Polar Bear – Xoyo

I, like most reasonable people, abhor the saxophone. Seeing two saxophonists on stage with anything other than a big band (also bad) will make me about turn and shelter myself at the bar. But for Polar Bear, it’s ok.

Coupled with the humanity of Tom Herbert’s double bass and the Magellan of Max/MSP, Leafcutter John, there’s enough ambition and invention to forgive even a pair of these honking brass crimes, played stunningly by Pete Wareham and Mark Lockheart.

Band leader Seb Rochford nestles anonymously behind his kit, adding colour to the almost sinister palette his band are cooking up. In this world, playing the kit as a kit seems alien and intrusive.

As the evening mutates, Herbert and Rochford lock in to straight-ish, crowd-pleasing grooves, then let them dissipate into space before unpredictably pushing into harder areas, like a demo of live cartography.

What issues forth is less a representation of an album or group, but more of a set of parameters and ideas which can be taken away and reassembled by the listener post hoc. You get what the band allow through the leaking cracks of their unusual machine.

Live, improvised electronic music is very dangerous as often only the highly skilled – that is, not just someone with a MacBook – can even come close to designing, intimately understanding and controlling a workable, original system, let alone having the fluidity to make it musical. So, if you want someone to do all this within the loose framework of a jazz band, then you go to Leafcutter John.

Leafcutter deals less in audio than data flow, through carefully measured gates, algorithms and filters, generating a kind of purity of clatter reminiscent of Autechre.

And in the middle, obscured by sound, sits savant Sebastian Rochford, calm but powerful reminder that there may well be some cosmic force drawing music and art from our baffled frames.

Tim Key at the Arcola Tent, 12 March 2014

Autosexual pioneer Tim Key makes no secret of the fact that he is an arsehole. As such, he is familiar, occasionally irritating and disappointingly necessary.

His strangled route to his extended, sold-out metropolitan residencies gives some indicator of his peculiar and wide appeal – Russian student, writer, open-mike mosquito, sketch comic and now film star.

His current show, Single White Slut is a development of his slowly evolving theme of an effortlessly powerful, off-beat meta-poet whose sexual prowess is so compelling that it’s practically a nuisance to him while an unparalleled thrill to all woman.

With a blend of artfully dreadful poetry, personal horn-blowing and borderline sexual harrassment, this horrid man manages to select the worst traits of the character he has cultivated for himself and warps it into a Lynchian bubble complete with owl fancying and reckless priapism.

Always somehow one step ahead, Key heckles his own audience in order to keep them in check, to experiment with form and challenge them to give him something harder. All of this combines to fully engage the consistently packed Arcola Tent night after night with a thoroughly expert performance.

Key joins the likes of George Carlin as some of the few comedians can pull off working in the round without resorting to clumsily acknowledging the space. Indeed he extends the format with playful abandon, interfering with the stage and generally indulging himself in an hour and a half of well executed peacocking.

On stage Tim Key needs no recommendation, and off it he’s no arsehole. Clear your diary if you manage to get hold of tickets.

Alexei Sayle – Soho Theatre

Alexei Sayle, self-proclaimed godfather of alternative stand up, has emerged from a 16-year period of performance hibernation to illuminate the basement stage of the Soho Theatre, an apt and flawlessly modern setting for one of the few who fearlessly forged the art form from the universal revulsion of Thatcherism and malaise of the ‘80s.

Sayle is a one-off, a warm-hearted, heart-on-sleeve type of public grandad who unwittingly became the progenitor of so many grumpy old men, sweetly jaded misanthropes and that odious, sell-out arse-licker Ben Elton.

It’s a pleasure to see Sayle back on the stage, freely pouring his familiar flavour of hot oil into the mouths of the lunatics who seek to undermine society’s beating heart purely to serve their own malicious agenda.

It seems prescient that he has chosen this particular year to return to the stage – a Tory government is once again siphoning cow juice from the mouths of babes, led by a grotesque, puce monster, and popular culture has eaten itself and regurgitated the remains. Everything that Sayle railed against in the ‘80s has returned with a damaging vigour.

While rampant social destruction has become more sophisticated in its conniving, Sayle has not moved in step with the reflexive post-post-modernist cynicism which now constitutes contemporary stand up. But why should he?

