought his ambling, talking style ruined The Kids and Caroline Says II.

The Berlin album runs for just under fifty minutes. Reed and his band compensated for this by ensuring the closing bars of nearly every song repeated over and over, while Reed and his guitarist engaged in over-bloated guitar jamming.

The mood improved towards the close of the album. The Bed and Sad Song translated beautifully and Reed sang in time to the music, although the refrain of the latter song seemed to go on for an age.

The encore consisted of near-unrecognisable versions of Rock and Roll and Satellite of Love. Reed’s boredom must have been complete by this point, as he didn’t even bother singing most of the words, leaving these duties to his bass player, backing singer and child-choir. Unfortunately, the final song The Power of the Heart was marred by Reed’s guitar sounding distinctly out of tune with the rest of the band, although Reed seemed aware of this, judging by his perplexed scrutiny of said guitar as he continued to play.

It seems standing ovations are commonplace in the Waterfront Hall. Like O’Connor last month, Reed’s audience was quickly on its feet and clapping like mad. Maybe they were on strong drugs, or something. The people in the row in front of me were waving their arms and whooping. I didn’t quite get it, although the sight of middle aged men dancing in the aisle and supplicating themselves, hands outstretched to their hero was somewhat bemusing.

Maybe I was just spoilt by an excellent Leonard Cohen performance in Dublin the week before.