Sayle is a set piece in and of himself, a character whose reputation as a left-wing firebrand precedes him. In the ugly moral void which today passes for modernity, his default socialism almost seems archaic and naive, but it serves as a vital reminder that humanity is essential and indefatigable in its goodness.

One could anticipate that 16 years spent waiting in the wings for an appropriate monster to come along to be vilified might temper the central conceit of any gently aging comic’s vitriol, but Liverpool’s favourite gnome could never be guilty of such a thing.

London: Portrait of a City

This huge coffee table book is an oblique glimpse – or rather wide-angle view – into the photo archives of a city which has been so intensely photographed from every angle and elevation in the last 100 or so years.

The muted, seaside postcard colours of analogue film are rendered beautifully on the page with a typically Taschen attention to production.

The misty horizons of the capital and softly out of focus mews of the ’60s are candidly captured with a warmth of tone which is intimate and nostalgic.

These photographs aren’t the hackneyed and prim tourist shots of the Tower of London or Trafalgar Square.

Rather they are focused on the people and changing fashions and subtle landscapes which so often go overlooked.

At the same time as being visually nourishing, this collection saddens.

It’s a reminder of the barely extant, hidden nuances of the analogue medium which has been shunted over to accommodate relentless and artless Instagramming and a sea of low-resolution and frankly rubbish popular photography.

But Taschen have managed to draw as much dynamic range from their source material as is tastefully possible. Much of this book looks almost platinum-like in this respect.

Like watching the seasons gradually change through the same window for years, London’s evolution is slow and almost imperceptible.

Radical changes are very quickly rewoven into the fabric of the city so they become rapidly normalised, such is the speed and brutal turnover of the place and the transience of its population.

It’s only upon looking through such a stately visual history that one realises what a huge and strange area of the world London is.

The 1960s brutalist blocks labyrinthing off St Paul’s, the bomb-shattered tenements of the east, the horse-drawn omnibuses along the Embankment and the wood floorboards of Paddington station’s platforms are all gone.

But the listed landmarks which they embrace remain as monoliths to the character of the metropolis.

The social troubles such as the 1980s Brixton riots or the dustmens’ strike of 1979 are, unfortunately, almost footnotes in this anthology.

Yet on reflection – given the enormous physical size of London and the dizzy depth of its character – it’s easy to see why.

There’s just so much to cover and only a mere 550 pages to do it in.

Even so this is a welcome curio for any Londonphile.

London: Portrait Of A City by Reuel Golden, Eve Arnold, David Bailey and Cecil Beaton is published by Taschen, price £44.99.

Edinburgh Festival Round-up 2012

While the rest of these reluctantly united isles have brayed through the spectacle of The Games Which Should Not Speak Their Name, the wonderful city of Edinburgh once again splays itself before the greatest arts festival ever to set foot into reality.

Curling into every available corner of Auld Reekie is the much cherished Fringe and this year’s highlights have redefined what constitutes excellence in comedy and theatre and the magical amalgam of the two.

At The Underbelly Doctor Brown’s divinely named Befrdfgth and Claudia O’Doherty’s The Telescope are certainly five-star shows.

The former’s astounding control of both himself and his awkwardly terrified audience is what the festival fringe is all about – absurdist, provocative and fearlessly confrontational comic terrorism.

In an ambitious and theatrical advance from his long-standing one-man tennis match performance, Brown subtly takes the clowning form and dismantles it into a recursive, self-replicating marvel which is at once disgusting, beautiful and deeply genuine.

Very rarely does a mute and smirkingly malevolent force of nature get away with literally and savagely kicking his audience up the arse and even less frequently does such an artist elicit elated hoots from 100 or so fringe-hardened punters so consistently and with such great economy.

To say that Befrdfgth is an awesome act of art crime would be an understatement. Keep an eye on this horrific bearded beauty.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the truly magical The Indescribable Phenomenon (Greenside), a heartbreaking and wrong-footing exposition of the life of Anna Eva Fay, the first woman to be inducted into the Magic Circle.

Coupling casually magnificent magic with a true story of tragedy, humour and humanity, this show is a shrewdly put together powder keg of heart-wrenching power which will no doubt see its way onto the silver screen within a year or so.

Troubling the eminent Doctor Brown for the Fringe crown is Claudia O’Doherty, a secret genius with a sexy brass telescope which doubles as a portal through time and space.

O’Doherty’s experimental spectacular completely breaks the stand-up form and reshuffles the edges of paranoia.

Effortlessly spanning centuries of narrative, her upside-down approach is beyond refreshing, mixing freewheeling surrealism with a sophisticated structure which resembles a human brain undergoing a stroke.

Still reeling from last year’s Panel Prize – with sponsorship lamentably snatched away from the admittedly pretentious Perrier to the absurdly cheap Foster’s brand – are Max and Ivan.

Their Con Artists show at the Pleasance Courtyard is a technical step up from their acclaimed production of Sherlock And Watson and with it comes a sly nod to the arch criminal Jim Moriarty, in this instance a Cockney foil for a heist which tactically draws in every Bond caricature in a mercurial work of tremendous ferocity.

Also very much of note are The Yellow Show, a heartwarming spoken-word show from Rob Auton and The Magical Adventures Of Pete Heat.

The Darkness – Hot Cakes

The Darkness are clearly back to take over the world with this album.

This new slice of sex opens up with Every Inch of You, a warm-hearted love song to the physical stage which supports frontman Justin Hawkins’ flamboyant flying lotus personality.

It’s a genuinely infectious and stripped-down Queen-esque anthem which warmly embraces Hawkins’s “brother and my two best mates” and sets the record straight that the group is ready to mature.

From the production of the record it’s clear that the boys have been listening to a lot of Queen — guitarist Dan Hawkins has no doubt been sneaking a look at Brian May’s setup on his occasional guest performances with the band — a position further cemented by With A Woman’s delta blues guitar figure.

Think John Deacon’s Norman Greenbaum-plundering You’re My Best Friend and put it through a glam rock filter and you’ll appreciate what they’ve been doing for the past few years.

Execution aside, it’s reassuring to see the usual Darkness themes are in place.

Anal sex — in fact, every type of sex imaginable and available to a rock star — a full appreciation of exactly how awesome oneself is, and of course, a love of rock and roll.

One track that will no doubt set internet forums alight with apoplexy is a cover of Radiohead’s Street Spirit, repurposed into a staccato, chugging metal bastard.

But it clearly comes from a respect for its originators, with a witty and brief reference to the Just, also from the Bends, which reveals that this isn’t a piss-take.

In fact, a good few songs bear a strange resemblance to early Radiohead, particularly the freewheeling grunge of Pablo Honey — a comparison I feel surpised at making.

Love Is Not The Answer seems an odd choice of closer, but then the Darkness have always been there to answer unasked questions.

The boys are most definitely back in town.

Field Day 2012

Tweaky big beat pumps from an ad hoc sound system, beautiful people mosey around under post-modern sunglasses — permanently affixed to face regardless of weather — and clumps of hay spring from the spaces in between.

When I walk past three hours later, the music’s louder and it appears there’s a permanent cloud of dried grass hovering above the revellers.

This is Field Day, and it’s now six years old. It seems difficult to imagine the very first Eat Your Own Ears/Adventures in the Beetroot Field/Bugged Out all-dayer in 2007 — a well-intentioned event sorely plagued by planning and audio issues — sharing a lineage with the hipster calendar cornerstone that it is today.

To descend upon Hackney’s recently refurbished Victoria Park and see one of the best small festivals in Britain is a charming encouragement. This isn’t even a small festival any more.

Shrewdly spaced over most of the park, the layout perfectly isolates stage sound as well as giving each corner its own identity beyond the typical “main stage, alt stage, dance tent” setup.

First ear-grabbing act of the day was Andrew Bird, a US multi-instrumentalist whose latest album Break It Yourself is lush cut of quasi-classical modern folk whimsy fused with a country lilt, all backboned by Bird’s stunning drummer.

Rarely seen is such vocal crowd enthusiasm for a violinist — with band or otherwise — and I couldn’t help wondering if there was some link between the joyful, yielding abandon of the audience, their ever-mobile jaws and bared teeth and the highly sexed full-body dancing which I found myself an unwilling participant in. Perhaps I’m just getting old and that’s how kids dance these days.

Arguably the highlight of the weekend for many was space-funk dance outfit Metronomy, who made full use of the thankfully well-appointed sound system with staccato, intricate Prince-style synth lines and deep, macabre pop bass.

There’s a sinister magic surrounding this Devon four-piece.
Broody, wonky keys, catchy hooks and a sense of humour combine perfectly with songwriter Joe Mount’s personal maturity.

After coming off stage he seemed like he’d just had a bath rather than whipping up a crowd of thousands into a gurning orgy of music.

In what could easily be called a misjudgement in programming, following Metronomy’s devastatingly dancable set was Beirut, every self-respecting scenester’s favourite US post-gypsy mariachi chanson group.

While Beirut rarely disappoint with their sleazy ballads, one couldn’t help feeling that the jawgrinders in attendance would have been able to prolong their buzz a little longer had these bands swapped positions.

Closing proceedings were Franz Ferdinand, a band who I mistakenly presumed had long retired from public performance.

Despite being ignorant of running orders for the whole day — the mark of true, bleeding-edge hipness — I was queasily surprised to find such an anodyne group putting the festival to bed.

While clearly capable of writing the odd radio-saturating hit single, Franz’s musical and instrumental simplicity offers a prim reminder that their brash, angular pop is actually rather flimsy.

But where else can you find a 10-hour, no-questions-asked straw fight on a Saturday in east London?

Camille at the Barbican

Having seen Parisian singer Camille in the golden oven of the Hackney Empire last year I was prepared for this Barbican installment to be an intimate and classy show, most likely a two-set set encompassing a run-through of her latest album Ilo Veyou and her “plus grands succès.”

But I wasn’t prepared for the absolutely stunningly inventive, world-class minimalism of the staging and music. Nor could I have been adequately briefed on the flawless charm of Camille herself.

Self-effacing, pitch perfect and frankly beautiful, she commands the sparse set for nearly two hours while a single incandescent light bulb suspended from the roof acts as a delicate and powerful foil to the music, effortlessly embodying an embryo, a child, a lover, a star, a universe.

Using this most simple of theatrical devices, she distills the audience into the palm of her hand, their stunned attention saluting her originality and the auditorium swelling with the silent, spectral clatter of mouths falling open en masse.

Camille’s typically wry, play on words songwriting and demeanour was exercised to its full in everything from her patter, audience manipulation and good-humoured piss-taking of the French stereotype, subtly underscored by a tasteful push of a backlit tricolore and a comic vignette from a melodramatic, Anglophobic dance-instructing character.

This occasionally touring show is not a pop concert but an overwhelming piece of art, and absolutely without a doubt, Camille is a rare and vital creative force. Never lose sight of her.

New Variety’s New Act Of The Year Final – Stratford Circus, London E15

This year’s New Act of the Year final was held in the bizarre Olympic leisure farm which has taken over east London’s Stratford to accommodate the four weeks of industrial-level grotesquery which is drawing ever nearer.

The calibre of acts are surprisingly consistent, with a thicker than usual slab of the usually dreaded musical comedy.

The veteran tortoise that is stand-up Arthur Smith hosts this year’s event with his charming, road-worn patter which stays familiar and accessible while unthreateningly reminding those youngsters how the pros do it.

Precocious and affable Canadian Bobby Mair offers up some refreshingly old-school and sharply delivered material which softly rings the bell of the naive, McDonalds-eating MTV slacker generation of the early ’90s while being just a touch too young to have actually been there.

A delightfully dry Mark Stephenson shows no fear of losing an audience. His leftfield whimsy seems to draw them in further to his topsy-turvy world in which he approaches language obliquely and bravely to nervous laughter and strong effect.

Female double-act Adams and Rea bring the musical acts into line with a sweet chemistry.

Their litter rap very nearly brings the house down though their debt to the Flight of the Conchords can’t be dismissed.

Patrick Cahill provides a comic first in bringing along his own invisible mike stand before embarking on a genuinely ambitious monologue about how to truly live before dying – an existentialist experiment involving dog turds which is reminiscent of the freewheeling fire of Phil Kay.

The most bizarre turn of the evening by a long way was the frankly baffling Russela, a highly toned drag act who somehow manages to defy her teetering platforms to simply make a pancake from scratch on stage. A refreshing change at least.

An entirely unexpected twist came in the shape of a tiny dog named Eric, who held the audience firmly in his paw as he simply nudged a balloon with his nose for a full five minutes.

A talented fellow, even if he doesn’t know it.

Social saboteur Cahill deservedly took home the self-consciously crap but esteemed winner’s certificate – a spot-on decision on the part of the judges.

Watch out for him.